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Raqqa, City of Contrasts

Raqqa ISIS convoy

Today’s reality in Raqqa, claimed since 2014 as the capital of Islamic State, is hard to reconcile with its illustrious past as a leading city of the Islamic Golden Age. 

But Matthew Heineman’s powerful new film ‘City of Ghosts’, difficult to watch at times, does not concern itself with history. Its focus is the here and now, the story of the activist group Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS), whose members are risking their lives to send the outside world painful footage from inside Raqqa, in their mission to counter ISIS propaganda. The documentary – in Arabic, with subtitles – follows four of the group’s leading members over the course of a year, starting from late 2015, and includes material recorded covertly in the city by RBSS and other footage from the Syrian revolution.

Nothing in Syria is straightforward and there are cruel ironies. The bird’s eye view given by aerial drone footage in the film’s early shots of Raqqa’s desolate flat landscape with its sprawling mess of modern buildings, is the same bird’s eye view the US-led coalition pilots will be getting from their cockpits as they bomb “a forgotten city in Syria” as Aziz, the main RBSS spokesman, calls his hometown.

“A few thousand extremists,” he laments, “are deemed justification to blow up civilians.” But he was talking back in 2016, not about the massive aerial bombardment campaign currently being waged on Raqqa by the government of the same country that has just given his activist group a top press freedom award, but about the handful of token airstrikes the Assad regime and its Russian ally had seen fit to conduct against the ISIS capital up to that point.

Raqqa bombing August 2017

Over the coming months it is sadly inevitable that Raqqa’s civilians will be slaughtered all too loudly, as they get caught in the crossfire between ISIS mines and the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) seeking to ‘liberate’ them. The UN estimates that up to 50,000 of Raqqa’s original 300,000 inhabitants remain trapped inside the city as human shields, prevented by ISIS from leaving.

The famous Caliph Haroun al-Rashid, immortalised in the tales of A Thousand and One Nights, moved his capital in 796 from Baghdad to Raqqa on the banks of the mighty Euphrates River.

Raqqa Old City overview

He built five hectares of palace complexes to symbolise his dominance of the region, from which his recreational summer palace Qasr al-Banat (Palace of the Maidens) and a colossal courtyard mosque with a 25m tower are all that remain today.

The Syrian astronomer Al-Battani (858-929), who calculated the 365-day length of the solar year to an accuracy of within two minutes and who is quoted as a major source by Copernicus over 600 years later, lived and worked in Raqqa.

 

But while future generations will forever associate Raqqa with savagery and Islamist terrorism, the University of Nottingham’s excavations of the 1990s focussed almost exclusively on another of Raqqa’s claims to fame – its 2km-long industrial complex where, from the 8th – 12th centuries, the city manufactured glass and pottery, becoming the Islamic world’s most important glass-making centre.

Raqqa glass 13th century

The well-preserved glass furnaces produced green, brown, blue and purple glass on a commercial scale, made from quartz pebbles of the nearby Euphrates river-bed, combined with the ashes of plants that grow in the surrounding semi-desert environment. The skilled artisans were both Christian and Muslim, buried side by side in an area close to the kiln sites.

“Death is death, as we say in Raqqa” declares Aziz, claiming he has gone beyond fear in his fight against the jihadists. Yet it is clear, as the film follows its four main members of RBSS, that their constant battle to report ISIS atrocities has taken its toll on all of them, as they chain-smoke to settle their nerves and steady their shakes. The opening scenes, juxtaposing the high glitz of the New York awards ceremony with horrific shots of decapitated bodies in Raqqa, capture this well, exposing the gulf between the two worlds. A female US photographer tries to shoot photos of Hamoud, the RBSS photographer, urging him to smile for the camera: “You’re so serious, my friend!” she exclaims.

As the film moves back to Syria, it charts the heady days of the 2011 Revolution with its singing and peaceful demonstrations. “After forty years of Assad, we started to scream for freedom,” Aziz recalls, and the footage moves to Dera’a where “the deaths of fifteen children were the spark that ignited revolution”. He explains how he had no political background before then, and how his father, well-aware what would happen, warns him to stay away from journalism.

The film’s main focus throughout is the danger to the men as activists, a shared danger which deepens their bonds of friendship. As ISIS seeks to silence them, and as their colleagues and family members start to be assassinated, they decide to leave for Turkey’s Gaziantep, assuming it will be safe to continue their work from there. But ISIS is not so easily deterred and their co-founder and mentor Naji Jerf is shot in broad daylight on the city’s streets. The intimate scenes shot at his funeral are among the most moving in the entire film.

Naji Jerf funeral

Some of the activists, including Aziz, are then granted expedited visas, immediate refugee status and free housing by the German government. Only Muhammad, a maths teacher, is married. His wife Rose is the sole female character to appear, and the film now shows footage of them all enjoying snowball fights in Berlin juxtaposed with surreal videos from Raqqa of casual street executions carried out by young ISIS recruits, their victims’ heads impaled on public railings. Mass destruction of satellite dishes is secretly filmed as ISIS cracks down on their activities, determined to cut them off from the world. Safely in Germany, they all suffer from survivors’ guilt. Hamoud, a self-described introvert, watches the video of his father’s assassination, posted online by ISIS, to “give me strength.” Meanwhile the friends experience the harsh reality of a Pegida anti-immigrant rally with heavily tattooed Germans chanting “One-way ticket to Turkey! Deport them!” Aziz is offered German police protection, from ISIS and from Pegida, but refuses it, feeling he cannot accept a protection that his friends lack.

A clear sense is given of how ISIS’s own films and propaganda material has become more professional through recruitment of media specialists, using Hollywood-style special effects to boost membership, making the ISIS lifestyle seem like a glorified video game. “Why play it online when you can play it for real?” reflects Aziz.

What the film does not explain is why ISIS chose Raqqa in the first place. They borrowed the black banner of the Abbasids, but their choice was much shrewder than their awareness of the city’s former glory. The last fifty years of Assad rule left Raqqa’s population neglected and exploited. Its poor and disadvantaged population, ripe with resentment and hatred of the regime, made it fertile ISIS recruiting ground. It is the only place in all of Syria where I have had stones thrown at me as a westerner. The takeover by a handful of extremists of an insignificant provincial backwater was considered unimportant by Assad, so his forces made no attempt to displace the ISIS fighters who first appeared in the city in early 2013. It was a bad miscalculation. The regime did not understand that Raqqa’s strategic location on the Euphrates,

Raqqa Euphrates banks

downstream from Syria’s largest reservoir Lake Assad, and the main hydro-electric dam at Tabqa, together with its proximity to the country’s oil and gas fields, would give the pretender caliphate a disproportionate stranglehold on Syria’s infrastructure from the start. This part of Syria, well-watered, fertile, cotton and wheat-rich, should be the wealthiest in the country, but Bashar al-Assad’s regime, unlike his father’s, has always been urban-focussed, treating the assets of the provinces like possessions to be milked as if they belonged to his personal farm.

The film ends with a warning. In his speech to the assembled New York glitterati, Aziz explains that the conditions and structural problems in Syrian society which enabled the rise of ISIS are still there. Even if their territory is lost, he reads in halting English from his script, their ideology will continue to find supporters among the brutalised and unemployed youth with nothing to lose. When Hamoud becomes a father in Germany (his wife is invisible) the responsibility changes everything for him: “I don’t want my child to struggle like me without a father.” He names his new-born son after his assassinated father, and footage moves from the German hospital where the naked baby gurgles and kicks, to a chilling scene showing Raqqa’s Caliphate Cubs chanting death slogans. A child barely older than a toddler uses a huge knife to saw the head off a startlingly white teddy-bear, then beams, holding up the head triumphantly for the camera and squealing Allahu Akbar on cue.

To recover from such barbarity I recommend a visit to the glass displays of London’s V&A Museum. Gaze at the exquisitely delicate Raqqa perfume bottles, and ponder the fall of such a city, which in happier times centuries ago was known for its beautiful artisanal creations, its earth-changing scientific inventions, its multicultural environment and its magnificent summer palaces – all fostered by an enlightened, outward-looking Islamic state.

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Exquisite glass perfume bottles made in Raqqa, displayed in London’s V&A Museum (DD)

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Syria: From “beautiful little babies” to “beautiful big safe zones”?

metrograb: A devastated father has been pictured cradling the bo

Russian state television has not been showing pictures of the victims, lifeless or still writhing, which have been flooding Western media channels since the sarin gas attack of April 4 on Khan Sheikhoun, a town between Aleppo and Hama. After all, Russia is supposed to be the guarantor of the deal under which President Assad of Syria signed up to the international treaty banning chemical weapons. Under threat of US military action, he quickly agreed to the removal and destruction of his stockpile, declared at 1,300 tonnes of chemical agents including sarin.

The deal was hailed as a great success. The international community congratulated itself on the historic Russian/American cooperation. That was back in 2013 after Obama’s notoriously illusory “red line” was crossed by the Syrian regime dropping sarin on the agricultural eastern Ghoutasuburb of Damascus. 1,500 died overnight. Only twice in history had sarin been used before this week: first in Halabja by Saddam Hussein on the Kurds in 1988, the second in Japan in 1995 by a new religious movement on the Tokyo subway. There have been nine recorded chemical weapons attacks in Syria this year alone, but this is the first where the agent has been sarin as opposed to chlorine, mustard or phosphorus. This time around 100 were killed, most dying from suffocation before they reachedhospital. Doctors Without Borders confirmed the signs – constricted pupils, muscle spasms and involuntary defecation – as have autopsies carried out by WHO and OPCW officials on corpses rushed to Turkey. Israeli and British intelligence report that the attack was ordered at “the highest levels” of the Assad regime. It comes hard on the heels of a spate of documentaries about the “disappeared” in his prisons and the decision of a Spanish court, last week, to file a case against some of his top officials for war crimes.

RT-syria-ml-170405_4x3_992 sarin victim 4 April 2017

Sarin is not easy to manufacture, say the chemical weapons experts. If, as the Assad regime claims, Isis or al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have the capability to manufacture it, why have they not used it, given they are not known for their restraint? The sarin is likely to be from old stockpiles not surrendered – 200 tonnes’ worth is the current OPCW estimate. Anyone who knows the Assad regime and how it operates can assume that it held some back as a “contingency”.

Khan Sheikhoun is in Idlib Province where the rebels and their families, all labelled “terrorists”, have been herded into a giant corral awaiting their extermination. It was the option they chose after being forcibly evacuated from areas like Homs, Darayya and most recently Aleppo and Wadi Barada under what the regime calls “reconciliation” deals. Almost everyone rejected the alternative on offer – to rejoin the regime and face a similar fate, but this time as cannon fodder for their own side. Madaya, Zabadani and Douma are next in line. So many of the victims are among the newly displaced that not all their identities have yet been established. Idlib has been targeted so heavily and for so long that its medical supplies were utterly unequipped to deal with something of this scale. Already there are rumours of a mass offensive on Idlib Province planned by the Assad regime, backed by Russia from the air and the Shia militias of Iran, Iraq and Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground. The sarin attack is thought to have been conceived as a “softening-up” of the rebels in advance of this offensive. Dropping a sarin bomb is a way of extracting an early surrender, just as the US dropped the atom bomb on the Japanese to end the Second World War.

Trump

But it is Trump who has stunned the world with the speed of his reaction. Up to now his policy has been that strongmen are the best thing for the Middle East, to keep extremism at bay. Overnight he has swung US policy from tolerance of Assad to outright attack, launching fifty-nine cruise missiles from US warships in the eastern Mediterranean. The target, totally destroyed, was the Shayrat airbase near Homs from which the sarin attack was launched. Six Syrian soldiers were killed. He has done some “softening-up” of his own.

What next? Will he make good on “beautiful big safe zones”? Does he have plans for one in the huge swathe of Syria’s eastern desert that will fall to the West when Isis is driven out of Raqqa?  Or in the north along the Turkish border, something the Turks have been calling for since the summer of 2011? He could take out all Syria’s air bases in a matter of days if he wanted to. He would not target the Russian base at Hmeimim, Lattakia, leased in January of this year to Russia for forty-nine years, extendable for another twenty-five. No short-termism there. But Russians embedded in Assad’s bases, as advisers, engineers and even as contracted mercenaries, could still be killed, just as some were in the recent coalition bombing of Deir ez-Zor.

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The Americans have already intervened in favour of the PYD (Syrian) Kurds, using them as their preferred ally over Turkey to lead the fight against Raqqa, the Isis capital. The Kurds have also been courted by the Russians, granted an office in Moscow, in the full knowledge that through them Russia might gain a valuable land bridge from the Caspian to the Mediterranean. Turkey is determined to block Kurdish ambitions for autonomy, fearing the consequences for its own restive Kurdish population in southeast Anatolia. One in five Turks is a Kurd, a balance that is tilted in Kurdish favour through ongoing high birth rates. For a short time it looked as if President Erdoğan had given up on his long-held policy of ridding Syria of Assad, but after the sarin attack he has reverted, declaring: “Hey, the world that remains silent, the UN that remains silent. How will you be brought to account for this? Hey, murderer Assad, how are you going to escape their [the victims’] curse?”

Timings are never random in the Assad regime. The fact that the strike came the day before the EU conference on reconstructing Syria is no accident. Assad was pushing the boundaries, laughing at the world’s impotence and revelling in his own immunity. The Brussels conference was planning to kick-start reconstruction quickly, hoping the promise of funding would lure him into reforms. Any attempt to rehabilitate Assad and “reward” him for his war crimes will simply be like a sticking plaster to cover a running sore. While short-sighted European governments looking for a quick fix may see this as the answer for tomorrow, it will not be the answer for next week. If reconstruction contracts flow in from Europe and the UN organizations via the Assad regime through the usual corrupt channels to enrich and favour regime-held areas, the same corrupt cycle will repeat itself in Syria as it did so tragically for the exploited people of Somalia and South Sudan.  Assad’s budget is heavily dependent on UN and international NGO aid, much of which disappears into companies affiliated with Assad’s relations, as investigative journalists have shown. If the gap between rich and poor, urban and countryside, a major trigger of the 2011 uprising in the first place, is allowed to get worse, the result will be more extremism, more refugees and more terrorism, leading inevitably to more destabilization in Europe.

It has always been delusional to think that Assad could be part of the solution to the future of Syria – the best outcome from this sarin attack would be that his arrogance has derailed his own rehabilitation. That at least would be a first step in the right direction. Meanwhile Trump’s decisive action will stop sarin attacks from becoming the new normal in the Middle East.

This article first appeared on the TLS website 7 April 2017:

http://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/sarin-attack-trump-assad/

Related:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/aug/29/un-pays-tens-of-millions-to-assad-regime-syria-aid-programme-contracts

UNHCR tents used by regime as base for Assad election posters 2014

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/04/donald-trump-full-statement-syria-missile-strikes-170407061519587.html

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-39529264

Advice to Donald Trump – do Marshall Plan-style deals in Syria and the wider Middle East

trump

The multibillionaire businessman who is shortly to become President of the United States of America is an ace deal-maker. Since his shock victory in the elections of 8 November the world has wondered how on earth this larger-than-life figure who has never before held political office will handle the complex challenges of the Middle East where wars are destabilising entire nations, leading to refugee exodus, extremism and terrorism. Trump has yet to appoint his Secretary of State, the person who will take over from Obama’s man John Kerry, whose valiant efforts have so far failed to secure peace in the Middle East on any front.

My advice to Trump, based on a lifetime’s living and working in the Middle East, most notably of late in Syria, where I still own my courtyard house in the Old City of Damascus, is to play to his own strengths – and the region’s – and combine them to mutual advantage.

His own deal-maker abilities are legendary, but so are those of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel – the area which for 400 years under the Ottoman Turks was known as ‘Greater Syria’.  Located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, these communities have always been outward-looking, open to trading opportunities from east, west, north and south. The very identity of these countries has been shaped by their engagement in commerce and deals. Across the centuries as civilisation after civilisation crisscrossed the terrain, some stayed and settled, leading to a society that is multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic. The merchants and businessmen in the Middle East are actually the true power holders, not the politicians or the armed forces.

What he should do therefore, in my view, when he becomes President on 20 January 2017, is to devise a massive Marshall Plan-style deal for the Middle East from which everyone will benefit. Negotiations will be tough and complex as to who gets what, just as they were in 1947 with the Marshall Plan. It described itself as “An Act to promote world peace and the general welfare, mutual interest and the foreign policy of the United States through economic, financial and other measures necessary to the maintenance of conditions abroad in which free institutions may survive and consistent with the maintenance of the strength and stability of the United States.” In other words, entirely consistent with his “Make America great again” slogan, while simultaneously solving many of the world’s destabilising foreign policy crises. Sometimes called “The European Recovery Plan”, the Marshall Plan, named after then Secretary of State General George Marshall, the fund of $12 billion (equivalent today to roughly $120 billion), was administered over a four-year period. It rebuilt regions devastated by war, removed trade barriers, modernised industry, dropped regulations, encouraged increased productivity and the adoption of proper business procedures.

The Trump administration would not need to start from scratch. It could cooperate with the 1,000-strong team already in Beirut working on  a project called the “National Agenda for the Future of Syria.” Under the auspices of the United Nations’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, a team of regional experts including civil engineers, agricultural specialists, architects, water experts, conservationists, hospital administrators, traffic coordinators and more, is planning for “Day One”, when the fighting ends. Their Deputy Executive Secretary, Abdullah al-Dardari, was till 2011 the Deputy Prime Minister of Syria for Economic Affairs and Minister for Planning, a highly skilled and dedicated man, and the work is apolitical, designed to be implemented irrespective of who the future political masters may be.

440px-abdallah_dardari

Thierry Grandin, consultant to the World Monuments Fund, describes their work, saying: “It is good to do the planning now, because on day one we will be ready. It might come in a year, it might come in 20, but eventually there will be a day one. Our job is to prepare.”

In Iran a similar approach could be adopted. A policy expert in the US is reported as saying Trump is so unpredictable “he could open hotels in Iran or go to war with Iran.”

Iran has an acute accommodation shortage and cannot meet demand for the new surge in tourism that followed the dropping of US sanctions. Doing deals to build hotels – something Trump has plenty of experience in – would be an ideal way to maintain good relations with Iran.

What a turn-up it would be if Trump could harness his business acumen to steer the ultimate deal for peace in Syria and the wider Middle East that no politician before him has achieved. Maybe I am a hopeless dreamer, but that really would be a deal to remember.

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-38086933

https://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2015/02/21/daring-plan-rebuild-syria-matter-who-wins-war/oD5IxhqveGjfPQryW6q3OJ/story.html

http://www.frontpagemag.com/fpm/264225/trumps-marshall-plan-inner-city-kids-matthew-vadum

http://sa-news.com/trump-said-africa-should-be-recolonised-now-germany-announces-marshall-plan-to-rescue-africa/

 

Aleppo, the endgame

APSA Aleppo-souk-AFPGetty-Feb201

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

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

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

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

Broken promises

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

lavrov and kerry

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

Destabilising factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

Banias – case study of a Middle East boundary dispute

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

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 778

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

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

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 748

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

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

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 696

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

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

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

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 750

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

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

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

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

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Explanatory signs give the Israeli version of history.

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

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

Photos from Golan and West Bank trip Feb 21-29 2016 764

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

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

Related articles:

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

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

 

 

 

Syria’s Second Revolution

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

Kafranbel Paris bombings banner

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

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

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

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

ISIS prepares for beheadings in Palmyra's theatre May 2015

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

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

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

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

Everyone realises it is time for something new.

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

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

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

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

Aylan Kudi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

Aylan Kurdi drowned on a Turkish beach September 2015

Relevant articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/live/world-europe-34840858

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/16/world/middleeast/beirut-lebanon-attacks-paris.html?action=click&contentCollection=Middle%20East&module=MostPopularFB&version=Full&region=Marginalia&src=me&pgtype=article

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-34840943

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

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

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