Kurdish mayor in Turkey confronts PM Erdogan

Kurdish mayor in Turkey confronts PM Erdogan

By Ayla Jean Yackley | Reuters

Reuters/Reuters – Diyarbakir Mayor Osman Baydemir (2nd L) chats with pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) lawmakers Nursel Aydogan (3rd L), Ayla Akat (2nd R) and Sirri Sureyya Onder (R) during a protest in support of Kurdish hunger strikers, in Diyarbakir, southeastern Turkey, November 3, 2012. REUTERS/Stringer

DIYARBAKIR, Turkey (Reuters) – When Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan acknowledged the existence of a “Kurdish problem” to a rally in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir, Mayor Osman Baydemir was among thousands who stood to applaud a momentous declaration. For decades, Turkey had refused even to recognize Kurds as a separate ethnic group.

Seven years later, Baydemir, shaking with anger, blames Erdogan’s government for the worst fighting between the army and Kurdish rebels in years. Raising the stakes in his confrontation with Ankara, he has joined a hunger strike by Kurdish prisoners.

“When the prime minister said, ‘The Kurdish problem is my problem too,’ I was among those who stood up and applauded him. But we were fooled, our hopes were falsely raised,” he says.

“We are living through the Kurdish cause’s most critical period … Ours is perhaps the last generation willing to extend a hand and negotiate.”

Baydemir says the prosecution of thousands of Kurdish politicians and activists since 2009 and more recently the government’s slow response to the hunger strike have sapped hopes for a solution to a three-decade conflict with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) – deemed a terrorist group by the EU and Washington as well as Turkey.

The Kurdish conflict has taken some 40,000 lives, mainly Kurds, and burns at the heart of Turkey. It brakes the southeastern economy, draws criticism from abroad on rights policies and stirs anger in the Turkish heartland with images of soldiers’ coffins returning, draped in the red Turkish flag.

Baydemir, 41, among the most prominent of Kurdish politicians, says his goal is to stop the violence. He is nothing if he is not dogged.

The mayor faces hundreds of criminal cases – too many to count, he says – for things he has said or done, including attending the funerals of PKK militants that has brought him charges of “spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization”.


“All of my life I have stayed away from violence and the instruments of violence, and have seen a legal, democratic struggle as the only means to achieve change,” Baydemir says, his hands shaking as he gesticulates with anger.

“But I have had it up to here with the prosecutions, the government’s attitude, the judiciary, the media’s stance and the majority of Turks who view the Kurdish people’s justified cause through a nationalist lens.”

Where 37 fellow mayors languish in jail, Baydemir, outspoken as he is, has been spared arrest; perhaps because of his popularity or perhaps because of the symbolic importance of Diyarbakir, a city of 1.5 million people and the regional centre of Turkey’s heavily Kurdish southeast.

“The government has shut all legal, democratic channels. This sends Kurds the message: ‘Head to the mountains,'” Baydemir says, referring to PKK camps in northern Iraq and the highlands of southeastern Turkey where it fights Turkish soldiers.

Erdogan would see things quite differently.

He has taken steps leaders before him would never have dared in a country that had outlawed even the use of the Kurdish language until 1991.

As part of efforts to meet EU membership criteria, Erdogan allowed Kurdish television broadcasts and, most recently, elective Kurdish language courses at state schools.

In 2010, he risked the wrath of a conservative establishment by endorsing secret talks with PKK representatives. The talks failed, and the PKK has abandoned a ceasefire.

The last 18 months has seen the heaviest fighting in more than a decade between the PKK and the Turkish army. Since June 2011, when Erdogan was re-elected to a third term, more than 800 people have been killed, the deadliest fighting since PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured and jailed in 1999, according to estimates by the International Crisis Group.

Does Baydemir, then, hold the hope of a mediated political solution, as his supporters argue? Or are he and his party tools of the PKK, as Erdogan has suggested?


Critics say Baydemir and other officials of his Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) have failed to hold the PKK accountable for violence. The EU has urged the BDP to distance itself explicitly from the insurgents. The BDP, for its part, says it shares no overt links, just a common grassroots.

“The BDP is failing those who voted for them to contribute to a political solution of the Kurdish problem,” said Hilal Kaplan, a columnist for the pro-government Yeni Safak newspaper.

“Baydemir is different. He has always questioned the PKK’s effectiveness. But he and others on hunger strike are thumbing their noses at the state just when it was ready to negotiate.”

Many Turks fear the PKK campaign, combined now with Kurdish rebel activity in Syria and the emergence of a strong autonomous Kurdish entity in northern Iraq, could threaten the unity of Turkey and lead to broader ethnic conflict in the country.

Serafettin Elci, an elder statesman in the Kurdish movement, described Baydemir as a tempering influence, an alternative to the lure of the PKK’s promise of forcing change with the gun.

“His genuine aim is to stop the clashes, end the armed struggle and establish a lasting peace between Kurds and the state,” said Elci, who served as a cabinet minister in the 1970s and returned to parliament in 2011 in a bloc with the BDP.

Baydemir announced last Saturday he was joining a hunger strike launched 64 days ago by prisoners and now involving some 1,800 people. The protesters, taking sugar water and vitamins, demand expansion of Kurdish language rights and access to lawyers for Ocalan, now held in an island prison off Istanbul.

A death now, says Baydemir, could only further complicate efforts towards a solution.

The government said last week it would send a bill to parliament to allow defendants to testify in Kurdish in court, a key demand, but cabinet has yet to approve it.

Most of the inmates on hunger strike are either convicted PKK members or accused of links to the Union of Kurdistan Communities (KCK), which the state says is a PKK offshoot.

Many of the KCK defendants, including politicians, lawyers, journalists and others in prison for as long as 3-1/2 years without conviction, belong to the BDP, which Erdogan calls the PKK’s “political extension.”

Baydemir, who studied English in the United States before becoming mayor in 2004, accuses the government of prosecuting those who seek a political alternative to the PKK. That, he says, is the fundamental reason for the escalation in violence.

“We have a powerful prime minister. If he wants to solve the Kurdish issue, he will,” the mayor said.


In 2010, a court barred Baydemir from traveling outside Turkey, but he has thus far escaped the lengthy pre-trial detention of his peers. Some 190 elected officials are in jail, including 37 mayors. Six BDP lawmakers are also behind bars.

“Authorities have probably decided against detaining Osman because he is so well-liked by the Kurdish public. There is a sensitivity towards Diyarbakir,” said Raci Bilici, a successor of Baydemir as secretary of a human rights organization.

Baydemir publicly lashed out at Erdogan following the arrest of Kurdish politicians in December 2009, and, referring to the BDP’s oak tree emblem, asked: “Which branch of the oak tree poked what part of your body?”

Erdogan sued for defamation. Under a court ruling, a quarter of Baydemir’s monthly salary is now sequestered to pay Erdogan compensation totaling some 50,000 lira, with fees and interest.

Facing another 50,000 lira suit from Erdogan – this time for calling the prime minister a “facist” following the arrest of another Kurdish mayor earlier this year – Baydemir has put his house up for sale in anticipation of the verdict.

“Osman may be prone to the occasional, very harsh outburst,” Elci, the veteran Kurdish activist, observed.

“But at heart he is a dove.”

(Editing by Ralph Boulton)

($1 = 1.79 Turkish liras)

“It’s hard to believe a furnace could cause the damage seen in the Indianapolis neighborhood.”

[LINK to expanded view]

[SEE:  Teacher, husband presumed dead in Southeastside Indianapolis explosion]


“Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said investigators will treat the area as a crime scene until they rule out foul play.”

Concerns About Furnace Fuel Indiana Blast Probe

INDIANAPOLIS November 13, 2012 (AP)

As investigators try to determine what caused a deadly explosion that ravaged an Indianapolis subdivision, an expert says people shouldn’t be alarmed by a homeowner’s suggestion that his faulty furnace could be to blame.

Investigators have been looking at gas meters and pipelines as they try to figure out what happened Saturday night when a blast killed two people, obliterated two homes and left dozens more uninhabitable.

John Shirley and his ex-wife own one of the homes leveled in the explosion. Shirley, 50, of Noblesville, said his daughter told him recently that the furnace had gone out in the house she shares with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend. He said his daughter told him the furnace was working again, but he wondered if a leak from the furnace could have led to the explosion that killed a couple next door. No one was in Shirley’s home at the time of the blast, he said.

Scott Davis, president and principal engineer of GexCon US, an explosion investigation firm in Bethesda, Md., said it’s hard to believe a furnace could cause the damage seen in the Indianapolis neighborhood. He noted that most furnaces have multiple safety switches that must be triggered before any gas is used.

“For a furnace to allow that much gas through, you’d have to defeat many of the safety features,” he said.

Public Safety Director Troy Riggs said investigators will treat the area as a crime scene until they rule out foul play. Local and federal investigators say it’s too soon to rule on a cause but are slowly weeding out some possibilities.

Indianapolis House Explosion.JPEG
Citizens Energy workers continue their investigation Monday afternoon Nov. 12, 2012 by digging into the front sidewalk looking for possible explanation into the explosion in Indianapolis. They are checking gas line, but caution it is too soon to rule other possible causes, (AP Photo/ WTHR Chopper 13 /The Indianapolis Star, Matt Kryger)

The National Transportation Safety Board sent investigators to check the integrity of a gas main and other lines serving the neighborhood, and local gas supplier Citizens Energy said it also was checking gas lines.

“It’s too early to speculate that this might have been caused by a gas leak,” Citizens Energy spokeswoman Sarah Holsapple said.

Gas explosions have leveled neighborhoods before, including a 2011 explosion that killed five in Allentown, Pa., and a blast in 2010 in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people and destroyed 38 homes. Both of those cases were tied to gas pipelines. A gas leak in a Colorado home last month sparked an explosion that sent five people to a hospital and damaged several nearby homes.

Davis said he’s seen a home explosion caused by a malfunctioning furnace before, but it did not level the house.

For an explosion to occur, he said, the amount of natural gas in a confined space must reach a certain level before it can ignite. In many cases, ventilation or a low flow of fuel prevents an explosion from being strong enough to level multiple houses, he said.

Holsapple said investigators are looking at the gas meter for the home believed to have been the starting point for the blast, but she wouldn’t comment on whether the house had unusually high gas usage in recent days.

The blast Saturday sparked a massive fire, blew out windows, collapsed ceilings and shook homes up to three miles away, forcing about 200 people out of their homes. The bodies of Jennifer Longworth, a popular second-grade teacher in the nearby suburb of Greenwood, and her husband John, a product developer for a consumer electronics company, were found in the basement of their home, which was destroyed.

Some residents who survived have been allowed to reoccupy their homes, and others will be escorted in to spend an hour to retrieve belongings in the coming days. Adam Collins, the city’s deputy code enforcement director, said 29 houses remained uninhabitable Monday.

Barry Chipman, whose house was damaged but is still habitable, hopes those who’ve lost their homes will rebuild. But he acknowledged Monday that the fabric of the close-knit neighborhood has been altered permanently.

“It’s never going to be the same when you’ve had people lost their lives,” he said.


Associated Press researchers Lynn Dombek and Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.

Lebanon’s Latest Wahhabi Troublemaker Tries To Turn Posters Into Justification for Civil War

Salafi Sheikh Livid Over Saida Ashoura Posters

Lebanon’s Salafist leader Ahmad al-Assir marches with supporters during the funeral of two of his supporters, who died during Sunday’s fighting with supporters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, in Saida, Lebanon 12 November 2012. (Photo: Reuters – Ali Hashisho)

By: Amal Khalil

Published Monday, November 12, 2012

Salafi Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir is back at it, trying to instigate a Sunni-Shia confrontation, this time in his southern hometown of Saida. After a Friday sermon berating Hezbollah, he and his supporters went on the offensive on Sunday, leaving death and injury in their wake.

This past Friday, Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir of Saida gave a sermon titled “Our Peace and Their Aggression,” in which he gave Hezbollah 48 hours to remove its posters commemorating Ashoura from the outskirts of Saida. The Shia party had placed the signs on the edges of the city as a marker of the death of the revered Imam Hussein.

“We are not mobilizing against the Shia sect,” Assir told his congregation in Saida’s Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. “Our goal is to bring down the party of assassin.” He said that the “banners of Iran’s party…will be raised over my dead body.”

On Saturday, Assir’s supporters threatened to take to Saida’s streets to remove Hezbollah’s banners and launch a sit-in against the Shia party’s “complete domination of the city.” In particular, they demanded the removal of an Israeli armored personnel carrier that the Resistance had captured and placed it in one of the city’s main roundabouts.

The authorities, including Minister of Interior Marwan Charbel and a number of other local and security officials, contacted Assir in an attempt to calm him down. Hezbollah’s leadership was also contacted to convince them to take down their banners to help defuse the situation.

Meanwhile, the head of army intelligence in the South sent a message to Assir warning him that the security forces planned to deal firmly with any attempts to undermine the city’s stability. Hezbollah, for its part, heeded the advice to take down their signs from major intersections in Saida.

On Sunday morning, Assir seemed ready to calm things down, telling the press that he did not plan to make any moves as long as the banners had been taken down. By the afternoon, his tone changed completely; a call for the sheikh’s supporters to gather in the mosque appeared on Assir’s Facebook page.

The reason for this change of heart was news that Ashoura banners were being hung on street poles in an area not far from the Bilal Bin Rabah Mosque. Others believe that the real reason was to create a divergence for an incident involving Assir’s 15-year-old son, Omar, on the coastal highway.

Omar was apparently stopped at an Internal Security Forces (ISF) checkpoint for driving a car with tinted windows without the necessary paperwork from the interior ministry. The ISF also discovered that the driver was underaged and didn’t have a license, so they detained him and his vehicle.


Within minutes, the ISF checkpoint was mobbed by the sheikh and his supporters, demanding that Omar be released. After threatening the commanding officer, Assir succeeded in retrieving his son and left. 

The army quickly deployed to the area where the Ashoura banners were reportedly being hung, hoping to stave off any confrontations between the young men who had congregated in the area awaiting Assir’s arrival.

News soon came that the sheikh’s motorcade was instead headed toward Taameer, a poor and religiously mixed neighborhood that lies on the edge of the Ain al-Helweh Palestinian refugee camp. As the sound of gunfire rose from the area, few local officials were able to reach Taameer to prevent any confrontation.

Sheikh Zayd Daher, Hezbollah’s representative in Saida, was among the first to arrive at the scene. He tried to convince local residents to take down a poster hung quite some time ago that included an image of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, to which Assir’s supporters were objecting.

This is when a motorcade of seven cars, carrying Assir and his companions, arrived at the scene and immediately started firing in all directions. The first to fall was 14-year-old Ali Sharbini, an Egyptian national, who later died. When Daher tried to pick up the wounded child, he was shot twice, in the stomach and shoulder.

The response from some local residents was near immediate, as they started firing on Assir’s motorcade, killing two of his bodyguards.

Sunday’s events are nothing more than a dress rehearsal for a civil war, featuring sectarian incitement followed by armed attacks. New lines of confrontation were drawn as people fled their tense neighborhoods seeking shelter.

Later, Assir claimed in a statement that he and a group of supporters had gone to the Taameer area to peacefully remove a provocative banner placed there by Hezbollah. Upon arriving, the statement said, they were fired on with intent to kill. In order to open a safe passage for the sheikh, his companions were forced to fire back. It concluded by saying, “We were peaceful, but we fell into a trap.”

At the request of Prime Minister Najib Mikati, Minister of Interior Charbel headed to Saida on Sunday evening to hold a meeting with regional security officials. In the meantime the army was deployed throughout the city to prevent any roads from being blocked and to maintain calm.

After his meeting, Charbel recommended that the government issue an order that Saida become a military zone. This would allow the army to set up checkpoints and deploy troops to impose order in the city. For their part, the two Shia parties – Amal and Hezbollah – called on their supporters to remain calm and avoid any provocation that may lead to further confrontations.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

$100 Million Islamic Centre for Kabul KSA’s Opening Move on the Afghan Chessboard

Islamic Centre: KSA’s Strategic Move on the Afghan Chessboard

By Khalil NOURI (USA)

Islamic Centre: KSA’s Strategic Move on the Afghan ChessboardAfghanistan is an ideal springboard and battleground for the spread of Saudi Sunni Wahhabism and Iranian Shiite fundamentalism throughout Central Asia; especially out towards the former Soviet breakaway nations that are hungry for any teaching necessary to fill the failed Bolshevik indoctrination vacuum; especially any form of Islam. Their knowledge of Islam was undeniably negated and atrophied after they were absorbed by the Soviet Union. Indeed, it is a race against time for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to dominate the region with their unique versions of the Moslem religion.

Ever since the Soviet’s pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989, this war-ravaged country has turned into the battleground for a proxy war among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Now, however, this competition has taken a more robust form. Saudi Arabia has shifted its strategy by spending $100 million towards building an Islamic Centre in Kabul; to lure its Taliban protégés into efforts to reconcile with Kabul; and to neutralize Iran’s revolutionary message in Afghanistan and the region.

The influential Sunni monarchy “House of Saud” is embarking on a public display of diplomacy to position itself for a bigger and more prominent regional role by building a hefty priced Islamic complex in Afghanistan. A strategy solicited and cheered on by the naïve and incompetent Kabul elites who assume a peaceful solution is on the horizon, but the full consequence of all this has yet to be seen as the oil-rich Gulf States are on a direct collision course with their Shiite rival Iran. This is where Iran’s regional escalation of Islamic radicalization will play out as their foreign policy tool.

Pakistan too, will have the lion’s share of spreading Islamic radicalism by strengthening its “strategic depth” against its archrival India on the Afghan chessboard.

As a result, killing three birds with one stone is savoir-faire and a well calculated effort by Saudis and Pakistan by spreading Wahhabism, which Ayatollah Khomeini once called “America’s Islam.”

The proposed sprawling 75 acre (on Kabul’s hilltop known as “Tap-e-Maranjan”) mosque, Islamic Centre and education center will teach thousands of students. It will immediately be equated to the enormous Iranian-built “Khatem al-Nabyeen” Shiite Islamic University and religious school in Western Kabul; which was built at a cost of some $17 million by one of Afghanistan’s most Iranian-inclined clerics in 2006.  The campus has a mosque, classrooms, and dormitories for its 1,000 students.

This religious rivalry raises a score of unanswered questions, such as:  whether it’s curing Afghanistan’s decades of old problems or just spreading new hatred, disunity and terrorism in the country and region?
Is it crucial to build mainstream universities, hospitals, polytechnic institutions, arts and humanities Institutions to create a more bright future for the young Afghans or is it just to meet Saudi interests?
Is it vital to provide essential needs for the poor and deprived Afghan majority or are Saudis just showing off by building a pricey mosque?

The Saudis justify their position by stating; “This Islamic Centre has several aims, one is to ensure good relations between Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia and it is not a political centre but an independent centre.

Indeed, such talk is despicable, as words are plentiful and deeds are precious. In fact, the Saudis’ “outside show” is a poor substitute for their inner worth.

That said, the Saudi deeds were bold and transparent after the 1989 Soviet pullout, when Washington and Moscow pledged not to interfere in Afghanistan. That decision turned the war-ravaged country into a battleground for a proxy war among Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

Are we envisioning another repeat of post Soviet withdrawal but this time doomed to radicalize the region by eliminating Sufi Islam in Afghanistan and firmly establishing Wahhabi Islam, which is the root cause of terrorism in the world?

Khalil Nouri is a member of NWSC (New World Strategies Coalition) a think tank founded by native Afghans that creates nonmilitary solutions for Afghanistan.

Russia plans navy bases in Syria, Libyia, Yemen–Jan. 16, 2009

[Did Obama or Hillary read this in 2009?]

Russia plans navy bases in Syria, Libyia, Yemen


Jan. 16, 2009

As a sign of Moscow’s growing foreign policy ambitions, Russia has decided to Establish naval bases in Libya, Syria and Yemen within a few years. “It is difficult to say how much time it will take to create the bases for our fleet in these countries, but within a few years this will be done without question,” a military official was quoted as saying.

Russia, Yemen, Syria, Libya, navy, bases arab, countries, Kremlin 

Photo: AP. Russia decided to increase its presence in the Middle East

“The political decision on this question has been taken,” the official said. A spokesman for the Russian navy could not immediately be reached for comment.

A senior general said it was too early to name any foreign ports that could host Russian bases.

“There are negotiations Conducted with foreign governments. Search publications (on bases) may have a negative effect on the way of these talks,” Itar-Tass quoted the Russian army’s deputy chief of staff, Colonel-General Anatoly Nogovitsyn, as saying.

The Kremlin is seeking to play a more assertive role in world politics and has been using its military to project its new-found confidence beyond its borders.

Analysts have said that the Syrian port of Tartus could be revived as a Russian naval base. During the Cold War, the Soviet navy had a permanent presence in the Mediterranean, using Tartus as a supply point.

Russian media reported that opening a naval base in the Libyan port of Benghazi was among the main issues discussed during Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s visit to Moscow in October last year.

Nogovitsyn said it was unclear when Russian naval bases abroad could open. “No one can forecast when this problem will be solved,” he told Itar-Tass. “We need permanent bases, and this is very costly. You have to thoroughly calculate it all”

Russia had to vacate the Cam Ranh base in Vietnam in 2002. Because its rent was becoming a burden for the state coffers

“Now we have learned to count our money,” Nogovitsyn said.

Qatar and Israel discuss plans to assassinate the Syrian president

Leaked information has disclosed that Qatar and Israel have held a secret meeting to review plans to assassinate Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The meeting which was held in the occupied lands included Qatar’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad Bin Jassim Bin Jaber Al-Thani, Qatari intelligence chief Ahmed Nasser bin Jassim al-Thani, head of Israeli spy agency the Mossad Tamir Pardo and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Mossad chief also offered several proposals for assassination of the Syrian president.

The Qatari premier also said that his country is ready to supply Israel with free natural gas and very low-priced gasoline for two years after the assassination is carried out.

Netanyahu also asked the Qatari officials whether the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC) is ready to recognize Israel after the collapse of Bashar al-Assad.

The Looming Sunni-Shia Crisis

The Looming Sunni-Shia Crisis

Posted By Kelley Vlahos

No one — not Washington, nor the establishment press — seems ready to confront the Sunni-Shia conflagration that threatens to rock whatever narrow foreign policy hold the U.S. has in the region, promising a bleak landscape of war for years to come.

Foreign policy had been largely sidelined in American political discourse over the last year, but now that President Obama has secured a second term, and the roiling conditions in the Middle East before November 6 haven’t subsided — they will become harder to ignore.

“No one is paying attention to this,” says Adil Shamoo [1], an Iraqi-American author and professor at the University of Maryland. Shamoo was born and raised in Iraq and is a Chaldean Christian who is horrified at the sectarian strife that has divided his native country since the American invasion of Iraq nearly 10 years ago [2]. He sees the American presence there as unleashing the simmering tensions between the Sunni and long-repressed Shia majority, leading to institutional discrimination and a backlash against other religious minorities, particularly the now-dwindling Iraqi Christian population [3]. Worse, he sees the conflict playing out throughout the region today.

“I think it’s the most dangerous development in the Middle East, in the Muslim world,” he told TAC in a recent interview, “because you’re talking about hundreds of millions of people potentially fighting each other and it has become real now.”

The American presidential debates completely ignored the issue of sectarian violence erupting in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Pakistan — even though U.S. foreign policy directly concerns each country. Washington placed the new Shia-dominated government in Iraq into power. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has since handed down four death sentences [4] against Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, who is in exile. The U.S. still supports the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, despite widespread reports of human rights abuses and the torture of political prisoners. The government there has actually started revoking the citizenship of dissenters. [5]

Violence in Syria is already spilling over into Lebanon, which has implications for Israel, neighboring Jordan, and even Washington’s tenuous negotiations with Iran, a stalwart ally of Syria.

American policies affect many of these powerful dramas unfolding today — Washington being both an extra and a principal player. It is key that the world’s “superpower” does not rush to its usual inclination, to steal the show, warns Shamoo. “There is a reservoir of good will towards Americans, but there is a bigger reservoir of anti-Americanism,” he said. The next several weeks and months will tell how the president grapples with each explosive flash point.


The uprising in Syria, launched by the majority Sunni, some 74 percent of the country, is struggling to topple the authoritarian rule of President Bashar Al Assad, who represents the minority Alawites [6], a sect of Shiism which broke off from the main branch of Shia a thousand years ago.

“We want just what they got in Tunis and Egypt,” Mahmoud Razak, a shop-keeper in the outer suburbs, told The Guardian recently [7]. “Freedom and the chance to progress in life. But we thought it would take 19 days like it took [in Egypt]. It’s now 19 months. We didn’t know it would be this difficult.”

In the meantime, Syria has become the epicenter in the long-anticipated Sunni-Shia confrontation, with besieged President Assad reportedly drawing support from Iran and Lebanon via Hezbollah,[8] as well as Shia fighters from Iraq, and the minority Kurds, who (with possibly their own long-term sights on independence) fighting the rebels in the north [9], enjoined by Kurdish compatriots from over the Turkish border. Noted the New York Times [10]:

Some Iraqi Shiites are traveling to Tehran first, where the Iranian government, Syria’s chief regional ally, is flying them to Damascus, Syria’s capital. Others take tour buses from the Shiite holy city of Najaf, Iraq, on the pretext of making a pilgrimage to an important Shiite shrine in Damascus that for months has been protected by armed Iraqis. While the buses do carry pilgrims, Iraqi Shiite leaders say, they are also ferrying weapons, supplies and fighters to aid the Syrian government.

“Dozens of Iraqis are joining us, and our brigade is growing day by day,” Ahmad al-Hassani, a 25-year-old Iraqi fighter, said by telephone from Damascus. He said that he arrived there two months ago, taking a flight from Tehran. The Iraqi Shiites are joining forces with Shiite fighters from Lebanon and Iran, driving Syria ever closer to becoming a regional sectarian battlefield.

Meanwhile, arms and financial assistance are flowing to the rebels from the Gulf States and Turkey, all predominantly Sunni. Jihadi fighters have streamed in seeking the same ideological struggle playing out in Muslim power vacuums from Afghanistan to North Africa, according to recent reports. The majority of these religious jihadis among the opposition in Syria are Syrians, according to the Guardian, however:

… it has become clear that extremist Salafi or jihadi groups, some linked to al-Qaida, are now a significant element of the armed opposition. Alongside fighters from al-Qaida in Iraq or Fatah al-Islam from Lebanon is the mysterious Jabhat al-Nusra, which has claimed responsibility for suicide bombings in Damascus and Aleppo. It is sympathetic to al-Qaida. Others hail from Jordan, Libya and Algeria.

In October, the Washington Post reported that at least 150 Islamists from Jordan were fighting in Syria with Jabhat al-Nusra, and a number of “ultraconservative Islamists” or salafists, who have been arrested in Jordan [11], ostensibly preparing for jihad in Syria. Jordan, ruled by the Sunni monarchy of King Abdullah II, has its own fervent democracy movement [12] to contend with, as well as refugees from Syria who continue to pour into the country. Abdullah has maintained official ties with Assad, but like other states in the region, Jordan has encouraged Assad to step down.

The Syrian opposition is feeling the burden of a religious war building on their efforts at democracy, too, according to writer Martin Chulov:

For the most part, the opposition movement is staying true to the ethos that led many of the country’s towns and citizens to mount a challenge to President Bashar al-Assad’s absolute state control over their lives. But around the fringes, there are signs that the revolution’s original values are starting to fray. The narrative of a defiant street versus a draconian state, so simple in March 2011, is now far more complicated.

Mary Wakefield, reporting for The Spectator, recently toured the shaky corridor along the Bakaa Valley [13], between Lebanon and Syria. It is a paranoid and scarred place. “Everyone in the region is either for or against Bashir al-Assad’s regime, it’s a bipolar world: Christians and Shia mostly for, Sunnis mostly against.”

For these and many other reasons, the Obama administration has refrained from getting involved in the conflict with anything other than “non-lethal support.” Becoming a lead player on this stage could have serious repercussions beyond the soft lines of the Syrian territorial map.


In October, a 70-kilogram bomb targeted and killed the Sunni head of the Lebanese Internal Security Forces-Informational Branch, Gen. Wissam al-Hassan, in a predominantly Christian quarter of Beirut.

According to reports, Hassan was an ally of the U.S. and Israel in monitoring the activities of Hezbollah and pro-Syrian forces within Lebanon. Both Syria and Hezbollah have been accused of plotting Hassan’s murder, instigating a massive wave of anti-Shia/Syrian violence in the city. Some have even called for a toppling of the Lebanese government, of which Hezbollah is a ruling faction. According to the Wall Street Journal [14]:

Because of Gen. Hassan’s ties to the West, Arab and Western officials said they believed last Friday’s car bombing in central Beirut …was a warning from Syria and Iran. Its aim, these people say, was to warn anti-Syrian politicians in Lebanon and the West not to work for the overthrow of Mr. Assad’s regime in Damascus.

Both Syria and Hezbollah officials have denied involvement. As the Washington Post [15] explains:

At the same time, Hezbollah’s political rivals in Lebanon are out for blood, led by a Sunni-led bloc still inflamed by painful memories of the assassination of former prime minister Rafik Hariri in a car bomb attack in 2005. The group has vowed to topple the government led by Prime Minister Najib Mikati, which could significantly weaken Hezbollah’s political power

“We are targeting Najib Mikati, but we mean Hezbollah,” said Nouhad Mashnouk, a member of parliament with the bloc opposed to the Syrian government. Both Hariri and Hassan were key leaders of the Sunni Muslim community, and their violent deaths have deepened the sectarian divide between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in Lebanon.


Not all Shia-Sunni tensions are connected to Syria, at least not yet.

Just last month, the Bahraini ruling Sunni monarchy banned all street protests nationwide [16]. The decree came 21 months after the Shia, which represent 70 percent of Bahrain’s population, took to the streets in their own version of the Arab Spring, demanding democracy and an end to the institutional discrimination keeping their people largely unemployed and living in quasi-apartheid conditions.

The strife has caused some 50 deaths, mostly activists, in the last two years, amid major police crackdowns that left Shia protesters filled with birdshot or tortured in government prisons, according to human rights observers. The interior minister nonetheless blamed the campaigners for abusing the privilege and shut all the rallies down, promising legal repercussions if they took to the streets from this point forward.

This has put the American government in a bind, since Bahrain and its biggest ally, Saudi Arabia (which has been accused of covertly fueling sectarian tensions throughout the Middle East), are its own best friends in the region. The Bahraini monarchy also has a cozy relationship with western media and especially, Washington lobbyists, insulating it from the kind of scrutiny that say, Egypt faced during its revolution. [17] The White House has been criticized not being more vocal about the violence against protesters and the obvious stifling of dissent.


According to a recent report [17] by Michael Georgy for Reuters, more than 300 Shia have been killed by Sunni extremists in Pakistan in the last year. The group Lashkar-e-Jhagvi or LeJ, has “grown more robust and appears to be operating across a much wider area in Pakistan than just a few years ago.” They’ve been linked to both the Taliban and al Qaeda and are responsible for some of the most violent terror attacks in recent times, targeting the Shia, which account for about 20 percent of Pakistan’s population.

Revenge comes in the form of Shia extremist attacks, sometimes backed by Iran, Georgy writes: “Sunni and Shi’ites, who have lived together for decades, now cope with sectarian no-go zones.”

Dealing with a Sunni-Shia showdown on a grand scale has been a “no-go zone” for most Washington lawmakers and even the foreign policy establishment, which seems to prefer addressing one conflict area at a time. The spillover from the Syrian conflict could wreak havoc on places already made fragile by years of war, poverty, and corruption.

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance reporter and TAC contributing editor.