Syrian reconstruction – the West is caught between a rock and a hard place

Bashar Al-Assad’s government has this week continued hammering settlements in South Western Quneitra and Deraa Governorates, most notably in Nawa, where at least 14 have died and over 100 have been injured in air raids, part of an offensive intended to remove the last remnants of rebel strongholds in South Western Syria. This comes just days after government forces seized al-Haara Hill, a strategic post overlooking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights; and after Syrian rebels in Quneitra reached an agreement which, according to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), “provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons and the return of government institutions in the area”. Focus has also been on Idlib Province in the North West, where 6,000-7,000 pro-government civilians have just been evacuated by bus from the besieged, Shia-majority towns of al-Foua and Kefraya, following a deal reached between Damascus and anti-government rebels, in return for the release of many detained in state prisons.

This week’s activity demonstrates two things: that while government forces make significant advances in the South West, the Syrian conflict is very much still in full-swing; and that such conflict continues to cause untold destruction across the country. As conflict rages on, many question how Syria will begin to reconstruct in the wake of a war with a price tag far in excess of $250 billion, the figure estimated by United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, back in November. The true cost of the war is expected to be much higher. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) also initially estimated, early in the conflict, that it would take 30 years for Syria’s economy to recover to its pre-2011 level – this would now likely take far longer. The challenge facing the Syrian government, and the international community is therefore monumental. The question is, who will foot the bill?

Syria’s Allies

It is clear that the cost of reconstruction is far beyond the capacity of President Assad’s government, and even beyond the reach of its two closest allies in the conflict, Russia and Iran. That is not to say that they are not eager to take part in the reconstruction. In fact, Russia was quick, back in early 2016, to sign infrastructure rebuilding contracts amounting to $1 billion; and this will likely only continue. Iran too has signed lucrative contracts to rebuild phone networks and the national power grid. The commercial branch of their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has already proved a valuable force in the reconstruction effort, having lent support throughout the conflict. They are well versed in the field of post-war reconstruction, and have built a significant reputation for rebuilding within Iran, following their devastating war with Iraq in the 1980s. In April, President Rouhani further renewed state-support for the Syrian government and its rebuilding efforts, stating that Iran “stands beside the country and people of Syria and will continue to aid it in defending against the forces of evil and returning security and stability throughout the Syrian Arab Republic”. Likewise, their Lebanese allies, Hezbollah, would also seek a role in the rebuilding effort, having already offered their support to the Syrian Arab Army.

Russia and Iran are clearly keen to help, and by doing so may seek to increase their influence in the country. And this certainly fits with President Assad’s government’s intention to offer contracts to those few who have stood by Damascus throughout the conflict, and in return for continued political support. So reconstruction may present opportunities for mutual gain to both Syria and its allies. 

However support from Syria’s allies only goes so far; and what little support is given, will be allocated in line with the government’s own interests. This means selective rebuilding in areas loyal to President Assad through clientelist contractors, likely in return for short term profits. Investing in loyal areas also means investing in those areas relatively unscathed by government siege. This means significant rebuilding cannot occur in the areas most damaged, and therefore those most in need of recovery. This would lead to even deeper divisions within Syria, with wealth distributed between Damascus and those loyal to the government, and contrasted with a poorer, devastated periphery. This promises to merely exacerbate existing divisions.

China

China has maintained a slightly more impartial position in the Syrian conflict, though it maintains a cordial diplomatic relationship with Damascus. They also have clear vested interests in Syrian investment. They are likely keen to stem the flow of the some 4,000-5,000 radicalised Uighur Muslims passing between Xinjiang province and North Western Syria, where many have joined anti-government jihadist groups. Syria is also part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), their land and maritime project to foster international development and trade across Eurasia. China therefore has an obvious interest in rebuilding, particularly in areas of Northern Syria, with an eye on the next step of their grand development strategy. China, much like Iran and Russia, enjoys the ability to invest in Syrian reconstruction, due to its ongoing diplomatic relations with the Assad government; and because its investment is not conditional on any political reform, resisted by Damascus, but so strictly pursued by Western governments.

The United States

The US is unlikely to fund any long term reconstruction efforts inside Syria without some substantial political conditions. This by no means implies that the US is seeking to ignore the ongoing conflict altogether, however. By January 2018, USAID had provided nearly $7.7 billion in humanitarian assistance to Syrians and more than $875 million in “stabilization” and other non-humanitarian assistance (often distributed through rebel groups). This is alongside active support for opposition groups inside Syria, in its ongoing effort to eradicate the threat posed to its own national security by the Islamic State group. The Syrian government also continues to face tough US sanctions. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated emphatically in January that the United States would only encourage the normalisation of economic relations between Syria and other nations “once Assad is gone from power”. It therefore seems that a concerted US effort to rebuild parts of Syria, the damage in much of which the US itself is responsible for, through its arming of Syrian rebel groups and airstrikes on government facilities and IS strongholds like Raqqa – 80% of which has been destroyed – will not be made until real political change happens.

But this change does not seem to be coming any time soon, with Assad vowing to remain in power until at least 2021. Any election or any substantial political reform seems out of the question until this point, despite the UN Security Council’s support for free and fair elections to be held within 18 months of Resolution 2254 back in December 2015. And while the Trump-Putin Summit in Helsinki last week might have shown a degree of willingness on the part of the US to engage Syria’s ally over the conflict, details of their discussion have so far been lacking. A 2017 RAND study suggests that the longer the US boycotts reconstruction, the stronger will be the Russian and Iranian positions in the country. This implies the US does have a geopolitical interest in supporting the rebuilding effort. America’s refusal to give aid direct to the government however, means that it may instead seek to leverage influence over the World Bank, IMF and UN to offer assistance at the local level, in return for a degree of local democratic reform. 

The EU

The EU likewise has proved unwilling to offer unconditional assistance.  The European Council’s Syria strategy document produced in March 2017 “reiterates” that Europe “will be ready to assist in the reconstruction of Syria only when a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition … is firmly under way.” Similar to the US, intervention by some European states has led some to question whether they have an obligation to help in the reconstruction, given their part in the destruction of some Daesh enclaves and support for anti-government rebels. 

They also have another clear motivation to engage in rebuilding; to help stem the flow of Syrian refugees towards Europe. The UNHCR had already counted roughly a million asylum applicants in Europe in mid-2017, and many others of the 5 million refugees outside Syria continue to add pressure on European governments. A comprehensive reconstruction program to rebuild homes, communities and industries back home in Syria would certainly help alleviate much of this pressure. Sadly, European governments are caught between offering support through the Assad government, or small-scale investment projects, themselves largely conditional on the will of the central government when taking place in government-held areas or working with government approved local partners.

In any case, the government does not have the luxury of rejecting bottom-up support from European governments – they are still far shy of their vast $250 billion target. A bottom-up approach would certainly be more complicated than directing assistance through the central government. However, a top-down approach would mean diverting funds solely to areas loyal to the government. Any government-led redevelopments in former opposition areas, like the Basateen al-Razi in Western Damascus – which boasts to be rehousing 60,000 residents – or Jouret al-Shayah in Homs, are viewed by some as a means of consolidating power through patronage among potential dissidents and of therefore controlling the local population.

The bottom line

The international community has two options. They can pursue reconstruction in isolation from a political solution; in a piecemeal way through small scale rebuilding initiatives in non-government-controlled areas (which are shrinking daily), while the government continues to award contracts to its allies to rebuild in less devastated, loyal areas. Or they can continue to withhold reconstruction until a political solution is reached. Once political reform, or even a change of government occurs, rebuilding may happen on physical, societal, economic and political levels. A joint statement by NRC, SAVE, CARE, Oxfam and IRC last year argued that in the absence of the “respect for human rights and protection of an independent civil society” that would come from a political solution, “a move towards reconstruction assistance risks doing more harm than good”. This may be true. The former of the two options would see reconstruction pursued slowly and inefficiently, at a time when over half of Syria’s hospitals, two-thirds of its schools and a quarter of all homes have been damaged or destroyed; while over half of Syria’s pre-war population is still in need of humanitarian assistance. It would also see the government and its allies consolidate their influence across the country. Meanwhile, Assad’s government continues to make progress and shows no sign of making the political concessions necessary for more substantial reconstruction to take place. What is certain is that Syria will take far longer than the 30 years initially predicted by the UNRWA for it to recover. Western governments have a huge responsibility on their hands, and a difficult decision to make.

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

The Islamic Republic of Iran as a Regional Power in 2018 and Beyond

Oral intervention to be given by the Next Century Foundation at the 37th Session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva. Item 4 SR on the 12th of March 2018, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Mr President. The Next Century Foundation wishes to promote peace and security in the Middle East and calls on the regional powers to pursue these aims. The Islamic Republic of Iran is one such power that has the ability to drive regional change. Iran continues its pursuit of regional dominance in competition with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and this has an undoubted influence on the politics of the Middle East. Despite their rivalry and their precarious diplomatic relationship, the Next Century Foundation hopes and believes that the two powers can take progressive and peaceful steps towards reconciliation with one another. If they did so they could then actively work in cohesion to facilitate stability in surrounding nation states, such as the Syrian Arab Republic and the Republic of Yemen where civil war is still ongoing, and the Kingdom of Bahrain where tensions remain acute.

The Syrian Civil War has become an international conflict in which many nations have had some level of involvement. The Republic of Turkey, the United States of America, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Russian Federation are all powers that have a presence in Syria. As a nation in such close proximity to the conflict, Iran has the potential to contribute significantly to the possibility of a peaceful future for Syria by working closely with other members of the international community, particularly their regional neighbours, in promoting security, stability and peace. It can lead in taking the steps towards peace. The Syrian Civil War has been a direct cause for the refugee crisis witnessed in Europe in which so many people have been rendered displaced.

Similarly, the civil war in Yemen persists with the human cost mounting. Thus far, 20 million people are estimated to be displaced and almost three quarters of the population are in need of aid. A conclusion and resolution to the conflict is paramount in Yemen for the sake of the people and regional stability.

In Bahrain too, Iranian involvement, though less belligerent, has an effect. Undoubtedly there would have been fuller participation in the 2014 national elections in Bahrain had Iran not encouraged prominent opposition leaders to back down on full participation. It is to be hoped that Iran will be more constructive when it comes to promoting full engagement by all communities in the forthcoming Bahrain national elections later this year.

Iran’s position on the global stage is incredibly important but their role in promoting a peaceful future for the Middle East is paramount. It is a role they must not shirk.

Syria Can Now Heal

The Syrian conflict has reached a crucial stage. With the imminent destruction of ISIS in the east, and the creation of four major de-escalation zones to the west, the stage is set for renewed attempts to bring the fratricidal war to an end.

To the surprise of most observers, the de-escalation zones established by the United States and Russia have been respected by the warring parties. Statistics show a highly significant reduction in the number of casualties and the general level of violence. There have been a number of reconciliations between the Syrian government and factions of the moderate opposition over the past two years, particularly in the rural suburbs of Damascus, as was the case in Qudsayah and al-Hameh. Amnesty has been granted to insurgents and army-defectors, something we never saw during the initial phase of the crisis.

Russian President Vladimir Putin outlined his objectives in Syria in an interview with Charlie Rose in late September 2015, emphasising three major points:

  1. The importance of the fight against terrorism to Russia’s national security
  2. The importance of preserving Syrian statehood
  3. “…creating the necessary conditions for the political process” to resume

Now that the first two objectives have been satisfied, there is no reason to delay the third. Unlike previous attempts, the new round of peace talks must include the entire spectrum of the opposition and the Syrian government. All factions of the Syrian people must be represented. Picking and choosing some opposition groups to speak on behalf of the others is unacceptable. Further, those who take the lead at the negotiating table should represent Syrians on the ground.  Certain figures in the opposition have no real political relevance and are unknown to Syrians, yet they are constantly put in the forefront when they head the mainstream opposition delegations.

There is a serious concern amongst religious minorities that an extremist Islamist system is the only alternative to the current government, and this fear has often been ignored. Western governments that have enthusiastically supported certain opposition groups must recognize and understand this fear. Controversial entities such as Ahrar al-Sham or Jaysh al-Islam are often legitimized as part of the acceptable opposition despite their explicit hatred of “the infidel” and allegations of their involvement in mass killings of civilians alongside the Nusra Front. Promoting a secular and democratic Syria is hardly compatible with the vision of Islamist hardliners. Secularism is the only guarantee for the safety of religious minorities in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society.

The Geneva peace process is to be seen in tandem, and not in conflict, with Astana. One should complement the other. The Astana agreements have materialised, providing a solid basis for the Geneva talks to generate positive results and build on the successes of Astana.

Finally, both sides should act in good faith. The only priority must be the interests of the Syrian people. For the talks to succeed, both sides must be prepared for compromise and willing to make reasonable concessions. Imposing preconditions at this stage is counterproductive. It has become clear that there cannot be a viable military solution to the Syrian conflict, and no side can achieve a decisive military victory over the other.

Engage, not Prevent – a review of a Select Committee’s report on the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy

“Identifying the tipping point for many men and women thinking of joining Daesh remains the holy grail in our fight against radicalisation”.

It emerged a couple weeks ago that one of the Bethnal Green school girls who left Britain for Syria in 2015 had been killed in a Russian airstrike.  Kadiza Sultana, along with Amira Abase and Shamima Begum were a part of a surge of young people heading out from Britain to join organisations fighting in Syria and Iraq.  The numbers are deeply concerning; a recent report estimates that around 850 have left, with 125 losing their lives (the NCF believes the real figure to be considerably higher).  Kadiza Sultana and her friends from East London have become a statistic in a recent Select Committee report that addresses concerns over the Government’s Anti-Terrorism policy.

Facewall
Kadiza (second row, second from left) is just one of 850 young Britons to have fled to the Middle East.  A Select Committee is calling for the Prevent Strategy to be reviewed and overhauled.

The report, published on 25th August 2016, has highlighted a number of problems with the Prevent Strategy, and offers options to make the strategy more accessible to those that need it most.  The report centred on the issue of combatting radicalisation and extremism amongst vulnerable people, and draws on how The Home Office, schools, health organisations, social media companies, security services and the press all have a responsibility to enhance their resources with the aim of engaging communities, instead of alienating them.  The committee felt that the current system used for Prevent was causing more harm than good.  Security Minister Ben Wallace argued that the strategy had been reviewed numerous times to “ensure it works,” and that “for Prevent to work, we all need to get behind it, not stand on the side lines undermining it”.  However, Rushanara Ali, MP for Bethnal Green and Bow has called for a proper assessment of Prevent, to “really understand what works and what doesn’t”.

The Select Committee have called for a review, and have encouraged a community led approach.  As of this moment, the strategy is viewed by many in local communities as a “big brother” security operation.  Harun Khan, deputy head of the Muslim Council of Britain has also expressed his concern, claiming that many young people feel they are being viewed as “suspects” rather than feeling welcomed and encouraged to speak out.  The real focus of the strategy should be around building a relationship between various influential community groups and the state.

A CCTV camera
Prevent was criticised after hidden CCTV cameras were placed around predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham

 The most promising set of options to improve Prevent was the strategy suggested for dealing with families and the rehabilitation of those affected by extremism.  In order to bridge the silence that characterises the relationship between the state and the communities, the committee highlighted the need for an easily accessible advice and counselling service, particularly for parents, but also for other loved ones and friends who may have concerns about people being radicalised.  If this were to be put in place, perhaps with community organisation members acting as part of the team of advisers, we could identify the tipping point where individuals start to embrace extremism.  The issue is a complex one, but engaging with families, would build up an extensive array of counter-narrative case studies.

Finally, with regards to the committee’s stance on rehabilitation, empowering young people to have a voice and use it with confidence seems to be the most commanding way to combat extremism at a grass roots level in the UK.  The committee advocated a programme that helps young people from vulnerable communities in acquiring critical reasoning skills and a sense of belonging and purpose, so that they could be aware of any manipulation or grooming.  Sara Khan, co-founder of the anti-terror organisation ‘Inspire’, has looked at girls like Kadiza as victims, who “lack the critical thinking skills” which “is what makes them vulnerable to Islamist extremist propaganda”.

It is important to note the success of the UK’s security services in preventing tragedies on the scale which have been seen elsewhere, and that should be highly commended.  However, the approach used by previous governments to counter extremism has so far not achieved the success that we have desired.  The Select Committee recognised that local communities, community leaders and young people are willing to cooperate and tackle the problem if the correct strategies were put in place to enable positive changes.  That being said, the report urged the Government to not squander this opportunity to harness the powerful force of community engagement.

By Nihal Patel

Jo Cox MP

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The NCF is deeply and profoundly saddened by the news of the brutal murder of British Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox today. MP for Batley and Spen in West Yorkshire and a former aid worker, Jo Cox was chair of the All Party Parliamentary Friends of Syria group, a group she herself established. She cared deeply about Syria. She argued for greater Western engagement in Syria. She campaigned for more action on the refugee crisis. She was a married mother of two and entered parliament last year. Jo was also chair of the Labour Women’s Network and Senior Advisor to the Freedom Fund, an anti-slavery charity. Our thoughts and prayers are with her husband Brendan Cox and her family on this terrible day.
Photo Jax Malden

Kasodomski Jones talks ISIS

Alex Krasodomski Jones of the Centre for Social Media at the British think tank Demos talks about ISIS, about how ISIS uses social media, and about what we can do to combat it. Worth watching if you have the time. There has to be a non violent ideological alternative to this terror group.

The EU-Turkey Deal: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Turkey Camp
Syrian Refugee Camp on the Turkish Border

In 2015 1.2 million people entered Europe from countries as disparate as Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq. With further displacement and migration forecast for the coming years, an existential crisis is now threatening the very foundations of the European Project. In a mood of desperation and political expediency negotiations to curb migrant numbers have been accelerated with Turkey, culminating in a deal that now faces severe legal, ethical and practical difficulties.

In a nutshell, the agreement attempts to mitigate refugee flows that may otherwise overwhelm frontier European states, relocating the exigencies of asylum processing back to the Middle East and providing space to devise a more tolerable, long term solution. In principle, it also aims to undercut and degrade the mechanics of an extensive trafficking economy now proliferating across the Mediterranean. The commercialisation of people smuggling has exacerbated the number of refugees travelling, and sometimes even perishing, along sea routes. By adopting a hardline stance on ‘boat-people’ and diminishing the pull factor of assumed European altruism, people trafficking will, in theory, devolve into a high-risk low-reward enterprise that depresses demand and channels refugees towards more easily regulated outlets.

Under the auspices of a ‘one in one out’ system, any ‘new irregular migrants’ arriving in Greece after March would be deported to Turkey and relegated to the back of the queue of those seeking asylum. In return, EU member states are obligated to resettle properly processed Syrian refugees from Turkey and expedite visa liberalisation for Turkish nationals wishing to visit Europe.

There are obvious benefits to this approach. On a human level, the sharp fall in individuals traveling to Greece in the aftermath of the deal will hopefully translate into lower mortality rates for those refugees seeking entry into Europe. It also relieves pressure on Frontex, the underfunded European border management agency, and allocates new resources for efficient processing schemes. In the face of perpetually gridlocked EU institutions, the political intransigence of Eastern European governments, rising right wing populism and the resurrection of internal border controls, it provides a palatable alternative for European publics that may be able to preserve the cosmopolitan values of Schengen while also delivering immediate results. Perhaps most importantly, the agreement alleviates the burden on Ankara. Supplemented by an aid package of €3 billion earmarked for improving ‘the lives of refugees’ in the region, and a series of concessions with regard to Turkey’s prospective membership in the EU, it is hoped the agreement will deliver desperately needed investment to fund accommodation, education initiatives and welfare services for the two million refugees in Turkey itself.

However, despite the humanitarian rhetoric espoused by its proponents, the broader implications of the deal remain a cause for concern. Any claims suggesting the authoritarian tendencies of the Erdogan regime may be ameliorated by visa-liberalisation and closer political cooperation between Turkey and the EU are spurious to say the least. As negotiations concluded, the government has shown no sign of slowing its crackdown on independent journalism, seizing control of the national newspaper Zaman in March and tightening its grip over civil society. The fact these excesses hardly elicited any reaction from the West, and that German authorities are now considering the prosecution of a local comedian for ‘insulting’ Erdogan, allude to the leverage Turkey currently enjoys. As such, by colluding with autocrats the EU may paradoxically be compromising its liberal values on another front, namely free speech and free expression.

Crucially, there are also significant legal and practical issues that need to be considered. Human rights organisations have cited grave problems with the agreement. They argue it not only contravenes international law and its underlying humanitarian norms but also fails to exert pressure on Turkey to improve the protection it offers Syrian refugees. Amnesty International (AI) in particular maintains “the EU is…incentivising the opposite’, referencing a concerted effort by local Turkish authorities to expel asylum seekers back into Syria and close the Southern border to stop any further influx. While the ‘one in one out’ system explicitly circumvents controversy over blanket returns by certifying a right for refugees to make individual asylum claims, there is no doubt that the testimonies collected by AI deliver a damning indictment of Turkish migratory policy. It also undermines the fallacy that any claimants deemed irregular by the EU are being deported to a ‘safe third country’. To assume Turkey is safe is to ignore the Kurdish insurgency waging in its Eastern periphery and the horrendous conditions refugees are currently living under. Non-Syrians face the threat of further extradition back to dangerous home nations under the conditions of independent bilateral agreements between Ankara and, for example, the Afghan government. For those remaining in Turkey, many lack work permits and are forced into unregulated black market jobs for little to no salary. Perhaps more worryingly, 400,000 of 700,000 school age Syrian children aren’t receiving any formal education. There is simply no opportunity for integration, leading to societal tensions that will exponentially grow as the crisis gets worse. Unless this trend is radically altered, the EU’s refugee policy as it stands today is giving rise to a disenfranchised, socio-economically marginalised and uneducated ‘lost generation’ completely at odds with the humanitarian virtues the organisation claims to champion. On a practical and moral level this is untenable.

Europe is therefore between a rock and a hard place. Its migratory infrastructure cannot manage a crisis of this magnitude and it does not have the institutional or democratic flexibility to deliver an equitable scheme for effectively distributing shares of refugees across its membership. But as Kenan Malik, a London based lecturer and broadcaster, argues, by ratifying this deal with Turkey the EU seems to be regressing back to its antiquated mentality of the 1990s; ‘criminalising’ migrants, militarising its external borders and paying peripheral states to ‘operate as immigration police’. Outsourcing the problem and pretending it isn’t there is not a viable option. There needs to be a substantive, systemic transformation in how Europe both conceptualises and engages with the refugee problem. Anything short of this is simply not sustainable and the EU risks having its moral authority irreversibly damaged.

The Immolation of the West?

There are persistent claims in the media that amount to a picture of a possible combined ‘Sunni’ intervention in the Syrian conflict. It is said that Saudi Arabia is considering an armed incursion. Turkey is frequently tipped to engage and then nothing happens. Lord Howell of Guildford asked a most interesting question in the House of Lords which concluded:

Could she [the Minister responsible] just comment on reports that the British Army is now sending 1,600 troops to Jordan as part of some exercise, while the Egyptian troops are moving to Saudi Arabia to ally with them in preparation for possible moves to Jordan? The Jordan authorities have been urging for a long time that this is where we should open a new front, develop a buffer zone in the north and strike into the heart of ISIL territory. Is the war entering an entirely new phase? Could she just bear that in mind? She may not be able to answer that question at the moment, but we need to be kept up to date if things are changing as rapidly as it seems they really are.

The Minister gave no clear reply. We may note a related question on British engagement in the region in the House of Commons which received the following answer from Penny Mordaunt Minister of State, Minister for the Armed Forces:

We have deployed a small number of military personnel serving as liaison officers in Saudi headquarters to provide insight into Saudi operations. They remain under UK command and control. These liaison officers are not involved in the targeting process – whether it be the selection, decision making or directing. British personnel are not involved in carrying out strikes, directing or conducting operations in Yemen or selecting targets and are not involved in the Saudi targeting decision-making process.”

Something is up and Parliament seems unclear precisely what. But British military personnel are already involved in one or more regional conflicts without a very clear mandate. Is mission creep already in danger of setting in? Meanwhile, it is becoming more and more clear that the US is disinclined to intervene directly despite fairly aggressive lobbying from the Syrian Opposition in Washington (which also has strong links to the High Tory element in Parliament and Government).

We can speculate and speculate but anything we say may well result in egg on our faces when the facts are known, Nevertheless, what seems to be happening is two-fold. First, an appreciation that the Russian intervention is not going to result in the fall of Assad at the hands of the rebels and, second, that the drive outwards from Damascus could, if unchecked, destroy the ‘moderate’ Opposition and send waves of refugees into Turkey and thence to Europe and south into Jordan. Jordan is the forgotten nation here and its stability is a major concern of certainly the British.

The solution may be to use armed force to hold enclaves that stop border movements (and retain some bargaining position for the opposition) and also act as barriers to ISIS – but to secure these enclaves may require sovereign nations to invade another sovereign country which may then turn the business into a war of national liberation and pull in the countervailing regional powers, trigger opportunistic revolts amongst minorities within the primary invading powers and lead the superpowers into a confrontation that neither wants. The problem of Ukraine and the Baltic States lies behind this in a world where everything is connected.

It is, of course, an utter mess. The secrecy of the British Executive in relation to its own Parliament under conditions where many Britons have deeply negative feelings towards the two Sunni regional powers is a sign of its political weakness. The Government does not have the historic consensus on foreign policy to rely on – quite the contrary, although divided the Labour Opposition is led by a man who is suspicious of NATO, prefers dialogue to armed intervention under almost all conceivable conditions and is a known critic of the human rights record of just about everyone.

There are a number of things to consider here other than the obvious fact that, despite Kerry’s sterling work, Russia and, more indirectly, Iran hold all the cards in Syria. The ultimate fear in the White House is that the Sunni states intervene, ‘blow it’ and, in responding, Russia triggers a proto-global conflict by ‘accident’ that results in domestic protests in the West that would make Vietnam look like a picnic. Bear in mind that the New Hampshire Primary has now badly frightened the Washington Establishment – we have two lead candidates who oppose the consensus and many of whose supporters would rather vote for the other than for an Establishment alternative within their own Party.

This utter mess could even be presented as the fifteen year history of a reversal – the blundering attempt to bring liberal democracy to the Middle East has resulted in conditions that threaten liberal democracy at home, initially from a security state mentality and now from reactive revolutionary populisms.

Given the hysteria about terrorism and refugees and the rise of the new left-wing and national populist movements, a major destabilising crisis involving overseas armed engagement would actually destabilise Europe and even perhaps (though less certainly) the US and split the Alliance – what a prize for Mr. Putin! Note the reluctance of the UK Government actually to do anything publicly that would be effective in Syria (using its air power) despite winning a vote. The contentious vote that almost split the Opposition now looks as if it was designed only to cause some political mayhem domestically and to re-establish the principle that the Government could do what it willed.

The truth is that the Western public is deeply divided. It is unlikely to go to war willingly to defend Muslim obscurantism no matter how moderate the Islamists (and it will turn on its own Governments if it is pushed too far). Worse for the old elite, the psychological operation to demonise Russia and give NATO the latitude for action are falling rather flat except amongst the High Tory and Atlanticist Labour converted. Social media scrutiny is creating a substantial minority ready to take a resistance view of the matter and the mass of the population simply do not care but know they are not going to die for a bit of East European black earth or Middle Eastern desert. Short of an instant nuclear exchange, Putin holds a lot of the propaganda cards which he can then turn to his benefit in Europe and especially in destabilising both France (where he has been courting the NF) and Germany (where Russia has always had friends in high places).

In terms of the consequences of a civilised settlement in Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia may actually be part of the problem for the West, more than Iran and Russia (neither of which actually wants to go to the brink). That is, I believe, understood by policymakers and is a situation that will continue until Obama is replaced (over a year away) but only if his successor is not an outlier like Sanders or Trump, both of whom express some radical new views about America’s interests.

As for Saudi Arabia, the Kingdom’s attitude to Al-Assad is partly a matter of calculated interest and partly a matter of ‘honour’ that goes back to the assassination of Hariri, their primary agent in the Levant. Killing their regional man requires a remorseless vengeance that cannot end – this is politics but politics that is also personal in a world where the clientage systems of tradition matter. The personal is the political. Honour (no longer an issue in Western rational minds) remains live in Saudi minds.

This is not fully understood by many outside analysts. They dismiss it as ‘irrational’ or something that can be negotiated away but it cannot be so because it has its own inner logic. Saudi networks of allegiance are based on a feudal commitment to service in return for protection. The Saudis failed to protect their man because of ‘treachery’. They must avenge him to show that they will do so in other such cases and that their service providers need not go elsewhere if things get wobbly.

We have also detected a rising Saudi nationalism in the Saudi middle classes – analogous to being British and relating that Britishness to allegiance to the Crown (rather than to the People au Corbyn). A certain degree of militarism and swaggering goes with the territory as it did at the equivalent stage of development in European proto-nationalism. But it is sincere and growing stronger. The primitive view that Saudis are primitives is worse than insulting. It is wrong. It is a highly sophisticated political culture with close links to the British Royal Family and an intimate understanding of power and of how it is held and maintained.

Saudi nationalism rather than simpler reliance on feudal relations is a natural development that is culturally transformative if risky. Many Saudis respond to it.  It has also become a political necessity that binds the old tribal interests with the rising middle classes in a common destiny and it helps to explain a strategy of assertive and disruptive intervention across the region. One’s eyes should turn not north but south to Yemen where this is expressing itself most forcibly and where Western claims about ‘right conduct’ are dismissed when necessary.

For example, the Saudis (and Emiratis) need access to Assab Port to maintain their war in Yemen yet Assab Port is held by a pariah government (Eritrea) as far as the West is concerned. Given the criticality of Ethiopia to the anti-Islamist struggle, the West’s instinct is to retain Eritrea as a pariah (while seeking to bring it into the fold on its terms like Burma or Cuba) yet the Saudis have had the Eritrean President to Riyadh twice late last year and have integrated into their anti-terrorist alliance. The riots and killings in Oromia last week cannot be disconnected from Ethiopian fears of Muslim revolt and the Horn of Africa adds another line to the ever-expanding zone of conflict that now stretches to the Arctic.

The West clearly supports Yemen’s Government against the Houthis (as the Minister for Armed Services’ answer testifies) but no one seriously considers this a serious part of the ‘war on terrorism’ as opposed to a regional strategic play between the Saudi and Iranian networks where the Saudis clearly resent the fact that the West, in the person of Obama but also institutionally in Europe, has shifted towards an obvious and collaborative respect for Iranian aspirations.

Saudi concerns about the Iranians are thus so great that they are quite prepared to destabilise Western anti-Sunni Islamist strategies – not only in Syria but in the Horn of Africa. It is as if the Saudis have said to themselves that they will make themselves troublesome so that the West will have to mollify them by agreeing to their demands, perhaps without realising that the big picture does not allow that. But what is this fearsome big picture? It is one in which the Middle East is only one part of a great whole.

The potential danger of all these instabilities is horrendous. Saudi Arabia is a potentially unstable feudal polity moving towards a modernisation strategy that reminds one of the age of Stolypin under the Tsars. It is countering not merely the strategic interests of the West by default but it may be taking on more than it can administratively handle. And yet it feels it has no alternative. The model may not be Russia and revolution (as so many anti-Saudi liberals assume) but the United Kingdom in the Age of Castlereagh.

Even worse, it has perhaps not understood that the depth of resentment against the Kingdom within the West that was mollified in association with Western Governments after 9/11 has recurred with a vengeance under extremely unstable political conditions – the quite weird situation in the US political cycle with Trump and Sanders, deep concerns in Europe about Saudi involvement in mosque-building, human rights and Islamic migration and, above all, growing perception that, if not backing ISIS, the Kingdom may be backing some dark forces of its own in Greater Syria.

So, Saudi actions in this context are critical. If it enters into the Syrian morasse, with or without Turkey, Egyptian and ‘secret’ British support, and things go wrong, these things that go wrong can go wrong all the way down that fissure that leads to the Arctic, through a basket case of a Ukraine to the Balts who treat Russians as second class citizens. For the first time since the era of Nixon, Western peoples will be faced with the possibility of a nuclear exchange (and not just on the terms of the BBC’s ridiculous war games) and may not take it lying down. Senator Kerry, if he was reported correctly in his outburst to a Syrian NGO activist (“‘What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?”) on Saturday subconsciously revealed the truth of the matter – getting this wrong is an existential question now. The end game could be the immolation of the West if we have many more blunders.

[Tim Pendry is Chairman of TPPR – www.tppr.co.uk and http://blog.tppr.co.uk – but only writes on the Next Century Foundation blog in a personal capacity. He welcomes criticism.]

 

 

Migration in 2016

Refugee_march_Hungary_2015-09-04_02As ISIS continues to wage war in Iraq and Syria, and security threats persist in Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of people continue to flee the region, seeking asylum. The xenophobia this has generated has resulted in tensions within Europe. There has been a backlash against EU countries not seen to be doing their part to help ameliorate the refugee crisis. Hungary arresting and deporting those who make it through holes in the barbed wire fence does not help the situation. Nor does the hostility displayed by the UK towards migrants trying to leave Calais in search for a better quality of life. However, it seems that we are in a catch 22 position. The German government, which only a month ago received praise for Angela Merkel’s willingness to help, is now being pressured to decrease the numbers of migrants accepted. They have begun sending more migrants back to Austria. This stems largely from the New Year’s Eve attacks on women in Cologne and other cities. Yet this week, pictures have surfaced depicting the dire situation of some who remain in Syria. An aid convoy brought the first food and medical relief for three months to the besieged town Madaya, where thousands of people are suffering malnourishment. Understandably there are risks involved in welcoming refugees, but we are honour bound to foster a peaceful attitude towards migrants, who might otherwise be suffering like those left behind in Madaya.

Isis in Crisis?

is

NCF member Jonathan Mueller writes:

Isis in Crisis says Paul Wood in the Spectator. One can only hope that this is true.

I should not assign too much importance to their withdrawal from Ramadi. This appears to be their tactic — to fight up to the eleventh hour and then beat feet, leaving behind a mess of IEDs.
I still think that these assaults on cities are the wrong approach. They are time-consuming, and win or lose the city gets destroyed. Better to carve up bandit country with mobile patrols, isolating ISIS-controlled cities, cutting off their supplies of fuel and the flow of recruits, first raiding their outposts and then driving them in, reducing the territory they control, and waiting for the isolation to make their command structure come unglued.
Two weapons that are hallmarks of ISIS are suicide bombers and IEDs. The IEDs work, though, because we are ponderous and predictable. We need to move faster to keep them from emplacing them.
ISIS being on the retreat in Iraq/Syria, though, does not make Europe safer. I should expect them to respond to weakness in their caliphate by increasing terrorist attacks in Europe, in fact the Paris attacks may already have been an example of that.

http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/01/the-truth-about-islamic-state-its-in-crisis/?utm_source=Adestra&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20160107_Weekly_Highlights_1