4-10 December 2015 issue
Syria and the impossible war
John Jenkins argues that standing back is not an option for the UK.
Letter from Beirut: Quentin Sommerville on growing support for Isis in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Shiraz Maher on Bashar al-Assad, Isis and the long war in Syria.
Corbyn fights back: George Eaton on how the Labour leader is taking on the rebels in his party.
Stephen Bush on Oldham West and the problem facing the British left.
Letter from Paris: George Marshall on why we fear Islamist terrorism more than global warming.
Larry King talks to Anoosh Chakelian about his Piers Morgan spat, working for the Russians, and why we need more weather men.
Syria and the impossible war
In this week’s cover story, John Jenkins, a former UK ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Libya, Iraq and Syria, argues that, with the exception of Iran, “no one knows what they’re doing” about Syria:
This isn’t an admission of incompetence. It is a recognition that there are so many different actors in the conflict, so many moving parts to any solution, and so many different linkages with other conflicts and sociopolitical challenges in the wider region, and that so much stuff just happens (such as the shooting down of a Russian fighter plane) that it is impossible to construct a line of argument that has conclusively persuasive evidential or empirical support. To put it another way, you can argue from similar premises to a range of different conclusions.
So some will say that we should steer well clear. This conflict is essentially a civil war and can be resolved only by fighters on the ground. We need to watch and wait – rather as Israel (for instance) is presumed to be doing. Others say it might be a civil war but it also has significant transnational dimensions, both ideologically through the Islamist International and materially through the actions of those states that sponsor certain actors, ranging from the Shia militias that fight alongside Bashar al-Assad to the various Sunni militias that fight Assad, Hezbollah and Iran as well as, frequently, each other. We should therefore seek to shape the outcome by judicious intervention on the side of those groups that we wish to have a decisive say in the political aftermath. Still others say that we should seek primarily to destroy Islamic State – Da’esh – and if this entails a pragmatic alliance with Assad and Iran, that is the price we need to pay. Others protest that this will merely bolster the recruiting power of Da’esh and its Sunni jihadi Islamist analogues. We need instead to focus on containing them and making the removal of Assad and the political reconstruction of Syria a priority: Da’esh will only be defeated ideologically by a new, more stable and inclusive political dispensation, in Iraq as much as Syria.
Given the complexities, how can the UK and other western governments determine the best policy response in these highly complex theatres? Jenkins argues that “we need to think hard about what sort of political outcome we want to see in Syria” and stresses that, following last month’s Paris attacks, this is now “a matter of the national interest”.
What the Russian intervention and the sustained Iranian military support for Assad have shown is that the precondition for a role in the final shaping of Syria is a willingness to shape the military conflict. You might not win. But you can stop your client losing. And this gives you influence when it comes to taking decisions both about how the battle is fought and about how it ends.
Jenkins makes the case for intervention in Syria but at the same time acknowledges that securing domestic political support for any action will be difficult:
Standing back because you think any conceivable alternative plan you have seen is mumbo-jumbo is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Self-righteousness is not a satisfactory substitute for action. And if you really want to act, you can’t just do it from the air. You need ground forces whom you can call your own. They may not need to be your own citizens but they need to be effective and willing to co-ordinate with you.
In the end, Jenkins writes, “when we reach the moment at which a political settlement becomes possible, we must be ready to seize it”. If Britain fails to do so “we are outsourcing our national security” and in danger of becoming irrelevant internationally, he warns.
Letter from Beirut: Quentin Sommerville
In a report from the Lebanese capital, Quentin Sommerville, the BBC Middle East correspondent, explains that although there was support from local people for western air strikes on Kobane a year ago, there are many places in the Middle East, such as Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, where support for Isis is strong and growing:
As Britain makes a decision on whether to bomb IS in Syria, as we are already doing in Iraq, we appear to have little understanding of why IS has become so strong and, indeed, why its support is growing. In our disgust at its medieval methods of torture and killing, it is easy to forget that IS is not merely tolerated but welcomed in its strongholds in Iraq and Syria. It is true that there are many foreign fighters in both cities but there are also Sunni Arab populations that regard IS rule as a better alternative to the Shia-led government of Iraq, Iranian-funded militias, the Kurds or the regime of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad.
This is because Islamic State’s leaders are “political masters at local level” who “exploit division to thrive”. While western governments have been equivocating, Sommerville explains, the group’s “roots have grown deep and spread wide”, so it now enjoys high levels of support outside its heartlands:
Long before the suicide attacks in Paris or here in Beirut in November, IS became a truly international group. While the West prevaricated over the best military response on the ground – arm the Kurds? Train outside forces? Send in special forces? – IS expanded far beyond its core, into Libya.
Air strikes alone cannot work, Sommerville contends, but the group is now so embedded in places such as Raqqa and Mosul that “resistance will be fierce when eventually local ground forces confront them”.
Shiraz Maher on Assad, Isis and the long war in Syria
In a column for this week’s issue, Shiraz Maher argues that Britain is right to target Isis in Syria, but he warns we must also plan carefully for a future after President Assad:
In making the case for the air war in Syria, Cameron was right to point out that there are tens of thousands of moderate rebels who are not affiliated with jihadist groups such as Islamic State or the al-Qaeda-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra. If we expect these fighters to take on the jihadists, we must first win their confidence. To do that, we need to assuage their concerns about Assad’s future by making it clear that he has no longer-term role to play in the country.
For while Islamic State has gripped the imagination of western populations and politicians, many Syrian rebels are more fixated on Assad. He is the principal threat to daily life in their country and the main reason that more than four million Syrians have become refugees.
The undoubted complexities are no justification for staying out, he writes:
All of this can seem overwhelming to MPs given the responsibility of voting on the issue. “What a crazy war,” Dennis Skinner told the Commons. “Enemies to the right of us, enemies to the left of us – keep out!” Such a view is undoubtedly based on good intentions but we should acknowledge its limits. Abandoning the region will not make us safer; nor will it weaken Islamic State. Further terrorist atrocities in Europe are inevitable and the risks to our country are particularly severe. By the time those threats are realised, it will be too late.
Corbyn fights back: George Eaton on a fractious week for Labour
In his Politics column, George Eaton reports on how the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, took on rebels this week:
When Jeremy Corbyn offered Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes in Syria, he arrived at the position that most of his colleagues had long regarded as inevitable. What astonished both supporters and opponents of military action was the tortuous route by which he did so. Corbyn’s failed attempt to whip his party against air strikes left “deep wounds”, shadow cabinet members say, and revealed him as a leader caught between co-operation with his MPs and confrontation.
After David Cameron signalled his intention to seek Commons approval for military action, Corbyn could have made a principled and pragmatic case for a free vote. “Something so fundamental as the deployment of armed forces”, he declared in 2013, should never be made an issue of “party loyalty”.
The support of senior frontbenchers, such as shadow foreign secretary Hilary Benn and deputy leader Tom Watson, for air strikes persuaded many that a free vote was not merely desirable but essential. It was on these grounds that shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Corbyn’s greatest parliamentary ally, consistently argued for one.
But rather than adopting this stance, the Labour leader sought to turn his shadow cabinet against intervention, deploying what its members regarded as “intimidatory” tactics. The Corbyn-aligned group Momentum instructed its supporters to lobby MPs, the leader himself emailed them without first informing his frontbenchers, and Len McCluskey, the Unite general secretary, warned that those challenging Corbyn were “writing their own political obituaries”. It was only when Watson assured Corbyn that a whipped vote would result in mass resignations that he resolved to suspend collective responsibility.
Corbyn has succeeded in both antagonising shadow cabinet ministers and dismaying supporters, Eaton observes:
The Syria imbroglio has clarified the choice before Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader can pursue co-operation, pre-emptively conceding free votes on other divisive issues such as the renewal of Trident and respecting differences of opinion. Or he can pursue confrontation, using members’ ballots to try to change party policy, appointing a more robustly left-wing shadow cabinet (described by one MP as “inevitable”) and, some argue, tolerating or even endorsing attempts to deselect “moderate” MPs. Corbyn could, alternatively, continue to plot a course between these two paths. But as his retreat over Labour’s position on air strikes on Isis in Syria showed, he does so at the risk of pleasing none and alienating all.
PLUS: Majority of shadow cabinet back air strikes in Syria but Labour position undecided
The NS’s George Eaton was first to get the full account of the shadow cabinet meeting on Syria last week. Read his analysis here.
Stephen Bush on Oldham and the problem facing the British left
The Staggers editor, Stephen Bush, speaks to voters in the lead-up to the Oldham West and Royton by-election – the first electoral test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership:
Meet Clive. He is retired, a devoted monarchist – he has a mug commemorating the birth of Prince George – is worried about immigration, has always voted Labour, but is worried about Jeremy Corbyn. As a result, he voted for Ukip in the Oldham by-election. His postal vote arrived the day the Labour leader announced he was “not happy” with “shoot to kill”.
Meet James. He voted Green at the last election. The only immigrant family he dislikes is the Windsors. If he could vote in Oldham, he would vote enthusiastically for Labour.
This, rather than shadow cabinet rows or unease in the parliamentary party, is the divide that is hurting Labour. Like most European social-democratic groupings, Labour is an uneasy coalition between its industrial or ex-industrial core and what Michael Frayn called “the Herbivores”: “do-gooders . . . readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian and the Observer . . . signers of petitions, the backbone of the BBC”.
Taken together, that electoral coalition was, for Labour, enough to secure at least second place throughout most of the latter half of the 20th century. When the party has been able to add votes from the so-called aspirational classes – those who were excited by hire purchase and ITV in the 1950s, Right to Buy in the 1980s and now Help to Buy under the Conservative-led governments since 2010 – it has been able to disrupt Britain’s Conservative hegemony, albeit for relatively brief periods (excluding 1997 to 2010).
Since the financial crisis, that division has broken down. Under Ed Miliband, as the academic Tim Bale put it, Labour was divided between “people who drink wine, and people who drink lager”. Wine drinkers drifted away to the Green Party. Lager drinkers trickled away to Ukip. The result: thumping defeats across England and Wales.
The challenge for the British left, Bush argues, is to find a politician able to “hew together the three groups necessary for a left-wing majority in the Commons”. A loss of votes in one direction or another may be inevitable – and in that case, “the party must simply decide which direction it wants to turn to face the sunset”.
Encounter: Anoosh Chakelian meets Larry King
After 58 years presenting radio and TV programmes – he hosted the nightly Larry King Live on CNN for 25 years – Larry King now hosts Larry King Now and Politicking with Larry King on RT America (the US output of the channel formerly known as Russia Today). The NS’s Anoosh Chakelian met the 82-year-old in Mayfair to talk about his latest ventures. King reflected on the performance of Piers Morgan, who replaced him on CNN in 2011:
“He used the word ‘I’ a lot,” King says. He doesn’t want to discuss the spat, but warns against talk-show hosts who make interviews about themselves. “I don’t use the word ‘I’, because I find, for my style, ‘I’ is irrelevant because the subject is not me. The subject is the guest. My role is a conduit from the guest to the audience.”
Although he stresses he has not been subject to any kind of censorship, King has qualms about his new employer, which is backed by the Kremlin:
“I certainly vehemently disagree with the position they take on homosexuals – that’s absurd to me,” he says, frowning. “. . . if they say homosexuality is, like, whatever they say, all I know is, I’ve asked this question all my life . . . I’m heterosexual. I have no idea why. A homosexual can’t tell me why they’re attracted to people of the same sex, just as the heterosexual. You could tell me I like that skirt, I like high heels, but I don’t know why. I just know that it’s true. So I don’t understand why a state could tell people how to feel about other people.”
He is also exercised by the dearth of women in heavyweight camera-facing roles:
“I don’t know why [there are so few women presenters],” he says, but doesn’t shrug it off. “It’s also true about radio talk shows . . . If you turn on the radio in the morning, the man is the host. Why?” He pauses and then barks: “Why on local TV are all the weathermen women? And they all wear tight dresses. Why is that? I want men weathermen. More men on the weather! Show me a picture of all the male weathermen on local TV.”
Tanya Gold: My run-in with Karl Lagerfeld and his cat.
Peter Wilby: Bombing Isis in Syria won’t make us safer.
Helen Lewis on Assad’s forgotten atrocities, white women’s fiction, and the housing woes of young London professionals.
Commons Confidential: Kevin Maguire offers his pick of the best gossip this week from Westminster.
Laurie Penny: If men could get pregnant, childbirth would be heroic and abortion would be sacrosanct.
Edward Pearce follows Shakespeare’s line, and urges caution on those who would glorify England’s kings.
Books: Melissa Benn reads Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and The Odd Woman and the City and David Marquand reflects on Ukip and the rise of the far right in Europe.
Amanda Craig rounds up the best children’s books of 2015.
Michael Prodger finds magic in the art of David Jones.