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.
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.
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.
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.
In Glendalough, we went for a short gravel spin after dumping our bags at the hostel.
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.
We stayed the night in a charming BnB 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
[I wrote this in 2004 when I was younger and stupider. Try not to judge me too harshly. This turned out to be my only formal bike race. Also we were all working as couriers at the time so we sometimes referred to each other by our radio numbers, 55, 60 etc.]
Its cold and dark at seven o’clock on a December morning. I wrap up in three layers of cycling jersies, eat my breakfast and head out. Lizard’s house is in town. The streets are mainly empty and I glide into O’Connell street. The odd drunken person staggers around, presumably trying to get home. Tired looking Chinese people look like they’re walking home after an all night shift in a drinking barn. I stop on O’Connell bridge to wait for 55, getting funny looks, as befits a man in tights. John arrives, we head up to Lizard’s on Gardiner Place. There’s one problem though. Lizard has no back wheel for his bike. Fucks sake.
Lizard’s riding technique could be characterised as kamikaze, but without the caution. As a result, he’s busted both of his wheels. I had given him a spare front wheel the day before, but now I discover the dickhead has smashed the rear one as well. 9 Dave is supposed to be fixing it, but Dave has shown up neither yesterday nor today. Nor is Dave answering his phone at this early hour.
This is typical Lizard behaviour. He had the whole of the previous day to get this sorted out, but instead he’s leaving it till the last minute. I just sit there, sulking. Then we hear a car beep its horn outside the window. Maybe that’s Dave. Its not, but Dave is nevertheless standing outside with his mountain bike and the missing wheel. “How long were you waiting out there?” I ask. “About 15 minutes, but I didn’t want to wake anyone up”. Jesus. It turns out that Dave was out drinking all night and lost his phone. Apparently he came straight here without going to bed. He fits the wheel. All’s well that ends well I suppose.
So Dave heads home to Howth. Me Lizard and 55 John head out into the cold air. But now we have a new problem. Its now well past nine am. The race is at 10am. The race is in Batterstown, which is 30 km away. So now we’ll have to speed it out there. We skirt Phibsborough and head out to Blanchardstown, through miles of concrete housing and industrial estates.
Lizard is putting the hammer down as they say. But we keep dropping John. Me and Lizard are just spinning but we hear his breathing becoming laboured and he drops behind. Fucks sake, we’re not even going fast! I’m getting very intolerant. All these delays and problems are wrecking my head. I start bitching to Lizard about 55 and his weakness. “Just sit on the wheel”, we tell him. Its ok though, we eventually leave the greyness of Blanch behind and get out onto the Navan road. Lizard gets into the slipstream of a lorry and zips away. Me and John eventually catch him, “SIXTY KPH” Lizard shouts. I shake my head wearily.
So we turn off the main road and arrive in Batterstown. There’s no one fucking there! I stop a rotund local. “Sorry, did you see a big group of cyclists around?” Negative. Ok, “well, do you know the GAA club?” Useless bastard. We head to the GAA club which we’ve been told to go to. Nothing. Fuck anyway. So we get John to ring Noel. Noel tells us to go to a disused garage. “Alrightee then” says John. Spa. The roadies finally surface at the garage. My mood improves a bit. We’re lucky, I tell Lizard, that nothing in this country ever starts on time. We have to register. They ask what category we are. We say we don’t have licenses. The roadies give us pitying looks. Lizard refuses to give his real name. Then crosses himself.
The race is handicapped, that is, split into four groups. The weakest starts first, the strongest last, at intervals of about five minutes. We’re in the second group. We’re told there’s strong and experienced riders in our group. We should listen to their instructions. It turns out there’s plenty of these. The course is about 40 km long, two laps of a 20k circuit. It is mainly flat, but with a few small drags.
We’re off, I start peddling cautiously, spinning the small ring. I wait for the group to form properly before I put it into the big ring. Behind, someone is barking orders. “Up and over” when they want you to pass someone. “Keep it tight”, when they think there’s too much road between you and the wheel in front of you. They get quite tetchy about this, “Jesus Christ, keep it tight!”. Ok, its their game. I just settle in to the middle of the group. Lizard, characteristically, does something they don’t like. I hear squawks of outrage from the bunch. “Sit at the back”, he gets told. “That fucking Cyclone!” (he’s wearing his Cyclone jersey). Never mind. But worse is to follow for Lizard. The bunch turns a tight corner and his chain comes off. The last I see of him is cursing and fumbling with his chain at the side of the road.
We’re now in a narrow road, covered on both sides by high hedgerows. The bunch is riding two abreast. The riders on the right keep overtaking the raiders on the left. This makes it hard to maintain your position. I decide I’m going to stay near the front, because if you try and sit in the middle, you’ll inevitably drop to the back. From this position, you have to react to what everyone else does and can’t set your own pace. Towards the front of the bunch, the peleton thins out into single file.
The pace is quite high, but I think I’m going quite well. The only problem is I’m a little stretched out, which makes using the drops uncomfortable. John is tucked in behind me. He’s much happier pushing a big gear around like this than spinning and reacting to sudden accelerations.
The riders around me are mainly from the Swords CC. One of them goes off the front. I follow him, getting out of the saddle. I presume the rest of the group is just going to follow me, but fuck it. Why let him get away and trust his clubmates to bring him back. So I sprint up to him and then rest on his wheel. Sure enough, there’s still voices behind me, but I look around and see there’s only five or six, mainly Swords men. John’s nowhere to be seen.
Our little group guns it away. The order-givers are still around however. “Come on lads, we’ve got a gap”. I just concentrate on following the wheel in front of me, which is rotating up to the front. I’m reluctant to face the wind however, much to others disgust, “if you’re not going to take a turn then sit at the back”. I just nod. So then I take a turn at the front. Several in fact.
But apparently I’m over too far to the left. “Get out!” the roadies scream at me. I comply. By this stage, we’ve caught the riders from the first group and overtaken them. We finish the first lap and get nearly half way around the second, still out in the lead. By this stage I am sitting at the back, puffing a bit. We’re not too far from the end when we get overtaken by a massive bunch of over a hundred riders. Bollox, all that effort for nothing.
The strongest two groups have closed the gap and dragged the rest of the field up to us. The head of this new bunch zips by us. Then I get caught in the tail end of the group. The crotchety old bastards I’d dropped early in the race. All them seem to be trying to elbow in, in front of me. I swerve. Shouts of indignation. “Jaysus lads, I have kids, I want to see Christmas!”. “You, blue, [that’s me] sit at the back”. I raise my hand in incomprehension. “You’re over-reacting”. Fuckers. But its doesn’t really matter now anyway because the bunch is altogether and I’m spent. I’m happy to just sit at the back and roll in home.
John is now somewhere near the head of the group. Lizard rolls up beside me, “alright mate”. But then he just drops behind. Puncture. Being near the back of big group is extremely frustrating. Its called the “concertina effect”. What happens is that you’re belting along, but then, somewhere at the front, the pace slows down. You have to break hard to avoid smashing into the people in front of you. Then it speeds up and you have to sprint just to keep in contact.
There’s so many bodies that I can’t see the finish line. I see people sprinting at the front, then its over. John finishes near the front. I’m happy enough. I was in a break for most of the race. The roadies certainly justified their cranky reputation among other cyclists., but I’m still buzzing with adrenaline, so I don’t care. Lizard is another story though. He punctured about two km from the end.
After about five minutes he rolls in slowly on a flat tyre. Dead fucking last. He’s bulling. “I am never racing with old scumbags again”, he tells me. “One of them tried to grab my jersey and tells me to sit at the back. I tell him, no, I won’t, now let go of my fucking jersey”. He is not a happy bunny. But he improves a little bit when I give him a replacement tube. “I owed the devil for this race”, he tells the guy at the track pump.
We get coffee and snacks at a petrol station and then head for home. Its bitterly cold and the sweat from the races chills me. Lizard wants to race home. I tell him to sort his head out. But we’re relaxed now as we weave through the Sunday afternoon traffic in Blanchardstown. Lizard decides he’s going to break all the traffic lights. Even though there’s a Garda car right behind him. He gets away with it though. “I’m going to get a monk to bless my bike”, he tells me. I sigh.
These are frightening times. The world order we thought we knew after the Cold War is gone and so are many of its certainties.
For twenty plus years, the western world was driven by an ideology that favoured free trade, that privileged open borders and (relatively) free travel of both people and of capital across the world.
It was an ideology driven by what Francis Fukyama famously called ‘the end of history’. Liberal democratic capitalism had triumphed. It only remained to watch its spread approvingly across the world.
This ideology, combined with massive jumps in technology, allowing near instant communication and quick and cheap transport across the globe, really has transformed the world. The world economy today generates massive amounts of profit by locating manufacturing wherever labour is cheapest and selling where prices are high. Where operations cannot be moved, such as the service sector of developed countries, it favours large scale immigration to ensure a continual supply of cheap labour.
This has revolutionised the world in profound ways. Today London is majority ethnic minority and about 40% non-English born. Britain’s old industrial heartlands – the north of England, the Welsh mining country, cities like Belfast and Glasgow, are economic husks, relying almost entirely on redistribution from the centre at London, that international city state, where finance; the storing, loaning and speculating on capital, represents Britain’s main remaining viable industry.
I use Britain as a nearby example, but the same is true across much of the western world. An economy driven by an internationalised, knowledge-based sector and supported at the bottom by continual waves of migrant labour from poorer countries. The same is true in Ireland, though since we never properly had an industrial revolution, we missed much of the pain of the transition. The same is certainly true in the United States, of which more later.
The above is driven by conviction – that the goal of any society should be to maximise economic growth – and also by interest. By dispensing with nationally protected, unionised jobs, by locating anywhere and everywhere across the world and by ensuring a cheap supply of labour where it cannot move, big business, shareholders and financiers have made enormous profits over the past 20 years. Most businesses of any size are now multinational.
The ideology of liberal multi-culturalism then, should really be seen in this context. It is a strategy to manage increasingly diverse populations that have been created by the needs of capital. Similarly, the advancement of women’s equality has not been driven primarily by idealism, but by a desire for access to an expanded workforce. Those liberals who talk about hypocrisy in not fully implementing racial and gender equality are missing the point. Equality was never the goal.
So here’s my central point. We are seeing a backlash against globalisation in developed countries. We have seen this is in Brexit in the UK. We have seen it the rise of the nationalist far right in Europe – in Poland, in in Hungary in France, in Germany. And now we have seen it in the election of Donald Trump in the US.
The reasons are not hard to find for those who wish to look. These are revolts by those who do not wish to live in societies are constantly being revolutionised by the free movement of capital and the influx of diverse and often alien cultures. Those who profess horror at Trumpism fail to understand its appeal. Trump has promised to ‘tear up’ deals such as NAFTA which allow American companies to relocate to Mexico and promised to ‘round up’ illegal immigrants from south of the border.
Why is it difficult to understand why this would appeal to voters from the so called ‘rust belt’, the centre of deindustrialisation? At the same time as the well-paying unionised jobs have vanished, they now have to compete with very poor immigrants for the remaining low-skilled, low paid, service jobs.
Nor is the revolt simply economic. While the end-of-history school of thought surmised that all cultural and ideological differences would fade away, this has not happened. Particularly in Europe with migrants from majority Muslim countries, immigrants have not integrated. Fueled by Saudi and Qatari-funded Mosques and schools (another product of the free movement of capital) resentful second generations, no longer satisfied with serving as cheap labour, have turned increasingly towards radical Islam.
These are real issues. The turn towards ‘anti-establishment’ right wingers such as Trump, Farage, Le Pen and Orban is the direct result. And throwing up one’s hands and shouting ‘racism’, ‘misogyny’ etc. will not make these issues go away. Globalisation and its benefactors want a globalised society. The voters do not.
So far I have talked mainly about economics. But there is also a political dimension. At the same time that liberal, i.e. free trade, capitalism triumphed economically, liberal democracy was thought to have triumphed politically. Indeed the two were commonly presented as the same thing. We now know that this is false. There can be fast growth, low wage, free trade capitalism in increasingly authoritarian countries. China makes no pretence at being a democracy, Russia and increasingly Turkey are now ‘managed’ democracies, without genuinely free elections, free political parties and a free press. And such examples are spreading.
They are spreading because, when Russia, for instance, in the immediate post-Soviet era, allowed the markets and the ‘oligarchs’ to operate unhindered, the country’s economy, the citizens’ welfare and the integrity of the political system all but collapsed. Putin’s rise is about re-establishing state control and for this most citizens tolerate authoritarianism, control over the media and the occasional assassination.
The national-populist politicians in the West such as Trump may wish to go down these lines, but the systems they inhabit have much more rigorous traditions of the rule of law.
There is one final point here. Riding along on the back of liberal universalism was a desire or stated desire to spread it all over the world. At is crudest, this meant ‘regime change’ as occurred in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria as the US has been trying to engineer since 2011. Without entering into the swamps of middle eastern internal politics, it is fair to say that such interventions suffered both from fantasy and from rank hypocrisy.
The thinking was that overthrowing the dictators Saddam Hussein and Bashar al Assad would natural result in a liberal democratic order settling peacefully on these countries. And this is false. History was not over. The vengeful Shia majority took power in Iraq, the resentful Sunnis took up arms against them. The end result was ISIS. Similarly in Syria, the opposition to Assad is not democratic, it is Sunni Islamist, increasingly, radically so.
Where the hypocrisy comes in is that US allies – the autocratic, fundamentalist monarchies of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others – have not alone not been targets of regime change but have apparently been allies in overthrowing authoritarian secular regimes in the region. The outcome of these wars has not been the spread of democracy but the spread of chaos, religious fanaticism and terrorism.
The citizens of western countries no longer see why they should support such allies and fight such wars – something that again, Trump and the other populists have in common. Once again, I must ask; are they wrong?
Do not take this essay to mean I am a supporter of the likes of Farage, Trump or Le Pen. I am not. I am a supporter of the EU (though not perhaps of its current structures). I am not in favour of racial or sexual discrimination. I am not, as Trump and Farage in particular profess to be, a supporter of deregulation of big business. On the contrary, I think this is the source of the problem.
I believe that climate change is real and even if it were not I think that economic growth should take second place to protecting the environment.
But the post-Cold War fantasy of the peaceful triumph of globalised liberal capitalism is over. What will replace it will be more statist, more nationalistic and perhaps more authoritarian. If we want to prevent its worst excesses we must acknowledge this reality.
I wrote this in early 2013, after seeing Lance Armstrong’s revelatory interview admitting he had taken performance enhancing drugs.
Sitting here, looking at Lance Armstrong opening up, or really breaking down in front of Oprah Winfrey, it’s hard for me not to feel sorry for him but also hard not weep for all of us and our fallen dreams.
In 2001 when I had first got interested in the sport of cycling I watched Armstrong, Armstrong the proud, the bold, turn to look into the eyes of his great rival Jan Ullrich and then launch a devastating attack up Alpe D’Huez. Out of the saddle he seemed to glide up the mountain, his face impassive, his legs chopping out his savagely high cadence. Ullrich’s pained face, puffing out of his mouth as he tried to follow, seemed to show the difference between gods and men. Armstrong, spinning into the clouds, rounding the hairpin corners as if they were descents, was ascending to Olympia.
It was not that I particularly liked Armstrong, it was plain even then that the saintly cancer survivor image was only one part of a complex personality. Any teammate who questioned his authority – Jonathan Vaughters, Levi Leiphiemer, Tyler Hamilton, Floyd Landis, immediately got the boot. Armstrong, it seemed, did not have friends. His only friend was victory.
Gracelessly he would never acknowledge weakness or favours – when Ullrich waited for him after a crash in 2003, when Marco Pantani narrowly beat him up Mont Ventoux in 2000. Armstrong would simply deny that it happened. That just wasn’t Armstrong’s way. He was the kid who had to always win grown up.
Like most people, by the time of his late Tour de France victories in 2003, 2004 and 2005, I fervently wanted to see him beaten. His performance was too well drilled, too controlled by his team, too risk averse. It was also highly suspicious. Riders who had previously suffered in the mountains such as Floyd Landis and George Hincapie were suddenly climbers, were now leading lithe mountain men like Roberto Heras and Joseba Beloki up the Pyrenees, paring down the field for their boss.
It was obvious, especially in 2004 and 2005 that Armstrong’s US Postal and then Discovery teams were operating on a different plane of human performance to the others. Obvious too from Armstrong’s ugly bullying of Italian rider Filippo Simeoni ,who was outspoken on the use of drugs in the peloton and who had testified against Armstrong’s doctor Michele Ferarri for ‘sporting fraud’, where this advantage was probably coming from.
American journalist Daniel Coyle nailed the attitude of most European cycling fans to Armstrong. We didn’t dislike him because he was taking drugs – we sort of silently accepted that they all did that, it was that he didn’t give us the spectacle we craved, of man struggling against fate. He didn’t do heroic breakaways, he did military precision, attacks only at specified times, calculated down to the last millimetre. Winning was all.
So most of us would have forgiven Armstrong his doping, but even we had limits. I lost all interest in professional cycling the following year when Floyd Landis, an ex-team mate of Armstrong’s went to pieces one day in the mountains while leading the Tour but the following day recovered the 20 minutes that he had lost, fresh as a daisy, as if the previous day had never happened.
My feeling was like the circus customer who finally turns away in disgust from the show – ‘they really want us to believe that?’ Not too surprisingly, Landis failed a drug test shortly afterwards and was stripped of his Tour title. That year also, most of cycling’s major stars, including Armstrong’s great rival Jan Ullrich were caught up in a Spanish police anti-drug operation – Operacion Puerto – and banned from the sport.
That was it for me. It just wasn’t feasible that Armstrong had ridden clean and still beaten a man like Ullrich when he was doped. And yet when Armstrong was finally caught and stripped of his Tour titles in 2012, all I could feel was sorry for him. I didn’t think he was innocent but for some reason I didn’t want him to get caught. It would have tarnished all the memories of his greatness. In the years leading up to that, including his ill-advised comeback of 2009-2010, I just wanted him to keep his mouth shut and not to comment on the allegations, it was just making his inevitable fall all the harder and more gruesome.
Pride truly does come before the fall, and there never was a man prouder than Armstrong and no man whose fall was more humiliating. Armstrong the man who controlled his team as a military commander. had to watch his former team mates, under threat of committing perjury, line up one after the other to incriminate him. Armstrong who had appeared to make conquering the mountain passes easy since 1999 had been doing it all with oxygen-boosting EPO. Armstrong who had called his accusers liars, finally admitting that he was himself a liar.
The point about cycling is that it represents in some way a conquering of nature and our own physical limits. We now know that to do this honestly is not possible. Weep, weep for our pride.
As for the actual confessional interview, I’m afraid I’m not impressed. It started off promisingly, with him admitting doping, (though, ‘not a lot’) during his 7 Tour de France wins. ‘It was like putting air in our tyres and water in our bottles’, he said. That much, at least rings true.
But there was too much evasion and dishonesty. That he never forced team mates to dope. Extensive testimony from former team mates – or should that be subordinates – contradicts him. That he was clean in 2009 and 2010. Why would a rider who admitted doping since the mid 1990s start to ride clean suddenly when in his late 30s? And how could he still finish third against men two thirds his age? That his doctor Michele Ferrari was an honest doctor. The Italian Court that convicted him of sporting fraud would disagree.
But in a way most galling of all was this story that, ‘I’ve changed’ and, mere weeks after denying utterly any wrongdoing, that he’d now seen the error of his ways – proof positive that he has not in fact changed. Armstrong – a knife fighter by instinct – pretends that he’d put away his blade. In fact, winning is the only thing that ever mattered to Armstrong, the truth is not in him.
Like almost everyone in the world outside Kurdish populated areas of northern Syria, I had never heard of the town of Kobane before the summer of 2014.
Kobane is a small city, roughly the size of Galway, in Irish terms, squeezed up against the Turkish border with Syria. Apparently it got its name from a Kurdish corruption of the word ‘Company’ because it developed as a railway hub in the early 20th century when European companies built the railways in what was then the Ottoman Empire. Officially though, in the Syrian Arab Republic it was known as Ayn al Arab.
Had it not been for the Syrian Civil War, people would probably still not have heard of Kobane and for that its 50,000 or so inhabitants would have been very grateful. Today they are scattered as refugees across Turkey, Syria and Iraq, or if they have returned to the shattered, bombed out city, are probably sleeping in the ruins of their houses.
But this is not the strangest thing about Kobane. Death and destruction has been visited on dozens of Syrian towns and cities without the rest of the world paying undue attention. No the strangest thing about Kobane is that the desperate battle waged there from September 2014 to January 2015 was followed across the world, literally ‘in real time’ by millions of people. And I was one of those people.
ISIS and the YPG
The insurgent group calling itself Dawla al Islamya fa Iraq wa al Sham (Daesh to its enemies) or in English ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) or laterally, the Dawla Islamya (Islamic State or IS) swept across northern Iraq in the summer of 2014, taking the city of Mosul and much of central Iraq and then attacking the Kurdish north.
From its advance, across the internet, came the most appalling images, heads cut off by grinning bearded fighters. Hosts of desperate teenagers (Iraqi Army cadets and Syrian conscripts) machine gunned into mass graves. Prisoners hoisted one by one to an execution place beside the Tigris River and then shot in the head. The Yezidis a minority Kurdish speaking sect, driven completely out of their homes to die on a barren mountain. All this happened within two months. All was filmed gloatingly and promoted on twitter and other social media by the group’s supporters.
The ideology of ISIS (an ultra-extreme form of Islamism) may not be unique, nor its violence (though horrific) unprecedented in the context of the chaos that has engulfed Iraq since 2003 and Syria since 2011. What was different was its unashamed promotion of its violence and its exposition to the world. It was saying; ‘we do not think this is wrong, we are proud of these atrocities and we will use them to impose our ideology’. They quickly became demon figures in popular culture.
And against them, the world needed heroes. The shambolic Iraqi Army did not fit the bill, nor the Syrian Army of the dictator Bashar al Assad, nor the Syrian rebels groups, themselves largely inspired also by political Islam. The Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga seemed a better bet. But better yet was the Syrian Kurdish militia the YPG. The YPG (People’s Protection Units) was formed to defend Kurdish area of northern Syria when that country collapsed into civil war. It was largely sponsored by the Turkish Kurdish (excuse the shorthand, any Kurdish readers) guerrilla group the PKK.
It carved out three autonomous parts (‘cantons’) of Syria, Afrin, Cizire and alone in the centre, Kobane.
The YPG and its women’s militia the YPJ espoused and to some extent implemented, a radical egalitarian programme. For instance for every male official there must be a female one. Women fought alongside men. All localities must elect a committee which makes all local decisions. Despite being Kurdish nationalists, the YPG worked with all the other ethnic groups in areas under its control. It was the YPG which rescued the Yezidis from extermination on Mount Sinjar.
So when, in September 2014 ISIS forces attacked the YPG held city of Kobane, it seemed a genuine case of angels against demons.
Now in reality the YPG and their PKK sponsors are no angels. They are a highly authoritarian militaristic organisation, with a violent history, like any organisation involved in prolonged guerrilla war. But this did not seem important at the time.
Attack on Kobane
The battle for Kobane was a horrendous four month attritional killing match, largely fought out among the ruined buildings of Kobane itself.
I was not there.
What I am going to be write about here is how, in a very strange way, I and others experienced it. I awoke one morning and found a Guardian headline saying ISIS had taken 60 villages around Kobane.
Moving to twitter, one could get hourly updates, many of them, by Daesh sympathisers showing grinning fighters gloating over dead Kurds, lined up at their feet. Dead Kurds including beautiful young women, disfigured by bombs or bullets. One photo showed, or purported to show, a teenaged YPG prisoner having his throat cut. And all the more repulsive was the commentary. Of the dead female fighters, one wrote, ‘comfort women by night, cannon fodder by day’. Of the young murdered prisoner, ‘look now at the big bad communist PKK’.
Now here’s the strange thing about personal engagement in war. Seeing the pictures of dead young Kurdish fighters inspired in me immense, genuine sorrow. I would look at the shattered bodies and see bright beautiful young people whose lives had been snatched away. But when the YPG posted their pictures of killed Daesh, I thought either, ‘good’, ‘fuck them’ or else ‘not enough’. Dehumanisation comes easily to us when we pick sides.
For several weeks fighting ebbed and flowed in the countryside, each day maps posted up online showed Daesh creeping closer to Kobane itself. At times the YPG would counter attack, and the yellow lines on the map would expand. Pictures posted up on twitter by Kurds would show the horrible black flag begin thrown down by YPG fighters and replaced with the yellow flag with red star of the YPG. And I would punch the air. I was filled full of admiration for the bravery of the Kurdish fighters. I would play punk versions of Spanish Civil War songs on my computer. ‘No Pasaran’, ‘Madrid que bien resistes’.
But ISIS had the upper hand in numbers and weapons. The videos they would post up showed them advancing in tanks, with self-propelled artillery and in disciplined formations. They reached Kobane itself it the first week of October. The virtual war now took on an even more surreal dimension. Several hundred metres away from the actual fighting was the Turkish border, where foreign journalists and Kurds could watch the battle in relative safety. So now one could get live actual reports and live footage from the battlefield.
A Kurdish activist calling himself Cahit Storm hid in a pepper field just over the border and morosely told his followers that the Black flag had appeared on hills and buildings inside Kobane. Mishtenur Hill, 600m high overlooking the town fell to ISIS after a bitter battle in which the Kurds used , at least once, suicide bombers. Within hours the pro-PKK twitter accounts were referring to ‘the martyr Arin Mirkan’.
As Daesh fighters took over the hill a panicked Kurdish tweeter named Kovan Direj called desperately for air-strikes, ‘Strike them! Strike them!’ he wrote. We, those of us following the fighting with an increasing sense of dread, felt as if it was actually happening to us. A Spanish journalist on the border, Lluis Miguel Hurtado, tweeted ‘without the hill defending the town would be a utopia.’
Pictures appeared online of grinning Daesh militants holding up the severed head of a ponytailed female YPG fighter. Hours later the Kurds posted a picture of his own dead body. ‘Karma didn’t take long for this motherfucker’ someone wrote.
As the Kurds were pushed back into a corner of the town, it was becoming apparent that the situations was desperate. Cahit Storm wrote on twitter, ‘you have no idea how difficult it is watching Kobane falling to Daesh’. Kobane came to dominate my thoughts. I even dreamed of it constantly. Every time I was away from the internet for any period I immediately checked it with a sense of dread expecting to hear the worst. It got so that I would only log in going straight to trusted pro-Kurdish twitter accounts. I didn’t want to hear bad news from any Islamo-fascist gloating over the latest atrocity, nor to see pictures of their dress-clad bitches under their insect-black flag.
At the same time Turkey closed its border, refused all help to pass through its territory and shot down in dozens the pro-PKK Kurds who demonstrated in support of Kobane on its streets.
But the worst never quite happened. I was part of a twitter storm asking the US first for air-strikes and then for an airdrop for the beleaguered Kurds. And miraculously, both occurred. Seeing packages of the parachuted arms ammunitions and first aid supplies dropping form the air, I again punched the sky. And suddenly Cahit Storm and others were reported massive explosions from American bombers in the ISIS-held part of Kobane. What do you know, I thought, just occasionally the Americans get around to bombing the right people.
But that was not the end of the battle. Far from it. It became a slugging match in which the YPG forces held doggedly on to their enclave in the west of Kobane, while ISIS tried to dislodge them with suicide truck bombs and mass assaults. Meanwhile the US Air Force relentlessly pounded the ISIS positions. It was grim, bloody urban warfare. The toll it took on actual participants, both in terms of lives lost and trauma inflicted must have been awe-inspiring. Oddly enough the relentless attrition also took its toll of twitter warriors.
Several seemed to succumb to a kind of combat exhaustion as the fighting dragged on.
Here’s what I wrote, privately in early November 2014. ‘What’s going to happen I just don’t know. There’s a part of me that just wants it to be over. The twitter updates, the smashed up bodies. I want it all to end. Maybe the peshmerga will get in in time. Maybe not. If not let’s be honest it’s all over for the YPG fighters in Kobane. In the most gruesome way. I can’t even think about that.’
Iraqi-Kurdish peshmerga forces with artillery and mortars did get in. In January 2015 the Americans stepped up air-strikes and the town, what was left of it, was liberated.
It was a great victory over what looked like certain defeat for the forces of humanity. A huge Kurdish flag was planted over the re-taken Mishtenur Hill. It was of course a huge relief for those of us who had been caught up in the drama from far away. But I wonder, if any others, like me felt a little ashamed of themselves.
I blocked all the pro-ISIS accounts I have come across, so now I never see pictures of YPG dead. I do see, increasingly, pictures of heaps of Daesh dead. And I don’t even think anymore, well that is regrettable, but in the end it will save lives.’ Nor do I even think, ‘fuck them’. I just think ok, looks like a good day then’.