Archive for February, 2012
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.
New York- On April 2-3, 2011, I traveled to Manama, Bahrain for a fleeting 24 hours to get a glimpse into the island kingdom’s crushed revolution. I was only allowed out of the airport after a friend who works as a junior diplomat at the American embassy there came to my rescue. The Pearl Roundabout, whose eponymous sculpture had been torn down on March 18, was forbidden to both visit and photograph by the time I arrived. The area, in the heart of the island’s steaming hot capital, had become a closed militarized zone upon my visit. My ruse to visit the area was to take a taxi to the adjacent fish souq manned by South Indians and Bangladeshis. The authorities quickly caught on however and the jig was up. In a taxi on the way to the souq, the driver had mentioned off handedly that a local coin had been taken out of circulation because it simply depicted the vanished Pearl sculpture. I went to a number of businesses in Manama trying desperately to get my hands on one of the verboten coins thinking surely it would still exist as change in someone’s cash register. I asked at the coffee shop that I darted into while trying to evade the Bahraini police. Nope. Then the Carrefour, then the Virgin store and so forth. All of the salespeople told me they had been instructed to rubbish the Pearl coins when they received them as payment. I quickly realized I would only be able to score one once outside the country.
My way of exacting revenge was via Ebay. As soon as I reached New York at the end of that trip, my first order to business was to track down the banned 500 fils coin depicting the Pearl Monument. The coin took quite some time to arrive but I finally got my hands on the prize (from every conflict I collect recently or soon-to-be defunct currencies like the Taliban afghani, the Saddam dinar etc).
The Bahraini uprising began sadly a year ago today. The grievances have been stifled by the ham-fisted policies of the government there and its big brother in neighboring Saudi Arabia. The United States has not only callously failed to act there, wary of losing its military lookout facing Iran (ie the 5th fleet) but has also been debating buttressing the regime was a massive weapons deal disproportionate to the kingdom’s tiny size and populace. While the infamous $53 million arms deal sits in limbo, a smaller $1 million arrangement has been allowed to go forward according to Human Rights Watch. Bahrain is a travesty in part because it is simply allowed to go on. The monarchy continues to suppress calls for both moderate reform and those more radical for its overthrow and the conversion of Bahrain into a representative democracy. Joshua Landis, the author of Syria Comment, referred to the regime of Bashar al-Assad as “the last minoritarian regime in the Levant” who is “destined to fall in this age of popular revolt”.
In the Persian (or Arabian) Gulf however, sits yet another minoritarian regime, that of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. The Hamad government has been described as destined to fall by no one unless there is a statement by Hassan Nasrallah or some ayatollah in Qom I’m unaware of. America’s clumsy, lopsided policy when it comes to Bahrain is then easily exploited by those who did not want to see Qaddafi fall and seek to uphold Assad at least rhetorically because of their deeply ingrained anti-American worldview. Amidst all of this nonsense, in the towns and villages outside the once glitzy capital of Bahrain, it is the Shia civilians there that continue to suffer.
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.
Istanbul- Concluded a fascinating interview with one of the founding members of the Syrian National Council on my last night here. Absolutely fascinating. We delved a good bit into the history of the Ba’ath Party, a subject I never tire of. Had the taxi drop me off by the Mavi Masçid (Blue Mosque-really the Sultan Ahmet Mosque) and took a brisk walk around while looking for the only restaurant still open where I could get a lentil çorba (soup) and an Efes, Turkey’s one and only beer. Time to hit the hay, off to Cologne in the morning for a 3 1/2 day NATO conference.
Antakya- Doing some googling to see where some of my recent Syria work might have ended up, I stumbled upon some references to my work from close to a year ago that I missed in the chaos of the time. I put them on my blog in part to create a living catalogue of my work so that I can keep track of it (and possibly add it to my CV). On March 1 of last year while I was in the Libya war, my colleague Chris Zambelis had an article in the March 2011 edition of the CTC Sentinel “The Factors Behind the Rebellion in Iranian Kurdistan” (endnote #8). I was also cited by colleague Peter Lee at Asia Times Online on April 9, 2011 in “China under pressure over Saudi rise.” Love to find these little nuggets after the fact.