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.
New York- I have the cover story out today in the April issue of the CTC Sentinel, the Combatting Terrorism Center at West Point’s monthly publication. This article is based on my most recent trip to northern Syria in January as well as my earlier travels in the country as pictured above. This piece was some time in the making and virtually nothing in Syria has improved in the interim in my view. Kofi Annan’s shuttle diplomacy is an utterly abject failure. UN soft power will do nothing to solve this painfully festering crisis.
The Free Syrian Army has suffered a series of territorial defeats since the beginning of 2012 including being routed from the position in Idlib I visited according to a colleague’s report in March. Despite these setbacks along with Turkey’s failure to act in any meaningful way (sorry conspiracy theorists who believe Erdogan is unequivocally aiding the FSA), the rebels don’t seem to be yielding their will even with their “tactical withdrawals” over the last few months. So far NATO has stuck to its guns of insisting Libya was not a “model” but a unique, one-off operation that will not be repeated any time in the near term.
I think most ordinary Syrians as well as rebels have long ago almost entirely given up on the idea of any sort of external intervention, military or otherwise, including even rather meek offshore balancing. Saudi and Qatari talk of overtly arming the FSA seems to have gone nowhere. The rivalries within the GCC are intense, egotistical battles among some of the world’s most successful self-aggrandizers. That makes it near impossible for even two of the six member states to act in unison-the subjugation of Manama by Riyadh being the current exception. If the FSA is waiting for the GCC to get its act together on Syria, they may be waiting a long time.
There has been a lot of discussion about the emergence of so-called black banners in the Syrian conflict (which is a much more significant issue in Mali/Azawad at the moment). Of the cross section of Syrians I interviewed at the beginning of this year, everyone-even those moderately sympathetic to an Ikhwan agenda-eschewed the idea of their Syria becoming one more star in the constellation of global jihad. The fighters on the ground were certainly Sunnis drawn from the conservative milieu present in Syria’s northern governorates, but those obvious circumstances do not a jihadi make.
One of the more absurd “points’ in Annan’s UN-Arab League plan was to twist Assad’s arm into letting international journalists in with what I suppose should be unrestricted access. Not bloody likely. Judging by the tragic fate of France-2 cameraman Gilles Jacquier who was killed on a dog-and-pony show tour of Homs in January, I don’t have much confidence that journos would be any more safe if legally admitted to the country than if not. You have a vain, materialistic regime armed to the teeth that is suppressing all forms of dissent and shows no sign of letting up.
The war in Syria has ultimately become a contest of wills. The FSA, many international players, and the non-violent opposition all believe Assad is doomed to fall and it is all a matter of when, not if. But as the unceasing violence drags on, it is clear the Assad and those in his inner circle believe he can ride this one out. And it is to this point where I think the rash, extra-judicial killing of Qaddafi did immense damage to the quarters of the Arab world still in the bitter throes of revolution. It became very clear to Bashar al-Assad et al that the end of a regime did not necessarily mean quiet exile. It could end in death. This gives Assad that much more impetus to keep fighting-which he is clearly doing.
Since enough time has gone by I decided to finally upload a short film I made (which is part of the background for the CTC article shown above) onto Youtube because…well…otherwise it will never get seen. It’s my (very) rough first person account of my trek to northern Syria’s Idlib Governorate in late January after much networking in Antakya, Turkey.
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.
Ain al-Baida- Made an incredibly arduous trek into Syria’s war-torn Idlib Governorate yesterday. Working on my first article on the hardscrabble conditions of the Free Syrian Army. I was missing driving in the relative comfort of a late model Toyota on Libya’s desert highways about a 1/3 of the way into this hardcore journey. In order to keep going I kept telling myself that worthwhile outcomes do not come easily in this life. Sometimes you have to literally scale mountains in order to get a story out. No dog-and-pony show here. I never get tired of entering crumbling mukhabarat states without a visa. Throwing this image up as a teaser. More soon.
New York- A couple of notable videos came online today which I gleaned from the Syrian Youth Movement site. In the first, a German filmmaker snuck into Homs at great risk and links up with FSA rebels in Baba Amr. It aired on CNN this weekend. The second, a Zeina Kohdr segment from AJE reports from a village in northern Lebanon where FSA members have sought refuge. Since it will be a short while before I return to this Middle East, I figured I might as well post some interesting work by others.
One of the more interesting aspects for me in the two reports is how the geographically disparate rebel groupings can work toward a cohesive military goal other than the over simplified notion of ousting al-Assad. They face enormous obstacles without an internationalist intervention of some sort. If it weren’t for such action in Libya, that war would assuredly be dragging on. The obvious difference between the two scenarios is the Israel-Iran factor in relation to Syria. Intervening in Libya was much less complicated in that sense. Chad and Niger aren’t Israel.