Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has lost sight of the national interest

The chaos in the Conservative Party is a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards.

David Cameron had a difficult week - with over 100 of his own MPs rebelling over Europe - but he should listen to the wise advice of former Tory foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe, who savaged his approach to Europe in an article for the Observer.

Given the other headlines - a new low for the PM as "loongate" dominates - the broadside from Lord Howe must almost have felt like light relief. But it comes from the man whose gentle but deadly attack on Margaret Thatcher's approach to Europe marked the point when she lost control of her own party.

Geoffrey Howe is right that the UK's EU membership is "a key point of leverage for this country in the modern world." He is also right to underline that the Conservative leadership is "running scared of its own backbenchers".

During a week in which David Cameron hoped for positive headlines about his visit to the United States, the Tory civil war on Europe at home left his leadership in tatters. It was ironic that while many in his party were calling for the UK to leave the EU, including two of his own cabinet ministers, he was discussing the great benefits of an EU-US free trade agreement with President Obama.

The joke in Westminster last week among Tory MPs was that they did not need to worry about acting against the leadership because it was only a matter of 24 or 48 hours before their position would become Conservative party policy. The rushed publication of a private member's bill order by the PM from across the Atlantic was designed to quash the Tory rebellion on the eurosceptic amendment lamenting the absence in the Queen's Speech of legislation for an in-out referendum. Yet 116 Tory MPs rebelled anyway, effectively declaring that they don't trust their party leader to deliver.

The last seven days are only the latest demonstration of what Howe aptly describes as the "ratchet-effect of Euroscepticism". Cameron thought that his promise in January to hold an in/out referendum at some point in the next four years would satisfy the eurosceptic beast in his party, but it hasn't.

The real lesson of the local elections, and of the UKIP surge, however, is that sections of the electorate are distrustful of mainstream politicians and are concerned above all about jobs, immigration and welfare. The disappointing and worrying unemployment figures published last Wednesday were drowned out by the Conservative row on Europe. The government needs to get a grip and focus on getting the economy on track.

Our EU membership is crucial to our future prosperity. As Howe underlines, given the UK's three per cent share of global GDP and one per cent share of the world's population, the UK's EU membership magnifies our voice in the world, economically and diplomatically.

The CBI's director general John Cridland was right to stress last week that leaving the EU would be bad for British business. Shrinking our domestic market from 500 to 60 million consumers simply does not make sense. The EU also gives us greater weight and bargaining power in free trade negotiations with big and emerging economies. Foreign direct investment, particularly in the automotive and aerospace industries, is attracted to our shores because we are a gateway to the world's largest single market.

The arrest of one of Britain's most wanted fugitives in Spain last week also served as a reminder that our EU membership is vital to the fight against organised crime and other challenges, like climate change, that are impossible for us to tackle alone.

Last week's chaos in the Conservative Party was a distraction from the real priorities for people across the country: jobs, growth and living standards. As Howe points out, it is the national interest, not party management or political advantage, which should guide decisions about our membership of the EU. Cameron has not only lost control of his party, he has also lost sight of the national interest. It falls to Labour to act responsibly, make a pragmatic and positive case for our continued EU membership and warn against the dangers of sleep-walking towards exit.

David Cameron speaks at a press conference at the EU headquarters on February 8, 2013 in Brussels. Photograph: Getty Images.

Emma Reynolds is MP for Wolverhampton North East and former shadow Europe minister. She sits on the committee for exiting the European Union. 

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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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