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.


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 <> 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  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.
Security and safety training for staff and consultants deployed overseas has become an industry standard risk mitigation response by a range of major donors and NGOs over the past 10 years.  Risk management emerged as an increasing concern in the relief and development sector from the 1990s. Risks to aid workers in fragile states and conflict zones were partially hidden during the cold war period by restrictions upon travel to conflict areas, and a general culture within the sector of avoiding deployments to high crime areas and fragile and conflict affected states during periods of instability. 

Similarly the aid and academic sectors have been very aware of the requirement for proximity and ‘solidarity’ as a response to both systemic and rapid onset crisis, and thus unwilling to create the perception of distance between its individual and institutional partners overseas that traditional “protective” security provision could imply. This was particularly true of academics conducting field research, which is often dependent upon gaining unfettered and unskewed access to populations.

During the 1990s relief and development professionals and academics gained access to much more of an increasingly instable developing and transitional world.  While this often implied much greater exposure to risk, protection was believed to be indirectly afforded too many aid workers and academics through international humanitarian law – and aid institutions sought to affirm the principles of neutrality and impartiality to sustain access and protect their staff and consultants.  Nevertheless the parallel trend of humanitarian intervention – increasingly armed intervention - made possible by the end of cold war tensions, also put increasing pressure upon the validity of those assertions.  Aid agencies successfully called for armed intervention by Western States on the basis of upholding humanitarian law in Somalia and Kurdistan, and after the international communities’ perceived failure to act during the Rwandan genocide, this response become normalised in Bosnia, Sierra Leone, Liberia and Kosovo and later Iraq and Afghanistan.   By the late 1990s asymmetric responses to this type of intervention were creating greater risks (such as the kidnapping of British soldiers in Sierra Leone and the rise of Al Qaeda backed terrorism in East Africa), while in other countries such as Nigeria, Colombia and Uganda kidnapping of foreign – specifically western – workers was proving both a lucrative business and a means to put pressure upon western governments.

After September 11th 2001, the issue of risk management was placed centre stage.  A perception by western governments, led by the United States and United Kingdom, that their citizens were being actively targeted in many parts of the world placed much greater emphasis upon risk management and security and safety provision for Government staff and contracted consultants deployed overseas. From 2008, with increasing emphasis upon the ‘value for money’ of foreign aid, DFID and other western development partners have been looking to pass on this responsibility for “duty of care” to consultant organisations, NGOs and academic institutions that they fund, and as a result are requiring those institutions to develop their own internal insurance schemes, security and safety policies, management capacity and training and operational support programmes. Often compliance with donor security and safety norms is a key component of contractual agreements.

Nevertheless, there is a key requirement to ensure that while safe, deployed staff and consultants are able to function effectively, and most importantly gain access to the communities and institutions they work with in a benign and sensitive manner.  Moreover, those consultants and academics who have worked in many developing nations – including conflict affected areas – have instinctively developed the networks of informants who can – and almost certainly often do – keep them safe from both crime and political violence.

In founding Dragonfly we have tried to recognize these issues and constraints. We have developed and delivered security strategies that build upon the idea of consensual security – building trust and empathy with partners – but are backed up by thorough risk analysis, comprehensive contingency and evacuation planning and the judicious use of protective security. 

I worked for CARE in Rwanda during the genocide in 1994, and in the refugee camps in Zaire (as it was) and Tanzania.  I had the privilege of providing meagre succour to the last brave survivors on the top of Bisesero mountain.  Resistance to the madness, gore and pure absurdity of "racism" taken to logical ends has been fixed in my DNA ever since.

Looking back, 1994 marked a cusp in international understandings of humanitarian crisis.  Of course the lack of an international response is understandable: Western foreign policy was still in the cold war era, when you supported 'our" dictators to keep the Soviets out.  French policy in Rwanda was little different from that of the US in Zaire, and the British in Uganda.  The moment when geopolitics were replaced by humanitarian intervention as the modus operandi for international relations was undoubtedly April 6, 1994 - when it became no longer acceptable to support a dictator because he was on 'our side'. I rang up the Foreign Office on April 6 (we had an office in Kigali and were receiving alarming reports about killings) and was told "its a Belgian problem".  How times change.

Since 1994, what used to be called "the developing world" has grown immeasurably in strategic importance. Yet, interestingly, we are in a similar moment now.  Some argue that the humanitarian impulse was corrupted, and ultimately destroyed in Iraq and Afghanistan (by everyone - humanitarian agencies and western governments).  The recent less robust responses to real humanitarian crisis in Somalia and Syria perhaps demonstrate this. We have tended to conflate crisis of government with crisis of people. Iraq, Afghanistan  and the global financial crisis have also dampened the zeal of interventionists. There is perhaps more realism now - the hubris of nation-building is less apparent. But also the possibility that the international community will standby when genocide occurs becomes more likely.  Both Cold War thinking and the legacy of the doomed Somalia experiment of 1992 hindered action to prevent genocide in 1994.  Have we also consigned the victims of the Syrian crisis, and maybe the next genocide, to a half-hearted international response?