art of resistance, Yemen

Yemen | How To Help.

Mideast Yemen/Photo: CodePink.org/

The crisis in Yemen continues. Near famine conditions developed in many parts of the country. Just this month, UNICEF’s Middle East director, Geert Cappelaere said that 11 million Yemeni children are now in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

How can we help, how can we get involved constructively? Here’s a little list of what we can do, put togehter on PRI + some of Middle East Revised‘s additional inputs.

MonaRelief

Fatik al-Rodaini has been called a hero by Yemenis. He collects funds, buys food from local vendors, and creates batches of food (the term of art is “baskets”) for families who his group has identified as needy. These days there is no shortage of need.

Yemen Hope and Relief

Ahmad Algohbary helps children suffering from severe malnutrition. Families request his help, and he uses donated funds to transport and house them for weeks while their children are treated at nutrition clinics in major Yemeni cities.

Yemen Aid 

This group, founded by a Yemeni American, provides assistance and resources to Yemeni people, regardless of their race, political affiliation, ancestry or religion, in order to positively change, and ultimately save, lives.

Yemen Our Home

The United Nations Development Project set up Yemen Our Home to help people outside Yemen, especially the Yemeni diaspora, support in-country projects.

Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders)

MSF has nearly 1,600 staff members across Yemen, including 82 staff members from abroad, working in 13 hospitals and supporting 18 more. MSF medical workers have shored up Yemen’s failed public health system and has been instrumental in combating the cholera epidemic that swept the country this year.

INTERSOS

Since the spring of 2015, this Rome-based organization has provided humanitarian aid to thousands of displaced persons and refugees fleeing ongoing clashes and bombings. Some of the work they’ve done has been to provide medical and food assistance, support and organize school and professional classes for children and teenagers, and provide psychological care and protection for the most vulnerable women and children and for the victims of abuse and violence.

Mwatana Organization for Human Rights

This group is headquartered in the Yemeni capital Sana’a. Mwatana programs defend and protect human rights. Its researchers conduct field investigations to detect and stop human rights violations. The organization also attempts to provide support and justice for victims, to hold accountable those in violation of human rights, and to help craft legislation and policies that prevent such violations.

Yemen Peace Project

The US-based advocacy group Yemen Peace Project is dedicated to supporting Yemeni individuals and organizations working to create positive change; advancing peaceful, constructive US policies toward Yemen; defending the rights of Yemenis in the diaspora; and increasing understanding of Yemen in the wider world.

Yemen News Today

A Facebook page which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Started by Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. (You can read Middle East Revised’s interview with Brown here).

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Yemen

(Interview) Laleh Khalili | Between War & Commerce.

we-are-the-dream-makers-copy/We are the dream makers, Dubai by Arcadia Blank/

Laleh Khalili is professor of Middle East politics at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is the author of Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine: The Politics of National Commemoration (Cambridge, 2007) and Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies (Stanford 2013), and the editor of Modern Arab Politics (Routledge 2008) and co-editor (with Jillian Schwedler) of Policing and Prisons in the Middle East: Formations of Coercion (Hurst/Oxford 2010).

Khalili’s most recent research projects deal with the politics and political economy of war and militaries as it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport with specific focus on the Middle East.

Your book Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies deals with continuities in counterinsurgencies, with the way tactics of war shifted to elaborate systems of detention and encouraged policy makers to willingly choose to wage wars. Doing the research for this book, what were the biggest discoveries for you personally?

The moment I decided to do the project was one of those great epiphanies. I was doing the final research on my first book, which was about Palestinian refugees. I was talking to a Palestinian man who was raised in Lebanon and served as a PLO fighter during the Lebanese civil war. He was captured and held in prisons inside Israel. Around the same time I was interviewing him, the Abu Ghraib pictures were published. He told me it was difficult for him to look at those pictures because he was also kept naked, and dogs were used to intimidate him while he was imprisoned. It was a surprise for me to hear that.

Why was it surprising?

We often hear about different methods of torture that don’t leave marks used in these prisons, but the fact that there were other things, like dogs and nakedness, really interested me. When I started working on the project, which was originally about the different kinds of detention practices, the more I started to read, the more it became clear to me that this is not random. There is a particular way in which states that claim to be liberal, that claim to be following the rule of law and discourse of human rights, use particular methods of subjugation that seem to repeat across different contexts.

This was as true of the British and the French in the 19th and 20th centuries, and finally to Americans and Israelis nowadays. There are actual channels through which these forms of oppression travel. Finally, what became clear to me was that the more you made the war liberal in situations where people have a democratic say about the conduct of war, the more you fight a “humane” war, the better it is for arguing in favour of war. You can say you’re going to have a nice war, but in the end there’s no such thing as a nice war.

Just last week, more than a thousand Palestinians in Israeli prisons launched a hunger strike, demanding better living and medical conditions for approximately 6,500 prisoners. Unlike similar instances in the past, this hunger strike is being reported on by the mainstream media. How did the situation change from the time you did the research for Time in the Shadows, do you think there’s more media space for these issues now?

The media space for Palestinians opens and closes cyclically and it depends on what else is going on in the world. Between the time I began the research on the book and now there has been a space opening up for discussion about the kinds of atrocities that are committed. It’s also important to say that the politics around Israel and conditions of Palestinians inside Israel and under Israeli settler colonialism, and the way the media chooses to portray that have shifted.

This shift has less to do with counterinsurgencies and wars being fought and more to do with the successes Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) struggles have had in trying to find a voice in which Palestinians don’t get sidelined, in which the conditions they live in are amplified in European and North American media. That plays a significant role in us being able to hear about the hunger strike of prisoners.

One of the issues you deal with in Time in the Shadows is what happens when states expand beyond their borders. For the last couple of years in Europe, in dealing with the so-called refugee crisis,  we are witnessing the externalization of borders, not just in relation to third countries, but also within EU member states themselves. How does this re-articulation of border management practices, the formation of new institutions and policies, affect the ideas of nation-states, jurisdiction and sovereignty?

There are particular ways in which forms of control that were used externally are being used on refugees who are within the borders or are trying to cross the borders. The jurisdictional power now attaches to bodies. We get to move around Europe easily because of our citizenship, because of the rights attached to our passport. The absence of rights attached to that passport makes us profoundly vulnerable to different forms of coercion. The border is no longer a line on the map, it’s not a geophysical feature of the territory, but rather something that happens crosses the body of the person. The border ends up being me, ends up being you. That is one of the ways this externalization is being brought home.

What are the other ways?

There’s more of them, and they don’t have to do only with migrants. Domestic policing is being militarized and the kinds of tactics that were used in counterinsurgencies are being brought home in North America and Europe. They are used in counterterrorism operations against both citizens and those perceived  to be outsiders, whether or not they are citizens. Entire communities are subjects of these new kinds of policing, based on their religion, skin color, etc.

Bringing home of the external violence is fascinating – we see armoured vehicles being used in domestic demonstrations. But that is inevitable – when you’re waging big wars, it’s only a matter of time when those war methods and equipment will be used at home. And people of course, a lot of ex-soldiers become police officers and prison wardens.

In connection to what you mentioned before in regard to citizenship, Arjun Appadurai makes an interesting point how most of the citizenships laws we have today are based in the past, in blood, parenthood, etc. For a change to happen, he argues, we would need to think about citizenship based on the imagined future, on aspirations. Do you think there are possibilities for this sort of a citizenship narrative to become a part of the mainstream discussion?

The idealist in me would like to see more space for that, but looking at the way belonging is often used as means of exclusion, limiting access, limiting the ability to dream, it’s hard for me to imagine that sort of citizenship in practice. It’s interesting to think about aspirational forms of citizenship, and the dream of belonging, but I am not entirely sure without actual concrete instruments how to transform it into reality. It’s still important to remember that all forms of belonging draw borders, even the aspirational, future oriented belonging. All dream worlds come with attached catastrophes. It is important to think about what we aspire to, because the aspiration itself is not enough. The content of it is what matters.

In your recent projects you deal with the political economy of war and militaries and the way it intersects with infrastructure, logistics and transport. Your specific focus is on the Middle East. How did you come to this point in your career, where is the continuity with your previous work?

There are two things that brought me here. I was interviewing a US military officer about matters of counterinsurgency, and he said: “Oh, you academics and journalists, you all love everything that bleeds”. To really understand the war, he said, you need to look at military logistics, that’s where all the money is spent. That was the first signal that got me looking in that direction. The vast majority of US military budget around the war is spent on getting the fuel to the fighters, getting food, setting up where they live, getting the uniforms and ammunition. Food and fuel tend to be the biggest logistical expenses. There is an entire machinery behind that.

The second thing was that friends who work for the International Transport Workers’ Federation were interested in finding out more about the Arabian peninsula, and they encouraged me in this direction. It was a combination of wanting to find out more about the role of military logistics, and about the working conditions of people in these maritime settings in the Arabian peninsula. The Arabian peninsula was perfect for this because Kuwait and Qatar were staging grounds for the American war in Iraq, and the UAE continues to be a logistical staging ground for the US war in Afghanistan.

You’re primarily interested in the role of US and British military and oil companies in the Arabian peninsula. In which ways do the policies of these countries affect the infrastructure of the Arabian peninsula, and specifically the working conditions of people employed in the ports and maritime transport business?

It depends on the country. In Saudi Arabia, the role of the US is much more important than the role of the British, while in the smaller Emirates, as well as Oman and Yemen, the role of the British is much more important due to colonial history. Emirs in these countries continue to be advised by the British and to a certain degree the indirect colonial control continues today. The US and GB didn’t only have a substantial role in the structure of these states.

Oil companies and tanker terminals have a different history, but it is very crucial to the formation of these states and their transport infrastructures. The conditions of work that emerged in tanker terminals, the geographic placement of these terminals far from cities, the way they were automated from very early on, in the 1940s and 1950s, have been essential in shaping practices within container industries many years later.

The second thing that has been really interesting is that the oil companies, in order to be able to start extracting oil in the Arabian peninsula, have to bring in all the materials, pipes, heavy equipment.  They couldn’t do that because many of these ports simply didn’t allow for ships to come close enough, particularly in the Gulf area, where the coast is very shallow and tends to be mudflat, with no deep harbours. They had to build new ports and that shows the connection of the cargo history with oil companies.

In your lectures you often talk about the significance of Yemen and the city of Aden as a port, and the changes it went through in the recent history. Why is Aden so significant?

Aden was a British colony from 1834 to 1967. It was originally colonized because the British needed a coaling station in that location, but also the British wanted to colonize that area because of the location close to the Red Sea, and the East African coast and of course to India. With the opening of the Suez Canal in the mid-19th century, Aden became far more significant than it has been before. That’s when it becomes the fourth largest coaling station for ships in the world. There’s a long history of Yemen being on these trade routes, because it was a hub for coffee. Mocha coffee we know today is named after a port there.

After 1950s when the British lost their big refinery in Iran, because it was nationalized, a major refinery was built in Aden. The rise of Aden as a port continues until British are forced to leave by the anti-colonial struggle which begins in the late 1950s. The British didn’t want to give up Aden, it was a major city, cosmopolitan,  of strategic importance, and crucial to the conduct of empire, but later in the 20th century Americans are stepping into the game.

What has happened in the last decades is fascinating because now regional capital is injecting money into Aden, money from Dubai and so on. The deals that these companies are making  are corrupt.  Aden ended up taking Dubai Ports World, one of the biggest terminal management companies, to court and managed to cancel the 35-year container terminal concession with them. Now, when Aden is being destroyed in a war waged by Saudi Arabia and UAE, one of the first things UAE announced once they got the control of Aden, is that they will help rebuild the port. There’s such comfortable traffic between war and commerce.

In connection with Yemen, it is the only country in the Arabian peninsula that has (had) functional unions. Are there any possibilities for workers to organize in other countries?

In the Arabian peninsula, only three countries have unions – Yemen, Kuwait and Bahrain. The difference between them is that in both Kuwait and Bahrain unions are not as functional as in Yemen. In Bahrain there are independent unions, but they only cater to citizens, not to the migrant population, and they are only unions of state employees.. The same rules applies to Kuwait, except that it’s even more limited and the unions are practically the arms of the state.

Part of the reason for the existence of unions there and not elsewhere is that Kuwait and Bahrain had far more developed set of industrial relations with the British, and they allowed the creation of unions as ways of trying to channel nationalist and radical sentiments among workers. Unions were never allowed to emerge in other countries.

What makes Yemen a different case?

Yemen is a very different case, because unions there became quite significant for the independence struggle. Reading through the history of Yemen, one finds constant stories of worker mobilization in the ports. They still have a functioning set of unions, although at the moment, with no ports functioning,  workers are are receiving a small amount of aid but they are not working.

The presence of unions there is extremely important because it has meant that there has been far more accountability in terms of the managements of the ports and far more visible sets of protests against unjust policies.  These kinds of protests exist in places like the UAE  but because there are no unions there are no ways to organize them better and make them more substantial and longer-lasting.

Going through the history of protests organized by the port workers, how was the cooperation between different nationalities, because it is factor that can be used to divide the workers?

The response differs depending on the location and time. During times of very heightened nationalist sentiments, the unions tend to act as instruments of ethnic and xenophobic exclusion, and that is much more the case in the Northern part of the Arabian peninsula, than in the South. Yemen is a special case because so many of the workers in the ports were of Somali origin and the unions didn’t have the distinction between Yemenis and others.

The British actively tried to undermine cross-national unity. One of the things they realized is that if the workers in the ports were Arabs, from many different countries, they could be quite demanding in asking for their rights, and they couldn’t be easily pushed aside because their governments could protect them. This wasn’t as true for a lot of the South Asian workers whose governments wouldn’t protect them and they couldn’t easily mobilize together with the Arabs because of the issues of language. It shows how British were good at divide and rule.

Are these colonial labour tactics and structures still present today?

The structures of ports today, particularly the big, mechanized, automated container ports in the Arabian peninsula, still reflect colonial labour structures. CEOs of the ports and the top managers are usually from North and West Europe, mostly British, the next level of managers are European. After that come the administrators, which are usually educated Indians, and then you have a large labour force that comes from the migrant communities working in these cities.

The conditions in which they work are far more precarious then those of the expat communities, European and other. There are differentiated labour regimes operating in these settings, quite familiar from the past. It’s useful to have different nationalities working in clusters, because that way you can separate them and they can’t collaborate with one another and form unions or protest. It also helps to have deportable labour because the moment there are difficulties you can send them out of the country.

In a lot of your lectures and writings, you use literary examples. You often mention two books – Melville’s Moby Dick and Kanafani’s Men in the sun. Why are these books so important for the research you do?

Moby Dick is wonderful because it’s just a wonderful book. There is a really long tradition of reading Moby Dick as an allegory for labour struggle and many other things. It’s also important for all of the information and research that went into it, and the descriptive geography it offers to the reader.

Kanafani’s book came as a surprise to me, because I’ve read it a lot of times and I’ve always seen it as an allegory for the Palestinian condition. But when I read it again recently, it struck me how well researched it is. You can learn all sorts of details about migration routes of Palestinians who went to Kuwait to find jobs, but also about Trans-Arabian Pipeline and its pumping stations and how they were connected to roads and many other logistical features.

There’s also a third book, Abdul Rahman Munif’s Cities of Salt. It’s a wonderful, difficult and dense novel about the coming of Aramco to Saudi Arabia. It is deeply researched and I love it because there are so few memoirs of people who worked in the ports and oil industries in Saudi Arabia in the moment when Aramco came, and Munif is a wonderful documentor of this moment in time and all the changes that happen.

People underuse these amazing literary works as documentary sources. There’s also an amazing genre of fisherman’s songs from Kuwait and Bahrain, and I want to analyze them and see what else can we learn about the transformation from fishermen to industrial communities.

• • •

This interview was also published on H-Alter.

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art of resistance, Saudi Arabia, Yemen

Yemen | 2017 Humanitarian Needs Overview.

kayai so what/Then What, painting by Louay Kayali/

An estimated 18.8 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, including 10.3 million who are in acute need. Escalating conflict since March 2015 has created a vast protection crisis in which millions face risks to their safety and basic rights, and are struggling to survive.

Even before March 25, 2015, when the conflict in Yemen escalated, the country faced enormous levels of humanitarian need, with 15.9 million people requiring some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance in late 2014. These needs stemmed from years of poverty, under-development, environmental decline, intermittent conflict, and weak rule of law – including widespread violations of human rights.

The conduct of hostilities has been brutal. As of 25 October 2016, health facilities had reported almost 44,000 casualties (including nearly 7,100 deaths) – an average of 75 people killed or injured every day. These figures significantly undercount the true extent of casualties given diminished reporting capacity of health facilities after 19 months of war and many people’s inability to access healthcare at all.

Read the full report on Yemen here.

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(Interview) Judith Brown: Yemen Is A Mess & It’s Getting Worse.

24/photo © Josef Hoflehner/

The war in Yemen, with all of its tragedies, keeps on unravelling far from the media flashlights. In a recent horrific attack in Sana’a, when Saudi-led warplanes struck a funeral, more than 200 people were killed, and more than 500 were injured.

A day after the attack in Sana’a, former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, who easily forgets his own mistakes (from 1978 till today), called for an attack on the enemy – Saudi Arabia. On the same day, the White House issued a statement saying it had begun an “immediate review” of its support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen. It is hard to believe that there will be such a review, since this is not the first attack by Saudi Arabia, and it will probably not be the last one.

There have been numerous attacks – on schools, hospitals, markets – killing and injuring thousands of civillians. In August, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) withdrew their staff from six hospitals in northern Yemen after a coalition airstrike on a hospital in Hajjah killed 19 people. Countless attacks on health facilities and services all over Yemen, happened despite the fact that MSF has systematically shared the GPS coordinates of hospitals with the parties involved in the conflict.

In the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented 43 airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, which have killed more than 670 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.

The infrastructure in Yemen has been significantly devasted during the last couple of years, and humanitarian organisations have been sending warnings about the lack of immediate and unhindered access to people who urgently need food assistance. That fact, compounded by a shortage of funding, means that famine is a possibility for millions of people.

We’ve discussed Yemen with Judith Brown, activist and aid worker from United Kingdom, who started the page Yemen News Today, which brings daily news from Yemen in English. Brown worked with refugees in Yemen from 1998 until 2001 and has visited the country every year from 2001 until 2014. She is now seventy years old and retired, but has recently started postdoctoral research into the media coverage of the Yemen war.

You’ve started the page Yemen News Today, trying to bring daily news from Yemen to the wider audiences, in English. How did that idea come to you, was it due to the lack of news from Yemen in the mainstream media?

I began Yemen News Today out of desperation because there was no news of Yemen in the media. I also know that I have a big Yemeni following now. My motivation was to tell as many people in the West as I could about the suffering, with the aim of increasing awareness and political pressure.

You’ve also worked as a manager at Refugee Health Project in Yemen, until 2001. What are your experiences like – how did the situation with refugees change over the last couple of years?

I left the refugee health programme in 2001, and this programme was for international refugees. Although I understand that since the Saada wars the UN had taken some responsibility for the displaced people – something they are not doing now simply because of the lack of resources.

For a time after the start of the war all the international employees were moved out of Yemen and many of the local staff were not able to function because they too were displaced, especially in Aden where the biggest refugee programmes are. I think the UN refugee offices are functioning now in Aden and Sana’a, but I am not sure exactly what their responsibilities are.

85154702_yemen_humanitarian_crisis/photo: BBC, 2015/

In a recent interview with Status Hour, journalist Safa al Ahmad argues that there’s no longer a Yemen, that North and South are completely separate from each other. Would you agree with that?

The north and south are functioning as at least two separate parts for complex reasons. Firstly, Saudi Arabia and UAE have a difficult relationship and different aims due to the war and this has meant they have largely divided their sphere of responsibilities, with Saudi controlling the war in the north and UAE taking little responsibility for the south militarily, but it is developing commercial interests there.

There is also animosity in both parts, but especially Hadramaut governors made statements about a year ago that they would not accept anyone from the old North Yemen, and many people there have developed an intolerant Sunni position, but they also want to keep free of the effects of the Yemen war.

In Aden the secessionist movement is strong – though not supported by everyone by any means – and the secessionists have said they will not accept any people from the north or even southerners that have lived for a long time in the north, and it seems to be that Aden Lahj and Bab al Mandab operate as a separate entity. They are not keen on having people from east and central Yemen move to Aden either because of their fears of the militias from there taking control – such as Al-Qaeda but not limited to Al-Qaeda. Taiz is more or less on its own. And the old north (less Taiz) is under the control of the Houthis and the old Yemen army.

What is happening with the government?

What is true is that in effect there are two systems of government, one in Sana’a and one mostly in Riyadh (with a few of the Riyadh ministers in Aden). There are two Yemen armies – most of the original army support the Houthis, and the new army is paid for by Saudi Arabia and trained by UAE  (KSA are mostly in Aden). There now appear to be two banks as president Abd Rabuh Mansur Hadi moved the central Yemen bank to Aden, with new staff, and the remaining central bank staff who were sacked by Hadi are still in Sana’a. So it’s a mess. As in all wars.

You’re constantly trying to bring attention to the issues of starvation and famine in Yemen. With food ships finding it hard to get into Yemen’s ports due to a virtual blockade, over half the country’s 28 million people already do not have enough to eat, according to the United Nations. How does that look like on the ground, how do the people survive?

The famine is everywhere in the north, but worst in Hodeida and the north west. It is getting more and more difficult for families to cope – even middle class families who used to have money don’t know how they can afford food. People have used up their savings and there are few jobs and little humanitarian aid getting in. Those with homes and businesses destroyed are not able to get any compensation.

Some people have family and friends overseas who are helping them to survive. The rich Inside Yemen have been very generous – for example providing most of the free water in cities. But even their resources are strained now because there is so much need. Some are just very hungry and some are starving to death, especially the very young. There are very few resources for the displaced.

Where do we move from now, what can be done in this situation?

It is difficult to see how the situation will change unless USA and UK stop their unconditional support for Saudi Arabia. I really don’t know what can be done and I feel desperate sometimes. It is a situation even more complex than Syria and it is escalating as USA seems to have joined in the war and Iranian warships are now openly stating that they are in Yemeni waters. But this is still not in the Western media. I just feel I have to keep on trying to get the story out and do what I can. But it’s not enough.

• • •

This interview was also published in Croatian, on H-Alter.

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Yemen: Still Moving, Still Standing Still.

72/Aden, Yemen. image © Josef Hoflehner/

A week ago, Human Rights Watch released a statement calling on participants to the Yemen peace talks to “support international investigations, transitional justice, and victim compensation as key elements of any agreement.”

HRW warned that the armed conflict in Yemen has been characterized by numerous violations of the laws of war by all sides, which have not been investigated nor have resulted in any redress for victims of unlawful attacks.

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“The Saudi Arabia-led coalition of nine Arab countries has carried out indiscriminate airstrikes against residential neighborhoods, markets, and other civilian structures causing several hundred civilian casualties. Ansar Allah, the northern group, also known as the Houthis, and other armed groups on both sides have committed various abuses in ground operations. Although a ceasefire was announced on April 10, fighting has continued across Yemen”, HRW report says.

Human Rights Watch has documented new coalition airstrikes that appear to be unlawful. Six attacks in and around the capital, Sanaa, in January and February, killed 28 civilians, including 12 children, and wounded at least 13 others.

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In the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented 43 airstrikes, some of which may amount to war crimes, which have killed more than 670 civilians, as well as 15 attacks involving internationally banned cluster munitions.

The HRW report comes as MSF decided to withdraw from the World Humanitarian Summit due to a lack of confidence that the summit will address weaknesses in humanitarian action and emergency response in conflict zones including Yemen and Syria.

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HRW is unaware of any investigations by Saudi Arabia or other members of the coalition into allegedly unlawful attacks or abuses, or of any compensation for victims. In their public statements, none of the participants in the talks has indicated a need to include accountability or redress in the peace process.

Just two days ago, a number of outlets including Al Arabiya and Press TV, reported that direct peace talks were indefinitely postponed after the Hadi government withdrew due to a “lack of progress”. Meanwhile, the Houthis accuse the coalition of launching new airstrikes that killed seven people in Nihm.

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Couple of weeks ago, I posted the interview Status Hour did with Safa al Ahmad, freelance journalist and filmmaker who has been reporting on Yemen  since 2010. In case you haven’t done it yet – do listen to Ahmad, she is one of the few reporters able to talk about the complexity of the situation on the ground in Yemen today.

Throughout this post, I included photos from the great Austrian photographer Josef Hoflehner, most of them taken in Yemen in 2005.

I chose the photos that (to me) depict a state of waiting, of moving (and wanting to move) and standing still at the same time. I think that is the state most Yemenis find themselves in these days.

joseph//all photos © Josef Hoflehner//

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Safa Al Ahmad: There’s No Longer A Yemen.

/photo © Alex Potter/

Safa Al Ahmad is a Saudi freelance journalist and filmmaker. Her focus is the Arabian Peninsula, primarily Saudi Arabia and Yemen, and her work so far has been insightful, corageous, informative and mesmerizing in many ways.

She has been reporting on Yemen since 2010, and is one of the rare journalists who spent much time inside the country (she keeps going there) and is able to talk about the complexity of the situation on the ground today.

I am so happy Status Hour recently aired an interview with her. In conversation with Adel Iskandar, Al Ahmad delves into her recent coverage of Yemen reflecting on the humanitarian disaster there, the various actors on the ground, and the gendered dimensions of covering this conflict.

“Fighters are the ones who get salaries these days in Yemen, nobody else does. It just goes to show you how fragile the situation has become. I would argue that there’s no longer a Yemen, North and South are completely separate from each other”, Ahmad says.

Please listen to this important interview and stay informed about the horrendous situation in Yemen, which remains under-reported and totally neglected.

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Yemen: The Melody of Our Alienation.

max pam/image © Max Pam, Ramadan in Yemen (1993)/

“What could I say about Yemen that did it justice. I tried in my journal to work it honestly. I tried with 60 rolls of black and white 120 film to translate the experience. That hot, spare and beautiful Ramadan.

No eating or drinking anything between sunrise and sunset. The faithful waiting for the moment. The cannon booms from the mosque in the afterglow of the day. KABOUMMM and a frenzy of quat buying, tea drinking and food eating begins in the suqs and squares and oases and towns all over the country. Everyone happy, elated laughing and joking sitting down together as one nation.

And you know what, people always wanted me to share and be part of their Ramadan, their community, their Yemen. I travelled all over the country with them. To Shibam, Taizz, Al Mukallah, Sanaa, over the desert, by the sea and into the mountains. The shared taxis were always a half past dead Peugeot 405’s with sometimes 10 or 12 people jammed in.

The 92 pages of this book give my version of that unforgettable Ramadan month. An experience freely given to me by the generosity of Yemeni people.”

That is how Max Pam described his experience of Yemen twenty-two years ago, summed up in his journal Ramadan in Yemen.

Twenty-two years later in Yemen, at least 120 people are dead after Saudi-led airstrikes pummeled a residential neighborhood in the western port city of Mokha late Friday. It was the deadliest wave of bombings since the U.S.-backed campaign against Houthi rebels began in March. The strikes hit a housing complex for power plant workers, flattening buildings and sparking fires that spread throughout the neighborhood and burned alive women, children and elderly.

One of the Mokha residents described the onslaught: “There were continuous airstrikes without any breaks. And we have no military men, no devils. We don’t even have gunmen around here. We couldn’t get to our children. There were some 20 bodies that I pulled out with my own hands and counted. Who is to blame for this?”

The ceasefire took effect Sunday night at midnight, but within hours both sides said the other had resumed attack.

As Yemeni poet Abdulaziz Al Maqaleh asks in The Melody of Our Alienation: “Has nonsense become common sense? Has the non-rational become rational?”

His poem comes to my mind because it is a beautiful act of devotion and hope in these bad times for Yemen. But, it also comes to my mind because the title The Melody of Our Alienation illustrates the position of the outside world towards Yemen (and not just Yemen) perfectly. All these wars and conflicts played to the tunes of our alienation – from the rest of the world, from ‘others’, from anything and everything that is not Me, Myself & I.

Watch and listen. In the end, The Melody of Our Alienation is a reminder that no matter how strange the city of Sana’a (and Yemen in general) feels now, its people are not strangers in their own city. It is their city. It is where they belong. It is where they will make a difference as agents of peace.

“Sana’a.. Even if she slept on its sorrows for some time. Even if she caved in and the numbness took too long. Her morning shall revolt in the face of darkness. And certainly… The rain will one day wash away her drought.”

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art of resistance, India, Iran, Israeli - Palestinian conflict, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia

Five For Friday: Conversations With History.

Conversations With History was conceived in 1982 by Harry Kreisler, as a “way to capture and preserve through conversation and technology the intellectual ferment of our times.” It’s a great series which includes over 500 interviews. Here are five of my favorites concerning various issues related to the Middle East (although there are more than just five great ones, of course).

1. Conversations With History: Tariq Ali

Tariq Ali talks about the creation of Pakistan, issues with India, and the dysfunctionality of the state today. He also talks about Israel, drawing parallels between states with strong religious and ethnic identities and the way that identity cripples them.

2. Conversations With History: Juan Cole

Juan Cole talks about journalism and academia, the way his life changed after the years he spent in Beirut and how he came to do his academic work on Islam.  He also talks about his great blog Informed Comment and the idea behind it.

3. Conversations With History: Amira Hass

Famous Israeli journalist Amira Hass talks about Israeli occupation, Palestinian terrorism, and the consequences of the conflict for the daily lives of both Israelis and Palestinians.

4. Conversations With History: Andrew Scott Cooper

Andrew Scott Cooper discusses his book The Oil Kings. Focusing on the geopolitics of the Middle East in the 1970’s, the book centers on the complex relationship between Nixon, Kissinger and the Shah of Iran. Revealing the contradiction between the Shah’s dependence on the rise of oil prices and the need to fund his new military role, Cooper explains how this contradiction resulted in the Shah’s downfall and the implosion of Iran.

5. Conversations With History: John L. Esposito

John L. Esposito, the author of Who speaks for Islam?, talks about the diversity of the Muslim world, extremism, and the complex forces shaping Islam and its relationship with(in) the West.

• • •

Previous Five For Friday:

Iraq War Documentaries

Graphic Novels on Israel & Palestine

Lectures and Interviews on Middle East & Islam

 

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Yemen

Another One Bites The Dust: Yemen in Crisis.

Yemen is finally getting some media attention. The country is falling apart. One of the most beautiful countries in the world is falling apart (when it comes to beauty of the nature and architecture – Yemen is the shining jewel). Photos by the great Steve McCurry (throughout this post) are here to remind us of that beauty.

Yemen was for centuries the center of civilization and wealth on the Arabian peninsula. The Romans referred to the area as Arabia Felix, or “Happy Arabia.” Tim Mackintosh-Smith writes in Yemen: The Unknown Arabia: “Yemen…had something of a Dictionary Land about it: as well as the talking hoopoes and dambusting rodents, men chewed leaves and camels lived on fish; they (the men) wore pinstriped lounge-suit jackets on top, skirt below, and wicked curved daggers in the middle; the cities seemed to have been baked, not built, of iced gingerbread; Yemen was part of Arabia but the landscape looked like… well, nowhere else on Earth.”

00014_18.adj, Hajjah, Yemen, 1999, final print_milan

Unfortunately, Yemen is now not in the news because of its beauty. This week, Saudi Arabia and other regional allies launched a military campaign in Yemen targeting Houthi rebels. The Saudi-led airstrikes are intended to thwart the Houthis’ advance after seizing control of the capital Sana’a last year and deposing President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi last month. Hadi called for international intervention on his behalf earlier this week. There are conflicting reports over his whereabouts as Houthis advance on his outpost of Aden. Unconfirmed statements say Hadi has fled Yemen by boat. The Houthi-run Health Ministry says the strikes have killed at least 20 civilians in Sana’a and wounded 30 others. The Saudi government says it has consulted “very closely” with the White House on its military campaign.

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In an apparent reference to Iran, the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said the operation aimed to counter the “aggression of Houthi militias backed by regional powers.” Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV reported that the kingdom was contributing one hundred warplanes to operation Storm of Resolve and more than eighty were provided by the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan, Morocco and Sudan.

This week, Democracy Now! hosted a discussion with Iona Craig, a journalist who was based in Sana’a for four years as the Yemen correspondent for The Times of London. When asked how this crisis ocurred, Craig said it was something like  “a car crash in slow motion, to watch it.

She continued to say: “This has come after the Arab Spring in 2011. When Ali Abdullah Saleh signed over power, he was granted immunity from that point, and he was allowed to stay in Yemen. And so, he was allowed to still continue in politics, really, and keep manipulating as he always had done, but from then on from the side. And really, this was—then seemed to be a plan of action then to use the Houthis as a way of almost getting revenge against Islah, Yemen’s equivalent to the Muslim Brotherhood, and creating this scenario that we are now in, in Yemen. And Hadi has been forced into a corner as a result of all of this. So it’s really as a result of events after the Arab Spring and the transition deal that was then signed, that didn’t address the grievances of the Houthis or the Southern Movement and others. And despite the international community pushing on with the transition, it was almost inevitable that this was going to come to a head at some point.

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Last week, a prominent Yemeni journalist, Abdul Kareem al-Khaiwani, was assassinated in the capital Sana’a. He was reportedly shot dead near his home by gunmen riding a motorbike. “He was a Houthi supporter and activist, but he was much more than that… A very outspoken voice for a long, long time against the old regime and against Ali Abdullah Saleh. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility for his assassination, but, really, it’s got to be viewed as a politically motivated assassination“, Craig said.

Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled North Yemen from 1978 before heading the united republic, has over the years spent most of his political capital consolidating his position rather than knitting together a stable state. In 2012, the Yemeni parliament passed a law that granted Saleh immunity from being prosecuted and he left Yemen for treatment in the United States. Saleh stepped down and formally ceded power to his deputy Abdu Rabbu Mansur Hadi. Saleh came back to Yemen after his treatment in the USA and continued his manipulative politics. All in all – poverty, corruption and the hopelessly weak rule of law form the backdrop to al-Qaeda’s entry into Yemen.

Last year, Vice News took a look at how Yemen’s embattled government is dealing with sectarian rivalries, CIA drone strikes, and one of al Qaeda’s most sophisticated branches. Here’s the video Yemen: A Failed State.

I truly hope there is a way for Yemen, its people, its natural beauty, its architecture and rich history – to stay safe, to stay in one piece.

/all photos © Steve McCurry/

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art of resistance, Iraq, Syria

The Rise of ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War.

* Tariq Ali interviews Patrick Cockburn about ISIS and the Origins of the New Middle East War. Great interview published on CounterPunch.

THE RISE OF ISIS AND THE ORIGINS OF THE NEW MIDDLE EAST WAR

by TARIQ ALI and PATRICK COCKBURN/ COUNTERPUNCH

Tariq Ali: I’m in conversation with Patrick Cockburn, who can  only be described as a veteran reporter and courageous journalist who has covered the wars of the United States in the Middle East since they began with the invasion of Iraq, and was reporting from the region a long time before on the sanctions against Iraq, the Gulf wars. We’re now at a critical stage where a new organisation has emerged.

Patrick has written a new book, The Jihadis Return, which is an extended essay on the emergence of ISIS and its links to the Sunni population in Iraq and the likely consequences of this for the region. Because there’s absolutely no doubt that what this opens up is yet another front in the unending war that has become a total misery for the people who live in the Arab world today. Patrick, let’s begin by sort of inquiring about the origins of the Islamic State group, ISIS as they call themselves, where do they come out from and when did this start? 

Patrick Cockburn: Well they come most immediately from al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was at the height of its influence in 2006 [and] 2007 when it was an element–but not the only element–in the Sunni resistance to a Shia government and the American occupation. Ideologically, it comes out of the Jihadi movement and actually its religious beliefs are not that much different from Saudi Wahhabism, the variant of the Islam which is effectively the state religion of Saudi Arabia with its denigration of Shia as heretics, [along with] Christians and Jews. It’s just carrying these beliefs to a higher and more violent level but it’s very much in the context of the Jihadi movement,

Tariq Ali: Can I just interrupt you there? This Jihadi movement did not exist in Iraq as such prior to the American invasion and occupation.

Patrick Cockburn: No, it didn’t. And Saddam arrested anybody who was an obvious Jihadi. I mean, it was always an absurd pretence at the time of the invasion of Iraq to say that Saddam had any connection with the Jihadis or 9/11. Though such was the volume of propaganda at the time that 60% of Americans believed that somehow Saddam was linked to 9/11

Tariq Ali: So following through on this, we have the American occupation, we have a Shia government, which they have effectively put into power, and we have the beginnings of an uprising in the early days of the occupation, which involved not just Sunnis but also Muqtada al-Sadr who was very hostile to the occupation. What happened to break up this sort of resistance, which was initially a combined resistance, such as Shia groups like Muqtada sending medical aid and help to the besieged Fallujah? Why did that break up?

Patrick Cockburn: The unity between the Sunni and Shia resistance to the Americans was always tentative, although taken very seriously by the Americans. I mean, the memoirs of American generals at the time said they were really worried that these two groups would unite in resisting the occupation. And it’s perhaps one of the many disasters to have happened to Iraq that they didn’t unite, that they remained sectarian, in fact remained more sectarian, on the Sunni side.

Tariq Ali: And so, if we come down to the speed with which this particular organisation swept through parts of Iraq, which you yourself talk about in the book, how do you explain the total collapse of the Iraqi army, Patrick? Is it in that sense not too much different from the army created by the West in Afghanistan, the fact that they are not prepared to fight and die for the United States?At that time it was, al-Qaeda and Iraq was only one of a number of serious resistance movements to the occupation but it was very evident in Baghdad at the time when I went to American briefings that anything that happened was attributed by the spokesman, the military spokesman, to al-Qaeda. Of course this played well back in the US, but in Iraq it had quite the contrary effect which people who were against the occupation think, oh it’s al-Qaeda who’s doing all this resisting, let’s go an get a black flag and join them…

Patrick Cockburn: Yeah, and even more so. I mean I think this is, it’s difficult to think of another example in history, where there are 300 or 350 thousand men in the Iraqi army, they’d  spent 41.6 billion dollars on this army over the last three years.  But it disintegrated because of an attack by maybe a couple of thousand people in Mosul. Why did it happen? Well, the army was rather extraordinary. I mean one  Iraqi general I was talking to who’d been forcibly retired said at the beginning of the disaster was the Americans, [who] when they set it up, insisted that supplies and things like that should be outsourced, privatised.

So immediately a colonel of a battalion nominally of 600 men would get money for 600 men, [but] in fact there were only 200 men in it, and would pocket the difference, which was spread out among the officers. And this applied to fuel, it applied to ammunition… At the time of the fall of Mosul there are meant to be 30,000 troops there. In fact, it’s estimated that only one in three was there. Because what you did was: you joined the army, you got your full salary and then you kicked back half that salary to your officer, who spread it among the officers. So I remember about a year ago talking to a senior Iraqi politician, and who said look: the army’s going to collapse if it’s attacked. I said surely some will fight, he said: no no no, you don’t understand. These officers are not soldiers, they’re investors!

They have no interest in fighting anybody; they have interest in making money out of their investment. Of course you had to buy your position. So in 2009, you want to be a colonel in the Iraqi army, it’ll cost you about 20,000 dollars, more recently it cost you about $200,000. You want to be divisional commander, and there are 15 divisions, it will cost you about 2 million. Of course, there are other ways of making money. Checkpoints on the roads act as sort of customs barriers and a tariff on each truck going through would be paid. So that’s why they ran away, led by their commanding officer, the three commanding generals got into a helicopter in civilian clothes and fled to Erbil, the Kurdish capital. And that led to the final dissolution of the army.

Tariq Ali: It is one of the most astonishing events in recent history, Patrick. I mean can you think of any other equivalent, even in the last century?

Patrick Cockburn: I can’t think of any of such a large well-equipped army disintegrating. You could say that Saddam’s army disintegrated in ’91 when attacked by the Americans, and again in 2003. But then it was attacked by the largest military force in the world and was being bombed. So it’s not a parallel. It of course shows that ISIS was quite effective in spreading terror through social media, by films of it decapitating Shia captives. So the soldiers were terrified of ISIS.

And also the whole Sunni community, about 20% of Iraqis, maybe 6 million in the Sunni provinces, were alienated by the Nouri al-Malaki’s regime. They were persecuted, they couldn’t get jobs, collective punishment, young men in villages around Fallujah – sometimes there aren’t many young men because they’re all in jail – and some were on death row going to be executed for crimes which somebody had already been executed for. It was completely arbitrary. So not surprisingly to this day  it’s one of the reasons that ISIS still has support, that for all its bloodthirstiness, for a lot of the Sunni community it’s better than the Iraqi army and the Iraqi Shia militias coming back.

Tariq Ali: I mean this is something which apart from yourself and possibly one other journalist in the entire Western media is not being reported at all, that however violent and brutal this group seems and is, it does have some support among the population…

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, ISIS has a number of different kinds of support. It has support of the alienated Sunni community in Iraq and also in Syria. That at least their victors, after all these people have been defeated – they were defeated in ’91 by the Americans, they were defeated again in 2003, they were marginalised, persecuted – so victory is important to them. I think also they appeal to jobless young men, I mean sometimes referred to as the underclass, but actually just the poor, poor young men.

Tariq Ali: Poor and unemployed.

Patrick Cockburn: Poor, unemployed young men with nothing in front of them: this does have an appeal for them. And the alternative is pretty bad. I mean, the few successful counterattacks made primarily by the Shia and Kurdish militias, that they’ve immediately driven out the Sunni from areas were ISIS had driven out the Shia. So from the Sunni point of view, they don’t have much alternative but to stick with ISIS.

Tariq Ali: And is there no alternative Sunni organisation, which at least offers a different political programme apart from this sort of fanaticism shown by ISIS. I mean, what about the Association of Sunni Scholars?

Patrick Cockburn: Many  sort of went along with ISIS trying to sort of ride the tiger. And … it was believed in Baghdad, and I think really until about a month ago, that, yes, ISIS had appeared to have won these great victories but in fact they were simply the shock troops of the Sunni community. And there were tribes and there were former army officers and there were others like the scholars who would displace them once the Sunni had got what they wanted.

Tariq Ali: And we thought this was wishful thinking because ISIS tends to monopolise power just as soon as it can, even when it took power in an area in combination with others. It’s also extremely paranoid, so it’s going to kill anybody whom it thinks is preparing to stab it in the back or rise up against it. In Mosul for instance, they seem to have taken hostage about 300 people. But former generals, sort of Sunni dignitaries, the sort of people who they suspect might lead that sort of resistance. And in Syria, in Deir ez-Zo province, one tribe sort of rose up against them, they crushed it immediately and executed 700 of its members. So I think it’s just wishful thinking to imagine that ISIS is going to be displaced in the areas it has conquered.

Let’s come to the next point. A lot of people have speculated that the Saudis in some form or the other, if not the government directly, people close to the government in Saudi Arabia, were partially responsible for creating, helping and funding this force as a sort of proto-Saudi intervention against Shia domination in Iraq after the occupation. To what extent is this true, if at all?

Patrick Cockburn: There’s some truth in it, but you want to avoid a conspiracy theory that the Saudis are the sort of master who moves the pawns on the board, which is sometimes believed in parts of the Middle East. The Saudis have always been behind the Jihadi movement in general, above all abroad, not within Saudi Arabia. And generally they will support those who oppose Shia governments, and don’t really distinguish or didn’t really distinguish who they were supporting. But it’s also pretty clear that a lot of their support did go to ISIS, did go to other groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, this was all through private donors, not just Saudi Arabia, but Kuwait  and Qatar, and Turkey.

The US and Britain would [try to] distinguish between the moderate Syrian opposition in this corner and the Jihadi extreme opposition in the other corner. But actually the two were together, I mean there was a report this very week by a research organisation itemising various weapons in the hands of ISIS that appear to have been supplied by Saudi Arabia last year to the supposedly moderate Syrian opposition, but were immediately transferred because the gap between the two is much more limited than you’d imagine…

Tariq Ali: Yeah. And there’s a report in, I think, in the newspapers today as we speak, that Steven Sotloff was sold to ISIS by a supposedly moderate Syrian organisation who captured him.

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, his family are saying this. And it’s also interesting that immediately the American spokesmen say: no no no that didn’t happen, because they can see how far this undermines what may be their policy to be announced today by Obama of building up a moderate opposition, a third force, which is going to supposedly fight Assad and fight ISIS simultaneously

Tariq Ali: It’s pure fantasy

Patrick Cockburn: It’s fantasy … in that form. But I mean it’s interesting that the commanding general of the Free Syrian Army says that the Free Syrian Army commanders in Syria, now get their orders directly from the Americans. He said he and the other officers in Turkey were meant to be the headquarters and the leaders of the Free Syrian Army. He said I think it’s 16 commanders in northern Syria and some other, about 60 of the smaller groups in the South, now get their equipment, advice and instructions directly from the Americans

Tariq Ali: But Patrick, this again is pretty astonishing. That here we had, not so long ago, the entire Western world led by the United States determined to get rid of Assad, arming all these people, and as you’ve pointed out arms flowing from one group to the other in the battle against Assad. And now we are facing a situation where the United States might actually be bombing ISIS sites inside Syria. Is this possible?

Patrick Cockburn: Well I think so. I think they’ve gone so far down this road to suggesting this that I think it’ll certainly happen at some point. One of the strengths of ISIS is being able to operate in Iraq and Syria

Tariq Ali: At the same time…

Patrick Cockburn: At the same time. And in fact its potential constituency in Syria is bigger than Iraq, because only 20 percent of Iraqis are Syri, are Sunni Arabs and 60 percent of Syrians are Sunni Arabs. So potentially they could dominate the Syrian opposition and not all of course of Syrian Sunni Arabs support the opposition, quite a lot support the government. But they can have a far bigger reach there and they are still expanding. I mean they are 30 miles from Aleppo. They inflicted some of the biggest defeats, in fact the biggest defeats, which the Syrian army has suffered in three years. [These] were inflicted in Raqqah province within the last month by ISIS.

Tariq Ali: Okay, now let’s come to the third factor in the situation, not discussed seriously but often referred to. The Kurdish parties in Syria and in Iraq are clearly opposed to all this and are fighting ISIS as best they can.The Kurds in Syria are under siege from them, the Kurds in Iraq are determined to fight them. To what extent is this effective and why was the Kurdish Peshmerga in Iraq not capable of dealing with them in a tougher way at the very beginning?

Patrick Cockburn: I think probably the reputation of the Peshmerga in Iraq was exaggerated anyway. They haven’t fought anybody apart from their own [separatist] war and that was in the 90s, for many years. They were always good at mountain ambushes and at public relations, but otherwise it was always a bit exaggerated. I mean maybe it’s not their fault, they were fighting Saddam’s enormous army. But that was exaggerated. And also it has become an oil state…many Kurds are just interested in making money and so forth. Now they say they weren’t properly equipped.

Well, you know, you can buy arms … it doesn’t all have to come from America. Why  are there all this big hotels in Erbil their capital, and why didn’t they have some heavy machine guns? And they also have got a 600 mile border to defend. And also they took advantage of the fall of Mosul to extend their territories into territories [that are] disputed with the Arabs. This made the Arabs in these mixed areas much more anti-Kurdish than they had been previously. So there was acceptability to what ISIS did in advancing among the Arabs, and one of the many toxic effects of this is that the populations are now separating. First of all the Yazidis and the Kurds and others fled, and now the Sunni Arabs are fleeing these areas to avoid revenge attacks

Tariq Ali: And what about the Syrian Kurds?

Patrick Cockburn: Well, that’s different because they are 10% of the population in Syria. They’re in enclaves mostly in the North East and the North.

Tariq Ali: And Assad has given them autonomy, this is true?

Patrick Cockburn: Not quite, but they’ve sort of [made an] opportunistic withdrawal, because he knows that … ISIS is going to attack them … and actually you know, the people that are attacking them are not just ISIS but Jabhat al-Nusra. All the other opposition groups suddenly come together to attack the Kurds in these areas. I mean it also undermines that idea that there is a moderate opposition and a Jihadi opposition. That the Free Syrian Army and all these others come to attack the Kurds. The [dominant] Kurds there are … the PKK which is basically the Turkish Kurdish opposition. But they are much more effective fighters than the Iraqi Peshmerga. In fact, they rescued quite a lot of the Yazidis in Sinjar in Western Kurdistan

Tariq Ali: The Syrian Kurd state….

Patrick Cockburn: The Syrian Kurds, yeah. Somewhat to the embarrassment of the [Kurds] of Erbil

Tariq Ali: Yeah. So, coming to the key thing now. You’ve written that the Skykes-Picot agreement has probably finally finished. This was the agreement after the First World War whereby Ottoman lands in the Arab world were divided up between France and Britain. But Patrick, you may be right. In 2006 I felt that there was no future for Iraq as a state because of what had happened and you’d probably have a Shia state and a pro-Saudi Sunni state and a Kurdish state. Do you think this is going to happen now in some shape or form over the next five years?

Patrick Cockburn: In some shape, but not exactly, you know I don’t think map-makers are going to sort of have the borders of their new states there. But I think you’ll effectively have three sovereign states in Iraq. And you do have that already. I mean, you’re a Shia in Baghdad. If I’m in Baghdad, I can’t go an hour North of Baghdad without having my head chopped off. Likewise a Kurd in the North and likewise any Sunni who tries to come through any checkpoint in Baghdad or into Kurdistan is likely to be arrested…

Tariq Ali: Well you’ve been visiting Baghdad for years, Patrick. Are you telling me that effectively there are ethnic borders now in Baghdad and you can’t move from one part of the city to the other?

Patrick Cockburn: No. Between Baghdad and the rest of Iraq you can’t. I mean there are Sunni parts of Baghdad, but you had a sectarian civil war 2006-7 in which the Sunni basically lost. So they have quite small enclaves in Baghdad. There aren’t many mixed areas left, the Shia dominate the city. Now these Sunni areas could rise up, but they’re also vulnerable to counterattack from the Shia majority. There could be a battle for Baghdad but the Sunni in the city are likely to lose it, which is one of the reasons why they are terrified.

Tariq Ali: And there’s a Kurdish population in Baghdad too, let’s not forget…

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, but a lot of them are, have melted into the local population.

Tariq Ali: Intermarriages?

Patrick Cockburn: Intermarriages…. There’s never been sort of hardcore Kurdish areas or enclaves in Baghdad with their own militia, which is true of the Shia, and in a covert way is true of the Sunni as well.

Tariq Ali: If we just move to Syria for a bit. What is your impression of the current state of play with the sort of emergence of ISIS, not just the emergence but the successes of ISIS, with the Americans  in NATO now trying to work up some sort of a plot or, not a plot, but openly debating how to destroy the organisation. Surely this is going to, I mean, immediately strengthen the Assad regime, regardless of what is intended or not…

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I think that’s absolutely true. And that’s of course what has put them in such a muddle. I mean ISIS controls about 35, 40% of Syria. In eastern Syria, they control the oil fields.  They’re very close to Aleppo, which was the biggest city in Syria. They could take over the rebel held part and then maybe they could take over the whole city. This would be more significant than taking Mosul in Iraq. Jihadi organisations, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra, but also ISIS, are close to Hama, the fourth biggest city in Syria. So they’re in a strong position. It wouldn’t take much for ISIS to reach the Mediterranean there, where they were before they did a tactical withdrawal earlier in the year.

So it’s rather an extraordinary situation that you have America and the other Westerners and powers saying we’re going to intervene against ISIS but we’re not going to do anything to help Assad. But Assad is the main enemy of ISIS and if they’re trying to weaken Assad then they help ISIS. And it’s the result of their, to my mind, catastrophic policies over the last two years. It has been evident since the end of 2012 that Assad was not going to go, previous to that there was a presumption that in 2011 and 2012, in the Western capitals and elsewhere, that he was going to follow Gaddafi–he was going to go down. But they’ve sort of pretended that he was going to go. [In] negotiations in Geneva earlier this year it was said … that the only thing worth talking about was transition, Assad going.

But Assad obviously wasn’t going to go, because there are 14 provincial capitals in Syria and he held 13 of them. So if you said that, in fact, you were saying: well, then the war will go on because he wasn’t going to go. And I think for a time, they  – Washington, and the others, and the Saudis – were not unhappy with this. It was something they could live with because he was there but he was weak and was probably going to stay there. And then the Jihadis were there, but they were involved in their own civil war. But the great miscalculation was that on the Jihadis side one group would win out, which was ISIS. And secondly, this wasn’t going to remain Syrian on Syrian, or Iraqi on Iraqi, or even Muslim on Muslim, that after all the new caliphate claims the allegiance of all Muslims and claims the allegiance of the world. So its ambitions….

Tariq Ali: Are global…

Patrick Cockburn: Are global.

Tariq Ali: And its prospectus, which is very similar to the NATO prospectus, if you see both organisations’ prospectuses together, it’s obvious that ISIS has copied the NATO model. They have pictures like that one in their prospectus saying this is what we do, this is how many  people we killed here, there. There’s no shame at all about what they are doing. So in a weird way, despite the ideology which is Wahhabi and sort of born-again Muslimism, literalism, they are quite modern in their approach in some ways are they not?

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, I mean rather amazingly so. You know, at the beginning of the Arab uprisings in 2011, blogging, new Twitter, YouTube, were considered progressive instruments that would erode the power of police states and authoritarianism and so forth. But in fact, the people that have put them to greatest use have been Jihadi organisations, and ISIS in particular, to spread their views, to spread terror, very effectively. The families of an Iraqi soldier in Baghdad, you know, a soldier’s wife, his mother, they’ve all seen this stuff so, they say: don’t go back to the army, you’ll be killed. So this is pretty effective

Tariq Ali: Patrick, what is the United States going to do now, what are its options? I mean do you think they can have any success in wiping out ISIS, which seems to be their plan. I mean how the hell are they going to do it without ground troops and all the available reports suggest that the Pentagon is opposed to putting in ground troops. I mean are they going to find some Arab countries to act as their auxiliaries?

Patrick Cockburn: Well, yes, … auxiliaries. I don’t think they’re going to commit troops. I mean look what happened: the Iraqi army fled, the Syrian army fought, it still lost. It lost an important air base in Raqqah province a few weeks ago although it fought very hard. So I think they’ll be very nervous of fighting ISIS. The US is looking, Obama says, for local partners. It’s a bit unclear what this means. Local partners in Baghdad, the parties have sort of come together because they’re all terrified of ISIS but when you look more closely the Kurds have agreed to nothing. The Sunni leaders have taken some jobs in Baghdad, but these are Sunni leaders who dare not go back their own cities and towns because they’d get their heads chopped off. So it’s still very disorganised and divided and has only sort of happened under pressure from the US and Iran who have parallel interests there.

Tariq Ali: Well they know exactly the obvious ally in this, were they looking for serious allies in the region, would actually be Iran. Which they’re not prepared to consider because they’ve demonised Iran to such a level and the Israelis would probably be hostile to any such notion. Because the Iranians could use any alliance with the Americans now to get a bomb quickly like General Zia did during the war against Afghanistan. But apart from Iran, who else is there with the firepower?

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, and also this applies to Syria as well. the Americans and the others are sort of refusing to make a choice … Say we put a coalition backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. These people have money, they have influence on the Jihadis maybe, on the Sunni community, but they’re avoiding changing relations or ending confrontation with Iran and in Syria Russia matters a lot. They’re still hostile to Hezbollah …  and the Kurds in Syria who are fighting ISIS rather effectively. So what is it? It’s really a recipe for a very long war in a very confused situation.

And, you know, what are they going to do if ISIS advances into Aleppo? Are they going to  bomb it there at the same time as the Syrian Air Force is bombing ISIS? How do they know that Syrian Air Force planes are not going to try to shoot down American planes? Of course, what they will do, I think, is have covert relations with the Assad government. In fact, I’m told they already do–not to do a public U-turn but have a sort of an understanding with them, as to some degree happened in Iraq after 2003… Iraqis always used to say that Iran and the US wave their fists at each other over the table, but they sort of shake hands under the table

Tariq Ali: Which they did.

Patrick Cockburn: Oh absolutely.

Tariq Ali: Without the Iranian green light it would have been difficult for them to take Iraq just like that.

Patrick Cockburn: Oh yes. Why did we have Nouri al-Maliki as the disastrous Prime Minister of Iraq for eight years and then reappointed in 2010? And I remember an Iraqi friend of mine, a diplomat, rang me up when Maliki …  basically got back as Prime Minister and said, you know, the great Satan America and the axis of evil Iran have come together with … catastrophic consequences for Iraqis.

Tariq Ali: Exactly. So Patrick, overall the situation is pretty grim and likely to remain so?

Patrick Cockburn: Yes, it’s grim because there are so many players involved. There are so many different crises entangled with each other that this is now likely to go on for a long time. There might have been a moment two years ago when they could’ve prevented ISIS taking off. Because really the war in Syria that changed the fortunes of ISIS. Previously in Iraq, it benefited from the alienation of the Sunni community, but suddenly the war in Syria relaunched ISIS, because it destabilised Iraq. It reignited the war in Iraq which had died down, but never quite ended. And Iraqi politicians, I remember Hoshyar Zebari, the foreign minister saying to me at that time, if the West allows the war in Syria to go on, that will inevitably destabilise Iraq and that is what has happened.

Tariq Ali: On that pessimistic note, we end this conversation. Thanks very much Patrick and we will talk again no doubt.

Patrick Cockburn: Great, thank you.

Tariq Ali is the author of  The Obama Syndrome (Verso).

Patrick Cockburn is the author of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising

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