Certainty: claims and rumour in Moscow and Ankara

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Last Friday, on the first leg of a journey to Turkey, I was drawn into a conversation about IS and most specifically the attack on Paris on Friday 13th November.

As we (a middle-aged woman sat opposite me, a couple of roughly similar-age who sat in the aisle seats next to us, and I) about increased risk in the UK and whether it exists, as well as IS’ wider activity and aims, I could see a man at another table on the train taking an interest.

He seemed to be eager to contribute to the conversation so I glanced across at him a few times in an attempt to catch his eye and ‘welcome’ him in. He grabbed the opportunity and ran with it.

‘It is America’s fault,’ he said. ‘America and the UK. They made this happen.’

As opening gambits go, it was pretty ambitious, appearing to be entirely unencumbered by evidence or any of the traditional trappings of analytical thought such as accurate application of fact.

But I am English. As a result, politeness sometimes prevents me from telling people directly that they are wrong. And I like to talk to people, on the grounds that not everyone has the time to research everything in the world around them, and it’s always right to share knowledge when the chance arises.

So, instead of responding: ‘You are wrong about that, and I wonder whether it is because you have ignored reality or forgotten how to perceive it correctly,’ I responded with the less forthright: ‘Well, I’m not completely sure that’s the case.’

‘I am sure,’ the man asserted, helpfully. ‘It is the US and UK’s fault that IS is in Syria and there is war, and it is my country Russia which is making it better by destroying IS.’

‘Well, Russia isn’t just bombing IS, is it? It’s bombing everyone who isn’t Assad, and…’

‘That is the right thing. They are all terrorists.’

‘Well, I’m not sure they are, and in any case…’

‘They are. Assad is the legitimate ruler of Syria.’

‘Who has killed more than 250,000 Syrians. You can’t support that?’

‘Yes. I support Assad. The US and UK were wrong in Iraq.’

‘Yes, I agree with you there…’

‘And it is Putin who is right in Syria.’

By this point, the train had reached Gatwick where it seemed the increasingly furious Russian and the middle-aged couple, as well as I, were getting off.

Brilliantly, the Russian chose the moment that the doors opened and he stepped onto the platform to raise his fist and shout ‘fuck America!’

He stalked onto the escalator, unmolested, proving that if nothing else, airport security is less Orwellian than we may sometimes believe.

The following Tuesday, I returned to the UK.

That morning, at 9.20am, Turkish aircraft shot down a Russian warplane, which crashed in Syria.

Two people – one of the pilots and a member of the team sent to recover the other – have been declared dead by the Russian government, seemingly having been shot by anti-Assad rebels.

A number of claims and counter-claims have been made since the incident: Turkey says the Russian craft was in its airspace; Russia that it never was. Turkey claims it warned the craft’s pilot ‘more than ten times’ to leave its airspace, and that another craft, similarly warned, did so; Russia dismisses the claim.

One of the first downed craft’s two pilots, rescued the day after the incident, told media Turkey issued no warning. Turkey issued a recording it claimed was of the warning it made.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called the act a ‘stab in the back’ by an ‘accomplice of terrorists’ and made a veiled accusation that Turkey was assisting IS; US President Barack Obama, countered that the Nato state had ‘the right to defend its own airspace’ (though he also urged both sides to immediately ‘de-escalate’ and start talking) and that Russian airstrikes against moderate Syrian opposition forces helped ‘strengthen ISIL’.

The two leaders’ mentions of IS is as good a place to mention that despite Vladimir Putin’s penchant for an arresting image, his state and its operations in Syria are in no way what they have been portrayed in some corners of the UK.

Russia, as the angry rail passenger correctly asserted, supports Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. This is entirely its decision to make and has come out of a long relationship between the two states which once gave Syria backing from a global superpower, and should Syria ever return from its current chaos and mayhem, will give Russia a strong presence in the Middle East.

But Russia is extremely well aware – as is much of the rest of the world – that Assad has so far killed more than 250,000 of his own people in deliberately-targeted attacks, and that this is an effectively indefensible position.

I have previously written at some length about Assad’s need to present himself as a bulwark against IS – a stance which had won only lukewarm responses, albeit from some UK government ministers. It is literally the only way he can stay alive, even if he ‘wins’ the Syrian Civil War.

Without IS, Assad is too much trouble to be defended from enemies who include the US, most Western states, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and several others. With IS as a strong force, Assad is allowed to live, if only as a valuable opponent of the terror organisation.

Russia, in a situation where it finds itself deliberately propping up a genuine mass murderer, and in so doing is also indiscriminately killing moderate and jihadist rebels – and civilians – on a shocking scale, has proven better than Assad at communications.

Instead of having to explain its activities in abstract terms such as ‘legitimacy’ or even ‘order’, Russia has taken on the same script Assad first dreamed up, and accused every single group which opposes Assad as effectively the same, and labelled all by the most frightening name available to it; IS.

The fact that this is nonsense seems to have been largely ignored. Not only are people praising Russia for its ‘hard-line’ approach to IS, tales alleging Turkey supports IS have also started to gain traction and credence.

What makes this remarkable is not only that both are demonstrably untrue, but that when Assad used these exact lines, they were ignored: now Russia is trotting them out, they are accepted even by people who had previously decried Russia’s last military ‘outing’ – the annexation of the Crimea and menacing of the rest of Ukraine.

In light of this, it’s worth revisiting the topic of Russia in Syria, and Turkey and IS.

Russia has been bombing Syria (officially) for almost two months (from 30th September).

In that time, it has consistently claimed that its strikes were targeted at IS, despite the fact that it has killed hundreds of civilians, and that the vast majority of its bombings have been carried out not in Syria’s north and east, where the majority of IS-held territory lies, but in its West, where groups including the FSA are strongest.

Russia has been targeting regions where IS does not hold power, though following the IS-claimed strike against a Russian passenger aircraft over Sinai on 31st October, it has included some IS targets in its raids.

What it has also done, however, is label all the groups it is targeting – all the groups, in other words, which oppose Assad – ‘terrorists’ and begun to hint heavily that anyone who supports any, supports not only terrorists, but by implication, IS.

And this brings us back to Turkey. It is difficult to explain just how astonishing a claim that Turkey ‘supports IS’ actually is.

IS is on record that its aim is to take – along with Iraq and Syria – roughly two-fifths of Turkey, and to kill every single politician currently in the state, as it claims they have ‘betrayed Islam’ by taking part in democratic elections.

Turkey, meanwhile, is a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood movement, virulently opposed by – and to – IS’ main funders Saudi Arabia and the UAE and has handed its airfields over to the US for the last 14 months for it to bomb IS-held positions.

Turkey is the enemy of IS’ main backers, is allies with its main international enemies, and is one of the three states (along with Syria and Iraq) directly threatened as part of IS’ founding organisational motives. The one thing we may be sure about when someone claims it supports IS is that they are wrong, whether by accident or design.

Whatever may suit Russia and Assad best to claim, Turkey does not support IS*.

*One of the most popular and widely-believed stories of Turkey’s support for IS is that it has ‘bought oil’ from IS. This claim originated in an October 2014 statement from the US Treasury suggesting that major black market oil deals in the region were likely to involve some oil taken from IS-held wells. The report stated that off-market deals done by major net importers of oil including Turkey would therefore risk putting money into the pockets of IS.

Interestingly, the report went on to say that it had no evidence that the Turkish state WAS making such black market purchases (which would be extraordinarily unusual practice for a G20 member state in any case) and listed Iraqi Kurdish groups as major black market buyers. This report has come to be used by Russia and Assad as ‘proof’ Turkey backs IS, despite the fact that it made no such claim, AND that to make such a claim would also necessitate the simultaneous claim that Kurds were deliberately funding IS – an almost equally preposterous idea. No evidence has ever been produced that Turkey buys oil from IS, or that Iraqi Kurds have ever deliberately bought IS oil.

That is not to say that Turkey is either a) blameless in its own activities, or that b) the people it does support are without fault – there is some evidence which suggests it has supplied weapons to the Al-Qaeda affiliated Al Nusra group, for example; Al Nusra’s current operations in Syria are certainly preferable to those of IS, but it is hard to imagine a situation in which one would aspire to be governed by it.

And this is where the danger of overextension plays its most serious part. Because in the eyes of Assad and his Russian allies, all opposition groups to him are ‘terrorists’ and there is some evidence that Turkey has given support to some ‘jihadist’ groups.

But in the eyes of more distant, mainly Western, observers for whom organisations like the Free Syrian Army are less terrorists than rebels or even ‘freedom fighters’, the major ‘terrorist’ threat in Syria is IS. Russia and Assad know that every time they accuse Turkey of aiding ‘terrorists’ the association made is IS, not the FSA, or even Al Nusra.

This certainly suits Assad and Russia, but it is a deliberate and dangerous campaign of misinformation. We must be careful to read and listen to what is actually said and not be hoodwinked by what is implied. Turkey’s behaviour leaves a great deal to be desired, but we should hold it responsible for the things it has done, rather than being tricked into blaming it for those it has not.

Which brings us back once again to Turkey’s shooting down of Russia’s warplane – a situation in which literally no-one is in the right.

Because even if the Russian craft had entered Turkish airspace, it seems that it did so for just 17 seconds, and we must be consistent: if the UK had shot down an aircraft which entered its air space for a matter of seconds and posed no threat to it, and in doing so had caused the death of two people, we would rightly regard that as an irresponsible and unacceptable act.

We should apply the same criteria to Turkey. It is not acceptable to simply shoot people out of the sky.

Equally, we could consider that Russia had already seen what was likely to happen if it flew into Turkish air space, based on an incident on 5th October, when Turkish fighters scrambled after a Russian jet entered its airspace. At the time, the Turkish PM Ahmet Davutoglu said: ‘Even if it is a flying bird, it will be intercepted.’

We should also consider the context Turkey is in.

The state shares a 400km border with Syria, has been supporting (along with its Nato allies) anti-government rebels there, and the city of Gaziantep, with 1.8m residents, is just 60km north of Aleppo, which Assad has been repeatedly hammering from the air. Certainly, its most recent statements on the incident – including that ‘had it known the jet was Russian’ it may have responded differently – may indicate that it genuinely feared an attack.

Simultaneously, we should not forget the fact that Russian aircraft are over Syria to deliver death from above; to support a vicious mass murdering dictator who has so far killed more than 250,000 Syrian civilians.

It would be equally foolish to forget that Human Rights Watch had noted two incidents it believes to be international war crimes, committed by Russia within just 15 days of its pounding of Syria.

On 15th October, Russian aircraft struck the village of Ghantou and the town of Ter Maalah, killing 59 civilians.

Not only were those killed not combatants, they lived in areas held by the FSA, not IS. The aircraft dropped fuel-air explosives on two locations HRW believes Russia must have known were civilian centres, and certainly knew were not held by IS.

The aircraft brought down by Turkey was not there to deliver bread to starving children, and nor was it heading for an IS-run area. Its mission, like most of those embarked upon by Russia in Syria, was to assist Assad by murdering innocent men, women and children.

Turkey was wrong to bring it down. The men within it, and the craft sent to attempt to rescue them were – like all service people – men with families, attempting to earn a living.

But Russia is also wrong. To support a murderer, to deliberately mislead people about its intentions and those of its ‘adversaries’, and to fly missions designed to wreck – and end – the lives of ordinary men, women and children.

It is of course good to hold certain ideas and ideals as guidance in your life. Arguably, a love of a state can be a comfort, especially to those like the Russian on the train who are a long way from home.

But in almost all situations, though certainty can seem to protect and shelter us, it often does so at the expense of truth.

Both Russia and Turkey were wrong on 24th November. Almost every actor in Syria is wrong, to some extent, at least some of the time. The major difference between most of them is that some have sunk to greater depths – some to far greater depths – than others.

In Syria at the moment, those who seem certain may be understood, but it is difficult to trust them completely. Those who say they or those they support are entirely without fault, are impossible to trust at all.

We can forgive anyone that. But we should not accept what they say without question. It is true everywhere, and so of course it is true when Russia, Turkey, and anybody else, talks about Syria.

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In Libya, another state where things are seldom either what they seem, or what they are declared to be, there was this week a rare genuine step forward.

Not in the north, where two illegitimate and powerless governments still rely on illegal militias, while Al-Qaeda and IS also slaughter – and in the latter case also torture – for power, but in the south, where largely unnoticed, two of Libya’s largest minority groups have signed a peace agreement.

Representatives from the Tuareg and Tebu groups (the conflict between the two is detailed in my book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis) have been fighting almost as long as the two have been in existence. In general, this has taken the form of brief skirmishes over access to trade routes linking Libya to the rest of the African continent, and which carry with them control over deals in arms and other goods.

But since Muammar Ghaddafi was deposed and killed in October 2011, the two have engaged in a far more prolonged and involved conflict. It has been reported as a battle for control of many of Libya’s southern oil fields – and at times it has certainly been that – but in fact it is mainly a continuation of previous battles, allowed to degenerate because Libya no longer has a government worthy of the name, or capable of enforcing laws.

In July, the battle between the two forced hundreds of people in Sebha – south Libya’s largest city – to flee. It was not the first time.

But on Monday, a truce was signed which may mean it was the last, in Qatar. The two have withdrawn from the town of Ubari, the focal point of their conflict to date.

Though it is far from the world’s attention, the truce is a step towards peace in a state which desperately requires it.

It is hard to be especially optimistic about Libya, but in a state at war with itself, any peace agreement represents a step forward. Under the right circumstances, the Tebu and Tuareg could play a vital part in a peaceful future for Libya. This truce means little in itself, but opens the door to that possibility.

Rory O’Keeffe is the author of The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis, available now from Hygge Media.

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