Russia, Syria and the United Nations

In quite extraordinary scenes at the United Nations security council, Britain, France and the USA directly accused Russia of committing war crimes in Syria. The accusations are based on the use of bunker-busting bombs and other heavy weapons in east Aleppo where many civilians are trapped.

Matthew Rycroft, the UK ambassador to the UN said “Incendiary munitions, indiscriminate in their reach, are being dropped on to civilian areas so that, yet again, Aleppo is burning. And to cap it all, water supplies, so vital to millions, are now being targeted, depriving water to those most in need. In short, it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes.” Then, along with his French and American counterparts, they walked out in protest before the Syrian government representative began speaking.

What all this shows is just how powerless the UN really is. Because each permanent member of the UN security council has a veto and can block any decisions it doesn’t like, the whole thing can be brought to a standstill. It is obvious that Russia and probably China will block any resolution about taking action to bring the blood, death and misery in Syria to an end.

Maybe the UK, France and the USA will invoke the “Uniting for Peace” resolution of November 1950 (resolution 377 (V)). This states ‘the Assembly may also take action if the Security Council fails to act, owing to the negative vote of a permanent member, in a case where there appears to be a threat to the peace, breach of the peace or act of aggression. The Assembly can consider the matter immediately with a view to making recommendations to Members for collective measures to maintain or restore international peace and security.’

This resolution hasn’t been used very often but the feeling is that now there is genuine anger, spilling over into direct and less than diplomatic speech by certain security council members at the actions of Russia in Syria. At the end of the day, this resolution can only make recommendations. In 1980, the General Assembly convened in a “Uniting for Peace” session and passed a resolution demanding the Soviet Union’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. The Soviets merely shrugged. Russia would mostly likely do the same if such a resolution were passed today.

The biggest irony for me regarding Russia’s actions in Syria is that it claims to be a christian country, in fact the link between the Orthodox church in Russia and the Kremlin would take many by surprise. It is directly influencing the making of laws in Russia. Where is the church’s role in this? Giving guidance on morality or where are the politicians who claim to be christian asking themselves, ‘what would Jesus do in my situation?’ You would have to wait a very long time indeed for that to happen.

There we have it, the UN is basically pointless, it can’t live up to its charter, it is unable to stop wars or give all the aid needed to the refugees caused by those wars. The big powers simply ignore the UN when it suits them. The UK, France, USA and China are just as guilty as Russia, it is basically a toothless old dog that needs to be put down. In fact if there were no UN it would make it much easier for countries, acting alone or as a group to take action and intervene. Instead they are all stuck in an organization which is unable or unwilling to do anything. Innocent people continue being slaughtered. Well done UN, you are 71 years old now, maybe it is time you were retired.

Pokemon Go, Watching You!

The Pokemon Go craze is beyond me but I’ve never been into computer games. As the craze kicked off and I learned what the game is about and how it works it got me thinking. Is there something more to this game than meets the eye?

How the game works is cool, no denying it. Get people running around their local towns, chasing down Pokemons which are computer graphic characters layered on top of the real world view of your smart phone camera. But then I started thinking more about how the creators of the game could use it in other ways. When you play the game, a huge amount of information is collected, it has access to your GPS location, camera and microphone. For this reason I began to understand how Pokemon Go could quite simply be the biggest intelligence gathering tool of the digital age. In general Pokemons are scattered around, waiting to be caught in parks and on the street etc. But they can also be inside buildings and other private spaces. Today I was reading in the Independent newspaper, the Israeli army have been banned from playing because of the fear of sensitive information being leaked. The article also tells of a Palestinian player in Gaza who was playing but couldn’t capture a Pokemon because it was inside a Hamas run government building.

This is the point, if you want to collect information about locations and what is happening there, plant a Pokemon and wait for a player to go after it. If there is a player who works in the Hamas run government building and is not aware of security, they could be running around the building capturing all sorts of camera footage for whoever runs the data collection for the creators of the game.

In fact, some companies I know, have banned playing the game on their premises due to the risk of sensitive information being leaked. With data security being such a big issue these days, even if the game is not being used deliberately to gather intelligence the fact remains, your data from the game, camera footage and GPS location plus most of the other permissions on your phone, are being captured stored. This is a goldmine of information for hackers, you can be sure they will try to steal it. So either way, I will not be touching Pokemon Go with a barge-pole

Refugees as a weapon of war – update

After writing an article in early February about how Russia is exacerbating the Syrian refugee crisis by attacking population centres in Syria as a way of increasing pressure on the European Union, NATO and the British media are finally catching up. They are only a month after my article but better late than never:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/russia-and-syria-weaponising-refugee-crisis-to-destabilise-europe-nato-commander-claims-a6909241.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/16/refugees-are-becoming-russias-weapon-of-choice-in-syria

http://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2016/03/02/NATOs-Gen-Breedlove-Syrian-refugees-are-weapons-against-Europe/5391456934721/

 

Refugees as a weapon of war

Russia has been intensifying its bombing of Aleppo in Syria but the thing is this, the Syrian government even with the help of Russia is simply not strong enough to hold onto control of the city. The rebels aren’t strong enough to win and neither is the government. So what is behind the current Russian action of indiscriminately bombing the city?

This is about creating more refugees, doing so will put huge pressure on Turkey and Europe. Speaking today to my Syrian friend, Muhannad Najjar, who has been living in Turkey for the last year, he told me that in the first four days of the Russian bombing campaign of Aleppo some 25,000 Syrians decided to flee the city, and that is just the beginning. Interviewing some of the escaping families, all said their goal is to reach Europe. This is on top of the hundreds of thousands who have already made the journey to  Europe.

One of the things Muhannad told me is that the majority Sunni population feel betrayed by Europe and the USA, not because they don’t accept more refugees but because they haven’t done something about Bashar al Assad so they can live in peace and rebuild their country. I’m inclined to agree, the Assad family has also treated the lower classes of Alawite from his own tribe with similar contempt. The problem now is that a significant minority of those forced to flee their homes could be tempted to support Daesh (ISIS), not because they like them but because they feel there is no other choice.

Politicians in Europe and the USA think they can isolate themselves from the dangers by doing nothing in Syria but their inaction is actually increasing the danger. Russia is using this situation to its full advantage. Refugees have become a weapon of war as Russia uses the refugee crisis to try and break Europe. There are two reasons for this, one is because of the economic sanctions placed on Russia, the other is to try and force the USA and Europe to accept terms for any settlement of the Syrian crisis, if they don’t then Russia in its support of Bashar al Assad will make sure the flow of refugees only increases.

These pictures were taken in the last few days of Syrians who are fleeing the Russian bombing of Aleppo and trying to cross the Turkish border. All photo credit to مصطفى سلطان Mostafa Sultan

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Russia and USA. The pushing and shoving continues

Turkey shooting down the Russian jet today was a response to Russia increasing its influence in the Middle East through its action in Syria. Turkey, as a member of NATO would not have done this without some sort of approval from the USA. Russia and USA do not want direct conflict but they both like proxy war. The pushing and shoving between them continues. So much happening, I need a while to get all the information in order to write in depth.

Who is fighting against Daesh (ISIS)?

The question of who is attacking Daesh (ISIS) has to be asked because as far as I can tell from conversations with my contacts on the ground in Syria, very little effective action appears to be directed against them on an international level.

The USA is carrying out some airstrikes against Daesh but from the information received is not proving very effective. None of the airstrikes have caused Daesh any serious problems so far and often they have already left the area by the time the bombs and missiles arrive. Having said that, the USA is continuing its funding and supplying of The Free Syrian Army (FSA), who are fighting on two fronts, against the Assad regime and against Daesh. Reports in the media that the USA is going to cut funding is regarding one small program only, the vast bulk of support is continuing. At the same time the USA does not want the FSA to capture too much territory, it is part of their plan for a divided and weakened Syria

Russia claims to be targeting Daesh but all the evidence points to the vast majority of attacks being against the FSA. Yesterday I heard news that Russia is using indiscriminate cluster bombs in its attacks against the FSA, wanting to confirm this I put word out that I was looking for evidence of cluster bomb use. In a few hours I had a link to a video shot yesterday of them being used in the Hama region of Syria. You can see for yourselves in the video.

Russia is more focused on supporting the Assad regime than fighting Daesh. Assad is Russia’s only Arab ally and after 4 years of fighting, with its military on the brink of collapse, Russia was left with no choice but to send in direct air and ground support. That it is using totally indiscriminate munitions such as cluster bombs shows how desperate and immoral both the Syrian regime and Russia truly are.

Turkey says it is against Daesh but its actions prove otherwise. It is more interested in seeing the Kurds weakened and has been turning a blind eye to Daesh crossing its borders. The recent suicide attack in Ankara was most likely by a member of Daesh, the focus of the attack being a demonstration for peace by Kurds in Turkey. Turkey has a working relationship with Daesh, when I wrote in April last year about Turkey guarding the tomb in Syria of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Osman the 1st, the founder of the Ottoman empire, President Erdogan of Turkey was quoted as saying “Right now, the issue is not about ISIL” ISIL being Daesh, the arab term for them, and were only a few hundred metres from the tomb. Turkey is happy that Daesh is fighting the Kurds, it saves him a lot of bother so why should he be interested in trying to stop them. Rather he is trying to provoke the Kurds in Turkey into action so he can justify the use of force and he is working with Daesh to do this.

Syria, after four years of fighting its army is exhausted and has lost over 80,000 men. Now Assad is trying to reinforce the territory he does hold and is not in a position to fight on many different fronts, hence the reason for Russia stepping into the fray. Assad too is less interested in fighting Daesh than against the FSA. In conversation with a friend on the ground in Syria an interesting bit of information came out, Daesh and Assad face each other along a 60km front which runs from the prison to the ex infantry school in Aleppo region, an area I know and drove along many times two years ago when I was in Syria. In all the time Daesh has held this territory not a single shot has been fired between the Syrian army and Daesh. There is quite a cozy relationship between the two, who are more interested in fighting the FSA than each other. The Syrian army has always chosen attacking the FSA rather than the extremists. It would seem this is down to the proxy war nature of this conflict, the USA supporting the FSA and Russia with Iran supporting Assad.

Iran is a natural ally of Bashar al Assad, Assad being an Alawite, a branch of the Shia muslim faith as opposed to 70% of the Syrian population being of the Sunni muslim faith. Religion and war, it is a story as old as human history. Under no circumstance does it want to see Assad go and will do everything in its power to support him. It too sees Daesh as a useful tool in the fight against the FSA and by extension the proxy war with the USA.

Saudi Arabia and UAE. The families that govern these countries are, for want of a better word, despicable, they finance terrorism and have given a lot of financial support to Daesh and other terrorist organisations. May God bring a plague upon their houses. They help create the problems and then refuse to accept or help the people, fellow muslims, who are forced to flee their homes and countries as a result. So much for brotherhood. I’m glad I’m not a muslim.

As an aside, now that both Russia and the USA are directly involved in Syria, the risk of accidental confrontation is high, if it were to happen, the results could be an escalation of the conflict with global repercussions.

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.

http://zqb.cyol.com/html/2015-09/17/nw.D110000zgqnb_20150917_1-04.htm

http://zqb.cyol.com/html/2015-09/17/nw.D110000zgqnb_20150917_2-04.htm

The next, was the story being published as a major feature for British magazine, Big Issue as you can see here: http://www.bigissue.com/features/5662/a-syrian-family-s-journey-to-freedom-and-the-part-i-played-in-helping-them

Finally, so far, there was a national radio interview on CBC, the Canadian version of the BBC. You can listen to it here: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Shows/ID/2675818799/

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.

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.

The Middle East in 2015

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.

Abo Saif with a post interview cigar

Abo Saif with a post interview cigar

Syria

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.

Iran

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.

Islamic State

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 🙂