Interview on TLV1 about my new book ‘Days of the Fall’

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Turkey plans move to box in Kurds in northern Syria

Jerusalem Post, 13/10

The Turkish military this week scouted Syria’s Idlib province, in the north west of the country, in preparation for a military operation in the province.  The deployment of a reconnaissance team into Idlib came days after Turkish troops and armor massed on the Turkish Syrian border, and a section of the border wall was dismantled to allow the passage of military vehicles.

Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan told a rally of supporters of his AKP party in the town of Afyonkarahisar on Saturday  that a ‘serious operation’ was underway in Idlib.  The operation, he added, would be carried out by fighters of the ‘Free Syrian Army.’  Rebels from a variety of Turkish backed factions, in turn, are assembling at the border in the Reyhanli area.

What is the background to this latest move? Why does Turkey appear to be preparing another major incursion into Syria?

Idlib province is currently controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group.  This is the latest iteration of the organization once called Jabhat al-Nusra.  Nusra was the franchise of the al-Qaeda network in Syria.  HTS claims to have cut links to al-Qaeda, though few analysts regard this move as more than tactical.

While there is strong evidence of cooperation between Turkey and HTS in the past, the issue of HTS dominance has now become a matter of concern for Ankara.

US official Brett McGurk described Idlib in July as ‘an al-Qaeda safe haven right on the border of Turkey.’  It is clear that there is pressure from both the US and Europe for the termination of the de facto al-Qaeda safe zone that has emerged in Idlib Province.  From this point of view, the west may well welcome a Turkish move to reduce the power and autonomy of HTS in Idlib.

However, Turkey’s move toward intervention in the province relates most centrally to Ankara’s broader agenda and concerns in Syria – most specifically with regard to the Kurdish forces in the country, with which the west is currently aligned.

The impending Turkish move into Idlib takes place in the context of the Astana agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which envisaged the creation of four ‘de-escalation zones’ in western Syria.  These were to be in Idleb, in the Rastan-Talbiseh area, in Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, and in Quneitra, Dera’a and Suweydah provinces in the south, adjoining the Golan Heights.  Turkish media reports suggest that Turkey will take control of an area of northern Idlib province, close to the Turkish border, in a move analogous to the ‘Euphrates Shield’ operation in August, 2016.  On that occasion, Turkish forces captured the area between Jarabulus and Azaz on the border.

In both cases, the central Turkish ambition related not to the general Syrian situation, but rather to Ankara’s specific agenda of restricting the advance of the Syrian Kurdish forces of the YPG/Syrian Democratic Forces.

Euphrates Shield inserted Turkish armed force between the Kurdish controlled cantons of Jazeera/Kobani and Afrin.  In so doing,it effectively ended Kurdish hopes of uniting the cantons and attaining Kurdish control of the entire 900 kilometer long border between Syria and Turkey.  The Kurdish authority in Syria is aligned with the PKK, (Kurdish Workers Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency for greater Kurdish rights in Turkey since 1984.  From a Turkish point of view, therefore, preventing Kurdish control of the entire border was essential.

The expected move into Idlib looks set effectively to be the second phase in this effort, in which Turkey will seek to isolate the Kurdish Afrin enclave from its south by occupying northern Idlib.  Afrin would then be entirely boxed in, with the Turks to its north, east and west, and the regime to its south east.

This would prevent any possibility of the SDF moving against al-Qaeda associated forces in Idlib and thus expanding the Kurdish enclave.  It might also presage a later Turkish move against the Afrin enclave, though at present this is unlikely because of the US alliance with the Kurds, and also because of the presence of a small Russian military presence insideAfrin.

The centrality of the anti-Kurdish agenda in Turkey’s planning illustrates the extent to which the Turks have now conclusively abandoned any notion of ‘regime change’ in Syria.  Assad is clearly here to stay, in Ankara’s view.  Any move into Idlib would be conducted in full cooperation with the regime’s Russian patrons, and probably with Russian air support.

For this reason, while a Turkish move into Idlib would be an ostensibly pro-rebel move, many exiled Syrian supporters of the rebellion in Turkey are unenthusiastic about it.  They see the move, correctly, as solidifying Turkish cooperation with Russia, which the rebels regard as the main enemy of their cause.  Russia, after all, is the factor which turned the tide of the Syrian war. Its entry in September 2015 was in response to a period of rebel advances.  The Russian intervention reversed the rebel advance and enabled the ascendance of the regime side.

Turkish cooperation with Russia in Idlib offers further grim confirmation for the rebels of the failure of their cause.  For many rebel supporters, also, HTS are considered comrades in arms, albeit extremist ones.  The notion of Turkey acting against them, even partially and symbolically, with Russian cooperation, is a hard morsel to swallow.  Nevertheless, the Turkish move indicates that Erdogan still sees himself as the patron and ally of the rebels, and evidently does not intend simply to abandon them to the mercies of the Assad regime.

The Turkish move could not of course take place without Russian permission, since Russia controls the skies of northern Syria.  This indicates that for now at least, Russia is content to see Syria continue to be divided into zones of influence, with the concerns of bodies other than the Assad regime being taken into account.  From an Israeli point of view, given Israel’s concerns to prevent Iranian and Hizballah encroachment in south west Syria toward the Golan Heights, this may be an encouraging sign.

However, it should be borne in mind that for the moment, the focus of Russia, Iran and the regime is in eastern Syria, where the fight against Islamic State is still under way.

Russia wants to grab as much of the oil and gas assets of Deir a Zor province as it can, before the US-supported SDF do.

Iran, meanwhile, is engaged in seeking to secure its contiguous corridor between the Iraqi border and the Mediterranean.

Once the war against IS is complete, the issue of arrangements further west will come back onto the agenda.  At this point, the current zones of influence may once again become a subject for discussion.  For now, Turkey is mainly concerned with the urgent matter of seeking to box in and strike at the Kurds.  It is in this context that the apparently impending move on Idlib province needs to be understood.  Final arrangements in northern Syria remain to be decided.


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Days of the Fall

Details regarding my upcoming book, to be published on December 1st:

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Eastern Ukraine in limbo as ‘invisible war’ takes its toll

The Australian, 30/9:

“I sometimes think if we’re just going to be stuck here like this, we should just use paintball instead of live ammunition. Probably it’s ­because I’m older but I think a bit differently to the other guys here. About all the nationalism and so on, I think there’s nothing more important than human life. You don’t give it in order to take it back. It’s another story if you haven’t a choice, of course.”


“Hammer” is a volunteer with the Donbass battalion of Ukraine’s government forces. It is an hour after dawn, at a frontline position on the edge of the town of Mar­inka, close to the border with Russia. The enemy, pro-Moscow “sep­ar­atists”, are 200m away, holed up in a disused stable.

Exchanges of fire begin every evening at nightfall. Small arms fire, light machineguns, some rocket-propelled grenades and self-propelled grenades, too. In ­between, the fighters exchange abuse with the pitch black and surreal humour that seems to accompany this war in eastern Europe.

It’s not a game, though. Every so often someone is wounded or killed. But there are no significant manoeuvres. There is, after all, a “ceasefire” in place, signed in Minsk on February 11, 2015.

This is eastern Europe’s invisible war, a conflict between Ukraine and Russia that churns on largely unnoticed by the outside world. A conflict frozen in time but far from over.

The Donbass volunteers spend their days cleaning their weapons, sleeping, looking for food and waiting. Perhaps some day the order will come to take the red stable on the other side of the scrubland. The younger men, “Sniper” and “Gypsy” and “Marbeley” (Ukrainian militiamen and soldiers all go by nicknames), are unanimous that it could be achieved without difficulty.

But behind the positions of the “separatists” awaits the army of Vladimir Putin, an entirely different proposition. The order to move forward for either side is unlikely to come anytime soon.

A Ukrainian soldier in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer
A Ukrainian soldier in the largely Russian-speaking Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer

A few hours away, in the capital, Kiev, restaurants and bars are open. Business is flourishing. Only the presence of a few exhausted-looking off-duty soldiers up from the ATO (anti-terror operation, the preferred Ukrainian government term for the combat area) ­indicates anything out of the ordinary. The seeming normality is ­deceptive. On Ukrainian Independence Day, August 24, an explosion near government head­quarters in central Kiev injured two people. In late June, a car bomb killed military intelligence colonel Maksim Shapoval. Every so often, the war offers a reminder of its existence.

At least 120 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in the Donbass region this year, according to official figures, along with an unknown number of their enemies. Civilians, too, are caught up in the crossfire. More than 10,000 have died in the conflict since 2014: Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers, separatist fighters, Russian regular soldiers and civilians. More than two million people have been made homeless.

This brutal non-war is the ­unwanted child of the Ukrainian Maidan revolution of 2013-14. The display of people power that toppled the Moscow-supported government of Victor Yanukovych in February 2014 triggered the Russian seizure of the Crimean peninsula the following month.

Pro-Russian agitation then began in the largely Russian-speaking provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk in the Donbass region. A former Russian intelligence officer, Igor Gurkin, known as “Strelkov” (the Shooter), played a central role in organising it.

Armed pro-Russian insurgent groups appeared and seized the state administration buildings in Donetsk and Luhansk, proclaiming independent republics. A bitter fight ensued in which Ukrainian government forces and militias succeeded in largely clawing back the areas seized by the insurgents. But with victory in sight, the undeclared entry of regular Russian forces, including airborne units and heavy armour, prevented the destruction of the newly proclaimed “people’s republics”. And there they remain, under the dominion of Russian separatists.

A ceasefire was declared on September 5, 2014, after negotiations in Minsk. Violations of the ceasefire began almost immediately. Additional Russian troops and heavy equipment crossed into Ukraine in November. A second ceasefire was signed in Minsk in February 2015, after some territorial gains by both sides. Observers from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe observe the maintenance of Minsk II. Fighters on both sides take care not to shoot when the OSCE are about. A “grey zone” of disputed areas whose possession was unresolved by the Minsk protocol remains. The war consists of the contest for these areas.

US Secretary of Defence James Mattis, in Kiev a few weeks ago, signalled his support for increased US assistance, including weapons, for the Ukrainian army in Donbass. Javelin anti-tank weapons, and perhaps anti-aircraft systems, are top of the wish list for the ragged soldiers along the 400km frontline.

Mattis’s visit was the second high-profile trip to Ukraine by a senior US official in recent months. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was in the country pledging his support in July. Legislation for the provision of defensive ­lethal weapons has made its way to the White House but has not yet been signed. In the meantime, on the fighting lines, things remain locked in place.

The Russians at the outset ­expected to be greeted with enthus­iasm by the largely Russian-speaking population of eastern Ukraine. This did not happen. A project for a new state to be called “Novorossiya” was briefly put into motion. This was to ­include not only Donetsk and Luhansk but the entire area from ­Odessa in the south to Kharkiv in the north.

Little remains of Russia’s ambitions. A bleak and ­restricted existence is the reality for those living in the area controlled by the Russians and the “separatists”. Western journalists are not allowed into the people’s republics of Luhansk and Donetsk. But conversations with internally displaced people paint a picture of chaos, warlordism and dysfunction.

In a community centre in Kiev, Albert, a 78-year-old retired mechanical engineer from Luhansk, tells Inquirer that the separatists consist of bandit groups who behave with impunity towards the property of the local people. His wife, Ludmila (the couple prefer not to give their family name), says she is afraid to speak openly about the situation in ­Luhansk because the family still owns an apartment in the area and the de facto authorities have begun confiscation of empty properties.

The couple describe a difficult situation in which provision of water and electricity are only partial and armed men and tanks are frequently seen on the streets. “The roads are ruined by the tank tracks,” Albert tells us. “Before, there was only one tank in Luhansk, at the war memorial. Things have changed.” He is old enough to remember World War II. Its most crucial ground actions were fought along these rolling landscapes of eastern Ukraine and western Russia. After a peaceful life in the shadow of that war, another conflict has cast its gloom.

For civilians still living close to the front line, the war is a constant presence, and a constant danger. In Krasnogorovka, by the ruins of her house, we meet Svetlana Voilova, 53, who worked in a candy factory in Donetsk before the war. The house was destroyed by heavy artillery fire two weeks earlier. Svetlana had been visiting her mother in hospital. All her possessions are gone, she says. The entire building, which had contained nine apartments, was destroyed in the shelling and subsequent fire. One old man died. He had been the only other resident. The rest had already fled. There was nothing left.

“Every day is Russian roulette,” says Alina Kosse, of Marinka. The first front-line positions of the Ukrainian forces are 2km from her house: “Just a day ago rounds fell on the area and these rounds have come into my wall and garden.”

Yet despite it all, civilians have begun to return to front-line Marinka. “A lot of people left but now people have begun to come back. They pay huge rents in other parts of Ukraine, so they are coming back because they spend their money, at least here they have a roof over their heads and a yard to grow crops to survive.”

But what about Minsk II? And the ceasefire? Kosse is amused and dismissive. “The ceasefire is there just to reassure people but it doesn’t reassure us. We hear the sounds of the ‘ceasefire’ every night.”

There are no confirmed numbers for the remaining population in the so-called Donestsk and ­Luhansk people’s republics. But Gyorgy Tuka, Deputy Minister for the Occupied Areas in the Ukrainian government, tells Inquirer that 1.6 million people have left for areas controlled by the Ukrainian government since the outbreak of the conflict. An unknown number have also left for Russia. A disproportionate number of those who remain are pensioners and other vulnerable people.

A Ukrainian soldier deployed in the Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer
A Ukrainian soldier deployed in the Donetsk region. Picture: Jonathan Spyer

According to a report in the ­independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, of one million ­inhabitants of Donetsk city, 250,000 are pensioners. The economy, once a central hub, has contracted by two-thirds, according to the Ukrainian central bank. ­Retailers and financial services have largely disappeared.

Moscow is paying a continuing price for its incursion into Ukraine. On June 20 this year, the US Treasury Department voted to increase sanctions, none of which is showing any sign of producing a more pliant Russian response.

Rather, Moscow’s latest actions appear to point towards greater linking of Donbass to the Russian economy, while avoiding any formal annexation.

The Ukrainian fighters are a mixed bunch. The 2013-14 period was a revolutionary moment in Ukrainian society and like other such periods, it drew in many new people to military and political ­activity. The Ukrainian army, underfunded and riddled with corruption, was woefully ill-prepared for the challenges of war when it came in 2014. Hastily assembled volunteer militias consequently played an important role in stemming the advance of the separatists and then facing the Russian regulars.

Some of these militiamen were recruited directly from groups of activists who had taken part in the protests of the EuroMaidan, with demands for closer European integration, and in particular from far right groups of Ukrainian nationalists, who formed a significant presence in the square protests. Other formations emerged from existing nationalist groups.

The ideology of the volunteer groups varied. Clearly far right and sometimes neo-Nazi influences were present in some. Others ­adhered to a more mainstream Ukrainian nationalism.

But while the militia groups ­received a great deal of media coverage, they now play a reduced role. The most significant of them, including the Donbass and Azov battalions, have been incorporated into regular military structures in accordance with Ukraine’s National Guard Law. Today both these forces maintain about 1000 fighters in Donbass, where they are under the command of the army. A single formation, the Pravy Sector (right sector), continues to operate as an independent element on the front line.

The fighters of the volunteer battalions clearly take no special pleasure in their transformation from mobile forces to defenders of a static line. “In essence, a frozen conflict,” says Casper, a section commander in the Donbass battalion, pronouncing the words with a studied contempt, as we meet at a position just behind the front lines. He is sitting shirtless in the small courtyard in front of the house where his section is stationed. The left side of his body is covered in burn marks.

Later, in haunted tones, he will tell us of the fight at Debaltseve, in February 2015, when the Donbass battalion was trapped for a month in an enclosure by Russian forces. “Twenty-five men dead from a company of 80,” he says, and produces a film on his phone of the eventual evacuation of the unit. Here are the same faces of his section, standing next to tanks, in the freezing February cold. “Sniper”, with his ginger beard, and “Marbeley”, named after a character from Soviet children’s tales.

The experience does not seem to have diluted the Donbass men’s energies for the fight. They retain the freewheeling feel of a volunteer militia — heavy metal and hardcore punk music blasts from a sound system, unit graffiti lining the walls.

The reduction of the military role of these volunteer battalions has led some of them to turn towards politics, seeking to transform themselves into activist political parties. This is leading to concerns among civilian activists, who fear the implications the ­arrival of militarised politics could have for Ukraine’s fledgling democracy.

There is particular concern regarding the Azov battalion because of the far right agenda it espouses. Olga Reshetilova, a civilian activist from the independent Media Initiative for Human Rights, tells Inquirer those battalions that have remained outside of the formal military structures have become private armies that engage in illegal activities. Reshetilova points to the close links between Azov and Ukraine’s Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov.

Nazar Kravchenko, one of the leaders of Azov’s newly formed political party, the National Corps, dismisses these concerns. He describes Ukraine as engaged in a “hybrid war” with Russia, and asserts that this makes necessary the type of “activist” politics his movement espouses.

He notes the movement has a network of 10,000 activists and describes a strategy of direct action against “political manifestations of pro-separatist sentiment” and “anti-Ukrainian actions”.

But the political manifestations of the volunteers are small and lacking in resources. The nationalist candidate in the May 2014 presidential elections, Dmitro Yaros, secured only 0.7 per cent of the total votes cast.

Many Ukrainians seem to have been happy to have the nationalists around when there was a foreign incursion to be repelled, while having no desire to be governed by them.

“Ukrainians don’t want to be led by extremists,” a young man in Kiev tells me.

So where is all this heading? The answer, it appears, is towards more of the same.

Any dreams of a large, powerful Russian-speaking new state in east Ukraine must surely now be gone. The war has served to crystallise a greater sense of Ukrainian identity among Ukraine’s Russian-speaking population. There will be no “Novorossiya”.

But there will be no return of Donetsk and Luhansk to Kiev’s control an time soon, either. Even the improved levels of US support currently under debate would be far from sufficient to break the deadlock.

In the meantime, Moscow has no intention of abandoning its new fiefdoms. It has made itself a vital partner in any discussion of Ukraine’s political future.

The maintenance of frozen conflicts as tools of diplomacy and political influence is a familiar part of the Russian playbook — in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Nagorno-Karabakh and now also in the vital arenas of Ukraine and perhaps even Syria.

This is the judicious and relatively low-cost means by which Moscow projects influence and ensures insecurity around its border regions.

In eastern Ukraine, the sounds of the ceasefire — small arms fire, mortars, lightmachine guns and artillery — look set to continue to be heard.

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‘Second Turkish Republic’ looks east

Jerusalem Post, 15/9


Turkey this week announced its purchase of the S-400 anti aircraft missile system from Russia.  The deal,  according to western media reports, is worth $2.5 billion.   Turkish President Recep Tayep Erdogan told Turkish media that the first deposit on the system has already been paid.  The S-400, which has a range of 400 km and can down 80 targets simultaneously,  is widely considered to be the world’s most advanced air defense system at the present time.

This surprise  development is the latest milestone in Ankara’s ongoing drift in recent years away from its traditional strategic  position in the region as a NATO and US ally.  The recent visit of Iranian chief of staff Mohammed Hossein Bagheri to Ankara, accompanied by a large military delegation, was an additional recent indicator of the direction of events. This was the first such visit since the Iranian revolution of 1979.  Turkey’s close involvement in the Russian-brokered Astana diplomatic process regarding Syria reflects this trend,  as does the signing in Moscow in mid-August of a contract between the Turkish Unit International company, Russia’s state-owned Zarubezhneft and Ithe Iranian Ghadir Investment Holding for the joint development of three oilfields and a large natural gas field in Iran.

So what are the factors underlying Turkey’s re-positioning  away from the west and towards its enemies and adversaries?  The explanation lies in three areas: Turkey’s perceived immediate interests, the eclipse of its hopes for the region in recent years, and the long term internal direction of Turkish society and politics.

Regarding the first issue, Turkish concerns at the growing Kurdish power in Syria and Iraq bring it closer to Iran’s agenda and further from that of the west.  Ankara has anxiously watched the rise of the Syrian Kurdish PYD (Democratic Union Party) in recent years in northern Syria. The party is an affiliate of the same Kurdish movement as the PKK (Kurdish Workers’ Party), which has been engaged in an insurgency against Turkey and for greater Kurdish rights since 1984.  The Syrian Kurds are now ruling over the greater part of the 911 kilometer border between Syria and Turkey. Only a Turkish military intervention in August, 2016 prevented their probable acquisition of the entirety of the border.

Yet more disconcertingly from the Turkish point of view, the Syrian Kurds are today engaged in a flourishing military alliance with the United States and the western coalition in the war against ISIS in Syria.   From tentative beginnings in the urgent days of late 2014, the Pentagon-organized cooperation between the Kurdish YPG and US air power and special forces has turned into a doggedly effective military blunt instrument, which is currently destroying ISIS in the capital of its dying ‘Caliphate,’ in Raqqa city.

The Turks have looked on disconcertedly and helplessly as this alliance has grown. Their own attempts in early 2017 to propose an alternative partnership between the US and Turkey’s Syrian rebel clients foundered on the low military abilities of the latter and the lack of a clear dividing line between the rebels and Sunni jihadi extremists in northern Syria.

So Turkish prioritization of the need to contain and turn back Kurdish achievements in Syria, as well as its staunch opposition to the emergence of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq, bring it into line with Iran’s agenda in these countries, and against that of the west.  The west also does not support Iraqi Kurdish moves toward independence, but its level of hostility to this and its determination to prevent it fall short of those of Teheran.

In the past, Ankara and Teheran’s joint opposition to Kurdish aspirations did not lead to improved relations between them, because they found themselves on opposite sides of the war between the Assad regime and the Sunni Arab rebellion against it.  Similarly, this placed Ankara at loggerheads with Moscow.

But this restraining factor no longer applies.  The Sunni Islamist regional project that placed Turkey on a collision course with Iran and Russia has for the moment at least largely been eclipsed.

Once, it was common among Israeli strategists to count among the region’s alliances a group of countries and movements   broadly aligned with Muslim Brotherhood style Sunni political Islam. This emergent power bloc was a product of the ‘Arab Spring’ revolts of the post 2010 period.  At its high point in 2012, the crystallizing alliance consisted of Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, Tunisia and Hamas-controlled Gaza.   Ankara and the others hoped that the Sunni Arab rebels would swiftly destroy the Assad regime and create an additional conservative Sunni Islamist regime.

This didn’t happen.   The Sunni Islamic revolutionary energies of 2010-2012 are now largely spent.  There is little to show for them.  Egypt is back in the hands of its army. Tunisia is ruled by a coalition government dominated by non-Islamists. Hamas is trying to rebuild its alliance with Iran. Qatar is facing a counter attack from the UAE and Saudi Arabia because of its stances.  And the Syrian Sunni Arab rebels have no further chance of victory and are currently fighting for survival.

Turkey emerges from all this as a major loser.  It had hoped to ride the wave of Sunni grassroots revolt to a position of regional dominance. (It also in the initial phase flirted with  the more radical jihadis of Nusra and ISIS in Syria). But the wave has spent itself.  There is nothing to be gained from further support for the destruction of Assad, which will not happen. This clears the way for rapprochement between Iran, Turkey and Russia, through which Ankara will hope to thwart or contain Kurdish gains.

At the same time, the latest evidence suggests that Turkey will seek to use Russian mediation to prevent the total defeat and eclipse of the Sunni rebels.  This is a matter both of Turkey’s Sunni identity and of a simple desire to avoid the humiliation of witnessing the destruction of its clients.

The final element underlying Turkey’s drift away from the west relates to internal matters.  Erdogan is in the process of dismantling much of Turkey’s republican societal model, and is building in its place an Islamist society.  40,000 people have been jailed since the failed ‘coup’ of July 15, 2016. A state of emergency remains in place.  The free media has been silenced, legal immunity for members of parliament removed, journalists and academics arrested.

This new Islamic Turkey will not find its natural home in alliance with the United States and the west, (still less with Israel, of course.) So there should be no surprise at the sea changes under way in Ankara’s regional and global orientation.

Turkey is too big, and too Sunni to ever become a charter member of the Iran-led regional bloc.  There remain sharp differences with Teheran over the future of Sunni communities in Syria and Iraq.  But all those still entertaining hopes for a return to Turkey’s status as a bulwark of western security in the Mid-East should revise their analysis. The emergent evidence points in a single direction.  The second Turkish republic is on its way – and its face will be turned toward the east.

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In the Land of the Trident: the Ukraine War and the Jews

Jerusalem Report, August,2017.

Ukraine is a territory saturated in Jewish memory.  Memory both tragic and sublime.  In every field of endeavor –  religious thought,  Zionist and socialist politics, art, music, military affairs, science, Jews from the territory on which the modern Ukrainian state is located have registered outstanding achievement.  It is the birthplace of Rabbi Yisrael Ben-Eliezer, the Baal Shem Tov,  founder of Hasidic Judaism, who grew up near Kameniec in what is now western Ukraine.  Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, founder of the Breslov Hasidic movement,  was born in Miedzyboz in central Ukraine.  Chaim Nachman Bialik, the poet laureate of modern Hebrew literature, born in Zhitomir, in north central Ukraine.  Goldie Meyerson, who became Prime Minister Golda Meir, born in Kiev.  Moshe Dayan, famed fighter and commander, and the son of Shmuel Dayan, who came from Zhashkiv, in the Cherkassy region, central Ukraine.  Isaac Babel, one of the foremost Soviet novelists of the mid-20th century, whose ‘Red Cavalry Tales’ remains a classic of 20th century Russian literature, from Odessa.  Leon Trotsky, born Lev Bronstein, architect of the Russian revolution and founder of the Red Army, from Yanovka, in the Kherson region of Ukraine. Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky,  father of Revisionist Zionism, from Odessa.  Solomon Rabinovitch, better known as Sholem  Aleichem, from Pereyaslav, in the Kiev governorate.  And so on.  The area has played host to an astonishing gathering of Jewish creative energies.

It is also prominent among the lands of destruction.   Ukraine is the land of Bohdan Khmielnitsky, whose statue stands outside St. Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kiev,  on his horse and brandishing his famous rhino horn mace, whose Cossack rebels butchered 100,000 Jews in a 17th century uprising.  It is the land of Simon Petlyura, whose fighters followed a similar murderous path during the chaotic period following the Russian revolution of 1917.  And, of course, it is the land of the ‘Holocaust of bullets,’  of the mobile killing squads who followed the German armies as they swept through Ukraine in the summer and autumn of 1941, systematically slaughtering Jewish populations in the verdant ravines and forests that characterize the country’s landscape. Until 1.5 million were dead.

So Ukraine is filled with Jewish ghosts, its soil with Jewish blood.  But there is Jewish life here too.  Estimates of the precise Jewish population vary widely. The European Jewish Congress claims that 360-400,000 Jews live in in Ukraine, which would make it the 5th largest Jewish community in the world.  Other estimates place the number as low as 60,000. Since 2014, Ukraine has been embroiled in renewed strife and conflict. In August, 2017, this reporter visited the country, with the intention of taking a deeper look at the impact of this new war on its remaining Jews.

War Returns to Ukraine

In summer, Kiev is a charming city,  filled with cafes and light. But the peaceful  atmosphere is deceptive.  History has not departed. Ukraine  has been shaken in recent years once again – by revolution, and its handmaiden, war.

The ‘Euromaidan’ revolution toppled the pro-Russian government of President Victor Yanukovych in March, 2014.  Yanukovych’s departure was followed by the Russian seizure of Crimea, and then the outbreak of a Russian-supported ,separatist insurgency in the Donbass – the eastern provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk.  The ill-equipped, rusty Ukrainian forces moved to crush the insurgency, but were then met by the entry of conventional Russian troops in August.  The Ukrainians suffered bloody setbacks in the battles of Iovitsk and Debaltseve, before a ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk on February 11, 2015.

The war is not over, and the issues that led to its outbreak have not been resolved.   Today, the Ukrainians and their Russian enemies face one another along a static 400 kilometer front line.  Observers from the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) monitor the ceasefire.  This reporter spent several days in the warzone of eastern Ukraine, and shooting across the lines is a nightly occurrence.  Not just rifles.  RPG, self propelled grenades and machine guns too.  10,090 people have died in this largely forgotten conflict over the last three years.  Over 2 million people have been made homeless.

A Soldier of the Ukrainian Army’s 72nd Mechanized Brigade, Avdiivka, August, 2017.


The war has impacted on Ukraine’s Jewish community in two central ways.  Firstly, Jews resident in eastern Ukraine have suffered the direct physical effects of the fighting.  Most of Donetsk and Luhansk’s Jews fled westwards as the frontlines approached their homes in 2014.  The provisions offered by the Ukrainian authorities to those made homeless by the war are minimal.  Efforts are ongoing by a variety of Jewish organizations to provide for those Ukrainian Jews made refugees by the events.

The second impact is a little less tangible.   The war of 2014 was an important moment in the ongoing development of national identity in independent Ukraine.  This is a complex and sometimes fraught business, and Ukraine’s Jews re part of it, whether they like it or not.  Ukraine remains divided between pro-western and pro-Russian forces.  Both of these broad camps contain fringe elements that are hostile to the Jews.  On the pro-Russian side, neo-Nazi groups such as Russian National Unity and a number of Cossack groups maintain an armed presence in separatist controlled parts of Luhansk and Donetsk.

On the Ukrainian side, there are also militia groups active in the combat zone who use far right and neo-Nazi imagery.  But more importantly, the mainstream Ukrainian leadership are keen to make use of a nationalist heritage which celebrates Khmielnitsky and Petlura, and which includes organizations and figures  involved in collaboration with the Nazi invaders during World War 2, and with the persecution and murder of Ukraine’s Jews at that time.  The public commemoration of such wartime nationalist leaders as Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevich remains a starkly divisive issue, which is unlikely to lessen in intensity over time.


Destruction and Rebirth: the Jews of  the Donbass

‘We want to keep our community.  People in Kiev can’t understand what we went through. So we haven’t broken up the Donetsk community.  It survives.  But now it’s in Kiev, not in Donetsk,’ says Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky.  We are in the community center in the Podil district of Kiev that the rabbi established for Donetsk Jews fleeing to the capital during the war of 2014.

Vishedsky, an Israeli and a veteran emissary of  Chabad, spent twenty years in Donetsk, painstakingly building up a Jewish community there.  Then, in 2014, he was faced with the task of dismantling much of what he had built, and helping in the evacuation of the Jews of Donetsk to areas further west not touched by war.  He paints a stark picture of the gradual disintegration of normal life in Donetsk in the spring and summer of 2014.

‘On May 25th, during the elections for the president of Ukraine, they put polling booths near the schools.  And I got a phone call from the Jewish school that it was surrounded by men with guns. (supporters of the pro-Russian ‘separatist’ cause who wanted to dissuade residents from taking part in the elections).  It was the last day of studies.  I went down and they pointed the guns at me.  I told them, ‘arent you ashamed? Don’t you have children at home? I found the commander and he allowed the children to leave.”

‘Then in June the rebel army in Sloviansk began to approach Donetsk – and people started to leave. I sent my wife and children to the US, on the last train out of Donetsk.  The rebel army camped out in the student residences by our home.’

Vishedsky with other supporters of the Donetsk community helped to organize the evacuation of thousands of Donetsk Jews in the weeks ahead.  He estimates that perhaps 10,000 Jews left the area in the weeks that followed.  Making his way to Kiev, he has sought to re-establish the community there.

The Jewish school in Donetsk is still functioning.  But only 27 children are now attending it.  There is still a minyan in the synagogue.  450 families are receiving food parcels each week in Donetsk.

A total of perhaps 2-2,500 Jews remain in Donetsk city, according to unofficial estimates.  ‘The embers are still burning,’ say Rabbi Vishedsky.

Members of the Donetsk Jewish comunity celebrate a Brit Milah, Kiev, 2017.

donetsk jewish community

The picture Vishedsky paints of life in the rebel controlled ‘Peoples’ republics’ of Donetsk and Luhansk is bleak in the extreme.  ‘Most of the people who could leave have gone. There are no banks working.  Most shops have closed. You need to have connections with a shop owner so he can open it up for you.  There is no work there, and no future.  It is mainly the older people who stayed. A needy population.  The border is closed much of the time, and this makes it hard for older people to get their pensions.’

As for those who left, some have gone to Israel, some to Germany,   some are in Kiev, or in other Ukrainian cities such as Odessa, Dnipropetrovsk and Kharkiv.     And  the future?  ‘Everythings frozen,’ sighs Vishedsky. ‘ We’ve grown tired of expecting change.’

The process of the gradual collapse of order and normality as the war came to Donetsk and Sloviansk is echoed in the testimony of other Jewish IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) I interviewed in Kiev.  At the Halom Center, a community center established and maintained by the Joint Distribution Committee, I was able to speak to a number of Jewish refugees from the war zone who have benefitted from the services offered by the Joint’s  ‘Hesed’ program and a number of other programs maintained by the organization.

The IDPs I interviewed all described a similar trajectory to that outlined by Rabbi Vishedsky.   Albert, a 78 year old Holocaust survivor, a retired mechanical engineer, spoke of the sudden appearance in Luhansk city in April 2014 of ‘strange people..bandits’ who seized control of the state security building and other administrative points.  These were the pro-Russian ‘separatists,’ led at that time by the former FSB officer Igor Girkin, known as ‘Strelkov.’ (‘shooter’)

And then the groups of armed men and unmarked military vehicles on the streets, the cooked up ‘referendum’ for independence,  and the coming of a new, severely constricted life.  ‘We are afraid to talk about this,’ says Ludmila, Albert’s wife, ‘because we still have an apartment there.  And those people check apartments…’

There have been many allegations of individuals close to the authorities established by the separatists seeking to confiscate abandoned apartments and cars in their areas of control.  The couple left the area in November, 2014, and have been living in Kiev ever since.  Albert,as a Holocaust survivor, receives additional help from the Hesed program and this has enabled them to ‘live normally,’ as Ludmila puts it.  She notes that ‘Ukrainian’ (ie non-Jewish) friends of hers  who have to make do with the very meager state pensions have been unable to leave the area of the Luhansk ‘peoples’ republic’ established by the Russians and the separatists.

Nina, a retired chemist from Donetsk city, also remembers the first appearance of the separatists in the spring of 2014.  She is a widow, whose only daughter died a few years ago. She was living alone in an apartment near the center of the city.  At first she thought the men shouting and chanting in the night were ‘drunkards…They were banging on metal, and shouting ‘Russia, Russia.’  Then, the next morning,  men with guns in black ski masks were on the streets of Donetsk.  And the ‘Donetsk Peoples’ Republic’ was on its way.  ‘From November, all the banks closed, the post offices closed. The local administration the separatists created barely functioned.’  Confiscation of cars by the armed groups began, and Nina left for Kiev at the end of the year.  She doesn’t see herself returning to the Donbass.

‘Thanks to Hesed, I am not alone,’ she says. ‘They give me support. And in Donetsk I would be alone.  The graves of my husband and daughter are there.  But the graveyard is close to Donetsk airport, and now the area is mined.’


Albert and Ludmila, Jewish IDPs from Luhansk, at the JDC’s Halom Center, Kiev, Auguat, 2017.


There are common threads running through all these accounts.  The extreme unpredictability of life in the Donbass under the Russians and their separatist proxies.  The dysfunctionality of the threadbare administration they have established.  The meager assistance given by the Ukrainian authorities to displaced people. And the impressive care given to Jewish IDPs by a variety of Jewish organizations and initiatives, of which the JDC and Rabbi Pinchas Vishedsky’s work are only two of many possible examples.

There is something else, too.  All the testimonies speak of suffering, displacement, danger, unpredictability.  But none of them talk about being targeted as Jews.  The difficulties were faced in common with their ethnic Ukrainian and Russian neighbors. And if anything the presence of Jewish organizations considerably alleviated the situation of the Jewish refugees.  This is very notable, given the undoubted presence of organized anti-Semitic forces among both the separatist groups and the Ukrainian volunteer battalions.  All those we spoke to were adamant that neither the separatist authorities nor the Ukrainian forces had singled them out as Jews.

The Battlefield of Memory

The presence and place of Jews in the still crystallising Ukrainian state remains a sensitive issue.  But this is not primarily because of a physical threat to Jewish well-being.  Indeed, it is worth pointing out that Jewish communal buildings in Kiev require considerably less physical security around them than do their equivalents in western Europe.  The reason for this is fairly clear, and can be stated once politically correct pieties are set aside. There is no sizeable or vocal Muslim community in Ukraine. And the physical threat to Jews in western Europe emerges mainly from among these communities.

Nationalist groups nevertheless played a very visible role during the Maidan protests.  This reporter witnessed the proliferation of banners of the far right Svoboda party on the square in December 2013, alongside the red and black flags invoking the memory of Stepan Bandera’s UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army).   The armed volunteer groups that bore the brunt of the fighting in the summer of 2014 when the Ukrainian army faltered flew similar colors.

But the nationalist candidate in the presidential elections of 2014, one Dmitro Yaros, scored only 0.7% of the vote.  Svoboda also achieved a tiny showing in presidential elections.  Efforts by the volunteer battalions to transform themselves into political parties have as yet achieved meager results.  ‘Ukrainians don’t want to be led by extremists,’ a young man in Kiev told me.

Still, while nationalist political achievements remain marginal, and levels of antisemitic violence low, the debate over national memory and its symbols  continues to raise difficult questions for Ukraine’s  Jews.

Eduard Dolinsky,  executive director of the Kiev-based Ukrainian Jewish Committee, contended in a conversation with me in Kiev that the apparent electoral weakness of the nationalists is deceptive.  Dolinsky pointed to their strength at the municipal level.  He is concerned at the role of what he called ‘apologists of national memory’, propagandist pseudo-historians who seek to downplay the role of Ukrainian nationalist movements in the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Ukraine.

Dolinsky says of such figures as Bandera and Sukhevich ‘They participated in the Holocaust. Then people present them as protectors of Jews. This is Holocaust denial and desecration of Jewish memory.’

The placing of these figures in a mainstream pantheon of national heroes in Ukraine is certainly proceeding forthwith. In July 2016, a major street in Kiev was named for Stepan Bandera.  On May 25,2016, the Ukrainian parliament held a minutes’ silence for Simon Petlyura.

Other voices, both Jewish and non-Jewish, dispute the gravity and the implications of the ‘mainstreaming’ of wartime nationalist leaders.  Thus Josef Zissels, chairman of the Vaad organization of Ukrainian Jews, was quoted recently In JTA on this subject as warning against ‘unnecessary assignment of blame’ in  a country in which Jews enjoy formal equal rights and levels of anti-Semitic violence are low.

The debate over historical memory is set to continue.  Anyone who has travelled in the rural heartlands of Ukrainian nationalism in the west of the country will be aware of the depth and hold of the traditions of the insurgent OUN/UPA and the legacy of Bandera.  It is difficult to imagine these being uprooted, and no doubt Jewish concerns with their nature and strength will continue too.

The Land of the Trident

It would nevertheless be entirely wrong to paint an unremittingly gloomy picture of Jewish life in Ukraine. In the midst of the great destruction of recent years, and facing a still ongoing conflict, Jewish individuals and organizations of a variety of orientations have demonstrated in practice the meaning of communal solidarity. And the rising hostility to Jews in many west European countries, tied in to the growth of political Islam and hostility to Israel, is entirely absent here.

Jews, it appears, will be living under the ‘Tryzub’ the gold trident that forms Ukraine’s national symbol, for some time to come. The old demons, of course, should never be forgotten and may be only sleeping.  The country faces enormous challenges ahead in the building of institutions, fighting systemic corruption and forging a version of national identity that all elements of society can at least broadly identify with.   The Jews, both the actual living examples of them in Ukraine and no doubt also the mythical, archetypal  Jew that never seems to quite vanish from the European consciousness, will be playing their role in this.

The last words, in any case should go to old Solomon Rabinowitz – Sholem Aleichem – of Pereyaslav, in the Kiev Governorate:  ‘If you haven’t been there, do him a kindness, and go down into the field,  read the old, obliterated inscriptions on the leaning tombstones and you will find in them the story of a whole people.  And if you happen to be a man of feeling and imagination you  will look upon this poor little town with its rich cemeteries and repeat the old verses: “How beautiful are your tents, o Jacob; and your houses, o Israel.”

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Growing Up in War Zones, a review of Shooting Ghosts: A US Marine and a Combat Photographer, and their Journey Back from War by Finbarr O’Reilly and Thomas J. Brennan. (Viking,2017).


Jerusalem Post, 24/8

‘Shooting Ghosts’  is a joint memoir, depicting the friendship, experience of war and trauma and long road to recovery of two very different individuals.   Finbarr O’Reilly is a veteran Canadian photojournalist, formerly of the Reuters wire service, who spent the greater part of his career covering the African continent for the agency.   Thomas J. Brennan is a former US Marine infantryman,  wounded in Afghanistan who subsequently developed a career as a journalist.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is written in an unusual collaborative style, with the two men alternating the writing of chapters.  Sometimes they depict the same incident from their different points of view.  But for the most part, each man tells his own story, into which the other makes regular appearances.

The narrative begins with the meeting of the two men at the Hunjak outpost, in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, in 2010.  O’Reilly is at the outpost as part of an embed with US forces.  Brennan is in command of the position.  In the course of the deployment at OP Kunjak, Brennan and O’Reilly, after an initial wariness toward one another, strike up a friendship.   ‘Shooting Ghosts’ is at root the story of that friendship,  how it develops despite the very different backgrounds and milieus of the two men, and how it survives the brain injury Brennan suffers on November 1, 2010, at Kunjak, after being close to an RPG round fired by an Afghan policeman.

The narrative traces the trauma suffered by both men as a result of their experiences on the frontlines of the ‘9/11 wars’ in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Brennan and O’Reilly’s lives progress along comparable, if not quite parallel lines, in the subsequent years.  Brennan finds the military bureaucracy unresponsive to his needs – in particular, in a section of special note – he finds himself the subject of both the indifference of the system and the scorn of his fellows for his attempt to seek help for the psychological effects of the trauma he suffered.

O’Reilly, meanwhile, also grows increasingly disillusioned with the role of the war photographer, questioning both his own motivations for engaging in the profession, and the objective value of his witness.

The book contains a handy contrast and differentiation between the role played by the fighter and the reporter in a war context.  ‘He’s a Marine,’ writes O’ Reilly, ‘bound by his oath, and honor, and the rule of law,to take orders and follow a chain of command…I’m a photographer – bound by my own codes and contracts, sure, but ultimately free to come and go as I please.’

As one who has spent time on the frontline as both a soldier  and a correspondent, I  find this differentiation especially perceptive.  It is reflected also in the differing tones of the accounts of these two men.  Brennan spends less time ruminating on the nature of war in an abstract sense.  His sections are more concerned with the practical nature of combat and soldiering itself, and later in the harrowing details of his descent into trauma-induced instability, his suicide attempt and his subsequent road back to sanity and success.

Brennan, who became a professional journalist following his retirement from the Marine Corps, has made issues relating to returning servicemen the particular focus of his writing.

O’ Reilly, meanwhile, has exited the profession of war photography by the conclusion of the narrative.   More crucially, both men have by the book’s end  found their way back from the psychological precipices to which their experiences had brought them.

‘Shooting Ghosts’ is a worthy addition to the literature on the 9/11 wars.  It depicts the experience of that generation of Americans who were at the start of their careers when the attacks of September 11 transformed the global landscape and set the US and its allies on the long and not yet completed path through Iraq and Afghanistan.  It portrays the human toll paid by the relatively small cohort of young westerners who fought or reported on those wars from the front.

There is much of harrowing insight in this book.  Brennan’s depiction of the combat soldier’s over-riding fear of the ‘big f… up’ on the frontline is accurate (ie the fear that through under-performance or failure, the soldier will endanger his comrades or cause them to be wounded or killed.)  As Brennan accurately describes this, it is not an entirely altruistic impulse. It is a dread of an act of such magnitude that there will be no psychological return from it for the soldier.

The book is not, nevertheless, without its limitations. While it is concerned with the ‘9/11 wars’ there is no serious  political analysis of the Middle East or the situation that produced these wars.  This might be fine if political matters were avoided entirely.  But instead there is a clear assumption that the wars were an unjustified and avoidable waste of time.

This unexamined assumption is taken as read, and put aside, and we are then presented  with an examination of the attraction of young men to combat for its own sake.  ‘The myth of war made it seem noble and defining,’ O’Reilly writes, ‘something worth dying for.’

O’Reilly appears to have emerged from this attraction by the book’s end, and has progressed to a general disillusionment with his former fascination.  Brennan, whose approach throughout seems more real and grounded, has also moved on to a mature devotion to his comrades in the USMC and a desire to assist them through his writing.

The depiction of these transitions is full of worthy insight. Yet I must confess that the genre of memoir by westerners who have experienced  war and found it horrifying, but whose concerns remain strictly limited to the consideration of conflict as an individual experience, with nothing to say concerning war as a tool of policy strikes me as one irretrievably marred by a certain adolescent quality.  ‘Shooting Ghosts,’ for all its many worthy passages and the sympathetic  nature of its narrators, does not entirely escape this limitation.

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