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The Massacre of Druze Villagers in Qalb Lawza, Idlib Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

On 10 June, a number of people in the village of Qalb Lawza- one of a collection of Druze villages in the Jabal al-Summaq region of Idlib province- were massacred in a confrontation with members of Jabhat al-Nusra, which dominates the area.  Below are the names of those killed as a result of this clash. As is apparent from the family and middle names, many of these individuals appear to be close relatives of each other.

1. Sheikh Nadim Faris Shaheen
2. Sheikh Rasheed Sa’ad
3. Milad An’am Allah Razaq
4. Fakher Ahmad al-Shabali
5. Fakhro Ahmad al-Shabali
6. Ahmad Fakhro al-Shabali
7. Man’am Fakhro al-Shabali
8. Faraj Fakhro al-Shabali
9. Muhammad Sharif Aqfali
10. Faraj Fakhro al-Shabali
11. Aymenn Muhammad Aqfali
12. Maymun Muhammad Aqfali
13. Wissam Nazhat Hussein
14. Manhal Nazhat Hussein
15. Melham Faris Shaheen
16. Ahmad Muhammad Hussein
17. Muhammad Ahmad Hussein
18. Badro Khayro al-Shabali
19. Khayro Badro al-Shabali
20. Lami’ Thabit al-Shabali
21.  Hayder Fariz al-Shabali
22. Khayro Thabit al-Shabali
23. Rashad Faysal al-Shabali

MuhammadAqfali
Muhammad Sharif Aqfali (Abu Aymenn)

BadroShabali
Badro Khayro al-Shabali

AymennAqfali
Aymenn Muhammad Aqfali, son of Abu Aymenn above.

MaymunAqfali
Maymun Muhammad Aqfali

RashadShabali
Rashad Faysal al-Shabali

SheikhRasheed
Sheikh Rasheed Sa’ad

AhmadHussein
Ahmad Muhammad Hussein (Abu Muhammad)

Before giving the more immediate context of these killings, it should be noted that Qalb Lawza is one of the Druze villages in Idlib whose inhabitants were compelled at the beginning of this year to renounce the Druze faith and accept Sunni Islam at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, including destruction of Druze shrines and other Jabhat al-Nusra regulations such as gender segregation. These impositions have not been cancelled and remain in force to this day, which became clear not only in an interview carried out by Syria Direct in March 2015, but also most recently from the testimony of a resident of another of the villages- Kaftin- who agreed to speak to this author in the aftermath of the massacre on condition of anonymity. This is so despite supposed mediation efforts by Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, who has tried to convince the Syrian Druze that their best interests will be guaranteed by throwing their weight behind the rebellion, even as Jabhat al-Nusra is heavily intertwined with that rebellion. Indeed, Jumblatt himself acknowledges the group’s important role in the broader insurgency, and has thus tried to downplay its status as a jihadist threat and al-Qa’ida affiliate. Nor have other rebel groups in Idlib province been able to mediate to cancel or mitigate this Islamization program imposed on the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq.

Not only has much media coverage of this latest incident in Qalb Lawza overlooked these facts, but Jabhat al-Nusra leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani has also tried to spin his group’s treatment of the Druze in his interview with al-Jazeera that reflects a clear attempt to legitimise the group as a mainstream opposition force: commenting on the interviewer’s praise of Jabhat al-Nusra’s ostensible protection of the Druze villages, Jowlani portrayed his group’s approach as one of mere da’wah (proselytization) and acceptance. It is true that Jabhat al-Nusra has generally not harmed the inhabitants of these villages, but only because they have accepted the imposed Islamization program, which is possible through religious dissimulation: in other words, true faith is in the heart, not outward practice, as one pro-regime Druze contact put it to this author at the time the impositions first came to light. In this context, one should note a statement issued from the village of Kaftin in early May 2015, officially denying allegations of mistreatment. Reading more closely, one soon realises this statement is an affirmation of the acceptance of the imposition of Sunni Islam and a call for other Druze to follow in this path:

“We the peoples of Jabal al-Summaq reject and condemn all who write about the situation of our land and they do not know the truth. The reality in which we live is that we are all well and no one attacks or oppresses us, and we are living in this land and our program/direction is the Book of God [Qur’an] and the Sunnah of His Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). And we confirm that we have the same rights as our Muslim brothers and what is upon them is upon us from the obligations in accordance with what Islamic law demands, as brought in the noble Hadith: ‘…Be brothers, servants of God. The Muslim is the brother of the Muslim: he does not oppress him, nor does he fail him, nor does he despise him…Every Muslim is sacrosanct on the Muslim, including his blood, wealth and honour.’ As for what has been mentioned in the media regarding the opening of our homes to our Muslim brothers, we have undertaken our human and Shari’a obligation, and we have offered aid to the poor.

And we confirm that we have been present in our land for thousands of years and no one has been able to make us leave, force us to migrate, or challenge our Arab identity because we are genuine Arabs from the descendants of Qahtan. We have roots in history and deep ethnic and primordial roots in Arab identity and Islam. And our Ansar ancestors who supported Our Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in al-Madina al-Munawara, and when a part of our affair was reduced, our poet, the companion Nu’man bin Bashir al-Ansari said:

[…]

On the basis of the guidance of our Prophet al-Mustafa (PBUH), indeed religion is advice and we call on all to return to the authentic Book of God…and that (God) place us and them among the guided guiders calling to God the Lord of the Worlds. And we urge all who have deviated from the authentic path through ignorance or knowingly to correct their path and return to the straight path […]

Kaftin: 20 Rajab  1436 AH”

Unlike the Druze areas of the south, which have seen many soldiers fight and die for the Syrian army even as resistance to conscription has grown, the Druze villages of Jabal al-Summaq have generally been known for a neutral stance towards the conflict, while giving refuge to displaced persons, as the Kaftain statement also affirms. This author’s contact from Kaftin, for instance, claims to have hosted 80 displaced people since the regime first attacked the villages that rose up in revolt. He also says only a handful of people from Jabal al-Summaq have joined armed groups in this conflict.

However, since becoming dominant in Jabal al-Summaq, Jabhat al-Nusra has been confiscating properties in the area of people living outside the villages, either giving them to their own members to dwell in or to internally displaced persons. In the latest case in Qalb Lawza, Jabhat al-Nusra seems to have tried to confiscate the home of a man living in regime-held Syria, on the grounds that he is a soldier in the regime army. This home though was apparently within the property of relatives of the man, who confronted members of the group as they were trying to build a wall on the property, eventually leading to an opening of fire on residents by the Jabhat al-Nusra members.

In a statement on the incident in Qalb Lawza, Jabhat al-Nusra describes the event as an “unjustified error that occurred without the leadership’s knowledge, and the village and its people continue to live securely and calmly under our protection and in areas of our control,” while declaring that those involved in the mishap will come before a Shari’a court to ascertain what happened and decide on the appropriate rulings. Further, Jabhat al-Nusra claims it has only directed its arms against those who have infringed on the “blood and honour of the Muslims from the gangs of the criminal Nusayri [Alawite] army, the heretic khawarij [Islamic State] and the gangs of the corrupt ones,” while portraying itself as transparent: “the doors of Jabhat al-Nusra are open to all.” Yet the statement makes no explicit reference to Druze at all, and in talking of defending Muslims, sugarcoats the real reason why the inhabitants of this village and others in Jabal al-Summaq are officially protected.

A number of rebel groups (Ahrar al-Sham, Levant Front, Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Kata’ib Thuwar al-Sham, ‘Go on the Right Path as You Have Been Ordered’ grouping) also issued a joint statement on the incident, differing somewhat from Jabhat al-Nusra’s account of the events in that Ahrar al-Sham is given the role of mediator and putting a stop to the bloodshed. Unlike Jabhat al-Nusra, the statement explicitly makes reference to “sons of the Druze sect” in reference to Qalb Lawza, and hails their “support for the Syrian revolution and giving refuge to the sons of their homeland who have fled from all areas of Idlib province under pressure of the bombing of the Assad regime and its criminal actions.” The statement continues with a condemnation of the incident,  a call for neutral Shari’a court arbitration, a declaration of the incident as a contravention of Islam that forbids the unjust spilling of blood of members of any sect, and a promise to work to coordinate with members of all other sects to prevent this kind of incident from happening again in “liberated areas.” Declaring (like Jabhat al-Nusra’s statement) that arms are only to be directed at the regime, the Islamic State and their allies, the joint declaration concludes with an ostensible non-sectarian stance that the “revolution is a people’s revolution.”

Impressive as the joint statement may sound, it is still problematic in overlooking the point that Jabhat al-Nusra has forced the Druze of Jabal al-Summaq to profess Sunni Islam, and there is little these rebel groups can do about it. Indeed, considering how closely they have all coordinated particularly in the recent Idlib gains that have almost entirely expelled the regime presence from Idlib, the other rebels cannot afford a full-blown confrontation with Jabhat al-Nusra.

More generally, Jabhat al-Nusra’s treatment of the Druze of Idlib reflects two different strands of the group that have emerged. On the one hand, in areas it dominates/controls as strongholds, the group exhibits a more hardline face through its Dar al-Qada judicial front body and its implementation of Islamic law, even though there is no pretence to being a complete state in the manner the Islamic State presents itself: that is, whereas the Islamic State claims its own services departments like the Diwan al-Khidamat, in its own strongholds Jabhat al-Nusra appears to allow independent civilian service councils to function. On the other hand, Jabhat al-Nusra’s embedding within the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition and its advances reflects the traditional picture of the group that emerged over the course of the Syrian civil war as a conciliatory force willing to work with other factions militarily and in administration of newly taken areas, only pursuing a very gradualist strategy of consolidation.

Finally, analysts should consider how this incident in Qalb Lawza will resonate with the Druze in the south as rebels edge into Suwayda province with the fight over Tha’ala airbase. More mainstream rebels in the south may try to reassure the Druze they have no interest in sectarian bloodshed, but the ongoing coordination with Jabhat al-Nusra may prevent the alleviation of concerns regarding the rebels’ intentions.

The Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik? — by Mohammad Ataie

Mohammed AtaieThe Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik?

by Mohammad Ataie

 

They are witnessing the Islamic awakening and feel profoundly imperiled by the spreading idea of political Islam and the rule of Islam.”

“The project of political Islam has failed, and there should be no mixing between political and religious work.”

These two contradictory remarks were made in the wake of the Arab “revolutions,” not by two rival Middle Eastern leaders, but by two longtime allies in the region. The first statement is from Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has described the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic Awakening.” The second came from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has called political Islam a “plague” and asserts that Syria is “the last stronghold of secularism” in the region. The conflicting statements run against the grain of the dominant narrative that describes Damascus-Tehran partnership as sectarian and its raison d’état the creation of a “Shi‘a crescent.” In the past four years, the mainstream media and pundits have had a tendency to overplay the split between the Sunni and Shi‘a to explain the sanguinary war in Syria. In doing so, they have reduced the manifold crisis and the complexity of the Damascus-Tehran relationship to a simplified narrative of Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism.

As a key feature of the modern Middle East, the Syrian-Iranian axis has been an important factor in shaping the geopolitics of the region in the past three decades. The partnership between a pan-Arab secular state and a Persian Islamic Republic—and the longevity of this alliance—has always triggered the curiosity of observers, to which a plethora of academic and journalistic writing attests. Some observers, especially critics of the alliance, tend to trace the roots of the relationship to the reign of the Shi‘i clergy in Iran and the Alawite in Syria and simply conclude that religious affinity has been inherent in the formation and continuation of the partnership. This sectarian narrative, so prevalent in the mainstream media, downplays significant political disagreements between Damascus and Tehran and overlooks the irony of the paradox in their ideological foundations—a factor which has indeed been vital for perpetuating the alliance.

Contrary to notions of post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy as fanatic and purely religiously driven, the Islamic Republic’s partnership with Ba‘thist Syria was not constructed on a spiritual basis to spread Shi‘a ideology. Rather it was primarily aimed at reaching out to the Sunni movements in the Arab East, a policy that was in line with Tehran’s overall strategy to present itself as the heart of Muslim revolutionary struggles and a champion of resistance for both Sunni and Shi‘i movements. To export the revolution, the clergy in Tehran established ties with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, including its Syrian branch, as well as Sunni clerical factions in Lebanon. This alliance lent a very credible Sunni dimension to the Islamic Republic’s policy.

Bashar al-Assad receiving a big gleaming golden "Allah" from Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran's Parliament after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, December 2014

Bashar al-Assad receiving a big shiny golden “Allah” from Ali Larijani, the speaker of Iran’s Parliament after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Damascus, Dec. 2014

The unification of Islam’s two sects has been central to post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s leaders advocated this kind of Muslim unity and issued fatwas that banned the fomenting of disagreements harmful to “the brotherhood of Muslims.” Through specific support for the Palestinian cause and symbolic initiatives such as the declaration of the Week of Unity between the Shi‘a and Sunni, Iran has sought to create a united Islamic front against the common enemies of the umma, i.e. the Muslim community. This approach in Iran’s regional policy has continued under the current leader of Iran, who has repeatedly stated that “Iran does not seek to Persianize Arabs or convert other Muslims to Shi‘ism. Iran is after … reviving the Islamic umma.”

The Islamic Republic’s effort to shed its image as a Shi‘i entity and assume an Islamic universalist discourse should be seen in the historical context of Iran’s ethnic and religious isolation in the region. Historically, Iran’s identification with the Shi‘a has been an obstacle to claiming a universalist Islamic mantle and gave its regional rivals a pretext for depicting it as heretical Persian entity. Iran’s regional rivals have been able to undermine Tehran’s endeavor to overcome these ethnic and cultural barriers to its regional influence by highlighting Iran’s Shi‘i and Persian characteristics. This partly explains why media affiliated with Saudi Arabia and Qatar constantly project a provocative sectarian image of Tehran’s involvement in the region to both demonize the clergy and mobilize Sunni public opinion.

For Tehran, the paramount importance of Syria is its geographic location at the heart of the Arab East and its historic role as a bastion for pan-Arabism. This ideological weight was significant during the Iraq-Iran war when Hafez al-Assad’s support blunted Saddam Hussein’s anti-Iranian propaganda and prevented the conflict from becoming an all-Arab war against Persians. Syria is an essential link to the frontline of the struggle with Israel and an entry point into the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas. For Iran, an unfriendly regime or a power vacuum in Damascus, resulting in the spread of extremists to neighboring countries, would jeopardize Iran’s allies in both Lebanon and Iraq. The partnership between a divine state in Iran and a secular Baʿthist Syria is in the first place a product of these historical and geostrategic factors.

The irony of this alliance is that the two states espouse contradictory ideologies. At odds with prevailing views, it is not religious affinity but ideological disagreement that has been a crucial factor in the longevity of the Syrian–Iranian axis. As Jubin Goodarzi argues in his book about Syria–Iran relations, “in the Middle East, the record clearly shows that states sharing a common ideology compete for the mantle of leadership rather than form durable alliances.” An example of this is that despite the structural and ideological similarities between Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s regimes, the unity plans between the two Baathist parties in the 1970s ended in failure and animosity partly because each claimed to be the legitimate leader of Ba‘thist pan-Arabism.

The ideological paradox, however, did exact a toll on the Syria–Iran relationship in the formative years of the alliance. In the 1980s, the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was concerned with the export of the Islamic Revolution and connections between Iran and his Muslim Brotherhood opposition. While Iran’s relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood remained limited, the clergy’s support for radical Sunni factions and Hezbollah, an alternative to the pro-Syrian secular Amal, led to major tensions between Damascus and Tehran in Lebanon. Likewise, the Iranian clergy were upset with anti-Islamic practices of the ruling Ba‘thists. Around the same time that the ayatollahs in Iran imposed an Islamic dress code on women, the Ba‘thists in Syria sought to enforce the unveiling of women and to target any public Islamic symbols that could bear a trace of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iranian diplomats in Syria were appalled by the Ba‘thist’s extreme policies, such as harassing ordinary people merely for their Islamic look. At one point Syrian security forces even arrested an Iranian diplomat and his chadur-clad wife in a Damascus street and took them into custody believing that they were Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

Even though the current turmoil has made Damascus heavily reliant on Tehran, political and ideological contradictions are still apparent in their foreign policy. President Bashar al-Assad calls political Islam “a plague that hit the Islamic world” and has proclaimed that “the project of political Islam has failed.” This is in stark contrast to the Islamic Republic’s promulgation of political Islam in the region. From the very beginning of the Arab uprisings, Iran’s leader called them an Islamic Awakening and declared that this “unique historical moment” would usher in Islamist governments in place of pro-West authoritarian regimes. But for Assad, “Arab uprisings have only brought chaos.”

The paradox of the alliance between the Iranian clergy and secular Ba‘thists of Syria is one of the most intriguing aspects of the partnership between the “odd couple.” The alliance’s survival to this day despite various internal contradictions and regional differences remains an exceptional phenomenon in the history of the modern Middle East. The Damascus-Tehran relationship should be primarily analyzed in this context and not by the two states’ common Shi‘i roots. Recognizing the complexity of the historical and geopolitical factors behind the alliance would provide insights into building a common ground with Iran over solving regional problems, including the conflict in Syria.

* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A previous post from Mohammad can be viewed here.

Outstanding Book & Article on Syria. Prizes by Syrian Studies Association

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

Charles Wilkins

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

In 2015, the SSA seeks submissions for the most outstanding book published between July 1, 2013 and July 1, 2015, and the most outstanding article or book chapter published between July 1, 2014 and July 1, 2015.

In order to be considered for the prize, candidates must join the association. Information about the Syrian Studies Association is available at the our website.

Submissions in languages other than English are welcomed.  Articles should be sent electronically. Books can be sent either electronically or in hard copy.

The deadline for submissions is July 15, 2015.

All submissions should be sent to Charles Wilkins, Chair of the Prize Committee, at the following address: charleslwilkins@gmail.com.

Winners will be announced at the SSA annual meeting in November 2015. Inquiries should be directed to Charles Wilkins.

“Is Zahran Alloush in Amman?” by Aron Lund

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.

zahranAccording to rumors doing the rounds now, the Islam Army leader Mohammed Zahran Alloush has traveled to Amman to meet with foreign intelligence services and coordinate a purge of Islamic State and al-Qaeda elements in Syria.

Zahran Alloush is the most powerful rebel leader in the Damascus region. A Sunni Islamist of the salafi tendency, he is the son of a Saudi-based Syrian theologian named Abdullah Alloush. He ran into trouble with the authorities long before the uprising and was held in Seidnaia Prison until June 2011, when he was freed in an amnesty.

Upon his release, he immediately began to construct the armed faction now known as the Islam Army, which eventually grew into the most powerful militia in his hometown Douma. He now controls the Unified Command in the Eastern Ghouta, an area of satellite towns, suburbs, and farming communities on the outskirts of Damascus, which includes Douma. The Eastern Ghouta region has been under government siege for much of the uprising, turning it into an enclave; inside that enclave, Zahran Alloush is by far the most powerful leader. He is a controversial figure, however, and has been accused of silencing dissent by force.

The Unified Command and its member factions are mostly Sunni Islamists of some variety, but with considerable personal and even ideological differences between factions. Together, they have fought hard to root out the Islamic State from the Damascus region, but they have so far cooperated with al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front (which is not part of the Unified Command). The idea of starting a war with the Nusra Front would be controversial among other rebels. Many are wary of Nusra’s extremism and international agenda, but they see no urgent need for diverting resources to fighting the group, which is held in high esteem for its ability to inflict damage on Bashar al-Assad and the Islamic State alike. Being a very useful ally, it would also be a very dangerous enemy. Indeed, some rebels would probably feel inclined to support the Nusra Front rather than Alloush—which is precisely why the topic is so sensitive.

Zahran Alloush Goes to Turkey

In a surprise move, Zahran Alloush recently left his stronghold in the Douma to go to Turkey, where he has been meeting with foreign governments and other rebel leaders. According to recent reports, Abu Mohammed al-Fateh, who is the leader of another Ghouta-based Islamist group, the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, has taken over after Zahran Alloush as head of the Ghouta Unified Command. I have asked two representatives of the Islam Army about this. One says it’s false and has been denied by all involved. The other says it is true but only a temporary arrangement, while Zahran is out of the country.

Whether or not he traveled on to Amman this week, Zahran Alloush’s trip abroad seems to be related to the recent Turkish-Saudi push to empower the Syrian rebels and reorganize the insurgency. A lot of things are happening at the moment, with the quietly Saudi-approved Cairo II conference for moderate opposition members slated to start in Cairo on Tuesday and another conference scheduled for after Ramadan in Riyadh. Meanwhile, President Khaled Khoja of the National Coalition—the Syrian opposition’s internationally recognized exile leadership—has ordered the dissolution of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, a more or less defunct exile body set up in 2012 to coordinate support to the rebellion. Something new will surely take its place. Recent reports suggest a reorganization into a two-pronged structure: the Northern Front and the Southern Front. While the insurgency in the north is a mess, albeit a successful mess, a Southern Front structure already exists, though less as an independent entity than as a label for the groups that are jointly backed and coordinated by Western and Gulf states operating out of Amman.

As these pieces start to fall into place, many suspect that Zahran is being groomed for a bigger role in the new rebel leadership structure—or at the very least, that he is independently angling for one. He may not be the most popular rebel leader in Syria, but he is surely the person most likely to grab the presidential palace if the Assad regime starts to crumble. In a recent interview with the McClatchy news agency, he tried to back away from his previous hateful rhetoric against Shia and Alawite minorities in Syria. It is hard to shake the feeling that this was aimed at making him more acceptable to Syrian and international opinion.

Now, a note of caution: there is no confirmation of these news yet. Instead, the most detailed version of the rumors about Zahran’s meetings in Amman comes from @mujtahidd, an anonymous account on Twitter that is dedicated to critical commentary on Saudi politics. Whoever or whatever is really behind the @mujtahidd account, it has an enormous following in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, but there is no way of confirming these reports—so make of them what you will.

What follows is my quick translation of @mujtahidd’s tweets, which are available in the original Arabic here.

MUJTAHIDD’S TWEETS ON ZAHRAN ALLOUSH’S VISIT TO AMMAN, JUNE 6:

Zahran Alloush spent last week meeting with Saudi, American, and Jordanian intelligence in Amman hotels, in order to coordinate the situation against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front, and for other tasks.

The meeting with the Americans took place a week ago. He met with the Saudis two times: last Friday between 14.30 until 16.00 and on Sunday at 20.00 in the Hayat hotel in Amman.

Saudi intelligence was represented by Abu Badr, who is close to Mohammed bin Nayef. In the first meeting, Zahran Alloush was accompanied by Mohammed Alloush and Abu Ali al-Ajwa. In the second meeting, he was alone.

The goal was to coordinate the war against the Islamic State and the Nusra Front. Alloush said that the war against the Nusra Front will be more difficult to justify than the war on the Islamic State, and that they will have to help him with that.

Alloush was asked to coordinate with the Southern Front, which consists of the remains of what’s left of Jamal Maarouf’s troops and the rest of the mercenaries. A meeting was set up between Alloush and Abu Osama al-Golani, who is one of the leaders of this front.

Alloush started coordinating with the Southern Front to fight the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Deraa and Quneitra. With the Saudis, he discussed replacing the Islam Army flag by the revolutionary flag.

The meetings were arranged by members of the Jordanian intelligence services. No fewer than ten were seen there and several of them attended the meetings.

Despite insisting on the destruction of the the Islamic State and the Nusra Front in all of Syria, the main focus was on keeping the Damascus front in his hands so that he will be able to reap the fruits even if the regime is toppled by someone else.

An interesting point is that the person known as Abu Badr asked in detail about the Muslim Brotherhood’s strength on the various fronts. It was not clear if the question was in order to push them out or to make use of them.

An observation: the meetings took place in the Hayat hotel, but Alloush is living at the Crowne Plaza. Of course, they’re all in Amman. We ask God to expose all the hypocrites.

— Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi Responds to al-Julani’s al-Jazeera Interview

by Matthew Barber

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is a respected Sufi scholar and teacher from Damascus who has been an outspoken voice against IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Throughout the course of the uprising, he has been consulted by rebel fighters seeking guidance regarding their conduct in the war. In this capacity, the Sheikh has provided numerous fatwas against acts of extremism, violence against civilians, sectarian violence, and the killing of prisoners. Sheikh Yaqoubi has previously been interviewed for Syria Comment, and more information on his background and activities can be found in that article.

Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi speaks in Chicago 2014

This past week, Sheikh Yaqoubi published a short book containing a detailed religious argument against the behavior and tactics of IS. The first of its kind, the book is entitled The Obligation to Fight ISIS: A Detailed Fatwa Proving That ISIS Have Strayed from Islam, Opposed Sharīʿah and That Fighting Them is Obligatory. (The title of the Arabic version is: إنقاذُ الأمَّة: فتوﻯٰ مفصلة في إثبات أن داعش خوارج وأن قتالهم واجب) A strong refutation of IS’ ideology, this work is designed to influence Syrian fighters against IS as well as to curb IS’ recruitment of Muslim youth around the world. It can also serve to encourage IS fighters to leave the organization. An Arabic version of the book has just been published in Turkey and is available here; an English version is forthcoming. The book refutes IS on theological grounds for many aspects of its practice and positions, including their revival of slavery practices (for information on IS’ project to enslave Iraqi Yazidis, see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Also this past week, al-Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida organization. Highlights of this interview, translated into English can be read here, and the previous post on Syria Comment deals extensively with the interview. Eyebrows have been raised by what has appeared as an attempt to improve Nusra’s image as a more moderate alternative to IS that does not practice takfir (the practice of declaring a Muslim an unbeliever or apostate).

I spoke with Sheikh Yaqoubi on Friday. He shared with me his current efforts to ideologically combat IS, as well as his thoughts on the way that al-Jazeera handled the interview with al-Julani, the ranking representative of al-Qaida in Syria. Below is our discussion.

 

Sheikh Muhammad, what did you make of al-Jazeera’s interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani?

The interview was fifty minutes of mockery—a scandal for professional journalism. It is unbelievable that al-Jazeera is doing the dirty job of beautifying this man before tens of millions of viewers, ordinary Muslims, telling them that he is a good man who is doing a good job, helping the Syrian people, a good Muslim, a moderate Muslim—he’s not! It was clear from the interview that the ideology of al-Nusra Front has not changed. Al-Julani twice confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaida, saying that he receives orders from its leader Dr. Aymenn [al-Zawahiri], and the interviewer never interjected any question about this. All the interviewer did was attempt to portray him as a nice man. He never asked him a critical question; he never challenged him.

What do you think is happening today that allows an important representative of al-Qaida to be featured on television in an accepting way by a mainstream voice of the media?

This question should be directed to Qatar’s government. Why are they doing this?

The man clearly stated that he hasn’t abandoned any of his principles. He only stated one thing that differs from his earlier positions: he says that he has received orders from al-Qaida leader Dr. Ayman to not target the West. This is the only real [ideological] change from what he conveyed in his earlier interview in 2013. Now they are just trying to get statements from him to the effect that “we do not do takfir.” And yet in the same interview, he confirmed the extreme position that visiting shrines of saints is kufr or shirk, accusing people who visit shrines of being mushrikiin [those who “commit polytheism” by ascribing “partners” to God]. This means he is going to have to consider most Sunni Muslims apostates (which for him could mean having to kill them) because they have shrines of saints and visit them, such as our shrine for Ibn ‘Arabi in the heart of Damascus, or in Konya the shrine for Mawlana Rumi, the most famous Muslim saint in the world. You have saints everywhere, from Morocco to South Africa, from Indonesia to Istanbul. All these Muslims are mushrikiin—non-Muslims, unbelievers—according to him? How can this be? This ideology is alien to the Syrian people and to the nature of Islam in Syria.

And ironically—or perhaps even sarcastically—they are trying to present him as so friendly toward [minority] sects.

As he said that Nusra will not kill Alawites or Druze.

Druze and Alawites—“if they don’t fight us, if they don’t work with Assad,” then they will not kill them.

But he made changing their religion a prerequisite for this.

This is the key moment where the interviewer failed to interrupt to pose any hard questions. He [al-Julani] gave two conditions. The first was that they abandon Assad, or defect—and this is the understandable politics of war. But the second condition, at which the interviewer did not pause to question him, was, when talking about the Druze villages in Idlib, he said “we have sent them duʿāt” [proselytizers], people to correct their dogma or their Islam.” And about Alawites, also he repeated that “if they accept Islam, we’ll be fine with them.” His approach to Druze and Alawites is that they should become Muslims and “then we will accept them,” which differs from the long-established position adopted by Sunnis, such as the Hanafis and Malikis, who accepted these groups and made them equal to the People of the Book. Al-Julani’s position means that Alawites have the only the choices of converting to Islam or being killed; they would not even be extended the option of deportation.

Now, these Alawites and Druze, along with the Isma’ilis, have lived side by side with Sunni Muslims for over a thousand years, and Muslims did not attempt to erase, eradicate, or convert them, even though Muslims had power, as the rulers of the land, such as the Ottomans. This is because it is part of our legal system that these people could be treated as the People of the Book, which means they are full citizens of the countries where they live. It is in the Hanafi school, the Malaki school, it is even one opinion of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

Now I understand the position of the Shafi’is, but it was never practiced, so why pick it up after all these centuries? While the majority of Muslim scholars say that even mushrikiin can be treated as the People of the Book? Imam Malik says this very clearly and so does Abu Hanifa. This was practiced for many centuries in Syria, so why now? Why turn the tables after all of this history and begin forcing people into Islam? Al-Julani wants to claim to be more loyal to Islam than the Muslims? More than the Ottomans, more than the Ayubids, more than the Abbasids, more than the Umayyads, more than the companions of the Prophet? This is very strange.

What Shafi’i position were you referring to?

The Shafi’is said that jizya can only be taken from Christians, Jews, and Magians [Zoroastrians], not from others. But this has never been practiced; the Shafi’i opinion on this has never been followed. We have a rule in fiqh: “Practice takes priority.” In other words, the position of a madhab that becomes majority practice is validated, whereas an opposing position of another madhab, if not followed in a certain land, cannot be practiced there. Therefore the Shafi’i position on this has become invalid in Syria and neighboring countries because it was never adopted by any Muslim government. This is even echoed now by one of the major leaders of the current Salafi-jihadi movement, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who states that the majority opinion on this is superior and should be practiced, and that all should be considered as People of the Book and should not be forced into Islam. He says this on his website.

Help me understand the difference between the Shafi’is on the one side, and the Hanafis and Malikis on the other. Both would agree that the option to pay jizya [rather than convert] is provided to the People of the Book, but the difference is about who is considered People of the Book?

The difference is about who can be annexed to the category, i.e. who can be merged into the People of the Book. It is about whether the “People of the Book” can be extended to include others who can be treated as the People of the Book, or not. Because in the past, when Muslims waged wars, they always offered the enemy three options before fighting: 1) the enemy could become Muslim, 2) they could remain non-Muslim and pay jizya, or 3) they could choose to fight. So for mushrikiin, the payment of jizya was not considered an option, in some opinions. But this was in regards to pagans among the Arabs. And the Hanafis, for example, and the Malikis on a larger scale, and even Ahmad ibn Hanbal according to one narration from him, all quote hadith from the Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, reporting that when he sent people to fight pagan mushrikiin, he asked them to offer [to the latter] all three options. This means that even pagans cannot be forced into Islam, if they choose to pay jizya. There is also another hadith, one about the Magians, in Sahih Bukhari, that says “treat them like the People of the Book.”

So from these proofs, these portions of hadith tradition, among others, scholars and Muslim jurists went on to say that all non-Muslim sects are annexed to the People of the Book. Let me state it clearly: Muslims were not keen on killing people. Muslims tried to save the lives of people under any pretext when any proof was available. They valued human life as God’s creation, so when they found these clear proofs from among the words of the Prophet, they knew that Islam was a religion of mercy, because this is the higher purpose of the shariʿa: mercy—not killing people, not harshness, not savagery.

This was the practiced pattern when Muslims had power. Today Muslims are weak, and a group like al-Nusra thinks that it can survive and become a superpower? This is ridiculous. Muslims were superpowers and controlled two thirds of the world, and they did not eradicate sects. They did not force them into Islam.

So when al-Julani mentioned placing duʿāt among the Druze in Idlib, the interviewer did not interrupt him to question the practice.

He didn’t challenge him at all. The way that al-Julani put it was “we sent missionaries, duʿāt, to them, to correct for them their misunderstandings of Islamic dogma.” But Julani is very aware that Druze are considered non-Muslims in books of theology. When they have freedom, they will identify as Druze.

There is no basis for forcing or pressuring others to enter Islam. In my new book on fighting ISIS, I mention that it is even forbidden to slander a Christian or another non-Muslim. Ibn Nujaim, one of the greatest scholars of fiqh and uṣūl al-fiqh in the Hanafi school, said that it is haram, forbidden, to say to a non-Muslim: “you kāfir,”because it upsets him, and you are not supposed to upset him by pointing out his difference in beliefs. This has been established in Islam for centuries. This is why when I once spoke in America at the Catholic University in Washington, I said that the concept of “tolerance” is alien to us, because tolerance means “bearing up with difficulty,” i.e. doing a favor to the other. It is derived from the Latin verb tolerare which means “to endure pain.” The Muslim relationship toward other sects was not based in “doing the favor” of tolerating them; they considered their separate beliefs as their right. Ibn ʿĀbidīn even says in his book Radd Al-Muḥtār that oppression against non-Muslims is worse than oppression against Muslims.

So where do these people like Julani and Baghdadi come from? But this is what results when they destroy the twelve-century-long corpus of law of the four schools. This is what you get: everyone is implementing his own opinion. Everyone who carries a gun is now a mujtahid or a mufti, producing his own fatwas and acting as judge. They claim to act in reference to the book of Allah and the sunna of his Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, but they act according to their own understanding—or misunderstanding.

Islamic law develops [over time]. One of its beautiful characteristics is its flexibility. We have certain things that are constant over time, things like the pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, and so forth), but then we have things that may evolve and change over time. There are a lot of these things, including jizya. It is not something that is rigidly defined, even though it is mentioned in the Qur’an.

So what do you think was the goal of that interview?

The purpose of the interview seemed to be just to elicit certain statements from al-Julani, particularly that “we don’t do takfir to anyone,” in a way that would increase his appeal to the public. It was a very dangerous interview.

And in the interview we don’t really see a renouncing of takfiri practice or ideology?

No. And even if we did, there is more at issue with al-Qaida than the practice of takfir. For example, anyone who believes in democracy, for them, is a heretic. Another example: any Muslim ruler or country that enters an alliance with or seeks assistance from a non-Muslim country—they become unbelievers. There are many problems with al-Qaida, and the ideology is basically the same as that of ISIS, though ISIS has more extreme practices that have now made al-Qaida look nice. But we know that several thousand fighters moved from al-Nusra to ISIS.

Throughout the Syria conflict, every time a more radical group would appear, it would make the groups preceding it look less bad. People were concerned about Islamist groups, but after Nusra emerged, it began to appear as the bigger threat, making the other Islamists appear more moderate. After ISIS emerged, even Nusra began to look better, simply because it was not as extreme. People would perceive any opposition to whatever was the more extreme party as a good thing.

[laughing] Well if you believe in relativity, then that is the case! But we don’t believe in relativity in this criminal arena. You can’t say that a murderer who kills one person is a saint because someone else is killing more.

Let me ask you how you perceive the recent successes of Nusra and other Islamists. You are someone who wants to see a future peace in Syria, and you see both the Assad regime and Nusra as obstacles to that peace. So when you see Assad losing ground and Nusra or other Islamist groups gaining ground, do you interpret this as a positive or negative development, or neither?

Kicking the regime out of areas like Idlib is definitely good, but the ultimate solution for the crisis in Syria will be political. Sometimes people are happy that a piece of land is liberated, but then you see barrel bombs falling on people morning and night in that area, killing civilians and innocents. So it is good that the regime is now weaker, that more people are safe from the torture of the regime’s prisons, from its special art in killing people. But what we need is to finally reach a political solution, where no fighting takes place.

Until now the regime has refused to talk seriously about any political solution. Do you think that with all its recent losses it may experience enough pressure that going to the negotiating table will become a real possibility?

I think that there may now be an agreement to get rid of Assad. Even Russia and Iran now believe that he has become a burden. But what system would follow? Of course Iran wants to guarantee its own interests in the country, and Russia wants to guarantee its interests. We do not want the major destruction of Damascus. So what is happening now is more military pressure on the regime to bring it to the negotiating table, where hopefully Assad could step down, an interim council would be created to which power would be handed over, and we would eventually witness a new Syria.

If that doesn’t happen and the present fight continues to move, say to Latakia or Damascus, the destruction will just go on.

Let me say this: continuing the fight is no longer in the interest of Syrians.

Including the opposition.

Including the opposition because the opposition is not in power and is not represented by the people fighting on the ground. Those fighting are mainly extreme groups like ISIS and others who want to impose their own version of Islam, which is alien to the moderate Sunni Islam that the region has known for centuries. When you look at the four schools you realize that Islam is not about killing. For example, Islamic penalties could not be implemented in times of war, times of famine, times of ignorance and so forth. By putting Islamic penalties on hold, I am not challenging the book of Allah or the sunna. I am not challenging the books of fiqh. I am precisely following the reliable opinion of every school of law. Shariʿa is not about Islamic penalties; these extreme groups have reduced shariʿa to Islamic penalties, they have reduced shariʿa to jizya for non-Muslims. What about truthfulness, what about mercy, what about respect for citizens, what about protecting life? Islam is about these things.

Tell me about the new book you have written. It is a long fatwa about IS. What do you hope to accomplish with it?

First of all, I have seen a lot of need, from inside Syria and from around the world. From inside Syria I receive questions from fighters and commanders, from certain military groups, asking whether they should engage in the war against ISIS, asking whether ISIS are Muslims and whether they can fight against Muslims. And from non-Muslims around the world, you are aware how much fuss there is about ISIS and its crimes, especially after the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Allah have mercy on him. So I saw the strong need [for an authoritative religious response to this], and there was only the one letter that was issued before, that I cosigned [www.lettertobaghdadi.com], but which did not go into enough detail regarding the proofs for the refutation of ISIS, but which mainly presented the basics. So I wrote this book directing the reader to the major positions held by ISIS, such as allegiance to Baghdadi and its validity, kidnapping, burning, slavery. Slavery is one of the major issues and I mentioned that as jurists, doctors of the law, from an Islamic point of view we are bound by international law on the issue, which we [Muslim countries] have signed, and Muslims must not breach their promises. Slavery should not be practiced and cannot be practiced; it is now forbidden in Islam for it to be practiced. This does not contradict the book of Allah or the sunna of the Prophet; it is rather in conjunction with them, because in Islam we are ordered to respect our covenants and contracts. Before the coming of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed participated in a covenant called the Hilf al-Fudūl that was made among tribes in Mecca to protect the oppressed. And after the message of Islam had come, the Prophet said that if he was again invited to such an accord that he would agree to it. So slavery in Islam is not obligatory; it is not the only option. Slavery was one option in Islam only because it was practiced in the world into which Islam came, and if the world comes to agree on abolishing it, we are bound by this. Even more so because our enemies do not enslave us. The only case in which slavery could still be applied would be if the world were to abolish the Declaration of Human Rights and begin to enslave Muslims. In such a scenario, Muslims could enslave their enemies as a kind of reciprocity. But this is impossible, an entirely imaginary hypothesis. There is now no place for slavery at all; it is out of the question.

Now when we spoke in 2013, you mentioned that many fighters were seeking your religious guidance, sometimes about relations with other groups, sometimes about fighting the regime. As the first sheikh to issue a fatwa validating resistance against the regime after its use of violence against the peaceful protesters, you played an important role in legitimizing the armed struggle of the opposition. I wonder now, in early 2015, whether similar numbers of fighters still consult you.

No. The reason is that many moderate fighters, for financial reasons or for lack of weapons and arms support, moved to join with al-Nusra or others. Three years ago there were so many military groups on the ground. Many of them were moderate and were fighting for a new Syria, and their goal was to take out the regime, not to create that form of a state which Nusra or ISIS is seeking to establish now. We all know that many Syrian fighters are now with ISIS or Nusra—they are well paid. Many looked at the international community with frustration, because they didn’t see any support.

But some still contact me and I have received requests from some of the major military groups that still exist, from around the country. Their questions now are not about the regime but mainly concern fighting ISIS.

How much practical influence do you think that your book can have?

It is designed to impact three target groups. The first group is the fighters inside Syria.

And can it physically reach them?

Yes. One major rebel group inside Syria has already requested 10,000 copies of it. A second group has requested 5,000 copies. These are good signs. They want to educate their fighters, to discuss what is right and wrong, who represents Islam, and what kind of Islam is to be practiced. So this is very encouraging. And this is just in the first few days. By the way, I have published 25,000 copies [in Turkey, to be distributed to Syrian fighters] at my own expense. I have had no sponsors. But we are expecting that 100,000 copies will eventually be needed.

The second target group for the book is the youth outside of Syria, around the world, who are at risk for recruitment. They can be reached online, and when they read this book they will realize that ISIS does not represent Islam. Through this effort we will try to minimize the levels of recruitment. That is why there are versions in both Arabic and English.

And the third target group is academia and the media. I receive a lot of questions from both academia and the media about the legal stance of Islam and the various schools on these issues, and this work can help answer those questions from concerned observers.

We are hopeful about the potential of this book and feel that its reception is promising.

“Abu Mohammed al-Golani’s Aljazeera Interview” by Aron Lund

by Aron Lund,
editor of Syria in Crisis 

On Wednesday, May 27, the Aljazeera TV network ran a 47-minute interview with Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader of the Nusra Front, which is one of the most powerful rebel factions in Syria. If you speak Arabic, have a look at the interview or read the transcript. If you don’t, then start studying or proceed straight to the commentary below.

Who is Abu Mohammed al-Golani?

He’s the founder and leader of Jabhat al-Nosra, the al-Qaeda franchise that operates in Syria and Lebanon. Apart from that, no one really knows anything about him.

Is this Golani’s first interview?

No it is not. He has been interviewed by Aljazeera before. Then, his interlocutor was Aljazeera’s star reporter Taysir Allouni, a Syrian and Spanish citizen who interviewed Osama bin Laden right after 9/11 and then spent nine years in a Spanish jail accused of al-Qaeda contacts. Although no one doubts that Allouni had very tight relations with high-level jihadi figures (he hosted a certain Mohammed al-Bahaiya a.k.a. Abu Khaled al-Souri in his home in Spain and helped him apply for Spanish residency), the proceedings were marred by some really bizarre translation issues and the European Court of Human Rights ruled in 2012 that Allouni had not been given an impartial trial. Since his release in 2012, Allouni has done an excellent series of interviews with rebel leaders of all stripes in northern Syria and in Turkey for Aljazeera’s Liqa al-Yawm (Meeting of the Day). He was the first and, until Wednesday, the only person to interview Golani in December 2013.

Wednesday’s interview took place on Bila Hudoud (Without Borders), a show hosted by the well-known Egyptian anchor Ahmed Mansour. Mansour, too, is obviously some species of Islamist and he seemed pretty infatuated with Golani – more so than the sympathetically surly Allouni – so the end result was a real softball interview. It was no Frost/Nixon, more like a high school date. That may very well have been intentional. Many assume that Qatar, which owns and controls Aljazeera, is eager to see the group show it’s gentler side, now that it and other rebels are capturing territory in northwestern Syria.

Will there be another interview?

Seems like it. At the end of the interview, Mansour said he’d like a second episode to talk about Iran’s role in the region and in Syria, about relations to the Islamic State, and about Golani’s view of the future of Syria. Inshallah, said Golani. [Update – June 3, 2015: A second part of the interview is now available for viewing at the bottom of this post.]

Where did the interview take place?

In “liberated territory” in northern Syria, according to Mansour. We can’t be sure, of course, but it was probably in Idleb City, which was recently captured by a rebel coalition that includes Jabhat al-Nosra. For one thing, Ahmed Mansour posted a set of pictures of himself in Syria to the Bila Hudoud page on Aljazeera.net, some of which show that he visited the Idleb region. And if you look closely, the kitschy gilded chairs and the silly little coffee-tables seem identical to those used in the governor’s palace in Idleb City. So chances are the interview actually took place there, unless we are to believe that they carted away the furniture to some other place in order to trick us. Or maybe those chairs are very common in Idleb. I hope not.

What did he look like?

Golani to the left.Well, we don’t know, do we? We saw more of him this time than ever before, but that’s still just two hands and a nose. He had a black scarf or cloak draped over his head and shoulders, to conceal his face and features. He looked a little pudgy, too, but that may just have been a suicide bomber’s belt under his clothes. Al-Qaeda leaders like to wear those regardless of the occasion.

The rest of his clothes were a bit out of the ordinary. He wore a pale checkered shirt and something that looked like olive army pants, plus a green waistcoat with a shiny silk back. At first I took this for an unusually cruel case of sartorial terrorism, but on closer inspection he may have been wearing a traditional Syrian costume. Those can look a little different in different areas of the country, but they often involve some sort of vest and wide-waisted billowy pants of the kind still worn by many Kurds. If so, it was certainly a conscious fashion statement: eschewing the Afghan-Pakistan Pashtun hats and Shalwar Kameez tunics that jihadis like to wear, in favor of clothes that tell you he’s a Syrian. Not just any Syrian, but a real deal genuine old-school Syrian, straight out of Bab al-Hara. Shame we didn’t get to see if he had the moustache to match.

And what did he say?

The interview was mainly dedicated to one thing, which was for Mansour to help Golani explain that he’s nothing like the Islamic State. Rather, he is a responsible and sensible jihadi leader.

In line with traditional Jabhat al-Nosra rhetoric, he said that while there can be no compromise about sharia law, that doesn’t mean that his men are a bunch of bloodthirsty extremists. He kept repeating that “for the time being” they’re only fighting those who fight them and implementing sharia, so if you don’t get in the way of that you’ll be OK. However, Golani didn’t step away from his ideology. He is a true believer and he’s not going to give the Islamic State any reason to claim he’s straying from the word of God.

Among other things, he claimed that Jabhat al-Nosra is not involved in operations against the West, following instructions from al-Qaeda’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. That directly contradicts what the U.S. government says. It claims to have information that veteran al-Qaeda members have moved to Syria under the protection of Jabhat al-Nosra, where they are busily preparing bomb plots against Western aviation. The U.S. has dubbed this cell “the Khorasan Group,” a label that Golani ridiculed, saying there is no such thing and all the camps attacked by the  U.S. belong to Jabhat al-Nosra. He did however admit that there are people in Syria who have come “from Khorasan.” In modern jihadi parlance, that typically means Afghanistan/Pakistan, so it seems likely he is referring to people on mission from al-Qaeda’s central leadership. He also implicitly clarified that contrary to current rumors, Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t about to break ties with al-Qaeda. While he didn’t address those rumors head on, he talked about receiving instructions from Zawahiri (like it was the most natural thing in the world that a Syrian group should obey an Egyptian holed up in Pakistan) and there was a little flag on the table in front of him bearing the words “al-Qaeda in the Levant.”

Egged-on by Mansour, Golani spoke in more detail than ever before about the fate of Syria’s religious minorities, mostly to stress that Jabhat al-Nosra isn’t like Islamic State in that respect. For example, he said that Jabhat al-Nosra won’t fight those Christian villages that do not fight the Muslims (meaning the rebels), adding that only after an Islamic government has been set up will they start collecting the Jizya, and even then it will only be taken from those who can afford it … and so on. Again and again, he made the point that Jabhat al-Nosra would be totally justified in taking action against certain minorities, but has chosen not to because they are in fact un-crazy non-extremists.

In one of the interview’s more memorable moments, he said that an Alawite can surrender to Jabhat al-Nosra and as long as he repents, he won’t be killed “even if he killed a thousand of us”. You won’t hear that from the Islamic State, which proudly broadcasts videos of its soldiers shooting defenseless Alawite and Shia prisoners-of-war or slitting their throats. Indeed, those who imagine there is no room for nuances in jihadi thinking, or jihadi rhetoric, are wrong. There is already more than a glint of daylight between the classical salafi-jihadism of Jabhat al-Nosra  and the still-developing neo-jihadi ideology that was set loose by the Islamic State’s split from al-Qaeda in 2013. The difference will surely widen over time.

Then again, the basics remain the same and they’re extreme enough to be borderline genocidal, even when sugarcoated by Aljazeera. If you listened closely, Golani also said that Alawites are a people who have left Islam. He made it clear that not only must Alawites stop fighting for Assad, they must also abandon the elements of their faith that contradict Islam. And of course, by Islam he means his own salafi brand of Sunni Islam, not that they can be regular Shias or anything like that. So minus the wrapping, his core message remains the same: Alawites will be left alone as soon as they agree to stop being Alawites.

That doesn’t sound like it will convince many of his detractors?

No it doesn’t, but that was never the point. Golani isn’t addressing himself to non-Sunnis or secularists, or to the Americans or the Western media. He knows they’ll hate him whatever he says. He did what al-Qaeda-style jihadis always do, which is to preach to those they have a real hope of influencing: other Sunni Islamists, whose support or at least passive acceptance they need to survive and succeed.

In other words, if you didn’t like what you heard, he wasn’t talking to you.

Even today, globalist salafi-jihadism is not a popular ideology in Syria. Jabhat al-Nosra has grown in spite of its international links rather than because of them. Powerful foreign governments also are prodding their rebel clients to isolate and undermine Jabhat al-Nosra because of its al-Qaeda connection, even as they leave indigenous and locally-focused Syrian salafi factions alone. To avoid being isolated and made a target, Jabhat al-Nosra’s strategy has been to embed itself inside the wider Syrian rebellion, by making itself an appreciated and indispensable ally to other Sunni Islamists.

Most of the big rebel factions, especially those that work closest with Jabhat al-Nosra, are Sunni Islamists of some variety. The grassroots-level fighters in these groups are not necessarily very different from Golani’s men – they’re all politically hawkish, religiously conservative, and deeply disenchanted with if not hostile to the West. (I’m sure there are exceptions, but they’re exceptions.) But most of these Islamist groups are not committed to a global anti-Western agenda the way al-Qaeda is; indeed, most of them explicitly reject it. With time, many pro-opposition Sunni Muslims, including a significant number of Islamist hardliners who might otherwise be inclined to embrace Golani’s thinking, have come to think that Jabhat al-Nosra are too extreme. They’re particularly irked by its post-2014 behavior, when in the chaos after the Islamic State infighting and the U.S. intervention, Jabhat al-Nosra began to take a more aggressive and territorial approach to rebel politics, setting up their own courts and seizing villages for their sole control. Furthermore, they accuse the group of not being properly Syrian, since it is full of foreigners and takes orders from the Egyptian-born Zawahiri, whose agenda is global rather than Syrian. They also complain that Jabhat al-Nosra’s al-Qaeda connection has unnecessarily antagonized the West and is ruining the international reputation of the Syrian revolution.

They are of course right on all counts and that’s why Jabhat al-Nosra is so sensitive to that line of criticism. And that’s also why we now see Golani pleading innocent to these charges, hand on heart, saying that he is in fact not a loose cannon, he is not attacking the U.S., he is not slaughtering minorities, and he is just as Syrian as they are. (Hey, look at his clothes.)

In other words, what he is doing is to tell his fellow Sunni rebels, potential funders, and Islamist opinion-makers around the Middle East exactly what they want to hear, so that they’ll be able to convince themselves that the Americans must be wrong about Jabhat al-Nosra. (Because what have the Americans done for them anyway?) He tries to reassure them that he is just like them and that they shouldn’t listen to the U.S., which is making up fraudulent reasons to target him, when everyone knows that the real motivation for the American airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra is because Obama is secretly in cahoots with Assad and wants to prevent his fall.

Wait, the U.S. works with Assad?

Well, no, but that’s the idea among Syrian Islamists, not only on the jihadi fringe. You’d be surprised to know how many Syrian rebels and their sympathizers believe this (and no, it’s not entirely unfounded). So that was Golani’s other big theme for the night. He’s making the point that the U.S. and its allies want to abort the revolution and rehabilitate Assad, since they fear a “Muslim” victory. The corollary of that is that the U.S. airstrikes against Jabhat al-Nosra (“Khorasan Group,” remember?) are no different from Assad’s barrel-bombing of Syrian cities. Both airforces are operating in the same airspace and working for the same goal, Golani says, so anyone who takes aid from the Americans is – knowingly or not – also working to keep Assad in power.

He then lumps in the UN negotiations with the rest of this great Shia-Zionist-Yankee-Alawi plot. If the opposition drifts into any form of peace talks, such as those proposed by UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura, that can only serve to isolate the jihadi irreconcileables. So it’s no surprise that Golani insists that all the suggested peace conferences are secretly gamed to serve the international pro-Assad conspiracy. You shouldn’t listen to anyone who will take part in such talks, Golani says, and you shouldn’t accept the support of the West because they’ll just get you hooked on it and then reduce you to a tool for their own purposes. Instead, your only option is to accept that the Assad regime and the international community are two faces of the same coin and to charge at them in an uncompromising jihad.

Which, coincidentally, happens to be the product that al-Qaeda is selling.

 

Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

UPDATE JUNE 3, 2015: Part two of Golani’s interview with Ahmed Mansour is now available:

Syria in Limbo: Neither Reunification nor Partition Are Yet Possible

By Vahik Soghom, BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin

tanks face off 8a

Is Syria headed toward some form of partition?

Recent developments in the conflict give credence to a number of fears that have been making the rounds for quite a while now. The long-accepted observation that the Syrian army is growing increasingly unable to independently engage in military confrontations against a motivated enemy is becoming eerily palpable in Idlib and Palmyra. Along with painstaking losses of strategically significant territory, this naturally unearths the fear that Syria is on the road to partition—a tripartite or even quadripartite partition. The way it might look is: the northeast of the country for the Kurds, the central to eastern portion for the IS, the northwestern portion (i.e., Idlib) for the Jaish al-Fatah, and the western stretch for the Assad regime. Aleppo is still divided among the contenders, and Daraa and Quneitra yet await their verdict.

This proto-partition has come into shape after years of intensive clashes on multiple fronts and the rise of both local and global takfiri militant movements. The belief that the Islamic State, with its global jihadi ideology, is the only significant force capable of redrawing the map has been challenged by the Jaish al-Fatah’s recent takeover of Idlib city as well as Jisr al-Shughur. Idlib province will now be the testing ground for an Islamic emirate overseen by takfiris with a more localist bent. This new reality has emerged partly as a side effect of the deaths or desertions of nearly half the regime’s soldiers, combined with the near impossibility of recruiting fighters from among the local population. Far from being capable of launching an effective assault to retake Idlib, the regime now has a number of worrying prospects to deal with. Latakia, a regime stronghold neighboring Idlib, is now under the threat of a possible Jaish al-Fatah attack, and the Islamic State has successfully seized Palmyra. The Southern front, meanwhile, has long proven to be challenging, and there is no less danger for Dara’a and Quneitra to fall into militant hands.

The question that naturally arises at this point is whether this proto-partition signals the early stage of an irreversible de facto partition. Answering in the affirmative ignores a number of important observations that indicate an indefinite prolongation of the conflict, as opposed to either a comprehensive peace settlement or a de facto partition. By extension, a gloomy forecast of events is expected, with gruesome tragedies and loss of life continuing to make their mark on the Syrian drama—unless, of course, the actors opt for peace or partition. Neither, however, seems likely.

After securing Idlib, Jaish al-Fatah will likely turn toward Latakia and Homs

After securing Idlib, Jaish al-Fatah will likely turn toward Latakia and Homs—Photo: Reuters/Khalil Ashawi

The start of a third round of peace talks has been downplayed in the media, and rightly so. This is because the talks, which are as complicated as the conflict itself, will not achieve anything remotely close to a comprehensive peace deal. The peace plan suffers from two basic limitations. Firstly, neither side is ready to accept the most basic demand of the other, namely that Bashar stays or leaves. This alone makes it impossible for the peace process to bring about a unified Syria based on a form of consociational democracy. Secondly, the two major opposition forces controlling the largest chunks of land—the IS and Jaish al-Fatah—are not, and cannot be, invited to participate. This poses the awkward question of who exactly the regime will negotiate with. The moderate opposition is virtually dead, and any serious comprehensive agreement would thus have to include, at the least, local takfiri groups like Jaish al-Fatah. But since no one wants to talk to the takfiris, and since the takfiris, by definition, don’t want to talk to anyone else, a comprehensive peace agreement is virtually impossible. And so the second possible outcome of the peace process, namely a de jure partition of Syria recognized under international law, will not be realized either.

Jaish al-Fatah fighters

Jaish al-Fatah fighters

Well, then, what about de facto partition, i.e. one not recognized under international law but that forms naturally on the ground? It is a much more plausible scenario than peace or de jure partition, and one can point out that it has already begun. A good example of this form of partition is the case of Cyprus, where the southern portion of the Island is under the administration of the Republic of Cyprus, and the northern part under that of the self-declared Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. Under international law, the Republic of Cyprus has de jure authority over the island’s entirety, though, in reality, it has had no actual authority over the north since 1974. Perhaps we should expect a similar kind of partition for Syria in the near future, albeit with more divisions than just two. But this would depend on the assumption that the Syrian regime and its allies, as well as their opponents, both opt (or become unable) to continue carrying out military campaigns on the various fronts. Since this is unlikely to be the case, de facto partition would also appear an improbable outcome.

The military and human losses of the Syrian army do not signal an end to its fighting capacity. Hezbollah, the regime’s invaluable partner, is the key factor in determining whether the regime still has a fighting chance. As argued previously, a successful campaign in Qalamoun will allow Hezbollah to deploy to other fronts and create the conditions for promising assaults. Indeed, Hezbollah has so far succeeded in Qalamoun, and has shown once again that it has the resources and capabilities to secure a quick and strategic victory. This edge will surely be taken to other fronts where potential similar victories in Idlib or elsewhere would not be surprising. As for Hezbollah’s own losses in Syria, these should not be exaggerated. It should be noted, firstly, that Hezbollah’s loss of around 1,000 soldiers is an expense it expects to incur in any serious confrontation with Israel. It has thus likely shaped its strategy and planning accordingly. Secondly, a recent report suggested that the organization is in fact growing, and that in spite of heavy deployment to multiple fronts, its important units in southern Lebanon remain unfazed.

Iran will spare no effort in continuing to bolster the Syrian regime

Iran will spare no effort in continuing to bolster the Syrian regime

Moreover, Iran’s relentless policy of confronting takfiri militants ensures that the regime will go beyond a defensive strategy that aims to secure the western stretch of the country, from Latakia down to Quneitra. In fact, Hezbollah members are said to have already deployed to Idlib province as part of early efforts to launch an offensive. If the regime is able to reverse the tide of losses, with Qalamoun as its starting-point, the next major battles will likely take place in Idlib and perhaps the Homs countryside. The ideological nature of the largely takfiri-Shiite war currently engulfing the Middle East should not be downplayed. As long as sectarian identity plays a role in fueling the conflict, neither side will be willing to accept even minimal defeat.

Turkish and Saudi policies have converged in supporting Jaish al-Fatah

Turkish and Saudi policies have converged in supporting Jaish al-Fatah

The Syrian drama will continue indefinitely. A unified or de jure-partitioned Syria, brokered by the international community, are not feasible outcomes, yet with continuously shifting battle lines, neither is de facto partition. Instead, what we have now is what I would call a proto-partition—a loose partition based on moving lines that are susceptible to significant alterations. That said, two important developments should be closely followed, as they may prove vital for shifting alliances as well as prospects for a partial settlement. The more important of these is the unification of Turkish, Qatari and Saudi policies in Syria, a crucial outcome of which was the formation of Jaish al-Fatah. This unified approach is centered on offering support for local, as opposed to global, takfiri groups operating in Syria. Since the bulk of Jaish al-Fatah members are interested in jihad within Syria, with little appetite for global jihad, it may be that the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari policy aims to prop up the legitimacy of these groups in the eyes of the West. Secondly, the possibility of Jabhat al-Nusra splitting off from the general command of al-Qaeda may be part of this localist strategy. Its ultimate goal may be to present the localist jihadists as potential partners for peace once all other options are exhausted. But it should be noted that the United States remains intent on undermining takfiri groups of all shapes and forms, and this policy will likely persist even amidst efforts of highlighting the localist agenda of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition.

In a sense, then, the U.S. shares certain affinities with both the Turkish-Saudi-Qatari position and the Iranian position in this conflict. With which side will it ultimately come to perceive its interests as more compatible? That remains to be seen.

Round-Up: Palmyra, Contingency Planning for Regime Losses, UN Response to Enslavement Crisis

As some are saying that IS now controls 50% of Syria, see this thorough post on the significance of the regime’s loss of Palmyra: Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives – Oryx Blog

In a surprising new streak of offensives launched at targets in both Iraq in Syria, the Islamic State has managed to capture the ancient city of Palmyra, known today as Tadmur. With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur, which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable. …

Tadmur, Palmyria, regime loss IS advantage

… Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region. …

The article Marshall refers to is The Cell of Survival: Bara Sarraj from Dec. 2011, about a young man who spent 12 years in Syria’s prisons, including the notorious prison in Palmyra.

His story begins on March 5th, 1984, an ordinary Damascus morning. He was on route to university, where he was a second year electrical engineer student. He decided that morning he would read Ahmad Shawqi’s play, The Death of Cleopatra, on his two hour bus commute from al-Mezzeh to the university. He also brought his small English dictionary to study during the often boring lectures. At his destination, he saw a double line of students waiting to be searched before entering the building. He thought, “I feel sorry for the guy who is going to be taken.” He knew the lines meant the mukhabarat  were looking for someone specific. After passing through the doors, someone called him by name, he turned, and a man said, “We need you for five minutes.” He felt “his heart drop to his feet.” After a few hours of waiting and interrogation, he was blindfolded and placed in a car. He thought he was on his way to General Intelligence in Kafar Souseh, outside Damascus, but he wasn’t. Instead, the car took a cross-country detour to a prison in his home town, Hama.

He would disappear for the next twelve years, touring the depths of Assad’s dungeons, in Hama, Tadmor, and Sayd Naya. Bara Sarraj was twenty-one years old. …

… While he experienced several of Assad’s prisons, the most horrific was Tadmor. The city of Tadmor or Palmyra, is the jewel of ancient Syria. An archeological treasure, Palmyra is Syria’s prized tourist attraction: an authentic site of Roman ruins set within an authentic Arabian desert landscape. This isolated location, far from the cities and population became home to Tadmor, the prison, where thousands of political prisoners were tortured and executed. On June 27, 1980, Rifaat al-Assad ordered the execution of a thousand prisoners in one day. (This is a very conservative number, it may have been up to four thousand. It also took two weeks to clean the prison from the bloody aftermath.) When a prisoner entered Tadmor, it was unlikely he would leave undamaged, or even alive. According to Bara, Tadmor is a synonym for fear, in all of its definitions: terror, horror, panic, dread. “Language cannot describe it. Fear is the internal sensation when you physically feel your heart between your feet and not in your chest; fear is the look on people’s faces, and their darting eyes when the time for the torture sessions comes near.” Bara learned to be first in line to go to the torture cell, because “the fear was worse than the pain.” …

Dulaab torture

Bara demonstrates dulaab technique at a Walmart.

… Tadmor was closed in 2001, at the beginning of Bashar’s presidency, perhaps to end one of his father’s darkest chapters, perhaps it had become obsolete—there was no longer a need to fight a defeated people. On June 15, 2011, Tadmor opened its gates once more to welcome the first wave of 350 people who had participated in the uprising.  …

Aerial view of Tadmor prison, Bara Sarraj

Aerial view of Tadmor Prison. Image courtesy of Bara Sarraj.

 

Palmyra: Syrian forces trapped civilians, UN says – BBC

The United Nations says it has received reports that Syrian forces in Palmyra prevented civilians from leaving, ahead of its fall to Islamic State militants.  The UN, though not present in Palmyra, cited “credible sources”. …

IS has also taken control of a military airbase and a notorious prison near to Palmyra.

Meanwhile, IS has seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq after Syrian government forces withdrew, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The loss of the al-Tanf crossing in Homs province means the Syrian government does not control any of the country’s border posts with Iraq.

The fall of Palmyra comes just days after IS captured the major Iraqi city of Ramadi.

The US has acknowledged the militants’ gains are a “setback” for coalition forces targeting IS, but President Barack Obama insisted the US was not losing the war with the group. …

ISIS in Palmyra – Dexter Filkins – New Yorker

Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

Photo: JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty

 

In their rampage across Syria and Iraq, the zealots of ISIS have wrecked and looted countless sites of archeological wonder: in the ancient Assyrian cities of Nimrud and Khorsabad, they’ve smashed temples and icons; in the Mosul Library, they’ve torched ancient manuscripts; at the Mosul Museum, they’ve turned deities and statues to rubble and dust. They even sacked Jonah’s tomb. Happy in their work, the ISIS wrecking teams have posted videos of their deeds. We can now only wonder if Palmyra, an ancient city in central Syria that fell to ISIS fighters this week, is next.

I visited Palmyra in the summer of 2003. It was a strange time to be in Syria. The Iraq War was only a few months old. The situation inside Iraq was deteriorating fast, but in Damascus, among the members of Bashar al-Assad’s government, there was still a pervasive fear that Syria would be the next American target. There was a wild rumor about government officials streaming to a certain palm reader in Aleppo, in order to have him divine whether and when the American invasion would come; even Assad himself, the rumor went, had paid the soothsayer a visit. I stayed in a Sheraton, then the nicest hotel in Damascus, and every night the senior officials of the Baath Party, some of them wearing pistols in their belts, would gather to drink and dance and carouse. When I asked one of those senior officials, Bouthaina Shaaban, whether the regime would ever loosen its grip, she told me, “We will always believe in the vanguard role of the Baath Party.” One day, I drove to the Iraqi border, where I found dozens of jihadis waiting to cross over to fight the United States; the Assad regime was only too happy to let them pass. …

… What will happen to Palmyra now? With ISIS in control, we should fear the worst; the place is filled with just the sort of religious likenesses that ISIS fighters have been smashing in their lunatic journey. What they don’t destroy they will likely loot and sell; ISIS has made millions this way. There is reason to hope that some antiquities will survive. Syrian officials say they managed to cart off many of the most priceless icons to Damascus before ISIS arrived. “This is the inheritance for the nation and for humanity,’’ Muhammad al-Shaar, Syria’s Interior Minister, told reporters this week. (Shaar, otherwise known for his iron fist, must have been grateful to be able to sound so humane.) …

Islamic State militants break into Palmyra museum, but artifacts safe – Toronto Star

… Maamoun Abdulkarim, the head of the Antiquities and Museums Department in Damascus, told The Associated Press that militants entered the museum in the town’s centre Friday afternoon, locked the doors and left behind their own guards. He said that the artifacts earlier had been moved away to safety.

“We feel proud as all the museum’s contents were taken to safe areas,” he told reporters. But Abdulkarim warned that the Islamic State group’s control of the town remains a danger to its archaeological sites. The group has destroyed several sites in Syria and Iraq, and also has had a lucrative business by excavating and selling artifacts on the black market.

Activists had said the government emptied the museum of its content before the Islamic State assault on the town.

The city’s museum and artifacts have been damaged and looted earlier during Syria’s four-year civil war. In a 2014 government report prepared for the U.N.’s cultural agency, damage already was recorded because of fighting in the area around the Temple Bel. Bullets and shells hit the temple’s columns, while two of its southern columns had collapsed. The report also recorded looting.

Abdulkarim said some 6,300 artifacts from Syria were seized and smuggled out of the country in the last four years. …

Thanks to Jeurgen for posting the following article:

 Good article on the fall of Palmyra in french. Use google or bling to translate. Palmyre : «L’Etat islamique méprise la notion même de patrimoine»  –> Palmyra: “The Islamic state despises the very concept of heritage

Excellent: Anyone who bothers about the stones of Palmyra will also care about the souls of Tadmur – Boyd Tonkin – Independent

The distinction between a concern for the fate of people and of antiquities is a false dichotomy

palmyra-5

 … A visitor to Palmyra who has just posted pictures on the BBC website writes that he found something “slightly disquieting about feeling so strongly about the destruction of such astonishing cultural artefacts given the likely human toll”. Only a marble-hearted aesthete would not share that twinge. Yet Heinrich Heine wrote the first, and last, word about such pangs of conscience: “Where they burn books, they will in the end burn people too.” Many people know Heine’s line, which now graces a plaque on the Bebelplatz in Berlin, where the Nazis stoked their literary bonfire in May 1933. Fewer know its original context. It comes from his 1821 tragedy Almansor, and refers to burnings of the Koran by the Spanish Inquisition.

With Isis, the breaking of “heathen” statues and “heathen” bodies belongs to the same jihad. Both serve the struggle for absolute monotheism against idolatry. Yazidis, Shias, Christians, Jews and indeed anyone who offends the Isis leadership no more deserves to survive than a carved Assyrian bull or a sculpted Roman goddess. Some 2,000 miles from the battlefront, we can respond to this iconoclastic mayhem with mourning, rage or defiance. The one reaction in which we should not indulge is bafflement at some alien, exotic passion. For Palmyra’s, or Nimrud’s, present was our past. “And this also,” says Joseph Conrad’s Marlow, as his ship lies at anchor in the Thames at the start of Heart of Darkness, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.” …

Palmyra, ISIS’ Latest Conquest, Has Dark History Of State Torture And Abuse – HP

When Dr. Bara Sarraj heard that Islamic State militants had overrun the city of Palmyra and its ancient desert ruins, he began to cry.

But he wasn’t crying over the World Heritage Site that now may be destroyed by hardline fighters keen on erasing history and selling off antiquities. Instead, his mind drifted to a place of nightmares just a stone’s throw from Palmyra’s tall, cream colored pillars — Tadmor military prison. …

… Infamous for what were said to be summary executions and massacres in the 1980s and 1990s under former Syrian President Hafez Assad, the military prison was shuttered — at least on paper — in 2001 after his son, Bashar Assad, assumed power. There remains uncertainty over whether or not it was truly closed. After the Syrian revolution and subsequent war exploded in 2011, Syrians allege that Tadmor was reopened as a place to imprison dissidents.

Under the first Assad, the prison was a “kingdom of death and madness,” according to a 1996 Human Rights Watch Report that detailed a 1980 massacre in which at least 500 prisoners were killed in one day. An Amnesty International report from 2001 says the prison, in which detainees are “completely isolated from the outside world” seems to have been designed to “inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners.”

Torture tactics included hanging victims from suspended tires, full-body beatings with sticks and cables and strapping victims to the “German chair,” a metal contraption that would forcefully bend their spine. …

… “It’s an indictment of the free world,” Sarraj said. “If Daesh freed Tadmor, then what is the free world doing?” he asked, referring to the Islamic State group by its Arabic nickname.

The irony that ISIS opened the doors of such a symbol of repression in Syria is not lost on Nadim Houry, the Human Rights Watch deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa. …

… A spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Ravina Shamdasani, said Thursday in Geneva that the Syrian regime blocked civilians in Palmyra from fleeing in the face of the Islamic State group until the government forces themselves were able to leave. She also cited grave concerns about ISIS’ crimes in the city.

“ISIL has reportedly been carrying out door-to-door searches in the city, looking for people affiliated with the government,” she told Reuters. “At least 14 civilians are reported to have been executed by ISIL in Palmyra this week.” …

… Unconfirmed reports circulated on Twitter Thursday claiming that ISIS militants released prisoners from Tadmor, including over two dozen Lebanese. The WorldPost could not independently confirm these claims. …

… Sarraj worries that any remaining detainees — cut off from the outside world inside Tadmor — will be recruited by the Islamic State.

“When I was released, I had no idea that the Soviet Union collapsed,” he said. “I had no idea what Bosnia and Herzegovina was. You are in another world and suddenly you are out.”

“They would be happy with anyone who liberates them,” he continued. “Maybe they will end up fighting against the West.”

See also these FB comments from Prof. Stephennie Mulder:

Some thoughts about Palmyra, partly in response to many Syrian friends who have been rightly criticizing the outcry over ancient stones while untold millions of people are suffering. I just finished an interview with Al Jazeera English and they did a very nicely balanced report. It discussed the 140,000 people, including many refugees, living in the nearby modern town of Tadmur, the atrocities of the Syrian Army, both human and cultural (we should not forget the Syrian Army has been filmed looting the site already last year, see the photo below), and the infamous prison there, where Assad has tortured political prisoners for decades. All of this context for the discussion of the archaeological site is what is needed.

Clearly, we must have have concern for people first, but culture is also an essential part of us as people, as human beings. It seems so hard to imagine now, but someday this war will end, and a people without history, with nothing left of their past, will be a people doubly traumatized. ISIS knows this, and that is one reason they’re targeting such sites – just as happened in the war in the former Yugoslavia with the destruction of the Mostar bridge – which, after the war, became a reminder of the city’s integrated Christian and Muslim past. Its rebuilding became a powerful symbol of the ongoing significance of its value to actual people. Stones do matter, and they matter to people, because they tell us who we are. I also think that sometimes culture galvanizes outside concern not because people are callous and don’t care about human life, but because sometimes the death of so many innocent people, so unbearable and unspeakable, is so awful to contemplate that people simply can’t bear it. Most people simply feel helpless in the face of death on this scale, and turn away in despair. Having concern for culture then becomes a way to express concern that seems concrete, in some sense. I don’t think this is right, nor am I defending it, I’m just trying to explain the phenomenon in less cynical terms. I also tried to make the point in the interview that the safety of the people in Tadmur should be our first concern, and the heroic efforts of Syrian heritage workers who are valiantly trying to save these sites is also an important part of the story.

A last thought – to return to the question of why I think it is problematic to speak about cultural heritage and people as though they are separate and unconnected. And that is that in fact, people *do* die because ISIS is destroying culture. Every day. Why? Because ISIS’ sale of antiquities looted from sites like Palmyra funds their reign of terror, and because, as Elyse pointed out so eloquently, destruction of cultural heritage is a primary tool of genocide. So each one of these sites and the looting that will take place there can, quite literally, be cataloged in human lives. If ever there was a reason to fight to ‪#‎SavePalmyra‬, that is it. We cannot disentangle human lives from the culture humans have made and cherish. Does that mean we should save an ancient temple before we save a Syrian child? Of course not. But it also means we can’t think of them as separate and unconnected, and that the fight to save one should also be seen as the fight to save the other.

 

Recent Regime Losses and Contingency Plans for Potential Mass Displacement

Many observers are wondering whether the regime’s recent losses portend its demise, and debate how much of a fight it still has:

Why Assad is losing – Brookings – Charles Lister

Syria’s rebels are making sweeping gains, as foreign powers up support and work with Islamist fighters. But the regime isn’t about to go down without a fight.

After roughly two years of being on the defensive, Syria’s rebels are making dramatic gains in the north of the country. In the span of six weeks, coalitions of insurgent fighters captured the city of Idlib and won a series of key strategic victories elsewhere in the governorate. In the face of the opposition, the Syrian Army and its supporting militias appear at their weakest point since early 2013.

However, while much of the subsequent commentary proclaimed this as the beginning of the end for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, we are still a long way from that. In fact, the regime reacted to its dramatic losses in the north by carrying out hundreds of air strikes, barrel bombings, and chlorine attacks in rural Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. Regime ground offensives were launched in eastern Damascus, in areas of Homs, and in the mountains around Zabadani near the Lebanese border. Meanwhile, a major joint regime-Hezbollah offensive in the Qalamoun mountains now also looks imminent.

So what is happening in Syria? Recent events have clearly tipped the psychological scales back into the opposition’s favor: Losses in Idlib and the southern governorate of Deraa have placed great pressure on Assad, whose severe manpower shortages are becoming more evident by the day. Frustration, disaffection and even incidences of protest are rising across Assad’s most ardent areas of support on Syria’s coast — some of which are now under direct attack. Hezbollah is stretched thin and even Iranian forces have begun withdrawing to the areas of Syria deemed to be the most important for regime survival.

The regime is no longer militarily capable of launching definitively successful operations outside of its most valuable territories, while its capacity for defense against concerted attack now appears questionable at best. It also looks diplomatically weaker, as Russia appears no longer wedded to the Assad regime’s long-term survival and is now more open to the idea of a managed transition that would ensure the best chances of post-regime stability. Meanwhile, Iran’s apparent rapprochement with the United States and its expected involvement in talks in Geneva convened by UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura may open the door for, at the very least, discussions of a negotiated solution in Syria.

However, diplomacy alone will be unlikely to provide a path out of Syria’s conflict. Even as a broad swathe of the international community talks behind closed doors about launching a major new diplomatic initiative on Syria, it will ultimately be military pressure inside Syria that will determine whether such an initiative has any chance of success. …

Is Assad Losing the War in Syria? – Aron Lund

Judging by a lot of the media coverage of the Syrian war, President Bashar al-Assad runs a curious sort of regime: it is always either crumbling or on the verge of victory.

The narrative shifts every now and then. Assad was losing from March 2011 until around October 2013, then he was winning for about a year and a half, and now he is back to losing again. The story is consistent only in that it remains reliably hung up on the extremes of victory or defeat.

Only rarely will the Assad regime be described as what it most probably is: a decomposing rump state plodding through a confused civil war toward an uncertain future, with no one quite sure anymore what victory would even look like. The Syrian government may lose more territory and break down structurally, perhaps even rapidly and catastrophically, but its constituent parts are not about to vanish from the face of the earth. In the hypothetical event of Assad’s death or withdrawal from Damascus, his armed forces would not cease to exist. Some would flee and some would die, but what remained would melt into a new ecology of militias and mayhem—and the war would go on. …

Assad’s regime is brittle, and it may fall fast – Bob Bowker

It is not yet possible to say whether, when and how the Syrian regime may fall. But recent military setbacks, and an objective analysis of the challenges the regime faces in the longer term, strongly suggest that its future is increasingly precarious.

army tank Syria

 

The momentum of the military conflict has shifted in favour of the rebel movements, foremost of which are the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey. Much of the reversal of rebel fortunes appears to have been derived from a deal between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, brokered by Qatar, under which a joint operations room facility has been established among the rebel forces. Having captured Idlib and the even more strategically important town of Jisr al-Shughour, they are now within striking distance of Hama to the south and Latakia to the west. They have cut the Aleppo-Latakia highway.

In contrast, efforts by the regime this year to win back Deraa, near the southern border with Jordan, and to secure control of Aleppo, have failed. With Hezbollah support, the regime is now engaged in a battle for control of the Qalamoun mountainous region straddling the border with Lebanon west of Damascus. It is trying to recover Jisr al-Shughour, and a major offensive to remove rebel forces from the Ghouta area adjacent to Damascus is widely anticipated. …

…The outcome of the battles for Jisr al-Shughur and the Qalamoun region will provide a clear indication of the regime’s military situation in areas of high strategic value. Elsewhere, however, with a few exceptions, the military effectiveness of the regime has been reduced to such a degree that an assertion of territorial control is unlikely for the foreseeable future.

Even within what might be regarded as the regime’s strategic core, and despite its monopoly on air power, it is at risk. It may lose control over the Hama air base, as well as land routes to Aleppo from the south.

These risks may yet be mitigated by a variety of factors. Conflict has been reported between Islamic State fighters and Jabhat al-Nusra amid the pressure of the Qalamoun offensive. The external backers of the various rebel forces do not share a single vision of the ultimate objectives of the struggle to remove Assad. The Saudis may yet become bogged down in their campaign in Yemen. Iran and Russia have strategic interests invested in the Assad regime (though not in Assad personally) that they will not readily relinquish.

Weighing against those factors, however, are the challenges and painful choices faced by the Syrian regime. It is increasingly difficulty for the regime to raise and sustain additional regular military forces. The regime appears increasingly dependent on inputs from Hezbollah to boost its military capability (among the reasons for losing Idlib and Jisr al-Shughour may have been the absence of such support). It is anxiously awaiting promised financial support from Iran. There have also been indications of friction within the upper echelons of the regime. …

… At the strategic level, the regime is being forced to choose between a politically-driven desire to maintain a military presence, however vulnerable, across most of the country, or withdrawing its forces to concentrate on the defence of the regime’s centre of gravity: Damascus and its surrounds, and access routes through Homs to the Mediterranean seaboard and adjacent mountains which comprise the historic Alawite heartland.

Whatever the military case may be for consolidating defensively around Damascus and a predominantly Alawite enclave, it is a strategy which entails enormous risk. It would signal to the regime’s support base (and to the rebels and their backers) that there is blood in the water. In contrast to the experience since 2011, the Syrian battle space would no longer be shaped by the regime. The regime would be on the defensive, and would have to find ways to sustain its supporters’ will to fight rather than flee. The psychological impact of terrorist actions that until now have been fairly readily absorbed by the population in Damascus would probably be enhanced.

For the first time on a large scale in this conflict, Syrians would witness atrocities against the Alawite inhabitants of mixed villages in the north and west that were no longer protected. In predominantly Alawite and Christian mountain villages, and coastal towns largely untouched by the war to date such as Tartous, the inflow of Alawite and other minorities fleeing the conflict and jihadist advances would likely damage morale.

As a recent program on al-Jazeera Arabic highlighted, there is a strong possibility that historical as well as more recent grievances against the Alawites will be given concrete expression in the most horrendous ways as the regime weakens. A substantial number of Syrians, unable to vent their anger on Assad personally for the hardships they suffered under his father and since 2011, will want Alawites to share the fate of the regime. …

Considering the potential effects of a regime lose, Bowker raises the issue of contingency planning regarding the mass flight of Alawites that would most certainly ensue:

Syria’s Next Potential Crisis Could Turn the Middle East Upside Down – Bob Bowker

With the Assad regime now more vulnerable in its fight against rebel groups, there is a strong case for the preparation of contingency plans to deal with a new and even greater humanitarian disaster that may unfold in and around Syria.

The potential for a genocide of the Alawites cannot be discounted. But the more likely impending threat is that of a sudden and massive population movement, especially from the western seaboard of the country into Lebanon. As noted in my previous piece (Assad’s Regime is Brittle, and it May Fall Fast), fear of genocide, amplified by actual incidents and social media campaigns, could produce a population movement on a scale not witnessed in the region since Palestine in 1948.

Any substantial outflow of the Alawite community (whose total number is uncertain, but if estimated to comprise 10% of the Syrian population, could be up to 2 million people) would almost certainly risk overwhelming the institutions and confessional balance of the Lebanese state.

Given the recent weakening of the momentum of the Syrian regime in its military contest with the rebel forces, and the historical precedents (Palestine in 1948 and more recently the Yazidis and Kurds of Iraq), the international community should prepare for the worst.

If the Syrian regime is seen to be collapsing, attempts by the Alawites to flee will be all but unstoppable. And for the vast majority of the refugees, particularly the Alawites and other minorities, there will be little prospect of returning to Syria. The consequences are grave. Should there be such an outflow, its legacy will reverberate around the region for decades at humanitarian, political and strategic levels.

The Lebanese Government is struggling to cope with the present burden of around 1.2 million Syrian ‘persons of concern’ (to use the UN High Commission for Refugees terminology). It is anxious to prevent an additional inflow further distorting the confessional political balance of the country in general and exacerbating the ongoing conflict between Sunnis and Alawites in northern Lebanon in particular. It will be keen for a further wave of refugees to be protected or absorbed elsewhere. …

…The primary and immediate aim of the international response should be to minimize the risk of an additional outflow. In that regard, the UN and Western countries should encourage and influence Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and others to urge their client rebel groups to refrain from victimizing Alawite populations. They should insist that their partners avoid the use of the imagery of retribution as a weapon to weaken the Assad regime. They should highlight their responsibilities, both religious and under international humanitarian law, to protect civilian lives and property. The rebel forces should be encouraged to see the value of creating a clear distinction between their standards of behavior and those of the Assad regime.

UN agencies and NGOs will also need to negotiate directly with rebel groups to obtain security assurances for Alawites. The work of building strategies and approaches for negotiating such arrangements, and identifying the key individuals and other factors likely to shape the outcome of such efforts, needs to begin now. …

 

Yazidi Crisis and the Enslavement Project

In one encouraging development, it appears that the UN is beginning to draw attention to the real scope and seriousness of the Yazidi enslavement phenomenon, and is talking about a real response. Hopefully this will translate into action.
Yazidi women look on at Al-Tun Kopri health centre, located half way between the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk and Arbil, after they were released with around 200 mostly elderly members of Iraq's Yazidi minority near Kirkuk on January 17, 2015 after being held by the Islamic State jihadist group for more than five months. Medical teams from the Kurdistan Regional Government carried out blood tests and provided emergency care to the group of Yazidis, many of whom looked sick and distraught. Yazidi officials and rights activists say thousands of members of their Kurdish-speaking community are still in captivity.

AFP PHOTO / SAFIN HAMID

Middle East Eye speaks with Zainab Bangura, the UN envoy on sexual violence in conflict, about the latest IS crimes

A United Nations unit of sex crime investigators has probed the world’s war zones for evidence of forced marriages, slavery and mass rape since 2009. According to its head, Zainab Bangura, the Islamic State (IS) group has taken atrocities to a whole new level.

Bangura has just returned from Syria, Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where she gathered data on IS sex crimes, including those against captured Yazidi women. She spoke with Middle East Eye about her trip, and how she plans to counter the group.

MEE: What did you learn on your IS fact-finder?

Bangura: During my recent five-country Middle East visit, I met officials, frontline workers and survivors. My focus was IS’s war on women, including from Yazidi, Christian and Turkmen Shia minorities.

After attacking a village, IS splits women from men and executes boys and men aged 14 and over. The women and mothers are separated; girls are stripped naked, tested for virginity and examined for breast size and prettiness. The youngest, and those considered the prettiest virgins fetch higher prices and are sent to Raqqa, the IS stronghold.

There is a hierarchy: sheikhs get first choice, then emirs, then fighters. They often take three or four girls each and keep them for a month or so, until they grow tired of a girl, when she goes back to market. At slave auctions, buyers haggle fiercely, driving down prices by disparaging girls as flat-chested or unattractive.

We heard about one girl who was traded 22 times, and another, who had escaped, told us that the sheikh who had captured her wrote his name on the back of her hand to show that she was his ‘property’.

Our research will feed into the annual UN report on conflict-related sexual violence and advocacy work.

MEE: Are they organised or ad hoc?

Bangura: IS is organised, coordinated and operates on a widespread and systematic basis to commit a staggering array of atrocities. They are institutionalising sexual violence; the brutalisation of women and girls is central to their ideology. They use sexual violence as a “tactic of terrorism” to advance key strategic priorities, such as recruitment, fundraising, to enforce discipline and order – through the punishment of dissenters or family members – and to advance their radical ideology.

They commit rape, sexual slavery, forced prostitution and other acts of extreme brutality. We heard one case of a 20-year-old girl who was burned alive because she refused to perform an extreme sex act. We learned of many other sadistic sexual acts. We struggled to understand the mentality of people who commit such crimes.

The number of foreign fighters involved remains a problem for us. In other conflicts, such as Democratic Republic of Congo, we can deal with fighters from five or six countries. For IS, it’s tens of thousands of fighters from 100 nationalities. In some attacks, there are more foreigners than Iraqis and Syrians.

MEE: Are all IS women enslaved?

Bangura: Most women get enslaved when their villages are attacked. We were also informed of parents who had given away their daughters to IS, particularly in Mosul. To understand this, we must examine the concept of jihad al-nikah, or sexual jihad – whereby women’s bodies are used as part of supporting the IS campaign. There are tens of thousands of men who expect that they will “get” women to “marry”. A woman’s contribution is to marry them and cater for them in many ways, including sexually. IS men may have a wife, as well as several slaves. We heard few stories of wives who helped the slaves to escape.

MEE: How do they escape?

Bangura: Some are released when a ransom is paid. When parents or community leaders are informed about the whereabouts of the women and girls, they would raise money – as much as $5,000 – and use an intermediary to “buy” the girls back.

Yazidi communities have suffered discrimination for a long time and have strong social networks. It is a closed and conservative community and recent events have been a real shock to them. But they show resilience and impressive coping mechanisms, including a willingness to welcome girls back.

Of course, not everyone escapes. When IS discovered girls used their headscarves to hang themselves, they forced them to remove them. I learned of three girls who tried to commit suicide by drinking rat poison, which had been left in a room. They started vomiting and were rushed to hospital and washed out. When they came back, they were brutally attacked.

MEE: You met escapees in Iraq’s Kurdish zone. Do they get the support they need?

Bangura: They do get support from their families, communities and the government, but the needs are huge. I met one woman who was in shock – most of her family had either been taken or killed. She was looking after her four-year-old son and trying to track down her 15-year-old daughter, who was taken by IS. She was so traumatised that she insisted her husband was missing, although he was dead.

Women like her need qualified medical and psycho-social support that is not readily available. Kurdish officials told me they are struggling to cope with a massive influx of refugees from Syria and Iraq. They are worried about an extra 500,000 people fleeing from Mosul when Iraqi forces try to recapture the city later this year. For its part, the UN is supporting and sheltering the affected population, but everyone agrees that assistance needs to be scaled up.

It was painful for me. The countries I have worked on include Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and Central African Republic; I never saw anything like this. I cannot understand such inhumanity. I was sick, I couldn’t understand.

MEE: Besides the US-led military campaign, what can the UN do to tackle a militia that cares little for international legitimacy?

Bangura: In addition to the military intervention and the sanctions tools that we have, we need first to tackle their access to communication means including social media that they use to terrorise communities and the whole world and attract new recruits. Information is its oxygen – we must suffocate them. Their tactic is to destroy individuals, communities, laws and society and build a medieval social order. We also need to use economic divestments to halt IS sources of income and supply lines. We must also explain the scope of the atrocities being committed, and look at accountability, which is difficult in the context of more than 40,000 fighters from more than 100 countries. We need to look at jurisdiction – does it fall under Iraq? Syria? We cannot only react emotionally, we must understand their tactics and defeat them.

The UN official interviewed above also spoke to Canada’s The Star:

UN envoy Zainab Bangura calls for global response to Islamic State’s sexual atrocities – The Star

… And now Zainab Bangura is calling for a global flexing of humanitarian muscle to restore hope to these shattered young women.

“We need a humanitarian surge. It can’t be just Canada, it can’t be just Europe — everyone has a role to play in attending to the sheer scope to the damage,” Bangura told The Star in an interview Thursday.

“There are 40,000 men from more than 100 different countries inside the Islamic State using brutal sexual violence as a strategic tactic to terrorize. We need all 100 countries involved, helping to deal with the aftermath.”

In Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and finally northern Iraq, Bangura sat with escapees from enslavement. Some Christian, others Turkmen Shia. But mostly Yazidis — worshippers of a Mesopotamian faith that claims direct lineage to the Garden of Eden.

One 10-year-old Yazidi girl told her, “How can I be worth anything now?” Another described being traded 22 times as a sex slave before fleeing her last captor. Another described being among a group of 14 Yazidi women who consumed diluted rat poison in a collective attempt at suicide. Rescued by their captors, some were treated at hospital, and then beaten for disobedience. Seven managed to escape out a window and slip away to freedom.

Bangura met with the mother of 20-year-old Zuhour Kati, who was set on fire in January by an Islamic State fighter from Saudi Arabia for refusing to perform “extreme sexual acts.” Rescued by a brother with burns to nearly 90 per cent of her body, the young Yazidi woman died in hospital in the Turkish city of Malatya.

“Her mother told me, ‘My daughter is better off dead.’ ” Bangura tabled her findings at the UN two weeks ago, briefing Security Council members. She spoke separately to Arab League delegates. Then it was wheels-up for Europe — consultations with the International Criminal Court in the Hague, then to Sweden and now Germany, where she met Thursday with Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

Bangura, a native of Sierra Leone whose work has taken her to Bosnia, Congo, South Sudan, Somalia and the Central African Republic, said nothing in her past travels remotely compares to the “systematic war on women” being waged in Iraq and Syria.

Isis ‘jihadi bride’ claims forced sex with Yazidi girls is never rape because Koran condones it – Independent

A jihadi bride whose husband took a Yazidi girl as a slave has claimed sex with kidnapped women is never rape because it is an Islamic practice inspired by the Prophet himself.

On this new attempt to justify the enslavement project, see the previous Syria Comment post.

‘Has Anyone Here Been Raped by ISIS?’ – Daily Beast – Sherizaan Minwalla

The public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence must not outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy.

…Does the public’s interest in knowing explicit details of sexual violence outweigh these victims’ urgent need for safety and privacy? I don’t think so and there are indications that victims would agree.

In extreme cases, journalists have tricked victims into giving interviews. In its report “Escape from Hell,” Amnesty International tells the story of a woman who had requested medical assistance because she was having panic attacks. Instead of being taken into a doctor’s office, she was taken to a room full of journalists waiting to interview her.

In another reported case, a man who seems to have been a journalist but who claimed to be a doctor videotaped victims while telling them that he would not show their faces. The women reported to Amnesty International that the doctor advised them, “To cure our depression we should get out of the house and go for walks in the fields and sit in the sun.” …

New Dabiq Issue Reiterates Justifications for Yazidi Enslavement

Dabiq issue 9, They Plot and Allah Plots

Click here to download Dabiq issue #9.

A new issue of Dabiq was released today (#9, They Plot and Allah Plots), which contains another article justifying the practice of slavery against enemies. (Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped and enslaved as concubines when IS attacked Sinjar in Northern Iraq, in August 2014. See: 1, 2, 3. A previous issue of Dabiq presented IS’ first public justification for the practice; see this post.) Scores of survivors have described how Yazidi women (including prepubescent girls) are subjected to continual rape by the jihadists who took them captive, and are sold or exchanged among multiple men. This new article seeks to present IS’ response to the world’s discussion of this atrocity.

The article (entitled “Slave-Girls or Prostitutes?”) is purportedly written by a female author, contains religious justifications for the enslavement of Yazidis, and is designed to inflame the anger and sorrow of the reader through provocative language. Some excerpts follow.

The article presents IS’ assertion that it is religiously permissible to take slaves of women whose husbands were enemies:

… The right hand’s possession (mulk al-yamīn) are the female captives who were separated from their husbands by enslavement. They became lawful for the one who ends up possessing them even without pronouncement of divorce by their harbī husbands.

Sa’īd Ibn Jubayr reported that Ibn ‘Abbās (radiyallāhu ‘anhumā) said, “Approaching any married woman is fornication, except for a woman who has been enslaved” [Al-Hākim narrated it and said, “It is an authentic hadīth according to the criteria of al-Bukhārī and Muslim”].

Saby (taking slaves through war) is a great prophetic Sunnah containing many divine wisdoms and religious benefits, regardless of whether or not the people are aware of this. The Sīrah is a witness to our Prophet’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) raiding of the kuffār. He would kill their men and enslave their children and women. The raids of the beloved Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) convey this to us. Ask the tribes of Banī al-Mustaliq, Banī Quraydhah, and Hawāzin about this.

… The Sahābah and their followers in goodness treaded upon the path of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) after him. Therefore, we almost cannot find a companion who didn’t practice saby. ‘Alī Ibn AbīTālib (radiyallāhu ‘anh) had nineteen slave-girls.

After all this, the ramblers dare to extend their tongues with false rumors and accusations so as to disfigure the great shar’ī ruling and pure prophetic Sunnah titled “saby”? After all this, saby becomes fornication and tasarrī (taking a slave-girl as a concubine) becomes rape? If only we’d heard these falsehoods from the kuffār who are ignorant of our religion. Instead we hear it from those associated with our Ummah, those whose names are Muhammad, Ibrāhīm, and ‘Alī! So I say in astonishment: Are our people awake or asleep? But what really alarmed me was that some of the Islamic State supporters (may Allah forgive them) rushed to defend the Islamic State – may its honor persist and may Allah expand its territory
– after the kāfir media touched upon the State’s capture of the Yazīdī women. So the supporters started denying the matter as if the soldiers of the Khilāfah had committed a mistake or evil.

… I write this while the letters drip of pride. Yes, O religions of kufr altogether, we have indeed raided and captured the kāfirah women, and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword. And glory belongs to Allah, to His Messenger, and thebelievers, but the hypocrites do not know!

… Therefore, I further increase the spiteful ones in anger by saying that I and those with me at home prostrated to Allah in gratitude on the day the first slave-girl entered our home. Yes, we thanked our Lord for having let us live to the day we saw kufr humiliated and its banner destroyed. Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah, which both the Arab and non-Arabenemies of Allah had buried.

… some slave-girls in our State are now pregnant and some of them have even been set free for Allah’s sake and got married in the courts of the Islamic State after becoming Muslims and practicing Islam well.

… Rather, let me add to the heartache of the spiteful. Indeed, from the slave-girls are those that after saby turned into hard-working, diligent seekers of knowledge after she found in Islam what she couldn’t find in kufr, despite the slogans of “freedom” and “equality.” Indeed it is our pure Islam, which upraises every lowly-one and puts anend to every deficiency.

The author claims that Yazidi women are not forced to convert to Islam, while ignoring the fact that Yazidi men in IS captivity (to the best of our knowledge) are able to remain alive only by converting:

Yes, this is our – as they allege – “savage” Islam, ordering us with kindness even towards slaves. This is demanded even if they were to remain upon their kufr. And I swear by Allah, I haven’t heard of nor seen anyone in the Islamic State who coerced his slave-girl to accept Islam. On the contrary, I saw all of those who accepted Islam had done so voluntarily, not against their will.

The author then tries to justify enslavement by making a comparison with prostitution in other countries:

Are slave-girls whom we took by Allah’s command better, or prostitutes – an evil you do not denounce – who are grabbed by quasi men in the lands of kufr where you live? A prostitute in your lands comes and goes, openly committing sin. She lives by selling her honor, within the sight and hearing of the deviant scholars from whom we don’t hear even a faint sound. As for the slave-girl that was taken by the swords of men following the cheerful warrior (Muhammad – sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then her enslavement is in opposition to human rights and copulation with her is rape?! What is wrong with you? How do you make such a judgment? What is your religion? What is your law?

In a further attempt at provocation, the prospect of Michelle Obama being sold at a slave market is suggested:

And who knows, maybe Michelle Obama’s price won’t even exceed a third of a dīnār, and a third of a dīnār is too much for her!

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis – by Fabriche Balanche

Sectarian Distribution in Syria Fabrice Balanche

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis

by Fabriche Balanche – original post here

“Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” This troubling slogan was chanted during demonstrations against the Assad regime in spring 2011, and exactly who was behind the chanting remains a controversial question. The Syrian opposition claimed that the slogan’s authors were members of the intelligence services who had infiltrated the demonstrations. According to this view, Syrian government agents were seeking to portray the opposition as primarily motivated by sectarianism and dominated by Salafis in order to frighten minorities and those wishing to live in a secular Syria.

It is still unclear whether the menacing anti-Alawi chants were the result of meddling by the intelligence services or the expression of sentiments held by a part of the Syrian opposition. But it is indisputable that Syria has since been gripped by a civil war between Sunnis and Alawis, and that other minorities have become collateral victims. Syria’s descent into intercommunal conflict has resembled the Lebanese civil war and, more recently, the ethno-sectarian fragmentation of Iraq. Sunni fundamentalists who dominate the military opposition in Syria consider the Alawis heretics unfit to live in dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam), let alone to rule the country.

… Alawis were officially recognized as Muslims thanks to a fatwa issued by the mufti of Palestine, Imam Haj Amin al-Husseini, in July 1936. In 1973, due to the pressure exerted by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on Musa al-Sadr—the Lebanese imam who founded the Amal movement—the Alawis were formally recognized as members of the Shi‘i community.

However, these two “certificates of Islamic-ness” did not convince some, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who killed many Alawis during the 1979-1982 uprising because of their religion. More recently, in his sermons on al-Wisal, a Saudi satellite channel, the Salafi Shaykh Adnan al-Arour has threatened to chop them up with a meat grinder. …

Changes in Minority-Majority Population Growth

Demographic Growth in Syria by District, 1994_2004 - Frabrice Balanche

The relative decline of the Syrian Alawi population since the 1980s is due to an accelerated demographic transition experienced by all minorities—Alawi, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili. In 2011, the non-Sunni population of Syria shrank to about 20 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1980. This is due largely to women’s improved access to education and their integration into professional life. Fifty years ago, when Alawis experienced higher poverty and illiteracy rates, their fertility rate was also high, but it fell sharply as access to education and administrative jobs increased. Moreover, the Alawis, unlike the Sunnis, are not compelled to have a male descendant. While the Alawi fertility rate has fallen, that of their Sunni counterparts remains above three children per woman, even in higher social classes. This demographic decline challenges the power relationships within Syrian society. Over time, for example, the proportion of Alawis in the army and the intelligence services decreased. At the time the civil war began, Sunni soldiers constituted a majority of the Syrian Army, though Alawis retained a disproportionate share of the posts held by senior officers. Since the beginning of the conflict, however, the composition of the army has changed, with Alawis the majority at all echelons. This is why it has been so difficult for the Syrian Army to defeat the insurgency and why the regime has had to depend heavily on the support of Hezbollah. Indeed, the Alawi community is unable to provide enough soldiers to fight against the numerous rebels coming from abroad and from the large Sunni population.

The Civil War’s Impact on the Alawi Community

The Alawis have privileged access to state employment thanks to their deep integration into the networks of Syrian power. Obvious discrimination in public sector hiring has caused frustration among Sunnis, but the fact that Alawis are generally more assured of getting jobs does not mean that they have a higher standard of living since government salaries are relatively low. Hafez al-Assad used the Alawi community to build his political system, but he did not seek to create prosperity for Alawis because he knew that their loyalty to the regime was mostly based on economic dependence.

An Alawi middle class emerged with the growth of the civil service, and over the past decade the freezing of public sector recruitment has affected the Alawi community less than any other because Alawis are protected by a system of political patronage. But the freeze has resulted in a high rate of unemployment among Alawi youth in the coastal region and has also had disastrous political consequences for Bashar al-Assad, because more than 80 percent of the Alawi community works for the state. In fact, since coming to power, Bashar has supported the Alawi community less than his father, calculating that it would feel obliged to support him anyway in order to maintain its privileges. Instead, he made it a priority to integrate the Sunni and Christian economic elites into his inner circle and share with them the benefits of economic liberalization.

The Alawi community has not always given its full support to the regime. In the 1980s, the main Marxist opposition movement, the Communist Action Party, attracted many young Alawis. In the ongoing revolution, large protests against the regime have not mobilized the Alawi community, but some Alawis have joined demonstrations, and the opposition includes many Alawi figures (such as Aref Dalila, an academic who spent 10 years in prison for his criticism of the government). However, in March 2011, when the demonstrations began in Baniyas, the majority of Alawis did not support the Sunni imams, who were asking for single-sex schools and the communitarian rebalancing of public employment “confiscated by the Alawis.”

Protests in the coastal region did not lead to an escalation of violence as occurred in Homs because the Sunni rebel enclaves were quickly contained by the army. The protests found fertile ground in Homs because Alawis represent a minority of the population in the city and the surrounding countryside. In spring 2011, the tension in Homs between the communities was palpable. Taxis refused to drive passengers from Sunni to Alawi areas, and clashes proliferated along the borders of these areas. Kidnappings and assassinations on religious grounds have also been reported. The Alawi neighborhoods have been targeted by snipers and mortars from Sunni rebel areas. Many observers have compared the ongoing violence in Homs with the disintegration of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate, and many Alawi families have returned to their villages in the coastal mountain range. Fleeing Christian families have settled in the seaside resorts of Mashta al-Helu and Kafroun—near Tartus—though Christian men continue to work in Homs. The Alawis of Damascus have not left for the coast because most of them live far from the areas of insurgency (such as Douma) and from the military camps in the suburbs. But if the regime falls, the coastal region could become a haven for hundreds of thousands of Alawis fleeing Damascus and the purge of the army and the administration that is likely to follow—not unlike what the Sunnis in Iraq experienced after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Military situation in Syria_May 2015, Fabriche Balanche

Conclusion

For centuries, the Alawis lived as prisoners in the coastal mountains and came out only to serve as labor for the landowners of Latakia, Tripoli, Homs, and Hama. The rise to power of Hafez al-Assad provided the community a chance for upward mobility. Even if the economic and political context has changed since the days of Ibn Taymiyya, the re-Islamization process within Syrian society raises concerns in the Alawi community, especially since the military opposition is dominated by ISIS and the Nusra Front.

If the Bashar al-Assad regime is ousted, the Alawis may choose a territorial partition. They could rebuild the former Alawi state created between 1920 and 1936 by France in the coastal region, though this time the external support would come from Russia and Iran. …

Read the full article at its original location here

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