Watching and waiting: tanks outside Kobane, where Islamic State forces are ballting Syrian Kurds. Photo: Ibrahim Erikan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images
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Islamic State can be beaten

The jihadis are fighting on several fronts in two countries – and reports say that demoralised western recruits are increasingly repulsed by the atrocities they have witnessed.

You have to hand it to Islamic State. It’s not only good at capturing towns and cities, cutting off the heads of its enemies on camera, selling off 14-year-old girls into sexual slavery, carrying out mass executions with the efficiency and enthusiasm of the Reich’s SS Panzer Division and cutting videos to music; it has also managed to persuade us that it can’t be beaten.

“Seemingly unstoppable,” as someone on the BBC’s Today programme described the Islamist group the other day. “The Isil steamroller,” an American news anchor echoed. “There’s nothing to hold them back,” agreed an exhausted Kurd who had just escaped the street fighting in Kobane, on the border between Syria and Turkey, and was interviewed by the massed ranks of the world’s press.

How can you blame them, when our political leaders are queuing up to tell people how effective the Islamic State fighters are, and how useless are the efforts of those who are fighting them?

More than a week ago, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was forecasting the imminent fall of Kobane and warning that air strikes had failed. The Eeyorish US secretary of state scored a particularly encouraging headline: “John Kerry suggests Iran could lead fight against Isil if ‘US fails miserably’ ”. That’s the stuff to give the troops. And here is our own Foreign Secretary, in his best Henry-V-before-Harfleur manner: “We can’t save Kobane from falling to Islamic State, says Philip Hammond”.

Still, the inevitable victory of IS doesn’t look quite so inevitable elsewhere on the two-nation battlefield where it is fighting. In Iraq the other day, only 40 kilometres south-west of Baghdad, I was being driven towards the front line by the commander of the Iraqi national army’s 17th Division in his US-supplied Humvee.

Brigadier Jabbar Karam al-Taee is precisely the kind of officer the new Iraqi government is starting to promote: older, experienced and not necessarily Shia Muslim. Slightly built, with sharp eyes and an ability to charm, he fought the Iranians under Saddam Hussein, and possibly (though I was too tactful to ask him) the western coalition forces in 1991 and 2003.

How, I asked the brigadier over the grinding of the Humvee’s engine, did he rate the IS forces? “Not bad,” he said. “But they aren’t properly trained, and when you start to beat them they run away immediately.”

He should know. Like Air Vice-Marshal Keith Park of Fighter Command in 1940, Jabbar Karam is one of the few people who could lose the war in an afternoon. The 17th Division is all that stands between IS and the south-western approaches to Baghdad. Three weeks ago it took on a sizeable group of IS fighters gathered on the east bank of the Euphrates.

If the Iraqi army had failed, Baghdad would have come under attack and could conceivably have fallen. But an intelligent combination of US air strikes and action by Iraqi ground troops threw the Islamist fighters back across the river. They are still there, and for now they are showing few signs of activity.

 

So why didn’t we hear about the battle for Baghdad, when we have heard so much about the battle for Kobane, a relatively insignificant small town in Syria on the border with Turkey?

It’s mostly a question of access. Turkey is easy to get to, and dozens of journalists and cameramen have gathered on the heights overlooking Kobane to watch the street battles and air strikes. We all know from hour to hour what is happening there.

Baghdad is a lot more problematic to report from. It takes time to get visas, and only a few big news outfits such as the BBC or the New York Times have the infrastructure to protect their staff there.

If you were a newspaper, a magazine or a broadcaster with limited money and resources, you would be much more likely to use the services of one of the brave and adventurous freelance photojournalists who specialise in reporting on the Syrian side of war. You might even send one of your staff people to Turkey. You wouldn’t bother sending them to Baghdad, because it’s much too expensive and requires too great an effort.

For a news organisation working with a limited budget, Kobane is the natural place to report from. But it offers a skewed picture of the fight against Islamic State: in many ways, the picture that IS itself wants to promote.

Kobane provides the world with the impression that IS is advancing everywhere, successfully dealing out the savagery that makes it so terrifying. The only boots on the ground belong to Kurdish fighters, who have not always been particularly effective. The Turkish army could sort out IS in no time flat, but the Turks have a phobia about helping any form of Kurdish resistance, in case it spreads into Turkey itself.

It seems reasonable to assume that President Erdogan would actually welcome it if the Kurdish peshmerga in Kobane got a bloody nose – though they have done far better than he, and the gloomy duo of Kerry and Hammond, seemed to expect.

The reason Erdogan’s tanks have been sitting idly on the hillside overlooking Kobane, like Hitler’s tanks outside Warsaw in 1944, is that he regards the peshmerga as close allies of the PKK, the Kurdish militant organisation that is Turkey’s bête noire. At some point after Kobane falls, if it does, Erdogan’s forces, infinitely tougher and better trained than IS, will no doubt move into Kobane on some pretext or other and take it over.

 

The battle of the River Euphrates, on the Iraqi front, is an altogether different story. After IS forces captured the village of al-Yusufiyah, US air strikes destroyed their heavy gun positions. Iraqi troops moved in fast and winkled IS out, building by building. Soon it was in full retreat, escaping across the Euphrates and destroying the bridges behind it.

The situation is immensely dangerous for the Iraqi government. Anbar province, to the west and north-west of Baghdad, has been increasingly infiltrated by IS fighters. They are not on the ground in particularly large numbers, but there are few government forces around and many of them are too heavily Shia to be effective in a largely Sunni region.

Can IS be beaten there? Senior figures in Baghdad believe it can, if people stop repeating the nervous talk about IS being unstoppable and air strikes not working.

First, it will require a change of attitude. IS has been remarkably effective, but that could be changing. Some of its western volunteers seem to be losing their appetite for the brutality they are witnessing. A new IS training video shows recruits being beaten and bullied and forced to carry out exercises to the accompaniment of live rounds. This works with professional soldiers, but with volunteers, as most of IS’s fighters are, it can be counterproductive.

The hundreds of enthusiasts from western Europe and the US who have joined IS have often (Jihadi John aside) proved rather feeble and lacking in the necessary bloodlust. They are usually restricted to the status of what US soldiers call REMFs (short for “rear-echelon motherf***ers”), doing the cooking and the laundry. From time to time, it seems, foreign volunteers have been suspected of being plants for the western intelligence services. What happens to them after that isn’t known, but it is unlikely to be particularly healthy.

IS has 30,000 men at the very most, and there could well be fewer than that. Given that it is fighting on four or even five fronts across Syria and Iraq, it cannot be considered a big force.

Its strengths are twofold. First, it terrifies its enemies with the ferocity of its tactics, much like the Mongols in the 13th century. The downside of the IS practice of cutting the head off defeated enemies and gouging out their eyes is that it is a huge disincentive to surrender and a positive encouragement to fight to the last bullet. Initially, the Iraqi national army was so terrified by IS that it was paralysed. Now, the officers and men realise they have to fight fiercely if they are to survive.

IS’s second great strength lies in its commanders. Many are Saddam-era Iraqi army officers who used to fight for al-Qaeda and have now moved on to Islamic State. How they get on with wild men such as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ferocious self-styled caliph of Islamic State, is unclear.

In the past, because it had captured so many American-made tanks, heavy weapons and missiles from the Iraqi army, IS often made the mistake of fighting out in the open, like a proper army. That cost it dearly in casualties when the US air strikes began. Now, it is acting more like a guerrilla force, and has reduced its losses accordingly.

On the other side, the Iraqi army is improving. Until recently, the sectarian, pro-Shia government under the previous prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, would pack the army with young and inexperienced officers, chosen more for their Shia faith than for their fighting ability. They were easily intimidated by Islamic State’s reputation for aggression, and in June, when IS attacked Mosul, the biggest city in the north of the country, most of the Iraqi army officers there abandoned their men and simply ran for it. After Mosul fell, large numbers of Iraqi soldiers were slaughtered.

However, Iraq has a new prime minister: Haider al-Abadi, an engineer and businessman who lived for years in Britain. He has reversed Maliki’s Shia sectarianism by bringing Sunnis back into the army, and is negotiating with Sunni tribal leaders in western Iraq, where IS operates.

If the tribes decide to support the Baghdad government, as they supported the Americans from 2006 in the so-called Sunni Awakening, the Iraqi army stands a good chance of recapturing Mosul. It won’t happen for a few months yet, but Iraqi generals are hopeful they will get it back next year.

Clearing IS out of Mosul and Anbar province certainly won’t be the end of Islamic State, any more than the killing of Osama Bin Laden was the end of al-Qaeda; but just as al-Qaeda no longer seems the threat it once was, IS would start to seem much more vulnerable.

Maybe the next stage for IS will be to bring its horrific, trademark murders to the streets of western towns and cities. Some people, like the former US vice-president Dick Cheney, think it will do worse things than that. Perhaps. But let us hope that this time the United States and other countries choose not to fight IS with its own weapons of torture and brutality.

Contrary to what you see in the television pictures from Kobane, and hear from Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Philip Hammond and John Kerry, Islamic State can be beaten.

And it’s even possible that the process has already started.

John Simpson is the world affairs editor of the BBC

John Simpson is World Affairs Editor of BBC News, having worked for the corporation since the beginning of his career in 1970. He has reported from more than 120 countries, including 30 war zones, and interviewed many world leaders.

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

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The people is sublime: the long history of populism, from Robespierre to Trump

If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide of populism will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

A spectre of populism is haunting the world’s liberal democracies. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election, the narrow Leave majority in the EU referendum, Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election – breaking the spirit of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act passed by the government of which she was a member – and Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s victory in the recent Turkish referendum all testify to the strength of the populist tide that is sweeping through the North Atlantic world. The consequences have been calamitous: a shrunken public realm, a demeaned civic culture, threatened minorities, contempt for the rule of law and an increasingly ugly public mood. If liberal democracy is to survive, the tide will have to be turned back. The question is: how?

The first essential is to understand the nature of the beast. This is more difficult than it sounds. Most democratic politicians seek popularity, but populism and popularity are not the same. Today’s populism is the descendant of a long line of ancestors. The first unmistakably populist movement in history appeared well over two centuries ago during the later stages of the French Revolution. It was led by Robespierre (Thomas Carlyle’s “sea-green incorruptible”) and the Jacobins who promised a reign of “virtue”. They were inspired by the cloudy prose of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who believed that mere individuals should be subject to the general will of the social whole and – if necessary – “forced to be free”. As the revolution gathered pace and foreign armies mustered on France’s frontiers, the Jacobins launched the first organised, state-led and ideologically legitimised Terror in history. Chillingly, Robespierre declared, “The people is sublime, but individuals are weak.” That is the cry of populists through the ages. Appropriately, the Terror ended with Robespierre lying on a plank, screaming with pain before he was executed by guillotine.

The French Revolution – which began with the storming of the Bastille and ended with Napoleon’s ascent to an ersatz imperial throne – has an epic quality about it missing from later chapters in the populist story. Ironically, the second chapter, which opened half a century later, was the work of Louis Bonaparte, nephew of the great Napoleon. In 1848 came a second revolution and a second Republic; Louis Bonaparte was elected president by a huge majority. He tried and failed to amend the constitution to make it possible for him to have a second term; and then seized power in a coup d’état. Soon afterwards he became emperor as Napoleon III. (“Napoleon le petit”, in Victor Hugo’s savage phrase.) The whole story provoked one of Karl Marx’s best aphorisms: “History repeats itself; the first time as tragedy and the second as farce.”

There have been plenty of tragedies since – and plenty of farces, too. Trump’s victory was a tragedy, but farcical elements are already in evidence. Erdogan’s victory was even more tragic than Trump’s, but farce is conspicuously absent. The Leave victory in the referendum was tragic: arguably, the greatest tragedy in the three-century history of Britain’s union state. As with Trump, farce is already in evidence – the agitated comings and goings that have followed Theresa May’s loss of her Commons majority; the inane debate over the nature of the Brexit that Britain should seek; and the preposterous suggestion that, freed of the “Brussels” incubus, Britain will be able to conclude costless trade deals with the state-capitalist dictatorship of China and the “America First” neo-isolationists in Washington, DC. Unlike the French farce of Napoleon III’s Second Empire, however, the British farce now in progress is more likely to provoke tears than laughter.


Picture: André Carrilho

Populism is not a doctrine or a governing philosophy, still less an ideology. It is a disposition, perhaps a mood, a set of attitudes and above all a style. The People’s Party, which played a significant part in American politics in the late 19th century, is a case in point. The farmers whose grievances inspired the People’s Party wanted cheaper credit and transport to carry their products to markets in the eastern states. Hence the party’s two main proposals. One was the nationalisation of the railways, to cheapen transport costs; the other was “free silver” – the use of silver as well as gold as currency, supposedly to cheapen credit. Even then, this was not a particularly radical programme. It was designed to reform capitalism, not to replace it, as the largely Marxist social-democratic parties of Europe were seeking to do.

Rhetoric was a different matter. Mary Elizabeth Lease, a prominent member of the People’s Party, declared that America’s was no longer a government of the people by the people and for the people, but “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street”. The common people of America, she added, “are slaves and monopoly is the master”.

The Georgian populist Tom Watson once asked if Thomas Jefferson had dreamed that the party he founded would be “prostituted to the vilest purposes of monopoly” or that it would be led by “red-eyed Jewish millionaires”. The People’s Party’s constitutive Omaha Platform accused the two main parties of proposing “to sacrifice our homes, lives and children on the altar of Mammon; to destroy the multitude in order to secure corruption funds from the millionaires”. The party’s aim was “to restore the government of the Republic to the hands of ‘the plain people’ with which class it originated”. Theodore Roosevelt promised “to walk softly and carry a big stick”. The People’s Party walked noisily and carried a small stick. Jeremy Corbyn would have been at home in it.

Almost without exception, populists promise national regeneration in place of decline, decay and the vacillations and tergiversations of a corrupt establishment and the enervated elites that belong to it. Trump’s call to “make America great again” is an obvious recent case. His attacks on “crooked Hillary”, on the courts that have impeded his proposed ban on Muslim immigrants from capriciously chosen Middle Eastern and African countries, on the “fake news” of journalists seeking to hold his administration to account, and, most of all, his attack on the constitutional checks and balances that have been fundamental to US governance for more than 200 years, are the most alarming examples of populist practice, not just in American history but in the history of most of the North Atlantic world.

There are intriguing parallels between Trump’s regime and Erdogan’s. Indeed, Trump went out of his way to congratulate Erdogan on Turkey’s referendum result in April – which gives him the right to lengthen his term of office to ten years, to strengthen his control over the judiciary and to decide when to impose a state of emergency. Even before the referendum, he had dismissed more than 100,000 public servants, including teachers, prosecutors, judges and army officers; 4,000 were imprisoned. The Kurdish minority was – and is – repressed. True, none of this applies to Trump. But the rhetoric of the thin-skinned, paranoid US president and his equally thin-skinned and paranoid Turkish counterpart comes from the same repertoire. In the Turkish referendum Erdogan declared: “My nation stood upright and undivided.” It might have been Trump clamorously insisting that the crowd at his inauguration was bigger than it was.

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The best-known modern British populists – Margaret Thatcher, Nigel Farage and David Owen – form a kind of counterpoint. In some ways, all three have harked back to the themes of the 19th-century American populists. Thatcher insisted that she was “a plain, straightforward provincial”, adding that her “Bloomsbury” was Grantham – “Methodism, the grocer’s shop, Rotary and all the serious, sober virtues, cultivated and esteemed in that environment”. Farage declared that the EU referendum was “a victory for ‘the real people’ of Britain” – implying, none too subtly, that the 48 per cent who voted Remain were somehow unreal or, indeed, un-British.

On a holiday job on a building site during the Suez War, Owen experienced a kind of epiphany. Hugh Gaitskell was criticising Anthony Eden, the prime minister, on television and in the House of Commons, but Owen’s workmates were solidly in favour of Eden. That experience, he said, made him suspicious of “the kind of attitude which splits the difference on everything. The rather defeatist, even traitorous attitude reflected in the pre-war Apostles at Cambridge.” (Owen voted for Brexit in 2016.)

Did he really believe that Bertrand Russell, John Maynard Keynes and George Moore were traitorous? Did he not know that they were Apostles? Or was he simply lashing out, Trump-like, at an elite that disdained him – and to which he yearned to belong?

Thatcher’s Grantham, Farage’s real people and David Owen’s workmates came from the same rhetorical stable as the American populists’ Omaha Platform. But the American populists really were plain, in their sense of the word, whereas Thatcher, Farage and Owen could hardly have been less so. Thatcher (at that stage Roberts) left Grantham as soon as she could and never looked back. She went to Somerville College, Oxford, where she was a pupil of the Nobel laureate Dorothy Hodgkin. She married the dashing and wealthy Denis Thatcher and abandoned science to qualify as a barrister before being elected to parliament and eventually becoming prime minister. Farage worked as a metals trader in the City before becoming leader of the UK Independence Party. Owen went to the private Bradfield College before going up to Cambridge to read medicine. Despite his Welsh antecedents, he looks and sounds like a well-brought-up English public school boy. He was elected to parliament in 1966 at the age of 28 and was appointed under-secretary for the navy at 30. He then served briefly as foreign secretary in James Callaghan’s miserable Labour government in the 1970s.

Much the same is true of Marine Le Pen in France. She is a hereditary populist – something that seems self-contradictory. The Front National (FN) she heads was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen – Holocaust denier, anti-Semite, former street brawler and sometime Poujadist. In the jargon of public relations, she has worked hard to “de-toxify” the FN brand. But the Front is still the Front; it appeals most strongly to the ageing and insecure in the de-industrialised areas of the north-east. Marine Le Pen applauded the Leave victory in Britain’s referendum – she seeks to limit immigration, just as Ukip did in the referendum and as the May government does now.

Above all, the Front National appeals to a mythologised past, symbolised by the figure of Joan of Arc. Joan was a simple, illiterate peasant from an obscure village in north-eastern France, who led the French king’s forces to a decisive victory over the English in the later stages of the Hundred Years War. She was captured by England’s Burgundian allies, and the English burned her at the stake at the age of 19. She was beatified in 1909 and canonised in 1920. For well over a century, she has been a heroine for the Catholic French right, for whom the revolutionary triad of liberté, egalité, fraternité is either vacuous or menacing.

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The past to which the FN appeals is uniquely French. It is also contentious. A struggle over the ownership of the French past has been a theme of French politics ever since the French Revolution. But other mythologised pasts have figured again and again in populist rhetoric and still do. Mussolini talked of returning to the time of the Roman empire when the Mediterranean was Mare Nostrum. Trump’s “Make America great again” presupposes a past when America was great, and from which present-day Americans have strayed, thanks to Clintonesque crooks and the pedlars of fake news. “Take back control” – the mantra of the Brexiteers in the referendum – presupposes a past in which the British had control; Owen’s bizarre pre-referendum claim that, if Britain left the EU, she would be free to “rediscover the skills of blue water diplomacy” presupposed a time when she practised those skills. Vladimir Putin, another populist of sorts, is patently trying to harness memories of tsarist glory to his chariot wheels. Margaret Thatcher, the “plain, straightforward provincial” woman, sought to revive the “vigorous virtues” of her Grantham childhood and the “Victorian values” that underpinned them.

As well as mythologising the past, populists mythologise the people. Those for whom they claim to speak are undifferentiated, homogeneous and inert. Populists have nothing but contempt for de Tocqueville’s insight that the ever-present threat of majority tyranny can be kept at bay only by a rich array of intermediate institutions, including townships, law courts and a free press, underpinned by the separation of powers.

For populists, the threat of majority tyranny is a phantom, invented by out-of-touch and craven elitists. Law courts that stand in the way of the unmediated popular will are “enemies of the people”, as the Daily Mail put it. There is no need to protect minorities against the tyranny of the majority: minorities are either part of the whole, in which case they don’t need protection, or self-excluded from it, in which case they don’t deserve to be protected.

Apparent differences of interest or value that cut across the body of the people, that divide the collective sovereign against itself, are products of elite manipulation or, in Thatcher’s notorious phrase, of “the enemy within”. For there is a strong paranoid streak in the populist mentality. Against the pure, virtuous people stand corrupt, privileged elites and sinister, conspiratorial subversives. The latter are forever plotting to do down the former.

Like pigs searching for truffles, populists search for subversives. Inevitably, they find what they are looking for. Joe McCarthy was one of the most squalid examples of the populist breed: for years, McCarthyism was a baneful presence in Hollywood, in American universities, newspaper offices and in the public service, ruining lives, restricting free expression and making it harder for the United States to win the trust of its European allies. The barrage of hatred and contempt that the tabloid press unleashed on opponents of Theresa May’s pursuit of a “hard” Brexit is another example. Her astounding claim that a mysterious entity known as “Brussels” was seeking to interfere in the British general election is a third.

As the Princeton political scientist Jan-Werner Müller argues, all of this strikes at the heart of democratic governance. Democracy depends on open debate, on dialogue between the bearers of different values, in which the protagonists learn from each other and from which they emerge as different people. For the Nobel laureate, philosopher and economist Amartya Sen, democracy is, above all, “public reasoning”; and that is impossible without social spaces in which reasoning can take place. Populism is singular; democracy is plural. The great question for non-populists is how to respond to the populist threat.

Two answers are in contention. The first is Theresa May’s. It amounts to appeasement. May’s purported reason for calling a snap general election was that the politicians were divided, whereas the people were united. It is hard to think of a better – or more frightening – summary of the spirit of populism. The second answer is Emmanuel Macron’s. For the moment, at least, he is astonishingly popular in France. More important, his victory over Le Pen has shown that, given intelligence, courage and generosity of spirit, the noxious populist tide can be resisted and, perhaps, turned back. 

David Marquand’s most recent book is “Mammon’s Kingdom”: an Essay on Britain Now” (Allen Lane)

This article first appeared in the 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten