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In the Arab Spring of 2011 much of the foreign media covering the protests in Egypt gathered in or around Tahrir Square in Cairo to report the daily confrontations between demonstrators demanding the overthrow of the regime and security forces seeking to preserve it.

The scene in Tahrir was the backdrop to countless television interviews with opposition activists and what happened there was portrayed as a barometer which would tell the world if the Egyptian revolution would succeed or fail. When President Hosni Mubarak resigned on 11 February many television viewers and newspaper readers got the impression that the revolutionaries had won and Egypt was entering an era of freedom and democracy.

Except this was not true: the state and army never lost control of the essential levers of power and two years later Egypt was back under the rule of an even more brutal and authoritarian government.

The journalists who had focused their reporting on Tahrir had got their facts right, but they necessarily got a very selective and, as it turned out, misleading view of what was happening in Egypt, a country of 90 million people.

During the uprising in Libya a few months later, the television cameras were similarly trained on a square in Benghazi that protesters had permanently occupied. Intelligent, articulate English-speaking opposition leaders were available for interview in a nearby building. None of this was necessarily phoney, but it was a highly sanitised version of developments in Libya. Talking to people away from that much-televised square, it became swiftly apparent that the leaders so frequently interviewed had little authority and that Libya was likely to fall apart after the defeat of Gaddafi.

I was reminded of Tahrir and the crowded square in Benghazi when watching journalists and politicians interviewing and being interviewed on College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament over the last week. It has long been a favoured venue for broadcasters because it is a convenient location for MPs, with the dramatic parliament buildings as a backdrop.

Watching this relentless Brexit coverage, I had the same uneasy feeling as I had had in Cairo and Benghazi – that the focus was too narrow and, for all the talk of crisis, dangerous trends were being ignored or given insufficient weight.

The scene on College Green is probably the nearest one could get to seeing the famous “Westminster Bubble” in the flesh, its most regular inhabitants being journalists rather than politicians. Though frequently accused of being out of touch, MPs have to visit their constituencies, meet voters and speak to party activists. Political journalists are more exclusively metropolitan by the nature of their jobs and less in touch with the rest of the country. MPs speaking in the Commons talk about a wider range of topics than when they are giving interviews to news outlets.

All professions suffer from deformation professionnelle and this is certainly true of journalism. Some of this is unavoidable: news means supposing that something new and significant is happening day by day, even when evidence for this is scant. This inevitably leads to a short-term take on events.

A negative aspect of venues such as College Green or its equivalent around the world is that they foster a dangerous herd instinct in which some themes are relentlessly pursued and others marginalised or ignored.

Journalists traditionally give good marks to people who talk to opponents, even when nobody is giving any ground on matters of substance and conversations or negotiations are a waste of time. But by treating the near dead heat of the 2016 Brexit referendum as a case of winners and losers the government destroyed the basis for compromise, if it ever existed.

Everybody believes that everybody else cannot be quite so attached to their beliefs as they claim and will blink at the last, This is dangerously over-optimistic in the present case. I was talking to people in Dover this week, Remainers, who said they had no doubt that if there is a second referendum or Brexit is cancelled then there will be sustained violence.

They add that the EU may well have been unfairly scapegoated and blamed for grievances for which it was not responsible, but these grievances themselves are real, run very deep and have been further envenomed by the referendum. Any hope that the crisis can be defanged at this late stage is wishful thinking.

The extreme Brexit wing of the Conservatives, for all their talk of taking on the world, remain aggressively ignorant about the way it works. They assume Britain has cards in its hand that are not there, so the EU will always come out on top in any negotiation. This is then blamed on incompetent negotiators, a failure of will or, most dangerous of all, a stab in the back.

The same parochialism extends to the UK. The DUP is now treated as a respectable party representing the interests of Northern Ireland, despite its long record as a sectarian Protestant party in permanent confrontation with the Catholic and nationalist population. The DUP alliance with the Conservative Party is destroying an essential precondition for peace in Northern Ireland, which was British government neutrality between the two communities.

President de Gaulle once said that “the most common error of all statesmen is to believe firmly that there exists at any one moment a solution to every problem. There are in some periods problems to which no solution exists.” He was speaking in 1958 about ending the war in Algeria, a conflict so violent and complicated as to make Brexit seem clear cut by comparison.

De Gaulle did succeed in ending the Algerian conflict, which might give some hope to the British as they grapple with Brexit. But Julian Jackson’s magnificent book, A Certain Idea of France: the Life of Charles de Gaulle, points out de Gaulle’s practicality and avoidance of wishful thinking. This is what was lacking among the politicians and journalists in Tahrir Square and Benghazi eight years ago – and much the same is true of College Green today.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
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Government, parliament and parts of the media are obsessed by Brexit, almost to the exclusion of all else. The last few weeks have produced a cascade of apocalyptic warnings about the calamity facing Britain if it fails to depart the EU, or does so with or without a deal. These forebodings may or may not be true, but does this sense of crisis reflect the feelings of the British people as a whole?

Are there identifiable signs of popular rage and division similar to those that accompanied the Home Rule crisis of 1912-14, the Great Reform Bill of 1832 or even, as one cabinet minister claimed a few days ago, the English Civil War in the 17th century, in which at least 84,000 died on the battlefield? So far there is no evidence of anything like this, though that is not to say the confrontation over Brexit might not one day erupt into violence.

The media furore over a single MP being verbally abused outside parliament shows, contrary to overheated reportage, how quiet things have been on the streets up to the present moment.

A striking feature of news reporting and commentary in the final weeks before the British withdrawal from EU on 29 March is how narrowly focused it is on Westminster and on the sayings and doings of the political establishment.

Commenters have largely ignored what was supposed to be one of the lessons of the 2016 referendum, which was that London-based television, radio and newspapers were out of touch with the feelings of the country – a lack of understanding which led them to being surprised and shocked by the outcome of the vote.

To get a better understanding of what people are thinking on the eve of withdrawal or non-withdrawal, The Independent has conducted a series of in-depth interviews – for the purposes of the present article in Canterbury and Dover– in the places where voters plumped overwhelmingly for Leave and gave it its narrow majority nationally.

It is apparent from what people say that the near hysteria about Brexit in parliament, government and some news outlets is not yet widely shared by the mass of voters. Instead, there is perplexity and disengagement, though this could swiftly change.

Paula Spencer, who manages the community centre in the white working-class suburb of Thanington on the outskirts of Canterbury, says that locals are too taken up with the problems of daily living to talk much about Brexit. She says their expectations are low and they do not realistically see them improving, adding: “The worst thing for me is that you can have a father and mother both with jobs and they still can’t pay for their rent and food, though they are trying their bloody hardest.”

She says that many in Thanington only get through the month by relying on food banks, something which she imagined 10 years ago would stop once the financial crisis was over.

It was poorly educated people on low ages or benefits, living in areas like Thanington, who overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU.

Martin Rosenbaum, in a classic study of the referendum that drew on the breakdown of the vote by wards obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, confirms that it was older, poorly educated voters who were decisive in the poll. He writes that “the data confirms previous indications that local results were strongly associated with the educational attainment of voters – populations with lower qualifications were significantly more likely to vote Leave”.

Broadly speaking, every study of the results shows that it was the older and less qualified voters, particularly those living in poor, largely white housing estates, who put Leave on top on the night of the referendum.

The same pattern was repeated all over the country: the highest Leave vote anywhere in England and Wales was the 82.5 per cent in Brambles and Thorntree in Middlesbrough, a ward which has the lowest proportion of people with a university degrees or similar qualifications – just 4 per cent – anywhere in the country.

Nick Eden-Green, a Liberal Democratic councillor for Wincheap in Canterbury, the ward to which Thanington belongs, argues the reason that so many people from the area voted Leave was the same as in other deprived parts of east Kent.

“It was partly voters saying a plague on both your houses [when it came to the Conservatives, Labour and Lib Dem parties] and sod you shyster politicians,” he says. “Partly, it was fear of immigration: if you knock on doors people say ‘it is all these bloody illegals.’”

He says that for the present, those living in areas like Thanington are not talking much about Brexit, in sharp contrast to the better educated and the politically engaged. He asks: “Are people talking about Brexit? Among the ‘literati’ yes, but not here.”

People do not understand what is going on with Brexit other than that it is a mess; and Eden-Green finds their confusion perfectly understandable. He says: “I have spent a lot of my life in Europe and I speak French and German, but I still don’t know enough to decide what the country should be doing.”

Thanington locals say they do not know what to think, though they strongly suspect that nobody cares what they think, which was one of the main reasons they voted Leave in the first place.

Caroline Heggie, who has lived in the suburb since 1998, says that unlike most of her neighbours she voted Remain; but has stopped talking about Brexit. “The government don’t know what’s going to happen – how are we meant to know? I don’t know how it will affect me and I count myself as one of the more aware. I don’t understand the whole economic thing.”

She says that the main impression she gets is that there is an internal crisis in the government, which she says is “why we’re in this mess now”. She adds: “There’s a disconnect between what the government are doing and what the hell we’re going to do when it happens. I think most people here are in the ‘I don’t know’ category. As it happens, I haven’t found anyone who voted to Leave that has given me a good reason or argument or discussion on why they think it will benefit us. I believe the Leavers who voted have got less discussion than people who voted to Remain.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, EU 
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A black rubber inflatable boat was found abandoned earlier this week on the shingle at Dungeness on the Kent coast. Eight men, reportedly Iranians or Kurds, were later found close to the beach or in the nearby village of Lydd.

An Iranian living in south London was later charged with helping the migrants to cross the Channel illegally from France to the UK.

Sea crossings by small numbers of asylum seekers are highly publicised because the short but dangerous voyage makes good television.

The number of migrants over a period of months is in the low hundreds, but politicians believe that the impact of their arrival is high, as was shown by the home secretary, Sajid Javid, rushing back from holiday and declaring the crossings “a major incident”.

Nobody forgets the effect of pictures of columns of Syrian refugees, far away from UK in central Europe, had on the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Three days after the little inflatable boat beached at Dungeness, the US secretary of state Mike Pompeo made a speech in Cairo outlining the Trump Middle East policy, which inadvertently goes a long way to explain how the dinghy got there. After criticising former president Obama for being insufficiently belligerent, Pompeo promised that the US would “use diplomacy and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria; and that sanctions on Iran – and presumably Syria – will be rigorously imposed.

Just how this is to be done is less clear, but Pompeo insisted that the US will wage military and economic war in Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria, which inevitably means that normal life will be impossible in all of these places.

Though the US and its allies are unlikely to win any victories against Iran or Bashar al-Assad, the US can keep a permanent crisis simmering across a swathe of countries between the Pakistan border and the Mediterranean, thereby ensuring in the long term that a portion of the 170 million people living in this vast area will become so desperate that they will take every risk and spend the last of their money to flee to Western Europe. Keep in mind that these crises tend to cross-infect each other, so instability in Syria means instability in Iraq.

Given the seismic impact of migration fuelled by war or sanctions in the Middle East and North Africa on the politics of Europe over the last seven or eight years, it shows a high degree of self-destructive foolishness on the part of European governments not to have done more to restore peace. They have got away with it because voters have failed to see the linkage between foreign intervention and the consequent waves of immigrants from their ruined countries.

Yet the connection should be easy enough to grasp: in 2011, the Nato powers led by UK and France backed an insurgency in Libya that overthrew and killed Gaddafi. Libya was reduced to violent chaos presided over by criminalised militias, which opened the door to migrants from North and West Africa transiting Libya and drowning as they try to cross the Mediterranean.

In Syria, the US and UK long ago decided that they would be unable to get rid of Assad – indeed they did not really want to since they believed he would be replaced by al-Qaeda or Isis. But American, British and French policy makers were happy to keep the conflict bubbling to prevent Assad, Russia and Iran winning a complete victory. A result of prolonging the conflict is that the chance of the 6.5 million Syrian refugees ever returning home grows less by the year.

The economic devastation inflicted by these long wars is often underestimated because it is less visible and melodramatic than the ruins of Raqqa, Aleppo, Homs and Mosul. I was driving in northeast Syria last year, west of the Euphrates, through land that was once some of the most productive in the country, producing grain and cotton. But the irrigation canals were empty and for mile after mile the land has reverted to rough pasture. Our car kept stopping because the road was blocked by herds of sheep being driven by shepherds to crop the scanty grass as the area reverts to semi-desert because there is no electric power to pump water from the Euphrates.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Britain, Immigration, Syria 
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The closure of Gatwick, the second largest airport in Britain, just before Christmas after the sighting of a mysterious drone near the runway, received wall-to-wall coverage from the British media, dominating the news agenda for the best part of a week.

Contrast this with the limited interest shown when a majority stake in the airport was sold by its owners to a French company. A consortium led by the US investment fund Global Infrastructure Partners, which included the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority and Australia’s sovereign wealth fund, were paid £2.9bn by the French group, Vinci Airports.

The change in ownership of an important part of the British infrastructure from one foreign corporation to another came at an interesting moment. It was only a couple of weeks after the Whitehall spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, had issued a report explaining one reason why the British army is short of new recruits.

It says that back in 2012 the army had agreed a £495m contract with the outsourcing group Capita Business Services to be its partner in the recruitment of soldiers. But problems with the recruiting systems put in place by the company have made it increasingly complicated for even the most enthusiastic recruit to join up.

This is at a time when there is a shortfall of 5,500 in the number of fully trained British soldiers with 77,000 in the ranks compared to a target of 82,500.

The auditor’s report says that it took 321 days for an aspirant soldier to move forward from his or her initial online application to starting basic training. Unsurprisingly, many became discouraged over this long period so no less than 47 per cent dropped out in 2017/18.

More traditional methods such as local army recruitment centres had been run down as out of tune with modern times. The number of such centres was cut from 131 to 68 in an abortive attempt to reduce costs, according to the report.

What makes these two episodes significant is that they took place at the very moment when British politics is in greater turmoil than it has been for decades, if not for centuries, over the question of who runs the country. Yet this argument is focusing almost exclusively on the decision to leave the European Union on 29 March.

Proponents of Brexit argue that this is the best way to restore British national sovereignty and British control over their own country’s future. Yet, as we stagger towards Brexit in less than a dozen weeks’ time, it is extraordinary that decision-making on so many issues directly affecting the daily lives of people living in Britain should be in the hands of corporations at home and abroad.

The ability of national politicians to regulate and, above all, tax these international entities is already low and will get considerably lower if Britain leaves the EU and is scrabbling for new investment post Brexit. Vinci is reported to have got a bargain basement price for Gatwick because of Brexit fears.

Opinion polls have long shown popular opposition to the privatisation of providers of essential services and utilities, but people seem resigned to the idea that everything from airports and pharmacies, to their electricity and water supply will end up in the hands of corporations and foreign investors over which the British government has only diluted authority.

The great failing in the whole divisive debate over Brexit is that it has never really addressed the means by which – to adapt the words of the famous eurosceptic slogan – control could be regained.

The argument has focused instead on Brussels and on a narrow range of economic pluses and minuses, while it should have been over who runs Britain in an era of globalisation when the power of the nation state is everywhere being eroded.

No wonder this is provoking a nationalist and populist reaction across the world, stirring discontent from Wisconsin to Yorkshire and Paris to Damascus. Mention of the Syrian capital is not accidental; globalisation was one unrecognised ingredient in the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011.

The anti-Brexit forces made a disastrous mistake in treating the issue of the relations with the EU as if it was all about economics and immigration. Instead of treating the nation state and its history as slightly absurd and certainly outdated, they should have promoted the EU as a way of enhancing the power of the nation state by pooling sovereignty in order to re-empower individual EU members.

The baffled anger of the pro-Brexit politicians over why they are being pushed around by Ireland during the Brexit negotiations shows that they do not understand why EU solidarity ensures that the balance of power is against Britain every step of the way – and there is no reason why this this should change for the better.

None of the British political parties have ever faced up to the question of how they would maintain Britain’s position as a nation state as it is hit by the all-embracing impact of globalisation.

Instead, Brussels and the EU became the symbols of these frustrations and discontents, but neither Labour nor Conservative parties ever plotted an alternative course other than promising to maintain a status quo that was increasingly burdensome to a growing number of people.

Labour has always supported national self-determination as the right vehicle for nations escaping colonialism or otherwise seeking to gain independence. But when it comes to Britain – and above all England – Labour has always had an uncomfortable relationship with nationalism, suspecting it of being disguised racism or, at the very best, a diversion from essential social and economic reforms.

The Conservative stance is more frightening because so much of it is rooted in wishful thinking and selling a fantasy about Britain’s place in the world.

Gavin Williamson, the defence secretary, claimed in an interview in the last few days that “this is our biggest moment as a nation since the end of the Second World War, when we can recast ourselves in a different way, we can actually play the role on the world stage that the world expects us to play.” Once free of Brussels, we are to shift our focus to global horizons, opening new bases in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia.

Williamson is not alone in pumping out such deceptive dreams. Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, told audiences during a visit to Southeast Asia – as if he were Captain Cook landing in Polynesia – what good things we are going to bring to our old colonial stamping grounds between Malaysia and New Zealand where: “Britain’s post-Brexit role should be to act as an invisible chain linking together the democracies of the world.”

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain, Neoliberalism 
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For many years I have collected snippets of conversation accidentally overheard or one side of a phone call that sounded comic, menacing or just plain mysterious. My collection is small because most of what is garnered through unintentional eavesdropping is dull and long-winded, but I occasionally hear something which is rivetingly interesting or bizarre.

I was travelling on a train between St Pancras and Canterbury West just before Christmas a year ago, when I became conscious of a middle-aged man making a phone call a few seats away who was raising his voice in irritation. As he kept repeating himself, the reason for this soon became clear, as did the identity of the person to whom he was speaking.

He was complaining vigorously and at length to his mother about the behaviour of his sister whom he said had invited herself to stay for Christmas, though that was not the main reason why he was so upset. She was not only staying in his house, but she was demanding that he put a Christmas stocking at the end of her bed on Christmas morning. “I’ll do that for my nine-year-daughter but not for a 40-year-old-woman,” the man kept telling his mother, who was presumably trying to calm him down, in tones of increasing outrage.

My father Claud Cockburn, from whom I got the habit, would collect chunks of conversation that he found particularly intriguing. Once in New York he had heard one person saying to another as they walked past the open window of his apartment: “Yes, I can understand that, but why did he want to put the chestnuts down her back?” He speculated about could have been the context for this strange query.

The prize of his collection was one half of a phone conversation being conducted by his solicitor in Dublin as Claud entered his office. The solicitor waved him to a chair but went on listening intently but with mounting signs of impatience to what a caller was telling him at great length. Eventually, it was the solicitor’s turn to speak and, by my father’s account, he said quietly but with great deliberation, “I have three things to say to you: f*** you, f*** your mother, and f*** James Joyce too!” He then slammed the phone down.

My father did his business but then said that, such was his fascination with what he had just heard, he really could not leave the room without hearing some explanation for what it was all about. The solicitor replied that, weird and aggressive though his words might have sounded, they had a rational explanation.

“I have a client who is in deep trouble and I have advised him to leave the jurisdiction of the state,” he said. “He keeps refusing to go abroad and, just now, he was telling me that he couldn’t leave Ireland because he loved Dublin. I said that that might well be so but he should still get out before he saw the inside of a prison cell.” The client had then gone to say that he could not go because Dublin was the home of his mother and, after receiving the same legal advice as before, had added that his attachment to Dublin was all the greater because it was the city of James Joyce. It was at this point, the solicitor admitted, that his patience had finally given out and he had uttered the explosive words that Claud had just heard.

Most phone conversations that one is compelled to listen to on trains and elsewhere seem inordinately long, boring and repetitive. I have always felt a sympathy for those who have to listen for hours to the product of bugged phone calls. I did once read the published transcription of the calls of some much-feared mafia boss in New York or Boston who turned out to have spent much of his time on the phone trying to persuade the owner of a local restaurant to give him and his friends a better table when they came to dinner. Presumably, he had the sense not to talk on the phone about his more culpable plots and plans.

As a radical journalist, my father’s phone was bugged by MI5 in the 1930s and 40s, though few transcripts are preserved in the National Archives at Kew. Presumably, those discarded revealed nothing useful about his sources of information. Such texts that do survive appear to have done so because MI5 found them amusing rather than for any other purpose.

In June 1948, for instance, the listening officer writes that during a call between Claud and my mother Patricia, “Claud’s small son [my brother Alexander aged seven] then came to the phone and particularly requested his father to get home early because he wanted him to read a new book nurse had bought him about Christopher Robin.” This was touching but hardly of much value to the security services.

Snatches of talk are occasionally intriguing enough to inspire authors to develop a context into which they might fit. Rudyard Kipling wrote a cryptic story called Mrs Bathurst after hearing one seaman in New Zealand talking to another about a woman who would “never scruple to help a lame duck or to set her foot on a scorpion.”

Deliberate invention generally outdoes chance thoughts or snippets of dialogue. I particularly like the remark of Peter Cook: “Cricket is nothing if it is not one man pitted against a fish.” Few real proverbs are as good as this remark, though one Chinese proverb – “Of nine bald men, eight are deceitful and the ninth is dumb” – comes close.

On occasion, chance overheard remarks have all too understandable an explanation. Earlier this month we went for a drink and a meal to the wonderful Shipwright’s Arms, one of Kent’s most attractive pubs, which is located in the Ham marshes between Oare and Faversham, just below a dyke which protects it from the waters of the Swale estuary. We sat down in front of a blazing fire, got a glass of mulled wine, and only gradually became aware of the conversation around the bar which was particularly intense and of a practical nature.

I heard somebody say: “It all depends on whether or not the high tide and the surge come together.” Only gradually did it occur to us that this was not a general reflection about menacing developments in the Thames Estuary or the effect of climate change on us all, but referred to some more immediate threat to those present in the pub. These all appeared stoic and unruffled but, on inquiry, confirmed that a storm surge and an extra-high tide might well coincide, leading to water pouring over the dykes, as had happened in the recent past.

We darted up onto the dyke where we saw that the water was six inches below the top. The lights went out, adding to the sense of drama and we rapidly finished our drinks and left – though on this occasion the water receded before inundating the pub and the surrounding marsh.

 
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President Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria is being denounced by an impressive range of critics claiming that it is a surrender to Turkey, Russia, Syria and Iran – as well as a betrayal of the Kurds and a victory for Isis.

The pullout may be one or all of these things, but above all it is a recognition of what is really happening on the ground in Syria and the Middle East in general.

This point has not come across clearly enough because of the undiluted loathing for Trump among most of the American and British media. They act as a conduit for the views of diverse figures who condemn the withdrawal and include members of the imperially-minded foreign policy establishment in Washington and terrified Kurds living in north-east Syria who fear ethnic cleansing by an invading Turkish army.

Opposition to Trump’s decision was supercharged by the resignation of Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis which came after he failed to persuade the president to rescind his order. Mattis does not mention Syria or Afghanistan in his letter of resignation, but he makes clear his disagreement with the general direction of Trump’s foreign policy in not confronting Russia and China and ignoring traditional allies and alliances.

The resignation of Mattis has elicited predictable lamentations from commentators who treat his departure as if it was the equivalent of the Kaiser getting rid of Bismarck. The over-used description of Mattis as “the last of the adults in the room” is once again trotted out, though few examples of his adult behaviour are given aside from his wish – along with other supposed “adults” – to stay in Syria until various unobtainable objectives were achieved: the extinction of Iranian influence; the displacement of Bashar al-Assad; and the categorical defeat of Isis (are they really likely to sign surrender terms?).

In other words, there was to be an open-ended US commitment with no attainable goals in an isolated and dangerous part of the world where it was already playing a losing game.

It is worth spelling out the state of play in Syria because this is being masked by anti-Trump rhetoric, recommending policies that may sound benign but are far detached from political reality. This reality may be very nasty: it is right to be appalled by the prospects for the Syrian Kurds who are terrified of a Turkish army that is already massing to the north of the Turkish-Syrian frontier.

There is a horrible inevitability about all this because neither Turkey nor Syria were ever going to allow a Kurdish mini-state to take permanent root in north-east Syria. It existed because of the Syrian civil war in which Assad withdrew his forces from the Kurdish-populated regions in 2012 in order to concentrate them in defence of strategically vital cities and roads. Isis attacked the Kurdish enclave in 2014 which led to a de facto alliance between the Kurds and the US air force whose devastating firepower enabled the Kurds to capture a great swathe of Isis-held territory east of the Euphrates.

Turkey was never going to accept this outcome. Erdogan denounced the Kurdish political and military forces controlling this corner of Syria as “terrorists” belonging to the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.

This is a good moment to make a point about this article: it is an explanation not a justification for the dreadful things that may soon happen. I have visited the Kurdish controlled part of Syria several times and felt that it was the only part of Syria where the uprising of 2011 had produced a society that was better than what had gone before, bearing in mind the constraints of fighting a war.

I met the men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG and YPJ) who fought heroically against Isis, suffering thousands of dead and wounded. But I always had a doomed feeling when talking to them as I could not see how their statelet, which had been brought into existence by temporary circumstances, was going to last beyond the end of the Syrian civil war and the defeat of Isis. One day the Americans would have to choose between 2 million embattled Kurds in Syria and 80 million Turks in Turkey and it dd not take much political acumen to foresee what they would decide.

Turkey had escalated its pressure on the US to end its protection of the Kurds and this finally paid off. A telephone conversation with Erdogan a week ago reportedly convinced Trump that he had to get US soldiers and airpower out of Syria. Keep in mind that Trump needs – though he may not get as much as he wants – Turkey as an ally in the Middle East more than ever before. His bet on Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia as the leader of a pro-American and anti-Iranian Sunni coalition in the Middle has visibly and embarrassingly failed. The bizarre killing of Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team in Istanbul was only the latest in a series of Saudi pratfalls showing comical ineptitude as well as excessive and mindless violence.

Critics of Trump raise several other important questions in opposing his withdrawal decision: is he not letting Isis off the hook by prematurely announcing their defeat and thereby enabling them to make a comeback? There is something in this, but not a lot. The Islamic State, that once held territory stretching from the Tigris River in Iraq to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, is no more and cannot be resurrected because the circumstances that led to its spectacular growth between 2013 and 2015 are no longer there.

Isis made too many enemies because of its indiscriminate violence when it was at the peak of its power. Trump is right to assume in a tweet that “Russia, Iran, Syria & many others…will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us”. Isis may seek to take advantage of chaos in eastern Syria in the coming months, but there will be no power vacuum for them to exploit. The vacuum will be filled by Turkey or Syria or a combination of the two.

A further criticism of the US withdrawal is that it unnecessarily hands a victory to Vladimir Putin and Assad. But here again, Trump’s manoeuvre is more of a recognition of the fact that both men are already winners in the Syrian war.

Nor is it entirely clear that Russia and Iran will have greater influence in Syria and the region after the US withdrawal. True they have come out on the winning side, but as the Syrian state becomes more powerful it will have less need for foreign allies. The close cooperation between Russia and Turkey was glued together by US cooperation with the Kurds and once that ends, then Turkey may shift – though not all the way – back towards the US.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, Kurds, Syria 
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American armoured vehicles with their Stars and Stripes flying were patrolling today close to the Turkish-Kurdish frontline west of the Euphrates River in northern Syria. But how long will they go on doing so in the wake of the decision by President Trump to pull 2,000 US troops from Syria, claiming there is no reason for them to be there after the defeat of Isis? And when they do go, will this open the gates to a new and possibly very bloody phase in the seven-year-long Syrian war?

Turkey says it will invade and destroy the quasi-independent Kurdish enclave, which the Kurds call Rojava, once it is no longer under American protection. They say the Kurdish militants who rule the enclave “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”.

The main Kurdish population centres are in cities and towns on the Turkish border which are within artillery range of the Turkish regiments massing on the other side of the frontier.

If there is a Turkish invasion of this vast chunk of Syria, it will provoke a mass flight of the 2 million Kurds in the area who live in terror of a Turkish incursion. When Turkey invaded the Kurdish region of Afrin at the start of the year, half the population fled and has yet to return.

The Kurds in Syria provided the foot soldiers for the US war against Isis whose “Islamic state” once stretched in 2014 from the outskirts of Baghdad to the Mediterranean.

The Kurdish-US de facto alliance began during the Isis siege of the Kurdish city of Kobani at the end of that year when US airstrikes enabled Kurdish fighters to defeat a ferocious Isis assault.

The US had found what it had long been looking for in Syria – a reliable hardfighting military force on the ground which could call in American airstrikes as it advanced and occupied Isis strongholds.

No wonder the Kurds now feel utterly betrayed by the US. Their fighters belong to the People’s Protection Units (YPG) which provide the main fighting units of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that also contains units drawn from local Arab tribes.

Mr Trump’s tweet announcing his decision to withdraw came after the SDF captured Hajin, which was the last town in Syria held by Isis.

The Kurds in Rojava might now look for a deal with President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, in the hope of getting the Syrian army between them and the Turkish forces. The US departure will make it easier for the Kurds to look for protection from Mr Assad.

But how much is that protection worth since the Syrian army is not strong enough to stop the Turks even if it wanted to? Would Russia, the crucial supporter of Mr Assad, go along with such a move? It would be politically difficult for the Kurds to pivot away from cooperating with the US to working with Mr Assad, who the US is supposedly trying to overthrow.

As for Russia, Kurdish leaders say President Putin will always give priority to maintaining his good relations with Turkey regardless of what happens to the Kurds.

The Syrian Kurdish leadership will be hoping that the US will not totally abandon them. They know that much of the US political, military and media establishment, along with allies like the UK and France, want the US to stay in Syria. They know that Mr Trump’s policies have been diluted or reversed before when facing such wideranging opposition.

Turkey has been making menacing threats to invade Syria in recent weeks, and Turkish television has shown reinforcements being rushed to the border. Mr Trump’s decision may have appeared to come out of the blue, but it is more likely to have been taken because of this Turkish escalation.

Mr Trump does not want to teeter on the edge of a war with Turkey into which he might be dragged if US soldiers were killed by Turkish troops advancing into Syria. He will be able to revive the US alliance with Turkey as a major Nato power once US soldiers are no longer fighting alongside the YPG, who Turkey denounce as terrorists on the grounds they are a branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which has been fighting a guerrilla war in Turkey since 1984.

So long as Turkey, Russia and Iran are working in coordination, it will be difficult for Mr Trump to pursue his principle policy in the Middle East, which is to isolate and confront Iran.

Abandoning the Kurds may seem to the White House to be a reasonable price to pay in order to improve relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

There is another cost for President Trump, as he pulls US troops out of Syria saying Isis is defeated and Isis was the only reason for US soldiers being there.

But to what extent is this really true? It is correct that Isis, which four years ago controlled a vast territory in Syria and Iraq, no longer does so. It lost Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria after long and bloody sieges in 2017. Its fighters have suffered devastating casualties. Isis no longer rules a state with a powerful army controlling, at its height, some 6 or 7 million people.

However, Isis still has potential as a guerrilla force led by skilful commanders, and this potential will be far greater if it is no longer fighting the SDF, backed by US airpower. And even if US airstrikes still happen, experience shows that to be truly effective it needs ground troops able to identify targets and occupy territory – but, according to US officials, the order to withdraw also signifies an end to the US air campaign against Isis.

Isis has always wished that its great array of enemies, called into being by its cruelty and violence, would one day turn on each other and once again create the conditions for an Isis resurgence. This may now be happening. A Turkish invasion of northern Iraq would lead to chaos, mass flight by millions, and conflict between the local Kurdish and Arab populations: it is in such anarchic conditions that Isis was born and has always flourished.

President George W Bush paid a famously heavy political price in 2003 by prematurely claiming “mission accomplished”. Mr Trump will open himself up to a similar accusation if he declares Isis dead, and buried and this turns out to be untrue. His decision to withdraw has ended the stalemate in Syria, but it will not bring an end to its multiple conflicts.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: American Military, Donald Trump, ISIS, Syria 
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The number killed fighting in the war in Yemen jumped to 3,068 in November, the first time it has exceeded the three thousand mark in a single month since the start of the four-year conflict. This is about the same number as were being killed in Iraq at the height of the slaughter there in 2006.

The difference is that the Iraqis were not starving to death as is happening in Yemen. Aid organisations have long warned of mass starvation as 14m hungry people are on the verge of famine according to the UN. In a ruined economy, many Yemenis do not have the money to buy the little food that is available.

But at the last moment, just as millions of Yemenis were being engulfed by the crisis, a final calamity may have been averted.

On Thursday negotiators from the Saudi and UAE-backed forces and the Houthi rebel movement meeting under UN auspices in Sweden unexpectedly agreed a ceasefire in the port city of Hodeidah through which flows 70 per cent of Yemen’s food and fuel supplies. The Saudi-backed coalition forces and the Houthis have agreed to pull back their fighters from the city which the coalition has targeted has since June. It is the intensified fighting in and around Hodeidah that produced the spike in civilian and military fatalities.

The surprise breakthrough at the negotiations, which are meant to pave the way for full peace talks, has encouraging elements. Some 15,000 prisoners are to be exchanged and a humanitarian corridor is to be opened to the city of Taiz which has long been a focus for the fighting.

Truce agreements after long periods of fighting are always shaky as opposing fighters, locked in combat for years and regarding each other with the deepest suspicion, begin to disengage their forces. But, for once in Yemen, there are reasons for optimism, which have little to do with the warring parties themselves and everything to do with political changes in Washington and in the relations between the US and Saudi Arabia.

On the same day as the Hodeidah ceasefire was being announced in Sweden, the US Senate was unanimously approving a resolution holding Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – the architect of the war in March 2015 – accountable for the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul two months ago. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sponsor of the resolution, said: “I absolutely believe [Mohammed bin Salman] directed…I believe he monitored it. And I believe he is responsible for it.” Earlier in the month, after a closed-door briefing from the CIA director, Gina Haspel, Corker said: “If the Crown Prince had gone in front of a jury, he would be convicted in 30 minutes.”

This is rough stuff and came in the wake of a 56 to 41 vote in the Senate for a resolution ending US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. The Senate is also demanding the release of political prisoners held for supporting peaceful reforms such as rights for women.

President Trump and the White House are still standing by Saudi Arabia, but they are paying an increasingly heavy price for this protection. Republican senators as well as Democrats are leading the attack on the Crown Prince and the Saudi role in Yemen. This assault is going to get worse for the Saudis when the newly-elected Democratic majority takes over the House next year and steps up the pressure on the administration over its close alliance with Saudi Arabia. Trump may find that at the end of the day he is more vulnerable over his Saudi connection than his links to Russia.

Even if Trump does go on protecting the Crown Prince and Saudi Arabia he will look for something substantive in return. This is likely to include an end to the Yemeni war which the US once supported, primarily as a favour to the Saudis. It is a clear sign that the balance of power between Washington and Riyadh has changed radically in favour of the former.

A less obvious reason why the war in Yemen may come to an end is that neither side is in a position to defeat the other side. Many in Saudi Arabia and its allies may have believed earlier this year that capturing Hodeidah would be a decisive blow against the Houthis, but this was always a misconception. The Houthis are expert and experienced guerrillas who would certainly fight on against the less capable Saudi-backed government forces. They may well see impending famine as strengthening them diplomatically because it will provoke greater international criticism of the Saudi intervention.

The war has always been seen as a personal project of the Crown Prince, which, as Defence Minister, he launched in March 2015 in expectation of a quick victory under the revealing code name “Operation Decisive Storm”. But instead of victory there was a military stalemate, though this did the Saudis little political damage until recently. They claimed with some success that their war was a counter-offensive against Iran and Western leaders and media commonly referred to the “Iranian-backed Houthi rebels”.

But Iranian support for the Houthis was always limited, reportedly consisting of free oil product delivered outside the country to the Houthis who then sold it for cash. It is a mistake to think that Iran or any other power in the Middle East necessarily needs to deliver arms and ammunition in crates. Much of the Middle East is a black-market arms bazaar and this has always been particularly true of Yemen. Anybody with money to pay for weapons will never lack an arms dealer willing to supply them.

After the Saudis failed to win the war quickly in 2015, they largely lost interest in it though they could not afford to bring it to an end without some sign of success. The human cost did not concern them as they were receiving military and diplomatic cover from the US, UK and France.

The international media shamefully paid little to the war until the Khashoggi affair: a measure of this lack of interest was the lazy way in which news outlets cited the number of Yemenis who had died violently in the conflict at just 10,000, quoting a two-year-old UN figure which was, in any case, an underestimate. It was only after the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) meticulously counted the number of those killed since January 2016, that it emerged that the true figure for fatalities was 60,223. ACLED estimates that, when it has counted the number of dead in the first year of the war, the overall figure will rise to between 75,000 and 80,000, not including those who have died from famine or disease.

Bizarrely, it was not the killing of these tens of thousands but the murder of one man, Jamal Khashoggi, which may help bring to a close one of the most unnecessary wars in history.

 
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The number of people killed by the violence in Yemen has for the first time risen above 3,000 dead in a single month, bringing the total number of fatalities to over 60,000 since the start of 2016. The figure is six times greater than the out-of-date figure of 10,000 dead often cited in the media and by politicians.

“We have recorded 3,068 people killed in November, bringing the total number of Yemenis who have died in the violence to 60,223 since January 2016,” says Andrea Carboni, a researcher on Yemen for the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED), formerly based at Sussex University, that studies conflicts and seeks to establish the real casualty level.

The figures do not include the Yemenis who have died through starvation or malnutrition – the country is on the brink of famine, according to the UN – or from illnesses caused by the war such as cholera.

This number of Yemenis dying in the war has been played down by the Saudi and UAE-led coalition, which has active military support from the US, UK and France, and has an interest in minimising the human cost of the conflict. The coalition has been trying since March 2015 to reinstate in power Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, whose government had been overthrown by the rebel Houthi movement in late 2014.

Mr Carboni says that ACLED’s latest figures, which were released on Tuesday, are drawn primarily from information in hundreds of online papers and news sites in Yemen. The possible political bias of these sources is taken into account and different reports are cross-referenced using the most conservative numbers, to arrive at the final number.

ACLED executive director Clionadh Raleigh says: “ACLED’s estimation of Yemen’s direct conflict deaths is far higher than official estimates – and [these are] still underestimated. Fatality numbers are only one approximation of the abject tragedy and terror forced upon Yemenis.”

The 60,223 figure for those killed in the fighting is lower than the total fatalities in Yemen since Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman began the Saudi intervention in March 2015 because ACLED only began its count at the beginning of 2016.

But the organisation is now also conducting a count of those killed in 2015, whom Mr Carboni says he estimated “to number between 15,000 and 20,000”. This would mean that the overall figure for fatalities as a result of violence over almost four years of war would rise to between 75,000 and 80,000.

The steep increase in the number killed this year is explained by the Saudi and UAE-led assault on the port of Hodeidah on the Red Sea coast which is the main conduit for relief supplies reaching the Yemeni population.

This has led to a 68 per cent increase in the number killed in the first 11 months of this year, to 28,115, according to ACLED.

The number of those who have already died in Yemen may soon be far surpassed by the number likely to die because of hunger and disease. Some 20 million people are not getting enough to eat – 70 per cent of the population – and for the first time, 250,000 are facing “catastrophe”, according to the UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock, who has recently returned from Yemen.

He said that there has been “a significant, dramatic deterioration” of the humanitarian situation with those Yemenis facing starvation and death being concentrated in the four provinces where the fighting is at its most intense: Hodeidah, Saada, Taiz and Hajja.

A significant change in the conflict in Yemen is that the Saudi role in the war is coming under far greater scrutiny since the murder of dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi team in Istanbul on 2 October. International revulsion over his killing has led to greater focus and criticism of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the humanitarian calamity it has produced.

At the UN-sponsored talks between the Houthis and the Saudi-backed government being held in Sweden, delegates are discussing the expansion of a shaky truce in Hodeidah. Under this proposal, all troops would withdraw from the city and later from the province, leaving the UN with oversight over an interim administration. The UN envoy to Yemen, Martin Griffiths, said he wanted “to take Hodeidah out of the war” so aid could be delivered.

Another sign of a limited de-escalation of the war came on Tuesday with the Saudi-backed government and the Houthis exchanging lists of some 15,000 prisoners to open the door for a swap agreement. But the talks, set to last until 13 December, have yet to make progress on important differences over a ceasefire at Hodeidah, reopening the Houthi-held airport at the capital Sanaa, and the shoring up of the central bank.

The prisoner swap would take place on 20 January via Sanaa airport in north Yemen and government-held Sayun airport in the south – a process overseen by the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

“We have exchanged more than 7,000 names from each side, including some 200 high-ranking officers,” said Ghaleb Mutlaq, a delegate for the Houthis.

The Trump administration is paying an increasingly high political price at home and abroad for its continued support for the Saudi crown prince and the war in Yemen, which are coming under strong criticism from both Republicans and Democrats in Washington.

Nevertheless, the administration says it will continue to back the Saudi-led coalition, claiming that this is necessary to combat Iranian influence and Islamic fundamentalists.

“We do believe that support for the coalition is necessary. It sends a wrong message if we discontinue our support,” said Timothy Lenderking, US deputy assistant secretary for Arabian Gulf Affairs at the weekend.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Saudi Arabia, Yemen 
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The UK has long been divided by class, region and race, but these divisions have been masked by political and economic success. This has meant the English, as the dominant nation in the UK, are not good at coping with a sense of failure and a loss of self-confidence.

The current focus is on parliamentary turmoil and the acceptance or rejection of Theresa May’s muted version of Brexit but, whatever happens in the coming weeks, there will be no resolution of the overall crisis. On the contrary, the divisions exacerbated by Brexit will only get deeper and more toxic, dominating the national agenda to the exclusion of everything else.

The nature of English nationalism – deeply ingrained but so self-confident its norms were assumed by most English people to be part of the natural order of things – is changing. George Bernard Shaw said “a healthy nation is as unconscious of its nationality as a healthy man is of his bones”. Smaller nations like the Irish and the Poles, with a history of defeat and occupation, have grim experience of having to nurse back to health the fractured bones of their nation but for the English worrying about their national identity and the future status is a new and unnerving experience.

The sense of English superiority was real but relaxed and often expressed in self-mockery. I remember my late brother-in-law Michael Flanders, part of the Flanders and Swann duo in the 1950s and 1960s, singing a song entitled Patriotic Prejudice, one version of which ran:

“The English, the English, the English are best,
I wouldn’t give tuppence for all of the rest.
The Germans are German, the Russians are red,
The French and Italians eat garlic in bed.
The English are moral, the English are good,
And clever and modest and misunderstood.”

Many pro-Brexit supporters do not seem to have advanced far beyond this benign picture of the national character. But these days their tone is defensive and self-assertive. Immigrants are to be schooled in British values – whatever those may be – the very thing Shaw saw as a symptom of unhealthy nationalism.

Analysis of the forces that led to Brexit usually looks at issues over too short a time span. The English may once have been confident of their own nationality but this does not mean they were as tolerant of others as they sometimes like to suppose. Punch cartoons in the 19th century showed the Irish as murderous sub-humans. The Aliens Act of 1905, brought in by a Conservative government with an eye to winning votes in a general election the following year, aimed to exclude Jews fleeing Russian pogroms. A century later, the Conservative Party spent years trying to trump Tony Blair’s ability to win successive elections by experimenting with different types of dog-whistle anti-immigrant rhetoric, often combined with demonisation of the EU.

Conservative politicians such as David Cameron, whose career was to be destroyed by the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum, were highlighting the migrant threat a year before the vote, warning of “a swarm of people, coming from the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain”. This showed real chutzpah, or cheek, since Cameron played a central role in launching the Nato war to overthrow Gaddafi in 2011 that turned Libya into a land of warlords and predatory militias, opening the way for migrants from North Africa to try to reach Europe from Libya in overcrowded boats and dinghies, often dying in the attempt.

A further feature of English nationalism will make it difficult to manoeuvre during the coming years of preoccupation with European relations. Small nations get used to inferior status and playing a weaker hand against opponents who hold most of the cards. British diplomats understand this, but a large part of public opinion in Britain, as in other former imperial nations, sees compromise as a sign of inexplicable weakness of will or as a treacherous stab in the back.

This lethal inability to calculate the real balance of power in the EU or anywhere else is not confined to an ill-informed public which has been spoon-fed war-time triumphs. Covering wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria over the last 20 years, I noticed again and again how difficult British politicians found it to take on board what was really happening and distinguish winners from losers, obvious though this often was.

A further English weakness – and the switch from referring to the English rather than the British is deliberate – is that neither Leavers nor Remainers have ever thought through what self-determination really means and how it can best be achieved. This is a perfectly legitimate aim that has inspired national movements in much of the world but Remainers tend to deride it as spurious patriotic bombast tinged with racism, and Leavers speak of achieving real independence for Britain almost automatically once the shackles of the EU are removed. This is in keeping with the behaviour of every nationalist or liberation movement in history which has invariably blamed all the woes of its people on foreign rulers or domestic tyrants. This conveniently saves them the trouble of having to explain what they would do themselves.

Britain could achieve a greater degree of formal self-determination outside the EU, though everybody in the country would be considerably poorer. But it would not be as a free trading entrepot like Singapore or Dubai: political and economic isolation for any country usually leads to the state playing a greater role. This is already happening in a small way in Britain with the Department of Health arranging uninterrupted supplies of medicine in case Britain topples out of the EU next year without an agreement.

A contradictory aspect of the Brexiteer project is fanaticism about freeing Britain from EU courts and regulations. At the same time, Leavers are relaxed about British water companies and other essential utilities being owned by financiers in Sydney, Hong Kong and anywhere else in the world.

As Shaw pointed out, national self-confidence is not something that you notice until it is gone and it is then difficult to win back. The same is true of national unity: the obvious fallacy that the British as a whole chose to leave the EU, when the vote was so evenly divided, could only end in a self-destructive crisis. To expect such a revolutionary change to be carried out by a minority government was demented. Whatever happens in the coming months and years, the English nationality will have to mend a lot of broken bones.

 
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Brexit, Britain 
Patrick Cockburn
About Patrick Cockburn

Patrick Cockburn is the Middle East correspondent for the British newspaper The Independent. He was awarded the 2005 Martha Gellhorn prize for war reporting. His book on his years covering the war in Iraq, The Occupation: War and Resistance in Iraq (Verso) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for non-fiction.


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