How Syria collapsed

In April 2018 I was taken on a coach through miles of war-wasted urban landscape in the Syrian cities of Aleppo and Homs. They looked much like the photos of Gaza today, except the shattered streets were always empty and sometimes there were longhand Arabic signs chalked crudely on broken concrete slabs: ‘for sale’, or ‘water disconnected’. The people had fled the crude barrel bombs. Where had they gone? The war had ended in these cities over a year before, which was why we were allowed to visit. Deaths in Gaza are counted – in Syria they were not. We only have estimates. Somewhere between 25,000-30,000 civilians and 10,000-15,000 combatants died

Colum McCann: American Mother

35 min listen

My guest on this week’s Book Club podcast is the award-winning novelist Colum McCann, whose new book takes him out of the territory of fiction and into something slightly different. American Mother is written in collaboration with Diane Foley, mother of Jim Foley, the journalist killed by ISIS in Syria in 2014. He tells me how he came to reinvent himself as (not quite) a ghostwriter, why he thinks you can use the tools of the fiction-writer to get at journalistic truth, and about what it was like to sit in the room with Diane Foley and the man who murdered her son.

Espionage dominates the best recent crime fiction

The best espionage novels cater to our fantasies while still persuading us of the authenticity of their worlds. Of the titles published this year, two stand out in the field, and each author understands that, in fiction, veracity is not the same as authenticity. In Hemingway’s words: ‘All good novels have one thing in common. They are truer than if they had really happened.’ An extended chase, beginning in Siberia, is a kind of Russian version of The Thirty-Nine Steps White Fox (Bantam, £18.99) is the concluding volume of a trilogy of thrillers by Owen Matthews, one of the best of many western writers on Russia. It can happily be

Who cares about Syria’s earthquake victims?

At 4 a.m. on Monday, when the earthquake hit, most of the 4.5 million people living in northwestern Syria were asleep. Thousands of buildings collapsed, burying their residents alive. The majority of those living in this small corner of Syria had already been displaced from their homes in other parts of the country by the civil war. The northwest is the final stronghold of Syria’s opposition and is the main target of president Bashar al-Assad’s grim campaign to retake full control of the country. Before the earthquake, some two thirds of the area’s basic infrastructure ­– public housing, water and sanitation, hospitals and medical clinics, roadways and power generation –

Erdogan’s plan for war, and peace

There are ‘global issues that we both have on our plates’, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said, mysteriously, when he met with his Turkish counterpart last week. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, standing by Blinken’s side, thought the same. ‘We will focus on areas of partnership in bilateral and regional issues.’ Diplomacy as usual, then. Behind the boring platitudes lies a serious rift between Turkey and the United States. In late December, Syrian and Turkish defence ministers met in Moscow in the first proper meeting between the two governments in a decade. There are plans for another meeting between foreign ministers that could lead to a direct meeting between Turkey’s

The agony and frustration of reporting from the Middle East

For 25 years, Abed Takkoush assisted foreign reporters like Jeremy Bowen when they arrived to cover the chaos and conflicts in Lebanon. He drove them around in his battered Mercedes, pointing out with grim relish the places where dark deeds had taken place: the assassinations, atrocities, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians that scar this mesmerising nation. During one Israeli onslaught in 1996, Abed sped past a gunship firing at cars on the highway between Sidon and Tyre, laughing with relief when shells exploded on the road rather than the car. ‘We laughed with him,’ writes the veteran BBC reporter. ‘It was a calculated risk. The alternative was turning back to

Yvette Cooper’s refugee record

As the Ukraine crisis rages, Labour has chosen to focus on the issue of visas for fleeing Ukrainian refugees. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper went for her opposite number Priti Patel on it in Parliament yesterday, demanding ‘clear answers’ for those ‘urgently seeking sanctuary or to rejoin relatives.’  It looks like Patel will now be forced to give a ministerial statement today, updating the government’s position on the issue: a win for Cooper and those demanding more action. Still Mr S couldn’t help but think back to Cooper’s own record when it comes to refugees. In 2015, she was one of a number of politicians and celebrities who volunteered to

China’s Belt and Road to Damascus

There is, it seems, no regime too odious to be a partner of China. Being repressive and corrupt have long been useful assets for gaining the friendship of Beijing, but its recent embrace of the ‘Butcher of Damascus’, Bashar al-Assad, carries reputational and other risks for China – even when it doesn’t have much of a reputation to lose. China has offered Syria membership of its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and with it the promise of munificent investment in Syrian roads, railways, ports, telecoms, hotels and much more. The offer came this week from China’s foreign minister Wang Yi, who was the first high-profile guest in Damascus after Bashar al-Assad’s re-election as president.

A Damascene moment in London: Imad’s Syrian Kitchen reviewed

Imad’s Syrian Kitchen is an eyrie off Carnaby Street, a once-famous road which seems to exist nowadays to sell trainers to tourists who have fallen, as if by wormhole, out of the Liberty homeware department with its pathological dependence on florals. No matter. Nearby, in Kingly Court, which is like Covent Garden before it fell to Dior and Apple, more interesting things happen: the sort of things that London, so sunken, needs. Kingly Court is charming because it invokes an ancient coaching inn — London was once filled with them — and it is, due to the presence of independent eating houses, still palpably bright, pleasing and alive. The restaurant

Looks lovely if nothing else: Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips reviewed

To its huge credit, ITV has managed to find perhaps the last two television celebrities who’ve never before been filmed travelling around Britain while exchanging light banter and using the word ‘iconic’ a lot. In Craig and Bruno’s Great British Road Trips, the Strictly judges are driving a Union flag-bedecked Mini through such telegenic staples of heart-warming TV dramas as the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales and the Scottish Highlands. For the opening episode, the choice fell on the Cornish coast, which certainly helped the programme achieve its primary aim of looking lovely. But this, as it transpired, was just as well — because for a fair amount of the

Isis’s weakness is now its strength

As coronavirus swept the globe a year ago, Isis began issuing pronouncements. ‘God, by his will, sent a punishment to the tyrants of this time and their followers,’ said one such; ‘we are pleased about this punishment from God for you.’ With the world on lockdown, Isis followers were urged not to sit around at home but to ‘raid the places’ of the enemies of God. ‘Don’t let a single day pass without making their lives awful.’ The virus might have begun as God’s punishment to China for persecuting the Uighurs but, as one Isis video put it, the pandemic was a chance to attack Americans, Europeans, Australians and Canadians.

TikTok’s fake news problem

Something troubling is happening on TikTok. The video sharing app is sometimes dismissed as a place where young people go to while away the hours watching banal videos. But TikTok is more than just a quirky hobby for younger generations: it’s where many come to get their news. What’s more, during Covid it’s become a window into a world that is effectively shut. This makes the spread of fake news and misinformation on the app something that should alarm us all. This week, a TikTok video claiming that the United States was responsible for reducing Syria to rubble spread like wildfire around the app. The post – which received nearly

We shouldn’t forget the horrific crimes of Isis returnees

Summer 2015. A five-year-old girl is chained up and left outside in the desert sun in Fallujah, Iraq – a punishment for wetting the bed while feeling unwell. The little girl slowly died of thirst in temperatures exceeding 50 degrees Celsius. Condemned to the same inhumane punishment was the girl’s mother, made to endure the additional and unimaginable horror of helplessly watching the life drain from her daughter’s tiny body. The mother and child were members of Iraq’s Yazidi religious minority. Their captors, members of Islamic State (IS), are said to be German and Iraqi. At the time, Islamic State recruits felt invincible. They taunted the West and ruled over

The twisted logic of Shamima Begum’s defenders

Shamima Begum is back in the news. Firstly because she’s had a makeover. She can be seen on the front page of today’s Telegraph sporting long, flowing locks, trendy shades and Western clothing. Is Shamima the Islamist now aspiring to be Shamima the celeb? Perhaps she’s angling for her own reality TV show: The Real Housewives of Raqqa. But the second reason she’s in the news is because the British-Indian sculptor Anish Kapoor has expressed sympathy for her. He says she’s a victim of British racism. I really wish Sir Anish would stick to what he’s (very) good at — public art installations — and leave the Shamima business alone.

Shamima Begum is not a victim

A dark cloud hangs over the Al Hol Camp where Shamima Begum is being held in North-Eastern Syria. She is said to be ‘angry and upset’ at the decision of the Supreme Court to not allow her to return to the UK to contest the loss of her citizenship. This bleak picture stands in stark contrast to the feelings of the vast majority of the British public that will be raising a toast to the Supreme Court and thanking them for putting their interests ahead of an ISIS terrorist.  Ever since Shamima Begum was ‘discovered’ in a Syrian Democratic Force holding camp by the Times Journalist Anthony Lloyd, the UK

Macer Gifford: My fight against Isis

In mid 2015, Macer Gifford, the City trader who went to Syria to fight Isis, got an unexpected phone call. He was in London for a break and busy doing media interviews as the unofficial spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia. The caller, though, wasn’t just another hack after a quote. Instead, it was a lawyer whose client was on the ‘other side’. Tasnime Akunjee said he was working for the family of Shamima Begum, the teenager from Bethnal Green who had run away to join Isis. ‘He said they were looking at trying to get her out of Raqqa,’ remembers Gifford. ‘He asked if there was any way the

Oil on troubled waters: the US-Saudi alliance is crumbling

Donald Trump said in October 2018 that the Saudi royal family ‘wouldn’t last two weeks’ without American military support. Last week, on the back of the collapse of the US fracking industry, he finally acted on his long-standing anti–Saudi instincts. He ordered the immediate withdrawal of two patriot air defence batteries, sent to defend the kingdom’s oil infrastructure in September after a missile attack blamed on the Iranians. He also recalled hundreds of US troops and said the US Navy presence in the Persian Gulf would be scaled back. Leaving with the ships were dozens of US fighter jets, which would have been crucial for defending against any full-scale Iranian

The art of the hermit

Late in the afternoon on Valentine’s Day, I walked through an almost empty Uffizi. Coronavirus was then a Wuhan phenomenon. Our temperatures had been taken at the airport, but there were no restrictions on travel and those wearing masks looked eccentric. I congratulated myself on finding Florence so quiet. Off-season, I thought smugly. That’s the way to do it. Heaven knows it’s empty now. The painting that caught my eye on that distant-seeming visit was a long, low cassone-shaped painting on the theme of the Thebaid attributed to Fra Angelico (c.1420). The Thebaid is a collection of texts telling of the saints who in the first centuries of Christianity retreated

The story behind Donald Trump’s fake withdrawal from Syria

That noise you can hear is Donald Trump flip–flopping in the sand. Last week, American troops and dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles moved to occupy oil fields in Syria. The escalation came just half an hour after Trump had tweeted that all US soldiers had left the country and would be coming home. As so often, the President says one thing, then orders the military to do the other. On Twitter, Trump is ending the endless wars. In the real world, he is perpetuating them. Trump’s focus is not really Syria, of course. It is the presidential election next year, and his precious voter base. But he can’t seem

Portrait of the week: Brexit uncertainty, Turkey in Syria and a Chinese threat

Home Brexit teetered from uncertainty to uncertainty. Parliament had been summoned to sit on Saturday 19 October to debate what Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, had brought back from a European Union summit. He had held talks before the week began with Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach of Ireland, at Thornton Manor in the Wirral, from which optimistic noises emerged. Margaret Atwood, 79, from Ottawa, and Bernardine Evaristo, 60, from Eltham, shared the Booker Prize. The Queen wore the George IV diadem at the State Opening of Parliament instead of the heavy Imperial State Crown. Among 26 Bills set out in the Queen’s Speech were seven relating to Brexit, one of