"The Syrian people are bleeding": leaders condemn massacre

International leaders condemn the massacre in al-Qubair - but does the rhetoric mean anything?

It is beyond doubt that a massacre took place in the Syrian village of al-Qubair. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 55 people had died, while the opposition, the Syrian National Council, said there had been 78 deaths. Many of them came from just one extended family.

The village was surrounded by Syrian forces. Villagers were then slaughtered, apparently by the shabiha (civilian militia), with what witnesses described as violence that “no-one can bear”. UN observers trying to access the area yesterday came under fire from Syrian forces. Incredibly graphic images of charred corpses and bloodshed have been distributed on the internet.

The level of violence – and the short time gap between this and the Houla massacre – has prompted international leaders to condemn the massacre in their strongest language yet. It’s worth quoting at length from the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s statement yesterday. He said that President Assad and his government “have lost all legitimacy” and “has lost its fundamental humanity". He described the scene:

The bodies of innocent civilians lying where they were, shot. Some were allegedly burned or slashed with knives.

. . .

The danger of a full-scale war is imminent and real. Reports of yet another massacre in Qubair underscore the horrifying reality on the ground. How many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged? The Syrian people are bleeding.

Soon after this address, Kofi Annan admitted that his peace plan for the country – at present, the only plan the international community has got – was floundering.

William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary, reiterated this sentiment:

The Annan plan won't last indefinitely. Syria is clearly on the edge … of deeper violence, of deep, sectarian violence, village against village, pro-government militias against opposition areas, and of looking more like Bosnia in the 1990s than Libya last year.

The Annan plan has clearly failed so far, but it is not dead, all hope is not lost.

Strong language from all sides, yes – but what does this mean in practice? Certainly, continued atrocities will make it more and more difficult for the international community to do nothing.

Perhaps the most telling point in Hague’s comments is his emphasis that Syria is not the same as Libya. The implication is that what was appropriate in Libya – military intervention in the form of a no-fly zone – is not appropriate for Syria. As the increasingly bitter and bloody conflict divides along sectarian lines, it is difficult to see how military intervention from the west – either in the form of boots on the ground, or by arming the rebels – would result in anything other than civil war.

For now, despite the hardening of rhetoric from international leaders, negotiated settlement will continue to be the aim. Yet nothing much has changed here: Russia, Syria’s closest ally, remains the sticking point. The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has said that America is prepared to work with Russia on a plan similar to that implemented in Yemen, where the leader was ousted but elements of his regime remained intact. There is no clear sign that this will succeed where other overtures to Russian support for the plan have failed. Meanwhile, Annan has suggested that countries failing to support his peace plan should face sanctions – a stick, rather than carrot, approach.

As diplomats scramble to find a solution to an intractable situation, there is remains no clear answer to the questions posed in Ban’s speech: “how many more times have we to condemn them, and how many ways must we say that we are outraged?”
 

International leaders have condemend the massacre in al-Qubair. This picture shows Syrian rebels near Homs, May 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left