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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

ISIS Road to Damascus starts at Palmyra

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

Tadmur prison

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

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

badia sheep bedouin

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

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

isis on move

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

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

Related posts:

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

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

 

 

 

The paradox of Iran and its links with Syria

Cameron and Rouhani

How fitting it is that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani  should have used his Twitter account to announce last month’s historic meeting with UK Prime Minister David Cameron: “1st meeting b/w UK & Iran heads of state in 35 years: 1 hour of constructive & pragmatic dialogue, new outlook #UNGA” the tweet boasted, attaching a photo to prove it, of the pair engaged in earnest dialogue. A week later the brief warming in relations was over, as Rouhani criticised Cameron for calling Iran ‘part of the problem in the Middle East’; Tehran headlines again referred to Britain as ‘the old fox.’

What is the Iranian leadership aiming for, in its apparent new accessibility, its seeming new willingness to talk and engage with western governments? How seriously should we take Iran’s ‘new outlook’, as the UK joins the US-led air strikes against ISIS in Iraq (and possibly Syria in future), a fight in which Iran’s help will, sooner or later, almost certainly be needed?

In Twitter-silent Iran, it was the silence of the ordinary Iranian people that struck me most. After the failed Green Revolution of 2009 in which around 100 protesters were killed and over 4,000 arrested, most Iranians learned to be silent – unlike the Syrians. Ordinary Iranians admire the courage of ordinary Syrians. “We gave up when we saw how the regime reacted, but they continued.”

The gulf between the Iranian people and their regime is striking. Rouhani’s smiling face and his carefully managed tweets project one image of Iran to the West, but conditions inside the country tell a very different story. Far from opening up, Iran is busily clamping down on its own people. Since Rouhani took office in August 2013 executions have been on the rise, more than 400 in the first half of 2014 alone according to the NGO Iran Human Rights (to give perspective, Saudi Arabia managed a mere 79 last year). Two gay men were publicly hanged in August for consensual sodomy; in recent weeks ’91 lashes’ were meted out to unveiled Iranians dancing in a YouTube video, and a British-Iranian woman was charged with ‘propaganda against the Iranian regime’ for attending a male volley-ball match. Iran’s hard-line ruling elite back home is determined to suppress any kind of resistance, fearful that, were they to allow greater freedoms in Iranian society, a wave of dissent might rise up and engulf them. Rouhani recently declared his view that internet controls and tight restrictions on women’s headscarves do not work – but will the anti-reformist clerics take any notice?

Iran is not a particularly religious country, given the power of the mullahs. The call to prayer is muted – it took three days till I heard the first one – and mosques are places more to sleep than pray.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 032

Shrines on the other hand are crowded, thanks to a superstition that throwing a few notes or coins through the grille of a holy man’s tomb will resolve life’s problems. “We never did Islam the way the Arabs wanted us to,” grinned a helpful bystander inside the segregated women’s area, confirming what my Syrian friends in Damascus had always told me about the Iranian pilgrims who thronged the city in their all-black chadors. “They are pretending. Underneath they are just on holiday.”

Painted high on random buildings within view of the main highways the faces of Ayatollah Khomeini and the current Supreme Leader Khamenei  smile down on their subjugated flock like a pair of benevolent dictators.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 738

Closer questioning reveals that maybe some 10-15% of the population is tied into supporting the regime for their own economic reasons. Iran is at heart a trading nation. Its entire history has been built on centuries of skilful bartering. Visit any Iranian city and the bazaar is the central nervous system, the driver of the economy. The bazaaris and the clergy were enabled by the 1979 Iranian Revolution to preserve the traditional positions of power threatened by the Shah and his corruption. They do not want to lose this power now through relaxing their grip and allowing Western influence and culture to take over. They rail against the evils of the Western model – drug abuse, family breakdown, immoral behaviour – yet the paradox is that these have all increased on their watch inside Iran anyway, thanks to unemployment, poverty and their own corruption.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 042

Iran is said to have one of the highest rates of drug addiction in the world at 5% of the population, the divorce rate is soaring in the cities where most people now live and prostitution is so rife that even the regime itself mentions it as a problem. And the solution of the hardline clerics? More floggings.

Iran’s demographic is suffering from a ‘Japanese curve’. After 1979 Khomeini encouraged everyone to have many children, resulting in a baby boomer generation. But the middle classes of that generation, now in their mid-30s, are the ones most excluded from influence, struggling with unemployment and deprivation. The average birth rate has plummeted to one child per family, partly because of women’s education, but also for affordability reasons. Worried that this is not enough to sustain the aging population, the regime is offering financial incentives for people to have more children, incentives which are not working: couples say it is still too expensive.

Most Iranians now live in cities, meaning that traditional barriers are breaking down as different groupings find themselves living side by side. Sunni-Shi’a intermarriage is becoming commoner, much to the horror of the mullahs. In schools the clergy controls the syllabus, with Islamic religious education forming a bigger element of the day’s lessons than any other country in the world, leaving less time for other subjects. Iran’s brightest and best are leaving the country.

For those who stay there are subtle ways of showing opposition and Iran has these in abundance. The BBC is banned, yet the BBC’s Farsi channel is the most watched, while Iranian state TV offerings on religion and wildlife languish. Facebook is blocked yet 58% of Iranians circumvent the ban, gmail accounts were till recently banned yet 63% of Iranians use gmail as their preferred email address. Women, for the last ten years or so accounting for more university graduates than men, show passive resistance through pushing the boundaries on Islamic dress, so that in Shiraz, Iran’s most liberal city, the mandatory headscarf is worn tantalisingly far back to reveal a full head of hair, with figure-hugging brightly coloured jackets leaving nothing to the imagination.

Iran 4-18 September 2014 414

So how, in the face of such contradictions, has the political clergy of the Islamic Republic managed to retain its power and control? The answer lies in its ever-increasing dependence on its various law enforcement forces, above all SEPAH and the Basij – another parallel with Syria. SEPAH is the Iranian Revolutionary Guard set up in 1979 to preserve the Islamic nature of the revolution and to pre-empt a military coup or foreign interference, while the Basij is the volunteer militia under its control, numbering up to one million. To cement the loyalty of SEPAH and the Basij, the clerical elite has permitted them to enrich themselves through mafia-style smuggling rackets operating across the Straits of Hormuz to the UAE – shades of Syria again where Assad’s shabiha control the contraband routes through the ports of Lattakia and Tartous. A multi-billion dollar empire has grown up, transparent to ordinary Iranians who follow world affairs closely. Banned from Twitter, most use SMS, sending each other jokes by text message based on the news of the day. SEPAH and the Basij are particular targets, with messages like:  ‘How much do you think SEPAH will charge the mullahs for smuggled fridges? Reply: About five prostitutes a day for a month should do it,’ and ‘How many Basij fighters do you reckon are now in Syria? Reply: I don’t know, but a lot more than in Iran,’ and ‘Who runs Syria these days? Reply: Iran of course!’

The highly experienced Iranian commander of the Quds Force (special operations division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard), Major General Qassem Suleimani, has since early 2013 been masterminding the Assad regime’s fight against its rebels, sending advisers into Syria, helping bolster depleted ammunition/weapons supplies and re-train Syrian government troops. With consummate skill, he created the 60,000-strong National Defence Force (NDF) in Syria, modelled on the Basij, ostensibly to protect local neighbourhoods, in practice to exploit them and run smuggling rackets.

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

President Bashar al-Assad with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.

Rouhani is an ace negotiator and will feign flexibility while holding tight to his position. He knows that time pressure is on his side: the West needs him now in its fight against ISIS and he has till 24 November to reach a nuclear deal. The conditions are perfect for extracting concessions from the West, and of one thing we may be sure: the Iranian governing elite will do nothing that rocks the status quo domestically, nothing that interferes with its ability to enrich itself. Embassies may open in London and Tehran, cooperation over ISIS in Iraq (though not in Syria) may be forthcoming when its own border region is threatened, but the Iranian regime, SEPAH and the Basij will remain umbilically connected, to each other and to the Syrian regime. Their collective survival is at stake and their loyalty to each other is not negotiable.

Looking back at Rouhani’s Twitter account, I am struck by the fact that, set against his 257K followers, he is only following six people, one of which is his own Iranian language account. The others are Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Ayatollah Rafsanjani, Ayatollah Khatami, his own Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and his own Vice President and Environment Minister the heavily headscarved Massoumeh Ebtekar – not exactly a broad range of opinion. All of which confirms that however much Rouhani smiles abroad, at home he is beholden to his hard-line masters.

Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution (Haus, 2014),http://www.amazon.co.uk/My-House-Damascus-Inside-Revolution/dp/1908323647 has recently returned from an extensive tour of Iran arranged through Travel the Unknown www.traveltheunknown.com.

 

 

Shi'a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Shi’a prayer tablets made from the mud of Kerbala

Related media:

http://gatesofnineveh.wordpress.com/

http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fooc/all (From Our Own Correspondent of 18 October 2014, starts at 17.25 mins)

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

 

 

Is Syria solvable?

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus' Hijaz Railway with the caption: 'We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.' Blood drips from the words 'with blood'.[DD]

Prophetic 2007 poster of Bashar in Damascus’s Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

At the funeral yesterday of a dear friend who died of natural causes in his own bed, I wept for Syria. Life coming to an end is hard to bear in any circumstances, but in Syria I cannot come to terms with why the lives of 200,000 people have ended, unnaturally, not in their beds, often with no funerals at all. What have they died for? Have their deaths achieved anything at all?

The mess that is Syria today scarcely resembles a country. Its identity has been shredded. After three and half years of a revolution that began peacefully but was met with violence, is it still even a revolution? So many opposing forces, so many countries are now involved that it has become impossible to see the way forward. Lawlessness has become the new norm. Inside Syria people are so confused about who is fighting whom and for what, that they have lost sight of what to strive for. Corruption is everywhere, the opportunism of war creating its own economy, with a ruthless few getting rich beyond their wildest dreams. Apart from the deaths, tens of thousands remain in prison. No one knows the numbers for sure. All across the country millions have been displaced and homes have been snatched – mine among them – sometimes just by needy people, but more often by immoral individuals taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order. Even in areas that used to be under tight regime control people are starting to realise that the government cannot protect them. Kidnappings purely for ransom money have become commonplace but no one is sure who the perpetrators are. More and more cases are being reported of the pro-government militia, the NDF (National Defence Force), tricking people into leaving their homes by warning them of imminent danger from DAESH (ISIS), then looting the contents and selling them on. As Lina Sinjab reports in her recent BBC piece about the NDF and its behaviour (see link below):

A few men with guns call themselves the ‘protectors of the neighbourhood’… They then set the rules and bypass the law, in a country that is already lawless.” (words of a Damascus resident)

As for the increasing cases of young people going out to Syria to fight, I cannot help but think of the scene in the film The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie where Mary Macgregor’s brother goes out to Spain to join in the Spanish Civil War, trying to do something noble with his life, only to join the opposite side to what he intended and be pointlessly killed. Seen from so far away, the idealism can seem so clear. From close up, all clarity vanishes, as it has done inside Syria. The Spanish Civil War lasted less than three years but killed around 500,000. The rebels finally prevailed and Franco went on to rule Spain for 36 years till his death in 1975. But the Syrian war has no precedent in history. We are in uncharted territory.

The international community has allowed the situation inside Syria to fester so long that it has become insoluble. The US air strikes are not helping ordinary Syrians. On the contrary the bombing of Jabhat al-Nusra targets is likely to turn Syrians against the West and its belated involvement which is not to save them, but to save itself from DAESH (the locally used acronym for ISIS/IS). Syrians have been sacrificed at the altar of world indifference and now, with the rise of DAESH, we will all have to pay the price. Only a change in Iranian policy towards Syria would shift the dynamics on the ground. Lured by the incentive of a US rapprochement, might they abandon the Assad regime and do a deal with Saudi Arabia and Turkey to remove Assad and his top layers, whilst keeping the military and security establishments largely intact? It is the obvious solution, but what are the chances of it happening?  As I wrote in My House in Damascus, “Pigs might fly…”

More than ever, I will have to remain a ‘hopeless dreamer’,  for the sake of all those lives lost unnaturally.

My Damascus House

My Damascus House

 

Related articles:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-29429941

http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/10/international-alliance-no-change-front-lines-syria-rebels.html?utm_source=Al-Monitor+Newsletter+%5BEnglish%5D&utm_campaign=15b8a0b861-October_2_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_28264b27a0-15b8a0b861-93116701

Syrian Literary Festivals

This October My House in Damascus: An Inside View of the Syrian Revolution will be featured in three literary festivals:  Cheltenham, Henley and Wimbledon. Full details below with booking via their websites.

First, on Saturday 4 October 2014 at Cheltenham:

In association with Waterstones

diana darke cover - Copy.jpg

PRESENT TENSE: SYRIA

QUICKFIND L066

SAT 4 OCT 2014 9:00PM – 10:00PM

THE STUDIO, IMPERIAL SQUARE

£8 – MEMBERS 10% OFF

If you are a member then login to book your tickets, if you’re not a member then find out how to become a member and get access to priority booking.
Public booking opens on Mon 01 Sep at 12:00pm

The-Times-Logo-March-2011.jpg

DETAILS

Anthony Loyd, The Times war correspondent who was recently injured reporting from Syria, evaluates the Syrian crisis with Diana Darke, author of My House in Damascus, and questions what might happen next.

All Literature events

MEDIA GALLERY

How #ISIS misuses early Islamic history to justify its actions

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

ISIS gangs smashing a priceless 8th C BC Assyrian statue (May 2014, Tell Ajaja, Syria)

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS, declared himself ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ in June 2014. Claiming a genealogy traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and his noble tribe the Quraysh, together with a PhD from the Islamic University of Baghdad, his religious credentials are certainly stronger than previous Al-Qaeda leaders.

The caliphate in early Islam was a military and political office, not simply a religious one. The Prophet Muhammad during his lifetime was religious leader, lawgiver, chief judge, commander of the army and civil head of state all in one. ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is following this model. The Prophet Muhammad died suddenly in 632 leaving no male children. Disputes over who was to be his khalifa or caliph, (Arabic ‘successor’) have been responsible for most of the schisms of Islam, including the major Sunni/Shi’a division. ‘Never was there an Islamic issue which brought about more bloodshed than the caliphate,’ wrote the respected historian Al-Shahrastani (1086-1153) in his Book of Sects and Creeds.

To boost his standing further, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ appears to be modelling himself on the first four Sunni Orthodox caliphs – Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali – known as Al-Rashidoun, ‘the rightly-guided ones’, who succeeded the Prophet Muhammad. Under them the Islamic state expanded within a decade from Arabia to conquer first Syria, then Iraq, Persia, Egypt and beyond. Those early conquests were characterised by military campaigns led by brilliant strategists like Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-Aas, using horses and camels in lightning raids against their enemies – the Byzantines and the Sassanians – whose armies were generally on foot. Today’s ISIS attacks too are characterised by their speed and surprise, always mounted on vehicles, attacking from many sides like a Bedouin ghazwa (raid). Raiding was seen as a noble occupation in early Arabia – much poetry is devoted to its praise. Acquisition of new territories was one of the principal duties of the caliph, and it is to this tenet of jihad (religious war) that Islam owed its fast early growth.

The Prophet Muhammad’s great achievement was to break tribal allegiances and replace them with a new fraternity of Islam: “Know ye that every Muslim is a brother unto every other Muslim, and that ye are now one brotherhood.”  All new converts of whatever tribe, race or nationality were welcomed. The new ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ is using the same tradition to welcome foreign fighters to his fold.

New actors on the world stage like ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ do not come out of nowhere. Conditions have to be right for them to flourish. When the Prophet Muhammad preached the new religion of Islam in what is now Saudi Arabia, anarchy already reigned in the 7th century world around him. Arabia’s political structures had broken down, sapped of energy by never-ending tribal feuds and disputes over springs, pasture and livestock – the bare necessities of life in an arid desert environment.  Long-running wars between the Byzantines and the Persian Sassanians, heavy taxes imposed by both empires and the multiple schisms of the Christian Church paved the way for the rapid advance of the early Muslim armies.

Like the early caliphs, ‘Caliph Ibrahim’s’ conquests have been eased and enabled by the chaotic regional environment. The post-2003 ‘de-Ba’athification’ process carried out by the Americans after deposing Saddam Hussein left an Iraq reeling and beset with government in-fighting. Ripe for harvest, its oilfields beckoned tantalisingly.

Syria’s tragic revolution-turned- civil-war provided the perfect cloak to ISIS ambitions. Under a general amnesty in early 2012, Al-Qaeda-affiliated extremists were released from Assad prisons. Some regrouped with remnants of Al-Qaeda-in-Iraq and organised themselves into what has evolved as ISIS. In March 2013 they captured Al-Raqqa on the Euphrates, 25 miles east of Tabqa, Syria’s largest dam, just as in August 2014 they captured the Mosul Dam, Iraq’s largest, on the Tigris – now wrested back for the time being by the Kurdish peshmerga with the help of US air cover. In Syria ISIS practised its fighting skills, not on the well-equipped Assad army, but on Syria’s Kurds and on the poorly-armed rebel fighters of the Free Syrian Army. ISIS now controls most of Syria’s eastern oilfields, and in Iraq too its strategy involves systematically seizing the northern oil installations, fuelling its wealth. Conservative estimates put ISIS income from oil alone at US$1 million a day. The bearded chiefs have grown rich beyond their wildest dreams.

Thanks to such control of oil and water, new followers flow strongly into the fold. An impoverished population suffering from the effects of drought, unemployment and disenchantment with the powers-that-be, makes fertile recruiting ground. Most of the Prophet Muhammad’s early converts to Islam were slaves and lower classes – people with something to gain. The first caliph Abu Bakr, when recruiting for his armies, wrote to the people of Mecca promising them there was rich booty to be won from the Byzantines. To raise more money from its conquered territories, early Islam also imposed a means-assessed poll tax on Jews, Christians, Sabians (and later Zoroastrians) considered ‘People of the Book’, acknowledged to be monotheists. Only groups like the Yazidis, who were misunderstood as ‘devil-worshippers’, were presented with the stark choice of ‘convert or be killed’. The poor paid a quarter of the rich, while women, children, beggars, the old, the insane and the sick were exempt. ISIS has been taking taxes from towns under its control in Syria since 2013. In Iraq it has been demanding protection money from local business, whilst also presenting a generous face through handing out food, petrol and subsidising electricity.

As well as offering an attractive and powerful identity, ISIS can offer $400-500 a month as regular income to young Sunnis only too happy to believe in a new ideology based on their own supremacy, and in which the Arabian concept of ghanimah, booty, is legitimate.  Sura 8:42 of the Koran says ‘one-fifth of the booty is for God, the Prophet, those close to him, orphans, the poor and the wayfarer’ ie belongs to the state. By implication therefore the rest can be taken by the fighters. Yezidi women and children are legitimate spoils of war in this ideology.

Under the rallying cry of religion, the ISIS of today is driven by motives it sees as sanctioned under Islam – to gain territory, to acquire new converts, and to spread its strict Islamic rule of law – the Shari’a – with punishments like amputation for theft and beheading for apostasy or for non-believers who refuse to convert. It is copying the social mores of 14 centuries ago.

But behind this religious cloak the same economic forces that drove the Prophet Muhammad’s followers and led to his early conquests are driving the speed of ISIS’s advance. Many despairing Syrians and Iraqis who have watched their countries crumble around them are now joining ISIS out of pragmatism, rather than ideology. The attraction of being on the winning side cannot be overestimated. As long as the region remains in disarray, the likelihood is that ISIS will increasingly be seen by many as the only answer – and a rewarding one to boot.

Bombs

 

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