Even for an existential optimist, the year 2016 was anything but auspicious. On December 20, a policeman murdered Russia’s Ambassador to Turkey in Ankara, a terrorist act planned to have far-reaching regional and global implications. For now, however, calmer heads have prevailed in Moscow and Ankara. Remember, the leap year began with the hanging of a Saudi national, Nimr al-Nimr, resulting in ransacking and burning of Riyadh’s embassy in Iran as the police looked on. Strange are the ways of this world that death sentence to a national can cause a diplomatic crisis while murder of a diplomat does the otherwise.
The mayhem facing the global order lay itself bare this year. For a journalist covering conflict, humanitarian issues and diplomacy in the Middle East and Pakistan, it has been a season of unending turbulence. From cold peace to near-war, low-intensity conflicts to multinational mercenary militias; and long-form protests to mysterious coup de tete. The EU accepted the Brexit verdict of the British people with equally the same pinch of salt as did the American public elevation of Trump to the White House, consequences of both are set to be intimidating and global.
The most devastating of them all, from my perspective, has been sectarian cleansing in Aleppo (Haleb in Arabic). Having reported from the region frequently since the Syrian uprising began in Dara’a in 2011, Aleppo was, by far, the crown jewel of Syria, a metropolis parallel to Istanbul or erstwhile Karachi. Syria’s biggest, historic city was a microcosm of the country or the Middle East’s ethno-religious diversity and wealth alike. Though the Halebis were the last to mobilise against the tyrannical ruling family, they paid the ultimate expense. Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and over a dozen paid mercenary militia’s preferred fighting against anti-Assad Syrians in Aleppo than marching towards to Raqqa, the so called capital of Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (IS or Daesh). Thus far, Assad, Syria’s totalitarian ruler hailing from minority Nusehri sect, has countlessly used chemical weapons, barrel bombs and hunger to eliminate defiance. As 2016 enters its final week, eviction of eastern Aleppo is limping forward after Sarajevo-style massacres. Even a 40-year prison sentence to Serbian leader Radovan Karadzic found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity could not deter the trigger-happy mercenary generals and foot soldiers. Neither Pakistan’s foreign ministry condemned the excessive use of force there and massacres in Aleppo nor voted in favour of UN resolutions seeking an impartial investigation into war crimes in Syria.
The same year, India outstretched its rhetoric and actions in the dispute state of Jammu and Kashmir as well as the Line of Control. The war clouds thickened to the extent that Islamabad cleared its northern airspace of any civilian traffic for days. What started with the killing of young Burhan Wani paralysed the entire valley with unprecedented strike in its history. Pakistan has been consistently calling upon the world for impartial inquiry into Pathankot, Uri attack and extra-judicial killings in Kashmir. Why won’t it support the Syrians under the same principle that it sticks for the Kashmiris? Such dichotomies are far shoddier than appointing Maulana Fazlur Rehman as head of the Parliamentary Special Committee on Kashmir. Sir Zafarullah Khan, Pakistan’s first foreign minister who happened to be a Qadyani, spearheaded the anti-colonialist movement on the diplomatic front, speaking on behalf of people struggling for independence. His was the golden era in Pakistan’s diplomacy for it was based on principles and not on the most obvious exigencies.
The worst headline for Pakistan globally came when an Easter celebration was attacked in Lahore’s Gulshan-e-Iqbal Park, killing 75 and causing injuries to around 400. The terrorist act sent abroad a message contrary to Pakistan’s claims about the success of Zarb-e-Azb. The most recent attack on an Ahmedi place of worship in Chakwal echoed almost similar concerns about necessity for more tolerance for other faiths. The military operation’s outcome notwithstanding, the long-desired political reforms for the tribal areas are still a far cry. Pakistan fell short of embracing a comprehensive strategy to plug sources of extremism and chaos. Neither Imran nor Modi can be blamed for the very failing.
The year will also be remembered for a coup that was not. While Turkey takes the front seat in the Muslim world for its civilian supremacy over the military and economic growth, the events of July 14 changed the country forever. Some renegade officers tried to take matters in their hand that action-packed evening. The low-flying fighter jets not only fired at the parliament in Ankara but also screamed in skies of Istanbul and Izmir. They were refuelled mid-air and continued to spell terror as confusion prevailed. The most dramatic was the moment when a TV newsreader held her cellular phone to the camera to air Tayyip Erdogan’s Factime message of defiance. His call brought out Turkish people on the streets as the coup-staging troops attempted to flee, leaving behind tanks and military jeeps. By the noon of July 15, the coup had failed and the ‘abducted’ military chief recovered. While neither the intelligence chief was sacked nor the top commanders of armed forces were sacked, over 50,000 Turks have been summarily terminated and jailed. Over 150 news outlets have been shut down while the judiciary remains subservient to the government. Meanwhile, leaders of key opposition Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) are being arrested and their offices set alight with impunity.
How can a coup impact schools in Pakistan? Well, it can if their schools are run by a Turkish charity belonging to a cleric who was Erdogan’s ally not long ago. With the help of Pakistan’s government, Turkey is hoping to get the schools handed over to a foundation of Erdogan’s choice. If it was not up to the courts, the schools would have either been closed down or gifted to the recently created entity with little offshore experience in imparting quality education.
Last but not the least oddity of 2016 was normalisation of racism, bigotry and deceit through the ballot box in the United States of America. Our times lone superpower has accorded a trigger-happy man the authority to control the largest and the world’s most sophisticated nuclear arsenal. Many like me are as doubtful about travelling to America as unsure is the world about the policies Washington will pursue over the next four years.
Will the year 2017 be any better? If uncertainty and chaos prevailing can be a guide, the answer is a categoric no. Should the optimism remain amidst high fears of disappointment? Well, the very existence of living being based on hope. Undeniably, many of the best masterpieces of literature and the greatest scientific inventions all took birth in times of despair and agony.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 24th, 2016.
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