Monday, November 30, 2015 

Let them have their war. This time they must answer for it.

If you thought Labour's machinations over Syria couldn't get any more absurd, then spare a thought for Syria Solidarity UK.  Despite the name, the group seems to exist solely for the purposes of trolling the Stop the War coalition.  In response to Saturday's various marches and actions by the StWC, SSUK put out a statement making clear its opposition both to their protests and the proposed government action, as the only legitimate option in their eyes and also by extension the ordinary Syrians they clearly represent would be "limited military action" to create no bombing zones.  They say the only way to oppose imperialism in Syria would be to protest outside the Russian embassy, and emphasise how Assad's forces are responsible for the majority of civilian deaths.

As with all the dullards on Saturday who tweeted pictures of the Russian embassy demanding to know why there weren't any protesters outside, the obvious response is if you're so pissed off about it, why don't all you pro-war anti-Assad anti-IS people band together, get organised and rally there yourselves?  Indeed, one would think the point of a group like SSUK would be to do just that, only they seem more concerned with pointing out just how wrong the StWC is than taking action.  Then again, when you look at the full drill down of which groups are meant to have killed civilians in Syria and see that according to the SSUK source the Kurds have killed more civilians overall than the al-Nusra Front has, a claim so bonkers that you can but marvel at the chutzpah of those pushing such nonsense, taking anything they say seriously would be a mistake.

Sadly, we must return to Labour and the still divided shadow cabinet.  Supposedly over the weekend calm minds and rational thinking were meant to prevail, and a common policy would be duly thrashed out.  And it's true, a shared approach has been decided upon: the party has agreed to disagree.

So much in the way of bullshit has been spouted over the last week and continues to be now that trying to separate the reality from the bluster is all but impossible.  Either way, it seems the decision to ask the membership what they thought in a mass email on Friday night was not discussed at the shadow cabinet meeting, and if there's one thing that's completely unacceptable in this day and age, it's asking a party's membership what it thinks about anything other than the leadership.  We all know why: members of political parties are complete weirdos, in that they probably watch the news and have an interest in politics, whereas the vast majority of the public do not.  Members of political parties tend to get hung up on things like gay marriage, Europe or wars, topics that could not be more alien to Mr and Mrs Average, who are completely average in every way.  Mr and Mrs Average are aspirational, dislike hateful people unless they hate the people they hate, and usually can be relied upon to support war, as long as it's over by Christmas.  If anyone should be asked what they think, it should be them, not the people who pay their monthly dues and help to keep parties afloat.

This went down badly with some of those shadow cabinet ministers who we're told believe David Cameron's case for war to be compelling.  With the exception of John Woodcock, whose justification pretty much runs to the French president has asked us to join in with the bombing and so we must despite all of these reasons for caution, few Labour MPs who are minded to vote with Cameron have explained just what it is they've found so compelling.  Far more have spoken of how they aren't convinced, including opponents of Corbyn.  Chris Bryant, who trained to be a vicar and decided to join the only other organisation more split than the CoE went through all manner of moral contortions on the Daily Politics, asking himself if he would have failed in his duty if there were an ISIS attack that killed one of his constituents at home or abroad and he had voted against Cameron's plan.  Surely such considerations also have to be turned on their head: what if he voted for the plan and there was an attack regardless?  Would it be any more or less of a comfort then?  Would he consider if his vote had made that constituent less safe, or would that be as some Labour MPs have argued to take away responsibility from those wholly responsible?

Corbyn we're equally told was determined not to allow a free vote, a position ascribed as much to Seumas Milne as Jez, the former Graun comment editor fast becoming as much of a bogeyman figure to the right of the party as Alastair Campbell did to the right-wing press and Peter Mandelson was to the left.  That the end result then was not merely a decision to grant a free vote, but also the party failed to agree on a position other than the one decided upon at conference, which was pretty much designed to make it impossible for the party to support military action only for Paris to happen does then strike as strange.  Does this show Corbyn is far weaker than he seems, that he doesn't after all say one thing in public and do another in private?  Could he not chance the possibility that if multiple shadow ministers resigned the much rumoured and talked about coup would be set in motion?  Did him simply, gasp, compromise despite everything, and let it lie on the likes of Hilary Benn that the party doesn't have any sort of policy at all?  Is this merely Corbyn deciding to let this one go, knowing that the hordes of Momentum will set off after those who vote with Cameron?

Rafael Behr, another of those journalists who post-Miliband seems to have gone off the deep end, reckons the party will despite everything carry on muddling through.  To him the "cold war" will go on rather than become open battle.  This ignores that by any yardstick, the number of Labour MPs who stood up during Cameron's statement on the Paris attacks two weeks ago and essentially agreed with the prime minister that their leader is a terrorist loving coward was about as open a declaration of war as it gets.  No leader can stay in place long when there is such a breakdown of discipline, when mutiny is in effect only a heartbeat away.  Corbyn can perhaps spin his failure to impose his will on the shadow cabinet as being part of his "new politics", but we all know full well that he instinctively wanted the party to oppose the widening of our role against Islamic State.  It's all the more galling that his instincts are the right ones, and that none of those opposing his stand have come near to explaining which part of his letter to MPs outlining his reasoning is incorrect.  The 5 tests of Dan Jarvis have been forgotten about exceedingly quickly.

Nevertheless, in the end Corbyn's decision to back down was the right one.  It is and does look awful that Labour doesn't have a policy, that it seems as though Corbyn and his shadow foreign secretary will stand at the dispatch box and disagree with each other, but it wasn't worth risking the alternatives, whether it was widespread resignations or worse.  The proposed action is so weak, so minor, that if they're this set on getting their war on, then let them.

If this latest war goes wrong though, as it's almost guaranteed to as there are no ground forces to take Raqqa other than the ones opposed by its very people, then this time those responsible have to be held accountable.  Yes, the principal blame should be put on a government that has a majority, a fact that the media seems to want to forget in its rush to, amazingly, pin responsibility on a hopeless opposition, but those who do vote with Cameron should have to justify themselves also.  When the action and case are so weak, when the facts are once again being fixed around the policy, when the recent past points towards the potential for making things worse, not better, if we don't at this point demand that those who so willingly vote for involvement in foreign conflicts answer for themselves, in the words of Cameron back in 2013 and again last week, then when?

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Friday, November 27, 2015 


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Thursday, November 26, 2015 

Everything repeats. Everything changes. Everything stays the same.

The problem when it comes to writing about the government's case for war against Islamic State in Syria is it's difficult to get properly angry about or diametrically oppose something that will in truth, be so marginal if the Commons votes for it.  All the government is asking for when it comes down to it is to be able to chuck a few more bombs into a country that is already awash with weapons, explosives, death, hunger, the whole four horsemen bit.  Technically, that ought to make it absolutely enraging; why on earth make a bad situation potentially even worse?

Except support it or not, Syria will get worse before, or rather if it gets better.  From as soon as the rebellion turned almost fully Islamist/jihadist, our plan has been for the two sides to fight down to the very last Syrian.  We obviously didn't imagine it would get so bad that hundreds of thousands of Syrians would come to the realisation there was nothing left for them in the Middle East at all and so make the perilous journey to Europe, but in actuality it hasn't altered our thinking all that much.

Indeed, if we're to believe David Cameron's response to the Foreign Affairs committee report (which its chair, Crispin Blunt, has pretty much disowned in any case) then we are still clinging to the especially fetching fantasy that "moderates" will eventually win the day.  Yep, according to Dave and the security services, there are around 70,000 moderates on the ground who we can work with, and they'll be the ones taking back territory from Islamic State in conjunction with our main allies, the Kurds/Syrian Defence Forces.

All but needless to say, there are a few fairly major flaws in this argument.  First, that there really are 70,000 moderates among the rebels.  Cameron has provided absolutely no breakdown of who these revolutionaries are, nor of where they are currently based.  The response talks airily of how moderate rebels have defended territory north of Aleppo, and also how in southern Syria moderates have kept out both IS and the al-Qaida affiliate the al-Nusra Front.  Raqqa, Islamic State's capital of its self-declared caliphate, is over 200km from Aleppo itself, just to begin with.  No one seems to have any real idea of where this 70,000 figure comes from, but the best guess is it's probably the near entirety of the non al-Nusra rebels, as the FCO has been talking about previously.  It likely includes groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, whom with the very best gloss put on them are nationalist Islamists who want an Islamic state rather than democracy.  They routinely in any case ally with the outright jihadists; Ahrar al-Sham is part of the Army of Conquest, aka Jaish al-Fatah, which until very recently included al-Nusra (if they truly have exited the coalition, that is).

This strategy, such as it is, is predicated on two things that have not happened yet.  That the Vienna talks will succeed in negotiating a ceasefire between Assad and these "moderate" rebels; and that these rebels will then turn their attention entirely to IS.  Even if Vienna does somehow lead to a ceasefire, why on earth would these moderates leave territory they've captured undefended to go and fight a group they share far more with than they do Assad?  The answer is they won't, and the best that can be hoped for is that ceasefire, which will instead allow Assad's forces to turn their guns wholly on IS.

For this is the strategy, again such as it is, that lies beneath the rhetoric.  Cameron gave the game away when asked by Tim Farron about safe zones.  Safe zones you have to enforce, he replied, and that could lead to ground forces becoming involved.  If we had fundamental trust in these 70,000 moderates, a fraction of them could clearly do the job, and we could probably come to a deal with the Russians as to where these safe zones would be.  Fact is that we don't trust them as far as we can throw them, so the idea's a non-starter.  Not that we trust the Syrian Arab Army either, but they can be relied upon to follow orders.

The truth is for all the clowning, hyperbole and bluster against the Russians, the attack on the Metrojet plane and then Paris has concentrated minds.  We can't be seen to be helping Assad, but now the Russians have intervened they can do that for us.  The fighting currently going on in the west of Syria seems to be the SAA trying its best to carve out as much territory as it can for itself, helped by Russian airstrikes before the Vienna talks somehow manage to reach the goal of a ceasefire.  The Russians will then keep overwatch to make sure the rebels don't try and take back territory the SAA might have vacated in the west to concentrate on IS in the east.  

Whether this eventually leads to the partitioning of Syria or the creation of autonomous zones, with a Sunni enclave in the west, an Alawite/Druze/Christian enclave including Damascus and extending to Raqqa, with a Kurdish enclave in the north or not remains to be seen.  Alternatively, the Kurds could probably take Raqqa themselves if given sufficient backing and time, but they've made it pretty clear that whatever territory they take they're keeping, and why shouldn't they?  The Turks are already pissed off enough as it is with their advances, so that seems off the table.

In short, the only strategy we have is not the one being presented by the government, and the one we do have is reliant on an almost unimaginable ceasefire between two sides prepared to fight each other to the death.

The rest of Cameron's case isn't much stronger.  The difference our military can make in Syria amounts to the Brimstone missile, a camera that can see the goosebumps on a terrorist's neck from 150 miles away, and that the Americans and French think we'll be helpful.  The French defence minister has set out his case for why they desperately need us by their side, and it's all reasonable enough until you get to the part about how we achieved so much together protecting innocent civilians in Libya and you realise it's time to stop reading.  The Brimstone missile is apparently more accurate than other similar guided high explosives, only as Brendan O'Hara unhelpfully pointed out the Saudis have them too.  Sadly they're too busy taking part in the other proxy war in the region in Yemen to start bombing Syria again, so clearly the coalition needs our supply.

Only as Ewen MacAskill points out, the Americans and others have already fired so many Hellfires in Syria that they're running out of targets as it is.  Jeremy Corbyn's first question, as to whether or not joining in would increase the threat from IS brought the response that the threat could not be any more severe.  Cameron and the intelligence agencies may be right, but they're asking us to accept as coincidence that both Russia and France were targeted within weeks of their specifically targeting IS in Syria.  Of the 7 plots claimed to have been foiled so far this year linked to IS, 2 of those were the ones "exposed" in the media that resulted in no arrests and no explosives or weapons being found.  

Potential threats should not of course stop us from acting, but politicians should be honest with the public if the threat will be increased, especially when the action will hardly be integral to the wider cause.  Solidarity, helping our allies is not enough of a justification when there is no real plan, when there is no exit strategy beyond Islamic State being degraded and defeated at some point, when we have no idea of what Syria will look like after both IS and Assad have gone, other than there won't be a Swiss-style democracy and we won't make the mistakes of either Iraq or Libya in the aftermath.  The state will not be dismantled we are told, and yet how likely is that when all involved have a completely different image of how Syria will look once or rather if and when the fighting ends?

Cameron himself was at something near his best today.  He was respectful, didn't resort to cheap point scoring and kept any references to evil death cults to a minimum.  He didn't want to overstate the case he said, and yet he couldn't at times help himself.  He repeated the argument that we shouldn't be leaving our security in the hands of our allies, and yet that was the exact same case made by Michael Fallon the week before the Paris attacks.  Our security will either be improved, unaffected or damaged by our involvement.  It can't be all three.  

Nor is it reasonable as the prime minister put it to suggest he will only bring a vote when he is certain to win as doing otherwise would risk a propaganda coup for Islamic State.  This is exactly how the Tories behaved after losing the previous Syria vote, denouncing Labour and Miliband for giving succour to Assad.  Nor is it anything close to accurate to claim, as Cameron did, that "doing nothing is a counsel of despair".  We will not be doing nothing if parliament declines to authorise strikes in Syria.  This idea we have been doing nothing is utterly bogus; we have been doing everything other than nothing, and will go on doing so.  Our "doing nothing" is part of why we are here now.

As Jeremy Corbyn has written tonight to Labour MPs, in a letter I can't disagree with a word of, a convincing case is yet to be made.  There is a basis of sorts to the government's arguments, but it falls down first and foremost because it isn't honest or open enough about the reality on the ground in Syria.  If there is anything worth getting properly angry about, it's what's led us to this point, as while the government and Cameron tell what lies about how big of an impact our involvement could have, I can't gather the enthusiasm to do much other than sigh.  We've been here before.  We'll be here again.  If there now is an IS attack in this country, it won't be anything to do with our bombing, but down solely to the wickedness of an evil death cult.  Everything repeats.  Everything changes.

And yet it stays the same.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2015 

The lucky chancellor, and the hopeless opposition.

Some say you make your own luck.  Football managers often claim that any refereeing decisions that wrongly go in their favour average out over a season.  Others still will claim that when you're on a downward trajectory anyway, fate tends to intervene all the more.

Then there are those who are just plain lucky.  George Osborne is such a person.  Whenever he's found himself in a hole, someone or something has always heard his pleas and prayers for help and came along to pull him out.  It would be remiss to not admit that some of his luck is of his own making, as whenever he has done something stupid he's recognised his mistake, whether it was the litany of errors in the omnishambles budget, or today with tax credits.  As the autumn statement and spending review demonstrates, the usual wisdom that making a full 180 always damages a politician is wrong, so long as the reversal is made early enough and is a total one.

Had the Office for Budget Responsibility not of course discovered there was £27bn down the back of the Treasury settee, Osborne would have been in complete stuck.  As well as upping its forecasts as to what income and corporation tax will bring in, a mammoth 2/3rds of the £27bn "windfall" comes from the OBR altering its tax modelling.  While there is nothing to suggest this wasn't solely the doing of the OBR, it does bear mentioning that the OBR figures are based on government finances up till the end of September, and not the ones from October that showed a large year-on-year rise in borrowing.  Whether they would have changed the OBR's working substantially or not is less important than how it demonstrates once again Osborne's good fortune.  He is the lucky chancellor.

Eventually though your luck must run out.  Whether that happens before Cameron exits Number 10, or it happens once Osborne moves next door, as is increasingly odds on, it will happen.  You can't go on acting with as such arrogance as Osborne did on tax credits, believing that no one would cotton on to how he was shafting the very people the Tories claimed to help and keep getting away with it.  You can't keep insisting on cuts to unprotected government departments that in the case of the Department of Transport will amount to 75% by the end of the decade, or an even more eye-watering 77% in the case of local government, without something breaking, and breaking irrevocably.  You can't have such luck as to get a £27bn windfall, and then still preach of the absolute necessity of running a surplus of £10bn by the time of the next election.

For now at least Osborne can sit back and enjoy for the umpteenth time paeans not just from the Tory press but the majority of the media.  How does he keep doing it they wonder?  Much of the answer is in how, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, we've fallen for the same trick each time.  The Tories brief of how drastic and severe their cuts are, how tough it's going to be, then turns up George to tell us it's not going to be so bad after all.  Since the autumn statement last year each time Osborne has stood at the dispatch box, the Commons listening rapt, he's reduced the amount needing to be cut.  He's done it in different ways, whether through today's mixture of windfall and tax rises, to go with the tax rises he'd already announced back in July, but achieved it he has.  The amount of departmental cuts has now been reduced overall to a "mere" £10bn, and with the police also now protected, from fewer sources.

The usual budget day/autumn statement smoke and mirrors have naturally been turned to also.  The tax credit U-turn isn't a true one as Osborne has not abandoned his £12bn of welfare cuts; instead universal credit has been raided again before it properly rolls out, if it ever does such have been the problems associated with it.  Hidden within the wider good news is that the OBR revised downwards its forecast for both household disposable income and average earnings, making clear that the tepid growth of the last few years is here to stay.  The increases in the money for social care and for the police are also dependent on councils introducing precepts on both through council tax, which as Jo Maugham points out is highly regressive.

Once that mist has cleared, the Tories' priorities will be as clear as ever.  There was money showered on housing, but only on housing to buy; as for those who want to rent or won't ever be able to afford to buy, their options will dwindle further with the extension of right to buy to housing associations.  The 3% surcharge on stamp duty for second homes or those buying to let is welcome in the case of the former, but will almost certainly lead only to further increases in rent on the latter.  Post-2012 students will find the threshold at which they start paying back their loans has been frozen in spite of a consultation.  With the state pension increasing by £3.35 a week while other benefits will be frozen in line with inflation, it will once again be those most likely to vote who gain most.  As government spending heads south to 36.5% of GDP by 2020, 42% of that spending will be on either health or older people.  Of all the spending described as unsustainable in the past few years, surely that level on one department and one part of the population will prove to be so before much longer.

Osborne's plans at heart remain a huge gamble.  If it turns out the OBR has got its revenue forecasts wrong (again) then he has little room for manoeuvre, unless he makes the ultimate U-turn and cuts back on his dream surplus.  He could ask for further departmental cuts, but from where?  He could make further welfare cuts, but it's not even clear where the £12bn is going to come from now that tax credits are protected.  He's raised taxes on every area possible other than on income, national insurance and VAT, which the government plans to make illegal, it's worth remembering.  He could put corporation tax back up, but that would be a further U-turn and would anger business, already quietly seething both about the "national living wage" and now the new apprentice levy, or as the Tories would describe it were they in opposition, a jobs tax.

Sad as it is to say, a proper opposition would be pointing all of this out.  A proper opposition would have made as much as it could, not just out of the tax credits U-turn, but also how it means Osborne has fallen into the very welfare trap he laid for Labour, breaching the cap he foolishly legislated for.  A proper opposition would be asking where the £12bn in cuts to welfare will now be coming from, as the answer can only be through taking an axe to housing benefits, cutting employment and support allowance or hacking even further at JSA.  A proper opposition would while emphasising Osborne's miserable failure to clear the deficit in a single parliament also be setting out what it would be doing differently.  

What the opposition cannot keep doing is providing gifts to the government like John McDonnell quoting from Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, regardless of his point or it being a joke.  No wonder the Labour benches looked so grim as he threw it across the Commons; no wonder George Osborne looked as though all his Christmases had come at once.  You can point the finger at the media and the anti-Corbyn majority in the PLP all you like, as I have and will keep doing; there's no getting away from how the real joke at the moment is the Labour (non)-leadership and its failure to do so much as the bare minimum.

Osborne will finish up laughing on the other side of his face.  When that will be when the opposition is so hopeless and the wider media so in awe of an opportunistic and lucky but otherwise mediocre chancellor remains to be seen.

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Tuesday, November 24, 2015 

Our NATO allies, everybody.

There are, as you'd expect, a whole load of ways of interpreting why Turkey decided it was a fabulous idea to shoot down a Russian jet that may or may not have invaded their airspace, and most of them will have some measure of truth to them.

You could for instance start by saying that Putin's tears and rage at the action are both hysterical and hypocritical.  Maybe, just maybe if you could keep your raging war boner somewhat under control Vlad, things like this wouldn't happen.  You are after all the one apparently bombing the Turkmen, and the Turks are notoriously defensive about anyone sitting near their border, whether they be friend or foe.  Going into Turkish airspace, no matter for how brief a period is probably not a wise thing to do, especially when they made clear previously their feelings on such invasions.  Besides, there is also the little matter of MH17: the Russians might not have been personally responsible for downing the Malaysian Airlines flight, but giving Buk anti-aircraft missiles to halfwitted militants who don't or can't know the difference between a commercial flight and a Ukrainian military jet was an accident waiting to happen.  Instead of owning up and apologising, Russia has of course since denied it was their tame separatists and obstructed the investigation in every way possible.  Feel your pain we don't.

Then there's a more sympathetic to the Russians interpretation.  The Americans have said any breach of Turkish airspace was limited to seconds; the radar released by the Turks in an effort to justify their actions suggests precisely that.  If every country shot down every plane that went into their airspace without explicit permission for as much as a matter of seconds, no one would ever fly again.  The Turkish account that they supposedly repeatedly radioed the Russian plane telling it to stay out therefore doesn't tally with the evidence of the radar.  The reaction of NATO, which has essentially been to distance itself as much as it can from whichever trigger happy commander ordered the shooting down, has been to say this is a matter between the Turks and the Russians.  In other words, they're on their own on this one, even if in public they're saying Turkey has the right to defend itself from 16 second incursions.  When you bear in mind that the reaction of ourselves and most other European nations is to scramble jets to escort Russian planes if and when they decide to venture into airspace they've not received permission to and then complain about it later for the reason it's not worth the repercussions of doing otherwise, the Turks deciding to shoot one down for a breach of a matter of seconds is not going to win them many new friends.

Next there's a slightly more conspiratorial interpretation.  It is as Lindsey Hilsum has tweeted somewhat odd there just happened to be a TV crew in place to film the shot down jet hitting the ground.  It might have been sheer luck, but there are certainly good reasons to believe the rebels in the area have a hotline to their friends over the border.  They could well have informed the Turks, who apparently now believe that back in power with a majority they have little to lose, especially when they can rely on NATO to back them up.  Using the excuse of the slight breach of their airspace, making clear to Russia and Putin precisely what they think of their intervention on the side of Assad might have made something approaching sense in theory.  In practice, not so much.

Lastly, to keep this somewhat brief, there's the full on conspiratorial interpretation.  Turkey has a lot to lose if as looked possible there was an accommodation or deal between the various powers, whether it comes at the Vienna talks or more informally between the American-led coalition and Russia.  The Paris attacks have finally concentrated minds, making clear that the Western policy of letting the Sunni Gulf states + Turks fund whichever rebel groups they felt like while hoping it's not enough to actually defeat Assad cannot go on.  We can't of course lose face by admitting as much, but thankfully the Russians had already intervened to ensure Assad wouldn't fall.  Dealing directly with Assad is off the table, but the Russians with a little persuading can do that for us.  The Syrian Arab Army can then be the ground force we lack against IS, only they'll be liasing with the Russians instead.  Bearing in mind the only other ground force we can rely on, the Kurds, are also in direct conflict with the Turks, there are a myriad of reasons as to why the Turks would want this alliance of convenience to fall apart before it can so much as come together. 

That's without getting on to the relationship between Islamic State and Turkey.  Evidence has been mounting for some time on the links, but there really isn't any better than the Turkish reaction to the siege of Kobani.  It was only thanks to the Americans realising letting the border city fall as the Turks advised them to would be a propaganda victory too far and send a terrible message to about the only genuinely moderate forces in Syria that they started co-ordinating with the YPG.  Add on how the Islamic State attacks in Ankara just before the election undoubtedly helped the AKP to their majority, and not that much more needs to be added.

As said, there's something to all these interpretations.  Yes, Putin's reaction has been absurdly over-the-top, but then it's a fair bet ours wouldn't be much different if say the Iranians shot down one of our jets if it strayed into their airspace while carrying out sorties in Iraq.  His remarks on the links between Turkey and Islamic State are fairly sound also, as Erdogan has without doubt been playing the same double game in Syria as the Saudis and Qataris  have.  Indeed, if I wasn't a subscriber to the cock-up rather than conspiracy school of history until there is overwhelming evidence suggesting otherwise, then the full on conspiratorial interpretation would make the most sense.  You can't though seriously believe the Turks would do something so unbelievably stupid, not knowing whether or not NATO would back them when they know full well the game they've been playing all along.  They might well be trying their best to sabotage the Vienna talks and will be making clear the risks their allies are playing by working with the Russians, but the best explanation for this is a trigger happy commander going out on a limb in an area where nationalist passions run hot.  Turkey has way too much to lose and far too little to gain.

The other obvious conclusion from today is there are already too many nations operating in Syria or at the margins, all with competing agendas and all with grudges against each other.  There is incredibly little to be gained and much to be lost by as David Cameron heroically put it "getting to grips with the Isil menace".  Still, come Thursday the prime minister's explanation as to what distinct and unique role the British military can provide in Syria as demanded by the foreign affairs select committee should be worth a laugh.

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Monday, November 23, 2015 

How to get your war on.

If, like me, you find it fitfully amusing that every new threat regardless of its potency must always be described as the most deadly and worst since the year dot, you'll find a lot to delight you in UNSC Resolution 2249.  Passed unanimously last weekend and drafted principally by the French in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, it's an absolute classic of the genre.  It is after all one thing for a idiot politician playing to the gallery to declare Islamic State to be a bigger threat to international peace and security than Hitler/Napoleon/Genghis Khan/Black Death/the discovery of fire, and quite another for the UN Security Council to agree and declare that anyone and everyone if they feel like it can join in the fun of chucking high explosives at "an evil death cult".

As that's what 2249 does.  It really does say that Islamic State "constitutes a global and unprecedented threat to international peace and security".  Global?  Unprecedented?  Islamic State and its fighters might slaughter anyone they feel like and draw recruits from a wide variety of nations, but are they really a major threat to Japan, say, or your pick of any one of the South American nations?  Yes, they've executed hostages from China and Japan, but a threat?  

When it comes to unprecedented, on what reading of history exactly?  Are we talking since the creation of the UN or going further back?  Islamic State is a threat, certainly, but far more of one to the Middle East than anywhere else.  It was only able to expand as it has thanks to the failures of governance in Iraq and Syria; it calls itself a state and tries to operate as one but no state can last long when it has little real popular support and projects its power through violence.  It can send cells of supporters into democracies to launch attacks, and yet such tactics will bring its demise closer.  The threat might paradoxically in its death throes increase, as it loses ground and its safe havens, and the threat will likely not be extinguished entirely as another group drawing on the same ideology will rise, but Islamic State itself can be defeated.  The threat is only unprecedented if you have no knowledge whatsoever of the past, and crucially, if you want it to be such.

And politicians do want it to be so.  It's why the resolution also calls on "Member States that have the capacity to do so to take all necessary measures", the UN's traditional euphemism for military action.  Whether that precisely makes our proposed joining in with the bombing legal or not is up for debate, although for most politicians that would be more than enough.  Indeed, Cameron and friends have been declaring that action without a UN resolution would be legal as it would be in self-defence.  That's based on an extremely broad reading of what constitutes self-defence, but then state sovereignty has been in retreat for some time, or at least has for states that aren't in the free world.  If anyone is worried about the plethora of countries that are involved or have been in bombing Islamic State, which is currently in double figures and might well at some point go beyond the 20 mark, then they aren't yet.  Come on down everyone, eastern Syria is so bracing!

Syria is the ultimate conclusion of the insanity of Western foreign policy post 9/11.  Taking the worst aspects of 80s foreign policy, which was to pick on a shithole nation and either supply and arm murdering bandits, for which see Nicaragua, or bomb it/invade it, for which see Tripoli/Grenada and combining it with the liberal interventionism of the 90s, not a single country the US/UK has bombed is a better place for it.  If you want an example of when intervention does work, you could look at Mali, but as last weekend demonstrated problems remain even there.  Syria is the culmination of the initial mistake of invading Iraq, the mistakes made post-invasion, and mistakes made since the uprising against Bashar Assad.  This is not to say we are overwhelmingly responsible, as we are not.  We might have created the conditions in which a group like Islamic State could flourish, but we didn't force the Iraqi Shia to persecute the Sunnis to the point where a substantial minority if not majority would ally with IS.  We did not invent the jihadist way of thinking, even if at times we sponsored groups that subscribed to it and have had a major role in the spreading of the ideology.

Without wanting to speak for those with similar views to mine, what I suspect most of us want is recognition, however slight, that we are here in part because of those mistakes.  I don't want an apology, although others might; I want our policy going forward to be informed by those mistakes.  To an extent, some lessons have been learned, as was proved in Libya.  Rather than try and rebuild a state we smashed, we left as soon as Gaddafi was dead.  Enjoy your liberation, we're off now.  We went from one extreme to another, with predictable results when Gaddafi was the state, as the Ba'ath in Iraq was the state and Assad in Syria is also the state.

It's also true that Iraq/Afghanistan have rightly made us wary of "putting boots on the ground".  That is an undoubted positive, as it's what groups like IS want more than anything else.  What we have not learned is that a secular dictator is in some cases preferable to the chaos of what comes after.  This doesn't mean we should have supported Mubarak in Egypt for instance, or have acquiesced to the military coup which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood, but that a feeble and contained Gaddafi is preferable to the civil war that has followed there.  In the face of IS and al-Nusra as well as all the other jihadist and Islamist groupings in Syria, demanding Assad leave immediately as we have been for years now has been a madness.  Yes, to an extent Assad has enabled those groups through his butchery, and there is an extremely arguable case that if we had intervened early in the uprising much of the carnage could have been avoided.  This overlooks however that it was not long before the Islamist rebels dominated the opposition, and that the cash from the Sunni Gulf states which subsequently went to those rebels would have without doubt gone to political parties instead with much the same views.  Seeing Syria as purely a civil conflict is too simplistic - it is a regional, proxy conflict.

At the same time we should take a step back and consider what would have happened had we intervened against Assad in 2013As Flying Rodent tweeted, no one seems to think it odd that a mere two years later we must now urgently target the very force that would have benefited most had we intervened.  Discount the idea we were merely going to chuck bombs at a range of targets in retaliation for the Ghouta attacks, as that made no sense then and even less now.  It would have been Libya a second time, with likely co-ordination with rebels on the ground.  Whether or not IS would have taken complete control is arguable, but a scenario where the jihadists even if fighting each other are in majority control would be the all but certain outcome.  Difficult as it is to imagine, the potential for further ethnic cleansing, even genocide and for more refugees fleeing than have already would have been massive.

Are our politicians grateful they were prevented from making that horrific mistake?  No, because they care far more about their own prestige and "our standing" in the world than such things.  Matthew d'Ancona informed us a few weeks ago of how Cameron and friends would never forgive Miliband for inadvertently stopping their march to war.  George Osborne yesterday told Andrew Marr that bombing IS is less about destroying the group and more about ourselves: "whether we want to shape the world or be shaped by the world", the chancellor claiming we had "retreated into ourselves a bit" after Iraq and the economic crash.  Buying the most useless and most expensive military aircraft ever created is about "projecting power abroad in order to defend ourselves at home".  It's no use whatsoever against non-state actors, the biggest threat we face and will continue to face according to the strategic defence review, but we must project our power in order to defend ourselves.

What the proposed war against IS comes down to in the end is our perceived standing in the world, our relationships with our allies, the vanity of politicians, and the one remaining way in which they can sell themselves to the voters.  Not bombing IS when every other major nation is just can't be allowed.  We must do something, even if it's completely negligible militarily.  We must be seen to be reliable, to not shrink into ourselves, to not be feeble, like the spineless Corbyn.  A P5 nation not involved in the struggle against "a global and unprecedented threat", one that has killed British citizens, even if not yet in Britain itself?  It's just unthinkable.  At the same time, Cameron could not possibly endure the humiliation of being defeated by the Commons for a second time on such a vote, and so it will only go ahead when the government is certain it can win, and by a sizeable majority.  It doesn't matter how bogus the arguments and justifications are for our involvement, especially the idea that by bombing IS in Syria we will reduce the threat to the UK when the opposite is more realistic, so long as they are made repeatedly and with force.

Lastly, there's the old Adam Curtis Power of Nightmares thesis.  Politicians have abandoned so much else which they used to control to either the markets or regulators.  They claim not to be able to buck the market in order to save jobs.  They can claim to have restored economic security and credibility until the next crash arrives.  What they can still do is pledge to protect us.  It doesn't matter if the wars they've fought in order to protect us have demonstrably, objectively made us less safe, as there is always a new threat more serious than the last about to come along.  It doesn't matter if they restrict civil liberties or want the ability to see our every interaction online as long as they say it's to stop terrorists in their tracks.  So long as we are acting elsewhere in order to stop the war from coming home, it doesn't matter.  It worked for over 10 years in Afghanistan.  It will undoubtedly work with Syria too.

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Friday, November 20, 2015 


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