Syrian Regime Strikes ISIS

A few of my thoughts for Syria Deeply 26 June 2014

Syrian regime fighter jets launched aerial attacks yesterday on key positions held by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the eastern Syrian city of Raqqa, and Qaim, across the Iraqi border. The strikes are part of the Syrian government’s intensified campaign against ISIS, which has been using the spoils from its takeover of Mosul earlier this month to propel its expansion in Syria.

The attack surprised those who assumed that Assad, who has until now been fairly passive in fighting ISIS in the east, would focus on the war’s other fronts while letting armed groups fight among – and ultimately weaken – themselves. But as reports emerged that ISIS has been gaining recruits from Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups, concern spread in Damascus that its power could grow faster than expected – possibly requiring intervention.

Syria Deeply: Why did the regime choose to strike now?

Chris Phillips: There has been a lot of press coverage of the regime’s role in ISIS coming [to power]. It had a desire for radicalism to emerge – in order to discredit the opposition – but it doesn’t actually want ISIS to thrive. It doesn’t mean they want them to succeed in taking very large swaths of Syria and Iraq – and I suspect they’ve been genuinely shocked by the capacity ISIS has shown in the last few weeks. While they were content with ISIS controlling parts of eastern Syria, they now see a force that could control parts of Iraq as well – so the regime could be genuinely concerned about ISIS’s momentum and trying to check it.

There’s also the matter of its ally, Iran, which has contributed a large amount to the regime’s war effort and is now sending its own troops to take on ISIS in Iraq. So for it to request [aerial] help from the Syrian government is not out of the question.

Syria Deeply: The regime’s military resources are stretched. Does it have the manpower to fully tackle ISIS?

Phillips: The regime’s position hasn’t changed. It doesn’t have the capacity to reconquer all of Syria. What it seems to want to do is keep the opposition factions, including ISIS, [contained] and fighting each other.

The regime is also attacking ISIS symbolically. The regime’s long-term plan, remember, is to risk short-term international isolation, then wait for the international climate to shift and walk back in. It might see ISIS as that opportunity. If it can present itself as the force in the region that the West can count on to take on ISIS, then its period of international isolation would end.

 

The Golan Heights: ripples of civil war in Israel’s little piece of Syria

By Christopher Phillips

Published in The World Today, June 2014

The Golan Heights is home to thousands of Druze who cling on tenaciously while looking over their shoulder at the chaos in their homeland.

The first thing that strikes visitors to the Golan is its natural beauty. The second is how empty it is. From different vantage points on the Heights you can see the densely packed villages of Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel. But the fertile Golan – an area the size of Berkshire – has barely 40,000 residents.

Until the 1967 Six-Day War, the Golan was home to 145,000 Syrians. It took Israel barely 30 hours of fighting to push the Syrian military out, swiftly punishing the Ba’ath regime for their shelling of Israeli villages from the plateau. The official Israeli line is that the all the Syrian civilians fled with their army.

Fawzi, a Golan resident who was 13 when Syria lost the territory, scoffs. ‘How could 145,000 people flee in 30 hours?’

Recent research by Shay Fogelman, a Haaretz journalist, supports his scepticism. Through declassified documents and witness accounts, Fogelman suggests that while many did flee, more than half remained only to be systematically driven off by the Israeli military. Three months later, most of the Golan’s villages had been bulldozed, and only 6,011 Syrians remained.

Today, Israel’s Tourism Ministry advertises the region as ‘one of the most beautiful and most visited parts of the country’. Israeli tourists enjoying the empty landscape contrast sharply with the 400,000 descendents of the Golan refugees living in cramped Damascene appartments. Many are now ‘twice refugees’ living in Jordanian camps after fleeing the Syrian civil war.

While Damascus used Israel’s occupation of the Golan as justification for decades of oppression at home, little was done to reclaim it, with the Syrian front being Israel’s quietest border. Israel has in the past considered returning the territory in exchange for peace with Syria, but the negotiations in 1999-2000 and 2007-8 broke down in recrimination. The eruption of civil war in Syria in 2011 by rebels challenging the 40-year-old Assad dictatorship has all but ended any prospect of diplomacy.

The Syrians who remained in 1967 and their descendents now number 20,000, living in five villages in the far north of the Golan. Almost all are Druze, a schismatic sect of Shia Islam based mostly in Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Jordan, whose multicoloured flag is seen affixed to many Golan homes. Their religion partly explains their survival on their land in 1967. Some residents suggests that the Druze’s bitter history of leading a revolt against French rule in Syria in 1925 made them more aware than other Golan residents of the perils of flight, and hence community leaders in 1967 ordered villagers to stay put. But others suggest a more cynical explanation which is supported by Fogelman’s research.

According to Fogelman, the Israeli army – knowing that the Druze in Mandate Palestine had proved willing to accept Jewish rule after the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 – left the Syrian Druze in place in 1967, hoping that they would do the same. This proved a miscalculation.

In 1981 Israeli law was formally extended over the Heights, an illegal annexation in all but name that has never been internationally recognized, and the Golan Druze were invited to take citizenship. Less than 10 per cent accepted the offer, and they were ostracized as the region erupted in a two-year campaign of strikes and protests. Many, Fawzi included, spent time in Israeli prisons, ‘for being nationalists’.

In Majdal Shams, the largest of the villages, the anniversary of the 1981 annexation is commemorated annually by thousands of marchers waving the flags of Syria’s Ba’athist government.

‘We know that we are a de facto part of Israel, and that we won’t go back to Syria any time soon,’ says Dr Taisseer Maray, director of the Golan for Development centre which provides health, education and agricultural support. ‘But we have to defend our culture which Israel is attacking. They want to make us “Druze Israelis”, but we’re not. We’re Syrian.’

According to its director, the centre provides a ‘parallel structure’ to enable Syrians to cope with ‘long-term occupation’ so that they don’t depend on Israeli services.

Outside the centre, views are not so black and white. Nearly 50 years of occupation has brought a degree of pragmatic co-existence between Syrian and Israeli. Residents of the Golan enjoy full citizenship rights, though their nationality is officially ‘undefined’, and many work and study ‘down there’, as the locals call it.

Wael, a 30-year-old postgraduate, lived in Haifa for ten years. ‘I have many Israeli friends,’ he says, ‘but, of course, we don’t talk politics.’ For some younger villagers like Wael and the many others smoking shisha and drinking in Majdal Shams’s many cafes, the rhetoric of Syrian nationalism is a bit stale.

‘I don’t even know what Syria is,’ says Wael, ‘The occupation began long before I was born.’ For Najat, manager of the village’s largest hotel that caters for Israeli skiers, ‘Our primary worry is not politics, it’s that there was no snow this year.’

Yet even among the village’s pragmatists, variations of Arab, Syrian and Druze identities run strong. There is strong solidarity with the Palestinians and condemnation of Israel’s policies in the West Bank. Similarly, both Najat and Wael complain of ‘anti-Arab racism’ in Israel. Moreover, there are now 20,000 Jewish settlers on the Golan. While the settler movement here is far smaller than their more ardent West Bank equivalent, the new arrivals, proudly living under the blue Star of David flag, now represent half of the Golan’s population. ‘They’re trying to box us in,’ remarks Fawzi, complaining that the tiny Jewish settlement of Nimrod was placed amid Druze villages to prevent the latter’s expansion.

It is the situation in Syria, not Israel, which attracts most concern. Machinegun fire and shelling from the civil war can be heard daily in Majdal Shams. While in Syria itself most Druze have sided with Assad, fearful of the sectarianism espoused by Sunni radicals among the rebels, in the Golan opinions seem evenly split.

During the civil war’s early years, there were fights between supporters of President Bashar Al-Assad and the opposition in the village’s main square. As throughout Syria, families and communities are torn by competing loyalties. ‘I like Bashar,’ smiles Najat, ‘but my husband’s with the opposition. So we try not to talk about it.’

Some insist that informants for Assad operate within the village, prompting displays of loyalty out of fear of what might happen to their families in Syria. Others are genuinely supportive of Assad, believing the alternative would mean sectarian fanaticism in Damascus. ‘I worry what would happen to us if Bashar fell and then the Golan returned to Syria,’ ponders Wael, ‘Sunni radicals don’t like the Druze. That said, Bashar is trying to be a king in a republic, and that’s just wrong.’

Fawzi, Dr Maray and those working at the centre tend to support the opposition. ‘The Assad regime is the worst in history,’ declares Fawzi, who displays the threestarred flag of the Syrian opposition on his desk. ‘Sadly, the majority in Majdal Shams supports Bashar. They are scared of anti- Druze fanatics.’

The war is getting closer, with Israel reporting that both the rebels and Assad’s Lebanese allies Hezbollah have crossed into the Golan during 2014. In March, three Israeli soldiers were injured in a blast, prompting a retaliatory air strike.

Yet, as ever, the last Syrians on the Golan have no choice but to wait and see what fate the powers around them will deliver. That said, after 50 years there remains a determination to keep their culture, independence and spirit alive – whichever flag they live under. 

Erdogan’s War

By Christopher Phillips

Published in Middle East Eye, 4th June 2014

The days when Recep Tayyip Erdogan was hailed as a democratic reformer at home and a diplomatic visionary abroad seem a distant memory. The violent suppression of protestors commemorating the Gezi Park protests this month, and his alleged punching of a critic after the Soma mining disaster are the latest in a long line of repressive actions fuelling a growing opposition movement.That said, the Turkish prime minister retains substantial support that delivered him victory in March’s municipal elections with 43% of the vote, boosting his chances of being elected president in August.

In foreign policy, however, there are no silver linings. Erdogan’s hopes of joining the EU have broken down; his close ties to US president Barack Obama are strained over the crackdowns; while his steadfast support for the Muslim Brotherhood has rocked relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Yet one area stands out as Erdogan’s greatest foreign policy headache: the ongoing civil war in neighbouring Syria.

While Syria’s three year war is often characterised as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the US and Russia, it is Turkey that has played one of the most central roles. After calling for president Bashar al-Assad to stand down in 2011, Ankara allowed the rebel Free Syria Army to be based in its territory. This facilitated military success against Assad in northern Syria in 2012-13.

With Ankara’s acquiescence, rebels captured most of the crossings along Syria’s 910km border with Turkey. This, along with Turkey’s much vaunted “open door” policy to Syrian refugees allowed fighters, funds and weapons to steadily flow south. While Turkey denies providing weapons directly, eye witness accounts and journalistic investigations dispute this and, at the minimum, a blind eye has deliberately been turned to arming by allies such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar or the CIA. Either way, Turkey became the vital staging ground for the rebels’ war with Assad.

Yet this approach has failed. Ankara modelled its strategy on the fall of Gaddafi in Libya in 2011 and expected a US-led international intervention once a rebel foothold was secured. But no intervention came, with the last hope seemingly extinguished when Obama called off a proposed strike in September 2013 after a regime chemical weapon attack.

Assad, with considerable support from Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, has meanwhile halted the rebels’ charge south and the opposition has fractured into various Islamist, jihadist and al-Qaeda affiliated militia – some more concerned with fighting one another or carving out local fiefdoms than fighting Damascus. Indeed, external backers including Turkey have contributed to these divisions by supporting divergent groups based on ideological affinity and short term military goals.

Assad remains in power and is likely to stay for some time. Though he may never reconquer northern Syria, the region looks set to become a security threat on Turkey’s doorstep, a safe haven for Jihadist and Kurdish separatist militia. Turkish media claimed that one such group, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIL), were behind the Reyhanli bombing that killed 51 Turks in May 2013. Add to this the 800,000 refugees now sheltering in Turkey, and the internal sectarian tensions Ankara’s involvement in Syria has caused, it seems that 3 years after Erdogan cut his ties with the Ba’ath regime, his goals remain unfulfilled and his country is worse off.

So how culpable is the prime minister? Erdogan was already the leading force in determining Turkish foreign policy, alongside Foreign minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, but he took a particular interest in the Syria crisis, being personally outraged when his former ally Assad refused to halt the violence as he’d promised in 2011. Erdogan subsequently lobbied Obama in person to intervene militarily, reportedly enraged when the 2013 military strike was cancelled.

There is little public support for his stance, with only 33% backing it in 2012, and, given the top-down nature of the premier’s leadership style, Turkish involvement in Syria might be seen as ‘Erdogan’s war’. Indeed, one must ask whether a different premier would have taken such an uncompromising and combative approach.

Moreover, it is an approach characterised by successive miscalculations. Erdogan firstly overestimated his influence over Assad, falsely believing he could persuade his ally to reform, then he under-estimated the durability of Assad’s regime, thinking it would crash as quickly as other dictatorships in Egypt or Tunisia. He then over-estimated the willingness of the US to intervene militarily as it had in Libya, and finally over-estimated the opposition’s unity, not realising the ideological and personal fissures that would split the already disorganize rebels.

In fairness, Erdogan was joined in his miscalculations by many leaders who opposed Assad. However, the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the West don’t share Syria’s longest border and risk the level of blowback that could befall Turkey.

In spite of failure so far, there seem few signs of any shift in Turkish policy. Turkey’s involvement could even escalate. A recent leaked tape showed head of National Intelligence (MIT) and Erdogan ally Hakan Fidan proposing a Turkish invasion of Syria under a false pretext, though it also suggested caution from the military.

Similarly, when rebels led by al-Qaeda affiliate Jubhat al-Nusra captured the Syrian village of Kassab in March, Turkish commentators noted that, given the proximity to Turkey, the operation must have had Ankara’s support. Davutoglu emphatically denied any Turkish involvement or ties to Jihadist groups.

However, Turkey’s western allies increasingly see the Syrian war through a security lens. Three murders at a Brussels Jewish museum in May were allegedly the first terror attacks committed in Europe by a Jihadist returnee from Syria, and pressure will increase on Turkey to tighten its border. Any alleged Turkish ties to jihadists would also likely be increasingly scrutinised should attacks in Europe increase.

In such circumstances how long can Erdogan’s forlorn strategy to topple Assad continue before Turkey too is forced to prioritise a more securitised approach? That said, given the stubbornness that has characterised Erdogan’s political career thus far, don’t expect any sudden U-turns on his war in Syria just yet.

 

Western Policy towards Syria: Ten Recommendations

Chatham House Programme Paper
By Claire Spencer, Christopher Phillips and Jane Kinninmont, December 2013

See paper here

In the face of the mounting crisis in Syria over the past two and a half years, Western governments (primarily those of the United States, United Kingdom and France) have oscillated between explicit demands for President Bashar al-Assad to leave and implicit acceptance of him as a viable partner in UN-brokered peace negotiations. During this time, they have moved from considering military intervention to including al-Assad in the Geneva II meeting, tentatively scheduled for January 2014, following his agreement to surrender Syria’s chemical weapons in September.

Western positions have thus not been as consistent as those expounded by the main supporters of the Syrian government (primarily Russia and Iran). In parallel, but not directly linked to negotiations, Western governments have taken the lead in coordinating humanitarian efforts for up to half of the Syrian population, which is now in urgent need of assistance.

This paper seeks to inform a more strategic approach to the overall Western response to the crisis in Syria and its immediate neighbourhood. It argues that a more effective Western strategy must be based on moving away from the simplified popular depiction of the conflict as primarily sectarian and religiously based. Such a strategy needs to involve clearer objectives, including ending violence, minimizing killing, and preventing state collapse. It also needs to be targeted at the areas where the West has leverage, and move beyond the focus on uniting the opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition, to engage with a broader swathe of Syrian opinion.

This paper makes the following ten recommendations for Western governments:

1. Identify clearer objectives and prioritize what matters most in Syria.

2. Safeguard the integrity of the state and what remains of civil society.

3. Focus on areas where there is leverage.

4. Engage with a wider set of Syrian actors.

5. Engage more broadly with civil society.

6. Identify areas for common ground between key players.

7. Plan for reforming post-conflict security institutions.

8. Think about how to guarantee post-conflict security.

9. See the UN as more than a humanitarian and coordinating agency.

10. Avoid seeing the crisis primarily through a sectarian lens.

Thanks for tear-gassing me, Tayyip (Notes from Turkey: Istanbul, Antakya and Ankara)

Caught in a protest

I am in Turkey at an interesting time. Last year I spent the summer here examining the government’s response to the Syria crisis, noting in a report that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s confrontation with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is widely unpopular and could prompt serious opposition. While this summer’s anti-Erdogan demonstrations centred on Istanbul’s Taksim Square (and the brutality of the government’s crackdown) certainly surprised me, in essence they were rooted in the same tensions I had noted. The demonstrators’ central complaint was Erdogan’s arrogance as a leader, and his willingness to openly defy public opinion. This ranges from unpopular foreign policy, as in Syria, to sensitive domestic issues like recently imposed strict alcohol laws or the proposed demolition of Gezi Park in Taksim that prompted the unrest. Visiting Istanbul last month, it was clear from the activists and intellectuals I spoke to that protests were on hold rather than over. As it happens, they re-erupted two blocks from where I was staying in Antakya last week.

'Tayyip's Army' (Photo from the Guardian - http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

‘Tayyip’s Army’ (Photo from the Guardian – http://bit.ly/18jPLqO)

Earlier in the summer, almost every city saw widespread and prolonged solidarity protests with Gezi Park. All but four of Turkey’s 81 provinces reportedly saw unrest, and most were met with a similar police response.  It has left its mark on the growing street-level opposition movement and one spark seems able to set off another round of nation-wide protest. That was provided on Monday night, when a 22-year-old, Ahmet Ataka, was killed by police in Antakya, himself protesting in solidarity with activists at MET University in Ankara. The cause of his death was a matter of debate: activists said he was hit by a tear-gas canister, while the police released videos showing a body falling from a high building, claiming he fell. Unaware of what had happened, I myself passed his improvised shrine on Tuesday morning and the angry crowd that had already gathered.

By the early evening, on my way back home, the police were blocking my path. Local youth had created improvised barricades, set fires on the road and a vast police presence had moved in to cordon off the area. Unlike most Antakyans, none of the police spoke Arabic: they were outsiders specifically brought in for this task. The officer gestured to me to turn back, suggesting that the rioters were shooting. However, all I heard were the repeated thuds of tear gas canisters being let off. Not knowing the city well and with my only route home blocked, I weaved my way through the side streets trying to get round the cordon. At points the air was thick with teargas, dense despite being quite far from the demonstrators. Police had gas masks to protect themselves but I had to wade through, spluttering and wincing. It wasn’t pleasant. Friends later told me that this has become common for most urban Turks this summer. The police’s tactic seems to be to fire vast quantities at protestors, irrespective of its disbursement. Later that same night an international under 21s football match between Turkey and Sweden had to be halted because tear gas had spread from nearby protests in Istiqlal Cadessi (off Taksim) and was incapacitating the players. Erdogan’s Police force, it seems, is as unconcerned by the general public as their Prime Minister.

Tayyip’s Army

Protestors have labeled the police ‘Tayyip’s Army’, militarized and well equipped with armoured cars, riot gear and a seemingly never-ending supply of teargas. But the label comes as much from the police’s perceived ideology, as it does from their appearance. Opponents claim that the majority of the police belongs to the Islamist Gulen movement, from which Erdogan’s AK Party draws much of its support. One activist claimed that at least 70% of policemen were Gulenists, and all the commanders. A commentator I spoke to argued these links were the product of a long-term trend begun in the 1980s when the socially conservative Motherland Party (many of whose members eventually joined the AKP) controlled the Ministry of Interior. At this time affiliation to Gulenism within the police was permitted and even encouraged. As such, today the police is dominated by those ideologically supportive of Erdogan’s Islamist policies that most demonstrators are protesting against. To the secularist opponent of Erdogan, the police are the Prime Minister’s foot soldiers to quash any dissent to his Islamic and conservative agenda.

Istanbul's Gezi Park - where it all started...

Istanbul’s Gezi Park – where it all started…

Ahmed Ataka was the sixth protestor to be killed by the police since the Gezi Park demonstrations began in June. Deaths are sadly not surprising given the uncompromising police approach. Erdogan insisted he would not back down or offer any compromise, calling the protestors ‘çapulcu’ or ‘bums’. (The opposition embraced this label and all over Istanbul I saw T-Shirts on sale stating ‘Everyday I’m çapulling’.) Whilst I was shocked by the level of police violence I saw in Hatay – with television showing some vomiting from too much teargas inhalation – an Ankara academic noted that this was fairly standard by Turkish standards over the last 15 or so years. What was different, he stated, was the nature of protestors. Turkish Kurds, for example, have long experienced this level of police brutality, without the same national or international outrage. What makes these protestors different, the academic stated, is their demography: middle class educated secular Turks.

The (slight) ethnic dimension

In Hatay there is a further ethnic dimension to the protests. The unrest was centred on areas dominated by Hatay’s Alawite community (known here as Nusayris, an ancient offshoot of Shia Islam). As a community the Nusayris are largely secular, and natural opponents to Erdogan’s Islamist agenda, but their opposition is deeper than that. They are not happy with the government’s policy towards neighbouring Syria. They sympathize with Bashar al-Assad, a fellow Alawi, to the point that some protestors were filmed chanting the pro-Assad slogan: ‘Syria, Allah, Bashar wa bas!’ (Syria, God, Bashar and nothing else!)[1]. Yet aside from any ethnic solidarity, they share the fears of many of Turkey’s secularists that Bashar’s fall will mean a victory for Sunni Islamists, possibly leading to increased Islamism in Turkey. Many Nusayris complain that Erdogan is exacerbating sectarianism in Turkey. They accuse him of echoing the Gulf’s anti-Shiism regarding the Syria conflict – as one commentator put it, “he is cynically pressing on all our faultlines.” Similarly, they oppose recent AKP plans to divide Hatay into two political provinces, one for Sunnis and one for Nusayris. Antakya has a history of tolerance, with Sunnis, Nusayris and Christians living side by side, and most residents oppose any divisions. Some of the more religious Sunnis in Hatay’s villages are reportedly more sympathetic to the AKP’s policies but the Antakyans I spoke to insist that in the city there is no appetite for sectarian divisions.

The view from Antakya - Syria just around the corner (on the left)

The view from Antakya – Syria just around the corner (on the left)

However, it would be wrong to characterize the protests as purely sectarian. The Nusayri may be at the vanguard of the anti-Erdogan movement in Hatay, but nationwide they are a diverse bunch. Throughout the day numerous Turkish cities saw anti-AKP demonstrations in solidarity with Ahmet Ataka, and the evening saw protests in Izmir and Istanbul, with the Police, inevitably, moving in hard. While Turkey’s non-Sunni minorities, particularly the Nusayris and Alevis (a similar Turkish-speaking Shia offshoot), may be more proportionally represented as they are most threatened by the Erdogan’s sectarianism, the majority are Sunnis, whether secularists or just democrats. Indeed, one person I spoke to who had been in Taksim in June expressed her pleasant surprise that veiled women stood alongside them, demanding an end to Erdogan’s autocratic practices.

Trouble ahead

It was clear from my trip that this movement is not going away, and Erdogan’s heavy-handed approach has only boosted its numbers. As seen by the Ahmet Ataka demonstrations I was caught up in, the anti-Erdogan movement is coordinated across multiple cities, meaning a single incident can spread like wildfire within hours. In 2011, as the Arab Spring began, Erdogan was hailed in both the West and the Middle East as a model for the newly democratizing Arab world to emulate. He was an Islamist committed to pluralism and democracy. His harsh crackdown on dissent in 2013 has exposed this lie. In reality, Erdogan had been edging away from democratic practices for several years. Though he successfully neutered the military, which interfered in Turkish politics for decades, he hasn’t accepted alternative forms of public scrutiny, arresting journalists at a dramatic rate. Indeed most of the Turkish press refused to report the Taksim protests. As one journalists said to me, “there was pressure from the editors and the pro-AKP owners to stay quiet. Noone wanted to lose their job.” Erdogan may compete in fair elections, but he seems to believe that electoral victories give him a mandate to do as he wishes until the next election, regardless of public opinion. Indeed, this is a major structural weakness of Turkey’s political system, which has an appointed president and no second chamber to scrutinize the premier.

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

Opposition mural, Harbiye, Hatay

However, though Erdogan’s reformist image at home and abroad may be shattered, he is far from finished. While the middle class secularists may be getting organized on the streets, the political opposition, the CHP, is still weak. Some are hoping that municipal elections in March will give Erdogan a bloody nose, focusing on an unlikely defeat for the AKP in the Istanbul mayoral elections. However, with Erdogan boasting a huge majority in parliament, supported by Turkey’s conservative religious hinterland, it is unlikely it will lose power any time soon. The Taksim demonstrations may derail Erdogan’s plans to ‘do a Putin’ by changing Turkey’s constitution to make himself a more powerful president, but if that happens, most expect him to remain as prime minster by altering his own party’s constitution which currently forbids this.

Yet Erdogan cannot rest on his laurels. The protests have rattled Turkey, and some wonder if the most likely challenge might come from within the AKP itself. Alongside Erdogan’s conservative base, the support of Turkey’s business community has been key to his success. Many are concerned by the damage to Turkey’s image that the constant cycle of protest and repression brings. Already it has damaged the tourism industry (occupancy rates in Istanbul hotels were very low this summer) and, more importantly, seems to have played a role in Istanbul losing its bid to host the 2020 Olympic games. If protests weaken the economy, key business leaders may begin to view the arrogant premier as more of a liability than an asset and urge the AKP to ditch their captain, with current President Abdullah Gul best positioned to swoop in. The role of the powerful Gulenist movement would also be key were any such internal coup to take place. In the long term these protests may serve as Turkey’s 1968, from which eventually civil society activists and a new generation of pluralist politicians emerges. In the short term, however, Turkey can expect the battle between the street protestors and their steadfast prime minister to continue.


[1] Ulusal TV broadcast, 2115-20, 10/9/13

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 2) and Tyre

Syrian Spillover

The flow of refugees has inevitably raised fears that Lebanon will be sucked into Syria’s civil war. Yet while resentments against the refugees may increase in the future – as they did against the Palestinians – for now, aside from a few snooty looks towards beggars and worries at the increasing crime rate, Lebanon’s latest migrants are not actively creating tensions. That cannot be said of Lebanon’s own domestic actors, however.

Since 2005 Lebanon’s politicians have been divided according to their views towards Syria. Those that successfully pushed for an end to Syria’s post civil war military presence are known as ‘March 14’. They are led by the parties representing Sunni Muslims in Lebanon’s complex sectarian political system, and have substantial support from half of the parties representing the Christians. The other half of the Christian parties back the pro-Syria grouping, ‘March 8’, which is led by the groups representing Lebanon’s Shia: Amal and, the dominant partner, Hezbollah. The Druze leader, Walid Jumblatt, has regularly switched sides, seeking to stay on the winning side.

Beirut's Martyr's Square - All together now?

Beirut’s Martyr’s Square – All together now?

The uprising against Assad has intensified some of these divisions. Syria’s Sunni-dominated opposition movement has most sympathy from Lebanon’s Sunnis (estimated at 27% of the population). The Sunni leaders voice their opposition to Assad but, as the Syria conflict has become increasingly sectarian, they face pressure from their base to do more. As in Syria, frustrations at the traditional leadership have pushed some Sunnis in a more radical direction, and militant Salafism is rising. On the other side, Hezbollah sees the Syria crisis as an existential conflict. If Assad falls, Hezbollah’s supply line from its patron Iran would disappear, making its position hard to sustain. Consequently, as has been widely publicized, Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters to help Assad, playing a decisive role in the regime’s recent recapture of the rebel town of Qusayr.

Lebanon’s Sunnis have been outraged by this. Its has shattered Hezbollah’s general popularity among the Lebanese, won by pushing Israel to end its 18-year occupation of the south in 2000 and then fighting it to a stalemate in 2006. Moreover, it has raised sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shias in Lebanon to a new level. In June a radical Sunni preacher, Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir, and his supporters clashed with the Lebanese army, who were supported (some say encouraged) by Hezbollah in the Sunni coastal city of Sidon. In July a car bomb wounded 53 in Hezbollah’s Shia Beirut stronghold of Dahia, and a second bomb in August killed 20. Groups linked to Lebanese and Syrian Sunni radicals were blamed. A retaliatory car bomb the following week in the Sunni city of Tripoli killed at least 42 was similarly blamed on militant Shia groups, though Hezbollah denied any involvement. Indeed, Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has urged Lebanon’s different sectarian groups to keep their fight outside of Lebanon, insisting that Sunni Takfiris (radicals) are doing the bidding of the US and Israel by creating divisions between Muslims.

Another civil war?

However, while tit-for-tat sectarian bombings may well increase as the violence in Syria worsens, the return to civil war that many Lebanese fear seems unlikely. Firstly, at a military level, the forces are hugely imbalanced. Hezbollah is a professional military, structured, battle-hardened, well-armed and disciplined. In contrast, Sunni forces are disorganized and poorly armed. In 2008 when the Sunni Future Movement fought Hezbollah in the streets of Beirut, they were comprehensively defeated within hours. Even with Hezbollah’s forces stretched by deployment in Syria, it would require a major overhaul of Sunni militant forces and a massive injection of arms from abroad for them to reach a point where they could sustain a prolonged challenge.

Beirut's Place de l'Etoile - Quiet, for now.

Beirut’s Place de l’Etoile – Quiet, for now.

Secondly, the army, Lebanon’s only other professional well-armed group, is effectively on Hezbollah’s side, despite claims to be neutral. The Shia, being Lebanon’s largest and poorest sectarian group (roughly 41% of the population), make up the majority of the army’s soldiers. As such the army is unlikely to be deployed against Hezbollah for fear its soldiers wouldn’t fire on their co-religionists. Lebanon’s Christians  (roughly 27% of the population) are fervent supporters of the army and many of its commanders and, indeed the President and commander and chief, Michel Suleiman, are Christian. Despite being split politically between March 8 and March 14, no Christian wants to see the victory of Sunni radicals in either Syria or Lebanon. While they may not like Hezbollah, the Shia militia has effectively left their way of life alone, unlike the Sunni radicals that have persecuted Christians in Iraq, Egypt and now Syria. As seen with the clash in Sidon when the army worked alongside Hezbollah, the institution is now a defender of the status quo: and that includes Hezbollah’s position as the only powerful non-state militia. Some Christians may not admit it but, as the region again descends into instability, this actually suits them better than the alternative.

Sunni radicalism against Shias in general and Hezbollah in particular is therefore likely to increase but in the form of sporadic violence and terror attacks rather than a genuine military challenge. The real danger will come if Assad actually falls from power in Damascus as Hezbollah might feel its position threatened in Lebanon. In such circumstances it might seek to extend its power over the whole state rather than just to dominate it – something that the Christians and the army would be unlikely to accept.

The South remembers

A trip to the southern city of Tyre serves as a useful explanation for the general support that Assad and Hezbollah retain among Lebanon’s Shia. The press sometimes crudely characterizes the Syrian civil war as part of a regional Sunni-Shia conflict, part of a wider confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. In this narrative Lebanese Shia back Assad for primordial reasons: because he is an Alawite, itself an offshoot of Shia Islam, and because his principle ally is Shia Iran. Yet the reality is more complex.

Tyre - Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

Tyre – Seaside life, a short missile strike from Israel

This is my first trip to the south since before the 2006 war with Israel. My first experience of Lebanon was teaching at a summer school in the Palestinian refugee camp of al-Bass in Tyre in 2003, with the British charity Unipal. Some things have stayed the same: Hezbollah and Amal posters and banners are still hung all over the town. The blank faces of their ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting Israel still stare back hauntingly while smiling children play non-plussed underneath. Other things have changed. For one thing, Tyre feels wealthier. Impressive new structures have been built, including a new highway from Sidon, and there are a lot more visitors from Beirut – both Lebanese and western NGO workers – stretched out on the beach in bikinis in what remains a conservative town. The sun is shining and locals and visitors are enjoying the beach, the seafood, Nargilah and Arak.

People I speak to are strong supporters of Assad. Although they are Shia, sectarianism isn’t mentioned once. Instead one word comes up repeatedly: Israel. For the residents of South Lebanon the modern day Sparta south of the border is their real enemy. It is easy for outsiders to forget, but the 18-year occupation by the IDF, and the brief but brutal 2006 war are imprinted on the memory of the South Lebanese.  One Shia I speak to, a secularist with no love of Hezbollah, was among the estimated 15,000 men his age to spend several years in Israeli prisons in the 1980s and 90s. Though it was (deliberately) destroyed by the IDF in the 2006, Hezbollah used to have a ‘museum of occupation’ in Israel’s notorious Ansar detention facility near the border that catalogued the grim conditions Lebanese prisoners faced. Hezbollah, though founded by Iranian Revolutionary Guards during Lebanon’s civil war, earned its spurs fighting Israel and pushing them out of the country, something for which most southerners remain eternally grateful. Assad, as Hezbollah’s ally and fellow enemy of Israel, has a similar level of support. Indeed, some supporters of Assad I spoke to, both in Tyre and Beirut, simply didn’t believe that the Syrian regime had committed the atrocities it is accused of. The idea that Israel and the US are leading a global conspiracy against Syria, spreading lies and propaganda against Damascus is widely believed.

Incredulous though this blind support sounds, a visit to the south helps to partly explain it. The physical and psychological scars of the occupation and 2006 war are deep, and the hatred towards the enemy that committed it strong. The average southern Lebanese has not experienced Assad’s atrocities, not been subject to his torture machine. They have, however, been subject to Israel’s aggression, losing homes and family in the process, and they are grateful to Assad, Hezbollah and Iran for defending and protecting them. Moreover, after the destruction wrought in 2006, it was Iran, not the fractured government in Beirut, that paid for the rebuilding. The new highway south, for example, is covered in Iranian flags to emphasize its role in financing. The traditionally poor and Shia south has been neglected and discriminated against by Lebanon’s leaders, both Christian and Sunni, for generations. In a region where conspiracy theories flourish, perhaps it is understandable that many of the South Lebanese are now reluctant to believe what those same leaders (in the case of the Sunnis) are now saying about the only people they feel have protected and stood up for them. Of course, a counter argument would be that, in reality, these ‘patrons’ have been manipulative of the south’s suffering – indeed often exacerbating it – to command loyalty in just the kind of crisis they currently face.

Notes from Lebanon: Beirut (Part 1)

Old Beirut - the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Old Beirut – the ruins of the Holiday Inn hotel, left as a reminder of the 1975-90 civil war

Land of the Free?

My latest research trip has brought me to Beirut, to which i have been a regular visitor for a decade now. The city has long marketed itself as a meeting point between East and West: the self-declared ‘Paris of the Middle East’, with a Mediterranean café culture and bar scene that contrasts sharply with the more conservative society found elsewhere in the region. Beirut is certainly the most open Arab city, having long enjoyed the kind of free press and free speech that (some) opposition activists in Syria and Cairo are today struggling to obtain. This freedom is, however, primarily the bi-product of decades of instability. A complex political system established by French imperialists, giving different religious sects each a slice of power, has produced a weak confessional state that has led to regular stalemates, armed stand offs, and two civil wars. Furthermore Lebanon’s location, caught between Syria and Israel, has seen it sucked into Israel’s various conflicts with the Arabs and, more recently, Iran. Since gaining independence in 1943, Lebanon has been attacked by Israel in 1948, 1978, 1982 (an occupation of the south that lasted until 2000), 1993, 1996 and 2006, seen civil wars in 1958 and 1975-90 and a sizeable Syrian military presence from 1976-2005. In short, this is a city and a country that has known almost as much conflict as peace. For all its ostensible openness, the scars, both physical and psychological, are never hard to find.

Today Lebanon faces yet another crisis, in the form of the Syrian civil war to the east, prompting fears of yet more political instability at home and a wave of 1.2 million refugees flooding over the border. However, for all those fears, to me central Beirut looks and feels more settled than at any time I have known. When I first visited in 2003, with the Iraq war increasing regional tensions, the Lebanese army was deployed to protect western businesses like McDonalds and Starbucks. On multiple visits in 2004-5 tensions were again high due to the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in a massive car bomb that ripped through buildings near Beirut’s corniche. The subsequent pro and anti-Syrian demonstrations that led to Syria’s military withdrawal in 2005 and the wave of assassinations of other political figures that followed was also unsettling. Then, during regular trips from Damascus in 2007-8, Hezbollah and its allies had closed the whole of Beirut’s downtown district down following a yearlong sit-in.

New Beirut - the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

New Beirut – the wealthy cafe culture of Downtown

In contrast, today’s Beirut feels more comfortable with itself. The centre remains divided into three clear parts based on civil war demarcations – the Christian East, Muslim West, and the rebuilt, slightly vacuous ‘Downtown’ area between them. However, aside from the odd Christian taxi driver refusing to drive East to West, there appears more harmony between the three segments. They seem increasingly glued together by a thriving westernized young artsy class that open pop up galleries, host music gigs and launched creative shops all over Hamra, the hub of West Beirut, and the Eastern hotspots of Gemayzeh and Mar Mikhael. Indeed, these youth have given central Beirut a more western feel, helped by a noticeable increase in European and American commercial franchises, the second generation Lebanese returning from the US and Australia, the massive growth in western NGO workers and journalists dealing with the Syria crisis living in Lebanon, and the decline in Gulf tourists, deterred by the Syrian crisis from visiting. Indeed, the previously common sight of Gulf men cruising through Gemeyzeh in their Hummers whilst ogling Lebanese girls was a welcome rarity this summer.

Beirut’s latest migrants

For all its hedonism, however, Beirut has always had a darker side. The waves of Palestinian refugees from the 1940s, and internal migrants from the Shia south in the 1970s and 80s created a belt of poverty in the city’s southern suburbs, out of sight from the revelers in Hamra and Gemeyzeh. The weak and fractured state offers little safety net, with flashy reconstruction projects aimed at the elite and foreign tourists taking precedence over infrastructure, schools and hospitals. Indeed, despite boasting restaurants with reclining roofs, most of Beirut experiences blackouts for several hours each day. Yet today this poverty is visible even in wealthy areas, in the form of the vast numbers of Syrian refugees flooding over the border every day. 1.2 million Syrians are now estimated to live in Lebanon, a state with a population of only 4 million, and they are rapidly changing the face of Beirut. Almost every street in wealthy Hamra has multiple Syrian beggars, usually veiled mothers cradling hungry children. Similarly gangs of shoeshine boys chase every passerby in the hope of a thousand lire tip ($0.66). At night the hipsters in Mar Mikhael (Beirut’s Shoreditch) fend off beggar boys, sometimes aggressively.

Officially the Syrians are allowed to reside where they wish (or can afford to), as the government refuses to permit the kind of fixed refugee camps found in Jordan and Turkey. This is partly due to political divisions at the top but mostly from fears that permanent Syrian camps could become bases for destabilizing militants, as the Palestinian camps did in the past, contributing to Lebanon’s civil war. Instead, Syria’s poorest refugees face an acute housing shortage that local and international NGOs and UNHCR are struggling to deal with. With winter approaching, many Syrians lack adequate shelter, medicine, education and winter clothing, but funds are low and coordination is lacking. (If you want to donate, please do so here).

Cool Beirut - the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut's 'Shoreditch'

Cool Beirut – the steps of Mar Mikhael, Beirut’s ‘Shoreditch’

While the poorest refugees have flocked to the area David Hirst describes as the capital’s ‘misery belt’ (the Shia suburbs of Dahia and the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Chatilla) the middle classes have settled in Beirut’s centre. In some cases this is subtly challenging Beirut’s old sectarian appearance. Veiled women, a rarity in East Beirut since the civil war saw Muslims expelled, are now regularly seen in Christian neighbourhoods like Achrafiyeh and Bourj Hammoud. In other places the Syrians have more of a political presence.  Hamra particularly has become a hub for young educated Syrians, and certain cafes and bars overflow with Damascenes and Aleppans engaged in heated political debates over Arak and Nargilah (Shisha). Perhaps inevitably, given they are refugees, most oppose Assad and engage in a range of opposition activity: whether simple acts of defiance via Facebook or organizing small demonstrations in Beirut. Others are involved in humanitarian work for their poorer countrymen in Lebanon. Many travel back into Syria regularly to check on family members and return with the latest news. Not surprisingly, these cafes also attract a fair number of western journalists and NGO workers, all engaged in the ‘Syria industry’ that is, rather depressingly but necessarily, emerging in Lebanon.

One wonders what impact the departure of these educated youth will have on Syria in the future. Though most are outwardly passionately against Assad, many privately express a degree of cynicism and resignation at the situation, acknowledging the opposition’s many faults and the reality that Assad may not fall and some kind of negotiation might eventually be necessary. Moreover, most expect the war to last a long time and are making plans for their own future: either settling into careers in Lebanon or seeking emigration abroad. This is understandable given the miserable fate of their homeland. That said, whatever is left in Syria will be without these moderate and educated voices, possibly increasing the descent into radicalism on both sides. Having spent money educating them, the state’s remorseless violence has now pushed these youth into taking their skills and talents elsewhere. A depressing irony.