David Pratt’s Four Corners: Insight and analysis on Syria, Burkina Faso, Ukraine and Australia

For a long time now, international observers have warned that prisons like this were timebombs waiting to explode. The latest detonation came just over a week ago when on January 20, more than 100 fighters from the Islamic State group (IS) attacked and seized Ghwayran prison near Hasaka, in north-eastern Syria, in a well-planned assault. 

The overcrowded jail housed 3,500 suspected IS members including some of its leaders as well as about 850 children whom the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) alliance who battled to retake the prison said were used by IS as “human shields.”  

The whole issue of such prisons has been controversial for some time. Though most of the detainees are Syrian and Iraqi, thousands are foreigners, originating from around 60 countries. The controversy focusses on two issues. The first from the fact that many countries, particularly in Europe, are reluctant to bring their citizens home, fearing they will be hard to prosecute or monitor.  

The second, in the words of UN’s counterterrorism chief Vladimir Voronkov, is that many of those held, “have never been charged with a crime, yet remain in prolonged detention.”  

In particular, the battle over the prison highlights the plight of thousands of foreign children brought to IS’s so called caliphate in Syria by their parents and who have been detained for three years in camps and prisons in the region, abandoned by their own countries. Some of those at the embattled Ghwayran prison included boys as young as 12.  

While some were Syrians and Iraqis, there were also about 150 non-Arab foreigners who had been transferred to the jail after they were deemed too old to remain in detention camps that held families of suspected IS fighters.  

Many critics argue that such children are simply being punished for the sins of their fathers and mothers, given that many were too young at the time to have been involved in the activities and atrocities committed by IS.  

Ignoring their plight, the same critics maintain, only leaves them vulnerable to indoctrination when held alongside adult IS members potentially spawning a new generation of extremists to fill IS’s ranks.  

“Responsibility for anything that happens to these children also lies at the door of foreign governments who have thought that they can simply abandon their child nationals in Syria,” observed Sonia Khush, the Syria director for Save the Children. 

“Risk of death or injury is directly linked to these governments’ refusal to take them home,” Khush added, speaking to The New York Times a few days ago. 

But the plight of such children aside, last week’s assault on the detention facility in Hasaka by IS fighters, some using suicide vests and vehicle bombs, is also further evidence of what some Middle East watchers say is a resurgence of the group that is growing by the day.  

While IS has a history of conducting a campaign of what it calls “Breaking the Walls,” with a series of jailbreaks going back almost five years, the attack on Ghwayran prison marked the biggest IS operation since the group was toppled in 2019 after the SDF, working with the US-led coalition, cornered the jihadists in the village of Baghouz, in southeast Syria. 

According to Charlie Winter an Associate Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) and an expert on IS, the Ghwayran prison operation was “profoundly different” from other recent attacks.  

At the height of it power in 2014 and 2015, IS governed its self- styled caliphate which stretched over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Further abroad too it was linked to massive terror attacks, including a truck bomb killed almost 300 people in Baghdad in 2016, just months after gunmen and suicide bombers attacked the Bataclan and other locations in Paris.  Europe truck attacks occurred too in Berlin and Nice.  

There is no question that IS today is not the force it was back then, but evidence of its resurgence is also undeniable. With attacks like that at Ghwayran prison the signs are there of a capacity to mount multiple, coordinated, and sophisticated attacks that move beyond the limitations of mere sleeper cells. Make no mistake, it’s a worrying sign and potentially an ominous portent of things to come.  



Burkina Faso: Another coup that will only help jihadists 


Coups it seems are all the rage in West Africa right now. Even before the one in Burkina Faso last week, military officers across the region had grabbed power four times in the past 18 months, the highest number of coups in four decades. 

With neighbouring Mali and Guinea having previously gone the same way, even those regional nations whose governments are arguably more stable like Cote d’Ivoire or Ghana realise this is no time for complacency say security experts some of whom are already referring to the area as a “coup bloc.” 

While coups tend to be a result of their own local grievances and circumstances, frustration with what is perceived as self-serving governments and leaders has been a common denominator across West Africa of late.  

Speaking in a television address to the nation last week Captain Sidsore Kader Ouedraogo a leader of the Burkina Faso coup, said they had overthrown President Roch Marc Kabore to “get back on the right track…and to gather all forces to fight for our territorial interest, our recovery and our sovereignty.” 

On the face of it that might not seem an unreasonable explanation in a region where weak leadership, corruption, political nepotism, and constitutional manipulation has so often been the order of the day.  

But Burkina Faso’s coup could not have come at a more precarious time in a region which is bearing the brunt of one of the world’s fastest growing Islamist insurgencies. It also has set alarm bells ringing here in Europe and elsewhere given that many of the putschists have fallen out spectacularly with the West since coming to power.  

In short, this is seriously undermining one of the biggest anti-terrorism operations in the world involving Western forces, now that they have withdrawn from Afghanistan. 

The irony here is that many of these new military juntas in West Africa toppled their country’s governments ostensibly because they had failed to provide security from the jihadist threat. 

But now with these respective juntas likely having their work cut out consolidating power and perhaps even fighting off political rivals, the possibility of a power vacuum arises that Islamist extremists are only too ready to fill.  

With state institutions weak and having little reach beyond the cities in this vast region of the Sahel, jihadist groups have stepped into the breach providing services to isolated communities, while others use social media to portray government neglect and fuel discontent over the failure of foreign troops to tackle security lapses.   

Combine this with fraying alliances between the putschists and Western powers and the scene is set for other players also to enter this volatile arena – namely Russia.  

“Coup leaders tend to stick together – especially in the face of sanctions from their traditional allies,” said Aanu Adeoye, a Russia-Africa researcher at the Chatham House think tank in London.  

“If they don’t get help from the French, for example, there is a group of Russian mercenaries waiting,” Adeoye warned in a recent interview with The New York Times.  

In other words, an already bad security situation could be about to get much worse and only the jihadists stand to gain. 




Ukraine: Putin keeps the West guessing as cracks appear in US European alliance 


You’ve got to hand it to Russian President Vladimir Putin, he knows how to keep the West guessing. Whatever one’s take on this autocratic leader, there’s no escaping the fact that he is having a merry dance diplomatically speaking right now at the expense of the US and Europe. 

As an article in The Economist magazine these past few days wryly put it, “seldom in the field of human conflict did so much hang on the whims of one man.” 

If US President Joe Biden’s interpretation on Friday of ongoing events is anything to go by then there is a “distinct possibility” Russia might invade Ukraine next month. But then again even with the might of US intelligence assets at his disposal, its’s hard to see Biden as being nothing but out of step with Putin’s dance, instead tripping over himself as he did last week after suggesting that a “minor incursion” by Russia might split NATO over how to respond. 

If there is still room for diplomacy in the Ukraine crisis, then French president Emmanuel Macron appears to be the man who continues to push for dialogue. 

Germany too alongside France has been going its own way, though on Friday Berlin seemed to be hardening its position and coming round to agreeing with Washington that the Russia-favoured Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline will not come to life if Russia invades Ukraine.  

For the moment though all eyes are on Macron with even Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy saying that the French leader “is at the heart of efforts towards de-escalation.” 

To some extent there is nothing new here given that Macron ever since coming to office has tried to reset relations between France and Russia. But as French political scientist Dominique Moisi put it the other day, Macron is trying this reset, “based on a mix of being open and being firm.” 

For his part Macron insists that his negotiations with Putin wouldn’t disturb ongoing diplomatic efforts from the US and NATO. But you can’t help feeling that the Biden administration doesn’t entirely see it that way.  

In fact, it’s probably fair to say that some within Washington’s corridors of power appear to have been a little put out by France and Germany’s overtures during this crisis.  

It’s a prevailing mood that was caught in the headline of an editorial in the Wall Street Journal last week that read: “Is Germany a Reliable American Ally? Nein.” 

For the moment though all this transatlantic niggling suits Putin down to the ground as he continues to keep everyone guessing as to his next move. 




 Australia: Not everyone convinced by new protection measures for Great Barrier Reef 


On the face of it, one would think it good news. I’m talking about the Australian government’s recent announcement that it will spend A$1bn ($700m) on new protection measures for the Great Barrier Reef, seven months after the UN threatened to put the site on its “danger list” because of the damage caused by climate change and development. 

It was last year that Australia became embroiled in a tussle with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO,) which had planned to put the reef on its danger list to prompt action to protect the 2,300km living structure from climate change and development.  

Research has found that the reef’s ability to recover from damage caused by warming global temperatures has been severely compromised, triggering a crash in coral replenishment.   

Already under pressure over his handling of the country’s worst COVID-19 outbreak fuelled by the Omicron variant, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that the investment will help protect about 64,000 jobs in Queensland that depend on the reef. 

“We are backing the health of the reef and the economic future of tourism operators, hospitality providers, and Queensland communities that are at the heart of the reef economy,” he said in a statement. 

The additional funding to be used over the next nine years will add to an existing two billion Australian dollar ($1.4bn) package designed to shield the reef from environmental threats over the next three decades the governments says. 

So far so good you could be forgiven for thinking. But not everyone is convinced that the news is as good as it sounds, with environmental group Greenpeace saying it was “astounding” to see the government planning to allocate more funds while ignoring climate change. 

Some though were a little more colourful in their criticism with Terry Hughes, a professor at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, insisting the plan amounted to “utter bullshit,” and calling it merely a Band-Aid “to protect fossil fuels.”  

“Australia is a laggard on climate change – still encouraging more fossil fuels, and scientists know that we can’t ‘build a healthy resilient reef in the face of climate change’ without tackling rising emissions,” Hughes wrote on Twitter.  

The war of words between government and environmentalists it would seem is set to rumble on. It’s probably the last thing needed right now when speed is of the essence to save this wonder of the natural world. 

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