A copy of the UK Labour Party briefing paper for MPs before the Syria debate in Parliament on the 11th October 2016 was leaked. The document is seriously flawed. It does not provide MPs with accurate information that reflects reality. More seriously the document is structured to provide support for the propaganda lines of Assad and Putin Regimes. This is curious for a progressive democratic socialist party, and needs to be thoroughly investigated.
The briefing document is available at http://www.syriauk.org/2016/10/leaked-labour-briefing-on-syria-shows.html (and copy https://partnershipblog.wordpress.com/2016/10/18/uk-labour-partys-dishonest-leaked-briefing-paper-to-mps-prior-to-syria-debate-on-141016/)
Have analysed the document by considering each section by its relationship to reality and the nature of any distortions. Given the authoritarian rule of the Putin regime, and its control of the media, I have to use the term “Putin regime” rather than Russia, as the responsibility for the actions of the military belongs to Putin not the Russian people.
1. “Top Lines” Section.
The briefing paper starts with a statement on Aleppo “we need an ever more urgent and concerted effort by the international community to end the violence on all sides”. The reality is that civilians in East Aleppo are besieged and being bombarded by the air forces of Assad and Putin regimes. This is asymmetrical warfare with Assad and Putin as the main sources of violence.
It continues “If deliberately-targeted, attacks on civilian targets or humanitarian aid convoys, whether by Russian or Syrian forces, are clear war crimes for which there can be no excuse, and for which they must be held to account.” There can be no real doubt that the Assad and Putin regimes have been deliberately targeting civilians. The use of barrel bombs and “double tap” airstrikes on hospitals and bakeries leaves no doubt.
The answer is not anger but “we need all sides to get back around the negotiating table as soon as possible, calm the rhetoric, and start afresh on the hard work of securing a ceasefire, isolating the Jihadist extremists, opening safe channels for humanitarian aid to besieged areas, and negotiating a lasting peace.”
The reality is that “Jihadist extremists” applies to the large Shiite militias being used by the Assad regime, more than it does to the 10-15% of extremists on the Syrian Opposition side (see breakdown on opposition for Dec 2015 at http://www.syriauk.org/2015/12/who-are-syrian-rebels.html). The briefing also ignores the underlying problem of the large Alawite so called “security” forces, who were formed by Hafez Assad (45+ years ago) to protect the regime by the use of terror from the Syrian people.
The briefing paper accepts the Assad regime propaganda line that they are fighting Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Al-Nusra). “…. we would urge the government to give the UK’s support to the proposal from the UN’s Syria Envoy Steffan de Mistura to ensure a safe escort from Aleppo for fighters belonging to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham to remove one clear obstacle from the chances of securing a lasting ceasefire in the city.” Fighters from Jabhat Fateh al-Sham are at most 10% of the 4000 fighters defending Eastern Aleppo against the regime (see Reuters http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-nusra-idUSKBN12E0R6 ). The reality is that the Assad regime will not change its rhetoric if they leave. The regime’s propaganda portrays all armed opposition fighters as extremists.
This section of the briefing paper gives the impression that the conflict in Aleppo is between two equally culpable sides.
2. “Lines on fight against Daesh (Islamic State)” Section.
This section states that the airstrikes in Iraq against Daesh are legal under international law because the Iraqi government requested them. Assad also uses this argument in claiming the bombing by Russia is legal because his regime requested it. Although in reality Assad regime cannot be considered the legitimate government of Syria because it is conducting a genocidal war against Syrians.
3. “Lines on the refugee crisis” Section.
There are no concrete suggestions except to provide more funding to councils to welcome the few refugees from Syria who make it to the UK.
4. “Background” to the Syrian Crisis section.
4.1 “The Syrian Civil War”
The briefing paper provides a wholly inadequate history of the Syrian Revolution. It states that problems began in Derra in 2011 when teenagers were tortured, several demonstrators were killed which resulted in nationwide protests. “By July 2011, hundreds of thousands had taken to the streets, and opposition supporters eventually began to take up arms.”
The reality is that the Assad regime was founded in 1970 by Hafez Assad who set up five “security forces” to spy on each other, and terrorise the population with the threat of systematic torture. Hafez’s obsession was the security of the regime. His son had backtracked on earlier reforms, and over 81.7% of Syrians wanted the regime to leave power by 2011. [see page 30, “Survey Findings: Syria 2011 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, September 20th 2011, Report Prepared for The Democracy Council of California” (important see note 1 below)].
The peaceful uprising of the Syrian people was brutally repressed by the regime by the use of torture and murder on an industrial scale. Tens of thousands of Syrians have been tortured to death by the regime (see the 55000 photos smuggled out of Syria by “Caesar” in 2014). In 2013 the regime launched a massive chemical attack against civilians in Ghouta, killing at least a thousand people.
The Syrian Network Of Human Rights has analysed statistics for causalities from 2011 to October 2015, the Assad regime is responsible for 95% of civilian deaths, 97% of death by torture, 93% of medical staff deaths and 95% of enforced disappearances (see https://sn4hr.org/overall-toll/). By June 2016 the regime was responsible for 98% of deaths due to siege (see http://sn4hr.org/blog/2016/06/22/research-death-792-individuals-due-syrian-regimes-isiss-siege-civilian-populated-cities/).
The briefing report states that Assad was not removed from power because “without a clear united force against Assad, the rise of Daesh, and the entering into the conflict of regional and world powers, the situation has become increasingly multi-dimensional, and locked in stalemate.”
The reality is that Russia had been supplying the Assad regime with the weaponry needed to create powerful armed forces (dominated by Alawites) since the beginning. After the uprising Russia continued (with Chinese financial backing) to generously supply Assad. Military support for the Syrian Opposition was meagre in comparison. This military asymmetry created a vacuum that encouraged extremism and allowed Daesh to flourish. The fall of Homs encouraged the creation of the Al-Nusra front with foreign MENA backing. The use of terror tactics by Assad’s thugs and his foreign extremist Shiite militias has encouraged sectarian hatred.
According to the briefing paper “successive attempts by both sides to encircle and besiege each other have left hundreds of thousands of civilians in the city [Aleppo] trapped without running water, electricity, medical support, or humanitarian relief”. The reality is that the regime is bombing and starving rebels in Eastern Aleppo into submission.
The briefing paper is again giving the impression that the conflict in Syria and specifically in Aleppo is between two equally culpable sides. This distorted impartiality creates a fake balance of responsibility.
4.2 The US-Russian ceasefire
It provides an outline of the 10th September ceasefire agreement. Also a statement by John Kerry highlighting the publically perceived threat to the West of the Sunni Islamic Fundamentalism of al-Nusra.
The actual 10th September agreement calls for the end of all hostilities, not just airstrikes. It contains a host of very specific terms and ends with “….each Side reserves the right to withdraw from this arrangement if they believe the terms have not been fulfilled.” This means that the agreement never had any chance of survival.
The briefing paper includes this term from the agreement “Those rebel forces would take action, with US support, to isolate themselves from Jihadist forces, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the al-Nusra Front”. How in the real world could the rebel fighters of al-Nusra be separated from the rest of the Opposition fighters, when they are under huge military pressure form the Assad and Putin regimes?
The briefing paper states “…..Once isolated US and Russia would coordinate on air strikes against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham and Daesh”. There is no mention of this in the actual agreement.
The briefing paper says: “However, the ceasefire [September 2016] was violated almost immediately, before being fatally undermined by the attack on an aid convoy entering East Aleppo by Russian/Syrian forces, and then definitively buried by their ongoing, devastating assault on East Aleppo.”
In reality there were claims and counter claims of minor ceasefire violations. The briefing paper acknowledges the decisive and clearly gross violation was due to the bombing of the aid convoy by the Russians and the subsequent assault on Eastern Aleppo, which the Assad and Putin regimes were preparing during the ceasefire.
The false impression is given that al-Nusra is the dominant part of the armed Syrian Opposition. This agrees with Assad regime propaganda, as well as Western public opinion which fears Sunni Fundamentalism (given the outrageous and high profile terrorist attacks in recent years).
4.3. Defence Select Committee report
The briefing paper refers to Defence Select Committee report, “UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq” (21st September 2016, see https://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201617/cmselect/cmdfence/106/106.pdf). This 100+ page document bemoans the lack of information from the UK Ministry of Defence [MOD], which the briefing paper points out as well.
The briefing paper states “They [Defence Select Committee] said it is ‘disappointing’ that the MoD has been unable to provide the Select Committee with full statistical analysis of UK airstrikes in Syria, which the Committee requested. Although the MoD’s rationale for doing so may be sound, their inability to provide detail may still undermine the Government’s assertion that ‘the bombing campaign in Syria is in support of credible moderate ground forces’.” The actual report’s rebuke is milder “may tend to undermine”, and is using the word “credible” in the sense of militarily effective.
The briefing paper states “It [Defence Committee Report] says it is ‘much less certain’ that the UK’s efforts in Syria are succeeding, in comparison to efforts in Iraq – this is because the goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is, to not only defeat Daesh, but to also establish a government that will be ‘neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other’.”
The actual report says in the section “Armed Actors in Syria, Conclusions: …. Whilst the military effort in Iraq is bearing fruit, that is much less certain in Syria. We believe this is partly due to the aspirations of the UK Government in respect of each country. The goals in Iraq are to remove territory from DAESH, to strengthen the Iraqi Government and to maintain Iraq as a unitary state. The goals in Syria are not only to defeat DAESH, but also to help bring into being a Government which will be neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other. These goals cannot be accomplished by military means alone.”
The actual report only says that the goals in Syria are more ambitious than Iraq, and separately that they cannot be achieved by militarily means alone. It does not imply anything about the balance of military to non-military support in Syria. If anything the report implies that much more of both are required.
The briefing paper then states in the same paragraph “To this end, the Committee recommends the Government outlines ‘exactly how it intends to help ensure that political reform is achieved and what action it is planning to take to keep it in step with the military campaign’.” This appears in a different part of the report, “The danger posed by military success without political reform”, and is only in practice concerned with areas formerly under Daesh control. The rest of Syria has the problem of an advancing Assad regime.
The briefing paper gives a misleading impression of the Defence Committee’s Report, by glossing the report to imply that there is too much military support to the Syrian Opposition.
4.4 Steffan De Mistura plan
This is the most problematic section. The briefing paper gives a summary of the UN Envoy Steffan De Mistura’s plan to escort Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters Aleppo out of Aleppo. There is no context given.
The UN itself estimates that there are 800 Jabhat Fatah al-Sham fighters in Aleppo. The briefing paper does not mention that this is out of 4000 rebel fighters in Aleppo. As mentioned before the true figure in a Reuters report is believed to be as low as 200 fighters (5% of rebel fighters).
The Briefing Paper states “There are precedents for this plan: Jabhat forces were escorted out of Old Homs city in May 2014, and from Homs city in May 2015.” This is a gross distortion which needs to be explained fully by the author(s) of this briefing paper. Labour Party MPs were being lied to.
In May 2014 the Old Homs area surrendered to a policy of bombardment and starvation to Assad forces. As part of the surrender deal all the rebel fighters and their families were allowed to leave. In May 2015 a similar deal was done in the Waer neighbourhood of Homs. These were not humanitarian ceasefires. This was siege, surrender and ethnic cleansing. Assad forces were then able to turn their attention to Aleppo.
As in the rest of the Syrian Opposition the al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fatah al-Sham) were and still are a small proportion of the armed rebels. In reality the briefing paper is suggesting that the rebels surrender when confronted by Assad and Putin regime aggression and war crimes.
The Defence Select Committee report described above, spoke to several witnesses about the makeup of the armed Syrian Opposition. Charles Lister’s focus is to track and interview Syrian Opposition groups, and is the most informed of the witnesses called. This is his assessment of the Syrian Opposition:
“86. Charles Lister, when at the Brookings Institute, produced his own analysis of what he regards as moderate opposition fighters. When we asked him whether he thought that any of the names on his list would be unknown to the Assad regime, he replied that ‘Assad knows about the groups, but obviously defines them in a very different way’. He argued that Russia also had this information and that ‘all the groups together know what each of them represents, who their respective external backers are and what their political positions are’. His work—set out below—claims that the following groups would contribute around 65,000 of the stated 70,000 moderate opposition: ….. Mr Lister went on to argue that, in addition, there were ‘roughly 25–30 additional factions that would fall under this moderate label’ which combined, represented ‘a further 10,000 fighters’.” [page 89, UK Military Operations in Syria and Iraq, 21st September 2016, Defence Select Committee.]
This contrasts with Bashar al-Assad comments in October 2016 “In an interview given to Denmark’s TV 2 channel, President al-Assad said that ‘moderate opposition’ is a myth, and that reaching a political solution requires fighting terrorism, asserting that it’s not acceptable that terrorists will take control of any part of Syria.” [see http://sana.sy/en/?p=89763].
It appears that the author of the briefing paper tends to the Assad view.
4.5. Calls for war crimes charges against Russia and Syria
Briefing paper gives a summary of recent calls for Russia and Syria to be referred to the ICC, and notes that they are not members. It does not mention that a UN Security Council Referral could overcome this, but that Russia and China would veto it.
4.6. Latest humanitarian situation in Aleppo
A summary of the latest UN summary of conditions in Eastern Aleppo is given, without mentioning the obvious reality that this is a result of the Assad regime siege.
4.7 Suggested questions:
The briefing paper poses questions to push the Steffan De Mistura plan.
It then uses it’s misleading impression of the Defence Committee’s Report to suggest asking the government “….The Defence Select Committee has said that the UK’s goals in Syria are too ambitious to be realised by military means alone; that is to establish a government that will be ‘neither authoritarian and repressive, on the one hand, nor Islamist and extreme, on the other;. What is the government’s strategy to square that circle? “
There are then questions aiming at casting doubt on the number moderate opposition fighters.
The briefing paper gives inaccurate information and promotes a viewpoint skewed towards the Assad and Putin regimes. The barbaric nature of the Assad regime’s actions and history is absurdly ignored. The number of extremist fighters in the Syrian Opposition is at the same time exaggerated, and increasing military support for the opposition is opposed. The briefing paper ignores the asymmetry of the conflict, with the Assad regime advantage in military hardware and the committed support of Russia and China. The briefing paper’s description of the Steffan De Mistura plan actually recommends surrender to the regime. Humanitarian concerns are pitched at a token level. This briefing is seriously inadequate as it does not connect to reality, and displays attitudes that are not progressive or democratic. This needs to be investigated. The shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry uses many of the same ideas in the debate on Syria in the UK Parliament.
Emily Thornberry: ……[ Steffan De Mistura plan….. There is a precedent for such a step in the way the Jabhat fighters were escorted out of Homs and other towns in Syria. While we must treat the Russians’ assurances with caution, it is an approach that Sergei Lavrov has said they are ready to support and can persuade the Assad regime to agree to, so will the Government lend their support to the plan put forward by the United Nations? The Government have yet to respond to the initiative at all. I believe that it is a serious initiative with some prospect of hope in it, and that it should not be ignored. Will they persuade their French and US counterparts to do likewise and seek to use this pragmatic proposal as the basis to restart talks? [11/10/16 House of Commons, UK Parliament]
** Note 1. The “Survey Findings: Syria 2011 Public Opinion Survey, Angela Hawken, September 20th 2011, Report Prepared for The Democracy Council of California” has been criticised on two counts. The poll was not approved by the Syrian government, and was conducted underground as a “guerrilla poll”. The authors claim that this was due to the Assad regime demanding all opinion polls are approved by the regime. This seems to be supported by the extremely brutal actions of the regime both before and after 2011, and the rigged elections. There do not appear to be any respectable independent polls on controversial issues conducted openly in Syria. The other criticism is that the Democracy Council is funded by the US government to promote democracy in the MENA, and that Angela Hawkins is part of the council and the lead poll researcher. This is a reasonable objection, but the results of the poll do fit in with information about the excessive brutality of the Assad regime. The oppressive history of the regime since 1970 would support the scenario of an unpopular regime kept in power by fear. Some have criticised the poll as showing only 5% of Syrians were critical of protesters in 2011. The false assumption is made that all Alawites supported the regime. The Assad regime is based around a clique of financial and security interests which exclude most Syrians, including Alawites.