James Denselow


James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues.

Articles

James writes regularly for The Guardian and has written articles for Middle East International, The Huffington Post The New Statesman, Syria Today, The World Today, The Daily Telegraph and The Yorkshire Post. He has been cited in many international publications including The Boston Globe, Voice of America, The Sunday Telegraph, Reuters and AFP

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Reviews

James writes book, television and film reviews for International Affairs, Middle East International, The Arab and The Guardian

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Books

See James's published work

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In The Media

James in the media - Watch James discussing Middle East issues on a variety of media platforms including the BBC, Al Jazeera and Russia Today
ISIL and the curious case of John Cantlie PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Friday, 01 April 2016 11:50

(Al Jazeera) British photojournalist John Cantlie has been in ISIL captivity since 2012. But rather than appearing as a passive object of captivity, he has emerged as a media tool for the group to pursue its wider aims.

New footage released this month, taking place against the backdrop of the busy streets of Mosul, was the first seen in more than a year. It was the seventh film of a series titled Lend Me Your Ears, in which a rather unenthusiastic and increasingly thin-looking Cantlie regurgitates standard rhetoric from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) about how great they are and how corrupt and ineffective their enemies are.

In this case, Cantlie bemoaned the waste of $5bn of US taxpayers' money spent bombing innocuous ISIL "media kiosks". The imagery and detail in the series has painted a very different picture from Mosul and Aleppo from that covered in the mainstream press.He also has a column in the slick online ISIL magazine, Dabiq, in which he made headlines when he floated the idea that "a truce with Western nations is always an option in Shariah law". Unlike his video appearances we can be even less sure that the writing in Dabiq is Cantlie's, although there is no doubting the shift in his value from hostage to an intimidated asset of a very different sort.Indeed, while he initially appeared in the bright orange Guantanamo inspired jumpsuits, in his later films he is seen simply in black, ISIL's shade of choice.

Stockholm syndrome, sometimes known as capture-bonding, describes how hostages can come to sympathise and develop positive feelings towards their captors. It is no surprise that after years in detention Cantlie is adjusting to do whatever he needs to do to survive.

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Lessons from Srebrenica to Syria PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Friday, 01 April 2016 11:48

(Al-Araby) It was over twenty years since the forces of Bosnian-Serb General Mladic slaughtered some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims from the town of Srebrenica. I recently visited the graveyards that mark the victims, the mortuaries and laboratories that continue the search for the missing. I met those who lost their entire family and others who hid bleeding amongst the dead but managed to escape and tell their stories.

Two decades on the country's wounds are still open and the social divisions frozen, rather than healed. Meanwhile in Syria, the peace talks and cessation of hostilities have given the country a moment of calm following five years of slaughter. Whilst the present remains unstable, Syria's future is likely to be tumultuous and, for that matter, it's worth learning the lessons from other countries that have endured brutal civil conflict, massacres and splitting of society along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The division of Yugoslavia from one country to six with further divisions came at the cost of over 100,000 dead in Bosnia in the space of some three years. Europe, a continent that said 'never again' after the Holocaust, witnessed the re-emergence of concentration camps and mass slaughter. Civil society activists in Sarajevo, a city that endured the longest siege of modern times - 47 months, spoke of how quickly society disintegrated and how neighbours turned against each other. Survivors of the Srebrenica killings, recognised by the international courts as genocide, talk of how their favourite teacher became their callous jailer and torturer. Time has healed much of the hatred but with those who perpetrated much of the killings in denial and accountability partial at best, division remains, stymieing the development of a country that some are now calling a 'failed state'.

 

Last Updated on Friday, 01 April 2016 14:04
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Power Wars PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Friday, 01 April 2016 11:44

(Review for New York Journal of Books) Charlie Savage, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times journalist, has put together a wide-ranging and important examination of the Obama presidency focusing on the legal-security challenges of modern war. The huge account, perhaps Savage’s Magnus Opus, chronicles how “interpreting and applying national security law to such turbulent and rapidly changing conditions” post-9/11 was a huge amount of work for an Obama administration that sought to define itself against his predecessor’s record.

Obama had promised “unprecedented level of openness in government” reversing a culture the Democrats claimed the Bush administration had created. Savage explains that Cheney in particular saw the law as encroaching on presidential power. The accumulation of executive power by the Bush presidency and potential violations of civil liberties and the rule of law, saw a response from Obama but one that was actually more continuity than change and was, as Savage writes, “more hawkish than many had expected.”

Indeed the Obama administration would focus on the ensuring the rule of law and not rolling back on the challenges to civil liberties. The focus was on waging a rules-based war, and as Obama would say “we do need to update our institutions to deal with this threat.”

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Oman – The Middle East’s Best Kept Secret PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Tuesday, 26 January 2016 09:10

Despite 2015 seemingly dominated by violence in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, tourism in the Middle East saw a 3% increase in visitor numbers. As the spread of ISIS’s targets reach out into tourism hot spots like Turkey and Egypt cautious tourists are left asking is there any safe place to visit in the region?

Oman, nestled at the foot of Arabia, is home to 3.6 million people and some of the most beautiful geography in the region. Blessed with some 3,165 kilometres of coastline and stunning mountain ranges, the Sultanate has succeeded in that rare task of keeping out of the Middle East’s headlines.


The country has a peace first approach that sees itself act as a mediator of some of the toughest politics in the region. Being situated between Iran and Saudi Arabia perhaps forces such an approach and the country walks a delicate line keeping good relations with both. Indeed the country played a key role as host to the Iranian nuclear talks, has been involved in bringing together the parties to the Syrian conflict and has managed to avoid getting sucked into the fighting to its direct west in Yemen.

Senior Omani civil servants describe their country’s role as that of ‘the quiet diplomat’ avoiding large scale publicity at expense of getting a grip to some of the region’s toughest problems. Such a problem solving approach has also extended beyond the region with the Sultanate’s willingness to accept prisoners from Guantanamo Bay a huge part of Obama’s attempt to close the camp before the end of his presidency.

Yet security is not the country’s biggest challenge, rather the nosedive in oil prices that has forced some serious changes to the economy and a concerted attempt to diversify, with tourism nearing the top of that list of priorities. However the Oman’s strategy is not to replicate mass resorts such as those of Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt or on Turkey’s Mediterranean cost, but rather offer a more refined, exclusive and expensive experience for smaller numbers of richer tourists.

So far many of the visitors have come from by word of mouth with repeat visitors from Germany and Britain leading the way as well as steady numbers from the nearby Gulf. New hotel infrastructure and a new airport are all in development and Oman will need to think about visitor experiences in the stifling summer and perhaps adopt a more pragmatic policy towards the hard to get alcohol licenses going forward. The country’s state of the art museum, facing the Sultan’s palace in the centre of Muscat, is soon to be opened and the capital’s Opera House was finished in 2011 complete with Italian marble and Austrian chandeliers.

According to UN figures Oman has developed more in last 40 years than any other country on planet and the Muscat skyline is dominated by cranes and construction. Meanwhile halfway down the coast the free zone of Duqm, once a small fishing village, is nearing completion complete with a new port, airport and hotels expected to host some 30,000-40,000 tourists a year. Whilst Dubai and the Gulf offer incredible skylines and record breaking architecture, the Omanis focus on low rise and more subtle demonstrations of their country’s highlights. The largest single tourist site is probably the Muscat Grand Mosque complete with a 14m chandelier and space for 8,000 worshippers. But perhaps the hidden jewel in the hidden Sultanate is the offer of not only getting up early to see the first sunrise in the Gulf, but also to witness the life cycle of turtles, creatures who predate humanity and who nest in the several of the county’s beaches.

Beyond the geography and the sights what I took away from a recent trip to the country was the incredibly warmth and hospitality of the Omani people. An official said to me that Oman sees itself as an Indian Ocean state that faces out not a Gulf state that faces in, as secrets go I’d imagine its not long till many more know about what the Sultanate has to offer.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 January 2016 09:26
 
Learning to Love Iraq PDF Print E-mail
Written by James Denselow   
Saturday, 16 January 2016 18:54

(Huffington Post) The Unravelling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq" - Emma Sky (Atlantic Books, 2015)

Coming some years after the glut of writing that accompanied the US-led Occupation of Iraq is this unusual and unlikely story of 'a British woman, advising the top leadership of the US military' (p.4). That woman is Emma Sky who was a 35 year old working for the British Council when the American tanks rolled into Baghdad. Sky had spent time already working abroad and in the Middle East, although her only experience of Iraq was her previous opposition to conflicts in the country and she'd signed up to be a human shield in 1991. Suddenly she found herself on a military transport plane out to the region in response to a FCO advert.

Sky can be described as a romantic liberal of sorts whose subsequent experience with the US military opened her mind to a very different culture of working. She warns herself that 'Mesopotamia will always get the better of those who come to love her' (p.89) and the book is a very honest appraisal from someone who clearly cares deeply for the country and the people she has spent time working with. It also is that of a wanderer, an only child whose time at boarding school seemed to give a drive and direction that found its calling in Iraq. Sky describes how 'I had felt so alive in Iraq, with such a strong sense of purpose. The best times of my life - and the hardest times - were in Iraq' (p.362). Her enthralling, readable and fascinating account is simultaneously 'an Iraqi story. It is an American story. It is my story' (p.341)

The account is far more than that of a liberal leaning British woman working in the heart of a US male-dominated military machine at war. Sky's political acumen and ability to gain the trust of senior figures placed her in the cockpit of US efforts in Iraq. She was no ordinary advisory and this book is not only a tale of observations but rather of influence in practice whether that was around high level efforts on sectarian reconciliation, the SOFA discussions that would determine the nature of the US presence in the country or important prisoner swaps.

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