Her Majesty's Big Brother

Britain has plenty of good reasons to stop its citizens from fighting in Syria, but asking mothers to inform on their sons won't work.

Last week, Britain launched a nationwide campaign to keep its youngsters from joining the jihad in Syria. In addition to enhancing collaboration between police and charitable organizations, including mosques, British women are being encouraged to inform on family members that might be thinking about shipping off to fight Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime. Moved forward by New Scotland Yard, Britain's metropolitan police service, the campaign is one of several preventative measures outlined in the country's newly updated "CONTEST" counterterrorism strategy. Earlier measures proved controversial, with critics arguing that the "PREVENT" strand of the strategy did more to vilify the British Muslim community than aid the fight against terrorism. This latest iteration is already kicking up a similar storm of controversy -- for better or for worse.

The phenomenon of British nationals traveling overseas to participate in foreign conflicts is not particularly new. In the 1930s, for example, George Orwell went off to fight the fascists in the Spanish Civil War. Then in the 1990s, a number of British nationals went to fight in Bosnia, mostly on the Bosniak side. Since the war broke out in Syria, at least 400 Britons are said to have joined the fray. But while the Syrian experience may seem like just the latest episode in a familiar historical pattern, there are ways in which it is actually quite different. Unlike previous fighters venturing abroad, the foreigners battling Assad in Syria are, by and large, not fighting simply to overthrow a tyrannical regime. The radicalism they promote -- made clear in their public discourse and by their track record when they actually take control of a particular area -- is an end in and of itself.

Most of these fighters are not interested in returning to Britain. They are fighting to establish their version of an Islamic state -- and they intend to live there once it's in place. But if any of them eventually return -- as inevitably many of them will -- they will come back far more radicalized than when they left. It is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility that some of them might refocus their rage on the British state.

Nevertheless, it is unclear how the British government's latest tactic is going to address the problem. For it to work, parents would have to both be aware of their children's growing radicalization before it's too late, and trust that British authorities can help them defuse the situation. Those assumptions are questionable. For example, the family of Abdullah Deghayes, a Libyan-British teenager who was recently killed in Syria, insisted that they discovered his intent to join the fight against Assad only after he was gone. Moreover, both the boy's father and an aunt said they would not have reported him to the police. As far as they were concerned, Deghayes traveled to Syria to help the Syrian people, not become a terrorist at the hands of al Qaeda militants.

At the root of the British government's initiative is an expectation that families will trust the police and criminal justice system to protect their sons (and also some daughters), whom they admit may be vulnerable. At present, however, no such atmosphere of trust exists between communities -- in particular between the Muslim communities that are the target of the initiative, and security services. Scotland Yard has made it clear that families contacting the police would have full confidentiality, but it is hard to believe that the security services would keep such a pledge if they felt public safety was at risk.

A significant portion of that trust deficit stems from another part of the government's strategy for dealing with the radical threat coming from Syria. A rather draconian law from the post-9/11 War on Terror allows the home secretary to arbitrarily strip nationals of citizenship, so long as it doesn't result in their becoming stateless. In recent months, the British government, however, has even tried to remove the statelessness exception, inviting backlash from human rights organizations in the process.

The House of Lords rejected the amendment in the end, but significant parts of Britain's Muslim community got the message: If their children venture abroad, they risk never being able to return. This is not actually true -- hundreds have travelled, while only dozens have had their citizenship revoked. Nonetheless many believe that if a young British Muslim goes to Syria, he or she is guilty until proven innocent. That perception does not help matters.

There are, of course, very good reasons for the British government to discourage travel to Syria. The risk of radicalization is real. Nevertheless, this particular strategy is deeply flawed. It will not encourage families to enlist the services of the state in order to help young people, even if that is the government's intent. Instead, it will simply increase the trust deficit between authorities and the most vulnerable segments of the British population -- precisely those segments that are most susceptible to radicalization.

There are several steps that ought to be taken immediately. When British citizens travel abroad to war-torn countries like Syria, they ought to be made aware that while they are likely to be debriefed upon their return, they will not be automatically investigated for criminal activity. Such debriefings should be compulsory, and should always precede criminal investigation if it is deemed necessary. Moreover, the practice of denationalizing British citizens needs to end. If a citizen is suspected of involvement in terrorist activity, he or she ought to face trial -- not be stripped of citizenship. If deemed to be a flight risk, passports should be temporarily confiscated. As for Britons abroad, citizenship ought to remain inviolable until a proper investigation can be carried out with due process.

Home Secretary Theresa May has repeatedly said that being British was a privilege, rather than a right. But actually, it is a right for every citizen -- and not one that ought to be summarily usurped by an arbitrary decision by the home secretary. Beyond flouting basic human rights standards, such a practice all but ensures that those who are having second thoughts about being in Syria will remain there regardless. Certainly, those who are rendered stateless will be even more vulnerable to radicalization. As the former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Macdonald of River Glaven has said, this latest judicial proposal "associates the United Kingdom with a policy beloved of the world's worst regimes during the 20th century."

While the conflict in Syria rages, it will invariably attract some sympathetic fighters from abroad. Given the brutality of the Assad regime, this is exceedingly predictable. Many will go for purely humanitarian reasons; others will engage in martial actions. Both camps will go because of a feeling that the international community is doing next to nothing to address the conflict in Syria -- and they will be correct in that assessment. The longer the fighting drags on, the more fuel will have been added to the radical narrative.

Until a solution can be found, one hopes that it will only be George Orwell's book on foreign fighters in the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia, that Britons cite in relation to the Syrian war -- and not 1984, another one of his works that comes to mind when government's ask their citizens to inform on one another.

Getty Images


If at First You Don't Secede…

Will this be the summer of separatism for Europe?

Every time one blinks, the situation in eastern Ukraine gets worse. In a game of chicken reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause, Kiev and Moscow are tooling toward the cliff's edge over the region's pro-Russian insurgency.

The April 17 Geneva pact to de-escalate the situation has had zero effect. Ukraine's "anti-terrorism" operation is zooming in on Sloviansk, where troops under Kiev's command have killed five pro-Russian activists while clearing roadblocks. Thousands more pro-Russian separatists are holed up in the city, occupying government buildings. And the insurgents have now seized a busload of OECD and Ukrainian observers -- "NATO spies," in the parlance of the city's pro-Russian mayor. 

In response, Russia is ramping up military exercises just across the border, and U.S. sources claim Russian fighter jets have entered Ukrainian airspace on several occasions over the last few days -- leading Ukraine's prime minister to accuse Russia of wanting to "start World War III."

At the center of the escalating crisis is the so-called "People's Republic of Donetsk," the breakaway republic declared in eastern Ukraine on April 7. That was the day local activists first stormed government buildings in the cities of Kharkov, Lugansk, and Donetsk while brandishing black, blue, and red tricolors. The three horizontal stripes seem an easy, if somewhat sinister reference to the Russian flag (the top band of which is white instead of black), but the activists' flag is not a recent, random invention. Nor is the republic for which it stands entirely new.

Like earthquakes, secessions occur along ancient fault lines -- and often in quick succession. Are the events in eastern Ukraine the second stage of Russian President Vladimir Putin's plan to carve up that country? Protesters there seem to be reading from the same script as those in Crimea a few weeks earlier. First: Declare independence. Then: Organize a referendum on joining Russia. Meanwhile: Threaten to invite Russian troops in for protection.

History -- and secessionist history in particular -- has a way of repeating itself. The ground rule, here and elsewhere: If at first you don't secede, try again. Will this be the Summer of Separatism for Europe?

The ambition to break away, be it to or from Russia, is likely to remain strong, with regions as far flung as Transnistria and northern Kazakhstan inching closer to Moscow, while Caucasian and Far Eastern areas may drift further away. But separatism is not a uniquely post-Soviet state of mind. Look within the confines of almost any state, and you'll find a secessionist movement dreaming of recapturing ancient glories or winning new freedoms.

Even though separatism is endemic in much of the world, any discussion of the subject always throws up the same shortlist of candidates: the Basque Country (seceding from Spain and France), Catalonia (from Spain), Flanders (from Belgium), Quebec (from Canada), and Scotland (from the United Kingdom). All have been inching toward independence for decades, gaining large degrees of autonomy. None have actually made the break, neither via the bullet nor via the ballot -- perhaps because their autonomy has reduced the payoff of going it alone. Perversely, one could argue that these secession movements are so well known because they're so inconclusive.

In their slow march toward statehood, they may be overtaken by some of the dark horses stalking the field. Take Venice, for instance. From the seventh century until its annexation into Napoleon's empire in 1797, that lagoon city was the center of an independent mercantile state, with territorial holdings at one point stretching all the way to Cyprus.

The independence movement of what was formerly known as the Most Serene Republic of Venice provides a framework for regional anger and frustration. Staple secessionist complaints, in Venice and elsewhere, are: that the central government siphons off too much in taxes, squandering it (either on corruption or on the undeserving) rather than investing it back in the region; that the central government is stupidly unable or actively unwilling to respect and promote the regional language, culture, and/or religion; and that history shows that we'd do better on our own or as part of some other country.

Venetian separatism is imbued with a large dose of opera buffa, the comic style of opera pioneered there. In early April, Italian police arrested two dozen Venetian separatists allegedly involved in a plot to drive a homemade tank onto Venice's central Piazza San Marco. The plan was to proclaim independence from Italy -- exactly how occupying the historical square with a single converted bulldozer would have brought the ultimate goal of an independent Venice any closer is unclear. The aborted stunt was a repeat of a similar maverick action in 1997, when separatists using an equally goofy homemade tank proclaimed Venice's independence during a seven-hour siege in San Marco's bell tower.

Nevertheless, or perhaps because Venetians like buffa so much, public support for separatism is at a high. A March poll (suspect for being organized by the independence parties themselves) indicated that 89 percent of the more than 2 million residents who participated favored splitting from Italy.

Venice is by no means Italy's only secessionist movement with legs. For decades, the German speakers of South Tyrol have been campaigning for more autonomy, a return to Austria, or even independence -- anything, really, as long as it means less Italy. The 1.6 million Sardinians, on their Vermont-sized island, almost halfway to Spain, also feel the classic neglect that breeds thoughts of going it alone. Ironically, many Corsicans (just over 300,000 in all, on an island the size of, well, three Rhode Islands, just north of Sardinia) want less France -- even if that means more Italy.

France, that supposedly unitary hexagon, suffers from centrifugal forces in five of its six corners. The Bretons recently campaigned to limit the number of friendly kisses on the cheek to just the single one customary in their Celtic peninsula -- a not-so-subtle way of differentiating the Bretons from their multi-cheek-pecking Gallic neighbors. Alsace, thoroughly Frenchified after World War II, reverts to history, folklore, and local dialects to claim a separate German (but not too German) identity. Savoy, the seat of a powerful duchy from the 15th century to the 19th, was only annexed to France after a plebiscite in 1860 that was widely reported to have been rigged. The memory of that injustice is one of the sources of the slow-simmering Savoyard separatist movement. And in case you were wondering, the future Federal State of Savoy already has a website.

Among the Occitans of southern France, good-humored animosity toward the northerners could get mixed in with cultural and historical grievances to produce something more potent than mere regionalism. Nice, a French city on the border with Italy, remembers the time when it was still Nizza, an Italian city on the border with France. And then there are the tiny plots of France, on either end of the Pyrenees, that have links to the Basque and Catalan heartlands to the south.

As this map of all separatist movements in the European Union shows, Spain is even more troubled by potential separatisms: only Extremadura, an autonomous community close to Portugal, and a stretch of coastline between Andalucia and the Valencian lands apparently have no better place to be than in Spain. Apart from Spain's three "main" separatist movements -- in Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia -- minor secessionisms are brewing in Navarra, Valencia, the Balearic Islands, the Canary Islands, Asturias, Andalucia, and even Castile and León.

It gets worse (or better, if you like this sort of thing) in Belgium and Britain, countries consisting almost entirely of separatist movements. In the still-United Kingdom, the Scottish referendum on independence in September could prove a watershed. If the Scots decide to go it alone, what is to stop the 3 million Welsh from doing the same? After all, Ireland seems to be doing fine a century after kicking out the Brits (even without the anti-separatist North). And even if the Welsh don't, will English resentment against their perceived underappreciation build up to demand an English parliament and English autonomy, just like the other nations within the kingdom? And how would the Cornish feel about that? The Republic of Cornwall has a flag, is reviving its once-dead Celtic language, and is rural enough and far enough from London to feel wronged and misunderstood by the big bad metropolis. The April 24 announcement that the Cornish people will receive official "minority status" within the United Kingdom will put Cornwall on a par with the previously recognized Celtic nations.

Other intra-English regionalisms include Yorkshire, Mercia, and even Wessex -- not the "dream country" that serves as the setting for Thomas Hardy's novels, but a very real, somewhat irked region that has its own Regionalist Party and a cross-party pressure group for devolution.

The rest of Europe is less dense with separatist potential, but that doesn't mean that it's less explosive. Slovakia's southern flank is inhabited by almost half a million ethnic Hungarians who are locked out of Hungary proper by the 1920 Treaty of Trianon, which divided the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as are members of the Hungarian minority weirdly stranded in the center of Romania. Even after the Czech Republic's 1993 separation from Slovakia, the former is still a composite of two distinct regions, with Moravia in the east taking over Slovakia's former role as the slighted partner in a Czech-dominated alliance.

Of all the other secessionist movements, from the Frisians on either side of the Dutch-German border to the Bavarians in Germany's south and the Silesians in Poland's south, few are as geographically impressive as Sapmi -- the promised land for the descendants of Scandinavia's original hunter-gatherers (the Sami, formerly known as the Lapps). Sapmi is spread out over large areas of no less than four countries, but the Sami are a minority in each. With the Sami's ancestral stomping grounds sliced up by a multitude of borders, Sapmi reminds one of Kurdistan: the ephemeral homeland of the Kurds, divided among Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria. Separatism is tough -- but try seceding from four countries at once. 

Speaking of the Kurds, separatism of course doesn't stop at the borders of Europe. This map of the world's secessionist movements lists about 600 separatist wet dreams. Kabylia (in Algeria), the Coptic Pharaonic Republic (in Egypt), Caprivi (in Namibia), Gorkhaland (in India), and Patagonia (in Chile and Argentina) are but a handful of an overview that might be a bit too completist. What is Sweden seceding from? And surely, listing all U.S. states feels a bit like padding out the list.

Not that the United States can escape the separatist bug, even after that one disastrous experiment with secession in the 1860s. This map from Mansfield University geography professor Andrew Shears glosses over that attempt, but tallies up all others that could have been: a union of 124 states, with such obscure candidates as the Republic of Indian Stream (on the Canada-New Hampshire border), Absaroka (astride Wyoming, South Dakota, and Montana), Cimarron (the Oklahoma Panhandle), and Forgottonia in western Illinois (talk about passive-aggressively daring the government to "ignore us at your own peril").

Would the world be better off if all that separatist resentment were let out of the bag and every frustrated region, amalgamated kingdom, and formerly grand duchy could mind its own business? 

The question is less absurd than it sounds. Just look at that foundering transnational project, the European Union. The bitter irony is that one of the only things uniting the 28 public opinions in the fledgling superstate is their common resentment of their common project. The telegenic figurehead of the U.K. Independence Party, Nigel Farage, is but one of a new generation of populist politicians across the continent, all popular insofar as they rail against "Brussels" -- that symbol of the wasteful, undemocratic, and bureaucratic European behemoth that threatens to crush each member country's uniqueness.

Some of the European Union's most vocal opponents scoffingly compare it to the Soviet Union and eagerly anticipate its similar fate. The implosion of the European Union could prove to be just as much of a Pandora's box of secessionisms as the end of the Soviet Union is still proving to be: today in eastern Ukraine, tomorrow perhaps in France, Spain, and Italy.

Scott Olson/Getty Images