There was a local Ski and Snowboard jumping competition, couldn’t resist taking my camera :) Must be a wonderful feeling to be able to jump like this. On a different note, my blog has just hit the milestone of having 4000 followers. Thank you all so much, I never imagined my blog would ever have so much interest. You all inspire me to keep this blog going. Thank you :)
Once again Vladimir Putin has outmaneuvered the West regarding Ukraine. I’m no fan of his but Putin’s emphasis on strategy rather than tactics seems to be paying off. The USA/Europe seem to only use tactical thinking rather than have a clear strategy in mind. Maybe they should start learning how to play chess.
What has struck me recently is the similarity between ex Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and Putin. Khrushchev could be a bit of a blunt instrument at times but he was also a strategic thinker. He understood how to restrict the movement of his enemy, in this case the USA. Neither he or President Kennedy wanted war, even at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 but he understood how to keep tension at its maximum without spilling over into full blown war which would have been a disaster for everybody. If you pour water into a glass until it reaches the top, this is tension, if the water spills over the side then it becomes war. Keep the glass full so your enemy can not add his own water to the glass without it spilling over the sides and you make him powerless.
Looking at the situation in Ukraine and it would seem that Putin is using the same strategy. Determined to weaken Ukraine, Russia has been sending large amounts of weapons and soldiers to help the separatists of eastern Ukraine. What can the West do? To be honest not much, if the USA were to send weapons to support the government of Ukraine the glass would be overfilled with water and open direct conflict would surely be a result, something neither side wants, so Russia has been increasing the tension from its side, giving very little room for movement to the USA or Europe. Now with the agreed ceasefire starting on Saturday 14th of February, Putin has been able to make an agreement very much on his own terms, the separatists will keep the land they control and if the ceasefire holds it will become a frozen conflict that the West can do nothing about. But there is more to this I think than meets the eye.
Although Russia is trying to hide its involvment in Ukraine, supporting the separatists with heavy weapons and support is expensive. Sanctions and low oil and gas prices have hit the Russian economy hard and war costs a lot of money. A frozen conflict in Ukraine that gives favourable conditions to the separatists will allow Russia to use its resources elsewhere. Where could that be? Considering Russia’s very close relationship with Iran and Bashar al Assad of Syria the answer has to be the Middle East as it joins “the war on terror” against Islamic State. Why do I say this? Iran has until the summer to agree to stop its nuclear development program, if it does not then the USA will pull back in certain area of Iraq and permit Islamic State to enter Baghdad and slaughter the Shia Muslim population which Iran, being Shia, is sworn to protect. It would be a very costly exercise for Iran to defend them as the low price of oil has also hit its cash reserves hard too. It is conceivable that Russia will give support to Iran through weapons and support. It is a very strong indication that Iran is not prepared to give up its nuclear development program come the deadline and is preparing for all possible outcomes, with Russia its ally, supporting it. The other reason would be to more directly support Bashar al Assad against Islamic State in Syria and maybe more importantly against the Sunni rebels in southern Syria, who are not only receiving strong support from the USA/UK but also Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Israel. With a real possibility that southern Syria will become autonomous, like eastern Ukraine, Assad needs all the help he can get and Russia needs to maintain as much influence in the Middle East as possible.
By freezing the conflict in Ukraine on his own terms, Putin now has the resources to help his buddies in the Middle East, This time last year he could afford to support many different battle fronts, now with the low price of oil and gas, he can not.
Putin is thinking strategically, whereas it would seem the USA puts more emphasis on tactics, it reacts to situations rather than having a long term plan of what it wants to do and how to get there. 2015 is going to be a very interesting year. As always, international politics and those with a thirst for power, Islamic State included, could not care less about the lives of ordinary people. They never have enough power, one day the glass will truly be overfilled.
This article is cross-posted to DigitalJournal.com
The 70th anniversary of the liberation of the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp has recently passed. It is so important that we never forget the lessons of the past, how ordinary people can become mass murderers and others their victims simply for being of a different race, skin colour or religion.
This was the first time I visited Auschwitz, I was nervous before going because I was not sure what I would feel being in a place where there had been so much evil and so many people were murdered. The overwhelming feeling was one of sadness, it seems to permeate every brick of every building. The biggest shock for me was how small Auschwitz is considering how many people were murdered there, Jews, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, more than 1.1 million in total. The camp was designed to be the most efficient killing machine possible.
At the main entrance there is the infamous sign “Arbeit Macht Frei”, translated it means Work Brings Freedom. Freedom through death, many who were not sent immediately to the gas chambers were literally worked to death. They were seen as a resource to be used to do hard labour until they died from hunger or cold. The records that were kept show how meticulous details were recorded of the amount of work done, food consumed, as a modern business would keep account of profit and loss, and balance. The inmates were simply units of work, each with an identifying number tattooed onto their skin. When that unit could no longer do useful work it was disposed of.
With all the horror in Auschwitz the inmates still found ways to resist and help their fellow humans. When possible, food and medicine was smuggled in as were books. All religious texts were banned but they found their way into the camp too. When you have nothing left to lose you are prepared to do anything to resist those who are oppressing you. I was moved by a quote from a former inmate, Jozef Garlinski inmate no: 121421. He wrote, “Outwardly it might seem that Auschwitz was the last ideal place to start an underground organization. All reasonable arguments and calculations spoke against any hope of successful underground work, yet as it turned out, the situation was favourable. Clandestine action is usually taken and is usually successful when all other forms of action have failed, when desperate people must seek secret ties to help each other, to fight an enemy who is too strong for open struggle. Unlimited, however, are the moral and physical powers, which man has within him.”
Today we live in a world that is becoming more unequal and divided every day. The number of working poor, that is those who have a job but still struggle to pay for rent, food and electricity is constantly growing. Not since the period before the Second World War are so many people having to rely on food banks just so they can survive These people are being pushed to the edge of society. At the same time, after Charlie Hebdo, all Muslims in the western world are being viewed with increased suspicion, fear and discrimination. Society is fracturing and at the same time the desire for national identity is increasing. After the discovery of the concentration camps the world said “Never Again” but it seems that as memories fade and society becomes more unequal the seeds are once again being sown that could allow new horrors to once again be unleashed.
The chimney of the crematorium. The only way you could leave the camp.
It was wonderful to get back to the Middle East, meeting old friends and making some new ones. As for the local food, keep it coming. Then there was the desert, I can’t explain why but I have always felt at home there.
This trip was not just about pleasure though, my focus was very much on getting up to date with what is happening in the region, particularly with regard to Syria but also the Middle East in general.
This article is based on discussions with trusted sources and as 2015 unfolds you will be able to see for yourself how things work out.
Southern Front, a coalition of moderate and secular Muslim rebel fighting brigades finished 2014 in a positive frame of mind. The combined forces number over 30,000 fighting men. Over the last year, the amount of support they are getting from the Americans and British has risen dramatically, in terms of weapons, training and finance. They now control large areas in southern Syria but are also very active in areas north east of Damascus, in particular the strategically important mountain area of Palmyra. There they face both the Syrian army and Islamic State. Before going into battle against Syrian army troops, radio contact is always first made to see if they wish to defect. Quite often they do, particularly if they are Sunni Muslims. The Syrian government is also using a lot of fighters from Hezbollah as well as directly from the Iranian military. One of the things highlighted to me is the importance of sticking to international law when it comes to treatment of prisoners. Southern Front are working hard to become a professional army, rather than simply a rag tag group of rebels with no central command. Politically they are also working to legitimize themselves, so far they have made a lot of progress in this direction.
The general feeling is that Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, will lose his hold on power, nobody can say exactly when this will happen but the feeling now is that it is inevitable. The plunging price of oil is severely curtailing the ability of both Iran and Russia to continue their support of Bashar al Assad who absolutely needs them to maintain his grip on power. When he goes, the top tier of the Syrian regime will also go with him. They will be replaced by existing senior figures from the Syrian army, Generals etc and most definitely Alawhite, the same tribe as Bashar al Assad. Damascus and the west of the country up to the Latakia region will be governed by the existing government framework except for a replacement of the top tier of government. South of Damascus will become a new region, governed separately to Damascus and will have a Sunni Muslim majority. Syria will effectively be turned into a Federation. After four years of war there is bad feeling on both sides of the Sunni/Alawhite divide, governing both sides from a single government in Damascus would be impossible, too much blood has been spilt. The simple solution is to create a Syrian Federation. In the north and east of the country where Islamic State hold sway, it could become a common unifying objective for the Alawhite and Sunni to start working together to push together against Islamic State. If not to eradicate the extremists but certainly to contain them. Once Bashar al Assad is gone you will begin to see steps in this direction.
There is a deadline for Iran to agree to stop its nuclear development program, if that deadline is reached without agreement then Islamic State will be permitted to enter Baghdad in Iraq to attack the Shia Muslim population which Iran is committed to protecting even at great expense. Iran and Syria both permitted Islamic State to grow and develop but they are no longer in a position to control it now that it has enough of its own resources and agenda. If Iran does not make a deal about its nuclear program it will be forced into direct conflict with the beast it helped create. So many parallels with how the USA helped set up Al Qaeda to fight the Russians in Afghanistan only to have it turn against its one time backer. Islamic State have enough funding in place to cover the next two years without stress, if Iran is forced to confront them then it will prove to be very expensive as it is reliant on oil exports but the price of oil is so low now it doesn’t even cover the cost of production. How long can Iran continue to support Bashar al Assad at current oil prices, let alone take on the expense of opening a second front against IS? Iran therefore has to make a tough decision, stop its nuclear development program or get sucked into a military campaign it can ill afford. All the indications are that the price of oil still has further to fall. Oil really is being used as a weapon and very effectively too. This also applies to Russia, it too is being made to pay heavily for its continued support of the Syrian regime.
The falling price of oil also has an impact as it has to reduce the price at which it sells oil, thereby reducing its income. Saying this however, all the indications are that IS is flush with enough cash to run operations for the next two years. IS has also been selling ancient Syrian artifacts on the black market. The words do not exist to describe how I feel about those who do business with IS, buying up Syria’s national treasures which will never again see the light of day. Something really needs to be done about this black market and those who do business with IS. Much has been made of young Europeans who have gone to join Islamic State, it appears that instead of using them as fighters IS are more interested in their propaganda value. Add to this the fact that they tend to have a better education than local Syrian or Iraqi members, many are being used for non military duties such as administration and book keeping, not what many who thought they would be fighting expected.
There is not a single person in the Middle East who believes or even considers that Israel had any involvement in the development of IS. I have lots of people who read my work and try to tell me about the connection between Israel and Islamic State. There isn’t any, get over it. Israel is and has been guilty of many things, but this ain’t one of them.
IS was allowed to grow and develop by Bashar al Assad along with support from Iran. They are more interested in power and money than religion. They are willing to do business with just about anybody who will pay. So if you have a factory you want protecting from damage while you wait out the war in Dubai you can organize, through middle-men, the transfer of funds. IS also has a nice little line in selling ancient artifacts from the areas it controls, ironic considering that according to their strict view of Islam any statue or image with a human face should be destroyed. Forget that, they are all about the money. IS are about as Muslim as the bottom of my shoe. Instead, it is a mafia with a lot of weapons and a love of power. Its arrogance will lead to its eventual downfall.
Oil (personal opinion)
There is no doubt in my mind that the USA and Saudi Arabia are collaborating to force down the price of oil as a way of putting huge economic stress on Russia and Iran. Russia is being made to pay for its action in Crimea and along with Iran both of them are being made to pay for their support of Bashar al Assad. If the price of oil stays low until late in the year then it will be much harder for them to continue supporting Assad. This is oil being used as a weapon. There is however always room for the unexpected to happen, Saudi Arabia is maintaining its oil output at a high level, if there were to be a cyber attack on the control systems of its oil production facilities it would certainly force the Kingdom to reduce or even stop output and increase prices as a result. As always, expect the unexpected.
There you have it, a general outline of the Middle East for 2015. For sure it is not possible to say how much will be this year, apart from Iran which has a specific deadline, but there will certainly be movement in those directions written about, there is an awful lot happening behind closed doors.
This is my first article of 2015 and I hope you found it interesting. I will be happy to see your comments. Thanks for dropping by :)
After 30 hours of no sleep I’m finally back in Europe. Over the next couple of weeks I have a lot to write about regarding Syria and the Middle East in general. 2015 will be an interesting year. However, it wasn’t all work as these two photos I took in Al Aqaba and Petra show. Watch this space, lots coming.
He was so happy for me to take his picture, his heart was so warm and genuine despite his circumstance. Photo in Amman, Jordan
Should have some interesting news from the Middle East in the New Year. In the meantime today was about relaxing and switching off for a few hours. I hope you like this photograph I took today at the Citadel in Amman Jordan.
Most of the media focus on Syria these days is to do with IS, Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. I don’t think a single group has ever collected so many acronyms! They control large areas in the north and east of the country. In the south however, there is a different situation. The Southern Front, which has many thousands of well equipped and trained fighters, is made up of moderate muslims and secularists and they hold large parts of Syria south of Damascus. Extremist groups such as Al Nusra and Daesh have tried to get a foothold in the south but without success.
The leadership of the Southern Front believe the regime of Bashar al Assad will collapse at some point. There are various reasons for this. The first is the duration of this terrible war which has sapped a lot of energy out of the Syrian military in terms of manpower. Both sides of this conflict are tired after 4 years of fighting but the areas loyal to the Assad regime are becoming uncomfortable at how many of their men are being lost in this war while Assad sits comfortably in his palace in Damascus. The second reason is economic and is closely linked to the price of oil. War is hugely expensive and the Assad regime is dependent on both Iran and Russia. Iran for funding and Russia for weapons. As the price of oil has collapsed over the last few months it becomes increasingly difficult for Iran to fund Bashar al Assad so he can buy weapons from Russia. Russia can not afford to simply give weapons away as it has its own financial problems also due to the price of oil and the effect of sanctions. If oil prices stay low well into 2015 then it will become extremely difficult for the Syrian regime to hold on to power.
The Southern Front sense this and are preparing for Bashar al Assad to lose his grip on power. The biggest challenge when this happens will be to stop Damascus descending into chaos and allowing the extremists an opportunity to try and fill the vacuum. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown the biggest mistake the Allies made – mistake is too kind, FUBAR would be more appropriate – was to remove all traces of the government and institutions without having anything to replace them, that is what led to the chaos we see in Iraq today. Southern Front realize this and have very recently stated how they see a transition being made. They are not looking to take over the country, in fact as you will see from their in-depth statement below they want to see Syria as a very inclusive country with all being represented in the new government. When the regime falls there will probably still be large areas in the north and east of Syria under the control of Daesh but for the rest of the country there will be an opportunity to close a terrible chapter in the history of the beautiful country. Then with time it will be possible to regain territory from the extremists.
Below is the statement which was passed to me by the Chief Co-ordinator of the document and I also provide a link to a PDF of the release.
The Southern Front
Free Syrian Army
STATEMENT NO. 4
THE TRANSITIONAL PHASE
The collapse of the current regime will not be the end of the Syrian people’s revolution. The end of the regime will be only the start of a new and, hopefully, final phase of the people’s struggle for freedom. In order to ensure that the final phase succeeds with the establishment of a new national model of governance based on respect for human dignity and a rebirth of Syria’s tremendous potential, it is imperative that all nationalist forces commit to a course of action during the period of transition from authoritarianism that will fulfill the popular will.
The Southern Front announces that it will dedicate its efforts during the period of transition following the collapse of the regime to supporting:
First: the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.
Second: the maintenance of Syrian state institutions, including all ministries and military institutions.
Third: the integrity of the economic and service infrastructure of the state, including telecommunications, energy, water, and public and private transportation networks.
Fourth: the establishment of a process of inclusive, national, political reconstruction.
1- The Civil Defense Force:
Once the Assad regime collapses, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army intends to transition from a military organization into a civilian defense force to contribute to establishing the appropriate conditions to enable a successful political transition in Syria. Among the primary objectives of a civilian defense force will be: protecting all citizens, maintaining all state institutions, and securing the infrastructure for the economic prosperity of the country. The Joint Command of the Southern Front is currently preparing itself for the moment of transition and is committed to implementing a detailed day-after plan to protect Damascus (the seat of government), prevent looting, protect citizens and state employees, and ensure that governmental institutions remain fully operational.
2- The Transitional Administration:
To guide the period of transition, the Southern Front will support efforts to establish a Transitional Administration. The Southern Front believes that no current state employees, identified for their competence and loyal service to the state, should be excluded from continuing to serve. In addition, the Transitional Administration should be open to senior defected government officials who return to the country to help in its reconstruction. The Southern Front, which by this time will have transformed into the the Civil Defense Forces, will support such an interim governing arrangement granted that it is non-political, and led by technocrats whose terms will end upon the completion of the interim or transitional phase. The first task of the Transitional Administration will be announcing the cessation of
all military operations and demanding foreign fighters to leave the country within a specified period of time. The Transitional Administration will also take steps to ensure that state institutions continue their routine work. It will announce to government officials including the judicial authority that their work will be guaranteed within the framework of the General Law. The civilian police will be requested to continue their work. The armed forces will be requested to remain temporarily in their barracks until security and order restored.
The current constitution will be immediately suspended and replaced by the original constitution of 1950 as an interim constitution until the drafting of a permanent constitution for the country that shall be approved by a popular referendum.
To ensure neutrality with respect to key decisions that need to be made during the critical transitional period, the Transitional Administration should issue an immediate appeal to the United Nations to form a “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” in Damascus as soon as possible with a special envoy of the UN Secretary General. This Office will be necessary to advise the Transitional Administration, coordinate foreign aid, and identify key requirements for the transition. It is also needed to recommend and supply experts and advisers to help rebuild the institutions of the state. To ease the pressure on the Transitional Administration, and to benefit from the best Syrian minds and intellects in guiding the transition, the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” will be requested to appoint a Syrian Advisory Committee composed of qualified professionals to draft a framework and plans for the transitional period, according to a specific timetable. The Office will also request the presence of a UN observer missions and specialist teams.
The key tasks for UN and the Syrian Advisory Committee will be:
First: to establish the High Electoral Commission.
Second: to oversee general elections to choose an “interim” legislative authority within six months, paving the way for the formation of a constituent committee for the drafting of the constitution.
Third: to form a constituent committee to draft the permanent constitution for the country within one year.
Fourth: to hold a public referendum on the constitution after the completion of the work of the constituent committee.
Fifth: to implement national elections for a new parliament and government.
All bodies and formed by the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” or by the Advisory Committee should be independent bodies. They should advice the Transitional Administration, but they should not be subject to it or overlap with it. The mandate of the Transitional Administration should be considered officially over after the holding of elections for a new parliament and government.
Long Live Free Syria
The Southern Front
I will be back in the region in the near future to talk directly to Southern Front and should have more information for you some time in January. I’m very curious about what will happen. I think 2015 will be an interesting year.
This article is also published on DigitalJournal.com
First the apology. I have had a huge amount going on recently and simply haven’t had the time to write recently. I will rectify this in the new year. All being well I will be back in the Middle East over the Christmas period to get a better picture of what is going on in the region.
Added to that I have been asked by a major Chinese newspaper to help with a feature article they want to do for the end of the year. No, the article isn’t about me before anybody asks. So all being well I will have lots to write about in the new year, saying that, I might be able to post something before but I can’t promise.
Now the photo. I was out for a walk this morning. The air was cold but the sun was peaking through the cloud. In the end it turned out to be a beautiful day. As I was getting into position for the photo below, a small owl suddenly took flight in front of me. It had been sitting in the long grass right in front of me. There was no time to get a decent shot of the owl but that moment put a big smile on my face. I hope you like the photo, I love the atmosphere of this image.
Daniel has hit the nail on the head regarding the current situation in Israel. Take the time to read what he has to say.
Originally posted on Mind-Crawl:
I apologize for starting off with this dry medical definition. Bear with me:
Jerusalem syndrome is a group of mental phenomena involving the presence of either religiously themed obsessive ideas, delusions or otherpsychosis-like experiences that are triggered by a visit to the city of Jerusalem. It is not endemic to one single religion or denomination but has affected Jews, Christians and Muslims of many different backgrounds.
The best known, although not the most prevalent, manifestation of Jerusalem syndrome is the phenomenon whereby a person who seems previously balanced and devoid of any signs of psychopathology becomes psychotic after arriving in Jerusalem (Wikipedia).
Being a bystander, you get the best of both worlds. You can stand by and watch the show, and you also don’t have to get your hands dirty. Watching the events unfolding in Jerusalem these past few weeks, I’ve observed how radicals set torch to the fragile status-quo in…
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