The Weekly Review: Sunday 29 November 2015

This is a review of 7 news stories, reported over 7 days, with implications for the quality of life of less powerful sections of our global community. Christ talked about us 'loving our neighbour'; a first step in that direction is to understand our neighbour's situation a bit better... - Gerry Rogers

1. ‘Bombing Syria’ special. Like French hostage Nicolas Henin featured last week, German Jürgen Tödenhofer has spent time with Islamic State fighters; he was the first Western journalist to interview them and seek to understand their plans and actions. He does not support the further airstrikes currently undertaken by France and under discussion in the UK. His central argument is that Western bombing overwhelmingly kills innocent civilians, while failing to target urban guerrillas, and is therefore both ineffective and counterproductive. ‘As I learned from spending time interviewing Islamic State fighters in Syria and Northern Iraq, George W. Bush’s ‘war on terror’ turned out to be a classic terrorist recruitment programme. In 2001 there were roughly a couple of hundred terrorists in the mountains of the Hindu Kush who posed a threat to the international community. Now after the war on terror has claimed what some estimate to be as many as a million Iraqi lives, we are facing some 100,000 terrorists. Isis was created 6 months after the start of the invasion of Iraq, it is Bush’s baby’.

‘20,000 Isis fighters used to hide among the 200,000 civilians in the (Syrian) city of Raqqa,  but only a couple of thousand remain at most, the majority have long ago fled to Mosul in Iraq or to Deir Ezzor in Syria.  The city has become one of the favourite targets of the French President Francois Hollande, bombing alongside American, Jordanian, Russian and Syrian aircraft. The majority of the Arab world has seen videos of dead children in Raqqa, Isis is doing everything it can to spread them. And for every murdered child there will be new terrorists. War is a boomerang and it will come back to hit us in the form of terrorism. Urban guerrillas cannot be defeated with bombs…that’s the very first chapter in the Dummies’ Guide to Terrorism’.

‘A bombing strategy by France and now the UK will fill Isis fighters with joy. Hollande could only make them happier if he were to send in ground troops as well; Western boots on the ground in Syria is the ultimate Isis dream. Instead of killing mainly Muslims, they are desperate to live out their imaginary apocalyptic showdown between good and evil in which they can at last fight the US, UK and France on the ground. They would have a good chance of winning there too. These fanatical fighters have excellent military training and love death. Western soldiers love life. The West cannot beat Isis with military means’.

‘There are ways to beat Isis. First America has to stop the (Sunni) Gulf States delivering weapons to the terrorists in Iraq and Syria. Secondly the West has to help Turkey seal its 900 mile border with the Islamic State to stop the flow of new fighters. Thirdly, Isis can only exist because it has managed to ally itself with the suppressed Sunni populations of Iraq and Syria; they are the water that carries the Isis project. If the West managed to bring about a national reconciliation in Iraq and Syria and integrate Sunnis (including former Iraqi Ba’athists) into political life, Isis would be finished, like a fish out of water’.

 ‘Is it really so hard to see that the attempt to defeat terrorism with wars has failed? That we have to finally start treating the Muslim world as true partners? Bombing civilians will recruit new terrorists, again and again’.

Between October 2014 and October 2015, the US-led coalition conducted 2,700 supposedly high-tech precision airstrikes in Syria and 4,900 in Iraq. The US claims to have reduced the sphere of Isis’ influence in Syria by 30% over that period but Isis has in fact extended its influence, taking Palmyra in Syria and Ramadi in Iraq.  The current situation is widely seen as a stalemate with the US struggling to find any coherent strategy, other than another ground invasion for which the American public has little appetite post Iraq and Afghanistan.

Not only is aerial bombardment not seen as an effective means of tackling IS, neither is a ground force invasion seen as an achievable challenge. Rosemary Hollis, Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University says: ‘without troops on the ground to take control of (Raqqa) and root out Isis militants, more bombing by itself will not solve the problem. The lessons from the war in Iraq that followed the US-British invasion and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime are salutary. To take one example, to eliminate the Iraqi resistance in Falluja, US forces in effect reduced the city to rubble’.  Indeed defence analyst Ewen MacAskill comments that the US had 170,000 troops in Iraq at the peak of its activity in 2007 yet struggled to quell an insurgent force smaller than Isis. ‘There is a huge gap between House of Commons discussions and reality on the ground in Iraq and Syria. The estimate provided by the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee – the group responsible for the bogus assessments in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion –  is of 70,000 Syrian opposition rebel fighters who do not belong to extremist groups (who might constitute a ground force) , but they are splintered into over 100 different groupings.   Rosemary Hollis again: …’to suppose they could all unite against Isis is unrealistic’.

‘Another problem confronting the international coalition against Isis is its international appeal outside Iraq and Syria. The reach of Isis is transnational and if defeated in these countries, it could simply re-emerge in a new form, much as Al-Qaida morphed into Isis. For those (Sunni Muslims) threatened by the expansion of Iranian and therefore Shia power in the Arab world, Isis promises a counter-offensive and a vision of a caliphate that will herald anew golden age for the ‘true’ believers. This vision also captures the imagination of disaffected youth from migrant communities in Europe who experience social or economic marginalisation. For sure, not all Isis recruits in Europe are poor or unemployed but they can still suffer discrimination, suspicion and alienation. They are not many but it only takes a few to form a terrorist cell nurtured by Isis’.

In summary, further Western military action will lead to more terrorist attacks.  One is reminded of Einstein’s comment on madness; doing the same thing twice but expecting different results.

2. ‘Change Please’ is the name of a new non-profit social enterprise network of mobile coffee shops staffed by homeless people and backed by Big Issue founder John Bird and former commodity trader Cemal Ezel. Customers at the Covent Garden cart seemed pleased with the ethically traded coffee and with the way their money would help get homeless people off the street, paying them the London Living Wage of £9.15/hour. ‘Change Please’ provides training and underwrites temporary hostel accommodation for its baristas and is planning to open fresh stalls at London Bridge and Waterloo as well as outside the headquarters of big business. The scheme will be extended to Bristol, Manchester, Nottingham, Glasgow and Edinburgh, with staff paid the regional living wage of £8.25/hour. CP aims to find staff permanent jobs in established coffee shops after 6 months on the mobile stalls and hopes to get 200 people off the streets and into work and housing every year. ‘If we can get a small proportion of coffee drinkers to change where they buy their coffee, we could change the world!’ said Ezel. What a great idea!

3. George Osborne’s Spending Review. The government has been forced to deny claims that George Osborne’s spending review is a continued assault on Britain’s poorest families after two respected think tanks warned that future benefit cuts would leave some families over £1,000 a year worse off. The Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation said millions of working families would be worse off by 2020 because of welfare changes than they would have been under the current system, despite the chancellor having reversed planned cuts to tax credits. IFS Director Paul Johnson said: ‘This is not the end of austerity. This spending review is still one of the tightest in post-war spending history’. Some 2.6m working families stood to lose an average of £1,600 a year as a result of benefit changes under the new Universal Credit system being introduced. ‘The long term generosity of the welfare system will be cut just as much as was ever intended as new claimants will receive significantly lower benefits than they would have done before the July changes’. ‘In the long run, people will be worse off under Universal Credit than they would have been if the current system continued’ said IFS economist Stuart Adams. The Chancellor announced no tax rises for wealthy and high earning individuals or profitable corporations in his spending review, raising fundamental questions of social justice. Taxes on corporate profits in the UK are the lowest in the G20 zone belying his claim that Britain ‘is a high tax country’.

Meanwhile veteran socialist film maker Ken Loach, aged 79, who made the seminal 1966 film Cathy Come Home, has called for greater public outrage at benefit sanctions and reliance on foodbanks in making his latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’.The present system is one of conscious cruelty’, Loach said. ‘It bears down on those least able to bear it. The bureaucratic inefficiency is vindictive and hunger is being used as a weapon. People are being forced to look for work that doesn’t exist. This is a real wound in our society. We are just closing our eyes to this. The situation is much worse than in the days of Cathy Come Home. This is all about dividing people into skivers and strivers. There needs to be public rage about this. The idea that someone in the system can decide whether or not you can eat is appalling. Where is the Labour Party on this? We should have the Tories on the run on this one. Come on Jeremy, we want to hear from you. People are feeling oppressed and crushed and powerless. What is the point of the Labour movement if not to give voice to people in these situations’?

4. Benefit cap. High court judge Mr Justice Collins has ruled that the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, had unlawfully discriminated against seriously disabled people by failing to exempt their carers from benefit caps. The government’s decision to apply the cap to full time carers for adult relatives had created serious financial hardship, forcing many to give up caring for their relatives and depriving seriously disabled people of care from trusted loved ones. ‘For many it matters deeply that they are cared for by a family member’ he said.  Lawyers for the Secretary of State had argued that unpaid carers should be treated as unemployed people choosing either to work or cut their living costs. Mr Justice Collins ruled that those providing full time care could not be in full time work unless they cut back on their caring responsibilities. Unpaid carers made a huge contribution to society and saved the taxpayer the equivalent of £119bn a year.

5. Child Sexual Exploitation. The Office of the Children’s Commissioner has produced a report entitled ‘Protecting Children From Harm; A Critical Assessment of Child Sexual Abuse in the Family Network in England and Priorities for Action’. It is thought that only one in nine abused children report their experiences so that the 50,000 cases reported to police and local authorities understate a truer figure of 450,000 such incidents. Two thirds of cases are believed to be victims of abuse in the family. The report calls for children as young as 5 to be given guidance in school on acceptable relationships and to encourage them to discuss concerns. The scenario of older family members who may still be children, acting out scenes from online pornography, was specifically mentioned. The report calls for schools to develop and apply whole-school approaches to child protection where all school staff can identify signs and symptoms of abuse. The report also calls for a strengthening of the responsibilities of all who work with children, ensuring professional bodies collaborate more effectively to identify problems.

6. Climate change summit. On Monday, 130 government leaders will meet in Paris at a make-or-break conference in an attempt to forge a new global treaty to limit carbon emissions and offer financial support to poor countries like Bangladesh who stand to be most affected by climate change. Governments have been trying to do this for over 20 years but carbon emissions have continued to rise strongly. In 1992, the carbon content of our atmosphere was about 356 parts per million (ppm), it now stands at 398 ppm, not far short of the 450 ppm which climate scientists view as the threshold beyond which our climate will change drastically and irrevocably, rendering swaths of the globe virtually uninhabitable. If success of these talks falls to one person it will be Christiana Figueres, the UN Climate Change chief.

The key number is 2 degrees Celsius, the scientifically agreed average warming threshold above pre-industrial levels that means dangerous climate change. On current levels, if no action is taken in Paris, the world may experience a change of 5 degrees Celsius this century. For Figueres, 2 degrees C is within striking distance. Current plans suggest we are heading for a rise of 2.7-3.0 degrees C.  Figueres’ aim is to get a legally binding agreement to bring that figure down to 2 degrees, with a built-in review mechanism for each country’s emission output every 5 years to check if they’re on track. Environmentalist George Monbiot believes the challenge can be met but involves all of us consciously choosing to consume less and conserve more, of everything, everywhere, all the time.

7. Guantanamo Bay. A US federal judge has questioned the sincerity of Barack Obama’s pledge to close the torture and concentration camp after hearing the case of a prisoner who has waited 4 years for a review of his detention without trial. Prisoner Mohamedou Ouid Slahi has achieved worldwide notoriety for his recently published diary account of his 14 years in captivity, first at Bagram in Afghanistan and then at Guantanamo. The US Government’s Periodic Review Board has only considered the situation of 18 out of 107 prisoners still detained at Guantanamo. ‘Obviously if the President cared, he could get this done in a year ‘said Judge Royce Lamberth in a withering critique of the US government’s stance. Slahi has apparently been a model prisoner and former Guantanamo guards have said they want to testify on his behalf.

Suggested prayer response:

a). Prayer: Father God, educate those who exercise power in our society to treat others as they would be treated.

b). View: Change Please