Faking it for Assad – in the Workshop of Pierre le Corf

Over the past few years the Syrian White Helmets – the organisation that provides search and rescue services in opposition areas has come under intense attack from pro-regime quarters – particularly by Vanessa Beeley and the 21st Century Wire website that she is associated with. Beeley has a number of little helpers in this work, one of whom is the French “humanitarian” Pierre Le Corf  who plays an important role spreading the message in the Francosphere, with some 20 videos posted on You Tube and regular appearances on the French editions of the Russian Sputnik channel and Iranian Press TV.

Le Corf first projected himself into the public domain in March 2016 when he launched a “humanitarian NGO” called We are Super heroes”. This consisted of a crowd-funded programme of trips by le Corf to several parts of the world where he recorded interviews with “marginalised communities” (the “super heroes”) which he posted on a web page. So far so innocuous.

In April 2016 Le Corf pitched up in Aleppo, apparently sponsored by the French organisation SOS Chrétiens d’Orient (SOS Christians of the East) ­ an organisation with ties to the French far right.).

He initially took up residence with a family in regime-controlled West Aleppo, where he distributed first-aid kits in the neighbourhood. He also had himself filmed walking the streets of West Aleppo where he recited tales of the East Aleppo armed groups’ attacks on the civilian population of the West. This evolved into the mantra “there are no rebels in East Aleppo – only terrorists” (he seems to have forgotten about the civilian population).)

After the fall of Aleppo he remained in place and linked up with the Vanessa Beeley team to contribute to the demonization of the of the White Helmets.

Humanitarian or Hypocrite?

The first thing to note about his narratives is that they completely ignored what was happening on the other side of Aleppo, a few kilometres from where he was living and working. Every crime Le Corf accuses the “terrorists” of committing is matched many times over by the crimes of the regime. The shelling and bombing of East Aleppo by regime forces began in July 2012 (before any return fire by the armed opposition). Le Corf tells us that he has passed information about the war crimes committed by the “terrorists” in East Aleppo to the UN human Rights Commission’s Committee of Inquiry on Syria. That’s his prerogative. But he would be well advised to read their reports as well. In the report on Aleppo they do itemise attacks on West Aleppo by rebel forces during the final period of the regime’s offensive to recapture the city:  ­ 6 attacks over a period of 15 weeks killing 41 people, including 9 children. A tragic loss of life rightly classed by the Commission as the war crime of “indiscriminate attacks in a civilian populated area”.

We can widen the horizon to cover the whole period of the regime offensive (June to December 2016) by looking at the records of the Violations Documentation Centre (VDC): they record 90 deaths in West Aleppo in that period as a result of armed opposition shelling, including 12 students of the University of Aleppo. None of the victims were military personnel.

But what was happening in East Aleppo while this was going on?

The UN Commission describes it as follows:

“Launched on 23 September 2016, the aerial bombardment campaign of eastern Aleppo drastically increased civilian casualties. 300 people – including 96 children – were killed in the first four days of the offensive alone. (my emphasis)

“Syrian and Russian air forces conducted daily air strikes in Aleppo throughout most of the period under review, exclusively employing, as far as the Commission could determine, unguided air-delivered munitions. These included aerial bombs, air-to-surface rockets, cluster munitions, incendiary bombs and improvised air-delivered munitions (barrel bombs), and weapons delivering toxic industrial chemicals, including chlorine.”

The VDC has documented 480 deaths of civilians in Syrian and Russian bombing raids over the course of the whole offensive, a quarter of them children. These raids killed virtually no fighters.

But we don’t have to get caught up in a numbers game to demonstrate the differing impact of the conflict on the two halves of Aleppo – its inscribed on the face of the city: UN satellite data shows how physical destruction was distributed across the city by 2016, with East Aleppo affected far more acutely than the regime districts. Khedr Khaddour of the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung has mapped the UN data onto the political line of divide and shows that large parts of regime controlled Aleppo experienced almost no damage during the conflict (less than 2% of buildings affected); some areas like Midan (where Le Corf says he “occasionally lives”) were more seriously affected, with up to 9% of buildings damaged. However in East Aleppo most areas suffered between 30% to 65% damage.

This fact is recorded by Le Corf himself. He features in a French tv programme which opens with shots of the devastation in East Aleppo, and then switches to a glowing report on Le Corf, showing him walking through a street in West Aleppo. The area clearly suffers from sniper attacks, but there is no sign of structural damage to the buildings. (In order to bolster his case Le Corf has to display a car with damage to its bodywork.)

So what does our “humanitarian” have to say about the suffering of East Aleppo civilians? Virtually nothing. Indeed he became so enamoured of his own views that he actually sang the praises of planes flying overhead on the way to bomb East Aleppo (“I pray that the planes arrive”). In his imagination they were attacking rebel artillery– but in the real world, they were bombing people’s homes, bread queues, and medical facilities.

Le Corf not only decries the crimes committed by one side of the conflict while ignoring the greater volume of killing perpetrated by the other side, he actually exploits the former to justify the latter.

That is not the stance of a “neutral humanitarian” – nor of any sort of genuine Christian– it is the behaviour of a hypocrite and a propagandist.

Let’s take another example of Le Corf’s disingenuousness: he repeatedly asserts that there were no military targets in West Aleppo and hence no justification for the opposition artillery fire. But in one of his interviews a boy complains that he had difficulty studying during the conflict because the tanks stationed outside his house caused the building to shake whenever they fired their guns –testimony to the fact that the Syrian army was basing heavy weapons in residential areas I am not suggesting this justifies reckless military operations by the opposition but it does indicate that the responsibility here is not as one-sided, as Le Corf claims, and demonstrates how unreliable he is as a guide to the situation in Aleppo.

In the workshop of Pierre Le Corf

Le Corf shot a video in March 2017 which attempted to demonstrate a link between the White Helmets and Jabhat-al Nusra. This video belongs to a particular sub-genre used extensively by regime propagandists: going one step further than US Senator McCarthy of 1950s fame it adds to his category of “guilt by association” that of “guilt by proximity” –trying to discredit someone by claiming that they did their business in premises close by some reprehensible group. For good measure this flimsy reasoning is often bolstered by finding some sort of convenient “incriminating evidence” in the premises in question.

The location of Le Corf’s filming is shown below in a screen shot from Google Earth: the compound marked in red, consisting of a set of four L-shaped buildings (the former al-Sakhour School) and the more compact set of buildings to the north, marked in green, which comprised the M10 Hospital.

Google earth M10 marked cropped

Le Corf’s video is a strange affair – shot at a frantic pace with a mobile phone that is often out of focus, it obscures as much as it enlightens.

Let’s take a frame-by frame look at it and see what it tells us about Le Corf.

Le Corf starts by focusing on one of the L-shaped blocks and tells us “that’s the headquarters of Jabhat al Nusra” (“le quartier général de Jabhat al Nusra”). But it’s not the headquarters of Jabhat al-Nusra – that is in the former Eye Hospital on the other side of the city. Perhaps Le Corf is just exercising “propagandist’s licence” here – to announce that the White Helmets centre is across the courtyard from a building used by Jabhat al-Nusra is not nearly as dramatic as proclaiming that it adjoins the Nusra headquarters. ­So Le Corf sexes up his dossier by repeatedly making that claim.

But what evidence is there that the building in question had anything at all to do with al-Nusra? None: Le Corf never enters this building.(Although in a separate video Vanessa Beeley does visit it and like Le Corf asserts that it is an Al-Nusra base; but she fails to find anything in the building to corroborate it – indeed her cameraman briefly scans a wall with two drawings of “Free Syria” flags, which rather contradicts her claim.)

Le Corf, however starts his tour in the White Helmets building and tries to establish the connection from the other direction, claiming (1:11) that “The building is covered with military munitions and the Nusra flag.” But neither of these appear in the video. Instead he encounters on the exterior wall a drawing of a “Free Syria” flag which he proclaims in a fit of indignation to be a “military flag” (1:32). But of course, it’s nothing of the sort -it may be the flag that Free Syrian Army carries but it’s also the flag of the civil opposition, a flag carried by hundreds of thousands of Syrians on demonstrations in 2011/12 and born today by many Syrians.in exile. There is no basis for claiming that its presence is evidence of alignment with any armed faction ­ and certainly not al-Nusra.

Le Corfe then delivers what he obviously thinks is his coup de grace: at 1:51 he films an image of Daesh’s “seal of the prophet” logo printed on a sheet of paper and affixed to a wall in the building. He comments that this represents “Daesh- Jabhat al Nusra allegiance”. (It’s difficult to decipher what he means by this nonsensical pronouncementbut other statements of his suggest that he thinks Daesh and Jabhat al-Nusra share the same flag.)

But whether born of ignorance or manipulative intent, this ploy raises serious suspicions about Le Corfe’s methods. Daesh was expelled from Aleppo by June 2014. So how is it that a piece of paper bearing its emblem is found attached to the wall of a building in an area “reduced to “rubble” (Le Corf’s words) 3 years later? The only explanation I can think of is that someone put it there shortly before Le Corf shot his video in a clumsy attempt to set the scene for his allegations.

But let’s move on.

At 3:35 Le Corf finally produces the sole tangible piece of evidence he has to corroborate his claims – a single Jabhat al Nusra flag, which he conveniently finds lying on the floor, (probably placed there by whoever provided the “Daesh” fakery)

At 4:24 he homes in on a drawing on the wall and proclaims “here al Nusra, everything al Nusra”; but the drawing appears once again to be of the Daesh “symbol (sufficiently faded that it could well be three years old and apparently defaced by some irreverent graffiti written over it).

Le Corf then moves to the M10 Hospital. There at 5:59 he tells us that “it was said that it was destroyed. It’s not true.” But no one claimed that the building was flattened – only that it was seriously damaged (as Le Corf later acknowledges) and put out of operation.

Le Corf’s Conjuring Act

The case of the M10 provides us with clear proof of how Le Corf goes about his work. He made another video focused on the M10 Hospital with an Iranian TV reporter. Here he explains to her that a notice in the entry hall of the building is a message from “the Libyan terrorists to Jabhat al-Nusra telling them that “democracy is kufr” (heresy). Why exactly Nusra needs that explaining to them is left obscure. He also informs her that there is a notice on the entrance door from Nusra saying that “it’s forbidden to work with Americans” (something even he seems to find odd in a hospital run by the Syrian-American Medical Society, SAMS). Its noteworthy that he pointed out neither of these things in his previous video.

We have, however, a means of checking his claims. A crew from Syrian state television had visited the M10 hospital before Le Corf. They had a very similar agenda to his – “exposing” the hospital as evidence of western support for “terrorism”; like him they noted the large quantity of medicine in the building – commenting in particular on a large amount of insulin. Their main focus was on two pieces of hi-tech medical hardware provided by SAMS – a CT Scanner and a mammogram machine (used for early diagnosis of breast cancer).

What they did not find, however were any notices from Libyan terrorists or from Jabhat al Nusra or any other signs of Jabhat al Nusra presence. These seem to have been miraculously conjured up for Le Corf’s propaganda exercise.

Moeover the SANA tv crew seem to have visited the other building that featured in Le Corf and Beeley’s videos, where they note finding more medical stores – but they refer to it simply as “the school” not the “Jabhat al Nusra headquarters.”

There are only two possibilities here: either Syrian state television reporters turned a blind eye to the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra in the M10 Hospital and the former al-Sakhour school or Le Corf’s reports from these locations were manufactured fakes.

The SANA report also sheds some light on Le Corf’s claim that the M10 hospital was only serving Nusra. That is inconsistent with the presence of a large quantity of insulin and a mammogram machine –  ­ unless we are expected to believe that the  rebel fighters in East Aleppo suffered from an extraordinary high incidence of Type 1 diabetes and breast cancer.

Far more likely is the simple explanation that the M10 was a general hospital treating the whole population of East Aleppo, until that is, regime bombs put it out of action.

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5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets”

For the last year the Civil defence organisation that provides search and rescue help to Syrian opposition communities under attack from the Syrian regime and its allies – known as the White Helmets – has come under an unprecedented wave of attack by regime supporters. For the most part these attacks have been confined to the wilder shores of the internet, but recently they have been taken up by a small group of British academics, headed by Prof Tim Hayward of Edinburgh University and Prof Piers Robinson of Sheffield University, who have posted a response  to a recent article in the Guardian by Olivia Solon outlining the links between the organisations circulating these accusations and the Russian state.

Hayward and Robinson appear to be outraged by the fact that the Guardian did not bow down before their Professorial titles and fast-track their views into print. They also complain that they “have been subjected to intemperate attacks from mainstream media columnists such as George Monbiot through social media”. The severest comment I can find from Monbiot on them is “I believe that Tim Hayward, Piers Robinson, et al have disgraced themselves over Syria” If they regard that as an “intemperate attack” then I can only conclude that they have led very sheltered lives.

Curiously, Hayward and Robinson, despite the fact that the latter is a specialist in media studies, raise no objections to the substantive findings of Solon’s article (so perhaps we can take that as an indication that she is on solid ground).  Instead they focus their attention on the White Helmets.

Funding of the White Helmets

They start by telling us  that the White Helmets  are “supported by US and UK funding.” Well, not quite: as the White Helmet’s web site points out they have support from seven different governments. Some of this is episodic and in-kind, and the US and Britain are the largest donors; but the Helmets also receive regular financial support from the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany, which together provide over 40% of its funding.

And how large is this funding? The figures on this are often unclear, but my calculations are that they amount to about £24.6 million annually. Of course, abstract figures have very little meaning – the Helmets have some 3000 members spread across 110-120 centres, and aim to provide assistance to over 4 million inhabitants of areas under attack from the Syrian regime, so the money has to go a long way. To get a more meaningful picture let’s compare it with an analogous organisation closer to home. Take for example the Cheshire Fire Service, which is about a quarter the size of the White Helmets, measured in terms of both personnel and catchment area. Its annual budget is over £41 million (and is regarded as dangerously underfunded by locals). And, of course, there is no comparison between the situations Cheshire firefighters face and those the Helmets have to deal with. (The last time a bomb fell on Cheshire was in 1941.) So the Helmets have to carry out their gargantuan task with just a little over half the funds of a quiet English county.

Syria damage 1

Who do you call ? The Tartous Fire Brigade?

The next point that Robinson and Hayward make is one which speaks volumes about the calibre of their “scholarship” and its provenance: “Here it is important to note that the real Syria Civil Defence already exists and is the only such agency recognised by the International Civil Defence Organisation (ICDO).”

As those who have followed the campaign of denigration against the White Helmets know, this is directly lifted from Syrian regime supporter Vanessa Beeley. It is embarrassing to see two academics reprising this argument, which is more worthy of a playground spat than a serious discussion A quick trip to Wikipedia, or a two-minute visit to the ICDO website would tell you the obvious: the ICDO is an intergovernmental body – its members are by definition states and it doesn’t “recognise” anyone; as its constitution states, “The ICDO federates the national structures established by States… with the aim of favouring cooperation and mutual solidarity between them.”  Complaining that the White Helmets are not members of the ICDO makes as much sense as complaining that they are not members of the World Trade Organisation. And what sort of bizarre ontology leads to the conclusion that the White Helmets are “not “real”?

Frankly I think this line of argument is pretty  silly, but since we’ve been advised by Hayward and Robinson that its “very important” let’s follow them down the road The ICDO website provides links to each of its members; if you click on most of them you will be taken to the website of their dedicated Civil Defence service; but if you click on Syria you get taken to the website of the Ministry of the Interior, which has a lot of discussion of “internal security”, of traffic management, and even of the seizure of rotten chicken in Damascus, but nary a mention of any Civil Defence.

When Vanessa Beeley wants to promote what she and our professors call the Real Civil Defence all they can come up with is the Tartous Fire Brigade. So what they seem to be suggesting is that when a town like, say, Atareb has its marketplace bombed and 50 people are trapped under the rubble what they should do is dial 133 (the number for fire emergencies) and wait for the Tartous Fire Brigade to turn up!

I do wonder just how far our Professors are prepared to follow their muse in this escalating silliness;  but let’s not belabour the point – we have some serious issues to deal with.

People like Hayward & Co tend to produce what I think of as “interrupted discourse”  – that is, arguments which make forceful objections to a state of affairs but stop short of the climactic moment where they tell us what outcomes  they are actually advocating. For example, they object to the fact that the White Helmets are funded by western governments – so what do they advocate – Less funding? No funding? Funding by someone else? They don’t tell us. Ditto for their objection to the fact that the Helmets are trained by western contractors. Are they saying that they would prefer the Helmets to be untrained? Again – no comment.

Five Questions

These sorts of interrupted discourses are logically and ethically unsatisfactory – so let’s see if we can make honest men of our Professors by asking them  a set of questions:

  1. Are communities in opposition areas of Syria being bombed regularly with a significant loss of life and destruction of infrastructure?
  2. Are the people who live in these communities likely to just sit back and leave the dead and injured where they fall or will they try and do the best they can to rescue the injured and retrieve the dead?
  3. Is this work done by the White Helmets or by someone else? If someone else who? (Hopefully we can eliminate the Tartous Fire Brigade answer.)
  4. Do the victims in a Civil conflict have the right – legally and morally -­ to conduct such search and rescue operations?
  5. If they do, and it is the White Helmets who are the vehicle for carrying this out work, is it better that they are funded and trained or that they have to do it without training and using garden tools for the purpose?

The answers I would give to these questions would lead me to conclude  – So what is the beef with the White Helmets?

Our professors, of course,  may have different answers. Once we see what these are we can begin to get some sense of what factual claims,  and what process of reasoning, their objections to the White Helmets are based on.

But if they are unwilling to to spell these things out, then they are just hiding in the shadows of a distorted discourse, with their claim to be seeking “informed public debate” ringing hollow.

This blog is open to the Professors if they would like to reply here. Or they can answer in their own spaces. Wherever it is delivered, I ­ -– and, I suspect, many others – look forward eagerly to their replies.

Continue reading “5 Questions for “Professors Against White Helmets””

Labour’s Syria Policy: Now you see it, now you don’t

The policy of Labour’s front bench with regard to the conflict and humanitarian crisis in Syria is a strange thing – most of the time it’s an echoing silence but occasionally it’s punctured by strange statements that those of us who follow the Syrian situation closely, and solidarise with the victims of the Assad dictatorship, struggle to make sense of.

We found ourselves in the latter situation once again last Monday (11 December) when Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry, shocked Syria-watchers when she concluded a wide-ranging Parliamentary question to the Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, with the following query:

Is Iran ready to accept, as an outcome of the Astana process, that it will withdraw its forces from Syria, and will Hezbollah and the Shi’a militias do likewise, provided that President Assad is left in place, that all coalition forces are withdrawn, and that Syria is given international assistance with its reconstruction? If that is the case, will the UK Government accept that deal, despite the Foreign Secretary’s repeated assertion that President Assad has no place in the future government of Syria? If they will not accept that deal, will the Foreign Secretary tell us when it comes to the future of Syria, as on everything else that we have discussed today, what is his plan now?

Following Parliamentary convention, this is framed as a question rather than a statement, but an examination of the rest of Thornberry’s intervention shows that all her “questions” were vehicles for advancing positive policy proposals and implicitly criticising the Foreign Secretary. For example,

Turning to Yemen … While we welcome the talks, we are bound yet again to ask the question: what is the plan now? What is the plan to get the blockades fully lifted and enable full access for humanitarian relief? What is the plan to secure a ceasefire agreement and make progress towards long-term political solutions? And where is the plan for a new United Nations Security Council resolution, 14 months since the UK first circulated its draft?

Comparing  the structure of this passage and Thornberry’s Syria “question”, it is hardly surprising that most readers of the Syria statement would interpret it as advocacy of the “deal” she described; just as they would read the Yemen “question” as advocating a lifting of the blockade, and the other measures she referenced in that passage. (Thornberry herself assimilates her Syria question to the Yemen one when she says “as on everything else”).

However when she was challenged about her views in a letter sent to her jointly by Syria Solidarity UK and the Labour Campaign for International  Development she issued an aggressive denial insisting that she was only asking a question about Iranian intentions, and attacking one of the organisations (and why that one, we might ask), accusing them  of “wilful misrepresentation of the Parliamentary record”.

Well obviously the person best placed to know Thornberry’s intentions is Thornberry herself, and it’s good to have clarification that she does not endorse the policy she took the trouble to outline in the House of Commons. But some nagging questions remain.

First Syria UK and LCID were not the first people to “misrepresent” Thornberry’s question as advocacy. Moments after she posed the question Boris Johnson responded to it, interpreting it in exactly the same way:

… the right hon. Lady asked about the Astana process and whether it would be acceptable. Our view is that if there is to be a lasting peace in Syria that commands the support of all the people of that country, it is vital that we get the talks back to Geneva. I believe that that is the Labour party’s position. Indeed, I believe it was also the Labour party’s position that there could be no long-term future for Syria with President Assad. If that position has changed, I would be interested to hear about that.

Now I can see why Johnson might have been motivated to “wilfully misrepresent” Thornberry’s views (the motivation of SyriaUK and LCID are far less evident). But what I have difficulty understanding is why Thornberry allowed this “misrepresentation” to stand on the Parliamentary record not only at the time but for the subsequent four days without making any attempt to correct it.

For me, however, all this is a secondary problem. What I am puzzled by is where Thornberry’s unique knowledge of the Astana process has come from. She suggests that it has produced a formula for the withdrawal of Iran and Hezbollah from Syria – but no one else seems to have heard of this. I have scoured the published record of the Astana proceedings, and consulted academic specialists on Syria, but nowhere can I find any sign of this “deal”.

Astana – the Facts
The Astana process has involved eight different meetings, all them concerned with the details of crafting ceasefires and “de-confliction zones” (mostly observed in the breach). None of them has been overtly concerned with negotiating a political solution to the Syrian conflict.  And from the first to the last the Astana “guarantors” (Russia, Iran, Turkey) have always insisted thatthe Syrian conflict … can only be solved through a political process based on the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution 2254 in its entirety.”. The statement of the Astana partners, made three weeks ago after a joint meeting in Sochi, confirmed this commitment to UNSC 2254 and:

underscored the need for rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access and emphasized the need for the Syrian parties to take confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees/abductees … to create better condition for political process and lasting ceasefire.

If we turn to UNSC 2254 we can see the process that it envisages as the road to a Syrian settlement:

… a Syrian-led political process that is facilitated by the United Nations and … establishes credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance and sets a schedule and process for drafting a new constitution, and further expresses its support for free and fair elections, pursuant to the new constitution, to be held within 18 months and administered under supervision of the United Nations, to the satisfaction of the governance and to the highest international standards of transparency and accountability, with all Syrians, including members of the diaspora, eligible to participate (UNSC 2254, para 4)

Perhaps Emily Thornberry’s advocacy skills would be better employed supporting this approach to the resolution of the Syrian conflict (after all, supporting UN Security Council resolutions should be in the DNA of a left-led Labour Party).

Second time around
But let me note that we have been here before with Emily Thornberry. In October 2016, during the emergency House of Commons debate on the situation in Aleppo, Thornberry started out well with a robust denunciation of “the grotesque war crimes being committed by Russia and the Assad regime.” But she then moved on to advocate a plan to provide safe conduct out of the city for the alleged 900 Jabhat Fateh ash-Sham fighters, in order to “remove from the Russians and the Syrian forces their current pretext for the bombardment of east Aleppo”. Thornberry added “There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria”. In a Briefing document for the Parliamentary Labour Party, Thornberry clarified “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.”
However this account was completely erroneous. Neither of the two evacuations from Homs that Thornberry referred to involved Jabhat al Nusra, and the first (May 2014) did not involve combatants at all – it was an evacuation purely of civilians (who had been deprived of food and medicine for almost a year and were on the verge of starvation).It was in fact the first of a series of politico-ethnic cleansings that have been carried out by the Syrian regime, involving the forcible displacement of populations, illegal under international law, and in this context almost certainly a “Crime against Humanity”.

…And a third
To these two incidents I can add a third, personal, one. In October this year, after attending a meeting hosted by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Syria in the House of Commons, I bumped in to Thornberry and had a brief conversation about Syria. She mentioned the importance of providing reconstruction aid once a political settlement was secured; I responded by suggesting that aid for reconstruction needed to be linked to demands that the Asad regime observe human rights norms, in particular the release of the large number of political detainees. Thornberry dissented strongly from this suggestion stating, as I recall, that it would be difficult to do and that “a few political prisoners” were not more important than “starving Syrian children.”.
I have no doubt that Thornberry is a compassionate person, so this remark can only have been born from a lack of knowledge and understanding: ignorance of the fact that political detainees in Syria number in the tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, imprisoned in terrible conditions and subject to torture and arbitrary executions; and ignorance of the fact that the “starving children” in the country are those forced to live under mediaeval sieges imposed by the regime.

Setting Labour Straight on Syria
These episodes indicate that the Labour front bench not only has a poor grasp of what is taking place in Syria, but that it appears to be dependent on very unreliable sources. They will continue to make these sorts of gaffes if they do not consult more widely on Syria. Again, this is not difficult to do: we have a wealth of expert knowledge on Syria in our Universities; we have active solidarity organisations of the sort who are listened to by Labour when they are linked to causes like Palestine; and we have a network of organisations based in the Syrian community involved in advocacy and humanitarian relief work which gives them a rich insight into the situation on the ground in Syria. To my knowledge the Labour front bench has never spoken to any of these organisations. Why?

Sources like this would be able to point out to Emily Thornberry that aid provided to Assad is far more likely to end up in the hands of his kleptocratic familial clique than benefitting “starving children” and be harnessed to their project of shoring up the regime through further ethno-political cleansing.

They would also be able to point out to her that while she was dictating the letter castigating her critics, while Jeremy Corbyn was voicing indignation about a miniscule leakage of aid funds to reactionary groups in Syria, 400,000 people in East Ghouta were facing starvation and systematic bombardment, and, according to the UN’s Jan Egeland, “495 people were on the priority lists for medical evacuations. That number is going down. Not because we are evacuating people, but because they are dying.”

All of this in defiance of Astana, Geneva and the UN Security Council.

The Astana Conference – a step on the road to peace or another turn of the carousel?

In my last post I suggested that Russia was almost certainly looking for an exit strategy from the Syrian conflict, and that we might see moves in that direction once the situation in Aleppo had been resolved. This has been an element in Russia’s thinking for some time, but two recent events will have reinforced their sense of urgency in this respect.

Chaos in East Aleppo

The first was the embarrassing shambles that overtook Russia’s efforts to project a statesman-like management of the final surrender of East Aleppo. Russia took charge of this process through its Ministry of Defence’s Centre for Reconciliation and reached an agreement with the remaining armed opposition groups in East Aleppo that should have allowed an evacuation of both civilians and fighters to start on 14 December. However that agreement was disrupted when forces associated the Iranians suddenly imposed new conditions before they would allow the evacuation to begin. That resulted in Russia’s orderly conclusion becoming a chaotic and agonising waiting game, with sick and injured East Aleppo residents who had packed their belongings and left their homes, forced to sleep in the streets for days while this dispute being resolved.

Collapse in Palmyra

Concurrently with this embarrassing event came an even more traumatic one. While Russia and the regime’s attention was focused on Aleppo, ISIS mounted a major assault on the city of Palmyra, which Russia had liberated from ISIS control to great fanfare the previous year, and succeeded in capturing both the city and the adjoining airport in just 3 days.

Regime publicists tried to put a brave face on this defeat by claiming that the city had only a modest garrison of 1000 Syrian soldiers to defend it, and heavily outnumbered they had been forced to make tactical withdrawal. However it seems that the real story of Palmyra is rather different.

A Syrian army soldier serving with the Tiger Forces in Palmyra has provided a lengthy account of the battle, which in turn was picked up by French journalist, Stéphane Mantoux. According to this account the Syrian regime actually had a force of over 3000 stationed at Palmyra, which, Mantoux concludes, means that the defenders almost certainly outnumbered the attacking force.

The weakness of the regime garrison lay not in its numbers but in its fragmentation and low morale. It was composed of two regular army units (including one from the elite 11th Division), five separate militia groups (two attached to different regime intelligence services, including the famed “Tiger force” linked to Airforce Security), a contingent of Afghan Shia militia, and a substantial Russian ground force. At crucial points in the battle this unstable combination seems to have come apart: After ISIS exploded a large vehicle bomb the Afghans fled in disarray; then half the main Tiger Force group abandoned their position, complaining that they had not been paid for the five weeks.; and then the Russians decided to withdraw, blowing up the main ammunition dump before they left.

This messy debacle provided Russia with a clear object lesson in the vulnerability of the Syrian military, compounded by the involvement of their own troops.

c2qyrjtxcaabj8c-jpg-largeAn insiders view of the Palmyra debacle on Twitter

The Astana initiative

On 16 December Russia launched a new initiative in partnership with Turkey, which involved a ceasefire to begin on 30 December and a call to the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups to participate in a conference in the Kazakh capital, Astana. This initiative was communicated to the United Nations and endorsed in Security Council resolution 2336 on 31 December, and seven “moderate opposition” groups (the term used by the Russian Ministry of Defence) signed up to the ceasefire, which laid down the following obligations for both sides:

To cease attacks with any weapons, including rockets, mortars and anti-tank guided missiles, and to cease using combat air forces;

To refrain from seizing or seeking to seize territory occupied by other parties to the ceasefire; To use proportionate retaliatory force (only to the extent necessary for protection against an immediate threat) for self-defence purposes

Excluded from the ceasefire are ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) – the latter providing a loophole which the regime would exploit to circumvent the agreement.

Significantly, for the first time in any Russian move relating to Syria, the ceasefire regime actually contained an enforcement mechanism: Russia and Turkey were to act as “joint guarantors” of the ceasefire and a Commission established to oversee its implementation, including on the ground monitoring with “sanctions” in the event of violations.

On this basis, the Assad regime and 13 armed groups agreed to attend the Astana Conference, which took place on 23-24 January. (Ahrar al-Sham, the largest of the armed opposition groups, declined to participate, but indicated that it would consider anything agreed at Astana.).

fsa-at-astanaArmed opposition groups participating in the Astana Conference

Astana’s results

Despite inflated claims from Russia, it was never likely that anything of significance could be achieved over two days. Indeed, as Astana unfolded, its scope seemed to shrink: in the initial statements the conference was described as “negotiations on a political settlement, aimed at a comprehensive resolution of the Syrian crisis by peaceful means”; but by the time the meeting took place on 23 January everyone was insisting that it had the more limited objective of “consolidating the ceasefire, a formula that was mutually convenient for both the regime and the opposition – for the regime because it has no interest in finding a “political solution”; for the opposition because, as a delegation of armed groups, they insisted that wider political matters were the concern of the High Negotiations committee established for the Geneva process. (Blocking the rather transparent Russian attempt to drive a wedge between the military and political wings of the Syrian opposition.)

As the talks began, it was announced that Iran would also take part in the policing of the ceasefire as part of a “trilateral mechanism”, although the document submitted to the UN which provided the basis the Conference had listed only Russia and Turkey in this role. The opposition delegation objected to this on the grounds that Iran was one of the principle combatants, but to no effect.

So what did Astana actually accomplish? The sponsors hailed it as a great success, with the UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura also enthusiastic at the outcome. But its only tangible product was a declaration issued by the three sponsors which reconfirmed what had already been agreed at the start, but with the addition of Iran to create a “tripartite” enforcement mechanism. There was nothing agreed to by either of the Syrian parties.

Astana in practice – breaches in Wadi Barada

The Astana ceasefire was actually being breached while it was  it was being declared. The regime had launched an offensive against the villages of the Wadi Barrada, which included the Ain al-Fijah spring that supplies water to several nearby towns and to Damascus city. Bashar al-Jaafari was questioned about this at his press conference in Astana and he made it clear that the regime had no intention of respecting the ceasefire in this area, justifying it in terms of the strategic importance of the spring and the false allegation that Jabhat al-Nusra was present in the area. In the event the regime completed its military operation in Wadi Barada, capturing Ain al-Fijah and displacing 2000 local residents, all in clear violation of the conditions of the ceasefire. (Russia appears to have tried to mediate in this situation, but to no avail.)

However, the ceasefire seems to have been better observed elsewhere in the country. According to the Violations Documentation Center, in the five weeks since the commencement of the ceasefire 501 civilians were killed across Syria. by regime forces. That figure shows that the ceasefire was being seriously violated – but it is less than half the number of deaths in the equivalent period last year. Much of this was due to the fact that Russian bombing seems to have ceased over most of the county.

The Road ahead: The Ceasefire

So where does the ceasefire go from here? The monitoring regime has thus far been handled by Russia and Turkey, with Turkey reporting dozens of ceasefire violations, but no sign that anything has been done to redress them. The three sponsors of the ceasefire met again in Astana on 6 February to set up more formal mechanisms for its enforcement, but while de Mistura was invited to provide “advice” based on UN experience, they showed no sign of being prepared to accept UN monitoring.

The Road ahead: Political talks

The Syrian negotiations ball now moves back into the Geneva court. Talks were due to resume there on 8 February, but have been postponed until the 20th. Strangely the postponement was first announced by Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov and only later confirmed by de Mistura.

Russia has long sought to divide the Syrian political opposition and create an “opposition” that would follow its lead. As a result it now finds itself in a tangled situation in which it faces no fewer than six different “opposition” groupings  vying for a place at the Geneva table: three of these are its own creations ­ the “Astana opposition” (linked to Donald Trump’s son), the “Moscow opposition”, and the “Hmeimin opposition” (formed at a Russian airbase); two are groups it has flirted with at one time or another – the Cairo opposition and the Kurdish PYD; and, finally, there is the  High Negotiations Committee which Russia still wants  to undermine but which provided the key advisors to the armed opposition’s delegation at Astana.

Unable to sort all this out, the Russians have kicked it over to de Mistura, who in turn has passed it to the Syrians, with the threat that he will choose the opposition delegation for Geneva himself if they don’t sort it out by 8 February.

This does not bode well for Geneva III. But far more serious is the fact that there has been absolutely no movement towards the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions on allowing humanitarian aid to enter Syria freely nor on the issue of the release of the tens of thousands of detainees held in Assad’s prisons

The Syrian opposition raised these issues at the Geneva II conference in 2014 and met a stone wall. It raised them again at Astana – providing a list of 30, 000 women and children held in regime prisons, with no result (although humanitarian aid is reported to be on the agenda of Astana II this week).These are the most elementary of “confidence building measures” without which no serious negotiations on peace in Syria can begin (they were  actually incorporated into UN Security Council Resolution 2254 over a year ago) ; yet no one – not the UN and de Mistura; not John Kerry back in the day; and not Russia now has been prepared to press the regime to move on these issues.

Russia’s plan for Syria

Russia’s core political strategy for Syria has been clear for some time – it wants to engineer a “national unity” government in which the opposition (or at least some opposition) will join the current government with Assad as President. For a long time it has sought to do this by using the stick of a military onslaught on opposition areas; it is now moving to dangle a carrot in front of the opposition. At Astana it unveiled a long-rumoured project- a Constitution that it has drafted as the basis for a settlement in Syria. The full text of this has not been published (and civil opposition groups have rightly rejected the idea of a Constitution orchestrated by an external power) but there have been some leaks of its content. What Russia seems to be proposing is a one-term limit for the President (which would allow Assad to remain in office until at least 2021), scaling down of some Presidential powers in favour of a new, bi-cameral legislature, some degree of decentralisation, and recognition of the cultural rights of the Kurds (but falling well short of the federalism sought by the PYD.)

These reforms seem little more than cosmetic. In Syria power isn’t rooted in institutional forms and doesn’t flow through constitutional channels, it is based on clan, clique and patronage networks built around the person of a President with dynastic legitimacy. Tinkering with constitutional forms does not change the structure of power in a “Mukhabarat state“in which the dominant political apparatus is the all-pervasive security services, unconstrained by democratic political structures or the “rule of law”.

But the immediate acid test here is the twin questions of ending the sieges and freeing the detainees. If Russia’s “tripartite” alliance (quadripartite if you include the UN) can’t deliver on those issues then it can’t deliver anything, and the whole Astana-Geneva process will turn out to be yet another turn of the carousel that has been spinning for the last five years at the expense of the people of Syria.

The Fall of East Aleppo: Strategic Gain or Pyrrhic Victory for Assad?

Over recent weeks we have seen a major advance by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allies into opposition East Aleppo, in the wake of a protracted and devastating bombardment of the city. The situation that has resulted from these moves and their longer-term implications remain unclear – partly because of the inevitable “fog war” but also because of the deluge of disinformation being disseminated by the Russian military and regime supporters, both East and West. Let’s start with the question of numbers.

How many people are there in East Aleppo?

Official figures provided both by the United Nations and the East Aleppo authorities (Civil Defence and Aleppo Council) placed the population of East Aleppo at 250 -275,000 . The UN persisted with this figure until recently, but is now suggesting that there are “up to 100,000” civilians remaining in opposition areas of the old city and just over 30,000 who have left. The leader of the opposition council in Aleppo, Brita Hagi Hasan, in a recent interview with a French newspaper, gave a figure of 150,000. The discrepancy between these current figures and the previous ones can probably be explained by the large flight of people from the bombing of the city earlier this year, which the UN  may have seriously underestimated.

How many people are leaving East Aleppo and where are they going?

Again, there are a lot of figures flying around – the highest one being 50,000, which seems to have originated with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and was picked up by many media sources. But the SOHR has put out conflicting numbers at various points in time. A more reliable statistic comes from the UN agencies, who agreed on a figure of 31, 500 a week ago. Of these 18, 000 had gone to regime controlled West Aleppo, 8500 to the YPG controlled area of Sheikh Maqsoud, and 5000 had moved to other areas within East Aleppo. The Russians are claiming that a further 50,000 have fled in the past week; there is certainly some further movement of people, but the reports on the ground do not suggest anything like this number – they show various groups of at most a few hundred people on the move – indeed, this is exactly what Russian monitoring cameras have captured.

What influences people’s decision on whether and where to go?

Again, a difficult question. For most it will be a matter of pragmatism: where are the nearest safe (or safer) areas? where do they have family connections?. The significant movement into the YPG’s Sheikh Maqsoud district seems to have been from adjacent areas, and most of these people have now returned to their homes as these areas have come under YPG control. For some it may be political – interviews have shown that there are pro-regime families who found themselves stranded in opposition areas and are happy to move into regime-controlled territory (these are the cases highlighted by the regime media); and probably most of those who have chosen to move into other opposition areas, have done so for political reasons. Those living in areas captured militarily by the regime have had no choice – they have been transported to regime holding areas, where men of military age have been detained for interrogation.

The UN Human Rights Council has reported that in some areas armed groups have killed people who have protested against their continuing presence, naming two groups guilty of this – Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly al-Nusra) and the Abu Amara battalion (associated with Ahrar al-Sham). Aleppo council leader Brita Hagi Hasan, in an interview with a French newspaper rather side-stepped a question about this, saying only that “we have no problem with the Free Syrian Army”.

The regime’s gains

There is no doubt that the regime and its allies have gained the upper hand in military terms. Several commentators early on in the offensive talked about it “splitting” the opposition held districts of the city – but if you look at the maps of the conflict it looks to be more of a progressive peeling away of opposition held territory like an onion, starting at the outer layer and working inwards.

This is one of the reasons that the initial advance of regime forces was so rapid – they began at the outer edge of rebel territory – which were areas like Hanano that had suffered the most destruction from bombing, were most depopulated, and therefore provided relatively open terrain for the deployment of the better equipped, Iranian-led forces.

The problem with this “onion” is that the going gets tougher for the attackers as they move further towards the centre, where defending forces are more concentrated and better prepared. While there are a lot of sweeping claims being made by Russia and the regime, the fact is that the regime ground offensive has come to a halt with opposition forces still hanging on in a compact area in the south of the city – and there may be as many as 100,000 civilians with them. Reports coming out from these districts indicate that they are under continual, intense bombardment, and recently have been subjected to attacks with chlorine gas and phosphorous.

The position of the remaining armed groups, however, is untenable as they are surrounded and their supply routes cut off. Their only hope is that they will be able to trade the regime’s desire for a quick, symbolic victory against the rebel’s capacity for messy resistance on their home ground. The Russians are likely to recognise this and we may well see some sort of evacuation deal being struck quite soon (there is a report of such a deal being negotiated just coming in).

The outcome of such a settlement will be that the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift to Idlib and parts of North Aleppo, where there are large opposition communities   already under heavy bombardment by the Russians and the regime.

aleppo-map
Shrinking opposition territory in East Aleppo 1-8 December

A Pyrrhic Victory?

From the point of view of the Assad regime this may well prove to be a rather hollow “victory”. They will emerge from it with an enhanced security position and a stronger claim to be in command of the whole country than they have had for several years, but these gains have been bought at the cost of becoming an increasingly marginal player in determining the future of Syria.

On the military front the Aleppo operation has been led by Iranian-commanded foreign militia. On the political front Russia seems to have taken over the management of the conflict and its social effects  – it is the Russian Ministry of Defence’s “Centre for the Reconciliation of Opposing Sides in the Syrian Arab Republic” that oversees local surrenders and evacuations; it is Russia which carries out de-mining of occupied areas; and it is Russia that is very demonstrably providing food and medical aid to the internally displaced (Russia seem to be playing a double game here, attacking the UN and western governments for failing to provide aid while blocking the admission of much aid so that it can conduct its own “hearts and minds” programme ­ – but also accepting UN assistance when it suits them: for example, the city’s water pumping station has only been able to resume operations with fuel provided by UNICEF.)

While the regime may take control of former opposition districts, the YPG has taken the opportunity to extend their control from Sheikh Maqsoud to more than three other districts, complicating the ability of the regime to impose its full control over the city.

To top it off, there is a severe social crisis brewing in Aleppo. The Syrian regime has inherited a city half of which has been absolutely shattered; they have over 30,000 dispossessed people to support, most of whom have been moved to two derelict industrial sites in Jibreen on the outskirts of the city. These centres are completely overloaded, and conditions are so bad there that some families have been moved to Hanano , despite the widespread destruction of that area. The regime has described this as “returning the people of Hanano to their homes” but according to the UN:

people currently sheltering in Hanano cannot collectively be counted as returnees as … only 20 per cent of them are originally from the area, while 80 per cent are currently squatting in abandoned houses. Despite the recent influx, Hanano is not deemed a safe area for shelter due to unexploded remnants of war in the area, and many buildings being at risk of collapse due to infrastructural damage.

All of this is in addition to a large population of displaced persons already present in West Aleppo, which the UN suggests may number as many as 400, 000, 77,000 of whom are living in “unfinished buildings or collective shelters.”

If we add to this the fact that a study of Aleppo in 2013/14 found a significant level of hostility to the regime in West Aleppo (in many districts 20 to 40% of the residents believed that “the Assad regime is the greatest threat to Syria ”) then it seems likely that the “order” imposed on Aleppo will be a highly repressive one in both parts of the city (five restless Western districts have been under the direct governance of the notorious Air Force Security since 2012.)

One of the centres for displaced people in Aleppo

Russia’s strategy and future prospects

I have argued in the past that Russia had little real leverage over the Assad regime (they could not afford to abandon Assad even if he refused to go along with their plans). But Aleppo may have altered that significantly: the regime is now dependent on Russia to a greater degree and in more ways than ever before. Russia will not want to get bogged down in a conflict for which there is no apparent end point, and may now start to craft its own exit strategy and press the regime to fall in line. Scott Lucas of EAWorldView has suggested that the Russians may try to impose  a de facto partition of Syria that would leave the opposition in control of Idlib and Assad in power in the rest of the country (and Russia’s naval and airforce bases intact). There is, however, an alternative possibility, hinted at by the pro-Russian site South Front: Russia could use Idlib as a bargaining counter with both the regime and the opposition in order to produce its preferred solution to the conflict – a “national unity” government presided over by Assad but with some form of opposition participation. In this scenario the Syrian opposition would be told that unless it agrees, the military onslaught on Idlib will be stepped up; and the regime will be told that if it doesn’t acquiesce Russia will pull back and leave it to deal with a huge reconstruction bill and a rebellious province on its own.

I don’t claim any official standing for South Front, which is a blatant propaganda operation, but it does have clear Russian patronage and may have some connections to Russian policy networks. Whatever the case, such a strategy makes sense from the Russian point of view and would seem to be the only way they can move towards an outcome that would meet their longstanding objective.

Max Blumenthal and the Rhizomes

In the course of the last two weeks, since the end of the so called “cessation of hostilities” in Syria, over 250,000 people living in East Aleppo have been subjected to an unprecedented barrage of bombing, targeting hospitals, schools, and even the underground shelters they have built to protect themselves from previous assaults.

These events have received widespread attention from the world’s media, which heretofore had been obsessed mostly with ISIS, and one factor contributing to that has been the attention attracted by the civil defence force that operates within opposition areas, known as the “White Helmets. These heroic individuals were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a powerful documentary broadcast to wide acclaim on Netflix.

This has generated fury in the pro-Assad camp because the focus on the White Helmets also means a focus on the desperate situation of the inhabitants of opposition communities in Syria and the criminal efforts of the regime and its allies to crush their spirit. For the past 18 months the pro-regime camp has sought to denigrate the White helmets and anyone who tries to promote public awareness of what is happening Syria.

Recently, they have been joined by someone called Max Blumenthal. I have never heard of Blumenthal but I understand that he is regarded as someone of significance in the US left, and since he has a lot to say about the movement that I am involved in, I feel the need to respond to what he has had to say.

The first thing to note about Blumenthal is his pervasive paternalism. His paternalism towards Syrians has been dealt with very effectively by Marcel Shehwaro of Kesh Malek, who is well placed to express the views of both the victims of the Syrian regime’s oppression and the popular, democratic resistance to it.

Blumenthal extends his paternalism to the international movement of solidarity with Assad’s victims – and that means he is treading on my toes, so I feel entitled to voice a protest which I believe would be shared by the many thousands who have taken to the streets around the world to support Aleppo and the other centres of resistance to Assad and his allies.

Blumenthal says the following about the demonstrations that took place in September-October of this year to protest against the onslaught on Aleppo.

On September 30, demonstrators gathered in city squares across the West for a “weekend of action” to “stop the bombs” raining down from Syrian government and Russian warplanes on rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Thousands joined the protest … Few participants likely knew that the actions were organized under the auspices of an opposition-funded public relations company called the Syria Campaign …  The group is able to operate within the halls of power in Washington and has the power to mobilise thousands of demonstrators into the streets. (my emphasis)

This seems to imply that we were all naïve dupes being led by the nose by some “shadowy” force – I haven’t heard charges like that since the days of the anti-Vietnam war movement, when right wing commentators portrayed us as all as tools of a “shadowy” Communist Party. And they are as nonsensical now as they were then.

Blumenthal professes a fondness for facts, so let me provide a little factual  history .The international Syria solidarity movement emerged initially in  a series of spontaneous actions (mostly flash mobs) that took place  across the world in town centres, high schools and universities in the course of 2011-12. You Tube has a good record of these (its counter says 100, 000 but the real number is probably fewer than that) Most- but not all – were organised by young members of the Syrian diaspora. I think the kudos for being the first organised solidarity group goes to the Toronto-based Like for Syria which was established in January 2011, and has done amazing awareness raising work in the streets of Toronto. This was followed closely by Leeds Friends of Syria, established in the UK later that year.

As the situation in Syria unfolded, it had an impact in the international left and solidarity mileux which began to differentiate between those for whom “anti-imperialism” was a mechanical mantra that would lead them to embrace brutal dictatorships on geopolitical grounds (much like western “realist” policy makers), and those whose anti-imperialism rested on a bedrock of internationalism and support for the oppressed and their struggles.

Argentina : "We support those in struggle across the world" the anti-imperiaism of internationalists The anti-imperialism of internationalists (Argentina)
“We  support those who are in struggle across the world”

 

The first round of global demonstrations for Syria took place in June 2011 and March 2012 (this seemed to worry  the Syrian regime so much that they sponsored  their own “Global March for Syria in 2012) and regular international solidarity events followed. The movement was greatly strengthened by the Declaration of Solidarity issued by the World Social Forum in 2013.That May groups like the Brazilian metalworkers union came on board, and by May 2014, solidarity demonstrations were taking place in 28 cities worldwide, including 3 in Palestine, several across Latin America, in Bucharest, and in Mauritius.

Palestinian Demonstrators at Damascus Gate in Jerusalem 2013Palestinian demonstrators at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem.  May 2014

 

In my own home ground, Britain, members of the Syrian community took part in the first Global campaign in 2012. A broader coalescing of activists emerged in late 2013 in response to a decision by an alleged anti-war movement to host a notorious regime apologist. At the same time numerous individuals were using their moral compasses to chart clear positions of support for the Syrian struggle. Personal contacts developed into Facebook networking, which led to a conference in early 2014 (inspired by a similar conference in in the US) by which point we were ready to “send our love to Syria”.

As our movement consolidated itself we extended our contacts with groups and individuals in Europe and North America and encouraged the formation of similar networks. When the Syria Campaign emerged in the summer of 2014 we were very pleased to see them: they brought to the work on which we were already embarked additional resources and useful media skills (Although we had some significant achievements of our own in that respect). We have worked very positively with the Syria campaign for the past two years in our common cause of enhancing public awareness and promoting support for the besieged people of Syria. We value their contribution immensely – but the grass roots work of building an international network for Syrian solidarity is first and foremost our achievement- and Blumenthal’s attempt to take that away from us in order to construct his petty, distorted narrative is offensive.

The 2016 demonstrations that Blumenthal cites were the latest in this long series of solidarity initiatives. You can track their rich diversity in 41 cities across the world  through this page Once more the work of the Syria Campaign, was helpful, but I doubt that their writ carried much weight in Reykjavik, or with Valencian anarchists.

Max Blumenthal’s problem is that he is stuck in the sand of the last century – in the 21st century social movements do not develop  hierarchically under tree-like “auspices” (despite Blumenthal’s co-thinkers in pro regime circles, who regard George Soros as the Elder behind them all including Occupy Wall Street.). They flourish as largely flat networks – more expressively they are rhizomatic (this reference to the rhizome will be understood by social theorists and gardeners alike, but for those who are neither, a rhizome has been described as “a continuously growing horizontal underground stem which puts out lateral shoots and adventitious roots at intervals.” Yes – that’s just the right metaphor to capture our essential properties (indeed, the Jasmine flower – the symbol of Syria’s Dignity Revolution – is the outgrowth of a rhizome).

dignity-symbolOur first rhizome: the Dignity Revolution

 

Let me offer just one small example of rhizomatic flourishing. Blumenthal, in his tirade against the Syria campaign, links to a Facebook page for a demonstration in Amsterdam, which is being called under the handle #AleppoHolocaust. The earliest manifestation of this handle and its associated logo seems to be a twitter campaign conducted on 30 September. The work of a “shadowy” Syria Campaign? Nope: just another rhizome bursting into the light – a group of Iranians – Iran Arab Spring – opposed to Iran’s intervention in Syria (They also carry posts in Catalan.)

Max Blumenthal presents himself as an intrepid investigative reporter bringing dark deeds to light. Yet he has totally missed the real lifeworld of global Syrian solidarity: just compare his arid, conspiratorial account of our movement with the vibrant reality I have portrayed above.

The reason is not hard to find ­­- Blumenthal is hunting for us in trees, while we are busy cultivating rhizomes.

Syria: From bombardment to ceasefire and back

Personal circumstances have kept me away from this blog for almost two months and a lot has gone on while I’ve been away.

First, we saw a dramatic acceleration of Russian military activity in Syria, followed by a significant deceleration as a “cessation of hostilities” was proclaimed, starting on 27 February. To top it off we saw Putin announce the (partial) withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on 14 March.

Let’s examine each of these event in turn.

Russian intervention

The month between my previous post on 25 January and the “cessation of hostilities” saw almost 1000 civilian deaths (all figures here taken from the Violations Documentation Centre database). If we look at the Russian intervention overall (30 September 2015 to the start of the ceasefire) then what we see is a period of intense bombardment of civilian population centres (well documented in reports of attacks on hospitals and schools) accompanied by more effective targeting of opposition military forces. So the rate of killing of civilians edged up only slightly in the period, but the killing of armed opponents of the regime almost doubled. The role of air power in attacking civilian communities also grew sharply:(in the period prior to Russian intervention bombs accounted for 48% of civilian deaths, once the Russians arrived the figure rose to 65%; with Russian operations accounting for 60% of all bombing.)

The Ceasefire

Most commentaries on the ceasefire from the United Nations, western governments, and the western media, have hailed it as a major success. While it has resulted in a major reduction in the number of civilian casualties, and allowed civil groups in a whole series of towns and villages to return to the streets to call for the downfall of the regime, an inspection of the statistics tell a less uniformly optimistic picture. While civilian deaths have fallen by 60% since the ceasefire began (and deaths as a result of bombing have declined even more sharply) there are still are still running at almost 100 civilian deaths each week. Details of continuing regime attacks can be found here.

Russian Withdrawal

The announcement by Putin on 14 March that Russia was to begin a major withdrawal of its forces took the rest of the world by surprise.

While Putin accompanied the announcement with “mission accomplished” fanfare, few independent commentators took this seriously. As was widely pointed out, the Russians had managed to shore up Asad for the immediate future and strengthen his hand for the Geneva negotiations, but Russia’s prime objective for its intervention – the elimination of ISIS ­was still far from complete. Of course, in typical Putin fashion, after the announcement had been allowed to resound, the qualifications began – Russia was maintaining its airbase and core personnel in Latakia, and could resume operations on short notice; the Russian air defence system would remain in place; and Russian air support for Syrian operations against ISIS would-continue.

The question remains – why did Russia pull out so demonstratively? Was it some sort of a warning shot to the regime that if they did not fall in line with Russia’s diplomatic line, Russia could be less supportive? Perhaps, but if so it was a hollow gesture – Assad knows perfectly well that his allies cannot afford to have the regime fall militarily to anyone. Indeed, recent news has suggested that Russia may be increasing its flow of material support to the regime.

Russia’s Diplomacy

Something that has not been widely noted by Syria-watchers is the fact that Russia has been badly wrong-footed on the diplomatic front at almost every turn. As I’ve suggested previously, what Russia would like to see is a resolution (or at least winding down) of the Syrian conflict with the minimum of political change at the centre. Their strategic objective is the creation of a power-sharing government that would continue to be headed by Asad, but which would include some opposition representatives. This would have to receive some concessions to make it credible, but it would leave the basic structure of power intact. The current ceasefire is a “demonstration project” for this plan – designed to show opposition communities what life could be like if they dropped demands for Asad’s departure and went along with this sort of compromise. It seems that John Kerry, despite occasional bursts of anti-Asad rhetoric, has signed up to this approach as well.

But to implement this scheme Russia needs two things – an opposition that would be prepared to respond to these limited incentives, and a regime that would prepared to make some cosmetic (and perhaps a bit more than cosmetic) changes. Russia has failed to achieve either.

On the opposition issue, Russia had hoped to split the anti-Asad political opposition and assemble a pliable, credible opposition current that would sign up to their package. In fact, their manoeuvres had the opposite effect producing an unprecedented unification of the Syrian opposition – with the High Negotiating Committee including both the Syrian National Coalition and the bulk of the National Coordinating Committee (plus, for the first time, sections of the armed opposition). Russia has had to make do with a rump of fringe opposition groups headed by their glove puppet Qadri Jamil.

Similarly, their attempt to widen the list of “terrorist” organisations beyond ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra has drawn a blank (although that hasn’t prevented the regime form making up its own list.)

As far as the regime is concerned, they have refused to play ball, maintaining an intransigent position that is beginning to frustrate even Stefan de Mistura. In effect what we are seeing is a replay of the Geneva II negotiations – exactly what Russia and the US wanted to avoid.

The Negotiations thus far

These have been pretty much Geneva II déjà vu – the opposition puts forward wide- ranging and detailed plans; the regime simply offers a statement of abstract principles and ignores the opposition’s proposals. In an attempt to move beyond this deadlock de Mistura has published a list of what he diplomatically describes as “commonalities” – but beyond a couple of abstract points – they are nothing of the sort: they are basically opposition positions that he hopes he can get the regime to at least respond to. But I really can’t see the regime buying into this, for example:

  1. Syrians are committed to rebuilding a strong and unified national army, also through the disarmament and integration of members of armed groups supporting the transition and the new constitution. That professional army shall protect the borders and population of the State from external threats in accordance with the principle of the rule of law. The state and its reformed institutions will exercise the exclusive right of controlling weapons of war. There shall be no intervention by foreign fighters on Syrian soil.

Meanwhile the regime continues to drag its feet over the “confidence building” measures that are meant to accompany the ceasefire. It has allowed limited relief supplies into many of the besieged areas (although it continues to refuse surgical materials to enter) – but denies the UN access to Douma and Darayya –two towns in the strongly oppositional belt close to Damascus that it is intent on crushing, ceasefire or no. And repeated demands for release of detainees – which the opposition has backed up by providing detailed lists, and which de Mistura has endorsed – have been met with a stony silence.

Russia’s consolation prize

Russia has however come away from the political and diplomatic process with one consolation prize – the PYD/YPG who exercise effective control over the Kurdish regions of northern Syria. The PYD/YPG has shifted its de facto alliance from the United States to Russia, coordinating its operations with the Russian air force to seize territory, in some cases from FSA forces. (For a good account of this see Michael Karadjis’s blog post– which I agree with in the essentials (but see my comment on the post at his site). The PYD has now established a Moscow office.

As a quid pro quo for this Russia made a few positive noises using the Syrian “F” word – Federalism, although these were promptly withdrawn once the PYD started to act on these assurances. I’m inclined to speculate that Russia is here using the PYD as a stick to wave at a recalcitrant Asad – while it can’t seriously threaten to withdraw support from the regime, it can suggest that if Asad is not more cooperative, Russia would consider backing a PYD-linked “federalism” for the north of the country. However, for the time being Russia’s Syrian protégés have adopted a position indistinguishable from that of the Syrian opposition.

The Geneva process is due to resume on 11 April – but the hopes for it are no brighter than when it opened. The best that we can expect is that the ceasefire can be spun out for as long as possible to give the Syrian people some respite from the terror that they have been subjected to by the regime and that when the inevitable breakdown occurs, the Russians may not be quite as enthusiastic in their military operations as previously.