Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘ISIS’

Syria Seven Years On

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 19th March, 2018

Syria destruction 4 largeSeven years ago, as the Arab Spring swept across North Africa and the Middle East, demonstrations began in Syria. By chance I was there when the first manifestations occurred, in Deraa, before they spread to other cities — especially after the violent way the authorities cracked down on the early protesters. This was hailed by enthusiasts as Syria’s Revolution, with the major commercial centre Aleppo mainly coming under rebel control. But how badly things subsequently went wrong. Seven years on, the revolution that turned into a civil war is still going on — longer than either the First or Second World War — hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and millions displaced and much of the country is in ruins. Bashar al-Assad and his mafia-like clique are still in charge and indeed since the Russians and Iranians piled in are increasingly with the upper hand, pounding and moving in on remaining rebel strongholds such as eastern Ghouta.

Last night I took part in a debate on Orient News TV, a Syria-focussed TV station based in Dubai and Amman, discussing the seventh anniversary. I was asked why Europe failed to get as deeply involved in Syria as the Russians have and explained how Britain in particular was scarred by the negative experience of the Iraq War and late by the chaotic outcome of the Libyan intervention. Besides, given the history of colonialism in the area, would the Syrian people really have taken kindly to British or French involvement? There are some in Britain who regret that Parliament voted against intervention in 2013, but would it have made a positive contribution if the vote had gone the other way? The UK only really got involved when it came to fighting Daesh (ISIS), and now limits activity mainly to RAF reconnaissance and personnel training. The US has been more directly involved, especially in helping the Kurds, who are now under attack from Turkey, while funding for some of the self-styled Islamic groups have had huge backing from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Assad government, emboldened by recent military successes, brands all opposing forces as terrorists, but in truth they are a motley crew, pursuing different agendas. But the voices of the ordinary people who just wanted a taste of greater freedom and democracy than that accorded them by the Assad dynasty have been almost completely drowned out. And a peaceful settlement remains tantalisingly elusive.

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Tom Holland at the Authors’ Club

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 27th October, 2017

Tom Holland historianThe Authors’ Club (founded 1891) and the Literary Circle of the National Liberal Club held their annual dinner at the NLC this evening, with guest speaker, Tom Holland, the historian. He was pleased to be in a location so closely associated with the late Victorian Prime Minister, William Gladstone, whose statue gloriously presides over the main dining room. And it was largely because of Gladstone’s zeal on behalf of the oppressed — the Bulgarians at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, for example — that Tom Holland gave a more sombre and thought-provoking talk than maybe some might have expected on a Friday night. Though perhaps best known for his popular TV series and books relating to ancient Western cultures, Holland has also delved deeply into the Persian imperial past. And it was that Middle Eastern connection that led him to Sinjar, when it was liberated from ISIS, to learn about the Yazidis.

Yazidis Sinjar Denounced as devil-worshippers by many Muslims — by no means only Salifist fanatics — the Yazidis trace their religious origins to beliefs linked to reverence for the sun and the moon that pre-date the three Abrahamic “religions of the book”. Though thought of as pagan by other groups in the region, they have actually developed a faith that is quite eclectic. But for those like ISIS who assume both a literal and an extreme interpretation of the Koran and other Islamic texts, the Yazidis’ “heresy” merits death — or in the case of nubile young girls, sexual enslavement. They suffered terribly in what Tom Holland justifiably referred to as a modern genocide, yet one that received very little attention in the West. That lack of attention, he argued, was partly a matter of timing, as the worst moments coincided with the latest (2014) Israeli pummeling of Gaza, which is a conflict more familiar to European audiences. Moreover, the Yazidis do not have an extensive diaspora — though that situation is perforce changing — and therefore there were few people to speak up about their plight. Tom Holland did so eloquently this evening, however, and in true Gladstonian spirit, he was applauded for his seriousness and human concern by his audience at the NLC>

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Liberal International Executive in Georgia

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 22nd May, 2016

imageLiberal international held its first-ever Executive Committee in the South Caucasus republic of Georgia this week, fortuitously coinciding with the 38th anniversary celebrations for our host party, the Republican Party of Georgia. Security issues were at the fore outside of the purely administrative session, including a trip to the “separation line” — where Geirgian troops face encroaching Russians, who have taken over South Ossetia and occasionally push forward their barbed wire barrier, separating Georgian farmers from their land and cutting them off from friends and family on the other side. On Friday night a fading party came over and killed one young Geirgian man. The Georgian Defence Minister, Tinatin Khidasheli, was a keynote speaker. Slovenia’s former Defence Minister, Roman Jakic — recently one of LI’s Treasurers — made the point that NATO cannot say it has an open door policy and then turn people away, which offers a potentially challenging situation with regard to both Georgia and Ukraine.

imageLooking further afield, there was a debate on whether the world can unite successfully in its fight against ISIS/Daesh. But I was especially interested in a session on the implications of the nuclear deal with Iran. Former Belgian junior Foreign Minister, Annemie Neyts, echoed my feelings by arguing that we need to engage with the Iranians and to recognise their historical importance, while not keeping our eyes off the security ball, whereas Dan Kucawka from Argentina took a much more hawkish position, basically asking how we can trust a country whose forces are helping Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. All in all, the world seems a more troubled place than it did a decade ago, though one of the positive developments has been the expansion of Liberal International to take in new member parties, not least from Africa.

 

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Syria: Think of Reconstruction Now

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th March, 2016

Syria destructionIt was striking that in his speech to the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, Tim Farron devoted a lot of time to the refugee crisis and in particular the Conservative government’s failure to step up to the plate adequately in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable people, especially those fleeing the carnage in Syria. This is something Tim clearly feels passionately about and is also a fine issue on which Liberals can campaign. Moreover, an emergency motion on Syria won the ballot for debate early yesterday morning, emphasizing that the subject is uppermost in people’s minds. The fact that six of the eight LibDem MPs voted in favour of the UK joining in the US-led Coalition’s bombing of ISIS/Daesh in Syria is still a sensitive matter; both Paul Reynolds and I outlined our opposition to that at a fringe meeting of the Liberal Democrat Peace and Security Group the previous evening.

Bashar al-AssadBut in the emergency motion debate in the main hall I stressed how important it is that thought be given already to the reconstruction of Syria, which some UN estimates suggest could require up to US$4 trillion. There will be a difficult period of reconciliation to go through but my impression is that the vast majority of Syrian refugees would like to return to their homeland when it is safe to do so, always presuming the cities are made habitable. The situation is very complex and it is true that some areas of the country, notably those under the Assad government’s control, are relatively intact. But Assad and the Russians have bombed much of the rest to oblivion. I argued that Britain and France have a particular historic responsibility for helping resolve the Syrian mess, preferably as part of an EU diplomatic effort, which would lead to all interested parties being involved, including Russia and Iran. Understandably, much of the debate on the motion centred on short-term measures, but I underlined how vital it is that we learn from the lessons of Iraq and Libya and make sure that there is a proper, workable plan in place for what happens if or when Assad goes.

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Terrorism and the EU

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 8th February, 2016

imageMuch of Europe is on alert following the Paris outrages late last year and London in particular is braced for one sort of attack by radicalised Muslim youths or returnees from service with ISIS/Deash in Syria. Having lived through years of IRA bombings the British public is probably more phlegmatic about terrorism than most, but it was nonetheless reassuring this afternoon to hear at first hand about the anti-terrorism work of Europol from that agency’s Director, Rob Wainwright. He was guest speaker at a Global Strategy Forum event at the National Liberal Club, speaking on the record, so not revealing any deep secrets, but nonetheless presenting a brilliantly cogent exposition of how Europol operates against terrorism through a three-pronged approach relating to radicalisation, migration and cyber crime. The sharing of information between different European police forces as appropriate has helped avert a number of planned attacks and Rob Wainwright says that Europol manages to track a very high percentage of potential terrorists and their international links, not least through monitoring financial transactions and social media. Because of the heightened security threat, the agency is doubling its personnel from 50 to 100 approximately, which is still tiny compared with the challenge, though most of its work is in collaboration with national forces. Currently the EU has no specific competence in this field, but the European Parliament should keep an eye on areas where more formal cooperation would be desirable. When an audience member at today’s forum asked Rob Wainwright if Britain would benefit from the same degree of such cooperation if it left the EU, he replied that he could see no security benefits from Brexit.

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Standing up for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 4th February, 2016

Syria war damageOn the first day of the Syria conference currently taking place in London billions of dollars have been pledged to help Syrian refugees, including $1.7bn from Britain. That’s the good news and the UK Conservative government, which rarely gets praise from me, deserves it in this case. However, the bad news is that the Syria peace talks that were being held in Geneva earlier this week were suspended yesterday while fighting on the ground in Syria has intensified. It is of course essential that the millions of refugees who have fled their homeland, notably to Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, be given help, but such assistance can only be a form of band-aid relief rather than a solution so long as the civil war goes on. Moreover, yet more refugees will be created in the meantime; Turkey estimates that another 70,000 are fleeing the current Syrian government and Russian assault on rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo. The only solution as such can come from an internationally-agreed and implemented peace settlement and associated ceasefire. I opposed British airstrikes in Syria because there was no comprehensive peace agreement on the table and I do not believe that simply bombing necessarily helps. Of course, I despise ISIS/Daesh, but the situation in Syria is much more complex than just an attempt to curb self-styled Islamic State. Similarly, I dislike the Assad regime in Damascus, which has been responsible for egregious human rights abuses, both in its notorious prisons and in its use of cluster bombs and other weaponry against its own civilian population. Only through a proper peace settlement, at Geneva or wherever, can a way forward be mapped, which would include an end to hostilities and a transitional political arrangement leading to free and fair elections with sufficient international supervision.

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Bread Not Bombs for Syria

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 9th January, 2016

I was totally opposed to the recent decision by the UK parliament to bomb Syria, in the absence of a coherent strategy for bringing an end to the civil war in that country, and I was pleased that among the LibDem MPs, at least Norman Lamb and Mark Williams voted that way. Meanwhile, the situation on the ground has got much worse in many places, thanks partly to the Russian support for the murderous Assad regime, which is itself responsible for the vast majority of deaths in Syria, without mentioning the gross human rights abuses that it perpetrates in its prisons and detention centres. Now, there is a new, horrific spectre in the land, in which over 250,000 have died and millions have fled or been displaced. This has been most vividly illustrated by the harrowing images of starving children from Madaya, which has been under siege by regime forces for many weeks, and other places. The images are as awful as the pictures that came out of Bergen-Belsen at the end of the Second World War, and are similarly of the victims of a pattern of extermination. Quite apart from the adults who are dying on these appalling conditions, infants and babies are being fed on boiled leaves, watered-down jam and anything else that distressed parents can lay their hands on. So tell me, am I being unrealistically utopian in wishing that instead of dropping bombs on Syria, the RAF should be dropping food and medical supplies on Madaya and other communities in distress? I don’t think so. It is pain humanity. But that seems to have been lost in the noise of the anti-ISIS narrative. Of course, self-style Islamic State is repulsive and needs to be combatted, but can we really say we are on the side of the angels if that combat means we stand by and let innocents die?

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Making Children Bear Arms Is Child Abuse

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 4th January, 2016

IS childThe chilling pictures published by ISIS/Daesh of a small child thought to be British, proudly brandishing a gun, are symptomatic of a worrying trend by political extremists to try to “normalise” the phenomenon of children bearing arms, supposedly in the defence of a particular cause. I’ve seen examples on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict and child soldiers have been a sickening feature of a number of recent civil wars, such as in Uganda, Liberia and Sri Lanka — in some cases with children being forced to kill or else be killed or tortured themselves. You will even find photos of American kids posing with weapons with the encouragement of their gun-loving parents, despite the fact that each year numerous victims, both young and old, get accidentally shot by young children in America. For supporters of the US constitutional right to bear arms, the issue at stake is “freedom”, but I would argue that even in countries where it is legal for adults to own firearms it should be a serious criminal offence to encourage or allow children to handle them. For me, that amounts to child abuse, and a particularly pernicious form of child abuse, for kids often do not have a developed sense of right and wrong, or of the nature of killing and death. I believe that if parents proudly pose with their infants who are brandishing weapons they should be prosecuted for child abuse and sentenced accordingly.

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Happy New Year, Saudi-style

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 2nd January, 2016

Embedded image permalinkThe Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has long had one of the highest levels of capital punishment implementation in the world, but this year it has really excelled itself by welcoming in the New Year by executing 47 individuals today in various parts of the country. The official reason is that these people were convicted of terrorism; having not been present at the trials I cannot comment on the legitimacy of the verdicts, however there are several important points to make about the sentences. The first, of course, is about the death penalty itself. In the European Union, it is not allowed. Indeed, any country aspiring to join the EU must remove capital punishment from their statute books; Turkey, for example, has done this. But the European objection to the death penalty is global in its concern, not regional, which is why governments such as the UK’s should be taking a public stand. They do it against ISIS/Daesh, correctly, and they should do it against that key Western “ally”, Saudi Arabia. David Cameron please note.

Nimr al-NimrSecond, there is the question of the impact of today’s executions, both inside Saudi Arabia and in the wider Middle East. Notably, one of those executed was a prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr. This will not only inflame passions among Saudi Arabia’s Shia minority, concentrated in the Eastern Province, but has already brought howls of outrage from the most significant Shia-majority country in the region, Iran. Saudi Arabia and Iran are already fierce rivals in the Middle East (and are supporting opposite sides in the conflict in Yemen) and this latest development will only make things worse. Moreover, it is likely to exacerbate tensions between Sunni and Shia communities across the Gulf and the Middle East. If the government in Riyadh wished to cool passions in the restless Eastern Province they have alas succeeded in doing the opposite.

Cameron Saudi 4Finally, there is the question: should this be our business, or something just for Saudis themselves to comment on? I believe the answer should be an unequivocal “yes, it is our business”. Apart from the objection in principle to the death penalty, discussed above, there is the fact that there are particularly strong ties between the Desert Kingdom and Great Britain, both between the governments and between the two royal families. This relationship is something that should be reviewed. Behind-the-scenes diplomatic pressure has had no effect. The number of executions (many of them public beheadings) went up last year and after today’s executions (some by beheading, others byfiring squads) 2016 looks like being a record year. It is time for Britain and other Western countries to make it clear that we believe that human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia, including the extraordinary number of executions, are not acceptable in the 21st century. The Saudi monarchy seems intent on bringing about its own downfall, and if/when that happens, we should not be seen to have failed to take the side of humanity and justice.

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2016: Doomsday for ISIS?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 29th December, 2015

AmadiYesterday Iraqi government forces retook control of the city of Ramadi from ISIS/Daesh, though much of its infrastructure was trashed in the process. This was a welcome development which prompted the Iraqi Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, to declare that self-styled Islamic State will be crushed during 2016. Brave words, but I fear that he is being over-optimistic. The next target for the Iraqi army — with back-up from the United States and others in the anti-ISIS coalition — is the city of Mosul. That really would be a huge setback for Islamic State if it were to fall, not only because of its large size but also because of its key location in a region rich with oil. But retaking Mosul is unlikely to be easy.

ISISMoreover, there is another reason why Mr al-Abadi’s prediction is perhaps premature. Even if ISIS is eliminated in Iraq during the course of next year — and that is a big “if” — it is still well dug-in in Syria, where the HQ of its “caliphate”, Raqqa is located, and it is making progress elsewhere, notably in Libya and Pakistan. Like al-Qaeda, ISIS is a sort of franchise, though one with a clearer project in mind for the type of (to Western eyes dystopian) world it wants to see. Groups in other parts of Asia and Africa, including Boko Haram in Nigeria, which started independently have pledged a degree of allegiance or affiliation to IS. Furthermore, though some of the first wave of young jihadis have returned to their homelands, or been killed, fresh waves are being recruited, mainly through networks of friendship. That is why I believe that ISIS’s Doomsday will only come when its message has been successfully branded as toxic and un-Islamic and its perverse appeal is overwhelmed by something stronger and more positive.

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