Syria and Turkey commentary

Can Russia save Syria?

bashar and russian flag

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, 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: “The right man is the one who seizes the moment. 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. Meanwhile NATO the West continue their endless talking shops.

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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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.

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ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra


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.

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Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS


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.


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.


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.


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?


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.

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