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Syria and Turkey commentary

Aleppo, the endgame

APSA Aleppo-souk-AFPGetty-Feb201

Syria’s civil war came late to Aleppo. It was July 2012. But after four years of bitter bloodshed between its regime-held west and rebel east, the beating heart of Syria’s commercial and industrial capital has entered cardiac arrest. The Castello Road, last rebel artery north towards the Turkish border, has been choked off by President Assad’s forces backed by Russian air support, Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian government militia. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah last month  declared Syria’s “real, strategic, greatest battle is in Aleppo and the surrounding area.”

Aleppo is no stranger to sieges – there have been at least eight recorded across its turbulent history. But this one promises to last longer than all the others put together.

Many of the 400,000 unfortunates trapped inside expect to suffocate and slowly starve as extortionately-priced food, medicine and fuel supplies are systematically blocked. Some will die before then from the Syrian and Russian government barrel-bombing. Latterly supplemented by incendiary cluster munitions burning to 2,500 Centigrade, the bombers are steadily eradicating schools, hospitals and markets from above with impunity. Months of such punishment lie ahead for Aleppo, as the stage is prepared for the Syrian endgame, a game the rebels look doomed to lose, along with their entire anti-Assad revolution.

Aleppo’s dramas have gone largely unnoticed by Europe and the West, preoccupied with their own dramas closer to home – the Nice attacks, the US shootings, the Turkish coup attempt, the Brexit fallout. Last week’s OPCW report accused the Syrian government of failing to declare its stocks of sarin and other illegal warfare agents for the Russian-brokered 2013 chemical weapons deal: it raised barely a murmur in the western media.

Broken promises

Syria’s moderate opposition groups have suffered years of broken promises of support from the international community. Myriad proclamations of “Assad must go” were followed by handwringing from the sidelines. But even the rebels were not prepared for the latest twist that took place in Moscow a few days ago when John Kerry agreed with Sergei Lavrov to coordinate US-Russian military strikes on ISIS and Syria’s Al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

lavrov and kerry

Nusra’s aim has always been to set up Islamic emirates inside Syria, an ideology at odds with Syria’s FSA-linked moderate opposition, yet the two have often found themselves allies of convenience in the fight against Assad. The dynamics of the battlefield are such that, were Nusra to withdraw their military support or be targeted, the FSA rebels would be left even more vulnerable to attack. North of Aleppo they are already battling on three fronts – against ISIS, the Kurds and the Syrian regime. In Aleppo itself there is no ISIS presence and very little Nusra either – yet civilians on the ground do not trust the bombs will stop simply because of the new US-Russian deal.

Destabilising factors

In Turkey the climate is also changing. Heavily destabilised by a series of ISIS and Kurdish PKK attacks, the subsequent collapse of its tourist industry, the absorption since 2011 of two million Syrian refugees and then by last week’s coup attempt, even Turkey, once solidly pro-rebel, is talking of future ‘normalising’ of relations. Like Europe and the US, it has too many problems at home to worry about Syria.

But therein lies the biggest danger. The international community is forgetting that all these destabilising factors – the surge of refugees, the exporting of ISIS terrorism and Jabhat al-Nusra extremism – have been incubating undisturbed inside Syria for the last five years. The link between our inertia and their rise was denied, leaving Syrian civilians little option but to flee. Thousands more will follow once the new US-Russian deal ‘legitimises’ the bombing.

Aleppo is no stranger to refugees. Across the centuries it welcomed many, as has Syria. Some were Christians escaping persecution from fellow Christians in Europe. Aleppo has long been multi-cultural, a complex mix of Kurds, Iranians, Turkmens, Armenians and Circassians overlaid on an Arab base in which multi-denominational churches and mosques still share the space.

While the West obsesses about fighting ISIS and Nusra, this colourful tapestry of Aleppo’s innately tolerant population is being shredded. Despair will inevitably drive some to copy the extremists. If we help stop the fighting, extremism will become impotent and disappear. But if we turn away and leave Aleppo’s wounds to fester, the infection will spread back to us in an even more virulent form.

This article was published on the BBC website 22 July 2016 in the following format:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36853689

Related articles:

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-doctors-plea-to-president-obama-please-act-to-save-civilians/2016/07/21/092e081a-4f42-11e6-aa14-e0c1087f7583_story.html

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/27/dozens-dead-in-syria-bomb-blast-qamishli

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/28/syrian-rebels-offered-amnesty-as-regime-tightens-aleppo-siege

 

 

 

 

 

 

The siege of Aleppo – last chapter of Syria’s civil war

APSA Aleppo Souq destruction Picture1Today the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad completed its stranglehold on Aleppo. Its forces cut off and sandbagged the Castello Road, the last road north via which rebel fighters and residents of east Aleppo could escape from the city. Weeks of relentless aerial bombardment by Syrian and Russian planes, aided on the ground by Hezbollah fighters and Iranian militias have led up to this point. Hospitals and schools have been savagely targeted. The final chapter of the war has begun. Many Syrians see it as the beginning of the end.

The rebel opposition is in despair after the recent deal struck between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov his Russian counterpart in Moscow. Although the details are being kept under wraps, the consensus is that it involves US-Russian military coordination to target and eliminate Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS elements. This is a particularly difficult pill for the moderate rebel opposition to swallow since Jabhat al-Nusra have consistently been helping them to fight the Assad regime. The US-led coalition has been almost exclusively engaged in fighting ISIS, who in turn have been annihilating the moderate opposition groups. Assad and ISIS, the two extremes in this war, have only rarely fought each other – both extremes know that their real threat comes from the moderate middle.

Friday’s attempted coup in Turkey  will add to rebel despair as it will inevitably lead the Turkish government even further down the road of normalising relations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim just days ago appeared to do a volte-face in its foreign policy towards Syria of the last five years, as it now seeks to stabilise its borders, mend fences with Israel and Russia, and focus its energies instead on its internal threats and troublesome Kurds.

All of this affects us in Europe and the West whether we like it or not. Our failure to challenge Assad’s barbarous barrel-bombing of his own civilian population, our failure to set up a safe zone along the Turkish border, has led to the surge of refugees driven out of Syria with nowhere to go except Europe. The sight of this tide of desperate humanity was too much for most Europeans to deal with. Instead of following the noble example of Germany’s Angela Merkel  in welcoming them, other European countries erected barbed wire fences. Britain voted for Brexit to keep them out, a disgrace that will surely come back to haunt its people and for which history will judge them. Russia’s President Putin is back on top and laughing. Through his intervention in Syria’s war last September to support his faltering protege Assad, he has created waves of new refugees, destabilised Europe and projected himself as a superpower once again. Watch Russian state TV (Freeview channel 135) to see for yourself.

Bashar and Putin virility poster

In Damascus much of Syria’s uprising is conducted underground these days. Tunnel warfare in the suburbs has become the new normal. Residents regularly feel the earth shake but the sounds of battle are muted. In Aleppo on the other hand the battle is all too audible and everyone in Syria knows that Aleppo’s fate, as the country’s second city, will determine the outcome of the war.

We are entering the final chapter, where that once unthinkable outcome, an Assad victory, is beginning to look inevitable. God forgive us.

Relevant articles:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/07/syrian-troops-cut-rebel-held-parts-aleppo-160717101330517.html

https://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/7/17/syrian-regime-troops-besiege-rebel-held-parts-of-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/17/rebels-fear-assad-victory-in-syria-as-noose-tightens-around-aleppo

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jul/13/turkey-pm-greatest-goal-is-to-improve-relations-with-syria-and-iraq

 

 

 

 

Banias – case study of a Middle East boundary dispute

In the complex world of Middle Eastern boundary disputes, spare a thought for Banias, ancient City of Pan. Its location in the Golan Heights beside a water source on a strategic crossroads has condemned it to a history of tug and war for over 2000 years.

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The settlement was based on the spring at the foot of Mt Hermon on whose summit, according to an Arab proverb, it is winter, on whose shoulders it is autumn, on whose flanks spring blossoms and at whose feet eternal summer reigns. The spring forms the Banias Stream, key tributary of the Jordan River, which then flows into the Sea of Galilee, Israel’s largest reservoir.

First to settle here and worship the divinity of the springs were the Canaanites (Joshua XI, 16-17). Then in 198BC it was the scene of the Battle of Panium between the Macedonian armies of Ptolemaic Egypt and the Seleucid Greeks of Syria whose elephants won the day. To commemorate their victory they built a temple to Pan, goat-footed god of nature and wild things, creator of panic in the enemy. The local name became Paneas, the origin of modern Banias – Arabic has no ‘p’, so uses ‘b’ as the closest sound.

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The Romans renamed it Caesarea Philippi (4BC – 43AD), after the son of Herod the Great, and the city was rich in biblical associations.  Here it was that Jesus told Peter he would be the Rock of the Church and be given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven (Matthew XVI, 13-18).

Conflicts continued here between the pagan tradition and Christianity, then between Christians and Muslims. Under the Crusaders the site was known as Belinas and on the hills above, an hour’s walk away, they built the imposing Subeiba Castle, today called Nimrod, which still dominates the pass leading up towards Damascus. A Christian sanctuary dedicated to St George was built above the grotto, whom the Muslims called Al-Khidr (the’green one’) and later converted into a mosque. Today it is maintained by the local Syrian Druze of the Golan.

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After World War I Banias found itself contested by both the British Mandate over Palestine and the French Mandate over Syria. Britain wanted to retain control of the whole Jordan water system, while France wanted total control of the route linking Damascus and the Golan to Tyre on the Lebanese coast. The case of Banias was among the compromises reached, where Britain agreed for the line to be drawn 750 metres south of the springs so that it fell to the French. The French Mandate came to an end in 1946 and Syria gained its independence as a state within the same borders.

When the state of Israel was created in 1948 without the agreement of  its Arab neighbours, the stage was once again set for conflict. Israel insisted on control of the Jordan headwaters, but Syrian troops refused to withdraw from Banias. Israel began work in 1951 on a channel to drain the nearby Huleh swamps, bulldozing Arab villages that lay in the way, so Syria reinforced its military presence. A swimming area on the stream is still called the ‘Syrian Officers’ Pool.’

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Syrian and Israeli units attacked and counter-attacked, each determined to take control of the vital snowmelt from Mt Hermon. Israel announced a plan to divert the water from the Banias stream into its National Water Carrier, and Syria countered with a plan to build a canal from Banias to Yarmouk. When the heavy machinery moved in to start on the project, Israeli guns destroyed them.

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In June 1967 the penultimate day of the Six Day War saw Israeli tanks storm into Banias in breach of a UN ceasefire accepted by Syria hours earlier. Israeli general Moshe Dayan had decided to act unilaterally and take the Golan. The Arab villagers fled to the Syrian Druze village of Majdal Shams higher up the mountain, where they waited. After seven weeks, abandoning hope of return, the villagers dispersed east into Syria.

Israeli bulldozers raised their homes to the ground a few months later, bringing to an end two millenia of life in Banias. Only the mosque, the church and the shrines were spared, along with the Ottoman house of the shaykh perched high atop its Roman foundations. Within days Israeli volunteers began building on the banks of the river, creating Kibbutz Snir, the first Israeli settlement on the Golan. In 1981 Israel annexed the Golan Heights in an illegal move unrecognised by any state but international law remained impotent. No foreign power dared intervene.

Since 2003 Israel’s confidence has increased and the Golan is now covered in scores of settlements, while dozens of hotels offering settler-made ‘Chateau Golan’ serve as weekend getaways for Israeli city elites. A ski resort has been built on Mt Hermon. Tourist websites refer to ‘Israel’s Golan Heights’ and all local maps show it as part of Israel.

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As for Banias, now emptied of residents, the site has been incorporated into one of Israel’s many ‘nature reserves’ on the Golan. Four walking trails have been neatly laid out in loops around the ancient city, its springs and its waterfalls. The souvenir shop sells T-shirts emblazoned with ‘Israeli Air Force’ and ‘Mossad’.

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Explanatory signs give the Israeli version of history.

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The free leaflet that accompanies the entry ticket explains Banias is now  ‘a perfect place to understand the pagan world of the Land of Israel and Phoenicia’. On the map, the basilica has become a synagogue, the Ottoman shaykh’s house has become ‘Corner Tower’ and the Syrian Officers’ Pool is simply ‘Officers’ Pool.’

History in Banias has been rewritten once more. But is this the final version or are there more chapters to come?

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(This piece also appeared in Aeon digital magazine as below):

https://aeon.co/ideas/how-modern-disputes-have-reshaped-the-ancient-city-of-banias

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36548749

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36067643

 

 

 

Scandal in Sebastia

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Landscape around Sebastia [DD, 2016]

This peaceful biblical scene of rolling hills with olive groves and flocks of sheep conceals a scandal about which the international community has remained largely silent.

Hidden behind the cluster of trees in the central background stands the abandoned Sebastia railroad station, a branch line of the Hijaz Railway to nearby Nablus.

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Ruins of the 1914 Ottoman railway station of Sebastia, a branch line of the Hijaz Railway, in use till the 1948 war. [DD, 2016]

A takeover was staged here in July 1976

Israelis occupying Sebastia railway station

Israelis occupying the land around Sebastia railway station 1976

Menachem Begin at Sebastia 1976

Menachem Begin at Sebastia

by the Zionist group Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) on the pretext of its proximity to the ruins of Samaria, ancient capital city of the Kingdom of Israel built by King Omri. The demonstrators demanded that the area be settled by Jews and the newly elected Prime Minister Menachem Begin helped ensure that the settlement of Shavei Shomron (Returnees of Samaria) was founded the following year. Today its population tops 1000, a mix of Zionists and Modern Orthodox Jews. In 2013 it began pumping its sewage into nearby Palestinian fields, killing crops.

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View of Shavei Shomron, Israeli settlement below Sebastia [DD, 2016]

The above photo of the Israeli settlement was taken in spring 2016 from the Palestinian Arab town of Sebastia, named after the archaeological site alongside it, the same site the Israelis prefer to call Samaria. The Palestinian and Israeli tourist brochures reflect this split identity: the Israeli ones end with descriptions of the Greek, Roman and early Byzantine settlements, omitting any mention of the thriving Arab Christian and Muslim communities that lived here till the creation of the State of Israel in 1948. Their presence, let alone the continued presence of the Palestinians living in the town of Sebastia, designated Area A, does not suit the Israeli narrative.

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Sebastia, the ruins in the foreground are designated Area C (full Israeli civil and security control, c63% of West Bank) , the car park Area B (Palestinian civil control and joint Israeli-Palestinian security control, c22% of West Bank) and the Palestinian town of Sebastia in the background Area A (full civil and security control by the Palestinian Authority, c18% of West Bank) under the 1993 Oslo Accords [DD, 2016]

Using their well-tested technique of  ‘incrementalism’, Israelis have, step by tiny step, been laying the groundwork for a takeover of the archaeological site of Sebastia through turning it into one of their many national parks, the same technique they have used all over the Golan Heights to claim such areas as ancient Banias, City of Pan. Now it is a race against time to get the site adopted by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site to protect it from further Israeli designs.

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Bulldozer damage to the theatre at Sebastia carried out in 2014 by Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority doing ‘maintenance’ [DD, 2016]

When driving to Sebastia in the West Bank this spring with my family hoping to walk sections of Abraham’s Path, a cultural trail aimed at uniting communities through sustainable tourism and socio-economic development, I did not expect to be chased by an Israeli jeep full of armed soldiers and told it was too dangerous. Thankfully, I ignored them. We stayed for three days in Sebastia’s Palestinian guesthouse, enjoying the warmth of Palestinian hospitality. Before 1967 Sebastia was the number one tourist site in the region. Now hardly anyone comes except coachloads of Israelis who are bussed straight to the site and taken round under military escort, forbidden from entering the historic Palestinian town with its Crusader church of John the Baptist in the main square. As a result no tourist revenue reaches the Palestinian residents.

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Sebastia’s Palestinian  guesthouse open to all [DD,2016]

We walked alone without a guide in the hills, following trails from Walking Palestine by Stefan Szepesi. We never locked our car or our rooms. I urge everyone to visit Sebastia and make up their own mind about where the danger lies.

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The hills around Sebastia [DD, 2016]

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The lower slopes of Sebastia with the Hippodrome pillars in the background [DD,2016]

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/db0971c2-2723-11e6-8b18-91555f2f4fde.html#axzz4AQ7z9xnN (‘Good News’ for Israel)

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/05/annexing-archaeology-unesco-israel-160519051718915.html (Annexing archaeology: Will UNESCO take on Israel?)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36322756 (New Palestinian Museum opens without exhibits)

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2013/03/ancient-sebastia-threatened-israeli-settlement.html (Ancient Palestinian Village Threatened by Israeli Settlement)

https://electronicintifada.net/content/sebastias-living-community-sidelined-ancient-ruins/9776 (Sebastia’s living community sidelined for ancient ruins)

http://www.wrmea.org/2016-january-february/israels-master-plan-for-judaization-of-palestine-continues-apace.html (Israel’s ‘Master Plan’ for Judaization of Palestine Continues Apace)

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36441313 (Israel-Palestinian two-state solution ‘in serious danger’)

Collapsing Syrian pound mirrors collapsing confidence in regime control

 

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

The collapse in the Syrian pound has accelerated dramatically in recent weeks. Businessmen whose interests are tied in with the Assad regime’s survival are getting increasingly anxious, fearing the exchange rate is now beyond Syrian government control. In March 2016 the Syrian pound traded at around 440 to the US dollar, now it is 650 and rising daily. Before the war began in 2011 it was 47 and had been stable for some years.

The collapsing pound seems to directly mirror the collapsing confidence of merchants and traders once loyal to the Assad regime. Many are buying dollars with their profits and quickly transferring them to bank accounts abroad. Meanwhile Western Union, the accepted method for relations and friends abroad to transfer foreign currency into Syria, has for months only been allowed to pay out currency from abroad inside Syria in local cash.

For Syrians on the government payroll – a staggering 2.7 million people or, even more staggering, roughly 35% of the population now living in the regime-controlled areas – this is a disaster. Life is becoming impossible. A friend who is head of one of the state-run banks in Damascus has been telling me that her monthly salary enables her to feed the family for two days only. More and more people are being forced to sell possessions and property; many are making the decision to abandon ship and leave, even though they know their chances of employment elsewhere are miserable. Neighbouring countries and Europe will inevitably feel the pressure of more refugees.

The reason behind the quickening collapse is thought to be twofold: firstly Russia’s reluctance to back Assad with full air strikes in the regime assault on Aleppo, which has led to another stalemate instead of the quick victory they had hoped, and secondly a new World Bank report estimating Syria’s foreign reserves to be a mere $700 million, down from £20 billion before the war.

ISIS has recently recaptured oilfields around Palmyra, increasing pressure on the regime’s ability to provide electricity to the capital. Income from taxation has plummeted as 80% of Syrians now live below the poverty line. Recruitment rates into the Syrian army are minimal, as more and more young men leave the country rather than be fed into the war machine.

Peace talks are planned to resume in Geneva in the coming weeks. Bashar al-Jaafari, Assad’s head negotiator, arrived late at the last round, after first waiting for the 13 April Syrian parliamentary elections to be completed. Although the Syrian parliament is impotent under the current Syrian constitution and the result was a foregone conclusion with the election of regime cronies vetted by the security services, the message to the international community was clear – the Assad regime is the only legitimate government of Syria.

Assad votin in parliamentary elections April 13 2016

The propaganda value to the regime of Palmyra’s recent recapture in championing this message has also been key. Foreign journalists, normally denied visas, were suddenly invited in and bussed across the desert to photograph the fabulous ancient ruins, still 80% intact, that lie between Syria’s largest oasis and an extinct volcano – the perfect romantic backdrop to Assad’s rehabilitation as national hero valiantly fighting ISIS terrorism. The Russians then bussed in a further round of journalists to witness the absurd spectacle of a Russian orchestra playing in Palmyra’s theatre, with President Putin appearing live on a stage screen to congratulate all involved in the victory. Palmyra was the crown jewel in Syria’s tourism industry and its restoration is scheduled to be the flagship project for rebuilding Syria.

Putin in Palmyra May 2016

The opposition in exile and even the officially-sanctioned domestic opposition have dismissed all such stunts as ‘illegitimate’ tricks to gain leverage in the peace talks. The PYD, the largest grouping of Syrian Kurds, who are busy consolidating their semi-autonomous cantons in the north, have also dismissed the PR campaign. So far they not been invited to the Geneva talks, for fear of upsetting the main Turkey/Saudi-supported opposition.

Syria’s peace envoy Staffan de Mistura is putting a brave face on all such complications, stressing that the peace talks are “flexible”. His optimistic aim remains to achieve a political transition by August and UN-supervised elections within 18 months, where all Syrians can vote, even the diaspora, be they penniless refugees or wealthy businessmen. The upcoming US change of president in November is another pressure on John Kerry and the Obama administration to try to broker a Syrian political settlement with Russian help in the coming months.

The big question remains whether Assad will agree to negotiate his own exit, given all the mounting pressures, especially if it becomes clear his traditionally loyal inner elite are ready to sacrifice him. More likely in my view is that his skilful team in Geneva will simply continue their policy of appearing to offer national unity and reconciliation, even though their survival is at the expense of the entire country.

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/369f583a-177a-11e6-b8d5-4c1fcdbe169f.html#axzz48RMygHJj

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-36024370

http://www.syria-report.com/news/finance/four-main-factors-behind-recent-rise-dollar-syrian-forex-market

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest...

A fake Syrian banknote from Budapest…

 

Syria’s Golan Heights – a new flashpoint in the war?

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On a recent visit to Syria’s Golan Heights I overheard an unexpected conversation. At the Quneitra Viewpoint, an Israeli guide was telling a group of American tourists that the Israeli Defense Force had just upgraded the threat of conflict here on the border from ‘low’ to ‘moderate’. The reason, he said, was that Israeli intelligence had calculated, following the success of pro-Assad operations in the northern Idlib area, that the field of conflict was now likely to move here to the south. Israel would act immediately, he said, to destroy any heavy weaponry Hezbollah might move into the area. ISIS has also recently become active close to the border, allying itself with the local Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade.

Israel views the Syrian civil war as a gift, its chance to persuade the US administration to recognise its 1981 annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights. Pronounced illegal under international law and unrecognised by any country, Israel has simply ignored all condemnation and incrementally taken control of the Heights. My recent From Our Own Correspondent piece on the Golan, broadcast on 10 March, produced the predictable Israeli attacks.

But Israel  does not get everything  its own way. Four Syrian Druze villages continue to thrive defiantly on the Golan, their populations slowly increasing despite the fact that intermarriage is rare and they can only be born into the faith. The Israeli press likes to make much of the Druze increasingly taking up Israeli citizenship but in reality very few do.

Here is the text as broadcast:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b072hlvz (starts at 19.12 minutes)

“Standing in a peaceful spot high on the volcanic cone of Mt Bental, I am gazing across into war-torn Syria. It is a surreal experience. But this is the Golan Heights – where anything is possible.

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Beside me is a bizarre hilltop cafe called Coffee Annan  – after Kofi, the former UN Secretary General  –  staffed by enthusiastic Israelis from the nearby settlement of Merom Golan,  Israel’s first to be built on the Heights. They are selling beer and pizza along with local pomegranate liqueur and skin creams.

Sharing the vantage point are busloads of Israeli tourists and a couple of blue-capped UN observers stationed here to patrol the ‘ceasefire’ line, while rising above the whole conflict is Mt Hermon, whose snow-covered summit  still lies inside Syria. Israel controls a listening post bristling with antennae lower down.

In the car park, I meet the cheerful Abu Miqdal, an elder from the Syrian Druze community, with a magnificent moustache and the distinctive black baggy trousers that mark him out as one of the enlightened ‘uqaal, a spiritual level attained only with the wisdom of age. He’s here to earn a bit of money in retirement by selling the famous local honey; he lives in one of the four Syrian Druze villages now cut off on the Golan.

“Down there in Quneitra is where I was working as a Maths teacher,” he explains philosophically, pointing at the now destroyed town, “When the Israelis captured it, I fled back up here to Buq’ata. Now the border crossing is closed, and our apple and cherry orchards are farmed by the kibbutz of Ein Zivan.”

Education is tremendously important to the Druze, a proud religious minority living mainly in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon. Amal Alamuddin, now wife to George Clooney, was born a Druze and typifies the community’s talent.

Syria’s ruling Assad family was good to the Golan Druze, and earned their loyalty by allowing them to study free of charge at Syrian universities even after the ‘67 war, giving them a small monthly stipend. The Quneitra crossing was opened to allow several hundred students a year to continue their courses. The current war has put an end to that, so many now go to Germany instead.

Interrupted by periodic explosions from the direction of Damascus, Abu Miqdal and I exchange poignant memories of the Syrian capital, where he studied for four years.  “Although the Israelis pressurize us, we will never give up our Syrian nationality,” he assures me. “This war will end one day and our families will be joined again.”

His certainty is admirable but the realities on the ground are different. In the 35 years since its annexation of the Golan, Israel has built over 30 settlements here, 30 wineries with names like Chateau Golan, and devised nature reserves to market its tourism potential. It has built a ski resort on Mt Hermon and laid out hiking trails beside the waterfalls of Baniyas, ancient City of Pan.

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Israeli maps increasingly show the Golan as theirs, making it ever harder to remember that under international law all this is Syria, whose border once reached right down to the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.

While the world is distracted by ISIS and mass refugee migration to Europe,  Israel is quietly drilling for oil on the Golan, rewarded last autumn with a major find. It has recently completed a big barrier along its border with Syria similar to that on the West Bank, citing security concerns and the need to ‘bring stabilisation’ to the region.

But the Golan Druze are determined to maintain their identity and govern themselves. Ain Kinya, the smallest and most beautiful of the Druze villages, has its own local council.

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Numbers are steadily increasing and they are building more homes. Two Christian families live in their midst. The young Druze women I see appear free from inhibition, dressed in hot pants, ripped jeans and tight tops, strong and equal to their men.

Abu Miqdal’s generation still treasures memories of Damascus, but the Golan’s younger Druze, deprived of such cherished dreams, have found their own uniquely non-political vision of their future. Key to the Druze faith is reincarnation of souls, male to male, female to female, always into a newborn child.

They simply believe they will be reincarnated in their next lives – into the right part of Syria.”

Related articles:

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/0e060fea-0622-11e6-9b51-0fb5e65703ce.html#axzz47OguBDQ0

http://www.jns.org/news-briefs/2016/3/22/662aep6eruyayvxv0i95axvhzbt47n#.VvKy2uKLTIU=

http://www.timesofisrael.com/on-golan-heights-idf-fights-to-keep-israel-safe-and-out-of-syria/

https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/news/middle-east/24544-israel-prepares-evacuation-plan-for-golan-heights-galilee-settlements

The pressure is building on the Golan Heights

 

 

 

 

 

Syria’s War reaches the most dangerous point so far

 

Syria's intractable war feb 2016

No one seriously believes the ‘postponed’ peace talks at Geneva 3 will take place on 25 February 2016 as scheduled by the UN’s Syria envoy, Staffan De Mistura. Like his two predecessors, Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, both of whom resigned in despair, De Mistura is trying to lead a peace process backed only by the impotence of the UN and its increasingly violated and empty resolutions. While Ban Ki Moon and others express outrage about ‘unacceptable’ behaviour, the realities on the ground are making political and diplomatic posturing irrelevant.

Russia’s unprecedented air bombardment began on 1st February, as the talks in Geneva were trying to splutter into life. With no warning hundreds of bombs were rained down on rebel-held territory north of Aleppo, displacing thousands of families from their homes. Two days later De Mistura suspended the peace talks, exactly what Russia wanted. Intensifying their momentum, the Russian airstrikes within days went on to ‘liberate’ the Shia pro-regime villages of Nubul and Al-Zahra and push north towards the Turkish border at Kilis.

Chief losers in this ongoing battle are what remains of the armed opposition north of Aleppo, the 70,000 displaced families now stuck either in the town of A’zaz or in the no man’s land between the Turkish and Syrian border at Bab Al-Salama. 500 people have lost their lives since the Russian airstrikes began 10 days ago.

azaz refugees feb 2016

Chief winners are the Russians, the Iranian Republican Guard and Hezbollah fighters battling on the ground alongside what remains of the Syrian Assad army, now so depleted by deaths, defections and draft-dodging that it is but a shadow of its former strength.

But the biggest winners of all are the Syrian Kurds, the PYD whose efficient fighters were perfectly placed in northern Syria to take advantage of the Russian bombardment. As the areas were depopulated they moved in to increase the territory of their semi-autonomous region of Rojava. They have made huge progress since 2014, as the maps below show, and now control close to 20% of Syria, consolidating their hold on their three cantons. Their dream is to link up the western canton of Afrin with the two eastern cantons of Kobani and Jazira, currently separated by a tract of lawless land between A’zaz and Jarabulus controlled partly by ISIS, partly by Turkmen and Arab rebels.

map of rojava cantons Map of Aleppo and territory to north map of rojava within syria map of Syria Institute of war 25 Jan 2016

But all this is a nightmare for Turkey, not only because President Erdogan regards the Syrian PYD Kurds as an offshoot of the Turkish Kurdish militant PKK group, but also because the US under the Obama administration has in recent days even sent a delegation under Brett McGurk, the US’s special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, to visit Rojava, and has pronounced them not terrorists but allies in the fight against ISIS.

Erdogan is furious, accusing his supposed ally America of self-interest and betrayal. Even worse, Russia is arming and training the PYD Kurds, so both Russia and the US are together supporting Kurdish aspirations.

Will he be able to contain his rage and not send in Turkish troops to challenge Russia, Iran, Assad and the Kurds? Is he prepared to lose control of his whole southern border to a new Kurdish entity? Will Saudi Arabia (and the UAE and Bahrain) make good on its offer to send 150,000 ground troops onto that same patch of disputed land?

The thousands of displaced refugees now building up on the Syrian side of the border may give him that chance, to enter Syria on a humanitarian ticket and create the safe zone he has wanted to set up since summer 2011 but which was never supported by NATO and the international community. Up to 400,000 additional refugees could flee from Aleppo itself and add to the thousands at the border if the city, once Syria’s biggest, is encircled and put under siege.

Turkey’s position today is stronger than at any previous time in this five-year war, because of its powerful role in controlling the flow of migrants into an overwhelmed and vulnerable Europe. Erdogan’s AK party won a convincing election last November. But Turkey’s position is also more dangerous than ever before. Setting up a safe zone four and a half years ago would have been child’s play compared to now, when so many external actors are involved. ISIS did not even exist then. But the threat of ISIS pales into insignificance compared to the danger of Turkey and Russia sparking a confrontation in exactly the territory around Dabiq, where ISIS propaganda tells us the stage is set for Armageddon.

Syria’s war, after five years of unexpected twists and turns, is now way out of control, with a dynamic all of its own. No single state or actor, or group of states can dictate its course, not even Russia. Putin may consider himself invincible but even he cannot control what happens next inside Syria. As each day brings new escalations and dangers the spectre of World War III no longer seems like a far-fetched threat. How much worse can it get?

putin and obama

Related articles:

http://rudaw.net/english/middleeast/turkey/08022016

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35541003

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35488073

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/02/turkey-syria-united-states-possible-military-intervention.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=f2cfd6b451-Feb_10_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-f2cfd6b451-93116701

Syria peace talks – what hope?

lavrov and kerry

While the outside players frantically shuttle between world capitals trying to convene peace talks in Geneva before the end of January, it seems there are only two things about Syria all can agree on: that a solution must be found to the five-year catastrophic war and that neither ISIS nor the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra can be part of that solution.

But there the unity ends. Calling the fighting inside Syria a ‘civil war’ seems wrong when there are so many outside players – Russia, Iran and Hezbollah supporting the Assad government, America, Europe, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey supporting the rebel opposition – and those are just the key actors. Certainly many Syrians inside Syria feel it is no longer a war over which they can exert any control. Interventions by outside interested actors, most recently Russia, mean that Syrian territory is being used as a battlefield with scant regard for those who once lived there. Small wonder so many are leaving, giving up on their country, heading for the ‘safe haven’ of Europe. One million refugees made it to Europe in 2015. Unless the war stops, projections for 2016 are that 3 million will come. The urgency for peace talks is real.

All previous attempts have failed, but this time the hope is that the UN Resolution unanimously passed on 18 December 2015 gives the necessary mandate. It sets a timetable for talks to begin in January 2016, form a transitional government within six months, followed by free UN-supervised elections a year later, in which all Syrians, even those abroad in the diaspora will be eligible to vote, something which Assad banned in the 2014 elections where he was re-elected for his third 7-year term. A recent secret poll conducted inside regime areas is said to have shown a maximum of 25% support for Assad, so there is little doubt that his fate in fair elections would be a resounding rejection by his people.

Brinkmanship games are rife as the talks approach. Media and propaganda wars between Russia and the West’s versions of the truth on besieged areas like Madaya are matched on the ground by escalations of Russian air strikes and rebel offensives desperate to gain a few extra centimetres in case a ceasefire is forced upon them. The death toll has risen sharply and thousands more have been displaced from their homes.

The UN peace envoy Staffan de Mistura has refused to send out invitations to Geneva till the list of attendees on both sides has been agreed by the US and Russia. The Assad regime has named its delegation, headed by Bashar al-Ja’fari, Syria’s UN representative. The rebel opposition has named its team, approved in Riyadh. The chief negotiator is Muhammad Alloush, brother of Zahran Alloush, former head of powerful rebel group Jaysh al-Islam, who was assassinated on Christmas Day in a Russian air strike. George Sabra, a Christian dissident who spent time in Assad’s prisons, has been named as the deputy.

Needless to say, Russia and Assad are not happy with this ‘revolutionary’ opposition and are now trying to pressure the US and other parties into accepting its own list of ‘approved’ opposition as well, so that there would be two opposition delegations. Included in the Russian list would be Saleh Muslim, leader of the PYD Syrian Kurds, with whom both the US and Russia have recently been partnering in their fight against ISIS. But the ‘revolutionary’ opposition does not see the Syrian Kurds as part of the solution, since they never fought Assad, but simply took advantage of the power vacuum when Assad’s troops pulled out of the northern Kurdish areas and seized the territory for themselves. The Syrian Kurds argue that they must sit at the negotiating table now that they control such a big chunk of territory in the north with their semi-autonomous region of Rojava.

Assuming some kind of formula can be found to reach agreement on who is invited, the delegations will then hold ‘proximity talks’, not sitting in the same room or even the same building, with Staffan de Mistura and his team shuttling between the delegations trying to find enough common ground to keep talking.

That will be the easy bit. For whatever may be agreed in these peace talks, it will all be worthless unless it is enforced on the ground. No Syrians I know are holding their breath.

Relevant articles:

Negotiated Settlements of Civil Wars vs. Victories

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2016/1/22/syrian-opposition-pulls-plug-on-peace-talks

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-01-23/u-s-russia-said-to-near-compromise-to-unlock-syria-peace-talks

http://gulfnews.com/news/mena/syria/with-few-men-left-in-syria-women-run-the-show-1.1656924

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Commentary/30413/Putin_Syria_Plans_Worry_Both_His_Opponents_His_Allies

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/Commentary/30438/Lavrov_Proposal_Geneva_Russian_List_Battles_With_Riyadh_List

 

 

 

Madaya’s shocking media war exposed

madaya starving child

My previous post talked of the difficulties of seeing through the fog of war, balancing the media reports from all sides and trying to reach an understanding of the truth. The case of Madaya was highlighted.

Now the German newspaper Bild has uncovered evidence showing just how ruthlessly the Madaya story has been exploited by the Assad regime to further its own narrative of the war and to inflict maximum damage on the reputation of the opposition rebels.

The English version of the story can be read here in full:

http://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/syrien-krise/hell-of-madaya-44151008.bild.html

In summary, it concludes that the 300 men, women and children “rescued from Madaya” and interviewed by the waiting Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Assad press, were ‘actors’, fake residents bussed in by Hezbollah fighters on the morning of 11 January from the nearby village of Bloudan.

Russian TV in Madaya

The predominantly Christian village is about 5km from Madaya and supports President Assad. The same people always spoke in all the interviews, thanking Assad for saving them and blaming the rebels for stealing their food. Photos of these 300 people were sent all round the world, but not only were they far from starving, they were also filmed at the last Assad checkpoint before Madaya. The Syrian flag gives this away.

Madaya well-fed imposters with Syrian flag showing they are in Assad area Madaya fake residents guarded by assad soldiers

Real residents of Madaya say they did not recognise any of them – none of them were from Madaya.

When shown the Russian TV report, a doctor in Madaya told Bild it was a farce. The reality, he said, was that many Free Syrian Army soldiers sold their rifles to buy food for their families from the regime checkpoints, where government soldiers were selling rice at $200 a kilo.

Bild goes on to conclude that:

“None of this can be seen in official images and there is reason to suspect that the aid organisations have been put under pressure by Assad: either they showed the regime’s actors or they could no longer carry out their work in Syria.”

This brings us to another vital point which, as it happens, is discussed in an article in the January 2016 issue of Chatham House’s International Affairs, entitled ‘The unintended consequences of emergency food aid: neutrality, sovereignty and politics in the Syrian civil war, 2012-15.’ The authors are Jose Ciro Martinez and Brent Eng.

They show how ‘paradoxically, aid has accomplished exactly the opposite of what its proponents and distributors, at least in public, claim. Our observations and analysis suggest that foodstuffs distributed by UN agencies and most humanitarian organizations, despite their pretensions to neutrality, have contributed to supporting sovereignty and political outcomes at odds with those neutral aspirations.’

In other words, in the case of Syria, aid cannot be neutral because the international aid agencies have to operate through Syrian regime channels to be allowed into the country. The distribution of this aid is then controlled by the Assad regime and its agencies like SARC (the Syrian Arab Red Crescent) and used to legitimize the government by ‘enabling the regime to fulfil some of its welfare responsibilities and to project an image of comparative security’. By contrast the rebel opposition areas receive no aid because the regime prevents SARC from working there. As a result ‘rebel groups unable to feed those under their control have seen their legitimacy eroded’, which has in turn ‘undermined public support for various fighting groups.’

The full report can be read here:

https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/ia/unintended-consequences-emergency-food-aid-neutrality-sovereignty-and-politics-syrian

Tragically, the real residents of Madaya were still starving inside the town, as the aid agencies’ own photos later showed:

madaya bild jan 2016 madaya field hospital girl

The UN and the international community must loudly condemn these practices, which are taking places all over Syria, not just Madaya. My caretaker has been eating grass since 2013 in Eastern Ghouta, in another ‘starve or surrender’ siege by the regime. Pressure must be applied on the Assad regime to allow aid to be properly ‘neutral.’ The chances of anything positive happening at the upcoming peace talks – ‘the Vienna process’ – remain very small as long as the current level of mistrust prevails.

Related:

http://www.bild.de/politik/ausland/syrien-krise/hell-of-madaya-44151008.bild.html

https://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/ia/unintended-consequences-emergency-food-aid-neutrality-sovereignty-and-politics-syrian

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35309814

 

 

War of words over Syria intensifies in run-up to peace talks

The UN arriving at Madaya January 2016

The UN arriving at Madaya January 2016

As 25 January 2016 approaches, it is not just the fighting on the ground that is intensifying, it is also the war of words. This is the date set by the UN to start international peace talks in Geneva between all parties involved in Syria’s war, including the Syrian government and the Syrian opposition, together with their respective key backers Russia and Iran, the US, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The much publicised ‘starve or surrender siege’ in Madaya is the latest example of the media battle.

No western journalists were allowed in to cover the story of the international aid convoys reaching the besieged town, but a Russian journalist was on hand to give his version of events, duly reported on Russian TV:

https://www.rt.com/news/328609-syria-besieged-madaya-exclusive/

He accused the rebels of keeping earlier deliveries of aid for themselves and selling it at inflated prices to the starving civilians.

This version of events was backed up by the Syrian government’s own spokesman at the UN:

http://sana.sy/en/?p=66404 He denied there were people starving in Madaya.

The BBC’s Lyse Doucet was not allowed in, so did the next best thing of interviewing Syrians who were protesting against the Madaya siege at the Lebanese border crossing, some of whom had relations inside the blockaded town. They tell a different story:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35278173

Western media generally focussed on the pictures of the starving children and interviews with local people trapped inside, as did the anti-Assad Gulf news channels like Al-Arabiya, though they also mentioned the rebel siege of the two Shi’a villages of Kafraya and Al- Foua’a in Idlib province which received simultaneous convoys of food aid yesterday, 11 January 2016.

The true picture becomes ever cloudier and more confused and unless we have first-hand knowledge of our own, all our perceptions of a faraway situation are inevitably shaped by whatever media we choose to read, hear or watch.

A UN Security Council resolution adopted in December set out an ambitious two-year roadmap for the upcoming peace talks, in which a new Syrian constitution will be drafted, followed by Syrian elections. The issue of the fate of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad remains unaddressed, as everyone knows this is the thorniest problem. The immediate aim of the Geneva talks is for all concerned parties to agree a ceasefire.

In the run-up to the talks, every side will be doing its utmost to slander and attack the other, militarily and verbally. We should expect ugly battles of words and violent atrocities. The Syrian government is demanding to see in advance the list of opposition figures who will be attending, a list arrived at with Jordanian help and coordinated by Riad Hijab, chosen to head the opposition negotiating body. A 50 year old Sunni from Deir Ez-Zour, he was briefly prime minister under Assad, before becoming the most senior figure to defect to the opposition in 2012. The hope is that he can straddle both camps, except there are not just two camps, there are many, including the Kurds, who also want a seat at the table in Geneva. ISIS and Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra are not invited.

If all relevant parties actually make it to the table, it will be a miracle, a major achievement by Syria peace envoy Staffan De Mistura who is shuttling between Riyadh, Damascus and Tehran, in a fevered rush to make sure the date is met.

My advice to anyone following the build-up is to choose your media carefully. Maybe do the same as a Franciscan nun I met recently, who has spent a total of 23 years in Syria, including 6 years in Raqqa. When I asked her what media she followed, she replied:

“I watch the pro-Assad Al-Mayadeen and the anti-Assad Al-Jazeera. Then I know that the truth is somewhere in the middle.”

Related:

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/indepth/2016/1/8/starved-into-accepting-a-political-solution-in-syria

http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/syria-requests-opposition-delegation-list-peace-talks-497296067

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-35150037

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-35294890

Only Syrian people should determine the future of their country, Putin renews

http://news.yahoo.com/secular-syrian-alliance-demands-seat-peace-talks-table-163053502.html

 

 

 

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