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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

David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide