Tag Archives: Iran

“Iraq will remain united.” Does al Abadi have a point?

19 Oct

I wondered about the wisdom of Iraqi Kurdish independence referendum:Do Kurds need to do this right now, just at this very moment? and more than a year before that in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything:

The Kurds: ‘I have a dream,’ as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighborhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

“This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political ‘multiplicity,’ as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that.”

And my what-to-do suggestions:

“The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.”

Where I was definitely wrong, or just changes on the ground proved me wrong, in  Syria, Russia, ISIS… is:

“Neither Iraq nor the Iraqi army are functioning entities, so we can temporarily remove them from our discussion.”

ISIS horrors, and the speed with which their conquests occurred, seem to have forced Iraqis to get their act together, especially militarily (and especially with American help?)

So now I find myself thinking al Abadi has a point in his Times op-ed: Iraq Will Remain United.  Also find myself thinking that if I’m so violently against Catalan separatism I can’t pick and choose my nationalist fissures…except for that Iraqi Kurds have suffered so horribly in the past, under Iraqi rule.

And what will Turkey’s next move be?  Is Erdoğan so fearful of Turkish Kurds’ separatist aspirations (which do not represent nearly as high a percentage as the PKK wants us to believe — which is why Turkish heavy-handedness in the southeast is so counter-productive and infuriating), that he’ll have to hold his nose and deal with Shia Iraq differently.  Because the ONE thing the Iraqi takeover of Kirkuk proves, it’s that power in that country definitely rests in southern, Shia hands…with all the implications that has for Iranian power in the region…

Aaaarrrgghhhh…

I dunno…

Abadi-superJumbo Mike McQuadeMike McQuade for The New York Times

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Turks don’t suffer from Sèvrophobia; they suffer from Lausannitis.

9 Oct

One of today’s Reuters’ titles: Turkey urges U.S. to review visa suspension as lira, stocks tumble is a very deeply unintentional funny.  Is he dyslexic?  Am I?  I’ve read it correctly, yes?  The UNITED STATES is suspending visas to TURKS? The TURKISH lira and TURKISH stocks are tumbling? Right?

There’s been a ton of repetitive commentary again recently — including from me — about how Kurdish, let’s say, “pro-activeness,” in Iraq and Syria, what Kurds think is their right since they played such a key role in kicking ISIS ass, is a menace to Turkey because Turks are still traumatized by the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that called for the remaining Ottoman Empire (Anatolia essentially) to be partitioned between the winners of WWI (and the hangers-on and cheerleaders like us), with the Straits and Constantinople internationalized (meaning British), so that Turks would have been left with a rump central Turkey and, I think, a minimal outlet to the Black Sea along the coastal stretch around Sinope.

All of that was changed by Atatürk’s declaration of a Turkish Republic at Sebasteia and the subsequent disastrous defeat of the invading Greek army.  The Turkish War of Independence (please, Greeks, gimme a break and let me call it that for now) was an impressive accomplishment, and if it ended badly for the Greeks who lived there, as we remember every autumn when we recite the Megilla of Smyrna, that’s our fault and especially the fault of Venizelos who, being Cretan, found pallikaristiko demagoguery and dangerous, careerist magandalık irresistible So impressive was Kemal’s accomplishment, in fact, that all the parties involved in Sèvres then got together at Lausanne in 1923 and decided Turkey should get whatever it wants.  Suddenly, the clouds of three centuries of depressing imperial contraction, and massacre and expulsion of Muslims from the Caucasus, the northern Black Sea, the Balkans and Crete were lifted (ditch the Arabs south and call it a country seemed to be the Turkish consensus for whatever was left) and the Turkish Republic went on its merry way.  Sèvres and Sèvrophobia was gone.

What Turkey suffers from now, and has for most of the twentieth century since the events we’re talking about, is a Lausanne-inspired sense of entitlement that is simply breathtaking in its cluelessness.  It’s the kind that leaves you staring at some Turks, silenced and dumbfounded, and unable to tell whether what they just said to you is elegantly, sweepingly aristocratic or just passively asinine.  Lausanne was first; add Kemal’s personality cult (I’m not sure that history ever threw together two bigger narcissists than him and Leutere; they should’ve been lovers), then, what was always a silenced Ottomanness came out of the closet, allied as it always has been with the seminal triumphalist narrative of Islam itselfand you get Erdoğan!

erdoganjpg-thumb-large

Now he wants the U.S. to review its Turkey policies?  Who is this man?  Scolding the whole fucking world like we’re a bunch of children.  Let him scold his children — meaning Turks — first, and then maybe we can take it from there.  If I were a German diplomat in Turkey and had been summoned to His Sublime Presence for the nth time in one year to be chastised for something mocking someone in Germany had said about Him, and told “to do” something about it, I would have found it hard to control my laughter.  As an outsider, I find it delightful enough that of all peoples on the planet, Turks and Germans got involved in a multi-episode drama on the nature of irony and parody. But to have him demand shit from all sides…

No, you’re not a “mouse that roared” arkadaşım, ok?  Yes, “all of Luxembourg is like one town in Turkey” (wow…ne büyük bir onur).  Turkey’s a big, scary, powerful country with a big, scary, powerful military, and lots of “soft” cultural and economic power in its region too.  But you’re in a schoolyard with some much bigger cats.  Soon all of them — the United States, Russia, the European Union, Israel and even some who already openly can’t stand your guts, like Iran — are gonna come to the conclusion that you’re more trouble than you’re worth.  Even Germany is no longer so guilt-ridden as to be polite to you.  And I don’t say any of this as a Greek, because I don’t think that when they all get to that point that Greeks are going to be anything other than the chick you were drunk enough to take home for a one-nighter — Kurds are going to be the rebound girlfriend, though I can’t say right now for how long — but things have been moving rapidly in a direction where the big boys are not going to want to play with you anymore, and they’re going to let you know in a way that won’t be pretty.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

See “Родные” — “Close Relations” — at the MMI in Astoria

23 Sep

Bad translation.  “Pодные”…”rodnye” means intimate, familiar, related; by extension born-beloved, dear one, cared for, same root in Russian as parents, birth, homeland, Christmas…wouldn’t be surprised if it has the same Indo-European roots as “root”.

Rodnye Vitaly Mansky

Vitaly Mansky‘s documentary is being screened this coming weekend and the next at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.  (See schedule. It’s two train stops into Queens, guys.  Then you can have a nice dinner for half of what you pay in Manhttan at a good friend and koumbaro‘s place: Mar’s.)

“In this follow-up to his award-winning documentary Under the Sun, filmmaker Vitaly Mansky examines Ukrainian society amidst the 2014 national election, a period rife with political chaos and growing uncertainty over national identity and integration. As both a Russian citizen and native Ukrainian, Mansky deftly underscores personal and political complexities as he visits with relatives living in Lvov, Odessa, the Crimean peninsula, and the Donbass region, and in the process discovers a wide and disorienting spectrum of outlooks and affiliations, including his own sense of ongoing exile and unease. Close Relations is at once an intimate family portrait and a graceful journalistic endeavor, a movie of the intense present that illuminates a place caught between a troubled past and an anxious future.”

Watch the trailer below.

Lots of moving, “disorienting” footage.  Also, lots of humor, which reminds us that so much of a certain ironic, sardonic take on the world — a viewpoint “from a certain angle”, as E.M. Forster said of Cavafy — that we in the United States think is particularly Jewish, is really just a trait common to all eastern Europe, even Greece, or perhaps just a trait common to the powerless everywhere:

“Crimea was a pity, but the Donbass…they can have it.” *

But I think the most important moment in terms of geopolitics comes at 1:15:

“So Ukraine decided to join NATO.  Isn’t that its own business?”

“Nyyyyyet!”

…comes the reply without a moment’s hesitation.

“Nyet” with its palatized “n” and final “t” is one of humanity’s great no-words.  Like “yok” in Turkish, it literally means “there isn’t” or “Il n’y a pas”.  But while “yok” has a kind of know-nothing passivity about it, “nyet” is an active “Halt!  No way you’re going further down this road.  There’s no access.” **

That moment in Mansky’s doc is why, despite widespread support for a Putin I find repulsive, I can’t get as angry at Russians as I get at Trump Americans and Türk-doğans; because Russians aren’t stupid.  They’re not as smart as they used to be in the old days, при коммунизме, when everybody knew not to believe any-thing.  They now believe all kinds of nonsense.  And they went and got religion on me too, which is one of my life’s greatest watch-what-you-wish-fors.  But they’re still pretty intelligent about the world.

I can’t get inside Putin’s head, like Ben Judah convincingly does in what’s still the best book on the Путинщина, the “Putin-ness” or the “Putin thang.”  Judah’s thesis is that Putin is really just a nebech apparatchik who others put in his place and who now — having trampled over so many people on his way up — is terrified of stepping down and that the macho persona he so tiringly projects masks mega insecurity.  It almost makes you feel sorry for him.

But this relative of Mansky’s and her coldly realpolitik “nyet” tell you why he has so many Russians’ support.  Because it means: nyet, you can’t tell me that the U.S. and NATO suddenly developed a major crush on Estonia and Georgia; nyet, you can’t suddenly tell me you’re interested in Ukraine too, because this was already starting to feel like a corporate raid on all the old girlfriends who dumped me, but Ukraine, especially, is like hitting on my sister; nyet, you can’t moan and groan about how we’re violating a basic credo of the European Union by changing borders, when neither Russia or Ukraine are part of the European Union and you wouldn’t even have considered Ukraine — with its resources, access to the Black Sea and huge Russian population —  a candidate if it weren’t a way to totally encircle Russia; and, nyet, you can’t tell us that you’re not still treating us with a Cold War mentality that you inherited from an Anglo tradition of Great Game power struggle that doesn’t apply anymore and is now completely counter-productive.

At least talk some truth and maybe we can get somewhere.  And then I’ll reconsider breaking up with Putin.

In the meantime, we can try to think of everyone as “close relations.”

For more on these issues see: The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia… from a couple of years ago, and more on the imperative to engage Russia in Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything“.

Putin Judah Fragle Empire

************************************************************************************* * The Donbass, the river Don basin is part of southeast Russia and the Russian-speaking parts of eastern Ukraine where the current conflict is centered.  From The first two of my cents on Ukraine and Russia“:

“Also, thence, a crucial point: that Ukraine wasn’t so much conquered, but settled by Russia…

“The independent “frontiersmen” mentality of the Russians of these areas, a sort of Russian Texas  — among its ethnic Cossack peoples especially — should not be underestimated and should not be disregarded as a possible element in the current conflict.  (See: And Quiet Flows the Don at Amazon and at Wiki.)”

“Новая Россия,” (Novaya Rossiya), New Russia, is not a Putinism.  It’s a name for these lands that goes back to Catherine the Great and the first serious subduing of Cossack rebelliousness and settling of Russians in the region in the 18th century.  It was part of the Russian empire’s most fertile grain-producing regions and then the scene of crazy industrialization under the Bolsheviks; maybe it was once a sort of “Russian Texas” but now it’s more like a sort of Russian Rust-Belt.  Hence, the “they can have it” comment.  The Soviet Army, decapitated by Stalin’s purges of its most talented and experienced, and ill-prepared and ill-equipped, only made the Nazi sweep through Ukraine grind to a halt once the Germans had made it this far east and after hundreds of thousands of Russian men had already been sent to a meaningless death and the Nazis had swept the old lands of the Pale clean of Jews through massive massacring and mass executions which were an integral part of the military strategy of the eastern front; many military historians believe that if the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union hadn’t been slowed by German troops stopping every other community to round up and shoot its Jews (a method/process that killed more Jews than the gas chambers did), they might have been successful in beating the coming of winter and more successful in their campaign long-term.  The region then became the scene of brutal attrition warfare, culminating in the siege of Stalingrad (now reverted back to its original name, Волгоград / Volgograd on map below).  This left the region seriously trashed and so huge numbers of Russian workers were settled there post-WWII, Russianizing the Ukrainian far east even further and setting the stage for today’s conflict.

Map of the Don Basin.  The grey line shows the border between Russia (РОССИЯ) and Ukraine (УКРАИНА) and the broken grey lines in Ukrainian east indicate the Lugansk (Луганск) and Donetsk (Донетск)

Don_basin

** “У меня денег нет” (“U menya deneg nyet”) in Russian is the same structure as the Turkish “Benim param yok” — “I don’t have any money.”  Though Russian has a verb for “to have” like other Slavic languages, these structures both mean, literally: “By me there’s no money” or “My money isn’t there/isn’t by me.”  Wondering whether it’s a construction Russian acquired through contact with Tatar.  There is apparently a phenomenon where languages effect each other and transmit certain properties between them, though there’s no large bilingual population to bring them together and though they’re not genetically related, at least not closely.  The absence of an infinitive, for example, in modern Greek, Albanian, Bulgarian and Romanian/Vlach, though each are from different Indo-European families and more closely related languages have an infinitive, is one good example.  Also, Yiddish “by mir” (as in “By mir bist du shayn”) which is like the Russian по-моему (“according to me”) — for me, in my opinion.  Though German uses “bei mir” also to mean same thing.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Do Kurds need to do this right now, just at this very moment?

22 Sep

At the end of 2015 I wrote this piece: Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything where I expressed my hopes that Iraqi Kurds not declare de jure independence, since that would destabilize the region even further:

The Kurds: ‘I have a dream,’ as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighborhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

Kurds

Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

“This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political ‘multiplicity,’ as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that.”

And my what-to-do suggestions:

“The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.”

Well, it looks like “Hope” as Poles say, “is the mother of stupidity” and nobody cares about my wish-list.

The above was written before the relationship between Turkish Kurds and the Turkish government went to hell again and descended into crazy violence, before supposed anti-Erdoğan coup, massive purges, HDP’s Demirtaş’ imprisonment, and all the other fun stuff that’s happened in Turkey since.  I hate, more than anybody, to look like I’m catering to Erdoğan’s peeves, but an Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence just at this time is a provocation for him that may turn out to be disastrous.  Erdoğan is already massing troops on Turkey’s southern borders, and though I doubt he’ll have the balls to invade what’s pretty much an American satellite, Iraqi Kurdistan, I don’t put it beyond him to send troops into the Idlib region in Syria — maybe even hold a “referendum” and annex it like the Turkish Republic did to the neighboring region of Antiocheia in the 1930s.  A friend in C-town thinks that the third and newest Bosporus bridge is named after Sultan Selim 1st (“the Grim”) not just to stick it to Alevis (he was the ruler who committed widespread massacres of them during his reign, 1512 – 1520) but to emphasize Selim’s wresting of Mesopotamia from the hated Safavid Shia of Iran and the Levant from the Mamluks of Egypt and underline Erdoğan Turkey’s role in the region.  His Neo-Ottomanism may yet find its perfect expression in post-ISIS Iraq/Syria.

Read Barzani in the Guardian: Barzani on the Kurdish referendum: ‘We refuse to be subordinates’: “Iraq’s Kurdish leader tells the Guardian why the independence vote is so vital, and how he will defy global opposition”.

Interesting times.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Lebanese food: September 14th and the Feast of the Holy Cross in Ein Zebde, Shouf

15 Sep

Ein-Zebde-Peach-FieldsEin Zebde peach orchards

This is one of those photos that shore up all literary descriptions you’ve ever read of Lebanon as the land of milk and honey.

Because only that sort of blessed (but unfortunately cursed too) land could produce Lebanese food.  More than the landscape, the mountains, my personal emotional response to a still functioning society of Arab Christians, the post-nightmare joy that even a partly-Resurrected Beirut must offer, and more, even, than the boys — it’s the food that makes Lebanon one of the top entries on my list of must-visits.  The boldness of the Lebanese culinary imagination reflects such care for both the sensuality and sanctity of food that I can’t helped being moved by just reading descriptions of it.  China, India and France (mmm…yeah, ok, Iran too) are the only places that can compete, I think, with this tiny little corner of the Mediterranean in sheer kitchen creativity.

Mansoufe (below), for example: made of pumpkin-and-bulgur balls, cooked with caramelized onions and flavored with sour grape juice.  Where else would people even think of this?  (Though I think “dumplings” or something might have been a better word; “balls” makes it sound like pumpkins have testicles.)

Mansoufe

But just like there’s not really any French food without the produce of France itself, and like I’ve come to believe what most South Asian friends think: that there’s no good regional Indian food outside of India, just Punjabi versions of dumb-downed Doabi-Mughlai food cooked by Sylhetis (though I know two good Bengali places in New York, one in Sunnyside, where you have to convince them you want the real stuff, and one in the Bronx, and an even better secret, a great Sindhi vegetarian place in Jackson Heights…Indian vegetarian is the only vegetarian food I’ll eat, actually the only vegetarian food I’ll honor by calling “food”), so, it seems, that if you want something other than stale felafel or inedible tabbouleh made by a dude who had too many lemons he needed to get rid of and who needs to be told that parsley isn’t a vegetable, then you need to go to Lebanon.

In steps the Food Heritage Foundation to help you get your bearings food-wise once you’ve gotten yourself to Lebanon: a great resource for anything you might want to know about Lebanese cuisine.  Yesterday they posted photos of the Ein Zebde (the Shouf village with the peach orchards at top) celebration of the Feast of the Holy Cross, and the annual potato-kibbe-making event the women there have held for the past twenty-four years.  Check out the page for captions on the pics below:

A Ein-zebde-preps2017

B 20170909_215010

C 20170909_210038

D 20170909_215653

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 3.30.47 PM

Yesterday I tweeted my kudos to the Food Heritage Foundation (above).  But actually it would have been impossible to hide the fact this is a Maronite community even had they wanted to.  Even if they felt they didn’t have to explain why the women were doing this, the women’s hair and bare arms would have been a giveaway.

Still, I’m just saying this because if certain people like Mlle I___m de M_____i had their way both the entire staff of the Food Heritage Foundation and I would’ve been thrown in jail for fomenting sectarianism, publicly shamed for being Islamophobic and made to wear a Green “I”, and the Ein Zebde post would have had to be mysteriously cleansed of its Christianess.

The feast of the Holy Cross — I doubt any Catholics remember or even know — commemorates the discovery by the Empress Mother Helen of the Holy Cross on which Christ was crucified, of which Mark Twain famously said there were so many splinters of everywhere that it was apparently a Holy Forest.  She was the mother of Constantine, the emperor who moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the city on the Bosporus called Byzantion, renamed Constantinople (that’s İstanbul for those that don’t know), and who, like a good mother-ridden Greek boy (though he was really from what’s now Niš in in what’s now southern Serbia), unfortunately made what-a-monotheist-drag Christianity the official religion of the Empire to make her happy; though also like a good Greek boy he passive-aggressively wasn’t himself baptized till he was on his death-bed.  The discovery of the Cross and the feast of Sts. Constantine and Helen, “the Equal-to-the-Apostles”, on May 21st, when Athens is paralyzed by traffic for three days because a quarter of the city is named Kosta or Helene and another half is going to visit them for their name-day, is usually commemorated in the Orthodox Church by the same image:

0914elevation0012

But for more fun, more lyrical descriptions of Lebanese food, mixed up with some serious butch conflict-zone reporting and a hilarious Middle Eastern mother-daughter-in-law relationship, see Annia Ciezadlo’s beautiful Day of Honey: A Memoir of Food, Love and War.

Screen Shot 2017-09-15 at 5.04.38 PM

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Syria, Russia, ISIS and what to do about everything

7 Dec

syria

syria-11

I’m going to have to write this post in bullet points of varying length, that I guess reflect the tragic fragmentation of my subject matter in some way, because putting it all together into a coherent “opinion piece” is as hard as finding coherent policy to deal with the problem itself has been. I was against talking about Syria in the beginning of its crisis as if it were an inherently fragmented and “artificial” colonial creation, as it had become the fashion to speak of most of the Levant at some point or another. I particularly objected to Andrew Sullivan’s obnoxious Syria [or Iraq] is not a country declarations. But since then, that’s become the reality – an insistent enough discourse makes itself a reality — so it seems to be more useful to take on all the regions, factors and players involved one at a time…and if I can bring them together usefully at the end, I will.

Russia and Assad: It’s obvious that Russia is pursuing its own agenda in Syria, but frankly — isn’t everyone? — so that’s no great cogent or original observation, and to be very frank, shouldn’t play into our response to either Assad or Putin, given the point to which things have reached at this point, because the degree to which you or I can stomach either Assad or Putin is not the point. The point is that right now I can see no great tragedy in an Assad-run — for how long can be decided later, with Russia (see below) — Russian semi-protectorate that would run from the Latakya Alawite coast down the Hama-Homs-Damascus-Dar’a, corridor, that would provide security and stability for even the region’s originally anti-Assad Sunni population, and even attract Sunnis from the rest of the country who could make their way there: such – I would think – is the ethical questionability of the various Sunni groups (aside from just ISIS I mean) into whose hands the original uprising has fallen and the degree of their war-weary victims’ terror; and — because I think it’s important to declare your subjective affinities before you can honestly put forth your hopefully objective suggestions or propositions – I hope such an entity would also provide a safe haven for part of what’s left of Syrian Christianity as well. (Yes, MESA girls, you’ve caught me again.) It would also be a good idea if we learned a little bit about the Assads and the Alawite past in the region (as it would be equally good for us to know something of Turkish/Kurdish Alevis as well), not to exonerate Assad for anything, but so that we know what we’re talking about before we start unproductively babbling about villains just sprouted out of the earth – like we did in Lebanon in the past about the Gemayels and Maronites or the Jumblatts and Druzes or southern Shiites and Hezbollah. This is homework one would like to assign to the Levant and the Middle East’s Sunni majority as well: a request that it examine its moral conscience, if such a thing exists, and its treatment of minorities in the past, but I understand that that’s probably a tall order that we can’t wait for them to comply with in order to bring some relief to the current hellishness.

So let Russia go for what it wants for now; it’s in most everyone’s interest and let’s try to turn it to everyone’s advantage instead of attacking her for every move she makes. ENGAGE RUSSIA. I beg everyone. A plea I will make later as well and repeatedly.

The Shiite crescent or triangle: This is the very real alliance of Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a largely Shiite entity that’s essentially what’s left of Iraq, and Iran. It’s not a product of Israel’s paranoid imagination, but only Israel thinks it has any real reason to be worried about it and therefore Israel should be promptly ignored on every point and aspect of those worries.

bashar-al-assad-hang-the-bastard

Bashar al-Assad

Neither Iraq nor the Iraqi army are functioning entities, so we can temporarily remove them from our discussion. I think I’ve addressed the moral “problematicness” of Assad: that there can be no solution in Syria till he’s gone, though, is a moralistic pose and not a truly moral position — sadly, one even Obama is fond of striking — and is an excuse for doing nothing and a recipe for letting the current holocaust continue. As for Hezbollah: whatever we think of its origins or the nature of its religiosity or its political ideology, it’s a highly professional organization with a highly professional, well-trained and hardened army, and the only Arab or other force that has put Israel in its place twice – took a little longer the first time but was pretty snap the second – and has pretty much served as an Akritai line that has kept it there since and, whatever its political tactics are (I honestly can’t say), it seems to me to be the one force that has kept Lebanon relatively stable (yes, as had Syria) for the past twenty years or so.

hezbollah.xlarge1

Of course, it does this with the massive organizational and material help of Iran. Which brings us to…

Iran: Get over Iran. It became a comforting cliché, with which the Middle Eastern Studies academic left aunanized itself for several decades: that the imperialist West had aborted every modern attempt at a democratic, civil society in the Muslim world and that that was therefore responsible for the rise of political Islam. Tell me which countries we’re talking about and who the leaders were who were going to lead them to this heavenly, secular modernity? The even more militaristic and fascist and statist successors of Kemal in Turkey? Look how that’s turning out and it’s still incomparably the best of the batch and, ok, there’s still hope recent setbacks can be reversed. Who else? Nasser and Egypt? Arafat or current Palestinian leadership?  The Ba’athist successors of the Hashemites in Iraq? Maybe in Jordan? Ben Bella and Algeria? Bourguiba even and Tunisia? The Saudis? Jinnah’s successors, further east, or even Jinnah himself? Maybe the Afghan royal family? Who?

The only country in the Muslim world that in my humble opinion seemed to have had many of the prerequisites for a secular, civil society, perhaps a constitutional, truly assembly-based government, and a leader with an appropriately intellectual, bourgeois background and education — and accompanying democratic inclinations — was Iran and Mohammad Mosaddegh. And the Anglo-Americans destroyed that experiment. And yet Iran still seems to be the country, which despite the powerful institutional obstacles, has, on a popular level at least, the temperamental prodiagrafes for the development of such society and is poll-wise the most pro-American in the region. What is the rationale behind continuing to villainize and sanction and isolate? Ok, maybe not “what is the rationale?” But I’m simply calling for the acceptance of the fact that allowing Iran to open up to the world would inevitably – no, don’t give me Russia or China as examples – lead to an internal opening up as well, and both Iranians and the rest of the world have only to gain, when, and not if, that happens. Let it happen faster. As fast as you can.

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Mohammad Mosaddegh

Turkey: There probably isn’t a country that, though never “officially” colonized, is a better object lesson in how to endure the machinations, infiltrations, exploitation, hypocrisies and pousties of Western manipulation – from the 18th century to this day – and how to then flip them to your advantage like a bad-ass judoka than Turkey.  In dismembering the Ottoman Empire, all the Great Powers did their best to make the process of our separating from our neighbours into independent nations as long and complicated and bloody as they possibly could. When after WWI, they realized the Turks weren’t going let them split even a remnant Anatolia into six or seven parts and give those away too…suddenly…Turkey…could…do…NO…wrong…and still can’t. It’s fabled “privileged geographical position,” which no Western power was able to grab for itself, allows it to do anything it wants: supress all and any pressures for democratic change; conduct a vicious decades-long civil war against – I dunno, can it still be called a minority when it’s one-fifth of your population – its Kurds; violently harass its supposedly Lausanne-protected Greek community till they all leave en masse, while invading Cyprus to protect its Turkish minority there…and on and on and on. And now that President-to-be-for-at-least-a-decade-I-figure Erdoğan has sat on the throne Turks themselves put him on, the anti-democratization process: the societal and governmental Islamization; the assassinations and imprisonments, the suppression of journalistic rights and other democratic voices; the bullying of neighbours and throwing around of irresponsible, expansionist language; the destruction of a painfully wrought peace process that Turkish Kurds showed remarkable maturity in struggling towards, and the unleashing of the formidable, American-backed and supplied power of the Turkish military on them once again; the probable aiding and abetting of the animals of ISIS in various ways, plus the shooting down of a Russian air force jet out of pure pissing-contest impulses; not to mention the ever greater and egomaniacal vandalizing of one of humanity’s greatest and most ancient cities – all continue. And the world breathes not a word. Obama did not even address the downing of the Russian jet: all I saw him do is rudely turn around in his chair at some banquet at the Paris Climate Change Conference and off-handedly say to some journalist: “Well, a nation has the right to defend its air space.” The next day six Turkish fighter jets flew almost two-thirds the way across the Aegean into northeastern Greek airspace , and we didn’t say a word and wouldn’t have had our call taken even if we had tried, since it happens on a practically monthly basis. NATO allies, you see…

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Nobody reported the story except the Greek press.

The Kurds: “I have a dream,” as they say, for Kurds: that they will recognize the fact that Iraqi Kurdistan with a capital at Erbil is already a de facto independent state and not complicate things in the neighbourhood by please resisting the urge to declare de jure independence.

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Kurdish-inhabited regions of the Middle East and Caucasus, according to tribal break-down.

This centrally located political entity can serve as the hub of a wheel of still-to-be-worked-for, autonomous, Kurdish regions encircling it, and by not insisting on independence and union, they will be able to put more resources and energy into developing what they have and not fighting to defend it forever. I don’t know; maybe the future of the world will involve the devolving of nation-states into affiliated groups of semi-autonomous units with perhaps overlapping or varying degrees of jurisdiction – Holy Roman Empire style – and the Kurds may be the first to experience this as a people and benefit from it: that is, to see diaspora (if that word really applies to a non-migrating group), or political “multiplicity,” as a finger in every pie and not as separation, and be able to reap the advantages of that. Plus, again, as vehemently secular-minded, it will hopefully remain what it has already become: another safe space for the remnants of Syro-Mesopotamian Christianity.

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The Christian village of Maluula in Syria

Saudi Arabia and the rest of them down there: I admit that for a very long time I didn’t get this one. The fear of Russian power and the resentment of the Iranian Revolution, the obvious reasons for catering to an obnoxious Israel’s every whim and demand and the kid-glove coddling of Turkey all make some sense, though my ultimate point here will be that they no longer do. But the Saudis…no clue. Did any-one need their oil in particular? Wasn’t the United States itself already energy self-sufficient? Why? That the West always does what it does because Jews control Washington and everyone wants Saudi oil seemed to me to be the political theories of Athenian taxi-drivers.

Yet I was just speaking to someone from the ministry of energy here in Greece the other night and it turns out that compared to that of other oil-producing nations, Saudi oil (and I guess other Gulf State oil as well?) is unusually high in quality, demanding minimal refining and easy drilling as well, since its gigantic reserves are all close to the surface. The price of oil can plunge to rock bottom and they will still have monstrous amounts of a desirable product with which they can undersell any other country in the world and that will keep them filthy rich into the foreseeable future. And capable of funding jihadism everywhere.  Including the spiritual “inner struggle” kind.

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So we’ve ended up here, with a nice neat circle drawn around ISIS territory because that is our major problem and that’s the entity we’re looking to eradicate plain and simple. And it can’t be done without a profound shift in how we – I don’t how we want to define “we:” the West, the civilized world, how about just humanity? – treat and engage each and every one of the players involved in the above scenario. Because while our objective is to destroy ISIS, almost all the above policies are based on either almost irrationally selfish and small-minded views, or even more so, on a Cold War logic that simply no longer applies, and that will do little to impede the danger ISIS presents, in almost anyway you take at it or from wherever you look at it.

First and foremost and again: let Russia in. ENGAGE RUSSIA. We all have everything to gain and nothing to lose if we stop treating Russia like a pariah nation. Russian power is not a threat and can instead prove massively useful to the world if we bring Russia into the fold instead of trying to desperately keep her out of everywhere and even foolishly try and fence her in. It may be a little more complicated than a simplistic “more flies with honey” theory but whatever it is we choose to describe as Russian aggression, Russia sees as defensive and that may not be an irrational response from a powerful nation that sees itself treated as an amoral being that is constantly excluded from all the West’s major moves.

And I’m talking about radical engagement: not just lifting sanctions and trade blocks and visa requirements. I’m talking about making Russia a part of the European family of nations, as laughably dysfunctional as that family may be looking right now. Why are Montenegro or Georgia on the list of candidates for NATO membership — Montenegro probably as some sleazy old promise offered to it if it seceded from Serbia; and Georgia, one of the oldest polities in the Russians’ sphere of influence (for better or worse and partly of its own initiative at the start) and with a complicated love-hate relationship between them – while Russia itself is not?  Too big to absorb. Well, yes, but my point is to stop thinking of her as an entity to control and absorb and start thinking of her as a political and especially military power that’s just too enormous to not have as an ally in the current struggle we’re engaged in.

ISIS (and Turkey to some degree) ticked off the Russians bad and they have already done more to weaken the “caliphate” in the past few weeks than all other Western actions combined. Is it escalating the conflict? There is no escalating this conflict: when your enemy is sworn to escalate it to the maximum, and there’s no reason to think they’re bluffing, you’re already there. Yes, there’s reason to fear that Russia – which uses Powell-Doctrine-type “overwhelming force” more than the United States ever has – will go too far and turn central Syria and Raqqa into a Chechnya and Grozny, but the best way to limit those kinds of excesses are to enter into some coordinated action with Russia and not just allow her to act alone. Because we’re going to need Russia when the air campaign needs to stop, when at some point it will. And that’s when I predict that Russia will also be willing to send in men on the ground and I don’t mean just a few special operations groups. While they’re certainly not eager to send their young men off to die in another Afghanistan or Chechnya, this has already – again, for better or worse – become a sort of Holy War for Russians and they will be far less squeamish about sending in troops than any other European society or even the United States at this point. And working with them on such an operation will not only increase its efficacy but limit the risks and excesses.

In the end bringing Russia in from the outside will also change it from the inside; as the nation itself feels less like it has to be on the constant defensive, then so will the Russian government adopt a more open and progressive attitude to its own internal political life.   This is what we saw happening in Turkey in the early 2000s when European Union accession was still a negotiable reality; much of what Turkey and Erdoğan have turned into since are a result of those cards being taken off the table. Do it for everyone then, for us and for them. Engage Russia; it’s a win-win proposition.

As for the rest…

I’m sorry to say this, since being or acting or thinking positively about Turkey and Greco-Turkish relations has been one of my intellectual and emotional priorities for most of my adult life. But something when I got to Istanbul the day after the elections this November felt like a massive internal, tectonic shift for me — like something had snapped.  Slap just half the sanctions and forms of isolation we’ve imposed on Russia and Iran on Turkey instead and let’s see how quickly Erdoğan’s tough guy stance lasts. And cut off military aid completely. As long as its going to a state that buys ISIS oil (which is the least we know of in terms of aiding them), as long as its being used, again, to terrorize its own Kurdish population into submission – cut it off completely. I would say take some of that aid and channel it into civil funding and assistance to Demirtaş and his HDP (Kurdish People’s Democratic Party), but that would probably be illegal, make them an even more vulnerable target and generally backfire. I would say do the same for Alevis in Turkey, whose agenda overlaps with both Kurdish and generally those of all democratic impulses there, but that would backfire even more horribly, since Alevis are a much, much more vulnerable target. (See: “Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange)

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Demographic distribution of Alevis in Turkey

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And distribution of Alawites in the Levant, which, aside from Syria, clearly shows major concentrations in Turkish Antakya and also northern Lebanon.

The Kurds: Give the Kurds EVERYTHING they need. They’re creating a society, both in Iraqi Kurdistan and in the internal socio-political life of Turkish Kurds that is nothing short of revolutionary in its civic-mindedness, democratic tendencies and secular steadfastness. Yes, nothing’s perfect there either but it’s by far the best we have. And the loose confederation of Kurdish regions that I spoke of earlier may have perhaps an even more strategically valuable position to offer the rest of the world than Turkey does. Beg Turkish Kurds to swear to abide by ceasefire terms despite all provocations by the Turkish state; insist that Iraqi Kurdistan not declare independence. And then give them everything they need, even if it means billions in aid. Because, along with the Russians, they’re the ones who’ll probably have to do even more of the ground fighting when the airstrikes campaign reaches its inevitable limits – and starts harming civilians, which it unfortunately already has — even though they now insist that they’re not spilling any more of their own blood for anything outside of Kurdish-inhabited regions.

The rest will – if it hasn’t already – cause the reader to accuse me of fomenting a Middle East wide Sunni-Shia war, with my sympathies, both personal and ideological, firmly Shiite and that I’m proposing Russia and the West join in on the Shia side. Perhaps it is. Slap down Erdoğan (for whom this is certainly a Sunni-Shia struggle) and keep doing so till his ego is under control or he becomes a lame duck political force. Hard, but not impossible, if Turks start to see the real price they have to pay for so stupidly supporting him. Ignore Israel for now and let the Saudis (for whom this is also certainly a Sunni-Shia Struggle) stew in their own juices and cut off oil purchases if they try anything more radical. And as part of the inevitable opening of Iran and the inevitable growth of its role on the world stage, let it, Hezbollah, the, yes, despicable Assad and the, yes, still dubiously motivated but driven and highly motivated Russians all go to work on ISIS, Da’esh, whatever, and its ridiculous, vicious “caliphate.”

Sound risky? Yes, I know it does. It is. Got a better idea?

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

 

Cool Deccani painting, 18th century: Alexander the Great holding the Cup of Jamshid

30 Mar

Alexander the Great Deccani(click)

Through the ShahnamehAlexander, sometimes as an invading villain, sometimes as a great hero, (but then the Shahnameh is an intensely complex work morally), has entered the legend canon of all Persianate societies.  Pashtuns in particular, for whom the melding of “invading villain” and “great hero” must have a special resonance (smile…) think that Alexander — Sikandar — is a particularly lucky and propitious name to give a boy.  (See: The Cup of Jamshid)

And…see best, most recent translation of the Shahnameh in English, and Reza Aslan’s interesting review for the Times from 2006: “The Epic of Iran” — where he discusses the work’s — and Iranians’ — ambiguous relation to Iran’s pre-Islamic past and the Arab conquest:

“FOUR hundred miles from the bustling metropolis of Tehran lie the magnificent ruins of Persepolis. Built some 2,500 years ago, Persepolis was the royal seat of an Iranian empire that, at its height, stretched from the Indus Valley to the Mediterranean Sea. Though the imperial city was sacked two centuries later by Alexander “the Accursed” (as Iranian chroniclers referred to him), the towering columns and winged beasts that still stand guard over the lost throne of Iran serve as a reminder of what was once among the most advanced civilizations on earth.

“I first visited Persepolis two years ago. Born in Iran but raised in the United States, I knew the place only from dusty academic books about the glories of pre-Islamic Iran. I was totally unprepared for the crowds I saw there. Busloads of schoolchildren from nearby Shiraz filed through the complex of temples and palaces. A tour guide walked an older group up a stone stairway etched with row upon row of subject nations humbly presenting themselves before the king, or shah, of Iran. Families laid out sheets and napped in the shade cast by the intricately carved walls.

“Breaking away from the crowd, I noticed a boy scrawling graffiti on the side of a massive stone block. Horrified, I shooed him away. When I moved closer to see what he had written, I immediately recognized a verse, familiar to many Iranians, taken from the pages of Iran’s national epic, the “Shahnameh.”

          Damn this world, damn this time, damn this fate,
          That uncivilized Arabs have come to make me Muslim.

“Written more than a thousand years ago by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, the “Shahnameh,” or “Book of Kings,” recounts the mythological history of Iran from the first fitful moments of creation to the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire in the seventh century A.D. Ferdowsi was a member of Iran’s aristocratic class, which maintained a strong attachment to the heritage of pre-Islamic Iran…”

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Reza_aslan_2013Reza Aslan (click)

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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