Category Archives: ISIS

The New Xenophobia

One of the scarier consequences of the Paris Terror Attacks are the waves of renewed xenophobia that have swept Europe’s already seething right wing, and somewhat surprisingly travelled across the Atlantic.  The suicide bombings by jihadis were widely mapped in Paris at first, in attempts to comprehend the coordinated suicide bombings and sites at which terrorists struck with AK47’s and Kalshnikovs in quite shocking near-simultaneity.  (Coordination of the attacks, which claimed 130 lives, and left 368 wounded, undoubtedly increased their terror, and eerily echoed the parallel hijacking of planes on September 11, 2001, in suggesting vulnerability and geographic reach of an unseen network.)

The transformation of reflexive spontaneous public displays mourning the victims or in solidarity with migrants have all too rapidly been replaced in many European cities, as if leading us through a looking glass, into nationalist protests of anti-migrant sentiment, channeling fears that have grown with threats of another attack into neo-nationalist sentiments–as if governments had failed to defend public safety, following on the immediate declaration of a state of emergency, closing of borders, and multiplication of police raids.  The initial reflexive show of widespread solidarity of mourning and commemoration at the unprecedented attacks appeared to heal profound shock and disbelief at the murders at outdoor restaurants and night clubs in Paris and attempted assassinations at a soccer stadium attended by the President of the Republic outside the city.   Those public displays of sentiment contrasted sharply to how the deadly attacks have fed a new xenophobia in Europe and America, and a deep suspicion of the “other” of the refugee–now increasingly suspected of disguising their own ties to terrorist cells.  If these protests appears–inadequately–to orient and focus fears of further terror attacks of such terrifying scale, they suggest the disorientation before the shock of the Paris attacks, if not outright cynical deception.  After ISIS claimed responsibility for the coordinated attacks,  President Hollande’s immediate declaration that ‘France is at war prepared the stage for a rhetoric of opposition evoking George W. Bush’s declaration of a clash of civilizations, giving broader circulation to a misguided concept first theorized by Samuel P. Huntington, but that gained startling currency to justify the so-called war on terror:  it returned as a master-narrative of global oppositions reduced to the easiest alterity of us v. them and cast less in terms of law than religion; if it was readily reclaimed by ISIS news releases to magnify the actions of a group of attackers resident in Belgium who were second-and third-generation immigrants, the group of plotters was not based in Syria.

Despite clearly harmful over-simplifications in so faulty an opposition, the narrative have mobilized unjustified fears of infiltration removed from evidence:  mapping ties between ISIS and the perpetrators of the attacks shifted nefariously to mapping terror onto Syrian refugees.  Only three days after shock and outpouring of global sympathy to shootings that left 129 dead in six simultaneously timed attacks in the city’s center, fears of infiltration of displaced Syrian refugees by ISIS terrorist cells have gained unprecedented currency based on only the flimsiest of circumstantial proofs.  It is as if this responds to the relative inadequacy and failure of efforts to comprehend the plight or the scope of needs of Syrian refugees, and shock at the use of military-grade weapons in civil spaces.  Many of the multiple attackers in fact held French or Belgian nationality, and for disaffected underemployed Europeans living in the Brussels’ district of Molenbeek and other poor urban neighborhoods, the Islamic State appears to have exercised a particular appeal.  And although the attacks were coordinated by the Belgian ISIS Lieutenant  Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who sought to impress higher ups with a devastating attack in France, the group of terrorists and gunmen, if many were trained in Syria, are poorly mapped onto Syrians writ large, even if they were adept in evading security forces at airports and in cars.  For despite his presence in every available database of terror, Abaaoud evaded suspicion, as did other Paris plotters and Belgian jihadists, who had sequestered large amounts of triacetonea triperoxide explosives and automatic explosives.  The danger of terrorist threats and operations is profoundly mis-mapped and poorly apprehended as originating abroad, even if Abaaoud was indeed eager to “do jihad”:   ISIS propaganda has lavished praise on the “eight knights” for having “brought Paris down to its knees” but increasing evidence points to local coordination of the attacks, most probably planned and executed by a contingent of Europeans.  Yet rather than being coordinated at a remove from secretive locations in Pakistan, Syria, or Yemen, as Al Quaeda, European residents who joined ISIS have apparently hatched plots of their own–as firing automatics at close range in a concert hall or stadium–that reflect ISIS’ increased exploitation of social media and crowd funding to attract jihadis eager to pose beside the black ISIS flag.

 

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From ISIS’ online recruiting magazine, Dabiq

The topography of the Paris attacks is increasingly reveled to have unfolded in the changing urban sociology of European cities in France and Belgium, and neighborhoods plagued by high unemployment rates and disaffected youth as St. Denis and Molenbeek; although some suspects have indeed traveled to Syria, they are removed from a central command, and seem to have enacted their own fantasies of violence in crowded public spaces (a rock arena and soccer stadium), rather than being orchestrated from abroad as the French President Hollande has asserted: indeed, despite the target of ISIS’s Syrian de facto capital, many of the ISIS higher ups have left the city long ago, and bombs are focussed, it is argued, on empty lots.  The perpetrators are among thee roughly one thousand French citizens and six hundred Germans who have travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State; over 3,000 Europeans committed to jihad, attracted in part by IS’s increasingly effective use of the internet as a recruitment and fundraising tool, as well as for diffusing a call to jihad.

 

1. It is striking how public spectacles of collective mourning have rapidly mutated into frustration to contain deep fears of where terrorists might strike, and desperation at the unexpected attacks–even as parallel protests have occurred sympathetic to the plight of refugees.

The government’s official denunciation of attacks as “planned in Syria” have justified airstrikes against the Syrian capital of the Islamic State, led to over 600 raids and numerous house arrests across France, and increased visible military presence in much of the nation.  French President François Hollande’s involvement of the army across the country “confirms we are at war“–as is, by extension, suddenly, much of the world.  The absence of the face of the “enemy” has led concern to be projected upon the next potentially scary suspect, in an attempt to contain fears of repeat attacks, with the whereabouts of their actual coordinator unknown.  We assume that it must be contained in fixed border, and arrive from a place that lies far outside the boundaries of the European Union.

 

Islamic State's Frontier

 

Yet if France is at war, where’s the enemy?  Molenbeek?  The problem of mapping the threat has provided substantiation of deeper fears of the arrival of terror cells in the European Union’s borders whose provenance was limited to the Middle East is no longer tenable, and the bombing of unidentified targets in Syria may not even be an adequate response to a network of men in their late twenties or early thirties, mostly petty criminals, who are presumed to have recently traveled to Syria.  Even if their radicalization occurred in Syria, they are not refugees.

 

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New York Times

 

The lack of clear compass to where the enemy exists has made the apparent insinuation of terrorism into the European Union so startling that a finger has been quite deceptively pointed toward refugees.  A similar lack of knowledge and growing fears of further attacks have come to justify an unprecedented public expansion of xenophobic protests calling for a rethinking of the European Union’s previous decision to admit refugees.  These protests, stoked by threats of continued terror attacks, mirror a broad attack on outside, external forces as if they have indeed coordinated the vicious jihadi attacks, and the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa constitutes an odd localization of the the terrorist threat.  Bombings have been unleashed against northern Syria, announced to be in retaliation, concentrated in the operational capital of the Islamic State, have been concentrated on its outskirts.  Even in the face of evidence locating coordination of attacks in Paris among local jihadis, the unprecedented intensification of anti-migrant rhetoric across Europe mismaps and exploits the danger of further jihadi attacks in irresponsible ways, largely because of the discovery of a Syrian passport near the corpse of one suicide bomber in the Paris attacks at the Stade de Paris.

 

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The Syrian refugee crisis has already provoked severe human rights violations, from sequestrations and confinements to arrests and strip-searches, and numbering, dehumanizing displaced refugees who try to enter Europe in search of residence and work.  The renewed currency of ties between terror and migrants have also led American politicians eager to find common ground to condemn Barack Obama’s offers of asylum within the United States to those displaced–as if it constituted a heedless abetting of the spread of terror attacks, mirroring inflated anti-refugee rhetoric throughout the European Union.  The wholesale borrowing of such groundless charges from right wing European parties is a particularly toxic manifestation of anti-Islamic xenophobia, transported by means of tweets and social media, and giving rise to a melding of anti-immigrant xenophobia and nationalism that attract an inverse demographic than protests welcoming immigrants in recent months, demanding their repatriation and literally cloaking themselves in regional nationalisms.

 

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Russia Today

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DW

The protest of Germans anointing themselves as “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the Occident” hearken back to visions of oppositional political history framed by Karl Schmitt in the Nazi period.  The pressure they have put on Germany’s continued promises to resettle refugees has forced its Minster of Justice, Heiko Maas, to caution against equating refugees with terrorists, and affirm the absence of any actual ties between Syrian migrants and the perpetrators of the Paris attacks, and the EU to tighten security on the boundaries on the Schengen region.

The actual geography on the ground hasn’t at all changed.  But the links already insinuated between hidden terrorist cells and Syrian refugees have materialized as a rationale for collectively turning our backs on the growing refugee crisis as if our actual well being and survival depended on it–and the acceptance of refugees has provided an entry point of sleeper cells who may execute similar attacks.  As the manhunt for the terrorists who committed the atrocities has expanded, waves of panic have spread, stoked by accusations that resemble a witch craze, as the association of migrants and terrorists has virally mutated not only in Europe, but migrated across the Atlantic to the United States, in ways that stand to infect political discourse and debate.  The recent reassessment of how open America’s doors would remain to refugees–and absurd request for assurances that none would engage in “terroristic activity,” as Greg Abbot of Texas put it, or, as Senator John McCain glibly demanded, while defending migrant asylum, that “there’s a process that prohibits any kind of infiltration like we’ve just seen in Paris,” entirely misses the point.  And they stand to expand the waiting-time to process Syrian refugees in the United States beyond the  18 to 24 months now required, and hamstring plans to grant 10,000 refugees asylum in 2016–by requiring the heads of the FBI and Secretary of Homeland Security to personally approve each refugee for entrance, radically reworking practices of processing Syrian and Iraqi refugees at a crucial and sensitive time.

The discovery of a passport of the Syrian Ahmad Almohammad, who entered Europe from the island of Leros in Greece and the traversed the Balkans, near one site of terrorist attack offered circumstantial evidence but needed grist to identify refugees who have arrived in Europe with feared terrorist groups.  Links between ISIS terrorists and Syrians refugees in Europe acquired the sort of substantiation which politicians believed to exist, even if they were not searching for them.  Although no previous proofs of actual connections exist that could have prevented the Paris attacks, the fingerprints of one of the suicide bombers on a Syrian passport has suddenly substantiated fears of terrorist infiltration of groups of millions of undocumented refugees.  Such identifying signs, no doubt since they provide the archetypical clues for how the police have apprehended and identified criminals, offer the needed grist for inflammatory ties between national security and displaced Syrian migrants and substantiating long latent xenophobic fears.  The documented passage of the holder of the passport through the Greek island of Leros tied to the cluster of deadly attacks under the name Ahmad Almohammad suddenly offered possible grounds to fear potential infiltration by Islamic State operatives among the 1.5 millions displaced entering Europe from Turkey–even though the other perpetrators were of longstanding European residence, including a French national and Belgian resident.  The poor sense of the geography of terror is to blame.  For even the discovery of the even crudest hand-drawn map of a route from Turkey through Greece and Hungary to Germany provokes speculation about terrorist plots.  Suspicions of the presence 4,000 “covert gunmen” in Europe have been stoked by ISIS videos promising further attacks, and led refugees to be stopped on suspicion in Turkish port cities.

Ahmad was clearly not the ringleader of the operations–local police finger the Belgian-born jihadist Abdelhamid Abaaoud–but the apparent presence of a Syrian refugee at a site of terror has provided the needed catalyst for expanding increasingly inflammatory rhetoric linking jihadi terrorism to Syrian refugees, despite the unfounded nature of these links.  The potential links of terrorist threats and the arrival of Syrian refugees in Europe has been often cited by countries than had already built barbed wire fences in order to discourage the arrival and block the progress of Syrian refugees across the Balkans in the Schengen region.  The border barriers built in Greece, Hungary, Bulgaria and Croatia served as physical barriers to transit points of entrance to the Schengen area of passport-free travel–

 

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But the identification of the fingerprints–regarded as a clue that conceals the illogical association of guilt with all refugees from the region to seek a home in Europe–has become grounds to criticize whatever agreement existed for resettling refugees within the European Union.

And so, three days after outbursts of sympathy and horror at the Paris shootings, panic has been fostered about the fear for admitting terrorists disguised as refugees and displaced.  European nations from Poland to Czechoslovakia, a nation already eager to turn away refugees from its borders, and a rousing chorus of tweets from others to close their borders in the light of terror attacks for which ISIS claimed responsibility,–by linking the danger of the further attacks that ISIS has promised to the presence of refugees within their borders, as if accepting refugees constituted surefire vulnerability to further attacks.  But even closing borders won’t help stave off the attacks that ISIS promises would be repeated, though the reflexive agenda of far-right politicians in Europe–and, shortly after, in the U.S.–has been surprisingly swift.  Poland provided one of the easiest cases for accepting this policy, its new right-wing government having been elected on a platform of anti-migrant platform.  Such right-wing opponents of accepting refugees have even found recognition and previously implausible legitimacy as defenders of the common good:  they obscure the fact that such home-grown jihadis originate in districts of European cities with unemployment rates exceeds 30%.

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The Paris attacks may have broken a delicately negotiated managed solution to a growing crisis, despite the reluctance of Austria, Hungary, and other nations.  Only shortly after the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker, instituted an emergency quota system to spread the admittance of an expanding number of refugees who entered the Schengen region among EU member states and their neighbors–requiring almost all of the member states to welcome a total of 160,000 people–the Paris attacks that claimed 129 victims have provided a pretext for Europeans as the incoming Polish president or Slovakia’s government to bend to popular protests against the acceptance of immigrants from Syria and the Middle East.  (None other than the now-cranky Lech Walesa has reared his head again as a nationalist spokesperson, asking the world “to remember that Poland has been transitioning from communism for only 25 years.”)  Yet the market has little to do with the rampant xenophobia nourished in anti-migrant marches in Polish cities, which have prominently included emblems of explicit nationalist protectionism.

But the Euroscepticism of several incoming conservative governments has relished in having found new fodder for their claims.  Just after an equably distribution of refugees among Europeans seemed reached, the shock of processing the terrible deaths of innocent civilians in Paris seems to have helped redraw the map again, giving far-right European politicians from Marine Le Pen–tweeting an “immediate halt to all intake of migrants in France”–and Poland’s European Affairs Minister Konrad Symanskic, with Viktor Orbán not far behind, occasion to tweet about the need to close borders to prevent unsubstantiated fears of terrorist infiltration.  Even in France, where President Hollande had recently if only grudgingly decided to accept 24,000 displaced refugees over two years, the readiness to evoke fears of admitting unwanted terror cells give expression and justification to longstanding deeply-seated anti-migrant and -immigrant attitudes that have been suddenly given a new boost by conservative social media.

While Facebook unveiled the Safety Check app to alert friends ‘I’m Safe’ just after the Paris shootings, post-shooting tweets have disseminated particularly dangerous rallying cries from the right on social media.  The rage of tweets from members of the radical right from Filip Dewinter of the Flemish secessionist Vlaams Belsang party to Nigel Farage of England’s UKIP echoed the decision another Eurosceptic, Poland’s Foreign Minister, to use the events to revise his nation’s policy toward migrants.  The tragedy has sadly provoked the weirder, post-tragedy tragedy of making it even harder for refugees to be accepted in Europe who are fleeing ongoing civil war, even as that war seems to have visited Europe.  The New Xenophobia is of the most dangerous sort–a xenophobia prominently rooted in the fear of enemy agents potentially destabilizing the nation, based on linking the displaced to the most nightmarish event visited on a nation for several years.  The new xenophobia stigmatizes the humane acceptance of displaced migrants based on the paranoid fear that displaced migrants, rather than seeking asylum, seek to attack our security and our cities and our homes.

The stoking of all this barely logical fear has, back in our own country, somehow swiftly set the stage for the weirdly unpredicted closing of ranks that Presidential candidate Donald Trump couldn’t have possibly foreseen himself.  But it stands to add an element of distinct charm to the presidential race:   for in the face of President Obama’s humane decision to multiply the number of accepted refugees accepted by the United States from Syria five-fold, a strikingly cynical consensus has emerged among American republicans in the wake of the Paris tragedy that state governors must act as federalist sheriffs to protect the country, and refuse the entry to displaced Syrian refugees which Obama had earlier promised.  If Donald Trump has taken the opportunity to impugn the President’ sanity as much as his foreign policy choices–

 

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–other candidates have not hesitated to broadcast their own readiness, unlike the President, by implication, to protect similar tragedies in the United States, and rather put at risk the hopes of entry of the 30,000 refugees that the United States government promised  it would soon increase from 70,000.  Indeed, the strike in Paris, claimed to be the proportional equivalent of the Twin Towers’ destruction in New York City back in 2001, and “France’s 9/11,” has led Republicans to direct renewed attacks on President Obama’s offer to resettle a small share of the refugee crisis to be equated with putting Americans at risk.

And so, just three days after the terror attack in Paris, Texas’ Governor, Greg Abbott, took it upon himself to write a letter informing President Obama that, given his experience in dealing with the dangers of migrant crises and immigrant threats, and the foiling of an ISIS-related terrorist attack, and by extension his greater familiarity with terrorist threats, he would refuse to allow Syrians to be placed in the state he represented, and called on the President to “halt your plans to allow Syrians to be resettled anywhere in the United States,” given the possible danger that they pose to the country.  The chorus of Republican governors, from Bobby Jindal’s advice of prudence to Charlie Barker of Massachusetts, to Chris Christie of New Jersey, seemed an attempt to drown out the airwaves after shock over the terror attack.  The bizarre move imitated far-right European parties again evoked the degree of “unacceptable peril” Republicans have long liked to Obama’s presidency, rather than any material threat.  But within a few days, sympathy was overwhelmed by isolationism, as the television news network CNN trumpeted in banner headlines that governors of over half of the states in the union–twenty-seven states–have unilaterally refused to accept Syrian refugees, although the position has limited if any legal ground, in ways that have been imitated by a spate of Republican presidential candidates eager to prove their executive abilities.  All have been magically transformed, including Jindal, into foreign policy experts.

 

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CNN

 

The map of those still honoring their commitments to accept displaced refugees struggling to find homes appear to be in the vast minority–five states that seem almost foolhardy embraces of national vulnerability, from Vermont to Pennsylvania to Colorado and Washington, against the dominating common sense of declaring closed doors to the displaced.  When placed in context of nearly five million Syrian refugees  displaced truth, of course, regions of the United States have hardly absorbed their share–and those states whose governors were so quick to condemn the possibly plausible terrorist ties of refugees from Syria or Iraq had admitted far fewer than 300 or 250 refugees since 2011 at most:  their governors seem to be showing their own ignorance by taking such a broad stance.

 

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The map of those local Republicans who took it upon themselves to retract any offer of resettlement to all displaced Syrians–by far the greatest majority of refugees who left homes with hopes to resettle in Europe–seems not only an eager posing as patriots, or launch grenades at the existing foreign policy of the Obama White House yet again, but reveals an unforeseen opportunism as well as little familiarity with the workings of the federal government:  those most quick to reject entry to refugees as if this were within their competence responded to the fears of their own constituents, or so it looks in the below visualization printed by the New York Times–the graphic may not map clearly onto where displaced Syrians have been relocated or placed, but to the demographics that local politicians seek to reach.   The declaration spread like a meme, at any rate, over the airwaves of the United States, alerting constituents that their immediate governors would not place them at risk–as, by implication, the folly of the President had, and Hillary Clinton and the Democrats had been uniformly duped to advocate.  And it is not a surprise, to enter the world of the archeology of data visualizations, that they mirror those states that reject the federal government’s expansion of Health Reform.

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Access to health care--insurance

And so, the entire party has been associated with irresponsibility, and the other accepted xenophobia as the cry of the day. Quickly, not only Donald Trump but Marco Rubio and Chris Christie and Ted Cruz have joined in calling for shutting the borders to the displaced, and Bobby Jindal can appear a model of executive authority–whose deeply felt opinions illustrate little familiarity with constitutional law or Geneva Conventions.

 

 

What Governors Draw line at Syrian Refugees?

New York Times

 

The opportune nature of such a quick in-step realignment of the debate about immigration took up its lines went without much comment.  But it unsurprisingly seems to replicate opportune lines of political pandering at its worst:  if it was the ultimate insult to most refugees, and the perhaps poorest forms of protection mirrored political opportunism below the historical 48th in the United States parallel that so sadly seems to continue to divide north and south, and have little correspondence to the areas where most of Syrian extraction live–or Syrian refugees have been placed by the US Government since 2012, and mirror the red/blue divide, as configured in these cartograms reflecting the electoral results of Presidential elections of 2004 (state by state) and 2012 (county by county).

 

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What do they have in mind?  Out-Trumping Trump?  Winning, more likely, or hoping to do so by stoking fears and bringing them to the surface again.

For the close-minded knee-jerk refusal stokes the most unfounded fears in the wake of the tragic terrorist attacks that we are all vulnerable:  and to pretend we are living in the shadow of 9/11, when Republicans once unbelievably came to be improperly equated with protecting our nation’s safety and common good, and to wallow in complete amnesia by bandying about the word “terrorism,” ISIS, and “terror attack” with undue frequency to suggest the benefits of responsibly closing our frontiers.  The good old days.

 

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Filed under Clash of Civilizations, ISIS, Paris Terror Attacks, refugee crisis, refugees, social media, Syrian refugees

Palmyra in the World and on the World Wide Web

 

The long-fears impending destruction of Palmyra, not “just another town on the map,” says the NBC Nightly News, but a site for “erasing history” has been identified as an epicenter of the feared project of cultural genocide of opulent archeological remains–as well as of actual human deaths.  After the Islamic State published photographs of the destruction of the World Heritage Site, the recent damage assessment of the city recovered by Syrian forces suggests the preservation of some 80% of ruins, and despite the reduction of several 2,000 year old temples to rubble, after Syrian Army jets helped retake the ancient city.  Yet the episode suggested the horror of the loss of ancient fragments that ISIS seems to have decided, with good judgement, to preserve, including its Roman amphitheater, despite the apparent destruction of its elegant Triumphal Arch.

 

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The concentration of destruction of sites that were deemed to be of cultic value–as the  Temple of Baalshamin or semitic Temple of Baal, or statues of Athena–seen as heretical, while benefitting from media attention to the survival of ruins to treat them as hostages.  But the city offered a stage for conductive provocative assaults,

 

arch-after.jpgMaher Al Mounes/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images, March 27, 2016

 

Many objects were, of course, sold on the black market to raise needed funds.

The longstanding difficulties of securing artifacts from smugglers from ceramics to bronze lamps to mosaics illustrating Homer’s Odyssey to medieval illuminations of the Quran, to the destruction of actual minarets, souks, and entire sites of archeological excavation.  David Brook’s claim that ISIS has created a wormhole of history that has transported us to a “different moral epoch” as much as a different political landscape, utterly removed from the moral codes he has recently celebrated, affords a prime spot to the destruction of archeological treasures.  As much as introduce a “wormhole”–a space-time passageway, theorized by Einstein and Rosen as a theoretical “bridge” that jumped huge distances that connect distances of billions of light years, the topography of Palmyra’s ruins offer something of a historical echo chamber as the fears of the disturbance of its awesome ruins were relayed across the world wide web, as well as an act of unpardonable criminal destruction.

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AFP/Getty Images

The fears of losing such cultural monuments may reflect deep uncertainties in the possibilities of devoting military forces to protect physical objects from looting and destruction–and to continue to guard them in the face of military–but also reflect the scorched earth policy that the Assad regime has adopted in relation to its own lands.  And months after Syrian forces assured the world of the security of Palmyra’s ruins and of the city’s surrounding hills in mid-May 2015, the late-August announcement that explosives have demolished the Baalshamin Temple, a site to worship the Phoenician god of fertilizing rains which once stood some five hundred meters from the city’s amphitheater, has realized deep fears of cultural destruction and become emblematic of the extreme fragility of one’s relation to a historical past.  The site, long emblematic of a material presence of the ancient world in the wilds of the Syrian sands, became a theater for the destruction of antiquities, and even of the beheading of an eighty-two year old scholar of antiquities, Khaled al-Assad, whose executed body was strung up and suspended as an object-lesson.  The report that the Islamic State purposefully planted explosives in the city’s monumental ruins–“western” ruins in addition to the Assyrian monuments in Nimrud–and the recent images of explosives at the Temple of Baalshamin–offers grounds for the realization of fears to the pledge of an unidentified militant that “whenever we seize a piece of land, we will remove signs of idolatry and spread monotheism.”

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Khaled al-Assad

Although the capture of the city may have been more closely tied in the mental geography of ISIL figures to Tadmur prison‘s destruction, a site of arbitrary and inhumane detention from the 1970s–“High walls of cold cement/ Control towers/ Mine fields/ Check points/ Barricades and special military forces/Finally… A space of pure patriotic fear,” wrote the poet Faraj Bayrakdar, who had been imprisoned there for some six years, “If the whole of Syria falls/ This prison will never ever fall.”  But the French-buiilt prison, fashioned as a panopticon in true Benthamite style, was the in the 1930s in the desert, site of a massive slaughter of members of the Muslim Brotherhood by Hafaz al-Assad’s henchmen and of sanctioned beatings and whippings, whose interiors were first broadcast by the ISIL as they recaptured the site and before they had destroyed it, were almost emblematic of the crimes against humanity of the current regime’s predecessor.

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The attention to this site of fear and horror were quickly shifted, however, to the fears of the destruction of the city’s ancient amphitheater, which quickly became an arena of institutionalized violence for ISIL occupiers.

Such growing fears of expectations of destroying a Unesco World Heritage Site that would surely lead to a swift world-wide condemnation–as well as an offense against Syrian culture–were stoked by worldwide media, and must have partly led ISIS to release multimedia images that affirmed the preservation of cultural heritage that lies on the site of the Syrian-Iraq border to calm such accusations.  Even as the Director of Antiquities in Damascus has asserted that many treasures have been preemptively removed from the city, a counter-offensive by ISIS was adroitly waged on the world-wide web, as they posted images of intact ruins in the Syrian city–even as the humanitarian crisis in the area grew with air-strikes from the forces of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad.

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 Palmyra !

But the very images themselves conceal a bit of a debate about what a cultural heritage actually is:  as much as ISIS commander Abu Laith al-Saoudi somewhat convincingly assured Syrian audiences that his forces could commit to no violence against a cultural patrimony.  “Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged,” al-Saoudi clarified that his targets were idols, rather than architecture, as if to lend the veneer of a theological disputatio to their actions:  “what we will do is to pulverize statues that the miscreants used to pray for,” he clarified, but “as for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe.”

Whether the Palmyran monuments would be considered part of Syria’s cultural patrimony or antique architecture is not clear, although the manner that the winged Assyrian bulls or horses constituted part of an Iraqi cultural patrimony–much as the ruins of Palmyra for Syrian–may be very tragically overlooked.

Winged Bulls

In asking what constitutes a historical monument and what a religious icon, al-Saoudi raises a cultural quagmire and a debate on iconoclasm all too familiar from the sixteenth-century Reformation if itself also inherited from the ancient world–even as he seeks to invest the destruction of a classical heritage with an aura of doctrinal debate.

But the possible preservation of many statues, if indeed taken to safekeeping before the invasion, has not led to any hesitation of using the backdrop of its second-century ancient Roman amphitheater to round up and execute at least twenty supporters of the Syrian state, according to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, and kill two hundred more.  What constitute the Palmyrene divinities–reliefs on funerary monuments? lions and eagles with open widespread wings? images on tombs?–is open to interpretation and will probably not be that closely overseen.  The monuments that have remained less vulnerable to air bombardment, weather damage, acid rains, suggest a vulnerability to the widespread but only recently recognized looting of antiquities that have slowly resurfaced on the black market, providing a source of income that has recently rivaled Syrian oil fields as a needed source of cash as other sources are drying up for ISIS–if we trust the record of financial transactions recently found on one of the flash drives of an ISIS commander, which detailed the sales of some $36 million of stolen ancient artifacts that were sold on the black market.

The recent specter of the destruction of tombs outside the city of Palmyra by explosives offered a taste, however, of the destruction that might be waiting to be unleashed.

81160.adapt.676.2Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images

Is it really true that, as the New York Times reports, the cultural vandalism of tombs and statutes–a destruction whose propagandistic value Amr Al-Azm of Shawnee State University compares to the choreographed beheadings of captives as designed to appeal to some ISIL supporters–occurred as a cautionary warning to nearby Syrian troops?  or a sign of their withdrawal from a region, and the acceleration of demolition in the face of military defeats?  The value of the Palmyran antiquities to ISIL, whose sales of antiquities from an Abyssinian monastery in Syria’s Nabek district totalled $36 million, must reveal canny knowledge of the calculus of their value as intact objects.  So many antiquities now stand guarded by Syria’s government that a list of Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk has been distributed to border guards, as many looters in ISIS have become amateur archeologists, and, until ISIS troops took the city, a guard was stationed at the amphitheater itself, as if to declare its worth to the state.

The release of some ten photos by the Islamic State showing the preservation of architectural ruins contrast to the familiar photos posted online in February of the destruction of antiquities in Mosul, but seems to be an attempt to repristine their image, despite the brutality of the executions, as Syria’s official news agency, SANA, released file photos of the city’s antiquities that were threatened with destruction, no doubt in an attempt to gain world attention as well as stoke nationalist sentiment as well as horror.  The place of antiquities is a delicate one within the propaganda forces that have mobilized behind the war, with ISIS using the destruction of antiquities as a bit of a rallying cry to supplement Jihad, long after it had actually destroyed substantial numbers of churches.

But if the value perceived in the destruction of antiquities may have been feared to make Palmyra something of a poster-child, the videos that successfully cast the ISIS trips as philistines for folks like Boris Johnson, the former mayor of London who confessed to be moved to future mobilization by the hopes to defend Assyrian Gods who sport “those curious ringleted beards in the shape of typewriters” and profiled horses, as if they were ready to suddenly sign up for fighting on the frront lines to defend the heritage, or at least give thanks for the oft-criticized custodial role London’s British Museum–which seems to have been Johnson’s real (and openly knee-jerk nationalist) point.

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Telegraph

Although Barack Obama and the United States has not openly entered the conflict, the ongoing promises of continued military, economic, and diplomatic assistance has been poised behind the notion of joint Sunni-Shi’ite counteroffensives yet to materialize, but seemed to place us on the brink of war.  But Palmyra stands at more than the symbolic epicenter of the war, or as a strategic gain of the extent of “territory” that ISIS (or ISIL) can be said to “hold” as a cohort of alliances:  it is a benchwater of how rapidly the Islamic State has spread, and the rapidity with which the Syrian Free Army, without any credible external assistance, has been able to hold agains the two-fronted assault it faces from government and foreign troops, and its effective marginalization to the West.

May 2014-May 2015 Syria

The expansion of the congeries of ISIS/ISIL-held lands have effectively isolated a front in the northeast from the western fronts against which limited resistance remains, and Assad’s forces have proved to be little effective military resistance.

MAY 2015 SYRIA

In a sense, the ruins of Palmyra are enshrined as sources of material contact with the past in the landscape in the engravings from Robert Wood’s Ruins of Palmyra, otherwise Tadmor, in the Desart [sic] (London, 1753), based on the surveys taken by the architect and artist Giovanni Battista Borra, informed by Borra’s own close study of Vignola, which are again echoed in the visual composition of many of the images of the local ruins now feared to be facing destruction or destroyed in the global media.  Borra’s expertise in such neoclassical views had been honed, interestingly, in his own set of views of Turin, Vedute principali di Torino disegnate in prospettiva, as well as his views of Rome and Tivoli, which his dramatic elevated views of awesome intact colonnade and surrounding ruins echoed.

But Borra’s Palmyran views of Wood’s archeological sites gained an international appeal that provided immediately accessible memories of the elegance of the city’s ancient past and a repertory for neoclassicism.  And rather than a prison, their grandeur suggest the odd emptiness of Ozymandian ruins of past grandeur that his own architectural expertise allowed him to recognize.

PalmyraGiovanni Battista Borra, with Dawkins and WOod

Giovanni Battista Borra, Palmyra

Palmyran Colonnade

Special Collections, University of Washington Libraries

Borra’s majestic engravings are romantic, if oddly analytic in their silent statuesque melancholy.  They also evoke the tragic prospect of the loss of such sites, whether due to ISIS militia or possible future aerial bombardment of the region from Assad’s Syrian air force if not American troops.  While standing at quite considerable chronological remove, their silent beauty serves to underscore an enormous potential tragedy of looting a desert landscape of ancient architecture.

Palmyra ISIS #2

Jonathan Klein/AFP/Getty Images

All too often, however, we are apt to focus on the awe of monuments that have so long occupied the Western imagination–with a legacy this post has rather cursorily tried to map–rather than the humanitarian injustices of the continued displacement of human refugees in the ongoing Civil War, according to images released by Human Rights Watch this April, for which there seems no clear end in sight–especially along the so-called “demilitarized” border between Syria and Jordan.

April 20 Encampments and tent shelters on Jordanian border

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The Betrayal of Sykes-Picot? Mapping the Expansion of Violence in Syria’s Civil War

In the shadow of two large, formerly centralized states–Iraq and Syria–the “Islamic State” has spread across their common confines in ways that seem to re-map the Middle East.  The surprising success of the ISIS in Syria has been striking in the face of fatigued fighters of the Free Syrian Army, who, exhausted by fighting three years after the uprising began, have enjoyed considerable success in the face of the attrition of rebel fighters.  Even as the Assad government worked to retake significant ground in the country’s center and north, the new stability of ISIS has drawn on Sunni ties and allegiances deeper than national ties, and promised greater regularity in food supplies that have enjoyed wide appeal in a worn-torn country.

How to map the basis of this appeal, and how to chart the entity of the Islamic State has frustrated western cartographers and news maps alike, despite the proliferation of maps to track the unfolding of day-to-day events on the ground.  Recently, the possibility that “it may be too late to keep it as a whole Syria” that John Kerry acknowledged–and that the prospect of dividing the country between forces controlled by and loyal to Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s northwest–would be a painful rejection of a secular Syria.  It would also be a capitulation of sorts to Russian interests of securing a rump state of Syria to defend their airbases and deepwater naval bases in Tartus, established since 1971, confirmed by the cancellation of a huge $13.4 billion debt for Soviet-era arms sales in 2005 of which Russia is loathe to abandon as it is the basis for continuing arms sales and its sole tie to the Mediterranean.  The capitulation to the division would effectively abandon parts of the country to the Islamic State, Hussein Ibish has argued, as a “Little Syria” would effectively be a Russian client state, and a strong ally of Iran.  The current plan for partition seems to take its spin from the Russian demands for a sphere of influence, but would carve Syria in ways that erase the state.  A cartographical archeology reveals the deep difficulties in preserving the current theoretical national boundaries of the multi-ethnic state.

The boundaries between Syria and Iraq drawn for the interests of occupying British and French powers at the end of World War I and fall of the Ottoman Empire at the Sykes-Picot Accord of in 1916, is being altered in the region’s current map:  yet the deep destabilization created across the former provincial regions of the Ottoman empire reflect problems in defining allegiances in a map.  The increasingly tenuous ties across the region are tied as often to the provision of bread or the guarantee of temporary security in regions which have suffered ongoing lack of stability in past years–or any ties of food or health security–as they are to the effective tolerance of an ongoing civil war that has destroyed national infrastructures.  The severe instability across Syria that has ramped up support of ISIL, making the Islamic State a credible opposition to Bashar al-Assad, that reflect less the undue carving of the Ottoman Empire’s expanse than continued juggling of a system of alliances to secure oil, with little attention to the country’s inhabitants, that have allowed us to tolerate or suspend attention to the deep instabilities revealed in Syria’s civil war, and to the effective implosion of its state.

The newly centralized state that has emerged after the truncation of its name from the “Islamic State of Syria and the Levant” to “ISIS” transcends the notion of national boundaries.  As much as reject the reconfiguration about the littoral region of the Levant, in pivoting from the Mediterranean region of the Levant, ISIS has tried to assume the status of a state that is able to recuperate the notion of a mythic caliphate as a point of resistance.  But it is deeply rooted in the Syrian revolution, and a good portion of ISIS fighters have not only come from Syria, but have left the Syrian Free Army for ISIS, a more credible opposition to Assad’s regime, dissatisfied with their own leaders, and attracted by the clear vision of a state that the Islamic State provides.  The declaration of a New Caliphate not only “seeks to redraw the map of the Middle East, but dismantle the shortcomings and maladministration that is associated by earlier mappings of the region, and with the corruption of the Syrian state.

Its future survival however raises questions what sort of unity and coherence exists within a region out of the deep instability of Syria’s civil wars.  There is a clear tension in articulating a “State” in dialogue with extant maps, including the many maps drawn and redrawn across the region since World War I, in the hope of securing more fixed territorial bounds than existed in the Ottoman Empire, and a rejection of the territorial entities that seem to have been created in a colonial past for the ends of replicating a Eurocentric balance of powers, as much as the needs or allegiance of local residents.  Although ISIS promises to promote “justice and human dignity” for Muslims everywhere, the creation of such universal claims to over-write existing formerly centralized states in the region–dismantling any pretense of unity or national centralization that used to exist in Iraq, or of the imploded state of Syria–only mask a deep fracturing as individual oil companies back the break-up of oil-rich northern regions of the former Iraq in ways that may yet happen in other regions of the Middle East.

 

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Filed under Bashar al-Assad, ISIS, Islamic State, Middle East, Syrian Civil War