“Aleppo” as a term has become something of a buzz word in the West that is still full of ignorance: while many have heard of the city, few can correctly name it as a city in Syria and fewer still are aware of just how complex and vicious it has been as a symbolic center of the Syrian conflict for the past four years. What it mostly represents to the semi-initiated in America is the epicenter of the refugee crisis exclusively caused by Pro-Assad government forces, amply assisted by a Russian Air Force that is indifferent to human suffering.
That is the orthodox narrative. It is also a pale shadow of reality that does an egregious disservice for any people actually hoping to make an impact on ending the conflict and possibly alleviating the human suffering there and beyond. Tragically, anyone looking to understand Aleppo with nationalist agendas and geostrategic grandstanding removed will uncover a global village of perpetrators that have done nothing but cause insanity and injury.
The battle for Aleppo has been raging on and off since mid-2012. It was a primary front for rebel groups and a symbol overall of the revolution, given that Aleppo as a region was the most populous in all of Syria and a major industrial center. The Assad regime knew the importance of Aleppo simply because it felt it was the one area in the entire country that could somewhat legitimately mark itself as a beginning point for forming an alternative state to the government in Damascus. From the very beginning, however, this conflict has never been ‘neat’ or ‘clean.’ It has never been formal government forces against officially recognized rebel forces. Assad allegedly released extremists from jail on the condition that they go fight for the government in Aleppo. This was almost immediately countered by rebel groups openly recruiting and welcoming Islamist extremists into their ranks for the exact opposite purpose. As we will see below these groups, never exactly loyal or truly aligned with either side in the battle, quickly transformed and grew into their own independent splinter groups. Sometimes the agendas aligned with the general pro-Assad/anti-Assad chief narrative, but disturbingly often they did not.
As the battles raged back and forth and began to gain greater media attention, first regionally and then globally, more and more foreign fighters tried to make their way towards Aleppo. This ‘mercenary migration,’ as it were, had several outside countries loosely playing with the rules of war and Geneva Convention standards: Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all participated at times in a chaotic and inconsistent policy of both turning a blind eye to mercenary fighters crossing their borders on the way to Syria and then viciously hindering, arresting, and killing such groups attempting to cross. What exactly would trigger the blind eye or the stick contextually has never truly been examined or explained. But the end result is inarguable: what was already a confusing mixed bag of combatants in and around Aleppo only became more vicious, bloody, and immoral because of the encouragement / indifference of surrounding nations trying to figure out for their own national security interests what the future of Syria should be.
A quick overview of Turkey’s most recent involvement reveals how decidedly distasteful and amorally strategic foreign attention has been. In August of 2016, Turkish troops de facto occupied the northern Syrian town of Jarablus, which had previously been controlled by DAESH. But instead of being a regional attempt at conflict resolution leadership, Turkey’s actions are better explained as a counter-move to hinder the American policy of empowering Kurdish factions fighting against Assad. For Turkey, it is not so much a concern of how much control Kurdish fighters might achieve within Syria, but rather the worry that Kurdish success on its doorstep could trigger inspiration within the PKK, its decades-long Kurdish problem in Eastern Turkey. Thus, it was not looking to help end the suffering in Aleppo as much as deliver a warning blow to the Syrian Democratic Forces and People’s Protection Units, both of which are Kurdish-led blocs backed by America. Even more confusing, Turkey has supported different coalitions of Syrian rebels and Islamist groups that are not aligned with the rebel groups supported by the United States. These competing blocs that are ostensibly on the same side, but do not get along, also do not align obviously with groups sponsored by Assad or his two main international allies, Iran and Russia. Thus, in short, Turkey’s increased involvement in the conflict really did nothing except add a new layer of tension and discord between US-backed groups and a formal NATO ally while likely helping pro-Assad initiatives. In Aleppo, alas, sides that should be perfectly aligned if the chief priority is to stop the suffering of civilians are barely coordinated or even cordial.
When a breakdown of the various groups internally fighting within Syria is highlighted it almost becomes comically surreal. Take, for example, a schematic of Southern Front rebels loosely associated with the Free Syrian Army, the group which has for years been largely regarded in the West as the ‘formal opposition’ trying to overthrow Assad:
Within this one section of the main opposition there are nearly 50 groups, all claiming their own leadership hierarchies and not necessarily formally pledging allegiance to the Free Syrian Army. There is unity on the concept of removing Assad, without doubt. But how to accomplish that goal and then what to do with Syria in the aftermath of Assad’s removal is utterly in shadow or simply ignored. There are no rebel summits. There is no formal explicit policy distributed by any media wing. It is simply bloody chaos. And it only becomes worse when considering the ‘independent’ groups that have come to Syria and are supposedly aligned with the Free Syrian Army:
These supposedly FSA-friendly groups are almost as numerous as the Southern Front. When the fact that the Free Syrian Army itself is also not strictly unified and suffers from some of its own internal splintering, it becomes clear that there could be at any one time nearly 150 ‘rebel groups’ operating around Aleppo and supposedly trying to remove Assad but with no trans-rebel coordination and unity between them. So, while it is understandable why the West laments the suffering in Aleppo, transfixed by moving and emotional images of bloody children being pulled from collapsed buildings, it is an error to think the planes doing the bombings are the sole cause of the insanity.
Internally, a seemingly infinite number of rebel groups continue to splinter off of each other and make little to no real progress at showing semblances of political coherence and governing unity; transnationally, hundreds if not thousands of foreign fighters have enacted a ‘mercenary migration’ into Syria with their own personal agendas of jihadist glory and individual profit; regionally, half a dozen countries have exacerbated the geopolitical chaos by being diplomatically inconsistent and prioritizing their own national security interests over humanitarian ones; globally, the big players of America, Russia, and Iran make an awful lot of noise in the media about peace while behaving in manners that can do nothing except exclude peace as an outcome. And here is the final nail in the crazy coffin: the picture I just painted, as chaotic and ridiculous as it admittedly is, is absent any mention of the impact and influence of the Islamic State. Throw that terrorist wild card in and you understand why Aleppo is so much more than just a complaint about Assad bombing civilians. Aleppo insanity is truly tragic and disturbing. But it is not the consequence of a single actor. It unfortunately took a global village of selfish idiots to accomplish this tragedy of so much suffering and so little progress. And that global village is large indeed.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed, “Aleppo’s Mistakes,” http://english.alarabiya.net/en/views/news/middle-east/2016/12/19/Aleppo-s-mistakes.html, Dec 26, 2016
Murtaza Hussain and Marwan Hisham, “US Strategy to Fight ISIS has set off New Conflict in Syria, The Intercept, https://theintercept.com/2016/08/31/u-s-strategy-to-fight-isis-has-set-off-a-new-conflict-in-syria/, Aug 31, 2016
China-US and the Iran nuclear deal
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian met with Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi on Friday, January 14, 2022 in the city of Wuxi, in China’s Jiangsu province. Both of them discussed a gamut of issues pertaining to the Iran-China relationship, as well as the security situation in the Middle East.
A summary of the meeting published by the Chinese Foreign Ministry underscored the point, that Foreign Ministers of Iran and China agreed on the need for strengthening bilateral cooperation in a number of areas under the umbrella of the 25 year Agreement known as ‘Comprehensive Cooperation between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the People’s Republic of China’. This agreement had been signed between both countries in March 2021 during the Presidency of Hassan Rouhani, but the Iranian Foreign Minister announced the launch of the agreement on January 14, 2022.
During the meeting between Wang Yi and Hossein Amir Abdollahian there was a realization of the fact, that cooperation between both countries needed to be enhanced not only in areas like energy and infrastructure (the focus of the 25 year comprehensive cooperation was on infrastructure and energy), but also in other spheres like education, people to people contacts, medicine and agriculture. Iran also praised the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and said that it firmly supported the One China policy.
The timing of this visit is interesting, Iran is in talks with other signatories (including China) to the JCPOA/Iran nuclear deal 2015 for the revival of the 2015 agreement. While Iran has asked for removal of economic sanctions which were imposed by the US after it withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018, the US has said that time is running out, and it is important for Iran to return to full compliance to the 2015 agreement. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in an interview said:
‘Iran is getting closer and closer to the point where they could produce on very, very short order enough fissile material for a nuclear weapon’
The US Secretary of State also indicated, that if the negotiations were not successful, then US would explore other options along with other allies.
During the course of the meeting on January 14, 2022 Wang Yi is supposed to have told his Chinese counterpart, that while China supported negotiations for the revival of the Iran nuclear deal 2015, the onus for revival was on the US since it had withdrawn in 2018.
The visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to China was also significant, because Foreign Ministers of four Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries – Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman and Bahrain — and Secretary General of GCC, Nayef Falah Mubarak Al-Hajraf were in China from January 10-14, 2022 with the aim of expanding bilateral ties – especially with regard to energy cooperation and trade. According to many analysts, the visit of GCC officials to China was driven not just by economic factors, but also the growing proximity between Iran and Beijing.
In conclusion, China is important for Iran from an economic perspective. Iran has repeatedly stated, that if US does not remove the economic sanctions it had imposed in 2018, it will focus on strengthening economic links with China (significantly, China has been purchasing oil from Iran over the past three years in spite of the sanctions imposed by the US. The Ebrahim Raisi administration has repeatedly referred to an ‘Asia centric’ policy which prioritises ties with China.
Beijing is seeking to enhance its clout in the Middle East as US ties with certain members of the GCC, especially UAE and Saudi Arabia have witnessed a clear downward spiral in recent months (US has been uncomfortable with the use of China’s 5G technology by UAE and the growing security linkages between Beijing and Saudi Arabia). One of the major economic reasons for the GCC gravitating towards China is Washington’s thrust on reducing its dependence upon GCC for fulfilling its oil needs. Beijing can utilize its good ties with Iran and GCC and play a role in improving links between both.
The geopolitical landscape of the Middle East is likely to become more complex, and while there is not an iota of doubt, that the US influence in the Middle East is likely to remain intact, China is fast catching up.
Egypt vis-à-vis the UAE: Who is Driving Whom?
“Being a big fish in a small pond is better than being a little fish in a large pond” is a maxim that aptly summarizes Egyptian regional foreign policy over the past few decades. However, the blow dealt to the Egyptian State in the course of the 2011 uprising continues to distort its domestic and regional politics and it has also prompted the United Arab Emirates to become heavily engaged in Middle East politics, resulting in the waning of Egypt’s dominant role in the region!
The United Arab Emirates is truly an aspirational, entrepreneurial nation! In fact, the word “entrepreneurship” could have been invented to define the flourishing city of Dubai. The UAE has often declared that as a small nation, it needs to establish alliances to pursue its regional political agenda while Egypt is universally recognized for its regional leadership, has one of the best regional military forces, and has always charmed the Arab world with its soft power. Nonetheless, collaboration between the two nations would not necessarily give rise to an entrepreneurial supremacy force!
Egypt and the UAE share a common enemy: political Islamists. Yet each nation has its own distinct dynamic and the size of the political Islamist element in each of the two countries is different. The UAE is a politically stable nation and an economic pioneer with a small population – a combination of factors that naturally immunize the nation against the spread of political Islamists across the region. In contrast, Egypt’s economic difficulties, overpopulation, intensifying political repression, along with its high illiteracy rate, constitute an accumulation of elements that serves to intensify the magnitude of the secreted, deep-rooted, Egyptian political Islamists.
The alliance formed between the two nations following the inauguration of Egypt’s President Al Sisi was based on UAE money and Egyptian power. It supported and helped expand the domestic political power of a number of unsubstantiated Arab politicians, such as Libya’s General Khalifa Haftar, Tunisia’s President Kais Saied and the Chairman of Sudan’s Transitional Sovereignty Council, Lieutenant-General Abdel-Fattah Al-Burhan. The common denominator among these politicians is that they are all fundamentally opposed to political Islamists.
Although distancing political Islamists from ruling their nations may constitute a temporary success, it certainly is not enough to strengthen the power of the alliance’s affiliates. The absence of true democracy, intensified repression by Arab rulers and the natural evolution of Arab citizens towards freedom will, for better or for worse, lead to the re-emergence of political Islamists. Meanwhile, Emirati wealth will always attract Arab hustlers ready to offer illusory political promises to cash in the money.
The UAE has generously injected substantial amounts of money into the Egyptian economy and consequently the Egyptian State has exclusively privileged Emirati enterprises with numerous business opportunities, yet the UAE has not helped Egypt with the most critical regional threat it is confronting: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam. Meanwhile, Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El Sisi’s exaggerated fascination with UAE modernization has prompted him to duplicate many Emirati projects – building the tallest tower in Africa is one example.
The UAE’s regional foreign policy that hinges upon exploiting its wealth to confront the political Islamist threat is neither comprehensible nor viable. The Emirates, in essence, doesn’t have the capacity to be a regional political player, even given the overriding of Egypt’s waning power. Meanwhile, Al Sisi has been working to depoliticize Egypt completely, perceiving Egypt as an encumbrance rather than a resource-rich nation – a policy that has resulted in narrowing Egypt’s economic and political aspirations, limiting them to the constant seeking of financial aid from wealthy neighbors.
The regional mediating role that Egypt used to play prior to the Arab uprising has been taken over by European nations such France, Germany and Italy, in addition of course to the essential and ongoing role of the United States. Profound bureaucracy and rampant corruption will always keep Egypt from becoming a second UAE! Irrespective of which nation is in the driver’s seat, this partnership has proven to be unsuccessful. Egypt is definitely better off withdrawing from the alliance, even at the expense of forgoing Emirati financial support.
Kurdish Education in Turkey: A Joint Responsibility
Turkish elites often see Kurds as posing a mortal threat to their homeland’s territorial integrity. Kurdish elites often harbor pan-Kurdish dreams of their own.
Modern Turkish nationalism based its identity on statist secularism practiced by Muslims who are Turks. The secularist paradigm of a “Turkish Nation” struggled hard with accommodating Christians (Armenians, Greeks, Assyrians) and Kurdish-speaking Muslims. Kurdish coreligionists were expected to become Turks, i.e., to abandon their cultural heritage for the “greater good” of a homogenous Turkish nation.
This cultural-identity conundrum led to a century-long violent conflict, but also to genuine efforts by many Kurds and Turks to reach a common vision that would accommodate both Turkey’s territorial integrity and Kurdish cultural rights.
The rise to power of Erdogan’s Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) in 2002 appeared to imply a watershed, bringing about a measure of cultural liberalization toward the Kurds. More Islam seemed at first to signal less nationalistic chauvinism.
IMPACT-se, a think tank focusing on peace and tolerance in school education, pointed out in “Two Languages One Country,” a 2019 report that showed liberal elements being introduced in the Turkish curriculum by the AKP government. These “included the introduction of a Kurdish language elective program, the teaching of evolution, expressions of cultural openness, and displays of tolerance toward minorities.”
And while no open debate was permitted, IMPACT-se noted “a slight improvement over past textbooks in recognizing the Kurds, although they are still generally ignored.” Yet, the name “Kurd” is no longer obliterated from the curriculum. Kurdish-language textbooks were authored as part of a wider Turkish-Kurdish rapprochement.
In June 2012, the Turkish government announced for the first time, that a Kurdish elective language course entitled: “Living Languages and Dialects” (Yaşayan Diller ve Lehçeler), would be offered as an elective language for Grades 5–7 for two hours per week.
IMPACT-se studied these textbooks (published in 2014 and 2015 in Kurmanji and Zazaki) in its report and found that the elective Kurdish-language program strengthens Kurdish culture and identity, while assuming a pan-Kurdish worldview devoid of hate against Turks. Included are Kurdish-historic places in Turkey, Iran and Iraq (but not Syria). The textbooks cover issues such as the Kurdish diaspora in Europe, the Kurdish national holiday of Newroz, with the underlying revolutionary message of uprising against tyranny. Children’s names are exclusively Kurdish. Turks and Turkey are not represented in the elective Kurdish books (but are obviously present across the rest of the curriculum).
The latter is a surprising and counter-intuitive finding. Textbooks published by Turkey’s Ministry of Education focus solely on the Kurdish side, with pan-Kurdish messaging, and no Turkish context. There could be several explanations for this, but the fact remains that Turkish-Kurdish relations are still not present in Turkey’s Kurdish language program.
The overall conclusion of IMPACT-se has been that this program is pioneering and generally excellent. There are some problems, however. One problem is that the elective program is minimalistic and does not meet Kurdish cultural needs. However, the program ignores the Turkish-Kurdish dilemma, hence projecting an inverted mirror image of the Turkish curriculum at large, which ignores the Kurdish question. There is no peace education in either curriculum. Therefore, IMPACT-se recommended enhancing the Kurdish-language program, while adding a healthy dose of pertinent peace education to the curriculum’s Turkish and Kurdish textbooks.
Sadly, the last few years have also seen broader moves by the Turkish government to quash Kurdish cultural and educational freedoms. The armed conflict between separatist groups and the Turkish military resumed in 2015, followed by the 2016 detention of high-ranking officials of the peaceful pro-minority People’s Democratic Party (HDP). By 2020, 59 out of 65 elected Kurdish mayors on the HDP ticket in previous years had been forced out or arrested by security forces.
Simultaneously, elective programs such as Kurdish have been neglected and largely replaced by religious “elective” courses, which are often mandatory. Specifically, elective Kurdish courses are being clamped down or de facto erased in certain schools (despite being originally offered in 28 cities and with an expected enrollment as high as 160,000).
And then there is the question of full education in Kurdish. Article 42 of the Turkish Constitution bans the “teaching of any language other than Turkish as a mother tongue to Turkish citizens at any institution of education.” And yet, Turkish authorities looked the other way between 2013 and 2016, as five fully Kurdish elementary private schools were opened in the southeastern provinces of Diyarbakır, Şırnak and Hakkari. The last of these schools, Ferzad Kemanger in Diyarbakır, was closed on October 9, 2016. Apparently these schools conveyed pan-Kurdish messaging (Ferzad Kemanger was an Iranian-Kurdish elementary school teacher. He was wrongly accused of being a terrorist and executed by Tehran in 2010).
There can be no Kurdish heritage without Kurdish languages, making the current situation untenable. Kurdish education should become a priority again.
But this is not enough. A common Turkish-Kurdish vision should be developed. Educationally, a serious effort should be directed toward educating both Turks and Kurds about the other’s identity, culture, shared history, commonalties, conflicts and interactions.
Two ethnicities sharing one homeland in a volatile region pose a great challenge for both. A careful educational plan can lay the groundwork for peace and prosperity. Kurdish education in Turkey should be considered a joint responsibility leading to a common vision.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect an official position of IMPACT-se.
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