Reconstruction in Raqqa

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

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

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

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

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

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

The right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association: the UK and the impact of ‘kettling’

Much international attention is devoted to violations of the rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the developing world, but here I wish to bring to light the regressive steps taken in this regard by developed democracies like the United Kingdom. This is aimed at ensuring that the standards on civil society space that countries like the UK demand abroad are also applied domestically.

As the supposed standard-bearers for the protection of fundamental human rights, some introspective reflection would reveal how Western police practices like ‘kettling’ are intrinsically detrimental to the exercise of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. These are instances where the police deploy a cordon around a crowd of protestors, and in so doing determine their route or ability to leave. The kind of behaviour fostered by these suffocating methods represents one of the greatest threats to the expression of the right of freedom of assembly and association in the UK today. To maintain the high democratic standards countries like the UK set for themselves, the practice of kettling must be rigorously reviewed at the highest levels of human rights protection.

The importance of civil society and the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association

Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) stipulates the universal, indivisible and interdependent nature of the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. Moreover, the way this right is interrelated with other key rights makes it relevant in ways that may not be immediately obvious. The fact that it enables the exercise of many civil, political, economic, and social rights means that its violation can have severe repercussions on the degree to which people regard themselves as free more generally. If the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association is encouraged adequately, people become empowered to express their opinions and engage in debate, providing alternative perspectives to long-established interests. With a stronger civil society, there emerges a stronger, more united state.

For those societies whose democracies have flourished as a result of these freedoms, there is an increasing danger of complacency reversing the progress achieved until now. Worse still, there are strong elements of hypocrisy in the complaints of various UK politicians. While calling for young people to be more engaged and aware of key political and social issues, they fail to provide them with the adequate means of expressing it, even deliberately making the task more difficult through tactics like kettling.

The threats to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the UK

Whether they be overt or covert, attempts to infringe on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association in the UK are being observed at a worrying pace. Examples of the latter include the infiltration of law-abiding groups like Earth First by undercover police, which have left behind lasting trauma and suspicion. More broadly, there is a lack of transparency in the intelligence-gathering procedures by authorities during protests and assemblies. People who are not committing any kind of offence effectively run the risk of their information being harvested for no specified purpose, not just by the government but by private security companies too. The outcome – fear of what attending a protest may mean for one’s private freedoms – is a damning indictment of the efforts being made to encourage civic activity.

The primary issue at hand here, however, is the prevalence of kettling at demonstrations in the UK over a number of years. This is an overt course of action which is indiscriminate and disproportionate in nature in almost every single instance, meaning that the practice has come under numerous legal challenges all over the world. In the UK, a ruling which had deemed it illegal after the G20 protests in 2009 was overturned in 2012 – symptomatic of the lack of clarity over the issue. There is no clear level of actual or perceived violence which is deemed enough to impose a kettle; no defined threshold past which a restriction of liberty becomes a deprivation of liberty; no fair way of determining who to release from the containment; and no sensible balancing of the distress caused to ordinary citizens against the risk of disorder caused by others.

In theory police guidelines discourage kettling as a first port of call, yet the recent track record paints a different picture. At G20 summits in 2009, student tuition fee protests in 2010, austerity protests in 2011, and allegedly at the University of Birmingham campus in 2014, the repeated use of kettling at high-profile gatherings has accumulatively damaged the positive civic aspects of protest. Even more recently in the United States, journalists following President Trump’s inauguration and the St. Louis protests of 2017 have spoken of how routinely they may be kettled by virtue of doing their job. It means that people must prepare to be ‘kettled’ when heading to a protest, possibly trapped in a tight space for hours on end often without access to food, water, or sanitation facilities. This is an example of the damaging behavioural effects that kettling can have on would-be demonstrators. The threat of being kettled, and understanding all the deeply unpleasant experiences that it will bring, seriously undermines the relationship of trust between peaceful protestors and the police. The consequence is that people begin thinking twice about exercising one of their most fundamental civic freedoms, putting at severe risk the status of UK civil society as a national treasure. The unity fostered by civil society is indispensable in holding governments to account, and thereby ensuring that people are able to enjoy the numerous other rights laid down in the UDHR without fear or favour.

The concerning behavioural effects of kettling are evident from the perspective of the police as well as the protestors. By its very nature, kettling puts the police in a position whereby there is no incentive to discriminate amongst protestors. It encourages a more dominant and brutal approach even towards peaceful bystanders. Having undue control over the path protestors are allowed to walk facilitates the emergence of de facto hostage situations: at the 2009 G20 protests in London protestors were being required by police to give names and photos in order to leave and threatened with a return to the pen if they refused. Where the ‘bargaining power’ in a protest is tipped too far in the favour of the police, as it is with the practice of kettling, the authorities are emboldened to act in ways which infringe disproportionately on the right to peaceful assembly and freedom of association. If police forces are not directly encouraged to do otherwise, then they will continue to resort to this tactic, leading to indiscriminate arrests and violations of human rights standards.

Developed democracies like the UK must continuously be reminded that freedom of assembly and association is a right rather than a privilege, and ensure that their police forces act on that premise. People should not have to fear exercising this right, nor experience any extreme discomfort when they do. It is clear that the focus of the legal framework on freedom of peaceful assembly and association in the UK is geared more towards public order than human rights. I recognise that striking this balance is not a simple task, but emphasise that it has gone too far in the direction of the former recently. We must hold to account those governments usually perceived to be the bastions of human rights and freedoms.

Who is the new Home Secretary?

Sajid Javid has been named the new Home Secretary following Amber Rudd’s resignation. Long thought to be politically dead due to his disagreements with Theresa May, he is now a favourite to be the next Prime Minister. His story is the ideal Conservative party tale: the son of Pakistani immigrants, who arrived in Britain with nothing, who is now a cabinet member. But who is this man and where does he stand with regards to the issues that the NCF tackles?

Faith

Javid has consistently referred to his ‘Muslim heritage’, and at times referred to himself as a Muslim. However, more recently he has declared that he no longer practices the faith. That being said, he has argued that faith is ‘undoubtedly a force for good’. He has regularly called for people of differing faiths to come together, claiming without this willingness to integrate, resentment will rise. Whilst these are promising statements, Javid has claimed that ‘Christianity is the religion of the UK’. Not a wholly controversial statement but it could alienate non-Christians. Furthermore, Javid has close connections with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The AEI is a neo-conservative think tank with controversial members such as former Vice-President Dick Cheney and anti-Islam activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali. There are concerns that this connection suggests an unwillingness to truly improve inter-faith relations.

The Middle East

Javid has been a staunch supporter of Israel, regularly criticising the BDS movement. He has said that if he had to move to the region he would only go to Israel as it is the only country where his children can feel ‘the warm embrace of freedom and liberty’. He has remained silent on the Palestinian issue. He has always voted for greater military interventions in the Middle East: voting for an extension to military operations in Afghanistan in 2010, the no-fly zone in Libya in 2011, and for air strikes in Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015 respectively. He also voted against waiting for the UN council to act in Syria and against the investigations into the Iraq war. His views on the Middle East line up near-perfectly with mainstream neo-conservative thought. However, his stance on Iran does go against this thinking. He has called for improving business ties with Iran in the wake of the UK leaving the EU. He has argued that improved business ties would not be ignoring the issues Iran presents Britain, but would be a means of solving them.

Immigration and Counter-Terrorism

A major reason as to why he has been chosen for the role of Home Office is because of his story. He has, very effectively, spoken of his outrage at the Windrush scandal, arguing that his family could well have been one of those affected. He does differ somewhat with Theresa May as he is against the idea of an arbitrary reduction of net migration to less than 100,000 and believes in removing students from this equation. However, despite his heritage and identity he has struck a very traditionally neo-conservative stance regarding the issue of immigration and counter-terrorism. He has supported the controversial ‘Prevent’ program after claims that it was unfairly targeting Muslim communities. He has voted to keep the 28 days without sentencing for suspected terrorists. He has also voted against improving asylum seeker applications. His voting behaviour regarding immigration suggests he will continue the work his predecessors began, in spite of what he has said in the press.

Final Thoughts

Sajid Javid is a traditional neo-conservative, supporting aggressive immigration and counter-terrorism policies and with a military mind set regarding the Middle East. What will be interesting is how he plays his role. Many analysts have pointed to his political ambitions and his frayed relationship with Theresa May. He will certainly be eyeing the Prime Ministerial position. Javid has not hesitated to use the current political climate in order to further his goals, and he has not been afraid to speak out against Theresa May in the past. In view of Theresa May’s seemingly weakening position, it will be interesting to see if he decides at some point to deviate from the party line. However, it is unlikely that any such deviations will be concerning Middle East related issues.

Is it time for the UK to recognise the state of Palestine?

Palestinian prospects for self-determination continue to dwindle. International calls for a two-state solution are becoming increasingly infrequent. 2017 and 2018 have been excellent years for Israel. US President Donald Trump has decided to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, a city which (in the absence of a peace settlement) cannot be recognised as the capital of Israel without the direct violation of international law. And Israel’s settlement program continues to take more and more land from the Palestinians, also in direct violation of international law. Meanwhile, the recent protests in Gaza have been met with the killing of over forty Palestinian demonstrators, in direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention. The international community remains apathetic with regard to the situation and the British response to the current crisis in Gaza has been tepid at best.

However, there is still a glimmer of hope for Palestinian self-determination. Indeed as long as there are Palestinians in Palestine, showing their willingness to continue to fight for their future, hope remains. What is required to turn this hope into something more tangible is a statement of intent from the British Government: a willingness to turn a vague ‘position’ of backing for a two-state solution into a more tangible policy. Britain should recognise the State of Palestine.

Britain remains influential, especially in Europe and the Middle East. Britain’s recognition of Palestine would have a greater effect on the world stage than when countries like Sweden made the same declaration a few years ago. Mainstream European politics has become more pro-Palestine in recent decades. Furthermore, the former policy of ‘follow the US’ lead’ can no longer as easily continue with the unpredictable and diplomatically brash Trump in power. If powerful countries can show they are willing to step out from under the US’ shadow, it will encourage a disillusioned Palestine and, perhaps, caution an Israel that is becoming bolder and bolder.

Beyond the moral argument, recognition might also create tangible political benefits for the UK. The UK’s willingness to ignore Israel’s human rights abuses weakens Britain’s ability to apply international pressure elsewhere. The UK criticising Iran’s oppression of freedom of belief whilst providing tacit support to Israel’s human rights violations in regard to Palestinians’ freedom to demonstrate is viewed as hypocritical by some. Relations between the UK and countries in the region would improve if Britain could point to tangible efforts to improve the lives of Palestinians. At the very least, it would remove an excuse that is often put forward by the West’s opponents, such as Iran, to justify their behaviour. At a more micro level, the UK’s stance on the Israel-Palestine situation is certainly a factor that leads young, disillusioned men to be swept up by Islamic fundamentalism. Terror groups feed off of a portrayal of Muslims and the West as incompatible, often citing our hypocrisy regarding Israel as evidence.

How far we are from such a declaration of the recognition of Palestine is difficult to say. Only one of the major parties within the UK does not plan to recognise Palestine as a nation state. Unfortunately, that party is the incumbent Conservatives. However, quite possibly there are enough conservative MPs in favour of recognition that, if put to a parliamentary vote, Britain would indeed recognise Palestine.

Evidently, such a bill will not be drawn up by Theresa May’s current cabinet. Israel remains a powerful ally with tremendous influence on Britain’s government.

In the government’s eyes, the potential benefits of upsetting the status-quo do not yet outweigh the potential costs. However, Britain’s claim to be a supporter of Human Rights becomes shallow whilst it continues to give de facto support to the current actions of Israel.

Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

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

Further background from the NCF Secretary General:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt

Israel

North Korea

Palestine

South Sudan

They should all be brought onboard urgently.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Frozen Assets, Frozen Relations? Key unpublished background on the Russia / UK issue

A few months ago, Boris Johnson visited Moscow to talk about UK relations with Russia – he was the first UK Foreign Secretary to do so in five years. It was an understatement then, when Johnson conceded that Britain’s relationship with Russia was “not on a good footing” and vowed to improve relations.

The poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in a leafy cathedral town in England on the 4th of March has however dashed any hopes of closer relations between the two countries. In fact it has threatened to entirely freeze an already cold relationship.

Indeed earlier this week, Johnson himself changed tact, calling Russia a “malign and disruptive force” and accusing the Kremlin of launching cyber-attacks against Britain, labelling them an “act of war.”

Prime Minister Theresa May was even more damning in her condemnation of Russia in light of the poisoning. Speaking in the House of Commons, May publicly accused Russia of attempted murder both because of its record of conducting state-sponsored assassinations and also because the nerve agent purportedly used on Skripal was, and could only be produced in Russia. There are, May concluded “only two plausible explanations for what happened;” either Russia directly orchestrated an attack on a citizen on foreign soil or it simply lost control of the nerve agent, allowing it to get into the hands of others.

May ended with an ultimatum to Russia: you have 24 hours to provide credible evidence that the attack was not state-sponsored or face the consequences of an act that essentially amounts to military aggression. Comparing it to the 2006 murder of Alexander Litvinenko, another double agent, May promised much more extensive measures than the sanctions put in place after his death.

Key points from a source the name of which the NCF has agreed to withhold at present:

  1. It is very doubtful that these compounds are military grade nerve agents or that a Russian “Novichok” programme ever existed – if they were potentially usable as weapons, people on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board who were in a position to know would have recommended that they be added to the list of Scheduled Chemicals. They have never been added.
  2. “Novichok” compounds are easy to synthesize at bench scale in a modern lab – how else could Porton Down have developed a test for them? Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability. Any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound. Porton Down must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them. Therefore its presence in this case is clearly not sufficient evidence of Russian culpability.

Background – again from the NCF source (name withheld)

  1. The only source for the story that a new class of organophosphate compounds was developed as chemical weapons under the name Novichok in the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s is from Vil Mirzayanov, a defector in the 1990s. Mirzayanov described the chemical structures of these compounds and stated that the toxicity of an agent named Novichuk-5 “under optimal conditions exceeds the effectiveness of VX by five to eight times”. Mirzayanov alleged that Russian testing and production had continued after signing the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1993.
  2. Soviet scientists had published many papers in the open literature on the chemistry of such compounds for possible use as insecticides. Mirzayanov claimed that “this research program was premised on the ability to hide the production of precursor chemicals under the guise of legitimate commercial chemical production of agricultural chemicals”.
  3. Mirzayanov claimed that the Novichok agents were easy to synthesize: One should be mindful that the chemical components or precursors of A-232 or its binary version novichok-5 are ordinary organophosphates that can be made at commercial chemical companies that manufacture such products as fertilizers and pesticides.
  4. An authoritative review by Dr Robin Black, who was until recently head of the detection laboratory at the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (Porton Down), emphasizes that there is no independent confirmation of Mirzayanov’s claims about the chemical properties of these compounds: In recent years, there has been much speculation that a fourth generation of nerve agents, ‘Novichoks’ (newcomer), was developed in Russia, beginning in the 1970s as part of the ‘Foliant’ programme, with the aim of finding agents that would compromise defensive countermeasures. Information on these compounds has been sparse in the public domain, mostly originating from a dissident Russian military chemist, Vil Mirzayanov. No independent confirmation of the structures or the properties of such compounds has been published.
  5. OPCW’s Scientific Advisory Board did not take Mirzayanov’s story seriously enough to rate these compounds and their precursors as Scheduled Chemicals that should be controlled under the Chemical Weapons Convention: The Scientific Advisory Board emphasised that the definition of toxic chemicals in the Convention would cover all potential candidate chemicals that might be utilised as chemical weapons. Regarding new toxic chemicals not listed in the Annex on Chemicals but which may nevertheless pose a risk to the Convention, the Scientific Advisory Board makes reference to “Novichoks”. The name “Novichok” is used in a publication of a former Soviet scientist who reported investigating a new class of nerve agents suitable for use as binary chemical weapons. The Scientific Advisory Board states that it has insufficient information to comment on the existence or properties of “Novichoks”. The Scientific Advisory Board included Dr Black, and several other heads of national chemical defence laboratories in western countries. These labs would have made their own evaluation of Mirzayanov’s claims and specifically would have done their own experiments to determine if compounds with the structures that he described were of military grade toxicity. We can reasonably assume that if they had found that these compounds were potentially usable as chemical weapons, they would have recommended adding them to the list of Scheduled Chemicals.
  6. The Prime Minister stated that: There are, therefore, only two plausible explanations for what happened in Salisbury on 4 March: either this was a direct act by the Russian state against our country; or the Russian Government lost control of their potentially catastrophically damaging nerve agent and allowed it to get into the hands of others. Of course there is a third possible explanation for the detection of such a compound.  As the structures of these compounds have been described, any organic chemist with a modern lab would be able to synthesize bench scale quantities of such a compound, with the objective of generating a trail of evidence that would point to Russia. Porton Down, for instance, must have been able to synthesize these compounds in order to develop tests for them.

Our own NCF Team adds:

The pushback from Russia was unsurprising; the country’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov denied the attack and demanded access to samples of the nerve agent used to poison Skripal. Aria Zakharova, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman further accused both the British government and the media of using the incident to fuel anti-Russian sentiment in the UK. The Chairman of the Accounts Chamber of Russia Sergei Stepashin also posited that it was the British security services that were behind the attack who were trying to undermine the upcoming Russian presidential elections: “It seems obvious to me that this might be the primitive work of English security services” he said “tell me who needs this traitor in Russia?”

Meanwhile, Vladimir Putin remained untroubled about any potential blowback. Indeed in a recent visit to the National Grain Centre in Russia, when asked by a BBC journalist whether Russia was behind the poisoning of Skripal, he simply smirked and replied “we’re busy here with agriculture […]get to the bottom of things there, first. Then we’ll talk about this.”

The incident poses an interesting challenge for the direction of British foreign policy in an uncertain pre-Brexit climate and a US ally that is now ambivalent towards Russia’s political manoeuvrings.

There are for instance clear differences between European interests and British interests; both Germany and France are moving towards closer engagement and dialogue with Russia and it increasingly looks like Britain will have to act unilaterally to effectively sever diplomatic ties with Russia. Across the pond, Trump has been unusually subdued in his condemnation; “As soon as we get the facts straight” he said, “if we agree with them, we will condemn Russia or whoever it may be.”

So will May stick to her promise of more extensive measures? Or will there simply be more expelled diplomats, more sanctions and more frozen assets? The answer is not immediately clear.

What is clear however is that Britain is in a precarious position in condemning extra-judicial killings, or in this case, attempted killings. The use of drone strikes to kill not just foreign citizens but also British-born citizens on foreign soil, if not by Britain then extensively by Britain’s friend the USA, allows Putin to act with impunity. After all, how can the UK condemn Russia for attacks on individuals when the Anglo-American alliance carries out its own attacks on foreign soil?

There is little doubt that if Russia is behind the attack, then it should be punished for attempting to carry out an assassination on foreign soil. But perhaps Mrs May should heed the advice of Mr Lavrov in complying with its own international obligations first, “before putting forward ultimatums.” Is it really wise for Britain to isolate itself further by severing all ties with Russia in the absence of any credible and incriminating evidence?

References

Vil S. Mirzayanov, “Dismantling the Soviet/Russian Chemical Weapons Complex: An Insider’s View,” in Amy E. Smithson, Dr. Vil S. Mirzayanov, Gen Roland Lajoie, and Michael Krepon, Chemical Weapons Disarmament in Russia: Problems and Prospects, Stimson Report No. 17, October 1995, p. 21. https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/105521/Report17.pdf

OPCW: Report of the Scientific Advisory Board on developments in science and technology for the Third Review Conference 27 March 2013
https://www.opcw.org/fileadmin/OPCW/CSP/RC-3/en/rc3wp01_e_.pdf

Robin Black. (2016) Development, Historical Use and Properties of Chemical Warfare Agents. Royal Society of Chemistry
http://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/chapter/bk9781849739696-00001/978-1-84973-969-6

Citizens of Nowhere: Maintaining Civil Liberties when faced with Terror

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 3 Clustered ID on 1st March 2018, the special report on terrorism:

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation understands the tremendous pressure faced by nations that have to combat the nefarious forces of international terrorism but is concerned at the use of suspension of citizenship as a measure to counter extremism. While this pragmatic approach may have advantages in the short term, it is simply a band-aid that masks the underlying problem.

All persons of good conscience stress the importance of creating a society that everyone is a part of regardless of cultural, religious or historical heritage. Two nations that particularly foster and cherish the notions of tolerance and inclusivity are the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Kingdom of Bahrain. Both aspire to build a world in which all citizens are equally valued and whose rights are equally upheld. Both nations have ratified the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. However both nations continue to use the suspension of citizenship as a tool. Citizenship is an inalienable right to which every individual is entitled, and the removal of citizenship should not be wielded as a punishment even when terrorism provokes national outrage. Indeed doing so may further galvanise individuals that are already on the fringes of society into extreme action.

We do not wish to underestimate the difficulty the UK faces with returning UK-born ISIS fighters, nor do we wish to underestimate the anger provoked by instances of bloodshed and sectarian violence in Bahrain. But by depriving individuals of their citizenship, these nations are forsaking civil liberties in the pursuit of security and setting a dangerous precedent. We appeal to both the UK and Bahrain to adopt other more considered measures when it comes to dealing with extremists in their midst.

It is only through the creation of a more tolerant global society that we can truly combat extremism. Thank you.

 

The Struggle for Suffrage: 100 Years On

100 years ago today, the Representation of the People Act 1918 was passed, allowing some women in the UK the right to vote for the first time. It is bittersweet to celebrate the centenary of women’s right to vote in a year that has so far been dominated by conversations on gender pay gaps, sexual harassment and gender inequality more broadly. But perhaps it is also a timely reminder that despite the vast achievements of the suffragettes, there is still a lot that needs to be done.

Indeed what the last year has especially highlighted is that we still need feminism as much as we did 100 years ago. To identify as a feminist today has almost become taboo; honest and much needed conversations about the gap in women’s pay and attitudes towards sexual harassment are often interrupted with “well what about.” But discussing the gender pay gap in the BBC or sexual harassment endemic in some business cultures does not diminish the impact nor the importance of issues such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or the lack of basic female rights in countries such as Saudi Arabia. In fact it serves to highlight the continuing endurance of negatives attitudes towards women in all societies and the action needed to eradicate these pernicious beliefs.

The history of the suffragettes has become so sanitised that it is easy to forget that the suffragettes themselves faced a huge backlash for wanting to achieve political equality for women and that this backlash came not just from men but also from other women who felt that women lacked the capacity to understand politics and branded the suffragettes as “ugly spinsters.” Such attitudes are unthinkable today when we have female presidents, prime ministers and heads of state.

So this year, while we honour and remember the sacrifices made by the women who fought for the right to vote, we should also recognise and honour the women that are still fighting, not just in far flung places across the world, but also here at home. The fight for women’s rights anywhere does not diminish the fight everywhere else. Injustice anywhere is felt everywhere, no matter how small.   After all, how can we tell other people to clean up their backyards when we have weeds growing in our own?

Populism and Nationalism vs. Globalisation

We are living in a world where globalisation and cosmopolitanism are the greatest. However, there has been surprising advancement of right-wing populist and nationalist parties such as the increased parliamentary representation of Marine Le Pen’s Front National. The election of Donald Trump and Brexit are similar phenomena. These clear manifestations of social exclusion within the western world prove that immigrants and local residents are not living in harmony and that this dichotomy is threatening our democracy. In order to better respond to the threat, we must clearly understand the reason behind the recent insurgence of populism.

“Make America Great Again” is a campaign slogan used by Donald Trump during his 2016 presidential campaign. I’ve always wondered what specifically President Trump and his supporters want to “make great again”. Since the supporters disfavour immigrants inflow, does this mean bringing back racial segregation and restoring complete white supremacy? What exactly are his concerns about the immigration? According to research provided by the CATO Institute, Americans feel alienated from their own government and community and feel that they are blocked from resources and opportunities. The CATO Institute further argued that immigrants are usually the target for blame for the alienation because their cultural unfamiliarity gives a sense of negativity which distorts perception of reality.

With the help of the right wing who sees this social chasm as an opportunity to further their political interest, many Americans and Westerners claim that they are discriminated against in favour of immigrants and minorities and that they are being treated unfairly. However, their claims of experiencing “reverse racism” are in fact very misleading and are becoming a huge hindrance when dealing with reality. Then what is the reality? What forced people into this alienation even from ones’ own country?

The answer is financialisation, and the shareholder value model.  As financial capitalism develops more and more, corporate business structure, governance, and strategies have been transformed to maximise shareholders’ profits regardless of social costs. The problem is that when the debt-to-equity ratio is increasing, there is less money available for the real economy. Inevitably, real income for all households in America decreased whereas corporate profits increased tremendously.  The feelings of alienation Americans and westerners are experiencing are real, but the causes are not from the immigrants, but from the careless advancement of capitalism.

Globalisation definitely has increased the wealth of every nation, but a fair spread of wealth allocation was not realised, unfortunately. Stagnating middle-class income and increasing income inequality are causing social unrest giving rise to nationalism, protectionism, racism and you name it. Therefore, to protect our value of democracy and promote social tranquillity, we must seek to modify economic structures altogether rather than focusing on the advantage of one social group. Although Clinton’s “Stronger Together” lost the battle against Trump’s “Make America Great Again”, we must promote social inclusivity and make globalisation great for everyone.