Deep South gives Santorum hope

Rick Santorum’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi might spell the end for Newt Gingrich.

Mitt Romney didn't stay in the Deep South after the results of Tuesday's primary vote came in. Perhaps it was because Alabama and Mississippi were his "away game", as he said. Or maybe it's because, even if he lost, he'd still be ahead of the others in number of delegates.

Indeed, he expected to run third, behind Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, and even so, he'd gain a third of the delegates, give or take. That's enough, as he said, to inch closer to 1,144 needed to win.

Indeed, events unfolded pretty much like that. Santorum bested the field in both states. In Alabama, with 98 per cent of the vote counted, the former US senator from Pennsylvania had 34.5 per cent of ballots compared to Gingrich's 29.3 and Romney's 29.

The race was much closer in Mississippi, where for much of the evening, it was a statistical dead heat, with Santorum taking only a slight lead. But around 11pm EST, the TV networks projected Santorum as the winner. He took 32.9 per cent of the votes while Gingrich took 31.3 and Romney 30.3.

"We did it again," Santorum told supporters.

True grit

The media narrative in the run-up to Tuesday was by now familiar. Can Romney win the conservative stronghold of the Deep South where he must woo evangelical Christians and white, working-class voters? The answer is going to be no for most political observers. He is a rejected suitor. Yet again.

But as I say, that may not matter. Though he didn't do himself any favours talking about eating grits and saying "ya'll," he did come in to Tuesday's primaries with more delegates than Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul combined. Leaving with a third of the delegates (both states are proportional, not winner-takes-all) gets him just a little bit closer to the "magic number", as Romney put it.

What about the general election? If he struggles in the Land of Dixie, can Romney beat President Barack Obama? Even if, as some have said, a Romney nomination means conservatives stay home in November, there is no way Obama will take Alabama or Mississippi (or most likely any of the states in the American South). According to a survey by Public Policy Polling, more than half (52 per cent) of voters in Mississippi erroneously believe that Obama is a Muslim.

Meanwhile, Santorum and Gingrich have been making themselves completely unelectable by competing for the title of Mr Most Conservative. Both have pandered to evangelicals by railing against "anti-Christian bigotry" and the like. Gingrich used similar dog-whistle rhetoric as we saw in South Carolina – that Obama favours infanticide and that the US genuflects to the United Nations. He even promised to bring gasoline down to $2.50 a gallon with more domestic drilling.

Keep things in proportion

This might be the end for Gingrich. He's said he will carry on, but his main backer, Shelton Adelson, a billionaire casino magnate, has already hinted that he's as likely to put money in Romney's super-PAC as he is into Gingrich's. Without Adelson's support (for Gingrich, he's written cheques of roughly $10m), Gingrich would have quit long ago. But now, with only South Carolina and Georgia in his pockets and an ascendent Santorum, there's little reason to keep pushing, unless you count the practical get-out-the-vote value of making this nomination process appear to be exciting. Politics is sleight of hand, after all.

As for Santorum, if the rules didn't allot delegates proportionally, his wins on Tuesday would be more significant. As it is, he would have to crush Romney by wide margins in big states like such as New York and Illinois to make up ground, but that's unlikely, given Romney's lead and the amount of money flowing into his super-PAC, which has the luxury of attacking Santorum every chance it gets.

The best Santorum can do is to keep pushing ahead and making the case for a run in 2016 or 2020.

John Stoehr is a lecturer in English at Yale University.

John Stoehr teaches writing at Yale. His essays and journalism have appeared in The American Prospect, Reuters Opinion, the Guardian, and Dissent, among other publications. He is a political blogger for The Washington Spectator and a frequent contributor to Al Jazeera English.

 

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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