Labawat al-Jabal: A Druze Female Militia in Suwayda’ Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Female fighters in the Syrian civil war are foremost associated with the Kurds, in particular the YPJ division of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s armed militias. Indeed, a female role in fighting fits in naturally with the secular and leftist ideology of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), of which the PYD is the Syrian affiliate. However, the phenomenon of female fighters and militia members is not confined to this side alone: they can also most notably be found on the regime side. In fact, such a case came to light recently with the killing of one Ghasun Ahmad, who died fighting on the Aleppo front in late August. Also known by the nickname Amirat al-Assad (al-Assad Princess), she was originally from Tartous governorate and was most notably affiliated with the National Ideological Resistance, a Syrian Hezbollah militia that originates from the Tartous and Masyaf areas and has fought in most parts of western Syria. This affiliation became particularly apparent in footage broadcast by Sama TV of her funeral, featuring the appearance of National Ideological Resistance insignia and outfits at the proceedings. Other posts on social media claimed she was in the ranks of the military intelligence militia Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. It is possible she was affiliated with both groups at the same time. After all, the Syrian Resistance has claimed overlap with the ranks of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari on the Aleppo front.

Ghasun Ahmad in Khanaser, an important point for the regime’s supply route to the Aleppo frontlines. She is wearing National Ideological Resistance insignia in this photo.

Ghasun Ahmad with the National Ideological Resistance.

However, there also exist female militia groups. A notable case can be found in the Labawat al-Jabal (‘Lionesses of the Mountain’) group of the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’. The ‘mountain’ reference in the militia’s name refers to the other common names for the Suwayda’ area: Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs) and Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Druze). An account of the militia and its origins was posted on the page Suwayda’ 24 in June this year, putting it in the camp of regime loyalist Suwayda’ factions (as opposed to the more third-way and reformist Rijal al-Karama movement that has a number of militias under its wing):

Labawat al-Jabal shirt.

“The faction Labawat al-Jabal was formed in the seventh month last year [July 2015] by recommendation from the Brigadier Wafiq Nasir, leader of the military intelligence of south Syria. It is a faction exclusive for women who desire to enlist, and they have been subjected to three training sessions at the hands of officers from the military intelligence branch as their numbers have exceeded 30 young women. But strong opposition to this faction has appeared from a wide section of the people of Suwayda’. Among those who opposed this faction was the previous leader of the ‘Rijal al-Karama’ movement Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous [assassinated in September 2015] who attacked them and said it was shameful for women to bear arms so long as there are men defending the province. On the other hand, a portion of the people of Suwayda’ welcomed this faction and said that it is obligatory on every woman to train for use of arms in the face of the gradually growing danger that the province is witnessing. It should be noted that a number of the women in this faction tried to attack the recent demonstrations that this province witnessed to demand improvement of living circumstances, through provoking the demonstrators and vilifying them, but the demonstrators did not react towards them [referring to the small anti-regime ‘Hatamtuna’ protests in Suwayda’ earlier this year, the campaign name meaning “You have smashed us”].

This is so, and the faction announced opening the door of recruitment again for every woman who desires that, together with announcing a new training session of a period of 15 days beginning from 1 July 2016. This session includes training in arms, physical competence, first aid and morale support, at the hands of specialist officers from the military intelligence branch. It should also be noted that this faction has not yet been dispatched to the hot zones or made to participate in fighting operations until today.”

As it so happens, Labawat al-Jabal has a Facebook page in which it announced the opportunity of registration for these training sessions during the summer. Like many other militias, Labawat al-Jabal offered connection for inquiry and further information via phone number, with the place for registration located at the base of Madhafat al-Watan [“The Homeland Guest House”: also just called Madhafat Watan] in Suwayda’ city, which as an institution engages in a variety of activities in the province including financial assistance for students and honouring those who have fought and/or died for the Syrian army. These activities include maintaining relations with key regime figures in Suwayda’ such as the provincial governor.

The Labawat al-Jabal sessions during the summer- referred to as ‘the fourth session’ (al-dawra al-rabi’a) and acknowledged to have been supported by Madhafat al-Watan– were subsequently promoted on the group’s page with photos of training, as per below.

Training for Labawat al-Jabal

First-aid training for Labawat al-Jabal.

Considering Labawat al-Jabal’s links to Madhafat al-Watan, it is unsurprising that the group is pro-regime in orientation– something reflected in its page’s posts. However, Labawat al-Jabal denies the claims of being affiliated with military intelligence, writing in August 2015 in response to a story about a supposed meeting with Wafiq Nasir:

“The Labawat al-Jabal group is not affiliated with anyone. And we are an independent group socially and as an auxiliary for the Syrian Arab Army. Secondly, this photo [the one circulated regarding the story] is the photo of the graduation of Kata’ib al-Ba’ath for girls.”

A representative for Madhafat al-Watan affirmed to me that Labawat al-Jabal is affiliated with Madhafat al-Watan. Another representative- one Muzna al-Atrash, the media activist and media official for Madhafat al-Watan- clarified further:

“Labawat al-Jabal is not a faction but rather an initiative within the initiatives of Madhafat al-Watan, both of them being a nationalist, popular civil movement not affiliated with any side.”

Conversely, Sheikh Marwan Kiwan of the Rijal al-Karama faction Bayraq Al Kiwan, who derides Labawat al-Jabal as “enemies, female shabiha of the sectarian criminal Wafiq Nasir…apostates,” claims that Madhafat al-Watan is actually under Wafiq Nasir. Though the institution has participated in at least one meeting that has included Wafiq Nasir, no solid evidence corroborates Marwan Kiwan’s claim that Madhafat al-Watan is under his leadership. Further explanation of Labawat al-Jabal and the relation with Madhafat al-Watan was offered by the Muzna al-Atrash:

“Maha al-Atrash, who is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and a musical composer, established it [the Labawat al-Jabal initiative] on account of her belief in the role of women in protecting the land and homeland, and so that it should be an auxiliary for men in defending the homeland, so she prepared a group of instructors, including a close combat instructor, an instructor for street fighting, an instructor for self-defence, an arms instructor to teach how to deal with arms and teach use of rifle magazines, and a first aid instructor, as well as training the woman to confront disasters and teaching women to prepare food for fighters.

By this training, the woman should be capable at least of protecting herself and her children, and most importantly protecting them from mistakes that may end her life and the life of her family. Four sessions have come out for women in the province of Suwayda’: the number of women in each session reaching 50. So the result in total, 200 ladies. This operation is completely voluntary and free. Maha is the daughter of the director and writer Memdouh al-Atrash, the founder of Madhafat Watan.”

Labawat al-Jabal graphic.

Labawat al-Jabal is by no means a major militia force in Suwayda’ province, which, according to one source in Bayraq Al Kiwan who spoke with me in May this year, is now host to more than 35 factions. Nonetheless, it offers an interesting case study of female militia mobilization and its political connections within regime-held Syria. Whatever resentment there might be towards Labawat al-Jabal among those who lack the regime loyalist inclinations, full-blown war between the Suwayda’ factions remains a remote prospect, as no one side would emerge decisively victorious. In addition, incidents such as the Qadisiya al-Janub rebel offensive in Quneitra province last month that pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr only served to draw attention away from internal quarrels as forces mobilized to defend Hadr out of Druze solidarity, whatever assurances might have been made that the intention was not to capture Hadr itself. According to a media director for Rijal al-Karama who spoke with me, this mobilization to defend Hadr included fighters from Rijal al-Karama though not going under this name on account of problems with the regime’s intelligence apparatuses. In any event, hopes of the ‘revolution’ coming to Suwayda’ remain a long way off.

How Will the Syrian Crisis End? – By Ehsani2

How Will the Syrian Crisis End?
By Ehsani2 @EHSANI22
For Syria Comment – October 10, 2016


Westerners find it hard to believe that a crisis, such as that afflicting Syria, cannot be stopped. “Surely, someone can and must do something” is the consensus thinking. If the UN has failed to stop it and diplomacy cannot bring it to an end, then the White House must stop the blood letting and use military power to do so. “We just cannot sit back and let this tragedy unfold without doing something.” That is the montra of pundits on TV and commentators on social media.

The sad truth is that those hoping for a quick resolution to this crisis are likely to be disappointed. Contrary to expectations, the US is unlikely to enter into war with Russia over Syria. The moral argument for intervention cannot out-weigh the immense risks that the US military would be taking were it to engage in a direct and costly war with Russia. Despite the hawkish rhetoric of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, chances are that once in the White House, she will come to the same conclusion about using American military force as President Obama. Real world constraints reduce the chance that US will deploy force in Syria. The Syrian opposition and their backers will be forced to rethink their current path.

Political Solution

Most policy makers involved in the Syria crisis insist that “there is only a political solution to the Syria crisis.” The unstated problem with this argument is timing. Can a political solution be arrived at before a clear military winner emerges on the battlefield? Mustn’t one side realize that it has no choice but to accept a settlement before both sides will come to the table? The answer to this question is clear. No political solution can take place before a clear winner emerges on the battlefield. The longer this process is delayed, the longer the crisis will drag on, and the greater will be the death count.

Salafists and Jihadists

Regardless of how liberal and reform minded were the masses who made up the opposition at the beginning of the uprising, those who make up the armed groups today are largely Salafists and Jihadists. They control the battlefield. The Syrian state has long been accused of releasing Islamists from its prisons in an effort to achieve precisely this outcome. While such accusations are impossible to dismiss wholesale, it is important to recall that one of the early and consistent demands of the opposition was for the release of political prisoners. And who were those prisoners? The vast majority were Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood had long been the central enemy of the Baathist regime. Liberals were inconsequential and presented little threat to Assad’s control. The vast majority of the political prisoners brought before the security courts and convicted to lengthy prison terms were jihadists returning from Iraq or Salafists who preached against the regime in surreptitious dawa circles. Leading up to the events of Daraa in 2011, Damascus had for decades charged Islamists with long sentences, often seven years, in prisons such as Sednaya.

The release of prisoners

As the crisis first unfolded in Daraa, Sheikh Sayasneh was invited to Damascus in an attempt by the authorities to de-escalate the situation. One of the key demands of the cleric was the release of prisoners, the majority of whom were Islamists. This pattern was often repeated throughout the early phase of the crisis. The U.N special envoy, Kofi Annan, took up this demand. He too insisted that all political prisoners be released. While many in the opposition are convinced that the release of salafists, such as Zahran Alloush, who was imprisoned for organizing prayer meetings, was engineered by Damascus to help radicalize the opposition, the truth is probably more nuanced. The Syrian State was desperately trying to stop the uprising by using both the stick (swift response against protestors) and the carrot (release of prisoners when urged). While one may still debate this argument and claim that the government’s secret intent was to turn the uprising into an jihad, the fact is that what Damascus sees today are insurgents and Islamist armed groups who want nothing less than to destroy the Syrian State and replace it with a one of their own design, one that would conform to sharia. They call it “more Islamist in identity”.

Different visions of government

The two completely different sorts of government envisioned by each side do not permit a credible political solution at the present time. As for the political wing of the opposition that maintains close relations with Washington, Damascus believes that Qatar has repeatedly prevented this largely powerless group from following US suggestions of entering into more serious political talks during the previous Geneva talks.

Only the battlefield will decide

What the above leaves us with is the hard truth that only the battlefield will decide the next phase of this crisis. This means that the war is likely to continue. The armed groups and their supporters are unlikely to give up the fight. The same is true of Assad and his backers. No one will be able to stop this war until one side begins to collapse or loses enough to bring the fight near to its conclusion. Sadly, when this point of inequality between the opposing sides is reached, the loser will have little to gain from negotiating. Until this scenario becomes the accepted wisdom, we are likely to read the inevitable daily op-eds and opinion pieces that decry the unfolding tragedy and demand that the United States escalate its military intervention.

Aleppo and America’s Syria Policy – by Robert G. Rabil

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-42-16-pmA Historical and Contemporaneous Context for American Policy on Syria
By Robert G. Rabil – @robertgrabil
For Syria Comment October 4, 2016

With Aleppo under indiscriminate heavy bombardment and siege by the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, Iraqi Mobilization Units and Hezbollah, the pitch of the chorus of voices blaming and shaming the U.S. for not intervening militarily in Syria to stop the bloodshed has reached a crescendo not seen since the days preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Whereas some critical views offered heartfelt appeals to salvage Syria as a state and a nation, others bluntly blamed the failed policies of the Obama Administration for the tragedy befalling Syria.


This debate over the Obama’s administration policy on Syria was put recently on display by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a meeting with a small number of Syrian civilians, Secretary Kerry confessed that he had lost an argument within the Obama administration to back up diplomatic efforts with the threat of using military force against the Syrian regime. He also added that Congress would never agree to the use of force. According to the New York Times, several comments made in the meeting “crystallized the widespread sense of betrayal even among the Syrians most attractive to Washington as potential partners, civilians pushing for pluralistic democracy.”

No doubt, this notion of American betrayal and culpability cast a pall over the reliability and essence of Washington’s role in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the American role in Syria, though not beyond criticism, has been more emotively criticized than cerebrally expounded, especially as it relates to American national interest. Herein lay the confusion over and frustration with American foreign policy. In fact, the American role in Syria cannot be fully understood without being contextualized in a framework of reference according to which American national interest is evaluated on the basis of the modern history of U.S.-Syrian relationship, the crisis of the Arab world and American war on terrorism, and the new dawning of a global reality.


The history of the U.S.-Syrian relationship is conflicted and had been grounded in ambivalence, making a potential U.S. military involvement in Syria hardly possible. As I have shown in Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East, U.S.-Syrian relations have been marked by antagonism and ambivalence, not limited to the Asads’ reign. In fact, U.S. overtures to Syria were not only shunned but opposed. The U.S., unlike Britain and France, entertained no colonial ambitions in the Middle East. The U.S. relationship with Israel and Syria started on an equal footing after World War Two. The U.S. recognized the independence of Syria before supporting the creation of the state of Israel. The support for Israel was not meant to serve either as a bridgehead to American influence or as an outpost of imperialism. Nor was it a ploy to dictate Syrian policies. The Cold War and Arab nationalist policies, which equated Israel with colonialism, opened the gates of the heartland of the Middle East to the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The main objective of the U.S. was to check Soviet expansion in the region, which fed on Arab grievances against the Western powers and their support of Israel.

When in November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, with Jerusalem as a separate enclave to be administered by a governor appointed by the international organization, Syrian demonstrators attacked the U.S. legation in Damascus.  When in October 1950, the U.S., Britain, France, and Turkey formally proposed to Egypt the formation of a Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), the purpose of which would serve to extend the containment of the Soviet Union to the heartland of the Middle East, Syrians denounced MEDO as an imperialist plot. Egypt’s refusal to enter MEDO and Syria’s opposition to it doomed it to failure. At the time, the U.S. had no special relations with either Syria or Israel. Its concern with containing the Soviet Union made it look at Israel and Syria through the prism of Cold War politics. When Western powers supported the Baghdad pact of 1955 as a means to counter the threat of communism, “progressive forces” in Syria, the Ba’th, the Democratic Bloc, and the Communists opposed the pact and consequently moved Syria in the direction of Egypt and the Soviet Union. This set the stage for the Middle East to become a ground of rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

No sooner, in July 1956, after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the British, French, and Israelis led a joint attack on Egypt in late October, which was frowned upon by the U.S. This emanated from a cluster of complex considerations. Prominent among them was, on the one hand, the attempt to woo away Egyptian nationalists from the Soviet embrace and, on the other hand, the concern over taking action that could deepen the Soviet embrace. In his memoirs, Eisenhower emphasized the implications of the attack for Arab nationalism:

I must say that it is hard for me to see any good final result emerging from a scheme that seems to antagonize the entire Moslem world. Indeed I have difficulty seeing any end whatsoever if all the Arabs should begin reacting somewhat as the North Africans have been operating against the French.[i]

The U.S. compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip, both captured during the Suez war. Syria, for its part, immediately supported Egypt when the three powers invaded it. At the height of the crisis, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli flew to Moscow to seek political and military support. Clearly, despite the high ground the U.S. had achieved in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the Syrians saw in the Soviet Union a protector that readily poured much needed economic and military assistance in perilous times. Similarly, U.S. expectations of appreciation from the Arabs for intervention in the Suez crisis in their favor turned hollow.

Consequently, the U.S. feared a total Soviet victory in the region. In January 1957, Dulles addressed Congress stressing that “it would be a major disaster for the nations and peoples of the Middle East, and indeed for all the world, including the U.S., if that area were to fall into the grip of international communism.” He added that the U.S. “must do whatever it properly can to assist the nations of the Middle East to maintain their independence.”[ii] The Eisenhower administration had its way when Congress passed the joint resolution in March 1957, henceforth known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, conceding to the administration request that

The president is authorized to…employ the armed forces of the United States as he deems necessary to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of any such nation or group of nations requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.[iii]

The U.S. president sent Ambassador James P. Richards to the Middle East to inaugurate the new doctrine. Only Lebanon and Iraq endorsed the Doctrine. Syria refused to receive the Ambassador. Initially, Syria had rejected the Eisenhower doctrine on the grounds that intervention in the affairs of a nation over economic interests was a flagrant violation of the sovereignty principle; and that the American assertion that a power vacuum existed in the region was but a pretext for imperialist intervention and hegemony.[iv] By August 1957, the relationship between the U.S. and Syria sank to a new low when the Syrian government charged the U.S. with an attempt to overthrow it. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a communiqué on August 19 announcing the discovery of the American plot. The communiqué emphasized that the goal of the Eisenhower doctrine was to seize the independence of Middle Eastern countries and offer them as easy prey to Zionism and imperialism. The U.S. rebuffed Syrian accusations, interpreting them as a “smokescreen behind which people that have the leftish leanings are trying to build up their power.”[v] Subsequently, the U.S. and Syrian ambassadors were declared personae non gratae in their respective host countries.

In 1963, the Ba’th party came to power through a coup d’etat. In order to support its militant attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and its socialist domestic policy, the Ba’th government cooperated closely with the Soviet Union to obtain financial and military aid. By contrast, Syria’s relations with the U.S. continued to deteriorate. The U.S., however, held both Syria and Israel responsible for the growing violence along their borders[vi]. It called later on upon Syria to insure that its territory would not be used as a base for terrorism against Israel.[vii] Heightened tension along the Israeli-Syrian border contributed to the eruption of the June 1967 War, following which Damascus broke off diplomatic relations with Washington.

US-Syrian relations remained abysmal until Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, following the 1973 war, brokered the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement over the Golan Heights. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was arduous but important because it conveyed to Arab leaders and particularly to Syrian president Hafiz Asad that without American support there is no return to the status quo ante. This complemented the overall strategy of the Nixon Administration in the Middle East, which set out to demonstrate that the Soviet Union’s capacity to foment crises was not matched by its ability to resolve them.[viii] The underlying implications of the American strategy were to prod the Arab leaders to approach Washington for assistance in the peace process and to make manifest the Arab’s anachronistic concept of all-or-nothing approach towards Israel.

This uneasy rapprochement between the U.S. and Syria was carried on by the Ford and the Carter administrations, especially that the latter had made the reflection of American values in foreign policy one of its central themes. The realpolitik and elliptical approach to foreign policy, which had characterized the State Department under Kissinger, was to be replaced by an open foreign policy, substituting “world order” for “balance of power,” and placing Human Rights issues high on the Administration’s agenda. Not surprisingly, Carter’s quest for idealism in foreign policy clashed with his geopolitical realism, resulting in an ambivalence, which was reinforced by the divergent world views of his principal advisers.

Significantly, this brief evolution of U.S.-Syrian relations was seriously hobbled when Syria appeared on the US State Department’s “terrorism list” in 1979. Still, Washington maintained a belief in Syria’s key regional role and in its capacity to influence events in the region. This led to the emergence of Washington’s ambivalent attitude toward Damascus, which became first apparent in Lebanon and then a hallmark of US-Syrian relations until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ironically, the terrorism issue, which precluded the US from improving its relationship with Syria, became the issue responsible for bringing the two countries together.

At the same time, U.S.-Syrian relations, mainly in the 1980s, were affected by the Cold War and the complexities and harsh realities of the Middle East in general and Israel and Syria’s struggle for Lebanon in particular. Significantly, the Reagan administration launched a peace initiative following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. However, the American involvement in Lebanon suffered a painful blow when 240 U.S. marines died in a terrorist attack on their headquarters in West Beirut in October 1983. Though fingers were directed to Iran as the sponsor of the terrorist who carried out the suicidal attack, Syrian involvement could not be ruled out.

The U.S., backing its diplomacy with the threat of force, fired battleship guns (the carrier, New Jersey) on Syrian dominated Lebanese positions. Syria fired back and shot down two American war planes, which had engaged in an exchange of fire. This marked the first direct confrontation between Washington and Damascus. However, amid sharp division and opposition to the U.S. role in Lebanon within the Reagan administration, President Reagan chose not to escalate the skirmishes to a full war. Both complexities and treacherous realities of the Lebanese civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict flew in the face of America’s policy in the region. The U.S. redeployed its troops to U.S. ships offshore and put the peace initiative on the back burner.

US relations with Syria remained ambivalent straddling the ground of sanctions and cooperation. Interestingly, Syria was the only country listed on the US State Department’s terrorism list with which Washington maintained diplomatic relations. The height of cooperation ensued when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Syria participated in the US-led international coalition to extract Iraq from Kuwait. Consequently, US-Syrian relations warmed and Damascus became central to the Arab-Israeli peace process launched after the end of the Gulf War. Asad was hailed in the Arab world as Salahuddin, who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, and the steadfast Arab nationalist leader. During the peace process, Asad helped build the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon at the expense of the legitimacy of the state. Arab leaders and many intellectuals applauded him.

Upon his assumption of power after the death of his father in 2000, Bashar Asad promised an era of political openness. Syrian intellectuals and quasi-civil society groups responded by what became known as the Damascus Spring. However, their call for pluralism and political and civil rights were soon muzzled. Clearly, the Syrian regime feared on his hold to power and decided to censor all socio-political activities. Syrian activism reemerged following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Notably, the activists’ call for reform was couched in the interest of safeguarding Syria from the spillover of the profound changes sweeping Iraq and by extension the region. No calls for removing Asad or his regime were declared. No less significant, reformers of all ideological stripes and backgrounds failed to unite. In hindsight, no time period during the modern history of Syria was more opportune to pressure the regime into making significant changes than in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Washington’s relations with Damascus swiftly deteriorated once Asad opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then sank to a dangerous low when the Syrian regime helped Jihadists cross Syria into Iraq to fight U.S. troops. Yet, Arab condemnation of U.S. invasion of Iraq to remove a Ba’thi dictator stood in sharp contrast to the deafening silence of Arab condemnation of Syrian complicity in murdering U.S. troops. This attitude prevailed in Syria until the eruption of the rebellion against the Asad regime.

Simply put, Syria, throughout most of its modern history, did not support the U.S. Even during the peace process no relational structures were considered by either country to support a warm and/or mutually beneficial strategic cooperation or alliance between the two countries. Taking all this under consideration, one cannot fail but observe that American attitudinal role in Syria has been more or less affected by the history of this conflicted and ambivalent U.S.-Syrian relationship.

Second, for a nation fighting a war on terrorism whose ideology and praxis are mostly traced to the Middle East, it is arguably hardly possible for United States to entertain a role in Syria not associated with counterterrorism. Admittedly, the Obama administration has done serious mistakes, chief among them calling on President Asad to step down and creating a red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Eventually, the U.S. did not back its words with action. At the same time, the U.S. relegated the political initiative to deal with the Syrian crisis to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Whereas the first fanned the ideological and monetary support for the jihadists, the other paved for the Jihadists the route to Damascus. Yet, the U.S. has struggled to support moderate opposition groups. As it turned out, some of these groups have shifted their allegiance to al-Nusra Front or other Salafi-Jihadist groups, which are dedicated to killing Americans. In addition, can the moderate opposition be absolved of the tragedy befalling Syria? When the U.S. designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in November 2012, members of the Syrian opposition deplored the American act, asserting the indispensability of the al-Qaeda-affiliate group in fighting the Asad regime. This was a serious strategic mistake that helped further legitimize Salafi-jihadism within the Syrian revolution. Therefore, how could anyone blame the U.S. for the rise of Salafi-jihadism in Syria? Did the U.S. support, equip, train, or fund Salafi-jihadists? Did the U.S. prefer supporting Jihadists more than the moderate opposition? In fact, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE all supported various Islamists and Jihadists significantly more than the moderate opposition. No less significant, it is the Arab world, which applauded and hailed the violent and oppressive Asad regime, that supported the jihadists and helped bring Syria to its tragedy. Certainly, ISIS is the latest manifestation of an Arab world mired in deep social and political crisis.

Meanwhile, once the regime’s hold onto power had begun to teeter, despite considerable support from Iran and Hezbollah, Russia stepped in not only to save its old satellite capital but also to entrench itself in the Mediterranean basin as a bulwark against what it considers American hegemony. Strategically speaking, by helping the Syrian regime, Moscow would create in Western Syria a bastion of Iranian influence beholden to Russian power, while at the same time turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake. No doubt, the entry of Moscow into the Syrian fay further complicated Washington’s maneuvers. Whereas Moscow came to the help of an old client, Washington has had reservations with certain predominant Salafi-jihadist group spearheading the opposition. And, if history is any guide, it is naïve to think that Russia would not pursue a Grozny-like campaign to ensure that its military involvement in Syria would not become ominously perpetual. This explains the forcible displacement of Sunnis from parts of Western Syria and the savagery with which Russia and its allies have pursued their campaign to seize full control of Aleppo.

Consequently, Washington found itself in a quandary. It ironically found itself on the same side with Russia and the Syrian regime fighting Salafi-Jihadist opposition groups while at the same time supporting the moderate opposition whose power paled in comparison to the Jihadists.  Expectedly, neither the Obama Administration, Congress, nor the US public support sending troops to an unfriendly land crisscrossed by jihadists on one side, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization units on the other. How could one expect the U.S. to attack the regime, even in a limited capacity, without potentially incurring the wrath and retaliation of its Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Iraqi allies, all of which are really running the deadly show? Similarly, should anyone expect that Salafi-jihadists will not jump at the opportunity of Washington striking at the regime to widen their sphere of influence and in the process slaughter non-believers? Or should anyone brush aside the possibility that the Iraqi mobilization units would use their partnership with the Iraqi government to attack the approximately 6000 American soldiers advising the same government? Or should American people forget the high pitched fictitious slogan that Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers as liberators in 2003? Certainly, the U.S. is in an unenviable position in both Syria and Iraq, where American enemies vastly outnumber American friends! Nevertheless, The U.S. has been the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, and has sent dozens of U.S. troops to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces.

Speaking recently before the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew a bleak but accurate picture of the Syrian crisis: “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians…Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.”

This is the tragedy of Syria and, by extension, the tragedy of the Muslim world in the Middle East. Be that as it may, the U.S. should apply its soft influence to reach a permanent cease fire and end the slaughter and displacement of Syrians. No doubt dealing with Russia is exhausting and at times unproductive. But the reality of the world today is that the U.S. cannot force a cease fire as part of a settlement on its own without introducing a massive number of troops to eventually occupy Syria.  In his most recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger affirms that the main challenge for the twenty-first century is how to shape an international order in a world buffeted by violent conflicts, technological proliferation and radicalism. He adds that unless the major powers reach a new kind of accommodation about their global roles chaos would ensue. In other words, the United States would find it difficult to play the leadership role it had carried out in post-Cold War. Consequently, the United States confronts a paradox whereby it continues to be the undisputed global leader but in an often contested, sometimes uncertain global position. This is the international backdrop against which the tragedy in Syria continues to unfold.

More specifically, however, Syria as a nation is paying the deep price for the social, political and sectarian flaws in Arab society. Following the Arab defeat in 1967, the Syrian and Arab philosopher par excellence Sadek al-Azm wrote a book entitled Al-Naqd al-Thati Ba’da al-Hazima (Self-Criticism After the Defeat), in which he argued that the defeat of Arab armies was not brought about by the might of the Israeli army but rather by the flaws of Arab society. Today these flaws are deeper than ever!

Currently, the tragic reality today is that Aleppo is all but a foregone conclusion, for the city is essential to consolidate Russian-Iranian-Syrian regime control over Western Syria. It’s clear from Secretary Kerry’s statements that the U.S. will not go to war with Russia over Aleppo. But that does not mean that the U.S. and the international community should not apply significant pressure, including by proxy, on Russia and the Syrian regime to stop their indiscriminate warfare. This begs the essential question following the day after the likely fall of Aleppo: How to change the dynamics in Syria in favor of the moderate opposition without creating a bigger war and tragedy. Until a new American administration moves into the White House, this remains to be seen!

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-50-06-pmRobert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books including Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016). The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those at FAU. Dr. Rabil can be followed @robertgrabil.

[i] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: The White House Years 1953-1956 (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 252.

[ii] John Foster Dulles, Economic and Military Cooperation with Nations in the General Area of the Middle East, (Washington, DC: GPO, January 1957), pp. 2-5.

[iii] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1961), pp. 816-817.  

[iv] Ministere Syrienne des Affaires Etrangeres, Declaration du Gouvernment Syrien au Sujet du Projet du President Eisenhower (Damas: Bureau des Documentations Syriennes et Arabes, Janvier 10, 1957), p. 1.

[v] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957, p.1036.

[vi] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1966 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1969), p. 525.

[vii] Ibid., pp. 530-531.

[viii] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 738.

“Remember Syria’s Adib Shishakli,” by Christopher Solomon

Remember Syria’s Adib Shishakli
Christopher Solomon – @Solomon_Chris
For Syria Comment Sept 27, 2016


Nearly 52 years ago, a Syrian political leader hiding in exile was killed in the heart of Brazil. As Syria watchers continue to monitor and understand the country’s grinding civil war, the era of the former Syrian political figure Adib Al-Shishakli could yield some clues.

The flag of the Syrian opposition factions bares the green, white, and black tricolor with three red stars. The very same flag once flew over Syria from its independence until the late 1950’s, a turbulent era marked by political intrigue, military coups, early experiments with democracy, and authoritarian rule. At the center of this era was a powerful political figure now barely remembered both outside of Syria, Adib Al-Shishakli.

As policy makers in capitals across the Western World grapple with Syria’s endless violence, Shishakli’s legacy and the lessons from his time are worth remembering today. Shishakli’s rule over Syria, geopolitical trends, his relationship with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and his ensuing ouster yield some clues on what we might expect as the civil war prepares to enter its sixth year.

shishakliCoups, Stability, and Authoritarian Rule

Hailing from Hama, Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd who served in the Arab armies that took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. His exploits on the front lines earned him a following among Syria’s officer corps. Though Shishakli was not known to be an ideologically driven figure, he entertained many of the nascent political activists at the officer’s club in Damascus. Shishakli was largely known for his close association with Antoun Saadeh’s SSNP, also sometimes referred to as the Parti Populaire Syrien (PPS). In addition, his participation in nationalist inspired actions against the French, such as the take over and occupation of the Hama citadel in 1944, only added to his reputation as a man of action.

Syria’s politically turbulent years in the wake of independence saw the reigns of leadership held by prominent nationalist personalities, such as Shukri Quwatli, and subsequent power squabbles between his National Bloc and the pro-Iraqi Aleppo-based People’s Party, with plenty of political intrigue from the SSNP and its primary competitor, the student dominated Baath movement. The country was soon rocked by a series of coups that turned the country into a pariah state.

Shishakli came to power in 1950 with the third military coup which brought about a short period of stability. Shishakli had aided General Husni Ziam in Syria’s first coup by leading an army division. However, it was Shishakli’s rule which marked the first time the military would fully enter political life in an Arab country, establishing a trend that would acquaint regional armies with the taste of high office.

For some, the period of military rule had benefits. The Shishakli regime cracked down on crime, enforced strict control of Syria’s porous borders, and work to build the army into a modern force. Shishakli also harnessed the power of the radio and was well known throughout the region even before Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser for his oratory and zeal that reverberated through the airwaves. He was the first post-independence Arab leader to cultivate a cult of personality with his pictures appearing in every shop window and established a government ministry of information and propaganda.


His spies and security agents were posted throughout the country to monitor any potential anti-Shishakli activity. All political parties were banned, especially religious parties. Long before Egypt’s deadly cat and mouse game with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Shishakli barred the Islamic Socialist Front (Syria’s early incarnation of the MB) from participation in politics. Maarouf al-Dawalibi of the MB, was close to the Aleppo’s People Party and was removed as the Minister of Economy after Shishakli’s coup.

shshakli2Upon returning from Egypt, Shishakli was greeted at the airport by the pro-Baath army officer, Adnan al-Malki with demands for political reform. Shishakli had Malki compile a list of everyone involved in the confrontation and threw them in prison.

Despite the crackdown, there are those who recall Shishakli’s era, or have studied it, that speak fondly of him, remembering the avant garde laws that were enacted during his time. The Damascus International Fair of 1954 was one of Shishakli’s development projects to raise the country’s international profile, along with the Port of Latakia. The first woman to run for office was schoolteacher Thuraya al-Hafez, who sat in Shishakli’s 1953 Parliament. Even after his overthrow, Syrians were for years in awe of his rule.

The Assad regime maintains the aura of stability, modernity, and progressive attitude towards women over the territories it controls. Despite being part of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance, Assad’s regime still embraces secularism to generate support from Syria’s religious minorities and those who wish to keep Sunni Islamists from dominating the public sphere.

Regional and geopolitical trends

“Syria is the current official name for that country which lies within the artificial frontiers drawn up by imperialism.” The famous quote from Shishakli from 1953 still holds a measure of truth.

Syria’s borders have constantly been subjected to bouts of internal secessionism or tested by neighboring states. Historical examples include the Golan Heights, Hatay, and most recently, Rojova. Analysts often speak of creating an Alawite state. Just as internal political and ethnic rivalries fostered instability, so did the region’s geopolitics, which during Shishakli’s time was primarily a contest of dominance between Iraq and its British-backed Hashemite rulers, and the Egyptian-Saudi alliance. For the West, Syria was viewed through the prism of the Cold War and the battle against Communism. France continued to vie for influence in its former colonial dominion in order to check the British.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-55-55-pmAside from his coup and military rule, Shishakli was known for preserving Syria’s independence and sovereignty during a period of heightened Western influence in the region. He shunned military aid from the Eisenhower Administration and but also kept Syria from falling into the Soviet Bloc. The Fertile Crescent Project (sometimes referred to as the Baghdad Pact) was the primary driver of the region’s geopolitical trends during his time. The British sphere of influence extended over Iraq and though there was a desire to erase the artificial borders, the potential threat of Western interference led the nationalist forces inside Syria to keep prospects of a union between Damascus and Baghdad at bay.

Syrians are fiercely protective against potential foreign interference, real or perceived. For Assad, the role of safe guarding Syria’s independence from foreign influence remains a primary factor in resisting the negotiations in Geneva and the notion of a political transition. Assad’s recent anti-Western comments outside Daraya mosque further demonstrates this resistance. The heavily reliance on Russia and Iran is regarded by Assad’s supporters as a genuine friendship and it is not yet known how their increased influence will impact Syria for the remaining duration of the war.


Shishakli as president, 1953

Shishakli was able to court Egypt and Saudi Arabia and allowed France to maintain a level of nominal influence inside of the country. Just as Assad has leveraged Russia and Iran, Shishakli knew how to utilize the region’s players to keep Syria neutral during the Cold War and safeguard its independence. Iraq was a key instrument in fomenting internal dissent and organizing the forces that ultimately united against him.

It is easy to see how Syria’s central government historically wrestled with control over various regions. Towards the end of his rule, Homs was the key center of anti-Shishakli activity. However, he perceived the Druze as a threat to his regime. Shishakli was perhaps most notorious for his efforts to curtail the tribal-based power of the Druze located in southern Syria. The Druze never forgave him for the shelling and military assault on Jabal Druze (Druze Mountain) and many Druze officers in the Syrian army later formed the backbone of the coalition (supported by the Iraqi government) that conspired against him.

Today, regional agitation plays out in all parts of Syria. Aleppo remains the central stronghold for anti-Assad Arab rebel activity. In addition, the Baath Party’s years of brutal Arabization policies towards the Kurds in northeastern Syria present a similar case. The Kurds and the Assad loyalists have frequently clashed in the city of Hasakah. A central component of the Islamic State’s strategy to recruit Sunnis and hijack anti-Assad sentiment of the Syrian rebellion was the border destroying ideology of its so-called caliphate.

Whether consolidating power over Syria from Damascus or Raqqa, figurehead leaders have relied on a strategy of projecting the image of strength and an absolutist position to maintain the state’s sovereignty over the country. As it was difficult to enforce during Shishakli’s time, it is overwhelmingly obvious for Assad. If Syria is to remain united, the same will hold true for whoever follows him.

Shishakli, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Arab Liberation Movement


Antoun Saadeh and SSNP members

Secular and progressive, the SSNP enjoyed the height of its popularity during Shishakli’s Syria. It wasn’t until after Shishakli’s overthrow that the SSNP’s political fortunes took a turn for the worse. Lebanon acted as a hideout for political exiles, such as the Baath Party ideologue Michael Aflaq, who returned to Syria to enact revenge on the SSNP after Shishakli’s downfall.  After the 1955 assassination of the widely popular Baath Party member and army Deputy Chief of Staff Malki, the SSNP was blacklisted and effectively driven underground by the rising Baath.

Shishakli entertained the SSNP during the first year of his rule. However, he eventually abstained from fully embracing the party’s central tenant of Pan-Syrianism in favor of the more vastly popular Pan-Arabism. He founded his own party, the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM) to cultivate this trend.

While there are no ideological ties between the SSNP and ALM, there is a strong influence of the first over the latter in terms of party structure, salute, hierarchy of power, etc. The ALM worked to embrace pan-Arabism whereas the SSNP emphasized its concoction of nationalism, mythicism and pan-Syrianism. Both of these parties, along with the Baath and Communist Party, were progressive in nature, allowing women and Syrians regardless of sect to join.

As for the Arab Liberation Movement, it has disappeared completely. In 1954, President Hashem al-Atasi, picking up the pieces after Shishakli’s departure, choose not ban the former dictator’s party, and even allowed the ALM secretary Maamoun al-Kuzbari to run for parliament (and obtain a seat). The ALM eventually died out with the start of the Syrian-Egyptian Union.

Women members of the ALM in 1953

Women members of the ALM in 1953

The ALM was ultimately unable to survive without Shishakli. A few hidden reminders of the ALM remain in plain sight. There is a major square in Damascus, when entering the Christian sectors, called “Sahet al-Tahrir” which was actually named after the Arab Liberation Movement (Freedom or Liberation in Arabic is Tahrir, noted in the name of the party, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi).

Al-Kuzbari (who later became Prime Minister) was allowed to be buried in Damascus when he died in 1998 and was given a semi-official funeral. As of 2016, his picture hangs in the main hall of Syrian Parliament to honor his role as the speaker of Parliament during the Shishakli era.

ALM rally in 1953. The sign reads the party’s name, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi.

ALM rally in 1953. The sign reads the party’s name, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi.

The SSNP suffered both persecution and a popular decline in Lebanon and Syria until the late 1960s, when many of the SSNP leaders were freed from Lebanese prisons and began to rebuild the party during the 70s and 80s. It was during the Lebanese Civil War, that the party tentatively tested a friendship with Hafez al-Assad. This friendship later paid off. The SSNP has not only survived but has seen a resurgence during the Syrian Civil War.

The Baath have always held a distain for Shishakli, regarding him as a foreign stooge. There are no references to Shishakli in the SSNP’s party literature, since it would antagonize Syrian Druze and the Baathists, the latter are their political allies and who the SSNP are backing in the civil war.


SSNP leader Issam al-Mahayri in Parliament (right with glasses).

The SSNP’s older generation still speaks very fondly of Shishakli, but always in private. “Party President Issam al-Mahayri stepped down in late 2015 and was a good friend of Shishakli. When giving a four-part interview to the semi-official Al-Dunia TV channel in 2010, al-Mahayri spoke positively of Shishakli and his words were aired on state TV uncensored,” said Sami Moubayed, the founder of the Damascus History Foundation.

The SSNP’s leadership is proud of the fact that he and his brother Salah were early members of the party, along with Akram al-Hawrani, who later became a key member of the Baath Party. However, Shishakli was never instrumental as an ideological figure in the party and his influence is more nostalgic than anything else. Shishakli is thus still celebrated by the SSNP as a VIP member without ideological the inspiration.

Despite this, should the Assad regime win, the SSNP may play a greater role in post-war Syria as a vehicle for fostering a renewed notion of national unity. With so much harm coming from Syria’s Arab neighbors, the Baath’s concept of pan-Arabism might truly be dead. If the SSNP increases their political influence, Shishakli could perhaps become rehabilitated in the public discourse.

Shishakli’s downfall in 1954 and his legacy in Syria

Shishakli began to scale back the role of the military in Syria’s political scene in an effort to legitimize his rule. Many well-connected officers who suddenly felt detached and disenfranchised turned to Shishakli’s political enemies. With the help of Iraq, factions of the army were able to present a united front to subsequently oust him from Damascus. Once the Baath came to power, they worked to erase his existence from Syria’s collective memory. For many years, the ruling party worked to erase him from Syrian history. In private, he is still regarded and respected as a prominent and transformative Syrian leader.

“There is no mention of Shishakli in school books, at any level, and he is never mentioned on Syrian TV with the one exception of a television series called Hammam Al Qishani produced during the 1990s, where a Syrian actor, Ussama Roumani, played his role. Only one book was published in Syria about Shishakli since his resignation in 1954, and it was a mediocre one that failed to do him any justice,” explained Moubayed.

In Damascus, there is not a single monument or a plaque bearing his name. Even the official history of the Presidential Palace that Shishakli constructed at the tip of Abu Rummaneh Boulevard (now office of Vice-President Najah al-Attar) is obscured. The palace is usually associated with Nasser, who addressed Syria from its balcony in 1958 to herald in the country’s ill-fated union with Egypt.

Shishakli never returned to the presidency in Syria after leaving office in February 1954. Though there are two examples of when Shishakli had planned to return to power. First, it was revealed that immediately after his departure he tried to reroute the plane to Beirut when his supporters urged him to return. This effort, however, was stymied by the U.S. State Department and his plane was denied a landing permit at the Beirut International Airport.

Shishakli pictured in exile in Brazil a few days before his assassination.

Shishakli pictured in exile in Brazil a few days before his assassination.

The second event was a few years later when the SSNP facilitated several rounds of secret meetings in Beirut with Shishakli, his brother Salah, and a group of coup-plotters. However, Shishakli, a military man through and through, knew that the plot did not have the support of the Syrian army and decided against participating. Should Assad eventually decide to seek exile in Russia, it is possible that following years of political turbulence and terrorism, he could orchestrate his own return to power. To enact such a maneuver would be dependent on the level of support both in and outside of Syria.

The elections that followed Shishakli’s four years of dictatorship brought about the short-lived union with Egypt, a union that’s end brought about years of political squabbles. This was compounded by the breakdown of the army, which became factionalized and rudderless without Shishakli. An array of officers organized and formed their own secret networks of political patrons. An alliance of mutual interests between Aflaq’s Baath Party and the Syrian Communists ushered in a new era of authoritarian rule that led to the Neo-Baathist coup of 1966 and ultimately the Assad family’s current dynasty.

When considering Shishakli and his time, it is important to recall that when confronted with the news of rebellion, he could have resorted to the use of force (he did, after all, still control loyal factions of the military including heavy armor divisions) but abdicated in favor of self-imposed exile and avoided certain civil war. It is possible he knew that Syria, with its fragile political foundations and regional rivalries, would be at risk for long term turmoil. This very fear that Shishakli sought to avoid continues to play out in full earnest today.

For Syrians who remember him, Shishakli was a divisive leader, either regarded as transformative and progressive or despised as a dictator. His eventual assassination in Ceres, Brazil, coupled with the many years of rule by the Baath helped to cement the shroud over the memories of his existence. As the Syrian independence flag once again flutters in a period of uncertainty, it recalls the history of Shishakli and Syria’s forgotten past.

  • 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.

Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain: Building a ‘Resistance’ in Eastern Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Banner of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain. On top: “The Syrian Resistance” (al-muqawama al-suriya). On bottom: Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain (“The Imam Zain al-Abidain Brigade”).

In analysis of militiafication on the Assad regime side, one of the most understudied fronts is that of Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, as the regime maintains an outpost in parts of Deir az-Zor city, the military airport and some of the surrounding areas, with no supply routes by land in existence. Despite the regime’s rather precarious situation, the Islamic State (IS) has not yet completely wiped out the regime presence in the way that it took the regime’s isolated bases in Raqqa province by storm in the summer of 2014.

Though reporting commonly just refers to the Syrian army in Deir az-Zor province, there exist a number of supporting militias. The latest of these militias to have been set up on this front is Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, named for the fourth Shi’i imam. For context, it should be noted that there are a number of militias on the regime side that have adopted the moniker of Zain al-Abidain. For example, there is another Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain that has most notably fought on the Ithiriya front as advertised in late 2015. According to someone who was in the Republican Guard and then joined this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, the group was formed around 2-3 years ago. A notable leading figure in this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is one Zaher Hasan al-Asad, who is particularly interesting because he is also a member of Mihrac Ural’s group known as The Syrian Resistance (al-muqawama al-suriya), which should not be confused with the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Deir al-Zor that is the main subject of this piece and also bears the moniker of “The Syrian Resistance.” Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s affiliation with Ural’s group was confirmed by a source in the latter last month, who also mentioned that a squadron from Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain was in Aleppo.

The Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Zaher Hasan al-Asad. The top of the emblem reads: “The Resistance Support Forces.”

Zaher Hasan al-Asad. Note his insignia from Mihrac Ural’s Muqawama Suriya.

Zaher Hasan al-Asad with his Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain members, posing in front of a banner that reads: “God’s peace be upon you oh Hussein.” The reference is to Imam Hussein, a key figure in Shi’i Islam. For similar sloganeering, see here.

Indeed, the leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor- a petroleum engineer  by occupation who is originally from Deir az-Zor and goes by the name of Abo Abod- told me that the name of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain exists among formations in various parts of Syria, including Ithiriya (likely referring to the presence of Zaher Hasan al-Asad’s group), Palmyra and Quneitra. He mentioned this fact in response to a query as to why this name was chosen for the group. He added that there were connections “with all the formations.”

More specifically on his own group in Deir az-Zor, he mentioned that it has been operating for four months (i.e. first set up in May-June 2016). Officially describing his group as independent, he affirmed that it was one of the supporting militias for the regime in Deir az-Zor. By his account, other militias that have participated in fighting on the Deir az-Zor front, according to Abo Abod, have included:

-The National Defence Forces.
– The Lions of the Eternal Leader: a militia whose name refers to Hafez al-Assad: affiliated with the Military Intelligence (al-Amn al-Askari: cf. here) and led by al-Hajj Azra’il, originally from the Shi’i village of Nubl in north Aleppo.
– The Lions of the Euphrates: affiliated with the Amn al-Dawla (“State Security”) intelligence agency.
– The Lions of the East: a tribal militia mainly drawing on Sha’itat tribesmen, who work closely with the Republican Guard and Issam Zahr al-Din, a Druze general in the Republican Guard who plays a leading role on the Deir az-Zor front, having recently returned to the front after a visit to the Quneitra frontlines that currently involve a rebel offensive that has pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr, prompting a large Druze mobilization to defend the area. Together, under Zahr al-Din, members of the Republican Guard and members of the Lions of the East constitute the Majmu’at Nafidh Assad Allah (“Nafidh Assad Allah Group,” referring to a nickname for Zahr al-Din).
– The Ba’ath Brigades.
– al-Hashd al-Sha’abi: “Popular Mobilization”- undoubtedly taking its name from Iraq’s militia phenomenon that goes under this moniker- but not related, rather affiliated with the Syrian regime’s military commander for Deir az-Zor city.
– Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

This list of auxiliary forces more or less correlates with that compiled by the anti-IS and anti-regime group Deir az-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently (DZBSS). Most notably, DZBSS correctly points out in addition the role of the Palestinian militia Quwat al-Jalil (“The Galilee Forces”), which actually claims the bulk of its ‘martyrs’ from fighting in Deir az-Zor. Despite some occasional claims that have surfaced on social media, little reliable evidence points to the presence of Iraqi Shi’i factions on the Deir az-Zor front, something denied by Abo Abod. It should also be noted that Abo Abod clarified that the Lions of the Euphrates militia has been dissolved by the Amn al-Dawla, with fighters distributed to other formations. According to him, al-Hashd al-Sha’abi has also been dissolved.

As might be expected, Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor primarily draws on local people from Deir az-Zor as recruits, though Abo Abod was keen to emphasize as wide a manpower base as possible in terms of origins, claiming fighters from Albukamal (in eastern Deir az-Zor on the border with Iraq), Raqqa, Hasakah, Qamishli Damascus and Deraa. He put the monthly salary per fighter at $200, which he said was partly used to support civilians in Deir az-Zor. Concomitant with the wide range of origins, Abo Abod was also keen to put forth a cross-sectarian image for his group. “Do you know that I have Christian youth in the brigade?” he asked rhetorically in a bid to impress me. He added that “some of them are from al-Deir [Deir az-Zor] and some have come down with me from al-Sham [Damascus].”

Photo of Abo Abod

The photo of Abo Abod above, with the “Labbayk ya Hussein” (“At your service, oh Hussein”) insignia, may raise the question as to whether he is Shi’i himself. To this question, he gave a rather interesting response: “I belong to all sects. I wage war on all who wage war on the Shi’a. I serve [/revere] the Al Bayt [Prophet Muhammad’s family] and my lineage is Husseini.” He then elaborated: “Do you know that Deir az-Zor is Shi’i in character? The black abaya, the al-Abbas bread, Allah wa Ali, all of them are from the customs of the people of al-Deir.”

These kinds of remarks touch on an issue I raised in my previous article profiling Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib, a militia affiliated with the Republican Guard and based in Sayyida Zainab in Damascus. That is, whether or not there is formal conversion to Shi’i Islam, many pro-regime militias have displayed increasing affinities with Shi’i Islam and associated slogans and symbols, undoubtedly influenced by the extensive intervention of Iran and client Shi’i militias in Syria. Indeed, as Abo Abod told me, “The youth I have- Sunni before Shi’i- have adopted Labbayk ya Hussein, out of love and desire. We in the brigade deal with each other as one family and one house. Muhammad is our Prophet, Ali is our lord, Hussein is our leader….All demanded it [the slogans/symbols]. They said: ‘Hussein, Ali, Zainab and Fatima- peace be upon them- are our lords.'”

Photo of a person bearing the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain flag.

So far, Abo Abod only claims 5 ‘martyrs’ for his formation, a recent example being one Nasim Muhammad al-Hamid, killed in fighting to retake Tel Baruq near the 137th brigade base. In the recent U.S. airstrikes in Deir az-Zor that erroneously targeted regime positions, there were no reported or confirmed deaths for the ranks of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain.

Analytically, it could be as my friend Tobias Schneider suggests to me that Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is a project analogous to Hezbollah’s Saraya al-Muqawama (“The Resistance Brigades”) project in Lebanon that is designed to outreach to non-Shi’i constituencies. Though Abo Abod said his group is independent, such a claim should probably be taken as formal distancing. In any case, the study of this militia in Deir az-Zor offers useful insight into regime dependency on auxiliary fighting forces even out on this front, and how apparent cross-sectarianism can still contribute to antagonistic sectarian dichotomies.

Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib: A Republican Guard Militia in Sayyida Zainab

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib. With a balance flanked by two Syrian flags, the bottom of the emblem features the legendary Dhu al-Fiqar sword of Imam Ali, with the inscription: “There is no hero but Ali and no sword but the Dhu al-Fiqar.”

The Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus- home to the Sayyida Zainab shrine- serves as a primary base for many Shi’i militias, including a number of Iraqi formations like Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the Rapid Intervention Regiment. The Sayyida Zainab area is also the main base for the Syrian Shi’i militia Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, which is affiliated with the 4th Armoured Division and has primarily served to maintain checkpoints. Somewhat similar in nature to Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib (“The Sword of Truth Brigade: The Conquering Lion of God”). The latter part of the group’s name is a reference to Imam Ali. The imagery is reinforced by the inclusion of the Dhu al-Fiqar in the emblem.

Like Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib is a Syrian militia with its base in the Sayyida Zainab area. However, its affiliation is not with the 4th Armoured Division, but rather the elite Republican Guard. This point is corroborated in open source data and the testimony of one Abu al-Layl al-Sadri, a fighter with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar who resides opposite the militia’s base. According to Abu al-Layl al-Sadri, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s base is located in the vicinity of the Mudhafa Fatimiya (‘Guest-House of Fatima’) in the Sayyida Zainab area. For context, the Mudhafa Fatimiya has also served as a conference venue, featuring one in November 2014 on the rebellion of Imam Hussein organized by Ayatollah Khamenei’s office in Syria and attended by the Social Committees Commission in the Sayyida Zainab area. More recently, the venue hosted a solidarity event with Hezbollah in March 2016 following its designation as a terrorist organization by Gulf Arab states. The event was notably attended by pro-regime Palestinian factions and militias, such as the PFLP General Command.

Though the group’s emblem suggests that Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib is a Shi’i militia, Abu al-Layl al-Sadri noted that this impression is not quite the case. Whereas Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is described as a militia composed of Syrian Shi’a, he clarified that the members of Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib “show affection- you can say- and believe in the traditions of the Shi’a, following and participating in the occasions.” This may reflect a trend whereby some pro-regime factions, on account of the important role played by Iran and foreign Shi’i militias in supporting the regime, display affinities with Shi’i Islam even if there is no outright conversion, which has taken place in the case of Liwa al-Baqir, a militia of Shi’ified Bekara tribesmen in Aleppo.

The trend of affinity with Shi’i Islam can be influenced by recruitment of Syrians into the ranks of the foreign militias and close cooperation between those militias and the native formations. For example, a video uploaded by Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, one of the components of the Dir’ al-Watan (‘Homeland Shield’) collection of Syrian militias led by Hayder al-Juburi (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar), features the song ‘Ya Zainab’ by the Iraqi Shi’i munshid Ali al-Mawali. In a similar vein, Muhammad Suleiman Harura, a declared ‘martyr’ for the Palestinian militia Liwa al-Jalil (which seems to be inactive at the present time), posed with insignia and banners of ‘Labbayk ya Zainab’ (‘At your service, oh Zainab’). Yet another example of Zainab sloganeering can be found in the militia Fawj Abu al-Harith 313 (also known as Saraya al-Areen), which appears to be based in Latakia and has fought on that front in addition to Aleppo.

Abu al-Layl al-Sadri added that the group’s formation dates back to two years ago. Under the leadership of one Ghalib Abu Ahmad (whose son Ahmad is actively involved in fighting, distinguishing himself in the Qalamoun mountains), Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s main engagements to date appears to have been in Damascus and the wider countryside area. For example, in January 2015, the group posted photos of its fighters in the snow-covered Qalamoun mountains. In March 2015, the group posted a photo of a group of its fighters near the locality of Falita in Qalamoun. In May-June 2015, the group claimed participation alongside Hezbollah and the Republican Guard in fighting against rebels in the Jaroud al-Qalamoun area. Later in the year, the group claimed to be fighting on the periphery of Dahiyat al-Assad and the Harasta area to the northeast of Damascus alongside the Syrian army, in addition to maintaining frontline positions in the Qalamoun mountains and participation in efforts to reopen the Harasta highway.

In the fighting on the periphery of Dahiyat al-Assad, the group claimed at least three ‘martyrs’. During the Harasta operations, a ‘martyr’ was claimed for Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib in one Haitham Hayel Saleh. Originally said to have been from the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabina in Damascus, he was buried in the Martyrs cemetery in the Sayyida Zainab area.

‘Martyrdom’ portrait for Haitham Hayel Saleh. Note the inclusion of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Palestine flag covering the entirety of what is the Israel-Palestine area today.

Most recently this month, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s leader announced the loss of a field commander by the name of Nour Abdullah Muhammad, said to have been killed fighting on the East Ghouta front.

Coffin for Nour Abdullah Muhammad. Note the ‘Liwa Sayf al-Haq’ inscription.

Ghalib Abu Ahmad’s son advertising his presence as being in the Ghouta area, late August 2016.

Social media content for Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib also points to social outreach activities. For example, the militia’s leader has participated in events to commemorate ‘martyrs’, including the annual occasion of Martyrs Day in May.

Ghalib Abu Ahmad (centre) at Martyrs Day commemoration: “Religion is for God and the homeland is for all [a saying attributed to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the Great Syrian Revolt in the 1920s], in the presence of the sheikhs al-‘aql of the Bani Ma’arouf [Druze]: they had a distinguished presence.”

Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib, like Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, presents an interesting case of a militia with a religious image attached to an elite Syrian army division: an image no doubt influenced by the presence of the group’s base in the Sayyida Zainab, the main hub of Shi’i militancy in Syria. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributes to sectarian perceptions of the Syrian civil war along the Sunni-Shi’i line.

Lens on Syria, by Daniel Demeter


Back in January 2015, I introduced the readers of Syria Comment to my website, Syria Photo Guide, where I have documented the historic and cultural sites of the country. I also posted a small collection of my photography of Syria taken between 2006 and 2009.

Since that time, I have been privileged to work with Just World Books to publish Lens on Syria, a photography book to be released this upcoming Tuesday, September 20th. Joshua Landis has been kind enough to author the foreword for this book, which features the best images of my extensive photography collection of pre-conflict Syria. This 304 page volume contains over 400 full-color images, is organized into seven chapters by geographic region, and is available in both hardcover and paperback. I’ve focused on Syria’s monuments and architectural heritage, interspersed with images of daily life, such as its vibrant and colorful souqs (markets), and its stunning landscapes. I believe this book captures the beauty of Syria that many, myself included, fell in love with.

Some of the wonderful endorsements we’ve received for the book:

Ross Burns, author (Monuments of Syria, Damascus: A History, Aleppo: A History)

“Daniel has a wonderful eye for the people, the landscapes and for the beauty of [Syria’s] extraordinary range of historic buildings. It is important that all who knew Syria before 2011 keep alive the memory of a society whose interwoven pattern of faiths, ethnicities and cultures is now threatened.”

Dr. Abdalrazzaq Moaz, former Director-General of Antiquities and Museums (Syria)

“Daniel Demeter’s photos make up one of the most important recent collections of photographs concerning the cultural heritage in Syria. These pictures reflect his love and knowledge of Syria and its heritage as well as perfection of photography.”

Dr. Alastair Northedge, Professor of Islamic Art and Archaeology (Université de Paris)

“What a celebration of life in Syria as it once was! Daniel Demeter takes us on a fascinating visual tour of Syria as it was before the war, following his years there in 2006-9. Every minor detail of people and their cultural heritage comes to life in this rich photography.”

Dr. Lamya Khalidi, French National Centre for Scientific Research

“Smells, colors, sounds and deep-time history of Syria jump from the pages of Demeter’s book in a mosaic of past and present and tell the breathtaking layered human story of a region whose multicultural identity and heritage are persistently being endangered by current violent conflict.”

Here are a few sample spreads from the book’s interior:

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The seven chapters of Lens on Syria are organized as follows:

  1. Damascus
  2. The South (Damascus environs, al-Suweida, Daraa)
  3. Homs & Hama (and environs)
  4. The East (Palmyra, al-Raqqa, Deir al-Zur)
  5. Aleppo
  6. The North (Aleppo environs, Idleb)
  7. The Coast (Lattakia, Tartus)

If anyone has any questions regarding the book, I will keep an eye on the comments section and be sure to respond to any inquiries! Thanks for your interest.

The Virtues of Sham: The Place of Syria in the Muslim Sacral Imagination

The nature of the Syrian conflict, now in its fifth year, has become overtly sectarian and ideological. Undoubtedly the foreign fighters who continue to trickle in are coloured by this. There is also enough evidence to suggest that the presence of informal recruiters, usually through friendship networks, play an influential role in the choices they make. There seems to be a confluence of humanitarian, political and ideological factors that has led to a situation that looks and feels apocalyptic. However, what has often been ignored is the unique position that Syria occupies within Islamic tradition.

Worship, Jihad and Sham are entwined in the poster.

Themes of Worship, Jihad and Sham are entwined in the poster.

Keeping our focus on Sunni foreign fighters, Syria has attracted foreign fighters in a way that no other conflict has. Burma or Central African Republic certainly have not attracted Muslim foreign fighters. Not even the lands of Afghanistan or Yemen or Iraq for that matter, have drawn so many men and materiél in from all corners of the Muslim world. Admittedly, their remoteness is certainly one of the inhibitors. Syria after all is easy to get to. But now with Turkey tightening its border and Europe being more vigilant and punitive, they still seems to trickle through. If it was simply Salafi-Jihadi ideology that galvanised men, then many of these ideological fighters would flock to the aforementioned countries; but they do not. They are choosing to travel to Syria. Whilst William McCants has tried to explain the Islamic apocalyptic narrative that ISIS has to an English speaking audience, it does not deal with the role of Syria within the Muslim sacral imagination. Rather Syria or Sham- by Sham I mean modern day Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, parts of Turkey and parts of Iraq- is the meeting point not only for geopolitics, a terrible humanitarian crisis, but also for Jihad within in the Sunni tradition.

Map of greater Syria or Sham.

Map of greater Syria or Sham.

Arguably, Sham has become a destination for rootless Muslims already struggling with their place in Europe. Sham has become the land that transcends arbitrary borders and where they can belong. The powerful image of ISIS bulldozing the border between Iraq and Syria has demonstrated how transient the lines drawn in the sand by Sykes and Picot truly are. The name Islamic State has, despite its association with cruelty and terror, introduced an idea within the Muslim world that perhaps it is possible to have some sort of state ruled by Islamic law. It has also reignited the idea of Sham and offered up new questions. If an Islamic state should come to being what should it look like and how should it behave? The answers to these questions will undoubtedly lead to further tumult in the Middle East and Europe, long after ISIS or AQ or any other organisation which calls for it has faded away.

Certain parts of the Muslim world such as Mecca, Medina, Jerusalem and Syria have sacral importance in the Muslim imagination. These places entwine the eschatological traditions involving the past with the prophetic predictions made of the future. It is for no reason that ISIS calls its magazine Dabiq, the place where Muslims will have their final victory in the Islamic tradition. It is redolent with significance. The Syrian conflict cannot just be interpreted through the cold lens of geopolitics, for Syria is indivisible to faith by virtue of their sacral associations. To ignore this aspect will result in ill-conceived policy decisions that will last decades.

The very symbolism of Sham itself and what it promises, the return of the Shariah, has meant that foreign fighters can now attach themselves to a land which not only is intrinsically linked to their faith, but supersedes the Westphalian nation state. Their Hijra, their Jihad, their Ribat- all of it is blessed, as Sunni tradition seems to suggest. This is accompanied with a vision of an end game. Unlike CAR, Burma and others- Sham has an end game: victory for the believers. Admittedly, Afghanistan does too in the sense that there are prophetic traditions suggesting that the Black banners of Islam will come from Khorasan, modern day Afghanistan. But it does not have the potency of Syria. Syria is the place where, according to tradition, the caliphate will revive, where prophets walked, and where it shall all end in the Muslim imagination. Syria then, as a land, is bigger than nationalism and yet paradoxically has many affinities. Thomas Hegghammer in The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad, is on to something when he says:

“Transnational militancy is obviously ideology driven, but the ideology in question—extreme pan-Islamism—arguably has more in common with nationalisms than with utopian religious constructions.”

Syria gives the rootless Western Muslim an identity, a purpose and also a glorious end game in a way that no other land will. Faith is intrinsic to the land. And so Turkey might close their borders but foreign fighters will continue to enter.

Jihadi ideologues like the late Abu Mus’ab al-Suri identified it as a crucial geopolitical chess piece in the Muslim world, but Syria isn’t just relevant to Jihadists. Syria’s importance exists within several axes: Islam’s martial tradition, within the prophetic past, within its historical past, and the future eschatological tradition. Salafi-Jihadis don’t own this tradition. Up to recent times the Syrian government boosted its tourism industry by encouraging the concept of Siyaha, that is Muslim spiritual travel to its sacred places. It is similar to the way Christian pilgrims travel to holy sites such as Santiago de Compostela in Spain or Lourdes in France.

To illustrate this point more clearly let us take a text that does not come from the Salafi-Jihadi tradition. The Excellence of Syro-Palestine -al-Sham- And its People by Gibreel F. Haddad, a sufi scholar, and a follower of the late Sheikh Nazim Haqqani of the Naqshbandi order and a vehement opponent of the Salafis. This text follows a common literary genre within Islamic scholarly tradition; that of collecting forty canonical sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. But here Haddad has focused on the virtues of Syria. This is not novel. Nasir al-Din Albani for instance, one of the scholars that Salafis follow, has also edited a text on the virtues of Greater Syria. Haddad’s text, it should be noted, was written in 2002, several years before the Syrian uprising.

The author draws on nine books of the canonical sayings of the Prophet in order to establish Syria’s paramountcy in the Muslim imagination. He draws on the Prophetic canonical collections of Bukhari, Muslim, Abu Dawud, al-Nasa’i and Ibn Majah. He draws on the Musnads of Ahmad and al-Darimi as well as extracting traditions from ibn Hibban, ibn Khuzayma and al-Hakim. Moreover Haddad relies on the giants of Sunni Islamic tradition such as al-Nawawi, ibn Hajar and al-Suyuti, as well as on great Quranic exegetes such as al-Qurtubi, al-Bayhaqi and al-Tabari. He goes to great lengths to frame his work within the Sunni intellectual tradition. In other words this work is not just for Sufis but also for the orthodox with no Sufic inclinations.

Moreover Haddad points out his connection to the likes of Muhammad al-Yaqoubi in order to firmly ground his work within Sunni scholarship. To emphasise this point, he has a foreword written by some prominent religious scholars of Sham such as Shaykh Adib Kallas, one of the leading jurisprudents of Damascus, Salah al-Din al-Fakhri, the administrative director of Dar al-Fatawa in Lebanon and finally it is endorsed by ‘Abd al-Razzaq Turkmani on behalf of the Sufi sheikh Sayyidi ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghuri.

These names are relevant to demonstrate that traditions around Sham are cultivated and are not just for those living in the rarified stratosphere of Islamic scholarship. The very existence of these traditions within Islam will draw foreign fighters to Syria despite the hardship that they may encounter. This author interviewed one foreign fighter who recounts how he met a battalion of Chechens who had left the fight against the Russians in their homeland, in order to fight in Syria due to the latter’s importance in the Islamic world. It demonstrates clearly that Syria is not owned by the Salafi-Jihadis, nor does it have more significance to them than to the rest of the Muslim world. But just like the Zengids and the Ayoubids during the Crusades, who utilised the symbolism of Jerusalem to propagate Jihad, so too has similar symbolism been used by the Salafi-Jihadi groups to encourage men to fight and come to Syria. Jerusalem after all is part of Sham.

Syria, according to Haddad, is mentioned ten times in the Quran and there are numerous hadiths that recount its virtues. The Prophet is said to have prayed for the land and it is considered blessed. Accordingly, God has put angels in charge of guarding Sham and the Prophet Muhammad has prayed for the country. It is cited by Syrians as proof that their country has a manifest destiny. Syrians know and often cite the hadith that says if goodness ends in Sham there will be no goodness in the world. Now it is doubtful that most foreign fighters know all of these traditions, but most at some point will be schooled by those already in Syria about its importance. And Syrians will certainly make you aware of its significance in the religious landscape as this author has experienced.

The Land of Faith

The land then, according to Haddad, is intrinsically linked to Islamic tradition. Al-Tabarani narrates a hadith by one of the Prophet’s Companions, Salama ibn Nufayl, that the Prophet said: “The heartland of the abode of Islam is Sham”. Another saying of the Prophet:

“[Sham] is the quintessence of the lands of Allah. There do the quintessence of his servants go for protection. Therefore whoever departs from Syro-Palestine earns [His] wrath, and whoever enters it from somewhere earns His mercy…” [see Haddad]

Thus blessing and the land are intimately connected in a way that other territories of the Muslim world are not, apart from Medina and Mecca.

The land, according to one prophetic tradition, is said to house seventeen thousand graves of prophets alone. Makhul, one of the earliest Islamic scholars, relates that there were five hundred prophets buried in Damascus alone. Some of these prophets visited locations in Syria. The Prophet Muhammed visited Bosra, Adam visited mount Qasyoun, Eve went to Ghouta, Seth went to the Bekaa valley in Lebanon, Lot passed by Barzeh in Damascus, John the Baptist was buried in the Umayyad mosque, Job in the Hawran, and Jesus and Mary sought refuge in al-Rabwa and so on.

A propaganda poster citing a hadith of the Prophet referring to Dabiq in Syria

A propaganda poster referring to a hadith of the Prophet that mentions  Dabiq in Syria

Thus blessing and the land are intimately connected in a way that other territories of the Muslim world are not, apart from Medina and Mecca.The land in between Damascus and Homs is known as the land of the thousand martyrs on account of the numerous anonymous Companions of the Prophet said to have died there whilst fighting the Byzantine empire. The land was visited by the Companions of the Prophet and early Muslims. It is well known that Hussein’s head, the grandson of the Prophet, is in the Umayyad Mosque, Khaled bin al-Walid, Islam’s greatest general is buried in Homs. Bilal, the Muezzin of the Prophet, is buried in Damascus. It is also said that both Abu Ubaydah, the conqueror of Damascus, Shurahbil bin Hasana, the famous warrior commander, are also buried close to Bab Sharqi in the Old City and so on. Numerous scholars have passed through Syria including the great ascetic and scholar al-Ghazali. Ibn Taymiyyah, the father of the Salafis, is buried in Damascus University grounds, as are Sunni Islam’s great heroes, such as Salah al-Din and Nur al-Din Zengi. One needs only to flick through the voluminous collection of the History of Damascus by the medieval scholar ibn Asakir to realise that the who’s who of the Islamic world all gathered in Damascus.

Moreover, Syria is mentioned by several companions including Ali, the cousin of the Prophet, and ibn Masu’d as the land of the Abdals, a group of forty awliya or saints, through whom people are given sustenance and victory. And it is these men and women who will aid the awaited Mehdi, the messianic figure who will restore the land on the methodology of Prophethood in the Final Days. Syria is also the place where Jesus will descend and slay the anti-Christ. In fact, the environs of Ghouta, which Jaysh al-Islam currently control, is the rallying place on the day of Armageddon and it is believed to be the land of Resurrection. In fact, in Ghouta’s history, Muslim communities fleeing persecution have settled specifically there to fulfil this prophecy.


Sh. Muheisini referring to tradition on Syria- he doesn't need to explain it to the audience.

Sh. Muheysini referring to tradition on Syria- he doesn’t need to explain it to the audience- it is understood.

As a Companion of the Prophet, Abu Darda, narrates:

“The Prophet said: The rallying place of the Muslims on the day of Armageddon is in al-Ghouta, next to a city called Damascus which is among the best cities in al-Sham” [see Haddad]

Syria’s role in Jihad and Hijra

Syria is also tied to Jihad and Ribat, Ribat here means guarding and fortifying front lines. There is a mass transmitted (mutawatir) hadith which says:

“a part of my community will remain in firm adherence to the Divine command, unharmed by those who betray or desert or oppose them, until the coming of the order of Allah, while they are victorious over all people…they are the people of al-Sham” [see Haddad]

The Prophet has described the outer borders of Sham as permanent frontiers. Who ever takes up residence there is a Mujahid, a fighter in the service of God. It suggests that those travelling to fight in Syria then, will be rewarded. As the Prophet has said:

“Now has fighting come! There will not cease to be a group in my Community that will remain victorious over all people. Allah will cause the hearts of some to go astray and those [the former] will fight them and receive from them His sustenance until His command comes to pass…Lo! Truly, the heartland of the believers is al-Sham! Immense good will remain tied to the forelocks of horses [i.e. Jihad] until the Day of Rising!” [see Haddad]

Another hadith related by Abu Hurayrah:

“A part of my Community will not cease to fight at the gates of Damascus and its surroundings, and at the gates of Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem] and its surroundings. The betrayal or desertion of whoever deserts them will not harm them the least. They will remain victorious, standing for the truth, until the Final Hour rises.” [see Haddad]

There are also traditions which suggest that Syria is the place of Hijra- or emigration. For instance the Prophet advises people: if Fitna, [usually translated as civil strife] increases one should head to Syria. And this injunction is something that Muslims have done since Islam’s inception, whether that be the Kurds settling in Rukn ed-Din during the time of the Crusades or the Hanabila settling in Salihiyeh district in Damascus or the Circassian community escaping the push of the Russian empire.

There are two points here that feed the Jihadi’s call: that of Jihad and that of emigration. In the modern context, some Salafi-Jihadis interpret fitna- to mean shirk, associating partners with God, meaning that when shirk proliferates in the land then Sham is the place to head to. And since Shirk, in the puritanical vision of Salafi-Jihadis, has proliferated then it is best for people to emigrate to Sham. There is a Prophetic tradition mentioned in Haddad’s text which says:

“The Hour will not rise before the best of the people of Iraq first go to Sham and the worst of the people of Sham first go to Iraq. The Prophet said: “You must go to Sham!” [see Haddad]

This is why one Western Muslim woman was told by a foreign fighter to go against the fifth pillar of Islam the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, and make Hijra to Sham instead, because Shirk has even entered the holy city.

The Shami confluence

Whilst Haddad’s book does not negate Sham as a land of Jihad and Hijra, arguably, what he aims at are three things. Firstly to connect Syria’s paramountcy to the old tradition of Siyaha-that is spiritual travel. Secondly, to warn against the Najd vis-a-vis modern day Saudi Arabia- Haddad is indirectly criticising Salafism since the movement began there with Muhammad Abdul Wahab in the 18th century. Thirdly, he wants to raise the status of Syrian religious scholars over the Saudi scholars whose influence Haddad views in a negative light. Jihad, Ribat and Hijra, whilst important, are mentioned in the book as something that will come to pass. There is no indication that the reader has to act on it. But one should also remember that Sufis did act upon these injunctions in the past. Sufis played a major role in both the counter crusades of Salah al-Din and Nur al-Din as well as in the Ottoman armies. This author met graduates of Abu Noor University, established by the Damascene Sufi and Grand Mufti Ahmed Kuftaro, in the ranks of Syrian rebels. It is also worth noting that the Sufi militant group the Naqshbandi Army or JRTN and ISIS were allies once in Iraq.

What the Salafi-Jihadis and other Islamist battalions do with Sham is to connect the status of Sham to the martial tradition. This arguably is not an illegitimate thing to do as there is historical precedence, the Crusades being a good example. Carole Hillenbrand in The Crusades: an Islamic Perspective, points out that during the Crusades there was a close correlation between the rise of works extolling the virtues of Jerusalem and the works extolling Jihad.

A famous hadith mentioning Jihad used to encourage men to Jihad

A famous hadith mentioning Jihad used to encourage men to Jihad

Salafi-Jihadis may be very different from classically conceived Jihad but they believe that they are continuing in the footsteps of an old tradition which goes all the way back to the earliest days of the Prophet. Whilst it is noteworthy that Jihad occupied a very small part of the Prophet’s life, the first books written about his life was about his battles. From there a whole literary genre called maghazi developed. Moreover, there are historical compendiums such as Futuh al-Buldan of al-Baladhuri, one of the earliest surviving texts on how Islam conquered the classical world with offensive jihad. Apart from the jurisprudence dealing with the legal issues surrounding the concept of religious warfare, there are plenty of works written on the battles of the Companions, as well as books dealing with the concept of Futuwwa, martial and spiritual chivalry, and of course there are biographies of famous warriors such as ibn Shaddad’s Life of Salah al-Din and Abu Shama’s book on Nur al-Din Zengi and Salah al-Din. A recent example being a biography on Khaled bin al-Walid by Lieutenant General of the Pakistani army A. I. Akram. One should also not forget the numerous examples of Ummayyad to Ottoman poetry extolling Jihad and the love for martyrdom. In fact, even Ataturk, the secular founder of modern Turkey, was not averse to calling himself a Ghazi, a Mujahid, and neither was the Pan-Arab Baathist dictator Saddam Hussein. We should also remember that the statue of Salah al-Din in Damascus was unveiled by Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez, in 1993. Thus the elegiac poetry surrounding Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s death, the nasheeds that emerge from many Jihadi factions, as well as the names chosen by the various battalions situate themselves in this tradition. To illustrate, look at the numerous eulogies that are emerging on al-Adnani: they reach back and touch the past. Below is an extract of Abu Shama’s eulogy of Nur al-Din, one could easily mistake it for a eulogy of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani.

“He displayed religious orthodoxy in Aleppo and changed the innovation (bid’a) which they had in the call to prayer and he tamed the heretics there and built there religious colleges, established endowments and dispensed justice… in war he was steadfast in going forward, good at shooting, hard in striking…he would run the risk of martyrdom…he often studied religious books” [see Hillenbrand]

Thus what the Salafi-Jihadi and other Islamist battalions do is to attach the traditions around Sham to Jihad in the same way that Salah al-Din and Zengi did with regards to fighting the Frankish Crusaders in the Levant.

Things that are attractive to young foreign fighters

Things that are attractive to young foreign fighters

What analysts and journalist must grasp is that many Muslims, even non-devout ones, are well aware of the glorious deeds of their predecessors. They name their sons Hamza, Khaled, Seifullah for this reason and are, however vaguely, aware of the sacred geography that countries like Syria occupy. Sham then, in the imagination of the prospective foreign fighter represents something that resembles to use St Agustines phrase, a kingdom of God. The very land is blessed, full of faith and the place where the history of Islam unfolded and the End of Time will be played out. It is an exciting and seductive prospect for an adventurous young man with a bellicose temperament. This, combined with the international community seemingly unwilling to stand up for Sunni Muslims being killed by barrel bombs in their thousands, means that all the ingredients are there to make the conflict thoroughly apocalyptic.

This article has sought to demonstrate that the very raw material used by Sufis to encourage spiritual peregrinations can equally be used by the various rebel factions to encourage their men to fight as well as to support. For they tap into a pre-existent martial tradition. Of course, it doesn’t exclude the role of identity politics in the seventies in the Middle East having an impact on the Muslim diaspora in the West. Nor does it exclude other reasons why young Muslim men go to Syria. But certainly grasping this idea as to what role Sham plays in the Muslim imagination makes it easier to understand why young, often rootless Muslim men continue to travel to fight in Syria despite the difficulties they face. For this reason it may be argued that foreign fighters will continue to go to Syria even if JFS, IS and other Islamist rebel groups fade away. Resolving the conflict will certainly reduce this trickle further.

The Druze in the Syrian Conflict – By Talal El Atrache

The Druze in the Syrian Conflict
By Talal El Atrache* @TalalElAtrache
For Syria Comment – Sept 5, 2016

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Five years after the beginning of the Syrian conflict, the Druze show no signs of joining the rebellion. Even calls made by the Saudi-financed opposition, asking the Druze to rise up against the Syrian army, have fallen on deaf ears. Israel’s two-fold psychological campaign – consisting of supporting the Golan’s jihadists on one hand, and positioning itself as the only potential protector of the Druze against these very same jihadists on the other hand – has also failed. Instead, the Druze have  consistently joined forces with government troops. Each time the Druze region has been attacked by the Free Syrian Army (FSA), al-Nusra Front or the Islamic State (IS), its inhabitants have relied on the Syrian military to help defend it.

In the Province of Swaida, nobody seems to have forgotten the fate of the “Sultan el-Atrache Brigade.” Members of this small Druze unit that joined the FSA were brutally tortured by al-Nusra. Founded in December 2011 by six Druze defectors in Deraa, the faction provided military support to Deraa’s FSA Islamists including “Fajr al-Islam Battalion” during its attempt to invade Swaida in January 2013. But on Jan. 11, 2014, the group was forced to announce its dissolution. Two of its founding members, Khaled Rizk and Bassel Trad, along with a third lesser know member, Raef Nasser, were abducted, tortured and sentenced to death by al-Nusra for their religious affiliation. FSA mediators succeeded in freeing the fighters who were later expelled to Jordan. But the popularity of the fundamentalist trend among the rebels in the so-called “liberated areas” gave the Druze real pause. Those Druze who were critical of the government and eager for national reform quickly learned that there was no room for them among the rebel groups. Abused by the Islamists, disdained by the Gulf States, and limited by their own lack of money and weapons, Druze willing to join rebel militias were few.  And even then, they joined the rebel cause only during the early phase of the uprising, when idealism ran high and Syrian unity seemed possible.

A few months after the dissolution of the Sultan el-Atrache Brigade, Deraa’s Bedouin stormed Deir Dama village in Swaida province in cooperation with Al-Nusra jihadists, killing several civilians on Aug. 16, 2014. Druze paramilitary fighters and Syrian army members counter-attacked and recaptured the village the following day. This jihadist invasion prompted civilians to acquire weapons.

Exacerbating sectarian tensions even more, Deraa’s rebels carried out a series of abductions for ransom in Swaida’s villages, where thousands of refugees from Deraa had been welcomed. Scores of hostages were beheaded. The rebels also blamed the Druze for repelling their attacks against Swaida’s villages. Rather than seeing it as an act of self-defense, the radical group, as well as the Syrian National Council (SNC), condemned what they considered an aggression. This rhetoric has been ongoing since December 2012, when dozens of jihadists from Deraa attacked a Syrian army checkpoint at the entrance of the village of Mjeimar in Swaida. The villagers intervened to rescue the soldiers and repelled the jihadists. Al-Nusra retaliated by kidnapping Jamal Ezzedine, one of Swaida’s most respected dignitaries, as well as 16 civilians from the village of Thaaleh. They were all beheaded. In a video broadcast by al-Nusra, the Salafists blamed the Druze for “attacking the jihadists.”

The dismantling of the tiny Druze brigade and the abduction of civilians are far from isolated acts. In the “liberated areas,” the US-backed jihadists and their Nusra allies carried out the religious and ethnic cleansing of non-Sunni Arab populations. For the first time in two thousand years, minorities no longer dwell in much of the area.

Last year, in the jihadist-held Province of Idleb, 25,000 Druze were forced to convert to a puritanical form of Islam modeled on Wahhabism. They had to destroy their shrines and to adopt a Salafi dress code and lifestyle, despite the fact that the region’s Druze had adopted a stance of positive neutrality toward the Islamists. As a result, more than half of the Druze in Idleb have abandoned their villages. In March 2016, their lands were confiscated under the fallacious pretext that the owners were fighting alongside government forces. Druze-owned properties were given to Turkmen jihadist settlers armed by Ankara. When the local population resisted the first confiscations on June 11, 2015, 20 Druzes were massacred by a Tunisian jihadist. The killing was condemned by al-Nusra, but the group’s objection was seen as a cosmetic move, similar to its recent rebranding and its pretended detachment from al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile in Mount Hermon, the Druze took a completely opposite stance by fighting alongside the Syrian army. They succeeded in repelling the jihadist attacks, except in the village of Mughr al-Mir, which was taken by both the FSA and al-Nusra in December 2014. The population of Mughr al-Mir sought refuge in government-held areas.

Jaramana and Sahnaya, two strategic Christian-Druze suburbs of Damascus located in the Ghouta area, also sided with the state army and welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Eastern and Western Ghouta. These two suburbs played a crucial role in preventing the siege that the Saudi-financed militias Liwa al-Islam (renamed Jaish al-Islam) and Ahfad al-Rassoul planned to carry out in the Syrian capital in 2012-2013.

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The Battle of Thaaleh: A turning point

In June 2015, the MOC (Military Operation Center), an operational center that gathers US, Saudi, Qatari and Jordanian intelligence in Amman, set up a vast offensive against governmental areas in the southern provinces of Qunaitra, Deraa and Swaida. The operation was aimed at cutting off the city of Deraa from Damascus, installing a rebel footstep in Swaida and in Mount Hermon, and imposing a “security zone” in the south. All three objectives failed simultaneously. In Mount Hermon, the MOC-backed jihadists encountered a stubborn Druze resistance in the villages of Hadar and Erna. On June 10, the FSA jihadist groups launched a major attack against the military airport of Thaaleh, located in the Province of Swaida. The importance of the military base relies on its proximity to Swaida city. The attack prompted an unprecedented mobilization of Druze paramilitary units and even civilians, who rushed to the airport to support the army. The fighting that lasted for four days and four nights ended with the aggressor’s defeat. This battle represented a turning point. It discouraged the jihadists from further attacking Swaida’s villages. It also reflected the distrust between the Druze and the Islamist rebels, and showed the support that the state army maintains in Swaida and in Mount Hermon.

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As Swaida’s western borders with Deraa became a de facto military frontline between a pluralistic Syria and a theocratic enclave, another threat came from Swaida’s eastern provincial borders. In this sparsely populated desert called Bir Qassab, a few Bedouin villages sit adjacent to the Druze Mountains. Since 2012, their semi-sedentary tribes, which had until then coexisted in harmony with the Druze, have made a living by smuggling weapons from Jordan to the Ghouta in the suburbs of Damascus. They have traded arms to al-Nusra and Jaish al-Islam. But in October 2014, a conflict of interest encouraged hundreds of members of the al-Hassan tribe to join the Islamic State. After pledging allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Baker al-Baghdadi, they launched a series of attacks and attempts to invade the Druze villages of Haqef and Shaqqa, but were constantly repelled by the Druze paramilitary troops and the Syrian air force.

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The threat of the Islamic State became more acute when Bedouins from the rocky Leja area facing Swaida’s northwest villages, joined the caliphate. The Islamic State attempted to open a military resupply corridor between the Leja in the West and the eastern desert. This route would eventually have cut Swaida’s only highway to Damascus and isolated the province from the rest of Syria. The Druze would have been in a terrible situation. This led the army to reinforce its presence along the highway and to strengthen the defenses of Khulkhuleh’s military airport, located in the same area.

Recent battles in Swaida’s villages of Deir Dama, Dhibin, Thaaleh, Mjeimar, Haqef, Shaqqa and Sawara, as well as in Mount Hermon’s villages and in the capital’s suburbs of Jaramana and Sahnaya reflect the prevailing mood among the Druze. Faced with a jihadist onslaught, hundreds of Druze fighters and civilians rushed to support the Syrian army and to repel the FSA’s Islamist and Salafist rebels from their villages and neighborhoods. These successes have boosted the position of the state army and the Druze paramilitary forces, thus accelerating the acquisition of weapons by civilians.

The concept of citizenship in opposition-held areas

In practice, Fatah Al-Sham (ex-Nusra Front), Syria’s most powerful opposition group (apart from the Islamic State, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Kurdish YPG) does not tolerate “apostates.” Its leader Abu Mohammad Al-Jawlani made it clear in an interview for al-Jazeera on Dec. 12, 2015. “As for the Druze, we approach them with Dawah (proselytism),” said the Deraa native leader. “We sent them many preachers who taught them the Aqeedah (Islamic fundamentals) and told them about the mistakes they had made. We noticed that they refrained from these mistakes.” For al-Jawlani, a good Druze is a Wahhabi convert. In this regard, the Muslim Brotherhood pursue a softer strategy by reaching out to non-Sunni populations with Dawah, proselytism, and through the construction of Saudi-financed mosques in their areas.

Radical as it may seem, al-Jawlani’s approach is more “tolerant” than the fatwa (religious decree) issued by Ibn Taymiya against the Druze. The 14th century cleric, known as “Sheikh Al-Islam” in the Islamic world, is the ultimate reference for the Salafists and most US-backed moderate jihadists. In his fatwa against the Druze, he said: “Their women are to be enslaved, and their fortunes are to be taken away. They are apostate heretics and their repentance is not accepted. They are to be killed wherever they are found.” For Ibn Taymya, a good Druze is a dead Druze – or a slave.

In the neo-Salafist conscious, this religious decree might not be applied literally. But it justifies Fatah al-Sham’s confiscation of Druze lands in Idleb. It also explains why the Islamic State singled out and killed 4 Druze cement workers out of 300 mostly Sunni workers they had abducted in the city of Dumayr, near Damascus, in April 2016. In December 2013, Jaish al-Islam, another “moderate” militia that was recently invited to the peace talks at Geneva 3, stormed the city of Adra, north of Damascus. The US-vetted group beheaded and burned alive – in ovens – dozens of Druze, Ismailis and Alawites, out of thousands of mostly Sunni civilians, who later fled to government-held areas. The religious debate that followed the massacre was whether Islam allows burning people alive. Many Salafi clerics argued that Islam prohibits these practices. But it’s “all right” to behead heretics.

Meanwhile, opposition members in exile and some Western think-tanks are striving to either justify the jihadist behaviours in Syria, or to present them as secular and moderate factions. Al-Jazeera even instructed its journalists last year to depict al-Nusra as a moderate group. Regime-change specialists have argued that President Assad is a magnet for jihadists in Syria, and that Syria has become a safe haven for terrorists travelling to US-liberated Iraq, US-liberated Afghanistan, US-liberated Libya, Europe, America, and the entire planet. They conclude that the US must “liberate” Syria as well, in order to free the world from the jihadist threat.

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Swaida’s Syrian identity

In the busy streets of Swaida, life goes on despite the conflict that has claimed more than 300,000 lives. Before the war, the province was home to 400,000 people, mostly Druze originally from Mount Hermon, Mount Lebanon, Idleb and Aleppo, who lived in harmony with a Christian community that traces its origins to the Ghassanids. Since the conflict broke out, nearly 200,000 Sunnis from rebel-held areas have sought refuge here, overwhelming municipal services but strengthening the cultural diversity of this semi-mountainous province. The population and various local non-governmental organizations have mobilized to provide assistance on everything from medical care, to food and shelter.

Swaida, with its religious melting-pot, liberal environment and tolerant, inclusive society, seems like the antidote for the Saudi-inspired Salafist culture of the “liberated” areas. It is the antithesis of the US-backed sectarian and misogynist rebellion that has imposed Sharia courts everywhere. Laid back, friendly and welcoming, the Province of Swaida has succeeded, until now, in preserving its Syrian identity. Places of worship like Ain Al-Zaman’s Druze shrine, Saint Paul’s Orthodox church, and Swaida’s central mosque, serve a variety of faiths. Restaurants, cafés, or even Rayyan, the famous nationwide wine and arak brand, offer alternatives for the secular majority. The human losses endured by the province in the conflict, the threats posed by the nearby jihadists, as well as the poverty that has resulted from the war and the Western sanctions, didn’t affect the morale of Swaida’s population. The damascene suburbs of Jaramana and Sahnaya followed a similar path by opening their doors to more than 400,000 internally displaced Syrians.

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The picture is not all roses, and not everyone is especially fond of the Syrian government and the corrupt local administration. Like elsewhere in Syria, public opinion has become increasingly polarized since 2011. Nevertheless, this rift remains tame, and without much turmoil. There seems to be a near-consensus that the Islamic revolution taking place in Syria is by no means an acceptable option, but rather an existential threat to Syria’s social fabric and very existence.

This threat has been exacerbated by the Saudi-sponsored identity crisis in the Near East and Riyadh’s efforts to replace the relatively tolerant Levantine Islam by Wahhabism. The rhetoric of the Saudi-financed Syrian National Coalition centered on tribal and sectarian identities, is widely seen as a form of segregation. The opposition’s media outlets frequently refer to Syrians in Swaida, Mount Hermon and Jaramana not as part of the Syrian majority, but as a “Druze minority.” Their concept of citizenship is based on religious stratification in which sectarian identities supersede the Syrian identity. This leads to the widespread belief that the religion of the so-called “majority” should be institutionalized in the law. A sectarian “democracy” generates segregation, discrimination, social injustice, and prompts disintegration of the social fabric, all the way to community ghettoization.

The Islamist notion of democracy is based on sectarian majority rule. Their support for the implementation of a civil state as an alternative to secularism, is based on a wordplay that leads to “civil state with Islamic reference.” Sharia law is considered to be the foundation of the civil state, which is a return back to square one.

The Islamists, like the Israelis in the occupied Golan Heights, have always tried to redefine the Druze identity as a minority or a distinct group, negating the Druze’s century-old combat for full integration within a united, secular Syrian state-nation and society. Both Israelis and the Muslim Brotherhood have strategies that consist of reshaping Syria’s identity and re-tribalizing its society, in order to impose the hegemony of the biggest tribe, namely the Zionist and the Brotherhood communities, respectively.

In Israel, the Druze are encouraged to perpetually prove their allegiance to Zionism. In the Brotherhood circles, the Druze are required to perpetually prove their adherence to Islam. In both cases, they remain second class citizens. As fervent proselytizers, the Muslim Brotherhood and its fellow Salafists’ ultimate objective is to convert the Druze and other “modern-age Kharijites.” Zionist ideologues have adopted a softer approach. They have tried to proselytize the Druze by pretending they belong to one of the “ten lost tribes of Israel.” A century ago, French colonialists came out with a better story. They claimed that the Druze were originally French, and that their name derived from a Frank count by the name of “de Dreux.”

The situation gets worse for women in general. The Brotherhood’s concept of democracy relies to some extent on a misogynistic approach that was born out of a vicious interpretation of allegorical scriptures in the Quran. As a result, the patriarchal system that is based on this interpretation segregates women and limits their role in society. Women are required to follow a strict dress code. They cannot be appointed as judges, rulers or heads of state. Under the Penal Law, a woman is worth half a man. The Law of Personal Status, including marriage, divorce, matrimonial guardianship, inheritance, and nationality, discriminates against women. The unprecedented Saudi-Wahhabi influence has undermined the Syrian opposition and traditional Islam in the Levant. It is also blocking all attempts by Islamic reformists to establish a progressive interpretation of the Quran.

Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 7.41.09 AMThe identity crisis promoted by Saudi Arabia in Syria as well as its anti-Shia and anti-everything rhetoric has contributed to Washington and Tel-Aviv’s struggle against the “Axis of Resistance.” By depicting the countries and movements opposed to Israel as a “Shia Crescent” and as a threat to the Sunni world, Washington and Riyadh have succeeded in diverting the focus from the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and in the West Bank, to Iran, Syria and Hezbollah. The misguided and perilous instrumentalization of jihadist organizations is reminiscent of the role assigned to Osama Bin Laden’s Mujahideen in Afghanistan in the 1980s. But this time, the US-backed Saudi, Qatari and Turkish strategies in Syria might prove to be exponentially more disastrous. In the wake of this foolish adventure, religious minorities have nearly disappeared in the so-called “liberated areas” in Syria.

On the other hand, independent, secular and well known opposition groups such the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change or even Qameh (Arabic anachronym for Value, Citizenship, Rights), led by the prominent opponent Haytham Manna, have been boycotted by the Western “friends of Syria” and their Gulf allies, and excluded from the political process in Geneva.

Many Druze believe that by feeding this war in the name of democracy, Western governments aim at establishing a new “Sykes-Picot” plan and dismantling Syria into sectarian and tribal statelets. The majority of – if not all – Druze favor secularism as the only option that would reunite Syrians and guarantee their rights. The legacy of the Syrian Revolution against the French mandate, that they initiated and led in the 1920s, is strongly present in their collective memory. This cultural heritage, combined with their national awareness, has rooted the Syrian identity in their personalities.

Between secularism and esotericism

Swaida and Idlib offer two conflicting perspectives for the Druze. While Swaida enjoys a semi-secular system that still leaves room for concern, Idlib’s Druze are struggling to survive in a fundamentalist environment, thus resorting to esotericism by concealing their social and religious identity.

The Druze have historically concealed their beliefs from non-Druze following the massacres that took place in Antioch and Aleppo during the years between 1024 to 1031. Known as the Mihna or trial by the Druze, this period remains emblazoned in the collective memory of the community. Mass killings were designed to wipe out the community. Those who survived went underground and sought refuge in the Syrian coastal mountains, including the Shouf Mountains, Keserwan and Mount Hermon. The Druze succeeded in breaking their isolation and earned recognition from the Mamelukes because of the fierce resistance they put up against the Frankish or Crusader rule in Syria (1099 – 1291). They provided first line contingents to Saladin in the battle of Hittine in 1187. But shortly after the defeat of the Franks, the Mamelukes turned on their former Druze allies. Ibn Taymiya’s incitement against schismatic Muslims led to heavy massacres of Druze, Shi’a and Alawites in the Keserwan. The fatwas and the massacres sent shockwaves through the Druze community, who perceived these acts as treason. The short-lived unity that Druze had enjoyed with the central state came to a swift end. Unfortunately, mutual suspicion between Druze and Sunnis have been hard to quell ever since. The politically-motivated Ottoman campaigns against the Druze led to new massacres in 1585, but failed to subjugate them. They triggered a wave of revolts against the Sublime Porte throughout the 17th and 18th centuries that led to an agreement establishing the autonomy of the Druze in Mount Lebanon.

In Swaida, the Druze fiercely defended their autonomy against the Ottoman armies throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries. When the caliphate collapsed, the Druze voluntarily abandoned their autonomy for the sake of a secular Syrian state, and led the Syrian Revolution against the French army in 1925-27. They are considered among the main founding fathers of modern Syria.

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The history of the Levant and the discriminatory ideologies embraced by the Syrian opposition militias explain the position of the Druze in the current war. Druze suspicion of the US-backed “moderates” was well placed. Most rebel militias embraced some variant of Islamist ideology, which dismisses the Druze religion as apostasy or some sort of false creed. Almost all of them have ended up allying with or working along side Al Qaida in Syria that now calls itself Fatah Al Sham. As moderate as they claim to be, the sectarian militias that have emerged since 2011 failed to develop a respectful partnership with the Syrian population, let alone preserving the Syrian identity. The freedom of religion and worship that Syrians had enjoy were abolished in “liberated” zones. Religious minorities were driven from their homes and women harshly repressed. The concept of secularism was rejected by the majority of the opposition. The Druze distrust these militias and their political affiliates. In the current circumstances, they seem determined to support the Syrian state’s institutions, including the army, having contributed to their creation in the 20th century.

Swaida’s secular opposition vs. the rebels

When the protest movement started in 2011, many Druze professionals, activists and opponents took to the streets peacefully and voiced their support for the uprising. However, these remained a minority. Contrary to the protests elsewhere in Syria that organized in Mosques and places of worship, Swaida’s protesters gathered in public squares and in the streets, in order to mark their secular, national and non-sectarian orientation.

But with the internationalization, the militarization and the islamization of the crisis, many opponents viewed the conflict as a struggle for power and turned against the jihadists. Fewer Druze dissidents voiced their support for the Islamist militias. Most of those who did were either expatriates, Facebook activists, or employees on the Gulf sheikhdoms’ payroll. They claimed that rebel attacks against the Druze were either individual mistakes or a plot from the government to scare minorities and to provoke tensions between the Druze and the freedom-loving rebels. For them, the chaos and sectarian cleansings that took place in so-called Free Iraq, Free Libya, Free Afghanistan, in Lebanon during the civil war and in the “liberated” areas in Syria, should not worry the Syrian population in case of a regime change. Even though some of them argue that Deraa and Qunaitra are safe for the Druze, they strictly remain in government-held areas in Syria, and do not dare crossing over to the “liberated areas” – a behavior which casts doubt over their claims.
However, the general mood among the Druze is that the government does not need to discredit the opposition or to scare the minorities because the opposition is already doing a good job in this regard.

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Tensions with the local administration

The jihadist attacks, combined with an unprecedented economic crisis, led the Druze to enroll in pro-government paramilitary troops assigned to protect Swaida. But like in any war, the weakening of the central state and the rise of local militias have resulted in a dramatic increase in corruption and some degree of contained “outlawness.” Popular discontent has reached unprecedented levels with unjustified shortages of gasoline and fuel supplies, and the smuggling of weapons, oil and even refugees between Swaida’s pro-IS Bedouins and a handful of corrupt Druze fighters. Impoverished by the crisis, some Druze believed to have some sort of immunity, made a living by smuggling weapons from and to Deraa, which provoked outrage among local communities. In the last few months, rogue elements carried out abductions and assassinations against civilians, sparking protests in Swaida. People took to the streets, asking the government to impose the death penalty in order to put an end to chaos in the province.

On the other hand, some issues occasionally cause divisions between civilians and government agencies or officials. The main one is related to thousands of army defectors who hide from the military police. Localized clashes take place sporadically between the military police and defectors’ relatives, who intervene in order to free a conscript. As a result, the government and the Druze dignitaries reached a compromise, allowing the defectors to do their military service within the Province of Swaida. The deal managed to bring relative calm to the situation but it didn’t resolve the issue. The relative success of the paramilitary forces has led many Druze to demand that conscription be abolished and replaced by a professional army.

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These issues were raised last year by Sheikh Wahid Balous, a Druze cleric that reached notoriety by contributing to the liberation of Deir Dama in August 2014. The weakening of the State created a vacuum that needed to be filled by a political or social entity. This is where Sheikh Balous succeeded. His popularity stemmed from the fact that he was able to mobilize parts of the province’s public opinion by offering his protection to Druze defectors. He also echoed the population’s grievances about corruption, the fuel crisis, and the need for defensive weapons against the jihadist threat. He alternated between cooperation with the Syrian army and defiance of security forces. His ambiguous relations with the Syrian government, with the opposition, and with the Druze in Israel raised questions about his political agenda. At times, he seemed to be in favor of some sort of autonomy in Swaida. He was killed in a bomb explosion on Sep. 4, 2015. Both the government and the opposition accused each other of assassinating him. In the wake of his murder, a press release issued by an undisclosed source demanded administrative autonomy in Swaida. The communiqué was short-lived, but idea hasn’t entirely dissipated.

Israel and the third option

Aside from the old loyalist vs. opposition rift, a third option advocating Druze autonomy has recently emerged in Swaida, even though supporters of such an alternative remain a minority. The weakening of the central government in Damascus, the emergence of an overwhelmingly fundamentalist Saudi-backed opposition in Syria, coupled with the identity crisis prevailing in opposition circles, and an aggressive media campaign pretending that the Syrian government has abandoned the Druze to their fate, have all triggered an isolationist sentiment that remains confined to a minority within the Druze community.

Aside from the opposition’s thoughtless propaganda, the Druze autonomist drive has been discreetly promoted by Israel and countries of the so-called “Friends of Syria” group, which appears to be indifferent to the possibility of seeing Syria, Iraq, Libya and Palestine imploding or disappearing from the world map.

Until June 2015, Israeli hospitals had been treating wounded fighters from al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front (Haaretz, “Israel halts Medical treatment for members of Syria’s Nusra Front, Jul. 20, 2015). According to the Israeli media, more than 2000 jihadists were admitted to Haifa, Safad and Nahariya’s hospitals. The Israeli army has supplied Salafist militias with ammunition, military equipment and communication devices. It also engaged in signal jamming and communication disruption against the Syrian army during jihadist offensives, like in Tal al-Hara, captured by al-Nusra on Oct. 7, 2014. Israel even downed a Syrian military aircraft on Sept. 23, 2014, during combats between the state army and al-Nusra.

Since 2012, Israel has been actively supporting the same jihadists that have attacked Druze villages in Mount Hermon and in Swaida. On the other hand, Tel Aviv has launched a fierce psychological campaign aimed at pushing the Druze to seek protection from Israel against these very same jihadists. But on the ground, Israel has repressed and jailed Druze activists who oppose Israel’s support to jihadists.

On June 22, 2015, a Druze crowd attacked an Israeli military ambulance that was rescuing two jihadists, killing one of them. As a result, Tel Aviv arrested 9 Druze from Majdal Shams. Two of them were sentenced to jail. When the “Southern Front” attacked Swaida and Mount Hermon, dozens of Druze activists stormed Israeli hospitals that were harboring Syrian jihadists.

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Earlier in February 2015, Israel arrested activist Sudki al-Makt, a former Druze prisoner from the occupied Golan Heights. Al-Makt had spent 27 years in Israeli jails for engaging in military resistance against the occupation. He was released in 2012. In April 2015, he was indicted in martial court after he posted on Facebook a video showing Israeli soldiers rescuing Syrian jihadists on the Syrian-Israeli ceasefire line.

On Aug. 31, 2015, Israel’s Supreme Court sentenced former Kenesset MP Said Naffaa, a Druze lawyer from Galilee, to 18 months of prison for organizing a visit to Swaida, Jaramana, and Damascus with 250 Druze Sheikhs from Mount Carmel and Galilee.

In spite of that, Tel Aviv is posing as the sole protector of the Druze. It has been trying to reach out to the Druze in Mount Hermon and in Swaida through Galilee’s Druze dignitaries and activists that are closely related to the Israeli government, like spiritual leader Muwafak Tarif, Druze members of Netanyahu’s government, and other activists. Their intention is to build bridges with Syrian Druze dignitaries and influential personalities.

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Such efforts were accompanied by “Druze conventions” and meetings in Jordan, Spain and Turkey, and were designed to convince the Druze to follow the Kurdish path and fight for autonomy with the military support of Jordan, Israel, and the United States. Western governments have been testing the waters recently. In July, British diplomats met in Turkey with Druze activists and expats from Swaida, Mount Lebanon and Galilee. They also met in Lebanon with pro-Syrian Druze dignitaries. The Britons suggested to set up a Druze military force similar to the 2007 “Iraq Surge”, in order to fight along with the American coalition against the Islamic State. The proposal, that leads inevitably to provincial autonomy, followed by secession, wasn’t welcomed by the Druze, albeit with some exceptions.

Since 1948, Tel Aviv has been reiterating its interest in dismantling Syria and creating a Druze buffer state from Mount Hermon to Swaida, thereby ensuring Israel’s northern border protection in the long run. In a replay of Southern Lebanon’s scenario between 1978 and 2000, Tel Aviv’s objective seems to be the establishment of a Druze puppet state, led by a Druze version of Antoine Lahad, willing to split Swaida from its Syrian motherland, to fight for Israel in the long run and to link the Druze fate to Israel’s existential crisis.

The old dream of General Yigal Allon has resurfaced. During the Six Day War in 1967, Allon tried to convince Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to extend military operations and invade the Province of Sweida. “I dreamed of a Druze Republic,” he wrote in his memoirs. “A Republic that would extend from Southern Syria, including the Golan Heights, and would act as a buffer state between us, Syria, and Jordan.”

One of the tell-tale signs of Israel’s growing interest in a Druze statelet is the request made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the Chief of Staff of US Army General Martin Dempsey in June 2015, which consists of providing military support for Syria’s Druze, and particularly for Mount Hermon and Swaida.

Alexander Bligh, a former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and current Director of the Middle East Research Center at Ariel University Center, published an article on June 10, 2015 on Israeli channel i24news’ website, entitled: “Israel must help the Druze in Syria create an independent state.” Bligh advocates that “the State of Israel must decide a bold and absolutely essential step: to save the Druze community in Syria […]. The Druze have the opportunity and the responsibility to establish their own entity that would ensure their survival in a hostile environment […]. The Druze could experience their moment of glory by creating their own sovereign national entity in the Middle East.”

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The overwhelming majority of the Druze have sided with the government’s army for existential and identity reasons. They see themselves as the protectors of Syria’s southern borders, as well as the first line of defense of the Syrian capital Damascus, both in Swaida, in Jaramana, and in Sahnaya. The Druze played a crucial role in sparing the city of Damascus from the same bloody fate as Aleppo after the fall of Jarablus, Menbej, and Al Bab in 2012.

In the army, the Druze have lost approximately 3000 military men. Most have been killed in Aleppo, Homs, Idleb, Raqqa, and in the Damascus suburbs. While the desertion rate is high, Druze conscripts can be found on most fronts in Syria. Many Druze officers in the Syrian army distinguished themselves during the war. This is the case of Major General Issam Zahreddine, a commander in the Republican Guard that has led the Syrian army in the besieged city of Deir Ezzor since 2013. Fighting alone, and without any foreign assistance (at least until Russian’s aerial intervention in September 2015), Zahreddine’s troops have succeeded in blocking all attempts by the Islamic State to invade Deir Ezzor, home to 300,000 Syrians.

In the medium term, the Druze face three double-sided threats:

1- The sectarian nature of the Syrian opposition and the presence of jihadist organizations on Swaida’s western and eastern borders compel the Druze to constantly mobilize a defensive paramilitary force in coordination with the Syrian army. The downside of this approach is the abuses of power by a limited number of militiamen who engage in activities such as smuggling.

2- The influx of refugees fleeing both rebel-held areas and the Islamic State adds pressure to overwhelmed municipal services and raises fears of possible rebel infiltration, much as took place in Raqqa and Idlib before the ultimate jihadist takeover in both cities.

3- Israel’s policy vis-à-vis its jihadist allies and the Druze poses a real threat to Syria’s survival as a unitary state and to its national identity.

All these threats have been contained by the Russian intervention in Syria. Moscow has stabilized most fronts while giving considerable leverage to the Syrian army on the ground. The Russian aerial coverage, as well as the coverage of the Syrian Air Force, enhanced as it has been by recently acquired jets, provide a military shield to Swaida and to other government controlled areas that are home to 14 million Syrians, half of which are internally displaced Syrians who have fled from opposition-held areas.

The protest movement that started in 2011 has quickly been muted and transformed into a struggle for power that has nothing to do with democracy anymore. The Druze consider themselves to be Syrians. They perceive their religion as a sub-national identity, not as a nationality in its own right. They are an essential part of the Syrian identity. This is a legacy of Sultan Pasha al-Atrash’s pioneering role as leader of the Great Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927. The majority of Druze refuse to be cut off from the rest of Syria for economic, cultural, and identity reasons. A Druze statelet isn’t sustainable and would be destined to become a puppet enclave to either the Hashemite Kingdom or Israel, both of which don’t offer better prospects for the Druze than Syria. While the Druze public opinion on the war is polarized, many still want to believe in a settlement that would preserve what’s left of Syria, or one that would restore the status quo antebellum.


Screen Shot 2016-09-05 at 3.55.54 PM*Talal El Atrache is a Syrian journalist and writer. He worked for many years at Agence France Presse (AFP), and as a correspondent at Radio France Internationale. He has also been a freelance journalist at l’Humanité newspaper, TV5 and BFM TV (French channels). In 2007, he was awarded the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize by the European Commission. He is the co-author, with Richard Labévière, of “Quand la Syrie s’éveillera” (When Syria Awakes), published in 2010 by “Editions Perrin” (Paris).  

All photos were taken by Talal.

“Why the UN’s Excuses For its Aid Fiasco in Syria Fail to Convince,” By Reinoud Leenders

Why the UN’s Excuses For its Aid Fiasco in Syria Fail to Convince
By Reinoud Leenders* @ReinoudLeenders
for Syria Comment – Sept. 3, 2016

Judging from the UN’s comments on its aid agencies’ conduct in Syria, business will go on as usual –too bad if it throws a lifeline to the Syrian regime. Two UN spokespersons, one for Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the other for the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, were put in the unenviable position of having to respond to articles in The Guardian, to which I contributed and wrote an accompanying comment, about tens of millions of US dollars’ worth of UN procurement contracts awarded to regime cronies. By following the money, we found that UN aid agencies’ local purchases of humanitarian goods and services directly benefitted scores of companies owned by or intimately linked to senior regime incumbents responsible for indescribable brutality. UN agencies also embraced Syrian ‘NGOs’ run by the likes of Rami Makhlouf and others linked to unsavory regime militias, as “implementing partners”. What Syria is concerned, this is how far we get when it comes to UN’s self-proclaimed humanitarian principles of “humanity, neutrality, impartiality, and independence.” Meanwhile, the UN-led aid effort continues to dramatically fall short in meeting Syrians’ burgeoning needs, especially when they happen to reside in rebel-held areas.

Speaking on behalf of the UN’s top brass, the two spokespersons draw on an ingenious register of excuses in their joint attempt to explain away the UN’s unacceptable proximity to and submission to the Syrian regime. Most importantly, they argue that laymen like us cannot appreciate the complexity of the situation in which UN agencies are forced to operate. Accordingly, they explain that UN agencies have to maneuver in an extreme political situation and “framework” not of their own making, and that therefore their options are limited. Thus, the Syrian government imposes its preferred ‘NGO’ partners on UN agencies while the Syrian business sector counts only few suppliers for the UN to do its job. But it is here that the UN fails to appreciate the nuance. The Syrian regime drew up a list of some 120 local NGOs accredited to work with the UN – but UN agencies can still choose from this list, or indeed decide that none of them qualify and distribute aid themselves. Some of these local charities are largely apolitical and do a fair job in providing humanitarian aid. From this perspective, there is no reason to partner with an ‘NGO’ like the Bustan Association that is run by President Bashar al-Assad’s notorious cousin let alone one that finances the regime’s death squads. Neither would Assad’s wife have to be elevated to the status of benign benefactor by teaming up with her “Syria Trust” charity, not to speak of several other NGOs that publicly glorify the regime or present themselves as patrons of “the martyrs of the Syrian Arab army”.

When it comes to business contracts, the UN’s logic is as flawed. By virtue of its control over the state, the regime enjoys a monopoly in some sectors, such as mobile telecommunications, also owned by Makhlouf. Here it will indeed be hard to find less unsavory suppliers. But for the majority of contracts handed out by the UN to regime incumbents, there were readily available alternative suppliers: soap, nappies, and medical kits can be easily imported. Neither is there a need to ask regime cronies to arrange such imports. And yet this is what happened.

The Guardian reports show that many beneficiaries of the UN’s procurement policies were blacklisted and subjected to sanctions by the European Union and the US. The UN responded that, legally, it is not bound to these sanctions as it is committed to a list of designated persons and entities sanctioned by the UN Security Council, which only designates ‘terrorist’ jihadis from the opposition. The argument misses the point entirely just as it puts the spotlight on the UN’s key donors’ complicity. The individuals and entities sanctioned by the EU and the US have been singled out because of their direct contribution to the Syrian regime’s brutality and atrocities. Doing business with them regardless raises issues that are foremost ethical in nature, not necessarily legal. The public designation of these same individuals means that the UN cannot pretend it did not know. Yet European donors and the US government also need to explain why they uncritically poured billions of US dollars into UN aid agencies that, in turn, transferred a significant part of these resources to officially blacklisted entities.

What the UN’s spokespersons are concerned, we should be pleased about the UN agencies’ unrivalled “transparency” in doing their business; without it we would not have been able to present our findings on UN procurement as we did. Indeed, some of the findings were based on UN procurement documents that can be found online, if you know where to look. But to celebrate this as proof of the UN’s merits in Syria or beyond is absurd. Relevant UN procurement data are buried in bulky reports counting hundreds of pages. For many entries the identity of the supplying companies are withheld “for security reasons”, even when the contract concerned the supply of rather non-menacing items in the category of “bath and body”. For unknown reasons the World Health Organisation and the World Food Program –two of the largest spenders in Syria—are not included in the lists. Neither do the UN documents provide names of rewarded companies’ ownership; it takes an effort to figure that out. All the same, even if the UN had been fully transparent about its business deals in Syria, this would not put it off the hook. This is especially so when UN claims about being totally transparent come with categorical denials of any wrongdoing and blanket dismissals of detailed and documented research, as in the response by Stephen O’Brien, UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs.

The UN has mispresented my and the Guardian’s criticisms as a call for disengaging with the regime. For O’Brien we unrealistically imply that the UN should stop working with the Syrian government altogether; that surely would be a reckless suggestion given the many lives that rely on UN aid. This, however, was never my argument, and I wish O’Brien and the UN spokespersons had responded to the argument I did make. Providing humanitarian aid impartially requires a continuous balancing act, one that currently has given way to a UN position vis-à-vis the regime that clearly is submissive; by allowing it to redact needs assessment reports, by understating the number of regime-besieged areas and their residents, by employing relatives of regime officials, by relying on its laboratories to detect the outbreak of contagious diseases like Polio, and by handing out contracts to regime incumbents and their business cronies. For the UN to conduct a balancing act for the sake of more effective provision of aid in what no doubt are daunting conditions, first some balance needs to be restored even when that is still likely to fall short of the full humanitarian “impartiality” that O’Brien claims the UN agencies aim for – and achieve– in Syria.

Establishing an investigatory panel to scrutinize the UN’s conduct and performance in Syria is the very least that the UN could do in light of the growing list of reported blunders, failings and proximity to the regime involving its humanitarian agencies. The UN’s prime donors, including European countries and the US, should be demanding such an inquiry in order to encourage full and genuine transparency and accountability, both for the sake of Syrians deprived from aid and of their own tax-paying citizens. It would be naive to expect such an inquiry to immediately change the UN agencies. Yet with an investigation ongoing, UN negotiators in Damascus would be in a better position to resist the Syrian regime’s unacceptable demands about how the aid effort is to be conducted. Scrutiny will help to restore the UN’s leverage vis-à-vis the regime, which it has failed to use in its efforts to reach out to millions of Syrians in need.

* Reinoud Leenders is Reader in International Politics and Middle East Studies at King’s College London, Department of War Studies. A full webcast of a recent talk by Leenders on UN aid and the Syrian regime, held at the American University of Beirut’s Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, can be found here.

Leenders has conducted research in and on Syria since 2003, when he was Middle East analyst for the International Crisis Group. He authored Spoils of Truce: Corruption and State Building in Post-War Lebanon (Cornell University Press 2012) and co-edited (with Steven Heydemann) Middle East Authoritarianism: Governance, Contestation and regime Resilience in Syria and Iran (Stanford University Press 2013).

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