Saturday, 3 December 2016

The Gall To Criticise

Patrick Cockburn writes: 

The Iraqi army, backed by US-led airstrikes, is trying to capture east Mosul at the same time as the Syrian army and its Shia paramilitary allies are fighting their way into east Aleppo

An estimated 300 civilians have been killed in Aleppo by government artillery and bombing in the last fortnight, and in Mosul there are reportedly some 600 civilian dead over a month. 

Despite these similarities, the reporting by the international media of these two sieges is radically different. 

In Mosul, civilian loss of life is blamed on Isis, with its indiscriminate use of mortars and suicide bombers, while the Iraqi army and their air support are largely given a free pass. 

Isis is accused of preventing civilians from leaving the city so they can be used as human shields. 

Contrast this with Western media descriptions of the inhuman savagery of President Assad’s forces indiscriminately slaughtering civilians regardless of whether they stay or try to flee. 

The UN chief of humanitarian affairs, Stephen O’Brien, suggested this week that the rebels in east Aleppo were stopping civilians departing – but unlike Mosul, the issue gets little coverage. 

One factor making the sieges of east Aleppo and east Mosul so similar, and different, from past sieges in the Middle East, such as the Israeli siege of Beirut in 1982 or of Gaza in 2014, is that there are no independent foreign journalists present. 

They are not there for the very good reason that Isis imprisons and beheads foreigners while Jabhat al-Nusra, until recently the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, is only a shade less bloodthirsty and generally holds them for ransom.  

These are the two groups that dominate the armed opposition in Syria as a whole. 

In Aleppo, though only about 20 per cent of the 10,000 fighters are Nusra, it is they – along with their allies in Ahrar al-Sham – who are leading the resistance. 

Unsurprisingly, foreign journalists covering developments in east Aleppo and rebel-held areas of Syria overwhelmingly do so from Lebanon or Turkey. 

A number of intrepid correspondents who tried to do eyewitness reporting from rebel-held areas swiftly found themselves tipped into the boots of cars or otherwise incarcerated.

Experience shows that foreign reporters are quite right not to trust their lives even to the most moderate of the armed opposition inside Syria.

But, strangely enough, the same media organisations continue to put their trust in the veracity of information coming out of areas under the control of these same potential kidnappers and hostage takers. 

They would probably defend themselves by saying they rely on non-partisan activists, but all the evidence is that these can only operate in east Aleppo under license from the al-Qaeda-type groups. 

It is inevitable that an opposition movement fighting for its life in wartime will only produce, or allow to be produced by others, information that is essentially propaganda for its own side. 

The fault lies not with them but a media that allows itself to be spoon-fed with dubious or one-sided stories. 

For instance, the film coming out of east Aleppo in recent weeks focuses almost exclusively on heartrending scenes of human tragedy such as the death or maiming of civilians. 

One seldom sees shots of the 10,000 fighters, whether they are wounded or alive and well. 

None of this is new.

The present wars in the Middle East started with the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 which was justified by the supposed threat from Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

Western journalists largely went along with this thesis, happily citing evidence from the Iraqi opposition who predictably confirmed the existence of WMD.

Some of those who produced these stories later had the gall to criticise the Iraqi opposition for misleading them, as if they had any right to expect unbiased information from people who had dedicated their lives to overthrowing Saddam Hussein or, in this particular case, getting the Americans to do so for them.

Much the same self-serving media credulity was evident in Libya during the 2011 Nato-backed uprising against Muammar Gaddafi. 

Atrocity stories emanating from the Libyan opposition, many of which were subsequently proved to be baseless by human rights organisations, were rapidly promoted to lead the news, however partial the source. 

The Syrian war is especially difficult to report because Isis and various al-Qaeda clones made it too dangerous to report from within opposition-held areas.

There is a tremendous hunger for news from just such places, so the temptation is for the media give credence to information they get second hand from people who could in practice only operate if they belong to or are in sympathy with the dominant jihadi opposition groups. 

It is always a weakness of journalists that they pretend to excavate the truth when in fact they are the conduit rather than the originator of information produced by others in their own interests. 

Reporters learn early that people tell them things because they are promoting some cause which might be their own career or related to bureaucratic infighting or, just possibly, hatred of lies and injustice. 

A word here in defence of the humble reporter in the field: usually, it is not he or she, but the home office or media herd instinct, that decides the story of the day. 

Those closest to the action may be dubious about some juicy tale which is heading the news, but there is not much they can do about it. 

Thus, in 2002 and 2003, several New York Times journalists wrote stories casting doubt on WMD only to find them buried deep inside the newspaper which was led by articles proving that Saddam had WMD and was a threat to the world. 

Journalists and public alike should regard all information about Syria and Iraq with reasoned scepticism. 

They should keep in mind the words of Lakhdar Brahimi, the former UN and Arab League Special Envoy to Syria.

Speaking after he had resigned in frustration in 2014, he said that “everybody had their agenda and the interests of the Syrian people came second, third or not at all”. 

The quote comes from The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East by Christopher Phillips, which is one of the best informed and non-partisan accounts of the Syrian tragedy yet published. 

He judiciously weighs the evidence for rival explanations for what happened and why. 

He understands the degree to which the agenda and pace events in Syria were determined externally by the intervention of foreign powers pursuing their own interests. 

Overall, government experts did better than journalists, who bought into simple-minded explanations of developments, convinced that Assad was always on the verge of being overthrown. 

Phillips records that at a high point of the popular uprising in July 2011, when the media was assuming that Assad was finished, that the long-serving British ambassador in Damascus, Simon Collis, wrote that “Assad can still probably count on the support of 30-40 per cent of the population.”

The French ambassador Eric Chevallier was similarly cautious, only to receive a classic rebuke from his masters in Paris who said:

“Your information does not interest us. Bashar al-Assad must fall and will fall.”

Friday, 2 December 2016

Diverging Tracks

The choice is now clear. 

The renationalisation of the railways, which even its very recent opponents within the Labour Party now pretend always to have supported.

Or this.

The Southern Bells Are Ringing

Does anyone seriously believe that a Corbyn-supporting candidate at Richmond Park would have taken fewer votes than there were members of the Constituency Labour Party?

For example, might no Barnaby Marder, who got Labour to contest the seat at all, have done better than that?

Ho, hum. Believe in Labour losses either to the Lib Dems or to UKIP when such a thing actually happens.

And look at all those Remain-voting constituencies across the South that are currently blue on the electoral map.

Theresa May's number one electoral priority is now to stop them from turning yellow.

Not purple. Not red, come to that. Yellow.

The Yellowing Map of The South

With one seat, UKIP was laughed out of the South, of which it did at least have some small understanding.

So now it is trying its luck in the North, of which it is so completely ignorant that it thinks that the inhabitants would elect Paul Nuttall, something that they have already repeatedly declined to do.

The biggest electoral battle in this country is now between the Tories and the Lib Dems for dozens of Remain seats in the Remain heartlands of the South of England.

The Tories, under strongly Remain Leaders both at Westminster and at Holyrood, are also eyeing several seats in the Remain heartlands of Scotland.

Meanwhile, the only challenge to Labour in the North of England is at May's elections to Durham County Council.

That was the first authority that Labour ever won, and it has never been lost in more than 100 years. It is now the unitary authority for half a million people.

Far from being UKIP, that challenge, although it will benefit Lib Dems and rightish Independents in certain wards as a tactical device, has been organised from within the trade union Left.

It has been organised in close co-operation with key figures in Jeremy Corbyn's entourage, with the endorsement of George Galloway in the pages of the Northern Echo, and with the assistance of the Durham Miners' Association, which can still play the role here that technically deposed local monarchs can play in certain parts of Africa.

Beaten Out of The Park

Yes, most Labour MPs sit for areas that voted Leave.

But Labour Party policy is to accept the referendum result.

Indeed, Labour has a more coherent vision for Brexit than the Conservatives have, a vision that has been worked out over 40 years by Jeremy Corbyn and by the people who surround him.

In any case, the kind of Leave voters who are primarily Leave voters, before any other political consideration, already vote UKIP.

That party that is now led by exactly the sort of person against whom traditional Labour voters have been voting since time immemorial.

Last year, Paul Nuttall was defeated at Bootle by 28,704 votes. That is a lot. An awful lot.

Labour voters are not going to make the leap to voting to privatise the NHS.

By contrast, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are so similar that they were cheerfully in Coalition 18 months ago.

They had intended to remain so, had everything gone according to plan.

The only difference is on this issue.

And around 80 Conservative MPs sit for areas that voted Remain.

Project the swing at Richmond Park across each of those constituencies. Someone in Theresa May's office will already have done that.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

May To September

The next school year will start after the local elections in May. The only way to protect the Teaching Assistants is to take Durham County Council to No Overall Control.

Very large numbers of Labour Councillors have absented themselves from the votes on this issue. But enough of them have attended to ensure that the Teaching Assistants have been betrayed.

The Councillors, all of them Labour, who have thus voted ought all to lose their seats to whoever was best placed to remove them, very preferably activists in the Teaching Assistants’ remarkable campaign.

The Liberal Democrats and the Independents have been, and remain, stalwart supporters of the Teaching Assistants. Therefore, they deserve to be re-elected.

That leaves only the Labour absentees, plus a mere four Conservatives who all sit for two adjacent wards.

Whoever the new Leader and Deputy Leader of Durham County Council were to be, they must not be members of the Labour Party.

The Teaching Assistants’ flag, which is now ubiquitous in County Durham, must remain so and it must fly from County Hall every day for the following four years, at least.

A Minister for the North?

Better yet, a whole Government that cared tuppence about us.

Although it should be emphasised that most of the Shadow Cabinet does sit for Wales, the North or the Midlands, with 15 of the 33 members representing the North of England, by far the single largest bloc.

Not that sitting for, say, Islington North entails ignoring us.

Any more than sitting for Sedgefield entailed ever doing a damn thing for us.

As for Paul Nuttall, find the whitest and most working-class ward in Bootle, and put him up at the next local election there.

Go on. See how many votes he would get.

You've Been Had

Yet another Goldman Sachs partner as Secretary of the Treasury, all foreign and defence positions to be filled by the usual suspects, and no investigation of Hillary Clinton.

Thank you, Donald Trump.

Continued payment of the EU membership fee. Access to the Single Market is not tariff-free if we are paying a "subscription". The technical term for such a subscription is a "tariff".

And as of the last hour or so, apparently continuation of the present rights of EU citizens to enter this country and to work here.

Thank you, David Davis.

It should have been Bernie Sanders. But it isn't.

It should be Jeremy Corbyn. And it can be.

The Starvation of Yemen Continues

Daniel Larison writes:

The terrible conditions created by the war on Yemen continue to worsen:

Every day children are perishing in rural Yemen, where two-thirds of the nation’s population lives. 

Parents are forced to decide between saving their sick children and preventing healthier ones from following the same perilous route.

Cemeteries in this desperately poor and rugged stretch of villages in the northwest contain the bodies of children who have recently died of hunger and preventable diseases.

Most are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths unreported to authorities.

The U.S.-backed, Saudi-led war on Yemen continues to be largely ignored.

One reason for this is that the near-famine conditions that exist throughout much of the country and the deaths that result from them are invisible in official accounts of how many have been killed by the war.

Many of the war’s victims are killed by hunger or preventable disease, and yet the warring parties have caused their deaths all the same.

The humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen is every bit as terrible as any in the world, and it is probably the worst of all in some respects, but because the victims are largely cut off from the outside world their plight remains mostly unknown.

Even when it is made known, it tends to be greeted by indifference because the people suffering are perceived to be on the “wrong” side or because it is an embarrassment to the U.S., Britain, and their client governments.

The starvation of Yemen’s civilian population is one of the greatest man-made disasters of this century, and it has been brought about in large part by U.S.-backed clients as they pursue a senseless and atrocious war against one of the world’s poorest countries.

When the starvation of Yemen occasionally receives some decent coverage, there is barely any mention of the responsibility of the Saudi-led coalition and its Western patrons for helping to create these horrible conditions.

The coalition and its Western backers, including the U.S., are not the only ones responsible, but they bear the largest responsibility because they are the ones that have been blockading the country and devastating its infrastructure and ports with bombs, and they were the ones that escalated and prolonged the war for all this time.

Except for a brief surge of attention a few months ago, the war and the U.S. role in enabling it have received very little scrutiny or criticism.

The U.S. continues to sustain the Saudi-led war with weapons and fuel despite ample evidence of repeated and sometimes deliberate coalition targeting of civilian sites, and our government could withdraw that support at any time if it wished to do so.

Our government does not wish this, but has chosen to continue its indefensible policy of support.

Obama has helped to cause a humanitarian crisis that threatens the lives of tens of millions of people, and he has created countless new enemies for the United States for the sake of “reassuring” a group of despots.

As we begin to consider his “legacy,” support for the war on Yemen should be ranked as one of his worst and most inexcusable errors.

Curiosity Shouldn’t Come At A Price

Tom Watson writes: 

I don’t often celebrate anniversaries but there is one date that makes me feel particularly proud about the achievements of the last Labour government. 

Fifteen years ago today, National Museums around the country opened their doors and welcomed visitors in free of charge.

On that day, people in London, Manchester, York and many more places could visit the Victoria and Albert, the Museum of Science and Industry and the National Railway Museum without paying a penny.

It was one of Labour’s boldest initiatives and one of its most enduring legacies.

The effect of the policy was transformative.

In the fifteen years since that December day, visitor numbers at the museums that once charged for entry have rocketed by over 200% –  from 7 million in 2001 to nearly 22 million in 2016. 

Some of the museums – like the Royal Armouries in London, Leeds and Hampshire – have seen visitor numbers rise by over 700%, and Liverpool’s National Museums have seen a rise of over 300%. 

The aim behind the policy was simple; to give people as much access as they wanted to the extraordinary artefacts and exhibits these museums hold. 

Because curiosity shouldn’t come at a price. 

As the then Culture Secretary Chris Smith wrote last year, museums “are the places where, as a society, a community, a nation, we store our history, our memories, our knowledge, our science, the things of beauty we have created, the special objects we want to hand down from generation to generation.” 

Almost a generation later, teenagers who visited museums on school trips in 2001 might now be taking their own children to see the same things they saw when they were young. 

The people who are going to museums come from diverse backgrounds, with a greater number of people from Britain’s black, Asian and minority ethnic communities visiting than ever before. 

The same is true of young people and people from poorer backgrounds. 

But we need to do more. 

Arts and culture must be for the many not the few. 

Too often creative success seems class bound, with jobs in the arts and cultural institutions overwhelmingly going to the most advantaged social groups and too many opportunities based in London and a few other big cities. 

The situation is getting worse not better because of a double whammy of cuts to the arts by the Tory government and the loss of funds because of Brexit on the other. 

The UK could lose access to many millions of pounds of funding once we leave the EU because we are unlikely to be able to apply for the arts grants its makes available to members. 

That’s why I’ve teamed up with Labour Councils from all over the country to form a Communities for Culture taskforce. 

It will share and develop innovative ideas and policies that we hope will make it possible for more people to access arts and culture, despite the cuts. 

The free museums policy has be in place for 15 years – and the truth is the Tories daren’t touch it. 

That’s an enduring legacy Labour should be proud of. 

These museums belong to us. They celebrate and showcase our nation’s history, heritage and ideas. 

And it’s Labour that’s thinking creatively about how we open it up to everyone, no matter who or where they are. 

There should be no class ceiling on the arts.

For No Good Reason

Benefit claimants in the North East are three times as likely to have their money cut than those in many other parts of the country. 

And the variation suggests so-called sanctions are being imposed in an “inconsistent” way, according to an official watchdog. 

The findings, from the National Audit Office (NAO), come after North East MPs warned that officials have been encouraged to strip claimants of benefits for no good reason. 

A tough sanctions regime is supposed to ensure unemployed people are looking for work and taking up offers of training, but MPs say claimants have been treated unfairly and left without money because of mistakes by the people who are supposed to help them. 

The National Audit Office discovered wide variations in how often private businesses employed by the Government to run the Work Programme, which is meant to help people get jobs, tell the Department of Work and Pensions that sanctions should be imposed. 

This is known as “referring” a claimant. In the North East there are two businesses running the Work Programme. 

One of them sent two referrals for every claimant over a five year period, and the other sent 2.5 referrals. 

But in parts of the south west of England, the figure is 0.7 referrals, while in parts of London the figure was 0.9 referrals. 

It means some North East benefit claimants were more than three times as likely to have sanctions imposed as those in the south west. 

The National Audit Office also warned that in some cases, referral rates could be significantly different in the same part of the country when two different businesses were involved in running the Work Programme and apparently took different approaches.

It said: 

“While local discretion and individual circumstances will always lead to some variation in sanction use, the Department has a responsibility to ensure that people in similar circumstances are treated consistently and fairly. 

“The Department needs to monitor and understand the reasons for variations in sanction use.” 

And it said: “Variation is poorly understood and may suggest inconsistent use of conditions and sanctions.” 

The National Audit Office report also found that the sanctions regime actually costs more than it saves.

It costs between £30 and £50 million a year to apply sanctions, and around £200 million monitoring the conditions it sets for claimants, a total of at least £230 million.

But the Department for Work and Pensions withheld £132 million from claimants due to sanctions in 2015, and paid them £35 million in hardship payments, a total of £167 million.

A quarter of Jobseeker’s Allowance claimants receive them at some point, which means their benefits are cut or stopped entirely.

The Government imposed 400,000 sanctions in 2015. 

Amyas Morse, head of the National Audit Office, said:

“Sanctions on benefits have a high opportunity cost, not only for those who are dependent on those benefits if sanctions are applied, but for the efficient use of public resources.

“We acknowledge the department’s effort to reduce its error rate on sanctions, but we think there is more to do in terms of reducing them further, and in reducing the notable differences in sanctions applications between comparable localities.” 

In a Commons debate last year, North East MPs highlighted a series of wrong decisions in the region including veterans injured in Afghanistan or Iraq stripped of benefits after they were told they were fit to work; a Newcastle man stripped of benefits because he was accused of failing to seek work in the days after his father died, and a man in Bishop Auckland constituency who was a collecting a sick daughter from school and was accused of inventing a “fictional child”.

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck said her constituents had been “humiliated” by job centre staff, saying: 

“Constituents of mine have been refused a private room to discuss intimate personal or medical issues ... the general attitude of staff is confrontational and sometimes just downright rude.”

Blame The Apostles of Identity Liberalism

Simon Jenkins writes:

I have no tribe. I have no comfort blanket, no default button that enables me to join the prevailing hysteria and cry in unison, “Of course, it’s all the fault of X.” 

Meanwhile we everywhere see the familiar landscape clouding over. There are new partings of the ways, disoriented soldiers wandering the battlefield, licking wounds. 

The liberal centre cannot hold. It cries with Yeats, “What rough beast, its hour come round at last, / Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” 

I confess I find all this somehow exhilarating. Clichés of left and right have lost all meaning, and institutions their certainty. 

Even in France and Italy, European union is falling from grace. A rightwing US president wins an election by appealing to the left. 

In Britain, Ukip can plausibly claim to be supplanting Labour[No, it cannot. If that, another time.] A Tory prime minister attacks capitalism, while Labour supports Trident. 

Small wonder Castro gave up and died. 

Conventional wisdom holds that it is the “centre left” that has lost the plot. 

The howls that greeted Brexit, Donald Trump and Europe’s new right are those of liberals tossed from the moral high ground they thought they owned. 

Worse, their evictors were not the familiar bogeys of wealth and privilege, but an oppressed underclass that had the effrontery to refer to a “liberal establishment elite”.

Paul Krugman, field-marshal of an American left, stood last week on his battered tank, the New York Times, and wailed of Trump’s voters: 

“I don’t fully understand this resentment.” 

Why don’t the poor blame the conservatives? 

He had to assume the answer lay in the new Great Explanation, the politics of “identity liberalism”

He is right.

It is 20 years since the philosopher Richard Rorty predicted that a Trump-like “strong man” would emerge to express how “badly educated Americans feel about having their manners dictated to them by college graduates”. 

Likewise, the historian Arthur Schlesinger warned that a rising campus intolerance, of “offence crimes” and “political correctness”, would endanger America’s national glue, its collective liberal consciousness. 

The latest guru on the “what Trump means” circuit is the US political psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

Conversing with Nick Clegg at an Intelligence Squared event in London last week, he was asked over and again the Krugman question: “Why did poor people vote rightwing?” 

The answer was simple. There is no longer a “right wing”, or a left. 

There are nations and there are tribes within nations, both growing ever more assertive. 

To Haidt, Trump’s appeal is to groups alienated by competing groups. 

Identity liberalism elevated the “sacred victim”, uncriticisable ethnic minorities, women, gay people and migrants, to whom Hillary Clinton explicitly deferred in every speech. 

Thus to favour one group is to exclude another, in this case the so-called “left-behinders”, identified as the “pale, stale, male – and failed”. 

In America, as in Europe, older, white men are the only group that liberals can abuse and exclude with impunity. 

It is a group clearly dominant in small towns and rust belts, gazing out at far-off cities, globalised, digitised, college-educated and “correctly” liberal. 

The poorest place in America with a non-Hispanic white majority, Clay County in Kentucky, voted 87% for Trump. 

For Clinton’s liberals, ignoring these people was a category error, one that could change the course of western politics. 

Last week, the US academic Mark Lilla joined the why-Trump? circuit with an analysis of identity liberalism as “a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity”. 

It granted selective rights and privileges, but never duties. 

“Expressive, not persuasive … it distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force.” 

Lilla is scathing of the “whitelash” excuse, which licenses liberals to abuse those voting for Trump and Brexit as racists, and political correctness as yet another rightwing conspiracy. 

To him, these voters are poor people who fear for the integrity of their communities and see globalism as a mis-selling scam. 

They may be wrong, but they’re not evil. 

Across the Atlantic, this onset of electoral realpolitik has created a discourse. Trump may indeed be a nightmare, but what shall we do about it? 

In Britain, liberalism shows no such intellectual robustness, rather a denial clothed in hysteria. 

The attempt by the remain tribe to undo June’s Brexit vote is ludicrous, a sign not of bad losers but of stupid ones. 

They should fight for soft-Brexit, not no-Brexit.

For myself, I cheer as people protest that it no longer “means” anything to be left or right, liberal or conservative. 

If the left is so lacking in confidence it needs to launder itself as “progressive”, that is fine by me. 

But I just want to kick over the tables, rip up the rule books, get on with the debate. 

I want to re-enact the glorious revolution of 1832. 

As for the future, commentators such as Haidt and Lilla seek a “post-identity” liberalism, built round a restoration of the nation state as repository of agreed values. 

This may mean accepting such majority concerns as the pace of immigration. 

It is one thing to ask a small community to take in two Syrian families, but impose 200 and liberalism will have an eternally uphill struggle. 

There is always a balance to be struck in any community, between its right to order its own identity and a wider obligation to welcome strangers, particularly refugees. 

Even Poland’s Europhile Donald Tusk admitted this year that the EU had been wrong to pursue an unqualified belief in “a utopia of a Europe without nation states”. 

British liberals, of whatever party, have spent the past six months fleeing one trauma after another, hurling insults over their shoulders.

But as John Stuart Mill said: “He who knows only his own side of a case, knows little of that.” 

The apostles of identity liberalism have fallen into Mill’s trap.

They see authoritarianism in others, but not in themselves. They see discrimination in others, but not their own.

In guarding their chosen tribes, they fail democracy’s ultimate test, of tolerance for the concerns of those with whom they disagree.

Someone else is always to blame.

Such tunnel vision has jeopardised the progress made by the cause of European liberalism over the past half-century.

It has been given a bloody nose, and there are more on the way.

The Die Has Been Cast

Mary Dejevsky writes:

Maybe this is just my imagination.

But I have the impression that, even as some of the most significant developments since the start of the conflict are gathering pace in Syria, the West in general – but the UK most particularly – is choosing to look the other way. 

There are, of course, other headlines jostling for our public and media space, from migration figures through abuse of young footballers to the continuing dramas of Brexit and the transition to a Donald Trump presidency. 

For the past week, though, what looks very much like the endgame has begun in Aleppo, if not across Syria, and this has been either disregarded or treated with the self-same hand-wringing condemnations as before. 

Russia and President Bashar al-Assad are cast as joint villains-in-chief, while heartrending appeals reach us via the miracle of Skype from families without homes, doctors without hospitals, children without food. 

Ever more despairing pleas from exile groups land in my inbox, calling on the UK or Europe to do something, anything, to rescue their cause. 

Here is my question. 

Given that Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, are currently advancing into rebel-held eastern Aleppo (and it is not clear who these rebels actually are), which is the more humane response? 

Is it for the US, the EU, the UK – or whoever – to call for a new ceasefire, to promise more weapons, even to dispatch (more) special forces to help those we still like to call “moderate” opposition forces on the ground? 

Or is it – brutal and heartless though this undoubtedly is – to leave well alone and let the inevitable happen sooner rather than later? 

Which response is more likely to curtail the death and destruction? 

Which is the more likely to save what remains of Syria’s second city and its inhabitants? 

Which has the better chance of ending Syria’s civil war? 

Which – Europeans, but also Lebanese, Jordanians and Turks, might ask selfishly – is more likely to stem, or even reverse, the flow of refugees? 

The answer should be obvious. 

Any or all elements of the first option will only prolong Aleppo’s agony. 

More to the point, it would appear that the United States, if not the EU and the UK, has already chosen the second option, but prefers not to admit it for the time being. 

As to when the decision was taken? 

A guess would be that President Obama conceded victory in Syria the moment Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump. 

Knowing that Trump saw no US interest in the Syria conflict, the outgoing administration may well have decided that Assad was going to prevail and that trying to impede it would only add to the bloodshed. 

Arguing continues at the UN Security Council about what, if anything, outside powers can do. 

But the die has been cast. 

Regime change – which, despite various twists and turns, essentially remained Western policy – is not going to happen, at least not in the way the US and others had envisaged, and worked for. 

Amid the dissension at the Security Council this week, the impassioned appeal made by the UN’s humanitarian affairs chief, Stephen O’Brien, was instructive. 

He said:

“For the sake of humanity we call on – we plead with – the parties and those with influence to do everything in their power to protect civilians and enable access to the besieged part of eastern Aleppo before it becomes one giant graveyard.” 

Note: he did not call for a ceasefire, as the UK Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, did a couple of days before. 

He called for the combatants to facilitate access to the besieged part of the city and for those with the power to do so to protect civilians. 

This sounds a lot less like an attempt to halt the battle and a lot more like a day after scenario. 

And it will be on the victors that responsibility falls for protecting civilians. 

It was the great failure of the US and the UK in Iraq, and of France and the UK in Libya, that they failed in that prime victor’s responsibility. 

We will now see whether the Syrian government, with whatever support Russia decides to give, can acquit itself any better. 

Will its forces – military and civilian – be able to re-establish order and basic services? 

Will they be able or willing to prevent recriminations? 

Will victory in Aleppo discourage continued insurrection elsewhere? Perhaps. 

But the Syrian government’s recovery of Aleppo will not mean that the civil war is definitively over or that armed attacks will cease. 

Even if Syria remains a single state, the power of the centre will be a shadow of its former self, and the territory it controls will be diminished; Kurdish forces, in particular, will not want to give up the territory they have gained. 

Which should dictate the need for a new settlement – the sort of political settlement that was mooted so many times in what seemed like the endless rounds of talks between the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. 

The tentative outline then was for roundtable talks with a wide range of parties, including Assad, and elections which could lead to a peaceful transition of power or otherwise determine Assad’s future role. 

The drawback here was that even the agreement reached by Kerry and Lavrov this past September, which involved other parties, soon came to grief because no one was able to control fully the disparate forces on the ground. 

Like it or not, a clear victory in Aleppo probably has a better chance of sticking than a brokered deal from which all sides still hope to improve their positions. 

 There will be claims, in the aftermath, that the anti-Assad opposition was betrayed by its Western backers, as there are already claims that Obama’s failure to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons, not only gave succour to Assad, but created a vacuum for Russia to fill. 

And there will be accusations of “appeasement”, with all the 1930s overtones. 

A more accurate version might be, however, that the opposition to Assad was always too fractious to complete the task it had taken on, and that the US, UK and others, seduced once again by a persuasive diaspora, should never have lent it even the support they did. 

And when the question is asked in months to come about responsibility for the catastrophe in Syria, the answer must be that, yes, Assad began it, but we, the West, made the conflict longer, more costly and more complicated than it would otherwise have been.

If You Care About Saving Lives

The terrible siege of East Aleppo may be nearing an end. Syrian government forces backed by Iranian militias, Hezbollah and the Kurdish YPG are retaking areas in East Aleppo that have been held by various jihadi groups. 

Tens of thousands of civilians have fled the fighting and gone to government- or Kurdish-held areas of Aleppo. Up to 250,000 people (figures vary) are still caught in the warzone. 

The toll of death and destruction in Syria is staggering. 

Maybe 400,000 are dead, millions are displaced within Syria, and an estimated five million Syrians are displaced in Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt. 

What is the endgame? Assad plans to reconquer East Aleppo. 

Then anti-government forces that are willing to make deals with the government will be allowed to go to other areas controlled by Islamist groups — a similar deal to those carried out in areas around Damascus and Homs. 

Eventually this will result in a de facto partitioned Syrian state in which the government will control the main cities and a few other key areas. 

The latest assault follows a period of relative calm during which the Syrian government and Russia suspended airstrikes and established ‘humanitarian corridors’ in order to allow civilians to leave East Aleppo. 

Few did. The Syrian government said this was because the Islamist groups holding East Aleppo would not allow them to go. 

UN special envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura offered personally to escort Al-Nusra fighters out of East Aleppo in order to save the city from further destruction. 

Of course, to leave East Aleppo would be to surrender this key position; Al-Nusra and other groups refused to go. 

There is a very specific narrative about the Syrian War in the Western mainstream media: America and European allies have stood by and let Syria burn, giving evil genius Putin a free hand to rearrange the Middle East. 

Putin is a busy man for sure: as well as overthrowing Hillary Clinton, meddling in the upcoming German and French elections, and masterminding Brexit, he has apparently been sponsoring the Syrian War since 2011, too. 

He’s clearly a global manipulator on a scale history has rarely seen. 

This narrative, of course, doesn’t stand up. 

To begin with, Russian intervention in Syria began in September 2015, when the Syrian government formally requested military help, not in 2011, when the war started. 

In 2015, the Syrian government was about to lose power to the coalition of Islamist groups sweeping the state, and so Russia intervened with clearly stated objectives: to bolster the government and prevent a rerun of Iraq. 

How did Syria fall into such a dire state in the four years before Putin got involved?

This is the news about Syria that rarely makes the headlines. 

The Syrian War has dragged on agonisingly for years because America, Britain, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the UAE have sponsored various groups, including jihadi groups, to fight Assad. 

Far from a lack of intervention, America, Britain and other states have been intervening in Syria from the start of the Arab Spring, and it is this intervention that has kept the catastrophic war alive. 

Following the Assad government’s brutal response to anti-government protests in the spring of 2011, the potential for civil war started to emerge. 

From the start, America, Britain and other European allies explicitly argued that Assad could not remain in power. 

That is to say, the sitting head of a government of a long-existing state was effectively told he could not legitimately fight to keep control of this country. 

This inevitably emboldened so-called rebel elements and jihadi groups, and conflict intensified. 

Soon, Western governments were not only denuding Assad of legitimacy but were also hand-picking those they thought should fight against him and replace him. 

The war was on.

An assortment of people with little or no relationship to what was going on in Syria were picked by America and its allies and trotted around European capitals as the ‘democratic answer’ for Syria. 

The main body, the Syrian National Council, has since vanished, because it had no substance or any real connection with the people of Syria. 

The Free Syrian Army is another name you will come across in the media, but it also doesn’t really exist in any substantive way. 

As Mark Lynch argued in 2012, it’s a ‘mailbox’ for various disparate groups, ranging from defectors from the Syrian army to serious jihadis. 

American and European support has not been limited to talking up opposition organisations and military groups. Western governments have also actively funded and armed groups to fight against Assad. 

These are the so-called rebels. In essence these rebel groups are a mix of Islamists.

Some, such as the CIA-funded Nour al-Din al-Zenki (known for beheading children), fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. 

Others are linked to Jabhat Al Nusra, an al-Qaeda affiliate, or to the Islamic Front. 

These Islamist groups often fight among themselves, but they share the aim of establishing an Islamist state in Syria. 

American and British taxes are going towards buying weapons for groups that execute children and want to set up an ISIS-style regime. 

In 2012, MI6 and the CIA started funnelling weapons from collapsed Libya to various Syrian groups. 

The CIA oversees what Reuters calls ‘a military aid programme that provides arms and training to “moderate” groups’. 

It is claimed weapons and money only go to ‘vetted’ groups of the Free Syrian Army, not to extremist groups. 

But the FSA barely exists, and in a warzone like Syria money and weapons easily spread between groups. 

Indeed, the factions are all so entwined that it can be hard to tell them apart. 

Meanwhile, Western allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the other Gulf States do not even maintain the pretence of funding ‘moderate’ groups. 

They have been channelling money and weapons straight to ISIS. 

And this is being done with American and British knowledge. 

Iraq, Libya, Syria: it seems Western foreign-policy makers are trapped in a kind of fantasy land in which intervention in other people’s conflicts is a good idea and must be pursued again and again.

Despite the millions dead in Iraq and the chaos that followed intervention there, Western forces went and did the same in Libya. 

And then in Syria. 

Western political elites seem oblivious to the horrendous consequences of their actions. 

So the ink had barely dried on the excellent House of Commons report on the Libyan disaster when British MPs were demanding more intervention in Syria. 

It’s madness. 

However bad a situation is, Western intervention makes it worse. 

Without Western meddling over the past five years, Syria would not be in the state it is in right now, and Putin would not have intervened in 2015.

If you care about saving lives, say no to intervention.

A Valuable Strategic Perspective

Is the ‘desire for the west[1] - a desire once so all-consuming and unquestioned that it set off a squalid stampede into the cajoling arms of Nato and the EU - beginning, finally, to lose its iron stranglehold on hearts and minds?


Certainly, the results of the presidential elections in Bulgaria and Moldova this month, where candidates more favourably disposed to Russia were elected, indicate a rift in this suffocating consensus, a rift with the potential to open up a range of political possibilities, both good and bad.

For these results point to a burgeoning popular mood more willing than at any time in recent years to question the dogmatic pro-western certainties propagated for so long by local politicians of the ‘extreme centre’.

This shifting mood poses a comprehensive challenge for the left in the Balkans, a challenge of some urgency, not least because the far right is already an established force in many places.

What kind of perspective can the left offer so as to shift this mood in a radical direction?


Despite common ties – Slavic Orthodox Christianity and Russia’s prominent role in its history – Tsarist Russia liberated Bulgaria from the Ottoman Empire and the country proved a very dutiful member of the Warsaw Pact – Bulgarians participated with enthusiasm in the post-Cold War stampede westwards.

In 1994, Bulgaria joined Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme, becoming a full member in 2004.

And in 2007, after years of relentless pressing, it was finally admitted to the EU.

However, the decisive victory in this month’s presidential elections, with almost 60% of the second-round vote, of a former Air Force Commander, Rumen Radev, represents a cautious break, but a break nevertheless, with this recent history.

An independent whose candidature was supported by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP) – the Communists of old rejigged in the 1990s as left-of-centre neoliberals, their traditional Russophile leanings now rebooted and recharged by recent events – Radev delivered a distinctive electoral message for a more ‘balanced and pragmatic’ – that is, less anti-Russian - foreign policy.

While continuing to favour membership of Nato and the EU, he also tapped into a public mood increasingly sympathetic to Russia’s stand against NATO in Ukraine and Syria by declaring that Crimea, annexed by Putin, belonged to Russia and that Bulgaria should therefore refuse to renew its EU sanctions against Moscow.

It is also significant that even the governing centre-right GERB (Citizens for the European Development of Bulgaria) party, whose presidential candidate was roundly defeated by Radev, and whose Prime Minister and leader then promptly resigned, has felt obliged, despite being staunchly pro-western and anti-Russian, to bend to this shifting mood.

In 2014, GERB supported sanctions on Moscow over Ukraine along with the rest of the EU; in 2015, it refused airspace access to Russian flights to Syria.

But earlier this year, when Romania and Turkey proposed a joint Nato Black Sea fleet with Bulgaria to counter Russia’s fleet harboured in annexed Crimea – a longstanding international agreement stipulates that only Black Sea coastal states can maintain a fleet there for longer than 21 days – GERB refused to participate, its then President declaring that Bulgaria’s “foreign policy is not aimed at anyone.”

This year, too, GERB agreed to resurrect plans for the so-called South Stream pipeline to bring Russian natural gas across the Black Sea into Europe via Bulgaria, a project cancelled in 2014 under pressure from the EU and US following the annexation of Crimea.

However, despite appearances to the contrary, it would be an error to attribute this shifting mood simply, or simplistically, to traditional Russophile sympathies.

Certainly, they play their part by enabling Bulgarians to see what many in the west cannot see or refuse to, that the goal of Nato expansion is the strategic encirclement of Russia, with all its attendant dangers.

Nevertheless, these sympathies alone cannot explain this mood change.

Instead, we should also see them as the expression of deeper feelings, in this case, disillusionment, disenchantment in fact, with the EU, with its neoliberal failures, and the parallel failures of the local politicians most associated with it, to address harrowing poverty, searing inequality and epidemic corruption.

This disenchantment too has begun to shred the political credibility of Bulgaria’s pro-western ‘extreme centre’.


Strategically wedged between Romania to the south and Ukraine to the north, Moldova has developed a geopolitical significance out of all proportion to its size, one much intensified by Ukrainian events.

A Romanian territory in the inter-war years, but annexed by Stalin in 1940, Moldova declared itself independent in 1991 and seemed, at first, to be heading westwards via reunion with Romania.

It was this prospect that led to armed conflict with Transnistria, a largely Russian-populated region of Moldova, which then proclaimed itself a self-governing republic.

A quarter of a century later, though, Moldova is neither a member of the EU nor Nato (though it joined NATO’s Partnership in Peace programme in 1994).

In fact, it is now arguably further from such memberships than at any time since independence following the election this month of the presidential candidate of the pro-Russian Moldovan Party of Socialists, Igor Dodon, who narrowly defeated the pro-western candidate with 52% of the vote to her 48%.

That said, Moldova’s parliament and Prime Minister remain firmly pro-western, yielding a fractured body politic that is likely to remain deadlocked for some time to come.

Parliamentary elections are not due until 2018, though Dodon is now arguing that they be called early.

Dodon’s electoral message, unlike Radev’s, was unambiguous.

He argued that the EU Association Agreement (its Ukrainian version precipitated the 2013-14 Euromaidan protests), which Moldova signed in 2014 in the wake of crisis in Ukraine, be cancelled in favour of a customs union with Russia.

A 2015 poll found that 50% of Moldovans favoured such a union, too.

Dodon also opposed Nato membership, arguing instead for an essentially pro-Russian form of neutrality.

In fact, in May this year, the Moldovan army took part in training exercises with US and Romanian troops on Moldovan soil, the first time Nato troops had set foot in the country.

Dodon was prominent among those who condemned as deeply provocative both the exercises and the participation of US troops in Victory Day celebrations.

What is more, Dodon’s stance also opens up the possibility of bringing Transnistria back into the Moldovan fold.

As in Bulgaria, however, another key impetus behind Dodon’s electoral success was not so much Russophilism (most Moldovans are in fact Romanian speakers) as much as disenchantment with what the EU was seen to be offering, as well as Moldova’s heavy dependence on Russian markets for sale of its agricultural produce.

Key here was the scandalous disappearance of $1 billion from the Moldovan banking system with suspicions falling on a raft of pro-EU politicians.

One of their number, a former Prime Minister who served four years in the post, was recently convicted and sentenced to nine years in prison for the theft of a large portion of the missing sum, some $300 million.

Some conclusions

Three essential conclusions can be drawn from these developments:

First, the election results in Bulgaria and Moldova are a reaction to the intensified geopolitical competition that has seized hold of the Balkans and eastern Europe in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis, a crisis provoked by Nato’s hitherto unquenchable determination to expand ever eastwards to the very outskirts of Russia.

It is also therefore worth registering that these results come despite the fact that Nato’s Warsaw summit decided to send four battalions with air support to Poland, the Baltic States and Romania, thereby ratcheting up tensions.

At the same time, it is now palpably clear to all the five senses, if not the sixth, that membership of a thoroughly neoliberal EU has not offered any real solutions to the region’s severe economic problems.

This disenchantment has thus fed a search for solutions elsewhere, a turn to Russia being one of them.

Second, the impact of the heightened geopolitical tensions that split Ukraine apart are now beginning to make themselves felt ever more widely.

In Bulgaria, a more pro-Russian tendency may be in the ascendant, but GERB, or some such pro-western political force, is certain to remain on the political scene.

Moldova is split between a pro-Russian president and a pro-western parliament and Prime Minister.

Elsewhere, Montenegro, invited to join Nato in December 2015 as a sure signal to Moscow that its annexation of Crimea and intervention in Syria would not succeed in derailing Nato’s expansionist ambitions, is now explosively divided between a pro-western, pro-Nato ruling party and a pro-Russian, anti-Nato opposition.

In Serbia, this divide finds expression at the highest levels in the figures of a pro-western Prime Minister and a pro-Russian President, members of the same ruling party.

And third, these pressures, and the accompanying risk of conflict on Ukrainian lines, has led to renewed calls for ‘neutrality’ of one sort or another, a positive development to be sure, but a limited one all the same one.

In Moldova and Montenegro, the calls are for pro-Russian neutrality.

In Bulgaria and Serbia, neutrality entails being all things to all imperialists by supping at both US and Russian tables.

In other words, this is not neutrality in any properly substantive sense.

What perspective can the left offer?

Geopolitical tensions can be an opportunity for the left, but they can also be an obstacle if other options are trampled out of existence by competing imperial juggernauts.

Much depends on the surrounding circumstances.

Presently, there is a resurgence of the left internationally, and also in some areas in the Balkans, notably Greece (despite Syriza’s capitulation to the EU), and Slovenia where an electorally successful United Left has emerged.

These examples offer hope that the left elsewhere can escape the intellectual ghetto it currently inhabits.

At the same time, significant opportunities for intervention by the left are emerging from within the very heart, ironically enough, of mainstream politics, opportunities the left can surely build on with the goal of shifting minds in a more radical direction.

To name but three such opportunities, the key ones: scepticism towards, if not outright opposition to, Nato expansionism; deep disenchantment with a neoliberal EU; and resurgent interest in the idea of ‘neutrality’.

What might an alternative perspective on all this from the left look like then?

Years ago, the English Marxist historian, E.P.Thompson, a longstanding supporter of British unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from Nato, developed the concept of “active neutrality” as an alternative foreign policy.

He argued for:

“active neutrality: not the passive self-preserving isolationism of a small power, but positive, indeed aggressive, foreign policy aimed at relaxing East-West tension, dismantling military blocs, and resuming economic, cultural and political intercourse.”

And he added:

“The ideological and military polarization of the world is certainly a reality from which effective analysis must flow.

“But it does not follow that the only way to a détente is to make the two poles kiss.

“On the contrary, a détente is far more likely to ensue when the two giants feel their strategic and economic advantages crumbling around their feet, and their allies shifting their allegiance.”[2]

Here then is a valuable strategic perspective for a Balkan left that is serious about developing a substantive concept of neutrality, one that rejects the cold embrace of Nato as well as Russia advocated by the flawed versions of neutrality currently circulating.

However, if such active neutrality is not to degenerate into the kind of self-preserving, isolationist neutrality Thompson rightly warns against here, then this perspective in the Balkan context cannot emerge simply from the weak and narrow perspective of a single country.

Active neutrality in the Balkans, if it is to have any meaningful impact, has necessarily to be the active neutrality of the peninsula as a whole.

And this is why it follows that the policy of active neutrality and the idea of a Balkan federation cannot, and must not, be divorced or separated from each other if they are both to retain their force.

None of this will have much purchase, of course, unless the left is also able to offer some answers to a key source of shifting moods in the Balkans – the economy.

And here there are no easy answers.

One thing, though, is crystal clear.

The best guarantee of an outcome that is in the interests of the many rather than the few is for the policy of neoliberal austerity currently pursued across the Balkans to be defeated by struggle from below.

This is the best context within which the pernicious role of the EU can be comprehensively exposed to public scrutiny and visions of a socialised economy valuably discussed and debated.

It is also the only way in which Thompson’s vision of “economic advantages crumbling around their feet” and thus encouraging, at minimum, some form of détente, can come to likely fruition.

This three-part perspective – struggle from below against neoliberal austerity, active neutrality, and Balkan federation – therefore offers a strategic response of a preliminary kind to the opportunities currently opening up in contemporary Balkan politics.

Much needs of course to be done to work out how best to concretely apply this perspective to the differing political circumstances of individual Balkan states, but the parameters set out here can serve, at the very least, as a starting-point.

Unless the left is able to start intervening by offering its own solutions to the apparently insoluble problems thrown up by mainstream politics, then others will be sure to step in to do so.

This might entail the hopeless merry-go-round of pro-western governments followed by pro-Russian ones, but it might also entail the growth of parties of the far-right.

In the first round of the Bulgarian presidential elections, the candidate of a fascist coalition, the United Patriots, came third with 15% of the vote.

An organised Balkan left is now an urgent task.

[1]The expression of the French philosopher, Alain Badiou, to describe the westward stampeding politics of eastern Europe following the end of the Cold War.

[2]E.P. Thompson, ‘NATO, Neutralism and Survival’, Universities & Left Review, No.4, Summer 1958, pp.49-51.

World AIDS Day

Certain people might consider applying some journalistic or scientific objectivity to the question of where in Africa the condom use relentlessly promoted by Western nongovernmental organisations and compliant governments has ever arrested, never mind reversed, the rate of HIV infection. 

There is nowhere.

However, such a reversal is under way in Uganda, where the government's message is the same as the Catholic Church's: "Change Your Behaviour". 

Huge numbers of condoms have been distributed in Botswana, and the result has been for President Festus Mogae to declare, "Abstain or die". 

Who, exactly, is incapable of fidelity within a monogamous marriage and abstinence outside such a marriage? 

Women? Black people? Poor people? Developing-world people?

Or just poor black women in the developing world?

Sanction Without Warrant

Especially considering how many British nationals do not hold passports, there was no more chance of sending the children of illegal immigrants to the back of the queue for school places than there is of requiring us all to produce our papers before being treated by the NHS.

But Theresa May has herself caused this story to be leaked.

That way, there is no need for the news to be dominated, as it ought to be, by the devastating report into benefit sanctions.

People have been reduced to utter penury because their buses had been one minute late, or because they could not have afforded the fares and had therefore walked for miles, or because they had had job interviews, or because the staff member for whom they had turned up on time had been late.

And all for nothing. Absolutely nothing.

None of this has ever saved a single penny. Nor has any of it ever helped anyone at all into work.

Consider that Iain Duncan Smith ended up resigning rather than continue to administer a regime that had been supported by all three of last year's unsuccessful candidates for the Labour Leadership, by Owen Smith, and by everyone who is ever mentioned as a potential alternative to Jeremy Corbyn.

But then, with his CV, Duncan Smith would be sanctioned by any JobCentre in the country. As, for the same reason, would Andrea Leadsom.

In reality, like May, and like Margaret Thatcher before them, Leadsom is nothing more than a professional rich man's wife, whose husband's wealth enabled her to pursue a political career over the heads of more capable people who had had to work for a living.

But at least May, for fairly obvious reasons, does not think that women without children have no stake in society. She is Prime Minister only because the alternative really was as bad as that.