Stalingrad revisited

Matters of the moment

Whenever there is aggression, oppression, the imposition of single thought, intolerance and the trampling of the people’s fundamental and unalienable rights, brave and anonymous men and women imbued with a selfless determination have stood up to resolutely defend those rights and their freedom.

It is such a spirit which led tens of thousands of students and protestors to launch the ‘Occupy Central’ campaign at the end of September and occupy Central parts of Hong Kong to protest against the Chinese government’s decision to limit and vet who could stand as candidate for elections for the post of Hong Kong Chief Executive.

It is also the case of the Kurds, the men and women soldiers of the famed Peshmerga who are fearlessly fighting the Islamic State (IS) forces on the ground in Northern Syria. Twenty-two countries have joined the coalition called by the United States in September to fight IS. None has committed ground troops. Their war effort comprises participation in air strikes, military assistance or humanitarian aid. It is however noteworthy that the main Arab states of the region such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have joined the coalition and are actively participating or contributing to the coalition’s military actions against the IS. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan have all participated in the US led air strikes against the IS positions and assets.

Under pressure from the US and faced with the menace of war on its borders following the advance of IS forces near the Turkish border, Turkey which had been sitting on the fence has recently joined the coalition following a vote in the Turkish Parliament. Turkey had, owing to its own agenda of curbing Kurdish nationalism, hobbled the coalition’s intent of providing more sophisticated weaponry to the poorly armed Kurds to fight a common foe. To this end, Turkey has not allowed Turkish Kurds to assist their Kurdish brethren with arms and men and has closed its borders causing serious humanitarian hardships to refugees fleeing the advance of IS forces on the Syrian town of Kobane near the Turkish border and on other localities in Northern Syria.

It is more and more evident that the hundreds of air strikes costing hundreds of millions of US $ carried so far by the US, its Arab allies in Northern Syria as well as Britain, France and others in Iraq have been unable to stem the IS advance and its assault on the town of Kobane which has a Kurdish majority. The only bulwark against the fall of Kobane are the brave Kurd fighters who have pledged to emulate in Kobane the heroic stand of the Russian army against the German Wehrmacht (army) in World War II in Stalingrad. The heavy losses inflicted on the German army made Stalingrad (now Volgograd) the most strategically decisive battle of World War II, which turned the tide of the war. At the meeting of the military commanders of the 22 countries forming the anti-IS coalition this week at the St Andrews Air Force base near Washington, President Obama predicted a ‘long term campaign’ marked by ‘periods of progress and setbacks’.

It should be recalled that in August, the valiant Kurds rushed to the rescue of Iraqi troops and caused the IS forces to retreat from the Kurdish town of Erbil and abandon the strategic Mosul Dam in Northern Iraq. Owing to a complex maze of conflicting geopolitical interests of the regional countries in the coalition as well the US’ own geopolitical interests in the region, the support of the coalition to the Kurds, the only ground forces facing IS in Northern Syria, have been sporadic and not as robust and determined as it should have been in terms of providing them with latest weaponry to enable them to effectively counter IS’ progress.

In the absence of any commitment of soldiers and boots on the ground by any of the members of the coalition in particular the Arab kingdoms of the region who have the most to lose were IS to spread to their territories, the Kurds who are fighting for their homeland are being forced to fight a proxy war on behalf of the coalition. The Kurds are repeatedly clamouring, but to little avail so far, for modern arms to replace their old ones so as to give them a fighting chance to defend their homeland in Syria. The reticence to adequately arm the Kurds seems such an inept strategy to attain the coalition’s avowed objective of ‘degrading and destroying IS’ considered to be a major threat to peace, stability and the age old social harmony in the region. Are the Kurds being, as before, sacrificed on the altar of political expediency?

Kurds who constitute a separate ethnic group number some 30 million people. They mostly live in a region known as Kurdistan which encompasses contiguous parts of Iran, Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The Kurds fight for autonomy started in the aftermath of World War I with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and the creation of Middle Eastern protectorates under British or French mandates with scant regard to ethnic or tribal homogeneity leading to various communities and tribes being split across various countries. Today, most Kurds live in the autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan which includes the oil rich Kirkuk region whereas significant Kurdish minority groups, who continue to fight for more autonomy, live in neighbouring Turkey, Syria and Iran.

The present tenuous Kurdish situation is tantamount to hanging the Kurds out to dry. All military strategists recognize that in the absence of ground troops from the coalition, the Kurds and their proverbial fighting spirit represent a valuable military asset capable, if they are adequately armed to reverse, as they did in Iraq, the outcome of the war against IS. Yet, this is not happening because of the Turkish and other regional agendas to keep the Kurds weak in order to thwart their legitimate claims for more autonomy.

In spite of past costly failures, it seems that decisive decisions in respect of robust support to the Peshmerga in order to swiftly attain the objectives of the coalition to defeat IS are being stalled in order to accommodate the ulterior motives and hidden agendas of the members of the coalition. How can such a convoluted approach help in promptly attaining the core objective of the coalition when no country can afford a prolonged conflict? The continued advance of IS forces has shown that however surgical they may be, air strikes have delayed but not dented IS. In the latest development, the determined Peshmerga have in the wake of the latest US led air strikes made advances on some fronts and hung on to their territory against IS.

Air strikes also increase the flow of civilian refugees and the risk of civilian collateral damage among those who stay behind. By the end of last week, about 170,000 Syrian Kurds had fled across the border from the Kobane area into Turkey. Others have abandoned their makeshift camps near the Turkish border and have found refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. Some 1.4 million refugees from the conflicts in Syria and Iraq have found a safe haven in Kurdistan. Organisations catering after refugees are overwhelmed. The greatest hardships are suffered by women and children very often denied of their basic needs and rights including their right to education. Figures just released by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees show that there were for the first time since World War 11 a shocking 51.2 million refugees displaced worldwide owing to conflict and persecution in 2013, up some 6 million from 2012.

The Gaza reconstruction conference (to reconstruct Gaza pursuant to the damage caused by the recent 50-day Israelo-Hamas conflict) raised $ 5.4 billion to finance the Gaza reconstruction. How much would the reconstruction of Syria and Iraq cost post the present protracted conflicts in these countries? Apart from global environmental depredation, when is the human folly and cycle of destructive armed conflict and reconstruction ever going to end? No wonder the Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, an icon of peace has for the third time in 5 years been denied an entry visa by South Africa to attend the 14th world summit of Nobel Peace laureates (which was consequently cancelled by the Nobel organisers) owing to the diktats of questionable realpolitik.

* * *

The Ebola threat

The present Ebola outbreak has spread from Guinea to Sierra Leone and Liberia in West Africa. It has also resulted in cases in Nigeria and Senegal. What makes Ebola so dangerous is that according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) finding, the present outbreak in West Africa kills 7 out of 10 victims representing a 70% mortality rate. Those infected die within a short time owing to multiple organ dysfunction and internal haemorrhage. In spite of dedicated research being carried out in research centres in the US and Europe, there is as yet no vaccine against the Ebola virus disease (EVD).

More than 4,400 persons have died so far in the present outbreak. This is the highest death toll since the Ebola disease was first identified in 1976 in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The previous epidemics had been more contained as a total of 1,716 have died in the 1976 to 2013 period. This is therefore the largest Ebola epidemic as nearly 10,000 cases have so far been reported and new cases are being detected every week. The risks of spreading contamination are real. There is naturally a profound fear factor associated with Ebola.

The ease of travel increases the risk of the infection spreading. In spite of border health verifications, the movement of people from the affected countries has caused cases of Ebola to be detected in Texas in the US and in Spain. Nursing associations are up in arms demanding cogent actions for appropriate training, protective gear and safety protocols to be adopted whilst tending to Ebola victims following three cases of nurses who caught the disease whilst caring for Ebola victims in Spain and the US respectively. Through lapses in the rigorous application of safety protocols one of the nurses having cared for the Texas Ebola victim was allowed to travel in the US on a commercial flight before being diagnosed with the disease.

The virus may be acquired through contact with blood or body fluids of an infected human or animal. Although there is no documented evidence that it is airborne, the highly respected Research Centre for infectious disease of the University of Minnesota has advised WHO that there is ‘scientific and epidemiologic evidence that the Ebola virus has the potential to be transmitted via infectious aerosol particles’ including exhaled breath. They are therefore strongly recommending that health care nurses and medical staff be outfitted with full hooded protective gear equipped with air-purifying respirators. The Centre has earlier this year published a scientific note warning that ‘Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS) could be an aerosol-transmissible disease especially in health care settings.

The unstinted commitment of all the medical staff and health care specialists including the humanitarian-aid NGOs such as Medecins Sans Frontières who are tending to the near 10,000 Ebola victims in West Africa in conditions which are not perfect at the risk of their lives must be unreservedly lauded. Journalists and media crew members covering and reporting on the Ebola epidemic in West Africa are also exposing themselves to the risk of infection. Already a UN medical worker from Germany and two Spanish missionaries stricken by Ebola in West Africa died after they were brought to their home countries for treatment.

In view of the high risks of infection, the most rigorous safety protocols must be adopted by all involved in identifying, containing and eliminating the disease. Although there are no vaccine against the Ebola virus, a decades-old treatment using blood transfusions from a patient who has recovered from Ebola and developed certain antibodies seem to have been successful in curing in July Dr Kent Brantly who was infected by Ebola in Liberia. He also received an experimental serum Z-Mapp. Dr Brantly’s blood transfusions have now been used on the nurse who was infected whilst treating the victim of Ebola in Texas as well as an American cameraman infected in Liberia who seems to be recovering.

The International community has mobilised under the aegis of the UN to provide financial aid, medical and healthcare experts, treatment units, Ebola detection kits and medical supplies and protective gear, etc., to contain and eliminate the epidemic at the earliest. The UN led international effort is not on top of the battle against Ebola as yet and the battle is far from being won. In the globalized world, the Ebola risk has added jitters to the present instability and correction in the world stock markets values in the wake of the lower world growth outlook.

In view of the threat posed, more must be done by the international community through a more rigorously orchestrated battle plan manned by trained medical and health care specialists articulated around a well devised internationally coordinated strategy. Time is of the essence.

Battles whether for rights and freedom or safer health concern all of us as they are core to our ethos as world citizens.


* Published in print edition on 17 Ocotober 2014

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