“The first time it was reported that our friends were being butchered there was a cry of horror. Then a hundred were butchered. But when a thousand were butchered and there was no end to the butchery, a blanket of silence spread.
When evil-doing comes like falling rain, nobody calls out "stop!"
When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible.
When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.”
Bertolt Brecht, Selected Poems
This year is the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the Thirty Years war in Europe, the setting for Brecht’s Mother Courage. A savage and complex war, it pitted Catholics against Protestants and drew in five large national and imperial armies. Some eight million people died, some in battle, or in civilian massacres, most from famine and disease. Europe’s cities were devastated. Some of the German States lost 40% of their population. The horror of religious war is being repeated today, this time within Islam.
The Assad, distantly Shi’a Alawite led regime with its Russian and Iranian (Shi’a Muslim) allies have begun the final systematic destruction of resistance in the Idlib Province of Syria. Villages and towns with their additional refugee population, together making up some three million mainly Sunni inhabitants, will be bombed and the number of civilian casualties will soar. The assault has started. The slaughter of civilians in Syria continues, whether by barrel bombs dropped from Syrian air-force helicopters or the modern rocket technology of Putin’s air-force backed up by Iranian Revolutionary Guards ground-forces. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
Saudi bombing in Yemen, accelerating during August, is similarly indifferent to civilian casualties: children on buses, weddings, funerals, markets and medical centres have been attacked from the air. The Saudi-led largely Sunni Coalition ground forces have also perpetrated war crimes in three years of war against the Houthis, Zaidi Shi’ite Muslims. Naval blockades and attacks on the key port of Houdaydah suggest the aim is to use famine as a weapon of war, a tactic employed in Syria. Meanwhile Houthi forces retaliate and commit their own human rights violations. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
At the same time, within Sunni Saudi Arabia an internal sectarian conflict is in progress. Israa-al-Ghamgham, a 29 year old Shi’a woman, imprisoned since 2015, was tried in the notorious Special Criminal Court in Riyadh for giving support to rioters. (She documented human rights violations and attended funerals of protesters against discrimination). The public prosecutor is seeking the death penalty under Royal Decree 44/A for her and four other human rights activists - including her husband. They are all from the Shi’a majority Qatif governorate in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern province. Sheikh Nimr-al-Nimr, a prominent Shi’a cleric - and forty-seven others - were executed in 2016. He was charged for allegedly leading protests and encouraging sectarian strife. The Qatif Five’s fate will be decided in October. And nobody, it seems, can do anything about it.
We would know next to nothing about these events and crimes were it not for a handful of courageous journalists and humanitarian and human rights organisations. Governments know only too well. They try to hide the level of their complicity and do nothing. Spain has just cancelled an arms deal but is a very minor player compared with the USA, $8 billion, and UK, $2.6 billion, in arms and military sales to Saudi Arabia since 2014. Weapons pour in from Russia, and to a lesser degree from Iran, into Syria. This is a more than generous contribution to the militarization of the region, the entrenchment of sectarian conflict and a state of perpetual warfare.
The sponsorship of this ethnic/religious/national conflict in a strategically vital arena pits five national and “imperial” armies against each other: US, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey as key belligerents, with the UK and others playing a supporting role. Despite much publicised efforts to mediate truces, more clandestine efforts are made which pour gasoline on the fire by promoting fear and exporting planes, weapons, communications and military transport. President Trump - and Israel - have now clearly taken sides with Sunni forces against Iran and Russia which is backing the Iranian brand of revolutionary Shi’ism. The most powerful military power, and thus potentially diplomatic power in the world, has abdicated any role of peace-maker and mediator to become a proxy or direct belligerent in sectarian wars.
The late UK Foreign Minister, Robin Cook MP, the lonely figure who resigned rather than support the war in Iraq in March 2003, promoted the idea of a foreign policy with an ethical dimension (note not an ethical foreign policy but even so a contentious proposal). It was, at least in intention, a significant adjustment to British foreign policy. He was jeered in Parliament. I doubt if President Trump would even know what Cook was talking about. Prime Minister May is far too busy trying to glue together a fractured Tory Party to conduct any coherent foreign policy. She demonstrated early contempt for the Foreign Office by appointing Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. So nobody is doing anything about the coming decades of war in the Middle East except wring their hands.
The consequences of this burgeoning sectarian conflict will reverberate around the world. The expulsion from the Middle East of Christians and other minority faiths will continue. The flight of refugees will remain a pressing humanitarian concern. Devastated cities will remain havens for extremists. Trump, but not just Trump, is fashioning our very own Thirty Years War. And as the evil doers in Brecht’s poem take centre stage Mother Courage returns as the unheroic heroine of our time.