New Age Islam Edit Bureau
1 December 2015
• Breach of faith: Kerala madrasa scandal must not be politicised
• The idea of India: Why the choice is clear in intolerance debate
By Naseeruddin Shah
• They shut down my column
By Mohammad Taqi
• ‘Hang Ujjal Dosanjh for treason before charging Aamir Khan with sedition’
By Ujjal Dosanjh
• The politics of peace
By Khurshid Kasuri
• Erdogan’s gameplan bad for the world
By Gwynne Dyer
• Erdogan’s Ottoman designs
By Talmiz Ahmad
Breach of faith: Kerala madrasa scandal must not be politicised
Nov 30, 2015
Sexual abuse of children in a Kerala madrasa should not be politicised, as such incidents have been reported from other religious corridors as well.
Disturbing reports from Kerala about the alleged abuse of both male and female students at a madrasa is only the latest in a series of scandalous revelations that have occasionally shaken religious establishments in India. However, coming in the backdrop of a nationwide debate on tolerance and religious minorities, we have to go that extra mile to underline that sexual abuse grossly violates laws of the land, and law enforcers must rise above narrow divides in their call of duty.
As it happens, even Facebook, born in the free-speech-loving US, suspended the account of journalist VP Rajeena and reinstated her account after protests. Events following her allegations in a Facebook post of alleged child abuse at a madrasa in Kozhikode in Kerala even prompted a leading Sunni cleric to make remarks that outraged activists as he questioned the capabilities of women.
It does not help bland denials that a Malayalam film director has said that he, too, suffered sexual abuse as a madrasa student. There have been subsequent reports of clerics alleging attempts to malign Islamic institutions.
The simple fact is that statements made on record as evidence cannot be overlooked by law enforcers. Also, India has the dubious honour of clergymen of various hues facing allegations of misconduct or worse.
In 2011, a bishop of Kerala’s prominent Marthoma Church was sued on charges of sodomy by a former employee and was replaced as he faced investigations. In 2008, Sister Jesme resigned as a college principal in Kerala after 33 years as a nun and later wrote an autobiography in which she detailed sexual abuse in churches. Hindu pontiff Jayendra Saraswathi, the Sankaracharya of the Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham, was acquitted in 2013 of a 2004 murder charge and also faced allegations of sexual misconduct by a Tamil writer. Swami Nithyananda faced a rape trial in Karnataka. In the north, Asaram has faced charges of rape and murder.
Violation of law can happen in any religious order and it is for law enforcers to investigate and prosecute wrongdoers as necessary. Undue attempts to politicise the issue need to be avoided.
The idea of India: Why the choice is clear in intolerance debate
By Naseeruddin Shah
Dec 01, 2015
It is worth pondering whether the heat generated by Shah Rukh Khan’s or Aamir Khan’s statements was the result of genuine outrage by offended parties or a bid to grab headlines or was fanned for heightened TRPs by TV channels. (PTI File)
Our theatre company Motley has for the last five years been travelling to Pakistan to pay homage to arguably the greatest 20th century Urdu poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz at the annual Faiz celebration in Lahore. We have moved around there without security, bathed in that city’s golden autumn sunshine, soaking in its “Hawa ka Noor” as Ismat Chughtai called it and have always experienced only affection and regard, and, of course, fabulous food. This year the somewhat sullied atmosphere of relations made me hesitate but the acute belief that people-to-people contact must continue decided the matter. So Motley has just returned from performing in Lahore and visiting the temple of Lav, the son of Shri Ram, after whom Lahore is named.
Crossing the Wagah border along with our team were a couple of hundred Sikh travellers from Canada and Britain, all going to pray at Nankana Sahib on Guru Nanak Jayanti. The next day a few thousand Sikh pilgrims from India were due to arrive. I also met several Indian businessmen Lahore-bound on work. It was astounding to encounter so many Indians going to Pakistan all at once. Being Muslim and an ‘anti-national’, I had no trouble with visas for myself and my entire team, (in which, incidentally, there was not a single Muslim) but I could not help wonder at the extent of anti-nationalism brewing these days that so many Indians should land up simultaneously in the enemy country.
At a family gathering in Lahore, we heard Beena Jawad, a Kathak exponent/teacher, and her three daughters (all Muslim) deliver a magical rendition of a Sindhi bhajan celebrating Brahma-Vishnu-Mahesh, and we heard tales of Guru Nanak’s first disciple, Bhai Mardana — a Muslim, whose descendant (also Muslim) Bhai Chand sings the most enchanting Gurbani I have ever heard. We were strangely moved to hear about the Gurudwara Panja Sahab in Hasan-Abdal, which has Sikh priests and Muslim sevaks. Both the temple of Lav and Panja Sahab are active places of worship still.
I am, however, talking of the exceptions there rather than the norm. Lest it seem that I keep rose-coloured glasses on my nose regarding Pakistan, the fact is that the country makes no claim to be secular. Though the intolerance there undoubtedly runs deeper than in our country, just as feudalism does, most sensitive persons there are painfully aware of the deep divisions; the marginalisation of Christians, the persecution of Hindus, Ahmediyas and Shias, and the unrest among the Baluch. But their pains were not mine I suppose and while there, the whole cacophonous debate of ‘Intolerant vs Tolerant’ raging at home began to seem very far away. It was amusing to hear about a section of Right-wing mullahs disrupting Valentine’s Day celebrations in Lahore and I wondered what the Shiv Sena would have to say to that. They would probably approve, as they did of Ghulam Ali when he announced he would not perform in India again; “He understood our reasoning”, they said. Dare I say that the Sena endorses the reasoning of the Muslim Right-wing lumpen as well?
To paraphrase what Kamal Haasan said earlier; intolerance in our country is nothing new. There was the butchery of the Sikhs in 1984 and other atavistic acts in the name of religion aplenty in the past; irreplaceable documents destroyed, priceless works of art vandalised, activists killed, artists threatened and the mostly Congress governments of the time always took the ostrich approach. There was Kissa Kursi Ka, and other instances of banning in the past: Satanic Verses and Jesus Christ Superstar to name but two. Performances were disrupted (Habib Tanvir’s play Ponga Pandit in Bhopal and a farce called Shakespeare ki Ramleela at Prithvi, both some years ago) by Right wingers threatening violence and no one did anything about it. North-Easterners, Biharis, Bangladeshis alike have been targeted and brutalised, MF Husain had to flee for his life and the government of the day couldn’t offer enough reassurance for him to return.
So what’s happening now is not new; what is shocking is the hysterical counter-reaction to the statements of unease being made by some of the finest minds in the country, who are not a slogan-shouting mob but reasonable people, people whom past governments have thought fit to honour.
It is possible to detect a paranoid strain to the accusation that some of the country’s most-respected artists, litterateurs and scientists are just ‘rabid BJP haters’, they are politically motivated and have been paid to protest. A minister who should know better calls striking film students ‘Naxalites’ when they object to the appointment, as FTII chairman, of a person who would probably flunk the student entrance exam. The most ominous perspective on the debate, even if one ignores the loony fringe, is offered by the reactions of some senior leaders of the ruling party to moderate statements and pleas for understanding.
It is also worth pondering whether the heat generated by Shah Rukh Khan’s or Aamir Khan’s statements was the result of genuine outrage by offended parties or a bid to grab headlines or was fanned for heightened TRPs by TV channels. The reportage was visibly slanted, their intentions were questioned when in fact neither of them said a word about unease because of being Muslim; they spoke as citizens of the country. The reason for the scary and infuriating abuse they have been subjected to is not difficult to understand but when will it become apparent that the Hindu-Muslim problem is not what the intolerance debate is about? In any case there aren’t that many Muslims returning their awards, are there? And why should it be considered seditious for a Muslim to express dissatisfaction with the state of his own country? When people start killing each other over a Muslim king 200 years dead, there is something seriously amiss and it must be addressed.
Surely the ruling party realises that the choice before it is between building a modern India and taking us back to the dark ages. It should be an easy choice to make.
(Naseeruddin Shah is an actor. The views expressed are personal)
They shut down my column
By Mohammad Taqi
December 1, 2015
RaheelSharif-main Along with putting the Pakistani COAS on a pedestal, his media team was actively weeding out his detractors.
Pakistan’s globetrotting Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif has been peddling the ostensible success of a military operation called Zarb-e-Azb in assorted world capitals. The director of the Inter-Services Public Relations, Lt General Asim Saleem Bajwa, has unleashed a social and conventional media blitzkrieg that creates a halo of accomplishment, nay infallibility, around his boss, General Sharif. But in tandem with the military’s media blitz is its undeclared war on dissent, which impugns, maligns and tries to ostracise those in the intelligentsia who refuse to buy the military’s version of events. This low intensity, systematic war on the diversity of opinion in Pakistan barely gets local or international attention.
During my morning ritual of going through emails this past Friday (November 27), I spotted one from my op-ed editor, which read: “It is with an extremely heavy heart that I regret to inform you that Daily Times will be unable to accommodate your daring and conscientious articles. Due to the climate under which print media operates in these times such pieces are constantly being put under scrutiny and so the newspaper with it. It is also my unfortunate duty to inform you that Rashed Rahman has resigned as editor-in-chief due to the same reasons of continued interference in the affairs of the editorial department and as a soldier for unbiased truth he is now serving his three months notice”. As the lead weekly columnist for the liberal Pakistani newspaper Daily Times, I have written extensively about how the dissenters in the Pakistani media, academia and the political class were hounded rel-entlessly; that the undeclared censor’s guillotine had fallen on my hand, was not a shock. What was surprising was that it took six years for it to do so.
My editor, Rashed Rahman, a seasoned journalist and a veteran leftist political campaigner, had insulated me and others like me from the interference of what he calls “the powers that be” — a euphemism for Pakistan’s military establishment — for years. After the assassination of Salmaan Taseer, the high-profile owner of the Daily Times and the then governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province at the hands of a religious zealot, his family continued with his liberal tradition and continued to afford me, and others like the veteran Baloch activist and writer Mir Muhammad Ali Talpur, the space for speaking our mind. It seems, however, that the cushion against the military’s stealthy interference was wearing thin since the ascent of General Sharif, not just at our paper but the media in general.
Along with putting the Pakistani COAS on a pedestal, his media team was actively weeding out his detractors. For example, about a year ago, the editorial staff advised Talpur to take a break from writing on Balochistan since that issue draws flak from the military. After a hiatus, Talpur wrote a sca-thing criticism of the virtual colonisation of Balochistan by the Pakistani military. The owners finally told our editor Rashed Rahm-an this past Thursday to shut down both Talpur’s and my weekly columns.
A six-year association with the Daily Times thus ended under pressure from Paki-stan’s almighty army. I say army because none of the cultural and music pieces or the personality profiles that I did would have offended anyone. It was my criticism of the army’s duplicitous policy vis-à-vis the jiha-dist terror unleashed in Afghanistan that annoyed the army.
My premise has been simple: The Pakistani army has caused irreparable damage to Pakistani society through its patronage of the jihadists since at least the mid-1970s and despite its proclamations to the contrary, it has not changed as far as the use of jihadist proxies against Afghanistan and India is concerned. I have consistently underscored the fact that the biggest price of the army’s jihadist venture has been paid by the Pakistani people, especially the Pashtuns and the vulnerable religious groups such as the battered and beleaguered Shias, Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus. The army’s massive human rights abuses in the restive and resource-rich Balochistan has stoked the separatism there and closed the door on a meaningful political reconciliation with the Baloch seeking independence — or secession — depending on one’s perspective. I have strived to give voice to the voiceless sections of Pakistani society because each one of them has touched my life in some way and enriched it in the process.
When I saw my friends and dear ones being shot, the Pashtun leaders that I knew personally being killed and the All Saints Church where I played cricket, being blown to smithereens — all in my hometown Peshawar — by the Taliban, I wanted to bear witness and chronicle those atrocities, which in my opinion were a direct blowback of the Pakistan army’s jihadist project. After the heinous attack on the Army Public School in Peshawar last year, the army cracked down on what it had described once as the “bad Taliban”, that is, the ones that hit inside Pakistan. While it claimed that it is going after jihadists of all shades, I contended that it was sparing the “good Taliban”, that is, the ones who attack inside Afghanistan.
My last Daily Times column pointed out that General Sharif speaks with a forked tongue, pledging to fight against terror and bring peace in Afghanistan while jihadists infiltrate Afghanistan from Pakistan unchecked. The army and its minions perhaps could not take it anymore and my column was shut down for good.
The media and press freedom in Pakistan under General Sharif’s leadership is a myth. A multitude of media outlets, including the television channels, create the illusion of diversity but are effectively churning out the various shades of army-approved hyper-nationalism that passes for patriotism. One can perhaps slip in a critical column or a show, but to do so in a sustained manner is nearly impossible now. The troubling part is that the political class has abdicated its role to define patriotism. The Pakistani intelligentsia can make a case for wresting back the power to define the national interest, but unless politicians are willing to do the heavy lifting, we’d be fighting an uphill battle in which many more columns will be shut down and writers banished from the public view.
‘Hang Ujjal Dosanjh for treason before charging Aamir Khan with sedition’
By Ujjal Dosanjh
November 30, 2015
Aamir Khan at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in New Delhi on Nov 23rd 2015. Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi Aamir Khan at the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award in New Delhi on Nov 23rd 2015. Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi
Some people were critical of Aamir’s sharing of his innermost fears for India, the country of his birth, love and life; a country or the critics he has no intention of fleeing. Aamir shared his pain and anxiety about the “disquiet…despondency” abroad the land of India. For that he has been charged with sedition. It is shocking that in today’s Indian democracy, an Indian – be it Aamir, Shah Rukh or Girish Karnad – can’t freely discuss their feelings and ideas without being threatened bodily harm and death, told to leave the country or charged with sedition.
No Indian – Modi, Aamir or any other – needs to prove his/her patriotism. Being concerned about the state of peace and harmony in India isn’t unpatriotic. Sharing his wife’s intimate fears and insecurities about their child’s future can’t be treasonous. I know thousands, if not millions, of Indian families talk daily about leaving or at least sending their children away from India for better economic opportunities or for a better quality of life-as they say. Indians are omnipresent in the world. For various reasons they have been leaving India for centuries. I admire the billion plus Indians who have stayed and continue to fight for a better India. Aamir is one of those billion plus who have no intention of leaving; come hell or high water they are there to stay.
That is why the hue and cry about Aamir’s important but less than earth shaking expression of the anxieties and insecurities felt by many Indians is beyond comprehension. Sharing one’s soul’s angst with the people of one’s country shouldn’t be a capital offence. I wish the leaders of India and the so called “guardians of patriotism” more often and honestly shared their truths and fears with Indians. If they genuinely did so, India and the world of Indians will be a better place than the exceedingly corrupt polity and society bedevilled by poverty, caste, and religious tensions. In the current malaise engulfing India, the top leadership, of all major political parties, has been silent and largely missing in action except to score political points against each other. When they do speak, they tend to denigrate as did Home Minister Rajnath Singh when he invoked the iconic Dr. Ambedkar to take a swipe at Aamir arguing “Dr. Ambedkar never said he will leave India”. Otherwise a deafening silence reigns even in the face of gruesome Dalit murders, the Dadri lynching and the killing of rationalists.
In such frightening silence, the screaming anguish emanating from Aamir’s interview was a breath of fresh air; it should have prompted some serious soul searching in India; instead, charges of sedition were slapped against him. Yes, sedition, while on the other hand, the governments of all stripes have been lionising forever the NRIs- usually Non Resident Indians – the Not Returning Indians – except to visit the motherland every now and then. Though India hasn’t left most of us – certainly it hasn’t left me – we have left India. Most of us have relinquished our Indian citizenship. We have become citizens of the lands where we live. We have abandoned India. Legally we have turned our backs on it. Where is the Indian rebuke for us? Why don’t Aamir’s critics turn their Twitter missiles and rhetorical bombs upon us?
In fact India does the opposite for the NRIs. It showers praise upon us which I dare say we like. In fact in the year 2000 the people of India celebrated me as the first ‘son of the soil’ for achieving the high office of the premier of the province of British Columbia – the first Indian to do so anywhere in the western world. The Vajpayee government even bestowed upon me the inaugural Pravasi Bharatiya Award in 2003.
And I had left India in 1964 while millions of others chose to stay and fight the billion battles. I fled. Aamir didn’t. I am your culprit. He is not. I am the one that should be charged with betraying India and the legacy of my own ancestors who fought valiantly like millions of others to free India from the British. I must be charged not just with sedition but more. The charge of sedition is meant to punish only those simply encouraging disaffection/disobedience against the government of the day. Heck, I didn’t even do that, though I should have because no government is the country, and as a Gandhian, it is a fundamental tenet of my belief to be permanently seditious against all bad governments.
Aamir’s only offence is one of being a true patriot. His critics are wrong in targeting him. I should be the one charged with treason for being a fugitive from the battles against fanaticism, caste, corruption and poverty. I say: hang Ujjal Dosanjh for treason before charging Aamir with sedition!
The politics of peace
By Khurshid Kasuri
December 1, 2015
This is with reference to Praveen Swami’s review of my book, Neither a hawk nor a dove (‘Signifying nothing’, IE, November 7). I respect Swami and have interacted with him. A majority of the reviews in Pakistan and India have been positive. They accept the fact that by giving details as well as the background in which the Kashmir framework was formulated, it would make it much easier to move forward from where we left. I do not mind Swami’s criticism, because if you are neither a hawk nor a dove, you can expect to get kicked from both sides of the ideological divide, as Khaled Ahmed says in his review (‘Neither hawk nor dove’, IE, September 11). Perhaps some critics in India expected me to make startling disclosures of the type that would give my book a reputation along the lines of “ghar ka bhedi lanka dhaye (an insider can ruin its own home)”. One esteemed Indian analyst made the point that “We cannot expect to bring Pakistan to heel by putting the country in the dock and ordering it to confess, ‘mea culpa’ ”. In the same vein, I do not expect a “mea culpa” from India for what it is accused of doing inside Pakistan. Both countries must learn to look forward if there is to be peace between us. That is the only sane course available for countries that have totally different interpretations of history. I would now like to come to some of the specific points made by Swami.
Swami claims that the book adds little to the public record. Luckily, most reviewers do not agree with this. Regarding the “four points”, while some political analysts have written about these matters, such accounts suffer from a lack of crucial details, and are devoid of any conviction instilled by dealing with such matters firsthand. In the absence of a detailed record with appropriate references, there is nothing to refer to except vague references to the so-called “four points”.
The book describes the international situation, the situation in Kashmir, my interaction with Kashmiri leaders and the importance of Article 370, which had an impact on the outcome in the framework regarding self-governance on both sides. I have highlighted 11 or 12 important features on which this framework rested, including the joint mechanism, visa-free travel for Kashmiris, fair elections, demilitarisation, the challenge of non-state actors, a monitoring and review process, and the conversion of the LoC into a mere “line on the map”. All this was to be climaxed by the signing of a treaty of peace, security and friendship, similar to the Elysee treaty between Germany and France.
I am surprised by Swami’s assertion that I haven’t explained why the peace process began. There are numerous references in the book to this. Pakistan’s economy was doing exceptionally well at that time; in one particular year, it grew at 8.6 per cent, second only to China’s 9.2. Goldman Sachs had rated Pakistan among the N-11 (the next 11 emerging economies in the world). The rising middle class in Pakistan felt that peace with India would be helpful in this respect. Similar sentiments were expressed by the Indian middle class as well. There was a rising recognition that Kashmir and other issues with India could not be resolved if non-state actors continued to resort to violence. There are numerous references to the role of non-state actors, as well as to efforts made by Pakistan to wean militants away from Kashmir through disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.
Swami accuses me of failing to expand on former Pakistan Army Chief General Ashfaq Kayani’s decision to reverse the peace process. Nothing of the sort happened, and I have explained this at length in my book. The later hardening of the army’s position towards India was tactical, and in view of the approaching endgame in Afghanistan. It was also a response to the Indian army’s hardening position on Siachen. I would like to refer readers to the chapter on the Pakistan army, where the Indian PM couldn’t have been talking in a vacuum when he spoke of turning Siachen into a “mountain of peace”. Anyone interested in more details on the subject or role of India’s then defence minister, A. K. Antony, may refer to Sanjaya Baru’s book.
Erdogan’s gameplan bad for the world
By Gwynne Dyer
01 December 2015
Turkey may have received support from Nato partners after it shot down a Russian jet, but its resolve to fight Islamic State terror is being seriously disputed
The key fact is that the Russian plane, by Turkey's own admission, was in Turkish airspace for precisely 17 seconds. That's a little less time than it takes to read this paragraph aloud. The Turks shot it down anyway — and their allies publicly backed them, as loyal allies must. Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg declared: “We stand in solidarity with Turkey and support the territorial integrity of our Nato ally, Turkey.” President Barack Obama called his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to assure him that the United States supported Turkey's right to defend its sovereignty. But privately, they must have been cursing Mr Erdogan. They know what he's up to.
According to the Russian radar data, it were the Turkish planes that crossed into Syrian territory. In this version of the story, the Russian planes were following a well-established route just south of the Turkish border, probably turning into a bomb run against Syrian rebels in Latakia province. How strange that there was a Turkish TV crew in northern Syria, positioned just right to film the incident. (The Russsian plane crashed four kilometres inside Syria.)
Either way, it seems quite clear that President Erdogan really wanted to shoot down a Russian aircraft, and that the Turkish pilots were under orders to do so if they could find even the slightest pretext. So why would Mr Erdogan want to do that?
Russian President Vladimir President Putin said bitterly that Mr Erdogan and his colleagues were “accomplices of terrorists”. That's hard to deny: Mr Erdogan is so eager to see Syria's President Bashar al-Assad overthrown that he left the Turkish-Syrian border open for four years so that recruits and supplies could reach the Syrian rebel groups, notably including the Islamic State.
Mr Putin also observed: “We have long been recording the movement of a large amount of oil and petroleum products to Turkey from IS-occupied territories. This explains the significant funding the terrorists are receiving.”
Black-market oil is the Islamic State's largest source of revenue, and almost all of it goes to Turkey — which could not happen without the Turkish Government's active connivance. And when the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, was driving Mr Assad's forces back in northwestern Syria last spring, Turkey jammed the Syrian Army's telecommunications to help the rebels win.
Mr Erdogan is utterly determined that Mr Assad must go, and he doesn't really care if the latter’s successors are Islamist extremists. But he also wants to ensure that there is no new Kurdish state on Turkey's southern border. When Mr Erdogan committed the Turkish Air Force to the Syrian war in July, he explained it to the United States as a decision to fight against the Islamic State, but in fact Turkey has made only a token handful of strikes against the group. Almost all of Mr Erdogan's bombs have actually fallen on the Turkish Kurds of the PKK (who had been observing a ceasefire with the Turkish Government for the past four years), and above all on the Syrian Kurds.
Mr Erdogan has two goals: to ensure the destruction of Assad's regime, and to prevent the creation of a new Kurdish state in Syria. He was making some progress on both objectives - and then along came the Russians in September and saved the Syrian army from defeat, at least for the moment.
Worse yet, Mr Putin's strategy turns out to quite pragmatic, and even rather attractive to the US despite all the ritual anti-Russian propaganda emitted by Washington. He wants a ceasefire in Syria that will leave everybody where they are now — except the Islamic State, which they can all then concentrate on destroying.
This strategy is now making some headway in the Vienna ceasefire talks, but it is utterly abhorrent to Mr Erdogan because it would leave Mr Assad in power in Damascus, and give the Syrian Kurds time to consolidate their new state.
Erdogan’s Ottoman designs
By Talmiz Ahmad
Nov 29, 2015
Turkey lashed out at the Russians in the hope that this would mobilise the Nato and prevent further Russian assaults on non-ISIS targets. It seems Erdogan miscalculated the resilience of the Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance and the threat that his Nato allies see in ISIS.
Just when the killing fields of Syria were seeing a glimmer of hope in a United Nations-sponsored peace process in the new year, the regional scenario was rocked by a new development in the country’s multi-faceted conflicts: on Tuesday, November 24, the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian aircraft near Yayladag, north of Syria’s Bayir-Bucak area, which is a Turkman-dominated region. (The Turkman in Iraq, Syria and Iran are linguistically and ethnically Turkish.)
First reports suggested that the Turkish action had been carefully coordinated by Turkey with the US, since the latter was uneasy about the expanding Russian role in the Syrian conflict. However, since then, a less-than-full endorsement of the Turkish version of events has emerged from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation: Nato leaders have called for “cool-headedness” by Turkey and have urged “calm and de-escalation” and the need for “further contacts” between Turkey and Russia.
Turkey’s interests in Syria have been adversely affected by the territorial gains of the Kurds across the Syrian-Turkish border. Unlike the Masoud Barzani-affiliated Kurds in Iraq whom Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has assiduously cultivated and weaned away from the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Syrian Kurds, represented by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its military wing, the Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), have close ties with the PKK. Thus, the consolidation of the YPG over 400 km across the Syria-Turkey border is seen as a serious threat to Turkey’s long term interests. These Kurds have for long enjoyed support from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who saw them as valuable allies against Turkish incursions into Syria.
Turkey has responded to this challenge in two ways. First, it has projected itself as the champion of Syria’s Turkman community located mainly in the border areas across from Turkey’s Hatay province in Mount Turkman in north Latakia, and in the northern areas of the Idlib and Aleppo provinces. It has organised the local communities into at least a dozen militia which are today not only fighting Mr Assad’s forces, but also preventing the further expansion of the YPG elements across the border. The Turkman militia have a number of Chechen fighters in their ranks and also closely collaborate with the Al Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra.
Second, Turkey has been a solid source of support to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), historic enemies of the Kurds. Turkey has provided the principal route through which jihadis entered Syria to join the ISIS, as also the route through which arms and other supplies were sent to this lethal jihadi force. More importantly, according to recent reports, Turkey has been the principal buyer of oil sold by ISIS from the Syrian fields captured by it, with a few thousand oil tankers traversing several hundred kilometres daily to markets in Turkey.
The entry of Russian forces since September on the side of the Assad regime has ensured that regime change through military means has now become a near impossibility. From early October, Russian air attacks on elements hostile to Mr Assad robustly targeted the Turkman militants, while Syrian armed forces carried out ground action, succeeding in taking Mount Turkman on the way to recover Idlib.
Against this background, Mr Erdogan has once again raised in Europe and the US his old plan to set up a “safe zone” and a “no-fly zone” in an enclave in Syria at the border in which thousands of displaced Syrians could be accommodated. Located at the northern border area of Aleppo province, this enclave would be about 90 km long and 40 km deep, going from Jarablus to Marea in the west. While cleansed of ISIS presence, it would also disrupt the contiguity of Kurdish territory, separating the 400 km long eastern Kurdish territories from the small Kurdish pocket further west, around Azaz and Afrin. Mr Erdogan has set a “red line” for the YPG at the eastern bank of the Euphrates at Jarablus.
Mr Erdogan has been pushing the safe-zone proposal since 2013, but has never obtained US or European support primarily due to their concerns that this “no-fly zone” under Turkish control could provide free passage to the ISIS, while threatening the advance and consolidation of YPG forces at the border.
The sustained attacks of the Russian and Syrian forces on the Turkmans had seriously jeopardised Turkish plans to set up their safe haven in Aleppo. The Turks then lashed out at the Russians in the hope that this would mobilise their Nato allies on their side and prevent further Russian assaults on non-ISIS targets. It seems Mr Erdogan miscalculated both in regard to the resilience of the Russia-Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance and the threat that his Nato allies see in ISIS, particularly after the Paris attacks. Russia has now located at its Latakia base the modern S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that can hit airborne targets 400 km away. The safe haven plan now seems a lost-cause.
But from Mr Erdogan’s perspective, this is only a temporary setback. Beyond curbing Kurdish aspirations, he and his colleagues in the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) share a broader vision of re-gaining territories lost to the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century: in Syria, these include northern Latakia and the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, which adjoin the Turkish province of Hatay on the Mediterranean.
Alastair Crooke, the distinguished commentator on West Asian politics, quotes Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu saying in 2009, before he assumed public office: “We are the new Ottomans… Whatever we lost between 1911 and 1923, whatever lands we withdrew from, we shall once again meet our brothers in those lands between 2011 and 2023.” He believes that this vision explains Turkey’s settlement of ethnic Turks in northern Syria so that a veritable “Turkiisation of northwest Syria” can be achieved; as also its cooperation with jihadi forces to achieve regime change in Damascus.
The pursuit of this neo-Ottoman dream promises more death and destruction in Syria.
Talmiz Ahmad is a former diplomat