Turkey Engulfed in Protests, Syria Conflict Worries Turkish Alevis, Syrian Turkomen Support Opposition
Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, June 2nd, 2013
See more photos at the following Atlantic article: Days of Anti-Government Protests and Harsh Crackdowns
A protest in Istanbul, Turkey, that began as a relatively small event earlier in the week, erupted into massive anti-government demonstrations across the country following a harsh crackdown by riot police. People had gathered in Gezi Park to prevent the demolition of the last remaining green public space in the center of Istanbul as part of a major renewal project. Pent-up anger against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party flared up after the violent breakup of the Gezi Park protest, fueling the fiercest anti-government demonstrations in years. Yesterday, more than a thousand protesters were arrested in 90 different demonstrations across Turkey. Prime Minister Erdogan has issued several defiant and dismissive messages, urging demonstrators to go home — which they appear to be ignoring, as thousands have gathered once again in Taksim Square today, starting a third day of protest.
Many are calling it the Turkish Spring, and a large number of Turks and foreigners inside of the country have found this new activism refreshing. Finally, the people of Turkey are openly expressing their disapproval of what is happening in their country. …
Anyone visiting Turkey will immediately notice how passionate the Turkish people are about their country. Flags fly everywhere, and it is not difficult to find a picture of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, in every workplace. Turks have every right to be proud. Turkey is a Muslim country that has been more successful than other Muslim countries in separating religion and state. In spite of its success, Turkey still has many struggles. Over the last two years Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative government, which still remains very popular, has made more and more policies that have upset many Turkish people. Most unhappy Turks, however, simply do nothing more than grumble about the “Islamization” of their country.
On Friday night, May 31, this apathetic mentality changed. People met in a park in downtown Ankara in a show of solidarity with the protesters of Istanbul. The Ankara police did not waste any time tear gassing and shooting water cannons at a protest group marching towards the parliament building. As the night wore on, news spread of protests taking place in other cities across Turkey-some broken up by the police, some not. Finally, at 2:30 A.M. Saturday morning, June 1, Ankara came alive. Cars drove through the streets honking, people chanted and cheered, and those in their apartments moved to windows and balconies banging pots and flashing lights.
… The nation-wide protests that started earlier this week in Istanbul were not expected to grow this large. They started as a peaceful sit-in against the destruction of yet another urban park – a growing problem in many Turkish cities. As the peaceful protest moved into its third day, people started to talk and watch. Most protests here don’t last more than a few hours. Early Friday morning the police moved in to try and clear the park using pepper spray and tear gas. This was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
… So what are they protesting? This protest is not just about a park and trees anymore. It is about a government-led by Prime Minister Erdogan-that has stopped listening to its people. It is about a government that is increasingly restricting the media and all attempts at honest reporting about Turkey and its politics. It is about the atrocities the police have committed against the people they are supposed to protect. It is a about a prime minister and his government who were elected for their pro-democracy stance, but seem to be moving in the opposite direction toward authoritarianism.
Analysis: Erdoğan no longer almighty – Hurriyet
To cut the story short, the Taksim wave of protests has turned into the first public defeat of the almighty image of Prime Minister Tayyip Erdoğan, and by Turkish people themselves.
It was around lunch time June 1 when Erdoğan reiterated his hard-line position regarding the demonstrators protesting his decision to turn the only remaining green spot in Istanbul’s iconic Taksim Square into a reconstructed historical building with a shopping mall.
… To call this a “Turkish Spring” would be over-dramatizing it. It could be, if there were opposition forces in Turkey that could move in to stop the one man show of a mighty power holder. But it can easily be said that the Taksim brinkmanship marked a turning point in the almighty image of Erdoğan.
Alawites, Alevis, Turkomen
The Alawites (with populations in Lebanon, Syria, and Turkey), the Turkish Alevis, and the Turkomen are three separate groups with distinct identities. The Alevis are sometimes mistaken as the “Alawis” of Turkey, but their religious traditions and culture are distinct. Turkey does have an Arabic-speaking Alawite population, primarily in the Antakya area north of Latakia. The following are a few recent articles about the situations of all three communities. The Alevi and Turkomen are often not discussed in the context of the current conflict. Thanks to readers who mailed in or posted comments with the articles.
A legal complaint lodged recently by a Turkish citizen reveals some intriguing details about a book that contains serious hate speech against Alevis.
The book, the title of which translates as The True Face of Batinites and Qarmatians, refers to Alevis as “perverts” who “consider the illicit to be licit.” It has been in circulation since 1948.
Undoubtedly, books containing such hate speech could make their way to printing houses in any country. But the details Turan Eser included in his complaint offer intriguing insight into Turkish realities.
The book’s first edition was printed by none other than the Religious Affairs Directorate (RAD), which, according to the constitution, must be impartial toward all citizens but in fact serves only Sunnis, paying the salaries of all 133,000 imams in mosques across Turkey. More recent editions have been printed by a private publishing house, Sebil.
In the preface of the first edition, then-RAD Chairman Ahmed Hamdi Akseki summarizes the myths circulating about Alevis in Turkey.
“Their remnants continue to exist today. In Iraq, they are called Qaramita and Mazdakiyya because, just like Mazdak in Sassanid times, they say that property and women are to be shared and cannot be in anyone’s ownership and possession. In Khorasan, they are known as Talimiyya and Melahide as well as Maymuniyya after Qarmat’s brother Maymun. In Egypt, they are called Ubeidiyyun after the famous Ubeid, while in Damascus they take the names of Nusayri, Druze and Tayamine. They are known as Baha’is in Palestine, as Bohra and Ismailis in India, as Yamiyya in Yemen, as Alevis in Kurdistan, as Bektashi and Qizilbash among Turks, and as Babiyye in Persia,” Akseki writes.
The book describes Alevis as “ill-intentioned and diabolical,” and says that “marriages with them are not permissible; they are worse heretics even than Jews and Christians since eating the meat they cook is forbidden.”
Alevis are then portrayed as people indulging in sexual debauchery: “When dark falls in the evening, glasses start to make the rounds and heads heat up. As flesh begins to crave, all members of that accursed sect bring in their wives. Entering from all doors, the women join the men, blow out the candles and grab whoever they come across first.”
It is a matter of great interest how the Turkish judiciary will handle this case of hate speech, just weeks after musician Fazil Say and writer Sevan Nisanyan received jail sentences for insulting the religious values of Sunnis in Turkey.
It is, of course, impossible to directly blame the Justice and Development Party (AKP) for such a book still being printed. But undoubtedly, the government holds the primary responsibility for the fact that no step has been taken to resolve the “Alevi problem” in Turkey.
Discriminatory practices against Alevis continue unabated by both the government and RAD. Before anything else, RAD — funded by taxes collected from all Turkish citizens, including the Alevis — provides services for the Sunnis alone.
The government and RAD refuse to recognize the Alevi houses of worship — the cemevis — as such, because the official view in Turkey is that Alevis are Muslim and the mosque is the only house of worship in Islam.
The rulings of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in cases that Alevis have brought and won against Turkey on grounds of discrimination are not being implemented.
Sinan Isik, for instance, had complained over the denial of his request to have the word “Alevi” written in the religion section on his ID card. The ECHR subsequently ruled that the religion section on ID cards violated freedom of conscience. As a result, Turkey was supposed to remove that section from ID cards, but this has not been done.
Similarly, in a case filed by Alevi citizen Hasan Zengin, the ECHR condemned Turkey on grounds that religion classes in schools teach only Sunni Islam and that Alevi students are barred from seeking exemption from those classes. The government has made no move to scrap the compulsory religion classes in line with the ruling.
In the reforms the government has so far introduced, the “Alevi problem” has benefited the least. The government has been less tolerant toward demands for the recognition of Alevi identity and freedom of worship even when compared to its attitude towards non-Muslim minorities.
Certain moves in recent years have seriously alienated the Alevis. In the past two years, for instance, the government has denied Alevis permission to hold commemorations for the terrible Alevi massacre in Maras province on Dec. 19-26, 1978.
It is crystal clear that Alevis feel increasingly ostracized by a government that refuses to recognize their houses of worship, is reluctant to make satisfactory amendments in line with ECHR rulings, bars them from even commemorating the atrocities they have suffered, and — on top of everything — is pursuing a pro-Sunni foreign policy.
It goes without saying that in the eyes of Alevis, the government’s Syria policy is in no way irrelevant to the situation described above. Given this background, the lines of Rober Koptas in Agosweekly make perfect sense: “The impact of the Syrian war on [the border province of] Hatay is embodied in the anxiety of the Nusayri [Alawite/Alevi] population in the area and their not-so-tolerant attitude toward refugees fleeing to Turkey. Its reflection in domestic politics comes in the form of a conviction, especially in secularist quarters, that the AKP supports the jihadists in Syria. Anatolian Alevis, in turn, perceive this as another manifestation of Sunni cruelty, even though they have no profound cultural bonds with Arab Alawites, or Nusayris.”With the AKP making no effort to find a solution, the Alevi problem is likely to deepen in parallel to the Syrian crisis, and new areas of social conflict are likely to emerge as a result.
As Koptas says, if the government “continues to resist a fair and peaceful solution to Alevi problems, the Syrian quagmire could drown Turkey, pulling it by its Alevi rein. The crisis sparked by the Kurdish problem yesterday could be rekindled by the Alevi problem tomorrow, and an all-encompassing spiral of violence could take the country hostage for who knows how many years.”
Erdoğan Aydın, a historian and researcher on Turkey’s Alevis, told bianet that Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim marked the symbol of the annihilation of Alevis – a group that constituted half of Anatolian population in the 16th century.
The denomination of Istanbul’s third bosphorus bridge engendered discussion in Turkey.
Turkey’s top officials including President Abdullah Gül and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan participated this morning to the groundbreaking ceremony of Istanbul’s third bosphorus bridge which was named after Yavuz Sultan Selim, as known as Selim the Grim among western historians.
Erdoğan Aydın, a historian and researcher on Turkey’s Alevis, told bianet that Ottoman Sultan Selim the Grim marked the symbol of the annihilation of Alevis – a group that constituted half of Anatolian population in the 16th century.
“After Selim, annihilation of Alevis said to be legitimate”
Aydın explained bianet what Selim the Grim meant for Alevi people:
“Selim is one of the most prominent symbols of despotism that was inherited from father to son in conquest-based empire. This rulership inevitably sought to dominate its neighboring peoples including Christians and Muslims.
“In the same way, this power would not let any faiths other than it own, especially Alevi faith that incorporated a culture of reflection and objection.
“For this reason, Selim’s assimilation and annihilation politics on Alevi Turkmens and Kurds was not a result of the opposition between Ottomans and Safavis, but a result of this domination dynamics. Therefore, Sultan Selim the Grim marked the symbol of the annihilation of Alevis – a group that constituted half of Anatolian population in the 16th century.”
“Thus, religious clerks [şeyhülislam] during and after Selim the Grim’s rule wrote fatwas [islamic statements] that legitimated the annihilation of Alevis people of all ages departing that they had a different faith [than Islam]. This situation went as far as Abu Saud Efendi, the şeyhülislam of Suleiman the Magnificent who wrote death fatwas against those who read the poetry of humanist Yunus Emre.
“Sign of no peace at home, peace outside”
Aydın explained the reasons behind current government’s choice to name the third bridge as follows:
“Turning the names of monarchy to heroic figures in an environment where we seek a modern and democratic mentality demonstrates how our future is being desired to be put on an antidemocratic axis. Democratic governments usually choose the names of scientists or those who served largely to the improvement of humanity.
“They know that these symbolisms aim to demonstrate what direction the society is desired to be moulded upon. Naming the bridge as Selim shows the fact that the incumbent government was unable to accept no peace at home, nor outside. For instance, it became clear that Turkey’s foreign policy on Syria reflected the neo-Ottoman mentality towards Selim’s path.”
Great article on Syria’s Turkoman population and role with the opposition, by Nick Heras: Syrian Turkmen Join Opposition Forces in Pursuit of a New Syrian Identity – Jamestown Foundation:
Syria’s Turkmen community is becoming increasingly involved in the country’s opposition movement. The mostly Sunni Turkmen of Syria represent a significant ethnic minority community that is located throughout the country, particularly in diverse and highly strategic areas that are currently the sites of significant conflict. The Turkmen community in Syria is charged by the Assad government of being militantly pro-Turkey, pro-opposition, and in support of the re-imposition of Turkish dominance over Syria…
Syria’s Turkmen communities are descendants of Oghuz Turkish tribal migrants who began moving from Central Asia into the area of modern-day Syria during the 10th century, when the Turkic Seljuk dynasty ruled much of the region. Under the Ottomans, Turkmen were encouraged to establish villages throughout the rural hinterlands of several Syrian cities in order to counter the demographic weight and influence of the settled and nomadic and semi-nomadic Arab tribesmen that populated the region. Syrian Turkmen were also settled to serve as local gendarmes to help assert Ottoman authority over roads and mountain passes in diverse regions such as the Alawite-majority, northwestern coastal governorate of Latakia … After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, communities of Turkmen continued to reside in the country.
Syrian Turkmen opposition leaders, many of who are in exile in Turkey, assert that while Turkey is a cultural “Father” country to their communities, Turkmen are committed to a pluralistic, territorially intact Syria, with a polity that is representative of all of its ethnic and sectarian groups and is no longer ruled by the largely Arab Ba’ath Party… Citing strong historical and cultural ties and his country’s deep affinity for their ethnic compatriots, Turkey’s President Abdullah Gul stated that: “The Syrian Turkmen people are integrated parts of our nation, and they are the strongest bridge of humanity between Turkey and our Syrian brothers and sisters.” Syrian Turkmen leaders report that their efforts to win the support of anti-Assad Arab states were rebuffed because their community was seen by those states as already having a sponsor in the Turkish government.
Turkmen leaders assert that their community suffered discrimination and repression under Ba’athist rule. Turkmen were unable to teach the Turkish language and Turkmen cultural and historical subjects in schools, Turkmen villages were given Arab names and Turkmen land was appropriated for the use of Arab peasants … These factors, as well as tribal divisions within the community and the lack of a large contiguous area within the country where Turkmen are a plurality of the population are blamed by Syrian Turkmen leaders for their community’s lack of participation in the country’s political opposition prior to the uprising.
Turkmen leaders also assert that under the Hafez al-Assad government, their community was viewed as a potential “fifth column” for Turkey, which had a hostile relationship with the Syrian government for much of Hafez al-Assad’s rule. They also state that Hafez al-Assad’s position on the Turkmen was adopted by his son Bashar al-Assad after the onset of the Syrian uprising and the Turkish government’s consequent support for the Syrian opposition. As a result of this history of dispossession, Syrian Turkmen opposition leaders are seeking the recognition of their community as an integral part of the country and their cultural and linguistic rights guaranteed in a post-Assad Syrian constitution…
… In Latakia governorate, the Syrian military is accused of shelling and striking Turkmen villages from the air in the Jabal al-Turkman region, which is now considered to be firmly under the control of the opposition … Current fighting in and around the southern regions of the Jabal al-Turkman is reported to be fiercely contested, with overtones of communal animosity between Alawites and Turkmen … Turkmen opposition leaders allege that the Syrian government has a policy of forcing Turkmen communities out of the area in order to create an autonomous Alawite region in the event of the collapse of the al-Assad government…
Syria’s Turkmen communities are active participants in the Syrian opposition and stand to benefit from this participation in any post-Assad Syrian state. The political and diplomatic support of the Turkish government, in the context of weakened al-Assad government control over many regions of the country, provides Syrian Turkmen opposition groups with a benefactor as they position themselves to participate in a potential post-Assad transition period. Syrian Turkmen leaders appear to be pursuing citizenship-based representation in a future Syrian government and thus far appear to be carefully seeking to legitimize their community’s status as “Syrians” in a diverse Syrian polity.
This narrative of inclusion, politically important for the community as a minority without a distinct political or geographical base, may be tested in the event of a bitter communal conflict between Turkmen and other Syrian communities particularly Alawites and Kurds. In the context of potential widespread conflict in a post-Assad Syria, Turkmen armed opposition groups, relatively small in number and geographically dispersed, may be limited in their ability to protect the property and lives of their community and can not necessarily depend on the intervention of the Turkish military to support it in its interests. A pluralistic, post-Assad Syrian state that can guarantee the physical security of all its communities, and that considers Turkmen to be “Syrian,” is thus an important objective of the current Syrian Turkmen opposition.
Could the Demise of Assad Lead to an Israel-Alawite Alliance? – Fair Observer
The fall of the Assad regime could pave the way for an Israeli-Alawite alliance, argues Ghassan Dahhan.
Various analysts have suggested that if the Alawite-dominated Baath regime in Syria collapses, the country might become embroiled in a civil war between the Sunni majority on the one side and the Alawite minority on the other. Whether this scenario is likely to unfold is debatable. However, there is evidence that Israeli policy-makers are preparing to absorb refugees from the Alawite minority who are estimated to compose around 12 percent of Syrian society in the occupied Golan. “On the day the Assad regime falls, it is expected to harm the Alawite clan. We are preparing to receive Alawite refugees on the Golan Heights,” Israeli Army Chief Benny Gantz was recently quoted as saying. Interestingly Gantz has not made a similar proposal to the current stream of mostly Sunni refugees who are trying to escape the bloodshed in their country. This statement might be an indication that Israel’s long-term strategy is to seek an alliance with the sect that is currently supporting the very regime Israel hopes to see falling.
Nusra’s Chemical Weapons in Turkey
Turkish security forces found a 2kg cylinder with sarin gas after searching the homes of Syrian militants from the Al-Qaeda linked Al-Nusra Front who were previously detained, Turkish media reports. The gas was reportedly going to be used in a bomb.
The sarin gas was found in the homes of suspected Syrian Islamists detained in the southern provinces of Adana and Mersia following a search by Turkish police on Wednesday, reports say. The gas was allegedly going to be used to carry out an attack in the southern Turkish city of Adana.
On Monday, Turkish special anti-terror forces arrested 12 suspected members of the Al-Nusra Front, the Al-Qaeda affiliated group which has been dubbed “the most aggressive and successful arm” of the Syrian rebels. The group was designated a terrorist organization by the United States in December.
Police also reportedly found a cache of weapons, documents and digital data which will be reviewed by police.
Following the searches, five of those detained were released following medical examinations at the Forensic Medicine Institution Adana. Seven suspects remain in custody. Turkish authorities are yet to comment on the arrests.
Russia reacted strongly to the incident, calling for a thorough investigation into the detention of Syrian militants in possession of sarin gas. “We are extremely concerned with media reports. Russia believes that the use of any chemical weapons is absolutely inadmissible,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said on Thursday.
Rebel fighters rely on the country for support and weapons, but it may no longer be a secure option.
… It has been almost two weeks since the bombings in Reyhanli, Turkey that killed more than 50 people. Clean-up efforts are underway, but the incident added to the increasing tensions in the country, which opposition soldiers hiding out in Turkey say could change the dynamic of their operations.
Turkey may no longer be a secure option for the opposition because the war in Syria seems to have seeped through the border. Rebels escape imminent violence by fleeing, but they do not fully escape the watchful eye of the Syrian regime. An extension of the Syrian war is bubbling up in Turkey.
Over the past two years, the opposition has used Turkey to gather resources to aid its fight inside Syria. But the country no longer acts solely as a pipeline for money, aid, and weapons. It has become a home base for rebel soldiers to coordinate and heal before heading back to fight. It provides space for a complicated web of fractious groups that support various opposition forces in Syria.
It is unclear how many battalions in Syria have groups operating in Turkey. And there is no way of knowing who is affiliated with which opposition group when they cross the border
… Turkish officials in Reyhanli said last week that the people who carried out the bombings were connected with the Syrian mukhabarat. According to news reports, suspects admitted that the initial attack was supposed to take place in Antakya, where the majority of opposition leaders and soldiers live.
Patrick Cockburn Essay
Please read this insightful essay by Patrick Cockburn: Is it the end of Sykes-Picot? – London Review of Books
For the first two years of the Syrian civil war foreign leaders regularly predicted that Bashar al-Assad’s government would fall any day. In November 2011, King Abdullah of Jordan said that the chances of Assad’s surviving were so slim he ought to step down. In December last year, Anders Rasmussen, the Nato secretary general, said: ‘I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse.’ Even the Russian Foreign Ministry – which generally defends Assad – has at times made similar claims. Some of these statements were designed to demoralise Assad’s supporters by making his overthrow seem inevitable. But in many cases outsiders genuinely believed that the end was just round the corner. The rebels kept claiming successes, and the claims were undiscriminatingly accepted.
That Assad’s government is on its last legs has always been something of a myth.YouTube videos of victorious rebel fighters capturing military outposts and seizing government munitions distract attention from the fact that the war is entering its third year and the insurgents have succeeded in capturing just one of the 14 provincial capitals. (In Libya the insurgents held Benghazi and the whole of the east as well as Misrata and smaller towns in the west from the beginning of the revolt.) The Syrian rebels were never as strong militarily as the outside world supposes. But they have always been way ahead of the government in their access to the international media. Whatever the uprising has since become it began in March 2011 as a mass revolt against a cruel and corrupt police state. The regime at first refused to say much in response, then sounded aggrieved and befuddled as it saw the vacuum it had created being filled with information put out by its enemies. Defecting Syrian soldiers were on television denouncing their former masters while government units that had stayed loyal remained unreported and invisible. And so it has largely continued. The ubiquitous YouTube videos of minor, and in some cases illusory, victories by the rebels are put about in large part to persuade the world that, given more money and arms, they can quickly win a decisive victory and end the war.
There is a striking divergence between the way the Syrian war is seen in Beirut – just a few hours’ drive from Damascus, even now – and what actually appears to be happening on the ground inside Syria. On recent trips I would drive to Damascus, having listened to Syrians and non-Syrians in Beirut who sincerely believed that rebel victory was close, only to find the government still very much in control. Around the capital, the rebels held some suburbs and nearby towns, but in December I was able to travel the ninety miles between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, without any guards and with ordinary heavy traffic on the road. Friends back in Beirut would shake their heads in disbelief when I spoke about this and politely suggest that I’d been hoodwinked by the regime.
Some of the difficulties in reporting the war in Syria aren’t new. Television has a great appetite for the drama of war, for pictures of missiles exploding over Middle Eastern cities amid the sparkle of anti-aircraft fire. Print journalism can’t compete with these images, but they are rarely typical of what is happening. Despite the iconic images Baghdad wasn’t, in fact, heavily bombarded in either 1991 or 2003. The problem is much worse in Syria than it used to be in Iraq or Afghanistan (in 2001) because the most arresting pictures out of Syria appear first on YouTube and are, for the most part, provided by political activists. They are then run on TV news with health warnings to the effect that the station can’t vouch for their veracity, but viewers assume that the station wouldn’t be running the film if it didn’t believe it was real. Actual eyewitnesses are becoming hard to find, since even people living a few streets from the fighting in Damascus now get most of their information from the internet or TV.
Not all YouTube evidence is suspect. Though easily fabricated, it performs certain tasks well. It can show that atrocities have taken place, and even authenticate them: in the case of a pro-government militia massacring rebel villagers, for instance, or rebel commanders mutilating and executing government soldiers. Without a video of him doing so, who would have believed that a rebel commander had cut open a dead government soldier and eaten his heart? Pictures of physical destruction are less reliable because they focus on the worst damage, giving the impression – which may or may not be true – that a whole district is in ruins. What YouTube can’t tell you is who is winning the war.
The reality is that no one is. Over the last year a military stalemate has prevailed, with each side launching offensives in the areas where they are strongest. Both sides have had definite but limited successes. In recent weeks government forces have opened up the road that leads west from Homs to the Mediterranean coast and the road from Damascus south to the Jordanian border. They have expanded the territory they hold around the capital and trained a militia of sixty thousand, the National Defence Force, to guard positions once held by the Syrian army. This strategy of retrenchment and consolidation isn’t new. About six months ago the army stopped trying to keep control of outlying positions and focused instead on defending the main population centres and the routes linking them. These pre-planned withdrawals took place at the same time as real losses on the battlefield, and were misinterpreted outside Syria as a sign that the regime was imploding. The strategy was indeed a sign of military weakness, but by concentrating its forces in certain areas the government was able to launch counterattacks at vital points. Assad isn’t going to win a total victory, but the opposition isn’t anywhere close to overthrowing him either. This is worth stressing because Western politicians and journalists so frequently take it for granted that the regime is entering its last days. A justification for the British and French argument that the EU embargo on arms deliveries to the rebels should be lifted – a plan first mooted in March but strongly opposed by other EU members – is that these extra weapons will finally tip the balance decisively against Assad. The evidence from Syria itself is that more weapons will simply mean more dead and wounded.
The protracted conflict that is now underway in Syria has more in common with the civil wars in Lebanon and Iraq than with the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya or the even swifter regime changes in Egypt and Tunisia at the start of the Arab Spring. The civil war in Lebanon lasted 15 years, from 1975 to 1990, and the sectarian divisions which caused it are as marked as ever. In Iraq, 2006 and 2007 are usually described as being the worst years of the slaughter – three thousand people murdered every month – but sectarian killings began immediately after the US invasion in 2003 and haven’t stopped since. According to the UN some seven hundred Iraqis were killed in April: the highest monthly total since 2008. Syria is increasingly resembling its neighbours to the west and east: there will soon be a solid bloc of fragmented countries that stretches between the Mediterranean and Iran. In all three places the power of the central state is draining away as communities retreat into their own well-defended and near autonomous enclaves.
Meanwhile, foreign countries are gaining influence with the help of local proxies, and in so doing the rebels’ supporters are repeating the mistake Washington made ten years ago in Iraq. In the heady days after the fall of Saddam, the Americans announced that Iran and Syria were the next targets for regime change. This was largely ill-informed hubris, but the threat was real enough for the Syrians and Iranians to decide that in order to stop the Americans acting against them they had to stop the US stabilising its occupation of Iraq and lent their support to all of America’s opponents regardless of whether they were Shia or Sunni.
From an early stage in the Syrian uprising the US, Nato, Israel and the Sunni Arab states openly exulted at the blow that would soon be dealt to Iran and to Hezbollah in Lebanon: Assad’s imminent fall would deprive them of their most important ally in the Arab world. Sunni leaders saw the uprising not as a triumph of democracy but as the beginning of a campaign directed at Shia or Shia-dominated states. As with Iraq in 2003, Hezbollah and Iran believe they have no alternative but to fight and that it’s better to get on with it while they still have friends in power in Damascus. ‘If the enemy attacks us,’ Hossein Taeb, a high-ranking intelligence officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, recently said, ‘and seeks to take over Syria or Khuzestan’ – an Iranian province – ‘the priority is to maintain Syria, because if we maintain Syria we can take back Khuzestan. But if we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.’ Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, made it very clear in a speech on 30 April that the Lebanese Shia also see Syria as a battleground where they can’t afford a defeat. ‘Syria,’ he said, ‘has real friends in the region and the world who will not let Syria fall into the hands of America, Israel or takfiri groups.’ He believes the very survival of the Shia is at stake. For many in the Middle East this sounded like a declaration of war: a significant one, given Hezbollah’s experience in fighting a guerrilla war against the Israelis in Lebanon. The impact of its skill in irregular warfare has already been witnessed in the fighting at Qusayr and Homs, just beyond Lebanon’s northern border. ‘It probably is unrealistic to expect Lebanese actors to take a step back,’ a study by the International Crisis Group concludes. ‘Syria’s fate, they feel, is their own, and the stakes are too high for them to keep to the sideline.’
The Syrian civil war is spreading. This, not well-publicised advances or withdrawals on the battlefield, is the most important new development. Political leaders in the region see the dangers more intensely than the rest of the world. ‘Neither the opposition nor the regime can finish the other off,’ Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, said earlier this year. ‘If the opposition is victorious, there will be a civil war in Lebanon, divisions in Jordan, and a sectarian war in Iraq.’ Of these countries, the most vulnerable is Lebanon, given the division between Sunni and Shia, a weak state, porous borders and proximity to heavily populated areas of Syria. A country of four million people has already taken in half a million Syrian refugees, most of them Sunnis.
In Iraq, the Syrian civil war has reignited a sectarian conflict that never entirely ended. The destabilising of his country that Maliki predicted in the event of an opposition victory has already begun. The overthrow of Saddam brought to power a Shia-Kurdish government that displaced Sunni rule dating back to the foundation of the Iraqi state in 1921. It is this recently established status quo that is now under threat. The revolt of the Sunni majority in Syria is making the Sunni minority in Iraq feel that the regional balance is swinging in their favour. They started to demonstrate in December, modelling their protests on the Arab Spring. They wanted reform rather than revolution, but to the Shia majority the demonstrations appeared to be part of a frighteningly powerful Sunni counter-offensive across the Middle East. The Baghdad government equivocated until 23 April, when a military force backed by tanks crushed a sit-in protest in the main square of Hawijah, a Sunni town south-west of Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people including eight children. Since then local Sunni leaders who had previously backed the Iraqi army against the Kurds have been demanding that it leave their provinces. Iraq may be disintegrating.
The feeling that the future of whole states is in doubt is growing across the Middle East – for the first time since Britain and France carved up the remains of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. ‘It is the end of Sykes-Picot,’ I was told repeatedly in Iraq; the reference was to the agreement of 1916 which divided up the spoils between Britain and France and was the basis for later treaties. Some are jubilant at the collapse of the old order, notably the thirty million Kurds who were left without a state of their own after the Ottoman collapse and are now spread across Iraq, Turkey, Iran and Syria. They feel their moment has come: they are close to independence in Iraq and are striking a deal with the Turkish government for political rights and civil equality. In March, the Kurdish guerrillas of the PKK declared an end to their thirty-year war with the Turkish government and started withdrawing into the mountains of northern Iraq. The 2.5 million Kurds in northern Syria, 10 per cent of the population, have assumed control of their towns and villages and are likely to demand a high degree of autonomy from any postwar Syrian government.
What will the new order in the Middle East look like? This should be Turkey’s great moment in the region: it has a powerful military, a prospering economy and a well-established government. It is allied to Saudi Arabia and Qatar in supporting the Syrian opposition and is on good terms with the US. But these are dangerous waters to fish in. Three years ago, Ankara was able to deal peaceably with Syria, Iraq and Iran, but now it has poisonous relations with all three. Engagement in Syria on the side of the rebels isn’t popular at home and the government is clearly surprised that the conflict hasn’t yet ended. There are signs that the violence is spilling over Turkey’s 510-mile frontier with Syria, across which insurgent groups advance and retreat at will. On 11 May, two bombs in a Turkish border town killed 49 people, almost all Turkish. An angry crowd of Turks marched down the main street chanting ‘kill the Syrians’ as they assaulted Syrian shopkeepers. Arab politicians wonder whether the Turks know what they are getting into and how they will handle it. ‘The Turks are big on rhetoric but often disappointing when it comes to operational ability,’ one Arab leader says. ‘The Iranians are just the opposite.’ The recent deal between the government and Turkey’s Kurds could easily unravel. A long war in Syria could open up divisions in Turkey just as it is doing elsewhere.
When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, it changed the overall balance of power and destabilised every country in the region. The same thing is happening again, except that the impact of the Syrian war is likely to be less easily contained. Already the frontier dividing the western deserts of Iraq from the eastern deserts of Syria is ceasing to have any physical reality. In April, al-Qaida in Iraq embarrassed the rebels’ Western supporters by revealing that it had founded, reinforced with experienced fighters and devoted half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, militarily the most effective rebel group. When Syrian soldiers fled into Iraq in March they were ambushed by al-Qaida and 48 of them were killed before they could return to Syrian territory.
There is virtually no state in the region that hasn’t got some stake in the conflict. Jordan, though nervous of a jihadi victory in Syria, is allowing arms shipments from Saudi Arabia to reach rebels in southern Syria by road. Qatar has reportedly spent $3 billion on supporting the rebels over the last two years and has offered $50,000 to every Syrian army defector and his family. In co-ordination with the CIA it has sent seventy military flights to Turkey with arms and equipment for the insurgents. The Tunisian government says that eight hundred Tunisians are fighting on the rebel side but security sources are quoted as saying the real figure is closer to two thousand. Moaz al-Khatib, the outgoing president of the Syrian National Coalition, which supposedly represents the opposition, recently resigned, declaring as he did so that the group was controlled by outside powers – i.e. Saudi Arabia and Qatar. ‘The people inside Syria,’ he said, ‘have lost the ability to decide their own fate. I have become only a means to sign some papers while hands from different parties want to decide on behalf of the Syrians.’ He claimed that on one occasion a rebel unit failed to go to the rescue of villagers being massacred by government forces because they hadn’t received instructions from their paymasters.
Fear of widespread disorder and instability is pushing the US, Russia, Iran and others to talk of a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Some sort of peace conference may take place in Geneva over the next month, with the aim at least of stopping things getting worse. But while there is an appetite for diplomacy, nobody knows what a solution would look like. It’s hard to imagine a real agreement being reached when there are so many players with conflicting interests. Five distinct conflicts have become tangled together in Syria: a popular uprising against a dictatorship which is also a sectarian battle between Sunnis and the Alawite sect; a regional struggle between Shia and Sunni which is also a decades-old conflict between an Iranian-led grouping and Iran’s traditional enemies, notably the US and Saudi Arabia. Finally, at another level, there is a reborn Cold War confrontation: Russia and China v. the West. The conflict is full of unexpected and absurd contradictions, such as a purportedly democratic and secular Syrian opposition being funded by the absolute monarchies of the Gulf who are also fundamentalist Sunnis.
By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. He is probably correct in predicting that diplomacy will fail, that his opponents inside and outside Syria are too divided to agree on a peace deal. He may also be right in believing that greater foreign intervention ‘is a clear probability’. The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.
Qatar: Attention-Starved Teen of the Middle East – Bloomberg
… One of the biggest questions asked by people who watch the Middle East is a simple one: What, exactly, does Qatar want? In addition to funding Hamas and providing support for Islamists across the region, Qatar also hosts the forward headquarters of the U.S. Central Command at the huge Al Udeid Air Base. The government of Qatar also hosts, and owns, the Al Jazeera television network, which allows it to project its often anti-American ideas around the world. (The only government that has guaranteed immunity against criticism from Al Jazeera is, unsurprisingly, Qatar’s).
… Many Arab leaders think that Qatar’s leadership is motivated by three basic interests. The first is that Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (the prime minister’s boss and cousin), actually feels sympathy for Islamists. The second is that despite this sympathy, he understands that the best guarantor of his continued rule in his unhappy neighborhood is the permanent presence of the American military on his territory. The third is that Qatar will support — out of competitiveness, spite and jealousy — whatever Saudi Arabia, its much larger neighbor, opposes.
The ultimate explanation for Qatar’s behavior, however, may be that the country is essentially an attention-starved teenager, whose emotional insecurity causes it to insert itself into everyone’s business. That’s one reason the Qatari government maintains an intermittently open relationship with Israeli officials; it wants to play a central role in the Middle East peace process. This week, it spearheaded a drive to revive negotiations, reintroducing a version of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, calling for the establishment of a Palestinian state and normalization of relations between Arabs and Israel.
It may seem improbable that the Qataris would even try to match Saudi Arabia, or any of their larger neighbors, in influence. Qatar is about half the size of Belize. But thanks to its immense oil wealth, the country’s per-capita gross domestic product is one of the highest in the world.
Qatar may also be the biggest exploiter of guest workers in the world. Of a population of roughly 1.9 million, almost 90 percent are migrant workers who, human-rights groups allege, are often treated with great cruelty by their employers and by the state. Qatar was recently chosen to host the 2022 World Cup, and it plans to use an army of exploited Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Nepalese to build its new stadiums.
… When his turn came, Indyk (who is a friend of mine) asked HBJ a series of direct and uncomfortable questions that prompted answers so incredible they had many of the people in the audience not on Qatar’s payroll rolling their eyes. “Whether it’s your bailing out the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, or your support for the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, or Hamas in Gaza,” Indyk said, “there’s the impression that you’re taking sides.”
… Indyk’s next question touched on an even more sensitive subject: Qatar’s support for antigovernment Syrian Islamists, including those with direct ties to al-Qaeda. Again, the prime minister bobbed and weaved, eventually settling on a rhetorical strategy of blaming the U.S.: “We have to do more. The United States has to do more,” he said. “But later, don’t blame us, or you blame yourself, because it will be our mistake together not to intervene.” He ended by scolding his host: “So this rumor, again, it’s between families, which are sometimes jealous. Sometimes we tease each other. Don’t go to this business, Martin.”
The British Daily Telegraph reports that Hamas, which rules Gaza, is paying a heavy price in lost aid over its assistance to the rebels fighting Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iran has made a meaningful cut in its aid to Hamas, which had previously reached amounts as large as 15 million Australian dollars per month.
… Hamas maintained a neutral stance in the first months of the war, but when it came out on the side of the rebels, its delegation was kicked out of Syria. Its representatives in Lebanon are now feeling similar pressure from Hizbullah.
A number of people have been killed in an exchange of fire between Syrian rebels and fighters from the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, say reports. Lebanese security sources said the clashes took place on Lebanon’s side of the border, near the town of Baalbek. Hezbollah is fighting alongside the army in Syria, but the clashes have rarely crossed onto Lebanese soil.
Although accused by the Syrian opposition of serving the same function as the shabiha (ghosts) paramilitary units that have earned a notorious reputation for committing massacres against Syrian opposition members, the Popular Committees, unlike the shabiha, are not generally deployed in battle outside their area of residence. They are generally armed with light weapons and are organized on the village and city district level. Popular Committee forces man checkpoints, conduct door-to-door raids and occasionally provide support for the Syrian military against the armed Syrian opposition in divided, heavily-contested areas of the country by holding areas cleared of armed opposition members
Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool (Brigades of the Descendants of the Prophet) is an increasingly powerful national umbrella organization of locally-based Syrian Sunni Islamist armed opposition fighting groups which are active belligerents against the al-Assad government. It is a “franchise” organization whose constituent kata’ib (battalions) announce that they are formally part of, and fight under the banner of, the national “Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool.” The number of kata’ib throughout Syria stating that they are a part of Alwiya Ahfaad ar-Rasool has been growing quickly since the organization’s founding in July 2012.
The Muslim Brotherhood recently opened direct contacts with opposition groups in Damascus, providing them with cash for the first time and promising political influence in an effort to gain their support, according to Syrians organising clandestine relief efforts in rebel-held areas of the capital.
The infusion of cash and offer of political collaboration last week came just days after the Muslim Brotherhood’s secretary general, Raid Al Shaqfa, announced the organisation would reopen offices inside Syria, after years of exile. The Brotherhood’s largesse followed a cutback of relief assistance to some groups in the capital by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the officially recognised opposition alliance.
The other afternoon on NPR, Melissa Block interviewed an opponent of intervention in Syria, Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma–who argues that Syria would be another Iraq– and promptly brought up Landis’s marriage to a woman from a prominent Alawite family, suggesting that Landis was guilty of dual loyalty in his ideas about Syria.
You will see that the supporter of intervention in Syria who was on the show, Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (the thinktank spinoff of the Israel lobby group AIPAC), then ran with Block’s theme; and Landis, on the defensive, was compelled to assert, “I’m an American… I’m an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.”
BLOCK: Joshua Landis, I’d be curious to hear your perspective, as somebody who married into what I gather is a prominent Syrian Alawite family. Alawites are the minority in Syria, party of President Assad and other elites. Help us understand the Alawite perspective on the rebel movement and the future of their country.
LANDIS: Well, as I said, this is a ethnic war and it’s devolving increasingly towards minorities, who are 20 percent of Syria, led by the Alawites, 12 percent, who have monopolized the military and security forces. They have had their foot on the throats of the Sunni-Arab majority for the last 40 or 50 years. Sunni-Arab majority has finally had enough of this and they’re trying to overthrow this regime…
LANDIS: Could I have one rejoinder? Andrew just said that I’m a regime-supporter for making this argument and therefore trying to scare Americans away. I think that’s an unfair accusation. I’m an American.
TABLER: You’ve got to be kidding, Josh. You have been one of the biggest supporters of Bashar al-Assad for a long time, and look, that’s your position. And I think the argument you make…
LANDIS: That’s completely untrue. And I’m an American trying to keep us out of another Iraq-type of venture.
TABLER: I think that you are…
LANDIS: What you are saying is that Syria’s not like Iraq.
TABLER: I’m sorry I don’t agree with you.
LANDIS: And Syria’s exactly like Iraq. This is not about the regime. This is about America staying out of a quagmire, Andrew.
TABLER: Josh, I just think that your positions have come consistently on side of the regime.
LANDIS: Well, that’s because I want Americans to stay out. I think the Syrians have to settle their own problems.
I find this fascinating. For if Landis’s marriage is fair game– and I think it is– then so are the social and ideological adhesions of neoconservatives. Are they Zionists? Do they have family living in Israel? Why did neoconservatives Richard Perle and David Wurmser– who is married to an Israeli-American– write “A Clean Break” for Netanyahu in 1996, calling for regime change in Iraq? Given these connections to a rightwing foreign regime, should these men have served in George Bush’s foreign-policy braintrust? Did not Elliott Abrams and Paul Wolfowitz, who also were part of that brain trust, have family living in Israel?
What about liberal Aaron David Miller, who tells us in his book that concern for Israel was part of his “ethnic DNA.” Should he have been a peace processor? What about Chuck Schumer, who says his name means guardian in Hebrew and he is a guardian of Israel?
Do we ever hear mainstream media buttonholing these people about their connections to Israel or asking, sincerely, Can you help us understand Zionism in Jewish life? No.
Americans have a right to know about these things. From the very beginnings of political Zionism, when Herzl approached French and English Jews and had the door slammed in his face, Jews expressed the fear that Zionism would cast a question on their patriotism. Eric Alterman has said that to be a Zionist is to be dual loyal:
I was raised dually loyal my whole life. When I went to Hebrew school, the content of my Hebrew school was all about supporting Israel. When my parents who I think are here tonight sent me to Israel when I was 14, on a ZOA [Zionist Organization of America]-sponsored trip… it was drummed into me that I should do what’s best for Israel.
Dual loyalty doesn’t mean disqualification. As Louis Brandeis established, such affinities are just part of the American salad. Fine. We are worldly people. We all have adhesions– some of which go across borders. But as Melissa Block believes, it is sometimes fair to discuss those adhesions. Too bad that principle is only honored when it comes to an opponent of neoconservatism.
Western diplomats, politicians and analysts have combined to float quite a few options to supposedly resolve the two-year civil war engulfing much of Syria right now.
Miles Copeland Jr., a famed CIA Agent who helped the Agency stage a coup in Syria decades ago, suggested exactly that during an interview with the BBC … in 1967.
‘Do nothing,’ Copeland says, partly because interventions are messy ordeals that don’t always work out as planned (kind of like what Army General Martin Dempsey said recently).
We in the West are so mesmerized by a small group of radicals that we lost the ability to see the reality. By fearing the ghost of Afghanistan, we decided to do nothing. Because if we do nothing, we can’t do anything wrong. And this is precisely the huge mistake we are committing today. Because by doing nothing we only make Assad and the Jihadists stronger. While we are leaving those who share our values on their own.
The main excuse I hear for not intervening is: we don’t know what the Free Syrian Army is and we don’t know what they want. It’s a silly excuse. Because if you don’t know, it’s simply because you haven’t done the effort. It’s not that difficult. Two weeks ago, I had a dinner in Turkey with the Chief of Staff of the FSA, Salim Idriss and four of the five Front Commanders. Anyone who does the effort to go to Antakya will be able to meet any officer of the FSA. You will hear that they want freedom and democracy, that they try everything in order to respect human rights, protect the minorities and help the refugees. But you will also hear that they don’t have the means to achieve these goals properly.
… The pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia claimed that Kerry had been “counting on convincing Moscow not to block sanctions against Damascus. It didn’t work.” Even if false, the framing of the story provides good insight into how the Russian government viewed these talks. And in the end, Kerry gave Putin exactly what he wanted: Washington’s assent to a renewed push for negotiations to end the geopolitical catastrophe in Syria. …
Would the U.S. be militarily ready for intervention in Syria? – Blogger’s opinion
The civil war in Syria, one of the few lasting legacies of the Arab Spring, has been under way for more than two years. There has been substantial outside intervention in the war. The Iranians in particular, and the Russians to a lesser extent, have supported the Alawites under Bashar al Assad. The Saudis and some of the Gulf States have supported the Sunni insurgents in various ways. The Americans, Europeans and Israelis, however, have for the most part avoided involvement. …
It was a typical day for the teenagers, with school followed by a game of football – no different from millions of other boys around the world. Afterwards, they sat about chatting and joking, with one eye on television reports of the revolutions that had flared in Egypt and Libya.
There were seven boys, good friends who had grown up together on the same streets of a suburb of Deraa, a prosperous agricultural city in the south of Syria. They talked about the uprisings engulfing the region and their frustration that their nation, ruled by the repressive Assad family for four decades, had escaped the waves of unrest.
Suddenly, one of them had an idea – to paint graffiti on the school walls to annoy the security forces. So the boys waited until after evening prayers. Then, on that February night two years ago, they sneaked into their schoolyard and began spraying slogans of protest.
Bashir Abazed, 15, painted in huge letters the words ‘Ejak el door ya Doctor’ (It is your turn, Doctor)…
Amazing set of photos from the front line, highly recommended… and heartbreaking.