The Syrian war is at once incomprehensibly byzantine and very simple. It is complex in the number of countries involved, in the shifting and fragile internal alliances and resentments of the groups constituting the rebellion, in the threads of national interest that circle back and consume themselves like a snake eating its own tail. To take just one example: after a decade of friendly relations with Syria, Turkey turned on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and decided to work toward his downfall, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed that his country would “support the Syrian people in every way until they get rid of the bloody dictator and his gang.” Since then, Turkey has served as a staging ground for the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA), but it has also been repeatedly accused of funneling funds and arms to ISIS, which regularly attacks FSA bases and beheads the soldiers it captures. Turkey has provided military aid to the effort to combat ISIS, but it also devotes energy and resources to fighting Kurdish nationalists, who have been more effective in fighting ISIS than any other group to date. In November 2016, Erdoğan reiterated his determination to unseat Assad, saying Turkish forces had entered Syria in August 2016 for no other reason than to remove Assad from power. One day later, he retracted his statement and claimed Turkey’s military campaign in Syria had been designed solely to defeat ISIS, the terrorist group whose operations Turkey had at least tacitly and perhaps actively supported. Turkey is now working closely with Russia, which has done more than any other country to prevent Erdoğan from realizing his goal of bringing down Assad. Turkey is just one of at least nine countries involved in the conflict.
Category Archives: Middle East
Talk to Bashar al-Assad’s enemies, and they’ll tell you he’s to blame for every man, woman and child who has been killed in Syria. That’s 400,000. Or 450,000. Or 500,000. The figures, so carelessly put together by the media, the UN and the various opposition groups who naturally want the statistics to be as high as possible, now embrace 100,000 souls who may – or may not – be still alive. But death tolls have nothing to do with compassion. They are about blame, about culpability.
And the claim that Assad is responsible for every one of the dead rests on the notion that he ‘started the war’. In his case, this means that the arrest and torture – and in one case, reported killing – of a group of schoolchildren who had written anti-regime graffiti on a wall in the southern city of Dera’a, was the ignition switch for the mass opposition rallies and subsequent armed uprising which has devastated Syria. In the case of Dera’a, Assad realised the seriousness of the event – he fired the city governor and sent his deputy foreign minister, Faisal Mekdad to see the families. Too late.
In the aftermath of the attacks of 11 September 2001, amid the grief and rage that followed the toppling of the World Trade Center, President George W Bush did not declare war on Islam. “These acts of violence against innocents,” he told Americans in the week after 3,000 people were killed by Muslim terrorists, “violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith.” The war that Bush went on to declare soon thereafter was not against a religion, but against “terror” – and within that baggy term, he focused on al-Qaida, “a fringe movement”, in Bush’s words, “that perverts the peaceful teaching of Islam”.Sign up to the long read emailRead moreBush’s tact may have been caused by a short-term desire to rein in attacks on American Muslims (and others mistaken for them, such as Sikhs) in the wake of 9/11. But it also served the longer view of the president and his advisers, who believed that the Muslim world, much like everywhere else, was capable of being improved by exposure to democracy, free market capitalism and individual freedoms. In this regard, Bush’s views were in line with the then-influential “end of history” thesis proposed by the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in 1989. With the end of the cold war, Fukuyama argued, it was only a matter of time before western liberal democracy was recognised everywhere as the best form of government. By the turn of the century, the belief that we were witnessing “the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to western liberalism” was never more widely shared, and it lay behind one of Bush’s professed goals in invading Afghanistan and Iraq: to shepherd the Muslim world towards the universal ideology of liberalism.
Fifteen years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the hope of the Islamic world. He was an Islamist, of course, but that was part of his appeal. As the mayor of Istanbul, one of the world’s great cities, Erdoğan had governed as a charismatic and smart technocrat. He’d served time in prison, in 1999—for reading a poem that seemed to celebrate militant Islam—but his jailers had been the country’s rigid, military-backed secular leaders who, by then, seemed as suited to the present day as dinosaurs. When Erdoğan became Prime Minister, in 2003, every leader in the West wanted him to succeed. In a world still trying to make sense of the 9/11 attacks, he seemed like a bridge between cultures.
The mysterious case of Reza Zarrab, a Turkish-Iranian businessman facing federal charges in New York, has grown even stranger over the past couple of weeks.Zarrab, who is thirty-three, was arrested by F.B.I. agents, in Miami, last March. At the time, he was one of the flashiest and wealthiest businessmen in Turkey. He sported a pouf of black hair; owned twenty houses, seven yachts, and a private jet; was married to one of Turkey’s biggest pop stars; and counted among his friends Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s strongman President.The U.S. government, however, believes that Zarrab masterminded a sprawling operation to help the Iranian government evade economic sanctions that were put in place to hinder the country’s nuclear-weapons program. Zarrab’s operation—which relied on what the Turkish government claimed was a legal loophole in the sanctions—involved shipping gold to Iran in exchange for oil and natural gas, which Zarrab then sold. The scheme, according to prosecutors in New York’s Southern District, involved moving enormous amounts of cash, gas, and gold; at the operation’s peak—around 2012—Zarrab was buying a metric ton of gold and shipping it to Iran every day. The Obama Administration protested Zarrab’s operation, which the media dubbed “gas for gold,’’ but he carried on anyway. For the Iranians, the gold was as good as American cash, and it helped shore up the rial, Iran’s currency, whose value was collapsing.
Ak Saray, the residence of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is a complex of around 1,100 rooms in acres of hillside over Ankara. It is not garish or tasteless, like some of Saddam Hussein’s architectural monstrosities were, but then Turkey’s President sees himself not as just another Kalashnikov-wielding strongman, but heir to the legacy of Ottoman sultans.
A few colleagues and I were given a conducted tour of Ak Saray, “White Palace” in English, soon after last summer’s attempted coup, when Erdogan was being presented as a defender of democracy against the perfidy of a treacherous exiled cleric, Fethullah Gulen, and a renegade military faction. But the White Palace definitely seemed a home more befitting a potentate than that of a champion of the people and Turkey’s referendum has now confirmed Erdogan in that position. And, at the same time, any effective international backing for attempts to dethrone him is now relatively meaningless after Donald Trump called him from the White House to congratulate him on his victory.
What critics claim is the openly fraudulent Turkish referendum ends parliamentary democracy in the country and gives President Recep Tayyip Erdogan dictatorial powers. The most unexpected aspect of the poll on Sunday was not the declared outcome, but that the ruling AKP (Justice and Development Party) allegedly found it necessary to fix the vote quite so blatantly.
The tightness of the final outcome of the referendum – 51.4 per cent “yes” to the constitutional changes and 48.59 per cent voting “no” – shows that the “no” voters would have been in the majority in any fairly conducted election.
It’s time America explored how to end the multiple wars it has helped cause since 2001, rather than dropping more bombs
War-whoops and loud applause from foreign policy establishments and their media supporters have greeted President Trump’s missile strike in Syria, the dropping of the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb on Afghanistan and the dispatch of a naval task force in the direction of North Korea.
This spurt in belligerence over the last week has as much to do with domestic American politics as any fundamental new development in the rest of the world. Trump needed to defuse the accusation that he was too close to President Putin and too tolerant of a Russian ally like Bashar al-Assad. The resort to military action was largely in keeping with the old Pentagon saying that “defence policy ends at the water’s edge”, meaning that it is politics inside, not outside the US, which is the real decision-maker.
If Trump cares so much about Syrian babies, why is he not condemning the rebels who slaughtered children?
It was the Mother of all Hypocrisy. Some dead Syrian babies matter, I guess. Other dead Syrian babies don’t matter. One mass murder in Syria two weeks ago killed children and babies and stirred our leaders to righteous indignation. But the slaughter in Syria this weekend killed even more children and babies – yet brought forth nothing but silence from those who claim to guard our moral values. Now why should this be?
When a gas attack in Syria killed more than 70 civilians on 4 April, including babies and children, Donald Trump ordered a missile attack on Syria. America applauded. So did its media. So did much of the world. Trump called Bashar al-Assad “evil” and “an animal”. The EU condemned the Syrian regime. Downing Street called the gas attack “barbaric”. Almost every western leader demanded that Assad should be overthrown.
Lebanon’s efficient security services are stepping up their watch over Islamist supporters in Beirut and beyond
Until this Wednesday, the sound of mortar and rifle fire has echoed across the streets of the southern Lebanese city of Sidon. As usual, the world has ignored it on the grounds that Palestinians have been fighting Palestinians yet again in the largest refugee camp in Lebanon. And so they have.
Palestinian secular factions have been fighting Islamist groups. The camp lies just to the east of the centre of Sidon and is the usual warren of poverty and concrete huts and filthy apartment blocks, ironically called Ein el-Helweh – which means the “sweet well” or “sweet spring”.
Few noticed that this latest series of battles was set off shortly after an official visit to Lebanon by Mahmoud Abbas, the doddering old Palestinian president who long ago lost his legal electoral mandate in the occupied West Bank but who remarked before he left Beirut that Palestinians were dedicated to crushing “terrorism”.