Archive for the ‘Asia Times’ tag
New York- I have a new article out on how the ongoing war in Syria is helping stoke sectarian tensions in Iraq that are manifesting themselves in the form of daily suicide bombings, shootings, and dual massive AQ jailbreaks. My article examines how the unrelenting carnage in Syria has not only taken the place of Iraq in the global media spotlight, but is also directly fueling renewed conflict in Iraq itself. The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), sometimes referred to as al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) has now added “ash-Sham” (“the Levant”-i.e. Syria and perhaps they’re including Lebanon as well). So the ISI is now the ISIS. Sunni Salafism has only expanded in Syria as the fractious umbrella of the Free Syrian Army is simply a much less efficient fighting force than their jihadi counterparts.
At the same time, Hezbollah from Lebanon and Shia groups from Iraq are officially sending in fighters to both the front line in places like al-Qusayr and to protect Shia holy places like the shrine of Sayyida Zaynab on the outskirts of Damascus and When the Sayyida Zainab site is perceived as threatened, it makes for a an easily rallying call for Shia on either side of Syria to mobilize to protect and defend not only the religious pilgrimage site, but also the Assad regime that controls the territory such a site rests on.
Both Salafi-jihadis and more Qom-oriented activist Shia have been working to unite Syria and Iraq as a single battleground. Though there are important schisms within the Shia perspective such as Najaf vs. Qom and creating a Sunni Islamic state within borders of a finite post-colonial nation-state vs. an idealized borderless caliphate, it cannot be denied or played down that the wars in Syria and Iraq are now inextricably linked. And Lebanon has been drawn in in full view in terms of sub-state or non-state groups protecting what the believe are their interests in Syria.
This is not at all to suggest there aren’t very local contexts underlying the individual decisions of specific militant movements on when to act and how to pursue their goals. Within the two respective wars there has been for some time been speculation about whether the more dominant phenomena is competition between groups or cooperation between them based on clearly drawn ideological lines. But when one goes to the trouble (or risk) of taking an on the ground look, the old adage tends to ring true that the situations are neither black nor white.
Many Western analysts believe in taking stands based on what stands for empirical data in what are quite confusing battle fronts in reality and then sticking by said positions, perhaps engaging in a passive-agressive tête-à-tête via social media rather than admit they made need to adjust their stance in the face of a new ground reality. Iraq and Syria are deeply complex places plagued by schism upon schism whether in the realms of theology or politics. These dynamics are fluid and will remain so with even the most nimble global shuttle diplomat having neither the knowledge nor the resources to quell them. The United States may have pulled nearly all of its troops out of Iraq in December 2011 but the war is far from over.
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?
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.
Antakya- I have a new article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my journey into rebel-held northern Syria. In over a decade of jihads, war zones and civil unrest, I think this was the most difficult thing I have ever accomplished in terms of logistics. My entire body is shot and at one point repelling down a muddy mountainside I slipped into a coil of concertina wire that my amazing fixer and smuggler had to rescue me from. Then while attempting to sprint through an Assadist free fire zone, I got trapped in mud so thick it might as well have been quicksand. On the way back I had to trek through pitch black forest that we lit with cell phones to try and find our way. For some reason we hiked back to Turkey a different way than we came in which was totally disorienting. We linked arms and forded a very fast moving icy river that was nearly waist deep lit by the moon while screaming “takbir” and the corresponding “allahu akbar” to steel our resolve.
At that point my mind went into a trance-like state bent on pure survival. Then when I got back to the comfort of my hotel room in Antakya and collapsed on my bed, I stared at the ceiling and thought that I did this for one day and the rebels of Free Syrian Army live this way everyday. Hard to contemplate. I’ll be going back to the West in a couple of days (where I will be speaking at the Interallied Confederation of Reserve Officers Winter Seminar outside Köln) and there is no way anyone can relate to what I’ve just experienced.
In other news, TWD was quoted in a Global Post article titled “African Union Looks East” about the inauguration of China’s gaudy new African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia which I reported on last year. Even that relatively innocent story ended up in a violent encounter when a paranoid Chinese government foreman ordered a hulking Ethiopian security guard to grab my camera and delete the contents of my flash card. They were unsuccessful due to my cunning.
Antakya- I have an article out in today’s edition of Asia Times Online on my view from a rain soaked Hatay Province of events just over the border in a besieged Syria. It’s been raining here nonstop since my arrival, which I’m told is the norm at this time of year. It’s cold and damp. I unknowingly checked into an Alawi-owned hotel in the center of town. As soon as I arrived I met with a brilliant and incredibly friendly translator who warned me of Assad’s spies in the city and the perceived allegiance of their co-religionists here on the Turkish side of the border. The Alawis of the hotel would surely notify the local Syrian mukhabarat stationed here, the translator told me. They would be alerted to my presence upon arrival. This was apparently accepted as the norm in Antakya. When my sources showed up for an interview in my room, their first comments was, “you had to check into an Alawi hotel?” They laughed and I made a self-depracating comment about being a naive Westerner who would never have guessed where I was staying would be an issue.
It’s always an awkward juxtaposition to be in such a vibrant, relatively healthy community when next door to a hot war where shells are falling. I’m sitting in limbo in my hotel, which I must say is fantastic for the price ($39 USD a night for a king size bed and great wifi). I wait patiently for a contact to call me for a lead into the next story. I duck into a hallway to get out of the constant deluge. He tells me of danger ahead. A zone where journos aren’t collaterals but rather the targets of snipers and tank operators. I must tread with caution. I tell him I’ve been to Libya and was nearly hit by a Qaddafist sniper last summer. I don’t want a repeat of the same. Or do I?
Here’s the reality of the journo mindset. When everyone was kept out of Syria and that was simply accepted as the status quo, there was no issue. But as soon as one person gets deep into Homs behind the lines with the Free Syrian Army or talks about freely walking around the liberated town of Zabadani, that raises the bar for everyone. It is a furious momentum that builds around a set of extremely driven, competitive, often brilliant people where one’s feet can float off of firm ground drunk on the false notion of invincibility. It is all a farce. Yet it goes on. None of the bogus justifications or rationales in the world can make sense of dying in another man’s war.
When I noticed on Twitter that the New Yorker’s Jon Lee Anderson (whom I met in Libya a few times) was inside Homs, and I’m sitting, twiddling my thumbs in Turkey, it gave me that feeling. Of course Jon Lee made it inside Syria. He wouldn’t accept anything less than being on the first tier of a story. A guy like him doesn’t waste his time on the periphery. He goes for the jugular of the action, the beating heart of the story.
I can perfectly picture the journo hotel in Damascus. Blackberrys abuzzing, people staring at their MacBooks pretending not to notice one another, nervous freelancers networking amongst A-listers. Then again, I always see myself as an outsider never fully wanting to be on the inside. It is as if I am stuck in the mindset of the D.C. hardcore scene circa 1981 and I never want to sell out. Just a Minor Threat. I remember seeing Tim Hetherington outside the hospital in Ajdabiya about a month before he was killed in Misrata. Jon Lee was there. Everyone who was left in Libya seemed to have turned up that day. I stood in the morgue silently looking at horrific casualties. I was warned by a group of edgy fighters at the western gate not to dare return the following day or there would be severe consequences. The following day a group of journos were grabbed out of their vehicles by Qaddafists. I was in a cramped minivan making the 14-hour trek back to Alexandria with a Libyan family lucky enough to have the money to go to Cairo.
To try and get in becomes a nearly irresistible urge. I fight a battle between the lusts of my lucid imagination and my more over the horizon goal of living as long as possible. There is only so long I can people watch non-hijabed gorgeous Alawi or Alevi or whatever Westernized looking Occidental girls strut by in the cold rain from the open air juice bar or çorba (soup) stand. I joked with my translator friend that there are probably more girls in Turkish-Kurdish areas of Germany rocking hijab than those in downtown Antakya. The mix of ethnicities and sects here makes for a colorful human cast. Yesterday after hearing the fajr azan (the morning call to prayer), for the first time I’ve ever noticed in Turkey (save for possibly once in Trabzon a decade ago), I heard church bells ring out. For a moment in time it feels like a paradise of fierce torrents until I remember that there are Soviet-era Syrian tanks facing Turkey not so far away at all.
There is a war nearby with a gravitational pull. You can tell yourself, “just one more harb (war), one more thawra (revolution), and then I’ll quit.” I’m not forcing myself to be here. Hell, I love it here. It’s damn exciting to be crass about it. Throughout the ummah, everything seems to take place in the shadows, within the whispers. And that, to be frank, is part of the draw. A world of public denial, a culture of the unspoken. Sex, drugs, war, it’s all available from Morocco to Mindanao. A quick phone call, a short text message, a soft knock on a hotel door. Here in this lovely rump province of French Mandate Syria, the Sajak of Alexandretta, I somehow feel at home. In fact, there is no place I would rather be at the moment.
Thira- I have no two new articles out today. I felt compelled to write something on the ignominious death of Qaddafi in Sirte yesterday. Funnily I was actually going to do a piece on the unrest here in Greece if solely for the reason I have been stuck here longer than I planned. There was even a demonstration here on the island yesterday and rubbish is spilling out into the streets as part of the uprising. But Qaddafi was as dramatic in death as he was in life and his killing carried the day in the news cycle. I balanced it out with a very underreported story out of Pakistani Balochistan. The Shia Hazara minority have been being slaughtered by Lashkar-e-Jhangvi militants for years now but there has been a huge spike in violence in recent months and I felt the topic was worthy of more attention. The common thread between the two stories is the terrible violence that takes place in a supposedly pacifying world. Qaddafi suffered a very public, humiliating death while the Hazaras of Pakistan are lucky to have their suffering mentioned in the Pakistani media itself.
Thira- Sitting here in the very tranquil village of Karterados on the island of Thira in the Santorini archipelago is an uneasy contrast the strikes and protests rocking mainland Greece. The country is on the verge of bankruptcy which is roiling global financial markets and yet here, if you didn’t bring up the subject with locals nor tuned into Al Jazeera online, you might be able to stick your head in the black sand and wish it all away. Of course I am the quintessential news junkie and could never do such a thing. I am putting a paltry few Euros into the economy, though the dollar has actually been gaining against the Euro for the first time in a while-good news for me and perhaps me only.
After mulling over the reported killing of Anwar al-Awlaki on Friday and the consequences of what it means well beyond US-Yemeni relations, I could not help but write something after thinking of my visit to his old mosque in San Diego last spring while doing some research. I became more and more disturbed by this policy decision-cum-travesty of justice-and not for the obvious reason many readers might think. I just had to say something. Something that could be easily misinterpreted or disagreed with. I wasn’t planning on writing any articles from here as I am working on some long form writing. This incident (which of course is already being disputed by members of the Awaliq tribe who have visited the scene of the crime in al-Jawf) necessitated a more nuanced commentary apart from the overhype about AQAP and the debate of al-Awlaki’s actual role in the group.