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.

Seventy Years after Auschwitz. What have we learned?

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.

The infamous entry gate to Auschwitz

The infamous entry gate to Auschwitz

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.

Village

Take away the barbed wire and watchtowers and Auschwitz could have been more like a village of uniform red-brick buildings. Words can not describe the horror that happened inside those walls

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.

Stripped of Humanity

Anything of economic value was stripped from the inmates, including prosthetics.

Nothing Personal

No personal possessions were allowed

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.”

QuoteToday 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.

EfficientThe chimney of the crematorium. The only way you could leave the camp.

The chimney of the crematorium. The only way you could leave the camp.

The outside world was so close but impossible to reach.

The outside world was so close but impossible to reach.

Never Again!

Never Again!

 

Featured on foto8.com

Foto8.com a major photojournalism website have featured my work from Syria. It is always nice to have one’s work recognized.

http://www.foto8.com/live/syria-refugees-rebels-russell-chapman/

Syria Refugees and Rebels

 

 

Surprise

While doing some grocery shopping today a young guy comes up to me and says ” Hi, you are the Syria photographer” Took me by surprise.

DSC_2560 DSC_2311 DSC_2253 DSC_2199 DSC_2140 DSC_2056 DSC_1963 DSC_1952 DSC_1918 DSC_1864 DSC_1458 DSC_1403 DSC_1396 DSC_1383-Edit _DSC2735These images are a small taste of my book, Syria: Refugeesa and Rebels. Click the image below for more details.

Syria: Refugees & Rebels

 

 

 

I have a new project. Can you help?

I have been developing the idea for this project since I was in Syria last year to photo-document that terrible conflict as well as spending time in Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan. What impressed me the most was the warmth of the people despite all the terrible hardship they are suffering.

I need your help

Syrian child in Zaatari refugee camp.                      “I need your help”

Millions of Syrians are now refugees in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and they have very little international support. Because of the circumstances they have to find ways of supporting themselves and their families. They are doing this by trying to find work but there also are quite a few who have started small businesses. Syrians are extremely resourceful, they have to be. This project is about telling the stories of these people as they find ways to rebuild their lives in a foreign country. I have kept many of my contacts with Syrians in Jordan. The plan is to follow up on them as well as meet new Syrians to see how their lives have changed in the last year. The objective is to show that although they are refugees they are no different to you and me, they desire security, a home, education and a job. Refugees are often portrayed in the media as pathetic creatures living in the dirt, I want to show their humanity as they work to rebuild their lives.

The project’s ultimate goal is to publish a book which tells the individual stories of those I will meet, interview and photograph as they go about rebuilding their lives. There will also be exhibitions in Europe and the USA as a continuation of the book and exhibitions I have already produced from my time in Syria last year.

I will also donate 20% of the profit from sales of the book and any photographic works to buy medicines for Syrian refugees. Many cannot afford the medicines they need, particularly for the children, this project will be of direct benefit to those who need help.

I now have a crowdfunding project at Indiegogo.com to help me complete what I feel to be an important project which will give a voice to many who can show the humanity of a people in a difficult situation. Please go to my project at Indeigogo and have a look and watch the video. With your help we can give a voice to those who have lost and suffered to much and really draw attention on an international scale to a people who simply want to live quietly with their families.

Even if you can’t help directly but you still believe in helping your fellow human beings then please share this appeal with as many people as possible. Anything you do is very much appreciated, thank you.

Coming Soon. Video Interview with Syrian Revolutionary and Ex Fighter

Soon I will publish an interview with a Syrian who was deep inside, he fought against both the Syrian government as well as ISIS as the leader of his own brigade in Menbij in northern Syria as well as being very active at the political level in Menbij. We need to protect his identity but he was happy to talk to me. He is very candid about his role as well as his experience of how ISIS seems to be working with the Syrian government. He also explains how many Free Syrian Army brigades are controlled by foreign countries. In the end he quit the fight and explains why. There is about an hour of video to go through and edit as well as clean up the sound. I’m a photographer more than a videographer so please be a little patient with my work. Video interview coming soon, watch this space.

Interview with a Syria rebel

Interview with a Syrian rebel

How to Work in a War Zone

Working in Syria

Working in Syria

Syria is the most deadly place in the world at the moment for journalists. The possibility of kidnapping and death is high. I have written many things about my time in Syria, the politics and the suffering of the people, but until now, never about how it was personally for me to go to such a place and the preparation that went into it. Below is some of my experience and advice.

The first and most important thing is preparation, preparation, preparation. One does not simply wander into a war zone and hope to get a story and expect to come out of it alive. The weeks leading up to my departure for Syria were intense, getting contacts on the ground, organizing who would be meeting us at the border and where we would be staying for at least the first couple of nights. Fortunately I was going with a Syrian friend who had already been back to Syria a couple of months earlier but we still had a lot of work to do.

Paramount to your safety is being able to trust your Fixer. The Fixer is the person who will sort out your transport, find you places to stay, get you into locations where you want to get a story and also act as translator if need be. I can’t stress this enough, you must be able to trust your Fixer with your life. If you are going to a country where you don’t know anybody, contact journalists who have been there and get them to tell you who are reliable Fixers. Do not under any circumstances, arrive at the border and look for a Fixer there. You know nothing about the person and for all you know they could be working with kidnappers. Just don’t do it. But find a good Fixer and they will help you in so many ways to get you the story you are after and they might also save your life.

Another thing, under no circumstance when you go into a war zone as a journalist should you ever carry a weapon even if you think it would be only for self defense, if you are caught with a weapon then you will be seen as an enemy and killed. Don’t do it. End of. Let your Fixer organize your security. In Syria I was always with at least one person armed with a Kalashnikov who knew how to use it. It deters would be kidnappers if they see they will have to fight to get you.

This brings me onto something else. Before you go you should have some idea of self defense. Personally, I am not bad at Krav Maga, it is a great system for when you need to fight back from a point of weakness and if the other person is pointing a gun at you. In Syria, one of the guys I was with thought it would be funny to put his pistol to the back of my head, he did it as a joke but I had him on the ground with his gun pointing at his head before he even had time to blink. He never tried that game again. You need to know how to defend yourself if the situation calls for it.

When in a war zone you need to be constantly alert. Death can come from any direction, the random stuff you can’t do much about. Bombs, mortars etc, sometimes shit happens and there is nothing you can do about it. When going to a location, be aware of your surroundings and have an escape plan if things get hairy, although sometimes it is better to sit tight if you have cover until things quiet down a bit, this is particularly true if you are caught in the middle of a fire fight as happened to me. Never forget to keep your head down when all hell breaks loose, it is also a good position as you can kiss your butt goodbye if the time comes.

Kidnapping threats are more insidious but there are usually warning signs before it happens. Are you being followed? Where you are staying, do strange people come in and look at you but without talking to you? Do you get the sense that people are talking about you behind your back? These are all things to be aware of that there could be a plan to snatch you. Whereever you are staying it is worth trying to have an escape route, if you are staying in a house or hotel never stay higher than the 2nd floor, there might come a time when you need to jump out of a window to escape. The same goes for basements, only stay in them if there is a bombing raid, otherwise you can easily be cornered. Saying that, one time in Syria I spent the night sleeping in a bank vault, there was a bombing raid in the area and it was about the securest place to be found, saying that, it smelt a bit in the morning, 50 guys all huddled up in a small strong room with no windows. We were funky.

Don’t over rely on technology, GPS is great but learn to read a map and study the topography. Batteries run out, kit gets lost but a good old fashioned paper map is a must and contains a huge amount of detail if you get the right ones. Always have an idea of your position in relation to the border and the safest escape routes in relation to your position. Mark these on the map. Do not lose the map!

It is really essential that you look after your general health when in a war zone. There can be problems with water quality and food supply. Don’t eat or drink anything you don’t trust. Get bottled water when you can, boil water if you have to. Don’t use tap water to clean your teeth. In Syria the infrastructure has pretty much collapsed in many areas, the risk of water born diseases is high, you really don’t want to come home after getting the story to discover you have some horrible illness that is due to drinking dodgy water. On the food side, take some dried food rations with you, 3 days worth should be sufficient. You never know if you will need them and they can help you keep going if you are having to escape across country.

When I went to Syria I traveled light. One large rucksack, in it there were some extra clothes, lots of t-shirts, underwear and socks. Survival kit, medical kit, map, compass, GPS, satelitte phone, currency. I would leave the extra clothes where I was staying before going out for the day and pack everything else into a smaller backpack, my bug-out bag. You never know when you are going to have to run. You don’t want to be caught lacking the essentials for survival.

When you are prepared it helps you to feel secure that you have done all you can to prepare yourself for any situation and that then permits you to get on with capturing the story that has landed you in a war torn country. While you need to be constantly alert, I faced moments of extreme danger, you should also be prepared to meet some of the most incredible people, the warmth, the surprising acts of kindness, even the humour. This was my experience in Syria.

Ukraine: War has started

You should mark today, 2nd May 2014. This is the day that the Ukraine/Russia crisis escalated into inevitable war.

I have been writing about this situation for a while now as you can see in a previous article I wrote here. Today in the Eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk, the Ukrainians have been on a major operation to take back control of key city buildings from pro Russian supporters. There are early reports of many of these Russian supporters being killed or captured. I’m not here to talk about the rights or wrongs of the situation, I’m simply going to talk about what is going to happen next and some of the wider implications.

Now that pro Russian supporters have been pushed back in some areas, they are either Russian military or trained by Russian military. Considering some of the heavy weapons they have been using today, ordinary civilians they most definitely are not. The next step will be for them to integrate into the civilian population from where they will attack the regular Ukrainian army, provoking them to shoot back. This will give the appearance that the Ukrainian army is attacking unarmed civilians and the final excuse Russia needs to intervene. I have always felt this is the Russian objective, the armed Russian separatists are being used by Russia as little more than a provocation to test Ukrainian resolve, the next aim is to make it look like civilians are being attacked. When this happens, things are going to get quite loud.

What is happening is as much about the USA wanting this situation to develop as a way to make Vladimir Putin pay for his support of Iran and Bashar al Assad of Syria and stymy their power. The USA is not free of guilt when it comes to how the situation in Ukraine has developed. The Russian economy is very fragile, as I have written before, its banking system is on the verge of collapse as it is being drained of liquidity, the price of oil has fallen so the income from that is not enough to support Putin with the money he needs to pay the people closest to him and maintain him in power. We are looking at an explosive situation. A war with Ukraine is a useful tool for Putin to fan the fires of Russian nationalism and keep the minds of the general population away from the real reasons why their country is about to hit very severe problems. The Russia/Ukraine situation is as much about Geo-politics as it is about domestic politics. This is part of the game that goes back to the cold war, Russia and the USA can’t help but antagonize each other but this time things will not settle into a cold war. The world has changed and the nature of war with it. Ukraine is being used as a proxy in order for both of these enormous countries to challenge each other.

It is the same situation in Syria, which became a proxy war a while ago. On the one hand there is Russia and Iran who support Bashar al Assad and on the other there is the USA and Saudi Arabia and even more importantly in the near future, Turkey. I wrote about how Turkey is going to start a war with Syria here You can be sure that Turkey is waiting for the Ukraine crisis to escalate even further before going in, the way things are going it will be soon. It already has a heavily armoured brigade inside Syria, supposedly to simply secure the tomb of Suleyman Shah the grandfather of Osman 1, the founder of the Ottoman empire. Their real objective is to take over northern territories of Syria and create a Sunni-Shia Muslim wedge but you will have to read my article I linked to, I don’t see any point in covering the same ground, in depth, twice.

As an aside and I wrote about this before, the Orthodox church under Patriarch Kirill is deeply nationalistic and keen to see ‘Holy Russia’ have Ukraine fully re-integrated with Russia. The Russian Orthodox church and Putin are like peas in a pod, they are so close in their ambitions. Putin and Kirill are long standing friends. I wrote about it here. I think you will find it interesting.

The point is this. What is happening between Ukraine and Russia is linked to so many other things. There will be global implications to this crisis. There are so many things I have yet to show you but the time is not yet right. Watch this space.

Please take some time to read the articles I have linked to, they will give you a deeper insight when taken into consideration with this article.

 

 

A Potential New War. Part 2

Back at the end of March I wrote about the high possibility that Turkey would start a conflict with Syria. You can see it here I began hearing that there was a very good chance of this happening about 6 months ago. As of a couple of days ago there has been an interesting development which brings this likelihood even closer.

Turkey has sent a protection force comprising of main battle tanks, armoured personnel carriers and some 300 troops to protect the tomb of Suleyman Shah. This tomb is the supposed resting place of the grand father of Osman 1, the founder of the Ottoman Empire. For the moment they say they are there simply to protect it from damage, but damage by whom? Seemingly not the Islamic extremist group ISIL, Erdogan said and I quote “Right now, the issue is not about ISIL” and this protection force is only a few hundred metres from the Islamist base camp in the area. Something else must be afoot.

As I said in my first article on this topic, Turkey is becoming more belligerent and expansionist, it would like to reclaim some of the land it lost at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The northern territories of Syria are to be honest, ripe for the taking. It would appear that If Turkey does try to reclaim territory it will have the backing of the USA. Another important point is the fact that historically under the Ottoman empire, Turkey acted as the spiritual leader for Sunni Muslims, when the empire fell after the 1st world war Saudi Arabia stepped into that role with its own brand of Islam, Wahabism or Salafism. Turkey still believes that it should be the global leader for Muslims. Over time it is looking for ways to re-assert its influence and expanding into Syria is one way of starting to re-balance the Salafi influence as well as constrict the movement of the Shia Muslims of Iran who control Bashar al Assad and his regime.

Looking at the long term situation in Syria, things are looking quite mixed for Bashar al Assad. While he has been able to consolidate his grip on the region from Damascus up towards Homs and then on to the coastal areas of Latakia, including the strategically important port of Tartous, elsewhere in the country things are not looking so good for his regime. In the south around the Daraa region, moderate rebels under the command of Bashar al Zoubi of the Al Yarmouk Division, whom I met a couple of times are being able to create an area which is slowly pushing back the Syrian army. They are working on creating an autonomous area and until now there have been no major problems with Al Nusra and other extremists. It must be mentioned though that Jordan is being very firm about which areas the moderate rebels are permitted to try and take, I have this information directly from my contacts in the Al Yarmouk Division.

In the north, the extremists hold a lot more ground and the regime is regularly dropping barrel bombs from helicopters into civillian areas, particularly in Aleppo. In Menbij, ISIS are wreaking havoc, killing anybody who stands in their way. The moderate rebels in the north have very few resources and are not able to put up much resistance. The entrance of Turkey into northern Syria, ostensibly to protect the tomb could well be a precursor to a full on military assault to push out the extremists and annex the land. The moderates would be in no position to stop them and so it seems neither will Assad.

I’m going to join up a few dots now and see where this leads us. Assad has 2 main backers, Iran and Russia. Without these, Assad would have fallen a long time ago. The situation now is that Iran is financially in difficulty, it has just cut fuel subsidies for its people, the price of fuel has jumped overnight by nearly 75% for Iranians. The government in Tehran would not have done this unless it really needed the money, the problem is the Iranian population are also suffering, there is very high unemployment and under employment. Fuel cost rises will feed into inflation, food and heating will become more expensive etc. It is costing Iran a fortune to continue its support of Assad. Then we have Russia, many people don’t realize just how financially fragile Russia is at the moment, its banking sector is facing an enormous problem of bad loans. The crisis with Ukraine will probably lead to sanctions being put on Russian banks cutting them off from the global financial system. All this is keeping Putin busy, will he also have the resources to continue supporting Assad? Time will tell.

Nearly a year ago, I wrote that the result of the war in Syria would end up with the division of the country. The revolution has been hijacked, the people’s popular uprising along with their desire to regain their dignity and security after 40 years of the Assad’s family rule of the country, all has come to nothing, their country is in ruins while half the population is displaced. The reasons for this are shockingly simple. If the Syrian Revolution had been allowed to succeed then many countries would have lost their political influence in one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East. Iran would have lost all its investment in Syria as well as having its hegemonic ambitions curtailed. Any new people’s government might or might not have been ambivalent towards Israel so the USA and Israel didn’t want to take the chance of the people succeeding in their revolution, just in case. Russia would lose its only port in the Mediterranean. There would be much to be lost for many countries if the people had been able to decide for themselves how they want their country to be governed.

Instead, we now have a situation where international geo-politics prefers a solution that divides the country and balances the power of Sunni and Shia Muslims across a huge swathe of the Middle East. In the north Turkey will take control of large areas, In the south Jordan will have control over the southern liberated region, using the moderate rebels there to do the fighting to create such a zone, as is happening today. Assad if he can hang on and I think he will, will continue to hold territory from Damascus up to the coastal region. Of course if he can hold on he will be much weaker than before. Essentially what this will do is create a new Sunni/Shia balance. Sunni Turkey and Jordan controlled areas to the north and south. Shia controlled areas from Damascus to the coast sandwiched between the Sunni. This division will enhance the security of Israel and curtail the hegemonic ambitions of Iran. The only way for this to succeed is if both Russia and Iran are sufficiently weakened and are unable to support Assad as before. Therefore I would propose that the current Russia/Ukraine crisis is part of the strategy, Russia will be destabilized soon, dangerously so. Iran is suffering economically, the end of fuel subsidies is a good indicator of the pain, can it really afford to continue supporting Assad and lending money to him to buy Russian military hardware? Hopefully now you can see how all this ties in with Turkey’s movement into Syria and what we can expect in the not too distant future.

As I said in a recent article, conditions in the world are very similar to those shortly before the outbreak of WW1. Watch this space.

Ukraine: War is coming, part 3

It seemed that the talks in Geneva between Russian, Ukrainian and US counterparts had opened up a possibility for all those involved to step back from the brink, calm the situation down and work things out. To be honest, for a brief moment, I thought there could be some mature, adult behavior and things might be resolved. I was foolish to think this, since when have political leaders shown any sort of grown up pragmatism in dealing with serious problems? They are more interested in their petty power plays. They are lesser sons, ignoble offspring, unfit for purpose and certainly unfit to govern. I aim that at all politicians and rulers, everywhere.

So now we have an escalating situation in Ukraine, the number of small skirmishes seem to be increasing on a daily basis. How long will it be before we see a major assault take place, it appears to only be a matter of time, sooner rather than later! The opportunities to step back from the brink are becoming fewer by the day as tension mounts. As I said in Part 1 and Part 2 of this series; they are stumbling towards war, blind to the consequences which will befall them.

One of the areas of the Ukraine/Russia crisis that doesn’t get much attention at the moment is the role of the Orthodox church, its involvement in the political affairs of both countries. I first wrote about it in early March, you can find it here Further to this, at Easter you can see the involvement of the Orthodox church on both sides when you take notice of what was said when they addressed their followers. In Ukraine, Patriarch Filaret condemned Russian aggression, directly calling Russia an enemy. Meanwhile in Russia, Patriarch Kirill while he called for peace and cooperation between Ukraine and Russia he also called for, and I quote “end to the designs of those who want to destroy Holy Russia.”

To understand the full impact of this you need to know what he meant when he said “Holy Russia”, from a Russian nationalist point of view there is no difference between Russia and Ukraine, they are one and the same, the birth of Russia as we know it originates in Ukraine. Modern Russian nationalism sees Ukraine as a country to be fully united into Russia. The Russian Orthodox church is a key proponent of this, Patriarch Kirill is extremely nationalistic and also extremely close to Vladimir Putin. Kirill is a key Putin supporter, preaching from the pulpit that Putin is the man of the hour and there to save Russia and unite “Holy Russia” So we have the Orthodox church, Ukrainian and Russian, both supposedly Christian, using their enormous political power in their respective countries to foment war regarding an idea that goes against anything that is taught by the faith they proclaim to follow.

Besides strongly resurgent Russian nationalism, it also appears that there is another reason for Russia’s actions. Appealing to the Russian masses sense of nationalism is a very effective way of taking their minds away from other deeper, systemic problems. The Russian economy is very fragile, money is being drained out of its economy at a huge rate, the national bank is having to use its reserves to maintain liquidity, the banking sector is very fragile, it is facing a situation of sub-prime business loans similar to the sub-prime property loan crisis in the USA back in 2007/2008, the main difference is that the big Russian banks are owned by those who are personally close to Putin. The price of crude oil is falling, the Russian economy is based on oil/gas exports and depends on maintaining a certain price level. At the moment the price is about $110 per barrel. Russia or should I say Putin, needs the price to be about $115 per barrel in order to have enough money to keep paying the people the vast amounts he must for their continued support. Then we have to consider China, its shadow banking sector is in a huge speculative bubble which when it bursts will have implications for the wider Chinese economy, this will depress demand which will be reflected in the amount of energy it consumes and buys from Russian which will further depress oil/gas prices, reducing further the income Russia gets from its energy exports. Faced with these situations, a man such as Putin is going to be pressed into a corner, he will come out fighting, looking for ways to put the blame on others, a war with Ukraine would be a useful distraction, he is being left with little other choice. It is funny in an ironic way, the desire to hold on to power no matter what, will lead people into the most self destructive situations imaginable, and I aim this at the global political, business and religious system, not only Putin. When I look at the world today it reminds me of how the world was shortly before the outbreak of WW1. Watch this space.