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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

O, Fearful Old World

is war a game of chess?
War is not chess because lives aren't monochromatic pieces

The crisis in the Middle East is a complex one.

Even those of us, who bury our heads in the proverbial sand about the crises plaguing that part of world, will agree that the situation is a very complex one. Maybe more so. We often turn our backs on what we mistakenly believe we have no hope in understanding.

At a time like this, when trying to find your way through the fog, posturing and recriminations serve no purpose whatsoever. The best thing to do is to ask questions, and decide for yourselves where your mind lies. For the person on the street that means following news stories and reading informed opinions, while questioning those sources, and then questioning yourself on your choice of sources.

With the crisis in Syria and the deaths from alleged chemical attacks coming to the fore, there are lots of news stories for us to choose from. One such story tells of a playground full of children in northern Syria bombed by a fighter jet with a napalm-like substance killing at least ten, according to disturbing new footage captured by the BBC Panorama programme. Some, often stubbornly critical of the BBC, use the stick of establishment bias to beat it over the head with in order to ask why reports of this "napalm-like" bomb attack on an Aleppo playground has emerged only after MPs in London voted against military action.

Although the British prime minister personally backs US involvement in Syria, assurances have been made there will not be another vote in Parliament on military action, and that the UK will lead the world on humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees instead. This will please many of us here. It's no secret that the British public are against military action, and not just in Syria. In a volatile region where many British lives have been lost, so has our appetite for war, however noble the claims to stand ground and fight. After the politicians turned down the UK's backing for American military intervention, five thousand anti-war campaigners marched on Trafalgar Square in London, claiming "victory" and attacking the United States ahead of their expected "limited strikes" against the Assad regime.

The planned demonstration against military strikes only turned into a celebration after Parliament's unexpected vote against British intervention. It was a celebratory peaceful march the BBC didn't report on, preferring to focus on a smaller one a few days previously to ask whether anti-war sentiment was gaining momentum instead.

As US political and media leaders prepare for military strikes against Syria, others say the parallels to the lead-up to the war with Iraq in 2003 should give us pause. Sarah van Gelder writing for American YES! Magazine, cites eleven reasons why she thinks the US should not attack Syria, emphasising what British prime minister David Cameron has admitted, that no one actually knows with absolute certainty who is behind the chemical weapons attack - although France is pretty sure it was the Syrian government. Gelder begins her argument retrospectively:

Weapons of mass destruction, we are told, are being used by a cruel Middle Eastern despot against his own people. A military strike is inevitable, media voices say; we must respond with missiles and bombs. The arguments sound all too familiar."

But it feels, that a decade after the Iraq War, the more the things stay the same, the more they also change. When President Barack Obama cast about this week for a coalition to mount military strikes on Syria, he found not Britain, the closest US ally across the Atlantic in Iraq, but France rallying the war-cry - their oldest ally as Obama's administration pointed out in a nod to their War of Independence from the British Empire - after it was clear that overshadowed by Iraq, British backing would not be not forthcoming.

How fickle are the fortunes of war. The French hostility against the US invasion of Iraq, which had earned it vilification among millions of Americans and launched the term "freedom fries" at fast-food outlets in the US, is quickly forgot. It reminded me of the time Greece re-branded centuries-old Turkish coffee from its Ottoman heritage to Greek coffee because of the invasion of Cyprus in the 1970s. That, however, stuck.

History always gives us food for thought. Naturally, all the power players in the West eventually change, but, oh, how history bites. Back during George W. Bush's election into a second term the only hope put up against the incumbent was Democrat John Kerry - the man who, as part of Obama's administration, not only reminded us that France is America's oldest ally, but has recently said the Egyptian army was "restoring democracy" by deposing its elected government. Meanwhile Republican Senator John McCain, who stood against Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election, has repeatedly referred to the action by security forces in July as a coup, and that aid to Egypt should be cut.

You could not have predicted such an interventionist flip-side scenario during the re-election of Bush, who would have backed the military in a heartbeat with one hand on his black Bible - the one he told he us constantly kept by his bedside table for inspiration. "Dubya" - as Bush is affectionately known - successfully sold his vision of a "safer future" against his own personal vendetta on terror. Famous for driving voters to the polls to win election and re-election by ensuring bans on same-sex marriage were on state ballots, too, he neatly tied his vision for the world up in a McCarthy-weaved lasso of fascism, presented and pulled tightly around just enough of the popular vote to secure a second term.

Years after the fact, we are still stuck with the remnants of scare tactics and cowboy diplomacy - done, you assume, in the gung-ho mentality of doing what was thought divinely right. In April 2012, the Iraqi refugee whose lies helped to make the case for invading Iraq - starting a nine-year war costing more than 100,000 lives and hundreds of billions of pounds - came clean in a British television interview about how his fiction was "sexed up" by American officials. His lies - done with the "good intention" of deposing a dictator and thereby save Iraqi lives - were presented as "facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence" by Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, when making the case for war at the UN Security Council in February 2003.

Fast forward to 2013, and dissenting voices are arguing Kerry has taken the place of Powell; it was an African-American who was the scapegoat last time around, with a white American in the White House - today it's vice versa. If war was a chess set, the monochromatic pieces have inverted. Kerry is presenting an ever more convincing case to the politicians and the American public (and the witnessing world) why an attack on Syria is vital. Meanwhile, interestingly, out of all the Arab League foreign ministers who have urged the world community to "take the deterrent and necessary measures" against Syria, several members - including Lebanon and Iraq - did not back the call.

For many, though, Syria risks not being another Iraq but another Bosnia - in other words a war that the West should be ashamed for not intervening in, whilst those on that camp have hailed Obama's decision to take the military decision to Congress as an uncanny, democratic move. Democratic or politically wily? Obama is hoping his opponent in the 2008 presidential election will help sell the idea of US military intervention in Syria to the US nation.

Again, others would say asking a house full of Republicans whether they want to strike a foreign country is like asking a duck hunter if he wants to go duck hunting during duck-season - you would think it's a no-brainer. But with this current air of libertarianism blowing through the Republicans, who can tell? Obama, has at least, with this political gamble provided a stay for people to reassess the situation, something Bush did not do.

Obama also argues that Iraq and Syria are vastly different in both the evidence in hand and the consequences. Iraq did not possess weapons of mass destruction. In Syria, there is little doubt that civilians were killed by chemical weapons. The question is whether the US can pin the blame beyond doubt on Assad's government. American intelligence tells us that a chemical attack did indeed take place, and a great many lives were lost - the US says more than 1,400 people were killed, the French give a smaller number of 240 people - but not who holds the "smoking gun" with enough certainty to win over global opinion. If Syria does turn out to be a miscalculation, the question won't be if Obama, who is in his second term, survives politically, but whether American credibility at home and abroad will.

Questions are also being raised in some American media circles about why the US didn't act in advance of last week's chemical weapons attack in Syria, amid indications that US intelligence was picking up warning signs that an attack was imminent in the days leading up to the strike. I question the source, as it's being pushed by Fox News - known for being strongly anti-Obama - but the story is out there, and reputable sources are cited.

Moreover, followers of Fox News would say the network stands for substance, truth and real, fair and balanced journalism, because depending on which side of the line you stand, everything different to your political thinking will either be left-wing or right-wing bias. Interestingly, again, Fox was strong on editorialising over the war on terror and getting the country behind Bush, but no one is at pains to hide their agenda in the hallowed halls of the Fox network; you're free to change the channel.

Obama's doubters are not necessarily supporters of Assad's rule, either, but those openly supporting the existing regime, including Russia, have been quick to point to that history in objecting to any retaliatory strikes against Syria. Could a US strike on Syria lead to a direct confrontation between Russia and China and lead us into a global war? Those that what to pull away from such a confrontation are likely to scrutinise Obama's motivations even more closely for striking Syria.

On that score, people will ask why the deaths in the Egypt crisis were acceptable collateral (in the sense of the lack of international political outrage), but the deaths in Syria are not. Let's mark the difference of the methods of murder: one used chemical warfare, the other used land warfare, but both the Syrian government and the Egyptian military are "secular" powers by their own limited definitions, while the protesting Egyptians were Muslim-based groups, as are the rebels fighting against the Syrian government.

Is it a more loftier ideal, then, that guides America? That irrespective of colour or creed, it's about who is following the path to freedom? Yet, we can't even say the issue is about democracy or freedoms with any certainty. Some are even worried that if the Syrian rebels win their civil war it will cause greater problems, as the rebels are said to be backed and riddled throughout their ranks with Al-Qaeda militants, or at the very least sympathisers to the cause.

These militant Islamist groups seem just as alarmed and distrustful of American intervention as the Syrian government about the impending strikes. Assad has made noises about retaliating to any US strike, and it's not solely within the realms of fiction to imagine a scenario where American attacks could actually unite the entire country against a greater common "evil" - America.

Those united states of America in a world far, far away have to be careful about their politicians and military selling this as a moral cause, because you can't say this a moral issue if your moral outrage is not fairly distributed, but depends on your allegiances and economic investments around the world. In common speak, protecting a person with criminal intent because he is a friend, a business associate, or no danger to you, won't protect you when the tables are turned one day. It also leaves you with no moral credibility to advise or police anyone - especially if your principles are expedient enough when you want something badly enough.

In war rather than making friends, and strengthening alliances, you make an enemy out of pretty much everyone you deal with. It also creates convoluted scenarios were you end up helping the enemy you were fighting in the first place. For that exact reason, although we may argue that the Syrian government has completely contravened all universal laws - moral, legal, human, divine - and that we must attack it, and that the military in Eygpt were defending those principles when they mowed down over 600 protesters, which one of our free and developed societies is safe enough in their glass houses to cast the first stone?

It doesn't sound unreasonable when I hear comments that the only way people in power should make a military decision is not to ask those who would go to war with them from the safety of their Oval office, but to spend a day in Syria. See how those people really live, on the street where war always hits the hardest. Go ask them what they want, and you'll find their desires and dreams will be pretty similar to any of the people back home.

I have been very lucky never to have experienced combat in war, although my parents have during the Cyprus problems, so I can only imagine how tired those people feel, who have lost loved ones, and had their lives completely disrupted and where war has become a fact of their lives. I can sympathise, but I can't even honestly empathise, because such a life is unimaginable from my comfortable surroundings - afforded to me by a tolerant society the people of Syria have yet to experience.

Frankly, I would be too ashamed to even try at empathy, because it would be pretentious of me to think I could - all I can do is try to understand. For me, that means asking questions of everything - the news sources I read, the politicians in power, even myself.

For me, I grieve for the deaths in Egypt and the deaths in Syria equally. I don't share similar beliefs or hold alliances with any of the people killed, for whatever cause - in fact my thoughts and belief structure are probably as alien to them, as theirs is to me. But the affiliation I have with them is that they are human beings - stop reading if this become a cliché for you - but they were once children, siblings, mothers, fathers, sons, daughters - they once laughed, loved and cried as we do.

I grieve that they will no longer be able to do that. I grieve for those that wouldn't "get that" or would probably ostracise me for my beliefs were I a citizen of their country. I grieve that there is no way to make people see that we all have to share this space for a small amount of time, and that one day it will all be over. This crisis will be over one day; the whole of humankind will at some point come to an evolutionary ellipsis on this planet. So, why do we constantly have to plough up the same bloody soil again and again?

Nothing grows when you do that. Nothing will ever grow if we constantly do that. I don't want to have to put up a "Syrian War" index page similar to my one on the Iraq War. I want to be able to read back those posts as some bad dream of times past. I want to write more poems about the way love touches our lives, rather than the double entendre of war. I want to share more wisdoms from my grandmother, and talk more of the magic of life.

Those who fear the darkness, but will not trust in the light, have no idea what light can do - and I want to touch lives with that light. Not constantly turn our blinkered biases towards an expanse of horizon that shuttered eyes have narrowed too far in vision to see. I want to focus on the light of the great scientific innovations our age is lucky enough to be heralding in; I want to continue enjoying good food, good wine and the good company of my work colleagues and friends - but more importantly, I want as many people as possible, irrespective of where they live, to have the freedom to enjoy their lives, too.

We need to stop bashing each other, verbally as well as physically. We have to be more humble and less judgemental of others - particularly those in a weaker position than us. We need to be more pro-people, allowing them to do what they need to do to achieve their ambitions. We need to celebrate each other more – everybody fails and makes mistakes.

That is why we must write more stories of love, now more than ever - now is the best time to reach out, because it is never too late do so. If we believe that mortal death is only skin deep, then we must also believe it's war that kills the soul.

I want us to put the old world of fear behind us, and move to a new one; idealistic, simplistic, foolish it all may be granted, but it is my deepest desire more than anything else to see my species finally recognise that as different as we all are on the skin, deep down we are all the same.

To adapt the words of a wise man, that's my dream.

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