Monday, 12 October 2015

Assad - or the deluge

Picture from Russian bomber over Syria (Channel 4 News)
There was an unusually arresting interview on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on Saturday. After a report by John Simpson (1 hour, 30 minutes into the programme) on Russia's activities in Syria, Justin Webb interviewed the former ambassador to Bahrain and Syria, Peter Ford, who after retiring from the Foreign Office went to work as UN representative for refugees in the Middle East until 2014. he had just returned from the area. He should know what he's talking about - and, it seemed to me, he did.

The interview so struck me that I transcribed it in full (you can listen to it here - after 1.30 in).

Do you think it’s fair to think of the Russian action bringing things to a head in a way that for all the short term costs might in the long term be a good thing?
Yes, I think that the Russian action is extremely positive. As John Simpson said… the Assad government had been on the ropes; a few months ago it had been haemorrhaging young men, who incidentally have been flocking to Europe, being unwilling to be conscripted. The Syrian army was down from a maximum earlier of about 300,000 to 80,000; it was on the ropes. The Russians have come in to redress the balance. And NATO, instead of sounding petulant and churlish, should actually be grateful to the Russians who are exercising some adult supervision; and what is happening is actually grist to the mill of Jeremy Corbyn who argues that NATO has lost the plot and is in fact often a risk to British security.

But in what way though could it be a long-term solution for Assad to be bolstered, because John Simpson made the point that he is more powerful in the short term, but in the long term all this does potentially is put off the day when he has to go and Syria has to be sorted out?
Oh, I totally disagree. Assad does not have to go. Let us not be brow-beaten by David Cameron repeating this mantra. I was in Northern Jordan a few days ago: I spoke to a young refugee, a teenager, a girl. I asked her, “Who do you blame?” She said, “We blame them all. We blame the jihadis for coming to our village and forcing us to flee - and we blame the government for not being strong enough.” Not strong enough! Many Syrians have this grievance against the government; so the government can hardly be blamed when it does try harder and now, with Russian support, is more likely to prevail. The choice - (Interviewer tries to interrupt) - I’m sorry, the choice cannot be shirked. It’s Assad or the deluge. NATO leaders need to address this question, and answer it to the people, like me - the voice of the ordinary man. I’m afraid we’re not getting this from the Labour Party in Britain. I don’t know why they’re nervous about tackling the government on this, because this actually a point of weakness in the government’s story. They’re not answering, “Who will replace Assad?”

Yes, but they’re nervous about saying they support Assad, and that Assad is the long-term solution because he has murdered so many of his own people, and they know, or they suspect, that he is such a divisive force, because of that in sectarian and political terms, that he could not be a realistic long-term leader of Syria.
That’s simply untrue. There’s every prospect that things could return to the status quo ante if the military campaign of Russia and Syria - 

Really, even after all the barrel bombs and the killing? 
Yes, he’s never going to be popular with everybody, but which Middle East leader is?  The truth of the matter is that Assad is supported by a good 40% of the Syrian people.  That is more actually than voted for David Cameron.  

Are you seriously expecting now that following on from the Russian action and if this is bringing things to a head on the ground in Syria and indeed in the air over Syria that there is a serious diplomatic volte face now in the West and that people follow what you’ve been suggesting this morning as a serious prospect in diplomacy?
No. That would be too much to expect, but what is realistic to expect is that the West should pipe down, take a deep breath, let the Russians get on with it, NATO should continue to do what it can to fight ISIS, but it should not undermine the one force with boots on the ground, which, as John Simpson said earlier, is the only one likely to prevail against ISIS. It is totally shambolic to have a policy which is mutually contradictory.

You talk about boots on the ground. John as you say mentioned it. There’s no realistic prospect of Britain putting boots on the ground and there is occasionally discussion in America about the options that it might have had in the past for doing it and more discussion in the last few days. Is it realistic? Is it too late now for outside powers, not just in the West, but other outside powers, to intervene themselves, possibly with the UN, now that the Russians seem to be on board with some kind of action? Is that realistic or simply not?
   No, I’m afraid that is not realistic. Western powers have impaled themselves on this policy of calling for the downfall of Assad. Anyhow it’s probably a good thing that they not put boots on the ground. But they can help, by, for example, lifting sanctions on the Syrian economy which penalise only the poor Syrian people. This is one reason why so many are fleeing Syria - the Western sanctions, about which we never hear a word. 

Well, at the end of that admirably long interview I had a number of thoughts. One was how refreshing it was for the BBC to have had the courage to allow another voice from the government party line, which, Peter Ford is right, we do hear repeated like a mantra. It's like a PR-generated slogan - if something's repeated enough, people will come to believe it. Another was how very undiplomatically frank and outspoken this former ambassador was. I should imagine it did his career no favours. But hopefully there are still those within the diplomatic service who tell their political masters the truth as it is. And finally I wondered whether any of our political representatives would take a blind bit of notice of what is an admittedly inconvenient but patent truth, and be humble enough to confess we've got it wrong again. The story we hear so often is not the whole truth. What is true is that thousands have died and millions have lost their homes - and we are not helping.
Part of wall war memorial in Tartus, Syria (Channel 4 News)

Tuesday, 6 October 2015

An antidote to World Cup Fever

No doubt by now my English readers are recovering from Saturday's experience of cold turkey so heartlessly administered by our Australian cousins, and the owners of ITV are vainly trying to persuade advertisers that the viewing figures for future fixtures will be unaffected. And meanwhile some women are refraining from reminding their dearly beloveds that, after all, it's only a game.

The Rugby World Cup, anticipated as the next great sporting event in the country after the Olympic and Commonwealth Games, already shows signs of going the way of all flesh. I suppose the consolation for the RFU is that they have already sold tickets for the potential "hot" matches at vast prices to corporate clients and individuals. The best hope for them and the broadcasters must be that at least one of the home nations comes good and so preserves some great British enthusiasm for the whole show.

The famous tackle on Jono Lomu in 1995 (AP Photo/John Parkin)
Meanwhile it was all put into perspective for me by Miles Pilling who's in the middle of raising cash and awareness for MND with brilliant photographer, Cristian Barnett (26 Miles 4 MND). Miles, like me, has the PLS form of MND. I spent a couple of hours a few weeks ago on a photoshoot with them for their project. He sent me a link to the story of Joost Van Der Westhuizen. I did know about this legend of South African rugby, their scrum half in the World Cup winning team celebrated in the film, Invictus. The championship took place in 1995, a year after Nelson Mandela being elected president of South Africa, and the alliance between Mandela and Francois Pienaar, the team captain, did much to heal the rift left by apartheid.

Van Der Westhuizen's first symptom occurred seven years ago, but it was not until 2011 that he was finally given the diagnosis of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the commonest, rapid form of MND, with a prognosis of two to five years. Last night I watched a series of YouTube clips (a documentary and some interviews) which vividly and painfully illustrate the nature of the disease. Early on he talks about about his determination to fight the disease and to set up a foundation mainly to provide care and facilities for sufferers of MND (the J 9 Foundation) - 9 being the scrum-half's shirt number. Here are three of the clips: A Life of Two Halves, with Jim RosenthalInterview with Dr Mol (South Africa)The Rugby Show.
At home with his rugby memorabilia (Gallo Images for ESPN)

I ended by reading an article by James Peacock for BBC Sport, Joost Van Der Westhuizen: still fighting on his deathbed, which, despite its sensationalist headline, is well worth a read. At one point he reminded me of my co-author of I Choose Everything, Jozanne Moss, also a young parent of a boy and a girl, when he says, "'But I know that God is alive in my life and with experience you do learn. I can now talk openly about the mistakes I made because I know my faith won't give up and it won't diminish.
'It's only when you go through what I am going through that you understand that life is generous.'"

You do realise that even for an outstanding sportsman such as Joost Van Der Westhuizen there is much more to life than the glamorous and lucrative world of professional sport - there's his family, there's the gift of being alive, and there's God. There are more important things than winning. There's living.

(PS Apologies for the malfunction of the link to the good BBC article. My fault. It now works.)