‘Assad is here to stay, he’s won the Syrian civil war’: Brit who fought ISIS in Raqqa (VIDEO)

Macer Gifford left his high-flying city job in 2014 to join the fight against Islamic State in Syria. Now, as peace talks get underway, he wants his comrades in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) at the negotiating table in Geneva.

Arriving back in the UK just weeks after participating in the battle to free Raqqa, the de-facto capital of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS), Gifford is adamant that a deal involving the SDF offers the best chance of a lasting ceasefire between Damascus and opposition groups, and constitutional reforms that reflect the nation’s diversity.

The SDF, a coalition of Arabs, Kurds and other ethnic and religious minorities armed by the US, has liberated swathes of territory from IS control. Despite self-governing up to a quarter of the country’s northern region, representatives of the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS) have not been invited to peace talks.

Speaking to RT in London, Gifford described his relief at seeing Raqqa finally wrested from the grip of IS – a fight for which SDF fighters have paid a high price.

“The liberation of Raqqa was a weight off my shoulders. It was something that I’d been fighting for for three years now. It was a brutal and difficult fight, Raqqa. Hundreds of SDF fighters died, the city was severely damaged by the airstrikes and by the Islamic State’s tactics overall. And to come to the end of all this was a massive relief,” he said.

“But then there was also a great deal of sadness as well because some of the people I’d started out on this journey with had died and they weren’t at the end and some of them had even died within a few days of the liberation. So it was real mixed feelings.”

IS may have lost its urban strongholds, but its fighters are still at large in the vast desert regions of Syria and Iraq. The war is by no means over.

“Now that ISIS have been defeated in Raqqa and in Mosul too, they’ve scattered. Their so-called caliphate has imploded,” said Gifford. “There’s two sides to the Islamic State. They were a state in every sense of the word – they had the infrastructure, they had the financing and they had the territory of what you could call a state. That’s now gone – we’ve defeated it.

“The difficulty now is that the twisted ideology that underpins Islamic State is the next thing that we’ve really got to go after. Because, of course, these people are still out there, they’re still running around in the desert. But a lot of them are dead men walking.”

The counter-insurgency campaign to finally stamp out the extremist group could last many years. But Gifford doesn’t believe hunting jihadists is necessarily the most pressing challenge facing Syria right now. The priority, he says, is a comprehensive ceasefire and a new democratic framework.

Peace talks have started in earnest. Russia, which took the lead in brokering an agreement with Turkey and Iran at Sochi last week, has called for a Syrian National Dialogue Congress to take place in December. The aim is to further the peace process, agree constitutional reforms, and set a date for free elections.

Meanwhile, UN-backed peace efforts led by Saudi Arabia have suffered several setbacks and resignations. Opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army (FSA), have struggled to find common ground.

“The problems that the international community, particularly Britain and America, and regional powers like Turkey and Saudi, are facing is that they’re not representing all of Syria,” Gifford said. “They are backing groups, some groups within the FSA are just as bad as the Islamic State – we have to be absolutely clear with people about that.

“Many more are nationalists who want to see a very different Syria than the rest of the world really wants to see. And the frustrating thing is these people are also very unmovable – they have got one objective in mind and that is the removal of Assad. That they want to keep out minority groups and they want to dominate the narrative. And it’s deeply frustrating for those who actually want a very realistic, very pragmatic approach, and an inclusive one, too.”

Gifford broadly accepts the Russian peace plan, but warns that it could be just as unrepresentative if the SDF are denied a seat at the table.

“The Russian track is actually very workable, but not in its current form, in my opinion. What I want them to do is not to bow to any pressure from Saudi or Turkey and not invite the Kurds. They are far too big to leave out,” said Gifford.

“It’s deeply worrying for me as a humanitarian and as an activist not to see the invitation already reached out to the SDF, primarily because it’s not realistic – if you don’t invite these people who control 25 percent of Syrian territory and are democratic and they also are Syrians, they’re not foreigners – it means that any future deal would be unworkable. But what I hope to see, very soon, is an open invite, very shortly from the Russian government, to the SDF.”

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Britain and the US have insisted on the removal of President Bashar Assad. They argue that the regime’s violent repression of the Arab Spring protests, use of barrel bombs on rebel-held territory, and suspected use of chemical weapons means there is no place for him in Syria’s future. But Assad can’t simply be wished away, says Gifford, and Britain and America’s continued calls for his removal are at odds with reality.

“I don’t think they’ve properly understood the crisis – and certainly not Britain. Britain is probably the worst,” said Gifford. “We need the world to realize that the reality is that Assad is here to stay, he’s won the Syrian civil war, he defeated the FSA in Aleppo. And the FSA is divided, it’s weak, it’s pulling in different directions, and it’s not at all a coherent opposition to anybody. And it’s certainly not capable of starting a government by any stretch of the imagination.

“So what I want to do is I want an immediate ceasefire. I want all the people of Syria to get round the table and we need, really, a coalition, a coalition of the willing, where people talk about the future, about a democratic Syria, a secular Syria, one that’s built to last and one that’s built for everybody. And the SDF have a huge role to play in this, and as Syrians they’re very much open just to seeing Assad stay. And as long as there’s democracy the people will then choose in future whether he stays or goes. But it’s got to be the Syrians that decide. Not us. Not the Brits and not the Americans.”

Why has a Cold War-era Soviet submarine surfaced in England’s River Medway? (VIDEO)

Kent seems an unlikely place to encounter a 1,950 tonne Soviet war machine. But don’t be alarmed if you happen to spot U-475 ‘Black Widow’ looming out of the river as you cross the Medway – the Cold War hasn’t resumed and the Soviets aren’t about to annex Strood.

Built in 1967, Black Widow saw active service with the Russian Baltic Fleet at the height of the Cold War. Although modest compared to Russia’s latest Project 885 Yasen-class nuclear submarine, the U-475 was pretty formidable in its day, armed with 22 nuclear tipped warheads and 53 explosive mines.

But how did this cold warrior, built during the premiership of Leonid Brezhnev, end up moored, of all places, in Rochester?

Known to the West by its NATO reporting name ‘Foxtrot,’ the sub is one of four that were sold off by the Russian navy in 1994. Brought to the UK by a private investor and initially opened as a museum, first near the Thames Barrier, then in 1999 at Folkston harbor, Black Widow is now undergoing major refurbishment on the River Medway.

“All this work you see going on, the restoration, we’re trying to do it sympathetically, correctly, and do a nice paint job on it so that we can find a location to move it to, to exhibit it again so that the general public can get on and see a bit of Cold War history,” restoration manager John Sutton told RT, atop the metal hulk.

“It’s unique. In the UK there’s nothing like it, nothing from the Cold War that can match it, from the Russian navy itself.”

/ © Paolo Fumo / RT

A crew of 70-80 seamen would have spent three months per voyage aboard Black Widow stalking their opponents at sea, at a time when tensions between the superpowers threatened all out nuclear war.

“These people would have felt it so much more, because they knew they were either shadowing somebody or being shadowed by somebody, NATO forces would have been following them or they would have been following NATO forces. It would have been probably tense most of the time,” said Sutton.

/ © Paolo Fumo / RT

“Sure, they had their down time when they would have come to the surface and jumped in the sea for a swim around. But for the majority of the time they were on duty 24 hours a day. This isn’t a toy. This is a war machine.”

Black Widow now has many more practical uses than menacing NATO. She’s open to hire for photoshoots and educational outings, music videos and even feature films. Adventure thriller Black Sea, starring Jude Law, was filmed on board in 2013 and a post-apocalyptic black comedy called The Fitzroy was shot here in 2012.

/ © Paolo Fumo / RT

“You would think it’s only people interested in military things, but it’s not. It appeals to everyone,” said Sutton.

Three other submarines just like her, in various states of repair, can be found in Zeebrugge in Belgium, Long Beach, California, and San Diego maritime museum. One that is still owned by the Russians is held at the Museum of the World Ocean in Kaliningrad.

“It’s uncomfortable and claustrophobic and it’s a certain type of person that would want to go and live on it,” Sutton admits. True, but that hasn’t put off those tourists drawn to a bit Soviet kitsch. And once she’s restored to her former glory, Black Widow will be reopened as an educational facility. The question is: where?

“We’re looking at different locations, we’ve actually had enquiries from Germany, but we’re looking for somewhere around London or into a city type environment where we have the right size population that would appreciate it.”

So what about Britain’s naval towns Portsmouth, Plymouth or Glasgow? Or its historic shipyards in Liverpool, Newcastle or Belfast?

“You’d be surprised, they’re all full up – they’re either full up or they’ve been developed, so they don’t want submarines outside their windows in the marina, they want nice, flashy marina boats, gin palaces. But I’m sure there’s a place somewhere in the UK that would appreciate it.”

Got somewhere to berth a 302 ft killing machine? If so, they want to hear from you.

Balfour at 100: Should Britain celebrate or apologize for its colonial legacy in Palestine? (VIDEO)

November 2 marks 100 years since the Balfour Declaration – the colonial-era document that paved the way for the creation of Israel. But is the centenary a cause for celebration, or is it high time for an apology?

In November 1917, at the height of the First World War, Britain’s then-Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour issued a 67-word declaration that would shape the Middle East for a century to come.

As the Ottoman Empire, in alliance with Germany, began to crumble, Britain and France eyed the spoils of war. Among the pickings was Palestine.

Spread across the strategically coveted eastern Mediterranean, the region is home to some of the most fertile land in the Middle East and many of the holiest sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.

In a letter to Lord Walter Rothschild, a prominent Zionist of his day, Balfour declared Britain’s support for the establishment of “a national home for the Jewish people” in what would later become the State of Israel.

Although the declaration itself was not legally binding, and Britain’s handling of its mandated territories in Palestine after 1920 can be blamed for weakened Arab opposition, Balfour’s symbolic role in Israel’s national story and the fate of the indigenous Arab population leaves a deeply divisive legacy 100 years on.

Simon Johnson, chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), says British Jews should feel proud of the UK’s role in the creation of Israel – today a key regional trade and security partner.

“For the British Jewish community it’s a very significant anniversary,” Johnson told RT.

“We are, as a Jewish community, very proud that it was our government that took the first steps toward the recognition of Jewish aspirations to its own homeland, and during the hundred years, and particularly now, continues to be a strong supporter of the right of the State of Israel as a democratic, Jewish state within the international family of nations.”

Johnson and the JLC have thrown their weight behind Balfour100 , a website and events series aimed at celebrating Britain’s role in the creation of Israel.

“What we want to do is recognize and present the proper story of the Balfour Declaration, put it in its proper historical context, and we’re very happy to debate with people what else might have been the impact from it,” he said.

Ahead of the 100th anniversary, pro-Palestinian groups launched a petition calling on the British government to scrap plans to celebrate. They argue Prime Minister Theresa May should instead use the occasion to issue an apology.

Responding to the petition in April this year, the Foreign Office said: “The Balfour Declaration is an historic statement for which Her Majesty’s Government does not intend to apologize. We are proud of our role in creating the State of Israel. The task now is to encourage moves towards peace.”

Johnson echoes the Foreign Office position. He says those calling for an apology have misunderstood the historical role of the declaration, and warns that denying the State of Israel its right to exist could be construed as anti-Semitism.

“I actually think the government’s response is absolutely right. Things that have happened in the past have happened, the government is rightly proud of the role the British government played in the creation of [the State of Israel], but is rightly now looking to the future and to a long-term and lasting, just peace based on two states for two peoples.

“I think the call for an apology is fundamentally wrong because it’s a misunderstanding of what the Balfour Declaration did … If you’re asking the government to apologize for a non-binding document that ended up leading to the creation of the State of Israel, what you might be saying, some people might be saying, is that they don’t believe there should be a State of Israel.

“Now that position, if you deny the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and you do not deny that right to any other people around the world, there’s a potential for that to be seen as anti-Semitic. It’s certainly delegitimizing of the existence of the State of Israel.”

One of the groups calling for an apology is the Palestinian Return Center (PRC). It argues that government plans to celebrate the centenary will damage the peace process and whitewash Britain’s colonial past.

“This is not a new response that we’ve heard from the British government,” PRC spokesman Pietro Stefanini told RT.

“They said not long ago that they do not intend to apologize and this shows that they are in complete denial over their colonial crimes in Palestine, and they’re still not willing to recognize the huge historical responsibilities they have towards Palestinians for the British occupation of Palestine that led to the mass displacement of the Palestinian nation in 1948.”

Stefanini warns that Palestinians will be deeply offended if any kind of commemoration takes place.

“Marking it with pride is basically the same as celebrating for the Palestinian diaspora. And I can tell you, Palestinians feel very offended by the plans that this government, after a hundred years, that they have been suffering in refugee camps, been occupied, while they are still without any right to self-determination, that this current government would make any sort of plan to celebrate.

“It is very, very offensive for the Palestinian community. And it would certainly not bring the parties any closer to peace and it would only inflame a rather tense situation that we see on the ground, especially for Palestinians who do not have any political hope to move forward in any real sense.”

It would be a gross oversimplification to suggest all British Jews hold the legacy of Balfour with equal reverence. In fact, acknowledging the wider shades of opinion among the community could nourish the spirit of compromise that may nudge the peace process forward.

Jews for Justice for Palestinians, for instance, offers one such a perspective. The group’s parliamentary and diplomatic liaison officer, Arthur Goodman, says the government’s response to the Balfour apology petition is a skew on British history.

“In reality the British government shouldn’t be particularly proud because, more than the Balfour Declaration itself, the way they ran it, in the Mandate, was very detrimental to the Palestinians,” he said.

“If it had been to create a homeland on an equal basis with the already existing indigenous population, that would have been different. But that’s not what the British Mandate did. They created a state for the Zionists, who were Jews, and they excluded the possibility of the Palestinians having a state or having an equal part in a binational state.”

What would an apology actually achieve?

“Very little. In fact, if that’s all the government did, but didn’t actually help the Palestinians create a state, then it would just make Palestinians and Arabs even more convinced that the British government, among others, was being very hypocritical,”said Goodman.

“I think the correct response would be not to celebrate it, not to mark it, except to say that it’s now time for Israel to accept that it already has 78 percent of British Mandate Palestine and that should be enough for it. And the other 22 percent, i.e. the Occupied Territories, rightly belong to the Palestinians.”