Beyond ‘Blowback’: Islam and Terror


The latest attack in London – the third to hit Britain within seventy-five days – is once again provoking a debate about the relationship between Islam and terrorism. On one side we have those who say Islam is inherently violent, and is incompatible with the basic canons of Western civilization. On the other side, we have liberals who say that this is a libel on an entire religion, and that advocates of religious violence are a distinct minority within the Muslim faith.

These two views have distinct policy implications: the former would impose what amounts to a Muslim ban on travel to Western countries, and would furthermore mandate State surveillance of mosques and other religious institutions of that faith. The latter stance would oppose these measures, and proceed as if Muslims posed the same danger to us as, say, Presbyterians, i.e. none at all.

Both views are simplistic nonsense. Furthermore, neither offers an effective policy to deal with the problem as defined.

The origins of Islamic terrorism are not in dispute: the idea that “they hate us because we’re free,” i.e. because of our secular values and Western lifestyle, was not even worth considering, at least initially. After all, Japan, for example, which is not exactly an exemplar of Islamic values, has never been attacked by Islamic extremists. South America has proved similarly immune. The focus of the Islamists’ wrath has been on the United States and Western Europe – not coincidentally, those countries which have a long history of intervention in the Muslim world.

Which brings us to the theory of “blowback,” the idea that the root cause of radical Islamic terrorism is simple retaliation. Here the writings of Chalmers Johnson, whose book, entitled Blowback; The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, was published before 9/11, and also of Robert Pape, who has done yeomen’s work on this issue, are very useful. Johnson put the concept in its historical context, and Pape shows, with extensive detailed evidence, that occupied peoples routinely adopt such tactics as suicide bombings to fight the overwhelming presence of occupiers. And this is not limited to Islamists, by any means: the Tamil Tigers, fighting for the “liberation” of Sri Lanka, for example, employed these same tactics.

And so the “blowback” concept, in its pure form, avers that this isn’t about religion, but about resistance: the resistance of a militarily weak insurgency against an occupying power that exerts overwhelming force. Adherents of this theory point to the statements of the terrorists themselves, principally al-Qaeda, which declared that the presence of US troops on the “sacred” soil of Saudi Arabia motivated – and justified – the 9/11 attacks. Aside from that, they point to other examples of Western imperialism – the invasion and occupation of Iraq, US support to Muslim despots, and the ongoing “war on terrorism” that, from their perspective, is a war on Islam. 

So it’s all very cut and dried, simple really – but is it?

It’s been sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, long enough for a strand of Islam to emerge that views terrorism against Western targets as a religious duty. Furthermore, the radical Islamist critique of Western values and lifestyle as morally corrupt has been integrated into the purely consequentialist idea of “blowback” as retaliation for specific actions. Because it can surely be argued – especially by religious ideologues – that a society capable of killing hundreds of thousands in, say, Iraq, is inherently depraved. Given the theory of “blowback,” this merging of a typically anti-colonialist narrative with a moral critique was inevitable. And to give it a religious angle wasn’t difficult. After all, in the years since September 11, 2001, have the US and its allies attacked any non-Muslim countries?

And it’s not as if there aren’t elements within orthodox Islam that need only elaboration to legitimize this mutant variation. The very concept of jihad, and the storied history of Islamic conquerors who “converted” new adherents by force, feed into this frenzied fundamentalism, which seeks to return to a “purer” form of Mohammed’s creed. Of course, one could point to similarly aggressive tendencies in Christianity, as well as other faiths, and yet the missing element here is a history of military occupation and conflict.

Religious belief, like all human concepts, isn’t static: it undergoes changes in response to events. It adapts, it mutates, it evolves. Christianity changed in response to the advance of science: Galileo is no longer considered a heretic. Judaism was transformed by the Holocaust: Zionism, yesterday embraced by a tiny minority of Jews, is dominant today. Islam is not immune to the tides of history.

Western liberals downplay this uncomfortable truth because they generally disdain religion and fail to appreciate its power. They cannot understand how a person could drive a truck into a crowd of pedestrians, and go on a stabbing spree, while shouting “This is for Allah!” Allah, for them, is a delusion: religion is a primitive throwback, a reactionary atavism that is on its way out. Yet this is hardly true in most areas of the world outside of the Global Metropolis.

The failure of Western liberal elites to acknowledge this reality – the reality of a newly militant strand of Islam that upholds terror as a sacred duty – is linked to their appeasement of the Saudis. For years the Kingdom has exported its austere version of Islam, Wahabism, which serves as the theological foundations of the very terrorist movement we are supposedly pledged to fight.

A few days before the attack on London Bridge, the news broke that an investigation into the sources of terrorist funding commissioned by the government of former Prime Minister David Cameron would probably not be published due to its “sensitive” nature: there’s too much evidence that the Saudis are the principal financiers of terrorist organizations.

Britain recently signed off on a series of multi-billion dollar arms deals with the Saudis: the US has done the same, in a deal brokered by none other than the President’s son-in-law. Meanwhile, Donald Trump travels to the Kingdom where an “anti-terrorist center” is inaugurated – by the very folks who are funding radical Islamic terrorism worldwide.

The West has done everything possible to encourage the growth and development of radical Islamic terrorism, from invading the Muslim world to succoring and supporting the state sponsors of terrorist organizations. We armed and funded Islamic extremists in Syria in a bid to overthrow the secular despotism of Bashar al-Assad – and then wondered how and why returnees from that conflict took their holy war to the streets of Europe’s cities. One wouldn’t have acted any differently if the goal had been to deliberately create a terrorist menace.

And what is the solution offered by our rulers? British Prime Minister Theresa May says we must regulate the Internet, which is now supposedly a “safe space” for terrorists:
"We cannot allow this ideology the safe space it needs to breed – yet that is precisely what the Internet, and the big companies that provide Internet-based services provide. We need to work with allies democratic governments to reach international agreements to regulate cyberspace to prevent the spread of extremist and terrorism planning.”
The British government already regulates the Internet and its powers have been used primarily to quash alleged anti-Muslim sentiment: you can be arrested and charged with a “hate crime” for saying the wrong thing about Islam on Twitter or in a blog post. The “Investigatory Powers Act” was passed by Parliament in November: it requires Internet providers to maintain a list of web sites visited by all Internet users for up to a year, and also gives the government broad powers to intercept communications. May wants to internationalize this regulation.

It’s hard to believe that May and her cohorts really think this will have the least effect on terrorist activities. It’s clearly just a pretext to regulate a phenomenon that threatens the powers-that-be. Rather than combat terrorism, the idea is to extend the authority of government as far as they can get away with – and, as the terrorist wave rises, there’s no telling how far they will go.

Not only are Western governments uninterested in actually stopping terrorism, but the terrible truth is that there is no stopping it. Some problems have no solution, and this is one of them. We can wipe out ISIS in Syria, but they will scatter worldwide, returning as “refugees” to the cities of their enemies. We can restrict travel, reject Muslim immigrants: and yet the second and third generations, already embedded in Western societies, will take up their cause. We can spy on our own citizens, regulate the Internet within an inch of its life, restrict “hate speech,” bomb more Muslim countries – and still the monster’s tentacles will wriggle through the interstices and grasp at our throats.

This is what we have unleashed on ourselves: a monster that won’t be killed. The idea that we cannot live with this is akin to the idea that we cannot live with our own history: it is an idea without meaning. The past is prologue: it won’t be repealed or denied. We invaded Iraq. We invaded Afghanistan. We funded and armed al-Qaeda during the cold war, in league with our Saudi allies, while Riyadh spread its ideology of hate on a global scale.

In Greek mythology, the figure of Nemesis dramatizes our current predicament: she is the goddess of retribution, whose name is “derived from the Greek words nemêsis and nemô, meaning ‘dispenser of dues.’” She pursues her quarry relentlessly, visiting on them the consequences of their deeds.

Her pursuit can be ameliorated, albeit not finally and immediately ended, by reversing our course of futile wars – in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc. – and ending our alliance with the mandarins of terror in Riyadh and the sheikdoms of the Gulf. Yet still the monster will live: it cannot be slain by conventional means – it will have to die a natural death. The best we can do is to stop prolonging its life.

Reprinted with permission from

Trump’s Budget: Radical Change or More of the Same?


President Donald Trump's proposed budget has generated hysteria among the American left. Prominent progressives have accused the president and his allies of wanting to kill children, senior citizens, and other vulnerable Americans. The reaction of the president’s allies — including some conservatives who should know better — is equally detached from reality as they hail Trump for launching a major assault on the welfare state and making the hard choices necessary to balance the budget.

President Trump’s budget does eliminate some unnecessary and unconstitutional programs such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. However, it largely leaves the welfare-warfare state intact. In fact, this so-called “radical” budget does not even cut domestic spending! Instead, it plays the old DC game of reducing “the projected rate of growth.” For example, under Trump’s budget, Medicaid spending increases from $378 billion this year to $525 billion in 2027. Only in the bizzaro world of Washington, DC can a 38 percent increase be considered a cut.

President Trump's budget combines phony cuts in domestic spending with real increases in military spending. Specifically, the budget increases the military budget by $23 billion over the next ten years. Trump claims that the increase is necessary to reverse the damage done to our military by sequestration. But, despite the claims of the military-industrial complex and its defenders in Congress, on K Street, and in the media, military spending has increased over the past several years, especially when the "off-budget" Overseas Contingency Operations funding is added to the "official" budget.

The restrained American Frist policy promoted by candidate Trump does not require a large and expansive military that literally spans the globe. This budget is the latest indication that President Trump is embracing the neocon foreign policy that candidate Trump correctly denounced.

The budget also relies on rosy scenario economic projections of three percent growth without even a mild economic recession to justify the claim that the federal budget will achieve balance in a decade. This claim bears little or no resemblance to reality.

It certainly is true that some of Trump’s proposed tax and regulatory reforms can increase economic growth. However, the benefits of these pro-liberty policies will not offset the continued drag on the economy caused by the continued growth of federal spending, and the resulting monetization of debt by the Federal Reserve. Far from bringing about endless prosperity, Trump’s big-spending budget increases the odds that Americans will face a Greece-style crisis in the next few years, while the Federal Reserve’s inflation tax evaporates the benefits of any tax reductions passed as part of tax reform.

Some of President Trump’s apologists claim his proposed $1 trillion infrastructure spending plan will help create jobs and grow the economy. But government spending programs do not create real wealth; they only redistribute resources from the private sector to the (much more inefficient) government sector. Therefore, any short-term gains from these programs are illusionary and outweighed by the long-term damage the expansion of government inflicts on the economy. Trump's proposed new parental leave mandate will also hurt the economy, as well as the job prospects of the new entitlement's supposed beneficiaries.

Far from presenting a radial challenge to the status quo, President Trump’s budget grows the welfare-warfare state, albeit with more emphasis on the warfare. This budget is thus more evidence that, for a pro-liberty political revolution to succeed, it must be preceded by an intellectual revolution that reignites the people’s desire and demand for liberty.

Design Fault: Counterterrorism’s Egregious Failures Don’t Trouble Our Leaders at All

I think anyone who takes an objective view of the abysmal record of failure on the part of the official who as Home Secretary and Prime Minister has been in charge of UK counterterrorism policy for many years must agree with the declaration of Theresa May following the London attacks: “enough is enough.” Well said, Mrs. May. We must repudiate these failed policies and all those who have pushed them, of whatever party or ideological stripe.

On both the micro level of singular acts of terrorism by individuals and the macro level of geopolitical strategy — such as the close alliance with the sectarian Saudi tyrants who have been the primary purveyors of Islamic extremism around the world for decades — the UK’s “counterterrorism” policies have been egregious, atrocious failures. This includes the decisions by May and other government officials to run “ratlines” of radicalized Britons in and out of Libya and Syria — and back — in order to carry out cynical geopolitical agendas of regime change and dominance. (Among these UK backed agents of destabilization, of course, was the recent suicide bomber in Manchester.)

I certainly agree that we have had “enough” of these wretchedly counterproductive policies, and the inhumane, ruthless power gaming that lies behind them. To continue with these policies — or even worse, to “double down” on them in some witless, blunderbuss way — guarantees there will be an unending series of incidents such as the one in London Saturday night. This might suit the military-industrial-surveillance complex that is devouring the societies of the UK and the US, where war and terror and fear have become vast engines of profit and power for private companies and governments alike. But it will be, as it has been, ruinous and deadly for the peace and prosperity of the citizens these governments purport to serve.

In this century alone, the US and UK have helped destroy two largely secular, multicultural regimes that had stood as bulwarks against the kind of Islamic extremism peddled by our allies, Saudi Arabia: Iraq and Libya. A third such country, Syria, has been the target of an ongoing regime change war in which the West and Saudis are openly backing al Qaeda allies and other extremists. This bipartisan policy of fostering extremism for geopolitical ends was also used in Afghanistan, where a thoroughly secular regime was overthrown by Islamic extremists armed, paid and organized by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

This is not to praise those regimes, but to speak in the terms our leaders themselves have adopted: that Islamic terrorism is the primary threat to our civilization and thus counterterrorism is an overarching priority. If countering Islamic extremism is your priority, then supporting Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Libya is, to put it mildly, the wrong policy. If it is your priority to combat Islamic extremism which threatens to radicalize citizens of your own country, then giving massive, continuous, unquestioning support to the brutal tyrants who have exported extremist Islam all over the world for decades is, to put it mildly, the wrong policy. If it is your priority to defend your civilization from radical Islamic extremism, then launching war after war after war in Islamic countries with secular governments — and aiding extremist militias in those countries, like al Qaeda, al Nusra, ISIS, and the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, founded in the 1990s with support from the West to launch terrorist attacks against the Gadafy regime — are, to put it mildly, the wrong policies. If it is your overarching priority to prevent the spread of hatred, radicalization and revenge, then committing mass murder in drone strikes on villages, weddings, farmers and children is, to put it mildly, the wrong policy.

Viewing all this history, and viewing the actual, visible record of officials like Theresa May (and her bipartisan UK predecessors and US counterparts) on counterterrorism, we are left with only two possible conclusions. One, that all of these highly educated, accomplished and successful individuals — across the range of party affiliations — are dithering, blithering idiots, incapable of recognizing the clear, manifest, repeated failure of their counterterrorism policies, year after year after year. Or two, that quelling and countering terrorism is NOT actually an overarching priority for our leaders; that they know full well these policies lead to more extremism, more terrorism — as their own intelligence services have repeatedly told them — but carry on with them just the same.

Therefore we are left with a further conclusion, which I’ve noted before, but which becomes clearer and clearer with each new terrorist attack and each new doubling-down on the same failed policies by the West: for our leaders, for those on the commanding heights of our bipartisan power structures, the game is worth the candle.  The pursuit of their geopolitical power-game agendas means more to them — much, much more — than the lives and well-being and security of their own citizens. If there is no change in these broader policies, no change in the inhuman, inhumane agenda of domination, then no amount of tinkering with “Prevent” programs on the local level — much less even more authoritarian repression on the national level — will stop the outbreak of sickening evils like the London killings.

Until more people recognize the fact that our own governments have been absolutely crucial to the rise and spread of violent Islamic extremism — both directly, in their alliance with Saudi Arabia, and in the many, many instances of their arming and abetting Islamic terrorists; and indirectly, in carrying out policies which they KNOW will produce radicalized extremists — then we will not even begin to address the problem, much less start to solve it. And this includes recognizing —and questioning — the agendas of our elites as well, to ask why their barbaric quest for dominance and control over others is worth the lives of our sons and daughters, our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, as well as the lives of the countless innocents they kill, year after year, in foreign lands.

This is the world our leaders have created with their deliberately chosen policies, in full knowledge of the consequences. Until we recognize this — until we say “enough is enough” to  these policies and alliances and covert collusions and brutal agendas that stoke the fires of extremism — there will be no end to this madness. It will only grow worse.

Why the London Terror Attack Happened Now

One has to wonder why terrorists like those who struck on Saturday night in London, and earlier in Manchester, launched their attacks now. It is difficult not to infer that their violence was timed to influence the UK election this coming Thursday.

Those behind the attack – whether those carrying it out or those dispatching the terrorists – want to have an effect. Terrorism is the use of indiscriminate violence for political ends. It has a logic, even if it is one we mostly do not care to understand.

So what do these terrorists hope to achieve?

Based on prior experience, they will assume that by striking now they can increase fear and anger among the British population – intensifying anti-Muslim rhetoric, justifying harsher “security” responses from the British state and shifting political support towards the right. That is good for their cause because it radicalises other disillusioned Muslim youth. In short, it brings recruits.

Islam is not exceptional in this regard. This is not a problem specifically of religion. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, disillusioned, frustrated, angry (and mainly male) youth adopt existing ideologies relevant to them and then search for the parts that can be twisted to justify their violence. The violent impulse exists and they seek an ideology to rationalise it.

Once Christianity – the religion of turning the other cheek – was used to justify pogroms and inquisitions. In the US, white supremacists – in the Ku Klux Klan, for example – used the Bible to justify spreading terror among the black population of the Deep South. White supremacists continue sporadically to use terror in the US, most notably Timothy McVeigh, who was responsible for the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995.

Terrorists can exploit secular ideologies too, on either the far-right or far-left. Just think of the Baader Meinhof Gang or the Symbionese Liberation Army, back in the 1970s. The latter famously made a convert of Patty Hearst, granddaughter of publishing empire magnate William Randolph Hearst (aka Citizen Kane). After she was taken hostage, she quickly adopted the group’s thinking and its violence as her own.

The Islamic terrorists of our time believe in a violent, zero-sum clash of civilisations. That should not be surprising, as their ideology mirrors the dominant ideology – neo-conservatism – of western foreign policy establishments. Both sides are locked in a terrifying dance of death. Both believe that two “civilisations” exist and are incompatible, that they are in a fight to the death, and that any measures are justified to achieve victory because the struggle is existential. We use drones and “humanitarian intervention” to destabilise their societies; they use cars, guns, knives and bombs to destabilise ours.

The dance chiefly takes place because both sides continue it – and it will not be easy to break free of it. Our meddling in the Middle East dates back more than a century – especially since the region became a giant oil spigot for us. The tentacles of western interference did not begin in 2003, whatever we might choose to believe. Conversely, a globalised world inevitably entails one where a century-long colonial battlefield can easily come back to haunt us on our doorsteps.

The solution, complex as it will need to be, certainly cannot include the use by us of similarly indiscriminate violence, more “intervention” in the Middle East, or more scapegoating of Muslims. It will require taking a step back and considering how and why we too are addicted to this dance of death.

Trump and the Paris Accord: Who’s to Blame for the Climate Change Crisis?

The world is already looking at the Trump administration with derision after its announced withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. And in the decades ahead, lamentations of American hubris, ignorance, and stupidity in dealing with the environmental crisis will continue to grow. Never has the scientific community been surer about the dangers of runaway global warming, and yet Americans have largely abdicated their responsibility for pressuring the government to act on this vital issue. Despite abundant evidence documenting the dangers of climate change, we have done nothing to combat the threat, and Trump’s actions will further intensify the dangers associated with growing emissions over the next few decades.

With the U.S. pull out of the Paris Agreement, what little commitment the U.S. had to combating climate change is now gone. The American right will rejoice, as they have long embraced paranoid conspiracy theories attacking environmentalists as alarmists who have been duped by scientists engaged in an elaborate hoax – one supposedly motivated by a quest for attention and grant money. Some on the left will treat the Trump administration with kids gloves, and even congratulate Trump for stripping away what was left of the fig-leaf of an American “commitment” to addressing runaway warming.

But for many of us who have been warning about the dangers associated with climate change for the last few decades, now is a time to recognize that things are moving from bad to worse. At least under the Paris Agreement, there was a framework activists could use to pressure political officials to cut emissions growth, and pursue real cuts to greenhouse gas emissions moving forward. But there’s little chance of that now under the Trump administration, with a president who is willfully ignorant on climate change, scientifically illiterate, and hell-bent on reviving a coal industry that’s been dead in the water for some time now.

I don’t want to romanticize the Paris Agreement. It’s a short-term plan that does not extend beyond a 2030 emissions target, and even if that target is met, it will merely level off global CO2 emissions, rather than reduce them. To avoid more than two degrees (Celsius) of warming by the end of century, global carbon emissions must fall to zero between 2070 and 2100, with a radical cut in such emissions beginning by no later than 2030. Still, the Paris Agreement is the necessary first step in avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and leveling off CO2 emissions is certainly preferable to a significant increase in those emissions in coming decades.

Who is ultimately to blame for the catastrophic state we find ourselves in today? I don’t think there is just one answer. Obviously, the fossil fuel industry is a prime culprit. Corporations like Exxon Mobil and others have known – due to their own scientific research going as far back as the late-1970s – that global warming is a very real threat. Important investigative studies have exposed these corporations for pushing junk “science” and seeking to sow doubt on whether humans are responsible for warming the planet. These works are numerous, including: “Climate Cover-Up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming,” by James Hoggan; “The Heat is On: Climate Crisis, the Cover-Up, the prescription,” by Ross Gelbspan; and “Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming,” by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway.

As the above works make clear, the name of the game is convincing the public to deprioritize dealing with climate change, for fear of the negative effects government action may have on the economy and jobs. Fossil fuel-funded pundits, PR firms, and scientists don’t need to convince the public that global warming is a fraud. All they need to do is create doubt about whether climate change is a serious problem, thereby blunting the development of a critical public consciousness and any sort of real citizen push for change. And so far, the fossil fuel industry has been incredibly successful in its efforts.

The Republican Party, under the leadership of George W. Bush and Donald Trump, has been a fundamental threat to the planet. Bush first claimed that global warming was a fiction. Later his administration quietly admitted that it was real, but claimed that instead of addressing the problem head-on, the “solution” was simply that humans would “adapt” to a warming planet. Working under the “adaptation” framework, the Bush administration abandoned the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which aimed for a modest 5 percent reduction in global greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels, to be achieved by 2010. The agreement was never more than a first step in addressing climate change, but at least it represented some sort of effort to address the issue, which is more than one can say for the U.S. “response” thus far.

The “progress” made in dealing with climate change under Democrats and Barack Obama was largely illusory. While Obama has admitted that the effects of climate change are “terrifying” to contemplate, he did nothing to prioritize the issue in his first term. He was no leader of the environmental movement during the late 2000s and early 2010s, and did little to promote legislation that would mandate CO2 emission cuts. Had he wished to demonstrate a serious commitment to battling climate change, he would have announced an executive action on day one of his tenure, back in early 2009, that could have been implemented well before the specter of a Trump presidency even became a topic of discussion. The lesson of the “Affordable Care Act” is that it’s far harder for Republicans to slow down or stop a government program or initiative in its tracks when it’s already been put in motion. A roll back of climate change regulations would have been much more difficult if these regulations were already implemented years before Trump took office.

Not only did Obama refuse to prioritize CO2 emission cuts during much of his presidency, he encouraged the expansion of fossil fuel consumption. U.S. greenhouse gas emissions have grown significantly over the last few years following the 2008 economic crash. Part of the growing consumption had to do with federal encouragement of oil drilling, which went well beyond supporting the Dakota Access Pipeline. Through the Export-Import Bank, the Obama administration allocated $34 billion (through 2016) to more than five dozen fossil fuel projects across the globe related to coal, gas, and oil production. Leases granted for oil and gas drilling on federal lands grew during Obama’s second term, while tens of millions of acres of federal lands were opened up for oil exploration and extraction, and “processing times” for granting permits for fossil fuel extraction were shortened significantly.

At the end of the day, what really matters is whether the U.S. has succeeded or failed in cutting CO2 emissions. And on this front the Bush and Obama presidencies were resounding failures. In 1990, the U.S. emitted about 5 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions. But throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, the U.S. averaged between 5.5 to 6 billion tons of CO2 emissions per year. The numbers fell to the lower part of this range following the post-2008 economic slowdown, but quickly increased by late in Obama’s second term. By 2015, the U.S. averaged 6.6 billion tons of CO2 emissions, an increase of a third from the 1990 level. And the numbers will only increase with population growth in the coming decades if there is no federal effort to reverse this trend. The Obama administration’s “commitment” to limiting emissions was all set-up with no follow through. His image as an environmentalist was based on the rhetoric of “hope” for future change and on an unimplemented plan to reduce emissions.

Despite his poor environmental record, Obama looks like a climate crusader in comparison to Donald Trump. At least his administration was potentially open to pressure from environmental groups and conservationists, which is more than can be said for Trump. Under the Trump administration, the U.S. – the second largest carbon polluter in the world – has continued the march toward climate oblivion. Under Scott Pruitt, the EPA is now run by an avid climate change denier who has a history of working for the fossil fuels industry to fight government regulations related to clean water and regulation of coal-burning power plants. Trump himself has embraced a delusional commitment to “bringing back” the coal industry, despite a national decline in coal consumption of nearly 25 percent in the last ten years due to the rise of fracking and natural gas consumption. The abandonment of the Paris Accord means that the world will have to wait another four years before there is even a chance of the U.S. moving forward with government regulations for cutting CO2 emissions growth.

Complaining about Obama and Trump is convenient at a time when public distrust of government officials is rampant. It’s easy to blame Obama for talking a big game about addressing climate change, considering his nearly non-existent follow through. And Trump’s contempt for human sustainability is beyond deplorable, threatening the survival of the species as we move into an increasingly dangerous, unknown future. But it will make Americans much more uncomfortable to consider that the public itself is one of the prime culprits in the failure to deal with climate change. But it’s hard to exonerate Americans for their role in stoking this crisis. By acquiescing to the ecologically disastrous actions of the fossil fuel industry, Americans have refused to take seriously the threat of climate change. This point is difficult to deny following Trump’s electoral victory and his assault on the Paris Agreement, both of which have been consented to either actively or passively by large segments of the public.

Available evidence regarding public opinion of climate change is encouraging in some ways, and maddening in others. On the positive side, the number of Americans recognizing the problem has grown in recent years. CBS Polling finds that the number of Americans who feel that global warming is having a “serious impact now” increased from 43 percent in 2009 to 56 percent in 2016. Pew Research Center polling finds that, while 57 percent of Americans thought there was “solid evidence” that “the earth is warming” in 2009, the number grew to 72 percent by 2014. On the other hand, just 46 percent of Americans admitted in a 2016 Bloomberg poll that climate change represents a “serious threat” to the world. Pew polling from the same year revealed that only 27 percent of Americans felt “almost all” climate scientists agree that human behavior is mostly responsible for climate change, despite most all climatologists having come to this conclusion. The same poll found that just 48 percent of Americans were willing to admit that climate change was occurring “due to human activity.”

It is difficult, perhaps impossible to address a problem when half of the public refuses to recognize that it even exists. And when nearly half the voting public prefers a global warming flat-earther who takes pride in his scientific illiteracy and ignorance, mass public pressure on the political system to address climate change will be significantly blunted. Sadly, there’s no other way to put it: Americans have empowered an ecocidal maniac who is doing everything in his power to escalate the environmental dangers we face in the coming decades.

Most Americans refuse to recognize the magnitude of the threat, preferring willful ignorance. Gallup polling from 2014 to 2017 finds that just one to four percent of the American public feels that “pollution” or “the environment” represent “the most important problem” facing the nation. The public prefers to look instead at issues that more immediately affect them in their day to day lives, such as health care, jobs, and the economy. The specter of terror threats also poll well in terms of being recognized widely as a “most important problem.” Even if only a miniscule number of Americans will ever be the victim of terrorist violence, the non-stop attention to the spectacle of terrorism in U.S. political and media discourse has meant the redirection of public attention away from climate change. Americans’ tunnel vision regarding the environmental problems we face as a nation has meant the de-prioritization of climate concerns.

The foundation of public ignorance is based on numerous factors. First, the twin powers of partisanship and ideology have blunted public pressure for reform. Conservative Republican Americans have allowed their contempt for science, their distrust of scientists, and their worship of “free market” capitalism blind them to the dangers we now face on the climate front. This segment of America has fallen victim to clumsy Rush Limbaugh-propaganda talking points, which have been instrumental to the dumbing down of national political discourse.

Second, the threat of climate change has not yet fully materialized in a way in which it can be easily processed by your average “Joe” or “Jane,” who do not closely follow the news, politics, or events occurring in the world around them. Perhaps when the American Midwest loses its entire corn and soy crops for multiple years in a row, threatening our food supply and increasing the danger of famine, Americans will finally begin to take serious notice. But until these kinds of catastrophic events occur, Americans are unlikely to prioritize dealing with climate change.

Finally, Americans are a selfish people, and are the product of a “me first,” consumer-centered culture that embraces instant gratification, convenience, and hedonism. Under this status quo, it’s convenient to push off responsibility for dealing with climate change to other nations – as the U.S. has done – while reaping the short-term benefits of fossil fuel consumption.

There is no need to speculate over the role of American selfishness in stoking the threat of a warming planet. It’s already been documented empirically. The Pew Research Center, for example, found in a late-2015 poll that the intensity of carbon pollution across nations was directly linked to level of public concern over climate change. Countries that polluted the most were conveniently the least concerned about the damage they were doing. In countries such as Burkina Faso, Kenya, Nigeria, and Ghana, which are each responsible for almost none of the global CO2 emissions (measured in CO2 emissions per capita in metric tons), concern with climate change was about 25 percent higher than in the worst offending countries, such as the U.S., Australia, and Russia. On average, high-polluting countries were about 20 percent less likely to be concerned with climate change than countries producing little to no CO2 emissions.

As the old proverb goes: necessity is the mother of invention. Unfortunately, the necessity for action on climate change seems to be dependent on the rapidly escalating threat to human survival via global warming. This threat will have to intensify before the American public becomes willing to address the problem at hand. The election of Donald Trump demonstrates that the public is simply not yet willing to tackle the threat of climate change. When Americans will wake up from their apathy-induced climate coma remains to be seen.

The Six Day War and Israeli Lies: What I Saw at the CIA

On too many occasions in U.S. history, the use of force has been justified with either corrupt intelligence or just plain lies.  Such was the case in the Mexican-American War; the Spanish-American War; the Vietnam War; and the 2003 Iraq War.  The checks and balances that were needed to prevent the misuse of intelligence were not operative, and Presidents Polk, McKinley, Johnson, and Bush deceived the American people, the U.S. Congress, and the press.  In 1967, Israeli officials at the highest level lied to the White House about the start of the Six-Day War.

As a junior analyst at the CIA, I helped to draft the report that described Israel’s attack against Egypt on the morning of June 5, 1967.  There were sensitive communications intercepts that documented Israeli preparations for an attack, and no evidence of an Egyptian battle plan.  The Israelis had been clamoring about indications of Egyptian preparations for an invasion, but we had no sign of Egyptian readiness in terms of its air or armored power.  The assumption was that the Israelis were engaging in disinformation in order to gain U.S. support.

My own view was that Egypt would be unlikely to start a war with Israel while half of its army was tied down fighting in a civil war in Yemen.  CIA’s Arabists believed that Egyptian President Nasser was bluffing, and cited the low quality of Cairo’s military equipment.

We were therefore shocked when President Johnson’s national security adviser, Walt Rostow, refused to accept our intelligence assessment on the Israeli attack.  Rostow cited “assurances” from the Israeli ambassador in Washington that under no whitleblowerciacircumstances would the Israelis attack first.  Over the protests of Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan, the Israeli government lied to the White House about how the war started.  President Johnson was told that the Egyptians had initiated firing on Israeli settlements and that an Egyptian squadron had been observed heading toward Israeli. Neither statement was true.

As a result, our report describing surprise Israeli attacks against Egyptian, Jordanian, and Syrian airfields encountered a hostile response from the National Security Council.  Fortunately, CIA director Richard Helms supported our assessment, and the National Military Command Center corroborated the report as well.  Rostow summoned Clark Clifford, chairman of the President’s Foreign Advisory Board and a leading NSC Arabist Hal Saunders to examine our analysis, and both men provided corroboration.

In addition to lying to the White House about the start of the war, Israeli military officers lied to the American ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, about non-existent Egyptian military movements.  The CIA, meanwhile, had the benefit of satellite photography that showed Egyptian planes parked on airfields wingtip-to-wingtip, which pointed to no plan to attack.

Twenty years later, I learned that a confident of the president, Harry McPherson, was in Israel at the start of the war and accompanied Ambassador Barbour to the meeting with Prime Minister Eshkol.  When Israeli air raid sirens began to wail during the meeting, Israeli intelligence chief General Aharon Yariv assured everyone there was no need to move to an underground bunker.  If we had this information in 1967, it would have corroborated our analysis that the Israelis had destroyed more than 200 Egyptian planes on the ground.

In addition to lying about the start of the war, the Israelis were even more deceitful three days later when they attributed their malicious attack on the USS Liberty to a random accident.  If so, it was a well planned accident.  The ship was a U.S. intelligence vessel in international waters, both slow-moving and lightly armed.  It brandished a five-foot-by-eight-foot Stars and Stripes in the midday sun, and didn’t resemble a ship in any other navy, let alone a ship in the arsenal of one of Israel’s enemies. Yet the Israelis claimed that they believed they were attacking an Egyptian ship.

The Israeli attack took place after six hours of intense, low-level reconnaissance.  It was conducted over a two-hour period by unmarked Mirage jets using cannons and rockets.  Israeli boats fired machine guns at close range at those helping the wounded, then machine-gunned the life rafts that survivors dropped in hope of abandoning the ship.  The NSA investigation of the disaster remains classified to this day.

American Darkness Vs. Bhutan Brightness

As Donald Trump axes America’s commitment to the Paris Climate Accord, the Kingdom of Bhutan’s Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay finalizes Bhutan for Life, a fund that will give the country the funding required, meeting its commitment to remain carbon neutral forever.

As such, the Kingdom of Bhutan is making America look like a tired old retread jalopy/bucket of bolts that sputters and coughs along the roadway to doomsday. By ignoring the pressing issue of climate change/global warming, America looks insignificant, undignified, and very weak whereas Bhutan’s carbon neutral commitment looks relevant, sophisticated, and very strong.

In point of fact, Bhutan is a carbon sink, meaning it absorbs some of America’s and everybody’s CO2 for free. Bhutan cleanses the planet because its government demands it do so, clashing with Mr. Trump’s radical contorted vision of a dog-eat-dog world.

The Kingdom of Bhutan is located deep in the Himalayas nestled between China and India. The kingdom’s prime minister discusses a world standard for environmental preservation, aka: Earth for Life, in a TED talk widely praised as “powerful” and “fascinating” and “moving.” It is a brilliant speech:

In his speech the PM explains Bhutan’s commitment to remain carbon neutral. Correspondingly and initiated in 1970s, the country declares its commitment to GNH or Gross National Happiness as a substitute for GNP or Gross National Product. Effectively, Bhutan’s people have turned economic progress into a planet friendly endeavor. All development in Bhutan is driven by GNH. Education is free. Health care is free. Economic activity is based upon “development with value” for the environment. This is the antithesis of America as well as much of the world. Futurists much prefer using Bhutan as a model rather than America when writing about a livable world in the decades ahead.

The Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan, Article 5, Section 3 declares a minimum 60% of Bhutan’s total land shall be maintained under forest cover for all time. Singularly, Bhutan is one of the few global biodiversity hot spots in the world.

Bhutan’s economy generates 2.2 million tons of CO2 annually. However, its forests sequester more than 3xs that amount. Notably, Bhutan is a net carbon sink.

Additionally, the country exports clean renewable hydropower electricity. This offsets an additional 6 million tons of CO2. By 2020, Bhutan will be exporting enough clean renewable electricity to offset 17 million tons of CO2. If they were to harvest one-half of their hydropower potential, they could offset 50 million tons of CO2 per year, and that is Bhutan’s goal. That is more CO2 than NYC generates in one year.

Wistfully, climate change brutally impacts Bhutan. The Himalayan glaciers are melting fast, causing flash floods and landslides. Years ago a glacial lake broke lose and flooded the country. Now, Bhutan has to contend with the looming danger of 2,700 glacial lakes that did not exist 20 years ago because global warming is melting Himalayan glaciers to the bone, 2,700 xs so far. Yet, Bhutan has done nothing to contribute to global warming but the country is bearing the brunt of the consequences of New York City’s congested traffic spewing CO2 like there is no tomorrow.

Worldwide, the drastic sudden loss of glaciers, happening way beyond natural variability, over time, will impact more than one billion people in Asia alone as they lose a major source for irrigation and drinking water. In South America, the World Bank issued a warning a couple of years ago of impending loss of irrigation and drinking water for inhabited areas surrounding the Andes Mountains. Thereby, ecological migrants, already a major problem in the Middle East, will become the norm in the world community, but to where?

Based upon the World Bank study: “If warming trends continue, the study concluded, many of the Andes’ tropical glaciers will disappear within 20 years, not only threatening the water supplies of 77 million people in the region, but also reducing hydropower production, which accounts for roughly half of the electricity generated in Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador,” (Source: Retreat of Andean Glaciers Foretells Global Water Woes, YaleEnvironment360, April 9, 2009).

The climate change denial camp claims glacial melt is natures’ way, but it has been scientifically established that anthropogenic (human caused) global warming is hitting glaciers hard. A landmark study of 200,000 glaciers in the world ruled out natural causes behind the rapidity of melt: “In our data we find unambiguous evidence of anthropogenic contribution to glacier mass loss. What is happening in recent decades is not explicable by natural climate effects such as variations in solar radiation or volcanic activity,” (Source: Marzeion, B.; Cogley, J.G.; Richter, K.; Parkes, D., 2014, Attribution of global glacier mass loss to anthropogenic and natural causes, Science, 345, 919-921, DOI: 10.1126/science.1254702).

Problematically, glacial melt is accelerating ever faster and recklessly faster yet. For example, Mengke Glacier, one of China’s largest, retreated an average of 26’ annually from 1993-2005 but from 2005 to 2014 it averaged 54’ per year. Anthropogenic global warming, which Mr. Trump denies, has cranked up glacial melt by more than 100% since a little over one decade ago. That rate of change is well beyond the impact of natural variability. It’s huge acceleration with a cherry on top.

If the world does not hurry up installation of renewables, it risks suffering massive loss of sources for agriculture and drinking water and power generation. And, that likely guarantees worldwide chaos as angry mobs of distraught edgy people roam the planet in search of sustenance. This is already underway throughout the Middle East and southern Mediterranean region, which are drying up.

One obvious answer is carbon neutral policies using Bhutan as the archetype versus America as the deviant, odd, peculiar, really strange abnormality. How to do it? Bhutan provides free electricity to farmers so they will no longer have to use firewood to cook their food. The country subsidizes the purchase of electric vehicles. The government is going paperless. All of those efforts, and many more, are part of Clean Bhutan, a national program. They also plant trees throughout the country via Green Bhutan, another national program. Bhutan also has protected areas that are at the core of their carbon neutral strategy. These protected areas serve as carbon sinks or as explained by the PM “our lungs” wildlife sanctuaries, national parks and nature reserves.

The World Wildlife Fund is Bhutan’s principal partner in its journey of Bhutan for Life, a commitment to remain carbon neutral forever. Beyond those stupendous terrific spectacular efforts, Bhutan’s PM has a dream of Earth for Life, encompassing all nations. Well, almost all nations….

He’s likely not holding his breath for America’s participation. As far as that goes, Mr. Trump is villain number one to the spectacular majestic Himalayan glaciers. He and President Bashar al-Assad of Syria share a loathsome, and lonely, title: Global Warming Deniers, Par Excellence.

One has to wonder where the Philippines callous President Rodrigo Duterte stands since he and Mr. Trump are so much like two peas in a pod (footnote: Duterte signed the Paris pact on February 28, 2017 stating in a letter to the Senate: “After examining the text thereof, I find it advisable to accede to the Paris Agreement and seek the Senate’s concurrence thereto.”) Wow, he read it!

Now, if only… Oh well, forget it!

About Paris

At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) marked the first international treaty to address the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by nation states to attempt to avert the impending disaster of global climate change. By December 1997, the UNFCC was expanded into the Kyoto Protocol which set legally binding emissions reductions targets; however the protocol was not implemented until 2005. In the meantime, the United States signed on to the protocol but never ratified it in Congress. Furthermore, many if not most nations, particularly the most-developed, including the U.S., failed to meet emission reduction goals and/or withdrew from the protocol.

In December of 2015, the UN held their annual climate change conference in Paris, France to assess the progress on international greenhouse gas emission reductions, as well as update the Kyoto Protocol. During this conference, a new accord, known as the Paris Agreement, was laid out describing non-binding emission reduction pledges specific to particular nations. As the Kyoto Protocol had expired in 2012, the Paris Agreement set forth a new framework for individual country emission targets, in addition to financial aid and assistance to developing nations in order to help them achieve sustainable growth – i.e., alleviate poverty without compromising environmental concerns. President Barack Obama signed the United States on to the Paris Agreement on Earth Day 2016.

As we all know, as of June 1, 2017, Donald Trump has withdrawn the United States from the Paris Agreement. Yes, this is a symbolic travesty befitting all of the other travesties emblematic of his entire presidency thus far. But beyond the symbolism, does it really matter?

The Paris Agreement is symbolic in itself. It is completely voluntary and non-binding; there are no repercussions for not achieving emissions plans nor for not providing the financial contributions set forth in the accord. As of the end of Obama’s term in office, the U.S. was already destined to miss its emission reduction targets.

Noted climatologist James Hansen suggested that an atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentration exceeding 350 parts per million (ppm) would imperil planetary climate stability, unleashing innumerable, highly predicted, environmental, ecological, and public health effects. Carbon dioxide is the second most abundant (behind water vapor) and most discussed greenhouse gas because of its exponentially increasing concentrations since the manmade industrial revolution commenced. In April of this year, the atmospheric CO2 concentration reached 410 ppm. Clearly, all of our UN climate change treaties have been woefully insufficient.

Ten years ago in graduate school I studied the appraisals and predictions outlined in the reports by the international scientific body known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). As a scientist, I also know how conservative scientific risk assessments tend to be. The future scenarios ranged from, in plain terms, a best-case scenario based on sustainable economic growth and environmental protections, to a business-as-usual scenario, to a worst-case scenario based on unabated economic growth with little to no regard for environmental sustainability.  Not at all surprisingly, the world has already exceeded even the worst-case scenario of emissions and effects predicted by the IPCC.

Before Trump’s decision was announced late Thursday afternoon, NPR’s pundits on Morning Edition made mention that corporations and industries were already prepared for the Paris Agreement and had made plans for energy reduction in accordance with its goals. “What would become of these plans now?” asked the pundits. They also noted that international industries were already altering production to adhere to the strict environmental agreements by other nations. What would these industries do, since the U.S. would now have no such strict environmental protocols? Well, the obvious answer not stated by the journalists is that all such future plans for greater environmental protections and reduced fossil fuel use should remain in place, accord or no accord.

The fact is that the majority of the American public did not even know about the catastrophe of global climate change until Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth documentary in 2006. By that time, all treaties pertaining to reducing fossil fuel consumption and greenhouse gas emissions were decades too late. The 2015 Paris Agreement was horrendously overdue, and because it is non-binding, no nation that signed it is truly obligated to do anything at all. Indeed, if history is any indication, few nations even will.

Yet, just because we are not legally obligated does not mean we are not morally obligated to tackle climate change. We need to do anything and everything we have planned AND FAR MORE. Any industry, corporation, state, city, local municipality, and individual needs to do all that is possible to reduce energy use, reduce consumption, and reduce waste. All of that is probably not enough, but it is a good start. Moreover, we need to aid the most poor and vulnerable among us who are in no position to conquer climate change when their basic necessities of life are not met. None of our actions need be predicated on a non-binding international treaty. If the United States wants to be the moral arbiter of humanity that it always claims to be, if its citizens care about the future of the human species (and other species) on the planet, if we cannot rely on a federal mandate, they we can create mandates ourselves. The Paris Agreement, while an important superficial pledge, was never the saving grace for humanity’s battle against climate change. The withdrawal of the U.S. and the failure of the current executive branch of U.S. government does not prohibit meaningful action. We already know that Trump and his administration do not care about anything but themselves and their own financial success. They have no moral or ethical compass. The question now is, do the rest of us?

China’s Ascent to World Leadership

President Trump’s decision to leave Paris Climate Treaty on the same day that the EU and Chinese Premier Li reached agreement on steps to move rapidly globally on climate  also marks the day that China ascended to world leadership replacing the United States symbolically and in actuality.

The U.S. is now a rapidly declining figure on the world stage politically and, in the future, economically as the Unite States remains fixated on polluting industries and protectionism while China is stepping into the breach politically and financially under the  leadership of President Xi to exercise global leadership on climate and  sustainable development.

China is  crafting agreements  with willing partners on climate and sustainable development around the globe ranging from the Belt and Road initiative and now with the EU and U.S. states like California. Governor Brown can find  partners for sustainable development in Beijing,not Washington.

The 21st century is rapidly becoming China’s century with the fate of global climate action now in China’s hands. This is moment where China must demonstrate to the world not only that the East is Green, but that under Chinese leadership the World is Green.

The world is turning to China with an open hand as the United States has turned its back and is more interested in erecting walls and withdrawing from global trade partnerships and global climate treaties.

China has swiftly become the world’s best hope for sustainable prosperity and building an ecological civilization through green investment and cooperation. China is already the world’s leader in photovoltaics, solar water heating, and wind. China Grid, the world’s largest utility, is planning to help wire the world with high voltage direct current power lines (HVDC) for global renewable electricity. China is global leader in reforestation for carbon dioxide  capture. China is now also  global leader in building gigafactories for electric vehicle batteries.  China is now embraced on a crash program to “Make the skies blue again”, replacing coal plants in major Eastern cities this year with natural  gas. China is  ahead of schedule in meeting its carbon dioxide reduction targets and ledges under Paris Climate agreement.

China needs to accelerate it’s phase out of coal, or quickly adopt mass carbon capture and storage as part of its global climate leadership if we are to decisively escape the threat of ecological calamity. China has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to perform stupendous feats of engineering and construction such as a national high speed rail network that seemed to spring into existence overnight. China needs to turn that energy toward capturing carbon dioxide from coal.

Today, it is with  China’s leadership not only can we avoid climate catastrophe, but make economic growth mean ecological improvement and build an ecological civilization the is official Chinese policy.

Exit stage right President Donald Trump. Curtain rises on President Xi stage center.

We anxiously await the next act, harboring hope for our common futures.

Our Shared Cultural Heritage in Aleppo Urgently Requires Protection and Restoration

As this observer meanders through the ruins of war-torn Aleppo these days, he develops a feeling that somehow he ought to be wearing a hospital gown with gloves so as not to contaminate crushed ancient artifacts as he tries to avoid stepping on them. One feels obliged to avoid contaminating a cultural heritage crime scene.

It requires a few hours for a fascinating walking tour and briefing of the most damaged 2nd millennium BC ancient city of Aleppo that has sustained more than four years of intense bombardment and jihadist destruction, in order to acquire a sense of what’s left and how much of the old city might possibly be significantly restored.

Walking through the rubble of Aleppo’s ancient Souks. Photo: Maher Jalloum.

One of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, Aleppo has long been the urban, commercial and cultural center of northwestern Syria. Its role as a commercial hub and a trade center and Silk Road route reached its peak during the 16th-18th centuries AD. Given the recent cessation of hostilities in this area, one can now climb up to the Aleppo citadel which rises at least 50 yards above the surrounding area and dates at least to the 10th century BC or earlier as my escort explains. The Aleppo Citadel has changed hands during the war with damage to the remains of Hittite, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Seljuk, and Ayyubid period buildings.

Much of the heaviest damage observed in Aleppo is concentrated in the area immediately south of the citadel. This area contains government buildings, such as the Ministry of Justice headquarters, a police headquarters, and the Grand Serail of Aleppo, which was the main government building in the city under the French Mandate. Other historic structures that were damaged and destroyed include the Hammam Yalbougha an-Nasry (late 15th century), the Khusruwiye Mosque (mid-16th century), and the Carlton Citadel Hotel (19th century). By 14 July 2014, the Carlton Citadel Hotel and several adjacent structures had been completely destroyed, while the Khusriwiye Mosque, the Ministry of Justice building, and the police headquarters had been heavily damaged. Between 14 July 2014 and 10 August 2014, the Khusriwiye Mosque was almost completely destroyed, leaving a crater 40m in diameter where the building formerly stood. Similarly, a second 40m crater eliminated the east wing of the Grand Serail. The dome of the public bathhouse was also destroyed.

View of the destroyed Carlton Hotel opposite Aleppo’s Citadel. Photo: Maher Jalloum, May 2017.

Director of the World Heritage Sites department at the DGAM, Lina Qtaifan has commented that photos provided by the local community document that at least 130 properties around Damascus Citadel have sustained damage ranging from partial to full with the southern area opposite the Citadel’s gate being the most damaged, including the al-Sultaniya Mosque, Carlton Hotel, al-Shouna Inn, and al-Jdaideh area, which is an old antique district located next to the Old City in Aleppo. Ms. Qtaifan reports that the damage caused to the area around the Citadel is due to recurring terrorist attacks, particularly by digging tunnels and detonating explosives inside them around the citadel and that there are great concerns over the entirety of the Old City, which is listed as being endangered among World Heritage sites. Meanwhile DGAM regularly forwards reports to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), among others, documenting the damages to cultural heritage sites in Aleppo.

Between 7/19/2012, until 12/20/2016, Aleppo has been at the frontline of the continuing conflict during which government and opposition forces have continued to clash in and around the city. Today, destruction is visible throughout the site. Debris is blown across the area and blocks of structures have been reduced to rubble. Many are large and built with durable materials, such as stone, brick, and mud brick adobe, suggesting intense bombing caused their obliteration. The destroyed structures include historic mosques and madrassas, government buildings, and civilian structures.

Aleppo’s surviving remains include medieval gates, 6th century Christian structures, Roman period street layouts, Ayyubid and Mamluk mosques and schools, and many Ottoman period homes and palaces. One of the most well-known cultural sites in Aleppo is the Great Mosque, which was founded in the Umayyad period in the 12th century with a mamluk minaret dated to AD 1090. Next to the Umayyad Mosque is a Byzantine cathedral that later became the al Halawyah Madrassa—a Koranic school.

The Umayyad’s were the second of the four major caliphates established after the death of Muhammad and at one point included 30% of the World’s population. Damascus was its capitol and an estimated 80% of Sunni Muslims, claim to be supporters of the Umayyads, known to be largely secular. The Christian and Jewish population had autonomy under the Umayyads and their judicial matters were dealt with in accordance with their own laws and by their own religious heads or their appointees, although they did pay a poll tax for policing to the central state. Muhammad had stated explicitly during his lifetime that Abrahamic religious groups (still a majority in times of the Umayyad Caliphate), should be allowed to practice their own religion. This secularism and religious tolerance has until recently, been a cherished hallmark of Syrian society.

As a result of four years of aerial bombardments and shelling, in addition to countless jihadist iconoclastic orgies of destruction, illegal excavations and lootings of our shared cultural heritage in the Old City of Aleppo has sustained more damage to her archeological sites than just about any area in Syria. And there is an urgent need to start repairs.

More than 150 heritage buildings are seriously damaged just within the ancient souk, where this observer and his son Alistair Xavier were first given a tour by the Syrian army back in 2013. At that time an estimated two hundred and fifty archaeological buildings in the Old City of Aleppo were estimated to need rehabilitation, with 30 percent have been destroyed, 30% severely damaged and 40% sustaining minor damage. Today, the damage is much greater with more than 60 percent of the souks now destroyed. Many of the traditional houses, dating from around the first century AD, are also damaged and in need or urgent repair. Lack of building materials and cash our two major problems.

Much assessment of damage has already been achieved and even some inchoate repairs have been started. According to Dr. Maamoun Abdul-Karim, Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM), “We’ve asked the mayor not to move any of the old stones. We have a team there gathering information about the damage, which they will present to us. We will start working in the most at-risk areas. It’s very sad and it’s a very dramatic situation, In Palmyra, if we have to wait years for peace to return, or because we don’t have funds, we can wait. But in Aleppo every new winter will be a further attack on the cultural sites. A lot of the buildings were built using traditional materials – not like the stones in Palmyra, which can wait three or four years, no problem.”

Aleppo is in serious danger and according to DGAM, close to 300 archaeological buildings in the Old City of Aleppo have been documented as needing urgent rehabilitation.

Dr. Maamoun recently commented to this observer among others: “The war will end, the politics will change, but our heritage remains for all of us, for our descendants, and for us to share with the whole world. Syria’s patrimony can never be divided between different camps. It’s a shared heritage that belongs to everyone. If it is saved, it’s a victory for humanity. If it’s lost, it’s a loss for everyone. We have to work together to save it for our children. We need the Syrian people to come back to Syria, the people of Aleppo to come back to their houses. For real restoration we need peace, we need reconciliation.”