How the Syrian Revolution transformed this Palestinian activist

Budour Hassan is a law school graduate and freelance writer based in Jerusalem who contributes to Al Jazeera, Electronic Intifada, Middle East Eye, and elesewhere. She writes:

The world revolves around Palestine, or so I thought until 2011.

The Palestinian cause, I argued, was the litmus test for anyone’s commitment to freedom and justice. Palestine was the one and only compass that must guide any Arab revolution. Whether a regime is good or bad should be judged, first and foremost, based on its stance from the Palestinian cause. Every event should somehow be viewed through a Palestinian lens. The Arab people have failed us, and we inspired the entire world with our resistance.

Yes, I called myself internationalist. I claimed to stand for universal and humanist ideals. I blathered on and on about breaking borders and waging a socialist revolution.

But then came Syria, and my hypocrisy and the fragility of those ideals became exposed.

When I first heard the Syrian people in Daraa demand a regime reform on 18 March 2011, all I could think about, subconsciously, was: “If the Egyptian scenario happens in Syria, it would be a disaster for Palestine.”

I did not think about those who were killed by the regime on that day. I did not think of those arrested or tortured.

I did not think about the inevitable crackdown by the regime.

I did not greet the incredibly courageous protests in Daraa with the same elation and zeal I felt during the Tunisian, Egyptian, Bahraini, Yemeni, and Libyan uprisings.

All I could muster was a sigh of suspicion and fear.

“Assad is a tyrant and his regime is rotten,” I thought to myself, “but the subsequent results of its fall might be catastrophic for Palestine and the resistance.” That sacred axis of resistance meant to me back then much more than the Syrian lives being cut short by its defenders.

I was one of those whose hearts would pound when Hassan Nasrallah appeared on TV. I bookmarked loads of YouTube videos of his speeches and teared up while listening to songs glorifying the resistance and its victories.

And while I supported the demands of the Syrian protesters in principle, I did so with reluctance and it was a conditional support. It was not even solidarity because it was so selfish and always centered around Palestine.

I retweeted a blog post by an Egyptian activist calling on Syrians to carry Palestinian flags, in order to “debunk” regime propaganda. The Syrian people took to the streets defending the same universal ideals that I claimed to stand for, yet I was incapable of viewing their struggle outside my narrow Palestinian prism. I claimed to be internationalist while prioritizing Palestinian concerns over Syrian victims. I shamelessly took part in the Suffering Olympics and was annoyed that Syrian pain occupied more newspaper pages than Palestinian pain. I was too gullible to notice that the ordeals of both Syrians and Palestinians are just footnotes and that the breaking news would become too routine, too dull and unworthy of consumption in the space of few months.

I claimed to reject all forms of oppression while simultaneously waiting for the head of a sectarian militia to say something about Syria and to talk passionately about Palestine.

The Syrian revolution put me on trial for betraying my principles. But instead of condemning me, it taught me the lesson of my life: it was a lesson given with grace and dignity.

It was delivered with love, by the women and men dancing and singing in the streets, challenging the iron fist with creativity, refusing to give up while being chased by security forces, turning funeral processions into exuberant marches for freedom, rethinking ways to subvert regime censorship; introducing mass politics amidst unspeakable terror; and chanting for unity despite sectarian incitement; and chanting the name of Palestine in numerous protests and carrying the Palestinian flag without needing a superstar Egyptian blogger to ask them to do so.

It was a gradual learning process in which I had to grapple with my own prejudices of how a revolution should “look like,” and how we should react to a movement against a purportedly pro-Palestinian regime. I desperately tried to overlook the ugly face beneath the mask of resistance worn by Hezbollah, but the revolution tore that mask apart. And that was not the only mask torn apart, many more followed. And now the real faces of self-styled freedom fighters and salon leftists were exposed; the long-crushed Syrian voices emerged. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab revolution of 2011 is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by dictators and jihadists

The Irish Times reports: In late 1400 and early 1401, the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane left “pyramids of skulls, like those constructed by Islamic State today” across Syria, recalls the French Middle East expert Jean-Pierre Filiu.

Tamerlane had already destroyed Aleppo. The great Arab historian and statesman Ibn Khaldun talked to him for 35 days, in the hope of saving Damascus. “The whole time, Tamerlane knows he’s going to massacre everyone in the city,” Filiu continues. “He uses the negotiation to divide and rule, to massacre more people, faster.”

Filiu wants Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, to read Ibn Khaldun, for it’s impossible not to see a parallel with the behaviour of the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad.

Filiu is an Arabist, historian and former diplomat who served as an adviser to a French prime minister, defence minister and interior minister. His “added value”, he says, is history. He will address members of the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin on The Jihadi Challenge to Europe next Monday, May 23rd, and debate The Spectre of Global Jihad with the author Shiraz Maher that evening at the International Literature Festival Dublin.

In his most recent book, From Deep State to Islamic State; The Arab Counter-Revolution and Its Jihadi Legacy, (published by Hurst in London) Filiu concludes that the Arab revolution of 2011 – a term he prefers to “Arab spring” – is being destroyed by a counter-revolution led by the remnants of dictatorships in collusion with jihadists.

Over the past century, Filiu writes, the Arabs’ right to self-determination was “denied by colonial intervention, ‘hi- jacked’ at independence by military regimes, trampled on by the double standards of the war for Kuwait and the ‘global war on terror,’ and perverted in the UN, where peoples are represented by the regimes who oppress them”.

No other people have faced “so many obstacles, enemies and horrors in the quest for basic rights”, Filiu says. [Continue reading…]

In January, Filiu spoke about the price being paid because of President Obama’s failure to uphold ethical principles.

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U.S. warns ISIS capital: Get out now

The Daily Beast reports: The American military is warning residents of ISIS’s Syrian capital to leave the city—suggesting that an offensive on Raqqa was imminent, two Pentagon officials told the Daily Beast.

In the past day, residents of Raqqa have posted photos of the warnings on Twitter, saying they were airdropped on leaflets by the U.S.-led coalition. The defense officials were the first to confirm that the coalition had indeed issued the warnings.

“The time….has arrived. It’s time to leave Raqqa,” one of the ominous leaflets read. Images portray residents fleeing the black and white world of ISIS for the color of freedom, urging citizens to flee toward colors.


There is just one problem: There is no imminent ground or air attack, at least by the U.S.-led coalition. Rather the coalition appears to be the midst of a psychological offensive.

“It’s part of our mess-with-them campaign,” a Pentagon official explained to The Daily Beast.

The leaflets come amid what appears to be something of a panic within ISIS about how long it can maintain its grip on Raqqa. In recent weeks, there were reports that ISIS had declared a state of emergency in Raqqa. And earlier this week, the terror group’s leadership reportedly would not let fighters leave for holiday as ISIS dug trenches around Raqqa, moved headquarters underground, and put coverings over homes in an effort to deflect drone attacks. [Continue reading…]

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Britain: Syrian airdrops begin next month if more aid blocked

USA Today reports: The United Kingdom said Tuesday the World Food Program will begin airdrops to besieged areas of Syria on June 1, if humanitarian access is not provided.

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime continues to remove medical aid from humanitarian convoys and to prevent convoys from reaching Syrians in need, said British Ambassador to the United States Kim Darroch. If the practice continues, the World Food Program will create an airdrop program starting June 1, Darroch said.

British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond made the announcement after meeting with the International Syria Support Group in Vienna to discuss ways to save a shaky partial cease-fire.

The airdrops will be conducted by United Nations airplanes with security guaranteed by Russia.

Syrian government forces last week removed medical supplies from an aid convoy to the town of Moadamiya, according to the World Health Organization. Similar incidents have been reported since. [Continue reading…]

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What’s left of the Syrian Arab Army? Not much

Tom Cooper writes: The general impression is that the Syrian Arab Army remains the largest military force involved in the Syrian Civil War, and that  —  together with the so-called National Defense Forces — — it remains the dominant military service under the control of government of Pres. Bashar Al Assad.

Media that are at least sympathetic to the Al-Assad regime remain insistent in presenting the image of the “SAA fighting on all front lines”  — only sometimes supported by the NDF and, less often, by “allies.”

The devil is in the details, as some say. Indeed, a closer examination of facts on the ground reveals an entirely different picture. The SAA and NDF are nearly extinct.

Because of draft-avoidance and defections — — and because Al Assad’s regime was skeptical of the loyalty of the majority of its military units  —  the SAA never managed to fully mobilize.

Not one of around 20 divisions it used to have has ever managed to deploy more than one-third of its nominal strength on the battlefield. The resulting 20 brigade-size task forces  — each between 2,000- and 4,000-strong  —  were then further hit by several waves of mass defections, but also extensive losses caused by the incompetence of their commanders.

Unsurprisingly, the regime was already critically short of troops by summer of 2012, when advisers from the Qods Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps concluded that units organized along religious and political lines had proven more effective in combat than the rest of the Syrian military had.

Thus the regime’s creation, in cooperation with Iran, of the National Defense Forces. Officially, the NDF is a pro-government militia acting as a part-time volunteer reserve component of the military. Envisioned by its Iranian creators as an equivalent to the IRGC’s Basiji Corps, the NDF became an instrument of formalizing the status of hundreds of “popular committees” created by the Syrian Ba’ath Party in the 1980s.

According to Iranian claims, the NDF’s stand-up resulted in the addition of a 100,000-strong auxiliary to Syria’s force-structure. Moreover, the NDF functioned as a catalyst for the reorganization of the entire Syrian military into a hodgepodge of sectarian militias. [Continue reading…]

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Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War

On April 18, the Middle East Institute (MEI) hosted novelist Robin Yassin-Kassab and human rights activist Leila Al-Shami for a discussion about their recent book, Burning Country: Syrians in Revolution and War, which tells the stories of Syrian civilians organizing, resisting, and surviving inside Syria since the 2011 uprising.

Burning Country explores the reality of life in present-day Syria, examining new grassroots revolutionary organizations, the rise of ISIS and Islamism, and the emergence of the worst refugee crisis since World War II. In this vivid account of a modern-day political and humanitarian nightmare, Yassin-Kassab and Al-Shami give voice to a Syrian people who continue to struggle for justice.

(Note: During the recording of this discussion, Leila Al-Shami remained off camera at her request.)

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Obama ‘pleased’ with Syria policy while Kerry warns Assad about unspecified ‘Plan B’

The New York Times reports: Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey V. Lavrov, said on Tuesday that if President Bashar al-Assad of Syria continues to block access of humanitarian aid to besieged cities and towns, they were prepared to help the World Food Program airdrop food and emergency supplies.

The very fact that they had to threaten the airdrops — which are expensive and often inaccurate — amounted to an admission of how little progress has been made in achieving either the lasting cease-fire or the regular humanitarian relief that European and Arab nations, along with Iran, laid out as the first steps toward a broader peace agreement.

The threat to conduct airdrops came after a meeting in Vienna of the International Syria Support Group, made up of the nations that drafted a largely unimplemented plan to end the country’s civil war. They gathered at a low point: A once-promising “cessation of hostilities” has largely collapsed, an effort to start negotiations between the opposition and the government broke down, and there has been no progress toward negotiating a “political transition” that was supposed to begin on Aug. 1.

Bolstered by Russia’s intervention to help prop him up, Mr. Assad is in a stronger position than he has been in years, many experts say, and has rejected the idea that any new government would have to exclude him. He has the strong support of Iran, his longtime provider of security, though Russian officials seem less concerned about whether Mr. Assad himself remains in power or is replaced by another leader from his Alawite Shiite sect.

At a news conference on Tuesday afternoon with Mr. Lavrov, Mr. Kerry rejected a suggestion that, in dealing with Mr. Assad, he was operating without the kind of leverage he had in Vienna last year during the Iran nuclear negotiations — when American sanctions and sabotage of the Iranian program created the pressure that led to a deal.

But Mr. Kerry — who White House aides say has complained in Situation Room meetings about the lack of clout to force Mr. Assad to make good on his commitments — argued that the Syrian leader would be making a mistake to believe he would pay no price for refusing to cooperate.

“If President Assad has come to a conclusion there’s no Plan B,” he said, referring to more coercive action to force him to comply, “then he’s come to a conclusion that is totally without any foundation whatsoever and even dangerous.”

Mr. Kerry added later that Mr. Assad “should never make a miscalculation about President Obama’s determination to do what is right at any given moment of time, where he believes that he has to make that decision.” Mr. Assad, he said, has “flagrantly violated” the United Nations resolution calling for a nationwide cease-fire and allowing humanitarian assistance.

Yet in making public a case that there would be consequences for Mr. Assad’s intransigence, Mr. Kerry was touching on one of the hardest issues facing Mr. Obama and his national security team in their last eight months in office. The president has repeatedly defended his decision not to authorize a military strike against Mr. Assad after he crossed what Mr. Obama had described as a “red line” against using chemical weapons. He also rejected a no-fly zone to protect fleeing civilians and opposition forces.[Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Monday that President Obama was “certainly pleased” with his administration’s policy on Syria, while simultaneously acknowledging that the country now poses a “heightened risk” to America and its interests.

“We’ve seen terrible violence in Syria, it’s an awful humanitarian situation, and it’s a genuine human tragedy. And it’s a dangerous place, and it’s a place that poses a heightened risk to the United States and to our allies and interests around the world,” Earnest said.

Earnest, who was asked by Yahoo’s Olivier Knox about The Daily Beast’s reporting, argued that the president’s Syria policy had “advanced the national security interests” of the U.S., placing the blame squarely on the Assad regime.

“There’s no denying that what has happened in Syria has changed millions of lives — and not for the better. And that’s a testament to the failed political leadership of Bashar al-Assad, it’s a testament to the way the political chaos in that country has propagated so much violence,” Earnest said at Monday’s White House press briefing.

The Daily Beast reported Friday that senior White House official Ben Rhodes allegedly told Syrian-American activists that he was “not proud” of the administration’s policy on Syria. [Continue reading…]

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The importance of bearing witness to Syria’s war

Caitlin L Chandler writes: The wound in the middle of the man’s arm is a large circle of ribbed red blood and tendon, the edges of the flesh curving up and out like petals. Metal prongs inserted into the skin on either side of the wound hold his arm in place; his chest rises and falls with each breath.

To observe surgery up close is at first disorienting and surreal, like watching a perfectly shot film in the cinema and then walking through the screen to realize there is no such thing – only machines and people creating the images that were streaming as reality before you. I do not normally see bodies in disrepair that are being painstakingly stitched back together; I feel like I’m trespassing on something sacred.

The Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) trauma hospital in Ramtha, Jordan, is located 3 miles (5km) from the Syrian border. From the roof of MSF’s house, where its international staff live, you can see the blue-green hills that demarcate the border, stretching between the two countries like a gentle wave. Once you could have strolled in those hills, or laid down in the grass and daydreamed.

At night on the roof the lights of nearby Irbid glitter, some of them marking the apartments where thousands of urban refugees dwell, waiting for the war to end, for resettlement or for the chance to try to make their way across the ocean to Europe. Everyone is waiting – to see whether the fragile cease-fire matters and whether the E.U. will continue to turn its back on the men, women and children drowning in its seas. In Ramtha, they are waiting for a medical outcome.

As a humanitarian affairs officer with MSF, part of my job is to understand and construct here in Jordan how MSF practices temoignage – the act of witnessing. Since MSF’s inception, witnessing has been intertwined with the organization’s medical activities, which often occur in contexts where MSF is one of the only organizations to see at first hand the effects of conflict and disaster. It is what always set MSF apart for me from other organizations; although I know witnessing can be an imperfect offering, it at least implies responsibility.

To witness the effects of war is to witness what you cannot change; it is to observe mutilated bodies and sense the dislocation that comes with forced exile. It is to reflect on what meaning you can make in life when you are here, alive, and so many others are dead. For years I did not want to do an MSF mission because I thought it was not the real world, that it would change me in ways I did not want, but now I know that was fear. On the other side of fear is the world; it is still there, whether you choose to look at it or not. [Continue reading…]

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Idrees Ahmad offers an anti-imperialist guide to inaction on Syria

How to follow Noam Chomsky and sound like Sarah Palin…

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The map ISIS hates

sykes-picot

In 2014, Malise Ruthven wrote: When the jihadists of ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) tweeted pictures of a bulldozer crashing through the earthen barrier that forms part of the frontier between Syria and Iraq, they announced — triumphantly — that they were destroying the “Sykes-Picot” border. The reference to a 1916 Franco-British agreement about the Middle East may seem puzzling, coming from a radical group fighting a brutal ethnic and religious insurgency against Bashar al-Assad’s Syria and Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq. But jihadist groups have long drawn on a fertile historical imagination, and old grievances about the West in particular.

This symbolic action by ISIS fighters against a century-old imperial carve-up shows the extent to which one of the most radical groups fighting in the Middle East today is nurtured by the myth of precolonial innocence, when the Ottoman Empire and Sunni Islam ruled over an unbroken realm from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and the Shias knew their place. (Indeed, the Arabic name of ISIS — al-Dawla al-Islamiya fil-Iraq wa al-Sham — refers to a historic idea of the greater Levant (al-Sham) that transcends the region’s modern, Western-imposed state borders.)

But why is Sykes-Picot so important? One reason is that it stands near the beginning of what many Arabs view as a sequence of Western betrayals spanning from the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire in World War I to the establishment of Israel in 1948 and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Sykes-Picot agreement — named after the British and French diplomats who signed it — was entered in secret, with Russia’s assent, in May 1916 to divide the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire into British and French “spheres of influence.” It designated each power’s areas of future control in the event of victory by the Triple Entente over Germany, Austria, and their Ottoman ally. Under the agreement Britain was allocated the coastal strip between the Mediterranean and the river Jordan, Transjordan and southern Iraq, with enclaves including the ports of Haifa and Acre, while France was allocated south-eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, all of Syria and Lebanon. Russia was to get Istanbul, the Dardanelles, and the Ottoman Empire’s Armenian districts.

Under the 1920 San Remo agreement, which built on Sykes-Picot, the Western powers were free to decide on state boundaries within these areas. The international frontiers — with Iraq’s framed by the merging of the three Ottoman vilayets of Mosul, Baghdad, and Basra — were consolidated by the separate mandates granted by the League of Nations to France in Lebanon and Syria, and to Britain in Palestine, Transjordan, and Iraq. The frontier between French-controlled Syria and British-controlled Iraq included the desert of Anbar province that was bulldozed by ISIS this month.

Kept hidden for more than a year, the Anglo-French pact caused a furor when it was first revealed by the Bolsheviks after the 1917 Russian Revolution — with the Syrian Congress, convened in July 1919, demanding “the full freedom and independence that had been promised to us.” Not only did the agreement map out — unbeknownst to the Arab leaders of the time — a new system of Western control of local populations. It also directly contradicted the promise that Britain’s man in Cairo, Sir Henry McMahon, had made to the ruler of Mecca, the Sharif Hussein, that he would have an Arab kingdom in the event of Ottoman defeat. In fact, that promise itself, which had been conveyed in McMahon’s correspondence with the Sharif between July 1915 and January 1916, left ambiguous the borders of the future Arab state, and was later used to deny Arab control of Palestine. McMahon had excluded from the proposed Arab kingdom “portions of Syria lying to the west of the districts of Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo [that] cannot be said to be purely Arab.” This clause led to lengthy and bitter debates as to whether Palestine — which Britain meanwhile promised as a homeland for Jews under the terms of the November 1917 Balfour Declaration — could be defined as lying “west” of the vilayet, or district, of Damascus. [Continue reading…]

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Al Qaeda leaders turns to Syria, with a plan to challenge ISIS

The New York Times reports: Al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan, badly weakened after a decade of C.I.A. drone strikes, has decided that the terror group’s future lies in Syria and has secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there, according to senior American and European intelligence and counterterrorism officials.

The movement of the senior Qaeda jihadists reflects Syria’s growing importance to the terrorist organization and most likely foreshadows an escalation of the group’s bloody rivalry with the Islamic State, Western officials say.

The operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a significant shift for Al Qaeda and its affiliate, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready. Such an entity could also pose a heightened terrorist threat to the United States and Europe.

Qaeda operatives have moved in and out of Syria for years. Ayman al-Zawahri, the group’s supreme leader in Pakistan, dispatched senior jihadists to bolster the Nusra Front in 2013. A year later, Mr. Zawahri sent to Syria a shadowy Qaeda cell called Khorasan that American officials say has been plotting attacks against the West.

But establishing a more enduring presence in Syria would present the group with an invaluable opportunity, Western analysts said. A Syria-based Qaeda state would not only be within closer striking distance of Europe but also benefit from the recruiting and logistical support of fighters from Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon. [Continue reading…]

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ISIS cancels fighters’ holidays as it prepares to defend Raqqa

The Telegraph reports: Isil has cancelled holidays for militants in its Syrian stronghold of Raqqa as it maximises available manpower ahead of a feared international assault on the city.

Over the past two weeks, the group has accelerated its drive to defend Raqqa, sources inside the area told The Telegraph, digging trenches alongside checkpoints and strengthening a network of underground bunkers.

“Isil cancelled holidays, increased the number of shifts, and asked all members to be present – even the administrators,” said a source in regular contact with civilians inside the city.

Although the extremist group is far from defeat, it is under pressure across several battlefronts, losing strongholds including the Iraqi city of Ramadi in December and the ancient town of Palmyra in March. As Kurdish and Syrian rebel forces prepare to edge towards Raqqa, the city is frequently the target of airstrikes by the US-led coalition, as well as the Syrian air force and Russian warplanes that began an air campaign in the country in late September.

In an attempt to block the view of circling drones, the militants have started hanging sheets across shop-fronts and homes. They are also believed to have moved several key headquarters underground. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish military’s influence rises again

erdogan

The Wall Street Journal reports: After 13 years of being methodically marginalized during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure atop Turkish politics, the army is regaining its clout as the president sidelines his political rivals.

Turkey’s military, which has forced four civilian governments from power since 1960, is re-emerging as a pivotal actor alongside Mr. Erdogan, who has long viewed the army as a potentially dangerous adversary.

Mr. Erdogan’s moves to sideline political opponents — he forced out his handpicked prime minister this month amid a power struggle — has cleared the way for Turkey’s generals to play a greater role in shaping Mr. Erdogan’s attempts to extend his global influence.

Turkish generals are tempering Mr. Erdogan’s push to send troops into Syria, managing a controversial military campaign against Kurdish insurgents, and protecting Turkey’s relations with Western allies who view the president with suspicion. By steering clear of politics, they re-emerged as a central player in national security decisions.

“The Turkish military is the only agent that wants to put on the brakes and create checks-and-balances against Erdogan,” said Metin Gurcan, a former Turkish military officer who now works as an Istanbul-based security analyst.

It is in Syria where the military is most clearly acting as a check on the president. When Mr. Erdogan last year debated sending Turkish forces into Syria to set up a safe zone for those fleeing the fighting, military leaders expressed strong reservations, former Turkish officials and allies of Mr. Erdogan said. That, they said, helped put the idea on hold.

The debate returned last week when Mr. Erdogan threatened to send Turkish troops into Syria to end weeks of Islamic State rocket attacks on a Turkish border town.

Sending large numbers of combat troops into Syria is still a hard sell for the military, allies of Mr. Erdogan and U.S. officials said. If Turkey were to act without the support of the U.S. and its other North Atlantic Treaty Organization allies, the military fears its soldiers could be bombed by Russian jets and would face international condemnation.

“This is a very realistic headquarters. They know what Turkey’s armed forces are capable of. They’re not adventurous,” said Can Kasapoglu, a defense analyst with the Center for Economic and Foreign Policy Studies, a Turkish think tank.

The Turkish military and Mr. Erdogan’s press office both declined to discuss their relationship.

The restoration of the Turkish army’s influence has resurrected concerns all the way up to the presidential palace that generals might try to topple Mr. Erdogan, a polarizing figure whose extensive crackdown on domestic dissent has triggered alarm in Western capitals, according to people familiar with the matter. [Continue reading…]

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Untangling the complicated legacies of colonialism and failed Arab regimes overshadowing today’s conflicts in the Middle East

Rami G Khouri writes: Why have most Middle Eastern lands that Great Britain, Italy, and France managed as mandates or colonies become violent wrecks and sources of large-scale conflict and human despair? It is just as dishonest to blame mainly Western colonialism for our national wreckages and rampant instability as it is to blame only Arab people and culture for those failings. We need a more complete and integrated analysis of the multiple phenomena that shaped our last erratic century.

Initially, we must absolutely acknowledge that Arab states’ inability to achieve sustainable economic growth and pluralistic democracies is the core reason for our problems today. The main reason for this reason, however, is to be found in a more complex set of interlocking relationships among powerful political actors inside our countries and capitals far and near.

This requires going back before 1916, maybe a century or two, to recall how European powers conquered much of the world as colonies or sites of unchecked imperial plunder. The main problem with Sykes-Picot is not only what happened in and after 1916; it is also heavily a consequence of the European colonial mindset that matured in the century before 1916, and continued to exercise its colonial prerogatives for decades to follow — perhaps even in today’s continued use of European, Russian, and American military power across our region.

At the same time, three critical issues after 1916 made it virtually impossible for many Arab countries to transition from Euro-manufactured instant states born on after-dinner napkins in the hands of Cognac-mellowed British and French colonial officers, to stable, democratic, prosperous sovereign states.

These three issues were, in their historical order:

1) British support for Zionism and a Jewish state in Palestine in November 1917, which plunged Palestine into endless Zionism-Arabism warfare since then, and sucked in other Arab states, Iran, and others yet;

2) the discovery of large amounts of oil in the Middle East in the 1930s especially, which the West needed to maintain access to for its own industrial expansion; and,

3) the post-1947 Cold War between the U.S.-led West and the Russian-led Soviet Communist states that was translated into perpetual proxy wars across the Middle East for forty-four years, and maybe is resurfacing today in new guises. [Continue reading…]

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Don’t blame Sykes-Picot for the Middle East’s mess

sykes-picot

Steven A. Cook and Amr T. Leheta write: Sometime in the 100 years since the Sykes-Picot agreement was signed, invoking its “end” became a thing among commentators, journalists, and analysts of the Middle East. Responsibility for the cliché might belong to the Independent’s Patrick Cockburn, who in June 2013 wrote an essay in the London Review of Books arguing that the agreement, which was one of the first attempts to reorder the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire’s demise, was itself in the process of dying. Since then, the meme has spread far and wide: A quick Google search reveals more than 8,600 mentions of the phrase “the end of Sykes-Picot” over the last three years.

The failure of the Sykes-Picot agreement is now part of the received wisdom about the contemporary Middle East. And it is not hard to understand why. Four states in the Middle East are failing — Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Libya. If there is a historic shift in the region, the logic goes, then clearly the diplomatic settlements that produced the boundaries of the Levant must be crumbling. History seems to have taken its revenge on Mark Sykes and his French counterpart, François Georges-Picot, who hammered out the agreement that bears their name.

The “end of Sykes-Picot” argument is almost always followed with an exposition of the artificial nature of the countries in the region. Their borders do not make sense, according to this argument, because there are people of different religions, sects, and ethnicities within them. The current fragmentation of the Middle East is thus the result of hatreds and conflicts — struggles that “date back millennia,” as U.S. President Barack Obama said — that Sykes and Picot unwittingly released by creating these unnatural states. The answer is new borders, which will resolve all the unnecessary damage the two diplomats wrought over the previous century.

Yet this focus on Sykes-Picot is a combination of bad history and shoddy social science. And it is setting up the United States, once again, for failure in the Middle East.

For starters, it is not possible to pronounce that the maelstrom of the present Middle East killed the Sykes-Picot agreement, because the deal itself was stillborn. Sykes and Picot never negotiated state borders per se, but rather zones of influence. And while the idea of these zones lived on in the postwar agreements, the framework the two diplomats hammered out never came into existence.

Unlike the French, British Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s government actively began to undermine the accord as soon as Sykes signed it — in pencil. The details are complicated, but as Margaret Macmillan makes clear in her illuminating book Paris 1919, the alliance between Britain and France in the fight against the Central Powers did little to temper their colonial competition. Once the Russians dropped out of the war after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, the British prime minister came to believe that the French zone that Sykes and Picot had outlined — comprising southeastern Turkey, the western part of Syria, Lebanon, and Mosul — was no longer a necessary bulwark between British positions in the region and the Russians.

Nor are the Middle East’s modern borders completely without precedent. Yes, they are the work of European diplomats and colonial officers — but these boundaries were not whimsical lines drawn on a blank map. They were based, for the most part, on pre-existing political, social, and economic realities of the region, including Ottoman administrative divisions and practices. The actual source of the boundaries of the present Middle East can be traced to the San Remo conference, which produced the Treaty of Sèvres in August 1920. Although Turkish nationalists defeated this agreement, the conference set in motion a process in which the League of Nations established British mandates over Palestine and Iraq, in 1920, and a French mandate for Syria, in 1923. The borders of the region were finalized in 1926, when the vilayet of Mosul — which Arabs and Ottomans had long associated with al-Iraq al-Arabi (Arab Iraq), made up of the provinces of Baghdad and Basra — was attached to what was then called the Hashemite Kingdom of Iraq.

On a deeper level, critics of the Middle East’s present borders mistakenly assume that national borders have to be delineated naturally, along rivers and mountains, or around various identities in order to endure. It is a supposition that willfully ignores that most, if not all, of the world’s settled borders are contrived political arrangements, more often than not a result of negotiations between various powers and interests. Moreover, the populations inside these borders are not usually homogenous.

The same holds true for the Middle East, where borders were determined by balancing colonial interests against local resistance. These borders have become institutionalized in the last hundred years. In some cases — such as Egypt, Iran, or even Iraq — they have come to define lands that have long been home to largely coherent cultural identities in a way that makes sense for the modern age. Other, newer entities — Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for instance — have come into their own in the last century. While no one would have talked of a Jordanian identity centuries ago, a nation now exists, and its territorial integrity means a great deal to the Jordanian people.

The conflicts unfolding in the Middle East today, then, are not really about the legitimacy of borders or the validity of places called Syria, Iraq, or Libya. Instead, the origin of the struggles within these countries is over who has the right to rule them. The Syrian conflict, regardless of what it has evolved into today, began as an uprising by all manner of Syrians — men and women, young and old, Sunni, Shiite, Kurdish, and even Alawite — against an unfair and corrupt autocrat, just as Libyans, Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Bahrainis did in 2010 and 2011.

The weaknesses and contradictions of authoritarian regimes are at the heart of the Middle East’s ongoing tribulations. Even the rampant ethnic and religious sectarianism is a result of this authoritarianism, which has come to define the Middle East’s state system far more than the Sykes-Picot agreement ever did. [Continue reading…]

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