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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Meals with Jesus II: Creative Catering for Campers

This article is the second of a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This second is on the pericope of the Feeding of the 5000, John 6·1–15 [25–59].

Feeding 5000

We could have popped out to the shops to get some sarnies before we came, or boiled some eggs or scrumped some apples, but we didn’t. We could have looked out the hiking boots, change of clothes, tent, sleeping bag and rucksack before we came, but we didn’t. In fact we felt pretty stupid stuck all the way up there in the Golan Heights with nothing but our sandals and the shirts on our backs. Perhaps we thought that there would be catering laid on, but that seems a little daft now: Zebedee’s lads might be good at catching fish, but they’re no Rick Stein!

We came not because we had planned an expedition, but because we had to. There are foreign soldiers on our streets, watching what we do or say, thinking that every one of us could be a Jewish insurgent. In the midst of our national humiliation a new leader came — someone who could inspire and heal and make us feel human again. So we didn’t think, we went, and we followed him and his group up and out to find some space to breathe in great lungfuls of the freedom we desired with all our being.

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Gaza’s gas and Blair’s bartering

Gaza Marine gasfield. © Copyright Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, 2009

Gaza Marine gasfield. © Copyright Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research, 2009

For nine years a slow and painful discussion has been going on. The people of Gaza, oppressed and frustrated (over 70% of the population of the Gaza Strip are UN-registered refugees), have an offshore gasfield in their territorial waters estimated to be worth at least $4 billion.

In 1994, the Gaza–Jericho first agreement (withdraw of the Israeli Defence Force from Gaza) allocated the territorial waters of the coast of Gaza to an extent of twenty nautical miles as territory of the Palestinian Authority. However, the other side of the agreement was that Israel retain full security control over the area.

In 2000, British Gas, whose product I burn to keep warm here, discovered the Gaza Marine gasfield. British Gas received its licence to explore the Gazan coast not from its owners in accord with the 1994 agreement, but from the Israeli government. It looks like the Israeli government had timed things so that the gas exploration licence would be granted before formally handing the waters over to the PA, to keep Israel ‘in charge’ of the resources. Since the gas discovery, IDF gunboats (made in Britain) have been active in the waters, destroying Gazan fishing industry by forcing fishing boats to return home (as reported by Amnesty International: 15 fishermen killed, over 200 injured). It is clear that Israel considers that the gas is theirs. Continue reading


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The name, fame and shame of Bartimaeus

Yesterday’s Gospel was Mark’s pericope of Bartimaeus, the blind beggar of Jericho (Mk 10.46–52; synoptic parallels Mt 9.27–31, 20.29–34, Lk 18.35–43). It struck me that passing characters in the gospels, especially recipients of healing, are anonymous (Luke’s version does not name the blind man, and Matthew makes him two anonymous men). Most of us treat ‘Bartimaeus’ as a straightforward name, but I think it’s unusual for a couple of reasons.

He is introduced as “Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus” (ὁ υἱὸς Τιμαίου Βαρτιμαῖος, ho huiòs Timaíou Bartimaîos). This is often read as if Bartimaeus is his name, and his father is Timaeus. However, the simple fact that ‘bar’ is the Aramaic for ‘son of’ suggests that ‘son of Timaeus’ is the partial translation of ‘Bartimaeus’. It’s always interesting to see what the Syriac Peshitta does with such translations of Aramaic, seeing as there is usually no need for a gloss on Aramaic (Syriac being a variety of Aramaic). The Peshitta translates the name as ܛܝܡܝ ܒܪ ܛܝܡܝ (Ṭimai bar Ṭimai). Although this suggests once again a proper name ‘Timai bar Timai’, this still does not make a great deal of sense.

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