A manifesto for the New Year: forget labels, and fix the problems

Alex Andreou's message for 2013.

It is that time of year again, when I sit down like Scrooge, doing the books. I am not counting money – precious little of that about. I am trying to reconcile the balances of my life. Trying to tally the columns of generosity, kindness and creativity with those of self-absorption, bitchiness and cruelty. I find myself in deficit again; maybe next year I'll break even.

2012 has been an angry year. And when I try to narrow down the "why", I find at the heart of my anger a frustration at the lack of discussion. A whole year of standing in front of a dark tunnel, shouting "anybody there?" and getting distorted echoes in return - or so it feels.

The need to widen discourse, to go beyond Labour or Tory or Pro-gun or Feminist or Eurosceptic, is pressing. Fundamental structures are crumbling around us and we're arguing about the decor. "We need to find a way of looking after each other," I said. "I take it that means you're statist," came back the obligatory, instantaneous Twitter response.

A lad in China sold one of his kidneys for an iPad. A young girl in Pakistan was shot for arguing she should be allowed an education. A classful of children in the US were murdered with an assault rifle. We gather around herbal tea and stick meaningless labels on each other, learned 20 years ago in a politics lesson, to which we were only half paying attention.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking.

We begin instead from cosmotheories, either discredited or superceded by clearer thinking in the last few decades. Do I define myself as a Socialist? Then I should stand against X. Do I subscribe to neoliberalism? I must never concede that the market may have screwed up. Am I a feminist? I will never admit to needing Y (no pun intended).

We have a paucity of black and white language attempting to describe a world gloriously full of colour. We start from the box in which we have chosen to live and define everything outwards. After all, The Apprentice, X Factor, Dragons' Den, Masterchef - I could go on - have taught us that people divide brightly into brilliant successes and hilarious failures. We choose to ignore our own, verifiable, personal experience which shows us that every day is full of small battles, bitter successes and failures packed with future wisdom.

The tabloids have become skillful illustrators of fear and suspicion. What's that? An unemployed man refused a job because he didn't want to get up at 8am? I knew it! My deep-seated fear now has a URL reference.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. We lack the language to discuss them. We lack the openness to find the answers. We choose to centre the debate on whether Conservatism with a dollop of compassion or Socialism with a fixation on low taxes is the answer. When we know - we fucking know - neither is.

On Christmas Eve thousands of people gathered in the centre of Athens. In the midst of the worst financial crisis to ever envelop the country, they donated generously - food, clothes, toys, appliances; many had been sitting in a storage room or a garage or a loft, unopened. Were they socialists, liberals, anarchists, statists, bigots, monetarists, part of The Left, The Right, The Centre? Who cares? They saw a problem and tried to fix it.

What do we need? What would make our life and the lives of those around us better? These are the questions we never ask. These are the questions we should always be asking. Otherwise we are increasingly condemned to take to the streets in anger, shouting "WHAT DO WE WANT? We have no idea. WHEN DO WE WANT IT? Hopefully some time in 2013."

Food and clothes are distributed in Athens. Photo: Getty

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

0800 7318496