Syria and Turkey commentary

Syria’s Second Revolution

So silent for so long on Syria, the international community has finally been jolted out of its slumber. “Let them kill each other. It’s so far away and nothing to do with us.”  The wake-up call came in the form of the Paris bombings of Friday 13 November and the massive media focus on their aftermath.

Kafranbel Paris bombings banner

Now that the dangers of allowing ISIS to thrive in the vacuum of Syria’s chaos have finally exploded in Europe, the nature of the conflict has changed in most people’s minds. Suddenly Syria looks different. In reality nothing has changed at all in Syria’s tragic crisis. Simply our perception of it has changed.

Syria’s first revolution which, lest we forget, began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011, was hijacked long ago by extremists masquerading as Muslims -ISIS moved into the Syrian provincial capital of Raqqa as long ago as spring 2013, but no one paid attention  (except Father Paolo, who paid the price http://dianadarke.com/tag/father-paolo-dalloglio/). Like a germ left undisturbed in the perfect environment, ISIS multiplied exponentially.

Coming hot on the heels of the largely ignored 12 November Beirut bombings and the much publicised 31 October Rusian plane crash in Sinai, the 13 November Paris bombings were cleverly timed to be a day before the 14 November Vienna international talks on Syria and the 15 November G20 talks in Turkey’s Antalya.

ISIS planners wanted maximum world attention and they succeeded. The 33-year old US/Syrian ISIS Head of Media is not paid a fortune for nothing.

ISIS prepares for beheadings in Palmyra's theatre May 2015

ISIS prepares for staged beheadings in Palmyra’s theatre May 2015

So now what? All the signs are that the international community is ready to unite and take action, especially after confirmation that the Russian airliner was definitively downed by an ISIS bomb. The chief outside players in what the media insists so cruelly on calling Syria’s “civil war”  (as if this war is the fault of the Syrian people) have been stoking this war in their own ways. Russia and Iran with their military and tactical support for the Assad regime are heavily involved on the ground inside the country, while Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have been feeding in weaponry to their preferred rebel groups but careful to do it from the sidelines, no actual boots on the ground. The US-led coalition of 60 countries has been dropping bombs on ISIS for over a year to little effect. Russia has been dropping bombs on opposition groups inside Syria, usually not ISIS, for the last six weeks, also with little effect.

Bashar al-Assad bigging himself up in the mirror (Ali Ferzat cartoon, 2010)

Bashar al-Assad bigging himself up in the mirror (Ali Ferzat cartoon, 2010)

Everyone realises it is time for something new.

Momentum is building for Syria’s second revolution. A rare consensus is taking shape. It happened before with the surprisingly speedy UN deal to rid Syria of its Chemical Weapons, after Assad crossed Obama’s “red line” in August 2013. It could happen again:

“this time to rid the country of the growing extremist groups like ISIS. Maybe moderate elements from the rebels can find a common cause and unite against this greater extremist menace whose terrorist jihadi agenda threatens not just Syria’s future but the future of the entire international community…For such a second revolution to succeed, everyone must forget that the first began with peaceful protests, everyone must forgive regime troops for gunning down unarmed protesters. The diversity of Syria’s identity must be its strength, not its weakness.” [ref page 256 My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution, January 2015]

And that is the key. In Syria’s second revolution there must be unity among all Syrians. Even “the silent majority” and the “greys”must find their voice. Most Syrians living under ISIS are there by coercion, longing for their nightmare to end, praying for someone to set them free. There is still a sense of what it means to be Syrian. Partition, convenient though it may appear to outside governments looking for quick-fix solutions, would be a disaster, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing and waves of emigration on a scale Europe cannot imagine.

This time the international community must not abandon Syria, as it did during the first revolution. For all our sakes, Syria’s second revolution must succeed.

Aylan Kudi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

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Syria’s Antiquities Chief comes to London

Syria’s Director-General of Antiquities and Museums made his first ever trip to the UK yesterday, on what he described as a one-day visit, ahead of similar visits to Paris and Rome. The most surprising thing was that he was granted permission to exit Syria, and the second was that he was granted a visa to enter the UK. The Syrian government is very keen, ahead of the Vienna talks, to show its cultural face.

DGAM director

And Professor Dr Maamoun Abdulkarim did a good job. In his 45 minute talk, accompanied by many images, the DGAM head addressed a large audience of over 500 in the Royal Geographical Society’s Ondaatje Lecture Theatre, in halting but intelligible English for which he apologised, saying his English was “new”, only learnt 18 months ago. French is his main foreign language. The talk was titled “Syrian Cultural Heritage during the Crisis 2011-2015” and was supported by the World Monuments Fund Britain.

The DGAM chief steered a careful course, talking of “one heritage for one people, no politics, humanity heritage”. He described how he and his 2,500 staff in the Directorate General of Antiquities and Museums were in charge of Syria’s 10,000 sites, 34 museums and their 300,000 artefacts, doing their best, working in both government-held and opposition-held areas of the country, with the cooperation of local people. He told how they had emptied 99% of the contents of the museums and carefully boxed them up, after first doing detailed database information on them, then put them in safe places with anti-theft alarms and extra guards. He hoped that in two or three years’ time, the collections might be able to be brought out again and returned to display in the museums.

DGAM empty museums

Three hundred of his ex-students were among the staff helping, he said, showing pictures of them preparing the thousands of packing cases.

He showed photos of the damage in Homs old city, saying they were now restoring the churches, and that the damage inside Krak des Chevaliers was being repaired – Phase One of the repair was complete and the castle was open, he said.


At Maaloula he also said journalists had been allowed in to see repair work at the monastery of Mar Serkis. No mention was ever made of which side had caused the damage – unless it was ISIS.

At Palmyra he showed the before and after photos since the ISIS takeover in May 2015, promising that he would rebuild the Temples of Bel and Baal Shamin, the Triumphal Arch and the funerary towers. They had the necessary documentation, he insisted. He paid tribute to Palmyra archaeologist Khaled al-As’ad, beheaded by ISIS.

DGAM Khaled al-As'ad

In Bara and other Cities of the Dead he said they had successfully persuaded local people living in the ruins after their homes had been bombed, not to cause damage to the stones by lighting fires. He mentioned that these 700 Byzantine era towns were his own speciality.

In Apamea, Doura Europos and Ebla he showed photos of massive-scale illegal digging and looting, but said that in Ebla they had now secured the site against further damage. He showed photos of the mosaic museum at Maaret Numan and said they had protected it with the help of local people. In Bosra he showed photos of people clearing the vegetation from the tiers of the Roman theatre, saying they were working with the opposition groups now controlling Bosra, to protect the site.

He spoke of how 6,000 stolen artefacts had been recovered by Syrian police. He thanked INTERPOL, UNESCO, ICOMOS and the World Monuments Fund, and expressed his gratitude to expert help from the British Museum and Durham University.

He ended by saying he had felt “isolated” by the international community because he was “public” (working for the government), but hoped that everyone could come together to help save Syria’s cultural heritage in a way that was “scientific, not political.”

He received loud applause, was praised as “a hero” by his host, John Darlington from the World Monuments Fund, and was then rushed off to an interview with Sky News.



(the new Arabic/English website of Syria’s DGAM)



What does Erdogan’s election victory mean for Turkey, ISIS and the Syrian Kurds?

Turkey’s conservative Muslims have spoken. What’s more they have spoken loudly, defying the polls and the expert predictions, returning President Erdogan’s conservative Islamist-leaning AK (Justice and Development) Party to power with its longed-for parliamentary majority, lost at last June’s elections. The Turkish lira and stock market have surged with relief. Electoral turnout was 86%. It is a mandate most politicians can only dream of, winning a thumping 50% of the vote, a vote of confidence in Erdogan himself, whose simple mantra: Choose me or chaos, worked.

Erdogan after 1st Nov election victory 2015

Love him or hate him, Erdogan is an ace politician, a “master of optimization”, more able than any of his rivals to turn the recent turmoil in Turkey’s security situation to his advantage. Threatened with instability on its 900km-long Syrian border, and with internal terrorist incidents ratcheting up markedly since June, it appears that Erdogan, Turkey’s authoritarian leader for the last 13 years, is widely perceived as the only politician with the strength and experience to handle such challenges.

His gains came at the expense of the far-right MH (Nationalist Action) Party and the left-wing HD (People’s Democratic) Party, both of which lost seats to 41 and 59 respectively. Significant here is that the HDP overtook the MHP for the first time, despite not even campaigning, a protest against Erdogan’s bullying tactics. Their charismatic new leader Selahattin Demirtas can take much credit. His time will surely come, but not yet it seems.

For now, it is still Erdogan’s Turkey. Travelling regularly throughout Central Anatolia and Eastern Turkey since the mid-1980s, I have observed first hand the dramatic changes that Erdogan’s AK Party has brought to those regions, especially the dominantly Kurdish provinces of the southeast. Far removed from the affluent Aegean and Mediterranean coastal areas where the secular CHP (Republican People’s Party) still holds sway, Turkey’s traditional heartlands were long neglected and ignored by politicians.

Erdogan changed all that, investing in massive infrastructure projects like improved road networks and high-speed trains heading east. The controversial series of dams on the Euphrates River generated much-needed hydroelectric and water resources to launch new agriculture ventures in the southeast, bringing employment and prosperity to areas formerly suffering from poverty and deprivation. The Anatolian Tiger cities like Konya, Malatya, Kayseri and Gaziantep have boomed, bringing to the fore a new breed of conservatively Muslim entrepreneurs, sometimes described as “Islamic Calvinists”. On my last stay in Gaziantep I met such a family, where the father was a successful lawyer, the mother was a biochemist in a local hospital in her day job, writing Turkish cookbooks and restoring the family courtyard house into a boutique hotel in her spare time. The three sons were all businessmen, and even the youngest, only 15, was already trading in mobile telephones across the border with Syria.

As well as presiding over the economic and agricultural transformation in Turkey’s heartlands east of Ankara, Erdogan has also been the first politician to make real moves towards reconciliation with the Kurds and other minorities like the Syriacs, instituting language and cultural rights, and initiating a peace process (currently stalled) with the cooperation of Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK Kurdish separatist movement.

Since the Syrian Revolution of March 2011 gradually evolved into a regional proxy war displacing half the population, Turkey has hosted the largest number of Syrian refugees, some three million. European leaders are only just waking up to the problems of accommodating Syrian war refugees, but many Syrians are grateful to Turkey for its humanitarian open-border policy towards them, allowing them access to schooling and healthcare at huge cost to its own national budget.  Hospitality is a core Muslim duty, carried out without fuss or fanfare.

syrian refugees in turkey

Western media have given Erdogan a hard time in recent years for his vanities and authoritarian excesses like his absurdly grandiose White Palace with its gold toilet seats, together with his hawkish silencing of media opponents. But for the time being, it is a simple fact that there is no one else of his stature on the Turkish stage.


So what direction will Turkey take now? Yesterday’s decisive election victory stopped just short of the “super-majority” needed to give himself French or American-style presidential powers, but he will probably wield them anyway. Erdogan does not underestimate the challenges facing his country. He has more reason than most to want an end to the Syrian war, an end to the Kurdish PKK insurgency and an end to the spread of ISIS terrorism. If that means arriving at a conciliation with the Syrian Kurds in the form of Saleh Muslim’s PYD, and uniting with them in the fight against ISIS, that may well be a move he is prepared to make in order to restore stability to Turkey. It is in both their economic interests and Erdogan did after all reconcile with the Iraqi Kurds, enabling Turkey to become Iraqi Kurdistan’s  biggest trading partner. And who knows, the “Islamic Calvinists” of the Anatolian Tigers might yet present the pseudo-Islamic caliphate of ISIS with its greatest ideological challenge.

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Can Russia save Syria?

Caption reads: "The Time of Masculinity and Men."

[Caption] “The Time of Masculinity and Men.”

Since the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, no one has been more supportive of him and his ruling elite than Russia’s President Putin. The increased Russian presence was discreet at first, but gradually began to manifest itself in surprising ways. Plastered on buildings in central Damascus in December 2014 for the first time street I saw private adverts offering Russian lessons. Then I read in local newspapers that the Faculty of Arts and Humanities in Damascus University had just opened a new department for Russian language and literature in response to rising demand.

“Analysis of the labour market,” announced Syria’s Minister for Higher Education, “indicates an urgent need for the Russian language.”  Record numbers of students, it transpired, had applied to study Russian, indicating as the Minister explained the “strength of the relations between Syria and Russia, especially in the current social landscape.”

When I asked my Damascus friends and neighbours about this development, they laughed and joked: “Yes, we’re looking forward to the new lady Russian teachers. Russia is becoming the new foreign language in Syria now!”

russian language

Of course Russia’s relations with Syria go back a long way, to the early 1960s, when Hafez al-Assad and his Ba’athist comrades enjoyed steadfast support and military hardware from the Russians. The Syrian Armed Forces have for decades been supplied with Russian aircraft and tanks, and most top Assad regime military officials received training in Moscow. At university level there were many exchanges with Syrian students sent to study in Moscow while Russian professors were brought to Damascus to teach students in both arts and sciences.

Today Russia has long-term interests in coastal Syria, notably its naval base in Tartous and its oil-exploration rights in Syria’s territorial waters of the Eastern Mediterranean. In recent months these interests have come under threat from rebel opposition groups making a series of gains at regime expense in Idlib province, posing the first real threat to the Lattakia region, Assad’s Alawite stronghold, where much of Syria’s displaced population is now concentrated. Russia is additionally concerned at the number of Chechens who have joined ISIS, said to be as many as 4,000, fearing they may return to Russian soil and wreak havoc domestically in revenge-driven ‘blowback’.

chechens in isis

The Russian airstrikes within Syria which started on 30 September 2015 have not come out of the blue. They will have been months in the planning, possibly as far back as May 2015, when ISIS first seized Palmyra in a lightning offensive, taking advantage of a strategic redeployment when the Syrian army withdrew from Palmyra in order to bolster manpower in Idlib province.

Although Palmyra, situated on its own in the middle of the desert, does not fall within Russia’s area of interests in Damascus and Syria’s western coastal regions, it will not have escaped the Russian strategists that recapturing Palmyra and returning it to Syrian regime control would be a massive PR coup before ISIS can destroy what remains of the archaeological site in what appear to be monthly staged explosions. In August it was the Temples of Baal Shamin and of Bel, in September the funerary towers and most recently on 5 October the Triumphal Arch.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction palmyra arch

It would also fit the Russian narrative of seeking to drive ISIS out of Syria and should be a relatively realistic goal, since ISIS has only had a little over four months to dig in, not long enough to put down strong roots in the small town of Tadmur adjacent to Palmyra. On top of the obvious international kudos Russia could gain from such a move, it would be an important strategic reclaiming of the regime’s oil and gas fields in the area, as well as protecting the regime’s nearby air bases. So far Russia is denying it has struck targets round Palmyra, despite initial Syrian reports to the contrary.

As Russia raises the stakes ever higher with surprise cruise missiles launched onto targets inside Syria from the Caspian Sea, after first gaining permission to fire over both Iranian and Iraqi airspace, the West watches helplessly from the sidelines. Putin is becoming Syria’s saviour.

Syrian kissing putin

Russia and the Syrian army appear to be coordinating their strategy with the clear aim of eliminating ISIS and other opposition groups. The West’s strategy remains in disarray. The US-led coalition has been completely upstaged, its year of expensive airstrikes achieving remarkably little to date. The addition of British air power to that equation will change nothing.

Meanwhile Russia’s strategy on Syria has been consistent from the start. Now it has caught the ball from its Syrian, Iranian and Iraqi team players and is running with it, ready to score a series of goals which is bound to terrify and demoralise the opposition groups and even send them fleeing the country to join the exodus to Europe.

As Goethe wrote centuries ago: “Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” Putin seems to suffer from no such difficulties. While Obama, NATO and the West continue their endless talking shops, Russia is creating new realities on the ground that will shape Syria’s future, maybe even for the better. If Putin succeeds where the West has failed, in eliminating ISIS and reuniting the country, ordinary Syrians will forever thank Russia.

putin and bashar handshake

Caspian sea Russian strikes on Syria 7 Oct 2015

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Syria’s soul is being erased – Britain’s role

The world thought it could ignore the Syrian crisis with impunity. Let them kill each other; it’s so far away and nothing to do with us. Bruised by failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the West had no appetite for involvement. But four years of indecision disguised as “noble non-intervention” has been a decision with deadly consequences, as Syrian refugees quite literally wash up on Europe’s shores. After remaining unmoved by thousands of images of carnage and devastation caused by President Assad’s barrel bombs, one image has changed perceptions overnight.

Aylan Kurdi drowned on beach Sept 2015

Syria is the cradle of civilisation, where the cross-fertilization of cultures and ideas resulted in a highly creative and innovative people. It is no accident that the first phonetic alphabet was invented here, the first musical notation, the first hymns, the first female choirs and even female orchestras. This blend and fusion of cultural influences is part of the Syrian identity, an identity that has been traditionally open, tolerant and welcoming.

Palmyra, the desert oasis city on the Silk Road linking the Mediterranean to the Euphrates River, Mesopotamia and beyond, represented this fusion of cultures through the blended Roman Oriental style of its architecture, its statues, its temples and its funerary monuments. Open to trade and the worship of many gods of the region, it too was part of the Syrian identity.


This is the identity which ISIS is intent on destroying. Masquerading as true Muslims, they are blowing up anything they can claim is idolatrous, anything with human or animal forms, while in practice Islam has always coexisted with earlier cultures – except in Wahhabi Saudi Arabia of course, which has also destroyed all manifestations of earlier religions.

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction

But ISIS is only part of the jigsaw. Syria’s cultural heritage is also being destroyed by the Assad regime’s relentless aerial bombardment and barrel bombing of opposition-held areas like Aleppo, along with residential areas, schools, hospitals and ordinary citizens. All are inextricably linked, all are part of Syria’s identity and this rich, multicoloured fabric of Syrian society is being shredded systematically, day after day with no end in sight and no one coming to help.

Syrian fighter jetbarrel bombing syria

The result is the wave of Syrian refugees  in ever greater numbers fleeing to Europe, their only option since the wealthy Gulf Arab countries have closed their doors, and their official asylum applications are repeatedly turned down. Today I heard Raida, a former resident of my Damascus house, speaking to the BBC from Beirut about her six failed applications to Saudi Arabia, her failed applications to Canada, Austria, France and the UK. Her dignity shone through when she ended by saying she would never resort to people smugglers, neither would she give up her struggle for a better life.

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

The dignity also shines through in the Syrian refugees interviewed on the road as they walk through Hungary to Germany. They are well-behaved and respectful of each other, in spite of their ordeals. They have not lost their humanity. Neither has Angela Merkel, with her vision and leadership, making me proud to be half-German.

Germany Merkel poster mimicking Bashar's August 2015

Of my British half however, I am ashamed. The British government has shown no vision or leadership, feebly waiting for an American strategy on Syria that never came, then taking a cowardly vote (thanks to Ed Milliband) in the House of Commons against military intervention in Syria after the supposed “red line” of the August 2013 chemical weapons attack. The Department for International Development’s much vaunted overseas aid projects are about as effective as a sticking plaster for a man whose guts have been blown out.

For the last four years Syria has been left like an open wound, untreated, slowly bleeding to death. Had Syrian pleas for a safe haven to be established on the Turkish border in summer 2011 been heeded, hundreds of thousands of refugees now fleeing the country could have stayed inside Syria; their destabilising pressure on the infrastructures of Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would have been avoided; the Assad regime’s handling of the uprising would have been challenged early on; the germ of ISIS would not have been left to multiply exponentially in Raqqa since April 2013 and to grow into the Frankenstein monster it is today, hijacking Syria’s revolution, overrunning Iraq and distorting perceptions of Islam.

isis on move

Syria’s soul is being systematically erased. Only intervention can stop it. It will be infinitely more difficult to establish a safe haven now, four years too late, but it still has to be the first step, to stem the exodus of refugees. For those already on the road, Britain needs to adopt the German approach – take thousands according to each region’s wealth and population spread evenly and equally across the country. If Germany can take in 1% of its population, so can we. The only alternative is to stop Syria’s war, something for which there is, it seems, neither the strategy nor the political will so far.

Related posts:

Syria is not Iraq: 10 key differences http://dianadarke.com/2013/09/01/syria-is-not-iraq-10-key-differences/

A Syrian in Saarbrucken http://dianadarke.com/2015/08/17/a-syrian-in-saarbrucken/

The Prophet Muhammad in Islamic Art http://dianadarke.com/2015/02/15/the-prophet-muhammad-in-islamic-art/

How ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions http://dianadarke.com/2014/08/23/how-isis-uses-early-islamic-history-to-justify-its-actions/




A Syrian in Saarbrucken

“Politics is all about interests, everyone knows this of course,” said Muhammad, his earnest brown eyes looking directly into mine. “But none of us imagined it would end like this.”

In those intelligent philosophical eyes I could see echoes of Ramzi Read more…

How to get a German passport

Muhammad Yassin passport Germany

Every year over 40,000 migrants arriving in Germany do a German citizenship test. 33 questions have to be answered, of which at least 17 must be correct.

Here is a sample of the types of questions, carefully and cleverly chosen to highlight key differences between how the autocratic societies from which many migrants are likely to have come function, and how German society functions.

Question 1:

In Germany people are often allowed to say something against the government because…

A  There is religious freedom here.

B  People pay taxes.

C  People have the right to vote.

D  There is freedom of opinion here.


Question 2:

What is compatible with the German constitution?

A  Corporal punishment.

B  Torture.

C  Death penalty.

D  Punishment by fine.


Question 3:

Two friends want to go to an open-air swimming pool. Both are dark-skinned and are therefore not allowed in. Which right has been violated in this situation? The right to…

A  Freedom of opinion.

B  Equal treatment.

C  Freedom of assembly.

D  Freedom of movement.


Question 4:

Which right belongs to the basic rights which are guaranteed according to German constitution:

A  Freedom of belief and conscience.

B  Maintenance.

C  Work.

D  Accommodation.

Question 5:

What does it not say in German constitutional law:

A  Human dignity is sacrosanct.

B  Everyone should have the same amount of money.

C  Every person is allowed to give his opinion.

D  Everyone is equal before the law.


Question 6:

Elections in Germany are free. What does that mean?

A  One can accept money to vote for a specific candidate.

B  Only people who have never been in prison can vote.

C  The voter cannot be influenced or forced to vote for a particular candidate.

D  All people entitled to vote must cast their vote.


Question 7:

Where in Germany do you go to inform yourself about political topics?

A  Security department of the local municipality.

B  Customer head office.

C  National head office for political education.

D  Churches.


Question 8:

What kind of living is not allowed in Germany?

A  A man and woman are divorced and live with new partners.

B  Two women living together.

C  A single father living with his two children.

D  A man married to two wives at the same time.


Question 9:

What does one need in Germany for a divorce?

A  The consent of the parents.

B  A doctor’s certificate.

C  The consent of the children.

D  The guidance of a lawyer.


Question 10:

A young woman wants to get her driving licence. She is afraid of the test because German is not her mother tongue. What is right?

A  She must live in Germany at least 10 years before she can get her driving licence.

B  She cannot get her driving licence if she does not know German.

C  She must get her driving licence in the country of her mother tongue.

D  She can perhaps do the theory test in her mother tongue. It is on offer in more than 10 languages.

(Source: The Rhein-Neckar Zeitung of 25/26 July 2015)

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A successful Syrian asylum seeker in Germany:


From Our Own Correspondent BBC Radio 4 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b063y63k (starts at 7 minutes in)

Muhammad Yassin Mersin boat4


Germany granted asylum to over 41,000 in 2014, more than 30,000 of them Syrian. Britain has taken 187 Syrian refugees to date, 1.5% of Germany’s acceptance rate.



The “Iranification” of Syria

Iranification of Syria Iranification of Umayyad Mosque

The pictures say it all. Iranian and Shia militia flags are now paraded in the spiritual heart of Damascus, the magnificent Umayyad Mosque, using the legend that the head of Hussein, martyred at Kerbala in 680AD, was buried here beneath a shrine in the eastern precincts.

Iran’s involvement in Syria used to be discreet but these days it is blatant. The ‘Iranification’ of Syria is gathering pace, almost as if it is a race to seize as much as possible before its puppet Assad regime collapses. Iran may be prepared to sacrifice chief puppeteer President Bashar al-Assad and his corrupt elite, but under no circumstances is it prepared to surrender its vast economic investment in Syria, or more precisely, in regime-controlled Damascus and the “Shia crescent” that links to the coast via Hizbullah heartlands in Lebanon.

The most recent manifestation of this open determination to control Syria’s capital is the forced confiscation of hundreds of acres of land around the Iranian Embassy in the western suburb of Mezzeh.

iranification of mezzeh

Dubbed “Iranian Towers”, the scheme is tantamount to changing the demographic of this entire neighbourhood of Damascus. Residents displaced by the eviction order, mainly Sunni families on low incomes, are reported not to have been offered compensation. Evidently the opinions of such people will count for nothing in the Syria of the future which Iran is seeking to engineer.

On my recent visit to Damascus to retake my house from war profiteers, Iranian influence was already evident behind the scenes. Friends and neighbours in the Old City told me that the CCTV cameras along Al-Amin Street, a Shia quarter, had been installed by Iran, and the only building projects underway were all known to be Iranian-funded. Wealthy Iranians are also distorting the property market by buying up prestige homes in the affluent areas including the Old City, especially near Shia shrines like Sayyida Rouqqaya. Among ordinary Damascene residents the strong perception is that Iran is increasingly pulling the strings behind the facade of the Assad regime: as the regime weakens, Iran is taking advantage.

Masquerading as religious affinity between Shia Iran and Alawi-ruled Syria, this relationship has never been anything other than a marriage of convenience. It began when Syria supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War back in 1980 to spite Saddam Hussein. But these days the partnership has become so unequal it is more like a master/slave relationship, one of total dependence.

Since the 2011 Syrian uprising the Iranian government has been maintaining the Assad regime in power by supplying riot control equipment, intelligence monitoring techniques, snipers and oil to sustain its war activities. Using experience honed during its own 2009 Green Revolution, Iran developed  the world’s most sophisticated “cyber-army” technology in the world after China. Assad’s shabiha paramilitary forces were trained by Iranian militia, and General Qasim Sulaimani (commander of the Iranian clandestine Quds Force) personally masterminded Syrian military strategy and oversaw the creation of the volunteer reserve “National Defence Forces” (NDF) modelled on the Iranian basij paramilitary force.

Qasim Sulaimani

In early June this year General Sulaimani deployed thousands of extra Iranian, Afghan and other foreign fighters round Damascus to protect the city after ISIS victories in Palmyra and Deir ez-Zour left it vulnerable. Reports of the numbers range between 7,000 and 15,000. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has publicly announced Iran will support the Damascus regime “till the end of the road”, not for ideological reasons, but because he knows that the current weakness and dependence of the Syrian regime means that Iran can secure political and strategic goals that had previously been out of reach.

With the announcement of the new nuclear deal and its accompanying sanctions relief, Iranian investment and wealth is set to soar. Iran has been described as the ‘world’s largest untapped market’ by British business guru Martin Sorrell and it boasts the world’s third largest oil reserves. Already major oil companies have visited Tehran to discuss the future of Iran’s oil industry.

Will Iran divert large amounts of this new wealth to fund its military activities in Syria, to protect its investment? Almost certainly, which makes it more and more likely that Iran will be enlisted by the P5+1 (the US, UK, France, Russia, China plus Germany) to fight ISIS, a common enemy to them all, inside Syria and to jettison Assad, but leaving Iran’s investment in Syria intact. It is almost certainly part of the deal. In this latest twist of the game, the Syrian people are again helpless pawns on the chessboard, with the big international players moving their pieces around to fit their own economic and political interests as ever.

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Tunisia’s costly choice


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)


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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.

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