Author: Nick Cohen
Where is the challenge to Russia’s aggression as fear of radical Islam strengthens its power in the Middle East?
From massacre to exile to racism to subversion and back again, Vladimir Putin has caught Europe in a rolling trap. The war crimes that Russia encourages the sectarian Assad regime to commit force Syrians to run. When a small proportion of them reach Europe (for never forget the rich world takes only a tiny minority of the world’s refugees) their presence drives Putin-supporting nationalists into power on anti-Muslim tickets.
The iron wheel is about to turn again and grind up the lives of hundreds of thousands. Diplomatic attempts to prevent a battle look as if they have failed, as they have failed so monotonously in Syria. In all likelihood, Bashar al-Assad’s forces and their Russian and Iranian backers will soon begin their assault on Idlib province. Russian planes are already trying to take out defences, and there is every reason to expect a catastrophe. Doubtless, Assad’s forces will use chemical weapons again and Russia’s proxies on the “alt-left” will invent conspiracy theories to deny their existence. Our filthy decade has taught criminals that they can break the taboo on the use of chemical weapons – one of the few limits on man’s inhumanity to man – and not only be rewarded for it but acquitted of guilt.
The Islamists in Idlibwill presumably fight to the death, and I cannot pretend to care for them one way or another. The democratic fighters and the civilians are another matter. These are the people who out of fear of Assad’s torture chambers have nowhere left to run to except over the border and Turkey, which says it cannot take any more refugees. The UN warns of a humanitarian crisis on a scale not previously seen in Syria – which is quite a claim.
To talk of Europe’s problems in these grim circumstances seems glib. Yet the most dynamic force in European politics is the fear of uncontrolled borders and radical Islam. It helped drive the Brexit vote and the election of backlash nationalists across the continent, whose peculiarities deserve more attention than they receive. They are nationalists of a rare type: supposed patriots who collaborate with their countries’ enemies. Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU held multiple meetings at the Russian embassy. Alexander Yakovenko, Russia’s ambassador in London, offered Arron Banks, Farage’s loudmouthed bagman, a piece of a Siberian goldmine business. Now that Russia is committingsmall-scale small-scale chemical attacks on British soil, the flattery appears to have paid off. Nowhere on the radical British right do you hear challenges to Russian aggression.
If the contradiction between love of country and loyalty to Putin is wide here, it yawns in the Czech Republic. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the crushing of the Prague spring. Alexander Dubček, the leader of the then Czechoslovakian communist party, thought he could allow freedom of speech, democratisation – all the forbidden fruits – while remaining a part of the Soviet empire. The Soviet Union put him right by sending in 250,000 troops and 6,000 tanks. The civil resistance and the the men and women who died are in the Russian attack were honoured with due solemnity in Prague this summer. But the Czech president, Miloš Zeman, could not bring himself to appear at the official commemoration because he is a Putin apologist. The Czech Republic feels like a post-colonial country where the former imperial overlord still holds sway.
There ought to be a revolt against the country’s compromised leaders. But when I talked to Czech intellectuals in Prague they were close to despair. The Czech opposition is factionalised and unable to mount a coherent challenge to the ruling order. Civil society is degraded. You may not think much of the British media, but there is nothing like travelling in eastern Europe to make you see its slender virtues. Press freedom is dying in the Czech Republic and there are few journalists able to hold the pro-Russian elite to account. More frighteningly, the new right in the Czech Republic and across Europe is replacing with anti-Muslim bigotry a patriotism that defends the nation against hostile foreign powers.
The fact that he is now the willing tool of an aggressive Russia in no way makes him a collaborator, Zeman implies. The real enemy is Islam. “No one has invited the refugees,” he thundered recently. “Islamists are coming to subjugate Europe.”
We are always being told to understand the fears of what the new elite calls in its most condescending voice “ordinary people”. But if Nigel Farage, Viktor Orbán, Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump and – the way he is going – Boris Johnson were serious about limiting migration they would support the creation of safe havens in Syria so that refugees had somewhere to hide – a demand the original and democratic Syrian revolutionaries of 2011 made as soon as Assad set his troops on them. They do nothing of the sort. Instead, they support a Russia whose crimes against humanity produce the very refugees they affect to deplore. As a way of generating votes, I suppose the hypocrisy has a logic to it; a logic they can follow without fear of challenge from a modern left that has abandoned any claim to internationalism or basic moral fitness.
There is no need for Farage or indeed Johnson to worry about attacks from the degraded British Labour party, whose ethical collapse is becoming daily more evident to all with eyes to see. Jeremy Corbyn was the willing and paid servant of Press TV, the state propaganda network of an Iran whose proxies now threaten Idlib. Nothing, not Iran’s record in Syria, nor its treatment of women, ethnic minorities and gays, could shake his dog-like devotion. His spokesman Seumas Milne flew to Russia in 2014 to abase himself before Putin and tried to spread conspiracy theories about the Salisbury chemical attack.
Russia is now the most important outside power in the Middle East; feared and respected. The refugees its policies spread bolster its far-right clients in Europe, while the dominant voices on a left that claims to oppose the far right excuse rather than condemn Putin. Syrians were the first but they are not the only casualties of Russia’s Middle Eastern wars.