Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, June 23rd, 2013
US Policy and Weapons for Rebels
During his more than four decades in power, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya was North Africa’s outrageously self-styled arms benefactor, a donor of weapons to guerrillas and terrorists around the world fighting governments he did not like.
Even after his death, the colonel’s gunrunning vision lives on, although in ways he probably would have loathed.
… Evidence gathered in Syria, along with flight-control data and interviews with militia members, smugglers, rebels, analysts and officials in several countries, offers a profile of a complex and active multinational effort, financed largely by Qatar, to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters. Libya’s own former fighters, who sympathize with Syria’s rebels, have been eager collaborators.
… As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.
For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.
Those weapons, which slipped from state custody as Colonel Qaddafi’s people rose against him in 2011, are sent on ships or Qatar Emiri Air Force flights to a network of intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. From there, Syrians distribute the arms according to their own formulas and preferences to particular fighting groups, which in turn issue them to their fighters on the ground, rebels and activists said.
Qatari C-17 cargo aircraft have made at least three stops in Libya this year — including flights from Mitiga airport in Tripoli on Jan. 15 and Feb. 1, and another that departed Benghazi on April 16, according to flight data provided by an aviation official in the region. The planes returned to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The cargo was then flown to Ankara, Turkey, along with other weapons and equipment that the Qataris had been gathering for the rebels, officials and rebels said.
… The movements from Libya complement the airlift that has variously used Saudi, Jordanian and Qatari military cargo planes to funnel military equipment and weapons, including from Croatia, to the outgunned rebels. On Friday, Syrian opposition officials said the rebels had received a new shipment of anti-tank weapons and other arms, although they give varying accounts of the sources of the recently received arms. The Central Intelligence Agency has already played at least a supporting role, the officials say.
The Libyan shipments principally appear to be the work of armed groups there, and not of the weak central state, officials said.
Mr. Bukatef, the Libyan diplomat, said Libyan militias had been shipping weapons to Syrian rebels for more than a year.
“They collect the weapons, and when they have enough they send it,” he said. “The Libyan government is not involved, but it does not really matter.”
One former senior Obama administration familiar with the transfers said the Qatari government built relationships with Libyan militias in 2011, when, according to the report of a United Nations Panel of Experts, it shipped in weapons to rebel forces there in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.
As a result, the Qataris can draw on their influence with Libya’s militias to support their current beneficiaries in Syria. “It’s not that complicated,” the former official said. “We’re watching it. The Libyans have an amazing amount of stuff.”
White House officials refused to comment Friday on a Los Angeles Times report that CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, saying only that the U.S. had increased its assistance to the rebellion.
The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.
“We have stepped up our assistance, but I cannot inventory for you all the elements of that assistance,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “We have provided and will continue to provide substantial assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as the Supreme Military Council.” …
Everyone is wondering (at least I am) who is Ben Rhodes, a 30-something who ascended from literally nowhere to be what seems a main driving force behind Obama’s foreign policy. He is credited with convincing the president to embrace the Arab Spring, convincing the president to bomb Libya, and, now, convincing the president to start yet another war, this time against Syria.
Who is he? How did a 24-year old aspiring fiction-writer in 2002 suddenly become one of the drafters of not only the 9/11 Commission report but also the Iraq Study Group Report? Then move on to Obama’s presidential campaign as a speechwriter and then to Deputy National Security Advisor, from which he announced the beginning of a US war on Syria while the president met with supporters in the East Room of the White House? Those familiar with Washington know that such miraculous ascents rarely happen on their own and are equally rarely the result of pure, raw talent.
There might be some clues to his brother David’s also improbable rise — from a lowly production assistant at Fox News at the end of the 1990s to covering presidential elections for Fox News (including the one where his brother was writing Obama’s speeches) to the lofty position of president of CBS news by 2011!
Aside from his quite unbelievable rise, we do know that he was catastrophically wrong on Libya, where a Time Magazine article pointed out at the time that he was the strong counter-weight to those who argued for more caution on the use of force.
Here is how Time put it back in 2011, when the interventionists were on the verge of their triumph:
Obama and his aides know they are taking a big risk. “It’s a huge gamble,” says the senior administration official. The administration knows, for example, that al Qaeda, which has active cells in Libya, will try to exploit the power vacuum that will come with a weak or ousted Gaddafi. They also know that the U.S. will have to rely on other countries for the crucial task of rebuilding Libya and that the region may in fact be further destabilized by intervention. Outweighing that, the National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes says, are the long-term benefits of saving lives, protecting the possibility of democratic change elsewhere in the region and—tellingly—ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this.”
Rhodes carried the day on Libya and he was completely incorrect in his assessment, his analysis, his prediction, and his prescription. Anyone who bothers to look at Libya today, which is run by gangs of roving extremist death squads would see what a fool Ben Rhodes is for his promise of “democratic change” in Libya — and how much more foolish is the president for following the advice of such a person.
Rhodes is named as the source of the White House-altered CIA talking points on Benghazi, where references to the Islamist extremist role in the attack on US Ambassador Chris Stevens were erased. It is understandable why the fiction writer Rhodes would want to toss that reference in the circular file: that particular sub-plot did not fit in with the main theme he had already painstakingly written, namely that the US attack on Libya would end the killing, stabilize the country, and bring about a democratic revolution that would continue to spread through the region. Fiction writers understand that a sub-plot could take your readers too far off the main narrative of the story and cause serious structural problems. That is why there are so many rounds of re-writes. The killing of Stevens and the rise of murderous — and racist — extremists did not fit the plot, so it had to be deleted.
Being wrong on war when you are on the sending end of death and destruction is less obvious to your countrymen than when you are on the receiving end. But anyone living in Libya after Rhodes’ “life-saving” mission knows full well the kind of liberation that comes at the tip of a US missile. And neighboring countries know as well what happens when a nation armed to the teeth with weapons, including chemical weapons, completely implodes after its infrastructure is destroyed by foreign attack.
In Washington, though, being catastrophically wrong on Libya eminently qualifies Ben Rhodes to take the lead on US Syria policy.
Why the Current Syria Policy Doesn’t Make Sense – Atlantic – Obama’s move to arm the rebels is angering both sides of the intervention debate.
President Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels — after resisting such a course for nearly two years — has come under some withering criticism. Marc Lynch, who has long opposed military intervention in Syria, calls it “probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office,” while Daniel Larison casts it as “certainly one of the two or three worst [decisions].” Despite being on the opposite side of the debate — I began writing in favor of military intervention nearly a year and a half ago — it is hard to disagree with their assessment that providing “small arms” to the rebels is unlikely to make much difference.
What makes Obama’s decision so unsatisfying — and even infuriating — to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.”
“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground,” Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Muqdad said.
… Muqdad declined to specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days.
So You Want to Intervene in Syria Without Breaking the Law? Good luck with that. – FP
So let’s say you’re the president of the United States and you want to use military force to intervene in Syria. I’m not saying you do (it sorta looks like you don’t), and I’m not even saying you should (you’re not wrong to worry that military intervention might not end well).
But let’s say you become convinced that military intervention is the only way to protect Syrian civilians from being slaughtered by government forces, or that it’s the only way to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from becoming dangerously emboldened, or the only way to prevent factions with links to al Qaeda from gaining the upper hand within the Syrian rebel movement, or the only way to prevent the conflict from spilling over into neighboring countries, or the only way to do all those things. And let’s say that Russia continues to block every U.N. Security Council resolution that might pave the way for a civilian-protection intervention á laLibya.
You’re a president who respects international law — or, at any rate, you’re not inclined to thumb your nose openly at international law. You’re not Dick Cheney, and you don’t like being compared to Dick Cheney. That means that if you decide America should intervene militarily in Syria, you want to be able to tell the world, with a straight face, that the intervention is legal. At a bare minimum, you want to at least feel confident that what you’re doing isn’t blatantly, manifestly, obnoxiously illegal, in a “F*** the U.N. Security Council and the horse it rode in on” kind of way.
Can you do it? Would it be lawful, as an international law matter, for the United States to use military force in Syria without a Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention?
The short answer: Probably not. …
Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria now best-equipped of the group – CNN – Barbara Starr
Al Qaeda’s affiliate inside Syria is now the best-equipped arm of the terror group in existence today, according to informal assessments by U.S. and Middle East intelligence agencies, a private sector analyst directly familiar with the information told CNN.
Concern about the Syrian al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front, is at an all-time high, according to the analyst, with as many as 10,000 fighters and supporters inside Syria. The United States has designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda in Iraq.
That assessment is shared by some Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that have long believed the United States is underestimating the Sunni-backed al Qaeda movement in the country, according to a Middle East source. It is also believed that Iran is running training camps inside Syria for Hezbollah and that other Iranian militia fighters are coming into the country to fight for the regime.
The analyst has been part of recent discussions with the U.S. intelligence community, which is urgently working to understand what is going on inside the war-ravaged country and is consulting outside experts. The analyst, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, stressed that all assessments about Syria are approximate at best because of the lack of U.S. personnel on the ground.
With the growing strength and support for al-Nusra, U.S. concerns are growing about its influence to further destabilize Syria and potentially pose a greater regional threat, administration officials have told CNN.
“They are making desperate attempts to get chemical weapons,” the analyst told CNN, noting that in the past few weeks, security services in Iraq and Turkey arrested operatives who were “trying to get their hands on sarin.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official told CNN recently that gathering intelligence on Syria, including its potential future use of chemical weapons, is now one of the top priorities of the U.S. intelligence community.
The Obama administration announced last week that it will start arming rebels because Syria crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons – including sarin gas – against the opposition.
Amazing Stories from the Conflict
Reuters visits abandoned Alawite village: Deepening ethnic rifts reshape Syria’s towns
The villages that dot the valleys and terraced hills of Syria’s northwest used to epitomize the country’s diversity. Each one was dominated by a different religion or sect. The settlements coexisted – sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so – for centuries, a patchwork of distinct but interwoven communities that, for many Syrians, was central to the nation’s identity.
Over the past two years, that order has fallen apart.
In Zambaki, a concrete-block village in a valley near the border with Turkey, Sunni families have moved into homes abandoned by Alawite owners; Sunni instructors teach in the Alawite elementary school; and Sunni religious slogans in black paint mark the walls.
Mohamed Skafe, a 40-year-old Sunni maths instructor remembers how the Alawites began to flee nearly a year ago. As government troops withdrew and rebels took over, he phoned a friend in the village and pleaded with him to stay.
“He told me, ‘Can you protect me?'” Skafe recalled, holding his hands out, palms upward. “I said, ‘I have no guarantee.'”
As the revolt against Bashar al-Assad that began as a mostly secular call for democratic reform descended into civil war, communities have split along religious and ethnic lines. Majority Sunnis have come to dominate the opposition, while Shi’ites and Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam that Assad belongs to, have largely sided with the government. Other minorities, such as the Christians, Druze and Kurds, have split or tried to stay neutral.
Across the country, violence and fear have emptied entire villages, forced millions of people to flee their homes, and transformed the social landscape.
The involvement of Shi’ite power Iran on one side and the ascendancy of hardline Islamists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, on the other has accelerated the process. For some fighters, the war has taken on an apocalyptic overtone. For others, enmity is rooted in old resentments and suspicions.
During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory, Reuters saw first-hand how the sectarian divisions are transforming the country. Those splits, and the risk of large-scale communal retribution, are one reason Western powers have hesitated to intervene.
Now, as the United States prepares to arm the rebels, it risks getting entangled in an intricate conflict that often pits neighbor against neighbor. As in Yugoslavia or in neighboring Iraq, where conflicts were marked by sectarianism and ethnic cleansing, Syria is unlikely to go back to the way it was. Even when the war ends, the reordering of villages and towns will leave behind a very different country, a change which could reverberate through the region.
In Zambaki, in a house once owned by Alawites, a Sunni family of 10 has moved in after fleeing their own homes outside Hama, in central Syria. “The whole village was completely empty. We were in a Turkish camp, but it was so crowded. We decided to come back,” one man in the family said, asking not to be named.
“The regime is playing a big game, a very big game. We had Alawite neighbors and I swear we were living like brothers. But the regime played with their minds, and frightened them. We were neighbors.” …
My Harrowing Escape from Qusayr, Part II – Syria Deeply – Recommended
As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and Rifaie Tammas, a 24-year-old from Qusayr. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, working with Syrian government troops, overran the key smuggling route between Lebanon and Homs province last week. Tammas describes the final anxious hours in his city, his chaotic evacuation and a tearful reunion with his mother after losing three close family members.
The most dangerous place we had to cross on our journey was the Homs-Damascus highway. The areas around it to the west were under shelling and sniper fire, because the regime and Hezbollah knew that the civilians and rebels would flee there. But it was either we wait until the next morning for them to come and kill us, or we move fast and cross. We made the choice that we had to cross, not knowing our fate.
In order to reach a safe place, we had to cross a 50 meter-wide stretch of the highway. But even before we reached this spot, we had to cross over about 1.5 or 2 km of lands that were open to shelling. We started calling it the “death opening.”
When we saw there was no guide, people were confused. It was terrible. The way leading up to the highway was very hilly and tough. There were some houses and tress, but it was mostly open fields. We do not know this area at all and we felt that we could be shot at any minute. And I had my wounded brother Rami with me the whole time.
Rami was completely exhausted after crossing 20 m on crutches. He told me he can’t move another meter and he wants to die right there. He is 22 years old and a defected officer. I put him on my back. He is 85 kg. I moved him for 50 m and I couldn’t move anymore. Even though his leg was broken, sometimes we had to walk or duck and lie flat when there was shelling and shooting.
At one point we saw two lights ahead and we knew that these were checkpoints. We thought the dark area in between might be safe, so we headed in that direction. Then all hell broke loose.
We came under intense shelling, and some people decided to turn back and continue on a safer route, but we decided to keep moving through. On our way I saw many wounded people lying on the ground with no one to help them. Some people had run for their lives during the heavy shelling, and so many others had been left behind.
We were halfway to the highway when we saw a big house where about 50 people had stopped, most of them wounded. Suddenly, a huge tank shell hit the house when we were 20 m away. Fragments flew above our heads and we ducked for cover. We were okay because the house absorbed the whole shock.
When we started to make our way over, we heard so many sounds. Many people were crying for dear life. You could smell flesh burning. We couldn’t do anything. We were exhausted with no water or food. We had been surviving on tree leaves and some fruit.
I saw these people and I can still remember them begging for help. But I couldn’t. I had to choose my brother. I was also carrying my brother’s rifle because he was a defected soldier. He was trained to not leave his weapon. He had learned to kill them or kill himself, not be captured as a prisoner. I took it just in case we were ambushed.
About 20 m away from the house another shell hit a group in front of us. They were civilians with wounded people and they had been targeted. Imagine. I felt that’s the end, I’m going to die. I kept on saying shahada with my brother. Even if I made it there is no safety at the end. After all this we might end up near the checkpoint. All we could do was continue under the sniper fire and shelling. Sometimes we would duck. I knew it was useless, but we did it anyway.
My brother kept falling to the ground, and I had to help him stand up or sometimes carry him. I had to lie to him and keep telling him we were almost there because he wanted to give up. We had just lost our brother Hadi, so it was not just physically but also mentally terrifying. But we kept thinking about our mother and sisters.
When we finally crossed the highway, there were people on the other side who congratulated us. But we still had to walk for about another hour before we reached a relatively safer place. We waited in a small village, and then we continued our journey on foot for an hour before we got to another village called Deeba. We arrived there at about 6 a.m. on Friday, and then we stayed there until 10 p.m. Then we could take cars to the Damascus suburbs, where I am staying right now.
An Ill-Planned Evacuation
One of the things that I really hated – that really frustrated me and changed the way I look at things – was not the fall of Qusayr, or that it fell in the hands of Hezbollah. That was sad, absolutely horrible, but the dreadful thing was the way we evacuated. It was the lack of cooperation among Free Syrian Army [FSA] members and civilians. There wasn’t a very good plan, and the regime knew about this. They knew we were panicking and they took advantage of that. They knew about almost every move we made.
There were guides along the way giving directions to people and telling people, go this way, or shut off your mobile phones, or don’t shout. Some of the guides were excellent and would tell you where to go every step of the way. But the problem is they weren’t spread all across the way.
We were lost many times and got very close to regime checkpoints because of this. Some of the guides were confused. They kept having us go back and forth, and we were carrying wounded people the whole time. There were not enough stretchers, so we were moving them on blankets, pieces of wood or whatever we could find. Sometimes we put them on our backs and took turns. And when we reached the most dangerous spot by the highway, we had no one to guide our group. Some people didn’t do their job well, and this is what caused chaos and many people to be killed.
I would not put all the blame on the regime or Hezbollah, but I also blame the FSA leaders who didn’t know how to do things effectively during this evacuation. We were thousands, and this was a very hard test, and they didn’t pass it very well. They had to know that the regime would take advantage of their lack of cooperation.
On the other hand, the FSA didn’t know how to manage this crisis because they’ve never experienced it. The FSA leaders were very keen on the safety of the wounded, and they tried not to leave anybody behind. Most people acknowledge what the FSA has done for us, but they are so angry with the way the evacuation happened.
Where Are They Now?
The people of Qusayr have spread out to many different cities around Syria. Some made it to Lebanon, but the majority are staying in towns like Nabak, Yabroud and other cities. The rebels are scattered as well and trying to reorganize themselves into a more coherent unit. There is a lot of debate about assigning new leaders and making huge changes after what happened.
Most people are determined to go back and fight. Some have given up and decided to stick with their families, but I think that even they will go back to fight after they rest a bit and think about the whole thing. Being forced to live outside their hometown will make a lot of people go back and fight.
These were the craziest two weeks of my life. I don’t think I could suffer more than this. Ten days before the fall of Qusayr I lost my uncle – he was killed while trying to evacuate the wounded. Days later, I lost my father – a shell killed him when he was going outside to bring us some food. Next, my younger brother’s leg was wounded. And after a week I was forced to leave my house and hometown, and a day later I lost my youngest brother.
Now it feels weird to be away from home, to feel homeless and live in other people’s houses. Luckily, I have some friends who came here before me, and they welcomed me to stay until I sort things out. However, I will have to leave once their mother and sisters come back from a trip to a nearby city.
The only good thing about getting out of Qusayr was reuniting with my mother and little sister. The moment we saw each other, we burst into tears although I was trying to sound strong so that she wouldn’t break down, but I simply could not. Seeing her reminded me of losing my father and youngest brother. Hadi was the hero in our family. He was very loved by his friends and everyone who knew him. He was in the FSA and responsible for firing 14.5 medium machine guns, which is considered a big thing since you have to be very strong to do it. Before all this he was majoring in history.
I still don’t know how I am coping and how I am still thinking. I am crying a lot, especially when I pray. We as Muslims believe that our martyrs are in heaven, so my condolence is that my father and brother are in a happy place now.
Losing them all makes me even more determined to continue what I started. I am going to expose the crimes of Hezbollah and the regime to the whole wide world – that is, if the world cares. They are going to pay for what they have done to us. Sooner or later, they will be brought to justice.
The Price of Loyalty in Syria – NYT – Robert F Worth – Recommended
The Damascus neighborhood known as Mezze 86 is a dense, dilapidated warren of narrow hillside streets adorned with posters bearing the face of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The presidential palace is nearby, and the area is crawling with well-armed guards and soldiers. It is next to impossible to enter unless you are accompanied by government officials or well-known locals, almost all of them members of Assad’s Alawite sect. I drove there on a quiet Friday morning in May, and we were stopped several times at checkpoints by young soldiers who examined our documents carefully before waving us on. When we arrived at our destination, in a small parking lot hemmed in by cinder-block towers, I emerged from the car to the suspicious glares of several middle-aged men in fatigues. “They are not expecting foreigners here,” one of the men who accompanied me said. “The rebels are trying constantly to hit this place, because they know who lives here.” He pointed to a damaged roof not far away. “A mortar struck very close the other day. A lady was killed just above us, and another just below.”
To many Syrians, Mezze 86 is a terrifying place, a stronghold for regime officers and the ruthless paramilitary gunmen known as shabiha, or “ghosts.” These are the men accused of carrying out much of the torture and killing that has left more than 90,000 people dead since the Syrian uprising began two years ago. Some of the older men living in the neighborhood are veterans of the notorious defense brigades, which helped carry out the 1982 massacre of Hama, where between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in less than a month. Yet Mezze 86 now emanates a sense of aggrieved martyrdom. The streets are lined with colorful portraits of dead soldiers; every household proclaims the fallen and the wounded and the vanished.
I went there to meet a woman named Ibtisam Ali Aboud, who had fled her home after her husband — a retired Alawite officer named Muhsin — was killed in February by rebels. Ibtisam is a woman of 50, but she looked 20 years older, her face a pale canvas of anxious lines over her long, black mourning cloak. Her son was with her, a timid-looking 17-year-old named Jafar. We spoke in a dingy, sparsely furnished room, with a picture of a bearded Alawite saint on the wall. “We never used to feel any distinction between people of different sects,” Ibtisam told me. “Now they are ready to slaughter us.” Her husband’s killer was a car mechanic named Ayham, she said, who had eaten at their table and casually borrowed money from her husband only 10 days earlier, promising to pay it back soon. Someone had been slipping notes under their door — “Die, Alawite scum,” “Get out, regime thugs” — and sectarian killings and kidnappings were growing more common; even Muhsin had narrowly escaped being taken captive by armed men. But he refused to listen to his wife’s warnings when she told him that Ayham was working with Sunni rebel gunmen. “Ayham is my friend,” he had told her. “This is Syria, not Iraq.” One night he went out to run an errand and never came home. They found his body in the family car the next day, a bullet hole in his head. The family’s small auto-repair shop was burned to the ground days later. Jafar said that he was on his way home from there when five men surrounded him. “We will cut you all to pieces if you don’t get out,” the men said. “You will follow your father to the grave.”
The family fled their home on the capital’s outskirts to Mezze 86, where they would be surrounded by other Alawites. “We are the ones who are being targeted,” Ibtisam told me. “My husband did nothing. He was a retired officer volunteering at a hospital.” Now, she said, she could barely afford to rent two cramped rooms with her four children. A dull artillery boom shook the coffee cups on the table where we sat. The men who took me to her, also Alawite, began to reel off their own stories of murdered friends and relatives, and of neighbors abducted by rebels. “You will find stories like this in every house, people killed, people kidnapped, and all because of their sect,” one of them said. “They think all Alawites are rich, because we are the same sect as Bashar al-Assad. They think we can talk to the president whenever we like. But look how we are living!”
No one in the room would say it, but there was an unspoken sense that they, too, were victims of the regime. After two years of bloody insurrection, Syria’s small Alawite community remains the war’s opaque protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to Assad’s. Alawite officers commanded the regime’s shock troops when the first protests broke out in March 2011 — jailing, torturing and killing demonstrators and setting Syria on a different path from all the other Arab uprisings. Assad’s intelligence apparatus did everything it could to stoke sectarian fears and blunt the protesters’ message of peaceful change.
Yet the past two years have made clear that those fears were not completely unfounded, and it did not take much to provoke them. Syria’s Sunnis and Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria’s religious minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked — or had the opportunity to ask — how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.
“What is horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence,” Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. “For all of the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no light.”
… Latakia, the capital city of Syria’s Alawite region, is a sleepy seaside town with a tattered charm. The hills around it have long provided refuge for Syria’s minorities, and once briefly formed part of an Alawite state under French protection, just after the First World War. This gives its people a different view of the country and its history, one that Western journalists have not often been permitted to see. It was in Latakia that I met a devoted regime supporter named Aliaa Ali, the 27-year-old daughter of a retired Alawite military officer and a French teacher. Aliaa has a broad, pretty face and knitted brows that convey a mix of petulance and determination. She is intelligent and fully aware, thanks in part to a year spent studying in England, of how the West views the conflict. Unlike many loyalists, she was willing to acknowledge the brutalities of her own side, and at times seemed embarrassed by the Syrian police state. “I was pro-revolution at first,” she said. “There is a lot that needs to change here, I know that. But the fact is that it turned sectarian and violent much sooner than people think.”
Soon after the first protests broke out, Aliaa told Noura about some of the sectarian protest chants she had heard. Noura refused to believe it. The next month, when the army cracked down in Jableh, Noura was desperate, saying innocent protesters had been killed. Aliaa told Noura it was “not logical” for a government to kill its own people. Noura backed down. “Maybe we just heard different stories,” she said. As she and her family moved deeper into the opposition camp, however, the friendship began to fray. Once, after they had gone for a drive along the seafront, Noura suddenly said: “If Sunnis ever attacked you, I’d protect you. And vice versa.” Both of them laughed. “At the time, it seemed like a joke,” Aliaa told me. “We couldn’t really imagine that happening.” Aliaa traveled to England at the end of the summer, and shortly after, when Noura’s mother was arrested, the two friends stopped speaking. In October, Aliaa told me, she was half-asleep one night when she heard a buzzing on her laptop: Noura was calling to video chat. It was 4 a.m., but they spent an hour talking and laughing as if nothing had changed. “When we hung up, I burst into tears,” Aliaa told me. “I felt so happy that we were still friends, that none of the differences mattered.”
Soon afterward, Noura and her family fled to Turkey. In December, Noura unfriended Aliaa on Facebook, but Aliaa continued to check Noura’s Facebook page every day. The postings were passionately anti-Assad, and included sectarian slurs against Alawites. Noura married a Sunni man from Jableh, whose Facebook photo showed the black banner used by Al Qaeda. In mid-May, Noura posted a long passage praising Saddam Hussein, followed by this sentence: “How many ‘likes’ for the conqueror of the Shia and other heathens?” Aliaa showed me the Facebook page of Noura’s teenage brother Kamal, with an image of him clutching a Kalashnikov. “I used to carry him on my shoulders and feed him crackers,” she said.
Noura now lives in Turkey. I reached her by phone at the Syrian school that her aunt runs near the border. She acknowledged her friendship with Aliaa, but her religious zeal soon became apparent. She said her husband did not permit her to talk by phone to foreign journalists. I then spoke to her aunt Maha, the director of the school, who confirmed the outlines of Aliaa’s account of the friendship and the uprising in Jableh. Her voice rose almost to a shout as she told me only the regime was sectarian. “Before the uprising, we lived together with no problems,” she said. “They felt reassured about us, because ever since the events of Hama, they felt we would not rise up against them. But as soon as we chose the path of revolution, they felt it was directed against them, not against Assad. We told them: We only want freedom. But they shut the door in our faces; they would not talk to us.” Maha struck me as a reasonable woman who regretted the rupture, much as Aliaa did.
But when I asked her about the Alawite religion, I was startled by her response. “Aliaa is a nice girl,” she said. “But the Alawites don’t have a religion. They are a traitor sect. They collaborated with the crusaders; during the French occupation they sided with the French.”
For the Alawites, these familiar accusations have the sting of a racist epithet. The Alawite faith, developed a millennium ago, is a strange, mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. It included a belief in reincarnation and a deification of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. These unorthodox tenets may have led the crusaders and other outsiders to favor them, seeing them as potential allies against Muslims. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya — the ancestor of today’s hard-line Islamists — proclaimed in the early 1300s that the Alawites were “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists,” and urged good Muslims to slaughter and rob them. The Alawites sought shelter in the mountains, and rarely dared to come even to Latakia. Many of them were slaughtered by Ottoman armies, and parts of the community stood close to extinction at some points in their history. According to the historian Joshua Landis, as late as the 1870s, supposed Alawite bandits were impaled on spikes and left on crossroads as a warning. They lived in desperate poverty on the margins of Syria’s feudal economy, often sending their daughters into indentured servitude as maids to wealthy Sunni families.
In 1936, when the French were poised to merge the newly formed Alawite coastal state into a larger Syrian republic, six Alawite notables sent a petition begging them to reconsider. “The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,” they wrote. “There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.” One of the petition’s signers was Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of Syria’s current president. Later, after the French abandoned them, the Alawites rushed to embrace the cause of Syrian nationalism, and went to great lengths to make the rest of the country forget their separatist ambitions.
I thought of that petition when I entered Aliaa’s family home in Jableh, where a black-and-white portrait of her grandfather in a stiff collar and tie hangs on the living-room wall. “He studied in France in the 1930s,” Aliaa said brightly. Then she quickly added, “And later he took part in the struggle for independence — I think.”
I asked Aliaa what she thought of Alawites who joined the opposition, like the novelist Samar Yazbek, who is also from Jableh. She grew wary at the mention of Yazbek’s name. “I met her once,” Aliaa said. “She told me I had a bright future in front of me. But I don’t want a future like hers. I think Alawites who join the opposition don’t realize that they are being used as tools. Or they think they can turn this jihadi war into a democratic revolution. But they will never succeed.”
Yazbek was also in Syria during the early months of the revolution. In her diaries of the revolt’s first four months — later published in English under the title “A Woman in the Crossfire” — she describes the furious campaign conducted against her after she publicly backed the insurrection. Her family was forced to disavow her, and leaflets were passed out in Jableh denouncing her. At one point, she describes a terrifying encounter with the regime apparatus. After being driven from her house in Damascus to an interrogation center, she finds herself with a scowling officer who knocks her to the floor, spits on her and threatens to kill her. Guards then lead her blindfolded downstairs to one of the regime’s basement torture rooms, where she is forced to look at bloodied, half-dead protesters hanging from the ceiling. The officer tells her at one point that she is being duped by “Salafi Islamists” and that she must come back to the fold or die. “We’re honorable people,” he tells her. “We don’t harm our own blood. We’re not like you, traitors. You’re a black mark upon all Alawites.”
When I spoke to Yazbek, who is now living in Paris, she told me she believed that the Alawite community had been the Assad clan’s first victim, that they had been used as “human shields” to keep the regime in power. “They believe the regime’s rhetoric, that they would be massacred if Assad falls,” she said. “But this is not true. They are very afraid, and very confused.” Some Alawites inside Syria quietly make the same point, though it is far more dangerous for them to do so. But the ones I spoke to also argued that it does not matter whether the Alawites were duped or not, because their sectarian fears have been realized. In Latakia, I met an Alawite cartoonist named Issam Hassan, who told me that many Alawites who sympathized with the opposition have shifted to the other side. “The government knew it couldn’t fight peaceful protesters, so it pushed them to violence,” he said. “But now, the violence we have seen on the rebel side has frightened everyone. And look at the media: Al Jazeera and Syrian state television take different sides, but both are pushing toward the same end. They are promoting hatred.”
… When I asked her about the opposition, she said: “I am ashamed to say it, but the opposition has lost its meaning. Now it is only killing, nothing but killing. The jihadis are speaking of a caliphate, and the Christians are really frightened.” There was a pause, filled by the churn of Arab pop music. “I waited all my life for this revolution,” Rita said. “But now I think maybe it shouldn’t have happened. At least not this way.”
If the opposition has lost its meaning, so has the regime. The Assad clan has always defined its Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism,” the bulwark of the Palestinian cause. The Baath Party was meant to embody this spirit, and Syria’s minorities were eager to prove their loyalty as Arabs in a Muslim-majority society. This was the glue that would hold together the country’s fractious communities. But now Syria has been formally excommunicated by the Arab League, the reigning pan-Arab institution, and the old unifying ideologies — paid lip service until the crisis began — are openly mocked.
… In April, I met Manaf Tlass, one of Bashar’s oldest friends, and asked him to narrate the conflict from Bashar’s perspective. Tlass, whose father served as Syria’s defense minister for three decades, was a general in Syria’s Republican Guard until he defected last July. He knew Bashar in childhood and was a member of his inner circle for years. We met at a cafe in Paris on a warm afternoon, and Tlass, who is sometimes mocked as a dandy, wore a blue silk shirt, unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and aviator sunglasses.
On the day the crisis broke out, Tlass said, “Bashar called me and said, ‘What would you do?’ ” It was mid-March 2011, and the southern city of Dara’a was in uproar after the local security director — a cousin of Assad’s — ordered the imprisonment and torture of a group of boys who had scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall. Tlass told me he urged Assad to visit Dara’a himself, and to order the arrest of the local security director. Others, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, have said they gave him similar advice.
Tlass said he continued to urge Assad to manage the crisis through negotiation rather than force, and with Assad’s permission, he began meeting with civic groups in towns where unrest had broken out, sometimes with as many as 300 people. He would hear their grievances and write down lists of possible fixes to local police corruption, lack of water or electricity and other problems. He would identify local leaders who could be trusted, then forward the list of issues and names to Bashar’s people. Each time, the leaders were promptly arrested.
Finally, Tlass told me, he confronted members of the Makhlouf family, Assad’s first cousins, who are now said to be his closest advisers. “There was a big disagreement,” Tlass said. “They wanted to handle the problem with security, the old way.” He decided to speak to Assad directly, but his old friend put him off for two weeks. When they finally met, Assad made clear that he was no longer interested in Tlass’s advice. “Bashar knew from the start that this was a big crisis,” Tlass said. “He decided to play on the instincts of the people.”
One morning in early May, I drove with Aliaa Ali and her brother to their ancestral town, Duraykish, in the Alawite mountain hinterland. The road climbs up from the coast along hairpin turns into a magnificent landscape of lush, terraced hills and orchards. We stopped briefly to look at a new monument to the town’s war dead, an imposing 25-foot marble plaque engraved with hundreds of names. We parked the car at the bottom of a narrow hillside street named for Aliaa’s grandfather and walked up to the family house, a 100-year-old stone building with ceramic tiles that had begun to wear away. Aliaa’s uncle, Amer Ali, stood waiting for us, a sturdy-looking man of about 50 with closely cropped, graying hair. He led us upstairs to a large, high-ceilinged room where sunlight splashed in through two open walls. Dozens of people waited inside.
Amer Ali had gathered them to tell their stories of relatives or spouses lost to the war. I listened to them, one by one. They were working-class people: soldiers, construction workers, police officers. All were Alawites, as far as I could tell. Some were probably shabiha, though none of them would have used that word. One of them, a middle-aged construction worker named Adib Sulayman, pulled out his cellphone and showed me the message he received after his son Yamin was kidnapped by rebels: “We have executed God’s will and killed your son. If you are still fighting with Bashar, we will come to your houses and cut you into pieces. Never fight against us.”
A 20-year-old man who had been shot twice in the head and had lost some of his memory and half his hearing told me he would go back to the front as soon as his wounds healed. His father stared at me and said: “I would be proud to have my son become a martyr. I am in my 50s, but I am ready to sacrifice my life, too. They thought we would be weak in this crisis, but we are strong.”
After lunch, Aliaa’s uncle showed me around the house. On the wall was a Sword of Ali, an important symbol for Alawites, with verses engraved on the blade. There were old farming tools, a stick for catching snakes, hunting knives and a century-old carbine — a kind of visual history of the Alawite people. There were ancient Phoenician amphorae and a framed photograph of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
Later, Amer Ali led me to the roof, where we gazed out at the town where his family has lived for hundreds of years. The hills were lovely in the golden afternoon sunlight. You could see an ancient spring with a stone arch over it, and a mosque that was built by one of his ancestors 240 years ago. Aliaa stood next to me on the terrace, looking out at the town with an expression of rapturous pride. I asked her how it made her feel to know that Western human rights groups had documented repeated atrocities by the Syrian regime — some, perhaps, by people like the ones we had just talked to. Aliaa glanced downward. “Yes, there have been atrocities,” she said. “You can never deny that there have been atrocities. But you have to ask yourself: What will happen if Bashar falls? That’s why I believe victory is the only option. If Bashar falls, Syria falls. And then we, here, will all be in the niqab” — the full veil worn in conservative Muslim societies — “or we will be dead.”
Before we climbed back down, Aliaa’s uncle showed me a rusted white tripod, set in the center of the roof, under a gazebo. “It is for telescopes, for looking at the stars,” he said. He looked up at the cloudless evening sky, then down the mountain toward where the hills give way to the vast Syrian plain. “But we can use it to set up a sniper rifle and defend ourselves here.”
The Lebanese Conflict
The Lebanese Army deployed Tuesday in the suburb of Abra, south Lebanon, after clashes between supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah group, claimed the life of one resident, security sources told The Daily Star.
Backed by 20 armored personnel carriers, some 400 soldiers made their way into Abra, an eastern suburb of the southern coastal city of the Sidon, the sources said.
Sidon residents brace for further violence – NOW – Locals tell NOW they expect worse to come, though analysts downplay talk of a “new Tripoli”
Rina Hassan has only just returned to her apartment in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood, four days after fleeing heavy gun battles that raged on her street between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and those of the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades, leaving one dead.
“When it started, [Assir’s] fighters were under my house. They blocked the street with burning oil so no cars could get in or out, and then began firing RPGs and machine guns non-stop. For two hours, I sat in the corner of my bedroom because it was the only room with no windows.”
Terrified and alone in the house, Hassan then received a call from her son imploring her to come to the comparative safety of his restaurant nearby, which has an underground kitchen.
“He came to my front door and said, ‘Close your eyes, don’t look around, it will just take two minutes.’ Getting there was a real risk. We stayed for two more hours in that kitchen with two fighters outside firing M16s at any car that approached.”
When negotiations between Assir and the city’s Mufti, Sheikh Salim Sousan, brought the fighting to a close, Hassan decided to leave Sidon for her native southern village.
“I called a friend who had a friend involved with Assir’s movement, and he told us of a safe exit route. We had to tell them exactly what cars we would be in so they would know it was us. Many people in Abra were doing the same thing.”
“Today, I returned to Sidon, because I heard that Assir had agreed to postpone any military action for now. But I’ve prepared a bag in the house. The moment I feel tensions are rising again, I’ll get out of here.”
Hassan’s attitude is a widespread one in the city today, which residents fear could become the site of increasingly frequent and bloody clashes in future. Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro-Hezbollah cleric who survived an alleged assassination attempt in Sidon earlier this month, accused Assir on Thursday of wanting to turn Sidon into a “new Tripoli,” referring to the northern city that for years has witnessed repeated bouts of deadly sectarian violence.
Certainly, Abra locals NOW spoke to on Friday felt worse was yet to come. “There will be clashes again, of course,” said a roast chicken vendor directly across the street from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “Sheikh Assir agreed to postpone them until after school examinations [concluding on 6 July]. Next time, the fighting will be more intense, yes.”
Assir himself also appears to be taking precautions. The side-street leading up to his mosque now sports a new metal barrier, flanked by heavy concrete blocks and sandbags. A friendly young man, possibly in his teens, raises the barrier to allow a car to enter the complex. Like the two men standing on the corner behind him, he carries an AK-47, evidently undeterred by the heavy deployment of Lebanese Army troops on the adjacent street below. No, he says, we can’t take photos of him. But if we like, we can snap the large new holes on the building’s exterior – the results, he claims, of RPGs fired by the Resistance Brigades from Haaret Saida, the predominantly Shiite quarter two kilometers to the southwest.
In Haaret Saida, where Hezbollah and Amal flags line the streets, another restaurateur initially shrugs off the prospect of further clashes before launching an animated speech about how dangerous they could become.
“The problem of sectarian hatred here is huge. In Sidon, we have every sect: Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians, Palestinians. These Islamists are playing with fire. Since when did they care about school exams? Are children’s exams more important than children dying?”
NOW also spoke to the mayor of Haaret Saida, Samih al-Zein, who was the target of a public death threat from the celebrity Assir partisan, former pop singer Fadel Shaker.
“I made a formal complaint to the judiciary,” he said with regards to the threat. “The attorney general and the security apparatus will deal with this. We don’t have a personal reaction – we won’t sink to that level.”
Al-Zein played down the possibility of further clashes, implying that Hezbollah and Amal would seek to avoid confronting Assir.
Lebanon’s renowned Baalbek International Festival, normally held in the town’s spectacular Roman ruins, is to move to an alternative venue in the face of a spillover of violence from neighbouring Syria, organisers said on Friday.
A Jordanian military tribunal jailed on Tuesday three men convicted of trying to join Syria’s jihadist Al-Nusra Front and fight President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
“The state security court today initially sentenced the three to five years in jail each, but immediately halved the prison terms,” a court official told AFP.
“They attempted in January to interfiltrate Syria and join Al-Nusra Front.”
The official said the men were charged with “carrying out acts that the government does not approve and that would expose Jordan to the risk of aggression, as well as possession of unlicensed firearms.”
Al-Nusra, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, is among the most prominent groups involved in Syria’s 26-month conflict, which has killed more than 94,000, according to monitors.
The ruling comes a day after the same court jailed two Jordanians for five years for going to Syria last summer for jihad, a judicial official said.
The two were arrested after they returned to Jordan in August, “pretending that they were Syrian refugees.”
In May, the military court handed down similar jail sentences for nine Muslim extremists who wanted to go to Syria.
Jordan, which says it is hosting more than 500,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war, has arrested dozens of jihadists as they tried to cross into the war-torn country.
Jordanian Salafists have said there were more than 500 jihadists from the country in Syria.
Amman denies accusations from the Syrian regime that the kingdom has opened up its borders to jihadist fighters.
Jordan generally does not tolerate Salafist groups that espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam.
But slain Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, hailed from the impoverished northern city of Zarqa, considered a stronghold of Muslim extremists.
The Wannabe – Daily News Egypt – Mahmoud Salem
One of the few remaining benefits of living in Egypt these days is the ridiculous amount of entertainment that our Islamist rulers provide. In a scene that’s beyond parody, a number of Islamists held a massive conference to support Syria, which in their world means “Let’s kill those Shi’a Infidels”. In the first ever display of state-sponsored-Jihad-promotion in Egypt’s modern history, a number of Islamists, alongside our great ruler Mohamed Ibn Morsi the first, called upon the Nation’s Muslims to support Syria and, if possible, go fight Jihad there, because, after two years of inaction, they suddenly realised that there was a conflict there and on one side there was some non-Sunni Muslims fighting some Sunni Muslims. Gasp and horror.
In case you didn’t know, that’s completely unacceptable of course. Non-Sunni Muslims have no business being alive to begin with, or at least that’s what the speeches of the day implied. Sectarian rhetoric got spewed for two hours on live television, proving that Morsi doesn’t only have a “Christian problem”, but a “down with anything other than Sunni Muslims” problem, which should console our Christian brothers in so far that it’s not only them he dislikes. Today’s article should then bemoan the first Egyptian democratically elected openly sectarian president. If only it was that simple…
… Oh, how I wish that what took place in that conference was simply Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood showcasing their true sectarian selves, because the alternative is so utterly pathetic: That the MB is so desperate to hold on to power in the face of sweeping national anger, that they had to pander to Jihadist elements in such a disgusting way. The Jihadist elements naturally returned the pandering in kind, with Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maksoud openly stating that 30 June will be a great day for Islam to stand against the “infidels” behind the “Rebellion” movement. Meanhwile, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan informed the average-electricity-and-fuel- deprived Egyptian citizens about the great benefits of Jihad in Syria: 1) There are the brownie points you get with God for killing other people, 2) There are the spoils of Jihad for the taking in the bountiful lands of Syria, like looting, pillaging and hot Syrian women, and 3) If you die, you get to die fighting in a Jihad for Islam, which immediately puts you on Heaven’s VIP list. Dear Sunni Muslim Egyptian citizens, what more could you possibly ask for? It’s a win-win situation.
… Had Morsi truly wanted to help Syrians, he would have issued some initiatives that would help the estimated one million Syrian refugees in Egypt so as not to suffer daily humiliation. He could have issued a directive that equalised the degrees of educated Syrian with that of Egypt’s to allow Syrian doctors and engineers a chance to work in their vocations. He could have given them all work permits, thus giving the Syrian refugees a method to exist, work and survive in Egypt legally. He could have banned the practice of selling Syrian women as wives to Egyptian males that happens in Salafi mosques. Instead, in a grandiose move, he shut down their embassy, which is the only place that provided Syrian refugees access to crucial consular services, and helped them get to their next destination if they wanted out of Egypt. Dear Syrian refugees, you can start thanking us any minute now.
I am willing to wager that when historians document this phase in Egyptian history, they will call it “the LSD period”, because we are watching the hallucinations of the Islamists and their leaders being broadcasted on our national televisions, creating a binary primordial world where Islam is threatened, all of their enemies are infidels bent on destroying the religion and where they are the faith’s sole defenders and champions. It’s beyond sad. Had a US channel created a TV show depicting Islamist rule and simply copied and pasted the actions and speeches of the Morsi government, its writers and producers would’ve been called Islamophobic and out of touch with reality. Unfortunately this is reality, and it must change. 30 June cannot come fast enough.
In all the hubbub over the dramatic devaluation of the Syrian pound that has declined by roughly 40 pounds against the U.S. dollar in a single day in the black market, top Syrian officials are still determined that the economy is stable and capable of facing all challenges.
Following the steep depreciation of the pound over the past 24 hours — the dollar soared from 170 pounds to around 210 pounds — many Syrians rushed to markets to buy basic food stuff and commodities out of fears that their prices would rise soon.
Media reports said that there is currently a meeting combining top Syrian officials and economists, including the governor of the Central Bank of Syria and exchange dealers, to discuss the issue of the striking rise in the exchange rate of the dollar against the pound, and to find an appropriate way of intervening to rein in the upward climb of the dollar price.
The Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said Monday during the meeting of the economic commission entrusted with following up the pound exchange rate that the government has large reserves of foreign exchange to provide all the needs of the Syrian market of imported goods and production inputs. …
Nadia Umm Fuad watched her son being shot by Islamist rebels in Syria after the 14-year-old referred to the Prophet Mohammed as he joked with a customer at his coffee stall in Aleppo. She speaks to Richard Spencer.
Mohammed Katta’s mother witnessed the execution of her son in three stages.
She was upstairs at home when she first heard the shouting. The people of the neighbourhood were yelling that “they have brought back the kid”, so she rushed out of her apartment.
“I went out on my balcony,” Nadia Umm Fuad said. “I said to his father, they are going to shoot your son! Come! Come! Come! I was on the stairs when I heard the first shot. I was at the door when I heard the second shot.
“I saw the third shot. I was shouting, ‘That’s haram, forbidden! Stop! Stop! You are killing a child.’ But they just gave me a dirty look and got into their car. As they went, they drove over my son’s arm, as he lay there dying.” …
To date, an estimated 55,000 Palestinians have sought sanctuary in Lebanon from the war in Syria, according to the United Nations, most of them descendants of families displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.
Armed Factions: Sunni and Shi’i
Aron Lund profiles and maps a number of rebel fighting forces for the The Independent:
BATTLEFIELD ALLIANCES: THE MAJOR GROUPS
The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF):
Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Ahrar al-Sham)
Affiliated fighters Group’s own figures claimed about 25,000 in Dec 2012
A hardline Salafist alliance created in December 2012, which receives funding from conservative clerics in the Gulf. The SIF has distanced itself from the Western-backed FSA, but it is also wary of Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Qa’ida connection. Unlike the SILF and the FSA, the SIF has demonstrated some degree of internal cohesion and significant ideological homogeneity. It is dominated by Ahrar al-Sham, but the front also includes the Haqq Brigade (Homs), the Haqq Battalions (northern Hama), the Ansar al-Sham Battalions (northern Latakia), and the Tawhid Army (Deir al-Zor). It is demanding an Islamic state with sharia law.
AFFILIATES: Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
The Free Syrian Army (FSA):
Leader Brig Gen Salim Idriss
Affiliated fighters Many different claims. Most recently, in June 2013, Idriss claimed he is the leader of 80,000 fighters
The FSA name has been used by several overlapping rebel networks since mid-2011. This version, which is also often referred to as the Supreme Military Council, was created in December 2012 after pressure from Western and Gulf Arab nations, which seek to make it the military wing of Syria’s civilian exile group, the National Coalition. Foreign funding has drawn numerous rebel commanders to the FSA, including all the SILF heavyweights. But these commanders retain operational control over their own forces, and Idriss therefore serves more as a spokesperson than a military leader. Idriss steers a secular-nationalist line, while many of the factions that make up his army have opted for some form of Islamic rule.
AFFILIATES Syria Martyrs Brigades, Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade
The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF):
Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Suqour al-Sham)
Secretary General Zahran Alloush (Islam Brigade)
Affiliated fighters Spokesperson says 35,000-40,000 June 2013
The SILF is a very loose Islamist alliance created in September 2012, around a bare-bones ideological plank demanding more Islam and less Assad. It now includes about 20 armed movements, among them powerful factions like Farouq and Tawhid. The SILF members joined the new version of the FSA at its inception in December 2012, and now make up the bulk of its fighting force. A representative of the SILF describes it as ”the largest of the revolutionary coalitions”.
AFFILIATES Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade
Leader Osama Juneidi
Numbers Approximately 14,000 now, according to their spokesperson.
Area National, but associated with Homs also has strong presence on Syrian-Turkish border
Affiliation SILF, FSA
The Farouq Battalions is a large, Islamist-leaning group which has its roots in the earliest Free Syrian Army formations created in Homs province in summer and autumn of 2011. It rose to prominence when leading the failed February 2012 defense of the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city. Since then the original group has expanded tremendously and it now runs affiliates across the country. A well-funded northern wing, Farouq al-Shamal, controls important border crossings and is rumored to enjoy Turkish patronage.
Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq
Leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani (Jabhat al-Nusra); Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Islamic state)
Number: a report this year by the Quilliam Foundation said Jabhat al-nusra had 5,000 fighters, but this is impossible to verify
Area Syria – Iraq
In mid-2011, the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq sent a group to Syria to create a jihadi movement. In January 2012, it emerged as Jabhat al-Nusra with a string of suicide bombings. Declared a terrorist group by the US since December 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has co-operated with other rebels on the ground but shunned alliances. In April, Baghdadi declared a merger of the Iraqi group with Jabhat al-Nusra under the name Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. This was opposed by Nusra’s leader, but Baghdadi persisted, backed by many foreign jihadis. Both groups are in Syria, the dispute unresolved.
Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement
Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi
Area Syria (It is strongest in northern Syria, in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, but has affiliates all over the country.)
Numbers Several thousand at least, maybe as many as 10,000. SIF (the alliance of which they make up around 75 per cent of forces) circulated an informal claim that it had 25,000 fighters back in December.
Ahrar al-Sham is likely to be Syria’s largest salafi faction. It claims to run about a hundred local armed groups, as well as offices for humanitarian aid and sharia law. It was created in the Idlib-Hama region in early summer 2011. In December 2012 it spearheaded the creation of the SIF alliance, which drew like-minded Islamist groups into its orbit. In spring 2013, several SIF member factions merged into Ahrar al-Sham, greatly adding to its numbers and influence. It seeks an Islamic state based on sharia law.
Syria Martyrs’ Brigades
Leader Jamaal Maarouf
Numbers High thousands? Even 10,000? Maarouf claimed in an interview in December 2012 to have more than 18,000 fighters, but this is disputed.
Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib
Originally named the Jabal al-Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, a name change was engineered to match Jamal Maarouf’s growing ambitions in mid-2012. The group remains concentrated in the rugged, rural Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib, and has spawned only a few branches elsewhere. Unlike his local Islamist rival, Suqour al-Sham’s Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, Maarouf seems to have no particular ideology, but he is nevertheless said to enjoy Saudi funding.
YPG – Popular Protection Units
Spokesperson Khebat Ibrahim
Numbers Some thousands
Area Kurdish-populated areas, northern and north-eastern Syria, Aleppo.
Affilation Supreme Kurdish Committee, PKK
The YPG is the dominant Kurdish armed group, which took over large sections of northern Syria in August last year. It is not-so-secretly loyal to the PKK, which has by now forcibly co-opted most other Kurdish groups in Syria. The YPG has deep misgivings about the Arab opposition mainstream, which it considers to be Islamist and under Turkish influence, and it has steered a middle way between the regime and the rebels. True to the PKK’s Marxist tradition, the YPG makes a point of training female fighters. The YPG does not seek independence for Syria’s Kurds, but does argue for a form of self-governance within Syria.
Leader Zahran Alloush
Area Mainly Damascus
Affiliation SILF, FSA
The Islam Brigade was set up by the Alloush family from Douma, east of Damascus. The elderly patriarch Abdullah Alloush, a religious scholar, lives in Saudi Arabia. His son Zahran, a salafi activist jailed by the government in 2009, founded the group when he was released from prison in mid-2011. It rose to prominence after bombing the National Security Office in Damascus in July 2012, which killed several of Assad’s leading military officials. Considers itself “the biggest faction in the Damascus region” and claims to have 64 sub-battalions, but it refuses to give an estimated number of fighters.
General leader Abdelaziz Salama
Military commander Abdulqader Saleh
Numbers Spokesperson claims ”around 11,000”
Area Aleppo, with smaller groups around the country
Affiliation SILF, FSA
The Tawhid Brigade was created in July 2012 through the merger of a disparate collection of militias from the Sunni Arab countryside surrounding Aleppo. Soon thereafter, the group led the charge into the city itself, but the rebels became bogged down during the autumn of 2012 after some initial victories. The Tawhid Brigade remains the dominant force in the Aleppo region, although it also has small affiliates elsewhere. It demands some form of Islamic governance, but says that religious minorities should be treated as equal citizens.
Suqour al-Sham Brigades
Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh
Numbers Several thousand, possibly climbing towards 10,000
Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib
Affiliation SILF, FSA
The foundations of the Suqour al-Sham, one of Syria’s best-known Islamist groups, were laid in the summer of 2011 in the town of Sarjeh in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya region. It has now grown considerably and some of its sub-units, such as the Dawoud Brigade, have been pushing south into Hama province alongside more radical Islamist groups. Suqour al-Sham helped create the SILF alliance, with Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh serving as its leader since the start.
About the writer
Aron Lund is a Swedish writer and researcher who has published extensively on Syrian opposition movements. He is a regular contributor to the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. Mr Lund is considered one of the best informed observers of the Syrian opposition
Hizballah Cavalcade: Liwa’a Zulfiqar: Birth of A New Shia Militia in Syria? – Jihadology – Phillip Smyth
On June 5, 2013, the same day Lebanese Hizballah declared victory at the Battle of Qusayr, a page for a new Damascus-based Shia militia group, Liwa’a Zulfiqar (LZ or the Zulfiqar Battalion), was created on Facebook. The group asserts it is, “Assigned to protect religious shines, especially the Saydah Zaynab [shrine]”. This claim is also held by Syria’s other main Shia militia, Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). However, Liwa’a Zulfiqar is not competing with Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. In fact, most of its members and leadership appear to have been drawn from LAFA. Furthermore, Liwa’a Zulfiqar does not hide the fact that it was created out of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Along with new photographs, the new group has repackaged older LAFA photographs and claimed them as representations of the new group.
LZ’s formation results in a number of questions: Is Liwa’a Zulfiqar a genuinely new organization? Could it be another front for LAFA? Was LZ’s formation representative of something else going on within the ranks of Shia fighters in Syria?
Based purely on social media data, it appears LZ is less of a new organization, and probably a LAFA front or part of LAFA. At best, the group could be a repackaging of LAFA fighters into a new group which serves the same functions and cooperates closely with LAFA and the Syrian army. At the same time, the group could be little more than a web-based propaganda vehicle. Since the creation of a new organization would generate the sense that larger numbers of capable Shia fighters are flooding into Syria, LZ’s propaganda function may also be aimed directly at rebel morale. …
The Awakening Sunni Giant – Weiss – Saudi Arabia is dead-serious about ending the Assad regime
Last Friday, King Abdullah cut short his summer vacation in Morocco and flew back to Riyadh not only to meet with his national security advisors but to coordinate a new strategy for winning the war in Syria, one that encompasses a unified regional bloc of Sunni-majority powers now ranged against Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. The Wahhabi kingdom has exhausted its patience with miscarried attempts to resolve the Syria crisis through diplomacy and it will not wait to see the coming battle in Aleppo play out before assuming control of the Syrian rebellion. State-backed regional efforts to bolster moderate Free Syrian Army elements will thus be joined with the fetid call to jihad emanating from clerical quarters in Cairo, Doha, Mecca, and beyond. The mullahs have only themselves to blame. “Nasrallah fucked up,” one well-connected Syrian source told me recently. “He awakened the Sunni giant. The Saudis took Hezbollah’s invasion of Qusayr personally.”
Although long in coming, and evidenced in the recent contretemps between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, this grand realignment has been unmistakably solidified in the last week. A day after the Saudi king returned to Riyadh, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi severed all diplomatic ties with Damascus and called for a no-fly zone in Syria, leaving no mystery as to reason behind this decision. “Hezbollah must leave Syria – these are serious words,” the Islamist president said. “There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.”
Then, on Monday, June 17, it was Jordanian King Abdullah’s turn to strike a minatory, albeit more nationalistic, note. Ostensibly addressing cadets at a graduation ceremony at Mutah Military Academy, the Hashemite monarch was in fact speaking to Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad: “If the world does not mobilize or help us in the issue [of Syria] as it should, or if this matter forms a danger to our country, we are able at any moment to take measures that will protect our land and the interests of our people.”
Unlike Morsi, who doesn’t have half a million Syrian refugees to contend with, Abdullah’s deterrent capability is not confined to persona non grata diktats and rhetorical posturing. Operation Eager Lion, the 12-day military exercise featuring the United States and 19 Arab and European countries, is currently underway in Jordan. Around 8,000 personnel – including commandos from Lebanon and Iraq who will no doubt be fighting some of their compatriots in any deployment into Syria – are given lessons on border security, refugee management, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism warfare. Patriot missile batteries and anywhere between 12 and 24 American F-16 fighter jets were left in Jordan as a multilateral insurance policy against Syrian, Iranian, or Hezbollah provocations. This royal Abdullah is more in sync than ever with his namesake to the south.
If further proof were needed of Riyadh’s newfound earnestness about ending Assad’s reign, look no further than a recent column by Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist seen as quite close to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director general of Saudi intelligence who himself has described Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiite Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade in Syria as Iran’s “steel claws.” On June 15, Khashoggi published “The expanding Shiite Crescent” in al-Hayat. The piece can only be described as something between a Sunni cri de coeur and a Sunni fever-dream. Khashoggi begins by warning of creeping Iranian hegemony in the Levant, which is of course driven as much by energy and commercial interest as it is by ideology. Allow Assad victory and here’s what will happen, according to Khashoggi:
“The Iranian Oil Ministry will pull out old maps from its drawers to build the pipeline to pump Iranian oil and gas from Abadan (across Iraq) to Tartus. The Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transportation will dust off the national railways authority’s blueprints for a new branch line from Tehran to Damascus, and possibly Beirut. Why not? The wind is blowing in their favor and I am not making a mountain out of a molehill.”
As against Hafez’s careful balancing of Sunni and Shiite interests, Khashoggi concludes, the dangerous Bashar has submitted completely to Iran and their Lebanese proxy. “Consequently, Saudi Arabia must do something now, albeit alone. The kingdom’s security is at stake. It will be good if the United States joined an alliance led by Saudi Arabia to bring down Assad and return Syria to the Arab fold. But this should not be a precondition to proceed. Let Saudi Arabia head those on board.” [Italics added.]
According to Elizabeth O’Bagy, the policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, the Saudis had a closed-door meeting with Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command, a few days ago, at which they offered to do “whatever it takes” to help Idris defeat Assad and his growing army of Shiite-Alawi sectarian militias. Though, this being a Saudi promise, “whatever it takes” can still be defined relatively: the discussion was limited to weapons, more resources and logistical support, O’Bagy said, though some of the hardware has already begun to materialize.
One unnamed Gulf source cited by Reuters has claimed that the Saudis have begun running shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADs) into Syria. Furthermore, at least 50 “Konkurs,” Russian-made, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, have also turned up in Aleppo in the last week, as confirmed by the Daily Telegraph’s Mideast correspondent Richard Spencer (Konkurs are especially useful in destroying T-72 tanks, the most recent Soviet-era model that the Syrian Army uses.)
More intriguing still is the Western power evidently facilitating this campaign – France. Israeli Army Radio reported this week that French intelligence officials are working with their Saudi counterparts to train up rebels on tactics and weaponry, in concert with the Turkish Defense Ministry (no doubt because Turkish supply-lines to Aleppo are now even more crucial.) Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and mukhabarat head Prince Bandar bin Sultan (also the former Saudi ambassador to the United States and King Abdullah’s national security advisor), have traveled to Paris in urgent fits of shuttle diplomacy of late.
“The French have been really, really pro-active in pushing for greater action,” O’Bagy told me. “They have a lot of really active people on the ground.” The same Gulf source who told Reuters about anti-aircraft missiles bound for Syria also said they were “obtained from suppliers in France and Belgium, and France had paid to ship them to the region.” The Hollande government maintains that it hasn’t decided whether or not to arm the rebels yet, but here it should be noted, as O’Bagy has elsewhere, that the U.S. was gun-running before it ambiguously announced last week that it would (maybe) begin doing so.
Indeed, the Saudi-French concord provides some much needed context for the Obama administration’s adherence to the status quo ante. This has been amusingly characterized by some commentators in near apocalyptic language. The White House is still only interested in guiding a process absent direct involvement in it. Everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey to the president has loudly rejected the prospect of air strikes or a no-fly zone. (These “realists” fail to realize that the surest way to limit argument to arm the FSA is to destroy the regime’s own Iranian and Russian resupply capability – ah, but that would require dropping bombs and we can’t have that, can we?)
Having thus determined that the Syria crisis was not in the U.S. “national interest,” the administration conveniently forgot about the national interests of its allies, all of whom lament the geopolitical vacuum left by a vanishing American presence and greatly fear the elements now rushing in to fill it. So instead, Washington palavers with Moscow about “Geneva II”, a conference set to resemble the last half hour of Rocky IV, as the war proceeds uninterrupted on the ground. Witness the buildup of Syrian Army soldiers and militants from Hezbollah and the Iranian-sponsored Popular Committees and the National Defense Forces in the Aleppo towns of Nubul and Zahra’a. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Hezbollah fighters, abetted by IRGC agents, are amassed in the province ready to try a repeat of their last victory in Qusayr.
Congratulations are in order. The United States has just earned a court-side seat to exactly the kind of transnational Sunni-Shiite confrontation it wished to avoid.
Syria’s civil war has caused a split within Hamas over whether to cling to its Shiite backers Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah or side with Sunni allies such as Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, analysts say. Some in the Islamist movement’s military wing insist that aid from Iran – a key Damascus ally – should not be shunned simply to publicly back the Sunni-led rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hamas sources told AFP.
News of the split within the Palestinian movement which rules the Gaza Strip coincides with reports that Iran has scaled down its financial support to the group.
Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who is behind the movement’s shift toward Sunni regimes such as Qatar that back the rebels, left his Damascus headquarters in 2012 for Doha after refusing to support Assad’s deadly crackdown.
Meshaal and his Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were Tuesday in Ankara, another rebel backer, to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the previous day, Meshaal had called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah to pull its forces out of Syria and focus on resisting Israel, accusing it of contributing to “sectarian polarization” in the region.
Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi recently reported that leaders of Hamas’s armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades had warned Meshaal against getting too close to Qatar, as this was having a negative impact on aid from Iran.
It was Tehran’s military support rather than Gulf financial support, they reminded him, that had enabled Hamas to face the last major Israeli assault on Gaza in November. …