The Syrian whirlpool

UN human rights investigators confirm outsiders, including jihadis, are present in Syria

On Monday 17 September the United Nations chief investigator for Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said that “foreign elements”, including fundamentalist fighters, are operating inside the war-torn country. He also accused both sides of carrying out war crimes, although the list of atrocities alleged against the government was longer. Activists estimate that up to 27,000 people have lost their lives in the conflict so far. But what Mr Pinheiro was outlining was official confirmation of what many people have known and even admitted before: that overseas influences are being deployed inside Syria for outside political and religious objectives.

On Sunday 16 September General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, confirmed that members of its special forces are in Lebanon and Syria providing “counsel and advice”. However, the commander denied that the existence of the commandoes meant that Tehran had a ‘military presence’ in either country. On Tuesday 18 September Egypt hosted Iran as part of a get-together of the ‘Islamic Quartet’, which also includes Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Cairo warned Tehran that the two countries’ relations are going to continue to stumble along unless the latter changes its stance on the situation in Syria.

It has long been understood that Iran has been worried that the Syrian civil war is having a negative effect on its alliances in the area. The government of Bashar al-Assad, which has been responsible for the worst bloody episodes of the conflict so far, has been one of Iran’s friends for a long time. The admission that the elite Iranian Quds Forces are also out and about in Lebanon is not a great surprise either, seeing as Hezbollah are based in that country.

All three parties – the Iranian state, the Hezbollah movement and the Syrian leadership – are linked by the Shia branch of Islam. They all have a mutual aim and a clear desire (as any political entity anywhere in the world would have) to continue to exist and to exert power where they can. At the moment, the civil war in Syria is stirring up all sorts of regional power and influence struggles and the Islamic religious dividing lines are one of the most obvious battle areas.

Saudi Arabia, the massive Sunni Muslim strongman, is none too happy about Iran getting involved and Riyadh is licking its lips at the prospect of kicking out the Assad Alawites (an offshoot is Shia Islam) and installing a new Sunni government in Damascus. Saudi Arabia has been flexing its muscles by arming the rebel fighters in Syria and while it is undeniable that the regime has acted in an unjustifiable manner in suppressing opposition to its rule in such a brutal way, you cannot simply characterise the rowdy rebels as ‘the good guys’ and thus, by default, laud Saudi Arabia for its actions. Paulo Pinheiro’s words on Monday condemning the violence from either side prove this.

The sheer abundance and complexities of the ethnic links, political unions, religious divides and linguistic differences in the Middle East illustrate how the situation in Syria is much more of a dizzying whirlpool than the less intricate conflict in Libya last year.

Here is a basic outline of which country thinks what and why they have made made the Syrian civil war so regionally significant:

Syria: 74% Sunni Muslim; 16% Shia, Alawite, Druze Islam; 10% Christianity (via CIA World Factbook – as are all religious percentages below). Kurdish community in north-east. Friends with Iran and Hezbollah. Loosely tied to Russia.

Turkey: 99% Muslim (mostly Sunni). Western-allied. Member of NATO. Wants Assad regime out. Has taken in up to 60,00 Syrian refugees, according to the UN. Large Kurdish community in north with which it is conducting an internecine war.

Iran: The major Shia powerhouse. 89% Shia Muslim; 9% Sunni Muslim. Friends with Syrian government and Hezbollah. Distrusts Saudi Arabia. Detests Israel and the West. Large Kurdish community in north. Quds special forces active in Syria and Lebanon.

Iraq: 60-65% Shia Muslim; 32-37% Sunni Muslim. Large Kurdish community in north. Fighting ongoing insurgency since end of war in 2009.

Qatar: Majority Sunni Muslim. Active in both Syria and Libya in arming the rebel fighters.

Saudi Arabia: The major Sunni powerhouse. Active in Syria in arming the rebel fighters.

Jordan: 92% Sunni Muslim. Expanding Zaatari refugee camp in north of country to allow it handle up to 80,000 refugees from Syria. Has welcomed Syrian fighter pilots and politicians defecting from regime.

Egypt: 90% mostly Sunni Muslim; 10% mostly Coptic Christians. Supports uprising against regime.

Israel: 76% Jewish; 17% Muslim. Friends with the West. Detests Iran and is highly suspicious of its nuclear programme.

Palestinian Territories: Mostly Muslim and at centre of Middle East peace process over territorial disputes with Israel.

Lebanon: 60% Muslim; 40% Christian. Hezbollah group is Shia Muslim and supports Assad regime and Iran. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees are in the country. Nation not wholly in favour of one particular side or grouping in the conflict. Risk of sectarian strife spilling over from Syria.

Waiting game

On the regional diplomatic front-line against the Syrian violence, more might be expected from Lebanon

It is a fractious neighbourhood. The repressive Assad regime in Syria is surrounded by Iraq (still rocking with violence of its own), Iran (currently quietly watching events from the corner), Israel (dealing with its own Spanish indignado-style protests at the moment), Jordan (where King Abdullah has spoken recently to reassure the people of reforms), Turkey (starting to get restless with Syria and now using its megaphone to condemn Bashar al Assad) and Lebanon (a successful democracy, sitting between West and the Middle East).

However, Beirut is failing to use its geopolitical location and the fact that it has a seat on the UN Security Council at the moment to be able to lead the pack on Syrian policy. When the condemnatory statement was on the table in New York, Lebanon lifted its pen and passed it on. Discussing his country’s refusal to sign, Foreign Minister Adnan Mansour was quoted as saying that:

“The decision reflected Lebanon’s clear convictions. This position sought the higher interests of Lebanon and the entire region, including Syria.”

It is true that a resolution would have been a more defiant outcome and the European-led statement was weak. But that is not a reason not to express support for a small step on the road to reform, sanctions or intervention. This last option is the most worrying and the one that scares Russia and China the most at the moment. But Lebanon does not have to call for a Libyan-style military move.

The violence has escalated in recent days to the shelling of the port of Latakia from the sea by the Syrian navy. A simple denunciation would carry weight, as Lebanon is the only Middle Eastern and major Muslim nation on the present Council (although Gabon and Nigeria have sizeable Islamic populations as well).

But Lebanon has some tricky politics. Hezbollah, the militant Shia Muslim group, supports the Assad regime. Saad Hariri, the former prime minister, looks more to the West. With politics opening up across the region, Hezbollah ought to pause and consider the fallout if it were to continue to support a regime that was to be thrown out and whose members, like Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, ended up in caged docks in front of a condemnatory public. Hezbollah has links to Iran and it is hard for them to think purely within national borders, such are the complexities of the regional patronages and ties.

If it were to do so, it may see the reformist agenda led by Hariri and also the tide of condemnation growing in regional big beasts like Turkey. Lebanon is swimming against the flow at the moment and it would be better at least to turn to face the shore, rather than the swelling, international, condemnatory white rollers brewing out at sea.

Reporting the dead: Part Two

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the second part of a two-part blogpost. Here we analyse the figures since 2006.

  • 2006 – 2010 – Death toll: 529

a) The five most deadly countries

1. Iraq 127

The ongoing insurgency has caused the most problems for reporters but religious conflict between the different Muslim congregations and ethnic troubles towards the Kurdish north of the country have contributed to make Iraq the most dangerous nation for journalists in the last 5 years. The withdrawal of UK and US combat troops was meant to herald a change in the fortunes for Iraqis but the militancy has continued.

2. The Philippines 59

Developing fast with a mushrooming population, the Philippines is becoming a deadly platform for reporting. Inter-religious divisions and ethnic bonds spill over into the politics, which sees a number of assassinations every year. Journalists are regularly caught up in the shootings.

3. Mexico 47

Five years ago, Felipe Calderon was sworn into office as Mexico’s president. In the same year he launched his ‘war on drugs’, an aggressive policy of taking on the gangsters head-to-head with the military spearheading the campaign. Five years later and a staggering 28,000 people have died in the violence. The majority have been gang members, but thousands of policemen and soldiers have died too. And so have 47 journalists, unsure over what to publish and what to broadcast as the cartels’ media influence grows. As the war intensifies and continues, it becomes an increasingly deadly news story to report.

4. Pakistan 38

The NATO coalition’s war in Afghanistan has spread to Pakistan and although operations began in Afghanistan in 2001, over the last 5 years there has been increased activity in Pakistan; both by the Taliban and by mainly US forces. When the militancy is added to religious strife, the ongoing Kashmir situation and corrupt politics, it is clear that the journalistic atmosphere is particularly dangerous.

5. Somalia 23

A country without a full-functional government since 1993, Somalia has been the scene of fierce fighting and warfare mainly between government troops and Islamist militias, of which Al-Shabab is the most prominent. Recently, African Union peacekeepers have been trying to improve stability in the capital, but intimidation and violence from the militants have meant very little press freedom.

b) The rest of the world

Africa (18): DRC 7, Nigeria 7, Angola 4

Asia (70): Sri Lanka 15, Afghanistan 14, India 14, Nepal 9, Thailand 6, Israel/Gaza 5, Indonesia 4, Lebanon 3

Europe (26): Russia 21, Georgia 5

Latin America (44): Colombia 19, Honduras 14, Venezuela 7, Guatemala 4

Reporting the dead: Part One

The Press Emblem Campaign (PEC) has published its end-of-year report and it does not make easy reading for journalists. This is the first part of a two-part blogpost analysing the data.

In 2010, 105 journalists were killed. Since 2006, 529 have died. The risky countries are not surprising. However, there are different reasons for the dangers faced by reporters and cameramen out on the roads.

There are two main sets of figures the PEC has released: this blogpost will look at this year’s figures and the next blogpost will analyse the global total of journalists’ deaths since 2006.

  • 2010 – Death toll: 105

a) The five most deadly countries in the last year

1 = Mexico and Pakistan 14 dead in both

With more than 3,000 people killed in Ciudad Juarez, a northern border town, this year alone, it is no great shock that the ‘war on drugs’ has claimed journalists’ lives in Mexico. The reporting of drugs deals and violence is often accompanied by death threats and in September the newspaper ‘El Diario de Juarez’ published a frank editorial to the gangs titled ‘What do you want from us?’ and agreed to print what the gangs wanted after one of its photographers was shot dead.

More than 3,000 died in violence in Pakistan last year. Militancy, tribal wars, US drone strikes and the Pakistani armed forces’ battles against Taliban insurgents have contributed to the rising deaths. Journalists covering the militancy have been shot as political, religious and international tensions grow.

3. Honduras 9

Since the 2009 coup, which installed Porfirio Lobo as the new premier, politically-motivated murders have been on the rise. In addition, the contagion of Mexico’s ‘war on drugs’ has spread to the country and that has caused further problems for journalists in the field.

4. Iraq 8

US combat operations ceased in Iraq this year but thousands of troops are still in the country training troops and aiding stabilisation policies. The insurgency has claimed 8 journalists’ lives this year alone.

5. The Philippines 6

Religious conflict in the mainly-Muslim south and the ferocious and deadly politics, where ethnicity, party allegiances, family ties and religion meet in a lethal mix, have created an unstable environment in which to report.

b) The deadliest nations in the rest of the world

Africa (14): Nigeria 4, Somalia 3, Angola 2, Uganda 2, Cameroon 1, DRC 1, Rwanda 1

Asia (16): Indonesia 3, Nepal 3, Afghanistan 2, Thailand 2, India 2, Bangladesh 1, Yemen 1, Israel/Gaza 1, Lebanon 1

Europe (11): Russia 5, Belarus 1, Bulgaria 1, Cyprus 1, Greece 1, Ukraine 1, Turkey 1

Latin America (13): Colombia 4, Brazil 4, Venezuela 2, Argentina 1, Ecuador 1, Guatemala 1