Spaceships and a simple plan

Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column.

‘‘Are there any drugs you can give me?” I am begging my GP, Dr Ibrahim. I’ve had enough of feeling like crap. I can’t wait another five weeks for my appointment with the mental health nurse – I need chemical intervention, and I need it now. “Do people still take Prozac? Or was that a Nineties thing?”
“Not while you are still breastfeeding. There is another drug I could prescribe. But darling, are you sure you can’t wait to see the specialist?”
Dr Ibrahim always calls me darling. It’s an acquired taste in a doctor, but I like it. Her consulting room has a heavy, perfumed smell, with a faint undertone of cigarette smoke. I can tell she is a mother herself by the way she deftly moves her cup of tea just before Moe succeeds in tipping it all over the blood pressure machine.
“I feel terrible. I can’t stop crying. I haven’t had a good night’s sleep for months. We haven’t got any money. And my boyfriend hates me.” As if to illustrate my point, I burst into tears, again.
“Daaarling. But this is all very natural. You’ve just had a baby.”
I notice a packet of red Gauloises peeping from the pocket of her blouse. God, I would kill for a cigarette right now. Would she give me one? No, I daren’t ask. I’m sure that would be against the rules.
“What you really need is rest.”
This is indisputable. I can feel the pressure of sleeplessness on my brain, reducing everything to a dull grey pulp. Outside, summer may be in full swing, birds may be tweeting from the blossomy trees, children may be frolicking in the park . . . but inside my head everything is dark as a December morning. It feels like my brain has stopped absorbing any of the nice stuff, while it sucks up doom like a sponge.
Dr Ibrahim won’t give me any drugs. She tells me to leave the children with Curly for a night, get some rest, and come back next week if I’m still feeling low. As I push the buggy back through the sun-baked park I force myself to look up at the trees, and the birds in them. Then I force myself to stop at the café for an ice lolly. It’s tough, but I think I can hack it.
Can I force myself to feel better? Perhaps I can. I sit down on a bench and come up with a three-point plan:
One: I will get some sleep.
Two: I will stop reading or listening to the news. Responsibility for two very small humans is as much as I can handle. The rest of the world will have to wait.
Three: I will stop working. I will stop caring about houses or bills or breaking even. The only things in the world I’m allowed to worry about are Larry and Moe.
It’s a simple plan, but I feel encouraged by it. I put the lolly stick carefully in my bag so Larry and I can make spaceships later, and start for home with the tiniest trace of a spring in my step. 
Alice O'Keeffe's "Squeezed Middle" column appears weekly in the New Statesman magazine.

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.