Friday 27 July 2012

27 July 2012

It may be that by the time you read this, we'll know more about the Battle of Aleppo, which seems to be shaping up into one of those key moments that could determine the outcome of what we can probably now call the Syrian civil war. (The US is already warning that it fears government troops are preparing to carry out a massacre there.)

Aleppo is Syria's second largest city and its commercial hub, classified by UNESCO as a world heritage site because of its priceless cultural and architectural treasures. Until relatively recently, it had been able to stand aside from the turmoil that was tearing the rest of the country apart.

Not any more. A week after battles raged in parts of the capital, Damascus, now it's Aleppo's turn, as the rebels ratchet up the pressure in the apparent belief that their moment has come.

So where does that leave Syria's neighbours, and where does it leave the rest of the world? I was struck by a line this week in an impressively dispassionate report from the defence policy think-tank the Royal United Services Institute: " … the question of some sort of Western intervention in Syria has shifted from a predilection to stay out of the conflict in any physical sense to an awareness that intervention is looking increasingly likely. We are not moving towards intervention but intervention is certainly moving towards us."

The argument goes like this: increasingly foreign governments are worrying about what's likely to happen when (not if) Bashar al-Assad is forced out. In the words of RUSI's director, Professor Michael Clarke: "… the regional implications of this dynamic of violence are more a driver of international diplomacy than the human misery inside Syria itself."

Syria's neighbour Lebanon is a tinderbox where just one spark can ignite a conflagration; and Iraq and Iran, with their Shia majorities, are lined up against Turkey and Saudi Arabia, with their Sunni majorities.  Professor Clarke talks of  an "arc of proxy confrontation" between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which could lead to all kinds of trouble.

Perhaps the question should be not "Will outside powers intervene in Syria?", but "Will they intervene more than they are already?"

As the RUSI report points out: " Already, it is believed that western intelligence and special force operations are actively underway … Western countries have backed the growing supply of arms, via Arab sources, to rebel forces for some months now … Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with US and Turkish facilitation, have been arming and funding the opposition; and this covert support has been substantially responsible for the progress opposition forces have made in recent weeks."

On the government side, the report says: "Several Russian ships carrying a range of military equipment for the Assad regime are already at sea …" And the Iranians are unlikely to stand idly by if they see their strategic interests put at risk: in order to preserve their influence with Shia groups in Lebanon, for example: "the Iranians would provide weapons, materiel and probably elements of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to support Assad, as they did successfully with the Shia militias in Iraq."

No one is suggesting that the West is likely to mount an Iraq-style international ground invasion, nor even a Libya-style air campaign. But RUSI's Jonathan Eyal has this stark warning: "Western governments which have long worked for Assad’s departure should now begin to fear what may lie in store. For, instead of imploding as other Arab countries did when they were gripped by revolutions, Syria will explode, disgorging its troubles across the entire Middle East, with potentially catastrophic consequences which will need to be managed, since they look unlikely to be avoided."

And he makes this additional point: "President Assad was [note the past tense] the region’s last secular strongman, the last of the Arab leaders who repressed religious and ethnic differences in the name of a higher pan-Arab ideology. His method of government is now as defunct as that of the Soviet Union or communist Eastern Europe, on which it was based."

Until recently, the conventional wisdom was that international intervention in Syria simply wasn't on the cards. If the RUSI report is right, it may be time to rethink some of those assumptions: just watch the price of oil if tensions rise and Western governments start to panic at the thought of further price pressures as they struggle to save their faltering economies.

Friday 20 July 2012

20 July 2012

My tip for the day: be wary of tipping points.

Yes, what happened in Damascus on Wednesday, when some of President Assad's most senior security advisers were killed in circumstances that are still far from clear, did mark a hugely significant moment in the 17-month-long anti-Assad uprising.

But was it a tipping point? Well, in the admirably succinct words of Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding: "I think we are seeing the beginning of the middle of the end of the middle … with the tipping point round the corner."

On the other hand, it is in the nature of a tipping point that you don't realise you've got there until it's too late -- one minute you're upright, the next minute you've tipped.

So no, we don't know if the Assad regime has now reached such a point -- but don't be too surprised if it suddenly tumbles, because if -- or when -- it does tip, it'll tip quickly. After all, who expected Tripoli to fall as quickly as it did last August?

I imagine the name of Assef Shawkat did not ring any immediate bells with you when you heard that he was one of those who died in Wednesday's attack. Yet in Syria, he was widely known and usually regarded as one of the key men in Assad's inner circle, a man whose name came up whenever nefarious deeds were alleged.

(He was named in 2005 by UN investigators as one of the main suspects in the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri -- and was the subject of EU and US sanctions as a key Assad loyalist once the uprising began in February of last year.)

Intriguingly, he was originally reported to have died in May after having been poisoned by rebels -- two other men also said to have been poisoned later surfaced, but Shawkat didn't. So maybe we're entitled to suspend judgement at least on some of what is said to have happened on Wednesday.

For example: the attack was reported to have been the work of a rebel suicide bomber, yet few people living in the area said they heard the sound of an explosion and there were no external signs of damage to the national security building in which the men are said to have died.

It may, or may not, also be relevant that Shawkat's relationship with the Assad family was not always harmonious. He divorced his first wife to marry Bashar al-Assad's older sister Bushra, a match that was said to have been bitterly opposed both by Bashar's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, and Bashar's older brother Basil, who died in a car crash in 1994.

He was also reported some years ago to have been shot and wounded by Bashar's younger brother Maher, who according to some reports yesterday was among those injured in Wednesday's attack.

Complicated? Fraid so. Rumours and conspiracy theories are rife -- outside Damascus there are reports of mass army defections, and in the capital, people are said to have been stocking up on food and other essential supplies for the first time since the uprising began. An estimated 20,000 people are reported to have fled across the border into Lebanon in the 24 hours following Wednesday's attack.

According to state television reports in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the explosion targetted a meeting of Cabinet ministers and security officials. Now, I may have an over-active imagination, but it set me thinking about the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944 (the so-called "20 July plot"), when a German army officer by the name of Claus von Stauffenberg took a bomb concealed in a briefcase into a meeting with Hitler and other top Nazi officials. (Four people were killed when he detonated the bomb, but Hitler himself escaped serious injury. Stauffenberg and three co-conspirators were executed hours later.)

Did something similar happen in Damascus on Wednesday? Was the attack the work of an insider trying to eliminate those closest to Assad? Perhaps even to kill Assad himself? Or was it the work of the people closest to Assad, to eliminate people they no longer regarded as trust-worthy? Were Shawkat and the other victims suspected of plotting against Assad? 

Lots of questions, but no answers. And I shall say nothing about the latest shenanigans at the UN, for the very good reason that they amounted to precisely nothing. Russia and China did not, and will not, sign up to anything they regard as a dastardly plot by Western and Gulf Arab governments (plus Turkey) to overthrow an ally.

It probably doesn't matter much, because all the signs are that events on the ground have left the UN's diplo-inanities far behind, mired in a swamp of irrelevance.

Instead, I'll leave the last word to General Robert Mood, the Norwegian head of the United Nations Supervision Mission in Syria (UNSMIS), and thus the holder of what must surely have been one of the least desirable jobs on earth.

As he bowed out yesterday, he said: "My love for the people of this country and my desire for them to regain peace are endless …

"There is no lasting hope in the military solution. I, as a soldier, know more than many, that the decision in favour of peace is harder than that of war. But I have learned through many years of military practice that it is still better to make that hard choice; to choose peace, even if you can win the war. For it is the fabric of a society that will be deeply damaged by war, and greatly enhanced by the prevalence of peace."

Friday 13 July 2012

13 July 2012

Perhaps you remember -- I'm afraid I don't -- whether four years ago, just before the start of the Beijing Olympics, were the Chinese media full of stories about how the 2008 Games were set to be a total disaster?

Somehow, I doubt it. It doesn't really seem their style, does it?

What about the Greek media in 2004? (I know our media were scathing about Athens preparations, or lack thereof, but the Greeks themselves?)

Or the Australians ahead of the 2000 Games in Sydney? My hunch is -- and I admit I haven't gone back and checked -- that the general tone of their pre-Games media coverage would have been along the lines of: "Fingers crossed, let's hope it's all going to be great."

The British media seem to prefer a different approach. Here the tone is more like: "We always knew it'd be a disaster, and, oh look, it is."

Take this morning's headlines: "Olympic security farce" (Daily Telegraph);  … "Olympic security chaos" (The Times); "Fury after G4S falls short" (Financial Times). You get the general idea.

Is there something in the British character that prefers things to turn out badly? Whenever the sun shines (if it ever does again), do we feel happiest when we mutter darkly: "Yes, but they say it'll rain tomorrow …"?

Do we somehow feel more comfortable when our sporting heroes fail to win than when they do? Is that why we all went "Aaah!" when Andy Murray sobbed on Centre Court at Wimbledon having lost the men's final to Roger Federer?

(And before you all yell at me, yes, I do know that Bradley Wiggins is doing exceptionally well in the Tour de France.)

But I wonder how we'll react if -- sorry, when -- British Olympic competitors start winning medals. The front pages will, I'm sure, be covered in triumphant pictures of them, proudly draped in the Union flag -- but deep down, will we still warm more readily to the gallant loser than to the fist-pumping winner?

It's long been remarked that the British seem to be far happier with bumbling amateurs than with ruthless professionals. Our national slogan could be those oft-quoted lines: "It's not that you won or lost, but how you played the game."

And now I have to admit something: I always thought those lines came from an English public school motto. But now, after a bit of research, I discover that in fact they come from a poem called "Alumnus Football", written in 1908 by Grantland Rice, who was an American sports writer.

The poem is about an American college footballer called Bill Jones, and it ends with the lines: "Keep coming back, and though the world may romp across your spine, Let every game’s end find you still upon the battling line; For when the One Great Scorer comes to mark against your name, He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game."

But back to the London Olympics. Ever since our capital city was awarded the Games in 2005 (was it really seven years ago?), I've been surrounded by fellow-Londoners gaily predicting disaster and mayhem. I long ago formed the distinct impression that many of them would be sorely disappointed if the whole thing turned out to be the most wonderful success.

So where are we now, with just two weeks to go? Well, the company that was meant to be providing much of the security seems to have fallen woefully short.

The M4 motorway, which is the main route into London from Heathrow airport, was shut for five days because of cracks in an elevated section of the highway (it has now reopened -- fingers crossed that they find no more cracks).

Long queues of impatient travellers are reported again at immigration control at Heathrow.

And the London Underground system reportedly creaked under the strain of a test exercise on Monday designed to simulate Olympic conditions.

On the other hand: London hotels are reported to be slashing their prices because they still have plenty of rooms available for the Olympics.

And the Games organisers keep making more tickets available to the general public, apparently because far fewer people than expected have been gobbling them up ahead of time.

So here's my prediction. Only the competitors and their coaches will turn up (all right, a few thousand officials may tag along as well). The hotels will be empty, and the Underground trains will be blissfully free of confused visitors from overseas.

Disappointed sellers of tatty souvenirs will declare the whole thing a disaster. Everyone else will be mightily relieved. British athletes will win a modest but respectable clutch of medals, and the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, will declare himself Mayor for Life.

There again, perhaps it'll pour with rain every day, the Underground trains will break down, and the mobile phone and internet networks will collapse.

I wonder which would make you happier.

Friday 6 July 2012

6 July 2012

I don't know about you, but I'm glad I wasn't the Barclays buck this week.

That's buck as in "The buck stops here."

On Monday, there it was, sitting on the desk of Barclays chairman Marcus Agius.  This is where the buck stops, he said, so he quit.

Twenty-four hours later, that same little buck had bounced all the way to the desk of chief executive Bob Diamond. Actually, he said, on reflection, I think this is where the buck stops -- so he quit.

At which point, although I can't be sure, I think the buck bounced back to the desk of Mr Agius, who decided to de-resign, and take back the job that he had just quit, plus the job that Mr Diamond had just quit -- so maybe there are now two bucks on his desk.

The question is: will they stop there? Or will they soon be bouncing out of the building, and along to the Financial Services Authority? Or the Bank of England? Maybe the Treasury?

Perhaps in the world of modern banking, bucks don't stop anywhere. Perhaps by a mysterious process of metamorphosis, they turn into hot potatoes -- bouncing around in a political and financial limbo, condemned never to find a resting place.

In the court of public opinion, Mr Diamond is toast. Earning something in the region of £100 million over the past five years probably doesn't help his cause much -- and if he was hoping for some understanding from MPs on the Treasury select committee, maybe someone should have whispered in his ear that addressing them familiarly by their first names was not a good career move.

(Some people have suggested it was because he's American and not attuned to quaint old British parliamentary etiquette. So I checked with a US financial journalist: would he have used first names at a Congressional committee inquiry on Capitol Hill? Answer: You must be kidding.)

As for the verdict from the financial pages of our leading newspapers, well, let's say Mr Diamond is not over-blessed with friends at the moment.

Philip Stephens in the Financial Times: "The trading in the complex financial instruments central to the crash is now seen for what it is – a socially useless and financially dangerous way for small groups of people to make themselves absurdly richMr Diamond was the unacceptable face of banking. His departure is welcome and necessary for the health to be restored to Britain’s financial industry. "

Jeremy Warner in the Daily Telegraph: "There is no defence against what Barclays has been accused of, which strays way beyond the incompetence, hubris and recklessness of the banking crisis into outright deception, falsification and fraud … What useful social purpose do investment banking goliaths such as Barclays Capital serve, and how do you change them so that they are not just money-making machines for themselves?"

OK, so we get the message. Mr Diamond is no saint, and the kind of banking that he has come to epitomise ("casino banking" to its critics) does no good -- and a lot of harm -- to the health of the nation.

But here's what I want to know: how did we get here? It's not as if they were making their squillions in secret, hiding their cash under mattresses and at the back of cupboards. In those far-off days before it all went belly-up, bankers behaving badly were regular fodder for the gossip columns.

It is, after all, 25 years since Tom Wolfe published "The Bonfire of the Vanities" in which he laid bare the excesses of Wall Street. Come to that, it's also 25 years since Oliver Stone's film "Wall Street", in which Michael Douglas portrayed the loveable Gordon ("Greed is good") Gekko.

M'lud, I make no accusations at this point, but you may wish to consider the following article from The Times, published on 9 December 2009:

"Speaking to a gathering of top financiers, the Conservative leader [Mr David Cameron] told them: 'My father was a stockbroker, my grandfather was a stockbroker, my great-grandfather was a stockbroker.' The City, he assured them, was in his blood. Those present, who included Bob Diamond, president of Barclays, and Richard Gnodde, the co-chief executive of Goldman Sachs in London, purred their approval."

No, I don't say the buck should end up on Mr Cameron's desk. Or on Gordon Brown's, or Ed Balls's, or Shriti Vadera's.

But maybe we should consider why over a period of two decades or more, successive political leaders and financial regulators have observed Mr Diamond and friends in action and happily cheered them on.

Matthew Norman, writing in The Independent on Wednesday, claimed that Vince Cable, now the business secretary, has been a lone voice, crying in the wilderness, warning of the cataclysm to come. "He warned about unsustainable cheap credit … He pinpointed the structural weakness at Northern Rock and called for its nationalisation … For inadvertently declaring war against a Murdoch media stranglehold, he was ridiculed … By then, he had already spoken about casino banking in general, and Bob Diamond's appointment as Barclay's CEO in particular."

If he's right -- and you can be the judge of that -- it might be interesting to ask why St Vince was apparently such a lone voice. More interesting, I suspect, than observing the antics of Messrs Osborne and Balls in the Commons yesterday afternoon, which I did on your behalf.

I won't describe the scenes, because I know you are of a sensitive disposition. Let's just put it this way: they made bare-knuckle boxing look like a Women's Institute needlepoint awayday.