Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Felool us twice...

[Originally posted at NOW]

Earlier today, less than 24 hours after US Secretary of State John Kerry rewarded Egypt’s new military dictator with a first-time personal visit, bearing housewarming gifts of over $500m and a fleet of Apache attack helicopters, an Egyptian court sentenced six journalists – an Australian, two Britons, a Dutchwoman, an Egyptian and an Egyptian-Canadian – to between seven and ten years in jail on charges of “spreading false news” and supporting “terrorism.”

The entire ‘trial’ had of course from the start been a spectacle of unabashed thuggery. The judge, who had a habit of wearing dark sunglasses in court, based his decision on such compelling evidence as “videos of trotting horses from Sky News Arabia, a song by the Australian singer Gotye, and a BBC documentary from Somalia,” according to the Guardian. Amnesty International added that “prosecutors obstructed the defendants’ right to review and challenge the evidence presented against them” and “key witnesses for the prosecution […] appeared to contradict their own testimony,” concluding the whole procedure was “a complete sham.”

All perfectly despicable, certainly, but why should anyone be surprised? This is, after all, the same regime that has slaughtered “more than 1,400 demonstrators” since coming to power (according to Human Rights Watch), sentenced hundreds more to death, and arrested no fewer than 16,000 political prisoners, many of whom are routinely tortured. Whatever else today’s verdict may be, it’s hardly a departure from the progress of what Kerry once imperishably called the military’s “restoring democracy” – the jailing of secular figureheads of the 2011 revolution; the silencing of Bassem Youssef; the rounding up and deporting of Syrian and Palestinian refugees; Field Marshal Sisi’s laughable 96% election win.

The one ironic consolation is that a show trial aimed at silencing criticism of the ruling junta has in fact only shone a larger and brighter international spotlight upon its depravity. Martin Amis once said what made literary criticism unique was that the critic was forced to use the same tools – i.e., pen and pad – as the artist he was appraising (whereas, say, a theatre critic need not express his thoughts on a new play by leaping on stage and bursting into song). By the same token, what is so singularly stupid about oppressing journalists is that the people who write the news around the world are also journalists. To that extent – admittedly if only to that extent – the felool in their brutality are fashioning rods that one day may be applied to their own backs.

Hezbollah's next steps unclear as bomb revives fears in Dahiyeh

[Originally posted at NOW]

Iraq situation seen as potential factor in attack that reveals limits of Hezbollah’s and security forces’ power.

BIR AL-ABED, Lebanon: NOW was queuing at a Lebanese army checkpoint at the entrance to Beirut’s southern suburbs when the news broke over the radio Friday morning. A suicide bombing had struck a police checkpoint in Dahr al-Baydar, some 35km away on the road to Damascus, putting an end to a 12-week lull in a series of such deadly attacks to have hit Lebanon since the previous summer. Security forces would begin immediately sealing roads across the country, the radio presenter then said, in light of “information” that a number of other explosives-rigged cars were presently dispersed and ready to blow in “several neighborhoods.”

It was perhaps unsurprising, then, that once inside “Dahiyeh,” as the southern suburbs are collectively known, NOW found the streets emptying quickly as residents made their way indoors. While some of the young men still loitering on the sidewalks in the Bir al-Abed neighborhood put on brave faces, telling NOW the suicide bomb was “nothing,” others admitted to renewed fears that the attacks would once again strike in the heart of Dahiyeh: of 21 vehicle explosions in Lebanon since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict, six have been in Dahiyeh, two in Bir al-Abed itself.

“How’s the situation? Look, here’s how the situation is,” said a jeweler who would only identify himself as Hassan, pointing at live footage of the destruction in Dahr al-Baydar on the television inside his store. “The world powers, America and Russia, are pulling strings” – he made a puppet master gesture – “and we civilians are paying the price.”

“Certainly, the fear is back,” said Hassan’s assistant, who declined to give his name. Even before Friday’s bombing, he told NOW, persistent rumors of attacks – such as an alleged plot to target hospitals in Dahiyeh earlier in the week – had kept many residents’ nerves on edge. “Look at all the shops on this street, they’re offering 50% discounts but still they’re empty, because customers are too scared to come here.”

That alleged hospital plot had reportedly sparked one of the largest deployments of Hezbollah militiamen onto Dahiyeh’s streets in months. Now, after Friday’s attack, residents told NOW they expected further security measures to be taken by the party in the area. NOW saw gunmen wearing the party’s signature black t-shirts standing guard outside several mosques, but beyond that no additional measures were immediately evident.

Indeed, analysts told NOW they did not expect the party to do significantly more than it already is doing – namely, securing Dahiyeh, coordinating with the Lebanese army in attempts to neutralize Al-Qaeda-linked groups both within the country and on the border, and continuing its military intervention in the Syrian war, which the party controversially argues is of benefit to Lebanon’s stability.

“There won’t be much of a new reaction from Hezbollah,” said Ali al-Amin, an analyst and Dahiyeh resident. “Except that, after [the takeover of significant Iraqi territory by Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) jihadists,] the Iraqi Shiite groups fighting alongside Hezbollah will move back to Iraq, and new Hezbollah units will be called to Syria to replace them.” This is consistent with what NOW’s South Lebanon correspondent first reported last week.

Amin added the party will seek to capitalize on the bombing, and the heightened fears it has generated, to further reinforce its retrospective justifications for intervening in Syria. In his most recent remarks, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said “ISIS would be in Beirut now” were it not for Hezbollah’s military offensive.

Other observers believe Friday’s attack signals a new danger deriving from the Iraq situation, suggesting events may be moving beyond Hezbollah’s ability to control them.

“Of course, there will be heightened security,” said Qassem Kassir, another analyst residing in Dahiyeh. “But it’s no longer just about Hezbollah. Today’s explosion didn’t target Hezbollah: it targeted the Internal Security Forces. The [alleged threat against Beirut’s UNESCO building] wasn’t targeting Hezbollah, it was targeting [Amal Movement leader] Nabih Berri. It’s no longer just Hezbollah or the Shiite community that’s at risk. Now everyone is.”

In Kassir’s view, the bomb was intended as a message from ISIS and its affiliates that events in Iraq will have an impact across the entire region.

“It’s as if, after what happened in Iraq, groups everywhere linked to ISIS felt they should do something,” he told NOW.

“Iraq portends more to come, in Dahiyeh and outside Dahiyeh. They will target everyone.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Blame Assad first for ISIS' rise

[Originally posted at NOW]

The regime has abetted Sunni extremists to influence Western public opinion.

In the week since Al-Qaeda spinoff the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) brought Iraq back into international headlines by seizing around a third of the country in a matter of hours, there has understandably been a great deal of soul-searching and hair-pulling as to how a group that was supposed to have been “decimated,” in a country that was supposed to be last decade’s headache, has once again managed with just a few hundred men to humiliate an army many times its size and generally outfox the entire world.

Fingers have been hastily pointed in every direction, with culprits found ranging from the timeless “conspiracy” (in the Iraqi prime minister’s words) to Tony Blair (who took to his website Saturday to cantankerously declare his complete innocence of all charges). An increasingly widespread claim – appealing perhaps because of its ring of an ironic morality tale about imperial folly – has it that ISIS’ growth is in fact the doing of the West’s closest but most duplicitous Arab allies, the oleaginous Gulf dictatorships, who have done to us once again what they’ve been doing since they backed the Afghan Mujahideen that nurtured Bin Laden in the 1980s. Will we ever learn?

Lost in this din, driven more by the grinding of old axes than dispassionate consideration of the evidence, is the obvious fact that one man has contributed vastly more than anyone else to getting ISIS where it is today: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

First, though, it’s worth exploring the Gulf hypothesis, because like any popular misconception, it does contain elements of truth. It’s unquestionably the case, as Josh Rogin argued in The Daily Beast on Saturday, that the Gulf monarchs make little if any real effort to prevent their more pious subjects from sending considerable sums of money to extremist outfits, including ISIS. That a Kuwaiti man named Ghanim al-Mteiri had no objection to going on the record to the New York Times in November about his financing of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s official Al-Qaeda franchise, says everything that needs to be said about the Al-Sabah regime’s commitment to what Rogin still calls the “war on terror.”

But this is not the same as saying – as Rogin’s title (“America’s Allies Are Funding ISIS”) does, and as others such as Simon Henderson in Foreign Policy and Robert Fisk in The Independent have – that ISIS is actively and deliberately sponsored as a matter of policy by the Saudis and other Gulf rulers and should be thought of as no more than a proxy created to advance Riyadh’s regional ambitions. Quite to the contrary: ISIS has long been at war with Saudi’s actual clients in Syria, the Islamic Front and what is loosely called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who have successfully driven it out of much of its former turf in the north. Indeed, among the many sources of hostility between ISIS and the other brigades is precisely the former’s rejection of Saudi intervention. While FSA leaders openly express gratitude for Riyadh’s help, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani mocks the Kingdom as a “state which claims to be Islamic,” and denounces as traitors all factions “supported by the Saudis, America, and the infidels of the West.”

Another cause of friction is the FSA’s frequent accusations of ISIS collaboration with the regime. Though this line of argument, too, can take irrational and conspiratorial forms, there are a number of incontrovertible facts that, taken in aggregate, suggest the “Assad-or-the-terrorists” dichotomy that so much guides (or misguides) Western policy toward Syria is not nearly as straightforward as we’re led to believe:

● For long periods of time, the regime largely spared ISIS’ bases from the kinds of aerial and other attacks it daily visits upon the rest of the country. A government adviser told the New York Times’ Anne Barnard this was indeed a deliberate policy, designed to “tar” the broader opposition and “frame [the] choice” as either Assad or the extremists. As one ISIS defector told The Daily Telegraph, “We were confident that the regime would not bomb us. We always slept soundly in our bases.” He added, in a quote that didn’t make the final text, that ISIS had even been infiltrated by regime agents. “I know men who were officers in the police and Syrian intelligence branches who are now in ISIS. They grew long beards and joined.” Another good reason for Assad not to drop barrel bombs on them.

● According to the same Daily Telegraph report, both ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra have raised millions of dollars through sales of crude oil from fields under their control to the regime, a unique case of overt partnership between ISIS and a state actor.

● Although ISIS only officially formed in April 2013, its roots lie in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the same group Assad paid and equipped in the mid-2000s to fight the Americans in precisely the region of Iraq now occupied by ISIS. In 2003, on the regime’s orders, Syria’s ordinarily mild-mannered Grand Mufti Sheikh Ahmad Kuftaro issued a gladiatorial fatwa calling for attacks, including suicide bombings, against the Americans in Iraq. Those who came back alive after making the trip over the border – following training and funding from the regime – were promptly thrown into Damascus’ notorious Sednaya prison upon their return. Years later, on May 31, 2011, Assad suddenly pardoned and released dozens of Sednaya’s most dangerous inmates, who predictably went on to become leaders in Islamist rebel brigades, including extremist ones. This was at the same time the regime was imprisoning, torturing, and indeed murdering the secular and nonviolent democracy activists out in the streets. What was going on? As Aron Lund, editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s "Syria in Crisis" page, put it, “There are no random acts of kindness from this regime.”

● Nawaf al-Fares, the defected former Syrian ambassador to Iraq, has claimed the regime ordered a series of suicide bombings in Syria in 2012, carried out by the very jihadists he himself had sent to Iraq years previously. Again, the idea was to discredit the opposition, thereby duping the world into preferring Assad. “The Syrian government would like to use Al-Qaeda as a bargaining chip with the West,” he said, “to say: ‘it is either them or us.’” Another defector, former intelligence officer Afaq Ahmad, similarly recalls how “the jihadist groups and brigades” were “very useful for the regime,” which infiltrated them and even brokered non-aggression pacts with some of them.

To be clear, nobody is suggesting ISIS fighters are pure agents provocateurs, or that the regime doesn’t also kill them as and when expedient. Indeed, presumably realizing (or being told by “brotherly” Iran) after the fall of Iraq’s Mosul last week that ISIS had been allowed to grow stronger than intended, on Sunday Assad’s air force began bombing the group’s strongholds across northeastern Syria.

But that, if anything, only underlines the point that the regime knew the locations of those strongholds all this time. There simply is no other actor, not even the roundly assailed Iraqi PM Nouri al-Maliki, who has done so much for so long to directly facilitate ISIS’ rise. So far from facing a choice between “Assad and the terrorists,” in other words, Syrians – and now Iraqis too – suffer the latter precisely because they have for so long been plagued with the former.

Iran more likely than US to intervene in Iraq crisis

[Originally posted at NOW]

Analysts tell NOW Iran is already acting to counter surprise jihadist gains in Iraq, while US involvement will likely be limited.

In a rapid coup that has alarmed Middle Eastern and international capitals alike over the past 48 hours, an Al-Qaeda spinoff known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has overrun virtually all of northwestern Iraq, including the country’s second city, Mosul, and has made further advances southeast toward the capital, Baghdad.

While few expect the group to make it that far, that it was able with just a few hundred men to so easily rout an estimated 30,000 Iraqi soldiers raises serious questions about Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s grip on the country and has prompted fears of further and bloodier sectarian warfare – not only in Iraq, but also neighboring Syria, where ISIS already controls significant and contiguous territory. Since capturing Mosul Tuesday, the group has acquired unprecedented stocks of US-made military hardware, some of which has already reportedly been taken back to eastern Syria, and looted an estimated $480m in cash while freeing as many as 2,500 prisoners.

So acute is the crisis that an imminent military response seems to be a question not so much of “if” but rather “by whom.” One scenario, supported by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, would make use of militants from the nearby semi-autonomous Kurdistan province, who took control of their much-coveted city of Kirkuk Thursday following the Iraqi army’s flight. At the same time, the United States is said to be contemplating launching drone strikes on ISIS positions in Iraq, something Maliki has reportedly been privately requesting since May.

Yet analysts with whom NOW spoke said the most likely form of intervention was also the most potentially dangerous: that of Maliki’s Iranian ally and its various Shiite Islamist proxies, setting the stage for a repeat of the horrific sectarian warfare that engulfed Iraq in 2006-2007. Already, the Islamic Republic has dispatched an elite military unit of its Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, reportedly including its commander, Qassem Suleimani, while Shiite Islamist leader Muqtada al-Sadr has hinted at a revival of his once fearsome Mahdi Army militia.

“What I’m afraid of is that this is going to be an increasingly sectarian and Iranian-proxy-led [military campaign],” said Kirk H. Sowell, an Amman-based political risk analyst and publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. “And this is already happening. […] The US is equivocating, but Iran is not going to hesitate. They’re already directly involved.”

“My fear is that the Iranian regime will attempt to swoop in and offer an alternative strategy in which the Quds Force commanded by Qassem Suleimani deploys in force to advise and direct a Shiite sectarian solution resembling what they have done in Syria,” concurred Colonel Joel Rayburn, senior research fellow at the National Defense University. “If Maliki and the other parties accede to this Iranian solution, it will mean the partition of the country into three or four warring sectarian states – just as has happened in Syria,” Rayburn told NOW.

Direct intervention by Shiite Islamist militants would likely further polarize an already fractured nation, dragging a Sunni community that has already for years complained of marginalization further toward the extremists among its own ranks, including ISIS, according to Lebanese analyst Mustafa Fahs.

“The [Sunni] region could even support ISIS and ex-Baathists, and gather troops who are against Iran and the Maliki government,” Fahs told NOW. Already, evidence has emerged of collaboration with ISIS by former Iraqi Baathist Sunni militias in the capture of Mosul.

Despite these risks, Rayburn told NOW he “fear[ed] that a desperate Maliki may choose this course as his best means of holding onto power.”

A much preferable alternative, in Rayburn’s view, would be the utilization of Kurdish forces, though historic tensions between them and the government render it unlikely.

“In my view, partnering with the Kurdish Peshmerga would be the best military course of action for Maliki. Many of the Peshmerga units are well-trained and well-led and know the territory, and they are already based nearby the danger areas. […] But to do this would require a political accommodation between Maliki and the Kurdish parties that it is unclear Maliki is willing to undertake,” Rayburn told NOW.

Moreover, with Kirkuk – sometimes dubbed the “Kurdish Jerusalem” – already in the Peshmerga’s hands, they would have little incentive to take the fight elsewhere on Maliki’s behalf, added Sowell.

“I would be surprised [if the Peshmerga intervened in Mosul.] The areas where they’ve made a move have been areas they wanted to take over anyway. […] They will make their contribution by providing refuge to Arabs” fleeing ISIS-held areas, he told NOW.

As for the United States, despite the possibility of a certain degree of military involvement, up to and including limited air strikes, according to Sowell, President Obama is unlikely to radically revise his traditionally non-interventionist Middle East policy.

“[The US] will definitely be providing arms, ammunition, and what not [to the Iraqi government],” said Sowell. “But air strikes, I don’t know. Air strikes within Mosul would not be effective anyway. We don’t have the intelligence to do this with sufficient precision. It would have to be on a very selective basis: let’s say we have a satellite pickup, there’s a convoy of ISIS guys that leave Mosul, and once they’re outside the city we hit them.”

“But I’m not sure Obama would be willing to do even that,” he added. “There’s a sort of allergy in the Obama White House [against] doing anything related to Iraq, frankly. The 2008 campaign is still determining Iraq policy, even though circumstances have radically changed.”

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

One year on, no justice for murdered anti-Hezbollah activist

[Originally posted at NOW]

“Our case has been buried,” says brother of late Hashem Salman.

Salman and his fellow student activists were attacked the moment they arrived at the embassy last year (Source: lebanonews.net)
It was a killing in broad daylight, witnessed by dozens of onlookers, including state security forces and members of the local and international press.

Yet one year after student activist Hashem Salman was shot dead outside Beirut’s Iranian embassy during a peaceful demonstration against Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria, his killers remain free and a spokesman for the agency undertaking the official investigation was unaware that it was even in his colleagues’ hands.

The case file is currently held at an Internal Security Forces (ISF) branch in the southwest Beirut neighborhood of Ouzai, according to lawyers and activists following up on the case with whom NOW spoke. However, when NOW contacted the ISF, the press officer said he knew nothing of it, and suggested contacting the Lebanese Armed Forces instead.

“I don’t know [if there has been any progress]. I don’t have any information about this case,” said Maj. Joseph Msallem. “Maybe the army [is handling it]. You can ask the army if you want and if you want also to pursue this case you can send a fax to me.” Subsequent requests for information sent to both the ISF and the army went unanswered.

NOW also made inquiries with the Iranian embassy, which had been asked at the time by then-President Michel Suleiman to assist in the investigation. A spokesperson told NOW Monday the embassy had no involvement in the investigation, and no information about it.

For the family of Salman, these are distressing indications that officials are either unwilling or unable – or both – to do anything to bring his killers to justice. “Our case has been buried, and nobody is helping us,” Hashem Salman’s brother Hassan told NOW Monday. “We’ve been left alone. Even the media [ignored] us. Nobody is investigating.”

This is despite persistent and repeated efforts by the family to press officials to move things forward, said Hassan.

“I personally met with everybody. I met with the president. I met with the ministers of justice and interior, in the current cabinet and the previous one. And I met with a lot of politicians. And they all just tell you, ‘We’re going to work on this, we’re not going to leave it,’ but in reality, nothing’s been done. Nothing at all,” he told NOW.

Compounding the family’s grief is, Hassan says, the abundance of evidence available implicating Iran’s principal Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, in the crime. At the time, a Reuters correspondent reported witnessing armed Hezbollah members firing on the demonstrators.

“This case doesn’t need investigation at all,” said Hassan. “They have the pictures of all the killers that were there, and they know to which militia they belong […] It’s the only case, of all the assassinations that happened since [former Prime Minister] Rafiq Hariri’s, that is very clear, with a lot of evidence and witnesses […] My brother was killed by the Iranian militia [i.e. Hezbollah] and it’s very clear, there’s no doubt about it.” Hezbollah has a longstanding policy of not commenting to most media outlets, including NOW.

Consequently, Hassan sees two key reasons why the case has been shelved. The first is that Hezbollah’s influence over the relevant state institutions, backed by its paramilitary muscle, is simply too powerful to overcome.

“Nobody is allowed to come near the Iranian militia. Who’s going to go to them and tell them, ‘Give us the murderers’? No one’s got the balls,” he told NOW.

The second, he believes, is that the anti-Hezbollah March 14 coalition has privately agreed to drop Hashem’s case in return for concessions from its pro-Hezbollah March 8 rivals, with whom it now shares a cabinet.

“There are deals under the table between politicians from March 14 and March 8 – you cover your eyes for this case, we cover our eyes for that case. You give us this, we give you that. This is how it’s working,” said Hassan.

Despite the long odds against them, Hassan says he and his family will continue their fight for justice, starting with a press conference Tuesday to highlight photographic and other evidence they have compiled.

“We’re not going to [abandon] the blood of our Hashem. It’s our blood, [and] we won’t sell it. Because lots of the politicians in Lebanon are buying and selling. They don’t believe in real freedom, they don’t believe in justice, they don’t believe in human rights and our right to be free. We adore freedom. Hashem adored freedom. Hashem died for freedom.”

“The case of Hashem is the case for all free people in the world, not only in Lebanon.”

How it happened

- On Sunday, 9 June, 2013, a small group of unarmed students arrived by bus to the Iranian embassy in Bir Hassan, southwest Beirut, where the interior ministry had given them permission to hold a demonstration calling for the withdrawal of Hezbollah fighters from Syria.

- As soon as the students disembarked, “men with handguns and dressed in black with the yellow arm-bands of Hezbollah” approached and began assaulting them with batons, according to a Reuters reporter at the scene.

- Moments later, according to the same Reuters report, “The gunmen drew their weapons and fired. Several protestors were hit.”

- The leader of the student group, Hashem Salman, was among those shot “in front of the Internal Security [Forces], in front of the Lebanese army,” said his brother, Hassan. According to multiple eyewitnesses, the Hezbollah forces prevented anyone from taking the severely wounded, but then still alive, Hashem to get medical care. “Nobody was allowed to help Hashem, nobody was allowed to take him to the hospital,” said Hassan. He died shortly afterward.

- The following day, Hezbollah officials refused to allow Salman’s body to be buried in the public cemetery in his south Lebanese home town of Adloun, compelling them to bury him on private land instead.

Myra Abdallah contributed reporting.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Tin-pot propaganda at the British Museum

[Originally posted at NOW]

"One thing is certain" - except it's not (NOW/Alex Rowell)
The British tendency to understatement is a virtue rivalled only by an equal and opposite vice of euphemism. The difficulty outsiders often have in distinguishing between the two can cause a great deal of confusion: of innocent self-deprecating humor with gloom, in the former case; and of serious malice with wit or genteel decorum, in the latter. The resulting losses in translation can be costly: one British brigadier in the Korean War, believing that describing his troops’ situation over the radio as “a bit sticky” would adequately convey their total encirclement by Chinese Communists, had the misfortune of having an American interlocutor, who interpreted him as saying all was basically well, and thus failed to send the reinforcements that might have averted the slaughter and capture of hundreds of the British men.

With such rich and various – but comparatively subtle – means of deception, it’s rare to catch British officialdom uttering an outright, demonstrable lie. Which is why it was so arresting for me to read the information panels at the Parthenon marbles display in the British Museum last week. While initially contenting themselves with describing the 19th century disfigurement and theft, by our own ‘Lord’ Elgin, of the finest surviving monument of all antiquity as a “matter for discussion” – a truly magnificent euphemism, trivializing the plunder of Socrates’ Athens to the level of tea-table chatter – the curators then waded overconfidently into the terrain of plain falsehood:

“Elgin’s removal of the sculptures from the ruins of the building has always been a matter for discussion, but one thing is certain – his actions spared them further damage by vandalism, weathering and pollution.”

That is one way of putting it. But consider, if only for “discussion’s” sake, some of the other ways. Here, for instance, is how Edward Daniel Clarke, an eyewitness to Elgin’s conduct, described a day on the job*:

“After a short time spent in examining the several parts of the temple, one of the workmen came to inform Don Battista that they were then going to lower one of the metopes. We saw this fine piece of sculpture raised from its station between the triglyphs; but the workmen endeavouring to give it a position adapted to the projected line of descent, a part of the adjoining masonry was loosened by the machinery; and down came the fine masses of Pentelican marble, scattering their white fragments with thundering noise among the ruins […]”

Nor was this sort of thing uncommon. Take Giovanni Lusieri, an Italian subordinate of Elgin’s, reporting a mishap encountered in making off with a section of the eastern frieze:

“Not being well-sawn, for want of sufficiently fine saws, and being a little weak in the middle it parted in two in course of transport […] Happily it broke in the middle, in a straight line, at a place where there was no work, so that the accident has helped us to transport it quickly […]”

Then there was the time Elgin quite literally lost his marbles at sea, when the Mentor, a ship he had bought for the purpose of carrying the loot back to his house in Scotland (only after he later ran into money problems did he contemplate selling them to the government), sank in the Mediterranean. It was only with what Christopher Hitchens described as “enormous labour on the part of local fisherman” that the stones were eventually recovered.

So far from delivering the masterpiece of Phidias from vandalism, then, it’s obvious that Elgin was himself the principal vandal. But were the marbles, at least, secure once they passed out of His Lordship’s clumsy mitts into the curators’ assiduous custody?

Not according to a 1938 entry in the minutes of the British Museum Standing Committee titled, ‘Damage to Sculpture of the Parthenon,’ in which it is quietly admitted that years of systematic ill-maintenance in Bloomsbury have resulted in “great damage” to several “important pieces,” likely arising from the alarming practice of brushing them all with copper wire.

You really couldn’t make it up, which is why I was unable to stop myself from blurting out loud, while reading the information panel (see above photo), that it was “the sheerest propaganda.” When I did, I was heartened to hear a laugh from a European woman behind me, who had evidently been reading along with much the same thought in mind. How much longer will the British government refuse to accept the Greek request for restitution, and persist in what is not only a moral disgrace and national embarrassment, but an object of mockery and contempt from visitors?

* This and other quotes taken from Christopher Hitchens’ The Parthenon Marbles: The Case for Reunification