PUTIN’S SYRIA GAMBLE By Simon Shuster/Berlin

ON sept. 30, the autumn session of Russia’s upper house of parliament was set to open with a grim docket. Next year’s budget had to be slashed and investments frozen if the Russian economy was to survive a sharp drop in global oil prices and the cor­rosive effect of Western sanctions. No doubt it would have been a dreary day if President Vladimir Putin had not sent his chief of staff to put a new item on the agenda. Closing the hall to reporters, Sergei Ivanov asked the lawmakers to allow Russian warplanes to start bombing Syria. They obliged with a quick and unanimous vote in favor, and air strikes began a few hours later. No one had much interest in discussing the economy after that.

For world leaders once again tasked with trying to decode a Putin swerve—this time plunging into a

bloody and intractable civil war in the Middle East— there were a few theories. He needed to prop up Syr­ian President Bashar Assad, his faltering ally in Da­mascus, and protect Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast, its only connection to the Mediterranean. But the Kremlinology in Western capitals underplayed the less obvious domestic pressures that shaped Pu­tin’s decision to embark on Russia’s most complex military intervention since the disastrous Soviet in­vasion of Afghanistan more than 35 years ago. Rather than just acting as a global spoiler by unleashing his military in Syria, Putin was trying to end Russia’s ec­onomically crippling isolation from the West.

This is how the Kremlin sees it: In Syria and Iraq, the terrorist group known as ISIS has con­quered vast tracts of territory since 2013. Millions as Syria continues to sink into chaos, as the Tali­ban gains new territory in Afghanistan and as Iraq struggles to fight ISIS, an ignored war at the other end of the Arabian Peninsula has created a humani­tarian crisis that threatens to become one of the most severe in the world.

Never a stable country, Yemen has been unrav­eling since the Houthis—a Shi’ite religious minor­ity that has long demanded a greater say in how the country is governed—took control of the capi­tal of Sana’a in September 2014 and placed Presi­dent Abdel Rabbo Mansour Hadi under house ar­rest. Hadi, formerly Vice President to dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh, who governed Yemen from 1978 until 2012, fled the country in March, and a coalition of 10 Arab nations led by Yemen’s northern neighbor and Sunni power Saudi Arabia launched an air cam­paign to counter the Houthi forces.

The Saudi-led air strikes were nominally intended to allow Hadi to return and restore stability, but an­alysts say they are really an attempt to assert Sunni power against Shi’ite Iran, which has in the past lent both financial and logistical support to the Houthis. But while Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations see this war as part of an ongoing proxy fight against Iran—just as the civil war in Syria has become—the extent of Tehran’s involvement is disputed by some. “A large question mark remains over the extent to which Tehran … [has] funded or armed the group,” a report from British think tank Chatham House con­cluded in February.

Whether with Iranian support or not, the Houthis have proved difficult to dislodge after six months of strikes against their positions in the capital and in the province of Saada, their northern stronghold. The battle-seasoned Houthi militants, who fought several wars against Saleh’s regime during the 2000s, have holed up in mountainous regions of the coun­try’s north while coalition warplanes reduce whole neighborhoods in Sana’a and Saada to rubble.

What began as a regional conflict has now become a full-blown humanitarian catastrophe, as shown in

 

 

 

 

 

A young girl walks at al-Majoura, a camp for displaced people. The camp is running low on both food and water, even as more refugees seek protection from the war in Yemen

these photographs by Russian photojournalist Maria Turchenkova. While at least 2,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed in the fighting since March, over 1 million have been driven from their homes, and millions more have been cut off from access to power, food and water. Refugee camps near the Saudi Ara­bian border are teeming with malnourished families. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitar­ian Affairs now says 12.9 million people are strug­gling to find food, 20.4 million are without access to safe water or sanitation, and over 15 million have no access to health care. A country that was already one of the world’s poorest before the war has all but collapsed.

But the war shows no sign of slowing down. Since Sept. 4, when around five dozen coalition soldiers were killed in a dawn ambush by Houthi militants, the Arab campaign has intensified in the air and on the ground. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt have sent thousands of troops to Yemen, upped the rate of air strikes and imposed a blockade on ships carrying aid and fuel. The U.N. has attempted to broker a peace deal, but analysts say the U.S. has been reluctant to take a firm line with Gulf allies still angry over the nuclear deal with Iran. As the bombs continue to drop and supplies to aid organizations dwindle, the prospect of a generational tragedy at the south­ern end of the Arabian Peninsula grows ever more likely.

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against the influence of fundamental­ists: “We wanted a secular Bangladesh.”

Bloggers, journalists and analysts say that in response, the Islamists mounted a concerted campaign to portray all of those connected with the movement as atheists and anti-Islamic. The idea was to portray them as standing in opposition to the reli­gious beliefs of the vast majority of Ban­gladeshis, not just the fundamentalists. “In the Shahbag [movement], we never asked anyone’s religion,” says Jebtik, a practicing Muslim who says he was por­trayed as anti-Islamic in blog posts attrib­uted to him that appeared online in 2013 and 2014. “I never wrote them.”

Alongside the names of self-declared atheists such as Roy, Rahman, Das and Chattopadhya, Jebtik featured in a list of 84 Bangladeshi bloggers, at home and overseas, compiled by fundamentalist Is­lamist groups in 2013. In April that year, tens of thousands marched to chants of “God is great; hang the atheist bloggers!” (Other lists have emerged since, includ­ing one in late September published by Ansarullah Bangla Team, the local radical group suspected to be behind the blog­ger killings.) “Islamists tried to paint the movement as hostile to Islam, and suc­ceeded to an extent,” says Ahmed, the Dhaka Tribune publisher. While many of the blogs in the crosshairs of the fun­damentalists predate Shahbag, “the tar­geting of bloggers post-Shahbag is clearly coming as a response to that movement, and possibly even as a form of revenge killings,” says Ahmed. “I talk to a lot of writers and journalists, and I get the sense that there is a palpable fear like never before.”

Fanning those fears has been the checkered response of the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The authorities have rounded up 20 suspects as they investigate the four blogger kill­ings this year. Hasina’s government has also banned Ansarullah Bangla Team. “Our law-enforcement agencies are very active,” Hasina told TIME in an inter­view in September. “The government is not sitting idle.”

But the Prime Minister, while insist­ing on her government’s commitment to a secular Bangladesh with space for all faiths, sends out an uncompromis­ing message to those like Roy, Chatto­padhya and others who identify with no religion: “Personally, I don’t support it, I don’t accept it. Why not? You have to have your faith. If anybody thinks they have no religion, O.K., it’s their personal view… But they have no right to write or speak against any religion.” Bangladesh’s bloggers, she adds, “should not hurt any­body’s [religious] feeling. When you are living in a society, you have to honor the social values, you have to honor the oth­ers’ feelings.” Hasina’s stance plays into the hands of the Islamists, says Riaz: “You cannot compromise on the principle of secularism like this. It puts the country on a dangerous path.”

It’s a compromise heavy with irony. Hasina is the daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the country’s first Prime Min­ister and President, popularly known as Bongobondhu, or Friend of Bengal. Muji­bur Rahman and his Awami League party set out to build a secular republic after in­dependence, but he was assassinated in a military coup in 1975. The army officers who attacked his home in Dhaka’s Dhan- mondi neighborhood wiped out all but two members of his immediate family: Hasina and her younger sister Rehana, who were abroad at the time.

Mujibur Rahman’s killing was fol­lowed by a decade and a half of coups and counter-coups, along with a rehabilitation of religious political forces that had been sidelined at the founding of the nation. Elections since the early 1990s have seen Hasina and the Awami League alternate in government with Khaleda Zia, the widow of a former Bangladeshi dictator, and her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP). While the Awami League presents itself as the keeper of the secular flame, the BNP is allied with the Jamaat-e-Islami, the coun­try’s main Islamist political party. (After Chattopadhya’s killing, a Jamaat leader

‘I talk to a lot
of writers and
journalists, and I get
the sense that there
is a palpable fear
like never before

—K. Anis Ahmed, Dhaka Tribune publisher

condemned the attack, telling the IANS news agency that the murder “proved that the government has totally failed to pro­vide security to its citizens.”)

When Hasina returned to power with a sweeping electoral victory in 2008, she set up the special tribunals at the center of the Shahbag movement. Jamaat-e-Islami had opposed the country’s 1971 split from Pakistan, and a number of its leaders were implicated in war crimes. And yet, even as it prosecuted Islamists, the govern­ment also cracked down on bloggers and writers. The list of 84 bloggers compiled by Islamist groups in 2013 was handed in to the government, which had set up a panel to monitor blogs and social media for antireligious posts. Four bloggers ac­cused of insulting religious sentiments were detained by the authorities. “Be­cause these bloggers are called atheists, they are called critics of Islam, the gov­ernment fears that if it protects them, it would be labeled as a protector of athe­ists,” says Nasreen. “They worry about losing the support of conservative voters.”

FOR BLOGGERS like Jebtik, 37, that means a life on the edge. A week after Chattopadhya’s killing, he was at home in his fourth-floor apartment with his mother and two daughters when the in­tercom rang. It was the building security guard. Three men had come to the com­plex seeking donations for madrasahs— Islamic religious schools. The guard turned them away. But the men didn’t leave. “My mom took the intercom,” says Jebtik. “The guard was whispering on the phone, ‘Three madrasah people are here, and they don’t want to go, they’re not leaving.’”

Jebtik’s mother panicked—his name was second only to Chattopadhya’s on a recent blogger hit list. She locked the doors and told him to hide in the bath­room. Jebtik rang his wife, who was out buying groceries, telling her to stay away. Then he phoned a friend, also a blogger, who lives two blocks away, to come and check out the men downstairs.

By the time the friend arrived, the men had left. “Later we heard that it began raining when the men came and probably they were waiting for it to stop,” says Jebtik. “This is our life now in Bangladesh.” —With reporting by farid hossain/dhaka

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