Show Hide image

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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

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