9-15 October 2015 issue
Putin vs Isis
Shiraz Maher: Why the new air strikes on Syria will compel even more angry young men to join the jihad.
Mark Leonard: Russia’s intervention in Syria is a Putin vanity project.
Ben Judah on how the Russian leader’s ruthlessness keeps him in power.
“Of course I had a breakdown”: Kate Mossman meets the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby.
George Eaton: The Tories are planning for another ten years in power but their dominance brings new dangers.
The new air strikes on Syria will compel even more angry young men to join the jihad
In a special foreign affairs column this week, Shiraz Maher criticises Vladimir Putin’s decision to enter the Syrian conflict:
When Russian warplanes began bombing in Syria, they achieved only one thing: more chaos in an already crazed conflict. For all the talk of “fighting terrorism”, the Kremlin’s efforts have so far focused on protecting and consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s control over north-western Syria, where he has lost ground in recent months. This is the crucial subtext to Russian involvement. Earlier this year a coalition of jihadist groups came together to form Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), which secured a number of quick victories across Idlib province. This coalition united a number of disparate groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (which is aligned to al-Qaeda), Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham (which is heavily influenced by the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood). The capture of strategic towns such as Jisr al-Shughur threatened to weaken Assad’s control over the port cities of Latakia and Tartus, both of which are Alawite strongholds from where his support principally derives. Much of the Russian bombing is therefore aimed at reducing this pressure.
Herein lies the critical distinction between western and Russian bombing raids in Syria. With Putin’s decision to attack the full spectrum of oppositionists arrayed against Assad, Russia will face a broader and more sustained backlash from jihadists, which could prove difficult to contain.
He notes that Russia is particularly vulnerable to Islamist ideology:
The Russian campaign in Syria will also suffer from the romanticism of jihadi narratives about superpower weakness. After all, it was during the Afghan-Soviet war in the 1980s that the phenomenon of Sunni foreign fighter mobilisation was born.
Some of the global jihad movement’s most important figures made their names there, including Abdullah Azzam, who led the so-called Arab Afghan contingent. His works and legacy are relevant to jihadists today. Osama Bin Laden also established himself as a respected fighter in Afghanistan, rising to prominence after leading his men to an unlikely victory during the Battle of Jaji in 1987.
Maher argues that there is a great danger of the various groups in Syria banding together against the Russian intervention:
Whereas the west has limited itself overwhelmingly to Islamic State targets, the Russians are going after all anti-Assad groups. This risks bringing together previously disparate groups into a more unitary force. Indeed, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham have already announced that they will unify their commands in order to fight the Russians more effectively.
Although the Kremlin is making ostensibly responsible statements about a limited campaign in Syria, history counsels against this. Expect yet another wave of angry young men from the Gulf, North Africa and beyond to make their way to Syria soon.
Read the article in full below.
Russia’s great game in Syria
Mark Leonard believes that Vladimir Putin’s military intervention is less about defeating Isis than about the Russian president establishing himself as the ultimate world counter-revolutionary leader.
Putin may be a capricious and unpredictable actor, but the prosecution of his Syrian military campaign shows that behind the tactical manoeuvring is a bigger strategic play: the desire to stop all sitting leaders – including himself – from being driven out of office by people power.
A red thread runs through many of his foreign policy decisions: an attempt to protect authoritarian governments from popular uprisings.
He writes that Putin’s personal political ambition colours his stances on foreign policy:
Putin believes he ended Russia’s chaotic democratic experiment under Boris Yeltsin and created the conditions for prosperity and stability under strong-arm rule. Now he aspires to play the same role on the world stage, becoming the ultimate counter-revolutionary leader. His advisers see this “war on coloured revolutions” – the term used to describe the uprisings in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East – as an organising principle for many of his decisions, the evil twin of America’s “global war on terror”.
While the gains in the Middle East are important to Putin, his most fundamental victory could be at a philosophical level. Putin smells American weakness and senses that Obama will eventually turn to Moscow rather than double down on his own failed campaign against Isis. In fact, in the week Russian planes started bombing, Obama’s former top adviser on the Middle East, Phil Gordon, published an essay criticising the administration’s approach and calling for an accommodation with Moscow.
A recent poll found that only 14 per cent of Russians believed their country should provide direct military support for the Syrian government by sending in troops. That is why the Kremlin is briefing that most of the sorties are being flown by Syrian pilots.
The consensus is that Putin is a brilliant tactician but a terrible strategist. Yet since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, he has been using his unpredictability to increase his leverage over the west, keeping everyone from his closest aides to foreign governments on their toes. On a visit to Moscow in April 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, I was told by advisers close to the Kremlin that Putin’s favoured concept was “manageable chaos”. Many commentators in the west are predicting that the Russian campaign in Syria will go wrong – and soon become unmanageable. But Putin has been underestimated before. His fight against Isis may not simply score a point against western values. It may help to save his regime.
Read the article in full below.
The ruthlessness of Vladimir Putin
Ben Judah explores how the Russian leader’s ruthlessness allows him to maintain his grip on power, reporting on his own research into Putin’s past and in the light of The New Tsar: the Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin, a major new biography by the New York Times journalist Steven Lee Myers.
The book shows how the country was transformed from a chaotic and corrupt pseudo-democracy with a free press into a brittle, autocratic, neo-imperialist regime. Much of the drama comes from the mostly arrogant and occasionally innocent challengers to the Russian president’s growing power. Time and time again, they have found their political careers destroyed, by whatever means necessary, leaving them gawping in a state of shock.
Every time, Putin fights like a cat. His own generation misreads him for a weakling; younger foes for a man who will ultimately abide by some vague sense of decency and distaste for Soviet repression. On finishing The New Tsar you are nagged by one question: why did many powerful Russians, from spy chiefs to oligarchs, misjudge him?
Reading The New Tsar, one is struck by how few powerful Russians have ever appreciated over this time that it was becoming one-man rule. Looking back, it seems laughable there could have been a credible sense in Putin’s first decade as president that he was getting ready to enjoy a glitzy retirement. The four years in which he played prime minister, to his servant Dmitry Medvedev’s puppet presidency, should not have fooled anyone, but most observers fell for the charade. “I am a specialist in human relations,” is what Putin used to tell friends when he was in the KGB.
Nobody I tracked down, that summer in St Petersburg in 2012, anticipated his reign. Even his old business partners were stunned to see him in glory on national TV. Many years later, Sergey Kolesnikov would find himself not only handling secret offshore accounts for Putin’s benefit, but also charged with overseeing work on a baroque palace for him on the Black Sea. But in the early 1990s he never could have imagined such a thing. “He was an absolutely normal man,” Kolesnikov said. “His voice was normal . . . not tough, not high. He had a normal personality . . . normal intelligence, not especially high intelligence. You could go out the door and find thousands and thousands of people in Russia, all of them just like Putin . . . I was surprised when Putin became president. Of course I was surprised: everyone was surprised.”
What makes Putin so ruthless? This is one of my favourite questions to ask the Russian dissidents, or Kremlin aides, or former power-brokers I have the chance to meet. Every time I hear an answer, I am struck by the unknowable aura that he retains – or maybe commands. Putin is still a grey blur. They know little about him. Mostly, I find two answers, or rather guesses. The pessimist believes Putin’s fits and starts of repression to be systematic, believing that he wants to restore as much as he can of Soviet power. The optimist sees the authoritarian lurches that have transformed Russia as chaotic – unscripted lashing-out when he feels cornered.
[. . .]
After Ukraine, we can have no illusions about how far he will go to retain power. But are Putin’s wars, which now extend from Donbas to Damascus, the work of a man trying to re-create the Chechen war wave that first consolidated his power? Is he frightened that without this, mass protests might return to Moscow? Russian TV broadcasts have become relentless propaganda: not only is Russia fighting fascist legions of America in Ukraine, it is in a holy crusade against Islamic State, as even its weather forecasters point out good times for bombing Syria. Just like at the start of the Chechen war, the Kremlin is inciting a war wave to raise the president’s popularity.
Is there a Putin plan, or is it all reactive? Only time will tell. For now, the “theory of Putin” that most draws me is that of the KGB. His superiors always thought he was flawed. Personnel training for Soviet foreign intelligence was onerous, pursued with a rigour and exactitude second only to that given to the country’s cosmonauts. Agents were subjected to months of psychological tests, pulse measurements, head scans, role-plays and “western” life simulations. But mostly the KGB just wanted to catalogue agents’ weaknesses and flaws.
Putin acknowledges that the KGB evaluated him as a man with stunted emotions. His instructors concluded he was at risk, not of succumbing to the temptations of women or drink, but because of his pervasive “lowered sense of danger”. He was also classified as a man unhelpfully unsocial. To this day, he still only grudgingly half admits the agency’s character assessment. “I don’t think that I had a lowered sense of danger, but the psychologists came to this conclusion having followed my behaviour for a long time,” he told journalists back in 2000. This, I fear, is what makes him so ruthless.
The NS Interview: “I was killed when I was 27”
Kate Mossman on the curious afterlife of the artist formerly known as Terence Trent D’Arby (now Sananda Maitreya).
Imagine this. You’re 25 years old and your debut album of perfectly polished soul-rock-pop-funk sells one million copies in the first three days of release. It delivers three Top Ten hits, winning you numerous platinum gongs and a Grammy Award, and parachutes you right into the arena of the 1980s megastars you idolise. You drive the music press into a frenzy: they say you combine the voice of Sam Cooke and the moves of James Brown with the louche beauty of Jimi Hendrix. You are mentored by Springsteen, Leonard Cohen and Pete Townshend; you spend hours on the phone with Prince and sing on Brian Wilson albums. You even meet your hero Muhammad Ali, whose attitude you’ve ingested, saying: “Tell people long enough and loud enough you’re the greatest and eventually they’ll believe you.” In case anyone is in any doubt about just how important you are, you draw a parallel between your destiny and that of Martin Luther King.
Early one morning, at the end of one of your six-hour, joss-stick-infused overnight interviews, a journalist asks you what happens if your follow-up album isn’t as successful as your first. For once, you are lost for words. “That’s like asking me what I would do if my dick fell off . . .”
The man who slips into the hotel lobby in Milan looks like a fashion district local – one scarf over his dreadlocks, another curled round his neck – but there’s an inward energy about him, like one of those fragile celebrities who doesn’t want to be noticed but cannot help it: it’s all there in the cut of the trousers and size of the blue-bottle shades.
On the fallout from his success:
“Not a hundred people in my generation could have done what I did, and the difference between us is that they got from their environment what they needed. There was no need for them to mount some huge, fucking life-destroying campaign to show the world, ‘Look, I am worthy of my mother’s attention.’ “
“Of course I had a breakdown,” he says. “It was clearly a breakdown, and all you can do is surrender and try to not put too many pills into your body. You could say, clearly this guy had some sort of bipolar crisis.”
On his politics:
“Oh my God, I can’t believe you thought I was a socialist. I was nothing more than an opportunist. Any socialist tendencies I may have had were cured when I got my first tax bill. All artists are socialists until they see another artist with a bigger house than theirs.”
On his own “death”:
“It felt like I was going to join the 27 Club,” he says quietly, referring to the rock’n’roll heaven inhabited by Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain and all the others who died at that unfortunate age. “And psychologically I did, because that is exactly the age I was when I was killed.”
“The worst thing she could possibly do is not to have died young like Marilyn,” he says. “How considerate of Marilyn to have died, so we didn’t have to deal with the reality of the fact that even our goddesses get older.”
On doing interviews today:
“I feel like I’m going on a date when I’ve been married 25 years. I don’t know how to do this any more.”
The Politics Column: The Tories plan for another ten years in power – but their dominance brings new danger
George Eaton argues that the Conservative Party is “numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of its position”.
Its majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.
For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.
Eaton writes that the process began at this month’s Conservative conference:
At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.
George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.”
The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”
The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure.
Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.
William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter.
Read the Politics Column in full below.
Laurie Penny: Whether you’re a journalist or an accountant, a robot will soon be able to do your job. Should you let it?
John Gray on Joseph Conrad’s Victory and the lure of solitude.
Ayesha Hazarika: Life is tough as a former special adviser, shouting at the Daily Politics in your pants.
Yo Zushi on Native American headdresses, rock’n’roll, Kimono Wednesdays, chola style and “stealing other people’s culture”.
Helen Lewis: If the Tories don’t want to be tagged as the Nasty Party again, they’ll have to be twice as nice as Labour.