Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

At an International Communications Forum / Initiatives of Change meeting on Monday night one of the issues discussed was the credibility of Mid East media with a view (on the NCF’s Secretary General’s part) to reinstating the Media Credibility Index currently defunct other than an offshoot it spawned in Pakistan.  The NCF suggested that if we were to criticise Mid-East media we must take a mirror and look at the credibility of our own media and I cited the Eastern Ghouta issue as an example. Unwise perhaps. You will remember the West bombed Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government. I was hauled over the coals, quite rightly, by one young journalist for suggesting that because the officers of the Syrian Army denied the use of chemical weapons and because The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had failed to find any evidence of chemical weapons use in East Ghouta that might mean the story was false. After all the Russians kept everyone out of the place for a week. Or almost everyone. They allowed Robert Fisk of the Independent in but then they trust him because of his previous coverage and his acquaintance with first Hafiz and now Bashar al Assad.

I should not have made my assertion. But there were questions still to be answered and the case remained unproven. The NCF has been closely associated with East Ghouta in recent times and a little back story may help:

Prior to the last NCF delegation to Damascus back at the end of 2016 we were asked by the Kurdish community in London to raise the issue of a Kurdish Damascus University student arrested for putting up Facebook posts that were defamatory of the President. We raised the issue first with the office of the President’s wife (who were very helpful) and secondly directly with Ali Haider, the Minister for Reconciliation. The office of Asma al-Assad carried forward the issue diligently but regrettably could find no record of the boy’s name amongst the names of the inmates of Syria’s prisons. We informed the boy’s family that sadly they should come to terms with the fact that he was now dead. This story may not seem relevant but it will become so because of ramifications this case may have had as you will see if you read on.

Then the rebel held area of Aleppo fell in due course to President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Attention switched to East Ghouta. The siege tightened as the Syrian Army prepared to retake the area. We were concerned. We raised the East Ghouta issue at the United Nations in Geneva (with which the NCF is in consultative status). We promoted a deal whereby the fighters were allowed to evacuate as they had done in Aleppo. We urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and take refuge in the nations in the Arab World that had previously offered them support. This might be better than promoting a series of virtually useless ceasefires (which was what the UN had been doing). The full text of our statement to the UN can be found here. Our interns Jaskirat Mann, Be Sun Lee, and Memuna Hussain, personally lobbied the British, American and Syrian delegations and each and every Arab Ambassador present, one by one. We also conducted a side meeting in Geneva on 2nd March of this year in which we lobbied for the same outcome.

And in due course the policy switched and the evacuation was discussed, not because of our efforts but because there was nothing else left to do. But some of the fighters failed to cooperate. And then we had the alleged chemical weapons attack. Of course the ruthless and remorseless bombing of Eastern Ghouta combined with the collective punishment of the people there through Mediaeval style siege and consequent starvation was indefensible. But there were puzzling aspects to the chemical weapons attack. We set about investigating. We were particularly bothered by one claim that a chlorine gas canister had been dropped through a roof and fallen onto a bed (which was said to account for its remarkably undamaged state), the problem being that the bed did not align with the hole in the roof. The Bellingcat authenticated claim seemed such an obvious fraud that it troubled us. That said to be fair to Bellingcat, they just geolocated some of the open sourced videos from Ghouta and Douma, they did not verify the claims in other respects.

Still, on balance, even though some of the evidence could have been fabricated, some appeared damning and we felt that there had probably been a chemical weapons attack and concluded that if so there was a 75% probability that the Syrian Government were culpable (as opposed to this being a false flag incident).

Perhaps obviously, many friends from the opposition inside Syria were eager to see the Western bombing take place. In any event the West bombed, albeit very modestly. And the rebel fighters left Eastern Ghouta. And as the government advanced many of the male civilians of fighting age who had been unable to flee were carted off to internment camps.

We had been liaising with the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta throughout the fighting during previous months, trying to help if only by giving them another voice from outside to talk to so that they could know their appeals for help were being heard. One particular young man (name withheld) had been our key liaison. He now found himself interred with many others in a camp (name withheld) outside Damascus. It was a frightening situation. He tried to get released but could not but he still, remarkably, had his mobile phone and we could still liaise with him.

The real tragedy of Ghouta is not whether this was a genuine chemical attack but that many thousands have been needlessly traumatised and displaced from their homes.
We tried to get confirmation from friends in East Ghouta that chemical attacks had taken place. One responded, “If you are able bring me with my family to a safe country. I might be able to talk. Or provide statements. All mobile phone are monitored 24/7. Talking politics is prohibited.”

This time we intervened in a more circumspect manner, but intervene we did. And he was not only released from internment but he was allowed by the authorities to select 44 of his co-detainees for release with him. Which was remarkable. The authorities also found him a job. He was of course tremendously grateful and sent us a message to say “I sincerely want to express my gratefulness to you, the Russian officers, and (name withheld) and President Basher Al Assad for their efforts and I greatly appreciate their help to release me and 44 detainees and your help has ended my suffering and fear.”

We doubt whether it was our intervention that effected this release. It was probably the action of someone else. However, our chief interlocutor with the Syrian Military (name withheld) sent us a message at this point and said that he had been contacted directly by one of the commanders of the forces that took Ghouta and that the commander claimed in response to our enquiries that though they had indeed used chemical weapons in a prior instance they had not done so in Ghouta. Your observation might reasonably be “he would say that wouldn’t he”.

However, subsequently it became clear (as the Foreign Office and State Department will no doubt now be aware), that the video of children being doused with water much broadcast on the BBC at the time may have been falsified. There were questions with it from the beginning (the children’s eyes were not red until after they had been doused) but subsequently the little boy that featured prominently was forced to flee with his family and became a refugee and was then extensively interviewed and his story did not corroborate the video (he claimed he had been snatched off the street).

Does it matter any longer whether or not chemical weapons were used in Ghouta? The world has moved on. Possibly not. many of the people of Ghouta suffered death or displacement regardless. Were chemical weapons used? Maybe. But the perspective and judgement of our media may perhaps be clouded by their understandable sympathy for the poor miserable people of Ghouta and all they have endured. We must try hard to maintain our objectivity.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an interesting article in the Independent last week echoing a theme he has returned to again and again talking of the many lies that have changed history and stating that “fake news” has “heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands”.

We must at least be wary.

 

On the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Writing the introduction to the Next Century Foundation’s Media Credibility Index shortly after the start of the Arab Spring, Jamal Khashoggi explained that he believed there were three clearly distinct eras in the growth of mass media in the Arab and Islamic Worlds. In the middle of the 20th century Cairo and Beirut were mass media and cultural hubs for the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Their dominance was brought to an end variously by factors such as the nationalization of Al Ahram and the Lebanese civil war. The era of the London based Saudi print media partially filled the vacuum that was thus created. But not until the launch of Aljazeera in Doha in 1996 did the Arab World’s mass media truly come of age.

“Wow” I thought. This man is on the button. Jamal was more of an acquaintance than a friend. Other members of my family knew him well, however, and he was close to us. Yes, I thought, the new Arab Media in all of its incarnations from bloggers to broadcasters has become a many headed hydra, almost uncontrollable because of its multi-faceted nature.

But there are those in the corridors of power in Cairo, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Istanbul that want to restore the old order and re-establish control, those that dislike this new and subversive mass media. But there were also surprising gems of encouragement. For a brief moment in time Bahrain flirted with allowing an opposition newspaper. Kuwait post liberation from Saddam had an extraordinarily free press. And the mass media in Iraq was beyond belief, with more daily newspapers than there were days in the year.

Still the great powers, the giants of the Arab World, wanted to restore the status quo ante. And they set about doing this through creating a climate of fear. New repressive Media Laws were introduced in Cairo and Abu Dhabi that set a benchmark. Others followed these trend setters with enthusiasm. The incarceration of bloggers and tweeters became commonplace for the most minor of offences. And journalists most certainly had to watch their backs facing, at best, tremendous fines in the courts, and at worst, targeted assassination.

Jamal’s Response

Most of us grumbled about this. We did what we could at the NCF. My late father, Claud Morris, believed in the concept of “Peace Through Media” and in tribute to that we established The International Council for Press and Broadcasting (subsequently merged with the International Communications Forum associated with Initiatives of Change) and launched The International Media Awards. We even changed the ethos of the NCF to one of support for Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in order to better justify our stand for Media Freedom.

Jamal wanted more. He felt the world should not just talk about it but should do something about it. He decided on a scheme whereby you could get round the new Western controls on alternative media. This needs a little explanation. The big media platforms in the Middle East are forums like Facebook and Twitter. We at the NCF launched an ideological Facebook page in Arabic called Al Khawatir (reflections) and found that with a budget of $20 a week and a few ideologically driven interns to write posts we could develop a following of a million a month in unhappy places in the Middle East like Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh, Sanaa or Baghdad.

Facebook was strong everywhere. Twitter was particularly strong in Saudi Arabia and is currently in the ascendancy everywhere, perhaps because it is a favoured method of imparting the thoughts of the great and the good. The under thirties may have started the trend. But Arab politicians like Sheikh Khalid, the current Foreign Minister of Bahrain and influential diplomats like the former Qatar Ambassador to London, Nasser al Khalifa, were quick to build huge twitter followings with their passionate tweets in both Arabic and English and their relationship with their fans.

The difficulty for would be opposition tweeters is the controls that Twitter currently has. They have become necessary of course, to prevent trolls and to stop forms of abuse like one person – or government – holding multiple accounts. So you may not open a twitter account without providing a phone number for verification. A huge problem if you want to say what you think in the Middle East because a phone number can be traced one way or another and you may be subject to arbitrary arrest if you are not a member of the establishment. Or at least you would be frightened of the possibility of arrest.

And along comes Jamal. He sets up a scheme whereby he and a friend in Canada would buy hundreds of sim cards. Then if you wanted to start a twitter account all you would need to do was to message Jamal or his friend by one of the more confidential platforms available, WhatsApp for example. And Jamal’s friend would set up a one-time simcard for you in Canada that you could use to enter for verification of the twitter account and he would send you back the verification code from Canada and the authorities in Saudi Arabia could never trace you.

The Consequence

Of course social media is powerful. Remember the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt was largely Facebook fanned and encouraged. The old adage, the pen is mightier than the sword might be rewritten, the pen encourages the sword of retribution. Or rather the finger on the smartphone in today’s world.

Had that been the all of it maybe it could have been overlooked. But that was not the half of it. Jamal was an activist with numerous projects. There was another project with the working title, “Democracy for the Arab World Now”. That too was dangerous.

However, most dangerous of all were his columns in the Post, the Washington Post. Had he been the usual ranting fanatic oppositionist he might just have been ignorable. But he was not. Jamal was considered and thoughtful. He was fair in his analysis and honest but modest in his criticism. He was the most dangerous kind of critic.

The rumour that Jamal had his fingers cut off before he was killed appears to have been apocryphal. But the fact that such a horrific story circulated underscores the savage symbolism surrounding this one man’s death. There were those in the corridors of power who believed Jamal had to be silenced. It had to be done. He was uniquely dangerous.

And it was done. Brutally, cruelly, with Mafia-like ruthlessness. The killing was effective and, arguably, has done what it was expected to do in regard to the repression of freedom of speech.

There has been a cost of course, a cost to the Saudi Arabian establishment, a storm indeed. But perhaps that remains a cost they can bear. The intention may certainly have been to send a more discreet and equivocal message. But the message is what has mattered. People will think twice in future before they kick against the establishment in such a dangerous way. Try to use matches and you may get burned.

Was this unique?

So, is Jamal’s killing worse than other politically motivated assassinations? We have seen it happen again and again. Sometimes the killings are not high profile. The NCF took a press delegation to visit Arafat days before his death and he was fit as flee demonstrating his push ups. I was always convinced he was assassinated and was always bothered by the refusal to allow an autopsy. So often the killings never make the headlines. The snatching of the NCF’s hostage negotiator, Abu Innas, off the sidewalk in Al Adhamiyah Baghdad by the police, never to be seen again. But assassinations are so commonplace are they not? Was Jamal’s killing worse than others. More brutal and brazen than most perhaps. But not of itself worse than others. All murder is evil. State sanctioned murder is worse than evil and those responsible and those complicit by their silence will no doubt face their God someday and have to give account for their behaviour.

But some would conclude that Jamal’s murder may be worse in its outcome because its ripples will mean that freedom of expression is set back. Will it not?

Well I don’t know. Possibly not. Possibly the calls for freedom of speech will be amplified by Jamal’s death. The killing of Jamal has done much to highlight the issue. Now it is up to us to do something to ensure that his death is neither forgotten nor in vain.

A prayer for America at the mid-terms

This came in tonight from Reverend Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council:

God of justice, we pray for the people and nation of America at this crucial time.

May the land of the bold and the free give true expression to its highest historic ideals.

A nation divided is a nation brought low; so good Lord, may a state of unity prevail in America, may the prayers and aspirations of millions be answered with hope, and may all that is good and true and just be manifest in the destiny of America, under God; in who we trust.

Amen

Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

Iraq’s New Prime Minister Struggles to complete formation of his Cabinet

The Prime Minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi was sworn in on 24 October. This came after months of political indecision and the largest protests Iraq has seen in a decade. To restate the current position: Adel Abdul Mahdi fills the position of Prime Minister, whilst Barham Salih holds the presidency and Mohamed al-Halbousi, the role of speaker. Since 2003, these positions have been held by a Shia, a Kurd and a Sunni respectively. The Prime Minister’s first task was to select the heads of 22 ministries. On 24th October, 14 of these were given the vote of confidence by parliament. However, eight remain to be appointed.

Who is the New Prime Minister?

Like the President and Speaker, Abdul Mahdi is a well respected politician. At 76, he has a lot of experience in Iraqi politics; formerly holding the roles of Minister of Finance and Minister of Oil.  He is also a relatively independent candidate. Not having a particularly strong social base, may weaken Abdul Mahdi’s power in the role. Although, Iraq needs a capable and independent leader who can unite the country internally whilst juggling the opposing needs of the US and Iran.

Who has been appointed? Which positions are left to go?

The 14 ministers given the vote of confidence were:

  1. Minister of Agriculture: Saleh al-Hassani
  2. Minister of Communication: Naim al-Rubaye
  3. Minister of Electricity: Luay al-Khatteeb
  4. Minister of Finance: Fuad Hussein
  5. Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammed Ali al-Hakeem
  6. Minister of Health: Alaa al-Alwani
  7. Minister of Housing and Reconstruction: Bangin Rekani
  8. Minister of Industry: Salih Abdullah Jabouri
  9. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Bassem al-Rubaye
  10. Minister of Oil: Thamir Ghadhban
  11. Minister of Trade: Mohammed Hashim
  12. Minister of Transport: Abdullah Luaibi
  13. Minister of Water Resources: Jamal al-Adili
  14. Minister of Youth and Sports: Ahmed Riyadh

There were some major criticisms of the new cabinet from different groups. These include, for example, the absence of Turkman and female representation. Parliament will reconvene at a later date to vote for the eight unappointed positions. These include the key roles of Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, both of which will be filled by Abdul-Mahdi until they are decided. Those appointed thus far arguably indicate a weakening of Barzani’s influence and a shift towards Iran plus of course a strengthening of the influence of Muqtada Al-Sadr. It also is a reminder if one were needed that the Dawa Party is at a crossroads and must now reform or collapse. That said, the Ministers of Electricity and Oil are decent dependable people and this new government should be given a chance.

What Next for Iraq?

The recent developments have signalled a major step forward, in a country marred by political turmoil since it’s elections in May. However, there is still a lot to be done to solve Iraq’s corruption, unemployment and public utility problems.

The first step to solving these will be to finalise the remaining cabinet positions.

Kurdistan elections – the final results

Weeks after the Kurdistan Region held parliamentary elections on September 30, the election commission has published official results:
The Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) achieved 688,070 votes, giving it a big lead over its rivals, securing 45 seats in the 111-seat parliament – leaving it 12 seats shy of an outright majority. The party will therefore need to enter a coalition agreement to form a government.
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) came in second with 319,219 votes, securing 21 seats. This marks an improvement on its 2013 result of 18 seats.

The Change Movement (Gorran) was pushed into third place with 186,903 votes, securing just 12 seats – down from 24 in the last parliament.

New Generation got 127,115 votes, securing eight seats.

Komal seven seats.

The joint Kurdistan Islamic Union (KIU)-Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) Reform List won five seats. When the KIU ran alone in 2013, it secured 10.

The leftist Modern coalition one seat.

The Communist Party, as part of the Azadi List, secured one seat.

The Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ), which officially boycotted the election, failed to secure a seat.

Of the 11 seats reserved for the Kurdistan Region’s minority groups, the Turkmen secured five, the Christians five, and the Armenians one. No seats are reserved for the Yezidis.

Among the Turkmen parties, the Turkmen Development Party secured two seats, the Nation List one, the Turkmen Reform party one, and the Turkmen Front one.

Among the Christian parties, the Rafidain List secured one seat, the Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council one, and the National Union Coalition three.

An Armenian independent secured one seat.

The election commission also published figures detailing which candidates secured the most votes for each list:

Qubad Talabani, head of the PUK list, won 182,000. Shaswar Abdulwahid, head of New Generation, won 106, 289. Ali Hama Salih, head of the Gorran list, won 81,934. Hemin Hawrami, head of the KDP list, won 47,000.

The election commission had delayed the announcement of official results while it investigated several allegations of fraud.

The commission decided to annul the results of 96 polling stations, voiding around 119,000 votes. The majority of annulled ballots were in Erbil province.
A number of opposition parties threatened to boycott the next parliament if the preliminary results were approved by the commission. There are no substantial differences between the preliminary results and official figures.

The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) issued a statement following the results urging people – in the interests of public safety –not to shoot firearms into the air in celebration.

Summarised Breakdown of seats by party:

Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) – 45 seats
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) – 21 seats
Gorran – 12 seats
New Generation – 8 seats
Komal – 7 seats
Reform List – 5 seats
Modern Coalition – 1 seat
Azadi List – 1 seat

11 minority quota seats as follows:

Turkmen:

Turkmen Development Party – 2
Nation List – 1
Turkmen Reform party – 1
Turkmen Front – 1

Christian:

Rafidain List – 1
Assyrian Syriac Chaldean Popular Council – 1
National Union Coalition – 3

Armenian:

Independent – 1

Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.

Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.

Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.

Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.

The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.

More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.

There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.

Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.

It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.

Iraq’s New President: A Technocrat?

After months of political deadlock, water contamination, and rising protests, earlier this month, Barham Salih was elected as Iraq’s new President.

Who is he?

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) candidate Salih holds good experience in government, having served both as the deputy prime minister of Iraq and the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He is also a good diplomat, and has proved himself capable of keeping amicable relations with the both the US and Iran.

Despite starting his political career in the PUK, Salih left in 2017 to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) and campaign against corruption. However, he recently abandoned his new party and came back to the PUK in order to get PUK backing for his bid to stand for President.

Can he unify Iraq?

Political fragmentation, growing protests, and huge infrastructure issues will make it hard for Barham Salih to do much to help unite Iraq. With tensions between the PUK and KDP rising up to his election, and the issue of a Kurdish independence set to come up again in the future, it seems unclear how he will even unify Kurdistan, let alone Iraq as a whole.

However, he may be a good choice for the protestors in Basra. Barham Salih has been known to heavily criticise government failures, therefore he will look to be a strong candidate in the eyes of the disenfranchised. Although, his credibility when it comes to sticking to his morals may have been dented by what many see as his “calculated” move back to the PUK.

But perhaps his technocratic attitude is what Iraq needs. With MP’s more free to vote than usual, Salih’s election appears to have come more as a result of his credentials rather than his social base. This bodes well for Iraq, as strong technocratic leaders are needed to take on the huge tasks of reducing systemic corruption, rebuilding infrastructure and keeping actors inside and outside of Iraq happy.

However, Barham Salih’s ability to do these things will be limited as his Presidential role is less powerful than that of the Prime Minister. Either way, his election is a huge step forward from months of political deadlock.

Next in the series, the new prime minister: Adil Abdul al-Mahdi.

Some thoughts on the tragic killing of Jamal Khashoggi

NCF Secretary General William Morris interviewed during a debate on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a longstanding family friend and a generous and public spirited journalist who lost his life because what he had to say was not tolerated by his government. Latterly Jamal had been writing for the Washington Post. This broadcast was made before today’s suggestion from the Turks that the killing of Jamal may in fact have been deliberate.

The Kurdish Regional Parliament – the unofficial results

Though the official results have yet to be announced, the NCF has the Unofficial results for the 111-member Kurdistan Parliament (11 reserved for minorities) and they are as listed below by party, number of votes, and number of seats:

  1. KDP 738,698 votes: 45 seats
  2. PUK 343,883 votes: 21 seats
  3. Gorran 195,553 votes: 12 seats
  4. New Generation 120,324 votes: 8 seats
  5. KIG (Komal) The Kurdistan Islamic Group: 113,928 votes: 7 seats
  6. KIU-KIM (Kurdistan Islamic Union-Kurdistan Islamic Movement) 83,562 votes: 5 seats
  7. CDJ (The Coalition for Democracy and Justice) (formerly Barham Salih’s party): 1 seat
  8. Communist: 1 seat
  9. Minorities: 11 seats

Once again, it’s not baseball or football with clear rules. Sometimes they play by the rules, and sometimes they make them up as they go along.

At the regional level, the KDP came out on top with 45 of 111 regional parliament seats. Eleven seats are for minorities – Christians, Armenians, Turkmens – most of whom would likely support the KDP. Along with these seats, plus Socialist and Communist seats, and possibly one or more Islamist seats, the KDP is in a good position to form a majority government without the PUK, Gorran, New Generation, and Islamist parties. But that’s unlikely to happen.

In Iraq, managing divisions is the essential game. Iraq is not a failed state. It’s not a state. It’s just a failure. Managing divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been reasonably successful. Otherwise, the Region would have flown apart and disassembled in chaos years ago. At the end of the day, there are only two political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – KDP and Anti-KDP, with the Anti-KDP divided into factions.

So, we are likely to see efforts toward a consensus coalition regional government, which will be difficult given the perceived “treachery” by each side of the other.

Turnout in the regional parliamentary election was relatively low for the Kurdistan region, only about 60%. There is a sense that if another independence referendum were to be held today, the turnout would increase by about 20 points.

An interesting bright spot is that a top vote-getter was a well-known and much-liked non-politician who drives a ramshackle car and did little if any campaigning. Unlike candidates who littered the roadways with posters, he had none. He is known for conversing with youth in the marketplace, a singer and sometime TV personality, humble and simple.

The ramshackle car driver is Jalal Parishan (parishan means ‘desperate’; in his case, something to do with a lost love). Though the final results have yet to be announced officially, he received the third highest number of votes among dozens of candidates.

Ahwaz: Iran’s Internal Struggle

Recent violence in Iran has brought the city of Ahwaz to the front pages. In late September 2018, four gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the city, killing 29 people. Responsibility for the attack has thus far been claimed by the Ahwaz National Resistance in the name of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Responsibility has also apparently been claimed by Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS), and Iran has decided not unreasonably to blame them both – though at the end of the day, only one of them did it.

Located in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan, Ahwaz is one of the most oil-rich regions in the country. However, despite the abundance of natural resources, the central government has deliberately underdeveloped the region. The infrastructure of Ahwaz is lacking far behind the rest of the country, all of which is not helped by the city’s status as having the world’s worst air pollution.

Unknown to most, there are an estimated 5-7 million Arabs in the Khuzestan region. In a majority ethnic Persian Iran, they constitute a small minority with most of them concentrated in the Khuzestan region. In 1925, the British had control over the region, formally known as Arabistan. This area was later annexed and renamed by Iran as Khuzestan. As such, some Arab Ahwazis consider themselves as under Persian “occupation” and have been vying for an independent country of their own.

Ahwazi Arabs argue that they face state entrenched discrimination at the hands of Iranian governments both past and present. A Home Office report points out that Ahwazi Arabs suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, poverty and a lack of basic rights. They are provided with limited access to services such as housing, water, sanitation, employment, and education. The report also highlights that many Ahwazi Arabs have had their lands confiscated, without any compensation for loss of land.

In addition to this, the Arab people of Ahwaz have been subject to a policy of ‘Persianisation’ through which they have experienced ethnic and linguistic repression. As a result, Ahwazi Arabs are not formally permitted to learn their mother tongue nor express their culture. It is speculated by some and noted by Arab Ahwazis that the government has attempted to alter the demographic makeup of Ahwaz by renaming town names to sound more Persian and also by resettling Persian speaking families into the area. In theory, the Iranian constitution does afford respect and rights to all ethnic minorities and considers all Iranian citizens equal but there is little evidence of this in practice.

Ahwaz is no stranger to civil unrest and has continuously seen anti-government protests. Violence from Ahwazi Arab separatist groups has also taken place over the decades, and if the claims are true, the killing of civilians at the military parade in September being the most recent example. Despite being a low-level conflict, violent activity in Ahwaz has increased since 2005 with September’s attack being one of the deadliest in nearly a decade

The cause of Ahwazi Arabs has been championed by nationalist groups such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). The group has been involved in political activity, but have on a number of previous occasions resorted to violent means such as bombings to achieve their goals.

Acts of violence do very little in highlighting the very legitimate issues that the Ahwazi Arabs and other minority groups face in Iran. Iran has largely attempted to contain discontent from their population by cracking down on protests but it is increasingly difficult for them to do so in a region that is fraught and fragmented by divisions. This is particularly true for Ahwaz.

Ahwaz is key to the national security of Iran and is also the economic lifeline for the country; housing almost 90% of the country’s oil. The presence of the armed wing of the ASMLA and the grievances of the Arab population should be a cause for concern for Tehran, taking into consideration Iran’s relationship with hostile states such as Saudi Arabia and the United States who could themselves exploit this unrest.

“The nation’s security is the red line. Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz , we answered the them with missiles”. That was the statement made by IRGC general Hajizadeh hours after Iran pounded alleged Daesh targets in Syria with ballistic missiles. Iran’s leader had warned after the recent attack on the military parade in the city of Ahvaz that, “The terrorists will be punished soon”. Iran claimed it was proving it was serious in safeguarding its security by responding in kind when it came under attack.

al-Halbousi: A Good Choice for Iraq?

After months of political deadlock, Iraq has finally taken the key step of electing its Speaker and President, with a Prime Minister-designate also named. On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament elected Barham Salih as President and shortly after he asked Adil Abdul-Mahdi to be Prime Minister. This comes two weeks after electing their speaker as Mohamed al-Halbousi.

Since 2003 the roles of President, Prime Minister and Speaker have been unofficially held by a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni respectively. Having struggled with a political stalemate since the elections in May, Iraq can now finally move forward toward naming its cabinet ministers and forming a parliament. This comes as a big step on the road to rebuilding a country devastated by three years of war with the Islamic State. In this, the first is a series, the NCF will focus o n the elected speaker, Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al-Halbousi, exploring the run-up to his election, his background and what his appointment might mean for the future of Iraq.

The Run up to al-Halbousi’s Appointment

In May’s parliamentary election, the Saairun political group, which is popular amongst many of Iraq’s poor and led by the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, came in first with 54 seats. In second, with 48 seats came Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance. This group is one which has the tacit support of Iran and whose members are largely drawn from the paramilitary groups who were crucial in the victory against ISIL. In third and fourth came Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance (42), a group with tacit US backing, and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (25). Both of the latter are, by and large, factions that have evolved from the Islamic Dawa Party, which has ruled Iraq for the last three terms.

After the election, the opposing Fatah Alliance and the Saairun each tried to separately form coalitions with the Victory Alliance, The State of Law Coalition, the Kurdish parties and others.

However, amid growing protests about government corruption and a growing water shortage crisis, the influential Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called for change. He demanded that Iraq needed a new leadership stating he would not support “politicians who have been in authority in the past years”. This greatly diminished the chances of the Dawa based Victory Alliance and the State of Law Coalition. This forced Sairoon and Fatah to come together, and on Sept 15th the Fatah nominee al-Halbousi was elected speaker, with al-Sadr’s candidate Hassam Karim as first deputy.

Who is he?

At 37, al-Halbousi is the youngest speaker in Iraq’s history. He trained as a civil engineer, then went into the construction business. In 2014 he was elected to parliament and headed the parliamentary finance committee from 2016 until 2017 when he became governor of Anbar province.

In the May elections, al-Halbousi headed the ‘Anbar is Our Identity’ alliance. In fact al-Halbousi has a good relationship with Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri and was initially nominated by their Al-Binna’a alliance.

Internationally he has amicable relations with the US and was involved in many US contracts during their period of hegemony in Iraq. However, his connection to Iran is stronger. When elected he immediately cemented these ties by denouncing US sanctions on Iran and inviting Iran’s speaker to Iraq. But not before first exchanging invitations with the Speaker of the Parliament in pro-US Kuwait so as to indicate his neutrality.

What Does His Election Mean for Iraq?

With growing anti-establishment protests over corrupt rule, the Iraqi people are demanding a change. At 37, al-Halbousi seems to represent this change. Whether al-Halbousi is clean of corruption himself is debatable. There were even rumours that he had in part bought his post as Speaker by making questionable deals with other MPs, and though Sunni himself, not all the Sunni MPs support him. However, a fresh face is nonetheless welcomed by the Iraqi people.

He seems to be quite up to the vital task of keeping amicable relations with both the US and Iran. He also represents the much needed coming together of a country politically split and devastated by war. He looks to be a good candidate to take a united Iraq in a more positive direction.