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No, Aleppo is not being “liberated” – despite what the Morning Star says

Eastern Aleppo being recaptured by the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad is not “liberation”. The left must not pretend it is.

Did you hear? Aleppo is being “liberated”. Al Jazeera reports that the Syrian army and allied militias are taking more and more neighbourhoods in eastern Aleppo, held by rebels for the past four years, back into government control. There are reports that government forces executed dozens of civilians “over alleged connections to opposition fighters”, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stating that at least 60 people had been killed on Monday.

These efforts at “liberation” have now extended to pro-government forces “entering homes in eastern Aleppo and killing those inside, including women and children”, according to the UN. Its human rights office says it has evidence at least 82 civilians have been shot on the spot, with a spokesman calling it “a complete meltdown of humanity in Aleppo”.

Freedom at last, eh?

If none of the above sounds like “liberation” to you, it apparently does to the Morning Star, whose front page proclaims that “[f]inal liberation of Aleppo is in sight”:

Meanwhile, the White Helmets, the Syria Civil Defence organisation recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, has co-signed a statement calling for the international community to provide safe passage for civilians currently trapped in Aleppo. The statement reads:

“For years, our humanitarian volunteers have worked to save the lives of our people in Aleppo: operating in underground hospitals, rescuing entire families buried under the rubble and risking our lives to document what the daily war crimes committed by Assad regime [sic] and its ally Russia. We can do no more.”

Now, the city of Aleppo stands to be handed back to that regime. What the Morning Star calls “liberation” actually means returning the people of that city to the charge of a man who has committed war crimes.

Bashar al-Assad's actions have been condemned over and over again by prominent and expert voices, both outside Syria and from within. In September, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for the Security Council “to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court”. In the same month, France opened an inquiry into the Assad regime to probe alleged crimes against humanity.

The so-called Caeser images (capturing detainees being tortured) showed what Desmond de Silva QC, a former chief prosecutor of the special court in Sierra Leone, called killing on an “industrial scale”. Smuggled out of Syria by a man employed to photograph the tortured bodies of Assad’s victims, the photographs suggested to Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch that, “we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria’s notorious dungeons”.

It remains popular among parts of the left to view global justice as a battle for and against US imperialism – a principle some are willing to doggedly adhere to even as images of tortured Syrian bodies reach our newspapers. But it is not only Western countries that are guilty of propping up dictatorships. If we are to commit ourselves to standing for oppressed peoples, we would do well to heed the voices coming from Aleppo today.

I'm a mole, innit.

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?