Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Iraq’

Responding to the Refugee and Migrant Crisis

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 13th September, 2015

imageYesterday, along with tens of thousands of others, including a sizable Liberal Democrat contingent with leader Tim Farron, I took part in the London march in support of refugees. But in the evening I facilitated a discussion with the Lewisham local party on what can and should be done about the current refugee and migrant crisis. Britain has an historic responsibility regarding Iraq and Syria, not only because Tony Blair joined George W. Bush in ousting Saddam Hussein in 2003 and dismantling Iraq’s predominantly Sunni security fores but also because of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the secret Anglo-French deal of 1916 that carved up the Arab lands of the Ottoman Empire to serve the colonial interests of London and Paris. That is also why Britain should be at the forefront of pressing for a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict, as Palestine was part of the British Mandate in the Middle East.

imageHowever, in my presentation last night I emphasized how we need to work with our EU partners to respond to the current massive increase in refugees, including guaranteeing safe routes into Europe. David Cameron ought to have joined Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande in launching an EU strategy instead of sitting on the sidelines and only coming up with a still rather vague timetable for Britain’s taking Syrian refugees from camps in the Middle East. I deplored the Conservative government’s ongoing closeness to the Saudi regime, which not only has an appalling human rights record but also is partly responsible for Islamist extremism and the growth of groups such as ISIS as Saudi has exported its own fundamentalist interpretation of Islam as expounded by Muhammed bin And Al Wahhab in the late 18th century. The Saudi intervention in Yemen, as well as devastating that already impoverished country is further destabiising the region. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, the US and the EU all need to be involved in some sort of peace conference, preferably sponsored by the United Nations, that could negotiate an end to the Syrian civil war. But given such developments as the rise of ISIS and the Kurds growing demand for an independent homeland I do believe we are witnessing the unravelling of the borders as set down by Sykes-Picot and that that is not necessarily a bad thing given their arbitrary nature.

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Britain Must Do More for Middle East Refugees

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 3rd September, 2015

Refugees are human beingsJF at Newham LibDemsThe British public has become more sensitised to the plight of refugees fleeing conflicts in Syria and Iraq with the publication today of pictures of two little boys who died  (along with their mother) when their father tried to take them from Turkey to Greece, en route to Canada, where his sister lives. But until this evening the Conservative government had failed to step up to the plate on the issue, unlike Germany and several other EU member states. However, Prime Minister David Cameron has now bowed to public and media pressure and agreed that the UK will take in several thousand refugees, over and above the few score that have been admitted already. This is a very welcome development.The British government has also been very generous in providing aid to refugees in countries neighbouring the conflict zones and Mr Cameron says it is important to focus on finding a solution to the Syrian civil war, in particular. That is true, but with the best will in the world, including organising an international peace conference involving Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the US and the EU, among others, as well as the warring parties, there is not going to be a solution in the short term. So Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande were right to call for an EU-wide plan, with quotas, to deal with the refugee emergency. It is a matter of regret that Britain was not in there at the time. But better late than never. At a meeting of Newham and Barking & Dagenham Liberal Democrats at View Tube in the Olympic Park this evening, I pointed out that Britain has an historic responsibility for some of the current troubles in the Middle East, from the secret Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, by which Britain and France decided how they would divide the spoils after the inevitable collapse of the Ottoman Empire, to the 2003 Iraq War. But Britain can also give a moral lead; it was after all in London that the first meeting of the infant United Nations was held and British human rights lawyers were central to the formulation of the European Convention on Human Rights. Mr Cameron’s Conservatives are very wobbly on human rights, thinking it more important to cosy up to Saudi Arabia and President Sisi’s Egypt than to stand up for values. As I said this evening, this situation poses for Liberal Demorats the moral duty as well as the political opportunity to campaign hard on these issues, to be seen to be taking the lead, above all because that is what is right.

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Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 28th May, 2015

imageimageThe self-styled Islamic State shot to global prominence largely by its highly effective use of social media and video streaming to trumpet its egregious human riots abuses in Iraq, Syria and Libya, from the graphic beheadings of “unbelievers” and aid workers to the sale and rape of female slaves and pushing homosexuals off the top of high buildings. Until now, not much attention has been given to the ways that IS exploited social media platforms, but that lacuna has been admirably filled by Abdel Bari Atwan’s new book Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate (Saqi Books, £16.99). A veteran writer, broadcaster and editor on the Middle East, the author makes good use of his contacts both within territory controlled by IS and those outside. He understands why thousands of disaffected young Muslims (including converts) from around the world have rallied to the black IS flag, inspired by the notion of a new Islamic Caliphate. He analyses well the origins of IS ideology in the Wahhabi school of thought that developed in what is now Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. He also, correctly, lays much of the blame for the spread of salafist extremism at the door of the Saudis, who have spent billions exporting their narrow prejudices. But in a sobering conclusion, Abdel Bari Atwan warns that IS extremism is likely to blow up in Saudi Arabia’s face one day. Just as Osama bin Laden and Al Qaida condemned the Saudi Royal family for its decadence and departure from the “true” path of Islam so Islamic State has the House do Saud in its sites. It is only a matter of time. And if Saudi blows, the aftermath will be felt globally. So, among all the confetti of recent publications on Islamic State choose this one, to be informed, even enlightened, but also alarmed.

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Human Rights in Iraq

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 19th April, 2015

Iraq human rightsThis week I have been in Istanbul attending the inaugural conference of the International Human Rights Coalition for Iraq (IHRCI), which aims to not only publicise human rights abuses on all sides in Iraq but even more importantly to document them assiduously so that prosecutions can be brought against the perpetrators. The late Saddam Hussein was a gross human rights violator, but the situation since he was overthrown by the illegal US-led invasion of 2003 has been far from perfect. Violations by both the US and British occupying forces have been widely reported, as have the savage practices of the self-styled Islamic State (ISIS) that has emerged in both Iraq and Syria. But far less well-known are the killings, kidnappings, torture and other outrages carried out not only by Iraqi government security forces (especially while Nouri Al-Maliki was Prime Minister) but also by Shia militia groups and others. There was some distressing testimony, including chilling videos, from Iraqis at the Istanbul conference, including details of the vicious treatment of some of the inhabitants of Tikrit since it’s liberation from ISIS. IHRCI intends to use legal channels to bring well-documented cases against human rights violators, initially inside Iraq where possible but also internationally where not.

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Postcards from the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 11th April, 2015

Postcards from the Middle Eastwetlands LebanonThe British naturalist and Christian missionary, Chris Naylor, has spent much of his working life so far in Arab lands, and like many others before him he was seduced by the difference from Britain. He and his wife’s first appointment in 1989 was to Kuwait, which is not the easiest or most interesting place in the Gulf for an expatriate to live, though they managed to make a visit by car the following year to see some of the great historical sites in Iraq, Mercifully, they were on leave in the UK  that summer when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, though they had to fret about colleagues and friends (and all their belongings) left behind. Four years later, by now with two small children, they moved to Amman in Jordan, before settling in the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon and later Beirut for well over a decade. Accordingly, Naylor’s paperback book of memories, Postcards from the Middle East (Lion, £8.99), is really a selection of postcards from the Gulf and the neighbourhood plus a very long letter from Lebanon, to which the family became deeply attached. Initially working as a teacher, Naylor switched to being a conservation activist and administrator and much of the book is about the wetlands in Lebanon where he did much of his work, but seen against the counterpoint of political developments, including the Syrian occupation, 9/11, Rafik Hariri’s assassination and the Israeli-Hezbollah war. Family unity (a third child now having materialised) clearly kept the Naylors grounded through stressful times, as did the fellowship of Lebanon’s large Christian community. But the author clearly felt an empathy with the Lebanese in particular that transcended ethnic and religious boundaries and which inevitably left him feeling a sense of loss when eventually he and his family decided to relocate back to England. This book therefore has many threads and while specialists in the Middle East may not find much of great import in it, though the conservation material may well be new to them, as an account of cross-cultural accommodation and acceptance as well as of the learning process needed to live in a wildly different society it certainly has its pertinence and charm.


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ISIS and the London Conference

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 23rd January, 2015

ISIS London conferenceYesterday the Foreign Ministers of 21 nations gathered in London to discuss how to respond to Islamic State. There were not only representatives of major Western countries, including John Kerry from the United States, but also delegations from five of the six GCC States, Egypt and Iraq — the last mentioned very much in the front line. The case for additional aid — financial, training and military hardware — was reinforced by a plea from Iraq’s Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, pointing out that falling oil prices mean Baghdad has less money available to allocate to the fight against ISIS. There was little information released as to the London conference’s decisions, but I was surprised by the degree of scepticism in some quarters that the talks would lead to more decisive action by the anti-IS Coalition. I took part in an hour-long live TV debate on Kurdistan TV after the meeting finished and was made conscious of how the Kurds in the KRG feel the rest of the world could be doing more. My interlocutors were also concerned about Turkey’s apparent ambivalence given Ankara’s failure to stop anti-Assad groups using Turkey as a base from which to infiltrate Syria. I also pointed out the ambiguity of several Gulf States, not least Saudi Arabia, which is officially part of the Coalition, yet which has directly or indirectly fuelled ISIS and other militant groups with money (from wealthy private individuals) and by the export of its fundamentalist Wahhabi interpretation of Sunni Islam. Given the way that women are sidelined from decision-making in Saudi Arabia and have often been the victims of ISIS barbarity, it was moreover unfortunate that the London conference seemed to be very much a men’s affair.

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Little Christmas Joy in the Middle East

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 23rd December, 2014

imageAs hundreds of millions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, spare more than a thought for the Christians of the Middle East, for many of whom 2014 has been a dire year. Two of the most vibrant Christian communities, in Iraq and Syria, have been traumatised by violent conflict, dispossession and displacement. And in Israel/Palestine, the fount of the faith, Christians are feeling under ever greater pressure to leave. The brutal Israeli onslaught on Gaza may be over, but its effects are still there, and in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem Christians and Muslims alike continue to suffer from the excesses of the occupying forces and the more extreme fringe of Israeli “settlers”. The symbolic confrontation between Palestinians dressed as Santa Claus and IDF soldiers has become almost ritualistic, but there is nothing joyful in the real gulf that still separates the people in the Holy Land. The rise of ISIS has undoubtedly made things worse across the Middle East and North Africa as a whole, but no one actor in the region’s turmoil is to blame alone. If Christians are to have a future in the Middle East, as they should, along with the other two Abrahamic faiths, then there needs to be a massive change of heart among political and religious leaders, as well as ordinary people, and an acknowledgement that what unites us all should be much stronger than that which divides.

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“Islamic State”: Pure Evil

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 20th August, 2014

IS FoleyI have not watched the video of American journalist James Foley being beheaded by a militant from the so-called Islamic State, IS (previously known as ISIS). I don’t need to, in order to share the revulsion and anger felt by most people in Britain, especially as the masked “executioner” in the video would appear to be British, from his accent. Foley was a war correspondent, not a soldier, who had been held in captivity for the past two years before his gruesome death. His only “crime”, in the eyes of his captors, was his nationality, but nothing can possibly excuse his death and the manner of it. It comes hard on the heels of horrific stories of mass executions by IS of Yazidis and other civilians in Iraq and the terrorising of populations. I am not a Muslim, but I have studied enough about the religion over the years to know that this barbarity is as remote from the true teaching of Islam as was the Spanish Inquisition from that of Christianity. There is nothing noble or heroic in the action of IS militants, nor the cause they espouse. The Islamic State is pure evil, and must be condemned as such, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. That means not only action on the ground in Syria and Iraq — which is already seeing some unusual alliances forming against IS — but especially in the mosques and madrasas, and through social media, where the poisonous message of IS must be challenged and exposed for what it truly is.   

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An Independent Kurdistan?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 12th August, 2014

Kurdish flagKRGThe tectonic plates of the Middle East are shifting. This is maybe not surprising, given the artificial boundaries imposed on the region by the British and French following the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire at the end of the First World War. In fact, it’s quite surprising that carve-up envisaged by the Sykes-Picot Agreement has lasted as long as it has. The Islamic State, as ISIS has rebranded itself, sees its putative caliphate rubbing out borders like chalk lines on a blackboard. Iraq as a whole is falling apart, to an extent as a result of George W Bush and Tony Blair’s immoral war, but also because of the sectarianism and incompetence of the outgoing Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki. The one bright spot on the horizon is the Kurdistan Regional Government, which has brought remarkable prosperity and stability to North-East Iraq, as well as providing a safe haven for refugees from other parts of the region. But in recent days, Kurdistan (KRG) has been under threat from ISIS and has called for weapons from the West, to help defend itself. Kurdistan deserves to be protected, and indeed to move swiftly to full independence, if that is what it wants. It had long been assumed that Turkey would oppose an independent Kurdistan, because of its own restless Kurdish minority, but that is no longer the case. So we may well see an independent Kurdistan take its seat at the United Nations in the not too distant future. And other changes to the map of the Middle East will surely follow.

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Newroz in Finsbury Park

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd March, 2014

Newroz Finsbury ParkThis afternoon I stood in bright sunshine on a stage in London’s Finsbury Park, speaking to a crowd of several thousand Kurds, to mark the festival of Newroz. In traditional Kurdish villages, people would jump over a fire at Newroz, but as I said in my speech, although there was no fire in front of me I could feel the fire in the people before me. They are right to be proud of their long history, culture and language, and to struggle for greater rights in the Middle East. In recent years I have been to Amed (Diyarbakir) and surrounding districts in predominantly Kurdiah areas of south-eastern Turkey, monitoring elections, though I won’t be able to go to cover the local elections in Turkey next month as I’m staying in London to campaign for the European elections. I said to the crowd it is important that they — if they have British or other European Union passports — vote on 22 May for a party that supports the rights of minority peoples and is committed to Britain remaining in the EU, or otherwise urge their neighbours and friends to do so. Apart from Sarah Ludford MEP (who also has a longstanding interest in Kurdish issues) and myself, on the LibDem list for London we also have a Turkish Kurd, Turhan Ozen. The situation in Turkey is frustrating in that Recep Tayyip Erdogan made some significant moves towards recognising Kurdish rights but like so much of his policy, this has often been a situation of one step forward, one step back. In Syrian Rojava the situation is critical for many Kurds and in Iran several Kurdish leaders have recently been executed or harassed. Only in the Kurdish region of Iraq (KRG) — which I visited this time last year — is the situation markedly better. So Kurds have a lot to struggle for. But as I concluded in my short speech, today is a day for celebration. Newroz Piroj Be!

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