Red lines, red herrings, and Syria’s enduring torment

Commentator and counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen is always worth reading. Here is his assessment of the Khan Sheikhoun gas attack and the US’ “laughably symbolic” response. Contrary to the view of many that Assad did not use sarin gas, and to those who praised Trump’s newfound, muscular foreign policy, Kilcullen maintains that it was indeed Assad wot done it, that his reasons were strategically justified, that the US and its allies need much than this one viagra hit to bring the multifarious warring parties to the negotiating table, and that anyhow, the real target of Trump’s martial signalling were Chinese President Xi and The North Korean Fat Controller, Kim Jong Il. And, perhaps, as Beirut-based correspondent for The Independent, Robert Fisk suggests in his own interpretation of the events, Vladimir Putin:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-syria-air-strike-missile-airbase-chemical-attack-russia-balance-power-bashar-al-assad-a7673166.html

Patrick Cockburn, Fisks’s colleague at at The Imdependent paints a scarier scenario. The folk who brought you the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan are back, and are keen to attend to unfinished business:

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/donald-trump-100-days-in-office-foreign-policy-war-air-strikes-syria-afghanistan-north-korea-a7707946.html

Sarin attack shows Assad is desperate as jihadist rebels gain ground

David Kilcullen. The Australian, April 15, 2017

US President Donald Trump’s missile strike against Syria’s Shayrat air base last week, responding to the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun in northern Idlib province, garnered cautious praise across the political spectrum. It also highlighted the complex choices facing the US, allies such as Australia, regional players like Turkey and Iraq, and institutions such as the UN.

The key to understanding the strike, though, lies in a question that’s been somewhat overlooked: why did Bashar al-Assad’s regime need to use the nerve agent in the first place?

We should start by noting that praise for the strike can largely be explained by the extraordinarily low expectations Trump and his predecessor set for effective action on Syria. Trump’s alleged Russia ties, praise for strongmen, positive statements about Assad until days before the attack, and expressed disdain for world opinion set the bar so low that he got credit just for upholding an international norm against chemical weapons, and showing he was prepared to go up against Moscow.

His prompt response also contrasted with president Barack Obama’s failure to enforce his own “red line” after the vastly more lethal Ghouta attack of September 2013, which killed 1500 and poisoned thousands (the Khan Sheikhoun attack killed 74). When Obama called his own bluff on the red line, ceded the diplomatic initiative to Moscow and put the Kremlin in the driver’s seat for negotiations on Syria, he enabled a Russian-brokered agreement on Syria’s chemical stockpile that bolstered the regime’s legitimacy.

Far from eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons — as former national security adviser Susan Rice repeatedly claimed — that agreement left Assad’s regime with reduced but still lethal capability, including extensive supplies of chlorine gas and smaller stocks of nerve agent that it used in later attacks. As Syrians told me after Ghouta, they felt the White House was telling Assad he could go ahead and massacre his own people, provided he did it with barrel bombs and artillery rather than chemicals.

The failure to act after Ghouta so appalled some members of Obama’s cabinet that Democratic “Syria hawks” (including former secretary of state John Kerry) came out in support of last week’s Shayrat strike. Given the continued refusal by many on the left to recognise Trump as America’s duly elected President, this speaks volumes for the level of bipartisan support for decisive action on Syria.

It also highlights the comfort of many progressive interventionists (including Kerry, but also Hillary Clinton) with unilateral American use of force — provided it is sanctified by humanitarian principles such as “responsibility to protect”. All this put Trump’s punitive strike in the political mainstream, making him look positively, well, Clintonian.

The Western narrative on Assad — reinforced just this week by presidential spokesman Sean Spicer — has been that his regime is uniquely evil, uses chemical weapons simply because it can, hates its own people and just wants to burn the country to the ground.

But, in fact, Syrian use of chemical weapons in the war so far has been highly calculated and strategic. Assad’s regime, far from being blind to international condemnation, understands the severe political consequences of using chemical weapons, and only does so when its back is against the wall. Assad’s regime has shown no compunction in using nerve agents when its survival is at stake, but otherwise it mostly keeps chemical weapons as a hip-pocket emergency reserve that can be rapidly deployed when manpower is short.

Thus, the real missed opportunity of 2013 lay in a failure to understand the regime’s motive in using chemical weapons: as a last resort, when a victorious coalition of mostly secular rebel groups was threatening the eastern suburbs of Damascus, making significant gains in the regime’s heartland and jeopardising its survival. Decisive action, combining the measured use of force with a strong diplomatic push, could have forced Assad — given the dire pressure he was under — into genuine peace talks.

The Ghouta attack was not an act of unthinking evil but one of calculated desperation, and strikes against regime positions could have not only punished Assad for his use of gas, but enabled a rebel advance into Damascus that would have opened a path to negotiations. The diplomatic price for suspending air strikes would have been regime concessions in UN-led peace talks, while the internat­ional community would have retained the ability to restart strikes at any time, or impose no-fly zones to enable humanitarian corridors to protect the people.

This, in fact, was the argument that allied airpower experts made at the time, likening the situation to the NATO-led bombing in the Balkans that ended the Bosnian war, led to the Dayton Accords and halted massacres in Kosovo in 1999.

This isn’t as far-fetched as it seems. Remember, 2013 was before Islamic State emerged, before its blitzkrieg dramatically changed the game in Iraq, before the declaration of the caliphate prompted a spike in world terrorism, before Turkey’s military incursions into Iraq and Syria, and before the Eur­opean immigration crisis.

In 2013, the dominant Syrian rebel factions still included secular groups, while jihadists were on the back foot. This was also before Russia’s intervention improved Syrian air defences and complicated targeting by putting Russians on to key regime sites, and before the presence of more than 1500 Western ground troops in Syria made it possible for the regime to easily retaliate. And it was before the Iranian nuclear deal of 2015 brought a flood of funds, advisers and troops from Tehran to further bolster the regime.

Against this background, last week’s strike seems almost laughably symbolic: 60-odd Tomahawk cruise missiles, launched from two US navy ships in the Mediterranean, with allied aircraft kept away from Syrian air defences, and the Russians (and thus, presumably, their Syrian proteges) given plenty of warning to get out of the way. The missiles destroyed some obsolete aircraft, killed a few regime troops, and left the airfield at Shayrat so lightly damaged that the regime was using it again within hours, even launching a further strike from Shayrat (with conventional munitions) against Khan Sheikhoun the very next day.

Kosovo 1999 it was not. But again, the key question is why Assad’s forces felt the need to use the nerve agent in the first place.

Khan Sheikhoun is a town of 50,000 on the southern edge of Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that abuts Turkey to the north, Aleppo to the east, and Hama and Latakia provinces to the south and west. As of mid-April, apart from tiny regime enclaves at Fua and Kefraya, Idlib is almost totally controlled by a jihadist coalition led by al-Qa’ida’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, still widely known by its former name, the Nusra Front.

Nusra detests Islamic State (a feeling Abubakr al-Baghdadi’s organisation heartily reciprocates). But in many ways it poses a much more severe threat to the regime than Baghdadi’s group. The Nusra-led offensive in Idlib and Hama has been under-reported, but for Syrians it’s the most important event of 2017 so far.

Even as the regime recaptured Aleppo in December 2016 — with heavy support from Russian airstrikes, Russian special forces, Iranian advisers and Hezbollah militia — Nusra and other groups formed an alliance, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, to recapture ground from Assad’s forces.

After weeks of preparation they launched a major offensive on March 21 with more than 5000 well-armed and well-organised fighters from seven rebel groups operating under Nusra leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani. Tahrir al-Sham gathered the most capable rebel groups in Syria into a single coalition under al-Qa’ida’s leadership, pointed them directly at the regime’s weakest point and achieved immediate success.

Within days, rebel fighters pushed to within 5km of the Hama suburbs, threatening the regime’s control of a critical city that anchors its northern flank and provides access to Aleppo. They also made significant gains into the al-Ghab plain, Syria’s breadbasket, an area essential to the regime’s ability to feed Syria’s pro-government population.

Nusra’s rapid advance jeopardised Assad’s control of the economically and politically important Hama and Latakia provinces, and posed a risk to Russia’s naval and air bases to the south.

Khan Sheikhoun now sits at the base of a rebel salient that stretches from Idlib south into the outskirts of Hama city, and west into al-Ghab. As I write, this salient is being counter-attacked all along its perimeter by regime forces desperate to stem the Nusra advance, but lacking the manpower or ground-based firepower to roll back the rebels. Knocking out Khan Sheikhoun from the air would immediately collapse the rebel salient, letting the regime stabilise the front line. Unsurprisingly, doing exactly that has become a major priority for Assad.

The town’s importance was underlined by the fact that the pilot who allegedly carried out the sarin attack was Major General Mohammed Hazzouri, a Syrian air force officer commanding the 50th Air Brigade at Shayrat, and whose family name suggests he’s related to Mohammed Abdullah al-Hazzouri, governor of Hama, who was appointed by Assad in November 2016. Obviously, when you launch a gas attack using a fighter jet flown by a two-star general from the same prominent family as the provincial governor, you’re telegraphing that this is a pretty serious priority.

In fact, the town has been heavily attacked by regime forces (including earlier attacks with chemical weapons late last year and again last month) and subjected to multiple air strikes and artillery bombardments as the regime tries to contain the threat to its northern flank. Assad’s reliance on artillery and aircraft underlines his lack of ground assets: despite Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah support, his forces have their hands full consolidating control over Aleppo, trying to relieve the isolated city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, and fighting on the southern front against other rebel groups.

All this indicates that the regime is again under serious pressure, that its position is far shakier than its propaganda narrative after the recapture of Aleppo might suggest, and that firm pressure now might bring renewed progress toward peace talks. But the situation today is vastly more complicated than in 2013. There are real risks to allied aircraft over Syria from Russian and Syrian air defences, and to special forces and conventional troops (there are now, according to media reporting, as many as 1500 rangers, marines and special forces on the ground in Syria) in the event of strikes against the regime.

The rebels opposing Assad today are not the largely secular forces of 2013 but rather are dominated by al-Qa’ida, while Russia has indicated it plans to further improve Syria’s air defences and has vetoed efforts in the UN for further talks on a Syrian peace deal.

To think that, under these circumstances, mere words — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s frosty visit to Moscow, Trump’s call for Vladimir Putin to stop covering for Assad, or ambassador Nikki Haley’s fiery confrontation with Russian diplomats at the UN — will force Putin to back away from a critical strategic relationship going back to the 1960s, or force Assad to stop throwing everything at an attack that threatens his survival, is fantasy. If the Shayrat strike is to be more than the latest useless symbolic gesture, it needs to be followed by a fundamental change in strategy.

Until a week ago, Trump’s Syria policy was to downplay any call for regime change, acquiesce in the permanence of Assad’s regime and collaborate with Putin against Islamic State. As recently as April 5, the day after the Khan Sheikhoun attack, Tillerson was asserting that Assad was here to stay.

This was bad policy: not just on moral or political grounds (Assad has killed 10 times as many Syrians as Islamic State, and most US partners both inside Syria and throughout the region see removing Assad and ending the war as the top priority bar none) but also in practical military terms.

Assad lacks the military cap­acity to stabilise Syria: he’s losing ground in key areas, controls less than 23 per cent of the country, has no prospect of reunifying Syria, presides over a patchwork of local militias and thuggish warlords with purely nominal allegiance to his government, and couldn’t survive six months without external support.

The use of sarin gas underlines how desperate his situation is. Even if it were morally and politically possible to work with his regime for the greater goal of destroying Islamic State, the man simply can’t do the job.

More fundamentally, the goal of destroying Islamic State may not actually be the higher strategic priority, at least not in Syria. Unlike Iraq, where recapturing Mosul and crushing the caliphate is a key first step toward stabilising the country, in Syria the greatest threat to stability is Assad himself.

For most Syrians I’ve spoken to, the idea that anyone engaged in the uprising since 2011 would sit down again under Assad is ludicrous, and many have told me the biggest winner so far isn’t Islamic State but al-Qa’ida, through its Nusra affiliate.

From a wider strategic standpoint, the other key audiences for the Shayrat strike were Chinese leader Xi Jinping (who was dining with Trump as the strike went in) and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Using the Syria strike to telegraph a zero-tolerance policy for weapons of mass destruction, administration spokesmen talked of a new joint effort with China to rein in North Korea’s nuclear adventurism. For a President who spoke blithely on the campaign trail about Japan and South Korea acquiring their own nuclear weapons to deal with Pyongyang, this represents a big step forward.

More importantly, the move of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier battle group toward Korean waters to deter further missile launches, and the deployment of US air defence systems and special operators in South Korea, showed this was not just talk.

The choices facing President Trump on Syria today are vastly more complex than those president Obama failed to deal with in 2013. But his change of policy after the Khan Sheikhoun attack — perhaps prompted by the presence in his inner circle of experienced strategists such as Secretary of Defence James Mattis and National Security Adviser HR McMaster — shows he’s at least capable of learning and adapting.

Along with the change on Syria policy and the move to deter North Korea, last week’s strike was rapidly followed by shifts in Trump’s tone on China (evidently no longer a currency manipulator), NATO (apparently no longer obsolete) and Russia (it would have been nice to co-operate, but that’s not possible while Russia continues to back Assad). Don’t look now, but all this seems to be pushing the Trump presidency back toward something resembling relatively mainstream US policy in the tradition of presidents Bush, Clinton and Reagan.

Whether you think that’s good or bad probably depends on your view of America’s role in the world, and the longstanding propensity of US leaders to use unilateral military force. But symbolic as it was, the Shayrat missile strike may also open the door to new thinking on Syria — and after six years, half a million dead, dozens of cities destroyed and millions displaced, that can only be a good thing.

David Kilcullen is a former lieutenant-colonel in the Australian Army and was a senior adviser to US general David Petraeus in 2007-08, when he helped to design the Iraq war coalition troop surge. He also was a special adviser for counterinsurgency to former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice. He is the author of Blood Year: Islamic State and the Failures of the War on Terror (Black Inc).

See also, a prior post featuring David Kilcullen: One, Two, Three, What Are We Fighting For?

 

Pity The Nation

The Lebanese Civil War broke loose forty years ago this month. A cold war fuelled, by aggregating hostility between the Palestinian refugee community, a militarized state within a state, and their reluctant Lebanese hosts, became hot with deadly clashes between Palestinian and Maronite militias. Sects, clans, families, and the political parties and militias that gathered about them, went for their guns, the hounds of hell were loosed, and the massacres began.

In a Levantine echo of the Thirty Years War that raged through Western Europe from 1618, cities were destroyed and the countryside ravaged as armies, militias and gangsters fought over the fallen body of a divided and devastated land. Muslims fought Christians, Sunni fought Shi’a, Maronites fought Orthodox, Druze fought Muslims and Christians, communists fought nationalists, and Palestinians, at one time or other, fought everyone, including other Palestinians. And all changed partners and enemies in a bloody danse macabre that was at once mediaeval and mid-20th Century in its savagery.

This Hobbesian “war of all against all” drew in outsiders. Syrians, who during the course of their intervention, changed allies and adversaries as their political and strategic aims and interests mutated, and ruled the country until, implicated in the assassination of popular former prime Minister Rafik Hariri in 2005, beat an undignified retreat (whilst never quite relinquishing the levers of power). Israelis, threatened by guerrilla attacks in the Fatah land of southern Lebanon, ostensibly invaded Lebanon to destroy the Palestinian military machine, and as the midwife in the birth of the Shi’a Hezbollah, waded with eyes wide shut into a quagmire that many have viewed as their Vietnam. Americans and French, who intervened with the aim of separating the warring sides and pushing them towards a ceasefire, departed in the aftershock of Hezbollah bombs that killed hundreds of their servicemen. And United Nations Blue Berets who serve and die still in the hostile borderlands.

The war raged for the next fifteen years, staggering to an end in 1990 after claiming over 150,000 lives and destroying the lives of tens of thousands of others, including over 100,000 permanently handicapped. Nearly a million souls fled their homes, and some 76, 000 remain displaced to this day, now forgotten in the midst of the new and greater Syrian diaspora, whilst tens of thousands emigrated permanently. There are still some 17,000 “disappeared” who may be either still in Syrian or Lebanese jails, or more likely, in one of hundreds of unmarked graves scattered across this tiny country.

There are no memorials, no cenotaphs, no national commission to trace the missing, and no Madiba to gather and reconcile the sundered tribes. Just memories of what those who endured call “the events”, and for some, a selective amnesia. A harrowing half-life endures, sleeping embers constantly being fanned to life by the ill winds that blow across the porous frontier with Syria and the iron curtain that separates Hezbollah from Israel. It said that old wars beget future wars. And in no land can this be more of a self-fulfilling prophecy if the Gods Of War have their way.

As well they might as the legacy lives on in the rise and rise of Hezbollah, a non-state that is stronger than the state. In the use of car bombs, suicide bombers, foreign hostages, and human shields as canny weapons in what we now call asymmetrical urban warfare. In the destruction of the Palestinians’ once formidable military muscle, now quarantined in the Gaza ghetto and the impotent Palestinian Authority. In remembrance of the massacres of Sabra and Shatilla that still haunt Israeli and Palestinian dreams, when Yasser Arafat decamped for Libya with his army and left his people at the mercy of the Phalange militia. The Palestinians are still in Lebanon, still yearning for their terra irredenta in the south.

And in Lebanon redux, some say the old hatreds linger still and could rekindle the fires of war. Others hope that a younger generation do not take the road to perdition travelled by their elders. Armed young men in Sunni Tripoli and in Beirut’s Shi’a suburbs, and fighting in Syria may disagree. Calmer countries chart their fortunes with the rise and fall of their financial indices, whilst Lebanese can check the political weather by watching the market price of hand-guns and Kalashnikovs. They may have buried the hatchets, but many know where they are buried.

The roots and fruits of the Lebanese civil war are myriad and complex. The redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk unravels them best in his tombstone of book, Pity The Nation. Read it and weep. For it is a bloody saga of trial and treachery, of enmity and endurance, of courage and cravenness, but most of all, of infinite sadness. And none more so than when he writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortal flesh.

The title of Fisk’s book is that of a poem written in 1931 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave
and eats a bread it does not harvest.

Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero,
and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.

Pity a nation that despises a passion in its dream,
yet submits in its awakening.

Pity the nation that raises not its voice
save when it walks in a funeral,
boasts not except among its ruins,
and will rebel not save when its neck is laid
between the sword and the block.

Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox,
whose philosopher is a juggler,
and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking

Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpeting,
and farewells him with hooting,
only to welcome another with trumpeting again.

Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years
and whose strongmen are yet in the cradle.

Pity the nation divided into fragments,
each fragment deeming itself a nation.

Kahlil Gibran, The Garden of The Prophet (1933)

ارحم على الامة
ارحم على الأمة المليئة بالمعتقدات والخالية من الدين.
ارحم على الأمة التي تلبس ثوبا لا يحاك.
وتأكل خبزا لا تحصد.
أشفق على الأمة التي تعتبر المتنمر بطلاً ،
ويعتبر منتصرها رائعا.
ارحم أمة تحتقر الشغف في أحلامها
لكنه يخضع لها عندما تستيقظ.
ارحم على الأمة التي لا ترفع صوتها
إلا عندما تمشي في جنازة ،
وتفتخر فقط بين أطلالها ،
ولن تنقذ نفسها عندما توضع رقبتها
بين السيف والكتلة.
ارحم على الأمة التي فيها رجل الدولة وهو ثعلب ،
والفيلسوف مشعوذ
فنه من الترقيع والتقليد
ارحم على الأمة التي تستقبل حاكمها الجديد بصوت عالٍ ،
ويقول وداعا له بسخرية ،
فقط للترحيب بآخر من خلال الاحتفال الصاخب مرة أخرى
ارحم على أمة حكماؤها أغبياء السنين ،
وأولئك الذين لا يزال رجالهم الأقوياء في المهد.
ارحموا الأمة منقسمة ،
وكل قطعة تعتبر نفسها أمة.

خليل جبران

© Paul Hemphill 2015. All rights reserved.

http://dailystar.com.lb/News/Lebanon-News/2014/Apr-12/253085-decades-on-lebanon-still-struggles-to-heal-war-wounds.ashx
http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pity_the_Nation

The Devil Drives

In a piece in this weekend’s Australian, historian David Pryce-Jones wrote: “A nation in which a self-appointed group such as the Taliban sets out to murder the young, and in the process blow some of its own to unrecognisable body parts, is not really a nation at all”.

I am reminded of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem, Al haShehita (On the Slaughter), about the Kishinev Pogrom in the spring of 1903: And cursèd be he that saith: avenge this! Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden Hath yet to be wrought by Satan.

And also, of WH Auden’s Epitaph On A Tyrant :  Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after…When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter. And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Read my earlier post on the plight of Syria’s children:

https://howlinginfinite.wordpress.com/2014/02/06/bombs-and-babies/

Massacre in Peshawar reflects disarray across the world of Islam

David Pryce-Jones, The Australian, December 20th 2014

Picture: Women at an anti-terrorist vigil in Lahore, Pakistan, after this week’s massacre in Peshawar. Source: AFP

The murder by Taliban suicide bombers of 132 children in a military school in Pakistan is grim evidence of the crisis destroying settled order in the world of Islam.

Whole populations are no longer willing to submit to the injustice and hypocrisy of their rulers. The Taliban is only one example of those who reject the structure of their state and fall back on primary identities of tribe and sect, oblivious to the even worse injustice and hypocrisy they are putting in place.

Taliban leaders embody the central paradox of Islamism, that they have a religious obligation to indoctrinate their rank and file with murderous rage and contempt. In most of the Middle East, the political process has narrowed to a version of civil war. Power is lying in the street and whoever is able to mobilise people of their own ethnicity or sect may seize it. Pakistan is a case in point.

A nation in which a self-appointed group such as the Taliban sets out to murder the young, and in the process blow some of its own to unrecognisable body parts, is not really a nation at all. The law of the jungle has become the sole moral code in operation. In the absence of social and institutional ties that bind together people of different origins, what can only be called the culture of killing drives everyone apart, brutalises their existence and ends in the delusion that victims are in fact martyrs.

“Those to whom evil is done,” in WH Auden’s much-quoted stanza, “do evil in return.” Sure enough, Taliban spokesmen are claiming that their suicide bombers killed these children only to make the military “feel the pain” for having killed the Taliban’s “loved ones”. In reality, the Taliban and the military are both armed gangs set on having exclusive power. Sponsoring or opposing one another in the permanent search for advantage, they have created a submerged underworld of violence, secret deals and even more secret betrayals.

It’s more or less impossible to judge whether the culture of killing depends more on Islamic faith or ethnic identity. Take the example of the so-called Islamic State, setting up its putative caliphate in what used to be Iraq and Syria.

Its appeal is to the Sunni branch of Islam, and its brutal pursuit of power is very like the Taliban’s. Its main enemy appears to be the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad that belongs to the Shia branch of Islam, but what may look primarily like a sectarian divide is also another fight between rival armed gangs for supremacy over the same territory; and going between the two is the usual murky underworld of various supposedly jihadi groups also engaged in secret deals and even more secret betrayals.

Islamic State certainly illustrates with a frightening brutality all its own the Koranic injunction to the faithful to “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies of Allah”. These enemies include all who do not enrol under its black flag. One Sunni tribe in Iraq that was prepared to oppose Islamic State has been almost wiped out in revenge. Kurds are mostly Sunni Muslims but on ethnic grounds Islamic State has been fighting them to a standstill for weeks. Although Yazidis are Arabs, it has driven them into exile because their faith derives from Zoroastrianism.

Christianity and the caliphate are of course incompatible. Islamic State beheaded four Christian children in Iraq because they refused to convert to Islam. Canon Andrew White, the representative in Iraq of the Archbishop of Canterbury, says of the violence done to Christians: “They killed in huge numbers, they chopped their children in half, they chopped their heads off, and they moved north, and it was so terrible …”

Horrific videos show lines of Islamic State executioners shooting prisoners so that their corpses fall into mass graves. Exactly as in similar footage of the SS on the Eastern front in World War II, the murderers appear completely calm, self-possessed, as though gratified by a job well done.

Al-Qa’ida has been the first to declare that terror publicity of this kind is counter-productive and gives infidels knowledge that should be kept from them.

The news from the Middle East bears out the observation made long ago by Job in the Bible and Homer in The Iliad that evil is limit­less, mankind is capable of any atrocity that serves his purpose and even divinities can do nothing much to reform this sad building block of human nature.

The vilest crime becomes permissible and even praiseworthy if it is presented as sacrosanct. Civilisation involves creating circumstances in which evil is suppressed or controlled so that evildoers are perceived as outsiders, removed to the margin of society where their capacity for harm is neutralised.

Now and again in history, someone with the necessary force of character has been able to build an ideology strong and coherent enough to persuade others that it is true, and a salvation. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei leading millions of Iranians to chant “death to America, the great Satan”, is replicating Joseph Goebbels whipping up war frenzy at mass meetings in Berlin. A month ago, a preacher by the name of Sheik Omar Abu Sara solemnly promised Jews, in the course of preaching a typical sermon in Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque: “We shall slaughter you without mercy.” The culture of killing has taken hold.

In 1979 the trial took place in Germany of Ernst Heinrichsohn, a Nazi official who supervised the deportation of Jewish children from Paris to their death in Auschwitz. All had been separated from their parents; some were too young to know their names. Witnesses remembered Heinrichsohn hitting the children on the way to their deaths. In the courtroom he was insignificant, a nonentity, stupid, deceived by ideology. World war alone put an end to his evil.

Until such time as the Taliban, Islamic State, al-Qa’ida and the various other jihadi groups are confronted and brought to account, whatever the costs, Muslim civilisation will have to remain a contradiction in terms.

Historian David Pryce-Jones is a senior editor at National Review.

Bombs and Babies

The Atlantic, Sept 9th 2016

Syrian children have been subjected to “unspeakable” suffering in nearly five years of civil war, with the Government and its allies responsible for countless killings, maiming and torture, and the opposition for recruiting youngsters for combat and using terror tactics in civilian areas, according to the first United Nations report on the issue.   See:  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=47077#.UvKrOWKSzE0

Reports and pictures out of Damascus and Aleppo of the use of barrel bombs, and sarin and chlorine gas on civilian neighbourhoods, I am reminded of Chaim Nachman Bialik’s poem, Al haShehita (On the Slaughter), about the Kishinev Pogrom in the spring of 1903:

And cursèd be he that saith: avenge this! Such vengeance for blood of babe and maiden Hath yet to be wrought by Satan.

1653277_613808708691589_1237424660_n

In A Short History of The Rise and Fall Of The West, I wrote of how, in Pity The Nation, his tombstone of a book about Lebanon’s civil war, and Israel’s intervention therein, the redoubtable journalist Robert Fisk writes of a Lebanese doctor, Amal Shamaa: “I had to take the babies and put them in buckets of water to put out the flames. When I took them out half an hour after, they were still burning. Even in the mortuary, they smouldered for hours”. “Next morning”, Fisk continues, “Amal Shamaa took the tiny corpses out of the mortuary for burial. To her horror, they again burst into flames”. Such is the effect of phosphorous shells on mortals. Made in America, used on Arabs, by Jews. But it happens anywhere and everywhere, inflicted by anyone on everyone.