Last summer, I discussed the situation in Syria with a young Syrian man who was working to deliver aid to the people of Aleppo.
We spoke via Skype on a Thursday afternoon, concluding our conversation at 5.30pm UK time, (7.30pm Syrian time), and promising to speak again on Saturday (the Syrian ‘weekend’ being Friday, the day on which people attend Mosque).
We had talked about the organisation he worked for (a small operation which ran projects for the benefit, primarily, of widows, orphans and the children of fathers who had been killed, including library openings, literacy training and a superb programme in which the organisation bought flour from local farmers, and employed widows to bake and distribute bread to those who needed it in Aleppo. The organisation can be found at: https://www.facebook.com/MasarratEst), about his plans for the future – he had a place to study Marine Biology at university in Paris – and about the concerns of his family:
‘My mother cries, sometimes,’ he said. ‘And tells me it is too dangerous, that I should leave. But I cannot. I have to help my people.’
On the Saturday, we failed to connect. Such is Skype. On the Sunday, we were also unable to connect. On the Monday, I arrived at work to an e-mail explaining that the previous day, the man had been working in the organisation’s Aleppo office when the building was struck by a barrel bomb, killing him instantly.
In this context (I genuinely would not normally do this), I wanted to post this video so we can understand what a barrel bomb is, and what it does. https://www.facebook.com/TheSyriaCampaign/videos/913373662087981/
Please be aware that the bombs detailed in this video are launched not by IS, or by the Free Syria Army (both of which, for balance, have many faults of their own) but by the military of Bashar Al-Assad, President of Syria.
That is, the government of Syria is deliberately loading thousands of bombs with glass, screws, nails and other pieces of sharp, hard material, to ensure injuries and deaths for the greatest possible number of people – not just those caught in the blast.
I have, in the course of my career, been privileged to meet a number of people who have performed heroic acts. I know, too, that some of them are now dead. It is one of the reasons I wrote the book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis.
And I intend to make the heroic story of this young Syrian man – killed by an explosive packed with screws, nails and glass, dropped on his workplace by his own government and designed to kill him and those like him who have done nothing more than help people in need whose families (may) have opposed Assad – a part of my next book.
I am aware that this is something of a deviation from my normal practice on this site, and under normal circumstances, I wouldn’t do it, but given current international ‘debate’, I feel I have little alternative.
At the UN General Assembly meeting in New York earlier this week (27th and 28th September), Syria and its ongoing conflict was high on the agenda. In itself, this should be little cause for comment: the Syrian civil war, a bitter, multi-sided battle now in its fifth year, has included a number of potential war crimes, caused hundreds of thousands of deaths, displaced 11m people, endangered the lives of 17m and created more than four million refugees.
If that is not the UN’s business, then it is hard to understand what is.
Of course, the major thing currently standing in the way of the UN responding correctly to the Syrian crisis (which would include a full peace-keeping force with international mandate to act, rather than stand on the sidelines, a full, all-encompassing no-fly zone, the exit of all non-Syrian forces from the state, and the arrest and trial of Assad and IS leaders – we may come back to this at a later date) is Russia (Syria’s other allies are Iran – which does not have a veto on the UN Security Council – and China, which does have a veto, but has consistently abstained in votes on the issue over the last couple of years).
And so it is not even particularly remarkable that Russian President Vladimir Putin made a case for the world uniting with Assad to oppose IS: Syria is an important Russian ally, and if the choice is between him, IS, or a largely Western-friendly FSA-led government, it is obvious that Putin would lean towards the former.
But what has become increasingly clear is that Assad himself may be beginning to succeed in a wider – and to him, far more important – debate: should we support Assad as the ‘only man who can stop IS’?
I have been working in and around the Syrian crisis – in a variety of roles – for the last 24 months or so.
While international aid agencies have worked extremely hard to deliver vital supplies to people whose lives are literally in constant danger (though some mistakes have been made thanks to some agencies’ desperation to gain access to difficult regions), the political understanding of the situation in Syria has been sorely lacking – not amongst aid agencies, most of which know exactly what they need to in order to help people stay alive – but among politicians and commentators; those who shape opinion and who are supposed to act in people’s best interests.
As an example, this week, a number of commentators have begun to call for assistance to be granted to Assad ‘so he can stop IS’. This is not just from the usual suspects, but from newspapers including The Guardian (UK). Even US President Barack Obama appears to have agreed to let Russia assist Assad, as long as it does not interfere with ongoing US airstrikes on IS positions.
This website is not here so I can rail against the output of other journalists. It would be pointless, and in any case we each have a job to do.
But given the rising tide of ‘pro-Assadism’ (or at least of ‘let’s give Assad some help as the best of a very bad bunch’) I feel it’s important on this occasion to ensure there is some expression of why this is a very bad idea. Even if this is only read by a small number of people, the point of journalism is to give people the information they need to make a decision about the world around them, and I would not be doing my job if I did not attempt to counter some of the wilder ideas about ‘what to do about Syria’ aired over the last week.
Because no-one in their right mind could support IS. It is a brutal, immoral, crazed terrorist organisation. It is not even honest about itself – presenting itself as a Muslim group, but having so far killed more than 98 times as many Muslims as people of all other faiths (and none) put together.
And IS is pretty terrifying; though far more so if you happen to be Yemeni, Iraqi, Syrian, Libyan, Nigerian, Somali, Kurdish, Kuwaiti or Turkish (the states where IS has a presence and/or has carried out bombings and murders) than if you are in the EU where it effectively does not exist.
Equally, Assad has been working extremely hard to present himself as the sole viable opponent to IS, which is basically vital to him remaining alive.
Assad is a poor and incapable politician, ill-suited (at best) to leading a state, but he is neither militarily nor tactically stupid, and has certainly by now realised (because I have realised, and it is impossible that he is behind me on the curve regarding his own survival chances) that even if he wins the Syrian Civil War, the international enmity he has built up in the last five years means he will be either in jail for life, or dead, within 12 months of the war’s end: his only chance of freedom and survival is being ‘useful’ to the international community.
And so, IS. The threat of IS – and the pretence he is the only man capable of resisting and overcoming it – presents literally the only chance Assad has of avoiding lifetime imprisonment for war crimes or assassination by agents of the US, Saudi Arabia, or even Russia, should a viable (in the eyes of the Russians) alternative to him arise.
This may be a sensible moment to address a related, but opposing argument: that Assad actually supports IS.
The basis of this argument goes that Assad’s forces seldom directly attack IS, preferring instead to chase and harry the Free Syrian Army and other small resistance militias. Though there is evidence of this – and it could, at a stretch, fit with the idea that the continued threat of IS is of direct benefit to Assad himself – I am afraid the conclusion that Assad supports IS is a step too far.
As noted above, Assad is not tactically or militarily incapable.
He realises that IS, with a seemingly unlimited supply of money, as well as access to the weapons the US left behind when leaving Iraq, poses the single greatest threat to his continued rule in Syria. It makes sense for him to fight only those weaker than his government – smaller militias, innocent civilians – and hope that IS’ activities in Syria, Iraq, Libya, Yemen and elsewhere begin to exhaust its funds, weapons supply and/or members, giving him an increased opportunity to defeat it.
But that in itself touches on the main point; the reason why we should not – and in fact must not – support Assad.
Because we oppose IS because it is a vicious, unreasonable, unreasoning, violent and murderous gang. We oppose it because it deliberately spreads misery, torture, terror, mayhem and death in its attempt to grasp and retain power, whether in Iraq, Sirte, or Syria itself.
But Assad is now five years into hammering civilians, bombing them relentlessly, murdering them by the thousand, (the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates more than 330,000 have now been killed on Syrian soil – a figure which of course discounts those who have died attempting to find new places to live, the 11m who are alive, but now own nothing and have no permanent home, and the 15-or-so million who face death and terror every day) and there are extremely credible claims that when his forces do take prisoners, they are no less likely than IS to torture them.
For balance – and because it is important to note – we should pause here to consider that the ‘others’ in this war: the FSA and several smaller militias, some of whom have received backing and weapons from Western governments, are little, if any better. And there are a significant number of Syrians who have genuine reason to fear for their own futures, should the Western-backed forces take control after the war.
But when it comes to ‘aiding’ Assad ‘against IS’, there is really only one consideration we must bear in mind: if we oppose IS as a vicious criminal gang of murderous maniacs, how can we possibly even consider supporting a man who has, in the last five years, maniacally and without mercy, murdered civilians, and broken international law on countless occasions?
It’s an unjustifiable suggestion, and should be regarded as what it is – the increasingly desperate howl of those who lack imagination and commitment. Such people deserve a voice, but they should not be guiding – far less leading – our international activity.
At the same UN General Assembly, US President Barack Obama made another, extremely interesting, statement: that the US and its major allies in the first Libyan Civil War, France and the UK, did too little to help Libya rebuild when that war ended.
Setting aside the dubious legality of NATO’s involvement in the conflict (not, by the way, an argument that Muammar Ghaddafi should have been defended/protected – both his rule and the NATO involvement in his deposition and killing are discussed in detail in my book The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis), this is actually a point I have made repeatedly, not least in my recently-released book: that regarding the removal of Ghaddafi as in some way a ‘completed job’ was wildly naïve, and withdrawing completely from Libya extremely unfair, and extraordinarily short-sighted.
At the Assembly, on 28th September, Obama said: ‘Even as we helped the Libyan people bring an end to the reign of a tyrant, our coalition could have and should have done more to fill a vacuum left behind.’
Obama’s comments come, of course, while Libya’s second Civil War rages well into its second year, with four opposing militias – including IS – slaughtering each other and civilians for control of the state. It is absolutely certain that he also had one eye on Syria, where IS in particular has benefitted from the five years of warfare and chaos to take over huge areas of the state.
He is not wrong, either in his statement, or to implicitly link the US’, UK’s and France’s refusal to help Libya after its first Civil War with the chaos and mayhem currently gripping the state.
But he could go further. Because in fact, NATO did not only help depose Ghaddafi, leaving in its wake no form of government or people capable of creating one.
It also smashed Libyan cities – hospitals, schools, houses, roads and businesses – into rubble from the air. And then it simply walked away.
Not only was Libya without a political structure, large parts of it were in ruins, in largely because of the airforces of Cameron, Obama and then French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It remains incredible that those leaders then felt it was acceptable to walk away without making a single attempt or offer to assist Libya to rebuild – either politically and socially, or literally and physically.
And the example is relevant to a far wider and vital point.
It is fashionable in international politics to pretend that there is a difference between doing what is ‘good’ – for example, helping people who have nowhere to live, or too little access to food – and what is ‘sensible’: generally, whatever seems to take least effort and expense at the time.
If the debate was limited to these two options, I would still campaign for us to prioritise the former: it is correct to help people who need help, or else what are we for, what is the point of us?
But it is not. The example of Libya – and Iraq and many others before it – proves one thing. We should do what is ‘good’ – what helps the maximum possible number of people – because not only is it correct morally, it also helps to prevent future mayhem and chaos.
What is good – saving lives and helping people to thrive – is also what is sensible: preventing the rise of desperation and the maniacal organisations such desperation can create. It is a lesson we should learn fast, and act upon in every possible situation.
On the same day as Obama made his comments to the UN General Assembly, an artist in the UK was proving that in some places, at least, the understanding of the need – and common sense – of doing good is far stronger among the general public than among those elected to represent them.
Banksy, whose early comedic graffiti has developed steadily into some of the most affecting and striking political satire in the world at present, announced on Monday (28th September) that all timber and fixtures from his Dismaland theme park – a dark parody of fairground attractions which he referred to as a ‘bemusment park’ – would be ‘sent to the Jungle refugee camp near Calais to build shelters. No online tickets will be available.’
On his website, he added: ‘Coming soon… Dismaland Calais’.
This has been a remarkable – in some ways astonishing – summer.
It has been the first time an international refugee crisis which has been building for more than 30 years has finally received the urgent attention – though not yet the urgent solutions – it needs and deserves. Less importantly, it has been a period in which I have been able to try to help raise awareness of the crisis, and the issues which underpin it.
It has also proved that in the UK, we are governed by politicians who simply do not have the capacity to match the desires of their public. As the government* tried first to ignore, then to vilify and attack, the people forced from their homes by war, oppression, terror, torture and lack of food, the UK public raised money, donated possessions, helped deliver them to Calais and attempted to ensure people who urgently need help received it.
*we should note that the Opposition, too, argued for less to be done than was needed. Yvette Cooper, for example, called for 10,000 refugees to be accepted from Syria: exactly half the number the United Nations said it was urgent for each developed state to take in January 2014.
And Banksy, in an elevated position to help, has taken a step that I and many others have been arguing must be taken by the governments of France and the UK, but still has not: building decent places for people to stay in – at least for as long as their asylum applications are processed.
There are 5,000 people currently stuck in Calais. The nights are drawing in, the weather is getting worse, and they are stuck in tiny tents on the edge of the Channel, without reliable access to food, water or medicines, and without any notification or update on when or even whether they will be granted a place to live until they can safely return home.
The UK and France are the fifth and sixth richest states in the world. Each individually has more money than 128 nations combined. Yet not one single thing has been done to address the Calais crisis, in which thousands risk death for want of a place to shelter.
Banksy’s response – like that of much of the UK public – deserves sincere praise. But we must ask serious questions of those paid to represent us, and why, on this issue, they are so manifestly failing to do so.
A note, finally, on Tunisia.
Tunisia is undeniably the Arab Spring’s greatest – arguably sole – success story.
Its revolution concluded swiftly, unlike that of Syria, which is now in its fifth year, and it successfully created not just one democratically-elected government, but also managed to elect a second, unlike either Libya or Egypt, the latter of which is now governed by a blood-soaked military dictator.
It also created and enacted one of the greatest constitutions of modern times, including protections of the rights of followers of all religions and none, the equality of women, the rights of workers and environmental safeguards.
What it did not include, it turns out, is any update on the state’s laws on homosexuality.
Two weeks ago, a 22 year-old man was jailed for one year by a court in Tunis for having sex with another man.
Not only was the sex consensual – and there was never any suggestion that it had not been – but in order to ‘prove’ it had taken place, the man was subjected to a forced anal examination (he actually admitted having had sex with the man).
The prisoner, who was arrested in Sousse and appears to have no right of appeal against the sentence, said from jail: ‘I don’t understand why I was sentenced… I want to get out and live a normal life. I wonder what I am going to do about my job and my studies. I don’t want to be rejected by society.’
Tunisia deserves a great deal of the praise it has received in recent years, but it is not acceptable to jail people for having consensual sexual relations. Though many other countries have even more repressive laws and policies regarding homosexuality, that is beside the point: it is beyond time that the state reviewed its laws and attitudes on this matter.
As Eric Goldstein, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director commented: ‘If Tunisia truly aspires to be a leader on human rights, it should lead the way in decriminalising homosexual conduct.’
Rory O’Keeffe’s first book, The Toss of a Coin: voices from a modern crisis is available now, at: http://www.hyggemedia.com/product/the-toss-of-a-coin-voices-from-a-modern-crisis/