Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Six years after Syria’s revolution, we must not turn away

Six years ago, thousands of Syrians took to the streets to protest the brutal Assad regime. The Assad family had kept power for four decades through repression, imprisonment, torture, and mass killing. The people who protested knew what they were up against, remembering how the regime had slaughtered tens of thousands in Hama in 1982. In 2011 the regime even tortured children who dared write anti-regime graffiti on a wall in Daraa.

People knew, and still they took their lives in their hands, marching, singing, dancing in the streets. Videos of those first protests look incredible now, the buildings intact, the streets filled with humanity. Today’s images are the reverse. Humanity driven out. Cities, towns, homes crushed.

The slogan of regime thugs was ‘Assad or we burn the country.’ They have. In the past, the regime had sponsored terrorism to destabilise neighbouring countries. From 2011 it turned the same strategy against the opposition. Peaceful protesters were jailed while jihadist veterans of the Assad-sponsored terror campaign in Iraq were released, and pro regime ‘Shabiha’ gangs carried out sectarian massacres to deliberately drive communities apart.

Al Qaeda in Iraq had been a longtime client of Assad’s. In 2013-2014, it rebranded as ISIS and moved against the Syrian opposition, aided by Assad’s air force which targeted the opposition but not ISIS.

The scale of Bashar al-Assad’s brutality outstripped that of his father, bombing and shelling city after city, killing hundreds of civilians with nerve agent and chlorine. But this was not enough to defeat the revolution. To survive, Assad invited in Hezbollah, then Iranian military forces, sectarian militia from Iraq, and even Afghans recruited by Iran. By 2015 Assad teetered on the edge of collapse.

It took direct intervention by Putin to keep Assad in place. Russia’s air force bombed not only the armed opposition but systematically targeted hospitals, schools, bakeries, water facilities. Now in 2017 Assad is in hock to Shabiha warlords, to Iran, and to Russia. He rules from a position of weakness over a patchwork of competing interests that between them control the biggest population centres, but only a minority of the territory of Syria.

Opposition-held territory is still under daily attack, despite a ceasefire announced by Russia and Turkey in December. In regime-controlled territory detentions continue, and thousands upon thousands remain hidden in Assad’s torture prisons. For Syrians who have fled, return to either bombing or torture is not an option.

The UK Government has never backed any serious proposal to protect civilians in Syria. Even the abortive proposal for action after the Ghouta chemical massacre focused not on protecting civilians but on punishing the use of just one category of weapon. Calls for a no-fly zone or no-bomb zone were locked by Western leaders who didn’t want any responsibility for what would come after. In the name of ‘stability’ the regime was given license to murder.

When the House of Commons voted against action in 2013, too many people here saw that as the end of the story and turned away. Then the number of Syrian refugees registered in the region was 1.84 million. Today it is close to five million. The various counts of numbers killed outstrip the capacity of our imagination. Half a million or more people are estimated killed, but the fracturing of control makes a reliable total impossible. The Syrian Network for Human Rights has counted a minimum of 206,932 confirmed violent civilian deaths.

Throughout 2016, Syria Solidarity UK and others campaigned for humanitarian air drops to besieged civilians. Behind the scenes at least some in the Foreign Office and elsewhere tried to make this happen. Serious proposals were developed to use existing drone technology at relatively low cost and at no risk to UK personnel, but these ideas were blocked. It seems the Ministry of Defence is more interested in spending money on developing new drones to kill rather than on drones to save lives.

In 2017, UK diplomats are still saying the right things, still supporting the Syrian opposition in negotiations that are supposed to lead to inclusive representative legitimate government. And DFID continues to provide humanitarian support in the region to victims of the war. But in Syria now it is military action that determines political and humanitarian outcomes. Current negotiations seem even more of a sideshow than previous efforts, and the UK’s humanitarian effort continues to be a costly attempt to contain the damage while doing nothing to bring it to an end.

While the Foreign Office and DFID present the best face of UK policy, the Ministry of Defence falls in line with a US policy that targets only ISIS and seems happy to hand territory over to Assad, Hezbollah, and Russia, with no regard for the consequences. Unless there is now a serious plan to achieve legitimate inclusive government in areas liberated from ISIS, unless the Assad regime is prevented from regaining more territory, unless there is a serious plan to protect civilians, the result will be to entrench the misery of the refugee crisis and to strengthen extremism.

This year we must not turn away.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

The truth about the White Helmets.

By Flora Bain

Last week Syria was centre stage, not on the news channels for once, but at Hollywood’s biggest event of the year. The Oscar for best short documentary was awarded to The White Helmets, a film showing the heroism of Syria’s volunteer rescuers. The film’s director Orlando von Einsiedel read out a message from Raed Saleh, head of Syria Civil Defence: Their work, he said, is guided by the verse in the Qur’an ‘To save one life is to save all of humanity,’ and he called for peace in Syria. Celebrities rose to their feet in recognition of his call.

In response, Russia’s Embassy to the UK posted this cartoon on their Twitter account. At first I thought it must be a hoax—the real Russian Embassy tweeting this image? The creator of this image Iad Tawil (who describes himself as ‘a secular Syrian’) has playing into the most pernicious stereotypes of his fellow countrymen. Using nakedly racist imagery, the cartoon depicts a thick lipped man, shaggy beard trailing down his chest, a suicide vest beneath an camouflage shirt. On his head is a white helmet, in his hand a shiny Oscar statuette shrinks away from him.

Who would want to attack the White Helmets? To date they have saved over 82,000 lives. Formed as self organised groups of volunteer rescuers in late 2012 in areas that were independent of the regime, these volunteer first responders joined together as Syrian Civil Defence in 2014. Numbering 3,000 people, they are ordinary men (and some 70 women) who risk their lives to help others. These are the people that run towards the burning buildings, the ones lifting rubble with their hands to reach buried children, who they are sometimes able to rescue alive.

Yet people do attack them. The best way to understand this might be to ask who is doing the attacks? And what’s in it for them?

The cartoon is just the tip of the iceberg of the vast quantity of propaganda directed against Syria Civil Defence rescuers. On the night of the Oscars, the first media outlet to post in any depth about the award was Russia Today—or ‘RT’ as they have been rebranded—an outlet funded by the Russian state. They had obviously prepared. The headline? ‘Film about Syrian White Helmets Wins Oscar Amid Allegations of Terrorist Ties’. These allegations come from Russia and from the Syrian Regime.

The term post-truth is used to imply that the truth does not exist, but the truth is still there, it’s just that people are less confident about where to find it, and the trolls are ready to exploit this. Using images and strategies straight out of the propagandists handbook, they repeat lies until they acquire a veneer of truth.

One of the favourite smears of the many propaganda sites and Russian paid trolls is the accusation that the White Helmets are connected to Al Qaeda. They cite their presence in areas in which the Al Qaeda linked Al Nusra Front is present to imply this connection. The White Helmets operate with a policy of neutrality (which has included rescuing regime soldiers) and consequently work in areas controlled by many different groups.

The second favourite smear is that they are Western dupes—by receiving financial support from the US, UK and others they are unwitting pawns in the Western imperialist war. What is most striking is that the accusation itself shows a Western imperialist and racist attitude, unable to imagine that Syrians might think and act for themselves. While the UK should be ashamed of its failure to act against the Assad regime’s killing of civilians, giving practical support to the support the courageous work of the White Helmets (such as equipment donated by London Fire Brigade) is something to be proud of.

So we get to the why. Both these smears play to the advantage of the Assad regime and Russia. The White Helmets are a threat to them. By showing humanity and bravery, the White Helmets prove daily that there is a better alternative to the Assad regime’s savagery. The White Helmets have a media unit to communicate and record their work and through recording their work, people also see the abuses—bombing, chemical weapon use, phosphorus, that have been perpetrated by the Assad regime and Russia upon Syrian people.

In the simplest terms, the White Helmets are also a practical obstacle. They are trying to save the very lives that the Assad regime is trying to control and extinguish, and so the regime treats them as a target. On the same day the Oscar was awarded another Syria Civil Defence centre was hit by aerial bombardment in Idlib. To date 154 volunteers have died in their work.

Syria Civil Defence rescuers are also vulnerable to persecution by the regime. In the evacuation of Aleppo, White Helmets volunteer Abdulhadi Kamel was abducted by pro regime forces, and a forced confession was broadcast. Amnesty International and the White Helmets are campaigning for his release.

We talk of post truth but ultimately the truth must be heard. This is precisely why the documentary, and the award of the Oscar was such a threat to the regime and Russia. Watch the film, follow the White Helmets, and tell people you know about their heroism and about the need for peace in Syria, because that’s what the propaganda cannot be allowed to hide.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Beeley, Assad, and ISIS

By Brian Slocock

Britain’s leading publicist for the Assad regime, Vanessa Beeley, whose recent Bristol meeting we reported on last week, is capping her tour of the UK with a meeting in London on Wednesday. This particular event has some particularly bizarre features.

For one thing, it is taking place in the Marx Memorial Library, a hallowed institution of the British left based in a building that has been host to London Radical and Socialist organisations since the 1870s (both William Morris and Lenin worked there.

Beeley on the other hand swims in rather different waters. In her time she has been hosted by various conspiracy gatherings and sites from an intertwined nexus that includes Alternative View, UK Column, and 21st Century Wire. All of these groups are somewhere on the libertarian right and she has eventually found a permanent home as Associate Editor at 21st Century Wire. This site was created in 2009 as a climate-change denying project, linked to the US InfoWars, and is currently supporting Donald Trump, and providing apologetics for his Islamophobic travel ban.

But the bizarreness of Beeley’s meeting does not end with this incongruous coupling of venue and political alignment. The principal host of her meeting is an organisation called Socialist Fight (SF). Their view on Syria was defined some years ago:
‘We are for an Anti-Imperialist United Front with Assad. We demand that Assad arms the working class and call for the enlisting of all the people in the army against the mercenaries and Imperialism. But we do not support Assad.’
Despite the final qualification, I guess Beeley could live with that. However SF also has a rather equivocal position on the Islamic State (ISIS). Initially it decided that ISIS was a tool of US imperialism and should be opposed accordingly. But at some point it seems to have shifted its evaluation, and in its most recent statement of What We Stand For says:
‘Whilst giving no political support to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Sunni and Shia militias in Iraq, Hamas or Fatah in Palestine, Gaddafi (as was) in Libya, Assad in Syria, the ‘Islamic State’ in Syria and Iraq, the theocratic regime in Iran or the Donbass leadership in Eastern Ukraine we recognise US-led world imperialism as the main enemy of humanity and so advocate critical support and tactical military assistance from the working class to all those fighting for the defeat of imperialism.’
Now that is a rather convoluted sentence but it’s hard to construe it as anything other than a call for ‘critical support and tactical military assistance’ to ISIS. Given that Beeley and friends tend to label anyone who says ‘boo’ to Bashar-al Assad as an ISIS supporter, it’s difficult to see how she can swallow that.

On second thought, perhaps it won’t be so difficult: SF considers its main enemy to be the Free Syrian Army, just as Assad did in 2013 when ISIS took over Raqqa, as the diary of an anti-ISIS activist inside the city, published in Sunday’s Observer, makes clear:
‘I will never forget the time when Daesh [ISIS] first appeared on the streets of our city. At first, opposition forces surrounded the fighters who occupied the government buildings. We were optimistic. But then everything changed. The Free Syrian Army began to weaken … Its soldiers were hit by repeated government air strikes. Daesh fought back, broke the FSA’s siege and quickly took over our helpless city.’
Vanessa Beeley finds the ISIS terrorist label a useful smear to use against her critics, but the history is that Assad and ISIS acted in concert against the Free Syrian Army, and that earlier Assad’s security forces helped build up Al Qaeda in Iraq, and that now Assad depends on Hezbollah, Iran and Russia to maintain power in Damascus.

We should support those Syrians who struggle for a Syria free of foreign domination and free of terrorism. Beeley does not.

Image from the 2014 Kesh Malek campaign: Assad + ISIS = #SameShit.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Beeley in Bristol

By Clara Connolly

  • Lionised by the Morning Star newspaper, Assad apologist Vanessa Beeley denied hospital bombings in Aleppo and smeared White Helmets rescue volunteers.
  • Beeley addressed an ultra-Stalinist cult meeting in Bristol, ridiculing Syrian health workers.
  • When a Syria Solidarity UK member questioned Beeley on hospital bombings, he was put in a chokehold by meeting organisers and ejected.

On 17 February Vanessa Beeley, associate editor of 21st Century Wire and a frequent guest of the far right conspiracy blog InfoWars, gave an illustrated talk in Bristol, billed as a challenge to mainstream media reporting of Syria, particularly of the fall of Aleppo. Four members of Syria Solidarity UK—including myself—went along to join Bristol members who were leafleting the meeting outside.

The hosts were ‘Bristol Open Inquiry into the Bombing of Syria,’ a CPGB-ML front aiming to ‘end sanctions on Syria; stop arming terrorists.’ The CPGB–ML (Communist Party of Great Britain–Marxist Leninist) is an ultra-Stalinist cult, expelled from Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party, and from Stop the War Coalition, for openly supporting Assad and Ghaddafi.

The meeting was attended by 70-90 people, not necessarily CPGB–ML members or supporters. According to the people around me, many had been informed about the event by STWC. Beeley was introduced by Mehraz Shahabi, an open supporter of the Iranian regime, who passionately defended Syrian ‘sovereignty’ against imperialism.

Vanessa Beeley spoke for a full two and a half hours on her recent trips to Aleppo as a self-styled independent journalist. She presented video clips which she claimed were interviews with escapees from the ‘jihadist prison’ of East Aleppo, taken mainly around the Jebrin Registration Centre from 14 December onwards. She did not explain how she obtained access, nor who her interpreters were, nor why the interviews were conducted in public. They were vox-pop snippets on the street, with the interviewees praising the Syrian Arab Army for giving them food and denouncing jihadists for giving them none. There were no detailed or in depth interviews—they needed extensive commentary from Beeley to yield the sense she wanted. But to someone uninformed about Syria, or willing to view mainstream coverage of Aleppo as propaganda to support an imperialist project of regime change, they could be effective.

Monday, 6 February 2017

These drones could drop medical and food aid to thousands of besieged civilians in Syria. But Theresa May says ‘No.’

  • Theresa May told NGOs that drone airdrops of aid couldn’t be done.
  • Viable options for drone airdrops have been available for over a year.

In Rwanda, drones are right now being used for fast airdrop delivery of blood supplies. And in the UK, the APPG Friends of Syria has revealed that options for drone airdrops of food for Syria have been available for over a year. Yet as recently as December, Theresa May wrote to NGOs claiming that drone airdrops of aid were impractical.

Existing models of drones provide readily available means to bring aid to besieged civilians, and at no risk to UK personnel. MPs should now demand answers as to why the UK Government flatly refuses to even try using drones to save the lives of Syrian civilians under siege.

Rwanda’s new delivery system for blood products uses fixed wing drones that are launched from a catapult and follow a pre-programmed course to drop a small package from low altitude into an area the size of two parking spaces. These Zipline drones carry a light load (1.5kg of blood) but higher capacity and longer range drones suitable for airdrops in Syria were identified over a year ago.

Airbridge Aviation, an Oxford-based British company, conducted an extensive comparison of options in January 2016 and selected the Arcturus T-20 as the most capable unmanned aircraft for humanitarian airdrops in Syria. The T-20 is a well-established UAV first developed in 2009 and used by the Mexican Navy and the Turkish government. It has a maximum range of 900 kilometres, carries a payload of 36 kilograms and has a proven airdrop capability. Like the Zipline drone used in Rwanda, the T-20 also launches from a catapult and doesn’t need a runway.

Using nine T-20 drones flying twelve hours a day at 50 nautical miles range (about 90 kilometres, or the distance from the Jordanian border to the suburbs of Damascus) Airbridge Aviation write that they could deliver around 1,800kg of aid per day, feeding 1,675 people their full nutritional needs.

All of this can be done without putting UK air crews at risk.

We earlier reported on JPADS, another option for airdropping aid cross border into Syria without UK aircraft entering Syrian airspace. These are GPS-guided parachutes that can fly 25 kilometres from where they’re released to a pre-programmed precise landing spot. The World Food Programme confirmed to us that they had used JPADS about 25 times to drop medical aid to regime held Deir Ezzor. The WFP has never airdropped aid to communities besieged by Assad or Hezbollah because they refuse to act without regime consent.

It is shameful that the UK and other states militarily engaged in Syria have effectively stood by as Assad and his backers have besieged, starved, and forcefully displaced entire communities. It is shameful that the UK and others have not used the means available to relieve the suffering of civilians subjected to this deliberate cruelty.

Airdrops in themselves won’t end the sieges. They won’t stop Hezbollah and Assad forces shelling and bombing besieged communities. But they can bring an end to the Assad regime’s veto on humanitarian aid. They can give civilians some relief and save at least some lives. And they would show that the UK is willing to match fine words of concern with at least some concrete action.

Madaya, a short distance from the Lebanese border, is one of the many communities still under siege in Syria. It could easily be reached by JPADS or by drones.

It is now over a year since Jo Cox and others first called for the Government to seriously consider humanitarian airdrops to people trapped in Madaya. As images of starving children led to mounting public pressure, the Assad regime and its Hezbollah allies let some aid into the town, but only some.

Currently Madaya has been without aid deliveries for over two months, despite the promises of the ceasefire declared by Russia and Turkey in December, despite multiple UN security council resolutions, despite years of negotiations by UN agencies with the Assad regime.

Even when the Assad regime has let UN aid through, these convoys have been intermittent and subject to severe restrictions.

In the period covered by the latest Siege Watch report, one UN interagency aid convoy managed to reach Madaya and Zabadani on 25th September. The shipment included basic food supplies and non-essential medical items, but lacked necessary goods such as fuel, critical medical supplies, protein, baby milk, and salt. Mirna Yacoub, deputy representative for UNICEF in Syria, who was part of the aid convoy, told the BBC that while there wasn’t the level of starvation seen in January, ‘they are malnourished, there is a severe lack of vitamins, they don’t have protein.’

Siege Watch reported that 27 kidney failure patients were trapped in Madaya by the end of October, unable to receive dialysis due to lack of supplies. Highly contagious bacterial meningitis is also widespread and there are no infant vaccines available.

In November, at least four children died of malnutrition related causes. At the end of November, some aid was let in, but has since again been blocked by Hezbollah and the regime.

Airdrops of medical and food aid to Madaya and other besieged areas can save lives.

We know—Syrians know—that the UK has the ability to act, so let there be no more shameful excuses.

Videos: BBC report on Zipline drones delivering blood supplies in Rwanda, and Arcturus video showing their T-20 drone.