Archive for the ‘Middle East’ Category
New York- Three years ago today I trekked into northern Syria’s rebellious Idlib Governorate from Hatay Province in Turkey. I had to put immense trust in my fixer who was living in a Turkish Red Crescent camp at the time with his family after having fled the town of Binnish where he’d been a school teacher in peacetime. When I asked how many other journos he’d taken where we were headed, he said just one, the legendary Times correspondent Anthony Loyd. When I badgered about who else, he’d said Peter Bouckaert, Human Rights Watch’s emergencies director. Not bad company, I thought to myself.
These dudes were famous and if they trusted M_____d than I thought I could too. As with any of these situations though, there’s just an element of risk that cannot be subtracted. Besides the obvious dangers (and this was before Syria had become a beheading ground for the most unfortunate outsiders), there was the sheer physicality of it all. The mountain, the rain, the snow, the razor wire, the fear, the paranoia. Why was this worth doing? I was following a chain of events since early 2011 in which stultified regimes in the world’s most politically stagnant Arab-ruled states.
The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ involved far more than the ‘Arab Street’ of the early 2000s. Libya had its Tubu, Tuareg and Amazigh (Berbers), Syria had its Kurds and so forth. None of these places were ethnically homogenous. Plus there were the fleeing guest workers from Bangladesh and other forlorn states that had grown dependent on a remission economy as they bled out economic migrants. It was a broad movement that caught fire with local characteristics. Social media met kalashnikovs at dizzying rate. There were notable exceptions of course, like Algeria where it was posited that the populace had tired of the bloody war from the 1990s thus not having the stomach for a prolonged clash with the Bouteflika regime.
Returning to the Syrian border in October 2014, I wouldn’t have dared to cross it. The country had transformed from a place that welcomed foreign journalists when it was once the least covered uprising to the most feared place to work in the world. Even little Bahrain was a more fashionable topic when Syria kicked off nearly four years ago. The uprising began the day I returned to Alexandria from Benghazi on March 15, 2011 and I recall it as a minor news item. By the time I reached Syria three years ago after much of my own work in 2011 was focused on Libya, the media was still referring to the war there as a ‘crackdown.’
At the risk of sounding ultimately naive, there seemed to be an innocence about the rebel fighters I met. They welcomed me with the hospitality I remembered upon first traveling the region as a backpacker in the late 1990s. They sought to overthrow the Assad dictatorship. Yes, they were Sunni men from the countryside but they didn’t frame their struggle as a religious one when I spoke with them. I feared it might turn into a sectarian conflict with the history of the scorched earth suppression of the Ikhwan in the late 1970s, culminating with the destruction of Hama in 1982. Just as the Abu Salim prison massacre in 1996 had helped propel the Libyan war, Syria’s past would eventually come back to haunt it.
Syria’s war in 2015 is an intractable, fissiparous mess. It needn’t have been. But after decades of one man, one party style rule, even if the FSA rebels had coalesced under a properly hierarchical leadership, the country may have just morphed into a different version of chaos. We will never now. When the rebel commander asked me why the West wasn’t eager to assist his men as they had so willingly in Libya (as it appeared from a Syrian perspective), I made a cynical retort: “Look at the map. Libya borders places like Niger and Chad to its south that no one in the West gives a damn about save for energy interests. Your country borders Israel to its south (west). This makes assisting your people in an armed humanitarian intervention infinitely more complicated.”
Barcelona- I have a new article this week for Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Monitor concerning my observations on the siege of Kobane from October 10-15. I also have a short piece on the subject in the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review (subscription required). Kobane has lost traction in the media milieu because it has been going on for so long now. The siege is still very much going on with IS reportedly retaking Tel Shahir outside the city. As this AFP video shows, the air coalition is still very much invested in this ongoing battle. Media presence or no, the YPG and now their FSA partners continue to resist the area’s attempted takeover by IS.
It was a hectic, grating stint that I departed not because “media lost interest” as I saw a properly funded Washington Post correspondent judgmentally tweeted the other day, but because as a freelancer my financial risk-reward ratio had tipped too far into the risk category and I decided it was no longer feasible for me to stay in terms of cost. When the area was crawling with journos, it was labeled the “hill of shame,” (by someone who works for Rupert Murdoch) and when there were too few of us it is also mocked.
Shortly after I left there were the two big developments everyone was waiting for: the American air drop of KRG supplied weapons and aid and the Turks caving (though through a compromise of sorts that keeps the PKK isolated) whereby they will allow the KRG’s peshmerga into Kobane to reinforce the YPG/YPJ while not specifically allowing the PYD to send in its own people. The transfer of pehsmerga through Turkish territory still has not happened and the air drop was examined because some materiel fell into the hands of IS.
As the Turks have stayed steadily non-confrontational, the global Kurdish community has been politically mobilized over the plight of Kobane and the U.S. and most of the GCC states have intervened with air power in Syria in a broader anti-IS campaign (though Kobane has been almost an entirely American effort in terms of air strikes).
Errant mortars from IS positions land with some frequency on Turkish soil but for now, Ankara wouldn’t dare invoke NATO’s Article 5 protocol regarding an attack on a member state.
There has been some chatter that the so-called peshmerga are in fact Iraqi Kurdish-trained Syrian nationals although this was quickly denied by Fuad Hussein, KRG President Massoud Barzani’s chief of staff, who made a press statement that those headed toward Kobane would include solely Iraqi nationals.
One recurring thought I had during my nights in dark, lonely Gaziantep which were only made bearable by ultra friendly hotel staff I could make furtive small talk with was how much the Syrian war has changed Turkey itself. Turkey has let itself become extremely vulnerable to the potential of salafi-jihadi mass casualty terror attacks. While Ankara’s focus is still on the threat posed by the PKK and the three decades of on and off asymmetrical warfare with rural insurgency coupled with urban terrorism, the difference between IS and the PKK is that the PKK is an inherently rational actor. If Apoists were not rational, there would be no ongoing peace process to speak of.
Some believe that the release of the 46 Turkish and 3 Iraqi hostages capturing during the IS raid on the Mosul consulate indicates that Davutoglu et al believe IS is a pragmatic movement to some degree that Turkey can interact with when necessary. For now Turkey is allowing a policy of containment but Kobane is challenging all that because it is visible for all the world to see. IS jihadis made an astute calculation that be waging a slaughter in a PYD-administered canton of Rojava defended by the YPG, that Turkey would not mind. And in a sense they turned out to be right.
In the handful of interactions I had with Turkish security forces, they exasperating seemed more interested in curtailing the free movement of journalists and of course vocal Kurdish activists who had congregated on the border than with confronting IS in the slightest way. Turkish nationalists may say, “this is the Syrians’ war, let them fight it out so long as it doesn’t affect us.’ But that sentiment is entirely unrealistic. The IS poses a grave threat to Turkey itself. It is naive to think otherwise.
Walking around the grey warrens of Gaziantep at night scouring for a restaurant that would still be open after a long day on the border, it often crossed my mind that IS supporters, logisticians, and loosely affiliated Syrian and Turkish criminal networks surely abounded. The war inside Syria does not exist in a geographic vacuum. For its rear base are the provinces of southern Turkey. It’s not unthinkable that one could be bundled into a vehicle in some elaborate trap and smuggled into Syria.
Erdogan has made a strategic blunder of epic proportions in the last 3 years with his short-sighted Syria policy especially when considering how much Turkey depends on its thriving tourism industry. With Turkey’s budget flights and great bus system, if jihadi networks are active, even if in a relatively quietest fashion right now, in Gaziantep and Sanliurfa, who’s to say they might not be taking some R&R in Marmaris or Fethiye in the future, if not already?
You can mentally bifurcate Turkey into two halves let’s say: the western half is for foreign tourists while the eastern provinces bordering Iraq and Syria are where trouble is allowed to happen and where salafi-jihadi volunteers from across the world filter into Idlib, Aleppo and Raqqa governorates. But the reality however is far different. Turkey is really well interconnected.
In the heart of Marmaris’ waterfront tourist district you can buy bus tickets to Gaziantep, Sanaliurfa, Hatay and so forth. Turkey’s regions cannot be so neatly separated out. Neither does IS’s virulent ideology respect borders demarcated in the early 20th Century. Just the opposite: it claims it exists to eradicate them.
Murşitpinar- Another quick blog entry with some images from Kobane and environs and recent days. The media narrative on the siege has shifted from predictions of the city’s imminent fall to IS being on the back foot in the battle thanks to a sharp uptick in coalition bombing. Although on the surface this is a fight between the harshest kind of Islamists engaged in offensive jihad to eradicate those they deem unbelievers–in this case the Kurds of the secular, leftist PYD-YPG/YPJ–the struggle for Kobane is primarily a battle of ethnic identity politics, at least as many Kurds I spoke with see it.
For lightly buried in the takfiri salafism of IS, particularly I suspect the older members with genuine military experience, is an Arab ethnocentrism despite the modicum of ethnic diversity of IS’s commanders. Then there are the Turkish troops and border gendarmes who are content to watch all this go on from a barely safe distance. Understandably Turkey does not want to be drawn in, at least not under conditions upon which Ankara is not the actor setting them.
There are those who are opposed to the very concept of military intervention in wars far from home based on their ideological principles or because they reflexively distrust the specific crowd that advocates for military solutions to humanitarian crises. What should have been done to rescue Kobane? The best policy may be that such cases be looked at individually rather than the flawed policies of those that came before. Part of why these situations are deemed failures is when people conduct post-mortems on them and find that once the world took its eyes off supporting state/institution-building and reconstruction, the place rapidly devolves into chaos. See: Libya.
What will happen in Syrian Kurdistan–if it is not overrun by IS–will be determined by the post-intervention steps that are far more difficult than demolishing concrete block structures from many thousands of feet in the air. But for now, the Kurds are cheering.
Murşitpinar- Don’t have time to crunch out much text today as I’m firing off a few reports from the past few days for a client but I wanted to post some more images of the siege of Kobane. While it has fallen down the headline mast a bit what with people back home being enthralled by the Ebola drama that has breeched the West from West Africa, the war here is still ongoing.
The Islamic State is not letting up on their target of this now desolate Kurdish-majority town as the YPG/YPJ fighters hang on for dear life. US-led bombings continue but Turkey’s position toward the PYD’s militia has not fundamentally changed. Meanwhile there are competing narratives over the Incirlik basing use agreement as Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu insists Turkey has not made such an agreement, thereby contradicting an earlier statement by Susan Rice.
The predictions a week ago that the city would fall have so far not panned out as cynics warned. It may indeed fall but for IS their predictions of celebrating Eid in their hoped for killing fields of the YPG have fallen well short.
Murşitpinar- Things have been hectic here in recent days and I don’t have time to write much text for TWD but wanted to put up a few images that might otherwise go unseen. The battle for Kobane is nothing short of brutal and it is happening in front of local and global media outlets which makes it that much more frustrating that the international community cannot stop something it can see in real time. Syria is the most dangerous place on earth for journalists and here in Turkey we have found a bit of a safe haven.
Much of what we see from the war is via youtube and after I went to Idlib Governorate in early 2012 I didn’t return once the hostage taking metastisized later that year. I nearly went to Rojava (PYD-controlled Syrian Kurdistan) last year but backed after I decided the risk wasn’t worth the reward in that particular crossing. Warfare so close to the relative security of Turkey has made for a kind of perverse theater but it has at least put the Islamic State in view of the public for the first time not through their own visual propaganda.
Thira- Two years ago when I was here on this island, the principal of the Santorini archipelago in Greece’s Cyclades group, I was quietly reading the Eleventh Day The Full Story of 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden by Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan. That book was a2012 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the History category. When nearing the last chapter and scanning the footnotes I was delighted that one of my articles was cited in them.
Here I am two years later catching up on some much needed personal writing. Seeing as we recently passed yet another 9/11 anniversary, it is clearly not one of those topics that will ever be “over” like the endless accounts–each one claiming to be more definitive than the last–put out by publishing houses each year on the Second World War (a.k.a. The Great Patriotic War).
I will never forget taking my photojournalism portfolio by an agency in Manhattan in early 2002 after coming home from six weeks in Afghanistan and Central Asia and a photo editor telling me: “sorry but Afghanistan is kind of like, over…” I heard similar things regarding 9/11 less than a year after it took place. But it is obvious these events will never be “over.” They steered the course of world history in our lifetime. It is simply arrogant to think otherwise. Short sighted people working in fast-paced New York media may have been eager to move on to the next story but I was not. I covered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, sure, but even at the time I saw it all as a unified story where each successive event was linked to previous ones to form a continuum of globalized conflict that didn’t respect the Westphalian state system.
I recall talking to a close friend here on the island two years ago and telling him about the book I was then reading and the writing I was doing. His first reaction was “but what about building 7 (WTC 7)?” WTC 7 is the lynchpin of 9/11 conspiracy theorists often known as “truthers.” The perfect pancaked collapse of WTC 7 lead skeptics and the paranoid to insist WTC 7’s collapse was what is called a controlled demolition–meaning it was premeditated which would then imply that perhaps all of 9/11 was some sort of “inside job.”
One of the things people can never accept about 9/11–especially those who were not physically in lower Manhattan that particular day–is that even though it was a televised and well-documented tragedy is that there are some things that all of us will simply never know and we must accept this fact. There were so very many moving parts in the 9/11 attack and ensuing tragedy that it will never be possible to know everything. In a city of 8.5 million in an event with thousands of simultaneous deaths, many people cannot accept that everything about this event cannot be known or understood in its entirety in our time.
For those who actually witnessed the horror that day, not much more need be said in many cases. For those who were far away or too young at the time, they have the luxury of viewing 9/11 as some sort of theoretical abstraction to be neatly dissected by its various anomalies in the realms of physics, chemistry or engineering. I witnessed WTC 7 engulfed in flames when I arrived via bicycle well after the collapse or the South Tower.
Of course the U.S government, particularly the Executive Branch has done virtually nothing to quell those of a conspiratorial bent. So many documents remain classified or partially redacted. Any why, we must ask? To protect princes and princesses in the Saudi regime in order to not disrupt the flow of oil to U.S .shores? Or is it merely the bureaucratic culture of secrecy continually perpetuating itself? In the era of wikileaks and Edward Snowden, one may wish some dusty 9/11 documents be released rather than, say, embassy cables from Mauritius. There was a grandiose conspiracy behind 9/11 and it was cultivated in a suburb of Hamburg, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, San Diego and Tarnak Farms outside Kandahar and a litany of other locales rather than at Langley or at Larry Silverstein’s office in Manhattan.
Why certain people prefer to entertain conspiracy theories is often a broader question involving human psychology. The conspiracy theorists are correct on something though. The American government is hiding things about 9/11 from its citizenry. But it is to protect its own tragic incompetence and ego-driven buffoonery than its dark hand in the 9/11 plot. The U.S. government is not made up of an underground lair of dastardly super villains hatching fanciful plots.
Anyone who has spent anytime in the corridors of Washington knows that it is made up of individuals, some of them intelligent, some of them quite ordinary, who have had often disproportionate power bestowed upon them by a ballooned security clearance system. Some of these individuals have their own spirited agendas such as the preservation of Israeli military superiority in the Middle East, the promotion of hardline Protestantism, retrograde Catholoicism or more mundane concerns such as procuring defense contracts to keep or bring jobs and thereby votes back home in their respective districts. OK, so calling something the “Office of Special Plans” certainly doesn’t help the matter in the eyes of the avidly skeptical. But Douglas Feith was and is an idiot, not Lex Luther.
I very belatedly stumbled onto this 2008 documentary regarding the mystery surrounding WTC 7 by the BBC entitled 9/11 – The Third Tower.
Barcelona- Proud to announce that I have to lead story in this month’s issue of Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (Subscribers only). I travelled along a section of the so-called “Green Line” that divides Iraqi Kurdistan from Arab-majority Iraq. Iraq’s Green Line was established after the 1990-1991 Gulf War when the northern no-fly zone was implemented. Run out of Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base, the no-fly zone enforced above the 36th parallel was known as Operation Provide Comfort and Operation Provide Comfort II (which then became Operation Northern Watch). It allowed for the setting up of a de facto Kurdish administration divided between the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
Western air power in the Clinton years let that harden into what would eventually become the Kurdistan Regional Government run by both of the major Iraqi Kurdish dynastic parties. When the United States military burst through the hulking sand berms separating Iraq from Kuwait on March 19-20 2003, U.S. Special Forces teamed up with Peshmerga fighters to not only tackle Ansar al-Islam’s base along the Iranian border but also to gain a foothold in cities like Mosul and Kirkuk when Turkey’s parliament refused the Pentagon the right to transit Turkish territory to topple the government in Baghdad.
What I found on my exploration along the former Green Line is that the KRG is creating ground realities while the federal government helmed by Nuri al-Maliki can’t quite get its act together regarding the status of disputed territories along this fluid internal border. Part of why the demarcation of the Green Line matters so much is that when there are oil or gas blocks in these lands and hence potentially great wealth to be attained by whomever controls them, a relict of 1990s political geography is now of utmost importance.
A group of Peshmerga fighters proudly boasted to me that their makeshift little bunker was south of the old Green Line. And with a weak federal security force combined with Kurdish nationalism, this seemed to really mean something. Neither side appears ready to forge a genuine settlement on the disputed territories meanwhile energy multinationals are eager to get their hands on as yet undeveloped resources.
Thus far both Erbil and Baghdad have been fairly intransigent on their respective oil development policies. Both have made stark statements that oil companies shouldn’t work in both Kurdistan and southern Iraq. They should be forced to pick sides. However the exploration by ExxonMobil may alter this tense arrangement.
Along this northwest to southeast line, the Kurds and the Iraqi Army did not seem to be allies but eyeing each other as well as looking for infiltrators from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.
As the United States and France contemplate launching bombing raids to help topple to Ba’athist regime in Damascus, it would behoove leaders in Washington and Paris to look at the legacy of their involvement in Iraq (pre-2003 France was involved in Operation Provide Comfort). Toppling a dictatorship is the relatively easy part of the equation.
Barcelona- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about the discordant security arrangement in Iraq’s contested Kirkuk Governorate. On October 21, 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama declared: “After nine years, America’s war in Iraq will be over.” What the president should have said that American large-scale participation on the ground would end but the war in Iraq would continue to painfully grind on.
Though the White House had the audacity of boast in citing the major troop withdrawal as one of many campaign “promises kept,” as it has become loudly clear in 2013, the Iraq war in nowhere near ending–only American leverage over its outcome has mostly ceased. Many Iraqis I spoke to over the course of a week (as well as a number of Syrian refugees) consider Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki a nearly hysterical Iranian client leader who is concerned primarily with the preservation of his own personal power regime. In fact I encountered more people who favored the former American presence than were fans of their own PM.
The frustration over the dire lack of daily security among ordinary Iraqis was both obvious and immense.In between the ongoing horrors in Syria and now Egypt, Iraq has been creeping up into the headlines–and not just because of its proximity to the Syrian war. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is undeniably resurgent. Shia militias like Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)–a splinter group from Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish-i-Mahdi headed by Qais al-Khazali–are undoubtedly feeding off Sunni militancy to define themselves as communal defense movements. Meanwhile Maliki’s government situated in the closed off “Green Zone” cannot seem to come to an accord with Massoud Barzani’s Erbil over either oil law or the territories disputed in several northern governorates between Baghdad and Erbil.
The Iraq I first encountered in 2003 had the momentary illusory feel of a place filled with possibilities. And I’m not referring to the delusional overnight resuscitation of the oil sector as dreamed up by the neoconservative hawks at the time. Like the Malwiya in Samarra pictured below, my ulterior motive for visiting Iraq was its incredible historic sites that had been largely cut off from the outside world since Saddam Hussein’s ascent to the Iraqi presidency in 1979. The shrines of Imam Ali and Imam Hussein, and the ziggurat of Ur outside Nasiriyyah were fantasies to visit in person. But alas there was no cultural revival to be. Iraq has been steadily in some form of war for all of the last decade. Iraq quickly became much more Syriana than Indiana Jones.
At lot of varying interests were at play regarding who stood to gain or lose in Iraq in 2003. The most politically palatable meme was that the entire world public–led by the European left–stood in solidarity against the invasion. From absurd Ba’ath apologists to genuine anti-war activists, the more complex pill to swallow was that many Iraqis actually welcomed the Anglo-American invasion which also included Australia–later to be joined by soldiers from Ukraine to Tonga. I say this not regurgitating some misguided New York Times op-ed column from that time but from my own experience on the ground.
Both anti-war activists and pro-war jingoists sought to portray Iraq as a faceless monolith for their own ends. No one really cared anything about what common Kirkukis or Najafis actually thought.
In trying to avoid the expensive media circus in Baghdad, I spent more time in southern Iraq. The majority of Shia I interacted with in Najaf and Karbala back then initially welcomed the invaders-cum-occupiers. Though it wouldn’t last long, there was a brief honeymoon period that seemed full of potential. Of course most of that was more the result of a confluence of mutual ignorance than of a brilliantly architected armed humanitarian intervention.