Syrian Refugees Collectivizing in Jordan Becomes a Security Issue — by Katy Montoya

Katy Montoya, an undergraduate at Swarthmore College, has undertaken some ambitious research on the situation of Syrian refugees in Jordan. Following previous work on refugees in Jordan posted on Syria Comment (here, here, and here), some excerpts of Katy’s work are re-posted below; read her entire research article at the Institut de recherches et d’études sur le monde arabe et musulman. Follow Katy: @K4TYMONTOYA

Katy Montoya refugees Jordan IREMAM

 

… Jordanian policies toward entering and residing Syrians have evolved simultaneously with the three-and-a-half year conflict. Jordanian border security has, from the beginning, played a generous role in facilitating border crossings, ending the long, often dangerous journeys of fleeing Syrians. Various Jordanian officials in my interviews emphasized the extent of humanitarian care that Jordan provides for entering Syrians, in partnership with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), from the border in. Unlike nearby Lebanon, the Jordanian government has worked with the UNHCR to open the al-Za’tari and al-Azraq refugee camps. Other camps include Cyber City, a holding facility for “illegal” Palestinian refugees from Syria (often referred to as PRS) and the Emirati (UAE-funded) camp.

Keeping a close count of registered Syrian refugees is difficult. Many Syrians enter Jordan illegally by bypassing official checkpoints. Increasingly, this is due to intensifying battles over border crossings between Jabhat an-Nusra, the Free Syrian Army, and al-Asad’s forces, and Jordan’s subsequent closing of bordering crossings.[5] Meanwhile, about a hundred thousand Syrians who once resided in Jordan’s refugee camps have voluntarily returned to Syria. Many have also escaped the camps for Jordan’s cities and rural areas in order to seek better conditions and work opportunities.[6] Thus, roughly twenty percent of Syrians in Jordan face poor camp conditions.[7] Overcrowding and poor sanitation prevail, especially in the al-Za’tari and Cyber City camps, despite the efforts of camp officials.

Meanwhile, eighty percent of Syrians now live outside Jordan’s refugee camps and struggle to obtain necessary goods and services. With the help of UN subsidies, Jordan has kept its public hospitals open to Syrian refugees for over three years, allowing refugees to access free healthcare. State officials abruptly announced the termination of these services in late November 2014, citing the heavy debts Jordan has accrued through extending free Health-care to Syrian refugees.[8]

… During the summer of 2014, rumors began to circulate in the international media concerning Jordan’s repatriation of illegal Syrian workers and the strict cap imposed on Syrian refugees awaiting entry at the border. Syrian social workers reported cases of Jordanian authorities forcefully relocating unregistered urban refugees to live in refugee camps. The interviews I conducted this summer with Syrian social workers upheld such claims. Meanwhile, the official Jordanian press denied Jordan’s involvement in deporting refugees back to Syria.[9] Months later, however, international organizations and researchers have indeed been able to substantiate the claims.

A November 2014 report released by Boston University (BU) compiles interviews with international organizations and the testimonials of impacted Syrians, providing conclusive evidence of Jordan’s practice of forced repatriation. In fact, escalating concerns over refugee control and domestic security have created a charged political climate surrounding these matters. It is becoming clear that new security priorities have prompted Jordanian authorities to deport threatening and nonthreatening Syrian refugees alike. As the BU report states, “Syrian nationals are being deported in some instances for violating laws, such as working illegally. Others are deported for posing security problems, usually as a result of political action, regardless of specific affiliation.”[10] Through this practice, Jordan may damage its international image, even though it is true that the kingdom is not a signee of the 1951 Refugee Convention. As my initial research problematic hypothesized, security concerns have come to dominate the Jordanian government’s approach to hosting Syrian refugees.

A Survey of Syrian Social Networks in Jordan

In his study of Islamist organizations in Jordan, Quintan Wiktorowicz concludes that the Jordanian state exercises authoritarian control over civil society formation and practices.[12] Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, the Mukhabarat, are a major force in regulating the contents and activities of political parties, charities, and cultural organizations. While this holds true for Jordanian organizations, I discovered through my survey of civil society formation in Syrian refugee communities, that among this population, Jordan is only selectively regulatory. In other words, the state allows some organizations and groups to operate freely while others are closely monitored or banned altogether. An exploration of what is permitted, and under what conditions, should contribute to reveal the logic which is currently steering Jordan’s refugee policy, and by extension, what its political position towards the Syrian war may be. …

… In Irbid, the only surviving Syrian family support center (as of July 2014) has gone to a lot of trouble to abide by strict regulation requirements. The founder (a former activist from Dera’a) not only has sought the assistance of a European NGO partner, but also created two salaried positions for Jordanian workers, a heavy burden for a struggling non-profit, in order to justify its right to operate in Jordan. “If I didn’t do this, the authorities would close me down immediately,” she explained, referring to Jordan’s Ministry of Social Development. …

… Another member of the Syrian community in Irbid has established a sort of civil registry office in his living room, reprinting legal documents for Syrians who left their papers behind or whose documents have expired. Syrians come to his home office from various communities in North Jordan, seeking his services. For over a year, he has also assembled teams of Syrian activists to document human rights violations and civilian deaths wherever they have occurred in Syria. Volunteers in his office use testimonies and different methods of verification to create reports with titles like, “Violence Against Girls and Women in Dera’a” and “Attacks on Field Hospitals in Aleppo.”

The founder claims that when his documents first began surfacing, their factsWere at variance with the information published by the Syrian National Coalition (SNC). He relates this to the Jordanian Mukhabarat’s attempts to shut down his center—that is, until the Jordanian authorities had assessed the quality of his work. He provides legal documents in the hope they will be recognized by the Jordanian government and by international organizations. Meanwhile, his human rights work ties his center to political leaders, various armed opposition groups, journalists, activists, arms-traffickers, and local coordinating committees in Syria and neighboring countries. The capacity to obtain quantifiable evidence on events in Syria from Jordan is a testament to the organization and coherence of the transnational networks which bind the larger Syrian community together.

Extending Support to Non-Civilians

The informal networks that include non-civilians, particularly those that connect Syrian refugee communities to armed opposition groups in Syria, work in fairly similar ways. As Syrians collectivize to address civilian needs, it is not uncommon for them to engage with Syrians who have political and military affiliations. In my own experiences of visiting ostensibly civilian Syrian community centers, I encountered individuals who play more direct roles in the Syrian opposition on a regular basis: field doctors from battle sites in Dera’a, leaders of different divisions of South Syria’s FSA, prominent political activists and dissidents, and arms collectors. They often share family or hometown ties to Syrian community leaders in Jordan and use the resources made available by community networks to collect funds and supplies, relocate their families to Jordan, spread news, and discuss opposition strategies. As more Syrians flee to Jordan, the dynamics of civilian versus non-civilian have become increasingly complex. …

… The relative ease with which Syrians in Jordan connect with and support members of Syria’s opposition occurs in the context of implicitly partisan (non-neutral) practices. It is relatively well-known that the Syrian-Jordanian borders are spaces of cooperation between the Jordanian military and the FSA. My interviews with leaders of South Syria’s Military Council (i.e. the FSA), as well as with various media sources, confirm that implicit agreements between these military groups enable the free movement of FSA leaders across the border. Moreover, at one of the last border crossings to remain open at Ruwaishid, Jordanian intelligence and military actively facilitate the transport of arms, food, and medical supplies across the border into Syria, as well as the entry of refugees into Jordan.[14]

… The same standard applies to Jordan, as the kingdom has exercised diplomatic caution since early on in the conflict and claims to be a neutral bystander in the ongoing war.[16] In this context, the overlaps and contradictions between caring for Syrian civilians and managing the interests of the Syrian opposition are constant and ongoing. Keeping non-civilians out of Jordan becomes more complicated when dealing with Syrians who haven’t deliberately left their homes for Jordan (and are not actively seeking refugee status) but rather have been rushed to the borders by the FSA. As war casualties, they come from both civilian neighborhoods and from the battlefield, and their injuries largely exceed the capacities of Syrian field hospitals.

Although the Jordanian military and intelligence employ strict identification screening methods throughout the registration process for refugees, they generally apply much looser policies to Syrian casualties seeking medical treatment. The procedures set up to manage this influx supposedly privilege civilian victims and Syria’s moderate opposition (the FSA), yet Jordan’s open-door policy inadvertently extends to wounded fighters from al-Qaida’s affiliate, Jabhat an-Nusra, and possibly other groups active in Syria’s southern region.

Jordanian security, intelligence, and medical personnel are undoubtedly aware of this. Officials actively control the movement of Syrian trauma patients in Jordan in order to counterbalance their humanitarian open-door policies. Such practices were common when Palestinian refugees from Iraq living in Jordan’s Ruwaishid camp use to seek medical treatment in Jordan’s cities after the US invasion in 2003.[17] Today, members of Jordan’s Civilian Defense escort wounded Syrians to their first stop at the public Ramtha Government Hospital. From there, police officers supervise each patient’s stay, whether unaccompanied male or patient plus family, at one of the country’s several private, specialized hospitals. This route officially terminates at the Joint Registration Center at Ruba’a al-Sarhan, close to the Syrian border in the al-Mafraq governorate. There, individuals are registered and officials assess whether they should be sent to al-Za’tari camp (to be escorted by police to further medical appointments at a later date) or back to the dangerous zones in Syria from where they came.

The movement of Syrians through informal social networks is much harder for Jordan to regulate. Loopholes exist in the surveillance procedures that the state increasingly imposes on Syrian refugees. While Jordanian officials claim it is not possible for recovering Syrian trauma patients to evade the regulated system that leads them to al-Za’atari or back to Syria, certain intermediaries intervene on the behalf of these vulnerable individuals. One such Jordanian, bearing the pseudonym Abu Ahmad, a man from Zarqa City, works full-time in the service of the Syrian community. Since retiring from decades of membership in Jordanian Security, he has used his wasta, a cultural term denoting extensive social connections and a certain privilege and status, to pull young Syrian men out of this often merciless system. He frequently visits al-Za’tari Camp and private hospitals to follow up on special cases that come to his attention through his ties to the greater Syrian community. By mobilizing funds from wealthy Syrian donors abroad, he has established housing units for disabled ex-FSA fighters that provide ongoing medical treatment and rehabilitation as well as living necessities. Even as a well-established East-Bank Jordanian, he is subject to monitoring by the Jordanian authorities. Abu Ahmad explains that the authorities’ primary concern is ensuring that only moderate Syrian nationals—not extremist fighters, Palestinian refugees from Syria, or foreign fighters—find refuge in Jordan.

Jordan has, perhaps, overcompensated to dispel rumors suggesting that it is providing refuge to non-moderate armed oppositions groups. At the same time, the evolution of its policies toward Syrian refugees reflects the increasing security concerns at its borders. An article from the Forced Migration Review notes that since 2013, “Jordan has imposed bans on unaccompanied men from entering the country.”[18] The rising threat of Islamic State fighters entering the country compounds existing fears of Syrian regime agents penetrating the closely monitored borders, as Jordanian border security officials explained to me. The same article describes a common occurrence in conflict-ridden countries, where a separate political logic often applies to male refugees of fighting age (as opposed to families, women, and children).[19] Specifically, host country policies toward adult males overemphasize their potential for taking up arms, and thus discriminate against them as assumed non-civilians. Scoping out possible threats to Jordan’s internal harmony and curbing extremism is increasingly being imposed at the expense of offering refuge to some of Syria’s most vulnerable displaced individuals. …

Syrian airstrike victim in Jordanian hospital

Victim of airstrike treated in ICU in Amman – Photo: IREMAM

 

Circles of Syrian Doctors Working in Jordan

… For over a year, it seemed that as long as Syrian doctors continued filling in for the lack of doctors treating incoming wounded Syrians, and as long as they steered clear of politics, the Jordanian government would continue to turn something of an acquiescent blind eye to these predominantly wageless doctors. However, an article by Human Rights Watch announced the recent deportation of Syrian medical workers “caught” treating Syrian patients at Ramtha Public Hospital as well as at private hospitals around Jordan.[21] It is safe to conclude that Jordanian authorities have already closed, or may soon close, rehabilitation centers and Syrian hospital wards which have provided the materials for a part of this present study.

Monitoring a Situation in Flux

Jordan’s steady deviation from humanitarian obligation reveals the Kingdom’s apprehensions about hosting another refugee population, on a long-term basis. It is indeed relevant to wonder whether Jordan’s growing impatience stems in fact from the utter lack of any solution to Syria’s persistent war. In the light of the escalating security concerns that cooperation with the FSA raises, perhaps the costs of quietly supporting Syria’s moderate opposition are too high. Through its recent political moves, Jordan may be seen to be sending an implicit message to the refugees and to the international community—that is, a desire to reduce involvement in Syrian affairs. However, could it also be that after three and a half years of conflict, the Jordanian government, like a significant number of Syrian refugees, is considering reconciliation with the al-Asad regime?[22]

Most importantly for this research, it is crucial to raise the question of just how far Jordan’s evolving political agenda will affect its treatment of Syrian refugees and the resulting wellbeing of these communities. Can their informal networks withstand repressive host country policies? How will underhand practices like repatriation undermine the resilience and cohesiveness of the larger Syrian community?

Life has come to a halt for Syrians in Jordan, who have little access to higher education, healthcare, and work. For many, Jordan is just a temporary stopover before the refugees move on to Turkey or undertake the dangerous trip to Europe. As European Union member countries and Australia are offering thousands of resettlement and asylum opportunities to Syrians, the common perception is that better treatment and possibilities are awaiting them there.[23] While Jordan is becoming an increasingly undesirable place for Syrians to live and be, most have no option but to stay put and wait it out.

Read the entire research article

Syria News Round-Up Feb. 9, 2015

From a friend commenting on discrepancy in SOHR’s recent numbers:

SOHR is all over the place with numbers. This is his latest: here. The new number is 210k; he says that 100k are civilians 80%+ of which are men. He estimates 85k+ fighters unaccounted for across all sides. 1.5 million injured. 50% displaced. His detailed stats are here. His number of civilians jumped 40K from December stats. And his 210K total is off by ~35K if I’m totaling his numbers correctly. According to the numbers he’s listing, the total is 245K.

SOHR casualty numbers These are his numbers from December:

SOHR December 2014 numbers casualties

 

Meet ‘Average Mohamed,’ a gas station manager who’s using cartoons to fight ISIS recruitment – PRI’s The World

average Mohamed

The 39-year-old Somali-American businessman by day has turned activist by night, creating the website “Average Mohamed.” It’s a series of animated cartoons voiced by Mohamed Ahmed (Average Mohamed) to rebut Islamic extremists recruitment videos.

“It takes an idea to destroy an idea and my concept was to create ideas.” says Ahmed, who was frustrated that the ideology Islamic extremists peddle was not being effectively countered. “The cartoons offer talking points to parents, mosque leaders, youth activists and law enforcement that they can use to thwart the narrative of extremists.”

The animated cartoon called “Islamic State Job Description” has a Disney-ish cartoon style but the voiceover is grim: “Average Mohamed asks: What do you think your job description is when you join Islamic State? Your job description is to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews; terrorize innocent women, men and children like your family, into blind obedience. Behead unarmed innocent people you round up; destroy World Heritage sites, mosques, tombs and shrines; empower unelected, self-nominated, murderous, bloodthirsty individuals as leaders. Not exactly DisneyWorld … like the propaganda says it is, is it?” …

 

War Fronts:

Islamic State pulls forces and hardware from Syria’s Aleppo – Reuters

Islamic State has withdrawn some of its insurgents and equipment from areas northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels and residents say, adding to signs of strain in the Syrian provinces of its self-declared caliphate. …

Kurds recapture scores of Kobane villages from ISIL – al-Jazeera

Kurdish fighters say they have recaptured more than 120 villages in northern Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). …

The political geography of Syria’s War: An Interview with Fabrice Balanche – Carnegie – Aron Lund

 …You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators. This pro-Assad mobilization was not simply organized by the government. Rather, it was part of the phenomenon of urban asabiyya (communal solidarity) that has been so well described by Michel Seurat in the case of Tripoli. In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread—but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game, as we have seen with the autonomous cantons in Afrin, Ein al-Arab (Kobane), and Qamishli…

What’s behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria – Carnegie – Aron Lund

 …The situation in Hasakah is peculiar. The city and the wider region is divided between Kurds and Arabs on the one hand, and internally among Arab tribes and villages, on the other. There are also significant Christian groups in the city, including Syriacs and Armenians…

The Battle for the Qalamoun Mountains – FP – Nour Samaha

Syrian army attacks Qamishli countryside, mass displacement reported – ARA News

Syria conflict: Dozens killed in heavy Damascus fighting – BBC

U.S.-led strikes kill 30 Islamic State fighters in Syria: monitors – Reuters

New map from Agathocle de Syracuse:

Agathocle De Syracuse - Syria Map

Kobani:

Experts: Kobane defeat a sign of ISIS weakening – Al-Arabiya

Islamic State in Syria seen under strain but far from collapse – Reuters

Syria’s Kurds celebrate after winning Kobani, but self-rule far off – Reuters

 

International Political Negotiations:

Syria: The Ultimate Example of Cynical Realpolitik – EU Observer – Mark Pierini

…What the interview reveals – for those who have not met both father and son – is that Bashar al-Assad will cling to power irrespective of the destruction it rqeuires. He will use any method to that end, from his residual stock of chemical weapons to alliance reversals to an extension of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders…

The US needs Turkey and vice versa — but it isn’t working – Business Insider – Soner Cagaptay

Paying the Piper: How America’s Iraq War haunts its Failed Syria Policy – Informed Comment – Michael MacDonald

The Syrian Opposition Meeting in Cairo: One Small Step – MEI – Geoffrey Aronson

…The Syrian conflict might still take many years to resolve. But the noninflammatory tone of the meeting in Cairo could mark one small step along the long path of dialogue and negotiation required to bring Syria’s destructive civil war to an end…

Engaging in Politics, Assad-Style – Al-Hayat – Yezid Sayigh

…More likely is that the U.S. will abandon the effort to unseat Assad, without recognizing his legitimacy or resuming direct political contacts. This may be enough for his regime to survive, but with ever-dwindling resources. Already, the concentration of business deals in the hands of ruling family has sparked the flight of many of the businessmen whose continued stake in Syria had previously been a crucial mainstay for the regime. Coming at a time when the regime desperately needs income, and has even granted the private sector the right to import oil to compensate for the inadequacy of Iranian supplies, this reflects complete unwillingness to change how it operates…

Secret dialogue between Syrian regime and opposition in Beirut – Al-Bawaba

U.N. plan for Syrian cease-fires frozen – The Daily Star

 

Regional Analysis:

PF138image900x600-198x132A report that outlines Iran and Hezbollah involvement in the conflict:  THE SHIITE JIHAD IN SYRIA AND ITS REGIONAL EFFECTS – The Washington Institute – Phillip Smyth

A discussion about some of the report’s findings:  The most important thing in the Middle East that no one is talking about – Business Insider – Armin Rosen

 …As Smyth explains, Iran has used the Syrian civil war to expand its influence over the Shi’ite communities in the broader Middle East and advance the clerical regime’s strategic and ideological goals. Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad is well-documented…

 

Jordanian Pilot Execution:

Video Of Jordanian Pilot’s Death As Horrific As It Was Symbolic – NPR – Robert Siegel

Barbarians Burn Pilot Alive – Daily Beast

… The king says that when Jordan joined the coalition, the F-16 pilots were told only volunteers had to take part. “Every single pilot raised his hand and stepped forward,” the king tells Charlie Rose in the video clip used by ISIS.

In fact, in Jordan there was some negative reaction to that interview at the time. It appeared to many Jordanians as if the king was playing to an American audience, not to their own concerns. Many had expressed doubts about whether the coalition war really was Jordan’s war. …

Experts React to ISIS’s Gruesome Execution of Jordanian Pilot – Rand

After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal – Syria Comment – Matthew Barber

… Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world. …

Just Because You Quote Clint Eastwood Doesn’t Make You a Cowboy – FP – Steven Simon and James Fromson

Jordan’s Executions of Jihadists Could Backfire – CNN – Lina Khatib

The Islamic State’s Psyops – Ultimate War – Red (team) Analysis – Dr. Helene Lavoix

Crime and Punishment in Jordan – FP – David Schenker

How to read the medieval scholar the Islamic State used to justify al-Kasasbeh murder – Prof. John Hoover

Just when you think ISIS can’t get any worse – MEI

Angry Jordanian Crowds Rally over ISIL Murder of Pilot, but some blame US, King – Juan Cole

Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic behind it. – The Guardian – Hassan Hassan

Jordan’s Executions Are Not the Answer to ISIS Brutality – HRW – Eric Goldstein

… While the government’s desire to address public outrage is as understandable as the outrage itself, executing death row prisoners does not weaken ISIS. This round of executions, the second in two months, is a further regression by a country that was until recently a regional leader in resisting use of the death penalty. On December 21, Jordan ended an eight-year de facto moratorium on executions by hanging 11 men convicted of murder. In that case as well, authorities cited public sentiment as the reason behind the executions.

The executions of al-Karbouli and al-Rishawi were carried out following trials that included an appeals process. But to dispatch them from death row to the gallows immediately following news of al-Kasasbeh’s murder, to which they had no connection, amidst official vows to avenge his death, shows that revenge was a motive in ending their lives. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment under all circumstances, as a practice unique in its cruelty and finality. But to execute death row inmates in response to external events alarmingly suggests that retaliation against third parties is driving policy, rather than justice based solely on fairness and individualized guilt.

 

Islamic State:

Scenes from Daily Life Inside ISIS-Controlled Mosul – Vanity Fair – Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple Mosul drawings

Islamic State executes 7 men in Aleppo and al- Raqqa – SOHR

Kayla Mueller’s Parents Opposed Military Mission to Rescue Her From Islamic State – FP – Sean D. Naylor

ISIS and Syria’s Southern Front – MEI – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

 …the rebels in the south comprise a diverse array of fighters whose relative lack of infighting and increased cooperation mean that the regime is not on the verge of any decisive gains in the area. However, the prospect of the fall of Aleppo to the regime in the north, though not imminent, is an ever growing concern among non-jihadi rebels, many of whom feel increasingly squashed between the regime, ISIS, and JN…

Fledgeling Gaza ISIS Groups Operate Under Watchful Eye of Hamas – Newsweek – Lucy Draper

ICSR Insight: The Islamic State Model – ICSR

ISIS : al-Hayat media ~ From inside Aleppo – pietervanostaeyen

ISIS media outlet al-Hayat releases another video featuring the British ISIS hostage John Cantlie.

 

Anti-Islamic State Militias:

Westerners join Kurds fighting Islamic State group in Iraq – AP

‘Thousands’ of Iraqi Christians form their own militia to fight Isis militants in northern Iraq – The Independent

Want to Hurt the Islamic State? Here’s How. – FP – Christian Caryl

 …The Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn’t the United States sending them the weapons they need?…

Compulsory military service raises concerns among Syrian Kurdish youth – ARA News

 

Miscellaneous:

Syrian Refugees and Regional Security – Carnegie – Benedetta Berti

UN Syrian refugees

 

…Lebanon faces rising unemployment and decreasing wages as Syrians are forced to accept work for lower wages, harsher conditions, and fewer rights than their host counterparts. Wages in the service and agricultural sectors have decreased by as much as 50 percent in Lebanon between 2011 and 2013—with similar dynamics occurring in all host countries. This has created intense domestic pressure that affects economic performance, social cohesion, and ultimately internal stability…

Prince Charles tours camp for Syrian refugees; UK raises aid – WP

NBC Weapons: Smashing The Syrian Caverns Of Doom – Strategy Page

…Finally, in late 2014 Syria began destroying a dozen underground facilities used to produce and destroy chemical weapons. This effort was delayed several times during 2014 but eventually the Syrians got going under the threat of air strikes on their military facilities…

How Syrian rebel fighters fell for ‘honey trap’ hackers – Christian Science Monitor

…A hacker, using a fake Skype or Facebook profile, would strike up a conversation with a target and invite him to swap photos. The hacker’s photo, invariably that of an attractive woman, would contain malware that once downloaded by the target would copy chat logs, tactical strategies, and contact details from the target’s device, according to FireEye’s research…

To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy – Al-Fanar Media

…Syrian professors have two choices: Stay in their country and risk their lives or scatter to the winds and live largely in isolation…

UN sets sights on Syria antiquities, Islamic State oil, ransoms – Reuters

Refugee artists raise awareness for Syria’s plight – DW

Syrian artists

J.K. Gani’s “The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations” — Reviewed by Julio Rivera

Julio Rivera - University of Chicagoby Julio Rivera

Julio Rivera is a PhD student in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago where he focuses on Syrian political history. Before pursuing his PhD, Julio spent three years working as a Syria political analyst for the Department of Defense, spanning the period prior to and during the current Syria crisis. Follow Julio on twitter: @juliorivera77

J.K. Gani’s The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation is an excellent resource for scholars, policymakers, and Syria watchers alike who are interested in understanding how Washington’s policies from 1946 to 2000 have solidified Syria’s ongoing mistrust of and hostility toward the US role in the region, as well as a useful guide to identifying the limits of Syrian-US cooperation. This book fills a large gap in the history of Syrian-US relations, as prior works often dealt narrowly with the peace process, the post-9/11 era, or the post-Ottoman era up to the moment of Syria’s political union with Egypt in 1958—a time when Damascus still controlled the Golan Heights.

JK Gani, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations, Conflict and Cooperation - book cover

Author: J.K. Gani (Lecturer in IR at the University of St. Andrews, UK)
Series: Middle East Today
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (October 2, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1137358343
ISBN-13: 978-1137358349

Due to the dearth or inaccessibility of Syrian internal memos detailing their private perceptions and motivations during this period, Gani’s research draws primarily on US and British archival material that sheds light on the thinking of Syrian officials. The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations makes the compelling argument that Syria’s Arab nationalist and anti-imperial outlook, hardened over time by what was perceived as the US’s disingenuous agenda in the region, has greatly influenced its foreign policy and contends that Syria’s decisions to either confront or cooperate with the West should be viewed as pragmatic calculations guided by—as opposed to a blind adherence to—ideology.

Gani’s primary research method is historical analysis, which helps to contextualize Syrian animosity towards Western hegemony over the years. The book is broken into four parts highlighting different stages of the Syrian-US relationship: 1) The emergence of US-Syrian relations from Truman to Kennedy; 2) Syria’s isolation and the birth of the US-Israeli special relationship (specifically as it relates to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War); 3) US-Syrian disengagement talks from 1973-1975; and 4) instances of US-Syrian cooperation in the post-Cold War era. The book argues that while Syrian uneasiness regarding Western intentions (due largely to the country’s experience under the French Mandate) pre-dated Damascus’ suspicious attitude towards Washington, the US’s actions following Syrian independence in 1946 would result in a perception of the US being “second-generation imperialists” from the viewpoint of Damascus.

However, Gani points out that to assume Syrian-US relations were doomed from the start (given Syria’s prior attitudes towards the mandate authorities) overlooks the hopes Syrians and the region in general had for the US to chart a different course. Unlike the French and the British, Washington maintained a largely isolationist policy following WWI, and the Wilsonian Principles of Self-Determination (1919) coupled with the US’s support for the dissolution of the mandate system within the UN positioned the US to play a positive role in supporting the aspirations of self-determination throughout the region. Despite its initial openness towards Arab self-determination, Washington’s backing of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which prompted an ensuing refugee crisis, and the shift in focus towards combating the spread of communism throughout the world, altered the paradigm and prompted the US to view the region solely through the lens of collecting resources to strengthen itself and its allies against the Soviets. In light of these changing dynamics, any critique by Syrian officials of the US or its regional allies made Damascus appear as if it were simply a Soviet satellite.  Such appearances prompted the Eisenhower administration in 1957 to support a coup in Syria, which was discovered and prevented by Damascus.

Although suspicion and aggression have continued to cast a shadow on Syrian-US relations even up through the present conflict, the book highlights moments, particularly during and after the First Gulf War, where Damascus appeared to shed its anti-Western ideology in favor of cooperation with the US. While Gani acknowledges that Damascus was likely motivated in part by Washington’s “unipolar” moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she notes that from Syria’s perspective, it wasn’t necessarily abandoning ideology but rather calibrating its response in light of the more global consensus in favor of US and coalition action, as well as the support from the UN. By allying with the West in this moment, Damascus was attempting to not only safeguard Arab unity by preventing inter-Arab warfare, but was also calling for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in an effort to create parallels with the peace process in the hopes of convincing the US of the rationale for Israel to similarly withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Syria’s cooperation with the US did provide added reason to jumpstart the peace process in 1991, this time in Madrid; yet Syria’s hopes for achieving results were ultimately dashed.  Gani views Damascus’s willingness to compromise its longstanding principle of not holding separate bilateral negotiations with Israel, as an important step. For their part, Israeli negotiators, feeling insulated by prior promises from earlier US administrations, did not believe they had to compromise on the Golan Heights and even continued settlement construction at the time despite US pronouncements that such activity was “a deliberate effort to sabotage peace.” The Syrian track would soon result in a stalemate, while separate negotiations with the Palestinians and subsequent Oslo agreements in the mid-90s further convinced Damascus that such “second-generation imperialists” were merely looking to divide and conquer the Arab states.

By virtue of her historical analysis, Gani calls on her readers to understand Damascus’ adherence to an ideology which is pro-Arab nationalist, pro-self determination, and reasonably suspicious of the West’s regional ambitions. Unlike other works which often offer a very US-centric version of Syria as the “obstructionist” in the relationship, this book presents Damascus’ rationale for sticking to its anti-Western, Arab nationalist ideology in the face of repeated empty promises and outright hostility.

Ultimately, this work leaves the reader with the feeling that the prospects for genuine, long-term cooperation between both parties are slim to none. The US has done little over the years to convey that it has Syria’s interests at heart, which has only entrenched Syria’s confrontational attitude towards Western hegemony. So while temporary situations may present themselves as opportunities for cooperation between Damascus and Washington, they are likely to remain short lived as the overall trajectory portends continued mutual hostility. The current debates surrounding the question of whether or not the US should cooperate with the Asad regime in their mutual fight against ISIS is a prime example of the moments when interests align, yet such an approach is unlikely to translate into a long-term strategic partnership given the several other outstanding issues in the US-Syrian relationship.

It would have been useful had the book contained a developed suggestion on the most promising solution to the projected impasse in the relationship. Gani briefly mentions a few possible scenarios wherein the Syrians could give up their ideological stance or the US could drop its support to Israel, but both seem highly unlikely given the compounding US actions which continue to widen the gulf between the two and the limited positive signals from Damascus that could demonstrate its potential as an ally worth exchanging Israel for. While she does mention that an end to external interference or a handing over of Israeli-occupied lands is another alternative, she doesn’t seem to place the onus on either Syria or the US to bring about that change.

To extend a brief argument informed by Gani’s work, I would propose that from a long-term strategic perspective the ball is in the US’s court, regardless of whether the Asad regime or some other post-Asad system emerges from the current crisis. For the current regime—absent a more even-handed approach to Syria, and a clear US role in implementing an equitable resolution to Palestinian statelessness and the Israeli-occupied territories, including the Golan Heights—Washington’s policies will continue to aggravate a country that maintains its right to regain its lost territory, as Egypt did, on the basis of international agreements like UN Resolution 242 and 338. Without such a shift, Damascus will continue to provide support to Israel’s enemies—armed Palestinian resistance groups, Hizballah, and Iran—and thus fail to build confidence with its southern neighbor. This is another side to this discussion that this work could have benefited from. For the Syrian opposition, should the US fail to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis and provide genuine assistance to anti-regime forces, not to mention prepare for the possibility of leading the post-Asad state building efforts, the Syrian oppositionists will determine—as many already have—that the US is not a true partner with the Syrian people and that they will have to look elsewhere, potentially among the US’s enemies, for support. Without such unlikely shifts in policy, the US should not hope that hedging its bets by not fully committing to either side will yield anything more than a short term status quo lacking any true long-term improvement in its relationship with either side in Syria.

It is important to consider the insights that Gani’s work can provide at a time when some US policymakers may entertain the possibility of an alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS. What policy makers need to decide at this juncture is whether the short-term gain of cooperating with the Asad regime in the fight against ISIS is worth the long-term consequences. Reports already suggest that the U.S. has spent over $1 billion with estimated projections ranging as high as $10-15 billion a year in an expanded air campaign. The U.S. could decide to work with Asad’s troops in the hopes of having a reliable ground force for combined air and ground operations against ISIS inside Syria, but such a strategy does not guarantee military success against ISIS in Iraq. Additionally, this level of cooperation will not erase the decades of mistrust Damascus has towards Washington (and vice versa) and without a major shift in the U.S.’s regional policies, Syria’s leaders will continue to hold political positions towards Israel that will remain unpalatable to Western officials. What Gani’s work teaches us is that there are limits to U.S. cooperation with the current Syrian regime, and Washington must decide if the billions it will spend are worth investing in a government that history has shown will not easily embrace a genuine strategic partnership.

All in all, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations provides a well defended argument for why Syrians justifiably felt cornered throughout their history and continue to remain suspicious of Western involvement in the region. Misunderstandings and perceptions of the other have negatively impacted Syrian-US relations over the years, and J.K. Gani’s scholarly contribution is not only timely but critical in a period of great uncertainty regarding the future of Syria and how the US will address this question. Gani’s book therefore serves as a great resource and a must have for scholars of modern Syria or US foreign policy after World War II, and those interested in contextualizing what a short-term alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS may or may not mean for their mutual long-term relationship.

After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal

Matthew Barber 3by Matthew Barber

The following is not research or analysis, but a few reflections on the film released by IS in which Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive inside a metal cage. I won’t claim that my moral reflections are especially profound, but I believe the traumatic nature of this event warrants further conversation.

Horror and Trauma

The anthropologist Talal Asad has famously asked what it is about certain kinds of violence, such as suicide bombing—and we can extend the question to IS’ regular use of beheadings—that evokes greater horror in observers than state-administered violence, which can often be further-reaching or more massive, as in the case of war. I don’t have an answer to the question, but this video, perhaps the goriest that IS has produced so far, was brutalizing to watch and is very capable of effecting trauma. Produced with audio and visual effects to resemble a horror film, the video is abusive to the viewer. By turning killing into theater, IS has uncomfortably blurred the lines between reality and performance. Beyond empathizing with how painful such a death must have been, I couldn’t help wondering what was it like for Muaz to die as the eyes of several cameras stared into him.

1053072By viewing the footage, IS does a kind of violence to me—or perhaps I am doing violence to myself by choosing to watch. There seems to be something problematic about becoming consumers of this horrific product that IS pushes. Does that extend to the political analyst? The intelligence analyst? Who legitimately needs to consume this product and who should not view it?

Though some experts will inevitably have to analyze this kind of material, promoting it to the public is reckless and harmful and will only help IS do violence to more people. On Tuesday, Fox News posted the entire, uncut video on its website and even aired portions of it on television, something no other media outlet would do.

There’s some irony in Fox News—with its avowedly “anti-terror” agenda—featuring uncut IS propaganda on their website, as others have noted. Also ironic is that some of the images contained in the lengthy propaganda video are of some of the more scandalous incidents during the Iraq War, when US soldiers killed unarmed civilians. These are not the aspects of the war that Fox News would normally draw attention to. The fact that major elements within our country cannot take responsibility for the more uncomfortable aspects of the war, yet then inadvertently provide them to the American public through the lens of a terrorist entity, verges on the absurd.

There seems to be a kind of misuse of this heartrending film as Fox News pursues its own agenda. One wonders what the motivations are for publicizing the video to the American people when an English translation wasn’t provided. Without context, viewers might make dangerous assumptions based on this video—like that their Muslim neighbors next door support such sickness. This film necessarily produces anger on the part of the viewer—but to be directed where? Fox News is spreading material capable of traumatizing those who ingest it, without helping them make sense of it. Perhaps they prefer not to translate the propaganda portion of the film, which might raise uncomfortable questions that are easier to avoid.

The images of Iraq war violence (that more Americans should have been exposed to and discussed long ago) now being transmitted by Fox News are made more tragic in that they are being presented through the lens of IS’ even more twisted logic. IS includes these images as justification for their own atrocities. That violence can heal is a lie that perhaps humanity may one day outgrow, a lie that now forms the basis of IS’ assumptions about the world. (Even this video was entitled “Healing the Believers’ Chests.”) IS exposes its broken reasoning when, in its videos, it showcases the dead bodies of those targeted by its enemies, apparently to justify its gory executions, yet ignores the countless victims it has similarly killed across Iraq and the Levant, many of whom had never lifted a finger against it.

Unhelpful Reactions

Just as IS members are misled in thinking that violence can produce healing for the Sunni victims of Iraq War violence, we are also misguided in assuming that revenge will produce healing for IS victims.

Jordan responded to this brutal message by quickly executing Sajida al-Rishawi, convicted of attempting a suicide bombing in Jordan, and Ziad al-Karbouli, an al-Qaida leader.

Jordan’s immediate reaction to the burning—“OK, then we’ll kill some Islamists”—worries me. This logic of revenge isn’t that far off from that which underpins IS’ own thinking.

Offenders should be dealt the appropriate penalties for the crimes for which they’ve been sentenced (and I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is acceptable), but not kept on hand until their killing will serve some political purpose. Jordan’s execution of the two Islamists has turned violence into a political tool. Admittedly, that is often the case with violence, yet the violence of the state is, in theory, supposed to transcend the impassioned reactions of individuals, keeping with its assumed role of impartially dispensing justice—which might be why its violence evokes less horror than that of a suicide bomber whose responsibility for acting to punish or exact revenge or effect change cannot be shifted to an institution.

Of course, in getting back at IS, Jordan did not burn in cages those it executed… because that would be wrong. If IS’ execution was directed at Jordan, and Jordan’s executions were directed at IS—both instances of killing intended to psychologically wound the other—the main feature differentiating these two acts is the manner in which they were performed. That these killings differed in form but not in purpose, it must be asked whether killing for such motives is acceptable at all. (One could argue that Jordan merely administered the penalties with which the criminals had been sentenced, but the points still stands that punishment is supposed to be meted out for crimes, not used as a political weapon.)

And now al-Azhar is calling for crucifixions of IS members, and to have their limbs chopped off. This is also unhelpful.

Al-Azhar is basically saying: “Yes, we’ll concede that these punishments you perform are Islamic, yet despite the fact that they haven’t been implemented in recent memory, we deem you to be those evil enough to warrant us bringing them out of the closet.” By calling for the crucifixion and limb-chopping of IS members, they are validating the same fundamentalist positions that IS appeals to, that under certain conditions these punishments should be used. If various groups and parties contend over who deserves to be crucified or subject to amputation, humanity won’t be making much progress. The bottom line should be that such treatment is wrong, and that resurrecting its use represents social decline, not advancement.

Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world.

Violence Is the Right Response

The immediate reaction of many upon seeing the video was a desire that efforts to fight IS be stepped up quickly. Today Jordan intensified attacks on IS targets, and the UAE has suggested they may resume their participation in the offensive against them. This is good: the response to IS does require violence, and it should be carried out swiftly and surely—not to satisfy the urge born of our rage and wounds, but to protect the earth and the innocent from this virulent plague. This latest video underscores the fact that IS must be eliminated, to ensure the future security of the region and the globe. This cannot happen without a fight, but it should be a fight of the right kind.

Is it possible to fight without hate? It may be difficult in the face of such callous oppression and cruelty, but it is the approach we must strive to maintain.

Book Review: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

ISIS, Inside the Army of TerrorISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan
£5.99, 1169p. (I-Phone Reading).

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, subsequently calling itself just “The Islamic State” since the Caliphate declaration of  29 Jun 2014) across Iraq and Syria will naturally provoke much questioning as to how this phenomenon came to such prominence. Overall, this book ably accomplishes the task in a concise manner, and is a valuable, compelling read for anyone- general reader or specialist- interested in ISIS. While minor errors exist here and there and one might disagree with some of the authors’ analysis in the detail, the book is extremely well-researched, drawing on an array of sources including much original interview testimony, and the overall conclusions that emerge are hard to contest.

The authors begin by tracing the history of the most important forefather of ISIS: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, including his early years in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) area in the closing days of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, his journey home to Jordan by 1992 and relationship with jihadi intellectual Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi that culminated in his imprisonment, and his subsequent return to Af-Pak in 1999 that first saw signs of tensions between Zarqawi and al-Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden (OBL), where he nonetheless secured an alliance of convenience and ran a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.

Following the invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi forged another alliance of convenience with Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, moving there and throughout the region via Iran before his firm establishment on the scene of the Iraq War in 2003 with his Jamaat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and subsequent allegiance to OBL as the affiliated al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia/Iraq. Where appropriate, Weiss and Hassan are keen to draw analogies in Zarqawi’s history and strategy with the present-day approach of ISIS, such as the same genocidal attitudes towards Shi’a designed partly to provoke murderous counter-responses and draw Sunnis further still towards the notion of Zarqawi/ISIS as ‘protector of Sunnis’, so to speak.

Indeed, one cannot really overstate the link between Zarqawi and ISIS, but it might also be worth noting that the tensions between OBL and Zarqawi (despite OBL’s acceptance of Zarqawi’s allegiance) and ISIS’ break from al-Qa’ida do not stop ISIS today from attempting to appropriate OBL as one of their own, as well as the likes of Abdullah Azzam.

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The ISIS-run Osama bin Laden Mosque in Tel Abyad, Raqqa Province. ISIS also runs at least one school and training camp each named after OBL.

Another analogy drawn is the issue of tactical alliances between Zarqawi’s men and Ba’athists and between ISIS and the latter today in the form of the Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). While JRTN and ISIS did cooperate in events such as the fall of Mosul in 2014, a significant difference now as opposed to the years of the Iraq War is the much greater dominance of ISIS, which meant that JRTN was in effect more trying to ride the wave of the ISIS-spearheaded offensives rather than there being a relationship of essential co-dependence between the two groups. This is why ISIS very quickly asserted itself as the dominant power in areas such as Mosul at the expense of the likes of JRTN, able to impose its most draconian measures and establish its ‘diwans’ (government departments) despite JRTN’s objections. Indeed, the concept of “tactical partnering” with JRTN that is mentioned elsewhere is something liable to be overplayed.

A more original contribution deserving great credit is the rightful attention drawn to the jihadist text Idarat al-Tawahhush (“The Management of Savagery”) by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004 and its importance to both Zarqawi’s ilk and ISIS today as a means to justify acts of brutality in the context of jihad.

The authors then trace the local sparks in areas such as al-Qa’im (on the border with Syria in Anbar province) in 2005-6 where Zarqawi’s AQI had overplayed its hand that would help give rise to the coordinated Sunni Sahwa movement in Iraq by 2007 against what had by then become the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had emerged after Zarqawi’s death as an official umbrella including the AQI front-group Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in early 2006 that had been created in a bid to give Zarqawi’s outfit a more Iraqi face. At the same time, the problems that had been created by sectarian Shi’a militias and their human rights abuses as well as Iran’s not stopping the flow of al-Qa’ida operatives and funds through Iranian territory are not disregarded.

The authors also correctly identify traces of what would become the formal split between ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the deliberately ambiguous relationship maintained by ISI with al-Qa’ida during the years of Abu Ayyub al-Masri/Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (2006-2010). For al-Masri, who officially subsumed the MSC under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s ISI, “was indeed trying to have it both ways: to remain the amir of AQI while also flirting with outright secession from it to command his own independent operation” (p. 291), bolstered by the pretensions to statehood in the name of ISI and its self-declared ministries.

Much of what follows on the U.S.-troop surge and the rolling back of ISI by the Sahwa in coordination with coalition forces is history that has been extensively discussed and need not be reproduced in too much detail, along with the marginalization of the Sahwa movement and Iraq PM Maliki-led crackdowns on Sunni politicians in the face of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that sparked the Sunni Arab protests in 2013, going right up to the fall of Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. One could argue for some differences in interpretation here. For instance, while it’s certainly true Iran played an important role in bringing together the second Maliki-led government as the authors note, it is questionable whether Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya-bloc could really have engaged in successful outreach to the other Shi’a political blocs to form a coalition. Further, the coverage of Maliki’s response to the 2013 protests does not mention that he allowed for political concessions to be drafted by deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq and to be put to the parliament. The fact these reforms died in the parliament points to a broader failing on the Shi’a political spectrum to address Sunni grievances such as de-Ba’athification.

The book- now at chapter 7- then reverts in chronology to discuss in detail the Assad regime’s extensive collaboration with jihadis during the Iraq War in facilitating the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, as well as the regime’s complicity in terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the first Maliki government. Chapter 8 discusses key personalities in ISI and its successors under the tenure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including a profile of the leader himself. Usefully correcting press reports that suggested Abu Bakr was released from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison facility in 2009, the authors rightly note that his time in Camp Bucca was only in 2004, while also citing journalist Wael Essam who points out Baghdadi’s stint in the Salafi group Jaysh al-Mujahideen (which would be in 2005, besides founding his own Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’at in 2003) prior to his involvement with ISI.

Other figures profiled include Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and Abu Ali al-Anbari, both former officers in the Saddam regime’s armed forces, and Abu Omar al-Shishani. On the subject of Shishani, some corrections need to be made. He did not first emerge in Syria in 2013 (p. 535) but 2012. Further, Shishani actually pledged allegiance to ISIS in May 2013 and thus became ISIS’ ‘northern’ amir for Syria, which is why his Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMWA) outfit over the summer of 2013- including the fall of Mannagh airbase- was described as affiliated with ISIS. A split occurred in the ranks in late November 2013, whereby some in JMWA would not pledge allegiance to Baghdadi because of a prior oath to the Caucasus Emirate, marked the split whereby Shishani and his loyalists dropped JMWA labels and solely became ISIS, while the remnants continued the JMWA name and banner under a new leader. All that said, the authors are right to point out the way in which Shishani’s persona has been hyped somewhat by sensationalist Western media coverage- something that can be said for coverage of ISIS more generally.

Chapter 9 onwards deals with ISIS and the history of the Syrian civil war, and it is in these parts where the authors’ most original contributions shine, relying on testimony from an array of ISIS members undoubtedly thanks in good part to Hassan’s extensive connections in eastern Syria, much of which is now under ISIS control. The authors draw a particularly nuanced and insightful picture in their various categories of ISIS recruits: for example, one category are those “who already held Islamist or jihadist but had limited themselves to only orbiting takfiri ideology [NB: the practice of declaring other Muslims apostates to be killed]. The final gravitational pull…differed depending on circumstance” (p. 667). Thus some joined because ISIS overran their territories, thus being the only horse to back, others were impressed with ISIS’ resilience and successes against rival rebel groups, while others had disputes with their original group affiliations and found ISIS a better organized, disciplined and capable body.

Contrary to what might be supposed, this tendency to defection was already under way during ISIS’ early months inside Syria, most notably when Islamist groups issued a statement rejecting the opposition-in-exile (the text puts this as September 2014; actually 2013- a simple typo- p. 669). The authors also note in this context of ISIS recruitment how ISIS’ emphasis on global conquest takes a sharp swipe at other Salafi-Jihadi and Islamist brands, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN: Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate), that try to steer clear of the notion. Indeed, in agreement with Weiss and Hassan, it must be noted how little JN has until 2014 talked about notions of establishing the transnational Caliphate, with hints of it generally coming from unofficial footage and testimonies from its foreign fighters. In light of that, the authors’ characterization of JN as having positioned itself somewhat “as a ‘nationalist’ outcropping” (p. 673) makes perfect sense.

Other subtle categories of ISIS recruits noted by the authors range from those supporting ISIS as a political project- such as Arabs in Hasakah province who see ISIS as a bulwark against Kurdish expansionism (a serious dynamic often overlooked)- to opportunists such as Saddam al-Jamal, who originally commanded the local Supreme Military Council affiliate in the town of Albukamal on the border with Iraq before defecting to ISIS.

Weiss and Hassan further document in considerable and revealing detail how ISIS has been able to co-opt tribes in eastern Syria. Everyone by now knows of the Shaitat tribal uprising in Deir az-Zor province against ISIS in August 2014, but less observed is the fact that ISIS got members of the same tribe to put down the rebels by brute force (p. 842). ISIS’ divide-and-rule strategies for individual tribes- together with its ability to act as mediator between other tribes- severely complicate efforts to stir a tribal backlash to roll back ISIS in the heart of its territories.

The final chapter (ch. 14) deals at great length with ISIS’ running as a supposed state, with much new information to contribute. For instance, the “separation of powers” where those with various specialties affiliated with ISIS (whether a cleric, military commander, those in public services) do not know precisely what the others do or know, helping to protect against infiltration (pp. 865-6). The authors do not gloss over ISIS’ harsher aspects of governance such as torture of detainees but in the case of the town of Manbij in Aleppo province- currently controlled by ISIS- it is clear there has been much local sympathy for ISIS as its rule stamped out lawlessness and corruption. This is one big advantage ISIS has in competing with other rebel groups: in offering a single-party model of governance in the context of years of ongoing civil war that will, inter alia, promptly answer complaints from a local about another person, apply its laws to its own members, disarm local communities etc., ISIS can bring a sense of order that Syrian rebel groups can’t. Indeed, as the ISIS Ajnad Media nasheed “The Shari’a of Our Lord” puts it, ISIS’ rule can indeed bring a “life of security and peace.”

In the realm of public services and economics too, ISIS’ public advertisement of itself- at least in Syria- has not been wholly divorced from reality, such as in forcing municipality personnel to work in contrast to prior groups that allowed them to receive salaries from the state while doing nothing (p. 952), while also introducing price controls on commodities such as oil by-products (p.954).

The book’s epilogue offers a number of spot-on conclusions. First, one must be wary of Iran and the Assad regime’s presentation of themselves as the solution to the ISIS phenomenon, as their own repressive approaches towards the original Syrian uprising especially have helped contribute to the problem. Iran in particular, with its ongoing strategy of cultivating sectarian proxy militias in Syria and Iraq that employ brute force, can only be seen as aggravating the situation, even as notions of cooperation with Iran amid the context of striking a grand bargain over the nuclear deal become ever more prevalent. Second, the ISIS split from al-Qa’ida, far from being a case of a ‘let them fight each other and engage in jihadi blood-letting’ bonus, actually presents a threat to the West as the two brands may look to compete as to who can pull off the better attack on Western soil.

Finally, when all is considered in the analysis, recent reported local gains against ISIS, such as in pushing the group out of the city of Kobani, or scoring hits with killing prominent members or destroying convoys in coalition airstrikes on ISIS, do not change the fact that ISIS has been ruling for quite some time the heartland of its territories and most important strongholds, from Manbij and al-Bab in Aleppo province to Mosul and Tel Afar in Ninawa province, without any significant local rivals to challenge its power. There is no extensive ground force analogous to the U.S. troop presence at the height of the Iraq War to help coordinate local Sunni forces to ‘roll back’ ISIS this time around.

ISIS has a well-known official slogan: baqiya wa tatamaddad (‘remaining and expanding’). ISIS may not be tatamaddad so much these days, but it is certainly baqiya now and for the foreseeable future.