These "Syria for idiots" pieces are getting a bit much

Where will it end?

The Syria Question: It’s stolen the headlines and public debate this summer as Congress and Parliament come to loggerheads. But how can you have an answer if you don’t know what the Question is? Here’s a simple explanation from one K N Al-Sabah in a letter to the FT:

Sir, Iran is backing Assad. Gulf states are against Assad!

Assad is against Muslim Brotherhood. Muslim Brotherhood and Obama are against General Sisi.

But Gulf states are pro Sisi! Which means they are against Muslim Brotherhood!

Iran is pro Hamas, but Hamas is backing Muslim Brotherhood!

Obama is backing Muslim Brotherhood, yet Hamas is against the US!

Gulf states are pro US. But Turkey is with Gulf states against Assad; yet Turkey is pro Muslim Brotherhood against General Sisi. And General Sisi is being backed by the Gulf states!

Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

K N Al-Sabah, London EC4, UK

Comprende? If not, don’t worry, the letter’s recent trending on Twitter inspired some uncomplicated visual graphics, most notably @TheBigPharaoh’s "The Complete Idiot’s Chart to Understanding The Middle East", as picked up by the Washington Post. One glance at the chart and its blue, red and green arrows depicting who "supports", "hates" and "has no clue" of who, and you will probably also have "no clue" about what is really going on in the fast changing region.

Perhaps this is overcomplicating things, especially for the American public, half of whom could not find Syria on a map, as surveyed by the Pew Research Centre "only 50 per cent of respondents correctly identified the shaded country as Syria. Almost one in five (19 per cent) thought it was Turkey, 11 per cent said it was Saudi Arabia, and 5 per cent said it was Egypt".

This inspired the New York Times columnist Nick Kristof to Tweet "Now members of Congress will have to consult maps and figure out where Syria is".

Perhaps this was meant as a joke, but then on Tuesday, General Jack Keane, a former vice chief of staff of the US Army told the BBC "many of our politicians are not educated on what is really going on in Syria". Just as well, then, the UK has renounced intervening alongside the US.

The public – who have no say in the Syria Question – might not need to know who "supports" or "has no clue", who is "pro" or "backing", or who "hates" or is "against" who, or even, for that matter, know where Syria is. But if the Syria Question is so complicated that it confuddles the politicians, then a longer debate and strategy is surely needed. Perhaps Commons or Congress should invite Mr K N Al-Sabah to read out his letter to them, complete with the updated allegiances of the UK and US. Welcome to the Middle East and have a nice day.

Photograph: Getty Images

Oliver Williams is an analyst at WealthInsight and writes for VRL Financial News

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Commons Confidential: What happened at Tom Watson's birthday party?

Finances, fair and foul – and why Keir Starmer is doing the time warp.

Keir Starmer’s comrades mutter that a London seat is an albatross around the neck of the ambitious shadow Brexit secretary. He has a decent political CV: he was named after Labour’s first MP, Keir Hardie; he has a working-class background; he was the legal champion of the McLibel Two; he had a stint as director of public prosecutions. The knighthood is trickier, which is presumably why he rarely uses the title.

The consensus is that Labour will seek a leader from the north or the Midlands when Islington’s Jeremy Corbyn jumps or is pushed under a bus. Starmer, a highly rated frontbencher, is phlegmatic as he navigates the treacherous Brexit waters. “I keep hoping we wake up and it’s January 2016,” he told a Westminster gathering, “and we can have another run. Don’t we all?” Perhaps not everybody. Labour Remoaners grumble that Corbyn and particularly John McDonnell sound increasingly Brexitastic.

To Tom Watson’s 50th birthday bash at the Rivoli Ballroom in south London, an intact 1950s barrel-vaulted hall generous with the velvet. Ed Balls choreographed the “Gangnam Style” moves, and the Brockley venue hadn’t welcomed so many politicos since Tony Blair’s final Clause IV rally 22 years ago. Corbyn was uninvited, as the boogying deputy leader put the “party” back into the Labour Party. The thirsty guests slurped the free bar, repaying Watson for 30 years of failing to buy a drink.

One of Westminster’s dining rooms was booked for a “Decent Chaps Lunch” by Labour’s Warley warrior, John Spellar. In another room, the Tory peer David Willetts hosted a Christmas reception on behalf of the National Centre for Universities and Business. In mid-January. That’s either very tardy or very, very early.

The Labour Party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol, is a financial maestro, having cleared the £25m debt that the party inherited from the Blair-Brown era. Now I hear that he has squirrelled away a £6m war chest as insurance against Theresa May gambling on an early election. Wisely, the party isn’t relying on Momentum’s fractious footsloggers.

The word in Strangers’ Bar is that the Welsh MP Stephen Kinnock held his own £200-a-head fundraiser in London. Either the financial future of the Aberavon Labour Party is assured, or he fancies a tilt at the top job.

Dry January helped me recall a Labour frontbencher explaining why he never goes into the Commons chamber after a skinful: “I was sitting alongside a colleague clearly refreshed by a liquid lunch. He intervened and made a perfectly sensible point without slurring. Unfortunately, he stood up 20 minutes later and repeated the same point, word for word.”

Kevin Maguire is the associate editor (politics) of the Daily Mirror

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era