This past Saturday was Holocaust Memorial Day – being the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945. The Saturday before that was the first anniversary of Donald Trump taking up office as US President.
I would like to suggest that there may be a connection.
I’ll start with the Trump presidency, and four things that happened this month.
I’ll start with story that got the most press coverage. Under the headline “Trump ‘in crude Oval Office outburst about migrants“, the BBC reports that in a meeting member of Congress on January 11th, Donald Trump “reportedly lashed out at immigrants in a foul-mouthed Oval Office outburst that a UN spokesman later condemned as “shocking”, “shameful” and “racist”” – apparently referring to Haiti, El Salvador and African countries using a rude word. The story received a huge amount of press coverage, and Trump was widely criticised.
The second story is about Syria, but it actually comes from Turkey. The BBC reports that “Turkey has urged the US to stop backing the Kurdish YPG in Syria, as it steps up an offensive against the militia.”
This story tells us that Turkey has troops in Syria. That, in itself, is newsworthy. They are not there at the invitation of the Syrian government. What on earth are they doing there?
It also tells us that the US is backing a Kurdish militia in Syria. And it tells us that the group that Turkey are fighting in Syria are being backed by the USA. That is very significant. Two NATO allied are on opposite sides in a war. It will be very interesting to see where this goes.
America’s new Syria policy
And that brings us to our third story – something that BBC report didn’t actually mention (despite the fact that it is closely connected) – about something that happened the previous week. On the 17th of January, Trump’s secretary of State, Rex Tillerson announced that the US will maintain an open-ended military presence in Syria. Open-ended, of course, means that they could be there 10, 20, or 30 years.
Like the Turkish troops, they are there without the permission of the Syrian government. In other words, they are there illegally. In the words of Senator Chris Murphy,
“There is ZERO legal authorization to stay in Syria to fight Iran. If Administration gets away with this, there is no going back – executive branch war making power becomes absolute. “
Or, to quote Daniel Larison, speaking rather more bluntly,
“To call this policy deranged would be too generous. The U.S. has no business in having a military presence in another country without its government’s permission, and it has no right to maintain that presence for the explicit purpose of preventing that government from exercising control inside its own internationally recognized borders. If another state did what the U.S. is now doing in Syria, Washington would condemn it as an egregious violation of international law and would probably impose sanctions on the government in question.
U.S. forces are in Syria without authorization from Congress and they have no international mandate to be there. A continued U.S. presence in Syria is both illegal and unwarranted.“
Tillerson’s reasons for this policy are included in an interview on The Real News Network of Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton.
They include the fact that America needs to have a presence in Syria to ensure that Assad does not remain in power, as well as a desire to limit the influence of Iran in Syria. In other words, this is not primarily about defeating ISIS or al-Qaeda, for though Tillerson does mention those objectives, they clearly are not the main reason America is in Syria, since the Syrian government (with the help of, among others, Iran, was already doing a pretty good job of fighting ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Tillerson’s comments are full of highly questionable assertions, but one of the things that he says that is true caused me to raise my eyebrows. He speaks of the problems arising from the fact that Syria is a “destabilized nation”. This is highly ironic, since the forces mostly responsible for the destabilization of Syria include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey – with blessing and help of the American government. Indeed, in saying that Assad had to be removed from power, Tillerson could be said to be trying to destablise Syria.
Even more ironically, Tillerson said
“Ungoverned spaces, especially in conflict zones, are breeding grounds for ISIS and other terrorist organizations. The fight against ISIS is not over. There are bands of ISIS fighters who are already beginning to wage an insurgency. We and our allies will hunt them down and kill them or capture them. Similarly, we must persist in Syria to thwart al-Qaeda, which still has a substantial presence and base of operations in northwest Syria. As in the years before 9/11, al-Qaeda is eager to create a sanctuary to plan and launch attacks on the West. “
The irony is that America (together with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey) was involved in supporting al-Qaeda and its allied militias during the Syrian Civil War.
As Blumenthal says in the interview:
“the irony of Tillerson’s comments can’t be understated. The US is, I wouldn’t say exclusively responsible, but largely responsible for the fact that al-Qaeda and its rebranded local affiliate, Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which used to be known as Jabhat al-Nusra, is in control of the Idlib Governorate. There’s a city Idlib, and then there’s a large area of land that al-Qaeda’s local affiliate substantially controls. And it’s basically gobbled up all of the other Salafi militias, including the Free Syrian Army. We ran a piece at AlterNet by Lindsey Snell, who’s one of the few American reporters who got into Idlib and reported on how heavy weapons were basically being shipped by the US into Idlib, and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, was just seizing them from the FSA, and the FSA’s fighters were basically joining Jabhat al-Nusra in droves because they shared its ideology, because they were the best fighters, because they were getting loads and loads of additional support from Qatar. “
And he added
“This is what enabled the offensive of 2015 to succeed and drive the Syrian Army out of Idlib. It also resulted in the destruction of Idlib’s Christian population, the destruction of its Druze population. These ethnic minorities experienced incredible, terrible, genocide-level hardships at the hands of US. proxies. And all along, Washington was denying the presence of al-Qaeda.“
Note that in the Syrian Civil War, America supported the forces that targetted the Christian community for attack. Indeed, in America’s involvement in Iraq and Libya enabled Islamic extremists to gain a foothold, resulting in large number of brutal attacks on Christians, and a large scale exodus of Christians from Iraq. (Numbers of Christians in Libya were tiny.) In fact, in all three countries, America deliberately supported the removal of secular or moderate leaders, and ended up making the position of Christians far worse than it had been before. And interestingly, America worked closely with Saudi Arabia, which has the most draconian laws against Christianity in the entire Middle East.
But if that isn’t bad enough, no matter how bad things were in Syria, Iraq and Libya 20 years ago, before the American government went into action to topple their governments, things are much worse now. They have remained in a state of war ever since.
It is difficult to know how many people in those countries have died, but according to Iraq Body Count, total documented civilian deaths in Iraq since the 2003 invasion stands at around 200,000 – and total actual deaths may be closer to half a million. In Syria, it is also estimated that total deaths since the outbreak of the civil war stands at about half a million.
Indeed, in 2015, the Washington DC-based Physicians for Social Responsibility (PRS) (a Nobel Peace Prize-winning doctors’ group) released a study concluding that the death toll from 10 years of the “War on Terror” since the 9/11 attacks is at least 1.3 million, and could be as high as 2 million.
That is a lot of deaths, and it cannot be denied that a large share of the responsibility (and, if we are being honest, ‘the fault’) for that lies with successive American governments. When George W Bush announced the “war on terror” in 2001, I suspect that few Americans realised that one of the consequences would be millions of deaths in the Middle East, and civil wars that continue to rage 17 years later in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.
However, it is even worse than that. Even before 2001, civilians were dying in the Middle East in large numbers because of American policy. As Ben Norton says in the interview referred to above,
“when the US pressured the United Nations to impose one of the most brutal sanctions regimes in history on Iraq in the 1990s after the Gulf War, not only did that lead to the deaths of countless people, including many, many children who needlessly died, and the Clinton administration defended it . . .”
(He is, I suspect referring to the interview in 1996 in which Clinton’s Secretary of State, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, was asked “We have heard that a half million children have died. I mean, that’s more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it? ” – and replied “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.”)
And the matter of sanctions brings us to our fourth story from January. Actually, this is just about part of the third story, for it happened on the same occasion. On the 17th, Max Tillerson spoke about sanctions on North Korea, and said ““We are getting a lot of evidence that these sanctions are really starting to hurt.” He said Japan told a conference on North Korea in Vancouver on Tuesday that more than 100 North Korean fishing boats had drifted into its waters and two-thirds of those aboard them had died. “What they learned is that they are being sent out in the winter time because there’s food shortages and they are being sent out to fish with inadequate fuel to get back.”
Think about that for a minute. What Tillerson is saying “Our policies are working! People are going hungry and dying as a result of them.” Is there any evidence that the sanctions are helping people in North Korea? No. Is there any evidence that they are leading to more freedom? No. In fact, is there any evidence they are leading to peace? The sanctions that killed hundreds of thousands of children in Iraq lead to neither freedom nor peace. They did nothing at all for the people of Iraq. All they did was hurt, destroy, and kill civilians.
In the wake of that story of the dead Korean fishermen, Patrick Cockburn of the Independent, who has been on the ground in the Middle East covering wars there for years, published an article on sanctions.
“The fact that North Korean fishermen took greater risks and died in greater numbers last year is evidence that international sanctions imposed on North Korea are, in a certain sense, a success: the country is clearly under severe economic pressure. But, as with sanctions elsewhere in the world past and present, the pressure is not on the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who looks particularly plump and well-fed, but on the poor and the powerless.
The record of economic sanctions in forcing political change is dismal, but as a way of reducing a country to poverty and misery it is difficult to beat. UN sanctions were imposed against Iraq from 1990 until 2003. Supposedly, it was directed against Saddam Hussein and his regime, though it did nothing to dislodge or weaken them: on the contrary, the Baathist political elite took advantage of the scarcity of various items to enrich themselves by becoming the sole suppliers. Saddam’s odious elder son Uday made vast profits by controlling the import of cigarettes into Iraq.
I used to visit Iraqi hospitals in the 1990s where the oxygen had run out and there were no tyres for the ambulances. Once, I was pursued across a field in Diyala province north of Baghdad by local farmers holding up dusty X-rays of their children because they thought I might be a visiting foreign doctor.
An attraction for politicians is that sanctions can be sold to the public, though of course not to people at the receiving end, as more humane than military action. There is usually a pretence that foodstuffs and medical equipment are being allowed through freely and no mention is made of the financial and other regulatory obstacles making it impossible to deliver them.
An example of this is the draconian sanctions imposed on Syria by the US and EU which were meant to target President Bashar al-Assad and help remove him from power. They have wholly failed to do this, but a UN internal report leaked in 2016 shows all too convincingly the effect of the embargo in stopping the delivery of aid by international aid agencies.
People should be just as outraged by the impact of this sort of thing as they are by the destruction of hospitals by bombing and artillery fire. But the picture of X-ray or kidney dialysis machines lacking essential spare parts is never going to compete for impact with film of dead and wounded on the front line. And those who die because medical equipment has been disabled by sanctions are likely to do so undramatically and out of sight. “
However, the most notable thing about Cockburn’s article is the headline: “It’s time we saw economic sanctions for what they really are – war crimes.”
Perhaps he is right. A form of military action that kills children and other civilians in large numbers, but does not actually take action in the field of battle against combatants does, indeed, look suspiciously like a war crime.
And that brings us to the holocaust. The history of the word “holocaust” is interesting. It comes from the Greek word for a whole burnt offering, of the kind that Jews would have offered in the Temple in Jerusalem in ancient times. Until the 20th century, it apparently always was used to mean a sacrifice. In the early 1940s, the word was occasionally used to refer to the war itself and its destruction – but in 1944, it started to be used of the destruction inflicted on Jews by the Nazis.
Today, that is the main use of the word. Wikipedia says “The Holocaust . . . was a genocide during World War II in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany . .. systematically murdered some six million European Jews, . . . between 1941 and 1945.
However, if you go to the Holocaust Memorial Day website, you will discover that
“The Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (HMDT) is the charity that promotes and supports Holocaust Memorial Day (HMD). 27 January is the day for everyone to remember the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, and the millions of people killed in Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”
In other words, lumped in together with the Jews killed by the Nazis, are 5 other groups of people – others killed in persecution by Nazis, and people killed in genocides in “Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and Darfur.”
It is an interesting group of genocides. Genocide is defined as
‘any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
killing members of the group
causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
As such, I find the inclusion of what happened in Cambodia as genocide surprising. It was brutal and shocking, for, as the Holocaust Memorial Day website says “Estimates of the number of people murdered range between one and three million. ” But it was not largely about targeting any “national, ethical, racial or religious group” – it was more like wholescale slaughter of anyone that the Khmer Rouge did not like.
But I can see why it was included, for the scale of it was horrendous.
At the other end of the spectrum, what happened in Bosnia that got it included was a massacre in one town. Around 8,000 Muslim men, and boys over 13 years old, were killed in Srebrenica, by Serb forces, simply for being Muslims. By the standards of the last 100 years, that is not a huge number of deaths. There was also, of course, a large amount of “ethnic cleansing” – in which people of various ethnic groups were forced to flee by militia of other ethnic groups – but this is hardly unique in modern days to the Bosnian War.
As I say, what I find fascinating about the Holocaust Memorial Day is the way that it has selected a certain number of events and focused on them – and left others unmentioned.
The number of civilians killed in the Bosnian War is estimated at about 40,000. The number of children killed by sanctions in Iraq – which were going on at the same time – is estimated at about 500,000. If sanctions are, indeed, a war crime, that raises big questions.
Or take the Khmer Rouge. It is estimated that they killed between 1 million and 3 million people in Cambodia – about a quarter of the population. That is horrendous.
But is it that much worse than the US carpet bombing of North Korea in the 1950s, which is estimated to have killed 2 million people – about 20% of the population?
Why is mass killing of civilians so much more acceptable if it is done by foreigners in planes dropping bombs?
And if we are talking about total deaths, a headline in Middle East Eye in 2016 announced “Western wars have killed four million Muslims since 1990,” and goes on to say “Landmark research proves that the US-led ‘war on terror’ has killed as many as 2 million people, but this is a fraction of Western responsibility for deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last two decades.”
That is an estimate, of course, but the deaths that have resulted from American foreign policy in the Middle East are largely of Muslims, and there are a lot of them. Could Holocaust Memorial Day one day include, among its list of genocides, the American genocide of Muslims in the Middle East? I think the answer is “if the political climate was right, there is no reason why not.” The mass killings chosen by the people at Holocaust Memorial Day are undoubtedly influenced by political prejudice and fashion.
And yet under Trump, aggressive American involvement in the Middle East goes on. In his one year in office, the Americans have dropped some 40,000 bombs on the Middle East – compared to 70,000 in George W Bush’s 8 years, and 100,000 in Obama’s 8 years.
Tillerson, like Madeline Albright before him, can explain this involvement using diplomatic language, and make it it all sound very proper and socially acceptable. But as Blumenthal and Norton point out in their interview, if you look behind the rhetoric, the truth about what America is doing in the Middle East is far darker.
Both use the word “scandal”. Norton said
“the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have spent at this point nearly seven years trying to wage war against and destabilize the Syrian government unsuccessfully. They have lost. They’re trying to, in the last gasps of air, trying to get whatever they can and pull it back for them, But Turkey’s incursion in this country is not authorized and the US’s military incursion and subsequent occupation even after ISIS is defeated is also not authorized. Syria is a sovereign country and there are multiple countries who are militarily intervening without the consent of any of the people who actually live there. This should be a huge scandal but there’s very little attention to it. “
And Blumenthal reinforced the point:
“If we go back to last year, when the US troops, which were training a group of rebranded Salafi insurgents, “moderate rebels,” at the al-Tanf border crossing between Iraq and Syria, the US engaged in actual combat with Shia militias allied with Iran. That’s extremely dangerous and beyond US troops being killed, the prospect of an escalation with Iran should trouble everyone. As Ben pointed out, this is a huge scandal that’s gone totally unacknowledged, including by progressive media in the US.”
He’s right. The wreckers aggression and carnage in the Middle East have gone totally unacknowledged by the media, and most social commentators. Instead, what are they talking about? His tweets, and the crude and insulting vulgarity he used to describe certain countries.
I think I know why, as well. It’s politics. People like to paint their political opponents in the darkest colours possible. And they like to whitewash the politicians on their own side. And in America, and in the west in general, politicians on almost every side have supported the policies that have brought mass death and destruction to the Middle East for the past quarter of a century. So nobody says anything. Because it would mean criticising our own side.
And Holocaust Memorial Day comes and goes and much is said and thought – but none of it about Iraq or Afghanistan or Syria or Libya or Yemen – let alone North Korea in the 1950s.
And so we feel good about ourselves.
What the Bible says
But I keep coming back to what the Bible says about human nature.
I remember the parable that Jesus told about the Pharisee and the tax-collector, and how it is introduced with the words
“He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt.” (Luke 18:9)
I remember the question that he asked in the Sermon on the Mount:
“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3.)
It’s a good question. Why?
And I remember what the Psalmist says
“Who can discern his errors?” (Psalm 19:11).
It is difficult for us to see our own faults and failings. Which is something that I guess I need to remember as much as anyone else.