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Archive for the tag “ISIS”

Can Russia save Syria?

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

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

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

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

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

russian language

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

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

chechens in isis

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

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

Palmyra Baal Shamin destruction palmyra arch

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

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

Syrian kissing putin

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

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

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

putin and bashar handshake

Caspian sea Russian strikes on Syria 7 Oct 2015

 Related articles:

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/28168/Damascus+University+Opens+Russian+Language+Department

https://dianadarke.com/?s=russia+assad

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34453739?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_breaking&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=news_central

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826656

http://tass.ru/en/defense/826967

https://en-maktoob.news.yahoo.com/assad-allies-including-iranians-prepare-ground-attack-syria-115512216.html

http://sana.sy/en/?p=56985

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/06/nato-chief-jens-stoltenberg-russia-turkish-airspace-violations-syria

 

 

 

 

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.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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.

Related articles: 

http://www.alaan.tv/news/world-news/133872/starting-iranian-project-demographic-change-damascus-syria

http://syrianobserver.com/EN/News/29389/Resentment_Soars_Shiite_Militias_Flood_Damascus/

https://www.alsouria.net/content/%D8%B5%D8%AD%D9%8A%D9%81%D8%A9-%D9%85%D8%B4%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%B9-%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A-%D9%81%D9%8A-%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%82-%D9%8A%D9%87%D8%AF%D8%AF-%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%AF%D9%85-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%A7%D8%B2%D9%84-%D9%85%D9%84%D9%8A%D9%88%D9%86-%D9%85%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%B7%D9%86

http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.664456

https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565473-damascus-residents-displaced-for-iran-project-report-says

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/24/syrias-economy-lies-in-tatters-says-uk-report

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/news/2015/6/25/iranian-oil-fuels-syrian-regimes-war-machine

http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/comment/2015/6/16/body-bags-from-syria-and-irans-state-of-denial

http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/middle-east/iranian-fighters-go-to-syria-to-help-defend-damascus-1.2240812

 

 

Tunisia’s costly choice

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

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

dunes electroniques 4

February in the desert can have its surprises, and this year’s ravers had their commitment levels tested to the full, not by an ISIS attack, but by torrential rain turning the sand into muddy rivers, forcing cancellations as water and electronics mixed.  Spirits undampened, Tunisia’s young at heart padded good-naturedly through puddles wearing plastic bags on their feet. They also enlivened the spirits of the hoteliers, restaurateurs and shop-owners of the region, for whom the drop in tourism over the last four years has been hard.

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

Tunisia trip 19-14 Feb 2015 128

In modern Tunisia this heritage was personified by the Sufi poet/novelist Abdelwahab Meddeb (1946-2014). His landmark work La Maladie d’Islam (2002) explained: “If, according to Voltaire, intolerance was Catholicism’s sickness, if Nazism was Germany’s sickness, fundamentalism is Islam’s sickness.” He wrote over 30 books advocating an Islam of Enlightenment and a dialogue between civilisations.

Tunisia Abdelwahab Meddeb

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

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

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

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

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

tunisia police

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

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

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

tunisian women donating blood

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

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

tunisians against terrorism

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

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

Related article:

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

Is there a grand American/Kurdish plan in Syria?

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra

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

Tadmur prison

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

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

badia sheep bedouin

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

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

isis on move

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

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

Related posts:

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

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

 

 

 

Palmyra’s legacy to ISIS

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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

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

Palmyra’s Double Life

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

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

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

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

But since 2011 this building has served as the regime’s intelligence (mukhabaraat) headquarters, and it is to here that Assad’s soldiers first fled, after being driven out of their local state security branch in the north of the modern town (known in Arabic as ‘Tadmur’). As fierce fighting raged round the northern security buildings and close to the infamous Tadmur prison in the east, the top regime officials cut their losses and escaped west by road, abandoning their men to the tender mercies of ISIS. Also close by are valuable oil and gas fields, another primary target of ISIS.

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

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

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

Palmyra prison

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

Palmyra looting Assad soldiers

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

Palmyra map

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

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

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

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

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

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

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

Mardin mayor April 2015

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

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

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

Mardin Artuklu Uni

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

februniye akyol

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

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

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

Kobani Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are married?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

How to resist the charms of ISIS – Lessons from Tunisia

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

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

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

dunes electroniques 4Dunes Electroniques

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

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

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

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

tozeur oasis

 

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

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

sbeitla

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are these called ISIS?” I ask.

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

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Tunisia snakes at Tozeur zoo

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

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

 

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