On Saturday 14 April, the UK joined the US and France in carrying out airstrikes against chemical weapons facilities in Syria. Despite the fact that only 25% of the British public back the move, the prime minister has received widespread support from many Conservative and Labour MPs who argue that so-called “humanitarian intervention” is required to prevent Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from continuing to massacre his population and breach international law.
The main problem with this argument is that it prescribes violent humanitarian intervention by heroic Western powers as the solution to the Syrian conflict, whilst totally failing to address the many ways in which those powers actively benefit from the continuation of war.
And boy do they benefit from war. Whether through weapons sales, illicit capital flows or conflict commodities, violence in the Middle East and the Global South often means excess profits in the Global North. And the UK is one of the greatest beneficiaries. From HSBC’s money laundering for Mexican drug cartels, to BAE Systems’ weapons sales to corrupt, repressive regimes, UK companies, supported by the UK government, play an active role in promoting violence around the world. Here’s how.
Money laundering in the City of London.
The City of London has recently been described as the “money laundering capital of the world” by a prominent US businessman. Last year, a report from the Home Affairs Select Committee concluded that up to £100bn of illicit money is laundered through the London property market every year. Another report found that “systematic net inflows into the UK seem to track money leaving Russia, as well as high-end London house prices.”
Much of this money originates from corruption, criminality, and even war. The case of Soulieman Marouf – Assad’s London-based ‘fixer’ – is a prime example. According to the Guardian, Marouf has been responsible for providing Assad’s wife with luxury goods purchased in London. The Panama Papers revealed that Marouf has at least six luxury flats in London with a combined worth of £6m. He was able to disguise his ownership of these assets through perfectly legal measures under UK law, such as using a network of holding companies based in UK-controlled tax havens like the British Virgin Islands.
Marouf’s assets were frozen by European authorities in 2012, briefly putting an end to his London-based business activities. But William Hague intervened to have his name removed from the EU blacklist in June 2014. Since then, the restrictions placed on Marouf have been lifted and he continues to invest in UK property. We have no way of determining exactly where Marouf’s money has come from. But given his links with Assad’s wife, it is not unreasonable to assume that at least some of it represents the spoils of war.
Bear in mind that the only reason we know about Marouf’s activities is the Panama Papers leak. There is no telling how much more bloodstained Syrian money has been channelled through the money laundering capital of the world since the start of the war.
According to one report, since the election of Theresa May’s Conservative government in 2017 British arms sales to repressive regimes have soared to £5bn. Many of these weapons have been channelled into an increasingly belligerent Saudi Arabia, conducting a campaign of indiscriminate violence in Yemen which has led some to accuse the country of war crimes.
This follows a long and bloody history of collaboration between the Saudis and the UK government. The Al-Yamamah arms deal, agreed between BAE Systems and the Saudi Arabian government in 2005, allegedly facilitated by none other than Mark Thatcher, was the biggest arms deal in history. By 2005 the CEO of BAE stated the company had earned £43bn from the contracts in 20 years, and stood to earn £40bn more. But allegations of corruption have since marred the deal. Andrew Feinstein documents how the UK and Saudi governments worked together to halt an investigation into the deal by the British Serious Fraud Office.
When it comes to Syria, the links with UK weapons manufacturers are less clear. Much of Assad’s hardware has been provided by Russia, whilst some opposition fighters have been armed by the US government. Other less savoury groups in Syria will have acquired most of their weapons on the black market. Given that two thirds of UK weapons over the past eight years have been sold to Middle Eastern countries, it’s not unreasonable to suspect that much of what ends up on these black markets originates in the UK.
Until recently it has not been possible to link UK weapons manufacturers directly with the conflict in Syria. But we now know beyond much doubt that chemicals produced in the UK and sold to Syria after the start of the conflict have been used in the production of chemical weapons, including sarin. The justification for our “humanitarian intervention” in Syria was the use of chemical weapons. Those very same weapons that have been used on innocent civilians may have produced a profit for UK companies and shareholders. Let that sink in.
Humanitarianism of convenience.
The hypocrisy of the UK government is staggering. We accuse Assad of breaching international law for using chemical weapons, whilst selling him ingredients for chemical weapons. We bomb Syria whilst allowing Assad’s friends and allies to keep their money in the City of London, even intervening to protect them from sanctions.
And it doesn’t stop there.
We implement sanctions on Russia, whilst providing a home for almost $750m of the laundered money from the Russian laundromat scandal. We support the US ‘war on drugs’ whilst implementing pathetically small penalties on HSBC after they are found to have laundered money for Mexican drug cartels. We chastise the Pakistani government for its alleged links with terrorist groups, whilst turning a blind eye when the laundered money of Pakistani officials ends up in the London property market.
In this context, “humanitarian intervention” is a way of soothing the Western conscience whilst avoiding responsibility for our actions. If this government cares even one iota about the lives being lost in Syria, Yemen and around the world, it will take measures to stop UK companies from profiteering from violence.
Whenever I hear the belligerent rhetoric of this government, I am reminded of Eugene Debs’ famous speech made in Canton, Ohio in 1918:
This lord who practically owns the earth tells you that we are fighting this war to make the world safe for democracy – he who shuts out all humanity from his private domain; he who profiteers at the expense of the people who have been slain and mutilated by multiplied thousands, under pretense of being the great American patriot. It is he, this identical patriot who is in fact the archenemy of the people; it is he that you need to wipe from power.
Today, as in 1918, we must remind ourselves that the only way to end violence is to cut off the profits that are its lifeblood. Because as long as conflict benefits elites, it will never cease.