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 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.
New York- I have a piece in today’s edition of Asia Times Online about Russia, Chechnya and the Russian view of Syria. Russia, like it’s red-headed authoritarian stepchild China, constantly asserts an inviolable concept known as “national sovereignty” which is essentially a brutal policy used to suppress ethnic questions within present day borders.
Being schooled in the West, it is easy to believe that an empires had two distinct traits that defined them: they began with death defying, deep sea voyages that emanated from western and northern Europe and that after the immense devastation European societies incurred during the second world war, they had no choice but to abandon their colonies in Africa and Asia whose upkeep and administration was no longer viable as Europe’s shattered nation-states were forced to turn inward in order to rebuild themselves from the ground up.
Beginning with the Netherlands’s withdrawal from Indonesia in 1949 and Britain’s exit from Libya in 1951 and largely ending (at least in a formal sense) with the collapse of the recalcitrant Portuguese empire in 1975, Europe’s last remaining maritime colonial power, Americans and other Westerners have been under the impression that the Age of Empire is a dusty relic of a best forgotten time period that long predated the political correctness revolution that began in the early 1990s.
But what this unfortunate view of history largely obscures though is that broader Eurasia today remains a continent of present-day land-based empires who have very much yet to embrace “the end of history” as it were. Russia’s never-ending struggles to contain ethnic rebellion in the Caucasus and even ensure that a restless Republic of Tatarstan remains in the Kremlin’s fold and a China still very much wrestling with the Tibet question while trying to turn Xinjiang Province into some sort of a living cultural museum run by ethnic-Han migrants, indicates that the still subjugated populations in these regions often view Moscow and Beijing as colonial powers in the post-modern Oriental sense of things.
So sure, at points you will have people abroad advocating for human rights in these places in order to serve an anti-authoritarian agenda but the post-war Western powers with their own unaccounted for, sordid history of collective rape and colonization, combined with half-hearted diplomacy that is doomed to fail from the start and hampered by both conservative isolationists and anti-imperialists at home, means that there are no worthwhile mechanisms for resolving these conflicts.
So in essence, Chechnya and Tibet, Tatarstan and East Turkestan can have no realistic hope of achieving an independent statehood because the very IDEA that they are presently under the yoke of empire has been suppressed. When the British Foreign Office issues weak kneed statements like ”Tibet is part of China. Full stop” and when President Bill Clinton characterized the then ongoing ethnocide in Chechnya as an “internal affair” for the Russians alone to resolve, Whitehall, the White House and others abet expansionist authoritarianism with Eurasian characteristics.
Russia, and to a somewhat lesser extent China, have extended this hardened concept of non-interventionism to the unwilling inhabitants of Syria. Today, we the world have let the ancient, stunning city of Aleppo be transformed into another Grozny. When will it stop?
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- I have a new article out today for IHS Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst (subscription only) based on my fieldwork in Mali in May and June and loads of armchair work in NYC and here in BCN. Though this shaky so-called unity government has been formed-which explicitly excludes northern salafi-jihadis from the outset-nothing on the ground has fundamentally changed in Mali.
Yes, Ganda Koy/Iso are busy having new flip-flop clad volunteers doing summersaults for the odd journo visiting Mopti (though of course kudos to anyone making the effort to do such) and internationalist speak of intervention has gained a modicum of traction, yet the retaking of the northern regions seems as far-fetched as ever before. Corpo media flirted briefly with Mali before returning to its fixation on dear Syria. Multitasking by both news outlets and politicos is needed here. Mali can neither be swept under the rug nor can it withstand a blunt poorly thought out military intervention as took place in Libya. Mali pleads for nuance from the shadows.
It took the smashing to bits of UNESCO monuments fabricated of wood and sand to gain the attention of the world rather than a desperate food crisis and the flight of hundreds of thousands of Malians. I too am keeping an eye keenly trained on Aleppo-which according to Syrians is much more integral to bringing down the regime than the fall of Damascus-but my thoughts keep wandering back to Mali. It’s rich red earth, hot desert nights lit by a Sahelian moon, and those smiling bon soir‘s from a lovely people in a now benighted land.
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.
Barcelona- I have a new article out today in the July issue of the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s Sentinel publication. I am honored to have been awarded the cover story for the second time this year. The story is based on the two weeks I spent in Mali in May and June and a couple of months of armchair research here in Barcelona and New York. As last year when I was avidly and concomitantly following Libya and Bahrain in particular, this year my attention has largely turned to Syria and Mali.
The conflict in Mali is, yes, a result of the NATO-GCC backed war in Libya in part but Libya’s troubles are not the cause of Mali’s current crisis. The causes of Mali’s 2012 rebellion of messy irredentism and radical Islamism are rooted in local economic, ethnic, and ecological disparities. There are long-held grievances among several of northern Mali’s communities that have sat unresolved for many decades. These issues of emphasized racial and ethnic difference are discussed fairly in depth in Bruce S. Hall’s A History of Race in Muslim West Africa, 1600-1960.
Global warming (now marketed as climate change) is a causal factor. Coupled with climate issues are then food security and the survival of livestock-key for both the sedentary agriculturalist and semi-nomadic pastoralist populations competing for land and scare resources in the wider Sahel. In this light neighboring Niger is especially vulnerable with many of the same environmental and ethnic issues at stake.
So is the legacy of French divide et impera (divide and rule) during the colonial period. Up until Mali’s independence in 1960, French administrators favored certain groups over others in order to maintain their grip on power. The Salafi agenda of AQIM (and now MUJAO) has certainly exacerbated and accelerated things. The kidnapping for Westerners, most notably the brazen hostage taking in Timbuktu’s Centre Ville in late November 2011 in which a German national was shot dead when he tried to resist being hauled off into the unknowns of the Sahara, has utterly destroyed Mali’s relatively lucrative and quite vital (yet fragile) tourism industry.
On top of all this I am still trying to keep up with events in Syria. It appears from the outside looking in that the war has to have been amplified by the audacious assassinations of National Security Chief General Hisham Ikhtiyar, Defense Minister Dawoud Rajha, Deputy Defense Minister Gen. Assef Shawkat and former Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani. This has brought a sea change in the level of political violence across the country not most notably in the formerly quiet Aleppo Governorate. It seems that the al-Jaish as-Suri al-Hurra (the endonym of the Free Syrian Army) has certainly achieved increased momentum in recent days in what has been essentially an unabated war of attrition.
Before the year is out I may return to one or both of these troubled nation-states. Hard to fathom what the fall of Damascus will mean, particularly for Syria’s Alawite community as well as its numerous Christians. Add to that Palestinian and Iraqi refugees. I remember in Baghdad and environs in the spring of 2003 when there was an immediate backlash against Palestinians hosted by the Hussein regime who were resented at best and deemed collaborators at worst by furious Iraqis.
Damascus will be a tremendous tinderbox once the tipping point against Assad is finally reached. It won’t likely happen overnight (unless there were to be a spectacular and ingeniously successful assassination plot) but history is definitely against such a calcified, minoritarian regime in the Middle East today.
Another issue which managed to grab my attention today is the violence erupting in Khorog, the regional capital of Tajikistan’s difficult to access Kohistan Badakhshan (a.k.a. Gorno-Badakhshan in Russian). At least 42 people have been reported killed so far in clashes after the local intelligence chief was savagely beaten (some reports say stabbed) to death by assailants linked to a local warlord hailing from the 1992-1997 civil war.
This means something to me because I have a friend from Khorog and I’d imagined visiting the place one day. We chatted on skype today and she is terribly fretful because all phone service has been cut to the city and she cannot reach family members still residing there (she lives outside Tajikistan). The needless mayhem may have been the result of the hard sought after cigarette smuggling trade along the Afghan border. Though the region is infamous for its Russia-bound heroin trade, like all borders in the global Balkans, it’s a hub for Marlboros as well. Hopefully more information will come to light soon. Tajikistan is an incredibly brittle place that has never properly reconciled the wounds from its horrific post-Soviet civil war.