Beltway Briefing

The top five stories from US politics today.

1. Mitt Romney will travel to Pennsylvania today -- the same as President Barack Obama -- in a clear attempt to cement his position as the frontrunner in the Republican presidential field.

The former Massachusetts governor will attack Obama's economic record, by holding a press conference outside Allentown Metal Works, a closed down factory which Obama visited in 2009 while promoting his stimulus pacakge.

Romney also released a new web video today which contrasts Obama's visit to the plant with local media reports of its closure. It uses his tagline -- borrowed from the Tories in 1979 -- "Obama isn't working".

 

 

Meanwhile, Obama will attend two fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee during his visit. Voters in Pennsylvania appear to be quite equally split on the president -- according to a recent Quinnipiac University poll, 48 per cent approve of his performance as president, while 48 per cent disapprove.

2. Republican voters are not satisfied with any of the current presidential field, if the latest poll by the New York Times/CBS is to be believed. So far, nine candidates have put themselves forward. About 70 per cent of Republican voters said they wished there were more candidates, with only 23 per cent expressing satisfaction with the current field.

Asked to name a presidential candidate they were enthusiastic about, two-thirds of GOP voters said they were not excited by any of them. Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann fared best, each named by 7 per cent.

However, it is not all bad news for the Republican cohort -- past example indicates that these numbers will increase as the primaries approach. Before the last election, polls showed a similar lack of interest.

3. The former president Bill Clinton shared his thoughts on the current field of GOP candidates -- with the big caveat that he will be "very surprised" if Obama is not re-elected.

Of the former Utah governor Jon Huntsman, he said:

[He] did a very nice, a good job for America as ambassador to China. I think he's quite an impressive man. He's got an impressive family. I had the honor of meeting one of his children once and having a conversation with her. I think that he's refreshingly, kind of, unhide-bound. Just comes across as non-ideological -- conservative, but non-ideological, practical."

He was more reserved in his assessment of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and current frontrunner:

[He] doing a better job as a candidate this time than he did four years ago. [He] comes across as more relaxed and more convicted about what he did do, less willing to just be forced into apologizing for it because it violates some part of his party orthodoxy.

And he said that the early success of Michele Bachmann, Minnesota Representative, he said:

I've been watching her speak at some of these conventions on ESPN, you know, she comes across as a real person. ... The story that they tell is pretty compelling, all those foster children she's taken in, and children she's raised and the work she's done.

4. Herman Cain's latest campaign video appears to owe more than a little something to the Fox News school of thought. As one blogger puts it: "this video proves beyond ANY doubt Obama is a Leftist Marxist".

 

5. There is no rest for the wicked. Senator Harry Reid announced today that the Senate will sacrifice its scheduled week long break for the week of 4 July so that it can continue work on cutting the deficit. "It is often said that with liberty comes responsibility," said Reid, Democratic Senator of Nevada. "We should take responsibility seriously. I'm confident we do. That's why the Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, the day after the Fourth. We'll do that because we have work to do."

This follows calls by Republicans yesterday to postpone the recess. Republicans and the Democrats are trying to reach a deal on raising the government's current $14.3 trillion debt ceiling by the start of August.

 

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

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

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