What is ISIS?

ISIS.jpg

The problem with the bomb-Syria-to-stop-ISIS-attacking-us argument is that is that the United States, the world’s greatest military superpower, has been bombing ISIS in Syria for over a year, and self-proclaimed ISIS-affiliates were still able to murder 130 people in Paris and 14 in San Bernardino.

Perhaps ISIS just needs to be bombed a bit more. But even if that is the case (which it isn’t), there’s nothing that says those bombs need to be dropped by British planes. America’s annual military budget is bigger than the ten next highest spenders combined. Britain getting involved is a bit like showing up to a party at Elton John’s house with a bottle of wine. Continue reading

Digested: What’s Going On In Crimea?

Thanks Newsround, we'll be pinching that useful map

Thanks Newsround, we’ll be pinching that useful map

Russia appears to have invaded neighbouring Crimea, the historical region currently part of the Ukraine. It’s opprobrium a go-go in the West, as the leading lights of liberal democracy compete to see who can pile the most macho condemnation on Vladimir Putin, the man who, presumably, gave the order.

Geopolitics quickly polarises people. The mainstream media less-than-subtly slides behind the economic and strategic interests of the United States, while even among well-meaning leftists there’s a tendency to uncritically back anyone who the West is currently lecturing, no matter how authoritarian and/or anti-democratic. For the casual observer, this can make it difficult to understand what the hell is actually going on.

Last November, Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych suddenly pulled out of a deal that would’ve seen his country forge closer links with the European Union to make one with Russia instead. This wasn’t very popular in the West, whose leaders almost immediately started chafing for his removal. Continue reading

Digested: The Syria Conflict In Brief

assads

Bashar and Asma Al-Assad

Before the events of April 2011, Bashar Al-Assad was, for a dubiously elected autocrat, reasonably popular. It’s grim to think about now, but for a time al-Assad was seen as a reformer, a softer, sharp-suited New Labour dictator. He was PR savvy and had a photogenic, Western-educated, Christian Louboutin-sporting wife. He might have been thoroughly anti-democratic, but up against the mass-murdering Saddams of the Arab world he didn’t seem quite as bad.

Bashar had grown up with no expectation of being Syrian leader and trained as a doctor. His father, Hafez al-Assad, ruled Syria for thirty years, turning the Ba’ath Party from a movement striving for socialism, nationalism, Arab unity and Arab renaissance into an oppressive pseudo-monarchy. But after the oldest Assad boy, Bassel, died unexpectedly in a car crash, his younger brother Bashar was suddenly next in line. When Assad Snr keeled over in June 2000, an election was held to decide his successor. Bashar was the only candidate and won with a blatantly-rigged 97.2% of the vote.

In power, behind the PR savvy, Assad continued what his father started – namely pillaging the economy to enrich his own family. He and his close associates are thought to own between 60-70% of Syria’s assets, and his personal fortune totals $1.5 billion. His wife, effectively his regime’s smiley PR screen, might have done work for UNICEF and campaigned against rural poverty, but she can also happily blow £270,000 on a single internet shopping spree while her husband blows people to bits. Continue reading

Czech It Out: A Shoddy History

The Czech Republic as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

The Czech Republic as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

It’s hard to pinpoint a geographical area with as turbulent and unpredictable a recent history as Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

The Czech-Slovak experience of the twentieth century reads like an encyclopaedia of the various sadistic and deranged political projects humanity has been subjected to over the last 100 years.

The area roughly equivalent to today’s Czech Republic and Slovakia left the nineteenth century as a verdant strip in the north of the dysfunctional dual-monarchic state of Austro-Hungary, the Czechs and Slovaks just two of a plethora of ethnic groups contained within a relatively small but regionally influential empire.

It was as part of said empire that the region and its inhabitants were dragged into what was, at the time, the biggest, costliest, deadliest conflict in human history.

When Franz Ferdinand, the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, was offed by Serbian separatists in 1914, the result was a calamitous diplomatic chain-reaction.

Franz Ferdinand, the day he was assassinated

Franz Ferdinand, the day he was assassinated

Austro-Hungary threatened Serbia, Serbia appealed to Russia, Russia was militarily allied to Britain, and Britain had the same arrangement with France. A rampantly militaristic Germany, on the other hand, was not only allied with its Austrian neighbour, but was hungry for expansion. Thus began the First World War, in which over a million Czechs would fight, on the losing side.

Defeat effectively ended the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It quickly crumbled, and the Czechs and Slovaks declared their independence in October 1918, producing the First Czechoslovak Republic. Relatively peaceful parliamentary democracy then miraculously survived for almost twenty years. Hitler.

Unfortunately, in neighbouring Germany, the national psyche hadn’t taken humiliating defeat particularly well, a situation hardly helped by the degrading conditions the victors imposed on it with the Treaty of Versailles.

Bitterness and resentment were widespread. The unhappy result was the election, messianic rise then European predominance of one Adolf Hitler, leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party, or Nazis for short.

Hitler and some Nazis

Hitler and some Nazis

Around 22% of the population of the new Czechoslovak state was ethnically German – the areas they inhabited known as the Sudetenland. In 1938, Hitler demanded that they be turned over to the Nazi Germany, and, in one of the most divisive and bitterly lambasted foreign policy decisions in modern history, the major European powers decided to let him have them.

The hope was that by giving in to the Nazi state, they would satisfy its aggressive expansionism and prevent war – and, some would argue, give the Allies time to hastily rearm in case war was unavoidable.

On the first count, appeasement didn’t work. The following year, Nazi Germany invaded the western Czech part of the Czechoslovak Republic. More easterly Slovakia, meanwhile, made a flimsy declaration of independence. In reality, its new government was run by Nazi sympathisers, the fledgling Slovak Republic essentially a Nazi puppet state.

Soon the continent, and the globe, was embroiled in a conflict darker and deadlier than anything it has ever experienced – including World War One, which, prior to the Second, had been optimistically known as The War To End All Wars.

Terezin Concentration Camp

Terezin Concentration Camp

1939 to 1945 saw industrial-scale murder, obviously of millions of combatants on both sides, but also of the Jews, Marxists, socialists, homosexuals, gypsies and political dissidents systematically exterminated by a Nazi regime seeking to ‘purify’ the human race. Some of concentration the camps were in the Nazi-occupied Czech-zone.

Eventually, the war ended. The Third Reich went down in flames having drenched Central Europe in blood, and the Czechs and Slovaks could wearily add National Socialism to the list of warped political doctrines they’d been horrifically abused by.

Czechoslovakia reunited, and democracy was restored for all of two years. In 1946, parliamentary elections saw Slovakia swing to the Democratic Party, a group with its origins in its wartime anti-Nazi resistance, while a majority of Czechs voted for the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia.

The results were fairly meaningless, because just two years later, in February 1948, the Communists seized power anyway, and kept it for the next four decades.  

Stalin and Klement Gottwald

Stalin and Klement Gottwald

Czech Communism self-consciously emulated its Soviet benefactors in the beginning. A heavily bureaucratic, smotheringly authoritarian one-party state pursued heavy industrialisation, and was enthusiastically Stalinist for years after Uncle Joe had been rejected across much of the rest of the Eastern bloc.

Heavy-headedness and unbending adherence to the Soviet model of development characterised Czechoslovakia’s first two decades under Communism. But this approach began to galvanise opposition, within the Communist Party and outside of it.

In 1968, the hard-line President, Party General Secretary and effective leader of Communist Czechoslovakia, Antonin Novotny, was replaced by the Slovakian reformer Alexander Dubcek.

Dubcek’s aims were radical and, within his party and the Eastern bloc more generally, deeply controversial. His self-declared objective was ‘socialism with a human face’, a more tolerant, permissive, democratic and characteristically Czechoslovakian form of communism, markedly different from brutal Stalinism.

Freedom of speech, of the press, and of movement was to be increased. Some elements of a mixed economy would be reintroduced. And, perhaps most radically of all, some democratic elections would be allowed in the long-term.

Left-wingers will likely agonise for decades over what might have been if the so-called Prague Spring had been allowed to run its course – whether, out of the unmitigated catastrophe of Soviet Communism, some kind of democratic socialist alternative to Stalinism and Western capitalism could have been salvaged.

Instead, Dubcek’s policies spooked the Brezhnev regime in Moscow. In August 1968, a Soviet-led force of Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia, with no resistance. Reforms were stamped out, and Czechoslovakia was subjected to ‘normalisation’ – the forcible return to the Soviet model it had dared deviate from.

Soviet tanks in Prague

Soviet tanks in Prague

Popular protests at the unwelcome Soviet intervention culminated in a student, Jan Palach, setting himself alight in Prague, but to no avail. Dubcek was deposed, expelled from the Communist Party, and sent to work as a forestry official. His reforms were reversed, and Czechoslovakia was returned to Soviet deep-freeze for another two decades.

But, in proving itself inflexible and unable – or unwilling – to be reformed, Soviet-style Communism spelt its own doom in the long-run. Over the next twenty years its unpopularity grew and, in 1989, it eventually fell in what became known as the Velvet Revolution, a bloodless popular uprising.

In 1993, having had its Velvet Revolution, the country went through the Velvet Divorce. Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in a decision made by political elites that had little discernible popular support.

The governments of both new states willingly embraced the neoliberal capitalism so in vogue in the developed West, and economies grew, consumption skyrocketed, and both personal freedom and relative standards of living greatly increased.

Typically, Western histories tend to stop there – as if by finally coming round to bountiful liberal democratic capitalism, all the former-Czechoslovakia’s problems were magically solved. Suffice to say, as the Bemolution was to discover, they weren’t.

New Crisis in Sudan

displaced camp darfurDisplaced persons’ camp, Darfur

This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.

Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.

For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.

But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.

To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.

Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.

Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.

A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.

By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.

What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.

war criminal omar al bashir

President Omar al-Bashir

An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue. 

People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.

NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.

At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.

Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.

New Crisis in Sudan

displaced camp darfurDisplaced persons’ camp, Darfur

This month our roving humanitarian spotlight stops over Sudan, where a fragile and widely-flouted ceasefire agreement is collapsing and sparking a new phase of horrendous ethnic violence.

Sudan has internally broiled for over a decade, ever since a rag-tag alliance of indigenous African militias declared war on the Arab-dominated Sudanese government they accused of racial apartheid.

For hundreds of years Sudan has been ruled by the descendants of Arab migrants who came to the region in the twelfth century. Today Sudan’s population is 70% Arab, and over 90% are practising Muslims.

But Arab-African relations have been far from harmonious. Arabic culture is treated as supreme, while that of indigenous Africans is trampled over and demeaned. Sudan is oil-rich, but while the Arab north enjoys the proceeds, the impoverished African south goes without. In early 2003, rebels attacked police stations and military outposts in Sudan’s western Darfur region. Civil war was the result, and initially anti-government forces did spectacularly, state-embarrassingly well.

To save itself, the Khartoum-based regime had to radically rethink its strategy. It chose to fight guerrilla tactics with guerrilla tactics, calling on armed cattle herders known as the Janjaweed it had used to suppress previous inconvenient uprisings to tackle this latest insurrection.

Armed and funded by the state and backed by the Sudanese Air Force, the Janjaweed scythed into rebel-held territory. Arab settlements were left untouched, while the indigenous African population was slaughtered. Their towns and villagers were looted, bombed and burned, and suspected anti-government fighters were dismembered if they were lucky, summarily executed if they weren’t. Women and children in rebel areas were often (and, horrifically, often still are) systematically raped. Other times they were just executed. As time went on, the Janjaweed slash-and-burn campaign started to look like ethnic cleansing – a concerted attempt to wipe Darfur’s non-Arab Sudanese out of existence.

Today, we look back on what happened in Darfur as genocide. Approximately 400,000 people were killed, harrowingly many of them non-combatants, over 400 settlements were completely destroyed and over 2,500,000 people were uprooted by the violence.

A peace treaty was eventually signed in May 2006. In 2011, South Sudan, a hub of anti-government resistance, declared itself an independent state. But the region was left coping with a humanitarian catastrophe.

By its (official, sadly not actual) end, some were estimating that as many as 2,000,000 had been killed and 4,000,000 left homeless. Approximately 1,700,000 people are still living in makeshift aid camps in the region, with nearly 300,000 more in neighbouring Chad. Foreign aid is the only thing keeping them alive. The social fallout will be felt for generations – in one camp of 22,000 refugees, 20 babies conceived through rape are abandoned by stigma-fearing mothers every month.

What’s more, South Sudan has entered existence as one of the world’s poorest countries. Around 5,000,000 South Sudanese, roughly half the population, have dangerously little food to eat and approximately 250,000 are thought to be at serious risk of starving to death in border regions where renewed fighting has shredded vital farming areas.

war criminal omar al bashir

President Omar al-Bashir

An already dire situation is further compounded by the actions of the regime back in Khartoum. Under Omar al-Bashir, the only sitting head of state ever to be indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court, government forces are continuing to hound rebel elements still inside Sudanese borders. As violence reaches levels not seen since the 2006 peace agreement, indiscriminate bombing raids, looting, pillaging, and the rape and slaughter of innocents continue. 

People displaced by the latest round of fighting on the Sudanese side of the border are fleeing en masse to their newly-founded impoverished Southern neighbour. A fledgling country incapable of feeding itself is now left coping with 19,000 more refugees.

NGOs are working heroically to provide life essentials like food and clean water, but the burden is increasing and UN commanders tasked with protecting homeless civilians are complaining they lack the manpower to do the job effectively. Sudan needs more aid, more peacekeepers and more media exposure to grab the attention of both the public and the Western political class.

At the moment, a situation even more horrific than the Syrian conflict we see splashed all over the newspapers is steadily worsening and getting shamefully little media attention. It’s terrifyingly possible that the international ‘community’ could, yet again, self-obsess its way through another preventable human calamity.

Oxfam is at the forefront of the bid to keep hundreds of thousands of people alive across Sudan and South Sudan. You can donate to their Sudan appeal here.