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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Kurds and Women are new force in Turkey’s election

Turkey's women general HDP

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

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

turkey's erdogan elections

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

Turkey HDP logo

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

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

turkey demirtas orator

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

turkey's kurdish women

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

turkey election HDP

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

turkey's erdogan

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

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

turkey 2015 election map

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

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

Turkey's women

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

turkey's women 2

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

Related articles:

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

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

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

Two Women of Mardin v ISIS

mardin buildings

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

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

sahmeran

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

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

Mardin mayor April 2015

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

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

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

Mardin Artuklu Uni

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

februniye akyol

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

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

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

Kobani Map

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You are married?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sahmeran redMardin mayor 2

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

 

 

Postcard from Nusaybin, southeast Turkey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Dangerous Chemistry – the Kurds and water

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His troubled face breaks into a smile.

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

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

Hasankeyf on the Tigris, due for flooding [DD]

Hasankeyf on the Tigris, due for flooding
[DD]

Geneva II needs a genius, to ensure all parties can claim victory

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’ Hijaz Railway with the caption: ‘We pledge allegiance to you with blood forever.’ Blood drips from the words ‘with blood’.[DD]

For a concrete date of 22 January 2014 to have been fixed for the Syria Geneva II talks at the UN, there must have been concrete developments behind the scenes. The timing, straight after the announcement of the US-Iran deal over nuclear weapons, suggests that a further connected deal with Iran must have been arrived at, requiring its involvement and cooperation over finding an end to the war in Syria. Then, barely a day later, came the joint announcement by Iran and Turkey’s foreign ministers, both of whom support opposite sides in Syria’s war, calling for a ceasefire before Geneva II. It is all too much of a coincidence.

The key players who can influence events at Geneva II are starting to line up. America and Russia are singing from the same hymn sheet, as are Iran and Turkey. All have reached the point where they can see military victory is not possible for any one faction, and that the rise of Islamist extremism is only going to get worse.

What is needed now is a genius who can devise a peace formula whereby all parties, notably the Assad regime and the main groupings opposing him, can claim victory and thereby save face. This will be an essential requirement – that no one is blamed and that everyone gains something from the deal.

With eight full weeks to prepare, this should be possible, especially given the amount of international pressure America, Russia, Turkey and Iran can bring to bear. Saudi Arabia and Qatar will need to be placated and given something too, so that they too can claim victory and save face.

Pray God the geniuses are hard at work devising such formulas, so that 22 January can be the beginning of transfer of power away from the Assad regime before he concocts his re-election in May 2014. The alternative will be years of suffering and destruction, with thousands more deaths, injuries and refugees – a terrible prolonging of Syria’s nightmare.

Related articles

#Syria’s oil and gas potential in the Eastern Mediterranean is wasted, while Israel’s thrives

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: 'God is Syria's Protector'

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: ‘God is Syria’s Protector’

No one mentions it much, but Syria, according to the specialist Oil & Gas Journal in Jan 2013, has the largest proved reserve of crude oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other lucky beneficiaries are Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon, all with large reserves of oil and gas. The gas reserves in this underwater Levant Basin are so huge the estimates say they would supply all of Europe’s gas demand for 7 years.

Yet while Israel has already started production from its Tamar gas field, and the huge Leviathan field is on course to follow in 2016/2017, and while Cyprus is also gearing up for its share and discussing shared export arrangements with Israel so both countries can benefit, neither Lebanon nor Syria, locked in conflict, can make any headway with exploiting these potential riches.

Western oil companies abandoned exploration operations because of political stalemate, but even now, after two and a half years of war, Syria’s government was still in April 2013 (according to a Congressional Research Service report) in discussion with Russia and China over offshore oil exploration. Syria is also said to have oil shale reserves estimated up to 50 billion tons. Russia’s state-owned energy companies have a huge stake in the Damascus regime’s survival so they can continue to profit from Syria’s oil and gas reserves, so Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo with Assad in charge is clear. There is too much to lose, and it also wants to thwart Israel’s plans to build an undersea pipeline to Turkey, the obvious way to export oil and gas to Turkey (and thence to Europe) while excluding Iran and Russia, the two current supplier’s of Turkey’s energy needs. This also explains Obama’s instruction to Israel in March 2013 to apologise to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident, so that diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey could be restored. America wants its ally Israel to be able to export oil and gas to Turkey. The longer Lebanon and Syria take to sort themselves out vis-a vis oil exploration and production in the Eastern Mediterranean, the better, from the US point of view.

The conclusion?  There is no incentive for the US to end the Syrian war now that the chemical weapons issue is sorted, as they want no interference in Israel’s ability to export from its Eastern Mediterranean reserves. And there is no incentive for Russia to end the Syrian war while it can still benefit from Syria’s potential Eastern Mediterranean reserves in future, since Bashar is now solely dependent on Russia (and possibly China) for future exploration and production.

The Syrian people do not feature in this equation, as usual.

Related articles:

http://www.ibtimes.com/syria-losing-out-huge-reserves-oil-natural-gas-eastern-mediterranean-sea-while-cyprus-israel-get

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22509295

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/10/31/turkey-israel-gas-idUKL5N0IK3MF20131031

http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2013/10/02/Slow-progress-in-Israel-Turkey-talks-threatens-gas-pipeline-plan/UPI-65691380733010/

http://www.energy-pedia.com/news/israel/new-155694

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/30/syria-chemical-attack-war-intervention-oil-gas-energy-pipelines

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