Athens- I’ve just spent the last three weeks in Greece and it felt as if I visited two distinct worlds between the whitewashed and azure Cyclades and the gritty bustle of Athens on the mainland. Greece is enduring simultaneous crises with debt issue with its tug of war with the so-called troika of the European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Commission and the refugee-migrant situation located primarily in the Dodecanese island chain and the Macedonian border.
With 19 parties competing for votes in Greek parliament, the election, like to conflation of genuine war refugees (Syrians) with ordinary economic migrants (Bangladeshis) and political asylum seekers (Eritreans), is likely to be a muddled affair. Greece like other Mediterranean states, has a rather extreme political pendulum that swings widely between right and left. The middle ground often seems vacant, at least to an outside observer.
In the docile Cyclades however, the feel of political and economic instability is buffeted by the massive annual influx of summer tourism which now includes a significant number of BRIC nation visitors, many of whom are traveling the Mediterranean world for the first time. Where once stylish Japanese backpackers with shredded jeans and long hair mimicking the original Western travelers of the sexual revolution plodding along solo or in pairs, in their place today are huge Chinese tour groups from the emerging middle class donning flat colored outfits with huge visors and umbrellas to shade their fair skin from the unrelenting sun. The shift of the economic balance in northeast Asia coupled with the Greek isles’ appetite for mass market tourism has ushered in a new era. From the small prism of visiting Greece over two decades I have seen the world change.
Athens has a distinctly different, hyper politicized feel about it than the island chain to the south. The city is plastered with an unending stream of posters from anarchists, traditional communists, and anti-fascists supporting the YPG in northern Syria’s Jazira canton. Graffiti is ubiquitous as is mainstream Greek political bric-a-brac. But one thing united the people making a living from tourism on the islands and Athenians in a maze-like urban grid: a good number of people I spoke with seemed certain Greece was destined be booted out of the eurozone to return to the drachma. Several Greeks told me the inevitable currency reversion was on the horizon and that much of the uncertainty was not about if this would happen but when.
People were slightly less concerned about the refugees and migrants arrive by the thousands because of the meme that they all desired to be in central or northern Europe. of course I didn’t go to Kos, Lesvos, Samos, Rhodos are any of the islands directly affected so the sentiments in the Dodecanese may wary greatly from those in the more isolated Cyclades or cosmopolitan Athens. Whoever I spoke with in the last three weeks in the Hellenic Republic felt that their nation-state was going through a painful, humiliating period of political and economic uncertainty that must end at some point. Resentment is directed everywhere form Angela Merkel and Germany writ large, to eurocrats in Brussels, to corrupt local politicians who failed to protect Greek citizens from becoming so vulnerable to market diktats.
Paros- Sitting in here in a quiet village on a quiet island in the heart of the Cyclades, the drama seems to churn all around. The Dodecanese islands just off the coast of western Turkey and mainland Greece have been in the media spotlight for months with the massive influx of people being smuggled into the EU. It has been labeled the ‘migrant crisis’ though some would argue it should be repackaged as the ‘refugee crisis.’ Public Radio International referred to it as “the story of the summer.” Part of the problem is that the dynamic is largely driven by entirely opportunistic people smuggling networks that have existed here in the Mediterranean long before the summer of 2015 and the Syrian civil war that sparked in March 2011.
In the fall of 2009 on the island of Samos at 6am, I observed a boat of migrants and refugees all mixed together on a overloaded dinghy while I waited fro my ferry to Turkey. They were being pulled in by the Greek Coast Guard and the dock was being monitored by FRONTEX, the EU’s border agency. The frightened boat people were then frog marched through town to a holding center where they hoped to be registered so they could eventually make their way to Athens and on towards northern Europe or the UK in all likelihood. These smuggling networks from the edge of Turkey are in no way a new phenomenon that was an outgrowth of the Arab Spring or anything of the like. They are simply part of a long existing economic underground that has grown enormously this summer.
There seems to be a lot of confusion on what the crisis is about and who the migrants are or what a so-called economic migrant is. A family fleeing the Syrian civil war is not in the same migration category as throngs of young men from Bangladesh who are entering an already deeply ensconced economic migration pattern to be able to wire money home back to, say, Sylhet Division where almost all Bangladeshis in the UK originate from, for example (and much of the community in Queens, NYC). In short there is no war inside Bangladesh. Bangladesh is a deeply corrupt, incredibly impoverished state but it has not produced genuine refugees on a large scale since its liberation war of 1971 when it broke away from Pakistan. Nor is there armed conflict in the State of Eritrea where thousands are claiming to be fleeing mandatory military service to a harsh regime with no end in sight. Miserable to be sure, but the situation inside Eritrea is not comparable to that in Syria.
Pakistan does have bouts of armed conflict along its poorly demarcated western periphery with Afghanistan but that isn’t where the bulk of Pakistani men attempting to get to the EU are coming from. In other words, these men are not Pashto or Baluchi speakers. They most often hail from rural communities not far from the eastern border with India. Though politically tense at times, it is not a war zone by any means.
When I was in transit for a day in piping hot Naples, I happened upon this poignant migrant monument erected by the Fondazione Mediterraneo and the Italian Coast Guard earlier this year. Not far from it, perhaps a few hundred feet, there were South Asian and sub-Saharan African men selling cheap hats and ‘selfie sticks’ to tourists along the city’s waterfront. No one seemed to care where they came from or how they got to Naples, only that they sold things at the right price. But when I turned my camera toward them they uniformly turned their faces, hiding in broad daylight.
The Schengen Agreement and the Dublin Agreement appear to be in tatters. Somewhat like the Euro crisis, the worst case scenarios for EU integration were never fully thought out. This integration was theorized to help prevent a third world war in Europe and domination by any one hegemonic European land power (eh hmm.. Germany). But massive external factors applying great pressure from outside the EU/Schengen Area were not sufficiently gamed out.
Now here we are. Hungary’s Viktor Orban is busy building a massive fence and Germany has just announced it is imposing border checks with Austria. Are we going to go from the United States of Europe back to how things were?
Paros- Four years ago today I finished this decade-long documentary project about what was then called ground Zero in lower Manhattan. When 9/11 took place in my city, I told myself I would follow the story wherever I could for as long as I could. It took me to Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Hamburg, the Republic of Georgia, Jordan, Iraq, Bangkok, Malaysia, and countless other locales as the “War on Terror” unfolded. I then kept returning to New York City, my home, for each subsequent anniversary.
Ground Zero is now the site of One World Trade Center, a hub for New York City’s tourism industry. The city has been rebuilt where it was thrashed by the largest suicide attack in history. Ground Zero buzzes with curious visitors posting the requisite photos to social media but the memory lays there, heaving with silent grief underneath flowing water and cool black stone.
9/11 unequivocally changed our world. We are living in a less safe, less just world today in my judgement. Freedoms have been curtailed as the United States has evolved into a low key surveillance state in response. Afghanistan is still in a state of war. Iraq has been broken likely irreparably. Then the ‘Arab Spring’ happened. It resulted not in a well spring of democratic growth as many initially hoped but inadvertently acted as an enabling factor for the spread of cancerous salafi-jihadi ideology to the point of holding territory by the most vile of non-state actors.
9/11 must be remembered with calm dignity, not be opportunistically exploited with jingoism or crass populism. A vigil of the spirit.
New York- I spent a fascinating week down in central South Carolina at Shaw AFB lecturing on the socio-political and religio-cultural dynamics of the Levant. Within the sessions discussing the current state of affairs in the Arab and Kurdish world, it was impossible not to look back on Afghanistan in order to understand where we are today. I don’t have time to do a full on blog post but the talk at USARCENT had me wanting to quickly look at my archives.
I will never forget this time. It was my first experience in a full scale war. That stays with you forever.
New York- With Turkey’s renewed war against the Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK) in the Qandil range in Iraq’s Suleimaniyah Governorate, the war against IS was given another not so new dimension. Ankara’s battle with Kurdish rebels has gone on for decades, formally since 1984, and has been met with mixed levels of success in the best of terms. The mere fact that the PKK is a ground reality still in 2015 is indicative of two dynamics: Kurdish ethno-nationalism with its syncretic idolatry of Abdullah Ocalan is not going anywhere and the Turkish government cannot help but revert to Turkish nationalism in times of political insecurity.
The restoration of armed struggle is a massive wrong turn when a peace process needs to be kept stable. In many respects, the PKK with its organization discipline, comparative gender parity so often touted in the Western press, and avowed secularism makes it and its regional branches/affiliates seem to be an incredibly rational actor on the battlefield. Though the suicide bombing of a leftist organization in Suruç last month is officially the tipping point for what is currently going on with Turkish war planes concomitantly flying sorties against PKK targets in Iraq and IS targets in Syria, when I talked to Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) supporters outside Kobane last fall, the writing was on the wall.
When I met with a PKK interlocutor in Qandil in 2009 when I went to interview a Partiya Jiyana Azad a Kurdistanê (PJAK) commander, he repeatedly emphasized his belief in a nefarious Turkish “Deep State” that undermined Kurdish aspirations for autonomy at every possible term under the rubric of Turkish ultra-nationalism. Syrian and Turkish Kurds I spoke with outside the battlefield reiterated this concept of the Deep State in its support of IS as they served Turkish interests in Syria as a bulwark against the expansion of the Rojava cantons in Aleppo and Hasakah Governorates. They believed Turkey not only turned a blind eye to IS but actually assisted it to wreck the Rojava project by proxy. Then Suruç happened. The killing of Turkish policeman led to a military response as well as a police one. Raids across Turkey swept up a sizable number of PKK supporters as well as some leftist radicals and IS types. The emphasis on the raids was clearly aimed at the PKK.
The fact that a salafi-jihadi suicide bomber conducted an operation inside Turkey was only a matter of time. You can’t have that many recruits passing through you territory without there being an inevitable spillover and blowback. Erdogan and Davutoglu are still prioritizing Kurdish containment over the clear and present danger IS poses to the Turkish republic. Certainly the PKK are a valid threat, but they are a manageable one. The AKP may have considered Baghdadi’s guys people they could deal with on their borders but that always seemed an entirely untenable stance. The notion of a two-front war for Turkey has put increased pressure on the American-led Operation Inherent Resolve.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner was in an awkward position in a recent press briefing where he had to attempt to differentiate between the PKK and the YPG in relation to DC’s policy conundrum. Countless news stories have either conflated the two groups or made a faint distinction. And the YPG certainly are Apoists as supporters of Ocalan are referred to. While Kurdish militias are excellent war-fighting allies, their ideology is antithetical to many Western democratic concepts. Drawing on Marxism, Maoism and of course Apoism, they are certainly not outlying members of the GOP who happen to reside in the Middle East. However, strictly militarily, the Kurds in Syria and Iraq have become an indispensable component of the White House’s not fully articulated “degrade and destroy” policy toward IS.
US policy toward the PKK and PJAK is far less understood. Though the PKK is designated as an ‘FTO’ there have been reports during the Sinjar siege the US military personnel interacted with PKK fighters who were trying to defend the trapped populace. With the PJAK, there was talk that it was being assisted by American intelligence to harass the IRGC some years ago.
The hardline members of the PKK see themselves at war with the so-called Deep State in perpetuity. Hardliners in both Qandil and Ankara seek to continue the conflict in order to justify their long held positions. But there must be a third way solution The Iraqi Kurds of the KDP, PUK and Gorran are out to defend the territory they already control and consolidate new gains. In essence, they also had something to gain from the June 2014 fall of Mosul. The tradeoff is that now the KRG’s capital of Erbil is intermittently under threat. When I was last in the KRG area in 2013, locals were worried about ISIL as one of e host of terrorist outfits along with the Ba’athist JRTN and other groups who launched attacks around the Green Line that separated Kurdish-administered territory after 1991 from Ba’athist control until 2003. Though Nouri al-Maliki finally ceded power, Iraq is in a far worse situation now that during my last visit two years ago.
In sum, the security calculus has taken a major shift pushing reticent allies together with widely varying agendas and ideological positions in order to focus on a common enemy that has eclipsed al-Qaeda in terms of media coverage and battlefield prowess. As Kurdish fighters apply constant pressure to IS in concert with American/coalition air strikes, the Kurds must not be merely a temporary ally of convenience as if it were Afghanistan circa 1985. But US policy toward an array of Kurdish groups needs to be clarified and crystalized. There has been a clamor to delist the PKK as an FTO though that would infuriate NATO ally Turkey. The war against IS carries on in fits and starts while its complexity continues increase.
New York- I’m appearing in a new series which premiered last week for Discovery Networks entitled Evolution of Evil about the rise of dictatorships in the twentieth century. In the first episode I discuss the rise of Muammar Qaddafi (alt. Gaddafi) over the course of forty years between the ouster of King Idriss in the September Revolution and his unceremonious demise during the earth shaking Arab uprisings of 2011. I appear alongside Bruce St. John, author of Libya: From Colony to Independence, and others in this new series profiling the men who became synonymous with megalomania.
The next episode I will appearing on will be Saddam: Butcher of Baghdad on August 20.
New York- I have a new article out in the June issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel journal on the decline, or perhaps dismemberment is a more apt term, of the Caucasus Emirate (CE) as an insurgent outfit in the Russian-controlled North Caucasus region. When I began researching the piece in the first days of this month, my original intent was distinguish Imarat Kavkaz as it is known endonymically and IS in the ideological battle for minds among salafists in the Russian Federation’s troubled southwestern republics.
By the time I put the finishing touches on it at 4 a.m. this morning, it seemed the CE was practically no more as an effective war-fighting group. First leaders at the jamaat level began to defect beginning in late 2014 then in rapid succession it happened at the vilayat level then the geographic core pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as I was racing against the deadline to finish. At the same time, the man rumored to be the late CE emir Kebekov’s successor, Magomed Suleymanov, was never confirmed publicly by any CE or CE-sympathetic outlets. One would think a new emir would have been proclaimed by now, especially in the face of such peer competition from IS on their home territory.
What sets the North Caucasus apart from other established IS wilayahs (governorates or provinces) outside the boundaries of the wannabe caliphate in Syria and Iraq is that the jihadis in the Russian Federation’s ragged periphery can claim to control no territory unless it were to be tracts of forest non-contiguous with population centers.
In Libya and perhaps some swaths of Sinai, local IS adherents may claim to administer small pieces of land. But the salafi-jihadi project in the North Caucasus was always more of an idea backed up with differing online maps. But there were no places in its vilayats that Russian or local security forces could not penetrate and engage the militants. Somewhat ironically, the only time this may have ever been the case was during the short-lived de facto independence of mostly secular nationalist Chechen Republic of Ichkeria that existed briefly in the interwar period between the first and second Russo-Chechen wars. The CE, or now I suppose its local IS branch, can make no such claims.
Though Moscow has secured Chechnya to a large degree (in relative terms) at great human and financial cost, the Kremlin and the Lubyanka may now have to contend with IS attacks in Russia proper. Russia has never had an effective counter terror strategy, it has only excelled at increasing homegrown radicalization which has brought attacks from Volgograd to the heart of the capital. The other situations to watch are in Georgia and Azerbaijan in the South Caucasus. Thus far Tbilisi and Baku seem to operating in a sort of quiet detente with the jihadis who are exiting their borders for Syria and Iraq. These South Caucasus jihadis don’t seem to be making an effort to overtly threaten their respective home governments.
Without collective international will and coherent decision making among relevant state actors, as we have seen on both sides of the Caucasus, IS will sadly continue to metastasize on both sides of the Caucasus range for the time being with its hollow proclamations of reaching jannah through grotesque martyrdom operations in lands far from home.
New York- I don’t have much time to do full fledged blog posts as of late but today I was prepping an image for my ongoing #fabledcity street art project, (prints available for sale via paypal) rooting around my archives. While flipping through my catalog looking for chromes of the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah, Iraq, the above image struck me. With the pointed desecration of ancient, pre-Islamic or non-Sunni holy places going on in Syria and Iraq, Shia empowerment is directly related to the preservation of the ziggurat pictured below.
In simplest terms, the ruins situated at Ur are safe from IS sledge hammers and explosives because they are so deeply within a demographic region in southern Iraq that is firmly under Shia-majority control. Which historic sites survive this tumultuous period may simply depend on which sect administers that particular area. At the same time, the manner in which the Shia government of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kept Sunni Arabs constantly disenfranchised ensured that some kind of Sunni insurgency would be rekindled in a post-America Iraq. We just didn’t know it would get this bad. Similarly, the oppression of the Sunni Arab majority in neighboring Syria by the late Hafez al-Assad undergirds the 2011 uprising that devolving into the dreadful civil war we are stuck with today.
These images may appear unrelated but the survival of the latter does have something to do with the rise of the former.