Bashar in WonderSyria

The 2014 Syrian Presidential Election

One of the hoariest myths about the Syrian regime is that Bashar al-Assad has a democratic mandate as President of Syria, based upon the 2014 Presidential election.

I have regularly provided corrections to this claim over the years, but its recent repetition by the Director of Edinburgh University’s “Just World Institute” Tim Hayward has prompted me, to assemble into one place all the evidence that refutes this claim.

The background

Hafiz al-Assad seized power in a military coup directed against a rival faction of the Syrian Arab Baath party in November 1970. He enacted a new constitution in 1973 and in accordance with its terms a referendum, with no alternative candidate was held in the same year – to ratify his nomination as President., in which he secured 99.7% of the vote. He repeated this exercise regularly at 7-year intervals, increasing his vote to 100% (apart from 376 brave dissidents) by 1985. Hafiz Assad had planned for is his elder son Bassel, to succeed him as President after his death, but, as is often the case with the offspring of autocrats, Bassel developed a fondness for fast cars, and died in a crash in 1994. When Hafiz died in 2000, after some factional jockeying in the Baath Party, it was decided to put forward his younger son, Bashar. That required a hasty revision of the Syrian constitution, since Bashar was only 34 years old and the constitution stipulated that a candidate for the presidency had to be 40. Bashar also had to be fast-tracked through the Syrian army so that he could be accorded a senior rank that would give him credibility with the military before he took office.

Bashar went through the same “election” ritual as his father in 2000 gaining a slightly more modest 94.6% of the vote.

In 2012 Assad undertook a limited programme of constitutional reform, largely cosmetic in character, in response to the political unrest in the country This removed section 8 of the 1973 Constitution which assigned a special role to the Baath Party as “the leading party in society and the state, and laid down a framework for multi-candidate Presidential elections. Syrian businessman Wafic Said arranged for prominent British constitutional lawyer Sir Jeffrey Jowell to provide him with advice on this project However Jowell’s input to the final constitutional package seems to have been limited to a one -hour meeting with Assad  in Damascus. In any event a new constitution was drafted and submitted to a referendum. This provided the framework for the 2014 Presidential election

The Constitutional framework

The Syrian Constitution, of 2012 specifies that” the religion of the President is Islam” (art.3) and lays down the following additional conditions for someone to be a candidate in the presidential election: He must

  • Have completed forty years of age (reversing the amendment that allowed Bashar to stand in 2000)
  • Be of Syrian nationality by birth, of parents who are of Syrian nationality by birth;
  • Enjoy civil and political rights and not convicted of a dishonourable felony, even if he was reinstated;
  • Not be married to a non-Syrian wife.

No real oppositionist could have met those criteria: With the liquidation of the brief “Damascus spring” from 2001 onwards, most prominent opposition figures were arrested and imprisoned under the security laws. By 2014 no critic of the regime could possibly have remained in the country for 10 years and avoided a conviction

But as additional insurance the Constitution requires that candidates must be nominated by 35 members of the Syrian Parliament. Given the domination of Syrian political life at all levels by the Baath party (whose head is Bashar al-Assad) that meant that any budding Presidential aspirant required the approval of the person they were hoping to stand against.

As a consequence only two people were approved to stand against Bashar al-Assad – Hassan al-Nouri and Maher Hajjar – ­ both of them virtual unknowns. Al Nouri had held a junior role in the government under Assad and Hajjar was previously an MP for the regime-aligned People’s Will Party (although he parted ways with them because they opposed the election taking place).

If we add to that the fact that Assad had the full resources of the state at his disposal, that the government and Baath party have a virtual monopoly on the mass media, and that Syrian elections are overseen by the Supreme Constitutional Court, appointed by Assad, then it is obvious that there was no possibility of this being a free and fair election.

Views from the Ground

Some sense of what the elections looked like on the ground can be gained from the comments made by some of the election observers from the pro-regime, US based “Syria Solidarity Movement”. They were hosted by the regime in various locations and while they fulsomely endorsed the election and its outcome, some of them were a bit disturbed by some things they witnessed and shared their reservations in the Group’s online forum:

The election was not without its flaws. Members of the regional governorate parliaments accompanied the observer teams wherever we went, and we were treated as VIPs, which made the observation difficult. Voting was often done in the open whether or not private voting booths were available, and they often were not. Thanks to the presence of the members of regional parliaments, we had no difficulty interviewing the voters. By contrast, when some of us went unaccompanied to a polling station at our hotel, we found no volunteers willing to be interviewed.

Our hosts were overzealous. In one instance, we were given an opportunity to interview supporters of opposition candidates wearing opposition campaign t-shirts. Unfortunately, they knew nothing about the views of those candidates or the programs that they represent. They both described their jobs as “casual laborer”, meaning that they are available for hire.

There was no need to put on a show for our benefit. The occasion spoke for itself. Clearly, Syrians welcomed the opportunity to show support for their President, whose administration has demonstrated competence and strength, and has provided for its people under very trying circumstances. ….

Having said that, a voter wishing to send a message of dissent or protest by using her vote to reduce the margin of victory could easily have been intimidated by the atmosphere at some of the polling stations as well as the frequent lack of private voting booths (or the fact that few people were using them).

Journalist Sam Dagher, who was in Damascus for the election, reported that soldiers in uniform and members of the National Defence force militia turned out in demonstrations in support of Assad (although they were not allowed to vote under Syrian electoral law, which also prohibits the use of public resources by candidates). On election day itself some polling stations he visited were staffed by plainclothes military and security personnel; one actually had a banner bearing Assad’s image draped across its façade. He also witnessed cases of people casting multiple votes on behalf of family members.

Dagher also described a banner hung across the Damascus central market with a photo of Assad in military uniform and the slogan “God has created you to be the president of the Syrian Arab Republic” I bet neither of the opposition candidates tried to match that.

Deconstructing the Results

The official result of the election reported by the Supreme Constitutional Court was as follows.

Out of an electorate of 15.8 million, 11.6 million voted in the election (73.4% turnout); of these 10.3 million voted for Bashar Al-Assad (88.7%)

  1. Some Political Arithmetic

In fact such an outcome is totally implausible: a little elementary arithmetic shows that the largest possible figure for the Syrian electorate in 2014 was 9.0 million more than a million fewer than the number of votes attributed to Assad.

9.0 million
Largest possible number of eligible voters in regime controlled Syria in 2014

11.6 million
Number of votes reported to have been cast in the 2014 election

10.3 million
Number of Votes reported to have been cast for Bashar al-Assad

If you are happy to take my word on this calculation then you can skip to section 2 below. If you want to see the details then read on.

Continue reading “Bashar in WonderSyria”

Douma Witnesses and Professors’ Fairy Tales

Back in December  I did a two part post on the witness accounts of the 7 April chemical attack in Douma. My primary purpose there was not to engage with the ongoing debate about the OPCW’s verdict on the attack (that it involved chlorine under circumstances that implied an air-dropped weapon, implicating the Syrian regime.) But to point out how much evidence there was in the witness accounts to demonstrate that war crimes had been committed against the people of Douma, regardless of the chemical weapons issue.

However it has been brought to my attention that the pro-regime group of UK academics who go by the name of “Working Group on Syria Propaganda and the Media” (henceforth “the Professors”) have endeavoured to harness the witness material to their narrative of what happened in Douma. In their view, not only was the Douma attack and the resulting deaths not the work of the Syrian regime, it was actually the work of the armed opposition who not only faked the evidence suggestive of a chlorine attack  but also gassed a number of people and transported their bodies to the apartment building in which they were subsequently found as part of the staging operation. In the Professors’ scenario the scenes at Douma hospital which were videod by an opposition camera crew was an integral part of this “staging” operation – carefully timed to coincide with the scenario being set up at the apartment building.

Since this narrative draws extensively on the material that I scrutinised in December, and is so much at variance with my own conclusions, I feel obliged to respond to the Propaganda Professors’ account

Spinning the facts

The professors set out their case in a “Working Paper” in which they claim that the OPCW in its final report on Douma was guilty of “the exclusion of evidence that the hospital dousing scene was staged” and devote Section 3 of the paper to documenting that claim, and offer two pieces of evidence drawn from witness testimony.

 Their  first claim : “One of the videos uploaded from Douma was a scene in a hospital where children were shown being doused with water, supposedly to decontaminate them after a chemical attack. The children in the video showed no signs of exposure to a toxic chemical. A briefing by the Russian Defence Ministry on 13 April 2018 showed a clip of an interview with two medical staff who were seen in this video, and reported their account of the scene:

“Those who had been brought to the hospital had no injuries caused by chemical agents. When civilians were receiving first aid, some unidentified people rushed in the hospital. Some of them had video cameras. These people started shouting, spreading panic, and dousing other people with water. They shouted that all people in the hospital were victims of chemical weapons use. Patients and their relatives started dousing each other with water. After the action was filmed, the unknown persons escaped immediately.”

There is something odd here – the link they provide as the source for this quotation is not to the video of the interview (despite the fact that it is readily available on the internet, but, as they say, to a Russian Defence Ministry briefing on Eastern Ghouta which doesn’t contain any “clip” but only a verbal account of what was allegedly said in the interview.

Let’s compare the Russia military /Professors’ version of what the witnesses had to say (as cited above) with their actual words (as transcribed from the subtitles of the video itself). According to the first witness:

On Sunday 8 April(sic) a building was bombed. The upper floors of the building were destroyed; The wounded were brought to hospital by ambulance. A fire broke out on the first floor. The floor and basement were filled with heavy smoke. People were brought to the emergency room. We started providing assistance to the victims. They were filming us. We were working and did not pay attention to who was filming us. Then a man came in and started screaming that this was a chemical attack This unknown person said that people had suffered from chemical weapons People got scared and started spraying each other with water and using inhalers. Doctors told us there was no chemical poisoning.

So in the actual witness account the inexplicable invasion of the hospital by a group of people with a video camera who created a panic, filmed it, and then disappeared has been replaced by a group of people brought to the hospital for good medical reasons caused by the bombing of a building. There is no suggestion that the camera men arrived with the victims or that they mysteriously disappeared immediately afterwards; and no suggestion that the person who shouted “chemical attack” was part of this group. The second witness provides an almost identical account (including the curious error of getting the day of the incident wrong)

The two witnesses then review the hospital video, identifying themselves in it, express concern about the serious condition of a young patient with asthma (confirming that at least some of the people being doused with water had genuine medical problems), and noting the point at which “the panic began”. However they do not identify anyone as the person who initiated the panic by shouting – nor does there seem to be any such incident recorded in the video at the point they highlight.

Now there are only two possibilities here: either the professors watched the interview video but decided to use the Russian military’s spin for evidence instead of the actual testimony because it suited their story better – in which case they are guilty of fabrication; or they used  the Russian spin without bothering to watch the video on which it was based – in which case they would appear to be guilty of incompetence .

Both of these witnesses both appeared at the event put on by Russia at the OPCW headquarters in Hague event, where they repeated their testimony, and were corroborated by several other members of the Douma medical staff.  Did the Professors in their pursuit of “epistemic diligence” not bother to watch this video either?

Their Working paper states:” If it were established that the hospital dousing scene at about 7 pm was staged and that it was planned before the incident at Location 2, this would be strong evidence that the incident at Location 2 was staged”

But the actual (as opposed to fabricated) witness testimony establishes nothing of the sort – unless the “staging” crew were coordinating their operation with the Syrian air force, they could not have timed their arrival to coincide with the bombing raid that produced a rush of patients into the hospital, effectively demolishing this major pillar of their case.

The testimony of Hassan and Omar Diab

The second witness account that they seek to hitch to their staging” claim is that of the Russians’ star witnesses, the child Hassan Diab, caught in a video of events at the  hospital, who was  interviewed on several occasions (twice with his father, Omar) including at the Russian Hague spectacle.

The Professors tell us that in his interview Hassan recounts

We were in the basement. Mama told me that we have nothing to eat today, we will eat tomorrow. We heard people shouting in the street – go to the hospital. And as soon as I walked in, they grabbed me and started pouring water on me. Here’s me in the video.

and His father added that

Militants gave them dates, biscuits and rice for participating in this film and released everyone to their homes.

Later the Professors accuse the OPCW of “distorting the evidence” because “Hassan Diab’s testimony that he was lured to the hospital for the dousing scene has been excluded” (my emphasis.)

But who is doing the distorting here? Even If we take this version of the Diab’s testimony at face value, it contains no statement that food was offered in advance of the family going to the hospital – only that it was provided afterwards. The closest we come to the Professors’ claim is Hassan reporting a conversation with his mother about lack of food prior to hearing someone shout “go to the hospital” in the street. The Russian media seized on this coincidence to suggest the connection that the Professors are faithfully repeating, but it is patently absurd: the conversation between Hassan and his mother took place indoors, in a basement ; what is the probability that a passing “stager” could have overheard it and decided to exploit it for a previously planned operation? What is the probability that on hearing a shout from the street Hassan’s mother would have connected it with the conversation with her son about food?

But the problems with the Professors’ account of this incident doesn’t end there. The Diabs testimony was Russia’s great scoop and they conducted a number of separate interviews with them and also brought them to the Hague to testify. They broadcast versions of the interviews on several news channels, often as part of news stories accompanied by screenings of the hospital scene and extended commentaries. The interviews are edited differently in different broadcasts, and in some cases the translations of the same statements differ from one version to another.

Once again on examining the Professors’ source we find something odd – the version of the Diab interview that they link to as a source is one in which the translations (both voice-over and subtitles) are in Russian. Perhaps one of the Professors’ research team is a native Russian speaker and has provided the translation in the quote, but more likely they have once again just lifted the attached Russian gloss.

To clarify what is going on here I asked a native Arabic speaker to look at these translations. He advised me that the Diab’s testimony contains a lot of colloquial language which the Russian translators seemed to have difficulty understanding. It looks to me as if they solved this problem by précising what they thought the speakers were saying – or in some cases what they would like them to be saying. The translation of Hassan’s statement quoted by the Professors is broadly sound; but in his statement Hassan’s father does say that food was provided to his family after the incident but he does not mention “militants” (or fighters” as it is rendered in another Russian translation) and does not describe it as being “for participating in this film”.

The Professors claim that Hassan was “lured” to this hospital is simply the echoing of a Russian propaganda media meme which has no foundation in the actual testimonnies ,and thus another pillar of their “staging” scenario collapses.

The Professors complain at great length about the OPCW’s handling of witness testimony – but in fact the OPCW Final report, unlike the Professor’s Working Paper, provides a judicious review of the different witness accounts – including both those assembled by the Russians and those who provided a contrary view. (p.22-24)

The Professors object to a statement in in the OPCW Report that “A witness reported that he was asked at the emergency department to help hospital staff to wash casualties” complaining that it “presents the statement of a single unnamed witness in such a way as to suggest that the dousing scene was a spur-of-the-moment panic”.  But the Douma medics testifying under Russian auspices at the Hague reported that because of the large number of injured they had to rely heavily on volunteers; and a non medic who was present described the washing down as “just getting them clean after the smoke and dust and explosions”. (It’s quite possible that this was the OPCW’s informant being a little less  forthcoming to the Russians about his exact role.)

A scene in Douma Hospital on the day of the chemical attack. With many like this and an influx sufferring from breathing difficulties, plenty of scope for”spur-of-the-moment panic”

Where have all the “witnesses” gone?

A further complaint of The Professors, is that the OPCW failed to consult all the available witnesses; and they provide a link to an OPCW memo which states that the Syrian Government had offered them 22 witnesses. I noted in my previous post the significant number of “ghost” witnesses – i.e. those which Russia promised ahead of the Hague event who they  never actually produced . I put this at 6 – 17 promised by the Russians (seven of whom would be alleged “dying people shown in the hospital video ) but only 11 of whom were produced (and only one hospital victim); but this document provided by the Professors suggests the figure is much higher – in fact  half of the potential witnesses initially identified by the Russian and Syrian authorities were never produced,  ­ probably because they could not be relied on  to provide a story which fitted  the Russian scenario.

 A Malicious Fairy Tale

A final comment on this: Douma was a fairly tight knit community throughout the conflict; the hospital doctors were at the very heart of this community – with the injured and their families coming and going for medical treatment, and more than a thousand people living in a shelter on Hospital premises. So any major event that took place in the city on 7-8April would be fairly widely known. by both the medical staff and the wider community.  Yet the doctors who testified for the Russians at the Hague reported nothing even tangentially supportive of the Professors scenario. Moreover For the past two years over 20 000 former Douma residents have been living in areas under regime control (either back in Douma with regime security clearance, or in resettlement centres, or with “sponsors” acceptable to the regime.) Yet not one single solitary witness has come forth with an account that corroborates the Professors’ claims.

It’s clear that the “Working Group” story is nothing more than a malicious fairy tale.

Life and Death in Douma

Part II: Unpicking the Threads

In Part I of this post  I outlined the witness accounts that were assembled by Russia in the wake of the 7 April 2018 chemical weapons attack on Douma to substantiate their claim that the scenes shot at the Douma hospital on that day were “staged”. Here I look more closely at that evidence and assess how far it supports it the Russian claims. I also try to unwrap the propaganda packaging of the Douma testimonies to see what they tell us about the realities of life and death in Douma.

Were the Douma Medics speaking under duress?

As soon as the Russian military authorities took control of Douma, reports emerged that the local medical staff were being pressured not to make any mention of a chemical attack. According to the opposition news site, Baladi News:

Yousif Al-Bustani – someone from Douma who was forcibly displaced to northern Syria. [told us] that the first thing regime forces did when they captured Douma was to tell the shabiha (probably a reference to Syrian state security) to call in the doctors who had chosen to remain in the city. Bustani said that a regime officer threatened doctors and other civilians, saying, ‘I will cut off the head of anyone who mentions chemicals. Do you understand?’ and added that the doctors were called to security branches in order to be taught at length what to say to any investigative committee that requested a witness statement.

How plausible is this?

Certainly the medics from the Douma hospital were in a very vulnerable position: Syria has laws which make providing medical treatment to military opponents of the government a criminal offence. Some of them had worked at the Douma hospital for several years; another had been responsible for the hospital’s logistics. They could certainly have been charged with serious criminal offences under Syrian law if they had not come to some arrangement with the authorities.

Some recent news confirms this: As mentioned in Part I, a curious absentee from the Hague was Dr Assim Rahaibani, the source for Robert Fisk’s 16 April report. This story, by a prominent western journalist was widely used by the Russian media to legitimise their narrative; we might have expected Dr Rahaibani to be the main supporting act at the Hague, alongside the Diabs. But he did not appear. In September this year it was reported that Dr Rahaibani had been arrested in Douma and charged with running a “field hospital”: as we know, he was working in the same hospital as Russia’s witnesses. Is that the fate that awaited any medical staff who refused to cooperate with the Russians? (Let it be noted that to my knowledge Robert Fisk has expressed no interest in the fate of Dr Rahaibani).
As mentioned in Part I, the first set of interviews with Douma medics was released by the Russian Ministry of Defence on 13 April; but the Russians were rounding up medical staff well before that: the Russian news agency TASS reported On 9 April that the Russian Military’s “Center for Reconciliation” had been interviewing  Douma medical personnel. That means that the Russians were questioning medical staff within one or two days of the attack, despite objections from the OPCW inspection team. And there is something very interesting about these early interviews: TASS says that according to the doctors “all those who had received their medical aid had ordinary injuries, fractures and fragmentation and gunshot wound.”. There is no mention here of the dust, smoke and breathing problems that were being portrayed a week later at the Hague as the cause of the scenes in the Douma hospital video. To his credit, when an ambulance driver who was one of those interviewed at this time later appeared at the Hague, he made only the briefest of statements – to deny that a chemical attack had taken place ­and did not join his colleagues’ chorus about smoke inhalation and panics. It’s also possible to reconstruct the origins of the “Hague narrative” from TASS reports On 8 April TASS carried a story with the misleading headline “No toxic agents found by Red Crescent specialists in Syria’s Douma” But the story did not relate to current  events but to a statement from a Red Crescent doctor about the previous year:  “There was an incident in January 2018 when we had six patients with breathing problems. After a medical examination we found no toxic agents. They underwent oxygen therapy and we had no evidence of the use of poisonous agents”. There in a nutshell we have the hymn sheet from which almost all the Russian witnesses were singing a week later.

The Hospital video

A close analysis of the video which the Russians screened at the Hague reveals that it adds nothing to their case. This 4-minute video is not a continuous record of what transpired in the hospital: it’s a series of short shots edited together (possibly 4 minutes from an hour’s shooting) There is only one extended shot from the hospital –about 60 seconds at 2:21-3:21.

In the opening shot we see a busy clinic with a group of doctors gathered at the back treating patients; in the later shot we see a group of agitated adults and children milling around and being hosed down with water (we see some children being treated similarly in other short shots). This provides the basis for the Russian narrative – in the first scene, a normally functioning clinic; in the second a panic created by someone shouting about chemical weapons.

But this picture does not withstand close inspection. In the foreground of the opening scene there are a man and a boy who have stripped to the waist and been washed, and there is a pool of water on the floor suggesting that this has been going on for some time. This is happening without the doctors showing any sign of concern. The second scene is more orderly than it might seem at first glance. There is clearly a designated area for conducting the washing procedure next to the hose, with a bed where children are seated for recovery (the famous scene with Hassan Diab takes place here); the hose is being operated by two members of staff of uncertain status(casually dressed as are most of the staff, but one is wearing a surgical mask and gloves.) and medics are attending to those who are being washed, who look like a group of men, women and children who have arrived together at the clinic, all wearing outdoor clothes.

The nature of this video doesn’t allow us to get a clear grasp of what has been going on at the clinic, but it certainly doesn’t fit the “Hague narrative” of panicked people randomly hosing each other down.

Black Propaganda and White Helmets

At their 16 April showcase in the Hague The Russians were relentless in pursuing their favoured narrative : The hospital scenes were “staged by the White Helmets” who caused a panic among perfectly healthy people (give or take a little bit of smoke inhalation), filmed it, and misrepresented it as evidence of a “chemical attack”. This reached the apex of absurdity when the Russian and Syrian representatives to the OPCW ranted on at length about the “White Helmets’ Video” while the video playing behind them clearly displayed the logo of the Douma Coordinating Committee, who had actually produced it.

So what exactly does the evidence marshalled by the Russians tell us about the role of the White Helmets?

Their star witnesses, the Diabs, in the course of three interviews don’t mention the White Helmets. Of the 9 others produced at the Hague  only two mention the White Helmets – and one of those was a late convert – a medic who appears both in the 13 April video and at the Hague said quite definitely in the first interview that the person who initiated a panic by shouting about a chemical attack was “an unknown person, I did not know him”, but by the time he had got to the Hague, this unknown person had become a “White Helmet”. If we discount this contradictory statement all the mountain of Russian evidence could produce was the mouse of one White Helmet sighting – from a patient who described a White helmet coming in with a group of people and shouting about a chemical attack.

The same is true of the video evidence. The video the Russians screened has not got a single White Helmet in it; there is another short video clip in which a White Helmet does appear, carrying a very young infant, who he hands over to a paramedic and doctor and then assists in administering what looks like an urgent resuscitation procedure – with no time to shout about chemical weapons or anything else. The paramedic in this shot appears to be  one of those who testified both in the Russian’s 13 April video and at the Hague.

At the end of the Hague testimonies questions were taken from journalists: One asked the assembled medics directly about their views of the White Helmets; but before they could answer the chair, Alexander Shulgin (Russia’s representative to the OPCW) cut them off and handed the floor to Ghassan Obeid, his Syrian counterpart, who launched into a  tirade against the White Helmets, concluding with a rash invitation to the witnesses to endorse his  allegations; but once more Shulgin interceded before they could respond. So the world never did get to hear the Douma medics’ views on the White Helmets.

Unwrapping the Hague testimonies

Russian propaganda makes light of the “smoke inhalation” which their witnesses readily admit was widespread in the city as a result of heavy conventional bombing. But smoke inhalation is the primary cause of death from fires, with a heightened risk for asthma sufferers and young children. In the 13 April video the two medics view a young girl being treated and remark that she has asthma and the smoke has triggered an asthma attack. One of the Hague witnesses commenting on the hosing down of victims said “they were just getting them clean after the smoke and dust and explosions” Another testified that they had administered corticosteroids ­ something that is only done for acute asthma. Another doctor testified that the instances of clumsy treatment by medics seen in the video were the result of there being a scarcity of professional medical staff, which meant that the clinic had to rely on untrained volunteers. Take all this into account and the Russian portrayal of the events in the Douma clinic having been “staged” begins to look desperately thin.

There’s also a curious anomaly haunting the Hague presentation: In the run up to the Hague event the Russians announced that they would be producing 17 eye witnesses – in the event they produced only 11. So what happened to the other 6? Were they perhaps, along with Dr Rahaibani, conscientious objectors to the Russian propaganda show?

Douma street 7 April
A douma street on or about the time of the Chemical attack. Credit: Douma Revolution

The Confession of a War Criminal

There is however more to the Hague testimonies than just the ritual declarations of “there was no chemical attack”. They also provide a picture of what life was like in besieged Douma:

  • Acute food shortages created by the siege: “my mother told me that we had run out of food and wouldn’t have anything to eat until tomorrow” – Hassan Diab)
  • Constant bombardment of residential areas: “A house was bombed; the upper floors were destroyed and a fire broke out in the lower floors which were filled with heavy smoke All the injured were brought to us.” (Medics from the first interview)
  • Hospitals and homes were bombed forcing the hospital into an underground complex with many local residents forced to seek shelter in this subterranean world: “Throughout the day we had people coming in with all kinds of wounds because of shelling and airstrikes … in the lower floors of the Hospital there are 1000-1500 people who live there using it as a shelter. “(Hospital administrator testifying at the Hague)
  • Unfavourable climatic conditions turned the bombings into clouds of dust and smoke that engulfed the streets, penetrated buildings, and caused acute distress among the vulnerable. “There was a lot of shelling and aircraft were always over Douma at night but on this night (7 April) there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. (Dr Rahaibani to Robert Fisk.)
  • Daily carnage in the city that had to be dealt with by overstretched medical staff: “Working in that hospital was a challenge because we were short of staff. We worked around the clock for 3 days in a row; there were high numbers of people needing help so we could not give people the high quality service we wanted to, we had to have help from people who did not have proper medical training; you can see them on the video working haphazardly”(paramedic from surgical department at the Hague)

All of this evidence was collected and broadcast by the Russians ­ who seemed to think that it absolved them of culpability for the events that their own witnesses so graphically recounted.

In fact it reads like the confession of a war criminal delivered by proxy.

 Acknowledgement: I would like to thank Amr Salahi for his generous assistance and advice in the researching of this post.

For further information on the realities of Life and Death in Douma see the report of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, “The Siege and Recapture of Eastern Ghouta”  summarised here.


Life and Death in Douma

Part 1 : The Russian narrative

On 7 April 2018 a chemical weapons attack was launched on the Syrian city of Douma, which was in the final stages of an assault by Russia and the Syrian regime to take control of the city. The attack was reported on social media by local media activists, and the local civil defence unit, and several videos were posted on You Tube, These centred on two sites – the local hospital in Douma where several people, including children, were shown being doused with water and treated for breathing difficulties, and two apartment blocks where a number of dead bodies were filmed.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of  Chemical Weapons (OPCW) launched an investigation into the incident on10 April , and published a Report on 1 March 2019 which found that chlorine had been used as a weapon in Douma, under circumstances which strongly implied that it had been dropped by a military aircraft, implicating the Syrian regime.

Since that date a cloud of controversy has enveloped Douma, with the Russian authorities contesting the OPCW findings, along with a small British-based clique of conspiracy theorists called the Working group on Syria, Propaganda, and Media. Accusations of bias from a pair of alleged OPCW whistleblowers has kept the controversy bubbling.

Anyone wanting to follow this aspect of the Douma attack should consult the blog of Brian Whitaker who has meticulously chronicled and analysed the whole affair. Here I just want to examine one aspect of the matter – the parade of witnesses assembled by the Russian authorities who took charge of the city after its capture to testify that no such chemical attack had taken place.

The Russian military took control of the city on 12 April, four days later, began to admit western and Russian journalists, and a number of conflicting reports began to emerge.

The Hospital video

Reports on by the Russian media centred around a video that was shot of the events in Douma’s main hospital, linking it to testimony they secured from a young boy, Hassan Diab, who features prominently in it. This video was played over and over in reports on their various propaganda channels. There are a number of videos in circulation, none it must be said – despite various claims – shot by the White Helmets. Some are very short, but this lengthier one is the one the Russians regularly referenced.

The testimonies

The core of the case assembled by the Russians rests on a series of interviews Russian media carried out with participants in the scene shown in the video, culminating in an event at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague on 26 April where they brought together  all of the witnesses, they had  rounded up to put their case.

The first interview

The first interview from Douma was carried out by the Russian military authorities and broadcast on 13 April; featuring two medical staff – a paramedic and a medical student – who had been on duty in the hospital at the time of the attack. The two medics were shown viewing the hospital video; they identified themselves in it, and told an almost identical story: On 7 April a bomb struck a building near to the hospital destroying part of it and starting a fire. This caused widespread dust and smoke in the area, and prompted people to come to the hospital with severe breathing difficulties. As they were being treated an unidentified person shouted “chemical attack” and the patients panicked and started spraying each other with water.

The Robert Fisk interview

In a report to a small Irish radio station on 16 April, followed up by an article in The Independent, the journalist Robert Fisk recounted that during his visit to Douma, he met a local doctor, Assim Rahaibani, who told him that while he was not on duty on the day of the attack, he had been told by colleagues that there was a panic in the clinic that night, but the victims were not suffering from a chemical attack but from breathing difficulties due to the intense conventional bombardment of the city and the dust it generated.

Hassan Diab

The Russians’ great “catch” when it came to witnesses was Hassan Diab – a young boy who had been  filmed in the hospital– an image that was broadcast around the world. Hassan was so valuable to them that they interviewed him three times.

An interview conducted by RT Arabic was published as part of a news story by RT on 20 April; while a much more elaborate “showpiece” appeared two days before on RT and Sputnik. However, it seems likely that the interview broadcast on 20 April was actually carried out first, so I’ll deal with them in that order.

The 20 April interview was conducted in the grounds of the Douma hospital where Hassan had been filmed. the interviewer tells us Hassan was with his mother when, in his words “we were outside and they told us to go to the hospital. I was taken upstairs and they started pouring water on me they then took me upstairs to my mother. The doctors started pouring water and filming us. Then my father came and took me away”. His father is then quoted as saying “: I went upstairs and found my wife and children there … when I took my son, they first told me that they needed him but I still took him away.”

The interview broadcast on 18 April was a more elaborate affair – it featured both Hassan and his father Omar in the grounds of a stylish building (while the Russian broadcast datelined it “Douma”, a sharp- eyed journalist discovered that it was actually shot in an army officers’ club in Damascus). Hassan opens the interview by stating “we were in the basement, my mother told me that we had run out of food and wouldn’t have anything to eat until tomorrow I heard a noise outside, someone was shouting that we had to go to the hospital, so we went. When I came in some people grabbed me and started pouring water on my head” His father added that he first went to his house, where he saw no evidence of a chemical attack, and then went to the hospital where he found his wife and children, who told him they had been given “dates and cookies.”

On 26 April The Russians flew all 5 members of the Diab family to the Hague for a presentation at the OPCW headquarters along with medical staff from the Douma emergency clinic. Hassan and his father were the first to testify, with the Douma hospital video playing as a backdrop. The father was the first to speak, “My children heard screams that they needed to go to the hospital. They went to the hospital, they saw fires in the street, they saw smoke. They came to the hospital through the tunnels near our house. In the hospital some people took my children and poured cold water on them; because of that they suffered … Later we found out that this was a fake, no evidence of chemical weapons.”

Hassan, obviously disoriented by the proceedings, spoke very briefly, saying only “We were in the basement and we heard people shouting that we needed to go to the hospital We went there through the tunnels. At the hospital they started pouring cold water on me “

There are discrepancies in the various accounts from Hassan and his father – but he is an 11-year old, drawing on memories of a traumatic experience in a confused situation, so I won’t dwell on them here, although I think there are some points that can be fairly made, so I will return to this in Part II.

The Hague Testimonies

As mentioned, On 26 April Russia assembled a contingent of witnesses at the OPCW headquarters in the Hague to back up their case. In addition to the Diabs the Russians produced 9 further witnesses, who they hailed as “Syrian Patriots”. This included 4 doctors, an hospital administrator, a patient, and three paramedics, who were all at the clinic when the alleged “staging” occurred. One of the doctors had appeared in the first Russian video. There was a conspicuous absence ­ – Dr Assim Rahaibani who had provided the account to Robert Fisk that fitted the Russian narrative, did not appear.

All the nine witnesses were at pains to confirm that they had seen no evidence of a chemical attack, and that what they had been treating was smoke inhalation; but beyond that their accounts differed significantly. Three of them agreed that there was some sort of influx of people into the clinic, and that a panic had ensued after someone had shouted about a chemical attack; another said that someone had come in with just a single child and had started a panic; another had not witnessed the start of the panic but attributed it to people “from the shelter upstairs” coming in to the clinic; however four of the doctors made no mention at all of their being a panic – they just reported having to deal with a large number of people suffering from smoke inhalation.

The above  is a summary of all of the evidence that the Russians presented relating to the events of 7 April at the Douma emergency clinic. It was of course disingenuous to claim that this was proof that there was no “chemical attack” (and when the Russians and their witnesses repeated that mantra that they seemed to be referring to a nerve gas attack) since it did not deal with the events at the apartment blocks where the attack and resulting deaths actually took place.

I will be returning to take a closer look at this material, how the Russian propaganda machine used it, and some of the issues it raises in Part II, which I hope to publish next week.

Vanessa Beeley Descends on Daraa

Self-appointed “Hammer ofthe White Helmets” (the organisation that provides essential civil defence servicesfor opposition communities Syria) recently visited the city of Dara’a al-Balad that is the midst of a “reconciliation” process overseen by Russia. She took this opportunity to visit the local White Helmets centre, and, under the guise of being a journalist, interviewed one of the Helmets still working there. Using this interview, she then published a story claiming, with considerable glee that it “confirms what I and others have been repeating for 3 years” about the White Helmets

 For once this is quite an interesting story – not for what it tells us about the Helmets but what it tells us about Beeley and her modus operandi.

The situation in Dara’a al-Balad is complex but seems to be this: after protracted bombardment several factions in the area have accepted a “reconciliation” deal with Russia which provides for the surrender of their heavy weapons but allows them to retain light weapons and remain in their respective localities. One of these groups – the Shabab al-Sunna – is reported to have gone further and signed up to the Russian’s “5th corps”, a military force that is deployed under Russian direction While they have agreed to participate in operations against Daesh,they have categorically rejected any support for operations in Idlib. Most of the local White Helmets have left the area but a small number in one centre have chosen to remain, and it was this that Beeley visited.

Her story was first announced in a tweet on 29 September 2018, and was fleshed out a week later in an article on the fund-raising site Patreon.

 In this article she tells us that she interviewed the head of the White Helmets in Dara’a -al Balad, who she says is “now calling himself Mohanad Al Mahameed”, adding ominously “I have researched his previous names”; and repeats her usual mantra “their centre was part of a complex controlled by Al Qaeda until they were bussed to Idlib. A former flour mill was the setting for Nusra Front activity, with the White Helmet centre in the grounds of the mill.

She then goes on to make her great reveal: in the course of her interview Mr. Mahamid allegedly said, in reference to the White Helmets based in Western Aleppo: “Of course, he might be Nusra Front and run a White Helmet centre so this means all his colleagues are also Nusra Front, but not in my area.” Beeley then distorts this statement into a characterisation of the White Helmets “across Syria”

A more extensive article appeared on 21st Century Wire two weeks later. This is a curious piece – it does provide more information on her visit to Dara’a al-Balad, but embeds it in a 7000-word compendium of allegations against the White Helmets using material dating back 18 months. It’s hard to imagine a real journalist. going to so much trouble to bury their own “scoop”.

So what are the details she gives us about the Dara’a al-Balad White Helmets? First she provides a photograph of their premises – a very modest building that does not look like it has any connection with a flour mill – and indeed it hasn’t: the Nusra headquarters that on 19 September was in a flour mill has now been teleported across the province into a school, all illustrated by a map and satellite photo. Beeley has completed her research into the name of Mohanad Al-Mahamid and made the startling discovery that his name is really – Mohanad Al-Mahamid!

It seems there was a good reason for quietly dropping the story about the “flour mill” the real occupants of that building (actually a grain silo) are Shebab al Sunna, who provided Beeley’s escort for part of her trip.

The Beeley version

Beeley provides a short video clip of Mr. Al-Mahamid making a statement at the start of their interview where he confirms the humanitarian mission and independence of the White helmets. She then amplifies on the interview, which she says unfolded as follows:

Beeley: do you think that some White Helmet members or centres acted in a different way from other White Helmet centres, East Aleppo or other cities?”

Al-Mahamid: Of course, here we do not belong to any one, but someone in the Western area, for example, might be Nusra front.

Beeley:  so White Helmet members may also be Nusra Front?”

Al-Mahamid: Of course! They might be Nusra Front and run a White Helmet centre so this means all his colleagues are also Nusra Front, but not in my area.

Beeley then rams home her point:

“An interesting point is made here by Al Mahamid. If a White Helmet centre is run by a Nusra Front member then all his colleagues will also be Nusra Front. This vindicates claims made by myself and other independent analysts that any area occupied by Nusra Front will be dominated and controlled by Nusra Front.”

Beeley’s conclusion here is a complete non sequitur: it does not follow from the premise that one White Helmet centre might have been taken over by Jabhat al- Nusra (and that is all Mr. Al-Mahamid has said) that all centres working in areas where Nusra is a force will automatically be Nusra aligned. If the latter were true then Beeley would have to conclude that the Syrian Arab Crescent, which also works in Idlib, sometimes side by side with local White Helmets, is a Nusra cat’s paw that deserves to be bombed.

I would note here that the meaning of Mr Al-Mahamid’s statement as rendered by Beeley is quite sensitive to the language used – remove the “of courses” and exclamation marks from Beeley’s quotes and the meaning shifts significantly. Mr al-Mahamid’s alleged statements are the results of a double translation of questions and responses. How accurate are they? We don’t know: Beeley provides no record of it. How strange to switch off your camera just as you are getting to the central point of your report.

Mr Al-Mahamid’s version

As it happens I can shed further light on this encounter. Through friends I have been in contact with people in Dara’a al-Balad, including Mr Al-Mahamid himself. And this is what they tell me.

Beeley arrived at the Dara’a al-Balad White Helmets Centre in the company of a television crew from the al-Sham tv station and an officer of Syrian Military Intelligence. The former explains who was behind the camera for the various video sequences that she provides; and the latter would be  obligatory in this sort of situation. Mr Al-Mahamid describes the encounter as follows:

We thought that she was a British journalist who came to convey the tragic reality we lived in. We did not expect her to carry these dark ideas that contradict reality.

She told us that she visited the White Helmets centres of the in the north of Syria, and found in their positions slogans and flags of the Al-Nusra front, and asked us are you linked to the Nusra Front? I told her that we are not linked to any party or organization, we are a humanitarian service institution that does not work for anyone’s agenda. You say that you saw it in the Syrian north if that is true, every centre is governed by a person responsible for it, and that means that the whole centre belongs to Nusra front and supports it, but I have no information about that and there is no such thing in our region. (my emphasis)

The White Helmets is a humanitarian organization that is not linked to countries or agendas. Each centre operates in its own area only. We do not follow a military faction and there is no contact with the Nusra Front. We belong to the Syrian revolution and support the peaceful revolutionary movement. But this is separate from our work as White Helmets, the White Helmets function is completely neutral.

Let me just add a foot note here: Beeley’s claims about the co-habitation of the White Helmets and Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo are pure invention. She has made several videos making this claim. One consists of her standing out side a building and claiming that it was a Nusra base without any evidence; others have her wandering around deserted buildings and making the same claim even though she has found nothing to support it – indeed her camera crews capture “Free Syria” flags on the walls, which suggests the contrary. In one  she invokes the work of Pierre le Corf, which, as I have shown, is pure fakery.

A gauge of Beeley’s honesty in reporting the meeting is the contrast between her and Mr Al-Mahamid’s versions of a minor, but significant, exchange:

The Beeley version: As I was leaving the White Helmet centre in Dara’a Al Balad, Abu Mohanad came after me, he wanted to reassure me that he was not “sectarian” – “I married a Shia Muslim woman” he told me with a grin on his face. It was clearly impossible to verify this curious statement.

Mr Al-Mahamid’s Account: Before she left the centre, we were asked about the subject of sectarianism in Syria. I told her that we are not sectarian and do not carry hatred against other sects. I noted that my wife is from the Alawite community, and lives with me in Dara’a al-Balad. I was asked how your relationship with your husband’s family was. I answered: Our relationship is very good and we have no problems.

Its not clear what conclusion to draw from this discrepancy: presumably Mr Al-Mahamid knows the religious affiliation of his wife’s family. So why would Beeley misrepresent it? Just petty spite – or perhaps her role in the interview was not as central as she would have us believe? (According to Mr Al-Mahamid the interview was not conducted by Beeley herself but by another member of her party.)

And there is another, more significant discrepancy: Beeley claims that Mr Al-Mahamid’s centre is “in the grounds” of an adjacent Nusra base (“a former school”) and offers a satellite image and a photo of this building. Mr Al-Muhameid, however, assures me “There is no centre for the Nusra Front near our centre.”

Who to believe? It seems significant that while Beeley took the time to be filmed inside the shell of the famous al-Omari mosque, she never entered the alleged former Nusra building. Why is that I wonder? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that, the building she photographed and labels a former school is in fact Dara’a’s former bakery (bombed by the regime ) – something its interior might have revealed. Near to the bakery there is a school – the al-Asma school which was functioning under the auspices of the regime Ministry of Education, until recently, and has never been a base for any military faction.

Beeley completes this account with another of her standard tropes – according to her under his white helmet Mr. al-Mahamid is really a terrorist supporter, and she claims to have him dead to rights: “A quick scan of the ‘friends’ of Abu Mohanad on his Facebook page reveal a number of armed members or supporters of extremist groups such as Jaish Al Islam, responsible for the atrocities in Douma.” Disingenuously, the link Beeley provides to corroborate this is not to Mr. Al-Mahamid’s page, as she implies, but to that of one of his friends, now living in Amman and with no apparent connection to the White Helmets. When Beeley actually looks at Mr Al-Mahamid’s own page the worst she can come up with is a video of him taking part in a solidarity demonstration with Eastern Ghouta, something I (and thousands of Syrians across the globe) have also done, and another showing him in a Free Syria t-shirt.

There are a number of odd features in these two articles – particularly the discrepancies and lengthy gap between the first and second versions ­­– which might lead some to suspect that Beeley is not the sole  originator of much of the material she publishes. But whoever’s hands are behind it, it is a classic example of how to weave a web of propaganda  through duplicity, distortions, and plain, old fashioned lies.



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 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.

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.

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.

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