The post-modern news media inhabit and project a fascinating virtual world. Friends and family abroad email or text me saying: ‘We heard there was a terrible earthquake in Turkey – are you all right?’ ‘Well, yes,’ I reply. ‘It was an awful thing for the people on the spot, but that spot is nearly 2000 km from Istanbul, so we ourselves only read about it in the newspaper. But I hear the USA is engulfed in race riots and street violence – I hope you guys are all safe.’ ‘Oh sure,’ they say. ‘Ferguson, Mississippi is a long way from our house.’
So when you read a headline in Time proclaiming ‘Turkey Catches Fire as ISIS burns Kobani’ I’d like you to bear that in mind. Turkey covers a land area approximately three times that of Japan, New Zealand or the United Kingdom. There are fires from time to time, but I have to tell you, at this stage, the sub-editor at Time seems to have had a rush of blood to the head. One of my students comes from the city of Şanlıurfa, some 40-50 km from the Syrian border. Out of interest I asked him how things are down there. Pretty normal, he assured me.
On the other hand, the situation in parts of Iraq and Syria near Turkey’s southeastern border seems rather dire. Civil war has been ongoing in Syria for three years with no end in sight – and an estimated 1.5 million refugees have crossed into Turkey, overflowing government camps and increasingly finding their way to urban centres in the west. A mysterious new entity labeled ‘ISIS’ by Western media, seemingly unaffiliated to any particular Middle East state, yet remarkably well-trained and equipped with artillery and other modern military hardware, is raging through the region, burning towns, massacring locals and beheading visiting journalists.
A CNN poll in early September allegedly found that a majority of Americans was ‘alarmed’ by ISIS and in favour of bombing them. Incidentally, the poll also found that 83% were in favour of providing humanitarian aid to refugees, but I haven’t heard much more about that. 61% were clear that they didn’t want to see US troops on the ground in Syria or Iraq. The proportion supporting airstrikes is around 2:1 according to a more recent poll. Keith Helser, a ‘commodities trader from suburban Chicago’ is quoted as saying ‘He [President Obama]’s got to do something.’ He said most people he talks with don’t care much about the U.S. airstrikes. ‘It’s a long way away. As long as we’re not letting our own people get killed, I don’t think they care that much.’
Well, excuse me, but I don’t see that. Why exactly does President Obama have to do something? And if he genuinely feels he does, why does it have to be dropping bombs from a great height on countries with whom his own government is not officially at war? The United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights issued a statement on August 22 saying that more than 191,000 people had been killed in Syria between March 2011 and April 2014, and 2.9 million had fled the country. ‘It is scandalous,’ he said, ‘that the predicament of the injured, displaced, the detained, and the relatives of all those who have been killed or are missing is no longer attracting much attention, despite the enormity of their suffering.’
Western news media, especially in the USA, have made much of the admittedly gruesome deaths of two or three foreign nationals at the hands of ISIS executioners. We also read and see much about Yezidis, Chaldean Christians and Kurds being massacred. Again, I’m sorry, but I don’t see the deaths of those journalists as sufficient reason for large-scale military invasion of a sovereign state with whom we are not actually at war. And I don’t believe Barack Obama does either. I also have serious doubts (along with Mr ‘Chicago commodities trader’ Helser) that most Americans care a great deal about Yezidis or Chaldean Christians, even if they knew what they were. I suspect that there has been a concerted campaign by opinion leaders in the US (political, industrial and financial) using the news media to instill fear into their fellow citizens so that they will support further military action. And the real question, in my opinion, is why?
Getting back to recent events in Turkey referred to in that Time article about that country catching fire, it is true that several cities have been experiencing violent street demonstrations where Kurdish citizens are allegedly demanding that the government send military aid to the residents of the Syrian town of Kobani, apparently about to be overrun by ISIS forces. A news item on Thursday in little old New Zealand announced that the US and its allies were ‘chafing at Turkish inaction on Syria.’ It seems that ‘the US and its allies’ want the Turkish government to send troops and tanks across the border into Syria to engage ISIS forces and try to save the town of Kobani – this in spite of the fact that US and its allies are pretty clear in their reluctance to commit ground forces of their own to the conflict. Sitting up there in a bomber at a safe altitude, or at an even safer distance at the controls of an unmanned drone dropping explosive ordinance is apparently ok – but putting US lives at risk . . . Uh, uh. Get those Turks to do it. They’re good at that kind of stuff.
But the Turkish government is being uncooperative, as indeed they were when George W Bush and his allies went a-hunting Saddam Hussein. The line being taken by the US-controlled news media is that Turkey is happy to see ISIS killing Kurds; that they don’t seem to be viewing the threat of ISIS with the appropriate degree of seriousness; and that they are claiming to be worried about PKK Kurdish terrorism when we want them to care more about ISIS.
In fact, in the last two weeks, 160,000 Syrian Kurds fleeing ISIS forces have been permitted to cross the border into Turkey, adding to the 1.5 million Syrians mentioned above. Who will be responsible for feeding, housing and providing gainful employment for these people? The Turkish government is understandably nervous that sending troops into Syria with aggressive intent will provoke a similar response within its own borders. President Erdoğan and Prime Minister Davutoğlu have also made it clear that they are unwilling to commit Turkish troops until the US and its allies clarify their long-term objectives for Syria.
Banner front page headline in Turkey’s main anti-government newspaper ‘Sözcu’ this morning announced, over graphic photographs of masked protesters hurling Molotov cocktails and brandishing clubs and sawn-off shotguns: ‘İşte Tayyip’in Eseri’ – ‘This is Tayyip’s [the Turkish president’s] handiwork.’ This in a country where there is, allegedly, no freedom of the press. I couldn’t help wondering what would have happened in the USA if a newspaper had carried a headline, in the days after 9/11, saying ‘This is the Bush family’s handiwork.’ But leave that aside. What I am interested in is, who is actually responsible for the current chaos in the Middle East.
I’m not going to say anything about Israel. I’m not going to enter into a discussion of the extent to which American and British determination to establish a Jewish state in Palestine drastically altered the dynamics in the region, and their commitment to propping it up has created a situation where peace is virtually impossible. No, I’m not.
What I am going to do is direct your attention to a pair of articles written by Alastair Crooke, according to Wikipedia, a British diplomat, a former ranking figure in British Intelligence (MI6) and European diplomacy, and now a vocal advocate for dialogue between militant Islam and the West. Crooke is apparently somewhat unpopular with the neo-conservative club, but what he says makes a lot of sense to me. The first article provides a historical survey of the rise of Wahhabi Islam and its connection with the foundation of Saudi Arabia and its ‘royal’ dynasty. The second proposes the thesis that ‘The real aim of ISIS is to replace the Saud family as the new Emirs of Arabia’.
Crooke argues that Wahhabism was a purist Islamic doctrine originating in the 18th century, strenuously opposed by the Ottomans when they controlled the region, but accepted by the British when, for reasons of their own, they saw fit to settle the Saud family on the Arabian throne after the First World War. Since then there has been an uneasy relationship between the Wahhabist clerics with their Shariah regime, and the Saudi royals pursuing a lavish lifestyle funded by a symbiotic relationship with the USA and its insatiable thirst for oil.
In all fairness to the George Bushes and Barack Obama, they probably weren’t/aren’t entirely comfortable with the amputating of hands, stoning of adulteresses and public flogging of women for drinking a glass of beer or driving a car. Sucking up to the Saudi royals involves a certain sleight of mind whereby you pretend you are a persuasive force for modernisation while your weapons factories supply them with state-of-the-art military hardware and you finance their purchases by buying their oil. As Alastair Crooke points out, however, there is a price to pay by King Saud and his family too: an increasing alienation of the Wahhabi believers on whom they depend for their privileged existence. Osama bin Ladin, founder of Al Qaeda, came from a wealthy Saudi family with close ties to the Saudi royals – but his religious principles led to his disillusionment and subsequent exile.
The sad fact for America is that few countries in the world, and probably none in the Middle East (apart from Israel) have much sympathy for their interest in preserving the obscenely opulent lifestyle of the Saudi royals. A Time article today reports that it is not only Turkey that sees Bashar al-Assad as a more important target than ISIS. Neighbouring Lebanon and Jordan are also having to absorb vast numbers of refugees fleeing the conflict in Syria – and other Arab states have reasons of their own for wishing to see the back of Assad. The article suggests that the US government’s reluctance to confront the Syrian dictator stems from the fact that his main ally in the region is Iran. The USA is desperate to get Iran to agree to limit its nuclear development programme (so that Israel can continue to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East), and stepping in to oust Assad will very likely put an end to any hope of success in that struggle.
I will give the last word here to Alastair Crooke: ‘Here is the difficulty with evolving U.S. policy, which seems to be one of “leading from behind” again — and looking to Sunni states and communities to coalesce in the fight against ISIS.
‘It is a strategy that seems highly implausible. Who would want to insert themselves into this sensitive intra-Saudi rift? And would concerted Sunni attacks on ISIS make King Abdullah’s situation better, or might it inflame and anger domestic Saudi dissidence even further? So whom precisely does ISIS threaten? It could not be clearer. It does not directly threaten the West (though westerners should remain wary, and not tread on this particular scorpion).’