Oil Wars—Nusra’s Expanding Reach—Syrian Taliban

Matthew BarberBy Matthew Barber and the Syria Video team

This long post contains the following sections:

  • The Defectors Defect
  • Will EU Oil Purchases Finance al-Qaida?
  • Al-Musareb: Al-Nusra Punishes a Village Regime-Style
  • Syrian Taliban
  • The Opposition’s Ambivalent Response to al-Nusra’s Affiliation with al-Qaida (and the Plan to Introduce an Alternative Islamic Law in Syria)
  • Jabhat al-Nusra is Now an Iraq-to-Lebanon Phenomenon
  • Conclusion: Outsiders Reevaluate Their Positions as it Becomes Easier for the Regime to Sell Itself

 

The Defectors Defect

A Lebanese acquaintance of Dr. Landis wrote in an email about the recent experience of his Syrian natoor (a worker at an apartment building functioning like a cross between a guard, concierge, and janitor):

I’m now in Beirut at my mother’s. The natoor of our building, Riyadh, is from Hassaka. He’s been our natoor for 6 years.

He just got back yesterday from Haasaka after visiting his folks.

On my last trip here in December, he was 100% anti-regime and his two brothers were fighters with FSA. He told me at the time that Assad must go, he is not good for Syria and his cousin Rami ripped off the country. He came to Lebanon after his military service because Assad and his family destroyed Syria.

That was December 2012. He is now 100% pro regime. His two brothers surrendered to the Syrian army and gave up their $500 a month [FSA] salary (he makes here $250/month).

He said the FSA and Nusra are thieves and robbers – much worse than the regime. They quit after seeing how the FSA (their direct commander was an Afghani) was ripping off and selling everything to Turkey. They sold 4 years worth of huntaa [wheat] for 600 SYP a shewal (no idea what a shewal is, but ya3ni) whereas it’s worth 6,000 SYP. They dismantled whole bakeries, small factories, cables, he swore even faucets were ripped out and shipped to Turkey.

His trip from Beirut to Tadmor was relatively safe, he said. But from Tadmor to Hassaka, there is a Nusra roadblock every few kilometers. At each roadblock, heavily armed men, faces completely covered, get up to the bus and shout “Allahu Akbar.” They wait for the passengers to shout back the same while these men lock their eyes trying to figure out if someone is saying Allahu Akbar back according to their standards. He said I know “Ibn baladi” [locals of the area]. None of these thugs are Ibn baladi.

Women, if any, must be completely covered for the roadblock – head to toe like a trash bag. The driver usually tells all women that they must have black burqas with them before they get on the bus.

Anyway, he said “yashodu allah ya ustaz that Bashar is now in our hearts and minds”:

“يشهد اللهً يااستاذ انه بشار الأسد بقلبنا وبدمنا. يشهد الله يااستاذ انه كل أغلاط النظام ويشار وعيلته مغفورة قدام ها لوحوش المجرمين من الجيش الحر والنصرة الله لاينصرهن خربو سورية. يشهد الله يااستاذ انه هللق كل سوري مخلص وشريف وبيحب بلده الآن مع بشار ومع الجيش السوري ضد هل الأوباش.”

He said, we let Bashar down (نحنا انغشينا و أخطأنا ). And in doing so we let Syria down.

Riyadh is here now to pack his things and go back to Syria to fight with the Syrian army (تطوع). I said how many people are feeling like you in Hasakaa, he said many – all his ربع [a term for family commonly used by Bedouins and Arabs of tribal affiliation]. He is 36 years old. Went to hajj twice. He’s Muslim Sunni.

I asked him what about the Christians in Hasakaa, he said they all left. Only the very weak and poor are left behind, but they are ok.

The FSA ripped off the power plant, dismantled all equipments, generators, transformers, even under ground cables were ripped out and were sold to a turkey.

He said this is not a fight for Assad, this is a fight for Syria.

Such an account looks almost engineered to tickle the ears of regime supporters, but it is real. It obviously, however, cannot reflect the experience of someone whose community has undergone direct bombardment from the regime. Those who have contributed to this long fight or have lived through the airstrikes and massacres of so many towns and villages would not suddenly make a political turnabout and say “we let Bashar down.” Such a statement will appear as the height of absurdity to a great number of Syrians, and even we find it almost bewildering. But it does reflect the feelings of some communities that have become disillusioned with rebel control, or have felt that “you rebels brought the fight to our neighborhood,” a sentiment we’ve seen crop up often.

It reflects the dilemma expressed by the writer of the email: “Syrians today have clarity in the choices being offered:  the regime, version 2.0; or a Salafi Islamic Banana Republic. My relatives, friends, and many Syrians I know who were staunch anti-regime revolutionaries early on are privately rethinking their position. It’s almost impossible for Syrians to admit defeat or mistakes (it’s related to some strange DNA mutation I will tell you about later!), but it’s not hard to see where a Sufi Syria would end up given these two distinct choices. The revolution is now proving to be incompatible with the hearts and minds of the Syrian masses.”

Regardless of the degree to which that last statement can be said to be true for various segments of the Syrian population, disillusionment has prompted even some who have been engaged at the forefront of the struggle against the regime to abandon the revolution. The situation alluded to above (the selling off of Syrian assets to Turkey) is a real problem that ultimately drove the head of the Farouq Brigades in Deir Ezzor, Yussef ‘Alke, to resign as leader, leave the Brigades, and declare the revolution a corrupt sham. In a recent statement he laid out 5 reasons for his departure:

  1. That the trajectory of the revolution in Deir Ezzor has deviated from the right path and transformed [into a campaign of] acquiring wealth
  2. That some leaders of the Farouq Brigade, in partnership with other brigades undertook the sale of the tools and equipment from the warehouses of sugar mills without our knowledge or agreement
  3. The failure of the Revolutionary or Military Council or any subsidiary of the join leadership to support us, even with a single bullet, knowing that the everything that comes in the way of support from these groups goes to particular persons with a blind allegiance to the leaders of these councils
  4. The new emergence of the old phenomenon of bloc formation, partisanship, and allegiances to foreign parties which people are forced to follow or face elimination, as has recently become clear
  5. The lack of seriousness on the part of any party responsible for the Free Syrian Army or its supporters in the fight against the regime in Deir Ezzor—instead the main concern was, and still is, making financial deals with the regime

‘Alke gave just one example of destructive economic opportunism to occur in his local area (that of the sugar mill). A commodity that has been intensely fought over recently in several areas is wheat. A feud erupted in Tal Hamis (Hasakeh) over the right to distribute wheat between the FSA 313th Division and Ahrar al-Sham who attacked the FSA positions and took over the grain silos. Another scandal took place in al-Shadadi where the elected head of the Local Council was accused of appropriating wheat to sell it for his own profit. But the hottest affair of all is oil.

 

By Opening Oil Exports, Will the EU be Financing al-Qaida?

 

Where Syrian oil went before the sanctions - source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Where Syrian oil went before the sanctions – source: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Though the war seems far from over, the fight over oil has begun.

AP – EU lifts Syria oil embargo to bolster rebels

The European Union on Monday lifted its oil embargo on Syria to provide more economic support to the forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad’s regime.

The decision will allow for crude exports from rebel-held territory, the import of oil and gas production technology, and investments in the Syrian oil industry, the EU said in a statement.

… Being able to take advantage of the country’s oil resources will help the Syrian uprising ‘‘big time,’’ said Osama Kadi, a senior member of the Syrian opposition. While the security situation remains a challenge, getting the oil flowing will be a top priority for the Syrian interim government expected to be formed by the end of the month, added Kadi, who is an economic adviser to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.

‘‘We are really hoping that Turkish companies will help in terms of importing and exporting the oil, because we need some refineries to get our diesel to run all our generators, to run our hospitals, and we need diesel in large amounts,’’ he said in Istanbul.

Opening up oil to help the rebels seems a little strange, since much of the territory that produces the oil is under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra. These areas are already experiencing conflict as various parties vie for control over oil.

outdoor oil refiningDue to necessity or incentive or both, Syrians are already processing oil in outdoor, homemade refineries: Syrians take up backyard refining of crude oil – Daily Star:

Columns of black smoke rise from several points along the road in part of northern Syria. Here the smoke is not a sign of airstrikes but of crude oil being processed in makeshift refineries.

“People started doing it about one year ago but at that time we didn’t know how to,” says Ahmad, a 35-year-old farmer-turned-refiner. “We got the knowledge from someone from around here who had learned in Saudi Arabia,” he says, standing next to a big metal tank containing crude oil.

… Their tank has a capacity of 1,000 liters, though they only make it two-thirds full at a time because the refining process requires air, they say. A fire is lit underneath to heat the tank, eventually boiling the crude, and producing thick black smoke. As the crude boils, various products run off through two tubes which are cooled as they pass underwater through three ponds and then into a container that collects the resulting products. What comes out first, the brothers term “cooking gas,” which they simply allow to escape. Next comes petrol, then kerosene used in stoves, then diesel fuel. The pair call the final product “fat” and either add it back into the fire under the tank, or occasionally mix it with the diesel for use in some “heavy vehicles.” This process is a crude form of the fractional distillation process used at oil refineries around the world, and has proved profitable for the brothers.

Boiling and refining a tank takes them about four hours, and they estimate they make a 50-60 percent profit on each barrel, selling the products to locals. “Business is good,” Ahmad says smiling, his face and hands blackened by the smoke.

The brothers are unlikely to win any health and safety awards. Neither wears gloves nor protective gear, and Abdullah smokes a cigarette on the job. “It’s OK as long as you are not right next to the benzene [petrol],” he says matter-of-factly. “We haven’t had any [health] problem, nothing will happen to us,” he adds with a grin.

The brothers get their raw material from the Deir al-Zor countryside, driving two and a half hours in their truck to purchase oil barrels from middlemen or those in control of the oil fields: local tribes and the jihadist Nusra Front.

Nusra got involved in the oil business about six months ago, they say. “Nusra are operating in both lines, business and fighting,” Ahmad says.

… Ahmad says he’s not a fan of the Nusra Front, buying from them only out of necessity. Rebel brigades “Liwa al-Tawhid, Ahrar al-Sham, they are very good guys, but we don’t like Nusra,” he says.

The brothers buy crude about three times a week, picking up nine barrels a time. “Each well has a different price, depending on the quality of its oil,” Ahmad says. One 2,200-liter barrel runs from 500 to 10,000 Syrian pounds, approximately $5-$1000, but the cheapest barrels only yield about 50 liters of refined products, they say.

Local tribes first began controlling oil fields in the Deir al-Zor countryside about a year ago. … “When these tribes discovered the oil wells, the revolution in Deir al-Zor was over, they used to be poor and it went from revolution to oil industry.”

Deir al-Zor contains the largest energy reserves in Syria, which produced some 420,000 barrels of oil a day before the United States and the European Union banned the import of Syrian petroleum in 2011.

Oil and Gas Fields and Pipelines in Syria - Source: Tri-Ocean Energy

Oil and Gas Fields and Pipelines in Syria – Source: Tri-Ocean Energy

The current enterprise of oil in Syria is a dangerous business. It takes different forms in various regions, but it can involve the puncturing of pipelines to steal oil, smuggling, tremendous pollution, significant health hazards and physical danger, and the risk of armed disputes and localized political conflict over the product.

Here are several videos dealing with the process. This one features commentary lamenting the state of the oil business in the area: a bus (possibly a school bus) is used to transport oil, the roads and ground are covered in oil to the extent that people can no longer drive quickly on the road surface, even for urgent matters; this one shows oil shooting out of the ground with truck lined up to collect.

The following video from Deir Ezzor presents the enormous pollution problem. Men can be seen taking oil from pits filled with oil by breaking a pipeline. One such pit is shown burning; apparently when disputes arise as to who has claim to oil, it is sometimes set on fire so that no one has benefit from it. The gist of the commentator’s observation is: “As if the chemical attacks of the regime weren’t enough, now we have face the health threat of fumes arising from the illegal extraction of crude oil which is later refined in the north and then sold, by thieves who consider themselves part of the revolution, creating a lot of health and environmental hazards, including cancer.”

After being collected, refining the oil is another endeavor proving that necessity is the mother of invention. The following interesting videos show the refining process outdoors in: al-Safira (SE of Aleppo), Daret ‘Izza, again al-Safirah; and indoor refining in Ras al-Ain, Hasakeh.

Refining the oil is hazardous; in the above video, children can be seen working with the oil, and there have been reports of children being burnt to death while working to process oil. This video shows the aftermath of an explosion claiming the lives of those harvesting the oil. The commentary in the video says to the effect of: this is a message to opportunistic people, those who run after money, death is the end of all who covet. The bodies on the ground have been completely burnt, leaving skeletons. The tajwid playing in the background is of a sura that talks about visiting graveyards and seeing hellfire. The message seems to be that they were in the wrong for taking oil that wasn’t theirs, but who exactly does the oil belong to?

General Idriss (who has remained on the sidelines through the conflict) has placed a new request for a force of 30,000 troops, not to fight the regime but to control Syria’s oil fields. Syrian rebels seek control over oilfields – FT

… According to activists, however, many of those oilfields are now under the control of Jabhat al-Nusrah, the al-Qaeda-linked rebel group. General Selim Idriss, the western-backed head of the Supreme Military Council, told the Financial Times he wanted to assemble a 30,000-strong force of military defectors to secure oilfields, grain silos and cotton stocks, as well as crossing points on the Turkish and Iraqi borders.

Now that oil is on the table, it’s no wonder there’s a bigger push to get an interim government functioning. AP:

The Syrian opposition will not be able to sell its crude oil for at least another month due to a lack of real executive power, even though the EU has eased an embargo to help them, a prominent member of the Syrian National Council said on Monday.

… However, the opposition still does not have a provisional government to oversee possible sales as the coalition must still receive and then approve a proposal for a potential new leadership. “Without an interim government, nothing can be done now,” Osama Al-Qadi, general director of the Syrian economic task force under the umbrella of the opposition’s coalition told Reuters.

“By the end of the month, an interim government proposal will be submitted to the coalition for approval.” The Syrian National Council is a large Muslim Brotherhood-influenced bloc within the opposition group called the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. Once an interim government is appointed, he expected governmental agreements to be pursued. “Then we will sign some agreements with neighboring countries to buy our crude, like Turkey,” he said. Meanwhile, the coalition has no control over crude oil that is already leaving the country by truck from the north east. “We consider this smuggling…”

Turkish Opposition Burn NATO Flag - AP

Turkish Opposition Burn NATO Flag – AP

Oil and other goods (much of it looted) are already being sold off in Turkey, as mentioned by this article and in anecdotal accounts like that of the Natoor at the beginning of the post. The selling of Syria to Turkey is a serious problem, and a lot of inquiry could be pursued as to who is profiting in southern Turkey. The tragic consequences of these new economic opportunities emerging in lawless, rebel-held areas are examined in the next section.

 

Al-Musareb: Al-Nusra Punishes a Village Regime-Style

 

The results of the new game for oil have played out tragically in the village of al-Musareb, a village near Deir Ezzor, which experienced terror and destruction in an attack from Jabhat al-Nusra following a dispute over rights to oil that turned violent. The incident seems to be part of a larger conflict for power in the area between al-Nusra and local tribes. Information is scant on this situation; a Saudi source reported on it as well as a Reuters Arabic article based on a report from SOHR. In addition to these, we piece the story together based on video clips originating from pro-Nusra sources and articles on facebook pages (1, 2) belonging to a fighter group called Fawj Seif al-Rasul (“the Sword of the Prophet Regiment,” apparently made up of men from the village of al-Musareb) that was in conflict with al-Nusra. There are certainly more sides to this story yet to be told.

The story begins with this video in which men are fighting over a large truck full of oil. The truck is being fought over by men from the al-Saf tribe, and men from Jabhat al-Nusra. Supposedly, the truck was first stolen by thieves who later sold it to a man from the village of al-Musareb (who may or may not have known that it was stolen). Apparently, when the original owner learned that truck had wound up in the possession of an individual from al-Musareb, he appealed to al-Nusra to come to his aid. When the Nusra fighters arrived, however, they found themselves to be outnumbered by armed tribesmen.

The man with the brown hat in that video was the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in this area, a Saudi named Qasura al-Jazrawi. There are two versions of the story at this point: al-Nusra claims that al-Jazrawi and his forces had to retreat because the tribesmen were more powerful, a few days after which the tribe invited Jabhat al-Nusra to lunch (presumably for negotiations), which turned out to be a bitter meal for al-Jazrawi, who ended up getting killed. The Seif al-Rasul rebels maintain that when al-Jazrawi and his men from al-Nusra came to deal with the problem of the oil truck, they did so aggressively with intimidation, threatening men with their guns. Because the confrontation was hostile, the tribesmen took the al-Nusra men prisoner, after which one of them tried to detonate explosives, at which point he was killed by the men of al-Musareb. This either led to the killing of al-Jazrawi directly, now viewed as a source of threat to the village, or to his killing after he tried to escape. In either case, young men are seen kicking al-Jazrawi’s body around (we see a lot of videos from Syria of people kicking dead bodies…) in the video of the aftermath.

After this, the “Hay al-Shari’a for the Deir Ezzor Countryside” issued a statement warning people of the area against “tying their fate to that of the killers whose hands have been tainted by the shedding of the blood of martyrs.” The speaker tells them that it is urgent that they leave the village (al-Musareb) that very night, claiming that other tribes and fighting groups are declaring war on the al-Saf tribe. He also claims that the village was being supported by the regime. He warns the men, women, children, and elderly who had no part in the killing to leave that village immediately because the mujahideen are coming.

Next, the elders of the al-Saf tribe and Saif al-Rasul issued a statement condemning the “criminal act” but saying that it is against their tradition to hand members of their tribe over to those outside the village for trial. They say that they will hand over vehicles and weapons, but urge them not to harm the innocent.

Following this, Jabhat al-Nusra plays detective, concluding that those in the video issuing the statement are the guilty party, based on the hand-jewelry worn by one of the men which appears to be the same as one in the video of the desecration of al-Jazrawi’s body.

The elders issue a second statement, the gist of which is: We condemn those people who killed the man, and their blood is “majdour” [according to Islam they become a legal target for killing to exact revenge], but only outside the village. We don’t agree that you enter the village. He quotes an ayah from the Qur’an and tells them that “we are on the same side.” (It is interesting how such exchanges are being conducted via uploaded video.)

The next footage we have is of al-Nusra’s attack on the village. They actually film their convoy setting out on the offensive, camera positioned at a series of road curves, apparently to accentuate the vehicles’ performance and evoke a sense of the heroic, set to one of the stirring jihadi anthems typical for such videos. After this sequence, we see the fighters holding blind-folded prisoners inside the village. But Nusra’s revenge is exacted on more than individuals: at just before 3:00 into the video we see the beginning of their demolition campaign, in which explosives are used to destroy homes. We see a total of 12 houses blown up in the remainder of the video, followed by footage of the aftermath, eerily resembling similar scenes in villages bombed by the regime. Narration informs us that one of the houses had belonged to the son of the mukhtar (mayor).

One claim was the al-Musareb was a center for thieves after the breakdown of security. The fighters of al-Nusra obtained a fatwa from the Hay al-Sharia that they could break into the homes of those suspected of stealing or killing, and if they are not present they can destroy the home. More aftermath videos show fire (either set inside homes or the result of explosives). One video claims that al-Nusra fighters stole from the home before destroying it. Narration in another aftermath video shows the destruction of a house claimed to have been owned by the mukhtar himself.

[Thanks to Heather Jenkins for pointing out that the photo we initially inserted here was misattributed to the al-Musareb case by the source we took it from, and was actually from a separate incident.]

Another video shows the fighters herding the prisoners which the video description refers to as the “killers of Qasura.” As the Nusra fighter is marching the prisoners along he introduces those conducting the operation as “the champions of al-Nusra and the Syrian Taliban movement.” This reference to the “Syrian Taliban” generated confused responses on the part of those commenting on YouTube, upon which the uploader posted a comment in reply saying that the fighter was merely “speaking spontaneously.” We do not see the final fate of the prisoners.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s attack led to the displacement of the people of the village, as well as the refugee population that had already fled other areas and taken refuge in al-Musareb. One report said that 14 houses were destroyed, another put the number as high as 30. The death toll was placed at near 50; a number of the Nusra fighters killed were Saudi and Tunisian, according to SOHR. One video showed a man claiming he’d been shot by a Nusra sniper.

The order of events is not clear, but it may be that at some point (after al-Jazrawi was killed?) tribesmen from the area gathered together and attacked the salt mine which had been al-Nusra’s headquarters, to try and eliminate their presence once and for all. Seif al-Rasul claims that the regime bombed the mine, leading to al-Nusra’s accusations that al-Musareb was working with the regime. We hear numerous statements in the videos from al-Nusra fighters referring to the men of al-Musareb as “shabiha.” Another aftermath video narrated by a Nusra fighter states that the village was “liberated from shabiha and the opportunists of the revolution.” It seems clear that the entire episode was the culmination of a long period of tension between al-Nusra and the locals, who had resisted al-Nusra’s ambition to gain control over the greater area of the countryside. The tribe had not welcomed Nusra’s interference in their lives nor allowed them to speak during the Friday prayers.

Though al-Nusra accused the people of the village of working with the regime, the locals expressed a different sentiment. The fighter group Seif al-Rasul posted videos from their village showing the effects of attacks from both the regime and al-Nusra. Talk about being caught between a rock and a hard place. Despite the accusations of being “shabiha,” the Seif al-Rasul fighters pointed out that they had participated in the Raqqa offensive that took the city from regime control. This group also posted videos purporting to show them in the siege of Raqqa, taking over checkpoints and helping people defect.

 

Introducing the Syrian Taliban

 

Though the above al-Nusra source attempts to downplay the mentioning of a group calling themselves the “Taliban,” it is now clear that there is a group operating within Syria, claiming to be the Taliban. We have found three videos in each of which the use of this name by the rebel group is self-declared. It is also clear that this group participated with Jabhat al-Nusra in the campaign on al-Musareb.

The following video shows the Taliban and al-Nusra roughly questioning a terrified prisoner in al-Musareb, who they accuse of having weapons of the regime. (Don’t rebels regularly use weapons taken from regime ammunition depots and overrun bases?) One appears to be carrying a stun baton. One tells him “I’m going to slaughter you, you animal.” Another tells him, “say the shahada,” (something Muslims believe will bring favor from God if said just prior to dying) “and may God have mercy on you.” It looks like we’re seeing the last moments of the young man’s life, but the video doesn’t include the execution; the last we see of the prisoner, he is blindfolded and placed in a vehicle.

In all three videos, members of the group refer to it as the “Islamic Taliban Movement.”

The following video contains the group’s statement of purpose:

 

The Opposition’s Ambivalent Response to al-Nusra’s Affiliation with al-Qaida, and the Plan to Introduce an Alternative Islamic Law

 

The proliferation of such groups has been a growing problem in Syria for some time, climaxing with the recent declaration of an Islamic state on the part of Jabhat al-Nusra, putting the opposition in an uncomfortable position. The revelation of sibling-hood between Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaida in Iraq was condemned in statements issued by some rebel groups (including Islamist ones). For example, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, a Syrian Salafist ideologue for Islamism in the revolution (mentioned in Aron Lund’s reports), took issue with the decision in a statement containing the following 7 points:

  1. Jabhat al- Nusra didn’t consult with other sheikhs and scholars in the Levant (conflicting with Qur’anic sura “al-Shura” 38) before making the announcement
  2. Assad will be the primary beneficiary of this development
  3. The rebels will be spread thin by making new enemies to fight
  4. Because of the announcement, the Syrian revolution will now be associated with all of the previous and future mistakes of al-Qaida in Iraq
  5. This announcement will hurt the project of the Muslim Syrian People, which is the creation of a free and just Islamic Syrian state that has institutions, because it will give the US, China, India, and Russia more reasons to interfere in internal Syrian matters
  6. The announcement will result in a lack of assistance for refugees and people in need of humanitarian aid; plus, aid to rebels will stop
  7. “I hope that this announcement is not the beginning of the shedding of haram blood, on the basis of whoever opposes this announcement being killed” [he doesn't want to see people who disagree with the announcement getting killed for their position. He also mentions "sahawaat" الصحوات (referring to the tribes that the US empowered in Iraq to beat al-Qaida), i.e. he doesn't want al-Nusra to start treating groups not aligned with them like ISI treated the sahawaat] “to repeat the failed case of Iraq”

Al-Tartusi’s reasons for disapproving of the statement seem to have little to do with any moral objection to the ideology and tactics of al-Qaida, but are rather based on utilitarian considerations. Nevertheless, it is a great irony that Islamists such as al-Tartusi can be more outspoken with their criticism of Jabhat al-Nusra than can Syria’s official opposition. The National Coalition issued its own statement following the Nusra/ISI announcements, denouncing (with very unspecific language) “all positions that stand in the way of Syrian freedom and that do not align with the will of the people.” It went on: “The Syrian Coalition is deeply concerned about recent statements regarding the affiliations and ideologies of particular factions of the rebel forces.  We find it imperative to respond to these statements. The Syrian Coalition urges Jabhat al Nusra to stay within the ranks of nationalistic Syrians, to continue its efforts in fighting the Assad regime, and in supporting and protecting the freedom of all Syrian sects.”

Rather than express discomfort regarding the fact that al-Nusra’s leadership openly revealed that it was birthed by al-Qaida in Iraq (that was responsible for a high level of deliberately-sectarian violence and violence against minorities), the statement then maintains its opposition to the designation of al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, serving more as a defense of the front than a condemnation of its ideology. That the recent announcements of al-Qaida affiliation were accompanied by statements to the effect that “after so much struggle and sacrifice, we shouldn’t settle for the second-rate option of a democracy,” it is highly ironic that the National Coalition could urge Nusra to remain “within the ranks of nationalistic Syrians.”

They never were within those ranks.

The ambivalence in the opposition’s relationship with Nusra—a group they both need but whose positions they cannot accept—is illustrated in a statement issued by the Syrian Revolution Coordinators Union saying “We are proud of our jabhat al nusra mujaheeden brothers, and we protect their back as well as the backs of all the fighters on the fronts of struggle and jihad against the the dictator bashar al assad, but we refuse the pledge of allegiance that the jabhat made to skeikh alzawahiri.” It seems that Jabhat al-Nusra made this pledge, and its refusal on the part of others will not mean much.

Photo: Cihan, Ali Ünal

Photo: Cihan, Ali Ünal

Following the announcement of al-Nusra’s affiliation with al-Qaida, Mu’az al-Khatib attempted to rationalize al-Nusra’s role in the revolution by claiming that al-Qaida in Iraq is more than one organization, apparently suggesting that Nusra is associated with the “real mujahids” who basically don’t exist anymore: Khatib says Syrians reject ideas of al-Qaeda, stresses moderate Islam – Today’s Zaman

Noting that al-Qaeda in Iraq can be divided into three groups, Khatib said: “The first group is composed of real mujahids [fighters] and most of those are liquidated. And the two other groups are affiliated with Syrian and Iranian intelligence. I ask my brothers [in the Nusra front] to change their name and speak about the love of God through good words.”

Also coming after al-Nusra’s declaration of an Islamic state, al-Khatib unveiled a project to introduce “a moderate form of Islamic law in all rebel-held areas of the country.” This clearly appears to be a reactionary attempt to maintain some say over the process of forming a legal system in a context where something called “Islamic law” is increasingly proving to be the most popular (or at least most successful) form of governance in areas under rebel control. Since al-Nusra and other extreme groups are the ones currently defining Islamic law for these areas, the political opposition probably feels forced into acting now to start promoting an “alternative shari’a” that will be less extreme, but still sell-able to the Islamists operating in Syria.

The main opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad will begin establishing what it calls a moderate form of Islamic law in all rebel-held areas of the country, as part of an effort to prevent chaos and stop hardline interpretations of Islam from becoming entrenched.

The legal code was drawn up by Muslim scholars, judges and top anti-Assad politicians in advance of meetings this week in Istanbul convened by the Syrian National Council (SNC), where transitional justice arrangements are being discussed.The opposition hopes that an interim government, as yet unformed, will apply a version of the new legal system nationwide, after it goes into effect in areas currently controlled by the insurgents.

Different systems of Sharia now govern pockets of Syrian territory controlled by the rebels. Some are enforced by Jabhat Al Nusra, a militant group affiliated with Al Qaeda, prompting fears that its interpretation of Islamic law is filling the legal vacuum.

Despite it’s apparent necessity vis-a-vis the current activities of hardliners on the ground, the project nonetheless seems to place the opposition in the camp of those advocating an “Islamic state,” and not everyone is happy about this:

… the proposed rebel Sharia system seems likely to upset some in religious minority groups and secular Syrians, both pro and anti-regime. “We’ve not gone through all the trouble of a revolution to have an Islamic state,” said a secular activist familiar with the plans. However he stressed there are different forms of Sharia, and that if moderate it would be widely accepted. “As long as they’re not talking about turning Syria into Afghanistan under the Taliban it will be probably be okay,” he said…. Exactly what type of Sharia will be chosen by the rebel government remains to be seen. Respected moderate clerics, including Osama and Saria Rifai, popular Damascus imams who spoke publicly against Mr Al Assad, have been involved in drafting early proposals. So too has the Association of Syrian Scholars, which encompasses clerics close to the Muslim Brotherhood.George Sabra, vice president of the SNC and a Christian, has backed the new legal code, saying it will ensure equal rights. Haitham Al Maleh, a former judge, has also been involved in the drafting process.

… According to the documents, people accused of crimes will not be afforded a lawyer. Instead, their case will be heard by a trained judge – the ranks of rebels include many magistrates who have defected from the regime. These judges will determine guilt or innocence and then, in conjunction with an Islamic legal expert, they will hand down a punishment.Major decisions, especially cases involving the death penalty, will be reviewed by a higher committee of Islamic judges.The judicial system is to be based on the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, a widely followed Islamic legal framework, but experts in the three principle other schools – Shafi’i, Hanbali and Maliki – also will be attached to the courts, with Muslim defendants allowed to choose judgment according to their own beliefs.

The move will likely be welcomed by the Muslim Brotherhood-oriented SNC who would be advocating such an Islamic legal framework. The Muslim Brotherhood is now making their grand return after decades of exile: Exiled Muslim Brotherhood plans return to Syria – FT

The Muslim Brotherhood is set to open offices inside Syria for the first time since the organisation was crushed there decades ago, in an apparent effort to capitalise on the increasingly Islamised rebellion.

Riad al-Shaqfa, the movement’s exiled leader, said in an interview with the Financial Times that a decision was recently taken to revive organisational structures inside Syria and followers have been asked to start opening party offices in rebel-held areas.

Rebels split on Qatar’s role – AP

In a war-battered suburb of Damascus, a commander for one of the smaller nationalist brigades fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad grumbles about the lack of ammunition for his men. He blames Qatar, saying the state directs its backing to rebels with a more Islamist ideology.

Qatar has emerged as one of the strongest international backers of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar Assad… But its role has also caused tensions within the ranks of the highly fragmented rebellion and political opposition. Some rebel brigades complain they are left out in the cold from the flow of money and weapons, sparking rivalries between secular and Islamist groups. Fighters and opposition activists worry that Qatar is buying outsized influence in post-Assad Syria and giving a boost to Islamist-minded groups if the regime falls.

“Qatar is working to establish an Islamic state in Syria,” Abu Ziad, the commander of a brigade in the Damascus suburb, said sullenly…

Real question is what form of Sharia for Syria – The National

A 13-year-old boy from Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria was shot dead in his father’s car after a hit-and-run road accident in March. The incident would have led to a series of revenge killings between two major tribes in the region, except that this was forestalled by a newly-formed Sharia court there. As that case demonstrates, the absence of functioning state institutions means that Sharia courts are increasingly necessary as a tool to solve disputes in rebel-held areas of Syria.

That is why this week’s announcement by the Syrian opposition, that it will establish a moderate form of Sharia, is extremely important and timely. The increased incidence of rigid rulings in rebel-held areas is largely a result of the lack of such a model. Many moderate voices have been waiting for the conflict to end, leaving the more enthusiastic hard-line fighters to establish their own vision of Sharia.

… At the Istanbul meeting Moaz Al Khatib, the head of the opposition’s National Coalition, told of a Sharia court that had executed a woman after finding her guilty of adultery. Mr Al Khatib’s point was that the ruling had violated true Islamic law since hudud, the Islamic penal code, cannot be applied during wars or in the absence of a state or ruler.

Whether or not this will come to fruition is unknown, now that Khatib has resigned (for the second time) from the National Coalition. (Syria opposition names George Sabra interim chief) It may be pursued by other members of the Coalition.

 

Jabhat al-Nusra is Now an Iraq-to-Lebanon Phenomenon

 

On the same day that American attention was focused on the bombing at the Boston Marathon, Iraq experienced its deadliest day in a month. A significant number of people were killed by bombs around the country by what’s being called “a resurgent al-Qaida in Iraq” empowered by al-Nusra: Iraq attacks kill 55 less than a week before vote

Insurgents in Iraq deployed a series of car bombs as part of highly coordinated attacks that cut across a wide swath of the country Monday, killing at least 55 on the deadliest day in nearly a month. The assault bore the hallmarks of a resurgent al-Qaida in Iraq and appeared aimed at sowing fear days before the first elections since U.S. troops withdrew. There was no immediate claim of responsibility, but coordinated attacks are a favorite tactic of al-Qaida’s Iraq branch.

Iraqi officials believe the insurgent group is growing stronger and increasingly coordinating with allies fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad across the border. They say rising lawlessness on the Syria-Iraq frontier and cross-border cooperation with a Syrian group, the Nusra Front, has improved the militants’ supply of weapons and foreign fighters.

The intensifying violence, some of it related to the provincial elections scheduled for Saturday, is worrying for Iraqi officials and Baghdad-based diplomats alike. At least 14 candidates have been killed in recent weeks, including one slain in an apparent ambush Sunday. … Monday’s attacks — most of them car bombings — were unusually broad in scope…

An Iraqi army military vehicle burns near a demonstration site in Ramadi, Iraq - AP Photo

An Iraqi army military vehicle burns near a demonstration site in Ramadi, Iraq – AP Photo

Iraqi Sunnis have been protesting against the government for four months now, in what many have compared to “Arab Spring” protests. The mobilization of Sunnis around the country (including the use of arms) and the Iraqi crackdown on the protests are starting to resemble a “Syria-style uprising.”

Dozens Killed in Battles Across Iraq as Sunnis Escalate Protests Against Government – NYT

Gun battles erupted in cities with Sunni majorities across Iraq on Tuesday after security forces from the Shiite-led government stormed a Sunni protest encampment in a village near the northern city of Kirkuk. The clashes left dozens dead and wounded, and raised fears that the sectarian civil war that is roiling Syria might spill into Iraq.

After some grim headlines emerged (Iraq Clashes Kill 41 in Northern City of Mosul and Iraq on Edge After Deadly Raid on Protest Camp), Joel Rayburn (US Army Intelligence, worked in Iraq with David Petraeus) sent Dr. Landis the following emails (on the 23rd and 25th respectively):

The 23rd:

… you will have been monitoring the situation in Iraq today, after a raid by government troops on a protest camp in Hawjiah resulted in about 30 killed and dozens more wounded.  The protesters were Sunnis who had been camped out for demonstrations against the Maliki government for some weeks.  The incident sparked an angry reaction in Anbar, Samarra, Mosul, and some other Sunni cities.  13 armed men were killed when they launched revenge attacks against ISF checkpoints.  A crowd attacked an ISF convoy in Anbar and burned several vehicles (no casualties).  Three Sunni mosques were attacked in Baghdad, with dozens killed and wounded.  Current death toll stands at 56 according to the AP.

Political response has been fairly vehement.  Two Sunni ministers resigned their posts, one of them from Saleh Mutlaq’s party and the other from Osama Nujaifi’s party. When asked what his community’s response would be, Ahmed Abu Risha (the Awakening leader from Ramadi) said that ultimately Maliki would be tried and hanged for ordering today’s massacre just as Saddam had been hanged for ordering the 1982 massacre in Dujail.  … Two [other Sunni leaders] have called on Sunnis to defend themselves using force if necessary.  PM Maliki has announced the opening of an investigation to find out who is to blame for the violence.  The Ministry of Defense claims many of the killed and wounded protesters were Al Qaeda members, to which Abu Risha replied by asking, “Since when did Al Qaeda engage in demonstrations?” Meanwhile, Iraqiyah sources tell me they believe the raid was ordered by PM Maliki and carried out by General Ali Ghaidan, the Iraqi Ground Forces Commander (I’ve no other corroboration for this), and they also believe PM Maliki targeted the relatively small Hawijah protest camp in order to send a message to other larger protest groups. The timing of the raid, just three days after elections, would seem to lend itself to that interpretation, but on the other hand there have been many instances of Iraqi troops getting into sticky situations and winding up in big gun battles that they did not intend to be in (e.g., Basra 2008), so there is always room for miscalculation as an explanation.

The 25th:

The body of a gunman killed during clashes with Iraqi security forces lies on the ground in Hawija - AP Photo

The body of a gunman killed during clashes with Iraqi security forces lies on the ground in Hawija – AP Photo

… in the 4+ years since 2008, I have not seen the situation in Iraq closer to a return to civil war than it is right now.  Those of you who have been in northern Iraq and remember the violent fault lines there will recognize the seriousness of a report that tells us that 40 people were killed in Mosul in fighting between gunmen and Iraqi troops.  I have not seen that kind of thing happen in Ninewa since 2007.  Equally disturbing are the reports telling us that in a carryover from the violence in Hawijah earlier this week, gunmen have taken over Suleiman Beg near Tuz Khormato, the Jebel Hamrin area between Kirkuk and Diyala–another flashpoint that for years was an insurgent safe haven.  The situation is close to spinning out of control. AQI and the Naqshbandis are certainly playing a role in this, but the most dangerous aspect is that it is not merely the Sunni extremists who are moving toward revolt:  it is the Sunni center as well.  It seems as though the long-running political dispute, coupled with the government’s recent heavy handedness, together with the fallout of the Syrian conflict, have finally led the Awakening movement and the northern tribes back into armed resistance.  That’s the way it looks from my desk, anyway.

Many factors are responsible for what’s happening in Iraq, but a number of articles have discussed al-Nusra’s role in reinvigorating Sunni Islamist activities there. Moving to Lebanon, the recent period has shown a tremendous upsurge in Sunni Islamist and Salafi activity, aggravated by the Syrian situation and the sectarian context of areas along the Lebanese-Syrian border. This has culminated in the last few days with fatwas calling for jihad on the part of Lebanese Sunni clerics (in northern Tripoli, and in southern Saida) in support of Syrian Sunnis currently embattled in al-Qusayr, a Syrian city just east of the border of northern Lebanon. There is growing evidence of Hezbollah involvement in supporting the side of regime loyalists in Qusayr (though SOHR has suggested that those who have joined the fight are not necessarily crossing borders but are merely Shiites from the local area; however, a number of funerals for fallen Hezbollah fighters have recently taken place inside Lebanon, after bodies have been sent back from Syria). Hezbollah has said they have a “moral duty to defend Lebanese residents from Syrian rebels following the Beirut government’s failure to protect border villages…” (some villages have experienced shelling from the Syrian side). In response to this, the Sunni Lebanese clerics have attacked Hezbollah and called for a jihad in Qusayr, encouraging Sunnis to go fight in Qusayr on the side of the Sunnis/Syrian opposition (and claiming that they have already sent Sunni fighters who are currently fighting there). This means that Sunni and Shi’i Lebanese are currently fighting each other, inside Syria. Fighting in al-Qusayr is ongoing as the regime and the opposition vie for control.

————–

Update: we removed a video that was misattributed to Tripoli by the uploader, who seems to have mistaken “Jarablos” for “Tarablos.” Thanks to @Syrian_Scenes for alerting us.

Reports on Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon have begun appearing recently. This new article (in Arabic) from a Lebanese newspaper discusses a government security report detailing the foothold that al-Nusra has developed within the country so far. It discusses their structure and way of operating in Lebanon, listing among their bases: ‘Arsal (200 members), Tripoli (600 members), Akkar (300 members), Saida (250 members). The article says they are particularly thriving in poor, volatile neighborhoods and camps, and that they are targeting young people for membership. The Tripoli base is being led by Hossam al-Sabagh who the article links to bin Laden. An article in the Daily Star says more about Nusra’s development in Lebanon:

The latest statement released by Jabhat al-Nusra threatening to launch harsh strikes against Hezbollah, in Beirut in the city’s southern suburb and across Lebanon, is being taken seriously at the national security level and by Hezbollah. It can no longer be denied that Jabhat al-Nusra has found fertile ground in the Palestinian refugee camps in the country, among the nearly one million Syrian refugees there, as well as in Lebanese Sunni areas, especially in ​​northern Lebanon near the Syrian border.

————–

As sectarian tensions erupt in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, we are seeing a high level of Sunni jihadist mobilization against governmental and Shi’i targets. Of course, this Sunni mobilization is about a number of factors and Jabhat al-Nusra is just one piece of a greater whole (though an important piece), but what is clear is that the Syrian conflict has helped ignite a broader trend of jihadism and Salafi activism, and the accompanying destabilization has given Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida, and other groups a new level of space within which to operate and grow.

For more on what’s happening in al-Anbar and the al-Nusra connection, see this helpful report from Linda Lavender; see another report from her on the situation in the Bekka Valley.

 

Conclusion: Outsiders Reevaluate Their Positions as it Becomes Easier for the Regime to Sell Itself

 

The beginning of this post dealt with the phenomenon—perhaps widespread, probably not—of Syrians abandoning the revolution. Although the return to Assad’s ranks may be rare, disillusionment with the opposition is not. Fragmentation, factionalism, and chaos are now the law of the land, as ordinary Syrians now face a moral universe that offers up only shades of gray. The problem of the ascendance of extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra is chiefly responsible for the soul-searching being done by those now wondering which will be the lesser of two evil futures.

The reality of growing disillusionment with the revolution and the rebels is a very uncomfortable station on this journey, for many both inside and outside Syria. How can it be possible to suddenly decide the regime is an ally? A corrupt, selfish, and brutal regime was largely responsible for this descent into chaos in the first place. This regime has no moral capital; its massacres continue. And yet, as many of its doomsday predictions come true, the troubling question is: how many of its battles are being fought against extremist movements that would be opposed by the government of any nation?

This post explored several topics involving the role of Jabhat al-Nusra, which now enables al-Qaida-aligned jihadi groups to operate from Iraq to Lebanon. Anxious lest the US become a tacit ally of al-Qaida, the administration proscribed Jabhat al-Nusra. At the time, many policy makers thought this was premature and unwise, and the charge was leveled that Obama lacked leadership. But in retrospect, the prescience of this decision is becoming clear, and it continues to raise the question of what positive role the United States can play in this conflict.

Radicalization is not the result of Washington’s refusal to intervene or Obama’s “lack of leadership.” Rather, it is the result of Syria’s national breakdown. The U.S. could not have prevented Syria’s civil war or its profound identity crisis. In Iraq, the U.S. took out Saddam’s regime in 3 short weeks, dissolving both the army and the Ba’ath party. But despite a swiftly-implemented intervention, the U.S. was not able to prevent Iraq’s descent into sectarian civil war and radicalization. These were the result of a contest over the state’s basic identity, a question that has never had a cohesive answer since the alien framework of the nation state was imposed on the region.

Washington analysts who have been forecasting the demise of al-Qaida following the death of Bin Laden must reconsider. Al-Qaida is not dead; the one we knew in Afghanistan may be significantly degraded, but a potent new al-Qaida incarnation is emerging, one that is much closer to establishing its conception of Islamist rule in the heart of the Middle East. 

This phenomenon is one aspect of the Syrian regime’s battle. They wanted the battle to be about this, rather than a crackdown on a peaceful protest movement, in order to legitimize their claim to continued power. The rise of Nusra helps to frame the regime in the light of an indispensable defense against extremism, and it is quick to point this out to anyone listening.

Because of the regime’s many crimes and atrocities throughout this conflict (not to mention its previous decades of oppression), it has been easy to ignore its one-sided narrative since the beginning of the uprising. Nevertheless, many of its predictions have come to fruition. We are so used to outrageous propaganda in this conflict that when two archbishops were kidnapped in Aleppo, the announcement from regime sources that Chechens were involved prompted me to laugh out loud, as I assumed it was a ploy to exploit the sympathies of those currently focused on the Boston bombing. But it turned out that they were telling the truth.

The regime’s primary message to the international community from the beginning was: if you oppose us and weaken our stabilizing control here, extreme Salfisim will wash across the region. That their predictions are coming truer every day spells their own demise while simultaneously vindicating (or at least demonstrating the soundness of) their original position. Claims that al-Nusra and similar groups were engineered by the regime in order to improve its position as indispensable guardian of stability seem farfetched, but still, the more the uprising becomes characterized by extremism, the sounder the credibility of the regime appears.

The Syrian regime is now working hard to convince the international community see things its way. The new maneuvering space enjoyed by al-Qaida and Salafi militias is prompting some reporters and not a few policy analysts to begin reevaluating support for the revolution, or at least to begin considering the perspective of Damascus a little more, as the following articles demonstrate.

The dilemma is summarized thus: Our sympathies lie with the aspirations of those freedom-seeking Syrians who oppose their corrupt, cruel, and despotic regime, and simultaneously the West and that regime are fighting on the same side in the war on terror.

 

 

Syria Plays on Fears to Blunt American Support of Rebels – NYT – Anne Barnard - Important video, please view

Inside Syria: Veil of normality in Damascus – BBC

The international community’s relationship with the conflict becomes complicated as outsiders begin to see two enemies inside Syria: the Assad regime and al-Qaida:

Defeating al-Qaeda in Syria, Not Assad – Antiwar

U.S. Fears Syria Rebel Victory, for Now – Wall Street Journal

Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don’t want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the “good guys” may not come out on top.

Administration officials fear that with Islamists tied to al Qaeda increasingly dominating the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad , too swift a rebel victory would undercut hopes for finding a diplomatic solution, according to current and former officials. It would also shatter national institutions along with what remains of civil order, these people say, increasing the danger that Syrian chemical weapons will be used or transferred to terrorists.

This assessment complicates the White House’s long-standing push to see President Assad step from power. It also puts a spotlight on the U.S.’s cautious approach to helping the opposition, much to the frustration of U.S. allies including France and the U.K., which want to arm Syria’s moderate rebels.

… “We all want Assad to fall tomorrow, but a wholesale institutional turnover overnight doesn’t make a whole lot of sense,” a senior U.S. official said. “The end game requires a very careful calibration that doesn’t tip the meter in an unintended way toward groups that could produce the kind of post-Assad Syria that we aren’t looking for.”

… The U.S. administration considers Syria’s conflict a war of attrition, however, and believes that the rebels are gradually gaining the upper hand, an assessment the administration doesn’t believe Mr. Assad accepts. Officials say it will require delicate maneuvering to restrain the influence of radicals while buying time to strengthen moderate rebels who Western governments hope will assume national leadership if Mr. Assad can be persuaded to leave.

… The U.S. also wants to keep technocratic elements of the state in place, seeking to avoid a repeat of what happened in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion. Then, civil authority evaporated after the U.S. disbanded the Iraqi military.

The U.S. fears that the abrupt collapse of the Assad regime will lead to Syria’s Balkanization, threatening North Atlantic Treaty Organization ally Turkey, key partner Jordan as well as neighboring Iraq, whose government looks increasingly fragile, according to a senior defense official. …

… But several current and former officials briefed on these calibrated efforts to bolster moderate rebels without strengthening the Islamists said the U.S. doesn’t have the influence to precisely control the flow of aid.

This is like Goldilocks, but I don’t think we live in a world in which we have porridge that’s just right,” said a U.S. official familiar with the new approach.

Just how complicated is the Syrian conflict, Goldilocks? Chew on this porridge:

Syria Is Complicated — Simultaneous Conflicts Always Are - The war in Syria is so enduring and vexing precisely because it is such a multi-layered conflict, comprising at least six separate battles taking place at the same time, argues Rami G. Khouri

The easiest way to describe the events in that region has been to speak of Sunni-Shiite fighting, or antagonisms between pro- and anti-Syrian government elements. The involvement of Hizbullah adds a significant new element to the mix, and also helps to clarify what the fighting in and near Syria is all about. It is much more than merely “spillover” of the Syrian war into Lebanon. I have previously described the war in Syria as the greatest proxy battle of our age, and I believe that is now clearer than ever as we see how Syria comprises a rich and expansive web of other conflicts that play themselves out on a local, regional and global scale.

The war in Syria is so enduring and vexing precisely because it is such a multi-layered conflict, comprising at least six separate battles taking place at the same time:

1. The domestic citizen revolt against the Assad family regime that has ruled Syria for 43 years is the first layer of the Syrian conflict, which reflects a widespread spirit of citizen activism for freedom, rights and dignity that continues to define much of the Arab World today. After the non-violent demonstrations that erupted across the country in spring 2011 elicited a violent military response from the regime, this political conflict quickly became a militarized war.

2. This armed battle for control of Syria reignited the second layer of conflict that has defined the region since the 1950s — the Arab cold war between assorted regional forces that keep shifting over time, but can most easily be described as conservative vs. radical, or capitalist vs. socialist, or royalist vs. republican, or Islamo-monarchist vs. Arab nationalist, or pro-Western vs. anti-Western, though none of these simplistic black-and-white dichotomies is fully accurate. At its simplest, this Arab cold war for decades has been led on one side by Saudi Arabia and its conservative allies, and on the other by governments such as those in Syria, Egypt or Iraq at various moments.

3. The third layer of conflict in Syria is the old Iranian-Arab rivalry, recently also often defined as Shiite-Sunni rivalry. This is symbolized by the Iranian government’s alliance with Syria since 1979, and recently including the close structural ties between Iran and Hizbullah (or, more accurately, the ties between Hizbullah and the institution of the Wilayet el-Faqih, or the Supreme Leader, in Iran). Iran’s strategic links with both Syria and Hizbullah have been among the few foreign policy achievements of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, so the Iranian, Syrian and Hizbullah leaderships will battle hard to maintain those mutual benefits that all of them derive from their relationships.

4. The fourth battle taking place in Syria is the renewed but more limited version of the Cold War between the United States and Russia (with other players like China and assorted European states hanging around to pick up energy contracts and other gains). At its simplest, this renewed Son of Cold War sees Russia taking a determined stand in Syria to prevent the United States from unilaterally deciding which Arab leaders go and which ones stay, while also burnishing its renewed credentials as a global power. Almost a quarter century after the end of the original Cold War, Russia is trying to recalibrate global power relations, formally closing the “post-Cold War” era in which the USA was the world’s sole superpower in a uni-polar world.

5. The fifth conflict in Syria — like the domestic citizen revolt against autocracy that reflects a regional trend — is the century-long tension between the power of the centralized modern Arab developmental and security state and the forces of disintegration and fragmentation along ethnic, religious, sectarian, national and tribal lines. These sub-national, ancient and primordial identities defined our societies long before the imposition of the modern Arab state, and are always there to reaffirm themselves when that state fails to function efficiently and meet citizen needs.

6. The sixth and most recent strain of conflict in Syria is between the forces of Al-Qaeda-inspired Salafist fanatic militants, like Jabhat el-Nusra, and mainstream opposition groups fighting to overthrow the Assad family regime, like the Muslim Brotherhood or broader, more secular groups, like the Syrian National Opposition Coalition or Council. Hysteria has typically gripped some analysts in the region and in the West today as they fret over the prospect of Nusra and others like them taking control of all or parts of post-Assad Syria — an impossible prospect, in my view.

So what we witness in and around Syria is a lot more complicated than spillover into neighboring countries or Sunni-Shiite rivalry.

The challenge of involvement in such a difficult scenario is dealt with by Helene Lavoix for Red (team) Analysis: Potential Futures for Syria in the Fog of War (1)

…  The Syrian war is a challenging problem for strategic foresight and warning because, besides the humanitarian disaster, the risks to regional and global peace and stability continuously increase, because the conflict is redrawing the strategic outlook of the region while participating into the global paradigm shift, and, finally, because the fog of war makes our anticipatory task more difficult and complex.

… We are facing three – related – sets of problems. First, we must deal with the war itself, where three, four or five types of Syrian actors and their “international backers” – or even more according to typologies, as we shall discuss below – and not two, fight for power. Second, we must prepare for the following peace while, third, evaluating and considering the still being redesigned strategic environment.

… We are faced with cognitive biases, or more specifically with the problem of enduring cognitive models in the face of new evidence, when the initial model was created early and with very few available evidence (Anderson, Lepper, and Ross, 1980). The tendency of our human brain to also overestimate “intentional centralized direction and planning” (Heuer, chapter 11, bias 2) is also probably at play. …

Despite the challenges, the opposition doesn’t give up, and may in fact soon begin speaking… with themselves: Pan-Syrian dialogue may begin in near future – internal opposition

A Pan-Syrian dialogue may begin in the near future, a representative of the Popular Front for Change and Liberation in Syria, Qadri Jamil, said after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. “Whereas before the idea of a dialogue was purely theoretical, now there is every chance of translating it into reality,” Jamil said…

“Now we are discussing the details of the opportunity for coming to the negotiating table – what oppositional factions will be participating, the agenda, and how quickly that may be done,” he said. Asked by Itar-Tass if there was a possibility such consultations might take place before the summer, he replied that there was no chance of setting firm dates in politics. “But we can hope this may happen in the foreseeable future,” Jamil said. “Several months and, possibly, even weeks is the likely deadline.”

 

Round Up / Misc

 

Umayyad Mosque Minaret Destroyed In Aleppo – HP

Half of Americans can’t identify Syria on a map (young Republicans do slightly better) – WP

Qatar is focus as U.S. weighs concerns about arming Syrian extremists – WP

When President Obama welcomes the leader of Qatar to the White House on Tuesday, he will doubtless thank the Qataris for hosting a major U.S. air base in the Persian Gulf, and for their help on a wide range of strategic issues from Libya to Afghanistan. But he is also likely to press Emir Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to ensure that none of the weapons Qatar is sending to Syrian rebels end up with the Jabhat al-Nusra…

Jordan opens skies for IAF drones flying to Syria

Christians Leave Deir Ezzor as Last Church Blown Up (claim priests)

The last remaining Christian church in Deir Azzor was destroyed in an explosion by armed groups as they intensify their efforts to take the city and nearby airport. In recent days increasing amounts of footage have been uploaded documenting intense fighting between armed groups and the Syrian army. The Capuchin Franciscans have been present in Deir Ezzor in the northeast and Al-Suwayda  in the southwest – in a place called “Mountain of the Druze (Jabal al-Druze)”. Two friars remained in Deir Ezzor up until the recent explosion at the church, with the help of the Lebanese and Syrian International Red Cross.

In a statement posted on the website of The Order of Friars Minor, a report of the explosion said:

“There was an explosion near our church in Deir Ezzor that destroyed it,” writes Br. Antoine Haddad, Viceprovincial Minister of Lebanon, in a message to us. The news was picked up by the media because the two Capuchin friars who lived there, with the help of the Lebanese and Syrian International Red Cross, and the nuncios of Lebanon and Syria, left with the Sisters of Mother Teresa and about ten seniors who lived in our place. They were the last remaining Christians in the area to leave. The church was completely destroyed, but until now it was not possible to know if the friary was hit or not, because there are no longer any Christians in Deir Ezzor, apart from one who returned because he lived in the ‘quieter’ area of the city….

Israel admits to attacking Syria arms convoy

Hacked by “Syrian Electronic Army,” the AP Twitter Feed Sends False Report of Explosions at White House

The group behind the attack

Chicago teen arrested by FBI for planning to join Nusra

Comments (355)


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351. Hopeful said:

#306 Zoo

I was actually referring to someone else within the regime who is not a polarizing figure like Assad is.

Thumb up 1 Thumb down 3

April 30th, 2013, 7:29 pm

 

352. 5 dancing shlomos said:

351 hopeful

president assad is not a polarizing figure.

some syrians, real syrians, do not support him. most do.

note, syrians are fighting for president assad who is leading the fight for syria and syrians.

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May 1st, 2013, 12:46 pm

 

353. EU decision to lift Syrian oil sanctions boosts jihadist groups | Video said:

[...] In one well documented case, fighting broke out in the village of al-Musareb, near Deir Ezzor, between al-Nusra fighters and local tribesmen over ownership of an oil tanker. The al-Nusra commander, a Saudi called Qasura al-Jazrawi, was killed. As a reprisal, the jihadist group levelled much of the village and executed 50 of its residents. [...]

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

May 19th, 2013, 7:54 am

 

354. EU decision to lift Syrian oil sanctions boosts jihadist groups | Eelam eNews said:

[...] In one well-documented case, fighting broke out in the village of al-Musareb, near Deir Ezzor, between al-Nusra fighters and local tribesmen over ownership of an oil tanker. The al-Nusra commander, a Saudi called Qasura al-Jazrawi, was killed. As a reprisal, the jihadist group levelled much of the village and executed 50 of its residents. [...]

Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

May 22nd, 2013, 3:17 am

 

355. 100words | Syrian rebels level kurdish village killing 50 residents in fight for oil said:

[...] In one well-documented case, fighting broke out in the village of al-Musareb, near Deir Ezzor, between al-Nusra fighters and local tribesmen over ownership of an oil tanker. The al-Nusra commander, a Saudi called Qasura al-Jazrawi, was killed. As a reprisal, the jihadist group levelled much of the village and executed 50 of its residents. [...]

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May 30th, 2013, 7:56 am

 

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