A brotherhood of bloggers...

A thin silver pencil

I was pleased to knock back some free plonk at the Orwell Prize debate on Wednesday, at which the shortlist for the inaugural blog award was announced.

The wonderful Alix Mortimer was first “dumbfounded, and a little shuffly,” in response to her shortlisting – and then irked by Nick Cohen's eccentric behavior during the subsequent debate. Ignoring the proposition (that political parties are bankrupt) he angrily rebuked the prize organisers for shortlisting right-wingers Peter Oborne and Peter Hitchens in the journalism category, describing their decision as a “fucking disgrace”. Mortimer regarded his outburst as “one of those lofty lefty assertions that, were I the left’s psychiatrist and the left ranting on my couch, I would write down thoughtfully with a thin, silver pencil”.

Also making the final cut was Iain Dale, whose old boss David Davies joined the debate. “Having convinced myself that I wouldn't be on the shortlist I found myself curiously eager to hear my name announced,” he wrote. But as he later noted, not everyone was so delighted. It seems that Chicken Yoghurt's Justin McKeating has pledged to give up blogging should Dale ultimately prevail. Which seems quite likely.

Thursday saw the much anticipated televised tussle between Derek Draper and Paul Staines ; an encounter from which more heat than light resulted. SNP supporter Jeffrey Breslin enjoyed Guido's cheeky sporting of a Berkley t-shirt, but thought it “a bit silly to mock the leader of Labour List for having Labour Ministers writing articles on their website,” while Jonathan Calder recalled that both men had previously had a rough ride from veteran journalists.

Whether the events of the week have enhanced or diminished the reputation of political blogging is debatable, but on the balance, I think the good outweighs the bad.

What have we learned this week?

Evan Harris' private members bill, which seeks to reform royal succession, attracted attention this week as it emerged that the prime minister is in discussions with the Queen over agreeing a new settlement on the hereditary principle, which will not be discriminatory towards women and Roman Catholics.

James Gray on the Republic blog welcomed the debate but felt that reform was essentially pointless, because: “when you start using the language of rights, equality and justice to talk about the monarchy, it begins to unravel”.

Damian Thompson of the Telegraph's Holy Smoke had previously boasted of slamming down the phone on Harris' office because he doesn't like his views on abortion. Thompson thinks Harris is “self-righteous” and “self-important”. Spend a few minutes reading Holy Smoke and make up your own mind which of the two that applies to.

Around the World

Iranian blogger Fariborz Shamshiri this week reported on the plight of bloggers in the Islamic Republic. “Blogging is the last resort for people to express themselves,” he wrote, noting the recent death in prison (officially suicide) of Omidreza Mirsayafi, the 28-year old blogger who had posted content considered critical of the mullahs. “Don’t you want to pray? Okay let's go prison,” he concluded.

Video of the Week

Take your pic between footage of Draper v Staines on the Daily Politics and Beau Bo D'Or's take on the battle royal.

Quote of the Week

“He may accuse Staines of being the sewer and his commenters the sewage, but Staines is right not to take morality lessons from Draper”.

Kerron Cross

Paul Evans is a freelance journalist, and formerly worked for an MP. He lives in London, but maintains his Somerset roots by drinking cider.
Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.