Turkey’s Dexterous Juggling Act

Turkey’s involvement in multiple wars from Syria to the Caucuses may initially have been down to external circumstance, a reaction to short term need for internal security and territorial integrity, rather than down to its own long term planning; but as the situation develops, its list of adversaries grows.  With the multiple balls it needs to juggle, Ankara may need to follow Dwight Eisenhower’s advice that “planning is everything, the plan is nothing”.

At the end of October President Erdoğan threatened to launch a new military operation in northern Syria if Kurdish armed groups were not cleared from areas along its border with Syria. To be fair, this was a day after a Kurdish fighter blew himself up in a town in the border province of Hatay. 

However, President Erdoğan’s more recent response to the deadliest Russian air strike since the Turkish-Russian truce in March, on the face of it was relatively passive. President Erdoğan announced that Moscow was “not looking for peace in the region”.  The Russian strike targeted a military training camp for Failaq al-Sham, one of the largest Turkey-backed armed groups in the area, in the Jabal al-Dweila area northwest Idlib province killing 35 people.  This indicates both Turkey’s strained relations with Russia, but more importantly that the main priority for Ankara remains the Kurdish issue. 

Turkey and Russia are fighting not just on many fronts but many fronts in multiple wars.  Syria, Libya and more recently the Caucasus.  Ankara’s support for Azerbaijan in its fight against Armenia in the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region is looked upon with disdain by Russia.  Both countries remain at loggerheads, supporting opposing sides with both hoping to expand their military presence and political reach in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.  This aspiration for hegemony helps explain their shared in interest in Syria – Syria being the geographically artery between East and West.  However, their interest in Libya, where both countries support opposing forces, is more obviously based on the prospect of lucrative rewards.  Over the past year, thousands of Syrian fighters have been sent to Libya by Turkey to fight on behalf of the United Nations-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, against the Russian-backed forces of Libya’s National Army, under General Khalifa Haftar.  Turkey aligned itself with the GNA in January 2020, as a counter to the East Med Gas Forum (EMGF) which is made up of Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority. Turkey wanted to have a say in energy transfer across the Med to Europe from Asia.  This military intervention was two months after the Turkish government signed an agreement with the Government of National Accord on maritime jurisdictions in the Mediterranean.

As the fairly recent strike on Turkey backed militias demonstrates, Russia will continue to prowl the Turkey-Syria border and be a thorn in Turkey’s side when it comes to its perceived long term interest in suppressing aspirations for autonomy by the Kurds on its border with Syria. Russia can also use its clout as leverage against Turkey’s involvement in the battle on Russia’s doorstep in the Caucuses. However Libya’s war provides the high income stakes for both parties. 

That said Turkey is losing a key supporter for their cause. Up until the 2020 US elections President President Erdoğan had an ally in President Trump.  This support was much needed given the scrutiny being given to two decisions by Ankara.  The first was the purchase of a Russian made S-400 anti-aircraft system, at a reported cost of Euro 2.1 billion in 2019.  Second, was the case against the Turkey’s state-owned Halbank, for violating Iran sanctions, in charges brought in October 2019.  The bank is accused of aiding a Turkish-Iranian gold trader Reza Zarrab in a “multi-billion dollar scheme to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Iran”, its executives standing accused of illicitly transferring “approximately $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds”.

The Trump administration have so far postponed sanctions, known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), over Turkey’s purchase of its Russian anti-aircraft missile system.  President Trump’s reluctance has been explained as him correcting the mistake of the Obama administration for not providing Turkey with the US-manufactured Patriot missile defence systems.  However, incoming President Joseph Biden, doesn’t bode as well for Ankara as his predecessor. Biden may be more swift in applying sanctions, which have proved to have a severe impact on the Turkish Lira on two previous occasions that the country was reprimanded by the US.  In August 2018 the Lira crashed following the doubling of tariffs on Turkish steel and aluminium imports, over the imprisonment of an American pastor, and similar response to a Turkish military operation in Syria in 2019, had the same impact on Turkish markets. 

Biden’s choice of sanction could be more severe and could include anything from excluding Turkey from the US banking system to export licence limitations.  This is not only because Biden’s outlook on Middle East and Mediterranean issues are incongruent with President Erdoğan’s. It also enables Biden to curry favour in a Republican-led Senate on a bipartisan issue.

The Turkish President claims to be a filling the void left at the time when Biden was Vice-President and the US made its decision to withdraw US boots from the ground in Iraq.  This decision by the Obama Administration led to a change in policy in Ankara, from one of “zero problems with neighbours” to one of “prioritising internal stability and territorial integrity; a perceived threat of regional rivals filling the vacuum left behind by the United States in the Middle East; and energy independence.”

There are a number of points of contention between the incoming president and his Turkish counterpart, the first being the situation with the Kurds.  Biden has demonstrated his support for the Kurds, for over three decades: denouncing President George H W Bush for allowing Saddam Hussein’s forces to recapture liberated Kurdish areas in 1991.  Biden also addressed the KRI parliament in 2002, reinstating the US support for the Kurds.  In 2003 Biden showed support for a federal system for Kurds, Sunni’s and Shia’s following the invasion of Iraq. Most recently, he criticised Trumps policy of permitting Turkey to attack Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces in North East Syria.  However, his pressure on the Kurds to follow a line in favour of US interests in Iraq, demonstrate Biden’s US interests will be prioritised above ethical considerations in regard to the Kurds.  Secondly Turkey’s closer ties with President Putin further sidelines President Erdoğan as far as the US is concerned.  Finally the America’s perceived aggressive Turkish policy on Syria, Libya and the Eastern Mediterranean will make the decision on sanctions far easier, a means to control some of these policies from across the Atlantic.  Turkey however, has not been shy in refusing to play ball in the past. Turkey’s actions have ranged from declining permission to US troops to cross the Turkish-Iraq border in 2003, to bilateral disagreements over Syria during Biden’s term as vice-President, to its acquisition of Russian air-defence systems.  The short term love affair with the US under Trump was always going to be an exception rather than the norm.

However Turkey’s list of adversaries does not end there.  The United Arab Emirates were allegedly complicit in the 2016 Turkish coup, that was quashed by Turkish civilians coming on to the streets to face the tanks that a section of the Turkish military used to launch the coordinated operation across several major cities.  The UAE allegedly funnelled funds to the coup plotters. 

The failed coup turned the UAE’s attention to Qatar, urging Saudi Arabia and other allies to cut links to their small neighbour, after Doha showed support for the Muslim Brotherhood in 2017.   Turkey intervened and defended Qatar as it became isolated, ratifying a military agreement with Doha after which Turkish troops were deployed to Qatar soil.

The relations with the UAE and Saudi Arabia remain hostile, despite Turkey being UAE’s largest trading partner.  This partnership was put in jeopardy again in August this year, when the UAE followed Jordan and Egypt’s decision and announced they would normalise relations with Israel, a point of contention amongst Arab countries who see this could undermine any chance of Palestinian peace.  Turkey threatened to suspend UAE ties over a deal with Israel.  These relations are under continued pressure as the UAE and Saudi-Arabia align with Turkey’s rival Russia, on Libyan soil.  UAE and Saudi Arabia’s interest in the Libyan quagmire lean towards both acquiring billion dollar reconstruction contracts, as well as hampering the advance of democracy in the region, indeed only slightly different from the interests of these two agents in the Yemen proxy war. President Erdoğan may forgive, but is unlikely to forget the UAE’s alleged involvement in the coup that was to oust him. President Erdoğan has shown in Azerbaijan, that he can get involved in a war that lies near the borders of his adversaries, and he has close ties to Yemen.  However entering another war may stretch Turkey, and getting involved in the complex web of actors, could see her on the wrong side of the Houthis, a state that has shared interests with Ankara. 

As Turkey’s President Erdoğan continues to juggle these balls, what would make it more difficult would be internal instability caused by economic sanctions, which are in arms reach of the US.  However, with the president-elect Biden’s inauguration not until 20th January, and domestic issues of Covid-19 waiting in the in-tray to deal with, President Erdoğan may have a little more time for planning.

Erdoğan’s Hold on the Media

After the 1980 coup d’état, Turkey reformed its constitution, in which Article 28 states that “the press is free and shall not be censored”. However, this seemingly straightforward position comes with an important caveat, namely that the state can restrict media output in situations deemed to be of threat to national security. This addition is vaguely defined, and the Turkish government frequently exploits this ambiguity. The implications for Turkish citizens are immense in terms of the restriction of freedom of expression. 

The ruling party in Turkey, the Justice and Development Party (Adalet ve Kalkinma Partisi/AKP) has been in office since November 2002, under its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Turkey has a long history of restricting the free press. Under the AKP, efforts have been made to establish a pro-government media bloc, which has proven highly effective in creating an uneven political playing field against opponents. The party is known to use state-owned outlets for its own benefit (the government-owned Turkish Radio and Television (TRT) company, was found to have allocated 46% of its air time to AKP’s campaigns leading up to the 2015 June elections). Several members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe who came to monitor the Turkish elections also found that Erdoğan was using his position to gain favourable media coverage throughout the campaigns.

Following the 2015 election, the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) issued a report, detailing the party’s asymmetrical access to media outlets, stating that “elections in Turkey offered voters a variety of choices, but the process was hindered by a challenging security environment, incidents of violence and restrictions against media”. Pro-AKP media and supporters specifically targeted media outlets who were allocating more airing time to opposition parties, and the CNN Türk channel of the Dogan Media group suffered particularly. Its newspaper Hürryet was openly threatened and one if its columnists, Ahmet Hakan was assaulted in October 2015.

This follows the strategy of intimidation used by the government to scare opponents into compliance. Rather than asserting direct control over the media and press, measures are taken to ensure that any government-critical content is heavily censored. Ensuring the loyalty of domestic institutions, such as the press, ensures that the government can weaponize them against opponents. Critical media outlets can be pressed by tax agencies for inordinate sums of money, or they can become targeted by the judiciary in libel or defamation suits; for example, many of the journalists covering the Gezi park protests faced charges of incitement of violence, and several were sacked or made to resign. Furthermore, the police can exercise disproportionate violence against protesters, and political opponents can become the objects of surveillance by intelligence agencies which gather information to be used as blackmail against them. Additionally, government officials often contact media outlets prior to releases to ensure that certain segments are left out or edited to present the government in a favourable light. This has resulted in a culture of self-censorship. 

Many media outlets associated with the dissident activist, Fetullah Gülen, have also been heavily targeted and subjected to criminal investigations. This is due to accusations of his involvement in the uncovering of a corruption scandal in 2013 in which Erdoğan and his son were implicated as involved in a money laundering scheme. In responding to these allegations, Erdoğan sacked all of the prosecutors involved and tightened the monitoring of telephones and the internet. Both YouTube and Twitter were blocked and remained banned from access until March 2014. 

After the failed coup in 2016, the government resorted to even harsher measures to control the media, and in that year alone, Erdoğan ordered the closure of over 140 media outlets. Journalists and academics continue to be especially closely monitored and subjected to charges of defamation or incitement to terrorism, and they are frequently targeted by security forces. In 2019, Reuters reported that more than 120 journalists were jailed in Turkey, making Turkey second only to China in imprisoning the highest number of journalists in the world. The authoritarian path which Turkey follows has meant a profound decline in rights and political freedoms, and many continue to observe the erosion of Turkey’s democracy with mounting unease. 

Turkey and the Istanbul Convention

Turkey is a nation which gave full political rights to women, including the right to vote and to be elected, locally in 1930 and nationwide in 1934, eleven years ahead of France and Italy. However, laws stipulating that women need permission from their husbands to work outside of the home or to travel abroad were only repealed in the nineties. None the less, Turkey was also the first country to sign and ratify the Council of Europe’s treaty to prevent violence against women and domestic violence which is named after its own city, the Istanbul Convention, in 2011. It is also a country, however, which ranked 130th among 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index in 2018. Recently, news that Turkey intends to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention has created shockwaves globally.

The reality of Turkey’s complex relationship with women’s rights is that behind the façade of state feminism, laws protecting women have never been fully implemented. The recent #ChallengeAccepted trend, in which women have been sharing black and white selfies on social media, has spread awareness of the horrifying rates of femicide in Turkey, with countless women being murdered by men in honour killings or out of jealousy. The campaign group ‘We Will Stop Femicide’ began tracking the murders of women in Turkey after discovering that the government does not keep records. Their data shows that despite Turkey signing the Istanbul Convention in 2011, femicide has drastically increased over the years since, with 474 deaths in 2019 alone, almost double the rate of 2013. In most of those cases, the perpetrator was the husband or partner of the victim. In the remainder, they were a family member or stalker.

With the social media campaign sparking global discussion about women’s rights in Turkey, more women have come forward to share their experiences. Many claim that having approached the police for help when they were experiencing domestic violence, they were simply turned away. Protests have also broken out across the country, with women marching together in solidarity. In particular, the brutal murder of Pınar Gültekin in July of this year by a male stalker sparked outrage. Whilst President Erdagon acknowledged the crime, writing on Twitter, ‘I despise all crimes against women’, police were accused of using disproportional force against protestors. In coastal Izmir, some detainees claim to have been beaten and mistreated in custody. Protests demand not only justice for the victims of femicide, but also urgent reform to the justice system. When it comes to sentencing, men who claim that they acted on impulse, or who claim to be religious and dress smartly in court, are handed reduced sentences so often that there is now a term for it – ‘tie reduction’.

At the core of the women’s rights issue is the tension between Turkey and western ideology regarding gender roles. With Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, leader of the Justice and Development Party (AKP), President since 2014, there has been a push towards a more conservative Islamic agenda and certain religious sects have become more vocal. Increasing transparency of political figures’ attitude towards women’s rights, with sexist comments being made publicly, has led up to the decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention. A key issue with the Convention is that it defines the term ‘gender’ as ‘the socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men.’ Some countries consider this definition too broad and fear it could be interpreted to make way for the allowance of a third gender. It also requires political parties to allow teaching on non-stereotyped gender roles, which can be regarded as an attempt to enforce a liberal western lifestyle in more traditional societies. Turkish political figures have prevented Turkish women from understanding what the convention really stands for by presenting it as the enemy of the family, arguing that it enables women to desert their homes and that it even encourages homosexuality.

 With the social media campaign attracting a global audience to the events in Turkey and rising tension between protestors and law enforcement, immediate action is required. ‘We Will Stop Femicide’ makes five demands of the Turkish government to resolve gender inequality:

1)         The president, prime minister and the leaders of all political parties should condemn violence against women.

2)         The protection law No. 6284, which aims to protect the family and prevent violence against women, should be officially implemented.

3)         Their legislative proposal to add an additional clause to the Turkish Penal Code regarding ‘aggravated life imprisonment’ should be accepted.

4)         A Ministry of Women should be founded.

5)         A new constitution that prioritises gender and sexual orientation equality should be implemented.

Whilst these present a comprehensive plan for reform, it is unlikely that they can all be implemented in the near future. Now, the Turkish government need to demonstrate the intention of drafting a new human rights treaty to replace the Istanbul Convention, which equally respects the social and religious culture of the nation and the human rights of its female citizens. Ultimately, the government cannot continue suppressing women’s desires for liberation without triggering further conflict; compromise is essential.

An open letter: the Hagia Sophia.

Ambassador Hambley has asked us to publish this open letter from his colleagues working in Germany and Scotland to the Turkish President. The views expressed are their own however the NCF’s religious affairs advisor comments: This was a blatantly political decision wrapped in a religious cloak. However, it is the culmination of a 16 year legal case to restore it as a Mosque and as such should be acknowledged as a valid legal decision by Turkish terms, even though many disagree with it. Turkish courts do award cases against government actions occasionally, so there is a degree of judicial independence. Turkey’s political isolation from the West continues and while protestations against the conversion are manifold, there is little chance of a reversal. However, the site is a UNESCO world heritage site and it’s possible UNESCO has more leverage:

“We are permitting ourselves to express our grave concern about the recent decision of the Turkish Government to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque. We are writing to you as individuals in our private capacity, committed to dialogue and peace on Planet Earth, and not on behalf of the institutions, networks and projects mentioned in this letter.

“More than most other monuments not just in Istanbul and Turkey, but anywhere in the
world, the Hagia Sophia is an interface of Orient and Occident, of Christianity and Islam.
Furthermore, it is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The arrangement instated by President Kemal Atatürk in 1935 – as a museum – was a very good and balanced solution, reflecting its past as a church from 537-1453, and as a mosque since then, but also the sadly at times violent episodes in its history and generally between the two major religions of our part of the world. Given its history, and that of the city around it, it has been a holy site and focal point for both Islam and Christianity over the almost 1,500 years of its existence.

“The recent decision to re-convert the Hagia Sophia into a mosque will inevitably cause
offense among much of the Christian (in particular Orthodox) community, and we would
appeal to the Turkish Government to re-consider this step.

“In light of this history, it is impossible for either side to claim sole ownership of this
monument. Whatever arrangement is found, it should equally reflect the significance and holiness of the Hagia Sophia to the faithful of both religions: The museum was a very good arrangement, but we could equally imagine an inter-face venue of worship.

Sincerely,

Frithjof Kuepper and Hartmut Dreier.”

 

 

 

Hartmut Dreier, born in 1938, since 1977 resident in Marl/Ruhrgebiet, Protestant Christian theologian, pastor emeritus, one of the pioneers in Christian-Muslim dialogue, friendship and cooperation since 1984 on the local, regional and national level and in German-Turkish cooperation. Selected activities:

• Intercultural, interreligious projects Marl/Gireson and Marl/Kusadasi
• Solidarity after the Marmara earthquake in August 1999 in Adapazari
• Establishing close working relations with DITIB, Cologne, IGMG (Islamische
Gemeinschaft Milli Görüs), Zentralrat der Muslime in Deutschland
• Co-founder of CIAG Marl in 1984, for example enabling the construction of Fatih
Moschee Marl, the first new mosque building in Germany
• Co-founder of the annual Abraham’s festival in Marl, Kreis Recklinghausen, in 2001 (in this context Bundespräsident Johannes Rau visited the Fatih Mosque in
December 2001 – this was the first time that a German federal president visited a
Mosque in Germany; Diyanet president Prof. Dr. Ali Bardakoglu gave a keynote
speech in the Fatih Mosque and signed the “Goldene Buch” of the city of Marl)
• Sukran-Plakette of the Republic of Turkey, awarded by the General Consul of Turkey, Mr. Günes Altan, in Münster (March 5, 1997)
• For our current work as an intercultural and interreligious team and for further
awards see https://www.ciag-marl.de/

Frithjof Kuepper, born in 1972, Professor and Chair in Marine Biodiversity at the University of Aberdeen, resident in Newburgh, Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and Marl, Germany. Selected activities:

• First prizes at the European Union Contest for Young Scientists and the Young
Europeans’ Environmental Research Competition (both 1992).
• Marine biologist with extensive academic research and teaching activities in SE
Europe and the Middle East, besides other parts of the world. Personal and
professional network in the region includes a sizeable number of both Muslims and
Christians, with whom he fundamentally recognizes the common roots of our faith
and with whom he shares the desire to learn from a difficult history to build a more
peaceful and harmonious ecumenical coexistence based on shared values and
mutual understanding.
• Strong commitment to the peace process in Cyprus and to Greek-Turkish
rapprochement in general, with numerous contacts in both communities in Cyprus – led the first academic publication since the Cyprus War in 1974 which is jointly
authored by scientists from both communities in Cyprus as well as from Turkey and
Greece.

 

Stagnation or Recovery: What is the Situation in Syria’s Rebel-Controlled Areas?

It wasn’t just the “availability of olive oil” that led Mahmoud Dalati to settle in Afrin. He was fleeing eastern Ghouta, re-taken by the Assad Government with the help of Russian fighters. However, in the new city, he has opened a successful soap workshop, continuing the trade of his forefathers. In North-Eastern Syria, controlled by Turkish-backed rebels since 2018, actions such as these are a collective attempt to return to a stable existence. In late February 2020, a piece in Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the “stability” of the city of Afrin has “attracted Syrians from different parts of the country […] in search of permanent employment.” The article highlights the boom in local business caused by this lull in the conflict. New establishments are springing up in the city, from a newly opened cake factory (with “20 job opportunities”) to “currency exchange shops, jewelry [sic] stores, bookstores and factories,” all exchanging Turkish liras for “local and Turkish goods.”

However, Karim Mahmoud, of the ICRC, reported on May 21st that the region has seen “shortages of water, food and medicine, a lack of electricity” and “job losses and price hikes” caused by “the economic downturn.” Mahmoud stated that these issues are likely more pressing even than the threat of Coronavirus in the area. Save the Children also highlighted reports of “hostilities along the North East Syrian border” that necessitate “an increased need for immediate humanitarian assistance” in displacement camps. The European Council on Foreign Relations has commented that “Turkey faces the risk of the ‘Gazafication’ of the area – the emergence of a militarily controlled territory that is perennially poverty-stricken and unstable.”

The problem likely stems from Turkey’s control of the region. A thriving local economy is necessary for a proper recovery to occur. Despite the admirable steps taken by citizens to start businesses and accommodate those fleeing conflict areas, if Turkey does not guarantee “citizen security” (as the UNDP calls it) then it will be hard for the area not to find itself in a Gaza-esque rut. But is any outside nation involved in the conflict willing to act for reasons other than personal point scoring? Turkey has, of course, attempted to stamp out the Kurds in the region – another brutal step in their long-running conflict. It seems likely that the Turkey is not in a position to keep peace and enable those in the region to flourish. 

Yet maybe national and humanitarian interests can coincide. If Turkey could set a successful example of post-conflict recovery in the area, it could improve lives and command global respect. The chance is there. It remains to be seen whether it will be taken.

Image – The City of Afrin in 2009: Bertramz / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

 

The war in North Syria – a Syrian perspective

Turkey goes Head to Head with Russia in Syria

President Erdogan of Turkey is facing down Putin of Russia – and this time at least, Bashar al Assad is not the big factor. But the the consequence is, as ever, that the ordinary people suffer as Turkey adds to the misery as it starts to bombard Northern Syria from drones. This overview is based on feedback from Syrians on the spot. To listen to the latest podcast on this subject from William Morris, Secretary General of the Next Century Foundation, click on the link:  https://www.buzzsprout.com/529801/2897692-syria-turkey-goes-head-to-head-with-russia

Turkey backs Rebel Advance in Idlib

Forty Syrian soldiers and fifty rebel troops were killed in fighting in Idlib province this week. Car bombs and heavy fire were used in an attempt by the National Liberation Front rebel alliance to retake positions in the Maarat al-Numan area. The rebels were supplied and supported by Turkey. Meanwhile the mortars falling on Aleppo are of a hitherto unprecedented size. All this because Bashar al Assad won’t agree to Erdogan taking a lead role in peace negotiations. Can there be a way forward that brings an end to this chaos? Podcast from NCF Secretary General William Morris on this link

Turkey seeks Hegemony in Syria – but will it risk further invasion?

Mohamad Tawam, Director of Arab London Center for Political Studies and Middle Eastern Affairs, has authored this article. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the NCF: 

Turkey has supported armed groups opposed to the Syrian government since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, The perception of many is that the prime Turkish purpose in so doing has been the establishment of a new Ottoman Empire, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its centrepiece.

But Turkey’s attempt to enhance the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has failed. Turkey has rowed back on her ambitions. Turkey now claims its interventions in Syria are defensive, specifically to deal with Syria’s Kurdish separatists, the existence of which, Turkey claims, is threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey.

However, this Turkish claim is not in line with Turkish conduct in the field. Observe Turkish field movements and the Turkish positions in Syria and you cannot help but conclude that Turkey has its own project in Syria and is looking for opportunities to implement it regardless of any position it is publicly committed to it.

Turkey still has ambitions to redraw the borders separating it from Iraq and Syria. The Turks would like to redraw the maps of the three countries so as to allow Turkey to annex the area from southern Mosul to al-Raqqa to the south of Aleppo and to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. Turkey’s intention is to redistribute the population in this area and then establish a system of governance and control based on the concept of administrative decentralization and connect the region with the Turkish decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey is intensifying its intervention and is warning that it will not leave Syria until after the Syrian elections.

That is why we see the Turkish position fluctuating. Turkey’s real intention is merely to gain the time needed to implement its own project.

Which begs the question: Can Turkey implement its project and will it succeed in occupying the land to the North East of the Euphrates as it threatens?

There are three key players in the area Turkey now wishes to control: America and the Kurds and ISIS, whilst those affected by the Turkish project, other than of course the central Syrian state, are the Syrian people resident in that region, both Arabs and Kurds.

So what result can we expect of this Turkish project? And what are the ambitions of those affected?

We start with America, whose troops are currently still present on Syrian soil. Prior to President Trump’s recent hasty and perhaps rash announcement that he would withdraw those troops, they were implementing two goals for the eastern Euphrates region:

First they were supporting the Kurdish forces in their separatist project in Syria. Their stated strategy was that the presence of US troops and their support for the Kurds was largely to fight ISIS.

And the second strategic objective was to cut off the land link between the East, i.e. Iran, and the West, i.e. Syria and Lebanon.

However, this strategy undermined Turkish objectives, especially in the case of the Kurds, whose presence in Syria as a fighting force Turkey rejects, particularly on their borders and describes them as terrorists. This in part because Turkey views their  leadership as allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and Turkey sees as a threat to its security.

Had President Trump not decided to withdraw his troops, this conflict conflict of interest might have meant a confrontation between the US and Turkish forces if Turkey had invaded the remaining area of Syria under Kurdish control.

And yet Turkey has been and remains an ally of America before and after the Kurds. If America finds that the Turkish presence will secure its strategic interests in Syria, it will not need to protect the Kurds in the entire region, a problem of itself because the USA’s widespread deployment in the Middle East requires the use of military bases in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and US support for the Kurds will not help to reassure the Arab population in the Euphrates region who reject Kurdish rule.

Therefore, the most the United States can do in the face of the threat of Turkish invasion is to put pressure on the Turks to prevent it, and prevent its success, and then to protect the withdrawal of the Kurds to their densely populated heartlands, which do not exceed 10% of the area they now control with American support. This would stop America sliding into war with Turkey.

America could then humour both the Kurdish and Turkish parties and maintain its alliance relations with them.

As for the position of the Kurds in the face of the potential Turkish invasion, they do not the capacity to protect the areas they now control. To do so they would need a military force ten times the strength of the one they possess today. If the Kurds think that America will fight Turkey for them, they are labour under an illusion.

The call of some Kurds to the Syrian government to intervene in order to save them may be a mistake. The Kurds are committed to a separatist project in Syria and therefore it makes no sense for the Syrian government to intervene to protect their project.

As regards ISIS, Turkey will not risk entering the rest of the small areas controlled by ISIS in the east of Syria on the border with Iraq. So Turkey, which from the beginning worked in secret with ISIS in Syria, will ensure that ISIS will not be affected by any Turkish invasion.

Therefore, Turkey may see this moment as an opportunity to implement its threat to take control of much of Northern Syria based on its perception that the three parties that control East Euphrates do not have the will to confront Turkey.

If there is an obstacle that prevents or delays Turkey’s attack, it may be that the EU has asked Turkey not to carry out the threat. Or, as both Iran and Russia confirm, that the Turkish operation, if implemented, would be contrary to the understandings reached in Astana.

But the big surprise is the decision of the United States of America to withdraw all its military forces stationed in Syria in a decision announced by President Donald Trump in his twitter.

The withdrawal of US military from Syria is expected to end within a period of 60 to 100 days. This decision was taken by US President Donald Trump, after his telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took place amid Turkey’s readiness to launch a third military operation In Syria targeting Kurdish insurgents in the east of the Euphrates.

Which means that Turkey may go on a “limited” invasion of the north-east of the Euphrates in a process that will not embarrass the American forces, which will be re-positioned to serve the Turkish targets, while the Kurds will find themselves alone in the field and will return to areas determined by the Americans.

But what is the position of the Syrian government in this regard?

The Syrian government sees every unsanctioned military presence on Syrian soil as an illegal presence, if that presence is not in response to a request from Syria or with its consent. Therefore, the four mentioned above are considered, for the Syrian government, to be an aggressor, an occupier, an outlaw, a terrorist or a separatist.

I believe that the Syrian government is sticking to its list of priorities to liberate Idlib from the armed terrorist groups with Al- Nusra Front first, and to monitor what is going on in the north-east. Turkey will find that its occupation of additional territory will not make it a partner or a friend of Syrian people in the future, and therefore the Turkish invasion would be a reckless leap without practical outcome.

Will Turkey do it? Let’s wait and see.

On the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

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

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

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

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

Jamal’s Response

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Was this unique?

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

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

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

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.

Turkish Elections: Now the dust has settled on the Victory for Erdoğan

Turkey’s long standing leader yet again won outright in the first and only round of the country’s recent presidential and parliamentary elections. President Recep Tayipp Erdoğan also achieved an overall majority for his ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Party). More than 56 million people were eligible to vote in this twin election. The voter turnout was one of the highest in Turkey’s history, with reports putting participation at 87%. The most important election in recent years, this was the first time a credible opposition had risen to challenge the AK Party since they came to power almost fifteen years ago. Surprise opposition came in the form of Muharrem İnce, the candidate of the secular Republican People’s Party (CHP). Mirroring the charismatic and fiery rhetoric of Erdoğan, İnce drew a million people to a rally in Istanbul where he urged voters to end the rule of Erdoğan and his AK Party. Despite İnce’s popularity, which was steadily gaining traction, he ultimately won 30.64% of the vote against the president’s 53% –  it was not enough to force a second-round of elections.

What is important about these elections?

The significance of this vote lies in the unprecedented changes to the Turkish constitution that will follow in the wake of the election. Changes that were narrowly approved in last year’s referendum. The vote ushers in a new Turkish governing system, one that abolishes the role of the prime minister and replaces it with a new and powerful executive presidency. New powers will include but are not limited to the president directly appointing top public officials, including judges, ministers, and vice-presidents; the power to intervene in the country’s legal system; and the power to impose a state of emergency.

The president is no stranger to criticism, with many and rightly so, highlighting the authoritarian nature of his rule. Politicians and news outlets from across Western Europe and elsewhere have lambasted Erdoğan for his crackdown on political dissidents, the judiciary, public officials, and various media outlets, following the failed military coup in 2016. It is, therefore, no surprise that he is under scrutiny again for the controversial, sweeping new powers that have now been formalised. His critics have pointed out the lack of checks and balances in the new governing system, a system that effectively concentrates power into the hands of one man.

Turkey is, therefore, a curious case of where East meets West. French political scientist, Alain Rouquié, aptly describes Turkey as a “hegemonic democracy” – a system that does not fit neatly into any particular category. He argues that whilst Turkey is clearly not a liberal democracy because the rule of law, the rights of minorities, and media freedoms are not respected; neither is it a dictatorship as elections are held and political alternation remains a possibility. Despite the legitimate criticism levied at Erdoğan and the new governing system, the voter turnout was higher than most Western European countries, including that of the UK and France.

Erdoğan has consistently won every election for the last fifteen years and has amassed a powerful base of supporters within the country. He has overseen and delivered years of economic growth and is responsible for the construction of roads, bridges, airports, hospitals, and schools. For better or worse, Erdoğan is a pivotal figure in Turkey’s modern history despite his controversial status. Erdoğan’s victory was also a cause of celebration in places as far flung as, Skopje, Sarajevo, Baku, and Crimea, and even in streets across the Arab world. There is something to be said about a statesman that is able to garner popular support outside of Turkey from people who are not even Turkish.

This is not to defend Erdoğan. No leader, statesman or politician is above criticism, and much criticism can be directed towards President Erdoğan, his policies, and his rule in Turkey. But one must look at the situation holistically and appreciate the nuances that exist in every imperfect system. The extent and impact of Erdoğan’s new executive powers will become apparent over the coming months and years. It will, therefore, be interesting to see how the president will now tackle the economic challenges currently facing the country, as well as the issue of national security concerning Kurdish rebels in southeast Turkey and neighbouring Syria.

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