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A lone voice for peace

An interview with Haytham Manna.

Israeli air strikes in Damascus, allegations of chemical weapons use in Aleppo, revenge massacres on the Syrian coast: to write about Syria nowadays is to become an expert in arms and gruesome forensics. So, what room is there for an opposition politician who calls himself a pacifist?

Haytham Manna, a veteran activist from Dara’a, the city where the Syrian revolt first erupted in March 2011, leads the National Co-ordination Body for Democratic Change (NCB) outside the country. It is Syria’s other opposition; the most visible one, the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, is rooted in Turkey and Qatar, while the NCB has more of a political presence inside the country.

Like the National Coalition, the NCB is an umbrella of different groups; but whereas the former leans towards the exiled Muslim Brotherhood and the Sunni Gulf states, the NCB is more secular, a hotchpotch of leftists and Kurdish nationalists, many of whom were formerly working underground. Much of the external opposition is happy to lead the charge for Nato arms or intervention, but Manna and the NCB would prefer to grow the democratic forces within the country – to foment something between a “national dialogue” and a “national revolution”. It has made him unpopular among many Syrians.

When I meet Manna, in London on a rare visit from his base in Paris, I ask about his brother, who was arrested, tortured and killed by Assad’s security services early on in the revolt. Does he understand people who decided then that the only way to get rid of the Syrian regime was through force? “Understanding is one thing,” Manna says. “But recommending it, following it as a political programme, is another. When you’re in a situation like ours, you can’t take on the job of psychotherapist . . . They’ve given the regime a longer life with this way of struggle. We were a really attractive force for the society. Now we are not.”

The Syrian opposition hadn’t quite won the democratic argument, he thinks; given the forces arraigned against it, the best approach was to expand the movement and use pressure from the Arab League and the UN Security Council to force the regime out. But in the early months of the uprising, people were looking to army defectors just to protect their demonstrations – was he against even that? Of course not, he says. “Self-defence means that when someone comes to your house to attack, you can use the right to defend yourself. This is normal in all societies. But from the moment when you go to attack a military unit or confront or occupy a quarter of a city or a village, that’s another thing.”

Manna’s most compelling – and prescient – arguments aren’t moral, but strategic and political. Fighting an armed insurgency is expensive and he worries that, following the Arab spring, Turkey and the oil-rich states of Saudi Arabia and Qatar are using their influence among the cashstrapped Syrian rebels to push their own agendas and jockey for regional position. Perhaps as a result, he and his colleagues aren’t often seen on al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya, the two Gulfbased satellite channels that have been cheerleading for the armed revolt.

Manna trained as an anthropologist and you can hear it in the timbre of his arguments. “We think that today the organic structure of the society will dominate any violent action,” he says. “It will be sectarian, it will be Islamist, it will be tribal. It will be not be civil or republican.” If Islamist groups dominate, “it will be about vengeance”. But if that’s what most Syrians want, shouldn’t they have it?

“There isn’t a majority for that. If there was, why not? But 40 per cent of Syrian society, the minorities, are not with the Islamist project [Manna includes Kurds, the 10 per cent who are largely Sunni but not Arab, so don’t fit squarely in either camp], and I don’t think that the 60 per cent who are Arab Sunnis will want it either. I don’t think all of them are with the jihadist groups.”

What started out as a movement for freedom and democratic rights may well end up as the foil for a pointless but all-encompassing regional war. For their reliance on the Gulf states, Manna has labelled the external opposition in Turkey and Qatar “traitors” and stands by it. The feeling is mutual, I tell him. At the border between Syria and Turkey last summer, I came across an ageing rebel sentry cradling a Kalashnikov under a tree and asked him what he thought of Manna. “Haytham Manna is a traitor,” he barked. “He works with Bashar al-Assad, and with [Syrian] state security. We will not let him back into Syria when we win.”

James Harkin’s e-book “War Against All: the Struggle for Northern Syria” is out now (Kindle, £1.49)

This article first appeared in the 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Geoffrey Howe dies, aged 88

Howe was Margaret Thatcher's longest serving Cabinet minister – and the man credited with precipitating her downfall.

The former Conservative chancellor Lord Howe, a key figure in the Thatcher government, has died of a suspected heart attack, his family has said. He was 88.

Geoffrey Howe was the longest-serving member of Margaret Thatcher's Cabinet, playing a key role in both her government and her downfall. Born in Port Talbot in 1926, he began his career as a lawyer, and was first elected to parliament in 1964, but lost his seat just 18 months later.

Returning as MP for Reigate in the Conservative election victory of 1970, he served in the government of Edward Heath, first as Solicitor General for England & Wales, then as a Minister of State for Trade. When Margaret Thatcher became opposition leader in 1975, she named Howe as her shadow chancellor.

He retained this brief when the party returned to government in 1979. In the controversial budget of 1981, he outlined a radical monetarist programme, abandoning then-mainstream economic thinking by attempting to rapidly tackle the deficit at a time of recession and unemployment. Following the 1983 election, he was appointed as foreign secretary, in which post he negotiated the return of Hong Kong to China.

In 1989, Thatcher demoted Howe to the position of leader of the house and deputy prime minister. And on 1 November 1990, following disagreements over Britain's relationship with Europe, he resigned from the Cabinet altogether. 

Twelve days later, in a powerful speech explaining his resignation, he attacked the prime minister's attitude to Brussels, and called on his former colleagues to "consider their own response to the tragic conflict of loyalties with which I have myself wrestled for perhaps too long".

Labour Chancellor Denis Healey once described an attack from Howe as "like being savaged by a dead sheep" - but his resignation speech is widely credited for triggering the process that led to Thatcher's downfall. Nine days later, her premiership was over.

Howe retired from the Commons in 1992, and was made a life peer as Baron Howe of Aberavon. He later said that his resignation speech "was not intended as a challenge, it was intended as a way of summarising the importance of Europe". 

Nonetheless, he added: "I am sure that, without [Thatcher's] resignation, we would not have won the 1992 election... If there had been a Labour government from 1992 onwards, New Labour would never have been born."

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.