Idlib buffer zone: diplomacy at last?

As Syria’s seven year war ostensibly draws to a close, there is still a great deal of uncertainty over the future of Idlib in northern Syria, the country’s last remaining rebel stronghold. With nowhere else to run to, its three million inhabitants (including around 60,000 opposition fighters) are edging ever closer back into the clutches of the Syrian Government and its President, Bashar al-Assad. Although more than half of Syria’s population have already lost their homes, it is this final struggle that may prove the most costly for President Assad and his allies in humanitarian terms.

Presently, Idlib is controlled by rebel factions who, despite their common opposition to the Syrian Government, are divided amongst themselves. A large swathe of Idlib – around 60% – is controlled by the radical Islamist group, Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) that has hsitoric ties to al-Qaeda. The National Liberation Front (NLF) – an opposition group supported by Turkey – controls another substantial area.

Throughout Syria’s war Turkey has provided support for opposition groups like the NLF, while Russia and Iran have backed Bashar al-Assad. Of course it was Russia’s intervention in the war in 2015 that marked a decisive shift in favour of Assad’s forces and it now seems as though Bashar al-Assad will soon regain control over much of the rest of Syria after years of uncertainty. The Syrian Government has no qualms about a large-scale offensive on Idlib; on 8th October Assad pledged to ‘liberate’ all areas under ‘terrorist control’. Syria’s deputy foreign minister has also declared that Idlib will be captured one way or another, either peacefully or militarily. And Syria’s Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, told the NCF directly that if Turkey failed to withdraw, Syria would go to war to regain its territory.

Despite this belligerence, foreign powers involved in the war have shown a new commitment to avert further humanitarian catastrophe. A deal reached between President Erdogan of Turkey and President Putin of Russia on September 17th in Sochi, resolved that a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone would be created around Idlib after the removal of heavy weapons and radical fighters from the area. A ceasefire agreement was also established between the opposing parties. It was created in an attempt to prevent (or postpone) a Russian led attack on Idlib and allow time for further political discussion to take place without the threat of violence.

The first stage of the agreement, which stipulated the removal of heavy weaponry from the buffer zone, was successful. The NLF promptly withdrew its weapons in what was seen as a victory for Turkey, who has taken the responsibility for negotiating with fighters inside the buffer zone. Although HTS did not initially reveal its stance on the agreement, it too seemed to withdraw its weapons in time for the 10th October deadline.

More problematic, however, was the second deadline of the 15th October for the removal of jihadists from the area. There were some early reports that HTS and al-Nusra (another jihadist organisation) had refused to withdraw from the demilitarised zone because Turkey hadn’t guaranteed their safety. And so, the deadline came and went without any sight of the rebels leaving. HTS made a public statement vowing that they would continue to fight, and that they refused to trust Russia. General Naji Mustafa of the NLF also said that Russia’s commitment to the deal could not be trusted, insisting ‘we are absolutely ready for the forthcoming battle’.

There are fears that a breakdown in the agreement will give the Syrian Government and Russia an excuse to carry out a military offensive on Idlib. This is compounded by an ominous text message received by residents in the buffer zone last Friday from the Syrian army reading ‘get away from the fighters, their fate is sealed and near’. These fears are not unfounded; both Assad’s government and Putin have demonstrated their determination to win back all Syrian territory. In the past, Russia has also cited the presence of HTS as a reason for attacking areas of Idlib.

Despite this, there are signs that Russia is remaining flexible and willing to support Turkey’s implementation of the agreement on the ground, even though the deadlines have not immediately been met. This is in the interests of both Russia and Turkey, despite their opposing sides in the conflict. Putin has already spent a vast amount on the war in Syria and does not want to take responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that could occur if there was a military assault on Idlib. Russia is also concerned with reconstruction in Syria, which could feasibly start sooner if a peace is maintained. Turkey shares a border with Idlib and wants to avoid the inevitable influx of refugees if its people are forced to escape through the north.

It is a good sign that Russia has continued to honour the Sochi agreement. Although many are understandably cynical, this may well be the last remaining hope for the safety of the three million people living in Idlib. Talking about whether such an agreement will work in the ‘long term’ for Syria seems redundant given the fast changing nature of the war. What matters for now is that both sides remain committed to a diplomatic solution for Idlib that minimises casualties and sets a course for the Syrian Government to follow.

Iraq’s New President: A Technocrat?

After months of political deadlock, water contamination, and rising protests, earlier this month, Barham Salih was elected as Iraq’s new President.

Who is he?

The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) candidate Salih holds good experience in government, having served both as the deputy prime minister of Iraq and the prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government. He is also a good diplomat, and has proved himself capable of keeping amicable relations with the both the US and Iran.

Despite starting his political career in the PUK, Salih left in 2017 to form the Coalition for Democracy and Justice (CDJ) and campaign against corruption. However, he recently abandoned his new party and came back to the PUK in order to get PUK backing for his bid to stand for President.

Can he unify Iraq?

Political fragmentation, growing protests, and huge infrastructure issues will make it hard for Barham Salih to do much to help unite Iraq. With tensions between the PUK and KDP rising up to his election, and the issue of a Kurdish independence set to come up again in the future, it seems unclear how he will even unify Kurdistan, let alone Iraq as a whole.

However, he may be a good choice for the protestors in Basra. Barham Salih has been known to heavily criticise government failures, therefore he will look to be a strong candidate in the eyes of the disenfranchised. Although, his credibility when it comes to sticking to his morals may have been dented by what many see as his “calculated” move back to the PUK.

But perhaps his technocratic attitude is what Iraq needs. With MP’s more free to vote than usual, Salih’s election appears to have come more as a result of his credentials rather than his social base. This bodes well for Iraq, as strong technocratic leaders are needed to take on the huge tasks of reducing systemic corruption, rebuilding infrastructure and keeping actors inside and outside of Iraq happy.

However, Barham Salih’s ability to do these things will be limited as his Presidential role is less powerful than that of the Prime Minister. Either way, his election is a huge step forward from months of political deadlock.

Next in the series, the new prime minister: Adil Abdul al-Mahdi.

Some thoughts on the tragic killing of Jamal Khashoggi

NCF Secretary General William Morris interviewed during a debate on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a longstanding family friend and a generous and public spirited journalist who lost his life because what he had to say was not tolerated by his government. Latterly Jamal had been writing for the Washington Post. This broadcast was made before today’s suggestion from the Turks that the killing of Jamal may in fact have been deliberate.

The Kurdish Regional Parliament – the unofficial results

Though the official results have yet to be announced, the NCF has the Unofficial results for the 111-member Kurdistan Parliament (11 reserved for minorities) and they are as listed below by party, number of votes, and number of seats:

  1. KDP 738,698 votes: 45 seats
  2. PUK 343,883 votes: 21 seats
  3. Gorran 195,553 votes: 12 seats
  4. New Generation 120,324 votes: 8 seats
  5. KIG (Komal) The Kurdistan Islamic Group: 113,928 votes: 7 seats
  6. KIU-KIM (Kurdistan Islamic Union-Kurdistan Islamic Movement) 83,562 votes: 5 seats
  7. CDJ (The Coalition for Democracy and Justice) (formerly Barham Salih’s party): 1 seat
  8. Communist: 1 seat
  9. Minorities: 11 seats

Once again, it’s not baseball or football with clear rules. Sometimes they play by the rules, and sometimes they make them up as they go along.

At the regional level, the KDP came out on top with 45 of 111 regional parliament seats. Eleven seats are for minorities – Christians, Armenians, Turkmens – most of whom would likely support the KDP. Along with these seats, plus Socialist and Communist seats, and possibly one or more Islamist seats, the KDP is in a good position to form a majority government without the PUK, Gorran, New Generation, and Islamist parties. But that’s unlikely to happen.

In Iraq, managing divisions is the essential game. Iraq is not a failed state. It’s not a state. It’s just a failure. Managing divisions in Iraqi Kurdistan, however, has been reasonably successful. Otherwise, the Region would have flown apart and disassembled in chaos years ago. At the end of the day, there are only two political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan – KDP and Anti-KDP, with the Anti-KDP divided into factions.

So, we are likely to see efforts toward a consensus coalition regional government, which will be difficult given the perceived “treachery” by each side of the other.

Turnout in the regional parliamentary election was relatively low for the Kurdistan region, only about 60%. There is a sense that if another independence referendum were to be held today, the turnout would increase by about 20 points.

An interesting bright spot is that a top vote-getter was a well-known and much-liked non-politician who drives a ramshackle car and did little if any campaigning. Unlike candidates who littered the roadways with posters, he had none. He is known for conversing with youth in the marketplace, a singer and sometime TV personality, humble and simple.

The ramshackle car driver is Jalal Parishan (parishan means ‘desperate’; in his case, something to do with a lost love). Though the final results have yet to be announced officially, he received the third highest number of votes among dozens of candidates.

Ahwaz: Iran’s Internal Struggle

Recent violence in Iran has brought the city of Ahwaz to the front pages. In late September 2018, four gunmen opened fire at a military parade in the city, killing 29 people. Responsibility for the attack has thus far been claimed by the Ahwaz National Resistance in the name of the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). Responsibility has also apparently been claimed by Daesh (a.k.a. ISIS), and Iran has decided not unreasonably to blame them both – though at the end of the day, only one of them did it.

Located in the southwest of Iran in the province of Khuzestan, Ahwaz is one of the most oil-rich regions in the country. However, despite the abundance of natural resources, the central government has deliberately underdeveloped the region. The infrastructure of Ahwaz is lacking far behind the rest of the country, all of which is not helped by the city’s status as having the world’s worst air pollution.

Unknown to most, there are an estimated 5-7 million Arabs in the Khuzestan region. In a majority ethnic Persian Iran, they constitute a small minority with most of them concentrated in the Khuzestan region. In 1925, the British had control over the region, formally known as Arabistan. This area was later annexed and renamed by Iran as Khuzestan. As such, some Arab Ahwazis consider themselves as under Persian “occupation” and have been vying for an independent country of their own.

Ahwazi Arabs argue that they face state entrenched discrimination at the hands of Iranian governments both past and present. A Home Office report points out that Ahwazi Arabs suffer from persecution, arbitrary detention, poverty and a lack of basic rights. They are provided with limited access to services such as housing, water, sanitation, employment, and education. The report also highlights that many Ahwazi Arabs have had their lands confiscated, without any compensation for loss of land.

In addition to this, the Arab people of Ahwaz have been subject to a policy of ‘Persianisation’ through which they have experienced ethnic and linguistic repression. As a result, Ahwazi Arabs are not formally permitted to learn their mother tongue nor express their culture. It is speculated by some and noted by Arab Ahwazis that the government has attempted to alter the demographic makeup of Ahwaz by renaming town names to sound more Persian and also by resettling Persian speaking families into the area. In theory, the Iranian constitution does afford respect and rights to all ethnic minorities and considers all Iranian citizens equal but there is little evidence of this in practice.

Ahwaz is no stranger to civil unrest and has continuously seen anti-government protests. Violence from Ahwazi Arab separatist groups has also taken place over the decades, and if the claims are true, the killing of civilians at the military parade in September being the most recent example. Despite being a low-level conflict, violent activity in Ahwaz has increased since 2005 with September’s attack being one of the deadliest in nearly a decade

The cause of Ahwazi Arabs has been championed by nationalist groups such as the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz (ASMLA). The group has been involved in political activity, but have on a number of previous occasions resorted to violent means such as bombings to achieve their goals.

Acts of violence do very little in highlighting the very legitimate issues that the Ahwazi Arabs and other minority groups face in Iran. Iran has largely attempted to contain discontent from their population by cracking down on protests but it is increasingly difficult for them to do so in a region that is fraught and fragmented by divisions. This is particularly true for Ahwaz.

Ahwaz is key to the national security of Iran and is also the economic lifeline for the country; housing almost 90% of the country’s oil. The presence of the armed wing of the ASMLA and the grievances of the Arab population should be a cause for concern for Tehran, taking into consideration Iran’s relationship with hostile states such as Saudi Arabia and the United States who could themselves exploit this unrest.

“The nation’s security is the red line. Terrorists used bullets in Ahvaz , we answered the them with missiles”. That was the statement made by IRGC general Hajizadeh hours after Iran pounded alleged Daesh targets in Syria with ballistic missiles. Iran’s leader had warned after the recent attack on the military parade in the city of Ahvaz that, “The terrorists will be punished soon”. Iran claimed it was proving it was serious in safeguarding its security by responding in kind when it came under attack.

al-Halbousi: A Good Choice for Iraq?

After months of political deadlock, Iraq has finally taken the key step of electing its Speaker and President, with a Prime Minister-designate also named. On Tuesday, the Iraqi parliament elected Barham Salih as President and shortly after he asked Adil Abdul-Mahdi to be Prime Minister. This comes two weeks after electing their speaker as Mohamed al-Halbousi.

Since 2003 the roles of President, Prime Minister and Speaker have been unofficially held by a Kurd, a Shiite and a Sunni respectively. Having struggled with a political stalemate since the elections in May, Iraq can now finally move forward toward naming its cabinet ministers and forming a parliament. This comes as a big step on the road to rebuilding a country devastated by three years of war with the Islamic State. In this, the first is a series, the NCF will focus o n the elected speaker, Mohammed Rikan Hadeed al-Halbousi, exploring the run-up to his election, his background and what his appointment might mean for the future of Iraq.

The Run up to al-Halbousi’s Appointment

In May’s parliamentary election, the Saairun political group, which is popular amongst many of Iraq’s poor and led by the prominent Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, came in first with 54 seats. In second, with 48 seats came Hadi al-Ameri’s Fatah Alliance. This group is one which has the tacit support of Iran and whose members are largely drawn from the paramilitary groups who were crucial in the victory against ISIL. In third and fourth came Haider al-Abadi’s Victory Alliance (42), a group with tacit US backing, and Nouri al-Maliki’s State of Law Coalition (25). Both of the latter are, by and large, factions that have evolved from the Islamic Dawa Party, which has ruled Iraq for the last three terms.

After the election, the opposing Fatah Alliance and the Saairun each tried to separately form coalitions with the Victory Alliance, The State of Law Coalition, the Kurdish parties and others.

However, amid growing protests about government corruption and a growing water shortage crisis, the influential Shiite cleric Ali al-Sistani called for change. He demanded that Iraq needed a new leadership stating he would not support “politicians who have been in authority in the past years”. This greatly diminished the chances of the Dawa based Victory Alliance and the State of Law Coalition. This forced Sairoon and Fatah to come together, and on Sept 15th the Fatah nominee al-Halbousi was elected speaker, with al-Sadr’s candidate Hassam Karim as first deputy.

Who is he?

At 37, al-Halbousi is the youngest speaker in Iraq’s history. He trained as a civil engineer, then went into the construction business. In 2014 he was elected to parliament and headed the parliamentary finance committee from 2016 until 2017 when he became governor of Anbar province.

In the May elections, al-Halbousi headed the ‘Anbar is Our Identity’ alliance. In fact al-Halbousi has a good relationship with Nouri al-Maliki and Hadi al-Amiri and was initially nominated by their Al-Binna’a alliance.

Internationally he has amicable relations with the US and was involved in many US contracts during their period of hegemony in Iraq. However, his connection to Iran is stronger. When elected he immediately cemented these ties by denouncing US sanctions on Iran and inviting Iran’s speaker to Iraq. But not before first exchanging invitations with the Speaker of the Parliament in pro-US Kuwait so as to indicate his neutrality.

What Does His Election Mean for Iraq?

With growing anti-establishment protests over corrupt rule, the Iraqi people are demanding a change. At 37, al-Halbousi seems to represent this change. Whether al-Halbousi is clean of corruption himself is debatable. There were even rumours that he had in part bought his post as Speaker by making questionable deals with other MPs, and though Sunni himself, not all the Sunni MPs support him. However, a fresh face is nonetheless welcomed by the Iraqi people.

He seems to be quite up to the vital task of keeping amicable relations with both the US and Iran. He also represents the much needed coming together of a country politically split and devastated by war. He looks to be a good candidate to take a united Iraq in a more positive direction.

Oil Price Excitement – because of Iran

There is excitement this morning at the four year high in oil price at $81 a barrel. They put it down to Iran reduction because of President Trump’s sanctions + Bakken Shale problems (shale sweet spots are running out triggering feverish competition over concessions in the US) + spare capacity fears (spare capacity of mid east countries is is only 2-4 million b/d meaning that unexpected supply interruptions are more difficult to cope with).

In Iraq this triggered renewed discussion this morning of the fact that Kirkuk’s oil is “stranded” meaning 270,00 to 300,000 barrels a day “wasted capacity due to unavailability of pipelines”.

The only prospect of a reduction in demand also, ironically, is a consequence of President Trump’s actions – as a consequence of the possibility of reduced Chinese demand in the aftermath of the Sino-American trade war. But all the indications are that the price will continue to rise, helped by the OPEC decision not to increase production at their meeting in Algeria yesterday.

Brexit problems for Europe’s Students?

A substantial proportion of Britain’s younger generation feel strongly in favour of the UK remaining in the European Union (or certainly did so prior to recent events). The opportunity Europe presented for study abroad is just one of the many reasons why:

With just months to go until the UK is set to leave the EU, the possibility of a ‘No Deal Brexit’ seems increasingly likely. With the UK’s involvement in many EU institutions set to diminish, what will Brexit mean for the UK’s place in the Erasmus+ programme?

Erasmus+ is an EU initiative which provides grants for participants to study, work, volunteer, teach and train in Europe. In the past four years the programme has awarded 677 million euros to UK participants, with 128,097 British students taking part from 2014-2016. The UK will remain a part of the current scheme until its end in 2020. Although after that what happens is unclear.

Since its creation in 1987, the Erasmus scheme has improved economic outcomes, with unemployment rates 23% lower for participants.

After 2020, Britain may be forced to leave the scheme.

Will it be replaced?

The European Commission has proposed a new form of Erasmus+ from 2021-27 which would see it doubling its budget and opening to “third countries” from outside the EU, such as, presumably, the UK after Brexit.

Even if such a proposal did not go through, in theory Britain could still adopt the Swiss model. Under this model, British universities would set up their own agreements with EU universities and provide their own funding. Savings made from payments to the EU could even be used to fund it.

Would people use a new scheme?

No one should underestimate the ideological sentiment of Brexit. Fewer Europeans may want to study in the UK and vice versa. Already there’s been a 19% increase in departures of European staff from UK universities in 2017 compared to before the Brexit vote. Though many left due to fears surrounding research grant eligibility and visa concerns, many also also left for ideological reasons.

Some schools have reported that Brexit has led to a decrease in students wanting to learn languages, further reinforced by their parents’ attitudes.

Regardless of whether we want to see less immigration or “take back control”, we still need confident, open-minded and adaptable young people who can survive and prosper in an increasingly globalised world. With Brexit, they will not.

A New Pakistan?

It has been a month since former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, was sworn into office to become Pakistan’s  22nd prime minister. Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) emerged as the single-largest party in parliament for the first time in their history.

During his victory speech, Imran Khan outlined his dream for a ‘Naya Pakistan’ – a new Pakistan that would be formed as a humanitarian state; a state that takes responsibility for the weaker classes, focusing on the downtrodden of society. Khan also promised to root out corruption in all its forms and tackle the economic and security challenges facing the country’s.

But now that the dust has settled on Khan’s victory and fervour has subsided, many are eagerly waiting to see how Khan will fulfill his lofty promises. But the question arises as to how realistic does Imran Khan’s dream of a Naya Pakistan seem?

Despite his popularity and his position as prime minister, the real power in the country lies with the country’s powerful military. Pakistan has been ruled by the military for more than half of its 71 years of existence, with the army holding considerable power and influence in the country’s politics. In order for Khan’s dream of a Naya Pakistan to become a reality, he needs to break away from the security establishment. This is no easy task.

The military is widely seen by many as having helped Khan win the election, which would make Imran Khan’s job as prime minister that much more difficult. Maintaining a warm relationship with influential generals is key to Khan’s tenure as prime minister.

The military has long been accused of removing those people from power who were not compliant with their ‘requests’, with none of the 17 prime ministers of Pakistan managing to serve a full term. It has been suggested that even the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, who was ousted from office on corruption charges, was at the same time selectively targeted by the military due to his attempt to reduce the army’s role in the political sphere. The military’s apparent support for Khan and his party could have been more about keeping Sharif and his party out of power and capitalising on Khan’ s popularity; rather than any particular support for Khan and his policies.

The implication of Khan’s victory, if the military did indeed help him assume office, is that a deal was struck. Khan would have to toe the line, if he were to continue in the role of prime minister. Of course, this would also mean that Khan would have to compromise on many of the populist stances he holds. For many in Pakistan, Imran Khan is seen as a breath of fresh air, with ideals that gave the people hope. However, it may be that the dream of Naya Pakistan will remain but a dream.

Closure of PLO mission prompts call for protest

The White House’s announcement of plans to close down the PLO’s office in Washington intends to block cases that Palestinians have raised against Tel Aviv in the International criminal court. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat has decried the move as continuation of “collective punishment” by the Trump administration.

On Monday 10th September, the US announced the closure of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington. This comes as the latest in a series of actions by the Trump administration against the Palestinians, which include:

  • The relocation of the US embassy from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem in May. Thereby formally recognising Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, despite longstanding Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem as their capital.
  • A funding freeze in August of $300 million to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for providing healthcare, education, and food to Palestinian refugees.
  • Further funding freezes in August and September of $200 million in aid to Gaza and the West Bank and $25 million to hospitals mainly caring for Palestinians.

According to the US, this latest action is in response to the PLO’s efforts to prolong the peace process. The Trump administration claims they have done this citing two examples. Firstly, their refusal to ‘engage with the US government with respect to peace efforts’ since the relocation of the US embassy. Secondly through ‘Palestinian attempts to prompt an investigation of Israel by the International Criminal Court (ICC).’

However, given the relocation of the US embassy in May and following cuts to Palestinian aid, it seems the US themselves are not interested in “direct and meaningful negotiations”. This move is one of many, to weaken Palestine’s position at the negotiating table when the US announces its peace plan later in the year.

What can Palestine do?

Undoubtedly, Palestine must increase its leverage by responding to these US actions effectively. Taking the issue to international organisations may be a part of this, but non-violent action needs to take place within the region as well.

The effectiveness of the use of the ICC to help resolve this issue is questionable, this because of the US and Israel both being non-signatories; because of US threats to sanction the ICC; and because the organisation is not particularly well respected worldwide. Other organisations such as the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which is generally held in higher regard, may be more effective arenas at which to make a stand. However, this is still questionable given the US’ current isolationist foreign policy. This policy sees a trend in the US departing from international institutions, including its withdrawal from the UNHRC. Despite that, other countries who still respect such international frameworks could put pressure on the US and Israel.

However, action must also come from within the region for Palestinians to really increase their leverage. This should come in the form of non-violent protest. The effect of this would: help unite Palestinians; raise the importance of the issue on the world agenda; and raise the importance of the issue for the people of Israel who could themselves put greater pressure on Netanyahu.

Although this would have to be non-violent. Violence on the part of Palestinians would only escalate causing huge unnecessary destruction and undermine Palestine’s position. As Palestine does not have the economic and military might of Israel it must retain the moral high ground.

The Trump administration’s most recent action does not contribute towards establishing a fair peace for the Israel-Palestine situation. Palestine must continue to fight for its cause in non-violent ways.

The NCF Secretary General talks about the issue of the White House action against Palestine on Press TV.

Refugee Legal Support Needed

Ex NCF intern, Eva Doerr, is known to many of you. She needs your help. She is involved in a refugee project in Athens, Greece – Refugee Legal Support (https://www.refugeelegalsupport.org). Alongside approximately ten other UK asylum lawyers (almost all women), she was part of setting up a pro bono legal clinic in Athens. At the clinic, Iliana (a Greek lawyer), Efi (their coordinator), their three interpreters – Ali, Vafa and Lawrence (all refugees in Greece) – and UK lawyers who travel to Athens on a rota basis (Eva was there in June) provide free legal support to refugees. Eva writes:

Even though the media seems to have stopped reporting on it, thousands of people fleeing conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa continue to make the dangerous journey across the Mediterranean and arrive on the Greek islands eg Lesvos and Chios every month. The crippling infrastructure in Greece means that many of those are not recognised refugees yet – they do not have a ‘legal status’ in Greece. Many others remain separated from family members elsewhere in Europe without any hope of being reunited with them any time soon (family reunification is supposedly a human right…). Without a legal status a person is trapped in a limbo. You are unable to take part in public life and access services that we take for granted, like healthcare, the ability to rent a home or take up employment.
I could go on about this forever but I am sure you will be well aware of the situation. I feel very strongly that Western Europe needs to take more responsibility for this situation. I believe that the clinic is a small contribution to the solidarity that is needed to tackle what I believe is the ‘issue of our times’. Sadly, we are running out of money and we now need every donation and support we can get. We have launched a crowd justice campaign, a way to fundraise for legal campaigns.
If NCF friends could donate a bit of money and, more importantly, share the campaign amongst your friends and network via email or social media, Eva would be hugely grateful.
 

The Anti-Semitism Row

Tim Pendry responds to our intern’s blog on the Labour Anti-Semitism row, which he views as a little naive politically. He writes as an independent observer sympathetic to Corbyn’s position on this particular matter. We would view his perspective as being similar to that of a mainstream Labour activist, though not a viewpoint universally held:

We can start with two propositions which are uncomfortable for some activists.

The first is that free speech, as an Enlightenment Project, should be as close to absolute as possible in any political movement that purports to represent the Left and yet it is clear that there has been increasing pressure, mostly from authoritarian elements in society, to restrict that freedom so that defence of free speech has largely and unfortunately fallen into the hands of conservatives and then populists.

The second is that a British political party should be primarily concerned with the welfare of the British people (of all faiths) and should not become the plaything of struggles in foreign lands or allow itself to be directly or indirectly influenced by the interests of a foreign power. The Labour Party got itself into this mess originally by permitting far too much influence to activists more concerned with Middle Eastern politics than social change because it was greedy for votes from new immigrant communities.

This opened the door to Jewish activists whose primary interest (in this debate) was undoubtedly the protection of political support for the state of Israel which was pretty well taken for granted in the higher ranks of the Party until Corbyn was elected Leader. This is all a matter of indifference to most working people who are actually not in the least antisemitic but commit the crime of utter indifference to both sides in this tiresome and eternal squabble.

In this atmosphere of political warfare, it is naive to think that the IHRA guidelines came out of some objective analysis of antisemitism above and beyond these politics. They did not. They are the culmination of a process of linking the narrative of antisemitism and the holocaust to the existence of Israel and then making the definition of antisemitism implicitly include criticism of Israel. So let us take the four guidelines and give another interpretation (since the author’s interpretation is actually fair if one wishes to interpret them that way but there are other interpretations).

  1. “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.” Unfortunately, this is actually a fair criticism from many Jewish activists who do place loyalty to Israel and to the Jewish community ahead of the interests of their own nation. The ‘soft’ version is an unspoken and unthinking assumption that the interests of the UK and Israel are identical. They are not necessarily so. We must be free to call out any community within the country, including Muslims of course, who place their original homeland or their community’s interests or even (in extremis) their faith ahead of the interests of the UK as a whole and certainly of the British working population.
  2. “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination e.g. by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavour.” This is fair since it is clear that Judaism is not racist. However, Zionism is. by definition, ethnicist. There is a slippery slope here given the inability of many modern liberals not to be able to draw the distinction between ethnicity and racism. The existence of the State of Israel is very much an ethnicist endeavour and we must be free to say so.
  3. “Applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behaviour not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” This is a fair concern but, again, we have to consider context. Israel claims to be a Western democratic outpost and it is surrounded by non-democratic illiberal countries. There is no comparison. However, Israel’s conduct can and should be compared (even if there may be sound security reasons for the differences) with the way, say, Sweden or Ireland may conduct matters. The clause is clear – it is not ‘of any other nation’ but ‘of any other democratic nation’. While recognising that Israel is largely democratic (though only so because most Palestinians have left), we must be free to compare it if we so wish to the other democratic nations of which it claims kinship.
  4. “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.” This is a difficult one but free speech is not about sensitivity, it is about freedom. There is no fair way of claiming the State of Israel behaves like the Nazi State but this should be dealt with in terms of the facts and not sensitivity when, seventy years after the event and with more knowledge of the general scale of man’s inhumanity to man, under conditions where a nation owns the nuclear bomb and has a preparedness to use it, we all know in our hearts that the holocaust narrative has two aspects – as tragic history and as propaganda. What we must be free to say is that there are similarities perhaps between some aspects of national socialism and some aspects of all forms of ethnicist nationalism and perhaps, if evidence can be provided, even in military techniques against settlement or in ‘lebensraum’. An intelligent person would only make the lightest of historical comparisons if they believed them to be true because there is no evidence of the racial politics or chaotics of the German dictatorship but he or she must be allowed to make these comparisons in good faith as a matter of free speech.

The ‘Zionist’ or Jewish activist pressure on the Labour Leadership is purely political, a continuation by other means of a project to recover an influence over the British Left taken for granted over many decades. It is the wrong struggle. The right struggle would have been to ask why the worst sort of faith-based obscurantism has been imported into the Party’s inner city wards without sufficient challenge. Any antisemitism arising from poorly educated Islamists is a mere symptom of something infinitely more concerning – the steady unravelling of Enlightenment values for contingent political advantage across a wide front.

As to ‘feelings’ this represents the decadence of our politics. Politics should be about principle and not pandering to ‘feelings’. The crisis certainly cannot be averted by pandering to a demand that a few inappropriate clauses of the IHRA guidelines are accepted just to defuse the crisis – it simply creates a new crisis, one of the ‘chilling effect’ on free speech. The crisis can be averted by staying strong on the principle of free speech but taking a tough line on antisemitism (as opposed to criticism of Israel) where it appears alongside all other forms of racial or ethnicist politics including perhaps aspects of Corbyn’s treasured Irish republicanism and the clan politics of the migrant inner cities.