If the U.S. Wanted To, It Could Help Free Thousands of Enslaved Yazidi Women in a Single Day

Matthew Barber 3

by Matthew Barber

 

The plight of thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) during its August 3 attack on Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in the following weeks, has received some media attention, but most people are unaware of just how far-reaching this disastrous phenomenon is. Boko Haram kidnapped girls in the hundreds, prompting international outcry and an online campaign demanding that they be freed; IS has kidnapped Yazidi women and girls in the thousands in a sexually-motivated campaign  that has rent apart countless families and wrought unimaginable levels of pain and destruction.

During the Syria conflict there have been numerous allegations of forced jihadi marriages that have been difficult to confirm, and widely denied by IS supporters online. Many of those stories were dropped, lacking credible evidence. As the past few years in Syria have demonstrated, rumors run rampant in contexts of conflict, and the initially difficult-to-confirm cases of kidnapped Yazidi women of this summer have been treated with appropriate caution.

Despite this initial caution, the sheer scale of the kidnapping of Yazidi women and the firsthand reports of escaped survivors—and those still in captivity via telephone—have made details of the phenomenon, and its sexual motivations, certain.

Having stayed in northern Iraq all summer, I can confirm the assertions of the journalists who have written about the problem. I have worked directly with those involved in rescue efforts and have personally interacted with families whose daughters have been kidnapped and are now calling their relatives from captivity.

I have no trace of doubt that many women have been carried off and imprisoned; the question that remains is about the numbers. Restrained estimates have posited numbers of kidnapped Yazidi women in the hundreds. However, the reality is likely to be in the thousands.

Though the picture is grim, if the US is willing to back up its overtures of support for Iraqis and Kurds with action, we have the ability to help quickly free a large percentage of the kidnapped Yazidis.

 

Yazidi refugee women in the Dohuk governorate

Yazidi refugee women, young and old, share their fears and sorrows with me in an empty warehouse now housing their families. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment 

 

The enslavement phenomenon is real

Yazidi leaders and volunteers have been working over the past month with families whose female members were kidnapped, and they have been able to piece together a much clearer picture of the numbers—and locations—of the kidnapped women.

It is no longer a secret that many of the kidnapped women still have their cellphones with them and are calling their families. Many of their captors haven’t even taken steps to prevent this; in some cases jihadists have exploited this contact as a means to sow further terror, in other cases the new “masters” are allowing their “slaves” to have contact with family as they seek to incorporate the kidnapped woman into a slave’s household role with certain privileges and duties.

By speaking with kidnapped women and girls by telephone, and by speaking with the families receiving calls, Yazidis working on the problem are beginning to form more accurate counts of incarcerated women in various places.

It is also no longer a secret that extensive rescue operations are underway, through the participation of local Arabs and Muslims in the communities where the girls are entrapped. Some have been able to purchase girls from IS jihadists and then return them to their parents. Others have been able to escape on their own.

Other kinds of rescue efforts are underway as well. A Yazidi friend I’ve been working with in Dohuk arranged for a group of gunmen to be paid to carry out a rescue operation in one Iraqi city, far to the south of Mosul, where girls had been taken. They broke the girls out of the house where they had been imprisoned by their jihadist “owner” and carried them to safety. Those who conducted the operation are Sunni Arab fighters who do not align with IS (and who are willing to conduct such an operation in exchange for compensation).

These particular girls were transported halfway across the country, placed in the house of their “acquirer,” and made to cook and clean. The new “master” told them: “You are our jawari [slaves taken in war], but don’t worry, you will become as our own women,” meaning that they would be integrated into the household and live as the other wives.

One of the rescued girls was only 15 and was tortured for resisting the demands of her captor for sex. Another suffered such severe psychological trauma due to the kidnapping, subsequent rape, and being shipped across Iraq that she is now very ill.

Attempts to find a religious justification

The philosophy underpinning the taking of Yazidi slaves is based in IS’ interpretation of the practices of Muslim figures during the early Islamic conquests, when women were taken as slave concubines—war booty—from societies being conquered.

Though they have robbed them of their wealth, IS has not targeted the Christian community in the same way that they have the Yazidis. As “People of the Book,” Christians are seen as having certain rights; Yazidis, however, are viewed by IS as polytheists and are therefore seen as legitimate targets for subjugation and enslavement, if they do not convert to Islam.

Many discussions will continue regarding the similarities and differences between IS’ methods and the actual practice of the early Islamic community. Historical context will be discussed by scholars, and God’s intentions will be parsed out by those with a theological bent. But regardless of how our contemporaries interpret the past, IS’ attempts to recreate and relive a period in which slaves were taken in war have shattered families that now reel in pain after their children have been snatched away from them.

First moment of pause: After fleeing the violence and kidnapping in Sinjar, a teenage Yazidi girl sits & cries upon arriving in her new home—a school classroom in Zakho. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

First moment of pause: After fleeing the violence and kidnapping in Sinjar, a teenage Yazidi girl sits & cries upon arriving in her new home—a school classroom in Zakho. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

Is this the Islamic State or just bands of local criminals?

The online jihadists (or “ehadists”) that defend IS on Twitter and Facebook have had three options in how they respond to this shocking moral collapse. The first is to deny that the kidnapping of Yazidi women and forcing of them into sexual slavery (“concubinage”) is occurring.

But despite the denial of IS supporters on social media, these are not rumors, but cases to which I’m personally connected. Journalists have attested to the same phenomenon in their reporting (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9), and I spent the summer making contact with Yazidi families who have endured this scourge.

The second option for IS supporters on social media is a line of argumentation that acknowledges this trend of sexual slavery while attempting to justify it as a form of revenge for oppression of Sunnis (which, ironically, Yazidis have never participated in—rather, they were victims of some of the highest levels of al-Qaida violence during the Iraq war, as well as previous targets of religious persecution).

The third argument, coming from some IS supporters, claims that this sick and deplorable pattern is not occurring at the hands of the IS membership itself, but is rather the action of other local Sunnis who are opportunistically taking advantage of the war-chaos to rape, pillage, and kidnap. I have also been perplexed by the question of IS’ methods and behavior and have felt a need to understand the fact that they work according to specific ideals and a strict religious code for behavior, yet often seem to act outside of what such a code would permit. They are not alien creatures but human agents with aspirations of state building who even demonstrate acts of compassion. Christians who fled one Iraqi town described to me how IS fighters provided food for their elderly and disabled Christian relatives who were not able to flee, and then later transported them to an area near Kirkuk where they would be able to rejoin their relatives. How are we to reconcile these humane instances of goodwill with the apparent criminality and destruction that is so pervasive with IS?

Regardless of how we come to understand the IS movement psychologically, this third argument—that responsibility for all repugnant acts lies only with local, self-seeking, non-IS actors, and not with IS fighters—is patently false.

It is certain that many local actors have stepped in and plundered their neighbors’ wealth during IS attacks on new areas. However, I have confirmed with multiple eye-witnesses who were present upon IS’ initial Aug. 3 attack of Sinjar, including Sunni Muslims, that the operation of separating women from men and carrying the women off in trucks was conducted by the IS fighters themselves and was carried out as soon as the fighters reached the area.

Muslims trying to flee Sinjar city described to me how, even before reaching the city itself, fighters conducting the initial attack intercepted fleeing families on the road, stopping their vehicles and taking the female passengers—if they were Yazidi. The campaign to seize female Yazidis and enslave them as concubines is an Islamic State project.

US airstrikes could quickly free several thousand Yazidi women and even entire families

Kidnapped women have been transported all over the Sunni regions of Iraq, and into Syria. The location with the highest number of kidnapped is likely Mosul itself. Rescue efforts for many of these women will take years. Some may never return. Some may remain in captivity and reemerge at some distant point in the future. Others will continue to be rescued or escape in the near future.

Despite the enormous challenge of responding to such a monumental tragedy, the possibility exists of freeing a very large number of those kidnapped in a short time. I’m referring to around 2,000 kidnapped Yazidis currently imprisoned in towns and villages in the vicinity of the Sinjar mountains.

Just south of Sinjar are a number of sites where kidnapped Yazidis are being held. Through phone conversations with captured victims, Yazidi leaders in the Dohuk governorate who are working on the problem have been able to get counts and exact locations for most of them. In over a dozen primary holding sites within at least six separate towns, approximately 2,000 Yazidis are trapped. Most of these contain just women, but at least one site contains entire families that have been kidnapped, including male members.

One man I spoke with lost seven family members: his daughter, her husband, and their five children were nabbed by IS in one fell swoop. They were able to contact him once and inform him of their location, but contact was severed after that.

Most of these kidnapped people know where they are. They’re in familiar territory, not far from Sinjar. If their captors were subjected to an aerial campaign—an intense helicopter assault on IS targets for as little as a half-hour—most of these people would be able to flee. The attacking force wouldn’t even be required to regain control of these towns, they would only need to occupy the moderate numbers of IS fighters in the area. The window of distraction would allow many to escape.

Prior to the Kucho massacre (in which IS jihadists lined up and shot all Yazidi males of the town, on Aug. 15), my contacts inside the town (no longer alive) said that every time a US airstrike occurred on nearby IS positions, the IS militants would run for cover. This was without the IS stronghold in Kucho itself being attacked. Kucho was more isolated and even in those moments of distraction the flight of the townspeople wasn’t possible. But for the large numbers of Yazidis currently imprisoned just south of the city of Sinjar, a different outcome is possible.

US airstrikes could also be conducted while coordinating with the newly formed “Yazidi Forces for the Protection of Sinjar,” local volunteers that have been working with the Peshmerga, trying to defend the remaining parts of Sinjar not captured by IS, and hoping to regain their own villages and towns. If a more sustained aerial campaign was undertaken to combat IS in Sinjar, these local Yazidi forces could cooperate in joint rescue efforts and help free many of the enslaved.

Let’s get as many back as possible

Though US airstrikes were conducted to prevent IS from pushing into Dohuk and Erbil (without which I estimate IS might have reached Dohuk in as few as two days), no sustained campaign has been undertaken to facilitate the Kurdish re-taking of Sinjar. People are confused as to why, and I have no answers.

What I do know is that without greater US air support, 1) Sinjar will not be regained by Kurdish forces and the people of Sinjar will not be able to return home, and 2) large numbers of Yazidi women who might otherwise be freed will continue to be sold by IS jihadists as sexual objects. The Dohuk governorate is bursting at the seams with hundreds of thousands of Yazidi and Christian refugees, who, following those that already fled three years of conflict in Syria, have pushed the area’s capacity for refugees beyond its breaking point. Schools should be opening for local children this week, but they cannot, because hardly any school exists in the entire governorate that doesn’t have several families sleeping on the floors of every room.

Sinjar is the population center for the largest segment of Yazidi people in the world. The Yazidi religion is also inextricably linked to holy places in Sinjar. If they are unable to return, it will do lasting damage to one of the Middle East’s last non-Abrahamic minorities, and thousands of victimized women will remain enslaved in 2014. Let’s do what it takes to get these people safely home and free of the most selfish form of evil I’ve personally witnessed in my life.

Al-Qa’ida in Islamic Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula Statement on the U.S.-led coalition against IS

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Intro and Analysis

This new joint statement from al-Qa’ida’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb (AQAP and AQIM)- which seems unprecedented- comes in opposition to the U.S.-led international coalition to fight against the Islamic State (IS), characterizing instead as war against Islam and Muslims. Several things to note in analysis:

a)- This statement does not mean AQAP and AQIM are getting closer to IS or warming to the idea of pledging allegiance to IS. Indeed, they have firmly rejected IS’ Caliphate declaration, and have maintained their loyalty to al-Qa’ida Central (AQC). For comparison, note that members and supporters of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- an Iraqi jihadi group (with a Syrian branch) which like al-Qa’ida does not accept IS’ claim to be a state or caliphate- have also denounced the U.S. airstrikes etc. targeting IS as constituting war against Islam, and like al-Qa’ida would want an ideal situation where all jihadis having the end-goal of a Caliphate unite against a common enemy, while rejecting IS’ assumption of supreme authority. Thus Abu Bakr al-Iraqi of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, who previously praised IS’ beheading of James Foley while condemning IS’ massacre of the Sha’itat rebellion against its rule in Deir az-Zor province:

“America in its war against Islam will rely on two components:

1st. Its allies outside of Syria and Iraq who will provide it their military bases, financial support, and increase the stranglehold on the two lands.

2nd. Its allies inside Syria and Iraq and they are:

1. The Safavid Iraqi army.
2. The secular Kurdish army [Peshmerga]
3. The so-called ‘moderate Syrian opposition.’
4. Some of the mercenary gangs of the Sahwa of money and slaves of the dollar.” 

Others outside the transnational jihadist circles have also not hesitated to characterize the U.S.-led initiatives as war on Islam, most notably the Islamic Army in/of Iraq, which by admission of sources from within the group and its supporters is having problems with IS in Iraq. Nonetheless, the group’s spokesman Ibrahim al-Shammary affirmed the following:

“On the anniversary of 11 September [9/11], America is forming an international alliance while claiming that it is for the war on terrorism. Oh Muslims, be wary and heed the strongest warning, for you are the intended target.” 

These kinds of statements have wider implications for outside hopes of building an internal Sunni coalition within Iraq to fight against IS beyond those already working with the central government. Interestingly, the joint AQIM-AQAP statement is dated 11 September: just as AQC in its propaganda portrayed post-9/11 as part of a new initiative of war on Islam, so too AQIM and AQAP, like Ibrahim al-Shammary, attach significance to the building of the anti-IS coalition by Obama as coinciding with the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

In short though, it is the internal Iraq insurgent dynamic that is of greater analytical interest, while AQ-affiliates denouncing the U.S. actions as war on Islam is fairly predictable. One might argue that a recent purported statement from Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi [KUN]- a joint AQIM-Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia project- in support of IS as a Caliphate project reflects an international jihadi trend getting behind IS in the face of the U.S.-led alliance against IS, but I share Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ skepticism of the authenticity of this statement for some reasons of my own. First, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia’s official Twitter news feed, which advertises KUN social media output, has not shared this statement, and second, its only source appears to be in pro-IS circles: besides this, other problems exist with the statement, such as a lack of date on it.

[Update: However, it is also to be noted that the opening of the statement refers to "Kairouan support for the state of the Islamic State"- thus, as Gartenstein-Ross notes, this statement could be genuine and just from a Kairouan province contingent of Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi- which has produced a number of IS alumni- rather than on behalf of the whole battalion as the statement might misleadingly imply at first sight, because 'Kairouan' is also used to refer to Tunisia as a whole].

The problem for IS in trying to get new allies for its Caliphate is that its fighting other rebels- including Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria- and brutality towards Muslim dissenters and opponents within its dominion often blunts any potential sympathy for its actual project in the face of U.S. airstrikes etc.

b)- The joint statement refers to IS but without prefixing jamaat ['group'] to IS’ name to indicate rejection of IS’ claim to be a state/caliphate. This is an interesting contrast with the standard al-Qa’ida approach (also echoed by Jabhat al-Nusra), which had previously accepted IS’ prior incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq as a legitimate emirate in its own right, despite lacking control at the time of substantial contiguous territory and the workings of an actual state. Nonetheless, I would urge that one should not make too much of this and it most likely just reflects the broader official anti-fitna stance of this statement urging for unity in the face of the U.S.-led coalition (including an end to infighting and name-calling), thus I suspect AQAP and AQIM simply do not wish to bring up the fundamental AQC-IS dispute at this point.

c)- The tribute to Ahrar al-Sham in the wake of the massacre of its leadership comes as no surprise, to be noted in conjunction with Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s tribute to the group. This reflects the high regard in which global jihadism generally holds Ahrar al-Sham and the group’s status as the link between this ideological trend and Islamist projects focused on the national framework (cf. Jaysh al-Mujahideen Iraq- a Salafi nationalist, revolutionary and anti-Shi’a insurgent group- also extended tribute to the fallen leaders of Ahrar al-Sham).

Below is a translation by me of the statement.

Joint Statement (11 September: Statement No. 1)
Situation: Support for Muslims over the alliance of Crusaders and Apostates.

[...]

The suffering of our people in Iraq and al-Sham has not been absent from our minds, and what they have offered from bodily sacrifices. Nor have the negative consequences- which have followed on for the people of al-Sham from the infighting of the mujahideen- been absent from our minds. Nor has the sadness of the arenas of jihad for the loss of its best leaders and sons from infighting- in which the beneficiary has been the people of the Zionists [Israel], the Cross worshippers, the Rafidites [Shi'a], the Nusayris [Alawites] and their followers- been absent from our minds.

Then there is America- the head of disbelief- and the symbol of the enemy and tyranny, rearing its head again, enlisting behind it allies from the Crusaders and their apostate collaborators, leading the Crusader attempt to wage war on Islam and Muslims, to increase the misfortunes of the Ummah, under the pretext of striking the Islamic State and annihilate it- so they have claimed!! We ask God to render them disappointed, defeated and slaughtered.

As for this oppressive Crusader effort, we can only stand with Islam and Muslims, against Crusader America and its alliance (Jewish-Crusader-Safavid-Apostate) that is the true enemy of the Ummah and the Path and the first to wage war on Shari’a, so we declare this stance of ours to please God, to support our mujahideen brothers over the disbelievers, and defend our Muslim people wherever they are. Thus we say:

. Our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and al-Sham…stop infighting among yourselves and stand as one rank in the face of the initiative by America and its Satanic alliance lying in wait against us all to break us again and again. Counter the unity of the nations of disbelief against you by your unity against them, in accordance with the speech of the Almighty: “And fight the polytheists as a whole just as they fight you as a whole, and know that God is with those aware of Him” [...]

. Oh mujahideen and ansar [helpers/supporters], stop name-calling and hurling of insults, and turn your truth-telling pens and cutting swords on the head of disbelief- America- and its oppressive, aggressive alliance.

. To all who bear arms in the face of the tyrant Bashar and his shabiha, it is you that America will seek to finance with its double-dealing and deception, that you may deviate from your path and only be banners in its hand realizing its interests.

. To our people- the Ahl al-Sunna [Sunnis] in Iraq and al-Sham, do not forget America’s crimes against your lands, and do not forget its stance in the line of your battles, and its poisonous daggers remain planted in your chests, so do not let its trickery deceive you, or enter into its alliance, or become among its soldiers against your mujahideen sons. 

. We call on our Muslim Ummah to support our people in Iraq and al-Sham, and support them with what is precious and costly, and stand in their rank against America, the head of disbelief, the source of evil and the symbol of corruption and oppression.

. We call on our Muslim Ummah to disavow the calls of the apostate rulers and their collaborators in error and leading astray to support the disbelieving Americans against the mujahideen, just as we call on them to stop their conscripted sons from participating in this oppressive enemy war that aims in truth to preserve American Crusader hegemony over our Muslim Ummah and protect the state of the people of Zionists [Israel].

. We call on our people in the Arabian Peninsula in particular and in all the states in this Satanic alliance in general to stand against their collaborationist governments and prevent them- by all lawful means- from continuing this war on Islam under the pretext of waging war on terrorism.

. As for you, oh allies of disbelief and evil, take heed of what will afflict you, for black days await you. For these leaders of yours today are sinking and are afraid to confront the knights of Islam. And indeed you hav tested the swords of the soldiers of Islam and the assault of the heroes of Iraq and al-Sham, so God brought you to defeat and degradation at their hands, and your armies were defeated bearing the consequences of failure.

. We conclude these calls by reminding the Islamic Ummah of the words of the renewer of time and vanquisher of the Americans- Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may God have mercy on him and make good his soil): “Consult no one in [fighting] the Americans.”

To conclude this statement, we offer our sincere condolences to the mujahideen of the group Ahrar al-Sham…and we ask God to have mercy on their martyrs and remunerate us and them in their misfortune and render us better from it, just as we offer to our people in al-Sham in general and the families of martyrs in particular our sincere condolences and we ask God the Almighty, the High to connect with their hearts and pour out endurance on them.

God, provide for this Ummah a just situation in which the people who obey you are made mighty and the people of your misfortune are laid low. God, give victory to our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and al-Sham and in every place.God, ruin America and whoever of its allies and those taking its side against the mujahideen.

[...]

Qa’ida al-Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb.

“Dreaming of Home: Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?” by Matthew R. Stevens

Dreaming of Home : Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?
by Matthew R. Stevens – @Matt_R_Stevens
for Syria Comment, Sept 16, 2014

“What do I think will happen?” He sighs. “I think that it is over. I think Bashar will win.”

I am cross-legged in the sitting room of a Syrian family, hot tea half-forgotten in my hand. I give the man a long, searching stare. He nods in confirmation. Asad will win. Asad already has won.

This point of view has become familiar through the first three months of research on post-conflict Syrian social structures in Irbid. The second largest city in Jordan, Irbid rests about 20km from the Dar’a border crossing. Irbid Governate held a population of approximately one million before the conflict began in Syria; now, it is home to an additional 160,000 Syrians.

Opportunistic sampling of Syrians living in Irbid has revealed greater diversity in political leanings than initially expected. Few report being staunch supporters of either Asad or the FSA. Irrespective of previous political hopes for Syria, many seem to be playing a pragmatic game of reconciliation—re-obscuring political affiliations in a preparation for rehabilitation with the regime.

‘Message to the world: “My Syria… when will we return?” In Syria, war prevented teachers from reaching a school in this young woman’s neighborhood. She lived closer to the school and volunteered to teach the students “so they wouldn’t forget.”‘

Similar to reporting on the emerging scenario in the north, displaced Syrians living in Irbid describe the FSA in as scattered, under-resourced, devoid of unity—and increasingly, bit players in a drama between two unthinkable antagonists, Asad and “Da’esh,” the local slang for the Islamic State. Other Islamist groups are not generally viewed as serious contenders; they will consolidate with IS or disappear. Pockets of resistance in Dar’a notwithstanding, few here expect the FSA will ever regain the strength to pose a serious challenge Asad in the south. The Syrians I speak to further insist the Islamic State will never be allowed victory: ironically and at last, IS is an issue the international community will be forced to rally around—if not exactly in support of Asad, then to his government’s mutual benefit.

So, Asad has won. It is a simple calculus.

Would Syrians living in exile return to a southern Syria stabilized by the Asad regime? This question is difficult to answer. The challenges of sampling an urban refugee population are well-documented. These challenges demand a great deal of speculation when attempting to predict the desires or behaviours of a non-homogeneous group of people who are distributed through geographical space by a multitude of factors such as economic class, social affiliations (such as regional, political or religious identification), and family relations. Realistically, a researcher must rely on chance encounters and word of mouth to find willing respondents, and has no way of knowing whether the communal networks accessed are representative. The fact that Syrians have spent their pre-conflict lifetimes carefully managing their relations with Asad’s obtrusive secret service only increase the uncertainty of predictions.

Accepting this caveat, and recognizing these findings are further limited to the specific geographical location of urban Irbid, I suspect a significant number of urban Syrian refugees would return to a south ruled by the Asad regime.            Cautious and pragmatic political negotiation is an old standard of pre-conflict Syrian society, which most have spent their lives mastering. If Asad is to be the inevitable victor, return will be contingent on refugees’ abilities to convince the government of their loyalty.

Many here go so far as to cite grievances with the FSA. “Asad is not good, the FSA is not good, so what are we to do?” is a common refrain. Especially in central Irbid, many displaced families come from middle class backgrounds—those who had the most to lose to less scrupulous brigades willing to treat local civilians as a resource. Frustration with a lack of oversight or unity in the FSA is common, and some seem to suspect the upper levels of the resistance movement as self-interested and corrupt.

Conversely, urban Syrian households that report ongoing FSA support tend to have ties to the resistance movement, which would be difficult to obscure. This includes a history of service with resistance brigades (especially those who have been visibly injured), family members who are publicly affiliated with the FSA, and SAA army defectors or individuals who fled SAA drafts. Even these families maintain that Asad will likely re-consolidate control of Syria, and do not express hope of ever returning to their homes. They expect to remain in permanent exile.

Notably, the Syrian families I have spoken with in Irbid have not reported any support for Da’esh or other Islamist groups. Whether this represents a sample bias or reporting bias is difficult to ascertain, but research suggests that victory by the Islamic State would result in lifelong displacement for a large number of Syrians in Irbid—much more so than in the case of an Asad victory.

Overall, the reported desire by Syrians in Irbid is to return home, and to return as quickly as possible. Tolerance of the difficult life of a refugee is waning as war drags on and host country patience wears thin, especially in light of new Government of Jordan laws which more strictly regulate Syrians’ lives outside the camps. There is little enthusiasm for a reinvigorated FSA making a new bid for power: Syrians canvassed are simply not in favour of another long phase of civil war fueled by further foreign influence. Political dreams are seen as waning in importance in the face of overwhelming desire to cut losses and restart lives—people yearn for careers, home ownership, marriage, children, all of which are near impossible for displaced Syrians in the current political climate in Jordan. Many are actively considering return in the short term, despite the risks. This is especially so for those who originated from areas such as Suwayda, which have already been reclaimed by SAA forces. Others talk of restarting lives in Damascus, though they cite the dangers of a life riddled with government checkpoints while carrying identification which associates them with the rebellious province of Dar’a.

While these findings can not be assumed reflect the desires of all Syrians in Jordan—notably they do not include residents of Zaatari, who are reported to be more staunch FSA supporters—I suspect that a concrete offer of amnesty from Asad, backed up by safe and successful reintegration of those who first repatriate, could spark large numbers of urban-based Syrians to return. Exhausted by the refugee experience, repatriated Syrians may constitute a major influence on the conflict sooner rather than later.

Matthew is an MA Candidate in Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens.

“ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks,” By Balint Szlanko

ISIS Is Weaker Than It Looks
By Balint Szlanko – @balintszlanko
For Syria Comment, Sept 13, 2014

ERBIL, Iraqi Kurdistan—The extremist group known variously as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or simply Islamic State, has maneuvered itself into a difficult situation over the last couple of months. Fanatical groups like this are prone to violent overreach and they often end up with everybody else ganging up on them. ISIS is no different and now it will pay the price. It may also be far weaker than it looks, for it’s only really been able to shine against much weaker enemies.

ISIS’ big gains in Iraq (they took Mosul in early June and the Sinjar region in early August) have led to a situation where most of the region’s players have allied themselves against it, including archenemies like Iran and the U.S.—and that was before the Obama administration started building a broad international coalition against them. The Iraqis have already got rid of their incompetent prime minister, Nour al Maliki, whose sectarian policies are largely responsible for driving many Sunnis into the arms of Islamic State. The new Iraqi government seems to have a broader political and sectarian basis, although whether that will have any effect on the ground remains to be seen. As it has been pointed out elsewhere, Iraqi governments usually have a broad confessional basis, the problem is that this doesn’t really get reflected in policy outputs.

More important is that the military cooperation between the Iraqis, the U.S. and the forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government is already delivering results. The Kurds have got a much-needed morale boost from the American airstrikes against ISIS and the Western military aid that is already being flown into Kurdistan (so far small arms, ammunition and anti-tank weapons have arrived, ministry of peshmerga officials told me in Erbil, but heavy weapons have been promised as well). They pushed back ISIS forces around the Mosul Dam Lake, west of Erbil, and in the south of the KRG around Jalawla, though Jalawla itself remains under ISIS control.

The Iraqi Army, helped by Shiite militias, has also gained some ground (though it may be more accurate to say that Shiite militias, helped by the Iraqi Army, have gained ground, which is bound to cause big problems later). Even in Syria we are seeing some results by anti-ISIS forces: the militants have been stopped north of Aleppo by a coalition of moderate rebels who have even retaken some of the villages they lost in August. In the east, the Kurdish militia, the YPG, drove them all the way down to the south of Hasaka city. To be sure, these frontlines all have their own dynamic and developments there should be analysed more or less independently. But the fact remains that ISIS is now facing determined adversaries on several very long frontlines both in Iraq and Syria, clearly a big problem for any state or insurgent group. It will soon face more U.S. airstrikes too.

The bottom line is that while ISIS looks strong, it really isn’t as strong as its fearsome reputation suggests. It is an organised, highly motivated guerrilla group with lots of experienced fighters. It builds on the weaknesses of its enemies by sending its highly mobile, quick-moving forces to places where they are least expected, uses suicide bombers as just another battlefield tool, and it magnifies the fear created by its shocking brutality with effective publicity. And now it has also got a significant amount of heavy weapons and armour, captured from the Iraqis, plus an influx of men, some from disenchanted Syrian rebel groups, some from Sunni tribes and other Iraqi insurgent group. It also has a lot of money, some from robbery, some from kidnappings and some from protection rackets.

And yet ISIS have only really been successful in areas where it faced no serious resistance: in the political and military vacuum of the Sunni heartland, in eastern Syria and central and western Iraq. Its significant battlefield successes have really only been against disorganized and undermotivated enemies, such as the Iraqi Army or Syria’s disparate rebels, or isolated outposts of the Syrian Army, under siege for a very long time. Whenever it had to confront a determined and organised adversary, such as the Kurdish YPG in northeastern Syria, it has always been bested. Even Syria’s ragtag rebels managed to kick it out of northwestern Syria early this year, though that was before its big Iraqi victories and associated growth in strength. The same thing is likely to happen now, if only because launching surprise attacks against largely undefended cities is very different from defending the large geographic area it now controls against coordinated attacks (and the U.S. Air Force).

This means that ISIS can be contained, its abilities degraded, perhaps quite severely. It doesn’t mean it can be destroyed, not with these tools alone. For that, the dysfunctional policies of the Sunni heartland would have to be addressed, its institutions strengthened, so that their own moderate parties can contain the impulses that have led to ISIS’ emergence, without the need for American airstrikes and Kurdish or Shiite militias. Clearly this is the real challenge and there is no obvious solution in sight. ISIS’ brutality may or may not lead to local resistance—so far those who have tried paid dearly. The Sunni tribes, the heartland’s only visible institutions, are too weak, as are Syria’s moderate rebels. The Syrian and Iraqi states, or what has remained of them, are discredited. It is probably impossible to put these countries back together again. But that doesn’t mean ISIS cannot be contained in a manageable geographic area. My bet is that it’s likely to stick around for a while but in a much weakened form.

Balint Szlanko is a freelance journalist who has covered Syria since early 2012 and has recently completed two trips to the Kurdish areas

Muhajireen Battalions in Syria (Part IV)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously documented part/predominantly foreign fighter battalions in Syria here, here and here. Below are a couple more groups as part of this series.

Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham

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Logo of Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, with motto reading: “We are victorious or we die.” The group’s other main slogan is: “The law of God rules us,” similar to the mentality of other foreign fighter battalions like the Imam Bukhari Battalion of Uzbek fighters.

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Al-Mi’ad Media, the media wing of Jaysh Muhammad.

Jaysh Muhammad is a jihadi faction led by one Abu Obeida al-Muhajir (of Egyptian nationality). The group primarily operates in Aleppo province but has extended operations to other governorates: for example, the group participated in October 2013 with the Green Battalion and the Islamic State (IS), among other “Islamic battalions,” in an offensive on the Sakhna region in Homs province.

In Aleppo province, Jaysh Muhammad worked and co-existed with the Islamic State in some areas prior to and somewhat after the start of wider infighting between IS and other rebels. For instance, in July 2013, a joint operations room as part of “The Battle of True Dawn” was formed in an attempt to capture the two Shi’a localities of Nubl and Zahara’ in Aleppo province, including Jaysh Muhammad, IS, Ahrar al-Sham and a local north Aleppo battalion. As for the aftermath of the beginning of infighting in January 2014, the most notable instance of Jaysh Muhammad-IS cooperation came in the “And Don’t Separate” initiative- an alliance of jihadi factions including Jabhat al-Nusra and independent groups like the Green Battalion- to capture Kweiris military airbase to the east of Aleppo city. It quickly fell apart though as all battalions except IS withdrew.

The most interesting case of IS-Jaysh Muhammad relations was the locality of Azaz, which was seized by IS in autumn 2013 from the FSA-banner brigade Northern Storm. To recap briefly the story of what went on there, IS entered the town of Azaz in the summer of 2013- to the chagrin of some locals- and the group moved into what was a services office to engage in da’wah and social outreach, without initially having a military presence. It was only when IS decided to seize on a pretext to take over the town that fighters and tanks were called in from outside.

That said, in a recent interview with me, a spokesman for Northern Storm- which has since returned to become the sole ruling authority in Azaz following IS’ withdrawal earlier this year and has formally joined the Islamic Front- affirmed that while Northern Storm and IS had worked together in the fall of Mannagh airbase in summer 2013, IS had been stockpiling weapons seized from the base in what was then its da’wah office. In any event, when fighting initially broke out in Azaz in September 2013, a ceasefire agreement was mediated by Liwa al-Tawhid and required both Liwa al-Tawhid and Jaysh Muhammad to implement the agreement.

It turns out that while Liwa al-Tawhid was nowhere to be seen in the face of IS’ subsequent breaking of the ceasefire agreement to expel Northern Storm entirely from Azaz, Jaysh Muhammad had remained in Azaz, having a base there and essentially standing by as IS took over the town. Whereas Liwa al-Tawhid’s inaction at the time appears to have been the result of an informal condemnation of Northern Storm by Aleppo’s Shari’a Committee, Jaysh Muhammad more likely did nothing out of jihadi ideological sympathy for IS.

What happened in the run-up to IS’ strategic abandonment of Azaz at the end of February- considering that the area was cut off from the rest of IS’ contiguous territory in east Aleppo province- is also of interest. If we are to believe the testimony of foreign fighter and Twitter personality “Abu Hamza al-Erhabi”- who at the time claimed affiliation with Jaysh Muhammad- then Jaysh Muhammad planned in advance to abandon Azaz if IS left. According to Northern Storm’s spokesman in an interview with me, Northern Storm imposed an ultimatum on Jaysh Muhammad to leave Azaz, join the fight against IS, or face war.

Despite past events in Azaz and elsewhere suggesting affinity with IS, Jaysh Muhammad actually seems to have been closer to Jabhat al-Nusra all along, even as all three groups of course ultimately have the same goal of a global Caliphate. Indeed, Abu Hamza al-Erhabi had described his group as “sort of” Jabhat al-Nusra. However, in July this year, Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo put out a statement disavowing organizational relations with Jaysh Muhammad:

“Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo announces that the Jaysh Muhammad battalion under the leadership of the brother Sheikh Abu Obeida the Egyptian- may God protect him- has no organizational connection with Jabhat al-Nusra, for the behavior of the battalion is not considered appropriate in Jabhat al-Nusra’s eyes with the maintenance of a relation of brothers, affection and sincerity between us.”

Jaysh Muhammad then issued a response affirming that it never had allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra in the first place and attempting a further clarification:

“In response to the prevailing view regarding the statement of the Jabhat al-Nusra brothers in Aleppo- may God give them strength- and the clarification of the relationship between Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra, we clarify the confusion that has arisen: Jaysh Muhammad did not pledge allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra from the beginning and Jabhat al-Nusra has no pledge of allegiance on the neck of Jaysh Muhammad for it to be understood that Jaysh Muhammad was expelled from Jabhat al-Nusra.

But the statement was published on account of what is prevalent among the people: that Jaysh Muhammad is under allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra on the basis of coordination and cooperation between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra: but this is mistaken, for in reality there is joint cooperation and organization between Jaysh Muhammad and Jabhat al-Nusra; moreover, this has not ceased their continuing to be our brothers and beloved ones, and there continues to be a relationship of being brothers in God, affection and sincerity.”

The current status of the relationship between Jabhat al-Nusra and Jaysh Muhammad is unclear, but arguably as part of the wider trend of non-IS jihadi groups beginning to implement their own state/proto-state legislation projects as territory in Syria is increasingly gobbled up by the regime and IS,[i] Jaysh Muhammad announced in July its intentions of implementing Shari’a and hudud regulations in their entirety in all captured areas. At the moment nothing suggests that Jaysh Muhammad has joined some of the other jihadi groups operating in Aleppo province that formed the Jabhat Ansar al-Din coalition.

Update: It has now emerged that despite the Northern Storm ultimatum, Jaysh Muhammad has retained a base in the wider Azaz area (though not participating in any way in governance of the town of Azaz), as the Islamic Front has just released a statement giving Jaysh Muhammad three days to evacuate the Azaz area in light of the fighting against IS. 

Jund al-Aqsa

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Flag of Jund al-Aqsa

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Jund al-Aqsa media committee.

Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) is a foreign fighter battalion of a variety of nationalities (including some of South Asian origin)- as well as comprising a native Syrian contingent- primarily operating in Idlib and Hama governorates. The group was in January of this year confronted by rebels on the grounds of being an ally of IS, but with IS’ withdrawal from Idlib and Hama provinces, any tensions between Jund al-Aqsa and other rebels have since calmed down, and the group has notably taken part in joint offensives with Ahrar al-Sham of the Islamic Front (e.g. capturing the village of Ma’an in Hama province in February, which culminated in a massacre of local Alawites). More recently, Jund al-Aqsa has been participating with the Islamic Front in an operation to capture Hama military airport: Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra, announced last month and ongoing. Indeed, it is notable that even as other jihadi groups have set about working on their own administrative initiatives, it is striking that Jund al-Aqsa still remains focused on advertising military operations.

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Jund al-Aqsa claiming to fire heavy weaponry at regime aircraft as part of the offensive on Hama military airport.

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Jund al-Aqsa claiming to target regime positions around Hama military airport as part of the same offensive.

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Jabhat al-Nusra has also continued to work with Jund al-Aqsa, pointing to Jund al-Aqsa’s closer affinity at the present time to Jabhat al-Nusra than IS, whatever the prior relations were with the latter. In this photo released in June, Jabhat al-Nusra claims coordination with Jund al-Aqsa in targeting a hotel building in Idlib city that members of Hezbollah were supposedly using as a base.

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Abu Abd al-Aziz al-Qatari, the amir of Jund al-Aqsa killed in fighting with rebels in January. Of Palestinian origin, he was apparently a veteran of the jihad in Iraq for some time before going to Qatar and continuing to support the insurgency against U.S. forces in Iraq.

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Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Masri: an Egyptian fighter for Jund al-Aqsa whose death was announced on 26 July this year.

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Muhannad al-Ansari, from Saraqeb (Idlib province), killed in the Ghazwa Badr al-Sham al-Kubra. Death announced on 30 July.

 

 

Notes

[i] Though Jabhat al-Nusra has tried to backtrack in its public rhetoric on the leaked ‘emirate’ announcement by leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, its recent record on the ground of seizing territory from one-time allies of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front in Idlib in particular and the announcement of economic and societal regulations therein undermine its attempts at ‘clarification.’

Undoubtedly too the behavior by Jabhat al-Nusra is partly explained as the result of a perception that some rebels are receiving Western arms on the condition of not cooperating with Jabhat al-Nusra and therefore constitute a threat in the long-run as territory available for control- particularly crucial border areas- becomes increasingly scarce.