"The Syrian people are bleeding": leaders condemn massacre

International leaders condemn the massacre in al-Qubair - but does the rhetoric mean anything?

It is beyond doubt that a massacre took place in the Syrian village of al-Qubair. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 55 people had died, while the opposition, the Syrian National Council, said there had been 78 deaths. Many of them came from just one extended family.

The village was surrounded by Syrian forces. Villagers were then slaughtered, apparently by the shabiha (civilian militia), with what witnesses described as violence that “no-one can bear”. UN observers trying to access the area yesterday came under fire from Syrian forces. Incredibly graphic images of charred corpses and bloodshed have been distributed on the internet.

The level of violence – and the short time gap between this and the Houla massacre – has prompted international leaders to condemn the massacre in their strongest language yet. It’s worth quoting at length from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement yesterday. He said that President Assad and his government “have lost all legitimacy” and “has lost its fundamental humanity". He described the scene:

The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some were allegedly burned or slashed with knives.

. . .

The danger of a full-scale war is imminent and real. Reports of yet another massacre in Qubair underscore the horrifying reality on the ground. How many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged? The Syrian people are bleeding.

Soon after this address, Kofi Annan admitted that his peace plan for the country – at present, the only plan the international community has got – was floundering.

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, reiterated this sentiment:

The Annan plan won't last indefinitely. Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep, sectarian violence, village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas, and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than Libya last year.

The Annan plan has clearly failed so far, but it is not dead, all hope is not lost.

Strong language from all sides, yes – but what does this mean in practice? Certainly, continued atrocities will make it more and more difficult for the international community to do nothing.

Perhaps the most telling point in Hague’s comments is his emphasis that Syria is not the same as Libya. The implication is that what was appropriate in Libya – military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone – is not appropriate for Syria. As the increasingly bitter and bloody conflict divides along sectarian lines, it is difficult to see how military intervention from the west – either in the form of boots on the ground, or by arming the rebels – would result in anything other than civil war.

For now, despite the hardening of rhetoric from international leaders, negotiated settlement will continue to be the aim. Yet nothing much has changed here: Russia, Syria’s closest ally, remains the sticking point. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said that America is prepared to work with Russia on a plan similar to that implemented in Yemen, where the leader was ousted but elements of his regime remained intact. There is no clear sign that this will succeed where other overtures to Russian support for the plan have failed. Meanwhile, Annan has suggested that countries failing to support his peace plan should face sanctions – a stick, rather than carrot, approach.

As diplomats scramble to find a solution to an intractable situation, there is remains no clear answer to the questions posed in Ban’s speech: “how many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged?”
 

International leaders have condemend the massacre in al-Qubair. This picture shows Syrian rebels near Homs, May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry insiders imply that job creation in the UK could rival that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that fracking is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we are only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.