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Syria and its neighbours

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Robin Lustig | 08:56 UK time, Friday, 7 September 2012

I don't suppose that when anti-Assad protesters began their uprising in Syria 18 months ago, they looked in their diaries and murmured: "Hmm, US presidential elections in November next year -- could be a problem."

But perhaps they should have done, because they desperately need Washington's attention, and they don't seem to be getting much of it. And until the November elections are out of the way, I very much doubt that will change.

It always used to be said that nothing ever happened in the Middle East unless the US was directly involved. It was never quite as true as people liked to make out (the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians, for example, were signed in 1993 with only minimal involvement of the Americans).

It's certainly not true any longer, thanks to the hundreds of thousands of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, who decided to take their fate into their own hands and launch the Arab Spring.

And yet. If you want effective international diplomatic action -- and even more so if you want effective international military action -- you still need Washington. With US eyes off the ball, having given up on the UN playing any useful role in Syria, it looks as if there's a huge gap waiting to be filled.

Enter stage right and stage left President Mohammed Morsi of Egypt and prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. Both think they can increase their regional influence by playing an active role in Syria, but both are already running into trouble.

Take Mr Erdogan first. Once he was President Bashar al-Assad's friendly neighbour to the north, keen to do business and not too bothered about the niceties of democratic governance in Damascus.

But shortly after the uprising began, he threw in his lot with the anti-Assad protesters, called on the Syrian president to stand down, and was soon hosting tens of thousands of Syrian refugees and, below the radar, offering assistance to Syrian rebel forces.

Now there are 80,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, and Mr Erdogan is calling Syria a "terrorist state", blaming President Assad for stirring up trouble among Turkey's Kurdish minority. There's certainly been a sharp upsurge in attacks by the Kurdish PKK guerrilla group, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation not only by Ankara, but also by the US and the European Union.

Just this week, there have been reports of major clashes between Turkish forces and PKK fighters, involving a reported 2,000 Turkish troops and including military action across the border in Iraq. How long, some observers are asking, before Turkish forces cross into Syria in hot pursuit of their PKK foes?

As for President Morsi of Egypt, he's playing a very different game. As a man of the Muslim Brotherhood, he's keen to make common cause with the Sunni majority in Syria, who make up the bulk of the anti-Assad forces. He's also keen to show his Arab neighbours that after 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's staunch loyalty to the US, Egypt is now charting its own, independent foreign policy.

But his first attempt to carve out a role for himself in the Syria crisis was short-lived. At the summit of the non-aligned movement in Tehran last month, he hoped to broker a new diplomatic initiative which would include Iran, as Syria's most loyal ally, and the Arab states of the Gulf which have been backing the Syria rebels.

To be a broker, though, you have to command the respect of both sides. And Mr Morsi's strongly-worded attack on President Assad infuriated not only Damascus but also Tehran. End of Morsi initiative.

So what are we left with? Washington engrossed in an election campaign for the next two months; an Egypt still trying to find its feet on the diplomatic stage; and a Turkey becoming seriously alarmed at the risk of blow-back, having dumped President Assad so early on.

Meanwhile, nearly a quarter of a million Syrians are estimated to have fled to neighbouring countries -- most of them to Jordan -- and the level of casualties in Syria is higher than at any point since the uprising began.

Turkish calls for a buffer zone on Syrian soil to offer some protection to Syrian non-combatants seem likely to go nowhere, for the simple reason that buffer zones need military protection, and no one looks ready to send troops to Syria.

No wonder the new international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi, who has now taken over from Kofi Annan, calls his mission "nearly impossible".


  • Comment number 1.

    The beginnings of a Kurdistan ?

  • Comment number 2.

    If the foreign interventionists would get out, if the Gulf States would stop providing opposition/rebels with armaments, if the covert CIA would stop with its "intelligence", if you were to ask the Syrian People directly (as Assad did in referendum and election), you would find peace coming to Syria with Assad still at the head.
    It is evident some countries - for their own reasons - want to bring down Assad because they see his Government as the main barrier between the west and Iran. A puppet government would do much better for western purposes.
    Since I believe that an Israelis attack will occur on Iran BEFORE the US Presidential election, exerting tremendous pressure on Obama to support Israel or risk losing the entire American Jewish vote, it's logical that pressure is being exerted on the interventionists to get Assad out of the way - SOON, NOW!
    Don't kid yourself, the US (CIA) is all over Syria, just as it was in Libya.

  • Comment number 3.

  • Comment number 4.

  • Comment number 5.

    #4 Scotch Git

    - ´much ado bout nothing´-- 7 Embassy staff. The Swiss will probably be their´middleman´

    -- I still can´t buy the best Pistachio nuts in the world -- Iranian.

    --that is more important !

  • Comment number 6.

    "the hundreds of thousands of people in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, who decided to take their fate into their own hands and launch the Arab Spring"

    Can you be unaware of the millions spent by the USA to train Arab bloggers and finance covert opposition?

    This was simply a later edition of the earlier "color revolutions".

    Let no forget that the US activity in the MidEast is a continuation of the NeoCon (Israeli) plan sold to the Bush administration in 2001.

  • Comment number 7.

    *Let no one forget

  • Comment number 8.



    I almost responded with a quote from General McAuliffe, but managed to restrain myself.


  • Comment number 9.

    #8 Scotch Git

    -- a wise decision !

  • Comment number 10.

    This is not the Canada I know --

    First Pistachios --and now this--


    American Senators (Liebermann, McCain and Graham) wants to ´officially´arm the rebels to stop the ´Islamists --( Spiegel--German)

    --and this is only the ´beginning´--


  • Comment number 11.

    With a different government, Canada could function as a peacemaker, rather than as a poodle for the misdirected neo-colonialists.

  • Comment number 12.

    #11 madmax.

    -- Canada had that role in the 60´s +, That is why this is so bothering. It opened its doors to countless refugees and asylum seekers from US conflicts (also Americans) --but is now (it appears) -- just like ´the rest of them´.

  • Comment number 13.

    quietoaktree wrote: "The beginnings of a Kurdistan?"

    I doubt it. Too many countries have a piece of "Kurdistan" - Turkey, Syria, Iraq & Iran all of which would turn against them.
    I admit this moment might seem like the right moment -Kurds in the strongest position in their history to make a fight for national sovereignty. However, the Kurds also have a long tradition of inner conflict; one example being the long confrontation between the two Iraqi Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani & Masud Barzani. The differences were only finally put aside in favor of an alliance when it became clear that the days were numbered for Saddam Hussein.

  • Comment number 14.

    A large Kurdish riot at Mannheim, Germany.


    Also a group of Iranian refugees and asylum seekers are on their way to Berlin from Wuerzburg (600km) by foot -- for working and other rights rights.

    The next for Scotch Git -- another Mannheim (Lucie)

    If it is not ´Mod´accepted --go to you-tube -a 1944 BBC recording from her --a favorite.


    --will post separately

  • Comment number 15.

    Scotch Git

    1944 BBC recording --anti-Hitler.


  • Comment number 16.

    #13 BB

    -- I get some of my info from taxi drivers.

    --After the two clan chiefs take their %, one said the ´trickle-down´is considerable. After years of supporting his relatives in Iraq, he was angry they did not help him.

    The PKK has been accused of blackmailing Kurds abroad for ´donations´(met a Kurd who was proud of it).

    I can imagine the PKK is now putting pressure on the clan chiefs for funds. The risk would be assassination if the don´t ´pay-up´.

  • Comment number 17.

    #16 should read ´oil %´

  • Comment number 18.

    #13 BB

    Looking at the map--


    I will agree with you about the apparent ´hopelessness´ -The British ´treachery´looks rather complete.

    Even if ´all hell´ breaks out in both Syria and Iran --Iraq is in the middle and a larger autonomic region together with the Iraq region would be a ´no-no´.

    --BUT --


    --all the cards have not yet been played.

  • Comment number 19.

    #14, #15


    I have to confess I'd never heard of the lady, but thank you for the links. That was very thoughtful!


  • Comment number 20.


    Where we are from my perspective. There are credible reports of large numbers of outside funded and based religiously motivated armed groups operating completely unchecked by either the native Syrian rebels or the Syrian army. If these reports are true then this does not bode well at all. Fundamentalist bands of well armed and funded outsiders now appear to be well established. One can only suppose their financial masters are following the ideas of Che Guevara when it comes to fomenting revolution - just turn up and start fighting!

    The Syrian people will suffer and it is more than probable that their way of life is(or has already been) irreparably destroyed for generations. We, and they, can forget a multi-religious tolerant society - all non-Sunni must leave asap for their own safety. This is a terrible indictment of the impotence of UN power. Just like the break up of Yugoslavia; we stood-by and watched and even worse funded the extremists. Then we wring our hands in despair when the people are slaughtered on ethnic or religious grounds.

    Those really culpable are the funders of terrorism and insurgentism in the region, they sit there in the safe areas and use their wealth and power (oil and otherwise) to slaughter innocents to further some misguided notion of power. Very similar to the funding and arming of al-Qaeda, Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban in Afghanistan. These powers and their servants should really think again about their methods and their aims. I'll not name them here as those who want to know already know and those who don't, don't want their cosy (mis)comprehensions challenged. But when this is all over these are the people who will have to answer for what they have done, either before the Court in the Hague or before a higher authority! The man who pays for the gun is complicit in its use.

    The most sensible present practical thing the World (UN) can do is to organise mass evacuations of all non-Sunni from Syria. This is 5 to 6 million people - my guess is that half of these are already outside the country. This will be a major challenge. The next step is to get the Sunni to hand back their all their weapons (assuming they don't start fighting each other!). Then afterwards form a security force and training of a new multi-ethnic and multi-religious police force. The when it is safe to do so repatriate (or offer repatriation to) the evacuated. Then elections etc etc. It'll take decades and hundreds of thousand may die. Those who are to blame are the paymasters of the insurgency as well as the old regime. The men in safe places well away from the fighting should remember this - when it is all over the criminal court in the Hague will be looking for them but if they escape justice in this life they will have to answer before a higher authority for eternity!

  • Comment number 21.

    The Syrian conflict is one of the most complex and dangerous situations in one of the most complex and dangerous regions in the world today. The emergence and universalization of the Internet has made it possible for people not familiar with the Middle East to get a tiny glimpse into this complex region. Serious Westerners who wish to avoid the oversimplification of reality should take the time to use the Internet to expand their appreciation of this complexity. A good example I recently ran across was an article by Professor Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma in Middle East Policy Council. The article entitled "The Syrian Uprising of 2011 - why the Asad regime is likely to survive to 2013" outlines the current situation of the Syrian opposition and its fragmentation. He also explains the severe economic predicament of the Asad regime and the dilemmas this poses for the regime's survival. This is only part of the complexity that makes it so difficult to understand Syria. You must also take into account the long history of religious rivalry, fragmentation and cooperation (over a thousand years) of Syrian history.

  • Comment number 22.

    Neighbours, eh?
    Home or abroad, can't live with 'em, ca... no... that would seem to be it.



    So… one says 'they' won’t win and another says 'their' plan is working.

    Others seem to be leaping into the fray as we speak, and all less from a position of factual reporting and more in tribal defence or attack.

    Another day in paradise.

    Guess a cup of sugar is out of the question.

  • Comment number 23.

    #22 JunkkMale

    -- It appears the US news was held back for some hours ?

    There was news of one dead --but not the Ambassador.

    "Stop the World, I want to get off ´is sure to gain ground.

    The little holding Europe together is being destroyed by not only Hague but also Mr. Hewitt --anti-Europe, anti EU, anti Merkel, anti-Germany --next is anti-freeze.


    What is this nonsense --any ´Sir´titles up for sale ?

    --Now America is in ´High Gear ga-ga´--it´s safer to be a duck these days.

  • Comment number 24.

    '23. At 16:28 12th Sep 2012, quietoaktree wrote:
    -- It appears the US news was held back for some hours ? '

    If you (hold your nose and) look at the Newsnight FaceBook page it would appear to still be held back, in fact to last Friday. There is a new piece, about some author. No more. Cutting edge.

    It's almost like the BBC doesn't know what to make of it. Looks like they don't want to miss emoting and pointing fingers (if with zero tangible accountability on any who actually misbehaved/performed) over Hillsborough. I find Ambassadorial murders in volatile regions a smidge more of concern.

    Others do too of course. The Telegraph, not a paper often noted for its liberal views, currently has about a half dozen opinion pieces already on its blog thread, and most by authors making rather grand leaps of faith on behalf of those they presume to speak for... and having a new one ripped by near all commenters.

    In more than one case the authors appear to have been plain inaccurate, and are getting called out.







    I do appreciate this aspect of the internet, if left alone.

    Whatever does come out of this, I doubt much will be good.

    Be it for peaceful relations between countries and faiths, or for the cause of free speech.

    Sadly, those two sets were always on a collision course.

    I'm not big on confrontation, but since we got a poor ROI on Danegeld, those still advocating appeasement and concession are struggling to convince me.

  • Comment number 25.

    Mr. Urban's on the case.


    Comments not enabled.

    Saves time, I suppose.

  • Comment number 26.

    #25 JunkkMale

    Coptic Christians ?

    --They would willingly add fuel to the fire and danger the Egyptian Copts still in Egypt ?

    "Trailers for the film, made by Egyptian Coptic Christians living in the US, "

    -- any suggestions ?

    --apart from supporting Israel´s aims in this election year.

  • Comment number 27.


    "The maker of the movie is Sam Bacile, 56, an Israeli Jew now living in California. Bacile says the movie cost $5 million (€4 million) to make and was financed by more than 100 Jewish backers. "

  • Comment number 28.


    The Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood has called for demonstrations outside of mosques after Friday prayers.

  • Comment number 29.

    BBC News

    No Sam Bacile exists --the plot thickens.

  • Comment number 30.

    '29. At 00:14 13th Sep 2012, quietoaktree'

    Maybe worth clarifying for the calibre of investigative journalists and professional editors we now 'enjoy' it was more likely his brother, Ian Marvin Bacile?

    Meanwhile the thick do indeed plotten.

    As I watch the morning 'news', I am struck by how priorities are set on what to cover, where, and how. Plus of course what is steered clear of.

    I'm all for watertight oversight, but often the level of caution seems beyond the call of duty. Odd, given how much becomes known... that isn't.

    Friday will indeed be 'interesting', if not in a good way.

    Guessing the focus will remain more on those causing the offence than the motivations of those seeking to get so offended by something almost no one has seen or knows anything about.

    I guess the 'sermons' in some places are simply more exciting. Certainly enough to capture the attention of media types.

    Maybe the CoE should take seek some PR tips from their fellow religious leaders from other peaceful faiths?

    It used to be you had to stage at least an attack on a customs post to kick of a bit off a do. Now it appears anyone can stick an image or movie up on YouTube to kick things off.

    That suggests solutions will be hard to implement, even if they exist.

  • Comment number 31.

    #30 JunkkMale

    -- A very primitive film.

    Youtube and Spiegel are still reporting that a ´Sam Becile´ (now in hiding) made the film.

    It seems that WSJ first reported about ´Sam´.

    --one thing is obvious -- the actors and actresses could afford good dentists -- white teeth.

  • Comment number 32.

    '31. At 08:57 13th Sep 2012, quietoaktree

    It seems that WSJ first reported about ´Sam´.'

    My faith of any media in the US matches that here.

    I seem to recall a chap with the right, or wrong name 'outed' a bit quickly by another set of fearless namers and shamers ended up on the wrong end of the wrong people for reasons equally dire.

    As it stands the internet is so febrile still it is to be treated with equal caution. Photos of claimed heroic aid being afforded victims vs. being paraded around as trophies.

    As it stands I don't know. And with most media more interested in PR management on a tribal basis they seem less than keen to find out much less report actual facts.

    Earlier I again gave up on SKY in disgust as a promising piece of actual reporting and reasoned analysis by their man in the ME, Tim Marshall (one of few whose reports I tend to rate on objectivity) was literally cut off mid-flow to head to the Duke & clothes horse of some shire going into a building, via dial up modem.

    All I know is sticks and stones can still hurt bones, but redefining the impact of mere words may well soon be allowed to do so too, if they have not already. With the actions excused and the words punished. An odd juxtaposition.

    Bringing to mind a certain Pastor's words that could possibly be upgraded from not speaking to speaking. With equal caution attached.

    But from what I witness so far, that is already in the winds.

  • Comment number 33.

    The film:

    If it looks like a duck, waddles like a duck and quacks, it is a duck!

    The film (which I have no intention of viewing) has generated the desired effect. Cui bono?

    The correct response is for the public prosecutor to seek to prosecute everyone concerned on the grounds of intentional fomenting of (religious) hatred likely to result in a public order offence. Those concerned include the internet service that carried the film, the producers, the actors and the fund paymasters, who ever they are (making no judgements as to who they are).

    This smells like the 'Zinoviev Letter'.

    It is therefore fairly certain that The Republican Party are involved directly or indirectly. Romney has already shown that he lacks knowledge and judgement when dealing with international affairs, as do his advisers, Neocons, Tea Party and the remnants of the Palin crowd. They remain the most dangerous and undisciplined force on the planet they started by throwing peanuts at a black CNN camera-person and this is a continuation of their stupidity. Romney MUST join with Obama and condemn the film as well as the violence and provide not a scintilla of distance between himself and Obama on the issue. We all must hope that the average Joe in the USA is now well enough informed to see through these cheap and dangerous tricks, that have already cost lives, and see that Romney and the present Republican Party are unfit to govern.

    The World cannot afford another Zinoviev Letter!

  • Comment number 34.

    Having given the Telegraph a hard time for a bunch of knee jerks yesterday, I won't call this 'balance' but it is refreshing to see two alternative views being aired within a few threads of each other...



    One is by a self-described British, Blairite cuckoo.

    The other by an American with an interesting CV.

    Here's the BBC's 'man in Washington':


    Which of the above he would side with I leave up to the reader.

    'He's backed up his version of American exceptionalism by moving two warships off the coast of Libya and sending 50 marines from an anti-terrorist squad to the country.'

    This intrigues.

    If the killing was on the back of a spontaneous feral mob reacting on this day to a film released ages ago, which none have seen, quite what a warship and anti-terrorist guys are going to do to track down the perps and hold them to account I am unsure.

    Unless things are not as we have so far had... 'explained' by some.

  • Comment number 35.


    "An American right-wing extremist called Steve Klein, linked with various anti-Islamic groups in California, promoted the video, "


    "But according to Steve Klein, a Christian activist connected to the film,"

  • Comment number 36.

    This Mark Urban´s blog is really strange. He mentioned the Egyptian Copts

    I was wanting to read the comments -- it was possible to contribute.

    --but no longer --not even a sign of them !

  • Comment number 37.

    '36. At 23:58 13th Sep 2012, quietoaktree'

    All I can say for now, is that based on what I am currently aware of near all political and media responses, this is not headed in a good direction.

    Facts seem hard to come by, and even if available, suspect.

    Those that should be focussing on solutions seem obsessed with covering up, or backsides, or both. One paper I just read seems to feel a 'smirk' of an evident tribal foe captured is the most important thing to focus on in looking anywhere but the rather rampaging elephant in the room.

    And it's not looking like those in charge are that clear on what they are doing much less what to do: No idea who the questioner is (certainly likes the sound of his own voice and could have achieved more by saying less), but in answer to Mr. Urban's question, as this all unravels I'd say US politics at least seems pretty affected, yes..


    As to the lack of comments on Mr. Urban's blog, I don't think in this case they were ever enabled, were they?

    Which, given the plethora of facts that are yet to be confirmed could be seen as a good thing or, if your trust level across the board is low, a further concern.

    'Mentioning people' without firm proof can have adverse consequences.

    But if they were there and then got vanished... that is serious.

  • Comment number 38.

    #37 JM

    "As to the lack of comments on Mr. Urban's blog, I don't think in this case they were ever enabled, were they? "

    After I read your contribution --they were.

    -- unless I am hallucinating.

    --also possible.

  • Comment number 39.

    '38. At 13:44 15th Sep 2012, quietoaktree'

    All things are possible. I have now seen entire comments threads get vanished and now even published articles. About both and especially the latter I have been challenging the BBC Complaints system on the precedent it sets.

    At first they admitted it did happen, but not very often. As I persisted they refused to comment further and claimed they only replied the first time 'as a courtesy'.

    I have asked what would happen if the various powers they claim to hold to account... slippery politicians, crooked businessmen, wayward celebs or footballers (at least the ones they don't like) ... adopted a similar attitude when confronted with questions they don't fancy answering. Jut because there's 'broadcast' in the name doesn't mean it's a one way megaphone. And when the judges judge themselves the result is seldom satisfactory to anyone other than... judges.

    Silence. As I keep highlighting, sometimes the 'uniques' are a bit too far.

  • Comment number 40.

    '36. At 23:58 13th Sep 2012, quietoaktree

    Interestingly, his next blog does have comments enabled.
    Or, rather, did. It lasted all of a day. But did garner a fair few this time.

    However I do note that the point of pulling again seemed to coincide with a ding dong over cited sources reinforcing 'passionately held' views.

    With no conclusion or input from the author to help assess who may be more accurate, it thus becomes a useless, dead end.

    Like too many such things these days. We either get talked at, which no one trusts. Or the pretence of being talked with, which is really just the opportunity to talk amongst ourselves. And if things stray from narratives... whammo. One person does it they get modded. Too many do it and the thing gets zapped.

    Frankly the whole MSM is as much use now as trawling the internet oneself; all most do is hit twitter to find out what those they feel most comfy associating with 'feel' and go with that. Or run any old press release out to fill the 24/7 news maw.

    I'm still reading 'reports' on the Camp Bastion attack that swing between it being retaliatory for the MoMovie or because they were gunning for Harry. Or, most bonkers of all, a sort of 'split'. I'm sure credulous 'jounalists' would run with 65 rounds were at the Americans and 27 for the British if told... by a 'source'.

    Also seems this 'daring raid' was a Taiban PR coup.


    As I understand it, all were wiped out bar one. If you are prepared to die and only have the desire to kill, you will always find a way. Makes for good headlines but poor military strategy.

    Thing is, it's the headlines they are after, and are being duly obliged.

  • Comment number 41.

  • Comment number 42.

    At 17:56 19th Sep 2012, Scotch Git '

    Suggesting, as it does, the demise of yet another of the few remaining interactive blogs that allowed and mostly has encouraged full and civilised debate, I can only with regret agree.


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