THE CHRISTIAN SCIENCE MONITOR/AP (11/28/14) — Syrian rebels backed by the United States are making their biggest gains yet south of the capital Damascus, capturing a string of towns from government forces and aiming to carve out a swath of territory leading to the doorstep of President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
The rebel forces are believed to include fighters who graduated from a nearly 2-year-old CIA training program based in Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan.
Notably, in the south, the rebels are working together with fighters from al-Qaida’s Syria branch, whose battle-hardened militants have helped them gain the momentum against government forces. The cooperation points to the difficulty in American efforts to build up “moderate” factions while isolating militants.
Editor’s Note: With Turkey and Kurdish issues coming to a head in Kobani, we are re-posting LR writer Terry Cowan’s excellent “Which Way Turkey? — A Personal Reflection.” Last week, The Daily Mail (UK) published a story based on the above leaked footage (no sound) , “Oh what a lovely war! Remarkable video shows ISIS fighters strolling right up to Turkish border checkpoint for a relaxing chat with guards.” Turkey has, since the start of the conflict in Syria in 2011, been on a new and dangerous trajectory. How will Turkey respond to the encroaching crisis along its borders and within its territory (a crisis it created in pursuing regime change in Syria)?
Which Way Turkey? by Terry Cowan
Turkey is somewhat in the news these days–and not in a good way. A recent New York Review of Books article considers three books on the current state of affairs, and particularly the fraying relationship between the Gulen movement and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. I have only the most superficial understanding of the Gulen movement and the intricacies of this struggle for leadership among Turkey’s Islamists. Plots and conspiracies abound within this whirlwind, aided in large part by a complicit judiciary on one side and a police community on the other, each willing to do the bidding of their particular faction. And in probably the most important story that you didn’t read in this last week’s news cycle, a video caught high-ranking Turkish government officials planning a false flag attack on Northern Syria. Add to that the fact that the Turkish economic miracle may be fading. And of course, many still recall the demonstrations in Taksim Square from last summer.
I am a great lover of Turkey and recall my first exposure with great fondness, stumbling into the country in 2003, almost as by accident. On a whim, I decided to interrupt an exploration of Bulgaria and take the Balkan Express to Istanbul for a few days. (This was also the occasion of perhaps my personal best as a traveler–making my reservations for a sleeper in mangled French–the only language common to me and the clerk in Sofia.) I first sat foot on Turkish soil at Kapipule, at 2:00 in the morning, as we piled out of the train and made our way, bleary-eyed, across the tracks to the dumpy little border crossing. The train was about to leave by the time I figured out that I must purchase a visa in one building before having my passport stamped in another. In my confusion and haste, I actually boarded the wrong train. But after a momentary panic, I retraced my steps and found my car. The following morning, I disembarked at Istanbul’s Sirkeci station–quite literally the end of the line in Europe. If someone at age 48 could still be described as wide-eyed, then that was my reaction to the city. The bustle of Sultanahmet–and the East–beckoned me in the same way it has captivated other Western travelers through the centuries.
I returned time and again, in and out of Turkey six or seven times by 2011. In the course of these travels, I visited most every major region of the country, save for the southern coastline around to Antakya. For someone with an appreciation of history, the Anatolian countryside yields new discoveries around every corner. And along the way, I came to love the open hospitality of the Turks themselves. To educate myself further, I read Orhan Pamuk, and followed the commentary of Mustafa Akyol. Louis de Bernierres’ Birds Without Wings remains one of my favorite novels (an incredibly powerful narrative of the tragedy–for it is that–of modern Turkey).
Back home, I become an enthusiastic advocate, if not apologist, for Turkey. In 2003, the atmosphere here could only be described as feverish. We had just shocked and awed Iraq, and Turkey’s refusal to allow our bombers to fly-over still rankled in people’s minds. At least in my uninformed part of the country, the Turks were simply part of the unintelligible Muslim other, no different than any other over there. And so, I talked a lot about Turkey, even to the point of joining the crackpots who wrote letters to the local newspaper. I would explain–with mixed success–the all-important differences between Turk and Arab and Kurd and Persian, and that the Sufi-influenced Islam of Anatolia had perhaps always been more moderate than elsewhere.
I often related the anecdote from an acquaintance in Izmir. He told me of wealthy Saudi tourists arriving at the Izmir airport, destined for the Aegean beach resorts. The women would shed their head-coverings in the airport lobby and toss them in the nearest trash bin as soon as possible. So you see, I pleaded, Turkey was different. The most common question I would receive had to do with whether I was “safe” over there. This is, of course, laughable to anyone who has traveled in the region. I assured them that I never once worried about safety until my plane touched down in Texas.
My more informed acquaintances questioned the Islamist faction of the new ruling AKP Party. I reassured them by making a comparison to our own Republican Party. Just as the GOP contains social conservatives, or Movement Conservatives as they are called now, as well as traditional business interest Republicans, so the AKP contains both conservative Islamists and the rising entrepreneurial middle class, both long frustrated by the Kemalist stranglehold on power. In each situation, the two factions have their own particular agendas, which may very well conflict with the other at times.
Certainly some of my Turkish acquaintances fell into this latter category–young, ambitious, educated, western-oriented and not particularly religious. But Istanbul is not really Turkey in the same way that New York City is not really America (and I write this as someone who loves both cities). A foreign visitor to our largest city can be forgiven for not comprehending that a more representative sampling of this country might be found, for example, at the truck stop I recently patronized on Interstate Highway 40 between Memphis and Nashville. And so, even at the first, I sensed that my cool friends in their nice cars might not be the full story of this new Turkey. At Topkapi Palace (not my favorite Istanbul “must-see”), we foreign visitors were probably outnumbered by Turkish tourists from the conservative hinterlands of Anatolia. These sturdy Turkish women, heavy and broad, identically dressed in thick, drab, monochrome gray overcoats and scarves, quite literally elbowed and man-handled me away from a display case in the museum. It seems I lingered too long examining some hairs from the beard of Mohammed.
To my Orthodox Christian co-religionists, I suggested that the AKP, in their supposed piety, might actually be loosening the noose ever so slightly on the Greek church there. Some signs indicated that the continuing persecution of the Church came more from the entrenched judiciary than from the Islamist faction of the AKP. I encouraged friends to travel to Turkey. I developed travel itineraries with tips to make the most of their time there, while avoiding the usual scams.
Even from the first, however, some aspects of the Turkish mindset irritated me to no end. I bristled at their pervasive Turkocentrism–smug and unquestioning. Perhaps this is merely their variation of our own equally unrealistic American Exceptionalism. If so, it is equally unappealing. The Turks have a mythic view of themselves, as we all do, I suppose. Theirs, however, often seems more detached from real history. In all things, we would do well to understand that they consider themselves Turks first, Muslims second, and Sunnis last.
Beyond this, one often finds an indifferent attitude to their past, dismissive and obtusely ignorant of the civilizations that preceded them in Anatolia, or recognizing that Turkish culture itself is greatly derivative of that which went before (my good friend Turan being a notable exception to this). History begins with the Seljuks (if not the Ottomans), and nothing much matters before then. I have found Turks to be notoriously thin-skinned when it comes to criticism of their past. This unquestioning of history is not unique to the Turkish nation, but the skepticism which many Americans have come to view our own past seems largely absent in Turkey. On the other hand, they seem unusually susceptible to the wildest of conspiracy theories.
Turks can display a deft ability to ignore or deny real history. The Armenian Genocide is, of course, the best example of this mindset. In 2006, I endured a tour of the Museum of the Turkish Genocide in Igdir. The Turks have concocted an alternative history in which the poor Turkish peasants were the genocidal victims of the Armenians, not the other way around. The museum and monument is visible from the Armenian border, replete with lurid, cartoonish murals depicting crazed, gun-toting priests leading the Armenians against the noble Turks. So there is that.
None of these concerns prevent me from returning to Turkey, however. In fact, I will be in the far eastern reaches of the country in May of 2014. But my enthusiasm for all things Turkish has waned. My defense of the AKP has come to an end. Broadly speaking, the ruling party displays the same authoritarian bent as the former regime. The judiciary seems no less corrupt. In countless sundry ways, the particular religiosity of the AKP base is making its presence known. The recent ban on the sale of alcohol after 10:00 PM, for example, will be noticeable to even the casual Istanbul tourist.
Hopes of resolving long-standing issues with the Greek Orthodox Church have withered. The cat-and-mouse game between the Patriarchate and the Turkish government regarding the return of Halki Seminary has turned out to be just that, a game. In the 1990s, the government looked the other way while Kurds undertook the ethnic cleansing of the Suriani Orthodox Christians in the Tur Abdin. And there seems no outcry within Turkey today as their judiciary completes that operation, confiscating the 1,400 year old Mor Gabriel Monastery, one of the last Christian enclaves in the region (visited by this writer in 2006).
For political reasons, the exquisite Hagia Sophia Church–the jewel of the Trapezuntine kingdom–has now been converted into a mosque though Trabzon hardly lacks for Muslim worship venues. And this brings us to the current discussion of doing the same with the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. In the past, this would have been unimaginable, and I would have dismissed such as wild conspiracy talk. In the new political realities of Turkey, such an outcome looks more like a distinct possibility. Robert Ousterhout, the respected Byzantine scholar, calls this the “litmus test” of conservative members of the ruling party. We know how such litmus tests proceed in this country, and so the slow strangulation of any non-Turkish element in society continues apace. Indeed, the cosmopolitan air of old Constantinople has been largely just a memory for a long time now. For better or worse, Istanbul will be–must be, apparently–a thoroughly Turkish city.
One detects a strong sense of national insecurity in all this. Why must any remembrance of the pre-Ottoman past be extinguished? Why cannot their minorities be allowed to flourish? The new Turkey will be a duller, sadder, and even more melancholy place.
The 100-year anniversary of the Armenian Genocide rolls around next year. You can count on the official government’s response/repudiation/rejection to be rather ugly in tone. One can also depend on the unofficial reaction among Turks in general to be even uglier.
And now we have evidence of Turkey’s messy involvement in the Syrian Civil War, as well as their deep level of support for the insurgents. At first, these actions seemed incomprehensible to me. Turkey certainly managed to stay out of the Iraqi war on their border. If so inclined, they could do the same with Syria. But by stepping back a bit and taking the long historical view, their actions are more understandable. By the time we gained our own independence, the Ottoman Empire was already the “Sick Man of Europe,” and would remain so until its death in 1919. But they were not always sick. For some time now, Turkey has communicated its desire to take a larger–indeed, its historical–role in the region. Perhaps the best summation of their behavior in this matter is that they are simply Turks being Turks once again.
In examining my own growing disaffection with the new Turkey, I realize the problem lies more in our own expectations. We warmed to the western-oriented Istanbul, where supposedly casual Islam accommodated nicely with modernity. We were charmed by its exotica, and somehow expected its religion to be of the emasculated variety which would not jar our secular sensibilities. This now appears more wishful thinking than reality. As realists, we should face the Turkey that is, not the people we imagined them to be.
TERRY COWAN is an East Texas businessman. He also teaches History at Tyler Junior College and the University of Texas at Tyler. Terry travels extensively in the Balkans, the Levant and the Caucasus nations.
William Blum is a Washington D.C. based analyst and historian whose books chart the history of CIA abuses and U.S. government crimes abroad. His latest article for Counterpunch is an excellent critique of the recent months-long ISIS hysteria in American media and culture.
He makes the point that we shouldn’t uncritically trust the dominant narrative on ISIS coming out of U.S.-Saudi-NATO media establishments, especially when it was this very alliance that produced and fed this Frankenstein monster in the first place.
Indeed, while the U.S. Department of Treasury has publicly blamed governments like Qatar, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia for funding the most radical elements on the Syrian battlefield, the White House continues enlist the help of those very countries in its supposed anti-ISIS campaign. But in all the constant barrage of ISIS coverage in mainstream media, one almost never gets truthful investigative analysis of how ISIS came to be so strong. As even the Vice President of the United States has publicly admitted, it is the American alliance in the region that has directly assisted the terrorist group’s meteoric rise.
If your day is anything like mine, you get in the car and hear about ISIS on the radio, then you hear ISIS discussed at work, you drive home and hear about ISIS on NPR, and if you turn on evening TV you see and hear yet more about the supposed unique brutality of ISIS. In all of this, you hear moral revulsion in the voices of those speaking about ISIS. But never forget that only a year ago, while ISIS was beheading and bombing only Syrians within Syrian sovereign territory, no one spoke about ISIS or about its victims. On the contrary, ISIS received the collective praise of the West as part of the insurgent coalition fighting the Syrian government.
Americans who fume and steam about the horrors of ISIS must be reminded over and over and over again just how it was that ISIS grew so strong: with supply networks, or rather ratlines, funded with Gulf/NATO money, overseen by the CIA, all made logistically possible through the open border policies of U.S. allies Turkey and Jordan. After all this, should we entertain any narrative that seeks to obfuscate such essential context?
Why You Can Hardly Believe a Word of What You Read About ISIS
You can’t believe a word the United States or its mainstream media say about the current conflict involving The Islamic State (ISIS).
You can’t believe a word France or the United Kingdom say about ISIS.
You can’t believe a word Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Jordan, or the United Arab Emirates say about ISIS. Can you say for sure which side of the conflict any of these mideast countries actually finances, arms, or trains, if in fact it’s only one side? Why do they allow their angry young men to join Islamic extremists? Why has NATO-member Turkey allowed so many Islamic extremists to cross into Syria? Is Turkey more concerned with wiping out the Islamic State or the Kurds under siege by ISIS? Are these countries, or the Western powers, more concerned with overthrowing ISIS or overthrowing the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad?
You can’t believe the so-called “moderate” Syrian rebels. You can’t even believe that they are moderate. They have their hands in everything, and everyone has their hands in them.
Iran, Hezbollah and Syria have been fighting ISIS or its precursors for years, but the United States refuses to join forces with any of these entities in the struggle. Nor does Washington impose sanctions on any country for supporting ISIS as it quickly did against Russia for its alleged role in Ukraine.
In late September Noam Chomsky spoke on issues that are central to Levant Report’s own coverage: the modern histories of Iraq and Syria, the rise of ISIS, and U.S. and NATO policy in the region.
The talk, given at Chomsky’s home campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, provides a broad primer for those wanting to understand the truth behind current chaos enveloping the region.
Some of the highlights of Chomsky’s talk include the following:
1) ISIS is a creation of western foreign policy: ISIS is a natural outcome of both the U.S. destruction of Iraq (starting in 2003) and the U.S./NATO attempt to bring about regime change in Syria (starting in 2011).
2) Saddam was a close U.S. ally throughout the 1980’s as the U.S. collaborated with Iraq on its chemical weapons program in an attempt to defeat the Iranian regime (1980-1988). Chomsky points out that Saddam was beloved of Bush Sr., and that as late as April 1990 a congressional delegation headed by Bob Dole visited Saddam. Chomsky says the delegation’s spirit was one of fawning over the dictator (Ambassador Joe Wilson wrote that the scene was one of “obsequious boot-licking”).
3) Iraq was non-sectarian prior to the U.S. “sledge hammer” that broke it apart. Iraqis under Ba’ath nationalism often didn’t even know whether their neighbors were Sunni or Shia as they lived in mixed neighborhoods and inter-marriage was frequent.
4) While the Kurds of Iraq have recently been championed by the West, they were formerly victims unworthy of media coverage or western government concern. While the U.S. was supportive of Saddam, it looked the other way while he gassed the Kurds of northern Iraq (the U.S. at the time blamed the Iranians). The U.S. supplied the Turkish government with 80% of its military hardware while it committed genocide against Kurds in Turkey throughout the 1990’s. Once Saddam became “evil villain” in American eyes, the Kurds of Iraq became victims worthy of western concern.
5) Chomsky says the only sovereign military effectively fighting ISIS is the Syrian Arab Army under Assad. Chomsky further notes that Iran is also an effective part of this Syrian anti-ISIS campaign.
6) “Manufacturing Consent” is active and influences the western public’s perceptions on conflict in the region. Most Americans are not exposed to basic facts or even the recent history of the region because the U.S. government/corporate media alliance seeks to manufacture the consent of the people in the direction of whatever current Washington policy goals dictate.
Joe Biden’s Stunning Admission on the Origins of ISIS: Vice President Exposes Government’s Own False Narrative
Biden made comments that most Americans might find shocking—that U.S. allies in the Middle East sponsored the rise of ISIS—during an appearance last week at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Of course, he left out America’s role in all of this, which is well documented.
Only weeks ago saying such things as Biden just admitted would elicit responses of shock and disbelief as any proponent of such inconvenient facts would be dismissed as a “conspiracy theorist” in polite and official circles. But now what to do when the Vice President of the United States admits the truth in a calm, articulate manner while providing broad geopolitical context to a large audience at Harvard University?
This was no singular gaffe, as some mainstream pundits are already claiming, but as is obvious from the video, the comments were accompanied by a thought out, careful analysis multiple minutes in length. What to do when the #2 executive exposes the executive branch’s own narrative on Syria and ISIS to be a lie (or rather, propaganda consciously tailored for the masses)?
Just last week, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki blamed the Assad government for the rise of ISIS. Mainstream media has, over the past half-year, presented ISIS as if it merely came out of a vacuum, with no attempt to inform the public about its origins or battlefield alliances.
One striking aspect of Biden’s frank comments is that he implies that the arming of ISIS and other Al-Qaeda terrorists took place over a long period of time. Biden is giving a “long view” of the Syria conflict.
Americans should pause and remember the simplistic “Syria narrative” we’ve been spoon-fed over the past years. Isn’t it time to reevaluate everything we’ve ever been told about Syria?
As early as 2011 I would try to talk to fellow Americans about what was really happening in Syria. I would often simply try to convey what Joe Biden has now confirmed: that the U.S. regional alliance is funding a terror insurgency in Syria for the sake of toppling Assad.
No one wanted to hear it. For some, I was “tainted” due to my traveling and living inside Syria over multiple years, as this must have made me “biased” (of course it was they that must have known better while listening to blonde bimbo reporters on FOX, CNN, NBC, etc…!).
Never mind that I know the streets of Syrian cities better than the American city of my own upbringing, or that I maintain continual contacts with Syrians living inside and outside of Syria. Never mind that I’ve spent years scouring source documents and reading modern histories of Syria and the Middle East. Never mind that I’ve conducted face to face interviews with Syrians as varied as a Christian family from Aleppo to a 16-year-old Sunni opposition kid from Homs.
You see, I (and many other independent writers) were wrong for contradicting common American group-think with our facts born of direct experience of Syria and contact with actual common Syrians! As I recently asked an auditorium full of students, “how often over the course of the past years did we actually hear the perspectives of common Iraqis and Syrians in mainstream media presentations?”
As early as summer of 2011 contacts inside Syria were warning me of external powers like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey exacerbating the conflict by financing an insurgency inside Syria. Back then, any attempt to relay such information to Americans was dismissed as being “pro-Assad” or just downright looney.
Now that Biden’s own words have blown open the lies of the government/corporate media narrative on ISIS and Syria, we should take a sober look at BBC investigative reporter Adam Curtis’ conclusion:
The question at the heart of this whole story is – Who was the ventriloquist? And who was the dummy?
Maybe we were the dummy? By allowing perception management with its simplifications, falsehoods and exaggerations to create a simplified vision of the world – we fell into a fake universe of certainty when really we were just watching a pantomime.
And now as the Arab Spring unfolds and reveals the true chaos and messiness of the real world – above all the horror of what is happening in Syria – we find ourselves completely unable to understand it or even know what to do. So those stories get ignored while we follow others with clearer and more simplified dramas which have what seem to be obvious goodies and baddies – thank god for Iran, North Korea and Jimmy Savile.
Most Americans think the current war plans are really about war on ISIS. The long game continues to be regime change in Damascus. Americans should simply pay closer attention to what the top command is saying in very plain terms.
Hagel couldn’t have been any clearer in his Senate Armed Services Committee testimony Sept. 16:
As we pursue this program, the United States will continue to press for a political resolution to the Syrian conflict resulting in the end of the Assad regime. Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern, and has created the conditions that allowed ISIL and other terrorist groups to gain ground and terrorize and slaughter the Syrian population. The United States will not coordinate or cooperate with the Assad regime. We will also continue to counter Assad through diplomatic and economic pressure.
As many other commentators have said before me, bombing ISIS inside Syria (without Syrian approval, which amounts to an attack on a sovereign state) is but a Trojan Horse backdoor attempt to accomplish the regime change Obama pushed for a year ago.
Plans for regime change in Syria were discussed very publicly in Washington going back to the 1990’s (esp. PNAC and the neo-cons), and again in the early 2000’s (immediately after Saddam was toppled).
Understand that plans for the current bloodbath in Syria were made long ago in Washington. Read the following Time Magazine article from 2006 entitled “Syria in Bush’s Crosshairs.”
Current war plans leave even the likes of academic Syria experts baffled. Joshua Landis expressed in frustration on his Twitter feed today: “HAGEL SAYS END OF ASSAD REGIME IS U.S. GOAL IN SYRIA & political solution?! How would this work? Makes no sense me.” No one should assume that the people in charge of the White House’s Syria policy actually care about people in Syria or Iraq.
Last year, the White House decided it was time to push for direct military intervention against Damascus, using as a pretext the August 21 chemical attack incident. If you still believe “Assad gassed his own people” please read this article I wrote based entirely on mainstream admissions concerning CW usage in Syria (the United Nations final report, establishment media outlets, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the major defense tech. contractor Tesla Labs).
A lot has been invested in the three year long push to oust Assad. For the Gulf states, the U.S., Turkey, Israel, Cameron’s Britain, it is inconceivable that the Syrian state overcame the plot and still endures intact.
So now plan B is in effect…
I hope that I am wrong, but here are my predictions of what we’re about to see:
1) The U.S. will bomb ISIS sites inside Syria.
2) Washington will continue to warn the Assad regime not to interfere while coalition jets fly over Syrian territory.
3) Either ISIS or a so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition group will use one of the many MANPADS now in their hands to down a U.S./Western military plane. (Both ISIS and Syrian rebels have every incentive do this! See #4)
4) Downed jet incident will be pinned on the Syrian regime, and U.S. will respond (as promised) by simply expanding the scope of its campaign to bombing Syrian government facilities.
5) U.S. will attack by air both ISIS and Syrian government sites while claiming to wage “war on terror” on two fronts
6) U.S. equipped/trained Syrian opposition rebels will attempt to move in to bombed out government facilities
UPDATE: My colleague Charles Johnson provides some excellent and insightful analysis—
Former Top CIA Official, Graham Fuller, Speaks the Truth: “We fight, crudely put, with al-Qaeda in Syria”
“We cannot both hate Assad and hate those jihadis (like ISIS) who also hate Assad. We fight, crudely put, with al-Qaeda in Syria and against al-Qaeda in Iraq.”
–Graham Fuller, f
“Assad is not going to be overthrown in the foreseeable future. He is hardly an ideal ruler, but he is rational, has run a longtime functioning state and is supported by many in Syria who rightly fear what new leader or domestic anarchy might come after his fall. He has not represented a genuinely key threat to the U.S. in the Middle East — despite neocon rhetoric. The time has now come to bite the bullet, admit failure, and to permit — if not assist — Assad in quickly winding down the civil war in Syria and expelling the jihadis. We cannot both hate Assad and hate those jihadis (like ISIS) who also hate Assad. We fight, crudely put, with al-Qaeda in Syria and against al-Qaeda in Iraq. But restoration of order in Syria is essential to the restoration of order in the Iraqi, Lebanese, Israeli and Jordanian borderlands. Permitting Assad to remain in power will also restore a Syria that historically never has acted as a truly “sectarian” or religious state in its behavior in the Middle East — until attacked by Saudi Arabia for its supposed Shi’ism.”