Category Archives: Russia

Ethics and the doping scandal – a response to Guest Work

Rodchenkov

Grigory Rodchenkov, Russia’s sacked anti-doping lab director. Considered a criminal in Russia and a “whistle blower” in USA. Credit: Emily Berl for The New York Times

International Olympic Committee (IOC) decisions about participation of athletes from the Russian Federation in the Rio Olympics have brought both criticism and support – from the political as well as the sporting communities.

The issues of sports doping, the responsibilities and actions of sporting bodies and the political context and factors all need discussing. So I am pleased to see a Guest Work blog post at SciBlogs from Ian Culpan discussing the ethical questions involved (see Ethics, Doping the Olympics and Russia).

But I think the article missed important ethical considerations and I do not think the issue can properly be discussed without these. To me the following ethical and legal principles, which Ian did not discuss, are central:

  1. Proper testing of claims and evidence;
  2. Presumption of innocence until proven guilty;
  3. Inadmissibility of collective punishment
  4. Avoiding direct or implied political direction in decision-making.

A brief background

The Russian Federation does have a problem with sports doping. It should be in everyone’s interests for this to be dealt with. Interestingly, the Russian national officials and politicians do appear to be cooperating with international sports bodies. They have transferred testing of athletes to non-Russian laboratories. Officials (including the deputy Minister of Sport) implicated by Richard McLaren’s World Anti-Doping Authority (WADA) commissioned report have been suspended pending investigation. The President himself has urged officials not to react defensively but to deal with the problem.

Grigory Rodchenkov, the former head of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, was a key figure in the current scandal. He was taking bribes to supply illegal drugs to athletes and (apparently) to enable falsification of test results. When he was sacked and criminal proceeding taken against him he fled to the US. Now treated as a “whistle blower” instead of a criminal he made charges implicating higher officials in the doping scandal. His claims made in a May New York Times article (see Russian Doctor Explains How He Helped Beat Doping Tests at the Sochi Olympics) sparked the decision of the WADA to commission the McLaren report.

Richard McLaren’s report effectively supports Rodchenkov’s claims and found Rodchenkov to be trustworthy. But this appears to be McLaren’s opinion, rather than a conclusion based on testing of claims and evidence. There was no attempt to interview officials in the Russian Federation which is surely required for a proper evaluation. And results of the “forensic testing” commissioned by McLaren (DNA data and testing the methods for removing and replacing seals on sample vials and scratches on the vials) are not even included in the report. We are asked simply to accept his judgment on these.

I agree, the time limit of 57 days may well be to blame but in the absence of presentation of the forensic evidence, relying on the claims of an obvious criminal and lack of any consideration of evidence from Russian officials I think Culpan’s judgment the report “seems to contain irrefutable evidence” is just not valid. To interpret a situation where there had been no opportunity given to refute as meaning the evidence was “irrefutable” is hardly fair. Or ethical.

The reliability of the McLaren report and the information he gathered appears to be unravelling – according to articles in The Australian (unfortunately behind a pay wall but see WADA ‘sexed up’ anti-Russia case, implicated clean athletes – Australian media, citing officials). These claim the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, John Coates, who is also an IOC vice president, wrote to Australia’s Health Minister Susan Ley, saying that the IOC had a “lack of confidence in WADA.” There are also problems with the list of “implicated” Russian athletes not named in McLaren’s report but provided to the sporting federations by McLaren. The Australian cites a senior sports official as saying “We were asked to make a judgment about Russian competitors based on McLaren’s report but without having any of the detail to understand the significance of them being named.”

For Richard McLaren’s description and defence of his work see ‘No time to ask Russia’s opinion, I had enough evidence anyway’ – WADA doping report author to RT

Unwarranted judgments are easily made in the context of the current geopolitical struggle and the resulting information war. They can have consequences which are hardly ethical and I think Richard McLaren himself is concerned about this. He said recently:

“The focus has been completely lost and the discussion is not about the Russian labs and Sochi Olympic Games, which was under the direction of the IOC.”

“But what is going on is a hunt for people supposed to be doping but that was never part of my work, although it is starting to (become) so.’’

“My reporting on the state-based system has turned into a pursuit of individual athletes.’’

This treatment of individual Russian athletes, which was described as being like a “Stalinist witch hunt” by one commentator, is what concerns me. I think this raises ethical issues.

Presumption of innocence

This seems so fundamental to our legal (and ethical) system I just cannot see why critics of the IOC have been so prepared to ignore it – or worse, knowingly violate the principle.

Many Russian athletes who have never had a positive drug test have been denied the opportunity to participate in the Rio Olympics. The criteria applied to other Russian athletes has been much harsher than for other nations with sometimes impossible demands being made to prove a long history of clean test results. While athletes from other nations who have been found guilty in the past of doping and “served their time” in suspension are able to compete this is not the case for Russian athletes.

These clean athletes justifiably ask “Why me?” Russian sports fans may well be thoroughly disappointed by this scandal and particularly with athletes and officials who have found to be guilty of doping. But you can understand they are also angry at the unfairness of such discriminatory and unethical judgments made against their clean athletes.

Collective punishment

Punishing clean athletes for the crimes of those who used doping is simply collective punishment. It brings to mind the actions of Nazi occupiers in Eastern Europe who killed innocent villagers (or in some cases killed entire villages) as collective punishment for the actions of partisans. For the life of me, I cannot see how those critics who believe that the entire Russian Olympic Team should have been punished for the (as yet unproven) crimes of some officials consider they occupy the “moral high ground” as Culpan appears to argue.

Not that collective punishment is anything new when it comes the history of staging important international events by the Russian Federation (and the previous USSR). In the 1980s we saw boycotts of the Moscow and San Francisco Olympics. Attempts at collective punishment of entire nations because of disagreements in the international political arena.

There were attempts to inject political issues into the Sochi Olympics, and even promoting the idea of boycotts,  and who seriously doubts that there will be political attempts to harm, or even prevent, the 2018 World Football Cup in the Russian Federation.

Yet, international sporting and cultural events offer great opportunities to encourage goodwill and understanding between nations. They should not be used as weapons in the geopolitical struggle – because that, in turn, only enhances that struggle and harms peace.

Political motivations can prevent a solution

Fortunately, the IOC avoided a blanket ban on athletes from the Russian Federation, despite coming under political pressure to do so. The consequences of such an unprecedented and radical step may have been unpredictable but include a possible break-up of the Olympic movement. This would not have solved the sports doping problem.

As things stand there is now room for progress in a proper investigation of the charges made by Rodchenkov – particularly those suggesting the involvement of state officials. Such serious charges, made by someone facing criminal action, should not be left as they are without a proper balanced investigation. And this investigation must involve officials and legal bodies from the Russian Federation. It is hardly surprising that McLaren’s report is now being described as unfinished. The Australian articles reported IOC spokesman Mark Adams as saying:

“To have someone who didn’t (commit) a competition doping offence but was counted as such is a very dangerous thing. We encourage a full report by Professor McLaren before we make any full and frank ­decisions.’’”

Surely such a proper investigation will have more chance of eliminating Russian sports doping and corruption than external allegations primarily based on claims made by someone fleeing criminal proceedings.

Finally, we should not allow the current concentration on Russian sports doping to fool us into thinking it is only, or even primarily, a Russian problem. The fact is that sports doping is world-wide and there is plenty of evidence that international sporting bodies themselves are not free from corruption.

I presented the most recent official data from WADA n my article Quantifying the problem of international sports doping. This showed that the proportion of positive doping tests for Russian athletes was just less than average for the whole world. More importantly, there are a number of nations with a higher proportion of positive doping tests than the Russian Federation – including India, France, Belgium, Mexico and Turkey.

proportion

Yes, the data was for 2014. It did not (could not) cover the current Russian doping scandal or the McLaren report. But let’s not rely on an unethical presumption of guilt to discredit the data.

Let’s not allow geopolitical differences and prejudices get in the way of battling the sports doping problem.

And let’s not allow such differences to lead us to ignore important ethical principles.

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Being better informed – unexpected advice from The Guardian

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How often does The Guardian attack truth instead of presenting it? Credit: “The Guardian” Blaming Trump for Racism in America

This opinion piece by Piers Robinson in The Guardian surprised me – and then it pleased me – Russian news may be biased – but so is much western media.

Surprised me because, of late, The Guardian has been shockingly one-sided. Particularly in its treatment of Russian politics, nationally and internationally. Unfortunately doesn’t include any self criticisms – that would have been nice but let’s be thankful for small steps. The fact the article appeared may mean some people at The Guardian recognised the their paper’s toeing of the “party line” on these issues may have been counterproductive.  Alexander Mercouris goes so far as to pose the question:

“Could it possibly be that the new editor – Katherine Viner – does not share the obsessive anti-Russian mania that took hold at the Guardian under the preceding Rusbridger regime?”

Wouldn’t it be  nice if this opinion piece was providing notice of a new policy, and is not just a one-off – an aberration?

Pleased me because the article makes recommendations I fully agree with and have often advocated:

“The first step towards becoming more informed is to avoid seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.

The second step is to recognise that one can gain useful insights and information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets: Russia Today, al-Jazeera and Press TV should certainly not be off-limits.”

Some commenters have attacked me here for daring to use “unapproved” sources or questioning the prevailing “official” attitudes. I have also often warned about the demonising of governments and politicians  which, unfortunately appears to drive the political thinking of many people.

The article is directed mainly at common media reaction in the UK to the Russian news outlet RT. This has always seemed to me a rather childish reaction to the success of a competitor. However, it has led to serious calls for clipping RTs wings, even somehow banning it. There have been similar, perhaps more serious, calls from US politicians.
The author says of these complaints:
“Whatever the accuracy, or lack thereof, of RT and whatever its actual impact on western audiences, one of the problems with these kinds of arguments is that they fall straight into the trap of presenting media that are aligned with official adversaries as inherently propagandistic and deceitful, while the output of “our” media is presumed to be objective and truthful. Moreover, the impression given is that our governments engage in truthful “public relations”, “strategic communication” and “public diplomacy” while the Russians lie through “propaganda”.”
And yet:
“Neither of these claims has significant academic support. A substantial body of research conducted over many decades highlights the proximity between western news media and their respective governments, especially in the realm of foreign affairs. For reasons that include overreliance on government officials as news sources, economic constraints, the imperatives of big business and good old-fashioned patriotism, mainstream western media frequently fail to meet democratic expectations regarding independence.”
It refers to a Manchester University study showing that “UK media coverage of the 2003 Iraq invasion . . . . found that most UK mainstream media performed to reinforce official views rather than to challenge them.” And the recent Chilcot report  describing how “Tony Blair had discussed how phases 1 and 2 of the “war on terror” would require a “dedicated tightly knit propaganda unit”.”
The article is certainly true in its assertion:
“These are confusing times for consumers of the news, and the issue of which media outlets should be trusted is as demanding and critical as ever. Given the level of conflict and potential conflict in the world today, plus pressing global issues regarding environmental crisis, poverty and resources, it is essential that people learn to navigate the media and defend themselves against manipulation.”
All the more reason to avoid bias – to avoid:
“seeing our governments and media as free from manipulation while demonising “foreign” governments and media as full of propagandistic lies.”
And especially to be open minded. To obtain:
“information from a variety of news sources – including those that are derided as “propaganda” outlets.”
Now, wouldn’t be nice if The Guardian followed this advice in future.

Quantifying the problem of international sports doping

rio-olympics-logo

With the 2016 Olympics about to start the problem of sports doping is topical. Most attention  is concentrated on sports men and women from the Russian Federation.

The specifics of the current Russian doping scandal have yet to be sorted out. There has yet to be a proper investigation. But I thought it worth attempting to quantify the problem – and, in particular, illustrate that sports doping is not just a problem in the Russian Federation.

I have taken the latest official figures available. Released in February 2016 these are the international doping figures for 2014 and are published in the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) report “2014 Anti-doping Rule Violations (ADRVs) Report.” 

What do these data show?

Numbers of positive doping tests

Perhaps not surprising to the average reader the Russian Federation scores the largest number of positive tests. But perhaps, given the current news coverage, the surprise is that the numbers are not that great and not much greater than for other countries

Number of violations

But let’s put that into some sort of context

Number of doping tests

When we look at the number of doping test actually taken we find a very important factor. The total number of doping tests taken was much larger for the Russian Federation than for most other countries. So the higher number of positive tests is not so surprising. Do more tests and you will catch more violations.

Total numbers

Proportion of positive doping tests

This is a better way to compare the figures by nation. When we make that comparison the data for the Russian Federation is not that out of step with the rest of the world.

proportion

In fact, if we are going to point fingers we should be pointing them at other nations before we point them at the Russian Federation.

I decided to look at the data because of a Facebook post from Nina Kouprianova (see WADA sports doping stats sorted (not by me)) which showed that the Russian Federation was well down the list of nations guilty of sports doping – in fact, 19th.

Here is her table.

dopingThe Russian Federation scores lower than the average for the whole world – 1.05% of positive tests.

Some qualifications which should be obvious.

Before I get attacked for being “pro-Moscow” (yet again) I must mention a couple of factors.

1: Some positive tests for many countries were put aside by WADA after cases were further considered. However, I do not think this changes the main message of the table above. (The numbers are in the report if anyone wants to check this out).

2: The current attention to the doping problem in the Russian Federation concentrates on more recent cases where these is, as yet, no reliable data. In particular there is the revelation of criminal activity by the head of the Moscow testing laboratory. He has since fled the country and surfaced in the USA.

While the officials implicated by these revelations have been suspended or sacked and criminal investigations are underway it is not yet possible to get official numbers.

Finally, I don’t think anyone can justify sports doping – whatever the nationality of the person concerned.  It  must be fought against and guilty athletes and officials should be punished.

However, we should be careful of violating basic elements of justice. Collective punishment is the sort of thing the Nazis went in for – killing a whole village because one of their soldiers had been shot by a partisan.  It is shocking to hear politicians and sportspeople advocating such forms of punishment here.

We should not make clean athletes suffer for the acts of others who indulged in doping.

It seems to me these actions will not solve the problem of sports doing – only make it worse and introduce other worse problems.

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The Putin diversion

Putin and Obama in serious discussion at the G20 summit. The political leaders need to be judged intelligently.

“The Putin diversion” could be the title for a n episode of the popular show “The Big Bang Theory.” Or, more appropriately, the name of a chess strategy. But I have found this diversion a real problem in discussing important issues.

How can we discuss , for example, the current Russian/Olympic doping scandal if a serious commentor simply responds “Russian authorities ran the doping! Putin is rotten, through and through.”

When I pointed out “Unfortunately, statements like “Putin is rotten” are hardly intelligent and they are certainly not a sensible response to this whole scandal,” and attempted to return to the doping discussion I get a response:

“Putin is a monster in one of the most oppressive countries. he has his critics assassinated in the best traditions of Russia. Your support for him is bizarre.”

So we make no progress discussing the issue of doping.

Similarly, I feel that diverting a discussion about the MH17 tragedy in eastern Ukraine with raves about Putin being a “petty tyrant” or that he has “been accused of assassinating or imprisoning his political rivals” is insulting to the memory of the innocent passengers who died in the  crash and to their loved ones.

So, my purpose with this post is to provide a forum for commentors to vent their feelings about Putin and the Russian Federation. Rave on about Crimea, Ukraine or Syria. Let’s discuss here some of the issues being inappropriately raised on comments on other posts.

It would be nice, though, if commentors present a bit more than feelings and prejudices – perhaps back up their claims with some citations or evidence.

To kick off, I do not know a terrific lot about Putin or have particularly strong feelings about the man. But he is certainly an important international figure today and any cultured person should make an effort to learn a bit about him. Two books that have perhaps influenced my thinking are:

First Person: An Astonishingly Frank Self-Portrait by Russia’s President

Based on interviews of Putin soon after he became president in 2000. I have attempted to read other books about Putin but find so many of them are extremely biased (he is a controversial figure) and so many authors approach him with their own political agendas – often very extreme ones.
Godfather of the Kremlin: The Decline of Russia in the Age of Gangster Capitalism

Not about Putin but describes Russia in the 1990s when it had become, as the author put it, a criminal anarchy.

It does go up to the period when Putin moved to Moscow and was given Yeltisn’s blessing as acting president. But it provides a very useful background to what preceded Putin – and provides some idea of what he has been combating during his presidency. Incidentally, it perhaps gives some insight into the current situation in Ukraine where conditions similar to Russia in the 1990s still continues.

Another book I have found useful is The Litvinenko File. Putin is only a peripheral figure in Litvenenko’s story but it provides a similar picture the the Godfather of the Kremlin about the role of the criminal oligarch Berezokovsky in promoting Putin, why he and Litvinenko felt betrayed when he refused to deliver and turned against him.

Seeing I have been accused of being “pro-Moscow” for this level of interest in this particular political figure I should note that while having read one book by President Putin (or at least his interviews) I have also read one book by the US president Obama – Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance.  So, perhaps I should also be labelled “pro-Washington.” Or, perhaps, we should just keep away from such silly McCarthyist labeling and instead get on with a good-faith discussion.

I look forward to the discussion.

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MH17 tragedy – new investigation launched

MH17 front

The cockpit wreckage of MH17. Photo: Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

Two years after the shooting down  of the Malaysian commercial airliner (flight MH17) over eastern Ukraine (Donbass), investigators seem no closer to identifying the culprits.  This may seem surprising given the quick recovery of the black boxes and most of the airplane. But, on second thoughts, perhaps not surprising given the regional and geopolitical politics.

But, time is taking its toll on the credibility of the current investigators. Until now the investigation has been handled by the Dutch Safety Board (which published its final technical report last October (see MH17: Final technical report) and the Dutch-led joint investigation team (JIT) which is responsible for a more detailed investigation enabling determination of criminal liability.

Now, the Malaysian government is launching their own independent investigation. In announcing this the Malaysian PM Najib Razak said this would be a joint investigation together with the Russian Federation and its research results would be revealed in October 2016 (see Malaysia to start independent investigation into MH17 tragedy).

Meanwhile, the work of the Dutch Investigating Commission (JIT) will continue and the Minister of Transport in Malaysia has asked that a Russian expert be included in that investigation team. This has upset the Ukrainian authorities  who have responded by asking that the US to prevent the joint Russia/Malaysia investigation. (Why the Ukrainians think the US has any power of arbitration or decision on this issue is beyond me).

Concern about attitudes of current investigators

Apparently the Malaysians are not happy with the current findings of Dutch investigators. The do not see any evidence implicating Russia in the tragedy and had found that  Russia was very supportive during the first days of the crash. They had requested Russia be involved in the official investigation but this was not allowed.

According to the Australian National Review:

“Furthermore, all independent findings of Russian investigators were avoided. After the meeting between the heads of the states, Transport Minister of Malaysia, Liow Tiong Lai sent a letter to the Commission of Inquiry of the Netherlands requesting that Russia be included in the investigations. The request set off an alarm as Malaysia’s claim cannot be refused. This has made international observers suspicious on why Ukraine is reluctant to include Russian experts in the probe team.”

I too am suspicious. Russia has experts who could contribute greatly to the investigation. They have made their own investigation of the crash which deserves proper consideration  because it was carried out by specialists from the manufacture of the likely weapon involved, Almaz-Antey. The final Report of the Dutch Safety Board brushed off these findings without proper consideration (see MH17: Final technical report). Yet the Russian research appeared to make a more evidence-based evaluation of the specific missile used and its likely launch location. This research is very relevant to the ongoing criminal investigation because of its relevance to the specific model of missile used and the launch location.

Russian investigators frustrated

This is frustrating the Russian investigators. In February, Oleg Storchevoy, the deputy head of Russia’s Federal Air Transport Agency, accused the Dutch Safety Board and JIT of “showing no interest” in working with Russia:

“I would like to stress that Russia disclosed all of its available satellite data in the days immediately following the crash,” he wrote, adding that the data it had submitted to the investigation showed “movement and increased activity by Ukrainian BUK surface-to-air missile systems observed within the conflict area in eastern Ukraine one day ahead of the tragedy.”

Includingof Ukrainian experts in the JIT, while at the same time excluding Russian experts, raises suspicions. The Ukrainian Army, together with the rebel authorities in the Donbass region, are the main suspects. In fact, analysis of the intelligence evidence presented to the Dutch parliament (see Flight MH17 in Ukraine – what do intelligence services know?) indicate that the only BUK systems active in Eastern Ukraine at the time of the tragedy were in the hands of the Ukrainian Army.

Because much of the work of the JIT takes place in Kiev, close relationships have formed between the Ukrainian experts and the Dutch and Australian experts. Commentators see this as a problem in making an objective evaluation of the evidence supplied by the Russian Federation and the Ukrainian security and intelligence service, SBU.

Geopolitical prejudices may be preventing proper consideration of Russian data but of more concern is the likely biased information provided by the Ukrainian SBU. Apparently this included telephone wire-tapping data which is very hard to verify without full and open access. Ukrainian authorities are unlikely to give this on security grounds.

There are also problems with US satellite data which the JIT says they have access to – but only in secret. These security factors make it impossible to use such data in a criminal case. Although, politically motivated press releases are great for casting suspicions  – and this has plagued this investigation from the start.

So, I welcome the new investigation by  Malaysia and the Russian Federation.They have declared their willingness to cooperate with the Dutch-led investigators.  Currently, the Dutch-led investigation is being carried out by officials from Australia, Malaysia, Belgium and Ukraine but it would gain more credibility if it included Russian investigators. The Dutch-led team claim they are making good progress and their report is just months away.

Hopefully, this report, and a similar report from the Malaysian/Russian joint investigators due in October, will show some progress which helps bring justice to the families who lost loved ones in this tragedy.

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Victory Day celebration of defeat of terrorism in Palmyra

Victory over terrorism in Syria is still a long way off. But the liberation of Palmyra was an important and symbolic step towards that. This concert on Thursday, in the historic amphitheatre of the ancient city of Palmyra, was dedicated to the 71st anniversary of the defeat of fascism in Europe as well as an expression of gratitude to all those who fight terrorism today and memorial to the victims of terrorism.

During their occupation of Palmyra, Daesh committed public executions by beheading in this amphitheatre. One of the most prominent people beheaded in the city at this time was Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist and the head of antiquities for the ancient city. The New York Time reported the murder (see Syrian Expert Who Shielded Palmyra Antiquities Meets a Grisly Death at ISIS’ Hands):

“After detaining him for weeks, the jihadists dragged him on Tuesday to a public square where a masked swordsman cut off his head in front of a crowd, Mr. Asaad’s relatives said. His blood-soaked body was then suspended with red twine by its wrists from a traffic light, his head resting on the ground between his feet, his glasses still on, according to a photo distributed on social media by Islamic State supporters.”

According to Wikipedia:

“A placard hanging from the waist of his dead body listed al-Asaad’s alleged crimes: being an “apostate”, representing Syria at “infidel conferences”, serving as “the director of idolatry” in Palmyra, visiting “Heretic Iran” and communicating with a brother in the Syrian security services. His body was reportedly displayed in the new section of Palmyra (Tadmur) and then in the ancient section, whose treasures ISIS had already demolished.

In addition to al-Asaad, Qassem Abdullah Yehya, the Deputy Director of the DGAM Laboratories, also protected the Palmyra site. He also was killed by ISIL while on duty on 12 August 2015. He was 37 years old.”

Archeologist

Portrait of murdered Khaled al-Asaad at concert in Palmyra ampitheatre.

Given the religious basis of terrorism in Palmyra, and Syria as a whole, I am a little put off by the title of this concert “Pray for Palmyra. Music Revives Ancient Ruins.” Sure, “prayer” can have a secular meaning – but to me it brings up pictures of terrorists chanting “Allah Akbar” – “God is great.” This chant seems to accompany the launching of all mortars, rockets and almost every bullet fired by jihadists.

Maybe the chant “Allah Akbar” also accompanied each beheading in Palmyra.

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Barrel bombs, hell cannons, Aleppo and media bias

The result of terrorist shelling of Aleppo

I guess most readers have become familiar with barrel bombs – an indiscriminate weapon currently being used by government forces in the Syrian war. But how many have heard of “hell cannons?”

I hadn’t until recently and I think this shows the bias in our media coverage of the conflict. Hell cannons are an indiscriminate weapon used by rebel/jihadist forces, cause terror and  civilian damage and loss of life. Unfortunately, our media often seems to paint the picture that only government actions cause civilian losses.

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“Rebels” load hell cannon with explosive filled gas bottle in Aleppo. (Getty)

This bias seems particularly bad in their current reporting of the civilian deaths in Aleppo. Here are some of the mythical stories our news media is promoting:

1: The government is not attacking a city held by “rebels” as many of our media stories imply. Rebels hold the smaller part of the city in the east and attacks by the government forces and its allies are aimed at removing them. There is also intensive fighting in areas around Aleppo – particularly in the north where Syrian and allied forces recently disrupted rebel supply lines with Turkey.

So, if anyone is attacking Aleppo it is the rebels/jihadists.

2: The claim that the government and its allies are attacking “moderate rebels” is biased propaganda. the anti-government militias are numerous and allegiances are complex. They often fight among themselves.  Some may well be “moderate” but they cooperate and are often integrated with Al-Nusra – the main terrorist/jihadist group in the area.

How does one define “moderate” in Syria, though? I guess one way is to characterize those rebel militia which accepted the recent cessation of hostilities and signed ceasefire agreements with the Syrian government, as outlined in the US/Russian initiative, as the real “moderates” ready to take part in a political solution. It would seem that the “rebel” militia fighting in Aleppo have not accepted the cessation of hostilities agreement.

3: I recently heard an Al Jazeera reporter imply that only the Russians and Syrian government classifies “rebel” groups like Al Nusra as “terrorists” implying this was unfair. Again biased propaganda. The UN specifically lists Al-Nusra, together with Daesh (ISIS) as a terrorist organisation. Those groups were specifically excluded from the cessation of hostilities agreement.

There is a media tendency to describe only Daesh as terrorist or to present the aim of the US-based coalition and the Russian Federation in Syria as fighting Daesh. US spokespersons seem to repeat that description. This is very misleading. The UN and the cessation of hostilities agreement make clear that Al-Nusra is also the enemy.

Al-Nusra is the Al-Qaeda group in Syria (ISIS/Daesh originally broke away from Al-Nusra). Its aims and programme are just as obnoxious as those of Daesh but Al-Nusra has been able to form links with other anti-government militia – often groups that have been backed, armed and financed by the US and its middle eastern allies (eg. Saudia Arabia and Qatar). Very often these militia are operating under the command and structures of Al-Nusra. The ability of Al-Nusra to form these arrangements probably means it will outlast Daesh – and may actually be the bigger danger.

The death of the “last pediatrician” in Aleppo?

A blatant example of bias has been the media claim that a pediatrician who died in the bombing or shelling of a hospital in the rebel-held eastern part of Aleppo meant Aleppo no longer had any pediatricians. Horrible Syrian government denying medical care for children!

But Dr Nabil Antaki, who works in Aleppo, responded to this propaganda with this:

“For three days now, these media outlets have been accusing the “Assad regime” of bombing an MSF hospital [Medecins sans Frontieres] to the east of Aleppo and of killing the last paediatrician in the city. This demonstrates that, for these media, the only priority is this pocket of the city where terrorists are embedded.

The three-quarters of Aleppo under Syrian Government control where numerous paediatricians are practicing is of no consequence for this media. We witnessed the same bias when Al Kindi, the biggest hospital in Aleppo, was targeted by terrorist mortars and then intentionally burnt down about 2 or 3 years ago. The media ignored this criminal act.”

He refers to this sort of propaganda as “lying by omission” saying:

“This media never mention the continuous bombardment and the carnage we have witnessed in western Aleppo where every single sector has been targeted. On a daily basis we see dozens of people murdered.

What makes these omissions even more despicable is that these areas represent 75% of Aleppo and there are 1.5 million people living in them. Compare this to the 300,000 living in the eastern zone which is occupied by terrorist groups.

This twisted narrative engenders the belief that these terrorist groups that are attacking us are actually the victims. Even more abhorrent, these media have distorted our “Save Aleppo” appeal, to make it look as if we are calling for Assad and the Syrian Army to cease hostilities!

This is FALSE. Added to which, they are not “Assad’s forces“, they are the national forces of the regular Syrian army that is defending the Syrian State.

The western and gulf media could at least have had the decency to mention the terrorist massacres of our people. For example, on Friday 30th April, when one of their mortars targeted a mosque at prayer time.”

Footnote: I find the New Zealand media pathetic in its coverage of events like the Syrian war and tend to search for other sources. I regularly watch Al Jazeera but now find their coverage of Syria extremely biased. Perhaps this is because the organisation is based in, and financed by Qatar, a sponsor (together with Saudi Arabia and Turkey) of anti-government forces in Syria.

Of late I notice that Al Jazeera has been smudging out the logos identifying sources in many of the videos they display. Can’t help thinking they wish to cover up they fact they are relying on the “rebel’ news media for their videos of action in Syria.

Pathetic if true.

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Why are our politicians so silent on Palmyra’s liberation from clutches of Daesh?

Palmyra_-_Monumental_Arch

Palmyra’s historic monumental arch. Bernard Gagnon

Robert Frisk, The Independent’s multiple award-winning Middle East correspondent, is angry with Western Political leaders who are silent about the liberation of Palmyra (see Why is David Cameron so silent on the recapture of Palmyra from the clutches of Isis?).

So am I. We should all be angry.

Frisk says:

“The biggest military defeat that isis has suffered in more than two years. The recapture of Palmyra, the Roman city of the Empress Zenobia. And we are silent. Yes, folks, the bad guys won, didn’t they? Otherwise, we would all be celebrating, wouldn’t we?

Less than a week after the lost souls of the ‘Islamic Caliphate’ destroyed the lives of more than 30 innocent human beings in Brussels, we should – should we not? – have been clapping our hands at the most crushing military reverse in the history of Isis. But no. As the black masters of execution fled Palmyra this weekend, Messers Obama and Cameron were as silent as the grave to which Isis have dispatched so many of their victims. He who lowered our national flag in honour of the head-chopping king of Arabia (I’m talking about Dave, of course) said not a word.”

Yes, the silence of these political leaders has been deafening. But not all leaders.

According to the Syrian Arab News the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon welcomed the restoration of Security and stability to Palmyra and the expelling terrorists of the Islamic State (ISIS) from the historic city:

“We were happy with the announcement of the Syrian army the restoration of security and stability to Palmyra… the Syrian army will protect and preserve this human heritage.”

He added ISIS terrorists don’t only kill people in a brutal way, but they also destroy the heritage of the human civilizations that date back to thousands of years.

UN Gen Sec

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon

Even the former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, expressed gratitude for the liberation of the ancient city of Palmyra. “Thank you,” he wrote in Russian in response to the message of the Russian Embassy in the US on the complete liberation of Palmyra.

McFaul

The Russian President congratulated the Syrian president on Palmyra’s liberation – although maybe that doesn’t count as his country contributed to this defeat of the Daesh jihadis in Palmyra.

Why this reticence?

Perhaps that is the problem – even if such a reason is childish. The policies and strategies of the US, NATO and the EU have been shown to be an absolute failure and then their political opponent – that upstart President Putin – comes along and shows them up. He gives substance to those criticisms of the failed policy of regime change in Syria.

As Frisk writes:

“When Palmyra fell last year, we predicted the fall of Bashar al-Assad. We ignored, were silent on, the Syrian army’s big question: why, if the Americans hated Isis so much, didn’t they bomb the suicide convoys that broke through the Syrian army’s front lines? Why didn’t they attack Isis?

“If the Americans wanted to destroy Isis, why didn’t they bomb them when they saw them?” a Syrian army general asked me, after his soldiers’ defeat.  His son had been killed defending Homs. His men had been captured and head-chopped in the Roman ruins. The Syrian official in charge of the Roman ruins (of which we cared so much, remember?) was himself beheaded. Isis even put his spectacles back on top of his decapitated head, for fun. And we were silent then.”

Back in September Putin asked during his speech to the UN General Assembly – “Do you realise what you have done?” He called for unity in the fight against terrorism – unity of the sort we experienced during the struggle against Nazism during World War II. But he didn’t sit back and wait for this unity – he provided help to the Syrian regime whose collapse, which was imminent,  would have thrown the country into anarchy of the sort that only breeds more terrorism. An anarchy which was the only clear future of the “regime change” policy. So, as Frisk points out:

“[Putin’s] aircraft attacked Isis – as US planes did not – in advance of the Syrian army’s conquest. I could not help but smile when I read that the US command claimed two air strikes against Isis around Palmyra in the days leading up to its recapture by the regime. That really did tell you all you needed to know about the American “war on terror”. They wanted to destroy Isis, but not that much.

“So in the end, it was the Syrian army and its Hizballah chums from Lebanon and the Iranians and the Russians who drove the Isis murderers out of Palmyra, and who may – heavens preserve us from such a success – even storm the Isis Syrian ‘capital’ of Raqqa. I have written many times that the Syrian army will decide the future of Syria. If they grab back Raqqa – and Deir el-Zour, where the Nusrah front destroyed the church of the Armenian genocide and threw the bones of the long-dead 1915 Christian victims into the streets – I promise you we will be silent again.

“Aren’t we supposed to be destroying Isis? Forget it. That’s Putin’s job. And Assad’s. Pray for peace, folks. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? And Geneva. Where is that, exactly?”

“Regime change” is a threat to Europe

Europe is suffering the largest immigration crisis since the last World War – a crisis caused by the thoughtless application of “regime change” strategy in the Middle East.

I don’t go along with the claims that this immigration is being used by ISIS to infiltrate trained terrorist groups into Europe – after all, the groups we have seen in action have been essentially “home-grown.” But jihadists have captured territory in Iraq, Syria and now Libya –  have set up their own “caliphate” which enables the training of such “home-grown” jihadis. This also provides an ideological “homeland” for these terrorists. Daesh (ISIS) public sponsorship of terrorist actions in Europe – and elsewhere (which our media practically ignores) is clear evidence of a direct link.

Yes, the social and cultural problems of current European citizens of Middle East origin contributes to their radicalisation as well. But surely this massive immigration will only help set up a future situation of increased ghettoisation and radicalisation of the immigrants and their children.

Politicians have failed to develop policies in Europe capable of preventing the current ghettoisation and radicalisation – it’s an open question whether they will be able to develop policies suitable for the new wave of immigration.

Meanwhile, these same politicians in Europe, NATO and the US have created the current problems with their ‘failed “regime change” interventions in the Middle East. Realists have started to realise this and complain about that strategy. But, so far, they seem incapable of completely rejecting it, accepting the right of the peoples in those countries to decide their own regimes – and decide for themselves any changes they consider necessary.

As for the possibility of united action to combat terrorism, I think there have been hopeful signs with the US-Russian cooperation over the cessation of hostilities in Syria and support for the Geneva negotiations on Syria’s future. Perhaps that is a good start which can be built on. But so far such cooperation appears to be confined to the activity of the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Given that president Obama couldn’t bring himself to welcome Palmyra’s liberation I wonder what John Kerry says in private?

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The US speaks in two tongues on terrorism

Palmyra liberation

I wonder how democratically minded people reacted to news of the defeat of the Nazis at Stalingrad during World War II. Or to the liberation of inmates from German concentration camps in Poland by Russian forces towards the end of the war.

Surely they welcomed these victories – even reacted ecstatically. I find it hard to believe otherwise.

But now I wonder. Surely the liberation of the Syrian city of Palmyra from Daesh (ISIS) occupation must be welcomed ecstatically by democratically minded people. Yet we find this pathetic hand wringing by a US State department spokesperson Mark Tonner.

He was far from enthusiastic the other day when asked if the US considered Palmyra’s liberation a positive development. Less than 24 hours before the Syrian Arab Army’s major push, Toner was asked on Wednesday if the US would like to see “the regime retake Palmyra, or do you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands?”

But no clear support for such a liberation. Instead, Tonner talked about “alleged violations of the cessation of hostilities” by the “regime.”  How the hell could a responsible State Department spokesperson talk that way – surely he is aware that the cessation of hostilities agreement brokered by the US and the Russian Federation specifically excluded Daesh!

He effectively refused to answer the journalist’s question instead suggesting there was little difference between Daesh and the “regime” of President Bashar Assad. After giving an evasive non-answer, Toner was pressed to clarify his remarks.

“No, I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s not a great choice, an either/or, but – which is worse, Daesh or the regime – but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case,” Toner replied.

Bloody hell! With such an evasive attitude by someone representing a country which is claiming to play a decisive role against international terrorism no wonder we have problems.

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Media misleading on Syria

Syrian Observatory

“COVERAGE OF the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press. Reporting about carnage in the ancient city of Aleppo is the latest reason why.”

That is according to a recent Op-ed by Stephen Kinzer in the Boston Globe. The article is The media are misleading the public on Syria.

This article is a sight for sore eyes – a “mouse” roaring against the “lion” of misinformation on the Syrian war. I am fed up with the biased reporting of the Syrian conflict and the surrounding political aspects. Information coming from people outside the country – even blatantly so as in TV news reports from Turkey. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (reporting from Coventry in the UK) is often used as sources for reports of bombings., civilian casualties, etc. yet who the hell considers that an objective source.

Aleppo – liberation?

Kinzer writes about recent reporting of the fighting in and around Allepo – which was once Syria’s largest city:

“For three years, violent militants have run Aleppo. Their rule began with a wave of repression.  . . . Militants, true to form, are wreaking havoc as they are pushed out of the city by Russian and Syrian Army forces. “Turkish-Saudi backed ‘moderate rebels’ showered the residential neighborhoods of Aleppo with unguided rockets and gas jars,” one Aleppo resident wrote on social media.”

“This does not fit with Washington’s narrative. As a result, much of the American press is reporting the opposite of what is actually happening. Many news reports suggest that Aleppo has been a “liberated zone” for three years but is now being pulled back into misery.

“Americans are being told that the virtuous course in Syria is to fight the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian partners. We are supposed to hope that a righteous coalition of Americans, Turks, Saudis, Kurds, and the “moderate opposition” will win.

“This is convoluted nonsense, but Americans cannot be blamed for believing it. We have almost no real information about the combatants, their goals, or their tactics. Much blame for this lies with our media.”

And this “convoluted nonsense” is largely the story delivered by our own media. One has to search very hard to find alternative information – to get a real idea of what is happening in Syria.

Flags in Aleppo

Syrian armed forces placing the Syrian flag on Aleppo thermal power plant after capturing it from Daesh. This completed the eviction of Jihadists from Aleppo. Photo Credit:  Chris Tchaikovsky

Kinzer complains:

“Much important news about the world now comes from reporters based in Washington. In that environment, access and credibility depend on acceptance of official paradigms.”

And that is what is passed on to us by the “approved” or “official” news media.

Genuine reporting lost “in the cacophony”

Yet:

“Astonishingly brave correspondents in the war zone, including Americans, seek to counteract Washington-based reporting. At great risk to their own safety, these reporters are pushing to find the truth about the Syrian war. Their reporting often illuminates the darkness of groupthink. Yet for many consumers of news, their voices are lost in the cacophony. Reporting from the ground is often overwhelmed by the Washington consensus.”

He goes on to complain that our media portrays al-Nusra as “made up of ‘rebels’ or ‘moderates'” whereas “it is the “local al-Qaeda franchise.”  Saudi Arabia and Turkey are portrayed as aiding freedom fighters when they actually sponsor Daesh, finance and supply and other jihadist groups. However:

“Everything Russia and Iran do in Syria is described as negative and destabilizing, simply because it is they who are doing it — and because that is the official line in Washington.”

We should expect far more from journalists:

“Politicians may be forgiven for distorting their past actions. Governments may also be excused for promoting whatever narrative they believe best suits them. Journalism, however, is supposed to remain apart from the power elite and its inbred mendacity. In this crisis it has failed miserably.”

And this media inspired ignorance is dangerous, for us, for regional peace and for the Syrian people:

” In Syria, it is: “Fight Assad, Russia, and Iran! Join with our Turkish, Saudi, and Kurdish friends to support peace!” This is appallingly distant from reality. It is also likely to prolong the war and condemn more Syrians to suffering and death.”

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