A heavily damaged street in the eastern Syrian town of Deir Ezzor on 26 August 2013. Photo: Getty
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Laurie Penny on Syria: There are too many bodies buried on Britain’s moral high ground

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right.

Let’s be perfectly clear on one point: this was never about Syria. After David Cameron’s government suffered its most humiliating defeat to date, with rebel MPs from every part of the political consensus uniting to prevent Britain charging into another interventionist war in the Middle East, here's what the Chancellor had to say: "I think there will be a national soul-searching about our role in the world and whether Britain wants to play a big part in upholding the international system, be that a big open and trading nation that I'd like us to be or whether we turn our back on that...I hope this doesn't become the moment where we turn our back on the world's problems."

Not “this will mean more bloodshed.” Not “the use of chemical nerve agents as a weapon of war is utterly unacceptable.” No, what concerns George Osborne and the government he represents is what this means for Britain. How will ‘our’ refusal to join the United States in a proposed military assault on Syria with or without UN backing will look to the rest of the world. Are we still going to feel big and important? Will our exports be affected?

Somewhere in the suburbs of Syria, the bodies of the latest victims of Sarin nerve gas are only lately cooled, stiff beyond rigor mortis from inhaling a poison that causes every muscle in the body to clench up in death, suffocating the soul in its own flesh. And George Osborne is thinking about Britain’s trading prospects.

This was never about Syria. This was about us.

Much to the chagrin of the cabinet, the British public has remained doggedly against any prospect of war in Syria - over two thirds are opposed to military intervention - and for once, every scrapping faction of the commentariat has taken up that consensus. Peter Hitchens agrees with Polly Toynbee. Norman Tebbit is briefly on the same side as Caroline Lucas. Osborne and Cameron find themselves part of a dwindling neocon consensus, just them, their whipped ministerial colleagues and Assad’s former chum Tony Blair, popping up in the papers like the Ghost of Christmas Past to explain why bombing Damascus is absolutely the right thing to do.

If Cameron was following the advice of Vyacheslav von Plehve, the Russian minister who wrote in 1905 that what was needed to stem the tide of social unrest was “a short, victorious war”, he could not have been more wrong. We’ve seen where that goes. The American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have not been short, and they have not been victorious. The United States still has the military muscle and auto-delusory capacity to believe itself a capable world policeman. Britain is no longer labouring under that delusion. We have spent the past five years being told that the nation is too broke to afford basic welfare provision, let alone another drawn-out campaign to protect US interests in the Gulf. Very few of us want a war; very few of us believe that a war will help the Syrian people. It turns out that the British public doesn’t always have the collective recall of a damselfly in a gale. Something about a decade of war tends to jog the memory.

The situation in Syria is bloody and frightening. In two and a half years tens of thousands of lives have been lost, hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled the country, and the war between Assad’s supporters and the disjointed forces of the Free Syrian army will not be over quickly, with or without Anglo-American intervention. The impulse, the imprecation, is that “we have to do something,” and somehow that something almost always involves cluster bombs and not, for example, sending in shedloads of aid and medical supplies, or opening our borders to refugees. That’s the sort of something that doesn’t make a satisfying thwack when we unzip it on the table of the cabinet war rooms.

For the hawkish minority, the main line of reasoning - masterfully dissected by Richard Seymour at Lenin’s Tomb today- has been that the Assad regime ‘must be punished,’ and that the British ought to be the ones doing the punishing, six of the best, trousers down. The old cliches are lifted out and polished for the mantlepiece of modern military hypocrisy: we’re a plucky little island, punching above our weight on the world stage, standing up to bullies. We sort out “the world's problems.” “Our country,” wrote Conservative MP Robert Halfon in a plea for intervention, “has over many centuries, stood tall against tyranny. Britain gave the world modern democracy and the rule of law.

Well, no, it hasn’t, and no, it didn’t. Britain did, over many centuries, impose its own version of the rule of law on hundreds of millions of individuals in the Global South, many of whom were massacred or functionally enslaved. Nor, over the decades that followed the disintegration of the British Empire - two little words that have faltered on the tongues of every Tory statesman in a fortnight of anxious warmongering - have the British been consistent in our opposition to ‘tyranny.’ We did not intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Margaret Thatcher took tea with Pinochet. The list of dictators with whom Britain has maintained cordial relations is long, and it is damning to anyone with the gall to argue that the people of Great Britain were ever cartographers of the moral high ground.

This isn't about Syria. This is, for better or worse, about us - on the left and on the right. The generation that grew up watching the war in Iraq and Afghanistan has done a lot of “soul-searching” in ten years. We have walked across the moral high-ground that our leaders mapped out for us. We have discovered that it is a graveyard. The bodies buried on the Anglo-American moral high ground are beyond number, and the flowers that grow there are dank and reek of corruption. But not this time. Not again. Not in our name.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue