Erbil- Here are a handful of snapshots from my iPod from my day running around the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan while trying to get situated.
Diyarbakir- Though I try not to get overly personal with TWD’s posts as it’s more of a news/analysis site, I’ve just arrived in southeastern Turkey (northern Kurdistan to some) and this marks twenty years of my travels in the Middle East. In the summer of 1993 I traveled to Israel/Palestine to be a volunteer worker on a grueling archaeological dig not too far south of the Lebanese border. Lo and behold A short, hot war broke out that summer two decades ago called either the Seven Day War or Operation Accountability depending on whom one asks (as is everything in this zone).
Here I am twenty long years later with both Syria and Iraq just to the south at war and the PKK resurgent in Turkey while in peace talks with the Erdogan government drag onat the same time. The eponymous province of which Diyarbakir is the administrative center is not without occasional political violence either. In this area there is so much going on seemingly at all times whether in terms in broad brush geopolitics or furious insurgencies being clumsily batted back by traditional military institutions employing awful scorched earth tactics that it just keeps calling me back.
Importantly, at least to me, is that I feel privileged to be here at all after all this time. I’ve met journalists over the years who are no longer still alive to tell these stories. I still think about them.
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.
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.
Antakya- Doing some googling to see where some of my recent Syria work might have ended up, I stumbled upon some references to my work from close to a year ago that I missed in the chaos of the time. I put them on my blog in part to create a living catalogue of my work so that I can keep track of it (and possibly add it to my CV). On March 1 of last year while I was in the Libya war, my colleague Chris Zambelis had an article in the March 2011 edition of the CTC Sentinel “The Factors Behind the Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan” (endnote #8). I was also cited by colleague Peter Lee at Asia Times Online on April 9, 2011 in “China under pressure over Saudi rise.” Love to find these little nuggets after the fact.
New York- And so begins a new year and an as yet unnamed new decade (the twenty teens?). Old conflicts from the disaster that was the last decade will irreversibly spill into this new one and nightmares from the 1990s and 1980s continue to haunt the Sykes-Picots of our memory. In today’s Times, there is an interview with the PKK’s acting commander, Murat Karaylian in Iraq’s/Kurdistan’s Qandil mountains. I was psyched to see that Namo Abdullah, a young Kurdish journalist who’s assistance was essential in my trip out that area in 2009, had a credit in the article by Steven Lee Meyers. There was also a quote from Roj Welat, whom the piece describes as the PKK’s spokesman, who arranged for my interview with a PJAK leader (as well as providing translation), stating poignantly: “For the first time in history, the Kurds have a breathing space” in regard to both the area controlled by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) as well as that out of the KRG’s control effectively controlled by PKK/PJAK commanders. Let’s hope this next decade brings more such breathing space, albeit in a more sustainable manner, to the oppressed and stateless people throughout the world. In the meantime, enjoy U2 singing in 1982 rural Sweden mixed with footage of an advancing Soviet tank regiment.
Washington D.C.- The Jamestown Foundation is hosting a conference on Thursday, March 4th at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (at 1779 Massachusetts Avenue Northwest; Metro Dupont Circle) on the country-wide elections to be held on March 7th and the future of the country’s stability and security. The lunch hour will feature keynote speakers Zalmay Khalilzad & Dr. Colin Kahl.
The topics will include:
•The Iraqi Elections and the Shifting Political Landscape
•Iraq’s Changing Security Environment
•Foreign Relations & Energy Policy
•Future Challenges to Iraqi Stability
To register for the conference, please click HERE.
New York- My former editor and colleague at Asia Times Online, Charles McDermid, has an article today with local Suleimani-based reporter Rebaz Mahmood on the fourth and perhaps ultimate death sentence for “Chemical” Ali Hassan al-Majid, the most brutal enforcer of the al-Anfal campaign in northern Iraq in 1988. Charles is now working in Iraqi Kurdistan for the Institute for War & Peace Reporting and is gearing up for coverage of the Iraqi general elections to be held on March 7th by the Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (which is meant to coincide with the “Status of Forces Agreement” referendum on the future of U.S. troops in the Republic of Iraq). Almost seven years after the United States military and its allies tried to erase the legacy of Saddam Hussein by destroying Iraq in order to try and save it, or remake it into a pro-Israel, emasculated Arab client state of neoconservative folly, the legacy of Ba’athism and Halabja continue to haunt the politics of this shattered post-Ottoman successor state.