Syria 2: Politics, insanity and dishonesty

What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?

I’ve been puzzling over this, and what is becoming clear is that the answers make for disturbing reading. In my first article on the subject, I started by looking at the situation from the perspective of the position of the Christian minority in Syria. Rather than looking at the pronouncements of governments, I looked at what (MERF) Middle East Reformed Fellowship was saying about the situation for Christians in Syria. Of course, the situation on the ground for Christians in Syria is, in many ways, very similar for those of their neighbours of other religions – particularly where those neighbours are members of other minority religious groups.

MERF’s reports didn’t just look at the situation on the ground. They also looked at aspects of the political and security situation – giving us a feel for the way the Syrian Christian community see the political situation – which is quite different from the way the situation is seen through the eyes of the western media.

In this article, I want to turn more to the politics of the situation. And I’ll start by recapping what MERF has been saying about the political situation.

1) Syria has been ruled by the Ba’ath Party, which came to power in a coup in 1963. Since then, Syria has been a one-party dictatorship. The Ba’athists are committed to a secular pluralist system, which has meant that by Arab standards, freedom of religion has been excellent.

2) While many of the people of Syria appreciate the religious and personal freedoms that a secular pluralist government allows, there are substantial numbers of Sunni Muslims who would like an Islamist government, and in the late 1970s, there was an Islamist uprising against the Ba’athists.

3) In 2011, there were anti-government demonstrations in favour of more political freedom, which were part of the “Arab Spring”. Things turned increasingly violent, and the movement for change was taken over by Islamists, directly supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, all of which have Islamist or pro-Islamist governments, and which are American allies (Turkey being a member of NATO). In addition to direct support from Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, the anti-government Islamists received “encouragement” from America and some other Western governments.

4) The situation deteriorated into civil war, with large numbers of volunteers from outside Syria joining the Islamist rebels. Christians (and others) were often kidnapped and murdered by Islamists – and hence tended to flee from rebel-held areas to government-held areas, where they were much safer. Where government forces regained control, security was restored and Christians (and others) returned home.

The politics of the Syrian civil war

According to Wikipedia, Syria’s civil war broke out in March 2011, and it is estimated that between 300,000 and half a million people have been killed. That is straight-forward. Much less straight-forward are the groups who are actually fighting. Wikipedia’s colour-coded war map shows Syria divided between 5 different groups: the Syrian government, the Syrian opposition, the Federation of North Syria, Islamic State, and Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, better known as the al-Nusra front.

syria-map-1_crop_crop

The reality is, in one sense, even more complicated, since the “Syrian opposition” consists of many different militia groups.

The actual reality is, however, somewhat simpler.

Firstly, the Federation of North Syria is basically the Kurds, who, for a long time, have wanted to break with Syria and have an independent Kurdistan. Broadly speaking, all the other parties oppose this desire for independence.

Secondly, the Syrian government are the Syrian army, though they do have the support of some smaller militias.

Thirdly, the Islamic State is a hard-line Islamist group, originally Iraqi. At first, they were close allies of al-Nusra, but they broke with al-Nusra in early 2014. Their strength is in the eastern desert of Syria in the region bordering Iraq.

And fourth, there is everyone else. To split them into al-Nusra and “the Syrian opposition” as the Wikipedia map does is misleading (which is slightly surprising, since Wikipedia’s coverage of the Syrian Civil War is generally regarded as fair and accurate).

Anthony Cordesman of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies described the rebel militias like this:

“Some, like the Al Nusra Front—one of the most successful in military terms—are linked to Al Qaeda. Others are less radical Islamist factions, but are scarcely secular or moderate, [and] have no ties to the hollow outside efforts to create moderate governments in exile, and are being backed by Arab states like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. The small groups being given limited support with U.S. weapons and Special Forces assistance are at best petty and uncertain players.”

The fact is that these militias are closely linked, most of them are Islamist, and in terms of military / political power, they are completely dominated by al-Nusra. And al-Nusra is a Jihadist organisation, that until a few months ago, was the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.

In short, there are the Kurds fighting for independence in the North of the country, and three other groups fighting for the whole of the country – the government, Islamic State, and a coalition of other groups who are almost entirely Islamist, and who are closely linked with al-Qaeda.

(Note, by the way, that this basically fits with what MERF reports. Hence the MERF report from June 2015 says “For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”)

If you ignore the Kurds, the civil war is basically between the Syrian government and militant Islamic groups.

Outside involvement

This is where it gets murky.

The Syrian government’s outside help (see Wikipedia) comes from Iran and Hezbollah, and from Russia. Help from Iran and Hezbollah is easy to understand: they are Shi’ite, and the Syrian opposition is militantly Sunni. The Shi’ites, like the Christians, are very much a minority group and hence fear rule by militant Sunnis and prefer the secular pluralism of the current government. Russia’s main motive for supporting the Syrian government is probably the fact that Russia and Syria are longtime allies.

What about outside support for the opposition? Very strangely, Wikipedia’s table splits the main opposition into two groups: the al-Nusra front dominated “Army of Conquest”, which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and the “Syrian opposition” which it says is supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, France and America.

What is one to make of this? There two basic questions:

1) Who are Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey helping?

2) Who is America helping?

Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey

A WikiLeaks release of a State Department cable sent under Hillary Clinton’s name in December 2009 states that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban, LeT [Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan].”

A recently leaked email from the Hillary Clinton archive provides some even more interesting information. This email appears to be a US State Department memo, dated 17 August 2014, says “We need to use our diplomatic and more traditional intelligence assets to bring pressure on the governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIS and other radical groups in the region.”

This was written at a time when ISIS were sweeping through Northern Iraq and Eastern Syria killing Yazidi villagers and slaughtering captured Iraqi and Syrian soldiers, and when the US government was not admitting that Saudi Arabia and its Sunni allies were supporting ISIS and al-Qaeda-type movements.

So Saudi Arabia and Qatar have, for years, not only been supporting al-Qaeda, but also ISIS in Syria.

What about Turkey? Last year, former CIA Officer Philip Giraldi, a well-respected source, wrote:

“From the start, Turkey, which nominally opposes radical rebel groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, has been curiously absent from the fray, instead arguing that the major effort should be focused on defeating al-Assad. Indeed, when I was in Istanbul last July bearded rebels were observed in the more fundamentalist neighborhoods collecting money for ISIS without any interference from the numerous and highly visible Turkish police and intelligence services. Turkey has also been surreptitiously buying as much as $3 million worth of smuggled oil from ISIS every day, virtually funding the group’s activities. Ankara has allowed ISIS militants to freely cross over the Syrian border into Turkey for what might be described as R&R (rest and recreation) as well as medical care and training. Weapons have been flowing in the opposite direction, cash and carry, some provided by the Turkish intelligence service MIT. “

The American government has, from the beginning, made it clear that it wanted to see the Syrian government fall. It was involved in stirring up discord in Syria before the civil war began. According to the Seymour Hersh:

“State Department cables made public by WikiLeaks show that the Bush administration tried to destabilise Syria and that these efforts continued into the Obama years. In December 2006, William Roebuck, then in charge of the US embassy in Damascus, filed an analysis of the ‘vulnerabilities’ of the Assad government and listed methods ‘that will improve the likelihood’ of opportunities for destabilisation. He recommended that Washington work with Saudi Arabia and Egypt to increase sectarian tension and focus on publicising ‘Syrian efforts against extremist groups’ – dissident Kurds and radical Sunni factions – ‘in a way that suggests weakness, signs of instability, and uncontrolled blowback’; and that the ‘isolation of Syria’ should be encouraged through US support of the National Salvation Front, led by Abdul Halim Khaddam, a former Syrian vice president whose government-in-exile in Riyadh was sponsored by the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood. Another 2006 cable showed that the embassy had spent $5 million financing dissidents who ran as independent candidates for the People’s Assembly; “

Who is America helping?

Right from the beginning of the conflict, the American government was involved in supporting and supplying rebel militias. Writing in 2011, in the early days of the Syrian Civil war, Philip Giraldi said

“Unmarked NATO war planes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.”

And the American government has remained on the side of the Syrian rebels against the government, despite the fact that the Syrian rebels are dominated by Jihadist Islamists who are closely associated with al-Qaeda and have a track record of brutality against Christians and other religious minorities in Syria.

Furthermore, the American government is well aware of the Syrian opposition is dominated by Jihadist Islamists. As long ago as August 2012 the Defence Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon’s intelligence arm, said that the “Salafists [Islamic fundamentalists], the Muslim Brotherhood and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later Isis] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.”

And we’ve seen that the American government continued to work together closely with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, despite knowing that they were actively supporting Islamist militants in Syria (including ISIS).

And the American government has been actively involved in supporting this opposition – despite knowing what it is really like.

In August 2012, an intelligence official with the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) stationed in Iraq wrote a report saying that out of the Syrian war could emerge “a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in Eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime….” Which supporting powers? The memo said, “the West, Gulf countries, and Turkey support the opposition.” That seems to be saying that the American government wanted an Islamic group to take over Eastern Syria – which, of course, is what happened when ISIS seized most of Eastern Syria in 2014.

The American government has been involved in funding and supplying rebel groups. While, in theory, they are not funding and supplying Islamist militias, the reality is that in practice, they are. Brad Hoff, writing in the Foreign Policy Journal, supplies some examples.

1) The American Ambassador to Syria was filmed alongside a Free Syrian Army commander who, not long afterwards, personally led ISIS and Nusra fighters in the rebel’s seizure of the Syrian government’s Menagh Airbase (August 2013). The future high commander of Islamic State’s military operations, Omar al-Shishani, himself played a leading role in the US-sponsored Free Syrian Army operation.

2) US advisors assisted the Al-Qaeda linked “Army of Conquest” in its 2015 takeover of Idlib from an “operations room” in Turkey.

3) Independent weapons research organisations like the UK-based Conflict Armament Research have documented Balkan origin anti-tank rockets recovered from ISIS fighters that are identical to those shipped in 2013 to Syrian rebel forcesweapons which were likely part of a joint CIA/Saudi covert program.

In the words of Former MI6 spy and British diplomat Alastair Crooke, “The West does not actually hand the weapons to al-Qaida — let alone to ISIS…, but the system they’ve constructed leads precisely to that end.”

In short

1) the American government has made no secret of the fact that it wants to see the Syrian government replaced.

2) The American government was actively seeking to destabilise the Syrian government since before the civil war began.

3) Those fighting against the Syrian government are Islamic militants. The existence of a “moderate” armed opposition of any strength inside Syria is simply fiction, and this is well known by the American government.

4) The American government has worked closely with allies (Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar) who are supplying those Islamic militants.

5) The American government has been involved in supplying rebel groups who are fighting alongside (and, therefore, on behalf of) the Islamic militants, or to put it another way, the American government is, indirectly, supporting and supplying Jihadist Islamists.

Russia, Syria and the media

Despite the fact that it is well known that the rebels are militant Islamists, most western media reporting of the fighting plays it down. Patrick Cockburn, writing in the Independent, again:

But as news spread this week that the Russians had started bombing in Syria, the FSA and the “moderates” were disinterred in order to suggest that it was they and not Isis who were the targets of Russian air strikes. [The Guardian] claimed that Russian bombs “mainly appeared to hit less extreme groups fighting Basher al-Assad’s regime”. David Cameron worried that if Russian action was “against the Free Syrian Army in support of Assad the dictator, then obviously that is a retrograde step”.

Television presenters spoke of anti-Assad forces being bombed in northern Syria, but seldom added that the most important of these were Jabhat al-Nusra and Bahrain ash-Sham. More than 30 air strikes were against Jays ill-fated, the Army of Conquest, which has seized much of Idlib province but is led by al-Nusra.

Aleppo

That is certainly the case in Aleppo at the moment: US Army Col. Steve Warren, the spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq, recently said: “it’s primarily al-Nusra who holds Aleppo.” And yet in all the reporting of the recent battle in Aleppo, there has been almost no acknowledgement of the fact that the Syrian armed forces, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to take back part of the city that has been occupied by militant Islamists.

Which brings us to the question: Are we being systematically misled in a way which is fundamentally dishonest? Vanessa Beeley, an investigative journalist who spent some time in Aleppo recently, says that we are. Her interview a month ago, which has accumulated 200,000 views on Youtube, is well worth watching.

She doesn’t pull her punches. What she says is shocking. It is very different from what people in the west are hearing from the western governments, and from the mainstream media. But it fits with what MERF have been saying, and what the American intelligence services have been saying, and what respected reporters have been saying.

What comes out of it is that the Syrian Army, assisted by Russia, are basically fighting to liberate eastern Aleppo from NATO-backed Islamic terrorists.

Insanity and dishonesty

The shocking truth is that some 15 years after the 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers by al-Qaeda, the American government and its allies are now spending millions of dollars backing an attempt by al-Qaeda (or al-Qaeda lookalikes) to take over Syria.

Have I got this wrong? I don’t think so. I don’t think the facts that I quote are in any doubt. At least I an unaware of any credible sources that are questioning them.

I come back to the comparison with Libya and the report by Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and in particular, their quote from Amnesty International:

“much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

Almost the same thing could be said about Syria today.

I wrote:

“In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading.

It is worth noticing that Western media were biassed in exactly the same direction as the Western governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biassed media, or was the media coverage biassed because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?”

Again, I think the same thing could be said of Syria.

If I have got this right, then this whole thing is totally insane – as well as being evil. And it seems that either very few people have noticed that – or that they are not prepared to say it.

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The situation in Syria: 1) The Christian community

What exactly is going on in Syria, and what should we make of it?

I’ll begin by saying that if you want to understand the situation in Syria today, the last place to start is to listen to the pronouncements of the American and British governments.  Listening to the news may not be much better. For, as Amnesty International said, with regard to British involvement in Libya, “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events.” (See my post Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya.)  The same is true for Syria. Much Western media coverage is frighteningly misleading.

Background

I want to suggest that one might want to start by thinking about the Christian community in Syria. Syria has a large Christian minority. In 2006, it was reckoned that about 12% of the population of Syria was Christian; and it is estimated that in 1920, that figure was 25%.  Most of Syria’s Christians are Eastern Orthodox, though there are substantial numbers of Catholics, and quite a few Protestants.

Politically, the situation for Christians was generally not too bad over the past 50 years. The apostle Paul’s view of what Christians should look for in a government is probably best expressed in his words to Timothy (I Tim 2:1-2) “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.” And that was pretty much the way it was in Syria. By Middle Eastern standards, Christians were able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, with freedom of religion that was pretty close to western standards.

For many in the west, this was brought home by William Dalrymple’s book “From the Holy Mountain: A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium“.

Dalrymple describes his journey, starting in Greece, and travelling through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Egypt. In particular, he looks at how the Christian churches have fared over the centuries in the places he visits – and about their current situation. And what comes through fairly clearly is that the situation for Christians was probably better in Syria than in any of the other countries.

One of the best sources of information about Christian work in the Middle East in recent years has been MERF (Middle East Reformed Fellowship). MERF is not a political organisation. It describes itself as

“an evangelical Christian missionary organization which serves in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia on behalf of Reformed and Presbyterian Family of Churches and believers worldwide. Our work is bearing fruit for the Kingdom of Christ among the twenty-two nations of the Arab League and other Muslim areas in Africa and Asia. MERF strengthens national churches with ministries of evangelism, church extension, biblical training, and diaconal aid.”

However, because it is desirable that Christians are able to lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way, and because this does depend to a large extent on kings and others in high positions, MERF’s prayer letters do include information about the political and security situation in the countries it serves – including Syria.

So what has MERF been telling us about the situation in Syria?

In June 2013, they gave an overview of the situation.

Of the twenty-two nations in the Arab League, only Syria and Lebanon grant religious freedom to all citizens. Confessing Christians are a large portion of Lebanon’s population, but they are only about 12 percent in Syria. Other Syrian minorities are 18 percent, including the powerful Alawites. . . . Most Syrian Sunnis are moderate and have been content with the modern secular pluralist system of the ruling Baath party to which many of them belong. A small but significant Sunni minority identify with extremist Islamic movements, aspiring to topple the secularist system.

Notice four things:

1) Syria had just about the best religious freedom in the entire Arab world.

2) This was basically because the ruling Baath party was committed to a secular pluralist system.

3) Syria’s secular pluralist system was not only good for the 30% of the population that belonged to religious minority groups, but was also appreciated by moderate members of the majority Sunni community.

4) There were a lot of Sunni Muslims who were not moderate – i.e. they wanted an Islamic government.   Indeed, In the late 1970s, an Islamist uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood was aimed against the government. Islamists attacked civilians and off-duty military personnel, leading security forces to also kill civilians in retaliatory strikes. The uprising had reached its climax in the 1982 Hama massacre, when some 10,000 – 40,000 people were killed by the Syrian Army. In other words, in the fairly recent past, Syria had experienced serious problems with Islamist violence, and the Syrian government had responded harshly.

Things fall apart: the Arab Spring

In 2011, things changed. Again, from MERF:

The “Arab Spring” uprising began by internet-based social media activists calling for peaceful demonstrations for more political freedom and the end of one-party dictatorial rule. Encouraged by Western opposition to the Syrian regime and by support from Sunni states (like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey), organized underground Syrian Islamists joined the demonstrations, quickly introducing guns, bombs, and other weapons. A very few radical Sunnis in the armed forces were lured in by oil-rich Arab Gulf sheikhs. Most significantly, well-trained, well-armed and well-financed radical fighters have flocked to Syria from all continents.

Notice five things

1) Baathist rule in Syria was (and is) dictatorial.

2) The Arab Spring began with calls for more political freedom.

3) What actually happened was that it was taken over by Islamists, and started turning violent.

4) The Islamist rebels were supported by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey – and, in some way, encouraged by Western governments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are both Islamist monarchies (in which apostasy from Islam is punishable by death); Turkey’s ruling political party has strong Islamist tendencies. All three countries are Sunni.

5) Islamist fighters flocked into Syria to join the conflict.

In particular, notice that from the beginning, this was more than a civil war between Syrians. Outsiders played a crucial part. And notice especially that direct support for the Islamic militants came from countries that are close allies of Britain and America.

Wikipedia provides more useful background information:

“The Assad government opposed the U.S.’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush administration undertook to destabilize the regime by increasing sectarian tensions, showcasing and publicising Syrian repression of radical Kurdish and Sunni groups and financing political dissidents. Assad also opposed the Qatar-Turkey pipeline in 2009. A classified 2013 report by a joint U.S. army and intelligence group concluded that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences; the opposition supported by the Obama administration was dominated by jihadist elements. According to Michael T. Flynn, the then-director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the report was ignored by the U.S. administration. “

Wikipedia confirms everything that MERF says.

Notice, in particular, three things:

1) Qatar and Turkey had their own reason for being hostile to the Syrian government.

2) The American government was involved in destabilising the situation in Syria before the outbreak of the Arab Spring, by (among other things) financing political dissidents.

3) The American government supported the Syrian opposition despite the fact that the opposition was dominated by jihadists – and the fact that intelligence sources warned that the overthrow of Assad would have drastic consequences.

What MERF leaves out is the fact that the Syrian government’s response to the protests was pretty harsh – see Wikipedia – but MERF does mention the government’s one-party, dictatorial rule, which means that we shouldn’t be too surprised at the harshness.

What happened?

The result for Syria, and in particular, its Christian community, was fairly predictable. Here are some excerpts from MERF’s June 2013 prayer letter:

“Armed Islamists closed in on Syrian Christian areas of Aleppo and Homs, forcing many in suburbs and villages to leave their homes, jobs, and businesses. Hundreds have been murdered and many are missing. Others used their life savings to ransom their safe passage or to release kidnapped loved ones. Most remain in Syria, sheltering with relatives or friends in the safer government-controlled areas. Others fled as refugees, mostly to Lebanon. As government forces regained neighborhoods and villages, penniless refugees returned to destroyed or looted homes, jobless and hopeless. In the meantime, major electricity and water facilities have been destroyed. Weakened by Western economic sanctions and an exhausting guerilla war, the government can offer little help to returning refugees.” 

Notice

1) Islamic forces were murdering and kidnapping Christians – and, presumably members of other religious minorities – and indeed, anyone who opposed them.

2) Government controlled areas were safer than rebel-held areas, and when government forces regained control, those who fled were able to return home.

3) One of the things that prevents the government from helping returning refugees is sanctions by Western countries.

From July 2013:

“While Western diplomats host opposition figures promising a democratic agenda, it is well documented that on the ground in Syria, passionate Islamists effectively head the opposition forces. . . . major media have shown little interest in the fact that opposition militias in Syria have also specifically targeted murderous cleansing operations against Christian civilians. . . . Two pastors, one in Aleppo and the other in Homs, give thanks to the Lord for being able to remain in their neighbourhoods, and that, after security was restored by the army, many members of their congregations returned and Sunday services resumed.”

Notice

1) Western diplomats meet with opposition figures, and there are promises that if government falls, democracy will come to Syria. The reality is that on the ground, the opposition consists of hard line Islamists.

2) The Syrian Army brought a restoration of security to areas of Homs and Aleppo and enabled church services to resume.

3) The mainstream media tended not to report the fact that the opposition militias were doing terrible things.

May 2014:

“Christians throughout Syria continue to suffer from the war waged in their country. A large number of Christians live in the city of Aleppo, the second largest city and a leading commercial centre. Because of this it has been targeted by Islamists, who occupy significant portions. The city has been repeatedly under siege, without utilities or communication and little food.

At the end of March, thousands of well-armed and organized Islamists suddenly crossed the borders from neighbouring Turkey to attack the predominantly Armenian Christian region of Kessab in northwest Syria. Most of the population descend from survivors of the early twentieth-century Turkish genocide of Armenian Christians. The Syrian army was only able to defend the community against the armed invaders for some hours, but it gave enough time for most families to run away to the south and take refuge in the government controlled areas of Latakia.”

June 2015:

“For four years, militant Islamic groups, heavily sponsored by pro-Western Sunni rulers and wealthy Sheikhs of the Arabian Peninsula and Turkey, have tried to topple the secular Syrian government and establish a Sunni Islamic state. The Syrian government is supported by secularists, moderate Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and minorities opposed to living under a radical Islamic regime.”

Oct 2015

Syria continues to be wracked by violence as zealous Islamists from all over the world strive to remove the secular government. Much suffering in Syria and Iraq has come at the hands of these violent Islamic militants, most of whom came through Turkey. In coordination with Turkey’s Islamic government, the well-armed militias are supported by fanatical, oil-rich Sunni Muslim rulers, including sheikhs of Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf States. All these Sunni Muslim states are long-time allies of the West. The West has also, more selectively, supported rebellion in Syria.  The Islamic government of Turkey seems not only to enable the entry of fighters into Syria, but also the crossing of thousands into Europe.

The same story comes over again and again and again. The rebels in Syria are largely Islamic extremists. Their main support comes from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, all close allies of America and Britain. And the American and British governments are also supporting the rebels while being careful not to be seen to fund groups that are known to be Islamist. Where the rebels have control, Christians and members of other religious minorities face violent attack, and tend to flee to government held areas for refuge.

And who is to blame? Well, obviously a large part of the blame lies with the Islamist radicals doing the killing in Syria. But they would be powerless if it wasn’t for the powerful forces behind them – Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. However, it is not just those nations who were involved. There have been even greater powers at work.

I quote from MERF again – this time, their July 2014 prayer letter:

Against the advice of those knowledgeable of the history and nature of the region, Western powers got involved in the Iraq and Syria wars. The consequences continue to unfold. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost; millions more grieve the loss of family members, homes, and entire livelihoods. Christians and other minorities in both countries have suffered the most from the resulting collapse of regional equilibrium.

That, basically, is the gist of what is going on in Syria at the moment – and in particular, how it affects the Christian community there. There is, however, more to be said, and I hope to return to the subject of Syria soon.

Politics in the age of Zedekiah

Zedekiah, who reigned from 597 B.C. to 586 B.C. , has the distinction of being the last king of Judah. In actual fact, the kingdom of Judah had pretty well come to the end of the road before Zedekiah became king, because Jerusalem had already fallen to the Babylonians. The previous king, Jehoiachin, who had reigned for only 3 months, had surrendered to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, and had been taken off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar as a prisoner. In place of Jehoiachin, Nebuchadnezzar appointed Zedekiah (who was Jehoiachin’s uncle). In other words, Zedekiah was not the ruler of an independent kingdom, but a vassal of the king of Babylon, or as we might say today, a puppet.

Zedekiah, however, was not content to remain a vassal, and rebelled against Babylonian rule. The rebellion was not successful, and Zedekiah ended his days in a Babylonian prison.

The story is told in II Kings 24:11-25:7 – but several interesting details of the politics of Zedekiah’s reign which are not mentioned in II Kings are recorded in the book of Jeremiah.

One of the most interesting and important incidents is recorded in Jeremiah 38:

Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah was telling all the people when he said, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live. He will escape with his life; he will live.’ And this is what the LORD says: ‘This city will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’ ” Then the officials said to the king, “This man should be put to death. He is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, as well as all the people, by the things he is saying to them. This man is not seeking the good of these people but their ruin.” 

Basically, Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, was under siege by the Babylonian army, and God had told Jeremiah that Jerusalem was not going to hold out. If people wanted to stay alive, they needed to flee the city and surrender to the Babylonians. However, Zedekiah and the leadership of Judah were not prepared to accept this and were fighting on.

In the circumstances, the message from God that Jeremiah was proclaiming to the people didn’t go down at all well with Judah’s political leadership. They felt that Jeremiah was undermining the war effort – i.e. government policy – and that to undermine government policy during war was such a serious offence that Jeremiah should be put to death. As far as they were concerned, he was seeking the ruin of the people of the city instead of their good.

The truth, of course, was the opposite. Government policy was, in fact, bringing ruin on the people – and Jeremiah was pointing that out, and telling people how to survive.

Alas, no government appreciates that.

As for the accusation that he was discouraging the soldiers defending the city – well, it was true enough. But since that battle was not winnable, and continuing with it would be disastrous for everyone in the city, the best thing for the troops to do would have been to ignore their leaders and surrender. It wasn’t even as if there was anything honourable about the war. Zedekiah was Nebuchadnezzar’s vassal; in rebelling he had broken his word – which is a seriously dishonourable thing to do.

2600 years later, it is clear that human nature doesn’t change – and nor to the ways of kings and rulers. Those in government still tend to believe that to oppose their policies is to oppose the good of the nation and its people – and that is particularly true in times of war, when opposition to government policy is often seen as unpatriotic, disloyal, and even treacherous.

Just under a hundred years ago, Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the American Socialist Party was imprisoned for a speech he made in which he criticised American participation in World War I. While he did not explicitly call for people to refuse to be conscripted, he did praise those who had obstructed conscription, and was thus convicted of violating the Espionage Act, on the grounds that he had the intention and effect of obstructing the draft and military recruitment. (The Act, of course, covered more than just espionage.) The American President, Woodrow Wilson, described Debs as “a traitor to his country.”

It is interesting to compare what Debs did to what Jeremiah did. In saying “Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine or plague, but whoever goes over to the Babylonians will live,” Jeremiah was effectively suggesting that soldiers should stop fighting and surrender to the enemy – which seems far more radical than what Debs was saying. If Woodrow Wilson thought that Debs was a traitor, it’s hardly surprising that the political leaders of Jerusalem thought that Jeremiah ought to die.

The truth, of course, is that governments are not perfect. Every government makes mistakes, no matter how good its intentions are. And many governments do things which are not just mistaken, but immoral and even wicked. And yet the truth is that many rulers tend to remain so convinced that their policies and actions are what their country (and the world) needs, that they regard those who oppose these policies as actively trying to hurt the country and its people. Such is human pride.

Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Alliances: my question answered

Last month I wrote about my concerns about Saudi Arabia’s bombing of civilian targets in Yemen, including schools and hospitals, and the resulting deaths of men, women, and children. Indeed, a US member of Congress, Ted Lieu,who is a colonel in the Air Force Reserve and an attorney, said there is “significant evidence” that the Saudi coalition has committed war crimes in Yemen.

And I said, “But perhaps the most worrying thing about this is the involvement of the American and British governments.”

America and Britain are arming the Saudi Government. America has supplied the Saudi Arabia with such indispensable assistance as intelligence, in-flight refuelling of aircraft and help in identifying appropriate targets.” When the U.N. was going to investigate Saudi killing of Yemeni children by bombing civilian targets, all the evidence suggests that America and Britain supported Saudi Arabia’s efforts to ensure the investigation didn’t take place.

In the words of Daniel Larison “The Obama administration and Cameron’s government have not only provided the Saudi-led coalition with the means to pummel and starve Yemen, but they have gone out of their way to make sure that the coalition’s wrongdoing (and their complicity in it) is covered up as much as possible.”

And I asked the question: “Why have the US and UK governments been behaving like this?” And I said that the answer is “Because the Saudis are our allies.”

Confirmation of that came from on the British side from Theresa May, who when asked about the fact that Britain providing weapons that were being used to commit crimes against humanity, responded “Actually, what matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia. When it comes to counter-terrorism and dealing with terrorism, it is that relationship that has helped to keep people on the streets of Britain safe.”

There is the key point: What matters is the strength of our relationship with Saudi Arabia.

We now have confirmation from America as well. According to the Washington Post,

“. . . .When the operation began, support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion, one official said. “There was this great sense of ‘this is the right thing to do,’ ” the official said. . . . Despite repeated strikes on schools and hospitals, officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up a bilateral relationship rocked by President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran and new legislation linked to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

There is that key point again: “Support for a key ally was a foregone conclusion. Officials see little choice for now but continued support, given the intense desire to shore up [the] relationship.”

It is all about alliances. Britain and America will continue to support a country that is probably committing war crimes, because they are our ally.

And it is not just bombing schools and hospitals. Saudi Arabia is also imposing a blockade on Yemen. The BBC reports “After two years of war in Yemen and a Saudi-led blockade lasting 18 months millions of people are slowly starving – some are already dying for lack of food.”

Millions of people are slowly starving. This is a major humanitarian disaster. And it is completely man-made. Saudi Arabia, an incredibly wealthy oil country, is starving the people of Yemen – which has always been one of the poorest countries in the Middle East.

And Britain and America are supporting Saudi Arabia. Why? Because, as far as the British and American governments are concerned, their relationship with the Saudi government is so important.

Postscript: Here is part of a speech by Hillary Clinton, which sets out the basic American government position on alliances.  I suspect that the British government would be in agreement.

When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.

Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead. The question is how we lead. What kind of ideas, strategies, and tactics we bring to our leadership. American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us exceptional.

No other country in the world has alliances like ours. Russia and China have nothing close. We stand with our allies because generations of American troops fought and died to secure those bonds, and because they deliver for us every day.

Honesty in public life: What we were told about Libya

It’s almost a month since the Foreign Affairs committee published its report “Libya: Examination of intervention and collapse and the UK’s future policy options,” but there are some things in it that should be noticed.

1) The reason given for the intervention

Why did western powers intervene militarily in Libya? The reason given was that they feared that if the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, recaptured the rebel-held city of Benghazi, he would probably order his forces to massacre civilians there.

What does the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report say?

Despite his rhetoric, the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence. The Gaddafi regime had retaken towns from the rebels without attacking civilians in early February 2011. . . when Gaddafi regime forces retook Ajdabiya in February 2011, they did not attack civilians. . . .

An Amnesty International investigation in June 2011 could not corroborate allegations of mass human rights violations by Gaddafi regime troops. However, it uncovered evidence that rebels in Benghazi made false claims and manufactured evidence. The investigation concluded that: “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

Many Western policymakers genuinely believed that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered his troops to massacre civilians in Benghazi, if those forces had been able to enter the city. However, while Muammar Gaddafi certainly threatened violence against those who took up arms against his rule, this did not necessarily translate into a threat to everyone in Benghazi. In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.

Note three sentences:

1) “the proposition that Muammar Gaddafi would have ordered the massacre of civilians in Benghazi was not supported by the available evidence.”

2) “In short, the scale of the threat to civilians was presented with unjustified certainty.”

And, perhaps most significantly, the quotation from Amnesty International:

3. “much Western media coverage has from the outset presented a very one-sided view of the logic of events, portraying the protest movement as entirely peaceful and repeatedly suggesting that the regime’s security forces were unaccountably massacring unarmed demonstrators who presented no security challenge.”

In short, not only were the governments of Britain and France saying things that were highly misleading, but it was also the case that much Western media coverage of Libya was highly misleading. I suspect that Amnesty International was understating the problem, and that the truth is that most Western media coverage presented a very one-sided view of the events.

It is worth noticing that Western media were biased in exactly the same direction as their governments. That raises an interesting question: “Were Western governments unduly influenced by the biased media, or was the media coverage biased because the media did not want to be out of step with the politically powerful, or was there a general bias in Western countries which affected both media and governments?

The lesson, it seems to me, is that we in the West should be a lot more sceptical of what our governments are telling us about the Middle East (and other subjects) – and also a lot more sceptical about what our media are telling us – probably about everything, but certainly about the Middle East.

2) The real reason for intervention in Libya.

What was the real reason for military intervention in Libya? It’s always difficult to know, but part of what the report says is alarming (though perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising).

The report says “We were told that the political momentum to propose Resolution 1973 began in France. France sustained its push for international action in relation to Libya throughout February and March 2011. ” (Resolution 1973 was the UN resolution that authorised member states to establish and enforce a no-fly zone over Libya and to use “all necessary measures” to prevent attacks on civilians, and which thereby led to the Western intervention in Libya.)

And the report goes on to say

On 2 April 2011, Sidney Blumenthal, adviser and unofficial intelligence analyst to the then United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reported this conversation with French intelligence officers to the Secretary of State:

According to these individuals Sarkozy’s plans are driven by the following issues:

a. A desire to gain a greater share of Libya oil production,

b. Increase French influence in North Africa,

c. Improve his internal political situation in France,

d. Provide the French military with an opportunity to reassert its position in the world,

e. Address the concern of his advisors over Qaddafi’s long term plans to supplant France as the dominant power in Francophone Africa.

The sum of four of the five factors identified by Sidney Blumenthal equated to the French national interest. The fifth factor was President Sarkozy’s political self-interest.

In other words, in the case of at least one Western nation (the nation which was most active in pushing for intervention), the motivation was largely national self-interest and personal self-interest.

Or, to put it another way, it was basically about earthly glory.

Of course, that’s not what was said publicly. Publicly, it was all about avoiding a massacre – which sounds a lot better.

One is reminded of the response of Jesus when his disciples began to argue about which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:25-26): “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.”

In other words, the disciples were not to emulate earthly kings – and one of the characteristics of these kings who ordered their subjects around was that they expected their subjects to call them benefactors.

Earthly rulers, then as now, like to be thought of as basically being philanthropists. The truth of the matter is that their motivations are not always as selfless as they would have us think.