Bob Fisk’s fact-free polemics on Syria

Robert Fisk — or to mirror the style of his latest missive, let’s just call him Bob — is convinced there aren’t 70,000 “moderate” opposition fighters in Syria, contrary to the recent assertion of Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron.

Bob doesn’t present a conflicting data set — a different analysis of the makeup of the opposition. Instead, his position rests on two pieces of reasoning.

Firstly, Bob asserts, if such a force did exist, “it would already have captured Damascus and hurled Bashar al-Assad from power.”

Assad is still in power. It therefore follows that the 70,000 fighters don’t exist. Impeccable reasoning, some might say.

Secondly, “Who’s ever heard before of a ‘moderate’ with a Kalashnikov?” This he presents as a rhetorical question on the basis that “moderates” would be “folk who don’t carry weapons at all.”

Bob declines to label all those opposition fighters who by virtue of carrying weapons, can’t as far as he is concerned be called moderates, but the obvious antonym would be extremists. Since his father, Bill, gun in hand, fought in the trenches in World War One, would that have made him an extremist too?

I guess not, because the terms “moderate” or “extremist” apparently only apply to people fighting without close direction from their own government. A government, however little political legitimacy it possesses, can apparently deploy “ground troops” — a “regular force” that meets Bob’s approval. Approval of what, I’m not sure. Men in government-issued uniforms?

There are few problems with the logic here — problems that I hope many readers would see as glaring.

Firstly, as even the most casual observers should have long been aware, throughout this war the Assad regime has maintained uncontested rule throughout Syrian airspace.

The U.S.-led air campaign against ISIS, once it expanded inside Syria, did so without objections from the Syrian government and thus there have been no clashes between what are ostensibly rival air forces. Likewise, Russian jets now support Assad’s forces and their allies on the ground.

The fact that not a single component of the opposition possesses an air force and neither do any possess surface-to-air missiles in any significant numbers, is precisely what has allowed the Assad regime to conduct its air operations using one of the crudest methods of warfare: dropping barrel bombs from helicopters.

These assaults, along with bombs dropped by air force jets, along with its use of the bulk of heavy weapons on the ground, are the reason Assad has not been driven out of Damascus.

Secondly, if the defining characteristic of an extremist is that he carries a Kalashnikov, wouldn’t that also make Assad’s own troops extremists since they too carry the same Russian weapons?

As a veteran war reporter, Robert Fisk enjoys an international reputation built on a career of fearless journalism — such as his account of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in 1982. But these days, unfortunately, his interest in reporting seems to have waned as he coasts along, buoyed by the authority which derives from his earlier work.

Still, when it comes to this question about the numerical strength of the so-called moderate opposition in Syria, it’s predictable and understandable that Fisk would choose to frame this as a debate between a seasoned Middle East journalist and a British prime minister.

We all know perfectly well that Cameron is, as the English would say, batting on a sticky wicket. Who can fail to have suspicions that this PM might be drawing his information from yet another “dodgy dossier”?

Fortunately, there’s no reason to reduce this issue to a question about who you want to believe: Cameron or Fisk?

Unlike early in 2003, when the war in Iraq had yet to be launched and its alleged necessity was based on the sketchiest intelligence, the situation in Syria can be analyzed without relying solely on deductive reasoning, wild speculation, and dubious sources.

There are well-informed, independent analysts who have neither a political ax to grind, nor a journalistic image to sustain, nor cozy relations with senior government officials to maintain, and far from dismissing Cameron’s claim, they say it’s accurate and flesh out their position in detail.

Charles Lister acknowledges that at the core of this debate is the question of how “moderate” is defined. He identifies 105-110 factions who in combination amount to 75,000 fighters who are “explicitly nationalist in terms of their strategic vision; they are local in terms of their membership; and they seek to return to Syria’s historical status as a harmonious multi-sectarian nation in which all ethnicities, sects and genders enjoy an equal status before the law and state.”

Lister argues:

Had the West more definitively intervened in Syria early on, we would undoubtedly have more moderate, more cohesive and more natural ally-material opposition to work with. Unfortunately, things took a different path. Our subsequent obsession with the extremists and refusal to tackle Syria’s complexity has clouded our vision. A ‘moderate’ opposition in culturally attuned terms does exist in Syria, we need only open our eyes to it. Only these groups – and certainly not Assad – will ensure the real extremists such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda eventually lose their grip on power in Syria.

Kyle Orton provides some more granular detail:

In southern Syria, there are more than 30,000 fighters between the Southern Front, Al-Ittihad al-Islami li-Ajnad a-Sham, and Faylaq al-Rahman. And in western/northern Syria the vetted FSA-branded groups, Asala, The Levant Front, Zanki, and the other, largely Aleppine units add up to another 35,000. The other 10,000 fighters are in these smaller groups of strategic value.

In spite of the media and political focus on ISIS, both Lister and Orton see the larger threat in Syria emanating from al Qaeda. Orton writes:

Without a clear commitment to Assad’s ouster and meaningfully bolstering the moderate elements of the insurgency, Al-Qaeda is marching toward erecting a base of operations that is wholly integrated into the local terrain in Syria from which to wage its global holy war.

Commentators such as Robert Fisk, Patrick Cockburn and others who these days sound indistinguishable from the Israelis and the neoconservatives, may well say, al Qaeda or ISIS — what’s the difference? They’re all terrorists. They’re all fed by “the octopus” of Saudi Arabia.

What is strange and disturbing about this current of opinion is that it buttresses a sentiment which separates clarity from discrimination.

Supposedly, we can have a clear view of the situation in Syria without needing to understand any of the details. Questions about the size, strength, and nature of the complex array of forces fighting in Syria can be waved away with an air no less regal than Assad’s own dismissive gestures when he claims his enemies are all “terrorists.”


Syria’s many moderate rebels

Kyle Orton writes: In early November, the Foreign Affairs Select Committee released a report challenging the British government’s proposal to extend airstrikes from Iraq into Syria against ISIS. Among other things, the report asked for a proposed political path to ending the Syrian civil war, a necessary prerequisite to defeating ISIS. On Thursday, Prime Minister David Cameron released a response, part of which said:

Military action against ISIL will also relieve the pressure on the moderate opposition, whose survival is crucial for a successful transition to a more inclusive Syrian government. Syria has not been, and should not be, reduced to a choice between Assad or ISIL. Although the situation on the ground is complex, our assessment is that there are about 70,000 Syrian opposition fighters on the ground who do not belong to extremist groups.

This number has blown up into a major political row, with many Members of Parliament and pundits taking their personal unfamiliarity with Syria’s military landscape as evidence that it cannot be so. The Labour Opposition has made the number of non-extremist rebels a focal point of their challenge to the Prime Minister’s proposal for moving forward in Syria, and one of Cameron’s own Conservative MPs referred to the number as “magical”. The challenge to the number is part of a longer-term trend, where a narrative has become prevalent that there are no moderate opposition forces left in Syria. The corollary of this view is usually the argument that the West should side with the “secular” Assad regime as the “lesser evil” to put down a radical Islamist insurrection.

Sidestepping the ignorance that goes into believing a blatantly sectarian regime propped up by an international brigade of Shiite jihadists is secular: What of this claim that there are no moderate rebels left? [Continue reading…]


Russia’s toxic role in the fight against ISIS

Hassan Hassan writes: Nearly two months into the Russian military intervention in Syria, it should be already clear this involvement has been toxic on multiple levels. So far, the move has caused at least two high points of polarisation not only inside Syria but also in the region at large, with little to show in terms of reversing the rebels’ gains on the ground.

Moscow’s decision to intervene on the side of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad had a unifying and galvanising effect for the ­anti-government forces. In a rare show of support for the Free Syrian Army, for example, individuals affiliated to extremist forces praised western-backed groups for destroying around 20 regime tanks during the first ground offensive assisted by Russian air cover. Armed factions seem to have increasingly adjusted to the merciless Russian bombardments and managed to make a number of significant gains against the regime, primarily in southern and northern Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the only major achievement for the regime forces has been to break the siege of the Kweiris airbase between Aleppo and Raqqa, although the base was not completely secured and ISIL returned to carry out suicide attacks outside it.

In the background of this meagre performance, the Turkish military downed a Russian jet last Tuesday. Some of the responses coming out of Russia about the incident are adding ­fuel to the fire raging in the region. For example, Russian president Vladimir Putin claimed that Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan was “Islamising” Turkey – suggesting that Moscow is either unaware of the landscape in the region or arrogantly ignoring it. For its part, the Russian embassy in the UK released poster art from 1915 mocking Ottoman soldiers.

These responses only help Mr Erdogan, who has long sought to present himself as a voice for Sunni Islam in the neighbourhood and beyond. While these statements may resonate positively within Russia, they are driving more people in the region to view the Russian intervention in Syria as part of a greater effort, not just an attempt to save a desperate ally. [Continue reading…]


Raqqa exiles don’t support UK bombing ISIS: ‘The Assad regime is the main problem for us’

The Guardian reports: The cafe and everyone inside were exiles from Raqqa – the same chefs serving up Friday roast chicken and sweet tea, the same shishas and hubbub of politics – but all carried a gloss of tragedy and exhaustion.

The place had been moved wholesale, staff and menu, across the Turkish border to the city of Gaziantep after Islamic State cast its long shadow over their home town and their lives.

Most of the customers were graduates of the extremists’ brutal jails and the rest had fled Isis in fear or disgust. The arrival of a stranger triggered unease; a few weeks earlier two of their number had been murdered at home by a spy posing as another refugee.

“If we were not wanted by Isis, why would we be here?” said one fortysomething businessman, who asked to go by the name Abu Ahmad as both his sons are on the other side of a border; for him, that might as well be an ocean away. “We are here, but our hearts are there.”

With homes and families still in Isis’s de facto capital, few have more at stake in the fight against the extremist group. Yet most are wary about the prospect of Britain joining the air campaign against their bitter enemy after a year in which Isis fighters have been unsettled but not dislodged by hundreds of bombing raids.

“Can someone really be happy if his city is bombed by everyone? No,” Abu Ahmad said, with the bleak humour that many exiles share. “Everybody bombed Raqqa. Anyone who was just annoyed by their wife decided to come and bomb Raqqa. Jordan, UAE, US, Russia, France.”

They fear that more bombs will cost more innocent lives in a city where the civilian population is now held prisoner by Isis to serve as a human shield. Many are baffled and frustrated that the city’s fate is being decided in distant capitals and conference rooms where the people of Raqqa have no presence, in debates where they have no voice. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s newest rebel army has its sights on ISIS

Vice News reports: The Islamic State group may have suffered several defeats along the periphery of its so-called caliphate, but so far no one has been able to challenge its control over the core of its territory. While the US-led coalition has escalated its airstrikes on the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, the allied nations have shown little appetite for the grueling ground fight that would be needed to actually drive the group out of Syria’s east. And although Raqqa seems to serve as the Islamic State, or ISIS’, symbolic and administrative center in Syria, it is Deir al-Zour province that provides much of its oil revenue and serves as a critical link between its Syrian and Iraqi territories.

That may be about to change, thanks to a new force of eastern Syrian rebels with a singular focus on the Islamic State and, local sources say, quiet backing from the United States.

Known as the New Syrian Army or NSA, it first appeared in November in a YouTube video under its Arabic name, Jaish Suriya al-Jadid. Its aim is to retake Deir al-Zour, and it seems to have copious American weaponry and air support from the coalition on its side.

Based on interviews with involved rebels and informed local activists reached via Skype and social media, it is clear the NSA faces tough odds. Its numbers are reportedly few, in part because some Deir al-Zour rebels distrust its American backers. Yet the group, drawing strength from deep-seated local enmity towards the Islamic State, might still offer the best hope of pushing ISIS out of a key province. [Continue reading…]


Kurdish fighters say U.S. special forces have been fighting ISIS for months

The Guardian reports: On a damp afternoon in Iraqi Kurdistan, a 29-year-old peshmerga fighter named Peshawa pulls out his Samsung Galaxy mobile phone, flicks hurriedly through his library until he finds the video he wants, and presses play.

The clip, filmed just after dawn on 11 September, shows four tall and western-looking men in the heat of a battle against Islamic State militants in northern Iraq. “These are the Americans,” says Peshawa in a secretive tone.

One is crouched behind a machine gun firing round after round from the top of a fortified mound; another lies on his front a few feet away, legs outstretched and taking aim at the enemy with a long rifle. A third wields a long-lens camera taking photo after photo, and the last stands back, apparently overseeing the others during the combat south-west of the city of Kirkuk.

The footage, Peshawa says, is evidence that US special forces have been waging a covert war on the frontline in Iraq for months. Such a claim could alter the feverish debate over whether Barack Obama should move farther and faster against Isis in the wake of the Paris attacks.

A string of terrorist atrocities in France, Lebanon and elsewhere has intensified pressure on Obama to take a more aggressive stand against Isis in Iraq and Syria. Having won election promising to end the Iraq war, however, the president has repeatedly insisted that he will not send back ground troops. In June last year he announced the redeployment of up to 300 military advisers there but pledged: “American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”

The US military denies any special operations forces involvement in combat on 11 September or in three other other incidents listed by the peshmerga. Yet in interviews with the Guardian, a dozen Kurdish fighters and commanders said that US special forces troops have been participating in operations against Isis for months.

In another video, dated 11 June, an American soldier wearing the fatigues and insignia of a Kurdish counter-terrorism unit can be seen walking alongside two dozen peshmerga in the aftermath of a seven-hour firefight with Isis militants in the village of Wastana and Saddam settlement, according to the peshmerga who filmed the video.

“Initially, the Americans rained fire on Wastana,” said Major Loqman Mohammed, pointing to the hamlet which remains under Isis control.

None of the peshmerga were willing to publish their photos or video footage for fear of dismissal, but they allowed the Guardian to watch the video and see the images on their mobile phones.

Karwan Hama Tata, a peshmerga volunteer, showed a Guardian reporter a video which appeared to show two Americans in the midst of the battle accompanied by three peshmerga fighters. He said: “They fight and they even fight ahead of the peshmerga. They won’t allow anyone to take photos of them, but they take photos of everyone.” [Continue reading…]


How Assad funds ISIS

Kyle Orton writes: Syria’s refineries and power-plants, most now in IS-held territory, are run by regime specialists and IS takes a majority cut either in kind (often electricity) or in cash from the regime. Indeed, paradoxically, it is these areas of most direct cooperation between Assad and IS where they engage in some of their very few clashes because, as a Syrian oil executive explained, “This is 1920s Chicago mafia-style negotiation. You kill and fight to influence the deal, but the deal doesn’t end.”

The evidence that the Assad regime was hell-bent on mobilizing its old terrorist assets to make Salafi-jihadists the face of the insurgency has been available to anyone willing to see for many years — this blog had an evidence compilation in March 2014, and an update in September 2014. Assad’s intention in strengthening Islamic extremists within the insurgency — assisted by Iran and Russia — is to frighten the population into rallying around the regime and warding off international assistance to the rebellion (and perhaps even gaining international support in putting the insurgency down). Put simply: the current interest of Assad is making the IS problem worse. The regime will look to suppress IS eventually but only once, as in Algeria, the dictatorship has destroyed all non-extremist antagonists and discredited the entire idea of opposition by associating it with extremism and bloodshed. Whatever this makes the Assad regime, it isn’t a counterterrorism partner. [Continue reading…]


ISIS’s mafia-style system of rule

The New York Times reports: Three times a month, Mohammad al-Kirayfawai hands $300 to fighters from the Islamic State for the privilege of driving his refrigerated truck full of ice cream and other perishables from Jordan to a part of Iraq where the militants are firmly in charge.

The fighters who man the border post treat the payment as an import duty, not a bribe. They even provide a stamped receipt, with the logo and seal of the Islamic State, that Mr. Kirayfawai, 38, needs for passing through other checkpoints on his delivery route.

Refuse to pay and the facade of normality quickly falls away. “If I do not,” Mr. Kirayfawai explained, “they either arrest me or burn my truck.”

Across wide expanses of Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, with the goal of building a credible government, has set up a predatory and violent bureaucracy that wrings every last American dollar, Iraqi dinar and Syrian pound it can from those who live under its control or pass through its territory.

Interviews with more than a dozen people living inside or recently escaped from the Islamic State-controlled territory, and Western and Middle Eastern officials who track the militants’ finances, describe the group as exacting tolls and traffic tickets; rent for government buildings; utility bills for water and electricity; taxes on income, crops and cattle; and fines for smoking or wearing the wrong clothes. [Continue reading…]


ISIS: The British women supporters unveiled


Want to help ISIS recruit? Treat all Muslims as potential terrorists

Richard Maass writes: Since the Nov. 13 attacks on Paris, many U.S. leaders have unleashed discriminatory rhetoric in the name of counterterrorism. Thirty-one governors said that Syrian refugees were not welcome in their states. Jeb Bush suggested that refugees should be allowed into the United States if “you can prove you’re a Christian.” Donald Trump said that he would “strongly consider” shutting down American mosques and that he wants “surveillance of certain mosques if that’s okay.” Claiming “there is no meaningful risk of Christians committing acts of terror,” Ted Cruz criticized the Obama administration “because they pretend as if there is no religious aspect to this.”

Of course, most religions — including Christianity — have been manipulated to inspire or excuse terrorism. And people of most nationalities — including Americans — have committed terrorist acts. So the critical question is not whether the Islamic State has a national or religious aspect; a great deal of terrorism does. The question is: Will policies that discriminate against people on the basis of nationality or religion help or hurt efforts to counter the Islamic State’s terrorist threat?

Many excellent scholars — both before and since 9/11 — have produced research that tells us about the relationship between discrimination and counterterrorism.

Here’s what we know. To be most effective, counterterrorism policies need to make an explicit distinction between the individuals who genuinely threaten others with terrorism, on the one hand, and on the other, the broader populations those terrorists claim to represent. Counterterrorism efforts — especially using force — should narrowly target only the former, as much as possible. [Continue reading…]


What does ISIS really want now?

Jessica Stern writes: In the latest issue of Dabiq, ISIS’s on-line magazine, the organization sets forth two principal but contradictory goals, which it labels “options.” The first is to spread a totalitarian caliphate throughout the region and, ultimately, the world. The second is to polarize Muslims against one another, to incite internal divisions within the West, and to turn the West against Islam, with the ultimate goal of “goad[ing] the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders prophesized to be held at Dabiq in Syria.”

Helpfully, ISIS has described for us those steps it regards as necessary to achieve the second option. As an ISIS author — writing under the name of British hostage John Cantlie — observes, option two would likely require “an operation overseas that is so destructive that America and its allies will have no alternative but to send in an army. This would have to be something on the scale, if not bigger, than 9/11. Then again I’m just guessing, American ‘hawks’ may very well come to Dabiq on their own without the Islamic State needing to blow up any dirty bombs in Manhattan.”

Mohammed al-Adnani, official spokesperson of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has repeatedly urged Muslims to carry out a jihad at home. The goal of attacking the West, ISIS says, is to eliminate the “grayzone” of moderate Islam and to force Muslims living in the West to either join ISIS or “apostasize and adopt the kufri religion.” To date, the majority of these attacks have been carried out by self-starters, or “lone wolves,” with little direction from central leadership. But it was only a matter of time before ISIS would attempt to coordinate attacks outside its territory. Indeed, U.S. and European officials say that Abu Mohammed al-Adnani’s role is to now oversee ISIS-directed attacks outside of Iraq and Syria.

Sophisticated attacks outside ISIS-controlled territory require trained fighters, as evidenced in the November 2015 attack in Paris. But such attacks are significantly easier to carry out with operational assistance of local personnel. For ISIS, finding labor is less taxing when they can recruit from an existing pool of disenfranchised Muslims. In examining ISIS recruitment, many of my colleagues have focused on ISIS’s “winner’s” narrative and the carefully choreographed branding whereby ISIS advertises — and attempts to create — a utopian state. This line of argument suggests that ISIS’s defense of its territory is critical to its ability to recruit Westerners. But I would suggest that ISIS attempts to create a somewhat different narrative — the redemption of the oppressed. [Continue reading…]


What the Paris attacks tell us about ISIS strategy

Der Spiegel reports: For years, experts have worried that the up to 4,000 young men and women from Western Europe who are believed to have gone to Syria and Iraq to either fight with Islamic State or live inside it might one day return and conduct attacks here. European IS fighters have long been using social media platforms to openly discuss their dreams of attacks on their home countries.

“Attacking Europe is in the DNA of many of those who have traveled from Europe to Syria,” says jihad expert Wassim Nasr of French international news channel France 24. Still, he argues, it is very unlikely that individual members like [Abdelhamid] Abaaoud made the decision to actually carry out the attacks on their own. He see it is “an issue of such strategic importance that it has been directed from the highest level of IS.” And it appears that the decision was taken months ago.

It’s not surprising that IS chose France as the target of its first attack in Europe. With around 1,200 current and former fighters, the largest number of IS jihadist from Western Europe originate from France. With its numerous military deployments in Africa and the Middle East, France is very much in the terrorists’ crosshairs. Measured against its overall population, the only country in Europe with a greater per capita number of IS fighters is Belgium. Germany also has several hundred residents who have gone to the region as jihadists.

The Europeans tended to play a relatively minor role in combat for the IS in recent years, but they have an important function in terms of recruitment. And under Islamic State’s new strategy, they are also in charge of bringing the war to Europe. The terrorists who struck in Paris may have spent some time in Syria, but they are the product of our society. In that respect, fighting in Syria to prevent Islamic State terror in the West can only have a limited effect. [Continue reading…]


Belgium is politically splintered and vulnerable to terrorism. So is Europe

The Economist reports: Brussels, wrote Tony Judt, is “a metaphor for all that can go wrong in a modern city”. The late historian, writing in 1999, was referring to the civic neglect that has left much of the Belgian capital, home to most institutions of the European Union, an unsightly mess of concrete and roadworks with the worst traffic in Europe. But his words could just as well apply to the string of terrorist plots and attacks that has provided Brussels, and some other Belgian cities, with a scabrous reputation as an incubator of jihadi ideology and a paragon of law-enforcement incompetence.

Belgium has long been the butt of European jokes, thanks in large part to its dysfunctional politics. In 2010-11 squabbles over the rights of Flemish-speakers on the outskirts of Brussels held up the formation of a government for 589 days, a world record. But the terror threat has exposed the darker side of Belgium’s maladministration, in the form of uncoordinated security services and neglected areas like Molenbeek, a down-at-heel Muslim-majority commune in west Brussels. After the Paris attacks, French officials sniped at their Belgian counterparts on learning that several of the perpetrators had hatched their schemes in Brussels. Two had been questioned by Belgian police earlier this year. One of them, Salah Abdeslam, fled to Brussels after having driven three of the Paris suicide-bombers to their destination.

Now Brussels is enduring its own threat. On November 21st Belgian officials raised the terror alert in the capital to its highest level, citing fears of multiple Paris-style attacks. The “lockdown” was not the near-curfew portrayed in some foreign media. Yet schools, shops and underground transport were closed for several days, concerts and sporting events were cancelled and armed troops patrolled the streets. It is hard to think of a European precedent for such a suspension of civic life, and it is not over. A series of police raids failed to net Mr Abdeslam, and Brussels will remain on high alert at least until November 30th. [Continue reading…]


ISIS entrenches in Sirte, Libya

The Wall Street Journal reports: Even as foreign powers step up pressure against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the militant group has expanded in Libya and established a new base close to Europe where it can generate oil revenue and plot terror attacks.

Since announcing its presence in February in Sirte, the city on Libya’s Mediterranean coast has become the first that the militant group governs outside of Syria and Iraq. Its presence there has grown over the past year from 200 eager fighters to a roughly 5,000-strong contingent which includes administrators and financiers, according to estimates by Libyan intelligence officials, residents and activists in the area.

The group has exploited the deep divisions in Libya, which has two rival governments, to create this new stronghold of violent religious extremism just across the Mediterranean Sea from Italy. Along the way, they scored a string of victories—defeating one of the strongest fighting forces in the country and swiftly crushing a local popular revolt. [Continue reading…]


Europe’s many-headed security crisis – a challenge to rival the Cold War

By Umut Korkut, Glasgow Caledonian University

The downing of a Russian jet on November 24 over Turkey’s border with Syria is indicative of the security challenges that Europe faces. To deal with Islamic fundamentalist terrorism and the refugee crisis, Europe needs to neutralise Islamic State and stabilise Syria to stop the flow of refugees. That means that the EU, Turkey and Russia need to respond coherently to Syria.

The stakes are unimaginably high – with the EU already divided internally over its policy on refugees, failure in Syria risks making things worse. That could undermine the EU at a time when the terrorist threat needs the union to be as tight-knit as possible.

First, the EU’s internal situation. Since the surge of refugees over the summer, the new position of Europe’s increasingly strident right – particularly in eastern Europe and Russia – is that people’s skin colour determines their inclination to terrorism. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, recently said that “all terrorists are immigrants”. Led also by Poland – which is taking an increasingly hard line on migrants – the conservative right in the region wants to draw a boundary that is white, native and Christian on one side and non-white, non-Christian and immigrant on the other.

The sad fact is that the most homogenous countries have been the least able and willing to cope with the influx of refugees – and this has had substantial knock-on effects. When Croatia shipped newcomers to the Hungarian and Slovenian borders within hours of arrival in October, Hungary responded by extending its notorious fence to close the border between these two EU members. Meanwhile, Slovenia transported all its new arrivals to the Austrian border, which increased the disproportionate burden that Austria and Germany had assumed on behalf of the newer EU members.

[Read more…]