Jonathan Fryer

Posts Tagged ‘Syria’

A Time for Diplomacy to Triumph

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 24th November, 2015

Turkey Russia SyriaThe downing of a Russian fighter jet by Turkey earlier today is potentially a dangerous escalation of the febrile situation in the Middle East, though it need not be, if handled correctly. I agreed with the former Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, when he tweeted that normally one might fire a warning shot at a plane allegedly violating one’s airspace, not shoot it down. The situation has been made worse by the fact that the Russian pilot and co-pilot have, according to some reports, been either killed or captured by anti-government rebels in Syria, who are vehemently opposed to Russia’s support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Anyway, one cannot undo the shooting down, now that it has happened, and NATO will be having an emergency meeting in Brussels tonight — at the request of Turkey — to discuss the situation.

Russian jetThe Turkish government meanwhile is being rather macho about it all, saying that it reserves the right to take any measures necessary to preserve its national sovereignty, but this rather obscures the fact that the last thing the Middle East needs is a head-on conflict between NATO and Russia, which could conceivably happen if Turkey were to press ahead with its invocation of Articles 4 & 5 of the North Atlantic treaty, according to which all NATO members are obliged to come to the assistance of a member state that has come under attack. Instead, what is needed is some rapid but determined international diplomacy, to take some of the tension out of the situation. It was Churchill who famously said that jaw-jaw is better than war-war, and that is certainly the case in this instance. It is to be hoped that Britain and other senior members of NATO will work with the Turks to find some face-saving measures that could take off some of the heat. Otherwise what some observers are already seeing as a proxy war in Syria by outside powers could all too easily disintegrate into the real thing.

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The Syria Dilemma

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 18th November, 2015

ISIS 5In the wake of last weekend’s appalling terrorist attacks in Paris the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night stated his determination to get tougher with ISIS, including the possibility of getting parliamentary support for air strikes against ISIS positions in Syria. The UK already takes part in anti-ISIS military action in Iraq, at the request of the government in Baghdad, but so far has not joined the Americans, French and most recently the Russians in taking the fight to Syria. Indeed, when the prospect of air strikes in Syria was raised in August 2013, the House of Commons voted against. Would the result be any different this time, given the heightened outrage over the Paris attacks? Quite possibly. However, I believe that Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, was right last night to express reservations following Mr Cameron’s statement to the House on ISIS. Bombs are rarely the answer to conflict situations, usually just making matter worse.

Syria destructionMoreover, Britain has not been invited into Syria by the (ghastly) government in Damascus; indeed, Mr Cameron has made quite clear that he wants the Assad regime removed from power. But there are at least two other important considerations to be thought through carefully before rushing into military action. The first is that Britain is meant to be a champion of the rule of law as well as being a pillar of the United Nations system. So the first uncomfortable question is: where is the UN authority for all this? There have been talks in Vienna involving a wide range of countries that in principle are aiming at a political settlement to the Syria crisis and although they have not as yet progressed very these talks should, I believe, be the top priority. The second consideration is more controversial, namely that if Britain joins the bombing campaign against ISIS in Syria then it will almost certainly become a higher priority target for ISIS-inspired terrorist attacks. Doubtless Mr Cameron would say that that is a risk one takes in a war situation, but that it should not deflect us from the goal of wiping out the ISIS threat. That of course assumes that ISIS can be bombed out of existence, which I find difficult to believe, not least because each attack on the self-styled Islamic State acts a rallying call to radicalised young Islamist extremists.

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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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The London March for Refugees

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 12th September, 2015

imageimageMany tens of thousands of people, of all ages and ethnicities, marched from Marble Arch to 10 Downing Street in London this afternoon in solidarity with refugees, especially those from Syria. The main chant and slogan on banners was “Refugees Welcome Here!”, echoing the actions of citizens in Germany and calling Prime Minister David Cameron to account for not being more generous — or indeed, precise — about how many refugees Britain will take and when. There were a good number of Socialist Worker Party members present, celebrating the triumph of Jeremy Corbyn in Labour’s leadership election and also a few genuine Trots, who made up for their small number by employing a mobile sound system that enabled them to drown out some of the pro-refugee messages with their diatribes against capitalism and all the “corrupt” mainstream political parties (including the Greens!). There was an excellent turnout of LibDems, not just from London, and Tim Farron was one of the keynote speakers. We were blessed with the most perfect Indian summer’s day, which added to the festive atmosphere. A sizable proportion of British people are ready to respond to the current refugee and migrant crisis, however hard media such as the Daily Express tries to poison minds against them. But clearly this is an issue which Britain cannot solve on its own, which is why the British government should be cooperating more closely with France, Germany and other EU member states that have taken a lead, as well as boosting global action by the United Nations. Some Syrian refugees are being driven by hunger to return to Syria from refugee camps in neighbouring countries, because the World Food Programme has had to halve rations as it has run out of cash. Saudi Arabia, for one, could fund what is needed there without blinking an eye.

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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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Let Palmyra Inspire Us

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 24th August, 2015

imageimageYesterday news came through from Syria’s Department of Antiquities that ISIS forces had blown up the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the jewels in the crown of Palmyra, the most spectacular of all Syrian pre-Islamic sites. Ever since Islamic State occupied the site and its neighbouring town there had been fears that these iconoclasts would destroy the ruins. Then only a few days ago, ISIS beheaded the octogenarian chief curator of Palmyra, Khaled al-Asaad, in yet another example of their barbarity. The one positive outcome of that despicable act was that it united Syrians — who have been engaged in a bloody civil war for the past four years — in condemnation. An estimated 300,000 Syrians have perished in the conflict so far, but this one death highlighted the grotesque extremes to which the violence has reached when civilization itself is being consigned to oblivion. There is still the danger that ISIS will destroy more historic ruins and artefacts in Palmyra but we should not let such actions lead us to despair but rather to reinforce our determination to protect and preserve our heritage, as well as the lives and well-being of people today, and to show the young zealots who have been blinded by the false testimony of a perversion of Islam the true values of humanity and civilization. Let Palmyra be the symbol of that struggle and an image that inspires hope, not despair.

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A New Era in UK-Iran Relations

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 23rd August, 2015

UK Iran 1The British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond is in Tehran today, reopening the Embassy that has been closed for four years following its invasion by demonstrators. Given the recent progress in international negotiations regarding Iran’s nuclear ambitions this was an inevitable and welcome step. Though Brtain’s engagement in Iran has not always been positive there are strong reasons for the UK — and indeed the European Union — to have closer working relations with this important Middle Eastern power. Commercial opportunities are obvious, but trade should not be the only focus for attention. If there is going to be a regional settlement of Syria’s ongoing civil war then Iran is going to have to be involved. Similarly, wider regional insecurity as well as the fight against ISIS, require closer contacts with Tehran. In particular, it would be helpful to reduce the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has been a central cause of the recent events in Yemen.

UK Iran Britain can also usefully use its influence to try to calm Israeli rhetoric against Iran and vice versa; yesterday, in an interview, the former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak confirmed that Israel had considered attacking Iran four times over the past decade. Iranian propaganda against what it refers to as the “Zionist entity” is often poisonous, but Israel would find itself in a less ignominious position if it withdrew from occupied Palestine. There is, however, one other major issue that could be an impediment in the way of much closer British-Iranian relations and that is human rights. The Islamic Republic has a poor record in a number of areas, including the treatment of its Ba’hai minority, Kurds, political dissidents, LGBT population and others. And although the UK Foreign Office recently downgraded its emphasis on a worldwide campaign against the death penalty it should not let this issue drop off the agenda in discussions with Iran.

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Richard Howitt at the AEJ

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 10th July, 2015

Richard Howitt MEPRichard Howitt is one of the most long-standing Labour members of the European Parliament, representing the East of England. As he himself pointed out at a lunchtime briefing for members of the Association of European Journalists (UK Section) at Europe House in Westminster today, that region is best known for its high percentage of UKIP supporters. Some of those can apparently be pretty thuggish; Richard Howitt was literally stoned during the Clacton by-election. However, in the Parliament his main work is on the Foreign Affairs Committee and he is enthusiastic about the (still relatively new) Commissioner for External Relations, Federica Mogherini. He is less impressed by the way that Britain’s Conservative government is handling matters European. I raised the issue of refugees from Syria, whose numbers now exceed 4 million. Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan have been shouldering an unfair share of the burden of looking after them and I for one was disappointed that EU member states failed to step up to the plate when the issue of possible quotas was raised at the Riga Summit. Richard Howitt clearly understands the demographic challenges that the UK faces unless it keeps an open door to EU migrants — which is a major reason he supports Turkish membership of the Union. Domestically, he party has hardened its stance on migration and immigration, but not for the first time the Labour MEPs have proved more liberal than their national counterparts, who still nervously guard their backs.

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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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Kurds Petition for Abdullah Ocalan’s Release

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 13th February, 2015

imageKurds from all over Europe — including many who had matched long distances — converged in Strasbourg today to mark the handover to the Council of Europe of a petition signed by more than 10 million people calling for the release of Abdullah Ocalan, leader of the banned PKK, who has been in prison on an island in Turkey since his capture and rendition by the CIA in Kenya. The PKK figures on the list of terrorist organisations in several European countries, but many Kurds believe that is unjust. Though there was a bloody war between Kurdish militants and the Turkish security forces for decades, the AK Party government that has been in power in Ankara for over a decade has conducted a stop-start peace process with the Kurds, granting certain cultural rights after long years of oppression. But some of the international speakers who were present at a press conference this morning to highlight the petition handover argue that just as the release of Nelson Mandela was an essential element in the move towards reconciliation and more racial justice in South Africa so the release of Abdullah Ocalan is a prerequisite to a permanent settlement of Turkey’s question. It was pointed out that PKK fighters fought alongside Peshmerga forces in liberating the town of Kobane in the Kurdish area of Syria recently, scoring an important victory over Islamic State, which maybe might help a review of how the PKK is viewed. As someone who lived through the years in Britain when IRA bombs were a feature I know how important it was for the British and Irish governments to talk to former terrorists in order to make the Good Friday Agreement a reality. As has often been said, one does not make peace with one’s friends. And if there is going to be a Kurdish settlement in Turkey it seems crucial to me that Abdullah Ocalan should be a full party to the negotiations, however difficult some Turks might find that to stomach.

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