Category: Lebanon

Overhaul of governments and institutions


How ISIS Should Shape Our View of the Church and Its Mission Globally

By Martin Accad, December 4, 2014


I’ve been blogging and speaking much about ISIS in recent months. Last July, as we were beginning to get to grips with the savagery of the group, I tried to call us all, as people who claim to love God, to face and fight our own demons instead of claiming they have nothing to do with us. By the end of the summer, the world was (finally) in uproar about the butchering of Yazidis, Christians, Shiites, and others at the hand of ISIS. Calls for the protection of Middle East Christians and other ‘minorities’ through articles, books and conferences, were being heard everywhere. And though international reactions were welcome, I felt it was important to urge the international community not to marginalize Middle East Christians further by reinforcing the mentality of victimhood and ‘minoritization.’ What we needed was empowerment and multi-faith unity. I thus called last month for a reframing of the issue, by casting ISIS as part of a violent and fanatic religious ‘minority,’ which needs to be confronted by the ‘silent majority’ of people of faith or no explicit faith who are loving and peaceful. During a talk on this issue in the UK at the BMS Catalyst Live event on 23-24 October, I launched the TreCooL initiative on Facebook (The Religious Coalition of Love) as a simple act of resistance against ISIS and other expressions of religious fanaticism. In the present post, I want briefly to look at what matters most for us to know with regards to ISIS, what the long-term implications of ISIS are for the church in the Middle East region, and how these two areas should shape our understanding of the church’s role and mission in the years ahead.

First of all, I would like to suggest that it matters more that we ask ‘why’ ISIS exists than ‘who’ ISIS is or ‘how’ it came into being. It seems that much of the media focus has been on attempting to understand the nature of ISIS. But the inquiry has often given way to conspiracy and stereotyping. Many in the Muslim community believe that ISIS is the product of intelligence agencies, a conspiracy designed to discredit Islam. The CIA and the Mossad are of course the usual prime suspects for this theory.

For many non-Muslims, on the other hand, ISIS has finally revealed the ‘true face of Islam.’ This narrative would have us believe that when ‘pure Islam’ is given free reign, ISIS is what it looks like. More time would be needed to debunk both of these myths. But beyond these mutual accusations, I believe that we should ask: Does it matter? Do we really care to know in which Frankensteinian lab ISIS was created? Does it not matter more to ask ‘why’ they are so successfully recruiting? Why they have such an appeal globally in certain circles?

The most helpful inquiry and clue into the ‘why’ of ISIS, rather than its ‘who’ or ‘how,’ I have found in a brief Arabic-language analysis by Saad bin Tuflah al-Ajami in the Qatari-based daily Al-Sharq (published on August 3, 2014). In his article entitled ‘We are all ISIS,’ the former minister of communication of Kuwait boldly asserts:

The truth that we cannot deny is that ISIS was educated in our schools, it prayed in our mosques, listened to our media, was transfixed by our satellite channels, stood before our pulpits, drank from the spring of our publications, listened to our (religious) authorities, obeyed their princes who are among us, and followed the fatwas (legal prescriptions) of those from our own flesh; this is the truth that we cannot deny. (Translation mine)

In addition to the bankrupt reactionist nature of our Arab societies that has so favored the flourishing of ISIS – say what you want about its emergence, I believe that ISIS has a powerful appeal on youths that are tired of always feeling on the abused and losing side of history. For them, ISIS suddenly offers the unique opportunity to be part of something ‘great.’ Land is being conquered at lightning speed, governmental and legal institutions are being established with the claim of religious moral high ground, and ‘the West’ is being challenged and boldly threatened.

Secondly, how do we assess the long-term psychological impact of ISIS on the church globally, indeed even on the international community as a whole? The ‘physical’ damage that the church and Christians in the Middle East are incurring at the hand of ISIS is fairly quantifiable and obvious. On the eve of Pope Francis’ visit to the Middle East last May, the Pew Center put out a brief analysis of Middle East Christians’ dwindling numbers. Although between 1900 and 2010 (the period covered by the analysis) the Christian population grew from 1.6 to 7.5 million (about fourfold), the non-Christian population grew ten times. Thus, the ratio of Christians in the Middle East shrank from 10% to 5% during that period. Factors are many and complex, including a difference in birth rates and spells of persecution and social hostility. But probably the most significant factor is emigration, which is largely the result of the psychological feeling of being an oppressed minority, a sense of victimhood, and the widespread mentality of survival among Arab Christians, with little prospect and hope for the future.

The global church needs to be intentional about not reinforcing this already debilitating psychological sense of being a minority needing to be rescued. Popular culture tends to applaud the ‘hero’ who comes to the rescue and the US has traditionally liked to play that role. But I don’t think this has paid off in the long term, either for those being rescued or for the US itself. In the case of ISIS, although direct victims will continue to be grateful for very specific and targeted interventions on their behalf by the US military for ‘protective’ purposes, I believe that the problem should otherwise be allowed to remain an Arab and regional problem. If the West intervenes too heavy-handedly, the ISIS problem will be another missed opportunity for our regional powers to engage in serious introspection and reform. And I have little doubt that from the ashes of ISIS will emerge a worse monster, and it will return to bite the US and other western nations.

Finally, then, what missional implications ensue from the ‘why’ of ISIS and from a recognition of the long-term impact it will have on the church globally? Reinforcing the ISIS narrative by accepting the ‘minoritization’ of Christians is, in some ways, no better than marking them – as ISIS has done – with the letter nūn (first letter in the word naṣāra, which is the name the Qur’ān uses for Christians). Instead, we should take a long-term and multi-faith approach that recognizes that those who love God and view their religion as a source of love and peace towards neighbors represent the majority who can transform the mainstream narrative. As Middle Eastern as well as global Christians, we need to recognize that Muslims for the most part are our allies in this struggle, not our enemies. Muslims with whom I have spoken feel the long-term damage of ISIS on Islam more deeply than most. The long-term solution is to encourage multi-faith initiatives that gradually will restore hope for a better future among the youths in societies that are particularly vulnerable to recruitment by ISIS. Kuwaiti analyst al-Ajami was incriminating Arab and Muslim societies in his confession: ‘We are all ISIS.’ But I think that the situation also incriminates all the rest of us, and we must confess that ‘we All are ISIS.’ If we can all shoulder some of the responsibility for the flourishing of ISIS, then clearly a satisfactory solution can neither be short-term, nor can it stop at the bombing of some ‘evil’ militants.

Can the Church globally start to think of its mission as one of coming alongside local governments and educational institutions? I am not advocating for some form of neo-colonial interventionism. Since we are sitting on this side of history, the hope is that we might be able to learn from it in order not to repeat mistakes of the past. What do the new missional forces of our day have to bring to this conversation? What can we learn from the Koreans, the Chinese and the Latinos about government reform, fighting corruption and building accountable institutions? What can we learn about economic development and entrepreneurship? What can we learn about fighting poverty? The best victory over ISIS is not one that will simply walk over the dead bodies of disenfranchised young militants. We will achieve true victory over ISIS when it becomes the reason for a complete overhaul of governments and institutions infested with corruption and repressive policies. HOPE, in which the Church can be a key contributor, is the long term solution that will dry up the recruitment pool of ISIS. or

Source of photograph unknown…

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How about a War on War?

metropolis android

War Is People Too

By Jeffrey Hutchins, 2014


It’s very interesting that Corporations are now legally invested with nearly all the same rights and protections as individual people. We have made Corporations the second androids: beings made out of non-living parts.

The first android, of course, was Religion. Every person’s vision of God or No God is so sacrosanct in America that we allow no laws that deal with the establishment of any particular religion or the free exercise of religious observance. In other words, when it comes to what you believe about God and laws for human behavior, anything goes. We do not punish belief (in theory, anyway), but we do forbid believers from engaging in certain behaviors, such as human sacrifice, financial fraud, etc.

Now our Supreme Court has decided to invest Corporations with nearly all the same protections as Religious organizations.

Since “Corporations are people” is now the Law of the Land, I would like to propose another addition to the android population, and that is War.

We Americans have always treated War with reverence. We go to War more often than any other country. We shower great respect – if not jobs – on our former Warriors. We treat War like a God, something over which we have no power but to respond. If War comes, so be it; we will not resist its call. We’ve never been that comfortable with Peace.

So why not now give War the same constitutional protections as Corporations? In the same way that Corporations now write their own rules and get nothing more than slaps on the wrist for the most egregious violations (of the few laws they could not revise to their benefit), War should be given carte blanche. All is fair in Love and War, but especially in War. Civilians killed? That’s collateral damage… or maybe it’s the civilians that were the target all along. Torture? Why not? Is it worse to torture someone and let them live… or to kill them? Gas warfare? What’s the difference how our enemy dies?

Americans have accepted the notion that either we must be at War, or getting ready to be at War. We never, never take the time to stop and smell the peace lilies. Our political leaders love to declare War on anything they can. War on Poverty. War on Drugs. War on Pornography. War on Terrorism. How about a War on War?

Colonial nations used to have rules for civilized warfare… as if there were such a thing. Modern nations such as Vietnam and Iraq showed what foolishness it is to have “rules.” They recognize that War is an all-in affair.

No, if there’s going to be War in our world, it is going to be nasty and brutish and bloody and unfair. Civilians will die by the millions. They will be “disappeared” and tortured. That is the way of warriors today. Dick Cheney understood that “new math.”

That’s why we must do everything we can to banish War from our lives. We must stop accepting it as inevitable. We must refuse to play that game. If we wage War the way War wants us to, with no moral judgments, then we cannot tell others to behave any differently.

If America is going to engage in War, we must accept who War is. We do not make the rules; War itself does that. War says that if Side A follows rules that Side B does not also follow, then Side B is going to kick Side A’s butt. Israel’s Netanyahu accepts this fact. He is very comfortable killing civilians, including children. Hamas feels the same way. They would be well-matched opponents if Hamas did not have an extraordinary disadvantage when it comes to armaments and soldiers.

We Americans want Israel and the Palestinians to play nice… have a nice little War, in which only armed combatants are killed, and the quaint Geneva Conventions are respected. Ain’t gonna happen. Either pony up, America, and stop complaining when children are killed, or stand up and say, “No more! No more sending weapons to Israel. No more placating Egypt and Saudi Arabia. There will be no more War in the Levant. We will wage Peace, not War.”


Photograph of the robot Maria, from a scene in Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis.

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Swallowing their own lies


Israel-Gaza conflict: What has Israel achieved in 26 bloody days?

By Patrick Cockburn, Sunday 3 August 2014


As Gaza is devastated by a new paroxysm of violence, what has Israel achieved by its 26-day bombardment and ground intervention? The outcome so far is similar to that of past Israeli wars in Lebanon and Gaza: massive firepower is used to inflict heavy losses on the other side, the great majority of the casualties being civilians. But, as the war goes on, Israeli leaders find that Israel’s military superiority is failing to produce comparable political gains.

Worse, from the Israeli point of view, it is the Palestinians and, in this case, Hamas, who are in a stronger position than they were a month ago. By its actions, Israel has put the Palestinian issue firmly back on the international agenda from which it had largely disappeared since the Arab uprisings of 2011. Only a few months ago, a friend sympathetic to the Palestinians lamented to me that, in his travels in the US, Europe and the Arab world, he had seldom heard the words “Palestine” or “Palestinians”. Gaza, at horrendous cost to its people, has changed all that.

Usually, the sufferings of the four million Palestinians penned into Gaza and the West Bank are invisible to people in the rest of the world. But over the past month we have seen, night after night, pictures of Palestinian families, with their maimed and terrified children, vainly seeking safety amid shattered houses and hospitals. Israeli spokesmen sound shifty and heartless as they claim that there is no proof of Israel’s culpability for the shelling of a UN hospital or a children’s playground, suggesting that a Hamas rocket might have fallen short. These denials and evasions might work in a short war but, by the time 264 Palestinian children had been killed, as of Friday, they only serve to convince people that Israelis do not care how many Palestinians they kill.

Of course, we have been here many times before, the most notorious Israeli intervention being the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. I was in the Sabra and Shatila camps just after the massacre of 1,700 Palestinians by Christian militiamen who would not have been there but for Israeli actions. When I see pictures of the dead in Gaza, I feel I can still smell the sickly sweet stench of the dead bodies as they began to rot in the hot September sun. I remember the poverty of the dead, with their ragged clothes and plastic shoes, as they lay in the doorways of tiny shops or heaped up in alleyways. Out in the open, a donkey was lying dead between the shafts of a small cart carrying a barrel of water, and corpses were half-buried in a bank of sand, as if somebody had wanted to conceal them but had given up half-way through because there were too many bodies to bury.

Not everything is the same today in Gaza as it was in Lebanon in 1982 or in Gaza in 2008. A crucial difference is that, at those points, the countries neighbouring Israel were relatively stable, or at least had governments in firm control. Nothing could be less true this summer, as Syria and Iraq are convulsed by civil war, and Jordan and Lebanon look more and more unstable. Egypt has a leadership installed by a military coup and confirmed by a dubious election; the Libyan state has collapsed into anarchy, presided over by predatory militias. The Gaza war adds to the sense of general crisis.

A reason for Israel launching these mini-conflicts, for there has not been an all-out war since the invasion of Lebanon, is to demonstrate its raw military power. But, each time round, it simultaneously shows the limitations of that power to get anywhere in ending Israel’s long confrontation with the Palestinians. For all the devastating firepower of Israel’s air force, tanks and artillery deployed against a few thousand Hamas gunmen, it is unlikely to permanently eliminate them and thus win a military victory. And, even if it did, the victory would not be conclusive since the Palestinian sense of oppression is so great that some other armed group, possibly in the shape of Isis (the self-tagged Islamic State), would soon take its place.

When I was a correspondent in Jerusalem between 1995 and 1999, I came to believe that there was another reason, to do with the political psychology of Israelis, which explained why they fought these bloody but futile wars. This was put well by Uri Avnery, the Israeli writer and peace activist, who wrote that the Israeli army is filled with “teenagers who are indoctrinated from the age of three in the spirit of Jewish victimhood and superiority”. The same is true of much of the rest of Israeli society. Israelis genuinely feel they are the main victims deserving international sympathy, even when 1,400 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli shells and bombs compared with just three Israeli civilians and one Thai worker killed by Hamas’s rockets and mortars.

Every opponent of Israel, however puny, is treated by Israeli governments and much of the Israeli media as representing an existential threat. Any retaliatory violence is therefore justified, whether the targets are Palestinians, Lebanese or the 10 Turks killed on board the flotilla of boats trying to bring aid to Gaza in 2010. This sense of permanent persecution, born of pogroms and the Holocaust, is understandable but makes Israelis peculiarly vulnerable to demagogues manipulating their sense of threat. Israeli spokesmen have triumphantly pointed to polls showing that 90 per cent of Israelis currently support Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, but this lack of contrary opinion about a venture so unlikely to do Israel much good is, in reality, a sign of weakness in a nation.

Paradoxically, deliberate threat inflation by the Israeli government redounds to the advantage of Hamas. Its military wing fires rockets into Israel to cause fear among the general population by killing or wounding people; its attacks are largely ineffectual because Israel has the Iron Dome defensive system that intercepts the rockets. But Israeli leaders then do Hamas’s work for it by telling their people that Hamas is a threat to their very existence. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks of the “tunnels of terror” as if they undermined every home in Israel. A story spread on the internet claims that thousands of Hamas fighters dressed in Israeli army uniforms had been planning to surge through the tunnels into Israel in a sort of underground D-Day landing.

A great weakness of Israel is that Israelis believe so much of their own propaganda. Dr Arbuthnot, the 18th-century writer and satirist, said that “all political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies”. The same is true of nations when they see the world around them only through a lens distorted by the myths of their own propagandists. Israelis are diverted from the simple fact, proven so often since the war of 1967, that they are not going to enjoy permanent peace so long as they occupy the West Bank and besiege Gaza. The Israeli historian Tom Segev says: “It is not easy to understand why so many Israelis still believe that a large Israel without peace is better than a small Israel with peace.” or

Photograph of Israelis on a hill overlooking Gaza (AFP).

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We don’t care so much about the Palestinians, do we?


Eight hundred dead Palestinians. But Israel has impunity

By Robert Fisk, Friday 25 July 2014


Impunity is the word that comes to mind. Eight hundred dead Palestinians. Eight hundred. That’s infinitely more than twice the total dead of flight MH17 over Ukraine. And if you refer only to the “innocent” dead – ie no Hamas fighters, young sympathisers or corrupt Hamas officials, with whom the Israelis will, in due course, have to talk – then the women and children and elderly who have been slaughtered in Gaza are still well over the total number of MH17 victims.

And there’s something very odd, isn’t there, about our reactions to these two outrageous death tolls. In Gaza, we plead for a ceasefire but let them bury their dead in the sweltering slums of Gaza and cannot even open a humanitarian route for the wounded. For the passengers on MH17, we demand – immediately – proper burial and care for the relatives of the dead. We curse those who left bodies lying in the fields of eastern Ukraine – as many bodies have been lying, for a shorter time, perhaps, but under an equally oven-like sky, in Gaza.

Because – and this has been creeping up on me for years – we don’t care so much about the Palestinians, do we? We care neither about Israeli culpability, which is far greater because of the larger number of civilians the Israeli army have killed. Nor, for that matter, Hamas’s capability. Of course, God forbid that the figures should have been the other way round. If 800 Israelis had died and only 35 Palestinians, I think I know our reaction.

We would call it – rightly – a slaughter, an atrocity, a crime for which the killers must be made accountable. Yes, Hamas should be made accountable, too. But why is it that the only criminals we are searching for today are the men who fired one – perhaps two – missiles at an airliner over Ukraine? If Israel’s dead equalled those of the Palestinians – and let me repeat, thank heavens this is not the case – I suspect that the Americans would be offering all military support to an Israel endangered by “Iranian-backed terrorists”. We would be demanding that Hamas hand over the monsters who fired rockets at Israel and who are, by the way, trying to hit aircraft at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport. But we are not doing this. Because those who have died are mostly Palestinians.

More questions. What’s the limit for Palestinian deaths before we have a ceasefire? Eight hundred? Or 8,000? Could we have a scorecard? The exchange rate for dead? Or would we just wait until our gorge rises at the blood and say enough – even for Israel’s war, enough is enough. It’s not as if we have not been through all this before.

From the massacre of Arab villagers by Israel’s new army in 1948, as it is set down by Israeli historians, to the Sabra and Shatila massacre, when Lebanese Christian allies of Israel murdered up to 1,700 people in 1982 while Israeli troops watched; from the Qana massacre of Lebanese Arabs at the UN base – yes, the UN again – in 1996, to another, smaller terrible killing at Qana (again) 10 years later. And so to the mass killing of civilians in the 2008-9 Gaza war. And after Sabra and Shatila, there were inquiries, and after Qana there was an inquiry and after Gaza in 2008-9, there was an inquiry and don’t we remember the weight of it, somewhat lightened of course when Judge Goldstone did his best to disown it, when – according to my Israeli friends – he came under intense personal pressure.

In other words, we have been here before. The claim that only “terrorists” are to blame for those whom Hamas kills and only “terrorists” are to blame for those whom Israel kills (Hamas “terrorists”, of course). And the constant claim, repeated over and over and over, that Israel has the highest standards of any army in the world and would never hurt civilians. I recall here the 17,500 dead of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, most of whom were civilians. Have we forgotten all this?

And apart from impunity, the word stupidity comes to mind. I will forget here the corrupt Arabs and the killers of Isis and the wholesale mass murders of Iraq and Syria. Perhaps their indifference to “Palestine” is to be expected. They do not claim to represent our values. But what do we make of John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State, who told us last week that the “underlying issues” of the Israeli-Palestinian war need to be addressed? What on earth was he doing all last year when he claimed he was going to produce a Middle East peace in 12 months? Doesn’t he realise why the Palestinians are in Gaza?

The truth is that many hundreds of thousands of people around the world – I wish I could say millions – want an end to this impunity, an end to phrases such as “disproportionate casualties”. Disproportionate to what? Brave Israelis also feel this way. They write about it. Long live the Israeli newspaper, Haaretz. Meanwhile, the Arab, Muslim world becomes wilder with anger. And we will pay the price. or

Photograph of a Palestinian man holdng a girl injured during shelling at a U.N.-run school sheltering Palestinians, at a hospital in the northern Gaza Strip on July 24, 2014, by Alessio Romenzi for TIME

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And land unthieved


Israeli teenagers’ funeral: It is obscene when either side kills children – not only Palestinians

By Robert Fisk, Tuesday 1 July 2014


Three Israeli teenagers killed by Palestinians. Vicious, cruel, unforgivable. True. At least 37 Lebanese children killed by Israel. Regrettable, unfortunate, but the ultimate fault of “terrorists”. Untrue. The slaughter of the children at Qana in Lebanon in 1996 – among 109 civilians killed by Israeli shellfire as they sheltered in a UN camp – was a war crime. So, I might add, is the murder of three Israeli teenagers.

But the obscene theatre of the Israeli-Palestinian war follows a script as scandalous as it is lethal. This week, the Israeli Prime Minister called the Palestinians who killed three Israelis “beasts”. So what? Didn’t Menachem Begin call Palestinians “two-legged animals” in 1982? And then Begin unleashed thousands of Israeli air raids against them – just as Netanyahu says that Hamas “will pay” for these latest deaths.

And now President Shimon Peres says that Israel will “punish the villainous terrorists with a firm hand”. Yet how many media folk will recall today that this is the same Shimon Peres who as Prime Minister launched the 1996 war against “terrorism” which led directly to the mass killing at Qana? None. For the one thing which is forbidden in the Middle East is an institutional memory.

Back in the 1960s, Israel launched air strikes against “terrorists” in Lebanon. Countless thousands of air raids later, they were still staging air strikes to “wipe out terrorism” in Lebanon or to “root out the evil weed of terrorism” (Begin) – the 1982 Lebanon invasion costing around 17,000 lives – and during the siege of Gaza (2008-9) with its more than 1,100 Palestinian dead and 13 Israeli dead (four killed by their own side). President-elect Obama was silent on that – but voluble today, when he condemned “this senseless act of terror against innocent youth”.

In 1996, Hezbollah said that Israel had “opened the gates of hell”. Hamas warned that Israel was “opening the gates of hell”. The same corrupt script, you see. And blood will have blood – at least Macbeth sounds original.

And we must forget that Palestine is meant to be a state – if only Netanyahu would shine his new-found enthusiasm for Kurdish statehood upon his Palestinian neighbours – and that statehood would mean an end to all violence, would it not? But Mahmoud Abbas, as corrupt as the late Yasser Arafat, has done a deal with the corrupt Hamas which allows Israel’s corrupted political administration to insist that there can be no peace if Hamas is part of a Palestinian government – even though, when Hamas was not part of the Palestinian cabinet, Netanyahu claimed that he had no Palestinian negotiator to talk to because Abbas could not speak for Hamas.

In the end – speak it not today – it’s all about land. It’s about the colonies which Israel is building against international law on Arab land – colonies for Jews and Jews only – on the very occupied West Bank in which the three Jewish teenagers were killed, travelling to see their families in the very illegal Jewish colonies which are destroying peace. No, this does not justify their deaths.

Their murder was vicious, cruel and unforgivable. Their families do not deserve this grief. Justice should be done. Justice. And that means murderers on trial. And land unthieved. But first… More blood.–not-only-palestinians-9577281.html or

Photograph by Kursat Bayhan, of a mother weeping before her baby’s grave, before the funeral for 27 killed in Qana.–israel-war/24beyrut or

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How do they get away with these lies?

bush-blairNow we see how his doctrine turns enemies into ‘allies’

By Robert Fisk, Sunday 15 June 2014


How do they get away with these lies? Now Tony Blair tells us that Western “inaction” in Syria has produced the Iraq crisis. But since bombing Syria would have brought to power in Damascus the very Islamists who are now threatening Baghdad, it must therefore be a mercy that Barack Obama does not listen to the likes of Blair.

Having just spent several days travelling between three cities in Syria – and let’s have no illusions about the brutality of the Assad regime – I find it instructive to contemplate what Blair’s rebel chums in Syria are up to. Take the five-mile Aleppo airport road.

It’s newly held by government troops, but the Islamists hold so much territory around the city that you have to first drive 16 miles in darkness to reach the city along dirt tracks and overflowing lagoons of untreated sewage and beneath a disused railway line where bright red tracer fire – from the men Blair would have us support – criss-crosses the road. Syrian troops hold checkpoints on this crazy snakes-and-ladders journey. Sometimes the Islamists are only 200 metres away.

So a snapshot of Aleppo today – which would be Mosul if Blair’s friends had won and if the West had shown “action” against the Assad regime. In the streets, I find government militiamen and civilians digging 20ft-deep ditches in the streets to hunt for the ubiquitous tunnels which the Nusra and Isis forces now use to attack their enemies. Entire government buildings have exploded in government-held Aleppo.

It’s a mirror world. While Assad’s helicopters drop barrel bombs on rebel bases – and lots of civilians – in northern Aleppo, the armed opposition fire mortars into the Christian district of the city. We wander along the front line; kids playing, an old man smoking a cigarette on a pile of rubble, the crash of mortars less than a mile away. A Syrian soldier removes a concrete breeze-block from an old stone wall – it is the edge of the old city – and I squint for a millisecond through the hole. A few feet away, behind rotting sandbags and broken beams, is another hole – where the rebel sniper presumably watches me. Personal history moment: almost exactly 96 years ago, my dad poked a camera above the 1918 front line in France and took a snapshot of rotting sandbags and broken trees.

Major Somer of the Syrian army describes the tunnel labyrinth dug by the opposition under the old city, and the day the minaret of the great Omayed Mosque, built in the age of the Abbasids, crashed to the ground – blown up by explosives in the rebels’ tunnels, he says, though the jury is still out on this one.

“When it fell,” he says, “I felt that 1,500 years of civilisation had died. I was on the front line and I heard it crash – all over Aleppo, the ground shook, like an earthquake. They had dug under most of old Aleppo. They wanted to take revenge, to destroy our infrastructure. Why do Muslims do this? Because they are not Muslims.”

This is bizarre, grotesque – certainly for his enemies a few metres away – but there is no doubting the explosions around us; 16 will die here in the next few hours. One will have his head blown off that night in a restaurant half a mile away from us, a witness running into a café where we’re eating a late-night snack, shaking his head and smiling with relief. Plenty of food since the army broke the siege of Aleppo. No water for six days since the Turks sealed off the watercourse from the dam north of the border. Children and old women carry plastic tubs of the stuff from government-delivered water tanks.

No need to ask why the army cannot retake the old city. “Not enough soldiers,” a Syrian journalist says bluntly. “That’s why the government agreed to end the siege of Homs peacefully and let the rebels go free to the north – they needed Homs under their control so the soldiers there could reinforce the men here in Aleppo.” I go to Homs, 200 miles away, an ocean of white ruins with miles of abandoned tunnels and a few Christians who shyly take me through the wreckage of churches to a small garden in which stands a pink plastic chair. “This is where they executed Father Frans,” one says. “They made him sit in the chair and shot him just above the left eye.”

Father Frans van der Lugt was a martyr of Homs, refusing to leave his Christian flock and Muslim friends throughout the years of siege, imploring the world to pity the innocent and the starving until, on 7 April this year, gunmen arrived in the church garden and murdered him. They came from the Nusra forces – the Assad regime called them terrorists, the opposition said, of course, that if Assad had not besieged Homs, the 72-year-old Catholic priest would not have died. He is buried a few metres away, his grave a cheap wooden cross surrounded by flowers. From a photograph, his bespectacled face stares at us. The Pope later prayed for Van der Lugt’s soul.

I suppose if the West had bombed Damascus last year – as Blair bombed Baghdad in 2003 – Father Francis might have lived. But then again, he might have been murdered much earlier by the Islamists we would have been helping.

But there you go. Assad’s soldiers hold the line  where Iraq’s forces initially disintegrated. Assad’s enemies are the same Nusra and al-Qa’ida fighters whom Blair’s bombing of Damascus would have helped – and who now threaten Iraq’s existence. Will the Iranians send their soldiers to defend the Shia of Iraq?

A good question to ponder on a military flight from Aleppo to Damascus, in an iron seat on an old Antonov-26 among 60 Syrian soldiers, many of them wounded, the bodies of two 25-year-old conscripts in the cargo compartment, shot by snipers the previous night. A flicker of machine-gun fire comes from the darkness below, and by the time we land in Damascus, five of the “Syrians” opposite us shout a Shia prayer – in Persian. They tell us they are Afghans, Shia from the Hazara people. They are in Syrian uniform, holding rifles, an Iranian beside them. They were returning to Tehran next day. So now the Afghan Shia fight on Assad’s side – and Afghan Sunnis fight the rebels.

Ah Blair, thou shouldn’t be with us at this hour. or

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To fight for us on a lie

sa-train-wreck-4-lawrence-of-arabia-arab-uprising-1918 (modified)

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: A desert uprising that began in hope but was doomed to end in betrayal

By Robert Fisk, Friday 23 May 2014


The Arab Revolt is all about the Arab Betrayal. The blowing up of Turkish trains, the capture of Aqaba, the camel charges and the slaughter on the Road to Damascus, and the mythistory of Lawrence of Arabia are the Cinemascope version of the First World War in the desert. Better to watch Peter O’Toole in the movie.

Best to start our story with the 1915 correspondence sent to Sharif Hussain – the religious leader of Mecca and Medina whose Hashemite family had guarded the Islamic holy land since the 10th century – by the British minister in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon.

Hussain proposed to rise up with his tribes against the Ottoman Turks in Arabia and McMahon addressed his would-be Arab ally in the following terms: “To the excellent and well-born Sayed, the descendant of Sharifs, the Crown of the Proud, Scion of Mohamed’s Tree and Branch of the Quraishite Trunk, him of the Exalted Presence and of the Lofty Rank… His Excellency the Sharif Hussain, Lord of the Many, Emir of Mecca the Blessed, the lodestar of the Faithful and the cynosure of all devout Believers, may his Blessing descend upon the people in their multitude.”

Which shows that the Brits did not really understand the Arabs. But the Arabs understood the Brits. “Our aim, O respected Minister,” Hussain archly replied, “is to ensure that the conditions which are essential to our future shall be secured on a foundation of reality, and not on highly decorated phrases and titles.”

The “conditions” were those of the so-called Damascus Protocol which Hussain’s son Faisal – rightly suspicious of the British, and under pressure to join the Ottoman “jihad” against the Allies – agreed must include the post-war independence of all Arab countries inside an area bordered by southern Turkey, the Persian (Iranian) frontier, the Indian Ocean, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean; in other words, the Arab Middle East including the Gulf and all those nations-to-be which we now call Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

The catch, of course, was that while the Brits – faced with the new killing fields of the Western Front and the subsequent disaster at Gallipoli – would promise almost anything to get the Arabs on side, they would also make promises to others. But they later divvied up mandates with the French – in secret – for Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, while promising – in public – British support for a Jewish “homeland” in Palestine.

Promises are meant to be kept. But the British had promised everything to everyone. Upon this folly was constructed the Arab Revolt, whose warriors – ultimately commanded by Lawrence’s favourite Sharifian son, Faisal – fought with much courage and many bags of British gold to destroy the Turkish army. The only real problem was the bit about Arab “independence”.

Nevertheless, the Arab Revolt that started in the Hejaz in June 1916 would have a religious foundation. Faisal’s men – deserting and returning, accruing temporary auxiliaries from tribes, recruiting with British cash – would have to fight their way through 1,000 miles of Turkish Ottoman territory to reach Damascus and Aleppo. Attempts to seize Medina failed, but when the Arabs, with the Boy’s Own enthusiasm of British officers that included Lawrence, turned upon the only rail link to Damascus and the north in 1917, legend and history came together. Spread out over hundreds of miles, the Turkish military – like the Americans in Iraq 90 years later – could not secure their communications. Thus the Arabs would tie down the Turks in their garrisons by blasting their steam locos off the track and killing the soldiers – and sometimes the civilians – travelling in the carriages behind them.

Once the Sykes-Picot agreement to share the Middle East between Britain and France was revealed – courtesy of Russian revolutionaries – Faisal and Lawrence realised that the only hope for the “independence” which they believed the Arabs deserved and had been promised lay in a ruthless assault across the deserts to the north in the hope of capturing Damascus. This they accomplished – with courage, brutality and a few war crimes (in which Lawrence was himself involved) on the way, to match the equal cruelty of the Turks. The British and Commonwealth armies smashed their way up the Mediterranean coast under General Allenby while the Arabs raced north inland.

Lawrence understood the duplicity in which he was involved. In a note he sent to his headquarters in Cairo, he wrote that he hoped to be killed on the road to Damascus because “we are calling them [the Arabs] to fight for us on a lie, and I can’t stand it”. And sure enough, no sooner did Faisal arrive in Damascus than the British reneged on their promise of independence. As his own Arab fighters, along with the Syrian resistance to Ottoman rule, poured into the city, Allenby met Faisal at the Victoria Hotel. Faisal and Lawrence now regarded Sykes-Picot as a dead letter, outdated by the sheer speed of the Arab advance. Not so, said Allenby: France would be the “protecting power” in Syria. And Faisal’s territory would include neither Palestine nor Lebanon. Had Lawrence not told Faisal that the French would be the “protecting” power? “No, Sir,” replied Lawrence. “I know nothing about it.” Or did he?

Thus the Great Betrayal was made manifest. When Faisal’s men raised the Sharifian standard over Beirut, it was torn down. Humiliated as a nuisance at the Versailles peace conference, Faisal returned to Damascus where his government was overthrown and his tiny army,  including veterans of the Revolt, was annihilated by French troops at the 1920 Battle of the Maysalun Pass, Arab horsemen charging French tanks – much as the Poles were to charge the German Panzers 19 years later.

As a consolation prize, Faisal was given Mesopotamia (Iraq), his brother Abdullah awarded the artificial sandpit of Jordan. Hussain, the “lodestar of the faithful”, was chucked out of Arabia by the House of Saud (later producers of oil and Osama bin Laden). Both Iraq and Syria fell to nationalist Baathists, Jordan would survive under the Hashemites, while Palestine turned into a hell-disaster, 750,000 of its Arabs driven from their homes to make way for the Jewish “homeland” which Britain had promised. Lebanon endured a 15-year civil war.

Lawrence was to write to Winston Churchill in 1921: “The Arabs are like a page I have turned over, and sequels are rotten things.” So much for the Arab Revolt. or

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