Posted by Matthew Barber on Friday, March 29th, 2013
Dera’a is Falling
by Matthew Barber for Syria Comment
March 29, 2013
According to an article published yesterday by al-Quds (نائب سوري: مقاتلو المعارضة يسيطرون على اجزاء واسعة من درعا), Syrian MP Waleed Zoubi has asserted during a session of parliament that large areas within the muhafiza (governorate) of Dera’a have fallen under the control of rebels, and that the presence of regime forces is dwindling. His remarks indicate that Dera’a is in the process of falling, and served as a wake-up call to the Syrian parliament about the shift of control in that region. Zoubi countered reports that the highway (which runs from Damascus to the Jordanian border, through Dera’a) is still secured by the Syrian military, declaring that much of it is under the control of armed militants, who also control much of the Syrian-Jordanian border, including near the Golan. He also said that a number of military positions in the muhafiza have been emptied of regime forces for “unknown strategic reasons.”
After the “retreat” that Zoubi alludes to, he said that these positions have been replaced with forces of Jabhat al-Nusra. Though we already knew that Syria near the Golan was under rebel control, Zoubi stated before the parliament that the highway is completely under rebel control from Kherbet Ghazalah to Jordan. He said that the loss of the highway involved the fall of the most important military site in Dera’a (which he wouldn’t name, knowing that the session was being broadcast on live TV), leaving only the 61st Brigade to provide “western cover”—it’s unclear whether he means the entirety of the western muhafiza, or the western highway, since two parallel highways run from Damascus to Jordan through the muhafiza of Dera’a, Kherbet Ghazalah being located on the eastern highway.
Furthermore, today rebels have announced that they have taken Dael, a town north of the city of Dera’a on the western highway. This means that both highways are likely now under rebel control, which would effectively cut Damascus off from the city of Dera’a and the most important stretch of the Jordanian border. Rebels claim that the three checkpoints that secure the center of the town of Dael and its northern and southern entrances have been overrun by militias.
The liwa that Zoubi refrained from mentioning in the parliament’s televised session was the 38th Brigade which was besieged for 15 days by Jabhat al-Nusra and FSA forces, finally being taken by the rebels 6 days ago. This brigade was located in Saida.
On the map image, the blue and red indicate the western (old) highway and eastern (new) highway, respectively. Kherbet Ghazalah is at the top right, to the east of Dael. Traveling down the eastern highway brings one to Saida, the (former) location of the 38th Brigade (green star) and the point one must turn west to reach the city of Dera’a. MP Zoubi’s concern regarding the fall of Saida to rebel control is easy to understand, since the site can allow or block access to nearby Dera’a from the primary highway. As of today, however, it seems that both of these thoroughfares are in opposition hands. See this stream of latest videos from Dael, and this stream of videos from Kherbet Ghazala.
The end of the following video shows a tank in the possession of al-Nusra being shelled by regime forces in the vicinity of the 38th Brigade.
Another video shows an interview (Arabic only) with an al-Nusra fighter after they finally won the siege of Saida; a third from Saida shows fighters celebrating; a fourth includes some leaders of the offensive. Now for Dael: Released just a few hours ago is this video in which rebels announce victory in the operation dubbed “The Mother of Martyrs Battle”-“معركة ام الشهداء”; in this one a rebel shows viewers how regime forces blew up one of their own trucks full of ammo with an RPG when defeat drew near, so that rebels wouldn’t have the benefit of using them.
Other Arabic websites have said that MP Waleed Zoubi is from Dera’a. In the session of parliament, he stated that 20 days ago he alerted the presidency and government to the presence of armed militants who were taking control of specific locations, but that no responsive action was forthcoming. His words before the parliament were not framed as a protest but as an alert to Syrians, yet such honesty in the parliament is still uncommon. Zoubi presented his remarks as one concerned about seeing the muhafiza overrun by insurgents. Nevertheless, his open acknowledgment of loss of both territory and the morale of regime forces in Dera’a elicited objections from other MPs who tried to silence him, whereupon he demanded that they not interrupt him.
What remains fascinating is the dance that must be performed around the reality of events on the ground. It’s permissible to say that foreign terrorists are causing havoc in Syria, but it’s not acceptable to acknowledge that the uprising includes Syrian participants, let alone that the uprising is primarily Syrian—that’s been the case from the beginning. But that other MPs would try to prevent Zoubi, even at this late hour, from merely discussing in parliament the practical problem of a very real loss of territory is a telling reminder of the persistence of the Ba’athist cult of unreality. How can the regime fight its war without acknowledging its battles? Is it loyalty to mention terrorism, but treason to admit losses? Is patriotism the acknowledgment of conflict with “unknown” assailants coupled with a simultaneous pretending that no failure is occurring? Zoubi mentioned the descent of Syria into a state of war and warned that “if terrorists prevail, chaos will prevail,” yet apparently, even if an area is falling out of the regime’s control, it is still taboo to acknowledge it directly.
Subsequent Syrian news coverage of the parliamentary session made no mention of Zoubi.
This article was prepared with assistance from Syria Video, a project related to Syria Comment to be unveiled soon.
Rebel Mortar Attack Kills Students at Damascus University
Today I spoke by phone with the director of the university’s architecture department, a personal friend. Yesterday’s mortar attack hit a cafeteria located just outside the architecture building. The death toll is between 15 and 20, all students, with more than 30 injured. 12 of the dead were architecture students, all studying together in the same department. Mortars have become quite common in eastern Damascus, where attacks launched from Jobar and Qabuun regularly hit the Christian neighborhoods of Bab Tuma and Qasaa’. (In fact, the mortar that killed the university students was only one of at least 6 mortars in Damascus yesterday: friends reported 3 in Qasoor [north of Abbasiyiin] and 2 in Qasaa’.) But for shells to touch down in Baramke (where the university is located) is an emerging phenomenon. (Less than three weeks ago one hit the football stadium in Baramke killing 6 civilians and injuring near 30.) As rebel activity has moved inward into neighborhoods like Yarmouk, the number of areas from which mortars can be fired into the center of Damascus has increased. It is difficult to say exactly where the mortar that killed the students yesterday was launched from, since they supposedly have a range of about 8km. –MTB
The Irresistible Call of Jihad
A former U.S. soldier has been arrested and charged with illegally using a weapon on behalf of an al Qaeda-affiliated group in Syria.
Eric Harroun, 30, of Phoenix was arrested Tuesday night by the FBI at a hotel near Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia. A Justice Department official tells CNN that FBI agents questioned Harroun at the hotel, then took him into custody.
Harroun appeared Thursday in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, and was charged in connection with his alleged use of a rocket-propelled grenade in Syria.
The law used to charge him states, “Any national of the United States who, without lawful authority, uses or threatens, attempts, or conspires to use a weapon of mass destruction outside of the U.S. shall be imprisoned for any term of years or for life, or if death results, may be punished by death.”
… The organization he allegedly fought with, al-Nusra Front, is one of several aliases used by the al Qaeda in Iraq terrorist organization. The organization claims responsibility for nearly 600 terrorist attacks in Syria, the Justice Department said.
An FBI affidavit says Harroun crossed into Syria in January 2013 and fought against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. He posted photos and videos of himself on the Internet handling RPGs and other weapons, it said.
The Pentagon declined to comment on Harroun’s arrest. However, “It’s always a concern when terrorist networks in that part of the world and elsewhere seek to recruit Americans, whether they’re in the military or not,” spokesman George Little told CNN’s Erin Burnett.
No, Islamists will not dominate in Syria by Rami Khouri, The Daily Star
“The fast pace of developments in and around Syria in the past week has pushed the country more quickly toward the end of Bashar Assad’s regime, a situation many of us thought was imminent last autumn. He did not fall then for reasons that are evident today. The first is that Assad’s strategy from the start of the uprising against his rule two years ago this month turned out to be that he would, first, bludgeon into submission civilians who demonstrated against him (as his father had done in Hama 30 years earlier). And when that failed he would cede territory to them, but continue to hit their areas hard using air power and missiles. The Syrian government that ruled nationally has disappeared, to be replaced by fortified military bases tightly controlled by Assad loyalists, cousins and desperado fellow Alawites who are prepared to destroy Syria to save themselves.
The second is that this is a losing strategy, because the regime’s circling of its wagons in a few areas makes it more vulnerable than ever to the continued successes of Islamist rebels and the enhanced strengthening of the secular rebels (thanks to aid and training from Arab and foreign powers). As both prongs of the armed opposition advance on the regime’s isolated strongholds, and rockets fall in the center of Damascus, Assad’s constricted bases will panic, and ultimately collapse.” …
Syria could turn into a large Lebanon, should current trends continue for a year or more.
If, on the other hand, the Assad regime falls quickly and is replaced by a legitimate government that receives substantial foreign assistance during the transition and reconstruction period, I would expect two important developments to occur: Syria’s traditional secular nationalism and cosmopolitanism will reaffirm themselves, and this will reduce the influence of those Islamists whose sudden prominence – Presto! Meet the Nusra Front! – is due to their military actions…..
Minority Report: Shiites and Druze
Shiite Muslims who fled Syria for Lebanon tell of an ‘ethnic cleansing’ campaign by rebels intent on creating a Sunni-run Islamic state.
Each evening, Ali Jamal and other men in this border town grab their Kalashnikov assault rifles, jump on their motorbikes and ride across the irrigation canal into Syria to protect their homes.
The enemies are Sunni rebel “terrorists,” he says, who target Jamal and his neighbors because they are Shiite Muslims.
“Imagine, these people used to be our neighbors,” said the 40-year-old farmer, perplexed by the transformation. “Now they want to kidnap and kill us.”
Tensions gripping the villages along the border here between northeastern Lebanon and Syria illustrate the increasingly sectarian nature of the 2-year-old Syrian conflict and the risks it poses for the entire region.
The predominant narrative of the Syrian war is that of a tyrannical government largely run by members of a Shiite sect, the Alawites, brutalizing a people yearning for freedom.
However, in the largely Shiite towns and villages of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, people who have fled Syria tell a different story. They speak of an “ethnic cleansing” campaign carried out by rebels intent on creating an Islamic state run by Syria’s Sunni majority.
In the face of rebel attacks, Shiites in dozens of villages just inside Syria have fled here to a part of Lebanon dominated by the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, the villagers and Hezbollah representatives say. Those who have been displaced credit Hezbollah, which is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S., with providing shelter and security.
… In the adjacent town of Hermel, Ali Haydar Kheyr Din, 46, recounted how he was kidnapped by rebels on a Syrian road and held for four days. His captors went through his cellphone contacts one by one and accused him of being a Hezbollah operative, said Din, who says his family owns a factory in Homs.
“You’re Shiite, of course you’re Hezbollah,” said one of the captors, according to Din. He said he was blindfolded for most of the time he was captive. “Tell us how you get the arms into Syria,” the rebel interrogator demanded at the home where he was held. …
Swaida, the Druze-majority province that borders Daraa, has escaped much of the violence in Syria’s brutal conflict, serving as a haven for refugees and a source for humanitarian aid. But a spate of kidnappings, and the rise of jihadist groups such as Jabhat Al Nusra, have left residents to fend for themselves as Syria transforms into a failed state.
And it’s the traditional leaders of society, religious men and prominent civilians, who are stepping in to ease ethnic and sectarian tensions. Swaida’s dignitaries have taken up this role, much as their fellow peacemakers are intervening in conflicts between Arabs and Kurds in the north and east, Alawites and Sunnis in Homs and Hama, and Shiites and Sunnis in Aleppo and Idlib.
The Druze of Syria have largely rejected the movement to topple the Assad regime, but the province of 400,000 people has accepted internal refugees and was a source of aid to besieged neighbors in Daraa. They have also defied repeated requests from one of the sect’s top leaders, Lebanese politician Walid Jumblatt, who has urged the Druze to collectively join opponents of the Assad regime.
Swaida’s protest movement has grown in recent months.
Rima Flihan, a member of the National Coalition and a Druze from Swaida, said the province was “the lung [for Daraa], and used to regularly sneak humanitarian aid to Daraa, including medicine and bread through secret routes.” The provincial capital, Swaida, had its first protest on March 25, 2011, and a large protest in Sultan al-Atrash Square in April 2011, but the opposition’s activity was limited there and was instead centered in the smaller city of Shahba, she added.
… Swaida’s meager participation angered Assad loyalists in the province. Supporters of the Assad regime in Swaida mobilized around the government, responding in part to a fear campaign that painted the uprising as a radical Islamist movement that was hostile to minorities such as the Druze, which many Muslims consider a heterodox sect.
“The regime used sectarian language to terrify the Druze about the Salafi threat, using its tools such as [Lebanese Druze pro-Assad politician] Wi’am Wahhab and others” to deliver the message, Zoabi said. This divisive rhetoric was fueled by the scant coverage that Swaida’s opposition activists received from “pan-Arab satellite channels such as Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, which only concentrated on the Sunni areas that rose up against the regime,” he added.
Animosity between the sects increased and turned violent, starting with kidnappings between armed groups in Swaida and Daraa. On May 25, the Mu’tasim Brigade of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), based in neighboring Daraa, kidnapped 14 Druze soldiers from Swaida who were heading to a prison in Daraa. The act was seen as a sectarian provocation in Swaida, and militants there responded by kidnapping over 60 people from different areas in Daraa. …
… The interregnum created by a receding government in Syria forced civilians to act, or risk a spiraling of these types of hostilities. This danger is heightened as the rebellion approaches regions where religious and ethnic minorities are local majorities, such as Swaida, the Mediterranean coast and mountain range, Kurdish majority cities, and Salamiyeh in Hama, and the only answer so far has been for civilian leaders to stem the cycle of violence.
But the introduction of a new element, the jihadist Jabhat Al Nusra in Daraa, has added another layer of complexity to the conflict. In December, Nusra fighters attacked a checkpoint near Swaida but weren’t able to make a clean getaway. Swaida’s pro-regime popular committees, a euphemism for shabiha, killed two Nusra fighters and detained some of its fighters.
Nusra responded by kidnapping 17 people from Swaida including Sheik Abu Khaled Jamal Iz al Din, a respected Druze leader, and refused to release them until its fighters were freed. This YouTube video from Dec. 27 showed the hostages held by Jabhat Al Nusra pleading for Druze religious and tribal leaders, including Sheik Hanaoui, to cut a deal with the group.
Sheik Hanaoui said he led a delegation from Swaida and met with four Nusra fighters in Om Walad village in Daraa province. After hours of talks, the delegation came to an agreement with Nusra to release the hostages, Hanaoui said, but added that Nusra then broke the agreement for unknown reasons.
Nusra hasn’t commented on the incident.
“Solving problems between Swaida and Daraa has become difficult. Our mission has gotten more complicated because of Jabhat Al Nusra. They won’t listen to anybody,” said Ayham Haddad, a political activist based in the U.S. and a member of the first mediation committee.
“Jabhat Al Nusra sees the Druze as infidels, therefore they see attacking and kidnapping them as justified,” said Zoabi, the Daraa activist. The group “has no local reference here, and their excommunicating ideology is catastrophic in societies like Syria.”
Reasons to remain optimistic about Syria by Leila Nachawati Rego for al-Jazeera
… The attempts to push the country toward a self-fulfilled prophecy of sectarianism are extremely dangerous. The fact that the Assad administration has survived this long in its crusade against its own people, and continues to destroy every inch of life and ancient history, is excruciating. The daily loss is unbearable.
While all of this is true, there are many reasons to remain optimistic considering what Syrians have accomplished in two years under extreme pressure. The reasons are related to the internal dynamics of a people desperate for free expression, association and communication after decades of terror and isolation.
… Despite the fact that the regime has not been able to produce any non-violent response to citizen demands, non-violent protests continue to take place all over the country on a weekly basis.
Demonstrations are not the only manifestation of peaceful resistance and civil disobedience. From the strikes to the sit-ins, from the “peace brides” to the celebration of Women’s Day through countless citizen mobilisations, daily resistance against oppression has not stopped.
It is important to be aware of these initiatives, which co-exist with the militarisation on the ground and do not usually receive international attention.
… Much like the emergence of theatre during the army coups of the 50s and 60s, new manifestations of creativity and artistic expression are flourishing in the region in this period of uprisings, regime change and transition.
There is a constant and increasing production of music, graffiti, independent films, poetry, cartoons, video-art, puppet shows and all forms of free expression after decades of art serving the power structures.
These independent, often collective productions are part of a new Syrian reality that has flowered without the regime’s consent, and it survives every attempt to silence its expression. Mostly uncovered by mainstream media, it constitutes in itself a ground for optimism. …