The threat of terrorism and the wisdom of Solomon

Last week, I wrote about the resignation of William Arkin, an American reporter who left his post at NBC and MSNBC because of his disappointment with their journalistic standards. His problem is not just with his employers; he believes that American journalism as a whole is in a state of crisis.

But he also expressed concern about the state of the world – and about the state of American political discourse. In particular, he is concerned about what people are saying war and conflict – because that is his specialist area: he is a a military affairs analyst.


And one subject he homes in on is terrorism. He mentions it three times in his resignation letter.

First, he speaks of how he “spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism.”

Second, he makes the point that “terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting.”

And third, he tells us that he is writing a novel, one that meditates on the question of how to understand terrorists in a different way.”

These are all closely related, since understanding terrorists, and in particular, why they are driven to fighting – in other words, their motives, is the key to defeating terrorism.

Understanding people’s motivations

And this brings us to the matter of how terrorists think, and the things that drive them to do the things they do. In America, and in the west in general, I think that people have given very little attention to that.

In fact, there is little secret about the motivations of those who were involved in the 9/11 attacks that spurred America’s modern war on terrorism. Osama bin Laden, who was the leader at the time, spoke quite openly about his motives.

One can read about what bin Laden said in many places, but the place I am going to turn to is an extraordinary article, written a few weeks ago, entitled “What if Osama bin Laden Had Legitimate Grievances?

What makes this article extraordinary is that it was written by Major Danny Sjursen, a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point, who has served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. The article is not long, so I’ll just quote the whole thing.

“You’re not supposed to utter these words, but what the heck: Osama bin Laden had a point. No, his grievances, as well as those of his followers and sympathizers, didn’t excuse the mass murder of 9/11—not by a long shot. After all, I am a native New Yorker whose family and neighborhood were directly touched by the horror of those inexcusable attacks. Still, more than 17 years after the attacks on the Pentagon and twin towers, it’s worth reflecting on bin Laden’s motives and discussing the stark fact that the United States government has made no moves to address his gripes.

Now is as good a time as any. The U.S. military remains mired in wars across the Greater Middle East that have now entered their 18th year. The cost: $5.9 trillion, 7,000 dead American soldiers, at least 480,000 locals killed and 21 million refugees created. The outcome: more instability, more violence, more global terror attacks and a U.S. reputation ruined for at least a generation in the Islamic world.

Need proof? Consider the regular polling that indicates that the U.S. is considered the greatest threat to world peace. Not China, Russia, Iran or even North Korea. The United States of America.

Why, exactly, is the U.S. so unpopular, from West Africa to South Asia? This can be explained in part by the mere presence—sustained, at that—of U.S. troops in the region. As a historian, I can assure you that folks don’t usually take well to being occupied. Nevertheless, it’s more than that. And here’s the rub: Washington, unwilling to even consider the grievances bin Laden and his acolytes clearly communicated, has instead doubled down on militarism in the region—thereby turning al-Qaida’s fringe complaints into a mainstream sense of injustice throughout the Muslim world.”.

The key words there are, of course:

“it’s worth reflecting on bin Laden’s motives and discussing the stark fact that the United States government has made no moves to address his gripes.”

Osama bin Laden’s gripes

“Let’s review the three core grievances in bin Laden’s 1996 fatwa—essentially a declaration of war—against the U.S., and then look over Washington’s contemporary policies on the issues:

1. Bin Laden objected to the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia specifically and across the region more generally, due to their proximity to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Furthermore, bin Laden criticized the U.S. backing of Saudi Arabia’s despotic royal regime.

But rather than pull its troops “offshore,” the U.S. military has expanded its empire of bases, both in the Mideast and throughout the world. Despite the slaughter in Yemen and the murder of a Washington Post journalist, Washington still inflexibly backs the Saudi monarchy. The U.S. has even negotiated record arms contracts with the kingdom, to the tune of $110 billion. Clearly, Washington has only doubled down on this front.

2. The al-Qaida chief lamented the starvation blockade that the West—led by Washington—imposed on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War. Make no mistake: Saddam was no friend of bin Laden—in fact, they were mortal enemies. But the well-reported deaths of some 500,000 Iraqi children, victims of the sanctions during that period, are what motivated bin Laden’s concern. The blockade was so hard and its civilian toll so gruesome that the United Nations aid chief, Denis Halliday, resigned in protest in 1998. Optically, the U.S. government response came across as both coarse and callous. When Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was asked in a “60 Minutes” interview in 1996 whether the price of a half-million dead children was worth the benefits of the sanctions, she cold-heartedly replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”

Today, in addition to the unwarranted 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which caused at least another 200,000 civilian casualties, the U.S. is complicit in a new blockade, this one imposed by Washington’s Saudi allies in Yemen. Recent reports indicate that some 85,000 Yemeni children have already starved to death in the 3–year-old war on the poorest Arab country. Undeterred, the U.S. continues to provide munitions, intelligence and in-flight refueling to the Saudi military. This veritable war crime has galvanized an increasing anti-American regional public just as intensely as the 1990’s sanctions on Iraq once did.

3. Bin Laden, like many global Muslims, felt sympathy for the generations-long plight of the occupied Palestinians and abhorred America’s one-sided support for Israel’s military and governing apparatus. The U.S. has been almost alone in its willingness to flout international law, U.N. resolutions and a basic sense of humanity in its backing of Israel since 1948.

Here again, nothing has changed. Washington has simply doubled down. Israel remains the principal recipient of U.S. military aid, with almost no strings attached. U.S. media and Washington policymakers rarely mention the slaughter of mostly unarmed Palestinian demonstrators protesting along the Gaza fence line in the past eight months. The results have been striking: 5,800 wounded and at least 180 killed since March. American mainstream media may not take much note of this, but guess who does? A couple of million Muslim citizens worldwide. In fact, the ongoing protests kicked off partly in response to President Trump’s near unilateral decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move that essentially announced that in American eyes, the Holy City belongs to the Jews alone.”

Why listen to a terrorist?

And Danny Sjursen concludes:

“The reasons behind American intransigence and obtuseness in Mideast affairs should come as no surprise. The U.S. is a nation built on a millenarian, exceptionalist ideology and has long been driven by a mission to spread its message across the globe. A populace—and government—infused with these ideas is unlikely to demonstrate the humility to take a proverbial look in the mirror and admit fault. This became especially unlikely in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when passions reached a fever pitch and chauvinistic nationalism became the name of the game. Even then, however, credible voices questioned America’s rush to war, including scholars such as Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, and even comedians like Bill Maher.

Seventeen years into the nation’s longest war, there are plenty of crucial reasons to review bin Laden’s grievances, consider his arguments and show the strength of character to acquiesce on certain points. This is sobriety, not surrender. After all, self-awareness is a sign of strength and maturity in nations, as well as in individuals.

After years of counterproductive U.S. policies and Mideast interventions, the nation is left with a stark choice: admit error and alter policy, or wage an indefinite worldwide war on a significant portion of the Islamic population. The former option would lessen violence and ultimately lead to a safer homeland, but it would require confronting an uncomfortable truth that most Americans simply can’t face: Bin Laden was a monster, but that doesn’t mean he was wrong on all fronts.”

The wisdom of Solomon

So – Americans have generally been slow, or even unwilling, to think about the motives of bin Laden and other terrorists. However, in being unwilling to think about motives, and trying to understand how people think, and what drives them – modern Americans are not unique. Pretty much everyone is like that – it is a universal human characteristic. We are, in general, very slow to try to put ourselves in other peoples shoes. But to do so is a mark of real wisdom – the sort of wisdom that governments need, if they are really serious about dealing with terrorism.

However, rulers don’t always have the wisdom that they need. Which brings me to the matter of the wisdom of Solomon. The wisdom of Solomon has become proverbial. And yet the Bible only gives one example of the wisdom of Solomon; the case of two women arguing over a baby.

Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house.

And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.”

But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.”

The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.

Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.'”

And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king.

And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.”

Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.”

But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.”

Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.”

And all Israel heard of the judgement that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice.

(I Kings 3:16-28)

What was it that enabled Solomon to decide the case correctly? His understanding of human motivation. It occurred to him to think about what would motivate the two women, and how they would respond to a particular suggestion. Nobody else present thought of that. But he understood human motivation, and how people react to certain things.

It is an interesting irony that Reheboam, Solomon’s son and successor as king, managed to lose most of his kingdom early in his reign (see I Kings 12), by (wait for it) failing to understand human motivation. He thought that the way to win was to be strong, tough, and uncompromising with people who had a grievance. It backfired spectacularly.

It seems to me that if the west is serious about terrorism, they would be wise to think about what Major Danny Sjursen says, and about what motivates terrorists.

They would also be wise to consider the actions of Solomon and Reheboam – and the fate of the latter.


William Arkin’s resignation: War, truth, and the media

Before yesterday, I had never heard of William Arkin. You probably hadn’t either – at least if, like me, you don’t live in America. I don’t know if I’ll hear much about him in the future either.

But yesterday, he made the news.  He resigned from his post with NBC, one of America’s main TV networks. It wasn’t a big story; I don’t know if the UK press covered it at all.  But because of what he said in his resignation letter, I think it is significant – deeply significant – in the sense that it is a sign – a sign of the times.

Arkin is a veteran reporter. In his younger days, he served in U.S. Army intelligence; after leaving the army he worked in journalism as a military affairs analyst, being employed by, among others, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

Arkin’s resignation letter  is not brief, and he covers a lot of ground. In his opening paragraph, he speaks of “the world and the state of journalism in tandem crisis.” And while I suppose that it is true that both journalism and the world are always in crisis in some way, it is probably more obvious today than it was, say 25 or 50 years ago.

The state of the world

The crisis in the world that Arkin is most concerned about concerns war and conflict. It is his area of expertise, and he knows what he is talking about. He tells of how he “spoke up about the absence of any sort of strategy for actually defeating terrorism” – and he is right. And he makes the extremely important point that “terrorists will never be defeated until we better understand why they are driven to fighting.” In the 1970s, I lived in both the Middle East, and in Ireland (about a mile from the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic), and over the years have thought a lot about terrorism – and I think that far too little thought and attention is given to the motives of those who take up terrorism.

Which probably goes a long way to explaining why, as Arkin says, the wars America has been fighting since the 9/11 attacks “produce nothing that resembles actual safety and security,” and “There is not a soul in Washington who can say that they have won or stopped any conflict.” And he is also absolutely right when he says “There is not one county in the Middle East that is safer today than it was 18 years ago. Indeed the world becomes ever more polarized and dangerous.”

The state of journalism

But more significant than Arkin’s comments about the state of the world, are his comments about the state of journalism. He is talking about journalism in America, and specifically about NBC, but I think that what he says applies to journalism in the UK as well.

He reminds us of the failures of the American media in the run up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq:

“I’m proud to say that I also was one of the few to report that there weren’t any WMD in Iraq and remember fondly presenting that conclusion to an incredulous NBC editorial board. “

But his problem is not just with the fact that the media gets stories completely wrong; it is also with the fact that the media is far from objective and dispassionate, and even worse, it pursues dangerous agendas:

“I find it disheartening that we do not report the failures of the generals and national security leaders. I find it shocking that we essentially condone continued American bumbling in the Middle East and now Africa through our ho-hum reporting.”

And he says he is

“specially disheartened to watch NBC and much of the rest of the news media somehow become a defender of Washington and the system.”

Which brings me to the paragraph that sums up his exasperation with NBC (and much of the rest of the American media):

“For me I realized how out of step I was when I looked at Trump’s various bumbling intuitions: his desire to improve relations with Russia, to denuclearize North Korea, to get out of the Middle East, to question why we are fighting in Africa, even in his attacks on the intelligence community and the FBI.

Of course he is an ignorant and incompetent impostor.

And yet I’m alarmed at how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary, to be in favor of policies that just spell more conflict and more war. Really? We shouldn’t get out Syria? We shouldn’t go for the bold move of denuclearizing the Korean peninsula? Even on Russia, though we should be concerned about the brittleness of our democracy that it is so vulnerable to manipulation, do we really yearn for the Cold War? And don’t even get me started with the FBI: What? We now lionize this historically destructive institution?”

Note those words: “how quick NBC is to mechanically argue the contrary.” Donald Trump has so polarised America that millions of apparently rational people seem to reflexively disagree with him on everything, unless he is simply embracing the political consensus of the day.   It has been said, jokingly, that if Trump came up with a cure for cancer, a lot of people would rush to tell us what a bad thing that was.

But more seriously, Arkin sees the mainstream media in America as being remarkably unanimous in favoring policies “that just spell more conflict and more war.”

The problem is that the media shapes the way we think far more than we realise – with the result that if the media favours policies that promote war and conflict, it is very likely that more conflict and war will ensue.

William Arkin’s resignation is, indeed, a sign of the times. And for anyone interested in peace or in truth, it is a wake-up call – a call to be aware of how untruthful and dangerous much of the western mainstream media actually is.

How the New Testament supports the case for infant baptism

I believe that a careful reading of the New Testament supports the case for infant baptism.  And I emphasise the word “careful”.   Because the New Testament’s support for infant baptism does not come so much from what it says, as what it does not say.

What the New Testament says:

1) The New Testament never explicitly forbids the baptism of babies.

2) The New Testament never explicitly commands the baptism of babies.

3) The New Testament never mentions a single infant of a baby or infant being baptised.

4) The New Testament never mentions a single incident in which a baby or infant in a Christian household is not baptised at the time his / her parents were baptised.

5) The New Testament never mentions a single incident of someone being baptised as an adult (or older child) who had grown up in a Christian home.

6) The New Testament mentions occasions on which “households” were baptised. It is possible that these households included small children or even babies, but we are not told.

In other words, the New Testament really does not enable us to be particularly certain about whether infant baptism should be seen as valid by the church, and if so, whether Christian parents are obliged to have their babies baptised.

There are, of course statements in the New Testament about the meaning of baptism, e.g.

1) The New Testament frequently associates baptism with personal faith, which suggests that baptism would not be appropriate for babies.

2) The New Testament on one occasion associates baptism with circumcision, which suggests that baptism would be appropriate for babies.

None of these things enable us to come to any certain conclusion about apostolic teaching on baptism or about the practice of the New Testament church.

However . . .

There is something very interesting about all this.

The New Testament tells us of baptisms in the name of Jesus Christ taking place just weeks after the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus – which would be roughly A.D. 30

The New Testament, including the book of Acts and the various letters to churches and individual Christians, was written over the following decades. We don’t know when it was completed, but at the very earliest, it was completed around A.D. 70, and it is possible that some books were written after A.D. 90.

This means that there were at least 30 years (and probably somewhere between 40 and 70 years) between the first Christian baptisms and the completion of the New Testament.

In other words, there would have been many baptisms taking place in New Testament times, and many children being born to Christian parents.

We can be pretty sure that the New Testament church had a policy about whether or not babies (or other children) of Christian parents should or should not be baptised. This policy is never stated in the New Testament, so it must have been passed on by word of mouth by the apostles and other Christian teachers. The fact that there is no discussion at all of the subject in the New Testament letters tells us that it was not a subject of debate or controversy. In other words, the matter was settled. And since we have letters to churches and information about Christians in all parts of the Roman Empire from Rome to Jerusalem, it would appear that there was an agreed policy throughout the church by, say, A.D. 60.

What was that policy?

We don’t know. But we can make a fairly good guess. We have a huge number of Christian writings about various subjects, including church practice and order, as well as theological debates, from the apostolic period onward. In other words, we have Christian writings from the end of the New Testament – say, A.D. 100 – through the second, third, fourth centuries and beyond.

And there are two interesting facts about these writings –

1) There is no big debate at any point in them about whether infant baptism is valid.

2) Those that mention the issue of infant baptism, all the way back to Origen (about A.D. 200), are unanimous in agreeing that infant baptism is valid.

And so . . .

It seems to me that it is inconceivable that the whole New Testament church had a policy that regarded infant baptism as invalid in, say A.D. 60, but that without any big argument, the church throughout the whole Roman Empire should decide to accept infant baptism as valid by A.D. 200. Had there been a big change of mind on the subject, we would have expected much debate and discussion in the various early Christian writings that have survived. But there is none at all.

So I conclude that the historical evidence suggests that the Christian church in New Testament times was completely agreed that the baptism of infants was valid baptism.

That is not to say that I am convinced that Christian parents are obliged to baptise their babies – for there is some evidence of Christians in the early church (such as Augustine of Hippo) who were born to Christian parents but were not baptised as babies. However, it does seem to me that there is a strong case that infant baptism was regarded as normative in the early church right back to New Testament times. 


The most significant thing in the New Testament for the debate about infant baptism, in other words, is the fact that the New Testament is silent about the subject.  One might say that it is like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of Silver Blaze.  In that story, a race horse  goes missing in the night, and is presumed to be stolen.  And the crucial piece of evidence is the dog that didn’t bark.  When a Scotland Yard detective asks Holmes “”Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”, Holmes replies, “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”  The detective, puzzled, says: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”  Holmes explains, “That was the curious incident.” 

The point is that if thieves had come and taken the horse, the dog would have barked.  In the same way, the total absence of anything about infant baptism (for or against), in the New Testament (and in Christian writings for a century afterwards) is  curious – if the New Testament church did not practice infant baptism.

I will add that I did not come up with this evidence for infant baptism in the New Testament church by myself.  I got it from somebody else, and not from Arthur Conan Doyle, but from a book written earlier in the 19th century – The Life of Archibald Alexander.  Alexander was an American Presbyterian minister and theologian who, early in his ministry, had doubts about infant baptism, and spent some time struggling and thinking about the issue.  And one thing, he says that convinced him “was that the universal prevalence of infant baptism, as early as the 4th and 5th centuries, was unaccountable on the supposition that no such practice existed in the times of the Apostles.”  His biographer (one of his sons) wrote:

On a thorough examination of the early Fathers and Councils, he traced the universal usage of infant baptism to a period, between which and the times of the Apostles, he satisfied himself that it was absolutely impossible that the usage could have been interpolated, and especially, without a shred of notice to be found of the change. The historical argument seemed to him invincible.

When I read that, it struck me that this was a brilliant insight, and I was amazed that I had never heard it before.  And so I never forgot it, and remain indebted to Alexander for showing that to me.

Syria: Is The Times feeding us regime propaganda?

Two weeks ago, on the 27th of October, The Times published three fascinating, and closely related articles – all on the same page. The headline on the main one was “Syria trips by clergy and peers ‘undermine Britain‘” A shorter one was entitled “Unofficial delegations are a propaganda coup for Assad regime.” The third was simply called “Analysis“.

The main article begins by telling us

“A “cabal” from the Church of England and the House of Lords has undermined British foreign policy by going to Syria and “parroting” President Assad’s propaganda, memos released by the Foreign Office warn.”

The word “cabal” is interesting – as are the words “parroting” and “propaganda”; one might describe them as pejorative; one gets the impression that whoever wrote the memo didn’t like what these visitors to Syria were saying and doing.

The article continues:

The trips, billed as “pastoral” or “fact-finding” visits, included senior clergy such as Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, whose presence was used by Syrian media to boost the dictatorship.

That respected former Church of England bishops should visit a war torn country where the Christian community has faced considerable hardship strikes me as very commendable – and I have no doubt that the purpose of their visits were to get a feel for the situation on the ground and give support to the Christian community in Syria.

The problem, we are told, is that their presence was “used by the Syrian media to boost the dictatorship.” In other words, the media in Syria are under the control of the government and would spin any story to support the government line. And I am sure that is absolutely true.

But, as we have read, the foreign office says that it goes beyond , and that the visitors were “parroting” President Assad’s propaganda.” That is a serious accusation to level at respected members of the House of Lords and Church of England.

In fact, propaganda is what this is all about. (The word ‘propaganda’ is used 10 times in course of the three Times articles.)

What comes next makes that clear:

Baroness Cox also insisted on going ahead with a trip despite being personally warned by a Foreign Office minister that it would be exploited by Assad to cling to power and continue his use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and starvation sieges.

Lady Cox has been quoted light-heartedly calling the participants in her regular group trips to Syria “the Crazy Club”, but papers disclosed to The Times under the Freedom of Information laws show that diplomats regard them as a serious threat to peace.

The documents reveal that Lambeth Palace has been approached about the conduct of the Rev Andrew Ashdown, an Anglican priest who is at the heart of the Crazy Club jaunts and is ‘a very public Assad apologist“, the Foreign Office claims. The documents state that “[Mr] Ashdown peddles the worst of the regime propaganda” and that “he and his cabal offer the regime plenty of unwelcome opportunity to criticise UK policy and present the Church of England and Lords as on-side . . . [his] views were the worst of regime propaganda and cannot be taken as honest.”

A diplomat who met Mr Ashdown said “Clearly he had swallowed much of the regime’s narrative“. His beliefs are “not irrelevant in this post-truth, online community, propaganda-influenced world.”

“The latest tour, in April this year, coincided with air strikes by Britain, France and the US in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians. The trip was “used by the regime as propaganda to undermine the UK’s position on Syria“, the Foreign Office noted.

Lady Cox, a long-standing champion of humanitarian causes, was dismissed by officials as someone who “basically parrots regime propaganda“. Tobias Ellwood, as Foreign Office minister, urged her by phone to stay away from Syria because “any visit by a British parliamentarian risks being misrepresented and used by the Assad regime so it can cling to power.” Lady Cox “took these points on board but indicated that she was still minded to travel to Syria.””

There is a lot there. Where does one start?

Who would you believe?

First, there are the references to Baroness Cox. We are told that she was “dismissed by officials as someone who “basically parrots regime propaganda.” That immediately raises questions. Baroness Cox has a long record, going back over 25 years, of being involved in Christian Solidarity International and Christian Solidarity Worldwide as someone who has taken an interest in Christian groups that faced persecution. When unnamed foreign office officials start criticising people like Caroline Cox, Michael Nazir-Ali, and George Carey, it looks suspicious to me. My gut instinct would be to believe them, rather than foreign office officials.


Second, the articles tell us about vague accusations made by the foreign office, but are short on details. Hence we are told “the Rev Andrew Ashdown, . . . is ‘a very public Assad apologist“, the Foreign Office claims. The documents state that “[Mr] Ashdown peddles the worst of the regime propaganda.“” And then we are not given any examples of things that Ashdown says – other than that he “told The Times: “I have never said that the Syrian government is blameless. There has been violence on all sides. . . “It is disingenuous and insulting to label my views ‘dishonest’. My views are based on what I have personally seen, heard and witnessed.” Is there any reason at all why we should believe what the Foreign Office says about him? The Times certainly doesn’t give us any.

Isn’t there something you forgot to mention?

Third, note the words “The latest tour, in April this year, coincided with air strikes by Britain, France and the US in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians.” What the Times omits to tell us is that Britain, France, and the US launched their air strikes before the OPCW could begin its work seeking to determine whether Syrian government forces had launched a chemical attack on civilians, and that in the end, the OPCW report found no solid evidence that a chemical attack had taken place, and that, as I reported in April western reporters who went to the area soon afterwards found no evidence that a chemical attack had taken place. And that raises enormous questions about British government policy on Syria.

You can always believe the British government

Fourth, that raises an interesting point about regime propaganda. The Syrian government claimed that they had not conducted a chemical attack; the UK government claimed that they had. Evidence available so far suggests that there is a good chance that what the Syrian government said is true, and what the UK government said was false. And that isn’t the first time. The British and American governments made several accusations against the Iraqi government in the run-up to the 2003 invasion, which the Iraqi government denied. It turned out that the Iraqi government was quite correct, and that what the UK and US said was false. In 2011, the British and French governments took military action in Libya, based on certain claims. It turned out that what the British government was saying was highly misleading

The fact of the matter is that sometimes the claims made by the British Foreign Office turn out to be false, and the statements made by other governments – such as that of Syria – turn out to be true. Syrian propaganda may actually be the truth.

Britain’s record in the Middle East

Fifth, and the fact that a trip was “used by the regime as propaganda to undermine the UK’s position on Syria“, is only a good thing if the UK’s position on Syria is a good thing. But why should we assume that it is? Every bit of evidence suggests that the UK’s action in Libya in 2011 was a mistake, and its involvement in the Iraq invasion of 2003 was a very serious mistake – and that the evil that came out of these things far outweighed any good that may have come out of them. If one wants to go back in history, almost everyone now accepts that the UK’s involvement in overthrowing the democratically elected government in Iran in 1953 was a mistake, as was Britain’s participation in military action against Egypt in 1956. And more recently, Britain’s involvement support for Saudi military action in Yemen  strikes me as being utterly immoral. Why should anyone believe that undermining the UK’s position in Syria is a bad thing? Based on Britain’s recent record in the Middle East, it is far more likely to be a good thing.

Patriotic duty?

Sixth, I found the headline in the Times article interesting: “Syria trips by clergy and peers ‘undermine Britain’.” OK – they had to shorten it because headlines have to be brief – but there is surely a hint there that to “undermine the UK’s position on Syria” is to “undermine Britain”. To say that, of course, is complete nonsense. In fact, this isn’t even about the UK’s position on Syria – it is the UK government’s policy on Syria. The implication is that it is the patriotic duty of every British subject to support, at least publicly, the foreign policy of the British government. That, however, is nonsense – it is not the patriotic duty of British subjects to support the government’s foreign policy any more than it is the patriotic duty of British subjects to support the government’s education policy or its economic policy.


And finally (for this is long enough already), I come to my seventh point. The article contains this sentence: “Lady Cox has been quoted light-heartedly calling the participants in her regular group trips to Syria “the Crazy Club”, but papers disclosed to The Times under the Freedom of Information laws show that diplomats regard them as a serious threat to peace.

I have already commented about how the British government brought war to Iraq in 2003, and to Egypt in 1956, and helped bring about the destruction of Libya in 2011, and has been helping Saudi Arabia wage brutal war against Yemen over the last few years. It seems clear to me that any objective observer, surveying the history of the Middle East over the last century, would say that the British government’s actions have been a serious threat to peace a remarkable amount of the time.

The role of UK’s allies in bringing war to Syria, and keeping the war going, has been pretty well covered (see, for example my article “Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty“, and, more recently “Who is destroying Syria?” by former CIA Officer Philip Giraldi) is enough to make even a mild cynic think that peace in Syria is the last thing the British government wants.

But what do we hear from the British government? We hear that they think a group of church leaders and members of the House of Lords are, simply by going on trips to Syria to find out what the situation there is, and to speak to church leaders and people in Syria, is a threat to peace. Really? Is this some kind of joke?

What they mean, of course, is that somehow, the reporting of these visits to Syria by a handful of people from the UK, will make the people of Syria more supportive of their government. Personally, I think that is extremely unlikely.

And I’ll add that I suspect that not only do Cox, Carey, and Nazir-Ali care more about peace in Syria than the UK government does, but that they have also contributed more to peace in Syria than the UK government – and also know better what makes for real peace than the UK government does.

The press and regime propaganda

However, the really striking thing about the three Times articles is the way that they simply assume that the Foreign Office (i.e. the UK government) is basically right – and that there is no question about this.

Indeed, the way the “Analysis” piece began left me open-mouthed:

“The ermine-and-cassock brigade’s regular jaunts to Syria have brought solace to a besieged dictator. As human rights campaigners and western leaders condemn President Assad, lords, ladies and bishops from the heart of the British establishment undermine international solidarity by entering his lair. The trips are defended as pastoral or fact-finding and hosted by Syrian religious leaders but are a propaganda gift to the dictator. “

The words used were loaded, the government’s position was not questioned, and there was no pretence at objectivity.

What are we to make of this? It is something I have written about several times, but I’ll say it again. Most of the reporting in the Western media about Syria is worse than useless.

Let me quote Stephen Kinzer, former New York Times correspondent, and now Senior Fellow in International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University: “coverage of the Syrian war will be remembered as one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the American press.”

Robert Fisk of the Independent described the war as “the most poorly reported conflict in the world.”

Patrick Cockburn registered a similar concern, writing that “Western media has allowed itself to become a conduit for propaganda for one side in this savage conflict.”

In the blunt words of the independent investigative reporter James Corbett,

“we cannot rely on outlets like The Guardian and their fellow travellers like BBC News, Channel 4, CNN and other mainstream establishment outlets to report the truth on these matters.”

Corbett didn’t mention The Times, but then he was writing a couple of months ago, and hadn’t seen these pieces.

I mentioned that the word “propaganda” was used a total of 10 times in the three articles in The Times. There was another significant word that was used even more often: the word “regime”. It was used 13 times. Three times, they came together in the phrase “regime propaganda”.

In every case, the word “regime” referred to the Syrian government, but in theory, it can be used of any government – even that of the United Kingdom.

There was a third notable word that occurred in the three articles (this time seven times): “media”. The Times spoke of “Syrian media”, “state media”, and “regime media”.

But for some reason, there was no mention of the media in the west.  One wonders if it ever occurred to the writer of the articles that perhaps it was not only in Syria that the media dutifully produced regime propaganda, but  that it could also happen much closer to home.


EDIT: For those wanting to view the article, here is the link.

For those who want to know what the Times said, but without going to the site, here is the text:

Syria trips by clergy and peers ‘undermine Britain’

Dominic Kennedy, Investigations Editor

A “cabal” from the Church of England and the House of Lords has undermined British foreign policy by going to Syria and “parroting” President Assad’s propaganda, memos released by the Foreign Office warn.

The trips, billed as “pastoral” or “factfinding” visits, included senior clergy such as Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, and Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, the former Bishop of Rochester, whose presence was used by Syrian media to boost the dictatorship.

Baroness Cox also insisted on going ahead with a trip despite being personally warned by a Foreign Office minister that it would be exploited by Assad to cling to power and continue his use of barrel bombs, chemical weapons, and starvation sieges.

Lady Cox has been quoted light-heartedly calling the participants in her regular group trips to Syria “the Crazy Club”, but papers disclosed to The Times under the Freedom of Information laws show that diplomats regard them as a serious threat to peace.

The documents reveal that Lambeth Palace has been approached about the conduct of the Rev Andrew Ashdown, an Anglican priest who is at the heart of the Crazy Club jaunts and is ‘a very public Assad apologist”, the Foreign Office claims. The documents state that “[Mr] Ashdown peddles the worst of the regime propaganda” and that “he and his cabal offer the regime plenty of unwelcome opportunity to criticise UK policy and present the Church of England and Lords as on-side . . . [his] views were the worst of regime propaganda and cannot be taken as honest.”

A diplomat who met Mr Ashdown said “Clearly he had swallowed much of the regime’s narrative”. His beliefs are “not irrelevant in this post-truth, online community, propaganda-influenced world.”

The latest tour, in April this year, coincided with airstrikes by Britain, France and the US in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians. The trip was “used by the regime as propaganda to undermine the UK’s position on Syria”, the Foreign Office noted.

Lady Cox, a longstanding champion of humanitarian causes, was dismissed by officials as someone who “basically parrots regime propaganda”. Tobias Ellwood, as Foreign Office minister, urged her by phone to stay away from Syria because “any visit by a British parliamentarian risks being misrepresented and used by the Assad regime so it can cling to power.”  Lady Cox “took these points on board but indicated that she was still minded to travel to Syria.”

Mr Ashdown told The Times: “I have never said that the Syrian government is blameless. There has been violence on all sides. I have never claimed that the Church of England is ‘on-side’. On the contrary, I have always made clear that I am visiting independently. Church and civic leaders in Syria are well aware of that fact.

“It is disingenuous and insulting to label my views ‘dishonest’. My views are based on what I have personally seen, heard and witnessed.”

When Lord Carey and his wife joined a trip in 2017, the regime media portrayed the visitors as a “House of Lords and Anglican Church” delegation. The Church washed its hands of the trips yesterday. Asked about visits by senior figures giving succour to Assad, a spokeswoman said “Andrew Ashdown’s visits to Syria were private. He was not representing the Church of England or Lambeth Palace in any official capacity.

Who’s in the ‘Crazy Club’?

Andrew Ashdown, 54, has visited Syria ten times in the past four years. He is undertaking doctoral research into Christian-Muslim relations in the country. He has made outspoken claims, including that the White Helmets volunteer rescue group left an injured Syrian child untreated to create a propaganda image against President Assad.

Baroness Cox, 81, was ennobled under Margaret Thatcher in 1982 but stripped of the Conservative whip by Michael Howard for urging voters to support Ukip. A strident campaigner against Islamic extremism and Sharia, she hosted Geert Wilders, the Dutch populist, at a screening of his anti-Islamic film at the House of Lords.

Lord Hylton, 86, is the longest serving crossbench peer, having inherited his seat from his father, who died in 1967. His great-great-grandfather, the first baron, was a Conservative minister under the Earl of Derby during Queen Victoria’s reign. Lord Hylton previously served as assistant private secretary to the governor general of Canada but is now described as a farmer and forester. A Roman Catholic, he has championed international humanitarian causes and opposed slavery.


Unofficial delegations are a propaganda coup for Assad regime

A British priest heading a Church of England and House of Lords delegation has accused Britain of complicity in “many deaths” in Syria and apologised to the bereaved, state media reported.

Local accounts of the regular visits by lords, ladies, and senior church figures leave do doubt that the trips provide a propaganda coup for President Assad. British policy is that the dictator can have no part in Syria’s future but that stance was undermined by the reports.

One claimed that Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, “indicated that the British people over the past five years have understood the events in Syria in a wrong way and they were convinced that changing the rule in Syria is the only solution”. The visitors are deemed, wrongly, to have official status by the Syrian Arab New Agency.

The Rev. Andrew Ashdown, the Church of England priest who headed one of the groups, was reported to have “voiced regret that the British government has to do with the deaths of many Syrians.” He is said to have expressed “condolences to the families of the people who were killed in the terrorist bombing attacks that hit Tartous, Homes, Damascus Countryside and Hasaka”.

Baroness Cox “expressed joy at being in Syria where things are getting better and Daesh terrorist organsation is gradually collapsing”, hailing the achievements made by the Syrian army in its war against terrorism. “She thanked Syria and its people or being the first line of defence to protect freedom of life and religion beliefs as it fights a proxy war on behalf of the whole world despite the high cost it paid to achieve that end. Baroness cox . . . stressed that the Syrian people only have the right to determine their future.” In another report, Lady Cox “expressed the delegation’s concern about the British foreign policy on Syria and the media reports British foreign policy on Syria and the media reports conveyed to the British people telling only one side of the story.”


The ermine-and-cassock brigade’s regular jaunts to Syria have brought solace to a besieged dictator. As human rights campaigners and western leaders condemn President Assad, lords, ladies and bishops from the heart of the British establishment undermine international solidarity by entering his lair. The trips are defended as pastoral or fact-finding and hosted by Syrian religious leaders but are a propaganda gift to the dictator. Participants routinely condemn British policy and argue against the overthrow of Assad, painting his regime as a bulwark against Islamic extremists.

Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, is the most senior Anglican figure to accept an invitation and was photographed in Damascus in November last year. A Foreign Office memo to Martin Longden, Britain’s special representative for Syria, highlighted how Lord Carey’s visit was being exploited. It said “Regime media is reporting that Baroness Cox and a ‘House of Lords and Anglican Church’ delegation have been in Syria and met with regime figures . . . Regime media have put out mostly standard lines . . . calling for ‘halting all forms of foreign intervention in Syria’s internal affairs and ending funding, arming, and providing support to terrorists.” It also reports that Baroness Cox criticised UK policy aimed at ‘changing the rule in the country.”

Guests in April included Giles Fraser, priest-in-charge at St Mary Newington, south London, and a panellist on BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze. The timing was helpful to Assad, coinciding with western bombing of Syria in response to a chemical weapons attack on civilians.

Dr Fraser, 53, later tweeted: “I’m certainly not an Assad fan. He runs a wicked police state and is responsible for the cruel deaths of many innocent people.” Lady Cox, 81, said “I have never condoned atrocities perpetrated by President Assad’s government or been a ‘propagandist’.”

Jeremy Corbyn, anti-Semitism, and political correctness

One of the most horrifying stories in the news last week concerned the case of Karen White. The BBC reports the story fairly briefly, sparing us a lot of the details. Under the headline “Transgender inmate admits Wakefield jail sex offences,” it reports

“A transgender prisoner has admitted sexually assaulting inmates at a women’s jail.  Karen White, 51, who was born male but now identifies as a woman, has pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual touching at New Hall Prison, Wakefield.  The offences took place between September and November last year. She has since been moved to a male prison.  Details emerged when White appeared at Leeds Crown Court to admit to a rape committed outside prison.  White previously admitted two further rapes, which also happened outside jail.”

The key words are “She has since been moved to a male prison.”

Taken out of context, most people would think that it was very odd to transfer a jailed woman to a male prison. But the fact that White was born male, “but now identifies as a woman” explains it all. Twenty years ago, I think it is safe to say, there is no way that White would initially been sent to a female prison. Even ten years ago, I doubt that it would have happened. And 50 years ago, if you told someone in the UK that a convicted rapist would be sent to a female prison, because that rapist “identified” as a woman, that person would most likely have been (at the very least) puzzled.

But things have moved on. What constitutes being male or female seems to have changed.  Or, to put it another way, the definitions of male-ness and female-ness have changed. 


Which brings me to on long running story about Jeremy Corbyn and anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. Most of it seems to be about definitions – and in particular, the definition of anti-Semitism, which has become a hot political issue. Who would have thought that the definition of a word could lead to a major political party tearing itself apart?

If I want to know what a word means, my general practice is to turn to Chambers. Over 30 years ago, I discovered Chambers 20th Century Dictionary, and was so impressed that I went out and bought one, thus forsaking the Oxford equivalent.

So I pulled it off the shelf, and discovered that an anti-Semite is

“a hater of Semites, esp. Jews, or of their influence.”

(A Semite, by the way, is“a member of any of the peoples said (Gen. x) to be descended from Shem, or speaking a Semitic language.”)

Since this is the 21st century, I decided to see how Chambers defined the word today, and found the definition had been modified slightly:

“someone who is hostile to or prejudiced against Jews.”

Personally, I think that is a pretty good definition – better than the older Chambers one. And, to be honest, I don’t think it needs to be added to.

Politicians and definitions

However, politicians, in their wisdom, seem to disagree. And hence in 2016, “the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, an intergovernmental body, adopted a ‘non-legally-binding working definition of anti-Semitism’:

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed towards Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, towards Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’

As definitions go, this strikes me as being utterly useless. And I am not the only one. In a detailed critique Stephen Sedley a judge who served on the Court of Appeal of England and Wales from 1999 to 2011 and is currently a visiting professor at the University of Oxford (and who is from a Jewish family, but would consider himself to be a humanist or rationalist) wrote, in the London Review of Books,

“This account, which is largely derived from one formulated by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, fails the first test of any definition: it is indefinite.”

But this useless definition was accompanied by a list of 11 examples of behaviour that might (but might not) constitute examples of anti-Semitism This in itself was pretty bizarre – but remember, this was a document drawn up by an intergovernmental agency, so that is not surprising. And furthermore, of the 11 examples, seven referred to Israel (i.e. the modern state of Israel) rather than to Jews.

Stephen Sedley tells us that

“In December 2016, a press release from the Department for Communities and Local Government and the prime minister’s office announced that the UK had ‘formally’ adopted the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism, setting out the forty-word definition without any of the associated examples. It is not known what ‘formal’ adoption means in constitutional terms: either a text has to take legislative form, with all that this entails, or it remains simply a policy. On the same day Jeremy Corbyn announced that the Labour Party was adopting the definition.”

and adds

“In neither of these announcements were the tendentious illustrations included.” And not only does he think that the examples are tendentious, but he also says “that they look to immunise Israel from sharp criticism.”

The Labour Party

However, the fact that the examples were not included was to cause major disagreements in the Labour Party, which have culminated in accusations that Jeremy Corbyn is anti-Semitic, and that there is a considerable amount of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party.

Is there any truth in these allegations? Well, I suppose it all depends on how one defines anti-Semitism However, if one uses the Chambers definition, which seems to me to be the standard one, I am not aware of any. I have read the BBC’s Guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims and I can’t see any evidence at all that suggests that Corbyn is anti-Semitic To say “that a group of British Zionists had “no sense of English irony” ” does not, to me suggest that he is anti-Semitic Jews and Zionists are not the same thing. And having “no sense of English irony” is hardly a terrible thing to say about something. The fact that Jonathan Sacks branded the comments as “the most offensive statement” by a politician since Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech is utterly bizarre. And the other examples that are supposed to show that Corbyn is anti-Semitic are equally silly – so silly that I wonder why anyone gives any credence to this story at all.

What is interesting is that none of the people I generally look to for wisdom about what is going on the world seem to be any more convinced that I am about this. At the beginning of 2017, I wrote a piece entitled “A look back at 2016: are we living in a post-truth world?” 

In it, I wrote “They are by four writers who have impressed me over the course of the year. I don’t agree with everything they say, but they are independent minded, and strike me as being knowledgeable and honest.” The four were Philip Giraldi, Glenn Greenwald, Craig Murray, and Robert Fisk.

What I have noticed is that the first three clearly think that the accusations against Corbyn are nonsense.  Robert Fisk has not commented on the matter, but, very interestingly, has himself been accused of anti-Semitism (though, as with Corbyn, without any credible evidence to support the claims.)

Of course Corbyn might be anti-Semitic, because anti-Semitism is about hatred and attitude and how a person feels and what they think – and we cannot know for certain what the prejudices or opinions of any politician really are. But nobody has come up with a single thing that Corbyn has said in 35 years in Parliament that gives any indication of prejudice against Jews – let alone proposing any legislation limiting the rights of Jewish people in any way.

In fact, Wikipedia records that over the years, Corbyn has a track record of opposing anti-Semitism

“He has signed several parliamentary motions opposing anti-Semitism In 2002, he was the primary sponsor of a parliamentary motion condemning an attack on the Finsbury Park synagogue in his constituency in north London. He signed the ‘Combating Anti-Semitism’ motion in 2003 following terrorist attacks on two Istanbul synagogues. In 2010, he was one of 31 MPs to sign a motion in support of Jews facing persecution in the Yemen. In the same year, he was one of 42 MPs to sign a motion supporting the Jewish News investigation into the use of Facebook to promote anti-Semitism In 2012, he signed a motion to try and save BBC radio’s Jewish Citizen Manchester show, and in 2013, he was one of 33 MPs to sign a motion condemning anti-Semitism in sport.”

In other words, on the face of it, there is nothing to suggest that he has had any tendency to anti-Semitism And many people, including Norman Finkelstein, a Jewish American academic, whose parents were holocaust survivors, have said that the notion that Corbyn is anti-Semitic is simply ridiculous.

And, looking at the evidence, I would have to agree. The evidence that I have seen that might suggest that Corbyn is anti-Semitic is pretty thin and tendentious – and the evidence that points the other way is pretty overwhelming.

And it is the same with the matter of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party. For all I know, there are people in the Labour Party who are anti-Semitic, just as there may well be people in the labour party who are homophobic, or islamophobic, misogynistic, or who are prejudiced against some other group . There may even be people in the Labour Party who are prejudiced against rich capitalists, for all I know. But (with the possible exception of prejudice against rich capitalists) it is difficult to find statements from leaders in the party that give any serious credence to these claims, and there is no indication that any legislation the party supports would discriminate against these groups.

Political Correctness

So what is going on here? Why are people throwing these accusations against Corbyn? Well, I suppose they have different reasons. But there is one over-arching reason that the opposition to Corbyn is on the grounds of anti-Semitism It is basically that in the age in which we live, that is a very serious charge. If you want to attack someone, say they are anti-Semitic A lot of the time it will stick. Hence Barack Obama was accused of anti-Semitism, as was Church of England minister Stephen Sizer, and Max Blumenthal, an American Jewish author and political journalist. These accusations (which were based on the fact that these people had criticised Israeli government policy) were all totally ridiculous.

A hundred years ago, even 50 years ago, silly accusations of anti-Semitism were not nearly as common as they are now. And the reason for that is the rise of (what is known as) political correctness.

In an article entitled “The Real Reason for the ‘Anti-Semite’ Campaign Against Jeremy Corbyn” published by Consortium News (in my opinion, one of the best news and current affairs web sites there is), Alex Mercouris writes:

“Any discussion of the current “anti-Semitism crisis” in the British Labour Party needs to start with an understanding that there is no “anti-Semitism crisis” in the British Labour Party, or in Britain.

Anti-Semitism did once have a place in British society. By way of example, readers of Agatha Christie stories written before World War II will come across stock anti-Semitic representations of Jewish characters.  As recently as the 1970s, I can remember what would today be considered Semitic stereotypes being commonly used to represent Jewish people in many of the unfunny comedy shows broadcast by British television in that period, including some the BBC broadcast.

Racist stereotyping of this sort was commonplace in Britain right up to the 1970s, and was certainly not exclusive to Jews, as Irish people, black people and people from the Indian subcontinent well recall. Some still persists today, but by and large racial stereotyping is socially unacceptable . . .”

And that is part of the rise of political correctness in the west. And it is not just racial stereotyping that is socially unacceptable. Anything that might conceivably smack of racial stereotyping is jumped upon, and becomes headline news. For example, there is the matter of the cartoon of Tennis player Serena Williams published earlier this week, which became world famous because people objected that it used racial stereotyping.

And then there was the even more ridiculous story about the “white power gesture” during the hearings over the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S Supreme court.

And then there was the suspension of conservative MP Anne Marie Morris, who when talking about the impact of Brexit on the financial services industry, said “”Now we get to the real nigger in the woodpile, which is in two years what happens if there is no deal.” She wasn’t even talking about black people, but simply used an archaic expression which is now considered politically incorrect. Politicians of all parties joined to condemn her, and Theresa May suspended her.

Which brings us back to the case of Karen White. Why was Karen White in a female prison? Political correctness. That would not have happened 50 years ago. But in Theresa May’s Britain, it was seen as appropriate to send White to a female prison, because in our modern world, what is referred to as “transphobia” is seen as a terrible sin. If there was a chorus of politicians saying how wrong or stupid it was to send White to a female prison, I didn’t hear it. The silence was deafening.

People simply accepted that a female prison was the place for White. Why? Because of what they hear, and have been hearing (pretty much non-stop) in the media about “trans people” over the past few years.

And for the same reason, if opinion polls are to be believed, there are many people who simply accept that Corbyn is anti-Semitic, despite the complete lack of evidence, or accept that the Labour Party has an anti-Semitism problem (despite the complete lack of evidence), or accept that there is a growing problem of anti-Semitism in Britain today, again despite the fact that, according to British-Israeli academic Jamie Stern-Weiner, opinion polling indicates that this is not actually the case.

And so?

What is the significance of this?

First, it is an indication of how people in general, tend to believe what we hear, especially if it is repeated endlessly – e.g. by politicians, or the media – without any evidence. The fact that many people believe the accusations that have been made against Corbyn, despite his long record of having opposed racism in any form (including anti-Semitism) is fascinating – and a warning that we should be careful about believing what “everybody says” without examining it.

Second, what is going on with Corbyn is a smear campaign. It is slander. It is defamation. Making and repeating accusations when there is no substantive evidence is smearing someone – trying to harm their reputation.

It is part of what the Bible calls “bearing false witness.” In answer to the question “What is forbidden in the ninth commandment?”, the Shorter Catechism says

“The ninth commandment forbiddeth whatsoever is prejudicial to truth, or injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name,”

or, in modern English

“The ninth commandment forbids whatever misrepresents truth, or is injurious to our own or our neighbour’s good name.”

Whether or not harming Corbyn’s reputation is intentional, it seems to me that what those who are making these accusations are doing is both misrepresenting the truth and harming Corbyn’s reputation. It is unacceptable behaviour; it is wrong.

Third, it seems to me that we need to remember the words of the apostle Paul:

“Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)

I say this for two reasons.

First, because it seems to me that a lot of the people who have been subjected to false accusations of anti-Semitism are also people who have promoted political correctness. While I cannot cite any evidence that Corbyn himself has done so, he has certainly not spoken against the culture of political correctness, and many of his supporters are enthusiastic supporters of it. I cannot recall anyone in the Labour Party speaking out against what happened to Anne Marie Morris – or about the sending of Karen White to a female prison.

And second, many Jews are concerned that conflating anti-Semitism with opposition to the policies or actions of Israeli governments, or with opposition to Zionism, will not end well. It could have the affect of turning people against Israel (since many of these accusations of anti-Semitism seem to come from supporters of the state of Israel and are aimed at criticisms of Israeli policy and actions).  More seriously, it could also end up cheapening the concept of anti-Semitism, and thus making it more socially acceptable.

Politics, the media, and the fellowship of the worldwide church

Almost 2000 years ago, the apostle Paul wrote a letter to the church in Rome. The final chapter of that letter is rather extraordinary. It is, at first sight, one of the less interesting chapters in the Bible – and certainly in the New Testament, for it largely consists of a list of names. What Paul does in that chapter is to ask the church to greet several people, who he names.

Paul does that at the end of some of his other letters, of course. What is unusual about Romans is how many people he names; he manages to fill about half a chapter with them, – 27 names in all – starting with

I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchreae, that you may welcome her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints, and help her in whatever she may need from you, for she has been a patron of many and of myself as well. Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who risked their necks for my life,

and concluding with

Greet Philologus, Julia, Nereus and his sister, and Olympas, and all the saints who are with them. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All the churches of Christ greet you.

What is surprising about this is that we can be pretty certain that Paul – who had become a Christian some years earlier – had never visited Rome. And yet he seemed to know all these Christians who were in Rome, and to be interested enough in them to mention them in his letter to the church. Rome and its small church was hundreds of miles away, and yet he had this real knowledge of it and the people in it.

What a contrast to the church of the 21st century.

I reflected on this listening to Andrew Ashdown (a Church of England minister)  speaking of the church in Syria, and its relationship with the church in the west – i.e. western Europe and America. The main point that he makes is that the church in Syria has this feeling that they are neglected and forgotten by the outside world, in the midst of facing great hardship and persecution. In particular, the Christians in Syria see the church in the west as at best ignoring them and at worst suspicious of them and even critical. Most basically, the church in the west is seen as not listening to the church in Syria.

I think that to a large extent, the church in Syria is right. Most Christians in the west don’t listen to the church in Syria. And the way we in the west see Syria and the situation there is, as a result, very different from the way the Christians there see it. And that, to be blunt, is because we in the western church understand the situation in Syria through what we hear in the western media. And what we hear in the media about Syria is, to a large extent, driven by narratives which are driven by political factors.

The church today vs the church in the New Testament

And a thought struck me: what a contrast this was to the church in New Testament times. They got their knowledge of the situation their brothers and sisters in Christ is far off places directly from those brothers and sisters in Christ. They would never have dreamed of trusting source which were driven by the political interests of the Roman Empire.

We in the western church are very much influenced by the media, and by the narratives that it pushes. That is true on all kinds of subjects. But it is particularly true with regard to subjects that are of great interest to the politically powerful in the west.

So would it be possible for the church today to emulate the church in New Testament times? To do so, we would need to be directly in touch with churches around the world through personal contact.  And it is possible.  In the middle years of the 20th century, when Eastern Europe fell under communist control, Brother Andrew, a Dutch Christian, ventured into Eastern Europe and sought out Christians there. He explained his reason for doing so by pointing to some words of the Apostle Paul, who likened the church to a body:

If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.”                                                                         (I Corinthians 12:26)

Through his visits, and his book God’s Smuggler, he made Christians in the west very aware of the situation and conditions of their fellow-believers in Communist ruled countries.

So – what about Christians in the troubled Middle East today?   Well, it is possible for us in the west to listen to the Christians on the ground there.  We can do that though people who have visited them and spent time with them.  In fact, Brother Andrew himself has done that – in his case, speaking to Christians in Israel / Palestine, and writing about it in his book Light Force.

And the same is true of Syria.

I myself am indebted to the work of MERF (Middle East Reformed Fellowship) which has been Christian work in the Middle East for many years, and has been a valuable source of information to Christians in the west about the situation on the ground in Syria.

Others have been kept informed by the work of the Barnabas Fund, which helps and support Christians who face discrimination and persecution around the world.   

Andrew Ashdown has also been doing this.  He has spent a lot of time in Syria, speaking to Christians in there. Baroness Caroline Cox of Christian Solidarity Worldwide has also visited Christians in Syria and written about their situation.  And because what they say has not fitted with the prevailing narrative (and with the political interests of some powerful people), both have been criticised.

And when I refer to the political interests of powerful people, I include the present British government. I have referred more than once to how shocked I was that Michael Fallon, when defence secretary, commenting on the battle for Aleppo, said “It looks now as if sadly Aleppo will fall”.  What he meant, however, was “the Islamic extremists, who have savagely persecuted Christians and other religious minorities, are about to be driven out of Aleppo”.*

I also think that it is quite significant that some ( Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham) of the Islamic extremist militias in Syria have been funded by Saudi Arabia.   And Saudi Arabia,  remember, does not allow its citizens to be Christians and is not prepared to allow churches to operate within its bounds.  Furthermore, the current UK government has been very closely allied with Saudi Arabia, with the Prime Minister famously saying “What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia“.

Getting back to biblical Christianity

To listen is important. But we need to listen to those who know what they are talking about, and who can give us an accurate picture of the world.

And in particular, we, in western churches, need to get back to thinking and acting like the Christians in New Testament times.

And that means that we need listen to churches in other countries if we want to understand the situations they face – rather than letting our views of those countries be formed by listening to our politicians and the mass media.

We can do that by listening to people like Andrew Ashdown, and to organisations like MERF, and the Barnabas Fund, and Christian Solidarity Worldwide – and others that we may know who have close contact with churches in other lands. 



EDIT:  I was astonished – and amused – that just this morning under the headline Manchester mosque sermon ‘called for armed jihad’, say scholars“, the BBC reports that

“A sermon at the mosque where the Manchester bomber worshipped called for the support of armed jihadist fighters, according to two Muslim scholars. An imam at Didsbury Mosque in December 2016 was recorded praying for “victory” for “our brothers and sisters right now in Aleppo and Syria and Iraq”.

It goes on to say that

“The sermon, which was at a time of bombing in the Syrian city of Aleppo, includes prayers for “mujahideen” fighting abroad – a term commonly used for Islamist guerrilla fighters.  “We ask Allah to grant them mujahideen – our brothers and sisters right now in Aleppo and Syria and Iraq – to grant them victory,” Mr Graf is heard saying. . . .

At one point Mr Graf is heard saying: “The whole world, including Europe, America – what is the so-called civilised world – is watching what is happening in Aleppo and Syria. “They know that Iran, Russia and the militias are killing humans in Syria and they do nothing.

This, of course was the line that the mainstream media in the UK and America was taking, as well as the British and American governments. And December 2016 was the month, in fact, that Michael Fallon made his statement indicating how sad he was that Aleppo was going to “fall”.

In other words, these Islamic scholars are now being quoted by the BBC as saying that the Imam at the mosque was calling for armed Jihad, when in fact, the Imam was taking exactly the same line as the UK government! 

Who knows?  In voicing support for the Syrian rebels, maybe the Imam was simply being loyal to the British government, but seeking to use language that was appropriate for a sermon in a mosque!


Stop ignoring what is happening in Yemen

1. Note that almost two years ago (December 2016), Jeremy Corbyn, questioning Theresa May in Parliament said

“Bombs exported from Britain are being dropped on Yemeni children by Saudi pilots trained by Britain”.

(The prime minister said “The issues are being investigated”, and added that Britain was providing humanitarian aid, and that she believed that Britain could be proud of its record in Yemen.)

2. Note that two years ago (September 2016), Jeremy Corbyn, questioning Theresa May in Parliament, said:

“The British Government continues to sell arms to Saudi Arabia, which are being used to commit crimes against humanity in Yemen, which has been clearly detailed by the UN and other independent agencies. Will the Prime Minister commit today to halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia that have been used to prosecute this war in Yemen with the humanitarian devastation that has resulted from that?” 

Note that Theresa May (in the course of her reply) said:

What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

3. Note that two years later, Saudi Arabia continues to bomb civilian targets and kill massive numbers of civilians in Yemen.

yemen bbc_crop

4. Note the words

Yemen Greenwald 2_crop

Americans and Brits remain largely ignorant of, or at least indifferent to.”

That’s true – isn’t it?

5. Note the words “that’s not the case for Yemenis

Yemen Greenwald 3_crop

6. Note the role of the media

yemen own_crop

7. Note that nations have a duty to do what is right.

“Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people.”                                                                                                                  (Proverbs 14:34)

8. Note that actions have consequences

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap.                                                                             (Galatians 6:7)

EDIT: For further reading, I recommend:

1) “America Is Committing War Crimes and Doesn’t Even Know Why” by Micah Zenko in Foreign Policy, which begins:

By any reasonable assessment, the U.S. government should have stopped providing direct military support to the Saudi Arabia-led air campaign in Yemen on the day after it started. Washington’s participation began on March 26, 2015, when a White House spokesperson announced, “President Obama has authorized the provision of logistical and intelligence support to [Gulf Cooperation Council]-led military operations.” On March 26, toward the end of a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) asked U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Lloyd Austin what the ultimate goal of the GCC air campaign in Yemen was, and for the general to estimate its likelihood of success.

Gen. Austin answered with refreshing honesty: “I don’t currently know the specific goals and objectives of the Saudi campaign, and I would have to know that to be able to assess the likelihood of success.” Gillibrand replied, “Well, I do hope you get the information sooner than later.” In other words, the military commander responsible for overseeing the provision of support for a new air war in the Middle East did not know what the goals of the intervention were, or how he could evaluate whether it was successful. The United States had become a willing co-combatant in a war without any direction or clear end state.

Two inevitable results have followed. First, there have been a litany of war crimes of the sort perpetrated last weekend, in which Saudi planes, using American munitions, bombed a school bus killing dozens of Yemeni schoolchildren. Second, the U.S. government has responded to these crimes with silences that might seem chastened, but in truth must be classified as defiant, given the bureaucratic maneuvering undertaken to obscure the United States’ unthinking complicity both to outsiders and to itself. (The U.S. military claims not to even track the results of the Yemeni missions that its forces are involved in.) Neither President Donald Trump, nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has publicly addressed this latest massacre. A Pentagon spokesperson only requested that Saudi Arabia “expeditiously and thoroughly investigate this tragic incident.”

And 2) Iona Craig’s piece in The Intercept, entitled “U.S.-BACKED SAUDI AIRSTRIKE ON FAMILY WITH NINE CHILDREN SHOWS “CLEAR VIOLATIONS” OF THE LAWS OF WAR” which includes these startling paragraphs:

“Though the U.S. is not known to have used its own fighter pilots and attack aircraft in Yemen, it is more directly involved in the coalition’s air war than it has been in any other foreign-led bombing campaign in modern history. As the intelligence report shows, the U.S. maintains a significant presence in the Saudi operations center. It also sells munitions and aircraft to the coalition and provides maintenance, training, targeting assistance, and mid-air refueling for fighter jets carrying out bombing runs.

Potential U.S. complicity in violations of the laws of war described in the report is more relevant than ever. The U.S. reportedly increased its role in selecting targets for coalition airstrikes soon after the May 14 attack.

In mid-June, the coalition launched a major military offensive against Yemen’s port city of Hodeidah, which, along with the surrounding area, was home to 400,000 people. That assault has relied heavily on airstrikes from coalition fighter jets flown by American-trained pilots, armed with American-made missiles, and refueled in the air by U.S. planes.”


Shalom and the ending of wars: a story from Syria

We have just passed three significant anniversaries.  Two relate to the way World War II ended; the other to the end of World War I.  The World War I anniversary relates to an event that is less well known, but which may be more significant.

Today marks the 73rd anniversary of the dropping of an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki, while Monday 6th marked 73 years since the first use of nuclear weapons in war – the bombing of Hiroshima.  Between the two, some 130,000 – 230,000 people were killed, the vast majority of whom were civilians. That number of civilian deaths in a single week was something that, for most of human history was unimaginable.  But the bombings achieved their aim: six days later, Japan surrendered, and World War II came to an end.

The third anniversary relates to an event that is less well known, but which may be more significant.   Saturday 4th August, marked the 100th anniversary of the National Day of Prayer called by King George V (the Queen’s grandfather).  One hundred days later, World War I ended.

I only know this because, at the Free Church General Assembly this year, Angus Macrae, in his Moderator’s Address, spoke on the subject of peace – or, to be precise, Shalom, (which is the Hebrew word for peace). And in the course of that address, Angus spoke about “Shalom to end all wars“, and commended Hope UK’s 100 Days of Peace – which began on the 4th.  And when I went to the Hope website, I learned of George V’s National Day of Prayer a century ago.

And Angus, speaking about the roll of the church in the matter of war and peace, said:

The institutional church has often looked feeble, uncritical and compliant as the principalities and powers of evil have danced over our doomed youth. . . . we must rise up against wars that are unjustified, and work and pray for justice and peace that endures.

Bringing peace in the real world

By interesting coincidence, on the 4th of August an article was published on the excellent Consortium News website, which is very relevant to the matter of working and praying for justice and peace.

The article (The Mystery Fixer Who is Negotiating an End to the Syrian War) is by the Rania Khalek, a Lebanese- American journalist, and it is about a businessman named Khaled al Ahmad.  She describes him as “Damascus’ secret liaison to the West”  who “has quietly been dealing Syria’s grinding war to a close.”

She reports

After seven years of grinding war, the Syrian government has achieved victory. According to current and former international officials and diplomats as well as UN officials, credit or blame for the Syrian government’s recent victories in East Ghouta and then in the south — along with the tacit acceptance these sweeping military successes received — can be placed on one man.

He is Khaled al Ahmad, a Syrian government emissary and businessman who masterminded the Syrian government’s reconciliation strategy. Al Ahmad is the secret diplomat who has exerted exceptional tolls of energy building bridges with the enemies of Damascus. Despite his central role in bringing one of the worst conflicts since World War Two to an end, he remains almost totally unknown in international media and has scarcely been discussed even among expert Syria observers.”

The story is fascinating. It is about diplomacy and bridge building, and about lots of meetings – including meetings with rebel leaders,with the Americans, and with the Russians. It took time. It started in 2015.

It required a lot of work, and also a lot of skill. Khalek writes:

Another reason for al Ahmad’s emergence appears to be that he is simply the only man available for the job. Syria’s diplomats and intelligence officials lack the flexibility and finesse to talk to Westerners without sounding like ossified Baathist ideologues.

But it is also about the end result – which is (hopefully) peace and reconciliation. And reconciliation is part of the story: the word is mentioned 24 times in the article.

One of the most genuine reconciliations to take place was in Hammeh, a Sunni suburb of Damascus formerly under rebel control. Then there was Qudsaya, also an outlying area Damascus that had been controlled by the armed opposition. These suburban areas were the first to be fully normalized, meaning the siege was totally removed and a free flow of goods and people were allowed. They were also freed from unregulated militias and their weapons. In a deal organized by the then-head of the National Defense Forces in Damascus, Fadi Saqr, the opposition was given a choice to stay and receive an amnesty that guaranteed that none of the security agencies would arrest them. Their other option was to receive safe passage further north to opposition held areas, a practice pioneered in Homs in 2014.

During Ramadan of 2017, a group of Syrian youths from Hammeh went to the orphanage of the neighboring poor Alawite suburb, Jebel Wurud, to deliver presents to the children, many of whose parents were killed during the fighting. The residents of Jebel Wurud, who up until a few months earlier had been enforcing a government-imposed siege on Hammeh, were astonished. The next day the young people in Hammeh held a children’s festival on a patch of land in the valley between the two mountain villages that had been a no man’s land during the fighting. As people from Jebel Wurud passed by the area to buy bread at a nearby government-run bakery, they and their children, though somewhat cautious and suspicious at first, eventually joined the fun. Inspired by the kind gesture from Hammeh’s youth, a group of young people from Jebel Wurud visited Hammeh the day after the festival, bearing gifts for Hammeh’s orphans.

And this process of bringing peace in the real world involved offering amnesties – effectively a pardon and forgiveness:

Hammeh and Qudsaya were held initially by the Free Syrian Army — in Hammeh the rebel forces included some fighters affiliated with Syria’s Al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al Nusra. During ceasefires in Qudsaya, fighters from Hammeh would often spoil the truce by launching attacks on government areas. This infuriated the government and the residents of Qudsaya and Hammeh. Ultimately the siege tactics imposed by the government on these areas worked. Nobody was forced to leave, they were given the choice of either remaining in the Syria of President Assad or leaving to insurgent-held areas in the north.

An estimated 300 insurgents, some 30 percent of the rebel fighters in Hammeh, as well as some of the civilian elements of the insurgency political administration, chose to stay and receive amnesty from the Syrian government in exchange for handing over their weapons. For those who stayed, checkpoints were removed and life was normalized, including for the men who were given amnesties.

Residents in Hammeh say that those given amnesty were able to return to their ordinary lives and now they come and go as they please. While they are looked upon with suspicion by some locals, there haven’t been any problems except for one verbal skirmish during Ramadan. The government got involved and mediated and those involved promised it wouldn’t happen again.

The message for Christians

What does this have to say to Christians, and to the church (and not just the Free Church)?

On one level, it doesn’t seem to have any connection to Christianity. But religion is mentioned several times in the article. That’s partly because a lot of the militias in the war were Islamists, and had the avowed purpose of making Syria an Islamic state – the present regime being strongly secular.

What was most striking during my visit to Hammeh was the ratio of schools to mosques. I lost count of the number of mosques after I reached six. I asked Ebrahim how many schools were in Hammeh. He said five, but that includes just one high school. This was a noticeable pattern in areas of Syria that fell to the opposition—the mosques seemed to exceed the number of schools.

After 2000, when Bashar al Assad took over the presidency following his father’s death, he relaxed some of the country’s anti-religious laws and thousands of new mosques were built. A senior official with the ministry of public record estimated that 10,000 mosques were built under Bashar. This number does not include the Koran memorization schools the government sponsored during this time. Many of these mosques were funded by private donors from outside the country, mostly from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Ebrahim and his friends explained to me the role of the mosques in the protests that erupted in their town and later the role of foreigners.

When the uprising began, boys would pour out of the mosques after Friday prayers to protest after being riled up by their local sheikhs, said Ebrahim.

There were never any problems in Hammeh that I can remember until 2011,” he said, explaining how the conflict in Hammeh evolved. “When the protests started here, a lot of young men went out and protested. They usually went after Friday prayer, the imams encouraged it. The problem wasn’t the protests, it was sectarianism. Hammeh is Sunni. There are neighborhoods around it that are Alawite and Shia.””

And of course there was definitely a “Sunni vs Shia” side to the war. (Khalek herself is an atheist from a Druze family.)

Syria’s Christian community is not mentioned in the article, but we know that they welcome the return of peace and stability, and in general, strongly preferred the government, with all its faults, to the Islamist extremists who dominated rebel controlled areas.

Praying and working for peace

Which brings us to the key point for Christians. In the Bible, the apostle Paul writes

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.  (I Timothy 2:1-2)

The aim in working and praying for justice and peace that endures is that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every say. When war comes to an end, and reconciliation takes place, it is much easier to do that.

Praying for kings and all who are in high positions means praying for the work of people like Khaled al Ahmad – people that we have never heard of, people who are not Christians, people whose motivation may not be the same as ours – but people who have skill and wisdom, who are willing to work hard.

We should pray for them. And, after seven years of fighting, with some half a million people killed, and countless others displaced, we should also thank God when they actually manage to bring peace and reconciliation to troubled places.

And, as Christians, we can not only pray for kings and those in high positions, we can give thanks for another king – the Prince of Peace and King of Kings – who will one day bring in a Shalom to end all wars.

Question: Why did America support Islamist rebels in Syria?

In response to my last blog post, a question was raised:

What to America hope to achieve by supporting Islamic groups in the Syrian war? Why do they want to create an Islamic state in Syria?

Three possible answers

There are three short answers to this question, which are all basically true, but not very helpful.

One is simply to say “I don’t know. Who am I to look into the hearts of other people and discern their motives?”     However, that isn’t quite true – because people speak, and explain their motives, or explain the motives of others. So even I cannot be sure, I can have a rough idea.

A second answer is to say “It’s complicated. There were several reasons.” Which is quite true, but is a cop-out.

The third answer is better than the other two. “It doesn’t: some of America’s allies may want to create an Islamic state in Syria, but America does not.” However, it is one thing not to want an Islamic state in Syria. It is a different thing not to fund and help Islamic militants. And that is basically what is going on. America has never wanted an Islamic state in Syria – but it has been quite willing to help Islamic militants, either accidentally or deliberately.

What actually happened

Hence when the current unrest began in Syria during the so-called Arab Spring in 2011, it didn’t look like the opposition to the current government was basically coming from Islamic militants. And in the early days of the civil war that came out of the unrest, there were, apparently, moderate rebels. And so America decided to help these moderate rebels. In the end, it turned out that the money and arms that went to these moderate rebels often ended up in the hands of Islamist groups – including ISIS. And a lot of the time, the men who were fighting for these so-called moderate rebels ended up moving on to Islamic militias. And even when these things didn’t happen, the moderate rebels worked very closely with the Islamist groups, and their behaviour was just about indistinguishable from that of the Islamists.

When these things became obvious to the American authorities, they then had to to decide how to respond. One option was to turn a blind eye and deny that it was happening. That was especially the strategy early on. For example, in a 2015 interview with reporter Sharmine Narwani, “CENTCOM spokesman Lieutenant Commander Kyle Raines was quizzed about why Pentagon-vetted fighters’ weapons were showing up in Nusra hands. Raines responded:

We don’t ‘command and control’ these forces—we only ‘train and enable’ them. Who they say they’re allying with, that’s their business.”

More recently, particularly under Donald Trump, there has been more effort for America not to be associated with Islamist forces. However, the problem is that if America wants to oppose the Assad regime in Syria, it really only had two choices: the ‘moderate rebels’ who were, in practice, not so moderate Islamists, and the Kurds. Under Trump, America has moved away from the so called moderates and used the Kurds a lot more. That created its own problems, since the Turks, who are America’s NATO allies, have been effectively at war with the Kurds for decades.

America’s reasons

So the question really is “Why do the Americans want to remove Syria’s Assad regime? Why the constant refrain of ‘Assad must go’?”

The best answer I can give you is to point you to William van Wagenen’s long and thorough article, Is There a Western Plot to Overthrow Assad?” Van Wagenen writes:

“Flynt Leverett, former senior Middle East analyst at the CIA and senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council during the first Bush Administration, described the reasons why US planners have long wished to overthrow the Syrian government. Writing in “Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire” in 2005, Leverett highlight’s Syria’s strategic importance to the US interests in the Middle East, and the Syrian government’s resistance to these interests. Leverett explains that Syria is a “swing state” in the Middle East, and that since the establishment of the Assad regime in 1970, US policy toward Syria has been motivated by an interest in bringing Syria into the pro-US camp and therefore “tipping the regional balance of power against more radical or revisionist actors,” in particular Iran (page 8). Leverett complains however, that the US has “had to cope with Syrian resistance on a variety of fronts” since 1970, which resistance includes opposition to US support for Israel’s annexation of the Syrian Golan Heights, Syria’s “largely successful campaign to repulse Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon,” Syria’s “inauguration of a strategic alliance with Iran” which “ran against American moves throughout the 1980’s to bolster [Saddam’s] Iraq as a bulwark against the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary influence.”

Leverett notes further that “As the Bush administration launched its military campaign against Saddam’s regime in 2003, Bashar [al-Assad] not only opposed the war but authorized actions that worked against the US pursuit of its objectives in Iraq (page 10).” Leverett also discusses Syrian support for Palestinian militant groups (PFLP-GC, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad) and the fact that Syria “has for many years been the principle conduit for Iranian military supplies going to Hizballah fighters in southern Lebanon” and that Syria “continues to see its ties to Hizballah as an important tactical tool in its posture toward Israel (pages 12-13).”

Leverett then wonders whether the best course for

changing problematic Syrian behaviors” would entail US efforts to “ratchet up economic, political, rhetorical pressure on Damascus,” on the one hand, or “coercive regime change” on the other (pages 17-18).

So basically it is about “US interests in the Middle East”, “problematic Syrian behaviors“, “bringing Syria into the pro-US camp”, and “tipping the regional balance of power.”

(And by the way, van Wagenen says, with regard to Leverett’s explanation of US policy, “Also of note is that human rights concerns are not among the reasons cited by Leverett for proposing the overthrow of the Syrian government.

Western governments always talk a lot about human rights as their reason for taking various actions against other countries. I think that it is a fairly safe bet that this is just public relations window dressing, and in reality has nothing to do with why they do what they do.)

Of course, there is nothing new about America supporting radical Islamic militants for political reasons. They did it in Afghanistan back in the days when Afghanistan had a secular government that was allied to the Soviet Union. More recently they did it in Kosovo. So, in a way, it wasn’t that surprising that they did it in Syria.

So – it’s basically about influence and alliances in the Middle East – in other words, power.

Yes, power. You know – the stuff that tends to corrupt, and when absolute, corrupts absolutely.


EDIT: Also worth reading on the subject of why America wanted to remove Assad from power is Barack Obama’s interview with Jeffrey Goldberg in March 2012 – especially the following exchange:

GOLDBERG: Can you just talk about Syria as a strategic issue? Talk about it as a humanitarian issue, as well. But it would seem to me that one way to weaken and further isolate Iran is to remove or help remove Iran’s only Arab ally.


GOLDBERG: And so the question is: What else can this administration be doing?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, look, there’s no doubt that Iran is much weaker now than it was a year ago, two years ago, three years ago. The Arab Spring, as bumpy as it has been, represents a strategic defeat for Iran, because what people in the region have seen is that all the impulses towards freedom and self-determination and free speech and freedom of assembly have been constantly violated by Iran. [The Iranian leadership is] no friend of that movement toward human rights and political freedom. But more directly, it is now engulfing Syria, and Syria is basically their only true ally in the region.

And it is our estimation that [President Bashar al-Assad’s] days are numbered. It’s a matter not of if, but when. Now, can we accelerate that? We’re working with the world community to try to do that. It is complicated by the fact that Syria is a much bigger, more sophisticated, and more complicated country than Libya, for example — the opposition is hugely splintered — that although there’s unanimity within the Arab world at this point, internationally, countries like Russia are still blocking potential UN mandates or action. And so what we’re trying to do — and the secretary of state just came back from helping to lead the Friends of Syria group in Tunisia — is to try to come up with a series of strategies that can provide humanitarian relief. But they can also accelerate a transition to a peaceful and stable and representative Syrian government. If that happens, that will be a profound loss for Iran.


GOLDBERG: Is there anything you could do to move it faster?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, nothing that I can tell you, because your classified clearance isn’t good enough. (Laughter.)“.

You couldn’t make it up: the White Helmets and the West’s support for Islamic militants in Syria

Two stories emerged over the weekend which reveal – at least for those who have eyes to see – how crazy and misguided UK (and US) Middle East policy is. Both stories were fascinating. But while one made headlines, the other was largely ignored.

We’ll start with the one that got big media coverage. Under the headline “Syria conflict: White Helmets evacuated by Israel“, the BBC reported that

Israel says it has carried out an evacuation of members of Syria’s White Helmets civil defence group from a war zone in south-western Syria. Some 422 volunteers and family members were taken to Jordan via the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights overnight. The UK, one of the nations requesting Israel’s help, hailed the operation and will assist with resettlement.

Who are the White Helmets? That is the big question. Or perhaps I should say “the $64,000 question.”   The BBC explains:

The White Helmets describe themselves as a volunteer workforce that acts to save people in Syria’s war zones. Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian allies, say the White Helmets support the rebels and also have links to jihadist groups.”

In short, the BBC doesn’t say. It gives us two answers, which suggests that we make up our own minds. Who do I believe? Do I believe them, or do I believe the supporters of President Assad and his Russian allies? Or is the truth somewhere in between? Or could they both be right?

Clearly, the British government seems to take a positive view of them, since the Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt tweeted

Fantastic news that we – UK and friends – have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families – thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request. The WH are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope.

There is another clue in the BBC story, which in my opinion, is the big give-away. “The White Helmets operate only in rebel-held areas, although they say they are non-partisan.”

However, having covered the story, the BBC then gives more background information on the question of who the White Helmets are.

“Their official name is the Syrian Civil Defence and it began in early 2013 as an organisation of volunteers from all walks of life, including electricians and builders.

Its main task soon became to rescue civilians in war zones in the immediate aftermath of air strikes, and it says its volunteers have saved the lives of more than 100,000 people during the civil war. Numbering about 3,000 volunteers, they also carry out essential repair works. Some 200 members have been killed. The White Helmets have gained worldwide praise, were nominated for the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize and were the subject of a Netflix documentary . . . . But Syria’s government and its ally Russia have accused the group of links to jihadist groups. President Assad said it used “humanitarian masks and umbrellas just to implement a certain agenda”. The group has been financed by public donations, as well as funding from foreign governments.”

But the fact that they work only in rebel-held areas is deeply significant. And there are three important things that are very significant about that.

The first is that all of these rebel controlled areas are basically under the control of jihadist Islamic extremists.

The second is that these Islamic groups are pretty brutal, and tolerate no dissent. Hence western journalists don’t operate in them – and no news comes out of them except what the militias allow.

And the third is that when a rebel-held area falls to Syrian government forces and the rebels surrender (as has happened in several places over the last couple of years, e.g. Eastern Aleppo, Douma, and Daraa), some of the rebel fighters have received an amnesty and basically gone over to the government side, while others have been given safe transit to go to remaining rebel-held areas – generally Idlib. White Helmets have NEVER accepted the amnesty offered and resettled in government controlled parts of Syria. They have always chosen to remain with the rebels and go to Idlib. That speaks volumes.

It may be significant that in this latest evacuation that Israel helped with,  it is being reported that the nationalities of those involved are said to largely be UAE, Qatar, Saudi – and that most were not Syrian. Indeed, this is typical of the war in Syria, as it has been said more than once that it is not really a civil war, since a large number of the rebel fighters are not Syrian, and the armed forces of several different nations (yes, including the US and UK) have been involved in the fighting.

There is another thing that the BBC report leaves out. It leaves out the fact that respected serious western reporters who have spent a lot of time on the ground (e.g. Patrick Cockburn, Robert Fisk, Reese Erlich), have never voiced any support for the White Helmets.

For example, Reese Erlich, speaking about reports coming from rebel-held areas of poison gas attacks, comments “All of the White Helmets’ reports and the videos were taken by pro-rebel groups of one kind or another.” When Robert Fisk visited the scene of reported poison gas attacks in Douma (in which the only evidence of the attack was a video by the White Helmets of people in a hospital being hosed down), all of the locals he spoke to said there had been no gas attack. And Patrick Cockburn has been scathing about the pro-rebel bias and inaccuracy of most mainstream western media reporting of the Syrian conflict – declaring it the most biased war reporting in the west since World War I.

And a lot of other western reporters and experts are pretty convinced – and have shown plenty of evidence – that the Syrian government are completely correct: the White Helmets are allied with the rebels, and they are basically nothing but a propaganda outfit. See for example Gareth Porter, Seymour Hersh, Max Blumenthal, Rick Sterling, as well as retired CIA analyst Philip Giraldi, the former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murrayand the former UK ambassador to Syria, Peter Ford (here, here, and here). There are plenty of reports of members of the White Helmets being involved in atrocities – including the beheading of a 12 year old boy.

And having looked at the evidence I have seen, it seems to me that there is no doubt at all that the Syrian government are correct: the White Helmets are basically a propaganda front for extremist Islamic militias.

Which leaves me shaking my head when I read that the Foreign Secretary has tweeted “”Fantastic news that we – UK and friends – have secured evacuation of White Helmets and their families – thank you Israel and Jordan for acting so quickly on our request. The WH are the bravest of the brave and in a desperate situation this is at least one ray of hope.

This is so wrong that it is crazy. The total untruths that come from the UK government leave one feeling ill.

Oh, and by the way, my giving supports the White Helmets, because one of their main sources of finance is grants from the UK government. Which is why I described the matter of who the White Helmets were as the $64,000 dollar question.

Al-Qaeda, Bosnia, and NATO

Which brings me to the weekend’s other story, which was in the Independent, but received almost no coverage. It is by the veteran Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk. And it is absolutely astonishing.

While I suggest that you read it for yourself, these are the main points, as reported by Fisk:

In the basement of a bombed-out al-Qaeda arms storage building in eastern Aleppo last year, I found a weapons log book from a mortar factory in Bosnia – with the handwritten name of one of their senior officials, Ifet Krnjic, on each page. It was dispatched from the Balkans with a cargo of 500 120mm mortars in January 2016.

(Al-Qaeda, you remember, are the Islamic terrorist group that carried out the 9/11 attacks in America in 2001.)

. . . . in the forested heart of central Bosnia, I . . . found Mr Krnjic, who says his company sent the arms to Saudi Arabia. Sitting on the lawn of his home south of the weapons-manufacturing town of Novi Travnik, he brings his finger down onto the first page of the log book which I showed him. “This is my signature! Yes, that’s me!” Krnjic exclaims loudly. “It’s a warranty for the 120mm mortar launcher – this is Nato standard. It [the shipment] went to Saudi Arabia. It was part of a supply of 500 mortars. I remember the Saudi shipment well. They [the Saudis] came to our factory to inspect the weapons at the beginning of 2016.”

Five-hundred mortars is a massive shipment of weapons – most European armies don’t have that many in their individual inventories – and some of them at least appear to have ended up in the hands of Bashar al-Assad’s Islamist Nusrah Front/al-Qaeda enemies in northern Syria within six months of their dispatch from Bosnia 1,200 miles away. . . .

And Fisk goes on to tell about his experiences in East Aleppo after it’s capture by the Syrian government at the end of 2016:

I entered three former military barracks of the Islamist groups in February 2017, rubble sometimes blocking my path; stones, bricks, sheet metal and bomb fragments strewn across the roads and inside still standing, though badly damaged, buildings. Inside one of these, lying half-concealed amid iron fragments and field dressings, I found piles of discarded documents containing firing instructions for machine guns and mortars, all of them in English.

They also included weapons shipment papers and arms instruction booklets from Bosnia and Serbia, the pages still damp from winter rains and some stained by footprints. I stuffed as many as I could in the satchel I always carry in wars, later finding – in another building – a Bulgarian weapons shipment paper for artillery shells. In a deep basement of a third building in the Ansari district, with the words Jaish al-Mujaheddin (Army of the Holy Fighters) crudely painted but still visible on the front, its upper floors clearly bombed by Syrian or Russian jets, lay dozens of empty boxes for anti-armour weapons, all marked with their maker’s name – the Hughes Aircraft Company, of California. The boxes were labelled “Guided Missile Surface Attack” with stock numbers starting with the computer code “1410-01-300-0254”.

These papers, some of them lying amid smashed guns and pieces of shrapnel, provide the most intriguing paper trail yet discovered of just who is producing the weapons that have armed the Assad regime’s most ferocious Islamist opponents – and how they apparently reach the fighters of Syria via countries ‘friendly’ to the west.

Ifet Krnjic’s account of the mortar shipment from BNT-TMiH in Bosnia is both precise and detailed. “When the Saudis came to our factory to inspect at the beginning of 2016, there was a Saudi ‘minister’… and some Saudi officers who also came to inspect the weapons before receiving them. The officers wore civilian clothes. The minister was in a robe. All our production after the [Bosnian] war is under the control of the Americans and Nato who are always coming here… and they know each and every piece of our weapons which go outside our factory.”

. . . I know I should not say all of this, but Nato and the EU have given us the green light to do this.

So there you have it. 15 years after al-Qaeda attacked the twin towers, they were using weapons supplied to Saudi Arabia, with NATO’s permission, to seek to turn Syria into an Islamic state.

You couldn’t make it up. The British and American governments have been helping al-Qaeda. Who would have guessed, that when Bush and Blair launched the attack on Afghanistan just weeks after the 9/11 attacks, that the “war on terror” would lead to the US and UK supporting the very terrorist group that brought terror to New York – helping them bring terror to Syria.  And that the mainstream western media would do its best to cover it up.

Oh, and there is a delightful footnote. As I say, Fisk’s report has not received much coverage or comment in the US or UK. But it was reported in Bosnia. And guess what.  A former government minister in Bosnia, asked to comment, said

I think that these articles were written in very bad faith. I think that this is coming from propagandists of Assad’s (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) regime,” he said, accusing the journalist behind the story of being “part of the machinery of Bashar al-Assad”.

Yes, you have to laugh. But remember the way the BBC said “Supporters of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and his Russian allies, say the White Helmets support the rebels and also have links to jihadist groups”, but didn’t mention that a lot of well-informed people in the west say exactly the same thing?  Well – what often happens when they do is that someone immediately calls them supporters of Assad.

It all reminds me of a passage from C.S. Lewis’ book, The Pilgrim’s Regress. The book was written shortly after Lewis, who had for many years been an atheist, had finally, after a few years of wrestling, come to the conclusion that the Christian faith was true, and become a Christian. In it, he satirises some of the philosophical trends of was seeing around him. One of these is the tendency to answer logical arguments with ad hominem remarks.

And so, in the book, an instructor is testing his pupil on such things as “What do you say to an argument that proves the existence of God?” and various other philosophical and moral questions. And after the pupils gives the correct answer, the instructor comes to the final question: “What is the answer to an argument turning on the belief that two and two make four?” And the pupils comes back “The answer is “You say that because you are a mathematician.”

However, in the book, it isn’t exactly a pupil and instructor. It is a prisoner and a jailer. Because some people are prisoners of a world-view that is not easy to escape from.

And that, it seems to me, describes a lot of people in the west today.  And in particular, it describes them in terms of the way they view the conflict in Syria, and of the way they view the foreign policies pursued by the the government of their country.