Sinjar Was Only the Beginning
by Matthew Barber
The calm is slowly unraveling in Kurdistan, and a growing, pervasive anxiety is beginning to afflict us all.
We know that the fighting between the Kurdish Peshmerga forces and the Islamic State jihadis continues to develop and move from place to place, but we’re never exactly sure what’s happening, where the fighting is occurring, or who has the upper hand. News—both local and international—has proved highly unreliable since this crisis began on Sunday.
If it’s not happening on your block, you probably don’t really know what’s going on.
The Case of Shariya
The Yazidi town of Shariya, located a few miles south of Dohuk, is a “collective village” created by Saddam Hussein during his Arabization program in the 1970s. Saddam bulldozed countless Yazidi towns until there was nothing left but gravel, and then forcibly moved their former inhabitants into collectives situated in locations that served his strategic interests. Shariya lies in the center of a valley ringed by hills, along the bases of which were originally a number of Yazidi villages. Saddam destroyed all of these villages (fearing that their proximity to the mountains would facilitate the harboring of Peshmerga fighters) and huddled all the villagers together in the center of the open plain between the mountains, where they would be much easier to keep an eye on.
Shariya had a population of 17,000 until Sunday’s crisis in Sinjar began compelling families to flee for the Dohuk governorate. By Wednesday, Shariya had a population of over 80,000 people.
When I visited the community on Monday, it was already bursting at the seams, and it wasn’t even close to the peak it reached on Wednesday.
The road leading into Shariya was a non-stop caravan of vehicles transporting more passengers than one would have thought possible: small trucks carrying dozens, packed into the truck beds like livestock; small cars with 3, 4, 5 people crammed into the trunks—all having traveled like this for hours, or even overnight due to the bottlenecking effect that the sudden flight of more than 200,000 (perhaps closer to 300,000) had on the road from Sinjar.
On our way to the village, a friend and I stopped and helped transport Yazidis from Sinjar that we noticed were just sitting on the side of the road, unsure how to reach Shariya.
Inside the little town, thousands thronged about, trying to secure food, water, and shelter. I saw entire families sleeping on the floors of stores, offices, school buildings, a hospital-cum-motel, and the roofs of houses. The local residents worked like bees to coordinate aid to all of the families. The KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) sent in trucks loaded with food and water, and Muslim families from neighboring communities brought deliveries of food to distribute among the displaced Yazidis.
People began to come up to me, wanting to talk about what had happened. Uncertainty and bewilderment clouded each face. (I was told only yesterday that no foreign journalists visited Shariya; aside from some observers with Amnesty International and HRW, I was the only foreigner to visit the community.)
A man approached me and asked if I worked with the UN. “No, I don’t, but I may write some reports about the situation here,” I replied. “Can I talk to you?” he asked. “Certainly,” I said.
“Well, if you don’t mind, I would like to tell you about what happened to me—”
As he finished his sentence, his voice broke and he burst into tears. Unable to suppress a brief wail, he buried his face in the crook of his arm and, seemingly ashamed, quickly walked a few paces away, put his face against the wall of a nearby building, and stood sobbing. I walked over, put my hand on his shoulder, and stood by silently while his grief found its much-needed release. When he had regained his composure, a Kurdish friend and I brought some chairs and sat to listen to his story.
His name was Osman. He recounted how the day before, when IS jihadists attacked his home village in the Sinjar mountains, he was out working. “My two daughters were our relatives’ home. I couldn’t get to them and they left by a different way.”
In the moment of crisis, when Peshmerga lines broke, people fled in all different directions. There was no time to coordinate an escape; in this way many families became separated from each other.
Devastated at not knowing what transpired for his two girls, ages 3 and 7, Osman continued: “I don’t think they made it out of Sinjar; I think they are trapped there with the others. I don’t know if they are alive or not.”
While fleeing, Osman saw bodies along the road that had been shot by IS fighters. People recounted seeing the corpses of women shot on the roadside, and one even described coming upon a stranded vehicle containing the dead bodies of a mother and her children, shot to death inside it.
In my conversation with Osman, it struck me that I was encountering the pain of just one man among several hundred thousand new refugees in the Dohuk governorate, each with a unique story.
When our conversation ended, Osman said, “I ask the world for help, not for myself, but for those still stuck in Sinjar.”
For a few years, the Yazidis of Shariya have been working to rebuild their nearby destroyed villages. The partially-completed houses are often just cement shells without windows or doors, but the residents of Shariya tried to settle the fleeing families inside of them, after the homes of Shariya itself were overwhelmed by the new guests.
This is photo of one of the rebuilt villages in-progress, taken some time before this crisis. Many families have taken shelter inside such structures:
To transport large numbers of people amidst this chaos, creative means was employed, such as carrying them in dump trucks:
The New Crisis
When I visited Shariya on Monday, it looked like this:
By Wednesday, volunteers had registered over 63,000 displaced individuals (more had arrived and not registered). This was just one of several primary destinations for Sinjar’s refugees. I was informed by local relief coordinators that the needs of the refugees were beginning to exceed what the KRG and NGOs were able to provide.
But when I returned yesterday, something unbelievable had happened. Shariya was almost a ghost town… as silent as the grave.
I found a few lingering volunteers and asked, “What happened here?” They replied, “Everyone fled this morning—the refugees as well as the local population of Shariya. Of approximately 80,000 people living here yesterday, only a couple hundred remain.”
This unbelievable second exodus is the result of a sense of panic that is washing across the Dohuk governorate. I had begun to sense it on Tuesday, while receiving panicked calls from Yazidis fleeing to Turkey. What initially prompted the stampede was the decision of many Yazidis in villages near Mosul—close to the further limit of Peshmerga-controlled territory—to leave and move northward, anticipating IS attacks in their area. Though IS hadn’t broken through Kurdish lines and no Yazidi villages had been infiltrated, fighting was taking place (and continues until now) between the Peshmerga and IS near the Mosul Dam and along the “border” with Mosul, and many Yazidis in those locations became fearful that what had just taken place in Sinjar might transpire in their areas as well.
Witnessing the ethnic cleansing of Sinjar, and sensing that an intentional campaign of extermination was being directed against them, Yazidis no longer felt secure about Peshmerga defensive capabilities and decided not to take any chances.
As waves of people from the southernmost villages began to arrive in villages a little closer to Dohuk (including Shariya), rumors began to circulate that Kurdish defenses had already been breached. I witnessed what verged upon mass hysteria as the local residents of villages near Dohuk decided to flee to Turkey. Those with passports and visas left; others tried to go as far north as possible, if they knew people who would take them in.
This helpful map image, created several years ago by “Bluebird Research,” shows the Yazidi villages of Sheikhan & Dohuk (in blue) and of Sinjar (in red—“Sincar” on the map). It is useful to see these communities in relation to each other, Erbil, Mosul, Dohuk, and the Syrian border. Access the map directly to zoom and see the location of individual villages (including Shariya).
Families prioritized the departure of their female members, with some men staying behind in case the need to defend arose. A number of reports have emerged of IS fighters kidnapping large groups of women and carting them off in trucks. On Tuesday I encountered one woman in tears after her friend received a call that a kidnapped woman in Sinjar managed to make from inside one of the trucks. She was able to keep her phone with her and apprised her family of what was happening. Throughout the course of the Syrian conflict and its recent expansion into Iraq, accusations have frequently surfaced regarding women taken as a kind of religiously-sanctioned booty. Jihadists deny this, claiming women are taken prisoner as bargaining chips. Regardless, documentation exists of the occurrence, during the Iraq War period of al-Qaida violence targeting Yazidis, of Yazidi women being kidnapped, forced to convert, and forced into marriages with Muslims. That this precedent exists obviously makes the community very sensitive to the current situation.
The panic was unsettling, but I couldn’t confirm any reports of IS incursions into Kurdistan. But the Yazidi rationale was: We need to get out now before something bad happens and people storm the border, prompting the Turks to close it. These fears were justified: the Turks have allegedly closed the border crossing near Zakho at 8:00 pm last night after receiving a huge influx of fleeing people.
But few of the many thousands of refugees from Sinjar have the means to travel abroad.
Last night, sitting in the quiet dark of Shariya, I asked community leaders where all the refugees—plus the town’s own population—could have disappeared to. “Into the mountains, north to Amadiya, to Zakho, to Erbil, to anywhere.” Nobody really knows. But the humanitarian crises that engulfed Shariya for several days will merely be transplanted elsewhere. When the people were concentrated in one place, it was possible to coordinate relief efforts. Now that people are spreading across the governorate and beyond in panic, it will be even more difficult to meet the humanitarian need.
Though you could hear a pin drop in Shariya last night, I had a nagging feeling that the exit of refugees wouldn’t work. Where else would they be able to find the same kind of organized relief efforts that were performed in Shariya? Sure enough, beginning this morning, the same refugees that fled Shariya yesterday have started to stream back in. What we’re seeing now is the frantic movement of people from one place to the next, running in circles like a panicked hiker lost in the woods.
This fear is affecting more than the Yazidi community; many Christians are also trying to leave the country. Since the first day ISIS entered Mosul, refugee movement into Kurdistan has not ceased, and eventually all of Mosul’s Christians fled here after being expelled. Compounding the tragedy for Christians, IS yesterday attacked the Christian town of Qaraqosh, leading to another mass-displacement of many thousands. Add to this the displacement of Sinjar’s population, and increased fighting in Tel Kayf near Mosul: It’s understandable why I’m hearing Christians echo one consistent sentiment: “I don’t want to live here anymore.”
I’ve followed terrorism-related issues for years, but this environment has schooled me anew in the realities of terror. The local contagion of fear demonstrates what a potent weapon terror is, when instrumentalized by an entity like IS.
However, the current attitude of many Muslims here differs significantly from that of the minorities. In fact, it amazes me the degree to which separate communities here, living side by side, can exist in such strikingly different mental space. I have found that my own mental reality here is greatly determined by those with whom I spend time. After half an hour chatting with Muslims, I’m comfortably convinced that Dohuk is safe, Erbil will remain impenetrable, Peshmerga are making advances by the hour, and overall there’s nothing to worry about. After a half hour chatting with Yazidis or Christians, I find myself furtively glancing up and down the streets expecting IS jeeps to appear, planning my escape route out of the country, and generally anticipating the imminent end of the world.
Today I spoke via telephone with Christians who are so terrified that they will not leave their houses to even move about Dohuk. I later went out and interacted with Muslims, who were nonchalantly conducting business as usual, and who were happy to discuss the day’s news with me, emphasizing the imperviousness of our location.
The divergence of perspectives between the communities is striking. How can Kurdish Muslims feel so at ease while Christians and Yazidis tremble with so much fear, the same place? It can be explained as the intimate knowledge of a kind of virulent personal enmity intent upon erasing one’s kind from the planet. When you know that an enemy’s sworn purpose is to kill you and wipe out yours—not merely over profit or resources, but because you are inherently wrong—a sense of vulnerability develops that others, who do not share the experience, cannot relate to.
Though the safety of Dohuk has remained integral until now, it wouldn’t be correct to frame minorities as those who are the most disconnected from reality. That Qaraqosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, was taken over by IS yesterday (or at least attacked, if not fully occupied—conflicting reports), displacing another 50,000 – 100,000 Christians (reported numbers conflict), this time to Erbil, fully validates the kind of infectious trepidation that’s afflicting the minorities. And yet, for some Muslims I’ve spoken to in the city, it seems like a non-item. I don’t mean there’s a lack of compassion—we’ve seen plenty toward Yazidis, and perhaps these kinds of events are by now just too ordinary for some—but this is a significant event. Qaraqosh is southeast of Mosul, inside Kurdish-controlled territory, in the direction of Erbil. As in Sinjar, IS again broke through Peshmerga defenses and displaced a minority. It’s no surprise that Christians and Yazidis can now be frequently heard saying “I no longer have confidence in the Peshmerga.” Not only is that kind of breach scary and serious, the number of new refugees (going with the higher estimate) is close to half of those displaced in Sinjar. For residents to shrug this off as irrelevant to Dohuk is to disengage from reality to at least the same degree as those running wild with exaggerated fears.
What Comes Next?
At dusk in Shariya last night, while discussing rumors that Obama would take action to save those stranded for days without food or water in Sinjar, I glimpsed two military helicopters some distance away flying south. When I pointed them out to my Kurdish companions, there were reactions of elation. “They are taking supplies to Sinjar! And maybe bombing Da’esh too!” It’s interesting to be in the Middle East and witness a joyful reaction to the prospect of US action—not a typical experience.
But this morning, hopes do not seem to have improved among Yazidis. Rather, many reports have apparently come in overnight of people dying in large numbers in Sinjar. The entrapment of the populations there, without foodstuffs or hydration, began on Sunday, and it is no surprise that many would be dying four days later. Though action on the 5th day was welcomed, some fear it is too late, and I am hearing expressions of anger toward Obama from some Yazidis. There may have been some supply drops earlier, but it is not clear how many people were able to be reached with aid.
Others are encouraged by Obama’s decision to carry out airstrikes against jihadists attempting to invade Kurdish-controlled areas, though reports have varied—and conflicted—about exactly what places have seen US airstrikes today, aside from Sinjar.
Regardless of whatever progress the airstrikes in Sinjar can accomplish, the battle has heated up in areas north of Mosul, east of Mosul, the area between Mosul and Erbil, and areas between Erbil and Kirkuk, in addition to ongoing fighting over the dam.
The problem for all of us here is the inability to receive timely, accurate notification about developments in the fighting, even within areas not too far from us. The poor quality of reporting (by both Kurdish and international media) in this situation has been surprising. On Monday, all major international media were reporting that the Mosul Dam had been taken by IS. I sat with a friend who called dam employees—working on site at the dam—who told us “We are here, working at the dam right now, and the Peshmerga are in control of it.” It never fell out of Peshmerga hands, even though IS has been battling them in the town of Wana, 7km south of the dam, to gain control of it. Yesterday morning, new reports that the dam had fallen (presented as a “first-time event,” not acknowledging the same reporting a few days earlier) began appearing again. We called again and were told that the dam was under Peshmerga control. Today there are—once again—fresh reports that IS has taken the Mosul Dam. I haven’t called anyone yet; maybe they finally did take it after all. Local people are as in the dark as anyone else, unless they can make a call to someone at the locus of activity.
I will venture to say that it is very unlikely that IS has the dam.
Compounding the problem is that Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been blocked in Kurdistan since yesterday afternoon. The sense is that this was a measure to prevent Peshmerga positions from being given away ahead of a major military response to IS, presumably underway now with the aid of the American air force. Unfortunately, this makes it very difficult for us to know what is happening here, because we cannot share information with each other easily, nor can we inform people outside as to what is taking place. Though unable to tweet since yesterday, this post will—hopefully—convey a sense of what the atmosphere in the Dohuk governorate has been like.
How good or bad is the situation? As bad as the minorities fear or as good as the majority maintains? The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. One thing is certain: Sunday’s events in Sinjar now mark the beginning of an unfolding saga, leading toward an unknown conclusion.
Summary: IS scores major victory today, breaks Peshmerga forces, conquers strategic Kurdish area and displaces hundreds of thousands of Yazidi Kurds. The expulsion of Mosul’s Christians was devastating, but today’s expulsion of Yazidis is much bigger. This raises the question of whether the Kurds can hold out against IS in Iraq, as well as in Syria. It appears that IS’ next major front, in both countries, could be against the Kurds.
IS Routs Peshmerga, Takes Control of Sinjar Mountains, Jeopardizes Yazidi Homeland
by Matthew Barber
(thanks to Christine Allison for input)
Beginning in the early hours of the morning, IS forces attacked the Sinjar Mountains. The Kurdish Peshmerga defended the area for two hours before being overcome and retreating.
The Kurdish loss of this strategic territory resulted in the flight of hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees.
Sinjar lies west of Mosul and Tel ‘Afar, both under IS control. Though a disputed territory not officially part of Kurdistan Province, and somewhat disconnected from Dohuk, the nearest Kurdish governorate, it has nonetheless been an island of Peshmerga control on the Syrian border. The Kurdish role in administering and protecting the area, as well as the claim that this disputed territory should belong to a future Kurdistan, stem from the Kurdish-speaking population of Sinjar. Located near the Kurdish part of Syria, Sinjar is also surrounded by areas inhabited by Arab tribes that have often been in competition with Kurds. Some of these tribes worked with al-Qaida during the War in Iraq, and yesterday they aided IS in preparing for today’s takeover of Sinjar.
Sinjar (“Shingal” in Kurdish) is one of a few key areas that constitute the homeland of the Yazidi religious minority. One of the few remaining non-Abrahamic religions of the Middle-East, the Yazidis are a particularly vulnerable group lacking advocacy in the region. Not belonging to the small set of religions carrying the Islamic label “People of the Book,” Yazidis are branded mushrikiin (polytheists) by Salafis/jihadists and became targets of high levels of terrorist attacks and mass killing orchestrated by al-Qaida-affiliated jihadists, following the instability brought about by the War in Iraq.
Today’s IS assault is already bringing about devastating consequences for Yazidis, who make up about 340,000 of Sinjar’s 400,000 inhabitants (this is a high estimate). Many have fled on foot through the desert, without food or water.
Others fleeing in cars for Dohuk have been unable to make a clean escape, due to the inability of the roads to accommodate such a large flux of people. Thousands of cars are currently stranded west of the Tigris River.
As I write this, the fight has moved to the Wana District south of the Mosul Dam Lake, where ISIS is trying to gain control of the Mosul Dam. The fight in that area is about 7km from where today’s Sinjar refugees are trying to cross the Tigris to reach Dohuk.
The mountain stronghold of Sinjar is a special center of Yazidi tradition that has long offered its people refuge from waves of religious persecution, including Ottoman attempts to wipe out all Yazidis who refused to convert to Islam. Modern warfare has made the community’s position more precarious, and today’s IS offensive has the potential to do irreparable damage to the stability of this Middle Eastern minority.
Yazidi religious practice is connected to a network of sacred places within the essential areas of the homeland; if contact with Sinjar’s holy places is severed and its population dispersed, the religious tradition will be further endangered as Yezidism moves a step closer to extinction.
Just over two weeks ago, another ancient religious community was eliminated, en masse, from its homeland, when Christians were expelled from Mosul. Prior to this, IS engaged in high levels of violence against the Shabak minority that inhabits villages just outside of Mosul. Many Shabak, as well as Shiite Turkomen, fled IS violence for the relative safety of Sinjar, and today are being made to flee again, joined this time by the indigenous Yazidi population.
No sooner did IS takeover Sinjar when they immediately began destroying religious sites. A Shiite holy place is shown below, before destruction:
And the same site after being blown up today:
The burden of the refugee crisis on Kurdistan Province is difficult to calculate. Many Iraqi Arabs have taken refuge here since the beginning of the War in Iraq. Afterwards, Kurdistan became inundated with thousands of Syrian refugees during the last several years of conflict in Syria. Then it received Arabs from Mosul when ISIS took over the city. When Mosul’s Christians were expelled two weeks ago, they all fled to Kurdistan, as some Shabak that didn’t flee to Sinjar had done. Now everyone in Sinjar is coming as well (those who fled Mosul plus Sinjar’s Yazidis), except for those in Sinjar’s western areas that have headed for Syria. (Syria a destination for refugees… who would have thought?)
Though a number of outstanding issues regarding territory, sovereignty, and borders (involving Baghdad, Kurdistan, Assyrians, Yazidis, etc.) remain unresolved, if the Peshmerga fails to stand, there won’t be much left to resolve. Commitment to a united Iraq notwithstanding, the US must seriously consider the possible outcome of what is transpiring now. A few days ago, everyone in Kurdistan was confident that all areas under Peshmerga control would remain impervious to jihadi incursions. The collapse of the Peshmerga—who had the advantage of the mountain’s higher ground—in the face of the IS onslaught, came as a surprise. Many are voicing concerns about just how resilient Kurdish forces can remain in the long-term, and whether they will maintain a weapons advantage.
Widespread pleas for support of various kinds—humanitarian and weapons—have intensified in Kurdistan, coming from the recently expelled Chaldean and Assyrian Christians, as well as from majority Kurds concerned about defensive capabilities. Amidst these cries, Yazidi religious figures met with US embassy officials today and requested help in the aftermath of the Sinjar disaster.
The question now is: what kind of action can make a difference?
A number of sites have reported on today’s events:
+++01:30 am+++ Terrorists of the Islamic State (IS) attack the Yezidi village Siba Sheikh Khidir and the surrounding villages. Armed Yezidi civilians and Peshmerga fighters stationed on site resist for several hours
+++05:30 am+++ The IS terrorists are gaining the upper hand. The much-needed help by Peshmerga backup remains off
+++07:30 am+++ Peshmerga units withdraw from the disputed areas. Only armed Yezidi civilians continue to resist. Panic spreads over the affected villages, it is certain that the Yezidis will not be able to put up further resistance by their own
+++09:00 am+++ IS terrorists take over the villages Til Benat, Siba Sheikh Khidir, Til Keseb and Til Aziz. Thousands Yezidis flee from their villages to the north of Shingal and try to seek shelter in the mountains. Yezidi civilians provide the refugee flows fire cover
+++10:00 am+++ The IS marches towards the city of Shingal, Yezidi civilians skirmish with them. Desperately, women, children and old men are trying to escape. Yezidi men bring their families to safety and return to the fightings. In the north, YPG and Peshmerga units mobilize in order to go to the rescue
+++10:30 am+++ First major units of YPG and Peshmerga arrive at the disputed territories in the south of Shingal. More fighters are on the way. Battles now take place on several fronts
+++11:10 am+++ IS terrorists begin to destroy holy pilgrimage sites of Shiites and Yezidis
+++11:25 am+++ There is already a shortage of drinking water and food for toddlers. Because they were forced to leave their homes on the spur of the moment, the Yezidi refugees from Shingal had no way to carry food
+++11:55 am+++ Heavy fightings take place in the border town of Rabia, where YPG and Peshmerga forces fight together against IS terrorists. Shingal is now attacked from both the north and south. As a result Rabia´s residents flee to areas of Shingal which are not occupied yet
Jihadists raised their black flag in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar on Sunday in a second straight day of advances against Kurdish forces, forcing thousands of displaced people back on the road.
The Islamic State’s capture of Sinjar raised fears for minority groups that had found refuge there and further blurs the border between the Syrian and Iraqi parts of the “caliphate” which the IS declared in June.
“The (Kurdish) peshmerga have withdrawn from Sinjar, Daash has entered the city,” Kurdish official Kheiri Sinjari told AFP, using the former Arabic acronym for the IS. …
… Sinjar had sheltered thousands of people who were displaced by the huge offensive IS launched in the region nearly two months ago.
Among them are many of Iraq’s minorities, such as Turkmen Shiites who fled the city of Tal Afar, about half-way between Sinjar and Mosul, when jihadist fighters swept in.
Sinjar is also a historical home for the Yazidis, a Kurdish-speaking minority which follows a pre-Islamic faith derived in part from Zoroastrianism.
IS militants refer to them as devil worshippers and they have been repeatedly targeted.
“Thousands of people have already fled, some to nearby mountains still under Kurdish control and also towards Dohuk,” in the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq, another PUK official said.
He also said that IS fighters had destroyed the small Shiite shrine of Sayyeda Zeinab shortly after taking control of Sinjar.
“The number of displaced people is not known. However, initial reports range from the thousands of families to a figure of 200,000 people,” said Brendan McDonald, a senior officer of the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
“Based on reports we are receiving, there is an immediate need for water, food, shelter and health services,” he told AFP. …
… The peshmerga are widely perceived as Iraq’s best organised and most efficient military force but the autonomous Kurdish region has been cash-strapped and its troops stretched.
Its regional government has not been receiving the 17 percent share of national oil revenues it is owed by Baghdad and is struggling to sell its own, smaller production independently.
According to a senior official, a Kurdish delegation is currently in the United States to demand military equipment. …
Baghdad, 3 August 2014 – The United Nations in Iraq has confirmed reports that ISIL and associated armed groups have seized control of nearly all of Sinjar and Tal Afar districts in Ninewa Province, including the oil fields of Ain Zala and Batma, bordering the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
According to reports, as many as 200,000 civilians, most of them from the Yezidi community, have fled to Jabal Sinjar. The humanitarian situation of these civilians is reported as dire, and they are in urgent need of basic items including food, water and medicine. An unknown number of civilians are also reported to have moved towards Dahuk and Zako in the Kurdistan Region.
The United Nations has grave concerns for the physical safety of these civilians – particularly those now trapped in Jabal Sinjar area, as it is now surrounded by ISIL militants.
The Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General (SRSG) for Iraq, Mr. Nickolay Mladenov, stated “A humanitarian tragedy is unfolding in Sinjar. The Government of Iraq and the Kurdistan Regional Government should urgently restore their security cooperation in dealing with the crisis. I call on all Iraqi authorities, civil society and international partners to work with the United Nations to ensure the delivery of life saving humanitarian assistance”. “I also call on the Kurdistan Regional Government to ensure that those civilians fleeing the violence are facilitated entry to the Kurdistan Region in order to receive protection and humanitarian assistance,” he added. …
ERBIL, Kurdistan Region – Ali Awni, an official from Kurdistan Democratic Party reveals to Rudaw that despite claims to the contrary, not all of Sinjar is under the effective control of the Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). He said, “Peshmerga forces are stationed in one part of Sinjar, and are waiting for reinforcements to arrive”. He also added,”A heavy force from Peshmerga under the leadership of Mansoor Barzani has arrived in the area, and in the next few hours will conduct a major offensive operation against ISIL to get rid of them in the area”. Anwar Haji Osman from the Ministry of Peshmerga briefly commented saying, “Peshmerga are planning an operating, and will have a big victory in the area soon. ISIL will have no choice but to leave this country, and they know this very well”.
Yazidis flee westward from Sinjar to Syria – from @ArjDnn
Added August 4, 2014:
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The Expulsion of Mosul’s Christians, part 1:
The Account of the Kidnapped Nuns
Parts 2 & 3 Forthcoming
by Matthew Barber
The release of two nuns and three orphans who were kidnapped and held without explanation by ISIS/IS for 17 days in Mosul has been briefly mentioned in a few news outlets. However, I thought it might prove useful to provide here the full account given to me by the nuns, with whom I met last Monday (Jul. 28, 2014), along with two of the three children that had been kidnapped with them.
This account doesn’t contain any ground-shaking revelations, but the details will be interesting for those interested in what happened. The two nuns were well-known for their many years of work among Mosul’s needy. Though they were not harmed while being held, their unexplained disappearance was unnerving for the Christian population, and added to the number of factors that terrorized Christians before their final mass departure on Jul. 17.
Sister Miskinta al-Dosaky Myko and her superior, Sister Atur Joseph had initially fled to Kurdistan province when ISIS took over Mosul, as had many other Christians. And as many others had also done, they ventured back into Mosul after ISIS offered pledges of safety to minorities.
On June 27, the two nuns, along with three orphans in their care, drove from Kurdistan Province to Mosul, to check on the orphanage that they were in charge of, and to check on a number of poor families to whom they frequently gave assistance. In their car they carried food and money that they planned to deliver to needy families. The children were brought along to gather their things from the orphanage, as they were going to relocate to Kurdistan.
They were apprehended by ISIS fighters while in one of the neighborhoods where they often distributed food. Two jihadists spoke to them, a Syrian and an Iraqi. The nuns had the impression that the Iraqi was reluctant to give the nuns a hard time, but the Syrian pulled rank somehow and said that they had to come with them, “to answer questions.” He demanded their keys, saying he would drive their car, but the nuns refused, whereupon the jihadists allowed them to drive, and escorted their vehicle with their own vehicles.
They were taken to a house in the Danadan neighborhood. The house had apparently belonged to an official. The nuns and children (two girls, one boy) were held in a library inside the home. They were kept in this room for 5 days. The nuns already wore habits, but the girls—though merely adolescents—were made to wear hijabs by the fighters, who didn’t want to see them uncovered during the moments when they were escorted out of the library to make visits to the bathroom.
Beginning on the first day, a Tunisian fighter began visiting them and pressuring them about religion. He tried to make the nuns change out of their distinctly Christian religious habits and wear common clothes instead. They resisted this demand. He repeatedly attacked their religion, telling them that their beliefs were wrong, and the nuns were frequently drawn into arguments with him. He told them that they didn’t know God, called them kufaar, and would shout “Don’t show me your crosses! I don’t want to see your crosses!” (They wore crosses around their necks.)
Despite the harassment of the Tunisian jihadist, the same Iraqi that had participated in their abduction came, and in what must be one of the “funniest-jihad-moments-ever,” comforted them, saying, “Don’t worry about this guy; he’s a suicide bomber and he’ll be gone soon anyway.”
The Tunisian seemed to have had no experience with or understanding of Christians; the Iraqi, on the other hand, understood what nuns were and wasn’t so bewildered by this “perplexing other.” The Tunisian just wasn’t able to come to terms with an actual encounter with someone who would believe that Jesus was the son of God and regularly hassled them about it.
After 5 days like this, they were moved to another location where they were held for 12 more days. A fighter further up the chain of command visited them and assured them that they wouldn’t be harmed, saying “Didn’t you see what happened with the nuns in Ma’loula? We’ll let you go just like them.” The ranking nun protested, telling him it was already an act of harm to be held without cause in this way.
The fighters themselves seemed confused as to why they were keeping the nuns, and why they had taken them in the first place. Initially, the nuns’ habits seemed to scream “foreign agent” in the minds of the abductors, yet the nuns had no authority, political activity, or even dealings with leading bishops. That merely wearing garb that was unusual to the jihadists would make them appear as some kind of external political agents highlighted the complete ignorance of the fighters. At one point, they pressured the nuns about the War in Iraq. They said, “We’re the Dawla Islamiyyah and we’re against the U.S., Israel, China, Korea, [etc.] What about Bush’s crusader war that he conducted in Iraq! Why don’t you tell them not to do these things!?” It was as though the fighters believed that being Christian meant that the nuns were “agents of America” who had the president’s ear.
The abductors were not rogue opportunists acting alone (the nuns’ eventual release occurred without ransom); they were regularly in contact with ISIS leadership and would tell the nuns things like “You have to stay here until we hear from the emir.” The declaration of caliphate (and corresponding shift from ISIS to IS) occurred while the nuns were in captivity.
The children regularly cried throughout the ordeal. The head nun told me that despite the injustice of their arbitrary captivity, and the fear that they all felt, she reminded herself that “I must not hate them, but rather I should love them; they are the ones who are sick and need healing.” She said that she spent a lot of their empty time praying for her captors.
They were always provided with food and water, though the nuns claimed they were very selective about what food they accepted, not impressed with the cleanliness of the environment. (“We didn’t trust the dolma…”) They described the conditions of the houses as very dirty; the fighters supposedly never cleaned it and would leave food and trash on the floors.
Two days before their release, a man “in Saudi clothing” came and tried to convert them to Islam, which they declined to do.
They were then asked, “Have you been mistreated in any way while you have been kept here?” They replied that they hadn’t, but that it was wrong that they had been imprisoned in the first place. The jihadists replied, “Look, we’re Muslims, we don’t want to hurt anyone or make anyone afraid.” The nuns responded, “Then why did you destroy the statue of the Virgin Mary that was outside our church?” The fighters replied, “Well, we didn’t go inside the church!” (In fact, a number of churches in Mosul were entered and occupied by armed jihadists, an issue that will be taken up in part 3.)
(I am aware that these snippets of dialogue seem odd, puzzling, even comical, but I am relaying the entirety of this account as I received it from the nuns. What adds interest to this jihadi-nun encounter, despite the fact that it produces more questions than it answers, is that it is so uncommon to have narrated instances of conversational exchange between perpetrators of jihadist violence and members of minorities who are victimized by it. I was struck that of a plethora of grievances the nuns could have referenced in this exchange, they chose to bring up the destruction of this statue.)
Finally, they were told that they would be released. The fighters seemed unable to decide what to do with them, again confused about why they had nabbed them in the first place. At some point they came to see the nuns as a means of communication with the wider Christian community through which they could make an announcement—another absurdity—and decided to use them in this way before letting them go.
The night before their release, their phones were brought to them and they were told “Call somebody we can talk to.” (This is all demonstrative of ISIS’ very poor performance in engaging with the Christian community.) The nuns called a priest who was in charge of overseeing orphanage work. The jihadists then spoke to the priest and gave him options for Christians that he was to convey to the Christian community. This was the evening of July 13, four days before the IS ultimatum issued to Christians on Thursday the 17th, and the options given over the phone differed from those issued later. The instructions given to the priest were that Christians must become Muslim or pay jizya and accept the “Shurut al-‘Umariyyah,” a set of strictures for Christian behavior, attributed to an early agreement between conquered Christians and the Caliph Omar, that involve markers of subservience to Muslims and the abstention of any public display of Christian religious practice.
In trying to have the nuns convey this message to the larger Christian community by simply having them call a random priest who wasn’t even a leading figure of the local Christian community (which is made up of multiple denominations), the jihadists gave the impression that they didn’t know who to deal with in the Christian community. This is one piece of a larger picture in which IS entirely reneged on their self-declared responsibilities as the “new, approachable law and government,” and failed to engage the Christian community.
The nuns were released on July 14th. Their car, and the money that was in it, were never given back to them.
Upon release, they were told they had to be accompanied by fighters “to protect you from terrorists who might kidnap you for ransom.” The nuns rejected this, but the fighters wouldn’t budge, nor would they give them back the keys to their orphanage, which the nuns said they wanted to return to.
The fighters took the nuns and the 3 children to the orphanage. When they arrived, the neighbors, who knew the nuns well (and after 17 days missing everyone was fearful for them), came out and started crying, demanding that the fighters explain what they were doing. One fighter had just handed the orphanage keys to the ranking nun who hadn’t yet opened the door. As the neighbors expressed concern and outrage, the nun said loudly to them, “Look what they’re doing to us!” This annoyed the fighter who quickly took back the keys. The fighters again took the nuns and children, without letting them enter and retrieve any belongings, put them in a taxi, and told the driver to take them to Dohuk (in Kurdistan). (The orphanage was apparently later plundered by the fighters.)
That was the last time they saw Mosul.
The post The Expulsion of Mosul’s Christians, part 1: The Account of the Kidnapped Nuns appeared first on Syria Comment.
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Much has been noted of the presence of the Islamic State in Raqqa province, where the group controls all major urban localities (Raqqa city, Tabqa, Ma’adan, and Tel Abyad), as well as the Kurdish militias just west of Tel Abyad, from which town they were expelled back in August 2013 on account of cooperation between the Islamic State, Ahrar ash-Sham and other local rebels who have since been subdued by the Islamic State. What then of other groups? Broadly, we can distinguish two kinds: pro-regime forces, and a small rebel insurgency fighting against the Islamic State. They are detailed below. Note that I exclude Jabhat al-Nusra as a separate group here because the history of the group’s presence has been sufficiently well documented before.
National Defense Force (NDF)- Raqqa
The NDF is officially a ‘counter-insurgency’ force trained with the help of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp and Hezbollah to deal with the problem of lack of regime manpower in the regular armed forces as opposed to the wider insurgency. The NDF has become a meaningful force in the regime’s arsenal but it is not of the same nature everywhere in Syria. Out in Raqqa province, where the regime presence has been reduced to little more than isolated military bases, the NDF is more of a banner for underground remnant loyalists operating covertly in the province (in so far as it is a meaningful entity within Raqqa province itself), though NDF Raqqa has also claimed under its banner operations on the Raqqa-Salamiya/Raqqa-Athariya roads stretching into the Hama countryside to the southwest.
A photo said to have been taken “with the lens of the NDF lions in eastern Raqqa countryside: photo of the Shari’a court in al-Karama.” This would seem to corroborate the idea of NDF Raqqa as a banner for the regime loyalist underground.
NDF Raqqa’s other main function has been reporting the latest news on the clashes between the Islamic State and regime forces in the Division 17 military base area. Division 17 has been the subject of some contention on the question of the relationship between the Islamic State and the regime. Some critics argue that the Islamic State has not (at least until now) attacked Division 17 or that any signs of fighting were merely for show rather like the naval battles on the Tiber of the days of the early Principate.
Neither of these assertions stands up to scrutiny, though it is certainly fair to argue that the Islamic State did not devote as much manpower and resources to taking the base as it is doing now on account of infighting with other rebels elsewhere in Syria. In any case, the clashes that did take place were meaningful and happened on multiple occasions, corroborated by reporting on all sides (Islamic State provincial news feeds, Raqqa pro-regime news networks, and local activists like Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi; cf. video footage shared by non-Islamic State sources), resulting in casualties.
Qasi Fu’ad Azzam, a Druze soldier killed in clashes in the Division 17 area with the Islamic State on 16 March 2014.
Abu Aamer al-Ansari, an Islamic State fighter killed in Division 17 clashes. Death announced in March.
The most recent fighting, as I noted above, has been more intense, as reporting from both sides makes clear.
Brigadier General Hasham al-Sha’arani, a Druze army officer killed in the latest round of Division 17 clashes. Cf. List of those wounded subsequently taken to Latakia hospital.
Saraya Ansar al-Jaysh al-Arabi al-Suri
This purported group- translating to “Brigades of Supporters of the Syrian Arab Army”- is like the NDF Raqqa a banner for underground regime loyalists in Raqqa. In fact, the group’s Facebook page now simply uses the NDF Raqqa banner, indicating no real difference between these banners. The video statement above is merely of interest for echoing of regime rhetoric talking points, decrying the overrunning of Raqqa by foreign fighters from the Islamic State (not exactly divorced from reality, though), affirming that “Islam” has nothing to do with the Islamic State’s actions, that true jihad comes in the path of liberating Palestine, and attacking the “petro-dollar” sheikhs of the Gulf. The statement recalls one issued by underground loyalists in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Raqqa city, in which there was a vow to wage “true jihad” in the fight against the rebels who had taken over the city.
Liwa Thuwar Raqqa
Liwa Thuwar Raqqa- translating to “The Revolutionaries of Raqqa Brigade”- is an FSA-banner group in origin that became affiliated with Jabhat al-Nusra- as did many other similar rebel groups following Jabhat al-Nusra’s announcement of its “return” to Raqqa city in September 2013- in a bid last year to protect itself from the growing influence of the Islamic State in Raqqa. Led by one “Abu Eisa,” the group, according to Abu Ibrahim al-Raqqawi, became independent from Jabhat al-Nusra at the beginning of this year with the outbreak of infighting between the Islamic State and other rebels within Raqqa city. However, it should be noted that only much later this year (April) did Jabhat al-Nusra issue an official statement on the separation of Liwa Thuwar Raqqa:
“More than 6 months ago Liwa Thuwar Raqqa joined us in the city of Raqqa, and they had shown their readiness to submit to Shari’a sessions and discipline with precepts approved by Jabhat al-Nusra.
But there was deficiency on the part of both sides in the implementation of this agreement. From the side of Jabhat al-Nusra: the deficiency was in the holding of Shari’a sessions as regards quantity and manner.
From the side of Liwa Thuwar Raqqa: the deficiency was in the lack of embrace of the precepts approved by Jabhat al-Nusra. And after the attacks of the group of the state [Islamic State] on the factions waging jihad and the beginning of the infighting, the Liwa withdrew from Raqqa to some of the neighboring areas, and the organizational link was cut off from that day. Thus, Jabhat al-Nusra announces the dissolution of any organizational connection between us and Liwa Thuwar Raqqa…16 April 2014.”
This issue regarding Liwa Thuwar Raqqa and its relationship with Jabhat al-Nusra has some implications and lessons. The first of these is that integration into Jabhat al-Nusra is no light matter: on the contrary, assimilation of the ideology is expected in the end, and all the more so now with the establishment of the Islamic Emirate project.
Second, there is a degree of spin in the Jabhat al-Nusra statement here: Liwa Thuwar Raqqa and other FSA-banner origin battalions that pledged allegiance in a bid to protect themselves from the Islamic State. In January, a statement emerged purportedly in Jabhat al-Nusra’s name declaring operations against the Islamic State in Raqqa.
This statement was then disavowed by Jabhat al-Nusra’s central leadership; it had emerged from a Facebook page calling itself kamātu l-Raqqa, which featured local rebels who had joined Jabhat al-Nusra following the ‘return’ to Raqqa city. In this context we should deem Liwa Thuwar Raqqa and allies of similar disposition as likely responsible for the psy-ops statement in Jabhat al-Nusra’s name.
One should also note that the Jabhat al-Nusra’s statement partly came in response to a narrative promoted by Islamic State supporters that because Liwa Thuwar Raqqa has been coordinating with the Kurdish YPG (in the form of the Jabhat al-Akrad front group) in the remnant northern Raqqa countryside insurgency against the Islamic State (primarily west of Tel Abyad), therefore Jabhat al-Nusra was supposedly in an alliance with the “PKK apostates” and therefore guilty of apostasy itself.
This parallels the Islamic State supporters’ narrative indicting Jabhat al-Nusra as apostates (and note, in practice this takfir approach was adopted on the ground) on account of alleged coordination with the SMC in Deir az-Zor province. To date, while there have indeed been local ceasefires between Jabhat al-Nusra and the YPG, nothing suggests a vindication of the pro-Islamic State claims of an actual military alliance.
As of now, Liwa Thuwar Raqqa continues to exist but has been unable to score any significant victories against the Islamic State, only capturing some small villages west of Tel Abyad of no great importance and liable to change hands. The group appointed a new official spokesman in June but there are little signs of meaningful progress.
Abu Dhiyab, a Liwa Thuwar Raqqa commander killed by the Islamic State. Note the banner behind him echoes the Islamic State’s “Banner of Tawhid” (more recently in the group’s messaging, the “Banner of Khilafa”). Since the flag’s symbols of the first half of the shahada followed by the Prophet’s seal are not automatically associated with the Islamic State, some of the group’s rivals have taken up the banner in an attempt to ‘reclaim’ it from the Islamic State. A similar example in Raqqa province was the independent Liwa Owais al-Qarni that was based in Tabqa and refused to fight the Islamic State, thus reducing itself to subordination to the latter. Following an apparent prison break of regime-aligned prisoners in March, the Islamic State forcibly disbanded Liwa Owais al-Qarni.
Corollary to the above: a Northern Storm fighter (now deceased) and an activist who was detained by the Islamic State in Azaz last year hold up a ‘banner of Tawheed’ with “Northern Storm Brigade” inscribed on it. Some of the Azaz Facebook activist pages had this banner too (minus the Northern Storm inscription). Though I had been skeptical at the time of the idea that featuring such a banner did not mean not supporting the Islamic State, this image made me rethink what was at play. Presently, Northern Storm identifies with the Islamic Front, despite tensions with Liwa al-Tawheed over the Bab al-Salama border area and even as many ex-members remain with the Islamic State.
Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah
Emblem of Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah.
This group, translating to “Jihad in the Path of God Brigade” is an FSA-banner formation that works closely with Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, though unlike Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, it explicitly acknowledges the opposition-in-exile government and the Hay’at al-Arkan (SMC), at least according to a recent interview with the group’s official spokesman. The evidence for the close alliance and ground coordination is as follows: firstly, the group has issued a joint statement with Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, and secondly, areas of operation coincide. Though both groups primarily operate in Raqqa province countryside, they have also clashed with the Islamic State in the rural hinterlands of eastern Aleppo province, such as in the Manbij area.
This also includes coordination with the wider Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front I have mentioned previously- a coalition now severely decimated by the conflict with the Islamic State- and an assortment of other minor FSA-banner underground insurgent groups operating against the Islamic State in eastern Aleppo province.
An example of one of the underground FSA-banner insurgent groups in eastern Aleppo area working with Liwa Thuwar Raqqa and Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah: “Group of Battalions Jarabulus and its Countryside.” The presence of the Turkish flag is noteworthy, as many of the supporters of these groups coordinating media activities and arranging for financial support are currently in Turkey. Further, Ankara, in fear of an Islamic State attack on its own territory, is likely supporting these groups in the hope of rolling back the Islamic State. At the beginning of July, this group, Liwa Thuwar Raqqa, Liwa al-Jihad and others appealed to the opposition-in-exile and Hay’at al-Arkan for reinforcements.
What kind of underground insurgent attacks take place? Besides armed clashes and mortar strikes, there are also IED bombings. Very rare inside the Islamic State’s urban centers in Raqqa province, they occur occasionally in the hinterlands. There is too little to demonstrate that these attacks are significantly damaging the Islamic State administrative and security apparatus in Raqqa province.
Ahrar ash-Sham [defunct]
I mention Ahrar ash-Sham for the sake of completeness, despite the fact that it is defunct in Raqqa province. For example, though media reports last autumn gave the impression that Raqqa city had become solely controlled by the Islamic State, the fact is that there were still Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham in the city, the latter of which had been a major participant in the original fall of the urban center in March 2013.
It would be fair though to liken Raqqa city by autumn 2013 to a triumvirate, in which the Islamic State was the strongest actor and ever growing in power. Ahrar ash-Sham was also present in other Raqqa province localities, most notably controlling the Tel Abyad border gates until being expelled by the Islamic State in January 2014.
A key strategic error- in my view- on the part of Ahrar ash-Sham as regards its relations with the Islamic State in Raqqa province was its willingness to work with the Islamic State or stand aside as other actors viewed as real or potential rivals were fought or expelled by the Islamic State: namely, the Kurdish militias and Ahfad al-Rasul respectively.
The latter was expelled from Raqqa city in August by the Islamic State, while Ahrar ash-Sham did nothing. Kurdish militias suffered some heavy losses on account of coordination between Ahrar ash-Sham and the Islamic State, most notably being expelled from Tel Abyad city in August 2013 as I mentioned in the preface. Indeed, Ahrar ash-Sham issued multiple statements on coordination with other factions in Raqqa province against Kurdish forces, all of which had followed on from wider infighting that broke out after the YPG had expelled the Islamic State from Ras al-Ayn. Thus, other rebel groups had essentially thrown in their lot with the Islamic State.
One final point of interest as regards the former Ahrar ash-Sham presence in Raqqa is the group’s da’wah outreach activities, which, like the Islamic State, encompassed local children. Note the two images below for comparison.
Though parts of the slides are obscured in both images, the two look uncannily similar. It is certainly possible that the Islamic State seized the slide and other outreach assets for children from Ahrar ash-Sham following the latter’s expulsion from Raqqa city in January 2014. In any event, like the Islamic State, Ahrar ash-Sham da’wah outreach in Raqqa also involved Qur’an learning and memorization circles.
Raqqa province as a whole offers a fairly bleak picture for those who might hope for the Islamic State’s rivals in the province to pose a real challenge to the group’s monopoly on control, foremost because the Islamic State’s rivals lack manpower to carry out sustainable offensives, which would be so even if the regime and rebels in the province decided to partner up (highly unlikely, of course). Regime forces south of Tabqa had tried to exploit an opening in May while the Islamic State was dealing with localized gains by Liwa Thuwar Raqqa and other rebels in the northern countryside, but little ultimately materialized of it. Short of an outside actor carrying out an actual ground military intervention (perhaps by Turkey as the most viable actor?), one can only hope for dissension within the Islamic State’s ranks and collapse from internecine strife both now and the foreseeable future.
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
With the Syrian civil war well into its fourth year, it is apparent that political and militia dynamics that have developed with Syria’s main minorities (in this analysis, excluding the Kurds)- namely, Alawites, Druze and Christians- have largely remained unchanged and if anything have only solidified. With the Alawites and Druze, political and military dynamics are still largely slanted towards the Assad regime, whose perceived protector status has only been enhanced with the large-scale territorial gains of the Islamic State across eastern Syria. For the Christians, the geographic splits that I documented previously have similarly remained in place.
For Alawites, beyond the regular Syrian Arab Army, two of the other main outlets for enlisting in the fight against the rebels are the National Defense Force (NDF) and the Muqawama Suriya, the latter of which I previously profiled here. The NDF has engaged in superficial cross-sectarian messaging, as was most apparent in a funeral video for an NDF commander in the Aleppo area released last year in which those praying over the coffin can be observed to be doing so in a variety of ways: at least superficially, in both the Shi’a and Sunni manner.
Prayer scene for deceased NDF commander Hassan Khashir. Video released in November 2013.
Of course, multiple dynamics could be at work here: for example the impact of the Assad dynasty’s “Sunnification” policies on Alawites, that some Alawites identified themselves more closely with regular Twelver Shi’ism, and the fact that some Sunnis from the Aleppo area have indeed been recruited to regime forces out of dislike and disillusionment with the rebels. Regardless, the attempt at cross-sectarian appeal is there, but overall the NDF remains a predominantly Alawite force, as reporting by Sam Dagher on the ground has noted. Not everywhere is the NDF an organized ‘counter-insurgency’ force: in Raqqa province for example NDF is more of a banner for remnant regime loyalists, despite lacking meaningful manpower to launch a serious ground offensive to retake IS-held territory.
Meanwhile, the Muqawama Suriya has somewhat expanded its role beyond mere defense of Alawite and Twelver Shi’a areas (the latter most notably including Nubl and Zahara’, as I reported last year), above all in Aleppo province, where it is known to have a presence in the Safira area in the countryside and has also participated in the fighting within Aleppo city, claiming a “martyr” in early March with one Muhammad Sakhr al-Khozai’e, said to have been part of the “Badr Organization” affiliated with the Muqawama Suriya in the Aleppo area.
It might seem at first that this “Badr Organization’s” name is based on Iraq’s Badr Organization that has deployed fighters to Syria (which I initially thought), but firstly we should note the difference in Arabic wording: majmua Badr for the Muqawama Suriya’s wing as opposed to Iraq’s manẓama Badr, and secondly, it turns out Badr is merely the name of the local contingent’s leader’s new-born son. The Muqawama Suriya publicized Khozai’e’s funeral within Aleppo city. In the video of Khozaie’s funeral, it is affirmed by one of the speakers that the Muqawama Suriya is “defending the land and the homeland from Latakia to Homs and Damascus and now in Aleppo.” As ever, the Muqawama Suriya video invokes typical rhetoric about fighting a “Zionist” enemy/agent.
It will be of interest to continue to watch how the Muqawama Suriya’s role develops, if at all, given the centrality of the battle of Aleppo in the struggle between the regime and non-IS rebels.
The data do not mean that there is no Alawite resentment against the regime- for example, the perception that the regime has brought the community as a whole into a terrible predicament- but there is too little evidence to suggest a real, substantial turn against the regime just yet.
What I wrote in November 2013- namely, that the majority of Druze who have taken up arms have done so on the side of the regime- remains true today despite the superficial outreach to the isolated Druze communities in Idlib by Jamal Ma’aruf of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front. The main difference now is the evolution of local NDF branches in Druze areas where “popular/people’s committees” had existed. An example is the Druze village of Haḍr in Jabal al-Sheikh, which in recent months erected a small mural dedicated to those who have died fighting for the army and NDF.
Druze militiaman keeps guard, supposedly in Arna, Jabal al-Sheikh. Arna has featured recruits to regime forces, and there should be no illusions of a Druze autonomist trend here rejecting the regime yet. Druze militiamen go under a variety of banners- such as “Forces of Abu Ibrahim” or “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” but nothing suggests these militias are independent of regime organization.
Advertisements for “martyrdoms” of Druze soldiers from Suwayda governorate and the Damascus locality of Jaramana continue unabated, illustrating that there still appears to be little resistance to conscription or taking up arms with the regime. I emphasize that I have indeed documented the exceptions, but they remain exceptions, and instances of other sources claiming a substantial Druze presence among the rebels- such as social media activist “Jad Bantha” who is not actually based in Syria- remain unreliable.
Aamer Fayez al-Basha, an NDF fighter from the Suwayda village of Sumayd killed on 28May in al-Mleha, East Ghouta.
Some Druze sheikhs in Suwayda paid a visit to the provincial governor’s house in late June in an attempt to show Druze support for the regime. There were some earlier hints of tension among the sheikhs in the city but nothing so as to cause a major upheaval. In short, the Druze community in general still looks to the Assad regime as the best guarantor of its interests
The Christians still remain the most complex group of the Syrian minorities documented here. Out in the west of the country, the army and NDF still have Christian recruits, but a more interesting dynamic is the attraction for some Christians of the fascist Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which appears to have developed its own militias in Homs governorate that have clashed with the NDF. As I showed in my November 2013 article on the Druze, membership of the SSNP and the regular armed forces is not mutually exclusive, but these localized dynamics in Homs governorate illustrate the wider problem I pointed to in my profile of the Muqawama Suriya of the regime’s inability in the long-run to be able to rein in irregular forces.
In keeping with this local Christian support for the SSNP, the SSNP has also been keen to put out solidarity messaging with Christians, illustrated most recently by a visit to the town of Kasab that was taken in a jihadi-spearheaded offensive in March. Kasab was recaptured by a variety of pro-regime forces in mid-June, such as the Muqawama Suriya, the NDF, the Ba’ath Brigades, and Suqur al-Sahara (which I first profiled here).
SSNP members and supporters visit a damaged and desecrated church in Kasab. The proof is not 100% that this was necessarily the work of the rebels who were in the town, and much of the debate about how the churches would be treated was subject to the controversy on social media surrounding Kim Kardashian’s tweets, which certainly went too far in calling a ‘genocide’ against Christians. However, the pattern of rebels’ desecrating churches with the ruins discovered post-withdrawal fits a pattern observed in Yabroud and other locations. In any case, the situation was not helped by those cheering for the rebel offensive on Kasab despite the fact it was spearheaded by foreign jihadis.
Out towards the east (specifically Hasakah province), there is still the main division between supporters of the Syriac Union Party (SUP) and its “Sutoro” forces that have formally joined the PYD’s autonomous administration and its Asayish (‘police’) branch respectively as opposed to the Qamishli-based Sootoro, which despite its claims to neutrality is actually aligned with the regime. This was made clear in a statement congratulating Bashar al-Assad on his re-election as president:
“The administration and members of the Sootoro protection office congratulate Mr. President Bashar Hafez al-Assad on winning the presidential elections, asking the Almighty Lord that this presidential period be a period of security, peace and blossoming for Syria and all Syrians…”
The Qamishli Sootoro advertises a message from “President Assad: Salutations to the SAA and the People’s Defense Organizations and all bearing weapons to defend the dignity of their homeland…and the greatest salutation is to this people…and we do not forget those who have died from the sons of the Lebanese resistance.”
More recently, there were signs in late June of conflict between the Qamishli Sootoro and the SUP’s Sutoro, as illustrated by a statement from the former accusing the SUP of heavy-handed behavior against villagers in the Qahtaniya area- foremost regarding levy of agricultural produce- leading to incidents that required intervention from, among other local actors, the Qamishli Sootoro and the YPG (though note that the SUP’s other front-group- the Syriac Military Council- is formally part of the YPG). Though too lengthy to translate in full for our purposes here, I highlight the Qamishli Sootoro’s conclusion:
“Here we would like to inform you that these repeated acts of behavior by members of the SUP are indicative of childish conduct that has begun having a great influence on the presence of the sons of our people in their historical areas and the latest of these acts- the taking a 10% slice of agricultural crops and the following method of distortion of principles by their media- has had a great influence on the migration of the sons of our people and the abandonment of their lands.
We conclude by indicating our total rejection of these acts of behavior…[but despite this] we insist on the prevention of infighting between brothers that we had agreed on recently under the supervision of Christian Civil Peace Committee in Qamishli (also despite the repeated acts of abuse by Sutoro-Asayish).”
The Christian Civil Peace Committee- also known as the Syriac-Orthodox Civil Peace Committee in Qamishli- is a nominally neutral organization to which the Qamishli Sootoro is affiliated but is in fact linked with the regime. The use of the general moniker “Christian” here in the Qamishli Sootoro statement to refer to the committee indicates one messaging strategy used by the group since December 2013, when Qamishli Sootoro indicated intentions to open up new branches and expand, whereby no distinctions would be made among Christian church affiliations within the Syriac-language liturgy as regards provision of protection.
The insistence on an anti-infighting stance is also noteworthy because this image has been the official presentation in Qamishli since at least the start of this year: namely, despite the political split, all those working under the name of Sutoro/Sootoro should at least strive to work together for the common cause of protecting Christians. Like many ‘brotherology’ images, this should of course be taken with a pinch of salt.
Graphic shared by the Syriac Orthodox Civil Peace Committee in Qamishli: “Syria is our eternal motherland and we know no homeland besides it. Our love for it and our loyalty to it is in our hearts and souls.”
The question now arises of who is winning in the competition between the two brands for the leading status of protector of Syria’s northeast Christians. The evidence would seem to suggest that the SUP Sutoro has the upper hand. This is due to the fact that the PYD’s power has steadily grown over the past year at the expense of the regime’s influence, and the SUP has essentially backed the winning horse in the wider competition for power in the northeast. Indeed, lacking manpower more generally, Assad regime-aligned forces in wider eastern Syria have already shown themselves inept at dealing with the Islamic State’s onslaughts.
Meanwhile, little points to any meaningful fulfillment of the Qamishli Sootoro’s plans from the end of last year to expand beyond Qamishli, at least partly on account of financial difficulties. The Qamishli Sootoro on more than one occasion has appealed or expressed thanks to donors living abroad for providing necessary resources for outreach or protection programs. The main factor that appears to persuade some Christians in the northeast of siding with the regime is fear of a “Kurdization” project by the PYD.
Qamishli Sootoro gifts distribution package for locals on Mother’s Day in March 2014: “Sootoro Protection Office in cooperation with the Syriac family in Stockholm (Toni and Fadi) as regards Mother’s Day.”
It can be seen that the trends among Syria’s main minorities on the ground have yet to show any meaningful shift to the armed opposition, whatever minority members there may be in the opposition-in-exile, reflecting the level of detachment. The future points to the continuation of this general situation. The most important reason is the rise of the Islamic State, which has most notably imposed the second-class dhimmi pact on Christians in its areas of control.
The Islamic State now controls the majority of eastern Syria and is increasingly threatening whatever remains of rebel-held parts of the country’s northwest, which in turn has witnessed the other jihadi factions declare their own state or proto-state projects (essentially, a fight to grab what remains), specifically in reference to the “emirate” announced by Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani that has seen his group seize several Idlib localities from the U.S.-backed Harakat Hazm and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF) that is backed by Turkey as a hoped for counterweight to the Islamic State
Besides the Jabhat al-Nusra emirate, there is also the “Jabhat Ansar al-Din” coalition announced by four jihadi factions- the Green Battalion, Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar, Harakat Sham al-Islam and Harakat Fajr al-Sham. Of these groups, the first is an independent faction in origin that simply did not wish to take sides in the Islamic State-al-Qa’ida dispute; the second is aligned with the Caucasus Emirate project; the third was founded as a virtual al-Qa’ida-front project by ex-Guantánamo detainee Ibrahim bin Shakaran but likely on account of his death in the Latakia offensive in the spring the group’s direction has somewhat shifted away from that (in contrast to Suqur al-Izz, which has simply subsumed itself under Jabhat al-Nusra as I predicted and called out for months); and the fourth is a pro-Caliphate group primarily operating in Aleppo province.
The situation is all particularly problematic for Alawites, in an environment where the disparaging word “Nusayri” has become quite normal in the insurgency, even among comparatively ‘moderate’ (as in, those groups with a clear national framework attitude) rebel coalitions like the Authenticity and Development Front.
None of these developments can be seen as encouraging by minorities, and sadly indicate the continuation and aggravation of ethno-sectarian division in Syria for the foreseeable future.
“Can the Islamic State Survive? What Can the US Do?”
by Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen – @matthias1981
July 22, 2014
Islamic state: a lion and a fox?
The Islamic State (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham) emerged out of the ashes of two conflicts. It was born as a result of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and then used the power vacuum created by the civil war in Syria to create a base out of which it could create the foundations for an emerging state. However, how likely are they to succeed in their goal of establishing a functioning state? In answering this question, it is crucial to understand their strategy: do they only operate based on ideological fervor, or does their strategy contain elements of realism? Machiavelli taught us that a successful prince should learn to be both a fox and a lion, does IS have the ability to act as both?
Machiavelli’s recommendations for Princes
The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves. Machiavelli, The Prince.
What did Machiavelli mean in his masterpiece, which for long has been essential reading on the reading list for all first year political science students? In the animal kingdom, a lion is the symbol of ultimate strength. It is the most powerful mammal on land that is feared by all other animals. However, the lion has a weakness, it is not intelligent enough to recognize the danger of traps.
A fox is also a predator, living off preying on other animals. However, the fox is cunning and calculating. It recognizes dangers when it feels uncomfortable in a new setting. A fox does not necessarily attack if it judges that it could result in it being in danger.
A temporary alliance of convenience
Evidence from the ground in Syria shows that there is a common understanding between the Assad regime and IS that their inaction towards each other is of mutual benefit. There is enough proof for one to state that Assad is not targeting the areas controlled by ISIS, but chooses to hit more moderate opposition held areas instead. The immediate enemy of Assad and IS are the same, as Frederic C. Hof puts it “Whatever Bashar al-Assad and Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi may think of one another personally, their top tactical priority in Syria is identical: destroy the Syrian nationalist opposition to the Assad regime.“
In the meantime, the Islamic State is pushing further and further into the areas held by the anti-Assad. IS has shown itself to be a shrewd opportunist. It has developed a strategy of reaping the ripe fruits sown by other militant groups. They largely go into areas already weakened by fighting between the SA and the various groups making up the more moderate opposition. Currently in Aleppo, the Syrian Army is trying to use its most effective strategy: set up a siege around the areas held by the opposition, and starve them both materially and physically. In the meantime, IS is operating closer and closer to the suburbs of the city and the opposition fears that the two forces together might eventually lead to complete control by IS and the Syrian army.
What explains this mutual understanding? Assad’s calculation is that he is likely to win more easily against IS if he emerges as the victor against the more nationalistic opposition within the country. In many ways, he has paved the way for the more radical elements of the opposition to become empowered. In his view, IS would be an easier enemy to defeat, and the further they expand their control, the more likely it becomes that the west supports Assad. (Also read this in the NYTimes, and this in the Guardian.)
Undoubtedly, this unholy alliance is a temporary one. In the long term, if we see the more nationalist elements even further weakened, we are likely to see a permanent war between IS and the Syrian army. This week we saw evidence of this, when IS attacked and beat the Syrian Army in the most significant battle yet, leading to IS taking control of one of the most important gas production facility. This points to IS being able to operate with an understanding of realism. It acts like a fox when needed, and a lion when conditions allow for it. It has formed a quasi alliance with Assad, and this might be one its most important strategical assets, largely overlooked by observers.
IS the Lion
Overwhelmingly, IS has used brute force towards anyone who acts against it. Late last year the brutality, combined with IS’ reluctance to fight Assad, lead to a formidable coalition of anti Assad groups attacking IS, and quickly it was on the retreat in Eastern Syria.
However as the spoils of war came in from the conquests in western Iraq, the IS has reallocated vital supplies, including American made Humvees, to the Syrian front-lines. The augmented moral, combined with the new supplies largely explain IS’ recent advances in Syria.
Its strategy has also developed. As Hassan Hassan noted in a recent article, their forces increasingly use diplomacy to take over villages. As long as the inhabitants lay down their weapons and pledge allegiance to IS, the village is spared attack. This new more benevolent strategy should be seen in light of the vast territory it now controls. IS does not have the manpower to impose its strict rules in all the territory under its possession. Currently, it is therefore utilizing a policy of accommodation with the populace. Over time, and as its military conscripts increase, it is more likely to become more forceful.
This strategy is likely to become very effective. As its geopolitical achievements, coupled with its military arsenal and funds grow day by day, it will be more likely to attract public support from Syrians and Iraqis who make up the vast majority of its fighters. These young men are not necessarily believers in grandiose ideas of creating an Islamic state. But they will be much more comfortable fighting with a force that is well equipped and that wins battles. For a young Syrian, it is undoubtedly more fulfilling to ride on the back of a Humvee conquering gas fields and villages than to be bogged down in never ending skirmishes in largely destroyed buildings in Aleppo.
IS the Fox
On many occasions, the IS has shown military prowess a skillful maneuvering on the terrain. For a long time, it fought skirmishes with the US troops and its Iraqi allies. Rather than confronting their enemy head on, as they did in Fallujah, they employed hit and run operations and sieges. All very familiar to those who have read Mao’s military tactics (for more information about the theoretical links between Maoism and other secular theorists impact on radical Islamic military doctrine, see Michael Ryan: Decoding the Al-Qaeda Strategy). Contrary to popular belief, Mosul did not fall over night. The take over by IS and its allies, was the culmination of months of strangulation by cutting off the supply routes between Baghdad and the city. The take over was only a culmination of years of insurgent attacks on the city and in fact the city has for long been one of the main sources of revenue as a result of extortion of its business owners.
The geopolitical puzzle
IS is a result of the turmoil in the region. No state actor wants it to succeed in establishing a state. However, states are using it to advance their geopolitical interests. Saudi Arabia sees the benefit of an IS in order to avoid a long feared Shia Crescent forming from Lebanon to Iran. At the same time, they fear them since the group is a real threat to their own stability. If IS is able to navigate between these fears, and gain temporary allies by recognizing its limits, it is more likely to succeed in its short term mission of holding on to some territory. Here we find a paradox and also a weakness. It mobilizes ideologically on the basis of being uncompromising in its reach. However were it to challenge Jordan, Saudi Arabia and countries beyond, it is likely to quickly be confronted from all sides.
The longer the regional crisis continues, the more entrenched the new state will become. If IS develops political callous in the midst of the chaos, and evidence shows that it has, it is likely to become an increasingly formidable foe. One which could possibly become a permanent feature in the region.
Its likelihood to hold on and expand its currently held territory lies in how capable it is in operating on a foreign policy based on realism – acting as Machiavelli’s fox – rather than only utilizing brute force. There is evidence to suggest that its leaders understand this and will use the knowledge to become a significant power. All the same, like so many revolutionary movements before it, IS is propelled by its universal ambitions which will make it difficult to stop its expansion. Its leaders have dazzled their supporters through maximal goals, minimal dithering, and lightning conquests. Reining in the expectations of its fighters will be difficult.
IS has conquered vast amounts of territory, sufficient in terms of resources to create a functioning state. However its permanence rests on its ability to restrain itself and appease its followers who believe and fight for its universal reach to become a reality here and now. If it restrains itself it is likely to lose supporters, including foreign fighters, if it does not, it will be challenged by forces that are likely to put it to an end.
IS feeds on the instability, and as long as the region remains tumultuous, the more likely they are to remain. A grand bargain is often used in foreign policy debates, but that is exactly what is needed in order to avoid the strengthening of IS. The group can not be seen as being an isolated result of the mess in Iraq and Syria. In some states’ views, it operates as a balance to counter Iranian hegemony. But its success impacts negatively on everyone. Only the United States has the power and influence to create the conditions necessary for a grand bargain between Saudi Arabia, Iran, the Gulf States, Iraq, Turkey and Syria.
Ultimately, the stability of the region is of primary concern for all states. If Iraq and Syria break apart, it will undoubtedly have effects on the cohesiveness of the main regional actors: Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
The US should utilize a three track policy. The first two are aimed at solving localized conflicts, and should be aimed at reassuring disaffected Sunni’s that the US has not realigned its foreign policy to appease Iran:
- Train and equip the more nationalistic rebels in Syria so that they are powerful enough to serve as a military counterweight to Assad. They should not be able to win, but they should be strong enough to be seen as a threat to the current regime in Damascus. If they are not a balance to Assad, no viable dialog can take place between the warring factions. A negotiated settlement should be the aim.
- Reach out to the disaffected Sunni community in Iraq including old enemies such as the Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order. They, combined with the Military Council of the Tribes of Iraq, are powerful and secular forces currently allied with ISIS.
- Thirdly, the US should act on a regional level:
- Engage regional states, including Iran, in negotiations about the need for military disengagement from the conflicts. This will be anything but easy, however a redrawing of Middle Eastern borders is in no ones interest. Should IS establish itself borders will be redrawn.
Furthermore, the region is vulnerable to several actors becoming entangled in uncomfortable alliances with IS:
- The Iraqi Kurds: if the central Iraqi government starts to battle the Kurdish regional Authority for control over Kirkuk, there could be a potential of a tacit alliance between them and IS.
- The more nationalist Syrian rebels: if the Syrian army pushes ahead, and that the low level war between the SA and IS increases, they could become temporary allies.
- Jordan: although Jordan fears IS (especially in light of growing support for them in the Ma’an and other parts of the country) it is for now a less of a foe than if Iraq and Syria fall completely under the control of Iranian aligned regimes.
- Saudi Arabia: similar concerns as Jordan.
For any decision maker in Washington, it is of paramount importance that these regional weaknesses and alliances are understood and monitored. If they are not, the IS is likely to use them to their advantage.
*Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen worked for the Danish Red Cross in Syria before and during the conflict. He earned his MSc from the University of London and is the producer of www.syrianactivists.org. He is based in Boston.
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