Land of blue gold

In a region fraught with mutual distrust, anxieties over water supply are raising tensions between I

Almost anything the Dalai Lama does can trigger protests from Beijing. But his November 2009 visit to the disputed territory of Tawang, in the remote north-east Indian state of Arun­a­chal Pradesh, was felt with particular resonance in China's capital. Relations between India and China have been bad-tempered for months, with nationalists on both sides urging their respective governments to act tough.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Tawang - which China sees as southern Tibet, and which was the birthplace of his eccentric but talented predecessor, the sixth Dalai Lama - reminds Beijing that this was once Tibetan territory. The current Dalai Lama first came through these parts in 1959, as a young refugee fleeing Chinese rule. He never returned to Lhasa. India's open-hearted hospitality to exiled Tibet­ans has annoyed Beijing ever since.

Arunachal Pradesh, nearly 33,000 square miles of lightly populated mountain and valley, is claimed by both India and China. Its people, largely Buddhist and ethnically Monpa, speak a language similar to Tibetan and have suffered long years of neglect by both states: a condition they no doubt prefer to being fought over. During the Indo-Chinese border war of 1962, Chinese troops occupied Tawang for more than a month. Now, China is reasserting its claim. India, in turn, is claiming more than 14,700 square miles of Chinese-controlled Aksai Chin, near the Kashmir border. Talks between the two countries have been held repeatedly over the past four years without resolution.

Today, the line of actual control is heavily patrolled by both nations: on the Indian side by troops housed in ramshackle, temporary huts, and on the Chinese by soldiers in concrete barracks marching along well-paved roads. The contrast has not escaped the notice of local people and is taken as a signal of intent.

The Dalai Lama's presence in Arunachal Pradesh and the warm welcome he received from his devout Monpa following are symbolic of the antagonism. But Beijing also issued a strong protest when the Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, visited Arunachal Pradesh last October during an election campaign.

Historically, China is Pakistan's ally and many in India believe that China maintains pressure along the 2,500-mile border that the two countries share to keep Indian forces tied down. There have been alarming reports in the Indian press of repeated incursions across the line of control by Chinese troops. The Indian government plays these incidents down, pointing out that the boundary is not only disputed but also ill-defined, and that these incursions need not be taken as provocation.

Behind the immediate stresses, there is jockeying for regional and international influence by two large, utterly developing economies, built on radically different political philosophies and lying in a region with both live and frozen conflicts. After 1962, relations were hostile for decades: China and Pakistan became ­allies, and India turned for support to China's enemy, the USSR.

The end of the cold war brought new conflicts based on ethnicity and religion, in a region with four nuclear powers. Recently, India has been alarmed by China's increasing presence in Sri Lanka and Nepal, historically Indian spheres of influence. Now, there is another factor to complicate relations - the impact of climate change on states divided by political boundaries but united in their dependence on the rapidly melting Himalayan glaciers for water, essential both for security and life itself.

Just a few miles across the line that divides Arunachal Pradesh from Tibet, the powerful torrent of what becomes the Brahmaputra River enters one of the most dramatic passages of its 2,000-mile journey to the Bay of Bengal. Rising on the slopes of the holy mountain of Kailash in western Tibet, it flows east, along the northern flank of the Himalayas, then enters one of the deepest gorges in the world, executing a hairpin bend before roaring south into Arunachal Pradesh.

To the engineers dominating the upper echelons of Chinese politics, who have the twin concerns of meeting China's ever-growing demand for energy and its need for water, the great bend of the Brahmaputra seems to offer an irresistible temptation.

Dammed if they do

Damming the great bend of the Brahmaputra is an idea with a long pedigree. It was first suggested as one of a series of global "megaprojects" by the Japanese in the 1970s. More recently, the Chinese government has made occasional reference to the plan. Though it remains a drawing-board idea, India suspects it is moving up the Chinese list of priorities.

Anxieties about China's intentions were inflamed in 2005 by the publication of the provocatively titled Tibet's Water Will Save China. Though it was not an official statement of policy, it was written by a former officer of the Chinese People's Liberation Army, Li Ling, and its wide circulation gave it sufficient stature in Indian eyes to merit careful scrutiny. Ling's enthusiasm for diverting Tibet's rivers, including the Brahmaputra, to northern China to alleviate the acute water crisis there fitted enough of the facts to set alarm bells ringing.

In many ways, it is an implausible project, but China's engineering record and its demonstrated love of ambitious dam projects are troubling to its neighbours, so much so, that many in India's security establishment have said that if China were to dam the Brahmaputra, it would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Doubts about the feasibility of the project, including those expressed by the more sober Indian civil engineers, have not dampened wider fears. For India, concern about China's ambitions for the Himalayan region rivals - and is linked to - its long-standing enmity with Pakistan. In the heated atmosphere of mutual suspicion, water has taken its place as a critical national security concern.

At a meeting between the Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Bangalore in October, India sought, and reportedly received, reassurances over the Brahmaputra. China, Indian officials were told, is a responsible country that would not harm the interests of its neighbours. But reports that remote sensing has detected the beginnings of construction on the river at Zangmu, Tibet, continue to circulate.

Both India and China suffer long-term anxieties over water, now rendered more acute by the rapid melting of the glaciers of the Himalayas (from which all of the great rivers of Asia derive to some degree). In a region fraught with mutual suspicion and reciprocal bad faith, there are no source-to-sink, trans-boundary water management agreements in place and, currently, little prospect of any being negotiated to manage the sharing of what threatens to be a rapidly diminishing supply.

The dispute works both ways. While India protests about Chinese infrastructure investments in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir, which include roads and a £7.8bn dam, India has its own plans to dam the Brahmaputra in Aruna­chal Pradesh, which China opposes. India has drawn up plans for 42 dams in Arunachal Pradesh, which have the potential to produce nearly 28,000 megawatts of hydropower, equivalent to the entire hydro capacity built by India in the past 60 years.

The dispute over the dams went international in June when China attempted to block an Asian Development Bank loan that included £37m for projects in Arunachal Pra­desh. The bank should not invest, China said, as the state was disputed territory. India responded by saying that it would finance the projects itself and stepped up its military presence in the region, deploying another 60,000 troops to the neighbouring state of Assam in addition to the 40,000 already stationed there. The shadow war games rapidly spread across the Himalayas, as China initiated military exercises. In September, India responded by stepping up the state of alert on the line of control in Kashmir.

The status of India's legal claim to Arunachal Pradesh is complicated and rests on the unresolved argument about the historic status of Tibet. It centres initially on an exchange of notes during the negotiation of the Simla Accord in 1914, under Henry McMahon, the then foreign secretary of British India. China, Tibet and Britain negotiated the accord, which resulted in the contentious McMahon Line that, for the British at least, defined the border between India and Tibet. The Tibetans conceded the territory that became Arunachal Pradesh to British India in return for a British promise, never honoured, to recognise Tibetan autonomy.

Chinese water torture

China rejected the Simla Accord and insists that Tibet did not have the status to sign any international agreement. If India were to rest its case on the accord, it would imply that Delhi recognised Tibet's authority to negotiate and conclude international agreements: a step that Beijing would take as severe provocation. The British, at the time, insisted on a distinction ­between China's acknowledged "suzerainty" over Tibet and full sovereignty, but the picture was further complicated last year when the Foreign Office abandoned the distinction, for current policy at least, as "anachronistic".

After Simla, neither side paid much attention to the disputed territory, and the Tawang monastery continued to pay taxes to Tibet until the 1950s. Shifting regional geopolitics have made this, and other Himalayan regions, the focus of potentially dangerous rivalries.

For the Tibetans in exile, these developments carry their own threat. Rising tension between their Indian hosts and Beijing is not good news. India has been a generous host to some 150,000 Tibetans who now live there, to the Dalai Lama and his government in exile, and to refugees who continue to arrive.

Yet there are voices in India which argue that, in the face of China's growing assertiveness, the cost to India of this spiritual and material solidarity is getting higher. It is not hard to find Indian analysts who believe that both India and China need a comprehensive agreement on the main points of contention between them - the border and the disputed territories, the fair management of declining water supplies, and the scientific and technical co-operation that such agreements would demand.

The question that many ask, but nobody has yet answered, is whether the price of a comprehensive agreement will be the special status and security that India's Tibetan exiles have enjoyed for more than half a century. Such a bargain would certainly please Beijing. For India, it is still a long way from official policy, but some argue it would be a price worth paying.


Isabel Hilton is editor of


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This article first appeared in the 18 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Palin Power

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood