by Martin Odoni

Hopefully everyone recalls in early-April last year that the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad was accused of launching a chemical weapons attack against the city of Douma, as part of the Syrian Civil War. An airstrike by bombers of the Syrian Air Force on the city threw up clouds of smoke and dust that triggered an apparent allergic response in the local population on the ground. Photographs and video of those affected went around the world, including of children choking and foaming at the mouth, and were taken as evidence that there had been chlorine gas in the warheads.

However, early investigation by Robert Fisk of the Independent, when he arrived in Douma a few days later, raised severe doubts about the use of chemical weapons in the attack. Conversations with local medical professionals led him to conclude that the supposed ‘allergic reaction’ was probably not chemical poisoning, but hypoxia i.e. the victims had been breathing in too much smoke and brick dust, which had been thrown up into the air by explosions brought on by ordinary conventional warheads.

By this point, Western Governments, namely the USA, the UK, and France, had carried out retaliatory airstrikes that had not been authorised by the United Nations. The legality of these strikes was already highly doubtful, but with the possibility that the pretext behind them – deterring further use of chemical weapons – was false, any legal ambiguity would be gone. It was highly debatable whether the reckless airstrikes were even necessary, especially as the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) had sent in investigators to check for evidence of any illegal weapons. The airstrikes, if anything, were bound to hamper any such investigation, raising the unsettling possibility that they were carried out for precisely that purpose, in the hopes of preventing Assad from being cleared of such a crime.

Early investigation did find traces of chlorine at the site of the airstrikes, although did not establish whether it was military-grade chlorine gas. The OPCW investigators found two gas cylinders in the area, and there was a strong possibility that the detected chlorine may have been stored in them – perhaps for industrial purposes, perhaps for more nefarious reasons – and was released from them during the bombardment, perhaps due to the damage inflicted.

One of the gas cylinders was on the top floor patio/terrace of an apartment block.

The second was found lying on a bed in a top floor apartment of a separate building. At first glance, it appeared it was originally stored in the roof above the room, but there was a massive hole in the roof that might have caused it to fall through. The hole was originally thought to have possibly been caused by the airstrikes.

In the last few days, a 15-page report from the OPCW, drafted in February this year, has been leaked online, with the findings of analysis of the cylinders, and their surroundings. Study of the report leaves the reader in no doubt as to why Donald Trump, Theresa May and Emmanuel Macron have not made any attempt to draw attention to it.

The draft report, written by Ian Henderson, an OPCW engineer of some twenty years’ standing, concluded from a lot of complex analysis that,

The dimensions, characteristics and appearance of the cylinders and the surrounding scene of the incidents, were inconsistent with what would have been expected in the case of either cylinder having been delivered from an aircraft. In each case the alternative hypothesis [that the cylinders were of a standard design used for liquefied chlorine storage and had been manually placed in the locations where they were later found] produced the only plausible explanation for observations at the scene… Observations at the scene of the two locations, together with subsequent analysis, suggest that there is a higher probability that both cylinders were manually placed at those two locations rather than being delivered from aircraft.

[Emphasis added.]

Conclusions of OPCW investigation in Douma

Screenshot from page 8 of the OPCW report

The report was published this week by the Working Group on Syria, Propaganda and Media (WGSPM). They said of it that it establishes

beyond reasonable doubt that the alleged chemical attack in Douma on 7 April 2018 was staged. [Emphasis added.]

Now, if we go back almost exactly another year, we should remember a similarly ugly story at the town of Khan Sheikhoun, in which it was alleged that the Assad regime had again launched chemical weapons during an airstrike in April 2017. The ‘evidence’ to this effect was a small crater in the middle of the main road of the city, which appeared to have some kind of ruptured gas canister at its trough. Professor Ted Postol, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published a comprehensive report explaining why he had concluded that the evidence was inconsistent with the use of air-to-ground chemical weapons, and why the damage to the canister in the crater was inconsistent with a launch from the air. (Screenshots of the report can be seen at the foot of this article.) He went as far as to accuse a report accusing Assad of chemical-weapon-use published by the White House in Washington DC of being ‘fabricated’.

This week, Professor Postol has also assessed the leaked OPCW report from Douma; –

Evidence collected by the OPCW Fact-Finding Mission (FFM)… indicates two analyzed chlorine cylinder attacks were staged in April 2018 in Douma. The holes in the reinforced concrete roofs that were supposedly produced by high-speed impacts (impact at speeds of perhaps 100 m/s or more, 250 mph) of industrial chlorine canisters dropped from helicopters were instead created by earlier explosions of either artillery rockets or mortar shells. In one event a chlorine canister that was damaged on another occasion was placed on the roof with its head inserted into an existing crater hole, and in the other case a damaged chlorine cylinder was placed on a bed supposedly after it penetrated the building roof and bounced from its original trajectory into a bed. In both cases the damage to the chlorine cylinders was incompatible with the damage to the surroundings that was allegedly caused by the cylinder impacts. As such, 35 deaths that were originally attributed to these staged chlorine events cannot be explained and it cannot be ruled out that these people were murdered as part of the staging effort.” [Emphasis added.]

This all should have been headline news before the start of March. Instead, it appears to have been buried, not just by the Governments of the US, UK and France, but also by the world media, and by the OPCW itself, which made no mention of these findings in its report to the UN.

The OPCW has confirmed that the document is the genuine article, and has stated that it is investigating the leak. That is all well and good, but the Organisation has nothing to say about the scandal of the document being kept secret in the first place.

The unbearable stink of political corruption can be smelt coming from all angles of this latest chapter. That a crime was committed by the US, UK and France when they launched the ‘punitive’ airstrikes is difficult to argue with, but there was always a likelihood that people would largely shrug their shoulders about it in the event that it was established that Assad really was using chemical weapons. The probable refrain would have been, “We haven’t got the time for legal niceties to be sorted out, people are being gassed in the most horrific way devised by Man.”

But now, with strong evidence that the whole ‘gas attack’ angle was staged to make a conventional attack look like an explicit violation of International Law, the responding violation of International Law by the three Western Governments becomes as unnecessary as it is illegal. And that makes it an act of corruption too.

Add in events in Eastern Ghouta in 2013, where significant doubts also linger about Assad’s supposed use of chemical weapons, and again the aforementioned events in Khan Sheikhoun in 2017, and the pattern that stands out is not the brutality of Assad. It is the relentless desperation of his opponents both in Syria and in the West to convince everyone of his brutality. That Assad has at times been a bloody dictator is impossible to dispute, but the crimes he, and his father before him, have truly committed (Hafez al-Assad was probably one of the leading minds behind the Lockerbie Bombing of 1988, for instance, even though the atrocity has always been officially blamed on the then-dictator of Libya, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi) should be enough to condemn the regime; there should be no need to keep trying to invent other crimes that simply do not leave behind the evidence that they would.

Map of the Middle East

The Western determination to bring down the Syrian Government always has US/European strategic interests at its heart. Yes, there are some politicians who support the efforts for genuine humanitarian reasons, but it is long past time that everybody recognised that what Governments want from intervention is entirely self-serving. In this case, the US, the UK and France are concerned about Syria’s close ties to Russia, as well as its alliance with Iran. Preventing Russia from expanding its sphere of influence along old ‘Soviet-Union’ lines is seen as an end in itself. Meanwhile, the USA in particular wishes to bring down the Iranian regime, which already exercises a powerful influence over neighbouring Iraq, and is extending its reach into Syria. Iran and its old enemy, Saudi Arabia, are using Syria as a proxy war-zone in much the same way they are also exploiting the Yemeni Civil War. (The Shi-ite Republic has been a thorn in the flesh of American and British oil interests in the region since it began in the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Arguably, the Iranian problems went back to the time its secular Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, tried to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company in 1951, leading to an Anglo-American coup, which removed him from power two years later.)

External interference in Yemen's Civil War explained

Turkey and Israel are key allies of the West, as they spare the British and the Americans the enormous practical difficulty of having to station their own armies and navies in huge numbers in the region to patrol the eastern Mediterranean and guard its oil shipping routes. Turkey and Israel also fear Iran’s growing power in Syria; Turkey in particular as it shares a long border with Syria, and the lands around it are almost ungovernable as it is due to rebellions by Kurdish freedom fighters. The thought of that border coming under the control of Iranian sympathisers frightens the Government in Ankara. Israel also shares a border, albeit a much shorter one, with Syria, and is almost paranoid in its fear of the reach of Iran, and so is eager to see Assad fall as well.

All of which explains the real reasons why Governments in Europe and North America keep trying to stitch up Assad, and co-operating in stitch-ups created by Assad’s wartime enemies. Some of these enemies, I cannot reiterate enough, make Assad, brutal though he may be, look almost philanthropic, especially the former ‘al-Nusra Front‘.

So we understand why Trump, May and Macron co-operated with the staged ‘chemical attack’ in Douma. What we now need to know is how. Or to put that more precisely, how much did their Governments know in advance about the stitch-up? Were they aware beforehand that the evidence was going to be faked? Or were they just being opportunistic? More disturbingly still, did they assist in some way in the faking of the evidence to begin with? That seems unlikely on the face of it, given the local rebel groups probably would not need help with it, but it cannot be discounted.

In any event, the Governments of the USA, the UK, and France, have all committed a war-crime, and one that can no longer be extenuated on the grounds of it being an ‘essential intervention’ to prevent chemical weapon use against civilians, because that use was not happening. That the mainstream media in the West have kept completely silent about this demonstrates once more how hollow the term ‘Freedom of the press‘ continues to ring.

Just like Tony Blair before her – albeit for less extreme reasons – Theresa May is a British Prime Minister who must be made to stand in the dock in the Hague, for violating International Law.

While the media keep their lips zipped about this, there is zero chance of that happening.

_____

Professor Ted Postol’s Report from 2017 on the Khan Sheikhoun Attack; –

 

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by Martin Odoni

FOREWORD: The following is an opening excerpt from an article I have written for The Prole Star.

Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist from Saudi Arabia who, in recent years has been resident in the United States of America, has been missing since the 2nd of October. Khashoggi was visiting the Saudi Consulate in Turkey to obtain some personal documents. CCTV images very clearly show him entering the Consulate, but there are no images of him leaving afterwards.

Khashoggi enters the Saudi Consulate, Istanbul c/o AFP PHOTO / DHA

CCTV image of Jamal Khashoggi entering the Saudi Consulate, Istanbul, on 2nd October 2018. There is no apparent footage of him ever leaving it subsequently. Photo c/o AFP PHOTO / DHA

Khashoggi is almost certainly dead, and if he is, it is certain that the Saudis murdered him. Were he alive and held at the Consulate, it would have been very easy for the Saudis to have paraded him on television at any stage, and so cool the growing controversy. Moreover, Khashoggi has been highly critical of the House of al-Saud over the last few years, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman clearly sees him as a ‘traitor’. According to some reports, Khashoggi had publicly claimed in August that the Saudi regime wanted him dead.

This chapter demonstrates that anyone who thinks the positive-but-shallow gesture of allowing women to drive marks the end of Saudi Arabia’s gruesome history of repression is naive in the extreme.

TO CONTINUE READING, PLEASE SEE THE FULL ARTICLE ON THE PROLE STAR.

by Martin Odoni

Following on from what I wrote last night, and today’s alarming knee-jerk reaction of the US President Donald Trump to Tuesday’s chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun; I am increasingly convinced that Syria’s dictator, Bashar al-Assad, has been wrongly accused once more. I feel no personal sympathy for him, given some of the dreadful crimes his regime has committed over the years, but the practical reality is that the Tomahawk missile strikes on Syria are benefiting the likelier culprits.

Now I must stress that I am not being definitive here. Until a full investigation of the chemical attack has been completed, no one can say for sure who was the perpetrator. But the more I look at the details, the less convinced I am that Assad could have been behind it. Here is why; –

Both history and present circumstances suggest that a chemical attack by Assad makes little sense. As I mentioned yesterday, he was wrongly blamed for the chemical attack on Damascus in 2013, even though his forces had more or less retaken control of Eastern Ghouta by the time it happened. In reality, the attack was almost certainly the handiwork of the al-Nusra Front, an affiliate of so-called ‘al-Qaeda’. But it is telling that, in getting the blame, Assad saw the strength of international opposition to military use of chemical agents. He must surely have realised then that he could not risk such a move in future.

Over the next couple of years, he went as far as scrapping his stockpile of chemical weapons, under political pressure from Russia and the USA – a task that was completed last year – and while it is possible he obtained new weapons since then, it does raise a substantial doubt as to whether the regime even has the capability for this sort of attack anymore.

By contrast, it is quite apparent that al-Nusra has a supply-line for chemical agents, most likely tapping the late Colonel Ghaddafi’s old stockpile in Libya. Just as telling, look at the timing of the Khan Sheikhoun attack; it happened just five days after the Trump administration publicly ruled out deposing the Assad regime.

Whether the whole incident was a theatrical set-up by the rebels, or a genuine case of an air-strike releasing chemicals by accident, I am as yet unsure. A British journalist in Syria called Tom Duggan seems fairly certain it is the latter (although the fact he appears to work for the paranoid 21st Century Wire says nothing for his credentials), but either way, when I add two and two, I find the number four to be distinctly al-Nusra-shaped. The weapons were probably theirs, not Assad’s.

As for the Tomahawk strikes on al-Shayrat Airbase, Trump has disproven once and for all the claims of his apologists that he would be ‘less warlike’ than Hillary Clinton. The destabilising effects of his reckless command have been two-fold; one, it has boosted the position of Daesh as it attempts to take Homs. Two, it has seriously endangered relations with Russia.

Meanwhile, Britain has yet again shown itself to be the spineless sycophant of US expansionism, expressing its usual unstinting support for heavy explosive American violence. Thankfully, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, the man the media are always telling us is ‘insane’, has once again dared to be a rare insight on the world as it really is, pointing out how the missile strikes are liable only to make matters worse. With the Syrian media claiming that four children were killed by the missile strikes, it could well be argued that they have already done precisely that.

by Martin Odoni

McCarthyism remains alive and well, it would seem.

After the horrific chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun, Syria, this week, the finger of blame has been pointed squarely at the regime of Bashar al-Assad. There was a similar attack in Damascus in August 2013 of course, and there was a very similar leap-to-conclusions in the public discourse in the weeks that followed.

Accusations against Assad then were reckless, irresponsible, and opportunistic. Accusations against Assad this week are similarly premature. I must stress that it is entirely possible that Assad is behind Tuesday’s attack, and I am certainly not trying to say he is not a brutal or oppressive leader. But there are reasons to be cautious before we assume this atrocity must be his handiwork.

Firstly, the chemical attack in 2013 did not establish a precedent for this behaviour from the Assad regime against its own population, as it does not appear to have been Assad’s doing. Lengthy investigations by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) concluded by early-2016 that the Damascus attack was likely committed by one of the Radical Islamist factions opposing the regime in the Syrian Civil War* – probably al-Nusra.

Secondly, as the same investigation points out, it is quite evident that rebel factions in Syria have some kind of supply line, probably from Libya, for chemical agents, whereas, as best we can tell, Assad actually disposed of his stockpile of chemical weapons under pressure from the US and Russian Governments during 2015. It is not beyond the realm of possibility of course that Assad faked the disposal in some way, or obtained a new supply of chemical agents, but even so, there is a significant enough doubt over his guilt that we should at least wait until an investigation is carried out before we draw any conclusions.

Some public remarks the likes of US President Donald Trump and British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson have hurled around the world since the attack are not only short on evidence, they are mired in hypocrisy. While Trump sheds crocodile tears over the deaths of “innocent children, innocent babies, little babies,” he quietly suppresses the fact that he has repeatedly tried to block these babies from escaping from the war to, say, the United States of America with his prejudicial travel-bans. Apparently, these same babies he currently mourns for are people he also imagines constitute a serious terrorism threat. Trump also keeps skating over the matter of the US Air Force and its allies, at his instruction, killing over a thousand innocents in Syria and Iraq through the month of March, while other beloved ‘friends’ such as Saudi Arabia use weapons and aircraft provided by Britain and the USA to butcher the people of Yemen.

Somehow, all these atrocities count as ‘less severe’ than what happened in Khan Sheikhoun, and indeed, the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, sees them as a good reason to socialise with the House of al-Saud. But hey, she refused to wear a head-scarf! That taught them a lesson, right?

As for ‘BoJob’ Johnson and his obnoxious claims that “all evidence suggests” Assad is behind the attack, I would be very interested to know precisely what evidence he has seen that others have not, as what is in the public domain at the moment is ambiguous. Jets that were apparently part of the Syrian Air Force carried out the attack that released the chemical agents, but as Russian diplomats have pointed out, it is just possible that there were chemical weapons in the buildings that were struck, and they may have been released by proximity to the explosions. (As Sarin is easily destroyed by combustion, there are reasons to question that, but the chemicals might still have been released without being caught in the eye of the explosions.)

Yes, Assad is a very obvious suspect, and it is too early to say he must be innocent. But it is also too early to say with snarling confidence that the attack was his doing. Given how confident we can be of who is committing some of the other crimes in the Middle East at the moment, the self-righteousness of the accusation makes it sound like a diversion more than a moral stand.

______

POSTSCRIPT:

At the risk of saying, “I told you so!” I argued in the weeks after the Damascus attack that there were aspects of the story blaming Assad that did not add up; –

A) A ballistic rocket launch from a Government silo was detected on the morning of the attack, but it was about an hour-and-a-half later that the warheads struck. How could rockets require an hour-and-a-half just to reach Damascus from about seventy miles away? Even a car travels faster than that, and moving at that speed the missiles would not have been able to get off the ground.

B) Why did Assad wait until Eastern Ghouta, the area of Damascus that was targeted, had pretty much been brought back under Government control before dropping chemical weapons on it? Surely if he was prepared to use them, he would have deployed them earlier in the battle, while the rebels were well dug in there? Is it not likelier that rebel factions, realising that they were losing the territory, would use chemical weapons at the stage it happened as an act of desperation, instead of Assad risking wiping out his own troops with them?

C) The chemical used was a low-grade nerve agent known derisively as ‘Kitchen Sarin’. Why would Assad bother using ‘Kitchen Sarin’ when he had a confirmed supply of warheads armed with the more effective ‘Industrial Sarin’?

by Martin Odoni

Discussion of the Syrian Refugee Crisis has caused a lot of increased emotion over the last few days, especially since pictures began circulating on social media of Aylan Kurdi, the boy who drowned off the Turkish coast. One of the upshots of the photos has been that many people who normally resent immigration, including a lot of the ever-fickle mainstream media, have suddenly become passionate humanitarians, although often only in narrowly militaristic terms.

The clamour has met stiffened resistance from other xenophobic elements however, who seem determined to view compassion as a weakness, and who regard the refugees with an stubborn suspicion. Hand-in-hand with this has, inevitably, been a campaign of misinformation about the crisis, misinformation clearly designed to cast refugees in a very ugly light.

I have decided to address a few of the rumours I have seen circulating.

1) “Islamic State (ISIL) are sending hundreds of thousands of their soldiers to Europe by infiltrating the refugees.”

This may just go down as the daftest conspiracy theory currently circulating on social media. It implies that ISIL has noticed huge numbers of refugees fleeing Syria, and many of them heading for Europe, and realised that if their own troops were to ‘mingle’ amongst the refugees, they could ‘ride the flow’ to the West and cause havoc when they arrive.

This idea is ridiculous for several reasons.

Firstly, ISIL is presently fighting a war on at least seven fronts. It is not only fighting several campaigns in different parts of Syria, but it is also in Iraq, Iran and Jordan, while also holding a substantial presence in Libya. The highest estimate for the total number of troops fighting for ISIL is around 200,000. Most other estimates suggest fewer than 100,000. Therefore, for ISIL to send ‘hundreds of thousands’ to Europe would mean displacing their entire forces, and the instantaneous surrender of what they view as ‘The Holy Land’, which is the prize they are fighting over in the first place. While fighting on so many fronts, ISIL simply does not have the soldiers to spare to send to Europe, even in their hundreds, let alone hundreds of thousands.

Furthermore, seeing many of ISIL’s recent recruits are from Europe, infiltrating the refugees sounds needlessly over-elaborate. The organisation could just send their European recruits back home, any of whom who have not been identified in the West as ISIL recruits would be allowed in by birthright, without all the knotty difficulties caused by immigration procedures. If there is anything to be afraid of at all on this score, it would be European nationals who have been radicalised and return home. (And even then, given how incompetent the average militant tends to be when operating alone, that danger is still pretty slight.) It is not a plausible danger from the refugees.

One more thing; when challenged to prove that this infiltration is really happening, the standard source the anti-asylum lobby offers us – without a link to a corroborating report – is an assertion that ISIL have openly announced that they are doing it. Given that infiltration is by definition something that is done in secret, would it not defeat the object of the exercise for ISIL to let us know like this? If they really are saying such things, and I can find no reliable source to suggest they are, it seems very likely that they are bluffing to heighten our fear of them.

To the xenophobes, I would therefore like to extend thanks on ISIL’s behalf for co-operating with them so completely.

2) “The refugees are refusing aid we have generously sent to them, so clearly they do not need our help.”

This rumour seems to have been triggered by a single video of what is claimed to be a train full of Syrian refugees in Hungary. The video shows several people in a crowd apparently throwing away a couple of crates of bottles that have been presented to them.

While not wishing to sound like a bit of  ‘tin-foil-hat-wearer’, I need to point out that there are several reasons why this evidence is being grossly misrepresented.

Firstly, people are presenting it in a wildly-generalised way, assuming that all refugees are refusing aid from the West, wherever they are, just because of one example in one place and time. This rumour has been debunked by the British Red Cross via its Twitter account; –

The Red Cross refutes accusations that refugees are declining aid.

The lie that refugees are refusing aid in Syria’s neighbouring countries, debunked by the Red Cross.

The incident in the video was a couple of people in a crowd of dozens rejecting aid from Hungarian authorities. It is ridiculous to portray that as indicative of refugee attitudes everywhere. It is even quite a stretch to assume it is indicative of the attitudes of the people just on that train.

Secondly, the video is not free-of-suspicion in itself. The only versions of it I have so far seen include no soundtrack – not that I speak Hungarian or Arabic but there would be plenty of people out there who would be able to translate what the people in the video are saying if only there were sound – there is no time-stamp on the images, therefore we cannot say when they were recorded – they could be years old for all we know – and the context of the video is unclear. We do not know, for instance, where the train came from, who the people on board the train are, or what happened to them during their journey which might have led them to reject aid.

Were I pushed for a possible explanation – and I freely admit this is speculative – the one I would point to is that the police officers in the pictures are all visibly wearing paper masks over their mouths; the implication of that is something at which the refugees could easily take offence if they are unable to understand the explanation, and their rejection of the bottles could be a way of saying, “You think we’re dirty? You think we’re carrying germs? Well we think your water is dirty!” Given the crass hostility the Hungarian Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán, has shown towards the refugees, this presumed insult would fit a pattern in their minds.

If you think that unlikely, remember that most of the refugees will probably speak Arabic and no Hungarian, while most of the police will probably speak Hungarian and no Arabic. Communication is therefore going to be immensely difficult, and it will be quite a trick for the police to explain that they are compelled to wear the masks as a precaution, whether they wish to wear them or not.

As I say, this is a speculative explanation, but it is no more speculative or less plausible, and it is far more coherent, than simply writing the refugees off as being arrogant and ungrateful – which is scarcely an explanation at all in fact.

What I can say is that there is plenty of evidence from other refugees who have made it to Hungary that they are deeply unhappy with how they have so far been treated there.

EDIT TO ADD 12-9-2015: PLEASE SEE THE COMMENT BELOW BY ROSA LICHTENSTEIN, WHICH GIVES BACKGROUND DETAILS AS TO WHY THE BOTTLES WERE REFUSED BY THE REFUGEES.

3) “Why don’t the refugees stay in neighbouring countries instead of coming here?” Also sometimes worded as, “The other countries in the Middle East aren’t taking in their fair share!”

Quite simply, most of them are. The below image from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) was published in August last year, since which time the crisis has increased by well over twenty-five per cent; around September last year, the total number of refugees from Syria went past three million, and has now gone past four million.

As the graphic shows, most of Syria’s neighbouring countries had already taken in enormous numbers of refugees by a year ago, and tiny Lebanon in particular had become massively overburdened.

c/o UNHCR, Syrian refugee estimates from August 2014

c/o UNHCR. These figures are over a year old, and the crisis has increased by a quarter since then.

So refugees in the main do go straight to near neighbours. But the more people arrive, the more difficult it becomes for them to stay, as resources start to be used up rapidly. Hence, many of them start to move further afield after a while. The Kurdi family, for instance, had been in refuge in Turkey for some three years before attempting their ill-fated sea-voyage to Greece, with the number of refugees in Bodrum growing so rapidly that living conditions were deteriorating.

So when Ross England, the ironically-named Welsh Conservative candidate for the Vale of Glamorgan Assembly constituency, ‘knowledgeably’ asserts, “Genuine refugees flee to the nearest safe country. Those crossing to Europe are illegal economic migrants”, he is rather taking a ‘snapshot’ view of what the refugees are going through i.e. assuming their circumstances will remain identical for the entire time they are in exile, while asserting that if they were genuine refugees, they would be doing…. well, exactly what the Syrian refugees are in fact doing.

Now there are some neighbours in the region who have not accepted refugees, and I am certainly not defending those countries, especially the immensely rich House of al-Saud in Saudi Arabia. But even some of them have still sent considerable amounts of money to help the refugees, while the reasons they have for refusing to let people in, while still not justifying their stance, are not simply narrow callousness; the delicate ethnic and cultural balance of their populations could be adversely affected by attempts to assimilate large numbers of predominantly Sunni people. If that were to happen, it might lead to even more conflict.

So the real picture is quite a lot more varied and complex than the one the anti-asylum brigades are trying to paint.

4) “The Kurdi family tried to make the crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands because Abdullah Kurdi wanted a set of replacement teeth he could get for free in Europe.”

This rumour has been circulating since last weekend, and seems to have originated with supporters of either Britain First or the UK Independence Party (surprise, surprise). The idea is silly and would depend on Abdullah Kurdi behaving in a very counter-intuitive fashion.

The notion appears to have its roots in a part of Abdullah Kurdi’s explanation for why he had chosen to take his family away from Syria. He mentions in it (no, James Delingpole, you habitual, tantrum-throwing liar, Kurdi did say it, even a reporter from your own beloved Daily Telegraph attributes the story to him, and not just to some random blogger) that he was tortured by ISIL operatives who beat him so severely that eight of his teeth were broken.

This, along with an interview given by Kurdi’s Canada-based sister Fatima, has been twisted by xenophobic elements to mean that the only reason they were making the journey to Greece was so that Abdullah could get his teeth fixed. The problem is that this is not what she said. The reason for leaving was just that life in Turkey was so miserable for them that after three years they could bear no more and wanted to start a new life somewhere else. Being Kurdish Syrians, which is not an ethnicity held in high regard in Turkey, this is hardly surprising. Now, I suppose a chance for Abdullah to get his teeth fixed might have been a part of a ‘new life’ in the very long term, and for his own health it would have to be attended to sooner or later, but the mention in context shows clearly that it scarcely featured in their considerations.

The big question that the accusation misses of course, and for which we are still awaiting a sensible answer, is as follows; if Abdullah Kurdi’s big priority was dental treatment, why did he bother dragging his family along with him at all? He was sent money by his sister so he could hire smugglers to get him to Europe, but taking his wife and sons with him made the journey much more complicated and heavily increased the cost. (To the degree, come to think of it, that he would struggle to afford the dental treatment.) If finding a better life for his family were not a factor in his plans, would it not all have been easier, and cheaper, for him to travel to Europe alone, get his teeth fixed, and then go back to Turkey? For that matter, why the long-term plan to head all the way to Canada if all he was looking for was a dentist? We do have them on this side of the Atlantic, you know.

Another bizarre aspect of the rumour is that, with the crossing to Europe costing about three thousand dollars, a ‘free’ set of dentures sounds like a seriously false economy. I am not suggesting that Abdullah Kurdi is a man of shrewd thrift – I have no way of knowing – but then he would not have to be to see that the crossing was a dangerous and expensive gamble, for which false teeth would surely not be a worthwhile prize.

5) “This refugee crisis proves that Parliament should have voted in favour of military action against Syria in 2013.”

Just over two years ago, UK Prime Minister David Cameron attempted to get Parliamentary approval to intervene militarily in Syria against the Government of Bashar al-Assad. Cameron lost the vote at the end of the debate, and some of those who wanted military action are now presenting the current crisis as evidence that he should have been given the go-ahead.

The difficulties with that assertion arrive at us from several directions.

For one thing, the intervention proposed two years ago was expressly and specifically to be against the Assad regime, whereas a great many of the refugees are from areas that have been devastated by ISIL, which is one of the many forces arranged against Assad. Intervening to destroy the Syrian state military would have made it easier for ISIL to conquer northern Syria, triggering much the same refugee crisis.

For another, the reason there are so many refugees is that vast stretches of Syrian territory have been left uninhabitable by intense bombing and fierce ground-fighting. Whole towns have been turned into ruins. Military intervention would mean more bombing, more fierce ground-fighting, and therefore potentially still more refugees. Rather than solving the crisis, there is a great danger it would have made it worse.

The slightly infantile Western presumption of heroism in military intervention is a constant feature when Britain or the USA are at war. There are often genuine altruistic motives at work, but seldom very well-developed ones, and many of the people and organisations linked to military action do not share in them. The over-excited enthusiasm in the media, mentioned above, for the possibility of war abroad goes hand-in-hand with an unquestioning assumption that there are no sinister motives for it. There are times when the fraudulence, especially in right-wing tabloids, is like this; –

Anglo-American 'heroics' as seen by The S*n.

The mainstream media are experts in portraying hawkish and bombastic behaviour by the USA and Britain as heroic and noble.

Even when motives are genuine, the effects of military interventions in the Middle East are frequently terrible, due to poor planning and clumsy execution; for instance Tony Blair’s wish (though not the wishes of most of the rest of the British Establishment) for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was probably born of genuine motives to ‘destroy evil’, but it was almost juvenile in its development and caused much of the regional instability that led to the very war now being fought in Syria.

It is therefore hard to credit the unspoken assumption that an intervention would even have been successful.

6) “The migrants aren’t refugees because they have nice clothes.”

It says a lot about our petty prejudices that we become suspicious of those in need just when they do not conform to the image we are conditioned in our heads to expect of them. It is as though we are startled by and resentful of such people not looking the way they would stereotypically appear in a movie about dispossessed people. The most well-reported example of this judgement is probably a Tweet from UK Independence Party member Peter Bucklitsch.

Rags are part of the refugee uniform that UKIP insts be issued.

The Far Right have great trouble accepting anybody as being what they are when they do not conform to the stereotype appearance imagined. Note that the ill-informed Bucklitsch is assuming the Kurdi family were looking to settle in Europe, when they were actually trying to get to Canada.

So there you have it. Because refugees are often arriving wearing clean T-shirts and intact shoes, they cannot be refugees, and how dare they come asking for help while still in possession of one or two things that are quite nice. It is an elitist position to take, akin to the irrational tendency to get uncontrollably angry when seeing a benefits claimant owning something expensive, even if it is the only nice possession in their whole life.

It is a silly prejudice, nothing more.

7) “These refugees are cowards! They should stay at home and fight to protect it, instead of running away.”

There is a very naive machismo driving this concept, as though every human being is just a natural soldier, born to unlimited military skills. This idea may be created by watching far too many Rambo movies, or by assuming that Luke Skywalker’s sudden transition from farmer to tyranny-toppling magical warrior is based on a real story.

In reality, in most countries the great majority of people will have no military experience or skills at all, and without them, they are likely to be a liability rather than a bonus to the defences of their home. It might have been different back in the pre-industrial era, when simple weapons, city walls, and brute strength were the orders of the day, but in these days of bombing jets, semi-automatic rifles, ballistic missiles, and heavy tanks, the best thing almost any civilian can do is just get his/her family as far out of the way as possible. It does not matter even if the civilians are young men. If they have no military experience and are poorly-equipped, they are simply going to get in the way, before just adding themselves to the gruesome pile-up of dead bodies. There is nothing to be achieved by that.

I have heard more than one person saying, “Why don’t they stay and rebuild their homes then?” which is just as silly a question. Anything they rebuild while the war is going on will almost certainly be destroyed again. This is assuming they would even have a supply of the materials they would need with which to rebuild anything, which is itself a big doubt. “Why don’t they stay and wait for the war to end, and then rebuild?” Because they will die if they stay, either of thirst and starvation from remaining in a ruined city with no infrastructure or supply lines left, or simply by getting gunned down by the combatants.

The majority of the refugees would probably like to return and rebuild, but they can only do that once it is safe to do so. In the meantime they have to concentrate on simply keeping themselves alive. Getting killed is not going to help rebuild the ruins of north Syria.

This is what the war has done to vast stretches of land from Libya to Syria to Iraq. Wishing to escape it is not cowardice.

If this happened to your home, and there is little sign of help or protection coming from anywhere, and the conflict showed no sign of relenting, would you stay?

So people who make this testosterone-fuelled accusation are completely ignorant of obvious plain reality. Judging experiences of which they can have no earthly knowledge, it is easy for them to make such stupid remarks, because Britain has not been subject to horrors on this scale for centuries. (Before anyone says it, no, the Blitz in 1940 did not come anywhere close to what is happening in Syria right now. The damage caused by the Blitz was relatively brief, superficial and intermittent.) It would be very instructive to see how these ‘armchair macho men’ would respond if anything similar ever did happen to the UK.

It also bears mentioning that a lot of the Syrian refugees are Kurdish. The idea that a Syrian Kurd crossing borders into Iraq or Turkey is a ‘coward’ is nonsense, as they would be heading into countries that have very hostile views of Kurds – at least foreign-born ones. Such a move is therefore brave to the point of foolhardy.

And finally, for now at least…

8) “Isn’t it a bit suspicious how all the refugees who get to Europe are athletic young men?”

They are not. It is true that a high proportion of the refugees who get to Europe are men aged between fifteen and twenty-five, but then, while not wishing to sound chauvinistic or to write off older generations, that is the demographic that is most likely to survive such dangerous journeys. For unavoidable biological reasons, they are simply the people who are likely to be strongest and fittest.

But they are certainly not the only ones to get to Europe, nor are they even particularly close to being the only ones. Selective editing and presentation of media images by people who have an agenda are what give that impression. I will let someone else take up the story there.

EDIT TO ADD 13-9-2015: PLEASE SEE THE COMMENT BELOW BY GORDON RANKIN, WHO HAS A COUPLE OF INTERESTING STATS ON THE DEMOGRAPHICS OF THE REFUGEES. NB: I HAD PREVIOUSLY STATED THAT MR. RANKIN’S STATS CONCLUSIVELY DEBUNK THIS RUMOUR, BUT IT HAS BEEN BROUGHT TO MY ATTENTION THAT THEY APPLY TO REFUGEES IN SYRIA’S NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES ONLY. APOLOGIES FOR THE MISINFORMATION THERE.