Game Not Over: the Quneitra Attack in Context

Jerusalem Post, 23/1.

In analyzing the significance and hence likely fallout from the  Israeli killing of a number of senior Hizballah and IRGC personnel close to the Golan border this week, a number of things should be borne in mind:

Firstly, the killings were a response to a clear attempt by the Iranians/Hizballah to violate the very fragile status quo that pertains between these elements and Israel in Lebanon and Syria.

Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah in his interview to the al-Mayadeen network three days before the attack explicitly claimed that his organization was not engaged in ‘resistance work’ on the Golan.

The Israeli strike showed that this statement was a lie.

Some analysis of the strike has suggested that the mission the men killed in the attack were engaged in was the preparation for the placing of sophisticated Iranian missile systems on the Syrian part of the Golan.  Other accounts suggested that the mission was part of preparing this area for the launch of ground attacks across the border against Israeli targets, perhaps using proxies.

In either case, the mission was a clear attempt to change the arrangement of forces in the north, in such a way that could be expected to ensure an Israeli response.

Secondly, in the past, Hizballah has reacted differently to Israeli strikes on it or its Syrian allies by Israel within Syria, compared to strikes on Lebanese soil.  The difference again relates to the unstated but clear ‘rules of the game’ between the organization and the Jewish state.  Israeli strikes on materiel making its way to the organization from Syrian soil have elicited no response from the movement.

By contrast, an Israeli attack on a weapons convoy just across the border on Lebanese  soil near the village of Janta on February 24, 2014 provoked a Hizballah response . On March 18th, an IED was exploded just south of the border fence in the Majdal Shams area on the Golan Heights, wounding four IDF soldiers.

The rules of the game in question do not indicate a lessening of warlike intentions or a growing affection on the part of Hizballah toward Israel.  Rather, they reflect the acute need that this organization and its Iranian masters currently have to not be drawn into conflict with Israel unless this becomes unavoidable.

Hizballah is overstretched at the moment.  It has between  5000-10,000 men engaged in Syria.  It is engaged in a determined and fraying attempt to prevent Sunni jihadi incursions across the border into Lebanon from Syria, and bomb attacks by the Sunni groups further into Lebanon.

Hizballah is also an integral part of the Iranian outreach effort in Iraq, where members of the organization are engaged in training Shia fighters.

Even as far afield as Yemen, where the Iran-backed Houthi militia is engaged in a push for power, the movement’s fingerprints have been found.

All this reflects Hizballah’s nature as Iran’s primary agent in the Arab world.  Given all this activity, the last thing that the IRGC and Hizballah need is to be drawn into a premature conflagration with Israel.

This need to avoid a collision with the Jewish state is compounded by a shortage of Iranian cash, deriving from the collapse of oil prices.

The Iran/Hizballah/Assad side has long threatened to develop the Golan as a front for possible ‘jihad duties’ against Israel.  Both Syrian President Bashar Assad and Nasrallah in the course of 2014 made unambiguous public statements threatening the opening of military activity against Israel in this area.   Israel in turn has been very keen to make clear that such a move would constitute a violation of the status quo .

The strike on Sunday constituted a very kinetic further Israeli message intended to drive home this point.

What this means is that despite the death of a senior IRGC commander in the Israeli strike, the action by Israel should not be seen as a general casting aside of the rules of engagement by Jerusalem  on the northern border, but rather as an insistence on maintaining these, and a warning of the consequences to the other side of continued violation of them.

The thing which might be held to differentiate this action from previous events is of course the death of IRGC General Mohammed Allahdadi.

Allahdadi may not be the first senior IRGC figure to lose his life in Syria at Israeli hands in the last three years of war in that country.  That distinction arguably belongs to Brigadier-General  Hassan Shateri, assassinated on February 13, 2013, either by the Syrian rebels or by persons working for Israel, depending on which version you choose to believe.

But certainly the high visibility of Allahdadi’s demise, taking place unambiguously at Israeli hands, represents something new.  From this point of view, the quoting by Reuters of an Israeli ‘security source’ to the effect that Israel did not know who was in the car at the time that it was destroyed may be seen as an attempt to re-locate the action within the realms of the recognized rules of engagement (whether or not one chooses to accept the veracity of the statement by this un-named ‘source.’  The writer of this article does not.)

Responses by Lebanese political leaders and media to the event have been characterized by a sort of nervous, veiled request to Hizballah not to bring down Israel’s wrath on Lebanon.  The Beirut Daily Star, captured this tone in an editorial entitled ‘Don’t take the Bait.’

After a series of unflattering remarks about Israel, the paper’s editors noted that ‘While some naturally feel a desire for retaliation against Israel, Hezbollah must be vigilant against designs for it to be drawn into a larger confrontation. Lebanon has enough concerns of its own without falling prey to a plot against it.”’

Of course, Iran and Hizballah are strong enough to ignore such voices.   but given the tense internal situation in Lebanon at present, it is likely that the lack of enthusiasm of non-Shia Lebanese for Hizballah’s war in Syria and in particular their lack of willingness to pay any price accruing from it will factor into the Shia Islamist movement’s and its master’s decisionmaking.  Hizballah needs a quiet and quiescent Lebanese political scene, so that it may conduct its war against Sunni jihadis coming in from Syria under the guise of unified Lebanese action, rather than sectarian account-settling.

Lastly, as has been noted in previous analyses, Iran has armed and trained Hizballah so that it may be used to deter an Israeli response against Iranian nuclear facilities, or be activated as part of a response to such a strike. It is unlikely to wish to place this investment prematurely at risk.

So the strike on Sunday was a re-stating by Israel of previously clarified ground rules relating to what will be permitted in Syria, and what will not.  A response of some kind in the weeks, months or years ahead is likely.  But the Israeli action was not a disregarding by Israel of previously existing ‘rules of engagement’  in the north.  It is unlikely therefore to result in a similar upturning of the tables at the present moment by Iran and Hizballah.

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4 Jews Killed in Paris Attack Buried in Israel

Weekly Standard, 14/1

Under a cloudless Jerusalem sky, a crowd of thousands gathered at the cemetery at Givat Shaul on Tuesday, to bury the four Jews murdered at the Hyper Cacher in Paris. Yoav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham, and Francois-Michel Saada were laid to rest in Har Hamenuhot, on the approach to Jerusalem from the west.

The families chose to make their funerals an act of defiance, firmly remembering that these lives were robbed by an Islamist murderer, because the four men were Jewish. The form this defiance took was a re-statement of identity—a joint funeral in Israel, in a place festooned with blue and white Israeli flags. The killer, Amedy Coulibaly, had been quite clear regarding the purpose of his attack on the supermarket. “You are a Jew, you will die,” he reportedly yelled at the owner of the store as he entered.

While much of the media coverage of last week’s Islamist killing spree appears to prefer to obscure or ignore the anti-Semitic message, the families of those murdered in the Hyper Cacher chose to listen to it. On Tuesday, at the funerals of their loved ones, they issued their reply.

The location of the funerals was political in another way too. They had originally been planned to be held at the beautiful, ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives. But the Jewish graves in that cemetery, situated close to the Old City, have been the target of vandalism by Arab youths in recent months. Perhaps the families were concerned that such a resting place might lead to further indignities being visited on these murdered ones, even after the great indignity of the fact of their murder. It’s also possible that since the cemetery on the Mount of Olives is under Israeli control, the French government, and other governments who sent representatives to the funerals, conditioned their participation on the change of location. So Har HaMenuhot, as safe from the hands of enemies as a Jewish resting place can conceivably be, was chosen as the site.

“This is just the beginning,” said a woman I spoke with there, Linda Cohen. Originally from Paris, the 50-year-old Cohen came to live in Israel ten years ago. Speaking in rapid, fluent, and angry Hebrew, she said that “there are many more terrorists, and all of us think they are just preparing for the next attack.” I asked her what this will lead to. “Among French Jews,” she told me, “there is a saying: ‘better to make aliya [immigrate to Israel] in a seat, on a plane, rather than running for your life.”

A young man carried a placard in French that read, “I am Charlie, I am a Jew. I am Israeli. I am French. And I have had enough!” Shalom Cohen Saban, 30, the Israeli born son of French immigrant parents, told me that he had come to the funerals “to support the Jews of France, in this testing time.” And also, he continued, because a relative of his had worked with Yoav Hattab, on the Birthright program. Hattab, 22, was the son of the chief rabbi of Tunis, and had been in Israel just two weeks before his murder.

There were eulogies from Israeli politicians, of course. Each of them—mercifully—were appropriate and even dignified, despite the fact that election season is upon us. Benjamin Netanyahu used a phrase from the early days of Zionism—“may we be comforted in the flourishing of our people and the building of our country.” This was a phrase gently parodied by the poet Yehuda Amichai in one of his best poems “Seven Laments for the War Dead,” in which the poet, himself a veteran of Israel’s wars, expresses a quiet longing for the ending of the period of strife. Amichai passed away in 2000. It appears however, that the days of strife for the Jews, for Israel, and for the world beyond them will be with us for some time to come.

“Dad was a man who put others before himself,” Jonathan Saada, son of Francois-Michel Saada who was killed in the supermarket, told the assembled mourners. “He loved Israel. He always wanted to be here. And so he will be. He is here now and I am sure he is happy to be with you here.”

What was taking place in Har Hamenuhot was a Jewish, particularist response to the murder of four Jews. Nonetheless, it also carried a universal message: The business of physical resistance to those who wish to destroy us begins with a proud and unyielding recalling and assertion of our own identity, history, and values. Hopefully there are a few in tired and lost Europe who are listening. If there are not, the Jews of France at least have a clearly marked route to follow to Israel.

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Reflections on the Murders in Paris

PJmedia, 12/1

The Islamic world is currently in the midst of a great historic convulsion. This process is giving birth to political trends and movements of a murderously violent nature. These movements offer a supposed escape route from the humiliation felt at the profound societal failure of the Arab and to a slightly lesser extent the broader Muslim world.

The escape is by way of the most violent and intolerant historic trends of Islam, into a mythologized and imagined past. The route to this old-new imagined utopia is a bloody one. All who oppose or even slight it must die. The simple and brutal laws of 7th century Muslim Arabia are re-applied, in their literal sense. The events of last week in Paris were a manifestation of this trend.
These trends exist not only in the Arab and Muslim worlds themselves. Because of mass immigration from the Arab and Muslim world to western European countries, they are also powerful and present in immigrant communities in these countries. The Kouachi brothers and Amedi Coulibaly are the latest, and no doubt not the last representatives of this political world to impose themselves on us.

The political trend in question is called political Islam. It manifests itself in its most extreme form in the rival global networks of the Al Qaeda movement and the Islamic State. But these, alas, are only the sharp tip of a much larger iceberg.

Political Islam and its followers are not all, or mainly, young men from slums.

On the contrary, its adherents include heads of state, powerful economic interests and media groups, and prominent cultural figures. Some of these, absurdly, were even present at the “solidarity rally” in Paris.

They rendered this event an empty spectacle by their presence.

Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu of Turkey, for example, came to offer his solidarity to the victims of journalists murdered by Islamists in Paris, just two days after the Turkish courts sentenced a pianist to a 10 month prison sentence, suspended for five years, for the crime of “denigrating religion (ie Islam).”

More urgently, Turkey has been an active supporter of both Islamic State and al-Qaeda forces in northern Syria over the last three years. That is, Davutoglu was marching in condemnation of forces to which his own government has offered support.

Political Islam is a reaction to profound societal failure. It is also a flight into unreality. It has nothing practical to offer as an actual remedy to Arab and Islamic developmental problems. Economic, legal and societal models deriving from the 7th century Arabian desert are fairly obvious impediments to success in the 21st.

Where they are systematically imposed, as in the Islamic State, they will create something close to hell on earth. Where they remain present in more partial forms — as in Qatar, Gaza, Iran, (increasingly) Turkey, and so on — they will merely produce stifling, stagnant and repressive societies.

But the remedy for failure that political Islam offers is not a material one. It offers in generous portions the intoxicating psychological cocktail of murderous rage and self-assertion, and the desire to strike out and destroy those deemed enemies — infidels who transgress binding religious commandments, Jews and so on.

This is not the first time that Europe has encountered political phenomena based on murderous rage and utopias buried in the magical past. The European fascist movements produced precisely such a mix. But of course, this time around, the rage and the utopia derive not from European culture, but from an alien culture which has implanted itself among the Europeans.

Here is the second part of the problem. Arab and Muslim societies may be failures and basket cases, but they retain an exceptionally strong and vivid sense of themselves. It is the irony of history that this sense of self is precisely of a type that is bound to keep their societies mired in failure. But history favors irony, and this sense nevertheless remains powerfully experienced and hence politically potent. In this respect, the modern Islamic world resembles western Europe of 80 or 90 years ago, but not the contemporary continent.

In contemporary western European societies, political Islam meets a human collectivity suffering, by contrast, from a profound loss of self. No one, at least in the mainstream of politics and culture, seems able to quite articulate what western European countries are for, or what they oppose — at least beyond a sort of vapid belief in everyone doing what they want and not bothering each other.

The result is that when violent political Islam collides with the satiated, lost societies of western Europe, the response is not defiance on the part of the latter, but rather fear.

This fear, as fear is wont to do, manifests itself in various, not particularly edifying, ways.

The most obvious is avoidance (“the attacks had nothing to do with Islam,” “unemployment and poverty are the root cause,” “the Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state,” etc etc).

Another is appeasement — “maybe if we give them some of what they want, they’ll leave us alone.”

This response perhaps partially explains the notable adoption in parts of western Europe of the anti-Jewish prejudice so prevalent in the Islamic world.

The ennui of the western European mainstream will almost certainly prevent the adoption of the very tough measures which alone might serve to adequately address the burgeoning problem of large numbers of young European Muslims committed to political Islam and to violence against their host societies.

Such measures — which would include tighter surveillance and policing of communities, quick deportations of incendiary preachers, revocation of citizenship for those engaged in violence, possible imprisonment of suspects and so on — would require a political will which is manifestly absent. So it wont happen. So the events of Paris will almost certainly recur.

And lastly, since the elites will not be able to produce resistance, it will come from outside of the elites. Hence the growth of populist, nationalist parties and movements in western Europe. But Europe being what it is, such revivalist movements are likely to contain a hefty dose of the xenophobia and bigotry which characterized the continent of old.

None of this can, at present, be discussed in polite European society. But all of it is fairly obvious. For this reason, Europe’s Jews are at present warily eying the door. As someone who was born in western Europe, and left it 25 years ago for Israel, I am happy to conclude that as a result of the efforts and sacrifice of many, Europe’s Jews are this time around neither defenseless nor alone. Nor will their blood be free to be taken with impunity.

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Doha Descending

Jerusalem Post, 11/1

Amid rumors of Mashaal’s expulsion, Doha trying to regain alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia

It is still not clear whether reports in Turkish newspaper Aydinlik concerning the expulsion by Qatar of Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal are accurate. Hamas officials have indignantly denied that their leader is shortly set to quit his Doha home.

But certainly, Mashaal’s expulsion would fit with the broader pattern of recent events.

Recent months have witnessed a number of acts by Qatar suggesting it is seeking to repair relations with its fellow Gulf monarchies, and with Egypt. Hamas, the enemy of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Saudis, can have no part in this.

The expulsion of Mashaal, if it takes place, will be the latest concession by Doha to the wishes of Cairo and Riyadh.

Qatar’s latest moves are the fruit of partial defeat for Doha in its regional agenda; Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the winners. Lets take a look.

Qatar, in the first two years of the regional upheaval that began in 2011, appeared to be riding high. The tiny emirate backed the Muslim Brotherhood movement; its enormously influential Al Jazeera channel pumped out propaganda on behalf of the movement and against its enemies. In late 2012, at what was evidently its high-water mark, the Qatar-Brotherhood alliance appeared to be forming a new power bloc in the Middle East.

The Brotherhood had achieved power in the most populous Arab state – Egypt. It Tunisian iteration, al-Nahda, won elections there.

Militias associated with a Brotherhood-type outlook and financed by Qatar, such as the Tawhid Brigade of Aleppo, were playing a key role in the Syrian war – and victory looked within reach. Turkey, under the rule of the Brotherhood-influenced AK Party, had drawn close to Qatar and saw itself playing a key role in the emergent Sunni Islamist alliance.

Two years on, nearly all of this is in ruins.

Most importantly, the army is back in power in Egypt and is engaged in an attempt to crush the Brotherhood. In Tunisia, Nahda lost elections in 2014 and has ceded power to its non-Islamist rivals. In Syria, a regionwide mobilization by Iran of its allies and proxies, and the determined support of Russia as well as rebel confusion and disunity, have saved Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

This has left both Qatar and Hamas somewhat beached. Doha had antagonized its fellow Gulf monarchies to distraction, in the service of a new power bloc that apparently is not going to come into existence after all.

Hamas, meanwhile, had also placed its bets on this emergent Sunni Islamist bloc.

The Palestinian branch of the Brotherhood had removed itself from Damascus, rejected the Iranian attempt to exhort it to declare its support for Assad, and suffered a major loss in Iranian funding as a result.

RECENT MONTHS have seen both Qatar and Hamas seeking to adjust themselves to this new reality, but in different directions.

In mid-September, Doha ordered several prominent members of the Egyptian Brotherhood to leave the emirate. They had been offered asylum after fleeing their country following the military coup in July 2013.

The first indication of improved relations with other Gulf states came after a surprise summit of Gulf Cooperation Council countries on November 16, 2014. As a result of this meeting, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates agreed to return their ambassadors to Qatar after an absence of eight months. In the days after, Saudi King Abdullah II received a phone call from Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

The GCC summit in Bahrain in early December saw further Qatari concessions on Libya and Egypt, where Doha’s position had run in direct contradiction to that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Doha gave its full support to Sisi and his “road map” for Egypt at the summit; afterward, Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Bin Mohammed al-Attiya pledged Doha’s support for Sisi, and spoke of the importance of Egypt’s regional role.

Then, on December 20, Sisi met with an envoy of the Qatari emir, in a meeting brokered by Riyadh.

Thus, the Mashaal departure, if indeed it takes place, will be the latest in a string of concessions offered by Doha to the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which is emerging as the key power arrangement among the Sunnis at present.

Qatar is of course enormously wealthy, but it is also a flimsy state, lacking hard power of any kind. For its economic and business activities to continue to flourish, it cannot afford to stray too far from existing power alliances, which will inevitably be dominated by states other than itself.

For a while, the Qataris thought they were set to be the financiers and cheerleaders of a new, Egypt-centered bloc – yet that bloc was stillborn. The Qataris are now accommodating themselves to this reality.

Hamas, too, must make its own new arrangements, and indications are that the movement is leaning in the direction of renewed rapprochement with Iran. The year 2014 saw a gradual thaw in relations between Hamas and Tehran, though all suspicion is unlikely to have dispelled.

Hamas’s needs are different from those of Qatar. And of course, Hamas has no way to align with the Cairo-Riyadh alliance – which regards it as an element of the Brotherhood they are seeking to defeat.

This leaves Tehran or Ankara as possible backers – or more likely, a hedging and a combination of the two.

Of course, one should not assume that Qatar will entirely end its support for Islamist movements. Doha has not fallen in love with Riyadh; it is repositioning out of necessity and through clenched teeth. The more extravagant Egyptian demands – such as that Doha expel prominent Brotherhood preacher Yusuf al-Qaradawi – are unlikely to be fulfilled; Qaradawi has lived in the emirate since 1961.

Ultimately, what the Qatari concessions indicate is the burgeoning strength of the Cairo-Riyadh alliance, which has forced a Qatari realignment while appearing to offer no, or hardly any, gestures in return.

This new alliance (which has good, if largely silent, relations with Israel), is perhaps the most important diplomatic development in the region since 2011.

As of now, with the US seeking rapprochement with Iran, the main blocs facing one another in the region are the Iranians and their allies against the Saudis and their own.

The Brotherhood and the Salafists are a factor, to be sure, but for the moment a weaker one.

In sum, the travails and maneuvering of Qatar and Hamas reflect the disarray of the Sunni Islamist camp.

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How are Things in Kobani?

PJmedia, 9/1
The battle for the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobani just entered its fourth month. It is now a fight for a heap of ruins. Four months of intense ground combat, involving tanks, mortars and RPGs as well as small arms, has reduced the city to rubble.

Nevertheless, Kobani matters. It is where the Syrian Kurds showed that with the right support, local fighters are capable of turning back the forces of the Islamic State.

Kobani also matters because as a result of the stand of the Kurdish YPG organization in the city, a potential reliable ally of the west in northern Syria has been identified. In the fight between rival successor entities over the ruins of Syria and Iraq, this is a relationship which deserves to be nurtured and developed.

I visited Kobani before the IS assault of the autumn. In March of last year, the enclave was under siege from four directions – the jihadis from south, east and west, and the Turkish authorities from the north. The Turks had a strange and ambiguous relationship with the ISIS jihadis. Sometimes the border gates would be opened to let them exit and enter. Wounded jihadis were treated in hospitals in Ceylanpinar across the border, with no questions asked.

Still, the Kurds were holding out. The positions near Tal Abyad to the east, and Jarabulus to the west, were well defended. In a place called Haj Ismail, I observed as the YPG responded swiftly and efficiently to the first signs of an ISIS attack.

Within the enclave, life was close to normal. There wasn’t a great deal of food. But the schools were operating, the hospitals were open. The Kurdish enclave had become a place of refuge for Syrian Arabs, too, seeking to flee the chaos of the fighting further west in Aleppo.

But the uneasy half-cold siege ended in September. The Islamic State, flush with new weaponry from the garrison in faraway Mosul, descended on the peaceful enclave. Their intention was to destroy it, so as to clear the way for their forces to move more easily between Raqqa province and Aleppo and Idleb.

They nearly succeeded. Despite the dogged defense of the YPG, the villages surrounding Kobani city began to fall. The civilian population was evacuated across the border. The YPG fighters prepared for a last stand within the city. What reversed the situation was the commencement of U.S. and coalition air attacks on the IS positions after October 6th. The air campaign evened out the YPG’s inferior weaponry, and the Kurds began to claw back control of the city.

Earlier this week, I spoke to Perwer Mohammed Ali, one of the Kurdish activists with whom I had worked back in March. Arrested by the Turks on leaving Kobani, Perwer made his way back to the enclave. I asked him about the current situation in the city.

“Right now its calm,” he told me. “The YPG control about 80% of the city. Daesh is still holding two neighborhoods – Kaniya Kurdan and Mikteleh. A couple of days ago, they tried to launch a counter attack. They had a tank with them, but they didn’t succeed.”

And are the coalition airstrikes helping?

“The coalition is good but we’d like them to target the tanks. IS has a bunch of them in Mikteleh.”

The liberation of Kobani seems near. The real task, says Perwer, will come afterwards. “Kobani is destroyed,” he told me, “so the big problem will be after the liberation.”

The liberation, nevertheless, seems imminent. When it comes, it will be testimony to the potency of U.S. air power, of course, but it will also be the result of the courage and determination of the fighters of the YPG.

The Middle East is the most dysfunctional political space on the planet. As has been amply demonstrated in recent days, ideas emanating from it and the bloody actions they inspire represent one of the most potent dangers to free societies anywhere.

The west cannot ignore the Middle East without abandoning it to anti-western forces. Engaging with the region, supporting allies, facing down dangers are all essential.

In the darkest days before the commencement of coalition bombing in Kobani, I sat in London with two leaders of the Kurdish PYD, the party that controls the Kurdish cantons in Syria. “Our situation,” they told me at that time, “is desperate.” The absence of even RPGs to deal with the IS armor seemed to presage doom.

Belatedly, Kobani was saved. The joint action of the U.S. Air Force and the YPG fighters who protected the town ought to be the start of a political relationship between the west and the Syrian Kurds. Dialogue with the PYD has begun. It should lead to a recognition of Kurdish national rights in both Syria and Iraq. In the ruins of these fragmented countries, there aren’t many reliable friends. There are some. The Kurds — in Syria as in Iraq — are chief among them. Their courage and their moderation deserve to be recognized and this recognition needs to be reflected in policy.

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A Crossing of the Lines (an excerpt from a book I want to write)

On the night I was due to leave I sat in the media center talking to a very thin, very tall and soft spoken Kurdish man in his mid-30s, who everyone treated with a sort of quiet deference.  This was Nuri Mahmoud, a ,local man who had lost a leg fighting the Turks with the PKK in the Qandil mountains, between Northern Iraq and South East Turkey.

Nuri spoke very quietly, and at length, and was never interrupted.  He had come down from Qandil to oversee the building of political institutions in the enclave.  He was one of the senior PKK cadres that one came across everywhere in the Kurdish parts of Syria.  He was keen also to ask me about Israel, and how Israelis and Jews viewed the Kurds. And as was usual in Kurdish circles, he said some kind words about the Jews, their history, their sufferings and their aspirations.

After our interview, an impromptu concert began in the media center.  A man with a Saz, the Kurdish stringed instrument began to play and sing and some of the young activists joined in.  I am fond of this instrument, with its wild, jangling tones and I stayed and listened to the singing too.  The light was falling and it would soon be time for us to leave for the border area.  I remember the feeling of quiet sanity around the center. There was a small lawn outside and some young activists were diggjng in a vegetable garden.  The atmosphere was one of idealism, good humor, and quiet devotion.

They played YPG songs in the van as we drove out of the city westwards for the rendezvous with the smugglers.  There was one of the anthems that I particularly liked.  It had a kind of defiant swagger to it.  The chorus was ‘Biji, biji, YPG!’ (long live the YPG).  It came out of the radio as the darkness descended and we drove west in the direction of Jarabulus.  I remembered a line from Orwell’s ‘Homage to Catalonia’ about a moment in the Spanish war where he was attested by the nagging doubt that perhaps war was indeed glorious after all.  This was how it felt in Kobani in the spring of 2014.

The exit proved a challenge on a level I had not experienced before.  The Turkish security measures were tight.  I was placed with some smugglers in a remote and tiny hamlet close to the border fence.  On the first night, a Turkish armored vehicle with a camera was patrolling along the fence and the smugglers decided not to risk trying a run.

A man called Adnan with his two small and well-dressed children had attempted to make it across earlier. He had been caught by the patrol and beaten.  Brown-haired Adnan, who must have been about forty, was stoic and quiet as he described the events.  They had shouted at him to stop and he had done so. Then the officer and the soldiers had kicked and punched him and sent him back in the direction of Syria, and he had returned to the smugglers’ village from where he had started out.  His children were silent.  A girl of about ten and a boy slightly younger, with pale, set, serious faces.  They huddled together very quietly under the covers of one of the makeshift beds in the hut.

‘Tomorrow I’ll try and head back for Damascus, and look for work there.  And you – make sure you don’t end up in a Turkish jail,’ Adnan told me as we sat on the floor and ate a meager meal of raw vegetables.

The night passed slowly, and in the morning the smugglers informed me that we would hopefully be trying again the following night, but much depended on the presence of the mysterious camera vehicle.  ‘Its from Israel,’ they said with a sort of fearful wonder regarding the device, ‘the Turks bought it from them.  It can see in the darkness.’

The smugglers lived in astonishing squalor and poverty.  An outside squat toilet overflowing with human excrement was in the yard. Chickens and a goat came and went freely inside.  An ageing matriarch with blue tattoos on her face was in charge, with her five sons and their wives together inhabiting the small house and the adjoining hut.

They were friendly enough, though. The youngest, a musclebound man of about 25 called Samir was permanently connected to the internet through his cellphone.  ‘Are you on Facebook?’ he asked me, and began to search for my profile, with a rusty old rifle placed by his side as he scrolled down,looking for me.  A scene that in most of its details could have been unchanged for 150 years, armed Kurdish smugglers on a remote border –  and then the smartphone.

We got across that night. Samir and I made the final run towards the fence.  He pulled it up and I crawled under.  It felt like a real border, not a forgotten one.  Searchlights and a gendarmerie base close by. The wire was tough and young and Samir used all his strength to pull it up as I crawled under.  I had to sprint about 100 meters towards a house where the smugglers’ associates were waiting for me.  I made it.  The strange vehicle, it seemed, had deployed elsewhere that night.

The second group of smugglers were a number of very young boys, the youngest about 14, the oldest no more than 18, living semi-ferally in a shack close to the border fence.  They began to demand additional payment from me a few minutes after I arrived.  I refused, knowing that if I paid up, there would be more demands all the way through to Urfa. Instead, I told them I’d give them something the next day once they’d got me off the mountain and down to Urfa. For a moment, I feared that things were about to get strange, but the moment passed. The next day, they drove me down from the mountain in an ancient car which we had to push to get it to start.   I was in Sanliurfa by morning and back in my hotel in Gaziantep by lunchtime.

I savored moments such as these:  entering the hotel, covered in earth and dust and sweat.  Everything was worth it for that brief euphoria, and then the peace and silence for a while afterwards.   The ice cold beer, and the hot showers, and the trashy American comedy shows that I loved to watch for hours, with the air conditioning on, and the Syrian war just a few miles and a long, long way away. ‘Two Broke Girls’ and ‘Veep’ and ‘Family Guy’ in all their wondrous inanity coming out of the screen.  And privacy. And solitude.

I had three days til I was due to leave Gaziantep.  But my job wasn’t quite over.  The town, and neighboring Cielis were, I knew, a hub for the fighters of ISIS.  I wanted, if possible, to make contact with members of the organization, and to interview them on the Turkish side.

This was not as difficult, nor as dangerous, as it sounds.  Of course, ISIS were already reknowned for their cruelty and violence.  But they were seen quite differently among the circles of the Syrian rebels  – even those who did not support them.

ISIS were not bogeymen or monsters for the rebels.  The rebellion as a whole was Arab, Sunni and Islamic.  So they were not seen as some strange creatures who had emerged from outside – but rather as a particular manifestation of the rebellion, albeit one with its own problems and peculiarities.

I tried to reactivate some of my old contacts among the Arab opposition to see if they could connect me to the jihadis.  First, I called Zaher Said, my fixer from Aleppo.  Zaher came to my hotel late in the evening and it was joyful to see him.  He hadn’t changed, still the same lustrous sheen of black hair and the same tech-savvy, cool demeanor.  I asked about Meysoun and was told that he was ok too.  But Zaher wasnt sure if he could help me about ISIS.  ‘They don’t usually talk to journalists, you know.  They have to ask their Amir for permission, anyway.’

I thought of the frontlines near Jarabulus and the dead ISIS fighters lying there like strange mounds of earth.  And how they had sent an armored vehicle to collect the fresh corpse of one of these Amirs.  I remembered them in the distance blasting away across the flat ground, and the Kurdish fighters racing to their positions.  Zaher said he would get in touch with some friends of his from the organization and would let me know if anything else came up.

I tried someone else, another contact with the Arab rebels. This was Mahmoud Mousa, who I had met in Antakya, and who I regarded as among the most impressive of the rebels that I knew.

Mahmoud was from Jisr a Shughur, a former head teacher.  An early supporter of the rebellion, he had fled with his family across the border when the fighting reached his hometown in late 2011.  Re-settled temporarily in the Cielis refugee camp, Mahmoud had set about finding himself a new profession.  With fluent, clipped English and a fine analytical mind, he had started as a fixer for the foreign media and had progressed to working as a kind of unofficial political analyst and educator for the more serious among the journalists.  His knowledge and his insights into the balance of forces in northern Syria and the more general situation were invaluable.

Ginger, bearded Mahmoud was a born teacher, with a natural air of quiet authority about him.  And he told me he’d make some enquiries among his friends and family and would give me a call if anything came up.

Part of me, a large part, actually, hoped that he wouldn’t get back in contact.  My conscience wouldnt have let me rest if I hadn’t tried to contact the jihadis.  But once the effort was made, I was perfectly happy spending a few relaxed days around Gaziantep.

It wasn’t til I was out of Kobani that I realized how very little I’d eaten in the week inside.  No meat, just lots of mashed potatoes with hot paprika sprinkled on them (the YPG were fond of that, for some reason) and coarse pita bread and a few raw vegetables.

So I wolfed down helpings of ‘Iskander’ (a Turkish lamb and yogurt dish) at the restaurants by the hotel, and I drank the small, exquisite cups of sweet coffee available in the old cafes and smoked and felt my limbs relaxing from the strains of the running in the dust and falling.  And I drank ice cold Efes Pilsen beer in the evenings at the hotel, quite alone and happy.  Modern cities, even modest ones like Gaziantep, become things of wonder after a few days in a place like besieged Kobani.  And all was good and might have stayed that way. But then Mahmoud called and said that he had an ISIS fighter who was willing to speak to me in Cielis.

The man, he said, was a distant relative.  He was a former, or resting fighter of the organization, but he had asked his Amir if he could speak with me, and the man had apparently agreed.  I’d need to get to Cielis the next morning.  The meeting would take place in a private apartment belonging to an older man close to the circles of the jihadis.

The prospect filled me with some trepidation.  I didn’t quite like the thought of being alone and enclosed in an apartment with the ISIS guys.  Also, Mahmoud said that another man would be accompanying his relative.  This man, it appeared, was still involved with the jihadis.  The organization had already kidnapped journalists and this arrangement raised some alarm bells.  On the other hand, I wasn’t sure that I was quite important enough for an operation like this to be raised in my honor. There had been no previous indications of similar actions on Turkish soil, and I imagined that the organization’s complex relationship with the Turks would be something it would wish to preserve.

Anyway, whatever the advisability or otherwise of the meeting, I wasn’t going to turn down the chance.  The opportunity was too fascinating, and too good for the stories I wanted to write.  So I had a quiet and subdued evening in the hotel and I set off in a service taxi for Cielis in the morning.

I had passed through Cielis before, but by evening and when I was very tired, on the way out of Syria.  This was the first time I had seen it by daylight and at a time when I was able to pay attention.  It was fascinating the extent to which it had effectively become a Syrian town.  One heard Arabic everywhere, and Turkish hardly at all.  The streets were teeming with Syrian refugees.  The Cielis refugee camp was clearly not the main place of residence anymore.  Rather, the Syrians had taken up residence in the town, where they sought any available employment.

I waited for Mahmoud at the bus station.  He was late and I began to think he wasn’t coming at all. But finally he was there, unshaven, ginger and smiling.  I remembered his slow, quiet way of talking and his modesty and dignity and working on instinct I felt that things would be ok.

We walked to the flat.  The owner of the apartment would receive us, Mahmoud explained, but he wasn’t connected to ISIS. Rather, he was a member of the Hizb al Tahrir party, and from the general camp of the Sunni Islamists.

The apartment was on a dusty side street about ten minutes walk from the bus station.  Up some stairs to the second floor.  The owner answered it, and ushered us in, sending me a side glance and a smile which was supposed to indicate that he found me an amusing character and was looking forward to playing cat and mouse with me.

We drank coffee and sat on cushions in the small reception room of the apartment.  One of the nice things about being back on the Arab side was the chance to drink coffee, instead of the tea that the Kurds preferred.  And we waited for the two ISIS men to arrive.  The older man asked me questions about why the western media were writing lies about ISIS and expressed the hope that I would be honest in my own writing.  I assured him that I would. This went on for some time.

Finally the ISIS men entered the room.  Two of them.  They came in with a kind of young masculine speed and swagger, clearly enjoying the fearsome reputation of the group of which they were a part. They knew I was a westerner and probably assumed I was somewhat nervous.  I wasn’t, exactly, but seeing their faces fascinated me.  It was nothing to do with the specific context of ISIS and the YPG.  It was to do with the sheer cellular strangeness of being in the same room as these men just two days after the skirmish at Haj Ismail, when their organization had been trying to shoot me.

They called themselves Abu Mohammed and Abu Nur.   Abu Nur was Mahmoud’s relative.  Abu Mohammed was a current ISIS member.  The former was the one I had been scheduled to see, but as it turned out, it was the latter who did most of the talking.

Abu Nur, the relative, had a small beard, and was relaxed and smiling and monosyllabic.

Abu Mohammed, by contrast, was engaged, full of words.  Clad in a black and white tracksuit,   clean shaven, muscular, with a sort of pointed, marionette-like face and black curly hair,  he offered justifications, delivered in rapid Arabic, and even had a sense of the absurd.

I had not expected ISIS men to be keen to show the ludicrous absurdity of their opponents’ positions.  This was not how I had imagined them.  This says nothing regarding the murderous nature of the organization.  It appears that no-one , or hardly anyone, is ever the ‘bad guy’ in his own eyes.  Rather, the default stance of almost everyone, apparently even the representatives of murderous jihadi groups, is that they have been misrepresented, came with goodwill, want only the best and have been baffled by the unreasonableness of others.

‘The media have exaggerated this,’ Abu Mohammed  said in response to a question I asked about ISIS executions and amputations.  So what did this mean, I persisted.  Were such punishments carried out, or weren’t they?  ‘ In certain areas they cut hands off, in others not,’ he pronounced.

I evidently looked unconvinced by this response, and he added, ‘Look, we are trying our our best to apply sharia law. Of course there have been some mistakes.”

On one level, the protestations of Abu Mohammed were merely ridiculous.  The organization of which he was a member was engaged in creating something close to hell on earth for the millions forced to live under it.  But there was something else going on.

I asked Abu Nur what it was that had made him decide to join ISIS.  He had begun his career in the rebellion with the Northern Storm Brigade.  I had come across this group before, when crossing the border at Bab al Salameh in 2012.  They were a non-jihadi operation, adhering to something resembling a Muslim Brotherhood type Islamism.  They had also acquired a reputation for corruption and incompetence.

ISIS had fought a fierce battle against Northern Storm in the town of Azaz in October, 2013.  At that time, Abu Nur had chosen to side with the jihadis.  His reason? As he related it to me, it was the visit of Senator John McCain to the Syria Turkey border area, as the guest of Northern Storm, in the spring of 2013.  He was suspicious of what he referred to as the attempts by foreign governments to ‘use Syrians for their own ends.’  ISIS, he felt, was not available for purchase in this way. And so he had joined it.  The organization, he told me, ‘“imposes sharia, acts against criminals and robbers, and has no contact with any foreign government.’

What might be learned from this?  I think what such accounts show is that for the Syrian rebellion, ISIS was one option among many.  That is, it was emphatically not some outlandish or foreign implant.  Mahmoud Mousa, who opposed ISIS, nevertheless noted that he, like many others, had regarded it positively when it first emerged on the scene in early 2013, turning against it only when it began to make war against other rebel groups.  ‘The Arabs are nothing without Islam,’  Mahmoud had said to me, with the quiet and sincere and sad tone that was always in his voice.

The rebellion was a project of Sunni Arabs.  ISIS spoke a variation of a language common to all.  This was the crucial point.

As for the movement’s goal – Abu Mohammed spoke about it with reverence.

‘We want the caliphate, something old and new, from the time of Mohammed. The Europeans created false borders. We want to break these borders.”

ISIS, in other words, was emerging directly from the reality of the Levant in 2014.  It was utterly brutal, dysfunctional and sectarian. But it was speaking a language that was able to mobilize the Sunni Arabs of the country in a way that nothing else apparently could.  These would be energies that would need, one way or another, to be played out.

So we talked that way for a couple of hours.  Abu Mohammed and I made a certain connection when I began to respond directly to his statements in Arabic, anticipating Mahmoud’s translation.  Perhaps my local appearance also helped in this.  I think there is something basic and before words in this visual assessing of people.  It has no political significance, of course, and wouldn’t have withstood the announcement of my actual identity.  Yet it plays a role.  Abu Mohammed seemed to think I was all right.

I think war and strife appear to be natural presences among human beings, and I am not upset by them.  What makes it all strange tho are the momentary connections of a pre-verbal and pre-intellectual type, which are as liable to happen as much or as little among ‘opponents’ as among allies.  This can be learned only by being up close to the enemy, and hence probably by wearing some form of disguise.  The disguise doesn’t affect this deeper level.  The strange parallel story of human chemistry.  So yes, I quite liked Abu Mohammed, on some curious level, while also of course considering him an enemy.

Sunni Islamists, in my experience, often seem to display a lack of guile. There is something ludicrous and engaging about their genuine bafflement that not everyone rushes to embrace what seems to them to be the self-evidently superior system which they are proposing.  This comes, perhaps, from the fact that Sunni Islam among the Arabs is a majority creed, a creed of historic victory and governance.  This aspect perhaps also explains the lax-ness and lack of security awareness which is a notable aspect of many Sunni Islamist outfits.  The Shia, who are a minority sect with the clandestine and watchful traditions appropriate to this, are entirely different in this regard.

The older man remained amused and skeptical of me and after a while began to take over the discussion, asking me if I practiced the Christian religion and whether I had ever considered becoming a Muslim.  I answered diplomatically, already thinking about getting back to Gaziantep.

After a while, we wrapped things up and said our goodbyes.  Mahmoud accompanied me to the bus station and I thanked him and took the service taxi out.  It was early afternoon.

ISIS already controlled parts of Anbar and Nineweh province in Iraq at that time.  But it was still a few months before the push east and north that would take them to the gates of Erbil and Baghdad, and through Mosul.  They had carried out in January a strategic retreat from a number of villages in north west Syria. As it turned out, this was part of the preparation for the coming offensive.

Abu Mohammed had answered diplomatically when I queried him regarding this retreat, stating cryptically that “If there are powers against me, I have to retreat and protect my back. And perhaps in the future I will return again.”  Contrary to rebel claims at the time, there had been very little fighting between ISIS and the other rebels for these areas.  The jihadis had basically left of their own accord.

So in the spring of 2014, the jihadis were getting ready for their biggest move of all – namely, the extending of the sectarian war in Syria across the border into Iraq, effectively nullifying the border between the two countries.

I was aware of none of that, of course, as I chatted with the two jihadis in Cielis.  The Kurds in Kobani were unaware of it, too.  But it would cause an earthquake in their own situation and in the future of their enclave.

In the meantime, the service taxi back to Gaziantep was stopped by plainclothes Turkish police.  I had to show them the Israeli passport in my pocket, as that was the way I’d entered Turkey.  In a taxi full of Syrian refugees, I wasn’t sure how this would go down.  But luckily, the gold menorah emblem on the cover of the passport had rubbed off when I’d had to shove the thing down my trousers while worrying about a possible search on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2012.  So it appeared only as an anonymous blue document and did not arouse attention from my fellow passengers.  The Turkish plainclothes man looked at me with bemusement but decided not to say anything.  I left Cielis and Kobani behind and flew out that night.

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Interview with Eric Stackelbeck.

http://blogs.cbn.com/stakelbeckonterror/archive/2014/12/30/the-watchman-show-2014-year-in-review.aspx

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