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Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part IV)

Syria Comment - 수, 2014-08-20 04:26

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented part/predominantly foreign fighter battalions in Syria here, here and here. Below are a couple more groups as part of this series.

Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham


Logo of Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, with motto reading: “We are victorious or we die.” The group’s other main slogan is: “The law of God rules us,” similar to the mentality of other foreign fighter battalions like the Imam Bukhari Battalion of Uzbek fighters.


Al-Mi’ad Media, the media wing of Jaysh Muhammad.

Jaysh Muhammad is a jihadi faction led by one Abu Obeida al-Muhajir (of Egyptian nationality). The group primarily operates in Aleppo province but has extended operations to other governorates: for example, the group participated in October 2013 with the Green Battalion and the Islamic State (IS), among other “Islamic battalions,” in an offensive on the Sakhna region in Homs province.

In Aleppo province, Jaysh Muhammad worked and co-existed with the Islamic State in some areas prior to and somewhat after the start of wider infighting between IS and other rebels. For instance, in July 2013, a joint operations room as part of “The Battle of True Dawn” was formed in an attempt to capture the two Shi’a localities of Nubl and Zahara’ in Aleppo province, including Jaysh Muhammad, IS, Ahrar al-Sham and a local north Aleppo battalion. As for the aftermath of the beginning of infighting in January 2014, the most notable instance of Jaysh Muhammad-IS cooperation came in the “And Don’t Separate” initiative- an alliance of jihadi factions including Jabhat al-Nusra and independent groups like the Green Battalion- to capture Kweiris military airbase to the east of Aleppo city. It quickly fell apart though as all battalions except IS withdrew.

The most interesting case of IS-Jaysh Muhammad relations was the locality of Azaz, which was seized by IS in autumn 2013 from the FSA-banner brigade Northern Storm. To recap briefly the story of what went on there, IS entered the town of Azaz in the summer of 2013- to the chagrin of some locals- and the group moved into what was a services office to engage in da’wah and social outreach, without initially having a military presence. It was only when IS decided to seize on a pretext to take over the town that fighters and tanks were called in from outside.

That said, in a recent interview with me, a spokesman for Northern Storm- which has since returned to become the sole ruling authority in Azaz following IS’ withdrawal earlier this year and has formally joined the Islamic Front- affirmed that while Northern Storm and IS had worked together in the fall of Mannagh airbase in summer 2013, IS had been stockpiling weapons seized from the base in what was then its da’wah office. In any event, when fighting initially broke out in Azaz in September 2013, a ceasefire agreement was mediated by Liwa al-Tawhid and required both Liwa al-Tawhid and Jaysh Muhammad to implement the agreement.

It turns out that while Liwa al-Tawhid was nowhere to be seen in the face of IS’ subsequent breaking of the ceasefire agreement to expel Northern Storm entirely from Azaz, Jaysh Muhammad had remained in Azaz, having a base there and essentially standing by as IS took over the town. Whereas Liwa al-Tawhid’s inaction at the time appears to have been the result of an informal condemnation of Northern Storm by Aleppo’s Shari’a Committee, Jaysh Muhammad more likely did nothing out of jihadi ideological sympathy for IS.

What happened in the run-up to IS’ strategic abandonment of Azaz at the end of February- considering that the area was cut off from the rest of IS’ contiguous territory in east Aleppo province- is also of interest. If we are to believe the testimony of foreign fighter and Twitter personality “Abu Hamza al-Erhabi”- who at the time claimed affiliation with Jaysh Muhammad- then Jaysh Muhammad planned in advance to abandon Azaz if IS left. According to Northern Storm’s spokesman in an interview with me, Northern Storm imposed an ultimatum on Jaysh Muhammad to leave Azaz, join the fight against IS, or face war.

Despite past events in Azaz and elsewhere suggesting affinity with IS, Jaysh Muhammad actually seems to have been closer to Jabhat al-Nusra all along, even as all three groups of course ultimately have the same goal of a global Caliphate. Indeed, Abu Hamza al-Erhabi had described his group as “sort of” Jabhat al-Nusra. However, in July this year, Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo put out a statement disavowing organizational relations with Jaysh Muhammad:

“Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo announces that the Jaysh Muhammad battalion under the leadership of the brother Sheikh Abu Obeida the Egyptian- may God protect him- has no organizational connection with Jabhat al-Nusra, for the behavior of the battalion is not considered appropriate in Jabhat al-Nusra’s eyes with the maintenance of a relation of brothers, affection and sincerity between us.”

Jaysh Muhammad then issued a response affirming that it never had allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place and attempting a further clarification:

“In response to the prevailing view regarding the statement of the Jabhat al-Nusra brothers in Aleppo- may God give them strength- and the clarification of the relationship between Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, we clarify the confusion that has arisen: Jaysh Muhammad did not pledge allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra from the beginning and Jabhat al-Nusra has no pledge of allegiance on the neck of Jaysh Muhammad for it to be understood that Jaysh Muhammad was expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra.

But the statement was published on account of what is prevalent among the people: that Jaysh Muhammad is under allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra on the basis of coordination and cooperation between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra: but this is mistaken, for in reality there is joint cooperation and organization between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra; moreover, this has not ceased their continuing to be our brothers and beloved ones, and there continues to be a relationship of being brothers in God, affection and sincerity.”

The current status of the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh Muhammad is unclear, but arguably as part of the wider trend of non-IS jihadi groups beginning to implement their own state/proto-state legislation projects as territory in Syria is increasingly gobbled up by the regime and IS,[i] Jaysh Muhammad announced in July its intentions of implementing Shari’a and hudud regulations in their entirety in all captured areas. At the moment nothing suggests that Jaysh Muhammad has joined some of the other jihadi groups operating in Aleppo province that formed the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition.

Update: It has now emerged that despite the Northern Storm ultimatum, Jaysh Muhammad has retained a base in the wider Azaz area (though not participating in any way in governance of the town of Azaz), as the Islamic Front has just released a statement giving Jaysh Muhammad three days to evacuate the Azaz area in light of the fighting against IS. 

Jund al-Aqsa


Flag of Jund al-Aqsa


Jund al-Aqsa media committee.

Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) is a foreign fighter battalion of a variety of nationalities (including some of South Asian origin)- as well as comprising a native Syrian contingent- primarily operating in Idlib and Hama governorates. The group was in January of this year confronted by rebels on the grounds of being an ally of IS, but with IS’ withdrawal from Idlib and Hama provinces, any tensions between Jund al-Aqsa and other rebels have since calmed down, and the group has notably taken part in joint offensives with Ahrar al-Sham of the Islamic Front (e.g. capturing the village of Ma’an in Hama province in February, which culminated in a massacre of local Alawites). More recently, Jund al-Aqsa has been participating with the Islamic Front in an operation to capture Hama military airport: Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra, announced last month and ongoing. Indeed, it is notable that even as other jihadi groups have set about working on their own administrative initiatives, it is striking that Jund al-Aqsa still remains focused on advertising military operations.


Jund al-Aqsa claiming to fire heavy weaponry at regime aircraft as part of the offensive on Hama military airport.


Jund al-Aqsa claiming to target regime positions around Hama military airport as part of the same offensive.


Jabhat al-Nusra has also continued to work with Jund al-Aqsa, pointing to Jund al-Aqsa’s closer affinity at the present time to Jabhat al-Nusra than IS, whatever the prior relations were with the latter. In this photo released in June, Jabhat al-Nusra claims coordination with Jund al-Aqsa in targeting a hotel building in Idlib city that members of Hezbollah were supposedly using as a base.


Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Qatari, the amir of Jund al-Aqsa killed in fighting with rebels in January. Of Palestinian origin, he was apparently a veteran of the jihad in Iraq for some time before going to Qatar and continuing to support the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.


Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Masri: an Egyptian fighter for Jund al-Aqsa whose death was announced on 26 July this year.


Muhannad al-Ansari, from Saraqeb (Idlib province), killed in the Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra. Death announced on 30 July.

 

 

Notes

[i] Though Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to backtrack in its public rhetoric on the leaked ‘emirate’ announcement by leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, its recent record on the ground of seizing territory from one-time allies of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib in particular and the announcement of economic and societal regulations therein undermine its attempts at ‘clarification.’

Undoubtedly too the behavior by Jabhat al-Nusra is partly explained as the result of a perception that some rebels are receiving Western arms on the condition of not cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra and therefore constitute a threat in the long-run as territory available for control- particularly crucial border areas- becomes increasingly scarce.

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The Unintended Consequences of Closing and Restricting Jordan-Syria Border Crossings—by Justin Schon

Syria Comment - 금, 2014-08-15 11:20

by Justin Schon

“In the interest of our national security, we are prepared to close the border if — God forbid — anarchy breaks out in Syria or we see an unprecedented humanitarian crisis,” Jordanian Minister of State for Media Affairs and Communications and Government Spokesperson Samih Maaytah said in January 2013. This statement may not seem noteworthy for one of Syria’s neighbors, but it did signal increasing concern from the Jordanian government about the growing influx of Syrian refugees. These security fears have only grown over time.

In response to civil conflict in a neighboring state, it is not uncommon for states to close their borders. Border closures are commonly seen as one method to reduce the likelihood of conflict spreading from neighboring countries. In theory, border closures should prevent weapons, supplies, armed groups, and civilians from flowing through the country. For example, Kenya has attempted to close its border with Somalia. However, just as Kenya has proven unable to stem the flows of weapons, Al Shabaab fighters, and Somali refugees, Jordan’s attempts to restrict movement across its border with Syria have achieved little success. Arguably, they have even made Jordan less safe.

Ultimately, it is not possible to completely control a border. Over 600,000 Syrians have entered Jordan since the start of Syria’s conflict in 2011, with several hundred thousand of them having arrived since Jordan began to seriously restrict entry. This seems to have begun around March 2013, when Jordan was accused of closing the crossing at Nassib. Jordan finally admitted in June 2013 that it had closed several illegal crossing points and limited the entry of refugees through other border crossings.

These restrictions did not stop the flow of refugees into Jordan. Even by early 2012, it had already become more difficult for Syrians to enter Jordan. This simply prompted many Syrians to cross illegally into Jordan. These crossings occurred along at least 45 illegal crossing points. With a 231 mile border, much of it located in harsh desert, the Jordan-Syria border is very difficult to secure.

Yet, by May 2013, the Jordanian government had managed to shut down most of these crossings. Now, the best hope for Syrians to cross into Jordan lies in travelling to the East, where Syrians must endure the harsh desert, government checkpoints, bombings, pro-government militias, and Bedouins who often demand bribes to allow fleeing civilians to pass. As one refugee told me, “From Deraa, it can take about 15 days to travel to the desert border crossing near Ruwayshid [city in eastern Jordan]. When people arrive there, they are almost always out of food and water. Many need medical care. But then they have to wait for Jordan to let them enter. This can take one week, one month, or more.”

These controls have prevented many Syrians from being able to leave Syria at all. Those unfortunate enough to be in this position are often forced to live in large displaced persons camps around Nassib, Tel Shihab, and other border towns. This problem is aggravated by the inability of many Syrians living north of Deraa to find out about the border restrictions. Thus, many Syrians go to Deraa, only to learn that they cannot cross into Jordan from there. Instead, they have to go back north to Damascus, then to Sweidah, and then east to the desert border crossing from which they can reach Ruwayshid in Jordan. People without the money to pay for this trip are often left with no options other than staying in the displaced persons camps.

These camps host thousands of people, and sadly have not been safe from bombing by the Syrian government, including barrel bombs. As fighting moves closer to the border, there is an increased likelihood for violence to cross into Jordan. On Monday, August 11, a rocket fired from Syria reportedly landed a few hundred meters from Zaatari. Jordanians have also been hit by stray bullets from fighting along the border. Bold attempts to cross have even forced the Jordanian military to take lethal action, such as when it destroyed trucks with Syrian rebels attempting to enter Jordan in April 2014.

This situation leads to the Jordanian military intercepting as many refugees as they can when they cross the border. Thousands of refugees have been sent directly to the Zaatari refugee camp. Now, with the opening of the Azraq refugee camp, all refugees are sent to Azraq except refugees for whom UNHCR determines there are protection concerns. Regardless, most refugees, understandably, strongly dislike the camps.

Hence, there are many attempts to leave them. The main system that the Jordanian government has implemented to allow people to leave is known as the bail-out system. This system, which I briefly discussed in my previous post, was originally meant to be a compromise between UNHCR and the Jordanian government. For UNHCR, it is a way to give people some freedom to leave the camps. For Jordan, it is a way to facilitate effective monitoring of refugees when they leave the camps.

In practice, refugees have often avoided this system, choosing instead to bribe Jordanian military officers for the opportunity to leave the camps. These refugees do not get registered with the Jordanian Ministry of Interior, and only sometimes register with UNHCR. Therefore, large numbers of people are outside the official system, making them extremely challenging to monitor. It is therefore unlikely that Jordan would be hosting an estimated 100,000 unregistered Syrian refugees, as it currently is, if it were not for the border closures and restrictions. Now that there are so many unregistered refugees, officials fear that there is a serious risk that these unregistered Syrians will become involved in radical groups.

Through its own attempts to maintain its security, Jordan is creating security challenges for itself. Its decision to close and/or restrict entry at its border crossings with Syria has contributed to a situation where there is insecurity along the border and a growing number of unregistered, poorly monitored Syrians. Without such controls, there would surely be more Syrians in Jordan, but they would be easier to monitor. It is also likely that border areas would be more secure. Jordan would be safer as a result.

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“10 Things to Know About Refugees in Jordan,” by Justin Schon

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-08-11 04:46

10 Things to Know About Refugees in Jordan
by Justin Schon, a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Indiana University Bloomington. His research focuses on insurgency and population displacement during conflict. He can be followed on twitter @goliathSchon

This post is the first of two posts I will be writing for this blog. It is based on the observations I have made and conversations I have had during my fieldwork in Jordan. This is by no means an all-inclusive list, but they are all points that are important to know about the refugee situation in Jordan.

1)     Syrians are not the only refugees in Jordan

Although Syrians have stolen much of the attention in recent years, Jordan is actually home to many groups of refugees. The largest of these groups is Palestinian refugees. However, Jordan also hosts large and growing numbers of Iraqi refugees. Then there are many other smaller groups of refugees, such as Sudanese and Somali refugees, as is discussed here. All of these groups face serious challenges in Jordan.

At the same time, the types of challenges these groups face can be very different. Syrians are currently the high profile group, so there are a lot more aid organizations focusing their efforts on them. At the same time, they may also be more likely to be the victims of backlash against refugees than other refugee groups because of that high profile. On the other hand, Sudanese and Somali refugees are a small and often ignored group. These groups even have difficulty acquiring refugee status.

Thus, when thinking about responses to refugee influxes in Jordan, it is a mistake to lump all refugees in Jordan into one category. Their needs are different, and they can require very different responses.

2)     Most Syrians are not living in the refugee camps

Currently, more than 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan do not live in a refugee camp. Zaatari may capture a lot of the public interest and media headlines, but the refugee camps only contain a small portion of the total Syrian refugee population in Jordan.

This means that the focus of the response to Syrian refugees needs to be on urban refugees. The Jordanian government has stressed, justifiably, that aid programs should target geographic areas, rather than refugees specifically, so that Jordanians can benefit from these programs as well. UNHCR and the broader INGO and NGO community generally agree with this goal, so it should not be seen as controversial.

3)     Refugees strongly support the Free Syrian Army

Many refugees in Jordan have friends or family that fought with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and the FSA is instrumental in helping many people leave Syria. So, it should come as no surprise that many of the refugees in Jordan support the Free Syrian Army. There is speculation about how much support IS/ISIL/ISIS has among Syrian refugees in Jordan, but my own work has made me skeptical of this claim. Some Syrian refugees are even convinced that the Assad government and ISIS are in an alliance, making it even more unlikely that they would be willing to support ISIS.

4)     It is unlikely that there would be a large voluntary repatriation of Syrian refugees if Assad were allowed to take control of southern Syria.

One of the arguments for allowing Assad to win the war is that it would at least be a way to bring stability to Syria and provide a way for Syrian refugees to return to Syria. There is some logic in this, but the conversations I have had with refugees in Jordan do not support the argument.

For many refugees in Jordan, they were specifically fleeing from government troops and pro-government militias. Even if Assad were to create stability in Syria, many Syrians would be unlikely to return voluntarily because the source of their fear would remain in power.

The word voluntary is important because the Jordanian government is showing a desire to encourage Syrian refugees to return to Syria, even at the cost of suffering protests from UNHCR and numerous NGOs. If Syria becomes stable, then Jordan could use the norm of safe return, rather than non-refoulement, as its rationale for repatriating Syrian refugees. In short, safe return is the idea that refugee return is facilitated by host governments when the origin country becomes safe. It does not have to be a voluntary return. Non-refoulement means that refugees should not return to their origin countries unless the decision has been made voluntarily and without coercion. This legal distinction between safe return and non-refoulement is important to consider, and could become relevant in the case of Syrian refugees.

5)     Refugees often pay close attention to what is happening back in Syria.

Every refugee that I have spoken with has told me that they regularly call friends and family that are still in Syria. They even frequently watch television and surf the internet. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter are also used by many people. So, the Syrian refugee community in Jordan is very engaged in following and discussing the events taking place inside Syria.

6)     Syrians in Jordan know more about the conflict in some ways than Syrians in Syria.

Consuming so much information does often mean that Syrian refugees are consuming more information than they were when they were back in Syria. In addition, many people that primarily watched movies and television series before the war switched to watching the news during the war. Meanwhile, many television channels and internet websites have gotten blocked by the Syrian government. Television channels can change their broadcast frequency, but this is still an impediment for those attempting to get their news from watching television.

This may seem counter-intuitive, but it is actually consistent with some recent work published by Oxford’s Refugee Studies Centre. Refugees often consume more information than other civilians.

7)     Syrian refugees are not welcome in Jordan long-term.

Syrians currently make up about 10% of the population inside Jordan. This influx has strained Jordan’s economic resources, security services, and environmental resources. Thus, Jordan has made it very clear that aid organizations should avoid livelihoods programs or any measures that would encourage Syrians to stay long-term. For example, Syrians cannot obtain work permits, and Syrians caught working without a permit risk serious harassment or punishment from the Jordanian government. There is even a possibility of deportation back to Syria in some of these cases.

While it would be preferable for Jordan to welcome Syrians for as long as they should choose to stay, the government’s response must be taken in context. It is facing security challenges in both Iraq and Syria, high unemployment domestically, water shortages, and rising discontent among its domestic population with the Syrians. One could even argue that it is amazing that Jordan has not struggled even more with the strain of hosting so many refugees.

8)     There is disagreement about whether Syrians that want to return to Syria should be encouraged to do so.

This is related to the previous point. UNHCR considers Syria unsafe for refugee repatriation, even if it is voluntary. However, the Jordanian government encourages refugees to return to Syria if they are willing. Therefore, UNHCR has chosen to monitor these returns to ensure that they are least voluntary. As time passes, this dynamic is important to watch.

9)     The bail-out system is flawed.

One quirk of the Jordanian system of hosting refugees is that Syrians can leave the refugee camps if a Jordanian pays 300 JD and agrees to take responsibility for the refugee. This system was meant to be a way to allow Syrians to leave the refugee camps while providing a way for Jordan to continue monitoring the movements of Syrian refugees.

Officially, the Jordanian is supposed to be of a certain age, be married, have no criminal background, and satisfy several other characteristics. Unofficially, additional money can be paid to get around these requirements. Fake papers are used in some circumstances. These issues have meant that the bail-out system, which was originally meant to be a compromise with good intentions, has now become a system that encourages bribery and pushes many refugees under the radar once they leave the refugee camps.

10)  Border closures have many negative effects upon civilians.

Jordan’s decision to close border crossings from Syria has produced many additional hardships for displaced Syrians. Syrians unable to cross at the border crossings near Deraa often have to find an illegal border crossing. Much of the crossing happens in the eastern part of Jordan, where there is little but desert. Making this trip takes much more time, costs a lot of money, and exposes fleeing Syrians to the risk of more checkpoints. This is not to mention the large displaced persons camps that have emerged along the border due to being forced to wait for permission to cross the border.

In my second post, I will discuss these challenges in greater detail. I will be focusing on this point because border closures do involve tremendous costs for displaced Syrians. These costs merit additional discussion.

* This work was supported by a Foreign Language and Area Studies (FLAS) scholarship and a grant from the Vincent and Elinor Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis.
my website: http://justinschon.yolasite.com/

The post “10 Things to Know About Refugees in Jordan,” by Justin Schon appeared first on Syria Comment.

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Sinjar Was Only the Beginning—by Matthew Barber

Syria Comment - 토, 2014-08-09 03:40

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.

A view of Shariya with hills behind—photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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.

Yazidis flee Sinjar in overcrowded car, barefoot—photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

Yazidis flee Sinjar in overcrowded car, barefoot—photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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:

A Yazidi village, previously destroyed by Saddam Hussein, in the process of being rebuilt—Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

To transport large numbers of people amidst this chaos, creative means was employed, such as carrying them in dump trucks:

Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

The New Crisis

When I visited Shariya on Monday, it looked like this:

Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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.

Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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.

USAID being distributed in Shariya, Kurdistan—Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

Water bottles discarded in Shariya in the wake of Sinjar IDPs’ second flight, Aug 7, 2014—Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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.

Final stragglers flee Shariya at night, Aug 7, 2014—Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

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.

The post Sinjar Was Only the Beginning—by Matthew Barber appeared first on Syria Comment.

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IS Routs Peshmerga, Takes Control of Sinjar Mountains, Jeopardizes Yazidi Homeland

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-08-04 01:29

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.

Yazidis flee the IS invasion on foot, through Sinjar’s desert mountains. Photo was tweeted by Sinjar locals today.

 

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.

Source: NYT

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.

Cars fleeing Sinjar traffic-jammed as capacity of roads exceeded. Photo tweeted by Kurdish sources today.

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?)

Photo: Rudaw – Yezidi IDPs (internally displaced persons) arrive in Lalish

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?

 

Round-Up

A number of sites have reported on today’s events:

IS terrorists take over Yezidi villages: A short chronicle – Ezidi Press

+++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

Iraq jihadists seize another town from Kurdish forces – AFP

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. …

 

Jihadists enter Sinjar – photo taken from Ezidi Press

 

Aftermath of IS invasion of Sinjar – Photo: al-Arabiya

 

U.N.: jihadist takeover of Iraq town sparks ‘humanitarian tragedy’ – al-Arabiya

UN Calls for Urgent Cooperation between Baghdad and Erbil in the wake of Sinjar tragedy

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. …

Peshmerga Forces Prepare for Major Offensive Against ISIL – Rudaw

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”. – See more at: http://old.rudaw.net/news/Live-Blog/#sthash.l8U334xt.dpuf 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”. – See more at: http://old.rudaw.net/news/Live-Blog/#sthash.l8U334xt.dpuf Peshmerga Forces Prepare for Major Offensive Against ISIL – See more at: http://old.rudaw.net/news/Live-Blog/#sthash.l8U334xt.dpuf Peshmerga Forces Prepare for Major Offensive Against ISIL – See more at: http://old.rudaw.net/news/Live-Blog/#sthash.l8U334xt.dpuf Peshmerga Forces Prepare for Major Offensive Against ISIL – See more at: http://old.rudaw.net/news/Live-Blog/#sthash.l8U334xt.dpuf

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

 

An IS jihadist makes himself at home inside Peshmerga headquarters in Sinjar

Added August 4, 2014:

Yazidi refugees from Sinjar sleep on the ground, first night after fleeing – Photo: EzidiPress

The post IS Routs Peshmerga, Takes Control of Sinjar Mountains, Jeopardizes Yazidi Homeland appeared first on Syria Comment.

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The Expulsion of Mosul’s Christians, part 1: The Account of the Kidnapped Nuns

Syria Comment - 일, 2014-08-03 09:36

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.

Older photo of the two nuns: source unknown

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.

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The Factions of Raqqa Province

Syria Comment - 화, 2014-07-29 18:47

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.

Regime

National Defense Force (NDF)- Raqqa


NDF Raqqa Emblem

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.


Mundhar Sharif al-Mousa and Fadi Sheikhan, identified with NDF Raqqa and said to have been killed in an ambush on the Athariya road.

Funeral for the two men.


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.


Pro-regime graffiti in Raqqa in February 2014: “National Defense to liberate Raqqa.”

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.


Non-Islamic State source on “violent clashes” in March 2014 between the regime and the Islamic State in Division 17 area, such that they could be heard from Raqqa city.

The most recent fighting, as I noted above, has been more intense, as reporting from both sides makes clear.


Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Iraqi poses with heads of decapitated regime soldiers from Division 17 base.


Ahmad Ali Ibrahim, killed in the latest Islamic State assault on Division 17.


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.


Muhannad Sari’ Suleiman, originally from Jobat Burghal (Latakia province), killed in Division 17 clashes.


Majid Ahmad al-Hassan, originally from the Alawite quarter of Zahara’ in Homs, also killed in the Division 17 clashes.


Suleiman Ibrahim, originally from Tartous area, killed in Division 17 clashes.

Saraya Ansar al-Jaysh al-Arabi al-Suri


Statement by Saraya Ansar al-Jaysh al-Arabi al-Suri in Raqqa.

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.

 

Rebels

Liwa Thuwar Raqqa


Emblem of 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.


Four al-Jazrawis (foreign fighters from the Arabian Peninsula, normally Saudi Arabia) of the Islamic State killed by Liwa Thuwar Raqqa in May 2014.


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.


Purported leader of Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (Abu Wael) with some members in Ayn Issa countryside, 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.


Ahrar ash-Sham Raqqa da’wah outreach: October 2013.


Islamic State advertising a slide for children: May 2014.

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.

Conclusion

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.

 

The post The Factions of Raqqa Province appeared first on Syria Comment.

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Minority Dynamics in Syria

Syria Comment - 화, 2014-07-29 18:08

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.

Alawites

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.


Muqawama Suriya claims its fighters posing with corpses of dead rebels in the al-Safira area of Aleppo province. Photo released in May.


Muhammad Sakhr al-Khozaie pictured with the Muqawama Suriya’s Aleppo contingent “Badr Organization.”

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.

Druze

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.


Locals gather in the Druze village of Haḍr to commemorate those depicted on the tree mural who have died fighting for the army and NDF.


Mural in the Suwayda village of al-Raha dedicated to those who have died fighting for the regime or were killed by rebels/in crossfire.


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.


Shadi Hamid Abu Ismail, killed on 7 July in Wadi al-Deif, Idlib province.


Mu’nis al-Halabi, a Druze soldier from al-Khalidiya (Suwayda province) killed in al-Mleha on 7 June.


Rawad Sharf al-Din, from the Jabal al-Sheikh village of Rime killed in the fight for Deraa prison.


Druze sheikhs mourn for Adham al-Safdi, killed fighting for the Syrian army in Deraa on 23 May 2014.

Aamer Fayez al-Basha, an NDF fighter from the Suwayda village of Sumayd killed on 28May in al-Mleha, East Ghouta.


Ahad Azzam from the Suwayda village of Ta’arah who died fighting in Idlib on 3 June. 


Fadi Hamza Hamsho from the village of Lahitha in Suwayda province, killed in al-Mleha in early June.


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

Christians

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.


Support for the SSNP in the town of al-Hwash in Wadi al-Nasara, Homs province, along with commemoration of Christian fighters who have died fighting the rebels.


Locals in al-Hwash show support for the SSNP.

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).


“On the road to Kasab: the first photos from inside the town of Kasab, 16 June.” Visit featuring SSNP supporters.


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…”


Qamishli Sootoro graphic: “We have vowed resistance and defense of the people and the homeland,” featuring the flag of the Assad regime and echoing the regime’s rhetoric.


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).”


SUP Sutoro in al-Malikiya, Hasakah province.


SUP Sutoro member mans a checkpoint.


SUP Sutoro vehicle. Note “Asayish” is also on the vehicle, indicating the integration of the SUP’s forces into the PYD’s security apparatus.


Syriac Military Council and Sutoro members share food.

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.


Qamishli Sootoro center.


Syriac Orthodox Civil Peace Committee in Qamishli, Western Quarter branch.


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.”


Sootoro truck ready to distribute gifts on Mother’s Day in Qamishli.

Conclusion

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.

The post Minority Dynamics in Syria appeared first on Syria Comment.

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“Can the Islamic State Survive? What Can the US Do?” by Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen

Syria Comment - 수, 2014-07-23 01:58

“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.

The post “Can the Islamic State Survive? What Can the US Do?” by Matthias Baun Brubaker Christensen appeared first on Syria Comment.

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The Six Words You Need to Know to Be a Successful Jihadi and Establish Your Own Caliphate

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-07-07 01:44

by Mohammad D for Syria Comment

 

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the newly minted caliph of the “Islamic State,” chose the first Friday of Ramadan to make his first public appearance—ever. Until now he has worked outside the limelight, and the almost complete absence of his image in public media had generated a sense of mystique around his persona. Now, he has given a public sermon and led prayers at an impressive mosque in Mosul, available in the below video:

Shortly prior, the Islamic State (formerly ISIS, now simply IS), had declared through its spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-’Adnani that it was establishing a khilafa (“caliphate”) in the land it controls in Syrian and Iraqi territory, over which the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was to be the khalifa (خليفة الله في الأرض, “caliph”). Muslims have now been asked to swear allegiance to this new khilafa.

This comes at the chagrin of many other jihadis who had hoped to beat him to it, who had previously tried and failed, or who had a more “right” approach to doing so. No matter: now that we all know it’s doable, perhaps you’d also like to try your hand at the caliphate game? Here’s a handy manual of the primary words to keep ever upon your tongue as you move through the stages of establishing your own caliphate…

Every jihadi speech contains key words that sum up their purpose and express their objectives.  The concepts behind these terms constitute the building blocks for the establishment of khilafa and can help explain the recent rise of ISIS/IS and al-Baghdadi.

The following 6 terms correspond to consecutive stages integral to actualizing the jihadi goal and reveal much about the beliefs that motivate jihadis.

 

1 al-Taqwa التقوى

Al-taqwa simply means performing what Allah has ordered of you.  It is to obey Allah’s wishes as well as to fear him.  “Ittaqi Allah,” a widely used phrase, means fear Allah and obey his wishes.  This readiness to follow Allah’s will is an important stage of being that you must reach before embarking on your mission.  Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in almost all of his speeches, asks the Muslims to be muttaqiin and to yattaqu Allah, both of which mean to do what Allah has set forth in the Qur’an.

In his speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi first quoted from the Qur’an’s sura “‘Umran,” verse 102:

يَاأَيُّهَاالَّذِينَآمَنُوااتَّقُوااللَّهَحَقَّتُقَاتِهِوَلَاتَمُوتُنَّإِلَّاوَأَنْتُمْمُسْلِمُونَ

“O you who have believed, fear Allah as He should be feared and do not die except as Muslims [in submission to Him].”

Al-Baghdadi then quotes the sura “al-Ahzab” verses 70-71:

يَاأَيُّهَاالَّذِينَآَمَنُوااتَّقُوااللَّهَوَقُولُواقَوْلًاسَدِيدًايُصْلِحْلَكُمْأَعْمَالَكُمْوَيَغْفِرْلَكُمْذُنُوبَكُمْوَمَنْيُطِعِاللَّهَوَرَسُولَهُفَقَدْفَازَفَوْزًاعَظِيمًا

“O you who have believed, fear Allah and speak words of appropriate justice. He will [then] amend for you your deeds and forgive you your sins. And whoever obeys Allah and His Messenger has certainly attained a great attainment.”

In the second part of his speech, al-Baghdadi told his audience that to yataqqu Allah and begin jihad for his sake is necessary whether they want security, work, or an honorable living.

 

2 al-Nafeer  النفير

Al-nafeer means, in the jihadi context, mobilization to join the battle.  It is the initial step: the switch from life as a civilian citizen of a certain nation-state to the role of a mujahid who obeys a new set of specific rules.  The term is drawn from many Qur’anic verses that mention al-nafeer.  Anytime a jihadi wants to recruit someone, he invokes al-nafeer and, of course, the related verses in the Qur’an.  Also, it is used anytime someone wants to collect money for Jihad.

Al-Nafeer connotes having left everything, making the decision to join the fight, ready to die.  The derived verb is nafara نفر(past tense) or yanfuru ينفر(present tense).  When someone Yanfur ila Sahat al-Ma’raka (ينفرإلى ساحة المعركة), it means he is ready to die, and is expecting to die with a “guarantee” for a better existence in the afterlife. When a person decides to yanfur (join the fight), jihadists say that he is allowed to disobey his parents and the authorities and is no longer beholden to any laws but those of Islam (and, of course, his sect’s interpretation of Islam).  The governments that are fighting the mobilization of their kids for jihad raise this issue frequently, featuring the arguments of religious scholars who oppose the jihadist interpretation.

Of Qur’anic verses mentioning al-nafeer, three are most significant. These verses are loaded with interpretive meaning, and much has been written about them. It is common to hear them referred to in speeches, tweets, sermons, and so forth.

a) إنفِرُواْ خِفَافًا وَثِقَالاً وَجَاهِدُواْ بِأَمْوَالِكُمْ وَأَنفُسِكُمْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ ذَلِكُمْ خَيْرٌ لَّكُمْ إِن كُنتُمْ تَعْلَمُونَ

Translation: “Go forth, whether light or heavy, and perform jihad with your wealth and your lives in the cause of Allah. That is better for you, if you only knew” (Qur’an 9:41).

In this verse Allah is ordering the Muslims to conduct al-nafeer, light or heavy.  “Light” means you leave your home with nothing.  “Heavy” means you leave your country for the land of jihad with money, equipment, etc.  The verse then issues the command to join al-jihad with your money and yourself.  Here, in common interpretations, those who cannot go make jihad physically are charged to fundraise on behalf of those who can.  The belief is that if you prepare a person for jihad (i.e. finance his preparedness for battle), you will be considered as though you have gone to wage jihad yourself.

b) يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُواْ مَا لَكُمْ إِذَا قِيلَ لَكُمُ انفِرُواْ فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ اثَّاقَلْتُمْ إِلَى الأَرْضِ أَرَضِيتُم بِالْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا مِنَ الآخِرَةِ فَمَا مَتَاعُ الْحَيَاةِ الدُّنْيَا فِي الآخِرَةِ إِلاَّ قَلِيلٌ

Translation: “O you who have believed, what is [the matter] with you that, when you are told to go forth [derived imperative of nafeer] in the cause of Allah, you adhere heavily to the earth? Are you satisfied with the life of this world rather than the hereafter? But what is the enjoyment of worldly life compared to the hereafter except a [very] little” (Qur’an 9:38).

This verse is used to admonish those considered lazy, who prefer the contentment of their normal lives over making jihad, neglecting to appreciate the magnitude of the afterlife.  (Of course, the afterlife of he who joins jihad is Paradise.)

c) إِلاَّ تَنفِرُواْ يُعَذِّبْكُمْ عَذَابًا أَلِيمًا وَيَسْتَبْدِلْ قَوْمًا غَيْرَكُمْ وَلاَ تَضُرُّوهُ شَيْئًا وَاللَّهُ عَلَى كُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدِيرٌ

Translation:  “If you do not go forth, He will punish you with a painful punishment and will replace you with another people, and you will not harm Him at all. And Allah is over all things competent” (Qur’an 9:39).

In this verse Allah says that if you do not do mobilize (derived verbal form from nafeer) you are going to be tortured severely, and you and your people are going to be substituted by others by Allah, the one able to do anything.

In his speech, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi underscored the importance of joining Jihad, because, according to him, Allah had ordered it so that Islam could be established.

Here is a link to a video in which a Tunisian fighter explains the importance of nafeer and calls people to do nafeer “light” or “heavy:”

 

3 – al-Ribaat الرباط

For jihadis, al-Ribaat refers to the time spent at the battlefront.  Ard al-Ribaat أرض الرباط means the land where the battle occurs or is about to take place, against the enemy.  The verb raabata رابط (past tense) or yuraabitu يرابط (present tense) means to spend time in the trenches.  The concept is highly revered among Muslims, especially by jihadis.  The frontlines are also sometimes referred to as al-thughur الثغور.  Keep in mind that all of these words are rarely used in everyday language and have vastly different meanings when used in the modern era.

Al-Ribaat is mentioned in the Qur’an:

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا اصْبِرُوا وَصَابِرُوا وَرَابِطُوا وَاتَّقُوا اللَّهَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

Translation: “O you who have believed, persevere and endure and remain stationed and fear Allah that you may be successful” (Qur’an 3:200).

And in the hadith we find emphasis on rewards for those who observe ribaat:

a) رباط يوم في سبيل الله خير من الدنيا وما عليها

Translation: “Observing ribaat for a single day is far better than the world and all that it contains.”

b) رباط يوم وليلة خير من صيام شهر وقيامه، وإن مات فيه جرى عليه عمله الذي كان يعمل وأجري عليه رزقه وأمن من الفتان

Translation:  “Observing ribaat in the way of Allah is far better than fasting in the month of Ramadan and all the nighttime worship activities that are associated with that month.  And, if one dies while observing ribaat he will go on receiving his reward for his meritorious deeds perpetually and he will be saved from calamities.”

c) رباطيوم في سبيل الله خير من ألف يوم فيما سواه من المنازل

Translation: “Observing a day of ribaat for the sake of Allah is better than a thousand days in any other place.”

d)كل ميت يختم على عمله إلا المرابط في سبيل الله فإنه ينمي له عمله إلى يوم القيامة، ويؤمن من فتنة القبر

In this Hadith we see that whoever does ribaat for the sake of Allah is exempted from the calamities that happen between death and judgment day (special “tortures of the grave” exacted by Allah on the sinful while still in their graves, prior to the judgment).

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi regularly speaks of ribaat, though in his speech he only alluded to it without using the word. In the following video, a missionary of jihad mentions more hadith about al-Ribaat:

 

4 – al-Thabaat  الثبات

Al-thabaat means steadfastness, or to be able to hold your lines in the fight.  It also means to stick to your beliefs, and in this case, your decision to fight.  It is the ability to stay put in the face of adversity in the “arenas of jihad.”  In their speeches, many jihadis call for the strength to stay true to the goal.  Many historical references are made in conjunction with this term, most importantly to events from the days of the Prophet Mohammad, such as the battle of Uhud.  Frequent references to Qur’anic verses mentioning the term are made.

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِذَا لَقِيتُمْ فِئَةً فَاثْبُتُوا وَاذْكُرُوا اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا لَعَلَّكُمْ تُفْلِحُونَ

Translation: “O you who have believed, when you encounter a company [from the enemy forces], stand firm and remember Allah much that you may be successful” (Qur’an 8:45).

This above verse is used by jihadis on a regular basis.  It asks the believers to hold their position and pray to Allah when faced with adversaries in battle.  It is therefore very important to every jihadi to read the Qur’an and hadith and to mention Allah whenever he is in battle.  The word “Allah” and the adjectives normally attached to it are abundant in jihadi rhetoric, sprinkled within almost every sentence any jihadi utters.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdai mentioned al-thabaat in the second part of his speech.  He beseeched Allah to “yuthabet” (hold firm) the feet of the mujahideen. The Qur’anic references for al-Baghdadi are these verses:

ولمابرزوالجالوتوجنودهقالواربناأفرغعليناصبراوثبتأقدامناوانصرناعلىالقومالكافرين

Translation: “And when they went forth to [face] Goliath and his soldiers, they said, ‘Our Lord, pour upon us patience and plant firmly our feet and give us victory over the disbelieving people’” (Qur’an 2:250)

يَا أَيُّهَا الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا إِنْ تَنْصُرُوا اللَّهَ يَنْصُرْكُمْ وَيُثَبِّتْ أَقْدَامَكُمْ

Translation: “O you who have believed, if you support Allah, He will support you and plant firmly your feet” (Qur’an 47:7).

Al-thabaat also has a lot to do with courage.  It is very common to hear every jihadi and suicide bomber include the word thabaat in their speeches—even Chechens and other non-Arabic-speakers use this word prolifically.  A very common phrase is to ask Allah for al-thabaat: “…نسأل من الله الثبات”

 

5 – al-Tamkeen التمكين

Al-tamkeen means simply to be able to control what you have taken and establish yourself within it.  The Qur’an provides the basis for the concept of tamkeen as something done over a piece of land.  At this stage the group must create the infrastructure of a state. Islamic scholars have, of course, written volumes about it, but the basic idea is conveyed by the following Qur’anic verse:

وَنُرِيدُ أَنْ نَمُنَّ عَلَى الَّذِينَ اسْتُضْعِفُوا فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنَجْعَلَهُمْ أَئِمَّةً وَنَجْعَلَهُمُ الْوَارِثِينَ   وَنُمَكِّنَ لَهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ وَنُرِيَ فِرْعَوْنَ وَهَامَانَ وَجُنُودَهُمَا مِنْهُمْ مَا كَانُوا يَحْذَرُونَ

Translation: “And We wanted to confer favor upon those who were oppressed in the land and make them leaders and make them inheritors, and establish them in the land” (Qur’an 28:5-6).

الَّذِينَ إِنْ مَكَّنَّاهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ أَقَامُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتَوُا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَمَرُوا بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَنَهَوْا عَنِ الْمُنْكَرِ ۗ وَلِلَّهِ عَاقِبَةُ الْأُمُور

Translation: “Those who, if We give them authority in the land, establish prayer and give zakah and enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong. And to Allah belongs the outcome of [all] matters” (Qur’an 22:41).

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنْكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِنْ قَبْلِهِمْ وَلَيُمَكِّنَنَّ لَهُمْ دِينَهُمُ الَّذِي ارْتَضَىٰ لَهُمْ وَلَيُبَدِّلَنَّهُمْ مِنْ بَعْدِ خَوْفِهِمْ أَمْنًا ۚ يَعْبُدُونَنِي لَا يُشْرِكُونَ بِي شَيْئًا ۚ وَمَنْ كَفَرَ بَعْدَ ذَٰلِكَ فَأُولَٰئِكَ هُمُ الْفَاسِقُونَ

وَأَقِيمُوا الصَّلَاةَ وَآتُوا الزَّكَاةَ وَأَطِيعُوا الرَّسُولَ لَعَلَّكُمْ تُرْحَمُونَ

Translation: “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them and that He will surely establish for them [therein] their religion which He has preferred for them and that He will surely substitute for them, after their fear, security, [for] they worship Me, not associating anything with Me. But whoever disbelieves after that – then those are the defiantly disobedient.  And establish prayer and give zakah and obey the Messenger – that you may receive mercy” (Qur’an 24:55-56).

In his speech, al-Baghdadi stressed this concept.  He said that having the might to do tamkeen is part of observing Islam correctly (being able to force others to do what you believe is right), and quoted this verse:

لَقَدْ أَرْسَلْنَا رُسُلَنَا بِالْبَيِّنَاتِ وَأَنْزَلْنَا مَعَهُمُ الْكِتَابَ وَالْمِيزَانَ لِيَقُومَ النَّاسُ بِالْقِسْطِ ۖ وَأَنْزَلْنَا الْحَدِيدَ فِيهِ بَأْسٌ شَدِيدٌ وَمَنَافِعُ لِلنَّاسِ وَلِيَعْلَمَ اللَّهُ مَنْ يَنْصُرُهُ وَرُسُلَهُ بِالْغَيْبِ ۚ إِنَّ اللَّهَ قَوِيٌّ عَزِيزٌ

“We have already sent Our messengers with clear evidences and sent down with them the Scripture and the balance that the people may maintain [their affairs] in justice. And We sent down iron, wherein is great military might and benefits for the people, and so that Allah may make evident those who support Him and His messengers unseen. Indeed, Allah is Powerful and Exalted in Might” (Qur’an 57:25).

After using this Qur’anic text, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shouted a slogan of ISIS (the “foundation of religion” phrase from Ibn Taymiyah which is very important for jihadis), which is as follows: “The foundation of the religion is a book that leads and a sword that supports it” (قوام الدين كتاب يهدي وسيف ينصر).

The concept of tamkeen can explain why jihadis make the call for prayer every time they overrun a post.  In their creed, the power to raise your voice in the call to prayer is a sign of tamkeen—that you have control over the place.  The verbal form of this word is also used when ISIS soldiers are leading prisoners of war or after they behead someone, in such phrases as: “We thank Allah who made us control their necks” (نشكر الله الذي مكننا من أعناقهم).

 

6 – al-Istikhlaf   الإستخلاف

Al-istikhlaf is derived from the same root as the word khilafa (caliphate). This is when you, as a jihadi, get to kick it into the net: now that you’ve followed the rules, carried out Allah’s will, fought for the land, implemented control after being granted the land by Allah, it is now time for the final step—the establishment of a khilafa, i.e. a state that follows shari’at Allah, the laws of Allah.  Just remember that for your caliphate to be a legitimate one—not just a crazed delusion proclaimed by some fanatical wanabees—you must follow all the right steps, as outlined here, leading up to this one.

Al-Baghdadi spoke extensively on the concept of istikhlaaf in his speech, saying that after his group was able to exercise control it became their Islamic duty to declare a khilafa—the duty that Muslims had “lost for centuries.”  He stressed that “Muslims should always try to establish it [khilafa].”

Al-istikhlaf is based on several Qur’anic verses and hadiths:

قَالَ عَسَى رَبُّكُمْ أَنْ يُهْلِكَ عَدُوَّكُمْ وَيَسْتَخْلِفَكُمْ فِي الْأَرْضِ

Translation: “He said ‘Perhaps your Lord will destroy your enemy and grant you succession in the land and see how you will do” (Qur’an 7:129).

وَعَدَ اللَّهُ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا مِنكُمْ وَعَمِلُوا الصَّالِحَاتِ لَيَسْتَخْلِفَنَّهُم فِي الْأَرْضِ كَمَا اسْتَخْلَفَ الَّذِينَ مِن قَبْلِهِم

Translation: “Allah has promised those who have believed among you and done righteous deeds that He will surely grant them succession [to authority] upon the earth just as He granted it to those before them…” (Qur’an 24:55).

The Qur’an mentions in many verses that the believers will inherit the earth.  It also states that Allah owns the land and that he will give it to his favorite followers.

 

Conclusion – Ready to Establish Your Own Caliphate, Baghdadi Style

If you’ve taken notes on the necessary stages of the jihadi project, you’re better prepared to follow al-Baghdadi’s example and pursue the establishment of your own caliphate (provided you purify your heart and all that). If you’re lucky, the loyal men you’ve surrounded yourself with (who don’t dare express dissent since they know death will be the penalty) will ‘elect’ you as the caliph!

In his first-ever public appearance, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi wanted to demonstrate his control and prove that the time to remain hidden has passed.  As khalifa, he can now choose his whereabouts and act as a public figure.  Far from featuring Ramadan as the spiritual journey it is understood to be by most Muslims, al-Baghdadi turned it into a jihad-fest.  In the first sermon of Ramadan, he called Muslims to join the jihad and build khilafa.  He came dressed in black and walked with a limp, conveying that he had been wounded in the jihad.

Al-Baghdadi performed the duties of a khalifa: giving a sermon and leading the people in prayer.  He brandished his linguistic skills and some admirers praised him for having improvised his speech.  But don’t let this intimidate you regarding your own aspirations: if you really follow the speech of jihadis, you’ll find that they repeat a very finite number of limited concepts, encapsulated within the same few-dozen cookie-cutter sentences.

The post The Six Words You Need to Know to Be a Successful Jihadi and Establish Your Own Caliphate appeared first on Syria Comment.

카테고리: 시리아

Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part 3)

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-06-23 23:57

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented muhajireen battalions here and here. Below are two more groupings.

Saraya ash-Sham

Logo of Saraya ash-Sham, whose main emblem resembles the flag of Iraqi insurgent group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (pro-Caliphate and with deployment in Syria). The motto reads: “We shed tears and spill blood.”

Translating to “brigades/squadrons of ash-Sham” and operationally advertising itself since at least the autumn of last year, this group- in origin a merger of several small brigades- has been primarily active in the Homs area (including from within Homs city), and like the Lebanese-founded Jamaat Jund ash-Sham, it contains a mixture of native Syrians and foreign fighters: though according to a media activist for this group whom I interviewed, the “majority” of the group’s fighters are Syrians. To the extent that there are foreign fighters in this grouping, they are most likely Lebanese and other Levantines. To date, no muhajireen martyrdom notices have been publicly announced.

Ideologically, like most muhajireen and part-muhajireen battalions, Saraya ash-Sham espouses the establishment of a Caliphate, and officially took an anti-fitna stance on the al-Qa’ida-Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) dispute (as the media activist put it to me, “We are all brothers”), declaring support for Sheikh Muheisseni’s “Ummah Initiative” back in January. Indicative of the official anti-fitna stance as well is the fact that when Sheikh Abu Khalid al-Suri of Ahrar ash-Sham was killed in February, Saraya ash-Sham did not blame anyone in particular for the killing, but simply eulogised him. The group also coordinated with ISIS, Ahfad al-Rasul and other groups in fending off an attempted regime advance on the village of Aydun in Hama countryside, near an Alawite village called Khanifis.

With the regime’s clearance of the city of Homs and other key localities in the vicinity, it should be noted that Saraya ash-Sham, like Jamaat Jund ash-Sham (which was driven out of Krak des Chevaliers by the Syrian army and National Defence Forces) has largely ceased to be a meaningful entity in terms of operations.


Saraya ash-Sham fighters training in the Homs countryside.


Saraya ash-Sham fighters prepare to hit a regime forces base in Homs area.


Saraya ash-Sham fighters with special arm patches and headbands.


Despite the official anti-fitna stance of Saraya ash-Sham’s position on other groups, in practice Saraya ash-Sham, like Harakat Sham al-Islam, is closer to Jabhat al-Nusra than ISIS. This is a media graphic released in February of this year dedicated to fallen Saraya ash-Sham commander Abu Zubayr al-Homsi. Note the Jabhat al-Nusra logo on the top-right corner. In an accompanying message, Abu Mujahid ash-Shami- an official in Saraya ash-Sham- said the martyrdom notification was dedicated to “Jabhat al-Nusra in particular.” It appears there may be some personnel overlap between Saraya ash-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.


Saraya ash-Sham graphic dedicated to slain field commander Sayyid Suleiman, who established his own brigade as part of Saraya ash-Sham in al-Khalidiya, Homs.


A Saraya ash-Sham graphic echoing the ISIS messaging motif of the looming conquest of Jerusalem. The text accompanying this graphic read as follows: “We fight in Homs al-Adiya and our eyes are on al-Quds al-Abiya.”


As above: “We fight in Homs and our eyes are on al-Quds.”


Saraya ash-Sham fighters in a training camp. From October 2013.


125 mm al-Quds artillery cannon operated by Saraya ash-Sham. From October 2013.


Saraya ash-Sham fighters praying. October 2013.


In November 2013, two more battalions joined Saraya ash-Sham: the Junud Allah brigade in Hama countryside, and the Usud ash-Sham brigade in Homs.


Saraya ash-Sham statement in January of this year supporting the Ummah Initiative.

ISIS- Gaza contingent

Just as ISIS has a special contingent for Libyan fighters- namely, the Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, which previously played a pivotal role in the defence of ISIS’ southern Hasakah stronghold of al-Markadah from the attacks of Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebels and is now pushing deep into Deir az-Zor province, losing a number of fighters in the process- so ISIS also has a special contingent dedicated to fighters from Gaza.

This should come as no surprise. After all, images of support from Gaza for ISIS have been in evidence for nearly a year now, and when it came to the infighting between ISIS and other groups in Syria that broke out this year, the two main Gaza-Sinai jihadi groups- Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen- came down firmly on the side of ISIS. The Gazan contingent in turn reflects the division among the Palestinians outside Syria regarding the Syrian civil war: namely, that while there is no evidence Hamas has an organized presence in Syria to support the rebels and its insistence on neutrality is to be believed (much to the chagrin of the Islamic Front), Palestinian Salafi circles have been active in assisting the rebels.

 


A supporter of ISIS inscribes the group’s name on the beach in Gaza. Photo from September last year.


The Gazan religious instructor in this study circle was killed fighting for ISIS in Syria in September last year.


Gazan children show their support for ISIS. Photo from January 2014.


“From Gaza of glory to the mujahideen of the Islamic State: verily we love you in God. The Salafi Jihadi Movement- Gaza”- photo in support of ISIS from December 2013.


Wissam al-Atal: a doctor from Gaza who became a suicide bomber for ISIS in Syria last year.


“From Gaza of glory, our allegiance is to our amir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi”- a Gazan fighter shows his support for ISIS. Photo from February 2014.


Banner on the beach of Gaza hoisted in support of ISIS this month.


“Joy of the people of Gaza at the conquests of the Islamic State”- purported photo from the demonstrations held by Salafis in support of ISIS following news of the advances in Iraq. The rallies were subsequently broken up by Hamas police.

In Syria, the Gazan contingent of fighters that has emerged takes the name of the “Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade,” named after the founder and leader of the Salafi Jund Ansar Allah group in Gaza- Abdel Latif Moussa- who was killed in clashes with Hamas in 2009.


Training for the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi brigade (photo released in April 2014): “Mujahideen of Gaza in the Islamic State’s Camps in ash-Sham.” Accompanying slogans on Twitter include “Coming, oh Jews,” reflecting the ambitions for the conquest of the whole Israel-Palestine area as part of ash-Sham.


As above.


As above.


Abu Khattab of Gaza, who died fighting for the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi brigade in Syria.


The Gazan contingent burning cigarettes in Syria.


Gazan fighter shows children how to destroy cigarettes.


Gazan contingent handling raw meat. As with the Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, standard ‘daily life of a mujahid’ messaging.


The Gazan contingent handles a gazelle for slaughter.


A photo that gives an idea of where the Gazan contingent has been deployed. Photo from outside ISIS’ Islamic police station in Manbij, Aleppo province.


“From the mujahideen of Gaza in the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Brigade.”

It should be noted that undoubtedly with influence from Gaza, this pro-ISIS trend is catching on somewhat in the West Bank, which recently saw three teenagers kidnapped near Hebron by a group taking its name after ISIS, though the Israeli government is officially blaming Hamas as part of a propaganda line whereby there is a reluctance to acknowledge there is a more radical trend than Hamas emerging within the Palestinian population. Perhaps the emergence of this trend should not be surprising when one considers the widespread Palestinian support for Saddam Hussein as champion of their cause. Now, with the rise of ISIS and its extensive conquests and promises to liberate Jerusalem, it seems many Palestinians will be inclined to see ISIS as their new Saddam-style saviour figure.


ISIS graphic on social media to remind Palestinians and the Ummah that ISIS has not forgotten al-Quds (Jerusalem).


A young Palestinian girl shows her support for ISIS, which will supposedly open the path up to al-Quds.


ISIS billboard in Hasakah province from March 2014: “We fight in Iraq and ash-Sham and our eyes are on the Holy House [Bayt al-Maqdis].”


“Oh Quds, don’t cry…” Palestinian graphic in support of ISIS.


“Baqiya [ISIS slogan], Palestinian support, together in support of ISIS.” Palestinian graphic in support of ISIS using Iwo Jima imagery.

The main area to watch in terms of Palestinian support for ISIS is the Gaza-Sinai area, where pro-ISIS jihadis have been building their networks for some time. While the Hamas security apparatus is still resilient, as Jonathan Spyer, I would not be surprised if active pro-ISIS jihadis, assuming ISIS’ overall status and holdings are not diminished, attempt to take over Gaza within the next 5-10 years and proclaim an emirate of Gaza aligned with ISIS. 

The post Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part 3) appeared first on Syria Comment.

카테고리: 시리아

“Bilal” – by Stephen Boeshaar

Syria Comment - 수, 2014-06-18 02:51

Stephen Boeshaar worked throughout the Arab World for many years and is fluent in Syrian Arabic. After serving with the Peace Corps in Morocco in the 1960s, he ran English language instruction programs in Yemen, Oman, Bahrain, and Syria, and worked with Fulbright in Egypt developing university curriculum. Later, Steve directed the American Language Center in Damascus for 20 years, until the Syrian uprising finally compelled him to leave with his family in 2012. He currently lives in Florida and is working on a collection of “Syrian Profiles,” stories of the many lives he encountered along his path. The following is an excerpt. Steve hopes to complete the book later this year. He can be contacted at stephenboeshaar@gmail.com

 

Bilal

 

Bilal is now in his mid fifties and, like many aging men in Syria, his waistline has gradually expanded with maturity and prosperity. I had known him for more than 30 years and I watched this ballooning in his weight over time with some degree of alarm. He really needed to take better care of himself; that was my personal (and unspoken) opinion. On one of my visits to his home, he eagerly motioned me over as he lovingly unwrapped some old, wrinkled snapshots taken in his younger days, back in the 1970s. Most people in the West have no inkling how slavishly well-to-do classes of the third world have tended to adopt and mirror our own goofy fashions and fads. When we grew our hair long, hippie-style… well, so did the rest of the world. Thus, modern day Syria, for example, is currently awash in hip-hop music and tattoos.

Anyway, it was funny to see the brownish photos of Bilal sporting a Beatles-style mop top and dressed in garish disco attire; but what was the most striking was how amazingly fit and svelte he looked in those bell bottoms. He had been as skinny as a rail. He used to go to the gym too, and there were photos of him flexing like a young Schwarzenegger. What a contrast with his current well-fed portliness.

Bilal was the son of a prosperous shop owner and his family had always lived in a pretty nice fourth-floor apartment in an upscale neighborhood in central Damascus. However, it would be an error to imagine that he had had an easy life, by any means. Bilal spent two years in a technical institute after finishing high school but finding work in 1970s-era Damascus was a tall order. For one thing, the Syrian economy was overwhelmingly socialist in those times. Syria maintained its long love affair with the USSR during its Communist era and that special relationship has continued on to this day with contemporary Russia. In those quaint times of total central planning, Syria was probably the closest thing to a truly Communist system—outside of the Soviet bloc itself. Any Syrian who actually had a job worked for the state. For years, Bilal struggled to negotiate an opening into that vast, monolithic bureaucracy but it was no easy task. What you really needed was not education or job skills but “wasta,” which meant a connection to some big shot with influence who could find you a niche in the anthill.

For a long while, Bilal’s quest was futile. For a couple of years in the early 80s, he was reduced to driving a taxi in an effort to make some cash—certainly one of the most difficult and frustrating means of making a living imaginable. Most taxi drivers in Damascus do not own the cars they drive; instead, they must pay rent to the proprietor, buy gas and cover repairs on the vehicle. After shelling out for all the expenses, they struggle to eke out a meager living from whatever daily pittance they can grind out over a lengthy work day—10 to 12 hours or more. Foreigners in Damascus will find a cab ride to be one of the world’s best bargains. You can travel all the way across town for a couple of bucks. It is dirt cheap, even now in these days of high inflation. Great for the passenger but the flip side is, of course, how can any working stiff in Syria conceivably make a living from these fares, which are ferociously controlled at rock-bottom rates by the municipality? Bilal learned those lessons the hard way, back in the days when a taxi ride might cost you no more than 10 cents. The poor guy spent two hard years killing himself for peanuts.

Like most young Syrian men, Bilal had been drafted into the nation’s gargantuan military when he turned 18. It had been one of the largest armed forces in the Middle East for 40 years. Ironically, it hadn’t fought a real war since 1973, when it was severely beaten by the Israelis. Some claimed it was not a real army at all, but merely a device for maintaining the regime’s control over the country and for furthering its regional interests—as when it was used to occupy Lebanon during the 1980s and 1990s. Syrian military service was brutal and demeaning. The army did not even provide food or clothing—which had to be paid for by the recruits’ families. Bilal’s father was relatively well off and was able to pay enough to ensure him an easy posting in Latakia, up on the Syrian coast.

It was a direct consequence of his army service that Bilal finally hit pay dirt in his quest to find a post within the mysteriously opaque civil service. During his stint in the north, he managed to develop a useful contact, an Alawite military officer who seemed to look upon him favorably. According to Bilal, he spent more than 10 years cultivating the favors of this powerful warlord, through a long and persistent campaign of services, gifts, cajolery and flattery. It was like raising an exotic plant, one that you had to fertilize and water with utmost care. In the end, the suck-up efforts paid off and Bilal was duly rewarded with a position in the Syrian Customs Authority. This appointment was a genuine stroke of fortune, even if a customs officer was only a poorly-paid cog in the machine in Damascus. Sooner or later, however, the employee might well be permitted the golden opportunity to work on one of the Syrian borders. A border posting was the Holy Grail in the customs universe. Bilal endured an achingly long penance at the desk job in the central office; he had no choice but to watch, uncomplaining, as less qualified but more favored men moved ahead of him. After two or three years of agonizing patience, Bilal was at long last granted a six-month stint on the Syrian-Lebanese border. His ship had come in.

Syria has busy borders with Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. Consider the fact that tens of thousands of vehicles pass through those border posts every day—including large numbers of trucks and commercial carriers—and each one of these is a potential gold mine. Many of the truckers are carrying illegal or quasi-legal goods, making them ideal targets for shakedowns. The fact is, legal or illegal, the merchants and drivers who pass through these check points are expected to pay a bribe to be allowed to proceed. These payoffs are by no means an anomaly in the trade system; they ARE the system. It is the everyday grease that allows commerce to function all over the Middle East (and most of the rest of the third world as well). The customs agents are the lucky stiffs in the middle who regulate this seamy traffic. Regular travelers, whether ordinary Syrians or foreign tourists, are unlikely to even notice anything afoot—unless they get caught actually attempting to conceal items such as major appliances or weapons, for example.

Taxi men and bus drivers typically engage in petty smuggling of items like cigarettes or booze. They may have to cough up a nominal sum (or a couple of packs of smokes) but it is the big trucks where the real money is to be made. According to Bilal, the art of the trade is to hit up the drivers for a reasonable amount, without getting greedy. Everyone knows the going rates, more or less, and a timely payment will guarantee a cursory inspection of your vehicle, followed by a friendly wave through. The startling truth is that the system ensures that hardly a single solitary shipment ever gets opened and inspected. You can run just about anything through those borders, up to and including WMDs, if you play your cards right.

Bilal had struck pay-dirt. His fortunes (and his income) soared dramatically in those heady days when he was out at one of the border posts. Periodically, he got assigned to the crossings with Iraq and Jordan. But, sadly, he pouted, never the Turkish border, which was reputed to be the busiest and most lucrative. After years of desperate penury, Bilal and his family were suddenly living high on the hog. Another man might have saved some of this largess for a rainy day, another might have invested; but Bilal would always spend it freely—mostly on the stuff of the good life. He and his wife promptly bought themselves an expensive apartment and a new car. Later on, he got additional cars and small apartments for his two grown sons. Suddenly nouveax-riche, Bilal’s family saturated the house with costly, overstuffed furnishings and took to wearing expensive designer clothes and jewelry.

When we would meet, they would eagerly show us their latest purchases, apprising us in great detail how much they had paid. On those occasions when we stopped by Bilal’s house or went out for a meal with his family, we were struck by the degree to which the conversations invariably focused on material goods. The talk was always about cars, the price of real estate and the latest acquisitions for the home. Despite this slavish devotion to consumerism and material things, we never really felt irritated or offended by the litany of fiscal details. We understood, finally, that he and his family were not simply boasting or being smug, these material things constituted their only true passion in life. Without the cars, the clothes and the jewelry, what on earth would they have had to talk about?

Bilal’s overweight and the general state of his health became more of an issue after he hit 50. Despite its financial rewards, the customs job was pure murder. He had to put in crazy shifts, with long travel times to distant border crossings; sometimes he would not sleep for 24 hours. He often worked long nights. The job at the borders was highly stressful; shaking people down was profitable—but it was hard work. Moreover, the periods spent on the borders were short and unpredictable, mainly because of the intense pressures from within the bureaucratic corps. After all, every single officer in the customs service was busy jockeying for one of those plum assignments. When he was forced to return to Damascus for desk duty, Bilal’s income would plummet to near zero and he would again have to plot and spend his time and treasure maneuvering and cajoling, kissing up to the powerful functionaries who controlled the assignment rosters. He could never relax—and it showed.

Bilal, that young man who had once been so fit and athletic, had taken to smoking heavily early on in his customs career. He never exercised or watched what he ate. Frankly, he did not look well and his face showed an unhealthy pallor. It was just the way he was: working like a dog, living for the moment, buying stuff he didn’t really need, spending what he made while he had it. I guess he never thought about the future much.

As the first signs of the coming unrest appeared in Syria in 2011, we received some awful news. Bilal was in the hospital. Apparently, he had suffered a stroke and he had severe bleeding in his cerebral cortex. When we went to see him, he was still in a coma and he looked absolutely terrible. I think everyone assumed it was the end game, but, unexpectedly, Bilal rallied to recover… to some extent. The problem was that he had clearly lost some essential brain functions. He was now no longer able to care for himself; his long-suffering wife, who had struggled so long to raise their two boys, now had a new child to attend to, one who would never grow up. Bilal had killed himself at that job. He had never failed to protect and support his family, but now, work was out of the question. No more distant borders for him—no more windfalls; he had reached the end of his long and exhausting road.

We still sometimes visit Bilal; he does not talk but he smiles and follows our conversations with alertness. He is only a shadow of himself now but at least he is much thinner and the long years of strain and pallor have been erased from his face. Syria may now be at war, but Bilal has found his peace.

The post “Bilal” – by Stephen Boeshaar appeared first on Syria Comment.

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Joshua Landis & Robert Ford discuss Syria at Wilson Center event

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-06-16 07:34

Joshua Landis, Robert Ford (former US Ambassador to Syria), and Hadi Al Bahra (Syrian opposition) each gave unique perspectives on Syria policy in a recent event with the Wilson Center, moderated by Aaron David Miller.

Dr. Landis outlined three possible policy options for Syria (in the absence of putting troops on the ground of a foreign interventionist force), none of which offer much optimism for restored stability or comprehensive peace: 1) Supporting a rebel win in Syria that would entail the need for rebels to conquer almost all of Syria’s major cities in street-by-street battles (since rebel-held cities are currently very few), resulting in tremendous instability, added destruction, and greater refugee crises; 2) Allowing security and counter-terrorism concerns to influence the choice to sit back and allow Assad to retake most of the country, which may limit jihadist gains but will allow the regime’s policies of torture, mass killings, and human rights abuses to continue unabated; 3) De facto partition that would involve shoring up support for the opposition—enough support to take certain key areas and enforce partition by pressuring the regime into a ceasefire & territorial concessions, but not enough to conquer the entire country—followed by a major project to introduce a moderate oppositional government in the rebel partition that could combat jihadism.

At present, the international players are not satisfied with allowing either side to win, which is why the conflict will remain at a “low boil” in which the opposition is kept on life support but will remain largely ineffective, while the Syrian people are sacrificed on the altar of great power politics.

The audio of the event can be accessed on the Wilson Center’s website, here:

What’s To Become of Syria? U.S. Policy, the Opposition and the Regime

Ford begins speaking at 11:35, Landis begins at 17:30

—————————————————————-

Take a look at this interesting infographic underscoring the complexity of alliances and competitions within the Syria conflict (thanks to " href="https://twitter.com/p_vanostaeyen" target="_blank">Pieter Van Ostaeyen for circulating it, from an article by Think Progress):

Why The Middle East Is Now A Giant Warzone, In One Terrifying Chart

What started as a crackdown against democratic protests three years ago, has become a region-wide conflict that now has Iraq descending back into chaos. The countries of the region — along with the United States and various non-state actors — all have a hand in creating this moment, as money, fighters, weapons, and a desire to control the Middle East have come together to produce an extremely volatile and terrifying situation.

What has made the Syrian conflict so difficult to respond to has been the fact that the situation has refused to be tied down as just a civil war. In addition to the top-line fighting between the Syrian government and rebels who’d like to oust Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, there’s also a proxy war ongoing between Sunni-majority states in the Gulf and Shiite-majority Iran and its allies. There’s also struggles for dominance among the rebels, who fight each other almost as frequently as the Assad government these days. Add in disagreements between the countries united against Assad over just which of the Syrian rebels to finance, and the reason a simple solution for the conflict hasn’t been developed becomes more understandable.

And standing out among all of this now is the attempts of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) — also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) — to establish its own state within the region. ISIS managed to takeover the city of Fallujah in January, hold it against Iraqi army efforts to dislodge it, and in the last few days take over both the major cities of Mosul and Tikrit. …

See also an updated map on the current situation in Syria from Thomas van Linge, also posted by Pieter:

…As well as another detailed map by Thomas on ISIS in Iraq:

The post Joshua Landis & Robert Ford discuss Syria at Wilson Center event appeared first on Syria Comment.

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The Future of ISIS and the Sectarian Response: ISIS has Picked a Fight it Cannot Win

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-06-16 07:20

The Future of ISIS in Iraq and the Sectarian Response – by Joshua Landis

 

ISIS purportedly conducting a mass execution of captured Shiite Iraqi army soldiers

A Washington policy analyst asked me what chances I gave to the possibility that Prime Minister Maliki will try to divide Sunnis and isolate ISIS by teaming up with moderate Sunnis. He raised the possibility of Maliki creating a government of national unity with greater power sharing.

My answer:

1. I doubt ISIS will get a foothold in Baghdad. Already, Shiite mobilization in the face of the ISIS advances are fierce and panicky.  I think Shiite religious mobilization now taking place in Iraq will mean very bad things for Sunnis in general. ISIS has picked a fight it can’t win and unleashed the inner Shi’a in their adversary. And it’s not as though Maliki, like Assad, lacks powerful friends with a serious stake in the outcome of the battle.

Rather than Maliki teaming up with “moderate” Sunnis, such as the US did in arming the tribes and cultivating the Sahwa, Iraq’s Prime Minister is likely to respond by using religion as his prime mobilizer. Of course, he will not abandon “Iraq” or nationalism, just as Assad has not.  But just as Sistani has used the sanctity of Shiite shrines as his primary “national” motivator, Maliki is likely to follow suit. He will largely define the nation in sectarian terms. That is what ISIS has done, as well. Sunnis have scared the pants off of Shiites. The photos of mass shootings of Shiite young men dooms a non-sectarian response, I would imagine. What is more, the gathering storm of sectarian mobilization has already reached furious levels in the entire region. The demonization of Shiites as “rejectors” and “Majous” or pagans who are considered both non-Muslim and non-Arab, has spread to such an extent that it has taken on a life of its own. The counter demonization of Sunnis, within the Shiite world, as terrorists, takfiris, and Wahhabi inspired agents is well entrenched.

2. I would not be shocked to see significant ethnic cleansing of Sunni neighborhoods in Baghdad should ISIS attack and give the Iraqi Army a run for its money. After all, the Iraqi army is large, has helicopters, sophisticated intelligence capabilities, tanks, artillery and all the rest. They were caught napping and without esprit de corps, much as the Syrian army was. But capable officers will emerge who will strip down the “power-sharing” fat that the US built and rebuild it based on loyalty to Maliki and Shiism, if most of that has not been done already. This is what happened in Syria, when we saw the Syrian Army unravel at the base during the first year of the Sunni uprising. The Syrian military was quickly rebuilt along sectarian and regional lines to make it much stronger and more loyal, with locally recruited Iranian style National Defense Forces modeled on the Islamic Guard. If Sunnis choose to form such local militias and ally with the Shiite regime, so much the better. If they do not and choose to lay low until they figure out whether ISIS can win in their regions, the Shiites will go it alone and assume all Sunnis are a fifth column. That is how the Turks dealt with the Christians during WWI and the war with the Greeks. The 20% Christians in Anatolia of 1914 were cleansed. Jews in Palestine dealt with Muslims in a manner not altogether dissimilar. It didn’t turn out well for Christians in Anatolia or Muslims in Palestine.

3. We are not witnessing power-sharing or the emergence of a particularly destructive brand of religious nationalism in the region. We are witnessing the breakdown of the territorial nationalism that was implied by the borders drawn by Europeans at the end of WWI. The new nationalism, largely defined by religious affiliation, is apparent in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. Palestine is a bit of an exception with the new coalition government, but not much of one.

My advice to Obama would be to lay low. This sectarian-nationalist process has been boiling up for a more than a century. It should be seen as part of the breakdown of the Ottoman order and emergence of nationalism. I compare what is going on in the Levant today to Central Europe during WWII. In Central Europe, the great powers drew national borders after WWI, carving up the lands of the defeated empires without rearranging the peoples to fit them. Thus Poland was only 64% Polish before WWII. Czechoslovakia was made up of close to 25% minorities. WWII was the “great sorting out.” (Read: http://qifanabki.com/2013/12/18/landis-ethnicity/ ) Over the war years, the peoples of central Europe were rearranged according to the WWI borders. By the end of WWII, Poland and Czechoslovakia had been reduced to their core Polish and Czechoslovak peoples. They got rid of their unwanted (Jews) or guilty (think the 12 million Germans of central Europe) minorities, along with many others. It was a nasty and brutal nation-building process.

Of course, in the Middle East, the emergence of national identities is bedeviled by competing religious identities, which seem to be stronger than both “Arabism” or “Iraqism.”

I doubt we will see high degrees of Shiite-Sunni cooperation in the coming months. If the U.S. sticks its long oar into this mess, the U.S. will end up with a broken oar. It seems possible that within the next two years, ISIS will largely be destroyed by the concerted action of both Iraqi and Syrian forces with help from Iran and possibly the U.S.  Sunni Arabs will not be pacified so long as they receive scant justice and minimal political representation in both Syria and Iraq, but ISIS cannot represent their needs. It is an expression of sectarianism run amok.

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Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Syria – by Fabrice Balanche

Syria Comment - 토, 2014-06-14 10:42

Insurgency and Counterinsurgency in Syria – by Fabrice Balanche

Abstract

Bashar al-Assad is clearly on the path to victory by way of continuing gains since Qusayr in June 2013. From the spring of 2013, the Syrian army, helped by Hezbollah, has been retaking territories: the southern suburbs of Damascus, the Qalamoun, and most recently, the center of Homs. The Syrian regime is not only massively supported by Iran and Russia (something the insurgency lacks), but Assad also applies a highly effective strategy of counterinsurgency. The rise of Islamists against him provided the ideology that Bashar al-Assad needed, i.e. the fight against Islamist terrorists supported from abroad. By demonstrating his resoluteness, Bashar al-Assad wants to reassure his supporters and win over the silent majority. The latter no longer seek the return of peace, but are falling into line behind the force that can ensure their security and is most likely to win.

Several rapid and symbolic victories, such as the reclamation of Bab Amer in March 2012, provided material that the government could instrumentalize in propagandist argumentation, as they sought to convey to the population that the rebels were responsible for the death and destruction.

The al-Assad regime is now supported by a new civil and military elite, who have been promoted over the course of events, as less competent officers have been eliminated. The regime also benefits from strong Iranian logistical support in counterinsurgency. The military regime’s strategy is clear: to first concentrate the army’s efforts on the usable parts of Syria and on border control, and to then follow by resuming the effort to reclaim disputed territories, once securing greater support from the population for the cause of the regime. The chaos in areas held by the insurgency, with the attendant lack of civil administration (which is also partially due to the regime’s air raids), promotes the attractiveness of government-controlled areas (where the greatest majority of the 7 million internally displaced people are residing), which in turn bolsters the counterinsurgency.

 

Download the entire article (in French) from Syria Comment, or visit Fabrice’s Academia.edu page.

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Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution – by Issam Eido

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-06-02 06:06

Issam Eido is a Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow and a Visiting Instructor of Islamic Studies and Arabic in the University of Chicago Divinity School. Dr. Eido’s research focuses on the Qur’an in late antiquity, hadith studies, and Sufi and Arabic literary and poetic studies. Graduating with his PhD in 2010 from Damascus University, he also served that institution from 2010-2012 as Lecturer in the Department of Qur’anic Studies and History of Islamic Sciences. In 2012 he was a Fellow of the “Europe in the Middle East/Middle East in Europe” research program at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin. At the University of Chicago, he currently teaches Qur’anic Arabic.

 

Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution

by Issam Eido for Syria Comment

Clouds of ambivalence and uncertainty have obscured Syria’s religious landscape from the beginning of the revolution. In the particular way that the conflict developed across space and time, every individual affiliated with a religious group became compelled—sooner or later—to take sides. Needless to say, any declaration of alignment in the conflict carries serious consequences, especially for religious shaykhs who are looked to for guidance. If even tacitly supportive of the revolution, the position taken by shaykhs can lead to killings, arrests, or torture by the regime’s officers. On the other hand, a shaykh might lose his followers or be accused of being a spy or in-league with regime intelligence if he exhibits even nominal support for the opposition. Hence, the first stage of suffering was the dreadful obligation to choose a side, something that weighed on ulema everywhere and exacerbated whenever a shaykh’s popularity was on the rise or when there was specific danger in the area where he lived. Accordingly, the way that the conflict developed can help us understand the reason for the declarations of each shaykh at particular points in time, as well as explain (in some cases) why the focus was on one shaykh more than others.

The Syrian revolution has two trajectories: geographic and temporal:

The geographic trajectory of the revolution conferred upon the ulema—the Arabic word for Muslim religious and legal authorities—the responsibility to tell the truth about what was happening in the area where they resided. Accordingly, we understand that the first religious defection to occur was that of the mufti of Dara‘a, and that the first shaykhs who were exposed to killings, imprisonment, and other dangers were the shaykhs of Dara‘a. These were followed by those of the city of Homs whose shaykhs rebelled in their entirety, supporting the revolution from the oldest to the youngest. They subsequently suffered displacement, prison, or evacuation, including such shaykhs as Anas Swaid, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa. This city, therefore, didn’t experience the contravention of public expectations by any shaykh who had gained the trust of the people before the revolution. Moreover, some shaykhs of the city were leading demonstrations and giving speeches in public places, such as Shaykh Junaid. The city of Hama was the third city to engage strongly in the revolution, but it lacked prominent religious leaders because most of its significant figures were killed, arrested, or evacuated during the events of the 1980s. Since then, fear of persecution has led most of its shaykhs and students to follow ulema from Damascus and Aleppo.

As for Damascus, the revolutionary activity was divided between the city and its countryside. While the countryside was among the most active regions of the revolution since its beginning, demonstrations in the city were limited to a few mosques such as the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques. Therefore, we can understand the great weight of responsibility that the ulema of these places took on. While the countryside of Damascus didn’t witness any support for the regime on the part of any prominent shaykh (in particular in Dariyya, Muddamiya, Doma, and Harasta), the people of Damascus heard vague statements and declarations coming from their ulema. Among the Damascene ulema we do not find a direct and obvious declaration inviting people to demonstrate against the regime, yet most of their statements contained calls for an end to oppression, an urging for justice, and calls for political change and reform. However, the continuity of demonstrations that were occurring at the al-Hasan and al-Rifai mosques exposed their shaykhs to direct harm. Shaykh Kurayyemal-Rajeh was only placed under house arrest (by the Minister of Endowments), but Shaykh Usama al-Rifai was directly assaulted by security forces and armed shabiha on the holiest night of the Islamic calendar (the night of al-Qader, near the end of Ramadan). Then, Al-Rajeh and Al-Rifai departed the country, and founded a new association of ulema about which I will speak later.

As Aleppo joined the revolution later in 2012, most of its ulema avoided overt opposition of the regime. However, most of its prominent ulema did sign statements urging all to end the killing and oppression, and requesting relief for affected people, especially those in Homs. Still, these ulema were subjected to some degree of questioning, but not to the same extent of those in other cities, as the regime sought to give the impression that Aleppo was its spoiled child.

With regard to the temporal trajectory, the Syrian revolution underwent a number of major transitions: The first stage was peaceful protests; these were followed by the defecting of many soldiers from the regime’s army; then there was the establishment of the Free Army; then the discussion surrounding the announcement of Jihad; and finally the present situation with the emergence of civil and militant Salafi groups.

Before delving into the details of this trajectory, I should point out that traditional Islamic thought, which occupies almost all the discourse of Syrian religious individuals, groups and institutions, is generally a conservative form of thought. Namely, it generally conforms to the established traditions and norms, and does not possess a spirit of initiative and change. In addition, it is—in the Syrian case—moderate. Accordingly, its pronouncements are always late and after-the-fact, which causes it to lose its sheen.

In the first six months of the revolution, the religious groups were moderate. They did not prefer change by force and only issued vague statements. But this situation changed during Ramadan of 2011 when the regime used heavy military force in Hama. The revolution’s trajectory quickly began to shift toward an armed revolution, in particular after the first military defection, that of Husain al-Harmoush. Many official persons followed his lead, such as the mufti of Dara‘a and the later striking announcement of defection of young women from the Qubaisyyat, a group for Muslim women that is known for its political quietism.

In examining this trajectory, we see that the structure of the religious groups started to disintegrate and crumble as a result of multiple factors: the defections of followers, the departure of shaykhs from the country, the loss of shaykhs’ popularity, and members adopting a new outlook and changing allegiance to other groups with different ideas about how to manage the situation. The changing structure of these groups was very deep.

We can classify Syria’s old and newly-emergent religious groups according to the following six categories:

  • First: Groups that support the revolution explicitly: most religious groups and their shaykhs in the Syrian countryside around most cities explicitly announced their support for the revolution. Some observers attributed this to a rural reaction against cities and against the official religious and political discourse that for many years had marginalized the countryside. But this analysis does not apply to some groups who worked for years prior to the revolution to develop a moderate or reformist religious discourse concerned with values of dignity, justice, and equality such as Shaykh Jawdat Saedd and Muaz al-Khateeb’s group. In addition, we find that most religious groups and leaders in Dara‘a, Homs, Hama, and most northeastern Syrian cities explicitly announced their support the revolution. There are also some ulema who openly declared their opinion in support of the revolution, such as Shaykh Ihsan Badarani—the religious advisor to the previous president Hafiz al-Assad. Badarani had been marginalized by the Syrian regime and religious institutions throughout Bashaar al-Assad’s reign, and some attributed his support for the revolution to this marginalization.

 

  • Second: Groups that support the regime explicitly: It is difficult to identify a religious group that supported the regime, except the ministry of endowments’s official institutions, its branches in cities, and some institutions that are associated with the ministry, such as the Abu al-Nour (Kuftaro) Institute. The ministry of endowments strove throughout the revolution to establish new groups and associations under different titles such as “The Association of Damascene Ulema” claiming that ulema actually supported the regime. These new associations often included some imams of mosques and some directors of official institutes like the directors of Abu al-Nour and al-Fateh Institutes, as well as some muftis. But the most prominent figures of these associations were the internationally renowned al-Buti and the grand Mufti Hassoun. While the Hassoun’s attitude was not surprising, al-Buti’s statements, speeches, lessons, and fatwas were surprising and generated many discussions and debates in online forums. This resulted in him losing most of his followers as we see in a record on the internet showing that only 20 to 40 students continued attending his lessons compared with a huge number of students who were attending prior to the revolution. Ultimately, al-Buti and many of his students were massacred during one of his weekly lessons in March 2013 in a well-known Damascus mosque, although there are conflicting reports about who was responsible.

 

  • Third: Groups that nominally support the regime: Most groups whose attitudes are ambiguous are Sufi groups and the Qubaisyyat (the group for religious Muslim women). While some activists claim that these groups support the revolution, others provide records that prove their support for the regime. In the case of the Qubaisyyat, the regime strove to display them as supporters by means of some pictures that showed them meeting with the president—an event that many said happened under coercion. As for Sufi groups, the ambiguity of their attitude was to be expected, as these groups are concerned mainly about individual and spiritual affairs rather than public ones. This, however, led to many questions about the role of these groups. Ambiguity was the general feature of most Sufi groups in Aleppo, such as the Keltawiyya, some of whose followers leaked a record indicating that their Shaykh Mahmoud Hout supported the regime and insulted the rebels. But afterwards, other followers leaked a record which indicated his criticism of the regime. It would be mistaken to assume that this pattern of ambiguity applied to all Sufi groups, as there were instances that stood in stark contrast, such as that of Shaykh Abu al-Huda al-Yaqubi in Damascus and Shaykh Mahmoud Abu al-Huda al-Husaini in Aleppo whose support for the revolution was explicit early on. Some attributed this to their higher levels of education.

 

  • Fourth: Groups that nominally support the revolution: Most Damascene and some Aleppan ulema fell into this category during the first year of the revolution. This ambiguity started to change when the revolution reached Aleppo and Damascus. A good example of where we can see this ambiguity is in the Shari‘a faculties of universities where most of the lecturers supported the revolution with indistinct, opaque language. They were reluctant to exhibit overt support because they were suffering concern on two fronts: the fear of the official channels of Syrian intelligence as well as pressure from their own colleagues.

 

  • Fifth: New groups outside Syria: in the first year of the revolution, some new organizations were established by Syrian ulema, most of whom had already been living outside of Syria before the revolution began. One example is the “Syrian Ulema Association” whose head is Shaykh Ali al-Sabouni and whose vision is basically traditional. This organization issued many statements that are considered the first religious statements against the regime. The “Syrian Islamic Forum” was established in Istanbul by a number of Syrian ulema. These had escaped from the country with a few exceptions like Shaykh Anas Swaid from Homs. Although this institute relies on shari‘a as the source of law, it sees citizenship as a right for all Syrians, and it describes itself as moderate and committed to developing an open and deep Islamic discourse. There is also the “Islamic Organization of Sham (Greater Syria)” that was also established in Istanbul at the end of 2011 by ulema unknown to most Syrians, and which presented itself as an extensive Islamic reformist organization that considered citizenship a right for all Syrians. However, the most important organization founded during the revolution was “The Ulama of al-Sham Association” which was created quite late (Sept. 2012) in Doha by several ulema who escaped from Syria, such as Shaykh Kurayyem al-Rajeh, the association’s head, Shaykh Usama al-Rifai the deputy, Saria al-Rifai, Rateb al-Nabulsi, Mamdouh Junaid, Adnan al-Saqqa, and Abd al-Kareem Bakkar. These scholars aimed to support the revolution through “Jihad al-Kalima”—a jihad through words—to form a religious reference point through which they could advise rebels on how to act according to shari’a, propagate a moderate discourse that dismisses sectarian behavior, and deal with all Syrians as equals.

 

  • Sixth: New groups growing inside Syria: Most of these groups have been founded in exceptionally violent circumstances, and have generally emerged as a reaction to brutal acts of the regime, or as relief groups and judicial councils in the areas that moved out of the regime’s control. These groups can be classified according to three types: ulema, judges, and armed militants. However, these groups generally have two common features: they are young and rural. Since the armed groups emerged as a reaction to the regime’s brutality, they generally promote extreme attitudes which often adopt the Salafi vision. As for other groups, they are almost all students of Syrian universities, in particular the shari‘a colleges, a fact which bolstered their credibility and gave them a level of trustworthiness. We see this in the countrysides of Aleppo and Damascus in such examples as the Association of Ulema in Jabal al-Zawia and the local judgment council in the countryside of Aleppo.

We can now conclude with several points:

  • Most official religious institutes have continued supporting the regime, in particular the Ministry of Endowments and its institutes, such al-Fateh, Abu al-Nour, and the Syrian Mufti.
  • Most traditional institutes, in particular mosques providing lessons, ceased their activities as most ulema fled to neighboring countries.
  • New groups emerged inside Syria, most of whose ideas are based on criticizing the official and traditional religious and legal discourses, in which most of these growing groups believed that these religious and legal discourses were one of the most important reasons for the continuity of the Ba‘ath regime.
  • However, the traditional ulema still have popularity among Syrian people especially in Damascus where conservative and moderate Damascenes consult the opinions of these ulema regarding every event.
  • The general religious landscape of Syria is currently characterized by two primary views: that of the late prominent Shaykh al-Buti who strongly supported the regime, and that of the many religious groups who believe that the battle represents a religious and sectarian conflict. This fact prompted many wise ulema and groups outside Syria to strive to conduct a non-sectarian revolution that would emphasize a citizenship of greater inclusivity. However, with the continuous brutality of the regime, the lack of any convincing political solution, and the passive role of the international community, Syria continues to be entrenched in sectarian conflict, remaining an ideal environment for the operation of extremists.

The post Religious Groups and Scholars of Islam in the Syrian Revolution – by Issam Eido appeared first on Syria Comment.

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Syrians in Lebanon Vote in Presidential Elections

Syria Comment - 목, 2014-05-29 15:39

My brother voted 'no' in the Syrian embassy in Moscow during 1980s Hafez 'election'. His passport was revoked & never able to go back since

— اغين الزعبي (@agh_yan) May 28, 2014

 

As Syrians abroad have been gathering to vote in the presidential elections at Syrian embassies around the world, Anne Barnard tweeted from the scene in Beirut. These tweets were very interesting, and I am providing them below, along with a few from others. An article on the voting in Lebanon was also published by Anne today, here. These elections began with bids submitted by more than 20 candidates, all but three of which were disqualified by Syria’s supreme court. Not long after, one of the surviving candidates, Hassan al-Nuri, stated that “There are no losers in these elections because we are all winners; as of now I consider myself a winner and the presidential chair is not the goal.” A Press TV interview with candidate Hassan al-Nuri is available here.

Oliver Holmes: Tens of thousands of Syrians abroad vote in early poll 

AP: Assad’s supporters abroad vote in Syrian election

VICE: Polls Open in Syrian Elections, but Real Choices Are Hard to Find

Shweta Desai: In Delhi’s Vasant Vihar, 750 Syrians line up to vote in an election denounced by critics as a farce

Voting taking place in environments where one candidate is explicitly promoted – Photo: Scroll.in

The National: Syrian elections put Tehran and Moscow in a fix

 

Main road to Baabda from Beirut clogged as some of 1M Syrians in Leb head toembassy for presidential elections. Refugees/expats vote today.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Minibus w/Assad pic on rear window, young men hanging out door w/ Syria flag. Women in back look more glum. Some cars play patriotic songs.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Lebanese colleague remarks, Syrians voting here for president & we Lebanese can't manage to agree on a president!

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Syrian colleague on other hand jokes that Lebanese commuters late for work will be pissed at this Syrian "occupation" of the highway.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

One car w/Hezbollah flag and poster praising Assad: "you are the lion of the Arabs and the others are half men."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

One carload waves Syria govt flag but says don't take our photo: "we don't want to be famous."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Another car: skinny middle aged driver with wristband w/heart shaped Syrian flag and cap in English: "I (heart) Bashar."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

At least five breakdowns/accidents on way to Syria voting. Scores of people walking uphill to Baabda after Lebanese army checkpoint.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Some anti-government Syria activists say embassy people visited camps to tell ppl you must vote if you ever want to go back home. Took names

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

But embassy official says it was just registration process. #pt Embassy crowded recently w/ppl doing paperwork to vote.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Embassy is on narrow street shaded by eucalyptus in shadow of monument to Leb civ war at min of defense: tanks embedded in concrete pillar.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Whole street blocked off, voters channeled thru lanes of plastic tape and metal detectors by Lebanese security.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

(Now continuing earlier tweets on Syria early voting in Lebanon. No signal in and around lone polling station at embassy in Baabda.)

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

One Lebanese guard spoke w/contempt of queuing Syrians: Don't get too close, you won't stand the smell, we'll have to call Red Cross for you

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Pandemonium inside. Embassy officials at long tables checking IDs. 100,000 preregistered to vote but doubtful they can in one day.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

People crushed into one small room, were handed flimsy glossy ballot w/ pix of three candidates. They borrowed our pens to mark their choice

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

talked to dozens, met no one voting for anyone but the president. Most said they're not refugees, live in Lebanon for work, study, marriage

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

But one guy from Jaramana said, "no need to lie, we came bc of the war, I will go back when there is security."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Charge d'affaires: only ppl who entered Leb legally at border posts can vote. That rules out many refugees, crossed all over porous border

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

But he said on June 3 ppl who crossed illegally can vote at border crossings. They have to pass Leb post but not Syrian one. Rules evolving?

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Said on June 3 ppl who failed to register can also vote. Said today you have to have registered by email fax or at embassy. But we saw guy/1

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Coming today not having registered earlier, they checked his ID and let him vote. Confusion even among poll workers on exact rules.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

For many there was a festival atmosphere. People waved Syrian flags and draped them over heard, chanted and cheered. Many Assad t-shirts

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Ahmed al-Ali from Aleppo marked ballot w/blood: "my blood type is Bashar." dabbed blood on his face. Restaurant worker, 16 (voting age 18).

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

One guy said "we were forced," then corrected: "it's natl duty." Some silent, grim but many seemed authentically enthusiastic.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

In the above tweet, the Arabic of the man’s comment was a bit ambiguous; he could have meant “we had to come,” though being forced seemed to be the sense he conveyed. Regardless, numerous reports have surfaced of many individuals believing they were coerced to vote, or were voting out of fear of the repercussions were they not to do so.

A feeling of empowerment for pro- Assad Syrians, by far most visible mass gathering here in years. Whole Baabda hwy thronged w/ppl walking.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

One Syrian more used to oppo crowds saw red black and white flag and reflexively thought: they're going to burn it. Of course, they waved it

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

No green, black and white flag, syria's 1st independence flag adopted by oppo, anywhere in sight – oppo boycotting or feel unsafe in embassy

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Abu Hatem, 34, plumber from Raqqa, voted "of course" for Bashar. "The good days are gone…only he can bring Syria back to its proud days."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Businessman Abu Mohammad, 25, "I'm a reasonable guy, an intellectual. Bashar is a doctor, he's smart, he's peaceful."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Souad Abu Hilal, 25, beautician, "I eat bread Bashar brings to Syria.. ev country has mistake, Bashar is going to fix all our mistakes." /1

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Her t-shirt: Shabiha forever. She made it herself. She said no one forced her to come. /2

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Sheikh Abdullah Nawer al-Nazal al-Ghadani al-anazi, insisted he was 35, looked 60, in robes, works on "reconciliation": I vote for the best

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

First refused to say for whom, but when heard reporter was from Damascus said: "Bashar."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Now for some tweets on the voting process itself. Room 20x30m max is only polling place for more than 1 million Syrians in Leb.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

When you enter, on right are airbrushed, identically sized portraits of Assad and two obscure opponents, Hassan al-Nuri & Maher al-Hajjar.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Volunteers at door handed us flimsy, glossy handbills w color portraits of the 3 & circles under them. thought info handout – but was ballot

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

We could easily have voted ourselves. No check on who got them or how many times. Ppl filled them out in public, no closed booths.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Some people had poll workers – embassy workers and volunteers in syria flag caps – fill out their ballot. Wrote "yes" or put an x.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

“Deal” should be “seal” in following tweet

Ppl put ballots in envelopes already stamped across the closure – some didn't bother to deal – and crowded around to stuff them into 4 boxes

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

In Damascus lately some activists at dawn left flyers around saying "don't vote." A small gesture to say some oppo still there.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

At beirut embassy ballot boxes, pushing and shoving as people navigate chaotic vote. Voters & embassy workers frazzled, hot, thirsty.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

In polling room crowd periodically broke into age-old chant: "with our souls, with our blood, we sacrifice for you, o Bashar!"

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Later, outside few blocks away, Syrian graphic design student using gas station toilet was asked why she walked uphill in sun to vote /1

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

She said "people came"-wouldn't say who – &said if u don't you may not be allowed into syria. She goes every month so didn't take chance./2

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Three others at gas station said similar in separate conversations. /3

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Did these ppl overinterpret what they were told out of own fears or was threat explicit? Hard to say, but telling either way. /4

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

A friend in srifa s lebanon (Hezb heartland): pro Assad Syrian workers there skipped vote to work, were confident they cd go back to syria/5

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

But another friend in beirut said her Syrian manicurists believed in the threats and felt they had to go vote /6

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Some voters said they preregistered to vote at a center run by Amal, Lebanese party allied w Hezbollah & Syria govt.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Syrians lining up to vote at embassy near Beirut. Lines started 5:30 am. Photo by @hwaidasaad pic.twitter.com/6h1B7QdAbi

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Putting ballots in boxes in early elections for Syrians in Lebanon. 4 boxes squeezed together in this room for >1m pic.twitter.com/sXpSdjws2H

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Anne relays the account of a Syrian who was jailed for 3 months for having delivered humanitarian aid, who explained to her why he wouldn’t vote:

He had the option since he is here legally. But he said this is not a matter of competing political views, "we are dealing with a killer."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Said he wouldnt vote for other 2 candidates – "how do you say clown in English?" He wd vote for a party w/platform not random individuals.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

He called it a "very painful" day for Syrians. Recalled voting for Assad in 2007, felt "in big prison, you cannot say no."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Said Assad voters must be afraid, ignorant or think their choice is betw Assad and ISIS. "They are simple people. I can be against both."

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Said he doesn't expect post elex reform. Iran won't allow, it would give their own people too many ideas.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

@ABarnardNYT @DamascusBureau #Syrians in #Lebanon flock to cast votes at Syrian embassy. pic.twitter.com/Vp4rhrRdgT

— Samar Fares (@txtwxe) May 28, 2014

@ABarnardNYT @DamascusBureau @DavidKenner Syria is currently holding a more successful election in Lebanon than Lebanon is in Lebanon.

— Samar Fares (@txtwxe) May 28, 2014

Lebanese annoyed with Syrian election traffic jams, asking why they didn't do this on a weekend.

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

#Syria ambassador in #Lebanon says embassy will remain open past midnight for voting due to "staggering" numbers of those wanting to do so

— Sam Dagher (@samdagher) May 28, 2014

@nytimesworld @ABarnardNYT The election of exclusion: Christians & expats are excluded from running, refugees excluded from voting.

— Syria Report (@SyriaReport) May 28, 2014

Worth noting: Leb authorities recently barred any political displays by Syrians here, to prevent clashes/problems ahead of elections. /1

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

but all along Baabda hwy today, political displays for Assad. None for other approved candidates, let alone other oppo/alternate Syr flag /2

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Leaving the crush around the ballot boxes, one older Syrian man said: "All this is not necessary. It is already done. "(he didn't explain)

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Syrian govt not v electronic. I wonder, as do some anti-gov Syrians, if govt can really efficiently list voters at border & bar nonvoters/1

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

That said, if mere rumors & fears enough to convince people they have to vote or face consequences, gov maybe happy. its hands clean /2

— Anne Barnard (@ABarnardNYT) May 28, 2014

Moment of Syrians residing in the Syrian embassy in #Amman, #Jordan. #SyrianElection #Sawa #Syria. |28.05.2014| pic.twitter.com/Pfonp1XPe6

— Bashar Isham AlAssad (@Isham_AlAssad) May 28, 2014

@ABarnardNYT @olireports In fact lots of the people I met couldn't remember the names of the other candidates

— Ruth Sherlock (@Rsherlock) May 28, 2014

Think it funny to see photos of one candidate at a polling station?

There is almost as much military as there are voters, all in one hot messy scrum around #syria embassy. With #bashar posters on top

— Ruth Sherlock (@Rsherlock) May 28, 2014

Staff and volunteers wear pro-#Assad clothes at polling booth in Beirut. #Syria election. pic.twitter.com/fMomnDH0i5

— Oliver Holmes (@olireports) May 28, 2014

#Syria election ballots. #Assad bit has been ripped off. Everyone I met said they voted for Assad. pic.twitter.com/Xz4nds2Dpn

— Oliver Holmes (@olireports) May 28, 2014

Wow. RT @prashantrao: AFP barred from filming voting at Syrian embassy in Baghdad. Embassy staff said France's policy is 'against Syria'.

— Liz Sly (@LizSly) May 28, 2014

Connoisseurs of Syrian presidential elections are arguing that the introduction of candidates has ruined the format's traditional minimalism

— Karl Sharro (@KarlreMarks) May 28, 2014

The post Syrians in Lebanon Vote in Presidential Elections appeared first on Syria Comment.

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Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations – By Nikolaos van Dam

Syria Comment - 화, 2014-05-20 00:18

Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations
By Nikolaos van Dam*
Delivered at the Heinrich Böll Foundation, Berlin, 19 May 2014
Discussion series “Understanding Syria”. Discussion 3: German and European policy towards Syria: “Look the other way and wait as a strategy?

In my view there are two main ways of ending the conflict in Syria:

1. Further negotiations between the regime and the predominantly secular opposition groups. (Although I am aware that negotiations with the al-Asad regime may not yield much in the end, I do believe negotiations should be attempted more seriously than they have been so far in a proper effort to prevent further bloodshed).

2. To continue the present internal war until one side can claim victory.
For the secular opposition groups to win militarily, they need to be properly armed, but the West does not provide them with enough military support to achieve this. Al-Asad’s chances of winning the war have increased and Islamic extremist forces are now overpowering the predominantly secular opposition forces. The worse the situation becomes, the more the al-Asad regime starts to be seen as an option to be preferred over the radical Islamic state that the Islamist forces want to establish. If al-Asad does win this war, however, it will not be the end of this drama. For sooner or later there will be a reckoning against the al-Asad regime and its crimes against humanity. Therefore, negotiations are the better option, both for him and the opposition.

The Western approach to the Syrian uprising has from the very beginning been dominated by an overdose of wishful thinking, because precedence was given to supposedly democratic and moralistic ideals over realpolitik. Many Western politicians based their positions on their day-to-day domestic political reflexes, rather than on the long-term vision and result-oriented pragmatism that is needed to work towards genuinely helping to solve the conflict. Most Western politicians became fixated on the idea that the conflict could only be resolved if al-Asad was removed from power. They had clear thoughts about what they did not want, but no realistic ideas of what they wanted in al-Asad’s place. Yes, they wanted a democracy, but a violent deposal of al-Asad could not realistically have been expected to result in such a desired peaceful democracy.

Al-Asad never had any intention to leave. On the contrary, he intends to overcome the revolution and win the battle for Syria, whatever the costs. And the higher the costs, the more there is a will to continue the struggle, if only to prevent all the victims from having died in vain. It appears to be all or nothing for both al-Asad’s regime and the opposition movements; at least for the time being, as long as there is no war fatigue.

We should not expect any mercy in the way al-Asad’s regime deals with its opponents: there will be no pardon for the massive armed revolutionary opposition groups that are trying to topple the regime. It is to kill or be killed. A compromise has, as of yet, not really come in sight because a real compromise between the opposition and the regime, with real power sharing and substantial political reforms could be the prelude to the fall of the Ba’th regime later on.

If the regime were to be toppled, its leaders can expect certain execution, and the key figures of the al-Asad regime which have been recruited from the Alawi community can expect to be in severe danger, just like the Alawi community itself, even though this community contains many opponents to the Alawi dominated Ba’th regime. It would be naive to expect President al-Asad to sign his own death warrant.

By branding the rule of President al-Asad as illegitimate, Western countries may have been morally just, but they thereby prematurely cut off any opportunity they had to play a constructive role in helping find a political solution to the crisis. What should have priority: being morally correct or helping find a solution?

Many Western countries considered it politically inappropriate to continue to directly communicate with the al-Asad regime, since they did not want to be seen as condoning its methods. They did not want to be seen as being lenient or compromising their morality in any way with al-Asad’s forces, who already had the blood of hundreds of lives on their hands during the early stages of the revolution in 2011.

Three years after the beginning of the revolution, however, once it became apparent that the regime was much stronger than anticipated, and more than 125.000 dead had fallen, Western countries conceded that they needed to return to the idea of political dialogue, by helping organize the Geneva II conference in 2014. Iran was not allowed to participate in Geneva II, although it might have played a constructive role in trying to convince the Syrian regime to change its position.

In general, as the examples of excluding the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah or Iran from serious negotiations in other conflict situations have shown, it is a grave mistake to exclude main players in a conflict from dialogue aimed at solving it. Such exclusion achieves nothing, and only contributes to postponing a solution and allowing further bloodshed.

Imposing sanctions in the first year of the revolution with the aim of hitting the hard core of the regime, whilst simultaneously wanting to spare the population from its negative effects, turned out to be illusionary, as could have been predicted on the basis of earlier experiences with boycotts and sanctions elsewhere (e.g. in Iraq). The wishful thinkers hoped that al-Asad would step down once enough pressure had been exercised by the countries condemning him, but dictators do not follow the rules of democratic accountability and decency. Additionally, sanctions that are not accompanied by dialogue or communication generally fail to achieve their intended aim.

Most Western countries closed their embassies in Damascus, thereby further cutting off any opportunities they may have had to engage with the regime, and to maintain a good understanding of internal Syrian developments. The closing of these embassies was meant to send a message of strongest condemnation to al-Asad from the European community, but the symbolism was probably wasted on the Syrian President, who is unlikely to have lost any sleep over the withdrawal of the Western community.

I do not want to argue that if Western efforts for dialogue with the Syrian regime had been taken up much more seriously at an early stage, there would have been any guarantee of success, but it should at the very least have been attempted. At an earlier stage, when much less blood had been shed, compromise would have been much less difficult to reach than it is now.

In its seemingly unwavering conviction that the opposition would be preferable to al-Asad, it was also overlooked that the al-Asad regime is supported by a substantial part of the Syrian population, perhaps some 30 per cent or more, including part of the Arabic speaking minorities (like the Alawis, Christians and Druze). This support should not be interpreted as the existence of real sympathy for the regime, but rather as the prevalent feeling among many that an alternative regime could be even worse. Many Syrians for the time being prefer to preserve their livelihoods under the existing dictatorship rather than having their livelihoods, their shops and spare sources of income and belongings destroyed as a result of the internal war, let alone having themselves and their families be killed. Many are just as, if not more, afraid of what the opposition could bring as they are of the regime’s way of ruling before.

Does the West still have options to help solve the conflict?

- Western military intervention with “boots on the ground” seems to be out of the question. There is no political appetite for it. When the Syrian regime used chemical weapons in Summer 2013, thereby crossing president Obama’s so-called “red lines”, neither the US nor the UK reacted militarily although it had been suggested they would. This seriously undermined Western credibility and demonstrated that their moral threats had no teeth.

- The West’s declared aim to arm the opposition, thereby strengthening their chances of winning the war, seems to have been restricted mainly to non-lethal weapons. It is, however, impossible to win a war with non-lethal weapons. When the EU arms embargo against Syria had been lifted at the insistence of the UK and France in 2013, there was – contrary to expectation – no real change as far as arms deliveries to the opposition were concerned. It turned out that there was no political will to really arm any part of the opposition, even the predominantly secular side. Questions were raised around which of the many opposition groups should be armed and with what aim, as the West obviously wanted to avoid an Islamic extremist dictatorship at all costs. But was there any guarantee that arms provided to others would not end up in their hands? What the West clearly wants to see is a moderate democratic secular pluralist successor regime, but is such a regime a serious possibility? I don’t think it is a realistic prospect; at least not in the foreseeable future.

- The rationale behind delivering arms might also be to provide a counterweight to the regime, strong enough to help force a negotiated settlement. For that to happen, both sides should be convinced that this would be the best, or least bad option. The question remains, however, whether the party that thinks it can win the battle is prepared to negotiate, except perhaps for tactical reasons. Western politicians may continue to pay lip service to the secular opposition, but as long as they do not provide them with the necessary means to win the battle, their moral support has hardly any value. While clearing their political conscience by expressing support for the opposition, they are, in reality, unintentionally helping al-Asad move towards victory.

- In order to play a role in helping achieve a solution, Western contacts need to be maintained with both sides, not just with the opposition. Syrian National Coalition offices could for instance be welcomed in European capitals, as was recently done in the US. It should be clear, however, that such a move would presently be not much more than moral support. At the same time, direct contacts with the Syrian regime should be continued or reestablished.

- Various EU-leaders have on several occasions called for the imposition of no-fly zones in Syria to protect the opposition and population from air-based regime attacks, but nothing has come of this. This may partly be due to the fact that imposing a no-fly zone implies direct war with the Syrian regime.

-The setting up of humanitarian corridors to help the population gain access to food aid has turned out to be unsuccessful as well. Although the relevant Security Council resolution was passed in February 2014, this has so far been no more than a success on paper.

- Most actions by the West have been reactive, with no clearly defined plan or aim for the future beyond removing President al-Asad and his regime from power. The absence of this type of analysis is surprising, particularly given the fact that a future regime could, for example if it were to be a radical Islamist dictatorship, turn out to be worse than the current regime.

- Most Western policies have been no more than declaratory, with few tangible positive results on the ground for the opposition. Supposedly, the good intentions that were widely expressed, were generally not followed up by concrete actions, because the Western countries had their hands tied politically.

A key question that has run throughout debates around the Syrian crisis has been: do we want justice? The answer is, yes, of course, but at which cost? It is easy to say that president al-Asad should be tried for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. So he should. But does that help us in finding a solution? I would say it does not. Let us make no illusions. The idea that Al-Asad would ever be able to leave Syria alive for such a court case, is extremely unrealistic.

Calling for justice is good in itself, as is the documenting of all the war crimes that have been committed. This has to be done, of course, but not over and above efforts to proactively work towards finding a solution and preventing the further bloodshed that will undoubtedly continue if no serious negotiations are facilitated among Syria’s various clashing factions. The call for justice needs to be a part of wider efforts to create peace, focusing on Syria moving forward, rather than merely focusing on the punishment of those that are guilty for the crimes against the Syrian people committed in the recent past. A solution must be found before justice can be done. It cannot be the other way around.

The West should stop raising false expectations, as it has so often done in the past, and adopt an attitude of result-oriented pragmatism in an effort to really help solve the conflict.

* Nikolaos van Dam is the author of The Struggle for Political Power in Syria and former ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.

The post Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations – By Nikolaos van Dam appeared first on Syria Comment.

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