Syria Policy Catastrophe

Sunday Telegraph,

Quite by chance, I was the first Western Foreign Minister to have a one-to-one meeting in Damascus with Bashar al Assad days before his father’s death in June 2000, and his succession as Syrian President. He seemed decent if naïve (his elder brother the favoured successor until his death in a car crash and Bashar expecting to remain a London surgeon).

What a brutal contrast with the callous butcher Bashar was to become: driving his people into carnage and chaos instead of responding positively to non-violent protests when the Arab Spring reached Syria in March 2011.

But the horror in Syria is also the product of a monumental foreign policy misjudgement which reached its nadir in the Prime Minister’s humiliation when trying to bounce Parliament into backing a military strike. Current and former foreign Office officials are in despair.

Britain began with a demand for Assad’s unconditional departure – which didn’t work. Then we resourced rebel forces – which failed too. Then we got EU arms embargo lifted and tried to arm the rebels – until cross-party opposition in Parliament blocked that.

And, abhorrent though chemical weapons are, experts estimate they account for just 1 per cent of all the terrible causalities in Syria.

Of course Russia and Iran have been culpable in the unfolding horror. So have the Saudis and Qataris. But Britain, too, is culpable.

We should have promoted a negotiated solution from the very beginning. Assad was reported to be willing to consider the proposal by the UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi for a ceasefire for the four-day Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday beginning at the end of October 2012.

But instead of urging their friends in the opposition to declare that they would reciprocate if Assad made good on his tentative promise, the Western powers and the Arab arms suppliers continued to demand regime change and resource the opposition.

That was fatal, because this never was some simplistic battle between evil and good, between a barbaric dictator and a repressed people. It’s a civil war: a quagmire into which Britain (or the US and France) treads at deep peril, involving Sunni versus Shia, Saudi Arabia versus Iran – and, a cold-war hangover, the US versus Russia.

Hezbollah’s intervention, and in turn Israel’s, is another lethal development. Refugees pouring into Jordan could endanger its stability. Iran will not back off because of its key interests.

A ‘good guys versus bad guys’ prism’ is hardly made credible by the increasing presence of Al Qaida fighters amongst the West’s favoured rebels – nor by the barbarous murders of innocent Syrian citizens by some rebels, including most recently Kurds.

Assad and the ruling Shia-aligned Alawite minority form a tenth of the population and were never going to give up power if it meant, as they fear, being oppressed by the Sunni majority, with Christians and other minorities similarly nervous about change. Together those behind Assad amount to nearly a third of the Syrian people; add in the Kurds and the total reaches around 40 per cent. Few of them like Assad or his Baathist rule. But they fear even more the alternative – becoming victims of genocide, Jihadism or Sharia extremism.

Therefore if western military intervention somehow toppled Assad without a settlement in place, the country would descend into even greater chaos.

Russia fears that anarchy because, like the US and UK, it has key strategic military, economic and intelligence interests in the area; for instance Syria provides Russia’s only Mediterranean port in a region where the US is well placed militarily.

Preventing Iran and also Assad from attending a peace conference means it won’t even get off the ground. Surely we should by now have understood from Britain’s long and bitter experience of resolving the Northern Ireland conflict that setting pre-conditions always prevents attempts at negotiation from even getting off the ground?

A political solution is the imperative. It is high time for Britain, France, the United States their allies to change course. That would open the door for Russia to use its leverage to ensure Assad negotiates seriously. Like it or not, without engagement by Russia and Iran a Syrian settlement will not happen.

The Guidelines for a Political Transition approved by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council at the Geneva conference on 30 June 2012 still provide the best road map for a Geneva 2. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s call on 9 October 2012 for both a ceasefire and an embargo on more arms going to the opposition as well as government forces, should be heeded.

Transitional arrangements that reach the end point of democratisation are crucial, but their pace must be negotiated, not imposed. In Yemen for instance a hated President did not actually resign but equally did not stand for re-election. However unpalatable, Assad and his henchmen may have to be granted immunity in order to get them to sign up: hardly worse than the continuing barbarity and devastation of ancient heritage. All state employees – including the ranks in the armed forces – must be allowed to keep their posts, to avoid a repeat of the chaos caused by America’s de-Ba’athification in Iraq.

Britain needs to persuade its friends in the Syrian opposition to go to Geneva with a credible plan for compromise: local ceasefires, access for humanitarian relief, and names of prospective members of a new government of national unity that will also include ministers from the current Syrian government. Together they can initiate a process of constitutional reform for new parliamentary and presidential elections with UN observers.

This will all be incredibly, tortuously difficult. But a military strike could provoke retaliation, escalation and civilian deaths and refugees, simply inflaming the powder keg. Only through mutual concessions by both the regime and the opposition can the people of Syria and the region be saved from the current nightmare.

Peter Hain Condemns Syria Intervention Plan

The Guardian,

Former Labour cabinet minister warns David Cameron risks plunging Britain into ‘full-scale military action’

Peter Hain has said military action against Syria would be “very dangerous” because it could drag Britain into full-scale war.

The former Labour cabinet minister ruled out supporting the government, saying David Cameron’s motives were particularly suspect because he had wanted to intervene in Syria long before last week’s chemical weapons attack.

Speaking to the Guardian, Hain said: “This is a highly complex civil war in a region where the wrong action could light a powder keg, with not just consequences for refugees that we have already seen but retaliatory action against other countries … [Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president] has formidable weaponry supplied by the Russians and the Iranians.

“The prime minister is asking the nation to back him on a dangerous strike when nobody knows what the consequences will be. I think that’s very, very dangerous politics.”

Hain is one of the most senior figures in his party to condemn unequivocally the government’s plans for military action. Unlike Diane Abbott, the shadow public health minister, who has also spoken out against intervention, Hain voted in favour of the Iraq war 10 years ago.

Hain, a former Middle East minister in the Foreign Office, said it was impossible to believe Britain and America could intervene without making the situation in Syria worse.

“What will be the collateral damage on civilians?” he asked. “What will be the retaliatory consequences? What will be the escalatory results? None of these questions can be answered by the prime minister, and everything tells us that, in Syria of all conflicts, the idea of a clean, surgical strike, with nothing following, is an illusion.

“It is not going to be like that. There will be some other reason to do something else. Before we know it, we will be dragged into full-scale military action.”

Hain is abroad but trying to return to London in time to vote on Thursday night. He said he would oppose the government motion.

The Labour leader, Ed Miliband, has said Labour will support the government only if the United Nations is consulted about the proposal to attack Syria and if the findings of the UN weapons inspectors in Damascus are considered. Labour will not say how its MPs will be ordered to vote until the text of the government’s motions has been published.

Hain said it was particularly hard to trust Cameron because of his long-standing support for intervention in Syria.

“If [the proposal for a strike] had come from a leader who had all along been opposed to military action, then I think people would sit up and say the chemical attack was absolutely monstrous and hideous, and it crossed a boundary of war that required some response by the international community.

“But this is an action planned by a prime minister who for over six months has publicly declared that he wants to take military action against the Assad regime, with or without chemical weapons being the excuse for doing so.”

Hain praised Miliband, for taking a “cautious and sceptical” stance.

http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/aug/28/peter-hain-condemns-syria-intervention

Why Britain needs South Africa

Guardian

Under British rule in 1900, 50 years before apartheid was formally institutionalised in South Africa, most of its features were already in place in the bustling gold-rush city of Johannesburg: Africans were prevented from walking on pavements, had to carry “passes” to work in the city, could not use buses and trains designated for whites, were dreadfully exploited in the mines, and had no political rights. Even as late as the 1980s a British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still siding with apartheid’s white oppressors, and denouncing Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”.

Now, with similar high-handed arrogance and contempt for those millions still suffering from the apartheid legacy originally bequeathed by Britain, the government is chopping its £19m aid programme to South Africa – itself a figure that has halved since it peaked at £40m under Labour. (By the way I checked, and South Africa was not consulted, simply informed. When asked why the rush, Justine Greening, the Conservative international development secretary, indicated on Tuesday to Pravin Gordhan, the South African finance minister on a visit to London, that she had to tell the electorate in advance of Thursday’s local elections).

Yet three-quarters of the world’s poor now live in “middle income” countries like South Africa – where, according to the World Bank, 7 million people are living on under $1.25 a day, and 15 million on under $2 a day. The United Nations reports that more than half of South Africa’s children still live in poverty. South Africa may be defined as middle income, but apartheid’s legacy is a population still divided between a wealthy – sometimes extremely wealthy – minority and a vast poor majority.

Greening blithely ignores this destitution – deepened by chronic rates of HIV/Aids and TB – in claiming that South Africa has made “enormous progress over the past two decades”. It is true that Mandela’s African National Congress has delivered electricity, water and sanitation to millions, built more than 3 million new houses, doubled the number at school and is spending more per head on education than almost any other country in the world – some schools financed by British aid.

Nevertheless horrendous levels of black unemployment remain, worsened by apartheid’s deliberate policy of ensuring that black people had no skills. A growing population, swelled by some 3 million migrantsfrom Mali to Zimbabwe, means the demand for basic services seems insatiable.

But let’s leave aside Britain’s historic responsibility for all this. Let’s ignore the view that insulting the South African government is small beer compared with its value as a dog whistle, on the eve of the local elections, to Tory voters the party fears are haemorrhaging to Ukip.

Let’s leave aside also the raids on Britain’s aid budget for defence and other purposes. And how even in the government’s own increasingly hard-nosed terms aid is once again becoming a tool of trade rather than an agency for tackling world poverty.

Purely out of self-interest this decision is catastrophic for Britain. South Africa, a key strategic partner, is the sole African member of the important Brics alliance, and is already turning to those countries, away from its traditional European trading links. In turn this threatens the gateway the country provides to vast African markets – where it has close ties of friendship and mutually beneficial trade and investment agreements. It offers a solid base from which companies, including Britain’s, can develop their operations across Africa.

And the continent is awakening, with huge growth rates especially compared with sclerotic Europe. Soon seven out of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies will be in Africa. If Britain wants to be part of that future, then being a respected partner of South Africa is key, accounting as it does for fully a fifth of total GDP for Africa – despite having a population of just 50 million in a continent of one billion.

Sadly it seems that the era when Britain under Labour could proudly lead the world in cancelling debt, conquering world poverty and establishing a funding mechanism for the millennium development goals, is now over.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/01/why-britain-needs-south-africa

Why Britain Needs South Africa

Guardian,

Under British rule in 1900, 50 years before apartheid was formally institutionalised in South Africa, most of its features were already in place in the bustling gold-rush city of Johannesburg: Africans were prevented from walking on pavements, had to carry “passes” to work in the city, could not use buses and trains designated for whites, were dreadfully exploited in the mines, and had no political rights. Even as late as the 1980s a British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still siding with apartheid’s white oppressors, and denouncing Nelson Mandela as a “terrorist”.

Now, with similar high-handed arrogance and contempt for those millions still suffering from the apartheid legacy originally bequeathed by Britain, the government is chopping its £19m aid programme to South Africa – itself a figure that has halved since it peaked at £40m under Labour. (By the way I checked, and South Africa was not consulted, simply informed. When asked why the rush, Justine Greening, the Conservative international development secretary, indicated on Tuesday to Pravin Gordhan, the South African finance minister on a visit to London, that she had to tell the electorate in advance of Thursday’s local elections).

Yet three-quarters of the world’s poor now live in “middle income” countries like South Africa – where, according to the World Bank, 7 million people are living on under $1.25 a day, and 15 million on under $2 a day. The United Nations reports that more than half of South Africa’s children still live in poverty. South Africa may be defined as middle income, but apartheid’s legacy is a population still divided between a wealthy – sometimes extremely wealthy – minority and a vast poor majority.

Greening blithely ignores this destitution – deepened by chronic rates of HIV/Aids and TB – in claiming that South Africa has made “enormous progress over the past two decades”. It is true that Mandela’s African National Congress has delivered electricity, water and sanitation to millions, built more than 3 million new houses, doubled the number at school and is spending more per head on education than almost any other country in the world – some schools financed by British aid.

Nevertheless horrendous levels of black unemployment remain, worsened by apartheid’s deliberate policy of ensuring that black people had no skills. A growing population, swelled by some 3 million migrantsfrom Mali to Zimbabwe, means the demand for basic services seems insatiable.

But let’s leave aside Britain’s historic responsibility for all this. Let’s ignore the view that insulting the South African government is small beer compared with its value as a dog whistle, on the eve of the local elections, to Tory voters the party fears are haemorrhaging to Ukip.

Let’s leave aside also the raids on Britain’s aid budget for defence and other purposes. And how even in the government’s own increasingly hard-nosed terms aid is once again becoming a tool of trade rather than an agency for tackling world poverty.

Purely out of self-interest this decision is catastrophic for Britain. South Africa, a key strategic partner, is the sole African member of the important Brics alliance, and is already turning to those countries, away from its traditional European trading links. In turn this threatens the gateway the country provides to vast African markets – where it has close ties of friendship and mutually beneficial trade and investment agreements. It offers a solid base from which companies, including Britain’s, can develop their operations across Africa.

And the continent is awakening, with huge growth rates especially compared with sclerotic Europe. Soon seven out of the world’s 10 fastest growing economies will be in Africa. If Britain wants to be part of that future, then being a respected partner of South Africa is key, accounting as it does for fully a fifth of total GDP for Africa – despite having a population of just 50 million in a continent of one billion.

Sadly it seems that the era when Britain under Labour could proudly lead the world in cancelling debt, conquering world poverty and establishing a funding mechanism for the millennium development goals, is now over.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/may/01/why-britain-needs-south-africa

The attack on pensioners’ benefits could destroy social cohesion

Guardian

The secretary of state for work and pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, says in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph that he “would encourage” better-off pensioners to pay back their taxpayer-funded benefits voluntarily. This follows Nick Clegg calling for the means-testing of a range of benefits for pensioners, and Paul Burstow, the former Liberal Democrat minister for care services, suggesting the money saved should be channelled into elderly care reform.

There’s clearly a rising call, either to abandon pensioners’ winter fuel allowances, free TV licences and bus passes, or to means-test and tax them. Austerity, an ageing society and acute public spending pressures are cited in justification.

This is simply mendacious, because the savings proposed would be a drop in the ocean compared with the overall welfare budget.

The winter fuel allowance costs between £2bn and £3bn a year; so, unless the threshold is so low as to be worthless, there’s not a chance of being able to fund a new elderly care programme.

Means-testing TV licences and bus passes would raise little more than £1.4bn a year, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. If, as the government has done with child benefit, benefits are removed from pensioners in the top tax bracket, the amount raised would be even less – about £250m, which is less than 1% of the total welfare budget (about £160bn) or 0.1% of total government spending. Frankly, the cost of all these pensioners’ allowances is peanuts. To lower the threshold for means-testing would be administratively costly, time-consuming and inefficient because of the many varied combinations of assets, capital and earnings among pensioners.

It will also create real unfairness at the cliff edge for pensioners on modest or low incomes – especially those in need of more fuel or frequent travel because of illness, who could lose a key component of their independence in old age. Thousands of such people in my constituency alone have been liberated by free bus travel.

While these benefits are trivial relative to the whole budget, the social and political cost of taking them away could be huge: what would this say about a society of soaring bankers’ bonuses?

For lower earners these benefits are a few comforts guaranteed to them in old age, for middle to higher earners one of the few rewards received for consistent contributions to the welfare pot throughout their working lives. They are a symbol of senior citizenship and social cohesion.

Arguing that Sir Paul McCartney and other pensionable millionaires are receiving free bus passes at the expense of lower- or nil-rate pensioner taxpayers wilfully misses the argument for universal benefits. I doubt that Sir Paul uses his entitlement to a free bus pass – but, even if he did, he pays for it many, many times over in high taxes.

The worry is this: if middle Britain ceased to benefit from the welfare state through at least some universal benefits, why would they still finance the lion’s share of it? The danger is a US-type system of poor law, from which President Obama has struggled to escape with his health reforms.

The attack on pensioners’ allowances leaves a big question hovering over the future of the welfare state: is it for everyone, or just for the poor? In his epoque-defining report in 1942, William Beveridge advocated a universal and contribution-based welfare state in the laudable hope of cementing social solidarity. Now, 70 years later, that hope of cohesion is disintegrating as the Tory-Lib Dem government dismantles the very universalism upon which that solidarity relies.

Cutting or means-testing pensioners’ allowances risks turning young against old and rich against poor while making negligible savings for the Treasury. All parties should be challenged to maintain them in their 2015 manifestos, as they did in 2010, and Labour should certainly stick by the policy.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/28/attack-pensioners-benefits-destroy-social-cohesion