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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Al Qaeda, the USA and Syria.

Abdul Kader Salih the major leader of moderate rebel forces in Aleppo was injured and as a result died. When I was in Aleppo I spent a couple of days with the Al Tawheed brigade of which he was commander. He was very much the driving force and big ideas man who everybody looked to and united under. Because of his death it is going to be much easier for Al Qaeda forces in their objective of taking control of the entire city and surrounding areas. Jabhat al Nusra doesn’t exist anymore in its original form. The Islamist but non extremist element of them is now badly splintered, the rest of them have been absorbed by Al Qaeda.

It is a fact that Qaeda are bringing heavy weapons from such countries as Libya through Turkey. It isn’t the sort of thing that can easily be smuggled through international ports so Turkey must be turning a blind eye. The USA and Turkey are on good terms so it must be happening with tacit US approval. Why is this being allowed to happen?

The implication of this is that the moderate rebels are being deliberately sidelined with the objective of making this a religious war, which is what it has now become. Sunni vs Shia, and Iran will throw everything it has into maintaining Assad in power as their puppet. The aim of the USA is to allow Qaeda to grow in strength because it will force Iran, which is backing Assad to the hilt, to commit huge resources. The objective of the US is to make this war continue for as long as possible with the hope that Qaeda and Iran will exhaust themselves, with the result being that Iran’s sphere of influence and regional ambitions will be stymied and the majority of Qaeda’s resources will be concentrated in one area. It is a sort of evil genius that creates a strategy to make 2 of your biggest enemies fight each other to the finish.

Turkey is also storing up trouble for itself. In Turkey there are about 2 million Alawites, natural supporters of Assad who are becoming ever more unhappy at the actions of the Turkish government and their allowance of weapons to be moved to Qaeda in Syria. There is a real possibility of this becoming a regional war if the Turkish Alawites decide to take action. All my instincts are telling me that what is happening in Syria is going to spill over into other countries. There was the bomb attack at the Iranian embassy in a Hezzbollah controlled district of Beirut, this was carried out by those who want Iranian backed Hezzbollah to leave Syria. Events such as this will become more common. I can see how both Turkey and Lebanon can be drawn into the conflict.

It is a indictment of how rotten global politics is when Geo-political strategy is given priority but not a single thought is ever given to the ordinary people who suffer the consequences.

Syria

A few days ago I had a meeting with a commander of the FSA, Free Syria Army, this was only possible because he is a friend of a friend. We met outside of Syria for security reasons. He is based in Aleppo and is very clear about what is happening in his country. Abu, not his real name, is from one of the old wealthy families that pre-date the Assad dynasty. Well educated and speaking perfect English, he has a great love for his country. He and many others like him are fighting this war because they want a Syria that gives opportunities to all the people, not only the tribes and families that are linked to the government. It is a big dream, only time will tell if it will happen! The challenges faced are enormous. The first, is uniting the different fighting groups under a single command structure, it is taking time but they are making progress. Many of the fighters are simple people. Teaching and showing them how to fight is a challenge. They need basic training. Field stripping and cleaning a weapon is something the majority have yet to learn. The other big problem is funding. They are are trying to finance themselves as much as possible but external help is needed. At the moment funding is fragmented and quite often comes with conditions attached. For example, certain Saudi families will provide money but only if the fighting men grow beards and live by a stricter Islamic law. The FSA want to build a secular state that is tolerant of all religions, to accept the Saudi conditions in order to get funding goes against the principles they are fighting for. There are many FSA fighters in the Aleppo region and despite a lack of equipment and training their spirit is strong and they are well bonded. They spend 12 hours at the front line and 12 hours resting. Food is simple, vegetables and boiled eggs. Sometimes there is meat. But it is enough to keep the men and women sustained and full of energy. That’s right, women are fighting on the frontline. In fact some women have distinguished themselves so well that they have been promoted to positions of command of combat soldiers. Abu told me that the female commanders are better at organizing their troops than their fellow male commanders. Before I met Abu I was reconsidering if I should go to Syria. After all, if I’m dead, I can’t report anything. However, knowing that I have the the full support of the FSA in Aleppo makes me more determined than ever to get over there and begin showing the world what is happening. Abu said that one of the most important things that needs to be documented are the continuing peaceful demonstrations. The fighting is only part of the revolution but the Syrians are still demonstrating against the government in a peaceful way and this is now being largely ignored by mainstream news channels.

If all goes well I should be ready to go to Syria in late December and stay there for a couple of months. The FSA are giving me a their full support. I must make one thing clear, my reporting will be strictly neutral. I aim to photograph, video and write as much as possible in order to try and bring clarity to a very complex situation.