Andrew Mitchell: Asylum seekers. As matters stand, it would be irresponsible to vote for these new deportation measures.

6 Dec

Andrew Mitchell was International Development Secretary from 2010 to 2012, and is MP for Sutton Coldfield.

No one should be surprised that people want to come to Britain. We’re a great country – but we can’t just blame the French or kid ourselves that the Australians have the answer to immigration. Bashing the French has long been our national sport, but bashing the British is just as much a favoured French pastime.

We need an immigration policy that is firm but fair. I strongly support Priti Patel in her effort to deliver just that, but she has to play off a sticky wicket. There is no single silver bullet. But there are a series of sensible measures that would help her get back onto the front foot.

The UK’s former Ambassador to Washington, David Manning, rightly wrote this weekend that we can’t pretend to be an Indo-Pacific power while ignoring the continent to which we belong. Brexit hasn’t changed geography: China is 5,000 miles from Britain, while France is just 20. He proposes a new bilateral treaty and a new framework for foreign and defence collaboration with the EU. These are sensible olive branches for us to offer.

The deployment of wave machines and jet skis – under the so called ‘push back’ powers – would lead to catastrophic calamity and diminish our standing on the world stage.

So, too, would proposals for a ‘fantasy island’ to deposit asylum seekers where human rights could not be guaranteed. We cannot challenge abuses in China, Russia and elsewhere if drones are bring flown over a UK offshore detention centre and footage being broadcast around the world. David Davis has rightly raised the spectre of such a place becoming a “British Guantanamo Bay”.

We need to remember what makes our country a global leader. We need to use the final weeks of our presidency of the G7 and our standing at the UN to start a meaningful convening and updating of the 1951 UN refugee convention.

The world is a dangerous place, and one in which climate change and conflict will continue to drive the movement of people from the developing to the developed world for the foreseeable future. We are talking about literally millions of them being on the move.

Where once Britain led as a development superpower, this year we have withdrawn. British development policy was designed to make life at least tolerable over there so that they didn’t come over here.

We are now reaping what we have sown, but it is not too late to change course. We should be gradually returning to our 0.7 per cent commitment on aid and the genuine international leadership that gave us – not leaving it until 2024.

As well as our obligations to those fleeing Taliban persecution in Afghanistan and Chinese repression in Hong Kong, we also have a responsibility to accept our fair share of Christians from Iran, Kurds from Iraq and those fleeing war in Syria and Ethiopia.

The Home Office have full control of refugees asylum claims, but we should no longer require people to set foot on a British beach, or be fished out of British waters, to consider their claim. Pauline Latham made such a very sensible suggestion this weekend.

France received three times as many applications for asylum as we did last year. The Germans have taken the lion’s share of refugees into Europe over the last decade. We are fortunate that the channel represents the backdoor to the EU and that we are not on the frontline in the Mediterranean. We should accept our fair share. No more, no less.

Whether you can afford to pay a people smuggler should not be an entry requirement. You should not have to risk your life in a small boat. You should be able to apply at a British embassy and arrive on a plane, met by an organised local authority. And those local councils should have time to plan, resources to help and an orderly and managed system to integrate new arrivals sustainably into welcoming communities. This might sound Utopian, but it is well within our capacity to absorb just a few families into each of our constituencies each year.

I’m no bleeding heart lefty. I’m a hard-headed civil libertarian. You should always be wary of trusting “the state”, and you can’t solve international problems without countries working together. These are two fundamental Conservative principles that many of us hold dear and they are the ones that will guide my consideration of the proposals in the Nationality and Borders Bill.

Through the Bill, the Government seeks the power to deport asylum seekers before their claims are processed, many of whom will indeed qualify for asylum in Britain . But they haven’t told us where this processing will take place. One of my colleagues comically suggested the Falkland Islands, while the Albanian Foreign Minister denounced reports that they would be sent to Tirana as “fake news”. Until the Government can explain how and where they will use these powers, it is irresponsible for Parliament to grant them.

There is much to commend in this Bill, and we all want Priti Patel to succeed and get it right. But I see no end in sight to the numbers risking their lives to cross the channel until we re-establish the humanitarian resettlement routes which Britain has previously offered. Their lives and our global reputation depend on it.

Garvan Walshe: Could Erdogan’s war against the financial markets be the end of him?

25 Nov

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

Recep Tayyip Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for 20 years with his instrumental attitude to democratic politics.  He took on the secular military establishment created by Attaruk, with the help of liberals tired of military influence.

He then crushed the liberals by allying himself with the Gulen movement (a Sufi cult, whose leader lives in exile in Pennsylvania).

And he then turned on the Gulenists, after a coup in which he was convinced they were involved came close to ousting him, and plunging the country into civil war.

As well as the the coup, which forced him to address the nation from a mobile phone as rebel fighter jets attacked the capital, he has had a number of close poltiical shaves.

In 2015, he lost his parliamentary majority thanks to strong showing by the Kurdish HD party. But since the fractious opposition couldn’t agree on how to replace him, he won fresh elections, and assembled a majority with the help of the secular, but strongly nationalist (i.e anti-Kurdish) MH party.

A referendum in 2017 to free him from parliamentary troubles by giving Turkey an executive presidency passed narrowly with 51 per cent of the vote. But he went on to win the presidency handily with a 20 point lead over his nearest rival. The increasingly autocratic Erdogan has built himself a huge presidential palace, and imagined a vast canal west of Istanbul to rival the Bosphorus itself. Is his decidedly imperious station hoving into view?

All the same, his touch has begun to wear off. He hoped for a similar do-over when Istanbul’s 2019 mayoral election was won by an opposition candidate, Ekrem Imamoglu, by a sliver of 14,000 votes, in a city bigger than most European countries.

Erdogan leaned on the country’s supreme electoral commission to force a rerun – only to find Imamoglu’s margin swelling to 800,000. Ankara also fell to the opposition that year. His own AK party lost two of its leaders – the former foreign minister, Ali Babacan, and a former prime minister, Ahmed Davutoglu, fed up with Erdogan’s one-man rule.

Support for the ruling coalition parties now runs at 40 per cent, compared to 50 per cent for the main opposition groupings. One even put his AK, long the single largest, behind the centre-left secular, republican, CHP. The last thing Erdogan needs, one would think, is an economic crisis.

Yet he has been creating just that. Inflation was last below 10 per cent in 2016, and prices are now 40 per cent higher than they were five years ago. The currency has collapsed. In 2016, 100 lira was worth $30. Now it’s worth less than $10.

Normally, the central bank would raise rates to stem the slide, but Erdogan is against high rates, which he ascribes to a myserious “interest rate lobby”, and has fired three central bank governors who raised them. Unsurprisingly, the Lira is dropping like a stoned and ,though government debt is relatively low compared to GDP (at around 60 per cent), it needs to service its debt in foreign currency – since only the most eccentric investor would put their money into one targeted for depreciation by the country’s own president.

A saviour of sorts arrived yesterday in the form of Mohamed bin Zayed, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, with which Erdogan has been trying to improve relations. Rumours of Emirati investment stopped the Lira’s descent, but sit ill with Erdogan’s talk of economic “patriotism”, and his dreams of dominating regional politics. For Turkey (pop. 84 million) to go begging to Abu Dhabi (pop. 1.5 million) does little for his patriotic dignity.

Erdogan has survived defections from his own party, the loss of Ankara and Istanbul, a hung parliament and even a coup – not least because of his utter ruthlessness.

His parliamentary loss led him to escalate a war with the Kurdish minority (and give him an excuse to imprison their party’s leader). He instituted massive purges of the civil service and army after the coup. He has kept the philanthropist, Osman Kavala in prison, after having him re=arrested, Putin-style, on new charges immediately after his old ones were quashed. The international financial markets are rather harder to tame, and the effects of his war against them are more keenly felt by ordinary Turks than, say, his occupation of northern Syria.

The next elections are set for June 2023, and the opposition fancy their chances so much that they’re calling for them to be brought forward. Erdogan once compared democracy to a train, that you get off once you have reached your final destination. While it is always too soon to write such a survivor off, the ticket inspector is approaching, and the Lira in his pocket are unlikely to cover the fare.

Robert Halfon: America has abandoned the Afghans. But we must stick with the Kurds.

8 Sep

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has jangled nerves in allied nations. One such place is the Kurdistan Region in Iraq.

The situation in Kurdistan and Iraq is quite different from Afghanistan. American armed forces
 in Iraq and Kurdistan will end combat operations by the end of the year. But Iraq and America 
have recently agreed that 2,500 American troops will stay to assist, advise, and train.

The Americans stress the continuing importance of their strategic relationship with Iraq and are
 building the single biggest consulate in the world in Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

The UK
 supports a strong Kurdistan Region in Iraq and also has a sizeable diplomatic presence in Erbil.
The presence of American troops and bases in the Kurdistan Region is certainly desired by its
 people and government. American, British, and German soldiers are providing invaluable training to the Peshmerga, and
 are seeking to unify it under the authority of the government rather than the two main parties – a
 legacy of the past.

A strong Peshmerga is ever more necessary, as the fall of Kabul to the Taliban will embolden 
what Tony Blair calls Radical Islam elsewhere. The Peshmerga have proved a dedicated and capable ally in resisting such extremism. They held
 out almost alone for several years after ISIS took Mosul, and then attacked Kurdistan in 2014.
 Eventually, the Peshmerga and the revived Iraqi Army dislodged Daesh from its genocidal
 caliphate. RAF jets were essential to this achievement.

But it is not complete. Isis is smaller, but regrouping in the gaps between the Iraqi Army and the
 Peshmerga. Erbil and Baghdad are building better relationships, but judicious American and 
British engagement can help them to do so more quickly.

Of course, we should carefully examine the experience of Afghanistan, but my great fear is that 
isolationism on the left and right could take root.

Friends of the Kurds can say that there are times when there’s one thing worse than a Western 
intervention – and that’s no Western intervention.

Not all interventions have been disastrous, let alone about imposing our values. John Major’s
 no-fly zone and safe haven for the Kurds in 1991 averted certain genocide, and helped the Kurds
 create an autonomous region that increased health, education, living standards, stability, and
 opportunity. Our jets saved Kurds from ISIS in the last decade.

Such interventions are the baby that should not be thrown out with the bathwater amid any
 isolationist backlash. They go with the grain of change desired by our partners and enable their self-defence, with
urgent and direct aid in existential emergencies, and self-improvement.

The need to deploy military muscle in extremis is on the spectrum of liberal intervention, and
 provides the solid assurances without which other engagements are more difficult.

Our wider range of cultural, commercial, and political engagements clearly say that the fate of the
 Kurds remains important to the West. It also gives them the confidence and stability to further
reform their institutions.

The Kurds are an ancient people, but they have only had a coherent and recognised near-state in
 Iraq for a generation. They have come far in that time but have much further to go. From my visits over many years, I can testify that they welcome our involvement in ventures as
varied as training MPs and judges, measures to advance transparency and tackle corruption,
boosting agriculture, and film, for example. I suspect many films about Afghanistan could be 
produced in Kurdistan.

A major imperative close to my heart is their desire to modernise their education system and
 encourage new thinking in a more vibrant civil society as they reduce their reliance on oil and
 state employment while designing new futures in technology, tourism, and light industry.
One of our country’s great soft power offers in higher education. My predecessor as MP for 
Harlow, Bill Rammell has recently become Vice-Chancellor of one of their prestigious English 
language universities.

Another such university in Kurdistan has just taken in female students from Afghanistan. It
illustrates the deep generosity of the people of Iraqi Kurdistan, so often exiles and refugees from 
injustice themselves.

Iraqi Kurdistan also continues to host nearly a million refugees and displaced people from Syria 
and from the areas once occupied by Isis to which they cannot yet return. That has been an
 enduring and willingly given duty for them.

Their respect for religious and national minorities as well as improved women’s rights powerfully 
defy Radical Islam. All countries act in their own national interests and not just for altruistic reasons. American and
 British engagement is both. The fall of Kabul highlights how much more we need Iraqi Kurds as 
allies and partners, and vice-versa.

Robert Halfon: 30 years ago, Major defied foreign policy orthodoxies – and saved thousands of Kurdish lives

7 Apr

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

The Kurds are an ancient people scattered by historical omissions and commissions over four countries in the Middle East. The only internationally recognised federal unit is in Iraq, largely thanks to the actions of a pragmatically moral British Prime Minister just 30 years ago.

The initial spur was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 that impelled an international and US-led military campaign to liberate the country. That was achieved by February 1991 and Saddam’s weakness, together with appeals for Saddam to be overthrown, prompted Shia uprisings in the south and a more organised uprising in Kurdistan.

A US General mistakenly allowing Saddam to use his helicopter gunships enabled him to crush the Shia rebellion and to turn on the Kurds who had liberated many cities.

That forced two million Kurds to flee to the mountains on the borders with Iran and Turkey, and some then entered those countries. The Kurds understandably feared further genocide as they had lost nearly 200,000 men, women and children to a genocidal onslaught three years before. Saddam’s forces also then used chemical weapons against Halabja and other towns as well as razing thousands of villages to the ground and forcing Kurds into urban concentration camps.

The 1987/1988 genocide, officially recognised by the UK Parliament in 2013, took place largely out of sight during the Iraq/Iran war. This time, BBC cameras broadcast the haunting scenes of death and misery for millions in the freezing mountains where 500-1,000 people were dying each day.

Conservative MEP Paul Howell, who visited the Turkish border, said ”On television, you only see the faces, you don’t see the ground. There you see human faeces, diarrhoea, sheep’s heads and entrails, it’s as close to hell as you can think of.”

The terrible scenes on our screens galvanized popular British action as concerned citizens scrambled to send 100 tonnes of vital provisions to the Kurds. Kurds in the UK, including Nadhim Zahawi, lobbied the British government while Kurds at home argued for immediate intervention. Some occupied Iraqi embassies.

MPs of all colours were horrified and demanded action. Conservative grandee Julian Amery argued that in any conflict between non-interference in the affairs of other countries and helping refugees in danger, we should back the refugees. Poignantly, Amery’s father was British Colonial Secretary when the RAF bombed Kurdistanis between 1922-1925 and said it was “a splendid training ground for the air force.”

A routine diplomatic response to this could have been to wring hands and send limited aid supplies but urge Iraq to resolve the issue. But new Prime Minister, Sir John Major, had other ideas.

Major was moved by the outpouring of public outrage. He said of Saddam that “Genocide was in the man’s mind, and it was certainly in the man’s character.” Hundreds demonstrated in Glasgow and heard a message from Major: “I regret that I was not able to attend but my thoughts will be with you and the people of Iraq who have fled to escape the brutality of their own government.” Conservative Prime Ministers don’t usually send messages to demonstrations.

He took the issue to Cabinet on March 21 – Kurdish new year, as it happens – and within weeks persuaded the European Union and the United States to implement his notion of a safe haven and no-fly zone for the Iraqi Kurds. They lasted until the liberation of Iraq in 2003.

Millions of refugees, some of whom had been in neighbouring countries since the 1970s and 1980s, returned to their homes in the largest refugee return since 1945. In 1992 they held elections to a parliament and formed their first coalition government on July 4. Despite a bitter civil war between 1994-1998 they laid the foundations of the modern Kurdistan Region.

Major’s actions defied foreign policy orthodoxies which respected sovereign powers and certainly saved thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of Kurds. Without such focused military intervention, the Kurdistan Region would not exist today.

Without a decent near-nation that is the Kurdistan Region, Iraq would have been more difficult to stabilise after 2003. Without the Kurdistan Region’s defiance Daesh could have expanded its so-called Caliphate from Mosul to Kurdistan and Baghdad. If this medieval, misogynist but militarily and digitally-sophisticated rape and genocide cult had accessed Iraq’s oil wealth and weaponry, there would have been more deaths there and on our streets. It could have sparked wider war in the Middle East. There wouldn’t now be a place that offers safe havens that may help stop Christians and other religious minorities being made extinct.

Britons can be very proud that Major quickly answered the calls of the Kurds at the moment of their righteous rebellion and intense suffering. Tony Blair deserves tribute too for continuing Major’s safe haven policy.

It has become fashionable to believe that the UK can only do harm in the Middle East. It is true that previous British governments carved up the Middle East to secure oil supplies and forced the Kurds into an Iraq that rejected their rights and existence. At a stroke, Major rebalanced the historical record and our country is now “working closely with our partners” in Iraqi Kurdistan as Boris Johnson recently told me in the Commons. Major’s hurried humanitarian actions averted disaster, saved an historic people and gifted the Free World a decent ally.

Profile: Nadhim Zahawi, vaccines minister and a rising star who also knows what it is like to fall

12 Feb

Nadhim Zahawi is a rising star who has taken a long time to rise. By making him Minister for Vaccine Deployment, Boris Johnson has at last given him a tremendous opportunity to show what he can do.

Robert Halfon, who chairs the Education Select Committee and knows Zahawi well, says of him: “He’d get you mangoes in the Antarctic and brussels sprouts in the desert.”

A minister told ConHome: “He’s a completely under-rated talent and it’s fantastic that he’s been given his head.”

Lord Archer, for whom Zahawi worked in the 1990s, recently told Radio 4:

“What I discovered very quickly with Nadhim was that he was a born organiser. If you said to him ‘I need six taxis, three aeroplanes and a double-decker bus all in 30 minutes’ time’ he went and did it.”

Zahawi’s warmest friends and admirers testify that he is “a wheeler-dealer” whose manner is reminiscent of Arthur Daley. They add that he is “very, very ambitious”, but “his heart’s in the right place” and “he’s a good person underneath it all”.

In 1996 Zahawi delivered the “Rising Star” speech at the Conservative Party Conference, and in February 1997 The Independent on Sunday included his name when it predicted, with wonderful audacity, who would be in the Conservative Cabinet of 2020.

The newspaper tipped Chris Grayling, who served in the Cabinet from 2012-19, and John Bercow, Commons Speaker from 2009-19, and got two other names exactly right: Robert Buckland, a Cabinet minister since 2019, and Boris Johnson, of whom it reported,

“Not shy in clashing with party lines, Boris would ‘renegotiate EU membership so Britain stands to Europe as Canada, not Texas, stands to the USA’.”

Zahawi is as yet no more than a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State. Why the slow rate of progress under Johnson, whom he has known for 20 years?

The answer lies in the leadership contest of 2019. Figures such as Rishi Sunak, Robert Jenrick, Oliver Dowden, Grant Shapps and Gavin Williamson who came out for Johnson are in the Cabinet.

In the 2016 contest, Zahawi had backed Johnson, telling readers of The Daily Telegraph:

“You only need to spend a few minutes in the company of Boris and a voter to understand his natural abilities, and the chance he presents to help restore the image of politicians with a cynical public. He can unite our country. Boris is not just a personality who people like, but a real leader…

“I’m absolutely certain he’s the right choice and the leader we need to guide us into a new relationship with our allies. He can be the prime minister who finishes the job, and creates this better Britain.”

Yet in the 2019 contest, Zahawi backed Dominic Raab, attacked Johnson as “a controversial face from the past”, warned friends that under Johnson’s leadership “it could go really wrong”, and told readers of ConHome:

“In Dominic Raab we someone with the skill as well as the conviction to navigate the rocky road ahead. Someone who has the experience of negotiating with Brussels but also the courage to walk away without a deal…

“He’s the right choice, the trusted choice and the serious choice.”

In the second round of voting, Raab came sixth, backed by only 30 MPs, and was eliminated, having been beaten, in ascending order, by Rory Stewart, Sajid Javid, Michael Gove, Jeremy Hunt and Johnson, who already had 126 votes.

Zahawi was observed to look “ashen-faced”. He had committed what one close observer calls “a horrible error of judgment”, and was perhaps fortunate to cling on in government as Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Business and Industry, having under Theresa May served since January 2018 as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Children and Families.

One way in which he recovered from this setback was by readily agreeing, at various low points in Johnson’s prime ministership, to requests from Downing Street to go on television and radio in order, in the words of one of Zahawi’s friends, “to defend the indefensible”.

The stickier the wicket, the calmer Zahawi sounded. He has the “willingness to go out in all weathers” which in an earlier age was attributed to Charles James Fox.

And he has known adversity. He was born in June 1967 in Baghdad to Kurdish parents, his father a businessman, his mother a dentist.

His grandfather, after whom he is named, was Governor of the Central Bank of Iraq from May 1959 to November 1960: “his signature was on the banknotes,” the grandson has remarked.

In the 1970s, Saddam Hussein tightened his grip on Iraq and began his persecution of the Kurds, which was to culminate in genocide. When Zahawi was nine, his parents fled with him to Britain, where they arrived with £50.

They found their feet and settled near Crowborough, in Sussex. Zahawi became a keen horseman, competed as a showjumper, and was sent to King’s College Wimbledon, an independent school.

When he was 18, his father invested in an American company which had invented a machine called Air Knife, which could supposedly use air to dig up roads:

“In mad entrepreneur fashion my father rang my mum and said, ‘This is going to be a huge success.’ He remortgaged our home, put everything into this thing. Of course you know how this story ends, the company went bankrupt and the bank took our home and everything except one thing: we had a Vauxhall Opel Senator car that was in my mother’s name so they couldn’t take it.”

The family was destitute:

“I had to make a choice whether I went to university or become a cab driver to put food on the table. We had nothing, and had to go on housing benefit and income support. For about a month my dad wouldn’t leave the bedroom because he was so distraught. When you have that level of breakdown, of failure, it really is like a vortex, and our biggest challenge was to get him out of the room and get him to have a shave, go out, and find work.”

All was not lost:

“My mother was a dentist. We had a half-decent education. We were able to sit down and work our way through this disaster… 

“Many of my left-leaning friends will say you can’t tackle education until you tackle the challenge of poverty. I see it the other way round, you don’t tackle inequality and poverty unless you tackle education.”

Zahawi read chemical engineering at University College London, and began a career in business, marketing tee-shirts and Teletubbies merchandise, at first without much success.

He also entered Conservative politics, serving from 1994-2004 as a councillor in Wandsworth, and in 1997 contesting the hopeless seat of Erith and Thamesmead.

In 1991 he had met Jeffrey Archer, who was raising money for the Kurds. In 1998, when Lord Archer (as he became in 1992 on John Major’s recommendation) was preparing to run for Mayor of London, he took on Zahawi and Stephan Shakespeare to help run his campaign.

The following year, Archer was accused of perjury, and had to withdraw from the mayoral race. He was later convicted and sent to prison.

Zahawi and Shakespeare wondered what to do instead. In 2000 they set up YouGov. The polling side of the new firm proved itself by predicting with extraordinary accuracy the result of the 2001 general election, and Will Young’s victory in Pop Idol in 2002.

In the selection in 2004 for the safe seat of Surrey Heath, Zahawi was beaten by Gove, as were many other aspirant Conservative MPs, including Nick Hurd, Steve Hilton, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Laura Sandys.

In 2009 the expenses scandal precipitated the retirement of a number of MPs, and in 2010 Zahawi was selected for the safe seat of Stratford-on-Avon.

He has said how pleased he was, as an ethnic minority candidate, to be selected for such an overwhelmingly white seat. He pointed out to the selectors that if they closed their eyes, he sounded as British as they did.

But his friend Sajid Javid recalled, in the recent Radio 4 Profile of Zahawi, that racism was not entirely absent:

“I remember him saying to me he was handing out leaflets on the street somewhere and someone had screwed it up in front of him and said that if you were on fire I wouldn’t waste my piss on you.”

YouGov had been floated on the stock exchange in 2005 and Zahawi was by now a wealthy man. He admires his former constituent, William Shakespeare, and he has acquired a riding stables outside Stratford.

He soon showed his gift for attracting attention, notably when his tie started playing a tune as he spoke in the Commons.

Along with Matt Hancock, who has since become Health Secretary, he wrote a bookMasters of Nothing: How the Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature.

And in 2012 he became a leading figure in the successful revolt against the Coalition Government’s plans to reform the House of Lords. He was made a member of the Policy Unit, but received no ministerial preferment while David Cameron was Prime Minister.

Nor did Theresa May feel any urgent need to send for Zahawi. He is an ebullient figure, and in parts of the parliamentary party may well have inspired a degree of envious distrust, by being so rich compared to most MPs, and so outspoken a supporter of the Kurdish cause, a region where by now he had oil interests.

Exotic origins, ebullient self-confidence and love of seemingly lost causes are more congenial to Johnson, who in 2015 visited Kurdistan with Zahawi, and was photographed by Andrew Parsons squinting down the barrel of an AK-47 assault rifle.

Zahawi campaigned for Brexit, making his case on ConHome. In 2017 he was affected by Donald Trump’s ban on Muslims entering the United States, and had no hesitation in attacking it:

“For the first time in my life last night I felt discriminated against, it’s demeaning, it’s sad… I don’t think we should look away when President Trump makes a mistake.”

As minister since November for vaccine deployment, Zahawi has been able to issue a series of wonderfully encouraging progress reports, and is well placed to combat the reluctance of some members of ethnic minorities to take the vaccine.

What will happen to him next is anyone’s guess. He said that when his family fell on hard times, education made the difference. Were there to be a vacancy in that department, he would be an obvious candidate.

Garvan Walshe: Strife in the Caucasus. How Armenia and Azerbaijan are pawns in a new great game between Russia and Turkey.

8 Oct

Garvan Walshe is a former National and International Security Policy Adviser to the Conservative Party

The Soviet Union’s strategy of ruling its non-Russian subjects by giving them autonomous regions where they would be in the local majority unravelled with the USSR’s collapse. Instead of having locally-rooted patronage networks controlled by the Communist Party, Russia’s periphery became a zone of chaos, terrorism and frozen conflicts.

Vladimir Putin, who exploited the Chechen war in his rise to power, learned to live with this. He was able to disrupt neighbouring states enough by allowing “frozen conflicts” to fester, threatening their territorial integrity and ensuring they didn’t, as the saying goes, poke the bear. This strategy is starting to wear thin in the Caucasus, however, as an increasingly assertive Turkey has begun to boost its own influence in the region.

The last big war between Armenia and Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh, an Armenian-majority region which had some autonomy from the Azerbaijan Soviet Republic, ended in 1994 with an Armenian victory. Nagorno-Karabakh itself was ruled by supposedly independent institutions under Armenian protection. Armenia, meanwhile, helped itself to land between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, guaranteeing access to the former enclave.

Azerbaijan considers these territories to be illegally occupied by Armenia and promotes a narrative and eventual “return” for the tens of thousands Azeris displaced from there and Nagorno-Karabakh itself, while Armenia tolerates the settlement of the territories with the support of major funding from the Armenian diaspora (incidentally, Israel has good relations with Azerbaijan, which it sees as a check on Iranian influence).

Russia maintains two military bases in Armenia, including one near the capital Yerevan, and has signed a defence pact with the country, but the power balance has tilted in Azerbaijan’s favour since the 1990s. First, Azerbaijan has prospered thanks to plentiful natural gas, but more importantly it now has strong backing from another important regional power and, historic enemy of the Armenians whose genocide it denies ever committing, Turkey.

Tensions have been building between Yerevan and Baku for the best part of a year, and serious skirmishes broke out in June. Azerbaijan’s irredentism as been appears to have been turned up a notch, while Nikol Pashinyan, Armenia’s new Prime Minister, who came to power following a popular revolution in 2018, has also been happy to keep the temperature high.

Last week, Azerbaijan launched a much larger than expected offensive, even reportedly commandeering civilian trucks, and deploying mercenaries demobilised from the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army. It has bombed Stepanakert, the capital of Nagorno-Karabakh, and threatened the main highway supplying the enclave from Armenia (Armenia retaliated by bombing Ganja). It does not seem to have yet met with much success, in part due to the mountainous terrain, and there’s not much time left before winter makes offensive operations difficult.

It also appears that Turkey is egging Azerbaijan on, adding to the flare-ups between Erdogan and Putin. Having long been at loggerheads in Syria and Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh forms a third front in their proxy war. Russia, which backs the Assad regime has the upper hand in Syria thanks to a major error of judgement by Erdogan. The Turkish leader persuaded Trump to withdraw American protection for Kurdish forces in Syria, tilting the balance of the war towards Assad. In Libya, Turkey which supports the internationally recognised Libyan government, has come out on top, and General Haftar, backed by both Russia and France, is much weakened.

By backing Azerbaijan so strongly, Turkey is making two strong geopolitical claims. First, it is getting involved against Russia not in North Africa or the Middle East, but in a conflict between former Soviet states. Second, Turkey is not currently a member of the Minsk Group, convened by the OSCE to address the Armenian-Azerbaijani dispute, but will surely have to be involved in any new ceasefire. This is partly due to Erdogan’s ambitious (some would say neo-Ottoman) foreign policy, but it also reflects Turkey’s growing economic importance.

This significant shift would normally attract the attention of the United States. It has a close ally of its own in the Caucasus – Georgia – and a significant and influential domestic Armenian constituency (there are between half a million and a million Armenian Americans). Though if an election campaign is never the best time to attract Washington’s attention, the Trump Administration’s evisceration of the State Department meant the US couldn’t use its weight to damp the conflict down.

America’s absence has left two aggressive powers – Russia and Turkey – to begin to test their strength against each other in the small countries that border them. Whatever happens in this particular conflict, it seems a new Great Game is afoot in the Caucasus.