Al-Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa
by Chris Looney (Syria analyst working in DC: firstname.lastname@example.org – twitter @looney_89)
For Syria Comment
- “Every 15 minutes someone poured water on me, electrocuted me, kicked me, and then walked out,” says one activist in an interview with CNN.
- “They beat me with a rifle and with their hands when they arrested me,” says another in a conversation with BBC. “And they threw a wheel on my back so I couldn’t move.
Such is the situation in Raqqa, a city in northeastern Syria with approximately one million inhabitants now under control of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most powerful Al Qaeda (AQ) affiliate currently operating in Syria.
Since ISIS came to power in May, its abuse of Raqqa’s citizens has been well documented. It has begun to enforce its extreme interpretation of Islam upon the city’s residents, forcing women to “cover their beauty,” banning tobacco products, and brutally repressing dissident voices.
On the surface, this violence appears to be indiscriminate and irrational. Yet, it is also organized and tactical. For a group that has never before fully controlled a large city, the transition from insurgent to administrator has hardly been smooth. Still, ISIS has managed to develop a robust, systemic strategy of governance for Raqqa that links the city to sister strongholds in Iraq. Through the control of goods and services, ISIS has made the city’s residents dependent on it. As intricate as it is oppressive, this strategy is serving ISIS well; ISIS has consolidated its authority in Raqqa as it expands its reach over much of eastern Syria and Iraq.
ISIS Gains Control
Raqqa remained relatively calm throughout the first two years of the revolution. A city with roughly 240,000 residents before the war, the population quickly swelled to one million as refugees fled the escalating conflict. Still, strong ties between local tribal leaders and the regime ensured stability in the province, allowing Assad to retain control despite committing minimal forces to the region. Thus, as support for Damascus eroded and rebel forces began to move in towards Raqqa in late February, they were able to take the city with relative ease.
As the first provincial capital to fall fully into rebel hands, the March 4 takeover of Raqqa was a significant step forward for the opposition. The victors were a contingent of rebel battalions that included Ahfad al-Rasul, a moderate Islamist group with strong ties to the Western-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya, a small regiment of local militias, and Ahrar al-Sham, a powerful Salafist brigade.
Looming among them was another group active in the campaign to liberate Raqqa that was perhaps more formidable than the other three combined. Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), at the time the only AQ affiliate fighting in Syria, would soon exert its authority in the city.
Bolstered by deep pockets and a strong alliance with Ahrar al-Sham, JN pushed forth a strict Islamic agenda. Despite this and its subsequent record of civil and human rights abuses, the group at least managed to avoid alienating the entire community. Speaking to The Telegraph, one storeowner put it simply. “I like Jabhat,” he said. “They are better than the regime at any rate.
A big reason for this was JN’s deep local ties. Even with its links to AQ, which were not made public until April, many of the group’s fighters were still Syrian, some even from Raqqa province. Thus, they were able to forge more intimate connections among the community. “They don’t wear face masks,” said one resident while speaking with Syria Deeply. “People have friends who are in al-Nusra.”
Yet Nusra’s rule in Raqqa would be short lived. In April, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, head of what was then known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), announced that JN would be merged with ISI to form ISIS.
JN’s leader, Abu Muhammad al-Golani, rejected this union, asserting his group’s independence and, for the first time publicly, swearing allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of AQ. Despite al-Zawahiri’s June order that the two remain separate, al-Baghdadi forged ahead in his attempt to integrate the groups.
In Raqqa he was particularly successful. JN had been formed with strong support from ISI, and a significant number of its fighters had fought in Iraq and remained loyal to al-Baghdadi.
By May, ISIS had lured away many of JN’s forces in Raqqa. This, combined with an influx of foreigners as ISIS made its way into Syria, cemented al-Baghdadi’s takeover. The group celebrated its victory with the execution of three Alawites in a town square on May 14.
As ISIS solidified its authority, the violence only increased. Protests became a nightly ritual throughout the summer, reaching a crescendo in mid-August when ISIS responded to a gathering by firing rocket-propelled grenades into the crowd. While JN had clashed with the more moderate brigades in Raqqa, ISIS turned these disputes into a verifiable war. The group used a series of four suicide car bombings to take out the leadership of Ahfad al-Rasul, a battalion that enjoyed strong support from the local population. It even squabbled with JN in an attempt to assert itself as the sole legitimate AQ affiliate in the city.
By late September, many battalions had resorted to an alliance with JN, believing it to be the only force left in the city still capable of countering ISIS. But this had little effect, as ISIS retained control and by November had received pledges from 14 local tribes, presumably out of fear. As one activist glumly put it in an interview with Syria Deeply – “We have a saying in Arabic. The hand that you cannot beat: kiss it, and pray that it breaks.”
The Governance Strategy of ISIS
ISIS shows no signs of weakening in Northern and Eastern Syria. On the contrary, because of its strategy of governing ISIS has grown stronger in the face of increased opposition to its rule.
ISIS placed greater importance on asserting full control over the city than on winning the goodwill of the populace. It solidified its rule through intimidation, rather than the more diplomatic means that Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) had employed. This strategy was evident by the public executions of May 14 that the group used to announce its presence. From that day, ISIS began to arrest dissidents. It currently holds approximately 1,500 prisoners in Raqqa, often mistreating and torturing them.
A pillar of this crackdown has been the Islamification of the city. Christians, who have a long history in Raqqa and who made up 10% of its population before the war, were not aggressively persecuted under JN. Though churches were closed and services suspended, families were able to remain and continue their lives unmolested.
Yet as ISIS gained control, violence against Christians increased. The group held public bible burnings, destroyed churches, and kidnapped priests, causing most of the city’s Christians to flee.
Despite the ensuing backlash, these actions did achieve a significant strategic objective for ISIS, an organization that makes no pretense about preserving minority rights. By expelling Christians, it has paved the way for a series of indoctrination programs that aim to promote both religious purity and the AQ principles through youth reeducation and a careful manipulation of civil society.
For ISIS, this is a long term strategy. The group seems confident in its ability to maintain power for an extended period of time, and while it is comfortable sustaining its rule through coercion in the short term, ISIS has also engineered a series of initiatives aimed at rebuilding its reputation among the community.
In addition to writing textbooks for schools, ISIS has sought to reframe itself as part of the mainstream revolution, countering the widely held belief among locals that it either collaborates with the regime or is made up primarily of foreigners who have no connection to Syria. Many of its prisoners are labeled as regime sympathizers, and the Alawite population has been driven from the city.
In addition, it has targeted media outlets in an attempt to control the flow of information. In early November, the Raqqa Information Center (RIC) shut its doors after one of its correspondents was beaten and “accused of treason and espionage.” In casting the RIC as hostile towards the revolution and implying a connection with the regime, ISIS has continued in its bid to reposition itself as liberators moving the city forward into the post-Assad era rather than as an occupying force regressing to autocracy.
The shutdown of the RIC and other media outlets has also served to somewhat isolate Raqqa from the rest of Syria. Though residents still have many other ways to access information, the media blackouts have been reinforced by other actions designed to create an environment where Raqqans are increasingly dependent on ISIS for basic goods and services. In September, ISIS closed the only remaining foreign exchange office in Raqqa, which had allowed money to be sent into the province from abroad. The group also controls the majority of wheat and oil coming into the city and provides food relief packages to families throughout the region. As this dependence increases, ISIS undoubtedly hopes it can transform it into loyalty and gain popularity among the community.
In implementing this strategy of dependence, ISIS has also expanded the connection between the territory it controls in eastern Syria and its strongholds in Iraq. For an organization that does not recognize colonial borders, fusing the two regions is of key strategic importance as it works towards the establishment of an Islamic emirate. The flow of funding from Iraq into Syria has been a source of strength for ISIS, allowing it to outpace rival opposition groups. Through extortion and other criminal techniques, ISIS is able to raise an estimated $8 million a month in Mosul alone.
By using this funding to take advantage of poorly governed territories in Raqqa, eastern Syria, and Anbar province, ISIS has carved out a safe haven from which it has the ability to conduct external operations. Although ISIS may be focused on consolidating its rule locally and expanding its sway within Syria and Iraq for the time being, attacking the West remains a long term strategic objective.
Since its takeover of Raqqa in May, ISIS has employed a governance strategy that has focused on solidifying its rule through intimidation, creating an economy of dependence, and seeking to integrate eastern Syria with its strongholds in Iraq
In this regard it has been highly successful. Yet its hostility towards minority groups, draconian legal system, and brutal repression of dissidents has generated a significant backlash, severely undermining the group’s credibility and keeping it from being seen as a legitimate part of the opposition. Because of this, ISIS’ current governance strategy is likely unsustainable.
Still, ISIS thrives on instability, and as the Syrian war reaches its 1,000th day with no end in sight, the group is likely to be able to maintain its hold in Raqqa. Whether it can learn from its mistakes remains to be seen, but absent a dramatic shift in the trajectory of the conflict, ISIS is here to stay.
The post “Al-Qaeda’s Governance Strategy in Raqqa,” by Chris Looney appeared first on Syria Comment.
IMPRESSIVE SYRIA STUDIES BY FABRICE BALANCHE
Reviewed by Nikolaos van Dam
Fabrice Balanche is a well-known French scholar who wrote a lot about Syria, mostly in French. His best-known books are La région alaouite et le pouvoir syrien [The Alawi Region and Power in Syria] (Paris 2006) and Atlas du Proche-Orient Arabe [Atlas of the Arab Near East] (Paris 2012), which is to be published also in Arabic and English. Balanche is presently the Director of the Research and Study Group dealing with the Meditteranean and Middle East at the University of Lyon 2.
On 29 November 2013 Balanche obtained his “habilitation à diriger des recherches” (a kind of super PhD) at the University of Lyon 2, France. His theme was « Le facteur communautaire dans l’analyse des espaces syriens et libanais » [The factor of communitarianism in the analysis of Syrian and Lebanese spaces]. As a member of the jury during the “habilitation” session, I made the following comments on his academic work.
Fabrice Balanche deserves to be complimented for his two decennia long studies on the Middle East and Syria in particular.
Balanche did not originally intend to write specifically about communitarianism (communautarisme), but the issue, more or less unavoidably, crossed his path, due to the social realities with which he was confronted during his field studies in Syria. Officially the existence of communitarianism in Syria was denied by the Syrian regime, and in practice it was (and is) a subject surrounded by taboos. According to the official ideology of the ruling Ba’th Party, communitarianism was not supposed to exist; and as far as it did exist, the phenomenon was considered to be no more than a negative residue of obsolete old traditions (rawasib taqlidiyah), which needed to be banned and disposed of. The reality was, however, completely different, as is clearly demonstrated in Balanche’s studies.
Whereas communitarianism is officially a part of the Lebanese political system, its existence is officially denied in Syria’s contemporary political system. Nevertheless, social realities are rather similar in both countries, as explained by Balanche.
Studying “the factor of communitarianism in the analysis of Syrian and Lebanese spaces” was considered a very sensitive issue in Syria. It is not surprising, therefore, that Balanche did not get the required cooperation in this respect from the Syrian authorities, or the requested support from French academic institutions inside Syria. The latter, according to Balanche, even worked against him, because the French institutions concerned were afraid that supporting Balanche’s work could negatively affect their own positions vis-à-vis the Syrian authorities.
One could say that Balanche had a somewhat rough academic landing in Syria because of these sensitive circumstances, but he persevered and finally managed to achieve his aim through intensive and painstaking fieldwork. Balanche succeeded in penetrating deeply into Syrian society, at first mainly in Alawi circles. By becoming very close with their community he noticed how all kinds of doors within Alawi society were opened, providing him with an intimate look into its inner workings. Being close to one community had, however, as a side effect that his contacts with other communities, such as parts of Sunni society, were made more difficult, if not blocked altogether. Later on, Balanche made up for this by widening his Syrian social circuits outside the Alawi community, and entering into Sunni circles. When entering the “Sunni world” it appeared as if he stepped into “another Syria”. Through informal channels Balanche was able to obtain a lot of essential information and insights. Having obtained a working knowledge of Syrian colloquial Arabic, Balanche had the necessary tools to get to the bottom of what was happening. Without this immersion into several different communities, he would not have come half as close to achieving the same high academic level. His fieldwork, not always appreciated by others, has turned out to be indispensible.
Whereas Volume 1 La facteur communautaire dans l’analyse des espaces syriens et libanais (140 pp.) constitutes the central part of Balanche’s studies discussed here, Volume 2 Parcours personnel (or large Curriculum Vitae) (139 pp.) should not be considered as less important, as it provides many highly valuable and detailed insights into the inner workings of Syrian society and into the many obstacles with which one may be confronted when doing field work there. Volumes 3 (536 pp.) and 4 (550 pp.) are an enormously rich and impressive collection of Balanche’s numerous earlier publications, which he refers to wherever necessary, in the two first volumes. Next to these four volumes one should also consult Balanche’s splendid Atlas du Proche-Orient arabe (Paris: Sorbonne, 2012, 135 pp.), and take note of his earlier book La région alaouite et le pouvoir syrien (Paris: Karthala, 2006, 315 pp.), which provides many highly interesting details not included in Volumes 1 and 2. (All these works together comprise some 1800 pages).
Although I do agree with many, if not most of the points Balanche makes in his analysis of communitarianism, I think it is necessary to pose some questions and add some marginalia where parts of his conclusions and predictions for the future are concerned. Before I come to that, however, I want to note that certain predictions or observations made by Balanche in the past have turned out to be fully correct. The present-day bloody conflict in Syria is often judged on the basis of wishful thinking, by the general public, as well as among politicians and academics, and realism is not always appreciated if it does not fit into the wishful thought of those concerned. After the start of the Syrian Revolution in March 2011, many observers and politicians expected the regime of Bashar al-Asad to fall quickly. They were, apparently, not aware of the inner strength and coherence of the regime, as they were not burdened by any deep knowledge of it. Had they read Balanche’s works, they might have known better. When Balanche during an interview in France in 2011 commented on the situation in Syria by saying that the regime was not “ripe” to fall and that the country was going straight into the direction of a civil war, he was categorized as a “defender of the Asad regime”. When in mid-2012 he continued to declare that the regime should not be expected to fall soon, his interview was published under the title of “L’interview qui fâche” [The interview which makes you angry] (Volume 2, p. 78). His “realism” was clearly not appreciated. In an interview with L’Hebdo Magazine of 15 November 2013, Balanche predicted that the al-Asad regime is not going to fall. And during a symposium on 4 November 2013 Balanche said that he expected Bashar al-Asad to win the war, leaving open the question, however, “who will win the peace.”
Since the Asad regime relies so heavily on people from its own Alawi community, its strength can be attributed, to a great extent, to the issue of communitarianism. As described by Balanche, however, the importance of communitarianism has been ignored or even denied in various academic circles because of prevailing ideological or idealistic motivations, on the basis of which, for instance, class, rural-urban and economic factors are considered much more important than communitarian ones. This phenomenon of denial has, according to Balanche, been stronger in France than in the Anglo-Saxon academic world, although it may have changed more recently.
Fifteen years ago (1998) Balanche already hinted that, if the Alawi-dominated Ba’th regime fell, the Alawi region might break away or separate from Syria proper (Volume 2, p. 33). In his Thèse de Doctorat, L’intégration de la region côtière dans l’espace syrien: une intégration nationale ambigüe [The integration of the coastal region in Syrian space: an ambiguous national integration] (Tours, 2000, 800 pp.), Balanche has argued that the potential for a separation of the Alawi region from Syria is well-founded, a view he repeated in his book (2006), as well as in the volumes which are being considered in this evaluation. Balanche even sees evidence of such a potential development in both the transport infrastructure and the presence of certain military bases in the Alawi region. He interprets these as having strategic importance for the defense of the Alawi territories within the Syrian internal context (Volume 1, p. 79).
Balanche compares the case of Syria with that of post-Tito Yugoslavia, which fell apart into several states. One should be careful, however, in making such a comparison. In the first place, the population of Yugoslavia was made up of various ethnic groups with different languages. The Syrian population is much more homogeneous in the ethnic context, and the Alawis should, in principle, be considered as Arabs, like the majority of the Syrian population. Moreover, the Alawis would in general not at all want to separate from Syria. The only reason why they would wish to establish their own state, or autonomous region, is that the Alawis might feel threatened by the Sunni majority to such an extent, that they would, purely for security reasons, want to escape from radical Sunni anti-Alawi revanchism, which could explode after an eventual toppling of the regime of Bashar al-Asad. In such a scenario the Alawi population from Damascus and other cities might wish to flee to their original homeland, or that of their ancestors. But the Alawi community fleeing from Damascus sounds simpler than it is, because many Alawis have lived there (and in other Syrian cities) for several generations, including Bashar al-Asad himself, who, from that perspective, should be considered a Damascene (although it is clear that the local Sunni population considers him as an Alawi originating from the Alawi mountains). I could not really imagine the Alawi community being prepared to leave Damascus and its Alawi neighborhoods before losing their very last defensive lines and witnessing a major part of the city turned into ruins. This may be due, however, to my lack of imagination to see greater part of Damascus changed into rubble (as already happened in Aleppo).
One should, moreover, not underestimate the durability of colonial boundaries, however much these may have been rejected in the past. Additionally, if Alawi-dominated rule were to be replaced by Sunni-dominated rule, the successor regime in Damascus would, in my view, certainly try to regain control over the whole area of Syria, including the Alawi coastal region. When dealing with international boundaries, every inch of territory acquires an almost holy importance, because national sovereignty is at stake. Loss of even an inch of territory can lead to further claims, political instability, tensions in international relations, and sometimes to further wars.
Balanche notes that territorial partition may not bring peace at first, but that, in the long term, the bringing into practice of former US President Wilson’s principle of “national self-determination” to the ethnic-confessional communities of the Middle East could bring stability and democracy. Some areas are, according to Balanche, already going through a phase of federalism (like in Lebanon), or semi-independence (like in Iraqi Kurdistan) (Volume 1, p. 126).
Where Syria is concerned, one should, however, not underestimate the force of Arabism and Arab identity. Balanche has correctly noted that Arab nationalism has not at all been a success, and that primordial loyalties have turned out to be stronger. He even cynically comments that “Les indices de la supercherie baathiste étaient pourtant clairs depuis des décennies pour celui qui connaissait réellement la société syrienne.” [The indications of Ba'thist deception were clear for decades to those who really knew Syrian society] (Volume 1, p. 145). Regardless, that does not mean that the Syrian Alawis, after generations of Arab nationalist indoctrination, would not also feel they have a Syrian Arab identity, irrespective of the extremely negative Sunni anti-Alawi feelings which have increased during the many years of Alawi-dominated Ba’th rule and repression. In the past, many Alawis themselves already rejected the Alawi state that was created during the French Mandate.
The Ba’th regime in Syria has achieved exactly the dramatic opposite of the ideals it originally wanted to achieve. Half a century ago, it still declared that it wanted to abolish sectarianism and communitarianism, but by making communal loyalties the central key to their power, the Ba’thist rulers became prisoners of their own system and achieved the anti-thesis of their Ba’thist Arab nationalist ideology and ideals. They have thereby even endangered the very existence of Syria, with sectarianism stronger than ever before, as is demonstrated through the ongoing civil war.
Balanche has concluded in this respect that national integration in Syria constituted a danger for the power position of the regime, and has appropriately questioned whether durable territorial integration is possible without social integration (Volume 2, p. 35). Personally, I would have liked Balanche to give some additional insights into the opposition within the Alawi community against the Alawi dominated Ba’th regime. After all, many Alawi villages have their political prisoners, and the Syrian Ba’thist dictatorship applies to all Syrians. Balanche makes clear that the Alawis in general have taken the side of the regime, not out of positive conviction, but rather out of fear for the future, and what would happen if the regime of Bashar al-Asad were to fall. When reading Volume 1, I wondered whether one could really say, as Balanche does, that Hafiz al-Asad “a fait un monolithe d’une communauté alaouite divisée en multiples clans” [Hafiz al-Asad has made a monolith of the Alawite community that used to be divided into multiple clans] (Volume 1, p. 114), except in the sense that they seem to be united in their common fear for radical Sunni revanchism. A more detailed explanation can be found, however, outside Volume 1 and 2, in his book (2006, pp. 159-172).
Balanche presents a possible future break-up of Syria as an almost inevitable development (Volume 1, 146) when he concludes that: “Un divorce à l’amiable est alors préférable à une guerre civile communautaire qui aboutira au meme résultat. Cela implique que les acteurs locaux et internationaux soient rationnels et raisonnables en privilégiant un scénario tchécoslovaque plutôt de yougoslave.” [An amicable divorce is preferable to a communitarian civil war that leads to the same result. This would imply that local and international actors would be rational and reasonable by favoring a Czechoslovakian scenario rather a Yugoslav one]. I am afraid that the civil war has already progressed much too far to make a scenario similar to that of Czechoslovakia possible, and doubt whether this would ever have been a realistic option in the first place. After all, the Czechoslovakia case does not fit into the Syrian model since, like in former Yugoslavia, substantial different ethnic-linguistic groups were involved. Syria is much more homogeneous in this respect.
Balanche convincingly explains why the often-suggested existence of a Shi’i alliance or “Shi’i crescent” (consisting of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon) is a wrong (albeit increasingly popular) concept, as alliances are strategic and not ideological or religious (Volume 1, pp. 107, 124). Moreover, the areas inhabited by Shi’is do not constitute an uninterrupted geographical area.
Balanche uses the term “Syrian Arab nation” throughout his work. According to the ruling Ba’th Party’s ideology there is, however, only an “Arab nation”, of which the Syrian Arabs are one part. They don’t say: “We are all Syrian Arabs”, but rather “We are all Arabs”. Only at a later stage of Ba’thist rule did the “Syrian identity” become a more accepted concept, even though it contradicts the Ba’thist ideology. Stressing the wider pan-Arab identity at the cost of the more restricted Syrian Arab identity did, in practice, not positively contribute to “nation building” in Syria, but rather achieved the opposite: a strengthening of communitarianism for lack of tangible results in the field of pan-Arabism and because of the discouragement, earlier on, of the Syrian identity.
Balanche describes Jordan as a “paradox” in the region. Jordan does not suffer from fragmentation on the basis of communitarianism like Syria and Lebanon, as it has a quasi ethnic-confessional population with a 95% Sunni Arab majority (Volume 1, p. 125). Elsewhere in his study, Balanche interestingly defines the Palestinians as a “quasi-ethnic group” (Volume 1, p. 26), which has developed as a result of their political circumstances. He does not, however, hint at the potential consequences of the large Palestinian presence in Jordan for its supposed homogeneity. Balanche concludes that Jordan is paradoxically one of the most stable Middle Eastern countries because of its ethnic homogeneity, being, however, at the same time, the most artificial state in the region.
I want to end by pointing out some minor details.
Balanche notices that the isolated villages of the Alawi sect of the Murshidiyin in the remote Alawi Mountains were only given accessible asphalted roads in the early 1990s once they had clearly entered into the clientele of the Asad clan (Volume 1, p. 81). This is correct, except for the fact that the Murshidiyin had already shown their allegiance to the Asads much earlier on, as can be concluded from the fact that already in the first part of the 1980s the Murshidiyin constituted the backbone of Rif’at al-Asad’s elite troops, the Defence Platoons (Saraya al-Difa’). When in 1984 Rif’at intended to take over power by force from his brother President Hafiz al-Asad, the Murshidiyin turned out to be completely unreliable towards Rif’at, as they all choose the side of the president, as a result of which Rif’at’s revolt became toothless and failed completely.
The Murshidiyin, therefore, could already be considered loyal to President Hafiz al-Asad from 1984 onwards, and from that perspective might have been given their asphalted roads much earlier. On the other hand, it may have taken some years before the president really trusted the Murshidiyin, because they had switched sides so easily.
In conclusion I wish to stress that Fabrice Balanche has produced excellent and impressive academic work. On that basis he strongly deserves to be supported for his Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches.
Nikolaos van Dam
Former Ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia (1988-2010). Also served as a diplomat in Lebanon, Jordan, Palestinian occupied territories and Libya. Author of The Struggle for Power in Syria. Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party, 4th edition, London: I.B. Tauris 2011 (5th printing 2013). www.nikolaosvandam.com
The post The Work of Fabrice Balanche on Alawites and Syrian Communitarianism reviewed by Nikolaos van Dam appeared first on Syria Comment.
by Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sunday, 17 November 2013
A spokesperson for the Syrian rebels’ Supreme Military Command just confirmed to me that Abdelqader Saleh, the military leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, is dead.
Saleh was one of the commanders hit in an airstrike a few days ago, or more likely a series of strikes. Three of the Tawhid Brigade’s “division commanders” (qaid firqa) were reportedly killed at the same time, and the political leader Abdelaziz Salame was injured. Salame then appeared in a film taken at the hospital, and seemed to be in reasonably good condition (for someone just hit by a missile).
Saleh, on the other hand, was never shown on tape. He was reported to be under hospital care in Turkey. In his sickbed video, Salame repeated that Saleh was alive and in splendid health. But apparently things were much more severe than Tawhid wanted to let on, and Saleh is now reported dead, at age 33. When he passed away remains unclear – immediately or after hospital care? – but according to this article on Aks al-Sir, he has already been buried in his hometown, Marea.Who was Abdelqader Saleh?
Abdelqader Saleh’s death is big news. He was one of the founders of the Tawhid Brigade in July 2012, when the group came together from a constellation of local units in the northern Syrian countryside to charge into Aleppo. The core of the group was a number of commanders from Anadan (including Abdelaziz Salame and Abu Tawfiq), Marea (Saleh), Aazaz and other places. Many, including Saleh, had a background as participants in the peaceful protests against Assad, but by the time of Tawhid’s creation all of them had grown into important local military leaders. Several of these founding leaders used noms de guerre on a theme of “Hajji so-and-so”, to signal which town they led, or claimed to lead. So Abdelaziz Salame became Hajji Anadan, and Saleh himself was Hajji Marea. He was still affectionately called that way among his supporters.
As a charismatic leader who led from the front, and was often seen in news broadcasts discussing tactics with his fighters as gunfire crackled from just down the street, he was a hugely important figure in the Aleppo insurgency. His background was not in politics, and contrary to recurrent rumors, he had not spent time in Seidnaia Prison among many other Islamists, and neither had he fought in Iraq. A Tawhid spokesperson claimed to me that Saleh had in fact been opposed to fighters travelling to Iraq to fight the Americans, and tried to discourage young men from doing so, despite his own opposition to the US occupation. He was a trader, and according to some rumors, he sold considerable family assets at the start of the uprising, in order to finance his brigade in Marea.
Politically he was – or became – an Islamist, who made no bones about seeking sharia law in Syria. But he was clearly not part of the radical fundamentalist camp. He avoided the minority-baiting common among hardline salafis, and signalled that he wanted Syria’s future to be decided in elections, although he sought some form of Islamic framework for those elections. He worked well with Western and Gulf financiers, and his group clearly enjoyed some form of international backing. It was a charter member of the Supreme Military Command (which is the most-recent incarnation of the Free Syrian Army). Abdelqader Saleh himself was part of its official command structure, holding the inconspicuous-sounding post of assistant deputy commander of the northern region. At the same time, he held close to local Islamist factions like Ahrar al-Sham, and even Jabhat al-Nosra.
Tawhid recently signed on to the September 24 statement denouncing the National Coalition exiles, and calling for an internal rebel leadership. In line with its centrist-Islamist orientation, and also to protect its own financial interests, the Tawhid Brigade had also made a half-hearted effort to broker a deal that would stop the Islamic State’s takeover of Aazaz; Tawhid held a 50% stake in the nearby Bab al-Salama border crossing. But while Tawhid’s relations to the Islamic State of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi were clearly deteriorating, there had never been any serious fighting between the two groups, and both sides tried to downplay the risk of conflict.
The Tawhid Brigade
The Tawhid Brigade remains the most important group in the Aleppo region, and by virtue of Aleppo’s importance, it is certainly one of the most important rebel factions in Syria. After some reorganizations, it now consists of around 30 “divisions”, and claims to control a total manpower well above 10,000 soldiers. Almost all of these are in Aleppo and the surrounding countryside, although there are some Tawhid affiliates in Idleb or as far away as Damascus.
The group is generally seen as Islamist, and has used religious rhetoric since its foundation. In late 2012, Tawhid was one of the founding members of the Aleppo Sharia Court system. But the ideological commitment within the group seems to vary quite a lot across subunits and among members. It could hardly be described as one of the more ideological Islamist groups of the war, rather as an Islamist-oriented big-tent movement. In fact, many have accused the group of plundering public and private property in Aleppo, indicating that fighters were poorly disciplined and to some extent motivated by money. Saleh was visibly uncomfortable when faced with such accusations in his interview with Taysir Allouni on Aljazeera some months ago.What will happen with Tawhid?
As mentioned above, the Tawhid Brigade is an large, sprawling umbrella movement formed out of regional militias. Leadership succession might not be an easy thing for such a group. It could suffer internal divisions and even violent strife, at the loss of a central and unifying leader. At a time when the Syrian regime is advancing on Aleppo, Saleh’s death therefore is very bad news for the opposition. Even if the front holds, Tawhid could be drained of cohesion, and end up losing subunits and fighters to other groups. Most of the major speculants would presumably be more hardline Islamist factions, like its local allies in Ahrar al-Sham. But it’s also possible that local rebel politics, or the politics of money, will help steer fighters away from such ties, or indeed contribute effectively to the cohesion of Tawhid.For one thing, Abdelaziz Salame is still alive, albeit wounded. An Islamist figure and former honey-trader from Anadan, he is formally the group’s top leader, although was never as well-known as Saleh. Having him alive gives Tawhid a certain political and institutional continuity at the moment, which it could certainly use. But Salame has not run the military side of things, and may not be in a position to influence the choice of military commander if factional conflict erupts.
In any case, the inner politics of Tawhid remain completely opaque, at least to me. Speculation is useless. All that can be said is that the succession issue will be affected both by pressure and coaxing from Tawhid’s international and regional state backers, and its local rebel allies, and by internal deliberations that are equally obscure, but are certain to include the balancing of military power, personal relations among the leaders, their varying ideological concerns, and the regional interests that they represent.– Aron Lund
Infighting among rebel groups is more ferocious than ever. ISIS is becoming more radicalized as it tries to consolidate its rule over large chunks of the rebel zone. This means fighting other militias. As a result, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham are working together more closely than ever both to counter ISIS and to take power from weaker factions of the Free Syria Army.
The Radicalization of ISIS
ISIS assigned a sixteen year old as military emir of Azaz, north of Aleppo. An ISIS prisoner from Asifat al-Shamal, the militia that ISIS defeated to take Azaz, was able to escape from his captors. He says the 16 yr old ISIS Emir regularly tortured the prisoners.
The rebels on the coast are uniting against ISIS. This comes after recent clashes between a Free Syrian Army unit (al-Hijra li-Allah) and ISIS in which 4 ISIS soldiers were killed. Following the clashes, the FSA unit opened negotiations with ISIS to release the prisoners it had captured, but instead, ISIS executed 6 of the 10 prisoners it held, after brutally torturing them. Here is video of the bodies of their martyrs killed by ISIS in the countryside of Latakia It includes video of them alive as well. ISIS accused the victims of killing 4 non-Syrian ISIS fighters in the same area after stopping them on a checkpoint in the town of Rabi’a.
On Sunday an ISIS leader executed a member of the Shari’a Court who went to mediate and stop the fighting between the two groups.
One result of this fighting is that Jabal al-Turkman in Latakia is now split between the ISIS and the rest of the groups. Nusra is trying to negotiate a settlement between the ISIS and FSA. Nusra has given ISIS an ultimatum to avoid avoid fitna (civil strife), within a period, which may be several weeks, ISIS must hand over its emir, Abu Aymen al-Iraqi, clear its checkpoints, and leave the coast for good.
The story of the ISIS mistakenly beheading an Ahrar al-Sham soldier takes a new turn. Mounting evidence suggests it was not a mistake, but intentional. A picture has been released that shows the decapitated body of the soldier wearing a shirt that has the logo of Harakat Fajr al-Islamia on it, this is the local Ahrar al-Sham affiliate. This suggests that the killers could not have been mistaken about his identity or affiliation before beheading him. The ISIS soldiers were also reportedly heard to say that “The villains (Ahrar/Ashrar) of Sham are protecting apostates.”
In the letter next to Abu Muslim, the emir of ISIS in Aleppo, Abu Abd al Malik, the sharia officer in Ahrar al sham says: We inform you that we are keen to calm things down and remove the elements that lead to strife, especially in these difficult days, and for that, the Sharia office attempted, as soon as news of the slaughtered brother arrived, to visit the headquarter of the Dawla’s sharia leaders in an attempt to find a Dai’a who would kill the fitna and give us back the brother’s head. And the emir of ahrar al sham in Aleppo sent a delegate to communicate with your officials and restore the head al karim (honorable/precious). لاستعادة الرأس الكريم
Hassan Abboud, head of Ahrar al-Sham, talks about one of his experiences with Abdulqader Saleh (commander of Liwaa al-Tawhid, the largest militia in Aleppo, during which Saleh kissed his hand.November 16, 2013
….a month ago, Abdalqader took me to a side room and held my hand, he then looked into my eyes with the corner of his eye shinning and filled with tears. And he said with his Aleppo country accent “I beg you, i don’t want to fight a Muslim, find us a solution”. He then fell on my hand and started kissing it repeatedly. “I beg you” so he became the second man who’s hand I kissed without rules.
Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham Work Together to “Cleanse” Deir al-Zour of other FSA militias
Nusra and Ahrar al sham cleansed the city of Mayadeen in Deir ezor from the groups that falsly claim to be part of the FSA. The couple took away the weapons and headquarters of 3 group that “falsely claimed” to be part of the fsa after receiving many complaints about these groups behavior.
One of the groups that Nusra attacked belongs al Firqa al-Khamissa in the FSA which also includes Ahfad al-Rassoul. None of the allies of the group that was attacked moved to support it or even issued a condemnation of the attack. indicating how strong Nusra and Ahrar have become in the region.
The Haya al-Sharia, which is run by Nusra, issued a statement before each attack on a local groups and accuses them of being thieves and shabiha in justification of their attack. At the same time, al-Haya has been on a campaign to expand its control over the oil fields in the Jazeera area. Most recently they added a large oil field to their holdings, which is a main source of electricity and gas in the area.
The post Notes on the Growing Struggle between ISIS, Nusra/Ahrar, and other factions of the FSA appeared first on Syria Comment.
Syrian Army Retakes important towns in Aleppo, Homs and Damascus. Both Salah and Salameh, leaders of largest Aleppo militia, wounded.
The Syrian Army has gone on the offensive, retaking a key town - al-Sfireh – on the south-east of Aleppo. On Monday, the town of Tal Aran, on the Safira-Aleppo road, also fell. The army then secured the area around the city’s airport and retook a strategically important base nearby, named Base 80, a large military position which rebels had held since February. Analysts claim that the base will help regime troops move on opposition-held areas of Aleppo.
The response of rebel militas was immediate. A statement by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) urged “all brigades and Muslims to face off against the enemy.” Liwa al-Tawhid urged people in Aleppo to “face up to regime attacks” and called for a mass mobilisation in Aleppo to halt a government advance. They claimed that government forces backed by fighters from the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and members of Abu al-Fadl Abbas, an Iraqi Shia militia, had launched a “fierce offensive to reoccupy” Aleppo.Within a few days, The Syrian Army killed a number of the leaders of Aleppo’s largest militia – Liwaa al-Tawhid. Its top leaders, Abd al-Qader al-Saleh & Abd Aziz Salehmeh were both injured, but are in good condition. The unit commander Youssef al-Abbas was killed. The regime bombed a meeting of Liwaa al-Tawhid leaders, suggesting it has improved its intelligence operations. Liwaa la-Tawhid has about 25-30 unit commanders joined at the top by Saleh/Salame, the majority stationed in the Aleppo region
Abd al-Aziz Salameh in his hospital bed
According to ISIS sources, the loss al-Sfireh was due to fighting between ISIS and al-Nusra, the two main branches of al-Qaida in Syria. This news comes from an article published in Sana al-Sham News, an ISIS aligned weekly newspaper that was recently launched in the northern Aleppo countryside.
Here is the quote:
” قمنا بعملية مهمة في السفيرة ولكن حصل نزاع بيننا وبين جبهة النصرة والله تعالى يقول «ولا تنازعوا فتفشلوا فتذهب ريحكم» فدخل النظام السفيرة مرة ثانية بعد انسحابنا منها. ” [Translation] We carried out an important operation in al-Sfireh but a conflict arose between us and Jabhat al Nusra and Allah says “dispute not one with another lest ye falter and your strength depart from you” and the regime entered Sfireh again after we withdrew from it.ISIS Leader – `Amr al-Shishani – military Amir of the Northern Region
Included in the new publication is an interview with the Chechen leader and military Amir of the Northern Region of ISIS, `Amr al-Shishani. الأمير العسكري للمنطقة الشمالية في تنظيم «الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام»، عمر الشيشاني
BBC arabic also researched his childhood in Georgia, where a reporter found some interesting information. He had mandatory military service in the Georgian army between 2006-2007 and signed a contract to work with the army after that period. He fought against the Russian army during the last Russia/Georgia confrontations in 2008. He was released from the army in 2010 after coming down with Tuberculosis. He was arrested later for stocking weapons and received a 3 year sentence but was released early due to his deteriorating health condition. He then traveled to Egypt, from where he hoped to go to Yemen to fight. But after some time was able to go to Syria, where he was shocked that people were listening to music, cutting their beards, and smoking cigarettes. Protestors were demanding “democracy and freedom” and not Islam. He went to Syria to apply Sharia Law.
He denies giving Asifat al-Shamal, the militia that hosted John McCain permission to meet McCain. He says the notion that he would permit their meeting is ridiculous because Americans are the enemies of Allah and Islam and there’s only the sword between him and the US. He remains an emir in ISIS and denies rumors that he quit the group. “How can I quit the Dawla Islamiya when it’s the project of the Islamic umma and all Muslims?” he asks. He did not join ISIS because of Baghdadi or Abu al Athir( والي حلب) , he did it for Allah.
ISIS was the main player behind the coast front and is responsible for the latest victories in Hama
عمر الشيشاني جاء ليطبق شرع الله: فوجئت بشعارات كالحرية والديموقراطية
تنشر «الأخبار» في ما يأتي حواراً مع الأمير العسكري للمنطقة الشمالية في تنظيم «الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام»، عمر الشيشاني، أجرته مجلة «سنا الشام» التابعة للتنظيم، في العاشر من الشهر الماضي، ونشرته يوم 9/11/2013Homs
The Syrian Army issued a statement announcing major advances in southeastern countryside of Homs and the capture of 3 towns. The villages that they captured fell in rebel hands earlier this month in an attack that included the capturing of an army weapons depot in one of the villages, which was said to be the second largest arms depot in the country.Cutting Off the Wrong Head
An ISIS fighter cut off the head of a fighter, claiming he was an Iraqi Shiite fighting for the Assad regime. It turned out that
Militants from al Qaeda-affiliate Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) issued a statement asking for forgiveness after a video was posted online of ISIS fighters brandishing the decapitated head of a commander of Ahrar al-Sham, an ISIS ally who ISIS says it beheaded by mistake.
Here is the Telegraph story about it by Richard Spencer: Al-Qaeda-linked rebels apologise after cutting off head of wrong person: Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham militants say sorry for decapitating a fellow extremist rather than enemy
In light of responses to my previous piece on Druze militias in southern Syria, here are some further thoughts:
1. Druze in opposition: The initial article drew conclusions that the majority of Druze in Syria who have taken up arms do so on the side of the Assad regime and that there is no evidence of a separatist trend even among Druze militias that might be deemed autonomous. In objection to my conclusions it has been claimed that I intentionally overlooked Druze who are on the side of the opposition, whether political or armed.
However, my assessment was clear that a “majority” had taken up arms on the side of the regime, and thus I do not discount Druze on the other side. To give a notable example, we have from the Quneitra region the case of “Katiba Ahrar Haḍr” (Battalion of the Free Men of Haḍr), referring to the Druze village of Haḍr in the Jabal al-Sheikh region.
This battalion was formed on 28 January 2013, in response to some Druze’s disillusionment with regime policies of conscription into the Syrian army as well as apparent extortionist practices on the part of the People’s Committees set up to coordinate the activities of Druze militias with the Syrian army. In the group’s formation video, the battalion declares affiliation with the FSA-banner Military Council of the Quneitra and Golan region.
In wars with sectarian dynamics, extortionist policies by militias claiming to protect your own sect are hardly surprising. Allegations of such behavior have already emerged from Alawite areas of Homs (a city where sectarian cleansing has been an important element of the urban warfare), and extortion by the Mahdi Army from Shi’a residents in parts of Baghdad during the sectarian civil war in Iraq in 2006-7/8 is well-known: something that helped to create a degree of Shi’i disillusionment with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militia.
Operating in the al-Aqsa area of northern Quneitra, the battalion has even claimed a martyr: Sheikh Ghassan Saleh Zidane, also known as Abu Adna. He was until his death considered the leader of the battalion and one of the mashayakh of Haḍr. The mashayakh are an essential senior component of a Druze locality. On announcing his death, the battalion accused the “shabiha of Haḍr” of killing him in an ambush.
Figure 2: Photo released on 1 April to announce death of Sheikh Ghassan Saleh Zidane. Notice his body covered with the Druze flag. See here for a video featuring the corpse.
Nevertheless, the existence of this battalion does not illustrate a sharp division in the village’s population between pro and anti-regime sentiment. On the contrary, Haḍr remains loyal to the regime, and far more martyrs for the village have been claimed on the side of regime forces, whether of those deemed shabiha or the Syrian army, as the photos below should demonstrate (courtesy of pro-Assad activits in Haḍr). From the evidence, there is no reason to suppose an anti-regime Druze autonomist trend in this area.
Figure 3: Tomb of local martyr and Syrian army soldier Ayham Faheem Hamid.
Figure 5: Bibris Asa’ad Hasoon, a conscripted soldier from Haḍr killed in Idlib province.
Figure 6: Photo from Haḍr on 9 April. Funeral for local martyrs.
Figure 7: Locals in Haḍr commemorate martyrs for the Syrian army and pro-regime militias. Photo from mid-October.
Like the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles, the pro-Assad activists of Haḍr have also featured Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim photos, as below, identical to one in my previous piece but without the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label but instead advertised “for your eyes, Haḍr.” Again, this puts into doubt the contention that these militias are somehow autonomous and of a non-cooperative orientation vis-à-vis the Syrian army via the People’s Committees. Indeed, these photos of Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim photos are never advertised in any kind of supposed Druze separatist/autonomist circles, but rather among activists of a clearly pro-Assad orientation.
Thus, the case of the village of Haḍr should illustrate my point in my previous piece that the majority of Druze who take up arms do so on the side of Assad. Those in the armed opposition are simply outliers. Common sense should tell us that no community is ever completely monolithic in political outlook, but it is wrong to pretend that the exceptions here somehow point to a sharp split of loyalties amongst the Druze of Syria.
The same goes for Druze figures in the political opposition: they are primarily associated with the opposition-in-exile coalition (e.g. Jabr al-Shufi) that has little credibility on the ground, and so invoking such figures as evidence for Druze sympathy on-the-ground for the opposition is in fact much more dubious than invoking the few Druze who form and join FSA-banner groups.
2. Syrian Druze and Israel: Given the existence of a Druze community in the Galilee area that tends not to identify with Arabist causes and is in fact pro-Israel, one might ask how the Druze in Syria view their Israeli brethren. There is an interesting trend in the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles whereby photos are put up of Druze soldiers serving in the Israeli Defence Force’s (IDF) Sword Battalion, as per the examples below.
Is this reconcilable with the contention in my previous piece regarding Syrian Druze hostility to Israel? Yes. Notice that in these photos the Israeli flag is not openly on display, and these photos, if any caption is given, are advertised as soldiers of “Battalion 299” without any explicit reference to the army in which they serve. The concern here is simply to reflect notions of Druze solidarity and ideals of Druze unity and power. Note also the images below from Jaysh al-Muwahhiddeen circles purporting to show Druze loyalty to Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and resentment over the treatment of Druzes by the “soldiers of the occupation.”
Figure 16: Druze man in occupied Golan Heights waves the flag of Syria. Note Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label in top left-hand corner.
Figure 17: Photo in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles purporting to show Israeli mistreatment of Druze in the occupied Golan Heights.
Figure 18: From a Druze page based in Lebanon, which like the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen pages features photos of Druze soldiers in Battalion 299. This photo hosted by the same page shows Druze support for Syria and Syrian nationalist Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. No similar gestures of Druze support for Israel would be featured.
To round off, here are some more photos of Druze militiamen in Syria put out under the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label.
Figure 19: From Jabal al-Sheikh.
Figure 20: From the town of Haḍr, Jabal al-Sheikh. Note the fighter wearing a jacket with the Syrian flag.
Figure 21: Near the town of Haḍr in Jabal al-Sheikh. In light of the presence of the Syrian army tank, overlap is implied between Druze irregulars in this area and the Syrian army.
Figure 22: Jabal al-Sheikh.
Figure 23: Druze militiamen in Arna, Jabal al-Sheikh. “Forces of Abu Ibrahim: Jaysh al-Muwahhideen.” Note the Druze colours on the gun in the middle of the photo.
Figure 24: Druze militiamen with the Syrian flag. Note the individual on the right with a portrait of Assad on his shirt.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter:@ajaltamimi
The post Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: More On The Druze Militias in Southern Syria appeared first on Syria Comment.
Compared to how much has been written on the Sunni-Alawite dynamics in the Syrian civil war, little analysis exists on the Druze aspect of the conflict. This study hopes to rectify the deficiency by considering the nature of Druze militias operating in the south of Syria, specifically in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates where Druze populations are concentrated.
The Principle of Self-Defense
The most prominent name for Druze militias appears to be “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” (“Army of the Monotheists/Unitarians”), echoing the Druze’s self-description as “muwahhideen” emphasizing the strict unity of God. Most notably, here is a video from the beginning of this year of a statement from a “Jaysh al-Muwahhideen” militia in Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs), also known as “Jabal ad-Druze”: a mountainous area of Suwayda governorate primarily inhabited by Druze.
In the video, the speaker declares that the army is “under the leadership of Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi…we are the Muslim Unitarian Druze sect…we have been and continue to be defenders of our property and sons, and protectors for them.”
He also characterizes the struggle as a “jihad” but it is framed in purely defensive terms: that is, anyone who commits aggression on the Druze land of Jabal al-Arab- regardless of his/her affiliation- will suffer consequences at the hands of the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen, for they are not afraid of fighting in defence of their people. The statement was released in light of attacks on Druze in Suwayda governorate at the hands of gangs coming from Deraa, including the kidnapping of Druze youth referenced in the video.
The reference to my fellow Tamimi tribesman Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi is an important part of Druze identity here. Abu Ibrahim was an early Druze leader who succeeded Hamza ibn Ali, who is considered to be the founder of the Druze sect during the reign of the Fatimid caliph al-Hakim in the eleventh century. While Hamza is thought to embody the principle of al-‘aql (“mind”) in Druze doctrine, Abu Ibrahim represents nafs (“soul”). Within Jaysh al-Muwahhideen social media circles, one finds the name of “Jaysh Abu Ibrahim” being used alongside Jaysh al-Muwahhideen.
Figure 5: Another photo from Jabal al-Sheikh of Jaysh Abu Ibrahim/Jaysh al-Muwahhideen fighters.
Figure 6: Anonymous Druze militiamen advertised on one Jaysh al-Muwahhideen page as the “forces of Abu Ibrahim…we do not attack, but we also don’t allow anyone to attack us.”
Figure 7: Druze militiaman. Photo from a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim page.
The video linked to above illustrates the main Druze priority in the Syrian civil war: namely, to protect the community’s land and honor. This principle is corroborated by interviews I conducted with the activists behind a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen Facebook page and a purely online support page called “Katiba al-Muwahhideen”(“Battalion of the Unitarians”). Thus, the former stressed that the Druze militia is not concerned with “attacking the terrorists, but defense of land and honor (not aggression). We only defend.” The latter similarly emphasized defending the Druze online.
Showing Support for Assad
While the focus on self-defense suggests political neutrality in theory (and indeed, the Katiba stated to me that they are not affiliated with any political faction), in practice the Druze militias will side with the local strong actor who can guarantee the preservation of Druze land.
Combined with concern regarding the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra,[i] who have for many months played a key role in fighting on the Deraa front in particular,[ii] working with a variety of factions, and apparently being responsible for a recent bomb attack in Suwayda city, it follows that Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles make a show of demonstrating Druze loyalty to the Assad regime.
Thus, the Katiba affirmed to me that in Jabal al-Arab and Jabal al-Sheikh, “people’s committees for the protection of villages and towns” have been formed to fight against “terrorism,” working “in cooperation with the Syrian army.” The Katiba also praised the Syrian army as non-sectarian, claiming that “the Syrian Arab Army is for all Syria. In it are Druze, Alawites, Sunnis, and Christians. Not only Druze. We [i.e. the Druze of Jabal al-Arab and Suwayda, where the activists are based] have brought forth a thousand martyrs in the Syrian Arab Army in the defense of the nation and we are prepared to bring forth more.”
In a similar vein, the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen social media circles feature imagery closely tying the Syrian Druze community to Assad, as can be seen from a selection below.
Figure 8: Procession featuring the Syrian and Druze flags side-by-side, along with a portrait of Bashar al-Assad in front. Put up by a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen page in commemoration of the martyrs from the Druze town of Arna in the Jabal al-Sheikh area.
Figure 10: Jaysh al-Muwahhideen graphic linking the Druze with Assad’s Syria. This was put up on 9 October to celebrate an attack by the Syrian army on rebel bases in Jabatha al-Khashab, among other places, in Quneitra region.
Figure 11: Another graphic from Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles showing the loyalty of the Druze of Jabal al-Sheikh to the regime.
Figure 12: A Jaysh al-Muwahhideen graphic tying Assad’s Syria and the Druze.
Figure 13: Rally in the summer from Jabal al-Sheikh area in support of the Syrian army, featuring Druze and Syrian flags side-by-side.
An important aspect of the concepts of Druze loyalty to the Syrian nation is anti-colonialism, and the Druze role in uprisings against Ottoman and French rule. Hence, the Katiba affirmed to me that “all in Syria know that we [the Druze] do not attack anyone, we only defend, thus we fought Ottoman and French colonization and expelled them from our land.” The fighting against the Ottomans is referring to the multiple Druze revolts against the Ottomans.[iii]
In 1842, there was a revolt against direct Ottoman rule under ‘Umar Pasha following on from conflict with the Maronites. Later, Druze peasant agitation beginning in 1888 developed into a revolt by 1889 in response to repeated attempts by Ottoman authorities to bring Jabal al-Hawran (later to become Jabal ad-Druze, with widespread Druze settlement in the latter half of the 19th century) under direct Ottoman rule from Damascus. The revolt ultimately failed as Ottoman troops poured into Jabal al-Hawran and bombarded Suwayda in 1890.
Towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, refusal by the Druzes of Jabal to take part in a census ordered in 1908 led to a full-scale Ottoman invasion of the Jabal, followed by disarmament, conscription of Druze into the Ottoman army, and execution of a number of Druze sheikhs. However, Ottoman troops withdrew by 1911, which meant the Druze could revert to autonomy.
While the Druze came to support the “Arab Revolt” in the First World War, dissatisfaction with French rule led to a Druze revolt in 1925 that then took on a nationalist element spurred on by some of the Druze chieftains’ sympathy with Arab nationalism. Thus in 1926, Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash insisted that the Druze would not lay down arms unless the French recognized the “complete independence of Syria.”
Although the revolt ultimately failed in 1927 and led to the designation of a separate Jabal ad-Druze state, the revolt had inspired a younger generation of Druze with nationalist romanticism- just as many younger Alawites were beginning to adopt ideas of Syrian nationalism- and by 1936 Jabal ad-Druze was incorporated into Syria.
Sentiment about union with Syria was of course sharply divided among the Druze, as was the case among the Alawites. During the 1936 negotiations, both Alawite and Druze leaders sent petitions insisting on remaining separate from Syria, and appealing to Jewish PM Leon Blum’s supposed Zionist sentiments. For the Druze militia circles today, however, it is the unionist side that is commemorated.
Figure 14: Jaysh al-Muwahhideen graphic commemorating Sultan al-Atrash, the Druze chieftain who became a Syrian nationalist leader in 1925-7.
Figure 15: A photo circulated in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles commemorating the Druze role in the 1925-7 revolt against the French.
Essential to tying the Druze community to the Assad regime is the commemoration of Druze martyrs both from the irregular militias and the Syrian army. Below is a selection of some of those fallen Druze fighters.
Figure 16: Ghanadi ash-Shaybani, killed in clashes in Tel Asfar, Suwayda governorate, on 10 November.
Figure 17: Yaman Aymenn Rafi, a Druze from Suwayda governorate killed fighting for the Syrian army in Qaboun, Damascus area.
Figure 18: Khalid Jamal ash-Sha’arani, from the Druze village of ad-Dur in Suwayda governorate, killed on 12 November in the Damascus countryside.
Figure 19: Basil Jihad al-Dimashqi, born in the Druze village of al-Bathīna, Suwayda governorate, in 1994. Martyred on 5 November fighting for the Syrian army in Raqqa governorate.
Figure 20: Kefah Hassan al-Masri: a Druze from Suwayda killed fighting for the Syrian army in Jaramana, Damascus governorate, on 31 October.
Figure 21: Raed Ibrahim Baraka, from Suwayda and killed fighting for the Syrian army in Deraa governorate on 27 October. Note the strong emphasis on his Druze identity with the Druze symbol in the top right-hand corner, along with his Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) affiliation in the top left-hand corner.
Figure 23: Hussein al-Maqat, a soldier from the Druze village of Amran in Suwayda governorate, killed at the age of 21 fighting in the Zamlaka, rural Damascus. Death announced on 22 August.
Figure 24: Abu Talal and Abu al-Laith, two Druze fighters killed in Jaramana, Damascus area. Note the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen label, suggesting overlap between the Syrian army and the Druze militia group. Note in general that the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim pages frequently put up photos of Druze martyrs for the Syrian army.
Besides these photos, one can find a video dedicated to the martyrs of the Druze town of Arna in Jabal al-Sheikh area.
Conclusion: Separatism? Alliance with Israel?
It would be a mistake to characterize all Druze who have taken up arms in the Syrian civil war as staunchly pro-regime. Some form of distinction from the above evidence can be made between Druze irregulars and those who fight in the Syrian army- principally on the basis that the former are defined by their anonymity.
At the same time, one must be skeptical of narratives pointing to a supposedly growing Syrian Druze separatist trend. For instance, Hussein Ibish contends that Druze “militias are becoming increasingly independent and generally no longer work with government forces.” There is no evidence to support this view.
On the contrary, the support for Assad emphasized in Jaysh al-Muwahhideen/Abu Ibrahim media circles (including those featuring anonymous Druze fighters), together with the testimony of Katiba al-Muwahhideen, the apparent Jaysh al-Muwahhideen martyrdoms in Jaramana, and the large and continuous stream of Druze martyrdoms for the Syrian army point to three things.
First, of the Druze who have taken up arms, a majority have done so on the side of the Assad regime. Second, there are still generally close ties between Druze irregulars and the Syrian army, mainly under the guise of people’s protection committees. Third, even if actually autonomous, Druze militiamen generally want to show ties of loyalty to the regime and the Syrian nation.
Could this all change? Yes. A loss of willingness to support the regime might occur, for example, if it were being perceived that regime forces are losing much ground and on an irreversible and major retreat from Suwayda and Deraa governorates. At the present time, nothing points to such a picture on the battlefield. Druze irregulars might also turn decisively against the regime if, say, the Syrian army were forcing Druze off their land to take up firing positions against rebels. Yet this seems unlikely.
We should equally dismiss the notion touted recently in some Israeli press circles of a Druze state emerging from the fragmentation of Syria and aligning with Israel. Besides the problems of the viability of a Druze state (such as the means of supporting an economy), Druze in Syria fall in line with most of the Syrian Arab population (including Alawites and Christians) in having an existential hatred of Israel: that is, not wanting Israel to exist in any form. Indeed, the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen circles continue to highlight the issue of the “occupied Golan.”
From the Israeli side, experience has shown that getting involved in multipolar civil wars by propping up one side- as was the case in Lebanon- ends in disaster. In the long-run, the rebel presence in Suwayda, Deraa and Damascus governorates is unlikely to be purged completely. Even in the event of a peace agreement entailing de facto partition, the Assad regime is likely to retain the southern and western areas of Syria. Israeli pundits’ hopes of minority allies remain illusory, as Israeli officials maintain a more sober policy of overall neutrality while launching airstrikes to prevent those who might wish to wage war on Israel from acquiring new weaponry and providing occasional medical aid to refugees.
To sum up, the Druze community in Syria as a whole remains tied to the regime, whether out of genuine pro-Assad sentiment or belief in the regime as its only viable protector,[iv] and there is unlikely to be a profound shift in the orientation of the Syrian Druze community, at least in the near future.
Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter: @ajaltamimi
Kirk Sowell). Previously, some saw Deraa as an example of a shift to a more ‘mainstream’/Salim Idriss SMC-aligned insurgency. I would clarify that while Jabhat al-Nusra and Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham may be smaller numerically than in the north and east, nothing supports the idea of a contrast whereby southern rebels are more likely to be hostile to these jihadi factions than in the north.The picture is rather of mixed views on the whole. At any rate, there is a risk of downplaying Jabhat al-Nusra’s role in Deraa in earlier months (see my articles here and here). The group has consistently maintained overall good working relations with a variety of rebel factions in Deraa. [iii] In the account of the anti-colonial Druze history narrative that follows I am reliant on Kais Firro’s “A History of the Druzes,” Brill (Leiden, 1992). [iv] To be contrasted perhaps with an overall display of neutrality earlier on when the outcome of the unrest in Syria seemed highly uncertain.
The post Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi: The Druze Militias of Southern Syria appeared first on Syria Comment.
by Andrew Cunningham with Darien Middle East
It is hard to think about reconstructing Syria and its economy at a time when there is so much uncertainty about how the civil war will develop in the months ahead, but, as the fiasco of Iraqi “reconstruction” in the months following the overthrow of Saddam Husain has shown, failure to plan for the days when the conflict has ended will not only delay the process of reconstruction but may also lead to a continuation of bloodshed and violence.
It is in this context that Darien Middle East has developed an analysis of the costs and challenges that will likely be involved in the reconstruction of the Syrian banking system, building on our June 2013 analysis “Deconstructing the Syrian Banking System” (on Syria Comment; also available on the Darien website).
In terms of costs, we estimate that $10.5bn – $16bn will be needed to recapitalise the state-owned banks. This is about 20 – 30% of pre-civil war GDP. It is an amount of money that would not preclude a rapid recapitalisation, if western powers are willing to provide financial and technical support for the process.
As for the principal challenges that will be faced, much will depend on whether a strong government emerges from the conflict – one that is able to take and impose decisions reasonably quickly; or whether a post-conflict government is characterised by factional fighting. In the former scenario, reconstruction, including bank recapitalisation, will be a largely technical affair and can be achieved fairly quickly; in the latter scenario, reconstruction will be a hostage to political interest trading and is unlikely to progress quickly.
Three Stages to Quantifying the Scale of Bank Recapitalisation
The process of rebuilding the Syrian banking system falls into three areas:
- First, we must take a view on the level of losses in the banking industry prior to the conflict.
- Second, we must consider the extent to which such losses will have been increased by the conflict.
- Third, we must consider the medium and long-term capital requirements of banks in post-conflict Syria.
Our analysis addresses only the state-owned banks in Syria. Private sector banks are likely to have been more solvent than state-owned banks going into the current crisis, since they are able better able resist pressures to lend to poorly performing state-owned enterprises. Private sector and Islamic banks accounted for only 6% of lending to state-owned enterprises at the end of 2010, although their share of banking system assets and of capital funds was nearly 30%.
Furthermore, private sector shareholders tend to take a more realistic approach to potential losses. Those that are subsidiaries of foreign banks will have been required by regulators in their home countries to make adequate provisions against losses.
If private sector banks need to be recapitalised, the funds will come from their owners and not from a future Syrian government or the international community.
The six state-owned banks account for nearly three quarters of all banking assets in Syria. The Commercial Bank of Syria accounts for about half of the combined assets of these six state-owned banks, and the Real Estate Bank about 15%.
Estimating the True Level of Non-Performing Loans
Estimating the cost of bank recapitalisation entails making some bold assumptions, the most important of which is about the level of losses that banks will be facing when the conflict ends.
The IMF’s 2009 Article IV report on Syria gives the ratio of non-performing loans (NPLs) to total loans at the state-owned banks as 5.9%. This figure, which the IMF sources to the Central Bank of Syria, is not credible. One must assume that the state-owned banks began the civil war with substantial undeclared credit losses on their balance sheets.
By way of comparison, the World Bank estimates that about a quarter of loans extended by Egyptian banks (both public and private) were non performing in 2005 before the Egyptian Central Bank began to clean up the banks’ balance sheets. The World Bank estimates that the NPL ratios of Tunisian banks were about 12% before the overthrow of Ben Ali, and puts the current ratios of banks in Jordan at about 8% and Morocco at about 5%. Tunisia, Jordan and Morocco have well-supervised banking systems and powerful central banks.
The Iraqi banking system provides a demonstration of how difficult it can be to estimate the extent of losses in a post conflict society. Work to rehabilitate the Iraqi banking system began soon after the overthrow of Saddam Husain in 2003 and picked up pace when the World Bank signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Central Bank of Iraq in 2006. Efforts focused on the two commercial banks, Rashid and Rafidain, which accounted for 90% of banking activity in Iraq. Yet seven years later, in its July 2013 Article IV Report on Iraq, the IMF was acknowledging that the net worth of the two banks remained difficult to estimate due to lack of transparency and the continuing presence of pre-2003 items on their balance sheets.
So, what is a reasonable estimate for loan losses in Syrian commercial banks?
At the end of June 2013, the median non-performing loan (NPL) ratio for privately owned banks that had published their full financial statements either on their websites or with the Damascus Securities Exchange was 43%. This compared to 21.5% for all such banks at the end of December 2012, and 7.5% at the end of 2011. Private sector banks can be expected to display stronger asset quality (i.e. lower NPL ratios) than the state-owned banks.
By way of comparison, Commercial Bank of Syria, the leading state-owned bank, reported a non-performing loan ratio of 3.5% at the end of 2011 (stating NPLs at S£12 billion, $227mn), compared to 1.6% at the end of 2010. The Real Estate Bank, reported an NPL ratio of 6.5% at the end of 2011 (stating NPLs S£685mn, $13mn) compared to 3.6% at the end of 2010. None of these figures is credible.
Taking into account the published non-performing loan ratios for the private Syrian banks; the figures from other state-led economies in the Middle East, such as Egypt; and the probable impact of a drawn-out civil war in Syria; it is reasonable to assume that between one half and three quarters of all loans extended by the state-owned banks will be impaired.
Of course, not all impaired loans entail a write-off of all funds owed. Loans can often be rescheduled, customers can be coaxed into repaying a proportion of what they owe in return for forgiveness of the rest, and sometimes banks can seize and then liquidate collateral. The recovery rate on impaired Syrian loans is likely to be low, but it will not be zero, especially in the case of loans to sate-owned monopolies that are likely to remain in business after the fighting ends.
In the past, the level of provisioning by state-owned banks against their non-performing loans appears to have been modest. The IMF estimated that provisions covered about one sixth of the gross non-performing portfolio in 2008 and 2009, and about 1% of the gross loan portfolio – in simple terms, about $200mn.
Syrian Banks Will Need Extra Capital to Raise Lending Rates during Reconstruction
Having predicted the unrecoverable portion of non-performing loans at the end of the conflict, and written those amounts of against existing capital funds, one needs to look ahead to the capital levels that banks will need to operate safely in future and also to meet the huge demands for finance that will arise during the reconstruction phase. Our analysis assumes the need for an un-weighted leverage ratio of 8%. This is high by international standards, but fair for Syrian banks.
As for the level of future lending, one must assume that after the conflict has ended Syrian banks will need to provide large amounts of money to fund reconstruction projects and enable new businesses to be established. Historically, Syrian banks have not lent as much to Syrian businesses as banking systems in other Middle Eastern (or other) countries have been lending to businesses in their own countries. Throughout the Middle East, bank lending is generally equivalent to about 55% of a country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) according to the IMF. In Syria, this figure was about 40% in 2010, according to our calculations. So if Syrian banks are to play a full role in the country’s reconstruction they will need to increase their rate of lending, and to do this they will need more capital.
Based on these assumptions – the likely level of loan losses (50% – 75% of the loan portfolio is impaired and a significant proportion of that is unrecoverable), a capital requirement that can be considered prudent (an 8% un-weighted capital ratio), and a convergence by Syrian banks to the lending levels seen elsewhere in the Middle East (55% of GDP), we estimate that the cost of recapitalising the state owned banks is likely to range from $9bn to $16bn.
Supplemental: Steps to Recapitalise a Banking System
Recapitalising a banking system is not a fundamentally hard thing to do. It entails reaching a realistic valuation of the assets on banks’ balance sheets, deciding who is going to pay the difference between that valuation and the value at which the banks have been holding the assets on their books, allocating the funds to pay that difference, and then passing any regulations or laws necessary to execute the plan.
Difficulties and delays usually arise as a result of a lack of political and bureaucratic nerve or as a result of institutional obstruction by those who are vested in the status quo ante.
Finding the money necessary to recapitalize a banking system should not be a problem. In emerging markets, it is usually stateowned banks that need to be re-capitalised, and new capital can be provided in the form of government bonds and guarantees.
Issuing such bonds and guarantees increases the level of a government’s debt (as we have seen in Europe, as national governments moved to bail out insolvent banks), but robust analysis should already have factored in a government’s contingent liability to insolvent state-owned banks, with the result that a government’s economic debt ratios (as opposed to published debt ratios) change little after a bank bail-out is executed.
In the case of Syria, injecting $10bn into the banking sector would approximately double the country’s public sector debt. (Pre-civil war GDP was about $50bn and pre-civil war debt to GDP was about 20%.) When viewed against the cost of other emerging market bank bail-outs, such numbers are not prohibitive. Furthermore, it is reasonable to assume that as a result of sanctions the Syrian government’s obligations to western countries have been diminishing – so making the assumption of new debt easier to bear; and also that western governments would financially support the recapitalisation of the Syrian banking system under a post-Asad secular government.
That said, experience tells us that the key factor determining the extent to which the Syrian banking system can be transformed after the civil war, and the pace at which such transformation will occur, will be the political environment in which such transformation begins, rather than the financial cost of bank recapitalisation.
Efforts to recapitalise and modernise the Iraqi banking system began fairly soon after the overthrow of Saddam Husain in 2003. In their first years, such efforts achieved little and even now the Iraqi commercial banking system remains hugely dysfunctional and a weak engine for economic growth. (At the end of 2012, Iraqi banks’ loans to the private sector represented about 17% of their assets and were equivalent to about 8.5% of Iraqi GDP.)
There have been three key reasons for the slow improvement in the quality of the Iraqi commercial banking sector.
Firstly, efforts to reform the commercial banks had to start from a very low level – the Iraqi economy had been subject to wide ranging international sanctions for 13 years before the overthrow of Saddam in 2003 and prior to that the banks acted primarily as the tools of government rather than as commercial enterprises.
Secondly, the Central Bank’s ability to act decisively was constrained by rivalries and conflicts within the Iraqi government. In particular, the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance had a difficult relationship. (In 2012, the incorruptible Dr. Sinan al-Shabibi, who had fought to maintain the Central Bank’s independence, was removed from the Governorship by Prime Minister Maliki.)
Thirdly, the high level of violence and insecurity throughout the country hampered day to day work, particularly of foreign experts trying to provide advice and guidance – if a visit to a bank is only possible when one travels by armoured convoy, the number of such visits will be limited and the quality and quantity of time spent advising local bank staff will be compromised. The security situation also prevented experienced Iraqi expatriates from returning to Iraq to work in banks.
Egypt provides a contrasting picture, albeit one which provides an inexact comparison. When the Central Bank of Egypt began its bank reform programme in 2005, there were already well-performing, privately-owned banks operating in Egypt that could provide examples of good practice, and occasionally supply experienced commercially-minded staff to the state-owned banks. Furthermore, the Central Bank enjoyed the full support of the Ministry of Finance and the highest levels of government. And of course, Egypt was peaceful. The biggest constraints to getting advice into the banks seemed to be the Cairo traffic jams! (The author speaks from personal experience!)
Why does capital matter?
Capital is a bank’s cushion against unexpected losses; as opposed to provisions, which are its cushion against loan losses that have already occurred or which are expected to occur. When a bank recognises loan losses, it writes down the value of those loans in its financial statements. If the losses so great that they overwhelm the bank’s loan loss provisions, the only way to balance the accounts is to write down the value of capital. If a bank depletes its entire stock of capital then it is deemed to be insolvent and should be closed down by its regulator (because having depleted capital, it will only be able to balance its books by defaulting on deposits or bonds). Even if a bank has positive capital, the regulator may still have reason to close it down, since all banks should maintain a minimum level of capital today to protect against unexpected losses in future.
The Basel Committee on Banking Supervision, which sets international standards for banks, has called for regulators in require a minimum leverage ratio (that is, a ratio of capital to unweighted assets) of 3%. However, it is widely expected that regulators in underdeveloped or risky banking systems will require leverage ratios significantly above 3%.
The post Recapitalising the Syrian Banking System: Costs and Challenges appeared first on Syria Comment.
Who are Syria’s BIG FIVE Insurgent leaders?
by Joshua Landis (with help from the SC experts)
October 1, 2013
If we confine our choices to leaders with broad appeal in the Arab and Islamist mainstream — excluding both al-Qaida and Kurdish leaders — we get the following five, listed in order.
1. Hassan Abboud, the general head of the Islamic movement of Ahrar Al-Sham, spearheaded the joint position of what some are calling the Islamic Alliance, but which is looser than an alliance of mainly northern-based militias. They have rejected the SNC and US backed exile groups. Al-Nusra was one of the groups that signed the alliance, along with #3 and #4 below.
2. Zahran Alloush, the general Commander of Jaysh al-Islam or Islam Army, a group of more than 50 brigades. He is the son of a Saudi-based religious scholar named sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Alloush. Syrian authorities released him from prison in mid-2011. He was incarcerated for his Salafist opposition activities in Sidnaya prison along with #1 and #3. He states that the external opposition does not represent him or his group and that there is no chance at negotiations with the regime. His Islam Army flies the black flag and not the Syrian flag.
3. Ahmad `Aisa al-Shaykh, or Abu Aissa, commander of Suqour al-Sham Brigade, Falcons of Syria Brigade, based in Idlib.
4. Abdul Qader Al-Salih, the high Commander of Liwa al-Tawhid, Unity Brigade, in Aleppo. (the formal top leader is Abdelaziz Salame)5: Bashar Al-Zoubi, the Commander of Liwa al-Yarmouk in the south of Syria around Deraa. The Supreme Military Command (the US backed leadership of the Free Syrian Army) has named him the commander of the Southern Front. He is the only member of this top-five who has not expressed a wish to see an Islamist Syria.
Taken together, these leaders represent not even half of the insurgency. The top five are not enough to run the rebellion, but they are either major actors in their core areas or very big nationally, or both. A small group on the national level can be a superpower in its own hometown. There are many more powerful leaders in Syria. We look forward to adding and correcting.
These are people who have significant influence over the insurgency. They are swing voters.
Over the last several months, the insurgency has undergone a “Darwinian” shakedown. Powerful leaders are emerging and smaller militias are lining up with the larger sharks. All the same, we are only at the beginning of this process. The opposition remains extremely fragmented and volatile.
Any discussion of Geneva II talks to end the Syrian conflict will be sterile without these commanders at the table. The top four say they are unwilling to sit at the negotiation table with the regime. In fact, their main issue with the National Coalition is that the NC is considering negotiating with the regime.
It is hard to imagine any of them backtracking on this position in the near future.Other Powerful Commanders
If one is considering military might alone, one must add the head of ISIS – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In military terms, he is stronger than Bashar al-Zoubi, our #5. But he doesn’t have appeal outside the Islamist hardline segment. So here we go:
- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – al-Qaida.
- Abu Mohammad al-Golani of al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra – al-Qaida
- Hemo. The YPG is the military arm of the PYD (Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat) the leader of which is Salih Muslim Muhammad. This is the Syrian branch of the PKK, which is kept under civilian control so Salih Muslim PYD and not Hemo is perhaps the correct listing. It has been battling Nusra and ISIS over the last several months for control of the North-east. Salih Muslim Muhammad/Sipan Hemo, Hemo is commander of the Kurdish Peoples Defence Units (YPG) in Syria – See an interview with
- Abu Sayeh Juneidi of Farouq Brigades, one of the largest and well-known units of the FSA (Homs). It placed itself under Suquor al-Sham commander Ahmed Abu Issa in Sept 2012. (Farouq seems weakened of late).
Jamal Maarouf (Abu Khalid) of Shuhada Souria, Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Idlib governate, FSA. Jamal claims to have 18 ,000 fighters between Idlib and Aleppo, but like all troop estimates, this should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s a non-Islamist leader. He is both religious and conservative, but not Ikhwan and not salafi, just not ideological.
- Mohammed al-Khatib of Furqan Brigades, active west of Damascus down toward the Golan. also not irrelevant.
- Ziad Haj Obaid commands Ahfad Rasoul with two others. The name meaning Grandsons of the Prophet. He is on the Arms Committee for the Supreme Military Command. Much of Ahfad’s funding came from Qatar, which may explain its recent weakness.
- There are more who we lack info on.
Addendum (Oct 2, 2013): Hassan Hassan published an important article “The Army of Islam Is Winning in Syria” arguing that the Islamic Army led by Zahran Alloush is probably now stronger than Hassan Abboud’s Ahrar al-Sham. This is hard to tell, but it is worth quoting him at length.
But today, Salafi-leaning insurgents are the single most dominant force in liberated areas. Liwa al-Islam, which is the central player in the Army of Islam, now dwarfs both the FSA and radical militias such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, which long played a prominent role in the region. These groups had coordinated with each other through a Damascus military council, but Ahrar al-Sham pulled out of the council shortly after the merger, issuing an angry statement that criticized “the hegemony of certain factions and the exclusion of [other] effective ones.”…
Saudi Arabia appears to be central to the merger of rebel groups around Damascus. Liwa al-Islam chief Zahran Alloush is backed by Riyadh, while both Ahrar al-Sham, which is supported by Qatar, and Jabhat al-Nusra have been excluded from the new grouping. Although Liwa al-Islam had been part of the Saudi-backed FSA, the spokesman of the new grouping told an Arabic television channel that the Army of Islam is not part of the FSA. This is likely because the FSA has lost the trust of many rebel groups, and adopting a religious language will be more effective in countering the appeal of radical groups — which is what happened after the announcement of the merger, as various Islamists and moderate groups welcomed the move.
Zahran Alloush, Liwa al-Islam, who founded the Islam Army a week ago. He peaks of the resurrection of the Omayyad Empire and cleansing of the Majous or crypto-Iranians: Rafida (Shiites) and Nusayri (Alawites) from Damascus (minute 5). He does not have much faith in democracy, claiming that a committee of Islamic scholars will decide on the form of government and the role that minorities will play in a future state. He calls for Muslims from the world over to come do their duty in Syria and fight Jihad. He claims that every insurgent commander is an Islamist and argues that the reason the Assad regime surrounded Damascus and suppressed its people is because the people’s natural inclination is to build an Islamic state following the spirit of the Ommayad state. For this reason, the Majousi regime was frightened of the people. In his interview with Aljazeera, he is asked about his relationship with Idriss, Commander in Chief of the FSA and SMC member; Alloush said
Idriss should be more serious and active in helping the mujahidiin and not listen to orders he gets from here and there to favor certain groups with aid in order to advance foreign agendas that are being promoted for our umma
Abdul Qader Saleh is powerful as things stand today, but should Aleppo fall entirely into rebel hands and should Liwa al-Tawhid remain dominant there, Abdul Qader will become powerful indeed. Aleppo is the capital of the North and it and its suburbs include about half the population under rebel control.Abdul Qader Saleh’s relationship with the Turks. One story about the fall of Aleppo centers around the defection of Mohammad Miflih, who at the time was head of air-force intelligence in Aleppo. Miflih was infamous for massacring protestors in Hama early in the revolution, so when he decided to defect, he knew that he wouldn’t be received very well by the opposition. The story has it that Miflih coordinated his defection with the Turks, who offered to provide him protection but in return Miflih had to allow the rebels into the city. In the meantime, the Turks had the rebels assemble their forces and entered the city, starting with the Salahaldin neighborhood. They named the battle for Aleppo – Furqan. Here is the video of that announcement from August 2012. It shows a group of rebel commanders including Abdul Qader Saleh and a Nusra commander. .
Bashar Zoubi, Liwa Yarmouk: This militia is not huge, Zoubi says around 5,000, but if you want a southern faction, it’s probably the biggest. He seems much less Islamist & more SMC/Western linked than the brigades that have linked up with Zahran Alloush’s Islam Army around Damascus. The Deraa front in general seems less Islamist, with weapons coming in from Jordan and Saudi. The US, Jordan and Saudi are working together to avoid building up Islamists. Although a Daraa source suggests that many of the Daraa militias are placing themselves under Zahran Alloush since his dramatic announcement of the formation of the Army of Islam, Liwa Yarmouk and several other power hitters around Deraa have not. See this list for those that have joined Islam Army http://justpaste.it/d81t – I think a few more have joined since.
Hassan Abboud of حركة أحرار الشام الإسلامية Ahrār ash-Shām, meaning “Islamic Movement of the Freemen of Syria.” It is the principal organization operating under the umbrella of the Syrian Islamic Front. or SIF. On Sept. 24, 2013, Aboud spearheaded the formation of what was called the Islamic Alliance. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham were included in this loose “alliance,” as well as Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida linked group.
Here is the video of the formation of the Islam Army. Alloush was not at the conference. His deputy took the pledges of allegiance of the 49 other commanders on his behalf. He was not in the group photo. No point in having your top commander killed or captured.
Posted by Joshua Landis
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released an audio recording Monday September 2013 to defend ISIS against recent attacks in the media.
Everyone has been waiting for this statement ever since the ISIS kicked the North Storm and FSA militias out of Azaz, north of Aleppo. The speculation was that ISIS was preparing to take over the border crossing with Turkey in order to capture the revenue and place a strategic chock-hold on goods moving to Aleppo. Turkey closed the border crossing in response.
An English translation has yet to be published. Here are a few quick points:
- He denies responsibility of the explosions that targeted Sunni Mosques in Iraq. Says the Rafidi(Iraqi) army is responsible for the attacks.
- Support for the ISIS in Iraq is growing, even among the tribes.
- He says the media is twisting facts. One example of this is the accusation that ISIS of staying in the liberated areas (this was an accusation repeated by Elizabeth O’Bagy and quoted in Kerry’s Senate hearing) and stabbing the FSA in the back to keep them away from the front, when the opposite is the truth:
- Liwaa Ahfad al-Rassoul opened a front with ISIS in Raqqa and Deir ezZor to distract ISIS from pursuing its front in Latakia and the coast. When they were close to conquering Qirdaha, Bashar’s hometown.
- Adnani said that the leader of Liwaa Ahfad al-Rassoul went to France and brought back money and a plan to face the ISIS, and Ahfad al-Rassoul members started instigating the fight by swearing at Allah in public and on the walki-talki. He says, “don’t get fooled, not all groups fighting are good, some are known to be shabiha,” an example is a group in Aleppo countryside called al-Nasir, which they caught planting ….. in their bases. He also calls Senator McCain an American pig.
- Liwaa Asifat al-Shamal opened a front with ISIS in Azaz over a crusader spy, distracting them from the Hama front where ISIS is making amazing progress that is not being reported
- Adnani blames the media for casting them in a bad light by spreading lies, not reporting on their successes, and attributing what successes they do report to other groups.
- ISIS does not want to exclude anyone but a lot of groups want to exclude the ISIS. The ISIS welcomes anyone that extends a hand to them.
- An example of this false attribution is the victorious capture of Menagh airbase, which was carried out mostly by ISIS with little help from other groups. All the same, the media reported this as an accomplishment of the FSA to the point that the Supreme Military Council leaders claimed responsibility for it.
- Adnani is also annoyed that not enough attention was given to the ISIS operation on Dirii Hama.
- He says ISIS does not think that most people are Kufar. They believe that the majority of the people in Iraq and Syria are Muslim. ISIS does not declare anybody an apostate without clear evidence. And when one of its members is found to be making such a generalization, that member is penalized and if he repeats his actions, he gets expelled from the group. And they’ve expelled a lot of Ansar and Muhajirin because of such statements.
- Adnani insists that the media constantly plays up the few altercations that ISIS has had with other militias, while completely ignoring the frequent and on-going fights that set other groups against each other.
- Adnani points out that many insisted that fighting between the ISIS and its defectors – here he is referring to Jabhat al-Nusra – would break out, but it did not. Not a single drop of blood was shed and no fighting took place, even though every reason for it existed. This upset the infidels and proved to everyone that ISIS is not out to attack those who disagree with their views. The ISIS has not fought anybody in Syria except the Nusayris, unless it was forced into a fight. ISIS believes it is stupid to fight on multiple fronts.
- He reminds the FSA that the goal of this campaign of distortion is to provoke internecine fighting between the two groups.
The post Islamic State of Iraq and Syria Lashes out at Critics (30 September 2013) appeared first on Syria Comment.
by William R. Polk (Prof. emeritus, Univ of Chicago & ex-member of the Policy Planning Council of the United States Department of State)
September 15, 2013
Because so much of the information and comment in the media, particularly in America, is fragmentary, diffuse and even contradictory, I thought it might be useful to attempt to put together a more coherent account of how we interpret what we now know. Since most of the focus in government pronouncements and the media is on weapons and their use, I will here provide notes on (1) weapons’ variety, their characteristics, their cost and their availability; (2) a short history of chemical weapons; (3) the Russian intervention; (4) why the Syrians have accepted the Russian proposal; (5) the prospects for ridding the area of the weapons of mass destruction; (6) the possibility of ending the civil war; (7) who the Insurgents are and what they want; and (8) predictable results of a collapse of the Syrian state.
- The Variety of Weapons and Their characteristics
Three sorts of weapons figure in the Syrian conflict: the first are “conventional” light and heavy weapons: rifles, machineguns, grenades and artillery. They have done most of the killing in the civil war. Of an estimated 100,000 casualties, they have killed over 99 in each 100. Perhaps the best guess on who the casualties were comes from an Non-Governmental Organization based in London, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It finds that 21,850 rebels fighters, 27,654 regular army soldiers, 17,824 militia fighters and about 40,000 civilians have been killed as of September this year.
So far unused but prominent in any political calculation are nuclear weapons which are known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD). So far they are possessed only by Israel with which country Syria is at war. The third category of weapons, also regarded as WMD are chemical weapons. They figure in the inventory of several states including both Syria and Israel. These weapons are made of various forms of gas (mustard, which causes severe burns, and the nerve gases, Sarin, VX and perhaps others).
Weapons of Mass destruction are characterized by several common features. The first is that there is no effective means of protection from them. At the top end, a nuclear weapon, delivered by rocket or jet airplane cannot be detected or reliably disabled before reaching its target. Some chemical weapons do not even have to be delivered: they can be carried (as they were in the First World War) by wind or allowed simply to escape where they are to take effect. Gas masks were fabricated to guard against them over a century ago, but they offer only limited protection. Some gas compounds, particularly Sarin, can contaminate clothing and remain lethal long after the person removes the mask. Against white phosphorous, a particularly horrible form of napalm, there is no effective means of defense if the person is in the open.
The second common feature of chemical weapons of mass destruction is that their impact is dramatic. Even threat of their use spreads terror not only among intended targets but among the population of wide areas. This feature is heightened by the fact that unintended victims usually have no warning. All weapons of mass destruction are horrible, but they vary widely in cost and effectiveness. Nuclear weapons are the most expensive and not only can kill all life in a given area but also leave behind contamination that can kill or maim those who survived the initial attack for decades or more. Even “lesser” nuclear weapons such as depleted uranium shell casing are believed to have resulted in greatly increased cases of cancer. So far as I have been able to find out, depleted uranium has not yet been used in Syria, but such shells are known to be in the inventory of some of the armies.
Chemical weapons have been described as “the poor nations’ weapons of mass destruction.” Gas can be manufactured relatively cheaply and in what are relatively speaking rudimentary laboratories. According to a Russian study, the only publically available investigation, gas has been used several times in the Syrian war, once, the Russians assert, by the rebels in or near Aleppo. We do not yet, as of this writing, have the official UN study of the gas attacks near Damascus. Indeed, we do not yet know precisely how many people were killed. The numbers are variously reported: by Médecins Sans Frontières (355), French intelligence (281), British Intelligence (350), the insurgent “Syrian National Coalition” (650) and the American government (1,429).
Mention of the relatively small number of Syrian casualties caused by gas is not to excuse its use; on the contrary, it is to question why Western statesmen did not regard the death of the nearly 100,000 killed by convention weapons a cause for action. But the gas issue at least gives us a place to start ridding the Middle East of weapons of mass destruction.
If chemical weapons are relatively unimportant in the Syrian Civil War, why did the Syrian Government manufacture and keep them? The answer, of course, is that they were not intended to be used in a civil war; rather, they were intended to deter an Israeli attack and to balance against Israel’s own inventory of nuclear and chemical weapons. Like nuclear weapons, those states that still have poison gas regard it as a means of deterrence rather than offense. This, of course, was the position of the United States on poison gas. It is perhaps worth pausing on that point since the statements by American officials will have been considered by other nations in the light of American actions. So a bit of history:
2. A Short History of Chemical Weapons
The only nation to use poison gas during the Second World War was Japan, but the United States and other Allied governments feared that the Nazi regime might opt to do so as its defeat neared. Germany indeed developed and manufactured Sarin and other particularly lethal agents. So the United States also began to develop and manufacture them. In 1943, it shipped mustard gas to Europe. The ship carrying the gas was bombed and sunk by the Luftwaffe in Bari on December 2. Some 62 merchant seamen were killed by the escaping gas. Then, after the war ended, the US Army began to experiment with captured German gas. To gage its effect, the Army exposed hundreds of thousands of American soldiers. As I mentioned in a previous essay, when I was a member of the Policy Planning Council and was studying weapons in the Middle East, I was given a briefing on chemical weapons at Fort Meade. I was so revolted by the videos I was shown that I wrote President Kennedy arguing that we must end the program and give up chemical weapons. Nothing was done until November 1969 when President Nixon unilaterally renounced first use of them and ordered the destruction of the then huge US stockpile of some 31,500 tons. In 1975 the US adhered to the Geneva Protocol on chemical and biological weapons. Thereafter, it continued destroying weapons, but in 1986, President Reagan restarted Sarin gas production when he was advised that Soviet Union was moving toward gas warfare planning. Nine years later, under President Clinton, the US Senate ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention.
This Chemical Weapons Convention of 1997 remains the standard against which issues of potential gas warfare are to be judged. As of September 2013, 190 states had ratified the convention; Syria is not a party to the Convention while Israel and Myanmar (Burma) have signed but not ratified it.
Ratifying the Convention legally obligated the United States to complete the destruction of its stockpile within a decade. It did not do so and made use of an automatic extension of five years. The extension ran out in April 2012. Today, the United States is in violation of the treaty as it still has approximately 3,000 tons of Sarin, VX and Mustard Gas. Presumably it has been delayed by strategic, safety, environmental and fiscal considerations. The program will cost perhaps $35 billion.
Use of chemical weapons in the Syrian conflict has been a matter of much speculation and controversy. The mandate of the UN inspectors does not require or perhaps even allow them to answer the question of who employed chemical weapons last month, but possibly they will be allowed to answer that question indirectly. That is, if the gas was of “military grade,” then presumably the rebels would not have had access to it although one allegation is that they may have received the gas that was used from a foreign military source; if, on the other hand, the gas was “home made” – and there have been several recent allegations of attempts to purchase from abroad the raw materials from which Sarin is made — then presumably it was not from the Syrian army depot. Thus, hopefully, at least some of the contention over who did what to whom may be resolved in the report of the UN inspectors.
3. The Russian Intervention
Like the United States, Russia has a perceived national interest in the politics of the Middle East. The American interest is usually seen as having five components – access to energy on acceptable terms, protection of the forces it has committed to wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, prevention of the spread of nuclear weapons into hostile hands, prevention of the spread of terrorism against America or American targets and the protection of Israel.
While I am not privy to the deliberations of this generation of Russian strategists, I twice lectured at the then Soviet Academy of Science’s premier “think tank” on world affairs, the Institute of World Economy and International Affairs and thus developed some sense of how Russian strategists see the world. My hunch is that they would describe their national interests in the Middle East as having these components.
First, unlike the United States, Russia has a large indigenous Muslim population. Leaving aside the Central Asian republics, which are almost entirely Muslim and in whose affairs the Russian state is and will remain heavily involved, about 1 in 6 Russians is a Muslim. Thus, Russia must be and is deeply concerned that events in the Middle East do not “infect” Russian domestic politics and specifically that the violent segment of the Middle Eastern Muslim community does not further inflame Muslim separatism in Russia. This is a particular worry for the Russians in their Chechnya “federal subject.”
The Russian government, like all governments, is also concerned with prestige. Particularly after the implosion of the Soviet Union following its defeat in Afghanistan, prestige has dwindled and restoring it must be a serious concern. (More pointedly, it is crucial in the survival of political leaders.) Russia wants and will pursue the role of a major world power; it may never again be one of two, but it can aspire to being (along with China and India) one of four.
The Russians also have “security” and commercial interests such as the port in Syria they are building for their Mediterranean naval operations and as an outlet to the Mediterranean for energy exports.
So Syria is both a danger and an opportunity for Russia; it is foolish to write off its interests, as some have done, as merely an emotional “blowback” from its defeat in the Cold War. No less than the United States, it has interests that will continue to guide its policy. It is in this light that we should see the Russian proposal in Syria.
As President Vladimir Putin has written, “a strike [on Syria] will result in more innocent victims and escalation, potentially spreading the conflict far beyond Syria’s borders. A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism. It could undermine multilateral efforts to resolve the Iranian nuclear problem and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and further destabilize the Middle East and North Africa. It could throw the entire system of international law out of balance.”
Mr. Putin went on to say that the forces opposed to the Syrian government include groups designated by the United States as terrorists and include “hundreds of militants from Western countries and even Russia [who] are an issue of our deep concern. Might they not return to our countries with experience acquired in Syria. After all, after fighting in Libya, extremists moved on to Mali. This threatens us all…[But] If we can avoid force against Syria, this will improve the atmosphere in international affairs and strengthen mutual trust. It will be our shared success and open the door to cooperation on other critical issues.”
As of this writing, we do not know precisely the dimensions of the Russian proposal. The broad outline, however, appears clear and simple: Syria would reveal and then in due course turn over to some recognized authority, under the supervision of either or both the United Nations or Russia, its chemical weapons inventory. Since the inventory is presumably both large (to deter Israeli attack) and housed in many locations (to survive Israeli attack) “neutralizing” it will be a lengthy process. Judging by the American experience, it may last 20 or more years and, by the terms of the Convention, would be legally allowed to take place for at least 15 years. Thus, implicit in the Russian proposal is a willingness to assume a long-term role in Syrian and, by extension, Middle Eastern affairs.
Playing this role would presumably require a large presence of both military and civilian Russian officials as well as UN staff and UN-designated contingents from other countries. These groups would inevitably have to work together to accomplish the basic mission and to maintain themselves in the midst of a dangerous civil war. Moreover, they would have to create supply lines as many of their necessities are now and will continue to be severely restricted in many of the areas in which they will have to operate. I would guess that the numbers are likely to be 5-10 thousand Russians and perhaps twice that number of UN-designated peacekeeping forces from third countries. Estimates of the costs have not yet been publically revealed. However, they are unlikely to be less than $20 billion. Presumably the Russian General Staff and the Soviet Academy are now at work refining those estimates.
4. Why the Syrians Have Accepted the Russian Proposal
President Asad informed the United Nations on September 10 that Syria would sign the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention and forwarded to New York the preliminary documents. Then, speaking on Russian television, he said that his government would begin providing information on its chemical weapons a month after adherence. In what will probably, to judge from the history of US-Soviet arms control negotiations, be a long series of points of disagreement among the three parties, US Secretary of State John Kerry immediately demanded faster action. That may not be possible as is evident in America’s own performance to implement the terms of the Convention. So rather than a sigh of relief, the Russian proposal and the Syrian acceptance have begun in controversy.
What is President Bashar al-Asad committing the Syrian government to do and why did it accept the Russian proposal?
If the Russians have to put military or security forces into the country to protect their teams engaged in destroying nuclear stockpiles, as I assume they will have to do, the Syrian military could, conceivably, reduce its forces. I doubt that this will seem attractive to the regime because it is both heavily dependent upon the military to maintain itself in power in the midst of the civil war and because the economy is not now able to absorb any significant infusion of job-seekers. Regime policy will also, of course, continue to be shaped by fear of hostilities with Israel. So the government is unlikely to reduce its forces. What the government could do is to concentrate its forces more effectively to deal with the rebels. Thus, it seems reasonable to believe that the regime might welcome the Russian offer on this ground alone.
But there are other grounds for the Syrian government to accept the Russian offer. The first, obviously, is that it is likely to have made an imminent and devastating American attack unlikely or even impossible. Press reports suggest that the mood in Damascus already reflects this new optimism. There is, as yet, only a negative response from the titular leaders of the opposition, but since the opposition is internally deeply and bitterly divided, it seems likely that some of the more moderate or conservative of its hundreds of component groups, may reconsider their positions as the Russians, the UN and perhaps others begin to employ natives to assist in their arms control operations.
Another reason for the Syrian government to accept the Russian proposal is that it should lift external threats for a lengthy period, perhaps years. Once the program gets under way, it would be difficult or impossible for the United States or Israel to intervene militarily. It is difficult to exaggerate the importance of this change: Syrians governments have lived literally under the gun for half a century. Periodically, Israel has violated Syrian air space and bombed Syrian installations. With a Russian force in residence and forced to protect its widely scattered personnel and a significant UN peacekeeping force interspersed among the Russians, the government can to some degree discount external aggression.
Covert subversive activities are likely, of course, to continue. The government has not been able to stop them and is unlikely to do so in the future. But the Syrians have learned to live with this threat, and it is probable that the Russian presence will bring the concomitant of security assistance. This is almost certain to include training, provision of or stationing in Syria of more sophisticated weapons and some sharing of counterintelligence.
Yet another reason for the Syrian government to approve Russian involvement is less dramatic but perhaps more crucial. Syria is desperately short of food, particularly wheat, If I were a Russian planner I would see augmenting the food supply of the Syrian people as a major opportunity and if I were a Syrian policy planner, I would see it as vital. It will be limited and probably short-term. Russian farmers have suffered from drought in the last several years but expect to be able to export about 10 million metric tons of wheat this coming year; Syria has not been able to export any of its wheat crop, its major foreign exchange earner, since 2008. Syria still faces a strategic problem since water supplies are declining with no likelihood of improvement in the foreseeable future – but the value to the Syrian government of even short term – tactical — food aid in the next few years cannot be overestimated.
5. The Prospects for Ridding The Area of Weapons of Mass Destruction
If there is a “silver lining” in the Syrian crisis, it could be that it would awaken the world to the dangers of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and that serious moves will be taken at least to diminish them. Let us be as precise as possible on both the dangers and the possible remedies.
As an “insider” in the Cuban Missile Crisis, I believe I can claim the right to say once again that the existence of WMD anywhere are a menace to people everywhere. In the midst of the Missile Crisis and ever since I have thought of the words of John Donne. We cannot repeat them often enough:
No man is an island, Entire of itself, Every man is a piece of the continent, A part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less. As well as if a promontory were. As well as if a manor of thy friend’s Or of thine own were: Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind, And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
We – Syrians of both camps, Russians, Americans, Israelis, Iranians and others – are part of the main. In the Cuban Missile Crisis we knew that those distinctions were not operative. Any use of WMD would have tolled the bell for all mankind.
There were then many reasons not to listen. There always will be. And the bell may not sound loudly enough to awaken us. But we need to awaken and to keep searching for ways to effect its message.
Why do nations have WMD? The simple answer is that they are afraid of one another. That is immediately clear in the context of Syria: the Syrians are afraid of the Israelis and the Israelis are afraid of the Syrians and other Arab states. Fear is often irrational, but it can be subjected to reason. Or, at least, can be fitted into a restraining matrix. Is this conceivable in the Middle East?
I think it is. Syria has moved to give up its piece of what one of our own “big bomb” strategists called “the delicate balance of terror.” If fully carried out, that will be a somewhat irrational move. Any Syrian government will seek compensation. Compensation can come in one of several ways. Russia can provide Syria with guarantees. If they are prudent, the Syrians will not place complete confidence in this or any other foreign guarantees. This is because governments change and even the interests of existing governments change so that commitments made at one time may dissolve at another. Russia may also provide Syria with advanced conventional arms. But what are advanced today are soon obsolescent and eventually become obsolete. So more permanent compensatory moves must be made if we wish to diminish our dangers over a long term. What might they be?
The obvious answer is in moves that could be made by the Israeli government. It is the major holder of WMD in the Middle East. But why should Israel give up any advantage? The only politically conceivable reason would be that it reckons such a move would be in its own interest? Would it?
Consider an answer to that question in this sequence: when Israel moved to acquire WMD in the 1960s, its conventional forces were already stronger than those of its Arab neighbors, but, in the Israeli calculus, only marginally so. Today they are very much stronger and, with American assistance, getting technically more advanced. But at least some of the Arab countries and Iran are moving toward sufficient technological skill and manufacturing capability to manufacture nuclear weapons. Others, like Saudi Arabia and some of the Gulf states may, potentially, be able to buy what they cannot now build. So, while possession of WMD once gave Israel security, sooner or later emphasis on WMD could be a source of insecurity. Feeling threatened by Israeli power, other states may accelerate their move to match it. And the only feasible or proximate means to do so is by acquiring WMD. In short, more countries could acquire the capacity to destroy Israel. So, while it maintains its overwhelming conventional military power, Israel would be wise to begin to consider some alternative to WMD, just as we have done vis-à-vis Russia.
6. The Possibility of Ending the Civil War
While the destruction of chemical weapons will have little or no direct effect on the civil war, the indirect results can be significant. As I mentioned above, the rebel leadership immediately condemned the Russian proposal. Particularly the more radical groups take President Putin at his word: Russia will throw its weight behind stopping the war by supporting the Syrian government. As mentioned above, he warned of the spread of terrorism and tied it to the insurgents. While supporting the insurgents, in general, President Obama in his September 10 “address to the Nation on Syria” acknowledged that “It’s true that some of Assad’s opponents are extremists.” Thus, while the Western media has been almost wholly committed to the rebels and their causes, I think we will look back on these early moves as the beginning of a change in the perception of the insurgency. The insurgents appear to share the same perception.
How significant will that change of perception be? It is of course impossible to judge with any precision, but it should be noted that it began even before the Russian move. Whereas until the last few weeks, almost all media reports have emphasized the brutality of the Asad regime and its henchmen, stories have begun to appear of acts of terror, murder and vandalism by some of the rebel groups. The narrow terms of reference of the UN investigation will probably not add much to what is already known, but the lengthy documentation the Russians have gathered on actions by the insurgents may add to the momentum behind the trend. And some of the enthusiasts for the rebel cause and the most prominent self-proclaimed expert on Syria, have lost the powerful leverage they had on American governmental and public opinion just a short while ago. The latest polls show almost 3 out of 4 Americans believe the current threat against the Syrian government is “unwise.”
It has surprised me that President Obama and the conservative Gulf states have managed to keep both feet firmly planted in opposite camps: while generally opposing Muslims of all varieties and singling out some of their most significant groups as terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida, they have supported them with weapons, money and training.
To my mind, more significant is the general recognition that, just as in Libya where we similarly supported a rebellion against a government, the rebels have little or no capacity to form a stable successor government if, with American, European and conservative Arab governments, they manage to overthrow the Asad regime. In contrast, as I have pointed out, the Russian position is straightforward: they are worried about the possible effect of the Syrian Muslim rebels on the 1 in 6 Russians who is a Muslim and some of whose relatives is now engaged in Syria. So, understandably, while still locked in a struggle against their own dissidents in Chechnya, the Russians aim to weaken insurgents in Syria.
The Russian position comes down to the simple argument that the Syrian government must be enabled to survive. The American position is more vague but repeated statements and the work of the CIA to equip and train the rebels suggest that the Obama Administration is determined at least not to allow the Syrian government to win. Does this mean that the Administration wants the rebels to win? It appears so. In this event, what we have is a proxy war imposed on top of a civil war, and that could go on for a generation or more.
But, speaking as an old policy planner, it does not seem to me that there is a clear strategy that could define what would be meant by the rebels winning. I propose to deal with this conundrum in my next essay. First, let us look at the insurgents.
7. Who Are the Insurgents and What do they Want?
The short answer is that despite frequent assertions to the contrary, we still know little about the insurgents. They have not one but hundreds – by some accounts as many as 1,200 — conflicting organizations of which only one, Jabhat an-Nusri, seems to have organizational and doctrinal cohesion. The guess is that the total number of combatants may be upwards of 70,000 to 100,000. While I have no access to intelligence reports my study of what I have called Violent Politics suggests that the most radical groups usually win in the internecine struggle. Thus, my bet would be on the Jabhat an-Nusra, a self-proclaimed affiliate or partner to al-Qaida, rather than on the diffuse and disorganized Free Syrian Army.
The Free Syrian Army is presumably largely made up of Syrian farmers who lost their their livelihood in the several-year-long drought that devastated the farm lands. Now out of work and destitute, they are the foot soldiers of the insurgency.
Apparently different from them in motivation and objective are the largely foreign contingent of Jabhat an-Nusra. What little is known of them suggests that they came to Syria because they believe that its struggle is their struggle. And, as I have written previously, they have been inspired by the Egyptian theologian Sayid Qutub to aim not only at a “free” Syria but a free Muslim community, an ummah or even a sort of restored caliphate. Is theirs a feasible goal?
8. Predictable Results of a Collapse of the Syrian State
American policy was aimed, apparently without adequate attention to the consequences, at the destruction of the Asad regime. Russian policy, as I have laid out, aims in the other direction, the preservation of the Syrian government more or less as now constituted. At the present time, the Russian policy is in the ascendant, but there are powerful forces in America, Western Europe and the Middle East behind the American initiative. I will now suggest what might be the result of each line action. I begin with the Obama objective.
The Obama administration seems to believe that some sort of amalgamation of the rebels and the government can take place; yet, at the same time, it has constantly emphasized its charge that the Asad regime is criminal and must be degraded or replaced. I have yet to see any indication of who could effect its demise and on what terms how such a successor could make a deal with the insurgents. Much blood has been spilt and the desire for vengeance is apparently very strong among both government forces and the rebels. While it is never wise to say that the two sides cannot be reconciled, an amalgamation seems to me to be the least likely outcome.
More likely, if the central government is destroyed, is some sort of balkanization. That is to say, a de facto break up of the country into several ethno-religious blocs.
Consider this prediction briefly in terms of the Syrian historical experience: Under the Ottoman empire, what is now Syria was divided into provinces (Turkish: pashaliks) so there would seem to be a precedent for some form of division, but this misleading for two reasons: first, the Ottoman system was politically, ethnically and religious permissive in ways that are alien of modern statecraft. In the four centuries of Ottoman rule, each community ran its own affairs with the state interfering only to ensure the collection of taxes. Contribution by individuals to the community tax was levied by the leaders or councils of each community, not by the government. Moreover, what happened inside each community was considered its, rather than the empire’s, affair. So Jews ran Jewish schools; Druze ran Druze schools; Alawis ran Alawi schools; and the various sects of Christians each ran their own schools. Each community took care of its own health needs and generally administered its own law and custom. That lax system of government is mandated in the Quran. But, after the imposition of the Western concept of the state, such community structure (Turkish: milliyet) is only a distant memory. Moreover, even the religious fundamentalists and certainly the more radical insurgents apparently no longer feel governed by the Quranic injunction to allow non-Muslims to live by their own codes and in peace.
Whether or not such a system might be theologically or politically acceptable today, it would not work in practice since the several communities have become much more mixed than in Ottoman times. To judge by their proclamations, at least the more radical part of the insurgency would try to impose upon all the Syrians a centralized Islamic legal and cultural system. In areas under such control, the members of the previously “protected” communities will either emigrate, convert or be eliminated. We see and hear signs of this already in reference to the Alawis and the Christians.
Thus, almost certainly, a “balkanization” of Syria will greatly add to the number of internal and external refugees. Moreover, in that part of Syria that falls under the control of the Jabhat an-Nusra, strenuous efforts will be made to carry a jihad further afield. Initially, a common cause will be found with the Iraqi Sunni community which is restive under the yoke of the American-imposed and Iranian-supported Shia regime. Further ties will be taken up with radical Muslim groups in Libya, Egypt, the Gulf states, Afghanistan, Pakistan and even further afield. In short, the turmoil we are now seeing will be greatly increased and more widely spread.
Contrariwise, the results of Russian policy are likely to be an increase in the power and determination of the Syrian government. It is no more democratic than the rebel groups, but it is more ethnically tolerant: although Alawi dominated, it includes even at the top level numbers of Muslims and Christians. Whether or not this liberal or tolerant aspect of the regime continues will depend, I suggest, largely on how long the war continues, how bitter it becomes and whether or not serious efforts are made to improve the economy. Thus, much will depend on the Russian program.
Whether or not the aim of the Russian government is humanitarian is beside the point: with its back protected, this or any other Syrian government will naturally seek to achieve its own salvation, security and “victory.” Such, after all, is the aim of nationalism.
This is all short or middle term; the long-term needs of the Syrian people for peace and security, for jobs and food, and for hope will go unmet as long as the civil war lasts. The long-term needs to cope with a rising number of stomachs to be fed as resources of good land and water decline will not even be addressed much less solved. The bill to put Syria back together again can only be guessed. My hunch, based on what we have seen in Iraq, is on the order of a trillion dollars. And I see no sources for such an amount. But, if the war is not stopped and stopped soon, the amount needed will multiply.
And Syria is only the focal point of these problems. A dynamism has been set in motion that will affect all Syria’s immediate neighbors first and then others. If the war continues, the regional prognosis can only be chaos. Among the first to be affected will be Lebanon which, always a fragile conglomeration, can easily fall back into civil war; then Turkey, apparently so strong and stable, will come under increasing pressure from the Kurds who will have been encouraged by their new autonomy in Syria. Their challenge will likely increase the rigidity and oppressiveness of the state. Jordan, after half a century, must have nearly used up its nine lives; and the Palestinians, having effectively lost what is left of their homeland, are likely to be driven away yet again. Not to go on, let me just predict that the already unstable area will throb with anger, frustration, armed conflict, terrorism and revanchism. Even those who wish to support Israel must realistically consider how this gated community can find happiness in such a slum.
I end with a teaser: as I used to do for our government, I am now at work on a policy paper in which I will address what might be done to head off or at least ameliorate these dire projections.
William R. Polk , Sunday, September 15, 2013
(Published with permission of the author)
 I leave aside land mines as they do not appear to have been used in the Syrian conflict. of them, the so-called improvised explosive device (IED) was first reported in use by Afghan tribesmen in the 19th century and is common in guerrilla warfare. A more sophisticated version was laid by the British and German armies during the Second World War Unlike other conventional weapons, it is “passive;” that is, it can “lie in wait” for a footfall for decades. In North Africa alone it was believed to have killed about 20,000 people.
 Huffington Post, September 12, 2013, Joshua Hersh, “Syria Death Toll a Grim Reminder of War’s Two-Sided Casualties.”
 The American army used both napalm and white phosphorous extensively in Vietnam and Iraq. The photograph of a still burning young girl running down the road had the same effect on Americans in the 1960s and 1970s as the sight of gassed children in Syria this year, a feeling of revulsion. US Secretary of State John Carrey called it “obscene.”
 Although “undeclared,” Israel is known to have not only upwards of 400 nuclear weapons but a robust program of chemical and biological warfare manufacture and training. It is known to have imported chemicals used for Sarin nerve gas from the United States.
 This was not true until fairly recently. The British government considered using poison gas on German civilians during the Second World War and it was not until 15 years later that most states agreed to start destroying stocks of poison gas.
 US Senate, Staff Report for the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, December 8, 1994. The report states that “For at least 50 years, DOD[Department of Defense] has knowingly exposed military personnel to potentially dangerous substances often in secret…without their knowledge or consent.”
 August 30, 2013.
 The latest I have seen is in The Los Angeles Times of September 13, 2013, Patrick J. McDonnell: “Syrian rebel groups sought sarin gas material, Turkish prosecutors say.” The suspected groups were Jabhat an-Nusra and Ahrar as-Sham.
 On which the reader may wish to see my essay, “The Russians Try to ‘Regime Change’ Afghanistan,” in my forthcoming volume, Humpty Dumpty: The Fate of Regime Change.
 The New York Times, September 11, 2013, “A Plea of Caution From Russia.”
 Including an attack on the Christian village of Maloula whose inhabitants still speak the language Jesus is thought to have spoken, Aramaic. This episode came on top of disturbing accounts of reports that the rebels planned to kill or drive away not only the members of the deviant Muslim sect, the Alawis, but also Syrian Christians. Even more graphic were photographic records of rebels murdering unarmed and naked Syrian soldiers and even eating the heart of a murdered civilian.
 Elizabeth . O’Bagy, who was identified by Secretary Kerry and Senator McCain as well as The Wall Street Journal, was found to have lied about her academic credentials (claiming to hold a doctorate in Middle Eastern studies) and to have hidden the fact that she was employed by a pro-rebel lobbying group while pretending to be an independent journalist.
 The Reason-Rupe September 10, 2013 National Survey.
 The Independent, September 12, 2013, Patrick Cockburn, “Special report: We all thought Libya had moved on – it has but into lawlessness and ruin.”
 The title of my book on insurgency, guerrilla warfare and terrorism (Harper Collins, 2007 and 2008).
 Not only under the Ottoman empire but from the end of the first Islamic century, what is now Syria, then the heartland of the Umayyad Caliphate, lived a “relaxed” version of Islam.
The post “Syrian Chemical Weapons & the Possibility of Ending the Civil War,” by William R Polk appeared first on Syria Comment.
Islamist Groups Declare Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy
By Aron Lund for Syria Comment
Sept. 24, 2013
[Updates & additional commentary added to the end of the post]
Abdelaziz Salame, the highest political leader of the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo, has issued a statement online where he claims to speak for 13 different rebel factions. You can see the video or read it in Arabic here. The statement is titled “communiqué number one” – making it slightly ominous right off the bat – and what it purports to do is to gut Western strategy on Syria and put an end to the exiled opposition.
The statements has four points, some of them a little rambling. My summary:
- All military and civilian forces should unify their ranks in an “Islamic framwork” which is based on “the rule of sharia and making it the sole source of legislation”.
- The undersigned feel that they can only be represented by those who lived and sacrificed for the revolution.
- Therefore, they say, they are not represented by the exile groups. They go on to specify that this applies to the National Coalition and the planned exile government of Ahmed Touma, stressing that these groups “do not represent them” and they “do not recognize them”.
- In closing, the undersigned call on everyone to unite and avoid conflict, and so on, and so on.
The following groups are listed as signatories to the statement.
- Jabhat al-Nosra
- Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
- Tawhid Brigade
- Islam Brigade
- Suqour al-Sham Brigades
- Islamic Dawn Movement
- Islamic Light Movement
- Noureddin al-Zengi Battalions
- Haqq Brigade – Homs [See update below]
- Furqan Brigade – Quneitra [See update below]
- Fa-staqim Kama Ummirat Gathering – Aleppo
- 19th Division
- Ansar Brigade
Who are these people?
The alleged signatories make up a major part of the northern rebel force, plus big chunks also of the Homs and Damascus rebel scene, as well as a bit of it elsewhere. Some of them are among the biggest armed groups in the country, and I’m thinking now mostly of numbers one through five. All together, they control at least a few tens of thousand fighters, and if you trust their own estimates (don’t) it must be way above 50,000 fighters.
Most of the major insurgent alliances are included. Liwa al-Tawhid, Liwa al-Islam and Suqour al-Sham are in both the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC a.k.a. FSA) and the SILF, sort-of-moderate Islamists. Ahrar al-Sham and Haqq are in the SIF, very hardline Islamists. Jabhat al-Nosra, of course, is an al-Qaida faction. Noureddin al-Zengi are in the Asala wa-Tanmiya alliance (which is led by quietist salafis, more or less) as well as in the SMC. And so on. More groups may join, but already at this stage, it looks – on paper, at least – like the most powerful insurgent alliance in Syria.
What does this mean?
Is this a big deal? Yes, if the statement proves to accurately represent the groups mentioned and they do not immediately fall apart again, it is a very big deal. It represents the rebellion of a large part of the “mainstream FSA” against its purported political leadership, and openly aligns these factions with more hardline Islamist forces.
That means that all of these groups now formally state that they do not recognize the opposition leadership that has been molded and promoted by the USA, Turkey, France, Great Britain, other EU countries, Qatar, and – especially, as of late – Saudi Arabia.
That they also formally commit themselves to sharia as the “sole source of legislation” is not as a big a deal as it may seem. Most of these factions already were on record as saying that, and for most of the others, it’s more like a slight tweak of language. Bottom line, they were all Islamist anyway. And, of course, they can still mean different things when they talk about sharia.
Why now? According to a Tawhid Brigade spokesperson, it is because of the “conspiracies and compromises that are being forced on the Syrian people by way of the [National] Coalition”. So there.
Mohammed Alloush of the Islam Brigade (led by his relative, Mohammed Zahran Alloush), who is also a leading figure in the SILF alliance, was up late tweeting tonight. He had a laundry list of complaints against the National Coalition, including the fact that its members are all, he says, “appointed”, i.e. by foreign powers. He also opposed its planned negotiations with the regime. This may have been in reference to a (widely misinterpreted) recent statement by the Coalition president Ahmed Jerba. Alloush also referred to the recent deal between the National Coalition and the Kurdish National Council, and was upset that this will (he thinks) splinter Syria and change its name from the Syrian Arab Republic to the Syrian Republic.
Is this a one-off thing?
The fellow from the Tawhid Brigade informed me that more statements are in the making. According to him, this is not just an ad hoc formation set up to make a single point about the National Coalition. He hinted that it’s the beginning of a more structured group, but when I asked, he said it has no name yet. On the other hand, Abdulqader Saleh – Tawhid’s powerful military chief – referred to it on Twitter as al-Tahaluf al-Islami or the Islamic Alliance, but that may have been just descriptive, rather than a formal name.
Mohammed Alloush also wrote on Twitter, somewhat ambiguously, that the member groups have their own offices and political bureaus, and there’s a political program different from the National Coalition. He, too, hinted that there’s more coming: “wait for the announcement of the new army”.
These are of course not all the rebels; far from it. Dozens or hundreds of small and local groups are missing from this alliance, just like they’ve been missing from every other alliance before it. Some really big groups are also not in there, like the Farouq Battalions or the Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigades, both of them quite closely aligned with the SMC and the National Coalition.
Most notably, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – Syria’s most querulous al-Qaida faction – is absent from the list. Given the recent surge in tension between the Islamic State and other factions, that seems significant. Does it mean the new coalition is in fact aimed at isolating the Islamic State, while also upping its own Islamist credentials? Striking a kind of third way between the Western-backed SMC and its al-Qaida rival? Maybe. The question then remains, what should we make of Jabhat al-Nosra being included, which is also an al-Qaida group.
In either case, the Northern Storm Brigade – which was routed by the Islamic State in its home town of Aazaz just recently – has quickly expressed support for the new coalition. In a statement posted online, they fell over themselves to explain how they’ve always been all about implementing sharia law. This is of course, how shall I put it, not true. The Northern Storm Brigade leaders are, or so the story goes, a bunch of ex-smugglers from Aazaz, with no particularly clear ideological agenda. They’ve allied with the West to the point of hosting John McCain for a photo op – and as we know, he waltzed out of that meeting firmly convinced that the rebels are all proponents of secular democracy.
No: the reason that the Northern Storm Brigade has suddenly gone all Islamist is that they desperately seek protection from Tawhid, after being beaten up by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Perhaps they also figure that this alliance might be the only thing big and mean enough to actually crush the Islamic State. Size, money and momentum are the things to look for in Syrian insurgent politics – ideology comes fourth, if even that. That’s also why this statement seems so important.
On the other hand, the statement is in no way hostile to the ISIS. It might in fact suit them pretty well, since it weakens the hand of the Western-backed camp and adds weight to Islamist demands. When I asked a representative of Tawhid, he said the reason they’re not on the list of signatories is just because they’re not members. If they want to, and share the principles, they could join. The members already present will decide.
Is it just a local thing?
There’s also not that much of a presence from the Syrian south. The Furqan Brigade is an exception – founded in Kanaker, and now stretching from the western Ghouta to Quneitra. Then you have the Islam Brigade in Damascus, the Homsi Haqq Brigade, and so on. Generally speaking, however, this list of names has a heavy northern flavor to it, specifically Aleppine.
On the scanned original statement, there’s even an addition of “Aleppo” next to the name of “Abdullah al-Shami”, who signed for Jabhat al-Nosra. The Tawhid spokesperson, again, says that this doesn’t mean they only signed on for the Aleppo branch. He insists that the alliance is intended for all of Syria. I guess we’ll find out.
Are you sure about this?
No, I’m not sure about this. There’s always good reason to be cautious about Syria’s notoriously unstable opposition politics. Things like these will shift quicker than you can say يسقط بشار. The wind could easily turn again, signatory groups could drop out, foreign funders could put the squeeze on groups that have not grasped the magnitude of what they just said.
That sort of thing already happened once, in Aleppo in November 2012, when Tawhid, Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham and many other groups signed a statement denouncing the then-newly formed National Coalition. I wrote about it for Carnegie at the time. The difference between then and now is that the November 2012 statement seems to have been very poorly anchored, and basically sprung on everyone by Jabhat al-Nosra who (I heard) gathered local commanders and had them sign a statement without consulting their top leadership properly. So it fell apart very quickly.
This time – we’ll see.
— Aron Lund
UPDATE, Sep. 25, 2013:
Lots of media have now reported on the joint statement based mainly on this blog post. Unfortunately, some have shed all the “what if” and caution. Only a few seem to have bothered to contact any of the Syrians who are actually involved to hear their take on the story, despite the fact that several of these groups go to great lengths to communicate directly with reporters, through websites and Facebook pages and spokespersons available by phone, Facebook, Twitter, and Skype, in Arabic, English and sometimes even French.
Instead, many commenters ran with the idea of a radical group called the “Islamic Coalition” (or “Alliance”) that has been formed to oppose the West. I don’t think this is true, at least not yet.
While this may be more than just a statement, it is not – as far as we know – an organized structure at all. It is a “bloc” or an “alliance” mainly in the sense that several groups now share a position and may continue to collaborate politically. It could evolve into something more substantial in the future, but there’s nothing to indicate that an organization has been formed at this moment. There is no common leadership, no spokesperson, no known structure, no website, no logotype, no political program. There’s just a statement – a very important one, I think, but that in itself doesn’t make it an organization.
In fact, I contacted the Tawhid Brigade spokesperson I talked to earlier, who had spoken of this as a gathering (tajammou) or bloc (takattul) that might have more lasting significance. He says there is so far nothing in the way of a common organization. He explicitly denied that it is anything like the SILF or SIF insurgent alliances. There will be more statements, but at this stage he seems to say it’s really only a position paper by the 11 or 13 (see below) factions involved. He didn’t exclude that their cooperation could evolve further, into a more structured type of alliance, but said this hadn’t happened yet, and if so, it might involve different participants.
When I pointed out that Abdulqader Saleh’s rather offhand comment on Twitter using the phrase “Islamic Alliance” or “Islamic Coalition” (al-tahaluf al-islami) could be interpreted as the name of a new group, and that this version is now gaining currency in the media, he responded “it could become that, but so far there’s nothing”.
So, my point is, there’s really no need to jump to conclusions here. I get the sense that these groups may be planning to call for a new revolutionary leadership at some point, but they haven’t formed one themselves. At the end of the day, only the people involved can explain what they mean, and I hope they make an effort to do so. If there are more statements coming, maybe these will clear up the confusion.
Also, people have e-mailed me to say that two of the groups included on the list of signatories above are not mentioned in either the video statement by Abdulaziz Salame or the scanned copy of the declaration. The groups in question are the Haqq Brigade of Homs and the Furqan Brigades of Quneitra.
That’s true. I copied and translated my list from a text version on the Tawhid Brigade website. That text has since been altered to fall in line with the signed copy and the video statement, removing the names of both groups. According to the Tawhid Brigade spokesman, both Furqan and Haqq were part of the drafting process and are verbally in agreement with the statement, but he says they were not present for the signing ceremony. It’s perhaps best to let these groups clarify their position themselves. In either case, leaving them out would certainly give the group of signatories an even stronger northern and Aleppine flavor.
— Aron Lund
A friend of Syria Comment chimes in with her/his take on the statement and its ramifications:
So how often are they planning on getting together with AlQaeda to discuss common concerns?
They specifically indicated that this is statement 1, a very clear indication of it being the first of many to come.
Regardless of what the structure behind this statement is, all i see is a signature by AlQaeda in Syria above the signatures of the major rebel factions, on a document that list common concerns and goals that go beyond fighting the regime and calls for Islamic rule. How will western governments justify supporting these groups to their people with the existence of such statement?
If you take out Liwaa al tawhid, Liwaa al islam, Suqor al sham and Ahrar al sham, what exactly is left of the revolution? Liwaa al Tawhid paved the way for the fall of Aleppo and is the main force there, Liwaa al islam is the main force in Damascus…These groups are not “part of” the Syrian revolution, they are the Syrian revolution.
I still haven’t seen anything about the regional powers take on this, if the Saudis/Turk don’t approve of it, i wouldn’t be surprised if they’re now pulling their weight to force a reversal by the signees. Which would explain attempts to play down the implications.
The National Coalition responds:
Anas al-Abdeh, a member of the National Coalition’s political office, and himself an Islamist, says in statement on the NC website that the timing of the statement was unfortunate, since the NC is currently sending a delegation to the UN to “win friends”. He also argues that the statement “does not represent the most important battalions of the Free Syrian Army on the ground, since there are many big battalions that have not signed this statement”.
He says everyone must understand that the future Syrian state must be decided by the people through elections “and no one has the right to force his tutelage upon the Syrian people or declare the type of rule or the law that it will be ruled by. Of course, the people who seek this may convince the Syrian people after the liberation from the regime, but not now.”
He complained that this will increase the splintering of the opposition, and said the NC must maintain a dialogue with the factions involved – except Jabhat al-Nosra – to understand what they are worried about and take that into concern. He adds that it was a mistake to let Jabhat al-Nosra sign the statement, since it is an al-Qaeda faction and has “an agenda which is not Syrian, and it is opposed to the national project”. Abdeh concluded by saying the government of Ahmed Touma must now get to work inside Syria.
The post Islamist Groups Declare Opposition to National Coalition and US Strategy [updated] appeared first on Syria Comment.
Aymenn al-Tamimi Speaks to Ali Kayali and Profiles “The Syrian Resistance,” a Pro-Assad Militia Force
by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi for Syria Comment
Much has been written of the variety of factions and fragmentation on the rebel side of the Syrian civil war, but comparatively little analysis exists of the various pro-Assad militias, commonly known as shabiha, who as Aron Lund notes can be Sunni, Alawite, Kurdish, or Christian. Here, I intend to examine one such group called al-Muqāwama as-Sūrīya (“The Syrian Resistance”—TSR), under the leadership of a Turkish-born Alawite by the name of Mihrac Ural, also known as Ali Kayali. (Previous posts on Syria Comment dealing with Ural/Kayali include those found here and here.)
TSR had prior to the uprising and civil war operated under the name of “Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta,” referring to the strip of land around Hatay in southern Turkey with a substantial Alawite population, the loss of which has never truly been accepted by Syria. Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria, however, the group adopted TSR as interchangeable with its original name, and is confining operations entirely within Syria, with headquarters in Latakia.
Ostensibly, in line with many other self-declared liberation groups (e.g. the Basque Country’s ETA, and the early Kurdish PKK which established links with Hafez al-Assad through Kayali), TSR’s ideology is Marxist-Leninist, with particular reverence accorded to the symbol of communist resistance, Che Guevara.
Figure 1: Screenshot of a speech by Kayali on the anniversary of the Sabra and Shatila massacres. Note the background portrait featuring Bashar al-Assad, Che Guevara, and Kayali himself.
Figure 2: Photo of Kayali with Che Guevara in the background.
The concept of Syrian nationalism also features heavily in TSR’s public discourse and rhetoric, tied in with the Assad regime’s promotion of ‘resistance’ to Western imperialism. Thus, in a statement to me from TSR’s press office, I was told that TSR does not get involved in “internal politics, the penal code, disputes or disagreements.” Rather, “our problem is with the foreign enemy and with the terrorists who want to destroy our nation.”
Concomitant with the Syrian nationalist image is the claim from the press office that “our members are from the various fabrics of Syria, from all the religions, sects and ethnicities. We fight together.” Similarly, in an interview with me, Kayali emphasized that TSR supposedly has supporters among “Ahl as-Sunnah” and Christians.
In the context of messaging, songs unique to TSR—with lyrics featuring distinctive Syrian dialect—have played a key role. For instance, one song recently released to the accompaniment of oud includes the lyrics: “We are the men of Muqāwama, we are not content with bartering…we want to uproot terrorism.” At the same time the group has not forgotten the aspirations for the liberation of Alexandretta, as this song also features the line: “Antioch is resting in my heart.” Here is another song released by TSR combining motifs of protecting the waṭan of Syria while referencing Alexandretta. Further, here is a TSR song entitled “We are the men of the Syrian Resistance.” Opening lyrics include, “We are the men of the sun. We are from the people….Your people, Syria, are resistance.” Many of these songs feature a familiar slogan from Kayali: “Syria will never bow.”
However, beneath this image of Syrian nationalism and leftist ideology lies a more narrow sectarian emphasis on defending the Alawite and Twelver Shi’a communities. Despite the admiration shown for the atheist Che Guevara, Kayali himself cares deeply about his religious heritage and is in this respect similar to most Turkish Alawites who have generally clung to their religious traditions in contrast to the multi-faceted nature of Alawite identity in Syria (see my articles here and here on this matter). Indeed, in his interview with me, Kayali spoke at length of Alawite reverence for the ‘Ahl al-Bayt’: that is, the household of Prophet Mohammed and his descendants.
Besides the widely circulated footage of Kayali from earlier this year in which he apparently calls for the necessity of cleansing Sunni areas on the coastline (most notably Baniyas), Kayali is also frequently shown in TSR media output appearing with Alawite sheikhs, one of whom was the well-known Muwaffaq al-Ghazal, who enjoyed close ties with Kayali and was later killed by Jabhat al-Nusra as part of the “Eye for an Eye” revenge operations announced by Sheikh Abu Mohammed al-Jowlani against Alawite villages in retaliation for the chemical weapons attacks in East Ghouta.
Figure 3: From left to right in a recent meeting at TSR’s Latakia headquarters: Kayali, an unidentified Alawite sheikh, and Ali Haider, who heads the government-aligned Syrian Social Nationalist Party and current minister for National Reconciliation.
Looking at TSR’s range of operations is also relevant here. In fact, it is sometimes thought that TSR is not a meaningful military force on the ground in Syria, but this perception must be corrected. According to Kayali and one other TSR fighter, TSR has participated in operations against rebels in Latakia, the Homs area (where sectarian warfare has played a key element in the fighting), the al-Ghab plain (an area of fertile land east of Latakia and covering parts of Hama and Idlib governorates), Jisr ash-Shughur in Idlib, and the two Twelver Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zaharā in Aleppo Governorate, from which TSR has also drawn recruits.
Of these areas of operation, Latakia is of course the most relevant. Here is a video from last month of Kayali rallying TSR fighters in rural Latakia. Kayali addresses his fighters as “the true Syrians” and speaks of their opponents- from Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Army- as “foreigners,” who have “no religion, faith, book, or Lord.” Rather, they are “these kuffar [Islamic term for disbelievers], these takfiri Salafists.” These remarks, in pronouncing takfīr on the Salafi militants, clearly frame the struggle in religious terms. Kayali also speaks of the necessity of defending the women and the elderly.
Figure 4: Ali Kayali rallies his men in rural Latakia last month.
As Kayali put it to me, the fighters leading the rebel offensive on Latakia in the summer were primarily from Chechnya, Afghanistan [i.e. Afghan Arab veterans and the like], the Maghreb, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf area. Kayali’s testimony is corroborated by examination of the claimed mujahideen martyrs during the Latakia offensive, whose sole aim was to score a psychological victory against the Assad regime by ethnically cleansing Alawites and capturing Assad’s ancestral village Qardaḥa by Eid (as the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s [ISIS] leader had hoped).
Despite the mujahideen’s initial successes in capturing numerous Alawite villages and apparently being only several miles away from Qardaḥa, pro-Assad forces ultimately pushed back and by mid-August, jihadi circles began circulating messages to pray for the mujahideen as the offensive ultimately failed, with fighting now confined to the Jabal al-Akrād area. Below is a list of claimed jihadi martyrs from the Latakia offensive (‘Liberation of the Coast’), which Kayali tells me also cost hundreds of Alawite lives (not necessarily in large-scale massacres of villages).
Figure 5: Abu Ashraf al-Tunisi, a Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 6: Abu Rahmat al-Lībī, a Libyan fighter for ISIS.
Figure 7: Abu Ayyub al-Tunisi, a Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 8: Abd al-Hakim al-Alaiwi, a Saudi fighter for ISIS.
Figure 9: Abu Turab al-Lībī, a Libyan fighter for ISIS.
Figure 10: Abdullah ash-Shishani, a Chechen fighter for ISIS but also claimed for the ISIS front-group Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa Anṣār.
Figure 11: Abu al-Waleed al-Tunisi, Tunisian fighter for ISIS.
Figure 12: Two Libyan fighters in the lush forests of rural Latakia as part of the mujahideen offensive. According to Anṣār ash-Sharī’a supporters from Tripoli (Libya), the two men are from the northwestern Libyan town of Zāwīya.
Figure 13: Photo of Latakia forestry taken by the Libyan Shari’a official for the ISIS-front group Katiba al-Muhajireen: Abu Ṭalḥa al-Lībī.
Nubl and Zaharā are also relevant in this context because both towns have come under bombardment at the hands of ISIS mujahideen. Following the ISIS-led capture of Mannagh airbase in August, a video emerged showing a large convoy of ISIS fighters preparing to head out to besiege Nubl and Zaharā.
Figure 14: The ISIS convoy on its way to Nubl and Zaharā following the capture of Mannagh airbase.
This month, another video emerged showing the ISIS banner flying on a barren outpost in the Nubl area. The area itself looks deserted, and one might feel tempted to conclude that ISIS has conquered the village. However, Kayali tells me that this is not the case.
Figure 15: The ISIS banner on an outpost in the Nubl area.
The claimed numbers of both TSR members as well as martyrs still need to be scrutinized. The fighter for TSR whom I interviewed claimed that the group has “thousands” of members. This figure may invite doubt, but the number of claimed martyrs—as conveyed to me by both this fighter and Kayali—seems relatively modest and reasonable: 30. In fact, Kayali sent me his database of martyrs for TSR so far. I reproduce it below:Name Marital Status Number of Children Parents Still Living Date of Death Location of Death Maher Ali Zaini Married 3 1 17 September 2011 Al-Janudiya Road (Jisr ash-Shughur) Maṭī’ Mohammed Ghandur Married 7 Deceased 23 February 2012 Jisr ash-Shughur Thā’ir Abdullah Abd al-Man’am Married 1 2 7 July 2012 Al-Qasatil Road (Jabal al-Akrad, Latakia) Reyhan Abdullah Abd al-Man’am Married 1 2 7 July 2012 Al-Qasatil Road Nawar Adil Reyhan Unmarried 0 2 7 July 2012 Al-Qasatil Road Rumayl Fu’ad Debo Married 2 1 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera (Latakia) Namir Aṭa Gharib Married 3 1 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera Hisham Adeeb Ismail Unmarried 0 2 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera Adnan Ibrahim Ismail Married 4 1 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera Sumar Izz ad-Din Hurmuz Married 0 2 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera Shadi Yunis Mansur Unmarried 0 1 11 August 2012 Bayt Sabera Osama Medhat Manā’ Unmarried 0 2 3 September 2012 Al-Kandisiya (Latakia) Haitham Mohammed Ma’ala Married 1 1 21 September 2012 Bayt Fāris (Jabal Turkoman, Latakia) Imad Yasin Masṭo Married 4 1 24 October 2012 Jisr ash-Shughur Ayham Mahmoud al-Bahrī Married 0 2 19 November 2012 Al-Midan (Homs) Suhail Saleem Feham Married 2 1 19 November 2012 Al-Midan Mohsen Saleem Feham Married 3 1 19 November 2012 Al-Midan Kenan Ibrahim Feham Unmarried 0 2 19 November 2012 Al-Midan Salim Ali Kusa Married 4 2 21 November 2012 Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma’āf (Latakia) Wael Mahmoud Ghandur Married 1 2 21 November 2012 Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma’āf Majid Ahmad Qarifli Married 1 2 21 November 2012 Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma’āf Kamal Ahmad Ghandur Unmarried 0 1 21 November 2012 Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma’āf Ibrahim Malik Suleiman Unmarried 0 1 21 November 2012 Tarīq Fasṭal al-Ma’āf Milad Rajab Said Unmarried 0 1 16 December 2012 Al-Midan (Homs) Aamer Mumtaz Zanbili Married 0 2 17 December 2012 Manṭaqa al-Tanaf (Latakia) Man’am Mohammed Hurmuz Married 0 2 21 January 2013 Darayya (Damascus?) Basil Salah Nasir Unmarried 0 2 30 March 2013 Bayt Yashout Road (Latakia)
The above list comprises 27 martyrs for TSR: the casualties are largely concentrated in the defense of Alawite areas of Latakia. A more recent martyrdom was announced this month for the group (see photo below with further images).
Figure 16: “Martyr of the Homeland and the Syrian Resistance: Aamer Mahmoud Ṭaha.” His death was announced on 9 September 2013. He was killed while fighting rebels in the Jabal Arbaeen area of Idlib. His brother Ibrahim was wounded in the same clashes and subsequently taken to a hospital in Latakia.
Figure 17: Portraits of the 27 martyrs from the above database.
Figure 18: Close-up photo of Basil Nasir, from the opening of a lengthy video of his funeral that was held on 31 March, the day after his death.
Figure 19: Mourners hold Basil’s portrait and wave the flag of Syria.
Figure 20: Close-up photo of Nawar Adil Reyhan from a video made by a TSR supporter.
As Syria continues to fragment, one can expect that a breakdown in centralized command structures will also happen on the regime side, allowing for the continued growth of groups like TSR. Indeed, anecdotal evidence already suggests the possibility that shabiha figures are managing imports through the Mediterranean coastline for distribution among the populations in pro-Assad areas. Examining in greater detail the activities of the pro-Assad militias is therefore more important than ever.
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. Follow on Twitter at @ajaltamimi
The post Aymenn al-Tamimi Speaks to Ali Kayali and Profiles “The Syrian Resistance,” a Pro-Assad Militia Force appeared first on Syria Comment.
The Question: Is the new Sharia Council of Aleppo that administers the sharia courts run by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliated militia?
Why do we ask?This French documentary (with English subtitles) by Solomon Cane on the practices of Islamic courts in Aleppo examines the Sharia Council of Aleppo or Hayaa al Shariaa. The head of Hayaa al Shariaa is identified as a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, appointed by Abu Sulayman, who is also identified as a Nusra member.
This is Abu Sulayman, speaking in the name of the Hayaa al shariaa and the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF) back in April as he announces the good intentions of its founders - بيان الهيئة الشرعية للمجاهدين من أجل الحفاظ على أملاك المواطنين في الحي وحمايتها من اللصوص والمسيئين .This youtube channel http://www.youtube.com/user/Islamicsyr?feature=watch has the logo of “Hayaa al Shariaa – Syrian Islamic Liberation Front” and has many videos of Abu Sulayman talking about the Hayaa. For example, this video is of Abu Sulayman speaking in a marketplace of Aleppo, explaining to the merchants that the Hayaa al-Shariaa is there to lift oppression from their lives and to bring justice to Syria. The Question again
So did the documentary get their affiliations wrong or is Nusra part of the SILF? We ask because the Syrian Islamic Liberation Front is the coalition of militias that largely makes up the Free Syrian Army and populates the Supreme Military Council, the FSA body that receives Washington’s military and non-military aid. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) met with General Idriss, the head of the Supreme Military Council during a brief foray into Syria recently and said: “General Idriss and his fighters share many of our interests and values.” President Obama announced that, “The U.S.’s ultimate vision for Syria is a ‘stable, non-sectarian representative Syrian government that is addressing the needs of its people through peaceful processes.’ All have stressed that they are establishing a fire wall between the moderates and extremists. Answer by Aron Lund
Aleppo’s Hayaa Sharia (Legal Commission) is, as far as I know, the biggest experiment in local governance and rebel rule in northern Syria, although still just one of many mostly local attempts. It is essentially a court system which serves as a rudimentary governance apparatus and mediation tool, set up in collaboration between many groups.
It was started by, I think, three or four armed factions: Jabhat al-Nusra (AQ), Ahrar al-Sham (SIF), Liwa al-Tawhid (which became part of SILF later, also SMC) and maybe Suqour al-Sham (SMC & SILF charter member). All are Islamist to some degree, but Suqour and especially Tawhid seem to be more pragmatic/opportunistic and populist big-tent movements, more focused on the war than on ideology. They include some strict Islamist figures and factions, and deploy a bit of that rhetoric when it suits the audience, but are also basically fine with Western support and say they want elections, etc (unlike Qaida & Ahrar al-Sham).
Later, many other factions have given their backing to the Haya as well, and the composition probably changed. For example, Suqour is now very marginal in Aleppo, as far as I can tell. Ahrar al-Sham has absorbed a big local faction called Harakat al-Fajr al-Islamiya; and Nusra split with ISIS, and so on. People still say the Hayaa is dominated by al-Qaeda types, and maybe that’s the case. But it might also just be shorthand for saying it is strictly Islamist – which, by itself, is not so surprising for a sharia tribunal. In addition, Tawhid also seems to have been backing the embryonic Civil Court system which is a semi-rival of Hayaa Sharia, but I’m not clear on how or if that works. All of this seems to be evolving constantly.
– Addendum (Thursday Sept. 19, 2013) –
Question: Don’t SILF and al-Qaida have a common platform if both coalitions cooperate on the Hayaa al Shariaa in the hope that it will becoming a cornerstone of a future Islamic state? And doesn’t Nusra fight alongside the SILF on most fronts? if they’re fighting together and establishing the rudiments of a future state together, what exactly separates the al-Qaida aligned groups from the American-back SILF militias that are represented on the Supreme Military Council?
Aron Lund Answers
No, Nusra is definitely not in SILF in any way. SILF is not much of a working alliance anyway, it’s just a collection of big Sunni Islam-minded SMC groups who maintain a website and take some common positions, and probably enjoy some common funding through it. It’s Islamist in a general way, but not at all rigid salafi-jihadi in the way that Nusra is. Nusra could give you a sharia-based position on everything from length of beards to the proper way of executing a murtadd, SILF has a platform made up of like five bullet points designed to please any and all.
I talked to a spokesman for one of the biggest groups in SILF, the Farouq Battalions, and he couldn’t even tell me for sure who the president of SILF was – that’s how little it matters. They all want Gulf and Western funding, unlike Nusra, and one of it’s biggest groups is Farouq, which has had several battles with Nusra/ISIS. But it varies from group to group.
Maybe Nusra and some of the more fundamentalist SILF factions will grow closer and unify down the road, there’s no way of knowing. But now they’re clearly separate forces, some of them cooperate well with the AQs and some don’t. There are other forces (minor jihadis like Katibat al-Muhajerin, salafis like Ahrar al-Sham & the SIF groups) which are much closer to Nusra & ISIS.
Thomas Pierret Joins inConcerning the groups that back the Hay’a Shar’iyya in Aleppo, in addition to those mentioned by Aron, I’d add Liwa’ Ahrar Suriyya, an FSA-affiliate that can hardly be described as Islamist. Concerning the post-Assad judicial system, the question is not so much “sharia or not sharia”, but 1. which kind of sharia? 2. which kind of judicial authority?. By “which kind of sharia?”, I mean: the idea that sharia is the source of law is found in the constitutions of many Arab states, even before 2011, but what does it mean in practical terms? The Unified Judiciary (Aleppo’s “mainstream” post-Asad judicial authority) implements the Unified Arab Code (a code agreed upon by the Arab ministers of Justice in 1996), which is an example of positive law based on sharia. Although I haven’t had the opportunity to closely analyze the decisions made by the Hay’a Shar’iyya, my impression is that they’re closer to tradition Islamic jurisdiction, that is, religious scholars making decisions on the basis of scriptural sources and classical treaties instead of a modern positive code. The second issue (which kind of judicial authority?) is a matter of independence: the Unified Judiciary has tried to establish itself as an independent judicial authority, but it is relatively weak, since there is no state authority (be it domestic or external) to support it, which makes it impossible to maintain a loyal police force; the Hay’a Shar’iyya is the mere judiciary arm of the armed groups that established it, therefore it is stronger, but it totally lacks independence Since Western countries refuse to support state-building efforts in Syria’s liberated areas, and since Gulf monarchies are highly incompetent as far as shaping the post-Asad order is concerned, the most likely scenario for the foreseeable future is the reinforcement of the “hay’a shar’iyya” model at the expense of the “Unified Judiciary” one. The purpose of such institutions is fundamentally to re-establish law and order, which only the strongest rebel groups are in a position to do at the moment. Thomas Pierret, Lecturer in Contemporary Islam,
University of Edinburgh
The Growing Battle between FSA militias and ISIS and Nusra
An important article on inter-rebel competition and how al-Qaida linked militias and the Syrian Islamic Front are gaining the upper hand is
The post Are the Islamic Courts of Aleppo run by al-Nusra? Aron Lund Answers appeared first on Syria Comment.
Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula
By Matthew Barber for Syria Comment
Ma’loula (or Maaloula) is one of those unique places you may be lucky to visit—or perhaps were lucky to have visited, were you fortunate enough to have been in Syria before the conflict began. An ancient town in a hollow encircled by mountain cliffs descending from their heights to offer shelter to the homes built directly against their sides… exploring its many secrets is to be transported back in time. Ancient monasteries, old churches, rock faces with cave dwellings and tombs—the place is brimming with rich historical treasures.
Ma’loula is also unique for being among the minority of Syrian towns where Christians comprise a majority, though this status has by now eroded to the point where Christians are only a slight majority. Still, the town represents the survival of the Christian community stretching back to the early days of Christianity.
But the cultural wealth preserved in the town precedes Christianity; Ma’loula is one of the last places on earth where the pre-Christian language that once dominated the Near East, Aramaic, is still spoken. In use from almost 1000 years BCE, Aramaic was the most important language of Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia by the time Christianity entered the scene. Aramaic remained the lingua franca of the Near East until its ascendent position was supplanted by Arabic when Islam spread east, west, and north from the Arabian Peninsula. Aramaic had been an important language for conducting trade from Egypt to the borders of India, until the arrival of a sacred text—the Qur’an—whose effect was strong enough to issue the challenge that its own language take the place of most important tongue.
The dialect used in Ma’loula is labeled “Western Aramaic,” and is now only spoken in this small city and in two neighboring villages. A few years ago, President Assad began to officially support the efforts of Ma’loulans to conduct language preservation through Aramaic education programs in local schools. Though the generous Ba’athists never extended this right to the Kurds, it was a positive step toward strengthening the health of the local culture of Ma’loula. But yesterday, both the actions of Syrian rebels, as well as the response of the regime, will have the opposite effect on this fragile community.
Today, the position of such highly endangered languages is made more precarious by instances of violent conflict. It is important to note that most speakers of Aramaic dialects—Eastern and Western—are minorities: Christians, Jews, Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Mandeans. We’ve been able to observe clearly the destructive toll that conflict in the Middle East takes on minority and Christian communities, a phenomenon that unfolded before the world’s eyes in Iraq, and which has also been recently intensifying recently in Egypt. As the Syrian conflict has developed, we’ve also seen that minority Christian communities are often some of the most vulnerable segments of the population, and their numbers have already vanished from many of their cities, after fighting has become intense, or after rebels gained control of their areas. Being caught between warring factions, as well as a sense of exclusion experienced as non-Muslims when something that Islamists call “Islamic law” is implemented, prompts many Christians to emigrate from their homelands in the Middle East.
The Syrian conflict has certainly affected every Syrian to some degree, but it affects some areas more than others. Many towns have still managed to escape direct involvement, but given enough time, the conflict manages to find its way to everyone’s doorstep.
Until yesterday, the community in Ma’loula had avoided the direct presence of the conflict, but that all changed in the early morning (Wed., Sept. 4, reportedly around 5:30 am) when a Jordanian suicide-bomber named Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi (yes, same name as the famous al-Qaida figure) detonated a car bomb at the checkpoint guarding the entrance to Ma’loula, killing the soldiers there and allowing al-Qaida-linked rebels to roll into town in 20 pickup trucks with machine-guns mounted in the back.
Here’s a photo of the bombing of the Ma’loula checkpoint from Jabhat al-Nusra:
Nusra also posted photos of the bodies of the soldiers they killed at the checkpoint:
The following video shows rebels in the center of Ma’loula, firing weapons. It’s not clear if they are firing at specific targets, or merely announcing their arrival by firing into the air. Regardless, it was quite effective in terrorizing the local inhabitants.
And another video shows the rebels declaring their capture of the town after entering:
The video and photographic evidence available after the attack indicates that the operation was a coordinated effort between (at least) the following groups: Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, the Baba ‘Amr Brigades (a rebel group possibly affiliated with the SIF – Syrian Islamic Front), FSA Commandos Unit, and Soqour al-Sham. A video from Ahrar al-Sham can be found here. A video of shooting, apparently as part of the initial attack, is here.
My own Ma’loulan sources tell me that displaced people from Duma (between Ma’loula and Damascus) had taken up residence in Ma’loula, and cooperated with the rebels to facilitate their entrance. Ma’loulans now resent them for acting as a 5th column inside the very community that gave them shelter when they fled their own town as refugees. The danger with such cases is that it will generate suspicion and ill-will toward refugees generally.
Other photos of rebels posted online after taking Ma’loula can be found here, here, and here. One poster of photos from the operation to take the checkpoint refers to the soldiers as “apostates.” One poster seems to be from Somalia (unknown if he participated in the attack).
A Facebook page shows an alleged photo of one of the soldiers killed in the attack. Reportedly, at least 8 soldiers were killed on the first day.
Ma’loula only has one mosque. When the rebels entered the city center, they went to that mosque to declare victory and perform a typical chorus of takbiir (the shouting of Allahu Akbar).
According to Ma’loulans I spoke with, the attack involved two fronts. After the checkpoint was disabled, the Safir Hotel, located on the rocky cliffs overlooking the city, was appropriated by the rebels, who used it as a staging point for shelling. Some have said that they shelled the city from there; it seems that shells were fired from outside the city, as well.
The Safir Hotel can be seen atop the cliffs in the following two images. The strategic value of the site for anyone wanting to attack the town is obvious:
After the Islamist-led rebel alliance took the town, the Syrian regime responded by sending in aircraft to attack the rebel positions. This is the ever-disastrous pattern to the Syria conflict: rebels take a town doing its best to mind its own business, and the regime comes to the defense of the town and destroys it in the process. I spoke yesterday with a Syrian Christian who traveled near Ma’loula during the time of the attack. Like many Christians in the country, he has no love for the oppression of the regime, but remains somewhat “pro-regime” in relation to the conflict, since the threat of Islamists showing up and taking over his town outweighs his dislike of the regime. I asked him, “Regardless of the fact that these rebels invaded uninvited, would it not be better for the regime to just leave them alone, rather than conducting an airstrike on one of the most historical places in the country?” He responded sadly: “They don’t care. They will destroy anyplace the rebels are to be found.” He reminded me of other historical treasures that have been damaged through the regime’s response to rebel incursions, such as occurred in Palmyra, and recently at the Qal’at al-Hosn (Crac des Chevaliers), a magnificent Crusader castle and important tourist attraction that the regime bombed after rebels set up base inside. For someone who has defended the regime’s side during the conflict, his attitude of exasperation toward the scale of their responses was telling. Still, residents of Ma’loula have expressed gratitude for the military reinforcements sent in to expel the unwanted rebels. Many in Syria still prefer the devil they know to the one they don’t—though they’re getting to know the latter all the same.
Footage of a helicopter filmed by rebels discussing whether to try shooting it down can be found, here.
After the regime’s counterattack, the rebels withdrew back inside the Safir Hotel. Initial reports said that after a 3-hour battle the military was able to drive the rebels out of the town. Today this has proven to be otherwise; rebels remained in the hotel all night and all the next day, and fighting resumed around 6:00 pm today, when rebels conducted another attack. The rebels lost the town yesterday in the sense that those in the city center were driven out, and only those in the hotel were able to remain. But the presence of rebels was not eliminated, as hostilities resumed today. Today’s fighting was allegedly more intense, as rebels moved through the alleys between homes, shooting. Apparently, young residents of the town tried to defend their areas even though they lacked weapons, and some were injured when standing up to the rebels.
The big question is: Why Ma’loula? What need is there for rebels to capture this town? Talk of “liberation” certainly has no currency when the local residents aren’t asking for any and would prefer to be left alone. Was there any strategic importance to the town? Or was it merely an easy target for “victory,” not well-guarded and unable to resist being taken over? Some have suggested that taking the town was needed in order to link to opposition resistance efforts in the nearby Qalamoon region. Jabhat al-Nusra’s official account, however, referred to the attack as part of the “Eye-for-an-Eye” revenge campaign, initially declared after the chemical weapons attacks in the Ghouta.
Al-Jazeera’s reporting was one-sided, as usual. It explained the attack exclusively in strategic terms, noting the town’s connections to other nearby communities with a rebel presence. They failed even to mention Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence in this campaign, instead referring only to the FSA’s involvement and ignoring the central role of Islamists in the operation.
When the rebels first came into the town, they reportedly told people “Don’t be afraid; stay inside your homes.” A video posted online by the Katibat Souwar Bab ‘Amr shows a rebel speaking to his men, affirming that (paraphrase, not verbatim):
We don’t shoot at any church or at civilians; we’re only here to push back against the oppression and will only target those who target us. They (the people of the town) are our people and part of our country. The regime has persecuted everyone, from all sects. Here we are in front of the church and everything is safe and the houses are safe.
Despite the affirmation of goodwill toward civilians and the pledge to not harm churches, I was told that the first mortar fired by rebels hit a church. Since then, others have conveyed to me that churches and monasteries have been damaged in yesterday and today’s fighting. Even if the damage is unintentional, local residents will likely not feel very understanding toward their uninvited “liberators.” I was told that at least some of the rebels cursed some Christians and threatened to kill them for being infidels. The rebel speaking in the video quoted above may reflect one group’s approach to taking the town, but several groups with different ideologies were participating, and Nusra’s presence confuses things. When Nusra’s revenge campaign began, many threats were voiced against towns and civilians. Though it seems that civilians survived largely unscathed in the events in Ma’loula, it is disconcerting to see the attack associated with a revenge campaign. One of Nusra’s photos for the attack on Ma’loula was published on Facebook with a verse from the Qur’an stating: “Allah give us patience and victory over the infidels”—perhaps not the best slogan to use when launching an al-Qaida-led attack in which a Jordanian Islamist blows himself up at the gate of the oldest Christian village in the country.
It is hard to know how unified they were on their post-invasion behavioral code, but we have more than one report (including from my own contacts) alleging that multiple churches/monasteries were damaged and/or ransacked. Reports online of churches burned in Ma’loula are false and can be attributed to propaganda sources with a pro-regime orientation, exaggerating the degree and kind of damage that occurred. However, my own source alleges that the Mar Taqla monastery was hit with two shells, and there are varying reports of other attacks. Three articles on Lebanese and Syrian websites offer conflicting reports on exactly which churches were damaged: 1, 2, 3. In one of them, the Melkite patriarch is quoted claiming that rebels broke into multiple Christian homes and churches, burning crucifixes and icons. The other two articles give conflicting accounts of the report received by the head nun of the Mar Taqla Monastery. One account has her claiming that 15 nuns and the orphans they care for had to sleep inside of a cave in the mountain, while the other has her claiming that the monastery was not attacked.
While we’re waiting for more details on the actual damage, my contacts claim to be certain that Ma’loula’s Aramaic Language Education Center (an institute that works for the preservation of the language) was broken into by rebels and looted.
There are no details on what was stolen, but that this particular institution would be targeted seems to underscore the earlier point about the vulnerability of religio-linguistic minorities. This vulnerability is what has prompted Pope Francis to issue a statement today to the leaders of the G20 countries, opposing military intervention in Syria.
… amid the U.S. threat of military intervention, Vatican and church officials have warned that a world war could erupt, with Christians in the region bearing the brunt of the fallout…
Though many details on this story need further clarification, one thing is certain: the situation led to the fleeing of many Ma’loula residents to Damascus. An area that previously received refugees is now sending out its own, and the dwindling numbers of Aramaic-speakers are no longer comfortable within their remote mountain fastness.
For an interesting read about Ma’loula during the conflict, see this article by Robert Fisk.
The post Jabhat al-Nusra and Other Islamists Briefly Capture Historic Christian Town of Ma’loula appeared first on Syria Comment.
US President Barak Obama will ask Congress to support a military response to the horrific killing of civilians in Syria last week, an apparent chemical weapons attack that most likely originated with the Assad regime in Damascus. Obama drew a red line months ago, warning Bashar al-Assad that any use of weapons of mass destruction would evoke an American response.
Having recently spent more than five months in the country talking with Sunnis, Alawites, and Christians who were part of an opposition to their autocratic regime, as well as with human rights proponents with creative ideas for changing the face of their government and society, I want to suggest that there are other, more effective, solutions than the military option that Obama proposes. Obama’s red lines will do nothing to resolve the unspeakable suffering of millions of Syrians, more than a hundred thousand of whom have died over the course of this bloody conflict. The map of Syria is already strewn with red lines that threaten to destroy the state and have already shattered the lives of most of the people within it.
It is not at all clear yet who set off the chemical attack outside Damascus last week, but it is well known that all parties to this conflict have engaged in the indiscriminate killing of combatants and non-combatants alike. These are the war crimes that matter, all of them outlawed at the close of World War II when it became clear that civilians had suffered unspeakable crimes. Obama’s proposed intervention would do nothing to end these crimes; rather it would encourage further warfare, further rivers of blood. The US President has acknowledged that the blood to be spilled has no further goal: he does not aspire to change the balance in this ongoing warfare, intends no resolution of the bloodshed, and expects no larger resolution from the projected strike. An American strike will only escalate an already horrific conflict, not only creating more hardship, death and destruction, but moving all the countries of the Middle East closer to widespread regional conflagration.
This imminent flood of new red lines reflects the false dichotomies intrinsic to US foreign policy in the Middle East. The US toolbox has been so limited that it has suggested only three alternatives since the CIA involvement in Iran exactly sixty years ago: regime change by internal subversion, military engagement, or complete inaction. For more than half a century, US interventions have fanned the flames of civil conflict (from Iran in 1953 to Iraq 2003), shored up unpopular regimes (from 1958 Lebanon to Mubarak’s Egypt to 2013 Bahrain), and destroyed civilian lives through death or displacement (Iraq and Afghanistan). The false dichotomies produced by our existing tool box to date have resulted in nothing but tragedy, exacerbating tensions and making resolutions infinitely more difficult.
There are more than two options in Syria today. Inactivity has been unsuccessful in staunching the flow of blood; airstrikes will only increase it. Instead of the false choice we have been offered between doing nothing and engaging in deadly force, the United States could take the lead in beginning to restore Syria to Syrian control, engaging in the kind of negotiations that could lead back to what former president Woodrow Wilson insisted on: the consent of the governed.
Instead of creating more rivers of blood, the Obama administration has a remarkable opportunity right now, at a pivotal moment. In the face of a horrific ongoing war in one of the most important countries of the Middle East, they could choose to imagine a long-term resolution. All, including President Obama, have recognized that the only solution to the situation will be a political settlement. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner could begin negotiations toward actually making peace.
Negotiations could begin this week, with an effort to bring to the negotiating table Syrians of all faiths and classes. Today’s “sides” have become entrenched in large part with the assistance of foreign fighters and foreign military aid, whose interests are in no way identical to the goals of the Syrian population. Military “solutions” would only reinforce the participation of these regional players whose participation does not aid Syrians in any way. Local groups are far too under-resourced to be able to compete in an increasingly militarized conflict. More militarization can only further undermine their voices. By demanding an international conference that would include ONLY Syrian participants, and include representatives of ALL Syrian interest groups, the US could begin the demilitarization and embark on the creation of a new consensus among diverse Syrians ready for an end to their overwhelming suffering. Needless to say, the current regime, despite its humanitarian abuses, must be included in those negotiations.
At the same time, this project would have to be accompanied by talks with neighboring countries who have cynically tied their interests to the blood of Syrians. There might be no better time for the Obama administration to begin talks with the new Iranian government, which has made quite clear its desire to engage in diplomacy from its first days. While pundits have disagreed on the response of the new Iranian regime to an American military strike, it is clear that the situation in Syria offers the US an opportunity to find a way to work with an important regional power whose interests seem increasingly compatible with our own. Iran and its allies (including Hizbullah) could be induced to end weapons deliveries to the Syrian regime, while the US must rein in our “allies” in the region (especially the Saudis) to end its export of foreign fighters and cease its deliveries of arms to the “rebels.”
A military solution cannot enhance American credibility. Our invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan did nothing to create “credibility,” while our drone strikes have further eroded any respect in the region. Cruise missiles will get Syrians no closer to the peace they so desperately need. At the same time, US military strikes put the US in a state of war that will compromise American interests abroad and render all of our installations legitimate targets for the Syrian regime. Most importantly for Syria’s children, military escalation serves to marginalize the groups within Syria who have long been working for peaceful change. It works to the advantage only of armed fighters, whose goal is a victory for their own side at whatever cost.
If President Obama wants to develop credibility in the region, he must act like the statesman he purports to be. He has said that he does not intend for this intervention to shift the balance of power or change the outcome of the conflict. But the outcome must be changed. Right now, the outcome has been rampant death, destruction and displacement, and the promise of more of the same indefinitely. History shows in tragic clarity that US military strikes have never resolved Middle East conflicts. The “credibility” of the United States in the region–and the survival of Syria’s children– lies in altering this trajectory, a solution that can be achieved only through political and diplomatic means.
* Sarah Shields is Bowman and Gordon Gray Distinguished Term Professor in the History Department at the University of North Carolina. Her new book, Fezzes in the River: Identity Politics and European Diplomacy in the Middle East on the Eve of World War II (Oxford University Press, 2011) is a social and diplomatic history of the contest between France and Turkey over the Sanjak of Alexandretta (1936–1940). She is currently researching the long-term impact of the League of Nations on the Middle East.
Diplomacy is the Best Way to Intervene in Syria
By Max Weiss – Princeton University
“Every time the Syrians mourn a martyr another martyr falls, and that’s the way funerals drag along behind them…more funerals.” So wrote Samar Yazbek in her diaries of the Syrian revolution that I translated from the Arabic.
The specter of greater violence and even more funerals now looms on the Syrian horizon.
Following the massacre of over 1,000 Syrians in an alleged chemical weapons attack, which crossed a “red line” uttered by President Obama last year, our country is now hurtling towards a military campaign against Damascus, ostensibly to punish President Bashar al-Assad.
“We cannot raise our children in a world where we will not follow through on the things we say, the accords we sign, the values that define us,” Obama declared, announcing that he would deign to seek congressional support for armed action in Syria.
However, Mr. Obama is finding it hard to justify intervention.
The White House might summon the responsibility to protect (R2P), an emerging doctrine meant to guide the ethical conduct of states and international institutions, as a justification for intervention. The elephant in the room is that the first 100,000 lives lost to bullets and non-chemical attacks did not seem to activate the moral sensors of the R2P crowd. The nature of the weapons involved—be that chemical or biological, nuclear or conventional—should have no bearing whatsoever on the responsibility of the international community.
They could cite humanitarian suffering as a justification for intervention, but the United States and its allies have consistently lacked the political will to mitigate the humanitarian catastrophe inside Syria as well as among the mushrooming refugee populations in Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. Given the deterioration of the security situation inside the country and the constantly shifting battleground, non-lethal aid has had a notoriously difficult time finding its way into the hands of those who need it most.
In June of this year, the White House rolled out $300 million in humanitarian assistance on top of $515 million that had already been committed, which sounds like a lot of money. But assuming a conservative estimate of over one and a half million refugees scattered around the region, and as many as 4 million people internally displaced, even if the entire $815 million were doled out in a single year and miraculously made it inside Syria, with no overhead costs, this would work out to $148/refugee. But the displacement crisis is years old now, and on the brink of spiraling out of control: the true assistance is probably closer to $40-50/refugee. In response to the UNHCR’s appeal for $4.4 billion, the largest in the organization’s history, the Obama administration responded by offering to take in 2,000 of the more than 5 million displaced.
So what justification for intervention is left?
For lack of a compelling legal, moral or humanitarian argument, the U.S. administration seems to be ramping up for what might be called Operation Save Face. Obama wants to drop bombs because he once said he would. Such a callous calculus is hardly grounds for a just and viable Middle East policy.
Key figures in the Syrian opposition abroad and inside the country reject negotiations with the regime; they want al-Assad’s head on a pike. Yet there is good reason to believe that military escalation in Syria will likely only result in further military escalation in Syria. Bashar al-Assad is unlikely to respond without a credible threat, but a stick-heavy approach devoid of carrots is a policy bound to fail.
The best course of action for the United States in Syria remains aggressive diplomacy and a more robust commitment to humanitarian assistance.
To begin with, U.S. diplomats and government representatives must live up to their titles and redouble their efforts to unclog sclerotic diplomatic channels. We could urge Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States to stop fanning the flames by arming various rebel groups. We could make every effort to ensure that the upcoming Geneva peace talks do not fail. We could throw our weight behind the Friends of Syria initiative that is set to reconvene in Paris soon. Obama should set aside his dispute with President Vladimir Putin over Edward Snowden and demand a sit-down to resume discussion on this burning issue. Moreover, the election of moderate Iranian president Hassan Rouhani and U.S diplomat Jeffrey Feltman’s recent visit to Tehran represent an opportunity to improve U.S.-Iranian relations that must not be squandered. Unless the White House immediately builds upon these developments, then U.S. diplomacy is once again consigned to enabling militancy rather than defusing conflict.
“Just longing for peace does not necessarily bring it about,” Secretary of State John Kerry concluded in his recent remarks on the crisis in Syria. Through Kerry, the Obama administration affirmed its commitment to “a diplomatic process that can resolve” the conflict “through negotiation.” If diplomacy is the ultimate goal, how does a limited bombing campaign advertised well in advance work in the service of such a negotiated solution?
The Obama administration has made clear once again that the “values that define us” include unilateralism and punitive foreign policy—in other words, vigilantism and thuggery.
If the Obama administration remains loath to actively engage the diplomatic front with the same tenacity it seems to be pursuing military action, then we ought to drop the charade that the Syria crisis has escalated over a concern to protect the Syrian people and acknowledge that this is a policy of machismo: we said we would use our stick, and now we must prove to the world that we can.
*Max Weiss is assistant professor of History and Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University.
The post “Diplomacy is the Best Way to Intervene in Syria,” By Max Weiss appeared first on Syria Comment.
Chemical Weapons and Responses; The Developing Story of Tripoli’s Bombing; Theories on Outcomes for Syria
Political Intrigue Surrounding Bombing in Tripoli, Lebanon
The aftermath of the Aug. 23 bombings in Tripoli, Lebanon continues to develop, with tensions escalating to a new high. One week ago, two bombings occurred in separate Tripoli neighborhoods. Initially, people assumed that the bombings were in retaliation for the earlier explosion that had targeted the southern Dahieh suburb of Beirut, a Shi’i enclave, on Aug. 15. (After that attack, videos circulated online of Sunnis celebrating in Tripoli, passing out candies on the street.) This remains a general assumption. Later, the theory began to emerge that the targets of the Tripoli bombings were two men: Ashraf Rifi (a pro-Syrian opposition Lebanese general and former head of Lebanese Internal Security Forces) and Salim al-Rifa’i (a leading Salafi who had called for jihad against the Syrian army at the beginning of the battle in Qusayr). Each bomb targeted a mosque during Friday prayers, one of which was located near Ashraf Rifi’s house. The mosques targeted were frequented by Tripolitans with a March 14th / pro-Syrian opposition alignment.
Lebanon is currently holding and charging 3 Lebanese men over the incident. A 4th has been charged (A Syrian who works for the Syrian government), but he is in Syria and Syria won’t hand him over. NNA – Judge Sakr presses charges against Tripoli explosion suspects:
Government commissioner to the Military Tribunal, Judge Sakr Sakr, charged on Friday Sheikh Hashem Minkara and detainees Sheikh Mustafa Ahmad Gharib and Mustafa Houry, of forming an armed group to attack civil and military institutions.
Suspects were also charged of creating a terrorist cell and bombing the two mosques in Tripoli.
Sakr also pressed charges against Syrian captain Mohammad Ali for installing car bombs and killing people.
He charged prisoner, Sheikh Hashem Minkara, of hiding information regarding Tripoli’s explosions
The story of how these particular men were picked up by the Lebanese authorities is interesting. Sheikh Gharib and Sheikh Minqara are Sunni Islamist religious leaders in Tripoli with a pro-Syrian regime political alignment. They belong to the Tawhid political movement (or Islamic Unification Movement), one of the original Islamist movements in Lebanon, started by Sa’id Shaaban and very powerful in Tripoli during the civil war. Minqara is infamous in Tripoli for allegedly burying communists and leftists alive during the civil war. After a long period of fighting, the Tawhid movement reached an agreement with the Syrian regime and eventually moved in a pro-regime direction, in the 1980s. They have since splintered after many became disillusioned with becoming so intimate with the Syrian regime. Sheikh Gharib and Sheikh Minqara represent the small surviving group that remains pro-regime and opposes the March 14th Coalition in Tripoli.
According to an article from al-Akhbar (portions of which we will translate directly or paraphrase in the following), which relies on leaks from Lebanese media sources, Sheikh Gharib was approached 6 months ago by a Syrian intelligence officer named Mohammed Ali who asked him to start following the movements of 4 men: Ashraf Rifi, Salim al-Rifa’i, Khalid Addahir, and Mustafa Alloush (the last two are MPs of the Future movement [Hariri block], both very supportive of the Syrian opposition and always advocating their cause). After being approached by Ali, Gharib went to Sheikh Minqara and told him what the Syrian officer had requested of him. Minqara told him not to comply and to cut off all contact with that officer. Minqara refused to help because he didn’t want to become involved.
After this conversation, Gharib spoke to another man, Mustafa Houry, relaying what had transpired with Mohammed Ali. Houry relayed this information to Lebanese security, which has formed the basis for suspicion toward Gharib following the bombings, which seem to have targeted at least some of the individuals that Syrian intelligence wanted to track, even though there may not be clear evidence as to who exactly conducted the bombing. Even though Gharib and Minqara may have avoided participation with the Syrians (if they were indeed those behind the bombings), the position of the Lebanese authorities is that they had prior knowledge about the plot with which they did not come forward.
After the bombings in Tripoli, a youtube video circulated showing a bearded man on a cellphone. Media speculation identified this man as Sheikh Gharib, and an official narrative was promoted alleging his presence at the site of the bombing. This occurred in conjunction with his arrest. The official narrative was forced to change after another video was circulated by al-Jadid TV in which another man identifies himself as the man on the cellphone in the original video. He and his friend both speak on this video, claiming that they were praying in the mosque when the bomb went off. The original post-bombing footage and the interview with these two witnesses is combined in this video:
The bombed mosque from the street:
Video footage from inside the mosque at the moment of the bombing can be seen here.
Though some are calling this a revenge attack for the Dahieh bombing, the event in Dahieh occurred earlier this month, whereas it would seem that planning for the Aug. 23 Tripoli bombings started 6 months ago—if this narrative about Syrian security approaching the Tripolitan sheikhs is correct. Aspects of this case parallel that of Michel Smaha, who was arrested a year ago this month. Some will interpret the Tripoli bombings as a continuation of the Syrian regime’s efforts to use terrorism for political influence in Lebanon—after failing with Smaha, then pursuing the same objectives through other assets a few months later, culminating in this month’s attacks. Smaha is still in jail after a year, and the trial has been postponed until December. For articles on the Smaha story, see: 1, 2, 3, 4.
Ultimately, these events will serve to place an uncomfortable level of pressure on those people of Tripoli who have a pro-Syrian regime political affiliation. After this bombing, it will be easier for their opponents to frame them as a dangerous element that is up to no good, and increase the threat level that they face within the highly-charged and tense environment of northern Lebanon.
Conspiracy Theories: The One Thing Everyone in Lebanon Has in Common – Atlantic – good article
“Americans see us as Bin Laden, as terrorists,” he says with a sneer. “But when the world talks about Hezbollah, they call them a militia. We have brains. We know the Americans are behind everything that’s going on. They’re sitting watching the blood of Muslims being spilled, and they turn a blind eye.”
Chemical Weapons and Responses
Russia to send ships to Mediterranean as US mulls Syria strike – Al Jazeera America
Russia will send two ships to the east Mediterranean to strengthen its naval presence because of the “well-known situation” there, Interfax news agency said on Thursday referring to the Syria crisis.
The agency quoted a source in the armed forces’ general staff as saying an anti-submarine vessel and a missile cruiser would be sent in the coming days because the situation “required us to make some adjustments” in the naval force.
… Although it was not possible to say for certain if they are bringing weapons, the number of ships travelling to Syria from a Ukrainian port used by Russia’s arms export monopoly has increased sharply since April. …
Weapons Assad Uses Shouldn’t Affect U.S. Policy – Stephen Walt
Even if proven, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government does not tip the balance in favor of U.S. military intervention. To think otherwise places undue weight on the weapons Assad’s forces may have used and ignores the many reasons that U.S. intervention is still unwise.
Of course it is not good that Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons, but it is not obvious why the choice of weaponry changes the calculus of U.S. interests in this case. The brutal nature of the Assad regime has been apparent for decades, and its forces have already killed thousands with conventional means. Does it really matter whether Assad is killing his opponents using 500-pound bombs, mortar shells, cluster munitions, machine guns, icepicks or sarin gas? Dead is dead, no matter how it is done.
Proponents of action argue that the U.S. must intervene to defend the norm against chemical weapons. Using nerve agents like sarin is illegal under international law, but they are not true “weapons of mass destruction.” Because they are hard to use in most battlefield situations, chemical weapons are usually less lethal than non-taboo weapons like high explosive. Ironically we would therefore be defending a norm against weapons that are less deadly than the bombs we would use if we intervene. This justification would also be more convincing if the U.S. government had not ignored international law whenever it got in the way of something Washington wanted to do.
And intervention is still a bad idea. Airstrikes cannot eliminate Assad’s chemical arsenal and are unlikely to tip the balance in favor of the rebels. And even if they did, this situation would give Assad a bigger incentive to use these weapons more widely. Assad’s fall would create a failed state and unleash a bitter struggle among the various rebel factions. …
… Obama may be tempted to strike because he foolishly drew a “red line” over this issue and feels his credibility is now at stake. But following one foolish step with another will not restore that lost standing. …
A gruesome test of realpolitik in Syria – FP – Daniel Drezner
The powerful brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is suspected of authorizing the chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of Syrian civilians, according to a United Nations official who monitors armed conflicts in the region.
Maher al-Assad, the younger brother of the president, commands the regime’s Republican Guard and controls the Syrian Army’s 4th Armored Division, an elite unit that the opposition says launched the Aug. 21 attack on the eastern Ghouta suburbs of the capital, Damascus.
The use of chemical weapons may have been a brash action by Maher al-Assad rather than a strategic decision by the president, according to the UN official, who asked not to be named.
Identifying the chain of command behind the chemical attack would go into calculations about who, what and how to strike in any retaliatory action, the UN official said. If Maher al-Assad is the culprit, for example, a Republican Guard stronghold may be targeted rather than a presidential facility, the official said.
Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, doubts that such an important action — openly defying U.S. President Barack Obama’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons — would be done without Bashar al-Assad’s approval.
“It’s inconceivable to me,” Landis said in a phone interview. “There has been nothing to indicate that Bashar is just a figurehead.”
For now, Maher’s role is largely a matter of conjecture. He’s a shadowy figure with a reputation for loyalty to his brother and brutality toward their opponents. Early in the uprising, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan publicly denounced his “savagery.”
“I don’t doubt that he is ruthless, but I also don’t doubt that Bashar is ruthless,” said Landis. “Is he more ruthless than Bashar? I think that is a useless line of inquiry because they are both killing people with abandon.”
… “Maher is the knee-capper in this operation,” said Landis. “He is in charge of doing the heavy lifting of punishing people and preserving the regime through military means.”
“Why Would Assad Cross the Red Line right when the UN inspection team was visiting?” asks Free Halab. The answer: because the team was never free of the Syrian regime’s control.
The UN team was only a couple of miles away, but they may have just as well been on the other side of the planet. Assad decides where, when and how they can or cannot go whether they were let into Syria or not. By the time Assad did allow them entry [yesterday only to Moadamiye in Western Ghouta and today...] it might have been too little, and already too late.
Brown Moses’ Collected Chemical Weapon Posts
Briefing Parliament, Foreign Minister Emma Bonino called the chemical attack a “war crime” but said her government wouldn’t support military action without U.N. Security Council authorization. She said: “Italy would not actively take in any military action … beyond the context of the Security Council, which for us is and remains the only point of legal reference that cannot be ignored.”
Nusra threatens to rocket Alawite villages over alleged chemical attack – Hurriyet Dailey
“For every chemical rocket that had fallen on our people in Damascus, one of their villages will, by the will of God, pay for it,” Abu Mohammad al-Golani said in the recording posted on YouTube.
“On top of that we will prepare a thousand rockets that will be fired on their towns in revenge for the Damascus Ghouta massacre.”
Obama Promises Syria Strike Will Have No Objective – New Yorker – Andy Borowitz - Satire
Video: PBS Newshour – President Obama: ‘I Have Not Made a Decision’ on Syria
If Barack Obama decides to attack the Syrian regime, he has ensured – for the very first time in history – that the United States will be on the same side as al-Qa’ida. …
Obama’s Bluff – STRATFOR
Video: Former NATO commander: Syria strike a bad move – U.S. retired Col. Douglas Macgregor led Kosovo mission – CBC
Earlier in the month, WORLDBytes asks British citizens on the streets of London their opinions about intervention in Syria, video here
Last Wednesday, in the hours after a horrific chemical attack east of Damascus, an official at the Syrian Ministry of Defense exchanged panicked phone calls with a leader of a chemical weapons unit, demanding answers for a nerve agent strike that killed more than 1,000 people. Those conversations were overheard by U.S. intelligence services, The Cable has learned. And that is the major reason why American officials now say they’re certain that the attacks were the work of the Bashar al-Assad regime — and why the U.S. military is likely to attack that regime in a matter of days.
But the intercept raises questions about culpability for the chemical massacre, even as it answers others: Was the attack on Aug. 21 the work of a Syrian officer overstepping his bounds? Or was the strike explicitly directed by senior members of the Assad regime? “It’s unclear where control lies,” one U.S. intelligence official told The Cable. “Is there just some sort of general blessing to use these things? Or are there explicit orders for each attack?” …
Here you can download the US Government Assessment of the Syrian Government’s Use of Chemical Weapons
The Syrian regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons would not be the first war crime committed by the regime since the start of the uprising in March 2011. Summary executions, torture, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians have been recurrent elements of the government’s response to the uprising. Indeed, opposition armed groups have also been guilty of war crimes, including summary executions and torture. War crimes are nothing new in this conflict. But now, following this most recent allegation, politicians, analysts and journalists are all talking about one thing: possible military intervention.
I’m not here to question claims of fact. Let’s assume that chemical weapons were used by the Syrian regime in Ghouta, and that the attack killed over 1,400 people, as the US claims. This would constitute yet another war crime. So why act now, in particular?
There are two lines of argument, which seem to be often confused. One follows a logic of punishment. The other invokes principles of humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect. The UK government’s (defeated) motion on Thursday tried to link these two approaches. But they should be kept separate.
The Syrian government should be punished for the war crime of using chemical weapons, runs the first view. States have exhausted most of their non-military coercive tools — condemnations, economic sanctions, embargoes, referrals to the Security Council and to the ICC — and so military action is, so it is argued, the only option left for punishing the Syrian government. The logic behind the punishment is firstly one of reprisal, and secondly and more importantly, one of deterrence — both to deter the Syrian regime from using such weapons again and to deter others from using such weapons. It is this wider perspective, beyond the Syria conflict, which explains the buzz of debate and action since this latest allegation emerged.
The use of chemical weapons shocked the world’s conscience during the First World War. Subsequently the Geneva Protocol banning the use of chemical weapons was drawn up in 1925, mentioning that such weapons are “justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilised world.” Ever since, the use of chemical weapons has been a major international taboo, which has (surprisingly, perhaps) rarely been broken. This is why their use constituted a “red line” for Obama. For him and other leaders, the idea that a state can use such banned weapons with impunity (let alone against its own people), is an unbearable affront to the conscience of the civilised world, which it is a legal — and moral — obligation to punish. As John Kerry said last week, “What we saw in Syria last week should shock the conscience of the world. It defies any code of morality.” This goes some way to explaining why military intervention is being so actively considered at this particular moment.
So much for the theory of the punitive strike. Now for the practice. The idea is to carry out “surgical”, “limited” military strikes, so that the cost for the Syrian regime of using chemical weapons again is too great. This is the objective of deterrence. Of course, the objective of reprisal is fulfilled by any strike that harms the government.
But what worries me are these two words that are often used to describe the proposed military strikes — “limited” and “surgical”. Neither is ever defined. What is a limited bombing campaign? Is it limited in the means it uses (e.g. only air strikes)? Or in the time it lasts? Or in what it targets? Or in its objectives? Probably a combination of these, but it is not clear. It is left up to military planners; the targets chosen for their missiles will not be the subject of public consultation. And the difficulty is that if one is attacking through a logic of deterrence, then always more can be justified: after all, who can determine with certainty what level of destruction will be necessary to deter the Syrian regime from using chemical weapons again? Is it possible that as the conventional military capacity of the regime is steadily worn down by punitive strikes dealt by a “coalition of the willing”, so its propensity to resort to chemical weapons might increase? Might the only sure deterrent be, in the final analysis, to remove the regime? This is the slippery slope argument against a punitive, deterrent strike.
Then there is this other word “surgical”. It indicates precision: targets will be determined with precision, and then “neutralised” with equal precision. But precision does not always mean accuracy. Mistakes are bound to happen, just as they did during the Nato interventions in Libya and Kosovo. This is an inevitable consequence of any military intervention. This would contribute to the civilian death toll. In addition, it would give Assad new arguments and impetus to continue his stand (what this Foreign Policy article charmingly calls the “PR catastrophe” consequence).
So: limited, surgical strikes to punish and deter the Syrian regime are an attractive option. The government of Syria is alleged to have committed another war crime, but this time of a different nature. It must be punished so that it does not use chemical weapons again, and importantly so that others aren’t tempted to use them either, thinking they too will escape punishment. But two elements count against this approach, the slippery slope towards full-blown regime change, and unintended civilian casualties. Perhaps the first difficulty could be overcome by setting down very strict parameters and objectives in advance. But the second issue is harder to get over: some civilian casualties could be justified if there was a high probability that the strikes would decisively deter the regime from using chemical weapons, thus preventing future civilian casualties. But, first, that a strictly limited intervention would achieve this is far from clear. And second, with so many being killed and wounded by conventional weapons, it seems arbitrary to set an objective of reducing casualties due only to chemical weapons (a point made by John Holmes in this Guardian piece). The UK government motion that was defeated proposed exactly this arbitrary objective: “this Resolution relates solely to efforts to alleviate humanitarian suffering by deterring use of chemical weapons and does not sanction any action in Syria with wider objectives.”
We come then to the second argument for military intervention: the responsibility to protect. State sovereignty implies responsibility: states have a a responsibility to protect their people. When a state fails in this duty, the principle of non-intervention in a sovereign state’s internal affairs gives way to the principle of international responsibility to protect. Arguably, this point was passed long ago in Syria. It is not this chemical attack that has tipped the number of civilian casualties from “acceptable” to “unacceptable”. This first condition for the application of the responsibility to protect principle is met, then: the Syrian state no longer protects its people, and therefore has forfeited its sovereignty.
For a military intervention to be justified by the “responsibility to protect”, several further conditions need to be met. First, the primary purpose of the intervention must be to prevent further human suffering (“right intention”). Second, military means must be a last resort; all non-military means must have been exhausted. Third, the scale and intensity of the military campaign should be the minimum necessary to ensure the prevention of human suffering that is intended (“proportionality”). And fourth, and most importantly perhaps, there must be a reasonable chance of halting the human suffering which justified the intervention, with the consequences of the intervention not likely to be worse than those of inaction.
Let’s grant that the first and second conditions are met in the current Syria scenario. There’s always room for debate on whether the prime motivation in these cases is really humanitarian, but let’s just assume it is here. The same goes for the second condition: one can always argue that further negotiations and diplomatic moves should be tried; all one can say is that so far not much has come of the various non-military measures that have been adopted, and there is no immediate prospect of success through such measures.
That brings us to the third and fourth conditions, which are intrinsically linked: to ensure reasonable prospects of success, the campaign may have to be massive, even going as far as changing the regime. There are two problems with such a massive campaign. It may well create more suffering than that which it was intended to halt. And — not to be overlooked — in the current post Afghanistan and Iraq climate, there is no appetite for a long, messy, costly regime-change-cum-nation-building exercise, especially in somewhere as complicated as Syria.
None of the current models of military intervention being proposed for Syria makes the case for how the intervention would have “reasonable prospects” of halting the human suffering in Syria without adding to it. Most talk is of those “limited”, “surgical” strikes. And this is where there is a confusion. In advocating this kind of limited military intervention, politicians rely on the principle of “responsibility to protect” and cite humanitarian motivations. But they do not make the case for how such strikes carry reasonable prospects of reducing human suffering in Syria. The only case advanced is the weak and arbitrary objective of reducing human suffering caused by chemical weapons (already discussed).
So much for the two lines of argument supporting a military strike, viz. punishment and the responsibility to protect. The latter is a non-starter: there is no stomach for a long, involved campaign, and in any case no-one can be sure of the unintended outcomes of such a campaign, especially with the proliferation of less than desirable armed opposition groups.
Politicians should stop couching intervention in humanitarian terms, as the argument can’t be made. Instead, those who wish to advocate intervention, should do so in terms of punishment and deterrence, being mindful that a single civilian casualty from such a campaign cannot be tolerated. But this strategy should not be presented on its own. It should be linked to a political strategy and a purely humanitarian strategy. The idea of using such strikes to push the Syrian regime and its allies towards political negotiations should be explored, and could be adduced as a further argument for a punitive kind of strike. I don’t know what precedents there are for the success of this sort of approach.
And, most importantly, politicians, analysts and journalists should put more emphasis on the purely humanitarian aspect of the conflict, in order to galvanise more financial support for aid to the 1.7 million refugees and several million internally displaced. This huge population of poor, displaced, dispossessed Syrians — and those who will join them — are those whom any military intervention would notionally be aimed at protecting. International efforts should be more concentrated on those who already need assistance. Talking and writing about helping families who have fled their homes seems to command fewer headlines than speculation about what kind of Tomahawk missiles US warships could fire from the eastern Mediterranean. But the long-term consequences of the conflict might well depend much more on how millions of homeless Syrians are helped to get back to normal life, than on the kind of munitions dropped on the Syrian Air Force intelligence headquarters.
Eight things to consider before intervening in Syria (ECFR) – Anthony Dworkin, Daniel Levy and Julien Barnes-Dacey
Don’t repeat the Iraq mistake – Ottawa Citizen – Brian Davis, former Canadian Ambassador to Syria
… In 2003, Canada refused to join in the U.S.-led “coalition” and it proved to be a wise decision. It was based on a variety of arguments and on a firmly grounded policy with regard to international law, to Canada’s role in international action and to Canada’s understanding of history and the Middle East region. There was also little support among Canadians for joining the invasion.
The StephenHarper government lacks an informed and forward thinking policy on the Middle East. Aside from blindly supporting Israel at the expense of effective relations with Arab countries, its reactions to developments in that region are largely of the knee jerk variety. Virtually no long-term policy work has been done to prepare for these types of situations. Because of this, we could well acquiesce to requests from the U.S. and others to form a “coalition of the willing” in an attack against Syria, simply because we are asked, not because it has been thought through. It is noteworthy that when Canada refused to join the attack on Iraq in 2003, one of the people to criticize that decision was Stephen Harper.
It is deeply distressing to see the toll that the Syrian civil war has taken and continues to take on the Syrian people and the country. We all want to see that ended. But, the question one has to ask is whether attacking the Syrian regime will do that. …
The leaders of the Arab world on Tuesday blamed the Syrian government for a chemical weapons attack that killed hundreds of people last week, but declined to back a retaliatory military strike, leaving President Obama without the broad regional support he had for his last military intervention in the Middle East, in Libya in 2011.
Syrian authorities have moved prisoners from their jail cells to installations the government believes could be targets of western military strikes, pro-democracy activists in Damascus and the opposition said yesterday.
Where’s this all going?
Sometime back we wrote about revolutionary Syrians who had become disillusioned with the opposition to the point of abandoning the rebels and re-joining Syria’s army. Similarly, we are also hearing voices of frustration coming from long-time supporters of the Syrian regime, even those who have stood by the Syrian regime for over two years of conflict. One recent example came in a message received from a friend:
My sister has been at a hotel in Lebanon for nearly a year. Nearly 90 percent of the people living in it are Christian Syrians. I visited last December. Almost all have been die-hard supporters of Bashar and the regime. They have been depressed for a long time watching the news.
I just got a call from her telling me how jovial and happy the mood was today. The people suddenly feel that the USA is preparing for war. “But this may mean that the regime will fall,” I countered. “The people don’t care anymore. They just want this over. They want to go back. They have run out of money. They are done. War by the USA will put an end to this and this is why they are happy today. Something they have not experienced for a while,” she said.
For months we’ve had a poll question on the site that asks: “Will Syria maintain territorial integrity post-conflict?“ Amazingly, the response percentages have hovered at exactly 50%-50% until just recently. Everyone’s trying to predict where this conflict is taking Syria and the regime, and what the eventual outcome will look like. Theories are abounding, and we hear many from readers, such as Yamin, who emailed us a list of what he considers possible:
(1) Syria to be ruled by the current Syrian Government as before March of 2011 – Impossible
(2) Syria to be ruled by a reformed government headed by the current Syrian Government – Possible and Likely
(3) Syria to be ruled by the Opposition headed by the Syrian Coalition – Possible but Unlikely
(4) Syria to be ruled by Islamists headed by the Syrian Coalition – Possible but Unlikely
(5) Syria to be ruled by extreme Islamists – Impossible
(6) Syria remains one state as we know it – Possible and Likely
(7) Syria splits into two – Possible but Unlikely
(8) Alawite State in the coast – Impossible
(9) Alawite State between the desert and the coast – Possible but Unlikely
(10) The coast merging and creating Greater Lebanon – Possible and Likely
Seth Kaplan provides his own detailed list of possible outcomes in the following article:
Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria – Global Dashboard
… There are at least seven scenarios for the future of the country:
1) Assad victory. Although this is more likely than before due to continued support from Iran and Russia, the entry of Hezbollah fighters into the fray, and continued fragmentation among the rebels, it is not very likely because the regime lacks the manpower and resources to reconquer all the territory lost. It does, however, have a stronger position than a few months ago, and has been consolidating its hold on the territory it controls.
2) Good rebel victory. At the moment, this likely needs significant outside assistance to happen. Iranian and Hezbollah aid has to be curtailed. A significant number of Alawites have to be convinced that they will be safe after they lay down their arms. And outside aid has to be delivered in a way that strengthens and consolidates moderate forces such that they take over the country. Moderates would rule inclusively and without retribution against losers. But this scenario looks very unlikely as of now because moderate forces are heavily fragmented and extremist groups have gained power in many opposition areas.
3) Bad rebel victory. In this case, extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which has announced its allegiance to al-Qaida, take advantage of the curtailing of Iranian aid and foreign assistance to claim victory. This would lead to massive retribution and a rigid orthodoxy. It would also produce an even greater refugee crisis, as millions of Alawites and Christians flee into Lebanon and Turkey. The “good” rebels, such as the Free Syrian Army, the main rebel umbrella organization, should ideally exclude the extremist groups from any military or political coalition, but they are too powerful for this. Exclusion could also lead to greater conflict, or even a second civil war. In any case, what the good rebels think may be irrelevant: the extremists are better positioned to win the war. They have done relatively well in the fighting when compared to other rebel groups and have greater cohesion.
4) Stalemate. At this point, a stalemate is very likely. The two sides are not strong enough to control all or even most of the country. If either side makes significant gains, the other is likely to be reinforced from abroad. This would not necessarily be a bad thing, as a stalemate that went on for an extended period of time and showed both sides that they cannot win is the only way to encourage them to take negotiations seriously. And negotiations are the only conceivably way to end the war if no major power intervenes.
5) Country breakup. The longer the war goes on, the more likely this will happen. In some ways, it already has. The existing regime, backed by Alawites, many Christians, and some of the old Sunni elite, would retain control over a strip of land that included Damascus and much of the coast. It would be supported by Russia and Iran. Sunnis would control an equivalent amount of land, stretching from the northwest to the Iraqi border, including possibly Aleppo (see map). It would be backed by Sunni states, though divisions between these would have to be overcome (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey have backed different factions). The Druze would control the southeast, probably in alliance with the Sunnis. A Kurdish northeast might seek independence or some sort of alliance with Iraqi Kurdistan. This scenario might lead to peace faster except that neighbors would both oppose any division of the country and want to keep backing their particular client mini-state.
6) Regional conflict. The likelihood of this also increases the longer the war goes on. Lebanon and Iraq have already suffered from spillover: bombs have gone off in South Beirut and Tripoli in the past week and Sunni extremists have been strengthened in Iraq in recent months. It is not out of the realm of possibility that these trends will continue and a broad Sunni-Shiite conflict will engulf the whole Levant. This is the worst result, and would have even greater consequences for the region. Over 50 million people would be directly affected.
7) Chaos.This is the Somalia scenario. An extended period of statelessness and persistent conflict would institutionalize a war economy, and give emerging warlords, militia leaders, and criminal networks a vested interest in continuing the conflict. Those outside the country would be encouraged to reestablish their lives elsewhere, reducing the chance that they will ever return. Those within the country would increasingly be left without schooling or economic opportunity beyond the war effort. More would flee.
These seven scenarios are not completely separate from each other. Stalemate could, for instance, lead to greater spillover. The country’s breakup could be accompanied by chaos.
Although no outside power will intervene with enough force and staying power to end the conflict at this point, there are still a number of important low risk actions outsiders can take:
1) Red lines over the use of chemical weapons or other WMDs must be enforced. The United States should follow through on its threats or the use of these will increase, and many more civilians will suffer the consequences.
2) Regional contagion must be prevented. The international community should do more to bring together the leaders of the various factions in Lebanon and Iraq to work out their differences or at least agree to work together to minimize spillover before it is too late.
3) More must be done to unite and empower the moderate rebel groups. This is the only force whose victory could lead to reconciliation.
4) More thought ought to be undertaken to determine what structure of government might work in such a deeply divided country. Calls for elections are stale when trust is so low and the end of the war so far away.
5) A stalemate that leads to a ceasefire should be encouraged, as it is probably the best end result that is possible at this point. Peace negotiations will lead nowhere, but anything that reduces or ends the bloodshed should be considered.
Eventually the only answer for the country—and possibly the whole Levant region—is a heavily decentralized system of government that allows each local group or area to manage their own affairs in some form of weak confederacy until trust and trade can gradually recover enough so that people clamor for a more centralized system. Unfortunately, the modern state system, which empowers central governments and insists on rigid ways of organizing states and the divisions between them, will make it hard to take this route.
Syria Comment Exclusive: Kelly Flanagan has written a scholarly analysis on the Syria Conflict, attempting to predict future outcomes for the insurgency. Below is an introduction to the paper; to download Kelly’s entire analysis, click here: Ending Insurgency, Analyzing the Syrian Conflict
With the Syrian civil war continuing for nearly thirty months and diplomatic efforts stalling, what can the history of civil wars tell us to expect? Drawing from the study “How Insurgencies End,” by Ben Connable and Martin C. Libicki at the RAND Corporation, this paper discusses several possible components of uprisings-turned-insurgencies and correlates them with the likelihood of insurgent success. The paper analyzes each component in conjunction with the Syrian conflict. Factors discussed are: duration of the conflict, urbanization, available sanctuary for the insurgents, third party intervention for the government, third party intervention for the insurgents, networked or hierarchical military of the insurgency, and use of terrorism.
The duration of the conflict and the use of terrorism appear, thus far, to be inconclusive in determining the outcome of the war. Bashar al-Assad’s support from third party backers actually favors the success of the insurgents, as does the third party sanctuary the insurgents receive from Turkey. Favoring the regime, on the other hand, is the networked makeup of the insurgent army and the country’s high degree of urbanization.
The tipping-point factor that needs to be considered by policymakers is third party support on behalf of the insurgents. The correlation between third party intervention for the insurgents and their success is much higher than the success rate without external support. Whether third party military support remains status quo or is strategically augmented by the supporting parties is likely to be the main component in deciding whether or not a peace agreement or an insurgent victory is achieved.
Runnin’ with the Rebels
Read this frightening and amazing story of an American photojournalist kidnapped by rebels who eventually managed to escape after a harrowing period of imprisonment: American Tells of Odyssey as Prisoner of Syrian Rebels – NYT – Read all four pages!
Robin Yassin-Kassab visits rebel territory, has a much different experience. Personal account here: Journey to Kafranbel
Bay’ah to Baghdadi: Foreign Support for Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham – Aymenn al-Tamimi – This is an important article for those following rebel factions within Syria, interesting photos showing support for ISIS from Somalia and Saudi Arabia
Fighting between ISIS and the Ahfad al-Rasoul brigade for control of Raqqa – which fell out of the control of president Bashar Assad in March – has intensified over the last week. The battle culminated with the jihadist group detonating a car bomb early Wednesday at the city’s main train station, killing Rasoul commanders Abu Mazen and Fahd Hussein al-Kajwan.
Free Syrian Army leaders have acknowledged that the fighting between their brigades and Islamist rivals has reached a critical stage.
The FSA says the Islamists’ main concern is not to overthrow Assad, but to establish an Islamic state in Syrian territories.
Elizabeth O’Bagy and Thomas Pierret have both recently been making the argument that moderate forces are winning out over extremists in the Syrian opposition. Here are some examples:
External support and the Syrian insurgency – Thomas Pierret – FP
Would arming moderate Syrian rebels reduce the influence of their radical counterparts? This question, which has been extensively debated by proponents and opponents of indirect military involvement in Syria, has perhaps become obsolete: backing the most pragmatic insurgent groups is what Saudi Arabia has been doing for months now, and it seems to work. …
… recent military developments show that Syrian insurgents have become increasingly dependent on state supporters for their logistics. Gone are the days when rebels could storm lightly defended regime positions with assault rifles and a few RPGs. The retreat of loyalist forces on heavily fortified bases last winter has required a major quantitative and qualitative increase in the opposition’s armament. This is something only foreign governments, not jihadi utopians, can offer. Given Saudi Arabia’s apparent determination to lead the way in that respect, this situation will probably continue to favor mainstream insurgents over their radical brothers in arms in the foreseeable future.
On the Front Lines of Syria’s Civil War – Elizabeth O’Bagy – ISW
… The conventional wisdom holds that the extremist elements are completely mixed in with the more moderate rebel groups. This isn’t the case. Moderates and extremists wield control over distinct territory. Although these areas are often close to one another, checkpoints demarcate control. On my last trip into Syria earlier this month, we traveled freely through parts of Aleppo controlled by the Free Syrian Army, following roads that kept us at safe distance from the checkpoints marked by the flag of the Islamic State of Iraq. …
… Contrary to many media accounts, the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and al Qaeda die-hards. The jihadists pouring into Syria from countries like Iraq and Lebanon are not flocking to the front lines. Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel-held areas of the country. …
Charles Lister disagrees: Syria’s moderate rebels wane as extremist forces dominate – National
The most notable trend in Syria in 2013 has been the increasing strategic supremacy of Islamist groups, particularly in the northern half of the country. Every major opposition military victory since September 2012 has been Islamist-led.
Another by Lister: New fears for Syria’s jihadists – FP
“Bounded Rationality” محدودية العقلانية – an interesting theoretical analysis by Camille Otrakji in Arabic – watch here
The CTC Sentinel has a new issue entirely centered on Syria, including the following titles:From Karbala to Sayyida Zaynab: Iraqi Fighters in Syria’s Shi`a Militias Phillip Smyth Hizb Allah’s Gambit in Syria Matthew Levitt and Aaron Y. Zelin Iran’s Unwavering Support to Assad’s Syria Karim Sadjadpour Israel’s Response to the Crisis in Syria Arie Perliger Syria: A Wicked Problem for All Bryan Price The Battle for Qusayr: How the Syrian Regime and Hizb Allah Tipped the Balance Nicholas Blanford The Non-State Militant Landscape in Syria Aron Lund Turkey’s Tangled Syria Policy Hugh Pope
From the Aron Lund article:
… This article identifies and profiles some of the most important non-state actors in Syria. It finds that the opposition remains severely fragmented. Although foreign-backed efforts to realize the long-standing goal of a central “Free Syrian Army” leadership for the mainstream insurgency have achieved some progress recently, the resulting Supreme Military Command has little internal cohesion and is held together almost entirely by outside funding. The Syrian regime has also begun to experience a fragmentation of its security apparatus, caused by its increased reliance on local and foreign militia forces, although these problems are still in their early stages. …
The Witnesses – FP – David Kenner
At approximately 3pm PST, the Syrian Electronic Army seemingly hacked into Twitter, Huffington Post and NY Times’ registry accounts altering contact details, and more significantly, DNS records. Modifying DNS records of a domain will allow SEA to redirect visitors to any site of their choosing.
First reported by Matthew Keys, this is the latest of many attacks by the pro-Syrian government computer hackers who align themselves with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.
The flurry of DNS hacks began when the group initially posted a tweet with a screenshot of the whois records for Twitter.com and a link for others to verify its authenticity…
From Max Fisher: The one map that shows why Syria is so complicated
Syria’s Western-backed political opposition plans to create the nucleus of a national army to bring order to the disparate rebel forces battling President Bashar al-Assad and counter the strength of al Qaeda-linked rebel brigades.
The latest attempt to unite the rebels coincides with fierce debates in Washington and other Western capitals over whether and how to boost support for Assad’s opponents after an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces on Wednesday.
Some earlier material we noted but didn’t post in a timely fashion:
International Jihad and the Syrian Conflict – Nick Heras interviews Aaron Zelin – Fair Observer
Support for rebels will help push Syrians away from extremists – National - Hussein Ibish
Extremists are increasingly dominating the Syrian rebellion, especially since the beginning of this year. This has significantly strengthened the position of the dictator, Bashar Al Assad, by validating his narrative about “Islamic terrorism” – that began as a fiction during the period of peaceful, unarmed protests but is now a reality that he is instrumental in shaping and driving.
… Those who argue against arming any of the rebels because of the strength of radical movements are citing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and grim logical consequences, of their own consistent “hands-off” policy recommendations: reluctance to support the FSA for fear of the emergence of extreme Islamists has inexorably and inevitably led to precisely that development.
An amazing moment of hope: a Syrian soldier drops his weapon and walks over to speak to the rebels, reminds everyone that they are all the same people. As with the other articles in this section, I was unable to post when it was timely, due to traveling. This story made the rounds quickly a month ago, but should be remembered, as it revealed an amazing moment of humanity. al-Arabiya: Syrian officer drops own arm, talks to rebels
Another beautiful, human story: Love in the Syrian Revolution – Wendy Pearlman
At least 29,000 Syrians have flooded into northern Iraq since Thursday, the United Nations refugee agency said Monday, calling it one of the largest cross-border migrations since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. Officials said 20,000 crossed over on Thursday alone. More than 1.9 million Syrians have already sought refuge in neighboring countries; more than 180,000 are now in Iraq. (Aug. 19)
Among the journalists I know covering Syria, almost everyone is swearing off crossing the border and going inside the country. It’s not the threat of violence that’s stopping people, but the risk of kidnapping…
While the Egyptian Brotherhood makes global headlines and Tunisia’s Ennahda Party struggles to remain in power, very little is publicly known about the state of Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood. In recent weeks, much has been made of the decrease in the group’s influence over the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). In contrast, not a lot has been said on the Brotherhood’s actual influence inside Syria and its strategy for the revolution. How exactly does the movement plan on dealing with recent trends in the conflict, such as the rise of Islamic extremism in opposition ranks?
A series of interviews conducted with prominent Syrian Brotherhood members and other members of the opposition in Istanbul and Beirut reveal that the group is adapting to an increasingly fragmented Syria made up of competing centers of power. But even if it seems to be gaining some traction on the ground through humanitarian assistance, political activism and armed opposition, the Syrian Brotherhood is still facing enormous external and internal challenges. …
The Muslim Brotherhood’s War on Coptic Christians – Daily Beast
The group that “renounced violence” in an effort to gain political power is engaged in a full-scale campaign of terror against Egypt’s Christian minority. Brotherhood leaders have incited their followers to attack Christian homes, shops, schools and churches throughout the country. Samuel Tadros, an Egyptian scholar with the Hudson Institute, told me these attacks are the worst violence against the Coptic Church since the 14th century.
The news coming out of Egypt is staggering. USA Today reports that “forty churches have been looted and torched, while 23 others have been attacked and heavily damaged” in one week. According to the Coptic Orthodox and Catholic churches in Egypt, 160 Christian-owned buildings have also been attacked.
In one town, Islamists paraded three nuns on the streets like prisoners of war after burning their Franciscan school. The attackers tore a cross off the gate of the school and replaced it with an Islamist flag. The New York Times described hundreds of Islamists in one attack, “lashing out so ferociously that marble altars were left in broken heaps on the floor.”
Two security guards working on a tour boat owned by Christians were burned alive. An orphanage was burned down. The Catholic Bishop of Luxor told the Vatican news agency Tuesday that he has been trapped in his home for 20 days by Islamist mobs chanting “Death to the Christians!” “People who reside in the villages of the area that have nothing because food supplies are running out and people are afraid to leave the house,” he said.
For the first time in 1600 years, prayers were not held in the Virgin Mary and Priest Ibram Monastery, which includes three churches, one of which is an archaeological site. According to the local priest, they were destroyed by supporters of former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. On one village street, Islamists painted a red X on Muslim stores and a black X on Christian stores, so attackers knew where to focus their rage. On Tuesday, there were reports that the Brotherhood declared Friday prayers to be held in an evangelical church in the town of Minya that has been converted to a mosque.
… A Brotherhood spokesman dismissed the wave of attacks as being perpetrated by “foolish boys” and alleged a conspiracy against his organization. But the Facebook page of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is rife with false accusations meant to foment hatred against Copts, including the absurd claim that the Church has declared “war against Islam and Muslims” and justified the attacks by saying: “After all this, people ask why they burn the churches.” Then came a threat: “For every action there is a reaction.”
The Muslim Brotherhood has been inciting violence against the Copts in an effort to scapegoat the religious minority for the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi. The FJP Facebook page is filled with the rhetoric the Brotherhood leaders have been using in their speeches at the sit-ins: “The pope of the Church is involved in the removal of the first elected Islamist president. The pope of the Church alleges Islamic Sharia is backwards, stubborn, and reactionary.” …
The life and work of anarchist Omar Aziz, and his impact on self-organization in the Syrian revolution - Leila Shrooms for Tahrir-ICN
Omar Aziz (fondly known by friends as Abu Kamal) was born in Damascus. He returned to Syria from exile in Saudi Arabia and the United States in the early days of the Syrian revolution. An intellectual, economist, anarchist, husband and father, at the age of 63, he committed himself to the revolutionary struggle. He worked together with local activists to collect humanitarian aid and distribute it to suburbs of Damascus that were under attack by the regime. Through his writing and activity he promoted local self-governance, horizontal organization, cooperation, solidarity and mutual aid as the means by which people could emancipate themselves from the tyranny of the state. Together with comrades, Aziz founded the first local committee in Barzeh, Damascus.The example spread across Syria and with it some of the most promising and lasting examples of non-hierarchical self organization to have emerged from the countries of the Arab Spring.
In her tribute to Omar Aziz, Budour Hassan says, he “did not wear a Vendetta mask, nor did he form black blocs. He was not obsessed with giving interviews to the press …[Yet] at a time when most anti-imperialists were wailing over the collapse of the Syrian state and the “hijacking” of a revolution they never supported in the first place, Aziz and his comrades were tirelessly striving for unconditional freedom from all forms of despotism and state hegemony.” …
Panorama of Destruction: The Story Behind the Aerial View of Homs - Emily Dische-Becker and Hisham Ashkar – This should be read, an amazing analysis of aerial photos of destruction in Syria, the drones that captured them, and a discussion of wartime art…
Damascus: What’s Left – Sarah Birke – good article
… The same day, I went out for dinner with a well-connected businessman—he went to school with Bashar al-Assad and Bashar’s elder brother Bassel and has flourished under the regime, even more so since the crisis started. The restaurant served a take on continental food and any type of alcohol you might fancy. A coiffed young woman with a photo of Bashar as her iPhone cover sang songs as her smiling companions knocked back drinks at a price that would pay the rent of a displaced family for a month. At one point, the businessman got up to use the bathroom and something clattered to the floor. It was a pistol. “Oh, that,” he said. “I am so afraid of being kidnapped. I would rather kill myself than have that happen to me.”
During my stay, visits to a half-dozen different central neighborhoods made clear to me that the regime is far from on its last legs—at least here. The economy trundles along, largely propped up by funds from the Iranian government—which has injected at least $4 billion into Syria since the conflict began. …
… Yet the most noticeable change to the city since I lived here before the war is in the urban population itself. Damascus, which had an estimated five to six million inhabitants before the conflict began, never rivaled Cairo for intellectual life, or Beirut for sophistication. Yet it had enough of its own aspiring filmmakers and graying dissidents, worldly youth and wrinkled shop owners, and many highly-educated lawyers, doctors, and scholars. Now many professionals, the young, and even workers with sufficient savings to do so have left for Lebanon, Egypt, the Gulf, or further afield. …
… To these loyalists, the recent course of the war—including the growing reports of more radical groups gaining an upper hand in some opposition regions—has given proof to their argument that the government is the last secular bastion in the region, attacked by a range of extremists funded by Gulf countries. The opposition fighters have done themselves no favors as the fight becomes dirtier. “I wanted a revolution but the regime played a clever game and won,” one young man told me, referring to the how the government stoked fears of sectarian violence, including, according to multiple reports in 2011, by releasing criminals, especially Islamists, from Seydnaya prison so they could join the opposition.
Others in the capital—like most of their compatriots living in rebel-held territory—vehemently disagree. They say they would rather die than live under the regime; and that it must be brought down regardless of the cost. A handful of prominent Damascenes such as Yassin Hajj-Saleh, a well-known writer, and Razan Zeitouneh, a lawyer who has been in hiding since the start of the uprising, have even moved to the rebel-held suburbs. (In mid-July, Hajj-Saleh, who is now in East Ghouta with no power or phone, and very little food, told The Guardian, “In Damascus, we faced the constant possibility of arrest and insufferable torture. Here we are safe from that, but not from a missile that could land on our heads at any minute.”) Nadia, a Syrian friend who works for an international aid agency, told me she likes to cross these lines and go to places such as Homs because the people and the revolution seem far more alive than in Damascus. …
Viva La Zaatar Croissant – Syrian Foodie in LondonOver the last week, the most reported story from Syria wasn’t the hundreds of people killed by Assad gangs nor was it fighter jets bombing civilian homes in Aleppo. It was an alleged ban on eating croissant by a religious committee in rebel controlled Aleppo. Sounds ludicrous, doesn’t it? It must be a joke.
Not according to the Time, CNN, Washington Post, Huffington Post and every other news paper in the four corners of the Earth who decided to jump on the bandwagon. …
On August 14th 2013, a video was uploaded to Jihad461′s YouTube account. The video, viewable here (extreme NSFL) – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-xYg5qTC7M, showed a rebel of the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (hereafter ISIS) group reading a statement in front of two young men on their knees.
The title of the video uploaded reads, ‘the urgent execution of two Shiite youths by ‘Victory Front’.
In the video, the speaker reads a statement, that roughly, translates as follows. …
Simplistic but entertaining nonetheless, “Shortest Guide to the Middle East Ever”:
— Ahmed Shihab-Eldin (@ASE) August 24, 2013
In answer to this question, Joshua Landis and Syria Comment provide the following statement:
The US must respond to the use of chemical weapons in a forceful manner, but should not launch a broader intervention in Syria.
Preserving the widely respected international norm banning the use of chemical weapons is a clear interest of the US and international community.
The US, however, should avoid getting sucked into the Syrian Civil War. Thus, it should punish Assad with enough force to deter future use of chemical weapons, but without using so much force that it gets drawn into an open-ended conflict.
The reasons why the US should avoid a wider intervention is that it has no partner within Syria or the international community to help shoulder the burden of nation-building. All the countries of the region want Washington to solve their Syria problem, but none want to send in troops.
The Syrian opposition is dysfunctional and composed of over 1,000 militias, the strongest of which are radically pro-Islamist and virulently anti-American. Most are not prepared to work with the US or provide responsible government for the country.
The barbarism of the Assad regime is horrifying, but the US cannot solve the bitter ethnic, sectarian, and factional rivalries in Syria. It should, however, attempt to dissuade Assad from using chemical weapons, and can employ force in this endeavor.
Syria Comment’s Position on the Conflict More Generally
Consistently arguing against intervention since the beginning of the conflict has elicited a degree of animosity and anger from those waiting expectantly for the Syrian regime to fall. This feeling is understandable as so much of the country has been destroyed.
We at Syrian Comment are not insulated from the suffering in Syria, but encounter it daily as our friends, family, and associates both in and outside the country relate their stories of anguish and loss. With close to one-third of Syrians displaced (two million having fled the country and close to five million internal refugees) the suffering is staggering. We regularly hear pleas from those we know for personal help and support, often beyond our means.
The argument against intervention, therefore, is a position we maintain while unceasingly observing and witnessing the heartbreaking bloodshed. Despite the tremendous outcry of pain and loss, we still believe that intervention in Syria is not a viable option for America for several important reasons.
Some of those reasons include:
1) Bombing is not a solution: Mere bombing will not provide a solution; in order to disarm militias and protect Syrians, the U.S. would have to put peace-keeping forces on the ground to end revenge killings and provide security, yet Washington has ruled out sending occupation troops into Syria.
2) The financial burden is too high: The U.S. lacks the resources or will to spend enough money to do the necessary nation-building in Syria. This is why having an international coalition willing to send troops into Syria is so important. Militias have to be disarmed and a new state has to be built. Suppressing competing militias and building new central governments in both Iraq and Afghanistan has cost in excess of one trillion dollars apiece.
3) The lack of desire on the part of Americans for another long-term Middle East entanglement without a foreseeable end.
4) The opposition is incapable of providing government services: Millions of Syrians still depend on the government for their livelihoods, basic services, and infrastructure. The government continues to supply hundreds of thousands of Syrians with salaries & retirement benefits. Destroying these state services with no capacity to replace them would plunge ever larger numbers of Syrians into even darker circumstances and increase the outflow of refugees beyond its already high level. Syria can get worse.
Most militias are drawn from the poorer, rural districts of Syria. Most wealth is concentrated in the city centers that remain integral (such as Damascus, Lattakia, Tartus, Baniyas, Hama, etc.), which have survived largely unscathed in this conflict, and have not opted to continue the struggle. If the militias take these cities, there will be widespread looting and lawlessness which will threaten many more civilians who have managed to escape the worst until now.
Many in these urban centers have managed to continue leading fairly stable lives up to the present; despite the tremendous level of destruction seen so far, many areas are still a long way from the bottom. It would be preferable to avoid a Somalia-like scenario in the remaining cities and provinces.
It’s not at all clear that U.S. intervention can improve the economic or security situation for Syrians.
5) Entering the conflict would mean America battling on multiple fronts, not only against the regime: The U.S. has declared itself at war with al-Qaida. If we were to intervene, we would have to enter a new front against the most powerful and effective Syrian opposition militias, in addition to the war against Assad. Our forces would be targeted by extremists and more radically-Islamist militias. We would be fighting a multi-front war.
6) The potential for ethnic cleansing and revenge killings is high: The different ethno-sectarian communities and socio-economic classes are renegotiating the dynamics of their relationship inside Syria. For the last 50 years, Alawites have monopolized the ramparts of power in Syria. They have allied themselves with other minorities and important segments of the Sunni majority, and the regime has preserved its power through a careful sectarian strategy. The rebellion, led primarily by Sunni Arabs of the countryside, aims to supplant the Alawite hold on power. The US cannot adjudicate the new balance of power that will emerge in Syria. It is not prudent to dramatically tip the balance of power in such a supercharged environment of sectarian hatred and class warfare.
Military Action at Present Should Target Chemical Weapons Only
[This heading was misunderstood by some to mean a strike on chemical weapons stockpiles themselves; the intended meaning was that a strike should be designed to deter chemical weapons use. Sorry for the vagueness.]
While the U.S. and the American people are no allies of the Syrian regime (and for good reason), pushing hard for a rebel win today is not in US interests and is unlikely to benefit Syria. Punitive measures taken against the regime following the use of chemical weapons should be conducted with the purpose of deterring the future use of chemical weapons—not to change the balance of power in favor of the rebels.
This is said with full recognition of the terrible atrocities and killing taking place within Syria, including the many crimes of the regime. The Assad regime is not an entity to be protected or defended, but destroying it today may throw the country into greater chaos and suffering and pull the U.S. into a morass that lacks any visible solution.
Long Term Goal of a Power-Sharing Agreement
The US should strive to persuade all parties to reach a power-sharing agreement to end the war. This can only happen with the cooperation of Russia and other players, such as Iran. It is not likely to happen soon, but such a Geneva-style agreement would provide an important framework for a peace process down the road. If Syria is to be kept together as a unified state, a power-sharing agreement must be hammered out, with or without Assad.
The post Should the Use of Chemical Weapons Prompt a US Attack in Syria? appeared first on Syria Comment.