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Why IS militants destroy ancient sites 3, September 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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The following article was published by the BBC on 1 September 2015 and can be found here.

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Many will wonder why anyone would so actively seek to raze historical and cultural marvels that have lasted millennia.

But for the IS bulldozers, the rationale is straightforward and fulfils several readily identifiable goals.

As IS notes in the eighth issue of its own publication, the glossy Dabiq magazine, they see ancient cultural heritage as a challenge for the loyalties and legitimacy of Iraqi or Syrian people to IS itself.

Destroying such heritage is thus a part of their duty, as they see it, to reject such a “nationalist agenda” that the statues, temples, and indeed, cities represent.

In a wider sense, the IS brand of intolerant Islam motivates it to attack polytheism wherever it is found and to reject the worship, as they would put it, of idols that they see these sites as representing.

Elsewhere, it is also no surprise to see IS destroying Shia and Sufi sites, and even Sunni shrines.

If anything, IS ideology despises other variants of Islam even more than Christianity or Judaism. Liberally sprinkle such intolerance with a self-serving, simplistic, context-free reading of a few scriptures and a “religiously” justified policy – or commandment even – is put forth.

But there are more political, expedient motives afoot not noted in Dabiq.

Chipping off parts of statues and otherwise selling stolen antiquities in markets around the world is a good way to earn hard cash. The UN believes that this is being done on an industrial scale, adding tens of millions of dollars to IS’ wider war economy.

Launching and especially prolonging a bloodthirsty campaign of butchery, terrorism, mass murder, torture, enslavement and ethnic cleansing is hard work.

After the initial horror, the kuffar (infidel) media and their kuffar audience eventually become inured to the repetitiveness, the sheer numbers killed, and pressing news stories elsewhere relegate the focus on IS.

Capturing and retaining attention thus becomes more difficult. This is problematic when a group needs to encourage new recruits and new sources of income.

Equally, those already recruited who are bogged down in warfare, sporadically getting picked off by drones and jets, who are (to their surprise) losing territory, or who begin to miss the comforts of home need to be reassured that the group they joined is as influential, as proactive, and as in vogue as ever.

Lastly, videos of iconoclastic destruction spark outrage, mark out IS as unique, and increase the drum beat for further intervention from Western (or other) states.

Thus the logic of former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden – his desire to entangle the US in a bloody, unwinnable land war “against Islam” – is once again employed.

This is not to say that there should be no reaction, but any considerations need to be mindful that a part of the whole IS strategy is to elicit a reaction in the first place.

To some degree, describing such desecrations as a “war crime”, as the UN has, nicely plays into IS’ hands – as do articles on the subject.

But the internet cannot be un-invented, and unless we are to surrender some of our closest held beliefs on freedom of speech, we cannot stop dissemination of such depressing stories.

We must, therefore, respond however we can.

Calm reasoning exposing the hypocrisies, the practicalities, and the banalities of IS’ policies is a step towards demystifying and debunking the likes of IS as just yet another political organisation.

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Palmyra and the logic of loss 25, May 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Syria.
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The following article was published by the BBC on 23 May 2015.

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In Syria alone, the Great Mosque and the Citadel in Aleppo, the castle of every child’s imagination at Crac des Chevaliers, and the ancient city of Bosra have been damaged or destroyed. Arguably Syria’s most impressive and arresting site, the sprawling ruins at Palmyra (Tadmur to Syrians), is now under Islamic State control and many fear the worst.

Having visited Palmyra and these other sites while studying Arabic at Damascus University back in 2007, I am far from alone in feeling that something truly terrible is happening. That these symbols from a bygone era might be destroyed by modern-day barbarian forces when they have survived for hundreds or even thousands of years seems somehow deeply offensive and wrong.

Nevertheless, while I feel an acute sadness at the loss of these sites, I understand those who may feel a certain sense of unease at the outpouring of grief and anguish over their desecration. From this perspective, Palmyra is, after all, a collection of stone; albeit stone exquisitely carved and impressively presented, imbued with huge historical import. And compared to the staggering loss of life and widespread humanitarian disaster afflicting the Syrian people, bemoaning the loss of a historic tourist site seems crass.

But there are cogent arguments, of course, suggesting that sites like Palmyra are far more significant than that.

Important cultural sites are often pointed to as focal points that can be used to (re)unify a people. Sites can act as potent symbols of a united past that may cross ethnic, tribal, linguistic, or cultural lines. In essence, their importance can be seen and used as a low common denominator to promote reconciliation in a post-conflict environment.

Most famously, the reconstruction of the old bridge in Mostar in Bosnia-Hercegovina acted as a focal point of wider metaphorical bridge-building between Serbs, Bosniaks (Muslims) and Croats after the civil war in the 1990s when the bridge was demolished. In Syria, too, there have already been tentative attempts towards this kind of a goal, with meetings between regime and opposition officials nominally in charge of antiquities.

Similarly, the sheer barbarism of IS, exemplified in its brutality against people and against shared cultural monuments, could be a foil to coax more unity among the dispersed opposition groups and factions.

Moreover, these kinds of sites are the heritage and birthright not just of this generation of Syrians so adversely affected by the conflict, but of all Syrians henceforth. As such, focusing on the protection of sites of great historical concern is just, it can be argued, given that the ultimate goal is to preserve and protect the essential character of a people for hundreds of years to come.

Some may find it distasteful that many seem to be increasingly inured to the human toll in Syria, while interest is piqued by attacks on historical sites. Doubtless, they might prefer that some of the yardage given over to glossy pictures of Palmyra in its glory days be given over to reporting of the day-to-day devastation faced and experienced by ordinary people. On the same theme, one can hope and advocate for better, longer, more in-depth pieces or more funding for foreign reporters.

A righteous lament this may be, but it is an ineffectual one. The numbing reality is that if these were the types of stories that were demanded, more news services would answer the call. It must also be remembered that there are rarely mutually exclusive choices here. The words written and arguments elucidated over the importance of saving cultural heritage sites are also a part of wider discussions and pressure to cobble together anything approaching a meaningful plan to intervene or otherwise halt the worst excesses of the violence in Syria.

The takeover of Palmyra has generated a unique media storm, flinging the Syrian conflict back to wider consciousness. If that can be harnessed in the uphill struggle to galvanise a plan going forward, then no-one will complain.

Whatever the intellectual or moral merits of focusing on such examples of historical desecration, the fact remains that, for me – and I doubt I’m alone – there remains a unique sadness in the loss of such sites. The abstract and horrifying numbers of deaths that the conflict has produced are not undermined or further ignored, as it were, by the focus on the fate of the likes of Palmyra. The loss of Syria’s cultural heritage represents the loss of far more than some tourist attractions, but the loss of connection between multiple generations.

As with all things, politics is but the art of the possible. So leveraging the fate of these magnificent and important monuments in the wider hope of incrementally building a pressure to bear on the powers that be is a just and vital thing.

The emerging military dimension to the Qatari-Turkish relationship 16, March 2015

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Qatar.
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The following article was published by RUSI on 16 March 2015.

On 19 August 1915, the last bedraggled and demoralised Turkish soldiers left al-Bida (modern-day Doha) and, for the first time in fifty years, the Ottomans were without a military presence on the Qatari peninsula.

But a newly signed military agreement between Qatar and Turkey might reverse this trend. The military accord allows for the usual joint training, joint military drills, and is a boost for the Turkish arms exporting industry, but it interestingly allows for the deployment of Turkish troops to Qatar and vice versa.

This kind of agreement has been coming.

Firstly, Qatar and Turkey have grown increasingly close in recent years. They have found themselves united by their approach to the politics of the Middle East as the Arab Spring took off and still as it now dissipates. In short, they both believe that the inclusion of moderate Islamist political actors in the regions affairs is crucial to the longer term viability of the new polities. Both Qatar and Turkey have long supported a variety of such actors, but most notably the Muslim Brotherhood. Indeed, when Qatar came under unbearable pressure in late 2014 to relinquish their support for the Brotherhood, as evidenced (not least) by the basing of dozens of key Brotherhood members in Doha, many of them left Doha to move (back, in many cases) to Turkey. Qatar has taken a solace, then, in their Turkish relations as both of them have seen their regional aspirations narrowed by the shifting realities of the post-Arab Spring Middle East.

Secondly, Qatar is looking for more military support options. All of the Arab states in the Persian Gulf region are nervous as to the longer term implications of not only the US-Iranian nuclear negotiations, but the US pivot to Asia. Many in the Gulf seem to fatalistically assume that this means that the US is abandoning their region in the absence of an overt Iranian menace in preference of facing up to China. While this may be true eventually, the timetable for such a change is nearer 30 than 3 years, but still the Gulf states are a-panicking.

Thirdly, the Middle East is once again convulsing to civil war and strife. To the north of the Persian Gulf, Iraq inexorably implodes and Da’esh continues to menace. To the south, Yemen continues its implosion and Houthi groups that, to the Arab Gulf states at least, are seen as nothing less than bonafide Iranian proxies, expand their control as the state fractures.

Sustaintable Defence Capacity or Old-School Alliance Building?

In the face of these challenges, there is a whiff of an emerging desire to build meaningful, professional, capable militaries in the Gulf region. This stands in contrast with the classical Gulf military model, which was rich in equipment, but poor in training, maintenance, and overall capability. The UAE seems to be leading this trend as its military, directed by Mohammed bin Zayed and tried and tested in conflict in Afghanistan and more recently in Iraq and Libya, has cultivated a genuine reputation as a force with genuine competence.

It remains to be seen whether this Qatari-Turkish agreement will be a part of this new trend, of building up domestic capacity in a meaningful way, or it will be an alliance of the old school, with a Gulf state seeking military agreements with an extra-regional power to shore-up their security.

The Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Turkish Parliament, Brak Junkar, insiststhat this agreement has ‘nothing to do with’ other on-going understandings and policies regarding cooperation supporting the Syrian opposition in Syria. But such a statement beggars belief. Qatar’s activity in Syria – or parts of Syria at least – has been fundamentally predicated on its close relations with Turkey at all levels. While there has been much cooperation thus far between the two states, showing that this kind of agreement is not strictly necessary to allow such joint activities, it is difficult to see how such considerations did not play a part in the wider calculus.

As most sectors in Qatar continue to go through a significant budget squeeze, with 20% to 40% cuts being rampant throughout the ministries, the Ministry of Defence is, so far, immune. Moreover, with the upcoming fast-jet purchase and other big ticket items recently purchased (German Leopard Tanks, Patriot missile defence batteries, etc.), Qatar’s defence budget is rocketing. But it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that some of the fiscal prudence being instilled elsewhere might be useful in this sector too. There is a distinct sense of ‘too many cooks’ in the Qatari military, with training missions and influence, not to mention training associated with specific equipment now coming from the Americans, the British, the Germans, the French, and the Turkish, to name but the major suppliers.

While diversifying the fundamental dependency on American military guarantees is a wise move, Qatar looks like it needs to be more selective if it is actually trying to develop its military. But if, as per the classic Gulf norm, it merely wishes to tally-up a litany of ‘defence agreements’ as a hopeful deterrent and a theoretical defence in case the worst happens, then, though expensive, expect these kinds of agreements, alongside a lavish signing ceremony, to continue apace.