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)

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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.

 
PRESIDENT OBAMA:
 Absolutely.

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.

Russian interference, American hysteria, and Scottish common sense

Yesterday morning, the BBC’s top story was about the Trump – Putin summit meeting. It reported:

“There has been a barrage of criticism in the US after President Donald Trump defended Russia over claims of interference in the 2016 elections. At a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland, Mr Trump contradicted US intelligence agencies, saying Russia had no reason to meddle.”

Within hours, Donald Trump, true to form, explained that he had not meant what he was reported as saying.

But what is much more interesting than what Trump said, or even what he thinks, is the reaction. The BBC reported the way that American politicians from right across the political spectrum had condemned Trump’s comments. They seemed particularly angry that Trump appeared to saying that he believed what Putin said about the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election, rather than what the US intelligence agencies said. Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer tweeted

“For the president of the United States to side with President Putin against American law enforcement, American defense officials, and American intelligence agencies is thoughtless, dangerous, and weak. The president is putting himself over our country.”

This struck me as being absolutely idiotic. And I was not the only one. And interestingly enough, the best response I have seen comes from a Scot – former UK ambassador to Uzbekistan, Craig Murray – someone who is very familiar with Russia.

Murray starts with the first reason why reaction of the American political community makes no sense: the fact that the American intelligence agencies are far from being a reliable source:

“Political memories are short, but just 15 years after Iraq was destroyed and the chain reaction sent most of the Arab world back to the dark ages, it is now “treason” to question the word of the Western intelligence agencies, which deliberately and knowingly produced a fabric of lies on Iraqi WMD to justify that destruction. “

He then moves to the second reason why the American establishment’s response is ridiculous: so far, no real evidence has ever been put forward to show that the Russian government interfered with the 2016 election:

“after three years of crazed accusations and millions of man hours by lawyers and CIA and FBI investigators, they are yet to produce any substantive evidence of accusations which are plainly nuts in the first place. This ridiculous circus has found a few facebook ads and indicted one Russian for every 100,000 man hours worked, for unspecified or minor actions which had no possible bearing on the election result. “

But while those are the main two points that need to be made, there are a few other things that seem relevant to me. And they all relate to the fact that what the Russians are alleged to have done pales into insignificance compared to what the American government and respected American politicians have done.

Interference in elections by US

1) America has a long history of interfering in elections in other countries. According to one study, America interfered in 81 elections in other countries between 1946 and 2000 – not to mention using coups to overthrow democratically elected governments on several occasions.

yeltsin time

2) In particular, it is no secret that the US interfered massively in the Russian election in 1996 to make sure that Boris Yeltsin got elected. Interestingly, the American president at that time was a man called . . . Clinton.

3) In 2006, a top American politician, in a conversation with Israeli journalists, had some interesting comments on the elections that had recently taken place in the Gaza Strip.

“Speaking to the Jewish Press about the January 25, 2006, election for the second Palestinian Legislative Council (the legislature of the Palestinian National Authority), [she] weighed in about the result, which was a resounding victory for Hamas (74 seats) over the U.S.-preferred Fatah (45 seats).

I do not think we should have pushed for an election in the Palestinian territories. I think that was a big mistake. And if we were going to push for an election, then we should have made sure that we did something to determine who was going to win.”

The name of the American politician who reckoned that America should have “fixed” the Gaza elections? Hillary Clinton.

4) As Craig Murray points out, the Russians are not the only ones who might have ‘interfered’ in the 2016 American election:

“There are in fact genuine acts of election rigging to investigate. In particular, the multiple actions of the DNC and Democratic Party establishment to rig the Primary against Bernie Sanders do have some very real documentary evidence to substantiate them, and that evidence is even public.”

meme-putin-hack

5) And and as Murray continues:

“Yet those real acts of election rigging are ignored and instead the huge investigation is focused on catching those who revealed Hillary’s election rigging.”

Yes, ironically what Russia was alleged to have done was to have revealed electoral malpractice in the American elections. And, even more ironically, Russia was accused of undermining or even attacking American democracy because it had allegedly revealed electoral malpractice

And that is so ridiculous, that it beggars belief. And yet thousands of Americans appear to swallow it hook, line, and sinker.

Another King. (Or – What I like about Donald Trump)

There are good reasons for going to church twice on a Sunday, as I discovered yesterday.

As is my custom when I am in Keswick, I not only attended the morning service in Keswick Congregational Church, but also went along to their afternoon service. The pastor, James Devenish, had chosen to preach on chapter 1 of the book of Esther, which struck me as an unusual choice. I couldn’t remember having ever heard a sermon on this chapter. And I will admit since it didn’t strike me as a very interesting chapter, I wasn’t expecting an interesting sermon.

I was wrong. Very wrong.

The chapter is about Ahasuerus, King of Persia (though most modern translations of the Bible refer to him as Xerxes).

The first thing that we learn in the chapter, is that in the third year of his reign he gave a banquet for all his nobles and officials, and

“For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.”

The second thing we are told is that

“When these days were over, the king gave a banquet, lasting seven days, in the enclosed garden of the king’s palace, for all the people from the least to the greatest,who were in the citadel of Susa.”

And the writer then tells us some of the details of what the people would have seen at this great banquet:

“There were couches of gold and silver on a mosaic pavement of porphyry, marble, mother-of-pearl and other costly stones. Wine was served in goblets of gold, each one different from the other, and the royal wine was abundant, in keeping with the king’s liberality.”

And third, we are told

“On the seventh day, when King Xerxes was in high spirits from wine, he commanded the seven eunuchs who served him—Mehuman, Biztha, Harbona, Bigtha, Abagtha, Zethar and Carcas— to bring before him Queen Vashti, wearing her royal crown, in order to display her beauty to the people and nobles, for she was lovely to look at.”

Those last words are important. He brought out this beautiful wife in order to display her to everyone. And this was clearly also the reason why all the golden goblets, the gold and silver couches, and the rest of the opulent furnishings were used; they were impressive to look at. Which all illustrates what we were told about the first of the two banquets: “For a full 180 days he displayed the vast wealth of his kingdom and the splendour and glory of his majesty.” This was all about displaying the glory of his majesty.

The king was doing all this to show off his own power and glory. We are being shown a man who is utterly full of himself, and utterly devoted to his own power and glory. Or, to be precise, to earthly power and glory.

For some reason, as I listened to the minister explaining all this, I kept of thinking of Donald Trump. I thought “This ancient king of Persia sounds so like Donald Trump!” Maybe I’m wrong, but Donald Trump strikes me as a man who just loves to show off, a man who is utterly full of himself, and is devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. This is a man who likes to do things to display “the splendour and glory of his majesty.”

In this, Donald Trump is somewhat different from most American presidents, and indeed, most world leaders today, and most politicians in the west. Trump makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is full of himself, and devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. The others (for the most part) are all just as devoted to earthly power and earthly glory. They just know that it doesn’t look good to show off too openly, so they don’t. In other worlds, Donald Trump shows what other American presidents and world leaders (for the most part) are really like. And that’s what I love about him. He pulls away the veil, and shows us what other politicians are really like. He has brought to light what was previously hidden – at least for those who have eyes to see these things.

The sermon also suggested that the writer of Esther, in describing what the king of Persia was doing, was deliberately showing that the king was full of himself, and was laughing at him. In other words, the king was actually a rather pitiable character. And that suggests that maybe we should think of Donald Trump in much the same way – as someone we might laugh at, or better still, someone we might feel sorry for. And indeed, perhaps that is the message. Instead of being angry and protesting about Trump’s visit to Britain, maybe we should be seeing him as a rather pitiful person, and feeling sorry for him – and if we are Christians, praying for him – praying that he will see himself as he really is, and repent and turn to God. And indeed, perhaps that is the way we should generally think of world leaders and powerful politicians.

And as I thought about the whole matter of feeling sorry for politicians, I thought of Tim Farron, who is a Christian, and who discovered, as leader of the LibDems, that there is a very real tension between the pressures that politicians face, and being true to his Christian beliefs. In resigning as leader of the LibDems, I like to think that he was showing that he knew that earthly power and earthly glory were less important to him than being a faithful Christian. I also reflected that he is a politician that one doesn’t need to feel quite as sorry for – because he is less pitiful than most of them.

But the way the sermon ended is important. We heard that there is another king – a king who is different, and who is not about earthly power and earthly glory. We heard about the true king – Jesus Christ.

And I reflected on his career, leading up to his final journey to Jerusalem, where he arrived riding on a donkey, and was hailed by the crowds – most of whom probably saw him as an earthly king. And I reflected on what happened a few days later, when he knew that God’s plan was for him to be arrested and crucified. I reflected on how, shortly before his arrest, he prayed that he wouldn’t have to go through with this, but that God’s will, not his own, should be done. And I reflected on how he was condemned to death, and jeered as he had a crown of thorns put on his head as he was led away. All very far from earthly power and earthly glory.

But that is far from being the same as no power or glory. For he promised that he would return – in power and glory. And the Bible tells us that when that happens, everyone will have no choice but to bow before him, and acknowledge that he is the real king.

And I thought about how, for Christians, our real loyalty is not to be to any earthly power or ruler, but to Christ the king. Our real citizenship is in heaven. And for now, we admit that we are aliens and temporary residents on the earth.

BBC changes their story after getting it wrong

Yesterday, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) released an interim report into the suspected gas attack that took place in Douma in Syria in April this year. As reported by the BBC,


“A chemical weapons watchdog says chlorine may have been used in April’s attack on the Syrian city of Douma.

The interim report by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said “various chlorinated organic chemicals” had been found but there was no evidence of nerve agents. Dozens of civilians were killed in the attack on the rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus. The Syrian government denies carrying out any chemical weapons attacks. Following the Douma attack, US, British and French warplanes launched strikes against government military targets.”

The BBC report, incidentally omits to mention that the attacks took place just as the OPCW was arriving in Damascus to begin their investigation. As was widely pointed out at the time, it seemed to be a case of “Bomb now. Don’t wait to find out what actually happened.”

What is most interesting about the OPCW report was that different people seemed to interpret it in rather different ways.

The headline in RT, a Russian international television network funded by the Russian government was “Nerve agents not found in samples from Syria’s Douma – interim OPCW report.

It reported 

“No traces of any nerve agents have been found at the site of a suspected chemical attack in the Syrian city of Douma, an interim report issued by the OPCW says, adding that several chlorine compounds were detected.

Various chlorinated organic chemicals were found in samples” from two locations in the Damascus suburb of Douma, which were examined by specialists from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), an interim OPCW document said. The chemicals were found in two samples taken from canisters found in Douma, the report said. The report confirmed the absence of any traces of nerve agents, such as sarin, at the site.

Technical notes in the OPCW report specify that one of its laboratories found traces of dichloroacetic acid, trichloroacetic acid, chloral hydrate, trichlorophenol and chlorophenol in some of the samples. Some of these chemicals, such as dichloroacetic acid and chloral hydrate, are known by-products of water purification. Another OPCW laboratory only reported finding “no CWC-scheduled chemicals,” meaning nothing that was banned under the Chemical Weapons Convention.”

And Labour MP Chris Williamson tweeted “#OPCW report says there was no chemical weapons attack on Douma. “

It seems that the way you read something is largely determined by the presuppositions you bring to it – the “narrative” you have accepted.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the response was the way that the BBC changed its headline overnight from “Syria war: Douma attack was chlorine gas – watchdog” to “Syria war: ‘Possible chlorine’ at Douma attack site – watchdog.”

It is fascinating that the BBC were the ones who managed to get the report spectacularly wrong. I might be wrong, but, as Chris Williamson makes clear, the BBC report, as corrected, still seems to me to be a little questionable, since it gives the impression that there was a chemical attack on Douma in April – something that we don’t actually know.

So, to use the language of the World Cup, it looks like it’s a case of “RT, one. BBC, nil.”


The comment on the OPCW report by Craig Murray, former British Ambassador to Uzbekistan, is very interesting indeed:   

“Yesterday the OPCW reported that, contrary to US and UK assertions in the UN security council, there was no nerve agent attack on jihadist-held Douma by the Syrian government, precisely as Robert Fisk was execrated by the entire media establishment for pointing out. The OPCW did find some traces of chlorine compounds, but chlorine is a very commonly used element and you have traces of it all over your house. The US wants your chicken chlorinated. The OPCW said it was “Not clear” if the chlorine was weaponised, and it is plain to me from a career in diplomacy that the almost incidental mention is a diplomatic sop to the UK, US and France, which are important members of the OPCW. “

As I say, all very interesting.  Especially what it tells us about the BBC.

The UK’s involvement in torture – and what it says about Britain today

On Thursday, the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) published two reports about Britain’s involvement in the torture of American detainees. In the years following the 9/11 attacks, large numbers of people were seized by the Americans on suspicion of being involved in ‘terrorism’ – and many of these were subsequently tortured or otherwise mistreated.

In addition, the police and armed services of other countries, including Britain, also seized people – and instead of questioning them themselves, handed them over to the Americans for interrogation. British forces never actually used torture themselves. However, according to the ISC, (as reported by the BBC)

The UK tolerated “inexcusable” treatment of US detainees after the 9/11 attacks” and ” continued to supply intelligence to allies despite knowing or suspecting abuse in more than 200 cases.

Committee chairman Dominic Grieve said agencies knew of incidents that were “plainly unlawful”. He also explained that some of the people that Britain had arrested and handed over to the Americans were sent for interrogation

“to countries “with very dubious human rights records, where it would have been very likely that the person would be in fact tortured or ill-treated”. He said British agents working in the US reported concerns about behaviour by their American colleagues, but there “was no response at the London end” and “no questions were asked” until 

What does this tell us?

Three things are clear from all this. One is that Britain knew that torture and mistreatment of prisoners was illegal, and knew that it was unacceptable to do these things. And so they didn’t.

A second is that the American intelligence agencies and security forces were prepared to use torture, and did so. The American government came up with explanations to justify what they were doing, and claim that it was not illegal – explanations that have not impressed many other people.

(By the way, as a Christian, I am reminded of the something that I have seen happening in n the church. When people want to justify certain behaviour that the Bible says is wrong, they manage to come up with novel, convoluted, fascinating – and unconvincing – explanations of why the Bible doesn’t actually say what it clearly appears to say.)

The third is that the British, and in particular MI5, MI6, and GCHQ, did nothing about it. What was going on was unlawful. It was criminal. And it was plainly unlawful and criminal. But, presumably because it was being done by an allied government, they did nothing about it. And here, we need to remember that in some sense, MI5 and MI6 and GCHQ and the American intelligence agencies are basically about law enforcement – and bringing those who are engaged in criminal activity to justice.

And this brings us to something else. It is something that is ironic – but also highly relevant. Many of those that the British turned over to the Americans (and many of those the Americans detained), were not involvement in criminal activity. But many of those law enforcement officers were. When we see an uniformed officer leading a person in handcuffs, we tend to assume that the one in handcuffs is the criminal. Sadly, however, it is sometimes the one in uniform that is the crook.

What Theresa May says . . .

The BBC, by the way, reports Theresa May’s comments on the case:

British personnel worked in “a new and challenging operating environment” which some were “not prepared” for.  She added “it took too long to recognise that guidance and training for staff was inadequate”, and said British intelligence and the Army were “much better placed to meet that challenge”.

I must confess to finding that pretty lame. “A new and challenging operating environment”? What is she talking about? The moral relativism of the post-truth 21st century west? She can’t be talking about dealing with terrorist threats, because the terrorist threat faced by Britain in the 1970s, 80s and 90s was far greater than the one we face in the 21st century. Just look at the number of people killed by terrorist action in Britain over the years if you don’t believe that.

Furthermore, Theresa May seems to be saying that the problem was in the “guidance and training” that staff received. Er, no. What was happening was plainly illegal – not to mention morally unacceptable. And they chose to keep it quiet instead of making it public. Surely it must have been obvious to anyone with much of a conscience that this needed to be made very public, and stopped. But they kept their mouths shut.

This is not a “guidance and training” problem – it is a moral problem. And it tells us a huge amount the culture of the British (not to mention the American) intelligence agencies, and the moral standards of the people who work in them.

. . . and what Craig Murray says

Well, having read what the BBC had to say, and thought the thoughts that I wrote in the lines above, I turned to Craig Murray.

Murray was the British ambassador to Uzbekistan found himself in conflict with his superiors in the UK Foreign Office when he complained repeatedly to them that intelligence received by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from the Uzbek government was unreliable because it had been obtained through torture. He stance against torture got him sacked. Hence Murray was one of those who testified to the IFC. However, he says that “The report includes disappointingly little of my evidence.

Murray, as an insider, was even more unimpressed than an outsider like me:

“Even I was taken aback by the sheer scale of British active involvement in extraordinary rendition revealed by yesterday’s report of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee. Dominic Grieve and the committee deserve congratulations for their honesty, integrity and above all persistence. It is plain from the report that 10 Downing Street did everything possible to handicap the work of the committee. Most crucially they were allowed only to interview extremely senior civil servants and not allowed to interview those actively engaged in the torture and rendition programme.

Theresa May specifically and deliberately ruled out the Committee from questioning any official who might be placed at risk of criminal proceedings – see para 11 of the report. The determination of the government to protect those who were complicit in torture tells us much more about their future intentions than any fake apology.

In fact it is impossible to read paras 9 to 14 without being astonished at the sheer audacity of Theresa May’s attempts to obstruct the inquiry. . .

It is worth reflecting that the Tory government has acted time and time again to protect New Labour’s Tony Blair, David Miliband, Jack Straw and Gordon Brown from any punishment for their complicity in torture, and indeed to limit the information on it available to the public. The truth is that the Tories and New Labour (which includes the vast majority of current Labour MPs) are all a part of the same elite interest group, and when under pressure they stick together as a class against the people .

Murray’s contribution, by the way, was basically about the Foreign Office: “We heard evidence from a former FCO official, Craig Murray, who suggested that “there was a deliberate policy of not committing the discussion on receipt of intelligence through torture to paper in the Foreign Office”.

In other words, the Foreign Office was keen to keep things hushed up. However, thanks to Murray, they came to light.

Murray concludes:

“For over a decade now the British government, be it Red Tory or Blue Tory, has been refusing calls for a proper public inquiry into its collusion with torture. The ISC report was meant to stand in place of such an Inquiry, but all it has done is reveal that there is a huge amount of complicity in torture, much more than we had realised, which the ISC itself states it was precluded from properly investigating because of government restrictions on its operations. It also concluded in a separate report on current issues, that it is unable to state categorically that these practices have stopped.

The Blair and Brown governments were deeply immersed in torture, a practice that increased hatred of the UK in the Muslim world and thus increased the threat of terrorism. Their ministers repeatedly lied about it, including to parliament. The British state has since repeatedly acted to ensure impunity for those involved, from Blair and Straw down to individual security service officers, who are not to be held responsible for their criminal complicity. This impunity of agents of the state is a complete guarantee that these evil practices will continue.”

These things are not exactly good news. I guess there are, however, a couple of crumbs of comfort for those of us in the UK. The first is that our parliamentary system gave us this report, bringing some of the truth to light. The second is that bad as they may be, at least and our governments and intelligence agencies come out of this looking better than those of the USA.

Syria, the BBC, and the matter of truth

A couple of weeks ago, Admiral Alan West, former First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff, was interviewed by the BBC about Syria.

I confess that I missed this one, being on holiday at the time. But I stumbled over it yesterday, and was quite amazed by it.

What Lord West said was interesting, and important. He expressed considerable scepticism about whether the Syrian government was responsible, as was claimed, for a chemical attack in the town of Douma, at that time held by rebel forces.

He said that the claim that Bashar Assad ordered the attack “doesn’t ring true,” asking “what benefit is there for his military?” He went on to say “we know that in the past some of the Islamic groups have used chemicals, and of course there would be huge benefit in them labelling an attack as coming from Assad.” He also questioned the ‘evidence’ provided by the White Helmets and by doctors working there with the World Health Organization, both of which he described as “not neutral.”

But it was what the interviewer, Annita McVeigh said, in the course of the interview that made the interview particularly significant.

She asked West about whether he thought the intelligence that the UK and France spoke about was faulty, and he replied

“I just wonder, you know we’ve had some bad experiences on intelligence. When I was chief of defence intelligence, I had huge pressure put on me politically to try and say that our bombing campaign in Bosnia was achieving all sorts of things which it wasn’t. I was put under huge pressure, so I know the things that can happen with intelligence.”

Now, that, in itself was very interesting indeed. West said, not to put too fine a point on it, that he had been urged to tell lies, in order to mislead, among others the British public, so that they would be more supportive of government policy. The implication was that the pressure came from politicians – presumably in the British government.

One would think that Anita McVeigh, who was interviewing him, might have wanted to know more. Surely that is what any serious journalist would have wanted to know. Many, no doubt, would have pounced, and asked him there and then.

Or perhaps she didn’t think that this was interesting at all. Perhaps she just assumed that this was to be expected, and politicians always encourage intelligence chiefs to lie. After all, faulty intelligence seems to have been a feature of most recent involvement in military operations overseas; think, for example, of the Iraq war, and of Libya.

And so McVeigh didn’t ask about who put the pressure on West, or what they wanted him to say.

But what did she ask?

This is where it gets interesting:

“We know that the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday, or accused a western state on Friday, of perhaps fabricating evidence in Douma or somehow being involved in what happened in Douma. Given that we’re in an information war with Russia on so many fronts, do you think perhaps it’s inadvisable to be stating this so publicly given your position and your profile? Isn’t there a danger that you’re muddying the waters?”

This has been pounced on by many commentators.

Caitlin Johnstone wrote:

Wait a minute, did that just happen? Did a BBC reporter just suggest that it could possibly be “inadvisable” for a retired naval officer to make public statements questioning what we’re being told to believe about Syria? That the conversation shouldn’t even be had? That the questions shouldn’t even be asked? Because we’re trying to win an “information war”? Did McVeigh really suggest that the intelligence of the same war machine which led us into Iraq on false pretences should not be questioned at the risk of “muddying the waters”? . . . 

It isn’t supposed to be a BBC reporter’s job to concern herself with beating Russia in an “information war”, it’s supposed to be her job to tell the truth and hold power to account.

By suggesting that winning an “information war” with Russia should take priority over critical thinking and truth telling, McVeigh essentially admitted that she is a propagandist for the western war engine. Her comments say a lot about how she sees her role at the BBC, and it’s likely that this is a culture that is being fostered within the entire outlet as well.

Jimmy Dore was even blunter:

“So someone comes out and tells the truth about war, and her journalistic reflex isn’t to ask who pressured you and who did that . Her journalistic reflex is to say “Don’t you think you should shut up about that. Don’t you think you should keep that under your hat. . . . That’s going to undermine the war.”

Then she asked “Do you have concerns, though, about perhaps giving credence to the Russians?”

In other words, instead of wanting to get to the truth about what actually happened in Douma, she was concerned that people might actually believe what the Russian government was saying. At the very least, she was saying “Surely a man in your position shouldn’t cause people to doubt what the government is saying”.

Well – if the Russian government is correct about what happened, surely people should believe them. But she seemed to think that the possibility that people would believe those who were telling the truth was worrying. She seemed to assume that the important thing was that people should believe what the British government says – whether or not it was true.

What does all this say about the culture of the BBC? What does it say about the media in Britain today? What does it say about modern British culture?

I’m not sure, but it certainly seems to me that there is an increasing trend in the west today to be more concerned to say the “acceptable” thing, and not be out of line – rather than to get at the actual truth of what actually happens. Fitting with the official “narrative” or being “politically correct” is seen as being the important thing.

And in recent years, that trend has increasingly come to control the media. Newspapers and broadcasting organisations increasingly see their task as shaping society and / or keeping people in line.

Or, to put it another way, the western media increasingly sees its job as the production of propaganda.

Syria: the latest chemical attack story falls apart

OK. I admit that when I heard the reports of a chemical attack in Syria on 7 April, my instant reaction was to think “Here we go again”, and to be sceptical. It struck me as incredibly unlikely that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in their offensive.

For a start, previous allegations that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons against rebel forces have been pretty effectively debunked by the research of investigative reporters like Seymour Hersh and Gareth Porter, and weapons experts like Theodore Postol of MIT.

Furthermore, there is little military reason to use chemical weapons, whereas every time allegations are made, America threatens to launch air strikes on Syria – and indeed, Donald Trump, without waiting for investigation or solid evidence, did so at Khan Sheykoum a year ago. There was no reason for the Syrian government to use such weapons, and every reason for them not to do so. On the other hand, there was every reason for the rebels to allege that the government had used chemical weapons.

And so it has proved in this case. Only two organisations alleged that the government had launched a chemical attack in Douma on 7 April – the White Helmets, and the Syria America Medical Society – both organisations with close links to the rebels.

The case for scepticism has put out pretty effectively by Admiral Lord West in an interview on the BBCand also by Peter Ford, former British Ambassador in Syriaand by Peter Oborne in the Spectator. 

The dog that didn’t bark

What is particularly interesting is that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, in its report for the day, said nothing at all about chemicals being used. Its report merely said

“In Rif Dimashq Province 66 citizens were killed including 10 fighters of Jaysh al-Islam, they were killed in shelling and clashes in the vicinity of Douma city, and at least 56 including 19 children and 10 women were killed in intensive aerial bombardment on Douma city in the last 24 hours, and in among the casualties there are 21 civilians including 9 children and 3 women were killed as a result of suffocation caused by the shelling which destroyed basements of houses as a result of the violence bombardment that stopped about an hour ago on Douma area.”

In their comment a couple of days later, they wrote,

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said air strikes on Friday and Saturday killed almost 100 people. It said they included 21 who died as a result of suffocation, but that it was unable to identify the cause. “

What is interesting about this is that the SOHR is actually run by a Syrian who is currently living in the UK – someone who is a strong opponent of the Syrian government, and who has actually been jailed in Syria in the past for his activities. The fact that his initial report on the deaths said nothing about chemicals is worth noting.

Evidence?

So the quest for evidence was on. Five days after the attack, on 12 April, President Macron of France claimed to have “proof” that the Syrian government attacked the town of Douma with chemical weapons.

However, nothing about this proof he spoke of has emerged since that time. This week (on 17 April) British MP Chris Williamson said “ the evidence they are citing is even more flimsy than the ‘dodgy dossier’ [on Iraq in 2003].I me an what they’re relying on it seems to me is social media reports and hearsay,

And in America, on the same day, Congressman Thomas Massie attended a classified briefing for members of Congress which was addressed by Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff . Massie commented afterwards that: As low information briefings go, this was one of the lowest information briefings I’ve ever received. They provided no additional information other than what’s been in the 24 hours news cycle. … They didn’t convey any information that wasn’t already on the Internet.”

So whatever proof President Macron had is clearly not being shared much. His recent grilling by the French Parliament tells us that he wasn’t even sharing it with them.

In other words, there is not a lot of evidence around that the Syrian government launched a chemical attack in Douma.

Chemical attack?  What chemical attack?

What has become increasingly clear in the past week, however, it that there probably was no chemical attack.

On Monday 16th, an American reporter called Pearson Sharp visited Douma, which had now been captured by Syrian government forces. Sharp went to the area where the alleged chemical attack had taken place, spoke to over 30 residents, approaching people at random, and reported “Not one of the people that I spoke to in that neighbourhood said that they had seen anything or heard anything about a chemical attack on that day“.

Pearson Sharp works for a small, American cable news channel called the One America News Network. As such, his report didn’t exactly have a high profile, and it could be said that as an unknown quantity, he lacked credibility.

However, confirmation occurred the following day in the Independent with a report from the respected veteran Middle East correspondent Robert Fisk (as mentioned by Peter Oborne in the article referenced above).

Fisk writes:

“I walked across this town quite freely yesterday without soldier, policeman or minder to haunt my footsteps, just two Syrian friends, a camera and a notebook. I sometimes had to clamber across 20-foot-high ramparts, up and down almost sheer walls of earth. Happy to see foreigners among them, happier still that the siege is finally over, they are mostly smiling; those whose faces you can see, of course, because a surprising number of Douma’s women wear full-length black hijab. 

He visited the “underground clinic whose images of suffering allowed three of the Western world’s most powerful nations to bomb Syria last week, and spoke to a doctor there. The doctor told him that “the patients were overcome not by gas but by oxygen starvation in the rubbish-filled tunnels and basements in which they lived, on a night of wind and heavy shelling that stirred up a dust storm. “

The doctor said:

“I was with my family in the basement of my home three hundred metres from here on the night but all the doctors know what happened. There was a lot of shelling [by government forces] and aircraft were always over Douma at night – but on this night, there was wind and huge dust clouds began to come into the basements and cellars where people lived. People began to arrive here suffering from hypoxia, oxygen loss. Then someone at the door, a “White Helmet”, shouted “Gas!”, and a panic began. People started throwing water over each other. Yes, the video was filmed here, it is genuine, but what you see are people suffering from hypoxia – not gas poisoning.”

Like Pearson Sharp, everyone in Douma that Fisk spoke to said that there had been no chemical attack.

Well, the team from the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) has finally got to Douma and collected samples and other items. It will be interesting to see what they report. But it seems to me pretty certain that no chemical attack took place.

And finally . . .

For me, the final nail in the coffin of the allegations was another report in the Independent this week. Yesterday, Patrick Cockburn, another veteran Middle East reporter, published an article entitled “We should be sceptical of far-away governments who claim to know what is happening on the ground in Syria .”

He tells an interesting (and, I think, significant) story:

“During the bombing of Baghdad in January 1991 I went with other journalists on a government-organised trip to what they claimed was the remains of a baby milk plant at Abu Ghraib which the US had just destroyed, saying that it was really a biological warfare facility. Walking around the wreckage, I found a smashed-up desk with letters showing that the plant had indeed been producing “infant formula” milk powder. It had not been very successful in doing so, since much of the correspondence was about its financial and production problems and how they might best be resolved. It did not seem likely that the Iraqi government could have fabricated this evidence, though it was conceivable that in some part of the plant, which I did see, they might have been manufacturing biological weapons (BW).

I was visiting a lot of bombed-out buildings at the beginning of the US-led air campaign and I did not at first realise that “the Abu Ghraib baby milk factory” would become such an issue. I was more impressed at the time by the sight of a Cruise missile passing quite slowly overhead looking like a large black torpedo. But, within hours of leaving Abu Ghraib, the true purpose of the plant there had become a topic of furious controversy. The CNN correspondent Peter Arnett, who was on the trip, had reported that “whatever else it did, it [the plant] produced infant formula”. He saw a lot of powdered milk and, contrary to the Pentagon claim that the place was guarded like a fortress, we could only see one guard at the gate. Arnett did not deny the US government version that the place was a BW plant, but he did not confirm it either. He simply reported that “it looked innocent enough from what we could see”.

Even such mild dissent from the official US version of the bombing turned out to be unacceptable, producing an explosion of rage in Washington. Colin Powell, the US chief of staff, expressed certainty that the Abu Ghraib plant had manufactured BW. The US air force claimed that it had multiple sources of information proving the same thing.

Arnett was vilified as an Iraqi government stooge by the US government. “This is not a case of taking on the media,” said the White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater. “It’s a case of correcting a public disclosure that is erroneous, that is false, that hurts our government, and that plays into the hands of Saddam Hussein.” US news outlets, none of which had correspondents in Baghdad, vigorously toed the official line. Newsweek derided Iraq’s “ham-handed attempt to depict a bombed-out biological weapons plant near Baghdad as a baby-formula factory”.

It took years for the official version of the bombing to fall apart. Even though I had been in the plant soon after it was destroyed, I could not prove that it did not produce biological weapons, though it seemed to me highly unlikely. Media interest waned rapidly: the best study I could find about how the destruction of the milk factory was spun by official PR is a piece by Mark Crispin Miller, from which the quotes above are taken, published in 2003.

Proof came slowly, long after public interest had waned. A Congressional report in 1993 on US intelligence successes and failures in the Gulf War revealed the shaky reasoning behind the US air force decision to bomb the site. It turned out that “mottled camouflage” had been used on the roofs of two known BW facilities. The report said: “at the same time, the same camouflage scheme was applied to the roof of the milk plant”. This was enough for the US Air Force to list it as a target. Confident official claims about multiple sources of intelligence turned out to be untrue.”

So, as I say, it seems pretty obvious that this a case of “here we go again.”  I wonder how long it will take Trump, Macron, and May to admit it.