Coalition finds Lib Dems learning to sing in an awkward new key

The post-election thank you party demonstrates that not everyone is wild about the coalition.

Forty days after shocking the nation by entering into a coalition deal with the Tories, the Lib Dems met to reminisce about the general election campaign, and thank those who campaigned so hard, only to be disappointed by a low youth voter turnout and the overall loss of five seats.

The property tycoon and long-time Lib Dem supporter Ramesh Dewan hosted the event, held in the ballroom of the Park Plaza hotel in London. Significantly, this opulent location lies just across the river from the Palace of Westminster -- a constant reminder that although their election night did go entirely to plan, they are now a party of government.

Seeing Chris Huhne, now Energy and Climate Change Secretary, come bounding out of the front door to urge his smoking friends inside, was just another indicator of the strange mood at this gathering. The atmosphere was both heady (with power, perhaps?) and uncomfortable, as the room was crammed with members who remember Paddy Ashdown's leadership and were clearly very aware of the long road the party had travelled from those days to the brave new world of the "new politics".

There were giggles at the toastmaster's address; Lib Dems are not yet used to hearing themselves addressed as "lords, ladies, gentlemen, secretaries of state and ministers". But Dewan's address was very much in line with what we've been hearing from those new ministers. He spoke of achievements and Lib Dem manifesto commitments fulfilled.

However, the party president, Ros Scott, was not quite so strictly on-message. She acknowledged that members will have some "strange" feelings about the new situation, and implied that the leadership must earn their members' trust by the way the handle power in the coalition.

Promises made good

Naturally, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was very well received by those members present. It certainly felt like he had no need to earn back their trust as he made the customary after-dinner sallies, joking that there were still hairdressers who didn't recognise him and that his ego had taken something of a battering when confronted with children supremely unimpressed by his new position. The rhetoric of the campaign did make a brief reappearance, though, as he spoke of the promises that would be made good.

But the mood in the room became palpably awkward as he moved on to the sensitive issue of staff redundancies. As a party of government, the Lib Dems no longer receive the £1.8m of public funding they received in opposition. According to staff members I spoke to, this will mean cuts, and up to 39 jobs could go. Clegg put his customary optimistic spin on the matter, speaking of "the new opportunities and adventures we will face", but, according to one staff member, the job cuts are "the elephant in the room".

It isn't just staff members who are worried about money. There is a huge hole in the party's finances that is bound to affect campaign resources, and although many of the key people are now enjoying government salaries, a lack of cash will make the next campaign much tougher. Next time, we could be losing seats simply because we can't afford to put the resources into our campaign.

It's hard to tell whether these members are genuinely pleased to be in government. While there are those who told me that they loved the idea of the coalition and had few concerns about its future, there were far many more who expressed scepticism. One member from the right of the party, who has contested several parliamentary elections, said: "I can't say that this set-up is something I've campaigned for all these years. It's not really what I wanted."

Another source close to senior party figures believed that if Charles Kennedy were still leader, the party would not have entered into the coalition, preferring the "confidence and supply" arrangement that he said would have kept the party in far better health.

This is an unprecedented situation for the party, and it is bound to feel more than a little surreal. When the after-dinner entertainment started, many present were unable to tell if the Shirley Bassey impersonator was the real thing or not -- an indication, perhaps, of the disorientating effect of the coalition. I suppose if you look around the room to see the Deputy Prime Minister, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the former BBC director general Greg Dyke amid the throng, it isn't so unbelievable that Shirley Bassey really could have come to sing for us.

Eduardo Reyes was vice-chair of Student Liberal Democrats. He worked for the Liberal Democrats from 1995-98, is a contributor to the Reformer magazine, and has been a party election agent and council candidate.

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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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