Tuesday, 6 September 2016

When military inaction is murderous

We need to talk about a leader of the Labour Party, whose Middle Eastern policy has arguably contributed to many deaths and enormous suffering. I’m not thinking about Tony Blair, though the Iraq War was clearly a costly mistake. I’m thinking about Ed Miliband.  Probably the most significant thing Ed Miliband did, other than help the Conservative Party achieve a majority at the 2015 General Election, was to play a key role in blocking Western military intervention in Syria in 2013. This followed a number of chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime, crossing Obama’s infamous ‘red line’. In response military action was planned by the US, France and Britain. Miliband, after some initial wavering, instructed his Labour MP’s to oppose the intervention, resulting in a Parliamentary defeat for the Government. This in turn caused the American Government to pause for thought, and then to negotiate with the Russian and Syrian Government to avoid intervention.

The deal was that the Syrian Government would hand over its chemical weapons, and in return America wouldn’t take military action. France, quite understandably, was unwilling to take action on her own. Now this wasn’t a total failure. Chemical weapons have only been used on a very small scale since the deal. But it has allowed the butchery to continue, and intensify, over the past three years.

The cost of non-intervention has been high, and probably greater than that of intervention. Just under 500,000 people have now been killed in the Syrian Civil War. In mid-2013 this figure was much lower, at just under 100,000. For all the media focus on the Islamic State and other Jihadi groups, understandably considering the threat they pose to the West, the majority of civilian deaths in Syria have been caused by the Assad regime and its allies. That’s not to say we should intervene now. Quite frankly since Russia began her military intervention to support Assad in September 2015 any Western action against Assad has become far too dangerous. Russia will be one of the key players in any solution to the Syrian conflict, and were going to have to accept that. But if the West had intervened in 2013 or before would the outcome have been different? Probably. It would have made it clear to the Assad regime, and its allies, that they couldn’t win outright. As such they would have had a strong incentive to negotiate with moderate rebel factions, who back in 2013 were considerably more potent than they are today.

Now if Western nations had intervened in 2013 thousands would still have died, and I suspect violence would be continuing on some scale to this day. But there’s good reason to think it wouldn’t have been on the same scale – something less than the outright slaughter house which were currently witnessing.

One of the curious things about the British left is how little they seem to care about Syrians dying in large numbers. They do admittedly care when Syrians drown trying to cross the Mediterranean, but when their getting barrel bombed in Aleppo or Damascus their interest vanishes like a thin mist on a summer’s day. Thousands of leftists took to the streets to oppose military action against the Islamic State in Syria last December. Their cry was ‘Don’t attack Syria’, which was odd considering that the Islamic State and Syria clearly aren’t the same thing. Labour MPs who supported this action received aggressive abuse from Corbyn’s supporters. Now I agree that MPs need to be held to account when they decide to commit our country to war, but they also need to be held to account when they decide to do nothing. The consequences can be just as dangerous. And that means that, just as Tony Blair has legitimate questions to answer over Iraq, so does Ed Miliband over Syria. 

Monday, 5 September 2016

Angela Merkel – the leader who revitalised Europe’s radical right

I’m writing this on Sunday 4 September, and it looks like a party from Europe’s populist right has just secured another victory. Early projections predict that Alternative for Germany (AfD), the anti-Euro party which transformed itself into an anti-immigration party, has beaten Merkel’s Christian Democrats in her home state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.  Not beaten them by much admittedly – it looks like 21 per cent to 19 per cent – but the symbolic value is enormous. A party of the hard-right has emerged as a serious player in German politics for the first time during the post-war era, and has defeated the Chancellor’s party in her native state. And the migration policy of the defeated Chancellor, Angela Merkel, bears a significant among of responsibility for this right-wing revival in Germany and other parts of Europe. It’s hard to imagine that, had she spent the past year being remote controlled by someone who wanted to see the likes of Marine Le-Pen and Norbert Hofer elected, her policy would have been much different.

Angela Merkel’s refugee policy was certainly bold, verging on revolutionary. It’s difficult not to admire her humanitarianism, nor to appreciate the quality of welcome which Syrian refugees received in Germany last year. But acts which are motivated by the best of human decency can have negative political impacts, and can be unwise. Germany took in over a million refugees, mostly Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans. Other European countries, most notably Austria and Sweden, took in similar or greater numbers as a proportion of their population. The political fallout has been significant, and generally negative. Europe’s more authoritarian leaders have seen their support increase. Orban in Hungary, and since October 2015 the Law and Justice Government of Poland, have boosted their support by opposing the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their respective countries. Turkey’s autocratic ruler President Erdogan secured significant concessions from the EU by blackmailing the body over migrant controls, whilst all Putin has to do is point Russian’s to the chaos in Central Europe to increase his own support.

For Europe’s radical right the refugee crisis, linked to the EU’s apparent inability to control its external borders, has been a Godsend. The Schengen area, the European free travel area, is only as secure as its weakest link. And its weakest link, Greece, has proven totally incapable of securing its borders. The initial refusal of certain key European leaders such as Merkel, European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker and the former Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann (who managed to offend both sides in a particularly undignified manner) to take serious action turned the situation into a crisis. Merkel’s famous shout of ‘Wir schaffen es’ (we can do this), and the initial pressure which was placed on countries such as Hungary to let refugees head North, turned the problem into a crisis.

Now it may seem unfair to blame Merkel and various other European liberal leaders for the migration crisis. And to some extend it is. Clearly they weren’t responsible for civil war in Syria or the conflict in Afghanistan (though most of liberal Europe has preferred to let the Syrian meat grinder continue than intervene directly). Moreover whatever else it was, and I think it was a lot of other things, Merkel’s refugee policy was inescapably well intentioned. But it was also extremely chaotic. For a long period virtually anybody from certain countries who managed to make their way to Germany could stay. This boosted the forces of nationalism and made people smugglers rich. But it also encouraged hundreds of thousands of refugees to attempt to cross the Mediterranean, and thousands died during the trip. Surely it would have been far more humane to take a smaller number of the most deserving cases straight from Turkey, rather than promoting a deadly free for all.

Now if the refugees were arriving in Germany and other European countries straight from a warzone the moral pressure to take in an unlimited number would be almost irresistible. But the refugees arriving in Germany last year had already passed through several safe countries. Would it not be better to focus on improving conditions in refugee camps in Turkey and Lebanon, rather than incentivising people to cross the sea in rickety boats with the inevitable tragic consequences? We should remember that kindness isn’t always compassionate.

And the impact of the fortunes of the European radical right has been phenomenal. Admittedly this has been a good time for them generally, as a result of Islamist terror and the still smouldering Euro crisis, and it’s very possible that the combination of these three factors will lead to a party of the radical right taking over either the Government and/or Presidency of a Western European state. In recent months the Dutch Freedom Party, Front National, Swedish Democrats and Austrian Freedom Party have all topped polls in their respective countries. Now these parties will struggle to find partners to join coalitions with them, and so are unlikely to achieve power in the short term. But if terrorist attacks continue, or the economic situations takes a bad turn for the worst, this could change.

More likely in the short-term in a radical-right victory in a Presidential election. At present the Austrian Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, is leading polls for the rerun Austrian Presidential election later this year. If Hofer does win it will be a direct result of the refugee policy pursued by certain European Governments in 2015-16. And it would also be a shot across the bow of liberal Europe. A Hofer Presidency would be embarrassing, but its political impact would be containable. A Le Pen Presidency in France in 2016, and I think this is quite plausible, would be utterly revolutionary for European politics.

So liberals, and I generally count myself in this category, need to wake up. We need to start listening to the voters on immigration and asylum policy, or we will be replaced by those that do. We need to be pragmatic, and stop fermenting chaos. And the stakes are high. If we fail systems of Government which we though had been banished to the dustbin of European history could plausibly make a return. We were shocked by Brexit, but what follows could be an earthquake.