A vision of the future

China's multimillion-dollar port scheme in Baluchistan gives it a foothold in the Middle East that i

It is easy to miss the significance of the new port at Gwadar, which had its ceremonial opening in March. Five years ago this was just a fishing village on the Arabian Sea, a remote place on the edge of the desert and mountains of the Baluchistan region that spans Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Camels and horse-drawn carts clogged the streets. Tribesmen wearing Baluch turbans and carrying AK-47s stood on the waterfront like epitaphs for the Great Game.

But five years is a long time in the politics of Asia, and the former outpost has changed almost beyond recognition. Today it lies, controversially, at the centre of General Pervez Musharraf's vision of the future for Pakistan. Built with Chinese money (how much is debatable, though it would be a safe bet to say at least $250m-plus in loans for the first phase), the multi billion-dollar scheme will inevitably aggravate the tense rivalry between nuclear-armed superpowers in this most volatile region of the world - if it has not already done so.

Musharraf flew in to Gwadar for the grand opening of the port on 20 March. "This is a major event in history," the khaki-clad president told a delegation from Beijing in a toast to the "all-weather" friendship between Pakistan and China. "The same Chinese friends will build a naval base here for us, and an energy hub for the Gulf and central Asian states," he added. China has also invested $200m in building a coastal highway that will connect the new port to Karachi.

In fact, the political weather looks choppy in Gwadar, just 250 miles from the Strait of Hormuz, through which nearly 40 per cent of world oil supplies flow. Several other countries in the region are not thrilled at the prospect of China gaining a foothold in the Middle East. They suspect Beijing will not only use the port to protect its oil supplies, but also want to flex its muscles in the Indian Ocean by spying on US military manoeuvres and threatening its enemies' trade routes.

As such, the new Chinese plans have rung alarm bells in India and Iran. The government in Delhi feels China is encroaching from three sides - Myanmar, Tibet and Pakistan. It is therefore helping the ayatollahs in Tehran to construct a port at Chabahar in Iranian Baluchistan, just over the border from Gwadar, in an effort to compete for the energy trade out of Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Here, Iran may have the upper hand, building on better relations with central Asian states such as Afghanistan, under President Hamid Karzai, who remains cool towards Pakistan because of that neighbour's support for the Taliban.

But the fiercest opponents to the Gwadar scheme are the local Baluchis. The billions of dollars going into the project have served only to fuel bitter discontent or, at any rate, a suspicion that the benefits of the project will bypass them on the way to state coffers in Islamabad. Baluchis hate their government, which they refer to as "Pakistan", as if it were a foreign country.

Neither history nor geography has done them any favours. Life is harsh in the arid plains and bare mountains, with very little water, sparse vegetation and extremes of temperature. When the Baluchi tribesmen have not been fighting each other, or the heat or the land, they have fought Arabs, Turks, Tartars, Persians, Hindus and the British. Gwadar even belonged to Oman for 200 years. It was given to the Sultan of Oman by the Khan of Kalat in the 18th century and was sold back to Pakistan for about £3m only in 1958. Yet the Baluchis have never been fully conquered or subdued - not by the armies of Genghis Khan, nor by Lord Curzon, nor Musharraf.

The latest insurgency began in 2003 and targets Baluchistan's natural resources almost daily. Last year, according to official figures, there were 187 bomb blasts, 275 rocket attacks, eight attacks on gas pipelines, 36 attacks on electricity cables and 19 explosions on railway tracks. Militants also killed three Chinese engineers working at Gwadar in a repeat of an attack that claimed the lives of three Beijing contractors in 2004.

Eight out of ten families in Baluchistan lack safe drinking water; nine out of ten have no gas. This last statistic makes the Baluchi insurgents especially angry, given that their region produces most of Pakistan's gas - about a billion cubic feet per day, or roughly 45 per cent of total production - from the country's main gas field at Sui.

"Hub!" hissed Senator Sana Ullah Baloch of the National Party. "The world totally ignores Baluchistan. We need electricity, water, hospitals, roads and schools. We deserve no less because we have the resources, the strategic areas and the sea. We are Pakistan. Musharraf wouldn't last a day without us."

The Baluchi uprising undoubtedly poses a threat to Gwa dar's future as a major international port and Musharraf acknowledged as much in his speech at the opening ceremony. The insurgents should "surrender their weapons and stop creating hurdles in the progress of Baluchistan", he warned, or they would be "wiped out".

Musharraf's spokesman, Major General Shaukat Sultan, has accused Pakistan's neighbours of abetting the Baluchi militants. Two years ago, he claimed that India's external foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, was "involved in terrorist activities in Baluchistan", just as Delhi has been protesting for decades about Pakistani-backed infiltration into Indian-run Kashmir. Several times the two nuclear-armed nations have gone to the brink of war, most recently in 2002. That occasion coincided with the go-ahead for a new port on the Arabian Sea. Soon afterwards the Pakistani police claimed to have arrested an Indian agent in Karachi for providing "strategic and sensitive information to India's spy agency, including maps of the Gwadar port".

I spoke to Pakistan's foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri, about the future of Baluchistan. Kasuri is an immense, gar rulous man, and an expert on the region's politics. He told me that a Gwadar-style project had been the brainchild of the Soviet Union, which sought a port in hot waters. To meet that target, it invaded Afghanistan, though it was later forced to withdraw. China, as an emerging superpower, faces the same problem. It doesn't have a port that can be used all year round. Shanghai is approximately 3,000 miles away from the west of China. Gwadar is less than 2,000 miles from China and, with its warm waters, the port can stay open the whole year.

I asked Kasuri if Pakistan's neighbours were right to question Chinese motives in building a port that could be used to keep an eye on Indian missile tests or US naval patrols out of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, but he dismissed talk of a hidden agenda. "As foreign minister, I'm supposed to know many things, but I'd be very surprised if there was nothing I didn't know," he said. "What I can tell you is that we now have a modern energy port where, five or six years ago, there was only sand and dust, and it will bring great benefits to Baluchistan, so I think the president's policy is bang right."

The Americans, on the other hand, are wary of a growing Chinese presence in the Gulf, so close to their own operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the moment, however, the White House seems to regard Gwadar not as a direct threat to US interests, but as an opportunity to restrict Iran. Others believe the project is a doomed venture on account of its proximity to the lawless tribal areas of northern Pakistan, where al-Qaeda is once again on the rise. Al-Qaeda's leaders have never forgiven Pakistan for co-operating in the "war on terror" after years of bankrolling the Taliban. In a nightmare scenario, the port at Gwadar would become an irresistible target, an unmissable opportunity for supporters of Osama bin Laden to wreak revenge. Sometimes it can be hard to forecast the weather in Baluchistan.

Hugh Barnes is a central Asia specialist. He is working on a translation of Hamid Ismailov's novel "Comrade Islam"

Pakistan by numbers

4 military dictators, including Pervez Musharraf, have ruled the country for 31 of its 60 years

3rd biggest recipient of US military aid after Israel and Egypt

64 years national average life expectancy

50% adult literacy rate

12m number of Pakistanis who have access to the internet

7th highest incidence of TB in the world

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover

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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