Archive for the ‘Lebanon’ Category
New York- A couple of photos of mine from the ‘Summer War’ in 2006-era Lebanon are featured in a new documentary film on The Wanton Bishops, a Lebanese blues band that subsequently tours the heartland of the blues in the southern United States.
The film, titled Walk It Home, also explores the Beirut music scene where to be a full time musician is neither easily done nor conceived of as normal is mainstream Lebanese society. Pursuing one’s rock dreams is difficult anywhere under the best of circumstances but to have accomplished such from the Beiruti milieu is a far greater task. I’m happy to have made a small contribution to this film.
New York- I have a photo of the Israeli destruction of Haret Hreik, Lebanon from the UN-mediated ceasefire in August, 2006 in the new issue of Research Horizons magazine published by the University of Cambridge. Haret Hreik, a souher suburb of the Lebanese capital, has been called Hezbollah’s “strategic quarter.”
My image accompanies an article that explores the history of thelong defunct tawheed (“oneness” or “monotheism”) movement in Tripoli in the early 1980s and how it compares deleterious Islamic State organization that is festering in Iraq and Syria at present. Some researchers have been looking back at Lebanon for possibly useful parallels to Syria today.
Lebanon today is once again in a precarious historical position. What has shifted is instead of being the locus of instability, it is at risk from its inevitable spillover since the once tightly controlled Ba’athist Syria began disintegrating in 2012. Lebanon’s polity has been greatly affected by the unabated chaos next door with the influx of refugees coupled with the outflux of fighters into Syria.
I’ve been doing some personal writing of late on my dreadful experience in Lebanon that summer. In doing so, I’ve been revisiting some of these images for that purpose. In the spring I will have similar images in a documentary on Lebanese blues band The Wanton Bishops. Never know when people will want to hit up my vast archives from the post 9/11 decade. I always welcome it.
New York- I have a new article out on how the ongoing war in Syria is helping stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq that are manifesting themselves in the form of daily suicide bombings, shootings, and dual massive AQ jailbreaks. My article examines how the unrelenting carnage in Syria has not only taken the place of Iraq in the global media spotlight, but is also directly fueling renewed conflict in Iraq itself. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has now added “ash-Sham” (“the Levant”-i.e. Syria and perhaps they’re including Lebanon as well). So the ISI is now the ISIS. Sunni Salafism has only expanded in Syria as the fractious umbrella of the Free Syrian Army is simply a much less efficient fighting force than their jihadi counterparts.
At the same time, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shia groups from Iraq are officially sending in fighters to both the front line in places like al-Qusayr and to protect Shia holy places like the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus and When the Sayyida Zainab site is perceived as threatened, it makes for a an easily rallying call for Shia on either side of Syria to mobilize to protect and defend not only the religious pilgrimage site, but also the Assad regime that controls the territory such a site rests on.
Both Salafi-jihadis and more Qom-oriented activist Shia have been working to unite Syria and Iraq as a single battleground. Though there are important schisms within the Shia perspective such as Najaf vs. Qom and creating a Sunni Islamic state within borders of a finite post-colonial nation-state vs. an idealized borderless caliphate, it cannot be denied or played down that the wars in Syria and Iraq are now inextricably linked. And Lebanon has been drawn in in full view in terms of sub-state or non-state groups protecting what the believe are their interests in Syria.
This is not at all to suggest there aren’t very local contexts underlying the individual decisions of specific militant movements on when to act and how to pursue their goals. Within the two respective wars there has been for some time been speculation about whether the more dominant phenomena is competition between groups or cooperation between them based on clearly drawn ideological lines. But when one goes to the trouble (or risk) of taking an on the ground look, the old adage tends to ring true that the situations are neither black nor white.
Many Western analysts believe in taking stands based on what stands for empirical data in what are quite confusing battle fronts in reality and then sticking by said positions, perhaps engaging in a passive-agressive tête-à-tête via social media rather than admit they made need to adjust their stance in the face of a new ground reality. Iraq and Syria are deeply complex places plagued by schism upon schism whether in the realms of theology or politics. These dynamics are fluid and will remain so with even the most nimble global shuttle diplomat having neither the knowledge nor the resources to quell them. The United States may have pulled nearly all of its troops out of Iraq in December 2011 but the war is far from over.
New York- I have an article out this week in Asia Times Online based on my very different experiences in Syria from 2002-2012. Throughout the decade after 9/11, Syria–though absolutely central to the history and culture of the Arab realm–was viewed as a quiet backwater for both the West and it jihadi opponents. Syria’s mukhabarat intelligence services either facilitated or turned a blind eye to the transit of salafi fighters from North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula into a besieged Iraq.
In the other direction, it acted as a very willing conduit for Iranian arms and treasure into tiny Lebanon on whom it holds in a geographical bear hug. But one of my key points is that Syrian intelligence officers made Syria itself one of the safest places in the world–unless one was a terrorism suspect extraordinarily rendered there or a member of the Brotherhood languishing in one of the country’s awful prisons. But what was remarkable at the time was that as hot wars raged on either side of it, Syria remained completely quiet internally until its revolution commenced in March 2011.
After Hama in 1982, Syrians were well aware of the regime’s potential for wrath. If jihadis had made attacks inside Syria, its borders would have been shut down overnight thus sealing off the vital jihadi pipeline to western Iraq.
Even though jihadis viewed the Assad regime as perhaps a caricature of apostasy on earth, they never directed their ire toward the near enemy. Instead they sought to attack the occupying forces of the far enemy stationed inside Iraq in the aorta of the ummah along with non-Sunni and non-Arab Iraqis (and Sunni Arabs who cooperated with the occupation forces).
While even Jordan suffered the horror of massive, coordinated suicide bombings in Amman in November 2005, Syria suffered no similar consequences during the core of the Iraq conflict. It seemed that the Assad regime–steeped in its own post-colonial Arab nationalism and an historic enmity toward rival Iraqi Ba’athists–had found common cause with or at the very least sought to accommodate those traveling in the salafi-jihadi caravan.
Whatever we want to read in, Syria, which had done far more to crush Sunni Islamism in the past than Jordan’s famed GID, was not made a kinetic target of jihadis throughout the decade after 9/11. It certainly may have been an ideological target by Sunni exiles in London and elsewhere but the country did not suffer a suicide bombing until it was consumed by the current civil war.
Damascus simply didn’t withstand blowback as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Spain, England and others had. Now Syria itself is the magnet for those who want to carve out a Sunni state in the heart of the Levant or any other piece of territory they believe they can hold and build.
Barcelona- Partly out of boredom and partly out of the itch to simply create something new out of old, I threw together this photo montage over the weekend. In this era of digital photography where one shoots thousands of frames rather than analog hundreds, I was reflecting on how almost all of the images I make will never see the light of day in this regard. I put this video together in a largely random fashion with images that have been just sitting in my laptop for years. I put the photos in the order they came to me as I grabbed them one by one from various folders containing my view of many of the biggest news events of the last 10 years.
Interspersed with them are much more sublime moments of everyday life around the world. An elephant in Thailand, an aged priest in Ethiopia, a glitzy office tower in Manhattan. This has been my reality and is our collective reality. Globalization and social networking simultaneously accelerate worldwide travel and technological integration while hyper compartmentalizing our lives. We speak more so to only those who we want to and listen to those with whom we already agree.
No one knows just where any of this is going. Billionaire fraudsters suddenly imprisoned, social revolutions springing up from seemingly nowhere (though not quite), calcified dictatorships counted on for decades in the interests of “stability” suddenly crumbling to pieces, it seems as if the entire world order is in question.
New York- The Avtomat Kalashnikova assault rifle, known popularly as the AK-47 or Kalashnikov, became one of the defining symbols of Third World national liberation movements and a physical manifestation of anti-imperialist thought in the second half of the twentieth century. The Kalashnikov appears most notably Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO)-designed flag of Mozambique pictured above. Hezbollah has a Kalashnikov-like weapon pictured on its yellow and green flag as a symbol of its persistent resistance to Israeli occupation and military hegemony. During the ‘summer war’ in July and August of 2006, the Ba’athist regime in Syria, one of the Shia group’s principal external state backers, had Hezbollah’s yellow banners flying up and down its Mediterranean coast to drum up Syrian domestic support as well as that of visiting GCC tourists. Syria’s cities were plastered with these what should be incongruous visuals that summer. Anyone who covers the developing world’s violent conflicts is likely intimately and awkwardly familiar with the Kalashnikov’s wood and metal sinews coupled with that unmistakable banana clip.
In going through old photo portfolios this week I discovered an image I’d nearly forgotten I’d taken of a massive Soviet-style Kalashnikov monument on the road in central Iran. I love the photo not for its artistic merit obviously but for what it symbolizes. I tweeted the photo to C.J. Chivers, author of the definitive Kalashnikov book, The Gun. In return he created a kind blog post featuring my snapshot which I’ve reposted below.
New York- It’s been quite a while since I’ve managed to slug out a blog update due to bouts of sickness, busy-ness, and relaxing-ness. None of that is to say that TWD hasn’t been busy though. Where to begin…well things in Syria have obviously gotten much worse. Kofi Annan’s shuttle diplomacy is clearly an abject failure. Meanwhile the Free Syrian Army position visited by TWD in late January has been overrun according to the Telegraph’s Nick Meo who traveled to Guveççi in early March. After the vicious assault on Homs, I figured reprisals against rebellious bastions in Idlib Governorate would surely be next and indeed they were. I had been contemplating a return to Idlib in the spring but for now I’ve scuttled that idea less a major development occurs. All the talk of a Turkish imposed of led buffer zone is just that…talk.
The floundering Syrian revolution is the saddest quarter of the Arab Spring, beating out the quashed, well contained uprising in Bahrain by a long shot. At least for the near term, it does not appear that any one actor is going to stick their neck out far enough and come to the FSA’s rescue. That is not to say their cause is entirely without hope. Though the stream of Russian-supplied arms through the Black Sea and on to Syria’s slice of the Mediterranean coast certainly does not foster much optimism for those longing to see the end of the conflict. With members of the FSA’s border sentinels back on their heels in Turkish territory, I’m quite curious as to just how that will affect the already rather timid talk of creating some kind of cordon sanitaire hugging the southern Turkish border.
With the fall of Deir ez-Zor last week, the FSA has lost its conduit to smuggled arms emanating from northern and western Iraq. So in sum, things are looking quite bleak. As the FSA has had to concede a succession of tactical retreats throughout March reversing many of their gains from 2011, those that cannot ditch to either Turkey’s Hatay Province or Lebanon’s North Governorate may have to resort to a form of taqiyyah (dissimulation) to save the revolution from Assad’s unforgiving mukhabarat. The bloody war in Syria being waged by Bashar al-Assad is like his father’s much more limited anti-Ikhwan campaign that lasted for several weeks in February 1982 when the city of Hama suffered through a pulverizing scorched earth campaign that was the writ small template for today’s crisis.
The world is paralyzed from acting in any sort of unison on Syria not just because of the well-reported obstinance of Russia and China on the UN Security Council but because that other all-important permanent member, the United States, could not take a firm position because it needed to be clear on what Israel’s position was first. The problem with that scenario has been that the Israelis have not really had a position at all, at least officially. The Israelis, behind the curve more often than not when it comes to change in the Middle East, hoped that the untenable status quo would somehow maintain in Syria so that they could keep their American patrons tightly focused on the Iranian nuclear issue.
Although the US, most notably the State Department, began to put some teeth into their statements regarding the Assad regime, this ends up being empty rhetoric when not backed up by concrete action on the ground of any sort. Now that everyone has twiddled their thumbs for so long, the FSA has lost much of the ground it once de facto controlled.
Though publicly the Israelis find Assad and Co. odious, they would prefer to deal with a rather predictable, supposedly rational enemy they know rather than a collapsed state on their doorstep or an emergent Sunni-led government intent on somehow regaining the illegally occupied Golan which Israel sees as critical to its water supply. And as with Libya, France and Britain cannot really do much in terms of military action without the US. The most important player in the whole deal appears to be the Kremlin which is always a sad state of affairs (see Chechnya, Dagestan et al.). Though every state shall perform diplomacy through the narrow prism of their national interest, having Medvedev (Putin) broker a Syrian peace/stalemate is absurd. The FSA hoped Turkey would have their back but Ankara is too concerned about a resurgent PKK to do anything of substance on Syria. Turkey fears renewed Syrian assistance to the PKK that would allow them to stage attacks on Turkish security forces from Syrian ground as Hafez al-Assad had done until the late 1990s. Depressing all the way around.
While the world has been consumed by the war raging in the Levant, a very important geopolitical development has taken place in what many might incorrectly assume to be a quiet African backwater. A coup d’état took place in Mali last week as a direct result of the Western (and GCC)-backed overthrow and extrajudicial execution of Qaddafi in Libya last year.
With Qaddafi dead and the war in Libya shrunk down to a few internecine militia skirmishes and inter-ethnic squabbles little understood by the outside world, ethnic Tuareg fighters who had fought under Qaddafi’s monochrome green banner returned to their desert home in northern Mali to commence a new, better armed rebellion. There is a long history of the Libyan state, embodied singularly by Qaddafi’s quixotic territorial ambitions, co-opting the dispossessed Tuareg of Mali and Niger for Libya’s own purposes. Qaddafi thoroughly enjoyed making trouble for his neighbors (and anywhere in the world he deemed counter-revolutionary). He harbored rebel leaders from throughout the Sahel region. This interaction gave birth to the musical collective Tinariwen, arguably the world’s most famous beacon of Tuareg culture.
Now Mali’s Tuareg rebels, principally the MNLA, have launched a new war against the Malian state with arms and vehicles looted from the chaos in Libya last year. Mali’s regular army troops outgunned and even reportedly underfed at surrounded garrisons in the country’s three northern regions of Gao, Timbuktu, and Kidal. In response, a group of disaffected Army officers formed a junta to overthrow the democratically elected government of President Touré (who was just weeks away from peacefully stepping down with new elections on the horizon).
The Arab Spring, which began as a chain reaction of calls for radical reform that quickly morphed into the toppling of strongmen across the region, has now inadvertently toppled a relatively decent democracy. Malian Tuareg who were either no longer needed or no longer welcome in Libya returned home to incite an insurrection to secede from the Malian state to create a Tuareg homeland of ‘Azawad.’ So now poor Mali-recipient of a meager amount of American foreign aid and client state in the Pan-Sahel Initiative/Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative/AFRICOM jumble-has had a fairly civil, democratically elected leader (himself a former soldier who led a coup in toppling dictator in 1991) overthrown by an American-trained, hitherto unknown army captain who leads a junta angry about better armed MNLA rebels who are sort of beneficiaries of American/Western policy. This policy in Libya that greatly helped to collapse the Libyan state structure which gave rise a renewed troubles in Mali (and potentially Niger).
The proverbial genie is out of the bottle in the troubled under-governed Sahel and Qaddafi is no longer around to sort things out. NATO declared the Libyan campaign a success when it officially called an end to Operation Unified Protector on October 31, 2011 without any sort of contingency plans for potential state failure in the countries to Libya’s south. Qaddafi loved to stoke conflicts in Africa and now that he’s long dead, he’s still able to cause immense trouble.
Mali Coup: Arab spring spreads to Africa
BAMAKO, Mali, March 26 (UPI) — Last week’s military coup in Mali, triggered by a Tuareg rebellion and ignited by fighters and weapons from Libya, underlines how deeply the fallout from the year-old string of Arab uprisings is spreading from North Africa to non-Arab West Africa.
“The current crisis … has the potential to create further destabilization in the wider Sahara and Sahel regions beyond the current chaos in Mali,” observed analyst Derek Henry Flood, who witnessed the 2011 Libyan conflict at close quarters.
“In simplest terms, the Arab Spring has now bled into Africa. And the mercurial, egomaniacal (Moammar) Gadhafi is no longer available to mediate such deadly disputes.”
The coup by disgruntled soldiers of Mali’s 7,000-man army overthrew President Amadou Toumani Toure, an ex-soldier.
He went into hiding with loyalist troops, including his old 33rd Parachute Regiment, leaving open the possibility of a counter-coup in the nation of 15.4 million.
The irony is that while the Arab leaders targeted by the popular uprisings against them throughout 2011 were dictators and despots like Gadhafi, Mali’s Toure wasn’t one of the autocratic “Big Men” of Africa like the late Sese Seko Mobuto of the Congo or the murderous Charles Taylor of Sierra Leone, but a democratically elected leader.
Indeed, the U.S.-supported Toure had been instrumental in moving Mali, a vast landlocked desert state south of Algeria, from a military dictatorship to a passably democratic state over the last two decades.
Toure “was on the cusp of stepping down at the end of his first term in what should have been a peaceful transition” in presidential elections scheduled to begin April 29, Flood observed.
These aren’t likely to happen now since troops led by mid-level officers seized power Thursday.
Led by a U.S.-trained officer, Capt. Amadou Sanogo, they apparently struck because of discontent in the military that Toure wasn’t doing enough to support them in fighting a rebellion in the long under-governed north along the Algerian border.
The nomadic Tuareg have been a problem for centuries. Their secessionist insurrection had been stiffened by heavily armed tribal fighters who fought for Gadhafi’s regime and had long battled the Bamako government in the non-Tuareg south for independence under the banner of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad.
In recent months thousands of tribesmen have returned to Mali, armed with missiles and mortars that left the Malian army badly outgunned. In January, they rekindled the MNLA’s revolt.
The coup itself seems to have been touched off by a mutiny among troops in the north reeling under an MNLA onslaught led by Gadhafi’s Tuareg veterans.
Now the MNLA, having seized most of the north and with the military in disarray, is apparently moving south toward the capital, with government troops reportedly fleeing in the Tuareg path.
Algeria, the regional military heavyweight, is increasingly concerned that Mali will become a haven for al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb. This group has been extending its operations across North Africa and into the Sahel states of Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Chad.
Other countries, particularly impoverished Niger with vast uranium deposits, are seen as increasingly vulnerable to AQIM and its allies, which have in recent years included Tuaregs across the region.
Many Nigerien Tuaregs also fought in Gadhafi’s forces and they’re going home armed with heavy weapons.
Niger had a coup of its own in 2010 and struggled with a Tuareg revolt in 2007-09.
The MNLA has overrun towns and military bases along Mali’s border with Niger, Algeria and Mauritania.
Algeria, which has ducked the worst of the Arab Spring, is to have elections in May amid widespread discontent. The last thing Algiers wants is more trouble from the southern desert while it battles AQIM.
Links between the jihadists of AQIM and the Tuareg are patchy but they may yet find common cause.
The March 20 arrest in Mauritania of Gadhafi’s infamous and fugitive intelligence chief, Abdullah al-Senussi, after he flew in from Morocco on a forged Malian passport “illustrates that the effects of regime change in Libya will be felt across Africa for some time to come,” Flood noted.
“It’s now clear that the consequences of the Western-backed Libyan campaign have now unequivocally traveled from North Africa to what is distinctly West Africa.”
Antakya- I have an article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my view from a rain soaked Hatay Province of events just over the border in a besieged Syria. It’s been raining here nonstop since my arrival, which I’m told is the norm at this time of year. It’s cold and damp. I unknowingly checked into an Alawi-owned hotel in the center of town. As soon as I arrived I met with a brilliant and incredibly friendly translator who warned me of Assad’s spies in the city and the perceived allegiance of their co-religionists here on the Turkish side of the border. The Alawis of the hotel would surely notify the local Syrian mukhabarat stationed here, the translator told me. They would be alerted to my presence upon arrival. This was apparently accepted as the norm in Antakya. When my sources showed up for an interview in my room, their first comments was, “you had to check into an Alawi hotel?” They laughed and I made a self-depracating comment about being a naive Westerner who would never have guessed where I was staying would be an issue.
It’s always an awkward juxtaposition to be in such a vibrant, relatively healthy community when next door to a hot war where shells are falling. I’m sitting in limbo in my hotel, which I must say is fantastic for the price ($39 USD a night for a king size bed and great wifi). I wait patiently for a contact to call me for a lead into the next story. I duck into a hallway to get out of the constant deluge. He tells me of danger ahead. A zone where journos aren’t collaterals but rather the targets of snipers and tank operators. I must tread with caution. I tell him I’ve been to Libya and was nearly hit by a Qaddafist sniper last summer. I don’t want a repeat of the same. Or do I?
Here’s the reality of the journo mindset. When everyone was kept out of Syria and that was simply accepted as the status quo, there was no issue. But as soon as one person gets deep into Homs behind the lines with the Free Syrian Army or talks about freely walking around the liberated town of Zabadani, that raises the bar for everyone. It is a furious momentum that builds around a set of extremely driven, competitive, often brilliant people where one’s feet can float off of firm ground drunk on the false notion of invincibility. It is all a farce. Yet it goes on. None of the bogus justifications or rationales in the world can make sense of dying in another man’s war.
When I noticed on Twitter that the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (whom I met in Libya a few times) was inside Homs, and I’m sitting, twiddling my thumbs in Turkey, it gave me that feeling. Of course Jon Lee made it inside Syria. He wouldn’t accept anything less than being on the first tier of a story. A guy like him doesn’t waste his time on the periphery. He goes for the jugular of the action, the beating heart of the story.
I can perfectly picture the journo hotel in Damascus. Blackberrys abuzzing, people staring at their MacBooks pretending not to notice one another, nervous freelancers networking amongst A-listers. Then again, I always see myself as an outsider never fully wanting to be on the inside. It is as if I am stuck in the mindset of the D.C. hardcore scene circa 1981 and I never want to sell out. Just a Minor Threat. I remember seeing Tim Hetherington outside the hospital in Ajdabiya about a month before he was killed in Misrata. Jon Lee was there. Everyone who was left in Libya seemed to have turned up that day. I stood in the morgue silently looking at horrific casualties. I was warned by a group of edgy fighters at the western gate not to dare return the following day or there would be severe consequences. The following day a group of journos were grabbed out of their vehicles by Qaddafists. I was in a cramped minivan making the 14-hour trek back to Alexandria with a Libyan family lucky enough to have the money to go to Cairo.
To try and get in becomes a nearly irresistible urge. I fight a battle between the lusts of my lucid imagination and my more over the horizon goal of living as long as possible. There is only so long I can people watch non-hijabed gorgeous Alawi or Alevi or whatever Westernized looking Occidental girls strut by in the cold rain from the open air juice bar or çorba (soup) stand. I joked with my translator friend that there are probably more girls in Turkish-Kurdish areas of Germany rocking hijab than those in downtown Antakya. The mix of ethnicities and sects here makes for a colorful human cast. Yesterday after hearing the fajr azan (the morning call to prayer), for the first time I’ve ever noticed in Turkey (save for possibly once in Trabzon a decade ago), I heard church bells ring out. For a moment in time it feels like a paradise of fierce torrents until I remember that there are Soviet-era Syrian tanks facing Turkey not so far away at all.
There is a war nearby with a gravitational pull. You can tell yourself, “just one more harb (war), one more thawra (revolution), and then I’ll quit.” I’m not forcing myself to be here. Hell, I love it here. It’s damn exciting to be crass about it. Throughout the ummah, everything seems to take place in the shadows, within the whispers. And that, to be frank, is part of the draw. A world of public denial, a culture of the unspoken. Sex, drugs, war, it’s all available from Morocco to Mindanao. A quick phone call, a short text message, a soft knock on a hotel door. Here in this lovely rump province of French Mandate Syria, the Sajak of Alexandretta, I somehow feel at home. In fact, there is no place I would rather be at the moment.