About Derek Gregory

I'm Peter Wall Distinguished Professor and Professor of Geography at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.

Googled

Following up my post on Google and Project Maven here, there’s an open letter (via the International Committee for Robot Arms Control) in support of Google employees opposed to the tech giant’s participation in Project Maven here: it’s open for for (many) more signatures…

An Open Letter To:

Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet;
Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google;
Diane Greene, CEO of Google Cloud;
and Fei-Fei Li, Chief Scientist of AI/ML and Vice President, Google Cloud,

As scholars, academics, and researchers who study, teach about, and develop information technology, we write in solidarity with the 3100+ Google employees, joined by other technology workers, who oppose Google’s participation in Project Maven. We wholeheartedly support their demand that Google terminate its contract with the DoD, and that Google and its parent company Alphabet commit not to develop military technologies and not to use the personal data that they collect for military purposes. The extent to which military funding has been a driver of research and development in computing historically should not determine the field’s path going forward. We also urge Google and Alphabet’s executives to join other AI and robotics researchers and technology executives in calling for an international treaty to prohibit autonomous weapon systems.

Google has long sought to organize and enhance the usefulness of the world’s information. Beyond searching for relevant webpages on the internet, Google has become responsible for compiling our email, videos, calendars, and photographs, and guiding us to physical destinations. Like many other digital technology companies, Google has collected vast amounts of data on the behaviors, activities and interests of their users. The private data collected by Google comes with a responsibility not only to use that data to improve its own technologies and expand its business, but also to benefit society. The company’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” famously embraces this responsibility.

Project Maven is a United States military program aimed at using machine learning to analyze massive amounts of drone surveillance footage and to label objects of interest for human analysts. Google is supplying not only the open source ‘deep learning’ technology, but also engineering expertise and assistance to the Department of Defense.

According to Defense One, Joint Special Operations Forces “in the Middle East” have conducted initial trials using video footage from a small ScanEagle surveillance drone. The project is slated to expand “to larger, medium-altitude Predator and Reaper drones by next summer” and eventually to Gorgon Stare, “a sophisticated, high-tech series of cameras…that can view entire towns.” With Project Maven, Google becomes implicated in the questionable practice of targeted killings. These include so-called signature strikesand pattern-of-life strikes that target people based not on known activities but on probabilities drawn from long range surveillance footage. The legality of these operations has come into question under international[1] and U.S. law.[2] These operations also have raised significant questions of racial and gender bias (most notoriously, the blanket categorization of adult males as militants) in target identification and strike analysis.[3]These problems cannot be reduced to the accuracy of image analysis algorithms, but can only be addressed through greater accountability to international institutions and deeper understanding of geopolitical situations on the ground.

While the reports on Project Maven currently emphasize the role of human analysts, these technologies are poised to become a basis for automated target recognition and autonomous weapon systems. As military commanders come to see the object recognition algorithms as reliable, it will be tempting to attenuate or even remove human review and oversight for these systems. According to Defense One, the DoD already plans to install image analysis technologies on-board the drones themselves, including armed drones. We are then just a short step away from authorizing autonomous drones to kill automatically, without human supervision or meaningful human control. If ethical action on the part of tech companies requires consideration of who might benefit from a technology and who might be harmed, then we can say with certainty that no topic deserves more sober reflection – no technology has higher stakes – than algorithms meant to target and kill at a distance and without public accountability.

We are also deeply concerned about the possible integration of Google’s data on people’s everyday lives with military surveillance data, and its combined application to targeted killing. Google has moved into military work without subjecting itself to public debate or deliberation, either domestically or internationally. While Google regularly decides the future of technology without democratic public engagement, its entry into military technologies casts the problems of private control of information infrastructure into high relief.

Should Google decide to use global internet users’ personal data for military purposes, it would violate the public trust that is fundamental to its business by putting its users’ lives and human rights in jeopardy. The responsibilities of global companies like Google must be commensurate with the transnational makeup of their users. The DoD contracts under consideration by Google, and similar contracts already in place at Microsoft and Amazon, signal a dangerous alliance between the private tech industry, currently in possession of vast quantities of sensitive personal data collected from people across the globe, and one country’s military. They also signal a failure to engage with global civil society and diplomatic institutions that have already highlighted the ethical stakes of these technologies.

We are at a critical moment. The Cambridge Analytica scandal demonstrates growing public concern over allowing the tech industries to wield so much power. This has shone only one spotlight on the increasingly high stakes of information technology infrastructures, and the inadequacy of current national and international governance frameworks to safeguard public trust. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of systems engaged in adjudicating who lives and who dies.
We thus ask Google, and its parent company Alphabet, to:

  • Terminate its Project Maven contract with the DoD.

  • Commit not to develop military technologies, nor to allow the personal data it has collected to be used for military operations.

  • Pledge to neither participate in nor support the development, manufacture, trade or use of autonomous weapons; and to support efforts to ban autonomous weapons.

Symmetries in warfare

 

As I read (too) many alt.left commentaries on siege warfare in Syria, and the work of journalists and writers I once admired, two questions keep circling:

(a) if, like me, you are suspicious of many of the claims advanced by the governments of the United States, the United Kingdom and their allies – often with good reason – why do you not extend the same critical examination to the claims advanced by Syria, Russia and their allies?

(b) if, like me, you are appalled at the violence wreaked on Palestinians in Gaza by Israel with the active support of the United States and its other allies, why are you not also appalled at the violence wreaked on Syrians by the Assad regime with the active support of its allies?

Gas Masques

This is both an interruption of and a supplement to my series of essays on the siege of Ghouta in Syria (‘Mass Murder in Slow Motion’): you can find the first (‘East Ghouta’) and second (‘Siege Economies’) here and here, and there are two more to come.  My focus here – and hence my title (in sixteenth-century Europe a masque was a theatrical entertainment staged to glorify the royal court) – is on two performances staged after the mass casualty attacks on Douma on 7 April 2018: the first by the United States, France and the United Kingdom when they launched air strikes on 14 April against three sites that they claimed were central to Syria’s chemical weapons programme, and the second by Syria, Russia and their proxies on the right and the left who insisted that the reports of the original attack were ‘chemical fabrications’.  Both performances, I suggest, are deeply suspect.

 I begin by setting the scene – the immediate preconditions to the attack – and then draw on testimony from witnesses on the ground to document what happened in Douma on the evening of 7 April.  I then consider each performance in detail: the process through which the US and its allies decided that, on the balance of probabilities, the Assad regime had used chemical weapons in Douma, determined their military response, and justified their actions; and the mobilisation of what Bethania Palma called ‘disinformation machines’ by Syria, Russia and its proxies to proclaim ‘fake news’ and erect ‘false flags’.

Under the bombs

The joint military offensive against East Ghouta proved to be an extraordinarily violent campaign.  Over the summer of 2017 the Ghouta had been designated a ‘de-escalation zone‘, but attacks by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies and proxies resumed during the autumn and intensified spectacularly from January 2018.  Here’s a snapshot summary from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED):

The siege was now absolute; hospitals were repeatedly bombed, and hundreds of civilians killed during a devastating onslaught of bombs, shells and missiles.  ‘It’s not a war, it’s called a massacre’, one doctor told the Guardian in February 2018:

“The bombing was hysterical,” said Ahmed al-Dbis, a security official at the Union of Medical and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), which runs dozens of hospitals in areas controlled by the opposition in Syria. “It is a humanitarian catastrophe in every sense of the word. The mass killing of people who do not have the most basic tenets of life.”

UNICEF issued a blank page as a statement to condemn the relentless assault – it had no words left to describe what was happening:

Sonia Khush, an official with Save the Children, described the situation as “absolutely abhorrent.” “The bombing has been relentless, and children are dying by the hour,” she said. “These families have nowhere left to run – they are boxed in and being pounded day and night.”

Many of them sought refuge in basements and improvised subterranean shelters. Here is a report on 21 February from Megan Specia and Hwaida Saad:

All of eastern Ghouta is underground. That is how one aid worker described the situation as thousands of people fled into basements and makeshift shelters in the rebel-held suburb of Damascus this week. Eastern Ghouta is under a brutal aerial assault by Syrian government forces that has left more than 200 people dead in recent days, including many children. As the war on the outskirts of the capital reached a new level of intensity, families huddle underground. For hours on end, they wait out the bombing, which shows no signs of slowing….

Many see the basements as the only haven in a hostile environment. They had little chance to evacuate, as the area has been blockaded for months. For Shadi Jad, a young father who has been in a basement since the beginning of the week, his shelter is a mixed blessing. “Honestly, I feel the shelter is a grave, but it’s the only available way for protection,” he said when reached on Tuesday. But Mr. Jad, who is hiding with his wife and eight other families, said that being in close quarters had also drawn his community together. “We share stories, try to keep the fear away by telling some jokes,” he said. “The shelter makes the relationships deeper”…

Hoda Khayti, 29, has lived in eastern Ghouta her whole life, and said her family, like most of their neighbors, had spent much of the week in a basement. Twelve other families joined them in one cramped space. They could hear planes constantly passing overhead. “The scariest moments are when rockets land, then silence follows,” Ms. Khayti said when reached Wednesday on a Facebook video call. “We feel our souls are leaving our bodies when the plane gets close, and we feel relieved after it goes away.” They fear the bombs outside, but like Mr. Jad, Ms. Khayti said the shelter has become a place for the community to come together. They share food, blankets and stories while they wait for the sounds of planes overhead to trail off….

Conditions rapidly deteriorated; the basements and shelters were hopelessly overcrowded, most with no heating or electricity, sanitation or running water.  Listen to Neemat Mohsen in Saqba in early March:

“In our street, over 500 metres there are only three basements. They have to house all the families there. We feel the prison shrinking. We were first besieged in an enormous prison called eastern Ghouta, now we are trapped in shelters similar to tombs… We are living real terror 24 hours a day.”

By the middle of March the offensive had succeeded in dividing the enclave into three:

Russia brokered a series of evacuation deals and prisoner exchanges with the major rebel groups, first with Ahrar al-Sharm who agreed on 21 March that its fighters, their families and others would leave Harasta, and then with Faylaq ar-Rahman who agreed on 23 March to leave Ayn Tarma, Irbin, Jobar and Zamalka.  Over the following days convoys of buses left for Idlib, while thousands of people fled on foot through so-called ‘humanitarian corridors’ to government camps on the outskirts of Damascus; still others elected to stay in their shattered neighbourhoods under the terms of a security deal to be enforced in the first instance by Russian military police.

That left Douma, where an uneasy truce lasted for ten days – broken by intermittent air strikes – while Jaish al-Islam (JAI) negotiated terms.  These were complicated by divisions within JAI.  Some of its members wanted to fight on, while others wanted to leave with their families but refused to go to Idlib – not only was the rebel-held area widely regarded as an elaborately constructed kill-box where the Syrian Arab Army would soon resume its offensive, but JAI had a ‘blood feud’ with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham which controlled much of the area.

Negotiations stalled and eventually broke down.  JAI reportedly placed new conditions on evacuation and refused to release prisoners it had held captive for several years, and on the afternoon of Friday 6 April JAI shelled Damascus, killing four and wounding another 22. The assault by the Syrian Arab Army and its allies resumed with a vengeance.  A ground offensive was launched under the cover of a sustained air and artillery bombardment broadcast live on state TV.  There were 50 air raids during the afternoon and evening, and a medic inside one local hospital – desperately short of trained staff and supplies – described the chaos as the dead and wounded were brought in:

The hospital is in a state of panic… Dentists are carrying out emergency surgeries. Dead bodies are being brought in pieces and are unrecognisable.

That afternoon Hosein Mortada (above), a reporter for Press TV and al-Alam and a vocal supporter of the Assad regime, released a video from Mount Qalamun where he was embedded with the artillery batteries that were pounding Douma, with columns of smoke towering into the sky behind him.  His commentary:

These are appetizers… The story is bigger than a ground invasion. There is something they will see today if the story continues. They will feel something very strong.

It’s impossible to say whether Mortada knew what was coming – he certainly enjoyed close access to the Army – or whether he was merely continuing the gloating and goading style of ‘reporting’ that had become his signature.  Or perhaps he was riffing on the terrifying warning issued in February by Brigadier-General Suheil al-Hassan, the officer commanding Syria’s elite Tiger Force which was now leading the assault on Douma:

I promise, I will teach them a lesson, in combat and in fire… You won’t find a rescuer.  And if you do, you will be rescued with water like boiling oil. You’ll be rescued with blood.

The air and ground assault intensified throughout the next day (above), and most people returned to or remained in the basements and shelters that had been their wretched homes for weeks that had dragged into months.  Then, on Saturday night, there were suddenly multiple reports of mass casualties.

‘Gas!  Gas!’

In a preliminary analysis the Violations Documentation Centre zeroed in on three strikes on 7 April involved in what it described as a ‘suspected chemical attack’.

The first, at 1200, targeted a Syrian Arab Red Crescent medical centre with guided missiles and barrel bombs; the centre was virtually destroyed along with its complement of ambulances (hospitals have long been a target of the Russian and Syrian Arab Air Forces: see here).  Although the strike had a paralysing effect on the medical response to later strikes, I’m not sure why it was included; an early report from the Syrian-American Medical Society claimed that a ‘chlorine bomb’ had hit a Douma hospital but no time was given, and a subsequent joint statement from SAMS and the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) addressed the situation later that evening:

On Saturday, April 7th, at 7:45 PM local time, amidst continuous bombardment of residential neighborhoods in the city of Douma, more than 500 cases – the majority of whom are women and children – were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent. Patients have shown signs of respiratory distress, central cyanosis, excessive oral foaming, corneal burns, and the emission of chlorine-like odor.

During clinical examination, medical staff observed bradycardia, wheezing and coarse bronchial sounds. One of the injured was declared dead on arrival. Other patients were treated with humidified oxygen and bronchodilators, after which their condition improved. In several cases involving more severe exposure to the chemical agents, medical staff put patients on a ventilator, including four children. Six casualties were reported at the center, one of whom was a woman who had convulsions and pinpoint pupils.

The casualty figures were subsequently revised upwards, but those cited here seem to have been victims of the other two strikes on the list, which were unambiguously attributed to ‘chemical weapons’.

The second, at 1600, targeted the Saada Bakery on May Ibn al-Khattab (bakeries have long been a staple of Russian-Syrian air strikes too as part of the ‘starve or surrender’ strategy of siege warfare).

The third, at 1930, targeted an apartment building near al-Shuhada Square near al-Numan Mosque.

The many eyewitness accounts are not easy to reconcile with the map: the experience of an air strike fragments both experience and language, and at first it was difficult for rescuers to pinpoint the sites that had been attacked (one rescuer told the VDC: ‘At the start of the chemical attacks, the smell of chlorine reached the center of the city of Douma. We could not determine the area where the chlorine rocket had fallen.)

Nevertheless a common narrative does emerged from multiple sources scattered across different locations inside Douma.  Here are its main outlines.

A network of flight monitors – which warns people of impending attacks and which has also been used to identify the perpetrators of previous air strikes (see for example here) – tracked Syrian Mi-8 helicopters flying southwest from the Dumayr airbase towards Douma.  I’m not sure how significant this is, and I haven’t been able to obtain more details; the intensity of the strikes suggests multiple aircraft were involved.  But Syrians opposed to the Assad regime have become hideously accustomed to barrel bombs dropped from Syrian Arab Army helicopters (see above: Arbin, 20 February 2018), and one report claimed that the Syrian Air Force Intelligence Directorate was also intimately involved in targeting East Ghouta with chlorine gas dropped from its helicopters.  That night several people in Douma reported hearing the whirring of helicopter blades overhead followed by the sound of objects falling from the sky.  There were also witnesses who saw the projectiles descend; they described a ‘green gas emanating from the canisters falling from the sky’ and rushed down to the basements to warn those huddled in the shelters below to evacuate immediately.

As I read these accounts, I remember the words of Hoda Khayti that ended the report from Ghouta I cited above: ‘I don’t want to die in the basement.’  One rescuer underlined the urgency of escape:

There were basements in other buildings with people who didn’t see the gas in time. We entered those buildings and found bodies on the staircases and on the floor – they died while attempting to exit.

He made repeated forays to help people out:

By his third frantic dash down the stairs, with a wet piece of cloth over his mouth and a little girl in each arm, everything went dark for Khaled Abu Jaafar. “I lost consciousness. I couldn’t breathe any more; it was like my lungs were shutting down…”

Quick actions like these saved many people’s lives, but their escape was fraught with danger.

“Someone yelled chemical” Umm Nour recalls. “I felt my throat close, my body go limp as if I had just had everything sucked out of me.”  She reenacts how her arms tensed up, how she could barely muster the strength to grab her daughters’ arms and claw her way up the stairs. They made it to the fourth floor when artillery rounds or rockets – she’s not sure what – slammed into the building, shaking it. “It was like we were between two deaths,” she says. “The chemical attack on the lower floors or the other strikes hitting the upper ones.”

 

But for some people in locations closer to the deadly canisters this proved to be the wrong choice:

Another canister landed on a bed on the upper floor of a damaged building and did not explode, according to a video shot by an activist who found it. A third canister was found on the roof of a crowded, four-storey apartment building near the city center, according to a video of the canister and an activist who visited the building the next day. Rescue workers …  found dozens of men, women and children lying lifeless on the floor below… It appeared that when the smell entered the basement, some people had tried to go upstairs to get fresh air, unknowingly getting closer to the source.

Cellphone videos of the canisters and the aftermath of the attack on the apartment building near al-Shuhada square were uploaded to social media platforms, and you can find a preliminary but none the less detailed analysis of them – including geo-location (below) – from Eliot Higgins and his team at Bellingcat here.

For those working in makeshift clinics the scenes were no less horrifying:

“We were 12 people, and before the attack you can imagine, we had been working perhaps 30 hours or more without stopping,” said one paramedic who treated the victims. “Then you start getting a lot of people who are suffocating, and they smell of chlorine, and imagine after all that exhaustion you get this huge number of people, around 70, targeted while they were in bomb shelters.” He added: “We gave them whatever we had, which wasn’t much, just four oxygen generators and atropine ampoules so they could breathe … Most of them were going to die. You can imagine now our psychological state. It’s tragic. I’ve been working in this hospital for five years and those last two days, I haven’t seen anything like it.”

A local reporter described what he saw at one field hospital as apocalyptic:

I went to a medical point that is an underground hospital, and in the tunnels the dust was filling the area and there were women, children and men in the tunnels. When I arrived at the medical point it was like judgment day, people walking around in a daze, not knowing what to do, women weeping, everyone covering themselves with blankets, and the nurses running from victim to victim. There were entire families on the floor covered in blankets, and there were around 40 dead in shrouds lying between the families, their smell filling the place. The situation, the fear and the destruction are indescribable.

These first accounts are saturated – in image and in word – with the sensations of an attack by chemical weapons (CW).  The people of Ghouta, and of rebel-held areas in Syria more generally, are no strangers to such attacks: they know their smells, their signs and their symptoms.

In fact on 4 April, just three days earlier, Human Rights Watch had followed up its previous forensic investigations of the use of chemical weapons against rebel-held neighbourhoods in West Ghouta and East Ghouta on 21 August 2013 – Attacks on Ghouta (2013; above) – and the ‘widespread and systematic’ use of CW by the Assad regime –  Death by Chemicals (2017) – with an inventory of 85 confirmed CW attacks between 21 August 2013 and 25 February 2018:

HRW concluded:

Of the 85 chemical weapon attacks analyzed …  more than 50 were identified by the various sources as having been committed by Syrian government forces. Of these, 42 were documented to have used chlorine, while two used sarin. In seven of the attacks, the type of chemicals was unspecified.

The … Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) carried out three chemical weapon attacks using sulfur mustard. One attack was by non-state armed groups using chlorine. Those responsible for the remaining attacks in the data set are unknown or unconfirmed.

This graphic, based on the work of the Violations Documentation Centre, charts the cumulative number of deaths from suspected CW attacks in Syria:

Some of these previous investigations had attracted fierce controversy and criticism, but even so it’s difficult to make a credible case that those who observed the aftermath of the air strikes on 7 April 2018 would not have known what they were talking about.

Their immediate impressions were supported by remote experts who subsequently examined the reports and the videos.  Most concluded that the symptoms of the victims of the strike on the Saada Bakery and its vicinity were consistent with a chlorine gas attack, but the casualties from the strike on the apartment building exhibited even more troubling symptoms that suggested chlorine had been used in concert with a nerve agent like sarin.

Dr Raphael Pitti, a former military doctor and now professor of Emergency Medicine in War Zones at Nancy and a Board Member of UOSSM-France asked to be supplied with digital photographs and metadata to establish their provenance (date, time sequence and location), together with close-up images and video of the victims’ eyes.  The casualties from the Saada area had trouble breathing, irritated eyes and other symptoms consistent with chlorine poisoning, he said, but those who died in the apartment building seemed to have been struck down with a speed that was totally inconsistent with even a high-concentration chlorine attack, and they exhibited convulsions and other symptoms usually associated with sarin or a similar nerve agent.  In his view, it was likely that chlorine had been used in that attack too – but to mask the presence of another toxin.

Similarly, Dr Alastair Hay, professor of toxicology at Leeds, speaking to the Washington Post on 10 April after watching the videos on line:

“It’s just bodies piled up. That is so horrific… There’s a young child with foam at the nose and a boy with foam on its mouth. That’s much, much more consistent with a nerve-agent-type exposure than chlorine…. Chlorine victims usually manage to get out to somewhere they can get treatment… Nerve agent kills pretty instantly.”

Or again, from Martin Chulov‘s report in the Guardian on 12 April:

Jerry Smith, who led the [OPCW-UN] mission to supervise the withdrawal of the Syrian government’s stockpile of sarin in late 2013, said the symptoms displayed by patients could suggest exposure to an agent in addition to chlorine. “It’s worth elucidating the knowns,” he said. “Casualty rates, apparent speed of death and the shaking.” Organophosphate-based poison, including sarin, causes such symptoms. Pinpoint pupils and severe mouth foaming have been telltale signs in past attacks.

A guilty verdict

These were the stocks of knowledge in the public domain that most commentators and analysts in North America and Europe drew upon in the aftermath of the attacks on 7 April.  The evidence, to many, was compelling – the Assad regime’s (criminal) record of CW use, first-hand testimonies and videos, and the submissions of expert witnesses – but it was still not conclusive.

Raphael Pitti emphasised that the only way to establish definitively what agents had been used was through laboratory examination, which was one of the central task’s of the investigation team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).  In an interview with France 24 Olivier Lepick, a researcher from the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique in Paris, explained:

“The inspectors will be able to do two things on the ground: they can get physiochemical samples from places affected by the attack – on the walls, on the ground – and they can take biological samples from victims, either wounded or dead, to look for metabolic evidence of a chemical agent in their fluids [urine and blood in particular].”

But time was of the essence; blood and urine samples will only show traces of chemical contamination for a week or so at most.

“Every day that passes makes the results of any investigation less clear, and in this case the relevant area is controlled by the main suspects, who will be tempted to cover up the evidence,” Lepick continued. The researcher said that “bleach-style” cleaning is enough to remove traces of toxic agents on the spot, while the evidence in biological samples from victims becomes increasingly hypothetical with time and can be removed by the Syrian army. That is why the OPCW’s policy is to send teams 24 to 48 hours after the incident.

The arrival of the OPCW team in Douma was repeatedly delayed; the reasons ranged from maladministration (the nine team members supposedly did not have the necessary clearances from the UN, an excuse flatly denied by the UN) to security concerns.  The Russian and Syrian authorities who controlled access to the city did not permit the investigators to begin their ground inspection until 21 April, when they successfully obtained samples from one site which were sent to the OPCW laboratory at Rijswik in the Netherlands for onward transmission to designated independent labs for analysis (for details see here).  There were fears that in the two weeks since the alleged attacks took place any chemical residues (especially chlorine) would have degraded, and allegations were also made that the sites had been compromised or sanitised – though at least one expert maintained that it would be extremely difficult to remove the signs of removal! – and that potential witnesses had been intimidated and coerced.

In anticipation of these obstacles efforts had already been made to fast-track the process of verification outside the OPCW.  Here is Martin Chulov again on 12 April:

In Jordan, officials prepared to receive biological samples from some of the estimated 42 dead and the hundreds more who survived. Smuggling routes in and out of Damascus are well travelled, and makeshift crossings along the watertight Jordanian border can suddenly open whenever there’s a need. Getting samples, especially corpses, to laboratories has been a top priority this week as the US has tried to establish if the gas that was dropped contained more than chlorine.

Other reports claimed that activists had smuggled blood, urine and hair samples across Syria’s northern border into Turkey for analysis.

The route followed by the samples remains unknown, but in short order US officials announced the results of tests on blood and urine samples from victims of the Douma attacks: they had tested positive for chlorine gas and for a sarin-like nerve agent.  No details of the chain of custody – or of the testing process – were released, but even if they had been established, as Raphael Pitti also emphasised, the problem of assigning culpability would remain.  That used to be the task of the Joint Investigative Mechanism between the OPCW and the UN whose mandate had been terminated by a Russian veto in November 2017.

The United States – or at least its improbable, impossible president – had never entertained any doubt about culpability: the Assad regime was again guilty of a chemical weapons attack.  One week after the attacks on Douma, a course of (military) action had been agreed between the US, France and the United Kingdom.

The timing was perplexing.  Many critics argued that it was a rush to judgement; that all the relevant evidence had not been gathered and that there remained reasonable (to some, even considerable) doubt about what had happened and who was responsible.  But others were surprised at what they saw as a stay of execution: a year earlier the US had decided on its military response  to the chemical weapons attack on Khan Shikhoun within 48 hours.  On the first count, there were questions about whether any further, untainted evidence would be forthcoming; and it is also significant that Trump, Macron and May were all beset by domestic political crises for which international action was almost always a useful distraction.  On the second count, this was a multi-national mission that required consent and co-ordination, and all three states had serious concerns about escalating what was being described as a new Cold War with Russia.

The three allies launched co-ordinated ‘precision’ strikes before dawn on 14 April against three targets.  The closest to Douma was the Barzah Research and Development Centre, NE of Damascus, described by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a military facility ‘for the research, development, production and testing of chemical and biological warfare technology’.  The other two sites were west of Homs: the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site, ‘the primary location of Syrian sarin and precursor production equipment’, and 7 km away the Him Shinshar Chemical Weapons Bunker, ‘both a chemical weapons equipment storage facility and an important command post.’  The Pentagon issued this map of the three targets:

The primary roles were played by the US and France.  Cruise missiles were launched from US warships and submarines in the Gulf and the Red Sea and from French warships in the Mediterranean, while US, French and British aircraft also launched missiles against the three sites: the central target was Barzah, followed by the Him Shinshar Weapons Storage Site.  The origins and distribution of the ordnance used is captured in these two graphics:

The joint response raises a series of important questions about the effectiveness of the strikes; the humanitarian claims that were registered to legitimise them in the court of public opinion; and their propriety under international and domestic law.  I’ll consider each in turn.

The interval between the attack on Douma and the strikes on the three sites was used not only to assess culpability but also to develop the target set.  The last time the US had conducted a strike in response to a CW attack in Syria was on 7 April 2017 when Tomahawk cruise missiles were fired from destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean against Al Shayrat airbase where the attack had originated.  At least six major airbases have been linked to Syria’s chemical weapons programme – including Dumayr from which the helicopters were tracked towards Douma – but none of them was on the list this time around.  This is not surprising.  The previous counter-strike had had precious little effect; the base was back in operation within 48 hours and the gesture had no discernible deterrent function.  There were also concerns about the proximity of many of the bases to Russian forces – Moscow had issued a series of bleak warnings about the dangers of ‘provocation’, and there have been reports that the Russian military was consulted over its ‘red lines’ which were not violated by the targets selected.   Major CW factories were also removed from the list, like the Scientific Studies Research Centre at Jamraya, just north of Damascus, which had been attacked by Israeli jets in February; ‘Factory 790’ at al Safira in Aleppo province (Syria’s largest weapons manufacturing plant and suspected to be a major source of sarin), and the Masyaf research and development centre in Homs province (another suspected location for sarin production, also previously attacked by Israeli jets).

According to the Washington Post,

While officials had been watching known Syrian chemical sites on and off for years, aerial surveillance time has been dedicated mostly to other areas of Syria, where the United States and allied local forces continue to battle the Islamic State. That meant the U.S. military needed to refresh its intelligence on the chemical facilities before targeteers could build the “target packages” that would guide the operation.

The delay was the product of more than intelligence gaps; concerns about the possibility of killing civilians were also said to be paramount, and at a Pentagon briefing Lt General Kenneth McKenzie conceded that while ‘we could have gone to other places and done other things’ the three selected targets ‘presented the best opportunity to minimize collateral damage’.  But these claims sit uneasily with the US-led coalition’s record of air strikes in Syria more generally.  Casualty estimates are fraught with difficulty, but Airwars estimates that between August 2014 and April 2018 a minimum of 6,259 to 9,604 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq; the breakdown of civilian casualties for Syria is shown graphically below (see also Craig Jones here):

McKenzie claimed that the strikes ‘significantly degraded’ Syria’s ability to use chemical weapons in the future and that Barzah – which ‘does not exist anymore’ – had been ‘the heart of the Syrian chemical weapons program’.  Yet this remains an untested assertion.  In elaborating on the Pentagon’s collateral damage estimation, McKenzie referred to ‘a variety of sophisticated models – plume analysis, other things, to calculate the possible effects of chemical or nerve agent [dispersion]’ after an attack.  But it’s possible to turn this round.  The very next morning Rim Haddad described the scene at Barzah for AFP; ‘plastic gloves and face masks lay scattered in the rubble’ and, hours after the strike, ‘plumes of smoke wafted lazily up from the building and a burning smell still hung in the air.’  This was clearly a report from the ground not one conducted over Skype, still less one that relied on satellite imagery.  Said Said told Haddad that he worked at the site as an engineer and denied any involvement in the production of chemical weapons.  You might find that unremarkable for various reasons, but Said then added this disturbing rider:

If there were chemical weapons, we would not be able to stand here. I’ve been here since 5:30 am in full health — I’m not coughing.

And he wasn’t alone; Syrian soldiers were inspecting the ruins too – as was the press crew.

In short, it’s not unreasonable to wonder, with David Sanger and Ben Hubbard at the New York Times, whether any of the three sites were still in use:

At this point, there are no known casualties at the sites, which suggests that either no one was there during the evening, or they had been previously abandoned. And there are no reports of chemical agent leakage from the sites, despite attacks by more than 100 sea- and air-launched missiles.

Yet perhaps this misses the point.  For all Trump’s boasts about ‘Mission Accomplished’, the raids ‘so perfectly carried out, with such precision’, the effectiveness of the strikes rested on more than their destructive capacity.  They were also supposed to be ‘constructive’, performative: to send an unambiguous message to Assad and his allies.  But what exactly was the message?

The junior partner in the mission, British Prime Minister Theresa May, proclaimed that the joint military response was justified ‘because we cannot allow the erosion of the international norm that prevents the use of these [chemical] weapons.’  It’s more than an international norm, of course: it’s also a matter of international law.  But what about the other international laws so routinely violated by the Assad regime and its allies?  The prohibition against torture (though I concede that the United States, France and the United Kingdom all have exceedingly dirty laundry hidden in that particular closet)?  The collective punishment of civilian populations through the siege tactic of ‘surrender or starve’ (see here and here)?  The prohibition against attacking hospitals and denying medical care to the sick and the wounded in war zones (see here)?  

Moustafa Bayoumi sharpens the point with magnificent anger (and ‘perfect precision’):

The fact that three of the world’s most powerful militaries have now been mobilized into action, even for a limited campaign such as this one, to prevent “the erosion of the international norm” of using chemical weapons is far from comforting. Since the war began, Assad’s regime has engaged in the repeated and dreadful use of barrel bombs and mass starvation, the systematic torture of thousands of citizens and the laying siege to multiple cities, the killing of hundreds of thousands of people and the displacement of more than half the population. Yet, all of this horror does not seem to “erode an international norm” and certainly has not motivated these western leaders to any meaningful action to end the war… Rather than limiting war, this latest bombing of Syria normalizes the war’s ongoing brutality.

Or, as Robin Wright reported in the New Yorker:

“So you strike. Then what?” Ryan Crocker, a former Ambassador to Syria (as well as Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Kuwait), told me. “If the rockets hit the targets they intended, you could say the mission was accomplished in a narrow sense. But, in reality, it accomplished nothing. It might have been better if we’d not struck at all. It’s sending a message that killing is O.K. any way but one way — with chemical weapons. How many have been killed in Eastern Ghouta during this whole Syrian campaign? Far more by non-chemical means. It’s obscene.”

In short, the military response did more than draw a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons (if it even did that): it gave a green light to virtually any and every other form of killing.

The legal map on which the missile strikes were located was – like all maps – shot through with circuits of power (and for what follows I am indebted to Jonathan Horowitz‘s succinct cartography here and here).  The legal ‘ground truth’ for the start of the US-led bombing missions in Syria in September 2014 was a request from Iraq for the United States to conduct air strikes against the Islamic State.  Some of those sites – not only paramilitary bases but also oilfields used by IS as sources of revenue – were located across the border in Syria, and the claim for cross-border intervention was reinforced by appeals under Article 51 of the UN Charter to ‘self-defence’ of allied forces inside Iraq and of their populations outside the region threatened by terrorist attacks from Islamic State. This joint effort was buttressed by a UN Security Council Resolution in November 2015 describing IS as ‘a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security’ and calling on states to take ‘all necessary measures’ against IS, Al-Qaida and allied groups.  These co-ordinates explain the pattern of civilian casualties displayed on the map above: these were primarily the result of strikes in IS-held territory. Some of the states involved also cited Syria’s ‘inability’ to prevent IS attacks as a further legal predicate.  Although this clearly did not imply any invitation from Syria to intervene, it certainly suited the Assad regime to have other militaries pursue IS while its own forces fought rebel groups in other regions of Syria.

But these arguments cannot be extended to air strikes in response to chemical weapons attacks (unless presumably they were carried out by IS; it has been blamed for at least three previous attacks, but nobody has suggested it was responsible for the attack on Douma).

The case for the strikes as a humanitarian intervention failed to convince most jurists: of the three states involved, only the UK invoked humanitarianism as a legal justification.  In 2015 Arabella Lang provided the House of Commons with a briefing on the legal case for UK intervention in Syria.  The relevant discussion of humanitarian intervention reads as follows:

The UN Security Council can authorise military intervention for humanitarian purposes provided that it has determined that situation is a threat to international peace and security. But can states intervene in other states to deal with extreme human distress, without Security Council authorisation?

Some unauthorised humanitarian interventions have subsequently been commended by the Council, or at least condoned. But their legal basis remains controversial. There is also an argument that Article 2(4) of the UN Charter allows force to be used as long as it is consistent with the purposes of the UN (which include the promotion of human rights and the solving of humanitarian problems – Article 1(3)). Others suggest that even if humanitarian intervention without Security Council authorisation is unlawful under international law, it can still be legitimate – for instance the NATO intervention in Kosovo in 1999.

The ‘responsibility to protect’, as embodied in the 2005 World Summit Outcome (which is not legally binding), allows collective action against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity, where the state concerned has been unable to protect its citizens. However, the World Summit Outcome states that this must be done through the Security Council, so is not in that respect a development of the law on the use of force.

The UK is keen to develop the international law on humanitarian intervention. When putting the case for military intervention in Syria in 2013, it argued that intervention without authorisation from the UN Security Council is permitted under international law if three conditions are met:

• strong evidence of extreme and large-scale humanitarian distress;

• no practicable alternative to the use of force; and

• the proposed use of force is necessary, proportionate, and the minimum necessary.

 

Building on these arguments, the British government released its legal case on 14 April 2018.  A military response to the alleged chemical attacks in Douma was ‘an exceptional measure’ but it was lawful ‘on grounds of overwhelming humanitarian necessity’:

  • The ‘repeated lethal use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime constitutes a war crime’ and it was ‘highly likely the regime would seek to use’ such weapons again
  • Other attempts to ‘alleviate the humanitarian suffering caused by the use of chemical weapons’ had been blocked and there was ‘no practicable alternative’ to the strikes
  • The action was ‘carefully considered’ and the ‘minimum judged necessary for that purpose.’

Many legal scholars in the UK and elsewhere in Europe were unconvinced. A legal opinion prepared for the opposition Labour Party by Professor Dipo Akande of Oxford University’s Institute for Ethics, Law and Armed Conflict insisted that the government had to comply with international law as it was and not as they wished it to be (notice that reference in the earlier briefing to the government’s desire to ‘develop’ international law):

International law does not permit individual states to use force on the territory of other states in order to pursue humanitarian ends determined by those states.

A legal analysis conducted by the Bundestag’s research service reached substantially the same conclusion, and on the other side of the Atlantic even a passionate defender of humanitarian intervention like Harold Hongju Koh was not satisfied that the bar had been met (see also also Anders Henrikesen here).

These contrary opinions reinforced the central legal objection raised by most critics: that the US and its allies had responded to an alleged violation of international law by breaking it themselves. Jack Goldsmith and Oona Hathaway explain this with concision and clarity.  The problem with claiming that Syria had breached the Chemical Weapons Convention (1997) – the central legal instrument in the case –  is that the Convention ‘provides an enforcement system that the three powers involved in [the] airstrikes entirely bypassed’:

The Convention provides, first, for investigation by the experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons….

Then, in situations of “particular gravity,” the Conference of the States Parties may bring a matter to the attention of the U.N. General Assembly and Security Council. Nowhere does the Convention provide for unilateral uses of force in response to a breach of the Convention.

This is the formal, legal version of the ‘rush to judgement’ objection (above), and it has considerable force.

And yet the legal envelope governing military violence has often been extended through military violence (as Eyal Weizman puts it, ‘in modern war, violence legislates’), and Jan Lemnitzer has suggested that by virtue (sic) of these missile strikes – and the legal armature that yokes the humanitarian protection of civilians to the prohibition on the use of chemical weapons – we may be witnessing ‘the emergence of a new norm (customary international law) that justifies the use of force to counter the deployment of chemical weapons against civilians’ (for a more detailed discussion see Michael Schmitt and Chris Ford commenting on the 6 April 2017 missile strikes here).  If this is the case – or if the UK’s wish to ‘develop’ international law on humanitarian intervention is in the process of being fulfilled – then this map of international state reaction to the strikes will be extremely important:

‘Fake news’ and ‘false flags’

Before and after the attacks on Douma, officials in Russia and Syria together with their proxies have been busily running all sorts of interference.  These activities spin far beyond the the circles of presidents, ministers, ambassadors and their direct agents and even beyond the grey zone of disinformation sites and bot farms; there is also an army of one-trick academics, self-styled journalists and commentators populating a metastasizing archipelago of misinformation that reaches from the alt.right round to the alt.left. To set out my case in these non-neutral terms is not to endorse the statements and actions of the US, the UK and their allies.  But objecting to the air wars conducted by this alliance does not mean suspending critical judgement about the actions of their opponents either.  In the particular case of Syria, it means not turning a blind eye to the authoritarian constitution of the Assad regime and to the extraordinary, criminal violence it has visited on hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrians.  As Mehdi Hasan asks, in another appropriately angry commentary I urge you to read, even if you doubt in all conscience that the Assad regime did launch a chemical weapons attack on Douma on 7 April, why minimize its other crimes and abuses?   More here and here.

Those who have sought to defend the Assad regime against the charge of using chemical weapons in Douma have followed two main avenues.

A first response has been simply to dismiss the reports as ‘chemical fabrications’ and ‘deceitful speculations’: to insist that there was no evidence of a chemical weapons attack.  On 8 April, for example, Ben Hubbard reported:

The Russian Foreign Ministry dismissed the reports as fake. “The spread of bogus stories about the use of chlorine and other poisonous substances by government forces continues,” the ministry said in a statement. “The aim of such deceitful speculation, lacking any kind of grounding, is to shield terrorists,” it added, “and to attempt to justify possible external uses of force.”

As the videos and testimonies I cited earlier circulated, the outright denials were replaced by an altogether more sensational scenario.  Russian and Syrian officials claimed that the attack had been staged by Jaish al-Islam in concert with the Syrian Civil Defence (‘White Helmets’) and, by implication, the Syrian-American Medical Society and other NGOs:

(Particular opprobrium seems to be visited on any NGO providing medical help to the sick and injured in rebel-held areas, even though this is explicitly sanctioned by international law; it has also been consistently withheld and obstructed by the Syrian government).

The indictment eventually swelled to include the United Kingdom (which had claimed Russia was responsible for the nerve-agent attack on the former British spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury on 4 March); Reuters reported on 13 April:

“We have… evidence that proves Britain was directly involved in organizing this provocation,” [Russian] Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said.  Konashenkov said that Russia knew “for sure” that between April 3-6, the White Helmets – a group which helps civilians in opposition-held territory in Syria – were “under severe pressure specifically from London to produce as quickly as possible this pre-planned provocation.”

The ‘evidence’ was never produced – nor were the British Special Forces soldiers allegedly captured as part of the operation paraded before the cameras either.

Instead, the disinformation campaign relied on two manoeuvres.  The first was a counter-argument in the form of a question: what advantage could the Assad regime conceivably hope to gain by using chemical weapons when its forces were on the brink of defeating JAI and bringing all of East Ghouta under their control?  This is a familiar tactic.  When questioned about the targeting of hospitals in rebel-held areas Assad disingenuously asked: ‘… the very simple question is: why do we attack hospitals and civilians?’  There are sound answers to that – see my account of ‘The Death of the Clinic‘ – and there are to this version too.  Remember that in the closing stages of the Syrian-Russian offensive against Douma negotiations with JAI had collapsed.  Now here is Juan Cole:

On Saturday [7 April], the Russian press reported that Army of Islam spokesmen boasted that the [Syrian Arab Army] special operations Panther Forces (Quwwat al-Nimr) [this is a special unit of Tiger Force: see here] that had been committed against Ghouta militias were taking high numbers of casualties from Army of Islam snipers as they tried to advance into Douma. The regime has suffered a military collapse over the past seven years, with most Sunni Arabs deserting or defecting. Alawi Shiite troops are for the most part loyal to the regime, but there may be only 35,000 or 50,000 of them left (the Syrian Arab Army had 300,000 troops in 2010).

The long and the short of it is that strongman Bashar al-Assad cannot afford to lose highly trained and highly valuable Panther Forces troops in large numbers.

Chemical weapons are used by desperate regimes that are either outnumbered by the enemy or are reluctant to take casualties in their militaries…  It might be asked why the regime would take this chance, given that Trump bombed the Shuaryat Air Force base last year this time in response to regime use of chemical weaponry at Khan Shikhoun. The answer is that the regime is more worried about disaffection in the ranks of its Special Forces than it is about Trump.

An investigation by Christian Esch and others for Der Spiegel added other plausible motivations:

Why would the Syrian regime deploy chemical weapons when it is already on the verge of victory? One motive could have been the desire to speed up the withdrawal of the hated rebels from the city. Douma was the last enclave remaining under rebel control. Or was it revenge? The Army of Islam, the Islamist group which controlled Douma, was relatively strong and regularly fired shells at nearby Damascus.

The Islamists long held a trump card in their hand: They were thought to be holding several thousand regime loyalists prisoner. That, however, was an exaggeration with which the Syrian regime sought to mislead its followers, a glimmer of hope that many troops long believed to be dead might still be alive after all. When it became clear that a large number of the presumed prisoners were in fact dead, it came as a painful blow and the thirst for revenge was correspondingly high. The rebels, meanwhile, had lost their trump card.

None of this settles matters, I realise, so let me turn the question around: what possible advantage could JAI conceivably hope to gain by staging a fake chemical weapons attack?  If its leaders believed they could provoke a rapid military intervention (by whom?) to snatch them from the jaws of defeat – the Islamic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass – then it was a supremely stupid miscalculation: the immediate consequence of the attack, within a matter of hours, was the capitulation of Jaish al-Islam.

The second manoeuvre involved in the attempted indictment of JAI and others opposed to the Assad regime has been to substitute alternative evidence to counter the prosecutorial force of the videos, first-hand observations and expert testimony I detailed earlier.  I’ll discuss three exhibits.

First, JAI’s ‘chemical weapons factories’.  As the envelope of occupation in East Ghouta was extended, Syrian Arab Army officers escorted international journalists to several sites which they claimed were artisanal weapons factories. Eliot Higgins and the Bellingcat team already showed that Jaish al-Islam was indeed capable of producing makeshift weapons, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.  But chemical weapons?  In March Syrian TV broadcast video of what it described as a chemical weapons laboratory-cum-manufactory-cum-warehouse at al Shifuniya filled with industrial equipment:

The discovery was amplified by RT and other Russian news media before the attack on Douma:

The narrative was resurrected by dependent journalist Vanessa Beeley the day after the Douma attack.  She cited the discovery of a ‘chemical weapons laboratory’ in the Douma Farms area between al Shifuniyeh and Douma, and then recounted a ‘similar experience’ – on the day before the attack – during ‘a foreign media trip to the liberated sectors of Eastern Ghouta with the Syrian Arab Army’.  At Irbin she was shown ‘a bomb making factory and a chemical weapons facility’, including ‘chemical ingredients and rockets’ and a barrel containing what looked like tar (a significant discovery since she was under the impression that the Douma attack involved napalm, which was, as she explained at length, ‘an American invention’):

An expert who was with us said it was a mix of oil, soap and other ingredients that are used to coat the missile to ensure the chemical package sticks to its target more effectively. This was a factory of death… where the terrorist factions had designed some of the most sadistic weaponry possible to be used against civilian targets.

Several days later Adam Rawnsley asked Cheryl Rofer – a chemist who used to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory – and Clyde Davies, a former research chemist, to examine the videos of the buildings at al Shifuniyeh.  They both agreed that whatever the facility had been used for it was highly unlikely to have been the production of chorine gas or sarin.  Here are the key paragraphs from Adam’s investigation into what he concluded was a ‘chemical weapons lie’:

Asked if the equipment in the videos of Al-Shifuniya could be used to produce chlorine gas, Cheryl Rofer … said “no.” Chlorine is typically produced with electrolysis cells using either large amounts of salt or hydrochloric acid as feedstock and lots of electricity to produce and recover the gas. “Chlorine is a gas at room temperature and pressure,” explains Clyde Davies… “Its ‘critical point,’ below which it can be liquefied, is about 144 C, but it needs high pressure to do this, which is why it is stored and shipped in gas cylinders. Just like the ones that were dropped on Douma.”

The process can be dangerous and requires special equipment, according to the UN Joint Investigative Mechanism. “In the light of its corrosive and toxic nature, expertise and specialized equipment are required for its safe handling. For example, to transfer chlorine from a 1 ton container to smaller containers, a specialized filling station is required.” And this facility isn’t anywhere near “the scale needed for the attacks that have been observed,” Rofer wrote in an email. “All of the equipment, except for the boilers, is at laboratory scale. But the more fundamental problem is that none of the equipment is what is needed to produce chlorine and compress it into the cylinders that Bellingcat has documented” in Douma.

Nor could the facility be used to produce nerve agents. “For sarin production, all of this would have to be much more contained than it is,” Rofer writes. The ramshackle construction in the facility would’ve put anyone nearby at high risk of exposure, which can cause harm at very low concentrations.

A second series of exhibits focused on the elaborate mise-en-scène of a staged chemical weapons attack.  In order to discount the videos of the casualties in Douma – shot at multiple locations by different people – claims circulated that the video record (in its dispersed entirety) was faked.  This too is a shop-worn tactic; the alt.right in the United States and elsewhere has consistently peddled a meretricious conspiracy fantasy of ‘crisis actors’ pretending to have survived supposedly non-existent incidents like the mass shootings at Sandy Hook or Parkland.  Many of the same websites responsible for those repugnant claims have also stoked the fires of fantasy about Douma, like Alex Jones‘s ‘Infowars’ (see below, and the critical discussion by Bethania Palma and Scott Lucas here):

In the Douma case, however, photographs have been adduced as evidence for the artful staging of a chemical attack.  Soon afterwards images showing actors being made up, covered in dust, and the cameras rolling were shown on Russian TV’s news programme Vesti, and they have circulated widely on the web.  The first screenshot (‘The White Helmets unmasked by photographs’) is from the French-language site of globalresearch.ca and the second is from the source for the story, Pénélope Stafyla:

It was in this very studio, so these commentators claimed, that the Syrian Civil Defence – the White Helmets – fabricated ‘proof of war crimes committed by the Assad regime in East Ghouta’.

The photographs are not fakes; the performance was real.  But an investigation by AFP’s fact-checking blog Factuel and Bellingcat discovered that these are all stills from a film, “Revolution Man“, which was shot in Damascus and funded by Assad’s own Ministry of Culture.  Here is the film’s Facebook page:

And here is the film company’s synopsis of the project:

The film revolves around a journalist who enters Syria illegally in order to take pictures and videos of the war in Syria in search of fame and international prizes, and after failing to reach his goal, he resorts to helping the terrorists to fabricate an incident using chemical materials, with the aim of turning his photos into a global event.

In the Alice-in-Wonderland world of the fantasists, there was one more spin to the story: Vesti claimed that the film was shot by the White Helmets on a set standing in for the real set in which Revolution Man was shot…  You can’t make it up — except, of course, you can.  More here and here, and a discussion by Christian Chaise of AFP’s remarkable fact-checking protocols here.

Another film, another fake.  On 22 April Russia’s two main TV channels showed a series of still photographs from a film set as ‘obvious evidence’ that videos of the Douma attack had been staged and that the victims were were ‘crisis actors’.  Faris Mohammed Mayasa, a production assistant who was by then in the custody of Syrian forces, confirmed that ‘We put people on the ground and sprayed them with water, so they looked as if they had suffered.’  Again, the photographs are genuine; they were taken on a film set; and, still more disturbing, the film was produced in the Ghouta (it was shot in Zamalka and edited in Douma):

But, as Marc Bennetts reported, the film was Humam Husari‘s Chemical, made in 2016 to tell the story of the  sarin gas attack on the Ghouta in 2013.  Husari had witnessed the effects of the attack himself – ‘I wasn’t filming because I am a cameraman, I was filming because this is the only thing I could do for the victims’ – and his short film was an attempt to explore how ordinary people had been drawn to the struggle against the Assad regime.  Here is Lisa Barrington reporting for Reuters in October 2016:

Humam Husari’s self-financed short film explores the chemical attack near Damascus through the eyes of a rebel fighter who lost his wife and child but was denied time to bury them. Instead, he is called to defend his town from a government offensive. The story is based on real-life events, he said.

“We need to understand how people were pushed into this war and to be part of it,” said Husari, 30. “I am talking about a story that I lived with. They are real characters.”

Making the film was an emotional but necessary experience for Husari and his performers, who were witnesses to and victims of the attack, and not trained actors.

“The most difficult thing was the casting and auditions,” said Husari, who took about two months to write, produce and direct the 15-minute film and is currently editing it.

“A 70-year-old man said to me: I want to be part of this movie because I lost 13 of my family … I want the world to know what we’ve been through. And all I wanted from him is just to be a dead body,” he said.

The final series of exhibits has involved the substitution of other witnesses who vehemently deny that a chemical attack took place in Douma.  Both Russia and Syria claim to have discovered witnesses whose testimony contradicts those I cited earlier.  Most deny that any chemical weapons attack occurred, but a recent report by Robert Fisk for the Independent offers a particularly revealing example.  While the OPCW team was prevented from starting its work in Douma by Syrian concerns about the security situation, the regime nevertheless arranged a tour of the shattered city for selected journalists.  I should say at once that I have long admired Fisk’s reporting of Israel/Palestine; but this account is a sly, innuendo-ridden affair.  Fisk says he wandered away from his minders:

It was a short walk to Dr Rahaibani. From the door of his subterranean clinic – “Point 200”, it is called, in the weird geology of this partly-underground city – is a corridor leading downhill where he showed me his lowly hospital and the few beds where a small girl was crying as nurses treated a cut above her eye. “I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Ever since the combined bomber offensive of the Second World War we have known that many victims of air raids die of asphyxiation rather than blast injury, so suppose for a moment that Fisk’s doctor was not only sincere but also correct.   In that case – since Jaish al-Islam has never had an air force – then dozens of civilians would have been killed and injured in a Russian or Syrian air raid.  Yet Fisk doesn’t mention that; in fact he doesn’t dwell on the victims at all, who are rapidly airbrushed from the scene.

Instead the doctor’s testimony has been cited by commentators on social media to trump the claims of multiple other witnesses as singular ‘proof’ that no CW attack took place.  Fisk doesn’t quite say that, and Jonathan Cook insists he doesn’t have to:

Fisk does not need to prove that his account is definitively true – just like a defendant in the dock does not need to prove their innocence. He has to show only that he reported accurately and honestly, and that the testimony he recounted was plausible and consistent with what he saw.

‘This is not the only story in Douma,’ Fisk concedes, before immediately adding:

There are the many people I talked to amid the ruins of the town who said they had “never believed in” gas stories – which were usually put about, they claimed, by the armed Islamist groups.

None of them is quoted, and apparently nobody else was available. ‘By bad luck, too, the doctors who were on duty that night on 7 April were all in Damascus giving evidence to a chemical weapons enquiry’: you could be forgiven for thinking that it was more than just the failure of the stars to align that prompted the Syrian and Russian authorities to arrange the press tour for the very day they also spirited the doctors away to Damascus.  And while it was important to hear the White Helmets’ side of the story, Fisk continued, ‘a woman told us that every member of the White Helmets in Douma abandoned their main headquarters and chose to take the government-organised and Russian-protected buses to the rebel province of Idlib with the armed groups when the final truce was agreed.’  That is a remarkable sentence the more you chew on it: the bravery of the White Helmets in rescuing victims is ignored; instead they are artfully transformed into cowards running for cover at the first opportunity (‘abandoned their headquarters’); their fellow-travellers (sic) were the armed groups; and yet they were given sanctuary on ‘government-organised and Russian-protected buses’.  Such generosity.

But that’s simply a drive-by smear.  The main work is done by Fisk’s doctor, whose words are seemingly sufficient to rubbish or, if you prefer, cast doubt on all those other testimonies.  He was not even was in the clinic when the casualties were brought in (‘I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night’, and Fisk himself admits that the doctors who were on duty that night were all in Damascus).

Yet, remarkably, other journalists on the same escorted tour somehow found other people whose accounts contradicted Fisk’s doctor and jibed with those other testimonies.  Whether they were also ‘a short walk away’ I don’t know; but here are two of them speaking to Seth Doane of CBS News:

Today we made it to that very house where that suspected chemical attack took place.  “All of a sudden some gas spread around us,” this neighbour [below] recounted. “We couldn’t breathe.  It smelled like chlorine” …

Nasser Hanen‘s brother Hamzeh is seen in that activist video, lifeless and foaming at the mouth.

In the kitchen he told us how his brother tried to wash off the chemicals.  [Asked how the chemicals got there], “The missile up there,” he pointed, “on the roof.”

A Swedish journalist, Sven Borg, also recorded his interview with Nasser Hanen (I’ve taken this from Scott Lucas‘s account here – the translation is by Hugo Kaaman):

We were sitting in the basement when it happened. The [missile] hit the house at 7 pm. We ran out while the women and children ran inside. They didn’t know the house had been struck from above and was totally filled with gas. Those who ran inside died immediately. I ran out completely dizzy….

Everybody died. My wife, my brothers, my mother. Everybody died. Women and children sat in here, and boys and men sat there. Suddenly there was a sound as if the valve of a gas tube was opened. It’s very difficult to explain. I can’t explain. I don’t know what I should say. The situation makes me cry. Children and toddlers, around 25 children.

It should be obvious that none of this adds up – that these concerted manoeuvres conspicuously fail to produce a coherent narrative – but, as Jonathan Cooke might say, it doesn’t have to.  All it has to do is sow doubt and spread confusion.  In an astute attempt to track the interlocking yet contradictory false-flag operations supposedly in play after the Douma attack, Uri Friedman cites Peter Pomerantsev, who explained that the larger (in his case, Russian) project

doesn’t just deal in the petty disinformation, forgeries, lies, leaks, and cyber-sabotage usually associated with information warfare. It reinvents reality, creating mass hallucinations that then translate into political action. … We’re rendered stunned, spun, and flummoxed by the Kremlin’s weaponization of absurdity and unreality.

‘If nothing is true,’ Pomerantsev warned, ‘then anything is possible.’

Perhaps the ultimate horror is that this strategy is not confined to Putin, Assad and their proxies.  It also describes the view of an American president who treats the world as a stage for reality TV.

The bottom line

You will draw your own conclusions from all this, but for my part I am persuaded that hundreds of people were killed or injured by chemical weapons in Douma and that there are compelling reasons for suspecting that the Syrian Arab Army was the culprit.

And yet the military response by the US, France and the United Kingdom has a strong whiff of the theatrical about it.  Its legitimacy was undercut by the decision to short-circuit the formal, forensic investigation by the OPCW (though I concede that this faced – and continues to face – considerable obstacles, that it is prohibited from assigning responsibility, and that these considerations diminish the reach of the investigation).  The effectiveness of the tripartite response is also highly questionable – whether as sanction or deterrent – and the appeals by the allies to humanitarianism and civilian injury ring spectacularly hollow in the face of their indifference to every other form of violence inflicted on populations inside Syria and to the plight of Syrian refugees who have fled the killing fields.

I also believe that the frenzied efforts by so many to defend Syria and its allies from every criticism, to blind themselves to the repressive and violent constitution of the Syrian state, and to close their ears to the cries of its victims is utterly reprehensible.  There is the stench of the theatrical about this too – not of greasepaint but of sulphur.  How many chemical weapons ‘manufactories’ have to be discovered, how many film stills unearthed, how many contrary witnesses stumbled upon before those using this ‘evidence’ ask serious questions about its provenance, probity and meaning?  To find an utter disregard for truth on the far right is no surprise; to find it on the left is a source of shame.  There are questions to ask about the Douma attack and the response by the US and its allies, as I have sought to show, but the mental and moral gymnastics some of these commentators perform simply astound me.  Their controlling assumption seems to be that it is impossible to object to the actions of the US and its allies and also to the actions of Russia, Syria and their allies.  This really is what Leila al Shami calls ‘the anti-imperialism of idiots‘.

Drone imaginaries and Society

The programme for the conference on Drone Imaginaries and Society at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense has just been released:

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

9:30 Welcome and introduction: Drone Imaginaries and Society – Kathrin Maurer, Daniela Agostinho

10:00 – 12:15 Session 1: Drone Art

Thomas Stubblefield, Signature Strikes: Drone Art and World-Making
Jan Mieszkowski, Drones and the Big Data Sublime

13:00 – 15:15 Session 2: Seeing with Drones

Svea Braeunert, Forms of the Unseen: Hito Steyerl’s Documents of Drone Warfare

Rasmus Degnbol, Photographing Europe’s Border Change from Above

15:45 – 17:45 Session 3: Drones and Social Communities

Jutta Weber, Social Radar: On Drones and Data Science
Dan Gettinger and Arthur Holland, Drone Art: What it Means, Why it Matters, and Where it’s Going

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

9:15 – 11:30 Session 4: Drone Art and Surveillance 

Tomas van Houtryve, Blue Sky Days
Sarah Tuck, Drone Vision: Warfare, Surveillance and Protest

12:15 – 14:30 Session 5: Drones and Gender Politics 

Lauren Wilcox, Queering War: The Gender Politics of the Drone
Claudette Lauzon, The Objects of Drone Warfare: A Feminist Art History

14.45 – 16:00 KEYNOTE 

Derek Gregory, Sweet Target…Sweet Child: Aerial Violence and the Imaginaries of Remote Warfare

The conference is free of charge, but you need to register for it here; more information here.

Mass Murder in Slow Motion (II): Siege Economies

This is the second in a series of posts on East Ghouta (Damascus); the first, providing essential background, is here.

The logic of the siege warfare pursued by Syria and its allies has been to cordon off areas under rebel control; to restrict, disrupt and ultimately prevent movement across the siege lines (including food, fuel and medical supplies); to subject the besieged population to sustained and intensifying military violence from aircraft, ground ordnance (artillery, missiles and mortars) and sniper fire; and to outlaw the provision of medical aid to those inside the besieged areas and limit the evacuation of the sick and wounded.

You can find more on the reincarnation of siege warfare as a tactic of counterinsurgency in later modern war herehere, here and here.

Precarious lines and precarious lives

In this post I examine the siege economies that emerged in East Ghouta from 2012 and their transformation over the next six years (to March 2018).

The restrictions on movement imposed on the besieged population varied in time and space.  This map from the New York Times plots incidents between the Syrian Arab Army and various rebel groups from September to November 2012:

As the clashes intensified the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies established a series of checkpoints in November-December to regulate the movement of people and supplies between Damascus and East Ghouta, though Amnesty International reported that anyone crossing ‘ran the risk of being detained or shot by government snipers’ and there were also reports of goods being confiscated or pilfered.  Access to those crossing points was also controlled from within the besieged area by armed opposition groups whose actions affected both entrance and exit.

The restrictions increased, along with the dangers, until in August 2013 the two crossing points at al-Mleha and Douma were closed by the SAA.  One woman recalled how she ‘didn’t understand’ what was happening when the road out of Ghouta was first blocked::

What did it mean that we were trapped? Then stores’ shelves gradually went empty. Food, fuel, the most basic essentials … everything began to vanish.

But some trucks were still allowed through a third crossing point at al-Wafideen, and the ensuing geography of closure was intricate.

A series of semi-clandestine routes was established between East Ghouta and the suburban towns of al-Qaboun and Barzeh on the other side of the Damascus-Homs highway; an uneasy truce was concluded with rebels in those two towns in January and February 2014, and these routes became vital conduits for smuggling goods into East Ghouta.

People in al-Qaboun and Barzeh relied on conditional access to regime-controlled neighbourhoods beyond the checkpoints.  ‘The residents of al-Qaboun and Barzeh live as though they are trapped in a limbo,’ wrote Rafia Salameh, ‘at the mercy of checkpoints.’

The ʻmoodʼ of these checkpoints is measured in the distance between the guards’ pockets – as they are hungry and poor – and their strict application of the law within the presence of superior officers, punishing those who try to smuggle past them simple materials for survival…

Lighters, batteries, light bulbs and any other electrical devices are forbidden. Salt and citric acid, which may be used in the manufacture of explosives, are also forbidden. Gas, milk bottles, and diapers are allowed through if the family carries around the proper documentation in which checkpoint transits are recorded by date, to prove they are not smugglers. However, all these regulations frequently fell silent by paying a bribe at the Barzeh checkpoint.

Salim, a 13-year-old young merchant of sugar says: “They beat us and chase us when the main officer is present.” He went on to explain how his sales decisions are driven by what he can or cannot afford to pay at the checkpoint. His profit per kilogram of sugar is 100 Syrian pounds (SYP), or $0.20 on the black market. He can carry eight kilograms of sugar, and he dips into his profits to purchase a pack of cigarettes for the security officers to allow him through their inspection. The cigarette pack costs 300 SYP, or $0.60. That means he ends the day with less than 500 SYP of profit, which amounts to one US dollar.

Some of these goods ultimately found their way through the tunnels into East Ghouta, but the price differentials between Damascus (which was not without economic problems of its own) and the Ghouta were stark.  Aron Lund posted this chart for March 2015 (prices are all in Syrian Pounds):

On 17 February 2017 the Syrian Arab Army backed by the Russian Air Force opened a new offensive against al-Qaboun (below) and Barzeh and eventually sealed them off from the Ghouta.

The only route that remained open was the al-Wafideen crossing; it had been subjected to intermittent, temporary closures, but on 21 March 2017 it too was finally sealed.  The siege of East Ghouta immediately became absolute until the cordon was breached by the renewed SAA offensive in February 2018 and, the following month, by evacuation corridors for the besieged population.

The closure of al-Wafideen had a catastrophic effect.  Here is a second price comparison, this time for May 2017 (when the exchange rate was 500 SYP to $1):

Such price comparisons are inevitably difficult and shot through with all sorts of difficulties, but similar data on food security from the World Food Programme makes it clear that price inflation on this scale made life immensely precarious for those inside the besieged areas – lives then made even more precarious by the escalation of military and paramilitary violence (my next post) and the disruption of medical provision (my final post in this series).  According to the WFP in October 2017:

Since the Al-Wafideen crossing closed in September, all food supply routes to eastern Ghouta have been completely closed. Food prices have soared as a consequence, with particularly grave consequences for the poorest and most vulnerable people. During the WFP market assessment conducted in Kafr Batna (in eastern Ghouta) at the end of October, the remaining food stock was found to be very limited, with severe shortages of staple foods such as rice, pulses, sugar and oil.

Based on the market assessment data, the cost of the standard food basket in October 2017 reached SYP327,000, which is 204 percent higher than in September and more than five times higher than in August 2017 (before the crossing closed). The eastern Ghouta food basket currently is almost ten times more expensive than the national average.

According to key informants, the only available cooking fuel in eastern Ghouta is liquid melted plastic, which costs SYP 3,500/litre – ten times more than the national average price of diesel. Some households also reported burning animal remains and even used diapers to boil vegetables.

A bundle of bread in Kafr Batna is being sold at SYP2,000, which is more than 35 times the average price in accessible markets.

Food security is likely to deteriorate rapidly in the coming weeks if the siege continues. It is estimated that food stocks will be totally depleted by end November 2017.

Local resources and improvisations

Faced with the shortages and high prices imposed by the siege, the people of East Ghouta had limited resources to fall back on (see my previous post here), and these contracted sharply after the Syrian Arab Army finally seized control of the rich agricultural lands in the south of the Ghouta (the Marj) in May 2016, near the start of the harvest season.  People throughout the besieged area were forced to improvise and to devise ever more exacting economies.

The survival strategies listed by the WFP included reducing the number of meals, reducing portion size and limiting adult consumption, but once the siege became absolute – crossings closed, tunnels blown – many were reduced to far worse than those.  The designation of East Ghouta as one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ during the summer of 2017 only opened what Reuters called ‘the doors of starvation’:

‘When people in the Ghouta learned of the deal and thought it would bring relief, many began using up their food reserves at home, said Khalil Aybour, head of the local council in the town of Douma. “After they saw it was all rumors,” he said, “the misery grew immensely.”

Here is a report from November 2017:

The sight of a woman weeping as she drags her malnourished children into a clinic is not rare in eastern Ghouta…. But when one mother told Abdel Hamid, a doctor, that she had fed her four starving children newspaper cutouts softened with water to stop them from screaming into the night, even he was stunned.  “I could try to describe to you how terrible the conditions are in which we are living, but the reality would still be worse,” [he] said.

Another young widow described how she rationed food between her three young daughters:

My girls take turns eating now. We barely have any food so each one eats one meal every three days. It breaks my heart because they go to bed hungry and wake up with no energy.

Stories like these are what lie behind the distanced prose of an interagency assessment of food security conducted for the World Food Programme that same month, which reported:

Due to the lack of available food and the high food needs, a food basket meant to support a five member household for a month [supplied by the UN] is being shared among six different households (approximately 30 people).

Due to lack of staple food commodities and severe shortfall of cooking fuel (firewood, diesel and gas) in addition to their high prices, residents have been reduced to subsist on raw vegetables such as maize corn, cabbage and cauliflower with no more than one meal per day. In many households with multiple mouths to feed, priority is given to children with adults often skipping entire days without eating. Some households are even resorting to rotation strategies whereby the children who ate yesterday would not eat today and vice-versa.

Cases of severe acute malnutrition among children were identified by the UNICEF team…

Three months later, once the offensive started in deadly earnest, the situation deteriorated still further.  By March 2018, when thousands of people were huddled in basements and cellars sheltering from the incessant bombing and artillery fire, some of those that could find food were reluctant to eat in front of other people in the face of such widespread hunger.  Others shared what little they had.

In fact food was the central concern throughout the siege.  In the beginning some residents started to grow vegetables on their roofs to supplement local production and avoid the soaring prices in local markets:

“The blockade has forced us to find alternatives, especially in towns like al-Buwaidah, hijjera, and al-Sbeneh, where all the surrounding farming lands were destroyed, and many farmers were killed,” said Ahmad Abu Farouq, a 19-year-old who lives in Ghouta with his family of nine.

Ahmad said he and his family have turned their 1,600-square-foot (150 sq meter) rooftop into a year-round farm, planting zucchini and pumpkin in the winter, and lettuce and parsley in the summer [see the image below]. “I throw in a mix of eggplant, peppers and cucumbers when I can,” he added.

Eastern Ghouta is frequently and heavily hit by government airstrikes. To protect themselves and their crops, according to Ahmad, most people who have chosen to take up alternative farming find ways to hide their box planters so as not to make them entirely visible from up above.

This proved to be a short-term solution: when the Assad regime cut electricity supply to the Ghouta it had serious spill-over effects, and ‘on rooftops, as in the agricultural fields, the [consequent] lack of an irrigation system providing clean water caused the end of this semi-autonomous way of surviving the siege.’

So fuel was a second major concern, but there too there were improvisations. Mark Hanrahan and Bhassam Khabieh described an elaborate scheme in Douma to convert plastic waste into fuel.  Using methods he learned from YouTube videos, Abu Kassem and his family collected plastic bottles, rubble from damaged buildings, plastic cooking utensils, even plastic water and sewage pipes; they burned them all in a makeshift refinery, and sold the gas for domestic and commercial use or condensed the gas and refined the liquid into fuel for generators and vehicles.

At its height the workshop was running 15 hours a day six days a week; on an average day it burned 800 – 1,000 kg of plastic waste to produce around 850 litres of fuel. This was a dangerous, noxious business:

“Working here is very tiring, but we feel that we are providing a great service to people. I have been working here for a short time and have begun to adapt to the atmosphere here,” said Abu Ahmed, 28, [one] of the workers.

And the products were snapped up:

“When the siege began on eastern Ghouta at the end of 2013 fuel prices rose madly and we were no longer able to water crops as in the past,” Abu Firas, 33, an agricultural worker in the district told Reuters. “When we started producing local fuel, and water engines could be powered by this fuel, … life returned to agricultural land.”

Abu Talal had the same idea:

“We get plastic materials from areas and buildings that are deserted after being shelled by the regime forces. We collect all the plastic we find, such as water tanks and drainage pipes.”

After Talal and his team gather the plastic, they cut it into smaller pieces and put 50 kilograms in each barrel, along with 20 meters of piping to cool the water that runs in and out of the barrel. They contain narrower tubes, which contain the fumes that come from the burned plastic. Then they light a fire.

“It takes two to three hours to extract as much as possible from one batch of plastic,” he says. “In the last stage, we get the temperature to 100 to 115 degrees to extract a kind of diesel. The temperature must be accurate for the diesel to come out and for it to burn well, so it can be used in cars and motorcycles.”

Ammar al-Bushy described a similar operation at Erbin here.  ‘People are aware that the fuel extracted from burning plastic [is of a lower] quality than that extracted from oil,’ he reported, and it ’causes long-term problems for engines, but it meets the purpose for people living in a dire situation, in addition to the lower cost than fuel extracted from oil.’

The economics of the operation were explained by Abu Hassan:

“Gasoline reached the price of 4000-4200 Syrian Pounds ($20-$21), and the amounts available were minimal. However, we found a substitute by heating plastic and extracting methane, gasoline, and diesel.

“The price of diesel was 3200-3500 Syrian Pounds ($16-$18.50) per liter, which is considered very expensiv. So people were no longer able to purchase it, but after we started operating on plastic and started extracting diesel from it, the price decreased to 1200-1500 SP and it became more available.”

There were other manufactories too: there is a remarkably detailed analysis of the manufacture of weapons by Jaish al-Islam here, including improvised mortars, rockets, grenades and rifles.

But my focus here is on those resources basic to civilian survival in the besieged area. There were all sorts of other substitution strategies in East Ghouta  – I’ll deal with the improvisation of medical supplies and anaesthetics in the final post in this series – but the two examples I’ve provided show concerted attempts to devise solutions to the supply shortages and high prices that were the immediate products of the tightening siege.

Those economic conditions were also affected by cross-cordon transactions: by merchants who were allowed to bring goods in through the al-Wafideen checkpoint, and by smugglers who (until the offensives against Barzeh and al-Qaboun) operated a series of clandestine tunnels that gave access to markets on the suburban fringe.  I’ll consider each in turn, but in both cases there was an elaborate administration of precarity: an apparatus of permissions and permits, exactions and kick-backs, through which the local economy was manipulated and political and (para)military relations were managed.

There was another set of cross-border transactions: these were non-commercial flows of humanitarian aid.  The Syrian government put in place an intensely bureaucratic system  to regulate aid convoys which was also part of the administration of precarity.  It proved to be (and was intended to be) so restrictive that these flows had precious little sustained impact on economic conditions in Ghouta.  But, as I’ll show, these transactions were entangled in a wider and intrinsically partisan geography of precarity that magnified the marginality of Ghouta and effectively enlarged the power of the regime to dictate the terms of its ‘surrender or starve‘ strategy.

Merchants and the Million Checkpoint

One of Amnesty International‘s informants described how the importation of food into East Ghouta was slowly restricted:

By April  2013, you were not allowed to take any food into Eastern Ghouta. Security forces would beat women and men when they found bread or vegetables hidden in the boot of the car or under clothes. As I passed by a checkpoint, I remember seeing food piled up and people being beaten up or humiliated. The Syrian authorities did not allow any bread, vegetables, fruits, pasta, sugar or eggs to enter.

As individual transactions were banned, so selected merchants were allowed to organise much larger shipments. The al-Wafideen crossing became the most important external source of food and fuel for East Ghouta – often described as the ‘lung’ through which the Ghouta breathed – and the central figure in commercial transactions through the checkpoint was Mohyeddin al-Manfoush (‘Abu Ayman’), one of what the Economist called ‘Syria’s new war millionaires’: the ‘dairy godfather’.

Before the war Manfoush lived in Mesraba near Douma, where he owned a small herd of cows and a cheese factory, and traded as al-Marai al-Dimashqiya (Damascus Pastures).  Once the siege began he quickly struck a deal with the Syrian government.  The Economist again:

He began to bring cheap milk from rebel territory in Eastern Ghouta to regime-held Damascus, where he could sell it for double the price. The regime received a cut of the profit. Mr Manfoush reinvested his share. He snapped up the region’s best cows and dairy machinery from farmers and businessmen whose livelihoods had been hammered by the siege. As the business evolved, the trucks that left Ghouta with milk and cheese came back laden with the barley and wheat he needed to feed his growing dairy herd there and run the bakeries he bought.

It was immensely profitable; with a captive market of 400,000 people and runaway prices Manfoush not only expanded his business (under the umbrella Manfoush Trading Company) but also moved to a new house in Damascus and even established his own private militia.

Others profited too.  The security forces controlling the crossing (above, in February 2018) received ‘extra payments’ from Manfoush; there have been reports that they charged 200-300 Syrian pounds ($1 – $1.40) and sometimes as much as 750 Syrian pounds for each kilogram of goods passing through the checkpoint.  Local people came to refer to al-Wafideen as ‘the Million Crossing’ because it supposedly generated one million Syrian pounds per hour in bribes for its soldiers and security officers.  In March 2015 researchers were told a fee of one million Syrian pounds allowed a vehicle to pass through the checkpoint.  And Manfoush dispatched convoys not single trucks:

But the kickbacks almost certainly went much higher than those operating the checkpoint.  Roger Asfar has claimed that Manfoush’s web of companies is linked to the business empire of President Assad’s brother, Maher al-Assad (who also usefully heads the Republican Guard).  Be that as it may, the regime had more than a commercial interest in Manfoush’s transactions because it was able to leverage its control over al-Wafideen and ‘exploit its ability to turn trade on and off in order to sow enmity among [different] rebel [groups].’

The state’s ability to goad its enemies in this way depended not only on the rivalries between different rebel groups, however, but also on those groups’ own stakes in the siege economy.  These derived, in part, from the revenues generated through their ancillary checkpoints.  Many informants testified that another set of ‘fees’ were exacted there, though what eventually became the major rebel group in Douma, Jaish al-Islam [JAI], denied having any stake in Manfoush’s operations at al-Wafideen:

“Manfoush does not serve the Islam Army [JAI], he serves the Ghouta in its entirety,” said the Islam Army official Mohammed Bayraqdar. “Our interests are in harmony with the interests of the people and our relationship is merely that of facilitating his services. If there were another person [who performed the same function], we would provide the same services to him in return for his services to the people of the Ghouta.”

Those ‘facilitations’ and ‘services’ involved granting Manfoush’s convoys safe passage into East Ghouta, and it seems highly unlikely that this was a purely philanthropic gesture.  In June 2015 one of Amnesty International‘s informants explained:

Since the end of 2014, the Army of Islam [JAI] has controlled the supply route from al- Wafedine camp and Ajnad al-Sham, the underground tunnels in Harasta. The Army of Islam is responsible for regulating the prices. During the winter, the Army of Islam collects most of the food supplies from the market, increasing the prices threefold. You sleep one night and wake up the next day to find there is no food and prices are high.  The Army of Islam in collaboration with suppliers store food and non-food items in [its] warehouses. 

Siege Watch was even more blunt in its assessment for May-July 2017: ‘the corrupt trading monopoly run by al-Manfoush at the al-Wafideen checkpoint lined the pockets of the Syrian miilltary and JAI’.

There is no doubt that Jamash al-Islam’s provision of ‘services’, whether corrupt or not, was far from disinterested: facilitating the importation of food, fuel and other supplies gave it leverage over the besieged population. It was able to extend its control over the local labour market in Douma – determining which shops were allowed to open, for example – and gave those on its payroll privileged access to imported goods from its own warehouses. JAI was not the only group to take advantage of the siege economy.  In Harasta, Fajr al-Umma reportedly ‘gave away free food and a tank of propane … in [an] attempt to strengthen its popularity in the area.’  In short, food and fuel became vital currencies not only for the counterinsurgency but also for the insurgency.  ‘Joining one of the armed groups can provide a monthly salary of an average of USD 50,’ Rim Turkmani and her collaborators in the LSE’s ‘Security in Transition’ programme (including Mary Kaldor) found, ‘in addition to food parcels.’  And at times, they continued, ‘fighters are only paid in food.’

Putting all this together, Rim produced this diagram which traces the journey of a loaf of bread from Damascus into East Ghouta and shows how extensive was the system of exchange whose fulcrum was al-Wafideen:

Underground economies

In his detailed analysis of the tunnels excavated and operated by the armed opposition groups in the Ghouta, Aron Lund explains:

Apart from the Wafideen Crossing, the Eastern Ghouta has been supplied through a system of secret tunnels and semi-informal frontline crossings. While the crossings can bring in a far greater volume of trade, the tunnels serve to import goods that are restricted or banned by the government (including fuel, medical supplies, and arms), to move people in and out of the enclave, and to challenge and undercut food prices set by the Wafideen monopolists.

Digging the tunnels was difficult and dangerous work – but in a place where the economy was collapsing, where there were so few jobs to be had, and where some rebel groups resorted to more directly coercive methods of recruitment the work proceeded apace:

Men of Douma work in three shifts a day to finish their job, using primitive tools. “Each worker has one meal – either breakfast with an egg and a piece of bread, or lunch with rice and bread. The digging never stops. When we hit a large rock or anything like it, we turn on the generator and use a jackhammer,” said Abdullah, a tunnel digger. When asked about the reason that men take this job and whether it pays well, Abdullah said: “Many have lost their job because of the ongoing war, so we have no means to earn money to buy food. Prices are also very high because of the prolonged siege. They pay around 1,000 Syrian pounds per worker, which covers the price of a kilo of flour….”

“When we first started digging tunnels, we faced many difficulties; however, we found solutions and continued the operation. For example, we pumped oxygen at certain points inside the tunnels, which is very important for the workers. We also set up pillars inside the tunnel to prevent them from collapsing over the workers, which had happened often earlier, and killed and trapped many workers for many hours before we could rescue them,” said Abu Mahmoud.

There were five main tunnels (I’ve taken most of these details and the maps from a report by Enab Baladi‘s Investigative Unit on ‘The economic map of Ghouta‘).  

The first (the Zahteh or Central Tunnel) ran 800 metres from Harasta under the Damascus–Homs highway to Qaboun; construction was started by Fajr al-Umma towards the end of 2013, and the tunnel opened the following summer.  It soon emerged as ‘the primary [clandestine] artery for the Eastern Ghouta’s siege economy’.

In January 2015 Jaish al-Umma opened a second, parallel tunnel, but Fajr al-Umma soon controlled this route too:

In May 2015 two other rebel groups, Failaq al-Rahman and al-Liwan al-Awwal, dug the so-called ‘Mercy Tunnel’ from Arbin to Qaboun; this was much longer than the previous two (2,800 metres) and wide enough to allow the passage of cars and even Kia 2400 trucks.

In June 2015 Jaish al-Islam constructed a 3km tunnel from Arbin and Zamalka to Qaboun; it too was wide enough to accommodate small trucks.

In September 2015 Falaq al-Rahman joined with Jabhat al-Nusra in Qaboun to establish a third tunnel under its control, the ‘Nour [Light] Tunnel’, from Arbin to Qaboun for foot traffic only.

These were the main tunnels, but several smaller tunnels were dug between the Ghouta and Jobar, and others were dug primarily for (para)military purposes to move personnel, ammunition and armaments.  Other tunnels were dug within the Ghouta as defences against air strikes; they served multiple purposes, not least connecting the dispersed facilities of underground field hospitals (more on this in a later post).  One SAA informant described to Robert Fisk what he saw when he entered Douma in March 2018:

I have never seen so many tunnels. They had built tunnels everywhere. They were deep and they ran beneath shops and mosques and hospitals and homes and apartment blocks and roads and fields. I went into one with full electric lighting, the lamps strung out for hundreds of yards. I walked half a mile through it. They were safe there. So were the civilians who hid in the same tunnels.

The main cross-line tunnels were used for multiple purposes too: but commercial traffic was always an important consideration.

I describe this as commercial not only because the goods were sold at stores inside Ghouta but also because the tunnels provided the groups that controlled them (often through nominally civilian front organisations or ‘foundations’) with income and resources.  This caused considerable jockeying between them;  Aron Lund provides a superbly detailed analysis of the rivalries, deals and counter-deals that ensued.

The tunnels were considerable undertakings.  The director of the organisation set up to operate the Mercy Tunnel told Enab Baladi that it cost 30,000,000 Syrian Pounds each month to cover ‘the expenses of nine Kia 2400 trucks that work between 3 p.m. and 6 a.m. and the salaries of 450 employees, including drivers, workers, administrators, officials and custodians, in addition to security officials.’

There were three streams of commercial transactions.  The first involved the passage of civilians and, like all movement through the tunnels, was closely controlled by the rebel groups.  One of Enab Baladi‘s informants outlined the rules:

Those passing through the tunnels must be born before 1970, since the factions are in need of young fighters.

The person passing must provide clearance from the Unified Judiciary, to prove that there are no cases outstanding against him or her, and a clearance from the Housing Bureau.

Fighters must provide an official permit  (below) from their faction.

All documents must be submitted to the Crossing Office, which will assign the person a date to pass.

Medical emergencies are exempted from the waiting period, but must provide a report from the Unified Medical Bureau.

Under no circumstances are weapons allowed to leave Ghouta.

No goods other than clothes and basic supplies are allowed (not to exceed two bags).

Abu Ali described how he and his family made their escape:

The process of applying to use the tunnel, he said, was strangely bureaucratic for such a risky method of escape: He submitted an official request at a Jaish al-Islam office and was informed two weeks later that it had been granted… [He] and three other families granted access to the tunnel started their journey on a bus from the city of Hamouriyya.

“The bus took us to the city of Arbin. In Arbin, the bus took side streets, so that we wouldn’t be noticed. We finally arrived at a house where our identification cards were checked, and our luggage was searched. We were told that we had to be very careful, so no one would discover where the tunnel was,” he said.

The tunnel “was very tight – there was barely enough room for two people to walk side by side and it was about two meters in height. In addition to lights, the tunnel had turbines for ventilation purposes.”

These rules were never set in stone, still less once the co-operation implied by the ‘Unified Medical Bureau’ and the ‘Unified Judiciary’ [established in the summer of 2014] broke down and in-fighting between the groups controlling the tunnels became commonplace.  Despite the age restrictions, some of them were willing to allow young people to pay for a permit: the cost varied between 100,000 and 200,000 Syrian pounds.  If they wished to escape Qaboun or Barzeh, they would then pay further bribes to the soldiers and security officers controlling the regime’s checkpoints into Damascus.

There was one constant: the rules allowed for the evacuation of medical emergencies but no medical staff – doctors, nurses, pharmacists – were permitted to leave.  In fact it seems unlikely that many serious medical cases were evacuated through the tunnels either. They would not have found better treatment in Barzeh or Qaboun, but during the early stages of the truce some patients were allowed to cross from those besieged districts into Damascus.   Dr Immad al-Kabbani testified that ‘for a period beginning in September 2014 we were able to evacuate a minimum of 20 patients and their families each week’ through the tunnels (and even ‘to send biopsies from cancer patients to cooperative labs in Damascus for diagnosis’) but by March 2016 the clandestine system was already failing. One cancer patient was allowed to leave for radiation therapy which was unavailable at the Dar al-Rahma Center for Cancer in Ghouta, but her journey turned out to be fruitless:

 I received no care at hospitals [in Damascus] so I relapsed and the tumour returned to its previous status. I decided to go back to Eastern Ghouta through the same tunnels to have the chemical doses.

That same month patients were travelling in the opposite direction.  A doctor from the Syrian-American Medical Society testified:

Now, as access to Damascus has been cut off, the 35,000 civilians inside Barzeh have extremely limited access to healthcare, and must travel to East Ghouta to obtain treatment. Even the dialysis patients in Barzeh are traveling to East Ghouta [via the tunnels] to obtain treatment with the extremely limited supplies.

For a time the tunnels were a two-way street of sorts for cancer patients: those who needed chemotherapy were treated at the Dar al-Rahma Center in Ghouta, using medical supplies smuggled through the tunnels [below], while those needing radiotherapy were taken through the tunnels to al-Nawawi hospital in Damascus.  According to the director of the Dar al-Rahma, ‘after the closure of the tunnels, there is no possibility of providing either of the treatments.’

By the time the tunnels were closed in February 2017 the UN estimated that around 80 patients out of 700 estimated to be in need of urgent treatment had been evacuated from East Ghouta through the tunnels.  Some were transferred because there were no specialists available inside the besieged area, others because clinics there had been denied the medicines and equipment needed to treat them.  But the numbers were small when set against the extensive record of seriously injured or ill patients being placed on evacuation lists from the Ghouta only to have their doctors’ requests refused or ignored by the Syrian government.  Once the tunnels were closed ‘all movement of patients was halted.’

The second stream of traffic involved everyday supplies of all kinds, including food and fuel.  Some rebel groups limited their dealings to particular merchants but in every case a tunnel ‘tax’ was levied.  The usual fee seems to have been 10 per cent but there were times when 25 per cent and even 45 per cent of the value of the goods was levied.  The ‘tax’ was paid in cash or in kind: the different factions maintained their own warehouses and usually gave their own fighters and supporters privileged access to the supplies they skimmed from the shipments.  During the first two months that the Mercy Tunnel was in operation, for example, Falaq al-Rahman allegedly ‘filled its warehouses with more than 12 tons of goods, claiming that it had to secure its fighters first.’  As this implies, the totals involved were small – they paled into insignificance alongside the commercial shipments through al-Wafideen – but they provided the armed opposition groups with significant financial gains.  Enab Baladi again, citing one of the directors of the Mercy Foundation:

“Everyone finds in the tunnel the perfect opportunity to make money. Since the very first tunnel was completed, Fajr al-Umma, the faction that had dug the tunnel, took control of all incoming goods and sold them for extremely high prices. In 2014, for example, 1kg of sugar was sold for 60-70 Syrian pounds [around 30 cents] in Damascus, but Fajr al-Umma sold it for 3, 500 Syrian pounds [more than $16] within Ghouta.”

These exactions – and the subterranean monopolies that underwrote them – prompted endless negotiations (and worse) between the groups over shared access.  Kholoud al-Shami suggested that Jabhat al-Nusra planned the Nour Tunnel explicitly to undercut its rivals, bring prices down, and so boost its support among the besieged population.  One local resident told her:

It appears that Nusra’s goal is to reduce the suffering of the besieged residents, who had begun cursing the revolution and the rebels because of Falaq al-Rahman and Fajar al-Umma keeping prices high. All factions want to build up their popular support, which is what Nusra is doing… Local residents have viewed the drastic drop in prices positively and stood in solidarity with Jabhat a-Nusra when Falaq al-Rahman prevented them from selling gasoline at reduced prices when they were still sharing a tunnel.

Similarly, Jaish al-Islam apparently pressured Fajar al-Ummah to lower its prices. It was an intricate and constantly changing story, but running through all these deals was the imbrication of the political with the economic.  The attempts to lower prices were all about more than the high-minded desire to ‘reduce suffering’: they were also aimed at boosting support for one faction over another.

The third stream of traffic consisted of medical supplies.  I have separated these from other supplies because they were categorically barred from the al-Wafidden crossing; even UN convoys with the appropriate authorisations had them removed at the checkpoint.  Yet they were vital.  Inside Ghouta doctors were struggling with often catastrophic injuries from shelling and bombing, and doing their best to treat seriously ill patients with chronic conditions (how often we forget that people still get sick in war zones).  With no provision possible through the overland crossings, doctors had to use the tunnels.  A team from the Union of Free Syrian Doctors worked around the clock in Barzeh to obtain vital medical supplies for hospitals and clinics in Ghouta, but by the time they had paid Syrian Arab Army soldiers controlling checkpoints on the highway and then the tunnel tax – medicines were not exempt but were charged ‘only’ 5 per cent – the costs of even routine medications had soared.  Students from the Columbia School of Journalism reported:

By the time all the fees are paid, the price of medical supplies in Eastern Ghouta “is three times higher, sometimes as much as five times, than what’s in the north or south of Syria,” said [Mahmoud] al-Sheikh [director of the Unified Revolutionary Medical Bureau in Eastern Ghouta]. A liter of serum, which is used to help the body replenish lost blood, goes for about $1 in regime-controlled areas (one liter is about one fluid quart). But health workers say they’ve paid anywhere from $3.50 to $10 for one liter of serum brought in from Barzeh.

[Osama] Abu Zayd [a medical equipment engineer with the Union of Free Syrian Doctors] estimates that Ghouta, with its many neighborhoods, needs about 10,000 liters (more than 2,600 gallons) of serum per month.

Whatever came through the tunnels, it was never enough, and all three traffic streams came to a juddering halt as the offensive against Barzeh and Qaboun was renewed.  During the winter of 2016-17 the regime sought to amend the terms of the truce, stipulating that the smuggling trade had to stop; then in February 2017 it peremptorily closed the checkpoints so that supplies from Damascus dried up, and within days nothing was moving through the tunnels to Ghouta.

The fighting that followed was protracted and bloody, and thousands fled through the tunnels to find refuge in East Ghouta.  But by the end of February the Syrian Arab Army occupied the warehouse concealing the portal to the Zahteh Tunnel, and by the middle of May, when the remaining opposition fighters in Barzeh and Qaboun had surrendered and the population was forcibly evacuated, all the major tunnels had been breached.  

State media published videos showing the army cutting the tunnels and carrying out controlled explosions.  The ultimate objective was not only to take down Barzeh and Qaboun but ‘to strangle the Ghouta … by closing off the crossings and tunnels,’ a spokesman for Jaish al-Islam explained.  ‘Trade through the tunnels has completely stopped.’

The loss of the tunnels triggered panic buying in Ghouta, driving prices still higher, and triggered a new round of fighting between the two major blocs of rebel fighters (Jaish al-Islam based in Douma and Falaq al-Rahman in fractious and as it turned out temporary alliance with Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham, which later became Jabhat al-Nusra, which were based in the so-called ‘Central Section’ to the south and the west).

Residents of the Ghouta demonstrated against the infighting – and, in a displaced and horrifying repetition of the tactics employed by regime’s security forces, Jaish al-Islam opened fire on the crowd – and the deepening tension served only to aggravate the economic crisis.  In July 2017 Alaa Nassar reported:

Dozens of recently erected checkpoints and berms split the suburbs [of East Ghouta] in half. For residents trapped inside the Central Section, this means a lack of access to the Wafideen crossing and, therefore, to outside resources.

By September 2017 the Syrian-American Medical Society‘s report on the siege of East Ghouta described a truly dreadful predicament:

In a report for the Middle East Institute, ‘Sieges in Syria: Profiteering from misery‘ (2016) Will Todman summarises the two sets of cross-cordon transactions I’ve described so far – overt commercial transactions through al-Wafideen and clandestine transactions through the tunnels – like this:

It’s an effective summary but, as I now need to show, the bottom line (sic), in which UN convoys are described as ‘an effective means to get goods to civilians at a lower price,’ is problematic.

Aid convoys

Like the commercial convoys of merchandise that were allowed in to East Ghouta, humanitarian aid came in through al-Wafideen (above).  Unlike the commercial flows, however, humanitarian aid was rigorously policed, strictly limited and utterly spasmodic. In Douma, for example, which had been under siege since 2013, the first UN interagency aid convoy did not arrive until 10 June 2016 (below). Its 36 trucks provided emergency food, wheat flour, and nutrition supplies for only 17 per cent of the population.  Those stocks were supposed to last for one month, but the next convoy did not arrive until 19 October 2016, with 44 trucks carrying food supplies for 24 per cent of the population (baby milk had been removed at the checkpoint).  Those supplies were also intended to last for one month, and a third convoy duly arrived at al-Wafideen with supplies for 49 per cent of the population on 17 November 2016.  But the mission was aborted because ‘it lacked specific approval needed to proceed without dog searches and unsealing of the trucks.’  The next UN convoy arrived on 30 October 2017.

I have extracted most of these details from a report prepared by Elise Baker for Physicians for Human Rights with the dismally appropriate title Access Denied.  The report describes a system of deliberate obstruction of humanitarian aid by the Assad regime that imposed – by design, remember – ‘slow, painful death by starvation’ on populations in areas besieged by its forces: what the report also calls ‘murder by siege’.

There have been two main modalities of obstruction.  The first has involved a byzantine process through which UN agencies have been required to obtain formal permission from the government to deliver humanitarian aid.  Following the establishment of a joint working group to facilitate (sic) the process in 2014, it was agreed that each convoy would need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and ‘facilitation letters’ from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the Syrian Arab Crescent and (in the case of medical supplies) the Ministry of Health.  The process was described by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator as ‘extremely complex and time-consuming’, and matters were not improved by the introduction of additional clearance requirements from the High Relief Committee and the National Security Office.

After repeated protests from the UN the Syrian government finally agreed to ‘simplified procedures for the approval of interagency convoys across conflict lines‘ in March 2016, that should have reduced an eight-step process to a two-step process, with all approvals (or refusals) being issued within seven working days.  In practice, the two-step became a ten– or even eleven-step process.  In January 2017 the UN Security Council was advised of ‘subsequent administrative delays on the part of the government, including in the approval of facilitation letters, approval by local governors and security committees, as well as broader restrictions by all parties [that] continue to hamper our efforts’ to deliver humanitarian aid to besieged populations.  Even with approvals from the authorities in Damascus, protocols were routinely violated at checkpoints.   Stephen O’Brien elaborated:

We continue to be blocked at every turn, by lack of approvals at central and local levels, disagreements on access routes, and by the violation of agreed procedures at checkpoints by parties to the conflict. Are these important? Yes. We can’t – and if I may quote – “just plough on” or “just get on with it” as I’ve heard one member sitting around this say table to me. Because if one brave aid worker drives through the checkpoint without the facilitation letter and the command transmitted down the line, the check-point guard or their sniper takes the shot.

In a statement two months later he bluntly declared: ‘The current bureaucratic architecture is at best excessive and at its worst, deliberately intended to prevent convoys from proceeding.’

The second modality of obstruction was to withhold permission altogether.  The chart below was compiled for PHR’s Access denied; notice the substantial differences between the populations for whom the UN requested access and the populations for whom access was approved, a difference that was the product of both outright rejection and a calculated failure to respond.

Notice too the still smaller population eventually reached by the aid convoys:

From May through December 2016, on average, Syrian authorities authorized UN interagency convoys to deliver aid to approximately two thirds of the besieged and hard-to-reach populations that UN authorities requested access to each month – a figure which, in itself, represents a fraction of the entire besieged and hard-to-reach population. However, UN convoys only reached 38 percent of that smaller approved population, due to additional approval procedures and other delays imposed overwhelmingly by government officials…  At worst, this pattern reflects an effort by Syrian authorities to appear cooperative while still ensuring that access to besieged areas remained blocked.

The approval process allowed the authorities not only to veto the populations permitted to receive humanitarian aid but also to restrict the amount and composition of that aid.  In November 2017, for example, a UN convoy of 24 trucks was allowed in to Douma – the first since August – with food for an estimated 21,500 people (the original request had been for supplies for 107,500); medical supplies had been removed from the convoy.  In March 2018 another, much delayed convoy reached Douma with food for 27,500 people (below); deliveries were interrupted by renewed shelling and 10 of the 46 trucks were forced to return with their loads.  Marwa Awad, who accompanied the convoy with the World Food Programme, described what she found:

Volunteers gathered to help offload the aid from the trucks, including WFP’s wheat flour which the men were offloading into underground cellars. Speaking with the local council, we learned that there were more than 200,000 people in Douma, many of them displaced from nearby villages and other areas within Eastern Ghouta, and all of them needing food and medicine….

Leaving the devastation above, we took a long and narrow staircase deep into Douma’s underworld: a network of basements that has become fertile ground for disease and infection.  Many residents are forced to live underground, crammed together in packed spaces to avoid airstrikes…

There we met Mustafa, a man in his twenties.

“The food aid trickles in very slowly, drop by drop. Many families here are struggling. I hope whoever is hungry gets help,” he said. Because of the increasing demand for food and limited quantities allowed inside, residents of Douma have had to split the food assistance WFP delivered during an earlier convoy in order to reach as many people as possible.

The convoy took place at the height of the final military offensive against the Ghouta: yet the World Health Organisation said that Syrian government officials had ordered the removal of 70 percent of the medical supplies it had prepared for the convoy, including all trauma kits, surgical supplies, dialysis equipment and insulin.

The control exercised by the Assad regime over humanitarian aid derived not only from formal procedures, or the subsequent ‘deletions’ and on occasion, even contamination of supplies at checkpoints; it also depended on the system of clandestine intelligence built in to the architecture of the authoritarian state. The head of one UN agency working out of Damascus told one US/UK investigation team:

We were spied on, followed, our computer traffic was monitored, our notebooks stolen, they knew what we were doing. I’m not sure anyone appreciates how hard all of this was . . . the daily grind of getting a tiny concession of access or movements of goods. The SARC [Syrian Arab Red Crescent] were used as a proxy to control and spy on us and contain us.

So many controls.  And yet UN Security Council resolutions 2139 (2014), 2165 (2014), 2191 (2014) and 2258 (2015) authorized the unconditional delivery of humanitarian assistance, including medical assistance, to besieged and hard-to-reach communities countrywide.  The emphasis is mine; the wording is the UN’s.  But the Assad regime clearly called the shots and imposed the most exacting conditions on the delivery of humanitarian aid to besieged areas like the Ghouta.  The UN even deferred to the Syrian government over the identification of what constituted a siege; its mappings of besieged and ‘hard-to-reach’ areas were far more restrictive than those conducted by Siege Watch or the Syrian-American Medical Society.  Its in-country contracts had to be approved by the government, and not surprisingly many of them – individually worth tens of millions of dollars for accommodation, trucks, fuel, and cellphone service – were with businesses closely tied to the Assad regime.   As Reinoud Leenders put it, ‘the Syrian regime’s aggressive assertions of state sovereignty have locked UN aid agencies into a disturbingly submissive role.’

A report from the Syria CampaignTaking Sides – found that humanitarian aid delivered under the auspices of the UN was disproportionately directed towards areas under the direct control of the Assad regime.  Here is the distribution of aid through the World Food Programme – the largest UN agency handling food aid – shortly after the passage of UNSC 2139, revealing what John Hudson described as ‘Assad’s starvation campaign’:

The following month (April 2014) 75 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled areas.  Two years later (April 2016) 88 per cent of food aid delivered from inside Syria went into government-controlled territory; once cross-border deliveries from Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey were taken into account – now authorised by further UN Security Council resolutions – the (dis)proportion going into government-controlled territories fell to 72 per cent.  But by April 2017 it had increased to 82 per cent.  

Still, these raw figures conceal as much as they reveal; humanitarian aid for government-controlled areas has not been subject to the same restrictions, deletions and delays as aid for areas outside the regime’s direct control.  Convoys were far more frequent, loads were larger, and medical supplies were not removed.  The Assad regime frequently represented aid to areas under its control as both a gift from the government (through granting access to international agencies) and a gift of the government: at its highest levels, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (a central and compulsory actor in these deliveries) is a de facto arm of the state.  There was and continues to be an undoubted need for aid throughout Syria, but according to the UN’s own figures 54 per cent of the population in need lived in government-controlled areas in 2016.  Accordingly, Taking Sides argues that 

The effective subsidy of government areas releases resources that are likely used by the government in its war effort. The UN has enabled one side in the conflict to shift more of its resources away from providing for the needs of its people and into its military campaign.

The official position was always that the UN had to comply with the Assad regime’s predilections and stipulations as a necessary price for access to the besieged areas, but David Miliband (President of the International Rescue Committee) countered that ‘the Assad regime can’t afford to kick the UN out of Damascus [because] the UN is feeding so many of [Assad’s] own people.’  

Conversely, the carefully calibrated restrictions placed by the regime on flows of goods through al-Wafideen into the Ghouta amounted to an assertion of continued control over the besieged population.  Esther Meinghaus [‘Humanitarianism in intra-state conflict: aid inequality and local governance in government and opposition-controlled areas in the Syrian war’, Third World Quarterly 37 (8) (2016) 1454-82] argues that in those areas where the regime was not able to maintain military control it exercised effective ‘humanitarian control’ by continuing to dictate the parameters within which the population lived (and died).  In consequence, like Esther, José Ciro Martinez and Brett Eng [‘The unintended consequences of emergency food aid: neutrality, sovereignty and politics in the Syrian civil war, 2012-15’, International Affairs 92 (1) (2016) 153-73; also available here] describe besieged areas like the Ghouta as spaces of exception.  They reveal a persistent attempt by the Assad regime to separate those ‘included in a juridical order and those stripped of juridical-political protections – a separation between life that is politically qualified and one that is “bare” or naked.’  But as José and Brett emphasise, actors inside the Ghouta (and outside) have repeatedly called into question the actions of the Syrian government and its allies and sought to confound them.   The political salience of those counter-strategies is itself compromised, they insist, by treating humanitarian aid as a ‘neutral’ and essentially technical matter of alleviating physical distress and deprivation – the register within which UN agencies conceive their interventions – because that is to become complicit in the reduction of besieged populations to ‘bare life’: ‘Those receiving assistance are valued strictly in terms of their biological life not their political voice’ (p. 165).

The administration of precarity

Throughout this essay I’ve written about ‘the administration of precarity’ because – following David Nally‘s wonderful example – the siege economy was administered by multiple actors whose regulations and restrictions made them responsible for delivering precarity to the besieged population.  That the Assad regime and its allies had a direct interest in doing so followed directly from their strategy of ‘surrender or starve’, and there was an elaborate web of exactions and extortions reaching from the highest levels of the state down to the foot soldiers who controlled the checkpoints and crossings.  The rebel groups were involved too, but they had a more direct interest in the subterranean smuggling economy, levying fees in cash or in kind on flows through the tunnels to boost their coffers and secure their own supporters.  But the United Nations and its agencies were also culpable in acceding to the demands of the Assad regime, allowing it to funnel most humanitarian aid to areas under its control and condemning the civilian populations in besieged areas to half-chance lives of ever increasing precarity.

Yet precarity does not mean passivity, and a ‘siege economy’ is always more than a political economy: it is also and always what E.P. Thompson would have called a moral economy.  The rebel groups in the Ghouta were chronically incapable (or uninterested) in finding common ground, and their support amongst the besieged population was uneven and variable.  As the siege wore on, protests against their exactions and impositions – and the infighting amongst them – multiplied.  For all that, many (and probably most) civilians remained opposed to the Assad regime, and we should remember too that the war emerged out of the violent response of the state to peaceful protests by ordinary people in the Ghouta and elsewhere calling for democratic reforms.  This matters because as I worked on this essay – watching the videos, reading the reports, unearthing the testimonies – I became aware of an extraordinary resilience and communal solidarity forged within the population.  I think of the ingenuity of the rooftop farmers, the fuel distillers, and the makers of gauze and medicines; the dedication of the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and rescue workers faced with so many grievously wounded and seriously ill people; the courage of mothers sharing blankets and what little food they had and singing songs and sharing stories as they huddled with their children in the crowded basements sheltering from the bombs and missiles (see here).

I wrote those words last night; this morning I read this moving letter from the Syria Campaign on ‘Leaving Ghouta‘:

Over the past five years, Ghouta has faced terrible violence including the sarin gas chemical attack that took the lives of hundreds in their sleep. And despite it all they have taught the world a lesson in courage and resilience. When the regime lost control of Ghouta its people built new forms of local governance and held free elections for the first time in Syria’s history. When the bombs started falling on neighbourhoods its teachers and doctors took schools and hospitals underground and ordinary residents put on white helmets and rushed to rescue their friends and neighbours. The people of Ghouta launched inspiring civil society projects, often women-led. They created new media platforms and produced award-winning photojournalism. They created alternative energy resources and introduced new farming techniques.

But after this latest, relentless onslaught, people were truly left with no choice. If they remained in Ghouta they risked being detained and tortured as the Syrian regime closed in, particularly the ones who decided to teach, treat the wounded, or post updates to Facebook. So now many are leaving behind everything they’ve ever known to go to a place that isn’t that much safer. The province of Idlib, home to more than two million, is also being struck from the air by the Syrian regime and its Russian ally.

If only the ‘international community’ had been even half the community created by these brave men and women.

To be continued

‘This is too much’

“The Nameless Ones, 1914” (1916) by Albin Egger-Lienz. Painted during World War I, the artwork depicts advancing figures so bowed-down that their bodies almost blend with the earth beneath them. Credit: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, Vienna

I trailed Joanna Bourke‘s new edited collection, War and Art: a visual history of modern conflict (Reaktion Books/University of Chicago Press) in an earlier post.  You can now download the introduction here, and read an edited version (‘Paintings, protest and propaganda’) via CNN here.

War is the most destructive activity known to humanity. Its purpose is to use violence – plunder, forced migration, wounding, starvation and slaughter – to compel opponents to submit and surrender. Looking closely at military violence can itself be painful: along with Goya, we may simply exclaim, ‘This is is too much!’

Throughout history, though, the practice and representation of war have been intertwined: the ‘art of war’ refers both to the strategic aspects of military operations and to its depiction in artistic imaginaries.

 

Trauma Geographies

I’ve been invited to give the Antipode lecture at the RGS/IBG conference on 29 August.  Here’s the abstract:

Trauma Geographies: broken bodies and lethal landscapes  

Elaine Scarry reminds us that even though ‘the main purpose and outcome of war is injuring’ this ‘massive fact can nevertheless ‘disappear from view along many separate paths.’ This presentation traces some of those paths, exploring the treatment and evacuation of the injured and sick in three war zones: the Western Front in the First World War, Afghanistan 2001-2018, and Syria 2012-2018. The movement of casualties from the Western Front inaugurated the modern military-medical machine; it was overwhelmingly concerned with the treatment of combatants, for whom the journey – by stretcher, ambulance, train and boat – was always precarious and painful. Its parts constituted a ‘machine’ in all sorts of ways, but its operation was far from smooth. The contrast with the aerial evacuation and en route treatment of US/UK casualties in Afghanistan is instructive, and at first sight these liquid geographies confirm Stephen Pinker’s progressivist theses about ‘the better angels of our nature’ [see also here]. But this impression has to be radically revised once Afghan casualties are taken into account – both combatant and civilian – and it is dispelled altogether by the fate of the sick and wounded in rebel-controlled areas of Syria. For most of them treatment was dangerous, almost always improvised and ever more precarious as hospitals and clinics were routinely targeted and medical supplies disrupted, and evacuation impossible as multiple sieges brutally and aggressively tightened. Later modern war has many modalities, and the broken bodies that are moved – or immobilised – in its lethal landscapes reveal that the ‘therapeutic geographies’ mapped so carefully by Omar Dewachi and others [see here and here] continue to be haunted by the ghosts of cruelty and suffering that stalked the battlefield of the American Civil War in the years following Lincoln’s original appeal to those ‘better angels’.

The presentation will tie together several strands I’ve laid out in posts on Geographical Imaginations; the next installment of my analysis of siege warfare and geographies of precarity in Syria will appear shortly.