Archive for the ‘Levant’ 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 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 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.
Antakya- I’m sitting here typing in a dark, musty hotel room at 5am in the Levant. Hatay to be exact. Hatay may very well be a part of the Turkish Republic but it is also a little talked about corner of the greater Levant. Sometimes journalism is like what they say about war: lots and lots of waiting around doing nothing punctuated by extreme adrenalin rushes. I arrived in Antakya today which was blanketed in fresh snowfall. As the light went descended below the surrounding peaks, a bone chilling cold set in. Thanks to a contact I made on Lightstalkers, I met with a translator whose office happened to be directly across the street from my hotel. He told me that whatever I am trying to do here will not be easy. The local authorities from the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs do their best to keep the Free Syrian Army on a tight leash.
I’m waiting to hear from a contact in the Syrian National Council to try and circumvent some of these restrictions. So for now I wait. The border is lined with tanks and snipers watching for anyone crossing in or out of Syria. In some stories that came out in 2011, some of the then newly arrived refugees claimed the snipers were Irani (Iranian), perhaps meaning they were on loan from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. As anyone reading this blog might now, Tehran is terrified of losing their air bridge to Hezbollah in South Lebanon and the Bekaa. Syria is the air to land conduit for Iranian weapons and materiel to reach their proxies in the Israeli border. And Hezbollah needs Iran to act as a lever over the Syrians. And the Israelis need the entirely untenable status quo to remain in Syria for the time being for their storm clouds to appropriately gather over Netanz etc.
The transformation of Syria into some kind of a representative state which would mean being governed by its Sunni demographic majority is much too much for all of the regional players save for possibly Ankara. One of the key issues in this region is that everyone is too used to the status quo. Addicted to the status quo is probably more accurate. And that goes for Western analysts from 1967 onward as well. Syria is trying to jump out of the box it has been stuck in since 1970 when Hafez al-Assad came to power.
But the sand is running through the hour glass for the Assad regime. Sure it is still clinging to power and may do so for some time to come, but this is not 1982 Hama. Too much blood has been spilled and this time the revolution is being televised on Youtube. The MB in Hama thirty years ago had no such outlet for that massive crime against humanity that left one of Syria’s principal cities in ruins and sent MB members fleeing to distant corners of the Arab world to escape the Assad family’s wrath. Hafez al-Assad crushed their revolt and that was essentially the end of it…until now.
In short, it is a complicated mess here. A Sykes-Picot nightmare. Better than sitting in New York though…
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.