Posts Tagged ‘middle-east’

War & Peace – Civil Wars Leave The longest Memories

March 14, 2016


Christopher Lee

Memphis 14 March 2016

Driving through the Mississippi Delta and it’s shining like a National guitar. Gracelands playing in the dashboard because the car’s old enough for that. Long John Morgan reckons this is the bleeding heart of the Civil War.

Not the Syrian, the Iraqi, the Libyan or any other ‘Goddammit fig eating civil war boy’.  Long John taps the bakelite steering wheel in time to Paul Simon. The war.  I understand.  So I have for the 20, maybe 30 years he and I have driven this trail. We’re talking four years – 1861-65. `The American Civil War.  The scar on all American lives even today.

In 1861 there were 34 states in an America not then a hundred years old.  That year seven southern states refused to give up slavery and pulled out of the Union and formed the Confederate States. The continent went to war. States went to war. Regions went to war. Families went to war. Brothers went to war. About three quarters of a million die – more Americans than died in two world wars and Viet Nam.

Long John Morgan  – he stands six seven in his cotton socks and butt-kicking boots  and comes in at 275 lbs – knows the name of every one of the Morgans (and the Delleys) who died in that thing. He knows the name of every skirmish and gut spilling moment in that four years.  Forte Munro, Pickens, Taylor and especially Sumter.  The lands were angry he says.  The ones who were not cut down were made prisoners of that war. 56,000 of them, 56,000 Americans died in those prisons. That’s somewhere near the same number of GIs who died in Vietnam.

We’re on Route 61 the Blues Highway. Greenville, Leland, Cleveland. South of Memphis.  No monuments but still in the American psyche. The black people rode this highway in search of a future. The hopelessness of it all in the music Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker and B. B. King. Not in the uptown of Paul Simon. Simon and I were born on the same day. The directions weren’t so different.  They all, he said, led to Gracelands. Monuments. The symbolism of a ghost of America’s past.

Bad Joe is big on symbolism.  He did nine years in Parchman Farm, the state pen. So did Elvis’s old man, Vernon Presley. So did Stokely Carmichael. Remember Stokely? Long John rhythms the wheel.  “Hell no-We won’t go!”  That was him.  “He sang that against the draft. Against Nam”. The civil rights activists the 300 Freedom Riders were jailed in a 6×8 cell in Parchman. Jailed, stripped, chain-ganged.  “You remember that” says Long John. “You remember Deputy Tyson. A tobacco mouth that would have backed the devil hisself into the darkest corner. Peace marchers? He knew everyone. They still quote him.  ‘Y’all all a time wanna march someplace? Well y’all gon’ march right now, right t’yo cells. An’ ahm gon’ lead ya. Follow me. Ah’m Martin Luther King.'”

We pull into the dustiest gas station ever seen.  A truck with the shiest cleanest highest pointing exhaust alongside.  America is full of contradictions. Long John Morgan rests his belly into the counter and orders two coffees and chocolate cake. “Now they’re telling us we have to burn the flag.” The symbol of the Confederates. He calls it stamping out the past but not the soul. These seem nothing things.  But they are big.  You want to talk about the tragedies on Syria? Of Libya?

To Long John Morgan and the truck driver, the bar tender, the help out back with the bucket and swab, the highway patrol officer with the cop-show blank look of a leather face US lawman Syria, Libya, Iraq are sad places for “those folk over in that place”. It is not that they do not care.  It is that they do not know. The American Civil War all that time ago they do know about, even when the facts are only folklore. They know it because it has not left them.

That’s the point the big man makes. A nation doesn’t forget even if it is not sure what it is it’s not forgetting. He repeats repeats repeats.  The Civil War has left a scar. Understand that you will begin to understand even modern America. Those folk over there, he says,will not forget.  Three four generations on from what we have let happen will still remember.  Suits in Geneva may one day call a truce. But just as 1865 was about identity so Syrians, Iraqis and all will only call truce on their memories.

What they are negotiating in Geneva this week has a hundred years to go.




Five Years On & Hope Became Terror

January 13, 2016


13 January 2016


Five years ago this week the Arab Spring began in earnest. On 14 January 2011 President Ben Ali of Tunisia resigned. The social media went into fast thumb tap and click. The Middle East began to throw off its identity and took to the streets demanding change.

The freedom squares were full of protest within days. Egypt. Lebanon. Yemen.Bahrain. Jordan. Libya. Morocco. Iraq. Less than a month from the going of Ben Ali Hosni Mubarak was gone as President of Egypt.  On 6 March the first shots were fired in Syria. A week on and the Saudi sent in troops to rescue the Bahrainian leadership in case the anger spread to Riyadh.

In that same March NATO went into Libya  not to support their recent ally Gaddafi but to join the rebels against him. By the summer Yemen was in full fire and President Ali Abdullah Saleh fled for his life.  Five months later, October 2011 a cringing Mummer Gaddafi was assassinated.

The change was all to see and just as predictable.  Libya spilled its blood in political anger and still bleeds. Egypt elected Mohamed Morsi as president in June 2012 and then the army  overthrew him the following year and returned to virtual military rule and in 2014 elected former general Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. There was worse, to come

Out of this political and zealous carnage on 9 May 2013 ISIS, IS, ISIL ,Daesh – call this Jahadi as you will – was formed, declared a caliphate and the world quickly witness barbarism that could never have been imagined at the start of the Arab Spring. James Foley was Daesh’s first beheading.

By the autumn of 2014 a token coalition of forces but mainly American went after Daesh with a series of airstrikes into Syria.  The war there had been joined with ‘Western’ nations declaring for the rebellion and calling for the downfall of President Assad.

They are still bombing. Assad is still there.  In 2015 Russia joined in the hopeless of it all and said it was bombing ISIS in Syria but was truly bombing (and not very accurately) anti-Assad rebel positions.

Russia had signed up with Iran to defend Assad and equally to defend his constitutional and international right to rule as an elected leader. Iran, a Shia nation saw the fight for Assad (an Alewife and therefore a branch of Shia) as chance of a proxy war against Saudi Arabia and its Sunni royalty.

As to show this conflict could never be held tight in the Middle East, gunmen attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo the satirical French magazine and then in November of last year other gunmen and bombers killed 130 in Paris.The rest of Europe waits to see who is next.

Where has all this got us? Syria is in ruins beyond its capital. Iraq remains a failed Shia led state with Daesh in its strongholds and moving freely between Iraq and its “capital” Raqqa in Syria. There is hardly a state not spilling over with refugees.

If there is a deep anxiety than this in the region it is in Riyadh.  The ruling royal family, itself born beneath the green flag of Wahhabism and the ruthless of Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, now fears for its own survival. So it should.

There is not a government from Washington to Brussels to the whole of the Middle East that does not fear the collapse of the Saudis.  The manner of its going would be a stage in the Arab Spring totally unthinkable five years ago. The consequences unpredictable and unwanted even among its harshest critics. The ruling family is now unstable in the sense that it is unlikely to be able to defend itself.

Here then the rub of the lamp that whips up the ghoul and not the friendly genie.

If Saudi Arabia starts to go then the United States will have to launch a major defence.  The advanced operation of US military forces are already in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf but not enough to defend the unthinkable. The British are having built (with Saudi money) a new base in the region. London would have to reinforce it if things go the way they so easily could.

Five years ago there was candle lit and iPhone glowing hope in the Middle East especially among the young and the educated longing for new times to come that would give them back their dignity of national identities instead of impossible dictatorships.

Five years ago and Ben Ali went quietly. Five years later no one can go quietly. Before this year is out the US and her allies including the United Kingdom and France could be heading for the biggest firefight since Viet Nam. Hope is done for. Terror has the next move.



Christopher Lee

September 16, 2012

Symbolism of two great beliefs – and neither sees the truth of the other

16th September 2012

Hundreds of thousands of Catholics invaded Beirut this past weekend.  They came to see, hear and pray with their Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI. As they did so, thousands of Muslims protested with fire and trashing across three continents.

The Pope called for humility not his words – but as one schooled in the Vatican’s shadow, I’m sure that’s what he meant when he prayed for peace and reconciliation.

As he raised he voice in that ecclesiastic yawn all Popes inherit, the more raucous cries of revenge were posted in the form of fire bombs, abuse and breaking glass at American, British and German embassies across the very un-peaceful Middle East.

The connection with the Pope’s visit to Lebanon, a land of seventeen religious groupings, and the hurled anger of perhaps a minority element of Middle East Islam is that in the whole world the two occasions represent the potentially frightening power of the two contrasting religions of the world today – and any time.  

Of the globe’s seven billion people 1.6 billion are classed as Muslims and about 1billion are Catholics. Add on the other Christian denominations and you have something in the region of 40 per cent of the world believing in the same God and in theory at least, being obliged to leads lives as the varying and various Messengers have insisted that vary-form God demands.

Religion is not the question. After all it is difficult to think of anything new to say about the religion that recognizes the same God.

Levels of religious fervour and what is said and done in the name of Allah, God, Jehovah or whoever called is really the only debate because it is based on the untrustworthy of protagonists. We talk in extremes with one end barely heard or caring and the other clubbing opponents and even some of its own social-economic adherents with uncompromising belief.

As Benedict said Mass here, on the Beirut sea front it was remarkable to see that an estimated 350,000 people had travelled from all over the state and from Iraq and Jordan and further abroad to hear this hunched white cassocked figure in homily.

For in the entire region and for obvious historical reasons, there is no other society as tolerant of religion as Lebanon

Nearly 55 percent of Lebanese are registered Muslims – almost equally Sunni, Shia and some Alawites. There is too the minority and monotheistic Druze who originated from the Ismailism sect of Shias.

Almost the rest, about 40 percent, are Christians – Maronites, Greek  and Syriac Orthodox, Armenians, Melkite Catholics, Assyrian, Chaldean and Syrian Catholics.

There is therefore, a history of internecine warfare where the protagonists slip easily into religious groupings in a society that officially does not legislate for and so does not recognize non-religion or indifference.  In Lebanon you have to believe in something.

After all the pressures of rebuilding Lebanon and the deteriorating state of Christianity seemingly anywhere but the African continent, the Christian Lebanese are on the run so more important then, the apparent success of the Pontiff.

What we have here is a tale of two dynamics.

The Pope is for most, even his followers, a vision thing.  He is the Vatican’s symbol sent on tour with no more effect than a royal figure.

The 350,000 in Beirut for Mass will ever remember the moment for its imagery. For most that figure will be just as remote as it is at Easter for the Blessing from the balcony at St Peter’s. His message that we should have peace to all mankind is the message of the Nativity and the Victorian Christmas carols.  What else does he say? There is nothing.

The marauding Muslims from Benghazi to Khatoum to Camp Bastion and beyond are also symbols.  They are radicals but not in the praiseworthy manner as were the radicals of Tahrir Square most of whom were also Muslims.

The Pope asks for, the embassy attackers demand. Their separate messages are believed only by their own people.

Yet for onlookers in Washington, Cairo, the United Nations, the palaces of Saudi Arabia and in London there is a terrible symbolism.  It is of the two great religions just a few miles apart on the same day pleading their cases that the same Allah is Great as if the other did not exist.

Christopher Lee

September 15, 2012


Syria: it can only end when the pattern in shrouds says enough’s enough. That moment has not come

15th September 2012

The latest UN-Arab League peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi has finished his first session of talks with President Bashar al-Assad.  As expected, even by Mr Brahimi, he drew a diplomatic blank.  Frankly, why would anyone expect anything else.

He said what we all know: that the Syrian crisis is deteriorating and, as he thought, is becoming “a threat to the world.”  Which of course is exactly what Bashar al-Assad and his surviving administration want to happen.  Their only chance of an negotiated way out of the bloody war is for the rest of the world – starting in the oil lands of the Middle East – to fearful that the war will spread.

All the time it was judged that the civil war would remain just that, then the effects of the crisis were containable. The building that is burning Syria could burn down but the other houses on the block including the HOuse of Saud would not be set on fire.  If that seems unlikely, then you have only to look at the actions of neighbours and their allies since it all started eighteen months ago.

It all began in Deraa in March 2011. The trigger was the Arab Spring, the sense of rebellion rather than revolution that change was indeed possible and that people power speaking through their mobiles to rally opposition would be photographed, written about and filmed to such an extent that the whole world could stare down from their comfortable seats as if dropping in on the World Series.  Tahrir Square became a spectator sport.  As rebellion became effective so the promises it gave spread throughout the region.  In March 2011 it reached Syria’s southern city of Deraa.  It did so not in the form of an existing underground group, by when a bunch of kids painted slogans on the school war and were arrested, tortured and accused of treason by Assad’s security people.

From the cellars to the rooftops of Deraa people emerged, most uncertainly, to protest the arrests.  The police opened fire, killing too many for the protest to whimper away.

The demonstrators, now in their thousands were daily shot at as they took to streets across Syria demanded Assad’s going. By July, the thousands were hundreds of thousands. The streets and rubbled buildings of Homs, Houla, Aleppo, Deir al-Zour, Idib were added to the powerful imagery as the rest of the region and beyond watched, apparently helpless to stop the war . Each side was determined to crush the other and soon the rebels had an uncoordinated rabble of lightly armed militia that was soon and inaccurately dubbed by Western Media as an army.

By the summer of 2012, an extrapolation from various aid agencies suggested that a further destabilizing factor this conflict was the displacement of more than one million people within Syria and on the move across the borders into Turkey, Jordan  and the ever vulnerable to instability factors, Lebanon.  According to the UN humanitarian director, Valerie Amos, some 2.5 million Syrians within the country need assistance to survive. So, what have the presumably powerful Western or Western-sponsored powers done to stop this slow moving carnage? Not much is the short answer.

It is true that the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and now a member of the shadowy Elders group of former world leaders, was sent in as a peace envoy. His mission was never going to get anywhere.

Dangerously, the Western nations have had a hand in arming the rebels. With any eye on their own oil-related interests, the big UN members have not warned off the likes of Qatar and Saudi Arabia from arming the anti Assad forces and have joined in the world condemnation that includes demands for Assad’s going – ignoring the fact that not all Syrians support the rebellion.

Today a solemn-faced Annan is gone and Brahimi looks sad. They know, but can’t easily accept that there are three options for the future of this war.

Firstly the ability of Assad & Co to keep the loyalty of the wider army. The innermost Republican Guard’s loyalty for the moment at least is not questioned. But as powerful as it is, even the top league 4 Division can only work if the rest of the “green” army stays loyal. Secondly, the rebellion still has no true centre of political and military gravity.  It needs a tough and trusted thinking system if it is to survive as more and more displaced and weary civilians lose faith in what they are trying to achieve and say go away from our village otherwise Assads men will come and kill us.

The third element for regional analysis is the international intervention in Syria, not necessarily militarily.  That intervention has not come on a grand scale as it did, say, in Libya.  It cannot.  The targets are not the same and the consequences for the civilian population unthinkably horrid.

Regionally, Syria’s role as an influential player in the tenuous stability of Lebanon and even Israel is historically vital. Ironically, while the UK, the US, Canada and almost everyone else calls for the Assads to go, those same governments are desperate to maintain Syria as a strong regional player. A further irony is that Turkey, so publicly opposed to the Syrian government, is the other strong element.  And to one side, Iran very much needs an Assad Syria to survive while the rest of the region want Iran to fail.

So we have, Turkey pushing Assad’s downfall but fearful of Syria as a collapsed state.  Iran pushing Assad to survive and equally fearful of a collapsed Syrian state.

Here then is the matrix laid before Brahimi.  When he met Assad in Damascus he apparently had “serious, frank and comprehensive talks”. What else could they be?  He left empty handed. What else could have been?  He brought nothing to the table in Damascus and Assad had nothing to give him, They both know that the only way this war will end is when there are too many shrouds for either side.  That sadness has not yet been reached.