Syrian Hezbollah Militias of Nubl and Zahara’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

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

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

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

Junud al-Mahdi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Nahad Ahmad Dib

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Hussein Mahdi

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On left: Taher Mustafa Khatib


Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi: A Syrian Army Shi’i Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi. The top of the emblem features the Dhu al-Fiqar, the sword of Imam Ali. The group’s name means “The Sword of the Mahdi (may God hasten his emergence) Brigade.”

The Syrian civil war features multiple Syrian Shi’i formations primarily affiliated with Hezbollah, such as Quwat al-Ridha and Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi. Another militia- the Ja’afari Force– had a more interesting evolution over time from origins in the National Defence Forces in Damascus, eventually emerging as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi’i Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ but now claiming to be an independent group. Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is particularly interesting on account of its affiliation. According to one Abu Hayder al-Harbi, who is an Iraqi fighter currently in the ranks of Hezbollah and previously served in the ranks of the Iraqi Shi’i Sadrist splinter militia Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is affiliated with the elite Fourth Armoured Division of the Syrian army, was set up three years ago and comprises Syrian Shi’a that he estimated as a sect to be 1.4% of the total Syrian population. Indeed, the affiliation is not the only case of links between the Fourth Armoured Division (also known as just the Fourth Division/al-Farqat al-Rabi’a) and Shi’i militancy in Syria, for Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein also works closely and overlaps with the Fourth Armoured Division, particularly as both forces have been participating in the assault on the rebel-held suburb of Darayya.

From social media output, the links between Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi and the Fourth Armoured Division become clear on account of the particular inclusion of the portrait of Maher al-Assad, the youngest brother of Bashar al-Assad who has served as commander of the 42nd brigade in the Fourth Armoured Division. Rumours emerged in March 2016 that Maher al-Assad was removed from the Fourth Armoured Division and transferred to the general staff of the Syrian army, but Russia Today, citing a source from the Syrian army, subsequently denied that he had been removed from the Fourth Armoured Division. Al-Quds Al-Arabi explained that Maher al-Assad was transferred from command of the 42nd brigade to the general command in the Fourth Armoured Division- a move required for organisational purposes on account of his promotion in rank.

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Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters, behind whom is a large placard/poster for the group. Note the militia’s emblem in the centre, with Bashar al-Assad’s portrait on the right and Maher al-Assad’s portrait on the left.

In terms of operations, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi has mainly performed two functions. The most notable has been maintaining security in the Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus through the operation of checkpoints. This function continues to this day and was noted by Abu Haydar al-Harbi. The militia has advertised such activities in social media output.

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Photos posted on a page for Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in February 2015 showing Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi members managing a checkpoint in the Sayyida Zainab area. Note the unique Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia in the form of the armpatches the personnel are wearing. The poster in the latter photo with portraits of Bashar al-Assad and his father Hafez al-Assad reads: “An Ummah that has been blessed. You are its leaders. The soldiers of al-Assad.”

Besides responsibility for internal security in the Sayyida Zainab area, the militia has claimed to have fought in defence of the country’s petroleum assets. This role has mainly entailed fighting in the Homs desert in defence of these resources against the Islamic State in areas such as the Sha’er oil and gas field.

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“One of the heroes of Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi in al-Sha’er field”- photo posted in February 2015. Note his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi insignia.

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Another photo from February 2015 featuring Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi fighters purportedly resting after fighting in the Sha’er field area.

In September 2015, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi announced that a group of its fighters had been killed in the Jazal field in the Homs desert area, as per the graphic released below.

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“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:

‘From the believers are men who have truthfully fulfilled what they pledged to God, for from them is the one who has fulfilled his vow and from them is the one who expects and they did not alter anything’ [Qur’an 33:23].

With all pride, contentment and taslim, we present to you the names of the pious hero martyrs from Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi who died defending the homeland in the Jazal oil field in the Homs countryside, and they are:

1. The hero martyr Hadi Razzaq Abd
2. The hero martyr Ala’ Sa’id al-Ali
3. The hero martyr Nouri Hamada Suleiman
4. The hero martyr Mahmoud Nasir al-Ali
5. The hero martyr Yaman Ghazi Halal

To their pure souls, may God have mercy on those whom He guides, Al-Fatiha.”

Details on who exactly these ‘martyrs’ are remain rather obscure though at least one of them can be readily identified elsewhere: Hadi Razzaq Abd (al-Sheibani). His name indicates that he was in fact of Iraqi origin, though he had apparently been residing in Syria.

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Hadi Razzaq Abd posing in front of a poster for Iraqi Shi’i militia Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib.

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‘Martyrdom’ portrait of Hadi Razzaq Abd, mentioning his Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi affiliation.

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Hadi Razzaq Abd’s tomb: according to it, he was born on 27 January 1998 and was killed on 17 September 2015. The person who posted these two photos and the previous image- going by the name of Karar al-Sheibani- also appears to be related to Yassin al-Habij, who was killed in September 2012 and portrayed at the time as a defender of the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus and as being part of the ‘popular committees’ set up to defend the shrine. The concept of ‘popular committees’ to defend the Sayyida Zainab shrine was an important early manifestation of Shi’i militancy in Syria.

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Mourning in Iraq for Hadi Razzaq Abd by locals of the Banu Sheiban tribe (from which the name al-Sheibani comes). Photo also posted by Karar al-Sheibani.

More recently, in terms of operations, a private account posted photos claiming that Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi had participated in the recapture of Palmyra in the spring of 2016. Some photos put out as part of this claim are featured below:

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Overall, Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is a minor formation but is an interesting case of formal ties between the Syrian state and official military apparatus and Shi’i militancy. Such a framework ultimately helps give a more Syrian face to the development of Shi’i militias and the ‘Islamic Resistance’ in Syria.

“Who is to blame for Syria’s nightmare?” By Ehsani2

Who is to blame for Syria’s nightmare?
By Ehsani2
For Syria Comment, July 31

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Once the popular demonstrations of the Arab spring brought down the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, many Syrians assumed that they could bring down President Assad just as quickly. Early in 2011, most expected him to last no more than a few months. Five and a half years later, Assad remains president.  In the 20th century, more than 30 leaders have ruled for over 30 years. Only 3 of them stepped down voluntarily. Ninety per cent clung to power until the bitter end. Instead of viewing the events in Egypt and Tunisia as a statistical anomaly, Syrians viewed them as the new norm. But as Syrians came to understand that Assad would not leave power voluntarily, they took up arms, hoping that force would succeed where peaceful demonstrations could not. Here too, most opposition members over-estimated their strength and underestimated the resources of the regime. In particular, they failed to understand the damage that the Iraq war had done to America’s appetite for a new adventure in the Middle East.

The White House

President Obama was elected twice by running on an anti-war platform. He promised to bring US troops home from both Afghanistan and Iraq. Military involvement in Syria went against his instincts. Allies like Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey had other ideas. Almost immediately after the start of the events in Daraa, they pushed the White House to take a strong stand. Washington resisted for nearly 5 months.  This resistance ended on August 18 of 2011, when President Obama made a statement calling for the President of Syria to “step aside”.  The statement did not say “step down”.  The careful and deliberate debate over every word in the White House amounted to little however once the statement was made. Washington wanted Saddam gone and he was. Ditto for Gaddafi. The consensus in the Middle East has always been that the U.S. controls the region. Because the president of the United States announced that it was time for Assad to go, many believed it meant Assad’s end. Advisors inside the White House, however, were aware of the President’s deep reluctance to act. More importantly, Obama’s reluctance was driven by his belief that the United States has little strategic interest in Syria and his awareness that both Iran and Russia do. They view Syria as an important strategic asset worth fighting for. They would outbid any U.S. escalation. Obama saw Syria as a perilous adventure that the United States would not win. It took years for Assad’s enemies to understand Obama. Perhaps they can be excused to some extent by the president’s confusing statements about Assad and U.S. goals, but on the whole, anyone aware of how minimally important Syria has been to Washington compared to Moscow should not have been confused for long.

President Assad and the Syrian State

There is no denying that six years of fighting have taken a huge toll on the Syrian state. Yes, it has lost a massive amount of real estate. It has also suffered devastating losses in manpower. Syria lies in ruins. While the word “win” is vastly inappropriate here, the Syrian state can claim to have won if it defined wining by the simple fact of its survival. There is no question that this survival was accomplished because the state decided to use every asset at its disposal, often shocking the world with its brutality. Western and Syrian government perceptions this struggle have always been diametrically opposed. Western observers saw a state dropping barrel bombs on its own civilian centers; the Syrian government saw itself as the protector of the country. It was fighting jihadists, terrorists, and and traitors who were conspiring with foreign governments to topple it. Damascus’ survival has been secured by allies that never wavered. This commitment culminated with the stunning decision of Russia to become a direct military combatant in the conflict.  Shockingly, early calls for Assad to step aside did not stop after the Russian entry. The new logic seemed to be that Moscow would pressure Assad to leave as part of its diplomatic rapprochement with the U.S. During a recent interview, Assad was asked if Putin had discussed the issue of transition with him. He flatly denied that such a discussion ever took place. Moscow and Damascus have largely identical views on the conflict and how to resolve it. Asking Assad to step down is not part of this calculus. Russian diplomats may claim that they are not wedded to Assad in the course of public and private conversations, but they do not bring this topic up with him.

The Syrian opposition

The Syrian opposition has long argued that it followed non-violent principals early in the uprising. The eventual recourse to arms was made in order to protect civilian lives and honor (aarad) from state brutality. Government loyalists counter that the uprising was armed almost from the beginning. What is indisputable is that between June 4th and 6th, nearly 120 Syrian soldiers and security troops were killed and had their bodies mutilated and thrown in a river around the town of Jisr-al-Shugour. Opposition activists claimed at the time that the dead soldiers were shot by their own superiors as they tried to defect. This was incorrect. According to informed western sources, electronic interception of opposition communication from that day clearly revealed that opposition fighters took responsibility for the murder of the soldiers. The same western source recalls how his capital expected a massive and blistering response from Assad against the city. Instead, they were surprised to see a far more modest attack as military vehicles and tanks took positions on the outskirts of the city in an effort to find the perpetrators of this crime against the soldiers.

In response to the apparent increased militarization of the opposition early in the conflict, I wrote an article for Syria Comment in February of 2012, titled “The Syrian opposition must find a different way”.  Here is the conclusion:

What is needed is a smart and innovative strategy that helps spare lives but convinces Syria’s leaders that the old ways of doing business are over. Popular efforts must be spent in writing a new constitution, a bill of rights to calm minority fears, and an economic plan to reassure the business community and workers alike. The standard of living of most Syrians is appalling, so is the education level and health care system. The opposition must channel their energies towards such topics rather than the senseless call to arm the rebels in what is clearly a suicide mission.

Sadly, under the pretext of protecting lives and honor, the opposition instead opened its arms to anyone willing to join the fight. Salafists, jihadists, and Al Qaeda and its affiliates were invited into the country in order to fight the regime and balance the unequal power equation.  Alarmed by these trends, I spoke with a leading member the Syrian National Coalition. My concerns were invariably dismissed. I was assured that these fighters and extremist groups were transitory. Once the regime fall, I was told, they would leave Syria or move on.

To be fair, referring to the “opposition” as if it were one movement is misleading. The opposition is best viewed as a spectrum. ISIL and Nusra aresituated on its right while activists, such as Haytham Manaa and groups like his, are situated on its left.  The groups on the left had a nuanced solution to the crisis which was largely built on the notion that Assad could stay but on condition that his powers be limited. They wanted him to give up control over the many Syrian intelligence agencies. While the left emphasized non-violent principles, they overestimated their power to influence thinking in Damascus. For the right on the opposition spectrum, Assad’s immediate departure was the overriding demand. Sadly, the U.S. and other western governments threw their weight behind these groups which have by now come to occupy the middle of the rainbow.

Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 5.45.05 PMThe Syrian coalition and military commanders, such as Colonel Abdul Jabaar al-Aqidi, were the principal allies of the west. Pictures of the Colonel standing with foreign jihadists who belonged to the Islamic State during the capture of Kuweiris air base and subsequently standing with Ambassador Robert Ford became iconic of Washington’s confused strategy in Syria. Many accused Washington of indirectly supporting the same jihadists that it sought to destroy. This doomed policy was a result of conflicting goals. The West and its regional allies wanted stability and regime-change at the same time. They wanted to support a Sunni ascendancy in Syria without undermining secularism. On the ground, however, the extreme right side of the opposition spectrum kept moving left and swallowing all others in its path. To date, the main elements of the opposition blame President Obama for the Syrian crisis. They propose a variety of policy alternatives, such as bombing Damascus, destroying the Syrian air force, establishing no-fly-zones, and increasing money, arms, and training for the opposition. These critics are now placing their bets on Hillary Clinton, who promises to be more hawkish than Obama. They hope that she will tilt U.S. foreign policy more decisively in the direction of regime-change. Her campaign advisors suggest that Hillary may indeed move in this direction. But any escalation by Washington is only likely to produce an even stronger escalation by Moscow. Hillary’s campaign promises are likely to be moderated once she is president.

The Syrian opposition members who bet that Assad would be quickly deposed in 2011 are now largely spectators. Their country lies in ruins. Their goal of bringing down the state (Isqat al-nizam) looks as far as ever from being achieved. And Salafists control the fighting on the ground. Like all conflicts that turn armed and violent, the most militant and extreme end up elbowing the more moderate aside. Burhan Ghalioun and Haytham Manaa have been replaced by Caliph Baghdadi and Mohammed al-Jolani. Rebels have been replaced by mujahedin. Without a single exception, every armed group today is committed to ruling by sharia law. This is why Assad and his supporters will refuse to give up and continue fighting. Syrians, unfortunately, have a long fight in front of them. Miscalculation has led to Syria’s ruin.

 

 

“What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo Will Mean for Syria,” by Landis, Heras, Lund & Abdulhamid

What the Rebel Loss of Aleppo will mean for Syria?
Four Analysts respond – Joshua Landis, Nicholas Heras, Aron Lund and Ammar Abdulhamid

Aleppo Reenforces Regime Claims to Be Able to Retake Most of Syria

By Joshua Landis – Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Univsity of Oklahoma

The encirclement of Eastern Aleppo by the Syrian military and its allies is a major blow to the opposition. It reenforces regime aspirations that it can manage, if not entirely destroy the insurgency over the course of the next five years. It signifies four important developments that have been brewing for some time.

First, this major regime advance was made possible by Russia’s direct entry into the war. Russia transformed the balance of power in Syria by taking the side of the Assad regime last October. What is more, it resulted in a retreat of the United States and its allies. President Obama stated on the day Russia entered the war, that the United States would not fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. That simple statement signaled the collapse of Western, Saudi and Turkish escalation in Syria on behalf of the Sunni militias. The logic of escalation was simple. It was to weaken Assad and force him to cut a deal with the Sunni militias. It was hoped that a political solution could lead to a Sunni rebel ascendancy in Syria. Regime advances put paid to opposition hopes that their allies would help drive Assad from Syria.

Second, Turkey is in chaos. All indications are that Erdogan, once he consolidates his power in Ankara and completes his purges of the Turkish security forces, judiciary and universities, will de-escalate in Syria. Turkey must stop its economic downward spiral. To do so, it must stop its wars. To rebuild tourism and foreign investment and consolidate support among Turkey’s middle classes, Erdogan must fight extremism. Prime Minister insists that Turkey will repair relations with Russia.  Erdogan can no longer afford to provide covert support to most of Aleppo’s rebel forces, including al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra and other Salafi-Jihadist groups such as Ahrar al-Sham. This is why Nusra leader, Joulani, recently announced that he was officially cutting ties with al-Qaida central. He doesn’t want to get bombed.

Third, the US and Western countries have prioritized their fight against ISIS and extremism over their efforts to arm rebel militias.  In both US presidential conventions, not one word about removing Assad from power was heard. The West’s enthusiasm for arming “moderate” militias has cooled because so much of those arms ended up in the hands of Nusra and the Salafists. Obama’s recent efforts to formulate a common strategy with Russia to fight ISIS and Nusra has sent a clear signal to the entire region that stability, not regime-change, are paramount for both. This is good news for Assad and bad for the rebels.

Forth, the reconquest of Aleppo fits into the larger regime strategy by consolidating its grip on what has been called “Useful Syria.” More than half of Syria’s population lives in its four great cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo. The regime is intent on retaking these four cities for they are the heart of the nation, certainly the urban nation. It should be remembered that Syria is a country of deep divisions, not only between religious communities but also between the classes and between urban and rural society. The upper and middle classes live in the cities. By restricting the rebellion to the poorer countryside and tribal regions, Damascus will have scored a moral and strategic victory. It will be able to turn rich against poor and city against village.

Syria’s rebels have grown progressively weaker over the last year. Russia’s entry into Syria was key to this shift. But other trends also contributed. Jihadist bombings in the West, Turkey and Saudi Arabia eroded support for arming rebels. The refugee problem in Europe, also undermined the desire to escalate in Syria. Iraq’s destruction of its Sunni rebellion weakened Syria’s rebels. The rise of ISIS and Nusra to paramountcy in Syria, undercut those arguing for arming rebels. For all of these reasons, the future looks dark for the rebel cause. Assad’s encirclement of Aleppo is an important chapter in Syria’s ongoing struggle.

Nicholas A. Heras
Bacevich Fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), who helped author the center’s new report on combatting ISIS and dealing with Syria.
Losing Aleppo would not be a deathblow to the broader Syrian armed opposition movement,  as too much of the country has fallen out of Assad’s control to the various different revolutionary forces. And Bashar al-Assad is highly unlikely to import enough IRGC-mobilized militias to hold all of the ground that might be retaken from the rebels throughout the country. Perhaps even within the larger Aleppo governorate itself. However the loss of Aleppo would dispel any illusions that the armed opposition can seize and hold large areas of the most important cities in western Syria. Or that the long-sought unity of Aleppo’s rebel factions to resist Assad, over the long term and without significantly greater foreign military intervention than it has received, was anything more than a daydream.
The loss of rebel-held areas of Aleppo would be a big boost to the al-Assad government’s Narrative of Resistance, and for its assertions that it is marching inexorably toward an ultimate triumph in the war against a foreign conspiracy directed at Syria. It would also reinforce the idea within the upper echelon of the loyalist ranks that Assad’s forces (and their foreign friends) can “win” the war, even if it will be over the course of a long, twilight struggle. Further, a long siege of of opposition-controlled Aleppo would also draw out the horrible suffering of civilians in the rebel-held areas of the city. This suffering, which would play out before the eyes of the international community on an hourly basis, could very well be the death knell of opposition-supporting countries’ credibility with the armed opposition. And it just might be the final push that unites the disparate rebel factions in northern Syria under the banner of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

Assad Hopes to Make Aleppo a Turning Point in the War
by Aron Lund
Nonresident Associate Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Unless somehow rolled back by the rebels, Assad’s reconquest of eastern Aleppo could turn into a very drawn-out siege, which would no doubt have horrifying effects for the civilian population. But the effects are not just humanitarian or even military, there’s also a political side to this. If Assad shows that he is winning Aleppo, and he’s now also advancing on the rebels in Damascus, it could trigger a more dramatic shift by finally convincing opposition groups that they have lost the war. Many thousands of them would probably fight on regardless, for ideological reasons or simply because they see no hope for survival under Assad. But some might decide to abandon the fight and flee Syria or try to negotiate a separate peace with the government.

One problem with that is that Assad has historically shown himself to be too politically inflexible to capitalize on his military victories. This has been a constant source of frustration for his allies, but it just seems to be the way the regime works. Now, there are some signs of a more intelligent political management this time around. Assad has just decreed an amnesty for rebels who hand in their guns within three months. It’s probably in the hope of triggering defections, and also to show Syrians and foreigners alike that he can in fact reintegrate former enemies and would therefore be able to reunify Syria. But given the lawless way in which his security forces have always acted, I suspect many will think twice before taking him on his word.

Perhaps most importantly, if Assad cements his hold on Aleppo through a siege or even by retaking it in part or in full, that could be the moment when certain foreign backers of the rebellion decide to call it a day. No one is going to rush to embrace Assad after all of this and nations that have developed strong proxy forces in Syria will be reluctant to abandon their investments. But it does change the political horizon for the rebels’ backers. In my view, it is not realistic to expect countries like Turkey or Saudi Arabia – never mind the United States – to first let the rebels lose Aleppo and then rally the force needed for them to take it back. They’re not going to start from scratch again. When it’s gone, it’s gone, and the only thing that can change that is if the government itself has an internal meltdown. So without Aleppo, it is a different war and probably one in which some of his enemies will think differently about Assad’s role. Not all, but some of them, and that might be enough to alter the terms of the conflict.

(The text above was first written in response to a question from Associated Press, which quotes parts of it in this story on the encirclement of Aleppo.)

The Loss of Aleppo – A Pyrrhic Victory
By Ammar Abdulhamid – He was a fellow at Brookings and the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. He was the first Syrian to testify to congress against what he viewed as crimes by the Syrian president.

The loss of Aleppo will constitute a major blow to rebels in Syria, but it will neither end the rebellion nor the civil war. In fact, feeling betrayed and let down by their allies, many rebels, in Aleppo and elsewhere, will be radicalized, far more than they are today. This means that the ranks of the Islamic State, Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups, even as they face their own existential challenges, will swell, and other fronts will heat up.
Damascus in particular can expect serious escalations, as attacks against the civilian population, and on vital infrastructure, such the all too vulnerable water supply sources and routes, are bound to increase. Aleppo itself will not be completely pacified, and some reversals should be expected. In some instance, the besiegers could find themselves besieged, at least by terror. Few will stay not to mention return. Most of the city will be a deserted wasteland, and its ethnic makeup will be drastically altered.
On the political level, opposition groups will have another thing to cry foul about. But their cries, as usual will continue to fall on deaf ears.
Irrespective of popular impressions and populist agitation, Syrian refugees in neighboring countries as well as Europe have actually been well-behaved, and have so far refrained from taking part in any criminal or terrorist activities. The fall of Aleppo could change that as desperation sets in. And the tragic Syrian saga of letting worst case scenarios become self-fulfilling prophecies will continue, aided by continued reliance on short-sighted policies that fail to even tackle the symptoms not to mention fight the disease.
In short, the loss of Aleppo will constitute a pyrrhic victory than a decisive blow, and could heat things up rather than calm them down. The Syrian conflict will not end in accordance with any existing vision or plan, even one backed by Russia and the United States. After all, regional forces have been the main drivers of the conflict, and they are not ready to end it yet.

“Educating Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” by Salih Yasun

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 11.43.22 AMThe Educational Opportunities and Challenges of Syrian Refugee Students in Turkey: Temporary Education Centers and Beyond
By Salih Yasun*
For Syria Comment, July 25, 2016

Almost 3,000,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey since the Syrian uprising began. Approximately 880,000 of those are school-age. 45% of those, or more than 400,000, attend school.[1]

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Syrian refugee students in Turkey who are in preschool or first grade attend only Turkish schools. They do so through a government mandate. After first grade, they face two main options for for education from grade two to twelve. Syrian students can choose to attend either Turkish public schools or temporary education centers. Temporary education centers (TEC) are primary and secondary education centers that provide educational opportunities for school-age Syrian children in Turkey (MEB, 2014). These schools use Arabic as the medium of instruction; they follow a curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government and modified by the Turkish Ministry of Education.[2] Currently, approximately 78% of Syrian refugee students attend TEC, and 22% attend other schooling institutions, consisting of mainly Turkish public institutions.[3] In order for students to register at TEC, they need to obtain an international protection ID from a nearby police station. Students can physically attend classes at TEC even if they do not have IDs provided by the Directory of Police if they provide basic information to TEC officials through personal statements. However, students still need to obtain IDs to be able to receive diplomas and grade reports. To be placed in the appropriate classroom at TEC, students need to prove their academic trajectory in Syria or take a placement exam. These exams are not uniform as each TEC has its own exam with different questions. The score of the exam determines the placement of the student into a grade level. Students wishing to transfer to Turkish schools are automatically placed in the nearest Turkish school in proximity of their residence. However, cases of transition remain significantly low. Students who complete their education at TEC can attend in Turkish universities if they succeed through Baccalaureate and YÖS examinations.

The support for TEC comes from different agents such as NGOs, local municipalities, the Ministry of Education, and private donations. The services provided by such agents have included scholarships, meals, transportation, activities for students, wages for teachers, and spaces for education. However, the support is still not sufficient for many TEC to cover the expenses of education. TEC are commonly located in office blocks, NGO buildings, and Turkish public school buildings.

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The basic challenges of TEC can be categorized under three groups. The first group consists of the challenges related to the accessibility to education, which are also relevant for the accessibility to education at public schools. The second group consists of the challenges with the quality of education at TEC, and the third group consists of the challenges of transferring to public schools or universities from TEC. The challenges faced in accessing to education can be summarized as follows:

An important segment of students has to work to cover the living expenses of their families. Some TEC organized conditional aid programs to provide aid for families of students while returning students to TEC. However, the conditional aid programs remain very limited in scope nationwide. Students and parents may not know about educational opportunities in Turkey. The Ministry of Education has coordinated with UNICEF to provide information regarding educational opportunities to students and their parents. School fees can prevent the access to education for many students. Although education is free for refugee children, most TEC are dependent on donations from students with wealthier parents. As a result, in some cases these TEC may choose to admit students whose parents could provide donations over those who could not. This could prevent the orphans or children of poor families from accessing the educational opportunities. Many TEC have not provided uniforms to students. This may prevent students without appropriate clothing from accessing the educational opportunities. This problem is especially acute for girls. Some parents have discriminatory views about girls’ educational attainment, which hinder girls from accessing the educational opportunities.

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The challenges associated with the quality of education can be examined under the topics such as the provision of counseling services, Turkish language education, the quality of teachers, and the provision of educational materials.

Refugee children’s exposure to violence might lead them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] TEC need counselors that can assist students experiencing PTSD. A majority of TEC do not have counselors or the existing counselors are insufficient in meeting the needs of students. Male students tend to be more comfortable consulting with male counselors whereas female students were more comfortable consulting with female counselors. At some TEC all of the counselors are male and at some other all of the counselors are female.

Currently, students at TECs receive four to five hours of Turkish education per week. At some TEC the Turkish education is provided by volunteers free of charge, at others the expenses of Turkish teachers are covered by the TEC or NGOs. The Turkish education is considered insufficient because of the low quantity of language hours the lack of quality of teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. In addition, the reliance on volunteers may also hinder the language acquisition process due to the absentees of teachers. The opportunities for students at TEC to speak Turkish outside of the classroom is also very limited. The Ministry of Education is providing training for teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. The Syrian teachers at TEC utilize teacher-centered methodologies with great emphasis on memorization, which hinder the adjustment process of students to the Turkish educational system.

Currently, the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government provides the textbooks for courses other than Turkish free of charge to the students of TEC. Some TEC provide Turkish language textbooks free of charge, whereas some others charge fees. Some TEC do not provide Turkish language textbooks. Many of the TEC lack the basic science equipment.

Students face some problems in transferring from TEC to public schools. Although the curriculums are close, there are some discrepancies. For instance, a subject might be taught at the 5th grade at TEC but at the 4th grade at public schools, which could add extra challenges to the adjustment phases of Syrian students transferring to Turkish schools. Another problem is the lack of information about the accreditation exams. In the last education year students were given almost no information prior to the exam which prevented students from studying for the exam effectively. At some public schools Turkish teachers and counselors do not pay proper attention to the education of Syrian students despite the fact that Syrian students, many of whom lack the proper Turkish language skills, require more attention than their Turkish peers to succeed in the classroom. In addition, deeply established discriminatory views exist among the Turkish community towards Syrians, which prevent Syrian students’ integration among their Turkish peers.

The problems at TEC can be solved through coordination between NGOs, TEC, ministries and municipalities. Students can be provided with daily meals at TEC to lessen the financial burden of families and incentivize families to send their children to TEC. Special TEC can be opened to target students who have missed years of schooling in order to help them to catch up their peers. The conditional aid programs can be expanded. Transportation means and uniforms can be provided. The ministry of education can open vocational training programs that can enable refugee students to provide meaningful income for their families while earning valuable skills that they can transfer to their home countries.

The wages of teachers can be increased above the minimum wage and provided for 12 months in order to ensure that the highly skilled teachers continue practicing their profession. The number of trained counselors can be increased, with the goal of having at least one female and one male counselor to ensure that both male and female students can access counseling services. Once this is accomplished, the student/counselor ratio can be lowered. Turkish instruction hours can be increased. Turkish language books and basic science equipment can be provided. Sister school projects can be established between TEC and public schools which can enable Turkish and Syrian students to interact with their peers. The teachers at TEC can receive orientation on student-centered teaching methodology.

Free YÖS courses can be opened and the contextual differences between Syrian and Turkish curriculums can be removed to ensure smooth transitions to public schools and universities. Students can be informed in a timely manner regarding the accreditation exams. Orientation services can be provided to teachers and principals at public schools regarding the refugee education. The visibility of Syrian community and refugee students in the public can be increased by providing public service broadcasts focusing on Syrians in Turkey.

* Salih Yasun is a PhD student at the political science department of Indiana University and a graduate of Sabancı University’s master’s program in political science. e-mail syasun@umail.iu.edu

You can find the Full article is here

Pictures:  Source & source

[1] Interviews with government officials.

[2] The current curriculum mimics the curriculum utilized in Syria prior to the Civil War. The material in favor of Assad dynasty, Baas party and some controversial elements about Syria-Turkey relations have been excluded from the current curriculum.

[3]Estimations based on Emin, M. N. (2016). “Türkiye’deki Suriyeli Çocukların Eğitimi, Temel Eğitim Politikaları.” SETA.

[4] Brown, D. (1996). “Counseling the victims of violence who develop posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi: A Syrian Hezbollah Formation

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaImamMahdiemblem
An emblem of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Brigade): “Liwa al-Imam Mahdi: The Imam Ali Battalion. The Islamic Resistance in Syria.” Note the classic extended arm and arm associated foremost with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The quotation above the rifle reads: “Indeed the party of God are the ones who overcome” (Qur’an 5:56), a play on ‘Hezbollah’ (The party of God).

The Syrian civil war has seen the rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native Syrian Muqawama Islamiya (‘Islamic Resistance’) and Hezbollah. Examples include Quwat al-Ridha (recruiting mainly from Shi’a in the Homs area), the National Ideological Resistance (based in Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja’afari Force (recruiting mainly from Damascene Shi’a) and al-Ghalibun. Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi, referring to the twelfth Shi’i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Army).

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components: the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba’albek in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria. Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.

The commander added that the group has participated in a number of battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa route. Some of these operations (e.g. fighting in south Aleppo countryside and positions on the Ithiriya hills) have been mentioned on social media. More images of relevance can be found below.

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Abu Hadi, the leader of the al-Hadi Battalion. His real name appears to be Rani Jaber and he is Syrian (specifically from Deraa). Note his Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi armpatch. The al-Hadi Battalion claims at least two squadrons: the first led by ‘al-Saffah’ and the second led by ‘Abu Ali Karar.’

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Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). Identical with the emblem at the top of the article.

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Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi fighters in Aleppo. Note their armpatches.

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Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion) fighters as part of preparations for “the battle of the north” (according to a source that posted this photo and others in early June 2016). This likely refers to participation in the Aleppo fighting.

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Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (al-Hadi Battalion) fighters. Note the portrait immediately behind them featuring the Syrian flag design. Portrait on top: “Come and behold me, for I am the sister of Hussein. At your service, oh Zaynab” (latter phrase in Arabic- Labbayk ya Zaynab– referring to Sayyida Zaynab, a central figure in Shi’i jihadi discourse on account of the concept of defending her shrine in the Damascus area).

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Al-Hajj Waleed

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Photo from al-Hajj Waleed featuring the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). The portrait on the wall reads: “Oh Zaynab al-Kubra” (‘al-Kubra’ a common epithet given to Sayyida Zaynab).

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The leader of the al-Hadi Battalion with a sword on the design of Imam Ali’s Dhu al-Fiqar. The text inserted into the photo reads: “Liwa al-Mahdi: remaining on the pledge, al-Hadi Battalion.”

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A Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi member: note the armpatch featuring Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i. This affinity should not be surprising considering the group’s connection to Hezbollah, which is itself ideologically loyal to Khamene’i.

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In the red chair: Muhammad Jaber (Abu Zayd), brother of Rani Jaber. Note the Hezbollah insignia on the person standing next to him.

In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi’s contribution to the fighting in Syria seems similar in scale to that of the Ja’afari Force and the National Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj Waleed gave his toll of killed (‘martyrs’) and wounded at 25 and 55 respectively. Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to recruit Syrians.

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He? – By Ehsani2

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He?
By Ehsani2
For Syria Comment, July 22, 2016

The video of the beheading of the young Syrian boy by the Zanki group in Aleppo caused widespread public shock. Since the appearance of the video, the boy’s identity has been the subject of much speculation.  This account of his identity is based on hours of conversations with Aleppo residents who knew the deceased, personally.

The boy’s name is Abdullah Tayseer, as has been widely reported. A copy of his ID has been circulating online.

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While the ID states that he is born in 1997, which would make him 19 years old, he is actually 14. The reason for the discrepancy is because the only way he could obtain this type of ID was for him to be above the age 18. He lied to get it. The person or group that issued him the ID most likely knew his true age. Sadly, as this war has gone on, young men have joined fight. The coalition representing the Syrian opposition released a communique deploring the use of child soldiers by the Syrian government. The communique failed, of course, to look into how widespread this practice has been among the armed groups.

The Zanki group that beheaded Abdullah Tayseer claimed that he was working for the Quds brigade, which is true. His ID, however, shows his affiliation to be with Air Force Intelligence. The reason for this discrepancy is that the ID he had on him was out of date. He joined the Quds Brigade a month ago, but was yet to be issued a new ID by this group.

Abdullah was Palestinian and not Syrian. He had accompanied a group of fighters to Handarat. As the fighting intensified, he could not escape and was caught by the Zanki fighters as a number of the videos have shown. Most fighters who were captured have been held under arrest until they could be used in prisoner exchanges. This may explain why Abdullah seems to have been medically treated first. The group that is seen taking selfies with him before he was killed decided to punish him after taunting him repeatedly on video. The Zanki fighter who performed the beheading was reportedly angry at having seen his own brother killed recently in Handarat. Personally beheading this 14 year old was his way of extracting revenge.

The United States, which has previously provided military support to the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, said it was “seeking more information” and that it could not confirm the “appalling report” at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“If we can prove that this was indeed what happened and this group was involved… it would give us pause about any assistance or, frankly, any further involvement with this group,” state department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.

Kata’ib al-Jabalawi: A Pro-Assad Militia from Homs

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi. The top reads: “Syrian Arab Republic.” The bottom: “Katibat al-Jabalawi” (al-Jabalawi Battalion, interchangeable with Kata’ib al-Jabalawi). The person in the centre of the emblem is one Mazen Jabalawi, about whom more below.

The Homs area is home to a number of pro-Assad militias, including Liwa Khaybar and the Leopards of Homs. Kata’ib al-Jabalawi is another militia from Homs. The group’s name derives from a prominent pro-Assad commander and ‘martyr’ called Mazen Ali Ahmad (al)-Jabalawi. He was originally from the Alawite village of Jabalaya located to the northwest of Homs city, and was said to have been killed in Deraa on 11 November 2013. A contemporary tribute to him posted on social media identifies Jabalawi as the leader of a contingent who fought in many battles across Syria:

“The mujahid commander, amir of martyrs, the martyr hero Ali Khazzam with the leader hero, leader of the group of glory, honour and sincerity that rushed since the beginning of the events in Homs to defend the people of Homs, the martyr hero Mazen Jabalawi, the brother-in-law of the martyr Ya’arab al-Darbuli who was martyred in Deraa a week ago. The martyr commander Mazen Jabalawi has been newly-wed since only two months ago. The martyr leader Mazen Jabalawi waged many battles with his martyr companions in most of the towns of Syria: Homs, Homs countryside, Aleppo, Aleppo countryside, Deir az-Zor and finally Deraa, where he wished only to be a newly-wed in her while breaking the siege from companions-in-arms. The martyr Mazen Jabalawi: Bab Hawd, Jurat al-Shiyah and al-Khalidiya [areas in Homs city] know him very well. Every stone in them knows this hero and the members of his group. Ask the pigs of old Homs how many woes this lion made them taste. Ask Qusayr how many pigs were trampled on at his hands. Ask the noble people in Homs about the field commander Mazen al-Jabalawi who took martyrs as brothers to him, heeded the call and has joined them as a noble newly-wed leader not knowing defeat.”

The formation in his name- Kata’ib al-Jabalawi- notably turns up in March 2014 in a pro-opposition report on pro-regime militia dynamics in Homs, relying on an alleged leaked document, which “on one of its pages points to the appearance of a new type of militias and considers them to be more dangerous than the [National] Defence militias themselves, and it dubs the militia as being called ‘Kata’ib al-Jabalawi’ that became independent of the National Defence, and harbours hostility to the Syrian army and all the battalions and militias loyal to it, including Hezbollah.” In one instance, the document supposedly says that Kata’ib al-Jabalawi carried out an ambush against rebels in the Sakra region in eastern Homs countryside, bringing the bodies to the heart of Homs and inviting media to cover the event. However, the militia barred the Iranian channel al-Aalem from covering the event on account of its coverage of news related to Hezbollah, while threatening any outlet that credited other forces besides Kata’ib al-Jabalawi as participants in the operation. On social media, some brief references can be found to Kata’ib al-Jabalawi in 2014, as per below:

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From a pro-regime account from Homs: “The greatest jihadi organization in the path of Truth: Kata’ib al-Shaheed al-Jabalawi” (cf. this post from November 2014).

In the current form that can be found on social media, active promotion of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi can be traced to around the spring and early summer of 2015. This is rather similar to the Leopards of Homs, which dates back in its first iteration to 2012- with its leader Shadi Jum’a becoming involved in National Defence Force circles in Homs and then apparently identified as leader of a contingent of his own by 2014- but in the current iteration on social media can be traced to roughly the same time frame of spring and early summer of 2015, as it became affiliated with the al-Bustan Association of prominent regime businessman Rami Makhlouf. Likewise, Kata’ib al-Jabalawi as it is currently promoted, under the military leadership of one Abu Ahmad Khalid Wusuf and the general leadership of an Abu Ibrahim, shows an affiliation with the al-Bustan Association. Indeed, one page set up for Kata’ib al-Jabalawi is dedicated to various ‘martyrs’ for the group and explicitly mentions the affiliation. The militia is also defined as part of the “Popular Defence Forces in Homs“- a term used to refer to the Leopards of Homs as well. Sample activities that point to the al-Bustan Association affiliation include the provision of protection for an iftar celebration set up last month by the al-Bustan Association to commemorate the anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s death.

In keeping with the idea of continuity with Mazen Jabalawi, claims and commemorations for ‘martyrs’ can be found going all the way back to at least 2012. Examples follow below.

Name Year of birth Marital status Date and place of death
Tamam Muhammad Mansour 25 November 2013: Deraa
Aamer Ahmad Ibrahim 1986 Single 9 June 2013: Hasya’ (south of Homs city)
Ahmad Sweid Khadur 1976 Married with three children 2 June 2013: Qusayr
Jawd Jihad al-Muhammad 1989 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Eisa Hussein al-Hassan 1984 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Aymenn Hassan al-Khidr 1977 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Ahmad Jihad Gharib 1986 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Shadi Ali al-Ali 1983 26 June 2012
Tamim Nasr Abboud 1972 Married 22 June 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Suleiman Majid Dilla 1994 Single 22 June 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Hassan Hashim Khudur 1994 Single 12 June 2012: Umm Sharshuh (north of Homs)

(Sources: here and here)

More recent engagements of note include fighting in East Ghouta, where Kata’ib al-Jabalawi has claimed at least one notable ‘martyr’ in Ammar Jamal Mahmoud, who was killed on 29 November 2015 and had previously been renowned for his role in the fighting in Deraa, where Kata’ib al-Jabalawi had also been fighting in early 2016. In addition, Kata’ib al-Jabalawi participated in operations in the Qaryatayn area to the east of Homs against the Islamic State that ultimately led to the recapture of the town by early April 2016: during this operation, the militia most notably claimed a ‘martyr’ in an individual named Ali Abbas Muhammad, who was said to have been killed on 21 March 2016. Katai’b al-Jabalawi had also taken part in operations in eastern Homs countryside in the previous summer as the Islamic State had been making rapid advances across the Homs desert at the expense of the regime: for instance, the group claimed a ‘martyr’ in an individual called Kenan Dayub, killed fighting in the Sha’er field area, and some fallen fighters in the Jazal area. Finally, the group participated in the siege of Zabadani through the summer of 2015 (claiming that one of its fighters by the name of Muhammad al-Qasim was killed on 26 August 2015) in addition to fighting in the al-Ghab plains in the northwest of Hama province as the Russian intervention commenced.

The history of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi points to a complex evolution over time, evolving from pro-Assad militia networks in Homs that cannot simply be reduced to monochromatic labels like shabiha, which as Aron Lund notes has often been adopted uncritically as a generic term when its applicability is much more specific. The militia with the seemingly closest parallel history is the Leopards of Homs. Both the Leopards of Homs and Kata’ib al-Jabalawi seem to have grown within the Homs National Defence Force networks, then became their own outfits in some way before apparently reforming under affiliation with the al-Bustan Association in 2015. The al-Bustan Association affiliation can perhaps be seen as part of a wider project of bringing Homs militias seen as loose cannons under the cover of the Syrian state, particularly if we give credence to the early 2014 report suggesting tensions between Kata’ib al-Jabalawi and other pro-Assad actors in Homs at the time.

————–
Update (21 July 2016): An earlier reference to Kata’ib al-Jabalawi and an al-Bustan Association affiliation can be found at least as early as May 2014. Therefore the chronology of the group’s evolution seems to diverge somewhat from that of the Leopards of Homs. Also of note was participation in an operation in the Damascus area in late 2014.

Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random

Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random
By an Informed Observer in Damascus
For Syria Comment, June 13, 2016

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Marie Colvin’s death was tragic, especially for her family and friends and the international media community. Colvin was a courageous and legendary journalist. But her death was random, like hundreds of thousands of other deaths in the Syrian war that the world does not hear about. She was not “assassinated,” as claimed in the lawsuit submitted by her relatives or emphasized in news headlines, such as this Washington Post article: War reporter Marie Colvin was tracked, targeted and killed by Assad’s forces, family says.

Gilles Jacquier, French Photojournalist. An investigation by the French Ministry of Defence concluded that Jacquier had been killed in an attack carried out by anti-Assad rebels. Caroline Poiron, Jacquier’s wife, published the book Attentat Express in June 2013 with Vallelian and Hammouche that accuses Syrian government intelligence of planning the death of her husband. She claims he was killed either by a 22 millimeter gun associated with Syrian secret police or a long knife.

 

Colvin was embedded with the media wing of an insurgency in an active war zone. She was not targeted by Syrian government forces any more than the French journalist Gilles Jacquier was when he was killed by insurgent retaliatory mortars fired from the Old Homs neighborhood they controlled at the majority Alawite neighborhood of Akrama, in January 2011. A lot of people die in wars, most are not directly targeted as individuals. Most local journalists and western journalists are also not targeted. The US military has accidentally killed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were usually Arab so few of us know their names. But they too were not targeted. Those few from the brave and reckless pack of international journalists who dare to venture into war zones do the world a great service, but they volunteer to leave a world of safety and laws to enter chaos and risk death. They do so believing the mission is worth the risk, and we owe them a debt to be sure, but when they get killed it should not shock us for they have entered a world that their typically privileged audience does not know, where death is random, merciless, fickle and ubiquitous.

There is no doubt that Colvin was killed by artillery fired by the Syrian armed forces. Apart from that basic fact, the legal complaint submitted reads as if it was written by a Syrian opposition activist and contains many factual errors. The shells that killed her and French photographer Remi Ochlik were fired from the Hassan ibn al Haitham military base in Homs’ Tadmur Circle, quite a distance away, and with a range of error of fifty meters. It was not a sniper rifle. The artillery was fired at Baba Amr, a large Homs suburb seized by insurgents who were attempting to penetrate government held areas in the city itself such as Inshaat. Government forces had launched an offensive to retake the neighborhood after the previous battles had ended in late 2011 with insurgents remaining in the neighborhood.

The complaint recounts a naive narrative about the birth of the insurgency, claiming that “in response, defectors from the Syrian army joined with local volunteers to defend opposition neighborhoods from attack. In November 2011, a group of officers who had defected from the Syrian army entered Baba Amr, a district in southwest Homs. They announced the formation of the al-Farouq Battalion, a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a national network of moderate, pro-democracy rebels (“FSA rebels”). Composed of several hundred army deserters and volunteers, equipped only with small arms, the FSA rebels launched raids against government checkpoints in Baba Amr.”

In fact the overwhelming majority of insurgents from March 2011 were not defectors from the military but angry civilians. Especially in Homs city former criminals and low level street gangsters played a key role in the formation of insurgent groups and became local defenders. Much like the so called shabiha in fact. The Farouq Battalion described in the complaint was not a moderate pro-democracy faction. it was led and financed by salafis, its ideology was Islamist and it engaged from the beginning in attacks against civilians perceived to be loyal to the state and kidnappings of Alawites in particular. The complaint is correct that “In late November 2011, the FSA rebels expelled Assad regime forces from Baba Amr, established a defensive perimeter around the neighborhood, and declared it a “liberated zone.”” But then it should be no surprise that the Syrian state would not tolerate this and would have to take military action to retake this zone. The insurgents took an entire neighborhood hostage, and later much of the country, without prior invitation by locals. These insurgents received funding from state and non-state actors throughout the Middle East and especially the Gulf and were backed by businessmen affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They laid waste to institutions and infrastructure, as does any insurgency, and displaced all who have differing views or were from other sects. They also displayed callous disregard for the predictable consequences their strongholds would face when the Syrian security forces responded.

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See original Map of Homs here

While the Syrian armed forces do use indiscriminate force when targeting insurgent held areas, they are indeed insurgent held areas and their conduct is not inconsistent with how other states respond to insurgencies. Baba Amr was full of insurgents threatening to penetrate the city and destroy the state. It is no surprise that the state would use all its force to prevent this. This is why it was placed under siege. Syrian forces surrounded Baba Amr in order to deny the insurgents the ability to seize the rest of Homs city.

The complaint claims that “Syrian military and intelligence forces launched a scorched-earth campaign against Baba Amr.” In true Syrian style it was not a surgical operation and no doubt the laws of war were violated and violence was used indiscriminately without the proper concern for civilian collateral damage. But less than 20 percent of Baba Amr was badly damaged and today the neighborhood is overwhelmingly intact. Compared to operations that would come in the following years of the civil war the use of violence in the Baba Amr campaign was consistent with western standards, if not as efficient.

Contrary to the complaint, Maher al Assad was not involved in the Baba Amr operations at all. But in November 2011 a brigade of “BMP” armored personnel carriers trained in urban combat was sent by the 4th Division to Homs and placed under the command of the 18th Division which only had tanks that were unwieldy for urban combat. But even these APCs had not belonged to Maher’s liwa, which was liwa 47. Maher al Assad does not command the 4th division, contrary to popular belief. The APC’s belonged to Jamal Sleiman’s liwa.

The Syrian government’s capabilities pinpointing locations based on communication were always very weak, especially in those early days of the war. At best they could locate a neighborhood where the communication was taking place. And they were overwhelmed with mobile phones and satellite communication taking place in insurgent held areas so their primitive tracking abilities were even less effective. The complaint claims that “the Computer and Signals Section of Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate informed General Shahadah that the informant’s account matched the location of broadcast signals they had intercepted earlier that night.” But in 2012 the most advance device in Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate was a Chinese radio and it did not have the ability to analyze intercepted signals and determine a location. Branch 225 in Damascus did have those capabilities but at the time they were not mobile and only available in Damascus. It would be over a year before the Syrian government obtained mobile devices that could help identify the location of communications. Even then, we’re not talking about very sophisticated capabilities.

In early 2012 more and more of Homs was falling to insurgents. A regime which had little regard for international media was too busy struggling to survive and responding to a burgeoning insurgency to hunt down a small team of westerners. The regime was much more concerned about Syrians. It was struggling to win the domestic battle and root out activists working with the insurgents. They were a far greater priority for it than westerners. And indeed when it captured them, depending on the location and the time, they were often treated brutally. Westerners were largely immune to such treatment.

The “shabiha” were not a paramilitary death squad. Shabiha was a colloquial name to describe a pre-war phenomenon of organized crime with connections to the regime. Once the uprising began the name was used to describe any government supporter but also more specifically to describe a parallel phenomenon that emerged alongside the nascent insurgency of loyalist civilians organizing themselves as self defense (in their minds) committees that also engaged in attacks on the opposition with loose cover from government security forces. These would eventually become organized into a handful of official paramilitary forces such as the National Defense Forces. It is wrong to view them as death squads. And they were not under the command of Maher al Assad. Instead, once they gradually became organized various groups were affiliated with various security agencies and army units depending on the area and who had jurisdiction.

Moreover Khaled al Fares, the individual described in the complaint as “a shabiha militia leader” was nothing of the sort. Khaled al Fares was a businessman with a shady past in semi legal or illegal activities who gradually became a legitimate businessman with interests in car dealerships, chicken coups, a marble factory, and money lending. He was also close to Asef Shawkat, brother in law of the president, a former intelligence chief and at the time deputy minister of defense. Al Fares was not affiliated with Maher al Assad in any way at the time. Al Fares was part of an informal committee of influential Homs citizens, Alawis and Sunnis, loyalists and opposition, who gathered at the Safir Hotel with government officials occasionally to try to mediate and prevent the city from collapsing into civil war. Because he had a tribal background he was a useful asset for the government in reaching out to various constituencies. Not only was he not a militia commander, al Fares (who lived in the upper class Inshaat neighborhood at the time) only had a couple of bodyguards and 4 AK-47s to his name.

Al Fares did play a small role in this story, but not as an informant to help kill Colvin. When the death of Colvin was announced, the Syrian government did not believe it at first. One of their sources had falsely told Syrian intelligence that she and her colleagues had snuck out using tunnels to the western Homs country by Qatini Lake and that the death announcement was a tactic to deceive the government and allow Colvin to flee. Then an old man living in Baba Amr came to the Safir and met with security officials. The old man was originally from Wadi Khaled and his son was a member of an insurgent group in Baba Amr. He wanted to safely evacuate his son from Baba Amr and was also hoping for financial compensation in exchange for revealing to the government that the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik were buried in his back yard. He also informed the security officials that the insurgents were gathering at the edge of Baba Amr to prepare to evacuate to Quseir in western Homs. Khaled al Fares overheard this and told Asef Shawkat. Some in the government wanted to ambush the insurgents before they fled while others wanted to recover the bodies. Asef claimed he had told an EU official that he could get the bodies. Al Fares claimed that he took part in the operation to recover the bodies while in fact it was a team of low ranking security men who snuck in on a cold and snowy night and recovered the wrapped up corpses. They were surprised to find that insurgents had largely abandoned Baba Amr. When the bodies were taken to the Political Security branch Khaled al Fares took his picture with them.

Senior Syrian officials at the time claimed they had tried to mediate with the western journalists before the offensive was launched, going through local and international organizations and offering safe passage out to Lebanon. Security officials were also in touch with local insurgents about this. They worried about the consequences should westerners be harmed in their offensive. They claim Colvin was adamant on staying or made demands such as evacuating wounded insurgents. Syrian security chiefs surely wanted to detain and expel foreign journalists who had entered Syria illegally to report and at least in their view promote an insurgency, but they did not want to kill them, even in Syria western lives have more value than those of locals.

The complaint states that “Colvin and Conroy feared that it would be unsafe to embed with the Syrian government on an official press tour.” This is silly. While Colvin and Conroy were providing a necessary and valuable service informing the world about the suffering in insurgent held areas, it is absurd to think it is more safe to embed with insurgents than to go on a state sanctioned visit. The complaint claims that “two Swiss journalists who were with Jacquier at the time accused the Syrian government of leading Jacquier into an ambush.” This is nonsensical because Jacquier was in a safe majority Alawite neighbourhood with government escorts and streets full of people that suddenly came under insurgent mortar attack.

This is the footage of the moment that Gilles Jacquier was killed along with eight Syrians. It taken by an Arab camera crew and released by Adduniya TV, a pro-government channel.

He had bad luck, just like the others killed that day. But as usual the lives of Syrians wounded or killed are not as important and if a westerner is hurt than surely he must have been targeted. The complaint names a plethora of the most senior officials in Syria as part of a conspiracy to kill these western journalists. This is absurd. These officials were dealing with far more urgent matters than a couple of western journalists.

It is naive and misleading to call Khaled Abu Salah a poet and media activist. One can support his cause but the fact is he was a leading member of the media arm of the insurgency in Homs and his job was to be a propagandist on their behalf. Indeed after Baba Amr was retaken footage was discovered of him and his colleagues fabricating claims and footage to add drama to their media appearances. As Khaled Abu Salah played an important role within the Homs insurgency, but he was less of a poet and “activist” and more the equivalent of one of Hamas’ spokesmen in Gaza. These so called media activists were no doubt passionate and brave but they operated under the permission of insurgent commanders and in support of their armed struggle. Thus embedding with them would naturally expose one to the same retaliation the insurgents could expect.

The complaint claims that a female informant revealed the location of the western journalists. In fact Syrian officials believed the journalists had fled. It was only the old man from Wadi Khaled who revealed to them that they had stayed behind and two were dead. The old man also claimed that insurgents had killed them in order to tarnish the image of the Syrian government. This of course was not true but as a result some government officials wanted to take the bodies for an autopsy in Damascus but they were overruled and the bodies were hastily handed over to the ICRC.

In the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.07.10 AMIn the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria
By Cyrus Mahboubian, an NGO worker in Damascus (Pseudonym)
For Syria Comment, July 4, 2016

Since the war in Syria began, aid delivery has been politicized. The anti-regime camp rejected the very notion of delivering aid through government held areas. Western countries who backed the insurgency and supported regime change pushed for most aid to be delivered “cross border,” from Turkey or Jordan. Diplomats and aid workers based in Turkey or Jordan often went native and viewed aid agencies based in Damascus as the enemy. Even the UN faced divisions and rivalries. At the center of this was Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Syria since August 2013. El Hillo’s very existence was an affront to those who prioritized regime change above all else and because he was based in Damascus and accredited by the Syrian government he was required to acknowledge the Syrian government as it continued to represent the sovereignty of Syria at the United Nations. This cooperation with Syrian state institutions was anathema to those who hoped El Hillo could be some kind of humanitarian dictator, operating as if there was no Syrian state. But since most Syrians still live in government held parts of Syria and there is still a government with institutions and security forces, the UN must work especially with institutions that provide services to people such as health, education, water, electricity and vaccination.

Based in Damascus El Hillo, with his committed team, tried to reach as many people as he could including in all the besieged locations (and he succeeded this year to deliver aid in all 18 of them). El Hillo publicly advocated against sieges and denial of access and was engaged in near daily struggles with government officials to obtain access. El Hillo and his colleagues physically entered besieged areas, sometimes under fire — Homs in February 2014, and most recently Zamalka and Arbin on June 29 (in which a driver was shot in the chest).



The UN in Syria reaches one million people in opposition areas by crossing the border every month and they work everywhere in Syria either directly or through partners both national and international, while roughly 70% of people in need in Syria are reached from inside (Damascus but also the UN Hubs in Homs, Aleppo, Tartous and Qamishli).

In mid June an advocacy group called The Syria Campaign accused the UN of collaborating with and supporting the government’s policies. When it was announced in late June that El Hillo had been appointed to a new job in Liberia the Syria Campaign was quick to take credit. This is false however. El Hillo applied for the position in Liberia in early April, over two months before the Syria Campaign report came out and he was approved for the position of Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General with the United Nations Mission in Liberia ON 13 JUNE, before the report came out. It is laughable to think that the UN can ever respond so quickly to anything, let alone a report by an advocacy group criticizing the necessary compromises THE UN must make when dealing with a sovereign government. Yacoub El Hillo’s new position in Liberia is not punitive and it is in fact a promotion- and it was overdue. When he first came to Syria in early August 2013 he had committed to serve for two years. He chose to extend for a third which concludes in early August 2016.

In the the post-2003 Canal Hotel bombing culture of the UN, which was so traumatized by the al Qaeda attack on its staff in Iraq that in much of the Middle East it simply cowered in Green Zones and hid from the population, El Hillo pioneered a courageous return to UN principles, boldly leading missions into war zones under fire, challenging all actors from Jabhat al Nusra to the Syrian security forces, thus restoring the UN’s reputation.

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United Nations members prepare to load flag-draped metal transfer cases carrying the remains of bombing victims from the UN Office of Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq

The allegations made by the Syria Campaign and others were written by people who know nothing about the UN and how it must work. In 2015 cross-line deliveries were very restricted but the UN was also working cross-border. Beginning in 2015 the UN implemented its Whole of Syria Approach which means there is a coordinated effort. In 2016 the UN has reached almost one million people in need in besieged and hard to reach areas. One can reasonably disagree about the difficult and imperfect choices the UN made when dealing with the Syrian government but those who criticize the UN country team based inside Syria offer no better alternatives. What would they have the UN team in Syria do? Should they withdraw in protest and serve nobody? The decision to withdraw from the country is made by the Secretary General. Or would they have the UN drive through checkpoints that have turned them away? The UN cannot move around without the approval of parties to the conflict in any country. The UN must notify parties in Syria, and if they say no and they have tanks and weapons what does it do? And the UN needs operational capacity, it cannot scream and yell and then lose access, it has to be able to move around and deliver and save lives. If UNICEF gets thrown out of Syria who does it help? The UN in Syria is not the problem. If one has a criticism to make it should be made by taking it to the Security Council and to the various countries involved in the conflict, not be falsely trying to defame a UN official who is concluding a mission  after three exhausting years in Syria.