Syria Crisis

The "New Cold War" Bluff: How Putin And Obama Agreed To Hang Syria Out To Dry

Rebel fighters in Aleppo on Sept. 14
Rebel fighters in Aleppo on Sept. 14
Jean-Pierre Filiu


PARIS — The Kerry-Lavrov agreement finally ends any illusion of a new “Cold War” that would have featured a showdown in Syria between friends of Washington and allies of Moscow.

With the deal inked between American Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, it has become clear that the U.S. and Russia share the common commitment to bury the Syrian revolution by validating Bashar al-Assad as the nation's only representative in the international community.

Washington and Moscow are also united in refusing to take into account the Syrian reality on the ground, preferring complex agreements that are signed thousands of miles away.

Vladimir Putin’s unconditional support of the Damascus dictatorship remains solid. Barack Obama is still far more hesitant, but by abandoning the Syrian people, he has also become more devious.

An agreement explicitly restricted to chemical weapons is as good as a license to kill issued to Bashar al-Assad — allowing him to use missiles, fighter jets and artillery against his fellow Syrians. His regime has already increased “conventional” bombings on every front since he was assured that the Western countries would not strike in the short term.

The Syrian people did not take to the streets in the spring of 2011 to ask for an international supervision of the chemical weapons. They peacefully and massively demonstrated their demand for justice and freedom. Obama’s United States has chosen to leave them alone and defenseless in front of their persecutors.

Worse still, it signed an agreement with Moscow in Geneva, in June 2012, recognizing Bashar al-Assad as the head of the Syrian state, while the possibility of a transition was pushed further away to an indefinite date.

The Syrian dictatorship has above all been looking to gain time, while it refuses to concede a single ounce of its absolute power. It can easily be feared that this second Geneva agreement will have the same result.

But for Bashar al-Assad, the essential part is that he has managed to bring to an immediate halt the international mobilization dynamic that had started after the Aug. 21 chemical massacre.

Role play

When he drew a “red line” on the use of chemical weapons in August 2012, President Obama hoped that the Syrian despot would make sure, even during the worst waves of the repression, to avoid crossing the line. We know he did nothing of the sort. Smaller violations of this “red line” have increased since winter, before the large-scale offensive of Aug. 21.

At the time, Obama, who was still refusing to intervene, hid behind Congress to justify his passivity. He can be grateful to Putin for giving him the possibility of a “diplomatic” exit. Let’s be clear, Washington and Moscow are not really fighting over Syria, not even with kid gloves; they are just role-playing, and the Syrian people are paying for it dearly.

As a historian, I can only be astonished by the suffering that Syria is enduring in 2013, buried under the traumatism of the disastrous Iraqi management in 2003. With the Kerry-Lavrov agreement, we are artificially creating a hotbed for international polarization and tensions, which will generate the same recurring crises as the search for “weapons of mass destruction” did in Iraq in 2003.

Meanwhile, the Syrian people are still being massacred, and the nation is still doomed to be destroyed as hatred deepens amidst the suffering and ruins.

Bashar al-Assad will benefit in the short-term from the Kerry-Lavrov agreement. But the big winners of this new sequence of the Syrian tragedy will most likely be the jihadists. Their rhetoric about Western hypocrisy, the illusion of human rights, or even about the alliance between Washington and Moscow to fight Islam, will grow ever harder to deny. In Syria and elsewhere.

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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