The World’s Worst Humanitarian Crisis

The war in Yemen shows no sign of abating. This past week a Saudi Arabian airstrike hit a wedding in the country, killing over twenty people, including the bride. This is not a new scenario. Saudi air strikes fired into Yemen have struck markets, schools, and hospitals. The dialogue surrounding these attacks has been depressingly familiar. The UN decries these attacks as war crimes whilst Saudi Arabia claims that the attacks are caused by the Houthis’ use of human shields (i.e. hiding military positions and equipment in civilian zones). The West’s response to the crisis has been weak. Cautious not to upset their regional ally, Saudi Arabia,  statements from Western countries have focused the blame on Iran. They claim that Iran has been ‘exacerbating’ the violence by providing the Houthis with missiles. Tehran has denied involvement. However, a UN inspection in January showed Houthi weapons to have been manufactured in Iran, weakening that denial.

Iran is certainly perceived as being an actor in this war, and the Sunni-Shiite divide is a prevalent theme in the Yemeni crisis: the Shiite Houthis backed by Iran against the Sunni-President Hadi supported by Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, the idea that the Yemen war is an aspect of regional geopolitics has left the West with its hands tied. There is concern that, if Yemen was to lose its Sunni government, Iran would be able to expand upon its ‘Shia crescent’ (to use King Abdullah II of Jordan’s phrase). The idea being that Iranian control of Yemen, together with Iran’s existing Shiite allies in Iraq and Syria, creates a Shia bloc in the Middle East. Thus, the Yemen crisis is being described as a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia, with fears that success for the Houthis means success for Tehran. This has prevented the West from condemning the actions of the Saudi military, and those left to suffer are the Yemeni people.

The war has killed nearly 10,000 Yemenis and has been described as the worst humanitarian crisis today by the UN. Three out of four Yemenis require humanitarian aid of some kind. A land, sea and air blockade on Yemen was introduced by Saudi Arabia in November, leading to enormous shortages of medicine and food. This blockade was reduced to allow aid to come through Hodeidah, Yemen’s largest port. However, the entire country is struggling for its basic needs. The European Council for Foreign Relations says food insecurity is a problem throughout Yemen. In Houthi-controlled territories, starvation is rampant.

As people are struggling for basic needs, both sides of the conflict continue to commit human rights abuses. Amnesty have investigated thirty ground attacks executed in Yemen, by both pro and anti-Houthi forces, and found none that distinguished between civilians and combatants. Pro-Houthi forces have committed a wave of arrests of opponents including human rights defenders, journalists, and academics. Similarly, anti-Houthi forces have persecuted and harassed civilians in both pro-Hadi areas and disputed territories.

Something must be done to curb these atrocities. One small ray of hope is the new Special Envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths. He remarked following a trip to Sana’a ‘there is no doubt a desire for peace’ and that ‘it is difficult to spend time in Yemen without appreciating the great suffering this war has caused’. His plan of action is to bring civilian leaders to the same negotiating table as the warlords and generals to highlight the extent of the crisis. He is also championing the divorcing of humanitarian negotiation and political mediation. Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is currently actually aggravated due to Saudi Arabia running a humanitarian program for the people of Yemen concurrently with its attacks. This has meant that negotiations allowing for more aid workers and supplies have been hindered by Saudi Arabia’s political desire for the country. They have found that they can prevent further aid from being administered until certain of their political demands have been achieved. This politicisation of aid further hurts the Yemeni people. Divorcing the two into separate negotiations, one table to discuss humanitarian packages and another for peace negotiations, will allow for greater access to aid and improve the lives of the Yemenis.

Griffiths faces difficulties due to his nationality as a British citizen. As he tries to mediate between the Houthis and the Saudis, Griffiths will struggle to appear fair and unbiased due to Britain’s famous ties with Saudi Arabia. That being said, there may be a positive outcome to Griffiths being British. Britain is currently under pressure from international bodies and NGOs concerning its continued sale of weapons to Saudi Arabia. But the arms industry is such an enormous part of the British economy, and the Saudis are vital to its continuation. As long as the British government can continue the partnership without tangible negative consequences, weapons will be sold to Saudi Arabia. So far, the British Government has claimed Saudi Arabia’s use of these weapons does not violate Britain’s arms trade policy. Saudi Arabia’s evident collateral attacks on civilians within this conflict show this statement to be mere political maneuvering in order to continue the billion pound industry that is Britain’s sale of arms to Saudi Arabia. However, with a new, British envoy, reports from the UN may hold more weight in Griffiths’ home country, creating greater pressure on the British government to be less ready to give carte blanche to further sales.  Regardless of which, Griffiths is himself Yemen born and has worked in the region and for that reason alone, garners respect from the warring factions. He is the best hope we have.

Is Tanzania’s ‘Bulldozer’ a threat to Democracy?

In November 2015, John Magufuli assumed office as the President of Tanzania, perpetuating the dominance of the Chama cha Mapinduzi (CCM) party who have been in power since the 1970s. At the time of his election most considered Magufuli to be representative of political continuity within Tanzania. Now, almost three years later, it is clear that Magufuli has disrupted the status quo.

The President has come to be known as ‘the Bulldozer’ for his unapologetic approach to tackling corruption and curtailing excessive spending within government. He gained this reputation right at the beginning of his presidency when he cancelled the usual opulent Independence Day celebrations. Instead, that money was redirected towards street cleaning. In the same way, he doubled down on excessive expenditure on ceremonies, meetings and travel of government officials and civil servants. He ensured that everyone was aware that being a government official was not synonymous with luxury or privilege and that fraud and corruption were not to be tolerated. This was achieved by tough measures and the dramatic firing of many civil servants. It has been reported that in his first three months as President, Magufuli fired an average of one civil servant a day.

‘The Bulldozer’ has shown his toughness in industry and economics too. He has drawn a hard-line by protecting and taking ownership of Tanzania’s resources. Most recently, a 24 kilometre wall with one secure entrance was erected around the tanzanite mines near Mount Kilimanjaro as a way to stop the smuggling of this precious stone. This is just one of Magufuli’s moves to regulate mining. He has gone head-to-head with foreign mining companies with the goal of gaining maximum profit from national resources. Magafuli’s main aims have been to improve efficiency across the board in Tanzania, to harness the nation’s wealth and to do so for the betterment of the country. He has enjoyed popularity and praise as a result of his hard-line response to these issues and many see this as a promising signal for a fairer and more prosperous future. The tough stance he has taken on issues such as corruption and excess has been applauded both by Tanzanians and the international community.

However, criticism has definitely been expressed by some, especially those who see his policies and conduct as aggressive. Most notably, Magufuli’s stance on democracy cannot be ignored, indeed it is in need of serious attention. He has stifled freedoms of expression. Those who have expressed political opposition or criticism have been subject to harassment, arrest and detention. Tundu Lissu, the leader of the opposition party and an open critic of Magufuli, was severely injured after being attacked in September of 2017. Opposition parties have been banned from holding public meetings and rallies. Both the press and the broadcast media have also been subject to the same threat. News outlets have been shut down for lengthy periods of time, journalists have been arrested and several have been reported missing.

This increased control over the public domain and freedoms of the people has been formalised. A new law signed in March 2018, the Electronic and Postal Communications (Online Content) Regulations, now demands an astronomic fee of over $900 for those wishing to publish online content in Tanzania. This includes bloggers, as well as those operating online radio and television services and impacts regular users of online domains and social media. Content considered to ‘cause annoyance’ or ‘public disorder’ will result in the revoking of these $900 licences. This is not just applicable to political topics; Diamond Platnumz, one of Tanzania’s most famous singers, was recently arrested for posting a video of him kissing a woman. He subsequently issued a public apology for such content. Freedoms within the public and private spheres are deteriorating in Tanzania and it is important that this is not ignored. These new constraints on democracy are dangerous and the rights of the Tanzanian people need to be upheld and respected.

Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the “Turkish/Qatari axis” concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jaysh ul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jaysh ul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition giving them the choice of leaving or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who did not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.
Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?

The Anglo-Franco-American alliance has now bombed Syria. The forthcoming inspection by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons may shed some light on the matter of the recent alleged chemical attacks in Syria. The NCF is meanwhile conducting its own investigation into events in Douma. Thus far the responses from those contacts we have include the following:

  1. Contact from the Syrian opposition: Big thank you on behalf of all Syrian people for US President Donald Trump for his courage and empathy and kind feeling for the Syrians innocent victims in Syria. We are working very hard to get you an eyewitness for the attack. The people in Dhouma and Ghouta – some have been evacuated and some have not. The area is now under government control. All the people are very frightened.
  2. Independent Syrian resident of Eastern Ghouta currently based near Douma: There was a chemical attack. The government was responsible.
  3. Trusted source – independent Syrian: The chemical weapons attacks in Ghouta did not happen. This is 100% confirmed. They did not happen. It is totally false. It is not like Khan Sheikhoun where they happened. This specific attack did not happen. There was no chlorine gas attack on Ghouta this time.
  4. Former Western diplomat: After looking at the video on the Internet, I should agree that we need something more. Perhaps the Americans have de-crypts of Syrian government communications that provide the smoking gun. Perhaps. If there was a gas attack, next question is whether it was chlorine or sarin. Hamish de Bretton-Gordon thinks it was a combination, but most other observers think it was chlorine.
  5. Arab journalist who examines all video footage of chemical attacks in Syria for his employers: The footage from Douma appears different in character from other footage of the aftermath of chemical attacks such as for example:   https://youtu.be/HhEh3YdJdAo
  6. Independent observer: There is another problem with the first video (top above) in so much as the children’s eyes are not red or tearful until after they have been doused with water. A Western journalist responds: looks to me like it could be consistent with mild exposure. Also, remember that they are going to douse people that are anywhere near obviously, even though those canisters have a relatively small impact area. NCF comment: The first video of children being washed was at least a little staged for the cameras. But giving the benefit of the doubt, if chlorine gas was used, which chokes, the use of inhalers help facilitate breathing rings true.
  7. Western journalist: If this fell through the roof of your house, it might kill the family inside but the neighbors kids could be relatively unscathed and taken to be hosed down at a clinic. Chlorine you wouldn’t expect anyone outside the house to be impacted significantly but people and medics are going to be in a complete panic. The reference in this instance is to the video below which shows a gas canister.  https://www.facebook.com/orient.tv.net/videos/1984145878270685/ The NCF comments:  An intact canister as shown in this video would be a new departure. Where canisters are used they never remain intact to the best of our knowledge. This would be a first. On balance we think this video is false because we have never seen an intact canister in the aftermath of an attack before. There are many accusations regarding the fabrication of evidence, some credible, some perhaps less crediblesome far less so. But has video evidence ever been fabricated? Certainly. One Western observer stated today “it’s not surprising that intelligent people are no longer accepting, blindly, what their governments, or government-controlled mainstream media, are telling them. If we’ve been lied to once, we can be lied to over and over again.”
  8. Western journalist: I presume you saw the more graphic videos too. (Note: Do NOT view the links in this paragraph if you are of a sensitive disposition. Some are deeply disturbing).  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i7zVM_prDm8 . The NCF response: This video is very graphic. Quite horrible. We have seen symptoms of this kind in Syria before. The foaming at the mouth is not associated with chlorine gas exposure. It is sometimes a symptom of sarin, especially when associated with pinpoint pupils. In the use of sarin in Tokyo there was foaming at the mouth. Could there be a mixture of gasses in play? The idea of a mixture of sarin and chlorine gas being used is a strange one but would be the only one that explained the alleged chlorine smell and the foaming at the mouth. The video is of course unverified which is difficult. However, the charity Save the Children has issued statements that seem to support the idea of chemical weapons use and it is a usually credible source. We have had video footage of this kind from Aleppo, the concern being that this might be previously unused old footage now being released. It would in practice be difficult to mix sarin and chlorine. But in a barrel bomb two canisters might be used side by side, thus explaining the mixed symptoms (in such circumstances the canisters would not of course be intact). This video is damning if genuine. Very damning. This video shows people sheltering in cellars, the worst thing you can do in a gas attack and it is how people are often caught, especially women and children who are more often victims, possibly because of smaller lung capacity. On the other hand this does not gell with our reports from our own sources inside Syria. Still it looks damning at face value. All the more need to see the OPCW report. If these victims are genuinely there, they will be able to exhume the corpses and make a definitive report.
  9. Western journalist: What about this https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KpwcV0sup_o ? NCF response: This appears to be some sort of morgue. Sarin gas as used in Syria has mostly been used around Aleppo because Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo. Sarin, as used in Syria, has tended to have symptoms such as pinpoint eye pupils (always), foaming at the mouth (occasionally), blotchy skin like mustard gas victims (occasionally). If these are indeed victims of a chemical attack, it would more probably be chlorine gas, which fits with anecdotal evidence by some of the opposition but does not fit with two of the videos (the one of the canister and the one with victims foaming at the mouth). And this latest video does have the benefit of being datemarked so can only relate to Douma (person filming holds up a piece of paper saying Douma and the date). This is the most damning video of all but we need the OPCW report to be certain. With this huge number of victims, a preliminary comment from the OPCW should be forthcoming virtually immediately and certainly within 48 hours. Unless the government (if these are chemical weapons victims) or opposition (if these are not) have since hidden the bodies. If this video is genuine then the video of people in a stairwell or basement some foaming at the mouth (presumably from Sarin) is less plausible. We really need the OPCW. Thus this video is presumably chlorine but there is some possibility they could be victims of suffocation in rubble after shelling (a contention backed by pro-Syrian commentator Robert Fist in the Independent) hence OPCW is vital. This one is the really troublesome video.
  10. Western journalist: Bellingcat have geolocated some of the open source videos:
    https://www.bellingcat.com/news/mena/2018/04/11/open-source-survey-alleged-chemical-attacks-douma-7th-april-2018/ . NCF response: The Bellingcat analysis is interesting as are some of the comments. Belingcat’s report is inconclusive in some respects. It states the symptoms are those of Sarin, but that the cylinders are those used to deliver chlorine. It then states that such cylinders have been used extensively before and gives a number of examples. This is a more recent type of cylinder. But in every instance without exception the chlorine gas cylinders they illustrate are damaged on impact, in some cases blasted apart. Never undamaged. Yet in Douma the cylinders are both undamaged it would appear. Some of the comments on the Belingcat blog question the veracity of the Belingcat report on this basis. Bellingcat are clearly not an impartial source or they would at least acknowledge this as an issue.
  11. Another Western analyst states that there are so many factions operating in Syria it is difficult to get at the truth: Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government. Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government. Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel. Turkey is aggrssively anti-PYD. US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (US does not seem to be going after al Qaeda elements in Syria).
  12. Another Western analyst comments: “I would only add that, while I share the 80% chance of it being a Syrian Government action (since the evidence mounts that there was an action even if we might be wary of some of the politically-motivated subsequent information flow), we should entertain the possibility that the Syrian military may not always be under full political control in the field. In 1945, a Canadian Regiment razed a German village to the ground: this was never ordered and was covered up with the perpetrators this war crime being brazen in self-justification. This is what war does to people and Western air raids cannot restore lines of command or exert political control over troops on the ground who choose to flout standards regarded as normal in civilised society. War barbarises and it is a sign of our own civilisation that we challenge and question our war leaders’ precipitate and ill-informed actions.”

We are not denying this may be a chemical attack. On balance the evidence seems to indicate that it was a chemical attack. We believe this would be a probability. That it was a chlorine gas attack we are less certain now. A mix of sarin and chlorine? Unlikely. Both sarin and chlorine released quite separately? Possible. As for culpability if it was a chemical attack. The government – 80% probable. Jaysh al Islam wishing to implicate the government? Unlikely but possible. They are ruthless enough. They have access to sarin and if it is a sarin attack the probability of that remote possibility increases.

We are still waiting for more information direct from Syria. We expect a fuller report to be submitted to ourselves on the situation soon.

For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in Tuesday’s (April 10) Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words merely edited for clarity:

On February 18th, the Syrian army began a major Eastern Ghouta offensive via a concentrated artillery and aerial bombardment. And by early March, its units had succeeded in dividing up the Ghouta into different sectors and had recaptured many villages and towns.

The factions affiliated with the Turkish/Qatari axis concluded an agreement with Damascus sponsored by the Russian mediators. Thousands of Ahrar ash-Sham, Nusra, and Faylaq ar-Rahman fighters left to Idlib together with their families, and then the Syrian army entered ‘Arabin, Zamalka, and Jobar.

Jayshul Islam then denounced ‘the treason and treachery of our brothers-in-arms’ (those affiliated with Qatar and Turkey) who had left for Idlib. Jayshul Islam, which is affiliated with Saudi Arabia, could not find a safe haven.

Damascus then began a dialogue via Russian mediators aimed at clearing Douma of the remaining armed opposition or “settling their affairs” with the Syrian state, leading to an agreement that called for the evacuation of thousands of civilians and military personnel and allowing those who do not wish to “settle their affairs” to head to Jarabulus. This was the deal that came to be known as the ‘Ghouta-for-‘Afrin’ deal.

Convoys of buses then began to carry the armed elements and their families from Douma. In addition, more than 40 thousand civilians left via the Wafideen Gateway and were moved to “shelters provided by the Syrian government”.

Then a coup occurred inside Jayshul Islam. Its leaders who were engaged in the negotiations with Damascus and had reached an agreement with it were either killed or detained. Abu-Hammam al-Buweidani disappeared amidst rumors that he had surrendered to the Russian police, while Abu Qusay and Abu ‘Abderrahman Ka’ka took over the group’s leadership. Implementation of the agreement was suspended.

Next, the Syrian army launched a ruthless offensive on Douma, most of whose stages were broadcast live on air. It tightened the noose around Jayshul Islam’s neck.

Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Further background from the NCF Secretary General:

Chemical weapons have been around a long time. The first to use chemical weapons in the Middle East were the British who employed them in the Second Battle of Gaza against the Turks in 1917. Since then they have been used repeatedly, most notably by Saddam Hussein against the Iranians from 1983 to 1988 and the Kurds from 1987 to 1988.

That the Syrian government has chemical weapons is without question. Their existence has been confirmed by the Syrians in oblique statements, most notably by onetime Syrian spokesman Jihad Makdissi who apparently lost his job over the remark.

Syria’s main chemical weapons base, though there are others nearby, was at the Safira base just to the East of Aleppo.

The Free Syrian Army destroyed the Safira base on 29th November 2012. The artillery base was utterly demolished but the nearby air defence base was fought over for some time. Safira was a sprawling military complex. However, the Islamist group Al Nusra joined the fight and by mid February 2013 the entire town had fallen into rebel hands.

Since when both extreme elements of the opposition and the government have used chemical weapons, the government moreso than the opposition but both parties have been culpable.

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are:

Egypt

Israel

North Korea

Palestine

South Sudan

They should all be brought onboard urgently.

India continues to fail its Dalit Women

India’s 2011 census stated that 16% of the Indian population, some 200 million people, are Dalits. Historically, being a Dalit in India means being at the bottom of an outdated and abysmal caste system. This idea still persists and as a result, Dalit people are vulnerable to a host of human rights abuses. Dalit women are particularly vulnerable must also struggle against patriarchal structures. A UN report from February 2018 highlights the fact that the discrimination Dalit women face, alongside factors such as lack of healthcare and sanitation, has resulted in Dalit women living, on average, 14.6 years less than ‘higher’ caste women. This is a shocking statistic. The report emphasises the fact that it is not just being of a lower-caste and one’s gender that acts as a barrier to mobility, opportunity and equality. The colour of one’s skin can also play a factor in how you are treated in India. A fair complexion is praised and promoted across society, through the media and beauty ideals. As a result, racism becomes a pertinent issue. If you are a dark-skinned Dalit women, your prospects in Indian society are not as fortunate as those of higher-caste, fairer women. This is particularly true in terms of employment with statistical evidence demonstrating that Dalit women are less likely to gain employment and when they do, they earn significantly less than their non-Dalit female counterparts. Literacy rates and levels of education of Dalit peoples are also significantly lower than their ‘higher’ caste counterparts. This huge problem persists across the nation and needs continuous attention.

There is a radical Indian feminist push within the country that seeks to move away from more homogenous feminist movements that fail to take into account the further oppression one may face as not just a woman, but a Dalit woman. As a result, we have seen the development of ‘intersectional feminism’ at both a grassroots and international level. Both Dalit and non-Dalit Indian women have used the concept of intersectional feminism to raise the profile of injustices against the Dalits. The ‘Dalit Women Fight‘ in India and the Feminist Dalit Organisation (FEDO) in Nepal are two such groups campaigning for visibility and change. There are other platforms that have established themselves as a means of articulating the voice of Dalit women, notably All India Dalit Mahila Adhikar Manch (AIDMAM) which is a movement born from the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR). Womankind Worldwide is an international women’s organisation that lends its support to groups such as FEDO. The voice of these Dalit women is growing in prominence. This gives hope to those that believe in the improvement of the welfare and wellbeing of Dalit women in a country that has historically seen them marginalised and oppressed.

The position of Dalit women in India, a nation infamous for its failure to protect its women and facilitate true equality, is deplorable. Whilst there are grassroots and international efforts making noise, this is not enough. The Indian government has continuously been the subject of great criticism for the position of its women, minorities and those from ‘lower’ castes, yet they continually fail to do anything substantive about it. The international community needs to raise the profile of Dalit women in India and apply pressure where it is needed to ensure that the future for these women is one of hope and change.

Untangling Afghanistan: Proxy wars and geopolitical rivalries

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently spoke in an interview of Afghanistan’s need for Russian support. Decrying the US for ‘killing us for 17 years’, he claimed that Russian support was the only means with which peace could be achieved in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The belief of some in Kabul is that the Taliban’s strength is reliant upon Pakistan and, with enough international pressure, Pakistan will withdraw its support. The US was originally supposed to provide this pressure. However, Karzai’s desire for non-US international support, born out of the US’ ruined reputation in the region, is well documented. Russia was not the first country he turned to. In 2017, Karzai attempted to reach out to India for support, suggesting that they replace the US as the military force upholding the Afghan government. He suggested that such action would be in India’s national interest, as it would damage Pakistan. Pakistan’s apparent support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a permanent stumbling block when it comes to bettering Afghan-Pakistan relations. However, India’s military strength pales in comparison to that of the US. India does not have the means to replace the USA, and many in Afghanistan would regard any Indian intervention as suspect, India being regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Indeed the core of the Afghan problem is regarded by many as the Indo-Pakistan proxy war being fought out on the streets of Kabul.

The problem with Afghanistan now turning to Russia is Russia’s apparent desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Relations between Russia and India have become strained recently due to burgeoning tensions between India and China. India’s response to these tensions has been to improve relations with the US, who are hoping India will effectively curb China’s influence. Russia has recognised that improved relations with Pakistan will, therefore, put pressure on India, improve relations with China and further antagonise the USA.

This leaves Afghanistan at a disadvantage. Officials in Kabul were celebrating news of Trump’s removal of two billion dollars in security aid to Pakistan, believing this would weaken the Afghanistan Taliban. A minority within Pakistan have blamed the Pakistan military for this, claiming that their tacit support for extremist groups has brought about this decision. Inevitably, Trump’s actions have increased street-level anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. It is therefore unlikely that such action will cause a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is a tremendous fear within Pakistan of a ‘pincer’ move by Afghanistan and India. As a consequence, Pakistan’s actions regarding Afghanistan will always be motivated by the desire to ensure Pakistan’s security. Unfortunately, an unstable Afghanistan is more beneficial to Pakistan than a stabilised administration that is allied with India.

China has moved to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations by including Afghanistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is part of the Belt and Road initiative, China’s attempt to recreate the Silk Road. However, CPEC is already controversial due to its being built through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India and Pakistan have constantly fought over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and India does not recognise Pakistan’s control of the Northern half of the state. By extending the offer to Afghanistan, China has faced India with the prospect of losing a regional ally to its economic rival.

Untangling all of these geopolitical relationships is an almost impossible task. If Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving peace with the Taliban, then their relationship with Pakistan has to improve.  The level of mistrust between the two countries is a major hindrance to the process. As long as it continues, the Taliban will always have a potential ally in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, the mistrust is founded on the conflict between Pakistan and India.  Afghanistan plays a vital geopolitical role for both of these countries. Both are experiencing significant political tensions, not only with each other but with China and the USA as well. Until these issues are resolved, international support for a stable Afghanistan will continue to be deprioritised due to security concerns.

Afghanistan and the Difficult Road to Peace

For more than 17 years Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by conflict. However, the current President Ashraf Ghani is trying to push for definitive peace and reconciliation between his government and the Taliban. On February the 28th 2018, he made an offer to the Taliban that was seen by some as a ‘game changer’. Ghani would like the Taliban to engage in peace talks and recognise the legitimacy of his government. In exchange, Ghani has said that the Taliban will be recognised as a legitimate political party, may open offices in locations of their choosing, and have some of their prisoners released. The government will also support efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists. At face value, this offer appears to be a turning point, with Ghani pioneering a new vision for Afghanistan’s future. However, is it realistic? Ghani’s offer to work cohesively on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban may be too little too late given the fragility of the current political situation.

Just this week Ghani met with senior diplomats in Uzbekistan to discuss the next steps required in Afghanistan peace talks. The Taliban were absent. They have remained notably silent in response to Ghani’s offer. This could be regarded as indicative of the possibility that the offer may have sparked some kind of conversation amongst Taliban officials and senior members. However, whilst this may be true, it does not mean that there will be a positive outcome. The Taliban are somewhat fractured in their views. Some accept that peace negotiations could happen in Washington however the majority have a deep dislike and distrust of US intervention. A response to Ghani’s offer may not be put on the table for some time. One Taliban southern military commander said that there needs to be a huge descaling and step back by foreign interveners before the Taliban can even participate in talks. This in itself is problematic as the USA has given its unwavering commitment to supporting Afghanistan whilst President Trump has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the Taliban at all. The US is not the only other actor in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban continue to engage in a fatal back-and-forth with ISIS forces that has left many dead. The presence of various different agents in Afghanistan, whether positive or negative, contributes to the complexity of the situation, a complexity that Ghani’s offer does not reflect.

The political situation in Afghanistan is one that is not conducive to peace talks between a ‘legitimate government’ and the Taliban. The government wishes the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government’s legitimacy. However, this current government came into being after 2014 elections that were fraught with accusations of voter fraud on both sides. The US ultimately stepped in and brokered a deal between Ghani and his opposition. Whilst Ghani has a clear and positive vision for his nation, this stands on shaky grounds. Furthermore, the current extension of the parliamentary mandate has been criticised as illegal by some. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place in 2016 but were then pushed back to July 2018 with the predicted date now set for October 2018. Most in the international community do not even see 2018 as a possibility. This due to multiple problems surrounding organisation of elections and disagreements within the government. Consequently, a picture emerges of a less than strong government. This is compounded by the Taliban’s continued growth in control and influence over parts of Afghanistan. Their control has doubled since 2015. The government is therefore speaking to a sizeable group that operates outside of their authority. The government is  not as strong as their offer implies.

Once you frame the offer from Ghani within this context, suddenly nothing about peace talks in Afghanistan seems clear or straightforward. He presents the incumbent government as the future for Afghanistan but the reality is that the situation is incredibly complex and conflict continues. The only way forward is for Afghanistan’s government to work with the Taliban and whilst Ghani’s offer seems like a positive step, one has to question its viability at the present moment.

Nematollahi persecution in Iran: derision and violence solves nothing

Since 2005, tensions between the Iranian authorities and the largest Sufi sect in the country, the Nematollahi Gonobadi, have been rising. The Dervishes that make up the sect prescribe to a form of Shia Sufism. However, their beliefs differ from mainstream Iranian Islam, leading to declarations that the sect is ‘weakening Islam’ and that they are ‘political agitators’ becoming common. Now houses of worship are being destroyed, Gonobadis are being detained by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and their practices being suppressed. This harassment of the Gonobadis by the IRGC has resulted in sporadic outbreaks of violence by Gonobadis against the Iranian security services.

The most recent example was the Gonabadi Dervishes’ protest in Northern Tehran. The protest occurred in response to the arrest of one of their community leaders, Nematollah Riahi, and the lack of clarity regarding where he has been detained and what the charges against him are. Six men were reported dead in the aftermath of the protest: five members of the security services and one member of the Gonabadi sect. Government news organizations have portrayed the event as an aggressive mob attacking both civilians and police alike, whereas other media sources have argued protesters were heard declaring that they did not want violence but felt there was no other option following aggressive police interventions. Three hundred arrests have now been made. These arrests are not a new phenomenon. A number of Gonobadis have been arrested in Iran under ‘National Security’ laws, and multiple protests by the Gonobadis have taken place. There is, understandably, a sense within the Gonobadi community that they are being persecuted unfairly. The fact that the arrest of Nematollah Riahi is shrouded in mystery only entrenches this belief.

However, these violent outbreaks leading to the death of policemen will only escalate tensions. There is a desperate need now for communication between the Iranian authorities and the sect. The Dervish leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, condemned the violence committed by the members of his sect and offered his condolences to the families of the security services killed at the protest. These calls for non-violence are vital and must be heeded by the sect if tensions between the Gonobadis and the Iranian authorities are to abate.

Unfortunately, the Government response to the attack has been hostile. Following the demonstration, a police spokesman, Saeed Montazer Al-Mehdi was quoted decrying the deaths of two of the Basij paramilitary force, an organisation loosely affiliated with the IRGC, at the hands of a ‘superstitious cult’. This sentiment was shared by government media, who referred to the event as an attack by a ‘Dervish Cult’. Using this kind of derogatory language about what after all is the largest Sufi sect in Iran will only further antagonise the community. Additionally, as long as the government maintains a narrative that is at odds with coverage from alternative media sources, fears within the Gonobadi sect that they cannot work with the Iranian authorities will be reinforced and the likelihood that they will continue to resort to violence will be greater. Dialogue, compromise, and transparency are now crucial in order to prevent further tragedy.

Political insecurity in Iran is currently a major issue. These Gonabadi demonstrations come on the heels of some of the largest economic and social protests Iran has ever seen back in December and January. A constant criticism leveled at the Sufi community is that they are political agitators and want to destabilise the Iranian government. These allegations have often triggered persecution and arrests. It would be easy during this time of political uncertainty to further suppress the Gonabadi community. However, to do so will have a lasting impact on Sufi relations in Iran. In order to maintain peace and prevent further tragedy, it is important to recognise a people’s desire for rights as just that, and open a dialogue, rather than belittle them as political agitators within a ‘superstitious cult’. Such dogmatic derision will simply further cyclical violence.

The need for objectivity and transparency in response to the Russian threat

Countries around the Western world have joined the UK in expelling Russian diplomats. Considering Russia’s actions since the 2014 Crimean annexation, this solidarity from the West is not surprising. Whilst the nerve agent attack has evidently provided the spark, there has been growing unease in the West concerning Russia’s behaviour. Russia’s foreign policy since 2014 has been aggressive, characterised by consistent interference in Western politics.

However, the West’s response has been weak-minded, cowardly and, as a consequence, has heightened tensions. This is not to suggest that the West should fight fire with fire and restart programs of brinkmanship, collusion and the dirty tactics that defined international relations in the 20th Century. Nevertheless, unsubstantiated allegations of partisanship partnered with a refusal to present transparent findings have prevented clear and untainted evidence of Russia’s actions from being published, allowing Russia to deny all allegations whilst continuing to be a sort of spectre looming over the west.

The current response to the attack in Salisbury is a perfect example. With little information other than the strong assumption that Russia was behind it, Russian diplomats across the world have been expelled. Investigations have not concluded and findings detailing the extent to which parties were involved have not been published. Reactionary rhetoric has been used over objective, procedural, unequivocal evidence. Russia can continue to deny their involvement. Russia remains a vague, unquantified threat.

There is a desperate need for transparency in the West to combat this growing threat. The major problem preventing Russia from being held accountable is that it is difficult for the public to truly know the extent of their involvement. Investigations have, understandably, needed to remain opaque in order to be successful. However,  investigations have been tainted by the politics of the country. Jeremy Corbyn’s rather innocuous claim that the investigation should be completed before any action was taken led to character assassinations from right across the British political spectrum. A similar situation occurred in the USA. Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election has devolved into an apparent war between the President and the intelligence services, preventing any findings from being considered in an objective and untainted way. With constant accusations of misinformation and partisanship, made with apparent ulterior motives, the institutions created to defend against such foreign attacks are being eroded into impotency. Investigations need to be allowed to continue without political rhetoric twisting them at every step. We need to see unequivocal evidence of Russia’s culpability.

The issue is compounded by allegations that Russia is making use of social media and data analysis in the USA (as well as conceivably in regard to the Brexit vote). Misinformation and targeted propaganda are the major stories of the day, and again, Russia’s involvement is assumed and alleged but not certified or explained. At the moment the argument revolves around statements like, “Our data has been taken by third parties” and these third parties have “influenced elections”. Such vague statements allow Russia to continue to deny and deflect criticism. Our elections have been affected by this data collation, but we are unsure how or to what extent. We need transparency, both from Facebook, regarding how they protect and distribute our data, and from the companies and organisations that use our data. Only with this level of transparency can the threat from Russia be detailed, realised and prevented. As it stands, this vague allegation that “Russia is meddling” fixes nothing and simply breeds further tension and distrust.

The ‘Good Guys’ & Sexual Abuse and Exploitation

There has been a tide of stories in the international press and a definitive buzz surrounding allegations of sexual misconduct by aid workers at some of the world’s largest humanitarian organisations, most notably Oxfam. People expressed anger that the very same organisations that advocate an end to human rights abuses, including sexual violence and the exploitation of vulnerable peoples, are engaging in these practices. Now this buzz has died down. The international media is consumed by the next salient issue. Yet this does not mean that the issue is no longer as important as it was several weeks ago. The business of humanitarian workers committing acts of sexual misconduct, exploitation and violence has been a problem for decades, a sinister part of both aid and peace efforts.

Sexual violence against women and girls, particularly in conflict, is a topic that has rooted itself firmly in academia and on the agendas of international bodies. The London School of Economics’ Centre for Women, Peace and Security was opened.  The United Nations also contributed to work on sexual violence in conflict and since 2009 the Secretary-General includes the issue in the UN annual report. Yet the same attention has not been afforded to those on the supposedly ‘right’ side of these debates and initiatives. Brian Concannon who is executive director of the Institute for Democracy and Justice in Haiti claimed that Oxfam is just one of 23 organisations in Haiti that have allegedly engaged in sexual exploitation which hints at the scale of the problem. UN Peacekeepers across multiple missions including Cambodia, Liberia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have also come under fire for their role as perpetrators in the sexual exploitation and abuse of vulnerable peoples. Allegations have been made since the early 2000s but there has been little done to both stop it and punish those who are guilty. Ultimately, a dark shadow is cast over the positive work done by the UN and other humanitarian organisations.

In light of the recent allegations, Oxfam has established an internal safeguarding mission to address such serious reports. With regard to the UN, peacekeepers have been ‘expelled’ from missions in response to allegations against them although it is still the responsibility of their nation states to punish them. It would be wrong to say that the international community is making no effort to stem these continuous wrongdoings but they definitely are not doing enough. The actions of organisations should not just be reactive, punitive measures. There need to be concrete, regulatory mechanisms in place that disallow sexual misconduct and, in the unfortunate circumstance that it happens, justice must be meeted out. The international community needs to support these mechanisms and each nation should champion them, showing an awareness of the actions of their citizens overseas. A large part of the continuation of sexual exploitation and abuse is down to the lack of measures or the ineffectiveness of those that exist, especially if nation states do not actively support the regulation of peacekeepers or aid workers. The UN and indeed all these organisations have a responsibility to be vocal, to be firm and to take definitive action for the sake of those they seek to protect.

Supporting Initiatives of Change & ‘The Man who Built Peace’

This June, the NCF will be partnering with Initiatives of Change, formerly known as Moral Re-armament, on the launch of their new, award-winning documentary, ‘The Man who Built Peace’, celebrating the life of the IOC’s founder Frank Buchman. A pioneer and revolutionary thinker in the sphere of international peace, Buchman has been praised for his efforts in post-World War II reconciliation. Driven by moral purpose and his relationship with God, his legacy is one that speaks to the pursuance of peace through “personal change and reconciliation” with the belief that all people should move beyond faith, race, location and other factors to find peace. Buchman’s contributions to peace efforts have been publicly praised by numerous nations such as Japan, Germany, France and the Philippines in addition to recognition from individuals in Morocco and Tunisia for his role in their peaceful decolonization. ‘The Man who Built Peace’ is a project that began over six years ago and provides archival footage, testimonies and shares the message of Buchman and Initiatives of Change. The views and values of both Buchman and Initiatives of Change align closely with the NCF’s own ethos of total inclusivity and peace in working towards a better future for people everywhere. The NCF supports the documentary and promotes celebrating the life of such a visionary who worked tirelessly for a better future.

The film will be launching on June the 7th 2018 at the Royal Geographical Society with subsequent viewings happening across UK cities. More information can be found on the link at the bottom of the page. You may also find the option to sponsor a screening or donate to the project to contribute to the celebration of Buchman, this event and Initiatives of Change.

More information can be found on the Initiatives of Change website at:
http://uk.iofc.org/man-who-built-peace

 

(Photo credit: Initiatives of Change, http://uk.iofc.org/frank-buchman)