Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We must at least be wary.

 

Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrian reconstruction – the West is caught between a rock and a hard place

Bashar Al-Assad’s government has this week continued hammering settlements in South Western Quneitra and Deraa Governorates, most notably in Nawa, where at least 14 have died and over 100 have been injured in air raids, part of an offensive intended to remove the last remnants of rebel strongholds in South Western Syria. This comes just days after government forces seized al-Haara Hill, a strategic post overlooking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and after Syrian rebels in Quneitra reached an agreement which, according to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), “provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons and the return of government institutions in the area”. Focus has also been on Idlib Province in the North West, where 6,000-7,000 pro-government civilians have just been evacuated by bus from the besieged, Shia-majority towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, following a deal reached between Damascus and anti-government rebels, in return for the release of many detained in state prisons.

This week’s activity demonstrates two things: that while government forces make significant advances in the South West, the Syrian conflict is very much still in full-swing; and that such conflict continues to cause untold destruction across the country. As conflict rages on, many question how Syria will begin to reconstruct in the wake of a war with a price tag far in excess of $250 billion, the figure estimated by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, back in November. The true cost of the war is expected to be much higher. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also initially estimated, early in the conflict, that it would take 30 years for Syria’s economy to recover to its pre-2011 level – this would now likely take far longer. The challenge facing the Syrian government, and the international community is therefore monumental. The question is, who will foot the bill?

Syria’s Allies

It is clear that the cost of reconstruction is far beyond the capacity of President Assad’s government, and even beyond the reach of its two closest allies in the conflict, Russia and Iran. That is not to say that they are not eager to take part in the reconstruction. In fact, Russia was quick, back in early 2016, to sign infrastructure rebuilding contracts amounting to $1 billion; and this will likely only continue. Iran too has signed lucrative contracts to rebuild phone networks and the national power grid. The commercial branch of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already proved a valuable force in the reconstruction effort, having lent support throughout the conflict. They are well versed in the field of post-war reconstruction, and have built a significant reputation for rebuilding within Iran, following their devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s. In April, President Rouhani further renewed state-support for the Syrian government and its rebuilding efforts, stating that Iran “stands beside the country and people of Syria and will continue to aid it in defending against the forces of evil and returning security and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic”. Likewise, their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, would also seek a role in the rebuilding effort, having already offered their support to the Syrian Arab Army.

Russia and Iran are clearly keen to help, and by doing so may seek to increase their influence in the country. And this certainly fits with President Assad’s government’s intention to offer contracts to those few who have stood by Damascus throughout the conflict, and in return for continued political support. So reconstruction may present opportunities for mutual gain to both Syria and its allies. 

However support from Syria’s allies only goes so far; and what little support is given, will be allocated in line with the government’s own interests. This means selective rebuilding in areas loyal to President Assad through clientelist contractors, likely in return for short term profits. Investing in loyal areas also means investing in those areas relatively unscathed by government siege. This means significant rebuilding cannot occur in the areas most damaged, and therefore those most in need of recovery. This would lead to even deeper divisions within Syria, with wealth distributed between Damascus and those loyal to the government, and contrasted with a poorer, devastated periphery. This promises to merely exacerbate existing divisions.

China

China has maintained a slightly more impartial position in the Syrian conflict, though it maintains a cordial diplomatic relationship with Damascus. They also have clear vested interests in Syrian investment. They are likely keen to stem the flow of the some 4,000-5,000 radicalised Uighur Muslims passing between Xinjiang province and North Western Syria, where many have joined anti-government jihadist groups. Syria is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), their land and maritime project to foster international development and trade across Eurasia. China therefore has an obvious interest in rebuilding, particularly in areas of Northern Syria, with an eye on the next step of their grand development strategy. China, much like Iran and Russia, enjoys the ability to invest in Syrian reconstruction, due to its ongoing diplomatic relations with the Assad government; and because its investment is not conditional on any political reform, resisted by Damascus, but so strictly pursued by Western governments.

The United States

The US is unlikely to fund any long term reconstruction efforts inside Syria without some substantial political conditions. This by no means implies that the US is seeking to ignore the ongoing conflict altogether, however. By January 2018, USAID had provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians and more than $875 million in “stabilization” and other non-humanitarian assistance (often distributed through rebel groups). This is alongside active support for opposition groups inside Syria, in its ongoing effort to eradicate the threat posed to its own national security by the Islamic State group. The Syrian government also continues to face tough US sanctions. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated emphatically in January that the United States would only encourage the normalisation of economic relations between Syria and other nations “once Assad is gone from power”. It therefore seems that a concerted US effort to rebuild parts of Syria, the damage in much of which the US itself is responsible for, through its arming of Syrian rebel groups and airstrikes on government facilities and IS strongholds like Raqqa – 80% of which has been destroyed – will not be made until real political change happens.

But this change does not seem to be coming any time soon, with Assad vowing to remain in power until at least 2021. Any election or any substantial political reform seems out of the question until this point, despite the UN Security Council’s support for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months of Resolution 2254 back in December 2015. And while the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki last week might have shown a degree of willingness on the part of the US to engage Syria’s ally over the conflict, details of their discussion have so far been lacking. A 2017 RAND study suggests that the longer the US boycotts reconstruction, the stronger will be the Russian and Iranian positions in the country. This implies the US does have a geopolitical interest in supporting the rebuilding effort. America’s refusal to give aid direct to the government however, means that it may instead seek to leverage influence over the World Bank, IMF and UN to offer assistance at the local level, in return for a degree of local democratic reform. 

The EU

The EU likewise has proved unwilling to offer unconditional assistance.  The European Council’s Syria strategy document produced in March 2017 “reiterates” that Europe “will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition … is firmly under way.” Similar to the US, intervention by some European states has led some to question whether they have an obligation to help in the reconstruction, given their part in the destruction of some Daesh enclaves and support for anti-government rebels. 

They also have another clear motivation to engage in rebuilding; to help stem the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe. The UNHCR had already counted roughly a million asylum applicants in Europe in mid-2017, and many others of the 5 million refugees outside Syria continue to add pressure on European governments. A comprehensive reconstruction program to rebuild homes, communities and industries back home in Syria would certainly help alleviate much of this pressure. Sadly, European governments are caught between offering support through the Assad government, or small-scale investment projects, themselves largely conditional on the will of the central government when taking place in government-held areas or working with government approved local partners.

In any case, the government does not have the luxury of rejecting bottom-up support from European governments – they are still far shy of their vast $250 billion target. A bottom-up approach would certainly be more complicated than directing assistance through the central government. However, a top-down approach would mean diverting funds solely to areas loyal to the government. Any government-led redevelopments in former opposition areas, like the Basateen al-Razi in Western Damascus – which boasts to be rehousing 60,000 residents – or Jouret al-Shayah in Homs, are viewed by some as a means of consolidating power through patronage among potential dissidents and of therefore controlling the local population.

The bottom line

The international community has two options. They can pursue reconstruction in isolation from a political solution; in a piecemeal way through small scale rebuilding initiatives in non-government-controlled areas (which are shrinking daily), while the government continues to award contracts to its allies to rebuild in less devastated, loyal areas. Or they can continue to withhold reconstruction until a political solution is reached. Once political reform, or even a change of government occurs, rebuilding may happen on physical, societal, economic and political levels. A joint statement by NRC, SAVE, CARE, Oxfam and IRC last year argued that in the absence of the “respect for human rights and protection of an independent civil society” that would come from a political solution, “a move towards reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good”. This may be true. The former of the two options would see reconstruction pursued slowly and inefficiently, at a time when over half of Syria’s hospitals, two-thirds of its schools and a quarter of all homes have been damaged or destroyed; while over half of Syria’s pre-war population is still in need of humanitarian assistance. It would also see the government and its allies consolidate their influence across the country. Meanwhile, Assad’s government continues to make progress and shows no sign of making the political concessions necessary for more substantial reconstruction to take place. What is certain is that Syria will take far longer than the 30 years initially predicted by the UNRWA for it to recover. Western governments have a huge responsibility on their hands, and a difficult decision to make.

Syria: the current state of play

This is the NCF’s update on the current state of play in war-torn Syria:

Military offensive in the South-West

In the last three weeks, Syrian government forces – with significant Russian air support – have been sweeping through Deraa province in the south-west of Syria, the birthplace of the first uprisings in 2011. Following military losses near Damascus and Homs in recent months, losing Deraa province leaves only Idlib in the north-west as a notable rebel stronghold. In recent days, a number of towns in the south-west, like Dael and al-Ghariya al-Gharbiya, struck surrender deals with government forces independently of the main rebel factions. Last Friday, the pressure finally told: Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army faction of the rebels, announced that surrender terms were agreed with Russia. Heavy weaponry will be handed over in return for a government retreat from a number of villages. This has paved the way for government forces to take control of the strategically important Nassib border crossing into Jordan, and reduces rebel held territory in the region to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

In the midst of the aerial bombardment of Tafas (northwest of Deraa) and Said (east of Deraa) on Wednesday, stop-start ceasefire talks failed to stem the flow of refugees out of the region. UN estimates put the number of people that have been uprooted since the offensive began at 320,000, though around 200,000 of them have now returned to their towns under Syrian government control. Those who fled for the Jordanian border had little luck: the Jordanian border has been closed since 2016 and the Jordanians maintain that they cannot take more than the 650,000 Syrians that have already arrived since the war began. Those headed towards the Golan border fence were extended humanitarian assistance, but expressly denied entry into Israel’s territory.

Turkish involvement in the North

In the coming months, attention will be turning to the likelihood that Idlib province in the north-west of Syria will experience a humanitarian disaster of even bigger proportions. The Free Syrian Army has been fortifying its defences in Idlib, with the help of Turkish troops who have been stationed along the front lines for over two months now. After the surrender negotiations in Deraa last week, the Free Syrian Army said they had been warned by the Russians that only slaughter awaited them in Idlib. The range of actors who will be involved in any armed conflict in Idlib means that it has the ingredients to become the most brutal, and likely the final military flashpoint in the Syrian War.

Turkey’s determination to remove what it regards as the threat posed by an autonomous Kurdish region on their southern frontier has meant that the Turkish presence in the north of Syria continues to be felt. This will be a great cause for concern for Syrian government forces once they start looking north again. Since the Turkish military and its Free Syrian Army allies led “Operation Olive Branch” on January 20, YPG Kurdish fighters have been driven from Afrin along with much of the population and Turkey has quickly consolidated its hold on the region. The most recent UN estimates show that over 167,000 people have been displaced from Afrin since the Turkish offensive began. The city has been ravaged by looting and seizures of property by Turkish-backed rebels, with Turkish forces resettling their fighters into the empty homes belonging to the displaced people of Afrin.

Turkish-controlled areas of Syria now make up 3460 square kilometres of occupied land, including some 500 towns and villages. Furthermore, the way the Turkish language has come to dominate police training, schooling, and hospitals in Afrin indicates that President Erdogan has no intention of heeding the warning from US Senator Lindsey Graham and others against sustained Turkish involvement in Syria. This conflict has pitted America’s most reliable ally on the ground in Syria, the Kurdish YPG forces, against a NATO ally in Turkey. Managing this delicate balance will be crucial for any long-term settlements for the area: in the last month the US and Turkey have been working on a deal for a joint military presence in Northern Syria, “to ensure stability” in an area that was fairly stable before Turkey arrived – while keeping YPG fighters confined to an area well east of the Euphrates river.

Iranian influence

Meanwhile Iran’s presence in Syria shows no sign of waning. As much as the US and Israel may rail against a long-term Iranian presence in Syria – in particular anywhere near the Golan Heights – Iran’s investment in Syria is by now too deeply entrenched to be sacrificed in a withdrawal any time soon. Some estimates as to how much money Iran has ploughed into its Syrian project suggest it has been as much as $150bn.

Losing influence in Syria is not an option for Iran. To withdraw from Syria now would cut off the direct land route to Lebanon and Hezbollah, thereby threatening the collapse of Iran’s broader ambitions in countries such as Iraq and indeed in the Middle East as a whole.

Israel’s anxiousness

As the fighting has veered towards the south-western region of Syria, Israel has become increasingly anxious. It has echoed UN complaints regarding Syrian armed incursions into the de-militarised zones on the Syrian side of the ceasefire line on the occupied Golan. Israel demonstrated militarily that it did not like having Iranian forces or their Hezbollah proxies near the current border on the Golan. Following the US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran launched a rocket attack on the part of the Golan Heights occupied by Israel. The next day, Israel responded with a carefully orchestrated missile attack on multiple Iranian targets in Syria with very modest numbers of casualties. Last week, Israel appears to have fired two further missiles at targets near Damascus airport.

Israel has also now reinforced its tank and artillery deployment on the Golan. Syria of course already deploys large forces on the Syrian side of the Golan cease fire line and has always done so. Indeed it was an area used to station forces that were predominantly Sunni. Only forces of the Syrian Army whose loyalty was beyond question have been used in the civil war. The rest have been barracked on the Golan throughout. It is possible that more Syrian government forces will move from Deraa towards Quneitra on the Golan. But it seems more likely that attention will turn to the north. While Hezbollah has been involved in the assault on Deraa, it has still maintained a relatively low profile on the Golan. In the unlikely event that this begins to change, we can expect to see Israeli wariness turn into hostility.  But it would seem more likely that Hezbollah’s eyes will turn to the Turkish invasion in the north.

Remains of ISIL

Once perceived as the most significant threat to the West in Syria, the presence of ISIL is now limited to al-Hajar al Aswad (south of Damascus) and Albu Kamal. It does, however, command the area of the triple border point between Israel, Syria and Jordan, with around 80,000 civilians under its control there.

The beginning of the end

As far as the Syrian Revolution goes, developments in the last few months have dealt it a series of telling blows. The more momentum that is gained on President Assad’s side, the fewer incentives there are for temporary ceasefires. The way the rebels have been abandoned by the United States during the south-western offensive stands in stark contrast to the decisive support provided to Assad by his Russian and Iranian allies.

For the first time since the war began, the Syrian government is removing several roadblocks that restricted the movement of its people. Russia are also aiming to bring stability to Damascus by dissolving various pro-government militias and integrating their members into government military units. There is a growing acceptance in the air that Free Syrian Army strongholds are all but disappearing, and the government is gearing towards a settlement from which Syria can begin its daunting rebuilding process. In the meantime, there will surely be more slaughter and more displacement. At this stage, international efforts must be focused on avoiding an even more dangerous escalation in the north in the coming months.

#Syria

Reconstruction in Raqqa

The city of Raqqa in northeast Syria, the one-time de facto capital of ISIS, was first captured by ISIS in 2014. Inhabitants who did not manage to flee the city and yet still survived ISIS’s brutal executions of Alawites, Christians and suspected supporters of Bashar al-Assad, lived for three traumatic years under ISIS rule. A distorted normality set in; children attended schools where ISIS ideology was taught, beheadings were a form of public punishment and the old sacred buildings were decimated.

In June 2017, however, the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by a U.S. led coalition (which included the British) launched a campaign to liberate Raqqa following the similar campaign in Mosul. The SDF campaign in Raqqa was aided significantly by the Western Coalition’s air strikes. By October 2017 the liberation of Raqqa was declared complete, and since then very little attention has been paid to the fate of those attempting to return to their former homes.

Raqqa may be rid of ISIS but it is not yet liberated from its troubles. The Coalition’s aerial bombardment destroyed much of the city and most of its civilian infrastructure. According to the UN around 80% of Raqqa was left uninhabitable after the battle, rendering homeless almost all of the 270,000 people who had fled the city to escape the bombardment. It is also estimated that over 3,000 civilians died during the airstrikes. There is an enormous lack of transparency, however, as neither the British nor American government has admitted the true scale of the destruction. For example, despite the UK government carrying out 215 airstrikes in Raqqa it has only ever acknowledged one instance where a civilian was unintentionally killed. A single instance of collateral damage by an RAF reaper drone in Eastern Syria in March 2018. Again, US officials have stated that civilian deaths only occurred during instances where ISIS members used civilians as human shields during the airstrikes.

Despite the Coalition’s insistence that they took great pains to minimise civilian casualties, in June 2018 Amnesty International released a detailed report that gravely challenges these claims. Amnesty argues that the Coalition’s forces did not do enough to minimise harm to civilians. For instance, its research shows that 39 members of a single family in Raqqa were killed during the battle. This is only one of many harrowing stories they obtained after interviewing over 100 of Raqqa’s surviving residents. Today the city is still uninhabitable; almost every building has been damaged and there is no clean water or electricity apart from what local entrepreneurs are able to provide. Unexploded mines and IEDs are also still causing casualties.

The Western Coalition needs to face up to its myriad responsibilities and commit to reconstruction in Raqqa. Firstly, it needs to reduce resentment in the region by acknowledging and apologising for its destructive campaign. At the moment, they are in danger of exacerbating the same alienation from the West that gave birth to extremism in the past. Residents are already questioning whether the ‘liberation’ from ISIS was worth the destruction and loss of life. The West also needs to take an active role in the reconstruction of the city. Getting rid of ISIS was an achievement, but the success risks being reversed if no clear strategy to rebuild the city is put in place. Raqqa is now administrated by a civil council made up of SDF forces. There are growing tensions between the Syrian Kurdish commanders of the SDF and Raqqa’s predominantly Arab residents, particularly since the forces in control are coercing unwilling civilians into the army. Alternative prospects, however, are also undesirable. There is fear that Assad’s forces will take over from the SDF and seek revenge on those they deemed to have conspired with ISIS.

Frustratingly, the UK Government has repeatedly ignored the clear links between its role in wars abroad and increased terror threats, most recently in its updated counter terrorism strategy released in July 2018. Coalition governments are responsible for this humanitarian disaster; they have a duty to acknowledge their role in the destruction of people’s homes and lives. Presently, refugees arriving back to Raqqa have no homes to return to and no means of rebuilding them. The West must provide funding and materials for the shattered city of Raqqa to be rebuilt.

Why is Syria so important to Russia?

From the 1950s onwards, Syria received hundreds of millions of dollars worth of military and economic assistance from the Soviet Union. In return, in 1971 Syria’s new president Hafez al-Assad allowed the USSR to open its naval military base in the port city of Tartus. Cordial relations continued into the 1980s as Syria and the Soviet Union signed a twenty-year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. However, though ties with Syria were maintained, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 meant that the vision of socialist utopia was in ruins.

As a nation that has, historically, sought credibility by projecting itself as a formidable power – regardless of its internal weaknesses – post-Soviet Russia has been keen to regain its position as a key player on the international stage. Inevitably, therefore, Moscow has looked to Syria as a region where it can build upon historic ties and exert influence to rival that of the United States across the Middle East. Russia has been successful in achieving this aim. It is now regarded as a key arbiter in the region and boasts the defeat of ISIS in Syria despite President Obama’s claims in 2015 that Russian interference in Syria would be to no avail. Moreover, in November 2017, Putin hosted  talks with the leaders of Iran and Turkey to discuss Syria’s future, highlighting the international consensus that Russia will play a key role in Syria’s reconstruction. Since then, Putin has continued to flex his muscles in the region and proven himself to be a fundamental player in the outcome of the conflict. This not only bolsters his international standing, but also his domestic reputation as a leader who is intent on transforming Russia into a formidable power once more.

There are, however, more tangible interests at stake for Russia in Syria. The naval base in Tartus which was established in 1971 is now Russia’s only military facility outside of the former Soviet Union and holds great strategic importance. By remaining close with President Bashar al-Assad there is a possibility that Russia could, in the future, advance its presence in the Mediterranean. Furthermore Assad is reliant on Russia for providing critical air support, affording Russia a valuable opportunity to test its arms systems.

At present, therefore, Russia is centre stage in the attempt to navigate a Syrian peace settlement. This involves overcoming several challenges that have presented themselves now that the conflict has started to dissipate. For example, Assad has adopted a more unruly attitude now that he perceives himself as a ‘victor’ in the conflict and thus less dependent on Russia. Moscow recognises that Assad cannot fully resume his old powers, but must also contend with the factionalism that is rife within Syria (between anti-Assad opposition groups, pro-Turkish and pro-Iranian militias and the Kurds). If the commentator Dmitri Trenin is correct and Russia is paving the way for a coalition government by creating several de-escalation zones then Putin will need to persuade Assad to accept this, as well as accepting Iran’s interests in the region that Israel has unsurprisingly perceived as a threat.

In his attempt to build his reputation as an international strongman, Vladimir Putin has perhaps bitten off more than he can chew. As long as his international exploits earn him credibility at home, Putin will continue to exert influence over an ever-changing state of affairs in the Middle East. But now that he has successfully raised Russia’s international standing, it remains to be seen whether Putin’s diplomacy will continue to live up to his rhetoric.

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.

The NCF at the UNHRC:

The Next Century Foundation “side” meeting at the United Nations Human Rights Council’s 37th Session addressed human rights in North Korea, the Kingdom of Bahrain and the Syrian Arab Republic. The pannelists were Ms. Be Sun Lee, a research officer for the Foundation, and Dr. William Morris the NCF Secretary General.

The DPRK

As a national of the Republic of Korea, Be Sun Lee’s covered issues relevant to both the South and the DPRK (North Korea) and suggested that the international community has a definitive role in acting as both mediators and facilitators in addressing these problems. Lee acknowledged the widespread recognition of North Korea as a violator of human rights and cited the many missiles fired in 2017 as “threatening to undermine international security and infringing the universal fundamental human right to freedom from fear”. She also criticised the UN Human Rights Council for a distinct lack of affirmative action. She considers current legal measures established by the UNHRC to prosecute North Korean leaders for alleged crimes against humanity, to have had little effect. Furthermore, Lee believes the economic sanctions against North Korea to be detrimental rather than beneficial. She referenced the negative impact of sanctions on the welfare of the North Korean people but also stressed the provocative effect of such sanctions because they cause outrage in North Korea and contribute to the isolation of the Korean peninsula by the international community. The isolation of North Korea is something that Be Sun Lee feels the North wishes to bring to an end. She believes that the international community should encourage the DPRK by engaging in progressive dialogue. Lee regarded North Korea’s positive presence at the Winter Olympics in Pyeong-Chang as superficial in its significance stating that “underlying antagonism on the Korean peninsula persists”. However, she recognised this as an opportunity for North Korea to move away from isolationism. Lee asserted that the international community really had to reassess their responsibility for contributing to the isolation of North Korea and then think about the role they could have in bringing them out of it.

Communication was emphasised in this meeting as fundamental to a more peaceful future for all Koreans. Without dialogue and communication with North Koreans, including the Diasporas or those who have fled the nation, progress cannot be made. This involves the international community not only encouraging conversation but facilitating it. It also requires the recognition of ideological difference and careful navigation of difficult social, political and economic terrain. The idea of reconciliation and reunification was discussed extensively. Lee opined that there is a possibility of reunification but that it would require the commitment of not just those across the Korean Peninsula, but the international community and the UN. Lee highlighted the fact that there are families on either side of the Korean border who are still desperately waiting for reunification with one another and that it is ordinary civilians who are most affected by any hostile climate. Lee urged the UN and the international community to “collaborate together” to work towards the resolution of this problem.

Whilst North Korea dominated the conversation, Lee presented us with interesting food for thought concerning the welfare of South Koreans, an issue which she considered can sometimes be lost in conversations concerning human rights, and welfare of the Korean peninsula. She discussed the issues surrounding South Korea’s aging population who are growing in number but are without adequate support and care from the nation’s welfare mechanisms. As a result, the suicide rate for this elderly population is very high and, as Lee stressed, a cause for concern. She urged the audience and the UN to give the population of South Korea the attention that it is sometimes denied in light of its provocative and antagonistic neighbour.

The Kingdom of Bahrain

Following Lee’s address on the Korean peninsula, William Morris presented a passionate and engaging view of the current situations in both Bahrain and Syria. Regarding Bahrain, the assertion made was that Bahrain should commit to signing the Optional Protocol on the Convention against Torture, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT). Whilst Bahrain is party to the Convention, Morris shared the Next Century Foundation’s view that this was insufficient in itself and that the ratification of OPCAT would signal a definitive and clear commitment to making progress in the area of human rights violations within the nation state. Morris acknowledged that Bahrain’s history concerning human rights has been fraught with trouble. Nevertheless, he highlighted the internal moves made by Bahrain’s government to curtail the use of torture such as the appointment of an Ombudsman as well as a Special Investigations Unit to investigate any allegations. Things were far better in this regard in Bahrain, he stated. Ultimately, the emphasis was on Bahrain’s need to ratify OPCAT in order to ensure greater transparency, accountability and international credibility and emphasise their commitment to seriously address internal human rights violations.

Points raised during the panel’s debate and discussion with the audience saw one audience member asserting that Bahrain must address human rights violations, such as the revoking of citizenship. Focus, they said, must be given to judicial processes and royal decrees rather than concentrating attention on the country’s political sphere. Morris, however, was quick to assert that human rights and politics in Bahrain go hand-in-hand and it is very difficult to address one without the other and in addressing political issues, one can then work towards resolving human rights abuses. Political progress could lead the way to greater transparency. Morris emphasised the need to encourage full participation in the coming national elections in order to promote the betterment of welfare and human rights within the nation. He challenged the opposition to exercise their right to vote and show greater independence from Iran’s influence.

The Syrian Arab Republic

With regards to the situation in Syria, William Morris engaged with the very current issue of Eastern Ghouta and urged the UNHCR to validate verbal commitments to Syria through affirmative action. Whilst the UN has encouraged ceasefires in the region, he no longer considers this an adequate response and instead urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and head to the nations in the Arab World that have previously offered them support. If the UN encouraged and facilitated this, Morris believed that a credible ceasefire may have long-term viability and value. Consideration and compassion was expressed towards those in Eastern Ghouta whose suffering is incomprehensible.

Likewise, this same empathy was extended to the people of Afrin region who are also suffering as a result of the conflict in Northern Syria. Morris was greatly critical of the Turkish presence in Northwest Syria where their bombardment of the region is an attempt to eliminate the US-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters.

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.

Living in the Shadows of Disability

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 6th of March 2018, the special report on disability:

Mr President.  The Next Century Foundation is committed to fighting for total inclusivity everywhere. Persons with disabilities are equal citizens entitled to equal rights and opportunities. We therefore call on all nations to promote public policies that are conducive to the alleviation of hardships for society’s most vulnerable.

In the Middle East and North Africa discrimination towards persons with disabilities continues to result in their wholesale exclusion from society. This discrimination goes beyond mere social stigma and includes physical barriers to access to transport and buildings and extends to a lack of access to vital health services, full employment and basic education.

In the Middle East, disabled persons are often forced to live in the shadows of a society that refuses to acknowledge them. In Egypt for instance, it is even difficult to accurately estimate the number of Egyptians living with disability because families often hide their disabled children. Cultural misconceptions also abound and disability is seen in some communities as a form of punishment inflicted by malevolent spirits.

Further, in war torn areas such as Syria, the physical devastation has not only forcibly displaced mentally and physically disabled persons but has also destroyed the very infrastructures that could alleviate their suffering.

While extensive discussion on such issues is helpful, direct action needs to be taken. We therefore call on the UN to exert its influence to encourage Arab states to establish national strategies to develop their institutional capacities to deal with the barriers that persons with disabilities face and to create a regional dialogue on how to tackle the social and cultural stigmas associated with disability. Following from this, there must be comprehensive policies and programs put in place that are both sensitive to the needs of disabled persons, but also appreciative of their independence and their place among ordinary citizens.

We believe that in the absence of an inclusive environment that involves disabled persons in every facet of social life, there cannot be genuine equality anywhere. To this end, we must recognize and acknowledge that disability is a societal problem, not an individual one. Thank you.