How The West Lost Syria — And Turkey Found Russia

Syrian Democratic Forces fighters at the Battle of Manbij on July 29
Syrian Democratic Forces fighters at the Battle of Manbij on July 29
Alfred Hackensberger

JARABULUS â€" For a while, the view makes us forget the unbearable heat. The green shores of the river Euphrates in the evening sun, great cypress trees standing like classic statues in between the old buildings of the little village.

However, the idyll is deceptive. Suddenly three detonations tear apart the rural peace along the Turkey-Syria border. More explosions follow sporadically. The Turkish army is busy clearing mines in and around the Syrian city of Jarabulus.

The operation "Euphrates Shield" is a turning point in the ongoing Syrian civil war. For the first time, neighboring Turkey, a NATO member state, has openly and directly intervened. On the one hand, nothing has changed in the "tremendously chaotic humanitarian tragedy," as the German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger puts it: "The conflicts of interests in Syria are particularly complex. It’s confusing, it’s a dog-eat-dog situation."

For Americans and Europeans on the other hand, things have changed. For more than six years now, two constants have been shaping the Western approach to this civil war. First: There’s no military solution in Syria. Second: The dictator, President Bashar al-Assad has to go. Both commandments have degenerated into the realm of meaninglessness.

A year ago already, in September 2015, the Russians stepped in. "There can be a military solution," says Harald Kujat, former Chief of Staff of the German Bundeswehr armed forces. Kujat, however, notes that there is one condition to any such solution: "In order to make progress in Syria, we need ground troops. If you don’t want to send them, you need on-the-ground allies." And that means engaging with some sinister characters.

The Russians are in cahoots with Assad. And the Turks? Officially, Ankara claims to cooperate with the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The FSA has been the biggest military alliance of the opposition to the Assad regime. It was considered moderate. But today, many of its subgroups are guided by religion rather than a pro-Western orientation, let alone any democratic tenor.

On top of that, one of the radical groups aligned with the FSA plans a merger with al-Qaeda colleagues from the al-Nusra Front. The Turkish military command even allowed members of Nour al-Din al-Zenki to join them in the operation â€" even though the brigade made headlines in July after their militiamen in Aleppo beheaded a 10-year-old boy in front of cameras.

It’s simply hair-raising, if I read of moderate forces, says the German general Kujat: "It’s nothing but a fig leaf. The so-called moderate forces don’t exist anymore, maybe they've never existed." In the long run, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan counts on al-Nusra and al-Qaeda. "Those are his allies that are closest to his conservative Sunni worldview," says Kujat.

Kurdish questions

In the short term, Erdogan is largely focused on fighting the Kurds. The offensive against ISIS has probably been nothing but a pretext in order to invade Syria. The terror militia had only 250 fighters stationed in Jarabulus, of which the majority quickly took flight. Shortly before the Turkish secret service had informed Erdogan that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were about to conquer a continuous and autonomous territory at the Turkish border â€" a worst-case-scenario for Ankara. Erdogan called a crisis meeting where the decision was taken to launch the offensive in order to stop the rise of SDF.

For Ankara the multi-ethnic military alliance of the SDF is a terroristic camouflage organization because the majority of the fighters are from the Kurdish militia YPG. They fight alongside Arabs, Assyrians and Turkmen. The YPG has long been classified as a terror organization because it is a branch of the forbidden Kurdish Labor Party (PKK), which has been fighting the Turkish state since 1984.

The Free Syrian Army commanders, indeed, confirm that central to their mission is keeping the Kurds beyond the Euphrates’ eastern bank. "Should the Kurds defy that, we’ll fight them," says FSA chief of staff Ahmad Berri. "If needed, the U.S. and the coalition have promised us military support."

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu has accused the Kurdish militia of "ethnic cleansing" in the territories they had conquered.

Up until the Turkish offensive, the Americans and other members of the international coalition had supported the Kurds, considered the most effective in the fight against ISIS and committed to a secular system in Syria. And yet on the other hand, they are fighting for their own independence, something no Western state would support â€" especially not against NATO ally Turkey.

Still, it is unclear if the West turning away from the Kurds, towards the Turkey-backed FSA, is the right long-term policy to fight terrorism. At the end of the day, too many elements within the FSA want a strong centralized state, based on radical Islamism.

At the same time, Erdogan is now cooperating with Russia and Iran, Assad’s two main allies, which only a few months ago Turkey denounced as the "slaughterers of the Syrian people." Erdogan now even appears ready to accept Assad as part of the transitional government. It all gives the impression that Russia, Iran and Turkey are about to design Syria’s future. Meanwhile, as usual, the West keeps quiet.

The Syria policy of the U.S. and Europe has been a disaster, watching silently as Assad massacred the civilian population and Islamic terror groups proliferated. The West never found the political will to step in, and therefore has to take on the moral debts of humanitarian catastrophes like the one we are witnessing now in Aleppo. "The West's Syria policy has feet of clay," says the diplomat Ischinger. "We have repeatedly requested Assad’s resignation. But we have done almost nothing, politically nor militarily, to add authority to our strategic goal."

Clear goals

The U.S. doctrine of non-interference â€" one of the consequences of its failed Iraq policy â€" led to a power vacuum in Syria in which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin forced himself last year. When it comes to Syria, Putin has a clearly defined strategy. First of all, he wants to prevent Islamists from infiltrating Russia via the region. Secondly he wants to secure the port city of Tartus, his access to the Mediterranean. And last but not least, Syria offers him the opportunity to restore Russia's position as a global player on par with the U.S.

Putin doesn’t care about Assad, personally. Instead, he is concerned with how the regime can secure Moscow’s influence in the region. And Erdogan has rationally understood that a Syria without Assad, or at least his backers, is not an option for the moment. In order to remain in the game, he changed his course, conceding that Assad is a key player.

"I think that the Turkish change in course towards Assad is, at least, understandable," says Ischinger. "And I plead for the West to join me. That's the thing about facts â€" we can’t ignore them."

Ischinger says that denouncing Assad is the moral position to take, "because it is right to fight a mass murderer. But then you also have to take action. We have done nothing, or not enough. And that’s why our plan has failed."

Putin’s sitting firmly in the corridors of power, while Erdogan strives to get in. The West’s influence is reduced to some individual actors. Progress toward a diplomatic solution, not surprisingly, is scant. "If the military situation keeps evolving the way it has so far, peace efforts become irrelevant," predicts General Kujat. He too pleads for the Europeans â€" German policy included â€" to admit that the Syrian house of cards would utterly collapse without Assad.

The Americans have understood that. But they will probably not say so out loud, at least not before electing a new president.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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