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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
- That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
- That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
- 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
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.
The Next Century Foundation submitted the following a written statement to the Human Rights Council in accordance with its special consultative status at the United Nations. Thirty-sixth session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Agenda item 6. Universal Periodic Review of the UK:
“It is the humanitarian duty of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to offer migrants, who are often refugees from war-torn states, a fair chance to rebuild their lives. The Next Century Foundation notes the concerns expressed in the 2017 Universal Periodic Review. There are major shortcomings on the part of the British government. Specifically:
- The UK government is sometimes a poor listener, which can result in inefficient and ineffective dispersal of aid money. Increased communication with refugees, both in the camps to which they have been displaced in the first instance and subsequently in the UK, would inflate their esteem, morale and resolve. Most particularly with regard to those coming from war torn states, the international community in general and the UK in particular could empower local communities in the region to take control of their own destiny by giving them a voice in regard to the dispersal of international aid.
- An effort should be made to recruit and employ teachers, doctors and nurses or others appropriately qualified who are themselves refugees within the camps wherever possible; and government aid funds should be diverted to this purpose in preference to bringing in Western teachers, doctors and nurses and others to perform these roles. This both lifts morale and provides economic support to key refugees.
- Within the UK, there are initiatives such as Herts Welcomes Syrian Families, Refugee Action, and the Refugee Council, whose support of the Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme has positively affected thousands of migrants. However, the “temporary protection” which this programme permits is inadequate. Under this programme, migrants are offered the chance to study or work for a limited five year period only. We urge that this time period be extended or that they are offered fast track citizenship after five years.
- Trained migrant professionals are often not permitted to work in the UK whilst seeking asylum. Asylum seekers should be permitted to work in the United Kingdom whilst seeking indefinite leave to remain, should they wish to do so. The asylum seekers allowance is only £36.95 a week, which is evidently very small, especially when compared to the job-seekers allowance of £73.10. It makes life incredibly tenuous and is utterly unfair, given that they are then unable to work legally and become a burden on the taxpayer. However, whilst it is extremely important that refugees and asylum seekers should have the opportunity to work in the UK, it is also important to bear in mind that safeguards need to be put in place to see that they are not exploited by employers and that they are paid a fair wage for the job that they are doing. This is of importance in preventing bad feeling and resentment on the part of indigenous workers (the “immigrants” should not be perceived as a threat to the jobs and terms/conditions of employment of UK citizens).
- To be granted university places, all migrants whose status has yet to be determined must have lived half of their lives in the UK in order to apply as if they were native citizens. This denial of university education to the majority of young migrants whose status has yet to be determined prevents migrants from rebuilding their lives, and retaining their dignity.
- The Lawyers’ Refugee Initiative advocates the use of humanitarian visas, or “humanitarian passports” – that is to say visas for the specific purpose of seeking asylum on arrival – issued in the country of departure or intended embarkation. We urge that this procedure be used extensively by the United Kingdom.
- In order to speed up the processing of asylum applications and reduce legal costs and emotional strain for all involved, we recommend that the Home Office only appeal decisions in exceptional circumstances, and rarely if the case has been under consideration for more than five years. It should be a statutory duty that all appeals by the Home Office take place within one year and be grounded on strict criteria. The actual asylum application process should be based on criteria that are generous to genuine refugee claims with a mechanism for withdrawing status on conviction of a crime – and fast track citizenship after five years.
We should regard refugees, whatever their circumstance, with compassion and mercy. Compassion and Mercy are moral virtues which elevate humanity and therefore our obligation to refugees transcends any obligation we may have to accept economic migrants and / or the free movement of labour and should not be confused with any such obligation – and the UK is not yet doing enough”.
Note: The Next Century Foundation acknowledges the help of Initiatives of Change, an organisation that co-hosted the migration conference that contributed to the preparation of this submission.
The Next Century Foundation took part in the 36th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. During the General Debate on Item 9 “Racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related forms of intolerance” the NCF delivered an oral intervention on the issue of gender discrimination in the Arab States urging them to take the necessary steps in order to improve women’s conditions, following the recent example of Bahrain.
The Turkish Government has been shelling Kurdish fighters belonging to the People’s Protection Units, also known at the YPG, who are the armed force of the Syrian Democratic Union Party. The recent attacks have prompted the US, the UN and EU to call for some restraint. The degree to which Turkey’s fight against Isis is genuine has also been questioned by Kurdish officials, and doubts have arisen about Ankara’s agenda in both Syria and Iraq. There have even been allegations about Turkey’s inability or unwillingness to control its borders. They were up until recently, allowing extremists to enter Syria from Turkey, thus helping to establish Isis in the north of the country.
There is of course a deep rooted conflict that has seen hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Kurdish people displaced from their homes or killed. Centuries of oppression from both the Ottoman Empire and modern day Arab States have ignited the flame for an independent Kurdish state.
The YPG’s role in the fight against Isis is a crucial one. In fact, the People’s Protection Units are one of the main ground forces battling against the self-styled caliphate. With Turkey continuing to bomb YPG positions, could they be using the US led coalition against Isis as a cover to attack the YPG in Northern Syria? The Turkish government certainly have no problem fighting their own people, Turkish Kurds belonging to the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) being a case in point.
However, Turkey does have good relations with Iraqi Kurds belonging to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). The Turkish army are training and arming a predominately Sunni militia called Hasd al-Watani. The militia group hope that by working with the Iraqi Peshmerga, the armed force of the KRG, they will be able to help retake Mosul, the de-facto capital of Isis in Iraq.
We cannot ignore the complexities of t00he situation in the Middle East. The number of militia groups belonging to different ethnicities seems to be growing by the month. Different factions are fighting for territories. A cohesive effort is needed in order to suppress the threat posed by Isis. Turkey’s role, its cooperation with the rest of the world and with the Kurdish populations needs be far more transparent.
By Nihal Patel
The Kurdish Community has been the victim one of of the latest atrocites
By Nihal Patel
2016 has been a particularly worrying and frightening year for terrorist atrocities. According to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, from January 2016 until July, there have been an astonishing 892 terrorism related deaths in Europe alone. That makes the first seven months of this year the deadliest for over two decades. This figure does include terrorist attacks in Turkey, where 726 of the 892 deaths have occurred. On 20th August 2016, a particularly harrowing incident took place in the Turkish city of Gaziantep at a Kurdish wedding celebration. President Erdogan has claimed that the attack was likely to have been committed by Islamic State militants. Leaders across the world have condemned the attack, including the Kurdistan Region’s President Masoud Barzani, as well as British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who tweeted his sympathies for Turkey and its Kurdish population. The incident has caused immense distress, and stood out amidst numerous acts of violence because it is claimed that the attack was carried out by a child alleged to be 12-14 years old.
Victims of the Gaziantep attack
It is important to understand what the working definition of terrorism is. In my opinion, terrorism, or an act of terrorism is defined as an act of violence performed by a non-state member, to achieve a political, social, religious or economic goal through fear and coercion. Historically, suicide bombings have been used as a primary weapon by terrorist organizations in order to achieve an agenda. Suicide bombings over the past decade have been carried out by both men and women and fit into the working definition of a terrorist attack, mainly because the perpetrators are regarded as “non-state members”.
What has become apparent during the rise of Islamic State is their complete disregard for democracy, different ethnic groups across Europe and the Middle East and Islam’s historical tolerance for other religions, particularly Christianity and Judaism. Many young men and women across Europe and the Middle East are coerced and brainwashed into giving their lives away, which needs to be combated through education. However, using a child is even more sinister and cowardly than usual, and reinforces the notion that terrorist organizations are willing to do whatever it takes to complete their goals.
The tragic attack in Nice on Thursday 14th of June, Bastille Day, is one of utter heartbreak. Currently, 84 citizens are dead including 10 children, with 202 more civilians injured. Already the Western world is provoked and sympathetic towards the situation in France, with landmarks such as the Palace of Westminster to be lit up in the French colours to show the British people’s solidarity with the French, and the growing rise of Facebook’s “flagtivism’. This notion of solidarity is something which should be praised, as it highlights humanitarian support.
However, it must be noted that there was a considerable lack of solidarity, flagtivism and landmarks draped in national colours when just as horrendous bomb attacks occurred in places such as Turkey and Iraq. The most recent terrorist attacks in Iraq similarly happened on a national holiday, Eid, and during the holy month of Ramadan. Yet where was the media coverage? The bombings in the capital of Iraq killed over 200 people two weeks ago, but on the media it seemed to be less important than the terrorist attacks that happen here in the West. When media coverage has a greater focus and emphasis on what happens in the West it almost seems to suggest that the deaths of Westerners are far more significant than the deaths of those in Middle Eastern countries.
This is not to say that the tragic deaths of those in Nice are less important than those in the Middle East — they were equally as shocking and devastating. The media now needs to combat such acts of cowardly terror through pushing aside ancient orientalist notions of Us vs Them, and truly take up the belief of “#AllLivesMatter” by reporting with equal concern of those closer to home as well as further away. The only way we can fight such attacks is we support each other in solidarity — ethnicities aside.