Al-Qaeda’s Syrian Judiciary—is it really what al-Jolani makes it out to be?

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-11-10 13:04

by Maxwell Martin, researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Turkey that has implemented justice related programming in northern Syria

The flag of Dar al-Qadaa, the Nusra-backed court network in Syria

On November 4th, 2014, Abu Muhammad al-Jolani, the leader of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, the Nusra Front, released a recording in which he spoke about what the militant group has been up to lately. While many observers’ attention was focused on what al-Jolani had to say about the Nusra Front’s recent altercation with the Western-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib, the recording was also noteworthy for al-Jolani’s lengthy discussion of Dar al-Qadaa, meaning “the judiciary,” a new network of courts that the group spearheaded in July 2014. It provided the clearest view yet of the thinking behind the establishment of Dar al-Qadaa, including the Nusra Front’s interpretation of the practical and doctrinal problems that the group sought to eschew when it withdrew from other court networks it previously backed with the Islamic Front. But is Dar al-Qadaa all that al-Jolani makes it out to be?

Whither the sharia commissions?

According to al-Jolani, the Nusra Front withdrew from the sharia commissions it jointly backed with Islamic Front factions Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Tawhid, and Suqur al-Sham because of the crippling influence of factional infighting. “Some looked at the commissions as a way to implement the sharia, which was right,” noted al-Jolani in a not-so-veiled reference to his own group, “while others looked at the commissions as a political front from which they wished to gain. Still others saw some kind of weakness in the commissions and wanted to drag them into cooperation with the [Syrian Opposition] Coalition,” a puppet of the West, according to the group. Previously, the Nusra Front lamented the fact that other factions simply ignored the sharia commissions when it suited them, establishing in-house judicial bodies instead. As a result, the commissions “lost the essential purpose for which they were established.”

Unsatisfied with the sharia commissions’ performance and commitment to implementing an acceptable interpretation of Islamic law, the Nusra Front undertook “to establish an alternative to the sharia commissions with stricter rules.” To rectify the internal friction that hindered the sharia commissions’ work, al-Jolani turned to other jihadi factions to help prop the new court network up and to ensure a kind of cross-factional legitimacy. Other hardline factions were invited to join the project, but al-Jolani insisted that “those who participate in Dar al-Qadaa must agree with [the Nusra Front] on the goals and the means to achieve those goals.”

Despite the Nusra Front’s controlling influence over the new project, the court network was to be separate from armed factions, and al-Jolani promised that Nusra Front fighters would be the first to submit to the new court’s authority. Dar al-Qadaa claims to be entirely independent, and jihadi fundraiser and hype-man ‘Abdullah al-Muheisini’s reported involvement in shopping the project around would seem to underscore the court’s nominal autonomy. In the past, al-Muheisini has insisted that initiatives in which he has been involved not have any affiliation with any particular faction. As such, Dar al-Qadaa’s denunciation of “the repugnant system of factional quotas” that prevailed in the sharia commissions highlights that at least on its face, Dar al-Qadaa is not intended to be a multilateral factional enterprise, but an unaffiliated, salafi-jihadi project.

The Nusra Front’s—and other jihadi groups’—renewed focus on governance and on the law was also spurred by other developments in the opposition judiciary. Al-Jolani noted that other groups, including lawyers unions, were striving to fill the justice vacuum by implementing man-made laws instead of the sharia, a grave offense in the Nusra Front’s worldview. Even the Aleppo Sharia Commission, the most prominent of the commissions in which the Nusra Front had participated, was considering taking up the Unified Arab Code, a codified version of Islamic law that is unacceptable to salafi-jihadis of al-Qaeda’s persuasion.

The challenge of multi-factional justice

Dar al-Qadaa, however, has its detractors. Last week, a former jurist in the court’s Latakia branch blasted the new judicial body, saying that it was already corrupt and beset by factionalism. The jurist, Salman al-‘Arjani, was originally of Sham al-Islam, a mostly Moroccan foreign fighter jihadi outfit, but has since defected to the Islamic State. His litany of complaints against Dar al-Qadaa included the story of how a Nusra Front emir got away with a vicious assault on a married couple because the group’s judge let him out of jail, fearing retribution if he did not, before absconding to a nearby Nusra Front stronghold in Idlib. Al-‘Arjani also complained that the Nusra Front judge unlawfully set a Free Syrian Army commander free, infuriating the independent judges in the Latakia branch of Dar al-Qadaa and leading them to suspend their work.

But al-‘Arjani went further, accusing the same emir of apostasy for replacing a cross that jihadis had torn down inside a church during a recent offensive against the mostly-Christian town of Kassab. Al-‘Arjani and other hardliners were so incensed, he said, that “some of the mujahidin were determined to kill” the emir. The result of these acts, insisted al-‘Arjani, was that the Nusra Front had “made a mockery of God’s law.”

Whether or not we take al-‘Arjani at his word, his critique implies that Dar al-Qadaa may be suffering from some of the same problems that drove the Nusra Front to establish it in the first place. The Nusra Front’s admitted oversized role in the court may tempt it—or at least individual influential members—to skirt the rules when doing so is in their interest. At the very least, it reveals the difficulty groups face when jointly attempting to govern, even among an ostensibly like-minded group of salafi-jihadis; Unlike the Islamic State—which enjoys nearly unchallenged “sovereignty” where it governs—the Nusra Front must balance between a diverse set of highly opinionated jihadis—including, apparently, ones that are more extreme than the Nusra Front itself. The process can result in a fragile consensus, challenging the overall coherence of the Nusra Front’s approach to governance and resulting in the same kind of discord that frustrated the sharia commissions’ aspirations to judicial supremacy.

Striving for Society’s Embrace

As the Nusra Front expands its footprint in northern Syria and replaces other, more nationalist-oriented armed groups—the rule of which was marred by accusations of thuggery and banditry—the performance of its judicial arm in Dar al-Qadaa will be critical. Whether the Nusra Front is seen as fair in its administration of opposition-held territories will have implications for its ability to generate popular support, or al-hadina al-sha’biyya—society’s embrace—that the group has at times deemed necessary for its success, both on the battlefield and in Islamizing Syrian society in al-Qaeda’s image. However, the group will have to balance what they deem popular and religiously acceptable governance with other, harder-line views within the coalition of non-Islamic State-aligned jihadi groups of how to best implement Islamic law, a process that could see the Nusra Front dragged further out of synch with the populations it hopes to court.

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Fareed Zakaria goes 1-on-1 with Syria expert Joshua Landis to discuss an innovative solution to the ongoing Syrian crisis

Syria Comment - 일, 2014-11-09 03:33

Fareed Zakaria goes 1-on-1 with Syria expert Joshua Landis to discuss an innovative solution to the ongoing Syrian crisis.

This short clip comes out of the longer interview I did with Danny

How do gains by al-Nusra affect U.S. strategy in Syria? – Part 2 | PBS NewsHour
Joshua Landis & Andrew Tabler discuss what this means for US policy with Judy Woodruff

Part 1 of the PBS show = The set up of news clips which also includes some excellent graphics explaining which describe the disposition of forces on the ground.

U.S. navigates complicated cast of opposition groups in search of partner to fight Islamic State – Part 1

Over the weekend, the al-Nusra Front seized a major weapons cache from U.S.-backed Syrian rebels — a blow to Washington’s effort to keep territory out of militant control. President Obama said the U.S. and its allies must tread carefully to find an ally among all of the different factions. Judy Woodruff takes a look at some of the major groups fighting in Syria.

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Nusra’s Offensive in Idlib & its Attempt to Destroy Washington’s Allies. November 2014

Syria Comment - 목, 2014-11-06 09:43

Jabhat al-Nusra’s Offensive in Idlib province and its Attempt to Destroy Washington’s Allies. (November 2014)
Posted by Joshua Landis

The following information about Jabhat al-Nusra’s offensive against the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Hazm Movement in the Jabal al-Zawiya region comes from a well informed source who has been in the area over the last several weeks. The following information about Nusra’s ambitions and movements was relayed by him.

After a week of deadly fighting for turf in Idlib province, Jabhat a-Nusra and the US-backed Syrian Revolutionaries Front declared a truce on Thursday. Here, a closer look at the battleground – SyriaDirect

Jabhat al Nusra (JN) continues to advance in the villages of Jabal Al-Zawiya, including AL-Bara , Kansafra, Ehsim, Der Sunbul (Jamal Maaruf’s home town).

Blin, Bluin, Bsqala, Binnish, and Saraqib are under the control of Jund Al-Aqsa, a  group loyal to Ayman Al-Zwahiri.

JN has advanced west of the main Damascus-Aleppo highway to Kafr Ruma and east of the highway to Tal Manis, Maarat Shurin along with Filaq AL-Sham brigade.

Nusra also controls Ma`saran village where they are led by, Hamido, a 42 year old local who was a FSA fighter until 10 days ago, when he joined Jabhat al Nusra and became its PR director and local negotiator. JN also captured the villages of al-Tamanah east of  the Khan Shakhun area.

JN is in alliance with the Islamic Front and with Suqur al-Sham, a large militia that has been part of the Islamic Front in the past. JN has made a deal with Al-Khansa Liwaa which is led by Ahmad Al-Shaikh, the head of Suqur Al-Sham. He is the head of the Shura council of the Islamic Front. JN has also struck a deal with the Liwa Safwa group from Suqur Al-Sham.

JN also has an alliance with the Ahrar Al-Sham groups : Liwa Al-Abbas based in Bliun and  Abu Saleh Al-Tahhan, one of the main military leaders in Ahrar Al-Sham. He helped JN its recent campaign against the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front and Hazm Movement.

Why is the Islamic Front keen to deal with JN in Idlib?

According to some people on the ground, Ahmad Shaikh, the head of Suqur Al-Sham, is ambitious to become the dominant leader in the area. Jamal Maaruf was his main competitor causing him to team up with Nusra in order to drive out Maaruf. Nusra leaders also accused Jamal Maaruf of being a thug, who was not only corrupt, but who regularly tortured those who opposed him.

Nusra  announced that it took all the ammunition and weapons that belonged to the SRF.  But in reality they just took 1 tank from Hazem, BMB and ammunition.

The forces of separation قوات الفصل  are composed of 15 Islamic brigades which will send troops to keep peace in Jabal al-Zawiya area. They will also be called the ”al-Solh forces. “
They are from

  1. Jish Al-Mujhadeen
  2. Nor al Din Al Ziniki
  3. Filaq Al-Sham
  4. Firaqa 13
  5. Liwa Omar al-Mukhtar
  6. Hazm Movement
  7. Ahrar AL-Sham
  8. Liwa Al-Haq
  9. Syrian liberation Front
  10. Liwaa al -Awal
  11. Suqur al-Sham
  12. Jaysh Al-Islam

A few soldiers from each of these battalions participated in the force but not all of them were serious about their mission. Nusra agreed to their operation, but they were not able to stop Nusra from advancing to other villages.

In regards the mediation effort led by Ayman Haroush and Hassan  Dughem and others.  They started meetings in the area and consultations between the groups to stop the war between Nusra and the SRF but on the 26 of October.  Jund Al-Aqsa arrested Shaikh Muhamd Ezz al-Din Al-Khatab and other 2 judges who accompanied him at the time, and till now, no body know where the Shaikh and others are. Jund Al-Aqsa has refused to release them.

Most of the people who were trying to negotiate with Nusra are now in Turkey. They lost hope in arriving at any understanding. They insist that Nusra was not serious about negotiations. What is more, Nusra is difficult to reach its leaders refuse to use the internet.

According to Nusra’s leader, Joulani, he explained in his recent speech, “We want to finish Jamal Marouf and the SRF since they are dealing with Saudi Arabia and the USA” Joulani said that they’re not alone in this war, meaning that Suqur al-Sham and Ahrar Al-Sham are equally interested in doing away with Maaruf.

Joulani insisted that all other battalions would work with the Nusra. He stated that the US supports Maaruf and the FSA to fight Nusra but not Assad. Nusra is not interested to cooperate with IS in in Idlib province because Nusra hopes to build its own Emirate in Idblib province. Last month they only controlled Salqiin and Harem, but now they control most of the Jabal Al-Zawiya.

Once Nusra captured most of the strategic towns in the area, it announced that it would accept the Sharia court led by Abdulaha Al-Muhaysini, the Saudi Salafi Sheikh. Joulani said that Jamal Maaruf should be under this court until he gives up his alliance with the Syrian Opposition Coalition in Antakia and with Saudi Arabia and the US.  http://justpaste.it/hso5

Now Jamal Marouf is in Turkey. He has long meetings yesterday with FSA leaders in Rehanli.

Saddam Al-Khalifa who was a Motorcycle dealer from Hama before the war, is presently the leader of Uqab Al-Islam, a Salafi Jihadi militia, which close to ISIS, but not under its direct command. Al-Khalifa controls the area east of Idlib and Hama. It is largely populated by bedouin who belong to the Al-Mawali tribe among other. Saddam has very good relations with the people there and they trust him. There were Rumors that he would support Nusra but so far the region has stayed out of Nusra’s control.

The Syrian Organization of Human Rights (SOHR) reports that  trusted sources claim that “clashes renewed this morning between the fighting battalions around Der Sunbul village, which is the main stronghold of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and around Hantonen near M’rah al-Nu’man.

SOHR also reports that Jund al Aqsa, the group helping Nusra, still hasn’t found the body of its Qatari leader, Abo Abdul Aziz al- Qatari. He was kidnapped in January when fighting first broke out between ISIS and the rebels. The Qatari commander was allegedly killed by the SRF. It is believed that his body was thrown in a local well. Prior to these events, his son was killed by the SAA. Al-Nusra Front published videos that show men retrieving bodies from wells in Deir Sunbul, the hometown of its commander “Jamal Ma’ruf”. Al-Nusra Front, however, claimed that these bodies were those of civilians and fighters executed by the SRF. None were the Qatari leader of Jund al-Aqsa.

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A Visit to the Tomb of Hafez al-Asad

Syria Comment - 수, 2014-10-29 22:45

The following is an excerpt from “Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present,” just out from Oxford University Press/ C. Hurst & Co. For further information on the book and the history of Syria, follow me on Facebook and Twitter.

The road from Latakia to Qardaha wound gently along the Mediterranean coast. From here, the blue waters seemed to race to an endless horizon, to a world still wider than crowded Damascus, over one hundred and fifty miles inland. But the beachside view obscured the intimacy of the moment. Plato referred to this sea and the cities perched on its shores as a pond crowded with frogs. In antiquity, as today, these frogs came in a dizzying menagerie of shapes and colors, yet their diversity disguised their essential unity. There was more uniting these far-flung peoples than dividing them. It was a sense of a common heritage held together by the relentless flow of merchants, philosophers, and missionaries across this small pond.

Latakia—ancient Laodicea—is Syria’s principal port. It is located along a narrow coastal strip in the northwest of the country, between the Lebanese and Turkish borders. With its beachside resorts, open-air cafes, and relaxed ambiance, the city was a salutary reminder that Syria—at least in these parts—was very much one of Plato’s frogs, a Mediterranean country with its eyes trained on the sea.

Mountains of northwestern Syria, with Mediterranean Sea in the distance, Tartus Province (photo: author)

Nevertheless, not everyone who basks in the Mediterranean sun enjoys its riches. For just as Syria’s geography and culture are divided between coast and desert, there is an equally pronounced rift between the coasts and mountains, which rise mightily from the waters’ edge. Here, the rugged peaks shelter villages that form the once-destitute heartland of Syria’s ‘Alawi community, a region known as Jabal Ansariyya. One hot day in July 2009, I headed to one of the most important of these mountain villages—Qardaha—to try to understand how a once-marginal group came to control Syria during the course of the twentieth century.

About ten miles south of Latakia, the road began to climb steeply. I was riding in a rickety van that had crawled the streets of Beijing or Seoul in another life, but was now covered with kitschy images of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Asad. The van shook to the songs of a Lebanese chanteuse, but the volume waned as we hit a steep incline. I was the only foreigner in a cabin filled with locals, many of them chain-smoking and forlorn-looking. Between them sat crates of peaches, parsley, and what looked like bottles of arak, that alcoholic nectar of the Levant.

The road leveled off eventually and the electronic rhythms resumed their punishing pace. Amidst the rugged landscape, the Mediterranean became harder and harder to see. She appeared occasionally with a coquettish wink, her sparkling blue eyes disguised between olive groves and mountain wadis. Up here, the sea was only seven miles away, but it felt like hundreds. Qardaha and its people were born of a sense of isolation from Plato’s world, not of belonging to it.

Qardaha enjoyed little notoriety throughout history: it was one of many faceless farming communities that dotted the mountains of Syria’s northwest, whose ‘Alawi inhabitants made meager returns selling tobacco, lemons and other crops to coastal merchants. For centuries, poverty here was endemic. Families were sometimes forced to make ends meet by selling their daughters into servitude in the homes of Sunnis grandees down below. By all reports, Qardaha was not a happy place, or much of a place at all; as Gertrude Stein once remarked of a very different city, Oakland, California: “There is no there there.”

All this would change in the early twentieth century, when contacts between the mountain and the coast began to increase. Among the beneficiaries was a young man named Hafez al-Asad, born in 1930, destined to become Qardaha’s most famous son. He descended the mountain for schooling and never looked back. As an adult, he rose up through the ranks of the Syrian Air Force, Baath Party leadership, and the government, serving as defense minister. In 1970, he seized control of the state in a successful coup, ruling Syria with cruel determination until his death thirty years later. You can tell a lot about a man by where he chooses to be buried, and despite a career forged in the cut-throat government halls of Damascus, Asad wished his body to return here, to the mountain village where he was born.

Tomb of Hafez al-Asad, Qardaha, Latakia Province (photo: author)

After a forty-five minute ride, I stepped out of the bus: Asad’s mausoleum sat on the edge of Qardaha’s still-humble, even derelict looking downtown. The ragged streets improved as I approached his grave, with newly planted trees and flowers lining a wide boulevard. Despite the inviting entrance and luxurious appointments, the mausoleum was strange: an eight-pointed star surmounted by a flat, onion-shaped dome—reminiscent of a spaceship in an old science fiction movie. An intricate Arabic inscription ran along the façade of the building, and on a large wall facing the entrance hung a sepia-toned portrait of the deceased leader. In it, an elderly Asad wore a page-boy cap and a wry smile, with the Syrian flag billowing behind him. It conjured a sense of nostalgia for a bygone world—for your grandfather and mine—for the grandfather of all Syria, this sunny-looking dictator.

The otherworldly ambiance was undiminished inside the mausoleum. Asad’s grave lay in a shallow octagonal depression in the floor, beneath the main dome. The casket, draped in a rich green cloth, was surrounded by a wreath of fresh flowers, and a second band of green satin sheets. To the left was the grave of Basel, the dauphin of the house of Asad who died tragically in 1994 (after crashing his Mercedes on the airport road outside Damascus, for which he is remembered as a shahid, or martyr). There were other empty graves in the building, presumably awaiting the deaths of other Asad family members—including Hafez’s widow Aniseh and their son Bashar, who took over the family business in 2000.

The mausoleum of Hafez al-Asad was more of a cultic site than a grave. Here, ‘Alawi security officers dutifully tended the tomb when not oiling their pistols or sipping tea, and piles of flowers left by dignitaries and pilgrims lay strewn outside. It looked like the mourning had never ended. There was a strange dignity to the place: it was a memorial to a man of ferocious but incredible ambition, as well as to a community that had managed to emancipate itself from its mountain miseries and take center stage in modern Syrian history. The story of Hafez al-Asad—the Alawi peasant who would become king—has no parallel in its particulars across this country. But in its generalities, it sums up the experience of many minorities over the past hundred years. It is the story of the outsider made insider, of the particular who managed to carve out a place for himself by redefining the universal.

Christian Sahner is a historian of the Middle East. He is the author of the recently released book, “Among the Ruins: Syria Past and Present” (Oxford University Press/ C. Hurst & Co). A graduate of Princeton University and the University of Oxford, where he studied as a Rhodes Scholar, he is completing his doctorate at Princeton, focusing on the role of non-Muslims in medieval Islamic societies. His essays have appeared in The Times Literary Supplement and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.

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Jabhat Ansar al-Din: Analysis and Interview

Syria Comment - 금, 2014-10-24 00:41

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Logo of Jabhat Ansar al-Din

Jabhat Ansar al-Din [Supporters/Partisans of the Religion Front] is a coalition of four groups originally set up in July of this year, comprising Harakat Sham al-Islam, Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar, The Green Battalion and Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya. Of these groups, Harakat Sham al-Islam was set up by Moroccan ex-Gitmo detainee Ibrahim bin Shakaran, who died in the Latakia offensive this spring. Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMWA)- under Omar al-Shishani- was once part of what was then the Islamic State State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), but following Shishani and his followers’ break-off to join ISIS in November 2013, the group has effectively become the Caucasus Emirate’s wing in Syria. The Green Battalion was an independent group set up in the summer of last year by Saudi fighters who wanted to stay out of the Jabhat al-Nusra-ISIS dispute but has since pledged allegiance to JMWA, while an amir, Shari’a official and some fighters have joined ISIS’ successor the Islamic State [IS]. Finally, one should note Harakat Fajr al-Sham al-Islamiya is a native Syrian, primarily Aleppo-based faction.

As per the ‘manifesto’ of Jabhat Ansar al-Din, the coalition defines itself as ‘independent’ and striving to implement a state-building project with the rule of Shari’a [Islamic law] in its totality, illustrating a broader trend of jihadi groups forming their own state enterprises as IS and the regime increasingly take up territory. As I have mentioned before, one may ask why the members of this coalition have not simply join Jabhat al-Nusra (which strives for the same goal) in line with the precedent of the one-time Saudi-led independent jihadi group Suqur al-Izz: I submit that this is due to power-politics tension in the sense of not wanting to lose autonomy and be subsumed under Jabhat al-Nusra. The case of Harakat Sham al-Islam in particular seems to be one of an al-Qa’ida front project under Ibrahim bin Shakaran’s leadership but a change in direction after his death.

In keeping with the general ‘anti-fitna’ stance of jihadi groups (including al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb [AQIM] and al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP]) when it comes to perceived non-Muslim/’apostate’ forces fighting a jihadi group (regardless of the power-struggles), Jabhat Ansar al-Din issued a statement denouncing the U.S.-led coalition against IS as part of a war on Islam and Muslims. The statement cites common grievances such as the U.S.-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the prisons of Begram and Guantánamo with torture therein, “America’s support and aid for the Jews in Palestine…the Jews’ occupation of the al-Aqsa mosque,” crimes committed against Muslims in Burma and the Central African Republic, and supposed U.S. siding with “Arab tyrants” in Libya, Yemen, Egypt and Tunisia.

From these complaints, the statement affirmed that “the target of the Zionist-Crusader-Safavid alliance is Islam and Muslims in general and their mujahideen vanguard in particular.” Denouncing anyone who should enter into the alliance as guilty of apostasy, Jabhat Ansar al-Din concluded with a call for Muslim unity against “this oppressive intervention,” and asked God to “give victory to the mujahideen in Iraq, ash-Sham and every place.”

However, it is notable that unlike AQIM and AQAP (which admittedly tried to avoid the issue of whether al-Qa’ida groups regard IS as a state by simply referring to it as ‘the Islamic State’ rather than ‘the group of the state’ [jamaat ad-dawla]), Jabhat Ansar al-Din does not even refer to IS by name in the statement, which fits a wider pattern of non-al-Qa’ida-affiliated jihadi groups in Syria aiming to stay out of the al-Qa’ida-IS dispute as far as possible.

Indeed, to date, with the exception of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (which has fought IS in Iraq anyway), none of the global jihadi groups outside of Jabhat al-Nusra- including the few remaining stand-alone ones such as Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham and Jund al-Aqsa- is known to have participated in actual fighting against IS. In the case of Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, the refusal to fight against IS sparked tensions with Northern Storm in Azaz and ultimately led to the group’s departure from Azaz. Corroborating the anti-fitna record is the fact that some of the components of Jabhat Ansar al-Din prior to the coalition’s announcement worked with what was then ISIS in early 2014 in besieging Kweiris airbase in Aleppo province under the initiative ‘And Don’t Separate’ (along with Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham).

Whether Jabhat Ansar al-Din can truly maintain this ostensibly ‘trouble free’ policy of relations with other jihadis in Syria- particularly IS and Jabhat al-Nusra- remains an open question.

Reflecting Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s state-building ambitions, video of a Shari’a institute run by Harakat Sham al-Islam.

Jabhat Ansar al-Din’s JMWA purportedly conducting anti-aircraft operations in Handarat, Aleppo province.

Harakat Sham al-Islam da’wah efforts reportedly in Latakia countryside.

JMWA da’wah efforts for children reportedly in north Aleppo countryside.

Friday sermon reportedly given by a Green Battalion member in Idlib countryside.

Below is an interview I conducted with Abo Mo’atesem al-Shami, a Jabhat Ansar al-Din media activist based in the Aleppo area, corroborating the points I made above.


Q: Does Jabhat Ansar al-Din want a Caliphate?

A: Yes. [Among] our goals are the project of an Islamic Caliphate and the rule of God’s law in the land.

Q: But why is Jabhat Ansar al-Din independent and does not join Jabhat al-Nusra which also wants a Caliphate?

A: The problem is with them, not with us: we are prepared to work with all upright factions whose goals are like ours. It is not hidden from anyone that the goals of the majority of factions are like our goals.

Q: In your opinion has Jabhat al-Nusra made mistakes on the ground?

A: In my personal opinion indeed we all make mistakes…and perhaps in Jabhat al-Nusra’s point of view it is not necessary to establish a Caliphate while the gangs of Assad exist in Syria.

Q: In which areas does Jabhat Ansar al-Din operate?

A: We operate in Aleppo, Idlib, Hama, Homs and Latakia. In Aleppo: al-Ramousa, Sheikh Said, Aziza, Air Intelligence, Handarat, Sayfat, and in the southern countryside: the area of Jabal ‘Azzan, al-Wadihi, Mu’amal ad-Difa’. In Idlib: the village of Wadi al-Deif, al-Qarmeed military camp. In Hama: the countryside to the north of the city of Hama. In Homs: the countryside to the north of the city of Homs. In Latakia: Jabal al-Akrad, Jabal al-Turkoman and Kassab.

Q: How are your relations with IS?

A: We have no relation with IS (original: ad-dawla). We don’t fight them and they don’t fight us. But anyone who says that Jabhat Ansar al-Din is affiliated with IS is lying.

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The White Shroud: A Syrian Resistance Movement to the Islamic State

Syria Comment - 목, 2014-10-23 07:08

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Logo of “The White Shroud”

I have previously written on Sunni groups created within Iraq to fight against the Islamic State [IS], but what about in Syria? Some attention has been devoted to the group “Al-Kafn Al-Abyad” (The White Shroud), but on social media I have seen some controversy as to the nature of The White Shroud. For example, people ask: is it Jabhat al-Nusra, or ‘FSA’?

To answer this question, one needs to bear in mind that The White Shroud is an anti-IS outfit originally set up in the Deir az-Zor locality of Albukamal on the border with Iraq (now declared part of IS’ ‘Euphrates Province‘ spanning the borders, including al-Qa’im just over the border with Iraq): indeed describing itself as “the brigades of popular resistance in Albukamal.”

It will be recalled from my prior work that the town of Albukamal originally had six factions, listed below with their wider affiliations where applicable:

– Liwa Allahu Akbar (SMC/Hayat al-Arkan)
– Kata’ib Allahu Akbar (Authenticity and Development Front)
– Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar (independent; one-time pro-Ahrar al-Sham)
– Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya (independent; pro-Caliphate, tied to seeing the Syria and Iraq struggle for Sunnis as one)
– Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna (independent; pro-Caliphate)
– Kata’ib Junud al-Haq (Jabhat al-Nusra; evolved from Katiba Junud al-Haq)

Note that there were other factions in the wider area that emerged over time with influence such as Liwa al-Fatah al-Mubin which belonged to the now defunct coalition Euphrates Islamic Liberation Front, which had once played a role in the fight against IS in the northern Euphrates area in Syria.

Of the six main groups of Albukamal, Liwa Allahu Akbar became part of what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) after the November 2013 defection of leader Saddam al-Jamal (also known as Saddam Rakhaytah), who had clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra in September 2013. The Authenticity and Development Front is a Salafi coalition backed by Saudi Arabia that only conceives of Syria as an Islamic state within a national framework, while Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar did not have a political program beyond the fall of the regime despite the one-time affinity with Ahrar al-Sham that was subsequently disavowed in rejection of fighting ISIS at the end of January 2014. Kata’ib Junud al-Haq had defected to ISIS when ISIS was first announced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, but re-defected to Jabhat al-Nusra after Zawahiri’s call to annul ISIS.

It will be noted in the picture of the logo above (taken from The White Shroud’s official Facebook page) that members of three of the factions I have just mentioned are included within The White Shroud: Liwa al-Mujahid Omar al-Mukhtar, Authenticity and Development Front, and Liwa al-Qadisiya al-Islamiya. Of the other factions, two other sources from Albukamal- one the former spokesman for the defunct Kata’ib Junud al-Haq- have told me that Katiba Bayariq al-Sunna members all became part of IS once the town fell under IS control (undoubtedly ideological overlap played a role), while no members of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq are known to have joined The White Shroud thus far. Some of course will have become part of IS (again something undoubtedly facilitated by ideological overlap), but others will have simply laid arms aside as part of declaring ‘tawba’ (‘repentance’) before IS and then returned to civilian life with acknowledgment of IS’ supremacy. Others too- even of those factions now part of The White Shroud- simply fled the Albukamal area to head to other fronts: this was the case for the leader of a local Albukamal Authenticity and Development battalion- Liwa Basha’ir al-Nasr- who fled to Qalamoun in Damascus province after the fall of Albukamal.

The operations conducted by The White Shroud, like those of the anti-IS Sunni resistance movements in Iraq, have mostly been small-scale claimed assassinations so far, but apparently the group has been trying to expand its activities in Deir az-Zor province, with a contingent supposedly now in Deir az-Zor city in a video released by the Authenticity and Development Front. It will certainly be of interest to see if The White Shroud develops into a broader umbrella front for a variety of former rebel factions in Deir az-Zor province of a variety of orientations.

Update and Further Note

My friend and colleague Alfred Hackensberger, drawing on his own sources, contends that The White Shroud is not a real group. I would disagree with this notion but a more general point needs to be made about real manpower and capabilities. In truth, I do not think The White Shroud at present has any more than a few dozen fighters. Indeed, it has to be remembered that the component battalions of The White Shroud lost significant numbers of members to an ISIS assault on the town of Albukamal in April. Not overstating manpower and capabilities also applies to other anti-IS resistance movements: if, for example, a Kata’ib Mosul component representative gives contingent numbers into the hundreds, it is a safe bet to downgrade the actual manpower by several factors. As far a operations go, nothing suggests the attacks on IS- even if successful- have truly damaged the group’s power base in the areas it controls.

Also in my own experience, though Abu al-Layth of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades affirmed to me that 250 fighters of his coalition had been sent to Kobani to aid the YPG in its fight against IS, he affirmed that this number had declined to 160 in a subsequent conversation. Meanwhile, a representative of the Sun of the North/Northern Sun Battalions- the contingent of Dawn of Freedom Brigades in Kobani- only affirmed the presence of some 70 fighters for the group in a 12 October conversation with me.

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Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East – Interview with Danny Postel

Syria Comment - 토, 2014-10-18 00:54

Joshua Landis on ISIS, Syria & the “Great Sorting Out” in the Middle East In conversation with Danny Postel of Denver University’s CMES This discussion is an elaboration of a short article, “The Great Sorting Out: Ethnicity & the Future of the Levant,” that Elias Muhanna published on his blog, Qifa Nabki

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Interview with Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali: Commander of the National Ideological Resistance in Syria

Syria Comment - 수, 2014-10-15 18:16

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Following on from my previous post here at Syria Comment on the National Ideological Resistance in Syria (a ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ militia brand primarily based in Tartous and Hama governorates but also operating militarily at least in Aleppo province as well), below is an interview I recently conducted with the group’s leader: Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali.

Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali, who is based in Tartous.

Some things to note in particular about this interview:

1. ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ brands at the grassroots level- whether or not actually set up by Hezbollah- with propagation of Iranian-aligned Shi’ism among Syrian Alawites predate the onset of the civil war in Syria, if the Sayyid’s testimony is true.

2. As ever, a contrast exists between what is stated here in this interview and what is propagated as open source social media advertisement. For example, in the case of extent of military operations, little from open source advertisement points to operations in Quneitra or Deraa.

3. It is interesting that the Sayyid says there is no connection with the Muqawama Suriya, even as the latter claims a media office branch in Masyaf (Hama province), for instance. This may indicate tension between the two despite the public advert ‘brotherology’ here (cf. his reference to Ali Kayali as ‘brother’).

Muqawama Suriya: Masyaf Branch

Q: When was the National Ideological Resistance in Syria [NIR] established?

A: In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful. The NIR was established in the beginning in mid-2009 before the events in Syria, as a resistance movement from within the components of the Syrian people against the Zionist enemy: nationalist, of the people (ideological), and [established] without intervention or support from any state or any other faction. We began with a small, limited number [of members] and we undertook special training sessions to undertake martyrdom missions against the Zionist soldiers. But [because of] our very weak capabilities…we undertook a number of simple missions…and we continued lying in wait for any opportunity to be offered to us to undertake a mission against the Zionist soldiers, in any case. And before the beginning of the crisis in Syria we perceived the danger and visited some of the oppositionists in a number of provinces and our weapons were the freedom of speech we possessed and we always expressed our opinions even if they were against the government, and we did not fear the truth…

Thus we were before the events and thus we still are, and thanks to God, we managed to connect with some of those who thought that what is happening in Syria is a revolution and a number of them joined our ranks, either transmitting information to us or participating in battle. The resistance was established in the mosque of Sayyida Zahara’ (peace be upon her) in the village of Namriya in the Sheikh Badr region of  Tartous.

Q: How many ‘martyrs’ does NIR have?

A: We have 27 great martyrs of righteousness and men of our Lord the Companion of Time [Imam al-Mahdi] (peace be upon him). We also have, thanks to God, around 70 wounded…and the wounds among them are serious and light, thanks to God.

Q: Does NIR support Ayatollah Khomeini’s wilayat al-faqih*?

A: With regards to your question about wilayat al-faqih, allow me to respond to your question with a question: are we able to be in the presence of one knowledgeable in religion to guide us? And why should we become confused in our matter so long as the sayyid and knowledgeable one is present? And we are the ones working for our Lord- the Companion of Time- to accept us in his army,** so as long as our work is pure to the face of God- Exalted is He- so it is obligatory for us to be bound by the program of the Commander of the Faithful and our impeccable imams. And we must embrace the original Islamic religion of Muhammad.

Q: What are your relations with Hezbollah in Lebanon?

A: On the question of our relations with the heroes and mujahideen of Hezbollah, we say with total pride that they are our model, whose manners, commitment, faith and power- which are from trust in God and Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah (may God protect him)- we imitate. Their cooperation with us gives us power, constancy, and faith in the divine victory.

Q: What are your relations with the Muqawama Suriya led by Ali Kayali?

A: On our relations with the brother Ali Kayali, sadly we are not connected by any relation because we work on internal fronts in Aleppo, Hama, Damascus, Deraa and Quneitra, but not in Latakia. So we don’t meet with them but in any case we respect all the honourable ones in this crisis and we are completely ready to cooperate with them within the ethical framework and direction of the Ahl al-Bayt [Muhammad's family revered by Shi'a in particular] (peace be upon them).


*- Iran’s ideological system of governance.
**- Whence NIR’s ‘armed wing’: Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi

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Islamic State Officially Admits to Enslaving Yazidi Women

Syria Comment - 월, 2014-10-13 08:27

by Matthew Barber

I first began tweeting about the Islamic State’s campaign to kidnap and enslave Yazidi women when I was in Iraq this past August. Though analysts were skeptical and online jihadists who defend IS vehemently denied my claims, I was communicating with the families of the kidnapped women and with those engaged in rescue efforts. I have even spoken by phone directly with kidnapped Yazidi women in captivity. One month ago, I sounded the alarm regarding the plight of the kidnapped Yazidi women for whom time is running out, detailing how an effective rescue operation would be possible. A number of journalists had written amazing stories, directly interviewing survivors—girls that had been kidnapped and placed into the homes of IS jihadists as slaves. These stories continue to emerge, TV interviews have taken place, and the UN issued a report on the kidnapping issue.

Despite the widespread doubt, I and the team I work with have been able to collect the names of thousands of kidnapped Yazidis—mostly women and girls, but also a number of kidnapped and imprisoned men that have been forced to convert to Islam. A month ago, our estimate of kidnapped Yazidis was below 4,000 individuals, but as we continue to gather data, our number now stands at almost 7,000.

Serious research Q: Is there any evidence available of ISIS female slave markets, mass rape, “jihad al-nikah” etc. in #Iraq and/or #Syria?

— Charles Lister (@Charles_Lister) September 26, 2014

Ongoing efforts to shed light on this crisis notwithstanding, the media hasn’t lingered on the issue. Evidence in the form of firsthand accounts of survivors gathered by credible journalists and academics wasn’t enough; skepticism seemed to reign in the absence of photographic evidence—something nearly-impossible to obtain. How would one snap photos of women distributed through private IS networks and placed into the homes of individual IS jihadists? Even a photograph of a Yazidi woman in an Arab home wouldn’t indicate that she was in fact enslaved as a “concubine.”

But today this controversy can be laid to rest. IS has just released the fourth installment of Dabiq, an official publication that they began to produce in July. This issue, called “The Failed Crusade,” contains an article entitled “The Revival of Slavery Before the Hour,” which details how IS fighters kidnapped and distributed Yazidi women as slave concubines. The article also provides their rationale for reviving slavery, which they root in their interpretation of the practice of the earliest Islamic communities. The Islamic State has now officially disclosed that it engages in the sexual enslavement of women from communities determined to be of “pagan” or “polytheistic” origin.

Several observations on this IS article:

1) The campaign to enslave Yazidi women is genocidal in that it is part of a greater effort to end the existence of the Yazidi people:

The article states that the existence of the Yazidis is something for which God will judge Muslims:

Upon conquering the region of Sinjar in Wilāyat Nīnawā, the Islamic State faced a population of Yazidis, a pagan minority existent for ages in regions of Iraq and Shām. Their continual existence to this day is a matter that Muslims should question as they will be asked about it on Judgment Day, considering that Allah had revealed Āyat as-Sayf (the verse of the sword) over 1400 years ago.

The Islamic State also see the enslavement project as a means of forcing Yazidis to renounce their identity and convert to Islam:

Many of the mushrik women and children have willingly accepted Islam and now race to practice it with evident sincerity after their exit from the darkness of shirk.

Rasūlullāh (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said, “Allah marvels at a people who enter Jannah in chains” [reported by al-Bukhārī on the authority of Abū Hurayrah]. The hadīth commentators mentioned that this refers to people entering Islam as slaves and then entering Jannah.

Abū Hurayrah (radiyallāhu ‘anh) said while commenting on Allah’s words, {You are the best nation produced for mankind} [Āli ‘Imrān: 110], “You are the best people for people. You bring them with chains around their necks, until they enter Islam” [Sahīh al-Bukhāri].

2) The Islamic State differentiates between a) People of the Book (non-Islamic religions receiving some rights and protection), b) religious groups that were originally Muslim but that have apostatized, and c) religious groups that were “originally polytheistic:”

Prior to the taking of Sinjar, Sharī’ah students in the Islamic State were tasked to research the Yazidis to determine if they should be treated as an originally mushrik group or one that originated as Muslims and then apostatized, due to many of the related Islamic rulings that would apply to the group, its individuals, and their families. Because of the Arabic terminologies used by this group either to describe themselves or their beliefs, some contemporary Muslim scholars have classified them as possibly an apostate sect, not an originally mushrik religion, but upon further research, it was determined that this group is one that existed since the pre-Islamic jāhiliyyah, but became “Islamized” by the surrounding Muslim population, language, and culture, although they never accepted Islam nor claimed to have adopted it. The apparent origin of the religion is found in the Magianism of ancient Persia, but reinterpreted with elements of Sabianism, Judaism, and Christianity, and ultimately expressed in the heretical vocabulary of extreme Sufism.

Accordingly, the Islamic State dealt with this group as the majority of fuqahā’ have indicated how mushrikīn should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword.

3) The IS article justifies their enslavement of polytheist women through their interpretation of the practice of the early Islamic community:

The article invokes the practice of khums originating with the earliest battles of Islam in which 1/5 of the war booty was set aside for the Prophet Mohammed (i.e. the “state”):

After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority to be divided as khums.

The enslaved Yazidi families are now sold by the Islamic State soldiers as the mushrikīn were sold by the Companions (radiyallāhu ‘anhum) before them. Many well-known rulings are observed, including the prohibition of separating a mother from her young children.

From the Islamic State’s point of view, any Muslim who tries to interpret the practice of the early Islamic community in a different way, in order to condemn the practice of slavery, speaks in direct contradiction to the Qur’an and the Prophet and has therefore left Islam:

Before Shaytān reveals his doubts to the weak-minded and weak hearted, one should remember that enslaving the families of the kuffār and taking their women as concubines is a firmly established aspect of the Sharī’ah that if one were to deny or mock, he would be denying or mocking the verses of the Qur’ān and the narrations of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), and thereby apostatizing from Islam.

4) In the view of the Islamic State, reviving the practice of slavery is actually a desirable goal with tangible spiritual benefits. They believe that slavery helps men avoid sexual sin because it enables them to avoid prohibited forms of extramarital sex. They underscore that it is impermissible to sleep with a hired household maid (a widespread occurrence in some countries where maids who become pregnant are often punished/imprisoned), yet sleeping with one’s concubine (who will have the same duties as the maid) is permissible:

Finally, a number of contemporary scholars have mentioned that the desertion of slavery had led to an increase in fāhishah (adultery, fornication, etc.), because the shar’ī alternative to marriage is not available, so a man who cannot afford marriage to a free woman finds himself surrounded by temptation towards sin. In addition, many Muslim families who have hired maids to work at their homes, face the fitnah of prohibited khalwah (seclusion) and resultant zinā occurring between the man and the maid, whereas if she were his concubine, this relationship would be legal. This again is from the consequences of abandoning jihād and chasing after the dunyā, wallāhul-musta’ān.


A Must-See Human Rights Watch Report

Coinciding with IS’ own admission of the practice, HRW has just released an excellent report on kidnapped and enslaved Yazidis that should be read in its entirety. A separate page has video footage containing extensive interviews with survivors, available with English and Arabic subtitles.


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