Foreign correspondents currently posted to London look at events in the UK through outsiders' eyes, and at how the issues of the week are being tackled around the world.
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Hello and a very warm
welcome to Dateline London.
I'm Carrie Gracie.
This week we look at the continuing
carnage in Syria, and discuss
the latest twists in
the Brexit debate.
My guests this week:
The conservative political
commentator Alex Deane,
Marc Roche of Le Point,
the American writer
and broadcaster Jeffrey Kofman,
and the columnist for the Gulf based
newspaper The National,
and Arab Weekly
Rashmee Roshann Lall.
Barrel bombs, air strikes
and shelling by Syrian government
forces have killed nearly 500 people
this week, many of them children.
Eastern Ghouta the beseiged area
on the edge of the Syrian capital
Damascus, has been described
as "Hell on Earth".
The UN has
called for a cease fire.
Rashmee, you've been following this
nightmare, do you see an end
to the suffering of people in Syria?
I think the response to that
question should certainly not to be
along the United Nations children's
fund issued. Its institutional heart
was so heavy that it could not
describe the suffering of the people
of eastern Ghouta, and it simply
issued a bank statements, saying the
truth is beyond language, there is
nothing further to say. -- a blank
statement. I would say, one has two
recognise words can have the quality
of deeds. Let's look at the facts,
let's use words to do that. The
facts on the ground art, Syrian's
President Bashar al-Assad, as long
as he checks in with Moscow, he can
pretty much do what ever he wants in
the country. As long as he has
robust foreign support. There has
been a stand-off with the UN with
much of the world trying desperately
to get this very small concession
which is a humanitarian halt to the
siege and staff strike strategies
that Assad is using. They can't do
it because the Russians are stopping
it. The facts on the ground are that
the Syrian regime is there, it's not
going away, and one finds it's very
hard to understand the rational
basis of what some trumped
administration officials describe as
a return of the Syrian state, not
return of the Syrian regime, kind of
approach. They are not going
anywhere, it can end if we recognise
the facts on the ground.
You are a
North American, Jeffrey, what's your
view on the Trump administration
recognising facts on the ground?
saw a year ago in April when the
sarin gas was used, that was the red
line in the sand, and to Trump's
credit he actually responded. The
air strikes destroyed 20% of the
Syrian air force. He has calculated
that is a red line, Assad, I can do
chlorine, these huge bombs, all
sorts of carnage. But if I don't do
chemical warfare per se, I can get
away with it. That is what has
happened. This will not be solved
with American leadership. America is
in the midst of a nervous breakdown,
it is to internal looking right now
to care about this. I despair
because I don't see how this will
work. Russia is playing chess, the
rest of the world is playing
checkers. Of course we can hope and
in some way there must be a
solution, I struggled to see where
France, long experienced in
the Middle East, the French pushing
hard for that UN Security Council
resolution. Is there a game of chess
that can be turned into checkers or
The problem is that in
the Security Council, Russia who has
a veto and is a prominent member,
who knows very well the UN because
of the court, is making the
situation impossible. The only hope
with America out of the game is
France. And Britain. They have one
moment they can use against the
Assad regime. It's Russia. It's
hardening the sanctions, and if you
think that there are lots of Putin's
friends who have property in
Britain, property in France and on
the Cote d'Azur, him and each
suitable club, the owner is close,
they could seize all this. -- the
Chelsea football club. But Britain
and France love Russian money so
they would be any help. I am at
least on a moral issue, France and
Britain, they are showing the way.
It's no accident all of us have
mentioned Russia and the involvement
in the Assad regime. Long gone are
the days when President Obama mocked
Mitt Romney for calling Russia the
threat of the future. Here I think
criticism of Russia is very well
founded. As well as Russia's formal
forces on the ground in Syria, which
are significant, we see the
operation of companies like Wagner
PMC, Private military companies,
mercenaries, on the ground embedded
in Assad's forces, fighting the
Kurdish anti-Assad forces. Why this
matters so much, fighting against
the Americans directly, we are
seeing Russians albeit not in
Russian uniform but it seems with
the blessing of the Kremlin in
operation of the 2500 of them,
fighting alongside Assad's forces
directly against Americans. It's an
incredibly dangerous situation, so
it's not just about what happens in
Syria to solve it, also the
potential risk of Americans and
Russians facing directly. Earlier
this month we saw a confrontation
between Russian and American forces
in which the western side claims 100
Russians died, the Kremlin omits
several dozen did. We get dragged
into a conflict in a way we saw for
much of the 20th century, bad news.
I think we must understand that for
Russia there is a lot at stake here.
This is Syria, strategically so
important. The only Russian
Mediterranean -based is there, they
want to keep their foothold
geopolitically in this area. The US
is focused elsewhere.
the Russians it stands to reason
that they want to give their Syrian
allies time to finish off the rebels
on the edge of Damascus.
There are a
lots of arguments that say we should
prevent the collapse of the Syrian
state. Libya is not a shining
template, nobody wants to go there.
This is not about rewarding bad
behaviour or giving carte blanche to
callous leaders, it is about if we
care about the suffering of the
Syrian people, we want it to stop.
The trouble is, Mark's point was the
French and British responsibility
applies. We were for and against
Assad, now we are not sure. Our
foreign policy seems to be that he
should go but on balance we would
rather the state did not collapse. A
The sanctions, they
cannot put up with more sanctions.
The economy is doing badly.
the her point is we need to let the
Syrian people out of this misery and
do I understand correctly, you are
basically saying at some point, the
Syrian government should be
assisting in finishing this in as
civil a way as possible?
what we are understanding is there
maybe a arrangement with Mr Assad,
we may talk about that at some
point, he has it. Maybe because the
Russians have him by the short and
Curly is, let the situation gets to
there. If people can help, help. If
not, get the message and Get Out.
You bring up Libya and I covered
Libya for ABC News. The failed state
solution is one we all fear now. And
rack very much is like that as well.
What I worry about that is it's
easier to let things bump along and
let the people of Syria suffer
horrendously manages to find a
long-term solution. Particularly in
today's world where you can talk
about this concept of empathy, we as
consumers of media in the west are
so beaten down by the imagery, as I
was preparing for this and reviewing
some of the footage last night it's
really hard to watch. If you go to
the BBC website, it's much easier to
go to some list article on bus speed
than to look at these children
Assad is a war criminal.
He should not be allowed to do what
he is doing.
Who is taking the
leadership to say that? We are
sitting in London, where is the
outrage from Westminster, where is
Boris Johnson on this?
to the point, who can.?
-- who can enforce that?
Can I bring up the Koran?
-- can I bring up Iran? That is
That is in a way
balanced because Israel and Iran
balance each other, they are not
really the main proponent, it's
Russia. Without the Russian air
force, Assad is dead. It is Russia
we should target, Iran in a way has
his brother, their side to the
What do you think about the
question of Boris Johnson. Much
distracted about events with Brexit.
I think there is a significant role
for our country and this discussion,
a moral responsibility given our
history and heritage in that region.
I do think we should not overstep
our bounds. If we are going to act
in this environment, if you break
it, you own it. If we intervene
significantly and if Assad were to
go as a result, two big ifs, who
goes in his place? What is our
responsibility for popping up that
regime? The pragmatic answer is that
this terrible person running his
country is better rather than
propping up a new regime for which
we back of the responsibility that
cannot go well.
sometimes have to be tolerated?
And leaders sometimes had to stay in
He is a war criminal, not a
What about the UN? We
had the French ambassador talking
about this being a key credibility
moments, not just the graveyard for
many Syrians but it also should not
just be the graveyard for the UN
Is it is now 11
times Russia has blocked the
resolutions on this? There is a
paralysis here, the Russian agenda
and the rest of the world's agenda
are in conflict. The structure of
the UN is now paralysed and the
credibility very much at stake.
Basically every major international
issue like this has failed to be
resolved because of the kinds of
power imbalances. In the end we form
these so-called coalitions of the
willing and if something will happen
here, that's where it would be.
UN is doing a terrific job, a very
good job with the 5 million
It's good for other
We must move on but a yes,
no answer. If there were listeners
or viewers to this programme in
Eastern Ghouta today, yes or no, is
there any hope for them in the near
future to an end of the air strikes
and the siege they are living under?
No. There is always hope.
to say there isn't.
I don't see it
but I want to believe it.
One of the biggest questions is
Ambitious managed divergence.
That is the expression the British
Prime Minister Theresa May
and her senior ministers came up
with at a summit this week
to describe their vision
of Britain's future relationship
with the European Union.
The president of the European
Council called it pure illusion.
On Monday the Labour leader
Jeremy Corbyn will set
out his alternative.
Alex, where does ambitious managed
divergence stand today?
Our Prime Minister with the office
comes a very nice country manor
house, and she went with ten of her
senior ministers, her Brexit War
Cabinet, to discuss what happens
next. There was some agreement
amongst those people, not least in
mutual recognition of goods amongst
us and the EU. That matters because
the Conservative Party has not been
entirely united on questions about
future relationships with the EU.
You are right, the next step is what
happens domestically in the UK
between the government and the
opposition. Jeremy Corbyn's position
on this, perversely, given that he's
not in government will be quite
decisive for the mid-stage we are
now looking at. He must decide, I'm
amazed he has pulled off this trick
of not really showing his hand, is
he going to come out in favour of us
remaining in the customs union or a
customs union, and if so, will he
take the Labour Party with him to
vote against the government?
I think he won't. Putting
your colours to the mast like that
undermines him with many Labour
voters who voted to leave the
European Union, and makes a start
position between him and the
government with the government
saying we are trying to implement
the largest baby ever had in our
country and you are seeking to
stymie it. Putting aside principles,
the practical political question is,
could he defeat the government? That
I don't know. If you stood up for
the customs union, some Conservative
MPs would vote with him.
come back to that. I want to go back
to that checkers moments, the kind
of, some called it a fudge, others
called it ambitious, the Prime
Minister playing a blinder. As
someone not in the entrails of
Brexit everyday, do you feel you
watch that episode and you now
understood where the government
stands on Brexit?
I am a political
junkie so I do understand it but for
much of the world, if you compile
the definitive Brexit dictionary
after all this is over much after
March 2019, there will be these key
phrases, manage divergences, the
vassal state, cake and eat it
philosophy. The three baskets
approach. All of it goes on and on.
Basically, as one can understand it,
clearly, the EU keeps expressing
great surprise and the world DeMent
at the British position. It's always
want everything. They have said it
over and over. Which part of that
event not understand? Whether it is
unattainable or not.
We have already
heard the president of the European
Council is a pure illusion, is there
a route by which the UK can win all
gain no pain?
No, because you cannot
cherry pick the single market or the
custom union, you are in or you are
out. The checkers compromise is
purely for internal, because as far
as the 27 are concerned, they will
It's a fudge?
domestic fudge. You have on one side
a very divided UK Government, who is
coming now with this cherry picking
off, what they want. On the other
side, which you forget, the 27 are
all united. They all know what they
to do, Britain is isolated, Britain
has absolutely no cards.
I just want a reality
check. This is now more than a year
and a half into this discussion, we
are approaching a year before the
divorce, whatever you want to call
it, that's the polite word.
We are still talking about
general terms and concepts. We have
moved from Brexit meaning Brexit to
these new terms that you rhyme off,
yet we are not getting into
specifics. It just shows that
Theresa May as you say has this
impossible balancing act within her
party. The country does not know
where it's going. We should be
concerned about the lack of
There was an agreement
in phase one. Good. There will be an
agreement on phase two, which will
be bad for Britain. It is moving on.
The trade now is the most important
thing. Again, Britain is isolated in
trade, the illusions of grandeur
that they can get there on their
own, it's a medium-sized country
This is a negotiation in
which people are taking postures.
The peculiar thing, I am not saying
you were doing this, but the
peculiar thing in our country, we
look at what the government does and
pick it apart, then we look at what
the EU says, equally posturing on
their side, and say here is the
Gospel handed down to us by these
leaders of the EU. Actually a lot of
what's being said publicly is hot
air in preparation for real hard
negotiation, bad news for viewers
who want to get this over and done
with. It would be concluded until Q1
I wanted to point out the
EU, the United position is likely to
splinter and has already.
Because the first post
Brexit budget of 2021 is starting to
be discussed. We will see it in May,
there are significant differences
are merging and more will emerge
over trying to plug that big hole,
10 billion euros.
That is something
the UK can take advantage of?
Indeed, one hopes they can. In the
security Corporation field. The
Europeans must spend more on
-- security cooperation. No one
knows what it will look like,
perhaps not even Alex.
thing is not the security, we all
agreed. The Brits need Europe. The
Canada thing, this delusion that the
UK will get Canada plus plus, plus.
The Canada deal took seven years.
Alex is saying that's a posture.
know very well it does not include
service, financial service.
Canadian deal is not useless. More
over, the average trade deal takes
two or less and you must bear in
mind the importance attached to a
trade deal between us and the EU if
there is to be one given we are each
other's largest trading partners.
This is not like forming a deal with
another standard donation, it's not
like forming a deal with another
third nation, the day we leave we
will be Europe's largest trading
partner with who we operate a
massive trading surplus. That point
about splintering as fair, some
countries will want things more than
others and the closer you get to the
finish line, the more...
This is a
particularly interesting week.
Monday, we have Jeremy Corbyn
speaking. Where Alex began, it's
critical we watch what happens
Monday. Corbyn who has been defined
as an ideologue has the potential to
pitted to being a pragmatist on
Monday, and potentially we talk
about chess and checkers, he could
play a really interesting chess
game. If he could force the
government's hand there is a
scenario that is not outrageous that
says he could force an election
sometime this year.
Walk us through
these steps, by peeling off rebels?
By peeling off government rebels, by
saying Labour is now pro-customs
union, or for a soft Brexit. That
would potentially bring it more to
where the Lib Dems fit in.
think Corbyn will do that?
I put my
crystal ball away, I have been so
wrong at this desk so many times. I
think we should watch and see. Then
you have Theresa May scheduled to
speak Friday to give her position,
task has already said she is
delusional. This is a critical week.
What kind of partner pre-emptively
slacks off the thing being said by
the person they are supposed to be
You want to cherry
U2 have been round that
argument. I want to hear what you
have to say about that dilemma.
hope he comes down to stay in the
customs union and that this
government, useless government, very
useless government, as far as
negotiation is concerned. They will
fall because at the end of the day
the EU is faced with a government
which is not knowing what it wants,
it is divided, you need a strong...
That is your hope for you think that
I think that Corbyn
will go for the customs union.
think the Labour leader will go for
a customs union. I think it's all
about jobs and the Shadow Foreign
Secretary saying, it's the right
thing to think.
Not only does it put
the debate in a new existential one
for the challenge to the government
in the house in a real way, then
Tory rebels must think, what do I do
now, do I vote with the Labour Party
in favour of a customs union, but I
could bring down the government?
They must decide whether they are a
Remainer before they are a Tory.
think many will decide they are a
Tory before they are a Remainer. If
Corbyn does that, the other domestic
thing to think about is he crushes
the Liberal Democrats, which is a
long-term Labour Party aim and with
which I don't entirely lack
He crushes them because?
They have been the pro-European
party but if Labour is pro-European
and laugh and has the potential of
getting into government, they hoover
up lots of those Lib Dem votes. The
Lib Dems have been fishing for a
long time in the politics of the
left-wing, so if Labour is both and
They must watch what
happens on Monday. They do not have
an opportunity, they are not in the
equation. I think that Corbyn can
really change the course of this
debate. The question is whether he
has the stomach to do it.
what is the Lib Dem possibilities, I
think constructive dispersal.
I am coming up with more
It does not
matter what happens to the Lib Dems.
It matters that Europe is going
forward. There is the budget but
also this Emmanuel Macron idea and
phenomenon. For me, British policy,
there is no leader, there is no
Macron, while Europe has this Macron
who wants to create several state
If you are right and things
are so unlikely to work out in a
dialogue with the EU, which may be
the case, then all the more do we
need to look to our relationships
with the rest of the world and build
trade deals with them. Like it or
not, we are leaving the EU. We must
accept that reality.
We must close, I'm sorry
to all of you. Thank you for coming
That's all we have
time for this week -
do join us again next week same time
same place.But for now,
thank you for watching and goodbye