War crimes v thought crimes

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

While war criminals walk free, Florence Hartmann landed in solitary confinement for her insider leaks on the politicisation of the Yugoslav tribunal.

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Photo: © Jure Eržen/DELO

Tuesday 12 April 2016

Florence Hartmann – a journalist, author and human rights activist – was recently imprisoned by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), for whom she had worked as a spokesperson between 2000 and 2006. For six days, she was kept in solitary confinement in a cell where the light was on 24 hours a day while every 30 minutes she was checked up on by a prison guard because she was a supposed “suicide risk”.

Hartmann’s only crime had been to tell the truth. In her book Peace and Punishment (Paix et châtiment), published in 2007, she revealed that the Hague-based tribunal, heeding the wishes of Serbian authorities, intentionally neglected to take into account the documents linking the former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević and the Belgrade establishment to the Srebrenica massacre. Charging Hartmann with contempt of court, the ICTY fined her to the tune of €7,000, which the court maintains she never paid, but Hartmann claims the opposite: “I paid the fine in France in order to  seek remedy through the French judge who would have been appointed to authorise the ICTY to transfer the money.  the €7,000 is still in the dedicated bank account and will be used to pay the translation and the fees for the upcoming legal actions.”

The court, nevertheless, changed Hartmann’s sentence to seven days imprisonment in 2011. She was arrested on Thursday, 24 March 2016, when she dropped in to witness the historical sentencing of Radovan Karadžić. Thus far, the tribunal has financially sanctioned four journalists while sentencing one to a month in prison.

Word criminal

Having met up with the Mothers of Srebrenica activist group, Hartmann arrived on the square in front of the tribunal’s headquarters to await the reading of the sentence of one of the most infamous war criminals in the Balkans. The time has come for the final act of a long-lasting judiciary procedure, which – among other things – conclusively demonstrated Karadžić’s responsibility for the Srebrenica genocide.

Suddenly, a number of police officers with UN insignia burst onto the scene. In a manner described as “rough” and “humiliating”, they seized Hartmann and transported her to the nearby Scheveningen prison. The arrest distracted the public eye from the sentencing of a war criminal.

“To me it came as a total shock. I absolutely did not expect it to happen. They simply stomped in and basically kidnapped me. And this in front of a crowd of Bosnian war victims, who had come to see justice being served,” a confounded Hartmann said. “For them, it was yet another in a long line of humiliations. I saw a woman being shoved to the ground… I myself was pushed and pulled around and lost my glasses,” she added, her voice more disappointed than angry.

In her years as the ICTY’s spokesperson she had encountered numerous cases of war criminals escaping justice, as the tribunal was barred from arresting them on foreign territory.

“There are many cases where the tribunal was well-informed of these people’s whereabouts,” Hartmann says. “The prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, managed to set up a tracking system. But we were unable to go in and arrest them, since the UN hadn’t been given the madate for such a course of action. Apparently, it didn’t matter that these people were responsible for some of the most heinous crimes against humanity in history. Yet now it is entirely unproblematic for the UN to arrest me in a foreign country? The ICTY has no mandate to do so, as it was my duty to explain to the press about a million times in my years as the tribunal’s spokesperson.”

Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that the tribunal did not sanction her in her capacity as a former spokesperson but as a journalist. “They say I broke the code of silence, yet I wrote my book as a journalist, not as the spokesperson for the tribunal. To claim otherwise is sheer manipulation, though one that is now being repeated as a mantra by many members of the press.”

Solitary Confinement

Florence Hartmann, 53, is an intrepid and level-headed journalist who reported on some of the most savage attrocities of the Balkans conflict. As the Karadžić sentence was read out to the public, she was already in solitary confinement in the notorious prison which, over the years, housed numerous war criminals from the Yugoslav wars.

Her lawyer Guénaël Mettraux immediately sprang into action, but almost instantly hit a wall. As soon as the Karadžić sentence had been read out, the tribunal’s personnel departed for the Easter holidays. Mettraux placed call after call, yet no one was there to answer. At least not until the morning of 29 March, when the staff returned to their desks and Mettraux was finally able to put in an official request for her release.

During the time of her incarceration, the sole visitor permitted to Hartmann was the French consul who brought her newspapers. Yet in the end, even the consul – the ICTY requested Hartmann to be handed over five years ago, yet Paris refused – proved powerless to help.

What was it like waiting for assistance in her permanently lit-up solitary confinement cell? With a smile, Hartmann replies she felt much safer than while reporting from war zones. She was the only resident of her part of the prison, and she was never let out of her cell – unlike a number of convicted war criminals. “I was never let out in the open air for the one hour of activities to which other inmates are entitled. This was denied to me – a measure that was never justified to me or to my lawyer. I was watched over by guards around the clock, during the night only by men. They treated me well. They even offered me some reading materials. I told them I don’t much care for novels or love stories or anything of the sort,” Hartmann laughs in reminiscence. Her wish was to read Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail, a book detailing the Karadžić hunt she had saved on her laptop.

“Never again”

Hartmann endured her prison sentence stoically. She now claims to feel perfectly fine.

Yet she also feels she has been through one of the weirdest experiences of her life, which is saying something. “Perhaps the most painful experience for me has been the eruption of mass violence in Europe at the end of the twentieth century. My generation had been brought up never to expect that sort of thing again. How many times have we heard the sentence ‘Never again’ being spoken,” she reflects. “Yet it is happening all over again. The Geneva convention is no longer in effect. In these past few months, some 30 hospitals have been bombed all over the globe. Merely the suspicion that a hospital may be harbouring suspects is enough for them to murder doctors and patients in the building. The Saudis, the Russians and the Americans are all doing it – and with absolute impunity. Also, torture has returned to the democratic countries,” the visibly exhausted author of many books explained in her Parisian apartment, adding that the 21-st century has also seen journalists imprisoned in the heart of the privileged European Union.

“ICTY failed to do its job”

Two days after Hartmann’s release, the ICTY judges reached the decision that Vojislav Šešelj, one of the key figures of the Great Serbia project and steadfast ideologue of its crimes against humanity, would get off scot-free.

Things could hardly get any more ironic. The distinguished arbiters were quite clearly communicating from a place where Franz Kafka had met Monty Python to write one of the most poignantly Orwellian stories of our time.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993. This was two years before Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were massacred. It was also six years before the end of the Balkan wars, two and a half years before the signing of the Dayton agreement, which ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and, by legitimising the Republika Srpska, also helped legitimise much of the ethnic cleansing.

Time went on. The historical record was slowly eroded, and the Balkan conflicts were soon forgotten. With the exception of Readovan Karadžić, the ICTY failed to pass sentence on any of the major culprits behind the wars. Hartmann has repeatedly pointed out that even the case against Slobodan Milošević, who died in detention, was built on very shaky ground, mostly due to political machinations and outside interests. The acquittal of the Chetnik duke Šešešlj is thus set to put the final nail in the coffin of the catharsis of the Serbian society. The Serbs had certainly failed in their attempts to complete the process of de-nazification, and the ICTY’s sluggishness and incompetence were a major contributing factor.

Slobodan Milošević wasn’t toppled for having started wars. He was toppled for having lost them. All of them.

Today, Hartmann can barely control her outrage. “At the end of the 20th century, we set up a system designed to bring punishment on those responsible for the genocide. But a few judges sabotaged the project. As far as the ICTY was concerned, Vojislav Šešelj was free to bay for war and remain unpunished,” she laments.

Hartmann’s arrest brought on a fierce response from European intellectuals, many of whom signed the petition for her release. According to the French journalist, the impunity bestowed on many of the key figures in the Balkan conflicts is utterly unacceptable. A system of swift supervision should be put in effect, she says, yet she is also afraid that by now this is no longer possible.

“We are living in a time and place undergoing a crescendo of barbarism. And the only response to barbarism we’ve managed to come up with is more barbarism,” Hartmann observes. “National and the international law should be synchronised to prevent future conflicts. To get justice, I intend to use every legal resource at my disposal. I’m proud to say I never faltered when they told me to stop and keep my mouth shut about their illegitimate secrets.”

 

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Egypt’s dollar woes

 
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By Khaled Diab

Hopes are devaluation will resolve Egypt’s dollar crisis, but the situation could spin out of control without a global currency for international trade.

100le

Monday 11 April 2016

As Egypt’s economy continues to nosedive, the country has been gripped by a chronic dollar crisis in recent months, exacerbated by falling revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal.

The dollar shortage has fuelled inflation and severely hurt importers and domestic manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials or components. For instance, many imported medicines have become totally unaffordable and there is a shortage in locally produced generic alternatives due to the inability to import active ingredients.

The hard currency shortage has even affected the black market, with a number of reports in the Arabic media over hours-long searches for dollars at inflated prices.

To tackle the situation and to cool the overheated black market, the Egyptian Central Bank decided to devalue the Egyptian pound by 13 percent and to sell $198 million to commercial lenders at 8.85LE, from its previous level of 7.73LE.

The Cairo stock exchange, along with financial analysts, was jubilant at the news, recording its largest single-day rise, of 7%, since July 2013, and ending the week a massive 14% up.

However, the effect on Egypt’s long-suffering poor and vulnerable will be far less benign – their underpaid labour has also been devalued.

“Egypt’s poor are enduring the brunt of Egypt’s economic crisis,” observes Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in a reference to the high inflation, removal of subsidies, and increased unemployment which have corroded living standards. “The devaluation will undoubtedly increase the cost of certain essential goods, particularly food.”

Continued and worsening hardship for the masses is also bound to hurt the regime. Support for President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was predicated on his much-hyped capacity to bring Egypt to a safe port of stability and prosperity.

So far, the Sisi regime has demanded of ordinary Egyptians to tighten their belts, while cushioning the wealthy, has given activists and critics a royal belting, and has been unable to keep a rein on spiralling terrorism and insurgency. In addition, despite escalating repression, industrial action continues to sweep across the country (Arabic).

And this disaffection and instability is only bound to grow if the regime delivers only immense pain and no gain.

The Central Bank’s devaluation and loosening of the official exchange rate may not be enough to salvage the situation if Egyptians continue to face dollar shortages and if those receiving remittances from abroad find better prices on the black market, argues Kaldas.

Central Bank Governor Tarek Amer has vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the currency market in check.

However, the early signs were not promising. Despite the devaluation and dollar injections, the Egyptian pound weakened on the black market, reaching 9.55LE to the dollar shortly after the devaluation, while the devaluation is further fuelling a property bubble. In early April, it stood at 10.30LE, according to Reuters, though the official rate has remained stable at 8.78LE.

This has led financial analysts to expect further cuts in the official rate, with the attendant pain it will cause ordinary Egyptians. JP Morgan forecasts that the Egyptian pound will be devalued by a total of 35%this year, with a projected inflation of 14%.

And as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world umpteen times in the past, from Argentina to Germany, the situation could easily spiral out of control, if these measures elicit panic rather than confidence, or if speculators run the pound into the ground.

Beyond Egypt’s specific economic woes and poor governance, this points at a deeper, wider malaise: how the global trading system is stacked and loaded against smaller economies.

The main reason Egypt and other countries suffer from “dollar crises” is because the US dollar is the world’s dominant reserve currency and the main medium of international trade, though the euro has closed the gap in recent years.

Obliging smaller and poorer economies to trade in the dollar and other reserve currencies makes them vulnerable to the whims of the currency markets and forex speculators.

In addition, the dollar and euro distort trade in favour of the United States and Europe, enabling them to import and borrow far more cheaply than their fundamentals should allow.

But there are downsides for top-dog economies, such as making their exports less competitive and the inevitable trade deficits caused by the “Triffin Dilemma”. The unnaturally low cost of credit has played a central role in the US’s dangerously high public debt – on which it has come perilously close to defaulting – and contributed to the US subprime crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis.

The solution to this, in my humble view, is the introduction of a single global currency for the purposes of international trade. This would help remove the volatility of currency markets, end speculation, eliminate the currency black markets, and even the global economic playing field.

This is not a new idea. John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist, proposed just such a currency as the lynchpin of the post-war economic order, but was torpedoed by American opposition. Following the volatility and crises which have afflicted the global economy in recent years, China, Russia and other emerging powers have also called for just such currency reform.

A world trading currency would not only help stabilise and boost the global economy, it would also reduce the social fallout caused by dollar shortages and the immense inflationary pressures they create.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 28 March 2016.

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Bombing ISIS in Syria will not tackle extremism in Brussels

 
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By Khaled Diab

Rather than airstrikes against the Islamic State (ISIS), Belgium should strike at the root causes of homegrown extremism.

Bruxelles est (Re)belle. Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Bruxelles est (Re)belle.
Miguel Discart https://www.flickr.com/people/miguel_discart_vrac/

Tuesday 5 April 2016

When we moved from Europe back to the Middle East, some of our Belgian friends who were unfamiliar with the region were worried about us and expressed concern for our safety.

So it felt bizarre that my wife and I found ourselves checking on the well-being of friends in Belgium after the terrorist attacks at Brussels airport and in the capital’s metro system, which claimed at least 31 lives and left another 330 injured, some in critical condition. To add to the irony, colleagues and friends in Gaza, who have more than enough on their plates, contacted my wife to check that her family was all right.

The scenes of the destruction and slaughter seemed almost unreal when juxtaposed against the casual, everyday mundanity with which I have used both hubs over the years. However, although the onslaught was shocking, it was sadly not surprising, especially following the Paris attacks in November of last year. “We feared a terrorist attack, and it occurred,” declared the Belgian premier Charles Michel solemnly.

Brussels is, after all, not only the capital of Belgium, it is also the unofficial capital of the European Union and hosts NATO’s headquarters. It is also home to a pool of disillusioned and marginalised young Muslims who can be preyed upon by jihadist recruiters.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the fear is palpable, even for those who are determined not to allow terror to guide their lives. “It’s not easy not to have fear,” one Belgian admitted to me, “and I try not to fear, just love.”

Belgium’s Muslim minority is not only fearful of the terrorists but also the almost inevitable backlash from the mainstream. “It was always a dream for me to have a [trendy] beard,” recalls Hassan Al Hilou, a 16-year-old Iraqi-Belgian student and entrepreneur who has started up an online platform for youth. “But I am scared of my own hair and scared of my own name.”

Syrian refugees are also feeling the heat. “I have escaped from a war zone and now I am feeling threatened just walking down the street.” one refugee who has received threats was quoted as saying.

In addition to the solidarity, defiance and soul-searching has come the inevitable finger pointing, with reports of suspected intelligence failures and bungling, which prompted Justice Minister Jan Jambon to try to tender his resignation.

However, it is easy to find fault and condemn in hindsight, as happened previously in the United States after the 11 September attacks, or in Paris, London and Madrid, amongst others. But, at the end of the day, even after all the precautions are taken, determined killers will eventually locate a weakness or gap to exploit. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Belgium’s defence.

Some criticism is also agenda-driven. It seems to have become almost routine for governments and interest groups to seize on every terror attack to roll back civil liberties and trample on our privacy.

The EU’s counter-terrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove hinted at this in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre when he urged European representatives to “never let a good crisis go to waste”. And true enough, Kerchove pounced on the Brussels bombings to try to blast through controversial legislation on airline passenger data.

This tendency has me and many others who value our hard-won freedoms worried. “We are gradually moving towards a state in which our security will come at a heavy price,” says my friend Jan, despite his concern about extremist activity in his neighbourhood, Molenbeek, an area of Brussels dubbed as “jihad central” by the more sensationalist segments of the media. “I hate the voices who say that it is either freedom or security.”

Just as occurred with the Front National in France following the Paris attacks, the latest atrocities have provided Belgium’s faltering far-right with a surge in support, with its ripple effects empowering everyone from Geert Wilders in neighbouring Holland to Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

The anti-immigrant Vlaams Belang claims that its support has grown by 25% since the attacks while the fringe white supremacist Voorpost says its membership doubled in just three days. Vlaams Belang’s leader Tom Van Grieken has already seized on the opportunity to demand a “water-tight” border policy and the “preventive detention” of known Islamic extremists, which sounds like far-right code for harassing Muslims.

Later, the far-right party went further to demand the reintroduction of the death penalty for Muslim terrorists and their accomplices (but preusambly not for non-Muslim ones) and, like Trump across the Atlantic, the VB wants to ban foreign Muslims from entering Belgium.

But some are hopeful that the combined power of young Muslim and mainstream moderates of the divide can overcome the religious and racial supremacists. “I believe in this generation,” insists Hassan Al Hilou. “We know how to accept everyone and their cultures, how to live together with love and not with hate.”

For its part, the Belgian government immediately unveiled plans to resume airstrikes against ISIS targets, as if bombing Syria or Iraq would somehow de-radicalise extremists in Brussels.

As I’ve argued in before, the government’s fixation on security and the “war on terrorism” diverts vital resources from the policies that would prevent the homegrown terrorist threat, which draws on the alienation, disenchantment, exclusion and marginalisation felt by inner-city Muslim youth, making them softer targets for extremist brainwashing.

The way to deprive jihadist recruiters of a fresh supply of young people willing to die would be to give youth greater reasons to live, by promoting respectful integration and mutual tolerance, as well as investing in education and job creation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The National on 28 March 2015.

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The ‘Brexit’ handicap

 
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By Raya Al-Jadir

Leaving the EU could be catastrophic for disabled Britons, yet little attention has been given to their needs or their voices.

Brexit disabled

Wednesday 23 March 2016

Britain leaving the European Union would have “harmful” and “dire” consequences for disabled people, according to two of the first leading disabled figures to speak out on June’s referendum.

The UK will decide whether to leave the EU in a referendum on 23 June, but very little has been said publicly, especially by the government, about the potential impact of this vote on disabled people.

Deborah King, co-founder of Disability Politics UK, criticised the campaigns both for and against Brexit for failing to spell out “what the impact of Brexit would be on disabled people”.

She said: “We need to know the effects on our income – for example, if the economy took a nosedive, would we be facing yet more cuts?”

“Would there be a rush to also withdraw from the European Convention [on Human Rights] as well?” she added. “There are many unanswered questions.”

Another disabled campaigner who has spoken out is Miro Griffiths, a former government advisor and project officer for the European Network on Independent Living, and now a lecturer, researcher and teacher.

He said he believed that Britain’s exit from the EU “would have dire consequences for disabled people”.

Griffiths said the EU could be criticised on many issues, such as its failure to implement strategies to protect refugees who enter Europe, but “disabled people’s life chances would certainly not improve if we were to leave”.

By remaining, he said, disabled people can continue to use existing EU frameworks and directives to “continually challenge our state and the power it exerts”.

He suggested that “sustained grassroots pressure” and “diplomatic dialogue” could lead to the EU challenging the damage caused by the UK government’s cuts to disabled people’s support.

Griffiths also said he feared that the “fetishism” of some Brexit supporters on the issue of UK “sovereignty” would lead to a post-Brexit UK government “imposing a concept of justice that reinforces and validates their actions, which will continue to oppress many groups”.

This could lead, he said, to disabled people becoming “voiceless – with reduced support from our European neighbours”.

Griffiths, a member of the British Council’s advisory panel on disability issues, said: “Many will argue that the EU is complacent in tackling the social injustice within many member states and I would agree with their analysis.”

But he added: “If we are isolated from our supporters in Europe, then our resistance towards the state is merely interpreted as disobedience.”

Another prominent disabled figure who has spoken out in favour of staying in the EU is the crossbench peer Lord Colin Low, who said: “I have no doubt that leaving the EU would be harmful to disabled people’s interests.”

“There have been many occasions when European legislation has been ahead of the UK’s or what the UK was prepared to deliver,” he noted.

Many disabled people’s organisations have not had the time or resources to prepare a position on Brexit, although Disability Rights UK has promised to release a statement before June’s referendum.

There has not been a disabled campaigner or user-led organisation in favour of Brexit, but two of the mainstream organisations campaigning to leave the EU commented briefly this week, although neither argued that there were benefits of Brexit that would solely apply to disabled people.

Jack Montgomery, a spokesman for Leave.EU, said: “We think that Brexit will be good for everyone in the UK.”

Edward Spalton, president of the Campaign for an Independent Britain, said: “Our view is that the UK’s own position on disability rights and practical support for disabled people is ahead of many EU countries. Of course, more can and will be done.”

“The EU has a policy with similar aims to that of the UK legislation but in many countries its implementation [is] less advanced in practice than in the UK,” he elaborated. “So the position for people with disabilities with regard to EU membership is broadly the same as for the whole population.”

But this is actually inaccurate. Due to our greater vulnerability than the general population, the consequences of a Brexit would be more serious. What would the impact be on assistants and carers recruited from other EU countries? How easy would be to travel abroad for health-related appointments? And many other unresolved question hang in the air.
The recent years of austerity have undermined the rights of people with disabilities. With the current government regarded by many disabled people as one that punishes the poor and vulnerable while helping the rich get richer, it is clear that whatever happens on 23 June, Britain’s disabled population’s battle with the Tories is set to escalate, and without the backing of the EU, we will be left alone to fight our corner.

 

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Syria: Return to a dying land

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek/DELO

As Europe turns its back on refugees, Syrians who can’t afford the “luxury” of fleeing are making the perilous journey back to their ruined homeland.

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger. Photo: © Elio Germani

Syrian refugees in Turkey cross back into Syria, placing their lives in grave danger.
Photo: © Elio Germani

Monday 7 March 2016

On the Saturday morning when the ceasefire in Syria came into effect, a weeping woman slowly approached the Turkish-Syrian border crossing Bab al Salama (Oncupinar) near Kilis. She was carrying a little girl, wrapped up in a heavy blanket. For an hour, she begged the Turkish policemen to allow her back into her broken land before she gave up.

Her aim was to take her visibly depleted and painfully pale little girl to the hospital in Azaz, located a mere four kilometres from the border. Yet the Turkish men refused to let her pass. The woman kept crying and stroking the poor girl, who soon passed away in her hands. It was only then that the Turks allowed her to cross the border.

To avoid the possible consequences.

___

Right before the border with Syria, the Turkish army vehicles turned off the main road leading to Aleppo. The blue sky above nearby Azaz was empty, violated neither by Russian jets nor the regime’s bombers. For the moment, it was also clear of Turkish Army artillery fire, which had been inflicting a week’s worth of heavy pummelling on the members of the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. At the moment, the border into Syria was open only to a number of heavy trucks flying the insignia of various Turkish and Qatari humanitarian organisations. The drivers were frightened. One of the vehicles was filled with bread ovens. Lone refugees or couples were trickling in from the Syrian side, having set off from the refugee camps located between Azaz and the border.

Large bands of refugees were resting on the grassland near the border. The majority of these were really extended families, mostly children, all of them absolutely clueless as to where or whom to turn to next. A few goats and a decrepit-looking horse were grazing close by. The Turkish policemen were simply biding their time, gazing at the sky. From the look of things, accidental visitor could be easily forgiven for failing to notice he or she had just come up on one of the Syrian conflict’s most important frontlines.

“I come from a village north of Aleppo. My youngest daughter was killed last week in a regime air raid. I buried her back home in Syria and then ran away along with the rest of my family. I myself was wounded, too – my head had been hurt,” I was told by a man named Ibrahim, who pointed to the blood-soaked rags on his head. He had received medical assistance in the hospital located in the Turkish town of Kilis, where the population had more than doubled since the beginning of the Syrian war. Over the past five years of armed conflict, the far from affluent Kilis has absorbed more than 120,000 refugees and has done its best to accommodate them in a decent and humane fashion. This is the reason why the town is one of this year’s candidates for the Nobel peace prize.

“They took really good care of me. But now I have to return to the refugee camp on the Syrian side. My entire family is there,” Ibrahim clarified. From his shrapnel-nicked face, it was clear he was lucky to be alive. His humble ambition was somehow to find a place for himself and his family in Turkey, but the chances of that were looking exceedingly grim.

Turkey is hosting more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees. Last week, 35,000 refugees arrived at the Oncupinar crossing in the space of 48 hours. Suleyman Tapsiz, the local governor on the Turkish side of the border, claims Kilis and the neighbouring towns will not be able to take them in. “Our doors are not closed. But there is no need to let these people into Turkey right now,” he said. Some 140,000 people are currently stuck between Azaz and the border. Should Aleppo fall, which could happen quite soon, at least 600,000 more are expected to bolt for Turkey in a matter of days.

Even a few days ago, it looked like the Turkish army was about to take control of the area between the border crossing and Azaz, thereby preventing the strategically vital town from falling into the hands of the YPG. Without doubt, that would have been a horrendous strategic blunder, triggering a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions. According to our sources, the Turkish government has opted to take “a time out” for now – mostly on account of all the pressure exerted by both the EU and the United States, especially since NATO is as yet unwilling to risk a military showdown with Russia. If the Turkish forces were to take over Azaz, such a showdown would become an inevitability.

The border is still being crossed by humanitarian convoys, merchants, those refugees who can no longer afford to stay in Turkey and members of certain rebel groups supported by Turkey. I managed to talk to some of the fighters who were waiting at the border to be readmitted to Syria. Two of them, both 18, were from the Free Syria Army (FSA), And on their way back to the front north of Aleppo after having spent the previous 10 days in a Turkish hospital. “We are under attack from all sides: ISIS, regime forces, Russian planes, and now the Kurds as well… We are all alone. No help is on the way. But we shall fight until the very end,” I was told by one of these two young fighters, who refused to tell me his name. He did relate that his family was living in Turkey, yet despite all his injuries, his only wish was to return to the frontlines as soon as possible: “My friends are dying. I am fighting for my homeland.”

After the regime’s forces and Russian planes cut off the supply lines to Aleppo, a few hundred members of various Syrian rebel groups entered Syria from Turkey. They have done so with Ankara’s official support. The Turkish authorities are desperately trying to prevent the fall of Azaz because it would mean all the Kurd-dominated areas in the north of Syria would become connected into something resembling a unified whole. In addition, the fall of Azaz would almost certainly spell the fall of Aleppo, the Syrian conflict’s decisive battlefield.

Quite the privilege

On the Turkish side of the border, about a hundred people, mostly civilians, arrived to wait to be readmitted into Syria each day. Many of them are wounded or seriously ill, their lack of funds forcing them to return home after a brief stay in one of the Turkish public hospitals. Most of the ones I talked to were not returning to their homes but rather to some form or another of temporary lodgings. As far as the world’s attention is concerned, the heart-wrenching misery of the people who had lost their homes and remained in Syria is almost forgotten. Yet inside the ransacked land, almost half of the population is currently not living at their normal addresses. These are the people who cannot afford to flee – not even to Turkey, let alone the European Union. One of the great modern ironies is that, in some quarters, being a refugee is now justly considered quite the privilege.

A number of utterly exhausted people were standing in front of the metal-wire barrier on the Turkish side of the border, waiting to be allowed to pass into their homeland. Among them, two glassy-eyed little boys were sitting on the concrete floor. Their heads were seemingly turning uncontrollably, their eyes darting hectically all over the place. It was obvious they had been profoundly traumatised and were in urgent need of medical assistance. All they had on them was one plastic bag each. The others were simply ignoring them.

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria. Photo: © Elio Germani

Mohamed Rahmo and his blinded son, Mustafa, on their way back to Syria.
Photo: © Elio Germani

While on the Syrian side more than 100,000 people staying in refugee camps were hoping to be allowed to enter Turkey as soon as possible, a man named Mohamed Rahmo was trying to convince his 16-year-old son to get up and rejoin the line of those waiting to return to Syria. Tears were streaking down Rahmo’s cheeks, yet his son Mustafa remained seated, his gaze aggressively pointed to the ground. He kept hiding his face away from the light.

A little over a month ago, a Russian air raid on their small village north of Aleppo had cost Mustafa his left eye, while the right one has been severely damaged. His entire face was covered in burns. His father decided to take him to Turkey – back then, the border was still open. Mustafa underwent surgery at the public hospital in Gaziantep, but the operation was not a success. Soon after he lost the sight in his right eye as well. His father then took him to a private doctor who told them the only procedure capable of saving the eye would cost $4,000. By then, the two of them were penniless, and their only recourse was to return to Syria.

“We have to get home. I need to take care of my family. The bombing raids have cost us everything we had. Our house is badly damaged. It is so horrible, but there is nothing I can do for Mustafa. We are so poor. We cannot even afford to remain in Turkey. How could we possibly press on to Europe? We cannot afford to buy bread. Yesterday was the last time we had something to eat. We are starving,” Mohamed Rahmo recounted with a heavy heart.

With a visible effort Mustafa finally stood up. Still staring at the ground, he broke into sobs and placed himself in the queue, where most of the people were not at all eager for conversation. They were patiently waiting to be allowed to be readmitted into a war zone.

Neighbouring on ISIS

A concrete wall and a small minefield are what now separates two formerly closely connected towns, the Turkish Karkamis and the Syrian Jarablous. Today, this artificial border is one of the most unusual – and dangerous – ones in the world.

The Syrian side is controlled by ISIS fighters. At the moment, the Islamic State also controls another 50km of the Turkish border stretching westward. As far as Turkey is concerned, this area forms a sort of buffer zone with no armed Syrian Kurdish presence. For some time now, members of the YPG have been trying to gain control of Jarblous, but the town is still firmly controlled by the Sunni extremist militia. The area east of the town, on the other hand, is controlled by the Kurds.

Up until the end of last year, the border was rather peaceful. From 2012 on, a hundred people or more were crossing it daily in both directions without major problems. Many of them were foreign fighters aiming to join the various insurgent groups in the north of Syria. Some of them were certainly crossing the border to join ISIS. The part of the border stretching between Karkamis and Kilis was the most porous segment of the more than 900-km-long border between Turkey and Syria.

The conditions started to deteriorate when Turkey officially entered the war against ISIS. This, it is worth remembering, was after a long period of what some have termed “Turkish active passivity” which enabled the terrorist militia to grow in strength.

It certainly holds true that, for a while, Ankara had found the Islamic State activities quite useful. But then things began to change. A series of suicide bombing attacks came to pass, and the geo-strategic situation grew more complicated as well. Turkey suddenly found itself in a rather unenviable position. At the same time, the Kurdish question was reopened, and in a rather spectacular way.

The Turkish authorities’ first move was to shut the border with Syria, then to send in heavy military reinforcements, while placing kilometres and kilometres of concrete walls and barbed wire along the frontier. As numerous watchtowers rose up to the sky, the closing of the border severely hurt the prospects of the Syrian civilians trying to flee the war crimes perpetrated by all sides. Tens of thousands of people remained trapped on the Syrian side of the border, while some 100,000 Syrians are currently staying at Karkamis and the neighbouring refugee camps.

On the other side of the border, the members of ISIS have set up minefields to shield themselves from any possibility of Turkish incursions. To the Islamic State, Jarablous has become a key strategic operation. The only question is why the almost 70 countries which make up the coalition against ISIS are so reluctant to attack the positions of extreme Islamists around theis small town which has been deserted by most of its civilian population.

At the end of January, Karkamis saw the first direct clash between ISIS and the Turkish state. The ISIS fighters began to fire at the Turkish soldiers who had come to clear the minefield. Several gunshells came crashing down on the small impoverished Turkish town. The Turkish army responded by deploying tanks. A few days later, the Turkish security forces captured a group of people from Jarblous trying to illegally cross the border. They were equipped with suicide-bomber belts and headed for Gaziantep, located about an hour’s drive from the border.

Since then, Karkamis, situated in the immediate vicinity of the Euphrates river, the region’s key water resource, has been plunged into a state of turmoil. The residents live in constant fear of new ISIS attacks and the Syrian war spreading to the Turkish territory. The entire town has become militarised. Police cars are patrolling its every silent and dusty street, and if you are a foreign visitor, your every step is closely monitored if not actively hindered.

Streets apart

“Life here is extremely hard. You have to be on the lookout all the time,” I was told by Merwan Kaya in his small kebab shop. A year ago, Kaya escaped from Jarablous to Karkamis. “You see that street over there? If you were to follow it to the railway station, you would reach the place where my old shop used to be. The spot is precisely 400 meters away from where we are standing now. It’s incredible, isn’t it? When the Islamic State took over Jarablus, things changed. My store was destroyed, and I was forced to flee to Aleppo and then to Karkamis. Now I am a refugee who lives two streets away from his former home.”

As he recounted his tale, Kaya brewed us tea while his two sons prepared the food. There are not very many inns in Karkamis, so the talkative Syrian was quite pleased with his earnings. “Over here, a kebab costs about six times what it costs in Syria,” he laughed, right before answering the phone. The call was from his daughter, checking in after a lengthy period of time. At the moment, she was living in Latakia, a Syrian coastal town and regime fortress.

The streets in the centre of the border town were almost deserted. Up until the fighting broke out, the residents hadn’t really been all that trouble by the ISIS presence only a shot away. Less than 200m now separate the population of Karkamis from the ISIS positions, and many expect their town will become yet another frontline in the Syrian conflict, which is evidently entering its decisive phase.

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Lesbos: “No matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them”

 
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By Boštjan Videmšek, DELO

Despite the massive efforts of volunteer lifeguards, refugees are losing their lives in the Mediterranean. Europe must act… and out of compassion.

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives. Photo: ©Elio Germani

These conscientious and courageous lifeguards take time off work to volunteer to save lives.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Still shivering with the cold even in the golden foil they’d been wrapped in, two young Afghan girls were having a lively chat. Their mother was gazing out to the sea, mostly back towards Turkey, which they had departed two hours earlier on a grey dinghy.

Some 20km from the shores of Lesbos, the grey rubber boat’s engine had given out. The boat started rapidly filling up with water, but fortunately the passengers were spotted by the staffof the Spanish NGO Proactiva Open Arms. All of its members are experienced lifeguards, veterans of Catalonian and Basque beaches. Almost routinely, they set out and made sure the three rubber boats reached the small port in the picturesque village of Skala Skaminies, where at least 20 lifeguards from all over the world are currently stationed.

“It is cold, but I’m very relieved. We were getting desperate, but now we’re finally safe. I am so grateful to the people who came to rescue us,” smiled a black-garbed elderly lady from Douma, one of the quarters in Damascus hit hardest by the war. Madam S has lost both her sons to the conflict. On her long journey to Lesbos, she was accompanied by her grandchildren and the widow of her eldest son. They had seen and experienced it all. They were visibly exhausted and not up to a long conversation.

“We just want to get safe. We’re hoping Europe will take us in,” shrugged the younger of the two boys while fiddling with a pile of fake life-jackets. Most of these deadly fakes, it should be noted, had actually been made by Syrian children in garage factories all along the Turkish coast. Right now, the Syrian children are the ones who can provide the dirt-cheapest labour to be found.

Proactively saving lives

"The worst part is when you have to decide who you're going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.” Photo: ©Elio Germani

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown… no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

On Lesbos, countless NGOs and volunteers are toiling without pause to contain the tidal wave of human tragedy. But no matter how hard they try, it is never enough. The migrants and refugees keep dying on a massive scale.

“We’re all trying to the best of our abilities,” a thickly bearded man named Joaquim Acedo told me as we stood out in the cold winter sun. “Most mornings, we are already at sea by six when the first boats start coming in. Our first and only objective is to save lives. As for politics, it is not something I care to think about. I’ve got no time for that.”

But Acedo added an important afterthought. “Reaching Lesbos from Turkey by regular ferry costs €10 and is absolutely safe. Getting here by rubber boat costs €1,200 and can easily cost you your life.”

Acedo is the co-ordinator of the hi-tech Spanish rescue team. Proactiva Open Arms has certainly risen to the occasion.  “There’s quite a lot of us: Sea-Watch, Greenpeace, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the Portuguese coast guard, the Greek coast guard, Frontex, the American,” the tired young man explained. “We’re co-ordinating our efforts as best we can and pushing our limits every day. But we really can use all the help we can get. Especially now, with the weather improving and more and more people pouring in every day.”

This was Joaquim Acedo’s second tour on Lesbos since Proactiva joined the action in September. Each team normally serves for 15 days, then its members go home utterly exhausted. All of them are participating on a purely voluntary basis, which means that the ones with regular jobs have to use up their vacation in order to be allowed to save lives.

“The worst part is when you have to decide who you’re going to save and who is going to be left to drown,” Acedo added somberly. »Sometimes there are 40 people in the water, all of them screaming for their lives. And no matter what you do, no matter how hard you swim, you can never save all of them.”

No compassion without direct action

Last year alone, almost 450,000 people entered the EU through Lesbos – almost half of everyone who reached the Greek Islands through Turkey. Lesbos, one needs to keep in mind, is an island with some 90,000 residents and an exceptionally weak humanitarian infrastructure. Despite all that, it is now the EU’s key entry point for migrants and refugees.

As things stand, there is almost no EU presence on the island, if we discount Frontex, the EU agency for securing the union’s external borders. In the months to come, the Frontex personnel’s jurisdiction is sure to widen considerably. The EU’s main “strategic” answer to the humanitarian tragedy is to strengthen its outer border, especially the border with Turkey. A part of this “solution” was the recent deal with the Turkish authorities to take on most of the responsibility for the incoming migrants and refugees. The sum handed over to Ankara by the European Union was €3 billion.

Last year, around 350 people drowned on the perilous trip from Turkey to Greece – enough of them so that a new location for a graveyard had to be found in Mytilini since there was no more room in the old one. This year, 70 souls have already been lost to the journey. This particular crime against humanity is only getting worse.

On the day I visited their venerable operation, the Spanish lifeguards saved more than 50 lives – lives that the European political elites and European public opinion increasingly perceive as a threat to their Christian way of life.

“But how can this be? Such a view is absolutely unacceptable to a Christian,” exclaimed Father Christophoris, an Orthodox priest who I sat down with in a smoke-filled café in the nearby mountain village of Sikaminia. Almost 14 years ago, Kristoforis himself had made the long journey here all the way from California. This is why he now considers helping the migrants and the refugees to be the focus of his life’s mission as a priest.

“The refugees have been coming here to Lesbos for 15 years now,” he explained to me over a steaming cup of coffee. “First from Afghanistan, then from Iraq, and now from Syria. Our duty is to help them as much as we can. All of us could be in their place but for the grace of God. This is our chance to choose between being good and being evil – it is as simple and straightforward as that. There is nothing more Christian than helping out a fellow human being. It is a sacred duty of each and every one of us. And it is also at the core of this great humanistic culture the EU is founded on, at least in principle.”

This remarkable blond-haired holy man is now at the heart of refugee relief co-ordination on the northern part of the island. The last time there was such an influx of desperate souls in these parts was in 1921 and 1922, when many Greeks were on the run from Turkey. They, too, had been very much a burden to the locals.

“There is no compassion without direct action,” father Christophoris informed me with a wistful smile. “And that is why the contribution of all the volunteers and the locals here has been priceless. They have come here from Greece and from all around the world, and they replaced the state. They clearly demonstrated precisely what needs to be done. They have done what was humanly possible to preserve the face of civilisation.”

The warmth of a cold reception

Cold in Moria. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Cold in Moria.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Most of the people at the Moria refugee camp were shivering, some of them uncontrollably. On this day, the entire heart of the Mediterranean was wretchedly cold. The nearby mountain peaks had recently been whitened with snow, making the refugees’ journey even more ardous.

Wrapped in swathes of golden foil and blueish blankets, the refugees were very grateful for each cup of hot tea handed out by the volunteers. The children kept clinging to each other as the women wrapped themselves tight in their shawls and headscarfs. The men were seeking out what information they could get on how to continue with their journey. Most of them were disheartened to find out that, owing to a shipworkers strike, all the ferries to Piraeus had been cancelled. For a while, all they could do was stare at their cellphones while trying to come up with a plan B.

I was approached by a man named Said, hailing from the greater Aleppo region. “We’re so cold,” he told me. “How much longer will we have to stay here? Is it true that Germany has already closed its borders to the refugees?”

Said had reached Lesbos early that morning, accompanied by his wife, six sons and three daughters. The eleven of them formed a close huddle. Freezing half to death, most of them did not much feel like talking. They’d had to wait nine days to cross from Turkey to Greece. They borrowed most of the money they needed to reach Europe from their relatives. They have no idea how they will be able to repay them.

“We are running for our lives. We were hoping to remain in Syria, but it was not possible. Things get worse there every day. I had to protect my children,” Said explained his predicament. Unlike many of his fellow refugees aiming for Germany or Sweden, this hollow-cheeked man with an understandably distracted look in his eyes didn’t really care where his flight would deliver him. “All we want is to be safe. We simply want to find a place where we will not be bombed every day.”

Closing the borders

“I spent a great deal of this summer connected to the internet and watching footage of our people being warmly greeted in Germany,” Farouk confided. “And so I eventually decided to set out myself. I knew that if I remained in Syria, I would almost certainly be murdered. I don’t have any powerful friends on either side. I’ve also been against the war from the beginning. But I couldn’t leave my parents, could I? They were the ones who suggested I should join one of the refugee groups headed for Turkey.”

I was talking to Farouk under a metal awning in Mytilini, where he and some comrades had sought shelter from the icy rain. The men were sifting through their options. They had no money to sleep in a hotel, and the combination of the rain, the cold and their utter exhaustion was preventing them from walking back the 15km to the refugee camp.

After a while, a few stray dogs entered our grimy resting place. The Syrian youths twitched in something quite akin to panic, so the freezing animals took flight and retreated under a nearby staircase.

The distance between the comfort zone and the bottom of the food chain is so often a matter of geographical and temporal coincidence.

Farouk proved exceptionally well-informed about every aspect of the so-called Balkan refugee route. On leaving home, he knew that his chances of securing a new life in Europe were much slimmer than they would have been a few months ago. But staying put would have meant a much graver risk. The fact that Farouk hailed from Syria certainly increases his chances of breaking through to where he wants to go. But the chances of him actually being granted asylum are slim to none.

The European (anti-)refugee and (anti-)migrant policies are degenerating by the hour. Within EU territory, several hundred thousand refugees have been waiting for months to enter the job market. Even Germany, having set an example by opening its doors wide open, eventually decided to reach for the handbrake.

In many ways, it is little wonder. The Merkel administration is facing ever-more bitter opposition from within the ranks of its own party. The German open-door policy is irrevocably over. As a consequence, the Balkan refugee route is closing down.

Last Tuesday, the Austrian authorities decided only 37,500 people would be allowed to apply for asylum this year. The regime at the Austrian-Slovenian border, where for the past three months the Schengen arrangements have become but a wistful memory, is sure to get even stricter than it is today.

In the weeks and months to come, the Germans will start returning thousands of people to Austria, while the Austrians are bound to start funneling them off to the small barricaded country of Slovenia. At the same time, the Macedonian authorities have temporarily closed their Greek border at Gevgelija. As early as last autumn, the Macedonians at the border with Greece had begun to turn back the refugees who were not from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan.

According to our information, there is a rather substantial chance of them soon sealing the border entirely. The way things stand, the most likely scenario is that the brunt of the burden will once again fall on the economically ransacked Greece. Brussels, which recently sold its share of responsibility for the refugees to increasingly unstable Turkey, is about to re-sacrifice Greece at the altair of its own short-sighted interests.

From here to the final rise of the neo-Nazi movements like the Golden Dawn is but a short step. The anti-refugee sentiment has become the European state of mind. This is true both at the level of the increasingly xenophobic public opinion and at the level of the political elites, which have finally been freed from wearing the masks of political correctness. This not only pertains to the former communist parts of Europe, but also to countries like Switzerland and Denmark, where on arrival the refugees are now stripped of a part of their assets.

“We will never go back”

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children. Photo: ©Elio Germani

Contrary to popular rightwing myth, the majority of people waiting to board the boat were women and children.
Photo: ©Boštjan Videmšek

Last Friday night, several thousand people were waiting in the icy wind at the Mytilini port to get a ferry to Pireaus and Kavala. Due to a long shipworker strike, some 3,800 refugees were stranded on the island. Around 65% of them were women and children.

All over the port, the refugees were seeking relief from the savage cold. Very few of them were appropriately dressed for such arctic conditions. Some of them were forced to wait out in the cold for five hours or more. Almost none of them felt like talking. The only thing they were interested in was the hour when the two ferries were scheduled to leave.

Three Afghan youths had managed to set fire to a garbage heap and were now standing beside it to keep warm. They had been on the road for 30 days. “We will never go back. All three of us have borrowed money to get here. We first have to work hard to pay it back – only then can we start taking care of ourselves and our families. I want to work in the computing industry,” said 19-year-old Reza from Kabul.

The half a dozen Greek policemen in charge ordered the great mass of freezing refugees to form three long columns. The two enormous ships were not set to leave for another two hours.

By the time the refugees were finally allowed to board, most of them were so tired and cold they were unable to feel any joy. It was as if they were all too aware of what awaited them on the remainder of their Balkan journey.

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ISIS and the mash of civilisations

 
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By Khaled Diab

Counterintuitive as it may sound, ISIS is proof that the clash of civilisations is a myth. The reality is that interests clash, while cultures mix.

Thursday 26 November 2015

When the Islamic State (ISIS) claimed responsibility for the atrocities which took place in Paris, its message was sprinkled with references to “a faithful group of the soldiers of the Caliphate” who attacked “Crusaders” in Paris, a city described as the “the carrier of the banner of the Cross”.

This has added fuel to the notion that a monumental battle between Islamism, or even Islam, and the West is underway. “Islamist fundamentalism must be annihilated,” said the far-right Front National’s leader Marine Le Pen who is previously alleged to have compared Muslims praying on the street to the Nazi occupation of France.

Almost inevitably, with the precision of a Swiss timepiece, some evoked the late Samuel P Huntington. “This is not a grievance-based conflict,” opined Republican presidential hopeful, Senator Marco Rubio. “This is a clash of civilisations, for they do not hate us because we have military assets in the Middle East.”

Although ISIS undoubtedly hates Christians and other non-Muslims with a passion and believes in just such a clash, buried amid its jihadist rhetoric of fighting the “infidel” is a clear indication that the choice of Paris as a target was largely motivated by France’s “military assets” in Syria.

“The smell of death will never leave their noses as long as they lead the convoy of the Crusader campaign.. and are proud of fighting Islam in France and striking the Muslims in the land of the Caliphate with their planes,” ISIL’s statement mentioned above expressed explicitly.

This highlights how clashes of interests, far more than ideology, inform “foreign policy”, even of a fanatical, ideologically driven group like ISIS.

Since its inception, ISIS’s “jihad” has been about territory politically and resources, economically. Ideologically, its main enemy has been what it regards as errant Muslims who are worse than the “infidel”, in ISIS’s reckoning, because they claim to belong to Islam but walk the path of “kufr” or “unbelief”.

Despite ISIS’s horrendous and merciless persecution and ethnic cleansing of minorities, such as Yazidis and Christians, in numerical terms, its main victims, like those of most jihadist and violent Islamist groups, have been fellow Muslims.

In fact, a kind of global war is in motion, both in Syria and elsewhere, between ISIS, al-Qaeda and other jihadist outfits, each of which considers the others to be Godless and not true to Islam, whereas their real motivation is greed for power and influence, and envy of one another’s “successes”.

This was illustrated in the assassination by al-Qaeda-allied al-Nusra Front of Abu Ali al-Baridi, the commander of the ISIS-affiliated al-Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade. In a statement about the killing, al-Nusra placed al-Baridi firmly outside the community of believers.

In a similar vein, the latest attack in Paris may have partly been spurred by the rivalry between the world’s two leading jihadist groups. With al-Qaeda claiming the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, ISIS may have been seeking to one-up its bitter rival’s grim record.

To my mind, this highlights the oft-overlooked clash within civilisations, which I believe far outweighs, in terms of ferocity, intensity, passion, and sheer carnage the clash between Islam and Christendom. This can be witnessed in the conflicts in the contemporary Middle East, as well as the traditional Sunni-Shia schism.

In Europe, this is visible in how, despite the fears of this or that society or culture bringing down the West (or Christendom before it), the two occasions in which European civilisation came close to annihilation – World War I and II – was due to internal ruptures and rivalries.

Ideologically, it is apparent in the numerous schisms within Christianity – between the Western and Eastern churches, or between Catholics and Protestants. These schisms enabled the early Islamic conquerors to easily overcome the Byzantines who were hated in, for example, Egypt, because Copts were regarded as “heretics”. During the Dutch Revolt, Protestants used the slogan “Liever Turksch dan Paus” (“Rather Turkish than Pope”).

In fact, despite the headline ideological conflict between Islam and Christendom, pragmatic and even friendly alliances have, for centuries, been forged across this divide. This can be seen in the long-lasting alliances the Ottomans forged with France and later Germany. This was also visible everywhere from Andalusia to the Crusader kingdoms to the Arab alliance with the British against the Turks or today’s longstanding US-Saudi axis.

Perhaps most significantly of all, and what gets left bleeding by the wayside in these polarised times, is what I like to call the “mash of civilisations”. Judaism, Christianity and Islam have so influenced each other, over the centuries, and been influenced by the same traditions, including Greco-Roman and Mesopotamian, that it is impossible to speak of them as separate civilisations.

They are sub-groups of a single civilisation, and the diversity within each is greater than the differences between them. And it is by recognising and highlighting this mash of cultures that we can combat the divisive ideologies propagated by the fanatics in our midst.

The Middle East and the West belong to the same Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, which is merely a subset of human civilisation.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 16 November 2015.

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The Brussels connection: Turning the tide on radicalisation

 
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By Christian Nielsen

Belgium says it is working to combat radicalisation in Brussels. But is it doing enough to counter jihadist narratives and address exclusion?

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels. Photo: ©Simon Blackley

A man stands in front of mural in inner-city Brussels.
Photo: ©Simon Blackley

Tuesday 17 November 2015

I almost felt sorry for Jan Jambon, Belgium’s Interior Minister, as he tried not to stand out too much during a joint press conference on 16 November with his French counterpart, Bernard Cazeneuve, in the wake of the Paris terror attacks last week.

But even if he could shrink by 30cm, there would be no hiding from the evidence that Belgium’s intelligence community may have dropped the ball… or were perhaps never in the game.

Belgium stands accused of being a “hotbed” for terrorists, or more euphemistically, disenfranchised Muslim youth, mostly in and around the poorer inner suburbs of Brussels, and that this is apparently not news to anyone in the intelligence community.

Only a few days before the Paris attacks, on 9 November, the Belgian interior minister claimed during POLITICO’s What Works event that Belgium was making some headway, citing its actions to shut down a terror cell in Vervier last January, and its awareness-raising efforts or “counter-narratives” for would-be youth thinking of, for example, joining ISIS. He said a tailored, one-to-one approach is more successful than top-down narratives like ads and internet campaigns.

He spoke to POLITICO’s Matt Kominski about the challenges he and the Belgian authorities face in dealing with ISIS fighters returning from Syria. Many don’t come back more hardened and angry, but rather feel “disgusted” at what they experienced. This, he suggested, is a useful counter-narrative weapon.

But the audience wasn’t buying it, asking why Belgium hadn’t put these young people on television or in internet ads as powerful, personal testimonials, or tried more mainstream approaches to stopping the momentum towards radicalisation, such as investing more in rejuvenating poor neighbourhoods and helping to integrate immigrant families better.

By his own admission, Mr Jambon said: “People think that mosques are the places of recruitment, but I think that today, most of the recruitment is done by the internet… The mosques were too moderate and they find their ‘truth’ on the internet.”

Then, as the saying goes, shouldn’t you fight fire with fire?  If the internet is the medium of choice for young people – and it clearly is – then well-meaning teachers and social workers are only going to have so much impact. The problem is, governments (not just in Belgium) are playing catch-up as they grapple to deal with the growth in online propaganda and extremism.

“Modern terrorists have embraced social media and ‘weaponised the internet’ to achieve their goals,” Mark Wallace, former US ambassador to the UN, told journalists at the Brussels launch of the European arm to the Counter Extremism Project (CEP) in July this year.

Yet Mr Jambon argued targeted messaging like that might lack credibility or come across as government propaganda. Maybe this is true, but it would at least send ‘a’ message, rather than leaving everything in the hands of overworked social workers in Brussels communes like Molenbeek, which has been identified as something of a ground zero for several incidents, including the recent Paris attacks and possibly the Jewish Museum murders in 2014 and the Thalys attempt last August.

Belgium’s Prime Minister Charles Michel said his government’s efforts until now have focused on prevention but that they now realise tougher measures are needed against jihadists returning from the battlefields in Syria and Iraq to Belgium.

But in Belgium sometimes it takes a shock event like the Paris attacks – and the extra heat Belgium is now getting from its neighbours who will no longer accept excuses – to galvanise its people and the authorities into action.

Mr Jambon acknowledged during the POLITICO event before the Paris attacks that Brussels was a hotspot for trouble (and it is reported at one point to have had more foreign fighters in Syria than any other European country per inhabitant). He said information-sharing between federal, regional and communal police forces is complicated, and that terrorism is a cross-border issue which only exacerbates matters. Indeed.

The Daily Beast confirms this fragmentation problem: “Security services in the city of Brussels have another significant issue: for a population of 1.3 million inhabitants, the local police force is divided up in six police corps spread over 19 boroughs. Sharing security information in that setting could only be complicated.”

In a piece about the role of the internet in dealing with terrorist extremism (‘Defusing the social media time bomb’), I wrote: “At some point, probably at the lowest ebb, enough people (digital natives presumably) will have had enough of their youthful innocence being stolen from them by radicals and extremists… murderers hiding behind a perverted cause. But have we reached the lowest ebb?”

That was back in July and I wrote that it already seemed like we had reached that point. But I was wrong. A new low water mark has been reached. Can we turn the tide before it gets any lower? I certainly hope so.

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The UN’s Insecurity Council

 
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By Khaled Diab

The UN Security Council has a long track record of failing to resolve conflicts. Now it is also in danger of bringing the major powers to blows.

UN SC

Wednesday 4 November 2015

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon’s recent surprise visit to Israel and Palestine followed fast on the heels of France’s efforts in the UN Security Council to issue a presidential statement in support of the deployment of international observers at the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and other holy sites in Jerusalem.

Such a flurry of activity by and within the UN is clearly intended to calm the violence that has been escalating for the past month. But even with the best intentions, does the UN in its current form have any capability or credibility in this conflict?

The French draft on international observers, by focusing on the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, above all gives credibility to the myth that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about religion – but it also confuses a symptom with the disease.

The Temple Mount is only a microcosm of the wider conflict and it is not where the greatest abuses occur. It would be far better and more useful if international observers were deployed across the occupied territories and in East Jerusalem to monitor the daily transgressions there.

Better still would be an international peacekeeping force, which would be good for both sides. For Palestinians, it would offer protection from Israel’s arbitrary and repressive military rule. For Israelis, it would provide security without the corrupting domestic influence of draconian militarism. For both sides, it could offer the breathing space required to rebuild bridges burnt over the past couple of decades.

However, it is near impossible that such an ambitious proposal would fly, if even the idea of proposing international guardian angels at Jerusalem’s holy sites is meeting with such stiff resistance.

Israel is adamantly opposed to the French proposal. “Israel is not the problem on the Temple Mount; it’s the solution. We maintain the status quo,” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu claimed defiantly.

And Israel, through its patron and ally, the United States, holds an effective veto over the UN. Washington has exercised its veto right, as one of the five permanent member of the Security Council, to shield Israel dozens of times, not to mention the threat, or fear, of a veto on numerous other occasions to stifle resolutions at their inception.

But it is not just the US that has exploited its veto power irresponsibly to undermine global and local security. Other permanent members have been similarly reckless.

Take Syria as an example. Moscow, along with Beijing, has vetoed four resolutions on Syria. Displaying a multilateralism of sorts, all five of the Security Council’s permanent members, either directly or indirectly, have been involved in the Syrian civil war.

Rather than working for the common global interest of, first, preventing, and now, ending the Syrian conflict, they have selfishly been pursuing their own perceived narrow national interests. Moreover, the Security Council’s failures do not just stop at the here and now. The council’s inability to defang conflict is legendary, with one of the most alarming examples being the Rwandan genocide.

This is partly because the Security Council’s architecture is not fit for purpose. Intended primarily to prevent global conflicts involving the major powers, it is ineffective in regional or proxy warfare.

The Security Council has arguably succeeded in this mission and, even during the Cold War, it helped prevent direct confrontation between the major powers of the capitalist and communist camps. However, they did, and continue to, engage in proxy conflicts, with Syria being the most notable current example.

Additionally, most conflicts today are local or regional ones, and so are difficult to defuse with this architecture, especially the incredibly problematic veto right, which blocks the ability for collective action if just one permanent member objects.

Moreover, we have reached a dangerous fork in the road. Nowadays the Security Council is in danger of magnifying, rather than dissipating, conflict, as its paralysis over Syria and the involvement of its permanent members in Syria demonstrates.

There is an urgent need to reform the UN’s architecture to make it a more effective force for global peace and stability.

A growing chorus of voices argue that the number of permanent members of the Security Council should be enlarged to reflect the contemporary reality of the world and to better include unrepresented regions. Candidates put forward include India, Brazil and the European Union.

However, an enlarged Security Council in which its new permanent members also exercised a veto would likely paralyze this body even more than it already is. It is my view that, with or without enlargement, the veto has to go.

Given the gravity and importance of the issues it deals with, a supermajority voting system could be established in which  a resolution would pass if, say, at least two-thirds of the 15 members of the Security Council (including the 10 temporary one).

However, this does little to address the fundamentally undemocratic and paternalistic nature of the Security Council, which effectively subordinates the will of the international community of nations to that of just five countries.

This can be addressed by making the Security Council subordinate to the General Assembly, and the executor of its will. Of course, for the current permanent members, who would have to agree unanimously to such a step, it would be tantamount to turkeys voting for Christmas.

In addition, if that kind of power is transferred to the General Assembly, larger countries would justifiably say that this unfairly discriminated against them. The UN’s current system of one country, one vote means that tiny Tuvalu, with a population of just under 11,000, carries as much weight as China’s 1.35 billion. This means that if the General Assembly were to start handling issues of international security directly, it would also need to be reformed, with a weighted voting system reflecting individual country’s populations – or the division of larger countries into voting regions, each of which would receive a seat at the UN.

Some small or pariah countries, such as Jewish Israel and Shia Iran, feel that the General Assembly has an intrinsic bias against them. Many Israelis are convinced Israel is held to a different standard.

Whether or not this view is accurate, such situations are possible. Just like a national democracy can turn into a dictatorship of the majority, the same can occur within an international democracy. Avoiding such eventualities would require a powerful constitution to govern the UN’s reformed security mandate and a “do no harm” philosophy.

But even if the Security Council were reformed to overcome its inertia, could it resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?

Many peace activists on both sides are convinced it could, while the Palestinian Authority and PLO have premised their global diplomatic strategy on the idea that the international community, represented by the UN, holds the keys to peace.

At a certain level, this is a valid point of view. Centralising the international response and rooting it in international law would, at the very least, remove the foreign meddling that created and fuels the conflict. At best, it would empower the international community to address the root causes fuelling the conflict. However, this would require a shift away from the long-deceased Oslo paradigm and towards a civil rights platform, identifying and empowering local partners who can build the popular support necessary to lead their peoples towards peaceful coexistence.

But even if the international community were able to act as a single voice and find creative ways to tackle and address the root issues, this would not necessarily resolve the conflict. After all, the UN played a major role in helping create the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the first place.

When it voted for the partition of Palestine in 1947, the newly conceived UN failed to ensure local buy-in, and this foreign hubris had dire consequences. Back then, failing to gain Palestinian and Arab acceptance led to war. Today, failure to gain Israeli support also risks leading to war or, at the very least, Israel openly embracing its pariah status, entering into self-imposed global isolation, and taking the gloves off completely.

The UN and the wider international community can only help lead Israelis and Palestinians to water. But they cannot force them to drink from the font of peace against their will.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which first appeared in Haaretz on 20 October 2015.

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RIP, Oslo

 
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By Khaled Diab

The “peace of the brave” has given way to the peace of the grave. It’s time to abandon Oslo in favour of a civil rights struggle for equality.

The hoped-for "peace of the brave" has morphed into the peace of the grave. Image: White House

The hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave.
Image: White House

Tuesday 13 October 2015

It was meant to be the handshake to end all hostilities. When Yasser Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin on the back lawn of the White House, on 13 September 1993, it seemed that the world had finally taken heed of Arafat’s call, two decades earlier at the United Nations, not to let the “olive branch fall from my hand”.

“The peace of the brave is within our reach,” then US President Bill Clinton said on the momentous occasion of the signing of the so-called Oslo Accords, reflecting the relatively more optimistic mood of the time. “We know a difficult road lies ahead. Every peace has its enemies.”

Yet two decades later, this hoped-for “peace of the brave” has morphed into the peace of the grave. Even the life-support system to which the United States had hooked up the Oslo process also gave up the ghost when Secretary of State John Kerry’s 13th-hour shuttle diplomacy came to nothing.

“As long as Israel refuses to commit to the agreements signed with us, which render us an authority without real powers,” a crestfallen and defeated Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said at the United Nations last week. “We, therefore, declare that we cannot continue to be bound by these agreements.”

So what went wrong over the past 22 years?

One major problem was the flawed nature of the Oslo Accords themselves, which set out clear and present demands of the Palestinians but left Israel with vague future commitments. And as the adage informs us, tomorrow has a tendency never to come.

However, these flaws were possibly surmountable with the right leadership – and this shaky framework agreement could have been shored up and redesigned, with sufficient supplies of goodwill and vision.

But just as the two former warriors and adversaries, Rabin and Arafat, were warming to their themes, tragedy struck. Rabin, who had started the first intifada with a “break their bones” attitude, became more committed to peace when he realised it was in Israel’s own economic and social interest.

Sadly, Rabin’s life was cut tragically short, 20 years ago next month, by an Israeli extremist before he could fulfil his newfound potential as a peacemaker. Poignantly, this occurred at one of the largest peace rallies in Israeli history.

Palestinian extremists, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, also played their part in derailing the tentative process through a concerted, high-profile wave of suicide bombings. This pincer movement helped propel Binyamin Netanyahu to the premier’s office in 1996.

It was around this time that Hamas and the Israeli right began their longstanding anti-peace “partnership”, for want of a better word. Though they rejected compromise and had a maximalist view of the conflict, which was the main aim of their violence, both Netanyahu and Hamas’s Sheikh Ahmed Yassin couched their bloody and vengeful sabotage in terms of retaliation for past grievances.

This led to a situation in which, rather than shoring up the many failings of the Oslo process and sticking to its five-year deadline, extremists were able to exploit the faults to bury any prospects of a resolution.

The supposedly temporary Oslo Accords became an enduring reality which enabled Israel to wash its hands of responsibility for the Palestinians living under its occupation. The status quo also facilitated the unprecedented expansion of Israeli settlements, which housed about a quarter of a million settlers in the early 1990s to some three-quarters of a million today.

For the Palestinians, the Oslo charade entrenched the temporary Palestinian Authority (PA) as the de facto government that was unable to govern. Just as Arafat had wanted the trappings of statehood even without a state, many in the PA elite had vested interests in maintaining the status quo, while Hamas preferred the status quo of perpetual conflict over compromise, as well as to undermine its Palestinian enemies.

Whether unwittingly or not, the billions the international community has sunk into upholding the myth of the peace process has helped let Israel off the hook. One European diplomat I know described the situation as: “It’s a frozen conflict and we pay for the freezer,” reflecting the widespread disillusionment in aid and diplomatic circles.

Mandy Turner, the director of the Kenyon Institute in Jerusalem, has been researching how aid to the Palestinians functions as a “counterinsurgency” tool, seeking to prevent “the emergence of a Palestinian political movement with widespread support that is opposed to the Oslo process, and/or extreme poverty and political instability”.

This might explain why Mahmoud Abbas demanded at the UN that “Israel must assume all of its responsibilities as an occupying power”, bowing rhetorically to widespread Palestinian perceptions that Israel has outsourced chunks of the occupation to the PA, while Western donors pick up the tab.

“What is required is to mobilise international efforts to oversee an end to the occupation,” Abbas urged, clinging helplessly on to the old paradigm.

Instead, what is required is for Abbas to abandon Oslo and to persuade the public and the other factions to unleash the most powerful weapon in the Palestinian arsenal – its people.

The true “bombshell” would be to abandon the two-state illusion and replace it with a non-violent, popular civil rights struggle for equality and equal rights.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 4 October 2015.

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