Review: The Man on Devil’s Island, Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair that Divided France.

Man on Devil's Island: Alfred Dreyfus and the Affair That Divided ...

Many of us with a passing interest in French and European history will have heard of the Dreyfus affair. Until reading Ruth Harris’s fine book The Man on Devil’s Island, though, I had little idea of the full story behind nor any real understanding of why ‘The Affair’ convulsed France throughout the 1890s.

Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish engineering officer in the French Army, was accused of spying for Germany, tried and convicted of treachery. Someone had leaked plans of French fortifications and new weapons to Germany, French intelligence came upon a letter offering to sell such secrets for money and Dreyfus, on the flimsiest of evidence, took the blame.

Alfred Dreyfus.

Dreyfus, a native of Alsace, the French province annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871, came under suspicion initially because he had visited his home province to see relatives, which technically was an illegal visit to an enemy power. It did not help him either that he was Jewish and an ‘intellectual’ graduate of a polytechnique. He was thus, in the eyes of many of his fellow officers, a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’ with no real ties to the French nation.

The sole actual evidence presented against Dreyfus was the intercepted letter or ‘bordereau’, which, by some convoluted logic, was pinned on Dreyfus. Despite the letter not matching Dreyfus’s handwriting (the Army concluded that the cunning Dreyfus must have forged his own handwriting so it would not match) and despite the real German spy, Ferdinand Esterhazy actually being uncovered two years later, Dreyfus was sentenced to penal servitude on the Devil’s Island in the Caribbean, where he was kept in what was effectively a wooden box for five years.

The crux of the Affair was that the Army court martial convicted Dreyfus based more on their own prejudices than real evidence. Even worse, once they had the evidence that he was innocent, the Army high command took the view that publicly reversing their verdict would damage the image of the military and could not be done. Certainly not on account of a ‘German Jew’.

And so, once the case was outlined and publicized, most prominently by the journalist and novelist Emile Zola in his famous letter ‘j’accuse’, France was split into two rival camps. The Dreyfusards, a coalition of left wing and liberal intellectuals, anti-clericals and, to a surprisingly small degree, the Jewish community, strove for Dreyfus’s release and for his pardon.

This, we might readily understand. Dreyfus was, after all, a patriotic Frenchman, who had left his native Alsace, after it was annexed by the Germans in 1871, to serve in the French Army. The case against him was so flimsy that it cried out to be rectified, the injustice so obvious it could hardly be ignored.

Two rival camps

More intriguing though, is what the case meant to the Dreyfusards. It was hardly at all about Dreyfus himself and far more about hammering what the left saw as the ignorant, prejudiced, reactionary right wing, sullied by monarchism and ‘obscurantist’ Catholicism. They, on the other hand, the Dreyfusards, represented progress, enlightenment, scientific principles, the legacy of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. Still, however arrogant, as Harris herself acknowledges, some Dreyfusards may have been, it is not difficult to see where they were coming from.

It is more difficult to understand what might have motivated the anti-Dreyfusards. And so it is perhaps more intriguing still to read about the anti-Dreyfusards, such as Edouard Dumont of the newspaper La Libre Parole. How could they have defended such an indefensible position? For them, it was not important whether Dreyfus was guilty, it was much more important that what they saw as the pillars of the French nation; the Army, Catholicism, the ‘purity of the French race’ not be sullied by a public reversal of the verdict of the Dreyfus case.

A Jew was after all, to their mind, not a real Frenchman. Even if Dreyfus was not the one who was selling military secrets to the Germans, it was certainly his supporters, a rabble of godless and deracinated intellectuals who were attempting to destroy ‘the eternal France’, by attacking the Army and the Church.

An Army major named Henry in 1898 admitted that he had forged evidence against Dreyfus and subsequently cut his own throat. Dreyfus was finally released in 1899 after a military court confirmed the verdict of guilty but Dreyfus was pardoned by the President Emile Loubet. But Dreyfus was not actually cleared of charges and re-admitted into the Army until 1906.

The Affair caused lifelong friendships to break up, saw bitter invective exchanged, witnessed street riots and even assassinations. Dreyfus’ lawyer at his retrial in 1899, Ferdinand Labori, was shot and wounded by an unknown gunman. Dreyfus himself survived an assassination attempt by an anti-Semitic journalist in 1908.

The origins of French secularism: 1903 not 1789

Perhaps the most important long term effect of the Dreyfus affair however came in the Republican reaction to it. The ‘Radicals’, a left wing Republican group, came to power in the election of the ‘Left Bloc’ in 1902, a coalition of Republicans, liberals and socialists, largely drawn together by the Dreyfus affair.

Determined to smash the ‘reactionary’ Catholics, who had to their mind, not only framed Alfred Dreyfus, but imperiled the Republic, they formally separated Church and state in France. Over 200 religious orders, accused of ‘obscurantist preaching’ were declared illegal and exiled from France. The Radicals purged the Army of pious Catholic officers and used troops to forcibly seize Church property.

One often assumes that French secularism dates back to the Revolution of 1789. In fact, as readers of this book will discover, it dates back to the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair. It was then, 1903, that it was decreed that no religious school could receive state funding and that no religious symbols could be displayed in the classroom or any other official building and that civil and that church marriages would be separate.

The anti-Semitic Right, despite its defeat in the Dreyfus affair, did not disappear and had its final real flourish in the wartime Vichy regime, which collaborated in sending thousands of French Jews to their deaths in Nazi concentration camps. After the Liberation of 1945, they were both defeated and discredited.

Today the Dreyfus affair has some quite frightening resonances in contemporary Europe. Europeans, and not only in France, are again divided into mutually antagonistic intellectual camps.

Echoes of the Affair today

One camp, who declare ‘refugees welcome here’ another, apparently on the rise, insisting that there is an active ‘clash of civilisations’ and that Muslim immigrants to Europe represent the ‘enemy within’. One camp, favouring European integration and liberal universalism, the other championing traditional national identity and , explicitly in the case of Britain, scorning the EU. One camp maintains that ‘terrorism has nothing to do with Islam’. The other that ‘Islam is a cancer’.

Just like the pro and ant-Dreyfusards in belle époque France, the two camps increasingly see each other as incomprehensible and despicable. Both see the other as a threat to European civilisation as they understand it.

It would be a mistake though, to totally equate those who fear and dislike Islam in Europe today to the anti-Dreyfusards of the 1890s. For unlike them, todays right wingers and nationalists champion secularism (in France especially) against Muslim religiosity.

The Dreyfusards believed above all that enlightenment, logic and faith in human dignity would, in the end, carry the day. We must hope they were right.

Some initial thoughts on the Coronavirus Pandemic

What WHO calling the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic means ...

Not having written on this blog for over a year, I decided to pen my thoughts on the Coronavirus pandemic. I’ll keep it short.

First; this is only the latest outbreak of new epidemic disease to come out of east Asia. One could go back to the ‘Asian Flu’ of 1957 or the ‘Hong Kong Flu’ of 1968, however of more immediate relevance is Sars in 2003, and H1N5 or avian flu in 2005. It has been speculated that the cause here is ‘wet markets’ in China where animals are both slaughtered and sold in the same location.

The animals sold include wild animals, including bats, which harbour a range of viruses that, due to mingling of different species’ blood and other  bodily fluids can ‘jump’ species and eventually infect humans.

While some, particularly in such unenlightened quarters as supporters of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have used these circumstances to deflect the blame for the virus onto China, China does, it would seem, have a case to answer. One would hope that its government, at a minimum, can eliminate these sites of infection in the future.

China’s approach to the virus has also come under legitimate criticism for at first attempting to cover up the outbreak in Wuhan, even imprisoning doctors who highlighted it, and denying for a considerable period, that the disease could spread from human to human.

This criticism of China is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that some appear to want to use it as an excuse for doing nothing themselves to combat the virus. Which brings me on to my second point.

China, certainly in an authoritarian manner, but also very effectively, managed to contain the virus in Hubei province and eventually to suppress it there.

Its neighbouring countries in east Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Singapore, through their experience with prior novel epidemics, have also managed to contain the virus through rigorous testing and isolation of patients. They have, as a result had comparatively very few deaths due to Covid 19.

Where the real failure has occurred has been in western Europe and now the United States. For whatever reason, lack of preparedness or complacency, perhaps, our European countries (and now America too) have absolutely failed to contain the virus, resulting in tens of thousands of deaths so far. This failure is of such magnitude that the east Asian countries, which appeared to have had the virus under control, are seeing a second wave of infections due to returning travellers from Europe and North America.

This is being little commented on here in Europe at the moment, but the truth is that we are paying a very high price, economically, socially, financially and most of all in human lives, for our complacency. We should have been prepared and we were not.

Even in relative ‘success stories’ in Europe such as Germany, deaths far outstrip those in South Korea: Germany has over 70,000 cases and about 850 deaths to date, by contrast, the Republic of Korea has 9,800 cases and 165 deaths. This is despite the latter being right beside China, with a massive volume of transport between  the two, and being unlucky enough to have a ‘super spreader’ in an evangelical church congregation. It is certainly not my intention to malign Italy at this time, but merely to note that it has now experienced around 12,000 deaths from the virus, more by a third than South Korea’s total number of cases.

If China’s neighbours were able to suppress the virus, European countries should have been able to do so also. Excuses that it was not possible to track and trace all travellers from China will not do. If Hong Kong, which is actually part of China, albeit with an autonomous government can do it, so could Italy, France, Spain, the United Kingdom and indeed Ireland. It is too late for recriminations now, but preparations for a pandemic should become an intrinsic part of national defence planning from now on.

Third and final point. It has become customary to graft on to the pandemic one’s political and social agenda. E.g. the pandemic shows we must have a nationalised health service, it spells the end for the Trump presidency (or of capitalism itself to some commentators), in Ireland it shows the senselessness of partition on a small island. And so on.

It is far too early to say what the full economic and social implications of this shutdown of almost the entire developed world will be, but the results will be unpredictable and will not fall into anyone’s ideology. The pandemic will almost certainly not cause, as some appear to hope the world to fall into the template which they wish it to.

My only hope is that at least the minimum lessons about preventing another global pandemic can be learned.

 

 

 

Some thoughts on Brexit

Image result for brexitNo doubt the world has been waiting with baited breath for my thoughts on Britain’s tortuous efforts to leave the European Union. All two readers of this blog will now have the chance.

I do not pretend that my thoughts are especially well informed or insightful, but anyway, here goes.

First, I want to start with an unpopular opinion, in Ireland anyway. I can see some reasons why British citizens would want to leave the EU. If you are worried about national sovereignty, it is true that the EU increasingly intrudes upon it. European Law is now superior to national law in many respects. For instance, in Ireland, where it had become common to use, as evidence in court, text messages sent electronically, the European Court of Justice has recently ruled that such evidence is inadmissible.

In the case of Graham Dwyer, who was found guilty of murder in 2015, this may lead to the quashing of his conviction. Now whatever the rights and wrongs of this particular case, this and other examples does show that increasingly European law is being decided at the centre and that this overrides laws made in national parliaments. For those who consider that democracy is vested in national sovereignty, this is a legitimate concern.

Secondly, there are those who are hostile to large scale migration from the poorer parts of Europe to the UK under the EU. Now this is not a particularly attractive idea, but it is, at least, not a fantasy or a lie. There has been extremely large scale migration from eastern Europe to Britain and this has put strain on housing, service and wage rates.

Thirdly, and this is an idea I have very little sympathy with, most of the conservative ‘Brexiteers’ appear to believe that Britain could strike far better trade deals outside of the EU than within it. Frankly this is rather hard to believe. Why would a medium sized European country that no longer has its own manufacturing base to any large degree hold more sway than the largest block of economically developed countries in the world?

And what is more, the neoliberal (I had to use that word at least once) enthusiasts for Brexit surely do not have much sympathy for the working class voters who are concerned about immigration. But I digress, the point here is that such people appear to believe that Brexit would have economic benefits. Let’s assume that this is a sincere belief.

If the above points are worth the massive dislocation in leaving the largest, richest and freest block of countries anywhere is the world is a matter of opinion. I would suggest that they do not. But I want to make another point. To take such a grave decision required a British Prime Minister and cabinet who (a) had a strong electoral mandate to do it, (b) had been working on draft plans on it for years and had a clear agenda and (c) had campaigned and won a general election on this basis. That is how the British parliamentary system is supposed to work.

Instead, David Cameron recklessly called a referendum to try to overcome internal opponents within his own party. The referendum was disfigured by systematic untruths, mostly by the leave side, followed by a very narrow victory for ‘leave’ followed by Cameron, the Prime Minister’s resignation. Instead of there being a strong prime minister leading Brexit, there is no leadership at all.

Referenda are not part of the British constitutional system (unlike Ireland as it happens) but instead of elected representatives leading the country, which is how the British system is supposed to work, they being led by a highly fractious, one time only vote, which gives them no clear guidance on the most fundamental and crucial issues.

There does not even appear to be consensus on matters as basic as whether or not Britain should stay within the EU’s free trade and regulatory area. Theresa May, who I will unkindly, but I think not inaccurately, call the default prime minister, appears not to have a problem with it, but cannot get her scheme approved in parliament.

Naturally, here in Ireland, the preoccupation is with the Border between the two states on the island. Here again, it was quite clear that this would be a hugely problematic issue and the main problem here is not that the British wish ill on us or wish to refortify the border, but rather that there has been no planning at all for this logically inevitable problem.

Perhaps what the whole saga really shows is the rot of the British (and perhaps not just the British) system of representative government. Having been accustomed for far too long to marketing type campaigns in order to try to win votes, its politicians seem incapable of doing what they are in fact supposed to do, which is govern the country, to solve problems and to plan for the future.

Fascism 2.0?

Image result for fascism

Back in 1940, George Orwell wrote an essay entitled ‘Inside the Whale’. The basic premise is that, like the Biblical character Jonah, stuck inside a whale, the average person could live through great storms on the outside, terrible wars and great world events, but remain relatively unaffected in their own lives. The ‘whale’ or outside world could swim through the terrific storms and all kinds of tribulations, but deep inside its belly Orwell, like Jonah heard only faint echoes of them.

Now Orwell himself experienced more than most. By the time he wrote ‘Inside the Whale’, he had just come back from the Spanish Civil War, where he had gone to fight fascism, been shot in the throat and then nearly been arrested by his own side for belonging to the ‘wrong’ left wing faction.

But recently, metaphor of living inside the whale, in our cosy western bubble has been recurring in my mind. Our lives go on as before and yet we can see around us, as Orwell did in the 1930s and 40s, our world descending into crisis, with dysfunctional politics, the rise of a new authoritarianism and impending environmental catastrophe.

And even inside our ‘whale’ we are beginning to be buffeted by the storms outside.

Who can go to France or Italy or Spain and not see the thousands of African or middle eastern migrants on the beaches and around the train stations; products of the obscene inequality between Europe and their home countries and the zone of war that stretches from Iraq to Chad?

Who has not seen or heard, just beneath the surface, the anger of European populations at what some regard as an ‘invasion’? Or noticed how the far right; the Front National in France, the AFD in Germany, and others have become mainstream parties? Ireland felt only the faintest echo of this recently in surprisingly large electoral vote of presidential candidate Peter Casey.

Who, who has met any Turks or Russians, can fail to see how they will no longer speak about politics in public, afraid of the consequences of saying the wrong thing? The same does not yet apply to Brazilians or citizens of the United States, but it might in the near future.

And who above all, can fail to notice the radically changing pattern of our weather? Even in Ireland in the last year we have had a hurricane, numerous storms, a freezing winter and a scorching summer all in 2018.

And yet all, apparently goes on as before. The whale is swimming into an oil spill. I will not pretend to have any solutions, but I will suggest some causes.

First, the world we have created is one of unparalleled complexity. The human population has grown to a level never before seen and it is consuming resources faster than ever before. At the same time, the almost instant passage of information makes the poor more aware than ever of their plight and determine to live in the ease to which the rich are accustomed.

This makes the management even of developed countries increasingly complex and difficult. In part, I think, the rise of authoritarianism is due to frustration at a world that is increasingly difficult to understand, increasingly full of uncaring ‘others’ who get in one’s way and full of apparently intractable problems.

Where the growth of this kind of society has outpaced the state and its law more rapidly, and where inequality has been sharpest, as in, say Mexico, Brazil, the Phillipines or South Africa, it has also seen an explosion in crime and murder, as well as corruption. The desire for a strongman, a Duterte or a Bolsonaro, or even a Trump to provide simple, violent solutions to such problems is a powerful siren call.

Historian Timothy Snyder describes this phenomenon as ‘sado-populism’ whereby leaders such as for instance Vladimir Putin in Russia or Victor Orban in Hungary or Recep Tayip Erdogan in Turkey, are unable to really solve fundamental problems like massive inequality or corruption, so instead offer their followers consolations in retreating to religious tribalism and nationalism and offering them victories over outside ‘enemies’.

Even in western countries, such is the complexity of a modern economy and so skewed are its rewards that many long for powerful simple solutions to strike at their perceived ‘enemies’ – immigrants, ethnic minorities, the underclass – and solve their problems.

I want to make one more point here, however. The rise of right wing authoritarians, now as in the 1930s is not caused by people becoming more stupid or more prejudiced. It is caused by the objective failure of liberalism – which I will define here as an economic system allowing for free movement of capital and unregulated labour and a political system based on individual rights and freedoms to address these problems.

Brazilians are not wrong to be worried about crime and corruption. Nor are Americans wrong to worry that working class jobs can no longer buy a house or health care. In all probability neither Trump nor Bolsonaro will solve these problems, but and this must be emphasised, neither did Lula or Obama.

Secondly, at the same time as hyper consumption and production has been globalised, the planet simply cannot cope. Humans are consuming and otherwise destroying resources faster than these can be replaced. With an ideology of ‘economic growth’ that actually demands that we increase the level of consumption every year, this is set to continue and if what we used to call the Third World is ‘developed’ the process will accelerate even faster.

While scientists inform us that we have a mere twelve years to avoid catastrophic climate change and that we have killed about 70% of natural wildlife in the last fifty years, nothing changes.

How does this relate to the rise of authoritarianism? One way, is that authoritarianism is western countries is very largely being driven by hostility to mass migration. And that mass migration is in part being caused by rising temperature making parts of the world uninhabitable.

In another way, the new authoritarians are a driver of this impending disaster. Trump has disbanded the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA. Bolsonaro threatens to allow unrestricted logging in the Amazon. These are more complex impediments to ‘our riches’ as Bolsonaro has said that must be removed.

But again, the likes of Angela Merkel, Barrack Obama and Emannuel Macron have also failed to really address this, the central issue of our time. I say this not to relativise the dangers of climate change or the irresponsiblity of the new authoritarians, but to point out that tackling it requires changes much more fundamental than mainstream politics is prepared to carry out.

 

 

 

Air traveller or prisoner?

I do not do much travelling. In fact I have hardly left Ireland at all in the past ten years. This is not because I do not like to see new places. On the contrary, I love seeing new places. Rather, it is because I absolutely loathe the experience of air travel.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not scared of flying. No, what I intensely dislike is the experience of getting an aeroplane. Most likely, any readers will already know exactly what I’m going to say, nevertheless, here’s my story.

In times gone past, a traveller on an aeroplane was treated like royalty. And this is most likely because they were, if not actually members of a royal family then certainly as rich as one.

Today, in the era of mass air transport (and of course random terrorism) the air traveller is actually treated more like a prisoner. Ponder this: in what other feat of endeavour does one have to queue endlessly for several hours, to get into a narrow space, have to pass through a security barrier that requires the removal of all personal possessions and then (in some cases, including mine, on my most recent trip) an invasive body search?

That’s right, the answer is: prison. Then on disembarking more queues, a surly check of one’s passport to make sure one is who one says one is. Once again, in what other area of human activity are you so closely watched, corralled and inconvenienced?

And in between the herding of humans that a modern airport is, you must sit tightly packed with hundreds of other sweating, irritable humans, wiling away the hours in the most uncomfortable of positions.

Next time, I’m taking the boat.

 

Middle eastern migration to Europe

migrant crisis
The iconic image of migrants walking across Europe in the summer of 2015. It was used to promote the Brexit vote in Britain.

If there is one issue driving political instability in Europe today, it is mass migration from the middle east.

Emotional commentary on this phenomenon concentrates on the one hand on the humanitarian obligation to care for refugees from war zones, or, on the other extreme, on a supposedly planned Islamic invasion of Europe.

What is generally neglected, in common discourse, if not in elite political circles, are the long term structural causes of this phenomenon. The middle east, including almost all of the Arab world, from the Maghreb to Iraq, but also including non-Arab countries such as Iran, have an exploding population.

The fertility of the average woman in the middle east varies somewhat, but the average is 3.5 births per woman, compared to about 1.5 births per woman in Europe.

In the past of course, fertility was was far higher. In the Arab world in the 1950s, it was about 7 births per woman. But vastly improved healthcare and nutrition has meant that infant mortality has plummeted since that time, with the result that the Levant’s population has multiplied at a dizzying rate since the mid twentieth century.

For instance, at the time of its independence from France in 1963, Algeria had about 9 million inhabitants, but today has 30 million plus and its population is still growing. Syria at the time of its independence, also from France, in the 1950s had a population of 3.25 million (i.e. about the same as the Republic of Ireland at the time), but on the cusp of the civil war in 2011 its population stood at over 20 million, that is five times that of independent Ireland.

The terrible suffering caused by the war and the flight of over four million people has temporarily decreased the population considerably, but the birth rate has has actually risen during the war years.

Most staggering of all is the case of Egypt. Egypt had a population of 18 million in 1947, but today is populated by no less than 95 million people. As the population grows, the rate of numerical increase also grows, so that as recently as 2006, Egypt’s population was 72 million, but has had a net increase of over 20 million people in just over ten years.

Today a phenomenal 50-65% of the middle eastern population is under 25 years old.

At the same time, this region has had very little economic growth, or in other words almost no new jobs for all of these young people. For instance Egypt, which would need something like 50% growth in jobs to cater for its population growth, has in fact seen 4% growth per year since 1992. Which, factoring in the population explosion, amounts to negative growth. And a dip in the economy in 2011, coinciding with the worldwide recession, almost immediately precipitated revolution (see here for the economic figures).

Across the Arab world, youth unemployment stands at over 30%. It is then hardly surprising at all, that the region is riven with instability, revolutions and civil wars. Radical Islam, while certainly a factor in this situation, is not the driving cause, though the rise of political Islam in the 1980s may have stopped a slowing of birth rates, such as took place in Latin America in the same period.

Nor is the generally dictatorial and repressive political systems the principle cause of unrest, though again, these do not help. If dictatorship was the only reason for turmoil in the middle east, then surely we would have seen a lot more of it than we have. No, the force driving both wars in the middle east and flight to Europe is primarily demographic.

Europe by contrast, has a low fertility rate, a slightly falling and rapidly aging population but plenty of low skilled, low paying jobs that Europeans do not wish to do. All of which has meant that Europe will continue for a long time to be a draw to unemployed and under employed Arab youth.

While there are few incentives for young people to stay in middle eastern countries and while Europe cannot solve its own labour and ageing problems, such migration will continue.

Wishful thinking should be let aside here. The optimistic prognosis is that none of this is a problem, ‘immigrants will pay our pensions’. This is a badly thought out idea. For one thing, by this prognosis, a whole new cohort of immigrants will have to be brought in every generation to pay the pensions of the previous generation. Even if immigrants were not ever unemployed themselves and the figures added up, this would mean a radical transformation in the social, linguistic and cultural profile of a country in every generation. By definition this transformation would totally change the nature of a country. And not just once, but repeatedly.

Such massive demographic change is causing and will cause serious social and political problems. It would inevitably do so even if immigrants were keen to integrate into their host countries. But middle eastern (and other Islamic) immigrants generally do not want to become secular, liberal Europeans. They will not integrate as long as they arrive in such large numbers.

Europeans, for their part do not want to see the demographics of their countries transformed by a foreign culture and religion. Commentators such as Mark Blyth make a very persuasive case that the lack of upward social mobility and the freeze in real wages among the working and middle class over 30 years are what is driving the politics of discontent. Perhaps so. But this need not go in a far right, ultra nationalist direction.

What is driving the growth in the radical right across Europe is mass immigration, make no mistake.

This would be the case even if radical Islam and its attendant tactic of terrorism were not a problem, but it is and has the potential to turn animosity into hatred, indeed has already done so on a large scale.

Simply put, a solution will have to be found to curtail mass middle eastern immigration into Europe or the consequences will be dire.

 

 

Why the League of Ireland isn’t better than the English Premier League (but it is)

stadium_banner_03

The new League of Ireland season is about to roll around and I approach it with some trepidation.

As a Shamrock Rovers supporter (fan is the wrong word here, you are not generally a ‘fan’ of things that cause you so much frustration, grief and occasionally embarrassment), the prospects for the coming year look mediocre. Probably Dundalk will win the league again, for the fourth time in five years. Cork will probably come second and the Hoops will probably come third. Maybe we’ll do something in the cup (for the first time since 1987).

Around this time of year, LOI fans will generally write things like, ‘the LOI is better than the English Premier League (or whatever it’s called nowadays, I thought it was called the Premiership of something) because of the community, the atmosphere, the realness etc’.

Now I want to introduce a dose of realism here. Just because it’s more honest. In terms of the quality of football, the LoI is not better than the English top flight. Standards here have improved in my time (about 25 years now) of watching the Irish domestic league, but standards in the English top flight have sky rocketed in that period.

Watching (as I very occasionally do) Qatari Manchester City (the original Manchester City, the one Niall Quinn played for, was a very different creature) it’s impossible not to be awed by the technique, the fitness and the athleticism of the players. Let’s not pretend that we can match that, because we can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, you can see some good football in the LoI – Rovers’ battles with Dundalk last year were as full throated and attacking as you could wish to see, but nothing of the standard across the water.

So we might argue also that, ok, technically we inhabit a different planet in the LoI, but at least our games are more exciting; less diving, less defensive play, less cagey football. Sadly this is nor really true either, at least not anymore. The tactics of risk averse football – with one striker (maximum) and endless aimless passing the ball around between the defenders, followed by an aimless ball forward, it doesn’t matter so long as you still have most of the team behind the ball in a defensive posture – have also seeped into the League of Ireland.

Under Trevor Crolly and Pat Fenlon at Rovers, we had to put up with so many excruciating games where basically nothing of any note would happen, that it made you want to scream. Like everywhere else, the football in the LoI is sometimes great, mostly mediocre and sometimes god-awfully dull.

Diving, which you almost never saw in the LoI when I started going to games has also crept in, indeed it’s as routine here now as it is everywhere else. I always remember seeing Matt Britton, a Rovers fullback, in around 1998 (today he sells carpets and has successful chain of shops), nearly breaking a Dundalk player in half in an over the ball tackle on the main stand side of Tolka Park, in reprisal for some previous tackle.

And the Dundalk player ( I forget who it was), just got up, limped for a bit until the pain went away and got on with it. That would never happen now. The player would roll around on the ground long enough to try to make sure Britton was sent off and his manager would go ballistic on the touchline demanding the same.

So we can’t really claim moral superiority in that regard either.

But here is where I get to the rub. Despite not being terribly excited about the new LoI season, I will still go to most Rovers home games and some away ones in the Dublin area, whereas I do not plan to watch any English football, either live or highlights, in the immediate future.

And the same basically goes for the Champions League. I might watch it if it’s on, but I feel no attraction towards it anymore. None at all. (And, just to be clear, Rovers-supporting notwithstanding, I used to watch both religiously).

Why is this?

Because top level football today is an utter circus, to the extent that it is demeaning to the viewer. Competitive football is in a sense, absurd anyway – putting so much energy and emotion into the efforts of a group of young men trying to kick or otherwise propel a ball between two sets of posts.

But we invest it with meaning because it embodies so many of the things that are, rightly, very important to us; teamwork, hard work, dedication, mastery of a skill, belonging. And, importantly, it also gives us clear, easy to understand, measures of victory and defeat, which are so difficult to mark out in day to day life, and which, psychologically, I think we need. But all of this depends to an extent on the sincerity of those engaged in the spectacle.

Today in the English Premier League it is impossible to believe in this sincerity. A player, before he even kicks a ball, will likely be paid far more in a single week than an average spectator could earn in a year. I am not exaggerating. The average weekly wage of a player in the top flight of the English game is £44,0000 or about 60,000 euro. While average yearly wage in England is £27,000 and in Ireland 35,000 euro.

And the top players in England are paid far more than this.

In these circumstances it’s impossible to believe that the players actually really care about the results or the clubs they are playing for. Why would they? Regardless of what they do, they will be massively rewarded. Nor in any case, do the players assembled expensively from every country in the world in a club like Manchester City or Chelsea, or even Manchester United – a much diminished club – have any emotional connection with the club they are playing for.

Now maybe there is no connection between these facts and the fact that most English games today seem to be listless pallid affairs, but I think that there is.

So if English or indeed Irish fans of English teams want to pretend to get excited about a bunch of apathetic millionaires pretending to care about winning games for ‘their’ club, or worse, paying their own money to pay such a cadre of overpaid spoilt children, well that is up to them. But personally I find the idea of investing any emotion, let alone money, in such a farce offensive.

It wasn’t always like this, I look back on clips of English football of my youth in the late 1980s early 1990s and even up to about 2000 and it can still make me smile. But not anymore.

So here’s my point. The League of Ireland for all its many faults, is still part of the real world, not just a scam to take money away from ordinary people and give it to millionaires. The players cannot be doing it just for the money because there simply isn’t enough to make it worthwhile. The annual average LoI wage is about 16,000 euros and even the best paid players only make about 40,000 a year from football. Oddly this makes them seem to care far more.

I can cycle to Tallaght, lock my bike outside, pay 15 euro for a ticket, watch games with people from all walks of life (the LoI is a predominantly working class sport, but supporters actually come from all social backgrounds) and watch young men who have trained hard and who want to win and who, for the most part, seem proud to play for the club. (Thank you, by the way, to Stephen Bradley, who restored my faith in Rovers teams doing this after the aforementioned Crolly and Fenlon era.)

So there it is. I can’t argue that our league is better than the English Premier League by any objective standard, but I will be consuming 100% more of one than of the other.

 

Our Cycling trip

image1(10)This will seem entirely out of character with the other posts on this blog, but who cares?

These are some pictures from our cycling trip in October 2017 that went from Dublin to Glendalough. From there to Bunclody and then (via a breakdown and a day’s haitus) to Enniscorthy. From there we trundled on to Waterford city, where we rode the greenway most of the way to Dungarven and back.

Sungeun took all the pictures. That and my overweening vanity are the reasons why I and not she, am in most of the photos.

Day one took us up into the Wicklow mountains to Glendalough via Roundwood.

 

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Day one, on the road to Roundwood.
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I look happy because we’ve just got over the Old Long Hill without serious deaths or injuries, physical or emotional to either party.

In Glendalough, we went for a short gravel spin after dumping our bags at the hostel.

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One does not simply cycle into Mordor.
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The valley of the two lakes.

Day two was probably the hardest day of the trip, instead of taking the main road from Laragh to Aughrim we went over the hills through the tiny village of Greenane. Beautiful scenery, steep hills. After an unpleasant interlude on the main road to Tinahealy, we took another back country hill route through Shillealagh and Clonegal before ending up in Bunclody.

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Somewhere outside Clonegal. It’s hillier than you think. My smile is utterly fake.

We stayed the night in a charming BnB in Bunclody.

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Having a pint in Bunclody.

But the next morning disaster struck. Sungeun’s bike broke down, just as we were setting out. Her chain snapped in two places and her rear deraileur snapped off.

Luckily a kind local bus driver drove us to Enniscorthy, where equally luckily the bike shop owner (Kenny’s Bikes, we love you guys) was able to fix it.

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Ouch
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Thank you Mr school bus driver. People really are nicer in the countryside, it turns out.
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Enniscorthy from Vinegar Hill .Yes that Vinegar Hill, scene of the battle in 1798. Enniscorthy is actually a very charming town.
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On the summit of Vinegar Hill.

We spent the night in Enniscorthy in another BnB. I won’t go into specifics but due to circumstances beyond our control, we got little sleep. I will add the following keywords and you may draw your own conclusions. Shouting, fighting banging, Garda Siochana.

The next day, the epic continued. Not taking the main roads is the only sensible option for the touring cyclist. But there is a reason why main roads are built in the places they are – in Ireland they are generally the only flat route. We spent the day, from Enniscorthy to New Ross, via a village named Ballywilliam and then on to Waterford city via another village named Glenmore, on one of the rolliest routes you can imagine. No huge climbs, but no flat stretches either.

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At the Barrow river in New Ross. Believe me, crossing this felt like a huge achievement at the time. Also, a nice view of both of our bikes loaded up.
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We christened this hill, the last before a long descent into Waterford city, ‘Farmer’s Hill’. I didn’t trust my map reading so went off to ask a farmer on tractor. He helpfully said ‘that way’. Over the nasty steep hill that you just about can’t see in the photo.

When we got to Waterford we were wrecked so for the first time we checked into a hotel. Complete with room service and widescreen tv. Was it worth it? You’re damn right it was. We both fell asleep on the bed watching Ireland vs Moldova on tv after having pizza and beer delivered to the room. Noice. (NB, mispeliing is intentional). (NB 2, We finished the beer and pizza before falling asleep, in case you were wondering).

The next day we thought we’d give the Waterford Greenway a try – 45 km of car free bike paths from Waterford to Dungarven. Only two problems; we did all the tourism in Waterford first before setting off at about three. Then Sungeun had three punctures. We didn’t quite make it to Dungarven and finished our ride back in the dark.

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The greenway is built on an old disused railway line.
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After fixing the first puncture with a spare tube, I had to patch up the second. When the third came, I decided not  bother fixing it any more (it was very slow) and instead just pumped it up every ten km or so. That meant three or four pumps on the way back to Waterford.

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By the the time we approached Waterford city, it was pitch black on the greenway.

I’d love to tell you we time trialled the 200km back to Dublin the next day, but we didn’t, we took the train. And although the feeling of effortlessly doing in two hours what took four days to accomplish smacks one in the face with the futility of all earthly endevours, I have no regrets.

The end.

Of Squirrels, Chinese and Nigerians

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Photo Courtesy of Stephen Hendron.

One of the more pleasant ways to spend an afternoon is walking around the little wood along the river Dodder near my home.

Whether in the summer when the broad lead trees provide a green roof over the path, or in the winter, when the sky peeks through the bare branches, or the autumn when everything turns to a shade or orange and red.

Until about the year 2000, it was very rare to see a mammal or any kind there, apart from a pet dog. But around that time, a new inhabitant appeared, the grey squirrel. Around the trees they would run when you approached, circling up and up into the branches, bickering with each other over food. Where there had been none in a few years there were dozens.

The media noticed this across the country. For some reason in this period the American grey (or ‘gray’ I suppose in its native dialect) squirrel exploded in numbers across the country, displacing, or so it was said, the native red squirrel. The only defence apparently, of the native was the line of the Shannon, where once Irish Catholics had been banished by Cromwell, so now the native squirrel stood cowering from the foreign invader.

As this piece is purely anecdotal, I should note that I never in my life saw a red squirrel and that grey squirrels were the first of that species I ever saw in my corner of Dublin.

But then, at some time in the late 2000s, suddenly the grey squirrel too disappeared abruptly from the park along the Dodder. You can still catch a glimpse of one or two occasionally in the trees, but they are much shyer than before and the days where they seemed to colonise the woodland are long gone.

Apparently, this was noted all over Ireland. The grey squirrel’s numbers crashed at some time after 2007. The red is, reportedly making a comeback. A researcher named Emma Sheehy has apparently linked this to the resurgence of the pine martin, a native predator that developed a taste for the new, larger breed of squirrel, which being less nimble was easier to hunt, and presumably, a more satisfying lunch, than the more elusive smaller red.

I cannot comment except that as far as I know, in the little wood near me, the pine martin has not been spotted. Not by me at any rate. Perhaps the local foxes, who have indeed increased in number in the years in question, took to preying on the squirrels. In any case, I can say that the grey squirrel, though still occasionally visible, is now a rarity. I cannot say that the red squirrel has made a comeback, because, as far as I know they were not there in the first place, but elsewhere, apparently this has indeed happened.

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All of which got me thinking about the eerie parallels between the migration of animals, in this age of unprecedented mobility, and humans. It is of course entirely illogical to think that the fortunes of squirrels are linked to that of humans, but because we have an unavoidable instinct to reduce all matters to those of our own species, we inevitably do so. So here goes.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, Dublin was a grey city, full of white, Irish people. The joke was that if you saw a black man either it was Paul McGrath (the Irish international footballer) or an African medical student. And while this was somewhat flippant, because Paul McGrath lived in England at the time (he’s back now), it wasn’t too far from the truth.

At around the same time as the Grey Squirrel began appearing in Dublin’s parks, so suddenly, in around the year 2000, the city and the country saw the arrival of thousands of new people from around the world; the result of Ireland’s then booming economy.

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Some came on student visas, as did thousands of Chinese young people, who attended language schools but who in reality mostly wanted to work. I cannot put a figure on it, but in the period from about 2000 to 2005 almost every Spar or other convenience store or petrol station was manned by young Chinese staff. The number was certainly in the tens of thousands. Apparently, most came from a province north of Bejing.

In about 2001, coming down a hill on my bike, a young Chinese man, on another bike, crashed into me from behind (I don’t think his brakes were working). No one was hurt, he didn’t speak English, nor I Chinese, so I just patted him consolingly on the elbow and went on my way.

Others came as refugees or asylum seekers, as did many from Nigeria. Like the Chinese, as far as I can gather, this was a localised phenomenon, most of the incomers being from the Yoruba-speaking, Christian, south of Nigeria.Nigeria is a chaotic and often violent country, but, in the absence of a formal war, many of the Nigerians in Ireland’s asylum requests were refused by the Irish judiciary, who judged most of them to be economic migrants.

Up to 2004, many received residency permits as as result of having children born in Ireland, who automatically became Irish citizens. In 2004, this was cut off after a referendum in which the constitution was changed, so that children of residents without legal residence were no longer automatically citizens.

Still more people came from eastern Europe. In the days before the eastern countries became EU members, some were recruited by Irish Irish companies to fill labour shortages. I remember in the summer of 2000 working with young people from Latvia and Lithuania in a petrol station, who had been brought to Ireland by a recruitment agency. One women I recall said to me one first meeting, ‘hello, I am from Latvia. There are too many Russians in Latvia’.

Later, when the east of Europe joined the EU, in 2004, there was another wave of migrants, mostly from Poland, who had full rights as EU citizens to live and work in Ireland.

Just north of the woods were the grey squirrel has his brief reign, up a steep slope, are a series of playing pitches. On Sundays I used to go down there to play in informal games of football, where teams were selected on the day from whoever turned up. And here, all of the groups mentioned above, native and newcomers, used to come across each other.

Generally speaking there were more Chinese than anyone else, so usually they selected one team and organised their own substitutes so that everyone got a game. I sometimes played with the Chinese team, but more often for the ‘everybody else’ team. This comprised of a group of Irish lads, Nigerians with an informal leader named ‘Larry’ ( I think), a a group of Albanian builders who at the time were busy building the port tunnel under Dublin Bay and the odd Russian, Pole and Spaniard.

It was certainly interesting. The Chinese were quick and skillful, but light weight. The Nigerians were physical and powerful players. The Albanians were more stolid, calmer, usually like me, defenders. The Irish? Well, we worked hard.

I’d like to say that all of these groups got along harmoniously, but they didn’t. The Chinese, for instance expected the game to start on time. Anyone who showed up late could not play unless they could persuade someone else to come off as a substitute. The Nigerians, on the other hand, figured that if one of their friends came down late allowances should be made. So let’s say there were often arguments. Heated arguments, with the Chinese and an Irish guy named Neil on one side and the Nigerians on the other.As far as I can gather, derogatory comments were made on both sides in mutually unintelligible languages.

Generally I used to sit out these arguments on the grass until they sorted themselves out. But not always. One time I remember getting annoyed and putting in a few too many hard tackles. One of the other Irish guys told me to ‘stop kicking Chinese’. I told him to fuck off. ‘You fuck off’, he said. Another thing that used to frustrate me was that the Nigerians would never voluntarily accept (as you need to do in games without a formal referee) that a decision did not go their way. When a ball went out of play, they would always shout ‘our ball’, even when it clearly wasn’t. I recall getting heated with them on one occasion about this.

But anyway, to round out my story, today most of these groups have vanished, to where I do not know. Like the grey squirrel, you will no longer find them around the park in any great numbers.

It is rare enough today to find Nigerians in Dublin. Some have moved elsewhere in Ireland to avoid Dublin’s high house prices and rents. Others have presumably, had their asylum requests turned down. The loophole opened by the children citizenship clause in the constitution was closed in 2004.

Similarly, in around 2006, the Irish government stopped granting so many student visas to Chinese students. Some of the wave of people from the north of China who came here in around 200 are still here, now in their 30s or 40s, others went home. But there is nowhere near the number, in Dublin anyway, that there were 10 or 15 years ago.

Similarly, many Poles went home during the economic slump of 2008 to 2013.

Dublin is more multicultural than ever though. But now the latest incoming population is a bewildering mixture of Brazilians, Poles, Pakistanis, Arabs, Europeans of every stripe and more besides. Like the grey squirrel, some will probably leave, a small number will remain for good.

So what’s my point? None really, more of an observation that we will live in a world of huge and rapid changes, that beyond the control of the individual person.

Why the partition of Syria is a terrible idea

As the civil war in Syria drags on into its seventh year, there are no signs that the war is coming to an end.

While the forces of the government of Bashar al Assad, backed by Russian and Iran have retaken Aleppo, the pre-war economic centre of the country, and forced back insurgent forces elsewhere, they have as yet been unable to deal the, mostly Sunni Islamist, insurgency decisive blows in its remaining strongholds of Idlib in the north, Hama province, outside of Damascus and Daraa in the south.

Russian air power and increasingly, its reorganisation and re-training of Assad’s ground forces have saved the Assad government from collapse, but manpower shortages, (notwithstanding the extensive use of foreign Shia fighters) make it difficult for the Syrian state to fight effectively on so many different fronts at once.

A democratic revolution?

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A map of the Syrian war, May 2017.

The idea that the rebels represented a democratic revolution has long since ceased to be credible. Today the strongest rebel groups are HTS; a militia coalition led by al Qaeda franchise Jabhat al Nusra; Ahrar al Sham, a militia whose stated aim is an Islamic state modeled on the Taliban and Jaysh al Islam, a Saudi sponsored Islamist group based around Damascus. Elsewhere the rebels are extremely splintered into dozens of locally based militias.

Though the term ‘Free Syrian Army’ is still commonly used in media coverage, in reality no such centrally organised group exists. The name has meaning only in that it denotes a rebel militia that does not belong to one of the main jihadi groups and that seeks US military aid.

The rebels cannot win, but nor, as a result of the military and financial aid of foreign powers including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France and the United Kingdom,  can they easily be defeated.

In the east of the country, what is for practical purposes a separate war rages between ISIS (the self-styled ‘Islamic State’) and the American backed, mostly Kurdish forces of the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ or SDF. The forces of the Baathist state have almost totally withdrawn from this zone apart from an outpost tolerated by the Kurds in Qamishlo city and an enclave besieged by ISIS at Deir Ezzor city on the Euphrates river. The other rebel militias were expelled by ISIS in 2014.

The SDF, spear-headed in practice by the Kurdish YPG and with the aid of US air power, have wrested the north of Syria from ISIS, alarming Turkey to the degree that its forces invaded Syria at the town of Jarabalus in 2016 in partnership with a rebel militia coalition known as Euphrates Shield, in order to prevent the Kurds from seizing the entire border.

While the SDF has begun encircling the ISIS ‘capital’ of Raqqa, it is by no means certain that they are motivated enough to assault it as their American allies wish. Raqqa has virtually no Kurdish population whereas the Kurds actually covet the area currently occupied by pro-Turkish forces.

The many-sided and inconclusive war has killed an untold number of people; estimates now range up to half a million, but there is no reliable figure, and has displaced up to half of Syria’s population of 20 million. Syria has become an incubator for terrorism and Islamic extremism, and floods of refugees threaten to destabilise the neighbouring countries of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey and even western European nations such as Germany and Sweden.

Partition, a viable solution?

So the question naturally occurs; how can the war be ended?

There are no easy answers to this question. Russia has on numerous occasions attempted to broker a ceasefire between the rebels and the Syrian state, only for these to typically break down within hours. The principle reason for this is that while Russia wants a negotiated solution, Bashar al Assad does not. His stated aim is ‘re-conquer every inch of Syria’.

On the rebel side there is no one political or military body with whom pro-regime backers can negotiate. Those rebel groups that do exist such as the Turkish and US sponsored Syrian National Council have demanded that ‘Assad and his clique’ i.e. the ruling Baath Party, must go before any negotiations can happen. And clearly, in the absence of a military decision, this is not going to happen.

Turkey refuses to countenance the entry of Kurdish representatives into negotiations on the basis that it will not recognise Kurdish separatists linked to the guerrilla group the PKK along its borders.

Finally, no party to the war contemplates negotiating with ISIS, nor has the extremist group asked to be allowed to enter political negotiations.

In short, this is a war that no side looks capable of winning and yet no one is willing to end.

And so, one ‘common sense’ solution constantly re-iterated in the western media is the partition of Syria. Assad, this argument goes, can rule a rump state composed of Allawites (his own sect), other Shia Muslims and perhaps Syria’s Christians and Druze. Sunni Arabs, the bulk of the population, and the rebels’ support base, must have their own state and the Kurds in the north their own. Thus separated, the apparently warring communities can then live in peace. So goes the argument.

But this is in fact a shockingly misconceived idea, for many reasons.

Why partition is a terrible idea

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A map showing the demographic distribution of ethnic and religious communities in Syria.

First of all, while it is true that the war in Syria is in part a sectarian war this is far from the full picture. Certainly the rebels are mainly reliant on support from Sunni-majority countries on the basis that they fighting Allawite and Iranian Shia proxies (in the war’s insulting vernacular, Rafidi and Nusrayi) and certainly also Assad’s forces are bolstered by Shia militias from Lebanon, Iraq Iran and even Afghanistan, on the basis that they are defending people of that faith from Sunni extremists or ‘Takfiris’.

On the other hand though, it is quite wrong to think that Bashar al Assad is some sort of Allawite or Shia communal leader. On the contrary, his propaganda is that he is a secular (though Muslim) nationalist fighting off an extremist insurrection funded and armed by Syria’s outside enemies. Assad’s wife is a Sunni Muslim as are the majority of his, admittedly conscript soldiers. Furthermore, at least 70% of the Syrian population lives in government controlled areas, including the cities of Aleppo, Homs, Hama and Damascus, the vast majority of whose population is Sunni Muslim.

In the absence of free elections it would be unwise to conclude that all of them support the government but it is certainly true that many Syrians of Sunni Muslim religion do, if only on the basis that the current Baathist state is all that stands between them and either anarchy or an extremist takeover.There is no reason to suppose that the majority support the rebel factions. When rebel-held east Aleppo fell to regime forces in late 2016 the majority of the civilian population sought refuge not in rebel held Idlib but in government held west Aleppo.

Furthermore, the idea that Assad would hand over Syria’s main cities to a hypothetical Sunni state when the rebels have been unable to take them on the battlefield, on the basis that they have a majority Sunni population, is simply fantastical it will not and could not happen.

Even supposing that Assad and his government were to agree to this proposal it sill makes no practical sense. Christians, Sunni and and Shia Muslims and Druze do not live in neatly segregated blocks of Syria but live intermingled throughout the country. It would take a massive act of population displacement based on religious origin ( I deliberately do not use the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ as these are religious not ethnic groups) to make it remotely practicable.

Finally, even supposing that all Syrians based their political allegiance on their religious origin (Sunni – pro-rebel and Shia, Allawite, Christian or Druze, pro-Government) and even supposing this could be made into a geographic and demographic reality, there is a final factor which should end the conversation; not a single rebel group calls for the partition of Syria. Rather they call for a new state (for most of them inspired by political Islam) for all of Syria. Indeed the rebels have shown intense hostility to the Kurds for their ‘separatist’ ambitions.

Even the Kurds, the most straightforwardly ‘ethnic’ faction of the war, have not called for an independent state of their own. This is largely tactical, to ward off out and out war with either the Syrian regime or Turkey, but also a recognition that there is no area of Syria where Kurds are a large, contiguous majority. The Kurdish PYD party have therefore called for autonomy for ‘Rojava’ or the ‘North Syrian Federation’ rather than independence.

So if none of the actors on the ground in Syria call for a partition on ethnic or sectarian lines, why is the idea so popular with western commentators?

At the risk, no doubt, of being labelled a a conspiracy theorist, I would suggest this is because the partition and weakening of Syria is the western, particularly US and Israeli, strategy. A partitioned Syria would no longer be a conduit for Iran to project its influence, via the Assad government and Hezbollah, into the Mediterranean. A partitioned Syria would no longer pose any threat to Israel’s northern border.

Safe zones and the future

Since I began writing this article, the germ of a new peace process has begun with the agreement, brokered by the Russians at Astana, of ‘safe zones’ in which fighting will cease. Again, this has sometimes been described as the beginning of the de facto partition of the country.

But again, this is misconceived. The ‘safe zones’ in effect are breathing space for Syrian government forces, who will use the deactivation of most fronts in the west of the country to try to reclaim the east from ISIS. This, if successful, would leave Assad in an immeasurably stronger position: de facto ruler of most of Syria again as opposed to occupier of just third of its territory.

Al Qaeda led HTS is excluded from the ceasefire and will attempt to sabotage it, but if the safe zones initiative works, it is actually be the beginning of the end of the rebellion. If and when Assad’s forces reclaim the east of Syria and close the border with Iraq, it will merely be a matter of time before they move on the HTS stronghold in Idlib, in the north west. After the that the surrender of the other rebel enclaves would appear inevitable.