Mad Margaret's voyage of dishonour

In this week's selection from the New Statesman archive former editor Bruce Page opposes the sending

The New Statesman 9 April 1982

On 2 April 1982 Argentina's military junta invaded the British colony of the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was determined to liberate the islands and their people from what was fascist rule - by war if necessary. In a number of passionately argued editorials, Bruce Page, then editor of the New Statesman, rejected the sending of the British expeditionary force and the support given to its departure by the Labour Party.

Selected by Robert Taylor

The owl of Minerva, said Hegel, flies only at dusk. By this he meant that human societies take a dangerously long time in learning from history.

In the case of Britain and her post-Imperial pretensions, the owl trundles down the runway again and again. But she never shows any sign of getting into the air.

It is not easy to believe that even a government as stupid and amateurish as Mrs Thatcher's can actually be sending some of the Navy's costliest and most elaborate warships to take part in a game of blind-man's-buff at the other end of the world. The revenue cost of the enterprise can't be less than £50 million, which would be more than enough to give the Falkland Islanders the fresh beginning in life that this country certainly owes them. The capital cost, if ships and aircraft start going into action, and taking casualties, could make the revenue cost look trivial.

And the cost in blood? One is not talking here of using a few highly-trained SAS men to knock over a captured embassy with its garrison of half-demented terrorists. The task is to take and hold a group of islands defended by some 5,000 professional soldiers, who have air and naval support from a tolerably-handy home base – while our people have to operate at the end of an 8,000 mile ocean supply line.

Some other late flutters of the post-Imperial heart – notably, the Anguilla episode – had their comic side. But if any serious shooting starts in the Falklands, a lot of young men, British and Argentinian, are likely to get killed and maimed. And in what cause will this be done?

If you read the Daily Mail, or listen to Tory MPs, you might imagine that the cause was liberty and democracy. (These are the same people who became passionate trade-unionists when Jaruzelski's army crushed Solidarity.) If you believe The Times, you are committed to thinking that the cause is the rolling back of aggression more evil and portentous than Hitler's invasion of Poland in 1939. WE ARE ALL FALKLANDERS NOW says The Times, having apparently failed to notice that the government on which it now fawns went to some trouble, last year, in its Nationality Bill, to ensure that we are not Falklanders – and to ensure that no such colonial bounders could be mistaken for members of the homeland club.

Certainly the Argentine Government, in spite of changes of regime, hasn't for many years been off any sensible observer's short-list of the world's most noxious regimes. But until the weekend's rhetorical orgy swept leader-writers and Parliamentarians into its embrace, no Labour or Tory ministers had found any serious inconvenience in that fact. Till now, British government have gone out of their way to truckle to Argentina – and if that means abandoning the Falklanders, okay; if it means turning a blind eye to torture and fascist repression, fair enough. There was a brief tiff in January 1976, when Buenos Aires broke off ambassadorial relations after Lord Shackleton paid a visit to the islands. But by March 1979 the Labour Government had agreed to exchange ambassadors again.

The truth is that relations between Britain and Latin America are dictated not by ministers, but by the Foreign Office and by an assortment of business-oriented lobbyists like Lord Chalfont and Viscount Montgomery. When Mr Nicholas Ridley was supposedly in charge of our Latin American affairs in 1980, he gave a touchingly honest account of the government's actual expertise: complaining of the whole continent, he said “it's very far away, it's very expensive to get there, and what's more they mainly speak Spanish or Portuguese.”

Labour ministers have not been better than Tories at taking a detached view of the “advice”offered to them. A letter sent from Edmund Dell, Trade Secretary, to David Owen, Foreign Secretary, in 1978 deserves quotation in some detail:

“Even Luard may have told you of the dinner given by the Lord Mayor recently...for the purpose of bringing together those with significant interests in Latin America. There was a free exchange of views, during which several speakers expressed concern about the effect which our stance on human rights was having and would continue to have for some time on our trade interests there.

Since then, George Nelson of GEC has written to Fred Catherwood, who as you know is chairman of the British Overseas Trade Board, following up their discussion at the dinner. Apart from reiterating his concern over our long-term trade interests generally, he has particularly drawn attention to GEC's and British Aerospace's interest in selling the Hawk aircraft to Argentina (worth about £100 million)...I understand that you are at present considering whether or not General Agosti, Argentine Chief of Air Staff, should be invited here and received at the appropriate level. Nelson and Catherwood both urge that we should invite him...”

No surprise, then, that during the 1970s Britain provided nearly one-third of all major weapons purchased by Argentina – including ship to air missiles and ship-to-ship missiles which could be used against our own fleet in the event of Mrs Thatcher's somewhat hysterical “diplomacy” going adrift.

In October 1979 William Whitelaw received hearty Argentine congratulations on ending the visa programme for Latin American refugees. In August 1980 Cecil Parkinson Minister for Trade, visited the Argentine and enthused about the trading possibilities, and was followed by Peter Walker in 1981. Meanwhile in all sorts of penny-pinching detail, the social infrastructure of the supposedly-treasured Falkland Islands was steadily handed over to the Argentine regime: as the British Government never followed-up Shackleton's recommendation for a long-range airstrip on the island, the Falklanders' communications go via Buenos Aires, and via a small airstrip built by Argentine soldiers who no doubt made the most of their reconnaissance opportunities.

Supposedly, the emphasis is now on "diplomacy", in which Mrs Thatcher's chum Ronald Reagan is expected to play some part. The likelihood of the double-act's success should be assessed in terms of its immediate past performance – which is the remarkable one of driving the Argentine dictatorship into the arms of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Until last week, Buenos Aires backed Reagan's anti-Communist crusade all the way: sending “advisers” to the Salvadorean and Guatemalan armies, and to the Somocieta camps in Honduras; withdrawing ambassadors from Havana and Managua in support of American aims.

Only last November the Americans gave General Galtieri a banquet in Washington and described him as a "majestic personality". Demented by flattery, Galtieri appears to have concluded that the Americans would support him in his Falkland Islands, and was thunderstruck to receive a long, distinctly hostile phone-call from Reagan just before the invasion went in. “Whose side are you on?” he is reported to have asked Reagan, in understandable puzzlement.

But the Soviet Union – which will take 80 per cent of Argentina's grain exports this year – has been carefully cultivating the General for some time, and there is excellent historical precedence for hasty marriages of convenience between totalitarian regimes of “left” and “right”. Already the Argentine ambassadors are on their way back to Cuba and Nicaragua. And next month Galtieri's foreign minister will go to Havana to discuss ways in which Argentina might become more active within the “non-aligned” movement of which Fidel Castro is president.

To support Britain's dubious, irrational enterprise, the whole armoury of patriotic rhetoric and flim-flam has been deployed. The Times, predictably, reached out for one of the two literary passages which even Fleet Street leader-writers know (the other being Yeats's remark about things falling apart when the centre fails to hold), and in which by endless repetition even John Donne's prose has acquired the overtones of cliché:

"No man is an island, entire of itself... therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee."

A slightly wider acquaintance with Donne's works might have yielded this, from the Verse Letters (and the title, To H.W. In Hibernia Belligeranti, ought to remind us that amid all this mimicry the Secretary of State for Northern Island is trying to transact some serious business):

"Went you to conquer? And have so much lost

Yourself, that what in you was best and most,

Respective friendship, should so quickly die?"

The puzzle that the thing we call "Britain" presents to the world is that of a community of peoples perhaps as civilised, and humane of temper, as any who may be found – yet which is led, again and again, into enterprises which are as self-defeating as they are dishonourable. The reason, of course, is that the thing we still have to call our government – the United Kingdom state – was never designed to rule a group of democratic, European industrial nations such as the English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish are capable of being. It was brought into existence to run, by bluff and cheapskate contrivance, a shabby world-wide empire that was assembled by blunder, force and fraud in varying proportions. Like an old, mangy lion, it knows no other trick, and so long as it has dominion over us it will betray us – and make us pay the price of betrayal in our own best blood.

This article first appeared in the 02 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Africa: How we killed our dreams of freedom

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood