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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo of Abo Abod

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lens on Syria, by Daniel Demeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Lamya Khalidi, French National Centre for Scientific Research

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Worship, Jihad and Sham are entwined in the poster.

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

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

Map of greater Syria or Sham.

Map of greater Syria or Sham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Land of Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Syria’s role in Jihad and Hijra

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

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

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

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

Another hadith related by Abu Hurayrah:

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

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

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

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

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

The Shami confluence

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

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

A famous hadith mentioning Jihad used to encourage men to Jihad

A famous hadith mentioning Jihad used to encourage men to Jihad

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

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

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

Things that are attractive to young foreign fighters

Things that are attractive to young foreign fighters

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

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

The Druze in the Syrian Conflict – By Talal El Atrache

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Battle of Thaaleh: A turning point

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

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

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

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

The concept of citizenship in opposition-held areas

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

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

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

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

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Swaida’s Syrian identity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Between secularism and esotericism

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

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

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

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

Swaida’s secular opposition vs. the rebels

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

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

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Tensions with the local administration

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

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

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

Israel and the third option

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All photos were taken by Talal.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Quwat Dir’ Al-Amn Al-Askari: A Latakia Military Intelligence Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari as it appears on insignia.

The previous article discussed Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, a militia affiliated with the Military Intelligence Branch (Shu’abat al-Mukharabat al-Askariya). This piece looks at another militia affiliated with regime intelligence: Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari (“The Military Security Shield Forces”). As the group’s name suggests, it is affiliated with al-Amn al-Askari (“The Military Security”), but it should be noted that there is no real difference between the Military Intelligence Branch and the Military SecurityIn the present day, the two names just refer to military intelligence affiliated with the Ministry of Defence, but at the provincial level the brand and nae of al-Amn al-Askari seem to be more recognisable. In the case of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari, it appears that we can identify a more geographically specific affiliation: that is, branch 223 of the Military Security based in Latakia province. This branch has been identified before in the militiafication phenomenon for its involvement in the provision of arms and arm-bearing ID cards to members of the Popular Committees in Latakia province.

Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari first emerges as a military force around January 2016. This approximately correlates with the testimony of a source from Mihrac Ural’s al-Muqawama al-Suriya (“The Syrian Resistance”), which works closely with Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari in the ongoing fighting in Aleppo. The source, in a conversation in late July 2016, mentioned at the time that the group had been set up “several months ago.” The group’s pages on Facebook feature multiple phone numbers that one can connect with: the purpose of putting up these numbers is clearly recruitment. Indeed, this purpose was made apparent in one post put up by a page for the militia in mid-March 2016:

“Announcement: the door of recruitment within Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari is open for all sons of our beloved land. Your land is calling you: heed the call. To connect with us: 0933055137.”

Considering its specific affiliation, Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari’s first major engagement was unsurprisingly in north Latakia province in the January-February period as part of a Russian-backed offensive bolstered by multiple militias, including Suqur al-Sahara’, Liwa Usud al-Hussein and the Iraqi Shi’i Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib. Though this offensive gained significant ground against the rebels, it ultimately failed to expel them entirely from the province. Even so, the head of branch 223 of the Military Security based in Latakia province received an award from the Russian and Syrian commands on account of his supposed role in the operations and presence on the battlefield while rejecting media appearances.

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Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari fighter in Kanasba, Latakia, posing outside what appears to be a Harakat Sham al-Islam base. Photo from February 2016.

It was also around this time that the militia advertised the bolstering of its ranks with new recruits:

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“A new group from Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. Success oh Lord.”

The next major campaign involved deployments from Latakia to the deserts east of Homs in order to participate the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State in March 2016. These operations featured recognisable appearances from a commander in Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari: a man going by the name of al-Khal Abu Ismail (al-Khal translating as “The Uncle”). There was also some display of brutality in featuring at least one photo with a severed head.

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In the centre: al-Khal Abu Ismail.

The figure of al-Khal Abu Ismail is of particular interest. A biography of him notes that he is originally from Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha in Latakia province, and that he was a companion of Ali Khazzam, who was a renowned commander in the Republican Guard killed in October 2012 (thus he is known by the title Amir al-Shuhada’: Prince of Martyrs). The biography also notes that he has fought in battles in Aleppo, Latakia countryside, Idlib, Hama, Damascus and Deraa. The biography adds that he has “fighting contingents in Aleppo, Latakia, Deraa, Damascus and Homs.”

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al-Khal Abu Ismail. Note his armpatch: “The Republican Guard: The Martyr Ali Khazzam Battalion.”

Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari contingents continued to remain deployed in the Palmyra area through the rest of the spring and into the summer. In June 2016, some fighters participated in a regime offensive against the Islamic State launched from Athiriya Raqqa province that aimed to push towards the Tabqa area, backed by other militias like Suqur al-Sahara’, Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a. This offensive ultimately failed, as the Islamic State launched a counter-attack and routed the regime forces and its allies from the province.

July 2016 saw reports of fighting on the part of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari contingents in Latakia and the Aleppo city area. The former, which is ongoing, began with a rebel offensive that seized the locality of Kanasba by the start of July 2016.  The Aleppo fighting, which also continues to this day, is part of the regime’s initiative to try to encircle the rebel-held eastern part of the city and impose a siege, currently undermined by a Jaysh al-Fath-led counter-offensive that opened up a new corridor to eastern Aleppo via Ramouseh in the southwest of the city. The first phase of the operations involved fighting on the northern fronts of the city, including al-Melah, Bani Zaid and the Castello road. As mentioned previously, these operations have entailed close cooperation with the Syrian Resistance. As part of this phase, the Syrian Resistance affirmed at the end of July 2016 that it had sent up reinforcement contingents from Hama to reinforce the Castello road front, where cooperation was occurring alongside the Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. A Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari Aleppo contingent leader presented in these accounts is one Mudar Makhlouf, who has long been known for his Military Security affiliation and appears to be most distinguished for leading Military Security militia contingents in Deir az-Zor, for which reason a fan page dedicated to him refers to him as Azra’il al-Dawa’ish (“The Angel of Death for the Da’ish people”) in reference to fighting between regime forces and the Islamic State.

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A photo featuring Mudar Makhlouf (left) and Issam Zahr al-Din (right), a Druze commander in the Republican Guard deployed to Deir az-Zor.

As the Jaysh al-Fath counter-offensive made gains against the regime to the southwest of Aleppo city in early August, one of the Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari pages claimed that the group had sent 400 fighters to assist the Syrian army on the military colleges front in that area, though that initiative did not prevent the breaking of the siege. The militia has continued to claim involvement on the southwest Aleppo front particularly in the area of those military colleges, but the corridor opened by the rebels has not yet been fully closed. These operations, as in the earlier phase on the northern front, are being coordinated with the Syrian Resistance. Another force coordinating with Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari on this front is one known by the Arabic acronym Qadishwhich stands for Quwat al-Amn wa al-Da’am al-Sha’abi (“Popular Security and Support Forces”) . These forces serve as auxiliary militias affiliated with the Republican Guard.

For its efforts on the Aleppo front, the head of the 223 branch of Military Security has notably paid special tribute to Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari, further pointing to links between the two.

Finally, in terms of operations, it should be noted that a contingent of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari under the field commander Hassan Mahfoudh (otherwise obscure) is reported to be deployed most recently to Hama province as part of countering the Marwan Hadid offensive in north Hama countryside led mainly by Jund al-Aqsa, Abna’ al-Sham and Jaysh al-Nasr.

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A Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari fighter posing outside what appears to be a base for a rebel group in Latakia: Katibat Ahfad Omar. Photo from a personal account.

It can be seen from the overview of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari that the military intelligence’s involvement in organizing militia efforts is not exactly a new phenomenon. This is foremost apparent in Mudar Makhlouf’s prior efforts in Deir az-Zor, as well as the military security Latakia branch’s prior interactions with the Popular Committees. That said, it appears the formation of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari as a distinct formation and brand represents an attempt by the military intelligence branch in Latakia to build its influence, while fitting into the wider trend of compensating for manpower shortages on the regime side exacerbated by draft evasion.

Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya: A Military Intelligence Branch Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, with the militia’s name itself inscribed on the bottom. On top: “Military Intelligence Branch” (indicating the affiliation of the group). In the centre is the emblem of the Syrian Arab Republic, as well as the Syrian and Ba’ath Party flags.

The regime’s dependency on foreign and native militias to deal with manpower shortage issues and the decline of the regular army is well known. An immediate problem that arises with this phenomenon is a potential breakdown in order and control as militias take power on the ground into their own hands. A mechanism to try to minimize this problem is to have militias operate under some framework of the Syrian state. For example, some militias like the Homs-based Kata’ib al-Jabalawi (Jabalawi Battalions) and Leopards of Homs are affiliated with the al-Bustan Association of regime businessman Rami Makhlouf, who is also Bashar al-Assad’s cousin.

Another option is to turn to the state’s multiple intelligence agencies that can support and oversee militias. A prominent case-in-point is the Tiger Forces led by Suheil al-Hassan. Widely perceived to be an elite Syrian army unit, the Tiger Forces is actually a militia affiliated with the Air Intelligence (al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiya), which is unsurprising given Suheil al-Hassan’s own career that began in air defence and then moved to Air Intelligence. Indeed, as Aron Lund notes, Suheil al-Hassan “does not seem to control a huge force, instead relying on local troops and a smaller entourage of personal loyalists from varied backgrounds.”

Unlike the Tiger Forces, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya (“The Desert Commandos Regiment”) that is the subject of this profile is not affiliated with the Air Intelligence, but rather the Military Intelligence Branch (Shu’abat al-Mukhabarat al-Askariya). The group should also not be confused with the similar-sounding Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr (“Navy Seals/Navy Commandos Regiment”), which is closely linked to Suqur al-Sahara’ (“The Desert Falcons”)- something illustrated by joint participation in a number of recent operations. Indeed, the leader of Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr is one Aymenn Jaber, who is the brother of Suqur al-Sahara’ leader Muhammad Jaber. It should also be noted that both groups were set up and provided training by the same person: Staff Brigadier Mohsen Sa’id Hussein, who was originally from the village of al-Sisiniya in Tartous governorate and killed in November 2014 in fighting around al-Sha’er field in Homs governorate. He notably played a military commander role in operations to push back the jihadist-led Latakia offensive in spring 2014, and in leading Suqur al-Sahara’ operations in the Homs desert he gained the nickname “Lion of the Desert.” He is also credited with the idea of setting up the Coastal Shield militia as well as being the reputed fonder of the Lions of the East (aka Tribal Army) militia composed of pro-regime Sha’itat tribesmen and other local recruits in Deir az-Zor province.

Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya appears to have at least one affiliate brand (namely, a brigade named for Sayyida Zainab). The militia is a more recent formation than Suqur al-Sahara’ and Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr. According to a representative for the group interviewed in late July 2016, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya was set up 9 months ago: that is, dating back from July 2016, which would put the beginnings of the militia in the autumn of 2015. The same representative affirmed that the group’s most notable engagements so far include fighting in the Homs desert (e.g. Palmyra and Sha’er field) and the Aleppo battles. The former entails battles against the Islamic State, the latter battles against the rebels. Evidence for these engagements can be found in the open source realm. For example, earlier this month, a local ‘martyr’ from Aleppo  was claimed to have been in the group’s ranks and killed fighting in the Mashru’ 1070 area to the southwest of the city as regime forces and allies tried to prevent the rebels from breaking the siege of eastern Aleppo. In a similar vein, see here for a sample post on fighting in the Sha’er area involving Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya.

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Iyad Muhammad Aqil, from al-Marana in Tartous governorate. Reported in late April 2016 to have been killed fighting for Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya in Palmyra area.

Like other pro-Assad Syrian militias and Iraqi Shi’a militias, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya has advertised recruitment through social media- in particular Facebook- by putting up posts offering connection for recruitment principally via phone numbers, though direct messaging of the Facebook pages can also be available as an avenue for inquiry. In fact, recruitment advertisement for Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya was reiterated as recently as 27 August 2016, offering a monthly salary of $200. Besides the monetary incentive, the militia also promises taswiyat al-wada’ (“sorting out of affairs”). This reflects a wider trend of pro-Assad militias’ attempts to compensate for manpower shortages caused by draft avoidance, particularly in offering an amnesty of some kind for draft-dodgers who sign up. As part of a recruitment expansion campaign, a page for the militia reported in early July 2016 that Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya’s leader had ordered for the opening of offices in all the governorates for the purpose of recruitment.

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A Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya office, reportedly located in the village of al-Aqrabiya in Homs governorate near the border with Lebanon, where a significant Shi’i population exists.

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Closer view of one of the posters on the door, featuring the group’s emblem and its alternative moniker (Kata’ib al-Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh), about which more below.

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Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya poster: “We have pledged allegiance to you [in reference to Bashar al-Assad]. Long live the Syrian Arab Army.”

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Another Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya poster, with Hafez al-Assad on the left and Bashar al-Assad on the right. On left: “Peace on your soul.” On right: “We are the descendants of your father.”

In addition to recruitment offices, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya has also claimed to open offices dealing with the affairs of “martyrs and wounded” (killed and wounded): that is, to provide care for the wounded and the relatives of those killed in fighting. This is a common administrative feature adopted by many armed factions including rebels and the Islamic State.

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“Office to track the wounded and martyrs”- an office run by Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, reportedly in al-Adawiya in Homs city.

Of particular interest is the leader of Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, a man called Suleiman al-Shwakh (aka Abu Ali), from whose name derives another moniker for the militia: Kata’ib al-Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh (“Sheikh Suleiman al-Shwakh Battalions”), which appears in photos above from the group’s office in al-Aqrabiya. Suleiman al-Shwakh is originally from Raqqa (as he himself confirmed to me in conversations this month), and he says that he still has some relatives living under the rule of the Islamic State there, but thinks most of the people in Raqqa are with Bashar al-Assad. This latter assertion is questionable, but it is certainly true that regime loyalists have existed in Raqqa during the course of the Syrian civil war, and appear to have made their presence known even after the city came under Islamic State rule by 2014. Suleiman al-Shwakh adds that he undertook army service, and traces Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya’s founding slightly further back to a year ago.

For Suleiman al-Shwakh’s role in the operations to retake Palmyra and some of the countryside villages from the Islamic State, the Russians bestowed an award on him. According to Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya, the award was bestowed per direction from the military command in Moscow and presented by a Russian general overseeing Syrian forces operating in Palmyra.

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Suleiman al-Shwakh (right) being presented with his award.

So far, Fawj Maghawir al-Badiya remains a relatively minor formation in terms of casualty numbers: Suleiman al-Shwakh claimed to me that the group has 25 ‘martyrs.’ However, the militia is an interesting case study of militias operating under the framework of the state’s intelligence agencies. While this mechanism appears to give a greater degree of control for the regime over militias and thus give the impression of more law and order on the regime side as opposed to the rebels, it is certainly possible for the various intelligence agencies to use their militia affiliates to compete with each other for influence and power in the regime rump state.

“Turkey’s Syria Intervention,” by Joshua Landis

Turkey’s Syria Intervention 
By Joshua Landis
August 28, 2016

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I answer questions asked me by a Turkish journalist.

  1. Has Turkey established a No Fly Zone over the Azaz-Jarablus pocket?

Turkey has established a No Kurd Zone over the Jarablus pocket, not a NFZ. The US has control of air. When it leaves, Russia will resume control over the airspace, not Turkey. This is undoubtedly why Russia and the Syrian government signed onto the intervention and why US planes flew cover for Turkish and Arab troops and not Turkish planes.

2. Do you think the US will stay and provide air cover in that area (between Azaz-Jarablus) for a long time? Don’t you think this (Turkey attacking Kurds) will bring Turkey, Russia and Assad closer to each other?

I doubt the US Air Force will play an active role in providing air cover in the area. My hunch is that Turkey and Russia have an understanding about non-interference in a specific region. But it does beg the question of what happens at the edges of that agreed upon area. All forces are likely to get draw into a quagmire of conflicting national agendas.

I doubt Turkey’s attack on the Kurds will bring Turkey, Russia and Assad closer to each other. Yes, Assad and Russia are pleased to see the Kurdish-American juggernaut stopped. Neither Syrian Arabs nor Turks want to see a contiguous Kurdish state stretching the length of Syria’s border with Turkey. All the same, Assad and Turkey remain bitter enemies. Turkey is promoting and arming rebel groups that plan to destroy Assad and conquer all of Syria. Assad hopes to drive Turkish backed groups from the country. The two will come into conflict sooner than later. Their common enmity for the Kurds is a bad foundation for understanding.

Turkey will become drawn into the Syrian quagmire. Kurdish groups and some Arab militias will begin to attack the Turkish presence in Syria. This will suck Turkey into the fighting. The Syrian gov & Russia will promote these attacks. They have an interest in bleeding Turkey. They hope it will make Ankara more amenable to compromise. Turkey has already been weakened by the burden of refugees, renewed war with the Kurds, exacerbated internal secular-religious (Sunni-Shiite) discord, the failed coup attempt, the collapse of its Zero Enemies policy, and a sinking economy. Sending Turkish forces into Syria is only likely to continue this downward spiral. Turkish direct participation in the Syria conflict is unlikely to lead to a solution. Rather it is likely to prolong Syria’s agony. If we have learned anything from the Syrian conflict it is that the more external actors are willing to provide money, arms and firepower to Syrian proxies, the longer the war will gone on and the less likely one side is to win.

3. If US insisted on Turkey’s operation, does this mean US didn’t expect Turkey to attack YPG? Now that Turkish forces are hitting them, do you expect US to withdraw its air support? 

The US made it clear to the YPG that it had to pull its forces back east of the Euphrates. This means that if they remain in the Menbij area or continue to try to build a continuous state between Afrin and Kobani, Turkey and its Arab militia allies will attack them. The main question today is whether the US will come to the YPG’s defense should Turkey or its proxies pursue it’s fighters east of the Euphrates.

4. Do assume Turkey will stay there for long?

I believe that Turkey will have to play a long-term role in northern Syria if it is to ensure the survival of its proxy militias and permanently keep out the YPG and Assad forces. They will not give up their ambitions to control the area. The Arab militias are a weak reed upon which to build a Turkish policy in Syria.

5. My last question is: Don’t you think that Turkey, Russia and Assad have reached an agreement? Ankara may have promised Putin that it will slowly withdraw its support for the Arab militias around Aleppo and will keep silent about Asad; whereas Putin may have approved Turkey’s operation and promised to withdraw its jets from that area and its support for the Kurds. What do you think?

Yes, indeed, the three governments seem to have struck an accord.  The Russians did not object to Turkey’s intervention to stop the YPG, suggesting an understanding. Of course, the Syrian government did object, but it had to.

This suggests that an agreement between the parties was arrived at. Russia and the Syrian government would insist that Turkey’s intervention be limited in scope. We still don’t know to what extent, or if Turkey has agreed to cut off arms supplies to the rebels. But we can assume that the softening of Turkey’s position that Assad must step down is part of this understanding. It is quite clear that the United States no longer expects the rebels to win in Syria. The Turkish government also seems to have resigned itself to the survival of the Assad government in the medium term if not indefinitely.

Turkey’s acceptance of Assad’s survival are the terms being demanded by Damascus for cooperation in thwarting YPG expansion. How far Erdogan will go in articulating such an acceptance or cutting off assistance to the rebels remains unclear.

Turkey’s direct entry into Syria does raise the likelihood that Syria will be partitioned between areas controlled by the government, Arab rebels and Kurds.

Syrian Hezbollah Militias of Nubl and Zahara’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Syrian Shi’i towns of Nubl and Zahara’ to the north of Aleppo city, like other Shi’i areas in Syria, have been associated with support for the regime from the outset. In addition, given that the religious affiliation (Twelver Shi’i Islam) happens to coincide with that of Iran and its Lebanese client Hezbollah that are leading backers of the regime, Nubl and Zahara’ have become one of many areas for the building of the concept of a native Syrian Hezbollah and ‘Islamic Resistance’ (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

At least two Syrian Hezbollah militias I have documented elsewhere have recruited people from Nubl and Zahara’. One of these militias is the National Ideological Resistance (Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi, whose name translates as ‘The Imam Mahdi Army’). The militia’s home base is in the Tartous-Masyaf area, but it has also fought in the Aleppo area, recently claiming a ‘martyr’ in the latest round of engagements as the regime seeks to impose a siege on the rebel-held eastern parts of Aleppo city. Back in February 2015, the group claimed a ‘martyr’ originally from Zahara’ as part of fighting in the Ratyan area just to the east of Nubl and Zahara’. The other Syrian Hezbollah militia of relevance here is Quwat al-Ridha (The al-Ridha Forces, named for the eighth Shi’i imam). Like the National Ideological Resistance, its recruiting base primarily lies elsewhere: in this case, in the Homs area. However, it has also recruited some people from other areas including Nubl and Zahara’, as we will also see below.

Besides the aforementioned Syrian Hezbollah groups that have recruited people from Nubl and Zahara’, there exist at least two formations that have a similar image but are specifically intended to recruit from these two towns. The older formation is called Junud al-Mahdi (‘Soldiers of the Mahdi’), while the more recent formation is called Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (‘Imam Hujja Regiment’, also a reference to the Mahdi). In terms of affiliation, there is no difference between these two groups. According to a person from Nubl presently residing in Damascus and another person from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha but now works in Hezbollah’s information portfolio and is currently in Iran, both Junud al-Mahdi and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja are affiliated with Hezbollah. These groups will be documented below.

For further context, it should be emphasized that recruitment for militias is not the only evidence of Hezbollah activity in the area: there also exists a branch of the group’s youth wing- the Imam Mahdi Scouts- that has apparently been operating since at least 2012. With organisation into area sectors as well as multiple contingents and sub-divisions, the Imam Mahdi Scouts engage in outreach to the local youth with activities like swimming trips, hiking and religious lessons including the promotion of Iran’s ideology of wilayat al-faqih. In March 2015, a leader in the Imam Mahdi Scouts from Nubl- Abdo Mahdi Saman– was killed in fighting. Interestingly, one source listing ‘martyrdoms’ among regime personnel in the Aleppo area at the time presented him as “from the men of the local defence,” adding that he was killed on the front of the periphery of Aleppo international airport. The ‘local defence’ here refers to the Local Defence Forces (LDF), regime auxiliary forces specific to Aleppo with roots in a variety of pro-Assad networks in the province. The LDF was set up in 2012 by Iran, and one of the formations in the LDF comes from Nubl and Zahara’. Thus, here in the case of Saman is a notable case of apparent overlap in affiliations pointing further to the links between the LDF and Hezbollah that I have previously examined in looking at the LDF in-depth.

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Emblem of the Imam Mahdi Scouts for the Nubl and Zahara’ area. Note the Syrian flag in the emblem.

Junud al-Mahdi

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A logo for Junud al-Mahdi. Besides the familiar extended arm and rifle associated with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a distinctly Syrian flavour is added through painting over the globe (which signifies the concept of the global Islamic Revolution envisioned by Iran) with the Syrian flag. The figures to the left of the arm and rifle are Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. On top: “The soldiers of the Mahdi are those who overcome” (a play on the concept of Hezbollah as “the party of God”- cf. ‘The party of God are those who overcome’- Qur’an 5:56). On bottom: “The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

The exact date of the formation of Junud al-Mahdi remains unclear and open-source information on the group remains scarce, though one source currently in Nubl, who did not know the exact date of formation, said “possibly [the group dates] from the beginning of the Syrian crisis in Aleppo,” which would place its origins in 2012 if correct, perhaps around the same time Hezbollah set up the Imam Mahdi Scouts branch for Nubl and Zahara’. Clear references to Junud al-Mahdi can be found at least as far back as 2014. For example, a post from July 2014 mentions operations at the time against rebels to the northeast of Aleppo city (in particular the area of the industrial quarter of Sheikh Najjar and its vicinity) involving Junud al-Mahdi. In particular, there is mention of a “squadron of 100 persons from the elite of the youth of Nubl and Zahara’ under the name of Junud al-Mahdi, being aided by a group from Hezbollah.” Ultimately, these operations culminated in the rebels’ loss of the Sheikh Najjar area in early July 2014.

Later in 2014, a reference turns up for Junud al-Mahdi in relation to operations in a variety of locations in north Aleppo and Aleppo city, such as in Handarat, al-Jubeila and the cement factory area. Other formations mentioned at the time include a Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas contingent, and a Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ (Nubl and Zahara’ Martyrs Regiment), which appears to be the same as the local LDF formation for Nubl and Zahara’. Turning to the current year, it is possible to find at least one reference to Junud al-Mahdi, as per below.

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“From the land of battle live: the finest youth of Junud al-Mahdi: Ratyan.” For context, the person responsible for this post, Abbas Assaf, comes from the local Assaf family of Nubl. Similarly, my source from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha is also from the Assaf family. As with many militias in the Syrian civil war, fighters from Nubl and Zahara’ often come from the same families and households, as illustrated by recurring family names.

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Graphic for the Assaf family of Nubl, incorporating the extended arm and rifle, playing on the idea of Hezbollah as the family’s “military wing” (al-junah al-askari).

Information on ‘martyrs’ of Junud al-Mahdi likewise remains obscure. A page named for Junud al-Mahdi and active in 2015 named a number of people apparently as ‘martyrs’ for the group. Some of these individuals can be matched with some members of a series of six ‘martyrs’ who were killed in the Ratyan area in February 2015 but were only buried in June 2015 following an exchange of bodies between the regime and rebels. Their ‘martyrdom’ placards notably featured the flag of Hezbollah.

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Nahad Ahmad Dib

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Hussein Mahdi

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On left: Taher Mustafa Khatib


Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja

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Emblem of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja. On bottom: “Nubl and Zahara’.” As with the Junud al-Mahdi emblem, note the extended arm and rifle.

Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja is the newer Nubl and Zahara’ formation affiliated with Hezbollah. According to my source from Nubl who was in Quwat al-Ridha, Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja was formed approximately 8 months ago, which would put its formation in January 2016. It may reasonably be asked what was the purpose in setting up this group at the beginning of this year considering the already existing Hezbollah affiliate for Nubl and Zahara’ in Junud al-Mahdi. It is possible that Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja was set up to coincide with the intense push led by Shi’i militias at the time to break the rebel sieges of Nubl and Zahara’, a goal that was achieved at the beginning of February 2016. More generally, there is a familiar modus operandi here in the creation of multiple linked groups that can help to create the impression of a bigger overall front.

A distinct flag and distinct insignia can be identified for Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, as seen below.

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Ali Abd al-Ghanni al-Taqi, a fighter from Nubl recently announced to have been killed fighting in south Aleppo countryside. With the breaking of the siege of eastern Aleppo by rebel forces in opening a corridor through Ramousah in the southwest of Aleppo city, additional forces from Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja and Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ have reportedly mobilized to participate in the fighting.

Similar to Junud al-Mahdi, an official page to track Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja is lacking, and so information on its activities must be compiled from patches of different source material. In April 2016, at least 11 people from Nubl and Zahara’ were reported to have been killed fighting in the area of al-Eis in the south Aleppo countryside. From another source, at least 4 of the individuals listed can apparently be identified as members of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja. The following month, it was reported that convoys from Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, Fawj Shuhada’ Nubl wa al-Zahara’ and Fawj al-Tadakhkhul al-Khas were departing from Nubl and Zahara’ to support the Syrian army in Aleppo city. In June 2016, following the onset of Ramadan, another set of ‘martyrs’ from Nubl and Zahara’ were declared (not all killed on the same day), at least one of whom was identified in another posting as a member of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (specifically one Mansour al-Abras), identified as “a new martyr in the series of martyrs of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja.” Finally, of note regarding the ‘martyrs’ of Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja, a commander called Ali Muhammad Mustafa Khalil (known by the nickname al-Zilzal) was announced on 9 July 2016 to have been killed. A more detailed biography subsequently emerged, which stated that he was from Nubl, was 34 years old and had two children. He had reputedly participated in the Aleppo fighting from the outset and eventually received a leadership position in Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja.

Conclusion

In terms of the building of the ‘Islamic Resistance’ in Syria, the Syrian Shi’i communities represent the most fertile ground for Hezbollah and Iran to give a native Syrian face to the concept, taking advantage of the shared religious affiliation and playing on the sectarian atmosphere, reinforced by sieges that the rebels have imposed on their villages. Though multiple local formations exist for the Nubl and Zahara’ area, the boundaries between them are unsurprisingly not so clear-cut, and it can be difficult to tell individuals apart by affiliation. In the end though, Syrian Shi’a are still a very small minority in the country. A big question in assessing the potential to build a Syrian ‘Islamic Resistance’/Hezbollah movement is how far there can also be successful outreach to other sects and components of society within regime-held Syria. In the predominantly Druze Suwayda’ province, for example, there have been concerns- especially among more third-way circles- regarding Iranian/Hezbollah outreach and a suspected Shi’ification campaign. These issues of wider networking will be examined further in future posts.