A to B: Transport week at the New Statesman

Introducing a week of themed posts on how we get from here to there and back again.

It's not where you go, it's how you get there. We all need to get around, from the day-to-day (the average Briton spends three and a half hours commuting every week) to the less frequent (there were 45 million flights abroad in 2012, mostly to Europe).

And how we choose to do it matters. In 2011, 21 people died on the London Underground, while 16 cyclists died in the capital. Those numbers may be roughly comparable, but when you consider that the Tube carries four million people a day while there is an eighth that number of cyclists, it's clear that one group is taking a much bigger (though still small) risk.

Living with that risk may be the cause of the fierce group dynamic cyclists display. But it's not just them. How we travel can define us in surprising ways. From the shared drudgery of an eight and a half hour coach trip across England to the commuters standing in an overcrowded train doing its best impression of a sardine tin, the trip matters almost as much as the destination.

Of course, for some people, the trip is the destination. Take the itinerant retirees of the British canal system, who give up society to live a life of fields, tiny town shops and everlasting damp; or the hundreds of rough sleepers who make the most of London's night bus network to catch 90 minutes of safe rest.

Over the next week, we'll be taking a look at all these aspects of transport and more. Hayley Campbell gives her rules for cycling; Alan White shares his time on a narrowboat; Samira Shackle reports on the car-centric lives of wealthy Pakistanis; and there will be more besides.

Monday: Hayley Campbell has been cycling in London for two years and is inexplicably Not Dead. Now you can be Not Dead too.

Tuesday: Alan White shares his time floating around Britain's canal network, and Alex Andreou shares the unique relationship a migrant has with planes.

Wednesday: Samira Shackle writes about the dependence the rich of Pakistan have on their cars, and Labour's shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle calls of the government to end its stop-start approach to cycling.

Thursday: Holly Baxter shares her love-hate relationship with National Express, the red-headed stepchild of transport, and Eleanor Margolis recounts her experience with the vikings of the N22.

Friday: Caroline Crampton recalls the time her parents were lost at sea.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
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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.