Tuesday, October 25, 2022

No .. would ever ..

So Rishi Sunak has finally clawed his way to the top. If anyone remembers, in late-2019 Sunak was no. 2 at the Treasury, when Sajid Javid was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Then, soon after Boris Johnson's election win, Dominic Cummings tried to impose No. 10's choice of advisers on Javid. Javid said that no Chancellor would ever be prepared to accept that. But Sunak was. 

 As when Theresa May said that no British Prime Minister would ever effectively give away Northern Ireland, by accepting that it be treated differently from the rest of the UK in relation to the EU. But Johnson did, when he signed his Withdrawal Agreement, including the NI Protocol, after meeting the Irish PM on the Wirral in October 2019. 

Reportedly, Sunak worked tirelessly to undermine his boss at the Treasury.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Covid-19 and the Right

It is reported that in EU countries, Germany and Austria, there are < 5 deaths from covid-19 (coronavirus) / 100,000 people, while in Italy and Spain it is > 30 (BBCN24 WN, 15.4, 00:00). In the UK and France, it was around 20.

I suppose it would be rather cumbersome to express this as 0.005%, less so when it gets to 0.03%. Either way, it is more useful than absolute numbers (30,000 deaths and so on). The US has a population 5 times larger than the UK, France, Italy or Spain, whereas New York State (pop. 19m) is 3 times smaller than the European countries.

Reporting of covid-19 usually now comes with something like, 'behind every statistic there is a human tragedy'. However, it is only in the grim figures of confirmed cases of infections and hospital admissions, and deaths, with their associated time lags, that we can see how much success we are having in controlling the virus.

There are a number of unknowns: many deaths outside hospitals are not reported; the rate of confirmed cases depends on the amount of testing done. This has an impact, on both sides of the equation, in the rate of mortality in a given population. Germany, along with some East Asian countries such as South Korea, have a high rate of testing; in the US and UK, it is around half that rate, but it is a little-known fact that in Japan it is much lower. The BBC's Tokyo correspondent comments, 'we don't know what we don't know.' (4 Apr)

I have no claim to any medical or scientific expertise, but it is interesting to see that there are divisions opening up along political lines.

In the worst global health crisis in maybe a century, Donald Trump, president of the United States, decides this is the moment to suspend funding to the World Health Organisation. 

Trump's mendacity and his disregard of suffering outside his own country are well-known, but hopefully rationality, arguments based on reality and respect for evidence, and compassion, can prevail. If Democrats endlessly run with Trump's words, 'it's a hoax' and 'it's just like the flu', it is hard to see how they can lose in November, but who can say?

A few hours earlier, Peter Hitchens, on C4 News, argued that the approach taken in the UK was disproportionate and that Sweden had shown that it was possible to control the virus without shutting down the economy.

The last I heard, there is growing criticism of the approach being taken there. The idea seems to be to allow the virus to slowly infect the population, similar to the way, newspapers reported, but the government later denied, that Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings wanted to build up 'herd immunity' (Newshour, BBC WS, Sat 11 Apr.). But, we shall have to wait and see how things turn out in Sweden.

There is little to criticize in what the government is doing now, but this is a sign of something that seems to be more pronounced in the US, a sign that even in the UK there is hostility on the Right to measures being taken to protect lives. And we could also see the same distortion of the truth as we saw with the campaign for the UK's exit from the EU.

15.4.2020. Published: 22.4.

** update: Germany has conducted 1.7m tests, > 3 times more per head of population than the UK, with < 400,000. The death rate is 2.5% of confirmed cases, compared to 12.8%, with > 3,200 deaths, as against < 13,000 (Jonathan Rugman report, C4N, 15.4).

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

UK election: myths & reality

Before campaigning starts, it is worth looking at some of the assertions that are frequently made, before they become established as accepted truth and the facts are forgotten.

First, that an election is necessary to resolve the 'deadlock' in parliament. For example, the BBC World Service, in its morning bulletin, 30 October, said that it was hoped that the election would 'break the deadlock over Brexit'. Far be it from me to question the 'authoritative version' put out by the BBC, but this is not true. We need a careful examination of the facts.

On 22 Oct., UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson got a comfortable majority on the 2nd reading of his Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB). This shows the remarkable unity of the Conservative Party: even MPs expelled in September (*) voted for the deal. All they wanted was more time to properly debate one of the most momentous pieces of legislation for the UK in decades. So, they voted against the 'programme motion', which would have restricted scrutiny of the bill to a few days, as they had voted for the 'Letwin amendment' on Saturday, 19 Oct.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn then offered to agree a reasonable timetable to examine the bill. Instead Johnson said he would call 'again and again' for an  election.

Conservatives argue, repeatedly, that MPs have been debating the issue of exiting the EU (so-called 'Brexit') for 3 1/2 years. But not this deal and not this bill. Then, they say the bill would have been amended out of all recognition before being passed. This too seems to me unlikely. Even without the DUP, the government was likely to get the support of enough Labour MPs in constituencies that voted Leave in the 2016 EU referendum, to pass the WAB through parliament without major alteration.

So, Johnson passed up an opportunity to get his deal through parliament and exit the EU, probably by the end of November. Why did he do this? It is true there would have been a problem with timing: if MPs had not backed the WAB, this would have left the government seeking an election even later in December, or next year – if an election shortly before Christmas is unpopular, a campaign stretching over the Christmas would be unthinkable. So, it might not be possible  to exit the EU before even the new deadline of 31 January.

Then, hard though it is to imagine, there is more to UK politics than exiting the EU. The government could have had difficulty with its Budget (pulled, 25 Oct.) and legislative programme (the Queen's Speech, read on 14 Oct., which even at the time seemed unlikely to be started on). It should be noted, though, that the DUP did not rule out continuing with the 'confidence & supply' arrangement with the Conservatives on non-EU matters,

However, it seems to me that the most likely explanation of Johnson's actions is that, for all his repeated slogan of 'get Brexit done!', his priority was to get a general election and 5 years of majority government.

Second, that Labour were reluctant to agree to an election because they were scared of losing. In fact, their position has been consistent:  to agree to an election only when a no-deal exit from the EU had been clearly ruled out. This was what was achieved by the 'Benn Act', the 'Letwin amendment' and the rejection of the 'programme motion' between them.

All along, there was a suspicion that the PM would use any trick, from proroguing parliament, to manipulating the timing of an election, in order to take the UK out of the EU with no deal without parliament's approval. When, on 28 Oct., the EU offered an extension to 31 Jan. and the PM accepted this in a letter, signed this time, Labour's condition for agreeing to an election was met.

* In other words, they had the 'Whip removed'. This was because they supported the EU Withdrawal Bill (No. 2), also known as the 'Benn Act' and castigated by the Johnson government as the 'Surrender Act'. This sought to prevent the government leaving the EU before 31 October, unless a deal had been agreed. On 29 Oct, 10 of the 21 expelled had the 'Whip restored', but not those who voted against the 'programme motion'.

30 Oct 2019

Monday, April 08, 2019

The UK post-referendum

Interesting to hear Alistair Burt on BBC WS Weekend yesterday morning, arguing that there was not much difference in the UK's role in the world following the 2016 referendum.

True, the UK is still important for Yemen (not to mention the Jamal Khashoggi affair), due to its arms sales to Saudi, but in the last 6 months or so there have been talks about Syria & Libya, with France & Germany, or France & Italy involved, with the UK noticeable by its absence.

Admittedly, this is mostly due to the process of exiting the EU, since it has absorbed nearly all of the government's energy and attention, and what the case will be when an end-state is settled, remains to be seen, but arguably, the failures in Libya (to help achieve stability after the 2011 intervention) and Syria (the vote in UK Parliament in 2013) were one of the drivers of the UK's vote to leave the EU. So it goes.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

The BBC asks, was the Manchester Arena bomber radicalised ..

The BBC asks, was the Manchester Arena bomber radicalised by sermons preached at a mosque in Didsbury? (BBC1 N6, 18:17, 16.8). The imam in question was Mustafa Graf (Mostafa Abdallah Graf). Ed Thomas reports. 2 Islamic scholars give their opinions.

It seems to me that 2 things are being confused or conflated here: incitement to carry out a terrorist bombing in the UK for its alleged complicity, or to join ISIL (IS), both of which are unequivocally condemnable; and incitement to going to Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad, which is illegal under UK law, but, morally, far more ambivalent.

Perhaps I should clarify: plenty of people have been convicted for going to Syria; no-one, as far as I am aware, has been convicted for inciting that. To do so, in my view, would be a dangerous extension of restriction of freedom of speech.

Further comments here on the group formerly known as Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

17 seconds for Syria

As I did not hear this mentioned elsewhere, here is the report in full from the BBC World Service (25.7 8:02) on this incident, which was also mentioned at 8:32:
A Syrian monitoring group says 8 civilians have been killed in air-strikes on the last rebel-held enclave close to [..] Damascus. 30 other people were injured [in the strikes], which the Syrian Observatory says had been carried out by either government or Russian 'planes. They're the 1 st civilian casualties since a truce came into effect on Saturday.

Friday, June 09, 2017

UK election 2017 (1?)

Wow, no-one was expecting that.

Opinion polls at the start of the campaign showed that the Conservatives (Tories) had a lead of around 20%. They narrowed during the campaign but then showed a bit of a pick-up for the Tories at the end, to a gap of about 6-8% and an increased majority.

I thought that it would be a damage-limitation exercise, that the battleground, where the line might be held, would be at a point where the Tories won about 40 seats. At this point, the Tories would have a majority approaching 100, but Labour would maintain something of a base in Parliament, to build on for the future (without Jeremy Corbyn as leader).

On the doorstep, for example in Derby North, where I helped with the campaign, as in Stoke Central in February, quite a few people said they were not voting Labour because of Corbyn. True, he did run an energetic campaign and “energised the base” (*). 

However, it seems that Tory voters were even more pissed off.

Firstly, the election was seen as unnecessary, the reasons given for calling it specious or even absurd: the EU's European Commission was plotting to undermine the UK's negotiating position; LibDem MPs (all 8 of them) were determined to derail 'Brexit' (Britain's exit from the EU). There was no reason for Theresa May to seek to extend her mandate by 2 years to 2022. The election could have been held in 2020 as scheduled, when her government plans to have taken the UK out of the EU by March 2019, or before then, when a deal has been agreed (or “no deal”). 

This was compounded by the timing of the general election, 5 weeks after local elections. The general election would normally be held on the same day, as on 5 May 2005 and as has generally been the case for the last 20 years (**). In a BBC report at the start, that later “went viral”, a 75 year old woman from Bristol said, “you're joking, not another one”?

Then, the campaign fought by Theresa May was exceptionally vacuous. It consisted mainly of empty slogans, such as “strong and stable leadership”. Where they did provide concrete proposals, they betrayed an arrogant and complacent assumption that they could cut public spending how and where they liked, since they were going to win anyway.

In what May declared was to be a “Brexit election”, there was little discussion of the issues around leaving the EU. Instead, all she offered was, “Who do you trust to negotiate a deal for Brexit”? She received more or less the same answer that Edward Heath famously got when he asked, “Who governs Britain?” in February 1974: “Not you, mate.”

* Some said that if only he had put as much effort into the EU referendum last year, there could have been a different result.

** In 2001, "the election had been expected on 3 May, to coincide with local elections, but both were postponed because of rural movement restrictions imposed in response to the foot and mouth outbreak".

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Trump has won

3 Tweets with my thoughts early this morning (9 Nov):
(6:20) what will Trump do .. ? (BBC WS).
1 thought: Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) for #US_president 2020?
Suddenly the #EU is the last best hope for democracy in the world.

To expand on these thoughts.

(6:20 GMT) what will Trump do .. ? (BBC WS).
First, the obvious, Trump was winning: a few seconds from the radio was enough to establish this. But the question - how many of his campaign promises will, or can, be put into effect - will take a lot longer to be answered (here is the difficulty for his opponents: how do you criticise him for not keeping his promises, when so many of his promises are so hateful or crazy?)

When he spoke shortly after winning, he sounded like any other candidate: "I've just received a call from Secretary Clinton .. ". (Markets had fallen, in the far East, but the tone of this speech caused them to stabilize.) So, the 1st promise, on Hillary Clinton, "lock her up", having achieved its aim, could well be abandoned. 

Somehow it was established in the minds of people that Clinton was dishonest.  However, one study found that around 70% of Trump's statements could be categorised in a range from somewhat inaccurate to "pants on fire". For Clinton, it was 27% (BBC WS, Weekend, 6.11). Trump's lies are so blatant (for example, his claim that he opposed the 2003 war in Iraq is, I think, provably false) but not so obvious to nearly half the population. (1).

1 thought: Elizabeth Warren (@SenWarren) for #US_president 2020?
Clearly, Americans did not want another Clinton as president, any more than they wanted another Bush. One priority for the Democratic Party is to find a convincing candidate for the 2020 election. A year ago there was a lot of talk about Elizabeth Warren as a more radical alternative to Hillary. Presumably she decided not to stand, and attention switched to Bernie Sanders. Many will doubtless now say, “If only we had picked Bernie, we would have won.” But to my my mind, thinking that choosing someone who until about 3 years ago was not even a Democrat but styled himself as an Independent Socialist would have been better is an illusion (but there again, Trump was not a Republican until about 3 years ago).

Before that there are congressional elections in 2018, where the Democrats could maybe flip the Senate. This is important for reasons that we shall see.

One thing that looks likely to happen is the repeal of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare, healthcare). (I just heard (19:20) someone say that Trump does not have super-majority in Senate, 60%, but he doesn't need it: the Senate won't need to overturn a presidential veto. I'm not that much of an expert on the US constitution, but it's hard to see how a Democrat minority could block, say, the repeal of the ACA.) (2).

Then, Trump will be able to appoint Supreme Court judges, at least one, to replace Antonin Scalia, where the Republicans unjustly refused to even consider Obama's nominee. Their gamble paid off here, but a Democrat-controlled Senate could well act in the same way. Further vacancies are likely to arise, but dependent on the result of future elections, Trump's window for appointments could be limited to around 3 years (Scalia died in February 2016, 11 months before President Obama is due to leave office). This has implications for issues like the right to abortion.

(1) For a dispassionate analysis of "those damn e-mails" of Hillary's, see Matthew Yglesias (via Jeff Weintraub).  

(2) Slavoj Žižek (via Jeff Weintraub again):
 “He said he will not totally dismantle universal healthcare, raise the minimum wage, and so on.” .. The example of this, he returns to time and again, being the introduction of universal healthcare in the US – an achievement worthy of the highest praise for Obama and countless thousands of Americans who worked to realise it over decades, ..
But even if you only partially dismantle universal healthcare, it's no longer universal. Trump managed to get away with not providing any details of the "something better" he would replace "Obamacare" with and still get elected.

To be continued.

Published 12 Nov 2016. Two of the issues I discussed seem to be developing in diametrically opposite ways to how I thought (Hillary Clinton and the ACA). The only thing we have learned for certain in the last few days is that nothing is predictable.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Britain, the EU and referendums: 1975 & 2016 (Part 1 note)

*  One word I remember from that 1975 Sunday Times article is "post-prandial". This more recent article is very interesting.

Forecasts can be wrong, and those from "experts"(at the IFS & IMF etc.) are reflexively rubbished by the Leave campaign, but hard historic facts are harder to argue with.

Economic Outlook: Britain whistled a happier tune after joining the EU - David Smith, 28 February 2016

While Europe was busy integrating, the world was Britain’s oyster. Where there had once been the Empire, on which the sun never set, now there was the Commonwealth. There was the special relationship with America. There were opportunities well beyond the narrow confines of the EEC.
The world, however, was not enough. Commonwealth countries such as Australia and South Africa, far from being happy to be easy markets for British exports, wanted to develop their own industries and imposed tariff barriers against the mother country. India was heavily protectionist from the time of independence in 1947. As a result of this and other factors, Europe’s grass started to look a lot greener. Britain’s economic performance in the 1950s and 1960s was poor in relation to the EEC pioneers. Germany and France had a lot more catching up to do after the devastation of the Second World War but, even allowing for this, they achieved growth well in excess of Britain’s.

In the years from 1950 to 1973, sometimes known as the golden age of growth, gross domestic product per head rose by an average of 2.4% a year in Britain, 4% in France and 5% in Germany. By 1960, Germany was once again producing more cars than Britain and had secured a bigger share of world trade.

Having sampled life outside the EEC, successive British governments wanted in, and desperately so. After trying a smaller alternative, the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), established in 1960, Britain was rejected for EEC membership in 1963 and 1967 before being finally admitted at the start of 1973. Envy of Europe ran deep. [ .. ]

 The politicians of the 1960s and early 1970s were not daft. Having lagged behind growth in the EEC prior to membership, Britain caught up and then outgrew the original six. Their growth became no longer a cause for envy. Growth rates slowed everywhere after the golden age, but Britain’s relative performance improved. Plainly not all of this was due to being in the EEC. Clearly, some of it was.

Joining the EEC was a considerable economic success, according to a new paper, The Growth Effects of EU Membership for the UK: A Review of the Evidence, by the noted economic historian Professor Nick Crafts of Warwick University. “Membership has raised UK income levels appreciably and by much more than 1970s proponents of EU entry predicted,” he writes. “Joining the EU raised the level of real GDP per person in the UK compared with the alternative of staying in EFTA. The deeper economic integration EU membership entailed increased trade substantially and this had positive effects on income.” His calculations suggest that the positive economic effects of membership have outweighed the cost of Britain’s EU contributions and red tape by a factor of about seven to one.

The world was different in 1973, when Britain joined the EEC, and 1975, when we had a referendum on whether to stay in. Many people who did have a vote in 1975, and some who did not, claim that the country was conned; that we voted to join a common market and ended up with ever closer union, migration and a single currency on our doorstep. It is true that at the time of the 1975 referendum the government chose to emphasise the trade aspects of membership to the exclusion of almost everything else. Freedom of movement and equal treatment of people were part of the Treaty of Rome, though in the 1970s most people expected the flows to be from Britain to the rest of Europe, not the other way around. The TV series Auf Wiedersehn, Pet, first shown in 1983, was about British migrant workers in Germany.

As for the single currency, when Ted Heath began his successful entry negotiations, the EEC was still officially on course for monetary union, the Werner Report of October 1970 having set the target of achieving it by 1980. It took a further two decades for the euro to arrive, but Europe’s intentions were pretty clear.

A stronger point is that Europe has changed in 40 years. No longer do we envy our European partners their growth, although many people I talk to still have a lot of envy for Germany and even France. The world has changed, too, with the rise of China and other emerging economies. Trade is freer, for goods if not yet enough for services. Britain is making great strides in the latter, though: service-sector exports doubled between 2006 and 2014. 

 The question I will address in coming weeks is whether things have changed enough for life to be better outside the EU. Does membership prevent us taking full advantage of the wider world, or is that an escapist fantasy? Germany has been a big success, from within the EU, in selling to the world. Only China and America, with much larger populations, export more.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Britain, the EU and referendums: 1975 & 2016 (Part 1)

With Britain in full swing of debate ahead of the  referendum, 2 memories from the earlier debate stick in my mind.

In 1975,  the anti-Europe argument was largely the preserve of Left-Labour: people now in favour of continuing EU membership, were then opposed, from Jeremy Corbyn to shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, then campaigning with his father Tony to leave. Of course, there were some figures n the Right, such as Enoch Powell and Nicholas Ridley, who opposed EEC  membership, but these were largely seen as mavericks. Nonetheless, small though it was, the anti-Europe element in the Tory party forced the Heath government in 1972 to rely on pro-European Labour MPs (some of whom later defected to form the Social Democrats Party) to get the legislation through that paved the way for the UK's accession to the EEC

Now the anti-EU sentiment seems more embedded in the Conservative mainstream: those supporting Leave include cabinet ministers such as Michael Gove, former leader Ian Duncan-Smith & former London mayor Boris Johnson; they have joined the campaign alongside UKIP leader, Nigel Farage.

So, this is the 1st memory, of 2 articles in the Sunday Times, 1 for, 1 against. It was the against argument that made the most impression on me: with free movement of capital, workers would be pissed upon. They certainly were in the years that followed, mainly as a result of the Thatcher reforms. But it would take more than leaving the EU for them to be unpissed upon (*) .

Back then, there were many people who had memories of the Second World War, had even fought in it. For some of them, what was then the European Economic Community (subsequently the  European Community, then the  European Union) represented peace: France and Germany had relatively recently been at war (their 3rd clash in 70 years); now war between these rivals was unthinkable.

Another idea, viewed through the Cold War prism, was that the EEC strengthened the Western bloc. In one discussion in the early 1970's, when the question of "rule from Brussels" was brought up, Peter Ustinov said (this is the 2nd memory), "better that than rule from Moscow".

The counter-argument to this, then as now, was that it was NATO, not the EEC, that guaranteed the security of Western Europe. And, of course, this was somewhat in contradiction to the idea of the EEC as agent of peace.

Now, when David Cameron talks about the 70 years of peace in Europe that have been achieved, he is accused by Boris Johnson of saying that if the UK left, World War 3 would break out, although he himself was prepared to leave (if negotiations had not been concluded satisfactorily). And it is this caricature of his remarks that seems to be remembered.

What has changed since 1975, is that the EU has been a huge engine for democracy. Portugal had just emerged in 1974 from 45 years of right-wing dictatorship; Franco was still in power in Spain; Greece was just emerging from the rule of the colonels. Allan Little, in his series for the BBC WS, rightly emphasises the events of 23 Feb 1981, when for a few hours it seemed that Spain might plunge back into military dictatorship. After that, for the Spanish Left, including (the / former) Communists, membership of the EEC was a foreign policy priority. 

These 3 countries formed the next wave of EEC expansion in 1981 & 1986, following the accession of Britain, Ireland and Denmark in 1973.

* (reference to follow) 

1 Jun 2016 (to be continued)

Published 22 Jun 2016: with campaigning about to close, I am publishing what I have written so far, incomplete as it is and lacking some links and  references.
Update 24 Jun 2016: corrected link to Allan Little's series (Europe's Challenges: Expanding the Union, Episode 2 of 3).

Monday, January 11, 2016

Even I get it wrong on Syria sometimes (quite often)

There are 2 glaring mistakes in my previous post on the situation around Aleppo and to the North. But I have not really found anything that supports Juan Cole's assertion.  As Aron Lund says, it's actually a four-way fight, the fourth actor being the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mainly Kurdish alliance (it includes the YPG, for example), which is also supported by the US.
As you can see from the map, there are areas that are disputed between the government and ISIL. There has been one recent offensive by  government forces towards ISIL territory, about 30 km east of Aleppo (north towards Al-Bab). By contrast, there have been 3 recent offensives from government territory south of Aleppo, north-west, west and south-west, onto the area controlled by the "rebels" (FSA & others).

 From rebel-controlled East Aleppo, there is a narrow exit from near-encirclement by government forces and then a narrow corridor to the Turkish border. There have been 2 recent offensives on this corridor: westwards by ISIL; and eastwards by the SDF (this is presumably the capture of the village of Tanab,  advancing towards  A'zaz, that I mentioned previously). The FSA have attacked out of this corridor, eastwards into ISIL territory, just south of the Turkish border.

The YPG have said that their first priority is to link the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in the west with Kobane to the east, clearing the remaining 60 miles of the Syria–Turkey border  from ISIL control. To roll back ISIL is clearly understandable and unproblematic (except for Turkey). But to link up Afrin to Kobane, the SDF would need to cross or control the stretch of border currently controlled by the FSA (which is obviously their supply route to Turkey). This is not mentioned in the Wikipedia article, nor in Roy Gutman's report for McClatchy on which it is based  "U.S. begins airdrops of weapons to Kurdish forces in northern Syria", 12 October 2015).

Without wanting to make excuses, I think my errors are indicative of one thing: that the Syrian conflict is not always covered in sufficient depth by the "mainstream media".  I don't always have the time to dig out the truth from obscure Tweets.

Update: this is from Reuters' report, 1 Jan:
A U.S.-backed alliance of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters advanced against Islamist insurgents in the north of the country on Friday, capturing at least one village in Aleppo province  [..] Fighters from the Democratic Forces of Syria seized the village of Tanab near the town of Azaz after heavy clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the powerful Ahrar al Sham, spokesman Talal Selo told Reuters.  "We liberated Tanab," he said.[.. T]he Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Democratic Forces of Syria had also captured the village of Tat Mrash. Selo said he could not yet confirm its capture. 
The alliance has separately [from its fight against ISIL] been fighting in recent weeks against Nusra Front, Ahrar al Sham and other insurgents in northern Aleppo province. .The Democratic Forces of Syria includes the Kurdish YPG militia, which has been the most effective partner on the ground for U.S.-led air strikes. 

More on Aleppo

Reporting by Rami Jarrah ‏ ( 2 Jan) :  according to one Aleppo citizen, ISIS (ISIL) is advancing against the FSA in the North because the Russian planes are helping them.  More on PBS Newshour:
JEFFREY BROWN: So, the Russians are saying that they are targeting ISIS and other — and strategic sites, but that’s not what you’re seeing.

RJ: No, Jeffrey, that’s definitely not what I’m seeing, and it’s definitely not what the civilians here in Aleppo are seeing.

I think this man in the video is a small example of what is actually happening. He is frantically trying to explain, it’s just civilians here. There’s no signs of ISIS here. Why are they attacking us? [..] This is what this man is saying. And it’s basically the language that you’re going to hear around Aleppo, because the people here are very much convinced that the Russian and Syrian airstrikes are meant and aimed to target civilians and to drive them either out of Aleppo or to kill them.

And this is something that they have come to believe because of the constant attacks. We’re witnessing between 10 to 15 airstrikes in central Aleppo alone on a daily basis. And these airstrikes, what we have been doing is trying to follow these airstrikes. I have gotten my hands on — access to information of when the strikes hit. So, I’m following the civil defense. I haven’t, until now, seen one attack that has landed on a military unit or a depot. And this is something that we’re trying to document and make clear. Now, the problem is that last year U.N. Security Council resolution actually allowed Russia to actually attack areas that have ISIS or al-Nusra in them.

But that’s on the basis that we’re taking Russia’s take on where those groups are located. But those groups are not located in these areas. And that’s the excuse that is being used to attack these areas. So, this is a major problem. It’s who decides where these groups are. We have been trying to prove that these groups are not located here. If they were, I wouldn’t be able to operate. I wouldn’t be able to do the reports I was doing.

JB: So, what are the biggest fears that you’re hearing from people now? Is it a government victory backed by Russia? Is it ISIS, especially, perhaps, as it’s driven more from Iraq, coming in even stronger in and around Aleppo? [..]

RJ:  The people here are not in any way worried that Assad or Assad’s army or Russia or Hezbollah forces are going to invade Aleppo. I haven’t heard this expressed once. The people here are worried that ISIS is going to, in fact, take over Aleppo, because of the fact that the — not only the Russian airstrikes, but in addition to the coalition airstrikes, they are actually forcing ISIS further away from Iraq and deeper into Syria. And what that means is past Raqqa, past Deir el-Zour, and into Aleppo. So there are no signs of ISIS in Aleppo. So, the fear here is that ISIS takes these areas and that there isn’t really much preventing that by Russia or the Syrian regime, who are actually more so accepting the idea of Aleppo being taken by ISIS, as a sort of an excuse that can be used at a later stage to allow the rest of the international community also to intervene against the opposition. [My emphasis]

Monday, January 04, 2016

Even Juan Cole gets it wrong on Syria sometimes (IMHO)

Yesterday (3 Jan 2016), I read this post from Juan Cole's blog.

This seems, on the whole, to be a sane and balanced piece. However, there is one point I disagree on (highlighted below):
In the past 18 months, Daesh [ISIL] has been contained and then rolled back. It was pushed back out of Samarra. It has lost Beiji and Tikrit. Falluja appears to be in play. It is losing Ramadi, which has been cut off from supply lines to Syria. Ramadi the most vulnerable of Sunni Arab cities in Iraq to attacks from the Shiite south and it was never likely Daesh could hold it in the long term.
On the Kurdish front, the Peshmerga have regrouped and gotten better training and arms. They pushed Daesh out of Kurdish areas in Diyala province. In Ninewah province, they took back Mt. Sinjar, hundreds of miles from Erbil, and then recently took back Sinjar city.
In Syria, Daesh was prevented from taking Kobane and has lost half of al-Raqqa Province, its base. It is being blocked by the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah and Russian fighter jets from moving into Aleppo (where even rebel-dominated east Aleppo rejects it).
The situation of Daesh in its capital, al-Raqqa, is so uncertain that there has been talk of them evacuating it toward Mosul. It is being bombed there now by the French and British, a new development this fall.
I don’t deny that the wheels have moved slowly. But you can’t say there has been no progress. There are a lot of problems with mainly enlisting Shiites and Kurds to crush Daesh. They can do it, and probably could do it on an accelerated schedule. But it is much better to have Sunni Arabs play a big role. Reports suggest that they are playing such a role in taking back Ramadi, the capital of al-Anbar province, and have finally been armed by the government of Haydar al-Abadi. Contrary to what Lindsey Graham thinks, US troops would not be more welcome as liberators in the Sunni Arab cities than would Shiite or Kurdish troops.
Comments are now closed on Professor Cole's post, but this is an extraordinary remark, and I must say something about it.

In reality, Russian airstrikes in their early days allowed ISIL to advance around Aleppo and I have not seen anything to suggest they have had a different effect since. Let's look at the situation in the North, from Aleppo to the Turkish border, as I understand it.

The regime is in the West, its territory stretching back through Homs to Latakia, Damascus and the border with Lebanon; ISIL is in the East, back to Raqqa (Deir Ezzor) and Iraq. The rebels (the non-ISIL opposition) are in the middle. In other words, they are between the regime's forces and ISIL's. It is possible, I suppose, that Russian airstrikes are targeting ISIL here (on their frontline with the rebels near Aleppo), but highly unlikely: Putin has said that Russian forces would be prepared to co-operate with the Free Syrian Army, but I have not seen any evidence that they are doing so (*).

For example, regime forces recently captured the village of Tanab from 'rebels + Nusra & IF' , advancing towards  A'zaz  (SDF = Syrian government forces and its allies).

I may have said this before, but I'll repeat it. ISIL fights against everyone, but mainly against the rebels and generally not against the regime. The rebels are in a 2-way fight, against ISIL on the one hand and the Assad regime, supported by Iran, Hezbollah  and, recently, Russian airstrikes, on the other. There are exceptions to this, of course (**).

* Russian air strikes in Syria cause 'civilian deaths', 7.10 "On Tuesday, Russian jets hit areas under the control of the [ISIL] group in Palmyra and the northern outskirts of Aleppo.The attacks destroyed 20 vehicles and three weapons depots in ISIL-held Palmyra, Syrian state television said, quoting a military source. In Aleppo, Russian strikes targeted the towns of al-Bab and Deir Hafer, about 20km east of a military airport currently besieged by ISIL fighters." Nothing like the air campaigns co-ordinated with regime ground forces seen elsewhere in Syria (against the non-ISIL rebels).
US to scrap Syria rebel training programme, 9.10 "The [Syrian] Observatory [for Human Rights] reported that ISIL fighters have advanced and captured several villages in Aleppo province following deadly clashes with other armed groups. This offensive is one of ISIL's strongest advances towards Aleppo in months and puts them closer to government-controlled areas, the observatory said. This comes as an Iranian Revolutionary Guards general was killed near Aleppo, where he was advising the Syrian army on their battle against the ISIL fighter." [my emphasis]

** In Deir Ezzor, ISIL has treated Jabhat al-Nusra (al Qaeda in Syria) with the same savagery it has shown to everyone else, but in the West and just over the border in Lebanon, in Arsal, it seems to have co-operated with Nusra. It has fought with the regime and captured territory from it around Palmyra.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

3 Tweets: Samir Kuntar

or Samir Kantar or Samir Qantar
BBC - Lebanon militant Samir Qantar killed in rocket strike in Syria http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35144483 …

Samir Kuntar was 1 of the 3 (or 1 and a half) prisoners Hezbollah went to war with Israel over in 2006.http://davidp1.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/fog-of-war-replies.html
Yossi Alpher in http://jeffweintraub.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/what-hezbollah-is-fighting-for-reality.html …

Jeff Weintraub:
When it gets specific, Hezbollah tends to mention three names (yes, that's 3), but there is no evidence that one of these has ever been an Israeli prisoner. So that leaves two.

One of these is a convicted murder, Samir Kuntar, who led a 1979 terrorist attack against Israeli civilians in the northern town of Nahariya that killed two children, their father, and two policeman. Kuntar personally shot the father in front of one daughter and then bludgeoned the 4-year-old girl to death by crushing her skull. The mother managed to hide in the attic with her other daughter, a 2-year-old, but in trying to keep the girl quiet she accidentally suffocated her.
Yossi Alpher:
In fact, there are not even three Lebanese in Israeli jails--only one and a half. One of the three names cited by Hizballah is a missing person but was never jailed by Israel. A second, a Lebanese born to a Jewish mother, immigrated to Israel in the 1990s in accordance with the law of return and was subsequently arrested and tried as an Israeli on charges of spying. The third is Samir Kuntar, a Druze who as a teenager participated in a murderous terrorist attack in Nahariya in 1979.
The 'prisoners' issue was one of two main pretexts Hezbollah used (the other was the 'sliver of land' known as Shebaa Farms).

Update 21 Dec 2015
Kuntar's killing took place in Damascus. Hezbollah has said that the fight to support the regime in Syria and the Alawites (as a Shi'a offshoot)  takes precedence over the fight against Israel. (Kuntar took part in the 1979 attack as member of a Palestinian group but later became an important figure in the Hezbollah hierarchy). But Israel, reportedly, prefers to have ISIL as a neighbour (in Syria) rather than Hezbollah.

Israel welcomed his death, but declined to confirm that it was responsible for the missile strike. The woman who survived the 1979 attack, Smadar Haran, thought it might have been carried out by any of the actors in the Syrian Civil War, but it seems to me likely that it was Israel.

The arguments convinced me, ultimately, that Hezbollah bore most of the blame for the 2006 war in Lebanon. But key aspects are omitted in many accounts in the British media, and  as I said at the time, Israeli propaganda was unspeakably bad - their spokesmen failed to highlight these aspects. This is what was said in the Channel 4 News report: "By 2006, as Hezbollah  and  Israel went to war over the capture of 2 Israeli soldiers, Kantar had become a legend to some in Lebanon, a propaganda poster boy. And in 2008, Israel traded its prisoner and 4 others, all of them alive, for the dead bodies of its captured soldiers. Kantar came home to a hero's welcome."

Smadar Haran  reminds us that it was in support of Kuntar (amongst others)  that the 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro  and murder of  Leon Klinghoffer was carried out (interview on BBC WS, Newshour, 21:06).

Kuntar was 16 years old at the time of the 1979 attack. In India, a 17-year-old was released after taking part in that horrendous rape 3years ago (admittedly provoking huge protests).

- Fire traded over Israel-Lebanon border after militant's death -

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Corbyn and the pacifists

(23 Aug) One interesting snippet regarding Jeremy Corbyn, who has become the leading contender for leadership of the UK Labour party (1), from the FT: "Born in Britain's West Country to idealistic parents – peace activists who met campaigning for an end to the Spanish civil war" (2). That raises an interesting question: how could the Spanish Civil War have ended earlier? By those who were fighting on the Republican side surrendering? It was not as if the fighters could simply lay down their arms and be "forgiven" by the dictatorship (forgiven that is for fighting in defence of a government that, for all its flaws, was democratically elected) and return to normal life. After the fascists captured Badajoz, men with rifle recoil marks on their shoulders were sought out for execution (3). 

In the last 5 years, a similar situation existed in Libya and still exists in Syria. In Libya in 2011, for example, some western journalists were detained and held where they could hear the sounds of captured opposition fighters being tortured by the Gaddafi regime. They knew what they were fighting against and that they had little option other than to continue. 

To return to Jeremy Corbyn, he has been criticised for sharing a platform with Hamas and Hezbollah, though he claims not to share their aims. Another leadership candidate says Corbyn was opposed to Poland joining NATO and he wants Britain to leave NATO. And of course he is against Trident, Britain's nuclear deterrent. The Times in its leader, 22 Aug ("Wrong again"), says that Corbyn opposed not only the invasion of Iraq under George W. Bush in 2003, but also the intervention in Kosovo under Bill Clinton. There is another point that Corbyn has made, regarding Syria and Iran, but that requires a more detailed response.

(1) Corbyn has gained the support of the biggest Trades Unions, who seem to believe, following Labour's poor (disastrous in Scotland) performance in the May election, that having a clear-cut radical candidate is the best way forward. What should be remembered, though, is that, in the 2010 leadership contest, Ed Miliband adopted a position that was seen as more left-wing and thereby gained the support of the unions, enabling him to defeat his brother David, who was a far more credible Prime Ministerial candidate. 

(2) 'The far-left outsider leading the field', George Parker, Financial Times, 1 Aug 2015.

(3) Beevor, p148; See also ; Jay Allen's report in the Chigaco Tribune, 30 Aug 1936. After the fall of Barcelona in January 1939, as many as 10,000 people are said to have been killed. Mussolini ordered that all Italians in the Republican army who were captured should be shot immediately" (Beevor, p367). After the "end of the war", it is estimated that the figure for executions and political killing up until 1943 was nearly 200,000 ( p390, Ch XXIX: "The Fate of the Defeated ..", Antony Beevor, The Spanish Civil War, 1982, Cassell Paperback, 1999). 
Update 12 Sep
(11:40) Corbyn wins (BBC R4).  

More details are coming out: Corbyn founded the Stop the war coalition in 2001 ahead of Afghanistan. The Argentinian president has congratulated him, since he would like to open negotiations on the Falkland / Malvinas Islands. Corbyn  is seen embracing Hugo Chavez in archive footage shown on BBC News.  

Earlier, The Times, unearthed various columns Corbyn wrote in the Morning Star: for example, he takes the view that NATO "is trying to find a role for itself". 

(23:20) The Morning Star is to publish a Sunday edition for the first time. The editor of the Morning Star:, described as a "left-wing paper" (formerly known as the mouthpiece of the British Communist Party), is featured on the BBC News24 review of the press.

Published 13 Sep 2015