yarmouk camp

yarmouk camp
Yarmouk Refugee Camp

Friday, March 20, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, Part 3, Jordan. By Bruce McLaren

Zaatari Refugee Camp. Jordan

As I look in ever increasing detail at all of the varied facets of this nightmarish quagmire I tend to picture Syria as some kind of octopus. Tentacles reach out, of different shapes and sizes, ever drawing in and affecting larger and larger groups of people. In the center of the vortex we find the octopus beak, the actual carnage of warfare taking place in Syria itself. Then there are the politically minded tentacles that draw in Islamists, while keeping the unlikely troika of the Assadist regime allied to Hezbollah in Lebanon and the orthodox Shia regime in Iran. Nearby Lebanon is at risk of being consumed by this war as the Lebanese Shia enter the fight while, at the same time, over 1 million refugees have left Syria for Lebanon, frightening the Christians there into thinking they will be simply out-populated. Then, of course, there are the Assadist links to Russia, which is playing a game of geopolitical chess with NATO over the Ukraine. Alas, that in the midst of all of this convoluted strife there are millions of real people, over 4 million now, who are refugees that have fled from Syria in a bid to find some open water as the beast of war flails about.

This blog is now moving onto the subject of Syrian refugees in Jordan. As in Lebanon, the Jordanians are awash with refugees. First of all, there are only 6-7 million people in Jordan. 2 million of those people are Palestinian refugees. 500 000 are Iraqis who fled during the Iraqi debacle of 2004-2011. Now, there are an additional 800 000 refugees from Syria. So the population of Jordan is skyrocketing with these waves of refugees, which is causing huge strains of infrastructure, in particular water. Jordan is the worlds 4th most water scarce country. If one glances at a map of Jordan one could be forgiven for thinking that such a large area must surely have some good land and water, but make no mistake, Jordan is to a very great extent, a desert, and, due to the balance of power in the region, Jordan has to cut deals with Israel to get the water it needs.

Just as the Lebanese Christians are concerned about the dramatic influx of Muslims into their country, possibly leading to sectarian violence, the Jordanians are equally wary of an influx of Palestinians. The Jordanians have accomodated the Syrian refugees admirably. But 500 000 Palestinian refugees have been turned away, which, according to Human Rights Watch is illegal. The sad tale goes that these Palestinians were forced to flee after 1948 and 1967. 13 refugee camps were established in Syria to accomodate them. But the Jordanians have not forgotten 1970 when the Palestinians rose up against them and tried to take power. 1 in 3 Jordanians is a Palestinian and the Jordanians don't want more. These poor Palestinians are truly the most cruelly ignored people on this earth, shunted hither and yon, unwanted by all.

Wikpedia. Refugees At Ramtha
As the above picture illustrates, not all Syrian refugees in Jordan have ended up in refugee camps. In fact, of the 800 000 or so refugees only about 150 000 are in refugee camps. The vast bulk of Syrian refugees have headed for the cities, like Ramtha, above. There are a number of logical explanations for this. First, we need to keep in mind that the border separating Syria and Jordan is entirely artificial, and was established after WWI by the British and French as they divided the spoils of victory. There are no natural obstacles to movement and we know that traders and merchants have been travelling freely between Syria and the Southern Levant for thousands of years. There are long histories at work here, of familial and mercantile connections.

So at lot of the refugees who have headed to the cities already have some kind of link with the place. These refugees will look for work and a real home, instead of a life of restricted boredom in a refugee camp. But the stresses and strains on the Jordanian economy will be telling. The influx of people has meant landlords have profited as rents have skyrocketed. Schools are overflowing. Resident Jordanians resent this. They also resent that 2% of their GDP is going to support the refugees, to the tune of 850 million dollars per year.

Most of these refugees have gone to Amman and Zerqa and Irbid, in numbers around the 100 000 mark. Smaller numbers are found in smaller centers. It is interesting to note that 20 000 have gone to the city of Salt (the original capital city of Jordan). Salt has the highest proportion of Christians so it is a fair bet that these refugees are Syrian Christians. By comparison 7000 have gone to Ma'an in the southern desert wastes, a hot-bed of Jihadist activity. One must assume that such refugees in Ma'an are not Christians.
Jordan. Map Showing Location Of Refugee Camps
Here is a map of Jordan showing the location of the three major refugee camps being used by Syrian refugees. You can see that all three camps are in the same general vicinity, in the pan-handle of Jordan, which, as the photo below illustrates, is a desert!

Jordan. The Eastern Desert
In times past this desert, known as the Harra, has been sparsely occupied, primarily because there is no water in a desert! Well, I speak too soon. There are oases and wells in occasional places so there has been some settlement, but mostly in the form of desert fortresses. These are found along the desert frontier, design to protect the more verdant lands behind them from the marauding bedouin bandits. You can find these fortresses dating back to Roman times.

Azraq Castle. Roman. Jordan

Kharaneh Castle. Islamic. Jordan

The first refugee camp we will look at is Zaatari. Zaatari was built in a two week period in May 2012 in response to an urgent request by the Jordanian government for the UNHCR to intervene. The camp was designed to hold 80 000 but within a year there were over 150 000. The sattelite photos below illustrate the rapid growth.

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Zaatari. Jordan. BBC

Of all of the refugee camps associated with this conflict Zaatari is best known to us in the West. Photos like the one below, showing the sprawling mass of the camp out in the desert, filled most onlookers with a sense of disbelief when they saw them and were highly visible on the web. Zaatari seemed to have mor ein common with a Soweto shanty-town or a South American favela. At one stage Zaatari was the 4th largest city in Jordan. Now it is the 5th largest.

Zaatari. Jordan. Google

Zaatari. Jordan. Google

The director of the Zaatari camp, Dr. Killian Kleinschmidt, glows when he speaks about the success of Zaatari. It is true that the primary purpose of the UNHCR is to keep people alive, and if that is the yardstick being adhered to then he is correct. But by any other measure Zaatari has been a massive disaster. Over three thousand black-market businesses exist, which steal electricity to the tune of 750 million dollars a year. Gangs of criminals steal foreign aid and sell it back to the refugees. Accomodation is rudimentary, a ramshackle tent city. Water is a huge problem, with tens of thousands of gallons being trucked out to Zaatari on a daily basis.

Zaatari. Rudimentary Existence. Google

Zaatari. Google

Zaatari. Google

One can't be too critical of the UNHCR, after all they have saved countless lives, but to call Zaatari a success is ludicrous. Like most bureaucrats Kleinschmidt is adept at using words in such a way that a cow-poo could smell like a daffodil. He speaks hopefully of cities working together in an altruistic utopian manner. Amsterdam will provide 10 000 bikes to get around. Marseilles is working on plumbing. There is even talk of planting thousands of trees. But the thing is, trees take a lot of water, and they certainly need a lot to grow in a desert, and Jordan hardly has any water to begin with! Kleinschmidt's words are peppered with meaningless platitudes, like "We build refugee camps. Refugees build cities". According to Kleinschmidt, Zaatari is "the most fascinating project on earth when it comes to the development of camps.” Fascinating it may be. But successful?

Zaatari has had other nightmares. There have been riots, fires and floods, and people have been killed. Importantly, education is failing, with less than half children attending the schools. This is mightily important because the only available commodity that can improve the lot of these poor souls. For the UNHCR only addressed the first objective - to keep the refugees alive. But now comes the more tricky task of figuring out what to do in the long-term. It is not viable for cities to exist in deserts, without any money. Fortunately, the EU is providing large funding to UNICEF to address this problem.
Zaatari. Fire

Zaatari. Flood
As with Zaatari, the other two major camps in Jordan are located in a similar terrain. After the debacle of Zaatari the UNHCR planned another large camp out towards Azraq, further out in the desert. The sattelite image below shows that Azraq and Zaatari are similar sizes. Azraq will eventually hold 80 000 refugees as well.

Azraq Camp. BBC
Azraq has been more carefully thought out than Zaatari. The area of the camp is divided up into 8 villages of 10 000 refugees, each with it's own medic, school, police station, grocery store and so on. This should assist in avoiding traffic jams and in distribution. The shelters are permanent at Azraq, made of corrugated steel, and eventually will be wired up with electricity...if there is enough money to go around. The UNHCR is even implementing a system where each refugee has an identity card which doubles as a debit card. These can be used in groceries, with money put directly on the cards from the UN. This is more dignified than scrambling behind a truck trying to catch a loaf of bread. But it should be pointed out that this idea should be attributed to the Turks, and will be looked at in more detail when we get to Turkey.

Azraq. BBC

But, at the end of the day, Azraq camp is also in a desert. The water for the Azraq camp comes from Azraq oasis, about 40 miles away. And once more we are faced with the daunting question of "what will happen here in the long run"? After all, you can only build a city in a desert if you are sitting on an ocean of oil. The Jordanians are not.
Azraq. BBC

Azraq. BBC

Azraq. BBC
Each of these photos clearly illustrate the remoteness of these camps. Azraq, in particular, seems to have been designed with monitoring people in mind. Refugees are not allowed to leave the camps unless they have a Jordanian sponsor, which most don't. If they leave anyway they are bound to be stopped at one of the many desert checkpoints. In this sense they are prison camps or detainment camps just as much as they are refugee camps.

Azraq. BBC

The third and final camp in Jordan, built to accomodate Syrian Refugees, is known as Mhrajeeb al-Fhood. Unlike Zaatari and Azraq this third camp is not run by the UNHCR but is run instead by the United Arab Emirates. In spite of this, there appears to be a deliberate aim at remoteness, at keeping the refugees are arms length. But it still leaves the elephant in the room regarding what are we going to do in the future with these unsustainable cities in the desert?
Mhrajeeb al-Fhood. Jordan
As you can see from the photo below the Emirati camp has done something different with accomodation. They have utilised shipping containers, insulted them, painted them, hooked them up to electricty and water. Each has a fridge and stove. Using shipping containers is a great idea as they provide better shelter and there are a lot of them available - they are inexpensive. But as we shall see in a few more blogs, just like the debit card system employed at Azraq, this was a Turkish initiative.

Mhrabeeb al-Fhood. Jordan

The Emirati camp is smaller than Zaatari or Azraq, only designed to hold 10 000 refugees. The entire camp is run by Emirati Nationals. With comparatively luxurious accomodation, a smaller number of refugees, and good medical attention, some have even called this "the 5-star refugee camp". You can decide for yourself.

Mrajeeb al-Fhood. Jordan

Mhrabjeeb al-Fhood. Jordan

John Kerry Looking Down From A Safe Distance

So there you have it, the situation in Jordan. Three camps in a desert. The UNHCR should be applauded for its efforts, no doubt. But I have a feeling that these miniature cities will be a great burden to bear for Jordan, and for some time to come.

There is a lot of techno-babble emanting from the mouths of those who work for the NGOS, such as "forward-thinking aid workers and others are looking at refugee camps as potential urban incubators", and "organic development, driven by refugees, is unstoppable", or "it’s a dynamic place, unforeseen by the humanitarian actors running it, which is giving refugees a sense of ownership and dignity". This is all complete nonsense. One day, people are going to have to make some hard decisions....

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis, Part 2, Iraq. By Bruce McLaren

Now it is time to survey the plight of the refugees in the countries that immediately border Syria - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey - for it is they who harbor most of these poor and downtrodden. This blog will begin with a look at the situation in Iraq, but first we need a recap as to what is going on that has caused this catastrophe.

Despite the complexities involved in speaking about the current conflict in Syria, it can actually be broken down into relatively simple statements, largely looking at demographics with the assistance of the map below. 

The pink area is currently held by the Assadist Regime, led by Bashar Assad, son of Hafeez Assad, who led a Baathist Coup in 1970. The Assad's are Alawites, who take their name from Ali, which itself is indicative of Shi'ite tendencies, which explains their links with Iran and the Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Alawites, however, are often accused of merely resorting to taqiyah, the right to pretend to adhere to another religion if need be. Many condemn the Alawites as actual heathens who worship the moon and observe certain Christian rights. They are hated in the extreme by Sunni Muslims. The Alawites first enter the history books 1000 years ago, as pastoralists of the an-Nusayriyah Mountains that border the Mediterranean Sea. For centuries they have been persecuted by the Sunni majority of Syria. Since gaining power, they have returned the favor. The Alawites only make up 2.5 million of the 22 million Syrians, compared to 16 million Sunni Muslims. They now have repossessed all of the rich lands in the west, along with the major cities that line the Orontes River Valley. They are currently in the ascendancy, driving refugees out in ever greater numbers.

Syria. The Fortunes and Misfortunes Of War
The green areas are controlled by the various rebel groups. I say various rebel groups because there are close to 1000 of them, each tied into ever larger and larger alliances, finally all under the umbrella of the Islamic Front. These alliances are as rock solid as oil, constantly shifting and changing. The Free Syria Army (FSA) is also in there as the reluctantly supported token force by the United States. But they, along with the Islamic Front, are backpedaling. Both the Islamic Front and the FSA lack international support, and even though such a small minority as the Alawites may appear at first glance like a push-over, they are a very formidable force, with a standing army of 200 000, conventional Russian tanks. hundreds of attack aircraft and so on. The Rebels are strongest in the north, around Aleppo and Idlib, which is no small thing as that part of the country, especially the Plain of Aleppo, holds 25% of the population due to its agricultural wealth. But as any farmer will tell you it is difficult to plant crops when bullets are flying around.

The black area is no mans land but somewhere in the middle of it all is the course marked by the mighty Euphrates, the southern border of tradition Mesopotamia. Here, surrounded by desert lurks ISIS, seemingly deciding to lie low for a while, which the inhabitants of these regions, who have a greater conception of time and a greater capacity to wait, are wont to do. There is no doubt that ISIS has left an imprint of the Western mind, but I think their days will be numbered.

The yellow areas represent the Kurds. Those areas might not look like much but  there are actually close to 2 million Kurds in Syria. Just take a look at this second map below. The Brown area represents the Kurdish nation. There are close to 30 million Kurds total! In fact, that whole area just over the Turkish border is almost solidly Kurdish. The Kurds are the Indo-European descendants of the ancient Medes, who were tough as nails. No wonder they Turks are always so on edge about the Kurds...

Brown Area Designates Kurds
So, there you have it. Now let's look at Iraq.

There are 9 refugee camps in Iraq, all run by the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission For Refugees). Their location is shown on the map below, which, in itself says rather a lot. The camps are all located in the far north of Iraq, in the three provinces that make up Iraqi Kurdistan, the Iraqi provinces effectively ruled by the Kurds.

So it comes as no surprise that the 250 000 refugees registered with the UNHCR are mostly Kurds, fleeing mainly from the threat of ISIS in the last year or so, Of all the countries that border Syria, Iraq is one of the least effected by the now 4 million Syrian refugees. 

This is not simply due to the much lower numbers, when compared to Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, but Iraq is already a semi-anarchic chaotic mess. It may understandably seem strange that refugees would flee to Iraq, when only in the last decade we have witnessed a mass exodus of Iraqis, many into no less a place than Syria! There are reports that this is indeed what happened to half a million Assyrian Christian refugees, who then turned south to Jordan, There are now an estimated 500 000 Iraqis living in Jordan, a country with a population of only 7 millions.

There is one camp in Anbar province and for the life of me I can't figure out who ended up there. I know I wouldn't want to be there! That is ISIS country!

Map Of Iraq. Location Of Syrian Refugee Camps
Most of these camps hold 5000 too 10 000 refugees. The largest is that closest to the Syrian border, Domiz, which has 50 000 refugees. It should be noted that in each neighboring country there is a significant proportion who avoid the camps and go straight to the cities. Many know that once inside a camp it may be difficult to leave and, one may be there for some time. A job in a city has many comparative benefits.

Let's take a look at Domiz, the largest of all the camps. As you can see in the picture below, Domiz is a ramshackle tent-city, high up, cold, wet and muddy. This picture is very typical of how we tend to envision refugee camps. but as we approach Jordan and Turkey we will see that there have been some fairly revolutionary developments associated with this crisis.

Domiz Refugee Camp

But not yet in Iraq. Most of these new developments that I refer to should be attributed to Turkey, and have since been adopted by the UNHCR where they are being employed in Jordan. Unfortunately for these refugees in Domiz life remains very rudimentary.

Domiz Refugee Camp

Domiz Refugee Camp

Domiz Refugee Camp

Or Kawergosk...

Kawergosk Camp. Iraq
Or Akre...

Akre Refugee Camp. Iraq
Now I don't know if it is a case of the UNHCR being such an unwieldy Goliath (no matter how commendably intended) that the left hand doesn't know what the right is doing, but there is a lack of conformity in UNHCR report by country. Don't get me wrong, they publish a ton of material and do admirable work. But the UNHCR in Iraq publish exceptionally helpful status reports for these camps. It is a shame that the UNHCR in other countries doesn't employ this as a standard format.

Here is such an example. This report is very typical of most reports that you read. All of the fundamentals necessary to survive are provided - shelter, food, water, medicine and such. But every single camp in Iraq falls down on education. Attendance is very low, probably best explained by many of the men staying behind to fight ISIS, which means that the boys are encouraged to go out and scrounge for money, rather than attend school.

Without wanting to bang a drum too loudly it is difficult to understate the importance of education for refugees. As we shall see these refugees are comparatively lucky to those elsewhere, for they are smaller in number and can assimilate into their own. Furthermore, there is a good chance they will one day return. But is some of the massive desert encampments in places like Jordan, only education can give birth to knowledge which will lead to revolutionary ideas. The United States may be a naturally rich country, but still, it was simply ideas by visionaries that led to Microsoft and Google and the thousands upon thousands they provide with a livelihood?

Next week. Jordan...
Standard UNHCR Report For Syrian Refugee Camps In Iraq

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Syrian Refugee Crisis. Part 1, An Introduction. By Bruce McLaren

Even though your humble writer emerges, drowsily, from his Winter hibernation, the more unfortunate inhabitants of Syria have had no such luxury. In olden days of yore Wintertime forced a cold halt upon warring. Military campaigns were launched in the Summertime, for instance when Hitler went East in 1941. Winter is not for fighting, as Hitler also found out on the outskirts of Moscow later that year when the oil in his tanks froze and almost one million troops fell casualty, often to the cold...

Such days are gone. Snow falls on Jerusalem and Amman and most certainly in the higher uplands and mountains of Lebanon, Syria and Turkey and the fighting goes on, hopelessly, relentlessly, and, seemingly endlessly. In the last 2 months alone another 250 000 Syrians have fled across the border looking for refuge. That brings the official UNHCR count to around 4 million, making the Syrian Refugee Crisis the largest refugee crisis in the world right now.

Since 1979 the largest refugee group have consistently been the Afghans, what with the USSR invading, the resultant sectarian mess with the mujahadeen and the taliban, and then of course everything that has happened since the US invasion. Every year since 1979 until 2015 it is the poor old Afghans who have been the largest group of refugees. For now, that dubious honor is being passed to Syria.

At least, that is, if the contentious Palestinian Refugee issue is set aside for the moment. The Palestinians claim there are 6 million refugees, making them the largest group. The Israelis, for their part, propose a much lower figure. The whole issue comes down to the much argued subject of "right of return", and heading into that area is akin to tip-toeing through a metaphorical minefield (an appropriate metaphor in this case). Let it simply be said that there are 59 Palestinian Refugee camps operated by the UN. That says a lot....

As the conflict in Syria slogs on with no viable end in sight Syrians have been leaving their country in droves. This series of blogs gives an over-view of the fate of these refugees, with particular attention being paid to the major countries that are taking in Syrian Refugees - Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. This first part provides some intriguing background for the intrepid reader, with the focus on the grand span of human history leading up to the UNHCR, the main governing body running most refugee camps today.

Other countries have taken in varied numbers of Syrian Refugees. Germany has taken 40 000. Sweden has taken 20 000. Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina have all taken a few thousand each. Italy has taken about 4000, France has taken about 1500 and the UK about 500. The USA has taken 100, which is still more than Qatar who have taken 32! China have not taken any but have made a donation of $200 000!

If one scans the ancient literature, from Medieval European and Icelandic, to Classical Greek and Roman, to older texts from the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Middle East, it is abundantly clear that in times of war and battle, mercy was rarely shown. The defeated were generally completely annihilated, the men killed, the women and children killed or driven off for a life of servitude. The vanquished often fade from existence, or historical visibility, the names of tribes and nations erased from the map.

Three thousand years ago, as you can see here in this bas-relief from the reign of Tiglath-Pilesar III, if you were defeated in battle you were almost certainly destined for a painful departure from life. Here we see three victims being impaled on wooden spikes. The Assyrians were big fans of the use of impalement. They most often chopped off the hands and feet as well to ensure the struggle of the victim was a particularly gruesome affair. The Assyrians liked to flay people as well. How could they be so cruel? Well, they are no different from us. Instance of people being impaled have carried on through the ages and skinning people alive is by no means limited to the Assyrians.

Assyrians impaling the vanquished

If one was fortunate enough to live (I guess), one might be deported to a far-flung part of the Assyrian Empire, far away from any kith and kin in order to break up any sense of ethnic identity or tribalism. Such would be your destined lot.

Assyrians deporting the vanquished

It comes as no surprise, to me at least, that it was that most magical of all races, The Greeks, who toyed with the earliest ideas relating to asylum and refuge. In Ancient Greece one of the minor deities was Asalaeus, who supposedly provided safety for those in need. "Asylum" comes from the same Greek root word "Asulon", meaning "that which should not be seized".

Cassandra Clings To Statue Of Asalaeus. Sneaky Ajax coming up behind

In Classical Athens the most famous place of asylum was the Theseum, seen below. Slaves who had been poorly treated by their masters could find safety in the Theseum and attempt to sell themselves to new masters. This tradition was carried over, unsurprisingly to Rome, where a temple of Asylaeus was dedicated on the Capitoline Hill during the reign of Tiberius. This particular Roman Temple probably represents the first true instance of "refuge" for that is what it provided, not for run-away slaves, but for new arrivals in the mighty city of Rome.

Theseum. Athens

"Refuge" is also often associated with "Sanctuary" and both terms are derived from the Latin. Temples, shrines and holy places were usually the chosen locations for those seeking refuge. Mind you, time and time again we have instance, right up into the modern era, of people seeking refuge in churches only to have the church set ablaze with the cowering asylum seekers burnt alive inside.

In spite of this we see, during the early Medieval period, sanctuary often being sought in churches. King Aethelbert, in the year 600 AD, wrote out the first definitive laws regarding which churches could serve as places of refuge. Many of these had a special chair, pictured below, known as a "Frith Chair" in which the runaway or suspected criminal could sit untouched as they got their affairs in order. Over the centuries this system became so unwieldy that by James II the original laws were abolished.

King Aethelbert. c.600 AD

Hexham Abbey Frith Chair

Refugee movements have increased dramatically in size into the modern era. By the late 1600's there were waves of Protestant Huguenot fleeing Catholic France for Holland, England and Germany. During WWI over 1 million Belgians fled across the English Channel as the Germans advanced.

Following the catastrophe of WWI the newly formed League of Nations issued a mandate in 1921, mainly in response to the White Russians fleeing the Bolshevik Revolution. This Refugee Mandate was expanded a few years later to include the Armenians fleeing the Turks in Asia Minor. In the 1930's it was again expanded to include the Jews fleeing Nazi Germany, and in 1939 the Socialists fleeing Franco in Spain. Then, along came WWII, the net result of which was 40 million refugees. And to not forget the icing on the cake, in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel there was a mass exodus of Palestinians.

The Palestinian Refugee crisis was so severe that a separate arm of the UN was set up to address it - the UNRWA, or, the United Nations Relief and Works. All other refugee situations would be handled by a new arm of the UN, the UNHCR, or, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Since 1950, nearly every refugee crisis has been primarily addressed by the UNHCR.

Right from the word "go" the UNHCR has had its hands full. In the 1950's the UNHCR was involved in Hungary and Hong Kong. During the 1960's, with mass-decolonization in Africa, the attention of the UNHCR focused on that continent.  In the 1970's there were continuing refugee crises in Africa, such as that perpetrated by Idi Amin in Uganda, but there were also significant refugee problems in Vietnam and Bangladesh. And, as was mentioned at the beginning, in 1979 began the current run of Afghan troubles.

Since then the UNHCR has been active in Bosnia, Rwanda and, more recently, Iraq. Today, the UNHCR has a staff of 6000, and approximately 100 planes and 50 ships to move supplies. In Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon they are the key organization addressing the Syrian Refugee Crisis.

The UNHCR logo

Next installment: The Syrian Refugees in Iraq...

Friday, September 26, 2014

Syria. Destruction Of Antiquities Capured In Recent Images. By Bruce McLaren

Since the conflict in Syria broke out in March 2011 it didn't take long for stolen, looted, robbed, dug up ransacked antiquities to appear at the Jordanian Border. The antiquities were to be smuggled into the western market, public and private collections and what have you. If it came from a museum collection then the thief is a fool and will get caught for these collections are invariably documented. But an undocumented Roman jar yanked out of an unknown tomb? That is fair game for collectors lacking scruples.

Anyway, this isn't so much a blog as an observation of the level of destruction  being inflicted upon sites of antiquity. Even the "Dead Cities" which give their name to my book, which are one of six World Heritage listed site in Syria, have been hit hard, because that is where refugees from Aleppo were heading. And you can bet your bottom dollar that with ISIS in contol of the Euphrates River Valley ancient sites discussed in the book, such as Mari, are most likely massive excavation sites as ISIS men dig for pagan loot.

Perhaps the most saddening of these photos is that of the Old Mosque in Aleppo, with it's destroyed Minaret, almost 1000 years old. This minaret what a fantastic piece of work, incorporating the eccentricities of many periods of Islamic History going all the way back to the arrival of the Seljuk Turks, and that is a fair way back - time of Charlemagne! This side of any war like will inevitably cut deep into the hearts of those who place some onus on the value of history.

The Aleppo Minaret. Before and After

Click on these links to observe six before and after photos of ancient Syrian sites. Thanks Dave Thomas for finding these...

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Is ISIS? What Do They Want?

ISIS. Still here
So ISIS have really arrived with fanfare blaring. What was once interpreted as a very marginal threat has developed into a force that is giving the west a constant headache. Is it just me, or when you see footage of the President walking around the White House gardens does he appear as a man who wishes he could just forget it all? And well he might! For every night he has to go to sleep with the constant question of what to do. How many times has he asked himself:

"What do ISIS want"?

Well, what do they want? Well, how long is a piece of string? As long as the circumference of the world, it would appear. To begin with, ISIS want the elimination of the colonial borders drawn up following WWI, that still exist today. The leader of their organisation recently called for an attack on Rome, Europe and Spain by ISIS. Members appear to have been planning a public beheading in downtown Sydney. Reading between some pretty broad lines one can already see that we are heading towards a more global war. None of this is made any easier by Russia and Putin's stubborn behavior in everything from the Ukraine to Syria. But all in all, as people who read the Quran very literally, the ultimate aim for ISIS is an Islamic World.

The leader of ISIS, once known by his war-name of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, was originally a cleric from Samarra, one of the Abbasid Period capital cities. His link to Samarra is evident in his real name, which is, deep breath, Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarra. Today he prefers to be addressed simply as Caliph Ibrahim, or Caliph Abraham to westernize it. In Arabic a "Caliph" translates as "Successor" or "Deputy", and a "Caliphate" is a Successor-State", as in successor to the State of Islam as determined by Muhammed. We haven't had a Caliph in some centuries now, as far as I am aware.

Then: Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi

Now: Caliph Ibrahim in more appropriate attire befitting his station
The IS, or Islamic State, is the new name that Caliph Ibrahim has given to his region of influence. As always in these situations, it pays to go and look at the Arabic term that they use, which is ad-Dawlah l-ʾIslāmiyyah, which, and I could well be wrong, I always thought had overtones of being an Islamic "Mission". I think that in some ways this might be a more appropriate label.

And on the subject of terminology a final word. I still use the term ISIS, as it refers to their original objectives. To label the group IS only gives them credibility. The US government continues to use ISIL as it uses words that we dumb old westerners can understand, like "Levant", rather than an Arabic expression with a fascinating Aramaic origin (read previous blog). That being said, how many people these days are proficient with the use of "Levant"? Honestly, I wish they'd just call them ISIS and be done with it.

There is something else we need to emphasize in order to understand what they want. ISIS are usually referred to as Salafists, which, as I explained in my last blog means "ancestors", as in the ways and austere lifestyles of the earliest Muslims. Modern day Salafists emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood movement back in the 1920s. These Salafists are very strong in Egypt, the most populous Middle Eastern country with 85 million people, but also many of the other rebel groups fighting the Syrian Alawite Regime would adhere to Salafist doctrine. Salafis are not at all distantly related to the Wahhabis. They read the sacred texts literally, which explains their notoriously harsh record of persecution and punishment. 

There are reports of Christians being treated less harshly and still being able to avoid persecution by paying the jizya, the ancient tax levied on all dhimmi, or "people of the book". Admittedly, this would be in keeping with a literal interpretation of the Quran. Whether or not this is true I cannot say, but there is no doubt whatsoever that any group unfortunate enough to not be included in the dhimmi, such as the Yazidi, for example, or any Shiite, who is automatically branded a heretic, will suffer a terrible fate if captured. Even crucifixion is being used. 

Marching off to a certain fate
The lesser known term associated with ISIS is somewhat interesting one, with reference to them as "Kharijites". Now the Kharajites were an interesting bunch. Following the death of Uthman, the 3rd Rashidun Caliph, the Kharijites grew angry at Ali for not avenging Uthman. A Kharijite stabbed Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and the 4th Rashidun Caliph, as he prayed at a mosque in Kufa, his own capital city in southern Iraq, and was buried in Najaf. This event really marked the beginning of what has been a never-ending battle in the world of Islam between two major sects. Speaking of sects, Kharijite translates as "those who went out", meaning, they were the first sect to "head out on their own" from the Umma of Islam.

So ISIS want to see a strict Sharia State, with the ultimate aim aim of bringing all Muslims, the Umma, under the Sunni orthodox umbrella. The call for ISIS fighters to march on Rome may strike many westerners as a somewhat quaint and antiquated destination, but it is interesting because it says something about the mindset of the so-called Caliph Ibrahim, that is, he is very much influenced by his religious background in Samarra, one of the capitals of the long-running Sunni Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), often considered the "Golden Age" of Islam. Back then, the Muslims referred to the Byzantine Christians in Anatolia and to the west as "Rum", illustrating the long-lasting impact of Rome upon the Middle East. So the call to march on Rome plays to Jihadist sentiments on real historical levels.

The ancient minaret at Samarra
The call to take Spain as well may also seem fanciful, yet not if you are a Salafist holding true to views commonly accepted 1000 years ago. Early in the Islamic Period Spain represented part of the Umayyad conquest. In one of those countless asides of Arabic history it is of interest to note that back when the Ummayad dynasty was tottering, the Kharajites - the very same that murdered Ali - had cut Spain off from the rest of the Empire. After the Umayyads fell and the Abbasids seized power, a separate Umayyad dynasty continued in Spain for some time.

So the leadership of ISIS has made a stated claim for Spain and other parts of Europe and a war on Rome, all living under the most strict form of Sharia law. Ideally, in a perfect world if you belong to ISIS, then everyone else also adheres to the same interpretation of Islam, and lives accordingly. That, in a nutshell, is what ISIS wants.

Of course, there is a big difference between what ISIS wants and what ISIS has. Let's take a look at where ISIS actually are. Here are two different maps outlining their presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria. What is immediately noticeable is how similar these maps are, even though they are from different sources:

ISIS have a heavy presence in western and northern Iraq and in northern Syria, particularly around Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, and Mosul, and in the region north of Baghdad. They have made some attempted incursions into the mountains that border Iran but will never make any headway there because there are 30 million Kurds, who are a race of people as tough as nails, who will be more than willing to stand up and fight them. The Kurds have their own grander ideas and there is no way ISIS, a mere handful of fanatics is going to stand in the way of them.

A single line marks the area of ISIS activity, snaking up to Raqqa and Aleppo. This line is the path of the Euphrates River Valley, the only good habitable land. The open spaces on either side are largely desert. A similar line follows the path of the Tigris River up to Mosul. So these ISIS areas are determined by geography. The similar lines that dart across the desert mark the lonely roads that cross sandy oblivion, linking Baghdad to the likes of Damascus and Amman. ISIS have simply taken control of these roads up to the borders.

Now a large, broad swathe connects Mosul, on the Iraqi Tigris, with Raqqa, on the Syrian Euphrates. The environment is fairly open, rolling grassland, semi-arid, and the region is known as the Jerzirah, or "island". There are different meanings applied to the use of this toponym, but I think the most logical is drawn from the plethora of ancient, abandoned tells, many of them dating back 5000 years or more, that dot the landscape, and appear much like islands.

This particular path explains rather well how easy it was for ISIS to leave Raqqa earlier this year, when they were pushed back by opposing forces, and cross over to Mosul in a surprise attack. As the crow flies it's all a quick trip. And this also explains how easily ISIS have since returned, for they consider Raqqa to be the capital of their State. So, the extent of ISIS activity, without by any means trying to trivialize it, is limited in scope to some fairly predictable regions. Although it is important to note, on a subject that could be a blog in itself, that ISIS have recently been bolstered by patching things up with al-Qaeda, and have been fighting in conjunction with them against the Shiite Hezbollah, as far away as Lebanon.

A quick dash to Mosul
I think that when ISIS first appeared on the scene they were sorely underestimated. They were a very small force of mostly foreign Jihadists, probably no more than 5000 to 10000 fighters. But they have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at running their operation. Their key in controlling the population is to seize all of the fuel and food and thus hold the people at their bequest. The people rely on them for survival. Young men are forced to join up and their families are held for ransom, so claims of their numbers are ballooning, albeit by perverse means, are not so necessarily so far-fetched.

When ISIS first appeared I didn't think they had a chance. But other factors have played in their favor. For example, after ISIS took Mosul a big hoo-haa was made by Maliki and the Shiites in Baghdad that they were going to march on up to Mosul and wipe them out. At the time I thought, this will take a week. Just think, there are 20 million Shiites in Iraq and only 10000 ISIS fighters. The Iraq Army has been armed to the teeth by the US with the latest of everything. How could this be a problem?

But then nothing happened! Maliki flicked the bird to the US and promptly resigned. No army moved north. ISIS continued on. One of two things must have happened. First, the US pressured the Shiites to calm down as they work out a more comprehensive plan with Nato and the Kurds and so on. Second, the Shiites were only making a big show but deliberately holding off and waiting for someone, meaning the US, to do the dirty work. Not the first time that kid of thing has happened!

One thing is for sure, as long as the west dithers over what to do, ISIS becomes stronger, becomes more entrenched, and spins a more treacherous web. Today, the US launched the first air-strikes against ISIS in Syria. This is a ground-breaking moment. Previously, ISIS had been safe from such an attack in Syria. The US has struck at Mosul about 200 times but ISIS aren't stupid, would have seen that coming, and headed back west over the border.

Carrying out these air-strikes in Syria is a bold move by the US. Not only the government of the Syrian Alawite Regime, but also Russia, have come out and said that such strikes would be an attack on sovereign territory. Of course, the hypocrisy of Russia saying such things in the light of current events in the Ukraine is immediately apparent. Yet it goes to show how this is a global, not a localized problem.

How to address this problem, or more accurately how we have failed to address this problem, comes in the next installment.