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Enemy at the Gates: why Syria’s disaster threatens war in Turkey

Screen shot 2014-10-15 at 14.41.18

Turkish tanks at the Syrian border. Sedat Suna/EPA

By Hugh Pope

published in The Guardian Friday 10 October, p. 37

Turkey feels as if it’s reliving an old nightmare. Each morning television presenters and newspaper headlines glumly round up news from the Islamic State (Isis) siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobani, and its spillover into Turkey. Riots, tear gas, and live fire this week have killed more than 20 people in cities in Turkey’s Kurdish south-east. There have been multiple arson attacks on cars, buses and trucks, ethnic tensions, street corner nationalist gangs, curfews and armed troop deployments unseen since the miserable years of all-out Turkish Kurd insurgency in the 1990s.

At the same time politicians have begun shrilly pouring doubt on the vital, nine-year-old peace process between the Turkish government and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) insurgents. This reached an apex of absurd conspiracy when both sides began labelling each other as being “the same” as Isis, a group which is actually their mutual enemy.

A tragedy has indeed engulfed Kobani, but little fundamental has changed just because, unusually, TV cameras lined up on the border are able to record first-hand one scene within the larger epic of the Syrian disaster.

photo (1)The hard truth is that the Syrian Kurds and their main Democratic Union party (PYD) militia were always vulnerable and ultimately unable to defend Kobani alone, puncturing a moment of Kurdish hubris after a summer of impressive progress. Their isolation is partly because PYD and the PKK, with which it is umbilically linked, have insisted on a level of autonomy that is controversial, both in Turkey and with the Syrian mainstream opposition.

Nor is Turkey free to drive its tanks down the hill to save Kobani, as demanded by Turkish Kurd politicians. Breaking international law by crossing a border would weaken Turkey’s international position (as with Russia in Ukraine), set off angry regional reactions from backers of Damascus such as Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and could lead to Syria itself firing missiles at Turkish cities. Turkey may be a member of Nato, but the airstrikes are not a Nato operation; Nato is supposed to be a defensive alliance, and is unlikely to back a unilateral Turkish move.

Turkish action around Kobani would also mean armed confrontation between Turkey and Isis. The Turkish armed forces are absolutely unprepared for any long-term foreign operation. With its porous, 570-mile long Syrian border, Turkey has everything to lose in such an open-ended conflict, and Turkish soldiers would certainly die on a mission that most Turks would not understand let alone support. Where would Turkey’s military have to stop in Syria to make its border secure? Do jihadi sleeper cells lurk among its 1.5 million Syrian refugees, ready to target the tourist industry that powers 10% of Turkey’s economy? Would taking sides against Isis – the principal Sunni militia in the Syrian war – risk a reaction from Turkey’s own Sunni heartland, which has already sent hundreds of Turks to fight in Isis ranks?

Turkey cannot order the ethnic, sectarian and political faultlines of the Middle East to stop at the Turkish border. Certainly, Turkey made mistakes: betting too big on the quick ousting of Bashar al-Assad, and opening its border to all who would fight against Damascus – a policy it is only beginning to reverse. But these policies are similar to those of western actors. It is not fair to make Turkey both the viewing platform and the sole scapegoat for the dysfunctional international system that has exacerbated the Syrian war.

The Turkish government and the Kurdish national movement should therefore discuss what they can themselves do, not what they would like others to do. Both sides actually identify Isis as their deadliest enemy, abhor Isis tactics, broadly favour friendship with the west, and adhere to an ideal of secular governance. Both sides’ favoured scenario is a partnership between Turks and Kurds. They share a long common history, a common Sunni religious tradition, and are interconnected in a way that would be hard, if not impossible, to unravel.

The only way to make this partnership happen is to complete the peace process fitfully under way since 2005. All the necessary elements are in place for a breakthrough to end a 30-year conflict that has already killed 30,000 people. A ceasefire has held since March 2013. Strong leaders on both sides could implement a deal. Popular support is significant. Notorious south-eastern jails are now being made into remembrance museums. The Kurdish language, previously prohibited, is spreading in the media and public life. And above all, a decade of normalisation has empowered both Turkish and Kurdish middle classes, laid new roads and brought new prosperity all over Turkey.

It has not been easy to dispel mistrust. From the 1920s to the 1980s, Turkey denied the existence of Kurds, calling them “mountain Turks”. Police torture in the 1980s and death squads in 1990s killed and traumatised Kurdish activists. Even in 2009, nationalists in the Turkish judiciary undermined the government’s efforts by arresting thousands of Kurdish political activists, including elected mayors, on terrorism charges. Subtler discrimination in workplaces, public spaces and house lettings remains rife.

But since direct talks started between the jailed Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan and the Turkish state in late 2012, there has been improvement. Reform laws have brought legal protection to the peace process. Delegations of Turkish Kurd MPs travel from Ocalan’s prison island in the Marmara Sea south of Istanbul to the PKK’s mountain headquarters. On 1 October the government announced a proper framework, a cross-ministerial board under the prime minister with 11 sub-commissions.

Still, progress remains much more of an avalanche of initiatives than a structured process. Neither side trusts each other enough yet. Ankara sometimes seems to be regally granting small concessions to the Kurds and resenting legitimate demands. And the PKK finds it very hard to commit publicly, as it must, to eventual disarmament within Turkey; to a wish to join the whole country and act through the political capital, Ankara; or to state clearly whether, as its actions on the ground often suggest, it retains a secret urge to push for an independent state under PKK control – a goal for which there is no economic, geographic, social or consensus among Kurds, let alone the majority Turks.

A Turkish-Kurdish partnership is achievable, and should not be put at risk by political grandstanding over the ruins of Kobani. If its defenders are doomed, the town’s remaining population should be safely evacuated to the Turkish border, like the 150,000 who have already passed through. But whatever happens to Kobani, it is only by sorting Turkish and Kurdish differences inside Turkey that the two sides can begin thinking the unthinkable about facing Isis together. And the time to begin negotiating that compromise is now.

The spring hopes that Syria’s leaders wasted in Hama

Hama waterwheelsWhen I wanted to write about what next to expect in Syria after the funeral in 2000 of the late president Hafez al-Assad, I chose to go to the central city of Hama. As a student, I  had listened to the groaning water wheels here and indulged in plates full of Hama’s cheese-and-honey pudding, which slowly flows down stepped waterfalls of sweetness in shop windows. Later I had also seen the fresh rubble and fearful faces in 1982, shortly after the Syrian government responded to a Muslim brother rebellion by levelling much of the historic centre. I thought the city might be a good sounding board the reality of the “Damascus Spring” that everyone hoped for under the newly installed president, Bashar al-Assad.

Slit arms

Back then, the businessmen of Hama clearly hoped that something good might come of a change of leader. But if there ever was a Damascus Spring, it was soon over. I went back to Syria again to try to write follow-up stories in 2001, 2002 and 2003, criss-crossing Damascus with my reporter’s note book. Real change never materialised. Eventually, my Wall Street Journal editor just said: “Let’s just drop the Syria story, Hugh. It’s not happening. It’s not your fault. Syria hasn’t changed, so we just won’t write a story about it” (see here).

What strikes me re-reading those impressions now is how big a chance Bashar al-Assad and his entourage wasted when they took power. For sure, the businessman of Hama tempered any hopes with their bitter experiences. And there was no mistaking the sentiments of one of the mourners in the Assad family village (right), presaging the disturbing all-or-nothing mentality that is now back and destroying the country. But the Hama community leaders I met had truly been ready to work within the crazy system that was the Syrian economy, and were not asking for huge profits in return. I wonder how long it will now take to get back to the stability and elementary economic openness that Syria will need if it is to have any hope of returning to even this degree of normal life.


Hope Rises at Scene of Syrian Repression

Years After Late President

Crushed a Rebellion,

Hama’s Economy Stirs


By Hugh Pope

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

HAMA, Syria — No Syrian city paid a higher price than Hama for the brutal excesses that punctuated the 30-year rule of late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad.

Yet it is here, rising from a semi-desert lot outside the city, that the gleaming silos and Western production lines of a new factory symbolize Syrian hopes for an era of reform under Bashar al-Assad, his son and heir apparent.

What makes Syria’s newest vegetable oil plant extraordinary in a country of state-dominated economic backwardness is the fact that most of its $30 million, all-equity investment came from 4,000 ordinary citizens of Hama, including doctors, lawyers, spare-parts dealers and bazaar shopkeepers.

“It’s an old-fashioned kind of investment, I know. No Syrian bank would lend us money anyway,” says one of the project’s leaders, Izzat al-Habbal, a 72-year-old who trades in everything from plastics to coffee. “Now we’re asking government ministers to set up a stock market so we can trade our shares. But they still shake their heads and say `it’s too early yet’ ”

The Syrian economy, c. 2000

The Syrian economy, c. 2000

Nothing moves fast in Syria, let alone in Hama, 220 miles north of Damascus in the middle of this Arab country of 17 million people. The town is so conservative that youths from the Christian minority drive 100 miles to the next city for secret meetings with their girlfriends. Many women of the Sunni Moslem majority wear black cloths that cover their entire heads and faces.

It was also here in 1982 that Hafez al-Assad’s regime crushed a murderous Islamic fundamentalist uprising in a month of shelling and street battles. At least 10,000 civilians were killed in the crossfire, after which most of the city center was expropriated and bulldozed. Today, where the vaulted terraces of a medieval palace once stepped down to the Orontes River, a new five-star hotel stands like a fort. Still, nearly two decades after the conflict, big swathes of the center lie flattened, scarred with rubble-strewn hillocks and the bombed-out ruins of once-graceful stone mansions.

“We just want to forget about those events now,” says Nazih Arwani, 63, a short, rotund dealer in car parts and chief executive of the company setting up the new factory, the al-Ahliya Vegetable Oil Co.

The investors in Hama’s vegetable plant started their crusade in 1991, when Hafez al-Assad’s government passed landmark legislation known as Law No. 10 to facilitate private investment. “We got together and asked ourselves, what can we do to help our town? We decided, the first priority is transport,” says Mr. al-Habbal, who also heads the city’s chamber of commerce.

The merchants created one of Syria’s first private companies not dominated by one individual. Al-Ahliya Transport and its new, air-conditioned buses were a runaway success, leaving the tatty state bus stations and their old coaches limping behind. Dividends of 20% a year paid off the initial investment, and stockholders shares have doubled in value.

Dividends, titles and even the new patronage opportunities were only part of the motivation of the old Hama families who led that project and then started planning the vegetable oil plant. Members of the board draw no salary, for instance. There are no stock options, and nobody owns more than 1% of the company. The only non-local involvement is from Dubai-based Arab Authority for Agricultural Development, which has taken a 40% equity stake in the project.

“This is done by people like my father, who have known each other since forever,” says Nabil Maatouk, a 27-year-old member of a local Christian family that imports Volvo-Scania truck parts and bottles a local cola brand for sale all over Syria. “They all have their own businesses in town. They’re at a stage in their lives that they want to do good.”

But Law No. 10 was vague, and doing good quickly ran up against the bad old kind of barrier that hobbles all Syrian private business. After a tax holiday for the first five years of operation, al-Ahliya Transport was suddenly faced with the usual tax of 56% of profits. The company slashed dividends and reinvestment. The merchants of Hama knew better than anyone that, as in much of the Middle East, the tax system is a vicious circle. Rates are high because businessmen hide their profits, and businessmen hide profits because taxes are unfairly high. Taxmen can be bribed, of course, but only up to a point: In Syria, their pay includes a bonus share of taxes collected.

Such chicanery, for once, wasn’t an option. The Hama merchants were now collectively answerable to a wide circle of their fellow citizens. “We went again and again to the [former] prime minister to complain that our joint stock company was different, pure and honest, and that the government should cut our tax bill. Once he had four ministers in the room. They all said `you’re so right’ and promised to look into it,” Mr. Arwani says. “Each time, they would come back to us later and say `sorry, but the law doesn’t allow it.’ ”

Then power shifted in Damascus. In 1994, President al-Assad’s eldest son and flamboyant heir apparent, Basil, died in a car crash. His next son, Bashar, a London-trained eye doctor, stepped up as crown prince. President al-Assad hadn’t visited Hama since the early 1970s, but Bashar paid a first visit to Hama in 1996. He passed by the ugly scars in the town center, where 100-foot-high water wheels that survived the 1982 devastation still turn slowly on their ancient wooden axles, filling the air with a deep and mournful groaning.

“I asked him, give us back our city center. And the very next day, Hafez al-Assad ordered the city hall to draw up a plan to give it back,” Mr. al-Habbal says. “Of course, being bureaucrats, the city hall didn’t do anything for years.

But now we’re talking about the return of 2,300 undeveloped plots in the next few months. It’s a new era. We’re not building up empty hopes.”

The breakthrough came in March this year, when Hafez al-Assad appointed a government with a new prime minister and several new ministers apparently close to Bashar al-Assad. To the delight of the Hama businessmen, the new government cut taxes on profits of the new joint-stock companies to 25%. It also changed legislation to allow tax holidays to be extended for qualified projects like the vegetable oil factory.

Messrs. Arwani, al-Habbal and their fellow pioneers believe things can only get better. A few days before Hafez al-Assad’s death earlier this month, they attended an all-Syria meeting of local chambers of commerce, where a quarter of the new Cabinet came to hear their concerns. They reckon they’ll soon be able to hand the factory over to professional management and move on to their next project to mobilize the untapped, privately held wealth of Hama.

The Wall Street Journal, 19 June 2000.

Pigeon fancying in Damascus

Hollandi dove

I just spent five days on the Turkey’s border with Syria, meeting with some of the hundreds of thousands of Syrians forced from their country by the events of the past two years, and hearing about the awful predicament of the millions of Syrians inside the country who now have so little security, food, heating or even water.

Along the way, I was struck by how many similarities there were between Syria and the Turkish province of Hatay. For a start, things move  r e a l l y  slowly in Hatay – getting an appointment can take days of work, just like in Syria (for a fuller account, see book excerpt here). And flocks of pigeons wheel above the roofs of Antakya, the provincial capital, just as they do in the skies above Damascus. Here’s how I saw it in more peaceful times a decade ago, from the pages of the Wall Street Journal‘s Europe edition:

Politics & Policy:

In Troubled Times

Syrians Find Solace

In Feathered Friends

While the Law Looks Down

On the Pigeon Keepers,

Locals Love Those Doves


By Hugh Pope

DAMASCUS, Syria — Whenever Ali Belkis despairs of all the hawkish talk of war in Iraq, he knows his doves can rescue him.

Climbing up to his flat concrete roof, he swings open the rusty metal door of his dovecote and takes solace in one of the oldest recreations of the Middle East: tending to his beloved pigeons.

Ali Belkis

Ali Belkis

“It’s hard to be an Arab these days. The Americans are going to attack. The Russians and the rest have abandoned us. And the news on TV gives me a pain in the belly,” says Mr. Belkis, 70 years old, ducking his head down to catch and show his prize Abla-breed pigeon, a sleek blue-gray bird with a pink sheen on its collar. “Only here do I find real peace of mind,” he adds.

Proud Syrians are reacting in many ways to the U.S. military buildup in the region. But most feel impotent resignation. A growing number, like Mr. Belkis, a former trainer of Syria’s pentathlon team, just turn their eyes to the flocks of pigeons turning in the sky over Damascus.

Ummayad Mosque from Souq al Hamidiye Damascus SyriaThese are not the dirty gray pests that infest public places everywhere, a type that also flutters past the Roman-built collonades by this city’s great Ummayad mosque. Nor are they the tough racing pigeons seen elsewhere in the world.

In Damascus, pigeons — a term interchangeable with the loftier word, dove — are exotically feathered descendants of a millennial tradition on whose wings Arab fancies have long flown far from everyday cares. Damascene aristocrats once built ornate dovecotes to bring good luck to their homes and local poets still pair their doves with their loves. Today more than ever, they offer a haven from the unemployment and anxiety that has gripped the region as the U.S. gears up for war.

Pigeon-keeping had been on the wane in Syria as modern habits, satellite television and the Internet flooded in. But a recent increase in the hobby’s popularity prompted writer Motasem Isa to pen a cover story for the Syrian satirical weekly magazine, The Lamplighter. “It’s as much about poverty and unemployment as getting away from family and political cares,” Mr. Isa reckons.

Nobody knows how many there are, but a flock or two is almost always visible wheeling above any Damascus district.

Munzir dark minaret

Damascus has no monopoly on pigeons, of course. Hebrew psalms evoke ‘dove’s eyes’ as a testament of beauty, and the early Christians represented the Holy Ghost as a dove. All Arabs have been partial to the pigeon since the days a white breed was used by Arab rulers as an untouchable messenger of peace. These white doves live on in Arab newspaper cartoons about the conflicted state of their world, mostly represented as battered, broken-winged or bleeding.

“We draw them all the time. I suppose it’s because Arabs are the people most in need of peace in the world,” says Ali Farzat, Syria’s leading caricaturist.

Shuar with dovesThe irony is that for many Damascus pigeon fanciers, pigeons are also a kind of war. They are addicted to the subtle art of using their own birds to tempt away those of other men’s flocks. Appropriately enough, the main pigeon exchange, where birds can sell for anything from $1 to $100, is tagged onto the end of a run-down street called the Thieves’ Market.

A policeman wanders among the traders with a whip coiled behind his back to register the disapproval of the Syrian state. But, apart from tucking their birds into jackets or sacks, nobody takes much notice of him. Pigeon-keeping etiquette allows liberal lying about the origin of a particular bird. As a result, Syrian law says courts can rule out the testimony of anyone known to keep pigeons.

For pigeon lovers, however, telling fanciful tales are all part of their escape from reality. Around the corner from Mr. Belkis’s house, his neighbor Mohammed Youssef al-Shuar, 48, says he is addicted to the sport.

“Once I sold 30 of my birds to a man in Beirut. A month later, they flew [80 kilometers] back to me here, with him chasing them all the way in his car,” Mr. Shuar boasts proudly. “But I didn’t give them back,” he adds.


Copyright (c) 2003 Dow Jones and Company, Inc.


Doves fly in