War, Refugees And Munich

Gaziantep

The news gets bleaker: at Munich the West appears to have fallen into a Russian trap, it seems to me. And Syrians can see that the Russian/regime noose is not only being tightened on Aleppo but that the West is preparing another noose for them. Soon they won’t have any place to go outside Syria with Turkey still determined to keep its border closed to the bulk of new refugees. NATO warships are to deploy off Turkey to try to stop war refugees already in Turkey from heading to Europe; and signs are increasing that Schengen may be suspended for two years to stop those who make it to the EU from moving around. Presumably their future is to be thrown back to Turkey — with the EU paying the Turks ever bigger bribes to take them back.

We are in essence deciding to “quarantine” the “Syrian contagion” and in the process certainly breaking the 1951 international refugee convention in spirit — if not the letter of the agreement. What a sad commentary on what Euro politicians like to call “European Values.” I understand the challenges and dangers of admitting and settling so many refugees, but if you want to avoid having to do so, then do something about the war in Syria. Because if Assad remains, the problem will get worse added to which a rising number of increasingly enraged young moderate and nationalist fighters will heed the siren voice of the jihadists.

Those are my personal views. Below are extracts from VOA dispatch today from the Turkey-Syria border.

Syrian rebels warn their five-year-long struggle to oust President Bashar al-Assad will go underground, if they are deserted by Western backers or an attempt is made to foist an unacceptable political deal on them. They will wage a relentless guerrilla campaign against the Assad regime and “foreign invaders” from Iran and Russia, turning the war into a national liberation fight, rebel commanders and opposition politicians say….

With the partial cease-fire deal announced by the ISSG in Munich not including a clear commitment from the Kremlin to end blistering Russian airstrikes immediately — a key demand of the Syrian opposition — the rebels dismiss the idea that Munich represents a breakthrough in the search for a political solution to end the brutal five-year-long civil war that has left upwards of 250,000 dead.

They view it instead as another way-station on a road that will lead to an inevitable Western-backed negotiated political deal that they won’t be able to accept…

The biggest concern of rebel commanders in north Syria is that the Russian-backed regime will use the cessation of hostilities as a PR cover for a shift in battlefield focus, one Western powers will have inadvertently provided a stamp of approval for and won’t be able to object to later.

Read the full report here

A Fail Grade for UN Panel

Would the three panelists of the UN working group that found this week in Julian Assange’s favor pass a law exam at any serious law faculty?

Their reasoning is utterly shocking. They fail to note even the UK Supreme Court’s dismissal of his appeal against extradition, a rather reckless attitude to the rule of law and due process by the panel.

As to his current abode at the Ecuadorian embassy, they say this: “Placing individuals in temporary custody in stations, ports and airports or any other facilities where they remain under constant surveillance may not only amount to restrictions to personal freedom of movement, but also constitute a de facto deprivation of liberty.” They fail to note that no authority forced him to take up his current residence.

And then this astonishing statement: “It defeats the purpose and efficiency of justice and the interest of the concerned victims to put this matter of investigation to a state of indefinite procrastination.” Yes, and who was responsible for the procrastination?

The dissenter on the panel, Ukraine’s Vladimir Tochilovsky, deals with the embassy stay thus: “In fact, Mr. Assange fled the bail in June 2012 and since then stays at the premises of the Embassy using them as a safe haven to evade arrest. Indeed, fugitives are often self-confined within the places where they evade arrest and detention. This could be some premises, as in Mr. Assange’s situation, or the territory of the State that does not recognise the arrest warrant. However, these territories and premises of self-confinement cannot be considered as places of detention for the purposes of the mandate of the Working Group.” Quite.

And So It Continues

Despite food and aid having been delivered earlier this month to Madaya, one of the many besieged communities in Syria, 16 people have died since. According to Doctors without Borders today there 320 cases of malnutrition, of which 33 are severe and will die unless they receive quick treatment.

“Following heavy shelling of the town last summer and a tightening of the siege on Madaya in the winter, massive restrictions placed on humanitarian assistance mean that essential medical supplies – including enough therapeutic food to treat the most severe cases of malnutrition – are not available for those living there,” the medical charity says in a statement.

The NGO’s medics are now reporting malnutrition in other towns in Syria, including in Moadamiyah, southwest of Damascus.

Looking into the Ghetto

Warsaw

I spent the morning at Warsaw’s Rising Museum, which was opened ten years ago in what was once the capital’s tram power plant to commemorate the tragic (and betrayed) 1944 uprising against the Nazis — the one the Soviets failed to support, halting their advance nearby while the Germans demolished the city, and the Western allies failed to assist.

As I have spent much of the past four years focusing on reporting on Syria, it his hard for me not to draw parallels with the awful plight of the anti-Assad rebels. The photographs of razed Warsaw remind me of the towns of northern Syria and a large portion of the historic city of Aleppo.

And in the museum you can read this editorial written by George Orwell complaining about the absence of support for the uprising offered by the Western allies. “The only thing they ask is, ‘Give us weapons,’ and when these weapons do not arrive, when their friends keep silent, they cannot understand. But there will come a time when they will, and we will pay the price for our deliberate, cold calculations.”

Orwell on the Warsaw Uprising

 

The price is already being paid when it comes to Syria: the refugee crisis impacting Europe is one price — and a costly one as it is ripping the European Union apart.

Another has been paid already: the prolonged conflict has become ever more sectarian, as was predicted by several reporters covering Syria, including myself, and it will have consequences not just for the immediate region but further afield.

Another cost has been to fuel recruitment among desperate Syrian fighters by hardline and al Qaeda-linked Islamist militias and, of course, the Islamic State terror army. Neglect allowed the rise of IS, as I and others predicted would happen, and the consequences of that are being seen on the streets of US and European cities.

In fits and starts, shaped by the day-to-day partisan battles back in Washington, commentators from the libertarian right and the non-interventionist left have argued there are no moderates among the Syrian revolutionaries. And this is untrue.

The claim is made by writers who have no authority, no first-hand knowledge, and who have not given the uprising against Bashar al-Assad the courtesy of ever bothering to find out on the ground what is going on. Syria is a dangerous place — as I know — but unless you mix with the fighters and their civilian supporters, how can you make the judgement call that they are all extremists?

Moderate is in the eye of the beholder, of course. Moderation is relative. But the rebel ranks are full of people I would describe as moderates. Yes, many, especially those who come from rural areas, are religious and cultural conservatives; their womenfolk may wear the hijab; their idea of democracy is sketchy at best. Their victory will not usher in a Western-style democracy. Aleppo won’t turn into Chevy Chase or Hampstead. But they are not jihadists and they have no truck with beheadings or bombing innocents in the West.

Their fight has been for human dignity — for the right to have some say about their governance. Their fight has been against the secret police and the pillage of the state by a ruling elite. Their fight has been for the right to be allowed to start down the path of change and reform and to develop. And our excuse has been to say it is too difficult.

 

Belgium Raises Security Alert

Paris

Belgian authorities raised the terror alert level for Brussels today to the highest level, warning of a possible attack similar to the one in Paris that killed 130 people and wounded 351 eight days ago.

Prime Minister Charles Michel said the alert level was raised to category 4 in response to “quite precise information about the risk of an attack like the one that happened in Paris.”

Worth reading my piece Friday on the shortcomings of the Belgian security and intelligence services.

“The Belgian government admitted this week it had lost control of a rundown Brussels district linked to a series of terror attacks in Belgium and neighboring France, including those last Friday in Paris.

But while the government has promised to ‘clean up’ the Molenbeek neighborhood, that will be a tall order for the country’s demoralized and fractious security services.
And Molenbeek, where at least three of the Paris attackers lived, isn’t the only problematic neighborhood.

‘There are several other neighborhoods and towns in Belgium exhibiting the same high levels of radicalization,’ warned Roberta Bonazzi of the Counter-Extremism Project, a nonprofit policy organization.”

You can read the full VOA story here.

Realism and Syria

An interesting New Yorker look at Obama thinking on Syria and the so-called “realist” school of foreign policy. And John Cassidy has some clear-eyed perceptions, including this:

“Safeguarding the stability of Europe is surely a vital U.S. interest. Indeed, there is strong realist case for regarding it as part of an extended clean-up operation made necessary when the Bush Administration decided to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein.”

But as ever with commentators who are only US-based there is this stand-out on the Washington-backed international talks in Vienna:

“It is hard to hold out much hope that these talks will succeed unless the United States drops its demand for regime change.”

Actually, aside from the moral argument about why Assad and his inner circle should have to go, there is a practical one: Syrian rebels won’t settle for anything less. So it isn’t up to Washington or any outsider to drop this demand: rebel commanders and fighters are determined not to finish their fight until Assad is history and are even prepared, they tell me, to fight on, even if all their off-and-on-again foreign backers desert them.

Assad Offensives Seek to Stretch Rebels

Gaziantep, Turkey

My latest dispatch for VOA explores what is happening on the ground in Syria as Assad offensives unfold with Russian air support.

Militia commanders say they suspect the strategy of the government of President Bashar al-Assad is focused on stretching the rebels, seizing control of key highways and encircling larger insurgent-held towns in northern Syria….

A Turkey-based European diplomat agrees with the rebel assessment of the Assad regime strategy.

“I think the aim is to create a cordon sanitaire in parts of central and northern Syria stretching from Jisr al-Shughour in Idlib through to the Aleppo countryside involving the isolation of some insurgent-held towns and reasserting control of the M5 highway linking Damascus, Homs and Aleppo.  It is very tactical,” the diplomat told VOA.

Read the full report here

An Improbable Week

As the cliche has it — truth is the first casualty of war.

And this week officials in Moscow, Ankara and Washington DC appeared determined to prove the saying true.

A Russian Defense Ministry spokesman claimed Tuesday a remarkable victory over Islamic State militants — despite the fact that 90 percent of Russia’s airstrikes have been targeting anti-Assad rebels of the Free Syrian Army or the Islamist Army of Conquest. IS had lost “most” of its ammunition, heavy vehicles and equipment in Russian airstrikes, the Defense Ministry baldly bragged Tuesday. So 86 claimed Russian airstrikes on IS the previous 48 hours — plus a few the previous two weeks — managed to achieve what 7000 US-led coalition airstrikes had failed to do!

Just putting aside how improbable that sounds, it doesn’t square with field actions of ISIS to the north-east of Aleppo, where Russian airstrikes have assisted the terror group to capture from Syrian rebels a chunk of important real estate. Nor does it square with what anti-IS activists inside Raqqa and Deir Ez-Zor tell me. Yes, damage is being done to ISIS by coalition and Russia airstrikes but the group is hardly on the ropes yet and won’t be until they are challenged on the ground by a serious force.

And that leads into the second great improbable of the week — this time coming from Washington. Namely that a US air-drop this week of 45 tonnes of ammunition in northern Syria did not go to the Kurds’ YPG forces. A Pentagon spokesman insisted Thursday that the US military was confident the supplies got to the so-called Syrian Arab Coalition. Earlier, another Pentagon official, Peter Cook, had admitted to reporters that some of the ammunition might have ended up with other groups, including the Kurds.

The Pentagon’s “correction” neither squares what the YPG/PYD is saying — including their leader Salih Muslim — nor does it make any sense, if, as US officials have said, they are pushing the YPG and Syrian Arab Coalition to march towards Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, encircle and isolate it. The YPG is the dominant force in that grouping, able to field 25,000 or so fighters. The Syrian Arab Coalition can field according to Washington 5000 fighters and is basically a YPG catspaw.

And if you want to know what a dubious group the Syrian Arab Coalition is, read my report here.

The last great improbable of the week came from Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who offered one of the most unlikely pairings ever when he suggested on Thursday that ISIS and the PKK, Turkey’s outlawed Kurdish separatists, may have both had a hand in last weekend’s suicide bombing in Ankara, the deadliest terror attack in modern Turkish history.

Among those detained, he said on TRT television, are “people linked to the PKK and linked to ISIS,” he said.

Of Broken Promises and Barrel Bombs and Two Brave Syrian Boys

Kilis, Turkey

My afternoon was graced by 13-year-old Ahmed and ten-year-old Nizar, a pair of courageous Syrian boys, who were torn to pieces by barrel bombs dropped on Aleppo and Homs. Ahmed is now paralyzed from the chest down: he has only recently started to use his hands and arms, but the rest of his fractured body will be forever useless. When he arrived in Turkey he was angry and inconsolable but thanks to the compassion and expertise of Syrian refugee doctors, he is now engaging and plays games on a tablet. He flashed me a thumbs up. Nizar lost his right arm; his left is in poor shape with bright scarlet wounds and holes where you can see the tendons. He helps the adult patients in the field hospital where both boys are recuperating. He is bright and open and affectionate and does not complain, I was told. What is the future for these boys? I read today an article that mixes half-truths and nonsense by Robert Fisk, who distorts the war in Syria to bash America. He says there are no good guys in this conflict so best to leave alone and let Assad remain. I hear Donald Trump say send all Syrians back to Syria because they are jihadists. But Ahmed and Nizar are the good guys; the Syrian doctors trying to help them are the good guys, and the Syrians who four years ago protested repression and asked for a modicum of freedom are the good guys. What they have got in return for their request for dignity are barrel bombs and broken bodies, blasted fathers and mothers and daughters and sons, Daesh, Cruise missiles from Russia, and broken promises from the West.