Syria. A solution in sight?

After four years of fighting, more than 250,000 dead and millions of people displaced, is the situation in Syria about to change? This is the big question and one to which I think we will soon have an answer.

Russia has been bolstering its support for Bashar al Assad, sending in equipment, personnel and troops, not enough to help the Syrian army go on the offensive but rather to help Assad consolidate and defend the territory still held. In the south of the country the rebels are consolidating the ground they hold along the border of the Israeli controlled Golan Heights and further south along the border with Jordan, it is a large area but is sandwiched in by Assad controlled territory to the north and east. The rebels also control large areas of Idlib and Aleppo provinces, there are however pockets of territory inside this area which are controlled by Jabhat al Nusra. Syrian Kurds control much of the northern Syrian border with Turkey. ISIS (daesh) also have control a stretch of the border with Turkey and then south and east following the Euphrates river all the way to Iraq. The country is seriously divided.

Part of the reason this war has gone on for so long is because of geo-politics, the big powers using the situation to extend their spheres of influence, if the Syrians had been left to sort this out for themselves this war would probably have ended two years ago. The problem is the USA, Russia and Iran. Russia and Iran are historic allies of the Assad regime. The USA to be honest has never had a clear strategy in Syria and has often changed its game-plan on the go, reacting rather than having a clear vision. It has been helping the rebels, as distinct from extremists ISIS (daesh) and Jabhat al Nusra (JN). Now, it seems Russia is taking the lead in trying to bring some sort of order to the mess. Not out of altruistic reason but simple recognition that after four years the Syrian army is exhausted and on the other side the rebels aren’t going to be able to make much more progress either, it is a bloody stalemate. Any solution which leads to the stopping of Assad dropping indiscriminate barrel bombs on civillian populations can only be a good thing.

What could a possible solution be? There have been a lot of behind the scenes talks between Russia, the USA and Iran, there can only be a solution if all three agree as they are all part of the problem. Russia insists that Bashar al Assad stays in power but that could well turn out to be a negotiating ploy, as its main interest is in protecting its investment in Syria, in particular weapons sales, its port on the coast at Tartous and having a friendly authoritarian government on its side. Iran, needs the Shia Alawite to stay in power as the area controlled by Assad, an Alawite, borders Lebanon and therefore is a direct connection to Hezbollah in that country. The USA is happy to see Assad and Syria weakened as is Israel, they have been working together to help the rebels take control of most of the land along the border of the Golan Heights, acting as a buffer against Assad and ISIS (daesh). So it would appear that these ‘Great’ powers can come to an agreement to freeze the conflict, with or without Assad. The official country of Syria will remain in name only. Internally, ‘the solution’ will be for semi autonomous regions, much like in eastern Ukraine. Also if the rebels and Syrian army can stop fighting each other they then might be able to concentrate efforts on pushing out the extremists. As for the Kurds who control large areas of the northern border with Turkey, they have been consistently fighting against the extremists as well as Assad, the complication here is Turkey. Turkey is afraid of the Syrian Kurds becoming too independent and joining up with Kurds in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey is looking for anyway it can to control this situation. Any deal on Syria will also have a Turkish element.

Finally, if a deal is made, how will the peace be kept? The majority of the Syrian population, 70%, is Sunni but the money and power is in the hands of the Alawite Assad regime. If autonomous regions for Sunni and Kurds are created but these regions are not allowed to develop and rebuild economically then any agreement will be very short lived. Personally, I don’t see any agreement working in the long term, there is too much temptation for those in power to interfere. In the short term it might be possible to freeze this terrible war, all sides are exhausted, but there is so much bad blood on both sides and it will never be forgotten.

A week in the news

The reaction to the story of the Syrian family I helped has generated a lot of international interest over the last week, much more than I ever supposed. The aim was simply to help the family, aiming for a big media response was never part of my motivation. However, it has happened and if it leads to greater awareness of the refugee situation, so be it.

The first response was from a national Chinese newspaper, who reported the story and also interviewed one of the family I helped. Use Google translate to see both of the stories.

The next, was the story being published as a major feature for British magazine, Big Issue as you can see here:

Finally, so far, there was a national radio interview on CBC, the Canadian version of the BBC. You can listen to it here:

There is some extra important detail in the radio interview which I had left out of earlier versions of the story as I had to think about my safety, but then Germany opened its doors and the situation changed, allowing me to talk about it.

Thank you all for all your support of my work. I appreciate it very much. We are getting the story out there.

Refugees, a different perspective

Seventy years ago, there were millions of European refugees after the second world war. After the first world war there were also millions of European refugees. After both wars, many went to the USA but that door is now closed to us if we ever find ourselves again in a similar situation. We are lucky to be born into a period of stability but this is not the long-term history of Europe. So I would suggest not being so judgemental of those who are trying to reach the relative stability of Europe from other parts of the world. History suggests we can find ourselves knocked out of our complacency and sense of stability very quickly. We are not masters of our destiny, history teaches us this.

Lamborghini, a flight of fantasy

I’m not by nature a materialistic person but I do love driving and Lamborghini have just produced a car I would love to have and drive even though I will never be able to afford it. This is the Lamborghini Aventador LP 750-4 SV Roadster

The dream

Different car makers have their badges, I would prefer a raging bull as a car rather than a prancing horse and I started riding horses when I was young. I think my passion for cars is genetic, one of my great grandfather’s Joseph Harry Clarke raced at Brooklands, the worlds first purpose-built race track, the symbiotic relationship of man and machine is in the blood. So forgive me for a moment of revelry as I take a few moments to share my appreciation of automotive greatness.

Escape to freedom. Bringing a Syrian family to safety

The events in this article took place in the first two weeks of August 2015

This is the story of a Syrian family’s journey to freedom in Europe and the small part I played in helping them. Along the way I saw and learnt a lot about what refugees face as they escape from war-torn countries and political oppression.

Fadl and his family were introduced to me through Muhannad, a mutual friend. He asked me if I would be prepared to help Fadl and his family get from Greece to a particular European country. After some consideration, I decided to try and help them. The family is from the Aleppo region of Syria and before the war they had their own restaurant, they were a middle class family. His wife Majelina, who had to stay behind to look after ageing grandparents, was a university professor of English literature. Then, because of the war and ISIS (daesh) they had to leave it all behind. There was no future for them in Turkey, where finding work is extremely difficult, the only option left was to try and go to Europe. Along with Fadl was his mother in law, his niece and nephew. Forgive me for not giving their names but I think you can understand why.

The family had crossed from Izmir in Turkey to the Greek island of Kos by a small boat run by Turkish people smugglers. They were charged 3000 euro per person for the crossing and the boat was cram packed with refugees, dangerously so. After being processed in Kos they were free to go, they made their way to Athens, which is where I met them.

The night before leaving Athens I wanted to see if I could find where Syrians socialize, I was directed to the Albasha Syrian Café. The place was packed with Syrians, drinking tea and smoking shisha. I’m sat outside drinking tea, watching the world go by, I was the only non Syrian in the place but everybody was polite to this stranger. There was a constant stream of fresh Syrian arrivals from Kos making their way along the road, it seems this is the area of the city they head to and can find somewhere to sleep. In fact, the owner of the café would often direct groups of new arrivals to where they could find a place for the night. All of a sudden, 4 police motorbikes arrived, lights flashing and the atmosphere became extremely tense. Not having any idea what would happen next I just sat there and watched, half expecting the police to come and check everybody’s documents. Instead they waited on the other side of the road about 20 metres down from the café and soon all became clear. Two big buses arrived and needed to turn off the road and through some gates, the police were there to control the traffic. When the buses arrived almost everybody in the café got up and headed toward them. The buses were for the Syrians, to take them north to the border with Macedonia and the Greek police were helping them on their way. At this point, I understood the Greek authorities know the Syrians don’t want to stay in their country and only use it for transit and so helps them on the next stage of their journey. Another thing I noticed was the person who was obviously in charge of the buses, he was Greek, not Syrian. He was another person in the chain of those who are making a fortune from Syrians as they head north. The Greeks want the Syrians out but they are also making a fortune in the process of sending them on their way. It is a mafia.

In the morning, we set off and the drive to the Macedonian border was uneventful. When we arrived close to the border the family got out of the car and had to walk across country for about 2km to our rendezvous point on the other side. After leaving them, I drove across the border and waited, and waited, nothing. I had shown them very clearly on the map where we were to meet. After 2 hours I decided to drive into the small town of Gevgelija, Driving around, I saw the train station was teaming with refugees, I was sure the family must be there but so were the police. I didn’t dare stop, it would look too suspicious, a foreign car in a poor area of a small town full of refugees, the police would be certain to ask me questions. So I turned around and drove off for a while hoping the police would be gone by my next attempt. After an hour I tried again, back to the train station, this time no police, my sense of relief was palpable and there they were waving at me from the side of the road. After getting in the car we drove off, heading ever northwards. To be honest, I was annoyed, we had lost valuable time because they hadn’t followed instructions, instructions which were for their safety as well as for mine. Because other refugees were crossing the border using the same route  they had followed them and ignored everything I had said. There seems to be something in the Syrian mentality which I had not noticed before, they stick together and follow the group, but they don’t realize that the group offers them no real protection, not in a situation like this, not when I’m already there to help them. It didn’t help that Fadl’s phone battery had also died and been unable to contact me. At the next border I made sure he had my spare battery pack. I couldn’t risk losing them again for such a stupid reason.

The drive through Macedonia towards Serbia was simple but I was tired from driving and wanted to stop for the night. There was a hotel near the border with Serbia in Tabanovtse but we couldn’t stay, the hotel didn’t want Syrians staying unless they had a transit visa from the Macedonian police which gives them 72 hours to pass through the country, so we had to push on. I turned off the highway at the last point before border control, other Syrians were there, preparing to walk across country into Serbia. We arranged to meet in the Serb town of Preshevo, this time it was a longer walk, about 8km and it was starting to get dark. I crossed the border and drove to Preshevo, the place was absolutely packed with refugees, not only Syrian but also Afghans, Iraqis, Pakistanis. There must have been at least a thousand of them but despite all this the atmosphere in the town was relaxed. In many ways I think the local economy must be booming. Before travelling, many refugees make sure they have enough money for the journey and they spend it as they go, they need food and water. One shop keeper, who spoke a little English, said “no problem, they don’t steal, they pay for everything, the only problem is the mess”, finding a place to go to the toilet and wash is very difficult and litter just gets dumped. However, a thousand new refugees arriving every day brings in money, while the arrivals from the previous day move on. Watching the police was interesting, they weren’t making problems for any of the refugees and looked very relaxed. In Preshevo is a train and bus station, from here they can head north to the border with Hungary. This is where things got ugly. This is where I thought I had lost the family.

A relative of the family had crossed the border into Hungary from the Serb town of Horgos a couple of days previously and sent us a map showing his exact route but to be honest I had misgivings about the family making the crossing from here from the moment I saw the situation. The terrain was not in their favour but it is used by many refugees because this is where the buses bring them and there must be at least a dozen buses arriving every day. On the other side of the border in Hungary is the village of Roszke which has a train station, from there refugees try to get on trains to the north. We arrived in Horgos and were taking a drive around to look at the situation, the sun was close to setting, little did I know how long that night would be. Fadl stopped to talk to some of the many Syrians for information but I had the impression that they didn’t really know what they are doing, trying to succeed only through sheer weight of numbers. Suddenly, we saw Serbian police loading Syrians into vans, no friendly smiles here, we had driven into the middle of a police operation, which also seemed to be coordinated with the Hungarian police as later became apparent. Turning around, I drove back to a quieter area and told the family as strongly as possible that trying to cross the border tonight was a bad idea and that I really didn’t like the location. But Fadl’s mother in law, who is as stubborn as a mule was determined to make the crossing, now or never. When she got out of the car and started walking to join another group of Syrians who were about to attempt the crossing, the rest of the family had no choice but to follow her, I could see disaster looming. Again the herd instinct kicks in and because they see a large group they think they must be doing the right thing. What could I do? I was tired from 12 hours of driving, I wanted to take them to another area of the border which was quieter, a place where the buses didn’t drop off the refugees, where the police would not be expecting them. In Horos, hundreds of refugees arrive every day, of course the police are ready for them, what do they expect! But the herd instinct seems to overwhelm them and they are blinded by the all consuming desire to cross the border. To be honest, it reminded me of the migration of wildebeest when they have to cross the river and the crocodiles are waiting for them, they just go, taking their chance in weight of numbers. There didn’t seem to be any real logical process to what they were doing. And here we were, having arrived the night the police had decided to put on a massive operation to stop and capture as many refugees as possible. It was madness and I have to be honest I was very annoyed and part of me thought they deserved to be captured for being so stupid. The tiredness didn’t help my mood either.

As they were getting out of the car Fadl gave me his money to look after, some 900 euro, he thought the police might steal it if they caught him, but if they caught him I would never be able to give his money back and told him to keep it, plus he might need it for an emergency. That was a crucial moment, if he had left his money with me their story would not have ended well.

They started walking at about 20:30, the sun had set and they were walking into the unknown with another group of Syrians. We had agreed that I would wait on the Serbian side of the border until they had crossed, with the police operation they might have had to turn back. I got a message at midnight that they were “Go” and would send me GPS coordinates of where to find them when they had found a safe place to wait. Then we go dark, no more communication. It is my turn to cross the border into Hungary and I have to be honest I was nervous, not only for them but also for me, I had all their baggage in the car which could raise some difficult questions. What I had not expected was the huge wait to cross the border, almost 2 hours, the Hungarians were searching all cars. There was a huge operation that night to stop refugees and I was in the middle of it. As I was waiting to cross into Hungary, one of the border guards was spot checking cars. I noticed that he was interested in me and watched in the mirror as he took a very roundabout route to come up to the back of my car. He tapped on the back of the car, my passport ready in hand was already out of the window waiting for him, he asked “what you do” I replied “what do I do or what am I doing?” It was enough to put him off balance, after a 2 second look in the back of the car he let me pass not realizing all the baggage belonged to the family.

Finally, I received a message with GPS coordinates of their location, so far so good, I took the first exit off the highway after the border crossing, they were close to an antenna with a flashing red light on top but it was in the middle of a field, no way to drive there. What to do? I had already been passed by 3 police vans, it was now 2 in the morning but the level of police activity was very high, they were everywhere. I waited until there was no traffic, stopped on the road parallel to the antenna which was about 300 metres away and put on my hazard lights, this was the agreed signal. I felt like an absolute sitting duck, just as the family also felt. I had thought about what to do if the police asked why I was stopped on the road, with this in mind, I was playing with the navigator on my phone when the police pulled up behind me. Keep calm Russ I said to myself, I told the police I was looking for a hotel after just crossing the border, I was tired and needed to sleep, it was true I was exhausted not that I would have been able to sleep with everything that was happening. The police seemed to accept this and said the nearest hotel was about 30 km away. Knowing there was no way I could now stay on that road and wait for the family, I drove back toward the highway where there was a fuel station and big car park. It was about 2km from the antenna. I sent them a message telling them there was no other choice, they had to get to the fuel station, easier said than done, the area was teaming with police. I was at that fuel station for nearly 2 hours. I honestly thought the family had been caught, even more so when I saw a large group of refugees walk out of the dark into the fuel station, seconds later 2 police vans came racing after them, it was bedlam, they started running in all directions, the police chasing after them, their sticks held above their heads to hit anybody who resisted. I didn’t see anybody get hit but the threat was there, some simply stopped running, they knew the game was up.

Then I got a message to say the family was coming in a taxi, WTF………….. This is where my insisting that Fadl took his money instead of leaving it with me paid off. They were captured by the police after leaving the antenna and the local police chief decided who could pass and who could not and that depended on money, 200 euro per person and the family was 4 so 800 euro, then the local taxi working with the police charged them 100 euro to drive them the short distance to the fuel station. I saw the taxi coming and followed it as it drove slowly past. As the taxi stopped I pulled parallel to it so they could get in directly, I had never seen them move so fast as they jumped into the car. Then we were out of there. I can’t begin to tell you how relieved the family were. Taking care to drive normally, we headed for the highway. The sky was beginning to get light, it had been a very long night.

We drove north, wanting as much distance between us and that border as possible. I had not slept all night but the adrenaline had helped keep me awake. With the adrenaline wearing off I had to stop, I was starting to fall asleep at the wheel.  We found a resting place on the highway south of Budapest and slept for a couple of hours.  After that we left Hungary, there were no more border controls, found a hotel and basically crashed for a few hours before having a really big dinner. The next day was relaxed and I was able to get them safely to their destination.

For the family, their journey had a happy ending but it is not so for millions of others who feel they have no choice but to flee their countries because of war or oppression. I know that Europe is not big enough to take everybody, it isn’t possible, but they are human beings like you and I and have the same right to a dignified life. The family I helped have relatives in Europe, Fadl has dreams of being able to start a small restaurant. His brother was shot by a Syrian sniper and leaves behind 3 young children in northern Syria, Fadl is sworn to do all he can to support them financially. His wife Majelina had to stay behind in Turkey to look after ageing grandparents but she looks forward to the time she can join her husband. Their story is no different to so many of others. They are flesh and blood with the same hopes, fears and emotions as anybody.

Losing the war on terror?

Like the war on drugs, the war on terror against groups such as Islamic State (Daesh) simply isn’t working. Fighting these groups is trying to deal with the symptoms rather than get to the cause of why extremism has grown so rapidly this century.

There are several reasons for this, the first is religious and political ideology supported by a belief that the only way to bring change is with the use of force and revolution. History is littered with examples, the French revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, the English civil war. All happened because of deep dissatisfaction with the existing ruling classes who thought only of themselves and not of the common people. Yet in each example after the overthrow of an unjust political system, all led to further bloodshed, in France many innocent people were sent to the guillotine, after the Bolshevik revolution Stalin ruled by fear and had many thousands executed for no good reason, Oliver Cromwell increased persecution against catholics after the protestant “Rounheads” won the English civil war. So we come to today, the “Arab Spring” the revolutions to overthrow unjust and power crazy rulers in north Africa and most notably Syria have created so much bloodshed and allowed new power crazy and religious groups to enter the vacuum, which is invariably created after a revolution. The question has to be, why and how relatively small numbers of those with extremist ideology are able to gather so much support?

Take Nazi Germany as an example, Hitler was able to come to power because so many ordinary people were suffering terrible financial hardship and unemployment, here was someone who promised to rebuild their country and give them a sense of pride and identity once again. Groups such as IS (Daesh) work along similar lines. They appeal to many who feel abandoned, using very slick propaganda to create a sense of identity, somewhere they can belong. The mistake is made that this is just about religion, it is not, it is about creating a sense of being part of something bigger where they can play a part, religion is just one of the tools used. The real motivation of Daesh is power. They would also not be where they are today if they didn’t have money or if other countries didn’t find Daesh useful in the international game of geo-politics.

Then there is the fact that these groups are good for business, as they create regional wars, the arms manufactures rub their hands together in glee, war is good for business so long as it is contained to a region far away. Like the war on drugs, so the war on terror is very good for business, ethics don’t even come into the equation.

Now with the terrorist attack in France and the shooting of tourists in Tunisia we witness what is surely the beginning of a far greater threat to what we consider the western way of life. Global political malfeasance, the purely self interested interference in the middle east, the rulers of middle eastern countries who have never taken care to give opportunities for education and work to large minority groups. All together allowed the development of Daesh. Now Daesh want to spread fear around the world as payback. Finally governments are waking up to this very real threat, which is ironic as they helped create the threat in the first place by their playing of geo-political games.

So what might happen next? For a start, more intense blocking of refugees trying to escape from these troubled lands for fear that some among them could be terrorists. Tunisia is closing a large number of mosques in the wake of the shooting of tourists as these mosques are said to be a source of hate preaching, I think we will see this trend increase over time, more mosques will be closed in many countries around the world. The result of that will be many muslims including the majority who are against violence as seeing this as a direct attack on their faith, which could also have unintended consequences.

This has become a global problem and one which needs a global solution, personally I think it is too late, Pandora’s Box has been opened. If action had been taken earlier to stop injustice and inequality, if governments had cared about people rather than power then there would have been a chance and groups such as Daesh would not have the power they have today. In a way, every bomb dropped on Daesh makes them stronger, they have become like the mythical Hydra, cut off a head and two more grow in its place as young ideological muslims conditioned by slick propaganda join the group to defend their religion against attacks from the corrupt west and equally corrupt arab rulers.

The world is now entering a time of great danger, not since the end of Second World War has such an existential threat existed and to be honest our politicians have no real idea of how to deal with it. Before, wars were between countries, now we face a war against an idea which has become international. Bombing an idea out of existence once it becomes deep seating among many people in many countries is simply not possible. Politicians are going to have to come up with new ideas and think very carefully about the potential consequences of those ideas, not something at which they have ever been very good.

Ballerina on a bridge

I was in Budapest this weekend, it is an amazingly artistic city, the light was beautiful, energy and life filled the air. Crossing a bridge across the Danube, I saw a young ballerina preparing herself, for what dance I do not know. I was just happy to capture her in a moment.

Ballerina on the Bridge

Ballerina on the Bridge