Around five years ago I recall seeing a ‘Newsnight’ feature on female fighters of the Kurdish guerrilla army, the PKK, and I shamefully admit to being distracted by the fact that they were all stunning-looking women, each resembling a young Bianca Jagger in combat gear. I appreciate this is an exceedingly trivial reaction to a serious story on a serious subject; the PKK has been a bloody thorn in the side of Turkey for decades. But it was probably the last time I watched a report on the troubled fault-line between Europe and the Middle East and came away from it feeling anything other than despair.

Since 1984, the Marxist-Leninist group known as the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (AKA the PKK) has been engaged in a persistent armed struggle against the Turkish authorities. Although regularly denied by the organisation itself, the motivation behind the PKK’s paramilitary activities has been given as a desire for a separate independent Kurdish state within Turkey. The campaign has claimed more than 40,000 lives over the last four decades, and the aborted coup to topple Recep Tayyip Erdogan from his throne in 2016 not only presented the Turkish President with wider powers to imprison his enemies, but also enabled him to publicly associate those of pro-Kurdish sympathies with the hated PKK, thus vindicating his authoritarian stance.

Erdogan was also uncomfortable with the Kurdish-Iraqi alliance against ISIS forces in Northern Syria. The PKK have launched many an attack from Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, and the realisation that the Kurds and Iraqis had combined into a formidable fighting force to take on an international enemy fed into the Turkish President’s paranoia that the Kurdish cause in Turkey would be further legitimised. For one thing, Erdogan and his party are Sunni Muslims, whereas the Iraqi forces in Syria are Shia; for another, the prospect of armed Kurds having both US and UN support in their incarnation as the Popular Protection Units (AKA the YPG) further weakened his argument, as did the YPG troops working alongside American comrades

Of course, things have changed over the past week. True, it can’t have been easy for Turkey over the last eight years with Syria as a neighbour, so a degree of anxiety regarding events on Turkey’s doorstep has been understandable. But from all accounts, YPG Kurds were doing a good job at preventing ISIS from encroaching closer to home, and US armed assistance was deemed vital to keeping the enemy at bay. Then President Trump, publicly declaring his weariness with Team America: World Police, decided to abruptly withdraw US forces from the region, a decision that left the YPG to not only fend for itself against the remaining ISIS insurgents, but to be confronted by the might of a Turkish Army overseen by a man convinced any Kurd with a gun in his hand is a PKK solider.

Trump’s sudden announcement could be regarded as an acknowledgement on the Donald’s part that there are bigger battles to be fought on home soil as impeachment proceedings provoked by the Biden/Ukraine affair progress; but it has inspired unprecedented expressions of opposition from within Republican ranks. Even the slavishly pro-Trump mouthpiece of Fox News has this week seen previously obedient Presidential cheerleaders publicly air their disgust at what is viewed as America abandoning its Kurdish allies in Syria. Of course, the mud-slinging of American politics will hardly trouble Erdogan, who wasted little time in launching an instant incursion into Northern Syria following what he perceived as Trump’s green light. Erdogan was never going to make a move that might risk spilling American blood, but now he has no such worries. And so a situation that was far-from stable has been destabilised even further.

Like most ongoing and seemingly never-ending conflicts, the Turkish-Kurdish grievance has a vintage of centuries rather than decades; it is rooted in ancient enmities stretching back to the Ottoman era, though the establishment of the modern state of Turkey following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of WWI was the foundation stone of the PKK cause. Kurds have always seen themselves as second-class citizens in the eyes of their Turkish overlords, and Erdogan’s attitude in flexing his military muscles almost parallels Putin’s desire to recreate past glories – something that places Kurds back in their traditionally subservient role.

Purely by coincidence, I happen to be currently reading ‘Middlesex’ by Jeffrey Eugenides, a novel that has bugger-all to do with an extinct English county, but begins with the chaos during the Turkish destruction of the ancient city of Smyrna in 1922 – a Greek enclave burnt to a cinder at the end of the Greco-Turkish War, with an estimated death toll ranging from 10,000 to 100,000. Most of the victims were Greek and Armenian. An early example of how warlike Turkish appetites remained intact despite the redrawing of the Middle Eastern map, the tragedy of Smyrna to outsiders a hundred years on is reduced to little more than a footnote in a saga that has added innumerable atrocities since; but it serves as a reminder of how far we haven’t travelled in a century.

The YPG alliance with Arab militias, along with accompanying American air-strikes, has successfully expelled ISIS fighters from a quarter of Syria; given the collective name of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF – apologies for all the acronyms), this essential bulwark against Radical Islam has nevertheless left a depressingly familiar tide of refugees in its wake, most of whom Erdogan plans to house in a safe-zone ‘corridor’ he intends to establish across a vast expanse of 480km. Following the overnight removal of their US allies, the SDF has good cause not to share Erdogan’s optimism of a safe-zone along the Turkish-Syrian border; declaring it has been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Trump’s decision, the SDF predicts the Turkish President’s safe-zone will instead become a ‘permanent warzone’ reversing the hard-won victories against ISIS. Some of the images that have emerged of the region in the media these past few days appear to confirm that bleak prognosis.

At one time, I’ve no doubt I would have written something about this days ago. But like many in the west, I suspect there is an inevitable fatigue surrounding so much of what we see from the Middle East; when nothing ever appears to improve, the natural conclusion to come to is that nothing ever will, and all you can do as a detached observer is shrug your shoulders and leave ‘em to it. It seems President Trump has come to the same conclusion, though, unlike the rest of us, he was actually in a position to affect events to a degree, and he has done precisely that this week – in the worst possible way. In response to the outrage his move has provoked, Trump has backtracked a little, threatening to ‘totally destroy and obliterate’ Turkey’s economy should the incursion into Kurdish territory involve any action the President regards as ‘off limits’. But one can’t help but wonder what the limits are now.

© The Editor


Blame it on John Craven. Without ‘Newsround’, I probably wouldn’t have been aware of numerous stories that grabbed headlines when I was an otherwise disinterested schoolboy in the mid-70s, ones provoking many questions that began with the prefix ‘Mum’ or ‘Dad’. Alas, poor parents, presented with enquiries re white mercenaries heading for the Dark Continent – how to explain the presence of Brits in the likes of Angola? At that time, I had yet to hear Johnny Rotten’s reference, ‘is this the MPLA?’ due to the BBC’s post-Grundy blanket ban of ‘Anarchy in the UK’, and wouldn’t have got it anyway; my babysitters (largely secretaries from my father’s firm) professed more of a fondness for The Real Thing. Maybe comparisons back then were made with those who had volunteered for action in the Spanish Civil War forty years previously. Such comparisons emerged anew when Syria exploded into conflict forty years later.

There’s a difference, though. British recruits to the International Brigades of the 1930s were mostly motivated by idealistic (if naive) anti-fascist principles, whereas 70s mercenaries were motivated by money, despite attempts to paint them as heroic upholders of White Africa at a time when minority colonials were engaged in an increasingly desperate and doomed struggle to retain control over the natives and their Marxist leanings. Come the Arab Spring aftermath and the turmoil it gave birth to in Syria, however, religion reared its ugly head as the prime motivator and did so via newfangled methods of recruitment courtesy of the inter-web thingy.

It’s interesting in a week that saw sympathy for professional pissers on yet another famous grave – those whose bladders were emptied for the voyeuristic delectation of TV viewers prepared to accept their wobbly testimony against a dead man as Gospel (yes, we’ve been here before) – that concepts of innocent children groomed by knowing elders didn’t extend to those rendered stateless by their misplaced embrace of a nihilistic philosophy that even racism sniffer-dogs like Lammy and Abbott are hard-pressed to present as one more legacy of Evil White Men. Yesterday, it was confirmed that the baby born to ‘ISIS Bride’ Shamima Begum has died in the same refugee camp that his short, miserable life began in just three weeks ago.

It must be difficult for Guardian readers to fall back on favoured accusations when the blood of this unfortunate British subject is seemingly on the hands of a Home Secretary who inconveniently happens to be a Muslim. The decision of Sajid Javid to strip the baby’s mother of her citizenship has been seen by some as a cynical, populist move in a bid for the Tory leadership during the run-up to Theresa May’s imminent exit, whereas others have viewed it as another example of the Home Secretary’s ‘Coconut’ tendencies. Whichever perspective one takes, however, the refusal to retrieve Shamima Begum and her newborn from the Syrian hellhole they were discovered in by the war correspondent for the Times has now taken a tragic turn with this latest announcement.

The recruitment of deluded British Muslims to the ISIS cause in Syria four or five years back was facilitated by the same call-to-romantic-arms previously utilised by old-school paramilitary outfits such as the IRA. In the States, armchair Irish Republicans who had never set foot in the Emerald Isle gleefully contributed to the begging bowls passed around Boston bars, having being seduced by deep-rooted sentimental attachment to inherited Irishness; but (luckily for those funding ‘the revolution’) flying to Belfast to participate in person wasn’t deemed necessary. Comparisons with Brits who made the journey to Spain eighty years ago are more prescient in the case of Syria, though few of those 30s idealists rushed to join the fascist cause; the prevailing aim was to fight fascism. In contrast, home-grown ISIS recruits were knowingly signing-up to a blatantly barbaric death cult that had never shied away from publicising its methods of madness; nobody, however young, naive or gullible, could have responded to the ISIS cry for help utterly ignorant of what it would ultimately entail. Shamima Begum showed herself to be a resourceful young woman far from clueless when she embarked on her backpacking gap-year with a difference, despite being legally defined as a child. She’s still only just 19, yet is now stateless, and has three dead babies to her name. At least she’s one 19-year-old who can’t blame Brexit for ‘stealing her future’.

In the recent blitz of media coverage afforded this articulate adolescent since her discovery, the absence of remorse in her account of her Jihadi holiday convinced many that bringing her back would sow seeds of future atrocities on home soil. Had she sought public redemption by shedding tears and pleading for forgiveness in the manner of a disgraced celebrity coached by Max Clifford before the late PR guru was hoisted by his own petard, perhaps the assertion that she poses no threat to the UK would have sealed her return; post-Diana, few emotional gestures provoke a sympathetic response in Brits more than the waterworks. Instead, like a disability claimant failing an ATOS assessment, Begum forgot to play the victim and has therefore faced the harshest consequences.

The complicated case of Shamima Begum and what to do with her has presented politicians with many problems, and in the process has exposed some double standards in the definition of children. If, rather than volunteering for Holy War service, Begum had been involved in a sexual relationship with her teacher when weeks away from her 16th birthday, she would have been viewed as an innocent, blameless victim of grooming and regarded as unable to distinguish between consent and rape. Yet, the fact she made her way to join ISIS in Syria as a 15-year-old by cannily using her older sister’s passport appears to negate the blameless innocence that would have applied in the aforementioned other circumstances. Yes, the facts suggest she knowingly endorsed the philosophy of an organisation committed to eradicating western civilisation – one responsible for the deaths of many of Begum’s countrymen and women; but surely the indoctrination she received presumably online and (possibly) within her own community is a classic case of grooming as so severely defined in other areas of the law?

Blair’s disastrous faith schools policy and the willingness of police and politicians to leave ‘them’ to their own devices when it comes to education and designs for life for fear of being labelled racist or Islamophobic has helped engineer the situation that allows some Muslim communities to be effectively governed in the style of Mafiosi Sicily or the East End during the reign of the Krays. It has enabled hate preachers to have a platform or underage white girls to be repeatedly abused by gangs or a 15-year-old Muslim schoolgirl to voluntarily put herself in one of the most dangerous environments on the planet. Sadly, the multicultural fault-lines run much deeper than one person stripped of her nationality or one freshly buried baby.

© The Editor


Well, after all the endless gossip of a mutual admiration society between The Donald and Vlad, not to mention persistent accusations of Russian interference in last year’s US Presidential Election – both of which have been recycled by Trump’s opponents at home for months – one wonders what Mr Putin’s opinion of the President is now. American-led coalition airstrikes against Jihadists in Syria have been an under-reported element of the Syrian Civil War since 2014, but the deliberate targeting of one of Assad’s airfields by US missiles in the early hours of this morning is the first time the Americans have attacked government forces. Where this leaves opinion on western involvement in the Syrian conflict, not to mention US-Russian relations, is probably too early to speculate; but it’s fair to say the Kremlin isn’t happy.

Russia has called the American strike that struck Shayrat airbase at 1.40 GMT ‘an act of aggression against a sovereign nation’ – unlike annexing Crimea, then? All the doom-laden predictions that Moscow would be pulling the strings of a puppet President in the White House appear a tad premature now. The Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said: ‘Instead of the previously touted idea of a joint fight against the main enemy – the Islamic State – the Trump Administration has shown that it will carry out a fierce battle against the lawful government of Syria’. Russia has also suspended a joint air safety agreement between it and the US in Syria as a result.

It would seem the appalling nature of events in Khan Shiekhoun on Tuesday has prompted a change to American foreign policy re Syria, certainly where Trump is concerned. From the off, he has repeatedly stressed domestic issues were at the top of his agenda, and his suspected softness towards Putin suggested he’d steer clear of Syria. But a President with such a swaggering personality and combative approach to governance was clearly presented with the kind of challenge to flex his muscles on the world stage that he couldn’t resist.

Not that this familiar Trump persona was the one on display in the press conference he gave following confirmation of the attack. Unusually – though not unexpectedly, considering the circumstances – subdued, the President didn’t mince his words and seemed to suggest America was acting on behalf of all nations who attributed the nerve gas bombing to Assad. Most nations were rightly appalled by what happened in Khan Shiekhoun, but even when Trump called on ‘all civilised nations’ to contribute towards ending the conflict, everybody knew only one would be prepared to react to Tuesday’s incident with force.

Caution has characterised the western powers’ attitude towards Syria, as though everyone was holding their tongues, waiting for America to make the first move; Obama preferred the sneaky drone game, essentially military involvement through the back door, but his successor has now stated his case in a far more decisive manner. If today’s target was indeed the same airbase from which Tuesday’s chemical attack was launched, then Trump has certainly laid down the gauntlet. What next, though? Rather worryingly, a Oklahoma Senator who praised the President’s actions hinted the attack should herald the rebuilding of the US military after Obama’s budget cuts in order that America can achieve ‘peace through strength’, the old Republican call-to-arms catchphrase.

In 2017, Vietnam is now probably too distant a memory for many to recall with the shudder it provoked for decades, but the shadow of Iraq is still a potent influence on the Commander in Chief’s decision when it comes to where US forces are deployed today. I doubt Trump would want to commit ‘boots-on-the-ground’ in Syria any more than his predecessor wanted to, but airstrikes don’t send body-bags back to American airfields. Launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles from two US Navy destroyers in the Mediterranean is a shrewder option when there remains such reluctance to send in the troops.

Every western country that dispatched soldiers to Iraq has subsequently shied away from repeating the same mistake in Syria, though some would argue this has enabled Assad (with the invaluable assistance of Russia) to continue getting away with murder. There was a proposal put forward two or three years back, particularly where British recruits to the fight against Assad were concerned, that the situation was comparable to the Spanish Civil War, when the International Brigades recruited multinational volunteers to the anti-fascist cause as many western powers preferred inactive neutrality. Perhaps the memory of the First World War was still strong in the minds of western leaders back then, just as Iraq is today.

Not all parallels with the Spanish Civil War stand up to scrutiny, but I suppose one could say that in that conflict, Nazi Germany effectively played the Russia to Franco’s Assad, with the Luftwaffe’s role in the bombing of Guernica a barbaric test-run for the horrors to come. However, what did follow in the same year the Spanish Civil War ended is hardly the most optimistic comparison one can make with what might follow Syria. We can only hope history’s habit of repeating itself takes a break for once.

© The Editor


The use of chemicals in warfare is almost as old as warfare itself; centuries before scientific advancement was able to produce man-made chemicals on an industrial scale, the Ancient civilisations of China, India and Greece were experimenting with ‘organic gases’ derived from toxic vegetables with a view to them being weapons. One of the earliest recorded uses of chemical weapons dates from the third century (AD) siege of Dura Europos, when bitumen and sulphur crystals were lit to create lethal sulphur dioxide smoke deployed against the invading Roman army. There’s a sad irony to the location of this landmark event – modern-day Syria.

Yesterday’s chemical incident in Khan Shiekhoun in the Indlib province of Northern Syria so far has a body count of 52 adults and 20 children; it is the first widely reported example of chemical warfare in Syria since the appalling 2013 massacre in Ghouta, which left hundreds dead. Once again, President Assad denies responsibility; his invaluable ally Russia admitted that Syrian aircraft bombed areas of Khan Shiekhoun, but attributes the deaths to the unintended striking of a rebel chemical weapons factory. Few are buying this story, with one chemical weapons expert rubbishing the idea a nerve gas could have spread in the way it did via an airstrike on a factory producing it.

News footage of those fleeing the attack shows symptoms consistent with exposure to nerve agents, choking and foaming at the mouth; some witnesses also claim the hospitals where the victims were being treated were then targeted by government airstrikes. There’s nothing quite like kicking somebody when they’re down, is there? The evidence of chemical weapons being used once more in the Syrian conflict is undeniable, though nobody wants to claim responsibility, least of all Assad.

The chemical in question is suspected to be sarin, production and stockpiling of which was outlawed twenty years ago. As a substance, it’s so nasty that even a small dose can kill; it’s estimated that sarin in its purest form is 26 times more lethal than bloody cyanide. The time it takes to do the business depends on the extent of inhalation, but the average is stated as being between one and ten minutes. Even a non-lethal dose can inflict potentially permanent neurological damage, whereas death by sarin is especially gruesome. After the runny nose, tight chest, inability to breathe, nausea and drooling come vomiting and involuntary defecation and urination, followed by the final comatose condition which ends with suffocation via convulsive spasms – and all within the space of ten minutes. As far as a way to go goes, it’s fair to say there are less horrible endings one could endure.

We have the development of modern chemistry in the nineteenth century to thank for chemical warfare as we recognise it today, though it was inevitable any scientific breakthrough would be utilised by man for malignant means. During the Crimean War, the Secretary of the Science and Art Department (yes, there really was one), the wonderfully-named Lyon Playfair, proposed the manufacture of cyanide artillery shells because he seemingly thought it a more humane way of killing the enemy. His proposal was rejected, though the horrific potential of chemical weaponry caused such concern that the Hague Declaration of 1899 attempted to outlaw the use of projectiles ‘the sole object of which is the diffusion of asphyxiating or deleterious gases’. All the major powers ratified the declaration except the US.

However, neither the Hague Declaration of 1899 nor the Hague Convention of 1907 prevented the use of chemical weaponry in the First World War. The French initiated the practice, swiftly followed by the Germans; by the end of the Great War, it’s estimated around 1.3 million casualties could be attributed to chemical warfare. Between the wars, and despite the damage done by chemical weapons, gas was used to suppress native rebellions in European colonies as well as during the Russian Civil War, though the 1925 Geneva Protocol pledged to never use gas in warfare again. The Western allies upheld this during the Second World War and even Nazi Germany refrained from it, though the Japanese had used it against Chinese forces before 1939.

The fear of gas being used in WWII led to the widespread distribution of gasmasks and it has subsequently been revealed that mustard gas was stockpiled in the event of a German invasion of Britain. It was also intended to be used by RAF Bomber Command should the Germans have resorted to it to repel the D-Day Landings. Thankfully, none of these scenarios arose, though post-war uses of chemical weapons were said to have occurred in the likes of North Yemen, Rhodesia, Vietnam and Angola before its resurgence during the Iran-Iraq War.

The return of chemical warfare in such a high-profile conflict as Syria has shocked the world, though in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, Assad was clearly so desperate to cling onto power that it appeared he would stoop to anything. The support of Russia in this clinging onto power has enabled Assad to stay put; and when he again resorts to tactics that are below the belt even in such a bloody warzone as Syria, Assad knows Putin’s backseat driving is his greatest asset.

Russia has the power to veto any resolution on the issue by the UN Security Council, claiming a draft resolution already proposed would pre-empt the results of any investigation into the incident and automatically lay the blame at the door of its Syrian sidekick. Heaven forbid! If, as most outside of Russia believe, Assad is capable of using chemical weapons on his own people, he’s hardly unique amongst dictators; a certain sadistic despot in Iraq did likewise a few years ago, after all. But when the world’s attention seems permanently focused on Syria, it does seem remarkable that Assad (if indeed he is guilty) can get away with such a crime again; but he got away with it before.

© The Editor


cunt-2The decision of the ‘Newsnight’ production team and presenters to take an early holiday as of last Friday seemed to suggest 2016 had finished slinging shit at the world; paid vacations for BBC freeloaders doesn’t mean the most unpleasant twelve months in living memory has completed its catalogue of carnage, however, as yesterday’s events both in the centre and on the fringes of Europe indicated in the worst possible way. The assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey in full view of TV cameras, swiftly followed by another horrible massacre – this time on the streets of a city with its fair share of past atrocities, Berlin – confirmed this year’s obituaries have been prematurely penned.

Not dissimilar to the gruesome scenes that accompanied the murder of Lee Rigby three years ago, the brazen pride in the killer of Andrei Karlov as he waved his weapon and ranted whilst the dying ambassador lay at his feet was an irredeemably ugly exhibition that suggested the secular constitution of Turkey isn’t merely under threat from the country’s dictatorial President Erdogan. The assassin, disconcertingly dressed like an extra from ‘Reservoir Dogs’, was apparently a serving police officer who quickly met the same fate as the man he shot in the back once Turkish security forces gate-crashed the incongruous surroundings of the Ankara art gallery where the murder took place.

Turkey has been a tense nation (to put it mildly) since the failed coup several months ago, but the ongoing crisis in Syria has added to the strained relations between the Turks and the Russians; lest we forget, it was only a year ago that a Russian warplane was shot down by Turkey on the border with Syria. As Syria is on Turkey’s doorstep, a leader who makes no bones about his religious leanings, not to mention having purged the police, armed forces and judiciary of his enemies, is hardly in a position to dissuade his underlings from expressing similar beliefs with the kind of violent force Russia has unsurprisingly labelled ‘terrorism’.

Barely had the international community had the chance to react to that awful act before news began breaking of the latest slaughter of civilians on a European street. Echoing appalling events in Nice last July, the same method of murder was employed in an effort to maximise the body count, i.e. a lorry ploughing pedestrians down. Mercifully, the numbers killed at the Berlin Christmas Market were far lower than the 89 in France, but the incident will no doubt place further pressure upon Frau Merkel and her benign approach to immigration on the eve of a General Election in Germany, not to mention gifting Madame le Pen a fresh batch of headlines rich in exploitative potential when she prepares to sell herself to France’s own electorate next year.

Neither incident yesterday has yet to be connected to ISIS or any other Middle Eastern paramilitary organisation with a grudge against the west, though the one in Berlin does bear all the hallmarks. Mevlut Mert Altintas, the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, had included the words ‘Syria’ and ‘Aleppo’ in his post-assassination rant as well as the popular Radical Islam catchphrase ‘Allahu Akbar’, yet his actions seem more reflective of anti-Assad, anti-Russia/pro-Syrian Rebel Forces protests in Turkey over the days leading up to the murder rather than any suggestions of ISIS sympathies. Nevertheless, all major European cities are on high alert again, anticipating sleeper cells being triggered into action by news from Berlin in particular.

If 2016 has taught us anything it’s that all the worst bits of 2015 have simply been taken to the next level, and there’s little evidence that 2017 will see any improvement. Those keen to see the back of this year will probably find next year just as gloomy, but to turn Harold Macmillan’s trademark sound-bite on its head and say we’ve never had it so bad is to betray an ignorance of the past. The world has been here before, but I suppose to anyone born after, say, 1985, the current global turmoil is unprecedented within that short lifetime.

On a trivial, mildly inconvenient level, the concerns that claim tabloid column inches such as train and postal strikes were considerably more far-reaching forty-odd years ago. In the case of Southern Rail’s ongoing chaos, a nationalised railway industry would have seen the entire nationwide workforce come out in solidarity with their London colleagues and the whole country would have been affected over the Christmas holidays rather than just the capital and its Metroland commuter belt. But I wouldn’t expect people who weren’t even a twinkle in the milkman’s eye in 1974 to grasp that fact. Equally, the Daily Mail mindset that is forever lecturing those struggling in a zero-hours minimum wage ghetto where owning one’s home is a pipe-dream merely shows how long some have resided in a cosseted cocoon from the harsh realities of trying to make an honest living when wages and prices are such distant bedfellows.

It would be jumping the gun to compare 2016 to other seismic shifts in the world order – 1848 being the most obvious; a degree of distance is really required in order to measure the after-effects once the dust has settled, and we’re still too in the thick of it to make neat summaries of how this or that event altered things forever thereafter. But the pace of change, and the periodic bursts of violence that have characterised the change as it has unfolded with relentless aggression would, as I pointed out in a post a few months ago, make for a cracking edition of ‘The Rock n Roll Years’ were we lucky enough to have some decent Rock n Roll; that we’re not seems to emphasise the absence of alternatives to the grim world about us; we’ve had to make do with overgrown school-kids dressing as clowns and people playing at statues for yet another tedious selfie fad; so much for cultural salvation.

Anyway, as the previous post attracted little in the way of attention, I’m optimistic enough to put that down to people having several distractions during a time of year when there are numerous demands on their time rather than attributing it to an especially uninspiring piece of writing. With that in mind, it’s probably best if I take a few days off myself – not that I don’t expect something else characteristically awful to occur before we hit January 1; and if it does, I’ll probably be compelled to comment, whether or not anyone is listening. Merry Xmas everybody.

© The Editor


reporterWatching the dreadful deterioration of Syria on television last night, it was noticeable that on-the-spot coverage was restricted to a BBC voiceover accompanying images largely produced as propaganda by the Assad regime; the nearest BBC cameras or personnel could get to Aleppo was posting a reporter in Beirut. It reminded me that one distinct change to the way in which wars are reported today via the media – especially where the Middle East is concerned – is that the mainstream media has effectively been removed from the battlefield. Nobody with a choice would want to be in Aleppo right now, but at one time there’d always be the TV reporter on the frontline.

Indeed, when one sees footage from the likes of Vietnam or Biafra in the 60s, what seems especially striking is the fact that the men with the microphones addressing the camera look as though they’re dressed for eighteen holes in the middle of July – not even wearing a tin helmet. By the time of Iraq, awareness of health and safety (not to mention the high cost of insurance) had belatedly alerted TV companies to the dangers of bringing battles into the living room and war correspondents were fully decked-out in military gear; even that didn’t prevent the death of ITN reporter Terry Lloyd in 2003, however.

The effective model for the media war correspondent as we used to know him was William Howard Russell, the Irish journalist who famously covered the Crimean War for the Times, including the Charge of the Light Brigade. Russell’s reports from the frontline reached London courtesy of the telegraph, considerably speeding up the gap between events in ‘far-away lands’ and publication of them at home. His depictions of the realities of war were particularly significant in that the Crimea was the first military engagement on European soil that Britain had been engaged in since Waterloo, half-a-century earlier; more than one generation had been raised on the legends of the Napoleonic Wars, with distance and victory cloaking conflict in valour and glory. Advances in technology and a gifted writer portrayed war with a brutal immediacy it had never previously received in terms of public consumption.

Russell was later dispatched to other notable nineteenth century warzones in India, America, Prussia and France, setting the bar high for future war correspondents not just in the print medium, but in its eventual successor, radio. Richard Dimbleby became a household name in the UK following his moving description of the liberation of Belsen for the BBC in 1945, reaching homes on the wireless before the actual images made it to the cinema newsreels; for such a discredited profession as journalism it’s worth remembering some in that trade were prepared to risk life and limb to get their stories to the public, and this continued into the television age.

Many who later became known as desk-bound newsreaders or in-studio presenters had achieved early success as our man in dangerous locations; the likes of Michael Nicholson, John Humphrys, Jon Snow and even Michael Parkinson cut their television teeth as roving reporters, and there remained an almost noble element to the foreign correspondent if he happened to be on a rather rocky foreign field and remained determined to let us know what was happening there. Lest we forget, there were women too, and it’s certainly hard to imagine Kate Adie being allowed to broadcast from Tiananmen Square were 1989’s events taking place today.

Two crucial factors to have emerged in the last half-decade or so have changed the face of war reporting and effectively curtailed the once-pivotal role of the TV war correspondent – social media and Radical Islam.

The majority of reports to contradict the pro-Putin and Assad perspective coming out of Syria have stemmed from civilians under fire, utilising Facebook and Twitter to broadcast their own personal experience from inside the lion’s den. Bar a tiny handful of freelancers on the fringes, the traditional war correspondent has been absent from the frontline. The Arab Spring of 2011 was the first Middle Eastern event in which the people involved were able to describe what was happening as it happened, with the democratisation of digital technology giving them an instantaneous advantage over TV coverage so that the big stories had already been broken online by the participants before the western reporter even went on air. And once the Arab Spring quickly descended into dispiriting cycles of aborted revolutions, military coups and bloody civil wars, the people continued to report on them.

Whilst that could be seen as healthy competition to the more conventional methods, the increasing threat to the lives of overseas journalists present in the world’s most troubled hot-spots has undoubtedly played a more significant part in the changes. When one considers how valuable a coup capturing a western reporter has become for the likes of ISIS, it’s no wonder both broadcasters and the correspondents themselves are so reluctant to cross into enemy lines anymore. If the natives are able to articulate the reality of what is going on by directly addressing the online community, the role of the reporter in transmitting their own more detached perspective via TV can be regarded as redundant on one hand and too damned risky on the other.

The heartbreaking online testimonies of those anticipating imminent death, regardless of brief ceasefires or whichever side ‘liberates’ what remains of Aleppo, could well have called time on the war correspondent. The concept of a human tragedy relayed by an outsider-cum-tourist seems irrelevant when we’re being spoken to directly by somebody not just living on the frontline but in the firing line.

© The Editor


lewisLike it or not, cities under siege have always been a regular aspect of warfare, from Londonderry in the seventeenth century to Stalingrad and Sarajevo in the twentieth; there are countless other accidental fortresses that could be listed, but if we are to set our time machines for 2016, the city unfortunate enough to be subject to that unenviable status is Aleppo, historically Syria’s largest metropolis and one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited cities. Archaeological records show that it has been populated since at least the 3rd millennium BC, which makes it all the more sad that one of the goons so dim that he made the other contenders in the US Presidential primaries seem like leading intellectuals didn’t even know what Aleppo was.

The constantly shifting geographical changes in the region, such as the advent of the Suez Canal in the late nineteenth century and the encroachment of Turkey into Syria following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, had somewhat isolated Aleppo whilst helping to preserve its numerous antiquities in the process. Being awarded the Islamic Capital of Culture award ten years ago underlined Aleppo’s pioneering place at the heart of ancient human civilisation, yet recent events in Syria have turned a jewel in Islam’s cultural crown into a charnel house of death and destruction that we probably won’t know the true horrific extent of until the shooting has stopped.

Different reports put the death toll of this week’s heaviest bombardment of Aleppo somewhere between 25 and 45, and that was on just the one day. Opposing sides in the conflict release contrasting figures in order to suit their own agenda, whereas even independent observers struggle to compile accurate statistics due to the chaos on the ground. Just a couple of months ago, viewers of ‘Newsnight’ were witness to a remarkable life-saving operation undertaken in an Aleppo hospital basement which was dictated via Skype by a surgeon in London, but even that level of inspired improvisation seems impossible now.

A UN envoy this week declared Aleppo risks becoming ‘one giant graveyard’ during an emergency meeting of the Security Council, yet the current carnage in Syria once again highlights the impotence and absolute inability of the UN to make any difference to the lives of those caught in the middle of a bloody conflict, just as it has failed to do throughout its seventy-year existence.

When the roll-call of casualties and fatalities in the Syrian Civil War and a comprehensive account of the bloodshed inflicted upon Aleppo are neatly compiled into a book a decade or so from now, the thousands of names lost as a consequence will melt into each other so that only the survivors will recognise them. Buried amongst the tragically anonymous will be the name of Anas al-Basha, whose death as the result of a Russian-sponsored Syrian Government airstrike on Aleppo was announced yesterday.

Anas al-Basha wasn’t one of those western gap-year gits who volunteer to work in some of the world’s trouble spots solely to add some gravitas to their CVs despite spending the majority of their time there getting pissed and generally doing bugger all to improve the situation. In contrast with some of the jokers dressing as clowns and causing a momentary moral panic both in the UK and US, al-Basha donned the same costume not to scare the shit out of strangers in some overgrown schoolboy prank, but to put a smile on the faces of the children subjected to the relentless pounding the city has received over the last few months – of which there are an estimated 100, 000.

One could be cynical and come to the conclusion that a city without any functioning hospitals and dwindling food supplies doesn’t necessarily need a home-grown volunteer clad in clown gear to inject some silliness into a nightmarish scenario; but the fact that al-Basha was prepared to stay put when 25,000 have fled, purely to bring a little cheer into lives without any at all, shows how the human instinct to laugh in the face of extreme adversity cannot even be extinguished by circumstances that would test the funny bone of the most committed comedian. What Anas al-Basha was doing was, to put it as simply as possible, something selfless and rather nice. It would have been easy (not to say understandable) had he joined the exodus from Aleppo when confronted by the kind of pounding few could tolerate on a daily basis, but he saw a way to temporarily alleviate unimaginable anguish and went for it. And now he’s dead.

At a time when words such as ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ are severely devalued by being bandied about carelessly to describe pawns in an exploitative game who shed tears on daytime TV when recalling alleged events that took place decades ago, it’s worth remembering that in the here and now there are people in the world who are making the ultimate sacrifice just for the sake of raising a smile. They don’t beg for sympathy with puppy-dog eyes and they don’t give half-a-dozen idle police forces the excuse to spurn current crimes in favour of fishing expeditions to the safe haven of the past; they do what they do because they have a heart and they place the happiness of others above their own selfish concerns. If only the serial protestors could switch their attention to the real issues instead of hysteria over trivia, perhaps Aleppo could figure higher on their radar than it currently does.

Come the Syrian Day of Judgement, one would like to think the guilty will answer for their crimes, even if the example of Nuremburg has been distilled by the slo-mo legalities of The Hague. Chances are the contributions of Anas al-Basha to the pitiful peace process probably won’t figure as an antidote to the list of atrocities on both sides, but sometimes it’s worth noting those who put their neck on the line because they came face-to-face with man’s inhumanity to man and did what they could to neutralise its appalling effect upon the next generation of extremists. We can but hope.

© The Editor


image1It’s always entertaining when a morally-reprehensible entity ascends the moral high-ground. Anyone who was around in the mid-90s will recall the memorably inappropriate ‘Back to Basics’ slogan of John Major’s Tory Government, promoted by numerous hypocritical dishonourable members, many of whom were shortly exposed as philanderers and crooks after laying the blame of society’s ills at the door of easy targets lower down the social scale. Fast-forward twenty years or more and we are told NatWest has frozen the British bank accounts of Russia Today, the pro-Putin English language TV channel that is to the Kremlin what Fox News is to the Republican Party.

NatWest is part of the Royal Bank of Scotland group, which is perhaps the archetypal appalling financial institution of our times. Under the stewardship of Fred Goodwin, RBS played a key role in the financial meltdown of 2008 and was one of the banks pulled from the brink by the rescue package masterminded by Gordon Brown’s Chancellor Alistair Darling. However, almost as soon as Goodwin fled into exile news broke that he would continue to earn £703,000 a year in his retirement.

It emerged that had Goodwin been simply fired by RBS instead of taking early retirement, his annual pension would have been the considerably lower amount of £416,000 (and not accessible until he was 60); but had the Government’s rescue package not saved RBS from extinction, then Goodwin’s pension would have been £28,000 a year and not payable until he reached 65; Goodwin had ‘retired’ aged just 50 and cannily exploited the system in his retirement as much as he had during his tenure on the throne. Although his annual pension was subsequently reduced, this only came about after Goodwin had already (allegedly) received a £2.7 million tax-free lump sum.

As if such unsavoury headlines weren’t enough, RBS was later exposed as no more trustworthy post-Goodwin than it had been during his reign; the scandal of RBS’s Global Restructuring Group, which had purported to be a non-profit venture to aid struggling client companies and was recently revealed as another sneaky cash-cow, buying shares, equity and property before selling them on and making a handsome profit, has painted RBS in a further unseemly light. That it has now decided to take a moral stand against a broadcaster with its own questionable moral agenda provokes the same despairing feelings that appear when watching the Trump/Clinton clashes.

Russia Today – or RT as its UK branch prefers to be known – was launched in this country just two years ago this month. The parent company is based in Moscow, though the version British viewers receive is transmitted from studios at Millbank Tower in London. Despite the hostile press Putin’s Russia is subject to in the UK, his regime has many friends within Parliament and RT boasts a weekly show by maverick Lefty agent-provocateur George Galloway as well as the admittedly humorous satirical rants of comedy news reporter Jonathan Pie. Although only transmitting four hours a day from London, the rest of the programming on the channel comprises other English language shows from RT’s overseas outposts, such as RT America, including veteran US political broadcaster Larry King.

From the moment it was launched, RT UK was subject to vociferous criticism from both ends of Fleet Street; The Times referred to it as a ‘den of deceivers’ and The Observer called it a ‘prostitution of journalism’. The fact that the majority of the most popular British newspapers have traditionally served as mouthpieces for the Conservative Party has unsurprisingly evaded being pointed out amidst the condemnation of RT by the UK press.

Broadcasting regulator Ofcom has also levelled criticism at RT for its failure to advocate impartiality where Russia is concerned; even before its British incarnation appeared, Russia Today’s UK correspondent Sara Firth had resigned due to the biased coverage of the MH17 tragedy, and Ofcom promised preemptive sanctions if further breaches of Britain’s broadcasting code occurred once it set up shop in London. It also upheld a complaint by the BBC over an RT accusation that the Corporation had staged a chemical weapons attack in Syria to discredit Russia’s military support of Assad and its insidious presence in the conflict.

One can only assume today’s announcement by NatWest is connected to Russia’s ongoing role in supporting (and participating in) the rape of Syria, though there has been no public explanation from the RBS group. NatWest wrote to RT in London and said ‘We have recently undertaken a review of your banking arrangements with us and reached the conclusion that we will no longer provide these facilities’, adding it was ‘not prepared to enter into any discussion’. According to RT, the freeze will not be in effect until December, though RT claims the suspension by RBS will also encompass the personal accounts of senior London RT employees.

This latest instalment in the deterioration of relations between Britain and Russia is a curious development, instigated by a company whose own code of conduct is hardly beyond reproach. Perhaps RBS views such a move as a means of cleaning up its image; imposing superficial punishment upon a media outlet for a horrible regime is a strange decision, particularly for a banking institution whose usual attitude towards the general public is one that Putin probably wholeheartedly approves of.

© The Editor