By Abel Bari Atwan
A New Front in Syria?
The last thing Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan needs is a direct military confrontation with the Syrian army and its Russian backers. He must have known this was a possibility when he ordered his troops into northern Syria, in open defiance of the government in Damascus, to lead Turkish-sponsored Syrian militias in an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces billed as an operation against Islamic State (IS). With the death of three Turkish soldiers on Thursday in a Syrian airstrike near al-Bab, the prospect of such a confrontation looms ever larger.
Erdoğan can ill afford this at a time when he is being dealt political and military blows by a variety of regional and Western players. He is already engaged in wars on numerous fronts: against the PKK in Turkey and the PYD in Syria as well as IS. Were he to retaliate for the Syrian airstrike – as his prime minister Binali Yildirim threatened – he would be opening a fourth front: directly against the Syrian state and indirectly against its Russian ally.
The Syrian airforce would not have targeted Turkish forces without coordinating with the Russians, implying that they too oppose the Turkish intervention. The US publicly affirmed last week that the anti-IS military coalition it leads does not support Ankara’s operation in Syria either. So with both big powers involved in Syria opposed, who is Erdoğan counting on to back his military adventures and meddling?
The Turkish president’s international standing was dealt a further blow on Thursday when the European Parliament voted to suspend the EU’s accession talks with Turkey due to its human rights violations and the repressive measures the government took after last July’s failed coup attempt. Erdoğan responded by threatening to open the floodgates for refugees to enter Europe if it put more pressure on Turkey.
The incursion of Turkish forces into Syria is a blatant violation of the country’s sovereignty, amounting to invasion and occupation of its territory. Ankara’s pretext that it is setting up a buffer zone along the border does not change this in the absence of UN authorization, not to mention big-power support.
Erdoğan was unforgiving when a Russian warplane strayed into Turkish airspace for a matter of only a few seconds last November, ordering it shot down and deeming the brief over-flight an unacceptable violation of Turkish sovereignty. He can hardly complain when the Syrians defend heir sovereignty by resisting his forces’ takeover of 1,000 square kilometres of their territory, an area Erdoğan plans to expand five-fold. Whatever one’s opinion of the Syrian government, it acted fully within its rights under international law.
It will not serve the interests of Turkey or its security and stability to open a new front against Russian-backed Syria. Such a move would burden the Turkish army with a major war of attrition it could well do without. It already has its hands more than full combating ‘terrorism’ both at home and in neighbouring countries.
Erdoğan is in a worrying position both domestically and internationally. Political and social tensions at home are sky-high, intensified by the draconian post-coup crackdown. Terrorist bombings continue periodically to shake the country. The resultant instability has hit the economy hard, exacerbating the slowdown in growth and prompting the central bank to raise interest rates to prevent the collapse of the falling lira.
Turkey’s military is admittedly more powerful than Syria’s. But it is Erdoğan who stands to be the biggest loser in anyconfrontation between the two sides.
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James J. Zogby
Standing Rock and Palestine — the struggle for justice is one
Last week, I joined several hundred protesters in a sit-in in front of the Army Corps of Engineers’ Headquarters in Washington, DC. We were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline designed to transport daily over 500,000 barrels of fracked oil southwards to be refined.
The DC protest was part of an international day of solidarity with efforts led by Native Americans at the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.
In all, demonstrations were held in over 300 cities worldwide.
At one level, the issues involved are presented as complicated matters of economics, geography and law. At a more basic level, however, it is a simple question of justice.
Proponents of the pipeline argue that fracked oil is helping to make America energy independent. They maintain that the route they have chosen for the pipeline is the most cost-effective and they insist that the government has the right to claim the land along the route.
The Sioux tribe at the Standing Rock Reservation, on the other hand, counter that the pipeline poses a threat to their main water supply. One leak would contaminate their water, impacting their survival.
They also argue that the land set aside for the line contains many of their sacred sites and burial grounds — some of which have already been violated in construction.
And they note that while the US government claims the land through which the pipeline is to be built, this claim is the result of violations of treaties the US made with their tribe over a century and a half ago.
They were dispossessed of their lands then, and the dispossession continues.
Because it raises such fundamental issues of justice and history, Standing Rock has become the epicentre of a protest movement that has drawn thousands of Native Americans from across the US and won the support of indigenous peoples around the globe.
The protesters, who refer to themselves as “Water Protectors”, have engaged in massive and peaceful acts of civil disobedience, only to be met with a heavily militarised police forces using rubber bullets, tear gas and power hoses, spraying demonstrators with water in below freezing weather.
The resulting scenes of violence have been shocking.
I have been proud of the many Palestinian Americans who joined the protests in North Dakota and thrilled to see Palestinians in the occupied lands demonstrate their solidarity with Standing Rock.
It is natural that they do so in recognition of their shared narrative.
The Zionist settlers who came to Palestine in the 1920s recognised this. They sometimes referred to the Palestinian Arabs whom they encountered as “Red Indians” — savages to be defeated, obstacles to their ambitions who had to be removed in order to pave the way for the realisation of their dream of creating a Jewish enterprise in Palestine.
Instead of rejecting this identification with the indigenous peoples of North America, Palestinians embraced it.
Yasser Arafat often spoke of the lessons learned from this shared history, saying that his people were fighting so that their fate would not be the same.
And the “national poet of Palestine”, Mahmoud Darwish, carried this identification further in his poem “Speech of the Red Indian”, in which he wrote, speaking to the foreign invaders: “You who come from beyond the sea, bent on war: don’t cut down the tree of our name; don’t gallop your flaming horses across the open plain... Our pastures are sacred, our spirits inspired. The stars are luminous words where our fable is legible from beginning to end.”
The parallels, in the plight of these two peoples, remain. This was made evident in two recent UN agency reports.
While the Standing Rock protests are focused on protecting the tribe’s water supply and stopping the desecration of their burial sites, UNESCO passed a resolution last month condemning, among other things, the destruction of Palestinian cemeteries in Jerusalem (one of which became the site of “A Museum of Tolerance” and another to create a public space which, adding insult to injury, recently hosted an Israeli wine festival); and an alarming UN report which noted that only 10 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza have access to clean water.
When I spoke at the solidarity rally that accompanied the sit-in, I spoke of this shared history of dispossession and dispersal, noting that just as it is imperative that we, as Americans, recognise that our nation was born in original sin — the crime of ethnic cleansing committed against the indigenous people we found on this land — we must acknowledge that this was true of Israel, as well.
I know that it is not what they mean, but it is what I hear when American and Israeli leaders speak of “our shared values”.
And so, as an American, and especially as an Arab American, I am proud to stand with the Standing Rock Sioux because the struggle for justice is one and is playing out daily in North Dakota and across the occupied Palestinian lands.
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