Will the Syria ceasefire stick?

On Saturday the first widespread negotiated ‘cessation of hostilities’ started in Syria, and a day later it is still in place despite some violations – already a small victory. The deal has been brokered and supported by the US and Russia, two of the most powerful backers on each side of the conflict, and the UN has also backed it with a resolution. So what are the chances this ceasefire will succeed?

Here’s some background on Russian and American efforts in Syria, and for more info on Islamic State, see here. Continue reading

What happens if the UK leaves the EU?

After more than a year of promises, David Cameron has finally set a date for a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. After managing to make a deal with the 27 other states, Cameron will campaign for the UK to vote to stay on the 23rd of June. But what exactly does his ‘deal’ with the EU mean? What would happen if the British left? And is this the only threat to the EU? Continue reading

The Trump Spring

The third Republican primary has come and gone, and Donald ‘no Muslims’ Trump has booked another victory. South Carolina proved yet again that his supporters will in fact turn out to vote, giving him 33% of the vote, followed by 22.5% for Marco Rubio and 22.3% for Ted Cruz. Meanwhile in Nevada, Hilary Clinton eked out another disappointingly small victory against Bernie Sanders. So with three real candidates left on the Republican side to the Democrats’ two, what are some concrete ways this bizarre election could go? Continue reading

4 reasons ruling a country is really hard

Over the last weekend I participated in the 62nd Harvard National Model United Nations, as the culmination of the United Netherlands course I’ve taken this last semester. While others from my delegation participated in simulations of UN debate, I took a slightly odder role – that of Minister of Health in the Cabinet of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, 1978. The simulation covered the two years between the communist coup in April ’78 and the Russian invasion in ’79, and was essentially a kind of war game. My fellow communist cabinet members and I took actions on social reform and security, and then received updates from the Harvard staff on the new situation based on what we’d done. While the simulation ended with us all dying in a Soviet invasion, it was a useful reminder of just how tricky it is to run a country. Continue reading

Trump, Wilders, Le Pen – The new fascists

students_pledging_allegiance_to_the_american_flag_with_the_bellamy_salute

US students in the 40s, when this salute was still part of the Pledge of Allegience

There’s an ugly current running through Western politics, and if we’re honest with ourselves, we know what it is. Just like in Weimar Germany, from France to the US, there are people struggling with an identity crisis, scared of threats from without and within, and worrying they’re being left behind in the modern economy. And for these people, champions are rising. They are strong leaders. They say all the things, the necessary things, no one else dares to say. They will get things moving, protect the ordinary people, restore order, restore greatness, do what needs to be done. They are people like Donald Trump, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen. They are fascists.

There’s no clear-cut definition of fascism, and there’s no simple equivalent for Hitler or Mussolini today. However, academic Christian Caryl offers some criteria, so let’s see how Trump especially, but also the others, fit:

  • Racial purity: Wilders and Le Pen focus more on religion then race, but all of them share an obsession with an ‘other’ contaminating society and taking it over, be it “Mexican rapists and criminals”, “criminal Moroccan” or simply “Muslims”, and they will stop all immigration to get rid of this other.
  • “The state reigns supreme”: Seeing as none of them are in power, this is hard to judge, but they are certainly all extremely focused on law and order and ‘the nation’.
  • The strongman: All three, especially Trump, play on this idea of needing a strong leader, and it’s something their supporters look for.
  • Focus on the military: This is something Trump has mentioned a lot – and which is slightly less relevant in Europe – the need for a strong military and foreign policy.
  • Hatred of ‘rationalism’ and ‘decadence’: Trump almost glories in being an anti-intellectual, barely bothering to make rational arguments. All of them have attacked the current government and system for weakness, softness and elitism.
  • The Third Way: None of them are left or right, but just like the Nazi party, bring in elements of both – the rightist emphasis on law and order and the nation together with the leftist opposition to globalisation and financial elites (ironically in Trump’s case).

Now you can argue that people like Wilders and Trump are just populists, swaying from issue to issue, and that they’ll never be elected anyway. And that is certainly true, they are extremely populist. But these fascist positions are the ones on which they are running, and the ones that are making them some of the most popular politicians in the country. That can’t be ignored.

These people don’t only pose a direct threat to democracy if they are elected. Their very rhetoric poisons the atmosphere; it tells people that it is alright to voice their darkest fears and their basest hatreds. Their policies are not just free speech in a marketplace of ideas, where the good ones will win out, they are beginning to contaminate the others and sway the centre of debate. What was once extreme, now becomes acceptable.

The media plays a role in this too. Just this morning I heard an interview with Trump on ABC, where the interviewer asked “Do you regret your ban on Muslims entering the country, a policy which many have labelled un-American?” How can you ask such a question with a straight face? It’s like asking Hitler “Do you regret barring the Jews from public life, a policy which many see as anti-Semitic?’ Of course his plan is un-American, of course it’s un-democratic, and of course it’s fascist. Why isn’t that being said?

This may seem overblown, and you can argue that they will never be elected, or that their star will fade away. Fair enough, that’s hopefully and probably true. But the last time large proportions of Europe were swayed by fascism, it led to the worst conflict the world has ever seen, and the worst crime the world has ever seen – the systematic extermination of millions of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and many others. There are some threats that are very unlikely, but the consequences of which are so dire that they have to be faced no matter how remote they may be. Fascist rhetoric is one of those threats.

Last week Hilary Benn, in one of the best speeches I’ve seen in recent times, declared that Islamic State is fascist, and “fascists must be fought”. This is true – but sometimes the fascists are on the inside.

Russia jet downed in Syria – 3 scenarios

This morning the worst fears of many came true – a Russian fighter jet was shot down by NATO forces at the Syrian border. What exactly happened to the jet is not entirely clear. According to Turkey, it was shot down by their fighters in Turkish airspace after being warned numerous times. According to Russia, it was shot down 4km inside Syrian territory. Most indications are, however, that the Russian jet was inside Turkish territory for a very short time, and was leaving when shot down.

While the pilots managed to bail out, they apparently landed within rebel territory in Syria, and one rebel group has posted footage allegedly showing that one of the pilots was dead when he hit the ground. President Putin has already responded, calling it “a stab in the back by the accomplices of terrorists”, and saying there will be serious consequences for the relationship with Turkey. So what will happen next? Here are a few scenarios: Continue reading

Terror in Paris – two responses

Over the last few days it’s been hard not to think about Paris. I heard about the attacks in Oxford, in the evening after a gala hosted by the Oxford Model United Nations conference. When the news came through that over a hundred were dead and that Paris was in lockdown, the joy slipped out of the room. As removed from the events as we were, we were horrified, lacking words for a response. That’s still the way I feel now about the actual shootings. Just like after the Peshawar school shooting, it’s impossible to understand the sheer hatred, the cult-like dedication, that can bring someone to execute 19 people at a café, or 89 people enjoying a concert. It’s so far removed from war, from politics, from a cause, that you just can’t get a grip on it, on the violence of the act.

1920px-national_gallery_london_in_french_flag_colours_after_paris_attack_282303161768129In the aftermath as well, it feels like this time is different. There’s still the expressions of solidarity and of “we are not afraid”, but they seem a little empty. This could have been absolutely any one of us. People across Europe are scared, and it’s hard to just say “that’s what the terrorists want”. Well, this time they’ve succeeded.

The reaction in France this time is not one of peaceful marches, but one of war. Hollande has declared war on Islamic State – whatever that may mean – and it is looking like it will actually make a difference to their policy. This, together with the recent bombing of the Russian Metrojet in the Sinai, may finally line up the West and Russia on the same page. Assad can wait – Islamic State must be destroyed.

And while I still fully stand behind the idea that only tolerance and inclusion can defeat the ideology of terror, the response to IS itself must be one of full on confrontation. There can be no doubt that they pose a significant and direct threat to not only the Middle East (which has been obvious for years), but to the West and to Russia. When 129 people are massacred in a European capital in the name of a self-proclaimed state, mere calls for tolerance will not suffice.

At the same time though, continuing respect for and inclusion of Muslims is incredibly important, both practically and morally. They have absolutely nothing to do with this, and any response must not be aimed at them. It is too easy to allow ourselves to be caught up in anti-Muslim sentiment, and we must make the right distinction between Muslims and the group which perverts and twists their faith. It is an organization despised by almost everyone, with nothing to offer the world but hate. Again, for them, there can be no tolerance.

Destroying Islamic State by no means easy, as I’ve pointed out many times on this blog. But the events in Paris make painfully clear how quickly the cost of letting the Syrian Civil War run on can spread across the world. There are few good answers to the situation in Iraq and Syria, but the West must truly engage in helping to bring peace to these states, not just bombing them, no matter how complex this will be. If the killings in Paris can help eventually bring an end to one of the worst wars of the 21st century, maybe some good can come out of this evil.

I might significantly revise my opinion on some of this in the coming days and weeks, but this is what I’m thinking now. Besides, it’s always useful to get ideas out of my head and on to paper.