Kamal Alam: “Pax Syriana – neither vaquished, nor all-conquering”

Syria´s president Hafez al-Asad and Defense Minister Mustapha Tlass, during the Arab-Israeli War of 1973, at the Golan front. Wikimedia/The Online Museum of Syrian History. Public domain.

Now an almost yearly journalistic exercise, a slew of prominent journalists and analysts are musing about an imminent collapse of the Syrian government in Damascus. While government forces have suffered significant setbacks in the last weeks, such a predicted collapse is not coming.

As I said this week on the Scott Horton Show, nationalism in Syria is still alive and well and constitutes the “sticking power” of the Army, whose members do not identify themselves fundamentally according to sectarian or ethnic background, but as Syrians first. The Army understands itself as fighting tooth and nail for the sovereignty of their nation against a foreign invasion by proxy.

A failure to understand the nature of the Ba’ath state and the history of the Syrian Army as an enduring and experienced institution with popular backing continues to result in embarrassing and false predictions among politicians and analysts.

Kamal Alam’s Pax Syriana: neither vaquished, nor all-conquering remains the best history and analysis of the Syrian Army and why it has not fragmented or collapsed throughout the last four plus years of immense internal and external pressures. 

Pax Syriana: neither vaquished, nor all-conquering

OPENDEMOCRACY.NET – The Syrian Army has fought on now for more than three years without disintegrating as had been predicted by many commentators. Indeed it is the Army of the Syrian Arab Republic (al-Jaysh al-’Arabī as-Sūrī) which has kept the state intact. The Syrian state institutions of which the Army is the foremost guarantor have held firm in the onslaught of all the non- state actors as well as regional neighbours.

How is it that the Syrian Arab Army has held together? Contrary to what most observers say, the overwhelming factor in this has not been because this was an Allawite army. Had this been the case, it would not have been able to hang on for so long. The most prominent Chiefs of Staff and General Staff officers have been a combination of Sunni, Christian and Allawite. Nor was the army constructed along sectarian or ethnic lines. To take its three major contemporary personalities–Mustafa Tlass, Fahd Jassem Frejj and the late Daoud Rajiha–they are respectively Sunni and Greek Orthodox. The elder Tlass is now retired, but he was the man who shaped the Syrian armed forces with Hafez al Assad in the 1970s.

Read the rest here…

A Marine in Syria: Silhouettes of Beauty and Coexistence before the Devastation

He who has not lived in the years before the revolution cannot know what the sweetness of living is.    

—Talleyrand, via Bertolucci, from the 1964 film Prima della Rivoluzione

IRAQ, LIBYA, SYRIA… Countries ripped apart through sectarian and political violence in the aftermath of cataclysmic external interventions: American invasion and occupation in Iraq, NATO intervention in Libya, and international proxy war in Syria. Mere mention of these countries conjures images of sectarian driven atrocities and societal collapse into the abyss of a Hobbesian jungle. And now it is commonplace to just assume it’s always been so. Increasingly, one hears from all corners of public discourse the lazily constructed logic, “but they’ve always hated each other”… or “violence and conflict are endemic to the region.” But it was not always so — I found a place of beauty, peace, and coexistence in a Syria that is now almost never acknowledged, and which risks being forgotten about. But Syrians themselves will never forget…

Read the rest of “A Marine in Syria” at Medium.com

A bizarre and fascinating tale of the young Ba’ath revolutionary Saddam Hussein

File:Saddam Hussain 1980.jpg

The below paragraph from the first English political biography of Saddam Hussein to have been produced after the first Gulf War, Saddam Hussein: A Political Biography (1991), contains the most intriguing story you’ve likely ever heard about the young revolutionary Ba’ath officer (account said to have happened in or near 1968):

These purges were not only planned and executed by Saddam in his capacity as the head of the security services, but there is some evidence that he took close interest in their practical implementation. A Shi’ite dissident who survived the torture chambers of Qasr al-Nihayyah gave a hair-raising description of how Saddam personally killed another Shi’ite detainee by the name of Dukhail: “He came into the room, picked up Dukhail and dropped him into a bath of acid. And then he watched while the body dissolved.” Although this episode, like numerous Shi’ite stories seeking to blacken Saddam’s image, can neither be confirmed nor denied, the Deputy Chairman’s personal involvement in the persecution of political opponents is also illustrated by the account of a Jewish survivor of the notorious palace, who was much luckier than his Shi’ite counterpart. Na’im Tawina, now a 65-year-old Israeli, was a member of the Iraqi Jewish community when he was jailed in the early 1970s as “a Zionist spy.” One day, as he was about to be tortured, Saddam suddenly entered the room. He cast a quick glance at Tawina and addressed the investigator. “Do not touch this man,” he said, “he is a good man. I know him. Let him go.” The startled Tawina was released from jail and sent away. Shortly afterwards he fled the country and emigrated to Israel. For years he wondered what drove the “strong man in Baghdad,” whom he had not personally known, to show such close interest in his fate. It was only much later, when he saw a picture of the young Saddam, that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle were put together. He recollected that Saddam had been the slim youth at the Baghdadi street corner from whom he used to buy his cigarettes on his way to work, and whom he had often tipped handsomely. Saddam apparently remembered his anonymous benefactor and rewarded him in the most significant manner possible. (pp. 39-40)

ISIS is now deploying US-supplied TOW Anti-tank Missiles in Syria

8_small.jpgProduced by ISIS media, the Arabic reads “Firing the TOW missile system against the apostates.” The set of photos released together, which can be viewed here, claims Al-Qarytayn in the countryside southeast of Homs as the location.

ISIS fighters are currently boasting of the deployment of their latest military hardware through photos distributed by Islamic State’s “Wilayat Damascus” (State of Damascus): the US-supplied BGM 71E TOW anti-tank missile system.

Among those confirming the authenticity of the photos include analysts at the hawkish Brookings Institution and the Foundation for Defense of Democracies funded Long War Journal.

Long War Journal columnist Caleb Weiss reports:

In the photo set, many Islamic State fighters can be seen amassing in more than 15 technicals, or armed pickup trucks. The pictures then show the use of the TOW missile on Free Syrian Army (FSA) units. The last few photos show FSA members the Islamic State has taken captive.

In a December 27 article, independent journalist Maram Susli outlined the existing evidence for Al-Qaeda group Al-Nusrah Front being in possession of US-supplied TOW anti-tank missiles, while also raising the possibility that ISIS could already be in possession of these systems given the porous and interactive nature of terror militias operating in Syria:

Given the Syrian rebels’ history of openly working along side or defecting to Al Qaeda groups, it is highly doubtful the US government did not predict the TOW missiles would end up in Al Qaeda’s hands.

It is more likely the US provided the rebels with the TOW missiles whilst knowing it would end up in the hands of Al Qaeda. Indeed it has been widely accepted, that Jabhat Al Nusra, ISIS and Ahrar al Sham, another Al Qaeda linked group, are the most powerful groups opposing the Syrian army.


Indeed, it has been documented by an external monitoring group, the UK-based Conflict Armament Research, that the well-known CIA-Saudi program (publicly acknowledged to have begun in 2012) to transfer thousands of tons of weaponry to insurgents in Syria resulted in the arming of ISIS fighters.

Conflict Armament Research was able to trace the serial numbers of weapons recovered by Kurds battling ISIS in Eastern Syria back directly to the CIA-Saudi weapons airlift program. While not as advanced and up-to-date as the current anti-tank systems being displayed in ISIS photographs, the weapons monitoring group’s official report provided evidence that portable rockets were making making it to ISIS hands as of 2013:

M79 90 MM anti-tank rockets captured from IS forces in Syria are identical to M79 rockets transferred by Saudi Arabia to forces operationg under the ‘Free Syrian Army’ umbrella in 2013.

Expect more of US-made BGM 71E TOW systems to show up in ISIS hands. Eventually, enough photographic and serial inscription evidence will be available to establish direct chain of custody and origin. Expect the CIA, Pentagon, and their partners in the Gulf to be in full denial and defensive mode.


Candid Associated Press Article: US-backed rebels advance in south, with Al-Qaeda’s help

Associated PressTHE 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.

Read full article here or here.

ISIS on the Border: Which Way Turkey?

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 leaked footage , “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

hanTurkey 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.

Istanbul 2007(2) 207

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: Why You Can Hardly Believe a Word of What You Read About ISIS

William BlumWilliam 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.

Read the full article at COUNTERPUNCH…



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