The Debate – Israel’s Iran allegation

In this edition of The Debate, Iran’s Press TV conducted an interview with Michael Springmann, an author and former US diplomat, from Washington, and William Morris, the Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, from London, to discuss Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s allegation that Iran is secretly working to develop nuclear weapons.

Watching today’s Iran – the situation as I see it

The following is written by NCF Secretary General William Morris and is based on a discussion with Dr Mehrdad Khonsari and friends at the ‘Iranian Centre for Policy Studies’.

Today’s Iran has four distinct political groupings: The pragmatists, the reformists, the traditionalists and the radicals. The traditionalists and the radicals are sometimes grouped together and called ‘principalists’. Thus:

  1. Pragmatists: include President Hassan Rouhani and ex-President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
  2. Reformists: include ex-President Mohammad Khatami and are generally loyal to the grandson of Ayatollah Khomeini, Hussein Khomeini
  3. Traditionalists: include the speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani
  4. Radicals: include former President Ahmadinejad.

It is important to note that it was the pragmatists and the reformists that brought Rouhani to power. He was not supported by the ‘principalists’, i.e. the traditionalists and the radicals. Interestingly, however, Rouhani is trying to distance himself from the reformists; a stance that he undoubtedly thinks will strengthen his hand given the fact that America is becoming more hard-line. His worry for the future must be that in the 2021 Presidential Elections, to choose his successor, the Iranian establishment will decide to face a hardliner in Trump with a hardliner and back Major General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Soleimani has become something of a superstar in Iran and has political ambitions. Taking the long view, if Trump wins a second term in 2020, which seems a strong possibility, then Soleimani may become the next President of Iran. These developments in Iranian politics disturb many of Iran’s moderates who are attempting to do all they can to keep all those who are pro-modernisation, i.e. the pragmatists and the reformists, as one political bloc.

Saudi Arabia

On the Saudi Arabian question opinions are divided in Iran. Clearly the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East is of concern to many. The radicals, and some of the traditional conservatives, think that Iran must take actions that change the attitude of the Saudis by standing up to them more provocatively. President Rouhani, on the other hand, thinks that the way forward is to use diplomatic channels. However, some in the reformist bloc think that the diplomatic avenue has failed and would like to introduce some new tougher measures against Saudi Arabia, whilst keeping the diplomatic channel open.

Syria

Some of the radicals and a good many of the traditionalists think Iran’s situation in Syria is outstanding. The reformists, on the other hand, think the situation is bad. They think the Syrian adventure puts Iran at the mercy of the Russians, on whom they become increasingly dependent, particularly at the United Nations where they need the Russian veto. They feel they need an exit strategy.

On the apparent use of chemical weapons by President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Iran finds itself in a difficult position. Many Iranians lost relatives to chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq war. Indeed at least 100,000 people were killed in chemical warfare with Iraq, many of them very young. If the Iranian population believed for one moment that President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons, then the pressure on the Iranian establishment to stop supporting Assad in Syria would be immense. For this reason, Iran’s media does not even give a moment’s space to the idea that Bashar al-Assad may have used chemical weapons.  Any reference to the possibility is treated as mere propaganda.

The Nuclear Deal

The Iranian nuclear deal with the West, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is approved of and supported by the pragmatists, the reformists and the traditionalists but not by the radicals, who oppose it wholeheartedly. If President Trump decides to not sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th it will strengthen the hand of the radicals.

Most Iranian intellectuals think the reason the nuclear deal with the United States and the West happened in the first place was because the US had become convinced sanctions were not going to work. As regards a way forward on this sensitive issue, the infighting between the different political factions in Iran has made this more difficult. There was a reformist suggestion that Iran should make a unilateral offer that for three years it would not increase the range of its missiles nor sell missiles to any third party. Their intention was that, though this was to be a unilateral measure, it would be handled in such a way that it was a precursor to a deal of some kind.  The reformists were disappointed when the Commander of the Revolutionary Guard, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, announced this policy in an off-hand manner without beating any drum, failing to give it its proper importance.

The Supreme Leader’s position is that Iran should adopt a policy of what he calls ‘heroic flexibility’. However, this is not likely to help much if, as expected, President Trump decides not to sign the waiver on sanctions on May 12th. The reason it won’t help is because Europe has lost its nerve and will string along with the American position. This means that Europe is no longer a key player as far as Iran is concerned. Iran feels it must either resolve the situation with the USA by reaching some sort of accommodation or prepare itself for more sanctions. Indeed, some of those with a negative outlook in Iran feel they must prepare themselves for a possible war with the United States three or four years down the line.

The consequence is an attitude from Iran whereby they feel that, in the aftermath of Trump’s presumed failure to sign the waiver on the 12th of May, they will give things a month’s grace to see if there is any possibility of signing. One month later, they will restart the six cascades in their Fordow facility. The centrifuge cascade is the machine used to enrich uranium. As part of the JCPOA, Iran agreed to run two of the cascades “without uranium” (i.e. for the production of isotopes for medical use) whilst four would remain idle, thus weakening Iran’s nuclear program. The restarting of these cascades would restart the push for Iranian self-sufficiency in regard to the production of nuclear fuel once again.

From this new position, Iran would wait another month and then release a statement along the lines of ‘we will stop if you honour and observe your side of the agreement’. If things continue to go nowhere, Iran will go flat out to produce all of their own nuclear fuel. There are those amongst the Iranian establishment who are even threatening to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. But that seems unlikely given Iran’s Supreme Leader’s abhorrence of weapons of mass destruction, as declared in his famous fatwa on the matter.

Attitudes to America

The chants of ‘death to America’ and ‘death to Israel’ at Friday prayers continue in some of the big mosques. The reformists have been pushing for an end to this practice, which they regard as dishonourable. However, presumably because the reformists take this stance, the radicals continue to back this practice of chanting words of hate, just to irritate the reformists. There is a school of thought that suggests that if the ‘principalist’ wing of traditionalists and radicals actually did return to power they might stop the chanting taking place.

Supreme Leader Khamenei thinks President Trump is better for Iran than President Obama was. He found Obama hard to understand. He regarded him as having an iron fist in a velvet glove. Trump, however, he does understand. He thinks of Iran as having had its own Trump in President Ahmadinejad and he regards men of this kind as straightforward and easy to deal with. Interestingly, the Supreme Leader does not consider Saudi Arabia as an enemy. The Supreme Leader’s enemies are the USA, Israel and Russia. His gravest concerns, internationally, in order of priority are:

  1. The USA
  2. Israel
  3. Chaos in the region
  4. The New World Order

Thus, we have the paradox. Saudi Arabia thinks of Iran as its greatest enemy, whereas Iran, from the standpoint of the Supreme Leader, does not think of Saudi Arabia as an enemy.

Israel

Iran does not think there will be a war with Israel. This is because Iran believes that both Iran and Israel are careful to observe each other’s red lines. That is not to say that Israel will not attack Iranian positions in Syria, but there are limits beyond which Israel will not go. Furthermore, Iran does not think that Israel has the military strength to attack Iran at home, even with Saudi Arabian co-operation. In any case the Supreme Leader has given the command of any response, should Iran be attacked, to the Revolutionary Guard. They have made it privately clear to Israel that their immediate response would be a missile attack on Israel. Iran is, therefore, quite confident that there can be no war between Iran and Israel unless the United States of America is fully engaged.

Interestingly, Iran has often made commitments in second-track dialogue to suggest that, if it had true rapprochement with America, it would then devote its energy to supporting a Middle East peace process that engaged Israel and the Palestinians. However, given the fact that the US-Iran relationship had softened under Obama, and Iran failed to deliver on Middle East peace at that point, it would seem this has proved a hollow promise.

The succession

If Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, dies tomorrow (or ‘steps down’ to use the polite Iranian expression) then the probability is that Saeed Hassan Khomeini, grandson of the first Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, will become Supreme Leader, given that he has the support of President Rouhani.

That said, the official procedure, constitutionally, is that the body known as the ‘Assembly of Experts’ chooses the successor. They are all predominantly conservative and many of them take a radical position in Iranian politics.

Another factor, of course, is the immense power of the Revolutionary Guard. They may wish to see former Attorney General Ebrahim Raisi or speaker of parliament, Dr Ali Larijani chosen for this post. Of course there is one other dimension. Should the current Supreme Leader die slowly rather than suddenly, he may nominate his own successor (as did the first Supreme Leader). In which case, all bets are off and the next Supreme Leader could be any confidante close to the existing Supreme Leader, even someone from left-field like Ayatollah Seyed Safavi.

Civil Unrest

Civil society is in no position to bring down the government of Iran. That said, curiously, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East whose society would accept secular government should circumstances permit. This is because many Iranians would find a change refreshing after years of religious government. Not that there is any prospect of this happening, and certainly not whilst Supreme Leader Khamenei remains alive. The Revolutionary Guard is totally under Khamenei’s control as is the entire Iranian establishment. Khamenei is quite skilled and Machiavellian in his approach. He understands that he shouldn’t control everything. Instead, he controls key figures. He likes to control those that recruit or promote senior people. Thus, for example, he considers it important to have the loyalty of the ‘Assembly of Experts’. This approach leaves him totally in charge. Furthermore, Khamenei feels supremely confident. He regards himself as having defeated Daesh in Syria and Iraq and as being in a good situation in Afghanistan. He does not consider that he has problems.

Conclusion

The government of Iran may have doubts about the future, but the actual leadership, in the shape of the Revolutionary Guard establishment and the Supreme Leader, feels confident. Perhaps brashly, it considers itself able to face any challenge the world throws its way and retains its simplistic ‘if you love me I will love you and if you hate me I will hate you’ approach to international affairs. Given the levels of hubris and testosterone being manifest at a superficial level, in both in great world leaders like Trump and Putin as well as great regional leaders like Mohammed bin Salman and Bashar al Assad, this does not bode well for the future. What is encouraging is that those that are pro-modernisation, including Rouhani, remain centre stage when it comes to Iran’s interface with the international world. As long as that remains the case, there is real hope for the future. It is interesting to note that levels of human rights abuse in Iran are less unsavoury than they were in Ahmadinejad’s day, though there are still appalling problems to be addressed. Iran is becoming a better place than it once was. It is to be hoped that the world does not drive it back into a corner yet again.

William Morris, Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

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.

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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.

Statement on Syria

Statement from the Next Century Foundation to the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 5th of March 2018 on the Syrian Arab Republic.

Mr. President, The Next Century Foundation shares the concern of the entire world with regard to Eastern Ghouta. However, we do not think that the UN approach of promoting temporary ceasefires is credible any longer, exemplary though it may have been at one time. By the UN’s own admission there are some 500 fighters from the group formerly known as Gebat al Nusra in Eastern Ghouta. This group has been supported by some in the Arab World. The Arab World as a whole could offer refuge to the fighters whose only other prospect is to fight to the death. Were they to do so, then a ceasefire might be of value. In any other context, a ceasefire is merely a breathing space before the resumption of further fighting and yet more misery for the population of Eastern Ghouta. Indeed conceivably one dire but unintended consequence of a UN promoted ceasefire might be to enable the population of Eastern Ghouta to flee and thus become IDPs or refugees, a prospect that is scarcely enviable. A ceasefire is only of true long-term value if it enables progress on the evacuation of the opposition fighters.

The Next Century Foundation also wishes to beg for the compassionate care of the citizens of Afrin, who suffer much the same torment as the citizens of East Ghouta. We wish to express our concern with regard to Turkey’s incursion across the Northern border of the Syrian Arab Republic. It is profoundly saddening to see the world turn its back on the YPG militia group (or People’s Protection Units) which served the world so loyally in the attack to liberate much of northern Syria from ISIS.

Turkey has been engaged in the bombardment of the Afrin region in the northwest of Syria to vanquish the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters. As a consequence, there have inevitably been civilian casualties. Around one million people are trapped in Afrin. Some 250 of the surrounding villages have been stripped of their population as people flee the advancing troops and take refuge in the town. The homes they abandon are often looted. And meanwhile, the hospitals cannot cope with the wounded.

We appeal to Turkey to recognise the territorial integrity of Syria. In a reference to its intention to channel Syrian refugees in Turkey back into Syria, Yasin Aktay, a senior member of Turkey’s Parliament and a chief adviser to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Turkey will try to enhance the infrastructure and resources in Afrin after it is secured for them to return.”

Turkey’s previous cross-border operation – dubbed Euphrates Shield – ended in March 2017 after seven months. During that offensive to dislodge ISIS, Turkey captured the border town of Jarablus by the Euphrates River.

Turkish troops are currently still in control of a substantial area of Syria as a consequence of that offensive. Turkey’s actions are part of a pattern of territorial encroachment in Iraq and Syria which is doubtless well-meaning but is cause for concern.

Those in Afrin with whom the Next Century Foundation is in contact beg the UN to send in a peacekeeping force. They acknowledge Turkish concerns about the presence of the YPG and YPJ (the YPJ are the female fighting units that comprise around 35% of these Syrian peshmerga) in Afrin. They assure the Next Century Foundation that they would ask the forces of the YPG and YPJ to withdraw from Afrin to positions East of the Euphrates, in the context of the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force. This the YPG / YPJ would, they believe, agree to do. This would, they believe, ameliorate Turkey’s concern and enable Turkish forces to cease their advance on Afrin.

Thank you.

Freedom from Fear – Iran’s responsibility for brokering peace

Oral intervention prepared by the Next Century Foundation for the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 14th of March, 2018. General Debate on Item 4, Human Rights situations that require the council’s attention.

Mr. President, freedom from fear is a core principle underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the Middle East today is beset with chaos, war, and internecine hatred.

Iran is arguably the strongest regional power in the Middle East exerting a substantial measure of hegemony in both Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as arguably in Lebanon.

Iran has argued for some years, in conversation with its critics, that once Iran had rapprochement with the United States of America, it would lend its weight to efforts for Middle East peace.

Iran had its deal with President Obama, and though undermined by President Trump, the deal remained in high degree intact.

But what steps have we seen by Iran to promote peace in the Middle East?

Iran can either promote peace or promote war in pursuit of greater hegemony, or indeed maintain the status quo.

Iran could make a greater genuine effort to promote reconciliation in nations at the faultline of the Sunni-Shiite division but not yet in a state of war, like the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Iran could and should also take a role in the Middle East peace process between Israel and Palestine. Given the fact that its proxy in Palestine, Islamic Jihad, is well respected in Gaza, Iran’s failure to take a measure of responsibility for the Middle East peace process is unjustifiable.   Thank you.

Burma: Two steps backward for one step forward

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 Clustered Interactive Dialogue on 12th March 2018, the Fact Finding Mission on Myanmar:

Mr. President. The Next Century Foundation regards the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as having made great progress in terms of the democratic empowerment of its people and in terms of access given to the wider world. The Government of Myanmar is to be commended in this regard.

However, the rights of minorities still leave something to be desired.

Non-Buddhist minorities such as the Christians and others make up a total of some 13 percent of the population, but are often not allowed promotion to the higher levels of employment, particularly in government offices.

There are also concerns about the treatment of the people from Karen state who though predominantly Buddhist are ethnolinguistically different from the majority. When military posted to predominantly minority areas are underpaid they have a tendency to take their grievance out on the indigenous minorities.

Contrast other nations with multicultural societies. The Kingdom of Bahrain for example formerly had a Christian ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and currently has a Jewish ambassador to0 the United States of America. Minorities deserve our special concern.

Myanmar could be more tolerant of its minorities. Most particularly of its Muslim minority. The treatment of Rohingyas is a case in point. But there are other areas of historic concern such as the pockets of predominantly Muslim communities South of Mandalay.

If Myanmar fails to adopt more inclusive policies we may see the emergence of more radical ISIS style insurgencies as a force in Myanmar.

We call upon Myanmar to embrace an approach that promotes greater inclusivity. Thank you.

Freedom of Religion in Iraq and Bahrain

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 on 2nd March 2018, the special report on Freedom of Religion:

Mr President. Freedom of Religion is one of Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” and is a basic pillar of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The Middle East is riven by a sectarian divide between Sunni and Shiite Islam, the consequences of which have been dire. Levels of hatred in this internecine strife have now reached unprecedented heights.

The Republic of Iraq and the Kingdom of Bahrain are two nations on the faultline of this disturbing rift and both have national elections this year.

The Iraq elections are unlikely to generate full participation from the Sunni community. If the majority of the Sunni community were to boycott these elections out of a sense of vengeful resentment of the Iraq central government it would be a grave error.  New Sunni politicians untainted by the past are emerging in areas like Anbar province. It would be wrong to disempower them at a time when their voices should be heard.

Bahrain’s elections will be held later this year and as in 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran is likely to put pressure on Bahrain’s Shiite community leaders to encourage the non-participation of the Shiite community as a whole in the forthcoming elections.  This nonparticipation serves no purpose other than to weaken the voice of that community. It is essential that Bahrain’s Shiites participate fully in the forthcoming elections. Thank you.