Friday, 16 December 2016

My op-ed for The Telegraph on the failure of international justice in Syria in comparison to Bosnia

The Telegraph


Hoping to prosecute the butchers of Aleppo is a sad fig leaf for the West's failure to intervene in Syria


15 DECEMBER 2016 • 4:33PM

The nightmare in Aleppo has coincided with the trial of former Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic in The Hague reaching its concluding arguments. Given that the UK and other Western countries are collecting evidence for possible future prosecutions for war crimes in Syria, including through the use of drones and satellites as the BBC reported yesterday, we should consider what scope exists for international justice in that country.

A comparison with the 1992-1995 Bosnia conflict shows up the devastating extent of our non-intervention in Syria. Many reading this will remember watching in horror as Western powers appeared to hide behind the buck-passing "civil war" descriptor while ethnic cleansing and genocide raged. "Srebrenica" and "Sarajevo" became emblazoned in our minds as examples of humanity's failure to act, much as "Aleppo" has today. Yet relative to Syria, Bosnia saw a massive degree of military intervention by the West. European powers led UNPROFOR'sdeployment of 38,000 personnel, including ground troops, at the beginning of the conflict, with a UN mandate to protect “safe havens” and “no-fly zones”. Contrast this with our public declaration that we would never use ground troops in Syria and the desperate pleas from our MPs for even minimal airdrops in this week’s emergency debate.

Bosnia benefited from US leadership, albeit belated. As the Bosnian Serbs continued their brutal actions, the Americans, frustrated at Europe’s failure on their own "doorstep", intervened decisively by leading a huge NATO air campaign to end the war. The resulting 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement set in train a comprehensive international effort towards reconstruction and the minimisation of inter-ethnic conflict through structures such as the Office of the High Representative.

The Syrian war has seen the opposite approach from the Obama administration: resistance to arming the moderate rebels; a training programme cancelled after $500 million was reportedly spent training “four or five rebels”; refusal to use air power long before Russia deployed advanced air defences, prompting Senator John McCain to tell Radio 4 in 2012 that "If we can’t defeat the air defences of a third rate power, then I have a great apology to extend to the taxpayers of my state.” Most shamefully of all, it drew and then erased its own red line on the use of chemical weapons in 2013.

The prosecution of the likes of Mladic at the UN's International Criminal Tribunal (ICT) for the former Yugoslavia flowed from the concerted, if imperfect, Western-led, international efforts to rebuild the affected countries following a decisive military intervention and peace process. The suggestion now from Western leaders of bringing international criminal prosecutions over Syria is mere clutching at straws by those desperate to do at least something in an arena they’ve already withdrawn from. There is no guarantee that prosecutions would occur within a post-conflict Syria, given the likely influence of Assad’s allies. But even in the best-case scenario, the evidence from other ICTs is not heartening.

A quarter of a century after the horrendous crimes against humanity in Bosnia and Rwanda, only a tiny fraction of perpetrators have been prosecuted, let alone convicted. In Rwanda, only 93 people have been indicted, of whom only 62 have been convicted by the ICT, for a genocide which killed one million. In the case of the former Yugoslavia, the figures are similar, with 82 sentenced of the 154 accused to date. Noble principles stand behind these tribunals, whose staff are undoubtedly doing the best they can in difficult circumstances. However, foot soldiers or leaders engaged in war crimes are unlikely to be deterred by these conviction rates.

The most important lesson from Bosnia is that decisive intervention, backed up by long-term political and economic support for the countries concerned, can succeed in ending seemingly intractable conflicts. In Syria, the West's ability to influence events was never a matter of military or economic power, but of political will. Only after we showed that we had very little of this through our inaction did the Russians, Iranians and others assert themselves, to devastating effect.

Because of the reality on the ground and the Trump administration's likely desire to strike a deal with Russia over Syria, there is at present no realistic scope for military intervention by the West. We abdicated our responsibilities and other actors filled the vacuum. Throughout the West, politicians of all parties are examining their consciences: Ed Miliband and many Labour MPs for failing to give the Prime Minister sufficient support for military action in the crucial 2013 vote, and leading members of the Cabinet in the last Parliament for not arguing more forcefully for a robust response.

Opponents of intervention such as Jeremy Corbyn often cling to concepts like international justice and human rights as an alternative. It is patently clear that these concepts are not worth the paper they're written on if they're not enforced. Now, it seems that our politicians generally are reduced to issuing vague threats to prosecute today’s war criminals, instead of preventing their crimes from occurring. That's an absurd fig leaf that magnifies rather than masks our collective weakness.

John Slinger is a strategic communications consultant who has worked on Middle East politics

Online at The Telegraph here.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

A void at the centre caused populism so a popular centre can oppose it

Published on Medium

Hyperventilation can be a symptom of dying or of hysteria. The response of the mainstream  commentariat and much of the political class to the alleged rise of populism (read nationalism, anti-political establishment and economic and diplomatic isolationism) is of the latter variety. Collective panic has nonetheless been strangely comforting for many, justifying emotional rather than rational responses, licensing patronising insults as righteousness, obscuring the truth and enabling the deferment of uncomfortable conversations with voters and the necessary policy-making response. The jury is out on whether it’s chicken or egg, whether great populist currents are sweeping the West or alternatively, populist politicians are opportunistically filling a void at the centre. It is more the latter and centrists must look in the mirror, take responsibility for our role and draw the conclusion that as populism grew because of a vacuum we created, it is within our power to rectify the situation.

The first step must be to debunk the received wisdom of Trumpxit that globalisation’s reliance on migration, free trade and economic specialisation has caused an indignant rage against the political and business elites which created and defend this orthodoxy. Sprinkle in social media’s ability to circumvent the filters of traditional journalism, add avowedly non-establishment leaders and “it’s the end of the world as we know it”. (As a side note, I’m not alone in regarding that classic R.E.M. 1987 hit as an anthem for 2016, with its line “Team by team reporters baffled, trumped, tethered, cropped”). We’re told that politicians as diverse as Jeremy Corbyn and Podemos on the left and Trump, UKIP and Le Pen on the right are symptoms of the same trend. This is conventional unwisdom.

In actual elections, the populists have not swept the board. In the EU referendum, the results were 52% to 48%, which Nigel Farage himself said would have meant “unfinished business” had Remain won by that margin. UKIP only have one (former Tory) MP and even under full proportional representation would be nowhere near challenging for power. In the US, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote while Donald Trump won in the electoral college.

Electoral colleges share some of the blame in the UK too, where one enabled Ed Miliband to win the Labour leadership in 2010 despite his brother winning a majority among members and MPs. Were it not for the last-minute nominations of a handful of Labour MPs in 2015, Jeremy Corbyn, a man who lacked the support of the vast majority of his parliamentary party, would not have become leader. Does this capture by the hard left of the once great Labour Party indicate relentless momentum towards a Socialist utopia? Quite the reverse: the polls suggest that Corbyn’s Labour will be trounced in a General Election, resulting in a large majority for the popular but non-populist Theresa May.

We should therefore not see Trump, Corbyn or Brexit as inevitable staging posts towards some brave new world. Instead we can see knife-edge moments on which the hinge of history has turned a little. Yet for moderate progressives, there should be no comfort in the thought that ‘victory’ was fleetingly close. These moments are the hinge but they did not open the door. Here I will take a leaf out of the playbook of the post-truth politicians and will speak from the heart, trust my gut and tell it like it is. It has largely been our fault in the centre-ground. In recent years, particularly on the centre-left, we have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, misdiagnosed problems, failed to either listen to vast swathes of voters or provide solutions to some of their main concerns and have not carried out a sufficiently heart-felt mea culpa which would quench voters’ legitimate misgivings and give us space to speak.

Beyond policy, there is the important issue of popularity. The centre-left has failed to ensure that sufficiently strong, popular and charismatic leaders reached the top positions. In the US post-Obama and in the UK post-Blair, the centre-left appeared to take electoral success for granted. It shouldn’t require a politics degree to understand that victory only came when the leadership possesses both outstanding communication skills and the right policy platform. Had Labour not snubbed the voters’ verdict by moving leftwards in 2010 and 2015, had the Democratic Party chosen a candidate who wasn’t so closely associated with the establishment and had there been more ‘big beasts’ advocating our membership of the EU for the last decade and a better campaign, things could have turned out differently.

These disappointments must not lead to defeatism but instead realism and optimism. Realism, because they show that political outcomes are not inevitable and are not the result of amorphous ‘waves’ of populism, or any other ‘ism’. Weakness at the centre is not the result of populism, it is the primary cause of it, because it feeds voters’ doubts that centrist politicians can improve their lot and makes the populists’ silky-toned, simplistic promise of panacea more attractive. Optimism, because even with the man-made disaster of the vacuum at the centre, moderates have not been defeated.

We have conceded much territory through our own inaction. With the right kind of action, the centre can win again. Despite the manifest problems facing the Labour Party under the control of the hard left and the unrepresentatively small number of Lib Dem MPs, there is a growing sense on the centre-left and even in parts of the Conservative Party, that muscular moderates must work together to rebuild a centre which is credible in the eyes of voters. It is early days yet, but a space must be created and links established where like-minded people within and outside parties can coalesce and organise. I’m confident that in the months and years ahead, this will happen. Let’s not forget that the second half of the title of the R.E.M. song is “and I feel fine”.