Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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The case for not attacking Syria

The news media are full of plans to attack Syria this evening. On Thursday, Parliament is to be recalled to debate such an attack. The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has returned early from holiday to ‘deal’ with the situation. At the same time, the US and France are making similar initial noises about an attack.

I believe these rumours of war are wrong, and urge politicians to think again.

On a personal note, I have been a regular visitor to Syria over the years, for research, study and leisure. I love Syria and its wonderful people. Over the last year, I have had quite a few terribly sad conversations with Syrian friends about the rapidly deteriorating situation.

A line has been crossed: chemical weapons have been used in Syria. Most likely they were deployed by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. Yet there is still just enough doubt, even with a visit from inspectors, to shade any certainty. The use of chemical weapons is a clearly defined war crime. Yet no war crime precipitates a licence to wage war under international law: committing a war crime does not give an automatic right to bomb a country. International law strictly requires a UN Security Council resolution to wage war, and, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, that is not going to happen anytime soon. It seems to be the new ‘white man’s burden’ to police the world, rounding up its tyrants, yet any civilised police forces needs to operate within predefined laws and with public goodwill and consensus.

Apart from the legal problem, there is a serious underestimation of the seriousness of the situation. Yes, I believe the situation is too serious for a military ‘solution’. The reasons for this seriousness are

  1. Bashar al-Assad is a desperate dictator at the head of a complex power network. Forcing him back further into a diplomatic corner will almost certainly make him and his network more desperate, and capable of lashing out with untold consequences.
  2. Syria has entered a civil war. What began as peaceful protest, turned into violent protest when met with government violence, and has since become a full-scale civil war. Gradually, the opposition has shifted from the control of community groups and exiled critics of Assad into the hands of violent, opportunistic gangs, and those importing a religious fundamentalism alien to over a millennium of Syrian multiculturalism. Any military action will change the current balance of the civil war. This is not to say status quo is desirable, but neither necessarily is any shift in balance between two equally undesirable sides.
  3. Not one pot of coffee is brewed in the Middle East without international repercussions. There are Syrian refugees living precariously in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey among other places. Iran and Hezbollah have a strategic interest in supporting Assad in their neighbourhood. As ever, if there is Western military intervention in Syria, however ‘surgical’, Israel will see what regional advantage it can make of the instability, which is likely to be an excuse to bomb sites in Syria, Lebanon and Iran. The West would be culpable for unleashing Israeli attacks.

There is much angst about sitting by and doing nothing. ‘Appeasement’ has a bad rap historically, but it is a logical fallacy to ‘do something’ just because it is felt that something must be done. Military action is always believed to be a last resort, and thus a sign of failure and weakness. Rather than asking if this plan of action will result in a measurable improvement of the situation, it is done for the sake of doing.

Of course, more diplomacy would be welcome, but the West has burnt so many of its diplomatic bridges already that it looks like careless arson. David Cameron should not look to his ‘success’ at bombing Libya, that had unseen consequences in Mali. Libya’s population is under 6 million, Syria’s is over 22 million.

Syria’s large Christian minority are beginning to suffer greatly, in the midst of the general suffering. It cuts me to the heart, but I deplore those Christians outside of Syria who call for military intervention. Standing by is not the weak option. It takes wisdom and courage, when provoked to lash out, to realise that it will only exacerbate the situation, and that the true course of action is to stand firm. To desperate, and weep, yes, but still to stand firm.


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Risking your daily bread

Rather late, I came across this article by a lexicographer researching the etymology of the word ‘risk’. Most dictionaries state that the word comes to English  from Italian risco via French risque. The Oxford English Dictionary attests to it from 1621 in English (as ‘risques’). Its first attestation in Middle French is in 1578, where it is a feminine noun, quickly becoming a masculine noun to mark its testosterone-fuelled approach to life. The Italian rischio is attested in the 13th century, before simply becoming risco.

Although there have been a number of suggestions whence this Italian word came, many are unsatisfactory. The etymology is not certain, but it seems to come from the Middle Persian word rōzīg <lwcyk>, meaning ‘daily bread’ or ‘sustenance’, the ancestor of the Modern Persian word روزى ruzi, and a derivative of the noun rōz <YWM lwc>, meaning ‘day’ (as in nōg-rōz, now spelt نوروز nowruz, Persian New Year).

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Building the resistance: reflections on the LRC conference

Labour Representation Committee banner

Labour Representation Committee banner

Yesterday, I attended my very first conference as a member of the Labour Representation Committee. I was a little apprehensive that, after deciding on the LRC for my political home, I would come face to face with the mass membership and realise that I wasn’t in the right place. I am glad to report that my comrades have proved my fears unfounded. In other sections of the Left, the address ‘comrade’ can be so loaded, even to becoming a weapon, but here I felt genuine warmth whenever that word was used.

Tony Benn, veteran inspiration of the Labour Left, opened the conference with a short, well-received speech. He spoke of the historical LRC, set up to give voice to the Labour Movement in politics, firstly through the Liberal Party, and then going on to found the Labour Party. He pointed out that after New Labour’s divorce from the grassroots Labour Movement, the present LRC is just as needed to bring our voice into politics. Finally, he restated one of his key political themes that, if there can be full employment and no shortage of bombs and tanks in the Second World War, why can’t we put that energy and indefatigability into winning the peace. It was good to see Tony Benn after his recent operation, although looking a little weak of body, still strong in spirit.

From the outset, the fault lines within the LRC were clearly visible — between the membership who were in the Labour Party, keeping the faith though battered and bruised by New Labour bullying, and the membership outside of Labour in the disaffiliated unions and the various small Communist and Trotskyist tendencies that affiliate to the LRC. However, the fault lines are publicly cherished, and the open, democratic nature of the LRC is designed to act as a bridge between these groups, working together for democratic socialism. As with any radical political meeting, there were two people who demonstrate that they feel radicalism is an excuse for nuttiness: a ranting ex-Trot and an absurd Posadist. They were met with a polite but firm response from conference: sit down and shut up if you have nothing sensible to say.

A good representation from the CWU were at conference, and received resounding support for their defensive strike action at Royal Mail. Industrial issues for journalists and civil servants were also brought up as resolutions. The RMT brought a resolution in support of the People’s Charter, which was supported. Please do visit their website, read the charter and sign it; it could be a useful symbol for unity in the Left and opposition to the neoliberal policies of the mainstream parties. Continue reading