New York- With all of the nonstop news and largely negative social media I scan day by day with regard to affairs in the Arab-majority states of the world, I was reflecting for a moment today on the tranquility of Oman. Oman is perhaps the only Arab nation-state that never, ever, makes headlines. And yet it is sandwiched between Yemen with its Houthi insurgency, AQAP, drone strikes, seemingly nonstop hostage crises and the United Arab Emirates, which puts enormous effort into marketing its flashier emirates as global trading hubs. Oman is calm, rather expensive to travel, and is seldom talked about.
It remains an absolute monarchy ruled by Sultan Qaboos bin Said since he took the throne from his father in 1970. At the end of February 2011 while I was careening back and forth from Benghazi to the constantly shifting front lines in the Libyan revolution-cum-civil war, Oman underwent the so-called Arab Spring’s least newsworthy protests. They mostly entailed calls for modest economic and political reform as opposed to the overthrow of the sultanate. The Sultan’s reaction was to simply pay off his subjects with cash and promises to improve their quality of life in order to keep them quiet.
Oman had what I call the GCC Syndrome: I think the only Omanis I ever really interacted with were the guys at immigration who mistook me for a Pathan laborer as I was still in my shalwar kameez coming from a month in Peshawar researching my university thesis. Otherwise I met some very friendly Lebanese, Egyptians, Malayalis, Tamils etc who make up its expatriate work force and middle-man business class on the street.
Oman was the last place I visited in the ummah before 9/11 and for just that reason it will always have a find place in my memory. It was a time when I was traveling for the sheer sake of it, without any particular objective. I think the main reason I wanted to fly to Muscat was because I’d never spoken to anyone who’d been there and was enthralled by its then obscurity. Oman is in the shadow of Yemeni fitna, the issue of Saudi women driving, Abu Dhabi’s largesse and Dubai’s excess.
Looking at these photos makes me want to revisit the place no one talks about…
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- Upon reading the headlines today about the killing of Adnan el-Shukrijumah in South Waziristan, I thought I’d quickly post a short profile I wrote of him back in 2010. He was reportedly killed southwest of Wana in a joint raid carried out by the Pakistan Army and Frontier Corps after fleeing Operation Zarb-e-Azb in North Waziristan which has pushed jihadis and militants into the tribal Agency to the south.
New York- The above video project, City of Fire, about the ethnic violence that rocked southern Kyrgyzstan’s portion of the Ferghana Valley in June 2010 was one such unfinished project. Often termed a “tinderbox,” the Ferghana is a highly complex ethnic matrix that defies shorthand analyses. It’s not merely Kyrgyz and Uzbek-there are displaced Crimean Tatars from the Stalin period, North Koreans, ethnic Russians, Uighurs making up some of the purported 83 ethnic or ethno-linguistic identities in urban Osh alone.. My video does not provide such detailed background but is more of a belated visual artistic statement. It combines shaky footage from the long defunct Flip camera gadget with intimate DSLR portraits of those whose lives were upended by this at least partially orchestrated chaos.
As of late I’ve been getting a number of nagging creative monkeys off my proverbial back. For many years now, I’ve been traveling back and forth to a multitude of the world’s conflict zones. Before that, I was exploring ancient, medieval, and post-colonial ethnic and geopolitical frontiers in the ummah as a university student. Partying along the northern and western fringes of the still evolving EU in the late 1990s was never quite satisfying (as much fun as it was…and still is).
Over the past few months. I’ve been doing a long dreamt photography installation project called #fabledcity. This was an idea I’d had in my student days to educate and enlighten using large print photography as memetic street art. This dream faded with the collapse of the World Trade Center when I was instantly transformed from an aspiring NGO photographer to sudden war photographer. As with my #fabledcity idea, I have more ideas than I ever actually getting around to finishing. I’m certainly not a skilled videographer but I occasionally shoot clips while I’m shooting still images. Sometimes I then put said clips into montages after I get home dedicated to those who’ve suffered. I may move on from one story to the next, often in vastly different regions of the world but each of these events always lives somewhere in my memory. I still have my fixer’s number from 2010 in my Blackberry. It’s hard to let go sometimes.
Now 4 1/2 years on, I set aside a few days to finally put this dated idea together for some creative closure. I’d write way more on this topic but I have to get back to my paid work otherwise I’d be happy to expand on this for hours…
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.
Barcelona- In the new issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review, (subscription required) I have an interview out with Ambassador Kaha Imnadze who represents the Republic of Georgia at the United Nations along the banks of New York’s East River . We spoke in early September on the heels of the NATO summit in Newport, Wales. We had a lot to discuss relating the Georgia’s signing of the EU Association Agreement earlier in the summer which acted as a veneer of raison d’étre for Russian’s invasion of Ukraine.
With Georgia already having two occupied regions where the overt presence of both Russian troops and intelligence agencies act as a shadowy reminder that this frozen conflict can reheat should Russian policy dictate so or a resurgent Georgian nationalism stumble into another fight that it cannot win on the battlefield.
Georgia occupies a unique place in the world in terms of both cartography as a mountainous land bridge between the Muslim and Orthodox worlds in broadest terms and geopolitically where it could potentially act as a robust diplomatic conduit between Iran and the West. Straddling vital energy routes, Georgia maintains amicable relations stretching from Washington to Tehran as if a fusion of its warm hospitality and realpolitik.
When asked how such a small nation can skillfully exploit its underappreciated diplomatic potential, Imnadze mentioned Georgia’s ancient history in relation to how it has lasted mostly intact for centuries.
Despite marauding powers hailing from Slavic, Turkic, Persian and other empires vying for power in a wider South Caucasus which acts as a natural land bridge between the Caspian and Black Sea regions as well as between the Middle East, Iranian plateau and Russia, for Georgians to have survived for so long in this contested environment, they seem to have in inherent diplomacy “in their DNA” as Imnadze put it to me.
One thing to remember is that Georgia’s democracy is very much a still evolving one. It’s just transformed from a presidential system to a parliamentary style democracy. The ex-president is running around Williamsburg for some reason. The parliament that was relocated out to Kutaisi is being at least partly moved back to its home in Tbilisi.
And though Moscow has pursued two largely different policies with regard to South Ossetia and Abkhazia–the former being a lightly populated space which has a thin veneer as a republic but is thought of a more of a glorified Russian base-building project while the latter has more palpable politics. Abkhazia is also possible to actually visit as an outsider on a tourist visa while what transpires in Tskhinvali is cloaked in mystery.
Despite Georgia’s challenges, it is comparatively a beacon of light when compared to its neighbors, Azerbaijan, Armenia, not to mention the violent republics of the North Caucasus to the north.