A prayer for America at the mid-terms

This came in tonight from Reverend Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council:

God of justice, we pray for the people and nation of America at this crucial time.

May the land of the bold and the free give true expression to its highest historic ideals.

A nation divided is a nation brought low; so good Lord, may a state of unity prevail in America, may the prayers and aspirations of millions be answered with hope, and may all that is good and true and just be manifest in the destiny of America, under God; in who we trust.

Amen

Oil Price Excitement – because of Iran

There is excitement this morning at the four year high in oil price at $81 a barrel. They put it down to Iran reduction because of President Trump’s sanctions + Bakken Shale problems (shale sweet spots are running out triggering feverish competition over concessions in the US) + spare capacity fears (spare capacity of mid east countries is is only 2-4 million b/d meaning that unexpected supply interruptions are more difficult to cope with).

In Iraq this triggered renewed discussion this morning of the fact that Kirkuk’s oil is “stranded” meaning 270,00 to 300,000 barrels a day “wasted capacity due to unavailability of pipelines”.

The only prospect of a reduction in demand also, ironically, is a consequence of President Trump’s actions – as a consequence of the possibility of reduced Chinese demand in the aftermath of the Sino-American trade war. But all the indications are that the price will continue to rise, helped by the OPEC decision not to increase production at their meeting in Algeria yesterday.

Closure of PLO mission prompts call for protest

The White House’s announcement of plans to close down the PLO’s office in Washington intends to block cases that Palestinians have raised against Tel Aviv in the International criminal court. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has decried the move as continuation of “collective punishment” by the Trump administration.

On Monday 10th September, the US announced the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington. This comes as the latest in a series of actions by the Trump administration against the Palestinians, which include:

  • The relocation of the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem in May. Thereby formally recognising Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, despite longstanding Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their capital.
  • A funding freeze in August of $300 million to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing healthcare, education, and food to Palestinian refugees.
  • Further funding freezes in August and September of $200 million in aid to Gaza and the West Bank and $25 million to hospitals mainly caring for Palestinians.

According to the US, this latest action is in response to the PLO’s efforts to prolong the peace process. The Trump administration claims they have done this citing two examples. Firstly, their refusal to ‘engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts’ since the relocation of the US embassy. Secondly through ‘Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court (ICC).’

However, given the relocation of the US embassy in May and following cuts to Palestinian aid, it seems the US themselves are not interested in “direct and meaningful negotiations”. This move is one of many, to weaken Palestine’s position at the negotiating table when the US announces its peace plan later in the year.

What can Palestine do?

Undoubtedly, Palestine must increase its leverage by responding to these US actions effectively. Taking the issue to international organisations may be a part of this, but non-violent action needs to take place within the region as well.

The effectiveness of the use of the ICC to help resolve this issue is questionable, this because of the US and Israel both being non-signatories; because of US threats to sanction the ICC; and because the organisation is not particularly well respected worldwide. Other organisations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is generally held in higher regard, may be more effective arenas at which to make a stand. However, this is still questionable given the US’ current isolationist foreign policy. This policy sees a trend in the US departing from international institutions, including its withdrawal from the UNHRC. Despite that, other countries who still respect such international frameworks could put pressure on the US and Israel.

However, action must also come from within the region for Palestinians to really increase their leverage. This should come in the form of non-violent protest. The effect of this would: help unite Palestinians; raise the importance of the issue on the world agenda; and raise the importance of the issue for the people of Israel who could themselves put greater pressure on Netanyahu.

Although this would have to be non-violent. Violence on the part of Palestinians would only escalate causing huge unnecessary destruction and undermine Palestine’s position. As Palestine does not have the economic and military might of Israel it must retain the moral high ground.

The Trump administration’s most recent action does not contribute towards establishing a fair peace for the Israel-Palestine situation. Palestine must continue to fight for its cause in non-violent ways.

The NCF Secretary General talks about the issue of the White House action against Palestine on Press TV.

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.

Netanyahu’s Folly . . . or a gamble that paid off?

On the 30th April, through live broadcast from Jerusalem, Israel’s Prime Minister Netanyahu delivered an assertive presentation to the world accusing Iran of “brazenly lying” about their nuclear weapons ambitions. The presentation itself seemed amateur and the Prime Minister delivered it as if he were at school. But his intention was to make a serious point.

His point being that various Iranian leaders have falsely denied that they had ever been working on acquiring nuclear weapons with several citing the idea as “immoral”. Netanyahu’s PowerPoint presentation featuring diagrams, photographs and blueprints sought to demonstrate that Iran was in violation of the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action known commonly as the Iran nuclear deal) and that Iran, through what was known as Project Amad (1999-2003), had had the active goal of building a nuclear weapon.

The key allegation Netanyahu made in this presentation was that Project Amad, a supposedly merely scientific program, had been a covert nuclear weapons development project and that even after the closure of Project Amad, the work had secretly continued. He said that top-secret documents proved it. However, the Next Century Foundation does not find any real merit in Netanyahu’s further suggestion that the JCPOA allows Iran to continue their alleged nuclear weapons development unabated. Evidence to support the accusation that Project Amad was a covert nuclear weapons project is definitely compelling, but is nothing new to anyone in the international community. However, Netanyahu explicitly states throughout that Iran continues with its pursuit of its nuclear weapons ambitions. For these accusations he provides no real evidence. He simply opines that the retention of these documents, already known about since before the JCPOA, indicates that they are doing so and that their denial of the existence of prior nuclear weapon development efforts means they are liars.

The Presentation in Detail:

This presentation was built around alleged evidence from 55,000 pages and 183 CDs of “top secret” documentation that only a few Iranians and Israelis were supposedly aware of. Netanyahu does not specify how or when these documents were obtained but states that they were being kept in a top-secret, unassuming compound in Tehran. The acquisition of said documents was described by Netanyahu as a “great intelligence achievement”  by the Israeli intelligence services. The Iranians refute the claims made by Netanyahu and say that they would never keep official documents in the “dilapidated warehouse” Israeli intelligence allegedly acquired them from.

Project Amad ran for four years before closing in 2003. The documents obtained by Israeli intelligence seem to show, according to Netanyahu’s presentation, the active pursuit of nuclear weapons acquisition because Iran pursued the development of ballistic missiles with high power capability. However the development of a long range missile program does not necessarily mean an intention to have nuclear warheads. Several photographs, videos, blueprints and scans of documents were presented on different slides to enforce the message Netanyahu was pushing.

Rather more importantly Netanyahu did pull up one specific document that said the project was going to “design, produce and test … four nuclear warheads each with 10 kilotons of TNT yield for integration on a missile”. Israeli intelligence analysis of the documents determined that Project Amad had the ‘five key elements of a nuclear weapons programme’ including developing nuclear cores and preparing nuclear tests. To support the latter allegation, he provided scans of maps detailing five potential test locations in eastern Iran. Furthermore, he claims that despite Amad’s closure, the project continued in a devolved and both covert and overt way with the full knowledge of Iranian leaders and under the pretence that it was for scientific knowledge development. One cannot dismiss such evidence. The evidence was lacking in  quantity but it was supportive nonetheless. When taking this evidence into consideration, his point that Iran has lied could be considered compelling.

However, this evidence and knowledge has been in the public domain for many years. Concerns about Project Amad and nuclear weapons, deriving from official documents, are not ground-breaking in the slightest. It is of course concerning, but Netanyahu is essentially regurgitating old knowledge. This knowledge was reported on by international journalists at the time. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the ‘nuclear watchdog’ with whom Netanyahu said he would share these documents, had their own concerns over Iran and nuclear weapons. However, they were addressed at the time and in the years following. Yes, Iran did lie about the intentions and activities of Project Amad and subsequent nuclear ambitions. However the IAEA conducted their own investigation and by the time it came to signing the JCPOA in 2015, there was confidence that Iran were no longer pursuing the development of nuclear weapons. We knew this and the world knew this. Netanyahu is not offering us anything more.

Unlike the wealth of documentation supporting claims that Project Amad and its subsequent activities do show nuclear weapons development, Netanyahu failed to prove that Iran are still lying. He believes that holding such knowledge of nuclear development and “advanced work on weaponization” shows that Iran are continuing with their nuclear weapons ambitions. In his eyes the JCPOA nuclear deal “gives Iran a clear pass to an atomic arsenal” through allowing them to continue uranium enrichment and failing to address Project Amad and any other subsequent development of nuclear weapons. He does not provide anything substantive to support this.

Conclusions

Netanyahu delivered what he believed was a ‘ground-breaking’ presentation that addressed issues previously unaddressed or acknowledged. However, this was not the case. There has been an awareness of Iran’s nuclear activities by the international community and that this supposedly top-secret documentation has been known about and is nothing new. What Israel’s premier presented did indeed show a contradiction between the denials of nuclear weapons development by Iranian leadership and what was actually happening. Whilst the presentation may have raised legitimate concerns, it was no turning point.

It is important to be aware of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own perceptions of Iran and place this presentation in a wider geopolitical context. He refers to Iran as a “terrorist regime” and expresses his distrust and disdain for Iran’s leadership. The presentation concluded with his opinion on the JCPOA and his belief that President Trump would do “the right thing” and withdraw from the nuclear deal. Stating that he would share the gathered intelligence with other countries and the IAEA, he said that “the United States [could] vouch for its authenticity”. In the ten days that have followed the presentation, President Trump has withdrawn from the deal and tensions have heightened between Israel and Iran. It appears that Netanyahu’s big presentation was successful.

Latest Update on Chemical Weapons Attack in Syria

When it comes to Syria today we need dialogue. Those who have the courage to stand up and say, “there is another way” have become so important and are much needed at this time everywhere, most especially in the Syrian conflict. We must work for solutions that are in reality something more than a quick fix. We need to look at a long-term solution, rather than a short-term one. A great friend of mine, James Lynn from Northern Ireland, says, “Hatred only destroys the soul of the person who speaks it, for it has no permanent solution to offer.” We all need to be the voice of peace and reason, and keep the Syrian nation very much in our prayers.

So, as a precursor to peace, we need to understand the nature of the war we are facing. Clearly a line must be drawn when it comes to honour in war. And chemical weapons are dishonourable. Chemical weapons are much more widespread and utilised more frequently than the other two types of W.M.D.s. Among the most common chemical agents that have been deployed are G-series nerve gas (in particular, sarin), and mustard gas. Chemical weapons are indiscriminate. Children are particularly the hardest-hit from chemical weapon attacks as their bodies are more vulnerable. Numerous countries still have large stockpiles of chemical weapons despite the Chemical Weapons Convention, which required the destruction of stockpiles by 2012. Due to the Convention, 85% of the chemical weapon stockpiles across the world have been destroyed. This is significant progress, but a considerable number of production facilities and stockpiles remain.

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

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

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

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

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

All of this does however highlight one issue. There is an acute need to promote the Chemical Weapons Convention in the Middle East today.  The are only five countries in the whole world which have either not signed and / or not ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention. They are: Egypt, Israel, North Korea, Palestine (and yes Palestine is entitled to sign), and South Sudan. They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Back to Syria

Meanwhile let’s come back to the issue of the use of chemical weapons in Syria in recent days. For background, the following timeline of events is drawn from an article by ‘Urayb ar-Rintawi in the Jordanian daily ad-Dustour. These are his words edited for clarity:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The attack itself

Victims who survived report an odourless gas. This can only be Sarin. The other main gas used in Syria, Chlorine gas, is far from odourless. Some witnesses report a smell of chlorine but our impression is these are less credible accounts from people who were not actually exposed to the gas. Other symptoms are also Sarin specific. Particularly the pinpoint pupils of the dead. For links and fuller details so that you may examine this yourself if you wish, there are full supporting details on our first NCF blog entry on this subject which answers the question “Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?“. But you will need a strong stomach if you are going to examine all of the links we provide. Some among them are very harrowing. Note that Sarin gas has been extensively deployed before in the Damascus suburbs.

“Chlorine gas generally harms far more people than it kills because it requires comparatively high concentrations (nineteen thousand milligrams per cubic meter) and prolonged exposure to achieve lethal effect”. It is useful to terrorise rather than to kill. For example, to quote National Interest magazine’s excellent extensive report on the issue (we reach slightly different conclusions however), “A helicopter-delivered chlorine bombing in Zubdiya in eastern Aleppo on August 10, 2016, injured around seventy (including forty children) and killed four (including a mother and her two babies). In numerous other chlorine attacks, dozens have been injured, but deaths have numbered “only” in the single digits or even zero.”

Some of the videos relating to the current Douma attack imply that chlorine gas was used. For instance, extensive dousing with water is valuable in dealing with chlorine gas exposure, whereas the removal of clothing is considered an important step in dealing with exposure to Sarin. One repeatedly broadcast video shows the extensive dousing of children with water without the removal of clothing. But it is possible that in the panic in the aftermath of a bomb attack, standard tactics for chlorine were employed as people may not have been as familiar with standard practice for Sarin exposure. There is also a video of two yellow cylinders of the type only normally used to deliver compressed chlorine gas in Syrian government attacks. However, there are various reasons for regarding these as false. For example one of the cylinders is some distance from the blast hole in the roof through which it has supposedly fallen, resting on a bed and comparatively undamaged by the impact and / or blast to which it has been exposed (such cylinders are usually substantially damaged and sometimes blasted apart). In any case, the very high numbers of casualties and the nature of the victim reports make it clear, in our view, that chlorine gas was certainly not employed as the primary agent.

Culpability

There are a number of possibilities. We will make arbitrary assessments. We do so because we believe it is helpful for those that read this to have a benchmark opinion, which they can then use as an assessment against which to examine the available open source material for themselves and draw their own conclusions. This is inevitably just our own subjective report on the subject. The forthcoming OPCW report will not determine culpability. Even when the United Nations has sent in teams (and UN teams are generally less skilled than those of the OPCW) with the prime objective of determining culpability their reports have been confusing and less than satisfactory when it comes to providing conclusive evidence. We reiterate that this is because the government has not been the sole perpetrator of war crimes with chemical weapons in Syria. The more extreme elements of the Islamist opposition have sometimes done so, occasionally with a view to implicating the government through false flag incidents. And one of the most extreme opposition groups, Jaysh ul Islam, was present in Douma, a group that is so ruthless that it at one point held hostages in cages in Douma.

That said it must be stressed in all fairness that the Syrian government is usually the one culpable. The fact that access to the alleged site was delayed until today by Russian troops now in control of the area makes Syrian government culpability more likely. The NCF does however have direct contacts within the ranks of the Syrian military and they deny culpability in this instance. Undoubtedly your reasonable response might be “they would wouldn’t they”.  However, they say that these are victims of “suffocation” after being buried in the aftermath of shelling and that civilians panicked and imagined a gas attack and then some unscrupulous members of the opposition put out false videos or videos from other incidents which they flagged as being from this incident. We give percentage probabilities in an attempt to be helpful. Please note once again that this is an arbitrary assessment:

  1. This was done deliberately by the Syrian government: 75% probability.
  2. That this was done by overzealous elements of the Syrian Army without direct Syrian Government instruction: 5% possibility.
  3. That these were victims of suffocation and the incident was exploited by the unscrupulous: 5% possibility.
  4. That the Syrian government did not attack and this was an entirely false flag incident perpetrated by Jaysh ul Islam: 15% possibility.

What is needed now is not further military action but a concerted international effort to work for peace both at a second track and first track level that engages Russia, Iran, and the United States of America. There are so many factions operating in Syria. As I was reminded just today by a Hawaiian friend, Stafford Clary:

  • Saudi Arabia-Qatar-UAE-Turkey support aggressive Sunni Arab elements against the Syrian government
  • Russia-Iran-Iraq-Hezbollah support the Syrian government
  • Iran-Hezbollah are aggressively anti-Israel
  • Turkey is aggressively anti-PYD (the prime Kurdish faction in Syria)
  • US is aggressively anti-ISIS, pro-PYD, and pro-Israel (however the US does not currently oppose al Qaeda elements in Syria)

All people of good conscience must surely believe that the nations of the world should start working together for peace in Syria.

God bless Syria and all its people, and may his peace rest upon their shoulders.

William Morris LL.D., Secretary General, The Next Century Foundation

Is this the aftermath of a chemical weapons attack?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within three hours a chemical attack occurred.

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

Further background from the NCF Secretary General:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Egypt

Israel

North Korea

Palestine

South Sudan

They should all be brought onboard urgently.

Untangling Afghanistan: Proxy wars and geopolitical rivalries

Former Afghan president Hamid Karzai recently spoke in an interview of Afghanistan’s need for Russian support. Decrying the US for ‘killing us for 17 years’, he claimed that Russian support was the only means with which peace could be achieved in Afghanistan. The Afghan government is desperately trying to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The belief of some in Kabul is that the Taliban’s strength is reliant upon Pakistan and, with enough international pressure, Pakistan will withdraw its support. The US was originally supposed to provide this pressure. However, Karzai’s desire for non-US international support, born out of the US’ ruined reputation in the region, is well documented. Russia was not the first country he turned to. In 2017, Karzai attempted to reach out to India for support, suggesting that they replace the US as the military force upholding the Afghan government. He suggested that such action would be in India’s national interest, as it would damage Pakistan. Pakistan’s apparent support for the Taliban in Afghanistan is a permanent stumbling block when it comes to bettering Afghan-Pakistan relations. However, India’s military strength pales in comparison to that of the US. India does not have the means to replace the USA, and many in Afghanistan would regard any Indian intervention as suspect, India being regarded as part of the problem rather than part of the solution.  Indeed the core of the Afghan problem is regarded by many as the Indo-Pakistan proxy war being fought out on the streets of Kabul.

The problem with Afghanistan now turning to Russia is Russia’s apparent desire to improve relations with Pakistan. Relations between Russia and India have become strained recently due to burgeoning tensions between India and China. India’s response to these tensions has been to improve relations with the US, who are hoping India will effectively curb China’s influence. Russia has recognised that improved relations with Pakistan will, therefore, put pressure on India, improve relations with China and further antagonise the USA.

This leaves Afghanistan at a disadvantage. Officials in Kabul were celebrating news of Trump’s removal of two billion dollars in security aid to Pakistan, believing this would weaken the Afghanistan Taliban. A minority within Pakistan have blamed the Pakistan military for this, claiming that their tacit support for extremist groups has brought about this decision. Inevitably, Trump’s actions have increased street-level anti-US sentiment in Pakistan. It is therefore unlikely that such action will cause a change in Pakistan’s foreign policy. There is a tremendous fear within Pakistan of a ‘pincer’ move by Afghanistan and India. As a consequence, Pakistan’s actions regarding Afghanistan will always be motivated by the desire to ensure Pakistan’s security. Unfortunately, an unstable Afghanistan is more beneficial to Pakistan than a stabilised administration that is allied with India.

China has moved to improve Afghan-Pakistan relations by including Afghanistan in the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). CPEC is part of the Belt and Road initiative, China’s attempt to recreate the Silk Road. However, CPEC is already controversial due to its being built through Pakistan occupied Kashmir. India and Pakistan have constantly fought over the sovereignty of Kashmir, and India does not recognise Pakistan’s control of the Northern half of the state. By extending the offer to Afghanistan, China has faced India with the prospect of losing a regional ally to its economic rival.

Untangling all of these geopolitical relationships is an almost impossible task. If Afghanistan is to have any hope of achieving peace with the Taliban, then their relationship with Pakistan has to improve.  The level of mistrust between the two countries is a major hindrance to the process. As long as it continues, the Taliban will always have a potential ally in Pakistan.  Unfortunately, the mistrust is founded on the conflict between Pakistan and India.  Afghanistan plays a vital geopolitical role for both of these countries. Both are experiencing significant political tensions, not only with each other but with China and the USA as well. Until these issues are resolved, international support for a stable Afghanistan will continue to be deprioritised due to security concerns.

Afghanistan and the Difficult Road to Peace

For more than 17 years Afghanistan has been a nation torn apart by conflict. However, the current President Ashraf Ghani is trying to push for definitive peace and reconciliation between his government and the Taliban. On February the 28th 2018, he made an offer to the Taliban that was seen by some as a ‘game changer’. Ghani would like the Taliban to engage in peace talks and recognise the legitimacy of his government. In exchange, Ghani has said that the Taliban will be recognised as a legitimate political party, may open offices in locations of their choosing, and have some of their prisoners released. The government will also support efforts to remove their leaders from international sanctions lists. At face value, this offer appears to be a turning point, with Ghani pioneering a new vision for Afghanistan’s future. However, is it realistic? Ghani’s offer to work cohesively on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban may be too little too late given the fragility of the current political situation.

Just this week Ghani met with senior diplomats in Uzbekistan to discuss the next steps required in Afghanistan peace talks. The Taliban were absent. They have remained notably silent in response to Ghani’s offer. This could be regarded as indicative of the possibility that the offer may have sparked some kind of conversation amongst Taliban officials and senior members. However, whilst this may be true, it does not mean that there will be a positive outcome. The Taliban are somewhat fractured in their views. Some accept that peace negotiations could happen in Washington however the majority have a deep dislike and distrust of US intervention. A response to Ghani’s offer may not be put on the table for some time. One Taliban southern military commander said that there needs to be a huge descaling and step back by foreign interveners before the Taliban can even participate in talks. This in itself is problematic as the USA has given its unwavering commitment to supporting Afghanistan whilst President Trump has made it very clear that he is unwilling to engage with the Taliban at all. The US is not the only other actor in Afghanistan right now. The Taliban continue to engage in a fatal back-and-forth with ISIS forces that has left many dead. The presence of various different agents in Afghanistan, whether positive or negative, contributes to the complexity of the situation, a complexity that Ghani’s offer does not reflect.

The political situation in Afghanistan is one that is not conducive to peace talks between a ‘legitimate government’ and the Taliban. The government wishes the Taliban to recognise the Afghan government’s legitimacy. However, this current government came into being after 2014 elections that were fraught with accusations of voter fraud on both sides. The US ultimately stepped in and brokered a deal between Ghani and his opposition. Whilst Ghani has a clear and positive vision for his nation, this stands on shaky grounds. Furthermore, the current extension of the parliamentary mandate has been criticised as illegal by some. Parliamentary elections were meant to take place in 2016 but were then pushed back to July 2018 with the predicted date now set for October 2018. Most in the international community do not even see 2018 as a possibility. This due to multiple problems surrounding organisation of elections and disagreements within the government. Consequently, a picture emerges of a less than strong government. This is compounded by the Taliban’s continued growth in control and influence over parts of Afghanistan. Their control has doubled since 2015. The government is therefore speaking to a sizeable group that operates outside of their authority. The government is  not as strong as their offer implies.

Once you frame the offer from Ghani within this context, suddenly nothing about peace talks in Afghanistan seems clear or straightforward. He presents the incumbent government as the future for Afghanistan but the reality is that the situation is incredibly complex and conflict continues. The only way forward is for Afghanistan’s government to work with the Taliban and whilst Ghani’s offer seems like a positive step, one has to question its viability at the present moment.

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.

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

Freedom from Fear – Iran’s responsibility for brokering peace

Oral intervention prepared by the Next Century Foundation for the 37th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on the 14th of March, 2018. General Debate on Item 4, Human Rights situations that require the council’s attention.

Mr. President, freedom from fear is a core principle underpinning the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. However, the Middle East today is beset with chaos, war, and internecine hatred.

Iran is arguably the strongest regional power in the Middle East exerting a substantial measure of hegemony in both Iraq and the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as arguably in Lebanon.

Iran has argued for some years, in conversation with its critics, that once Iran had rapprochement with the United States of America, it would lend its weight to efforts for Middle East peace.

Iran had its deal with President Obama, and though undermined by President Trump, the deal remained in high degree intact.

But what steps have we seen by Iran to promote peace in the Middle East?

Iran can either promote peace or promote war in pursuit of greater hegemony, or indeed maintain the status quo.

Iran could make a greater genuine effort to promote reconciliation in nations at the faultline of the Sunni-Shiite division but not yet in a state of war, like the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Iran could and should also take a role in the Middle East peace process between Israel and Palestine. Given the fact that its proxy in Palestine, Islamic Jihad, is well respected in Gaza, Iran’s failure to take a measure of responsibility for the Middle East peace process is unjustifiable.   Thank you.