‘Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests’

Henry Porter writes: As I watched half a dozen Eastern European workers cutting zucchini and placing them on a slow-moving trailer in the small English village where I was brought up, one of the hard truths regarding the epic, self-defeating lunacy of Brexit came home to me: Britain’s precarious food supply.

Under the European Union’s right to the freedom of movement, some 250 Eastern European workers come here each year to pick vegetables — mostly onions, parsley, beans, Brussels sprouts, and cabbages — which are grown in the alluvial soil beside the River Avon. This is a sensible arrangement that suits both the farmer and migrant workers. But it was not always so. When I was a teenager, roaming the countryside with a .410-gauge shotgun or a fishing rod, I only ever came across one foreigner in the fields: Franz Reinwart, a Sudeten German from Czechoslovakia, who was brought to Britain as a P.O.W. during the last war and stayed on. The others were English and they came mostly from the local town in Worcestershire.

Franz was a gentle, good-looking man and a hard worker, too, much like his young successors from Romania, Bulgaria, Poland, and Lithuania, who toil long hours in all weather and earn enough to make the summer trip to the U.K. worthwhile. About 60,000 seasonal workers come to Britain every year and it is fair to say that British farmers would be lost without them. More important, if Brexit goes ahead, they cannot hope to replace them with the local labor force, which has come to see this kind of back-breaking work as beneath itself, or, in any case, is probably not very good at it.

I have no idea whether this local farmer voted to stay or leave the E.U. in the referendum, or if he even voted at all. Yet it was often farmers, who need foreign workers — and the rural working class, who are reluctant to become agricultural laborers — who voted to “take their country back.” Watching those men in the zucchini field this week, I wondered, not for the first time, how voters have become so blinded to their own interests. [Continue reading…]


Brexit is not inevitable, says former civil service chief

The Guardian reports: Brexit is not inevitable and Britain could still remain a part of a changed European Union, the former head of the civil service has said.

Gus O’Donnell, who was the cabinet secretary from 2005-11, told the Times (subscription) that he anticipated the UK would retain EU laws and rules regardless of its status in the union.

The crossbench peer said: “Lots of people will say, ‘We’ve had the referendum, we’ve decided to go out, so that’s it, it’s all over’. But it very much depends what happens to public opinion and whether the EU changes before then.

“It might be that the broader, more loosely aligned group is something that the UK is happy being a member of.”

Before the referendum Lord O’Donnell had said that leaving the EU would be complicated and take a long time.

On Saturday, he said leaving would mean “a huge administrative and legislative change” because of the vast amount of EU law that had been implemented over the last 40 years. As a result, he said he believed the UK would keep them in place even if it did officially leave the bloc. [Continue reading…]


Airstrike in east Aleppo apparently targets funeral procession

The Washington Post reports: Syrian warplanes appeared to target a funeral Saturday morning in east Aleppo, killing dozens of civilians who had come to mourn the deaths of at least 13 people days earlier.

The attack on Bab al-Nairab, a Syrian suburb named after one of the city’s ancient gates, took place in waves, activists said. The first barrel bomb hit a funeral procession, the second landed as rescue workers arrived. Doctors said the preliminary death count was 25.

Aleppo is one of the Syrian war’s most important battlegrounds, divided by government forces in the west and armed opposition groups in the east. According to monitoring groups, more than 300 civilians have been killed in fighting there this month.

The United Nations’ special envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has urged warring parties to state by Sunday whether they will commit to a 48-hour humanitarian cease-fire across the city. [Continue reading…]


Residents abandon Daraya as government seizes a symbol of Syria’s rebellion

The New York Times reports: Hundreds of rebel fighters and their families left a long-besieged suburb of the Syrian capital, Damascus, on Friday, under an agreement with the government that amounted to an opposition surrender of territory and a symbolic defeat.

Carrying their belongings in suitcases and overstuffed plastic bags, residents filed out from between rows of destroyed buildings to board buses that would take them from the town of Daraya to rebel-held Idlib Province, a place about 200 miles north that few of them have ever seen. Thousands more civilians are to leave for other government-held suburbs of Damascus in the coming days under the deal that hands the town to the government.

Few of Daraya’s residents hold out any hope of returning. As they prepared to evacuate Friday, residents kissed the ground and visited the graves of relatives for the last time. The scene was reminiscent of the evacuation of rebels and civilians from the old city of Homs two years ago, an area that remains largely deserted today.

Daraya, like Homs, has been a symbol of revolt since the earliest peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011: Leaders of the civilian opposition hailed from Daraya, and many of them were imprisoned, with some tortured to death while in custody. The ultimate fall of the rebellious town now symbolizes the failure of the moderate opposition rooted there and those affiliated with the early civilian protests to firmly unite fractured rebel groups. [Continue reading…]


The Great Game in northern Syria

Hassan Hassan writes: Almost exactly a year after Russia intervened militarily to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Turkish tanks rolled into the Syrian border city of Jarablus on Tuesday to help anti-government rebels expel the Islamic State from one of its most strategic strongholds. The operation, which drove out the militants eight hours after the battle began, is part of a new Turkish policy in northern Syria, the most complex military and political terrain in the country.

The scale and nature of the Turkish intervention remain unclear. Top Turkish officials, including President Recept Tayyip Erdogan, say the purpose of the intervention is to clear the region surrounding Jarablus from both the Islamic State and the Kurdish forces who are also fighting the terrorist group. Indeed, two days after the liberation of Jarablus, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) announced their withdrawal from Manbij, another Islamic State stronghold that was liberated two weeks ago.

Notwithstanding the immediate objectives of the Turkish campaign, the development demonstrates a new state of play in the northern parts of the country. The YPG’s withdrawal from Manbij two days after the Turkish entry into Syria has bitter symbolism for the Kurdish group, since the battle in Manbij was the second-deadliest battle for Kurdish forces since Kobane. That iconic battle in 2014 consummated Washington’s relationship with the YPG in the global war against IS in Syria, to the dismay of Turkey, long an American NATO ally. [Continue reading…]


Turkey is in its own post-9/11 fury

Mustafa Akyol writes: When US Vice President Joe Biden visited Ankara Aug. 25 to repair Turkish-US relations, which have been strained since Turkey’s failed July 15 coup attempt, he offered an interesting analogy. After examining the ruins at the Turkish parliament bombed by the putschists, he compared Turkey’s trauma to America’s experience after 9/11, urging reporters to “imagine if the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on Sept. 11, 2001, had made it to the US Capitol.” He added, “Imagine the psychological impact on the American people.”

Some Americans disliked this analogy, blaming Biden for “using 9/11 victims for political points.” Yet in fact, Biden was right; 9/11 is actually a good analogy to understand the impact of the failed coup on Turkish society. The death toll in these attacks, admittedly, were unequal: There were 10 times more victims on 9/11 than during Turkey’s coup. Still, just like 9/11, the coup attempt was the greatest attack the Turkish nation has faced in decades. Moreover, just like after 9/11, the Turkish state now has a right to defend itself and eliminate an immediate threat.

Yet, again just like after 9/11, there is a serious risk of overreaction. [Continue reading…]


America’s retreat and the agony of Aleppo

Roger Cohen writes: Sarajevo and Aleppo, two cities once part of the Ottoman Empire, two cities whose diverse populations have included Muslims and Christians and Jews, two cities rich in culture that have been besieged and split in two and ravaged by violence, two cities where children have been victims — 20 years apart.

What a difference two decades make! Sarajevo was headline news through much of its 44-month encirclement. NATO planes patrolled the skies to prevent, at least, aerial bombardment of the population. Blue-helmeted United Nations forces were deployed in a flawed relief effort. President Bill Clinton, after long hesitation, authorized the NATO airstrikes that led to the lifting of the Serbian siege and an imperfect peace in Bosnia. Belated American intervention worked.

Aleppo lacks such urgency. It’s bombarded: What else is new? How often does the word “Aleppo” fall from President Obama’s lips (or indeed the lesson-freighted word “Sarajevo”)? At which dinner parties in London, Paris, Berlin or Washington is it discussed? Which Western journalists are able to be there to chronicle day after day their outrage at a city’s dismemberment? Who recalls that just six years ago Aleppo was being talked about in Europe as the new Marrakesh, a place to buy a vacation home?

Aleppo is alone, alone beneath the bombs of Russian and Syrian jets, alone to face the violent whims of President Vladimir Putin and President Bashar al-Assad.

Oh, yes, I know, when the photograph of a child like Omran Daqneesh is seen, as it was this month, covered in blood after being dug from the rubble of Aleppo, the image may go viral just long enough for people to lament the Syrian debacle. Lament and forget. There’s Donald Trump to think about. Forget the more than 400,000 dead, the more than 4.8 million refugees, and the destruction of a city like Aleppo that is an expression of millennia of civilization. [Continue reading…]


U.S. plans to ‘corner’ Russia on Syria’s chemical weapons

Christopher Dickey and Noah Shachtman report: Syria continues to develop chemical weapons it is supposed to have destroyed, and to use chlorine gas it agreed not to use on the battlefield. This, according to reports from United Nations agencies that have been leaked in recent days by Obama administration officials and were confirmed in part by public statements from U.S. officials on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It is now impossible to deny that the Syrian regime has repeatedly used industrial chlorine as a weapon against its own people,” said a statement from U.S. National Security Council spokesperson Ned Price. (Chlorine was the first gas used in the trenches of World War I. When it mixes with the moisture in human eyes and lungs, it turns to acid with potentially fatal effects.)

Also very disturbing is the conclusion in the same report that the so-called Islamic State has used sulfur mustard gas, which causes skin and lungs to blister painfully, or fatally.

These leaks and statements are part of an administration effort to put pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers before an Aug. 30 meeting by the U.N. Security Council to look at the issue of chemical weapons in Syria, a U.S. intelligence official told The Daily Beast.

Why now? According to this official, the answer goes back to 2014, when the Assad regime was accused of repeated chlorine attacks, and the world shrugged its shoulders.

“We weren’t getting enough political oomph when the chlorine attacks first came to light. So we figured the best option was to work through the slow UN process, get the Russians to a place where they’re cornered diplomatically,” the intelligence official said.

Plus, the official added, finger pointing by the United States alone wouldn’t be nearly as effective as collective action.

“You know the way the Russians treat anything Syria-related,” the official said. “If we bring it forward, the Russians would reject it out of hand. So we helped OPCW [the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] uncover it on its own.”

In fact, the timing is politically problematic for President Barack Obama, and potentially for his favored successor, Hillary Clinton, since she is so closely identified with his administration.

We are looking at the third anniversary of Obama’s Great Syria Failure, as many of his critics see it: the debacle in which he drew a red line against the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons, and the regime stepped right across it, killing more than a 1,000 men, women, and children with sarin nerve gas on Aug. 21, 2013, in a Damascus suburb called Ghouta. [Continue reading…]


With operation in Syria, Erdogan shows his new power over Turkey’s military

The New York Times reports: In recent years, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered plans drawn up for a Turkish military incursion into Syria. At every turn, though, military commanders, already fighting a war inside Turkey against Kurdish militants, pushed back.

And then last month a rebel faction of the military tried to stage a coup, and that changed everything.

In the aftermath of the coup, which failed but claimed more than 200 lives, Mr. Erdogan purged thousands of officers from the ranks, leaving the military seemingly depleted. It also provoked worry from Western allies, including the United States, that Turkey would either be unwilling or unable to be a reliable partner in the fight against the Islamic State.

Instead, the opposite happened on Wednesday, as Mr. Erdogan ordered Turkish tanks and special forces soldiers into Syria, under cover of American and Turkish warplanes, to assist Syrian rebels in seizing the city of Jarabulus, one of the last border strongholds of the Islamic State.

More Turkish tanks rumbled into northern Syria on Thursday to support rebels there, and the Turkish military seemed to be succeeding in clearing the border area of Islamic State militants, and preventing Kurdish militias from seizing more territory in the region — a primary goal of Turkey in the campaign.

The operation, coming so soon after the failed coup, has highlighted how Mr. Erdogan, even after the purge, secured more operational control of the military. It allowed him to undertake Turkey’s most ambitious role yet in the long Syrian civil war and to bolster the flagging fortunes of rebel groups, of which Turkey has been one of the most consistent supporters.

Other factors holding back Turkey’s ambitions in Syria were also recently resolved. A feud with Russia, which began last year after Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the border, ended after Mr. Erdogan expressed regret for the episode. After Ankara’s relations with Moscow deteriorated, a Turkish incursion into Syria could have risked war with Russia, which has been bombing rebels in support of the Syrian government. And the United States, which had previously been opposed to Turkey’s intervention, agreed to support it.

The operation also buoyed the hopes of armed opposition groups that are not affiliated with the Islamic State or Al Qaeda, whose fighters and supporters have been dejected for months over losses in northern Syria that their foreign backers did little to prevent, and a fear that the United States and Turkey were preparing to abandon them to pursue of a broader deal with the Russians.

A senior Turkish official, who spoke anonymously as a matter of protocol, said that many commanders had resisted an operation in Syria in recent years. [Continue reading…]


Besieged town of Daraya agrees to surrender to Syrian government

The New York Times reports: After four years of siege and bombardment, residents of the rebel-held Syrian town of Daraya struck a deal Thursday with the Syrian government that amounted to a surrender of territory deeply symbolic to both sides.

Under the agreement, the government will evacuate Daraya’s remaining residents — about 8,000 people — in exchange for control of the town, which is less than two miles from the center of the capital, Damascus.

Daraya, one of the first areas to stage peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 and to face a violent response, is a rare example of a community where even now, after more than five years of war, rebel groups accept the authority of a civilian local council.

Hussam Zyadeh, who fled Daraya in 2013, summed up the ambivalence of ending the fight amid a feeling that the world had stopped caring and had provided no help. “No more barrels on #Daraya,” he wrote on Twitter, referring to barrel bombs. “No more death no more fight no more revolution no more dignity no more #humanity as the whole world left it alone.”

Word of the agreement — a week after incendiary bombs left the town’s only remaining hospital out of commission — came as a single airstrike by the government or its Russian allies killed 14 people, 11 of them children and the others women, in the northern city of Aleppo, doctors there said. [Continue reading…]


Saudis and extremism: ‘Both the arsonists and the firefighters’

Scott Shane reports: Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump do not agree on much, but Saudi Arabia may be an exception. She has deplored Saudi Arabia’s support for “radical schools and mosques around the world that have set too many young people on a path towards extremism.” He has called the Saudis “the world’s biggest funders of terrorism.”

The first American diplomat to serve as envoy to Muslim communities around the world visited 80 countries and concluded that the Saudi influence was destroying tolerant Islamic traditions. “If the Saudis do not cease what they are doing,” the official, Farah Pandith, wrote last year, “there must be diplomatic, cultural and economic consequences.”

And hardly a week passes without a television pundit or a newspaper columnist blaming Saudi Arabia for jihadist violence. On HBO, Bill Maher calls Saudi teachings “medieval,” adding an epithet. In The Washington Post, Fareed Zakaria writes that the Saudis have “created a monster in the world of Islam.”

The idea has become a commonplace: that Saudi Arabia’s export of the rigid, bigoted, patriarchal, fundamentalist strain of Islam known as Wahhabism has fueled global extremism and contributed to terrorism. As the Islamic State projects its menacing calls for violence into the West, directing or inspiring terrorist attacks in country after country, an old debate over Saudi influence on Islam has taken on new relevance.

Is the world today a more divided, dangerous and violent place because of the cumulative effect of five decades of oil-financed proselytizing from the historical heart of the Muslim world? Or is Saudi Arabia, which has often supported Western-friendly autocrats over Islamists, merely a convenient scapegoat for extremism and terrorism with many complex causes — the United States’s own actions among them?

Those questions are deeply contentious, partly because of the contradictory impulses of the Saudi state.

In the realm of extremist Islam, the Saudis are “both the arsonists and the firefighters,” said William McCants, a Brookings Institution scholar. “They promote a very toxic form of Islam that draws sharp lines between a small number of true believers and everyone else, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he said, providing ideological fodder for violent jihadists.

Yet at the same time, “they’re our partners in counterterrorism,” said Mr. McCants, one of three dozen academics, government officials and experts on Islam from multiple countries interviewed for this article.

Saudi leaders seek good relations with the West and see jihadist violence as a menace that could endanger their rule, especially now that the Islamic State is staging attacks in the kingdom — 25 in the last eight months, by the government’s count. But they are also driven by their rivalry with Iran, and they depend for legitimacy on a clerical establishment dedicated to a reactionary set of beliefs. Those conflicting goals can play out in a bafflingly inconsistent manner.

Thomas Hegghammer, a Norwegian terrorism expert who has advised the United States government, said the most important effect of Saudi proselytizing might have been to slow the evolution of Islam, blocking its natural accommodation to a diverse and globalized world. “If there was going to be an Islamic reformation in the 20th century, the Saudis probably prevented it by pumping out literalism,” he said. [Continue reading…]


High court suspends ‘burkini’ ban in French town while Sarkozy calls for nationwide ban

The New York Times reports: France’s highest administrative court on Friday suspended a ban by a Mediterranean town on bathing at its beaches in so-called burkinis, the full-body swimwear used by some Muslim women that has become the focus of intense debates over women’s rights, assimilation and secularism in France.

The Council of State, the highest court in the French administrative justice system, ruled that the ban, enacted by the town of Villeneuve-Loubet on Aug. 5, violated civil liberties.

At least 20 other municipalities, most of which are on the French Riviera, have imposed similar bans, and although the decision on Friday does not apply directly to them, it can be seen as a warning that their bans are likely to be similarly struck down if challenged in court. The largest such community is the city of Nice.

Critics of the bans have said they unfairly targeted Muslims and stirred up fear in the wake of deadly terrorist attacks in France and elsewhere in Europe.

The bans recently provoked a backlash in France and abroad, after photographs spread online showing armed police officers enforcing them. [Continue reading…]

The Guardian reports: Nicolas Sarkozy says he will impose a nationwide ban on burkinis if re-elected to the presidency in 2017, positioning himself as a strong defender of French values and tough on immigration.

Hundreds of supporters waving French flags chanted “Nicolas! Nicolas!” and applauded as Sarkozy, a conservative president from 2007 to 2012 before losing an election to Socialist François Hollande, promised to protect the French people in his first rally for the 2017 election.

“I will be the president that re-establishes the authority of the state,” Sarkozy told a crowd of more than 2,000 in a sports hall in Châteaurenard in Provence, a town where his Les Républicains beat the far-right Front National (FN) in regional elections last year. [Continue reading…]