How Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria? By Vahik Soghom, BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin For Syria Comment April 20, 2015 The melting of snow in the Qalamoun mountains signals the end of the especially harsh winter of 2015. By extension, it opens the door for the […]
Human Rights Watch today released new findings about IS’ sexual enslavement project that targeted Yazidi women and girls. Their report, entitled “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” contains many new interviews with survivors who escaped IS, some as young as 12 years old, who describe the forms of abuse experienced while in captivity. The report also […]
by Asaad Al-Saleh When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I […]
– Guest post for Syria Comment by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis On March 28, Syrian rebels and jihadi fighters announced that they had captured the city of Idlib, posting pictures and videos online that showed them in control of government buildings and other landmarks. This followed a lightning offensive of several days, […]
ISIS: The State of Terror (available here) By JM Berger & Jessica Stern 385 pp. (hardcover), HarperCollins $27.99 Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi The ISIS phenomenon that has swept Iraq and Syria with global repercussions has produced a demand for information on the origins, rise, operations and future of arguably the most brutal jihadist movement yet. […]
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi Readers of my report on my visit to the north Aleppo town of Azaz near the border with Turkey will recall that authority in Azaz is divided between two bodies: the local council and the Shari’a committee. Broadly speaking, the local council covers the realm of public services, while the Shari’a […]
by Nicholas A. Heras and Wladimir van Wilgenburg The Islamic State (IS) suffered a setback at the northern Syrian-Turkish border city of Kobani. This much-heralded event was important for a reason that has potential future ramifications for the civil war and the future stability of Syria: Arab-majority armed, moderate opposition groups and Kurdish militias under […]
The post The Kobani Model: Strengthening Kurdish-Arab Relations in Syria appeared first on Syria Comment.
The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal” By: Mohammad D. For Syria Comment, March 14, 2015 Muhammad Tawfiq al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, a well known second cousin of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed two days ago. He was the son of Tawfic al-Assad. His grandfather, Ismail al-Assad, was a half-brother of the […]
The post The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal” appeared first on Syria Comment.
By A.N. Sheikh Abd al-Aziz al-Badri Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the self-declared Islamic State, was not produced in a vacuum. In fact, he comes from a tribe with a long history of support for Salafism. The following is a brief window into this extended family. In the first letter calling for bayʿa […]
A few days ago, al-Jazeera English aired a documentary called “People & Power – Western Jihadis in Syria.” The film, which includes an interview with Dr. Landis, presents discussions with articulate, English-speaking jihadists in Syria’s al-Qaida organization, Jabhat al-Nusra. As members of al-Qaida, such jihadists maintain a position involving: 1) opposition to the self-declared Islamic […]
The post Video presents views of al-Qaida’s European jihadists in Syria appeared first on Syria Comment.
by Nicholas A. Heras This month, the United States and several of its Middle Eastern allies will begin training Syrian fighters through a revamped train-and-equip program that will form the core first class of Syria’s non-jihadist armed opposition. At this stage, the program will seek to identify, train, and support 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters a […]
by David W. Lesch
There has been a spate of interviews of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad by Western reporters or media personalities in the last few months. The most recent one was conducted by the BBC, while another notable interview appeared in Foreign Affairs. There have been many since the beginning of the almost four-year conflict. As they are difficult to arrange, each one is treated as something of a media event. As expected, on every occasion immediately thereafter, other publications, commentators, academics, websites, and even the interviewers themselves in one way or another dissect the interview, most of the time employing Asad’s responses as evidence of his perfidy.
For my part, these interviews elicit a collective yawn. I understand the nature of the questions, but they are repeated over and over by each interviewer: Did you (Asad) makes mistakes in the beginning of the uprising? Did you or do you now use chemical weapons? Do you admit atrocities carried out by Syrian armed forces? Are you using barrel bombs? When Asad denies any and all of these accusations in a specific sense—the most he will allow is something along the line of “all wars produce civilian casualties and all humans make mistakes”—the post-interview analysis almost unanimously concludes he is delusional, detached, disconnected, or an out-an-out liar. Frankly, he probably is all of these things to some extent, but on the other hand, what does anyone expect him to say?
The interviewers, searching for that “wow” moment when they can somehow get Asad to admit to one of the many atrocities purportedly carried out by his regime, invariably fail to do so. What becomes notable is the dance itself, i.e. the reporter’s attempts with statistics, quotes, and direct observation to trick (or shame) Asad into a less defiant posture. Asad is too smart to let this happen; indeed, since most of the interviewers are asking the same questions over and over, he has had quite a bit of practice at evasive maneuvers.
Asad understands that to indicate any culpability for something such as the use of chemical weapons or barrel bombs is also to punch a one-way ticket to the International Criminal Court. In addition, and maybe more importantly from his point of view, he is trying to come off to the West as the sane choice at the same time that the Islamic State is burning people alive. He seems calm, cool, and collected, as if he is, indeed, in control—a decent ally to have in the war against the far more evil Islamic State. He isn’t really doing a great job at endearing himself to the international public, though, as Syrian government officials have traditionally been inept at public diplomacy. Asad has been much better at it than ever was his reclusive, taciturn father, Hafiz al-Asad, but even the younger version still operates within a conceptual paradigm that is governed by paranoia and a default understanding that the United States and its allies have been consistently trying to get rid of him. So he comes off as out of touch, unrealistic, and even flippant, especially because his English—his third language—can sometimes work against him.
Asad is also not going to admit anything that would pit him against “his people.” The majority of Syrians are innocent bystanders to the war, and keeping most of them on the side of the government—or at least not on the side of the Syrian opposition—is crucial to maintaining power and providing a credible alternative inside and outside of Syria. He is not delusional in the sense of being crazy. It is a combination of strategy as well as the truly held belief, delusional or not, that he is, indeed, trying to save the country from terrorists. For him this is an easy conclusion to make since he believes he has had a target on his back for some time, long before 2011. It is how he views the world, and only if you spend a great deal of time in Syria do you understand that Asad and many of his supporters really do believe this, that it is not some sort of grand deception.
As someone who has met with and interviewed Asad numerous times in the period from 2004 to 2009, in terms of his demeanor and outlook, he still gives the same types of interviews. I had the good fortune, however, to be able to speak with him for hours on end on many occasions. Because of that, I was able to get past the talking points. I always felt that 90% of what he told me was fairly scripted. But it was the other 10%, when he let his guard down a bit, that was pure gold. The BBC interviewer, the respected Jeremy Bowen, was getting there at the end of his interview, when he asked Asad about the pain and suffering of war, and Asad mentioned the fact that he had also lost family and friends. I could see his guard come down, but the allotted time was over, and Bowen ended the interview. I wish he was able to continue along that more personal line. Now that would have been truly interesting.
David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and is the author or editor of 14 books, including Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.
… Jordanian policies toward entering and residing Syrians have evolved simultaneously with the three-and-a-half year conflict. Jordanian border security has, from the beginning, played a generous role in facilitating border crossings, ending the long, often dangerous journeys of fleeing Syrians. Various Jordanian officials in my interviews emphasized the extent of humanitarian care that Jordan provides for entering Syrians, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), from the border in. Unlike nearby Lebanon, the Jordanian government has worked with the UNHCR to open the al-Za’tari and al-Azraq refugee camps. Other camps include Cyber City, a holding facility for “illegal” Palestinian refugees from Syria (often referred to as PRS) and the Emirati (UAE-funded) camp.
Keeping a close count of registered Syrian refugees is difficult. Many Syrians enter Jordan illegally by bypassing official checkpoints. Increasingly, this is due to intensifying battles over border crossings between Jabhat an-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and al-Asad’s forces, and Jordan’s subsequent closing of bordering crossings. Meanwhile, about a hundred thousand Syrians who once resided in Jordan’s refugee camps have voluntarily returned to Syria. Many have also escaped the camps for Jordan’s cities and rural areas in order to seek better conditions and work opportunities. Thus, roughly twenty percent of Syrians in Jordan face poor camp conditions. Overcrowding and poor sanitation prevail, especially in the al-Za’tari and Cyber City camps, despite the efforts of camp officials.
Meanwhile, eighty percent of Syrians now live outside Jordan’s refugee camps and struggle to obtain necessary goods and services. With the help of UN subsidies, Jordan has kept its public hospitals open to Syrian refugees for over three years, allowing refugees to access free healthcare. State officials abruptly announced the termination of these services in late November 2014, citing the heavy debts Jordan has accrued through extending free Health-care to Syrian refugees. …
… During the summer of 2014, rumors began to circulate in the international media concerning Jordan’s repatriation of illegal Syrian workers and the strict cap imposed on Syrian refugees awaiting entry at the border. Syrian social workers reported cases of Jordanian authorities forcefully relocating unregistered urban refugees to live in refugee camps. The interviews I conducted this summer with Syrian social workers upheld such claims. Meanwhile, the official Jordanian press denied Jordan’s involvement in deporting refugees back to Syria. Months later, however, international organizations and researchers have indeed been able to substantiate the claims.
A November 2014 report released by Boston University (BU) compiles interviews with international organizations and the testimonials of impacted Syrians, providing conclusive evidence of Jordan’s practice of forced repatriation. In fact, escalating concerns over refugee control and domestic security have created a charged political climate surrounding these matters. It is becoming clear that new security priorities have prompted Jordanian authorities to deport threatening and nonthreatening Syrian refugees alike. As the BU report states, “Syrian nationals are being deported in some instances for violating laws, such as working illegally. Others are deported for posing security problems, usually as a result of political action, regardless of specific affiliation.” Through this practice, Jordan may damage its international image, even though it is true that the kingdom is not a signee of the 1951 Refugee Convention. As my initial research problematic hypothesized, security concerns have come to dominate the Jordanian government’s approach to hosting Syrian refugees.
A Survey of Syrian Social Networks in Jordan
In his study of Islamist organizations in Jordan, Quintan Wiktorowicz concludes that the Jordanian state exercises authoritarian control over civil society formation and practices. Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, the Mukhabarat, are a major force in regulating the contents and activities of political parties, charities, and cultural organizations. While this holds true for Jordanian organizations, I discovered through my survey of civil society formation in Syrian refugee communities, that among this population, Jordan is only selectively regulatory. In other words, the state allows some organizations and groups to operate freely while others are closely monitored or banned altogether. An exploration of what is permitted, and under what conditions, should contribute to reveal the logic which is currently steering Jordan’s refugee policy, and by extension, what its political position towards the Syrian war may be. …
… In Irbid, the only surviving Syrian family support center (as of July 2014) has gone to a lot of trouble to abide by strict regulation requirements. The founder (a former activist from Dera’a) not only has sought the assistance of a European NGO partner, but also created two salaried positions for Jordanian workers, a heavy burden for a struggling non-profit, in order to justify its right to operate in Jordan. “If I didn’t do this, the authorities would close me down immediately,” she explained, referring to Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development. …
… Another member of the Syrian community in Irbid has established a sort of civil registry office in his living room, reprinting legal documents for Syrians who left their papers behind or whose documents have expired. Syrians come to his home office from various communities in North Jordan, seeking his services. For over a year, he has also assembled teams of Syrian activists to document human rights violations and civilian deaths wherever they have occurred in Syria. Volunteers in his office use testimonies and different methods of verification to create reports with titles like, “Violence Against Girls and Women in Dera’a” and “Attacks on Field Hospitals in Aleppo.”
The founder claims that when his documents first began surfacing, their factsWere at variance with the information published by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). He relates this to the Jordanian Mukhabarat’s attempts to shut down his center—that is, until the Jordanian authorities had assessed the quality of his work. He provides legal documents in the hope they will be recognized by the Jordanian government and by international organizations. Meanwhile, his human rights work ties his center to political leaders, various armed opposition groups, journalists, activists, arms-traffickers, and local coordinating committees in Syria and neighboring countries. The capacity to obtain quantifiable evidence on events in Syria from Jordan is a testament to the organization and coherence of the transnational networks which bind the larger Syrian community together.
Extending Support to Non-Civilians
The informal networks that include non-civilians, particularly those that connect Syrian refugee communities to armed opposition groups in Syria, work in fairly similar ways. As Syrians collectivize to address civilian needs, it is not uncommon for them to engage with Syrians who have political and military affiliations. In my own experiences of visiting ostensibly civilian Syrian community centers, I encountered individuals who play more direct roles in the Syrian opposition on a regular basis: field doctors from battle sites in Dera’a, leaders of different divisions of South Syria’s FSA, prominent political activists and dissidents, and arms collectors. They often share family or hometown ties to Syrian community leaders in Jordan and use the resources made available by community networks to collect funds and supplies, relocate their families to Jordan, spread news, and discuss opposition strategies. As more Syrians flee to Jordan, the dynamics of civilian versus non-civilian have become increasingly complex. …
… The relative ease with which Syrians in Jordan connect with and support members of Syria’s opposition occurs in the context of implicitly partisan (non-neutral) practices. It is relatively well-known that the Syrian-Jordanian borders are spaces of cooperation between the Jordanian military and the FSA. My interviews with leaders of South Syria’s Military Council (i.e. the FSA), as well as with various media sources, confirm that implicit agreements between these military groups enable the free movement of FSA leaders across the border. Moreover, at one of the last border crossings to remain open at Ruwaishid, Jordanian intelligence and military actively facilitate the transport of arms, food, and medical supplies across the border into Syria, as well as the entry of refugees into Jordan. …
… The same standard applies to Jordan, as the kingdom has exercised diplomatic caution since early on in the conflict and claims to be a neutral bystander in the ongoing war. In this context, the overlaps and contradictions between caring for Syrian civilians and managing the interests of the Syrian opposition are constant and ongoing. Keeping non-civilians out of Jordan becomes more complicated when dealing with Syrians who haven’t deliberately left their homes for Jordan (and are not actively seeking refugee status) but rather have been rushed to the borders by the FSA. As war casualties, they come from both civilian neighborhoods and from the battlefield, and their injuries largely exceed the capacities of Syrian field hospitals.
Although the Jordanian military and intelligence employ strict identification screening methods throughout the registration process for refugees, they generally apply much looser policies to Syrian casualties seeking medical treatment. The procedures set up to manage this influx supposedly privilege civilian victims and Syria’s moderate opposition (the FSA), yet Jordan’s open-door policy inadvertently extends to wounded fighters from al-Qaida’s affiliate, Jabhat an-Nusra, and possibly other groups active in Syria’s southern region.
Jordanian security, intelligence, and medical personnel are undoubtedly aware of this. Officials actively control the movement of Syrian trauma patients in Jordan in order to counterbalance their humanitarian open-door policies. Such practices were common when Palestinian refugees from Iraq living in Jordan’s Ruwaishid camp use to seek medical treatment in Jordan’s cities after the US invasion in 2003. Today, members of Jordan’s Civilian Defense escort wounded Syrians to their first stop at the public Ramtha Government Hospital. From there, police officers supervise each patient’s stay, whether unaccompanied male or patient plus family, at one of the country’s several private, specialized hospitals. This route officially terminates at the Joint Registration Center at Ruba’a al-Sarhan, close to the Syrian border in the al-Mafraq governorate. There, individuals are registered and officials assess whether they should be sent to al-Za’tari camp (to be escorted by police to further medical appointments at a later date) or back to the dangerous zones in Syria from where they came.
The movement of Syrians through informal social networks is much harder for Jordan to regulate. Loopholes exist in the surveillance procedures that the state increasingly imposes on Syrian refugees. While Jordanian officials claim it is not possible for recovering Syrian trauma patients to evade the regulated system that leads them to al-Za’atari or back to Syria, certain intermediaries intervene on the behalf of these vulnerable individuals. One such Jordanian, bearing the pseudonym Abu Ahmad, a man from Zarqa City, works full-time in the service of the Syrian community. Since retiring from decades of membership in Jordanian Security, he has used his wasta, a cultural term denoting extensive social connections and a certain privilege and status, to pull young Syrian men out of this often merciless system. He frequently visits al-Za’tari Camp and private hospitals to follow up on special cases that come to his attention through his ties to the greater Syrian community. By mobilizing funds from wealthy Syrian donors abroad, he has established housing units for disabled ex-FSA fighters that provide ongoing medical treatment and rehabilitation as well as living necessities. Even as a well-established East-Bank Jordanian, he is subject to monitoring by the Jordanian authorities. Abu Ahmad explains that the authorities’ primary concern is ensuring that only moderate Syrian nationals—not extremist fighters, Palestinian refugees from Syria, or foreign fighters—find refuge in Jordan.
Jordan has, perhaps, overcompensated to dispel rumors suggesting that it is providing refuge to non-moderate armed oppositions groups. At the same time, the evolution of its policies toward Syrian refugees reflects the increasing security concerns at its borders. An article from the Forced Migration Review notes that since 2013, “Jordan has imposed bans on unaccompanied men from entering the country.” The rising threat of Islamic State fighters entering the country compounds existing fears of Syrian regime agents penetrating the closely monitored borders, as Jordanian border security officials explained to me. The same article describes a common occurrence in conflict-ridden countries, where a separate political logic often applies to male refugees of fighting age (as opposed to families, women, and children). Specifically, host country policies toward adult males overemphasize their potential for taking up arms, and thus discriminate against them as assumed non-civilians. Scoping out possible threats to Jordan’s internal harmony and curbing extremism is increasingly being imposed at the expense of offering refuge to some of Syria’s most vulnerable displaced individuals. …
Circles of Syrian Doctors Working in Jordan
… For over a year, it seemed that as long as Syrian doctors continued filling in for the lack of doctors treating incoming wounded Syrians, and as long as they steered clear of politics, the Jordanian government would continue to turn something of an acquiescent blind eye to these predominantly wageless doctors. However, an article by Human Rights Watch announced the recent deportation of Syrian medical workers “caught” treating Syrian patients at Ramtha Public Hospital as well as at private hospitals around Jordan. It is safe to conclude that Jordanian authorities have already closed, or may soon close, rehabilitation centers and Syrian hospital wards which have provided the materials for a part of this present study.
Monitoring a Situation in Flux
Jordan’s steady deviation from humanitarian obligation reveals the Kingdom’s apprehensions about hosting another refugee population, on a long-term basis. It is indeed relevant to wonder whether Jordan’s growing impatience stems in fact from the utter lack of any solution to Syria’s persistent war. In the light of the escalating security concerns that cooperation with the FSA raises, perhaps the costs of quietly supporting Syria’s moderate opposition are too high. Through its recent political moves, Jordan may be seen to be sending an implicit message to the refugees and to the international community—that is, a desire to reduce involvement in Syrian affairs. However, could it also be that after three and a half years of conflict, the Jordanian government, like a significant number of Syrian refugees, is considering reconciliation with the al-Asad regime?
Most importantly for this research, it is crucial to raise the question of just how far Jordan’s evolving political agenda will affect its treatment of Syrian refugees and the resulting wellbeing of these communities. Can their informal networks withstand repressive host country policies? How will underhand practices like repatriation undermine the resilience and cohesiveness of the larger Syrian community?
Life has come to a halt for Syrians in Jordan, who have little access to higher education, healthcare, and work. For many, Jordan is just a temporary stopover before the refugees move on to Turkey or undertake the dangerous trip to Europe. As European Union member countries and Australia are offering thousands of resettlement and asylum opportunities to Syrians, the common perception is that better treatment and possibilities are awaiting them there. While Jordan is becoming an increasingly undesirable place for Syrians to live and be, most have no option but to stay put and wait it out.
The post Syrian Refugees Collectivizing in Jordan Becomes a Security Issue — by Katy Montoya appeared first on Syria Comment.
From a friend commenting on discrepancy in SOHR’s recent numbers:
SOHR is all over the place with numbers. This is his latest: here. The new number is 210k; he says that 100k are civilians 80%+ of which are men. He estimates 85k+ fighters unaccounted for across all sides. 1.5 million injured. 50% displaced. His detailed stats are here. His number of civilians jumped 40K from December stats. And his 210K total is off by ~35K if I’m totaling his numbers correctly. According to the numbers he’s listing, the total is 245K.
The 39-year-old Somali-American businessman by day has turned activist by night, creating the website “Average Mohamed.” It’s a series of animated cartoons voiced by Mohamed Ahmed (Average Mohamed) to rebut Islamic extremists recruitment videos.
“It takes an idea to destroy an idea and my concept was to create ideas.” says Ahmed, who was frustrated that the ideology Islamic extremists peddle was not being effectively countered. “The cartoons offer talking points to parents, mosque leaders, youth activists and law enforcement that they can use to thwart the narrative of extremists.”
The animated cartoon called “Islamic State Job Description” has a Disney-ish cartoon style but the voiceover is grim: “Average Mohamed asks: What do you think your job description is when you join Islamic State? Your job description is to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews; terrorize innocent women, men and children like your family, into blind obedience. Behead unarmed innocent people you round up; destroy World Heritage sites, mosques, tombs and shrines; empower unelected, self-nominated, murderous, bloodthirsty individuals as leaders. Not exactly DisneyWorld … like the propaganda says it is, is it?” …
Islamic State has withdrawn some of its insurgents and equipment from areas northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels and residents say, adding to signs of strain in the Syrian provinces of its self-declared caliphate. …
Kurds recapture scores of Kobane villages from ISIL – al-Jazeera
Kurdish fighters say they have recaptured more than 120 villages in northern Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). …
The political geography of Syria’s War: An Interview with Fabrice Balanche – Carnegie – Aron Lund
…You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators. This pro-Assad mobilization was not simply organized by the government. Rather, it was part of the phenomenon of urban asabiyya (communal solidarity) that has been so well described by Michel Seurat in the case of Tripoli. In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread—but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game, as we have seen with the autonomous cantons in Afrin, Ein al-Arab (Kobane), and Qamishli…
What’s behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria – Carnegie – Aron Lund
…The situation in Hasakah is peculiar. The city and the wider region is divided between Kurds and Arabs on the one hand, and internally among Arab tribes and villages, on the other. There are also significant Christian groups in the city, including Syriacs and Armenians…
The Battle for the Qalamoun Mountains – FP – Nour Samaha
New map from Agathocle de Syracuse:
Experts: Kobane defeat a sign of ISIS weakening – Al-Arabiya
International Political Negotiations:
Syria: The Ultimate Example of Cynical Realpolitik – EU Observer – Mark Pierini
…What the interview reveals – for those who have not met both father and son – is that Bashar al-Assad will cling to power irrespective of the destruction it rqeuires. He will use any method to that end, from his residual stock of chemical weapons to alliance reversals to an extension of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders…
The US needs Turkey and vice versa — but it isn’t working – Business Insider – Soner Cagaptay
Paying the Piper: How America’s Iraq War haunts its Failed Syria Policy – Informed Comment – Michael MacDonald
The Syrian Opposition Meeting in Cairo: One Small Step – MEI – Geoffrey Aronson
…The Syrian conflict might still take many years to resolve. But the noninflammatory tone of the meeting in Cairo could mark one small step along the long path of dialogue and negotiation required to bring Syria’s destructive civil war to an end…
Engaging in Politics, Assad-Style – Al-Hayat – Yezid Sayigh
…More likely is that the U.S. will abandon the effort to unseat Assad, without recognizing his legitimacy or resuming direct political contacts. This may be enough for his regime to survive, but with ever-dwindling resources. Already, the concentration of business deals in the hands of ruling family has sparked the flight of many of the businessmen whose continued stake in Syria had previously been a crucial mainstay for the regime. Coming at a time when the regime desperately needs income, and has even granted the private sector the right to import oil to compensate for the inadequacy of Iranian supplies, this reflects complete unwillingness to change how it operates…
U.N. plan for Syrian cease-fires frozen – The Daily Star
A report that outlines Iran and Hezbollah involvement in the conflict: THE SHIITE JIHAD IN SYRIA AND ITS REGIONAL EFFECTS – The Washington Institute – Phillip Smyth
A discussion about some of the report’s findings: The most important thing in the Middle East that no one is talking about – Business Insider – Armin Rosen
…As Smyth explains, Iran has used the Syrian civil war to expand its influence over the Shi’ite communities in the broader Middle East and advance the clerical regime’s strategic and ideological goals. Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad is well-documented…
Jordanian Pilot Execution:
Video Of Jordanian Pilot’s Death As Horrific As It Was Symbolic – NPR – Robert Siegel
Barbarians Burn Pilot Alive – Daily Beast
… The king says that when Jordan joined the coalition, the F-16 pilots were told only volunteers had to take part. “Every single pilot raised his hand and stepped forward,” the king tells Charlie Rose in the video clip used by ISIS.
In fact, in Jordan there was some negative reaction to that interview at the time. It appeared to many Jordanians as if the king was playing to an American audience, not to their own concerns. Many had expressed doubts about whether the coalition war really was Jordan’s war. …
After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal – Syria Comment – Matthew Barber
… Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world. …
Just Because You Quote Clint Eastwood Doesn’t Make You a Cowboy – FP – Steven Simon and James Fromson
Jordan’s Executions of Jihadists Could Backfire – CNN – Lina Khatib
The Islamic State’s Psyops – Ultimate War – Red (team) Analysis – Dr. Helene Lavoix
Crime and Punishment in Jordan – FP – David Schenker
Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic behind it. – The Guardian – Hassan Hassan
Jordan’s Executions Are Not the Answer to ISIS Brutality – HRW – Eric Goldstein
… While the government’s desire to address public outrage is as understandable as the outrage itself, executing death row prisoners does not weaken ISIS. This round of executions, the second in two months, is a further regression by a country that was until recently a regional leader in resisting use of the death penalty. On December 21, Jordan ended an eight-year de facto moratorium on executions by hanging 11 men convicted of murder. In that case as well, authorities cited public sentiment as the reason behind the executions.
The executions of al-Karbouli and al-Rishawi were carried out following trials that included an appeals process. But to dispatch them from death row to the gallows immediately following news of al-Kasasbeh’s murder, to which they had no connection, amidst official vows to avenge his death, shows that revenge was a motive in ending their lives. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment under all circumstances, as a practice unique in its cruelty and finality. But to execute death row inmates in response to external events alarmingly suggests that retaliation against third parties is driving policy, rather than justice based solely on fairness and individualized guilt.
Scenes from Daily Life Inside ISIS-Controlled Mosul – Vanity Fair – Molly Crabapple
Kayla Mueller’s Parents Opposed Military Mission to Rescue Her From Islamic State – FP – Sean D. Naylor
ISIS and Syria’s Southern Front – MEI – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
…the rebels in the south comprise a diverse array of fighters whose relative lack of infighting and increased cooperation mean that the regime is not on the verge of any decisive gains in the area. However, the prospect of the fall of Aleppo to the regime in the north, though not imminent, is an ever growing concern among non-jihadi rebels, many of whom feel increasingly squashed between the regime, ISIS, and JN…
Fledgeling Gaza ISIS Groups Operate Under Watchful Eye of Hamas – Newsweek – Lucy Draper
ISIS : al-Hayat media ~ From inside Aleppo – pietervanostaeyen
ISIS media outlet al-Hayat releases another video featuring the British ISIS hostage John Cantlie.
Anti-Islamic State Militias:
Want to Hurt the Islamic State? Here’s How. – FP – Christian Caryl
…The Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn’t the United States sending them the weapons they need?…
Syrian Refugees and Regional Security – Carnegie – Benedetta Berti
…Lebanon faces rising unemployment and decreasing wages as Syrians are forced to accept work for lower wages, harsher conditions, and fewer rights than their host counterparts. Wages in the service and agricultural sectors have decreased by as much as 50 percent in Lebanon between 2011 and 2013—with similar dynamics occurring in all host countries. This has created intense domestic pressure that affects economic performance, social cohesion, and ultimately internal stability…
NBC Weapons: Smashing The Syrian Caverns Of Doom – Strategy Page
…Finally, in late 2014 Syria began destroying a dozen underground facilities used to produce and destroy chemical weapons. This effort was delayed several times during 2014 but eventually the Syrians got going under the threat of air strikes on their military facilities…
How Syrian rebel fighters fell for ‘honey trap’ hackers – Christian Science Monitor
…A hacker, using a fake Skype or Facebook profile, would strike up a conversation with a target and invite him to swap photos. The hacker’s photo, invariably that of an attractive woman, would contain malware that once downloaded by the target would copy chat logs, tactical strategies, and contact details from the target’s device, according to FireEye’s research…
To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy – Al-Fanar Media
…Syrian professors have two choices: Stay in their country and risk their lives or scatter to the winds and live largely in isolation…
by Julio Rivera
Julio Rivera is a PhD student in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago where he focuses on Syrian political history. Before pursuing his PhD, Julio spent three years working as a Syria political analyst for the Department of Defense, spanning the period prior to and during the current Syria crisis. Follow Julio on twitter: @juliorivera77
J.K. Gani’s The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation is an excellent resource for scholars, policymakers, and Syria watchers alike who are interested in understanding how Washington’s policies from 1946 to 2000 have solidified Syria’s ongoing mistrust of and hostility toward the US role in the region, as well as a useful guide to identifying the limits of Syrian-US cooperation. This book fills a large gap in the history of Syrian-US relations, as prior works often dealt narrowly with the peace process, the post-9/11 era, or the post-Ottoman era up to the moment of Syria’s political union with Egypt in 1958—a time when Damascus still controlled the Golan Heights.
Due to the dearth or inaccessibility of Syrian internal memos detailing their private perceptions and motivations during this period, Gani’s research draws primarily on US and British archival material that sheds light on the thinking of Syrian officials. The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations makes the compelling argument that Syria’s Arab nationalist and anti-imperial outlook, hardened over time by what was perceived as the US’s disingenuous agenda in the region, has greatly influenced its foreign policy and contends that Syria’s decisions to either confront or cooperate with the West should be viewed as pragmatic calculations guided by—as opposed to a blind adherence to—ideology.
Gani’s primary research method is historical analysis, which helps to contextualize Syrian animosity towards Western hegemony over the years. The book is broken into four parts highlighting different stages of the Syrian-US relationship: 1) The emergence of US-Syrian relations from Truman to Kennedy; 2) Syria’s isolation and the birth of the US-Israeli special relationship (specifically as it relates to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War); 3) US-Syrian disengagement talks from 1973-1975; and 4) instances of US-Syrian cooperation in the post-Cold War era. The book argues that while Syrian uneasiness regarding Western intentions (due largely to the country’s experience under the French Mandate) pre-dated Damascus’ suspicious attitude towards Washington, the US’s actions following Syrian independence in 1946 would result in a perception of the US being “second-generation imperialists” from the viewpoint of Damascus.
However, Gani points out that to assume Syrian-US relations were doomed from the start (given Syria’s prior attitudes towards the mandate authorities) overlooks the hopes Syrians and the region in general had for the US to chart a different course. Unlike the French and the British, Washington maintained a largely isolationist policy following WWI, and the Wilsonian Principles of Self-Determination (1919) coupled with the US’s support for the dissolution of the mandate system within the UN positioned the US to play a positive role in supporting the aspirations of self-determination throughout the region. Despite its initial openness towards Arab self-determination, Washington’s backing of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which prompted an ensuing refugee crisis, and the shift in focus towards combating the spread of communism throughout the world, altered the paradigm and prompted the US to view the region solely through the lens of collecting resources to strengthen itself and its allies against the Soviets. In light of these changing dynamics, any critique by Syrian officials of the US or its regional allies made Damascus appear as if it were simply a Soviet satellite. Such appearances prompted the Eisenhower administration in 1957 to support a coup in Syria, which was discovered and prevented by Damascus.
Although suspicion and aggression have continued to cast a shadow on Syrian-US relations even up through the present conflict, the book highlights moments, particularly during and after the First Gulf War, where Damascus appeared to shed its anti-Western ideology in favor of cooperation with the US. While Gani acknowledges that Damascus was likely motivated in part by Washington’s “unipolar” moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she notes that from Syria’s perspective, it wasn’t necessarily abandoning ideology but rather calibrating its response in light of the more global consensus in favor of US and coalition action, as well as the support from the UN. By allying with the West in this moment, Damascus was attempting to not only safeguard Arab unity by preventing inter-Arab warfare, but was also calling for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in an effort to create parallels with the peace process in the hopes of convincing the US of the rationale for Israel to similarly withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.
Syria’s cooperation with the US did provide added reason to jumpstart the peace process in 1991, this time in Madrid; yet Syria’s hopes for achieving results were ultimately dashed. Gani views Damascus’s willingness to compromise its longstanding principle of not holding separate bilateral negotiations with Israel, as an important step. For their part, Israeli negotiators, feeling insulated by prior promises from earlier US administrations, did not believe they had to compromise on the Golan Heights and even continued settlement construction at the time despite US pronouncements that such activity was “a deliberate effort to sabotage peace.” The Syrian track would soon result in a stalemate, while separate negotiations with the Palestinians and subsequent Oslo agreements in the mid-90s further convinced Damascus that such “second-generation imperialists” were merely looking to divide and conquer the Arab states.
By virtue of her historical analysis, Gani calls on her readers to understand Damascus’ adherence to an ideology which is pro-Arab nationalist, pro-self determination, and reasonably suspicious of the West’s regional ambitions. Unlike other works which often offer a very US-centric version of Syria as the “obstructionist” in the relationship, this book presents Damascus’ rationale for sticking to its anti-Western, Arab nationalist ideology in the face of repeated empty promises and outright hostility.
Ultimately, this work leaves the reader with the feeling that the prospects for genuine, long-term cooperation between both parties are slim to none. The US has done little over the years to convey that it has Syria’s interests at heart, which has only entrenched Syria’s confrontational attitude towards Western hegemony. So while temporary situations may present themselves as opportunities for cooperation between Damascus and Washington, they are likely to remain short lived as the overall trajectory portends continued mutual hostility. The current debates surrounding the question of whether or not the US should cooperate with the Asad regime in their mutual fight against ISIS is a prime example of the moments when interests align, yet such an approach is unlikely to translate into a long-term strategic partnership given the several other outstanding issues in the US-Syrian relationship.
It would have been useful had the book contained a developed suggestion on the most promising solution to the projected impasse in the relationship. Gani briefly mentions a few possible scenarios wherein the Syrians could give up their ideological stance or the US could drop its support to Israel, but both seem highly unlikely given the compounding US actions which continue to widen the gulf between the two and the limited positive signals from Damascus that could demonstrate its potential as an ally worth exchanging Israel for. While she does mention that an end to external interference or a handing over of Israeli-occupied lands is another alternative, she doesn’t seem to place the onus on either Syria or the US to bring about that change.
To extend a brief argument informed by Gani’s work, I would propose that from a long-term strategic perspective the ball is in the US’s court, regardless of whether the Asad regime or some other post-Asad system emerges from the current crisis. For the current regime—absent a more even-handed approach to Syria, and a clear US role in implementing an equitable resolution to Palestinian statelessness and the Israeli-occupied territories, including the Golan Heights—Washington’s policies will continue to aggravate a country that maintains its right to regain its lost territory, as Egypt did, on the basis of international agreements like UN Resolution 242 and 338. Without such a shift, Damascus will continue to provide support to Israel’s enemies—armed Palestinian resistance groups, Hizballah, and Iran—and thus fail to build confidence with its southern neighbor. This is another side to this discussion that this work could have benefited from. For the Syrian opposition, should the US fail to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis and provide genuine assistance to anti-regime forces, not to mention prepare for the possibility of leading the post-Asad state building efforts, the Syrian oppositionists will determine—as many already have—that the US is not a true partner with the Syrian people and that they will have to look elsewhere, potentially among the US’s enemies, for support. Without such unlikely shifts in policy, the US should not hope that hedging its bets by not fully committing to either side will yield anything more than a short term status quo lacking any true long-term improvement in its relationship with either side in Syria.
It is important to consider the insights that Gani’s work can provide at a time when some US policymakers may entertain the possibility of an alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS. What policy makers need to decide at this juncture is whether the short-term gain of cooperating with the Asad regime in the fight against ISIS is worth the long-term consequences. Reports already suggest that the U.S. has spent over $1 billion with estimated projections ranging as high as $10-15 billion a year in an expanded air campaign. The U.S. could decide to work with Asad’s troops in the hopes of having a reliable ground force for combined air and ground operations against ISIS inside Syria, but such a strategy does not guarantee military success against ISIS in Iraq. Additionally, this level of cooperation will not erase the decades of mistrust Damascus has towards Washington (and vice versa) and without a major shift in the U.S.’s regional policies, Syria’s leaders will continue to hold political positions towards Israel that will remain unpalatable to Western officials. What Gani’s work teaches us is that there are limits to U.S. cooperation with the current Syrian regime, and Washington must decide if the billions it will spend are worth investing in a government that history has shown will not easily embrace a genuine strategic partnership.
All in all, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations provides a well defended argument for why Syrians justifiably felt cornered throughout their history and continue to remain suspicious of Western involvement in the region. Misunderstandings and perceptions of the other have negatively impacted Syrian-US relations over the years, and J.K. Gani’s scholarly contribution is not only timely but critical in a period of great uncertainty regarding the future of Syria and how the US will address this question. Gani’s book therefore serves as a great resource and a must have for scholars of modern Syria or US foreign policy after World War II, and those interested in contextualizing what a short-term alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS may or may not mean for their mutual long-term relationship.
The post J.K. Gani’s “The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations” — Reviewed by Julio Rivera appeared first on Syria Comment.
The following is not research or analysis, but a few reflections on the film released by IS in which Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive inside a metal cage. I won’t claim that my moral reflections are especially profound, but I believe the traumatic nature of this event warrants further conversation.
Horror and Trauma
The anthropologist Talal Asad has famously asked what it is about certain kinds of violence, such as suicide bombing—and we can extend the question to IS’ regular use of beheadings—that evokes greater horror in observers than state-administered violence, which can often be further-reaching or more massive, as in the case of war. I don’t have an answer to the question, but this video, perhaps the goriest that IS has produced so far, was brutalizing to watch and is very capable of effecting trauma. Produced with audio and visual effects to resemble a horror film, the video is abusive to the viewer. By turning killing into theater, IS has uncomfortably blurred the lines between reality and performance. Beyond empathizing with how painful such a death must have been, I couldn’t help wondering what was it like for Muaz to die as the eyes of several cameras stared into him.
By viewing the footage, IS does a kind of violence to me—or perhaps I am doing violence to myself by choosing to watch. There seems to be something problematic about becoming consumers of this horrific product that IS pushes. Does that extend to the political analyst? The intelligence analyst? Who legitimately needs to consume this product and who should not view it?
Though some experts will inevitably have to analyze this kind of material, promoting it to the public is reckless and harmful and will only help IS do violence to more people. On Tuesday, Fox News posted the entire, uncut video on its website and even aired portions of it on television, something no other media outlet would do.
There’s some irony in Fox News—with its avowedly “anti-terror” agenda—featuring uncut IS propaganda on their website, as others have noted. Also ironic is that some of the images contained in the lengthy propaganda video are of some of the more scandalous incidents during the Iraq War, when US soldiers killed unarmed civilians. These are not the aspects of the war that Fox News would normally draw attention to. The fact that major elements within our country cannot take responsibility for the more uncomfortable aspects of the war, yet then inadvertently provide them to the American public through the lens of a terrorist entity, verges on the absurd.
There seems to be a kind of misuse of this heartrending film as Fox News pursues its own agenda. One wonders what the motivations are for publicizing the video to the American people when an English translation wasn’t provided. Without context, viewers might make dangerous assumptions based on this video—like that their Muslim neighbors next door support such sickness. This film necessarily produces anger on the part of the viewer—but to be directed where? Fox News is spreading material capable of traumatizing those who ingest it, without helping them make sense of it. Perhaps they prefer not to translate the propaganda portion of the film, which might raise uncomfortable questions that are easier to avoid.
The images of Iraq war violence (that more Americans should have been exposed to and discussed long ago) now being transmitted by Fox News are made more tragic in that they are being presented through the lens of IS’ even more twisted logic. IS includes these images as justification for their own atrocities. That violence can heal is a lie that perhaps humanity may one day outgrow, a lie that now forms the basis of IS’ assumptions about the world. (Even this video was entitled “Healing the Believers’ Chests.”) IS exposes its broken reasoning when, in its videos, it showcases the dead bodies of those targeted by its enemies, apparently to justify its gory executions, yet ignores the countless victims it has similarly killed across Iraq and the Levant, many of whom had never lifted a finger against it.
Just as IS members are misled in thinking that violence can produce healing for the Sunni victims of Iraq War violence, we are also misguided in assuming that revenge will produce healing for IS victims.
Jordan responded to this brutal message by quickly executing Sajida al-Rishawi, convicted of attempting a suicide bombing in Jordan, and Ziad al-Karbouli, an al-Qaida leader.
Jordan’s immediate reaction to the burning—“OK, then we’ll kill some Islamists”—worries me. This logic of revenge isn’t that far off from that which underpins IS’ own thinking.
Offenders should be dealt the appropriate penalties for the crimes for which they’ve been sentenced (and I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is acceptable), but not kept on hand until their killing will serve some political purpose. Jordan’s execution of the two Islamists has turned violence into a political tool. Admittedly, that is often the case with violence, yet the violence of the state is, in theory, supposed to transcend the impassioned reactions of individuals, keeping with its assumed role of impartially dispensing justice—which might be why its violence evokes less horror than that of a suicide bomber whose responsibility for acting to punish or exact revenge or effect change cannot be shifted to an institution.
Of course, in getting back at IS, Jordan did not burn in cages those it executed… because that would be wrong. If IS’ execution was directed at Jordan, and Jordan’s executions were directed at IS—both instances of killing intended to psychologically wound the other—the main feature differentiating these two acts is the manner in which they were performed. That these killings differed in form but not in purpose, it must be asked whether killing for such motives is acceptable at all. (One could argue that Jordan merely administered the penalties with which the criminals had been sentenced, but the points still stands that punishment is supposed to be meted out for crimes, not used as a political weapon.)
And now al-Azhar is calling for crucifixions of IS members, and to have their limbs chopped off. This is also unhelpful.
Al-Azhar is basically saying: “Yes, we’ll concede that these punishments you perform are Islamic, yet despite the fact that they haven’t been implemented in recent memory, we deem you to be those evil enough to warrant us bringing them out of the closet.” By calling for the crucifixion and limb-chopping of IS members, they are validating the same fundamentalist positions that IS appeals to, that under certain conditions these punishments should be used. If various groups and parties contend over who deserves to be crucified or subject to amputation, humanity won’t be making much progress. The bottom line should be that such treatment is wrong, and that resurrecting its use represents social decline, not advancement.
Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world.
Violence Is the Right Response
The immediate reaction of many upon seeing the video was a desire that efforts to fight IS be stepped up quickly. Today Jordan intensified attacks on IS targets, and the UAE has suggested they may resume their participation in the offensive against them. This is good: the response to IS does require violence, and it should be carried out swiftly and surely—not to satisfy the urge born of our rage and wounds, but to protect the earth and the innocent from this virulent plague. This latest video underscores the fact that IS must be eliminated, to ensure the future security of the region and the globe. This cannot happen without a fight, but it should be a fight of the right kind.
Is it possible to fight without hate? It may be difficult in the face of such callous oppression and cruelty, but it is the approach we must strive to maintain.
The post After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal appeared first on Syria Comment.
Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.
The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, subsequently calling itself just “The Islamic State” since the Caliphate declaration of 29 Jun 2014) across Iraq and Syria will naturally provoke much questioning as to how this phenomenon came to such prominence. Overall, this book ably accomplishes the task in a concise manner, and is a valuable, compelling read for anyone- general reader or specialist- interested in ISIS. While minor errors exist here and there and one might disagree with some of the authors’ analysis in the detail, the book is extremely well-researched, drawing on an array of sources including much original interview testimony, and the overall conclusions that emerge are hard to contest.
The authors begin by tracing the history of the most important forefather of ISIS: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, including his early years in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) area in the closing days of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, his journey home to Jordan by 1992 and relationship with jihadi intellectual Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi that culminated in his imprisonment, and his subsequent return to Af-Pak in 1999 that first saw signs of tensions between Zarqawi and al-Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden (OBL), where he nonetheless secured an alliance of convenience and ran a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.
Following the invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi forged another alliance of convenience with Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, moving there and throughout the region via Iran before his firm establishment on the scene of the Iraq War in 2003 with his Jamaat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and subsequent allegiance to OBL as the affiliated al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia/Iraq. Where appropriate, Weiss and Hassan are keen to draw analogies in Zarqawi’s history and strategy with the present-day approach of ISIS, such as the same genocidal attitudes towards Shi’a designed partly to provoke murderous counter-responses and draw Sunnis further still towards the notion of Zarqawi/ISIS as ‘protector of Sunnis’, so to speak.
Indeed, one cannot really overstate the link between Zarqawi and ISIS, but it might also be worth noting that the tensions between OBL and Zarqawi (despite OBL’s acceptance of Zarqawi’s allegiance) and ISIS’ break from al-Qa’ida do not stop ISIS today from attempting to appropriate OBL as one of their own, as well as the likes of Abdullah Azzam.
Another analogy drawn is the issue of tactical alliances between Zarqawi’s men and Ba’athists and between ISIS and the latter today in the form of the Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). While JRTN and ISIS did cooperate in events such as the fall of Mosul in 2014, a significant difference now as opposed to the years of the Iraq War is the much greater dominance of ISIS, which meant that JRTN was in effect more trying to ride the wave of the ISIS-spearheaded offensives rather than there being a relationship of essential co-dependence between the two groups. This is why ISIS very quickly asserted itself as the dominant power in areas such as Mosul at the expense of the likes of JRTN, able to impose its most draconian measures and establish its ‘diwans’ (government departments) despite JRTN’s objections. Indeed, the concept of “tactical partnering” with JRTN that is mentioned elsewhere is something liable to be overplayed.
A more original contribution deserving great credit is the rightful attention drawn to the jihadist text Idarat al-Tawahhush (“The Management of Savagery”) by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004 and its importance to both Zarqawi’s ilk and ISIS today as a means to justify acts of brutality in the context of jihad.
The authors then trace the local sparks in areas such as al-Qa’im (on the border with Syria in Anbar province) in 2005-6 where Zarqawi’s AQI had overplayed its hand that would help give rise to the coordinated Sunni Sahwa movement in Iraq by 2007 against what had by then become the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had emerged after Zarqawi’s death as an official umbrella including the AQI front-group Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in early 2006 that had been created in a bid to give Zarqawi’s outfit a more Iraqi face. At the same time, the problems that had been created by sectarian Shi’a militias and their human rights abuses as well as Iran’s not stopping the flow of al-Qa’ida operatives and funds through Iranian territory are not disregarded.
The authors also correctly identify traces of what would become the formal split between ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the deliberately ambiguous relationship maintained by ISI with al-Qa’ida during the years of Abu Ayyub al-Masri/Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (2006-2010). For al-Masri, who officially subsumed the MSC under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s ISI, “was indeed trying to have it both ways: to remain the amir of AQI while also flirting with outright secession from it to command his own independent operation” (p. 291), bolstered by the pretensions to statehood in the name of ISI and its self-declared ministries.
Much of what follows on the U.S.-troop surge and the rolling back of ISI by the Sahwa in coordination with coalition forces is history that has been extensively discussed and need not be reproduced in too much detail, along with the marginalization of the Sahwa movement and Iraq PM Maliki-led crackdowns on Sunni politicians in the face of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that sparked the Sunni Arab protests in 2013, going right up to the fall of Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. One could argue for some differences in interpretation here. For instance, while it’s certainly true Iran played an important role in bringing together the second Maliki-led government as the authors note, it is questionable whether Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya-bloc could really have engaged in successful outreach to the other Shi’a political blocs to form a coalition. Further, the coverage of Maliki’s response to the 2013 protests does not mention that he allowed for political concessions to be drafted by deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq and to be put to the parliament. The fact these reforms died in the parliament points to a broader failing on the Shi’a political spectrum to address Sunni grievances such as de-Ba’athification.
The book- now at chapter 7- then reverts in chronology to discuss in detail the Assad regime’s extensive collaboration with jihadis during the Iraq War in facilitating the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, as well as the regime’s complicity in terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the first Maliki government. Chapter 8 discusses key personalities in ISI and its successors under the tenure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including a profile of the leader himself. Usefully correcting press reports that suggested Abu Bakr was released from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison facility in 2009, the authors rightly note that his time in Camp Bucca was only in 2004, while also citing journalist Wael Essam who points out Baghdadi’s stint in the Salafi group Jaysh al-Mujahideen (which would be in 2005, besides founding his own Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’at in 2003) prior to his involvement with ISI.
Other figures profiled include Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and Abu Ali al-Anbari, both former officers in the Saddam regime’s armed forces, and Abu Omar al-Shishani. On the subject of Shishani, some corrections need to be made. He did not first emerge in Syria in 2013 (p. 535) but 2012. Further, Shishani actually pledged allegiance to ISIS in May 2013 and thus became ISIS’ ‘northern’ amir for Syria, which is why his Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMWA) outfit over the summer of 2013- including the fall of Mannagh airbase- was described as affiliated with ISIS. A split occurred in the ranks in late November 2013, whereby some in JMWA would not pledge allegiance to Baghdadi because of a prior oath to the Caucasus Emirate, marked the split whereby Shishani and his loyalists dropped JMWA labels and solely became ISIS, while the remnants continued the JMWA name and banner under a new leader. All that said, the authors are right to point out the way in which Shishani’s persona has been hyped somewhat by sensationalist Western media coverage- something that can be said for coverage of ISIS more generally.
Chapter 9 onwards deals with ISIS and the history of the Syrian civil war, and it is in these parts where the authors’ most original contributions shine, relying on testimony from an array of ISIS members undoubtedly thanks in good part to Hassan’s extensive connections in eastern Syria, much of which is now under ISIS control. The authors draw a particularly nuanced and insightful picture in their various categories of ISIS recruits: for example, one category are those “who already held Islamist or jihadist but had limited themselves to only orbiting takfiri ideology [NB: the practice of declaring other Muslims apostates to be killed]. The final gravitational pull…differed depending on circumstance” (p. 667). Thus some joined because ISIS overran their territories, thus being the only horse to back, others were impressed with ISIS’ resilience and successes against rival rebel groups, while others had disputes with their original group affiliations and found ISIS a better organized, disciplined and capable body.
Contrary to what might be supposed, this tendency to defection was already under way during ISIS’ early months inside Syria, most notably when Islamist groups issued a statement rejecting the opposition-in-exile (the text puts this as September 2014; actually 2013- a simple typo- p. 669). The authors also note in this context of ISIS recruitment how ISIS’ emphasis on global conquest takes a sharp swipe at other Salafi-Jihadi and Islamist brands, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN: Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate), that try to steer clear of the notion. Indeed, in agreement with Weiss and Hassan, it must be noted how little JN has until 2014 talked about notions of establishing the transnational Caliphate, with hints of it generally coming from unofficial footage and testimonies from its foreign fighters. In light of that, the authors’ characterization of JN as having positioned itself somewhat “as a ‘nationalist’ outcropping” (p. 673) makes perfect sense.
Other subtle categories of ISIS recruits noted by the authors range from those supporting ISIS as a political project- such as Arabs in Hasakah province who see ISIS as a bulwark against Kurdish expansionism (a serious dynamic often overlooked)- to opportunists such as Saddam al-Jamal, who originally commanded the local Supreme Military Council affiliate in the town of Albukamal on the border with Iraq before defecting to ISIS.
Weiss and Hassan further document in considerable and revealing detail how ISIS has been able to co-opt tribes in eastern Syria. Everyone by now knows of the Shaitat tribal uprising in Deir az-Zor province against ISIS in August 2014, but less observed is the fact that ISIS got members of the same tribe to put down the rebels by brute force (p. 842). ISIS’ divide-and-rule strategies for individual tribes- together with its ability to act as mediator between other tribes- severely complicate efforts to stir a tribal backlash to roll back ISIS in the heart of its territories.
The final chapter (ch. 14) deals at great length with ISIS’ running as a supposed state, with much new information to contribute. For instance, the “separation of powers” where those with various specialties affiliated with ISIS (whether a cleric, military commander, those in public services) do not know precisely what the others do or know, helping to protect against infiltration (pp. 865-6). The authors do not gloss over ISIS’ harsher aspects of governance such as torture of detainees but in the case of the town of Manbij in Aleppo province- currently controlled by ISIS- it is clear there has been much local sympathy for ISIS as its rule stamped out lawlessness and corruption. This is one big advantage ISIS has in competing with other rebel groups: in offering a single-party model of governance in the context of years of ongoing civil war that will, inter alia, promptly answer complaints from a local about another person, apply its laws to its own members, disarm local communities etc., ISIS can bring a sense of order that Syrian rebel groups can’t. Indeed, as the ISIS Ajnad Media nasheed “The Shari’a of Our Lord” puts it, ISIS’ rule can indeed bring a “life of security and peace.”
In the realm of public services and economics too, ISIS’ public advertisement of itself- at least in Syria- has not been wholly divorced from reality, such as in forcing municipality personnel to work in contrast to prior groups that allowed them to receive salaries from the state while doing nothing (p. 952), while also introducing price controls on commodities such as oil by-products (p.954).
The book’s epilogue offers a number of spot-on conclusions. First, one must be wary of Iran and the Assad regime’s presentation of themselves as the solution to the ISIS phenomenon, as their own repressive approaches towards the original Syrian uprising especially have helped contribute to the problem. Iran in particular, with its ongoing strategy of cultivating sectarian proxy militias in Syria and Iraq that employ brute force, can only be seen as aggravating the situation, even as notions of cooperation with Iran amid the context of striking a grand bargain over the nuclear deal become ever more prevalent. Second, the ISIS split from al-Qa’ida, far from being a case of a ‘let them fight each other and engage in jihadi blood-letting’ bonus, actually presents a threat to the West as the two brands may look to compete as to who can pull off the better attack on Western soil.
Finally, when all is considered in the analysis, recent reported local gains against ISIS, such as in pushing the group out of the city of Kobani, or scoring hits with killing prominent members or destroying convoys in coalition airstrikes on ISIS, do not change the fact that ISIS has been ruling for quite some time the heartland of its territories and most important strongholds, from Manbij and al-Bab in Aleppo province to Mosul and Tel Afar in Ninawa province, without any significant local rivals to challenge its power. There is no extensive ground force analogous to the U.S. troop presence at the height of the Iraq War to help coordinate local Sunni forces to ‘roll back’ ISIS this time around.
ISIS has a well-known official slogan: baqiya wa tatamaddad (‘remaining and expanding’). ISIS may not be tatamaddad so much these days, but it is certainly baqiya now and for the foreseeable future.
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
While most analysis of the Druze in Syria focuses on their positions in Suwayda province- where they constitute the majority of the population- as well as Jabal al-Sheikh in Damascus/Quneitra provinces, it should be remembered that there is also a Druze community in the Jabal al-Samaq area of Idlib province, more widely known as Jabal al-Zawiya. This community consists of numerous villages, whose names can be found here. Unlike their co-religionists in the south, these Druze have no capacity for the formation of self-defence militias analogous to the banners of ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen‘ (‘Army of the Unitarians/Monotheists’) or ‘Forces of Abu Ibrahim’ (named after Druze figure Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi). The Druze in Jabal al-Samaq are therefore dependent for preservation on the good-will of whichever external actors are present in their areas.
During the high-point of the influence of Jamal Ma’arouf and his Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF] in 2014 following the withdrawal of the Islamic State from Idlib province, there was some attempt to engage in outreach to this Druze community, best illustrated in an al-Aan TV report that featured Ma’arouf talking to Druze locals and ostensibly affirming a non-sectarian vision for Syria. “We are one,” he declares at one point in the video, while acknowledging Druze concerns about problems of extremism and criminality among rebel groups.
It should be noted that this apparent SRF tolerance for local groups of minorities that cannot be seen as having an active role in the civil war is not unique. For comparison, despite prior reported Northern Storm Brigade attacks on Yezidis in north of Aleppo province that are said to have led to clashes with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Northern Storm today tolerates a tiny Yezidi community that works inside Azaz town (no more than ten individuals), and in accordance with the group’s current neutral stance towards the PYD, leaves any Yezidi villages alone. In contrast, the bulk of sectarian animus is unsurprisingly directed at Alawites and Shi’a.
In Idlib province, however, the SRF has since been routed at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), with Ma’arouf forced to flee to Turkey in exile. JN’s attitude towards the Druze- an offshoot of Shi’a Islam- is hardly going to be conciliatory, and in line with JN’s assertion of an increasingly hardline Islamic face of governance in its Idlib proto-emirate (cf. the execution of women on charges of ‘prostitution’, the crackdown on opponents in Kafr Nabl etc.) are some notable reported developments concerning the Druze of Idlib province. First, JN reportedly destroyed the tomb of the Druze Sheikh Jaber. Second, a document has emerged of a meeting between JN officials and proclaimed Druze village representatives who have converted to Sunni Islam, agreeing on the implementation of Shari’a and Sunni Islamic supremacy:
“Statement on the first meeting for the villages of the mountain [Jabal- i.e. Jabal al-Samaq]
Attendants of the session:
Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi [the Tunisian]: area official
Abu Hafs al-Homsi: Shari’a official of the area
Abu Muhammad and Abu Khadija: Administration guys.
Representatives of the area [NB: names blocked out but villages listed, compare with the first listing of Druze villages in Jabal al-Samaq]:
The representatives of these aforementioned areas have disavowed the Druze religion and have said that they are Muslims of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaat [Sunnis]. And an agreement has been made between them on one side and the representative of Jabhat al-Nusra (Sheikh Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi) on the other on what follows:
a) Implementation of God’s law in the aforementioned areas with focus on the following points:
(i) Searching of the idolatrous tomb-shrines, destroying their structures and flattening them on the ground.
(ii) Securing of places for prayer in all the aforementioned villages in which there are no designated places for prayer; teaching of the Qur’an, aqeeda [creed] and jurisprudence therein for the youths and children.
(iii) The obligation of wearing hijab according to Shari’a for women outside their homes.
(iv) No display of gender-mixing in schools.
b) Choosing of two persons from each village for the organization of matters concerning services, aid, and oversight of contraventions under the stead of JN.
The beginning of that operation is to be implemented before the appointment of the next meeting.
Reminder: Any person in the Jabal region and aforementioned villages who contravenes/disagrees with these issues will expose himself to penalty according to Shari’a and censure.
Meeting adjourned until 1 February 2015.”
These regulations imposed on the Idlib province Druze by JN are of some concern when one also considers that there is a growing JN presence and influence in areas like Azaz where other minorities are to be found. Were JN to gain sufficient strength to take over Azaz from Northern Storm, it is certainly possible that the group would attempt to assert supremacist authority over the area’s Yezidis as well. In any case, news of the latest developments as regards the Idlib Druze only make the SRF’s guarantees of protection ring hollow and cause further concern among Syrian Druze about the rebels, even as there are signs of increasing resentment in Suwayda province about conscription into the Syrian army.
From a friend: Souriatna is a rebel newspaper distributed in rebel territory. In a recent issue they printed a full page “je suis charlie” poster (viewable here, page 9: http://issuu.com/souriatna/docs/souriatna_173). Nusra found out about it and started knocking down doors to find the place that published it. They attacked the Radio Fresh station in Idlib where Hadi al-Abdallah, the guy from the Qussair battle, was working. They accused him of insulting Mohammad and beat him, then realised that they got the wrong guy and apologized. They then proceeded to raid a women’s center across from the radio station and beat the women there and insulted them for not wearing hijab. Then they realized again that they got the wrong people and apologized and left. Post from the newspaper about the events here http://www.souriatnapress.net/?p=8905# . Subsequent video purports to show Ahrar al-Sham burning Souritatna and three other magazines, saying they’re now banned for supporting Charlie Hebdo.
Mapping of the recent and continuing 3-way conflict between Kurdish YPG, Syrian regime, and IS in Hasakeh from Agathocle de Syracuse:
The clashes started on January 17; reports Loyalists attempted to set-up checkpoints near the industry area and in the north entrance following YPG reinforcement in the city. YPG initially seized industry & silos area as well as police station, capturing 30 Loyalists forces members. Heavy clashes followed in the city center, near Assyrian church and Pullman garage, Marsho round-about, and along the control line in Mufti and Azizieh neighborhoods. Mutual shelling forced people to flee from Tall Hajar, Mufti and Kashman areas. On Jan 19 in the morning, a cease-fire was agreed although sporadic clashes continued
These regime-Kurd clashes started last Saturday: Kurds Battle Assad’s Forces in Syria, Opening New Front in Civil War – Reuters
…violence broke out when army soldiers and allied militiamen took control of buildings in an area that both sides had agreed would stay demilitarised, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said...
…Syrian Kurds, who say they suffered years of marginalisation under Assad, had on occasion fought with the president’s loyalists in territorial disputes, but never in sustained clashes…
Iraq: New German and French Weapons Reach Peshmerga on Frontlines – BasNews
Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been injured in airstrike in Syria: ISIS leader Baghdadi injured, stays in Syria – al-Arabiya
Iraq: First ground combat between IS and Western forces: Canada Special Forces Clash with IS in Iraq – The Daily Star
…Ottawa: Canadian special forces exchanged gunfire with Islamic State fighters in Iraq in recent days, in the first confirmed ground battle between Western troops and IS, a senior officer said Monday.
“My troops had completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines,” Canadian special forces commander Brigadier General Michael Rouleau said. “When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gunfire.”
The general said the Canadians used sniper fire to “neutralize both threats” and there were no Canadian injuries… Canada has some 600 troops in the region participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State…
…UN reports published in December appear to vindicate the regime’s arguments that Israel is involved with the southern rebels.
According to a UN report covering the period from March to May 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) detected contact between rebels and the Israeli army across the Golan cease-fire line, particularly during fierce clashes between the Syrian army and the rebels. The report also confirmed that the UN forces spotted rebels transporting 89 wounded across the cease-fire line into the Israeli occupied zone, where they were handed over 19 people who had received medical treatment in addition to two dead. The UN forces also noted that the Israeli army delivered two boxes to rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Communications increased between rebels and the Israeli army before the eruption of the southern front in Daraa and Quneitra in September, according to Quneitra opposition activist…
ISIL threatens to kill Japanese hostages – al-Jazeera
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has released a video threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive $200m in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, during his visit to the Middle East…
We are Failing the Children of Syria and Lebanon. This Tragedy is Avoidable – Guardian – Gordon Brown
That Smallest Victims: Syria’s Children – Mashable – Cengiz Yar Jr.
IS Gaining Ground in Syria, Despite U.S. Strikes – Daily Beast – Tim Mak and Nancy A. Youssef
Western Intervention Can Only Strengthen Jihadis – Daily Star – Fareed Zakaria
Hammer and Anvil – Foreign Affairs – Robert Pape
…Defeating ISIS requires a new strategy for retaking Sunni territory. The strategy should incrementally build on the current hammer-and-anvil approach that has successfully blunted ISIS’ expansion into Kurdish and Shia areas. The conditions are ripest for a Sunni anvil in Nineveh and Anbar provinces in Iraq, so these areas should be the focus of a new plan with four components…
Explaining the Turkish Military’s Opposition to Combating ISIS – The Washington Institute – Ed Stafford
Hezbollah in Syria:
Israel Strike Underscores Security Concerns in Syrian Beyond ISIS, Upping Stakes for U.S. – Huffington Post – Akbar Shahid Ahmed
This is not your Father’s Hezbollah – Foreign Policy – Susannah George
Corruption in the ranks. Spies in their midst. Discipline problems. How the Syrian war is changing Lebanon’s most infamous militia…
Are Hezbollah and Israel on the Verge of Open War? – Al-Arabiya
The Clear Banner: Tajik Fighters in Iraq and Syria – Jihadology – Lemon
Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia – International Crisis Group
Recent from Aron Lund: Russia Fails to Sway the Syrian Opposition – Carnegie – Aron Lund
…The bar seems to have been set very low, with Russia not even attempting to bring onboard the armed rebels that actually matter for the outcome of the conflict...
Recent from Tamimi:
Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz (Syria) – MERIA – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
Does the Islamic State Pose a Threat to Morocco and Jordan? – Nick Heras & Amanda Claypool
Nearly Killed for Satire, Syrian Cartoonist Stands Proud – CNN – Amanpour
Syrian Christian Women in Sednaya Take up Arms to Defend their Community – Channel News Asia
Ideology and a Conducive Political Environment – Oxford Press Blog – Shadi Hamid
…In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world — it doesn’t — is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war…
“Syria: Should the United States Do More?” January 15, 2015 debate at the McCain Institute for International Leadership with Mike Doran, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, and Aaron Miller. Elise Labott moderated. Video set to begin in the 11th minute, after the insufferably lengthy intro.
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