Barcelona- In terms of collecting images from around the world as a photographer in the last 15 years, beyond the vast adjustment from analog to digital there has been the management of multiple devices that collect images digitally. Aside from having a professional grade camera to capture moments in war zones hither and yon, there becomes the question of how to manage these other random images that collect on mobile phones. To add to the mess I have an iPod that takes photos and uploads them to my laptop with much more ease than my relatively ancient Blackberry. With some down time here in my most trusted EU port city with its own bitter linguistic separatism and autonomous region flag flying not that different than Iraqi Kurdistan in the most simple analogous terms, I’m posting some random road and air images that stacked up on the mobile devices that now line both my front pockets.
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.
New York- In the summer of 1999 I embarked on an ambitious backpacking trip attempting to travel from London to Lahore entirely overland/water. The second to last leg of this rambling adventure was securing a visa for the Islamic Republic of Iran, the preferred exonym of the country’s post-1979 clerical revolutionary rulers. I anxiously applied for a transit visa (a tourist visa would’ve been much harder to come by at the time) at the Iranian embassy in Ankara and was gruffly informed the process could take as long as several weeks-which seemed like an eternity at that age.
In the interim I travelled extensively around southeastern Turkey/Kurdistan, skirting along the Syrian, Iraqi, Iranian, Azeri, and Armenian borderlands. I was just scratching the surface of both Eurasia’s utterly complex, divisive histories and my interest in photography. For I wanted not to be a photojournalist showing the world bursting at the seems, but a photographer using gorgeous imagery composed of diverse human and physical geography that emphasized man’s commonalities.
If I had envisioned myself as a war correspondent then I would have gotten myself into Kosovo that summer, rather than giving the Balkan conflict a very wide berth in circumambulating through the Italian peninsula when traveling from Budapest to Athens. To me at the time, wars were transitory events and historical epochs seemed eternal.
After 15 days of traveling through vast swaths of Turkey completely devoid of the hordes of ANZAC backpackers frolicking in Istanbul and its party-all-the-time West on the notorious Fez Bus circuit, I was finally granted an Iranian visa. But with my fall university semester quickly on the horizon back out in San Diego and having already traveled to Doğubeyazıt on the Turkey-Iran border, I had to fly to Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport in order to save time and have enough days to travel through nearly all of Pakistan afterward and return to California in time to sign up for that fall’s classes.
Arriving in Tehran, I then embarked on a massive road tour via the country’s bus network that would eventually have me riding in a Balochi smuggler’s Toyota Hi-lux truck to the Mirjaveh/Taftan border and crossing a mind-blowing civilizational boundary separating the Iranian plateau from South Asia on foot. There are richer elements to this story but I am leaving them in my long form, as yet unpublished book project. I stumbled on these photos while working on another project and felt like throwing up a few images to remind myself of this hopeful time period if nothing else.
New York-One of the myriad topics was what constitutes or defines intervention in Syria. A high-ranking NATO official explained to me at 2 2012 security conference that the Alliance was emphatically not going to get involved militarily in Syria even if the so-called “red lines” set forth by individual member states were crossed time and again. When NATO became deeply involved in the Libyan war, it was under the auspices of protecting civilians as stipulated by UN Security Council Resolution 1973 which outlined the multi-national mission that culminated in Operation Unified Protector.
I mentioned at that February conference that I had inadvertently run across a pair of intelligence operatives on atop a cliff on the outskirts of Nalut in western Libya’s Jebel Nafusa/Western Mountains region in August 2011. I presumed the men to be either Central Intelligence Agency officers or former ones who were now for-hire intelligence contractors. They were providing real-time battlefield intelligence while decisive air strikes were being carried out in the then (until 6pm that day to be specific) Qaddafist-controlled towns of Ghazayah and Takut on the stiflingly hot plains down below. With a satellite phone and military grade macro binoculars they were apparently relaying coordinates for air strikes and feedback about the accuracy of previous bombardments.
When I confronted the NATO official about this, which to me appeared to be in direct violation of UNSC 1973 as an outside power was clearly taking sides with one of the conflict’s belligerents thereby nullifying the idea of any form of non-partisan negotiated solution with the Qaddafi regime, NATO’s man swiftly countered that member states within the Alliance had undertaken unilateral intelligence missions which were not part of NATO’s mandate nor had its official bureaucratic blessing. Oh, ok, well I guess that wraps my question up neatly, right?
BUT…how were the Libyans on the ground, both NTC rebels and Qaddafists, supposed to interpret these elite distinctions made in Brussels, Washington, Doha, London, Paris and Benghazi? For the Libyans, the CIA and NATO were one in the same, entirely conflated entities. Not to mention perfect fodder for those on the anti-imperialist left and conspiracy theorists in general who cynically assume the overthrow of Mu’ammar Qaddafi was planned long ago at a Bilderberg Group meeting or some such thing.
So as the viewer’s comment pointed out NATO itself is nowhere in the vicinity of launching a large-scale military intervention in Syria but individual member states are indeed carrying out an intelligence war as unilateral, sovereign state actors outside the bounds of the trans-Atlantic security structure. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen had been adamant that Syria will not become another Libya stating an armed humanitarian intervention was ”not the right path.”
The conundrum escalated with the recent cross-border shelling by Syria when ordinance not only landed on Turkish soil but killed Turkish nationals which appears at least on the surface to have caused Rasmussen to change tack. An attack on one member state is theoretically an attack on the broader Alliance which the other members must then be obligated to defend if such action is deemed necessary. Now Secretary General Rasmussen has stated “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.”
I also want to quickly elaborate on the unraveling of the October 20, 1998 Adana Agreement which was essentially a peace treaty between Turkey and Syria to halt PKK attacks that were being mounted from safe havens on Syrian territory at the time in a vicious proxy dispute over water rights. Hafez al-Assad, near the end of his thirty year reign, sought to improve relations with Turkey and expelled Abdullah “Apo” Ocalan, the PKK’s cult-like leader. (Ocalan was captured in Kenya on the run in 1999 and extradited to Turkey where he remains holed up in an island prison today in the Sea of Marmara) Turkish-Syrian relations than greatly improved as Turkey tilted away politically from the European Union and began renewing ties, particularly economic ones, in the lands that constituted its former Ottoman realm (as well as warming relation with the clerical regime in Iran as part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy).
Turkey nearly mounted an invasion of Syria in the late 1990s under the pretext of attacking the PKK. Turkey has also had a long time military presence in Iraqi Kurdistan and parliament in Ankara recently renewed Turkey’s standing hot pursuit mandate whereby Turkish ground forces can enter Iraq when giving chase to PKK fighters. So Turkish troops moving into Syria en masse is not so unthinkable in the present scenario.
The PKK has been stepping up attacks across southern Turkey in recent months and many Turks believe Bashar is playing his father’s old PKK card from the 1990s in an act of calculating strategic desperation. After all, what else does the already isolated Syria regime really have to lose at this point? Even if the Assad government can somehow survive, relations with an AKP government in Turkey will not be put back together again. It is from this calculus that the Assad regime is basing its tragic strategic decisions and going with what is known as “the Hama solution” (code for scorched earth tactics in crushing any serious threat to their Ba’athist Alawi dynasty)
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- I have a piece out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online from my meeting in Istanbul with Khaled Khoja, one of the more vocal member’s of the Turkey-based Syrian National Council, on the past, present, and future of the ever so troubled Syrian Arab Republic. As the Syria crisis somehow continues to escalate even further, the roles of the SNC along with the Free Syrian Army will grow in importance despite the claims by some skeptics that these groups are neither genuine in their agendas nor indigenous in their roots. The SNC and the FSA couldn’t be any more different and have been pushed together into a marriage of Levantine realpolitik. What is happening in Syria is the death throes of 20th century pan-Arab ideology and the Hizb-ul-Ba’ath (the Ba’ath Party). The legacies of men like Gamel Abdel Nasser and Michel Aflaq are fading away in the revolutions sweeping the top-down Arab nationalist mukhabarat states give rise to long suppressed Islamism and an as yet uncertain accommodation of that outlook with democratization.
NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen ruled out the possibility of any formal military intervention by the alliance even if such action was legitimated by the UN Security Council (highly unlikely and so a safe statement for Rasmussen to make in that regard) or the General Assembly (whose resolutions are not legally binding in the manner of the SC). Funny too because as I was just as a NATO/CIOR conference in Germany last week, the young NATO spokesman present pedaled the notion that the responsibility-and raison d’être for NATO’s inaction to date-was because the UN was not unanimous on the Syria issue. Ehhhh, it’s all politics in the end I suppose. Thousands more Syrians will perish by fire in the meantime. Turkey does not want to become involved kinetically in Syria because its primary concern lay with fighting a resurgent PKK. The issues are interconnected obviously as Bashar can use the PKK as a lever to harass the Turks as Ankara slips further and further from the Damascene political orbit. This in turn may egg the Turks into supporting the FSA in what could become a proxy conflict in the northern Levant.
Reading the Times account about the death of Anthony Shadid was terrifying because I could so vividly imagine it. I had an intense dream last night that I was somehow stuck in Idlib and was trying with increasing frustration how to get out back to Turkey. To suffer so far from any medical care in such a rugged region is something which has crossed my mind. When I met with the FSA a few weeks ago now, they told me of one of their men being shot in the abdomen (through a steal door no less-thanks Russian arms deals!) and how he had to be carried, miraculously it sounded, over the mountains back to Turkey and ferried to a hospital in Antakya before it was too late. I never formally met Shadid but have a memory of working across from him in Benghazi last year at the hotel that had the wifi room the night before he and his Times crew were grabbed by Qaddafists. Journalism is a hellish business that I never intended to be in. Life just happens when you’re making other plans I guess.
Istanbul, Köln, & New York- It’s been a while since I’ve been able to do an update after about three weeks of nonstop travel and work. I’m just going to post a mishmash of backlogged things of no particular importance. After leaving Antakya I spent a couple of incredibly cold, expensive days in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet tourist district. Long gone are the days of Istanbul being a cheap tourist destination. But in its core, the town hadn’t changed a lick. The dudes who work in the tourist hustle still tell the European and Australian tourists that their names are incongruously things like “Steve” or “Johnny” whilst explaining that they’ve never been outside Turkey in their lives. In that sense it reminded me of my first trip to the city in the summer of 1998. Turkey seemed to have changed a bit in the era of the AK Parti and the Gulen movement and I felt like maybe the Efes didn’t flow as freely (and definitely not as cheaply) as it once did. But no matter what ideological trends are sweeping across the Anatolian plains, Turkey is still a relative bastion of accommodation between Islam and global modernity.
I made the observation that Turk Hava Yollari (Turkish Airlines) is sort of a de facto foreign policy arm for Ankara yet again. A decade ago the Turkish national carrier was part of the pan-Turkism policy that reconnected Turkey with its distant Sovietized cousins in Central Asia. When I was at Ataturk Hava Limani (Istanbul’s main airport) the first thing I noticed when I walked in was that the first destination on the departures board was the formerly besieged Libyan city of Misurata. Not Tripoli or Benghazi but a direct flight to Misurata. This intimates Ankara’s soft power desires and influence in the shattered Libyan state across the Mediterranean.
I’m still swamped with work related to my Syrian adventure and corresponding interviews with Syrian opposition figures in Turkey. I want to list a couple of things if nothing else than for my own personal archives. My speech from the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique September terrorism conference titled “Western boots on Eastern ground: A Comparison of Western Interventions in the Muslim World in the post-9/11 decade” is now available in PDF form (en Français) on the FRS site. I was quoted twice last week on CNN.com in “No Libya play for the West in Syria” and “How Syria differs from Libya.” This time last week I was presenting my work at an annual security conference comparing the scenarios in Libya & Syria and NATO’s supply lines in Central Asia in Wesseling, Germany which I will post more about when the CIOR site is updated and I have more time.