Monday, 30 March 2015

Just words? Ed Miliband and the the Anne Frank Declaration

Cross-posted from

Recently Ed Miliband, along with all other members of the Shadow Cabinet, including Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander, signed the Anne Frank Declaration:
Anne Frank is a symbol of the millions of innocent children who have been victims of persecution. Anne’s life shows us what can happen when prejudice and hatred go unchallenged.

Because prejudice and hatred harm us all, I declare that:

  • I will stand up for what is right and speak out against what is unfair and wrong
  • I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves
  • I will strive for a world in which our differences will make no difference – a world in which everyone is treated fairly and has an equal chance in life

Since then, Ed Miliband has been talking about his August 2013 decision to block joint UK-US action in response to the Assad regime’s mass killing of civilians with Sarin chemical weapons. He said that this choice proves he is “tough enough” to be prime minister: “Hell yes.” Many of his supporters seem to agree, and “Hell yes” t-shirts have been produced, celebrating Ed Miliband’s toughness in helping get a mass-murdering regime off the hook.

Not that they see it in quite that way. Jamie Glackin, Chair of Scottish Labour, denied that there was any connection between Ed Miliband’s “hell yes” phrase and the August 2013 chemical attack: “It’s got nothing to do with that. At all.”

But it has everything to do with that. Ed Miliband’s chosen anecdote to show toughness was to point to the time he prevented action against a mass-murdering dictatorship, one that gave refuge to a key Nazi war criminal, that has tortured its citizens on an industrial scale, that is inflicting starvation sieges on hundreds of thousands of people, that has driven half of the population from their homes, four million of them driven out of the country as refugees, and that has continued killing civilians in their tens of thousands since Ed Miliband said “no” to action.
Anne’s life shows us what can happen when prejudice and hatred go unchallenged.
When asked about the consequent events in Syria, Ed Miliband shirked responsibility. “It’s a failure of the international community,” he said. But we are the international community. The UK is a key member of the international community, one of only five permanent members of the UN Security Council, and one of only three functioning democracies amongst those five. When Ed Miliband blocked UK action, the consequences were critical.
I will try to defend those who cannot defend themselves.
Anne Frank was 15 when she was killed in the Holocaust. The Anne Frank Trust is holding a #notsilent campaign to mark the 70th Anniversary of her murder on the 14th of April. You can also read more about her at the Anne Frank House museum’s website.

According to a November 2013 report by the Oxford Research Group, Stolen Futures: The hidden toll of child casualties in Syria, 128 children were recorded amongst the killed in the Ghouta chemical attack: 65 girls and 63 boys.

Something of two of those girls, Fatima Ghorra, three years old, and her sister, Hiba Ghorra, four years old, is told by Hisham Ashkar here.

The names of 54 of the girls killed are listed by the Violations Documentation Center in Syria. For some, clicking on a name will give a little more information, such as a photograph of one in life, or in death, or their age.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

“Hell yes”

See also: Ed Miliband is peddling a lie about his volte-face on Syria, by Dan Hodges.

So proud are Mr Miliband’s supporters, they’ve made a “Hell yes” t-shirt.

I have voted Labour in every general election until now. But not this time.

Related posts: A letter to Ed Miliband, and For readers of the LRB.

Tuesday, 24 March 2015

Washington DC Friday: Rally to Stop the Bombs in Syria

Cross-posted from

This Friday 27 March, 1-2pm at the White House.

From the Facebook event page:
Join us as we stage a protest to demand the United States take action to stop the Syrian regime dropping barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilians.

Come and add your voice to the voices of Syrian volunteer rescue workers - the White Helmets, thousands of non-violent activists in Syria and nearly 600,000 people around the world who are calling for a no fly zone.

On the 16th March the Syrian regime dropped barrels of chlorine on civilians in Sarmeen, Idlib killing six and injuring dozens.

The attack came just 11 days after the UN Security Council voted on a resolution saying it would take further measures, including the possibility of military force, if chlorine gas was used again in Syria. Now it has been used. The Syrian regime is testing us – if the international community doesn't take action, if our leaders break their word, it will be a green light for thousands more to be killed using poison gas and barrel bombs.

The attack also comes 390 days after the UN Security Council passed a resolution banning the use of barrel bombs. Despite these threats, the Syrian regime is doing nothing to ease its attacks on civilians. Barrel bombs have killed nearly 2000 children.

Every barrel bomb Assad drops also strengthens ISIS. Any support these extremists have in Syria is directly linked to the mass human rights violations of the Assad regime. If we want to defeat ISIS we have to end the violence in Syria.

Stand with the Syrian people because no one is free until we’re all free.

Please join if you can.

A call from Planet Syria: Is anybody out there?

Cross-posted from

Planet Syria is an initiative by non-violent Syrian activists. They write:
Non-violent activists across Syria are calling for global solidarity around their joint demands of stopping the regime's barrel bombs and pushing for inclusive peace talks.

Scroll down on their website,, to read more:

Extremism breeds from injustice – the biggest killer of civilians in Syria today is the ‘barrel bomb’. These are often old oil barrels filled with explosive and scrap metal and rolled out of government helicopters and planes miles up in the air onto hospitals, schools and homes.

The UN Security Council unanimously banned them a year ago. Nothing has changed since then – nearly 2,000 children have been killed since UN Resolution 2139 was signed on February 22, 2014.

Many of us were against foreign military intervention in Syria. But in September 2014 the US-led coalition started bombing ISIS in our country. Now there is a deep hypocrisy to letting the Assad regime fly in the same airspace and kill civilians. Many more than are killed by ISIS.

The international community must follow through on its demands and stop the regime’s barrel bombs and air attacks – even if that means with a ‘no fly zone’.

You’ll also find Planet Syria on Facebook and Twitter.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Ask your MP to support Syria Civil Defence – ‘The White Helmets’

Cross-posted from Syria Solidarity UK.

Syria Civil Defence, known as The White Helmets, are volunteer rescue workers who have saved thousands of people from the rubble of air attacks.

After Assad’s forces again attacked civilians with chlorine bombs on 16th of March, Syria Civil Defence called on UN Security Council members to enforce a no-fly zone.

You can help.

If you live in the UK, this page can help you write an email to your MP.

Please ask your MP to support The White Helmets in their call for action to end Assad’s air attacks.

Get started here.

Photo above: Kafranbel protesters call for a No-Fly Zone, 21 March. More here.

Below: London protest outside the US Embassy, 22 March. More here.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Syria Civil Defence ‘White Helmets’ call for No-Fly Zone following chemical attack


Above images via Syria Solidarity UK: 17th March London protest outside the US Embassy following new Assad regime air attacks with chlorine bombs.

There will be a further protest at the US Embassy this Sunday, 2-4pm. Facebook event page here.

Note that last Saturday’s march to Downing Street also called for a No-Fly Zone.

Following the 16 March attacks, Syria Civil Defence, also known as the White Helmets, have called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Syria to stop further air attacks on civilians by the Assad regime.You can sign a petition in support on their website,

Press release from The Syria Campaign:

17th March 2015

Bissan Fakih,, +961 71 377 364


Syrian Civil Defence call for the UN Security Council to impose a no-fly zone

Chlorine attacks took place in the town of Sarmeen and in the village of Kminas on Monday night. Kminas was hit by two chlorine-filled barrel bombs around 8:30 PM. The village is nearly deserted and no casualties were recorded. The smell of chlorine traveled west to the town of Sarmeen. Members of the Syrian Civil Defence – known as the White Helmets – responded to civilians who complained of choking but there were no serious casualties.

At 10:30 PM, the town of Sarmeen was hit with chlorine-filled barrel bombs. Six people are confirmed to have died in the attack. A husband and wife and their three children, and the husband’s mother. They are reported to have died in the field hospital due to lack of treatment options available.

Five civil defence centres responded to the attacks in Sarmeen – teams from Binnish, Maarat Nauman, Saraqeb, Balyon and Sarmeen were present. There were more than 70 cases of choking, including seven members of the White Helmets who were later discharged from the hospital around 2 AM. Some of the injured have been taken to Turkey for treatment, others have remained to be treated in field hospitals.

The government renewed their attacks two hours later in Kafr Takharim, using scud missiles. Seven were killed.

The chlorine attacks come just eleven days after the UN Security Council adopted a resolution specifically condemning the use of the gas as a weapon in Syria. Resolution 2209 [2015] – drafted by the United States – states that the UN Security Council will impose measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter if chemical weapons including chlorine are used again. Chapter VII allows decisions to be enforced with economic sanctions or military force.

In response to the chlorine attack, the White Helmets are calling for the United Nations to uphold its demands and stop the chemical attacks and barrel bombs by implementing a ‘no-fly zone’ in Syria. Raed Saleh, head of the Syrian Civil Defence said:
“When a child inhales chlorine they get a burning pain in their throat and eyes and they feel like they’re suffocating. Sometimes they vomit but often their breathing just gets shallower and they slip away, never to wake up again. It breaks your heart forever. I wish the world could see what I have seen with my eyes.”

He added:
“These children did not have to die. It’s not good enough for the United Nations to ban these chemical weapons on paper, they need to stop them from dropping from the sky. With a no-fly zone these children would be alive today.”

The White Helmets have launched their campaign for today at, in partnership with global advocacy group The Syria Campaign. James Sadri, Campaign Director of The Syria Campaign said:
“Only days ago the UN Security Council said it would impose Chapter VII measures if its resolution on chemical weapons was violated again. Well it’s been violated. Real action must be taken immediately to protect civilians – with a no-fly zone if necessary.”

Video: English language video of the Syria Civil Defence treating victims of the attacks

Video: A rescue worker shows signs of intoxication

Notes to Editors

The Syrian Civil Defense – or the ‘White Helmets’ as they are known – are volunteer rescue workers who arrive to the sites of barrel bomb attacks to dig survivors out from under the rubble and transport the injured to safety. Unarmed and neutral, they have saved people from all sides of the conflict.

Barrel bombs themselves were banned last year in a separate UN Security Council resolution 2193 on 22 February 2014. However, since then according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights at least 1,892 children have been killed by them.

Resolution 2209 was passed after a fact-finding mission of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) earlier this year concluded “with a high degree of confidence” that chlorine was used on three villages in Syria in 2014, killing 13 people. The report included eyewitness accounts of helicopters dropping barrel bombs with toxic chemicals. The use of chlorine gas has been repeatedly reported by activists and rescue workers in Syria.

In the OPCW report they did not say which side was responsible for the chlorine attacks, but the UK, France and US have all accused the Assad regime of the attacks. Addressing the Security Council, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said there was not much doubt. “Let’s ask ourselves, who has helicopters in Syria? Certainly not the opposition. Only the regime does and we have seen them use their helicopters in countless other attacks on innocent Syrians using barrel bombs.”

The Syrian representative to the UN has persistently denied the use of chlorine gas and in a BBC interview in February Assad said that his regime were “definitely not” using chlorine as a weapon.

The Syria Campaign is an advocacy group mobilising public support around the world to stop the violence in Syria

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Four years is too long

Cross-posted from

Last year, two out of every five civilians killed in Syria were killed by Assad’s air attacks.

Over half the women killed last year were killed by Assad’s air attacks.

Over half the children killed last year were killed by Assad’s air attacks.

There is no other single measure that could do as much to save civilian lives as stopping Assad’s air force.

Some say this should be done by giving the Free Syrian Army anti-aircraft weapons. That might help, but not enough. Not enough to stop Assad’s bombers. There are too many. They attack over too wide an area. They fly too high.

So the best way, the one way, the only way to ground Assad’s air force, is for the UK, France, the USA, one or all of them I don’t care, to make the decision.

Make the call.

Tell Assad this stops now. Tell him, your bombing stops now or we start hitting your air bases. UK, France, USA, ground Assad’s air force.

Four years is too long.

Syria needs a No-Fly Zone.

Join us today in London.

Saturday, 7 March 2015

Comparing Syria to DR Congo

Cross-posted from

The war in Syria is very different to the recent wars in the Democratic Republic of Congo, yet comparisons are occasionally made for whatever reason. In a January 2013 interview, President Obama brought up conflict in the DRC when contextualising his decision-making on Syria:
In a situation like Syria, I have to ask, can we make a difference in that situation? Would a military intervention have an impact? How would it affect our ability to support troops who are still in Afghanistan? What would be the aftermath of our involvement on the ground? Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime? And how do I weigh tens of thousands who've been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?

Those are not simple questions. And you process them as best you can. You make the decisions you think balance all these equities, and you hope that, at the end of your presidency, you can look back and say, I made more right calls than not and that I saved lives where I could, and that America, as best it could in a difficult, dangerous world, was, net, a force for good.

As Michael E. O’Hanlon pointed out at the time, Congo presented a very different case to Syria. Most of the deaths were being caused by malnutrition and poor healthcare, not directly by violence. A UN peacekeeping mission was in place, and had been since 1999. The US had been involved in training the DRC’s military since 2009, though with mixed results.

Michael E. O’Hanlon argued that there was certainly more that the US could usefully contribute, but that the DRC conflict was much less violent than those the US had faced in Afghanistan and Iraq, and also that conditions in Syria and the DRC were quite different, so that even if the US decided to commit forces in both places, the kinds of forces each would require would not be the same, and so there would be few if any conflicting demands from the two missions.

So different are the problems in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo that it’s hard to believe the President was raising the DRC in his Syria answer as a genuine concern; it seems to have been more of an attempt to use Congo’s problems as a rhetorical diversion. This is what is known as ‘whataboutery’.

Turning from the President of the United States to a consistent opponent of American foreign policy, the British political commentator Owen Jones has been writing on Syria recently. In a column for The Guardian on the 3rd of March, he drew attention to the horror of the Assad regime’s barrel bombs, and contrasted the regime’s public relations approach, attempting to present its terror campaign as a legitimate disciplined military operation, with the PR strategy of ISIS, designed to flaunt its brutality.

Following this welcome highlighting of Assad’s deadly air campaign, Owen Jones accepted an invitation to speak at next week’s demonstration in London to mark the 4th anniversary of the Syrian uprising. That demonstration has as one of its demands a no-fly zone for Syria, calling on France, the UK, and the US, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, to act either individually or collectively to protect civilians, to enforce UN Security Council 2139, and to ground Assad’s air force. I very much look forward to hearing what Owen Jones has to say at the rally, particularly as he has in the past been wholly opposed to any military intervention by Western countries, and a change of heart would be very welcome.

In that same 3rd March column for The Guardian, Owen Jones made his own Syria/Congo comparison,  pointing to “the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo” as well as “Pol Pot and his killing fields” and “the mass murder of a million communists in Indonesia in the 1960s” to make the point that ISIS aren’t quite the most deadly phenomenon since the Nazis. In this he was criticising an opinion article published in the Independent, though I think the Independent article wasn’t actually making that precise claim.

Owen Jones has on a couple of other occasions compared Syria to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first time that I’m aware of was at a speech to the Stop The War Conference in November 2013.

In that speech Owen Jones gave a justification of his opposition to Western intervention following the Assad regime’s chemical weapons massacre in the suburbs of Damascus (though the Ghouta massacre wasn’t actually mentioned in his speech) and then proclaimed his hope that the opening of US-Iran nuclear talks would lead to a peace deal for Syria. This was followed by a justification for selectivity in which wars the antiwar movement campaigns on, with a brief mention of DRC as a war “airbrushed out of existence by the corporate media,” and as “the most murderous conflict since World War Two.” Both of these assertions are questionable in my view, as I will explain further on.

On Friday he devoted his entire Guardian column to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Again he compared it to Syria:
Some lives matter more than others: the “hierarchy of death”, they call it. The millions killed, maimed and traumatised in the Democratic Republic of Congo are surely at the bottom of this macabre pile. The country was the site of the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler, and yet I doubt most people in the west are even aware of it. No heart-wrenching exclusives at the top of news bulletins; no mounting calls for western militaries to “do something”.

We are rightly appalled at a barbaric conflict in Syria that has stolen the lives of 200,000 civilians; and yet up to 6 million people are believed to have perished in the DRC. Not that the mainstream media alone can be berated for this astonishing lack of attention. The left have rightly championed the cause of a Palestinian people subjected to decades-long occupation and subjugation: surely the misery of the DRC does not deserve this neglect.

It is disappointing for an article ostensibly intended to correct the public’s ignorance on the DRC to include that misleading line about no calls for military intervention; military intervention in the DRC has been ongoing for several years, starting with a UN monitoring mission in 1999, expanded as a peacekeeping mission in 2000, and further expanded in 2004 with a Chapter VII mandate to use force to protect civilians. By 2013 the UN force had an offensive combat mandate and was using attack helicopters, tanks, APCs, and artillery, to force the withdrawal of rebel militias in eastern DRC.

US military training operations in DR Congo were mentioned earlier. The EU has also been engaged in Congo: Since 2005, the EUSEC RD Congo mission has been dedicated to reforming the DRC army, while a parallel EUPOL RD Congo mission has been dedicated to restructuring the police. And in 2006 the EU launched Operation EUFOR RD Congo, a military operation in support of UN operations in Congo.

The claim by Owen Jones that the 1998-2003 Second Congo War was “the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler” as he writes in The Guardian, or “the most murderous conflict since World War Two” as he claimed in his 2013 Stop the War Conference speech, should be looked at more closely, as should his comparison of 6 million deaths in DRC with “200,000 civilians” killed in Syria.

Starting with the Syria number, I think Owen Jones has likely made a mistake here, as I don’t know of any reputable organisation claiming 200,000 civilians have been violently killed in Syria. The most recent UN study arrived at a minimum count of 191,369 violent deaths up to the end of April 2014, but this included combatants as well as non-combatants. This is an average of over 5,200 violent deaths over the duration of the conflict. The count for the most recent 12 months of the report, May 2013 to April 2014, was a minimum of 61,816 killed, an average of over 5,100 per month, so certainly the number of violent deaths including both combatants and non-combatants is by now well over 200,000.

It’s very important here to understand the meaning of a minimum count: This is not an estimate of the true total, but a minimum number of violent deaths that could be individually confirmed. The true total is certainly higher, though to an unknown degree. Many casualty numbers reported for other conflicts are not minimum counts but estimates, often estimates based on sample surveys. Such estimates are more uncertain than minimum counts in that the true number may be either higher or lower than the estimated number. One should therefore be careful about directly comparing a minimum count for one conflict with a sample survey estimate for another conflict.

With regard to the UN’s minimum count of violent deaths in Syria, particularly striking is that they only had access to Syrian Government casualty figures from March 2011 through March 2012; after that date the Assad regime stopped releasing figures, so there is likely to be a very significant number of regime forces killed that are not included in the UN count.

The most widely reported mortality figures for the 1998-2003 Second Congo War have been those produced by the International Rescue Committee. Between 2000 and 2004, the IRC conducted a series of four mortality surveys. In aggregate, these studies estimated that 3.9 million excess deaths had occurred between 1998 and 2004:
Less than 10 percent of deaths were directly attributable to violence. The vast majority of Congolese died from the indirect public health effects of conflict, including higher rates of infectious diseases, increased prevalence of malnutrition and complications arising from neonatal- and pregnancy-related conditions.

This means that the IRC estimated total violent deaths in the Second Congo War at under 390,000 over five to six years. (The survey extended beyond the official end of the war.) As it’s an estimate, the true number could be above or below that, and the margin of error will be dependent on how representative the sample surveys were of the overall situation.

There is no research that I know of that has attempted to estimate excess deaths due to the war in Syria, therefore the only comparison of deaths we can make between Syria and the DRC is of violent deaths, and on violent deaths we can only say that in Syria at least 191,369 people were killed in just over three years, with the true number likely much higher, though we don’t know how much higher, while in the DRC more or less than 390,000 people were killed over a period of between five and six years.

It may be that more people have already been violently killed in Syria’s war than in the Second Congo War, or it may be that Syria’s toll will pass the DRC’s in the coming couple of years, or it may be that Syria’s war will mercifully end before that happens. We don’t know, and we can’t know on the available evidence.

Similarly we can’t know whether the level of excess deaths due to the war in Syria will be higher or lower than in the DRC, though with half the population displaced, with the enormous destruction of housing, and particularly with the ongoing deliberate targeting of health services by the regime, we can expect that the level of excess deaths in Syria will be very high indeed.

To return to Owen Jones’ 2013 phrase “the most murderous conflict since World War Two,” this I think is unjustified as ‘murderous’ implies violent deaths, and the IRC estimate for violent deaths in the Second Congo War is lower than the Rwandan Genocide, to take the most significant comparison. His more recent formulation, “the deadliest war since the fall of Adolf Hitler,” has more justification as the International Rescue Committee have used the words “arguably… the world’s deadliest crisis since World War II” to describe the Democratic Republic of Congo, based on their excess deaths estimate. Note however the use of the word “arguably” by the IRC: there isn’t adequate research on excess deaths across all conflicts since the Second World War to allow certainty in their statement.

As for Owen Jones characterising the Second Congo War as a war “airbrushed out of existence by the corporate media” in his 2013 speech, this was fantastically hyperbolic. Here are 33 pages of links to stories on Congo from The Guardian over recent years. Here are recent stories from The Telegraph; older stories can be found via their search facility. Here’s the New York Times topic page for the Democratic Republic of Congo. Google will get you more, like this 2001 story which shows that although most people’s attention was indeed elsewhere, CNN was still covering events in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

But even if CNN reports it, that doesn’t guarantee that people will read it, and it does look as though Owen Jones perhaps hadn’t read enough before writing, noticing as he did the cannibalism, mentioned in both of his recent columns, but missing the years of effort by the international community to bring security and stability. There are further issues to explore of how that effort might have been improved, and going back further, of whether a more interventionist policy prior to the Rwanda Genocide might have averted the entire cascade of violence, but they are beyond the scope of this post.

Finally we have to come back again to the term ‘whataboutery’. In making these repeated comparisons between Syria and the DRC, is Owen Jones, like Barack Obama, using the Democratic Republic of Congo’s history as a diversion, or is he treating it as a subject in its own right?

The same question was raised by some when he wrote about Assad’s barrel bombs: was this a rhetorical diversion to diminish the importance of the fight against ISIS, or was it a sincere attempt to draw attention to Assad’s murderous air attacks on civilians, attacks that France, the UK, and the US, have the means to stop? I hope we’ll find out on Saturday.

Come along on Saturday March 14th in London to show your solidarity and support for a peaceful, democratic Syria: a Syria without Assad and a Syria without ISIS. Call for better treatment of Syrian refugees. Call for the protection of civilians. Call for a no-fly zone.

UPDATE: Owen Jones didn’t make it to the demo after all, and as far as I know he still hasn’t commented on the call to enforce a No-Fly Zone.