Friday, February 20, 2015

See how they run - for cover

Well talk about the leopard changing his spots. Interesting I guess. What do you make of this complete about face by the former US Ambassador? Is he a moral coward or a realist?

Robert Ford

Once a top booster, ex-U.S. envoy no longer backs arming Syrian rebels

In recent weeks, Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria who made news when he left government service a year ago with an angry critique of Obama administration policy, has dropped his call to provide weapons to the rebels. Instead, he’s become increasingly critical of them as disjointed and untrustworthy because they collaborate with jihadists. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Syrian Refugee Crisis – Challenges to Humanitarianism

The following report is from Ms Eva M. Doerr, Junior Research Fellow at the Next Century Foundation:

I have recently returned from a journey to the Syrian border in an effort to assess the humanitarian situation and requirements of Syrian refugees in Turkey as well as arrange and manage cross-border distribution of aid into Syria.

The Syrian civil war is entering its fifth year, the humanitarian situation is atrocious and it seems there is little hope for the imminent resolution of this conflict – which has seen levels of truly extraordinary violence. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) over ten million people are in need of assistance with 7.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria and at least 3.2 million who have already fled the country. These figures are inevitably arbitrary. The NCF believes the number of IDPs to be higher and refugee numbers, particularly in Lebanon, are possibly severely underestimated by the UN. According to the latest UN figures for registered refugees Turkey hosts 1.6 million Syrian refugees, Lebanon 1.1 million, Jordan 600,000, Iraq 200,000. We reiterate, these are registered refugees only. The pressure placed on these host countries’ economies has left them at breaking point. The civilian population bears the brunt of the burden.

Humanitarian actors, whose efforts should at least be guided by the four principles of humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence, face an array of challenges when attempting to alleviate the suffering of civilians in the midst of ongoing conflict and violence. Along the Syrian-Turkish border, there are 100 IDP camps housing 160,000 people and since the beginning of the conflict both international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) and local organisations have been involved in managing the provision of aid through cross-border operations from Turkey.

Those affected by the conflict in Syria face the burden of border closures by some of Syria’s neighbour countries, who are struggling to absorb the immense flow of people into their often already fragile economic, social and political systems as well as restrictions of people’s movement in besieged areas of Syria. It is estimated that currently around 220,000 people are affected by restriction of movement policies, and there is growing evidence that these have become a military tactic of belligerents in the conflict and militia groups who use the social pressure of the growing humanitarian crisis for personal gain.

For humanitarian organisations operating in and around Syria, one of the most pervasive challenges is lack of access. Strict visa regulations and the high-risk of travel in Syria make it extremely difficult for INGOs to operate, demonstrated by extensive media coverage of the active targeting and kidnapping of humanitarian workers. According to UN OCHA, 298 security incidents involving aid workers were recorded between January 2013 and August 2014 across the wider MENA region. However and perhaps contrary to the perception fostered by media sources, it is local staff that face the highest risk. Given the security threat, INGOs are required to work through local implementing partners, which pose obstacles to both needs assessments prior to, as well as monitoring activities during and after, the provision of aid.

A further and perhaps more striking constraint to humanitarian efforts are the advances of ISIS and the group’s control of huge swaths of land in both Syria and Iraq as large governmental and non-governmental donors impose undue restrictions on these areas. In accordance with the global anti-terror campaign, no aid flows into governorates controlled by the group amid the looming suspicion of funding ‘anti-Western’ militias. Despite growing donor reluctance and fatigue, ISIS expansion has brought humanitarian actors into direct conflict with armed opposition groups as in Deir-ez-Zor. Not only has fighting blocked access to the governorate, but it has prompted both sides to block humanitarian access (ISIS halts humanitarian access to opposition-controlled regions, whilst these opposition groups block humanitarian assistance to those in areas governed by ISIS).
The Turkish government is another actor that places further restrictions on aid flows from its territory into areas in Syria that are controlled by the Syrian Government – Assad is a longstanding political rival of Erdoğan – and the Kurds. Turkish-Kurdish relations have remained tense because the Kurdish party, the PKK, continues to struggle to build a Kurdish nation, partly on Turkish soil.
Given these numerous political obstacles, the number of governorates in which humanitarian agencies can operate and distribute equipment has now shrunk considerably. It is remarkable that part of the area considered accessible and ‘easy’ to operate in is currently under the jurisdiction of al-Nusra Front, which remains on top of the US list of terror organisations. Doing business with al-Nusra would have been a lot less acceptable before ISIS came to prominence and seemingly altered the scale of ‘good’ and ‘bad’.

The Syrian conflict is a prime example that demonstrates the changing nature of conflict from interstate to intrastate war, which has led to increased challenges for humanitarian actors not to act in breach of humanitarian protection principles. In the case of Syria, non-governmental organisations face multiple restrictions both through donor countries and other territories that function as operations bases. In the context of nation states and national sovereignty, the capacity of humanitarianism is often reduced to a minimum and the space in which INGOs can operate whilst sticking by their principles is marginal. As lines between civilians and combatants increasingly blur, it becomes difficult to legitimise aid allocations and guarantee that equipment and currency does not merely end up in the pockets of militants, but aids those in need of protection.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Bashar al-Assad’s BBC Interview: Knowledge of air-strikes; denial of barrel bombs

 Jeremy Bowen’s interview with Bashar al-Assad last night was revealing on a strategic and a personal level. On a strategic level the interview shed some light on the fact that some “information” over air-strikes now passes from coalition forces to government forces (via third parties). On a personal level, Assad appeared calmly defiant and relaxed – even bringing himself to laughter on a couple of occasions; but, most importantly, he was also completely unapologetic about the suffering incurred upon the Syrian population over the course of the last four years, denying all charges against him. In fact, he goes as far as to say that he is fighting for the Syrian people “in order to protect civilians”. With figures suggesting that 220,000 people have now been killed in the conflict, around 9 million displaced from their homes, and a further 3.7 million people made refugees; this view borders on delusional.

There have been strong suggestions that the western stance towards Assad has softened of late. John Kerry’s recent comments that it is time for Assad and his government “to put their people first and think about the consequences of their actions”, do not concentrate on the need to replace Bashar al-Assad. And the fact that there is now information, passed through third parties, from coalition to Syrian forces, shows this to be no longer at the top of their agenda. Assad is insistent that he does not communicate tactically with coalition forces. Likewise, coalition forces claim that there is no place for Assad in their plans. Nonetheless, information has clearly been passed between the two.

The US-led, coalition air-strikes have been concentrated on ISIS forces. President Obama is expected, tomorrow, to ask Congress for more authority specifically to fight ISIS. And Jordan announced that it has carried out 56 airstrikes against ISIS in the last three days.  Clearly the extremist group have become the coalition’s no. 1 target in the conflict and their barbaric executions have provoked outrage and fear around the world. This is of great benefit to Assad. As well as partially sidelining the violence he has brought against his own people, it also means that he is now effectively receiving military aid with every air-strike that hits ISIS forces. Assad’s decision to take part in the interview and his relaxed but defiant exterior perhaps, therefore, points to a confidence in his current position; four years since the start of the war and he certainly looks no closer to being ousted.  

His demeanour, however, did not portray any concern for the people subjected to such suffering. When pressed on civilian casualties inflicted, his response was, “that’s war”. Similarly, all reports – including those of the UN Security Council – seem to confirm the Syrian forces’ use of inhumane barrel bombs, yet President Assad was able, not only to completely deny the use of barrel bombs, but also to joke about using “cooking pots” instead. It painted a picture of little remorse and, maybe, one of delusion. He referred to points raised by Bowen as “fantasy” and “unrealistic” and “illogical”, yet his insistence that he has the “public support” and that he has been merely “fighting terrorism from the very beginning” rather than subduing his own people, indicates a fantasy of his own. The war has mutated into one involving many different factions and the violence cannot be pinned solely on one side but he seems unaware of his culpability. Equally, there are significant parts of the country that do support the Syrian government but his view that he is fighting in order to “protect civilians” could be seen as "unrealistic" and "illogical", as well as delusional.

Monday, February 09, 2015

Patrick on ISIS

Prizewinning journalist Patrick Coburn has written an instructive book on ISIS. We commend it. The Guardian review is below:

rise islamic state review
Isis fighters in Syria, October 2013: ‘Why, if people like Cockburn could see what was happening, did western security officials, analysts and editors miss it?’ Photograph: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy
One can, however, identify four categories of militant activity at the moment. There are two main groups battling for pre-eminence: the veteran al-Qaida and the newcomers, the Islamic State or Daesh. There are various organisations affiliated to the former and loyal to the latter. Some are getting strong, some weaker, but most are proving remarkably tenacious. There are other groups that are entirely independent, though they may have some associative links with other militants, like the loathsome Boko Haram in Nigeria. And then there are the freelancers, the self-forming networks, the DIY terrorists who are increasingly responsible for violence on our streets. This picture is depressing, to say the least.

The capability of the militants to do harm comes from connections between groups, and particularly between these four categories. So of the three men who launched attacks in Paris in early January, one attacked a Jewish supermarket, killing four, while the other two gunned down 12 people, including 10 members of the editorial staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The former, in isolation, would have been a minor incident, albeit terrifying, and a powerful reminder of growing antisemitism in Europe. But the latter was of global significance, prompting massive commentary and attention from media and global leaders and, with its carefully chosen target, revealing deeply polarised attitudes between many in the west and many in the Islamic world. It was the Charlie Hebdo attack that had its origins in the visit of one of the killers to Yemen and his contact with an al-Qaida affiliate there.
In his intelligent, important new book, Patrick Cockburn concentrates on the role of the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in this new landscape of jihad. As a reporter for the Independent, Cockburn has built up a well-deserved reputation for sensible, sober journalism, rooted in time spent on the ground as well as thinking and reading. He recently won a deserved award for spotting the rise of the Islamic State well before other observers. This most recent work is welcome. Amid the many books published on the current conflicts reshaping the Middle East, few are as informative or perceptive as The Rise of Islamic State.

The roots of the IS lie in the surge of violent Islamic activism in the Middle East of the 1980s and the effects of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, which brought a young Jordanian street thug known as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to Afghanistan in 1989. He was too late to join the war but returned to his native land to plan attacks there. Jailed, al-Zarqawi was released in time to return to Afghanistan to create his own group, Tawhid wal-Jihad. His opportunity came with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the subsequent uprising. Al-Zarqawi established himself as leader of the most brutal fringe of the insurgency. He was killed in 2006 as the sectarian civil war he had worked to foment intensified. If over the next four years the Islamic State in Iraq, as the group called itself, suffered under pressure from the US, it was able to regroup once the foreign troops had left. Under its new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISI launched new campaigns.
The 2011 revolt in Syria, and that country’s rapid disintegration into civil war, provided a new opportunity. Working with al-Qaida central, the ISI set up a new militant group in the neighbouring country. However, lines of command were never clear. Al-Baghdadi thought the new organisation was under his authority. Its commanders, and the al-Qaida command, thought differently. The result was an acrimonious split, al-Baghdadi sending forces to take over substantial portions of eastern Syria, while appropriating large chunks of a resurgent Iraqi Sunni insurgency against a Shia chauvinist government in Baghdad. By summer last year, al-Baghdadi was ready for a big push. He launched a successful attack on Mosul, Iraq’s troubled second city, and then declared himself caliph, temporal and spiritual ruler of the world’s Muslims.
So why, if people like Cockburn could see what was happening, did western security officials, analysts and editors miss it? Probably because, as The Rise of Islamic State explains, western policymakers have shown little but wishful thinking and inconsistency in dealing with the conflict in Syria or the supposed peace in Iraq for several years. Of all the many mistakes Cockburn says were made by both the rebels and their foreign backers since 2011, it was the belief that President Assad was going to be swiftly defeated that was the most serious. As late as 2012, foreign governments and journalists were speculating where al-Assad might choose for exile, despite holding, at the time, every one of Syria’s 14 provincial capitals. Since then al-Assad has lost just one, Raqqa, to the Islamic State. As for Iraq, no one wanted to believe how badly things were going. And with few journalists on the ground, internet rumour and the statements of interested politicians were all anyone had to go on.

Cockburn describes the civil war in Syria as “a Middle Eastern version of the 30 years war in Germany of the 17th century. All sides exaggerate their own strength and imagine that temporary success on the battlefield will open the way to total victory”. He refers to the “politics of the last atrocity”. The outcome probably rests with the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, he says, all of whom have different interests and objectives.
One of the major themes that emerges from Cockburn’s account is the role of states in the whole appalling story. Islamic militant groups are usually described as non-state actors. But as The Rise of Islamic State makes clear, this is far from true. Everybody now seems to have some kind of involvement in this fight, which may have killed more than 200,000 people, and no one has a realistic idea of how to end it.

The Rise of Islamic State is published by Verso (£9.99). Click here to order it for £7.99