Syria can’t get worse? Check out the Turkish border

Politico reports: The border crossing where hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees entered Turkey in the first years of the war is almost deserted. It’s been closed for a year, and any Syrian hoping to be smuggled to safety in the neighboring country risks being shot.

Just across the frontier, in Syria, the situation is infinitely worse. Some 45,000 civilians were displaced by recent fighting between moderate rebels and ISIL in mid-April, and 20,000 are sleeping out in the open, aid workers say.

“People are sitting on blankets, sleeping under the trees,” Ali al-Sheikh, a Syrian humanitarian volunteer, said at the Kilis border crossing Saturday. “They are short of drinking water. There are very few tents. There is sewage all around.”

This is the scene that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk didn’t see when they visited a model refugee camp 50 kilometers from the border last weekend. The town of Kilis, whose 90,000 inhabitants have been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their warm reception of 130,000 Syrians, was deemed too dangerous to visit.

Violence is on the rise, with ISIL militants frequently firing rockets from Syria into Turkey. Since January, 17 people have been killed and 61 wounded in cross-border attacks. The latest occurred the day before Merkel and Tusk’s visit aimed at propping up the controversial EU-Turkey deal that the German chancellor regards as key to limiting the arrivals of refugees in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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A Syrian rebel’s slaying in Turkey points to the long, lethal reach of ISIS

The Washington Post reports from Nizip in Turkey: On a drizzly afternoon this month, they gathered in the tree-lined cemetery here to bid farewell to a charismatic rebel and outspoken enemy of the Islamic State.

The mourners wept as they hoisted his coffin, draped in the three-star flag of Syria’s opposition. They proudly recalled his valor in battles against government forces and his defiance of the religious extremists who have tried to overtake their rebellion.

But the way that Zaher al-Shurqat’s life ended filled those at his funeral with dread.

An apparent Islamic State militant followed the 36-year-old into an alley in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and fired a round into his head. He was the fourth prominent Syrian critic of the Islamic State to be assassinated in the past six months in southern Turkey, far beyond the militants’ stronghold in Syria.

“We’re not safe here in Turkey. ISIS is watching us,” said a 24-year-old former rebel who attended the funeral in Nizip, a town about 30 miles east of Gaziantep. As do many fellow Syrians who have taken refuge in the area, the man spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of the militant group, also known as ISIS and ISIL. [Continue reading…]

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‘My soul is in Damascus’: Portraits of life on the refugee trail

In a moving series of sketches, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad captures grueling journeys blighted by poverty and exploitation: Last summer, the Turkish port city of Izmir became the springboard for hundreds of thousands of refugees hoping to reach Greece. They came looking for smugglers to take them to sea – and lifejackets to keep them alive. Every third shop on Fevzi Pasha Boulevard, a wide shopping street that led to the smugglers’ quarter, was happy to oblige.

“Original Yamaha,” shopkeepers would shout to passing refugees. “Come in and try one.” Some shoe-sellers and tailors put their usual stock in the basements, and started selling crudely made lifejackets instead. Smugglers block-booked the rooms of nearby hotels for their clients. Greece lay just across the Aegean.

In 2015, if there was a ground zero for Europe’s migration crisis, it was here, on the western Turkish coast. But a few months on, a deal has been struck between the EU and Ankara which should see most migrants arriving in Greece being deported back to Turkey, and the picture is very different. The hotels are empty. And the shopkeepers on Fevzi Pasha Boulevard are largely back to their original stock.

Sitting in a cafe in front of the train station, a thick orange scarf wrapped around his neck, a Syrian tailor watches people timidly as his son makes castles out of sugar cubes. A few weeks ago this cafe and the square teemed with smugglers conducting their illicit trade in the open, and refugees negotiating prices. Today, two Turkish police officers stand on a street corner to scare away smugglers and their clients. [Continue reading…]

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Dutch journalist ‘detained in Turkey’ over Erdogan criticism

Deutsche Welle reports: Ebru Umar, a columnist for the Dutch “Metro” newspaper, says she has been detained for publishing tweets critical of the Turkish president. This comes after a diplomatic spat between Turkey and the Netherlands.

The detention occurred at Umar’s home in the western Turkish resort town of Kusadasi late Saturday, according to a post on the journalist’s Twitter account. [Continue reading…]

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Angela Merkel, accused of betraying core values, faces a balancing act with Turkey

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The New York Times reports: Last September, Chancellor Angela Merkel was widely seen as an idealist, charitably welcoming hundreds of thousands of refugees to Germany in the face of stiff opposition at home and from European allies. But the influx swiftly became too much to handle.

Fast forward, and this year it is a rather different Angela Merkel at the helm, with an approach toughened by experience. This is the pragmatic Angela Merkel, who entered a calculated deal with an increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to try to stanch the migrant flow.

Ms. Merkel now stands accused by a new chorus of critics of not only betraying her ideals on immigration but also of jeopardizing core European values, as the costs of doing business with Mr. Erdogan become painfully clearer by the week.

Mr. Erdogan, who has stifled the news media at home and shown little tolerance for criticism, has used his new leverage in Europe to extend his brand of censorship to Germany, employing diplomatic threats, and now a private lawsuit, to try to silence a German comedian who skewered him.

The satirist, Jan Böhmermann, had earned plaudits but also criticism when, on his TV show two weeks ago, he read a crude poem, which he himself labeled “abusive criticism,” and accused Mr. Erdogan of lewd behavior and fierce political repression.

That case has now become Exhibit A in the unpalatable bargains Ms. Merkel has made in pursuit of security and political survival, or what might be known as realpolitik version 2016. [Continue reading…]

The New York Times reports: Chancellor Angela Merkel, caught in a bind by Turkey’s bid to silence a German satirist who lampooned President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said on Friday that her government would allow the case to go forward, but that the outdated law that permits it would be repealed with effect from 2018.

Announcing the decision to allow the court case against Jan Böhmermann, the comic, to proceed, Ms. Merkel repeatedly insisted that Germany backs the freedom of press, opinion and culture and believes in the rule of law. “Not the government, but the courts and the legal system will have the last word,” she said.

Pointedly referring to Turkey as a partner and a NATO ally, Ms. Merkel said that Germany expects the government in Ankara to heed democratic norms and that Berlin has observed attempts to restrict freedom of media and the justice system in Turkey “with great concern.” [Continue reading…]

Anna Sauerbrey writes: Though it’s a fact often overlooked by the rest of the world, Germany is a funny place — seriously. Long before Jon Stewart and Samantha Bee redefined topical American humor, comedians here perfected the art of sharp political satire.

For the most part, German politicians get the joke. But now politics and comedy are colliding in a new way — a collision that exposes the tragicomedy of modern European politics in a way that no late-night monologue ever could. [Continue reading…]

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Syria peace talks — democracy left out in the cold

Saleh M. Mohamed writes: This week, United Nations talks meant to chart a path toward a peaceful, democratic future for Syria are set to resume in Geneva. But, in an absurd twist, the legitimate representatives of a large, democratically governed area in the country will not be invited to attend.

This area is called Rojava, in the northern part of Syria, and despite its frequent description as “Kurdish,” it is governed inclusively by Kurds, Arabs, and the area’s other ethnic groups. Furthermore, its self-defense forces are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces backed by the United States that have advanced toward Raqqa, the center of the Islamic State’s power in Syria.

Both in strategic and moral terms, Rojava’s existence is a rare bright spot in this conflict. So the exclusion of its representatives from the U.N. process is not only unfair, but makes no sense if the aim of the talks is to establish a viable path to democracy in Syria.

The primary reason for this injustice is that Turkey opposes Rojava’s military force, the People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., claiming it is one and the same with the P.K.K., a Kurdish group with a long history of armed conflict with the Turkish government.

This is not true. Both groups are Kurdish, but the Syrian Kurds, with their Arab allies and international support, are locked in a difficult, but thus far successful, battle against the Islamic State. The Y.P.G.’s fight is about Syria, not Turkey. Its role is to defend the institutions of self-government in Northern Syria (the party of which I am co-president, the Democratic Union Party, is part of this political coalition, along with other parties and civil society organizations).

It’s a fair question to ask what kind of democracy this is. Its central philosophy is that people should govern themselves from the bottom up, and so as much decision making as possible is left to local assemblies. These assemblies, furthermore, are designed to ensure a voice for non-Kurdish minorities and for women. This is real and genuinely inclusive democracy, and it deserves to be supported, not ignored. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish-backed rebels in Syria make major gains against ISIS

The Washington Post reports: Turkish-backed rebels in northern Syria have been driving Islamic State militants out of vast areas along the frontier with neighboring Turkey, seizing a key border town from the extremist group in their latest gains.

The capture overnight Thursday of Rai, about 40 miles northeast of Aleppo, by groups affiliated with the umbrella Free Syrian Army deprives the Islamic State of one of its last border crossings from Turkey into Syria. Rai had been a key conduit for the group to funnel fighters and weapons.

The takeover — confirmed by the rebel groups and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring organization — represents a major setback for the Islamic State, which depends heavily on smuggling pathways through Turkey. [Continue reading…]

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A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares

Thomas de Waal writes: For almost three decades, the most dangerous unresolved conflict in wider Europe has lain in the mountains of the South Caucasus, in a small territory known as Nagorno-Karabakh. In the late 1980s, the region confounded the last Soviet leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev. In the early 1990s, the conflict there created more than a million refugees and killed around 20,000 people. In 1994, after Armenia defeated Azerbaijan in a fight over the territory, the two countries signed a truce — but no peace agreement.

Nagorno-Karabakh erupted again last weekend. It seems one of the players — most likely Azerbaijan — decided to change the facts on the ground. Dozens of soldiers from both sides were killed before a cease-fire was proclaimed on Tuesday. It could fall apart at any moment. The situation is volatile, and there is a danger that the conflict could escalate further unless the international community stops it.

A new all-out Nagorno-Karabakh conflict is the stuff of nightmares. Given the sophisticated weaponry both sides now possess, tens of thousands of young men would most likely lose their lives. Russia and Turkey, already at loggerheads and with military obligations to Armenia and Azerbaijan, respectively, could be sucked into a proxy war. Fighting in the area would also destabilize Georgia, Iran and the Russian North Caucasus. Oil and gas pipeline routes from the Caspian Sea could be threatened, too. [Continue reading…]

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In Nagorno-Karabakh, a bloody new war with Putin on both sides

The Daily Beast reports: Nagorno-Karabakh, an enclave in Azerbaijan that became breakaway republic backed by Armenia in all spheres of life, has been living in a not-quite-frozen state of war since 1994. Every schoolboy in the mountainous little republic has grown up knowing that after graduation he will put on a uniform and join the military to police the unstable cease-fire. The republic’s 150,000 people, mostly ethnic Armenians, remember rockets destroying apartment buildings in the fighting more than 20 years ago, and have long feared that their worst nightmare of full-scale war would return.

Now it looks like it has.

The war woke up on Saturday night with both sides of the front using armored vehicles, battle tanks, and aviation, launching multiple rockets, and shooting artillery at each other. Over 30 people were killed and dozens wounded in the worst combat in the last two decades.

The regional implications are hard to miss. Armenia is one of Russia’s closest allies and Turkey immediately backed up Azerbaijan at a time when relations between Moscow and Ankara are bitter and vindictive. Given the war in Syria, where Russia and Turkey back opposing sides, and Turkey shot down a Russian warplane in November, the current eruption between Armenia and Azerbaijan is even more geopolitically dangerous than two decades ago. [Continue reading…]

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Europe begins sending people back across the sea, defying human rights outcry

The Washington Post reports: The European Union began offloading its refugee crisis onto its Turkish neighbors Monday, sending back more than 200 migrants in the first stage of a plan to deport thousands that has drawn condemnation from human rights groups.

The returns — carried out at dawn and under heavy security — were intended to send a powerful message to others considering the journey from Turkey to Greece via a smuggler’s rubber raft: Don’t even bother.

Authorities braced for demonstrations or other forms of resistance from those being sent back only days after crossing the Aegean and arriving on European soil in search of a new life — part of a massive migrant wave that has tested Europe’s resources and highlighted the desperation to the east in war zones such as Syria.

But the expulsions were carried out smoothly and quietly; two ferries packed with migrants and E.U. escorts slipped away from the island of Lesbos and charted an eastbound course toward the rising sun along the blue mountains of the Turkish coast.

A third ferry left the island of Chios, bringing the total sent back to 202 by late Monday — nearly all from Pakistan or Afghanistan. Both islands are popular landing spots for refugee rafts.

Under a deal struck with Turkey last month, all refugees and migrants who arrive on Greek shores aboard smugglers’ rafts from March 20 onward will be sent back.

In return, the European Union has said it will accept one Syrian refugee from Turkey for every Syrian who is returned. Germany said Monday that it had accepted its first several dozen Syrians flown from Turkey under the new program. [Continue reading…]

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Turkey is no ‘safe haven’ for refugees – it shoots them at the border

Patrick Kingsley writes: It was beyond sad to read in the Times this week that Turkish border guards have allegedly shot dead Syrians trying to reach safety in Turkey. Sixteen refugees, including three children, have been killed trying to escape the battlegrounds of northern Syria in the past four months, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a frequently cited watchdog.

It is shocking to think of people fleeing the combined atrocities of Islamic State and Bashar al-Assad being gunned down just as they make their bid for safety. But what is perhaps most shocking of all is that we observers are still shocked by this.

The shooting of Syrians on the border is not a new phenomenon. Refugees and rights groups have reported shootings of migrants on the Turkish-Syrian border since at least 2013. These abuses are well-documented, and the reports widely circulated. So why, in the months following a shady European deal that forces Turkey to shoulder the biggest burden of the refugee crisis, are we still so appalled when Turkey continues to use deadly violence to stop that burden getting any bigger? [Continue reading…]

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Amid clashes, Greece presses on with plan to deport refugees

The New York Times reports: Violent clashes erupted in Greek refugee camps among panicked migrants as Greece and the European Union pressed ahead on Friday with their intention to expel them from Europe and deport thousands back to Turkey, despite strong objections from rights groups and United Nations relief officials who say the plan is illegal and inhumane.

Hundreds of migrants broke out of an overcrowded detention center on the Greek island of Chios and began walking to the port to protest a European Union deal that went into effect in March, authorizing Greece to return them to Turkey if their applications for asylum in Europe were not accepted. The deportations officially begin on Monday.

Video clips in the Greek media showed migrants streaming away from the camp unhindered by the police, hours after a brawl broke out at the camp’s registration center. Several refugees were taken to a hospital after the riot police used stun grenades, and a help center run by Doctors Without Borders was destroyed, forcing the aid group to abandon its work. More than 1,500 migrants were being held at the center, designed for 1,200. Three people were also reported stabbed during a migrant riot on the island of Samos, where another detention facility operates. [Continue reading…]

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As long as there is no real democracy in the Middle East, ISIS will continue to mutate

David Hearst writes: The betting is that neither the pro-Assad coalition nor the Saudi-backed one will prevail in Syria. The likeliest outcome of a ceasefire is a Syria permanently fragmented into sectarian statelets in the way Iraq was after the US invasion.

This could be regarded as the least worst option for foreign powers meddling in Syria. Jordan, the Emirates and Egypt will have stopped this dangerous thing called regime change. Saudi will have stopped Iran and Hezbollah. Russia will have its naval base and retain a foothold in the Middle East. Assad will survive in a shrunken sectarian state. The Kurds will have their enclave in the north. America will walk away once more from the region.

There is just one loser in all this – Syria itself. Five million Syrians will become permanent exiles. Justice, self-determination, liberation from autocracy will be kicked into the long grass.

The history of the region has lessons for foreign powers. It proves that fragmentation only leads to further chaos. The region needs reconciliation, common projects and stability as never before. That will not come from creating sectarian enclaves backed by foreign powers.

The Islamic State is a distraction from the real struggle of the region, which is liberation from dictatorship and the birth of real democratic movements. IS is not a justification for the strong men. It is a product of their resistance to change. History did not start in 2011 and it won’t stop now. The revolutions of 2011 were empowered by decades of misrule. There is a reason why millions of Arab rose – peacefully at first – against their rulers and that reason still exists today.

As long as there is no real democratic solution in the Middle East, the Islamic State group will continue to mutate like a pathogen that has become antibiotic-resistant in the body politic of the Middle East. Each time it changes shape, it will become more virulent. [Continue reading…]

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Erdogan’s security detail assault reporters and protesters outside Washington, D.C. venue at which Turkish president spoke

The Atlantic reports: Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s security detail manhandled reporters and protesters at an event at which the Turkish president was speaking.

Turkish media and the president’s critics are by now used to such incidents, but they probably didn’t expect them to happen in Washington, D.C., where Erdogan was speaking at the Brookings Institution. [Continue reading…]

Robert Mackey adds: Now that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has nearly completed a crackdown on dissent at home — closing down opposition newspapers, prosecuting students for joking on Twitter about officials, and putting journalists on trial — he seems intent on silencing critics in other countries as well.

After the president arrived in Washington on Tuesday night, his security team got right to work, harassing protesters and journalists outside his hotel, as writers for one of the papers recently shuttered by Erdogan’s government noted. [Continue reading…]

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Turkish officials: Europe wanted to export extremists to Syria

The Guardian reports: Turkish officials have accused European governments of attempting to export their Islamic extremist problem to Syria, saying the EU has failed to secure its own borders or abide by pledges to share intelligence and cooperate in fighting the jihadist threat.

The failures were outlined by Turkish officials to the Guardian through several documented instances of foreign fighters leaving Europe while travelling on passports registered on Interpol watchlists, arriving from European airports with luggage containing weapons and ammunition, and being freed after being deported from Turkey despite warnings that they have links to foreign fighter networks.

“We were suspicious that the reason they want these people to come is because they don’t want them in their own countries,” a senior Turkish security official told the Guardian. “I think they were so lazy and so unprepared and they kept postponing looking into this until it became chronic.”

The conversations with Turkish officials took place before the latest Isis-claimed terror attacks in Brussels, but those bombings and the attacks in Paris last November brought into stark relief Europe’s failings in tackling the threat from Europeans intent on travelling to Syria or Iraq to fight with Isis and then returned to carry out atrocities at home. [Continue reading…]

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