Dresden, Brussels and Good Friday

I talked about Dresden in a recent post, in a different context.

I listened yesterday to a Radio 4 meditation for Good Friday…. 3.15 it was. I was travelling to a service, and late, and in a jam on the M4. Plans do not always work out, but the jam meant that I heard a speaker and a story that I’d otherwise have missed.

The speaker’s father was a member of a Lancaster bomber crew that was part of the mass raid on 13-15 February 1945 that burnt Dresden city centre to the ground and killed upwards of 25,000 people. He never spoke about it to his son, save on one occasion. His son knew he must visit Dresden and a few years ago he attended a service of commemoration at the Frauenkirche in Dresden.

The taxi driver taking him back from the service asked him how he came to be in Dresden, and he explained his father’s role in the raid. ‘That was the day my mother was killed,’ the taxi driver said. He turned round, and they shook hands. There may have been more to the story – but that’s enough. (My apologies to the unknown storyteller for abridging the story.)

Dresden has for many years (in the UK, not least in its connections with Coventry) been a symbol of how Europe and the world can come together.

Will we in future times be reconciled to our enemies, will our enemies be reconciled to us? Hard to imagine when we’re faced with a nihilist ideology (John Kerry’s description) that espouses brutal violence. Where jihad requires violence.

We can, with seventy years now past, almost put behind us the violence of a Dresden or Hiroshima, but Brussels and Paris, and bombings in Turkey, and many times more than that the carnage in Syria and Yemen – they remind us – punch us – with an understanding of what brutal violence and loss of life are actually like – when it’s close to home, as it was for everyone in World War 2.

Reconciliation must lie at the heart of any positive view of our future, and there are powerful emotions that go with it – but I can’t put that harder emotion in response to cruelty and violence, with all the anger and bitterness it engenders, behind me – the more I think on it, the harder it is.

And that’s the dilemma, and there’s no resolution. I will always want to reconcile, but brutal violence has to be met with military action – and call that violence if you will. And that’s a hard message to put alongside the message of Good Friday and triumph of Easter.

(I’m referring here to IS, not to whether it was justified or not to bomb Dresden. That is another argument – and another dilemma. And the level of our own responsibility for the current Middle East debacle, as interpreted, for example, by the Stop the War Coalition. That’s also another argument, anothe dilemma, and one I’ve addressed in another blog.)

Syria – a just war?

Can I justify supporting military action while writing a ‘zenpolitics’ blog? Can there be such a things as a ‘just war’? When is intervention justified in the affairs of another state? Ultimately the justification has to be humanitarian, and that’s the way I see the situation in Syria. Iraq 2003 was political, with grand ideas of a new world order, and economic, riddled through with self-interest, and with remarkably little thought given to the likely consequences.

Intervention in Syria this time around has to be step by step, where we have a clear end in view but revise our position in the light of circumstances. IS poses an extraordinary threat to lives and values, and requires – demands – an immediate and practical response.

I’m also troubled by my argument that the Assad regime should be included in the alliance against IS. I’m well aware of its brutality. But if the shortest route to ending violence has to involve Assad, and I believe it does, he should be included. The US, Russia, France, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Iran, all working together, bringing together diverse interests but with a common goal, is our best chance.

I’ve argued often that compassion has to come first in all our considerations. How that’s expressed toward the people of Syria, toward people in any war situation, is a mighty challenge. But we cannot sit on the sidelines, we cannot wait for grand strategies to be put in place. And we must avoid cheap accusations of warmongering. We have a war on our hands, not in our backyard, but one with profound implications for all of us. We have to respond.

Syria – Monday 30th November

There’s a vote coming up in the House of Commons on the subject of bombing Syria –  bombing IS, something very different from the vote on bombing Assad’s forces which was lost two year’s ago. (Bombing Assad would have been a disaster, but that’s another subject, for another time.)

What are the arguments? Should we bomb, should we join France, Russia, the USA? Would we making the same mistake as we did in 2003? How valid are comparisons?

The two situations are radically different. IS is a clear and present danger, terrorising, a very literal sense, destroying communities, espousing a brutal ideology, with no spiritual content in the way I’d understand the term. Inaction isn’t a strategy. Bombing cannot win a war, but it can contain, it can limit IS’s expansion beyond its current boundaries, and if sustained break its lines of communication and its oil-based ‘economy’. Removing IS from Raqqa and Mosul is another matter, and will indeed require ground forces, and there is real danger of loss of innocent life and widespread destruction. But concerns over Raqqa and Mosul shouldn’t mean that we don’t act now to restrict IS’s operations, and at the same time break its hold on the imaginations of potential recruits.

Our engagement with the Middle East arguably goes back to the Battle of Lepanto in the 16th century when we first began to turn the tide of Arab and Ottoman dominance. There followed centuries of Ottoman decline and growing British and French interest in the trade and politics of the Levant.  Our Western instinct, that we know better, our instinct to interfere, is deep-rooted. The second Iraq war in 2003, which I strongly opposed, was born of that instinct, and a radical misjudgement. But this isn’t to say that all engagement is wrong, and the situations in Iraq in 2003 and in Syria in 2015 are radically different.

I’m well-aware of the argument that the bombing to date has been ‘ineffective’. Though in what sense? True, IS haven’t been defeated. But how much further might have they have extended their reach had they been (with the exception of the Kurds) unimpeded, without any disruption to their supply lines?

The answer now cannot be to withdraw, or to fail to support allies (and that in itself is a powerful argument) who are very much engaged. I don’t doubt that bombing on a much extended scale, well directed, and with a much broader political support, can be effective.

I don’t buy into the argument, which has been picked up across political spectrum, that we should have a clear end-strategy, and not approve a strategy involving bombing IS without one. What we can guarantee is that whatever that end-strategy might be, it won’t be what happens in the end. We have to proceed  step by step, deal with immediate dangers, and move forward from each new position we achieve. There is common ground at this time between the French, Russians and to a degree the Americans, and we need to take full advantage of this – as of now.

We also need to recognise that Syria in the short and medium term will comprise several different authorities and spheres of influence. Assad will remain in control of Damascus and considerable territory along the Mediterranean, and to the north. The Free Syria Army will have, I would hope, its own sphere of influence, and Kurdish territory will be well-defined. I wouldn’t expect them to fight side-by-side but their action could nonetheless be coordinated if all the various parties involved, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, work toward that end.

We may have a dream of a Western-style democratic Syria, but it’s one we should put out of our minds for now. The aim has to be an end to violence and reestablishing political authority in whatever form proves most viable. Once that’s in place and security is guaranteed refugees can begin to return home. They have to be the first steps.

The aim for ten years time has be a Syria, or a Syrian territory, at peace, and that peace needs to be a guaranteed peace, ideally with UN involvement. The return of refugees will be well underway if not a complete, and the traditions of civilised life which were well-established, along with religious tolerance and educational opportunities, before 2011, will have a chance to reassert themselves again.

After Paris

France, in President Hollande’s words, is now at war with IS. And that’s the way I think most of us in the UK feel as well.

War challenges us, challenges our humanity.

As I’ve often made clear in this blog, I aspire to time for quiet and reflection, for a life made more simple, where there’s time for close observation on the one hand, and time to rest in the sweep of the days and seasons on the other. It could be open country, or Kew Gardens, where we wandered recently amid cacti and orchids, or music …. in the way Autumn Leaves and its gentle melancholy accompanied me along the Camino.

How to combine a more reflective life with a political engagement, and with all the issues of everyday life, that’s the challenge I set myself.

When I returned from the Camino and read up on all the events of the month I’d been away I was grateful for the fact that nothing untoward had happened. Crises continuing, but nothing like the events of last Friday.

That shattered all calm. Anger and grief, and a desire for retribution, took over. But the enemy is elusive. It will take wisdom and detachment to find solutions. And also understanding other points of view – not the IS standpoint, which is beyond ordinary understanding, but the causes that lie behind their rise and their ability to recruit.

How to avoid giving IS a victory and closing national borders?  Remember – they are already in our midst and terrorists will funds ways of circumventing closed borders. IS has recruited readily among local populations in the UK, France, Belgium and elsewhere, where there’s unemployment, a lack of opportunity, alienation, exacerbated by anti-Islamic sentiment. Integrating those populations into wider society has to be a high priority, and it will be achieved by providing opportunities (no mean challenge, I accept), not by further cutting benefits.

Improved security along the EU’s external border is vital, not least shared databases. But closing that border, separating Europe off from the Arab and wider Islamic world – leaving them to fight their own wars – misses the point that they are our wars too. Populations intermix, resources and manufactures are traded and shared, and given our long involvement exploiting and influencing the region we have a moral responsibility too. More than that – the Arab world is not homogeneous – the difference between the before 2010 relatively mild and secular version of Islam practised in Syria and the Wahhabi variant in Saudi Arabia is vast. Iran despite the ayatollahs has a strong secular and western-focused culture, especially among the younger generations, and in the cities. The enmity between Sunni and Shia, between Saudi Arabia and Iran, is another matter: nonetheless populations have lived adjacent to one another in Syria and Iraq since the seventh century.

But when a central authority is taken out, and ideologues and hotheads find space to operate, chaos and civil war ensues, as happened in the Balkans twenty years ago, post Tito, and in Iraq after 2003. Scrapping both army and police in Iraq was a tragic mistake, so too, and more controversially, imagining that a Western-inspired democratic revolution could transform a region with little tradition of genuine democracy.

The law of unintended consequences worked to brutal effect.

I’m also well aware that under the Damascus and Baghdad caliphates, and in medieval Spain, Islam inspired a remarkable civilization, intellectual and artistic – and tolerant, with Muslims, Jews and Christian living side by side for many centuries.

First and foremost now we have to act decisively to take out IS, with the West and Russia combining, not just in military action, but in a solution which will involve huge compromises but can lead, I believe, to an end to hostilities between Assad’s forces and the original western-backed rebel forces. Sykes and Picot drew the original Syrian border in 1916. The USA, Russia, France, the UK, and others, will have to decide how Syria divides and is governed as part of a post-war settlement. There may be multiple authorities, and that may be all that can be achieved in the short and medium term.

The refugee crisis requires safe havens financially supported by all the countries of Europe within the countries of entry, and plans to facilitate and finance repatriation at the earliest opportunity. Some Syrians may want to stay in Germany, but Syria has been and can be – will be – again a remarkable country. So much of our civilisation and our values, our culture and our morality, comes from that part of the world, and their people could one day rise again to the heights their forebears achieved. That has to be their aim – and our aim.

(I’m adding here a quote from Barrack Obama, which I read after I’d uploaded this blog, and with which I wholeheartedly agree: ‘It is very important that we do not close our hearts and start equating the issue of refugees with terrorism.’)

No-one in the West can easily conjure solutions to the enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia, Shia and Sunni. But take out IS in Syria and Iraq as a warzone, and destroy that sense of invincibility IS have enjoyed, then potential recruits to other battlegrounds in Yemen, Somalia, Egypt and elsewhere may think twice, and local populations left to live again side by side, as they have for centuries.

Likewise if IS is destroyed, its triumphalism punctured, and its followers in France, Britain and other countries of western Europe realise that violence and martyrdom are a fool’s game, then we can focus again on what we’ve failed to deal with over the last thirty and more years – the growing alienation of many young people in the Muslim communities in our midst.

It’s another area where skill and understanding will be required, and where closed minds and bigotry must be opposed at every turn.

We are all one people.