dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Tunisia’s costly choice

tunisia-why_3356480b

As Tunisia agonises over whether Friday 26 June’s horrific attack on western sunbathers at the Port El-Kantoui resort could have been avoided and as ISIS claims responsibility for the attack, much of the blame will inevitably turn to ‘blow-back’ from the 3000 Tunisian fighters who left to join ISIS in Syria, Iraq and Libya. Out of Tunisia’s population of over 11 million, these radicalised fighters represent a tiny albeit highly destructive fraction, who must not be allowed to destabilise the entire country. There is too much at stake.

Four months ago deep in the Tunisian desert I chanced upon Tunisia’s version of Glastonbury, Les Dunes Electroniques, a three-day festival of world music, where over 7000 Tunisian and foreign guests danced into the night in the vast open spaces of the Sahara. Parts of the original Star Wars film were shot here.

dunes electroniques 4

February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year’s ravers had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.  Spirits undampened, Tunisia’s young at heart 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.

Tunisians have a uniquely tolerant Islamic heritage. Most are moderate Sunni Muslims and many have a natural affinity with mystical Islam or Sufism. In the heart of Tunis stands a statue of the figure who embodies this, himself a Sufi – Ibn Khaldun, the world’s first sociologist philosopher. Born there in 1332, he stands with his back to the historic old medina, gazing out to the new city and beyond towards the sea.

Tunisia trip 19-14 Feb 2015 128

In modern Tunisia this heritage was personified by the Sufi poet/novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946-2014). His landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) explained: “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.

Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

But when battling against fundamentalism, how do you get the balance right? How do you protect your citizens without also infringing their human rights?  This is the question which faces us all in countries where freedom and democracy are valued.

Full protection for Tunisia’s Mediterranean beaches, lined as they are by strings of contiguous hotels  – some reports say the attackers arrived by boat – can never be guaranteed, just as  London’s British Museum for example, could never be fully protected against random suicide bombers. Rigorous airport-style security checks are difficult to put in place, leaving the priceless statues of the world’s cultural heritage, seen as ‘idols’ by ISIS, an easy target.

Tunisia’s secularist government took the difficult path, the costly path, to aim for western-style freedom and democracy. After the Bardo Museum massacre which left 24 dead on 18 March, their Cabinet proposed new anti-terrorism laws, seeking to enhance the powers of the security services and extend the period police can detain suspects from six to 15 days before they appear in court. Human Rights Watch warned that the new law risks criminalising political dissent.

In Tunisia the army is generally respected by ordinary citizens, so it is significant that Prime Minister Habib Essid is sending army reservists to guard archaeological sites and resorts. The army sided with the demonstrators at the outbreak of the Jasmine Revolution, helping them come through with less than 400 deaths. Compare that with Syria’s death tally of 250,000 and rising.

The police and security services on the other hand are perceived by two thirds of Tunisian households to be corrupt, according to the Global Corruption Barometer. They are mistrusted, with a bad track record of abuse and torture of detainees in prison, sometimes even leading to death. Tunisians complain that, in the last year or two, police corruption has got worse, with a feeling that they see themselves as above the law. Women feel especially vulnerable to intimidation. Bribery to avoid detention is often the only option.

tunisia police

Soon after the Jasmine Revolution  I asked a Tunisian official how the country had dealt with its corrupt security forces. He told me about 10%, those that were too corrupt to stay, were forced to leave, most of them flying out to Italy. It seems a new layer has quickly replaced them.

Maybe Friday’s attack and the world condemnation that has followed will be a wake-up call to reform Tunisia’s police. Many Tunisians blame the police and security services for not doing more to prevent the Bardo Museum massacre. They will blame them even more if, thanks to these failures, the Tunisian economy deteriorates further  and the unemployment rates, already at 35% among the young, go higher. The government has a long hard road ahead, trying to persuade secularists to coexist peacefully with religious conservatives, and trying to stop its Jasmine Revolution being hijacked by a minority of violent Islamists.

Tunisia is unique in the Arab world in having strong women who have campaigned hard for equal rights with men, and in having a strong middle class civil society and responsible trade unions. All this would be lost were ISIS to gain a foothold, and everyone knows it.  Pictures of Tunisian women donating blood for Friday’s victims say it all.

tunisian women donating blood

Tunisia’s fragile fledging democracy got more fragile on Friday. The coming weeks and months will test it further. The US and Europe must without delay help the country make a successful transition and stay the course of moderation.

For if Tunisia fails there is no hope for all the rest.

tunisians against terrorism

(Text as published in The Sunday Telegraph 28 June 2015)

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/tunisia/11703755/We-must-not-allow-a-few-fanatics-ruin-this-fledgling-democracy.html

Related article:

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/travelnews/11701610/Tunisia-lessons-were-not-learnt-from-Bardo-museum-attack.html

Is there a grand American/Kurdish plan in Syria?

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Events are moving very fast in northern Syria, so fast it is hard to keep track of all the different threads and what they mean. But one thing seems clear – the Americans and the Kurds are working together because their interests coincide. The Americans want a ground force with whom they can coordinate air strikes to push back ISIS, and the Kurds want to control and link up their three separate cantons along the Turkish border. So far so good, but what is the deal they have struck with each other?

Following the surprisingly quick fall of Tel Abyad to the Kurds last week, their YPG forces have now sped south and taken the town of Ain Issa from ISIS control, along with the nearby military base of Brigade 93 and surrounding villages. It is a half-way point to Raqqa, ISIS headquarters, just 50km further south, so have they really agreed to take on ISIS in its heartland, aided by US air strikes? Such a move would be highly audacious and unless the Americans  already have intelligence that Raqqa is not as strong as it projects itself, would inevitably cost many Kurdish lives. The Kurds would want a big reward for such a project. What might that be?

Ain Issa  is also at a junction of roads heading northwest across the Euphrates near the medieval castle of Qal’at Najm, towards Manbij and Jarabalus, a region the Kurds would have to control if they wanted to link up with their third and most isolated canton of Afrin, northwest of Aleppo. Is that a realistic ambition?

The biggest question is whether or not a grand but as yet undeclared American strategy in the region has now been formulated, using their willing Kurdish partners on the ground to strike at the heart of ISIS in Raqqa and deal it a blow from which it may struggle to recover. With its main supply routes via the Turkish border cut off at Tel Abyad and the Kurds increasingly controlling the Turkish/Syrian frontier areas, ISIS may indeed suddenly be vulnerable at its heart. If Raqqa were to fall the blow to ISIS PR and its image of invincibility would be massive. How deep into Syria’s non-Kurdish territory might the Kurds be persuaded to go? As far as Palmyra for example, just two hours’ drive south from Raqqa?

The picture is confused by many factors. How will the Kurds be received in predominantly Arab areas when there is a clear perception that their YPG forces have been conducting some ‘ethnic cleansing’ exercises in Tel Abyad and other towns they have taken? Arabs are said to feel unwelcome in Rojava, yet Al-Jazeera TV has shown pictures of some Arab families returning to their unlooted homes, even being reunited with their abandoned livestock.

Then there is Turkey’s position, now even more confused by the recent election results, giving more parliamentary representation to the Kurds than at any other time in their history. Today is the first day that efforts to form a ruling coalition are starting in Turkey, with President Erdogan and his dominant AK party increasingly hysterical about the dangers emanating from the strengthening of the Kurds along the Syrian border. Were the Kurds to succeed in joining up their three cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Hassakeh the consequences for Turkey would be considerable: it would put paid to their hopes of a no-fly zone along the border inside Syria and might even permit the Kurds to open up a corridor for an oil pipeline to the Mediterranean from Iraqi Kurdistan. Maybe this is even what has been promised to them by America as their reward for combating Islamic State.

The future of such grand schemes will depend above all on the ability of the Kurds to win over the other ethnic groups with whom they share this territory – Arabs, Turkmens, Syriacs, Chaldeans, Armenians, Chechens. They must prove that their declared intention – to build a democratic life free from race, religion and gender discrimination – is mirrored in their actions. Let us hope that at least is part of the deal.

Related articles:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2015/06/turkey-syria-kurdish-corridor-in-the-making-kobane.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-33234648

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/23/syrian-kurds-seize-raqqa-military-base-from-islamic-state

Kurds and Women are new force in Turkey’s election

Turkey's women general HDP

Turkey’s general election on Sunday 7 June will have historic implications for the country’s 15 million Kurds. Will they finally be represented by a national political party rather than just winning a few seats as independents? Kurds form the country’s largest ethnic minority at around 20% of the population and growing, thanks to their high birth rate.

No one doubts that the AK (Justice and Development) party of President Erdogan which has been in power since 2002 will remain the largest party. Polls indicate it will gain about 40% of the vote, but that is down from nearly 50% in the 2011 elections.

turkey's erdogan elections

The game-changer this time is a newly formed group of pro-Kurdish and pro-minority rights parties which has come together to fight the elections under the banner of the HDP (People’s Democratic Party).

Turkey HDP logo

It is an all or nothing gamble that by banding together, they will cross the 10% threshold needed to gain seats in parliament. If they fail, they lose everything. Worse still, their votes will be redistributed and AK will be the main beneficiary, paving the way for Erdogan to award himself greater presidential powers.

The HDP is seen as Turkey’s equivalent of Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, and their charismatic leader Selhattin Demirtas, a 42-year old human rights lawyer, has oratorial skills to rival Erdogan’s and looks that exceed his.

turkey demirtas orator

He must win votes from Erdogan’s traditional AK supporters in order to succeed. His appeal, to judge from the crowds at his election rallies, is broad, with enthusiastic young Kurds and secular Turks, women both headscarved and not.

turkey's kurdish women

His new party supports Turkey’s membership in the European Union, is calling for the PKK (the Kurdish separatists) to disarm, supports gays and same sex marriage and wants Turkey to recognise the Armenian Genocide. The party’s aim is to end all discrimination based on gender, race or religion. As Turkey’s only party championing minority rights, the HDP is gaining support from Syriac Christians, Kurds and Alevis.  In another exceptional difference from Turkey’s male-dominated parties, they have an automatic policy of sharing all top positions with women, seeking to promote the involvement of women in politics. As acclaimed Turkish novelist Elif Shafak put it: “Once seen by Turkish nationalists as a backward subculture, the Kurds are now Turkey’s leading progressive force.”

turkey election HDP

Erdogan in his presidential role is supposed to be apolitical though no one would have guessed it. His electoral rallies are unashamedly pro his own AK party which has triumphed repeatedly in the polls since he became its leader. But his current aspirations to change Turkey’s constitution to a presidential style system similar to that of France may yet be his undoing, as his hubris seems to have overstepped the mark. His excesses are well-publicised, from his grandiose 1,100-room White Palace in Ankara to the ‘toilet-gate’ affair over the alleged golden toilet seats installed at public expense. Corruption allegations are increasing and Turkey now ranks 149 out of 180 in the Corruption Perception Index, even worse than Russia.

turkey's erdogan

In spite of such criticisms, Erdogan remains hugely popular especially east of Ankara in the traditional and religiously conservative Anatolian heartlands. His economic policies have brought increased prosperity through vast investment in infrastructure projects like new roads and the high-speed train to cities like Konya. His encouragement of the headscarf has come as a ‘liberation’ to many women in eastern Anatolia who say they now feel more comfortable and respected.

But it is in these southeastern regions, where most of Turkey’s Kurds are concentrated, that Erdogan’s popularity is being challenged in this election.

turkey 2015 election map

Turkey’s spectacular growth of the last decade has given way to stagnation and high unemployment. Erdogan’s foreign policies have backfired leaving the Kurdish peace process dangling by a thread and his country overrun with two million Syrian refugees. In his recent rallies in the big eastern cities, some women are quite literally turning their backs on him in symbolic protest.

Turkey has the lowest female employment in the OECD, less than 30%, going backwards from over 40% in the 1980s.The AK party is still only fielding 18% women candidates in this election, and although that represents a rise from 14% in 2011, in practice women are totally absent in nearly half of Turkey’s 81 provinces and only occupy the top position in four of them.

Turkey's women

Public turnout in recent elections has been over 80% and the importance of this election may see that figure rise, as more women come forward to vote. A sophisticated young Turkish graduate from Ankara now working in Mardin  told me how impressed she was by the non-discriminatory policies of HDP, in power locally since 2014. “I will be voting for them,” she told me. “I think they are the future.”

turkey's women 2

Turkey’s electoral battle this Sunday hinges on many things – economics, religion, Kurdish and minority rights to name just a few. Maybe for the first time it is also about women. The choices made by Turkey’s women, be they Kurds or otherwise, may even determine the outcome.

Related articles:

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/6/8/turkey-free-from-costly-conflicts-with-its-own-minorities

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-32950750

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/7/turkey-votes-in-high-stakes-elections

ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

ISIS has confounded its critics. Instead of dynamiting the priceless temples and colonnades of Palmyra, Syria’s most visited UNESCO World Heritage site, it has blown up the cells and torture chambers of nearby Tadmur prison, Syria’s most powerful symbol of Assad regime brutality. Palmyra’s prison, synonymous with suffering in the minds of Syrians, represents perhaps more than any single building in Syria, the 40-year Assad stranglehold on its people.

Tadmur prison

This carefully staged PR coup will have gained it many friends, even from among those who would have thought themselves anti-ISIS. It is like a loud fanfare announcing: Beware, Bashar, your days are numbered and we are on our way to get you.

Think of the wealth that ISIS now has at its disposal through its capture of Palmyra. With the prize of the ancient city came other prizes: the oilfields to the north and the military hardware captured from the regime’s nearby airbase, T4, thought to include 21 tanks, 12,000 machine guns and 40 ammunition stores. Then came capture of the last regime-held border crossing into Iraq, at al-Tanf due east of Damascus with its own road linking into the Palmyra highway to the capital. And don’t forget the sheep. The Sunni tribes of this Syrian semi-desert steppeland, known as Badiat ash-Sham, still number around one million, and are mainly nomadic Bedouin from the Rwala, Beni Sakhr and Beni Khaled tribes. Syria was one of the first lands to be inhabited by the Bedouin outside the Arabian Peninsula and today these Bedouin still rear most of Syria’s sheep, considered the tastiest in the Middle East. Every year 10 million of them are exported to Saudi Arabia, earning high yields.

badia sheep bedouin

Four centuries before the advent of Islam the historic oasis city of Palmyra grew wealthy from the taxes it levied on goods transiting the Silk Road via camel caravans. The highest taxes, according to the famous bilingual Greek/Aramaic ‘Palmyra Tariff’ stone, were due on perfumes, dried fish, olive oil, water and prostitutes. Now ISIS has captured today’s equivalent wealth for itself – oil, military equipment, sheep plus potential extra manpower from the local Sunni tribes. In addition it will no doubt harvest the archaeological site for artefacts, levying its usual 20% tax on anything dug up from the outlying areas.

Armed with all Palmyra’s many forms of wealth, ISIS sees the open road to Damascus, to the exposed heart of the Assad regime.

isis on move

There are few settlements en route, just two more airbases where even more military hardware can be harvested. Inside Syria ISIS has seen that the international community is impotent, with no unified strategic policy, while Assad’s army is in retreat.

The world’s media pours out articles eulogising the ruins, while ISIS thrives like a germ in the perfect environment on the chaos deep inside Syria. May the world’s attention remain focussed on Palmyra long enough to understand that until Syria’s chaos is solved, ISIS will multiply exponentially and grow beyond anyone’s ability to stop it. Damascus is in their sights and Palmyra has been their launchpad.

Related posts:

http://dianadarke.com/2015/05/20/palmyras-double-life/

http://dianadarke.com/2015/05/22/palmyras-legacy-to-isis/

 

 

 

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This carved block at Palmyra pre-dates the advent of Islam by four centuries, and is thought to show the world’s earliest representation of veiled women, top right. It is one of the countless examples of how practices we now consider Islamic were often traceable to pagan times.

The early Muslim armies captured Damascus in 636 just four years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad, and went on to make it the capital of their Umayyad Caliphate. It was the first encounter Muslims had with cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, cultures which were themselves the products of rich intermingling of Babylonian, Assyrian, Egyptian and Persian influences and which had in turn been under Greek and Roman influence for centuries. Commerce, as ever the driver of human inter-action, was thriving as new trade routes evolved, while religious and cultural trends co-existed.

The Umayyad Caliphate, far from seeking to ban or wipe out this multicultural heritage of earlier empires and civilisations, simply took over the existing infrastructure from the previous Byzantine and Sassanian rulers, going on to develop its own unique contribution to the art and architecture of the region. The Umayyads absorbed and adopted the customs of the cities they conquered. With the fall of borders, they unified the region thereby encouraging additional cross-fertilisation of ideas and artistic traditions. The results can be seen in all their buildings, from Jerusalem’s famous Dome of the Rock to the lesser known desert palaces like Mushatta (see photos below) and Khirbat Mafjar now scattered all over the deserts of Jordan, the West Bank and Syria.

Mshatta facade 2mshatta facade

When it comes to the case of Palmyra, this rich cultural legacy is especially clear. The carved stone blocks carry motifs of flowers, including the famous Palmyrene Rose, ringed with acanthus and lotus leaves.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Palmyra drawings by English architects Wood and Dawkins went on to influence directly the classical revival of the 18th century, where Palmyrene roses are often to be seen on the ceilings of grand British country houses.

The Umayyad desert palace of Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi which stands in the desert some 100km northeast of Palmyra, has a mosque which incorporates columns and capitals brought from the site of Palmyra. The architecture of its monumental gateway displays an eclectic mix of Byzantine, Mesopotamian and Persian styles, with many recycled Roman and Byzantine capitals. Its twin, Qasr al-Hayr al-Gharbi, which lies in the desert  80km southwest of Palmyra, likewise boasted a monumental 8th century facade, now incorporated into the modern entrance of the Damascus National Museum.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

These fusions are clearly visible in the vine scrolls, the bunches of grapes symbolising wealth, fertility and prosperity in both the stone carvings of Palmyra and the decorative patterns of the Umayyad palaces, not to mention later Islamic tile patterns.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mythical creatures like griffins, together with birds like peacocks and eagles, animals like gazelles and lions are often found entwined in the Tree of Life, an ancient concept pre-dating Islam by centuries, yet all such motifs are still found on the borders of prayer rugs across the Muslim world. If ISIS claims that such things are idolatrous, it would also have to destroy most of the Islamic carpets and tiles of the Middle East.

And what of the many mosques across the Muslim world that were built on the foundations of earlier churches and temples, such as the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Would they too have to be destroyed, like these early Islamic mosaic visions of fantasised trees and palaces?

In the nihilistic vision of ISIS there is, it seems, no room for diversity. They have set their course on the total destruction of relics from earlier cultures, thereby denying the roots of the very Islamic civilisation to which they claim to be returning. By destroying Palmyra, they will be destroying their own roots, ensuring their own eventual downfall, since a caliphate devoid of culture cannot endure. What a perfect contradiction.

Palmyra’s Double Life

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

[DD]

Nothing sums up Palmyra’s split identity more than this ‘egg and dart’ motif, found repeatedly all over the ancient caravan city’s ruins. The egg represents life and the cycle of rebirth, while the arrow/dart represents war and death. The two live side by side in the endless pattern of life, repeated across the centuries.

This is what is now taking place at Syria’s most famous and magnificent classical site, known throughout antiquity by romantic titles such as ‘Bride of the Desert’ or ‘Venice of the Sands’. In recent days, since news broke on 14 May 2015 of ISIS’s surprise attack launched on Palmyra from its headquarters of Raqqa just 100 miles/two hours’s drive to the north, the site has received worldwide attention with outraged cries of horror at the prospect of ISIS smashing the ancient stones to pieces as they have already done in the Iraqi sites of Nimrud, Nineveh, Mosul and Hatra. Almost every media outlet in the world has carried photos of the spectacular 1st, 2nd and 3rd century Roman streets, its temples and its tombs.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

[DD]

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

[DD]

Standing alone in the middle of the desert, unfenced and unprotected, Palmyra is indeed vulnerable to attack. But take a close look at this photo below:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

[DD]

A pair of camels sit awaiting custom in the shade of Palmyra’s monumental entry arch. Behind them is the Temple of Bel, one of the world’s most important religious sanctuaries. But just above the left-hand camel, notice the whitewashed simple building. Originally built as the residence of the Ottoman governor of Palmyra, it functioned in the heady pre-2011 tourist days when Palmyra welcomed thousands of visitors, first as a folklore museum with displays of traditional Bedouin costumes and jewellery, then as the Tourist Reception Centre complete with cafe in the courtyard.

But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also in the east close to the fringes of the oasis is Tiyas (T4), the regime’s largest military airbase. This of course was the primary target of ISIS – the archaeological site of Palmyra is just a bonus, guaranteeing them maximum publicity as they threaten to destroy it.

Consider for a moment the irony of the situation. While the world’s attention is commanded by the international outcry over the threat to the ancient ruins of Palmyra, they will now learn too of the double life of Palmyra, its modern life under the Assad regime. Palmyra Prison, Syria’s most feared by its citizens, was home for years to men such as Yassin al-Haj Saleh (subject of a 2014 film ‘Syria Our Terrible Country’) and Bara Sarraj (‘From Tadmor to Harvard’ 2011), men who had done nothing to deserve the horrific torture they endured inside the prison. Bara’s unbelievable experience can be digested here:

http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/3500/the-cell-of-survival_bara-sarraj

The prison was closed in 2001 but reopened in 2011 to receive new dissidents of the Revolution. Hundreds if not thousands are once again housed in the buildings originally built as military barracks by French Mandate forces. Once the prison is captured by ISIS, will the inmates join up in gratitude and swell their armies further?

Palmyra prison

The military airbase of T4 is marked off a little to the east. It boasts 54 concrete hangars and two 3km runways, not to mention some of the regime’s most advanced aircraft including MiG-29s and Su-25s. It is the launchpad for airstrikes including barrel bombs on rebellious civilian areas. ISIS will relish seizure of this airbase as much as seizure of ancient Palmyra.

Whereas Assad had hoped to gain kudos by presenting himself to the international community as a protector of Syria’s cultural heritage, the ISIS attack has instead exposed the ruthless accoutrements of his regime. Assad soldiers have been photographed running off with their own booty from the Palmyra site:

Palmyra looting Assad soldiers

They, like ISIS, have always seen such treasures as legitimate ‘spoils of war’, and no one has done more damage to Syria’s cultural heritage than the Assad regime. The difference is that while ISIS broadcasts its damage to the world, the Assad regime keeps it quiet and seeks to blame it on others.

Palmyra map

But thanks to the double-sided nature of Palmyra, the world will no longer be fooled.

Related articles:

http://www.apsa2011.com/index.php/en/provinces/homs/palmyra.html

http://www.wsj.com/articles/syrian-monuments-men-race-to-protect-antiquities-as-looting-bankrolls-terror-1423615241

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-32807858

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/world_news/Middle_East/article1557098.ece

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

Mardin, a stone-carved historic hillside city in southeast Turkey whose buildings gaze south towards Syria and the Fertile Crescent, boasts two famous women.

The first is the colourful Shahmeran, half-woman half-snake, a legendary creature from the shared mythology of ancient Mesopotamia. Pictures of her bold green and red image adorn the streets.

sahmeran

The second is a much younger addition to the city’s history, the 26 year-old co-mayor, Februniye Akyol. Shy and self-effacing, dressed simply in a white jacket, she is the first representative of the ever-dwindling Syriac Christian community to govern one of Turkey’s metropolitan municipalities.

She has agreed to a rare interview, and we sit together on the elegant white sofa of her Mardin office.

Mardin mayor April 2015

Earlier I had watched her give a refreshingly brief speech to assembled bigwigs, marking the official rehabilitation of the city’s main street, a 9.2 million euro project funded by the European Union to promote tourism. Mardin, already part of a United Nations-backed scheme for a Silk Road cultural corridor, is nothing if not ambitious. Next it plans to become a “City of Peace”, hoping eventually for UNESCO World Heritage status.

As for Februniye, who had to change her Syriac name of Febronia Benno to a ‘turkified’ version to enter Turkish politics, her success was not so planned. “I never expected this career,” she tells me softly. “In the 1990s growing up as a child in this region, we experienced terrible times, persecution, the rape of women.  Our situation was very bad. My father was arrested. For 16 days we didn’t know where he was. It affected me deeply.”

As the first woman from the local Syriac minority to go into higher education, attending Istanbul’s Marmara University in the Faculty of Insurance, she has now become a role model. Most Syriac graduates use their studies as an escape route for emigration to Europe. Instead, Februniye returned home.

Mardin Artuklu Uni

Then, while she was doing an MA at Mardin’s Artuklu University in Syriac Cultural Studies, unique in Turkey, her political career was suddenly launched  when she was chosen, together with a respected Kurdish veteran, to run for the BBP or Peace and Democracy Party, in last year’s local elections. “It is BBP policy always to have a woman co-mayor in their municipalities,” she explains.

februniye akyol

In an overwhelmingly Muslim region of long-standing enmities between Turks, Kurds and Arabs, now further complicated by the ISIS threat on the doorstep, the task in front of Februniye is a daunting one.

“I had some prejudices against the Kurds,” she says, “but I realised I had to overcome them.” Now she is working alongside her former enemies and persecutors, promoting an ideology diametrically opposed to ISIS with its subjugation of women and violent intolerance of minorities.

“Isn’t this the same system the Syrian Kurds are using,” I ask her, “in their provinces of Kobani, Afrin and Jazira?”

Kobani Map

“Yes,” she replies, “We are from the same families, just separated by the border. We all work together, no matter what race or religion, and have an equal quota for women on all our committees. Like them we want cultural, religious and linguistic freedoms for everyone.”

“Do you have contact with them?” I venture to ask, knowing the Syrian border is within sight of Mardin.

“Of course,” she replies with disarmingly frankness, “They come across for meetings from time to time.”

“But the border is closed. How do you manage that?”

“It can be opened when necessary,” she says simply.

Behind her delicate almost fragile appearance, I sense a steely resolve. She hands me her card and I notice her title is ‘Mrs. ’

“You are married?” I ask.

“Newly married,” she replies fingering her wedding rings as if still getting used to them.

It gives me the excuse to ask the obvious question, in this traditionally male-dominated society, where ISIS is knocking at the door:

“And how do the men feel about women sharing power?”

“They realise it has to be,” she replies, “It was even their idea.”

Strolling later past the renovated shop-fronts of Old Mardin I see the Shahmeran everywhere, in the famous jewellery, on key-rings, cushions and mirrors. I ask the shopkeepers about her meaning.

They explain how their Queen of Serpents is a source of healing and wisdom whose image reminds people to mend their ways, to shun evil and avoid betraying each other.

Mardin’s two famous women – one ancient, one young – will need to conjure all such powers here, if they are to survive the ISIS onslaught and defeat it.

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

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.

Tunisia trip 19-14 Feb 2015 127

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.

Tunisia trip 19-14 Feb 2015 174

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.

Tunisia trip 19-14 Feb 2015 299

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

Post Navigation

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,738 other followers

%d bloggers like this: