Sunday 28 February 2016

Nations will be made of ink

Joseph De Maistre said that nations are not made of ink. In the future they will be. Made of values, anyway, which come to the same thing.

At the moment, European countries are ethnic states, made of blood and history, even where the bloodlines are partly fictitious. Renan, we recall, defined a nation as a group of

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Email from the Englishman in Damascus

Joe, the Englishman who lived twelve years in Damascus, sent me these comments, which he says are quick and garbled, on yesterday's post about him.
Since the regime is essentially Alawite and one of the smallest minorities in the country they have looked after the other minorities with exception of the Kurds to act as a barrier to the Sunni majority. There has never been much in the way of sectarian disputes other than resentment of Alawites unfairly promoted to positions of power. If you look at the history of Syria, and remember Damascus is the oldest city in the world, the various faiths have happily lived side by side, so the last forty years of the Assad domination is only blip. Damascus old city is divided amongst all faiths including Jews and

Monday 22 February 2016

An Englishman in Damascus during the war

I had the luck on Saturday to get an introduction to an Englishman, whom I shall call Joe, who lives in Istanbul but who until two years ago had spent twelve years in Damascus. I took him to the Grand Hotel de Londres and plied him with questions and beer and this is what I learnt.

Everyone hoped that Bashir would be a reformer, but there was never any difference between his regime and his father’s. By the time the demonstrations started they were supported by almost everyone.

Joe said that his work had brought him into contact with Syrians of every conceivable type and almost all, until he left two years ago, wanted the regime to go. Almost everyone was sympathetic to what the papers call the moderate rebels.

The only partial exception are, he thought, the Christians, who fear what will happen to

In which our hero visits Istanbul and learns more about Mr. Erdogan

I spent the weekend, or Friday to Monday as grand people used to say, in Istanbul. I didn’t go there to find things about which to blog but they found me.

Turkey used to seem very dull compared with Romania, almost another boring Western country. It no longer seems either boring or Western. 

The latest two in a spate of suicide bombings happened last week. A suicide car bombing  killed 28 soldiers  in military buses in Ankara, as they waited at traffic lights near the headquarters of Turkey's armed forces, parliament and government. The government

Tuesday 16 February 2016

I was in Syria in 2007

I was in Syria in 2007 and this is what I saw. 

I was also in Beirut last October. I had a couple of interesting conversations. My taxi driver warned me the migrants in Europe were thieves and bad people (this was seven weeks before Cologne) and a man who knew Assad told me he is "useless, completely useless, a really poor quality person". wrote about it here.

Sunday 14 February 2016

What is really going on in Northern Syria

This is a link to two exceptionally important interviews, one with Peter Oborne, an unusually fair-minded journalist with no axe to grind, whom I know and trust, and one with the very knowledgeable Alastair Crooke, an ex-MI6 man who then became Middle East adviser to Javier Solana. The story they tell is very much at odds with the interpretation of the war you read in the Daily Telegraph, the Guardian and the Washington Post and hear on the BBC. There is no doubt that the Syrian forces have committed absolutely terrible atrocities, but the rebels have done the same.

The next step in the war will probably be a race between the Russo-Syrian forces and the

Friday 12 February 2016

Turkey's richly ambiguous (to put it politely) relationship with ISIS

Is an old-fashioned nineteenth century deal over Syria possible between America, Russia, Turkey, Iran and the Saudis? The ceasefire agreed today (in Munich, oddly enough) by the International Syria Support Group, comprising all the regional powers except Israel, plus Russia, the US, the UK and France, might be a start in this direction. 

I hope it delivers a settlement, though I don't expect it will. More Government victories like the recent one in Aleppo may be needed before the rebels agree to stop fighting. The Syrian government and Russia probably think so too.

You might think the sudden victory for the Russians and the Syrian government in Aleppo earlier this week was good news, that could bring an end to the war nearer, but it was treated by the media in the US and the UK as a calamity. The press follows the line of the British and American governments, which are still committed to the defeat of the Assad regime and this is not, my guess, because of the regime's many undoubted war crimes. I wonder if the non-ISIS rebels, who include the Al-Nusra Front, which is the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda, are any better.

Instead of peace coming closer, the Saudis may send troops, as they said last week that

Tuesday 9 February 2016

Former MI6 man says 'The Syria War Will Not Be a Quagmire -- Because Putin and Assad Are Winning'

I recommend you click on this very interesting article 
by Alastair Crooke in the Huffington Post about the sudden recent successes of the Russians in Aleppo, which he thinks mean victory for the government is imminent.  Alastair Crooke used to work for M16, writes regularly for the Guardian and was Middle East adviser to Javier Solana, the EU's High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy, from 1997 to 2003.

Points from the article include:

If government forces, moving north, can make friendly contact with the Kurds in the northeast, almost all Nusra and allied rebel forces would be nearly surrounded. The insurgents would be caught in a cauldron with their backs to a lightly populated and forested territory.

The ISIS-controlled corridor, especially the Jarablus border crossing with Turkey, remains effectively open. Turkey has proclaimed this represents its "red line." Were this corridor to be closed by the Syrian Kurds, the Turks have indicated they could respond by invading Syria. The YPG say nonetheless, that they are contemplating just such a move.

...Syria seems to be heading not towards a "quagmire" as many western politicians have suggested, but rather to a clear military outcome. As one

Sunday 7 February 2016

Sun Tzu in his Art of War explains the crisis in the Western world today

"If you know your enemy and you know yourself you need not fear the results of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself you will succumb in every battle."

Whatever one thinks of him, Trump is a genius

I was arguing with a Romanian friend (Romanians are often tremendous intellectual snobs) who insisted that Donald Trump, Sarah Palin and George W Bush were all too stupid to be president.

About Sarah there is no question. But not about the others.

Stupid people do not do what Trump has done, destroy the Bush dynasty, outsmart the Republican party and runs rings round every other politician. He is a born natural for politics. Think Tony Blair in England, Ion Iliescu in Romania.  Of course, it's intuitive with Trump, as with Berlusconi, Blair and Putin. Hitler too, I suppose, and probably Pericles. All great politicians and artists are intuitive.

I long considered Putin a stupid man in many ways, a poor strategist but a very good tactician. (I remember an English friend of mine, who lived in Russia, telling me 'Russians

Monday 1 February 2016

Peter Tweedie on the Colectiv disaster

I was sorry to hear last week that Peter Tweedie has died, aged 68, though I didn't know him. I think I met him three times and not since the turn of the century. He brought Rigips, the construction materials company, to Romania and thereby gave birth to a word for a partition that has entered the Romanian language.

I regret not having known him. He was one of the few foreigners who came to Romania before the revolution and they are always more interesting to me than the ones who came