The Middle East in 2015

It was wonderful to get back to the Middle East, meeting old friends and making some new ones. As for the local food, keep it coming. Then there was the desert, I can’t explain why but I have always felt at home there.

This trip was not just about pleasure though, my focus was very much on getting up to date with what is happening in the region, particularly with regard to Syria but also the Middle East in general.

This article is based on discussions with trusted sources and as 2015 unfolds you will be able to see for yourself how things work out.

Abo Saif with a post interview cigar

Abo Saif with a post interview cigar

Syria

Southern Front, a coalition of moderate and secular Muslim rebel fighting brigades finished 2014 in a positive frame of mind. The combined forces number over 30,000 fighting men. Over the last year, the amount of support they are getting from the Americans and British has risen dramatically, in terms of weapons, training and finance. They now control large areas in southern Syria but are also very active in areas north east of Damascus, in particular the strategically important mountain area of Palmyra. There they face both the Syrian army and Islamic State. Before going into battle against Syrian army troops, radio contact is always first made to see if they wish to defect. Quite often they do, particularly if they are Sunni Muslims. The Syrian government is also using a lot of fighters from Hezbollah as well as directly from the Iranian military. One of the things highlighted to me is the importance of sticking to international law when it comes to treatment of prisoners. Southern Front are working hard to become a professional army, rather than simply a rag tag group of rebels with no central command. Politically they are also working to legitimize themselves, so far they have made a lot of progress in this direction.

The general feeling is that Syrian President, Bashar al Assad, will lose his hold on power, nobody can say exactly when this will happen but the feeling now is that it is inevitable. The plunging price of oil is severely curtailing the ability of both Iran and Russia to continue their support of Bashar al Assad who absolutely needs them to maintain his grip on power. When he goes, the top tier of the Syrian regime will also go with him. They will be replaced by existing senior figures from the Syrian army, Generals etc and most definitely Alawhite, the same tribe as Bashar al Assad. Damascus and the west of the country up to the Latakia region will be governed by the existing government framework except for a replacement of the top tier of government. South of Damascus will become a new region, governed separately to Damascus and will have a Sunni Muslim majority. Syria will effectively be turned into a Federation. After four years of war there is bad feeling on both sides of the Sunni/Alawhite divide, governing both sides from a single government in Damascus would be impossible, too much blood has been spilt. The simple solution is to create a Syrian Federation. In the north and east of the country where Islamic State hold sway, it could become a common unifying objective for the Alawhite and Sunni to start working together to push together against Islamic State. If not to eradicate the extremists but certainly to contain them. Once Bashar al Assad is gone you will begin to see steps in this direction.

Iran

There is a deadline for Iran to agree to stop its nuclear development program, if that deadline is reached without agreement then Islamic State will be permitted to enter Baghdad in Iraq to attack the Shia Muslim population which Iran is committed to protecting even at great expense. Iran and Syria both permitted Islamic State to grow and develop but they are no longer in a position to control it now that it has enough of its own resources and agenda. If Iran does not make a deal about its nuclear program it will be forced into direct conflict with the beast it helped create. So many parallels with how the USA helped set up Al Qaeda to fight the Russians in Afghanistan only to have it turn against its one time backer. Islamic State have enough funding in place to cover the next two years without stress, if Iran is forced to confront them then it will prove to be very expensive as it is reliant on oil exports but the price of oil is so low now it doesn’t even cover the cost of production. How long can Iran continue to support Bashar al Assad at current oil prices, let alone take on the expense of opening a second front against IS? Iran therefore has to make a tough decision, stop its nuclear development program or get sucked into a military campaign it can ill afford. All the indications are that the price of oil still has further to fall. Oil really is being used as a weapon and very effectively too. This also applies to Russia, it too is being made to pay heavily for its continued support of the Syrian regime.

Islamic State

The falling price of oil also has an impact as it has to reduce the price at which it sells oil, thereby reducing its income. Saying this however, all the indications are that IS is flush with enough cash to run operations for the next two years. IS has also been selling ancient Syrian artifacts on the black market. The words do not exist to describe how I feel about those who do business with IS, buying up Syria’s national treasures which will never again see the light of day. Something really needs to be done about this black market and those who do business with IS. Much has been made of young Europeans who have gone to join Islamic State, it appears that instead of using them as fighters IS are more interested in their propaganda value. Add to this the fact that they tend to have a better education than local Syrian or Iraqi members, many are being used for non military duties such as administration and book keeping, not what many who thought they would be fighting expected.

There is not a single person in the Middle East who believes or even considers that Israel had any involvement in the development of IS. I have lots of people who read my work and try to tell me about the connection between Israel and Islamic State. There isn’t any, get over it. Israel is and has been guilty of many things, but this ain’t one of them.

IS was allowed to grow and develop by Bashar al Assad along with support from Iran. They are more interested in power and money than religion. They are willing to do business with just about anybody who will pay. So if you have a factory you want protecting from damage while you wait out the war in Dubai you can organize, through middle-men, the transfer of funds. IS also has a nice little line in selling ancient artifacts from the areas it controls, ironic considering that according to their strict view of Islam any statue or image with a human face should be destroyed. Forget that, they are all about the money. IS are about as Muslim as the bottom of my shoe. Instead, it is a mafia with a lot of weapons and a love of power. Its arrogance will lead to its eventual downfall.

Oil (personal opinion)

There is no doubt in my mind that the USA and Saudi Arabia are collaborating to force down the price of oil as a way of putting huge economic stress on Russia and Iran. Russia is being made to pay for its action in Crimea and along with Iran both of them are being made to pay for their support of Bashar al Assad. If the price of oil stays low until late in the year then it will be much harder for them to continue supporting Assad. This is oil being used as a weapon. There is however always room for the unexpected to happen, Saudi Arabia is maintaining its oil output at a high level, if there were to be a cyber attack on the control systems of its oil production facilities it would certainly force the Kingdom to reduce or even stop output and increase prices as a result. As always, expect the unexpected.

There you have it, a general outline of the Middle East for 2015. For sure it is not possible to say how much will be this year, apart from Iran which has a specific deadline, but there will certainly be movement in those directions written about, there is an awful lot happening behind closed doors.

This is my first article of 2015 and I hope you found it interesting. I will be happy to see your comments. Thanks for dropping by 🙂

Just returned from the Middle East

After 30 hours of no sleep I’m finally back in Europe. Over the next couple of weeks I have a lot to write about regarding Syria and the Middle East in general. 2015 will be an interesting year. However, it wasn’t all work as these two photos I took in Al Aqaba and Petra show. Watch this space, lots coming.

Al Aqaba, Jordan

Petra

 

Syria. Interesting developments

Most of the media focus on Syria these days is to do with IS, Islamic State, ISIS, ISIL, Daesh. I don’t think a single group has ever collected so many acronyms! They control large areas in the north and east of the country. In the south however, there is a different situation. The Southern Front, which has many thousands of well equipped and trained fighters, is made up of moderate muslims and secularists and they hold large parts of Syria south of Damascus. Extremist groups such as Al Nusra and Daesh have tried to get a foothold in the south but without success.

The leadership of the Southern Front believe the regime of Bashar al Assad will collapse at some point. There are various reasons for this. The first is the duration of this terrible war which has sapped a lot of energy out of the Syrian military in terms of manpower. Both sides of this conflict are tired after 4 years of fighting but the areas loyal to the Assad regime are becoming uncomfortable at how many of their men are being lost in this war while Assad sits comfortably in his palace in Damascus. The second reason is economic and is closely linked to the price of oil. War is hugely expensive and the Assad regime is dependent on both Iran and Russia. Iran for funding and Russia for weapons. As the price of oil has collapsed over the last few months it becomes increasingly difficult for Iran to fund Bashar al Assad so he can buy weapons from Russia. Russia can not afford to simply give weapons away as it has its own financial problems also due to the price of oil and the effect of sanctions. If oil prices stay low well into 2015 then it will become extremely difficult for the Syrian regime to hold on to power.

The Southern Front sense this and are preparing for Bashar al Assad to lose his grip on power. The biggest challenge when this happens will be to stop Damascus descending into chaos and allowing the extremists an opportunity to try and fill the vacuum. When Saddam Hussein was overthrown the biggest mistake the Allies made – mistake is too kind, FUBAR would be more appropriate – was to remove all traces of the government and institutions without having anything to replace them, that is what led to the chaos we see in Iraq today. Southern Front realize this and have very recently stated how they see a transition being made. They are not looking to take over the country, in fact as you will see from their in-depth statement below they want to see Syria as a very inclusive country with all being represented in the new government. When the regime falls there will probably still be large areas in the north and east of Syria under the control of Daesh but for the rest of the country there will be an opportunity to close a terrible chapter in the history of the beautiful country. Then with time it will be possible to regain territory from the extremists.

Below is the statement which was passed to me by the Chief Co-ordinator of the document and I also provide a link to a PDF of the release.

The Southern Front
Free Syrian Army
Transitional Phase
10.12.2014

STATEMENT NO. 4
THE TRANSITIONAL PHASE

The collapse of the current regime will not be the end of the Syrian people’s revolution. The end of the regime will be only the start of a new and, hopefully, final phase of the people’s struggle for freedom. In order to ensure that the final phase succeeds with the  establishment of a new national model of governance based on respect for human dignity and a rebirth of Syria’s tremendous potential, it is imperative that all nationalist forces commit to a course of action during the period of transition from authoritarianism that will fulfill the popular will.

Therefore,
The Southern Front announces that it will dedicate its efforts during the period of transition following the collapse of the regime to supporting:
First: the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.
Second: the maintenance of Syrian state institutions, including all ministries and military institutions.
Third: the integrity of the economic and service infrastructure of the state, including telecommunications, energy, water, and public and private transportation networks.
Fourth: the establishment of a process of inclusive, national, political reconstruction.

GENERAL FRAMEWORK

1- The Civil Defense Force:
Once the Assad regime collapses, the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army intends to transition from a military organization into a civilian defense force to contribute to establishing the appropriate conditions to enable a successful political transition in Syria. Among the primary objectives of a civilian defense force will be: protecting all citizens, maintaining all state institutions, and securing the infrastructure for the economic prosperity of the country. The Joint Command of the Southern Front is currently preparing itself for the moment of transition and is committed to implementing a detailed day-after plan to protect Damascus (the seat of government), prevent looting, protect citizens and state employees, and ensure that governmental institutions remain fully operational.

2- The Transitional Administration:
To guide the period of transition, the Southern Front will support efforts to establish a Transitional Administration. The Southern Front believes that no current state employees, identified for their competence and loyal service to the state, should be excluded from continuing to serve. In addition, the Transitional Administration should be open to senior defected government officials who return to the country to help in its reconstruction. The Southern Front, which by this time will have transformed into the the Civil Defense Forces, will support such an interim governing arrangement granted that it is non-political, and led by technocrats whose terms will end upon the completion of the interim or transitional phase. The first task of the Transitional Administration will be announcing the cessation of
all military operations and demanding foreign fighters to leave the country within a specified period of time. The Transitional Administration will also take steps to ensure that state institutions continue their routine work. It will announce to government officials including the judicial authority that their work will be guaranteed within the framework of the General Law. The civilian police will be requested to continue their work. The armed forces will be requested to remain temporarily in their barracks until security and order restored.
The current constitution will be immediately suspended and replaced by the original constitution of 1950 as an interim constitution until the drafting of a permanent constitution for the country that shall be approved by a popular referendum.

To ensure neutrality with respect to key decisions that need to be made during the critical transitional period, the Transitional Administration should issue an immediate appeal to the United Nations to form a “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” in Damascus as soon as possible with a special envoy of the UN Secretary General. This Office will be necessary to advise the Transitional Administration, coordinate foreign aid, and identify key requirements for the transition. It is also needed to recommend and supply experts and advisers to help rebuild the institutions of the state. To ease the pressure on the Transitional Administration, and to benefit from the best Syrian minds and intellects in guiding the transition, the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” will be requested to appoint a Syrian Advisory Committee composed of qualified professionals to draft a framework and plans for the transitional period, according to a specific timetable. The Office will also request the presence of a UN observer missions and specialist teams.

The key tasks for UN and the Syrian Advisory Committee will be:

First: to establish the High Electoral Commission.
Second: to oversee general elections to choose an “interim” legislative authority within six months, paving the way for the formation of a constituent committee for the drafting of the constitution.
Third: to form a constituent committee to draft the permanent constitution for the country within one year.
Fourth: to hold a public referendum on the constitution after the completion of the work of the constituent committee.
Fifth: to implement national elections for a new parliament and government.

All bodies and formed by the “Syrian Transitional Phase Office” or by the Advisory Committee should be independent bodies. They should advice the Transitional Administration, but they should not be subject to it or overlap with it. The mandate of the Transitional Administration should be considered officially over after the holding of  elections for a new parliament and government.
Long Live Free Syria
The Southern Front
10.12.2014

Statement 4-The transitional phase

I will be back in the region in the near future to talk directly to Southern Front and should have more information for you some time in January. I’m very curious about what will happen. I think 2015 will be an interesting year.

This article is also published on DigitalJournal.com

ISIS. Do we really know what we are doing?

Much is being made of attempts to destroy ISIS but the question needs to be asked, will the current strategy work or will it lead to increased chaos in the Middle East?

ISIS

ISIS

 ISIS, or Daesh as they are called in the Middle East,appear not to be too worried about the USA-led coalition air-strikes. In fact they seem to have had very little impact so far.

The question being asked by governments in the region and around the world is what can be done to stop ISIS. They are effectively re-drawing the map of the Middle East, the Sykes-Picot Agreement has finally come undone. One of the things I find interesting is how little direct effort the governments of the Middle East as well as Egypt are putting into the fight considering the existential crisis which confronts them. Part of this comes down to culture, diverse Arab cultures do not have a history of being able to work together and coordinate efforts. Organization works along tribal lines rather than being based on national institutions. For this reason it is very difficult for them to collaborate in any coherent fashion.

More importantly however, is the fear of what could happen back home if they start fighting directly against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As an example of this, as reported to me by personal contacts in Jordan, Jordan has chosen not to get involved in the fight with ISIS at the moment due to the sheer number of supporters it has in the country. The cities of Al Zarqa and Ma’en are hotbeds of support for ISIS and in many cases the police are too afraid to enter large parts of those cities. If Jordan were to get involved in fighting directly against ISIS it is quite likely domestic terrorism would be a result. The same goes for many countries in the region, underground support for ISIS is growing rapidly.

The question has be asked, why is this the case? From conversations I have had with sources in the region there seems to be a twofold reason. The first is disenfranchisement of large portions of the populations in the region. Unless you are born into the right tribe or family, your opportunities for education and a good job are severely curtailed. The view taken is that the governments of the region are seen as self-serving, corrupt and not caring about large parts of the population. In this respect, support for ISIS is more political rather than religious. ISIS is seen as a great equalizer, making sure that those who live under its rule will be equally looked after. As an ideal, it is very powerful in the minds of many who have been deprived for so long. It is difficult for our Western mindset to grasp this, but many in the region feel ISIS is the only way to deal with government corruption.

The second reason for support for ISIS is religious. Not in the sense of agreeing with its brand of Islam but rather the US led air-strikes are being seen as an attack on Islam in general. A source told me that when he takes a taxi, he always asks the driver for his opinion of ISIS. Invariably the response is always the same, that while he doesn’t like ISIS, attacks by the USA are understood to be part of a wider attack against Islam and if the situation called for it, he would go fight.

All of this brings us back to the USA’s strategy of how to deal with the extremists. Air-strikes are proving to be ineffective. Even if the decision were made to send in ground forces, it would be unlikely to have success, ISIS are very good at disappearing into the population, when I was in Menbij in Syria last year, it was already in the city but nobody knew it — they were simply waiting for the right time to take over. Added to this, if the USA and allies put boots on the ground, support for ISIS would explode, memories of the last war in Iraq are still very raw for many in the region. ISIS is trying to draw the USA further into conflict as it knows doing so will make it stronger.

So what is the solution? This is not an easy question to answer, at base this is an Arab problem which requires an Arab solution. First, the political reasons for why there is so much support for ISIS need to be addressed, being more inclusive for large parts of the population across the region and reducing government corruption.

Secondly, if there is going to be military action against ISIS it should be Arab led to avoid the strong impression of this being a war on Islam. Can it happen? I’m not so sure. There is too much division in strategy between the various countries of the region. For them to work together would require a huge change in mindset. Unfortunately, I see no end to the current situation and this war has the potential to carry on indefinitely.

For me personally, this is a very sad situation. I have a great fondness for the Middle East, based on my own experience and family history. I’m considered a brother by the Al-Zoubi family — actually they are a huge tribe which spans the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Arab people and also the Persians of Iran, are some of the warmest you could ever hope to meet. Across the region, the ordinary people want to live in peace but are having this opportunity torn away from them because of international politics as well as the governments of the region vying with each other for regional dominance. It is these things which allowed ISIS to grow and I don’t see them going away anytime soon.

This article is cross-posted from digitaljournal.com

Turkey stands by while ISIS and Kurds fight in Kobani

Despite the fact that heavy fighting is taking place between ISIS (Daesh) and Kurds in Kobani, Syria, all within spectator distance of the Turkish border, Turkey is refusing to do anything at the moment to help push back the Islamic extremists.

The main reason for this is because the Kurds in Kobani, in general, are said to be aligned with the PKK, which has been battling Turkey for many years for an autonomous Kurdish region. Turkey publicly says it is against Daesh but it would rather see them wipe out the Kurds in Kobani. It refuses to allow Kurds to cross the border into Syria to support their fellow Kurds in the fight. Unless something changes, Daesh will win the fight, they have heavy weapons and modern equipment vs a lightly armed Kurdish force.

Turkey is definitely preparing to take control of large parts of Syria along its border. It is also known that Turkey and Daesh have collaborated in areas of mutual interest. Another interesting fact is the tomb of Suleyman Shah, grandfather of Osman 1 who founded the Ottoman empire and is most revered by Turks down to this day, is very close to Kobani. When the dust settles and the Kurds have been pushed out of Kobani, I expect to see Daesh make a strategic withdrawal allowing Turkey to come in and take over the area. What is also very interesting is that despite US airstrikes against Daesh targets in Kobani, they have proven ineffective and done nothing to stop the extremists advance. Could it be that the US is choosing not to try too hard here for strategic reasons?

This situation will develop further. Watch this space.

My Work vs Emmy Award Wining Photo

Had to post this purely because of the surprise at finding a picture taken at the same spot I was in when in Syria last year. The only difference is, you can see how heavily modified the Emmy picture is in comparison to mine. Also I left the same picture out of my book because I felt it was too weak, even if I played with it in software. Have a look at the two pictures and compare for yourselves.

My picture

Aleppo

Aleppo

The International Emmy Award Winner 2014

Emmy Award Winner 2014

Emmy Award Winner 2014

I decided to make a modified version of my picture to make it easier to compare with the Emmy version, the POV is slightly different. The point I am trying to make is that for me, there is nothing special about either my image or the Emmy version, it was the reason I didn’t put it in my book. This is why I was so surprised Emmy gave an award to such a similar image. Have a look at my modified version and make up your own mind.

Aleppo Modified

Aleppo Modified

What do you think?

Turkey to create buffer zone in Syria?

It has been reported that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated at the World Economic Form meeting in Istanbul, that he wants to create a buffer zone inside Syria. The reason given is so the thousands of refugees who recently fled ISIS (Daesh) will be able to return to their homes in security.

To be honest, this is the perfect excuse Erdogan has been looking for to make a land grab in Syria. It is something I wrote about back in March as you can read here and again in April, here. Turkey is definitely the elephant in the room. It has been suspiciously tolerant of Daesh, allowing its fighters to cross the border as well as permitting the movement of weapons into Syria. What this suggests is that Turkish motivations for creating a buffer zone are not to be trusted. All the indications are that Turkey would love to reclaim some of the territory it had as part of the Ottoman empire. With nationalism being stoked in the country, this would be a popular move for Erdogan to make. On the opposite side of the coin, it could create a lot of tension with the Kurds who have created their own autonomous areas in northern Syria over the course of the conflict. If Turkey goes for the land grab, will the Kurds be allowed to continue governing themselves? Time will tell.

Syria will never go back to the borders it had before the conflict started, it is being divided up for geo-political reasons. In the process, the risk of unintended consequences increases. Now that the US led coalition is carrying out airstrikes on Daesh, the dynamic is changing, groups such as Jabhat al Nusra are collaborating with Daesh as now the attacks are seen as an attack on Islam. The operation to bomb them could ultimately lead to them becoming stronger and gaining even more support.

Watch this space.

United Nations vs ISIS?

This week is going to be a busy one at the United Nations. As well as the General Assembly meeting there will be others to address the situation with ISIS (Daesh) and Ebola in west Africa.

Now that airstrikes in Syria against Daesh have started, led by the USA and Arab states, it is time to understand what is happening. Before I do, I want to tell you the reaction of my Syrian friends regarding the airstrikes. None of them are happy about it, not because they like Daesh but because they only see Bashar al Assad benefiting from the situation rather than the majority of the Syrian people. In general the view is that when the USA gets involved, the resulting situation is always worse than it was before. It has to be said, history tends to back them up on this.

A few weeks ago, President Obama spoke of the need to build a global coalition against the global threat of Daesh, their network is spread around the world and they have been preparing for for attacks by the West for quite some time. The USA has been leading talks behind the scenes with all the members of the U.N as a way of confronting the crisis.

While the act of attacking Daesh and stopping them in their tracks can only be a good thing there are many risks involved, in particular who or what will fill the vacuum which will follow. This is the real fear of the Sunni muslims in both Syria and Iraq. It could lead to expanded sectarian conflict across the region rather than bringing any sort of peace. Russia has already condemned the airstrikes in Syria as there has been no agreement by the Security Council of the U.N. It seems that Obama is going to try and rectify the lack of agreement this week by arguing that as Daesh are a global threat the response also needs to be global and there is only one global organization which can do the job, the U.N. In order for that to happen it would need all U.N member states to give real teeth to what until now has been little more than a corrupt talking shop. By giving the U.N genuine power it would be the only organization capable of confronting Daesh at the international level. This is why I believe this week will be quite interesting, there really could be moves to make this happen.

The crisis in the Middle East isn’t the only crisis in town. Ebola in west Africa is threatening to decimate populations and I use the word literally. It is a crisis which also requires a global response as it has the potential to spread far beyond where it is now. It has arrived to the point where there are now infected bodies in the streets, there are not enough medical facilities or staff to cope with the outbreak. There are cases where highly infectious bodies lie in the streets. It does not require a huge leap of the imagination to see how easy it would be for terrorists to extract blood from these bodies for extraction of the virus to be used as a weapon, the process is not complicated. Ebola is something which has the potential to effect us all and requires a global response of the same level that militant Islam is receiving.

Finally, I want to go back to the way most ordinary Syrians view Daesh compared to the government of Bashar al Assad and illustrate it with something I saw today. They don’t want Daesh but the Sunni majority hate the Syrian regime even more. By destroying Daesh they feel it will allow Assad to kill even more people and the USA with its military action will inadvertently help him to do it. These are not my opinions but are based on numerous conversations I have had with Syrians in the last few days.

Syrian Regime vs ISIS (Daesh)

Syrian Regime vs ISIS (Daesh)

Featured on foto8.com

Foto8.com a major photojournalism website have featured my work from Syria. It is always nice to have one’s work recognized.

http://www.foto8.com/live/syria-refugees-rebels-russell-chapman/

Syria Refugees and Rebels

 

 

Surprise

While doing some grocery shopping today a young guy comes up to me and says ” Hi, you are the Syria photographer” Took me by surprise.

DSC_2560 DSC_2311 DSC_2253 DSC_2199 DSC_2140 DSC_2056 DSC_1963 DSC_1952 DSC_1918 DSC_1864 DSC_1458 DSC_1403 DSC_1396 DSC_1383-Edit _DSC2735These images are a small taste of my book, Syria: Refugeesa and Rebels. Click the image below for more details.

Syria: Refugees & Rebels