Vive La France

Some people have a commendably abrupt reaction to a terror attack. It can be summed up succinctly: Bomb the bastards. Me, I react like a victim just outside the danger zone. I’m disorientated, uncertain and dismayed.

I have to agree though that revenge is a powerful lure that draws on the ancient impulse to retaliate. We can strike harder than you can…until the next time.

That’s what France has done – sent in the bombers. A squadron of jets fired 20 bombs into targets at Raqqa, the ISIS capital in Syria to, we are informed, devastating effect. I don’t doubt it.

So devastating, that it seems unlikely no citizen of Raqqa would have been the innocent victim of the attack. However many signed-up jihadists were killed, there must have been a number of locals blown up too…the same innocents on café terraces and in a concert hall whose bodies lay ripped by Kalashnikov cartridges in Paris.

Across the Middle East there is a growing trail of dead innocents. We count the victims of the Sharm el Sheikh air crash and the Paris slaughter, in the Gulf and to the North, they count non-fighters blasted by drone strikes. Like the al-Taysi family on their way to a wedding in al-Baydah province in Yemen at the end of 2013. They were blown to pieces. A State Department spokesman said: Obviously, broadly speaking, we take every effort to minimise civilian casualties in counterterrorism operations – broadly speaking, without speaking to this one specifically…

In Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Yemen alone, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism reports that up to 5500 people may have been killed by US drone strikes. Of the total as many as 1100 have been civilians, including children. That’s as far as anyone can tell. It’s also just from drones, not cruise missiles or bombing.

I did a search for Raqqa and there are images of beheadings, heads on spikes in the public square, smiling men holding up severed heads, a throat being slashed with a blade, crowds watching gays being thrown from towers, black-shirted militias and jeeps of full exultant, cheering men. Smoking is sinful, women can only go out accompanied. Bodies are left on crosses in full view of all including the children.

Maybe it’s just me but I think the population of Raqqa has suffered enough.

Can we complain about the massacre of our innocents when we (and Britain is part of this) knowingly massacre theirs – however inadvertently? Or is the answer that they started this and we’re only retaliating – we wouldn’t be doing this if they hadn’t launched their jihad on us?

Well, reluctant as I am to let anyone avoid their responsibilities, we do have to face up to a few uncomfortable truths. They don’t justify the medieval horrors of ISIS in any way but if the terrorists are to be confronted with their sins, we can take time to hold up the mirror to ourselves.

You’d need an expert in Middle Eastern tribal loyalties and comparative religion to explain the detail but none of us should dodge a bit of basic homework by passing all the blame on to one side. If you like your Lawrence of Arabia, and I do, you’ll recognize how Britain and France, as leading powers in 1916, believed they knew best when it came to the Middle East. As good Christian supremacists, they assumed the roles of civilizing influence on warring tribes and, while urging them to beat the Turks to destroy the Ottoman influence in the region with a promise of subsequent independence, Paris and London were lying to them. The leading diplomats involved were Mark Sykes and Francois Georges-Picot. They secretly did a deal to carve the area up between themselves, assuming sovereign powers for Britain in what are now Jordan, Iraq and Palestine with France controlling Syria and Lebanon. (Lawrence’s dilemma was that he got to know of this and found his loyalties conflicted between the UK and the Arab tribes he led).

The result was that Arab countries never did get the independence they fought for and ended up as pawns of the great powers. Any hope of liberal, modern democracy was destroyed as their grievance turned to military nationalism as the best means of ousting the Europeans. Another legacy was the straight lines so casually drawn by the European country-builders and turned into real borders – they ignored tribal and sectarian divisions on the ground, festering relations.

Our history in this is far from inspiring and, as the Arab nations see it, it was compromised further by the arrangement to create a Jewish state out of Palestine that we allow to behave ruthlessly and illegally, according to UN resolutions.

An ISIS defector has now told how the real power behind the group is held by former Iraqi soldiers, men who lost everything after the American-led invasion in 2003. One of the catastrophic errors in post-war Iraq was the de-baathification of the civil service and the military – the people who run the country and the people who defend it. They were thrown out of work, in many cases denied income or pension, humiliated and left destitute yet, in the case of the Army, still with access to weapons. Nearly 300,000 armed, angry and vengeful males were loose in a country without effective government. That was the base for the insurgency that followed and morphed into al Qaeda before splitting into ISIS. The men who became leaders of ISIS met for the first time in an American prison in Iraq.

We, the Western nations, have played a role over the years in creating conditions in which the malign, dogmatic and murderous obsessions of zealots and thugs can flourish. And we continue to do so today.

It doesn’t excuse their nihilistic fetish for barbarity but it has provided them with a motivation and a target. It’s not to say that they wouldn’t have devised another purpose for a violence campaign – the age-old schism between Shia and Sunni does not need outside ignition to start a war in the Middle East. But the West’s incurable theology of intervention – for peace, diplomacy, oil and commerce – is provocation to the aggrieved. We delude ourselves that our governments are benign agents of altruistic intent and our allies are good guys. The standing insult to civilisation that is Saudi Arabia is a reminder that even those whose standard operating procedure appals every ‘British value’ can parade through the halls of our democracy and our royal palaces.

We are on the road to Hell (as the jihadists might say). Because, however you look at it, this isn’t a war in the normal sense against a country and it’s not clear what victory would be. If we bomb this lot into oblivion, is that it? To date, the insurgents have become each more violent and psychotic than the last. Who takes over in swathes of Syria and Iraq and what rights to Sunnis and Shia have? Does Assad survive when the Sunnis want rid of him? When will the Arab Gulf states with their oil wealth, invest in democracies in Iraq and Syria? Hang on, they aren’t even democracies themselves…

There is nothing that can be surrendered or conceded to ISIS that would form the basis of a settlement, nothing that can be a compromise. It is not religious – it is a devilish stain on humanity that is the very contradiction of religious belief.

I daresay a massive Russian invasion – and Putin will definitely retaliate – perhaps in a newly-forged all-country alliance will eventually destroy these lost souls and their structures. But some new variety of malevolence will spring up and other metropolitan Friday nights will end with gunfire and sirens. Like climate change, we are incapable of coming to terms with the changes it requires and so are destined to carry on as before. I wish I had the bullish certainty of the commentators that another air war will end it but I fear the desperation to do something is another version of Sykes-Picot – a lie that will unravel.

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34 thoughts on “Vive La France

  1. One of your best Derek. You’ve covered so much.
    I well remember my astonishment when Bremer threw out the entire army. How could anyone feel that leaving this huge number of people without income and status would end well, especially given the weapons still available.
    If ordinary people like us can see the risks why do governments not see these?

  2. Great article – this situation was one of my bigger drivers for voting yes – I can’t see the UK ever breaking away from its imperialistic past, swaggering about on the world stage pretending to be a big boy with our “seat at the top table” at huge expense when we have people at home forced to use food banks.

    At least with an independent Scotland, we could get away from this behavior and model ourselves more closely on Ireland and actually try to help with non military solutions.

    Who knows, maybe the shock-waves from Scotland leaving the UK could knock some sense into the rUK government (but i doubt it)

  3. Surely retaliation from France and the rest of the countries currently bombing Iraq and Syria is precisely what Daesh want.

    Re the passports found once again it would suit Daesh fine for The Western Governments and their respective media if the conclusion was reached that terrorists were infiltrating the tide of refugees. The Paris atrocities at the weekend were carried out highly professionally and I doubt if individuals recently arrived in Francxe via the refugee channels would be allowed to take part in such an operation. I don’t think that the fact that the passports were found at the scene was careless but was done deliberately to cause trouble with the refugee problem.

    Re the guy who was stopped and allowed to proceed to Belgium is it not possible that this was allowed to happen deliberately and that while he was being checked a tracker could have been fitted to his car allowing him to lead the authorities to his accomplices and possibly his masters.

  4. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction—–Isaac Newton
    Lack of action loses votes—-George W Bush
    Whose interests were served in Afghanistan,Iraq,Libya etc?
    Afghanistan is rapidly going back to business as usual and one has to ask what was all the waste of human life really about?
    Cameron and his neanderthals are desperate to wreck vengeance upon those who attacked France,but as usual Cameron has no idea about the consequences of his government’s actions.(just ask his local council).
    If you stand back and ask what the hell are we doing in these countries,there is no clear answer….national interest,self defence etc etc none of which really rings true.
    The fundamental problem we have in the British state is lack of democratic accountability and the subsequent rule of law.
    Feudalism rules OK.

  5. What ISIS did in Paris it also did in lebanon and Iraq. Though you’d not know it from the media.
    What ISIS did in Paris is a retaliation to what we are doing in Syria. As Robert Baer once said the only difference between a suicide bomber and a drone strike is the cost. They’re both designed to achieve the same thing. But it’s a grave mistake to lay the fault at religion. It’s too neat. Too convenient. On one hand it’s a way of demonising your opponent. On the other it’s a way of avoiding that critical gaze over our own actions. It is terrorism, but it has a purpose and it is entirely political. Underneath that post-apocalyptic cruelty is a cold and rational movement. Yes they use religion but it’s just a tool to them in much the same way we would invoke “for King & Country” to get people to fight. ISIS is the only too predictable outcome for the west’s endless meddling in that region for the last 100 years. Longer if you want to trace back to the days of empire and perhaps further back with the crusades. That’s why we in the West need to face up to our part in cultivating the virus that has spread out from Syria. And that is why we must consider dealing the host: the House of Sa’ud, that is the source for the extreme version of Islam known as Wahhabism and they have been exporting along with their oil for a long time.

    • Religion is involved but not in the way generally assumed. Just as in Northern Ireland or Greater Glasgow religion acts to Balkanise communities by inhibiting intermarriage. Why are there still these two tribes of Sunni and Shia in Islam? because different marriage rites made intermarriage pretty much impossible.

      Same thing between Catholic and Protestant. How many hundred years since the plantations? The Battle of the Boyne? Still two tribes.

      Tito in Jugoslavia tried to meld communities with civil marriage. He succeeded in Sarajevo but few other places and it unraveled on his death. Catholic killing Orthodox and both killing Muslims and the atheist.

      You look around the world and the same pattern shows. Hindu Tamils vs Buddhist Sinhalese in Sri Lanka. Muslim Rohingas vs Buddhist Burmese. Religion both forms sharp boundaries between people and sharpens and maintains it through intermarriage inhibition. Then other stresses, economic, political, environmental blow up those fault lines define who lives and who dies and inform old hatreds that should have been erased over time.

      Who is a Dane or a Briton now? How? The Danes became Christian too. Some Norman surnames are still around but they are not all owned by the toffs, younger sons married down. But they married.

  6. If you want a good understanding of the influence of the House of Saud on Islamic terrorism take a look at Karen Armstrong’s piece in the New Statesman.

    There is a particular aspect to this that will come as no surprise to many and that is that the CIA were once again involved in encouraging the Wahhabists during the time when the US had fallen out with the Iranian clerics. Shades also of the Mujahadeen/Taliban in Afghanistan. Will they ever learn?

  7. Do you notice the one one country we never here mentioned in all of this is Israel I wonder why ?

  8. I agree with many of the points here – meddling, religion, oil, imperialism (military, economic and cultural), demonisation of the “other”, all going back centuries etc. But our political leaders have forgotten everything and learned nothing – when did they last win a military victory against “terrorists”? The only way to work towards stopping the violence is to start dealing with some of the issues which motivate people towards violence. Northern Ireland is a case in point. Of course, “we never talk to terrorists”. Of course we all know that is a barefaced piece of hypocrisy. We need to start talking.

  9. There is a truth in Europe and the West in general. A life lost here is seen as more important than a life lost in Asia or Africa. Unfortunately there a hundreds of people killed weekly by Isis and other rogue nations like Israel and North Korea. Are these innocents worth less than Europeans.

    We hear of the daily deaths and bombs in these areas, like someone reading out the football results on a Saturday night. It becomes routine like white noise. I am as guilty as anyone else. I see something happening in Europe and it personalises the death to me. In the east I just think ho hum.

    It was a tragedy in Paris. But all humans have as much value no matter what nation they come from. We should mourn for the poor people all over the world who have to live in brutal regimes. Bombing Syria is just a gut reaction to appease the pain. It will just give them more reason to retaliate.

    It’s a dilema because these people are all over the world, not in one country. There can be no war as we can’t identify the people we are fighting.

  10. Fantastic article Derek, It is dismal the way the media are beating the drum for war now.

  11. I’m sorry Derek, I normally appreciate your insights but I think you’re recycling liberal, knee-jerk reactions here. We are not responsible for every violent git east of Malta; they’re grown-up adults and you’re parading exactly the patronising attitude you say you deplore when you cite straight lines on a map as some sort of justification for their behaviour. There are some very hard problems in the way of peace in the Middle East, one of them being the kind of dog-whistle side-swipe you took at Israel (predictably emphasised in the comments), as if all other countries in the region were paragons of virtue – excuse me Iran? Yemen? Jordan? Saudi? How would you feel if a member of your family ended up in jail in any of them?

    Given the hopelessness of these problems, the governments of the West are justified in simply defending their countries with attacks on the home bases of the people attacking their cities. Even if it solves nothing it is fully justified as a reaction to attacks on their citizens.

    In the scale of things, deaths from terrorism are dwarfed by deaths from domestic violence or traffic accidents. They are designed specifically to draw out a reaction, and that’s what they’ve done.

  12. …and when the SNP supports humanity and the rule of law, as opposed to legally-dubious barbarity, the media will use this as a stick with which to beat the Yes movement.

    Be warned. Just like with the military action over Belgrade.

  13. Very well written Derek. Unfortunately, you will never see this balanced journalism in the M.S.M.
    As you say, the reasons are many and complicated, but the thread running through these conflicts are greed, usually western greed, for the natural resources of the Middle East.
    As usual, Westminster, no matter which political party is in power, has had it’s grubby paws deep into these countries affairs doing more harm than good, but then I don’t believe they care what damage they do, especially to the people of that country.
    Unfortunately I don’t believe there will be peace anytime soon, because I think it suits western interests to keep the Middle East fragmented, although of course you will never get any governments admitting this.
    It’s the people of these countries I feel sorry for, especially the children, who will grow up, if they are lucky, never knowing anything but violence. How will that make them feel? Probably another generation of broken souls and minds, destroyed by the instability created all around them. For what? For what?

  14. “We, the western nations have played a role over the years in creating conditions in which the malign,dogmatic, and murderous obsessions of zealots and thugs can flourish. And we still do today”.

    Who are the murderous thugs you refer to? In the past was it Edward 1st “Hammer of the Scots”? Or were Wallace and Bruce the zealots and murderous thugs?

    Who are they now, these zealots and thugs? The indigenous people of the Arab countries? Surely not.

    As in the past – Maoris? Aboriginals? Indians? Arabs? Native Americans? Surely not.

    The pink map of the World displaying the British Empire didn’t come about via handing out bibles.

    “We need Trident, drones, surveillance”, they say. The zealots perchance?

  15. Excellent article Derek

  16. Well we get blamed for a lot. But we were only ever in the Middle East for a relatively short time. The Ottoman Empire finally collapsed in 1918 and protectorates were set up by European powers across the region between the wars. British policy in the Middle East was mainly factored on protecting India. Indian independence was more or less guaranteed by 1942, after the fall of Singapore and the Quit India campaign led by Gandhi. After 1945 it was a get-out-quick strategy. With India gone by 1947, Britain had no real reason to hang around this simmering cauldron of tensions. Jordan was the one Arab state that Lawrence managed to get set up for his allies. It’s about the only sane place in the Arab Muslim Middle East. Egypt was less affected by imperialism but it’s still a basket case economy.

    Should we be blamed for all the current troubles after several decades of interference between the wars?

    There were far deeper tensions underneath the surface that our rule barely affected, between warring tribes and factions long held under the Ottoman yoke.

    What I have always wanted to know what how come Ottoman rule was so ineffective. Why is the Middle East a chequer board of conflicting peoples?

  17. Oil, MBC? And has been referenced in the article “the straight lines casually drawn by European country builders”.

  18. The middle east can only be fixed by the countries in the middle east. End of.

  19. But there are no countries in the Middle East. The Ottomans didn’t deal with countries, they dealt with faith groups. That was their way of controlling populations. No state building occurred. These are populations for whom the nation state is an alien concept.

  20. A well written post Derek.

    There are days when you look at humanity and simply despair.

  21. Barbara McKenzie

    ‘Arab countries never did get the independence they fought for and ended up as pawns of the great powers.’

    One reason Bashar al Assad is so popular (even a Nato report acknowledged that he was supported by 70% of Syrians, is that he has not become a pawn of the West. If that figure is correct, that would include some Sunnis, yes.

    After the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan, if prisoners were taken they were always Saudi, Egyptian or Jordanian, never Syrian, Iranian, Libyan or Iraqi. This is because people in these countries had faith that their government would stand up to the West.

    Everyone I know who has been to Syria wants Bashar al Assad to remain. This is because we know what a beautiful safe optimistic country Syria was, with people proud of their country and their president.

  22. As the majority of the Paris attackers appear to have been French and Belgian citizens, the French air force struck the wrong target. Paris and Brussels.

  23. Whilst you are right to highlight Sykes-Picot Derek I think as far as the UK is concerned it goes back much further than that as outline by Charles Allen in his excellent book:

    • My point exactly. Islamofascism has deep, deep, roots, that pre-date modern European interventions in the Middle East.

      Basically, they have never forgiven us for winning back Spain in 1492. And rising to become great powers by the development of the New World. They have a different clock in their heads. We are still the Crusaders who dared to oppose their rule.

      Muslims are one thing, 99% just want to get along with us, but Islam itself, in terms of its scriptures and ideology is deeply hostile to the west, and if you fuse that with the inability of the Ottomans to build effective civil and governmental institutions capable of bringing about a prosperous economy, the combination of economic failure in the regions the Ottomans ruled and fundamentalist religious ideology is toxic.

      • Barbara McKenzie

        ‘they have never forgiven us for winning back Spain in 1492.’

        Who is they? Plenty of reports indicate that ordinary jihadists haven’t a clue about the Quran, and do not carry one with them. I imagine their knowledge of ancient is on a parr.

        By focusing on the loss of Spain, you are smoothly ignoring the consequences of more recent actions by the West as the illegitimate creation of Israel, and the equally illegitimate war on Iraq, not to mention the proxy war on Syria.

        You glibly refer to countries like Syria, Iraq and Iran as economic failures, making no mention of the sanctions designed to cripple them. Although I had no sense of economic failure when I was In Iran and Syria – Iran seemed very wealthy and Syrians especially were very proud of their country.

        There is plenty of evidence to show that even if Nato, Israel and the gulf states didn’t actually create ISIS, they have no intention of stopping it, to say the least. Arms provided when training ‘democratic rebels’ are immediately passed to jihadists; the fleets of white Toyotas provided by the US are serviced in Jordan, Israel provides medical assistance to ISIS troops in the Golan heights (

        Russia has focused on bombing ISIS outposts and convoys, and air support while Syrian ground troops take towns and cities, to minimise civilian casualties. This attack by France on the city of Raqqa is designed to cause maximum grief to civilians in relation to its effectiveness against jihadists.

  24. Valid points, a few feirly obvious ones too. I don’t think many people believe that bombing Raqqa is the answer. Well, maybe some Daily Mail readers do.
    So what’s your suggested solution? Let’s say an independent progressive government decides to get out of any military involvement. Good. Still, you don’t sit and watch the civil war and slaughter from the outside. Surely you send humanitarian help? That’s what I would expect a progressive government to do.
    Who do you think Alan Henning, Peter Kassig etc were? Aid workers that (I presume) knowingly risked their lives to bring humanitarian relief to the people that needed it. They didn’t care if the help was going towards destruction caused by a NATO weapon or an ISIS one.
    They were barbarically murdered.

    I also don’t believe that military intervention is the answer. Dialogue and negotiation isn’t either. You would be talking to a group that doesn’t want to talk. Do you think that a discussion about the damages that drug addiction does to individuals from a medical and social point of view would go very far with a group of drug dealers?

    Any form or even the slightest hint of apology of what happened in Paris on Friday makes me sick. If you murder someone you go to jail. End of story, no matter how badly you’ve been provoked. There might be mitigating factors, fair enough, and that’s what we are discussing. But each crime generates a reaction. It’s inevitable.

  25. Meanwhile Cameron looked completely out of his depth at the G20 – especially alongside Putin.

    He is like a wee boy desperate to join in a game with the adults and determined that “we” be allowed “our” turn at bombing. I have a feeling that he winnae take Harry Patch’s advice and pick up a gun himself.

  26. A good article, but c’mon, only two lines to cover the slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza by Israel!?

  27. interesting article , reminded me of peter hitchens piece, in the mail on sunday !

  28. But surely not right that a Northern Irish unionist should be a political editor of a Scottish newspaper with all that could entail in terms of impartiality etc

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