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Syria and Turkey commentary

Syrian Kurds and their democratic model of ‘Rojava’

Rojava Syrian Kurds Saleh Muslim PYD leader

Big moves are afoot in Rojava, northeast Syria, where the Kurds are battling ISIS on two fronts. It is a clash of ideologies and will be a fight to the death, as Saleh Muslim, the softly spoken President of the PYD, Syria’s most powerful Kurdish faction, told a full house in the Houses of Parliament last night. So many people came, myself among them, that a room treble the size of the planned one had to be found.

Syrian Kurds have been largely invisible and overlooked in the media so far, but this may be about to change. Saleh Muslim’s organization, the PYD (Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party), was founded in 2003 to resist the Assad regime. Affliated to the PKK – the Kurdish resistance party in Turkey – the PYD is regarded as a terrorist organisation by the United States, so Saleh Muslim himself has never been granted a visa to visit and put his case. The jailed leader of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, last week released a statement for Newroz, the Kurdish New Year, urging his followers to abandon their armed struggle in favour of a political solution. The UK government and the Foreign Office are as usual dithering and at least six months behind the curve.

For when the Assad regime’s army pulled out of the northeast in mid-2012, the Syrian Kurds were given a once in a lifetime chance to start afresh, creating an inclusive society in which all ethnicities and religions are involved – Kurdish and Arab, Syriac, Yazidi, Sunni, Alawi and Shi’a – a society uniquely based on trust. In November 2013 they declared the self-governing region of Rojava, incorporating the three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Jezira.

rojava map

From their capital Qamishli they now rule through a series of committees all of which are made up of 40% women, with plans for this to rise to 50%. Women are represented throughout, alongside men, even in the fighting groups known as the YPG, the People’s Protection Units, a fighting force of some 50,000 fighters.

rojava female fighters

These are the same fighters who, without fuss or recognition, led the Yazidis to safety via a back route off Mount Sinjar in August 2014, the same fighters who defended their town of Kobani against ISIS. Their struggles against ISIS continue, but less reported, in the canton of Afrin north of Aleppo, and near the city of Hasakeh in Jezira.

rojava yazidis

An academic delegation to Rojava has recently returned, some of whom were also speakers at last night’s open debate. Without exception they declared themselves deeply impressed by what they found, despite the economic problems due to blockaded borders, the lack of electricity, the struggles with lack of medicine and healthcare. Rojava has established a unique democratic model in which all decisions are reached by consensus, in consultation with all groups. So far it is working remarkably well, without infighting, and frankly puts to shame the pretense of democracy in many western countries. The rich Assad regime flunkies ran away in 2012 when the Assad army pulled out, so their land and property has been redistributed.

But if this democratic pluralistic model is to survive in the region, with its emphasis on the inclusion of women at all levels, it will need help. At the moment it is succeeding in its battles against ISIS through sheer will-power and conviction. It is defending its homeland. But Saleh Muslim says he also sees their approach as the right model for the rest of Syria and indeed for the region as a whole. A massive re-education needs to go on, he says calmly, to convince people that this inclusive model is the only way forward, and the West and the international community needs to commit its support rather than standing on the sidelines dithering while thousands die needlessly. In short, there needs to be a coherent strategy, so far lacking in western governments.

rojava mourning deaths

Related articles:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/security/2015/03/syria-pyd-kurds-federalism-middle-east.html

http://www.thenational.ae/world/middle-east/syria-kurds-struggle-since-battle-for-kobani

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/oct/08/why-world-ignoring-revolutionary-kurds-syria-isis

 

 

 

 

 

Tunisia’s Bardo Attack and the legacy of Ibn Khaldun

In the heart of Tunis stands a statue of Ibn Khaldun, the world’s first sociologist philosopher. Born here in 1332, he stands with his back to the historic old medina, gazing out to the new city and beyond towards the sea.

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Ibn Khaldun understood that true power resided not in the cities but in the countryside, for it was always there that rebellions, revolt and reform began. He also knew that neither religion nor ideology were the real drivers of society and human behaviour; rather it was the strength of the tribal/family solidarity, their economic interests and their traditions. So when, to fund their lavish lifestyles, 14th century rulers all across North Africa failed to invest in agricultural infrastructure, land became unproductive. The rulers neglected the maintenance of springs, wells and irrigation canals, forcing up the prices of basic foodstuffs – popular unrest ensued.

So it was with Muhammad Bou Azizi, a young fruitseller in the impoverished southern agricultural town of Sidi Bou Zid, who first ignited not only Tunisia’s revolution but the whole ‘Arab Spring’, by setting himself on fire. Repeated battles with corrupt bureaucracy had left him in despair. Four hard years of turmoil, chaos and instability for Tunisia followed, from which it has been just now emerging, only to have its efforts and successes jeopardised by the 18 March Bardo Museum attack in which over 20 have been shot dead in broad daylight at one of Tunisia’s showcase sights, right beside the Tunisian Parliament building.

Tunisia Bardo

Up to that point, Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution had been doing so well – the new government and president elected, the constitution settled, with the loss of less than 400 lives.

Eager to discover how and why Tunisia was succeeding, while other Arab countries remained locked in chaos and conflict – and above all whether any of its lessons might be applied to Syria, so locked in the most tragic and intractable of conflicts – I traveled in late February all over Tunisia with my family. Picking up a hire car at Tunis airport, we drove from the Europeanised capital to visit the Roman sites of Dougga, Makhtar and Sbeitla in the remote mountainous interior, then further south to the desert oases of Gabes, Tozeur and Nefta.

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We crossed the Chott El-Djerid salt lake to ride on camels in Douz on the edge of the Sahara, lunched in underground courtyards of Matmata of Star Wars’ fame, then looped back to the coast at Sfax, and north to the coastal resorts of Monastir and Sousse.

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Throughout the trip I looked and listened closely, chatting to local people in Arabic and French and asking questions. I used to know Tunisia well, having authored guidebooks on it for Thomas Cook and the AA.

Here is a summary of what Tunisians themselves told me:

  1. The vital role of women

“Our women saved our revolution” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men. Tunisia’s women are strong and emancipated, believing strongly in their role in society as ‘equal’ to men. When the former Islamist government tried to change the wording of the constitution to ‘complementary’ – the infamous Article 28 – Tunisia’s women came out onto the streets in their thousands, blockading parliament till the government backed down.

Tunisia womenTunisia women topless

  1. Civil society, trade unions and taxes

Tunisia has long had a vocal and well-organised trade union system, the UGTT, which conducted itself highly responsibly since the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution in December 2010. They knew when to go on strike and when not to, for the sake of stability. This has given the working and middle classes a strong and coherent voice with which to challenge the government. “We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” one businessman told me, “Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but we realise it is like a contract. It gives us the right to ask for things in return.”

Tunisia trade unions Tunisian trade unions

  1. Tolerance and moderate religion based on Sufism

Most Tunisians are Sunni Muslims and have a natural affinity with mystical Islam or Sufism. Ibn Khaldun was himself a Sufi, in the tradition of Ibn Arabi (1165-1240). This tradition is personified by the poet and novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb, born in Tunis in 1946, who died in 2014 of lung cancer. In his landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) he wrote: “If, according to Voltaire, intolerance was Catholicism’s sickness, if Nazism was Germany’s sickness, fundamentalism is Islam’s sickness.” He wrote over 30 books advocating an Islam of Enlightenment and a dialogue between civilisations. Tunisians have a uniquely tolerant Islamic heritage.

Ibn Arabi Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

  1. Aversion to violence

The Tunisian psyche is stable and peaceful by nature, with a deep repulsion to violence and extreme behaviour. Compromise seems to be the preferred modus operandi.  In all my years of travelling in Tunisia I have never once witnessed any acts of aggression, bullying or bad temper.

For all these reasons Tunisia is different from many Arab countries, a guiding beacon. Europe and the West must give their full support and do whatever they can to help the country stay its course of moderation. The Foreign Office travel advice on Tunisia remains unchanged; travel insurance remains valid and I for one will be going back.

For if Tunisia fails, with its legacy of the moderate Ibn Khaldun and Abdelwahab Meddeb, there is little hope for all the rest.

 

Syria – death of a gentle giant

Yesterday as the Syrian uprising entered its fifth year, I learnt of the death of my dearest Syrian friend. I am still numb from the news. My gentle giant is gone.  Ramzi the Philosopher, his pseudonym in My House In Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, died not in fighting or in a bomb attack, but from brain cancer. A complex operation to remove the tumour was carried out last September, leaving him unable to speak, read or write. His mother and sisters nursed him in their simple Lattakia flat, interpreting his noises, doing their best to comfort him. But in spite of all their efforts, he never regained the power of speech.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

I see a terrible symbolism here. Syria’s silent majority is silent due to pragmatism, due to fear of the repercussions of speaking out, and due to a realisation that no one is listening to their voice anyway. But that my wise and eloquent Ramzi should have had silence imposed upon him is the cruellest of fates. With his death, part of Syria has died, the best part, for Syria has lost one of its noblest sons. His deep soft voice will never be heard again and Syria is the poorer for it.

Graves in the village of Anitli (Haho) [DD, May 2014]

Maybe his death is for the best, an end to his horrible suffering – displaced from his home three times by fighting between rival factions, Ramzi’s life had become a nightmare. Twice his village home was looted right down to the window frames. He was never political, never took up arms and hated violence. As the eldest son, when his father died some years ago, he took on the role of breadwinner to support his aging mother and his unmarried sisters through his earnings as a professional tourist guide. All who knew him loved him, and he was the guide of choice inside Syria for the top-quality Martin Randall tour operator. His love of his country was so deep it was tangible, and he conveyed this love to all foreign visitors.

Aleppo's old souk,

When his country descended into civil war and he lost his livelihood, his heart was broken. From having been a healthy hearty man in his forties, he fell victim to cancer. What a waste. He was a silent victim, one of thousands whose deaths will never even appear in the official casualty statistics, yet unquestionably part of the unseen fallout.

All those who have the power to end Syria’s nightmare, wake up! – for the more people like Ramzi die, the harder it will be for the country ever to recover.

Deserted garden Damascus's National Museum [2011, DD]

Deserted garden of Damascus’s National Museum

How to resist the charms of ISIS – Lessons from Tunisia

ISIS bans all forms of merry-making, so what would it make of this?  – the Tunisian dunes, alive with the sound of music!

dunes electroniques 5dunes electroniques 6

On my first visit since the country’s  Jasmine Revolution, I have chanced upon Les Dunes Electroniques, a three-day festival of world music held in the Tunisian desert around the oasis of Nefta.

Parts of the original Star Wars film were shot here, but this is Episode 2 of the festival, building on the unexpected success of last year’s inaugural event, where over 3000 Tunisian and foreign visitors danced from noon till midnight in the vast open spaces of the Sahara. ISIS eat your heart out.

dunes electroniques 4Dunes Electroniques

Of course February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year the 7000 visitors had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into Glastonbury-style muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.

Even this could not dampen the spirits of Tunisia’s young at heart, as they padded good-naturedly through puddles wearing plastic bags on their feet.

They also enlivened the spirits of the hoteliers, restaurateurs and shop-owners of the region, for whom the drop in tourism over the last four years has been hard.

At the nearby oasis of Tozeur, traffic jams surround the famous Le Petit Prince restaurant, set on the edge of the palm groves.

tozeur oasis

 

Its surreal planetary interior is buzzing with custom, a total contrast to the previous night spent in Tunisia’s mountainous interior. Then I was the sole guest of the Hotel Sufetela overlooking the perfectly preserved Roman temples of Sbeitla. Four policemen had just been shot in an ISIS raid not far away. Yet even there, the hotel staff are positive:

“Just give us 100 days,” the manager said, “and you will see. Our new government and president will fight these crazy extremists.  Our period of instability is coming to an end, and tourism will return.”

sbeitla

Compared to other Arab countries with their still ongoing revolutions, Tunisia stands out like a bright light. Why is that, when there is clearly still economic hardship, unemployment and a big rich-poor divide?

Tunisians themselves from all over the country give me a remarkably coherent answer, which boils down to two things: women and trade unions.

In the capital, Tunis, most young women are unveiled, dressed so cosmopolitanly in jeans and jackets that it is hard to tell their nationality. Young men and women mix freely in the cafes of the souvenir souks in the colourful old medina, laughing and chatting comfortably in a blend of French and Arabic.

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“Our women saved our revolution,” was a refrain I heard regularly from Tunisian men.

When the previous Islamist government tried to change the constitution by making the role of women ‘complementary’ to men, Tunisia’s women, strong and emancipated, were having none of it.

They thronged the streets in their thousands and staged a sit-in in front of the parliament building, till the government backed down and the wording reverted to ‘equal’.

Tunisia’s middle and working classes – male and female – have long been unusually vocal, helped by the powerful trade unions who have played such a leading role in creating modern civil associations, instilling a sense of responsibility.

“We think of it as normal to pay our taxes,” a local shop-owner explains to me in Carthage, where the modern presidential palace overlooks the ancient ruins.

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“In most Arab countries the mentality is that only stupid people pay tax. Of course the rich will always find ways to avoid it, but here we understand that it is like a contract. It gives us the right to make demands from the government in return.”

All this would be lost were ISIS to gain a foothold, and everyone knows it.

In the heart of Tunisia’s poorer south at Sidi Bou Zid, a huge clay model of a fruit cart marks the spot where Muhammad Bou Azizi, a thwarted fruitseller, ignited the Arab Spring by setting himself on fire.

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I buy some bananas and watch a march of local people demanding the government speed up the anti-terrorism laws. “Don’t give up the fight,” says the graffiti on the cart.

Back at Tozeur’s oasis I visit Paradise Gardens  with its hands-on zoo.  The cheerful young keeper lets me hold the egg an ostrich has just laid.

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Then he puts Janet the scorpion on my hand, named after Michael Jackson’s sister, and introduces me to Angela Merkel, the horned viper, before draping a spaghetti of snakes round my neck.

“Are these called ISIS?” I ask.

“No,” he replies, “We don’t allow them here!”

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Tunisia snakes at Tozeur zoo

This text was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 ‘s From Our Own Correspondent on 5 March 2015:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0542zv0   (starts at 06.06 mins in)

 

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel

The Prophet Muhammad receiving his first revelation from the Angel Gabriel, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

The Prophet Muhammad solving dispute over who should rebuild Kaaba and dedicate black stone - they do it collaboratively on cloth, so all together Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh Univ library

The Prophet Muhammad solving a dispute over who should rebuild the Kaaba and dedicate the sacred black stone – they do it collaboratively on the cloth, so all together, Tabriz 1307, Edinburgh University library

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris

Detail of the Prophet Muhammad in paradise with houris, 18th century Ottoman, Topkapi Palace Museum

Muhammad carried by Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi'rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad carried by the Angel Gabriel arriving at gate of paradise guarded by the Angel Ridwan, 1360-70, Tabriz, Mi’rajnama, now in Topkapi Palace Library

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad flies over houris in Paradise harvesting flowers, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, 'virgins' promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq (upper right) visiting Paradise with the Angel Gabriel (upper left). Below are camels ridden by fabled houris, ‘virgins’ promised to martyrs, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad on his horse Buraq sees women strung up on hooks by their tongues by a green demon, punishment for mocking their husbands and leaving their homes without permission, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a demon punish shameless women in hell (with Buraq and Gabriel) who have shown their hair to strangers, and are strung up and burnt for eternity, Persian 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

The Prophet Muhammad watching a red demon hanging up women by their breasts, as they are engulfed in flames for giving birth to illegitimate children whom they falsely claimed were fathered by their husbands, Persia 15th c

Since the Charlie Hebdou cartoons controversy in January 2015, and now the cafe attacks in Copenhagen on 14 February 2015, more attention has been focused on the depictions of the Prophet Muhammad that do exist in Islamic art. They are not widely known: even on my Islamic Art and Architecture MA course at SOAS in 2008-9, they were never mentioned. Today there is increasing speculation that such images, as found for example in early illustrated Korans, are being steadily bought up by wealthy individuals in Saudi Arabia, specifically in order to be destroyed.

It is striking that the early images originate overwhelmingly from either Sunni Ottoman lands or from Persian Shi’ite lands, with almost nothing similar coming out of the Arab heartlands. In subject matter and style the drawings are reminiscent of saints’ icons, especially in their depictions of heaven and hell, complete with angels and demons.

Islamic art Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing Muhammad' Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh

Algerian postcard from 1920s or 1930s showing the Prophet Muhammad’s Flight from Mecca in 622, entering the cave, pursued by the Quraysh on horseback

Islamic art German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing Gabriel guiding Muhammad on flying horse to God

German 1928 advert for meat extract (Bovril equivalent) showing the Angel Gabriel guiding the Prophet Muhammad on his flying horse to God

These two final images from the 1920s are testimony to the fact that such images were evidently not seen as blasphemous a hundred years ago. The German Bovril equivalent did not have its factories blown up.

As Paul Chevedden, author of A New History of the Crusades, recently put it: “The great strength of Islam historically has been its ability to adapt itself to local cultures. Syncretism was one of its strong suits. Just think of all the pagan Arabian practices incorporated into the faith, not to mention its debt to Judaism and Christianity. Now it is only scandalized by syncretisms, and what passes for Islamic creativity amounts to ridding the faith of the accumulated traditions going back many centuries. If the trend continues, we will see a Salafī-Wahhābī wasteland. A richness and diversity of Islamic cultures replaced by a desert.” Too true.

With thanks to Paul Chevedden for sharing his thoughts.

Also thanks to the following:

Copyright � 2009 The New Criterion | http://www.newcriterion.com http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/Yale—the-Danish-cartoons-4180

http://tarekfatah.com/images-of-prophet-muhammad-from-islamic-art-and-history-before-the-clan-of-ibn-saud-took-islam-hostage/

http://www.newsweek.com/koran-does-not-forbid-images-prophet-298298

 

On Arab cartoons and western hypocrisy

Arab's world most famed cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing Assad the lion, alias the dragon, by Ramzi Taweel

Ali Ferzat, drawn as St George killing the dragon, aka Assad the lion, with his sharp pen, by Palestinian cartoonist Ramzi Taweel

The Arab world loves satirical cartoons.  BBC Arabic’s current affairs TV show 7 Days even used to devoted the final ten minutes of each programme to a discussion of the week’s cartoons from the Arab press. So what is all this fuss about the Charlie Hebdo cartoons?

The Koran explicitly tells Muslims how to react when their religion is mocked, in verse 140 of Sura Al-Nisa:

“God has sent down upon you a commandment in the Book, that if you hear disbelievers denying and mocking the verses of God, do not sit with them until they change to a different topic, otherwise you will become like them.”

The Koran, regarded by all Muslims as the word of God,  is not open to dispute.

Why therefore does the mockery of Islam using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad provoke such extreme reactions across the Islamic world?

The obvious answer lies in orthodox  Islam’s position on religious figural art, whereby images of God, the Prophet Muhammad and other prophets, though not explicitly forbidden in the Koran, are not permitted according to longstanding tradition: only God is permitted to create humans, not humans themselves. That is seen as idolatry and therefore blasphemous. Traditional religious Islamic art is therefore overwhelmingly composed of geometric shapes and designs through which it seeks to represent God’s infinity, beauty, all-embracing nature and much more.

Dome of Istanbul's Blue Mosque

Dome of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

Dome of Isfahan mosque

But there is another answer, behind the obvious, which has its roots, not in religion, but in socio-economic frustration and the perceived hypocrisy of the West.

All too often, when westerners look East, they see nothing but the chaos of the Middle East apparently created by Islamic extremism. A few, looking more closely, see the socio-economic inequalities fuelled by the rise of greedy dictators and their equally greedy cronies. They may even see how the rise in literacy across the region has led, not to better opportunities for employment, but to a massive dissatisfaction with the status quo among the under 30s who account for at least 60% of the population. Few realise that even in Saudi Arabia 60% are under 21 and far from rich.

Very rarely do westerners acknowledge their own  governments’ role in creating the conditions for such chaos to flourish; in the creation of artificial states whose boundaries were drawn to suit western political and economic interests; in the creation of mandates whose remits were supposedly to protect and lead local populations to independence after World War I, but which in practice exploited them and set the various religious groupings  against each other, sometimes in an expressly ‘divide and rule’ policy; and last but not least, in the creation of the state of Israel imposed on existing local populations without consultation.

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding 'Freedom' banners

Fake Ali Ferzat cartoon, doctored by pro-regime activists to add sheep holding ‘Freedom’ banners

When Muslims look West, they in turn see extreme, and in their eyes often hypocritical, reactions. Why does the West make so much fuss over the death of 17 people in France, four of whom were Jews, when over 200,000 Arab lives have been lost in Syria to apparent western indifference? Why does the execution of four western hostages trigger a massive wave of outrage, when the earlier execution of hundreds of Muslims by ISIS inside Syria and Iraq drew no reaction? Why does the plight of the Yezidi minority, escaping up Mt Sinjar in Iraq, attract worldwide attention and lead to US air strikes, when indigenous Muslims have already been killed in their thousands by ISIS?

Then on 19 January British Communities Secretary Eric Pickles sent a letter to 1,100 imams across Britain which, though well-intentioned, clumsily implied blame on the Muslim community for allowing Islamic extremism to flourish, as if it were in some way their fault and responsibility. The letter did not acknowledge that such a global phenomenon cannot be pinned on one community, that it is spread more than anything by savvy propaganda on the internet and social media.

Tragically, such faux-pas feed into a western perception that Islam cannot take criticism, and into a Muslim perception that the West is always setting itself up above Islam, taking the moral high ground. The many instances of Christian and Jewish extremism across history are somehow seen differently by their own adherents, as excusable reactions to unreasonable provocation. Guantanamo Bay sums it up. This is why the West’s ‘holier than thou’ approach often leads to accusations of hypocrisy from inside the Islamic world.

A recent slogan tweeted by the Kafranbel activists inside Syria gave their balanced reaction to the Charlie Hedbo massacres and the subsequent adulation across the West of the satirical magazine via the ‘Je suis Charlie’ campaign:

“Magazines’ Self-Glory should be built neither by mocking religions nor by their employees’ skulls. Islam has nothing to do with terrorism.”

B7jZvDVIcAAE04C

Kafranbel’s own media centre satirising Bashar al-Assad, and its Radio Fresh broadcasting outlet was recently closed down by Jabhat an-Nusra extremists, on the pretext of it being against Islam: at the same time they closed down the Kafranbel Women’s Centre where local women trained as hairdressers, nurses and seamstresses, telling them they would be beheaded if they returned. The real reason for the closure was that the extremist group could not cope with being mocked, like all dictatorial regimes round the world. The widely circulated hashtag #We are all Hadi against Nusra (Hadi Al-Abdullah was the Kafranbel activist attacked by Al-Nusra) proved that Muslims will freely criticise other Muslims when necessary.

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre

Kafranbel cartoon on ISIS v Free speech with a jihadi shooting the microphone of Radio Fresh at the Kafranbel Media Centre, by Iman

Satire of political leaders has long been popular in the Arab world, much to the chagrin of autocratic dictators. Egypt’s former president Muhammad Morsi hated being mocked by the ultra-popular comic satirist Bassem Youssef on TV. The current President Al-Sisi was equally unable to handle it, and Youssef’s slick show, modeled on that of American comedian Jon Stewart, went off air.

The Arab world’s most famous cartoonist Ali Ferzat was allowed in 2000 to set up a satirical magazine called Ad-Domari, The Lamplighter, in Syria, the first such magazine since the Ba’athists took power there in 1963. The new president, Bashar al-Assad, had been his friend and encouraged him during what was called ‘The Damascus Spring’. Three years later, the magazine was closed down for its irreverent cartoons against the Syrian regime, and in 2011 Ali Ferzat was beaten up on a Damascus street, his hands broken to punish his satirical cartoons against his former friend.

On Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim

In support of Ali Ferzat by Andreas Qassim, Swedish cartoonist

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

Ali Ferzat cartoon from 2009 re leaders staying in safe places while fighters die

 

The singer Ibrahim al-Qashoush who wrote a popular anti-regime song was found in the river Orontes with his vocal chords cut out.

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer emotional re TV romance but not re victim

Ali Ferzat cartoon re torturer’s empathy with TV romance but not with his victim

Torturers inside Assad’s prisons were known to force detainees to pray to a picture of Bashar and recite: “There is no God but Bashar”.

Defending free speech is easy if you like what is being said. But many Muslims feel damaged by the Charlie Hedbo media circus, misunderstood and unfairly vilified by the West. Islam’s absence of a conventional hierarchy also makes it difficult for moderate Muslims, especially Sunnis who account for about 85% of Muslims worldwide, to have a unified voice. While the minority Shia, largely found in Iran and Iraq, look to a handful of Grand Ayatollahs to guide them, Sunnis have no Pope or head of the church equivalent. No one Sunni group can speak for another and there are at least four main Sunni schools of law, each with their own theologians.

The West fears what it does not understand. But it must not allow distorted views of Islam’s nature to take hold. In the past, in its foreign interventions in the Arab world, the West has been driven by self-interest, despite its rhetoric to the contrary. Its own economic ambitions have been paramount, leading it to exploit the Middle East’s strategic location and natural resources.

If Western countries could honestly declare that their actions will in future also consider the interests of local populations, it might be a first step towards healing the misunderstandings which have led to so many of the region’s seemingly intractable problems. Respect between the West and Islam is essential.

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Cartoon of Ali Ferzat fighting with his pen against oppression, by Matt Wuerker

Schizophrenia in Damascus

Nothing in Damascus was as expected. Convinced there would be food shortages, I had vowed to eat very little during my stay. Yet while the besieged suburbs are starving, the central food markets are overflowing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The fruit stalls of Sharia al-Amin boast bananas from Somalia, the Bzouriye spice markets are buoyant with top-quality saffron from Iran and walnuts from Afghanistan. Lebanese wine and beer are freely available. Prices are higher than before, but still largely affordable for most people.

Sandwiched between the heavily-armed checkpoints, street stands selling thick hot Aleppan sakhlab, a sweet white drink, are everywhere.

Cafes and pastry shops are bursting with sticky delicacies, the famous Bakdash ice-cream parlour is buzzing with people as ever.

Bakdash ice cream parlour, October 2014

To judge from the carpets of cigarette butts on the pavements, smoking rates, always high, are higher than ever. In the main thoroughfare of Souq al-Hamidiya all the usual clothes and flamboyant underwear outlets are still thronging with customers – not a single boarded shopfront – quite a contrast to the average British high street.

Sporadically, in the days as well as the nights, shelling is disturbingly loud, but strangely offstage.

President Bashar al-Assad’s artillery is fired from Mount Qassioun, directly above the city, towards the eastern Ghouta region – the scene of last year’s chemical attack, whose pockets of resistance are still a thorn in the side of the government. Villages there have suffered a food blockade for the last 18 months.

But by all accounts there is much less noise than there was a year ago.

Mount Qassioun, seen from DamascusMount Qassioun, seen across the rooftops of Damascus

From that point of view, very gradually, life in central Damascus is getting better. Yet from other points of view, just as gradually, it is getting worse.

Beyond the 3.5 million who have fled the country as refugees, a further 7.5 million have been internally displaced – added together that accounts for half of Syria’s entire population. Homes which are left empty, if they have not been flattened, are vulnerable to immediate seizure by others – usually the owners have no idea who has moved in and it is too dangerous to go back and find out.

Almost as often, but rarely reported, Syrian homes are taken by profiteers, exploiting the weak or the absent.

My own house in the Muslim quarter of the Old City of Damascus, bought and restored in 2005, fell victim a few months ago.

It had been lived in for more than two years, from the summer of 2012 to the summer of 2014, with my consent by displaced friends whose homes had been destroyed in the suburbs. Now they had been evicted by my ex-lawyer and the previous owner conniving together to take it for themselves and split it 50:50.

Determined to get it back I recently returned to Damascus to throw them out and after 15 roller-coaster days, I succeeded. Things can happen surprisingly fast in Syria. You go to meet the judge one day, and he comes to inspect the house the next – without payment.

The old and the new doors to the houseA blacksmith made a new metal door to cover the smashed antique one.

Among the many moments of high drama were two break-ins, six changes of lock, the installation of two metal doors and the exposure of the bogus security reports which had led to my friends being evicted in the first place.

Bit parts were played by a fake general on a forged 25-year lease, and a Baathist single mother in the house with her newborn baby. It was with her that I felt most threatened by violence.

But in some ways life goes on almost as normal: dining with one friend in her 50s, whose car was lost in a random mortar attack, she explains how she now accompanies her 16-year-old nephew by taxi to play in the orchestra at the Opera House to make sure he is not picked up and enlisted into the army. At the checkpoints she clutches his cello between her legs so that the soldiers will not take it.

Checkpoints and road blocks in Yusuf al-Azma SquareCheckpoints and road blocks, such as this one in Yusuf al-Azma Square, are a common sight

Another friend works for the national electricity grid: his job is to repair electric cables damaged in the clashes. Over lunch at his home with his family, he tells me how one of his team stepped on a mine and was blasted to pieces in front of him – the man next to him had his eyes blown out.

He himself was lucky, escaping only with shrapnel in his intestine. He spent two weeks in hospital, two weeks at home recuperating, then went straight back to work. His attitude is simple: anyone who damages Syrian infrastructure is hurting the Syrian people.

The alleys of the Old City are full of children playing football. Many go to the school round the corner from my house.

Such is the overcrowding – some say Damascus’s population has risen from four to seven million because of internally displaced refugees – that their school-day is from 11:00 to 15:00, with one shift before them and another shift after them. They have 50 to 60 in their class but their enthusiasm to learn and to do their homework is undiminished.

The only other foreigners I saw on the streets were Iraqi Shia, men and women led round in groups to visit the shrines by a man wielding an orange lollipop sign.

When I met an old friend at the tourism ministry who still works at his office every day, he explained how this kind of religious tourism is now all they have left, some 200,000 pilgrims a year, after 8.2 million foreign visitors in 2010. He expresses no political views – he is just someone who has chosen to stay and do his job as best he can, like millions of others.

All over the country, even in ISIS-held Raqqa, I was reliably informed, government employees now draw their salaries direct from cash points on specific days, causing long queues outside the banks.

For the last two nights when I was finally able to sleep in my house in Old Damascus I experienced what everyone else has to suffer on a daily basis – scarcely four hours of electricity a day, no gas, no hot water, limited cold water.

It was tough, yet strangely invigorating, crossing the chilly courtyard to wash in a dribble of icy water, warmed by the knowledge I was surrounded by loyal neighbours who were looking out for me. Without them I could never have retaken my house: they protected me, helped me at every turn.

Bait Baroudi

A crisis brings out the worst and the best in people. What I found in Damascus was that a genuine kindness, a shared humanity and an extraordinary sense of humour are well and truly alive. Decent Syrian citizens are together doing their best to fight against immorality and corruption. Morale, in spite of everything, is high. Laughter keeps them sane.

Not once did anyone mention sectarianism. “DA’ESH” (the Arabic acronym for ISIS used across the Middle East) was universally condemned as beyond the pale.

How much longer, as the war approaches its fifth year and the number of greedy opportunists in society increases, such neighbourhood camaraderie can survive is an unanswerable question. But after this fortnight in Damascus I am more optimistic than before.

Diana Darke, Middle East cultural expert and Arabic speaker, is the author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, new 2015 edition now available as paperback and e-book from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

Related post:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-30494989

 

 

Love and hypocrisy in Iran

In Iran, they say, there are two books in every household  – the Koran and Hafez. One is read, the other is not.

To understand this joke you need do no more than join the millions who regularly throng the tomb of Hafez, 14th century poet of Shiraz and Iran’s national hero, as I did one recent afternoon.

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Gardens surrounding the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

The atmosphere was buzzing, happy and relaxed – Iran at its best.

Day and night the tomb, raised up on a beautifully decorated dais surrounded by its own fragrant rose gardens, water channels and orange trees, is crowded with devotees stroking his alabaster sarcophagus, declaiming his verses, relishing his clever plays on words.

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Alabaster sarcophagus of Hafez being stroked in reverence

Hafez represents all the rich complexities of the Iranian identity. His brilliant use of metaphors in their native Farsi language unites them.

But there is another reason the tomb is so popular.

In today’s Islamic Republic it is hard to express resistance to the powers that be.

The ruling clerical elite has consolidated its grip on power. It uses the rhetoric of revolution while crushing opposition. President Rouhani’s smiling face has projected a new image outside the country, but inside everyone tells me things are worse, with more executions  and more oppression than ever before. Penalties are harsh as evidenced by the recent ‘91 lashes’ meted out to defiant women dancing unveiled on a YouTube video to the Pharrell Williams song Happy. A London woman is on hunger strike in an Iranian prison, jailed for attempting to attend a men’s volleyball match.

But dissent can be displayed in subtle ways.  Thanks to Hafez,  Shiraz is Iran’s most liberal city.

Women’s fashion is the give-away, affecting the whole mood of the place. While women are obliged by law to cover themselves from head to toe, in Shiraz the women dress almost outrageously by Islamic standards.

Iran women photo _78286186_hookah624getty

The compulsory headscarf is highly coloured and worn dangling precariously from the back of the head, hardly covering any hair at all; the young sport tight black leggings topped by close-fitting slinky mini-coats, each one daring the next to raise the hemline further.

Far from concealing the feminine curves as the rules dictate, the outfits flaunt them, and the lively groups both young and old, men and women mix freely, laughing and chatting together.

This is Iran at its least compliant, a far cry from the religious conservatism the establishment seeks to impose on its population.

A famous actor arrives to pay his respects and is mobbed Hollywood-style by adoring fans.

Iran Hafez Tomb _78399474_hafez-tomb-624-think

As the sun disappears from the sky and the illuminations come on round the tomb, the atmosphere becomes ever more festive. People start singing and reciting their favourite poems.

Children dangle their feet in the pools, giggling and soaking up their parents’ infectious high spirits.

The scene conceals the paradoxes of Iran, for thanks to the mullahs’ policy of education for all, there are some surprising changes afoot in Iranian society.

For years now, more women than men have been graduating from university. The birth rate has dropped so dramatically, to just one child per family, that the clerics, fearful of a ‘Japanese curve’, have introduced financial incentives for couples to breed more. Most refuse, saying it is still too expensive.

While the West remains obsessed with Iran’s nuclear enrichment, it is an open secret that the well-connected clerics and businessmen enrich themselves through sanctions-busting.

When I hesitate over buying a Persian rug through lack of cash, knowing western credit cards are banned from use inside Iran, the carpet dealer pooh poohs  my concerns and simply rings a friend in Dubai to seal the transaction.

Unfortunately for the mullahs, the mystic poetry of Hafez, besides lauding the joys of love and wine, also targeted religious hypocrisy.

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

Crowds at the Tomb of Hafez, Shiraz

“Preachers who display their piety in prayer and pulpit, ” he wrote, 600 years ago,

“Behave differently when they’re alone … Why do those who demand repentance do so little of it?”

With prostitution another open secret in clerical circles, especially in the ‘holy cities’, such verses strike a chord.

Bans apply to many things in Iran, including the BBC. Yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched. Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus and Instagram are all officially blocked. Rouhani is calling for internet restrictions to be eased, but the last word on such matters rests with the Supreme Leader who is so far unrelenting.

Small wonder the people of Iran comfort themselves with the poetry of Hafez. Even the mullahs cannot ban their own national poet.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, 2015 edition now available from:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=11301

My House in Damascus

With thanks for kind use of his photos to Richard Stoneman , fellow traveler on my Iran tour arranged by UK tour company Travel the Unknown http://www.traveltheunknown.com/tripfinder/Iran/1/to/21/days/sort-by/country/asc

First published http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-29648166

The paradox of Iran and its links with Syria

Cameron and Rouhani

How fitting it is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  should have used his Twitter account to announce last month’s historic meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “1st meeting b/w UK & Iran heads of state in 35 years: 1 hour of constructive & pragmatic dialogue, new outlook #UNGA” the tweet boasted, attaching a photo to prove it, of the pair engaged in earnest dialogue. A week later the brief warming in relations was over, as Rouhani criticised Cameron for calling Iran ‘part of the problem in the Middle East’; Tehran headlines again referred to Britain as ‘the old fox.’

What is the Iranian leadership aiming for, in its apparent new accessibility, its seeming new willingness to talk and engage with western governments? How seriously should we take Iran’s ‘new outlook’, as the UK joins the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq (and possibly Syria in future), a fight in which Iran’s help will, sooner or later, almost certainly be needed?

In Twitter-silent Iran, it was the silence of the ordinary Iranian people that struck me most. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009 in which around 100 protesters were killed and over 4,000 arrested, most Iranians learned to be silent – unlike the Syrians. Ordinary Iranians admire the courage of ordinary Syrians. “We gave up when we saw how the regime reacted, but they continued.”

The gulf between the Iranian people and their regime is striking. Rouhani’s smiling face and his carefully managed tweets project one image of Iran to the West, but conditions inside the country tell a very different story. Far from opening up, Iran is busily clamping down on its own people. Since Rouhani took office in August 2013 executions have been on the rise, more than 400 in the first half of 2014 alone according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (to give perspective, Saudi Arabia managed a mere 79 last year). Two gay men were publicly hanged in August for consensual sodomy; in recent weeks ’91 lashes’ were meted out to unveiled Iranians dancing in a YouTube video, and a British-Iranian woman was charged with ‘propaganda against the Iranian regime’ for attending a male volley-ball match. Iran’s hard-line ruling elite back home is determined to suppress any kind of resistance, fearful that, were they to allow greater freedoms in Iranian society, a wave of dissent might rise up and engulf them. Rouhani recently declared his view that internet controls and tight restrictions on women’s headscarves do not work – but will the anti-reformist clerics take any notice?

Iran is not a particularly religious country, given the power of the mullahs. The call to prayer is muted – it took three days till I heard the first one – and mosques are places more to sleep than pray.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 032

Shrines on the other hand are crowded, thanks to a superstition that throwing a few notes or coins through the grille of a holy man’s tomb will resolve life’s problems. “We never did Islam the way the Arabs wanted us to,” grinned a helpful bystander inside the segregated women’s area, confirming what my Syrian friends in Damascus had always told me about the Iranian pilgrims who thronged the city in their all-black chadors. “They are pretending. Underneath they are just on holiday.”

Painted high on random buildings within view of the main highways the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei  smile down on their subjugated flock like a pair of benevolent dictators.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 738

Closer questioning reveals that maybe some 10-15% of the population is tied into supporting the regime for their own economic reasons. Iran is at heart a trading nation. Its entire history has been built on centuries of skilful bartering. Visit any Iranian city and the bazaar is the central nervous system, the driver of the economy. The bazaaris and the clergy were enabled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution to preserve the traditional positions of power threatened by the Shah and his corruption. They do not want to lose this power now through relaxing their grip and allowing Western influence and culture to take over. They rail against the evils of the Western model – drug abuse, family breakdown, immoral behaviour – yet the paradox is that these have all increased on their watch inside Iran anyway, thanks to unemployment, poverty and their own corruption.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 042

Iran is said to have one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world at 5% of the population, the divorce rate is soaring in the cities where most people now live and prostitution is so rife that even the regime itself mentions it as a problem. And the solution of the hardline clerics? More floggings.

Iran’s demographic is suffering from a ‘Japanese curve’. After 1979 Khomeini encouraged everyone to have many children, resulting in a baby boomer generation. But the middle classes of that generation, now in their mid-30s, are the ones most excluded from influence, struggling with unemployment and deprivation. The average birth rate has plummeted to one child per family, partly because of women’s education, but also for affordability reasons. Worried that this is not enough to sustain the aging population, the regime is offering financial incentives for people to have more children, incentives which are not working: couples say it is still too expensive.

Most Iranians now live in cities, meaning that traditional barriers are breaking down as different groupings find themselves living side by side. Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage is becoming commoner, much to the horror of the mullahs. In schools the clergy controls the syllabus, with Islamic religious education forming a bigger element of the day’s lessons than any other country in the world, leaving less time for other subjects. Iran’s brightest and best are leaving the country.

For those who stay there are subtle ways of showing opposition and Iran has these in abundance. The BBC is banned, yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched, while Iranian state TV offerings on religion and wildlife languish. Facebook is blocked yet 58% of Iranians circumvent the ban, gmail accounts were till recently banned yet 63% of Iranians use gmail as their preferred email address. Women, for the last ten years or so accounting for more university graduates than men, show passive resistance through pushing the boundaries on Islamic dress, so that in Shiraz, Iran’s most liberal city, the mandatory headscarf is worn tantalisingly far back to reveal a full head of hair, with figure-hugging brightly coloured jackets leaving nothing to the imagination.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 414

So how, in the face of such contradictions, has the political clergy of the Islamic Republic managed to retain its power and control? The answer lies in its ever-increasing dependence on its various law enforcement forces, above all SEPAH and the Basij – another parallel with Syria. SEPAH is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard set up in 1979 to preserve the Islamic nature of the revolution and to pre-empt a military coup or foreign interference, while the Basij is the volunteer militia under its control, numbering up to one million. To cement the loyalty of SEPAH and the Basij, the clerical elite has permitted them to enrich themselves through mafia-style smuggling rackets operating across the Straits of Hormuz to the UAE – shades of Syria again where Assad’s shabiha control the contraband routes through the ports of Lattakia and Tartous. A multi-billion dollar empire has grown up, transparent to ordinary Iranians who follow world affairs closely. Banned from Twitter, most use SMS, sending each other jokes by text message based on the news of the day. SEPAH and the Basij are particular targets, with messages like:  ‘How much do you think SEPAH will charge the mullahs for smuggled fridges? Reply: About five prostitutes a day for a month should do it,’ and ‘How many Basij fighters do you reckon are now in Syria? Reply: I don’t know, but a lot more than in Iran,’ and ‘Who runs Syria these days? Reply: Iran of course!’

The highly experienced Iranian commander of the Quds Force (special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Major General Qassem Suleimani, has since early 2013 been masterminding the Assad regime’s fight against its rebels, sending advisers into Syria, helping bolster depleted ammunition/weapons supplies and re-train Syrian government troops. With consummate skill, he created the 60,000-strong National Defence Force (NDF) in Syria, modelled on the Basij, ostensibly to protect local neighbourhoods, in practice to exploit them and run smuggling rackets.

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

President Bashar al-Assad with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.

Rouhani is an ace negotiator and will feign flexibility while holding tight to his position. He knows that time pressure is on his side: the West needs him now in its fight against ISIS and he has till 24 November to reach a nuclear deal. The conditions are perfect for extracting concessions from the West, and of one thing we may be sure: the Iranian governing elite will do nothing that rocks the status quo domestically, nothing that interferes with its ability to enrich itself. Embassies may open in London and Tehran, cooperation over ISIS in Iraq (though not in Syria) may be forthcoming when its own border region is threatened, but the Iranian regime, SEPAH and the Basij will remain umbilically connected, to each other and to the Syrian regime. Their collective survival is at stake and their loyalty to each other is not negotiable.

Looking back at Rouhani’s Twitter account, I am struck by the fact that, set against his 257K followers, he is only following six people, one of which is his own Iranian language account. The others are Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, his own Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his own Vice President and Environment Minister the heavily headscarved Massoumeh Ebtekar – not exactly a broad range of opinion. All of which confirms that however much Rouhani smiles abroad, at home he is beholden to his hard-line masters.

Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (Haus, 2014),http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/1908323647 has recently returned from an extensive tour of Iran arranged through Travel the Unknown www.traveltheunknown.com.

 

 

Shi'a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Shi’a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Related media:

http://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc/all (From Our Own Correspondent of 18 October 2014, starts at 17.25 mins)

Turkey’s dilemma over Kobane

It is a case of deja vu for Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Three years ago, as Turkey’s Prime Minister, he was urgently calling for a no-fly zone and the setting up of a safe haven on Syrian soil along its border with Turkey. No one listened. Now he is calling for it again. In late summer 2011 after many months of trying to reason with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when high-level delegations shuttled regularly between Ankara and Damascus, Erdogan finally lost patience with his former ally, a man he had even gone on holiday with, and began his support instead of the Syrian opposition rebels. It was a bold move, partly influenced by his thinking that support for Islamist rebel groups inside Syria would act as a counterbalance to the Kurds, who make up c20% of Turkey’s population.

What he did not foresee, was that Syria’s Kurds, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Assad regime in the northeast, would seize control of the northeast areas round Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, even seizing some of the border crossings into the Kurdish parts of southeast Turkey like Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab (known to Kurds as ‘Kobane’).

The Syrian Kurds were more prescient. They had foreseen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. The Kurdish street slogan was: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was too little too late.

Kurds have historically been bad at uniting, with seven dialects and seven political organisations to bring together, but over the course of the Syrian Revolution some of Syria’s Kurds linked up with their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been openly receiving military training from them. Turkey’s government has been horrified, fearing the effects on their own restive Kurds, whose guerrilla activities under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flared up again after ten years of near stabilility. Some 45,000 were killed in that struggle inside Turkey since 1984.

Ankara is currently engaged in a delicate peace process with its Kurds, giving them greater freedoms and rights in return for them laying down their arms and withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey knows how easily Kurdish ambitions could derail plans for the economic expansion of its southeast regions and how expensive that would be.

Pre-revolution, Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying ‘Turkey is the model [for religious toleration in a secular state] because we have the same society and similar traditions.’ Over the last ten years under Erdoğan, Turkey opened up much faster than Syria under Bashar, liberalising its economy, embracing privatisation and free enterprise. As a result its economy has been booming, with growth peaking at about 12 per cent in 2010–11, though that figure has since slackened off considerably. It declared a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, trading with them all, and in 2009 opened its borders to Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, dropping all visa requirements. More and more Syrians started going to Turkey for their holidays.

At first Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees from the fighting, providing camps for them along the border. They began as a small trickle, building up to about 10,000 after the first year, then increasing exponentially to hundreds of thousands once the violence in Aleppo flared up. The flow then became such that they ran out of camp space, hurriedly building more, while backlogs of desperate refugees piled up on the Syrian side of the border. Now the numbers are close to a million and the strains are becoming unbearable.

Today once again Turkey is calling for a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syrian territory. Erdogan wants the US-led coalition to help him achieve this, knowing it means taking on the Assad regime, knowing it is too risky alone. Once again no one is listening. The reaction of the Syrian government is unpredictable. So far the US-led coalition air strikes and the focus on Kobane have enabled them to make gains on the ground around both Aleppo and Damascus. Even Iran is now talking of getting involved, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, though it is far from clear how it would do this.

The longer the dilemma goes on, the harder Turkey’s decision will be. It has to juggle the pros and cons, knowing that its involvement in the Syrian conflict is deeply unpopular with its own Turkish population who have no appetite for war, yet also that its international reputation is at stake. Its ideal solution would be for Kobane to be saved by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga battling ISIS on the ground, and for its peace process with its Kurds to be saved by securing a deal with the PKK similar to that which Ankara already has with Iraqi Kurdistan, whose oil Turkey badly needs. Erdogan knows he must save Turkey’s domestic stability at all costs, for the sake of the future and of investor confidence, for once broken, it will take years to put back together again.

Kurds on the Turkish borber, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Kurds on the Turkish border, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Related:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iranians-ask-soleimani-defend-kobani.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=59e97cd3b2-October_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-59e97cd3b2-93116701

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/us-increasingly-frustrated-turkey-inaction-islamic-state

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01gsjdw

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/postcard-nusaybin-turkey

 

 

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