Monthly Archives: June 2011

The Arab Spring on Turkey’s doorstep

Syrian children during an anti-Assad demonstration at a Turkish refugee camp

I’m told that one of the key elements of blogging, and the new social media generally, is to provide timely reflections and observations when involved in matters of general interest.

Over the past couple of weeks I’ve singularly failed in this objective.

I’ve been down on the Syrian-Turkish border, where a humanitarian crisis is unfolding as thousands of people have fled to Turkey in response to a military crackdown by Syrian forces around the town of Jisr al-Shaghour.

The crisis is putting more strain on relations between Damascus and Ankara, which are already tense as a result of the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Here you can listen to an audio dispatch that I made for the Times whilst reporting out there. At the end I point out that the big question on the horizon is how Damascus will handle the protests in the Kurdish areas of the country.

The Kurds in Syria already staged an uprising in 2004, which turned violent. There’s a general belief that they have a higher level of political organization and a greater ability to get and use weapons than anti-government activists in other parts of country.

There have been consistent, large demonstrations in Kurdish cities such as al-Qamishli since March. The only reason they have not received attention is that the government has not used the same brutal tactics as in places such as Deraa, Homs, Latakia etc.

If, when, and how the Assad regime starts dealing with the demonstrations in the Kurdish east of the country is a big question to watch.

My current assessment is that the uprising has little prospect of overthrowing Assad, but the Kurdish element is undoubtedly the one that presents him with the greatest potential threat.

Down in Hatay, where I was covering this story, I experienced that unreal, intense atmosphere that accompanies big news events (though I’m sure some of the more seasoned journalists down there were not much struck by it).

The media circus descended on Guvecci, the sole village in this area of the border where you can actually see across to the Syrian tent encampments on the other side- most of the rest is in a military-restricted zone.

A substantial amount of cross border smuggling takes place there, and so the village also afforded a ready supply of Syrian interviewees who were staying with friends or relatives in the area.

The residents of Guvecci were very gracious to the army of journalists who descended on them. We’ve been blocking their roads with our cars and TV vans and strutting self-importantly around their sleepy village for two weeks and counting, but they are still pleasant and friendly.

Covering the story left me with oddly contrasting senses of space and claustrophobia. I spent much time driving half lost through stunning, panoramic countryside only to arrive, day after day, in the same dusty villages and refugee camps, meeting the same journalists, the same Syrian activists, the same translators and fixers, again and again.

The intensity of the experience came from the fact that many of the Syrians we were talking to were people who had been living their whole lives in fear and anger, and could speak for the first time, with the rapt attention of the world media, about the injustice of life in their country.

I listened to people describe the power of peaceful protest, discuss what the new Syria will look like, and continually vow that it will only be a few months until Assad is gone.

Their absolute belief in this outcome was both inspiring and, for me, somewhat heartbreaking, as I do not share their optimism.

Many of those I spoke to, as well as translators I work with, had family back in Syria who were being arrested and questioned as a result of their activities. But many did not fear to be named, they had that all-or-nothing, fearless energy that comes with being absolutely committed to a cause. Even after troops moved to the border, many of the activists were vowing to carry on sneaking into the country to film videos of the demonstrations.

But I don’t think peaceful protest can overthrow Assad. If he continues to kill unarmed demonstrators, this may further alienate the West, and perhaps Turkey. But would Russia abandon Syria, would China, would Iran?

I’m quite fearful for the future of the many, many people who have committed themselves to the Syrian uprising.

***

You can read my stories filed from the border for the Times here:

Report from Khirbet al-Joz, Syria, as people who have fled their homes watch Assad’s third address to the nation since the crisis began

Turkish Red Crescent preparing to enter Syria to distribute aid

Refugees flee as Syrian troops hit village near Turkish border

I also had this report for SETimes.com:

Tensions rise as Syrian forces near Turkish border

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Tom MacMaster: ‘Lesbian’ blogger

I interviewed on Monday the now infamous Tom MacMaster, aka Amina Arraf, Syria’s premiere lesbian blogger.

MacMaster’s blog, ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, in which he posed as a 25-year-old Syrian lesbian, fooled a large section of the world’s media, not to say countless fans, activists and so on.

A lot of people are pretty angry with him. The piece I did for the Times, which only ran in the paper and not online, is attached at the bottom.

My impression of MacMaster was of a rabbit seemingly unaware that he is caught in the unforgiving headlights of the world media.

Whilst he was obviously embarrassed and apologetic about what he’d done, his candour with the media (see my article below) and his frank pride in his deception suggested he didn’t really realize how bad this has made him look. The online dating, the interviews with major news networks, the 6-month email relationship with a woman in Canada. None of it looks too good does it?

Also, whilst some people were swooning over the Amina blog when they thought she was real, a far greater number have now rushed to deride the quality of his writing.

One small observation: MacMaster has repeatedly said he posed as a lesbian because it was a literary challenge. This is obviously not true. It would be more of a literary challenge to pose as a straight woman. He just didn’t want to be chatting up men online, in my humble opinion.

In fact, it appears that men posing online as lesbians is a peculiar and hitherto overlooked online social phenomenon.

This is where I must reveal that the author of this blog is not in fact Alexander Christie-Miller, a freelance journalist based in Istanbul who I invented as a literary exercise, but me, Anna Kamenev, one of Colonel Gaddafi’s famous women bodyguards.

I’m sorry to have deceived my readers. From now on I will document the laughter and tears, hopes and fears of an out lesbian protecting the life of one the world’s most brutal dictators…


A 40-year-old American man who duped thousands of fans and a swath of the world’s media by posing as a Syrian lesbian blogger hiding in Damascus has said he hopes to find a literary agent for his work. 

Thomas MacMaster, a student at Edinburgh University, admitted on Sunday that he was the true author of ‘A Gay Girl in Damascus’, which purported to document the life of 25-year-old lesbian activist Amina Abdallah Arraf al-Omani. 

The blog had been widely touted as one of the authentic voices to emerge from the uprising against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad. Campaigners had even formed fan sites calling for Amina’s release after one post said she had been abducted by armed men believed to be linked to the government.

Mr MacMaster has been accused of endangering Syrian gays and lesbians, devaluing the work of real Syrian bloggers, and handing a propaganda coup to the Assad regime, which has claimed foreign provocateurs are exagerrating unrest in the country.

Speaking to The Times in Istanbul, where he is on holiday, he described his hoax as ‘an exercise that got out of hand’.  

Posing as ‘Amina’, he accepted interviews with major news organizations, struck up relationships with other Syrian and gay rights activists and had a six month email relationship with a woman in Canada.

“I didn’t set out with the intention of planting fake news stories in major world papers,” he said. “Essentially I was working and doing research on the novel and suddenly things got out of control.” 

He said he had been hoping to end the blog by revealing that Amina’s abductors had released and she had fled the country. 

Although he felt conflicted about his actions, the media attention had given him an egotistical kick, he said. “I was walking around with my head inflated because I’d successfully punked the Guardian.” 

He claimed to have invented the Amina character six or seven years ago and developed it with view to writing a novel. He used ‘Amina’ to sign up to online dating sites in what he said was research for developing believable dialogue. 

“In retrospect I wouldn’t have done any of it,” he said. “But at the same time, it was a wonderful character and story and I’m probably going to package it as a novel and hopefully find a literary agent when I get back to Edinburgh… We’ll see.” 

His wife Britta Froelicher said that although she had read the Amina blog she had taken little interest in it and had no idea it was her husband until he told her shortly before coming clean. 

“I had read the Amina blog,” she said, “but it just didn’t excite me.”


Turkey elections post mortem

June 13, and a weird tingly feeling in the pit of my stomach. Could it possibly be optimism?

The Justice and Development Party (AKP) won a deserved victory, but had its power pegged back by an improved showing from the opposition. Also, more women MPs will go to parliament than in any previous election.

The voters were oddly kind to their politicians, leaving none of the main parties with too much to cry about, but neither giving them cause for unadulterated jubilation.

The best outcome came for the Kurdish-backed Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which made huge inroads in the southeast, winning 36 seats, up from 22 last time. But this was expected, and fell within the upper range of pre-poll predictions.

Having essentially been condemned as suit-wearing terrorists by Prime Minister Erdogan before the campaign, it remains to be seen whether the government will engage meaningfully with the bolstered BDP.

The main opposition Republican People’s Party, the CHP, improved with 25.9%, but it was the kind of ‘nice but no cigar’ performance that continues to typify the leadership of the bland but well-intentioned Kemal Kilicdaroglu.

Under the previous leader, Deniz Baykal (a man usually attracting terms more familiar to archaeology than politics), the CHP wallowed in political irrelevance, bumping along on the bedrock of its support at around 20 percent. Pretty much anyone could have lifted its votes after the departure of Baykal.

Of course it’s good that they’ve improved under Kilicdaroglu, who is genuinely trying to transform the party into a proper opposition, but many were hoping the CHP would do somewhat better than this. Kilicdaroglu has not really done well enough to silence his doubters.

The far-right MHP, which attracted frenzied speculation when it was in danger of falling below the 10 percent threshold, is suddenly irrelevant again now that it hasn’t. It got 13 percent of votes, a reduction on last time, but still enough for them to get a seat at the table, so to speak.

As I’d thought, the AKP did rather better than most polls forecast, winning an extraordinary 50% of all votes. Given that, they must be pretty annoyed to have actually lost seats.

The reason was that most of their gains were at the expense of parties which have always been too small to make it into parliament, whilst two of their main rivals (CHP + BDP) made greater relative gains than themselves.

Now for the optimism bit. Having fallen short of 330 seats, the amount required to introduce constitutional reforms by referendum, Erdogan will have to work with the opposition, in one sense or another.

Some analysts I have spoken to believe it will be easy for him to peel away the four votes necessary from his opponents to get his way in rewriting the constitution. But I suspect that Erdogan will find it difficult and politically costly to follow through with the more controversial elements of his plans, i.e. creating a reinforced French/Russian-style presidency.

But the bottom line is that Turkey does need a new constitution, and to get it, the AKP will have to work with their opponents. As analyst Cengiz Aktar put it: “This result can give space for de-polarization.”

[My piece in today’s Times can be found here. Report for Eurasianet here.]