Brexit problems for Europe’s Students?

A substantial proportion of Britain’s younger generation feel strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union (or certainly did so prior to recent events). The opportunity Europe presented for study abroad is just one of the many reasons why:

With just months to go until the UK is set to leave the EU, the possibility of a ‘No Deal Brexit’ seems increasingly likely. With the UK’s involvement in many EU institutions set to diminish, what will Brexit mean for the UK’s place in the Erasmus+ programme?

Erasmus+ is an EU initiative which provides grants for participants to study, work, volunteer, teach and train in Europe. In the past four years the programme has awarded 677 million euros to UK participants, with 128,097 British students taking part from 2014-2016. The UK will remain a part of the current scheme until its end in 2020. Although after that what happens is unclear.

Since its creation in 1987, the Erasmus scheme has improved economic outcomes, with unemployment rates 23% lower for participants.

After 2020, Britain may be forced to leave the scheme.

Will it be replaced?

The European Commission has proposed a new form of Erasmus+ from 2021-27 which would see it doubling its budget and opening to “third countries” from outside the EU, such as, presumably, the UK after Brexit.

Even if such a proposal did not go through, in theory Britain could still adopt the Swiss model. Under this model, British universities would set up their own agreements with EU universities and provide their own funding. Savings made from payments to the EU could even be used to fund it.

Would people use a new scheme?

No one should underestimate the ideological sentiment of Brexit. Fewer Europeans may want to study in the UK and vice versa. Already there’s been a 19% increase in departures of European staff from UK universities in 2017 compared to before the Brexit vote. Though many left due to fears surrounding research grant eligibility and visa concerns, many also also left for ideological reasons.

Some schools have reported that Brexit has led to a decrease in students wanting to learn languages, further reinforced by their parents’ attitudes.

Regardless of whether we want to see less immigration or “take back control”, we still need confident, open-minded and adaptable young people who can survive and prosper in an increasingly globalised world. With Brexit, they will not.

The Anti-Semitism Row

Tim Pendry responds to our intern’s blog on the Labour Anti-Semitism row, which he views as a little naive politically. He writes as an independent observer sympathetic to Corbyn’s position on this particular matter. We would view his perspective as being similar to that of a mainstream Labour activist, though not a viewpoint universally held:

We can start with two propositions which are uncomfortable for some activists.

The first is that free speech, as an Enlightenment Project, should be as close to absolute as possible in any political movement that purports to represent the Left and yet it is clear that there has been increasing pressure, mostly from authoritarian elements in society, to restrict that freedom so that defence of free speech has largely and unfortunately fallen into the hands of conservatives and then populists.

The second is that a British political party should be primarily concerned with the welfare of the British people (of all faiths) and should not become the plaything of struggles in foreign lands or allow itself to be directly or indirectly influenced by the interests of a foreign power. The Labour Party got itself into this mess originally by permitting far too much influence to activists more concerned with Middle Eastern politics than social change because it was greedy for votes from new immigrant communities.

This opened the door to Jewish activists whose primary interest (in this debate) was undoubtedly the protection of political support for the state of Israel which was pretty well taken for granted in the higher ranks of the Party until Corbyn was elected Leader. This is all a matter of indifference to most working people who are actually not in the least antisemitic but commit the crime of utter indifference to both sides in this tiresome and eternal squabble.

In this atmosphere of political warfare, it is naive to think that the IHRA guidelines came out of some objective analysis of antisemitism above and beyond these politics. They did not. They are the culmination of a process of linking the narrative of antisemitism and the holocaust to the existence of Israel and then making the definition of antisemitism implicitly include criticism of Israel. So let us take the four guidelines and give another interpretation (since the author’s interpretation is actually fair if one wishes to interpret them that way but there are other interpretations).

  1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Unfortunately, this is actually a fair criticism from many Jewish activists who do place loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish community ahead of the interests of their own nation. The ‘soft’ version is an unspoken and unthinking assumption that the interests of the UK and Israel are identical. They are not necessarily so. We must be free to call out any community within the country, including Muslims of course, who place their original homeland or their community’s interests or even (in extremis) their faith ahead of the interests of the UK as a whole and certainly of the British working population.
  2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This is fair since it is clear that Judaism is not racist. However, Zionism is. by definition, ethnicist. There is a slippery slope here given the inability of many modern liberals not to be able to draw the distinction between ethnicity and racism. The existence of the State of Israel is very much an ethnicist endeavour and we must be free to say so.
  3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This is a fair concern but, again, we have to consider context. Israel claims to be a Western democratic outpost and it is surrounded by non-democratic illiberal countries. There is no comparison. However, Israel’s conduct can and should be compared (even if there may be sound security reasons for the differences) with the way, say, Sweden or Ireland may conduct matters. The clause is clear – it is not ‘of any other nation’ but ‘of any other democratic nation’. While recognising that Israel is largely democratic (though only so because most Palestinians have left), we must be free to compare it if we so wish to the other democratic nations of which it claims kinship.
  4. “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is a difficult one but free speech is not about sensitivity, it is about freedom. There is no fair way of claiming the State of Israel behaves like the Nazi State but this should be dealt with in terms of the facts and not sensitivity when, seventy years after the event and with more knowledge of the general scale of man’s inhumanity to man, under conditions where a nation owns the nuclear bomb and has a preparedness to use it, we all know in our hearts that the holocaust narrative has two aspects – as tragic history and as propaganda. What we must be free to say is that there are similarities perhaps between some aspects of national socialism and some aspects of all forms of ethnicist nationalism and perhaps, if evidence can be provided, even in military techniques against settlement or in ‘lebensraum’. An intelligent person would only make the lightest of historical comparisons if they believed them to be true because there is no evidence of the racial politics or chaotics of the German dictatorship but he or she must be allowed to make these comparisons in good faith as a matter of free speech.

The ‘Zionist’ or Jewish activist pressure on the Labour Leadership is purely political, a continuation by other means of a project to recover an influence over the British Left taken for granted over many decades. It is the wrong struggle. The right struggle would have been to ask why the worst sort of faith-based obscurantism has been imported into the Party’s inner city wards without sufficient challenge. Any antisemitism arising from poorly educated Islamists is a mere symptom of something infinitely more concerning – the steady unravelling of Enlightenment values for contingent political advantage across a wide front.

As to ‘feelings’ this represents the decadence of our politics. Politics should be about principle and not pandering to ‘feelings’. The crisis certainly cannot be averted by pandering to a demand that a few inappropriate clauses of the IHRA guidelines are accepted just to defuse the crisis – it simply creates a new crisis, one of the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The crisis can be averted by staying strong on the principle of free speech but taking a tough line on antisemitism (as opposed to criticism of Israel) where it appears alongside all other forms of racial or ethnicist politics including perhaps aspects of Corbyn’s treasured Irish republicanism and the clan politics of the migrant inner cities.

Labour must find better ways to criticise Israel’s Government

Labour has strong reason to criticise the Israel’s government and to speak up for the rights of Palestinians. Although they are going about it in completely the wrong way. On Tuesday, Labour finally adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism with its full eleven working examples. Adding the four of which they had previously left out of their code of conduct. Labour also added a caveat expressing the need for freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians. However, the lateness of this seems to be out of as much out of a need to alleviate the mounting pressure in the media as it is an action to fight anti-Semitism.

The adoption of the internationally recognised IHRA definitions represent for many in the Jewish community a key symbolic step in the fight against anti-Semitism. By viewing these guidelines as contentious, Labour has put themselves in a tricky position. This position conflates their rightly founded criticism of policies of Israel’s government and advocacy of Palestinian rights with anti-Semitism.

By not initially accepting the full IHRA definitions, they have shown a lack of understanding of the views of many in the Jewish community. Many in Labour say agreeing to the guidelines puts them in a position where they cannot criticise the acts of the Israeli government. However, the IHRA does still allow for this criticism. The four previously omitted examples of anti-Semitism include:

  • “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” This example does not mean that the Israel’s government cannot be criticised
  • “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour. This does not mean that Palestine doesn’t have the right to self-determination and does not define any specific land boundaries.
  • “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This does not mean we should stop criticising Israel’s government but perhaps does signal the need to further criticise the current and past behaviour of many democratic nations.
  • “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This does not mean Israel’s policy is exempt from strong criticism but calls for criticism of Israel’s policy towards Palestinians in a way which still respects sensitivity to the issue of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Although Labour did agree to add these four examples on Tuesday, it also added a caveat that states: “this does not in any way undermine the freedom of expression on Israel and the rights of Palestinians”. It is not necessarily the content of the caveat which is the problem, but its symbolic placement. This undermines the IHRA definitions by suggesting that they do not allow for strong criticism of the Israeli state’s policies and the expression of Palestinian rights.

The effect of Labour’s poor management

Labour’s handling of this situation has had two key negative effects. Firstly, it has shown disregard for the feelings of many Jewish people inside and outside of the party. Secondly, it has significantly reduced Labour’s ability to pragmatically criticise the government of Israel and improve the rights of Palestinians. It has done this by distracting from the actual actions of the Israeli government against Palestinians; and by weakening the credibility of Labour as and when it chooses to criticise them.

Some have argued that those wishing to oust Corbyn have put him in a difficult position by deliberately conflating criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism. Whether this is true or not, Labour cannot move forward unless they separate the two issues.

What can Labour do now?

To make any advances in effectively criticising Israel and upholding the rights of the Palestinians, Labour must separate the two conflated points. They can deliver a strong message against anti-Semitism by fully supporting the IHRA definitions as well as by combatting anti-Semitism in the party. Whilst doing this, they can separately give strong criticism of the Israeli state and advocate for the rights of the Palestinians. But confusing the two issues will get them nowhere.

Of Boris and of Banning the Burkas

The following represents the personal view of the NCF Secretary General and does not necessarily represent an NCF position:

There are two issues here. One is that the full face covering is a Mediaeval practice and one that is abusive in so much as it enshrines the doctrine of male dominance over the female. In a sense it degrades women.

It may be right to speak out against this practice.

However, even the birds of the air have need of nests. And whatever the rights and wrongs of that great cultural leveler, migration, one thing is certain, we are responsible for welcoming the migrant that arrives at these shores in a way which does not foster prejudice and hatred. Britain’s former Foreign Secretary’s remarks were calculated. They were written by Boris Johnson in a newspaper editorial. They are abusive of women in themselves, comparing those who practice full face veiling to pillar boxes with slits. Furthermore his manner provokes those already inflamed with Islamophobia (often exacerbated by but not because of the recent terror attacks) into further hatred. The former Foreign Secretary behaved as a racist. The sentiment behind his words, a concern about what the full face veil represents, may echo genuine concern for those women who choose, sometimes of their own volition, to do this to themselves. But he had no right to say that in that way. Not a man who may become our next Prime Minister.

Two wrongs do not make a right. Boris Johnson was therefore quite wrong. He should apologise. And if it was not his intention to foster religious hatred, he should apologise at least for the unwitting effect his remarks had.

Christ told us not to judge “Lest we be judged”. But there is an expectation that politicians in a position of leadership make considered judgements on our behalf. Boris’ remarks were unwise. Boris’ remarks can hardly have helped in these difficult times.

We should do better. But should we ban the burka and the headscarf like they do in France and Finland? Well maybe there is an argument for banning the hoody in young men and the burka in women because they are socially divisive and threatening. But not the headscarf. The French have gone overboard there. Women in the West have worn headscarves for generations as a fashion statement. And old fashioned European Catholics have always worn headscarves. The Muslim headscarf may be more concealing but is still just a cultural extension of the same thing and we should all find it in our hearts to accept it.

Is Labour’s new code of conduct a gateway to antisemitism?

The ongoing row over the Labour Party’s new guidelines on antisemitism has understandably drawn a lot of attention in the last few weeks. It turned particularly heated when Labour MP Dame Margaret Hodge directly called out Jeremy Corbyn as an “antisemite and a racist” in the House of Commons on 17th July, subsequently facing praise and criticism in equal measure. She since has been threatened with an investigation into “abusive conduct” and potentially disciplinary action by the Labour party, should she demonstrate similar behaviour in the future. It has also emerged that Peter Willsman, a member of Labour’s national executive committee (NEC) had been recorded at a meeting the same day, passing off reports of antisemitism as little more than “duff information without any evidence at all”, peddled by Jewish “Trump fanatics”. This all comes after Labour’s national executive committee ratified a decision to accept the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in its own code of conduct, but to omit 4 of its 11 accepted examples of contemporary antisemitism. 

The IHRA definition has been accepted by 31 countries, and 130 councils across the UK, the Crown Prosecution Service and the judiciary; having been accepted as a working definition by the European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia in 2005, and by the UK government in 2016. Labour’s NEC however, deems it unnecessary to include the full text of the code in its own party rules; despite opposition by over 60 Rabbis and a vote on Monday 23rd July by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), to accept the IHRA definition, with all its working examples, in full. But what do these omissions actually mean? And what does Labour’s own code of conduct mean for a party already controversially embroiled in a trail of antisemitic scandals?

What’s missing in Labour’s code of conduct?

The Labour Party has accepted, unaltered, the full IHRA definition of antisemitism:

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities”

However, in its examples of conduct “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, the NEC has included only 7 of the original 11, intentionally leaving out the following 4:

1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

This first example does seem to clearly construct a perception of Jewish citizens collectively, of acting purely in the interests of their own group to the detriment of others, and so not only denies Jewish people a sense of agency and independence from the worldwide Jewish community, which is itself derogatory, but accuses them of working against other groups because of their own innate loyalty. This of course is dangerous because it might cause individuals to be treated with suspicion, or even cause them to be targeted as a member of a ‘duplicitous’ group of people. Labour instead chooses to describe this as “wrong” in Article 14, rather than explicitly antisemitic.

It is clear that the working examples included in the IHRA code are intended to prevent a slide towards treating Jews, as a collective, as second-class citizens in their own countries. This would suggest that any act which makes generalising claims about Jewish people as a whole, is damaging. And that is exactly why this first is important, especially when such a claim might foster distrust of a collective group.

2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination (e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour).”

This second example is to deny Jewish people autonomy and a right to their own security. By claiming the State of Israel to be inherently racist in its existence, an individual questions the legitimacy of the state – this in theory might deny the right of the Jewish community to a state at all. If an individual wished to criticise the particular acts of particular people who helped established the state of Israel, they may freely do so. If one wishes to criticise the acts of the current, or a former, Israeli government, they may also do so. But to label an Israeli state as an inherently racist endeavour is to view its very existence as wrong, based on an illegitimacy at its core. This would then be to deny the right of Jewish people to their Israeli state.

It does seem somewhat moot in the sense that, regardless of the circumstances of Israel’s creation, it now is unquestionably a state and has been for 70 years. Thus, one cannot exactly question the legitimacy of the state itself today anyway. Nevertheless, denying its original legitimacy is akin to claiming that Jewish people do not have a right to self-determination, which was a key principle underlying the state’s creation in 1948.

In fact, rather than including the example in the list, the NEC code of conduct does actually make very clear in its Article 12, in reference to Article 1(2) of the UN Charter that “the Jewish people have the same right to self-determination as any other people”. It does not make reference to the “racist endeavour” example, however demonstrates clearly that to deny this right to Jewish people does constitute antisemitism. It does acknowledge also that “discussion of the circumstances of the foundation of Israeli state […] forms part of modern political discourse”. This therefore allows members to discuss freely those circumstances as they happened without challenging the current right of Jewish people to self-determination or the legitimacy of the current state of Israel.

3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The inclusion of the third example also makes sense, as to hold Israel to higher standards than any other democratic nation would be to single out Israel in particular. It would certainly not be wrong to expect the state of Israel to behave at the same high standards of international cooperation and/or human rights as other democratic states, or even to place pressure on them to do so, but to demand more from the state without justification would be itself discriminatory. Rather than include the example in its list of examples, Labour’s code labels such conduct as “wrong” in Article 14, as it would be to hold “Muslims or Muslim organisations to a higher standard than others”.

4. Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.

A comparison of contemporary Israeli policy with that of the Nazis seems particularly troubling. If a critic wishes to condemn the hypothetical acts of an Israel whose policies might involve targeting or subjugating minorities, or totalitarianism, the critic may make that claim without using Nazism as a comparison – there are other comparisons to be drawn from history which are not so loaded with a particular historic and emotional weight for the Jewish people. The full code does not prevent criticism. It only excludes that comparison. And that seems reasonable given the weight of that chapter of Jewish, and world, history and the possibility of this being used with antisemitic intent.

This has been particularly relevant since Jeremy Corbyn made a statement earlier this week, apologising for having appeared at a Holocaust Memorial Day event in 2010, at which the keynote speaker, Hajo Meyer, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz, drew a comparison between Israel’s actions in Gaza, and Nazi Germany. Mr Corbyn acknowledged that he had shared a platform with people “whose views I completely reject”; and apologised for any “concerns and anxiety” that it might have caused. 

It might be argued, however, that to prevent a critic from using a selected example of policy or action deployed under Nazi totality as a comparison, may insulate contemporary Israel from the full extent of scrutiny that any other state should be subject to. It is not impossible to imagine a hypothetical scenario where a selected policy under the Israeli government might leave some feeling systematically subjugated, targeted or discriminated against. We don’t refrain from drawing similar comparisons with Germany in the 1930s and 40s when other states implement dangerous or prejudicial policy – in this sense, Israel alone might be seen as being immune from that comparison. On the other hand, such acts could very easily still be condemned with the very same force by a member of the Labour Party, without drawing a direct comparison between the two cases. This merely acknowledges the specific sensitivity of the historic metaphor and instead places the onus on critics of Israel to be more creative with their criticism.

What’s been added to Labour’s code?

Labour’s code of conduct does in fact elaborate on one of the other examples in IHRA guidelines, pertaining to the use of symbols or images associated with classic antisemitism, to include the use of derogatory terms and stereotypical and/or negative physical depictions of Jewish people. This is undoubtedly positive in providing specific and unmistakeable examples of antisemitic language and has sadly been overlooked in many criticisms of Labour’s new code.

Labour Party guidelines also include the phrase, “likely to be regarded as antisemitic”, in the preamble to the examples. This is intended to imbue the examples with a greater degree of force in judging cases of antisemitism, than treating cases as “potential” acts of antisemitism. However, it does seem odd that the Labour Party would be willing to use that phrase, and then not include the 4 remaining examples. If the NEC had concerns about the ability of party members to exercise free speech in those cases whose context did not constitute antisemitism per se, the use of the word “likely”, rather than “certainly” may still accommodate for such specific cases to be judged in their own context. The original IHRA code of conduct provides for such cases when it describes antisemitic examples which “could, taking into account the overall context, include, but are not limited to [x]”. This suggests that there may be more examples of antisemitism not included in their own code, and that each should be judged in the context of their particular use, before the label of antisemitism is given. It would seem that the benefit of increased force that comes from using “likely” rather than “could”, is not great enough to outweigh the negative signal that the omissions send to many, including Jewish people, who feel the code has missed the mark.

What the code of conduct means for Labour

I don’t believe that a failure to accept the full definition automatically renders Labour or its leader antisemitic. However, an unwillingness to do so does signal to Jewish people that some of those acts deemed unacceptable as antisemitic by the widely accepted IHRA definition, might not be subject to the same scrutiny, or the same label, by the Labour party. This obviously must be a cause for great concern among those experiencing, or at risk from, such acts; and particularly those who have felt targeted by members of the Labour Party in the past and who are unable to gain recompense under the new rules. This is a critical juncture for the Party, at a time when over 200 cases of alleged antisemitic conduct are under investigation, involving roughly 75 members. This is a time when the Labour Party should be making very public moves to address these past offences and to take a firm line against abuse and systemic prejudice in party ranks. It is clearly a time when the party should be making gestures to ensure all its members feel welcome and to make clear its opposition to antisemitism of all kinds, taking into the consideration the views of the target group itself.

The importance of the examples is undeniable. They offer a clear standard by which one may be held to account. And when these cases are spelled out explicitly, as they are in the IHRA code, it creates a space within which any critic of the current State of Israel and its policies might freely exercise their right to free speech, condemning the policies of a modern state, as per that individual’s right to freely criticise any other state. At the very least, an acceptance of the full code removes many grey areas, and merely requires critics to temper their language to a lexicon acceptable and inoffensive to a certain group. This still allows the content of their criticism – provided it is not discriminatory or anti-Semitic inherently – to be conveyed clearly and forcefully.

It is perhaps true that Labour’s code goes further than the IHRA code in providing examples of unacceptable language and stereotypes targeted towards Jewish people. It may also be the case that the use of the word “likely” rather than “could” carries a greater degree of force. The concerns of Israel’s critics may also be valid, if they fear a state being able to avoid the full extent of scrutiny otherwise levied without question against other states. However, the Labour Party would not be denying contextual discretion in judging each case of supposed antisemitism, by including the other 4 working examples. These are all included in one way or other in its code already. Instead, it would lay out clearer guidelines by which certain acts may be judged; and signal a willingness to treat acts of that nature with the same level of scrutiny as other cases in the other examples. It would also be a very small concession to make, to ensure Jewish members of the party, or those subject to abuse and/or discrimination by members of the Party in the past, are made to feel safe and welcome. Most importantly for Labour, it would communicate a willingness to listen to the concerns of a minority, to acknowledge their right to stand up publicly against any abuse they feel they have been subjected to; and to entrench this at the core of their party code.

Who would be a better Prime Minister for the Middle East?

In these turbulent times for British politics, one can be forgiven for some mild hypothesising over potential successors to Prime Minister Theresa May, whose premiership is likely to be short-lived once the Brexit process is over. Many on the right are already championing Jacob Rees-Mogg as the next Conservative Party leader, a man as true to his socially conservative values as he is to severing all ties with the European Union. Or perhaps Boris Johnson will finally have his way after years of seeking the role and positioning himself as an alternative to May’s ‘soft’ Brexit approach. Nor should we underestimate the potential for Jeremy Corbyn, who represents the opposition to nearly a decade of Conservative government austerity, to win the next General Election.

But what would each of these different politicians mean for Britain’s relations with the Middle East? Might there be other – less well-known – MPs whose track record suggests that they would be a better Prime Minister for the region?

Jeremy Corbyn once stated that opposing violence and war has been ‘the whole purpose of his life’. He is also one of the few politicians who has been right to link British military interventions abroad with terrorist attacks in the UK. This is something other UK politicians ought to come to terms with in order to have a well-considered foreign policy. Bombing cities in order to rid them of terrorism is more likely to exacerbate resentment of the West than to create a peaceful environment.

His anti-interventionism is certainly a refreshing trait after the campaigns of the 21st century so far, which have seen the destruction of so many cities and lives in the Middle East – most recently Raqqa and Mosul where over 80% of their civilian infrastructure was destroyed in a western coalition campaign to rid them of ISIS.

Corbyn was also one of the handful of MPs who voted against the attack on Libya, another disastrous campaign which has led to Libya becoming a failed state with four dysfunctional ruling factions. He has also called for an independent enquiry into the UK’s arms exports policy to Saudi Arabia after a UN panel ruled in 2016 that the Saudi led bombing of Yemen was against international humanitarian law. Taking responsibility for British actions abroad and a commitment to fair distribution of aid would certainly make Britain more of a credible arbiter in the Middle East, making it easier to hold other countries to high standards without being undermined by accusations of hypocrisy.

However, Corbyn’s cooler approach to Sunni Arab nations would mark a significant departure from the Conservative government’s long-standing approach to the region. Although his humanitarian considerations are respectable, some worry that, under Corbyn, trade relations would suffer with Gulf States. Traditionally, our relations with GCC countries have been seen as vital to British economic and security interests, and a withdrawal of our friendship could open opportunity for other countries, such as Russia, to cement their ties with these powerful states.

Whatever their views, the Labour party has certainly been clear on its position regarding the Middle East, attaining a level of transparency that the Conservative party has failed to live up to. While the last Labour election manifesto in 2017 clearly laid out the party’s position on the region, the Tory manifesto made no mention of the Middle East whatsoever.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has stressed his ambition to develop free trade deals with the Middle East after Brexit. While such deals could do much to foster relations with GCC countries – no bad thing – increased sales of armaments can only draw the UK further into regional conflicts, such as its indirect involvement in Yemen by providing Saudi Arabia with weapons. He has also voted in favour of air strikes to attack supposed chemical weapons facilities in Douma and defended Theresa May’s decision to do so with no parliamentary vote on the matter. Again, this sort of impulsive behaviour is problematic. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons has not yet even been able to confirm that chemical weapons were used in the attack in April, let alone been able to discern who was responsible.

Indeed, if anything is to be learnt from the invasion of Iraq in 2003, it is to exercise restraint and caution before embarking on any kind of military intervention. Moreover, his objective to reduce Britain’s foreign aid budget – describing it as ‘fundamentally wasteful’ – is at odds with his support for air strikes, which inevitably destroy civilian communities and infrastructure. It is a mistake to assume that Western air strikes in the name of combatting terrorism will be wholeheartedly welcomed by civilians if there is no aid set aside for reconstruction after the damage has been caused.

However, it should be noted that Rees-Mogg hasn’t always been supportive of intervention in Syria. He has been cynical of the UK’s support for Syrian rebels, arguing that this has done nothing but facilitate the rise of terrorism, prolong the conflict and the mass displacement of people. While his opinions in this regard do demonstrate some genuine insight, it is a shame that this hasn’t informed his overall attitude towards Middle Eastern foreign policy.

Boris Johnson – with his notorious penchant for buffoonery – has shown himself to be largely ineffectual during his time as Foreign Secretary, with Britain’s voice gradually dwindling in the Gulf region. His sparse achievements were largely offset by his tasteless jokes – about dead bodies in Libya, for example – which could prove even more damaging if he were to be Prime Minister.

As we can assume Corbyn is here to stay, who else from the Conservative party might come forward as a potential successor to May, and what can we predict about their positions on the Middle East?

Rory Stewart (former Minister of State for International Development in Asia and the Middle East and Minister of State for Africa at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office) has shown great capability and lucidity when it comes to Middle Eastern affairs. He certainly has the experience; after leaving the Foreign Service where he served as the coalition Deputy-Governor of two provinces in Southern Iraq in 2003, he walked for 21 months across Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal, staying in 500 village houses on the journey. Even Stewart, however, has expressed concerning opinions about the ‘need’ to kill British volunteers fighting for ISIS without bringing them back for a proper trial.

Tobias Ellwood, on the other hand, who has also served as the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Middle East, Africa and Counter Terrorism, has voiced his support for the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, with little else to say regarding the indiscriminate bombing of Yemeni civilians.

Striking a balance between humanitarian, security and diplomatic concerns is always going to be difficult. Three particular areas of concern seem to be a lack of coherent understanding among politicians about the situation in the Middle East, and an unwillingness to recognise the plight of civilians. Another is the tendency to make knee-jerk responses when it comes to military intervention without following proper procedure – such as after the supposed chemical weapons attack in April.

As instability persists in the Middle East, it is more important than ever for Britain’s future Prime Minister to act with clarity and compassion to ensure diplomatic solutions that provide stability and peace for civilians. Some politicians certainly have more strengths than others, but on balance perhaps Jeremy Corbyn would prove most beneficial for the region with his emphasis on caution, and construction.

 

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.