Revisiting the Malki Affair – By Christopher Solomon

Revisiting the Malki Affair
By Christopher Solomon @Solomon_Chris
For Syria Comment – April 23, 2017

On April 22, 1955, a charismatic young Syrian army officer was gunned down on a football field. The assassination of Adnan al-Malki brought about the one of the first political crackdowns in Syria’s history. The Malki Affairs and its aftermath shed light on one of the country’s earliest shifts towards authoritarianism along a sharp turn towards anti-western sentiment.

The first sign that Pax Syriana was coming to an end was the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. Demonstrations against Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the West were held in defiance in Damascus. State-organized rallies across the capital illustrated the regime’s discontent with the political blowback that followed the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Part of this discontent was exhibited through the widespread display among the crowds of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) flags along Adnan al-Malki Boulevard. The black flags emblazoned with the red hurricane device signaled the official return of Pan-Syrian nationalism in the country where it was banned since the 1955 assassination of the boulevard’s namesake, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Syrian army and a rising star in Syrian politics.

Malki’s assassination rocked Syria and brought about a harsh crack down on the SSNP that ultimately eradicated them from Syrian politics for fifty years. It was also a major political spectacle that marked a turning point in the country’s brief return to democracy back to a long era of authoritarianism under the Baath.

Today, the SSNP has not only been rehabilitated in Syria’s political sphere but the movement is now fighting on the side of the regime against opposition forces on multiple fronts. The party’s militia, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, has fought in Homs, took part in the siege of Aleppo, and the recently recaptured desert town of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS). The dramatic turnaround for the once outlawed movement, officially legalized in 2005, is striking. Prior to the start of the current civil war the details surrounding the so-called “Malki Affair” was one of Syria’s greatest mysteries. Who ordered his killing and why continue to be debated. The story of the assassination and ensuing purge are essential to understanding Syria’s history and the SSNP’s eventual reconciliation with the Baath and perhaps their future in Syria.

Adnan al-Malki’s background and political activities

Colonel Adnan al-Malki came from a dominant Sunni family in Damascus made his career in the Syrian army and like much of the country’s officer corps, was a graduate of the Homs Military Academy. Despite never being an official member of Michel Aflaq’s Baath Party, he was strongly affiliated with the movement and was well-known as a firm support of Nasser and Pan Arab nationalism. His brother Riad al-Malki was a staunch Baathist and later become an MP in the Syrian parliament. The renowned historian Patrick Seale described him as having a “strikingly European” appearance.

Malki’s first major political intrigue came when he became a central player in the plot to overthrow Shishakli, organizing with former President Atassi and the influential Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. He worked closely with the leftist nationalist Akram al-Hawrani and encouraged him to unite his Arab Socialist Party with the Baath movement, which Shishakli had outlawed. In 1953, Malki famously confronted Shishakli on the airport runway after the President had returned from a visit to Egypt. The young officer handed over a list of demands which included allowing political pluralism, freedom of press, and for Shishakli to abolish his Arab Liberation Movement party and relinquish power. The strongman accepted the list from him and consequently rounded up the document’s signatories to throw them in jail, Malki included.

A 1946 photo shows al-Malki marching as an army cadet during Syria’s first Independence Day.

After the fall of Adib al-Shishakli’s regime in 1954, Malki endured an intense spell of popularity, even overshadowed his army superior. Politically astute, hardworking, and willing to risk his life for the Palestinian cause and his ideals and justice, he was widely admired and had a large following in the army. By all accounts, Malki appeared destined to become a powerful political leader in Syria’s post-Shishakli era.

Malki was restored to his position in the army, becoming deputy Chief of Staff. The army’s Chief of Staff, Shawkat Shuqayer, was a Lebanese Druze and was always regarded by many Syrians as a foreigner. In fact, Shishakli had tapped him for the role, specifically because of sect, he was considered politically vulnerable and therefore a safe bet in coup-prone Syria. Shishakli even once said, “Shuqayer has no past and no future!” Though Shuqayer retained his position, his background brought much of the public support and from within the army to Malki.

Malki continued his foray in politics and was instrumental in corralling his fellow army officers to support the efforts to achieve a political and military unification with Egypt. There was even speculation that Malki would’ve launched a coup if Prime Minister Faris al-Khury not abandoned his attempts to move Syria towards the western sphere of influence. He regularly represented the official position of the government and the army in the press. For example, in February 1955, Malki spoke to the Syrian newspaper, al-Jihad for an interview, in which he downplayed the prospects of a Turkish military incursion along the Syrian border.

The Baath Party, during this time, had been in a fierce competition with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. George Abd Messih had just taken command of the SSNP after the execution of Antun Saadeh in 1949 and was struggling to implement his control over the party’s factions. Malki was soon engaged in a public spat with Abd Messih, who accused him of using Arab nationalism to secure power for Syria’s Sunnis. Malki, in turn, tried to intimidate the SSNP leader by promising to hand him over to Lebanon, where he had been sentenced to death in absentia for the July 1951 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Sohl.

Colonel al-Malki in his army office in 1954

The fierce competition between the two parties played on within the army. Another opponent of Malki was a fellow army officer, Ghassan Jadid, who, through his friendship with Shishakli, became the head of the Homs Military Academy. Jadid was an Alawite and a leading figure in the SSNP. He used his position at the academy to recruit officers to the party, a move which riled Malki. Jadid also rivaled Malki in his charisma and Ghassan’s brother Salah was a member of the Baath who helped retained a level of contact between the two parties. Salah later became a leading architect in the establishment of the United Arab Republic and essential for aligning Syria with the Soviet Union.

The political rivalry extended outside of the military all the way through Syria’s educational institutions, polarizing a generation of youth. A young Hafez al-Assad recalled how during his school years, when asked your religion, you were either a Baathi or Qawmi (the latter meaning nationalist, taken from the party’s name in Arabic, al-Ḥizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-‘Ijtima’i).

The Assassination and political motives

On April 22 1955, Malki was attending a football match between the Syrian army’s team and an Egyptian team at the Damascus Municipal Stadium. A gunman approached and fired two shots, killing the colonel instantly. The gunman identified as Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, a military policeman and an Alawite member of the SSNP who killed himself on the spot. Two other party members, Badi Makhlouf and Abdul Munim Dubussy were in attendance at the match and were arrested as accomplices.

Malki’s killer, Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, an Alawi military policeman and SSNP member

The main theory is that Rahim was selected by George Abd Messih since the former had been denied entrance to the military academy due to his sect. Another potential motive seldom discussed was put forward by the US State Department, which claimed that Malki had crossed Rahim by fathering the child of his teenage sister, who was employed as a domestic aid in his household. Patrick Seale reported that thousands of Alawite women worked in homes across the capital as servants, often in dismal conditions. Though this story was never proven, the status of Syria’s religious minorities would have political implications for both the SSNP and the Baath during the subsequent crackdown and well into Syria’s future. 

Ghassan Jadid, army officer and SSNP leader

The most dominant story is that assassination was ordered by George Abd Messih due to his personal feud with Malki. Ghassan Jadid stated during his trial that this was the case since the assassination occurred without the knowledge of the party’s leadership. Another view was that the assassination was actually perpetrated by Egyptian intelligence in order to galvanize support for Arab nationalism and secure a free reign to eliminate the threat of the SSNP. Though Arab nationalism was already immensely popular in Syria, the country still had a slew of political parties across the ideological spectrum. Furthermore, anti-western sentiment wasn’t completely present at all levels of Syrian society, a trend that would change dramatically after the purge commenced.

The purge

A military court that held the show trials for SSNP members. The leftist army officer Afif al-Bizri, seated in the middle, later became the army’s Chief of Staff.

The show trials that followed the assassination have often been compared to the trials carried out by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s. This period marked a turning point where the Baath now had the opportunity to finally isolate and eliminate their primary competitor. The Baath and Communist orchestrated a full scale purge of the SSNP. First, the Arab nationalists and leftist factions urged parliament to implement a state of martial law. Other parties resisted but eventually a compromised was reached. A military tribunal would be carried out with full power to investigate and arrest anyone suspected of being connected to the assassination, which quickly had morphed into a larger anti-government conspiracy.

The SSNP’s official party organ, al-Bina’ was burned to the ground. The SSNP’s members were accused of purposely destroying their own offices and documents to cover up evidence of their conspiracy against the Syrian government. The SSNP, shut out of the press, was reduced to facilitating their meetings and activities in secret. To offer a counter narrative, they handed out pamphlets and flyers in which they claimed they were the victims of a Zionist plot facilitated by the Communists and Baathists. Some of these materials took on an anti-Semitic tone with complaints of Jewish “exploitation and fraud.”

“Accused of the crime of the assassination of Adnan al-Malki.” Issam al-Mahayri and Juliette El-Mir Saadeh, Antun Saadeh’s widow on the far left.

Thousands of the party’s members were rounded up and paraded through the military tribunals for a certain verdict of a lengthy jail sentence. Issam al-Mahayri, the SSNP’s leader in Syria, was arrested and forced to testify against his fellow party members. Once a leading journalist and co-owner of the Daily Press Corporation, Mahayri was publically ridiculed by the courts and his influence greatly diminished and he became ostracized from Syria’s political sphere. He was eventually sentenced to a long spell in Damascus’ Mezzeh Prison.

The crackdown on press freedoms trickled across the political spectrum. Even non-SSNP outlets fell victim to the Baathist-Communist witch hunt. Husni al-Barazi, who owned the al-Nas (the people), an anti-communist outlet, was forced to close after an editorial discussed the allege torture of SSNP suspects and connected the mistreatment to the Baathist Speaker of the Parliament Akram al-Hawrani. Other newspapers and outlets quickly learned to adhere to the official government line concerning the Malki Affair and the military tribunals.

Army Chief of Staff Shuqayer suggested that the party was dominated by sectarian minorities, such as Alawites and Christians, and therefore sought to isolate Syria from the rest of the Arab world through their plan to eventually establish a Pan-Syrian state as stipulated by the party’s ideology. Many Alawites who were not members of the SSNP fled to Lebanon since they feared the growing extent of the purge.

Badi Makhlouf

The emergence of Syria as a mukhabarat state during this period is well known. Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj, who had been appointment as head of intelligence in March 1955, a month prior to the assassination, was tasked with investigating and implementing the purge of the SSNP. Imprisonment and torture were tools used by his Deuxieme Bureau. Badi Makhlouf, Abdul Munim Dubussy and Fu’ad Jadid protested at their trial that their confessionals had been extracted under torture, describing secret interrogation sessions involving severe beatings and electric shocks.

Makhlouf, a first cousin of Anisa Makhlouf (the wife of Hafez al-Assad), said the torture was not even comparable to what the early Christians had suffered from under the Romans. Despite his defense, Dubussy and Makhlouf were executed by hanging and Fu’ad Jadid was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fu’ad Jadid reportedly had his death sentence reduced since his brother Ghassan had been killed in Beirut outside the SSNP party headquarters by agents of Sarraj.

Another component of the show trials was the allegation that the SSNP was working in concert with the Americans and western intelligence. A memo by the U.S. State Department from July 1955 lamented the prevailing views of the Syrian political establishment that the U.S. government was using the anti-communist SSNP in order to undermine Syria’s sovereignty. This was manifested prominently in the “Sharabi letters,” an alleged correspondence between Issam Mahayri and Georgetown professor Hisham Sharabi. Dr. Sharabi was an early member of the SSNP and had served as an editor for their magazine, called al-Jil al-Jadid (The New Generation) before seeking refuge in the United States. The letters supposedly revealed that Dr. Sharabi had helped Mahayri obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. with the goal of organizing an anti-leftist movement in Syria to counter the Soviet’s presence in the Middle East. This evidence allowed Sarraj to claim that Syria had been able to defeat an imperialist conspiracy which was being facilitated by “indigenous anti-communist elements.”

SSNP leader Issam al-Mahayri (second from the right) in Mezzeh Prison in Damascus in 1957 following the purge of the party in the wake of the assassination.

The Malki Affair’s Legacy

Malki’s funeral on April 23, 1955.

The assassination propelled Malki to a level of veneration and praise that was unprecedented in Syria. The sculptor Fathi Kabawah was commissioned to design Malki’s statue. Riad al-Malki also authored a biography of his brother. Malki, as a martyr, became the embodiment of Pan-Arab nationalism that cemented the Baath into Syria’s political and social fabric for a generation and fixed the country onto its course for an eventual union with Egypt. Sultan Pasha al-Atrash wrote a memorial for his fallen comrade in al-Jundi (The Soldier) magazine in the summer of 1955:

There is no civilization that had more victims and martyrs

like our beloved Arab civilization.

If peoples’ lives ended with death

the martyr’s life begins with death.


That was the fate of the immortal

Adnan al-Maliki, who lived two generous lives,

a short life hard lived until his last breath,

and another long lived in the peoples’ consciousness.


Therefore, Adnan did not die

and here he is personified in the leader

Col. Shawkat Shuqayer and in every

comrade of his fellow free officers,

but also in every Syrian citizen,

because in every one of those

Adnan, in his beliefs and values,

Adnan in his determination for liberation and development.

Adnan in his keenness for Arab unity.


There is no harm on us and this situation, if

we lost Adnan yesterday – although it was a huge loss – and no

harm in sacrificing more like Adnan tomorrow. Because they are eternal in

the consciousness of the nation forever.

Adnan al-Malki Square in Damascus in the 1960’s.

The show trials and systematic purge in the wake of the Malki Affair was not the last. Others included the November 1970 Corrective Movement, the fallout after Damascus Spring of 2000 and most recently the regimes attempts to maintain control at the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the civil war. Whether or not the Assad regime can fully reconstruct the police state that existed before 2011 is yet to be seen.

The SSNP is now heading the reconciliation efforts on behalf of the regime under the leadership of Ali Haidar. An SSNP member relayed to me how negotiating with local rebels is a delicate process that takes time and has to carefully distinguish between Syrians and foreign fighters. Many Sunnis that have fled to neighboring countries (often characterized as an ethnic cleansing campaign orchestrated by the regime, will ultimately face the choice of either staying abroad or returning home after the conflict. This sectarian crisis is also playing out against the backdrop of an internal “demographic engineering,” most recently facilitated by the four towns agreement. The prospect of a post-war purge indeed hangs over all sides involved in the conflict.

The Malki Affair and the purge forced the SSNP underground where they reemerged in Lebanon. The incident also expedited Nasser’s domination over Syria. It solidified the Baath’s hold on the army and created the foundations for the Assad family’s power. Today, Arab nationalism, weakened and long since tainted by the years of the Baath’s authoritarian rule, once again competes with the old but familiar ideology of Pan-Syrianism. The SSNP and their fierce red hurricane, both surrounded by the darkness of the past, have returned to Syria at the behest of the Baath, but for how long?

* Christopher Solomon is an analyst with Global Risk Insights. Chris traveled to Lebanon and Syria in 2004 with the CONNECT program at the University of Balamand. He earned his MA from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. He also interned at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris

Paradise Lost: The Rise and Fall of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by Tam Hussein

By @tamhussein

I entered Najiyeh, a small town of no consequence, without their permission. The town claimed to be an ISIS principality. The claim seemed ridiculous but as we drove in to the town it seemed less so. They had fixed the prices, the markets were bustling, even the gold shops were open. It was a stark contrast to what I had heard about their ‘state’. I understood why the people accepted their rule; order is key in conflict especially in one as brutal as this. Even non-ISIS people in the surrounding countryside told me good things about them. “You could bring your case to their courts”, they would say, “and it would be resolved with out fear or favour”. Their entry reminded me of the Taliban being welcomed with loud cheering and flowers in Kabul but they left with the inhabitants shaving off their beards and smoking cigarettes even if they had never touched one before.

A few months later I met Abu ‘Ali in Tarsus, Turkey. The young commander from Ansar al-Sham looked like a young St. Paul, dark black beard with long hair that was slightly thinning on top. He was recovering from a leg injury that if miracles weren’t real, should mean him being minus one leg. The wound was horror personified. Abu ‘Ali informed me that the people alongside the local battalions had kicked ISIS out of Najiyeh.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were harsh people” he replied, I noticed disappointment in his face, it was as if they had betrayed the Syrians. The Revolution, if you will, had made these insignificant men into Mujahideen, warriors of God. Some of these men had been eking out their existence as smugglers, farmers or hiding from the authorities. The Revolution had made them. Now the likes of Abu ‘Ali who had emerged from the mosques calling for the removal of Assad, facing live bullets after Friday prayers were lectured to by Abu so-and-so al-Britani who, only six months ago, was checking out some winding girl’s batty rider in some funked up club. Here came Abu so-and-so to the land of Muslim scholarship and lectured the people on the intricacies of kufr, taghut, tawheed and the incompatibility of Islamic theology with democracy. Syrians didn’t need lessons in creed. They wanted to stop the barrel bombs from killing their children.

A few years later in Saraqeb, whilst filming with Jund al-Aqsa, I was told that the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham had shot the local ISIS emir in the back. The ISIS emir, a native of the city, considered it sacrilege to turn his gun against his co-religionists. However, the leader of Ahrar had no compulsion in dispatching him to eternity. The people had liked the ISIS emir but these same people had also defaced the testimony of faith in the Islamic State’s court house. They wrote sarcastic comments over it. ISIS would no doubt consider it apostasy, still none of the locals had renounced Islam but they too, like the Kabulis had shaved off their beards, increased their smoking even though they readily admitted that smoking was ‘forbidden’ in Islam. More recently, incredulously, I heard an Iraqi man preferring the Iranian backed Shi’te militia, the Popular Mobilisation Group in Mosul instead of ISIS. Moslawis had few issues in raising the Iraqi flag and lowering the ISIS flag, even though everyone knew that the former banner was born in the gentlemen’s clubs in London and the latter in Abbasid Baghdad. And yet without any sense of irony, Moslawis had preferred the latter. Why when everyone professed to be Muslims, did the ISIS come to this? Why did al-Baghdadi’s nascent project fail?

Anthony Quinn plays Hamza the uncle of the Prophet and Omar Mokhtar

Arguably, ISIS did not lose because of a determined opponent, for they are not short of courage and military experts attest to their mastery of asymmetric warfare. ISIS lost because the local populace stopped believing in them. So much so that the people reviled them more than they reviled Assad. People hate Assad because he killed their children but they hate ISIS for stabbing them in the back whilst they were trying to overthrow former. Assad never claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and in a way, nothing was expected from him. He could do what he wanted, he was after all from a long tradition of Middle Eastern tyrants who crushed uprisings whether they be Muslim Brotherhood, Iraqi marsh Arabs or Shi’ites. Brutal cruelty was expected. Even though the deaths inflicted by ISIS remain minuscule compared to the former, when ISIS claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and acted with such wanton cruelty, it provoked disgust and revulsion from even the most dissolute of Muslims. Even that hard drinking, stripper ogling Muslim who puts his head down on the carpet once a year if that, knows that the bar has been raised. He knows that it is unbefitting for a ‘holy warrior’ to behave thus.

Whatever Graeme Wood argues about ISIS and its level of ‘Islamicness’, what Ahmed on the street recognises instinctively is that al-Baghdadi and his group are far from ‘Islamic’; no Fatwa needed. Muslims are inculcated with a conception of what a Mujahid or ‘holy warrior’ is meant to be. The stories of the Companions of the Prophet, Hamza the lion of God or Omar Mokhtar the lion of the desert, both usually in the guise of Anthony Quinn are found in their mothers’ milk. Sons are named Mujahid, Ghazi, Faris and Shaheed in the hope that they epitomise that exceptional person who perfects his moral and martial virtues in a situation where bestial brutality is permissible and yet he manages to retain his humanity. The nobility of man is truly tested in war.

A eulogy of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. This is a classical genre in Arabic literature.

It is here that al-Baghdadi and his men have failed so miserably. His heroes who populate the telegram channels make Muslims recoil. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, his deputy, is certainly eloquent and no doubt courageous but ordinary in his brutality and harshness, no matter how many texts his eulogist claims he has studied. Jihadi John too is ordinary in his inhumanity. Go to the local halal butcher on Harrow Road, London and he will tell you that Islamic rites dictate that an animal should be given its final sip of water and slaughtered away from the gaze of another animal to lessen its distress and that of the other animals. Yet, here stands Jihadi John slaughtering innocent men in front of the whole world so brazenly. There is no sense of shame, even Cain felt ashamed after he killed Abel.

There seems to be something thoroughly modern about Jihadi John’s actions as he points that knife at you. Arguably, Jihadi John’s actions have roots in the London of the Nineties, when Jihadi snuff tapes were sold openly outside mosques. These videos showed in graphic detail the exploits of the Chechen mujahideen against Russian aggression in Chechnya. One of the Imam’s who used to teach in Lisson Green youth club, where Mohammed Emwazi used to attend, recalls that soon those tapes:

“…became dark there was a Russian beheaded by some Chechens, and whenever I saw the brothers, some of them would creep up from behind and greet you by cutting you in the neck.”

Perhaps the mood music for Mohammed Emwazi’s deeds had been set up then. The Imam continues:

“I remember, even at the time that this is not how you greet each other, and I always reminded the brothers that the point of Jihad is not to be blood thirsty and I used to quote the hadith of the Prophet: “Don’t look forward to meeting your enemy, but if you meet him remain steadfast.”

Jihadi John is unrecognisable as a mujahid by your average Muslim, but take Jihadi John to the cold harsh streets of West London and any road man who listens to Stormzy recognises his deed to be pure gangsta.

The mujahid of now is very different from the mujahid of then. Let us demonstrate this with a tangible example, let us use a paragon of a holy warrior of the 19th century, Abdel Kader al-Jaza’iri. He was also known as the Commander of the Faithful although, admittedly, under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Morocco. Abdel Kader, like al-Baghdadi, tried to build a state by uniting the various tribes in Algeria and was harsh to those who collaborated with the French. Like al-Baghdadi, he was a scholar, a jurist and descended from prophetic lineage. He fought the French invaders and was described by his foes and friends alike as a fearless military genius and as illusive as al-Baghdadi. William Thackeray wrote of him:

Nor less quick to slay in battle than in peace to spare and save,
Of brave men wisest councillor, of wise councillors most brave;
How the eye that flashed destruction could beam gentleness and love,
How lion in thee mated lamb, how eagle mated dove!

And yet the gulf between al-Jaza’iri and al-Baghdadi, as Thackeray’s poem shows is vast. Whilst war is harsh and brutal, the former was known for his chivalry and treated his prisoners humanely; so much so that these prisoners of war petitioned France to release him when he found himself in the same predicament. Some even offered to be his guard of honour on account of the kindness he had shown them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi showed no quarter. He burns and drowns his prisoners alive. Abdel Kader condemned his brother in law for massacring prisoners, the latter revels in it and encourages it. The sadism is so creative that one wonders whether there is a whole unit in Raqqah whose sole job is to come up with creative and cruel ways to execute people. Al-Baghdadi, this product of the Iraq war, has embraced terror wholeheartedly.

Abd el-Kader al-Jaza’iri

Abdel Kader is careful not to harm civilians. When sectarian riots broke out in the Christian quarter of Damascus he saves countless number of Christians. Al-Baghdadi sends a suicide bomber on Palm Sunday to a Coptic church in Tanta and murders countless. The former honoured men of religion; priests were allowed to minister to the French POWs and act as go-betweens. The latter kidnaps the Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. The fate of the man committed to building bridges between faiths, remains unknown. Abdel Kader stops the practice of beheading prisoners, the latter puts their heads on social media. The former releases those who renounce their faith to escape, al-Baghdadi doesn’t care if they have converted or not. If they do not accept the Caliphate he’ll send one of his soldiers to ram an explosive laden car into a busy market or get one of his soldiers to line up in rows and offer the evening prayer and then detonate his explosives belt.
As one former ISIS fighter told me, “Dawla [Islamic State] isn’t all that it’s made out to be you know.”
You think? One can’t help but ask how many lives he had to take to come to that conclusion?
“Don’t worry” he reassures me, “they were apostates anyway.”
Fantastic. Lessons have been learnt then, no nightmares when he goes to sleep.

On a final note, Abdel Kader realised that noble ends have noble means. He surrendered because he realised that his battle with the French would be too hard on the surrounding tribes and submitted to Providence. For as the old Islamic adage goes, victory lay in His hands. And yet History wrote this loser to become the victor. Abdel Kader gained universal admiration. His enemies who once reviled him honoured him. The ultimate proof of his moral character comes from the people of Bordeaux who voted to get his name on to the ballot paper for the French presidential elections. As the Progres d’Indre et Loire notes:

“We have learned that certain voters of Bordeaux were so impressed by the manners, the character and royal air of Abd el-Kader, they put his name on the ballot for president of the Republic. If this idea spreads it will hurt Louis-Napoleon. To be a good president one must have a reputation of courage, wisdom and talent. Of the two, would not Abd el-Kader better meet those conditions?”

ISIS and The Challenge of Modernity

Saïd Kouachi’s grave- photo Tam Hussein

In Reims, the nameless flowerless grave of Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attacker, is slightly apart from the other dead souls. It is as if he would offend the repose of the interred Muslim souls. In this solitary place one of the sons of the dead asked me what I was doing taking photographs of this newly dug grave. I couldn’t deceive the man and told him whose grave it was. The Franco-Algerian spat on Kouachi’s grave and cursed him. The man, no doubt loved the Prophet just as much as Saïd Kouachi did and yet he shouted: “How is my father going to have peace next to this dog!”

Kouachi didn’t belong to ISIS, but Kouachi and indeed Ahmed Coulibaly one of his companions had the same father. I pitied Saïd Kouachi, few Muslims will ever raise their hands in prayers for this man’s soul. His children would be ashamed to acknowledge him and they will feel strongly the shame of Oedipus Rex himself. I would wager that if I had asked that French Algerian visitor to his father’s grave whether Kouachi was a Mujahid, I would know what that reply would be. He may have understood Kouachi’s anger, he may have experienced the deep racism of French society towards its Muslim population, but I know what his reply would be. I have asked similar questions in all the major terror attacks in the European mainland, Paris, Brussels, London, Stockholm and the average Muslim knows that these men are far from Abdel Kader or Hadji Murat. Kouachi lies in a nameless grave remembered by none. Abdel Kader has a city named Elkader no less than in Iowa and Hadji Murat has a novella written in his honour by an old foe of his, Leo Tolstoy. Both Abdel Kader and Murat lost, and yet Providence in spite of the victor writing history, has preserved their names. They inspire universal admiration. They were ‘holy warriors’ if you will, where as Saïd Kouachi at best was just a ‘warrior’ and at worst a butcher- and a very modern butcher at that.

Let us use General Petraeus’ playbook, Jean Lartéguy’s, The Centurions, to demonstrate the last assertion. Ostensibly, The Centurions follows the journey of several French paratroop officers from defeat at the hands of the Communists in Indo-China to a victory of sorts in Algiers. But in the process of defeating the F.L.N in Algiers they lose something of themselves. Whilst the novel is blind to the century of oppression that Algerians tasted, it is nevertheless a deep rumination on modern warfare and based on Lartéguy’s own experiences as a paratrooper and war correspondent. Lartéguy realises very quickly that the F.L.N used Jihad as a rallying cry for independence, but what it produced was something thoroughly different: it created an Ersatz France. This is why the novel is useful for this essay. Arguably, ISIS too has done the same and produced something that appears to be a bastardised version of what a caliphate is ‘meant’ to look like in their very modern mindsets.

In some ways what Abbas and Mohammed expected of these very ordinary fighters who called themselves mujahideen were exceptional standards in virtue. What they got instead were merely the usual fare. They were like everyone else, they looted, they robbed, they killed and behaved just like every other militia in the world. There was a banality in them and an absence of holiness. Al-Baghdadi was just like Saddam Hussein, ordinary. He was part of the fabric of rulers and tyrants in the region’s bloody history from Saffah to Sisi who massacred men for worldly authority. There was very little difference between a mujahid, a warrior and a terrorist. It is as an F.L.N leader opines in The Centurions:

“what difference do you see in the pilot who drops cans of napalm on a Mechta from the safety of his aircraft and a terrorist who places a bomb in the Souq- the terrorist requires far more courage.”

But the F.L.N leader forgets that what was expected from the Mujahid was not just the courage to step into a truck laden with explosives. The modern mujahid might be a master of asymmetric warfare but he was not meant to be stuffing explosive booby traps into dolls and toys such as those found in Mosul. For whilst the Prophet has said “war is trickery” would he sanction such an act? Does the Muslim martial tradition not abhor such things? Otherwise surely the ‘holiness’ of the warrior has been lost to the banal ordinariness of all warriors. Is he merely an ‘atheist’ mujahid like Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who prays but does not believe in God? Is he then the sort of Mujahid who has to suppress his moral conscience for the sake of victory? The modern Jihadi seems to have sent paradise to hell, and is simply not too bothered if children, the elderly, women, monks, fruit trees or the enemy’s flock are destroyed, even if his religious tradition forbids him from touching them. This Jihadi seems to revel in it. Mohammed Rezgui, for instance, filmed himself elated before gunning down innocent British tourists in Sousse, Tunisia. But the post mortem autopsy seems to suggest that the drugs found in Rezgui’s body created:

“The feeling of exhaustion, aggression and extreme anger that leads to murders being committed. Another effect of these drugs is that they enhance physical and mental performance.”

Why would a holy warrior need to take an amphetamine type drug in order to commit a ‘virtuous’ act? What exactly was he suppressing? Was he like those French paratroopers who were suppressing that feeling of guilt that the intangible soul within knows is committing something morally reprehensible?

In some ways then, the Jihadi is so thoroughly modern that the average Muslim on the streets turns around and says: hang on, this isn’t what we were told by our mothers and fathers. We weren’t reared on Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri but on Hamza, the Lion of God. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become just like the French Paratroopers and F.L.N leaders in The Centurions: in order to win they had to loose their souls.

Come, let us be generous, and afford al-Baghdadi some empathy as we do with the protagonists in The Centurions. We are generous towards Esclavier even as he slits the throats of all the men in an Algerian village. Perhaps the reason why al-Baghdadi joined Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda franchise was for similar reasons outlined by the head of French intelligence in Algeria, Jean Vajour who noted the heavy handed tactics of the French:

“To send in tank units, to destroy villages, to bombard certain zones, this is no longer a fine comb, it is using a sledgehammer to kill fleas. And what is much more serious, it is to encourage the young- and sometimes the less young to go into the Maquis [rural guerrilla fighters]”

Perhaps the heavy handed tactics used by US army in Fallujah led the not so young al-Baghdadi, to join the insurgents. Maybe at one point this Abu Bakr was just an ordinary man, a devout man who to all accounts lead prayers at his mosque, played around with the kids, listened quietly to the complaints of the locals and advised them on Islamic law since he possessed a doctorate. On Fridays he played football on the dusty streets of North Samarra, a suburb of Baghdad. Maybe this is how his life would have continued till the end of his days. But war has a way of twisting men’s souls, and just like the French paratroopers in The Centurions who spent several years in the camps of the Communists, Abu Bakr too ended up in Camp Bucca. His captors taught this Dr. Ibrahim Awad or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a thing or to. Like officer Mirendelle in The Centurions, he too learnt how to mediate, how to win alliances and how the Americans behaved. Perhaps just like the French Paratroopers who learnt much from the Communists and applied the lessons with deadly effect in Algeria, Abu Bakr too learnt things in Camp Bucca and applied it to deadly affect. He certainly learnt how to put people in orange jump suits. When he emerged, he experienced the intensity of asymmetric warfare, he learnt that stuffing bombs inside corpses and dogs were effective, how to create grey zones by dividing Sunnis from Shi’ites, how to sit completely still when a drone flew ahead and the art of illusiveness. He learnt all such things over the years without rest or respite- constantly hunted with a price on his head. Perhaps, by the time the Syrian uprising began, he became that amoral man in The Centurions, Captain Julien Boisfeuras, an expert in unconventional and political warfare, who like the real life monster captain Paul Aussaresses tortured, waterboarded, raped, electrocuted a man in the balls, if only to achieve victory. Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, in the light of modern warfare, fitted in with that landscape. In fact perhaps, all of us given the circumstances, could become just like him. Consider Youssef Ben Khedda, a pharmacist, whose hands according to Alistair Horne’s masterful A Savage War of Peace, were clean. Horne writes:

“He wrote a joint letter to Alger Républicain complaining about the blind arrests. Two days later he too was in prison, followed shortly by his fellow signatories; immediately he was released, five months later, he joined the F.L.N”

Could this story of ‘radicalisation’ not apply to al-Baghdadi or even us? Isn’t that human nature? When the Nazis invaded France what tactics did the Free French use against them? Billion dollar armies can afford to have rules, resistance movements have to make conscious choices to have them or not. It even begs the question whether the likes of Abdel Kader could even be allowed to flourish in the murky ethical terrain of modern warfare.

And yet it is perhaps what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become that the Muslim guy and gal on the street recoils at. “That’s precisely it” says one worshipper in Norbury mosque, “we can all be like him but that’s not what a mujahid is meant to be! He’s meant to be like Imam Ali when the Arab spits at him as he is about to kill him, he leaves him”. The anger is visible in his face, Abu Bakr doesn’t deserve the title of mujahid. Perhaps the political philosopher John Gray is spot on when he says that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State:

“…shares more with the modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West”

And everything he does seem to support Gray’s view. Al-Baghdadi, calling on terror attacks on the West, is following Abu Bakr Naji’s tactics outlined in his tract, The Management of Savagery. The intention is to create grey zones that divide the population into an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ scenario. These tactics, these very modern tactics were advocated by the Brazilian guerrilla leader Carlos Marighela, and also used by the F.L.N as one of Lartéguy’s protagonists observes:

“…a bomb exploded….at the cafeteria some medical orderlies laid a child screaming with pain, on a stretcher- another bomb exploded in 5 October in Algiers killing nine Moslem passengers. Horror reigned in Algiers- horror was succeeded by fear and hatred- Moslems began to be beaten up without rhyme or reason. Europeans got rid of their old Arab servants and Fatmahs who had been part of the family for twenty years. Within a few days Bab al-Oued witnessed a distinct rift between the Moslems on one hand and the Jews and Europeans on the other. This was exactly what the F.L.N wanted to divide that ill-defined zone and split up its inhabitants who tended to resemble one another more and more. For they had so many things in common, certain nonchalance, love of gossip, contempt for women, jealousy, irresponsibility and inclination to day dream.” [pp.452-453]

French atrocities in Algeria bolstered support for the F.L.N

ISIS realised what the French paratroop officers understood in fighting the F.L.N; in order to win they had to get on an equal footing with the native population. They had to get “as covered with mud and blood as they are. Then one shall be able to fight them, and in the process we’ll lose our souls, if we really have souls.” And so the paratroopers extended the ill treatment of native Algerians and did things irrespective of legality; they massacred, tortured and raped. They took the local women away, treated them like queens as they ironed and washed for them and then returned them to their men. The French thought they were freeing the Algerian woman from Arab patriarchy and emasculating them by showing how little control they had over them. But when they met a troublesome one, they simply raped her. As one of the Paratroop officers recognised:

“…the ghastly law of the new type of war. But he had to get accustomed to it, to harden himself and shed all those deeply in-grained, out-of-date notions which make for the greatness of Western man but at the same time prevent himself from protecting himself”- [p490]

And the truth was these French paratroopers as Lartéguy says, fought an enemy very much like themselves. Some of the F.L.N leaders were former officers, some were university educated metropolitans treated with disdain in Paris cafes like many French of North African descent are treated to this day. They were thoroughly modern creatures and so employed the same tactics as the paratroopers. They massacred Pieds Noirs civilians in Philippeville, they liquidated their own members, gouged out the eyes of collaborators and believed that the end justified the means. Arguably, ISIS mirrors what the F.L.N did in Lartéguy’s novel. But where as the F.L.N in Lartéguy’s model understood that they were moderns somewhere along the line, Abu Bakr and friends did not understand the fact that they were too.

For al-Baghdadi is in a sort of denial. He has failed to deal with modernity itself and in it lie the seeds of his defeat. It is this reason that made the people of Najiyeh boot ISIS out, the commander of Ahrar shoot the ISIS emir and the locals scrawl sarcastic comments on their Shariah court. This inability to grasp modernity, to understand that a process has occurred between their ‘Islamic State’ and the past. The Muslim world has experienced a traumatic rupture, not just defeat, humiliation and loss but colonisation, industrialisation and societal changes which have fundamentally altered the times we live in. In the past, life was organised and configured differently, the same rules which applied to the pre-modern world cannot be applied anymore. The Islamic State is like a car crash victim who, after recovering, thinks he can just go back to living the same way when in reality his limbs do not function in the same way. He can’t come to terms with his accident and so disasters ensue. Since he can not remember what the past looks like before the crash, he conjures it up just like the F.L.N leader does in The Centurions:

“There’s only one word for me Istiqlal, independence. Its a deep fine-sounding word and rings in the ears of the poor fellahin [farmers] more loudly than poverty, social security or free medical assistance. We Algerians steeped as we are in Islam are in greater need of dreams and dignity than practical care. And you? What word have you got to offer? If its better than mine you’ve won.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came up with ‘Khilafa ‘ala minhaj an-Nubuwwa’-‘the Caliphate on the Prophetic Methodology’, and the Muslim world looked up for a second, with a sense of hope and nostalgia; for this was their historical past, just as the British looks to their Empire, their Raj and the Battle of Britain nostalgically, not quite coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer a great power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to realise the word ‘Khilafa’. But what did the word ‘Khilafa’ mean in the context of modernity and the post-colonial world? In the Pre-Modern Islamicate, people were divided into millets or religious communities because that was the reality on the ground. Now we had the concept of citizenship, this is the new reality. ISIS denied this new reality and sought to extract the Jizyah, the poll tax from Syrian Christians thinking that it was more merciful on them than paying higher taxes. These Christians who had lived on that land for millennia would be paying this Jizyah to Abu Marwan or Luqman from Ghafsa, Tunisia. ISIS failed to comprehend that even if the Jizyah was lower, and the Christian is protected by the Muslim armies, in the modern context it is simply put, humiliation. We are all sons of egalité now, whether we like it or not. The Syrian Christian has for generations grown up with the concept of equality. In fact, he may be like the ancient Northern Syrian tribe of Ghassasina who preferred to pay a higher tax rate to the second Caliph, Umar, than accept the status of second class and pay the Jizyah. In the past, the French made Arabs in Algiers wear the necklace akin to the Star of David to signify that they had ‘submitted’ to French laws. Arabs accepted it in the 19th century. Jews wore different colours in the Middle East during the Medieval period. Modern man cannot accept any of these things, even if it is deemed for their own ‘good’. ISIS couldn’t come to terms with this.

In fact, al-Baghdadi creates what Benedict Anderson calls “an imagined community” through the use of powerful propaganda, tapping into the emotions of many Muslims. This isn’t just a cynical attempt, Graeme Wood is right here, ISIS are True Believers-zealots. They may have been former secular officers who were thrown into Abu Ghraib but, just like the F.L.N commander in The Centurions, they had rediscovered their religion, their reality had been shaken with the fall of the modern Iraqi state. These highly trained officers couldn’t just return to the coffee shops to smoke a fat Zaghloul and drink bitter coffee, lamenting the presence of US marines on their streets. That jarred with their sense of honour, no, they would return to Fallujah and Mosul where their families were and fight. These officers did what an Algerian officer in The Centurion did, they gave their failed country “a history and a personality.” They grabbed the black ‘Abbasid’ flag and made it synonymous with Islamicate. Heavily reliant on ‘salvation history’, they created a vision that the banner of Islam spread from East to West. They ignored historical reality where at one point there were three caliphates that vied for power with each other, and that even after the fall of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, no caliph existed at all for several years. ISIS did what Lartéguy says happened in Algeria, they created a history based on the cemeteries of the dead not based on historical reality. It was Fake News caliphated. As one F.L.N leader says, congratulating a French paratroop officer on his country’s contribution to the creation of modern Algeria:

“The Algerian people have been scarred by war, their existence has been too disturbed to turn the clock back at this stage. You yourselves are creating Algeria through this war, by uniting all the races, Berbers, Arabs, Kabyles and Chaouias. The rebels should be almost grateful to you for the violent measures of repression you have taken.” [p473]

And so the invasion and the sectarianism within Iraq and lately Syria helped to create this ‘nation’ if you will. When ISIS broke through the Sykes-Picot border, it was seen as restoring parity between the oppressed and the oppressor. It was like Horne says of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh in 1954:

“Suddenly this unbelievable defeat deprived the French army of its baraka, [blessing] making it look curiously mortal for the first time.”

ISIS’ ‘yes we can’ moment

The breaching of the Sykes-Picot line was the biggest paradigm shift since Ben Ali fell in the Middle East. It showed the world and indeed Muslims that the status quo can be changed, that the West’s grip on the Muslim world was not supreme. This was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘Yes we can’ moment and perhaps his legacy even as we begin to write his obituary. In post-colonial theory at least, he had done what Franz Fanon believed was essential between coloniser and colonised. He had restored parity, not through the coloniser granting him his freedom which instilled an inferiority complex in the manumitted. Rather, he took it by giving the coloniser a bloody nose. When ISIS broke through Sykes-Picot, they had restored a sense of honour for many in the Middle East. Similarly, when the Islamic State reintroduced concubinage and traditional female roles, they reasserted this injured manhood. And yet at the same time, they displayed their inability to accept that modernity had changed us so fundamentally that Jefferson could own slaves and still be considered a ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ man then. But today, should he practise the same thing, he’d be considered a monster.

ISIS may have signalled its independence by purporting to ‘mint’ gold coins and arbitrarily declaring ‘provinces’ all over the Muslim world and yet, just like the Algerian officer Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who knew that Algeria could not exist without France, the Islamic State also demonstrated that it could not exist outside of the modern world. The creation of uniform ISIS courts were in reality the importing of Western law courts, which made the Rule of Law the basis of the state. Partly, ISIS knew that it had to compete with that model and partly because it didn’t know anything else. On one hand, it was proof of their ingenuity at state building, but also an admission that the paradigm to beat was still the Western model. According to Wael Hallaq’s Impossible State, Islamic history didn’t have uniform law courts as we see them in modern nation states. Far from it, they were extremely organic and functional affairs tailored to the needs of the local community. The historical Islamicate had never made the Rule of Law, king. Now it did. Similarly, when ISIS introduced ISHS, Islamic State Health Services, it based itself on the British National Health Services, NHS, rather than the hospitals of Medieval Andalusia. ISIS then, could not exist outside of time, theirs was a modern project however much it tried to deny it. ISIS’ predicament was like that of the Jihadist who blew up the ancient Buddha statues or the temples in Palmyra for being an expression of infidelity and irreligion but did not realise that his Nike trainers were paying homage to a Greek deity.

In al-Baghdadi’s denial of modernity therein lies his demise. His group failed because the Mohammed and Ayesha in Raqqah and Mosul instinctively realised that they were un-Islamic in spite of the long beard, ankle swingers and tooth stick. It is likely that there will be other groups who will want to emulate ISIS, but for them to be successful they will have to come to terms with modernity. One suspects that they too will fail. Sometimes an old timer can grasp the un-tangible better than many learned men. These ancient looking men don’t know many religious texts but have an earthy piety and remain a reliquary of wisdom that sees things plainly.
“Now these youngsters,” says wispy bearded uncle Forid sitting in Brick Lane mosque waiting to meet his Maker, “are running around killing this and committing God knows what sin thinking that they are doing the Prophet’s work! Idiots! They are so far from him! When the Mehdi comes everything going to be fine.” Uncle Forid is resigned to the arrival of the Mehdi, the messianic saviour who will come at the end of time in Muslim apocalyptic narratives. Uncle Forid knows that the youth are too impatient, they want paradise now. They don’t want to lose. The youth forget that what goes on in the world is often a reflection of a sick heart.  They forget that the Muslim pantheon contains plenty of winners but also plenty of losers; Abdel Kader, Hadji Murat, Imam Shamil, Omar Mokhtar but history honoured them because they remained true to their martial tradition and moral code. To eternity, it seems, winning isn’t everything. An anecdote of Omar Mokhtar told to me by a Tunisian activist is pertinent here: one of Omar Mokhtar’s Mujahideen demanded that two Italian POWs be given no quarter just like the Italians did to them. Omar Mokhtar replied: ‘They are not our teachers’. Whoever comes after the fall of Mosul will need to convince a sceptical Muslim population, tired of the killing and the blood, that they match up to mujahids like Omar Mokhtar.


Katibat Dir’ al-Watan: New Sub-Unit of the Fifth Legion

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Katibat Dir’ al-Watan. On top: Dir’ al-Watan. On bottom: “The Special Force.” Note the Russian and Syrian flags in the emblem’s centre. Note also the cedar of Lebanon on the bottom of the emblem.

When the Fifth Legion (V Corps) was announced in November 2016, it was debatable how far this new formation would emerge as a real fighting force. Indeed, recruitment efforts in Latakia province and apparent annoyance at the constant messages urging people to sign up gave a hint that the initiative was floundering. However, subsequent developments have shown that the Fifth Legion is indeed a serious formation, becoming a fighting force on multiple fronts like Palmyra and the north Hama countryside. Moreover, the suggestions of the Fifth Legion as a formation intended to bring together personnel from different groups have also been borne out. For example, Kata’ib al-Ba’ath (The Ba’ath Battalions), one of the larger and older auxiliary forces for the regime, has worked with the Fifth Legion to set up Liwa al-Ba’ath (The Ba’ath Brigade). Katibat Dir’ al-Watan (The Homeland Shield Battalion), the subject of this piece, is the latest Fifth Legion sub-unit to be created.

What is particularly interesting about this new unit is the incorporation of Lebanese fighters into this unit from the northern Beqaa/Homs countryside border areas with Russian support. The pro-Hezbollah and pro-regime outlet Lebanon Debate writes in an article about Katibat Dir’ al-Watan:

“The peoples of the border villages of the Beqaa have taken on their shoulders the protection of their security from the takfiri expansion. This area, of tribal nature, present on the shoulder of Syrian Qusayr, constituted in 2013 the tributary for the advance of Hezbollah from the Lebanese side in the operation through which the armed groups were removed from the borders of Lebanon. After four years, the area is being penetrated again from its wide doors.

According to estimates, 30,000 Lebanese live in 12 Syrian villages on the borders of Lebanon. The difference is that these people are Lebanese citizens who have fulfilled their obligations [of citizenship] and have chosen to live on the Syrian side as there are no geographic barriers separating the two sides, but rather it is a natural extension for the families and tribes of the Hermel. In the beginning of the events, these families and tribes were able through coordinating with Hezbollah and the Syrian and Lebanese armies to protect these villages through youth sharpened to raise arms, making their villages logistical rear bases securing the resistance’s back firstly, creating an aperture for it secondly, and eliminating the force of takfir thirdly.

The role that the area played in the Qusayr battles, in addition to its adhesion to the Syrian depth that is located on the line of the armed presence as well as its geographic and family value, pushed those interested in the military matter to specify for it a real role. Hezbollah worked to incorporate dozens of youth under its banner, and likewise the Syrian army that designated for them a sideline role within the National Defence Forces played a role, in addition to groups that remained within the families but were supported by the concerned parties: the development has been such that with the Russian entry into the Syrian battleground, they have worked to connect the bridges, as the Russians understood the extent of the importance of this region on the Lebanese hip first and the hip of Homs second.

A while ago, a senior Russian general visited the 12 villages that Lebanese dwell in, and he met Lebanese family and tribal groups, of whom the most prominent face was al-Hajj Muhammad Ja’afar, whose name has circulated widely in the past time from the understanding that he is one of the notables of the Hermel region and has wide links, and secondly from the understanding that his son is ‘Hadi’ who was killed at a checkpoint of the Lebanese army, and the revenge operation that followed from that.

The visit, which occurred far removed from the media, revealed the existence of a Russian intention to work with the sons of the area, in accordance with Moscow’s plans in Syria. According to what the sources of ‘Lebanon Debate’ affirm, multiple meetings occurred, resulting in a general conception, military and developmental.

‘Lebanon Debate’ has learnt that through coordination, Russia has reached an agreement with the sons of the area, stipulating support for the establishment of a local military faction comprising civilians whose objective is to protect their areas first and aid in fighting the terrorist movemets second, and aiding the region developmentally speaking third. The direction has thus translated into an announcement in the past few days of the birth of a faction bearing the name Dir’ al-Watan. According to the sources of ‘Lebanon Debate’, the faction is composed of 400 Syrian and Lebanese fighters under the leadership of al-Hajj Muhammad Ja’afar, obtaining complete Russian support. And this is confirmed by its emblem that uses the Russian flag alongside the Syrian flag and includes the Lebanese cedar as the link component between the two.

A source close to Dir’ al-Watan told ‘Lebanon Debate’ that “the aim of the establishment of this group is to reinforce the protection of the Lebanese villages beginning from their Syrian neighbouring villages in which Lebanese people dwell,” affirming the existence of “high-level coordination with Damascus and Hezbollah.” But what is striking is “the widespread enthusiasm to join this faction” without the refusal of the public Russian support, as the source affirmed that a “second visit by the Russian general to the area took place in the past days, and he reviewed the preparations and the elements that have been put in place to deal with arms.”

The source considered that “this movement is a local auxiliary force working to defeat and eradicate terrorism and according with the beliefs of the peoples of the area,” pointing out that “the most prominent factors of confidence that have given rise to this situation is the presence of al-Hajj Muhammad Ja’afar well-known for his activities on the line of reconciliations and deterring fitna in the Qusayr area shortly before the events of 2013.”

According to a source close to Dir’ al-Watan, the movement “will not limit its activities in Syria but will also work to secure permission to allow it to work inside Lebanon as a political party movement to represent the struggle against terrorism” while its military activities will be limited within Syrian lands.”

Alongside the details of that Lebanon Debate article, it should also be pointed out that the Fifth Legion affiliation of Katibat Dir’ al-Watan provides additional confirmation of the Russian role in the creation of this new group. Russia is particularly invested in the Fifth Legion through provision of the latest military gear in a bid to make the Fifth Legion an effective force.

So what are the implications of the creation of this new force? First, the renewed talk about hoping to split Russia somehow from the Assad regime in light of the fallout from the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attacks is divorced from reality. While there may be Russian annoyance with the regime for what has happened and past incidents in which the regime has managed to drag Russia into initiatives that some Russian officials may not have been so keen on, the Russian government remains heavily invested in the regime’s survival. The continued Russian efforts in bolstering existing forces and creating new units like this Katibat Dir’ al-Watan demonstrate that investment playing out on the ground.

Second, it is wrong to presume that only Iran and Hezbollah are interested in Syria’s border areas with Lebanon as part of a supposed demographic change masterplan to clear out Sunnis and have a Sunni-free land route stretching all the way from Iran to Lebanon in order to create an uninterrupted Iranian-client Shi’i militia axis. In the case of the Qusayr-Hermel border areas (in which Hezbollah also maintains a heavy presence), Lebanese Shi’a in particular have inhabited the Syrian side of the borders since long before the Syrian civil war (see here also for a list of villages) with important familial and clan ties connecting the Qusayr-Hermel border areas. There are real concerns about security. In helping to set up Katibat Dir’ al-Watan, there is no doubt that the Russians, like Hezbollah, are playing on those concerns to build a client base.

Thus, the Qusayr-Hermel border areas do not reflect a case study of the aforementioned demographic change masterplan. Rather, the case of the Qusayr-Hermel border areas shows that there are specific localised border areas that have their own dynamics that may be of interest to one or more of the regime’s foreign backers. Such cases may then lead to results of real demographic change on the ground, regardless of the original intentions. Other border areas, such as the Qalamoun towns like Nabk, Rankous and Yabroud as well as the areas near Mt. Hermon, reflect much more the workings of the regime’s own designs in those places: in these cases, creating viable local holding forces and auxiliary militia allies (thus Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun and Fawj al-Hermon respectively). Yet in Homs city, it is hard to argue that the Sunni-Alawite demographic shift that has occurred was not supported by the regime. As always, the need for nuance and detailed consideration is paramount.

Russia’s Escalation in Syria: Making It Tougher to Fight ISIS? – By Nicholas A. Heras

Russia’s Escalation in Syria: Making It Tougher to Fight ISIS?
By Nicholas A. Heras – Bacevich Fellow, Center for a New American Security @NicholasAHeras
For Syria Comment: April 8, 2017

On Thursday, the Trump administration decided to fire 59 cruise missiles from U.S. naval vessels in the Mediterranean at the Al-Shayrat airbase, an important Syrian military airbase in central-western Syria. President Trump ordered this strikes as a firm response to the Assad regime’s reported recent use of chemical weapons against civilians in the country’s northwestern Idlib province, an event that seems to have deeply impacted the President. More important than the American strike’s impact on Bashar al-Assad’s military is that the Al-Shayrat base was also host to Russian forces working with Assad’s forces.

Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war on behalf of the Assad regime in September 2015 has been the most significant event in the conflict. Not only does Russia provide great power support for Bashar al-Assad, it also forces the United States to engage with Russia on most all matters concerning Syria, including the U.S.-led Coalition’s current campaign against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). In the wake of the strike on the al-Shayrat airbase, the Russians denounced the Trump administration’s decision, threatening to escalate their force presence in support of the Assad regime, and closing the direct “de-confliction channel,” between the U.S and Russian militaries. Assad referred to the U.S. airstrikes as “arrogant aggression,” hinting that his forces would seek to respond to the American attack.

Keeping the Russian Connection Going

There were no Russian casualties at the al-Shayrat airbase because the Russians were warned beforehand through the de-confliction channel. This channel is a basic mechanism of direct military-to-military communication between U.S. and Russia that was established to prevent American and Russian and Assad’s warplanes from striking each other, or each side’s local partners.

Preserving this de-confliction channel was a major concern of the Obama administration, which wanted to focus on conducting a “light footprint” counter-ISIS campaign that featured U.S. Special Forces supporting local, Syrian partners without being distracted by Russia or Assad. Through the de-confliction channel with the Russians, U.S.-led Coalition warplanes could conduct raids against ISIS without being harassed or targeted by Assad’s anti-air defense systems, often-times operated with Russian support and guidance.

U.S. close air support is a vital component of the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria, and it allows the Coalition to take the fight to ISIS working, by, with, and through local Syrian partners, which are basically militias that are coordinated into an effective fighting force under U.S. guidance. Two local partner forces, the U.S.-backed, multiethnic Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and its attached force the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC), have with American-led Coalition air strikes, steadily more and more territory from ISIS in eastern Syria. Working carefully and closely with the SDF/SAC, the United States has only had to commit around 1,000 troops on the ground inside of Syria, and in the coming weeks, these local Syrian partner forces are set to begin the operation to seize ISIS’ “capital,” the central-eastern city of Raqqa.

However, as successful as the American strategy against ISIS in Syria has been up to this point, a reality that is not widely noted is that this success is the product of the general freedom of action that is enjoyed by the U.S.-led Coalition as result of Assad and Russia’s apathy. Preoccupied with the civil war raging in western Syria, where the chemical weapons attacks occurred, the Assad regime and its partners have allowed the U.S. to focus on ISIS, which is more of a long-term threat to the rule of Bashar al-Assad. However, the threat that Assad and Russia would turn their attention to the growing American military presence in eastern Syria and decide to undermine the U.S. counter-ISIS campaign, was a major concern for the Obama administration. It continues to loom over the American military effort against ISIS in Syria

A Proxy for a Proxy

President Trump is generally following the same counter-ISIS strategy is Syria as his predecessor, which means that the Trump administration is relying on local proxy forces to reduce total number of U.S. forces required to be inside of Syria. This strategy aligns with Trump’s campaign pledge to destroy ISIS and to keep the United States out of another costly occupation of a Middle Eastern country. Yet, this strategy is only as effective as the local partners that the U.S. must work with, and the freedom of action that American aircraft have to provide the vital air support that these partners need to overcome ISIS’ fierce resistance.

Assad and Russia do not need to attack U.S. forces inside of Syria, or shoot down American warplanes, which could start a chain of escalation that could result in a larger, regional or global conflict. Simply put, Bashar al-Assad and his allies can instead turn their fire on America’s partners on the ground inside of Syria, which would be a major setback, perhaps even a mortal blow, to the restrained but effective strategy the U.S. has been pursuing against ISIS.

There is already a model for how Assad and Russia could respond like this: both have conducted airstrikes either “accidentally,” or purposely, on America’s local, Syrian partner forces over the last year. In three incidents, in June 2016, August 2016, and last month, Assad and Russia have directly attacked counter-ISIS, Syrian partners, prompted a U.S. air force response to warn off further attacks. Without a reliable de-confliction channel, these one-off strikes by the regime and Russia could become part of a systematic campaign against the best Syrian counter-terrorism partners the U.S. military has fought and shed blood next to.

And this strategy of aggressive escalation against America’s best friends in Syria would likely force a response from the Trump administration, to protect local partner and to send the message that the United States will not be deterred in its mission to defeat ISIS. These responses could range from a show of force such as the deployment of U.S. Army Rangers that were sent to the northern Syrian town of Manbij to support the SDF from the Turkish military all the way to American forces returning fire to protect Syrian partners. However, these responses would be fraught with risk, the counter-ISIS campaign would be ground to a halt, and American soldiers could be killed in the escalation.

The current situation in Syria is fraught with the risk of escalation. The Syrian president has recently called American forces conducting the counter-ISIS campaign in Syria “invaders.” Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have long been uneasy with the American military’s expanding presence and zone of control in eastern Syria. Now, directly attacked by the U.S. “invaders”, the Assad and his friends can try to ruin the American counter-ISIS strategy, and frustrate President Trump’s ambitions to knock the hell out of ISIS in Syria.

Century Foundation Roundtable on Syria

by Aron Lund

A lot of Syria writing tends to be focused on current events, veering toward the very small, the very recent, and the very local. We’re all breathlessly racing to keep up with the latest developments in a stunningly complicated conflict, and only rarely do journalists and researchers get a chance to step back and look at the bigger picture.

Instead, we find ourselves debating questions we won’t even remember a week later. Did that rebel group just split from this rebel group or was it the other way around? Did the army retake three cow sheds in rural Hama today, or four? It’s hard to put the daily minutiae in context if you do not step back to look at the longer-term trends every now and then.

Just over a year ago, I wrote an unpardonably long Syria Comment post on the ten most important developments in 2015 and what I felt was important to watch for in 2016. Whether that particular text was any good is not for me to judge, but what struck me was the number of people who told me they’d been looking for that type of long-form, big-picture analysis. They included several diplomats and others who work on Syria for a living in positions of some influence, but who, apparently, do not have time to discuss anything that didn’t happen yesterday. So I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s actually a real need for that stuff.

The esteemed readers of Syria Comment may therefore be interested to know that The Century Foundation just released a long four-author roundtable on the evolution of the conflict, with contributions from Thanassis Cambanis, Sam Heller, Michael Wahid Hanna, and myself. It’s basically a long series of shorter texts or comments, where we all respond to each other as we go, with Mr. Cambanis gently shepherding the rest of us toward intelligible conclusions. In the process of doing that, we seek to expand on what seems like relevant or interesting subtopics, collectively fleshing-out our sometimes-diverging views on the conflict. We did the same thing last summer, about what we felt was important back then, so this is a kind of second chapter, but it can certainly be read on its own.  You can access both texts here:

In the new 2017 edition, we look at things like the consequences of Bashar al-Assad taking East Aleppo and Donald Trump taking the White House. The question we ask ourselves is: has Assad won a strategic victory? And our answer is: yes, it looks like he has. All things can change, but most probably, this one won’t. For those still in doubt, I refer you to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s comments in Ankara the other day, when he said Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people,” which is diplospeak for “████ it, he can stay.”

But if the original war for control over the central government in Syria is fading into the background, what does that mean for the conflict? Because, rest assured, there will be more conflict—and that’s also something we tried to talk about. How much of the country can Assad ultimately control, using what means? What happens with the Syrian Kurds and the Islamic State? How do you approach the thorny issues of post-conflict reconstruction if there’s not going to be a post-conflict situation?

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys thinking about these issues, that’s kind of sad, but the roundtable should be perfect for you. And if it isn’t enough to satisfy your cravings for in-the-weeds Syriana, here’s a few other articles I’ve written recently, because I don’t want leave you with the impression that this post was about anything other than pure self-promotion:

Revenge Being Meted Out on ISIS linked Sunni Tribes of Iraq – FrontLine “Iraq Uncovered”

This Front Line documentary — “Iraq Uncovered‘ — on Iraqi Sunni tribes & the revenge that is being meted out on them by Shia militias that follow behind US and Iraqi regular military is a cautionary tail for Syria. The same thing is likely to take place in Syria at the hands of both the YPG (Kurds) and Syrian Arab Army. For all that the US claims to be trying to contain Iran, it is clear that the US military strategy in Iraq is works in tandem, even if only tacitly, with Iran. Iran and the Shia militias are playing clean up and extending their influence in the region thanks to superior US military might and spending. The US may have little choice in doing this because it has prioritized the destruction of ISIS. Allowing Shiite sectarian troops is the quickest way to fight Sunni extremism. I cannot help but believe that this is the “Great Sorting Out” unfolding in all its horribleness.

Why the U.S. Should Team Up with the Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State

Why the U.S. Should Team Up with the Kurds & Not Turkey to Take Raqqa and Destroy the Islamic State
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – March 18, 2017

The problem with letting the Turks take Raqqa and presumably the entire Euphrates Valley that is now held by ISIS is that the Turks are endeavoring to hem in the Kurds. To do this, Turkey hopes to establish its Arab proxies in a new “Euphrates state” in eastern Syria. This would partition Syria into three states: a western Asad-ruled state; an eastern Turkish and Sunni Arab rebel-ruled state, and a northern Kurdish state.

Asad’s army has already taken a large swath of territory east of Aleppo, which cuts off Turkey’s access to Raqqa from al-Bab. Turkey has proposed taking Raqqa from the north at Tel Abyad. This approach would penetrate the Kurdish region at its middle and cut it in two. This objective of splitting the autonomous Kurdish region in two is the main reason Turkey offered to take Raqqa.

If the United States helps or allows Turkey to attack the Kurds at Tel Abyad, it will have no Kurdish allies to attack Raqqa or any other part of ISIS territory.

Why are the Kurds willing to take Raqqa even though they do not have territorial interests in and around Raqqa? They are investing in their relationship with the United States. They assume that it will serve them well over the long run when it comes to their political aspirations. They will get a lot of good training; they will get a dollop of heavy weaponry from the United States, which I doubt it can reclaim after the fight; they are building a command and control network for their force.  By the time this operation is over, one can guess that the Kurds of Syria will have four reasonably well trained, well organized, and well armed brigades that they did not have before.  One also suspects that there will be some military loot in Raqqa, which will fall their way.*

The second problem with having Turkey take this region is that its Arab rebel allies include Ahrar al-Sham (a deeply Salafist force, think the Taliban, which adamantly opposed to the US), the dominant militia in its panoply of Arab militias. Ahrar recently split in two, one half joining al-Qaida in Idlib and the other half joining the Turkish coalition of rebel groups, where it is dominant. If Turkey-Ahrar establish rebel rule over the Euphrates, it will become a haven for Salafists and possibly al-Qaida and the coalition of rebel forces now dominating Idlib province; the US has been bombing the al-Qaida leaders there. Turkey has worked with al-Qaida’s forces in Syria throughout the last five years. It allowed them to mass inside Turkey in 2013 when they spearheaded an invasion from Turkish territory into Kassab, north of Latakia. This region is known for its Armenian villages, the last traditional Armenian villages that were not ethnically cleansed by Turkey during WWI. All the Armenians of these villages fled in front of the rebel militias led by Nusra (al-Qaida’s wing in Syria). The churches were ransacked, old frescoes defaced, and crosses destroyed. Turkey does not mind Salafists being part of its Arab forces. Turkey is using these forces as proxies to thwart Kurdish ambitions.

The Turks are pitching their interest in liberating ISIS territory as a “local-Arabs-must-rule” campaign, but the Arabs whom it will be marshaling for its force are largely from Idlib and Aleppo provinces. These are agricultural regions quite different from the desert and tribal Euphrates. The accent and customs of both are different. It is not certain that Raqqans will embrace these new rulers as being among “their own” or as an exercise in self-rule. Of course, they are all Sunni Arabs. In all likelihood, they will risk being dominated by anti-American Salafist elements that will assert themselves and reintegrate al-Qaida members and possibly ISIS defectors back into their state. After all, much of the Euphrates valley was ruled by al-Qaida’s Nusra militia before ISIS split off from it and kicked out Nusra. These elements emerged from the local people. They will reemerge if Turkey tries to administer the region with a light touch, allowing local Arab proxies to take power. If Turkey were to decide to use “extreme vetting” of its Arab proxies to eliminate Salafists, it could do so, but the US should not count on it. Turkey has refused to do this in the past. Salafists are the best fighters and most organized and disciplined of the militias.

These, I believe, are the reasons that American generals do not want to work with Turkey. They don’t trust it, both because it wants to attack our Kurdish allies and because it is soft on al-Qaida-like rebel groups.

What is more, Iran, Russia, Asad, Iraq, and the Kurds will escalate against it. They will not allow the United States to sponsor a Sunni rebel enclave in the middle of their new “sphere of influence.” They will view it as an irredentist provocation bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and America to fire up Sunni resistance to Asad rule in Syria, Abadi’s rule in Iraq, and Kurdish rule in Rojava. The US would be expected to side with Turkey and the Sunni rebels in a long and escalating war against the Shiites. I think this is a swamp waiting to suck the United States into its malodorous depths.

Russia and Iran want to divide ISIS territory between the Kurds and the Syrian government that is led by Asad. The United States should allow this to happen if it wants an exit strategy. Such a strategy, of course, delivers the Euphrates basin back to Asad’s dictatorial rule and into the hands of authoritarian Kurdish rule. It will not be democratic. Asad will seek vengeance against those who rose up against him. This strategy does not promote the sort of representative democracy or human rights outcome the US is pledged to support. All the same, it will be the fastest way to bring stability, restore government services, and rebuild the region. The Syrian government will police against ISIS and Nusra as the Iraqi government does in Iraq. This is the best way to defeat ISIS and deny its territory to some Salafist redux.

To get Turkey to accept the Russian/American plan, Turkey will have to be reassured that Syrian Kurdistan will not be used as a staging ground for PKK forces to attack Turkey. Erdogan will need guarantees that Turkey’s Kurds will not be incited to break away and take eastern Anatolia with them. Restraining Syria’s Kurds is in the interest of the US, Russia, and Asad. If Syrian Kurds can be persuaded to limit their ambitions, as Iraqi Kurds have been, Turkey’s national integrity will not be threatened. This strategy is a gamble, but gambling on the Kurds to limit their ambitions to Rojava (Western Kurdistan) is less risky than gambling on Turkey to spearhead an invasion of Syria through Kurdistan and build a well-governed and peaceable Sunni state that limits its ambitions to the Euphrates valley.

This is why the United States should team up with the Kurds to destroy the Islamic State.

*I would like to thank Barry Posen and Charlie Kupchan for sharpening some of these arguments.

Three Points Regarding Syrian Refugees and President Trump’s Travel Ban – By Sam Farah

Sam Farah

Three Points Regarding Syrian Refugees and President Trump’s Travel Ban
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – March 16, 2017

  1. The Travel Ban of Syrian Refugees Fleeing the War in Syria is Inhumane

The situation in Syria is “the biggest humanitarian emergency of our era.” That’s according to António Guterres, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. Syrian civilians are caught in a regional and geopolitical war involving super powers including Russia, the U.S., China, France, and Britain, as well as regional countries including Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, all of whom support different rebel and military factions fighting in Syria; many have military personnel directly involved in the war.  According to the World Food Program, before the conflict, Syria was a middle-income country; today 4/5 of Syrians live in poverty and struggle to put food on the table. Millions have fled the conflict and become refugees in search of safety shelter and food.

  1. The Ban on Syrian Refugees Does not Help Protect America from Terrorism
  1. None of the terrorists implicated in the September 11 attack in NYC were from Syria and not one Syrian has been implicated or involved in any terrorist attacks in the U.S. or in Europe since then.
  2. Almost 30,000 foreign fighters are believed to be in Syria and Iraq, according to the head of the United Nation’s counter terrorism committee. Around 3,000 are from Europe including places like France, Belgium, England, Germany and Sweden, and another 10,000 from Arab Countries like Tunisia, and Saudi Arabia. The foreign fighters joining the terrorist groups fighting in Syria are from at least 86 countries  including sereval thousands Uighurs from the province of  Xinjiang in China. None of those terrorists carry a Syrian Passport and none will be subject to President Trump’s travel ban.
  1. Syrian Americans are Part of the American Fabric

Syrians have been emigrating to the U.S. since the late 1800s. Steve Job’s father was a Syrian immigrant, as was Jerry Seinfeld’s maternal grandmother. They are actors like Terri Hatcher, and F Murray Abraham, professional athletes like Johnny Manziel, and presidents of universities such as Mitch Daniels, the current president of Purdue University. Lower Manhattan was home to Little Syria, a vibrant neighborhood that was established in the late 1800s and was finally erased to make room to build the Holland tunnel. According to Wikipedia: “Syrian Americans, including the earliest immigrants, have always placed a high premium on education. Like many other Americans, Syrian Americans view education as a necessity. Generally, Syrian and other Arab Americans are more highly educated than the average American. In the 2000 census it was reported that the proportion of Syrian Americans to achieve a bachelor’s degree or higher is one and a half times that of the total American population.”


Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi: Syrian IRGC Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. Flanked by the flags of Syria and Iran, the top reads: “Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim.” The centre consists of a flag with the inscription:  “Labbayk ya Hussein.” At the bottom is the name Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi.

The rise of ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ is by now a well-established aspect of the conflict, as multiple Syrian militias have arisen that have a clear and direct affiliation with Lebanon’s Hezbollah, such as Quwat al-Ridha based in the Homs area. Other militias, such as Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin, whose secretary general was recently killed in fighting in Deir az-Zor against the Islamic State, do not openly assert links with Hezbollah but at least reflect ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ as a brand.

Much more obscure, however, are Syrian militias openly claiming a direct affiliation with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi (“The Mukhtar Thiqfi Brigade”) is one such group. The name al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is derived from a person by the same name, who led a revolt against the Umayyads in an attempt to avenge the death of Imam al-Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad killed at the Battle of Karbala. The name Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim (“The Moon of Banu Hashim Regiment”) featured on the militia’s emblem is just an alternative name for the group. One should compare with additional use of the names Kata’ib al-Imam Ali (“The Imam Ali Battalions”) and Fawj al-Nabi al-Akram (“The Most Noble Prophet Regiment”) by the Syrian Hezbollah group Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. The “Moon of Banu Hashim” refers to Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, the son of Imam Ali, who was the first Shi’i Imam. Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas was also killed at the Battle of Karbala.

Besides the historical persona reference in Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi’s name, it should be noted that the leader of the group goes by the name of al-Hajj Mukhtar. As Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi’s brief self-profile states:

“Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is a brigade affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard [IRGC], under the leadership of al-Hajj Ali, who has the nickname of al-Hajj Mukhtar. The brigade is located in the Latakia area. The brigade’s task is assault: special assignments.”

al-Hajj Mukhtar

Another photo featuring al-Hajj Mukhtar.

I spoke with al-Hajj Mukhtar regarding his group. According to al-Hajj Mukhtar (who, on a side note, mentioned that he is close to al-Hajj Waleed, who leads Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi), Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi was set up around a year ago. Asked about the reason behind the formation of the group when there are already multiple militias operating on the Latakia front, al-Hajj Mukhtar stated: “By God, a formation like any military formation working under the command of the Syrian Arab Army.” He himself is in fact not from Latakia but rather “another province” (which he did not name). He also confirmed the IRGC affiliation and origin of the group’s name: “The support of the Revolutionary Guard is necessary. The naming of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi means in a qualitative sense the fact that I am the leader of the brigade, and it emphasizes my admiration for the leader al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, the student of Imam Ali (peace be upon him) and the avenging hero for Imam al-Hussein (peace be upon him).”

In addition, al-Hajj Mukhtar stressed that the militia’s members are only Syrians, trying to highlight a supposed multi-sectarian composition: “Syrians from the Shi’i sect and the Sunni and Alawite sects. Iraqis are present but not in the brigade with us.” Of course, it is not entirely impossible that Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi has members of other sects, who may adopt the group’s Shi’i slogans, banners and may even participate in some Shi’i traditions without formal affiliation/conversion. Like many other militias trying to deal with manpower problems on the regime side caused by desertion and draft avoidance for service in the Syrian army, Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi has offered taswiyat al-wad (“sorting out of affairs”) for some military personnel in a bid to recruit members. As al-Hajj Mukhtar explained: “Taswiya for military personnel only, meaning for misdemeanours, meaning the soldier delaying over his duty hours, and the soldier refraining from obligatory service: i.e. simple matters only.” The salary offered for members amounts to 57,000 Syrian pounds per month, which is equivalent to slightly more than $100 per month.

In total, al-Hajj Mukhtar claimed that there are approximately 4500 fighters in his formation, though such a number is likely an exaggeration. As far as ‘martyrs’ go, he claims only 14 ‘martyrs’ in number till now. At least one of these ‘martyrs’ can be identified using publicly available information, as per below.

Badi’ Muhammad Hasawi, said to have been from the Hama town of Morek by origin. He was announced to have been killed fighting on the Latakia countryside front at the end of November 2016.

Hasawi’s death provides some further insight into the composition of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. It seems an entire contingent of the militia originally comes from Morek. Some more photos from those involved in the militia are provided below.

Members of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi, wearing headbands with the inscription “Ya Qamr Bani Hashim” (cf. here).

A member of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi with 313 insignia. The number 313 has been used in reference to this group as Fawj Qamr Bani Hashim. For the significance of 313, see this article I wrote on Saraya al-Areen.

Wall graffiti: “The strike force. The martyr Hassan Kamal al-Halabi group: 313.” Hassan Kamal al-Halabi, who was killed in a bombing in Homs in February 2016, is commemorated by Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi.

Member of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi in front of a poster featuring Bashar al-Assad, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Overall, Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi is a rather small formation, but the group is an interesting case of a Syrian militia presenting itself as directly affiliated with the IRGC, rather than simply ‘Hezbollah in Syria’ or ‘Syrian Hezbollah’. It will be interesting to see if other militias along these lines emerge in the future.

(Update 9 March 2017): A reader inquired as to the death of Badi’ Muhammad Hasawi and the attribution to him of a military rank in a tweet from the time of the announcement of his death. There is in fact no inherent contradiction between that attribution and membership of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. It is rather a case-in-point of multiple affiliations and evolution in roles over time. Primary source posts in Arabic on social media point to Hasawi’s position within the Hama military intelligence (al-amn al-askari) and that he had led his own fighting contingents in Hama province. Such a record would undoubtedly serve as a basis for a military command role in Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi. For comparison, note the post from November 2016 linked to in the main article that attributes to him a military rank- naqib– and says that he is the leader of the group’s military operations in the Latakia countryside.

Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Civil Society in Jabal al-Summaq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (‘Liberation of al-Sham Commission’- HTS) has understandably provoked fear of a total jihadist/al-Qa’ida takeover of Syria’s rebel-held northwest, centred around Idlib province. HTS was announced on 28 January amid wider rebel infighting in Idlib that saw multiple groups merge under Ahrar al-Sham in a bid to protect themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that had ostensibly dropped links to al-Qa’ida in July 2016. The largest single component of HTS is undoubtedly JFS, whose leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani was recently confirmed in a video release to be the overall military commander of HTS, even as the overall leader Hashim al-Sheikh was originally in Ahrar al-Sham and had been pushing for his group to merge with JFS.

At present, there is still a substantial presence of Ahrar al-Sham in northwest Syria, but it is evident that the recent turns of events have severely diminished the influence of rebel factions in the area that are vetted and supported by the MOM operations room in Turkey. A merger with Ahrar al-Sham means an end to vetted status, while rebel factions more widely are being pressured by Turkey and other external backers to take a firmer line against HTS. Yet the prospect of a full-blown confrontation and all-out war with HTS could be fatal to the entire insurgency in the northwest as the regime and its allies would likely exploit the opportunity to secure major territorial gains.

Rebel factions (including Ahrar al-Sham) can of course opt for a closer relationship with Turkey, bolstering the Euphrates Shield operation in north Aleppo countryside that recently took al-Bab from the Islamic State. But this option means drawing more resources and manpower away from Idlib province and the wider northwest, which allows HTS to increase its influence. Whatever way one looks at it, the best that the rebel factions can hope for in the northwest is keeping HTS in check somehow: that is, maintaining some kind of stalemate in the balance of power. Even so, it is apparent that HTS is taking an ever more assertive line on the ground, not only in its drive to absorb more and more factions but also in its relations with civil society structures where non-HTS actors might hope to maintain some influence.

The area of Jabal al-Summaq in north Idlib province is a notable case-in-point. Of Druze origin, the area’s original inhabitants have been forced to renounce their faith and convert to Sunni Islam twice. The first time was under pressure from what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham as it expanded its influence across northwest Syria through 2013. The second time was under Jabhat al-Nusra, which gained control over the area in late 2014 after the expulsion of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib province. Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have remained in control of the area since that time.

The existence of a services wing established under Jabhat al-Nusra has long been known: the General Administration for Services (al-Idarat al-Aama lil-Khidimat). However, its presence and functioning have not always correlated with the existence of strongholds under Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors. In some areas, such as Khan Sheikhoun in south Idlib province but coming under the Hama division of the General Administration for Services, we find that this services department for what is now HTS has been competing alongside the local council. Local councils- which are supposed to be civilian bodies embodying local governance in ‘liberated’ areas-are considered to be among the main pillars of civil society in insurgent-held territory. In the case of Khan Sheikhoun, the local council is affiliated with the Idlib provincial council, which is in turn backed by the opposition-in-exile/the interim government.

In Jabal al-Summaq, despite the dominance of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors since the end of 2014, there has not until now been a functioning branch for the General Administration for Services. Instead, services have been managed by local councils that share the same chain of affiliation and support as that of the Khan Sheikhoun local council. For example, in the village of Kaftin, one of the larger villages of Jabal al-Summaq in which a substantial proportion if not the majority of the original inhabitants has remained (also true for Ma’arat al-Ikhwan, whereas other villages like Duwair are completely depopulated of their original inhabitants). Displacement has occurred for a variety of reasons: some prefer to work in regime-held areas, others did not want to live under forced conversion to Sunni Islam, a combination of these factors etc.

The local council of Kaftin was set up three years ago and is led by an administrative office consisting of nine people.

Emblem of the local council for the village of Kaftin. On bottom: “We work for your sake.”

Perhaps the most notable service the local council in Kaftin has undertaken is management of an oven that makes and distributed bread for locals. According to a post by the Idlib provincial council in December 2016, this oven in Kaftin serves around 5000 families, translating to approximately 25,000 individuals, in three localities. Based on other information, the other two localities besides Kaftin are Birat Kaftin and Ma’arat al-Ikhwan (both villages also in Jabal al-Summaq, the former having seen more displacement of its original inhabitants than the latter). This oven was opened in November 2016 and the Kaftin local council had announced a recruitment campaign for personnel to operate the oven at the time.

The Kaftin oven. Note the symbol of the Kaftin local council on the banner, which reads: “Our bread is among the treasures of our land.”

Bread packs with the marking of the Kaftin local council.

The local council in Kaftin also plays a role in education for the youth. Kaftin has four schools, but they teach according to the education programs of the regime. These programs are considered better than those offered by the opposition, and so people from neighbouring villages have sought to have their youth study in the schools of Kaftin. That said, there are regulations in place regarding certain subjects, notably the removal of nationalist ideology, modification to the teaching of history and removal of art subjects (i.e. art and music). There is of course also religious education in line with HTS’ rules (i.e. only teaching Sunni Islam). One should compare with regulations put in place in late 2014 by the Dar al-Qada– the judicial branch for what was then Jabhat al-Nusra- in the Idlib locality of Darkush, a stronghold for the group. Some specifications on education were also noted on the second imposition of Sunni Islam on the original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq, requiring Islamic teaching for the youth in designated places of prayer- which amounts to standard da’wa practice- and a prohibition on gender mixing in schools.

Many of the teachers and education personnel continue to receive salaries from the regime in Hama province: a key example of how the regime tries to maintain some leverage in rebel-held areas, ultimately seeking to regain them (another case-in-point is that the regime pays salaries of retired state employees in those areas). Yet there are also some teachers who are working on a voluntary basis or have defected from the regime. Their salaries are paid by the local council in Kaftin, which also provides for the needs of the schools (e.g. fuel).

Other services of note include public cleaning, agricultural land auction for the purposes of grazing, working with the Syria Immunization Group to implement vaccine programs, and working on land telephone lines.

Like many other local councils, the local council in Kaftin works with international aid programs and organizations to provide some services. For example, in May 2016, the council advertised distribution of emergency aid to displaced people. The aid was provided by the World Food Program and Human Appeal.

At the head of the Kaftin council is Abd al-Majid Sharif, an anti-regime political thinker and activist originally from Kaftin and presently residing there. Some readers may recall that the outlet Syria Direct interviewed him in March 2015 regarding the situation in Jabal al-Summaq, in which he outlined the reality of the forced conversions and the failure of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s supposed mediation. According to Sharif, the council does not have elections, whether internally done within the council or externally through popular elections for positions. Sharif clarified further: “I want to abandon [my position in the local council] to have time for theoretical work, but no one wants to undertake the job and the other members are threatening me with resignation if I resign.”

The status-quo whereby the realm of services provision in Jabal al-Summaq has been in the hands of these local councils that are ultimately tied to the opposition-in-exile is now under threat from HTS. On his Facebook page late last month, Sharif wrote of a new initiative from HTS to subsume the local councils under its services wing:

“In the province of Idlib and the north of Aleppo, whereby HTS control has arisen without contests and the rest of the factions and formations have gone into seclusion, or even many of their members handed over their weapons to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or joined it, the commission [HTS] is currently forming a civil administration in the name of the General Services Administration, and is directing for the previous administration represented in the local councils to become affiliated with this General Administration. The cadres of Fatah al-Sham say that the council that will not accept this affiliation to it will be dissolved and a replacement will be formed for it.

But the problem is also with the cadres of the councils who fear the commission’s [HTS’] revenge if the cadre rejects working with it. The second problem concerns the possessions of the councils that will be automatically transferred to the new councils affiliated with the General Administration. The third is that this will annul the work of the provincial council and the interim government. The fourth and most important is that the commission is classified worldwide with terrorism legally speaking since Fatah al-Sham forms its main body, and so also the countries and organizations will reject working with it and we will be turned to a form of siege even if there are no bombing and destruction of the installations that these countries and organizations had previously offered to the local councils.

We are in a true dilemma, I do not know how we can get out from it. But it should be noted that the new General Administration has covered or deceived the entire area with aid, especially free bread and semi-free bread. This aid is being offered by Turkish organizations: it is as though Turkey is trying to pressure the international community through its support to obtain something in return. I do not believe this will last long if something must be sorted out with Turkey and this aid stops.

I asked one of the members of the provincial council: What is your opinion? And where are things headed? He replied: To the precipice.”

Though Sharif told me on 27 February that he had only heard of this services branch for HTS twenty days ago, the reality is that it is not a new institution but reflects the General Administration for Services discussed earlier in this article. The difference now is that HTS is simply being more assertive in trying to ensure services provision comes under the affiliation of this services branch in areas of its control. In Jabal al-Summaq, though the idea of services oversight by what was then Jabhat al-Nusra had been mentioned in the second imposition of Sunni Islam, it does not seem to have been realized. As for what Sharif writes about aid of Turkish origin, it is slightly to make out his exact meaning, but one can only suppose that if the Turkish state is involved in mass aid provision here, the idea is actually to try to undermine HTS, considering that Turkey wants the broader opposition and insurgency to take a firmer stance against HTS. If the aid is being appropriated by HTS though, it only reflects the problem of supply lines into Idlib province being controlled by HTS.

So far in Jabal al-Summaq, according to Sharif, HTS has only set up its own local services administration in the village of Qalb Lawze, which has seen more than half of its original population displaced as well as settlement of Uyghurs, in addition to being the site of an infamous massacre in June 2015. In response, some members of the local council in Qalb Lawze withdrew, while others have remained and overhauled the local council, thus choosing to work under HTS’ services administration. Sharif said that in Kaftin, the ultimatum had not yet come, but he indicated that he does not see an interest in working with an HTS services administration. As Sharif also put it, “I prefer that we administer our affairs ourselves.”

In short, these developments reflect how the declaration of HTS represents an ever bolder assertion of jihadist influence and power, not only in terms of relations with the more ‘mainstream’ insurgency but also wider civil society. The options for these non-jihadist actors in Idlib province in particular in the face of HTS’ ascendancy seem ever more constrained. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for this quagmire is that the growth of HTS’ main predecessors in the northwest and Syria more generally was allowed to fester for too long. Now the broader insurgency and opposition must live with the consequences of that.