Why Turkey And The U.S. See Syria So Differently

The Turkish government still sees the downfall of the Assad regime as the No. 1 priority. Washington is most concerned with the battle against ISIS. Is there room for an alliance?

U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
U.S. President Barack Obama and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Fehim Tastekin

ISTANBUL — The balance of power in Syria has shifted yet again. Some people may be encouraged by the train-and-equip agreement signed between the United States and Turkey to support the opposition; they may raise their hopes in the fourth year of the Syrian crisis that the democratic revolution train is finally back on track. Some people may still dream, with the 15,000 strong opposition army being trained over three years in Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. It is time to go pray in Aleppo or Damascus.

But most of all, it is time to wake up! Those prayers will not be answered.

So, what should we make of the agreement between Ankara and Washington to back the rebels? It was known that the U.S. and Turkey did not see eye-to-eye on neither the scope nor aim of the plan to train and equip the local forces fighting against the Assad regime.

Barack Obama's top priority now is not bringing down Bashar al-Assad, but combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as ISIS). The U.S. sees the fighters to be trained and equipped as the land forces of the operation that will be launched against ISIS.

Turkey's Justice and Development (AKP) party led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on the other hand, persists in its claim that taking down dangerous organizations like ISIS cannot happen unless the Assad regime is first toppled.

Even if Washington has made it clear that it will not be doing Turkey any favors, there is still room for flexibility and the pursuit of common interests. This was voiced recently by State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki: "Obviously, the program is focused on ISIS, but we certainly expect them to use their training and their equipment also to continue the fight against the regime."

This is inevitable as the war looks ever more like a quagmire, indeed with the the opposition forces under serious attacks. Obama's strategy can also be seen as nothing further than allowing the opposition forces to hold their ground, and forcing Assad to compromise and focus some of its power in fighting ISIS.

Who gets trained?

Another disagreement between the two countries was who would choose the people to be trained. I talked to an opposition representative who preferred to remain anonymous: "Turkey was favoring the groups close to Ankara, insisting on being the one who chooses the personnel. The U.S. had no intention of leaving the initiative to Turkey, which it held responsible for the strengthening of violent and sectarian groups."

So both the CIA and Turkish forces will propose groups to be trained, and will need the approval of the other — and vice versa. So at the end of the day, we cannot say that there is an agreement that says "target Assad first."

So, assuming this program will continue as planned, is it possible to create an opposition military force strong enough to hold the liberated areas, and eventually capture new territory?

First, it is impossible for the new army to be established in the short-term that would change the current situation on the ground; and certainly not while the Assad forces are about to close the siege around the opposition forces in Aleppo, as well as break the 18-month-long opposition siege around the western villages Nubbul and Zehra, and cut the supply lines from Turkey.

Only one-third of this army will be trained in Turkey. It is probable that the soldiers to be trained in Turkey will be sent to the northern front while the ones to be trained in Saudi Arabia and Jordan are to fight in Damascus and the southern front.

Soldiers along the Turkish-Syrian border — Photo: Mert Macit/Xinhua/ZUMA

It is an impossible dream to claim that this army will maintain its moderate incarnation, and keep its distance to groups like the al-Nusra Front which has nothing to offer that is different than ISIS.

I interviewed Ahmad Jakkal of the Syrian National Coalition and opposition representative Fevzi Zakiroglu in Istanbul. Jakkal said while there is the fact that the moderate opposition becomes radicalized in time and changes sides quickly, there are those in the field who do not and claimed the new army will be formed from these people.

"The people who will be chosen will not have radical tendencies, these people will not have ties to groups that have different goals," Jakkal told me. "Moderate Muslims, secular men and people who accept Syria as their homeland will all be trained."

Eyes on Aleppo

Zakiroglu said it would be futile to try to build an army aimed at alienating the Islamists. "Over the past four years, Islamic sensitivities have been on the rise among the people – both thanks to al-Nusra's influence, as well as a natural result of the war," he explained. "The project would be stillborn if a purely anti-Islamist army was the goal. A national army but with Islamic sensitivities would work."

Zakiroglu believes a properly paid army with such qualities would also be attractive for the fighters who are currently with al-Nusra and other groups. Neither Jakkal nor Zakiroglu believe the new army can make major changes in the short term.

The fate of Jamal Maruf and his 20,000 soldiers, who had been praised by the U.S. for being "moderate," tells us enough about the future of the moderate project that Obama himself referred to as "fantasy."

Maruf lost on all fronts to al-Nusra and currently has retreated to a base at Reyhanli, Turkey. The rhetoric of many groups who still manage to exist in Syria, including the Turkmens directed by the Turkish Intelligence Agency, keep getting closer to the extreme Islamists.

Truthfully, whether Turkey has a stake with the moderates or not is up for debate. Turkey was the forerunner of those who were disturbed when the U.S. included al-Nusra on their terrorism list. Turkey was forced to recognize the group as terroristic only after the group paid homage to al-Qaeda and entered the UN’s black list.

The newly announced train-and-equip program may wind up as just cold comfort against a nightmare scenario that Turkey fears: The Syrian Military, with the help of Iran and Hezbollah, may shut down the area between Handerat and Leyramun which acts as the lifeline to the liberated area at Aleppo. This would turn the area to an open air prison and the revolution project would thus stand to suffer a mortal wound.

This would be followed by the opposition forces pushed towards the Turkish border, forced to take refuge in Turkey with their arms just like Jamal Maruf did. How can Turkey protect the buffer zone it established within the rules of engagement when the Syrian army approaches the border?

This is why Turkey needs an opposition army to hold the buffer zone before things take this turn toward the worst-case scenario. No wonder President Erdogan has said to forget Kobane and look instead at Aleppo.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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