dianadarke

Syria and Turkey commentary

Archive for the tag “Kurds”

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

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

Erdogan after 1st Nov election victory 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

syrian refugees in turkey

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

 

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

Related posts and articles:

https://dianadarke.com/2015/06/06/kurds-and-women-determine-turkeys-election/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34696489

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/203b1ef8-8139-11e5-8095-ed1a37d1e096.html#axzz3qLduUxtp

http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/order-from-chaos/posts/2015/07/08-turkey-syrian-refugees-kirisci-ferris

 

 

 

 

 

Is there a grand American/Kurdish plan in Syria?

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

Arab families returning to Tel Abyad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

Kurds and Women are new force in Turkey’s election

Turkey's women general HDP

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

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

turkey's erdogan elections

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

Turkey HDP logo

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

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

turkey demirtas orator

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

turkey's kurdish women

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

turkey election HDP

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

turkey's erdogan

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

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

turkey 2015 election map

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

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

Turkey's women

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

turkey's women 2

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

Turkey’s dilemma over Kobane

It is a case of deja vu for Turkey’s President Erdogan.

Three years ago, as Turkey’s Prime Minister, he was urgently calling for a no-fly zone and the setting up of a safe haven on Syrian soil along its border with Turkey. No one listened. Now he is calling for it again. In late summer 2011 after many months of trying to reason with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, when high-level delegations shuttled regularly between Ankara and Damascus, Erdogan finally lost patience with his former ally, a man he had even gone on holiday with, and began his support instead of the Syrian opposition rebels. It was a bold move, partly influenced by his thinking that support for Islamist rebel groups inside Syria would act as a counterbalance to the Kurds, who make up c20% of Turkey’s population.

What he did not foresee, was that Syria’s Kurds, taking advantage of the vacuum left by the Assad regime in the northeast, would seize control of the northeast areas round Al-Hasakah and Qamishli, even seizing some of the border crossings into the Kurdish parts of southeast Turkey like Ras al-Ayn and Ayn al-Arab (known to Kurds as ‘Kobane’).

The Syrian Kurds were more prescient. They had foreseen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. The Kurdish street slogan was: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was too little too late.

Kurds have historically been bad at uniting, with seven dialects and seven political organisations to bring together, but over the course of the Syrian Revolution some of Syria’s Kurds linked up with their fellow Sunni Kurds in Iraqi Kurdistan, and have been openly receiving military training from them. Turkey’s government has been horrified, fearing the effects on their own restive Kurds, whose guerrilla activities under the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) recently flared up again after ten years of near stabilility. Some 45,000 were killed in that struggle inside Turkey since 1984.

Ankara is currently engaged in a delicate peace process with its Kurds, giving them greater freedoms and rights in return for them laying down their arms and withdrawing to Iraqi Kurdistan. Turkey knows how easily Kurdish ambitions could derail plans for the economic expansion of its southeast regions and how expensive that would be.

Pre-revolution, Bashar al-Assad was quoted as saying ‘Turkey is the model [for religious toleration in a secular state] because we have the same society and similar traditions.’ Over the last ten years under Erdoğan, Turkey opened up much faster than Syria under Bashar, liberalising its economy, embracing privatisation and free enterprise. As a result its economy has been booming, with growth peaking at about 12 per cent in 2010–11, though that figure has since slackened off considerably. It declared a ‘zero problems with neighbours’ foreign policy, trading with them all, and in 2009 opened its borders to Lebanese, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians, dropping all visa requirements. More and more Syrians started going to Turkey for their holidays.

At first Turkey welcomed Syrian refugees from the fighting, providing camps for them along the border. They began as a small trickle, building up to about 10,000 after the first year, then increasing exponentially to hundreds of thousands once the violence in Aleppo flared up. The flow then became such that they ran out of camp space, hurriedly building more, while backlogs of desperate refugees piled up on the Syrian side of the border. Now the numbers are close to a million and the strains are becoming unbearable.

Today once again Turkey is calling for a no-fly zone and a safe haven inside Syrian territory. Erdogan wants the US-led coalition to help him achieve this, knowing it means taking on the Assad regime, knowing it is too risky alone. Once again no one is listening. The reaction of the Syrian government is unpredictable. So far the US-led coalition air strikes and the focus on Kobane have enabled them to make gains on the ground around both Aleppo and Damascus. Even Iran is now talking of getting involved, to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, though it is far from clear how it would do this.

The longer the dilemma goes on, the harder Turkey’s decision will be. It has to juggle the pros and cons, knowing that its involvement in the Syrian conflict is deeply unpopular with its own Turkish population who have no appetite for war, yet also that its international reputation is at stake. Its ideal solution would be for Kobane to be saved by US-led airstrikes and Kurdish peshmerga battling ISIS on the ground, and for its peace process with its Kurds to be saved by securing a deal with the PKK similar to that which Ankara already has with Iraqi Kurdistan, whose oil Turkey badly needs. Erdogan knows he must save Turkey’s domestic stability at all costs, for the sake of the future and of investor confidence, for once broken, it will take years to put back together again.

Kurds on the Turkish borber, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Kurds on the Turkish border, supporting their fellow Kurds battling for Kobane, Syria [October 2014]

Related:

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/iranians-ask-soleimani-defend-kobani.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=59e97cd3b2-October_8_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-59e97cd3b2-93116701

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/08/us-increasingly-frustrated-turkey-inaction-islamic-state

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01gsjdw

http://www.chathamhouse.org/publication/postcard-nusaybin-turkey

 

 

Iraqi/ISIS/Yazidi conflict is less about religion than about oil, water and power

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey showing the peacock symbol, representing the Peacock Angel, as God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

Article below as published in The Sunday Times 10 August 2014:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/focus/article1444902.ece

Oil and water, not religion, are fuelling Isis campaign to wipe out minorities

Who could have dreamt that the plight of the secretive Yazidis, stranded without food and water up Mt Sinjar, would suddenly command worldwide attention, let alone lead to US air strikes against the self-styled caliphate of the insurgent group Isis? But the epic, near Biblical scenes of this resilient group of people fleeing up a bare mountain have caught the public imagination.

Look more closely at a map and it becomes clear that this entire region is filled with religious minorities, the remnants of the intermingling of many faiths. For here in the once Fertile Crescent was the birthplace of religion, even the birthplace of civilization itself. Three of the world’s great monotheistic religions were born here – Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a deeply spiritual part of the world.

The origins of many of the religions practiced here remain shrouded in obscurity. Yazidi ancestry is Assyrian-Semitic but over the centuries they are thought to have moved north from Basra and become Kurdicised.

Successive persecutions at the hands of local rulers have stemmed from two misunderstandings:  that their name referred to the detested early caliph Yazid bin Mu’awiya (when it derives instead from the Persian for angel ized), and that they worshipped the devil (a confusion of the name shaytan, Arabic for devil, with the Peacock Angel whom Yazidis see as God’s alter ego on earth).

 

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi tombstone in southeast Turkey, with symbols of the peacock and the sun, representing God on earth [DD, May 2014]

Physically they resemble Kurds and most speak Kermanji Kurdish, though the Yazidis from Mt Sinjar also speak Arabic. They live separately from neighbouring tribes and do not intermarry, mainly settled in remote villages but are sometimes nomadic with herds of sheep. They have never been politically important – till now, when they have come under the glare of the international spotlight.

They have only ever sought to practice their religion in peace, away from prying eyes. At the core of their faith is a deep belief in transmigration,  that each life gives the chance to move gradually forward towards a better future. Hell and the existence of evil are denied as absolutes. They see all evil as man-made. Their current persecutors, Isis, are evil personified, threatening them with death or conversion, but no Yazidi can convert religion – it is tantamount to forfeiting the soul. As with the Druze and Alawi minorities found across Lebanon and Syria, it is not possible to convert to their religion, only to be born into it.

The images of bleak deserts that flash across our screens today also serve to obscure the region’s two secret treasures: water and oil.  The mighty Tigris and Euphrates rivers both of which have their headwaters in eastern Turkey, run through Syria and Iraq before exiting into the Gulf near Basra. The very word ‘Mesopotamia’ means ‘the Land between the Two Rivers’.

Whoever controls these waters controls the lifeblood of the region, and IS’s seizure in recent days of the fragile Mosul Dam has the potential to change the course of history – another epic flood of biblical proportions. Downstream, were it to burst, either accidentally from lack of maintenance or deliberately as an act of maniacal vengeance, Iraq’s first and second cities, Baghdad and Mosul, would disappear underwater. The oil wells of northeast Syria, northern Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan all lie within the grasp of IS, and it is systematically taking control of them to fund its operations.

Beside the religious there are further ethnic  minorities, such as the Turkmen who divide more or less equally between Sunni and Shi’a Islam with their own language and customs, and the Shabak, mainly Shi’a  but with elements of Yazidism. They too have their own language. The numbers of all these minorities have plummeted over the last decade, none more so than the Christians, down to about 400,000 in Iraq alone from 1.5 million before 2003. There are between 70,000 and 500,000 Yazidis worldwide.

It is one of the great ironies of history that all these minorities lived out their beliefs in relative peace under the Ba’athist regimes of Saddam Hussain in Iraq and the Assads in Syria. But the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the revolutions of the ‘Arab Spring’ and now the rise of Isis have combined to turn this part of the world upside down. Into the power vacuum left by the floundering Syrian Revolution and the chaos of the Maliki-led Iraqi government stepped Isis, making its headquarters at Raqqa on the Euphrates in Syria.

As the patchwork of Iraq and Syria disintegrate under the onslaught of Isis, it is north to Iraqi Kurdistan that the overwhelming majority of persecuted minorities are fleeing. Perceived as a haven of relative stability, the Kurdistan Regional Government is seeking to gain independence from Iraq, though its Peshmerga fighters, low on cash and weaponry, will be tested to the full in the coming weeks and months. Its Education Ministry has introduced the enlightened policy that its schools must teach all world religions equally. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslim but Islam is accorded no special status. A person’s faith is seen as a private matter. For Isis such a policy is of course anathema.

Many refugee minorities would flee to Turkey, if the borders were opened, as the Turkish government now also allows its Syriac Christians and its Yazidis to live unmolested.

The biggest irony is that all the religious groups struggling to co-exist in this region believe in the same God, however they choose to address him or whatever symbol they choose to represent him – be it a peacock, a cross, the sun or simply an abstract geometric pattern. Proof if ever it were needed, that this conflict is less about religion, than about water, oil and power.

Diana Darke is author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution. She has specialised in the Middle East for more than 30 years.

Related posts on the Yazidis:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/blogs-magazine-monitor-28686607

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/letters/letters-now-we-can-all-share-the-boris-fantasy-9658001.html (scroll to second letter from Professor Christine Allison, Ancient community faces a grim fate)

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel [DD, May 2014]

Yazidi graveyard showing peacock symbol to represent the Peacock Angel, God’s interlocutor on earth [DD, May 2014]

 

 

Syrian ‘World of Interiors’

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

My Damascus House (photo credit copyright Fiona Dunlop)

In peaceful times World of Interiors might easily have been the sub-title for My House in Damascus. The Arabic concept of the baatin meaning the internal aspect that can only be sensed, as opposed to the zaahir  signifying the outward visible surface, is one of the leitmotivs of the book, re-awakened from my distant undergraduate days studying medieval Arabic literature at Oxford. From the outside the historic house I bought nine years ago in Old Damascus presented nothing but a plain facade, but on the inside it was a secret world. Even after a lifetime’s specialisation as an Arabist, I had never dreamt of buying property in the Arab world. But a chance encounter with an antiquities architect whilst researching a guidebook to Syria led me in an unexpected direction and together we spent four unforgettable years of restoration and discovery.

Inside that sanctuary I have experienced, more than anywhere else, a powerful sense of unity with nature and with my surroundings. The way the light stroked the ancient stones, the way the vibrant bougainvillea fell in a magenta trail, the way the palm doves swooped from their nests in the heavy foliage to peck at invisible delicacies, the way the tortoise meandered silently in and out of the shadows. The music of the call to prayer from the myriad mosques echoed round the walls and on Sundays the church bells chimed in melodiously.  Overwhelmed by the palimpsest of Syria’s complex past and present embodied in the multi-layered heritage of the house, I felt embraced as if by some archetypal womb.

To reach that point was hard. The path was strewn with near-impassable obstacles, blocked with bureaucratic nightmares beyond imagining.  But Syrian friends patiently helped me through the labyrinth. Only after painstaking deconstruction did I get there, a process which came to be symbolic of Syria’s own years of deconstruction, still alas ongoing.

First the breezeblock wall dividing the courtyard two-thirds one-third had to be pulled down to reunite the space as one, a move I identified as the reunification of Syria’s population, broadly two-thirds Sunni Muslim, and one third minorities like Kurds, Alawis, Christians and Druze. Next the uniform white-painted cladding had to be stripped off the walls revealing the centuries-old stonework of contrasting soft limestone and black basalt. This was a particularly lengthy stage, as we chipped away carefully with hand tools, struggling not to damage what lay beneath. The uniform cladding of the Ba’ath Party system and the tentacles of its omnipresent security system have been suffocating Syria’s identity for the last 50 years. Concrete is tough stuff.

Even so, the day will surely come when Syria too has its rotten infrastructure, its faulty wiring and its dodgy plumbing ripped out. Like the house, it will gradually emerge from the wreckage, as kaleidoscope colours begins to blend subtly with mellow shades from across the ages. The human quest for the perfect space – what I found in my magical courtyard – will never die.  Once ‘tasted’, as Islam’s greatest philosopher Al-Ghazali  wrote, the memory cannot be taken away. Today’s tragedy inside Syria leaves many wondering  how and when it will all end. How can a nation and its people endure such suffering?

Yet what I have learnt from my Damascus courtyard, is that despite the extremism and corruption currently ravaging the country, Syria’s core identity, firmly-rooted in centuries of moderation and tolerance, will survive. Its  zaahir looks hideously damaged, but its  baatin, its ‘World of Interior’ will remain intact.

The 'secret ceiling', an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

The ‘secret ceiling’, an accidental discovery, that comes to represent the multi-coloured complexity of Syrian society [DD, 2013]

As published in World of Interiors, August 2014, under Journal of an Arabist:

In renovating the house she bought in Damascus in 2005, Diana Darke has chipped away at the modern layers to find the harmonious structure beneath. A similar deconstruction is needed to recover the tolerant, pluralistic  Syria hidden by war.

‘My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution’ is published by Haus, Amazon price match paperback and ebook£10.49:

http://www.bookhaus.co.uk/shopexd.asp?id=727

My House in Damascus

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

POSTCARD from NUSAYBIN (as published in Chatham House’s The World Today magazine (Aug/Sept 2014 issue)

Mar Yakoub Church and university, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

Syriac Mar Yakoub (St James’s) Church and university dating to the 4th century, Nusaybin [DD, 2012]

One glance at a modern map is enough to understand why Nusaybin is a hotspot in today’s world. Situated in southeast Turkey, it looks across the border at its southerly reflection, Qamishli in northeast Syria; its main east-west highway hosts an endless convoy of tankers with their precious cargo heading out from Erbil in oil-rich Iraqi Kurdistan into oil-poor Turkey;  and another highway leads southeast to Iraq’s Mosul. This volatile triangle of territory is delineated by watchtowers and fences along the Syrian-Turkish border, erected in the 1970s, and by the long Syrian-Iraqi desert frontier which became a physical barrier only after 2003.

All this talk of borders would have made no sense at all before World War One. Sykes-Picot had yet to draw their ‘lines in the sand’ creating the modern states of the Middle East. The maps in Baedeker’s 1906 Palestine et Syrie show only the loose provincial Ottoman boundaries and the journey from Nusaybin to the ruins of Nineveh, capital of the Assyrian Empire on the banks of the Tigris opposite Mosul, is described as ‘five days on horseback requiring a strong escort.’ Even in the 1930s under the French Mandate when Agatha Christie accompanied her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan to dig the famous tells of Mesopotamia, they would arrive by train at Nusaybin via the Berlin-Baghdad railway, then head south with no customs formalities, despite their trunkloads of luggage.

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

The defunct border crossing from Nusaybin to Qamishli [DD, 2014]

Nusaybin’s strategic location on east-west trade routes ensured a complex past. Beginning with the Assyrians, empires came and went, and as Roman Nisibis it formed a fortress-frontier against the Persian Sassanids. Forever caught in the power-play of outside forces, there are two indigenous peoples, the Kurds and the Syriacs, in and around Nusaybin who rarely get a mention, stateless peoples whose aspirations for nationhood were repeatedly thwarted. But an unintended consequence of recent events like the US invasion of Iraq, the ‘Arab Spring’ and the rise of ISIS militants has changed the dynamic.

The city’s residents today, like most in the area, are overwhelmingly Kurdish, with just a small Syriac community, but in the 4th century the population was mainly Syriac, and Nusaybin’s Syriac roots are still deep. St James’ Church in the centre is one of the world’s oldest functioning churches, dating back to 325. Alongside it sits the newly excavated university where famous scholars like St Ephrem the Syrian, ‘Harp of the Spirit’ (306-73), composed  hymns and trained all-female choirs. His language was Syriac, and his descendants, ancestors of the Assyrians, still speak a dialect of ancient Aramaic known locally as ‘Suryani’, using its classical form in their liturgy.

Successive persecutions at the hands of fellow Christians, Muslims and Kurds across the centuries caused most to escape to Europe and beyond, but to ensure the language does not die, each year dedicated members of the Syriac diaspora  send their children to Syriac summer schools run by monks at the nearby monasteries. Those who stayed scattered into small broken communities across the region within cities like Raqqa and Aleppo in Syria, Mosul and Baghdad in Iraq.  Qamishli was largely created by Christians fleeing the fighting of World War One.

Next summer  will be the centenary of their worst ever persecution, the 1915 Sayfo (The Sword), little known in the West, a massacre in which tens of thousands of Syriacs were slaughtered alongside Armenian Christians, mainly at the hands of Kurdish tribesmen.  Yet remarkably, today the highly educated and talented Syriac community is reviving, fed not only by families from abroad, but also by refugees from Syria,  returning to their ancient homeland. Most significantly of all, they are gradually healing historic rifts with their Kurdish neighbours, acknowledging that they were manipulated during the 1915 Sayfo by their Turkish masters.

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man's land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2013]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no-man’s land between Nusaybin (Turkey) and Qamishli (Syria) [DD, 2014]

Looking across today’s barbed-wire border from Nusaybin, through the no-man’s-land where the last relics of Roman Nisibis still rise, the houses and grain silos of Syria’s Qamishli are clearly visible. Blessed with fertile wheat fields, Syria’s largest oilfield and three major rivers, this panhandle of northeast Syria  is quite a prize, and in January 2014 Syria’s Kurds, as the dominant population, declared Qamishli capital of ‘Rojavo’  or western Kurdistan. The 22 cabinet ministers are a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix, in line with their secular ideology. Kurdish identity is defined by ethnicity, language and culture not by religion, a fact reflected in Iraqi Kurdistan’s schools where all world religions are taught equally.

Today’s fragile balance is now threatened by new invaders, the Sunni militants of ISIS, who want to rid the region of imperialist borders, and impose an ultra-conservative Islamic state across Iraq and Greater Syria.  A year from now, at the centenary of the Sayfo, will Nusaybin still be in Turkey? What will the map look like? Only one prediction can safely be made – that it will still be a hotspot.

 

 

#Syria’s Kurds declare ‘Rojavo’, autonomous western Kurdistan

Mor Augen Monastery near Nusaybin, Turkey, now overlooking the new Syrian 'Rojavo' [DD]

Mor Augen Monastery near Nusaybin, Turkey, now overlooking the new Syrian Kurdish ‘Rojavo’ [DD]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no man's land between Turkey's Nusaybin and Syria's  Qamishli, the new capital of Rojavo [DD]

Roman columns of Nisibis in the no man’s land between Turkey’s Nusaybin and Syria’s Qamishli, the new capital of Rojavo [DD]

The Kurds have been the big unknown in Syria’s revolution/civil war. The Kurdish street slogan has been: ‘Democracy for Syria. Federalism for Syrian Kurdistan.’ The Kurds have seen in the Syrian revolution a major opportunity to further their aspirations for their own homeland, or autonomy at the very least. For years they have been talking about eastern Syria as western Kurdistan – ‘Rojavo’ is their word for it.

‘We were promised our homeland in 1920 but then betrayed, you remember?’ my Syrian Kurdish lawyer had said to me, back  in 2011 in Damascus, when the revolution first broke out. I knew that under the Assad regime many of them had been stateless and dispossessed, with no ID cards. He explained: ‘This means they cannot vote, own property, get a government job, or go to secondary school or university, but they are still forced to do military service. And people forget,’ he had added, ‘that the PKK [Kurdish separatist group fighting against the Turkish state for an autonomous Kurdistan] troubles already killed 45,000 people back in the 1980s and 1990s.’

No informed observer doubted that the Kurds needed to be courted, by both the Syrian and the Turkish governments. Bashar finally gave them citizenship in 2012 after 50 years of state deprivation, in an attempt to deter them from joining the revolution, but by then it was not enough. They were already fighting, sometimes against the regime, sometimes against the rebels, not only in the northeast Hassakeh and Qamishli areas, but also in Aleppo and north of it, in the Kurdish villages like A’zaaz. When Syrian regime forces withdrew from the Kurdish border areas in summer 2012, the PKK took control. Many speculated it was even a tacit agreement between the PKK and Bashar – there is a strange link, as the imprisoned PKK leader Abdullah Öcalan is from the rarefied minority of Alawi Kurds. It should have been a dream come true for the Kurds, but it quickly became worse than under Assad, with local Kurds complaining the PKK were mercenaries and criminals.

Although most are nominally Sunni Muslim, the Kurdish identity is based not on religion, but on ethnicity and cultural tradition. In Iraqi Kurdistan schools do not impose Islam but teach all world religions equally. The last thing Kurds want is to be ruled by an Islamic state. This explains the fighting that broke out around Ar-Raqqa in summer 2013 between Syria’s Kurds and the extremist Islamist groups like Jabhat Al-Nusra and ISIS who are seeking to establish precisely such an old-style caliphate. These were the very groups the Italian Jesuit Father Paolo sought to mediate between when he entered the lion’s den and was kidnapped by ISIS for his pains.  This Kurdish versus Islamist in-fighting is an unwelcome distraction, but for Syria’s Kurds these extremist Islamists represent the greatest menace of all, and they would still choose the hated PKK over the Islamists. The leader of the Kurdish Saladin brigade declared his position: ‘We want a civil democratic government that treats everyone equally.’

He may have got his wish, for on the eve of the January 2014 Geneva II talks where Syria’s Kurds were denied a seat of their own, the establishment of Rojavo as a semi-autonomous region was declared, with 22 cabinet ministers based in Qamishli. True to their ideology, the new government is a Christian/Muslim/Kurdish mix.

The international community would not care greatly what the Kurds got up to, except that Iraqi Kurdistan is oil rich, Syria’s oilfields lie mainly in its northeast and Turkey’s oilfields are in its southeast provinces. A future independent Kurdistan has the potential to control a massive chunk of the Middle East’s oil reserves – to say nothing of its water or even its wheat reserves.

The new Rojavo region now has the 100,000 barrel-a-day Suwayda oilfield which accounts for more than 60 per cent of the country’s oil production; the Tigris, the Euphrates and the Khabour rivers; and one of Syria’s richest wheat-producing agricultural sectors. What a prize – well worth the wait.

Related links:

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/64e97c3e-8465-11e3-9710-00144feab7de.html#axzz2s4UVAt2o

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/82550c80-4c7e-11e3-958f-00144feabdc0.html#slide0

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/5984016e-f08d-11e2-b28d-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2s5M0GLwP

* http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/f3e76df2-b8bd-11e2-a6ae-00144feabdc0.html#axzz2s4UVAt2o

* http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23614968

* http://www.wadham.ox.ac.uk/news/2014/january/a-door-to-damascus

* http://www.hauspublishing.com/product/445

Old border gate between Nusaybin and Qamishli, new capital of Rojavo [DD]

Old border gate between Nusaybin and Qamishli, new capital of Rojavo [DD]

A Dangerous Chemistry – the Kurds and water

Flooded Rumkale in Eastern Turkey, following the damming of the Euphrates upstream

Flooded Rumkale in Eastern Turkey, following the damming of the Euphrates upstream

 http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01gsjdw/From_Our_Own_Correspondent_Turkey_and_France_What_Lies_Beneath/

The southeast of Turkey is being transformed by the ambitious and controversial water scheme known as GAP. Since the 1980s 22 dams and 19 power plants have been built on the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, and GAP – or the Southeast Anatolia Project to give it its full title – is now nearing completion.  By 2015 the Turkish government hopes that GAP will double Turkey’s irrigated farmland, produce over a quarter of its electricity and bring social benefits to the impoverished population in the nine provinces affected, 90% of whom are Kurdish.

For decades Turkey has been wrestling with its Kurdish problem in the southeast of the country. Since 1984 over 45,000 lives have been lost in the skirmishes between the Kurdish separatist group known as the PKK and the Turkish army. In April this year however, after months of negotiations, Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan and jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan reached an agreement that, if fully implemented, will end the 30 year old conflict. In exchange for greater recognition of Kurdish rights, the PKK agreed to withdraw to Iraqi Kurdistan. The withdrawal is ongoing, but slow, with only 20% so far having left. The peace process is fragile, and downstream in the Kurdish parts of Syria, unpredictable forces have been unleashed by the ongoing civil war. Will the GAP project help or hinder?

***

Soreyya, a mature stylish teacher from Istanbul, is one of a steady trickle of cosmopolitan Turks now venturing cautiously eastwards. She wants to explore the other half of her own country.

‘I had no idea it was so civilised!’ she tells me, as we sample an exotic lakeside breakfast at the half-submerged village of Halfeti. ‘My friends thought I was crazy to come this far east. They said I would hate it, but I love it,’ she says, putting her bare bejewelled arm maternally round young Zafer, our beaming Kurdish host.

‘Yes, we are learning to understand each other,’ he affirms.

We have just enjoyed an early morning boat ride to Rumkale, a mighty Byzantine fortress on the Euphrates, now stranded on an island by flooding.  Drowned in the valleys all around, lie hundreds of other sites, their archaeological treasures lost, stolen or transferred hastily to local museums.

Flooding is a not a new phenomenon in Eastern Turkey. It began with the epic deluges described in the stories of Gilgamesh and Noah, though unlike those cataclysms of nature, today’s version, the equally epic GAP project, has been decades in the planning. The Turkish government hopes it will redress the balance in living standards between the poverty-stricken Kurdish southeast provinces and the wealthier western parts of the country, by bringing employment and prosperity.

‘You must be so pleased,’ I say to Zafer, ‘with all this development helping your restaurant business.’

‘I am one of the lucky ones,’ he tells me, ‘Land values have tripled since 2000 and I own this place. But many do not own the land they farm. Aghas, wealthy  landlords, own it. They get big government payouts when their land is flooded.’

‘You mean the Kurdish farmers get nothing?’ I ask.

‘Nothing,’ he repeats. ‘Some have lost everything. The government must sort out property rights and compensation for us as well. And this boom has made bride prices shoot up!’

‘Don’t worry,’ laughs Soreyya, ‘Next year I’m coming back to get a job at one of the private schools. Maybe I’ll bring my teenage daughter with me!’

Further east in the Tigris gorge at the ancient city of Hasankeyf,  I sit with Kobe, a gloomy Kurdish cafe owner  whose livelihood will shortly disappear under 70m of water when the controversial Ilisu Dam is completed.

‘They tell us there will be underwater tourism,’ he grumbles, ‘so people can still see the historic bridge and monuments. But why do we need all these dams? This is just Ankara’s way of blocking the valleys where the PKK used to infiltrate and displacing us from our land. We have too much water already.’

Perversely, while some have too much water, others have too little. Downstream in the broken jigsaws of Iraq and Syria  – whose Kurds are also striving for autonomy – GAP, according to UN sources, has already led to a 40% reduction in water flow. The recent exodus of Syrian Kurds into Iraqi Kurdistan was driven not just by fighting, but by lack of water. Turkey, controller of the headwaters of the Tigris and Euphrates, can turn the tap off – or on.

More difficult to control are its Kurds, some 10-12 million of them and growing. Kurdish birth rates are legendary.

‘When Erdogan says he wants every Turk to have three children,’ Kobe continues, ‘his message is really more subtle than that. For western Turks who are frightened to have even one or two, he wants them to raise it to three. But for us Kurds, who often have 8 or more, he wants us to bring it down to 3 – otherwise, he thinks, what can they all do when they grow up except join the PKK?’

‘If Erdogan isn’t careful,’ he goes on, ‘he may accidentally help us to unite with our Syrian and Iraqi brothers. If he ignores our grievances, he will regret it. Have you looked at a map? Most of the oil wells in Turkey, Syria and Iraq are in our Kurdish territories.’

‘And most of the water,’ I add softly.

His troubled face breaks into a smile.

‘You know, we could be a model for the Middle East,’ he goes on, ‘we are not fanatics like those crazy jihadis trying to take over in Syria. Kurdish Islam is not the Islam of Saudi Arabia or Iran. In Iraqi Kurdistan our schools teach all world religions equally.’

As I wave goodbye to Kobe –  and to Hasankeyf before it vanishes forever –  I can’t help thinking that  a whole flood of western Turks like Soreyya  will need to come quickly to the east, to understand their Kurdish countrymen better  and to save Turkey’s fragile peace process with the Kurds.       Otherwise not just the landscape, but the entire regional map may be reshaped  –  by the most powerful weapon of all , water.

Hasankeyf on the Tigris, due for flooding [DD]

Hasankeyf on the Tigris, due for flooding
[DD]

Syria is not Iraq – 10 key differences

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus' Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Images of Paradise in the mosaics of Damascus’ Great Umayyad Mosque [DD]

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus

Young and old arm in arm in Damascus [DD]

Following on from ‘Syria’s Ghost’ (posted 31/08/2013) here are 10 key differences between the case for intervention in Syria as opposed to Iraq:

1. In 2003 Iraq was not in a civil war. It was simply another repressive authoritarian Arab state not much worse than Mubarak’s Egypt and Gaddafi’s Libya.

2. Syria in March 2011 witnessed a peaceful spontaneous uprising against its repressive authoritarian leader Bashar Al-Assad.

3. The Iraqi people were not asking the US-led coalition to intervene.

4. A large section of the Syrian people asked the international community to intervene after the Assad regime countered their peaceful demonstrations with extreme violence, arbitrary arrest and torture.

5. Iraq in 2003 did not present a threat to the international community. There were no Al-Qa’ida operatives or jihadis inside Iraq. They came in later to profit from the chaos we created.

6. Syria presents a serious threat to the security of the international community. The Al-Qa’ida-linked jihadi groups have thrived in the vacuum left by our non-intervention, and are growing. They are starting to dominate the moderate rebel groups like the Free Syrian Army.

7. Iraq was not a proxy war.

8. Syria has become a proxy war: America v Russia, Iran v Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah v Salafis. The interests of the Syrian people have been lost in the proxy war interests.

9. Iraq was not a humanitarian intervention. It was not in danger of collapse in 2003. It was not at war and was stable.

10. Syria would be a humanitarian intervention under the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ doctrine (Bosnia is the model). Syrians are dying of starvation and lack of medical attention as well as regime massacres and chemical weapons attacks. An entire generation is being lost.

For all those reasons, Syria is not Iraq, and for all those reasons, from the moment the regime made clear its intention to wipe out all opposition, I have supported intervention by the international community. Without it, Syria will disintegrate entirely over a period of years, and the fallout will come back to bite us big time.

Saladin's Castle in the mountains above Lattakia [DD]

Crusader Castle of Saone, later Saladin’s Castle in the mountains above Lattakia [DD]

Saladin's Tomb in Old Damascus. Saladin was a Kurd. [DD]

Saladin’s Tomb in Old Damascus. Saladin was a Kurd. [DD]

Looking at it objectively now 10 years on, the American-led invasion did inadvertently help one sector of the Iraqi people – the Kurds. Autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan could almost be seen as a model for the Middle East. Its schools since 2012 are teaching all world religions equally, and Islam is just one of them, no favouritism. It is booming economically thanks to its oil and its trade with Turkey. But all that was an unintended consequence.

Syria’s Kurds could also benefit from the current crisis in Syria, but that is happening anyway, and will continue irrespective of American strikes. More and more of them are pouring out of Syria’s northeast corner into Iraqi Kurdistan, where they are being warmly welcomed. Kurdistan may well turn out to a lasting beneficiary of the chaos inside Syria, along with the Syriac Christian community in eastern Turkey:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-23614968.

Related articles

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: