Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 3.

I returned to the kiosk at five, as requested, and was surprised to be invited by the woman in the kiosk to stay the night at their apartment. So I drove her home, and she must have been a bit surprised at the car, particularly now that before setting off I refilled the clutch hydraulic oil. The leak was now getting rather bad, and there were only so many clutch usages before a refill, and the number was getting smaller. Anyway, we made it to her apartment, where I met the husband. The Heitlegnerov (I apologise if I got the spelling wrong from memory) apartment was compact, but it seemed to have everything I would expect in a modern western apartment. The previous year I had been in Calgary, so I knew what a modern North American apartment looked like, and the Czech one was much better than where I was in England.

This family had a rather bad history. First, they were Jews, and had spent most of WW II hiding in the forests, living in huts with dirt floors. The husband had been part of a resistance to the Germans, and when the war was over, he had actually helped get the communists into government, only to find the communists in Czechoslovakia were also anti-Jewish. Back to mud floor accommodation for a while. Gradually things got better, and when Dubcek came to power, they got up in the world sufficiently to get this apartment. Now they saw it all coming down around their ears. However, by accident, their daughter, Alenka, was in England on a short stay to help her learn English. The parents had discussed this, and they wanted to send a message for her to stay in England, and would I take some family heirlooms and some of her property? Of course I would, with volume restrictions on obviously women’s things.

The following morning it was announced that the road to Linz was open at the border, so I set off early. Somehow, the day seemed grim, and very quiet. For a major city, nothing was happening. The day did not get better, and when I drove through České Budějovice the continued absence of activity maintained the depressing feeling. It was just as I was leaving České Budějovice that I noticed two young Czechs hitch-hiking. Since I had not seen any cars for a long time, their prospects were poor, so I stopped. They first wanted me to smuggle them out, but I pointed out that was impossible. Any cursory search would find them, but I would take them to the border, let them out before it and they would be on their own. I would wait on the other side for a while, in case they made it. Then they wanted me to smuggle something else: a petition to the United Nations, signed by (according to them) half a million identified signatures. I agreed. I had a tall cardboard box in the boot, and for my trip behind the iron curtain I had taken emergency food: canned food, drink, fruit and rye bread. I had kept the waste, including opened cans because I could not find anywhere to dump rubbish. The petition was wrapped in pastic bags and went to the bottom, a piece of a different cardboard box went on top, just in case although that was probably worthless as a deception, the cans went on top, then rotting fruit, then some mouldy bread, then some fruit that was technically still edible, then the remains of the rye bread, then can openers, cutlery, etc.

When I got to the border, the guards were Czech, but they still did a search. When they came to the box, they asked what was that? I pointed out I was just being tidy and tried to look as iunconcerned as I could. They started ferretting but it got increasingly distasteful and they gave up. The barrier went up, and I was in “no-man’s land”. When I got to the Austrian guards, there were the two Czechs, beaming with triumph. They had got throough before me, while I was being searched, and had told the Austrian guards about the petition. They thought this was mission accomplished. I had no option but to hand the petition over, and while the expressions on the faces of the Czech guards was worth seeing, I was thoroughly depressed. I had taken a huge risk, and for what? The Austrian guards would at best destroy the petition; at worst hand it back to the Czech authorities. Austria was never going to annoy Russia. As I headed to Linz I was stopped by a journalist who wanted the story and a picture of me and my beatup Anglia carrying a Czech flag. I have no idea whether it ever got published.

When I got back to England on the first Saturday I went up to London and to the address where Alenka was staying. It was a grey day with light rain, and the family, being orthodox Jews, left me there standing in the rain. Alenka came to the door, I handed over her valuables, and tried to give as cheerful account as I could of her parents and their feelings. I asked her what she wanted to do. Apparently there were a few scholarships being made available to Czechs who could find a place in a University, and I promised to do what I could at Southampton for her. As it happened, I found a Post-doc was treated as staff, and on my recommendation she could go there, but as it happened, somewhere else was found for her (I think East Anglia). However, that did not last, and eventually she got homesick and returned to Czechoslovakia, where things were seemingly improving a little. It would not be helpful for someone in a communist country then to be corresponding with the West so I never heard from her or her parents again. I am naturally curious as to where her life took her, but I guess I shall never know.

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Memories from Fifty Years Ago: Invasion of Czechoslovakia 2.

In my last post, I had managed to get my rather aged Ford Anglia up the side of a bank from a riverbed, the bridge having been taken out. I drove through a belt of trees, and found myself at the back of a Russian military camp. There was nothing for it. Fortunately, I realised that whatever else I did, I must not stop, and I must not look sideways, but equally I must not ignore those on the side of the road. I tried to look as if I were supposed to be there, and drove on at about 20 mph, and tried to give puzzled expressions or a “bored look”. This must have been weird for them. A beat-up right hand drive car coming from the base of their camp carrying a Czech flag, with the road definitely cut behind it. What I was hoping was that the ordinary soldiers there would think it must be something concocted up by authority, and one thing I noticed at this time was that Russian military discipline was good. More on this later.

Anyway, I drove through the camp unhindered, and on towards Praha, but keeping a good look at my rear vision. When nothing seemed to be following I accelerated up to a reasonable cruising speed.

As I entered Praha, great relief: there was a petrol station selling petrol. I joined the queue. It may have been rationed, but the person at the pump saw my flag and enthusiastically filled up my tank. That was a big worry off my shoulders, and I unloaded more crowns there.

As I was to rejoin the highway, I noticed tanks driving up. I darted onto the road, on the basis that I knew what a Division looked like in size, and while I had no idea how much of one was being deployed, why take risks? So there I was, with a T54/55 right behind me. (I could not tell the difference between the two options, which, as an aside, are rather modest, but I knew they were the main battle tanks of the Soviets.) Then, as this odd little convoy entered Praha, people were lined up on both sides of the road. They saw me and cheered, then jeered at the tank. I discovered that a T54/55 loses power on its cruising speed at about 22 mph, but the next gear down roars at about 23 mph. It was one awkward speed zone, so I oscillated in it, keeping a clear look at what the tanks was doing. The T54/55 had a crash box, and the driver’s double clutching technique left a little to be desired, and not helped by the huge difference in engine revolutions for the two gears at the same speed. Accordingly, there were a number of satisfying crunches from the tank’s gearbox, which brought loud cheers. I even had some flowers thrown my way. It was one of the weirder experiences of my life, and I will never have anything like it again.

Eventually I reached somewhere near the centre, and I knew this had to stop, so I turned off to find somewhere to park, have lunch, and another Czech beer. Then I went for a bit of a walk around central Praha, hoping to find information. Two chilling memories of the time. The first was from back in Olomouc. I remember looking down a side street where a wedding must have been going on. The bride came out, looked around, and burst into tears. Back on my walk down a street in Praha, the number of people out walking were few, but when I heard a burst of machine gun firing, everybody dived towards the walls of the buildings, and looked at me as if I were mad for just continuing walking. I could tell the guns and bullets were not in this street, but just in case my cover was going to be the gutter at the edge of the street. Only thing was, I did not want to take such cover until I had to, because diving onto concrete can hurt, and gutters are dirty.

Then, I found what I needed: an information kiosk. I asked for information, and what I found was not exactly what I needed: the borders were all closed. One might reopen tomorrow. So, was there somewhere where I could spend the night? Come back at 5.00. So I could be a tourist for the afternoon. It was not long before I noticed a protest march, so I “joined/followed” it as it went into Wenceslas Square. That was ominous. Across the middle of the square the Russian military had painted a yellow line. Some meters back was a row of Russian soldiers with machine guns. The protest stopped, and it was clear that they could do what they liked their side of the line, but that line was not to be crossed. Gradually the noise became louder and I sensed this was a good time to be somewhere else, preferably with stone/concrete between me and what was going to happen. I got around the corner of a building, and the machine guns opened up. One of the odder moments of my life was ten years ago, when I was washing dishes while listening to the radio, and I recognised this pattern of lmg firing. There had been no announcement as to what it was, but I told Claire it would be about 2.30 pm, August 24, Wenceslas Square. Of course I don’t know whether it was for sure, but I felt confident. The sound was an introduction to a program marking the 40th anniversary, and they never said when and where the recording was made, but it seemed just what I heard that day.

Later in the afternoon, I wandered onto the Charles Bridge to look at the Vltava, and Russian soldiers camping on the riverbank. Interestingly, it appeared that at least some were not issued with socks, and they wrapped their feet in rags before putting on their boots. Anyway, while I was watching this, a Russian officer came up and stood beside me to look down at the river. Apparently, he wanted to talk, which was a problem because the only common language was German and neither of us were proficient. Judging by his epaulette, I guessed Major or Lieutenant Colonel, but I was not familiar with Russian ranks and emblems. Anyway, what I managed to gather was that the Russian soldiers were quite perplexed. They thought they were here at the request of the Czech people, and all they got were protests, insults, and there was no cooperation. I tried to point out they thought this was an occupation, and I added I had seen tanks with Okkupanti and swastikas painted on them. (Yes, spray paint cans were in full use). He agreed, which surprised me. It also turned out that the protests of one town really hurt them because there was no protest. Everybody was subdued and extraordinarily obedient. The town was Lidice. We talked for a while, and I realised that the average Russian officer was not exactly happy about this invasion, but orders were orders. They thought they were going to do good things for the citizens and they did not like what they saw, and the whole situation was bad for both sides. They were not really well supplied, and expected the Czechs would help with food, but all the food got hidden away.

Interestingly, as far as I could tell, the Russians did not pillage. Instead, they tightened their belts, arranged for more supplies, and as far as I could tell, the ordinary soldiers behaved well. The Czech citizens were respected as long as they did not “cross a line”, and while I suspect there would be incidents of soldiers doing what they should not have, by and large that did not happen. Russian military discipline was good.

All of which was all well and good, but I was still there. Time to go back to the information kiosk, and what happened next, I am afraid, is for yet another post, next week.

Meanwhile, you may be interested in https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/world/europe/prague-spring-communism.html?hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=photo-spot-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news

I found this article interesting, but it is not entirely representative. The most obvious difference is the black and white photos give the impression of overall grimness, but actually the weather was absolutely clear, and yes, there were plenty of protests, but they were not that grim looking. All the Czech flags being waved actually gave a colourful impression. The photos give the impression of chaos, destruction and rubbish everywhere, but that was not the case either. What you see there are isolated incidents. There is a photo of a tank burning, but that would be exceptional. There were protests, insulting graffiti on tanks, but by and large all protests were peaceful. There would be mistakes. The photo of a young man shot while trying to put a Czech flag on a Russian tank may well have arisen because there are no obvious places to place such a flag. Had the man tried to open something, the tankers would have to assume something dangerous, such as a Molotov cocktail, could be thrown in, and they would shoot. There would be damaged buildings. You cannot fire all that ordnance and not do damage, but by and large that was atypical, and concentrated around key parts of Praha. It said there were food queues. I had no difficulty buying food. The photos would be real, but exceptional and not really representative of what was happening at large.

More Bombs for Syria

Now that ISIS is essentially beaten as a state, a number of questions arise, and the last two weeks has brought the need for answers. The first question is, what happened to the ISIS fighters? A number of them were killed, but from what we can make out, a lot of them from Raqqa were allowed out by the US forces in the area and they seemingly went in the direction of Deir ez-Zor, which is on the Euphrates, and nominally has a population over 210,000, although these days, who knows? Deir ez-Zor was surrounded by ISIS for about three years, but it was recently liberated by the Syrian Army on the Western bank of the Euphrates after considerable fighting.

What happened next in this area is unclear. What I think might have happened is that the Syrian army crossed the Euphrates and moved towards what they think is the last bastion of ISIS (and recall a lot of ISIS fighters were permitted to head in this direction) when they were bombed by the US air force, killing about a hundred of them. What we next here is the US claimed the bombing was in self defence. How come an armoured infantry unit was attacking the USAF? Obviously, it wasn’t, so what was happening? Eventually, it became clear that “self defence” without a further explanation was not exactly convincing, so then we find, they were defending “a secret US base.”

That raises more questions. First, if it is that secret, maybe the Syrians did not know it was there, and they were attacking the ISIS or al Qaeda people believed to be there. For the purpose of this essay, al Qaeda refers to whatever it has been rebranded as. al Nusra was effectively al Qaeda, but it too has rebranded itself, seemingly more than once, but it has not changed its terrorist ideology. So did the Syrians actually know? Had the US told the Syrian government they were putting a military camp in their country? Just imagine what the US response would be if it turned out that North Korea had such a camp in the US.

The next question is, what were these US soldiers doing there? The official answer appears to be, “training moderate rebels”. US intervention led to al Qaeda after the US abandoned those who had helped get the Russians out of Afghanistan, and it was instrumental in forming ISIS after it had no idea what to do with the Iraqi army after the GWB invasion. Given that we know ISIS fighters headed in this direction, how do we know the US isn’t simply training and supplying the rebranded version of ISIS? As the week has progressed, the explanations from the Americans has also changed, so it is unclear what the truth really is, other than there is a US base more or less on an oilfield, which in turn is preventing the government of Syria from getting access to the oil.

All of which raises the question, why is this base located there? The answer to that seems ominously familiar: it appears to be located near or on an oil field managed, and maybe part-owned, by Conoco. Was the US action to protect the business interests of an American company against those of the legal government of the country it was in? Also, why has this oilfield been rather untroubled by the terrorism? We know ISIS was gaining most of its funds from selling oil, and most of the Syrian oil comes from this field. So at first sight, ISIS fighters leaving Raqqa and heading towards Deir ez-Zor might indicate that they were to make a last stand there, but from a strategic point, this makes no sense at all because it could never sell the oil. Another possibility is that the fighters were going to merge with the rebranded al Qaeda units, who seemed to have US blessing because they were labeled as “moderate” opposition to al-Assad, so here was a chance to get protection before . . . Before what? My view is, whatever they are thinking, those terrorists are not suddenly going to turn into model citizens working for peace and economic growth. The ugly option is that the US could not care less who it helps as long as it gets rid of Assad.

So, Assad is a bad leader. Maybe he should be prevented from getting his hands on the oil. But then comes the next question: how will Syria be rebuilt? The only real source of potential money to do this is from the oil. Both the Americans and the Russians have carried out extensive bombing to get rid of ISIS, and that may seem to be legitimate, but somebody has to rebuild Syria, and there is no sign whatsoever that the US wants to help do this.

Another event in Syria was the shooting down of a Russian aircraft by a surface to air missile from another rebranded al Qaeda hold-out. Now, where did that come from? We can probably eliminate Russia or China, so that effectively means Israel or the West. The US denied giving such missiles to Syrian opposition forces, and that is almost certainly the truth if we add, “directly”, but what about from places like Saudi Arabia, which buys a lot of sophisticated US military equipment. Interestingly, the Russian air force immediately began bombing heavily the area where the missile came from, without any further response. That suggests that if they know they are there, they are less troubled.

Finally, it is worth noting what the effects of such bombing are. Mosul was “liberated” in July 2017. Right now, approaching seven months later, they are still digging bodies out of the rubble. The bombing has essentially made the city uninhabitable, and many major earthquake zones seem rather impressively sound in comparison, but what happens to the citizens? They are on their own, although they seem to have been given tents. Are those people going to thank the “liberating bombing”, or have we created the next generation of terrorists?

Fragmenting Nations

One of the more interesting questions that have arisen lately is should a region of a country have the right to break away from the country and be independent, and if so, what are the obligations of the participants? The classic way of breaking away is to have a war. The US got its independence from Britain that way, as did Eire. Does nationhood depend on “might makes right?” It can, but surely there are other ways.

It certainly helped Kosovo, and Kosovo is of interest because it was effectively US air power and NATO forces that won the war. Clinton described the activity as “upholding our values, protecting our interests, and advancing the cause of peace”. Strictly speaking, this action had no UN Security Council approval, therefore it could be regarded as illegal, and it was described as illegal but justified. Whether the Serbs would agree is another matter, and it then becomes interesting that violating the law is fine as long as you think it is justified. Who says so? The guys with the most guns?

The background to Kosovo is of interest. Some in Kosovo wanted independence, particularly those of Albanian origin, and apparently things got out of hand when the Kosovo Liberation Army made four attacks on Serbian security people. The Serbians soon began calling the KLA terrorists (and since they carried out sneak murders, that is probably fair) while the Albanians saw them as “freedom fighters”. Up until 1998, the US government described the KLA as a terrorist group, but suddenly it changed its mind and used NATO to intervene. End of Kosovo Serbians’ hopes. US intervention had another effect: it took the Monica Lewinsky affair off the news table for President Clinton. The US used cluster bombs, and did serious damage and caused considerable civilian casualties, including to Albanians in Kosovo, but the net result was that Kosovo apparently has declared independence. However, not everyone recognizes this, and it remains to some extent under UN administration.

It would seem fair for a split if those leaving did so by winning a referendum that was fairly executed. Scotland had such a vote and decided to stay, so the issue does not arise, however I believe had the vote been yes, London would have agreed. Of course this raises the question that if they keep having votes, sooner or later they will get one result to leave, and that would be irreversible. So maybe there has to be a limit to the number or spacing of referenda.

However, votes can also be rigged in favour of some end. The vote to have a separate Kurdistan would probably win for the Kurds, but would they take Kirkuk? To make sure they would, when the Iraqi army fled from ISIS, a large number of Kurds poured into Kirkuk, and so I guess they would win a vote. But if you pour in the appropriate number of extras to win the vote, is that the right way to go? My guess is no. Then the question is, is the vote fair? When Crimea seceded from Ukraine and joined Russia, this was done with a clear majority vote favouring it, but the Russians had poured in a number of soldiers and they ran the voting system, and as a consequence a number of people do not believe it was fair. My guess is, it probably was because there were a lot of people of Russian descent there, but we cannot be sure. In Crimea, it probably was a case of “might makes right”, but if the Russian military did not come in, the Ukrainians had the might, and as can be seen in eastern Ukraine, they are prepared to use it.

Suppose we look at Catalonia. There have been widespread claims that Catalonia should be independent from Spain, and they held a referendum, which gained 90% in favour. So that is clear evidence, right? Maybe not. Spain declared the referendum illegal and sent in riot police. Those not in favour of independence may well have considered the vote illegal, and they wanted no part in it. It now turns out that only about 40% of those eligible to vote participated, so maybe this was not as conclusive as the enthusiasts claim.

The next question is, why do people want independence? Presumably because they feel they would be better off independent. The Catalans apparently are net donors (tax paid less benefits) to Madrid of about 10 billion euros. However, this might be a little misleading because there are a number of Head Offices of Spanish companies in Barcelona, so company tax from all activities in Spain would be paid from Barcelona. If Barcelona were in a separate country, presumably the activities from Spain would remain taxed by Spain. In Scotland’s case, one can’t help wondering whether the politicians had their eyes on the North Sea oil revenues. In my opinion, in such a breakup, existing royalties and such should be divided between the original members based on population, in which case the returns would be a lot less.

That leaves the Lukansk, Donbass and Donetz oblasts in Eastern Ukraine. Should they have independence? A lot of opinions in the West say yes; territorial integrity should outweigh grumpy citizens. In this case, Western Ukraine has quite different objectives; they want to join the EU while the East wants closer ties with Russia. Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of this, in my opinion there has been enough shelling and bombing of these oblasts that the citizens there will not accept the Western domination. The West complains about Russian intervention that has helped the Eastern Ukrainians. In doing so, they conveniently forget Kosovo. Also, it is now very doubtful Ukraine could join the EU, and if they did, they would find EU financial impositions on Ukraine would make Greece look somewhat attractive. My guess is, Germany would not be willing to carry an even bigger load.

So, what are the conditions for breaking up? I rather fancy there is no recipe. The various places have to find their own salvation. Nothing could be worse, however, than encouraging a breakup, and leaving one part without adequate resources, or encouraging them, and then walking away after the event.

The Killing of Syrian Evacuees, and MOAB

One of the biggest news items the previous week was “the mother of all bombs” was dropped on Afghanistan. My first thought was, how come the children came first? My next thought was, why did the Americans use those words? Suppose they had said, “We dropped an 11 t bomb to break up the ISIS tunnels,” they could have still shown the same footage, but it would not have sounded so arrogant. Since this bomb had to be dropped from a cargo plane, it would presumably only be used on populations that have no significant air defence. The Americans also claimed that they killed thirty-six ISIS fighters and no civilians. Exactly how do they know that? (Sorry, but I persist. I want evidence, or at least some reasonable explanation that evidence has been seen by someone who will tell the truth.) One of the clips showed the ground around where the blast took place, and there was plenty of green there. Explain to me why there were no tribal farmers there?

Another disturbing event occurred at al-Rashideen, in Syria. Busloads of Shia evacuees from Foua and Kefraya permitted to leave the al Qaeda held Idlib province were attacked by what appears to have been a van-bomb. At least a hundred and twenty-six were killed, and more will die, and of those who died, at least sixty-eight were children. You may recall President Trump spreading empathy for the innocent children who died at Khan Sheikhun; silence on this incident, though, and the question is, why? There was also essentially silence from the Western press. Why, after all the fuss made of the sarin event? Particularly since these people were being evacuated under an agreed exchange whereupon rebels were permitted to leave Aleppo in exchange for free passage for them. They were obviously killed by al Qaeda affiliates, so why no bombing of them? Presumably because they are “nice” Muslims. Has he already forgotten 9/11? More to the point, this is a clear indication that you cannot negotiate with such terrorists because they have no honour.

What should be done about Syria? In my opinion, ISIS and the al Qaeda factions should be eliminated. As von Manstein noted, in terms of military strategy the first requirement is to prioritize. It is true that Assad is currently handling his population rather badly, but nobody else seems to have any constructive suggestions as to what should happen. Everyone says, negotiate a peaceful settlement, but it is difficult to do this when the issues are discrete and if, as shown by the example above, one side will not honour the terms of any agreement. If it is one or the other, the absence of middle ground makes compromise near impossible. Neither al Qaeda factions nor ISIS will moderate their extreme views, so I am afraid they must be removed. Assad at least ran a secular government, and in my opinion, he is the only one visible who has any chance of doing that in the future and do it for long enough to be effective, so swallow the dead rat. The best example of what I fear was Saddam Hussein. Nobody would accuse him of being “good”, but nevertheless he ran a secular government, and under his government, there was no al Qaeda of any significance in Iraq. The US deposed him and executed him, and did not attempt to govern, despite the antics of Paul Bremer. Why not? Insufficient troops. The net result was that disgruntled Iraqi soldiers got tangled up with ISIS, and look where we are now. It is better to do nothing about Syria than make it much worse.

Why do I discount the military option? The troops needed for a military occupation depend on what is expected of the occupied population. During the Czech invasion, everybody expected the Czechs to behave, and from memory five divisions comprised the invasion. That would be somewhere between 50,000 – 75,000 men, and probably about another 30,000 support staff. However, they concentrated on “important” sites. I recall that if you stayed out of city squares, or around things like radio stations, the chances of actually seeing Russian troops were very low. You saw them on roads if they were moving, and of course they had bases, but otherwise they were invisible. I even drove essentially across the country and only saw troops using the road to go from A to B. That would not work in a place like Syria, where you have to assume everybody there will hate you. Al Qaeda and ISIS, and their sympathizers will definitely hate you; the Alawites will most likely hate you for overthrowing their man, and that leaves the Kurds and Turkmen, both of whom will fear your leaving with whatever ISIS morphs into remaining. In an occupation where you are hated, you have to remove all the weapons, you have to check all transport, and have frequent checks on people in the open. That is why Israel, which has recognized what occupation means, does what it does in Palestine, and overall, while the Palestinians hate it, it does a good job of occupying. For Syria, I think you would need at least 500,000 soldiers, and preferably about 700,000. Who wants to pay for that? And on top of that, if you want it to succeed, you had also better spend a lot on reconstruction. To make a job of it, it would probably take ten to fifteen years, and initially there would be a lot of body bags because the likes of ISIS will have secreted arms dumps. Not very attractive, is it?

Chemicals over Syria

The news over the past week was dominated by a “chemical attack” in Syria, and the US response. However, there was then a flurry of various theories as to what had happened, the most usual one being that Assad was at it again, using sarin on his own population. So, what do we know, and what theories are consistent with what we know? In my scientific books, I have maintained that for any subset of facts, the smaller that subset the more likely there is that there will be at least one other theory consistent with the facts. What one then does is design experiments to s falsify some of them, so that eventually you end up with just one, and that is most likely to be correct. With human activities that is a little harder to do, and we have to relax somewhat the Royal Society’s motto Nullius in verba, which loosely translated means, take nobody’s word. With something like Syria, you cannot check everything rigorously, but you can look for self-consistency and reliability.

So what do we know? First, a number of people, including children, died in Khan Sheikhun some time on the morning of Tuesday 4th April. Some survivors were taken to hospitals elsewhere. According to US surveillance, one SU 22 took off from Shayrat air base and dropped objects on Khan Sheikhun. That is about all we know. What is most likely to be true? First, the symptoms of the survivors were argued to be consistent with their having experienced sarin, although one of the hospitals reported the symptoms were consistent with sarin, but the clothing showed signs of chlorine, which implies there were two gases present. Strictly speaking, sarin does not give unique symptoms, and a number of other organophosphorus compounds would also give these symptoms, although not so acutely. One such compound might be methylphosphonyl difluoride, the precursor to sarin.

There are also video clips of white helmets as first responders helping the victims. They had no protection. Sarin is a liquid, and it is absorbed thorough skin. Had this been sarin, we would expect those first responders to die. There is a further problem with white helmets; there are also statements on the web that the white helmets, operating only in al Qaeda controlled territory, give preference to militants, and have staged scenes on behalf of al Qaeda. That does not mean they did so here, but it also raises questions as to the reliability of their statements.

Whether there were one or two agents is also important, and this point is not entirely clear. Two agents is more consistent with a dump having been hit. More confusion comes from one report that the town was struck by one rocket. Further, the town is a stronghold of al Qaeda affiliates, who are not necessarily going to tell the truth. Apparently, UN inspectors are trying to piece together what really happened, and in principle, these uncertainties should be clarified. The US intelligence statement states that at least one of the items dropped from the SU 22 was a canister of sarin, but how would they know that? There are also clips showing a shed that has no bomb damage and hence what came in must have been a gas canister. However, there is no evidence anything came in. The makers of such clips refuse to show holes in the roof, and while there is a clip of what looks like an undamaged munition being tested, from the way it is laying, either it was irrelevant or it had been moved.

There are at least three theories circulating for what happened. The first is the most popular: Assad’s air force dropped bombs with chemical weapons. The second is the Russian version: Assad’s air force dropped bombs on a dump of chemical weapons, or material for chemical weapons. The third is that ISIS/al Qaeda did it deliberately to get US involvement. A fourth might be that ISIS/al Qaeda did it accidentally. At this point it is important to determine whether the delivery was by one rocket. If so, the Syrian air force is off the hook, although the Syrian army could have fired it.

One argument against Assad having done it is that it makes no sense for him to have done so. He is gradually winning the war, and President Trump has indicated the US did not want to get involved with Syria. He would know that the US would be really irritated if he did, so why would he? To do so would be just plain stupid, but unfortunately this argument has a flaw: there appears to be no shortage of stupidity in the world.

Another argument against it is he handed over his chemical weapons. The problem then is, how truthful is this? On the other hand, if he had complied, the likes of al Qaeda definitely did not. They, and ISIS, control so much of Syria it is almost certain they would have had control over some such dumps.

Very shortly after, the US navy fired 59 cruise missiles at Shayrat air base. The US says all fifty-nine reached their target; some reports indicate that only 23 struck it. What happened to the others? Here is an example of the fundamental problem: some people are asserting statements that are not true. However, we have not heard anything of where rogue ones struck, so either Assad missed a trick, or the US story is true. Assad also missed another trick here. The US in some reports claims there were chemical weapons at Shayrat. If so, why did they fire weapons that would liberate sarin when it would almost certainly go to the local residential area? They would be doing what Russia asserts Assad did. So what is the outcome?

For me, the most obvious one is we cannot trust any report on this matter so far. Too many politics are involved. On a lesser scale, President Trump showed that he was not going to wait for evidence from the UN inspectors. He was an action man. What did he achieve by doing this? Apparently he damaged at least six Syrian aircraft, although five of them, from the photographs, look not hopelessly damaged but they also look obsolete. Relations with Russia have taken a dive. For me, there are two consequences I fear. The first is, if ISIS has any chemical weapons, now is the time to use them on innocent civilians. That will bring the US in demolishing Assad’s forces. One of the more bizarre aspects of this incident is that the US has entered a civil war (always a bad idea) and is actively supporting both sides. The second is that President Trump has also threatened North Korea. Bombing Assad’s forces is superficially consequence-free (in the long term it is anything but) but bombing North Korea would reset the Korean war. I only hope some real thinking goes on soon.

Putin and the West

One of the more unexpected items that I saw recently on the web noted some accusations made by Vladimir Putin to the effect that the West, and particularly the US, has made a continual attempt to destabilize Russia. By itself, that is not exactly surprising that he would say that, but the way he argues the West went about it is, assuming this has any truth. And, of course, this continues my theme of asking for actual evidence behind accusations. The following is a précis of Putin’s accusations, together with my comments. The more complete accusations can be found here:

http://journal-neo.org/2015/05/15/what-if-putin-is-telling-the-truth/

The first point that Putin made was that when Afghanistan was under Soviet control, the Mujahideen were funded from the CIA and the Saudis. That is almost certainly true, but the Soviets should have expected that. The next point was that when the Soviet Union collapsed and fell into total disarray the American attitude was, “kick them while they are down”. There was certainly considerable glee in the western press when the Soviet Union collapsed, but that does not mean they set about to make the situation worse. My guess is the West would be really concerned about what happened to the Soviet nuclear material, so they would not welcome a total collapse.

The next point Putin made was that Halliburton had surveyed the oil potentials of the Caucasus region, and it was huge. That is a mixed statement. The oil reserves are huge, but that was known well before, and in World War II, Hitler had decided that if he could get there, his fuel problems were over. (They would not be because there was still a transport problem, but the oil was certainly known.) Halliburton knowing about Caucasus oil reserves is unsurprising, but that does not mean Halliburton did anything. However, Halliburton can clear itself by proving none of their agents visited the region nor did they send any particular amounts of money there. So far they have not.

Putin then accused the West of trying to keep this oil from Russia. That, to me, doesn’t make sense. Putin then accused a General Richard Secord of organizing revolts. He persuaded two thousand of the Wahabbis of the Afghan Arabs to redeploy into these areas, and he was helped by a CIA agent called Osama bin Laden. Again, multiple accusations. The “Afghan Arabs” had little effect on getting rid of the Soviets from Afghanistan, and were apparently intensely disliked by the Afghans who were doing the fighting, nevertheless there were about 35,000 of these Afghan Arabs who received military training and about $800 million from the US. You can make what you will of that, and more details are at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Allegations_of_CIA_assistance_to_Osama_bin_Laden However, you can reasonably argue that from Putin’s point of view, he is not that interested in fine detail, and Putin’s statement was about these Afghan Arabs. Furthermore, there is evidence that people who were Osama’s closest associates did benefit from US funding. However, there is no clear evidence I could find that anyone from the CIA ever met Osama bin Laden.

General Richard Secord’s plan (according to Putin) was to set up a front company, MEGA oil, which was the agency for bringing the terrorists and arms into the Caucasus. Again, this is a multiple point statement. If MEGA oil was a registered company, the shareholding should be known, but of course these might be nominees. Thus Secord may well have helped set up that company but even of he did, that does not show he had anything to do with bringing in terrorists, i.e. the Afghan Arabs. We need supporting facts. The first success of this strategy, according to Putin, was to topple the elected President of Azerbaijan in a military coup, and replace him with an American puppet. Certainly, the President was deposed, but we have no reason to suspect the Afghan Arabs had anything to do with this.

The Afghan Arabs then turned their attention to Chechnya. A flood of US dollars allowed bin Laden to ensure that Chechen moderates were soon out of the way. Prior to this intervention, Chechens were mainly moderate Sufi Muslims but the Afghan Arabs quickly spread al Qaeda’s hard-line philosophy. Leaving aside the role of Osama, we know the Afghan Arabs did have a serious role in Chechnya, and we have no way of knowing whether the accusation of cash is true, although that would not be surprising if there was such cash, or if there was such cash, its origins. Again, a shortage of facts.

Meanwhile, according to Putin, the Saudi terrorist Ibn al-Khattag was organizing terrorists for a more general jihad. The CIA and Saudi financed terrorists also carried out the October 2002 massacre at the Dubrovka theatre in Moscow, and the September 2004 Beslan school massacre. According to Putin, this activity was funded by, and many fighters were provided by, Osama bin Laden from Kandahar. The objectives were, from the CIA, to destabilize the collapsing Russian federation, while the Saudis wanted to spread Wahabbi fundamentalism. The two named massacres certainly happened, but this was after 9/11, and I find it very hard to believe the US was funding the terrorists then. The more unexpected the statement, the stronger must be the supporting facts, and they are absent. Following the Beslan massacre, which the Russian troops handled poorly, Putin noted that the western media demonized him and Russia, but no mention was made of al Qaeda or the Saudi involvement. That may be because the western media had no reason to suspect Saudi involvement.

The item then noted that by late 2004, Putin had had enough of Chechnya, and ordered a more vigorous response by Russia into Chechnya. What they found was that most of the Afghan Arab terrorists had already fled, and had safe havens in NATO member countries, or reliable US allies. The allegation that the Afghan Arabs had fled Chechnya was presumably true because there is fair evidence they were there, and they were not there when the Russian troops came in, but where they went to must be unknown. My guess is many of them ended up in Iraq or Syria.

So the problem is, many of Putin’s allegations are not supported by evidence that I could find. On the other hand, just because I could not find evidence does not mean they are not true, or, for that matter, they are false. As for Halliburton, their general involvement and incompetence in Iraq may have made them a convenient whipping boy. However, the role of al Qaeda in the Chechen revolt and the two pieces of terrorism in Russia were outlined in a report that the Putin allegation asserts was published by the UN Security Council in 2010. That report is verifiable. Accordingly, I believe that is an endorsement of the truth of that part of Putin’s accusation.

In short, what Putin alleges about the Afghan Arabs and their role in Chechnya appears to be verified, but the argument that the CIA was backing them then has no support that I could find. So, my overall conclusion is there is no direct evidence that the CIA actively tried to organize terrorism in the Russian Federation, BUT they had almost certainly funded and trained the people who were to become terrorists when the US thought they were liberating Afghanistan. In short, our current problems were bred by CIA intervention, and the CIA simply did not understand the motivation behind those it was funding. Assuming it is true, the spending of $800 million on some militant religious fundamentalists may have seemed a good idea at the time, but it ended up being very silly.