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?

 

Thermidorian Thinking

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant

Why do countries like ours’ and those of Western Europe appear to have settled into peaceful political processes that manage a degree of continuity and stability, and others do not?

In countries where modern institutions are weak and poorly developed, and a democratic or participatory political culture based on consensus and power sharing has not had the time or the political, social and economic conditions to develop, older loyalties and obligations trump allegiance to the state and nation and respect for, or at least, acceptance of its institutions and processes. Countries like Syria and Iraq, and much of Africa, were in reality modern contrivances superimposed upon the wrecks of old empires. The cartographical design may have been determined by the presence of natural resources in such and such a place, or the location of a port or river, highway or mountain pass. And often, in wide tracts of desert or jungle, mountains or plains, lines were simply on drawn on maps from point to arbitrary point, sometimes with the agreement or collusion of a rival power or friendly local despot.

In lands such as these, loyalty and allegiance to family, clan, tribe, religious sect, and ethnic group held precedence over the fabricated state and its often transplanted institutions and processes. Patronage, nepotism, corruption, and a network of mutual favours and obligations smoothed the paths of people seeking or seizing benefits or appointments. Old ways were tried and true, compared to aspirations or pretensions to fair and open governance. Political parties which emerged on ostensibly western lines were no more than parochial political machines, whilst gerrymandering, branch-stacking, vote-rigging and even violence ensured electoral outcomes that favoured the powers that be.

The culture of dependence and obligation that characterized pre-modern societies in the West is still the norm in much the world. And it is replicated throughout society, from the humble street-vendor to city hall. Need a license? A school scholarship? A better job? A party post? Want to avoid a traffic fine? A law suit? A jail sentence? Money changes hands. Deals are done. Debts are incurred. And social and political relationships are established. And thus, the creaking wheels of bureaucracy and governance turn, driven by patronage and payola, often greased with cash and the threat or actual use of violence encourages the emergence of and tolerance for the zaim, the strong leader. That leader develops a sense of identification with the country – not in the sense of service, but that of ownership. Family, clan, kinship and sect obligations and entitlements cement the zaim – literally “boss” – in place, whist patronage and brutal security forces beholden to the elite ensure that he is not challenged. Hence the mukhabarat (literally, intelligence) keep watch on dissent and protest.

Once in power, it can be difficult for the autocrat to vacate his seat. Family interests, party, sect and ethnic ties, and economic imperatives, and fear of retribution should the patriarch depart, render it dangerous for what amounts to a family business to relinquish the keys to the kingdom, and the levers of power. As they say, he who rides a a tiger never can dismount. Hence in countries as diverse culturally and geographically as Syria, Zimbabwe, the Central African Republic, the central Asian ‘stans of the former Soviet Union, and North Korea, the “dear leader” is strongly encouraged to hang in there by his nearest and dearest.

This is indeed how societies and polities evolved and developed during Europe’s so-called Dark Ages in the wake of the collapse of the western Roman Empire. When authority fails, its place is taken by force. Today, we see it in many places around the world, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where social order is under constant attack from paramilitary thugs and religious fanatics, and violence is endemic. Any large, diverse society includes individuals who do not conform to the law. And it is said that some 10% of us have the potential to become psychopaths. When that society is in a state of breakdown, violence and the resort to force become widespread, these come into into their own as chieftains, warlords, robber barons, and pirate kings rule their parochial roost, commanding mercenaries, militias, and private armies. As the Bard wrote, “Take but order away and hark what discord follows”. Violence breeds violence, requiring a corresponding use of force by the state to maintain order. And if the initial, brutal crackdown fails to stifle dissent and rebellion, to borrow from Shakespeare again, the dogs of civil war are let lose, and all hell breaks loose. The Bard of Avon had his Henry declaim “Cry Havoc”, this being an old English war cry that signaled no quarter, and ensuing rape and pillage.

On the marches of civil wars, the bleeding edges of nations and empires collapse in on themselves like stars to create black holes where roam robber bands, death squads, militias, and drugged and indoctrinated child soldiers deal out death and destruction whilst trading variously in oil, diamonds, heroin, grass, guns, and people, extorting dollars and gold from locals and from foreign donors. Quantrill’s Raiders and Jim Lane’s Red Legs cut a swathe through “bloody Kansas” and Missouri. And other times and places have seen their sad share of jaywalkers and bushwhackers. Swedish and German mercenaries marched back and forth across a devastated Mitteleuropa during the Thirty Years War, just as Reds and Whites ranged and ravaged through Byelorussia and Ukraine during the civil war that followed the Russian Revolution. The dying decades of the Twentieth Century saw this in Bosnia, Chechnya and Afghanistan. And it prevails today in Syria and Iraq, Libya and Yemen, Afghanistan and Africa.

And so, and as clear and present example, to suffering, sad Syria.

Following in Father's Footsteps, Following Dear Old Dad

Following in Father’s Footsteps, Following Dear Old Dad

Bashar al Assad inherited this patrimony from his father Hafez. He was a reluctant ruler, not expecting to take charge. The heir apparent was his brother, a fast-living hedonist who died in a car crash. He did endeavour to bring about gradualist change in Syria. I saw changes whenever I visited Damascus.

This was not to suggest that Syria was an Arab utopia. There was a large divide between town and country, exacerbated by a a long and ongoing drought that forced many rural folk to migrate to the rundown fringes of the major towns, adding to pressures on resources, housing and employment. Whilst in practice a secular, multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, there was a cultural and spiritual divide between the conservative, Islamic rural communities and a more secular-minded urban middle class. The country was ruled for near on fifty years by a family and elite drawn from a particular, minority sect, which sat atop a pyramid of nepotism, patronage and corruption. And that rule was upheld by a cruel and efficient secret police and military special forces that kept a proactive watch on dissent. There was definitely an air of anxiety and caution amongst those who aspired to a more liberal Syria, with the midnight knock on the door, arbitrary arrest, and detention in one of the regime’s many political prisons being a fact of political life in this secular, socialist country.

But on the other hand, Syria was almost self-sufficient in food and oil products. It had well resourced and efficient health and secular education systems, and a flourishing arts scene. As a nation, Syrians were a tolerant and welcoming people, and within the bounds of religious propriety and political caution, freedom of worship, of expression, of lifestyle, and even of discreet gender preference were given. In the narrow streets of the Old City of Damascus, Thursday night, the eve of the Muslim holy day, was a fairy land of lights and laughter. Courting couples hand in hand, girls in hijab and uncovered alike; families promenading in their “Sunday best”; young goths with spiky hair and black makeup, short skirts and tight jeans. Busy stalls and sweetshops, crowded, street-side cafes – the famous Damascene maqha – or coffee shops.

Foreign observers, friendly and hostile, have noted how well-dressed and cashed-up the refugees flooding into Eastern Europe appear to be. The reality is that these are Syria’s middle class. By local metrics, they were comparatively well-off, and had a strong work ethic and a high wages to savings ratio. These were, and are Syria’s future.

Syrians were genuinely proud of their country, of its status as a centre of Arab culture and Arab nationalism, and of its history. And of its priceless archeological heritage. The Roman cities of Apamea, Palmyra, and Bosra; the Crusader castles of Krak de Chevaliers and Salah ud Din; the Byzantine monastery St.Simeon; the Umayyad mosques of Aleppo and Damascus; the Christian villages of Maaloula and Saidnaya where Aramaic is still spoken; the ancient suqs of Aleppo and Damascus. Syria was a historian’s idea of heaven.

When the revolution broke out, sympathetic commentators wondered whether Bashar would be “Hammersmith Man”, a reference to his former career as a ophthalmologist in London, where he lived for many years with his gorgeous, well connected, merchant banker wife and children, or “Hama Man”, recalling his father’s brutal crackdown on an Islamist revolt in that city in 1981 where in some thirty thousand souls perished at the hands of security forces. In the end, Junior was swept along by the elite’s blinkered but well-tried survival mechanism – force and fear.

Back in the heady days of the Arab Spring, Syrians from all ethic, religious and political groups hoped for a loosening of authoritarian controls. But the regime resorted to form and to repression. Sectarian militias murdered and mutilated initiating a cycle of bloody vengeance as a popular, peaceful and largely secular movement became militarized, polarized, in many areas, Islamized, and as internal and external interests with varying political, religious, and geopolitical motives became involved and embroiled against the regime, against the rebels, against each other. Regular forces, militias, warlords, village defense forces, Kurdish separatists, foreign fighters, mercenaries, foreign air forces, undercover operatives. A war of all against all, as Thomas Hobbes once said. To paraphrase Mark Twain, history might not repeat itself, but it certainly rhymes.

And now, whilst most of the antagonists have been herded by their foreign patrons towards a crowded and reluctant negotiating table, it all seems like a terminal case of “too little too late”. Syria is in ruins, some half a million Syrian are dead, and countless more maimed.and it its population is scattered, weighing heavily on the consciences and economies of neighbours and of the European Union. Syria as a nation state may in fact be no more. There is talk of partition, and a redrawing of the map that emerged from the peace treaties of The Great War. And the odds are that with Russian military support, Bashar al Assad, bete noir, pariah, lame-duck to those governments who wished him gone, and his Iranian and Hizbollah allies, are going to win the civil war.

He may or may not succeed. Right now, his forces are pushing back the rebels, writing himself a pivotal part in the peace. Right now, the parties talk and walk whilst the killing continues, and the diaspora grows. International forums are but talking shops, stages for self-righteous and self-aggrandizing  posturing and stotting, acrimonious gatherings that appear to function in a time bubble that is remote from the brutal reality. If and when the guns fall silent, Bashar may or may not be able to put the country back together. He may or may not be able to recreate the multi-faith, modernizing, cosmopolitan society that existed before the war. He may or may not be able to disarm the hundreds of militias and private armies that have proliferated and even prospered during five years of chaos.

He will need billions of dollars and the help and goodwill of many nations to rebuild the towns and cities, and to restore the shattered archeological heritage. He will never bring back the dead, or the skilled and educated exiles who will chose to make new lives in foreign places of greater safety. Nor will he be able to repatriate the thousands of plundered artifacts and treasures that have disappeared into the international black market. He will not be able to heal the wounds, give solace to the bereaved, assuage the grief, counsel and treat the trauma, and divert the desire for vengeance into the promethean labour of reconstruction.

Putting his own words into the mouth of a conquered British chieftain, an old Roman once said, “solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant” –  they make a desert and they call it peace.

See also:

https://howlinginfinite.com/2016/04/14/sic-semper-tyrannis/

https://howlinginfinite.com/2016/04/08/thermidorian-thinking/

Syrian Streetscape

Syrian Streetscape

Zaatari Rrefugee Camp, Jordan

Zaatari Rrefugee Camp, Jordan

That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.

image

I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 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”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.

Alice

On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

The Children of the Revolution

I finally broke into the prison,
I found my place in the chain.
Even damnation is poisoned with rainbows,
all the brave young men
they’re waiting now to see a signal
which some killer will be lighting for pay.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture,
you whom I cannot betray.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

The Syrian civil war broke lose in March 2011, two months after the events in Tahrir Square, and one month after the fall of Mubarak.

Amidst the tumult and media hype of the Arab Spring, it was as if the distant drums had suddenly hit the volume switch. In the dusty border town  of Dara’a, just north of Jordan, local kids wrote on a wall: “The people want the regime to fall”. The words had been repeated from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain. It was the cry of the revolution. The local governor decided to come down hard. The young people, all under 17, were thrown in jail. The punishment stunned the town, and suddenly, Syria, progressive, diverse, proud, beautiful, but authoritarian Syria greeted the misnamed Arab Spring.

The young men’s families and friends weren’t having any of it. It is said that in broad daylight, dozens of young men pelted a poster of a smiling President Bashar Assad; a statue of the Bashar’s  late father and predecessor Hafiz Assad was demolished; and official buildings, including the HQ of ruling Ba’ath Party’ and the governor’s office, were destroyed. “There is no fear, there is no fear, after today there is no fear!” hundreds of men chanted in shaky mobile-phone footage.

Over that weekend, security forces opened fire on marchers. This was the regime’s well tried negotiating technique. But Assad responded immediately, sending a high-ranking delegation to deliver his condolences to the families of the dead. The governor was sacked, and the boys released.

So far, so “I mentioned the war but I think I got away with it” But the die had been cast. The demonstrators made demands the regime was unwilling or unable to meet. And the rest is tragedy.

I am not about to retell the story of the Syrian revolution. It is still being written, and as yet, there is no ending. Only more blood. As I write, well over three hundred thousand souls have perished (soon, it will overtake the butchers bill of the Spanish and American Civil Wars), and tens of thousands have disappeared into prisons and oubliez. Millions have been displaced within the country; millions have sought shelter in neighbouring countries; and at least eight hundred thousand have taken to the roads of Central Europe.

But I will quixotically hark back to just before events reached the fork in the road, to when there was an outside chance that Syria could avoid the chaos and carnage that was besetting other children of an Arab Spring that was turning into a bitter winter.

Back to the days before The Fall when pundits were asking whether Bashar would be Hammersmith Man, reflecting his former career as a successful ophthalmologist in London, and his glamorous, cosmopolitan, former merchant banker wife, or Hama Man, recalling his father’s crackdown on an Islamist rising in Hama in 1982, in which uncounted tens of thousand are believed to have perished. We discovered very soon whom he was destined to become.

To the days before The Fall, before the revolution became weaponized and islamized, and demonstrators danced together in the streets, earning the intifada the short lived sobriquet ‘the Dabke Revolution’, named for the circle folk dance popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans.

image

The days before the slaughters began. First by the forces of regime, led by Bashar’s brutal brother Maher and his notorious Fourth Armoured Division. Then by the thuggish Alawi militia – the Shabiha, or “ghosts” or “shadows”, a double-edged meaning alluding to their underworld origin and methods, and also to the fact that they literally turned people into ghosts. And then, in reciprocal ferocity, by opposition militias that grew and proliferated, fought and died, divided, and divided again, and embraced a jihadi creed, sowing the dragon’s teeth that evolved into Jabhat an Nusra and Da’esh.

The days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. When the picture that is the featured image of this blog was first published in Al Jazeera in early 2011, I was both enchanted and inspired. I immediately started using it, with acknowledgements, in my publications and postings. When more and more of these images appeared, I used them too. But I was becoming a tad suspicious. The lasses looked too clean, too cute, and indeed, many actually looked alike. The photographers’ daughters, perhaps, or those of friends. Were they for-real or where they posed? I guess I will never find out.

Needlessly to say, as the rebellion morphed into harrowing civil war, such images disappeared, and in their place, we saw destruction and carnage, and the broken bodies of little girls and boys slain by bomb and bullet, hardship and hunger. Now, as families were forced to abandon their homes and make their way to the borders, and thence, into Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and finally, into Europe, we see children staggering on dusty roads, carried piggy back by exhausted fathers, pushed in strollers, scorched by the sun, soaked by the rain, and frozen by the snow. And we see little Aylan on his golden beach, a Kurdish toddler now a symbol of all the drowned babies of the Mediterranean and the Aegean Sea.

Photogenic children no more. Just victims, survivors, lost souls.

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Into this furnace I ask you now to venture…
you whom I cannot betray.

See also, Bombs and Babies

Children of the Revolution

On a personal note, we were last in Syria in March 2009, and whilst visiting the famed Roman amphitheater at Bosra, just northeast of Dera’a, we had the pleasure of the company of a crowd of Syrian school children. They treated us like visiting celebrities and sang us a song of welcome. It is saddening to look at these pictures now, and wonder where these children are now.

Bosra Bosra 2

 

Bosra

No Going Home

Never in modern times – since the Second World War – have there been so many refugees. There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – people who have been forcibly displaced from their homes and are fleeing from persecution or conflict. Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – including six million Syrians. Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield -. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. five million are Syrians. These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. [See below, The World Refugee Crisis in Brief, and The Refugee’s Journey] 

Just imagine …

Millions are on the move  – , and you are one of them.

Lebanese American BBC Journalist Kim Ghattas says well:

I often get asked why my family never left or more pointedly, why my parents kept us there, dodging sniper fire on the way to school and back. The answer is this: We stayed because leaving is hard. Becoming refugees meant leaving our lives, our identity, and our dignity behindNo ones first instinct is to leave. Their first choice is usually to hold on to the comforting familiarity of home; when that becomes impossible, you leave for another safer area within the country. Then you leave for a neighboring country, so you can return as soon as possible or even keep an eye on your property while youre away. Only when the walls are closing in and the horizon is total darkness do you give up and leave everything you have ever known behind, lock the door to your home, and walk away.                                                                                                         

Kim Ghittas, The Sad Fading Away of the Refugee Crisis, Foreign Policy 19th October 2015                

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i don’t know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Somali poet Warsan Shire, Home

A million spaces in the earth to fill, here’s a generation waiting still – we’ve got year after year to kill, but there’s no going home. Steve Knightley, Exile

Oh, the wind, the wind is blowing, through the graves the wind is blowing, freedom soon will come;  then we’ll come from the shadows. Leonard Cohen, The Partisan 

I pity the poor immigrant whose strength is spent in vain, whose heaven is like ironsides, whose tears are like rain.  Bob Dylan, I Pity the Poor Immigrant

Just imagine …

What if you had to leave behind everything that you hold dear. Your identity, culture, language, faith. You job, your school. Your loved ones, your friends, and your play-mates.

What if you have to sleep with your shoes on so you are ready to run if your enemies are approaching your village? And then you have to flee your home and climb the mountain to escape, helping your youngsters and old folk up the rocky slopes in the summer heat, and there is nothing to eat or drink, and nothing you can do except wait for capture or rescue.

What would YOU do if you had but a short while to gather a few things together and run, leaving your whole life behind? What would you try and take with you?

Then you wash up, literally and figuratively, on foreign shores – in border refugee camps, dusty border towns or urban slums. And there you stay, with other tens, hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands in like dire straits.

Until one day, you are selected for humanitarian settlement in a strange land at the other end of the earth.

That day may never come; so, impatient, frustrated, desperate, you use your family’s savings to pay smugglers and traffickers who prowl the desert and jungle camps like predators and the port cities of Turkey, Libya and South East Asia.

So you take to the seas in frail boats and brave the the deep and dangerous waters of the Mediterranean, the Adriatic and the Indian Ocean.

You might only have enough money for one passage, so you go on ahead and hope to send for your kin once you have reached safe haven.

You may be one of fortunate ones who make it – not one of those cast ashore, lifeless flotsam and jetsam like baby Aylan on his golden beach.

You are now one of tens of thousands in a river of desperate endeavour.

You walk the long miles of the unwelcoming highways of Eastern Europe to a German or Swedish sanctuary. You might end up in a detention camp in Italy or Spain, stranded in the Calais Jungle, or the harbours of Java and Sumatra.

Or else, you are parked in a hot and hostile makeshift camp somewhere near the Tropic of Capricorn.

Just imagine …

You have fled the terror of the warlords and the militias, the holy warriors and the ethnic cleansers.

You discover that the border camps of Jordan and Lebanon, Turkey and Afghanistan, Thailand and Malaysia, Kenya and Namibia have their own ecology of hardship and handouts, rape and robbery, beatings and bribes, illness and neglect, cursory and desultory treatment by overworked and under-resourced aid workers, and shake-downs by the criminals who thrive in these places and the cops who take a cut and turn a blind eye or else enforce punitive directives from politicians, parliaments and bureaucrats.

There, you and yours’ attempt to rebuild a semblance of a life-before amidst the tents and the shanties, the dust and the sewage, the summer’s heat and the winter’s cold. A mosque to pray in, a school for the children, games of football or backgammon for idle youth and menfolk.

You try to keep the children warm and fed and free of mortal illness; you try to keep the spirit alive in a time of anxiety, fear, threat, loss, and confusion, a time of hopeful emptiness and of empty hopelessness.

Zaatari-refugee-camp 3 July 2013

Zaatari refugee camp, Jordan July 2013

Just imagine …

You are one of the lucky few selected for settlement in the fabled, unknown ‘west’.

New lands, under foreign skies, different constellations, so far away it might as well be the moon.

You now dwell among strangers. You neither speak their language nor comprehend their ways or their foreign gods.

You have no friends or family to call on in time of need.

You must rebuild the basic buildings blocks of a normal life – where even the idea of a normal life has now changed utterly.

The houses, the streets, the shops, the money even – are all new.

The things you took for granted are no longer there, and in their place are new ways and means.

New systems and processes – social, welfare, health, education – with new rules and ways of getting things done. Going to the doctor, to the bank, to government offices.

Understanding  that policemen and soldiers are not people you have to pay off or flee from.

Learning English.

Finding a home.

Getting the kids into a school.

Finding a job when your qualifications are not recognized, and work-ways are different to what you know.

The laws are new, the language is new, the way people dress and behave, talk, walk and eat is new.

Many new things are fascinating, tempting.

Others, confronting and insulting to your morality and values.

Some are alien, even, beyond your comprehension.

Codes of behaviour, dress, decorum, politeness, are new. Less formality, respect and deference; open displays of sexuality, affection, and rudeness that would not have been tolerated, permitted even, at home.

You don’t understand what makes the locals tick – their mannerisms, their speech, their body language, their concept of time and space, even.

And you are shocked and frightened by their hostility. Not all – just a noisy and troublesome few who talk quietly amongst themselves, or hurl abuse, or march through city streets with signs that scream, “go back to where you came from!”, “go home!”

Home?

There is no home.

Home is far, far away.

So far away, it might as well be on the moon.

Just imagine…

This is the new. And you still bear the cross of the old. The world you left behind is still with you.

You miss your family, your friends, and the comfort and support you all gave each other.

You miss your old life. The streets, the sounds, the smells. The weather and seasons. Your job, your status, your school, your neighbourhood.

You yearn for street and shop signs you could read, voices you understood on the radio and television, on the street, and on the buses.

You hate having to try and make yourself understood to officials and doctors, desk clerks and shop assistants, and even the supportive and ever helpful case workers whose mission is to help you get through all this.

You are homesick, and lonesome; you feel isolated, helpless, dependent.

There is a terrible ache in your heart and a rift in your soul.

And then there are the scars that won’t and perhaps can never heal. The psychological and physical effects of the events and experiences that forced you to flee your homeland.

Conflict and violence, intimidation and discrimination, torture and brutality, even. You have flashbacks, bad dreams, anxiety attacks, and actual physical and mental pain and anguish.

They say that PTSD is endless. There is no cure …

Just imagine…

You are a stranger in a strange land, and there’s no going home

See also:  Hejira

They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the LORD, and his wonders in the deep. For he commandeth, and raiseth the stormy wind, which lifteth up the waves thereof.   Psalm 107

 

Home

Warsan Shire

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark.

you only run for the border
when you see the whole city
running as well.

your neighbours running faster
than you, the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind
the old tin factory is
holding a gun bigger than his body,
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one would leave home unless home
chased you, fire under feet,
hot blood in your belly.

it’s not something you ever thought about
doing, and so when you did –
you carried the anthem under your breath,
waiting until the airport toilet
to tear up the passport and swallow,
each mouthful of paper making it clear that
you would not be going back.

you have to understand,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.

who would choose to spend days
and nights in the stomach of a truck
unless the miles travelled
meant something more than journey.

no one would choose to crawl under fences,
be beaten until your shadow leaves you,
raped, then drowned, forced to the bottom of
the boat because you are darker, be sold,
starved, shot at the border like a sick animal,
be pitied, lose your name, lose your family,
make a refugee camp a home for a year or two or ten,
stripped and searched, find prison everywhere
and if you survive
and you are greeted on the other side
with
go home blacks, refugees
dirty immigrants, asylum seekers
sucking our country dry of milk,
dark, with their hands out
smell strange, savage –
look what they’ve done to their own countries,
what will they do to ours?

the dirty looks in the street
softer than a limb torn off,
the indignity of everyday life
more tender than fourteen men who
look like your father, between
your legs, insults easier to swallow
than rubble, than your child’s body
in pieces – for now, forget about pride
your survival is more important.

i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home tells you to
leave what you could not behind,
even if it was human.

no one leaves home until home
is a damp voice in your ear saying
leave, run now, i don’t know what
i’ve become.

This Syrian mother and her child were rescued by the Greek Coast Guard.

The World Refugee Crisis in Brief

The Melancholy Mathematics

Like death and taxes, the poor and racism, refugees have always been with us.  But never in modern times – since the Second World War – have they been so many!

There are over sixty nine million people around the world on the move today – that have been forcibly displaced from their homes – fleeing from persecution or conflict.

This doesn’t count economic migrants who have hit the roads of sub Saharan Africa and Central America fleeing drought and crop failure, economic recession and unemployment, poverty, gangs and cartels, seeking a better life for themselves and the families in Europe or the USA.

Three quarters of a million ‘economic migrants’ are on the move in Central America, whilst the UN estimates that at least four million people have left Venezuela because of its political and economic crisis in what has been described as the biggest refuge crisis ever seen in the Americas. There are refugee camps on the Colombian border. Most are in Columbia but others have entered Brazil and Peru.  But these are not by legal definition refugees – see below, The Refugees’ Journey .

Of those sixty nine million people over 11 million or 16% are Syrians. The numbers keep growing Thirty one people at being displaced every minute of the day. In 2018 alone, 16.2 million people were newly displaced.

Forty million people have been internally displaced within their own countries – this includes six million Syrians and off our radars, some two million souls who once lived in the contested regions of eastern Ukraine.

Over 25 million are refugees in neighbouring countries and further afield. 25% of them are in Turkey, Lebanon, Iran, Pakistan, and Uganda. Some 57% of them come from three countries: Syria, 6.3 million, Afghanistan 2.6 million and South Sudan 2.4 million. The top hosting counties are Turkey 3.5 million, Lebanon, 1 million, Pakistan 1.4 million, Uganda 1.4 million and Iran 1 million.

Jordan shelters over three quarters of a million Syrians; during the Iraq wars, this relatively poor country sheltered a similar number of Iraqis, and still hosts tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians who’ve fled persecution at home.

These figures are of those registered by the UNHCR. The real numbers are much higher. The Lebanese government estimates that there are more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country.

Much of the focus these days is on the Middle East – Syria and its neighbours, on Libya and the frail boats crossing the Mediterranean, on the war in Yemen which has killed over thirteen thousand and displaced over two million.

But situation in Africa is as dire.

More than 2 million Somalis are currently displaced by a conflict that has lasted over two decades. An estimated 1.5 million people are internally displaced in Somalia and nearly 900,000 are refugees in the near region, including some 308,700 in Kenya, 255,600 in Yemen and 246,700 in Ethiopia.

By August 2018, the Democratic Republic of the Congo hosted more than 536,000 refugees from Burundi, the Central African Republic and South Sudan. And yet, there are over 4.5 million Congolese people displaced inside their own country and over 826,000 in neighbouring countries, including Namibia, Angola and Kenya.

Should the present situation in Sudan deteriorate into civil war, another tide of humanity will hit the road.

And closer to home, there are millions of refugees in Asia.

As of March 2019, there are over 100, 000 refugees in 9 refugee camps in Thailand (as of March 2019), mainly ethnic Karen and Shan. Refugees in Thailand have been fleeing ethnic conflict and crossing Myanmar’s eastern border jungles for the safety of Thailand for nearly 30 years.

There were an estimated 1 million Rohingya living in Myanmar before the 2016–17 crisis, and since August 2017, an estimated 625,000 refugees from Rakhine, had crossed the border into Bangladesh.

The top-level numbers are stupendous. The detail is scary.

Some 52% of the world’s refugees and displaced are children. And many are unaccompanied. Every hour, around 20 children run for their lives without their parents to protect them.

Children are the most vulnerable to disease and malnutrition and also to exploitation and lose years of schooling. Millions are elderly and are also face health problems.

And the problems facing young people and adults are all enormous. International aid is limited and host countries often unsympathetic. Work opportunities are few, some countries even forbidding refugees to take work, whilst unscrupulous employers exploit the desperate. Migrants are often encouraged, sometimes forcibly, to return to their countries of origin regardless of whether or not it is safe for them to return. There are reports that many have returned to Syria into the unwelcoming hands of the security services.

Refugees have lived in camps and towns in Pakistan and Thailand, Namibia and Kenyan for decades. Most refugee children were not born in their parents’ homelands.

And the camps are by no means safe havens. There may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

 Australia and Refugees

Of all displaced peoples, 17% of them are being hosted in Europe. According to recent data published by the UNHCR, Germany is home to the most refugees by far in Europe – 1.4 million in total. By comparison, France and Sweden have 402,000 and 328,000 respectively, and the UK, 122,000.

Australia’s contribution to the world’s refugee problem is but a drop in the ocean. But we have a long established humanitarian refugee settlement programme for people officially recognized as refugees by the UNHCR and selected for third-country settlement in Australia.

Our humanitarian migration intake for 2016 -17 was the highest year on record. The intake of 24,162 was some 10% of our broader migration program which saw 225,941 permanent additions to the Australian population, and included the special intake of Syrian and Iraqi refugees (an estimate 12,000 places over several years).

The figures are 17,500 in 2017-18 and similar in 2018-19, whilst Scott Morrison has pledged to freeze the number of humanitarian arrivals for the next term. Under the policy there will be an overall target of 60 per cent of the offshore component for women, up from 50.8 per cent in 2017-18. The Government will also push to increase the number of refugees and humanitarian entrants being settled in regional Australia from a target of 30 per cent to 40 per cent in 2019-20, whilst insisting that new arrivals will only go to areas where there is strong community support.

 Coffs Harbour 

Coffs Harbour is one of several refugee intake towns in NSW, along with Armidale, Newcastle, Wollongong and Wagga Wagga. It’s medical and educational facilities have….

Coffs Harbour hosts several organizations dedicated to helping former refugees settle in Australia. They arrive in Australia on specific humanitarian visas and become permanent residents the moment they are admitted into the country. – and hence cease to be refugees.

SSI looks after them when they first arrive in Coffs Harbour. North Coast Settlement Services, a division of Saint Vincent de Paul Society, takes over once SSI’s work is done – after between six and eighteen months depending on a family’s needs, whilst the privately run Sanctuary organization assists settled migrants with such matters as family reunion and employment. An ancillary NSW government agency, the NSW Service for the Treatment and Rehabilitation of Torture and Trauma Survivors (STARTTS), assists new arrivals with psychological support, and particularly, the effects of PTSD. STARTTS services include counseling, group therapy, group activities and outings, camps for children and young people, English classes and physiotherapy

Settlement Services International

I spend two days a week as a volunteer with Settlement Services International, a Sydney-based community organisation that administers the Humanitarian Settlement Program (HSP) which supports refugees from the moment they arrive at the airport, provides essential support and information to assist refugees settle in Australia and empower them to gain independence and build strong connections in their new communities. SSI helps with the needs of new arrivals and the challenges of settling in a new country. Its aim is to enhance self-reliance with a focus on English language skills, education and job readiness.

SSI administers the Humanitarian Settlement Programme in several centres in regional NSW, including Coffs Harbour, Newcastle and Armidale. In all three areas, SSI has teams of staff on the ground who work with refugees, humanitarian entrants and their local communities to help new arrivals to through their initial settlement. The SSI team includes case managers and volunteers from the local community and from the refuge community itself

SSI’s work includes meeting and greeting, arranging temporary accommodation on arrival; orientation, including familiarization with Australian ways, our services and institutions, and getting around Coffs Harbour; basic official matters like Centrelink, banking, and health services; English classes at TAFE and enrolling children at schools; dealing with real estate agents, rental leases and looking after their rental properties.

 Where do our clients come from?

When first volunteering, I worked for Anglicare. New arrivals were largely from Myanmar and Congo – mostly Christians – and from Afghanistan. Many of the latter came to Australia under the “woman at risk” programme – mothers and children with no father. Whilst all are Muslim, many were Shia Hazaras, a Turkic people persecuted by the Sunni Taliban. Since SSI took over from Anglicare in September 2017, whilst Burmese and African families continue to arrive, the emphasis has been on Yazidis from Iraq and Syria, and particularly from the Yazidi heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq, where they endured enormous suffering and hardship at the hands of the Islamic State. Considered infidels by Da’ish, they were targets of a campaign of genocide from 2014. More than five thousand were killed, and some five to seven thousand were abducted and enslaved – mainly women and children. Such was the danger that the UNHCR and the Australian and other governments took whole families straight out of the war zone rather than from camps outside Iraq.

The Yazidis

Yazidis are ethnically Kurdish, and their language, Kurmanji, is Kurdish. Their society is hierarchical and endogamous. Their religion, Yazidsm, is a monotheistic religion and has elements of ancient Mesopotamian faiths, including ancient Persian Mithraism, and some similarities to the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because Yazidis believe in reincarnation and turn to the direction of the sun when praying, it has been thought – erroneously, that the religion has its origins in ancient Persian Zoroastrianism and Hinduism.  They believe in the one god, the creator of all things, who delegated the ongoing management to a heptad of seven holy beings or angels, the chief of whom is Malek Taus – the Peacock Angel.

Malek Taus has in the past been associated, by Muslims and Christians, with Iblis, Satan, and the fall of proud Lucifer. This misinterpretation has led, historically, to Yazidis being perceived as devil worshipers, and thus being subject to persecution and pogrom. The atrocities of Da’ish were only different from past assaults and massacres in their scale and longevity.

 Volunteering

Whilst case managers specifically look after the new arrivals, they depend upon a team of volunteers to assist them in a wide variety of tasks that we locals take for granted. for example: taking new arrivals them to medical or bank appointments, showing them how to use the bus network, setting up accommodation prior to arrival, minding children whilst parents attend appointments, and even helping folk to purchase use lawn mowers – there are few lawns in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As a volunteer, past and present tasks have included walkabouts to familiarize new arrivals with Coffs Harbour, accompanying clients to house inspections when seeking new rental accommodation, and assisting with rental application forms; sending important documents like birth, marriage and education certificates to Social Services’ translation service for official translations; helping clients to apply for bus concession cards, school bus cards, and children’s sport vouchers; and assisting with NBN plans and connections. I have fixed broken cupboards, replaced light bulbs, checked out washing machines and kitchen stoves. and taking families to school interviews.

As I can get by with spoken Arabic and can read and write the language, and as i am reasonably proficient with computers, I have helped with online applications and prepared resumes. I have shown clients how to budget their money, and have run a class on how to set up and use smart phone calendars to help them make and keep appointments. On occasions, I am asked to just drop in on clients to see how they are getting on, and sort any basic house problems.

My most rewarding experiences have been: assisting case managers at the airport when the clients first arrive. It’s a very emotional moment for all involved; Taking families who have never seen the sea before to the seaside; helping a clients get a job; and helping STARTTS run a youth group for children and young people by registering the young attendees

How I got into this

Since my twenties, I’ve had an interest and, indeed, a passion for the Middle East, its history and politics, its people and culture, its languages and religions. I’ve travelled often to the region, and have studied it formally and as a hobby. I learned standard Arabic in the seventies and worked in academic and government research. Though I took a very different road for two decades, I returned to Syria in the noughties and got back into Arabic  both standard and colloquial (two relatively distinct languages).

On retirement, I wanted to do volunteer work, and by happenstance, Coffs Harbour was a refugees intake town with several organizations dedicated to assisting new arrivals. At first, I used my knowledge of Arabic script to assist Farsi-speaking Afghans, and then the Iraqi and Syrian Yazidis arrived. Though their native tongue is Kurdish Kurmanji, and few could speak English, many spoke Arabic. SSI had several Arabic speaking support-workers, and some new arrivals had good English and now work as Arabic and Kurmanji speaking support staff, I am able to step in when they are already booked. Who’d ever have thought I’d be able to use and grow my Arabic in Coffs Harbour.


 The Refugees’ Journey

Who is a migrant?  Who is a refugee? Who is an asylum seeker?

Migrants

A migrant is a person who makes a conscious choice to leave their country to seek a better life elsewhere. Before they decide to leave their country, migrants can seek information about their new home, study the language and explore employment opportunities. They can plan their travel, take their belongings with them, and say goodbye to the important people in their lives. They can continue to phone friends and family, or write, email or Skype them without fear of adverse consequences. They are free to return home at any time if things don’t work out as they had hoped, if they get homesick or if they wish to visit family members and friends left behind.

People who choose to migrate for economic reasons are sometimes called “economic refugees”, especially if they are trying to escape from poverty. But they are not recognized as refugees under international law. The correct term for people who leave their country or place of residence because they want to seek a better life is “economic migrant”.

However, the displacement of people caused by such economic circumstances, or by natural disasters like flood, drought or extreme weather, can contribute towards political, social and ethnic tensions that can precipitate refugee crises. Effective and timely external assistance from neighbours and donor nations will often help to avert this. Aid is therefore provided in an effort to keep people in their homes or in their home countries.

Refugees

The 1951 United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees states:

Any person who owing to a well founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion, is outside the country of his/her nationality and is unable, or owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself/herself of the protection of that country.”

Refugees are forced to leave their country because they are at risk of, or have experienced persecution. Their concerns are human rights and safety, and not economic advantage. They leave behind their homes, most or all of their belongings, family members and friends. Some are forced to flee with no warning, and may not be able to say goodbye to friends and family, and may never be able to contact or see them again.

Many refugees have experienced significant trauma or been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Their journey to safety is fraught with hazards, many risking their lives in search of protection. They cannot return home unless the situation that forced them to leave improves.

Location is all important. During civil unrest and conflict, people may be forced to leave their homes, but do not leave their country. These internally displaced persons (IDPs) are often referred to as refugees. But, whilst refugees and IDPs may flee for similar reasons, their legal status is very different. Whilst remaining within the borders of their home countries, IDPs are legally under the protection of their own government, even in cases where the government’s actions are the cause of their flight. A person cannot be recognized as a refugee unless they are outside their home country.

Asylum Seekers

These seek protection as refugees, but their claim for refugee status has not yet been assessed. Many refugees have at some point been asylum seekers, that is, they have lodged an individual claim for protection and have had that claim assessed by a government or UNHCR.

Some refugees, however, do not formally seek protection as asylum seekers. During mass influx situations, people may be declared “prima facie” refugees without having undergone an individual assessment of their claims, as conducting individual interviews in these circumstances is generally impracticable (due the large numbers involved) and unnecessary (as the reasons for flight are usually self-evident). In other cases, refugees may be unable to access formal status determination processes or they may simply be unaware that they are entitled to claim protection as a refugee.

It is important to note that refugee status exists regardless of whether it has been formally recognized. People do not “become” refugees at the point when their claims for protection are upheld – they were already refugees, and the assessment process has simply recognized their pre-existing status. People become refugees (and are entitled to international protection and assistance) from the moment they flee their country due to a well-founded fear of persecution, as stipulated in the Refugee Convention.

What causes a person or a people to flee their home country?

 The most common causes are war and civil unrest, persecution for political or religious beliefs, or ethnic and racial identity, and human rights violations by government authorities or rogue militias. There could be extreme political instability and fighting; assassinations of people associated with certain political or social groups; arbitrary arrest and torture, mutilation and degradation that can happen without warning; routine sexual violence towards women and girls; forced conscription of child soldiers, forcing families to flee to protect their children; and conscription for slave labour. Governments are unable to protect their citizens, and may actively participate in violations, leaving people with no place or person to turn to for protection.

Often people will hang on, hoping things will improve. Flight is the last option because it means leaving everything behind – home, possessions, jobs, education, family and friends, language, culture and identity. People are often forced to flee with very little warning, no time to collect identity documents or precious things, or say farewell to family, friends and neighbours. They may have to travel long distances, often on foot or in small boats, and through dangerous territory or waters. They may go for long periods without food and water. They may become in danger of being intercepted, robbed or recruited, raped or killed, imprisoned or repatriated.

 Life in the Refugee Camps

The fortunate might reach a camp or other place of relative safety. In the camp there may be no shelter or only basic shelter in tents; no privacy; a lack of clean water; meagre food; limited medical care; and the threat of injury, disease and epidemics. They may be poor physical security and armed attacks, and abuse by the authorities and officials. There may be organized crime, shakedowns and extortion, corruption and bribery.

Families may have become separated, exposing women and children without the protection of male family members to more fear and violence. Women are subsequently vulnerable to harsh conditions, including potential sexual and physical and abuse, poor healthcare, and unequal access to food and water. They may be coping with the loss of the head of the family and with the changing roles and responsibilities that come from being the sole parent. They may not know if their male family members will return to them safely and they must deal with the stress and anxiety, the grief and loss arising from their recent experiences. They might be fearful of the future, which in a camp is unknown and unpredictable

The Role of the UNHCR

The office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is mandated by the United Nations to protect refugees and help them find solutions to their plight. It has over 4,000 staff in 120 countries and an annual budget of about US$1 billion. In addition to legal protection, UNHCR now also provides material relief in major emergencies either directly or in partnership with other agencies.

Refugee protection is covered by International Human Rights Law, and this sits within a broader framework of international law. The agency responsible for the oversight of international human rights law is the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR).

Refugees are accorded certain rights under international law, including

  • The right not to be sent back to a country where their life or freedom would be in danger
  • The right to receive public relief and welfare support at the same level as nationals
  • The right to access education and health care
  • The right to work
  • Entitlement to be issued with identity papers and travel documents

The role of the UNHCR is to

  • Safeguard the rights and wellbeing of refugees
  • Ensure that every person can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another country
  • Promote long-term solutions to the refugees’’ plight utilizing the options of voluntary return, local integration in the country of first asylum, or resettlement in a third country
  • Ensure that refugees are treated appropriately by countries that have signed the UN Convention
  • Ensure that refuges are given the same rights as nationals of the countries they are accepted into
  • Protect refuges from being forced to return to their home countries if it is likely they will be persecuted
  • Promote the reunification of families
  • Take into account the special needs of particular refuges classes, e.g. women and children

UNHCR’s “durable solutionsfor refugees:

  • Voluntary repatriation, the preferred long-term solution – going back to the country of origin when it is safe for them to return country. Voluntary repatriation is encouraged if it is safe and reintegration is viable. Indeed, most refuges prefer to go home as soon as circumstances permit and a degree of stability has been restored.
  • Local settlement and integration is the next preferred option – making a home in the country to which they first fled. Such local settlement may e spontaneous with new-comers establishing a new community. Integration is facilitated there are common ethnic groups or co-religionists. However, there may be a political affiliation between the government of their homeland and the country of first asylum which may lead to continued harassment and persecution.
  • Resettlement in a third country – often as a last resort, when refugees can neither return home nor remain in the country of first asylum, and are then selected by the UNHCR and sent to a third country to start a new life. Some eleven countries offer resettlement on a regular basis: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, the UK, and the USA.

Refer: http://www.refugeecouncil.org.au/fact-sheets/international-issues/durable-solutions/

Whilst the UNHCR strives for “durable solutions”, the reality of the global refugee problem is that many countries hosting refugees embrace “non-durable” solutions such as:

  • “Warehousing” – refugees remain indefinitely in a camp where freedom of movement is restricted, basic supplies are scarce and there are few opportunities for any meaningful activity
  • Involuntary Repatriation – refugees are sent back to their country or origin while it is still unsafe. Sometimes refugees are forced back; sometimes they return because this is the “least bad option”
  • Secondary Movement – refugees themselves attempt to get to a western country in which they can lodge a claim for refugee status. This often involves clandestine travel using people smugglers and it can be very dangerous.

 Settlement and Arrival

Refugees are selected for settlement in Australia by the Department Immigration and Border Protection, in conjunction with the UNHCR. Before arriving in Australia, humanitarian entrants are required to go through security and health checks.

The Australian Cultural Orientation program (AUSCO) is provided to humanitarian visa holders who are preparing to settle in Australia. The program provides practical advice and the opportunity to ask questions about travel to and life in Australia. It is delivered overseas, before they begin their journey. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) is currently contracted to deliver AUSCO on behalf of the DIBP.

The average length of time spent in a camp or in a place of first refuge is 17 years, and migrants may have little experience beyond this. Children may not even have known their home country. Many will have experiences extreme instability and uncertainty. Being selected for resettlement can be an overwhelming experience, and can include feelings of intense elation on one hand and fear and anxiety on the other.

Under such circumstances, a person may not always be aware of the potential difficulties of resettlement. On arrival, feelings can quickly move from elation and joy to culture shock, resentment, dislocation and confusion. It can take months, years even, for new arrivals to understand aspects of their new country and adapt to it.

Much of above material is taken from:

Ruins and Bones

In memory of Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

The past is manifest in stone, in Ruins and Bones  © Paul Hemphill 2014.

These are lands of testament and prophecy, of sacrifice and sacrament, of seers and sages, of vision and vicissitude, of warriors and holy men. The spiritual and the temporal have melded here for millennia. We see still the remnants of ancient empires and the echoes of their faiths. We chart their decline and fall in the fortunes of their monuments and their mausoleums, in the “tumbled towers and fallen stones, broken statues, empty tombs” where “ghosts of commoners and kings walk the walls and catacombs of the castles and the shrines”.

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve.
         Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 4 Scene 1

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
              Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias

Read also, The Rubble Of Palmyra by Leon Wieseltier, published in The Atlantic, 5th September, 2014

Palmyra (3)

Palmyra (6)

Malika Zenobia

 

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.

One, Two, Three, What are we fighting for?

In November, counter insurgency expert David Kilcullen delivered an excellent speech that is worth reading. It is reproduced here. He speaks of the origins and the ascendancy of Al Qa’ida and Daish, including the origin and meaning of Salafi Islam, and discusses the ideological, political and military basis of these organizations, and the effectiveness or otherwise of The West’s responses to the threat they present. Of many thoughtful observations, I note his thoughts concerning the radicalization of Muslim youth:

 “Western governments since 9/11 have had a bad habit of orientalizing Muslims, treating them as a special case, as an exotic, potentially violent minority, who need to be handled with kid gloves. Often governments have sought to deal with Muslims through traditional elders, appointed (sometimes self-appointed) leaders who the government treats as intermediaries, hoping they will keep their young men and women in line. This has three really bad effects. First, these so-called elders are often, by definition, more conservative, authoritarian and traditionalist, and by deferring to them were deepening the marginalization of young Muslims. Secondly, theres a moral hazard – people are encouraged to seek special treatment, to set themselves apart from the rest of society, leveraging the existence of extremist crazies as a way to advance their own agenda, and that tends to move entire communities in a more sectarian, segregated direction, and creates divisions in society that extremists can exploit. Finally, it creates the impression that a whole community is responsible for the actions of a lunatic, criminal fringe”.

Islamism and the threat to liberal values

David Kilcullen | 12 November 2014

2014 John Bonython Lecture, Sydney on November 12. The Centre for Independent Studies

 I want first to thank the Centre for Independent Studies for the opportunity to be part of this event, with its rich tradition of provocative debate. I want to thank the team for organizing this, and for your wonderful welcome. Most importantly, I want to thank all of you for coming out to be part of this discussion.

 My topic is “What are we fighting for? Islamism and the threat to liberal values.” I’m going to approach it through three questions that are simple to state, but extraordinarily complex to answer:

 What’s the ideology that drives groups like al Qaeda or the Islamic State?

Where did ISIS come from?

What should we be doing about it?

First, though, let me define my terms. By Islamic State, I mean the organization whose Arabic name is ad-Dawla al-Islamiyah fi ‘Iraq wal Sham, led by Abubakr al Baghdadi, now calling itself ad-Dawla al-Islamiyah or al-Khilafa, the Caliphate. I’ll use the acronym ISIS for this group, which fields more than 30,000 fighters. It controls a network of cities, populations and territory across about a third each of Iraq and Syria, owns economic assets that make it the richest terrorist group on the planet, and is expanding into the wider region, reinvigorating Islamist terrorism worldwide and radicalizing fringe members of our own societies, of whom thousands are fighting alongside the group.

 When I use the word Islam, I mean the second largest religion in the world, with 1.6 billion followers, founded by the prophet Muhammad. “Islamic” refers to characteristics of that religion, and a “Muslim” is someone who follows it. Islamism, on the other hand, is a political ideology that seeks to propagate a particular form of the religion, shape society around it, and (often) use violence to force it on others.

 Two other terms I’ll use are salafi-jihadist and takfir.  A salafi is someone who emulates early Muslims, as-salaf as-salih, the righteous ancestors, hence “salafi”. The salafi movement arose in the 19th century as an effort to reassert a strict interpretation of Islam in the face of colonialism, and experienced a revival—which some call neo-salafism—after the failure of Arab nationalism and socialism in the post-colonial Middle East. There are millions of Salafis, most of whom don’t personally use violence, but some do use violence to spread their beliefs within the framework of a global religious war—a jihad—and we call that subgroup salafi-jihadist. Finally, takfir is the practice of declaring other Muslims as apostates, liable to be killed.

 When I talk about liberal values, I’m not speaking of what people in the United States call “Progressive” politics, but about something older, more basic, namely the tenets of 19th and 20th century classical liberalism that shaped the societies we live in—individual freedom and accountability, civil liberties, limited government, the rule of law, free-market economics tempered by regulation, equality of opportunity, religious toleration, the removal of violence from politics. We differ about how to apply these ideas—how limited should government be, how much regulation is appropriate, what safety net should the state provide, how should we balance economic freedom with social justice—but these surface differences obscure a fundamental consensus in our societies around these values.

 As I’ll point out later, this set of unexamined assumptions about what society is, how it should be organized, and the bounds of acceptable conduct within it—assumptions shared across almost the entire political spectrum in our countries—are utterly foreign to Islamism, even in its non-violent form. It’s precisely these values that salafi-jihadists seek to destroy by killing or terrorizing all who hold them, and its these values that we ourselves can place at risk, depending on how we choose to react to the terrorist threat.

 Whats the ideology that drives groups like al Qaeda and ISIS?

 With that as context, what is ISIS? Is it just al Qaeda under another name? You could be forgiven for thinking that, if you listen to politicians talk about it. For diplomatic and legal reasons—because the U.S. Authorization for the Use of Military Force and UN Security Council Resolutions since 2001 were framed around al Qaeda—political leaders paint ISIS as an al Qaeda ally, but in fact the two are different. Let me explain, starting with al Qaeda.

Al Qaeda’s ideology has three components, only one of which is religious: the notion of defensive jihad. This idea is that when infidels attack an Islamic state, a defensive war becomes legitimate, and in defensive jihad (as distinct from offensive jihad, which can only be ordered by a Caliph, and fought by professional armies in accordance with Islamic norms of war) every Muslim has an individual obligation to participate.

Al Qaeda tacks onto this religious concept a second element—a political interpretation of current events—namely that the encroachment of western culture, values, and foreign policy into the Muslim world (by which Islamists mean all Muslim-majority countries, all countries with significant Muslim minorities, all countries with Islamic governments and all territories ever, at any time, controlled by the historical Caliphate) is so hostile to Islam that it represents an attack on an Islamic world community (which they call the ummah), that this is tantamount to infidel invasion of an Islamic state, and therefore a worldwide defensive jihad—endless war, everywhere, against all non-Muslims—is in effect, and is obligatory on all Muslims. Osama bin Laden declared the global jihad in two speeches during the 1990s.

Al Qaeda regards democracy—which organizes society around human rather than divine will, because individuals in democratic societies elect their governments, who set policies in line with public opinion—as idolatry, and holds every citizen of a democracy responsible for that country’s actions, those of its leaders (who every citizen elects) and of its allies. In other words, salafi jihadists hold every person here individually responsible for Australia’s actions and, by extension, those of the United States. In their view, that justifies violence against people we consider innocents—to them, in a democracy, there are no innocents because by voting in elections we are all responsible for our country’s policies. Further, some salafi-jihadists argue that modern connectivity is so pervasive, and the power of western ideas so insidious, that jihad cannot stop until every single person on the planet is converted or killed. Which, again, is all of us here tonight.

 To state the obvious, this stretches to breaking point the idea of defensive jihad in Islam—it broadens beyond all recognition the meaning of “invasion”; it holds every democratic citizen (as well as any Muslim who adopts democratic ideas) responsible for this supposed invasion, and posits the global ummah as a virtual state (with al Qaeda at its head) in defense of which this jihad takes place.

 I sometimes hear people ask: “If this idea’s so foreign to Islam, why don’t Muslims publicly reject it?” Actually, they have. Salafi-jihadist ideology has been repeatedly, publicly condemned by Islamic scholars and Muslim leaders worldwide. In 2005, for example, 200 Islamic scholars from 50 countries issued a religious ruling, the Amman Message, which condemned takfir and rejected jihadism. This message was reaffirmed in 2012.

 The final element of al Qaeda ideology is military. Remember the first element is that defensive jihad is legitimate (the religious component), and the second is that this is a defensive jihad (the political). The final component argues that because the West supports Israel and “apostate” governments in the Muslim world, and because Western militaries are so strong, conventional warfare—formed armies fighting openly, force-on-force, following international laws of war—is hopeless. But it also sees Westerners as weak, easily exhausted and intimidated, reliant on technology, unwilling to die for their beliefs. Hence terrorism, the killing of civilians, the torture and enslavement of non-combatants, intimidation through violence, become not only acceptable, but the military method of choice.

 This concept of a global guerrilla jihad led al Qaeda to a provocation strategy. Via the 9/11 attacks, al Qaeda sought to provoke a global religious war, dragging the West into protracted conflicts, exhausting our financial and military resources, sapping our political will, and ultimately forcing us to withdraw from the so-called “Muslim world”, leaving the field clear for a salafi jihadist takeover. Bin Laden outlined his strategy in 2004. He said:

 “All we have to do is to send two mujahideen to the furthest point East to raise a cloth on which is written al-Qaeda, in order to make the generals race there, to cause America to suffer human, economic and political losses without achieving for it anything of note . . . so we are continuing this policy of bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy. Allah willing and nothing is too great for Allah.”

 The idea was that intervention would bog us down in occupation warfare, which in turn would create a backlash that would allow al Qaeda to rally local groups (originally motivated by localized grievances) under the single explanatory narrative of a global Islamic jihad, and aggregate their effects into a worldwide uprising that would transform the planet, allowing a Caliphate to rise from the ashes.

 Notice that the Caliphate for al Qaeda was a distant future goal, deferred until after military victory—at different times, salafi-jihadist leaders spoke of it as being in Egypt, in Mecca, or in Baghdad—and its very vagueness allowed it to serve a unifying function as a kind of millennial jihadist utopia. Notice also a certain amount of what we might call “magical thinking” here: the idea that however powerful the enemy, truly Islamic fighters would demonstrate commitment to Allah by their effort, and Allah in turn would provide the victory.

 Thus while social movement theory, mass psychology and revolutionary warfare theory do indeed have something useful to say here, we can’t ignore the fact that Islam—a distorted version of Islam, to be sure, one most Muslims would scarcely recognize, a perversion perhaps, but Islam nonetheless—is fundamental to both the ideology and the strategy. There are plenty of murderous ideologies worldwide, but they’re not all the same. They reflect the ground from which they spring, and this one springs from Islam. To deny that just makes it harder to think clearly about the problem.

 On the other hand, holding something called “Islam” responsible for terrorism is as much an over-reach as holding Japanese culture responsible for the atrocities of World War Two, or blaming all Communists for Pol Pot. It not only accepts the al Qaeda line that there’s just one undifferentiated “true” Islam, whereas in fact Islam is massively diverse. It also treats non-violent Muslims the same as those who use violence in contravention of the Prophet Muhammad’s words that “there is no compulsion in religion” (al-Baqara, 256). And of course, it’s a logical fallacy to expect a constant cause to explain a variable effect: if Islam alone caused terrorism, we would have seen the same level of terrorism since the tenets of the religion were settled a thousand years ago, but we haven’t seen that—so other factors must also be at play.

 There’s a paradox here: on the one hand, only a tiny percentage of the world’s Muslims are involved in terrorist jihad. On the other, that jihad is real, it only takes a small number to sustain it, and of course everyone in it is a Muslim. This creates a fundamental tension—most Muslims aren’t’t jihadists, but all jihadists are Muslims—that can separate Muslims from society, create opportunities for authoritarian repression in the name of counterterrorism, and make every Muslim a target. It also creates a moral hazard: leaders of Muslim minorities in Western societies can demand special consideration, using the implied threat of violence by others as a way to get what they want, and that in turn can separate Muslims further from the rest of society. That’s what’s so insidious about this: not only terrorism, but also our reaction to it, can be equally destructive. I’d go further—our reaction has the potential to be vastly more destructive than the terrorism that gives rise to it. This paradox lies at the heart of al Qaeda’s strategy, in fact.

 Now, this is an obvious point, but the global uprising that bin Laden sought did not occur. After 9/11, the international community came down on al Qaeda like a ton of bricks. They were expelled from Afghanistan, damaged in Pakistan, defeated in Saudi Arabia, allied groups in Somalia, Yemen and North Africa were (temporarily) set back, affiliates in Southeast Asia lost support, and al Qaeda in Iraq was almost destroyed—by 2010, we’d reduced them to 5 per cent of their strength and banished the remnant from all major Iraqi cities. U.S.-led coalitions stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan, only to see Iraq unravel after leaving, and Afghanistan looking quite shaky as we exit.

 So, if al Qaeda’s strategy didn’t’t succeed, at least not in the way bin Laden intended, does that mean our strategy, the Global War on Terror, “overseas contingency operations”, worked? Well, unless you’ve been living under a rock, you would have to know that the answer to that question is a resounding NO. And that, of course, is because as al Qaeda has waned, we’ve seen the rise of ISIS.

 Let’s talk now about that group. ISIS comes from the same basic salafi-jihadist worldview as al Qaeda, and shares much of al Qaeda’s ideology, including the notion of defensive jihad and the focus on terrorism. It’s in the second component—the political interpretation—that it parts ways with al Qaeda, and that results in a starkly different strategy, and a different set of threats to our societies.

 ISIS is the successor to al Qaeda in Iraq. That might lead you to suppose that it was originally a branch of the wider al Qaeda movement, but actually its origin is independent. It came out of extremist circles in Jordan, propelled by anti-Shia sectarianism, and peaked in the intimately ferocious violence of the Iraq war.

 Its first leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, emerged after the invasion of Iraq in 2003, when he formed terrorist cells to oppose the occupation, allied himself with Sunni nationalist and former regime fighters, took up the al Qaeda name as a branding exercise, and carried out attacks like the killing of UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello in 2003, the beheading of aid workers, the kidnapping, rape and murder of Shi’a children, and the 2006 Samarra bombing.

 Before he was killed in June 2006, Zarqawi unified several factions under the Islamic State of Iraq, part of the Mujahidin Shura Council, responsible for some of the most horrendous atrocities of the war. Zarqawi was succeeded by Omar al Baghdadi, himself killed in April 2010, to be followed by Abubakr al Baghdadi, the current leader of ISI, which expanded into Syria after the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and now calls itself Islamic State.

 It was soon clear that there were ideological and strategic differences between al Qaeda and Zarqawi’s group. These emerged through a series of letters between Zarqawi and Ayman al-Zawahiri, then bin Laden’s deputy, which fell into the hands of western intelligence in 2005.

 Zarqawi viewed Shi’a Muslims and by extension their regional protector, Iran, as the greater threat. He saw Shi’a as apostates who should be slaughtered without mercy. He sought to provoke a sectarian civil war that would split Iraq, generate massive violence that would make the country ungovernable, drive out the occupation forces, collapse the state, and allow Zarqawi to inherit the wreckage. This translated into violence against Iraqi civilians, which for all its horror, was anything but random. Rather, it was designed to turn Shia and Sunni against each other, and both against the occupiers.

 Zawahiri and al Qaeda differed, not in terms of rejecting violence against Shi’a, but as a matter of strategy and timing. Zawahiri wanted Zarqawi to first rally all Iraqis against the occupation, and defer action against the Shi’a until after the invaders were expelled. He said, in effect, “form a popular front against the occupiers, you can always deal with the Shia later”. This was the classic al Qaeda aggregation strategy we’ve discussed, with a view to a global rather than a local agenda.

 Zarqawi and his successors reject that—not because they’re less opposed to the West, far from it, but because of a difference in strategic sequencing. They want to provoke an immediate sectarian war with the Shi’a, use that to unify Sunnis behind them, establish the Caliphate, build a powerful Islamic state, and then expand its territory by military conquest. What, for al Qaeda, is a distant millenarian utopia, is for ISIS an immediate, concrete, practical goal.

 That means a real state—with a territory, an army, a government, an economy, a population—and that makes ISIS a much more conventional state-building enterprise. Unlike al Qaeda with its post-modern notion of a virtual, non-territorial state, of guerrilla cells acting locally while thinking globally, and its call for an uprising by Muslims everywhere, ISIS wants the Caliphate now, as a real-world entity, in one territory, and then plans to expand it by military conquest. To use a Cold War analogy, if al Qaeda are Trotskyist, calling for world revolution, ISIS are Stalinist—socialism in one country.

 That’s why, whereas bin Laden said, “if you support al Qaeda, attack Westerners wherever they may be”, and sought to provoke our intervention in local conflicts so as to generate a global insurgency, al Baghdadi said “if you support ISIS, come to Syria and help us build the state.” He put out a call for doctors, engineers—and, of course, fighters—to join him. Far from wanting to provoke Western intervention, ISIS wants breathing space. It’s ultimately no less hostile to the West, but its sequencing is different: first build the Caliphate, then expand it, then take on the West. You can see the difference in al Qaeda’s English-language magazine, Inspire, which is full of tactical tips, articles on bomb-making, how to attack western societies from within, whereas the ISIS magazine, Dabiq, is full of propaganda about Syria and Iraq, and calls for people to travel to join the fight.

 If al Qaeda’s agenda is 21st century, ISIS looks, to many of my friends in Iraq and Syria, a lot like the 7th century. After Muhammad’s death in 632AD, his successors—the Caliphs—engaged in a campaign of military expansion that took them within a few decades to control vast territories in the Middle East, North Africa, South and Central Asia, and eventually into Spain and Southern Italy. These wars of Muslim Conquest, as they’re known, created the largest pre-Modern empire in history. The restoration of this Caliphate—as contrasted with the al Qaeda “virtual” Caliphate—lies at the heart of the ISIS agenda.

 ISIS has had a massively reinvigorating effect on the global jihad. We’ve seen groups in Indonesia, the Philippines, North Africa, and across the Middle East revive. Fighters have travelled to join ISIS from these areas, and from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand and Latin America—indeed, foreign fighter flows into Syria and Iraq are ten times what we saw at the height of the Iraq war.

 Where did ISIS come from?

 How did ISIS come to join al Qaeda at the peak of the global jihad? It resulted from two key events: the killing of Osama bin Laden, and the failure of the Arab Spring. Bin Laden’s death on the 2nd of May 2011 threw al Qaeda into disarray. The organization went through a succession struggle, and turned inward for several months before Ayman al-Zawahiri emerged as undisputed leader. Those months were critical, because mid-2011 was when the Arab Spring seemed to be succeeding—secular, democratic, largely peaceful protest movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen had successfully thrown off dictatorships. For a time, this seemed to contradict al Qaeda’s argument that only terrorism against the West (the “far enemy”) could overthrow these regimes (the “near enemy”).

 But by late 2011, it was clear the Arab Spring was not going to deliver stable democracies. Egypt slipped back into authoritarianism, Yemen remained hugely violent, Libyans threw off Gaddafi but were left with an increasingly violent power vacuum, and a crackdown in Bahrain crushed protests there. Most importantly, in Syria, the early promise of a peaceful end to the Iranian-backed Damascus regime failed, the regime consolidated, and protests escalated into a horrific sectarian civil war.

 So peaceful methods failed (except in Tunisia, site of the original outbreak and, seemingly at present, the exception that proves the rule) and insurgencies emerged in Syria, Libya, Egypt’s Sinai desert, and Mali. al Qaeda, as I’ve mentioned, was in disarray: the Arab Spring seems to have caught them flat-footed. So as people turned back to violence, they didn’t’t look to al Qaeda: the group had lost credibility. That gap was increasingly filled by ISIS.

 ISIS, for its part, used Syria to reinvent itself after its defeat in Iraq. You recall the organization was down to only 5% of its strength by late 2011, it was scattered, on the run from U.S. and Iraqi forces. As the Syrian revolution unfolded, Abubakr al-Baghdadi sent a small cadre to Syria. They found sanctuary from pressure in Iraq, they could regroup and re-equip, and because of their battle experience, their financial backing from salafi donors, their tight organization, and their concrete, specific political program, they began to dominate. Three factors helped: the Assad regime, the West’s failure to support the secular democratic uprising, and the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

 In Syria, Assad claimed his opposition consisted entirely of jihadists. At first this was a lie: the same broad-based, secular, pro-democracy movement arose in Syria as elsewhere in the Arab Spring. But the violence of Assad’s crackdown turned protest into insurgency. Civil leaders were sidelined, armed groups began to grow, the movement became more extreme, and Assad’s lie became increasingly true. He maintained a de facto truce with ISIS until late 2013—the rise of ISIS helped prove his case about a jihadist enemy, ISIS spent most of its time attacking other rebel groups anyway, and avoided confronting the regime directly, so Assad in turn let ISIS gain control of Raqqa. Raqqa today is the ISIS capital, its major base, home to hundreds out of the thousands of foreign fighters who have flocked to join it.

 The second factor was our failure to support Syria’s democracy movement. It’s a self-serving myth that there was never a chance for the democracy movement to succeed. The democratic opposition to Assad was long-standing, it had significant popular support, and it was far stronger and better organized than Gaddafi’s opposition in Libya. Firm diplomatic pressure by the West in 2011, military support to democracy groups in 2012, and deterrent strikes against Assad when he began using chemical weapons against his own people in late 2012 and early 2013 could have made a real difference.

 Instead, we were tied up in Libya in 2011, gave virtually no support to the democracy movement, and offered too little help, too late, to the secular rebels. I’m not suggesting we should have invaded Syria—but I am suggesting that Western diplomatic efforts to ensure a political transition, backed by force if necessary to stop Assad’s violence against his people, in accordance with the established international principle of Responsibility to Protect, would have done a lot to prevent the emergence of ISIS. Even now, because Western countries have refused to come out strongly against Assad, and have yet to target any regime positions, many Syrians see our efforts as helping the regime. Few Syrians will back us against ISIS until we commit to overthrowing Assad, which for them is the whole point of the uprising.

 The final factor was the Iraqi government’s lurch into sectarianism at the end of 2011. It’s easy to blame Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki here. I’ve heard people ask “What happened to Maliki? How did he go from being inclusive in 2007-8 to being sectarian in 2012”? That question bespeaks a lack of understanding of conditions in Iraq. Yes, Maliki was relatively inclusive in 2007-8: but that was when we had 165,000 U.S. troops in country, advisors embedded throughout his government and security forces, and were spending billions in assistance—we had huge leverage, and could ensure fair treatment for Sunnis, Shi’a and Kurds. Remember the Sunni community, by turning against al QaedaI  (now ISIS) during the Awakening, enabled a massive reduction in violence, allowing us to stabilize Iraq and start withdrawing. After the coalition withdrew, leaving zero troops behind, pulling out civilian advisers and cutting off assistance, we lost leverage. For his part, Maliki no longer had us to act as mediator or ensure fair outcomes. He was in a zero-sum game, where he could no longer afford to be inclusive—he had to consolidate his Shi’a support base, and seek Iranian support. He reneged on his deals with Sunnis and Kurds, and started sidelining professional military, police and administrative officials, and replacing them with sectarian (often corrupt) loyalists.

 As a result, by 2013, Iraq was in disarray, Kurds and Sunnis felt betrayed by Baghdad, tribal elders had been hung out to dry, the Iraqi security forces were engaged in what Sunnis saw as a sectarian version of ethnic cleansing, and there was space for a return of ISIS. And that created the environment that allowed the ISIS expansion in 2013, its jailbreaks, seizure of cities, expansion in Iraq and Syria, and its blitzkrieg-like breakout to Mosul and other cities in June 2014.

 What should we do about it?

 If that’s the threat, what should we do about it? We need to consider both the threat from Islamist terrorism, and the risk arising from our own reaction to that threat.

 We can break the terrorist threat into four components: domestic radicalization, foreign fighters, the effect on regional terror groups, and destabilization in the Middle East. Our strategic approach needs to address all four and, I would argue, in that order of priority.

 So, domestic radicalization first. What we see in Western societies is the seductive pull of ISIS on marginalized people, who feel themselves disenfranchised, losers in our society, and want to be part of something huge, successful, historical and important—ISIS offers them all that, a chance to validate themselves through action.

 Western governments since 9/11 have had a bad habit of orientalising Muslims, treating them as a special case, as an exotic, potentially violent minority, who need to be handled with kid gloves. Often governments have sought to deal with Muslims through traditional elders, appointed (sometimes self-appointed) leaders who the government treats as intermediaries, hoping they will keep their young men and women in line.

 This has three really bad effects. First, these so-called elders are often, by definition, more conservative, authoritarian and traditionalist, and by deferring to them we’re deepening the marginalization of young Muslims. Secondly, as I said earlier, there’s a moral hazard—people are encouraged to seek special treatment, to set themselves apart from the rest of society, leveraging the existence of extremist crazies as a way to advance their own agenda, and that tends to move entire communities in a more sectarian, segregated direction, and creates divisions in society that extremists can exploit. Finally, it creates the impression that a whole community is responsible for the actions of a lunatic, criminal fringe.

I think we need to do away with this approach. Repression, surveillance, and special intermediaries simply make the problem worse. We need to treat Australian Muslims like Australian Catholics, Australian Hindus or any other Australian—with all the rights, freedoms, expectations and responsibilities that come from free membership in a free society. If people engage in criminal acts, they need to be treated like any other criminal. We need to open up opportunities for self-expression and free agency within our own societies, so people can see that the answer to their problems lies here, not elsewhere. The answer to domestic radicalization, then, turns out to be more freedom, not less.

Likewise, though, with freedom comes responsibility. We need to be clear that we don’t plan to turn our societies inside out in order to make a disaffected minority more comfortable. The liberal values that lie at the heart of our society, on which our country is built, are not up for discussion. We can’t afford to be tolerant of intolerance, or to allow the implied threat of terrorism to let a minority (any minority) hold the rest of us to ransom.

The second threat is that of foreign fighters, and here the risk is that members of our own societies will join ISIS or al Qaeda, reinfiltrate back into our communities, and carry out attacks here. This threat is real, but we need to measure our response carefully lest we do more harm than good. I often hear people say “why do we need to intervene overseas? Let’s just pull up the drawbridge, take defensive measures to protect ourselves against domestic terrorism, and leave it at that.”

 I’m afraid that approach doesn’t really work. In the first place, there is no drawbridge. Australia is an open society, connected with the rest of the world, and our freedom and prosperity depends on maintaining that openness. Secondly, we need to be clear about what truly effective “defensive measures” would look like. These might include mass surveillance, collection of personal data, suppression of dissent, limits on free discussion, tracking of individuals on suspicion, detention without trial, travel and financial restrictions, and a pervasive police and security presence including fortified checkpoints in public places, heavily armed police and gun-carrying intelligence services with the power of arrest or to use lethal force. Since 9/11, many western countries have moved well on the way to some of these things in the name of protecting ourselves against terrorism. We may destroy our free and open society in order to save it: a fully protected society looks a lot like a police state.

 There’s a stark trade-off here. To put it one way, how many terrorist attacks, bombings or assassinations are we prepared to accept as the price of preserving our freedom? Conversely, how much privacy, freedom and civil liberty are we prepared to surrender in order to prevent those attacks? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In a democracy, this is a decision that only the people can make. Technocrats—especially security professionals whose budget and advancement depend on the outcome, or politicians who know they will shoulder the blame for any attack—can’t be allowed to decide this for us. At the same time, if society decides a certain level of risk is acceptable, we can’t go back and retrospectively change our minds after the event, retroactively punishing security officials or political leaders for risk-management decisions we made as a society. What we need is a public, informed debate on this set of trade-offs, along with safeguards to protect ourselves and against unintended consequences.

 The third threat—the effect on regional terrorist groups—is something that Australia has done well since 9/11, and where current policy seems pretty well calibrated. Assistance to regional partners, information sharing, cooperation on regional security preparedness, and joint investigation when incidents occur, are all things that have been in place since 2003, after the first Bali bombing, and they have largely been effective in our region. We need to think about widening that regional network, and about how to react to increased threats, but in general terms I think we have those settings about right.

 The final threat—the destabilizing effect of ISIS in the Middle East and North Africa—is the one against which our troops are currently engaged in Iraq. To me, the logic of this is extremely clear. We’ve already talked about how attractive ISIS is to disaffected elements within our own society. It has an appeal precisely because of what seems to be an unbroken string of military victories, because it seems t successful, and it offers people the chance to share in that success and significance. We can turn our society upside down in order to deal with the threat from this side, or we can go to where ISIS is—currently, the Middle East and parts of North Africa—and inflict damage on the group that takes the shine off of it, shows people it can be defeated, and emphasizes that joining ISIS is a fool’s errand, it’s pretty dangerous over there, and you might not make it back. If we want to limit the restrictions to our freedom in this country, and relax those restrictions before they become permanent, we MUST deal with ISIS where it currently is.

 I am emphatically NOT talking about reinvading and reoccupying Iraq—that was a disaster the first time around, and doing it again wouldn’t make it any better. I’m also not talking a campaign destroy Assad militarily. I’m talking about a targeted effort using a combination of air power, special operations, military assistance and a limited number of combat troops to destroy the capacity of ISIS, break up the state it’s creating, encourage local opposition to take it down, and put enough pressure on Assad to force a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war, one in which secular democracy, with international support, plays a key role.

 I want to end with two concluding observations. The first is to re-emphasize something that I, and others, have been saying ever since 9/11, namely that this is a long war, a multi-generational struggle between two fundamentally opposed sets of values. It has already gone on for half a century, and it has just as long to run.

 One mistake we made after 9/11 was to focus too narrowly on al Qaeda, as if killing senior leaders equated to defeating the organization, and as if defeating al Qaeda equated to ending the terrorist threat. Let’s not make the same mistake again with ISIS. We will defeat ISIS, I have absolutely no doubt about that. But if we don’t also think more broadly, across all four of those threat categories, we’ll find ourselves back here again in another few years. Worse than that, al Qaeda hasn’t gone away, it’s eclipsed but far from defeated, and there’s every possibility it will compete with, or even partner with, the remnants of ISIS in the next phase of this long conflict.

 If we want to succeed in that conflict, we MUST find ways to deal with the threat that are cheap enough, non-intrusive enough, and sustainable enough, that we can maintain them essentially indefinitely, without destroying the free society we seek to protect.

And that’s my final point. I’ve spent a lot of time tonight speaking about what we’re fighting against, the enemy’s ideology and strategy. But let’s remember what we’re fighting for, those values on which our society is founded, and on which—whatever else we might disagree on—we have wide consensus.

 We believe in individual freedom, and the personal responsibility that comes with that. We believe in the pursuit of happiness, the sanctity of human life, in a secular state whose authority derives from consent of the governed, and whose purpose is to serve the needs of its citizens. We believe in a free market economy, as tempered by appropriate regulation, and in the rule of law as established by human society. We believe in respect for the rights of others, in gender equality including women’s autonomy, reproductive freedom, and freedom of sexual relations between consenting adults. We believe in social justice based on equality of opportunity and access, and in human progress through innovation and creativity.

 Yes, we disagree among ourselves on how to balance these values, and on what form they should take, and on their relative priority. But let’s recognize how utterly, and unalterably foreign these beliefs are to salafi-jihadists like al Qaeda, ISIS, or any of their fellow travellers, including even those who don’t actively use violence. Intolerance of difference, religion as a total explanation for all aspects of life, communal over individual purpose, the imposition of beliefs on others by force, the subjugation and oppression of women, a cult of death perpetrated by a hyperviolent nihilistic band of exterminators, a theocratic state whose authority derives from Allah rather than from its people, a non-rational cult of authority, intolerance of sexual or gender freedom, hostility to innovation and progress, and a return to the supposedly righteous ways of the seventh century.

 ISIS and groups like it are horrendous, but they’re not unique: in some ways, they’re just the latest in a long line of ideological enemies of liberal democracy, foes of the enlightenment that go back to 18th century Absolutist monarchism, Clericalism, and Authoritarianism, to 19th century ideas like Slavophilism and Communism, and to 20th century movements like the Nazi racial community of blood and soil, Fascism, Japanese militarism, or Stalinism. Today’s threat will go the way of those historical threats, I have no doubt about that—but it won’t happen without effort from all of us, a conscious effort to preserve our freedoms here at home, and to extend those freedoms to ALL members of our society, even as we defend them abroad.

http://www.cis.org.au/publications/speeches/article/5381-what-are-we-fighting-for-islamism-and-the-threat-to-liberal-values

 David John Kilcullen is an Australian author, strategist and counterinsurgency expert and is currently the non-executive Chairman of Caerus Associates, a strategy and design consulting firm that he founded. From 2005 to 2006, he was Chief Strategist in the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department. Kilcullen was a senior counter-insurgency advisor to General David Petraeus in 2007 and 2008, where he helped design and monitor the Iraq War troop surge, and was then a special advisor for counter-insurgency to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He has has been a Senior Fellow of the Center for a New American Security, and an Adjunct Professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He has written three books: The Accidental Guerrilla, Counterinsurgency, and Out of the Mountains.

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.

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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.