Archive for the ‘Syria’ Category
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?
New York- With each coming day lately there is a new tragedy being announced by the takfiri evangelists who refer to themselves as ad-Dawlah al-Islamiyyah (the Islamic State). With a campaign noted for executions believed to be taking place in ar-Raqqah Governorate and sieges upon the bastions of religious minorities or anyone is simple doesn’t adhere to takfir practices, IS risked the global public becoming inured to their atrocities. So their latest meme is destroying artifacts and smashing some of the Levant’s most prized ancient sites in parts of Ninewa Governorate under their control.
My interest in the Middle East began not with its intermittent warfare but with its rich archaeological history. My first trip to the region was to help excavate King Herod’s palace in Caesarea Maritima, not to cover an adrenaline-fueled war. As is my luck, war broke out during that dig between the IDF and Hezbollah. Suddenly digging around the biblical building blocks of the ancients felt somewhat irrelevant.
What they are doing is not complete foreign in contemporary Islam as the state-orchestrated destruction of sites in Saudi Arabia is in keeping with Wahabi ideology that forbids the worshipping of ancestry lest it be deemed a form of shirk (idolatry) that runs counter to the narrowest interpretation of tawhid (monotheism) and is at least partly intended to marginalize Shia religious practices within the boundaries of the Kingdom.
Little to no global outcry has slowed the demolition of holy sites in both Mecca and Medina. The Saudi monarchy has been obliterating history in accordance with its state-sanctioned ideology since the mid-1920s under the auspices of purifying the Arabian Peninsula. Many holy places in Mecca have been simply bulldozed to make way for mass market capitalism. Profit has replaced the physical history of the prophet. In a sense IS is continuing this policy writ large against Muslim, non-Muslim and pre-Islamic sites alike.
In March 2001 when when a Taliban set out to demolish the Hellenist-inflected Buddhas of Bamyan in central Afghanistan’s Shia-majority Hazarajat region, it was speculated that the Deobandi Islamists did so to thumb their nose at the world that isolated their largely unrecognized regime while collectively punishing the Hazara minority who they’d fought to bitterly in Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997-1998. The comparisons to the crime in Bamyan were inevitable. The reported razing of Hatra is but the latest of atrocities against Iraqi, and well pre-Islamic civilizational history of all mankind, following the demolishing of statues inside the unguarded Mosul museum, and destruction at the Assyrian capital of Nimrud and Ninevah.
One of Iraq’s greatest Islamic monuments from the height of the Absassid caliphate is the spiral minaret known as the Malwiyya in Samarra. Along the banks of the Tigris, Samarra sits about midway between Balad and Tikrit–where a large scale offensive is currently under way–in a hotly contested area between the Iraqi state and its allied Iranian-backed Shia militia movements versus IS.
Ostensibly the Malwiyya would not be slated for IS destruction as it represents a pillar of Sunni religio-cultural history, is in no way idolatrous, and does not depict graven imagery. But I’m being far too logical in my assessment I suppose. In its wedding cake-like tiers, it is somewhat evocative of, if not inspired by, a ziggurat.
When the U.S. military barged into Iraq in March 2003, vandalizing Iraq’s Ba’athist history, namely the iconography of Saddam Hussein’s carefully crafted personality cult, seemed to be part of official Pentagon policy. Iraq had been vilified ever since the invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the ensuing Gulf War in 1991 that sent Iraqi troops retreating along the “highway of death”where stifled images showed the cruelty of such a precision air war.
Although Iraq, and to a lesser extent neighboring Syria, are thought of as the ‘cradle of civilization,’ this geography has known little other than war and deep, violent internal repression for decades. Iraq’s culture coupled with the civilizational landmarks that remain within its present day geographical boundaries have not been incentivized to be respected. Aside from the well publicized destruction such as that which occurred in the Mosul museum, there has been widespread looting of sites for years to fund criminal enterprises and now outright salafi-jihad. The destruction gets the attention, the looting nets the income.
Thus the IS assault on the country’s treasures in Ninewa comes as no shock. There is also a knee jerk response in social media that if one emotes a deep, genuine sadness for such an immeasurable loss, that one is somehow lessening the ongoing loss of human life in these places. It is as if the intertwined plights of history and humanity are inherently mutually exclusive. This makes advocating for these treasures appear to be a possibly insensitive act.
Preserving Iraq’s vulnerable heritage was never explicitly part of the occupational mandate of U.S. forces in the 8 1/2 years they served in Iraq. Though it would seem Washington has the power, the military power, to stop this vast crime spree, it is not considered to be of paramount importance in the national security interest. Plain and unfortunately simple. Though there are initiatives like the State Department funded Syrian Heritage Initiative, the overall large scale political will is just not there. Iraq is too mired in intractable sectarian and ethnic fissures to do much to save its treasures while the Assad government in Damascus is concerned with solely with regime preservation.
The future of the past indeed looks bleak for the time being.
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- 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.”
New York- I have a new (and final for the time being) report on the battle for Kobane for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst titled “Ideological divide – Kobanê’s ethnic war.” As of today, the siege of the formerly non-descript border town in Aleppo Governorate now continues into its fourth month (today is day 96 to be precise) with no end in sight. Operation Inherent Resolve still goes bringing death and destruction from above. The YPG and YPJ are still fighting IS daily. Yet IS does not want to give up nor will its ideology that bestows martyrdom on its human canon fodder allow it to.
So the siege continues and the small city lay in total ruin. Though Ankara has allowed a second deployment of KRG peshmerga to enter, Turkish policy remains largely unchanged. IS commanders are all too aware of this fact and continue to take advantage of it. Exactly what is taking place on the IS side of the equation–such as the reported killing of one “Jundullah (transliterated as Dzhundalla according to Cyrillic sources) Shishani”–is all but impossible to verify. Part of this has to do with how incredibly difficult the battle is to access for journalists and how dangerous it is when done. A veteran military correspondent I met in Benghazi referred to this scenario as the “soda straw view of war,” a phrase that has managed to stick with me. A lot of interpolation is required when you only have very limited access to just one side of a story.
The situation in Kobane has become another of the world’s intractable conflicts but it needn’t be so. Policies do not adapt often quickly enough to the rapidly changing ground realities of affect ongoing crises in real time. Kobane has become an important node for IS sending recruits into battle under the tutelage of grandiloquent field commanders who so heavily rely on social media to burnish their war fighting credentials.
Even though I was there two months ago, I’m still very much concerned with the outcome in Kobane. It is one of those stories that stays with the observer long after having left.
New York- I have a an article in the November/December issue of the Combating Terrorism Center’s Sentinel publication titled The Battle for Kobani Comes to the Fore. Above is a clip I put together from my field work in Kirkuk Governorate in August 2013. Though Kirkuk and Kobane are geographically disparate places, many Kurds consider these pivotal cities as key nodes in a singular struggle against Ba’Athism, salafism, Kemalism and any other form a ideology that they believe seeks to deprive Kurds of their collective rights as a nation.
Fourteen months after my trip to Kirkuk, I traveled to southern Şanlıurfa Province in southern Turkey to witness the siege of Kobane just inside Aleppo Governorate. Kurds gathered in solidarity there frustratingly expressed that the siege of Kobane was but the latest round in an persistent narrative of anti-Kurdish mass casualty violence that has gone on for decades.
Some in the hills of Mürşitpınar expressed that the sweeping attacks on the Kurdish-majority villages that once buffered urban Kobane were aimed at pushing back Kurdish nationalist aspirations. The fight against Kurdish autonomy may have gone from racist Ba’athism to predatory salafism but it was the same anti-Kurdish feeling expressed under another ideology according to a number of observers I spoke with.
Those interviewed believe the Kobane crisis is firmly rooted in 20th century Arab Ba’athism, Turkish republicanism or Iranian chauvinism in which respective Kurdish minority populations were politically oppressed by ethnic majoritarian governments. They held that IS’s salafism has absorbed traits due in part of veteran Ba’athists who had joined its upper ranks.
From previous anti-Kurdish policies most epitomized by the al-Anfal scorched earth campaign in northern Iraq in 1987-1988 which killed an estimated 150,000, a feeling of communal vulnerability exists across Kurdistan that transcends post-colonial borders. This thinking extends into the global Kurdish diaspora in the West as well.
In the eyes of many watching nervously along the Turkish-Syrian border, the surrounding of Kobane by IS fighting trucks flying trademark black banners—and the ease with which this occurred— symbolizes not an intra-Islamic fight between radicals and those they deem less pious Sunnis but an ethnic contest between Arabs coupled with their foreign fighter acolytes and indigenous Kurds.
It also left an impression that Turkish authorities were so ardently anti-Kurdish particularly in the case of Rojava that Turkey in fact preferred to have IS jihadis facing its jandarma than the PYD’s YPG. Some Kurdish observers in Suruç and environs felt that Turkish passivity on the siege was an indicator that it actually actively supported the IS advance because Ankara would prefer to have dour salafists on its border as in the case of nearby Jarabulous or Tel Abyad than a sturdy, vibrant Kurdish autonomy movement.
While the Kurds have largely succeeded in their grand goal of consolidating Kirkuk and its oil wealth into Iraqi Kurdistan proper, the fight for Kobane continues to rage illustrating that though gains in one part of greater Kurdistan have been made, there is a long way to go yet still.
New York– I have an article out in the November edition of Middle East Insider edited by David Hartwell on my observations on the battle between the YPG and the IS in Kobane in October. It was one of the most abstract war scenarios I’ve yet to witness with uncoordinated or at best poorly coordinated American air strikes being launched from high above while the PKK-allied YPG fought it out in the streets as IS salafi-jihadis attempted to take Kobane’s prized northern gate to control another border crossing with post-Kemalist, AKP-ruled Turkey. Kobane has since fallen out of world headlines but
I went to a very interesting event called “Kobanê & the Rojava Revolution” in Harlem the other night at the City College of New York (where I took the instagram above). Salih Muslim spoke to the audience via skype at least in part because he was not given a visa to enter the United States by the State Department. The PYD leader having to phone it in highlights the awkward juxtaposition considering the U.S. Navy and Air Force are assisting the PYD’s armed wing, the YPG, in and around Kobane to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS but the movement’s erudite, intellectual leader was not easily allowed to visit an educational institution in the city that hosts the United Nations HQ.
The State Department still lists the PKK as a foreign terrorist organization in part to please its NATO ally in Ankara. Many are now positing that the PKK should be delisted as it is not anti-Western (though it is anti-capitalist which may roil Republicans on the Hill) and has demonstrated through its armed wing, the HPG, that it is a fairly effective bulwark against the incursion of the IS into Iraq Kurdistan while it has been at war with Islamists in Syria already for some time. Even though the State Department does not list the PYD or YPG on its bad guys list, their affiliation with the PKK-HPG is a form of guilt by association.
Although war often makes for strange bedfellows, the alliance between the US military and Syria’s revolutionary Kurds is a fascinating case the deserves closer inspection. The struggle for Kobane also confounds leftist, anti-neo-imperialist zero sum paradigms about whether any sort of military intervention is ever justified.
The PYD is after all a leftist organization that promotes gender equality and proselytizes “democratic socialism,” traits it may be hard for some to knee-jerk against upon reflection. None of this has scared CENTCOM officialdom away from helping stave off the fall of Kobane however. The Americans’ new allies in Syria may be temporary ones in comparatively quick decisions borne out of self-interested pragmatism in Washington–this remains to be be seen.
Even if the U.S.-PYD/YPG alliance turns out to be a purely temporary, tactical one, it is an undeniably real one.
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.