I think if Russia are given a free hand to dissect Ukraine we are in a very different and more dangerous world.  I'm sure the US understand this, as the only grown-up in the western camp.  The EU will want to appease Russia if they can get away with it, because right now they have enough problems of their own, and any problems with gas supply and Russian investment in Europe will compound that. But Russia is also dependent upon these revenues, and places to offshore their spoils.  

We know Putin runs a basically old style dictatorship, a legacy of the KGB + new capitalists.  He wants Russia's dignity and superpower status back, but he only understands this in strong-man terms, like all dictators.  In that sense he is no different from Mugabe. The Ukraine, having been Russian for most of modern history, is probably a red line (like Georgia), as its 'back yard'.  But Putin's recent interest in demonstrating in both the US and UK 'back yards' - the Firth of Forth carrier incident and the bombers to Venezuela - suggests that he wants to begin a process of being taken seriously not as a partner but as a capable adversary.  

The answer is probably new elections and a referendum for the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine.  But to get these will require some deft footwork by the US and the EU.  China will support Russia for two reasons - Tibet (and the recent Obama-Lama-Ding-Dong) and their own claims in the south China sea. Any diversion of US strategic interest back towards Europe will open up a route for China to press those claims more purposefully.  

This is dangerous, and Europe in particular is very unprepared to stand up to Russia, with the US having shifted is centre of gravity towards the Pacific and gone through its own military draw-down.  As Korea signaled the end of post-WW2 disarmament, one might see this crisis as a test of whether the post-2008/Afghanistan cutbacks in western military force will be reversed.  They should be.  On a more positive note both the European and Us economies are in better shape, and apart from gas have little dependence upon trade with Russia (apart from Cyprus). Fracking in the US has freed up middle east oil and gas, and hopefully this little spat will make shale gas a more urgent priority in Europe (although geological conditions make it less of a winner here than in the US). A lot of new African oil and gas is also coming online, so we can survive without Russia, even if it will be temporarily painful.

The worst outcomes are either 1). A Russian coup de main, which will lead to a new cold war, and possibly embolden Russia to have another pop at Georgia 2) a civil war, which will lead to another Bosnia on steroids and potentially destabilize Eastern Europe, 3) any attempt by China to take advantage of US preoccupation in Ukraine.
Stabilisation and Humanitarian Response are likely to remain core functions for HMG and NATO in the near future.  While developing a successful stabilisation strategy proved elusive in the counter-insurgency environments of Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, it has been very successful where the majority of the population were more permissive of international intervention – Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo are good examples – Libya and Mali may also be regarded as qualified successes.  This paper takes some of the lessons learned during recent stabilisation operations and proposes a new concept of operations and an experimental stabilisation manoeuvre brigade to develop these ideas within the British Army and NATO.


The key conundrum faced by stabilisation planners is how to construct an environment largely permissive to intervention.  Obviously this is as much a political as military or stabilisation task. In Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Kosovo and Libya the preconditions for successful stabilisation were largely met before intervention took place - the overwhelming desire of the majority of the population was to welcome foreign intervention to prevent further bloodshed.  In Iraq and Afghanistan intervention was primarily driven by external factors, and permission for intervention needed to be sought after the fact – and proved very difficult to achieve. In the context of the Islamic revival the presence of high-profile non-Islamic  (and particularly western) foreign forces is deeply problematic, and can easily provide oxygen for extremist groups to reconfigure domestic strife into a war against a foreign invader (as occurred in Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan). Moderates in Islamic countries are therefore wary of a high-profile western ‘boots on the ground’ presence which they are conscious could weaken their cause in the longer term, and play into the hands of Islamist Jihadis (Libya is the prime example of this approach).

Two key strategic lessons fall out of this analysis:

·         In broadly permissive environments stabilisation has a very good chance of succeeding, even in the face of insurgency (examples include Malaya, Bosnia and Sierra Leone);

·         In non-permissive or Islamic environments, the presence of large numbers of foreign or non-Islamic forces may serve the interests of insurgents or jihadi Islamists, creating the conditions for a popular anti-western insurgency (French and US interventions in Vietnam and both Soviet and NATO interventions in Afghanistan are instructive).

At the operational and tactical levels the use of sophisticated insurgency techniques, especially IEDS, has also made force protection very important – a factor that can dangerously compromise a mission’s ability to engage constructively with the population, and deflect force commanders from the mission objective which is ultimately about winning popular consent.

Current stabilisation doctrine is probably more suited to meeting the challenge in broadly permissive environments with stabilisation work focussed on bringing peripheral areas that have been under insurgent control back into the fold.  Nevertheless, there are significant issues around continuity of command that need to be addressed in enduring situations.

Time for a New Approach?

A new approach is necessary in non-permissive or Islamic environments.  Building upon the lessons of Afghanistan it would seem that three key factors should underpin a stabilisation mission in these types of environment:

·         Range – the requirement to minimise the observable footprint of foreign forces, and ensure that force protection requirements are manageable and sustainable, requires as much direct engagement as possible to be undertaken at range, preferably from over the theatre horizon. 

·         Stealth – where intervention at range is not feasible, a reduction in the profile of intervention forces is paramount both to deny insurgents the oxygen of popular support by enabling them to reshape their cause as a “war against foreign forces” (as occurred in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan), and to use stealth as an alternative approach to meet force protection requirements.

·         Footprint – related to these two factors is the requirement to minimise the in-theatre logistical footprint of intervention forces, which is particularly vulnerable to asymmetric warfare and requires heavy (and often unsustainable) investment in force protection in non-permissive environments.

A number of new technologies and techniques need to be synthesised into an approach that is founded upon these principals to allow new and more effective methods of outmanoeuvring insurgents in contested stabilisation environments.

Range.  Range can be achieved through a number of methods.  In the air through the deployment of either very long ranged (intercontinental) land-based platforms, especially unmanned surveillance and weapons delivery systems, at sea through the use of offshore basing (CV and LPH) for air assets (Fast Jet, Helicopter and UAS) and submarines and surface ships for launching land attack cruise missiles, and on land by launching short-sharp air assault or amphibious interventions from offshore naval assets or nearby (but out of theatre) land bases (as have occurred in Somalia, for example).  This requires a force mix of intercontinental ranged land-based air assets, naval carrier and amphibious task forces, and brigade-sized expeditionary air assault and amphibious raiding forces, with appropriate lift.

Stealth. While intervention at range can have considerable rapid – and game changing - effects, with little or no requirement for additional heavy investment in force protection or development of an in-theatre logistical footprint, it is of necessity temporary in nature and cannot ‘take and hold ground’ for extended periods.  Where more enduring presence is required to shape the battlespace stealth offers a workable alternative.  How can stealth be achieved in theatre? Primarily by shifting the emphasis away from foreign forces and towards local forces, focussing foreign capacity in training, leading and supporting those forces, such that they are competent and effective.  This process was important in Afghanistan and Vietnam; however it was not core strategy from the outset, and in general a task assigned to less capable units within western forces.  The exception is Special Forces, which have evolved techniques to build and support irregular forces to a high level of professionalism.  The principal problem with HMG approach to capacity building is that there are no specialised units (apart from SF) with well-developed expertise in what is often considered a secondary and somewhat menial task. A specialised stabilisation force will require a new type of unit specifically crafted to build, mentor, lead and support competent local forces – both military and police.

Logistics Footprint.  Large in-theatre logistical set-ups are wasteful of resources and vulnerable to asymmetric attack.  The objective is to minimise the requirement for long overland resupply routes and large non-reusable in-theatre facilities that are expensive to develop and operate and defend such as Camp Bastion. This is partially achieved through over the horizon capabilities and the stealthy approaches outlined above, nevertheless any deployed force will require in-theatre logistical support. Emphasis upon maritime logistics capability (RFA), supported by helicopters and amphibious transportation is one useful approach, as is the development of a network of potential resupply bases in secure neighbouring countries in contested regions (Gulf, Near East, East and West Africa, Mediterranean, SE Asia).  The ability to resupply smaller and more easily defended in-theatre forward operating bases from these remote facilities needs to be investigated as an alternative to developing large-scale in-country establishments.

Stabilisation Operations: Concept

Stabilisation operations have been theorized for some time now.  The basic principles have been expanded by the likes of David Kilcullen into a considerable body of literature. The principal stabilisation task is to outmanoeuvre elusive insurgent forces to gain control of the complex human terrain that demarks the stabilisation battlefield.  As with all forms of effective warfare, this requires excellent intelligence and command and control, and the ability to deploy a range of different types of arms simultaneously at the weakest points in the enemies defence. 

To illustrate this I will draw an analogy with Blitzkrieg warfare – the revolution in warfighting of the 1930s.   Blitzkrieg (Lightning War) was invented to avoid the drawn-out attritional battles that had characterised warfare in World War One. Its purpose was to win the battle decisively and quickly by deploying new technologies of real-time communications and mobility – radios, aircraft, tanks, trucks – to enable a mobile force to rapidly outflank and encircle a much larger traditional footslogging infantry and artillery army, cut its lines of communication and withdrawal and then destroy it in detail.  

At this juncture we need a new form of “blitzkrieg” to avoid the drawn out and indecisive stabilisation battles of Iraq and Afghanistan. This new form of war fighting needs to capable of rapidly outmanoeuvring insurgent forces for control of the human terrain, isolating them from popular support so that they can be destroyed in detail.

In comparison with UK or NATO forces, insurgents have both strengths and weaknesses – their strengths can be summarised as:

1.       Proximity Insurgent forces are drawn from and sustained by host populations, foreign forces can never hope to attain this level of proximity to the human objective;

2.       Fragility civilian structures and “normal life” are very fragile conditions – very small amounts of force applied strategically can disrupt these patterns and allow insurgents to gain control over large population groups;

3.       Grievance insurgents rely upon a narrative of grievance which is very carefully constructed to chime with the understandings of the target population group, it is very difficult for foreign forces to develop these nuanced understandings quickly;

4.       Time insurgent victories are not generally defined by military prowess, but rather by endurance on the battlefield.  Insurgencies require relatively low levels of logistical support and can be sustained for many generations if popular support is maintained.  These types of timeframes are unsustainable by foreign forces.

And their weaknesses as:

1.       Immobility while insurgent groups can be networked into wider national or international movements, the actual units deployed are usually confined to the areas from where they derive their support. Mobility between groups is often limited by this constraint, and local issues often create tensions between allied groups. Foreign forces have much greater mobility and ability to combine and concentrate force against these smaller groups.

2.       Brutality while it is easy for insurgents to disrupt the fragile patterns of everyday life, the brutality required to sustain these disruptions can significantly impact upon their popular appeal

3.       Delivery international forces in partnership with host governments have the capacity to deliver effective responses to grievances much more capably than insurgents – that this is often not done plays into the hands of insurgents. Conversely when insurgents are allowed to administer areas, the population often loses faith in their ability to govern. Put simply, insurgents are normally better in opposition than in government.

4.       Slowness of Response while a popular insurgency can endure for many generations, insurgencies take time to build capacity and gain a foothold, especially in areas that were previously calm. Foreign forces can generate effective force much more rapidly.

Stabilisation concept.  

In order to minimise the advantages of insurgents over UK forces, and to target insurgent weaknesses a concept is proposed that targets the insurgencies lack of mobility, brutality and inability to deliver governance and slowness to respond to concerted action by:

A.)   Initially isolating the insurgency from other stable areas;

B.)    Through a combination of political and military action breaking up the insurgency into smaller constituent groups and degrading the insurgent leaderships and popular support.

C.)    Creating strongly stabilised zones along the perimeters of these insurgent held areas, with an emphasis upon improving security, justice and dispute resolution, economic activity and public service delivery.

D.)   Building effective local forces to occupy and administer insurgent held areas as and when support for insurgents diminishes

E.)    Only occupying insurgent held areas once popular support has begun to diminish.

Stabilisation weaknesses are addressed by:

A.)   using local forces as far as possible to increase proximity;

B.)    focussing stabilisation operations in areas along the perimeter of insurgent held areas where normal life can be re-established;

C.)    ensuring that grievances perpetrated by host governments are understood in advance and set as the political conditions for success prior to intervention and are fully addressed, at minimum, along the borders of the isolated insurgent areas and only expanding full stabilisation operations into new areas as support for insurgency collapses;

D.)   By ensuring that formed foreign forces are held in reserve and only deployed for short-duration and rapid response operations and as mentoring and advisory teams.

The Approach

Secure the borders of the instable area: Initial deployments should be set to isolate the insurgency from the rest of the nation and break the insurgency up into component groups, forming a secure perimeter around the insurgent affected region and separating the insurgency itself into smaller localised groups.

Isolate the insurgency from external support: Along these perimeters support for government can be bolstered through stabilisation actions, while insurgent supply routes are cut through actions to control access along these new internal ‘borders’. Cross border support also needs to be addressed at this early time period, either through agreements with neighbouring countries or through effective border controls. In areas where insurgents are already entrenched they can be allowed to retain control up to a point where disaffection with their rule emerges, as brutality and poor administration by insurgents will play to the counter-insurgency agenda.  Force should be manoeuvred to cut off these areas from outside support, break them into constituent units and isolate them from the benefits of government as far as possible to increase disaffection. Only once support for these groups is judged to be declining should stabilisation operations in these areas be mounted.

Degrade insurgent internal cohesion and command and control. Political and military manoeuvres to isolate localised groups and create fissures within insurgent command structures - to a point where popular support is diminishing - should be employed in advance of military or stabilisation actions to occupy territory: these can include operations against leaderships, and political actions to set rival groups against one another, and the use of local communications channels and media to widely disseminate information about these disputes.

Build national capacity to respond to instability. During the initial period of isolating and degrading the insurgency work should be focussed to build up local forces and capabilities to a point where they are able to extend government control into insurgent held territory. The temptation to use intervention forces for this task should be resisted. These forces should be initially deployed along the perimeters of insurgent held areas to help secure the borderlands.

Occupy insurgent held territory.  Military action to take and hold territory should follow once the insurgency has been isolated and degraded through political and military manoeuvres. Stabilisation and military forces should be primarily national (an 80/20 national/international split is about right). Foreign military formed units should be based over the horizon and used only for quick impact operations to secure territory and ongoing raiding operations; otherwise they should be embedded into national units as advisers and mentors.

Consolidate support in newly taken areas. Stabilisation will be successful where enough forces are concentrated to deliver immediate impact, which is rapidly followed-up by improvements to governance and service delivery. The key issue is to sustain normal life, therefore security for everyday activities such as keeping markets and schools open and ensuring people have access to their normal livelihoods are essential. To achieve these effects with limited forces, stabilisation operations should be sequential rather than trying to address the entire region affected by instability at once – stabilisation force should be concentrated in those districts where support for insurgency is low, or where insurgent control is resulting in population disaffection.

Sustain popular support for the counter-insurgents.  In some instances the objects of grievance maybe elements within host governments or their supporter groups. These issues need to be understood early on, and political conditions set for engagement that, where required, results in changes to government personnel and policy.  The sustain function is for local forces mentored by foreign forces. No foreign forces should be employed in this role.

Experimental Stabilisation Manoeuvre Brigades

As with all alternative approaches, there is a tension within UK and NATO military forces between the requirement to sustain conventional war-fighting capabilities, and to train for and develop stabilisation and counter-insurgency operations and tactics.  The new army 2020 structure, with reaction and adaptable brigades configured for different tasks, offers the potential to evolve specialised manoeuvre units designed for stabilisation operations. In the same way that space was given for experimentation with mobile divisions under the leadership of forward thinking (and often maverick) officers in the 1930s, UK should consider allowing at least one adaptable brigade to experiment with new structures for stabilisation operations. A key lesson here is that the experimental mobile divisions evolved into the armoured and mechanised divisions that now lie at the core of every modern army. Experimentation and training with “stabilisation manoeuvre brigades” (SMB) may well help develop the forces of the future and if the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan are to be learned, is urgently required. The following organisation structure is a very rough and ready attempt to formulate what such a brigade may look like, and the types of capabilities commanders may need to draw upon to deliver a comprehensive approach. Nevertheless the emphasis should be on experimentation through exercise to enable the brigade structure to evolve as new doctrine is developed.  The brigade could be either a national or transnational (NATO) construct, although a national brigade might be more useful initially as it would allow for better C3i and thus greater freedom for experimentation.

The purpose of the SMB is to generate the following forces:

·         A joint UK/local forces 2* HQ structure, with the ability to understand the context and deliver core supporting capabilities

·         An over-the-horizon UK forces intervention reserve comprising a mixed battalion-sized battlegroup with armoured cavalry, protected mobility, air assault and amphibious assault capabilities, which can be strengthened with assets drawn from force troops (artillery, logistics etc.) as well as aviation and SF as needed.

·         A specialist battalion sized unit designed to generate and mentor and support a main force of effective a national security forces comprising:

o   Brigade sized local forces infantry manoeuvre formation, configured for COIN operations with a mix of light infantry and protected mobility

o   A battalion sized local forces “gendarmerie” type paramilitary police formation, configured for COIN operations

o   Civil police, Border Security and Coastguard services, as required

o   Courts, judiciary, alternative dispute resolution and human rights capacity to manage the security terrain

o   Bolt on UK supplied and operated critical enablers (UAS, Logistics, Aviation, SF)

·         A specialist battalion sized support unit designed to  ensure the civilian administration is able to manage population needs in a stabilisation environment, comprising:

o   District level administration mentors, including communications and media

o   Mentoring for civilian emergency services: SAR, fire and rescue, A&E health and humanitarian EOD services

o   Engineering support to maintain and improve critical infrastructure, agricultural and livelihoods infrastructure and public services

o   Logistics support for UK mentoring forces

o   Capacity to contract and coordinate IO and NGO stabilisation programmes.

These units will then provide the force elements available to deliver stabilisation.  UK forces for rapid short-term deployments to deliver specific kinetic effects, UK mentored local forces to secure territory and maintain rule of law, and UK mentored local administration and non-kinetic programmes to address grievances and sustain popular support for the intervention.

Table of Organisation and Equipment

C3i: Headquarters

·         2* HQ

·         Stabilisation Command Group

·         ISTAR and Human Terrain Group

·         Cyber, Psyops and Media Support Group

·         Signals Company

Reserve: COIN Battlegroup (can be deployed at range “over the horizon”)

·         Composite Light Infantry Battalion Battlegroup (1 x Light Armoured Recce Squadron, 1 Protected Mobility Infantry Coy, 1 x Amphibious Assault (boat) Infantry Coy  1 x Air Assault Infantry Coy)

·         Attached Force Troops, Aviation and SF, as required

Strike Force: COIN Capability Enhancement Group

·         Brigade HQ Mentoring Package

·         Specialist HQ Mentoring Teams:  a) ISTAR  b) Security Sector Reform

·         Training Cadres:  Staff Officer Training Cadre, Junior Officer Training Cadre, NCO Training Cadre

·         9 Infantry Company Mentoring Platoons (6 x Light, 3 x Protected Mobility)

·         3 x Police Training Mentoring Platoons (1 x MP, 2 x Gendarmerie)

·         3 x Security Support Mentoring Platoons (Intelligence and Investigations Support Platoon,  Law and Order Support Platoon  [Civil Police Team, Border Security and Coastguard Team, Community Security Team], Justice and Dispute Resolution Platoon  [Courts and Judiciary Team, Alternative Dispute Resolution Team, Human Rights Team]

·         3 Battalion HQ Mentoring Platoons

·         3 Signals Mentoring Platoons (1 x HQ/Operational, 1 x Tactical, 1 x Force Protection)

·         3 Engineer Mentoring Platoons (1 x Combat, 1 x Field, 1 x EOD)

·         3 Logistics Mentoring Platoons (1x Life Support, 1 x Supply, 1 x Transport, Repair and Recovery)

·         3 Medical Mentoring Platoons (1 x Field Hospital, 1 x Combat Medicine, 1 x Ambulance)

·         3 Weapons Support Platoons (Mortar, Artillery/ATGM, Close Recce)

·         Bolt-on UAS Package

·         Bolt-on Close Support Logistics Package

·         Bolt-on Aviation or Aviation Mentoring Package

·         Bolt-on SF Package (operates with irregular local forces)

Support Force: Stabilisation Capability Enhancement Group

·         Local Administration Support Package including a Communications & Media Team

·         Training Cadres: District Administration, Civil Police, Fire and Rescue Services

·         Humanitarian Support Company (Fire and Rescue Team, Medical Support Team, Demining/EOD Team)

·         Stabilisation Engineering Company (Critical Infrastructure Team, Public Service Infrastructure Team, Agriculture and Livelihoods Team,)

·         Stabilisation Logistics Company (Signals Team, Force Protection and Life Support Team, Transport and Humanitarian Logistics Team, Administration, Finance and Procurement  Team)

·         Contracted and coordinated private sector, government, IO and NGO capabilities as required.

James Fennell

Copyright DragonflyLimited 2014

The capture of the Bab al Hawa crossing point may indicate how types of support less reliant upon material and more upon skills and systems may be 1) more flexible approaches when main supply routes and border crossings are threatened and 2) less of a conflict driver within and between the opposition. Although we assessed last month that an incident would occur within the Bab al Hawa area (we thought the crossing looked vulnerable to SAA), it does raise significant issues around the nature of non-lethal support to the Syrian opposition - it must make them better fighters, it must not be a conflict driver between opposition groups and it must be flexible to changes in the conflict landscape.

The fact remains that both internal division within the opposition (especially he creation of the Islamic Front) and strategic issues (access to main supply routes - MSR) has driven the rush to take control of border crossings before winter sets in and has been a conflict driver in recent weeks, especially after the loss and compromise of the Syrian oppositions group's main supply routes from Lebanon.

We would assess that Bab al-Hawa still remains a viable option for the opposition's MSA in the longer term, however due to the number of incidents over the past 12 months at the Bab al Hawa crossing, the most viable for the north-western areas of Syria could be the Bab al Salama crossing: although this still requires ground assessment. Other potential areas identified (which also still require ground assessments) include Lebanon (northeast-Bekaa Valley) and Jordan (Nasib Area). Kurdistan (Dohuk) is a further option however this would limit the reach and effect required especially due to the ongoing issues between the Syrian opposition groups and Kurdish elements.

Incident Summary

The Bab al Hawa incident and the closure of the border by Turkey's Ministry of Customs and Trade on  10/12/13 has been caused by an increase in clashes between Syrian opposition groups, namely the Islamic Front who seized control over the Headquarters for the Battalions and Brigades of the so-called Martyrs of Syria, led by the Jamal Maarouf. The IF also seized control of the Headquarters of Al-Farouq brigade at the Bab al Hawa" border crossing. Events escalated after clashes took place between the Martyrs of Syria and the Islamic Front, when it was reported that an agreement had reached between the Islamic Front and Al-Farouq allowing Al Farouq to withdraw from the area. Consequently the SMC warehouse was also taken over by the Islamic Front.
While the Islamic Front does not include either of Syria's two al-Qaeda affiliated groups of JAN and ISIS it does include radical Islamists who have coordinated with them. On Tuesday, the Islamic Front said it had withdrawn from the military command of the FSA, notionally charged with coordinating the war, and criticized its leadership. On Friday, the opposition Syrian National Coalition published statements by an FSA official playing down the Islamic Front's withdrawal and denying that the groups were in disagreement. But the events at Bab al Hawa underscored the size of the task to unite the various opposition groups under FSA command and sideline more hard-line groups.

The Islamic Front was formed, last month by seven large Islamist rebel factions, forming the largest alliance of opposition fighters yet in the Syrian conflict. Rebel commanders (in a video aired on Al Jazeera) said their new union would not only seek to oust Assad but establish an Islamic state. "This independent political, military and social formation aims to topple the Assad regime completely and build an Islamic state where the sovereignty of God almighty alone will be our reference and ruler," said Ahmed Eissa, who heads the Suqour al-Sham brigades, one of the groups forming the Islamic Front.
There is an interesting "Cold War" season running on the BBC right now.  I was born in 1960, and grew up with the Stones on the radio and Vietnam on the TV - and undoubtedly in the shadow of the bomb.  Vulcan nuclear bombers roared overhead from the nearby airbase in my childhood, and all I ever wanted to do was fly one. Later, as a student, I  protested against the infernal things in Trafalgar square (primarily in pursuit of a girl I'm sorry to say).  But we '60s kids - the tail end of the baby boomers - also grew up under another very different cloud - a thunderclap in the western mind that has and will have a much deeper legacy than the cold war - we all grew up in the shadow of Auschwitz.

Of course, the Second World War touched us in many ways, my father's older brother was killed flying a bomber, and another uncle was wounded on the Normandy beaches. When my parents showed us photographs of their wartime childhoods it appeared as if they had inhabited a familiar and yet alien monochrome planet. Yet there was another dimension to all this nostalgia. My aunt Edith is Jewish.  She grew up in Prague and came to Britain as a refugee in 1938, where she met my late, lovely uncle Francis or "Fran", as we knew him (an architect who was always ready to 'freshen up" your drinks).  Edith is an expert cook - and we Fennell kids loved to spend holidays with their family and eat the fabled Wiener Schnitzel .  Her melodious and still-accented voice remains full of warmth and humour to this day.  Yet apart from her "moma", who gained sanctuary in Brtiain with her, all her family were murdered at Auschwitz.

There is a debate going on in academia about humanitarian action
. It concerns application of the ideas of an Italian philosopher, Giorgio Agamben.  Put simply, Agamben suggests that we emphasise different human identities to separate out people into those who are cultured and deserve life, and a form of basic uncultured human (a "savage" maybe) who is less deserving and can be treated as a second class citizen, or even killed without guilt. Agamben goes on to suggest that throughout much of history the city (or 'polis') was a technology of separation employed by politicians to achieve this end - urban people were more cultured and therefore deserved more of the benefits of society than the rural 'noble savage'. His big idea is that from Auschwitz onwards that technology has evolved to become the "camp" - a technology that could continue to separate people into the deserving and undeserving in an increasingly urbanised world. 

When applied to humanitarian action this theoretical framework is increasingly being used as a critique of the refugee or IDP camp - suggesting that these camps are used by politicians and operated by humanitarians as technologies for creating a new class of global citizen - one  less deserving of the benefits of society.  Given the political imperatives that have created long term refugee camps in places like northern Kenya, Iran and Pakistan, they may well have a point.  However, blaming the humanitarian movement for this state of affairs is misguided.  Humanitarianism is essentially a civilizing force.  Humanitarians attempt to ensure that the inmates of these camps are recognised and treated with equality and dignity; and ensure that these structures are temporary and people returned to normal life as quickly as possible.  While Agamben's analysis helps to make us aware of the political ramifications of supporting the concept of long-term refugee or IDP camps, it must not be used as an excuse to deny people on the edge of society vital humanitarian refuge. Without it my aunt Edith, and her children and grandchildren in England, Wales and the USA, would not be with us today.

No, this post is not about Nietzche.  I can hear y'all breathing a sigh of relief.

I was in a meeting the other week when we were discussing whether the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and other Al Qaeda affiliated groups are really in cahouts with Al Assad's regime in Syria.  I can see why this would be an attractive hypothesis - and one which folks might take time to find evidence for - after all its so much easier on the braincells to have a clear divide between good and evil.  And there really should only be one dark force in the universe.

But as always, the world is much more complicated - and there is a a great deal of difference between the rights and wrongs of 'isms' and the fate of individual human beings. In 1995 the Croatian army - tacitly supported by the west - launched "Operation Storm" to clear the Serbian forces out of the Krajina, a province in northern Croatia.
It was the decisive battle of the Balkans war, and in its aftermath the Bosnian Serbs began to enter in negotiations which brought the Yugoslav wars of separation to an end.  Yet it was not only Serbian military forces that were driven out of the Krajina. Serbian people had lived in the Krajina for generations and were the latest victims of ethnic cleansing - sacrificed to the greater need to find long-term political solutions in the southern Balkans.

As a humanitarian aid worker, I found myself at a reception centre on the Croatian-Serbian border. Standing among the crowds of subdued refugees - each family clinging hopelessly to a tractor loaded with sofas and electric kettles - I couldn't fail to understand the vital importance of the individual over the great political tides of the time.  I was looking for someone to act as interpreter, and was directed to a teenaged girl.  She was weeping, family lost, not knowing what had become of them.  During the course of that day she worked with our team and I learned that she had studied English and wanted to attend university. I also learned about her beautiful house in the mountains, her brothers and sisters and dog.  When the time came for us to leave, I had no idea what to say to her.  How could I return to my hotel in Belgrade, and my safe western life and leave her to nothing?  I mumbled some sort of apology and did what westerners do - I gave her $10 and told her to buy herself something nice.

Some five or six years later I received a letter via CARE, where I had worked.  It was from that girl.  She told me about how she and her family had found a distant relative to live with in Serbia, how she still missed her home in the Krajina and how she was about to study at University.  She remembered that ridiculous gesture I made in the squalid reception centre, and she recalled the kindness of my colleagues.  It was one of the most moving moments of my humanitarian career.

She is Serbian - and was unwittingly on the side of the aggressor in the Balkan wars, an aggressor who committed many heinous crimes.  But she is also a human being and certainly not evil.  There will be people like that in ISIS and JAN supporter groups, as well as on the side of Al Assad.  We must not forgot those people when we seek to find good among the evil in Syria.

Incident comments
The three main rebel groups in northern Mali have agreed to merge, creating a united front in an ongoing peace process with the government. A Tuareg uprising in northern Mali last year plunged the country into chaos, leading to a coup in the capital Bamako and the occupation of the north by rebels. Since a French-led invasion in January to drive out the fighters, rebel groups have been scattered and reconciliation with them is one of the greatest challenges for President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita. The three groups that merged on Monday were the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA). The merger will take effect in 45 days, they said. As part of a peace deal signed with the government in Burkina Faso in June, the three groups said they would disarm.
Incident comments
French and Malian forces increased efforts to find the suspects in last week’s kidnapping and murder of two French radio journalists. The two journalists were discovered on November 2 after being kidnapped from the north Mali city of Kidal and subsequently executed. Security forces raided a camp of former Tuareg rebels, arrested and questioning several. The kidnapping happened four days after the release of other French hostages by al-Qaeda’s North African wing.
Incident comments
French, Malian and UN forces have launched a "large-scale" operation in Mali, France's military said Thursday. Spokesman Col Gilles Jaron told the media that several hundred French soldiers were involved in the mission in the north of the country. It was aimed at preventing a resurgence of "terrorist movements," he added.
Incident comments
Two UN peacekeepers from Chad have been killed and six others wounded - some "severely" - in a suicide attack in northern Mali, the UN said Wednesday. Civilians also died when a bomber drove an explosives-laden vehicle to the checkpoint in Tessalit before blowing himself up, the statement said. One child was killed and another injured, the media quoted Mali government officials as saying. Mali's defense ministry said four bombers took part in the raid and all died.
Incident comments
The United Nations has appealed for more troops and equipment for its peacekeeping force in Mali. The UN force, which took over security duties in July, has less than half of its mandated strength of more than 12,000 military personnel. Bert Koenders, the UN's special representative to Mali, said recent attacks had been a "wake-up call." He said the force, known as Minusma, needed more resources in order to stabilize the north of the country. French forces led an operation to oust Islamist militants from the region in January. A presidential election was held in Mali in July but militant attacks have resumed in the north where separatist Tuareg rebels and Islamist fighters are based.
Incident comments
French Special Forces killed around 10 militants in a gun battle in northern Mali this month, Paris said on Thursday, as simmering violence threatens security at November elections and will delay a French troop withdrawal. France, which sent soldiers to its former colony in January to oust militants who had taken over swathes of the West African country, will not draw down troop numbers to 1,000, from 3,200 by year-end as initially planned, a spokesman confirmed. French officials have previously said the withdrawal could be pushed back due to planned legislative elections on November 24. Despite the French troops and a U.N. peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), there have been several attacks this month targeting in particular Malian forces.
Incident comments
Suspected Islamists have blown up a bridge near Mali's northern town of Gao, the army says. The bridge near Bentia is on the only route between Gao and neighboring Niger. The attack comes a day after shells were fired into Gao, also by suspected Islamists. Islamist militants controlled the whole of northern Mali until France and several African countries ousted them earlier this year.
Incident comments
Suspected Islamist militants hit the northern Malian city of Gao with artillery fire on Monday, in the first attack on the insurgents' former stronghold in months, city residents, military and local government officials said. Gao was the first city freed from Islamist occupation by a French-led military intervention that drove al Qaeda-linked fighters from the country's north earlier this year. One Malian soldier was wounded and a house was damaged in the incident.

For anyone who is scratching their head over how religion and politics can be so intertwined in in the Middle East, a look back at 17th century Europe might bring clarity.  Today is "Guy Fawkes Night" in the UK, a peculiarly British festival, and one which has its roots in sectarian politics.  Last weekend was Halloween, "All Souls Night" - an ancient religious festival of the equinox that predates Christianity.  For those of us who have worked in animist societies, its purpose - to celebrate the dead, our ancestors - will be familiar.  All Soul's Night was adopted by Catholicism - as were most of the pre-Christian festivals (its no coincidence that Easter and Christmas fall on the Spring equinox and at Midwinter).  At the beginning of the tumultuous 17th Century Guy Fawkes night displaced this Catholic festival with one of peculiarly Protestant, but also political, meaning.

When I was a kid, November 5th was still a big thing.  Like all festivals, it was excitedly anticipated, especially by children. Bonfires were built, potatoes baked in the embers, and hot soup and sausages served-up by my mother.  Gunpowder was central to the revelries, and  my dad brought home fireworks and made us "stand well back" while we were thrilled by Skyrockets, Roman candles and Catherine wheels. Bad boys took 'bangers' to school, which exploded in the playground and resulted in a beating with the 'dap' (childcare and health and safety have since moved on..).  Most importantly, a "Guy" was run-up from old clothes stuffed with newspaper and perambulated around the streets in search of a few coppers.  Giving "a penny for the Guy" was the Guy Fawkes equivalent of "trick or treat".

The "Guy" was burned atop the bonfire, in parody of the fate of the real Guy Fawkes.  As kids we didn't stop to consider that we were playing out the ghastly execution of a Catholic dissenter who had dared to attempt Regicide by blowing-up the Houses of Parliament.  A foiled terrorist plot, as we would call it now.  But the historical significance of this event cannot be overlooked - its often forgotten that until its repeal in 1859, Britons were forced to attend anti-Catholic "celebrations" through the Observance of 5th November Act of 1605, and these were often violent occasions. The phrase  "remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot" was formulated as political propaganda although it has become folklore.

The Protestant reformation in Europe expressed a number of themes familiar to anyone who has worked in the Middle East.  It was driven by the emergence of a radical new communications technology, that democratized access to information that had previously been the preserve of a tiny elite.  That technology was the printing press.  It was an egalitarian movement, which threatened political hierarchies throughout Europe - from the Holy Roman Empire to the Monarchies in Britain and the Netherlands. And it was a fundamentalist movement - in which the scriptures, now widely available through newly translated and printed Bibles - were taken as an absolute: "the Gospel truth". 

The reformation was also the cause-celebre that underpinned brutal and devastating sectarian civil wars which raged across the Britain and Ireland and Germany for 30 desperate years, bringing displacement, persecution, famine and plague in their wake. Great warrior preachers such as Gustav Adolf of Sweden and Oliver Cromwell of England emerged, and their extreme interpretations of scripture led to the banning of music and Christmas celebrations and brutal persecution of Catholics in Germany, Ireland and Northern England. Atrocities occurred on the other side of the divide too - through the counter reformation - and the Huguenot Protestants were expelled from France,

It can be argued that the 30 years war and English civil war ultimately created the platform for the Nation State as we know it, and for the enlightenment and liberal democratic movement which is central to western governance today.  Perhaps the Middle East is embarking upon its own "30 years war" now.  And maybe these wars will lead to profound and positive changes in governance. Whatever the outcome, a look back at European history can help us understand that a cocktail of religious fervor and political liberalisation can have unfortunate and bloody short term impacts as well as positive longer term outcomes.

Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown under a wave
of pride and knives
In 1947 the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda published a poem he'd written during the Spanish Civil War, when he was Ambassador to Spain: "I'm Explaining a Few Things". It was a political poem, Neruda was a passionate supporter of the Republicans, but it was also a profoundly humanitarian poem, about loss, and about the terrible impact of callous violence upon innocent people.

Many years ago, I worked in Mogadishu up to the moment when the city fell to the rebel militias of General Aideed.  Yusuf, one of my Somali colleagues had told me "Somalia is like a mirror - once broken, it can never be put back together".  To me, Mogadishu of the late '80s had been a beautiful city. As I awoke I could hear the ocean breathing, vervet monkeys played in the fig trees on our small veranda and there was always laughter and melodrama in the office.  And then it was gone; burned, blasted, stamped on and crushed until it was dead. And unlike Yusuf, I was whisked away on a UN evacuation flight to leave Somalia and its torment behind me.

Six months later, hunkered down in a hotel room  in Cairo, I remembered that poem as I watched Somalia implode on CNN, destroying my old neighbourhood in the process. In turmoil, I picked up my battered copy of Neruda and tried to rewrite "I'm Explaining a Few Things" for Somalia; to express my anger at how so few could damn so many, how so many in the world couldn't give a damn.

Spain in 1936 resembles Syria in 2013.  This is not a European war of course, and the political tides of the Islamic world may appear mysterious and disconnected from everyday lives in Europe and North America. But like the Spanish civil war, Syria's battleground is laden with foreboding.  For - as was the case in Spain - it is the extremes of political ideology which are thirsting for blood.  We know now that Spain was a mild aperitif for a much more bitter, humourless and deadly expression of violence in Europe - which rode roughshod over communities, families and friends on the principle that "many must die if our ideas are to live". But ideas don't live, people do. And without people there are no ideas.

Behind the struggle for freedom from Assad's tyranny (and that of other dictators), Syria, Iraq, Egypt and perhaps the entire Islamic world are are being rallied to the banners of ideas - ideas of ethnonationallism and of sectarianism.  We know what lies at the end of these roads. Murder, and more murder. Until there is no-one left to kill.  Our interest in Syria should not be fundamentally about stopping the killing that is occurring now, but about preventing the slaughter that is to come. 

If there is one passage from Neruda's famous poem which is worth repeating here, it is this:
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain:
From every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every corner of Spain
a new Spain emerges
and from every dead child, a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.

And you will ask: why doesn't his poetry
speak of dreams and leaves
and the great volcanoes of his native land?

Come and see the blood in the streets.
Come and see
the blood in the streets
Come and see the blood
in the streets!

The Syrian Arab Army continues to gain ground to the south of Damascus, while ISIS and FSA elements clash in Aleppo and ISIS  threatens Kurdish held areas. ISIS appears to be extending its governance reach around ar-Raqqah in north central Syria while ISIS and Kurdish elements continue to clash in the northeast.  IDPs have been prevented from seeking refuge due to fighting between the SAA and FSA around Saida and Enkhel.


Intensified clashes between the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Free Syrian Army (FAS) groups within the besieged area of sharia Thalatheen within the al-Yarmouk area of Damascus. SAA have targeted known FSA locations within the al-Qaboun area north of Damascus, no further reports as yet. It has been reported that several mortar rounds where fired at the police headquarters in al-Qanawat area of Damascus and there are continued clashes between the SAA and FSA groups in the areas of Drusha and Tal al-Kabousiyeasuh. Casualties have being sustained on both sides.
SAA have used heavy artillery fire to target FSA locations in the areas to the north of al-Mouadamiah including targeting of known FSA controlled areas within the al-Zabadani precinct. Heavy fighting between SAA and FSA elements continues in the al-Hagar and al-Aswad areas south of Damascus and the SAA have gained a foothold in the area of Sbeneh, as they continue to drive forward into FSA held areas.

SAA air attacks continue to target FSA defended areas within and surrounding Talereen. Heavy artillery strikes have also been reported on the outskirts of the al-Ashrafia area of Aleppo. Fighting has intensified between elements of  the Islmaic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the FSA "Shuhadaa" brigade in the areas close to al-Jandoul and the al-Sheikh Maqsood areas. ISIS continue to hold onto territory from Azzaz through to Mingh airfield as they carry out planned assaults into the Efrin Valle, targeting Kurdish held areas.  It has also been reported that the SAA has successfully gaining control of the area of Azziziah north of Sfeira, Aleppo. Shelling in the area of al-Baab continues, as the SAA attempt to dislodge FSA groups

SAA and ISIS elements continue to clash as ISIS attempts to gain control of the surrounding areas of al-Tabaqa (close to are occupied by the the SAA’s 17 Division). There are reports that Islamist elements have continued to raid areas within Hiraqleh in an attempt to loot artifacts stored by the Directorate of Antiquities and Museums. A recent kidnapping has highlighted the raised threat levels within ar-Raqqah. A doctor (Ismael al-Hamed) was abducted from the Fardous area of ar-Raqqa. A recent statement has confirmied that 14 tribal leaders have pledged allegiance to ISIS within the ar-Raqqah area on the 1st November 2013. This is raising further concern that ISIS is actively expanding its governance into neighbouring areas surrounding ar-Raqqa.
Continued clashes between SAA and FSA elements in the areas of Saida and Enkhel has restricted the movement of IDP’s. There are unconfirmed reports of casualties on both sides. SAA air attacks have continued to target FSA defended areas on the outskirts of Attman.
Deir al-Zour

SAA continue to mount assaults in the al-Hwaqa area, targeting Jabat-al-Nusrah (JAN) elements. Sporadic artillery fire has been reported in the al-Muhasan area, no further reports.

Continued clashes between YPG (Kurdish) and ISIS elements in the areas of Ras al- Ayn. I has been reported but not confirmed that YPG elements have retaken and secured areas on the southern outskirts of the city.

Continued sporadic clashes continue in the areas of Salma.
Homs Area.

SAA air attacks have targeted ISIS and Ahrar al-Sham elements on the outskirts of Maheen


A 35-year-old man was killed in the southeastern Turkish town of Ceylanpinar early on Monday when a stray mortar shell fired across the border from Syria struck a house near the frontier, security sources said. The shell was fired during clashes between Kurdish and Islamist fighters in the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain. Five people have now been killed in Turkey in similar incidents since clashes began in the area in July. Authorities closed schools in the town and warned locals not to leave their houses after the shell landed.

Kurdish militiamen captured the Yaaroubiyeh post in north-east Syria <http://www.theguardian.com/world/syria> after three days of clashes with several jihadist groups there, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

Italian Journalist ‘Domenico Quirico and Belgium Teacher Pierre Piccinin, where released close to the Bab al Hawa crossing after a ransom of $4 million was paid. The original ransom was $10 million, ransom was paid in Lebanon. Pierre Piccinin was kidnapped in Homs around 8-17th April 2013. Domenico Quirico was kidnapped on the 9th April 2013, whilst on route to Homs.

Yesterday a drone attack killed the leader of the Pakistani Taliban - upsetting fragile peace negotiations and confirming our fear of these robotic killers. But can drones also do good? When the motor car first appeared it was met with fear and trepidation. Speed restrictions were put in place, men with red flags required.  For heaven's sake, they scare the horses!  Drones have come to be understood as terrifying soulless terminators, and have induced a moral panic comparable with that over genetically modified food and stem cell medicine.  But drones, like any technology, are not the problem. Its the uses they are put to by people.

Since Henry Ford got going, the internal combustion engine has been responsible for many untimely deaths and generating vast quantities of war machinery and pollutants. But it has also driven (no pun intended) a mobility revolution that has transformed our lives and prosperity. I live in a corner of rural England where few people of my grandparents generation traveled further than 20 miles - a day's walk - from their homes in a lifetime and counted themselves lucky to own a bicycle.  Now my neighbours commute to Bristol - over 30 miles away - and spend their holidays on the other side of the planet.  If I counted up how many countries I've worked in it would include every continent except Antartica, and around 40% of the world's nation-states.

Earlier this year a Sky News cameraman was killed whilst getting footage of riots in Cairo - could that footage have been had more safely and perhaps more effectively by a drone?  After all helicopters are regularly used for this purpose, without any ethical concern. The BBC think so and have been experimenting with drones as TV camera platforms http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-24712136.  Drones have also been used to help rapidly identify displaced people in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti, and will probably become a significant component of the domestic search and rescue infrastructure in most countries in the near future.  Why?  Because drones can be on station 24/7 at the fraction of the cost of a plane or helicopter, monitoring an affected area and providing real-time information to guide the deployment of precious search and rescue teams - saving more lives.

My Dragonfly colleague Darren White has extensive expertise in operating small drones and we have been working with a manufacturer to develop a high quality system for both media camerawork and humanitarian search and rescue.  These systems are especially suited to very high risk environments, or where conventional access is limited.  We are very interested in testing out the utility of one of these systems in Syria, and would like to hear from organsiations that have similar aspirations.

Ultimately, drones are part of a wider technological revolution (which includes Skype and social media) - one that began with the telephone - which allows us to be in two places at once. To meaningfully interact with people and places in our neighborhood and in another remote (from us) location simultaneously.  Philosophers would no doubt tell us that all of these technologies are redefining the meaning of distance and "space".  We like being in two places at once, and we find it very useful.  If we didn't we wouldn't buy mobile phones or subscribe to Facebook and Twitter.