The next mayor of London?

Sian is the Green Party's candidate to be London's mayor

Voting and democracy are what make the world of politics go around, and there has been a lot of it about this week. Like the proverbial bus, you can wait for ages for a vote that will take you in the right direction, and then three come along at once.

First up, MPs were voting on proposals for reformed House of Lords on Wednesday. We’ve had quite a wait for this one, given that most people agree the system of heriditary and appointed law-makers went out of date on about July 14th 1789. New Labour entered government with a commitment to action. However, they have been dallying over the final steps for nearly a decade.

Last time MPs tried to agree on the shape of reform, they threw out seven different options and didn’t support any. This time, in the wake of the cash for honours scandal, MPs finally backed two radical options for change: an 80% elected Lords with a majority of 38, and then a 100% elected Lords with an even bigger majority of 113.

I have to admit I was hugely pleased and relieved at the result – particularly at the popularity of the 100% elected option. Finally we might see a change to our constitution that means that, for the first time ever, Britain will be able to say it’s a grown-up democracy.

It’s obvious for a Green to say this, but it’s important now that we make sure the new house is elected with a fair voting system, and that a new Lords brings a greater diversity of voices into parliament. With a fair system of proportional representation, we’ll see a serious Green presence in parliament at last, ideally placed to put real teeth into green legislation.

The vote also slightly restores my faith in back-benchers, who I usually look upon as a shower of careerists and timeservers. The vote for 100% was no doubt influenced by the stench of sleaze attached to appointments by party leaders and must have been a shock for Blair and co. This wasn’t as far as they wanted to go at all. Blair voted for a 50% elected house and then cleared off, Brown voted for 80% but abstained on 100%, and Jack Straw, leading the process, voted for 50, 60 and 80% but not 100%.

Any reform won’t be easy for the Labour top brass to swallow – having held absolute power with a minority of votes for a decade. But, especially if elected under PR, a renewed Lords will also have renewed vigour and renewed legitimacy. With a real mandate, even with restricted powers, the new Lords will be more inclined to oppose the government and could pose a real challenge to the government’s hegemony.

The next vote of interest was when results started coming in from Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday. After a doorstep campaign focused mainly on issues like water rates, sufficient numbers of people cast their votes beyond religious lines for us to see the first Green elected to the Assembly, in North Down. Congratulations go to our candidate Brian Wilson – his election is a definite sign of a shift away from the old politics in Northern Ireland, which depend so much on history, to ideas more concerned with the future. The Green Party can also boast it is now the only one represented in London, Edinburgh, Dublin and Belfast.

The third election this week was slightly less earth-shattering, but very significant for me. Votes were counted on Saturday for the Green Party’s selection of our candidate for Mayor of London. From a shortlist of five, including our brilliant drugs spokesperson and tireless activist, Shane Collins, I managed to secure the nomination with 45% of first preferences.

I’m thrilled to get the chance to take on Ken Livingstone next year. He started out as an independent, ‘man of the people’ character but is increasingly turning into an agent of New Labour’s business agenda.

His fondness for big, shiny projects is well known, frustrating me and the people of Camden over the Kings Cross development, where we desperately need family housing not more office blocks. And his support for similar projects, such as the Thames Gateway motorway bridge (which will do nothing to improve air quality for people in east London) is alienating people in other boroughs too.

With no other party’s candidate yet selected, I’m looking forward to being the only challenger for a while and working hard to highlight what we will do to make London a human-scale city again.

This weekend we also selected our candidates for the London Assembly list (the Assembly is made up of constituency members topped up with list candidates to make it all proportional to the votes cast). The list is where our Assembly Members tend to come from, although we do well in a lot of the constituencies too.

Our top three are, again, our excellent team from 2004 – Jenny Jones and Darren Johnson (current AMs) and former AM Noel Lynch. I’m next on the list, so it’s up to me now to make sure we get enough votes to win four seats this time round. No problem!

Sian Berry lives in Kentish Town and was previously a principal speaker and campaigns co-ordinator for the Green Party. She was also their London mayoral candidate in 2008. She works as a writer and is a founder of the Alliance Against Urban 4x4s
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Guns and bullets and nothing more: The Syrian Kurds fighting Isis

They are the US-led coalition's main ally in the fight against Isis, but as Turkey keeps bombing them, the sense of betrayal is growing.

A sense of a betrayal pervaded the funeral, giving an angry edge to the mourners’ grief. The Kurds were used to the Turks killing their people. It was almost expected. What was different in their attitude to the killing of the 14 men and women buried that hot afternoon in the cemetery at Derik, among 20 fighters killed by Turkish air strikes just three days earlier, was that it had occurred under the watchful auspices of the Syrian Kurds’ big ally: America.

So when a US armoured patrol arrived at the edge of the cemetery in northern Syria, the American troops had been met with sullen stares and silence. I watched Aldar Khalil, one of the most influential advisers with the local Syrian Kurdish administration, approach the US army officer while a cordon of armed YPG fighters surrounded the patrol to keep civilians away.

“I told the American officer how angry people felt,” he told me afterwards, “and advised them that as soon as they had achieved what they wanted to at the funeral they should go. Emotions are high. People expected more.”

The air strikes had been far more significant than anything previously visited by the Turks on the YPG, the Syrian Kurd fighting group that has become the Americans’ primary ally in the forthcoming battle to capture the city of Raqqa from Isis. Operations to shape the battlefield around the militants’ capital are ongoing, and some sections of the front YPG units, the mainstay of the anti-Isis alliance, are now less than four kilometres from the outskirts of Raqqa.

However, the entire operation was thrown into jeopardy early on the morning of 25 April, just days before US officials confirmed that President Donald Trump had authorised the direct supply of weapons to the YPG. Turkish jets repeatedly bombed the YPG’s main command centre on Qarachok Mountain, just above the small town of Derik, destroying ammunition stocks, a communications centre and accommodation blocks. The dead included Mohammed Khalil, a top commander involved in planning the Raqqa operation.

The attack immediately drove a wedge between US troops and the Syrian Kurds, who felt they had been knowingly betrayed by the United States, which had acted as the YPG’s ally in the fight for Raqqa with the one hand while allowing its fellow Nato and coalition member Turkey to stab the YPG in the back with the other.

“There were a couple of days after the Qarachok strikes when several of our leading commanders, and many of our people, put on the pressure to withdraw our forces from the Raqqa front altogether and send them to protect our borders with Turkey,” Khalil, the Syrian Kurd adviser, told me. “They wanted to stop the Raqqa operation. We had to explain very carefully that this was [the Turkish president] Erdogan’s goal, and to persuade them to continue.”

Senior YPG commanders suffered deep personal losses in the Turkish air strikes. Among the mourners at Derik was ­Rojda Felat, a joint commander of the overall Raqqa operation. Standing beside the grave of Jiyan Ahmed, one of her closest friends, she clasped a portrait of the dead woman in her hands.

“She survived fighting Da’esh [Isis] in Kobane, in Tal Hamis and Manbij,” Felat said. “She survived all that, only to be killed by a Turkish jet.”

Later, illustrating the fragile contradictions of the coalition’s alliances, Felat explained that she had gone to sleep in the early hours of 25 April, after finishing a series of late-night planning meetings with British and US officers at the forward headquarters she shares with them on the north side of Lake Assad, Syria’s largest lake, when word of the air strikes came through.

“It was very clear to me that the Americans I was with had not known about the air strikes,” said Felat, 35, a legendary figure among Syria’s Kurds whose role models include Napoleon and the socialist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg. “They could see how upset and angry I was to learn in an instant that so many friends had been killed, and the Americans dealt with that compassionately. I was extremely distressed, to say the least,” she added, looking away.

Within a few hours of the strikes, Felat was on a US helicopter alongside US officers flown to Qarachok to assess the damage in a very public display of US-YPG solidarity.

The Americans were quick to try to mitigate the damage to their Kurdish allies. A further 250 US troops were sent into Syria to run observation patrols along the Syria-Turkey border in an attempt to de-escalate the tension, bringing the number of US troops there to more than 1,200. In addition, US weapons consignments to the Syrian Kurds increased “manifold” in a matter of days, Felat said.

Yet these measures are unlikely to stop the fallout from a strategy – that of arming the Syrian Kurds – which risks broadening Turkey’s overall conflict with the YPG, unless certain crucial political objectives are attained parallel to the push on Raqqa.

Turkey, at present regarded as a mercurial and mendacious “frenemy” by Western coalition commanders, perceives the YPG as a terrorist organisation that is an extension of its arch-enemy the PKK, a left-wing group demanding greater auton­omy within Turkey. Hence Ankara’s deep concern that the YPG’s growing power in Syria will strengthen the PKK inside Turkey. The Turks would rather their own proxies in Syria – an unattractive hotchpotch of Syrian Islamist groups mistrusted by the West – reaped the rewards for the capture of Raqqa than the YPG.

Although US commanders find the YPG more reliable and militarily effective than the Turkish-backed Islamist groups, the Syrian Kurds are a non-state actor, a definition that ensures B-grade status in the cut and thrust of foreign policy. Nevertheless, recalling the painful lesson of 2003 – that military success is impotent unless it serves a political vision – the US should be devoting energy to imposing conditions on the supply of arms to the YPG as a way of containing Turkish aggression against their ally.

Salient conditions could include the YPG disassociating from the PKK; a cessation in repressing rival political parties in YPG areas; the withdrawal of YPG fighters from northern Iraq, where they are involved in a needless stand-off with Iraqi Kurds; and an agreement by the YPG to withdraw from Raqqa, an Arab city, once it is captured.

As a quid pro quo, and in return for the YPG blood spilled in Raqqa, the Syrian Kurds should have their desire for autonomy supported; have the crippling trade embargo placed on them by the government of Iraqi Kurdistan lifted; and, by means of buffer zones, have their territories protected from further attacks by Turkey and its Islamist proxies.

So far, none of these measures is in play, and comments by US officials have only strengthened a growing suspicion among Syria’s Kurds that they will be discarded by the US the moment the YPG have fulfilled their use and captured Raqqa.

“We have not promised the YPG anything,” Jonathan Cohen, a senior US state department official, told the Middle East Institute in Washington on 17 May – a day after President Erdogan’s visit to the US. “They are in this fight because they want to be in this fight. Our relationship is temporary, transactional and tactical.”

Cohen further said: “We have the YPG because they were the only force on the ground ready to act in the short term. That is where it stops.”

The sense of betrayal felt by the mourners at Derik was perfectly understandable. But Syria’s Kurds should not be so surprised the next time it happens. America, it seems, has promised them nothing more than guns and bullets. 

Anthony Loyd is a war correspondent for the Times

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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