“The Lens of History and Assad,” by David W. Lesch & Carey Latimore

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.17.49 PMThe Lens of History and Assad
by David W. Lesch and Carey Latimore
For Syria Comment, 28 April 2016

Abraham Lincoln and Bashar al-Assad. Yes, we know. These two names should probably never appear in the same sentence. One is a revered American icon and the other is a brutal Syrian dictator who plunged his country into a devastating civil war.

Let’s be clear. We are in no way, shape, or form equating a giant historical figure such as Lincoln with Bashar al-Assad. But history is a funny thing. It is alive and malleable depending upon perspective, context, and circumstances. Contemporary commentaries of Lincoln in both the North and South often described him as a dictator or, ironically, a racist, the latter due to the fact that before he decided it was prudent to free the slaves, he reflected the tenor of his time by advocating—among other things—the removal of African Americans from the US and shipping them off to some remote land. After all, John Wilkes Booth, when he jumped on stage after shooting Lincoln, shouted out, “sic semper tyrannis,” which is a shortened form of a Latin phrase that essentially means “death to tyrants.”

We have now lived and worked in a southern state for years, and it is still sometimes difficult to find native southerners who can muster up a few kind words about our 16th president. Potent symbols from the civil war, such as the Confederate flag, are still divisive issues some 150 years later. The war that many feel Lincoln waged killed over 700,000 soldiers and civilians. A number of cities in the South, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Atlanta, bombed by both sides and looted, were pretty much completely destroyed.

But perspectives changed with the passage of time. Since the Civil War, Lincoln, for the most part, has been mythologized and is regarded as our greatest president, having preserved the union and played the primary role in eradicating slavery. The United States became a prosperous and powerful country. What Lincoln did mattered because of this. Had the country, following Lincoln’s death, essentially flat-lined, never coming close to reaching its potential or eventually breaking apart, his actions—and his standing—would no doubt be viewed today through a quite different lens.

Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, is someone who most believe should be dragged off in chains to the International Criminal Court for numerous war crimes. He has made terrible, tragic choices. Most importantly wScreen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.21.11 PMas his decision—and he did have a choice–in the initial stages of the uprising in Syria in 2011 to revert to the dictator’s survival handbook and sanction a harsh crackdown on the protestors instead of implementing necessary reforms, pushing an uprising into a destructive civil war now five years hence with some 300,000 dead and half the country’s population internally or externally displaced.

But with enhanced Russian and Iranian military support, the Syrian regime has experienced quite a bit of military success of late, to the point where some believe it is on the precipice of something resembling victory. At the very least, the Syrian regime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So whether we like it or not, it appears Assad will survive and continue as president. As a result of this turn of events, Assad might actually get a second chance. What will he do with it? How can the best be made out of this bad situation?

Despite an enraged and battered South, over a month before he was assassinated (and before Appomattox), Lincoln set a remarkable tone of reconciliation in his 2nd inaugural address, highlighted by the memorable phrase, “…with malice toward none, with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Even with the clumsiness of Reconstruction that most historians believe Lincoln would have handled much better had he lived, the country, despite its long and tortured racial climate, eventually recovered and entered a long healing process.

The apparent differences between someone like Lincoln and someone like Assad—or their comparative situations–are too numerous to mention. Most importantly, Lincoln was a brilliant politician and strategist who astutely knew when he needed to shift 180 degrees for the good of the country; Assad has not shown anything close to this type of foresight, flexibility, or courageous leadership. So if there is to be a political settlement at some point with Assad remaining in power, can he, with appropriate self-awareness, re-set his country in a positive direction? Despite what will certainly be long-lasting animus against him, he may have an opportunity to re-caste (or re-invent) his legacy, but through a healing rather than vengeful process. Realism, not triumphalism. Countries coming out of national traumas need leaders. If you end up on the right side in a way that creates a foundation for national prosperity, historical narratives can be very forgiving. Can he begin to restore the dignity of a nation and a people? Is he finally willing to change the nature of governance in Syria and launch a period of transition and reconciliation? Can he face the reality of a Syrian population that has largely moved on from him and his cronies? The answer is most likely a resounding “No.” So how bout it, Mr. Assad? Prove us wrong. Malice toward none and charity for all.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad; Carey Latimore is Chair of the History Department at Trinity and author of The Role of Southern Free Blacks During the Civil War Era.

“President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account,” by Ehsani

President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account
by Ehsani
For Syria Comment – 19 April 2016

During a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations, three prominent western Syria analysts met to discuss “the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies” of President Bashar al-Assad. The moderator started by asking the participants to analyze the President through covering his first speech to the nation on March 30, 2011. One member on the panel, David Lesch, recounted how a confidant of the President who claimed to have seen one draft about an hour before the speech that included concessions and announcements of reforms.  When the President spoke to the Parliament, however, this person was shocked to see that the President read from a different and more hardline version. The implication here is that had the President stuck to the more dovish draft, the Syrian crisis may have turned out differently or even been averted. The conclusion analysts draw from this account is that the President’s decision to embrace regime hawks and reject reforms and use force marked a seminal or “fateful moment” in the crisis.

The only problem with this account is that it is inaccurate. Multiple drafts of the speech did not exist. The Syrian leadership is not in the habit of providing multiple drafts of Presidential speeches. The President did indeed confer with his advisors before addressing the nation, but his final choice was to embrace the advice of regime doves and not regime hawks. If he had followed the advice of his hawks, he would not have given a speech at all.

The President’s more hawkish advisors insisted that any attempt to offer reforms or concessions would be dismissed as too little, too late. Demonstrators would only be encouraged and set the country on the slippery slope to chaos. Hawks viewed the crisis as a matter of life and death for the leadership and the regime. They reminded the president that numerous terrorist and jihadi cells had been penetrated and closed down over the previous years. Any collapse in state security would lead to the quick mobilization of jihadists who were lying in wait for an opportunity to mobilize. Westernized liberals were few and would be quickly swept aside, they insisted. The hawks warned against giving a speech.

Instead of speaking to the nation, this group argued that any hesitation on the part of the President or protracted discussion of reforms would fall short of popular demands, which were unrealizable and becoming more extreme by the day. Instead, the regime hard liners pressed the President to send tanks into the streets. The state must show no mercy, they insisted. It must adopt a shoot to kill policy to avoid any sign of hesitancy. Otherwise, all would be lost. Gentleness would only encourage demonstrators to come out in ever greater numbers. This was the advice of the hard liners; the President did not follow it.

The less hawkish advisors pleaded with the President to speak to the nation. They wanted him to hint at the possibility of rescinding the emergency laws and article 8 of the constitution, the article that establishes the Baath Party as the ruling party. They argued that these concessions would show that the leadership understood the gravity of the situation. By meeting the demonstrators’ demands part way and establish the good will of the president, some of his advisors insisted, the demonstrators would be mollified. They would stop coming out at the call of the organizers. Those demanding regime-change would be isolated and soon defeated.

As the President considered the advice of his contending advisors, the leaders of Qatar were becoming increasingly emboldened. They were playing a leading role in the Libya uprising. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square was also key to events unfolding in Egypt. The Emir was convinced that Qatar could play a decisive role in shaping Syria’s revolt too. As early as March 6, 2011, Al Jazeera TV reported that Assad was sending pilots to Libya. The evidence is that one had been shot down fighting in support of Gaddafi. The constant repetition of this news sent shock waves through the Syrian populace. Turkey too, got into the act. As the events in Daraa unfolded, Erdogan reached out to Damascus with a suggestion for solving the crisis. He counseled Assad to include the Moslem Brothers in the political process. The Emir of Qatar jumped in behind Erdogan with a promise that Al Jazeera would temper its media coverage of the events in Syria if Damascus embraced the Turkish recommendations. Assad’s rejection of this advice was swift and predictable. He and his advisers interpreted the Qatari and Turkish involvement to be part of a developing plan to sweep away the regimes of the Arab World. He called it a “foreign conspiracy” in his speech. Just minutes after he descended from the podium, the most popular social media site at the time, a Facebook page curated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote “Is this the speech we were promised? I swear to God, it’s scandalous that somebody like this rules us. To the streets shabab [youth] of Syria!”

In the end, Assad’s speech was a classic case of expectations running ahead of reality. The fact that it was made at all should have been interpreted that the President did not side with Syria’s hawks. Ironically, what happened instead was that as soon as the speech was over, President al-Assad was forever seen as the ultimate hawk himself.

“Assad’s Fateful Choice” by David W. Lesch

Assad’s Fateful Choice
by David W. Lesch

This spring marks the fifth year anniversary of the events that launched a civil war in Syria.  Typically, there were some huge miscalculations early on that set the conflict in motion, such as the Syrian opposition’s expectation that the West would militarily intervene to facilitate the overthrow of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  And then there was the West’s mistaken assumption that Assad would be the next domino to fall following the exits of dictators elsewhere in the Arab spring. Expecting this led to calls for Assad to step down, thus backing the West into a corner regarding a negotiated settlement once it became clear the Syrian president wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  From the regime’s perspective, it made war the only choice.

But it is important to remember that the first—and biggest—mistake occurred at the onset, when Assad made the decision to crackdown harshly on the popular protests rather than offer real concessions. Indicative of this was Assad’s speech to the nation on March 30, 2011, his first to address the rising tensions. This was a seminal moment in modern Syrian history.  The whole country, supporters and opponents, waited with bated breath to hear what he had to say.  Syrians believed this would be the moment when Assad would finally live up to expectations.

From interviews I have conducted with current and former Syrian officials close to Assad and involved in the speech preparation, there were pronounced differences and confusion within the regime inner circle over how to react to the crisis.  Several indicated that talk of internal coup was in the air…and not just potentially against Assad should he make the wrong move.  One recommended that Assad himself should carry out a coup against hard line elements.  Assad’s response was simply, “you are naïve.”  Another former top official blatantly accused Baath party members of being in cahoots with security forces to use the crisis as an opportunity to force out the more reformist elements in the regime.  Clearly there was intrigue at the top during this critical period, and Assad had to navigate his position—and response—very carefully.

As a result, there were different versions of the speech.  One confidante of Assad saw a draft only a couple of hours before the speech was delivered. What he saw was relatively mild, concessionary and pro-reform.  He believed this was what Assad was going to deliver.  He was later shocked when he heard the much harsher version of the speech. Syrian government officials reportedly even sent snippets of the speech to reporters in the West that reflected a more pro-reform platform.

As we know, Assad’s speech was defiant, framing the crisis by blaming the uprising on insidious terrorists supported by Syria’s external enemies.  Asad was taken to task in the international media for what was viewed as a blatant misdirection from the real socio-economic and political factors behind the protests.  Either this or Assad was numb to the real causes of the uprising, blinded by a conceptual paradigm that defined the nature of threat to Syria in a profoundly different way. The speech proved to many Syrians that he was just another dictator. A top pro-Assad Hizbullah figure told me: “Bashar had real popularity in Syria. If he had taken the proper measures…it would have made things better. He had to take the decision to confront some clans inside the leadership…and I think he could have. This would have divided the ranks of the opposition, and he would have had a larger popular base.”

This is perhaps the saddest part of the story.  Instead of resorting to the dictator’s survival handbook and succumbing to the convulsive reaction of the security state, Assad could have avoided civil war. As one former top Syrian official said of Bashar: “He was tilting on both sides. At some point they [the security chiefs] must have told him to just move aside, relax, and we’ll deal with it.”  They figured the protests could be put down in a matter of weeks and then return to the status quo ante. Reality was much more nuanced.

As a result of amped-up Russian support, and as the re-taking of Palmyra from the Islamic State has shown, Assad has now secured his position for the time being. The popular protests that sprang to life recently during the cessation of hostilities, however, suggest that the opposition to Assad has not dissipated despite a half-decade of war. Indeed, the regime grossly underestimates how much the Syrian population has moved on, empowered by living five years without the state.  If the regime wants to start a long healing process, Assad will have to find the courage he lacked in 2011 by accepting a managed transition of governance, which at the very least will significantly reduce his power. To do so he will have to fight against his authoritarian instincts—and possibly against hard liners. If past is prologue, this is wishful thinking.

But with Russia’s announcement to withdraw some of its forces from Syria, Assad has been put on notice. He is on the diplomatic hot seat, and he must choose how he gets off of it. He can continue to fight armed with the delusion that he can re-conquer all of Syria.  Or maybe those officials who are still in the government who wanted him to deliver a softer version of his 2011 speech, chastened by the reality of what Syria has become, can form a critical mass of pressure on Assad to make the right choice this time around.  They reflect that part of the regime—and Assad—who may be looking for a way out of this, satisfying their Russian patron while holding on to enough power. The West failed to understand the various competing factions inside the Assad regime back in 2011.  Let’s not make that mistake again moving forward with whatever peace process emerges, because I am convinced that given the current state of affairs—and a with a great deal of diplomatic massaging—there is a formula of governance out there to be found and negotiated.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” 

Call for Submissions: Syrian Studies Association Prizes for Outstanding Dissertation and Article on Syria

Call for Submissions: Syrian Studies Association Prizes for Outstanding Dissertation and Article on Syria

In order to promote and highlight excellence in research, the Syrian Studies Association each year awards prizes for the best writing on Bilad al-Sham until 1918 and on Syria in the period following.

In 2016, the SSA seeks submissions for the most outstanding dissertation completed between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, and the most outstanding article or book chapter published between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.

In order to be considered for the prize, candidates must join the association. Information about the Syrian Studies Association is available at the following website: http://www.ou.edu/ssa/index.html

Submissions in languages other than English are welcomed.

Articles should be sent electronically. Books can be sent either electronically or in hard copy.

The deadline for submissions is July 15, 2016. All submissions should be sent to Charles Wilkins, Chair of the Prize Committee, at the following address: charleslwilkins@gmail.com. Winners will be announced at the SSA annual meeting in November 2016. Inquiries should be directed to Charles Wilkins.

Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya: Defending Druze Identity in Suwayda’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya, using the familiar colours associated with the Druze sect.

Although the Druze originate from a sect within Shi’i Islam, the religious movement evolved over time such that the Druze identity is deemed separate from that of the Shi’a. The same has been true of the Alawites, though as is well known, a number of efforts have been made in the recent past to bring the Alawites into the fold of mainstream Shi’i Islam, such as Musa Sadr’s fatwa in 1974 that recognized the Alawites as Shi’a- a trend of identification strengthened by the post-1979 alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Assad dynasty. More recently, extensive Iranian and pro-Iranian Shi’a militia involvement on the ground in the Syrian civil war has given rise to claims of further Shi’ification trends targeting the Alawite community in particular, such as the opening of husseiniyas (Shi’i centres) in the Damascus and Latakia areas.

Less well known is that allegations of Shi’ification efforts also exist with respect to the Druze community in Syria. It seems that primarily in response to these developments has come the emergence of the Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya (“The Arab Druze Identity Movement”), also known as the Harakat al-Difa’ ‘an al-Hawiya al-Druziya (“The Movement to Defend Druze Identity”), which first appears to have come on the scene in late 2015 (c. October 2015). Ethnically speaking, the ‘Arab’ aspect has long been a strong component of Druze identity.

Unsurprisingly, given the context in which this movement has emerged, it is highly critical of the regime and those associated with it. However, it is also consistent in its opposition to attempts to alter Druze identity (real and perceived), and so has also drawn attention (approvingly quoting independent Druze opposition activist-in-exile Maher Sharf al-Din) to the treatment of the Druze in Jabal al-Summaq in Idlib at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has not only implemented forced conversions to Sunni Islam but has also confiscated property of those from the area who fled to/live in regime-held areas and are thought to work with the regime, while altering the demographics with an influx of Turkmen people. This contrasts with the reluctance of anti-regime Druze in Lebanon associated with Walid Jumblatt to admit these realities, playing up instead the false idea that some kind of agreement to protect the Druze was reached with Jabhat al-Nusra (a falsehood recently repeated by Fabrice Balanche).

In addition, in late December 2015, Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya criticized an alleged Christian missionary campaign targeting the Druze in Suwayda’:

“We have avoided until now- out of respect for our Christian people in the Jabal [Jabal al-Druze/Arab: Suwayda’ province]- talking about the financed and provocative missionary campaign that some of the churches in Suwayda’ are undertaking, exploiting the abundant wealth that has been poured out on them because of the crisis on one hand, and the chronic state of need for aid that many of the families are suffering from on the other…but what the St. George Greek Orthodox church (Suwayda’- Tariq Qanawat) is doing infringes on all ethics of shared co-existence and mutual respect between the Druze of the Jabal and its Christians! For this church and others besides it from the churches in Suwayda’ have begun imposing as a condition on the families benefiting from their aid that the children of those families must attend Gospel missionary lessons! And the families that refuse to send their children are barred from the aid! To this degree we have been shown disdain and considered goods for division between one front wanting to ‘Shi’ify’ us, takfiri movements wanting to ‘Sunnify us’, and churches whose clergymen- though not daring to raise their heads in the rest of the Syrian provinces- nonetheless in Suwayda’ infringe on our identity in this public manner in the heart of our abode!”

However, as mentioned above, the movement’s concerns at the present time primarily focus on the Shi’ification efforts. A central personality that surrounds this controversy is that of Hezbollah commander Samir Quntar, who was of Lebanese Druze origin and was killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Jaramana area of Damascus in late December 2015, alongside Farhan Sha’alan, a National Defence Force commander in Jaramana originally from the Druze village of Ein Qiniyya in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Sha’alan’s Druze identity is not in dispute.

photo (26)
The village of Ein Qiniyya (author’s photo).

Procession in Ein Qiniyya following the Israeli airstrike in Jaramana: note the focus is primarily on commemorating Farhan Sha’alan rather than Quntar.

In contrast, Quntar is known to have married a Shi’i woman- something forbidden among the Druze as it constitutes marriage outside of the sect and is therefore subject to ostracism. Further, Quntar is alleged to have converted to Shi’i Islam. During his time in Syria, Quntar seems to have been used in Hezbollah outreach to the Druze populations, as embodied, for instance, in his visiting the staunchly pro-regime Quneitra Druze village of Hadr (opposite Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights) multiple times. Extensive tribute was paid to Quntar and the ‘resistance’ cause associated with him by Hikmat al-Hijri, one of the three mashayakh al-‘aql of Suwayda’. The mashayakh al-‘aql, it should be noted, are all co-opted by the regime. The commemoration of Quntar by them and other pro-regime Druze was criticized by Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya:

“The insistence of the regime (and its tools from the mashayakh [al]-‘aql and others besides them) on establishing religious and popular mourning for the Shi’i convert Samir Quntar in Suwayda’…comes in the context of conditioning the Druze to the idea of accepting a portion of them converting to Shi’i Islam without being ostracised in society!”

The movement attacked Quntar for recruiting Syrian Druze to Hezbollah (who were also allegedly subjected to Shi’ification): “On the neck of the ‘Shi’i convert’ Samir Quntar is the blood of dozens of Druze youth he recruited in the Hezbollah militia and were killed outside their areas.”

A somewhat similar position of non-acknowledgement of/disdain for Quntar appears to have been taken by the third-way reformist Rijal al-Karama [and its ‘religious/political wing’ Mashaykh al-Karama] founded by the assassinated Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous. As one member of Rijal al-Karama from Suwayda’ put it to this author, “Yes. Samir was Shi’i and he married a Shi’i woman. Everyone in Suwayda’ who has karama does not acknowledge him.”

Besides the eulogies for Quntar, the movement highlights the existence of a Shi’ification office in Suwayda’ city: “The centre for conversion to Shi’i Islam in Suwayda’ city: the name of the office is the Liwa Zain al-Abidain, whose base is on the Tariq Qanawat. And this centre has managed to convert dozens of the Druze to Shi’i Islam. We have come to know two of them from the house of Abu Maghdhab and four from the house of al-Mahithawi. And the names of the rest will be realized soon so that they may understand that betrayal is not a point of view!”

The existence of Shi’ification offices, as in the case of the Alawites, is unsurprisingly tied to Iran. As the Rijal al-Karama member said to this author, “There are recruitment offices for the interest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Suwayda’ that are calling for conversion to Shi’i Islam.” In this context, Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya also refers to a perceived threat from Iranian expansionism to Druze identity: “In the recent years the Iranian project to infringe on the identity of Jabal al-Druze has emerged as one of the most dangerous projects that we face because it wants to adopt through strategy what the rest of the projects were incapable of taking up by force. And in the future we don’t know what project of which state we will face, but so long as we are weak and lack the political project it will be suggested to all states that have projects that it will be easy to subject us to affliction!” Relevant to this narrative is the claim by Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya that Iran is trying to alter the demographics of Suwayda’ through an influx of Shi’a from the Hawran area in southern Syria, using Christian and Druze real estate agents to sell property and land for the interests of Iran.

Politically, where does the Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya stand? To begin with, the group denies that its agenda is particularly religious, but rather that it is aiming to defend the Druze identity as a cultural and civil identity. The group also denies an affiliation with the Rijal al-Karama movement, but it does appear that an associate of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya is Sheikh Marwan Kiwan of Bayraq Al Kiwan, one of the Rijal al-Karama factions. Indeed, from the beginning he has been approvingly quoted by the group, affirming that “the Khomeinists (replacing the Wahhabis) are the first danger threatening our existential identity, not only culturally speaking…”. There is a clear sense of solidarity with Rijal al-Karama elsewhere in the group’s posts: for instance, in an attack on a Druze sheikh called Aymenn Zahr al-Din (Abu Khaz’ali), Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya accuses him of promoting Shi’i Islam through providing accommodation to Shi’i proselytizers and taking financial support from Iran, while “establishing a military militia whose sole mission is to stand against the Youth and Mashayakh al-Karama movement!”

As for the vision for a future Syria, the movement- like most actors in the Syrian civil war on the rebel and regime sides- rejects the notion of partitioning Syria, but suggests that a federal model of governance might be appropriate. In terms of its activities, the evidence would suggest that while the movement is present on the ground in Suwayda’ (something corroborated by the Rijal al-Karama member), it is still in a nascent stage and not able to mobilize in order to organize demonstrations or form a militia wing. Accordingly, the group’s significance as a political actor should not be overstated, but its existence does highlight some real Syrian Druze concerns of Iranian-led attempts to Shi’ify their identity- a trend worth monitoring for the future as a potential popular grievance alongside conscription avoidance and concerns regarding corruption and services provision for more third-way Druze actors to exploit.


Update (7 March 2016): a member of the Rijal al-Karama-affiliated militia Bayraq al-Fakhr says the following with regards to Shi’ification:

“It is possible that there is a pull towards conversion to Shi’i Islam but it is not in open form. Through a number of means: in recent times there has been the spread of Shi’i songs and nasheeds in [one] way. There has been the purchase of lands of the province and it has come to us that that it is for people outside Suwayda’ affiliated with Iran. There was an attempt some time ago to build a husseiniya. The recruitment of a number of youth of the province in Shi’i militias like Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, frequent visits by Shi’i religious men to Suwayda’. These are clear matters and God knows what is hidden. But my information about this situation is weak.”

As for Samir Quntar, he adds the following:

“From the nationalist perspective, Quntar resisted Israel in the past and was held as a prisoner in its prisons. But in the ongoing war in Syria, he joined with the Shi’a against the Sunnis and perhaps he had a role in encouraging conversion to Shi’i Islam among the ignorant [i.e. non-religious] Druze youth. From the religious perspective, Samir was married to a Shi’i woman and was therefore outside our religion.”

The source added that the officials of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya could respond to this author better on the subject of Shi’ification than he. Further, he affirmed that Shi’ification is not really an issue currently affecting Rijal al-Karama:

“We are not against the Shi’a, Sunnis,Christians or any religion. All religions are for the worship of God. But we are against anyone who attacks us or leads us to conflict with sect against sect. With regards to Shi’ification, it does not have an effect on us. He who wants to become Shi’i, let God make it easy for him.”

So, to emphasize as before, this issue of Shi’ification in Suwayda’ is still a matter of some controversy and does not yet rank with conscription avoidance and concerns regarding corruption as a focal point of popular anger and resentment. It is nonetheless a trend worth keeping an eye on for the future, having the potential to increase the influence of actors like Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya and influence the agenda of the likes of Rijal al-Karama.

The Dir’ al-Watan Brand: Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

A logo of Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi

The previous post profiled the emergence of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield Brigade) as a Damascus-based militia during the autumn of 2015, complete with its own media office and social media profile. As was also made clear, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, despite its outward Syrian nationalist appearance, is actually led by the commander of the Iraqi Shi’a militia Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar: Hayder al-Juburi (aka Abu Shahed). A notable and lengthy clarification was later provided to this author by Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar’s spokesman regarding the rationale behind the whole initiative of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan:

“The brigade, by which I mean Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, has been incorporated under the cover of the Syrian state which has meant that the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi is the military commander for the Dir’ al-Watan forces…in other words it is the case that Abu Shahed al-Juburi has assumed two roles in that at the same time, he is the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the military commander for Liwa Dir’ al-Watan…and the important issue is legal cover for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, having taken into account media criticism from those who fish in troubled waters, international criticism and the European Union that have asserted that there are Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting alongside Assad…Indeed both Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar are under the cover of the al-Bustan Association [owned by Rami Makhlouf].”

However, it would be erroneous to assume that the devising of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan on this basis came out of no prior groundwork. In fact, the branding of “Dir’ al-Watan forces” (Quwat Dir’ al-Watan) in relation to Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar goes back at least some months before the establishment of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan. In this context comes the importance of noting prior coordination in this framework with pro-Assad Syrian militias in the Damascus area and the wider south. One of the units of relevance here is a militia known as Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (The Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Brigade), named for the famous Muslim commander who fought against the Crusaders. The militia, which also appears to advertise links with the al-Bustan Association, is led by one Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi. Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi has claimed operations in a variety of areas including Zabadani, Jobar, Douma and Kfeir Yabous in the Damascus area, as well as Deir al-Adas in Deraa governorate. The group’s use of the “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan” brand goes back to at least March 2015, around the same time as the emergence of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra, which also uses the moniker of “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan.” Note this post from Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi suggesting links with Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra.

Graffiti featuring Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi.

Coordination between Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi is first mentioned in May 2015, and at the same time reference to Dir’ al-Watan forces as led by Hayder al-Juburi begins to appear. This forms the basis for increasing references to Quwat Dir’ al-Watan in connection with Hayder al-Juburi over the course of summer 2015 with a similar format to the promotion of posts from the Liwa Dir’ al-Watan media office later in the year, as can be seen below.

From a Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar account on 12 July 2015: “The general commander of Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahad al-Juburi and the general commander of Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi unite forces to realize victory.”

From a Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar account on 4 July 2015 (note the Quwat Dir’ al-Watan logo): “As has happened now…Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and the Syrian Arab Army liberate the al-Tal fortress in the Zabadani area with the killing of many armed men. The Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi confirmed to us that the men of Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and the guardians of the abode- the men of the Syrian Arab Army- are now raising the flag in the al-Tal fortress and consolidating complete control over it. He added in confirmation for us that the men of God are continuing in the advance to liberate all the areas in which the armed men are present.”

Following the establishment of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi has begun to feature a Liwa Dir’ al-Watan graphic in certain postings: e.g.

Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi wishing a Happy New Year for Syria.

A post by Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi from January 2016 (notice the interchange of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and Quwat Dir’ al-Watan): “Breaking: Quwat Dir’ al-Watan advances in Darayya, cuts off Moadhamiya from Darayya, cuts all the reinforcement lines between the terrorists and inflicts losses on them of dozens among killed and wounded.”

Thus, rather than thinking of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan as an isolate entity that simply came into being in October 2015, it is more appropriate to see it as continuity and development from prior coordination and overlap between Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and certain southern Syrian pro-Assad militias over a number of months under the label of Quwat Dir’ al-Watan. In the grander scheme of things, it reflects a broader initiative to give a more acceptable ‘Syrian face’ to foreign militia involvement on the side of the Assad regime. This paradigm of analysis can be applied in a somewhat similar way to other pro-Assad militias like Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya and Quwat al-Ridha, both tied to foreign militias (the Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ and the Lebanese Hezbollah respectively) but designed to recruit native Syrians (mostly Syrian Shi’a) and give a Syrian face to the concept of the “Islamic Resistance” (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

Liwa Dir’ al-Watan: A New Pro-Assad Militia in Damascus

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan

The brand of “Dir’ al-Watan” (“Homeland Shield”)- and more broadly the concept of a “shield” force- gained increasing currency among pro-Assad militias last year. In part, this branding reflected a regime strategy of consolidating and defending areas deemed more vital in the wake of the loss of more peripheral areas like Idlib and Palmyra, while also dealing with manpower problems related to conscription avoidance by allowing locals to focus on defending their home turfs rather than fight in distant battles. Examples of this trend include Dir’ al-Watan in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda that competes with the more third-way/reformist Rijal al-Karama for influence, the rise of “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan- Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra” in Quneitra province, and the formation of Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia province. Of these formations, Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel seems to have been the least successful, having largely become defunct in operation by September 2015.

The emergence of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield Brigade) around the time of mid to late autumn of 2015 points to a wider regime effort to consolidate control of the Damascus area. Similar to other pro-Assad militias, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan portrays itself as one of a number of “auxiliary forces” for the Syrian army. Some notable advertised engagements since its inception include the fighting in Jobar in December 2015, in which the group claimed to be engaging in artillery fire clearing work in preparation to retake the area, the December 2015 operations in the vicinity of Marj al-Sultan airbase and the Masraba farmlands in East Ghouta, fighting in the Zabadani mountains the following month, and more recently operations in Harasta as well as the sieges of Douma and Darayya (though participation in the siege of Darayya also goes back to at least November 2015). In this context, note the participation of another pro-Assad militia- Liwa Usud al-Hussein– in the Marj al-Sultan airbase operations in December 2015.

In keeping with its Syrian nationalist image, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan social media regularly mention coordination with the Syrian army, but omit any notion of cooperation with foreign militias aiding the regime in Damascus: in particular the Iraqi Shi’a factions that emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. In the realm of open source information, it becomes apparent that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan works closely with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, an Iraqi militia that first emerged in the Damascus area in 2013 and is led by Hayder al-Juburi (Abu Shahed). This is evident because Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar’s main media page on Facebook regularly advertises Liwa Dir’ al-Watan’s claimed operations, while also providing certain posts with some frontline testimony from Abu Shahed himself. For example, this bulletin from late January 2016:


“A short time ago the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi affirmed to us from the battlefield that the Dir’ al-Watan forces and the heroes of the Syrian Arab Army are advancing widely in Darayya, seizing wide areas of buildings and blocks.”

And similarly from late November 2015:


“The Dir’ al-Watan forces continue their military operations and advance in Darayya while the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi confirmed to us a short time ago that the men of God are destroying the takfiri enemy and presenting the most magnificent pictures of heroism and jihad on the battlefield.”

Additionally, in an interview, the spokesman for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar confirmed to this author cooperation between Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and his group, adding that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan was formed last year and mostly consists of locals from the al-Sham (Damascus) area. Another Iraqi Shi’i militiaman who regularly works in Damascus- Marwan al-Asadi- asserted to this author that he had heard of cooperation between Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and Shi’a militia factions (al-muqawama: ‘the resistance’) and had heard that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan is affiliated with Syrian air intelligence.

More insight was provided from Hayder al-Juburi himself. He told this author that in fact he is the commander of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, adding that it was founded in October 2015 and has both Syrian and Iraqi staff. This testimony readily explains why Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar media routinely advertise Liwa Dir’ al-Watan operations and cite Abu Shahed on the frontlines with Liwa Dir’ al-Watan. In terms of links, Abu Shahed clarified that the militia has an affiliation (undoubtedly financial) with the al-Bustan Association set up by the wealthy Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, who is closely tied to the Assad ruling dynasty.

Therefore, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan appears to provide another interesting case of overlaps and links between Iraqi Shi’a militias and pro-Assad Syrian militias. Compare with the case of Suqur al-Sahara’ and the advisory role played by members of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (which also emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas) in the formation. Further, note the openly asserted affiliation of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya with Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’.

In terms of ‘martyrs’ for Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, scant information seems to exist on specific cases, though one in particular advertised by the group’s social media is worthy of note-Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar Taha- as it also gives a broader historical perspective on the brigade’s operations. According to Liwa Dir’ al-Watan:


“He was martyred in the month of Tishreen Awal [October] 2015 at the beginning of our unit’s work in Ghouta towards the village of Nola and he obtained martyrdom there…he was a hero and affectionate towards his companions. We have lost him just as the homeland has lost him…We pledge to the martyr, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and the leader of the homeland [President Assad] that we will remain on the path until the liberation of every grain of soil of our precious homeland

Media Office of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan.”

As the regime has made advances in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, it will be of interest to see what kind of difference Liwa Dir’ al-Watan can make, if any, in the Damascus field of warfare over the coming months.

Liwa Usud al-Hussein: A New Pro-Assad Militia in Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Original emblem of Liwa Usud al-Hussein.

The province of Latakia has seen a variety of militias operate in its territory in the bid to drive out rebel forces entirely from the coastal front, including the Muqawama Suriya, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a, and Suqur al-Sahara’. Foreign Shi’a militias have also participated in Latakia battles, the most notable recent case being the Iraqi group Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib, which, according to one of its members I have spoken with, has some Syrian members and has personnel playing an advisory role in Suqur al-Sahara’. The links between Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib and Suqur al-Sahara’ are borne out in recent social media output by the former, as per below as an example:

From the Latakia front: note the Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib flags and the Suqur al-Sahara’ arm-patches.

Unlike the formations mentioned above, Liwa Usud al-Hussein (The Lions of Hussein Brigade) is a much newer militia based in Latakia, having been formed approximately 7 months ago (i.e. around late June-early July 2015), according to a media representative for the group. The formation of Liwa Usud al-Hussein thus came soon after the creation of Coastal Shield, a local militia affiliated with the Syrian army’s Republican Guard that reflected a regime strategy at the time of both dealing with manpower shortages exacerbated by conscription avoidance and focusing on defending areas deemed strategically vital.

However, unlike Coastal Shield, Liwa Usud al-Hussein does not appear to claim affiliation with the Syrian army. The leader of the brigade- originally from Qardaha– is one Hussein Tawfiq al-Assad, undoubtedly part of the larger al-Assad family that is in Qardaha. One can understand the name of Hussein in the brigade’s name in two ways: not only can it refer to the leader of the group, but also to Imam Hussein. Indeed, in an early video posted by Liwa Usud al-Hussein showing the group’s presence in the Homs desert area near Palmyra, the accompanying soundtrack is the song “Salam Allah ‘Ala Sawtak Habibi Ya Hussein” (God’s peace be upon your voice, my beloved Hussein”). These data point to the Alawite background of the militia (for more on the status of Imam Hussein in Alawite theology, see this book by Yaron Friedman). This observation should not come as a surprise. Another militia in Latakia province, the Katibat al-Jabal, affiliated with the National Defence Forces and primarily based on the Nabi Yunis summit, has also made its Alawite affinities clear.

The main operations publicly claimed to date have been participation in the fighting in the Homs desert area near Palmyra against the Islamic State in July 2015, combat in the Sahl al-Ghab in the late summer of 2015, the offensive to take Marj al-Sultan airbase in the Damascus area towards the end of 2015, and most recently the new offensives in north Latakia province that have gone decisively against the rebels, who have suffered high attrition rates partly on account of the intense Russian airstrikes. Specifically in the most recent Latakia initiatives, Liwa Usud al-Hussein took part in the capture of Rabi’a, rather than the rebel stronghold of Salma. Over the course of all these campaigns, Liwa Usud al-Hussein has publicly claimed 3 ‘martyrs’, two of whom were claimed to have been killed in the operations near Palmyra, and one in the Sahl al-Ghab battles.

However, it should be noted that discrepancies exist in the data for the two supposedly killed fighting for Liwa Usud al-Hussein near Palmyra: Nader Saleh Douba, originally from the village of al-Boudi to the southeast of Qardaha, and Rami Aboud Muhammad, originally from Bashnana in Tartous province. Rami is agreed by multiple sources to have been killed in the Aqrab area in Hama governorate, while Nader is variously said to have been killed either in north Homs or Jobar in Damascus. In fact, the media representative for Liwa Usud al-Hussein affirmed to me that only two ‘martyrs’ for the group are confirmed since the founding of the brigade, though names were not specified.

Militia commander Hussein al-Assad claimed to be posing in Rabi’a (Latakia) following its capture from rebel forces.

Screenshot from a video advertising the group’s participation in operations near Palmyra, set to the soundtrack of “Salam Allah ‘Ala Sawtak Habibi Ya Hussein.”

Screenshot from a video showing Liwa Usud al-Hussein fighters posing over the corpse of a dead Islamic State fighter apparently in the T4 airbase area in the Homs desert. Note the distinct Liwa Usud al-Hussein arm-patches on two of the fighters (centre and right). For the soundtrack, see this video.

From a video posted by Liwa Usud al-Hussein, advertising a convoy as heading off to fight in the Palmyra area. Close-up of a car with the group’s logo.

From the same video as the previous photo: Liwa Usud al-Hussein arm-patch.

As of now, the Liwa Usud al-Hussein media representative asserted to me that the brigade has undergone a reformation and reconstitution, now using the name “Quwat Humat Souriya- Usud al-Hussein” (Guardians of Syria Forces- Lions of Hussein). The precise reasons for this development were not made clear.

The new emblem of Liwa Usud al-Hussein under the name of Quwat Humat Souriya- Usud al-Hussein. On bottom, a familiar slogan: “Watan, Sharf, Ikhlas” (Homeland, Honour, Sincerity).

Like many other pro-Assad militias such as Liwa Khaybar, the number of ‘martyrs’ claimed by Liwa Usud al-Hussein suggests a very minor role in the overall conflict, but the group provides another interesting case study of militias on the regime side of the conflict.

The Life of al-Khal: First Leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Graphic dedicated to al-Khal’s ‘martyrdom’.

The figure of al-Khal (a nickname meaning ‘The Uncle’)- also known by his real name Muhammad al-Baridi (Abu Ali al-Baridi)- presents one of the more interesting stories behind leaders of the various Syrian rebel groups. As one of the founders and the leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) from its inception in around summer 2012 until his death in November 2015, al-Khal gained notoriety as his brigade moved from a Free Syrian Army [FSA] brand group that was even part of the Southern Front coalition in 2014 to an overtly pro-Islamic State [IS] orientation in the aftermath of clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of that year, as Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate had accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of having secret links with IS.

I have already traced out the history of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group in considerable detail, but what of the life of al-Khal himself? So far there is little biographical detail available on him. This post hopes to rectify that deficiency, drawing in part on testimony from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles. At the same time, one must be aware of the need for source criticism when it comes to particular details, as will be seen later. For purposes of clarity, it will help to read the aforementioned historical account of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group.

Muhammad al-Baridi was born in 1970 in the village of Jamlah in Hawdh/Wadi al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Basin/Yarmouk Valley), an area in the corner of southwest Deraa province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So close are Jamlah and nearby localities in the Yarmouk Basin to the border that they are visible in the distance from the Israeli-controlled side.

Looking out from the Golan Heights towards Hawdh al-Yarmouk beyond the border fence (photo my own, taken from farmland near the Israeli settlement of Haspin).

As al-Khal’s family name suggests, he was born into the Baridi family/clan that is local to the Yarmouk Valley. The name is of importance because the Baridis are prominent landowners in the area- they are also the main founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Indeed, this dynamic seems to be key as to explaining the group’s staying power and grip over Hawdh al-Yarmouk until now, despite the casualties inflicted on account of the war with Jabhat al-Nusra and the southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition it leads. Like so many other rebel groups, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade originated as a very local start-up.

In keeping with the status of the Baridis, al-Khal’s father was a renowned wealthy landowner in the area working in the realm of agriculture, and his son followed in his father’s footsteps from the beginning of his working life. He then moved into selling produce in the Deraa markets while not abandoning agricultural work. Likely on account of the family wealth, al-Khal had access to a relatively good education, and was even able to study Arabic language for a time in Damascus University, though he does not appear to have graduated with a degree.

Of particular interest is whether al-Khal had already begun delving into Islamist and jihadi thought prior to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Here, one should perhaps exercise some caution as there may be polemical interests in projecting the adoption of radical ideology onto an earlier stage of al-Khal’s life, despite the fact that his brigade was clearly aligned with FSA-brand forces in the south for two years or so and did not begin to implement substantial Islamic-style governance on the ground in the form of a ‘reform’ (islah) program imitating aspects of IS administration until the turn of the New Year in 2015. From Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles, a recurring talking point now is that the brigade’s orientation was ‘Islamic’ from the outset, and linked to this narrative is a claim that al-Khal had always espoused an Islamist/Salafi manhaj.

All accounts agree that al-Khal was eventually imprisoned by the regime and released. The timeline of imprisonment and nature of the offences are a matter of some dispute. An opposition activist and critic of al-Khal quoted by The National claims that he was imprisoned on account of thefts of antiquities from archaeological sites, while a rebel commander cited by the same paper says it was on account of extremist tendencies. A person from Hawdh al-Yarmouk who called himself Asad al-Baridi told me that he had been imprisoned by the regime twice before the revolution- each time for less than a year. The exact time of his release and the reasons for imprisonment were not specified by this source, though he did claim that al-Khal had desired the implementation of Islamic law before the revolution. Another Baridi who is in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and was close to al-Khal told me that al-Khal was imprisoned because “he was interested in extremist thought” and had been released after the beginning of the revolution as part of the “second amnesty” issued by the regime for a number of political prisoners over some months in 2011. Many of those released detainees were Islamists and jihadis held in the notorious Sednaya prison, who went on to found prominent rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham (Hassan Aboud) and Jaysh al-Islam (Zahran Alloush). On this reading it seems likely that al-Khal was among that contingent of Islamists released from Sednaya.

In any case, there is no evidence that al-Khal was a jihadi veteran of prior conflicts, unlike many Syrian Islamists and jihadis who most recently distinguished themselves as combatants in the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, “He wanted to go to Iraq but could not because the Syrian mukhabarat caught up with him.” If so, that would fall under the double game the regime played with Islamists and the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, whereby active facilitation existed but also crackdowns took place from time to time- for example, as Charles Lister notes, while 2005 saw a decrease in the foreign fighter flow to Iraq, 2006-7 saw a re-expansion of that flow (The Syrian Jihad- p. 39).

Contrasting with al-Khal’s lack of prior military experience is the figure of Abu Obeida Qahtan, who is the current amir of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, he was also one of the founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. A Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Abu Obeida Qahtan most notably fought in the Afghan jihad alongside Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam against the Soviet invasion. He may also have had a role in the subsequent jihads in Chechnya and Iraq. I have not found corroboration of a notion that Abu Obeida Qahtan was in Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya, a jihadi group in the south suspected of links to IS partly on account of its flag resembling that of IS. Though this group is often thought to be Palestinian because of the ‘Bayt al-Maqdis’ (referring to Jerusalem) in its name, it primarily consists of locals from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan and not Palestinians, according to a member of the group I spoke with. This member also denied that there is allegiance to IS.

Abu Obeida Qahtan (left) with al-Khal (right). The image first appears to have emerged in 2014. The figure on the left has been misidentified as Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, about whom more below.

Abu Obeida Qahtan’s presence and status in the brigade are rather exceptional in nature, because the group has drawn its manpower almost entirely from the wider Hawran area in southern Syria. While the majority of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk fighters come from the Yarmouk Valley, the group has also absorbed remnants of the Quneitra province jihadi coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, which was accused by rebels of having links with IS and consequently dismantled by mid-2015, even as Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk expressed solidarity with Jaysh al-Jihad.

As for foreign fighters who mostly attempted to come in via Jordan, al-Khal “would reject the muhajireen and send them to the north”- as per the testimony of the Baridi who was close to al-Khal. The only case of an actual foreigner in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk appears to be an Israeli Arab who paraglided into Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory in October 2015, less than a month prior to al-Khal’s death. According to the same Baridi source, there was prior agreement from al-Khal for this Israeli Arab to join the group, and he remains alive and within its ranks today.

It should be noted in this context that another jihadi group in Deraa province- Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (“The Islamic Muthanna Movement”), which recently clashed with a number of Southern Front groups that accused it of running secret prisons to detain rivals, has a similar policy of rejecting muhajireen. The group, founded as Katibat al-Muthanna bin Haritha Qahir al-Faras by a former Sednaya detainee in 2012 (Abu Ayyub al-Masalama, who was killed in March 2013), has this policy in order to build popular support in Deraa, according to a member I spoke with. As can be seen, a ‘Syrian-only’ membership policy does not necessarily tell against radical tendencies. Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya has rejected participation in the war on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, despite some local clashes back in mid-summer 2014.

How does one piece together al-Khal’s life and the evolution of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk over time? If al-Khal was indeed a radical all along and if Abu Obeida Qahtan was among the founders of the group, it suggests that the FSA-branding, including the co-signing with dozens of southern groups of an affirmation for a civil democratic state in mid-2014, was in fact an exercise in sweet-talk and deception practised over a considerable period of time, likely in order to maintain foreign support via the Military Operations Command (MOC) room in Amman that is jointly backed by Western and Gulf states as well as Jordan, responsible for oversight of support for southern factions deemed acceptably ‘moderate’.

By 2013, it would appear that there were already suspicions on the part of Jordanian intelligence about al-Khal, who had apparently received treatment in Jordan for wounds, but MOC support was not halted.  If The National account is right in terms of the timeline of MOC support for Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, then the first actual suspension of MOC support amid concern about the group’s direction and conduct in mid-2014 was soon followed by the first signs of a shift in the outward display of orientation, most notably as a new, more Islamic-looking emblem was adopted. Here, it should be added that The National has things slightly wrong: the new emblem adopted at that time (summer 2014) did not use an IS flag but a more generic white/black flag associated with jihad (see my history of the group).

While The National reports allegations of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Brotherhood-linked Syrian cleric called Sheikh Muhammad Sorour Zain al-Abidain that increased over time, it should be noted that this narrative, which implies an adoption by al-Khal of more radical ideas over the course of the revolution rather than adhering to Islamist ideology from the outset, is not corroborated by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk sources. It is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood-influence narrative derives from long-standing concerns Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have had about the Muslim Brotherhood, although the former’s stance has softened slightly since the beginning of King Salman’s reign in January 2015.

One can perhaps point to another jihadi figure- Sheikh Ahmad Kasab al-Masalama (Abu Muhammad al-Masalama)- as having a role in the shift in public display of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s orientation. From Harasta in the Damascus area, Masalama was reportedly part of the ‘Fighting Vanguard‘ before going to join the Afghan jihad, eventually returning to Syria some time in 2012 to play a role in the insurgency in the south. He was apparently appointed a Shari’i judge in Jabhat al-Nusra but by some point in 2014 had left the group and had some involvement as a Shari’i official or advisor in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, reputedly being a close friend of al-Khal. Step News Agency even describes them as associates in the same jihadi trend before the revolution. Masalama was assassinated in November 2014.

Purported photo of Abu Muhammad al-Masalama.

Since the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2014, the pro-IS orientation of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has been openly on display and the Yarmouk Valley has been under a state of siege as part of the war between Jabhat al-Nusra/southern Jaysh al-Fatah and Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, which has cost both sides heavily and has in fact played a significant role in the diminishing of Jabhat al-Nusra’s power in the south. For Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, the biggest loss has been the assassination of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, also a native of the Yarmouk Valley, in an operation in Jamlah in November 2015.

While Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s administration and media output have been imitating IS in many recognisable respects, the group continues to deny allegiance and/or having links with IS and does not quite take the same approach of speedy and forceful implementation of Shari’a. In a denial of links posted on 31 December 2015, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk even referred to IS as “jama’at al-dawla al-islamiya” (“Islamic State group”)- a designation also used by IS’ jihadi rivals like Jabhat al-Nusra and regarded by IS as an insult for not according legitimacy to its statehood claim.

Ideologically, therefore, the position is quite incoherent, for IS demands allegiance and subsuming all group identities under its state framework- mere words of support are not enough. Contrast the case of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk with Jama’at Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (now IS’ Sinai Province). When the latter denied a prematurely released statement pledging allegiance to IS, it did not attempt to deny IS the status of statehood on its official media channels.

In addition, it remains the case as I reported back in October 2015 that the niqab is not compulsory in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory. This contrasts with IS territory where the niqab is imposed almost immediately after the conquest of any new territory. Back when IS was just ISIS, the niqab imposition in Raqqa came within days of ISIS’ consolidation of control of the city in mid to late January 2014.

It is possible that IS is playing an elaborate long game, in that denial of links are encouraged because it is not strategically useful to declare a Wilayat Deraa for now. Indeed, considering the proximity of the territory to Israel-controlled territory, it may be the case that there is concern that an official IS announcement will lead to airstrikes of some sort on Hawdh al-Yarmouk, which is not currently subjected to any bombing raids, whether from the regime, Russia or the coalition against IS.

In total, al-Khal sired six daughters and two sons. Of the two sons, he did not see one of them as his spouse gave birth to this son two months after his death.

Report on Mass Graves of Yazidis in Sinjar

Click the above map to download a full-size image

Click the above map to download a full-size image

by Matthew Barber

Yazda is a Yazidi humanitarian and advocacy organization founded after the attempted genocide of the Yazidis by IS on Aug. 3, 2014. Beginning this past fall, I took a one-year leave of absence from my PhD program at the University of Chicago to serve as Executive Director for Yazda during this period of urgent need. The accompanying responsibilities have unfortunately kept me away from Syria Comment of late.

One of Yazda’s projects is to document the crimes of genocide that were committed against the Yazidi people. Our genocide documentation project focuses on examining physical evidence of mass graves (bones, clothing, grave mounds) while gathering survivor testimonies to corroborate the physical evidence that we find.

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidenc of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidence of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Yazda is now issuing a full report on the mass graves in Sinjar, which is available on the Yazda website. VICE News has just published the full report here, and Human Rights Watch and Yazda have released a joint press statement on the urgency of protecting and performing forensic analyses of the mass graves.

The full report is also available for download here, and can be read in the PDF viewer below.