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Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya: Recruiting the Shi’a of Damascus

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya: “The Ja’afari Force: The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

The rallying call of Shi’a jihadi groups to defend the Sayyida Zainab shrine in the Damascus area is well known, but it is not the only religious symbol used in the justification of shrine defence in Syria. The Damascus area is also home to the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, the daughter of Imam Hussein who was taken captive at the Battle of Karbala and died in captivity in Damascus. She is also known as Sakina/Sukayna.

Shi’a militia formations sometimes have played up the importance of the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine as a means to recruit fighters and present new ‘martyrdoms’. For example, this summer, an Iraqi Shi’a militia called Kata’ib al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fi al-Iraq (The Islamic Resistance Brigades in Iraq) put up an advert for recruitment on social media to fight in Syria, urging those interested in defending the Sayyida Zainab and Sayyida Ruqayya shrines to get in touch via calling the listed phone numbers or using Facebook and Twitter messaging. Earlier this month, the Assad Allah al-Ghalib Forces in Iraq and al-Sham- previously Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib– announced a new ‘martyr’ who died defending the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine: Manar Muhammad Abu Sha’ar.

Manar Muhammad Abu Sha’ar

The existence of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya- seemingly linked most closely at present to Iraqi militia and Iranian proxy Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ that first emerged in Syria in 2013- fits into this trend, though undoubtedly Hezbollah has had a role in cultivating the militia too. Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ is one of several Iraqi formations that have an active presence in Syria despite the Iraq crisis, alongside Harakat al-Nujaba’ (which, to be sure, exaggerates its capabilities in parts of Syria: most of the fighting to repel the Islamic State from Hasakah city was done by the Kurdish YPG, which as a result has taken over areas previously held by the Assad regime), Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, the Assad Allah al-Ghalib Forces, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the Rapid Intervention Regiment. The latter four formations have very close links/overlap with each other and Aws al-Khafaji’s Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces.

To be sure, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s existence can be traced back well before this summer. For example, as part of its coverage of the ongoing Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ presence in Syria that has seen the group participate in the unsuccessful Deraa’ and Quneitra offensives in the late winter and spring to push back the rebels, the al-Anwar TV 2 channel featured a video of “Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya/Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada.” Note the distinct “al-Sayyida Ruqayya” armpatch below.


Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya is to be noted for its recruitment of native Syrian Shi’a from the Damascus area. This ‘Syrianization’ via recruiting of natives has already been seen extensively in Hezbollah formations like Quwat al-Ridha, which has recruited from Syrian Shi’a villages like Umm al-Amad in Homs province. Fighters from the Idlib Shi’a villages of Kafariya and Fou’a- the focus of negotiations for a ceasefire/exchange between Iran and the rebels represented foremost by Ahrar al-Sham- have also died and been advertised under the Hezbollah banner.

Hashim Ismail Jehjah, originally from Kafariya: died fighting in Aleppo. Death announced at the beginning of July 2015.

The Sakif [also spelled Askif] brothers, from Fou’a by origin. One can read a lengthy eulogy to Muhammad (right) here. He supposedly took up arms after his younger brother Ali (left)- born in 1990- died fighting on 7 April 2014.

Muhammad Sakif.

In the case of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, the recruits mainly seem to come from places in Damascus such as Zain al-Abidin and Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq areas (Hawsh al-Salihiya and al-Jura respectively) that are known for their Shi’a populations, the latter being right beside Bab Tuma. The Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada link and question of areas of recruitment are most clearly demonstrated in the case of recent ‘martyr’ Hassan Ahmad Kan’an, also known as ‘Abu Ali Nibras’ and originally of Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood. His death was announced in late July and declared as follows:

“The people of Imam Zain al-Abidin and Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhoods, the al-Amin neighbourhood and the families of the Sayyida Zainab area, and the Islamic Resistance in Syria in all its factions and Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (The Ja’afari Force) present to the Master of the Age and Era the news of the martyrdom of the mujahid martyr leader Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: (Nibras) Abu Ali.”

Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: note the insignia of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.

Procession for Hassan Ahmad Kan’an.

More from the procession for Hassan Ahmad Kan’an: note the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ flag.

More generally, a graphic has been uploaded featuring the ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya also bearing the Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ emblem, as per below.


Below are some of these ‘martyrs’ declared for Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya. Note though that at least some of the earlier ‘martyrs’ appear to have been presented at the time under different brands. For comparison, some of the Quwat al-Ridha fighters who were killed in Homs were presented as National Defence Force [NDF] ‘martyrs’ at the time:

Ala’ Mohsen Kuwayfati, originally of Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood. Note the insignia including one of Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ in the middle photo. He was killed on 14 June 2014 in al-Mleha. His daughter is pictured as a baby (middle) and visiting his tomb (right).

Ahmad al-Nihas, who was actually killed on 14 August 2012 and was reputedly one of the first to die defending Sayyida Zainab.

Ahmad Halawa al-Buni, featured here in an official NDF video.

Hussein Ala’ al-Din and Ahmad Halawa al-Buni: “Guardians of Sayyida Ruqayya: The Ja’afari Force.”

Ala’ Zahwa: besides his “Guardians of Sayyida Ruqayya” insignia, note the “Liwa Ansar al-Hussein” insignia too, illustrating overlap of brand names.

In sum, the existence of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya attests to the common phenomenon of overlap among Shi’a militia formations and the ongoing internal Sunni-Shi’a polarization as Syrian Shi’a are recruited to these militias espousing other notions of Shi’a shrine protection concomitant with defending Sayyida Zainab. Nor should Hezbollah alone be seen as cultivating and developing this phenomenon: all the Shi’a militias of foreign origin with deployments in Syria are likely playing a role.

The New Druze Militia Factions of Suwayda Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As the Syria civil war has progressed with both rebels and the Islamic State [IS] encroaching on the territory of Suwayda province from the west and northeast respectively, more distinct militia factions centred on particular personalities have emerged competing for support among the predominantly Druze population: a picture quite different from 1-2 years ago when Druze militias were primarily known by generic brands such as ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ or the familiar pro-Assad Popular Committees. This post looks in-depth at these factions.

Dir’ al-Watan



Translating as ‘The Homeland Shield’, Dir’ al-Watan is the most recent major pro-Assad faction to have emerged in Suwayda province. It should be noted that Dir’ al-Watan is a name and brand used by other pro-Assad formations in the country, such as the Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra (Quneitra Falcons Brigade) out to the west near the border with Israel. The concept of ‘shield’ forces has also been taken up by newer militias like the Coastal Shield Brigade affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia.

One of the founders of Dir’ al-Watan in Suwayda is Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo, one of the leading pro-Assad figures in Suwayda. In an interview in June, Jerbo affirmed: “Our protection is through the Syrian state…our protection is the Syrian state and our rule of law is the Syrian regime.” Tying Suwayda’s protection to other parts of the remaining regime rump state, he added: “Protection of Suwayda is protection for Damascus, Damascus countryside and Deraa.” On the formation of Dir’ al-Watan, he affirmed: “The establishment of a force called Dir’ al-Watan has become an urgent necessity in view of the latest threat that the province has witnessed from the Islamic State, and the attempt [to penetrate] by fighters from the Jabhat al-Nusra organization.” Dir’ al-Watan was also said to be under the leadership of retired Syrian army officers, with a rationale for its existence being that the Syrian army has been fighting for some 4 years and cannot defend every area at once.

Since its inception, one of the main activities of the Dir’ al-Watan has been to engage in outreach and visits to localities across Suwayda province. For example, in the photo below from the village of Barik, including Jerbo and Syrian army brigadier general Nayef al-Aqil, the latter of whom, according to pro-opposition media outlet All4Syria, was already reportedly in charge of forming pro-Assad ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ forces in Suwayda earlier in 2015. This Suwayda version of Iraq’s ‘Hashd Sha’abi’ (Popular Mobilization) that is a brand name for mostly Shi’a militia formations is in reality identical with Dir’ al-Watan.

On left: Sheikh Jerbo. On right: Nayef al-Aqil.

Dir’ al-Watan outreach to the village of al-Janina to the northeast of Suwayda city. Note the portrait of Bashar al-Assad.

Of interest in this context are the ties between Dir’ al-Watan and a local Druze militia in the area to the northeast of Suwayda city known in full as “Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim” (‘Volcano Mountain: Family of Nu’aim’). Like Dir’ al-Watan, Burkan al-Jabal has demonstrated firm loyalty to Assad. On 10 July, the Tel Fara area near al-Janina village came under attack from IS, which was repelled at the cost of three fallen fighters for al-Janina: Osama Muhammad Saliha, Qasi Saytan al-Sahnawi, and Iyad Majid al-Sahnawi.

Sheikh Jerbo and Nayef al-Aqil with Burkan al-Jabal militiamen

Burkan al-Jabal militiamen with Ba’ath Party officials

Iyad Majid al-Sahnawi and Qasi Saytan al-Sahnawi

Another notable area of outreach by Dir’ al-Watan has been the town of Salkhad, featuring at the end of July the whole array of main figures involved with Dir’ al-Watan: Sheikh Jerbo, Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi, Nayef al-Aqil and Mamdouh Malak (another Syrian army figure). The meeting led to a newly formed local militia and ‘social faction’: al-Raghaba. In its founding statement, the group warned of the “dangers, conspiracies and sources of strife agitating to shake the security of our region and our proud mountain [Jabal al-Arab/al-Druze],” affirming that “what concerns us is waging war on those sources of strife and protecting the security of our land and public possessions that are for all its sons rather than the differences in their opinions, desires and political and thought stances, and [what concerns us is] protection of land and honour, for we have found today that this region is exposed to danger from anarchic, barbaric groups that have no religion and creed except the Shari’a of the jungle and slaughter, and have no political or reform aim but rather their aim is destruction, kidnapping and maltreatment.” Therefore, “our opinions and points of views agreed to form a faction from the youth of this town recruited for service, and this faction is armed with what types of weapons are available to it.” Though officially denying affiliation with any party, its alignment with Dir’ al-Watan is clear from the sequence of events that culminated in its founding.

From the meeting in Salkhad: Sheikh Hamoud al-Hanawi.

Notice the man in Syrian Social Nationalist Party [SSNP] clothing besides Hanawi. The SSNP is another active pro-Assad faction in Suwayda whose affinity has been advertised with Dir’ al-Watan in social media, as per the graphic below. The SSNP in Suwayda has played an active role in fighting, most notably claiming two ‘martyrs‘ in June in fending off the rebel assault on Tha’ala airbase, and has claimed multiple other ‘martyrs’ from Suwayda province before, some of whom appear to be jointly claimed by the Syrian armed forces and the SSNP.

Pro-Assad factions of Suwayda, including Dir’ al-Watan and the SSNP.

Maher Ghassan Hamoud, originally of Suwayda province. Note the SSNP logo on this poster for him. His ‘martyrdom‘ was announced on 28 July 2013 and presented by the “general administration for the army and armed forces.”

Thus it can be seen how closely intertwined Dir’ al-Watan is with already existing pro-Assad factions in Suwayda province, undoubtedly pushing back against the rise over the past year of Sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Bal’ous, about whom more below.

Rijal al-Karama

Translating as “The Men of Dignity,” Rijal al-Karama refers to the following of Bal’ous, who first emerged in early 2014 as a dissident sheikh within Suwayda province. Notable for his fiery rhetoric that seemed to imply overthrowing the regime, Bal’ous then went quiet for a time but has since re-emerged in public, commanding support both on the ground and on social media. However, it must be said that there has been a good deal of mischaracterization of what Bal’ous and his faction are actually pushing for. It is true that Bal’ous and his supporters have attracted the ire of recognisable pro-Assad Druze figures and social media, but there seems to be a conception that they are pushing for the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, either creating his own separatist Druze administration or striking a deal with ‘moderate’ rebels to take over.

In reality, Bal’ous’ earlier bellicose statements were just rhetoric (in this assessment, I am agreeing with my friend Tobias Lang, who focuses in-depth on Syrian and Middle Eastern minorities). In reality, no one can seriously advocate the downfall of regime authority over Suwayda province, because there does not exist a viable alternative to it, with provision of jobs, public administration, and so forth. Handing over administration to opposition factions in particular would be unthinkable, as there is no model of rebel administration in the south to go by and there is no guarantee that the likes of Jabhat al-Nusra could be kept out. Indeed, one should not overlook the impact of the forced conversion of the Druze in Idlib to Sunni Islam at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact still generally omitted in media and reports and about which many rebel factions and opposition supporters remain in denial.

What Bal’ous can push for though is his own political influence within the remaining regime rump state, focusing on greater autonomy for Suwayda province and more management over security placed in his hands, while reinforcing refusal for conscription in far-away fights that have no favourable outcome. This is quite different from overthrowing regime authority in Suwayda province. To begin with, as will be seen below, it should be noted Bal’ous and his supporters on social media still use the flag of the Syrian regime, and refer respectfully to the “Syrian Arab Army” and the “Syrian Arab Republic.”

The best sense of Bal’ous policy can be gathered from the relevant parts of this document, an apparent set of notes of a conversation between Bal’ous and the “Men of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous” page (the only claimed official page for him), beginning with the classic Druze narrative of strict self-defence. Interestingly, there is claimed support from Druze in “Palestine” [i.e. Israel], but cooperation with the Israeli state is rejected:

“Our arms are not directed internally but rather at anyone who attacks us and the lands of the mountain, and our disagreement with the corrupt one in the homeland is general, not with a particular side…The project of arming the mountain is among the principles we work upon and we have begun this work through what has come to us till now from our monotheist [Druze] brothers in Palestine, but we reject arming from Israel, this Zionist state that dispossessed our people in Palestine and is an enemy of the Arabs and this is what signifies it is our enemy. And we affirm to all that we have reached the time at which opposition and loyalty have come to an end, and we want to protect what remains of this homeland and encourage the hand of all who are trying to rebuild Syria.”

From “The men of Sheikh Abu Fahd Waheed al-Bal’ous”: “We are not loyalist or opposition, but human nationalists of the people.” Note the Syrian regime flag.

From the same page as the above graphic. This time here in support of the staunchly pro-Assad Druze village of Hadr in Jabal al-Sheikh that has been attacked multiple times recently by rebels: “Hadr of heroism and manliness: joy of victory of the men of Hadr and the Syrian Arab Army.”

In practice Rijal al-Karama could not manage Suwayda security wholly on its own, accordingly cooperation and an anti-fitna stance must be stressed even with pro-Assad factions: “The National Defence, Popular Committees, Ba’ath Brigades, Syrian Arab Army, Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql and Rijal al-Karama: hand in hand to defend the land of the mountain.” Note that the “Factions of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql” refer to the likes of ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ militias set up by local mashayakh and supposed to be independent but coordinating with pro-Assad forces. The same emphasis on cooperation has been affirmed with regards to defending Tha’ala airbase.

Ayan Nayef al-Awam, a ‘martyr’ for Rijal al-Karama. Note the Druze insignia on his weapon and clothing.

However, his ‘martyrdom’ poster has the Syrian regime flag on it.

None of the above in graphics and photos is to gloss over differences between Rijal al-Karama and the likes of Dir’ al-Watan. Though respect is paid to the Syrian flag and it is used as appropriate, on the field Rijal al-Karama certainly places much more emphasis than the pro-Assad factions on the use of the Druze flag. This is also apparent in the other Druze militias claiming affinity with Bal’ous and Rijal al-Karama.

Rijal al-Karama and aligned mashayakh in Shaqqa to the northeast of Suwayda city.

One of the new Druze militias aligned with Rijal al-Karama and visited by Bal’ous: Bayraq Al Nu’aim (Banner of the Family of Nu’aim: cf. Burkan al-Jabal Al Nu’aim), which renamed itself in July Bayraq al-Nidal, named after Syrian army brigadier general Nidal Mu’adha Nu’aim, who was killed in Khanaser in Aleppo province on 10 July 2013 while trying to dismantle IEDs.

Bayraq Al Nu’aim fighters: note their distinct armpatches. The militia has been involved in defence of eastern Suwayda localities like Qeisemah against potential and real IS threats and al-Tha’ala to the west against rebels.

Bayraq al-Haq, linked to Bayraq Al Nu’aim. Both groups also extended condolences to two army soldiers killed in Tellat al-Sheikh Hussein in Deraa.

Bayraq al-Basha, another Rijal al-Karama aligned militia, taking its name from historic Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. Bal’ous has visited this militia in the village of Mughayyir. The militia also has influence in the southern Suwayda village of al-Ghariyyeh (near the border with Jordan).

Quwat al-Fahd/Bayraq al-Fahd (named for Bal’ous): an apparent unifying banner for the Rijal al-Karama militias advertised this month.

Quwat al-Fahd Emblem


The dynamics of Druze militias in Suwayda province have shifted considerably and grown in complexity over the past two years with the rise of Bal’ous in particular, but it would be a mistake to characterize these changes as a strict pro/anti regime dichotomy or as marking the verge of the downfall of the regime in the province as some excited observers and commentators wished to propose. Rather, the developments reflect the same trend as in other remaining parts of Syria held by the regime whereby actors beyond the regular armed forces exert influence as militias and attempt to stake out their claims in the political landscape of what is left of regime-held Syria. To an extent, the regime has already conceded to the likes of Bal’ous with the entrenchment strategy that focuses on defending vital areas. As of yet, the opposition still lacks a convincing alternative for the Druze of Suwayda, and so the framework of politics in Suwayda operates on the assumption of continued functioning of regime authority and administration.

Quwat al-Ridha: Syrian Hezbollah

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Quwat al-Ridha graphic: “Special Missions school: Quwat al-Ridha: the Islamic Resistance in Syria. Dedication: the men of God in the locality of Umm al-Amad [in Homs province].”

The involvement of Hezbollah in the Syrian civil war and its deployments of fighters from Lebanon are basic facts of the conflict. Less explored is the development of Hezbollah as a native Syrian force and brand. At this site, we previously profiled one such group- the National Ideological Resistance– and interviewed its commander. Founded in Tartous governorate and primarily operating there as well as Hama and Aleppo provinces, the National Ideological Resistance cooperates with Hezbollah. However, it is not the only Syrian Hezbollah group around. This piece looks at Quwat al-Ridha, another such force.

Quwat al-Ridha’s name translates as “Al-Ridha Forces”- al-Ridha being a reference to the eighth Shi’a Imam. Indeed, Quwat al-Ridha sources sometimes refer to their group more fully as “Imam Ali al-Ridha Forces.” The pro-regime site al-Hadath News offers an overview of this group in an article from May 2014:

“Quwat al-Ridha is considered the core nucleus for ‘Hezbollah in Syria’- the organization that has appeared recently operating military in clear form, under the leadership and supervision of Hezbollah in Lebanon: this wing has placed before its eyes fighting ‘Israel’ in the Golan, and similarly the takfiris within.

Quwat al-Ridha is composed, as we have said before, of native Syrian young fighters, Shi’a and Sunni, the majority of them from countryside areas (Homs, Aleppo, Deraa and Damascus countryside). There is no official survey for the number of these forces, but they have come to be considered essential, for they have participated in a number of the greatest battles, decisive on the Syrian battlefield.


According to available information from al-Hadath News, units of these forces have participated in the Qalamoun battles, especially the battles on the principle fronts (Yabroud, Rankous), and it was among the number of forces that were at the head of the advance and assault operations. A fighter from Hezbollah who participated in the fight describes the performance of Quwat al-Ridha as “distinguished and learned from the fighting methods of Hezbollah,” adding that they “enjoy important military strength as well as solid ideology and organized operation, making them among those distinguished on the battleground in which they operate.”

During the Rankous assault, Quwat al-Ridha units participated with effectiveness, according to al-Hadath News information derived from field sources, for the al-Ridha fighters advanced towards Qalamoun from the side of West Ghouta in vehicles and centred to the east from Rankous, and at the arrival of zero hour- the hour of the decisive assault upon it- they advanced in parallel with the advance of the other units, while they distinguished their day with clear desert military uniforms and the ‘Green Marines’ shield that showed their identity. They were the first to reach and penetrate east Rankous after the fall of the hills.


In neighbourhoods of Old Homs they had a footprint as well. There they participated in the final battles in these neighbourhoods. A number of martyrs fell for them (around 12). In the announcement of their deaths in Syria they were mourned as National Defence Forces, but they were buried in their villages draped with the banner ‘Hezbollah in Syria’ and the Syrian flag, pointing to their true affiliation.

Aleppo and East and West Ghouta

In Aleppo as well as East and West Ghouta they had and still have a presence. Sources do not conceal their participation in the Ramousa and Khanaser battles as well as the eastern countryside front from the city. Further they have participated in groups in the operations to advance towards the central prison, while other units have concentrated in the villages. The sources also do not conceal the role of these units in the West Ghouta and South Damascus battle, and currently their participation in the Darayya battles, while West Ghouta has become a military base for Quwat al-Ridha in the field, and the Aleppo front the practical military field framework.


Quwat al-Ridha have entered into Southern Syria too: the Quneitra and Golan areas. In the Deraa countryside al-Ridha fighters are found participating in the Busra al-Harir and Busra al-Sham and the connected expansion will occur towards Quneitra and the furthest south of Syria under the wing of the Syrian army to support it in resisting the assault of opposition forces.”

It is of interest to compare these remarks with the testimony of a media activist for Quwat al-Ridha who spoke to this author. According to this source, the recruits for Quwat al-Ridha primarily come from the Homs area, with a more limited number from other areas such as Aleppo and Kafariya and Fou’a (the latter two are the Shi’a villages in Idlib currently under assault from Jaysh al-Fatah). This seems to be corroborated somewhat by the known ‘martyrdoms’ for Quwat al-Ridha. At the same time, it should also be noted that the media activist sought to downplay connections with Lebanese Hezbollah, portraying Quwat al-Ridha as an independent “Syrian resistance” force. Such formal distancing ought to be taken with a pinch of salt. Indeed, the leader of Quwat al-Ridha during the important stage of development for the militia in the battles of Homs city was Lebanese Hezbollah commander Hamza Ibrahim Hayder (Abu Mustafa), who was from Kafrdan in the Beqaa Valley and died fighting in al-Khalidiya in Homs on 29 June 2013. The actual connections with Hezbollah also explain why Quwat al-Ridha’s primary recruitment base seems to be Homs province, particularly in and around Homs city. For on account of the area’s proximity to the border with Lebanon and its importance to Assad regime interests, it is a natural and logical place for Hezbollah to project influence into the remaining Syrian rump state as a native Syrian force.

Below are some notable ‘martyrs’ of Quwat al-Ridha. The most notable developments since the al-Hadath News report partly translated above are the multiple ‘martyrdoms’ declared in Idlib province and Palmyra. This might undermine the initial impression of the fighting in Idlib province and Palmyra, which have seen rapid losses for the regime, that the regime forces were largely conventional and not backed up by irregular forces (as opposed to e.g. Aleppo). The Syrian Hezbollah presence in the Idlib fighting in particular is also corroborated by Jabhat al-Nusra media output for the Idlib offensives, which found Syrian Hezbollah insignia left behind among the routed forces. In these ‘martyrdoms’, note the distinct Hezbollah in Syria flag, as well as the use of the familiar Hezbollah/Shi’a militia slogans and motifs of defending Sayyida Zainab whose shrine is located in Damascus (e.g. “Zainab won’t be taken captive twice”- i.e. preventing the shrine from falling into rebel/jihadi hands and being destroyed). Note also Quwat al-Ridha announced a fallen fighter on 14 July 2015: Mustafa Hamada Hamada, who was originally from Homs province and died fighting in the al-Ghab Plain in north Hama countryside.

Some Martyrs of Quwat al-Ridha

Name: Ali Muhammad Ali al-Muhammad
Birth and Residence: Al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1997
Marital Status: Unmarried
Education Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Sha’ar Field (Homs province)

Name: Ahmad Bassam Karabij
Place of Birth: Kafariya
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1998
Marital Status: Unmarried
Educational Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: 26 June 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra

Name: Ali Mousa Dari’
Place of Birth: al-Bayada, Homs
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1996
Marital Status: Unmarried
Education Status: Preparatory School [just before university]
Date of Martyrdom: 25 May 2014
Place of Martyrdom: Douma, Damascus Countryside

Name: Mustafa Ali Kunyar
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Born: 1998
Marital Status: Unmarried
Educational Status: Secondary School
Date of Martyrdom: June 2014
Place of Martyrdom: Jabburin [Homs province]

Name: Ayad Ha’il Alloush
Place of Birth: Umm Jabab [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Date of Birth: 6 October 1988
Date of Martyrdom: 23 April 2013
Place of Martyrdom: al-Khalidiya, Homs

Name: As’ad Muhammad Hussein
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Date of Birth: 25 June 1979
Date of Martyrdom: 29 April 2014
Place of Martyrdom: al-Abbasiya, Homs (killed in the Jabhat al-Nusra bomb attacks that day)

Name: Muhammad Hassan al-Abrash
Residency: al-Thabitiya [Homs province]
Age: 20 years old
Marital Status: Engaged
Educational Status: University student at the Petrol College
Date of Martyrdom: 1 March 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Bashkawi, Aleppo province

Name: Hayder Fu’ad Douman
Place of Birth: Umm al-Amad [Homs province]
Residency: al-Abbasiya, Homs
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra
Date of Martyrdom: 10 June 2015 (announced)

Name: Basil Ali al-Nu’ama
Place of Birth: Umm Jabab [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Jisr al-Shughur
Date of Martyrdom: 9 May 2015

Name: Fawaz al-Saddam
Place of Birth: Tel Khazneh [Hama province]
Place of Martyrdom: Ariha, Idlib province (killed during the fall of the town to Jaysh al-Fatah)

Name: Mustafa Abbas Alouesh
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Ali al-Hajji
Place of Martyrdom: Palmyra

Name: Hayder Ibrahim Abbas
Place of Birth: Albu Waydah [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Aleppo province
Date of Martyrdom: 23 May 2015

Name: Mahmoud Hassan Omar
Place of Birth: al-Hamudiya village
Place of Martyrdom: Sha’ar Field [Homs province]

Name: Mustafa al-Ahmad
Place of Birth: Tel Khazneh [Hama province]
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Hassan al-Hajj
Place of Birth: Umm al-Tin [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Idlib province

Name: Muhammad Yusuf al-Tufaili
Place of Birth: al-Thabitiya [Homs province]
Place of Martyrdom: Ariha, Idlib province (killed during fall of town to Jaysh al-Fatah)

Name: Dawud al-Omar
Place of Birth: al-Hamudiya
Place of Martyrdom: Harasta (Damascus province)

Names: Faris Muhammad Abada, Hayder Nur al-Din Abada, Muhammad Tamer Taha
Origin: Quwat al-Ridha, Homs province
Date of Martyrdom: June 2015
Place of Martyrdom: Jurud Falita, Qalamoun

Name: Muhammad Mehdi Ali al-Hayek

Funeral procession for Quwat al-Ridha fighter Hayder Abbas.


The development of Quwat al-Ridha and Syrian Hezbollah as an important irregular actor should pose a challenge to those who might see war-weariness in Lebanese Hezbollah and no benefit to its intervention in Syria. Rather, it is apparent that this phenomenon fits in with what Matt Levitt deems the transformation of Hezbollah into a major “regional player,” projecting power beyond Lebanon and potentially influencing the political landscapes of its zones of intervention in important ways. The media activist for Quwat al-Ridha may downplay the question of political ambitions for Syrian Hezbollah, saying there is no political wing “but the state” and affirming a goal of “popular defence formation only,” but that only conceals the reality of political fragmentation in what remains of regime-held Syria as different actors carve out their own spheres of influence on the basis of contributions to the war effort and defence of vital areas. A similar trend is happening in Iraq with the growth of the different Hashd Sha’abi factions and their competing affiliations.

The Coastal Shield Brigade: A New Pro-Assad Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of the Coastal Shield Brigade. On top: “Coastal Shield Brigade.” In middle (with portrait of Bashar al-Assad): “Republican Guard. Knights of Assad.” On bottom: “Syrian Arab Army.”

As the Syrian civil war has dragged on with no recent decisive breakthroughs for the Assad regime and the loss of many peripheral territories including all major towns in Idlib and Palmyra, the problem of avoidance of conscription into the regular armed forces has only become exacerbated. Thus, at this point, a strategy of entrenchment and defence of vital areas seems most reasonable to ensure the regime’s survival, having locals recruited instead to focus on defending and retaking territory within their own provinces. For example, this approach is now well in evidence in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda, which has remained under regime authority but is now threatened on two fronts by the Islamic State to the northeast and the Deraa insurgency to the west, with many Druze refusing to serve in far away fronts to no avail.

The formation of the Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel) for Latakia province is part of the same trend. Indeed, Latakia also finds itself under increasing threat with the Idlib losses, and even some of the Iraqi Shi’a militias deployed in Syria, such as Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, have played a role in contributing manpower and fighting in Latakia province in recent months.

As is apparent from the Coastal Shield Brigade’s emblem and other media output, it is a local front militia for the elite Republican Guard. The militia first announced the opening of its doors for recruitment in late May this year:


“The Republican Guard announces the formation of the Coastal Shield Brigade accepting those who desire recruitment contract for two years, or permanently, and in reserve and compulsory service, as well as for the sorting out of affairs for those who avoided the reserve and compulsory military service call and deserted before 1 January 2015. Salaries will be paid with monthly remunerations reaching up to 40,000 Syrian pounds. To join and inquire, head to the Republican Guard centre opposite the Naval College, School of Arts in al-Qardaha.

Phone numbers: 0988293892/0936713408/890353/825805.”

It should be noted in particular that the potential salary on offer here amounts to more than $200 a month, which is not only much higher than the salaries of regular army conscripts but also of many rebel fighters. For comparison, it is some 2-3 times higher than the salary of an average Northern Storm fighter from the Azaz area. Wishing to extend its recruitment further, the Coastal Shield Brigade put up another notice in June, pushing forward the cut-off date for draft-dodgers to widen the recruitment pool and emphasizing local service:


“The Republican Guard, Coastal Shield Brigade, is accepting those who desire recruitment contract for two years, or permanent, and required for reserve and compulsory service. Commission is accepted for employees in government foundations and offices. Sorting out of affairs for desertion and those who avoided service before 1 March 2015. Ages from 18 to 45 years. Service on the Coast [Latakia]. To submit applications and for any inquiry, head to the Jableh Republican Guard Centre/al-Qardaha Naval College/School of Arts.

Coastal Shield Brigade
Lions of the Republican Guard.”

On 20 June, the Coastal Shield Brigade reiterated the advertisement for recruitment, announcing that the doors for recruitment would be closed soon. But on 28 June, some clarifications were noted: first, by order of the Defence Minister, the issue of ‘sorting out affairs’ would only apply now to those who deserted from the ranks of the Republican Guard, on account of the supposed large number of recruits and applicants to the Coastal Shield Brigade. Second, the recruitment contract of two years would take into account compulsory military service. As far as required documentation goes, one should submit a personal photo and ID photo.

So far, evidence of significant operations for the Coastal Shield Brigade has been somewhat limited, but on 9 July the militia announced its first fallen fighter in one Ibrahim Makana, who died fighting in the Kherbat Sulas area towards the north-east of Latakia province, which continues to remain under insurgent control.

It remains to be seen how effective the Coastal Shield Brigade will be as a fighting force as there has been no major insurgent offensive to push deeper into Latakia province since spring 2014 when a variety of groups spearheaded by jihadists seized the Armenian Christian border town of Kessab (desecrating the churches there despite rebel media attempts to downplay this) and reached the Mediterranean Sea. The Syrian army, bolstered by the elite Desert Falcons and irregular forces in Latakia province such as the Muqawama Suriya, eventually retook all the lost ground, but the process was sluggish and dragged out until June of that year. Further, the Muqawama Suriya’s own effectiveness was put into doubt with the rapid losses of Idlib city and Jisr al-Shughur in the spring of this year, as the group had a notable presence in both places. Meanwhile, the Desert Falcons failed to prevent the loss of Palmyra and other towns in Homs desert to the Islamic State. These developments besides the potential high salary may add to the attractiveness of the Coastal Shield Brigade as an alternative local defence force that at the same time purports to counter the problem of breakdown of regime authority on account of proliferation of irregular armed groups.

“The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi,” By Tam Hussein

What happened to ‘Man like Fatlum?’: The inside Story of the British Suicide Bomber of Ramadi
By Tam Hussein
(All Street scene photos by author others public)
July 21, 2015

This is the back story of Abu Musa al-Britani, a young British suicide bomber who blew himself up in Iraq. He grew up in Ladbroke Grove, the area that I worked and grew up in as a youth worker. We also went to the same school. My essay seeks to answer the question as to why such a popular young man went to Iraq when he had planned a trip to Spain two weeks earlier. What compelled him to go, it also seeks to explain why the like of him and Jihadi John came from the same area. What are the factors that lead to their choices?

It is clear that neither foreign policy nor ideology are solely responsible for motivating European youth to go on Jihad. My essay argues that the reason many of these men went to Syria and join specifically ISIS is due to the subtle interplay between religion, foreign policy and gang culture and modernism. … [quoted from Tam’s email to me]

Tourists and bohemians love rummaging through the stalls on Portobello Road with its shimmering trinkets and shaggy clothes fit for an art student. To the locals it’s a “joke ting , a skank to bring tourists from all over the world to sample the latest authentic “efnik” fad. Down the road on Golborne road, a stones throw away from David Cameron’s Notting Hill, young British Moroccans feast on  platters of seafood on Hassan’s Grilled Fish stall laughing at the antics of their respective football teams.

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Fatlum with Mohammed Nasser.

Some wear the latest garms others wear the trademark white thobe, full length beard, trousers above the ankle and Nike trainers like many Salafis do. Across the road Lisboa Patisserie is packed with locals and Moroccan old timers chomping on the best custard tarts in London talking about their worries, the way they might do back home. Here on the Golborne Road, West London, the Roadman rubs shoulders with the affluent city banker and never do their worlds meet, unless the Roadman is invited to a party to dispense a bit of coke. This is where Trellick towers estate sits easy with the bohemian Portobello Road. You wouldn’t expect a young native of these parts to cancel his ticket to a Spanish holiday resort, and instead end up a thousand miles from home and hearth, fighting in Iraq on behalf of ISIS.

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Fatlum in school uniform, note the Westside gang sign he makes.

This is the story of Fatlum Shalaku, or Abu Musa al-Britani; the one who raised his index finger to the sky testifying to the oneness of God and rammed a truck laden with explosives into an Iraqi army position in Ramadi. The twenty year old Zayn Malik lookalike, handsome and muscular; popular with the ladies broke the Golden Division. The US trained special forces unit had been holding a defensive line for fourteen months and suffering heavy losses. His actions forced them to abandon the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

Word in Ladbroke Grove got out pretty soon. “Heard about Fatlum?” said one, “madd ting.” On the following Friday, we sat on the floor listening to the Imam at Ladbroke Grove’s Al-Manar mosque talking about how to prepare for Ramadan. I doubt the Imam had heard about the news, for if he had perhaps he would have addressed it. Fatlum’s friends didn’t quite know what to make of it and might have appreciated a talk on this issue coming from an Imam who was quoting the very scholar that ISIS revered; Ibn Taymiyyah, the 13th century Syrian scholar, the progenitor of the Salafi movement. But instead, he reminded his worshippers about the virtues of Ramadan; about the tendency to over eat during the holy month, the tendency to smoke shisha in cafes as people wait for the dawn prayer, the tendency to sleep well into the afternoon, and generally not benefit from the abstemiousness which should enrich the soul. But to some of the younger worshippers there was a need to make sense of his death. They talked about it with a sense of surprise and stupefaction. “I used to see him at the gym; lovely guy” said one, “can’t believe what he did.” In the estates around the mosque the young knew he had gone to fight in Syria but few expected him to go out like that. Another friend said, “Fatlum’s world view was twist but I know his heart was pure”. There was begrudging admiration for the young man who walked the walk even though he hadn’t talked much about it. A former school mate put it differently to ITV news: it is sad, we have to ask ourselves why a person full of dreams and possibility and potential …would…blow them selves up.”[1] Everyone seemed to say what happened to man like Fatlum?

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Golborne road North African shop

Outside of Ladbroke Grove, little is known about Abu Musa al-Britani. He didn’t have a large social media footprint. Fatlum had deleted his Facebook account before leaving for Syria according to his friends. He came from a Kosovo Albanian family and attended Holland Park School. Fatlum enjoyed his time there and was described as “popular” and “friendly.” The school population reflected the diversity of the area and had a large British Moroccan and Somali community from Shepherds Bush, Latimer and Ladbroke Grove since the Nineties. Many like Fatlum, who grew up in North Kensington, were brought into the British Moroccan cultural orbit, after all nearly sixty percent of the UK’s British Moroccan population settled in North Kensington in the 70s and 80s.

Reminders of the home country

Reminders of the home country

Some say that Fatlum was intensely moved by the Syrian conflict, but that is simply not true. When the Syrian revolution broke out as one friend of Fatlum said, “every one was gassed” about Syria. These young men were profoundly affected by the images coming out on social media. After all this is the most mediated conflict that the world has ever seen and anyone with beating heart would find it hard to bear witness to the despicable acts carried out by the Syrian regime.  As a cousin said of Mohammed Nasser, a fighter and friend of Fatlum who was killed in Iraq:

“…[Nasser] was angry about what was happening in Syria…like Iraq and Palestine. I  don’t think he was radicalised, he understood what radicalisation was and what extremism was…”

Fatlum knew of a mysterious convert, not unlike Ras in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, who packed up his bags and joined ISIS. This Ladbroke Grove Ras, rootless, charismatic and confrontational had gathered around him a group of young men in Ladbroke Grove who would eventually follow him. These young men recruited others through whatsapp and other messaging services. It was chain migration in reverse. Rumours has it that he was killed by Jaish al-Fath, a rebel faction that has made recent gains in Idlib. Speaking to a local, Elias, not his real name, the fact that there was a recruiter, was something the British security services must have been aware of in the Ladbroke Grove area. They were showing locals pictures of persons of interest.

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

Trellick towers next to Al-Manar mosque

But Fatlum wasn’t that hyped about fighting in Syria or swayed by this ‘recruiter’. Like his family, Fatlum was not religious and lived a relatively secular lifestyle like many Kosovo Albanians whose parents had experienced Communist rule. He was close to Mohammed Nasser and also knew Hamza Parvez, all ended up fighting for ISIS. One theory has it that Nasser influenced him to go to Syria. Nasser had found Islam after his father died; he has been described as a charismatic and passionate young man who influenced those around him. In contrast, Hamza Parvez was described by a family member as being “lazy” and a bit of a drifter, more interested in Krispy Kremes than fighting. He followed Nasser to Syria. Usually when a close circle forms around one or two charismatic individuals who are motivated to go, others are more likely to follow, irrespective of income or socio economic background. Those who are less wedded to aspiration and the good life, might have little to lose and a lot more to gain by going. Especially as the promise for them is either paradise or ghanima, war booty. Hamza Parvez may have fitted that type, but Fatlum didn’t. Speaking to his friends it is difficult to ascertain how much of an influence Nasser was on him. In fact, Fatlum left for Syria before Nasser. According to a cousin, Nasser “was a good guy and he knew right from wrong and he had compassion. He went to uni, played football…he wasn’t the sort of guy who argued about the caliphate. I never ever suspected he would go.”

A friend told me: “If any one influenced him it must have been his older brother, Flamur. They were close and Fatlum looked up to him. He rediscovered his faith a year into his degree at uni.” Flamur was a talented young architect whose work had been showcased by the Saatchi and Saatchi gallery. His transformation, according to another school friend, was overnight, going from someone who could “be seen socialising and drinking with friends” to someone who was assiduous in worship. He was often seen at Ladbroke Grove mosque attending the congregational prayer there. It was Flamur who drew his younger brother into discussions that led the latter to confront his own perceptions about life. But whilst Fatlum might have considered the big questions, two weeks before his departure to Syria, he was still interested in the usual stuff that the Ladbroke Grove mandem were interested in. Had it not been for his older brother talking him out of his Spanish holiday, Fatlum would have larged it with the ladies.

And yet, Fatlum’s decision to fight in Syria was not just a whim, but perhaps the flotsam and jetsam of various currents that coursed through the Ladbroke Grove area.

Religious Currents in Ladbroke Grove: The influence of the Salafi-Jihadis

Inside Manar Mosque

Inside Manar Mosque

One of these currents was the religious element in Ladbroke Grove. As Raffaello Pantucci noted in ‘We Love Death as You Love Life,’ London had seen a religious revival long before Syria and long before 9/11. Ladbroke Grove in this regard was no exception. The Muslim community’s gradual confidence and religiosity found expression in the opening of Al-Manar Islamic Centre on Acklam Road in 2001. The airy mosque complete with school and sports facilities, with a hint of North Africa, was jammed in between Westway recreational grounds and a council estate. It was also an expression of the Moroccan community’s self-confidence. Now, a few decades on, and it sees about twelve hundred worshippers every Friday from all walks of life and counted amongst its congregation ISIS fighters likes Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, Hamza Parvez, Mohammed Nasser, Flamur Shalaku, Choukri Elkhlifi, Mohammed El-Araj, and Aine Davies, who all prayed there from time to time.

Inside Manar Mosque

Old Timer praying in Manar Mosque

The area was not unique in that diverse Islamic strands and traditions coursed through it. There was the traditional Islam brought over from Larache, Morocco. It was a mix of Maliki jurisprudence, scholarship and Sufi traditions. These traditions are found amongst the old timers who sit reading the Quran after the evening prayer at the mosque. Sit down with them and you will sense the rich scholarly tradition of Fez and Marrakech. The way the old timers taught Tajweed, the art of Quranic recitation to the youngsters is reminiscent of the master student relationship still alive in their home land. They come from a rich tradition of learning that had been distilled over centuries with a great deal of nuance. The student has to master Arabic, philology, grammar, Quranic exegesis, jurisprudence and moral ethics amongst other things and only then, would the teacher grant him an Ijaza or permission to teach. That sort of profound study takes more than a few years of an Islamic studies BA in any modern Islamic university. Few in Ladbroke Grove, least of all Fatlum, had time to go down that route.

Alongside this, you also had the competing modernist Salafi tradition inspired by Muhammed ibn Abdul Wahab, a revivalist scholar of eighteenth century. His movement called for strict monotheism and rejected the adherence to a school of jurisprudence, mysticism and precepts that appeared to be cultural additions. This view, believed that over-reliance on blind imitation or Taqleed of scholars was misguidance, and sought to connect the layman directly to the sources of religion and thereby get him closer to God. Salafism’s appeal was its simple call to authenticity. As one worshipper put it: “Islam is simple, all you need is Quran and Sunnah”.

But occasionally its adherents fell into a trap of interpreting the texts with out having the prerequisite skill-set. Salafism disliked ‘blind imitation’ as it was disparagingly known, or taqleed of a scholar. To the born again devotee on the Golborne Road in search of religious enlightenment, he didn’t need a religious specialist, he could just open up the Quran and take the canonical sayings of the Prophet as his guide; no middle man was required to distil that seemingly contradictory mass of Prophetic sayings and Quranic verses. To Salafism’s detractors though, this was exactly the problem. These novices were akin to a thirsty rabble drinking straight from the vast salty ocean instead of allowing the scholar to making the seawater potable. Drinking straight from the ocean would result in madness or at the very least hubris. This was something a family member complained about when Hamza Parvez found his faith:

“This was last year. He used to wear the thobe and he’d pray and what annoyed me most was when he started telling his mum what to do. It kind of gave him this superiority because he thought that she didn’t have any knowledge.

And certainly the answers and scribblings on the tumbler pages, and Ask FM answers of some these ISIS fighters appear as if they were fatwas, or religious legal rulings.

Another offshoot of the Salafis in Ladbroke Grove was the Salafi-jihadi movement. As Jonathan Birt notes in Radical Nineties Revisited: Jihadi Discourses in Britain[2], the fact that many of these radicals and Salafi-jihadi ideologues were allowed to operate in the 90s so freely meant that the conditions were in place for it to flourish by the time Fatlum encountered it. As one young Imam who grew up in the area, told me West London has always had a strong Salafi-jihadi tradition. So disturbed was the young Imam that he decided move away from the area. The Salafi-jihadi movement in a nutshell, believes that only through Jihad can the Muslim global community restore its dignity and power; in some respects it is Fanonesque in conception. It is as Abdallah Azzam, one of its icons and the father of the Afghan Jihad put it, “Men need jihad more than the jihad needs men.”  Salafi-jihadi thought was a response to the centuries-long decline of Muslim power on the world stage and the incursions of the West into Muslim societies.The communities in Ladbroke Grove through a mixture of faith and heritage were profoundly connected to the affairs of the Middle East, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The US invasion of Iraq in 2003 resulted in Salafi-jihadi thought having a greater resonance in the community especially amongst the young. Fatlum’s older brother was certainly an adherent to the ideology and though Fatlum may not have been, in the company of his brother and like minded individuals he certainly became one.

Gang Culture and Religion’s subtle interplay

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

Skateboarding on the West way in Ladbroke Grove

But Fatlum also grew up in a milieu where there was a subtle interplay of religion and gang culture. In amongst the affluence of North Kensington, gang subcultures flourish. On the estates youth workers fight a constant uphill battle, not against radicalisation but the normal problems that most inner city communities face. The predominantly Moroccan community in the area face huge challenges in North Kensington. Myriam Cherti notes in Paradoxes of Social Capital: A Multi-Generational Study of Moroccans in London, in 1998, Golborne Ward fell under the 1 percent of the most deprived wards nationally[3], this situation changed little by 2012, when it was was ranked as the second most deprived in London[4]. The same author noted in a study for the Runnymede Trust, British Moroccans: Citizenship in Action, that poverty and disadvantage was “endemic in the area”. The youth workers I met were constantly trying to get young people to channel their energies into more positive activities. One of the bolder youth workers, Khaled, not his real name, told me, “I fork out money out of my own pocket; buy them chicken and chips and then they come to the sessions.” but with funding cuts these youth workers were struggling. Khaled complained that other youth clubs were receiving funding from different funding streams but those available to Moroccan communities were mainly through Prevent funding, the governments controversial anti-terrorism policy. This cynicism is not something recent. As early as 2009 the Runnymede Trust study states that: “smaller organisations complained that the Council discriminated in their funding practices, favouring certain projects whilst blocking others’ opportunities to develop.Khaled explained that the bigger problem in the area is still drugs, knife crime, gang fights, teenage pregnancies and civil engagement rather than terrorism and radicalisation. To this youth worker, it didn’t matter that five young men had left the area to join ISIS, he had to scour the streets to stop “Kids stabbing each other over a mobile phone. Every young person is touched by gang culture around here”.

Screen Shot 2015-07-21 at 9.55.40 AMWith marginalisation comes social problems. Drugs and criminality had always been a facet of Ladbroke Grove since the 90s. Golborne Road was the best place to pick up skunk and hash in West London. Anyone who grew up in the area knew that Ladbroke Grove had cornered the market. You could drive up in a car and some dealer would shake your hands drop the punk and walk off in his joggers. Any undercover would have a hard time finding this ghost disappear into the estates. But as time passed these men, coming mostly from the close knit Moroccan community, felt the impact of religion in their lives. Their parents were getting old and becoming increasingly devout. They started their own families in the area and with the profundity of having one’s own family they too began to consider the deeper meanings of life. “Once a man holds his own kids in his arms” said one, “he starts thinking about their future, you can’t help it. That’s just God’s way”. A few decades on and these same dealers who had shot the stuff to willing punters, were sporting beards and praying five times a day looking for ways to atone themselves. These men raised in the school of hard knocks found that Salafi-jihadism fitted their temperament just like perhaps a creative temperament might prefer a Sufi understanding of Islam.

Despite the prejudice faced by the Moroccan community in North Kensington political engagement has always been high especially at local level. However, as the Runnymede Trust study found, there was also political discontent especially in the second generation. The invasion of Iraq in 2003 being the main boon of contention. The punishing decade of sanctions that preceded it with over half a million children dead and Madeleine Albright, US Secretary of State, quipping that the price “was worth it” jarred. To many in Ladbroke Grove, the Iraq war wasn’t a L’Oreal advert. Long before the area produced AQ adherents like Bilal Berjawi and Ramzi Mohammed, there were rumours that some old skool British Moroccans were expressing their political disenchantment by adopting Salafi-jihadi ideology and even trying to join the insurgency in Iraq. There was always talk of ex-Ladbroke Grove criminals suspected of a string of crimes in and around West London to fund their Jihadi activities. These criminal acts, it was said, were justified by the legal fiction that they were living in Dar al-Harb or ‘House of War’; a classical Islamic term developed by a body Islamic Jurisprudents during the medieval period to denote the lands that the Muslim world was at war with. Jihad as any jurisprudent will tell you was an all encompassing term referring to warfare that was nuanced, localised and differed according to time and place. So for instance, if the enemy mutilated your dead, you were not allowed to mutilate their dead because it was considered unjust and in direct contravention of God’s injunctions. Some of those rulings, albeit a minority, allowed for repaying the invaders of Muslim lands with the same treatment in extreme circumstances. That understanding allowed that everything was permissible, fraud, robbery, even enslaving women and so on. One worshipper told me, on condition of anonymity, that one “Grove man” had the audacity to rob a security van, and then turned up to offer Asr prayer at the mosque with the money box next to him, and after finishing casually walked off home with it. It was also rumoured that some of these men joined the smaller battalions within Syria’s splintered rebel factions like Katibat al-Khattab and Sham al-Islami brigades; the latter drew predominantly from North African participants.

Golborne Road with trellick towers

Golborne Road

But one thing these Ladbroke Grove Salafi-Jihadis were not; unlike many of the younger generation of Jihadis; they were not blatantly Takfiri in outlook in the way ISIS adherents were. Although there were some exceptions, most refrained from making Takfir or excommunication. Compare for instance the latest comments made by the late AQ spokesman Adam Gadahn, regarding the execution of Alan Henning and ISIS’ position. The latter considered it a sin. Like it or not, Salafi-Jihadism does have a theological discourse, with its thinkers, scholars and traditions. Usually the older fighters from Gadahn’s generation kept to within that framework. They looked at the West as an oppressive colonising infidel power that needed to be opposed, those Muslims who took a different view, were not declared automatically infidels en masse. This type of Salafi Jihadi still had respect for tradition and the sanctity of Muslim blood, even if they had none for UK law. But nevertheless as one Imam who knows Ladbroke Grove and those that adopted that opinion, told me, “is it victory at all cost that these men wanted? By adopting such an extreme opinion, they essentially did away with any ethical considerations of the Sharia, did the Companions and the Prophet do any of these things they did? No of course not, what they did do was open up the flood gates for the next generation where they could do anything they wanted.”

Despite the obvious problematics of Salafi-jihadism within Islamic intellectual discourse as well as outside of it, the newly emerging strain of Salafi-jihadis was hard to grasp by the older generation. The old skool jihadists were now criticising Fatlum’s generation for spiralling out of control. In fact, most recently the Jordanian Salafi jihadi cleric Abu Qatada, one of its main ideologues, criticised young Westerners coming to Syria with no religious training killing Islamic Jurisprudents with years of religious learning. The new generation they said lacked tarbiyyah or sound upbringing; their sincerity was not enough. There was clearly a generational disconnect. In many ways the conflict between Nusra Front and ISIS is also a reflection of this conflict between Old Skool Jihadis versus the New Skool. This new strain of Salafi-jihadism was seen as even more radical, virulently takfiri; they cared nought for any tradition that would ground them, nor for scholarship, and any kind of normative except their own. This idea seems to be confirmed by Thomas Pierret, Lecturer at Edinburgh University and author of Religion and State in Syria: the Sunni Ulama from Coup to Revolution, in a post on Facebook he says of the older generation Jihadis they were:

“motivated by the will to defend fellow Muslims against oppression. Their propaganda was a never-ending complaint about the plight of Muslims across the world. ISIS-generation of foreign fighters are completely different. Their Propaganda and behaviour suggests that not only are they totally indifferent to the plight of the Syrians, but they’re happily imposing upon them a ruthless form of oppression as part of their narcissistic settler-colonialist utopia[5]

It is true that young Ladbroke Grove Jihadis like Fatlum were different. According to a friend, Fatlum was “extremely Takfiri” in outlook, but he didn’t proselytise it the way other ISIS fighters did on social media. But to him the sacred and the profane was photoshopped with pop culture. These young men, in typical post-modern style comfortably mixed iconic images of Jihadica with Call of Duty. Sitting in an Italian cafe, Ali, a student who grew up in and around Ladbroke Grove told me even more bluntly what he thought the problem was; “There’s more to it, you have a high percentage of Roadmans who don’t know anything about the faith and they discover Anwar Awlaki on Youtube and it’s a disaster. On top of that everything they watch from Lord of the Rings to 300, to Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down everything about the Western culture celebrates heroism and self sacrifice. Some of their fathers also fought in Afghanistan, they have a fighting mentality because of the streets and once you put religion into it; which says helping the weak and oppressed is good, you got a Jihadi Roadman. It’s so predictable. Notice that most of these Roadmans joined ISIS; the rest with any sense of the faith didn’t.”

Fatlum’s friend Mohammed Nasser was a case in point; going through his twitter feed you notice that Grand Theft Auto Five is mentioned in the same breath as martyrdom, even though GTA is probably the most antithetical to the Islamic moral ethic. On his twitter feed. He flitted from talking about his friends to messaging Pro-ISIS disseminators like Shamiwitness[6]. The connections they were making, the culture they were creating was one particular to their generation. They had their own terminology, they wore their Salafi-Jihadism on their robes, blended it with rebellious Roadmannism, garnished it with a bit of Anwar Awlaki, Quran,Sunnah and a bit of thug life. They could yearn desperately for forgiveness and paradise, and in their youthful ardour want a sense of belonging and adventure. West-side hyperbole turned into “the land of the Muslims have to be defended.” The new generation Jihadi Roadmans short circuited the Salafi-jihadi tradition for just Team Muslim-no matter what; the response was not un-similar to the American patriot who cried Team America: no matter what. These men no doubt sincere in intention had become a law unto themselves and could wreak havoc and go against well established Islamic principles. These men joined ISIS.

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

Flamur’s artwork brother of Fatlum

When Abdel Majed Abdel Bary, 23, from Maida Vale, held out a decapitated head and declared to his tweeps that he was: [8]‘Chillin’ with my homie or what’s left of him.’ To many it contradicted traditional concepts of chivalry and everything that Jihad represented. “No one is saying that war is a walk in the park, its ugly and nasty, but the whole point about Jihad is that when man has license to be at his most brutal, most callous, he doesn’t give in to his baser nature. It is easy to be clement, merciful and civilised in our everyday lives, but in war a man can actually show his true nobility, by being merciful, clement, and chivalrous, even when he has been wronged and his instinct is telling him to be brutal and unforgiving. And this is something that many fighters in ISIS have forgotten” said one Imam who asked to be anonymous.

A cursory glance through Medieval literature on famous Muslim warriors shows them to be cultured both in war and also the humanities, the autobiography of Usama bin Munqidh a 12th century knight during the crusades and Ibn Shaddad’s biography on Saladin for instance is testimony to that. Both are able to show magnanimity towards their enemies. Read Tolstoy’s Hadji Murat, a novella declared by the literary critic Harold Bloom to be “sublime” and you notice Tolstoy’s deep admiration for a Muslim warrior. A Jihadi   who refused to give in to the demands of the world, least of all Tsarist Russia. Fast forward to the twentieth century to Abdullah Anas, a veteran of the Afghan Jihad and the son in law of Abdullah Azzam, and find a man disgusted by the antics of these young fighters who kill men and upload it on twitter. As he told me in his office in North London:

“Prisoners have full rights. We fed them the same food, gave them the same clothes and the same quality of life. After several months, many of the Soviet troops started to believe that they weren’t prisoners because we were on such good terms with them.  Through our conduct we showed them we were not bloodthirsty people. Some of them became Muslims, others remain our friends to this day[9].”

To the veterans the Abdul Barys of this world were just expressing Roadmannism found in every day Ladbroke Grove, only the location was different. So what had happened in-between the period between Old Skool Jihadists and the modern day Jihadist who joins ISIS? According to Bilal Abdul Kareem, an American Muslim convert and freelance journalist who spent a considerable time in war torn Syria it seems to be a case of a ignorance and loosing one’s moral compass. Sitting in a cafe sipping a latte and relishing a chocolate chip cookie, he told me that some of these fighters “are extremely sincere in their intentions but because they don’t know the basics they attach themselves to a group who they think will take them to God, so they get played…I couldn’t believe it…we were inside a car once and they were discussing whether it was permissible to target women and children, I’m like brother, why are we even having this conversation?! Islam doesn’t allow that. That’s how ignorant they were.” Fatlum’s knowledge of Islam was at the time of leaving, described by friends as basic but continued under Islamic State proselytisers.

When Fatlum left it wasn’t just faith and the International community’s inactivity that pulled him there. There were complex factors at play, the influence of individuals, the interplay of Salafi-jihadi thought, Roadman culture, identity, or simply a need for adventure and atonement that made him get on that plane to Turkey. In spring 2013 the brothers went to Turkey transiting off a European country.

To their father, Muhamet, the news came as a complete shock. The brothers had kept their faith secret from the family. Once they were in Syria contact with family was intermittent. They told the parents that they were doing aid work. Fatlum’s mother fell into deep depression. Although the parents did not report the two missing immediately, their disappearance did not go unnoticed, the police were aware that they had left. The father said that special branch had visited them and taken their computers away. He perhaps naively, believed they would help to retrieve them. The officers were particularly interested in the two following the revelation of the identity of Jihadi John.

In Syria, what had started as a true revolution began to resemble 12th century Andalusia during the age of the Muluk at-Tawa’if or the Party Kings. Each emir of Andalusia’s fractured principalities, supported by various Christian kings, made war on each other for hegemony of the Spanish Peninsula. Many foreign fighters who had come to fight Assad, instead found themselves embroiled in this intra-rebel infighting. Abu Layth al-Khorosani, or Anil Khalil Raoufi from Manchester, for instance died fighting the Free Syrian Army instead of Assad. When the fighting broke out between ISIS and Nusra Front, to the surprise of one friend, the two brothers did not get involved in the internecine Jihadist infighting that broke out in January 2014. Fatlum made his choice quite early on. Contrary to reports, the two brothers did not defect from the Nusra Front but rather after they had finished their training with Katibat al-Muhajireen (KaM) led by Georgian national Omar Shishani and his former deputy Abu Mus’ab al-Jazairi, they joined ISIS. It is not clear why the two brothers left Katibat al-Muhajireen for Islamic State. Perhaps they followed Omar Shishani as he made his oath of allegiance or hoped to join a group that would take them to Paradise, it is hard to tell. Nevertheless their aloofness from fighting their former comrades earned them the respect even of their enemies. This may have been one of the reasons they ended up in Iraq, precisely because they wanted to avoid fighting their ex-comrades. Instead they preferred to fight the Shi’ites and the Kurdish YPG, the former who Salafi Jihadis consider to be heretics, and the latter who they view as godless Atheists due to their secular or communist beliefs.

Abdullah Anas in middle

Abdullah Anas in middle

Flamur Shalaku or Abu Sa’ad as he was known, was killed in March of this year in Iraq. His father, Muhamet received a phone call where a distant crackly arabic voice spoke in broken English and said: “Everything is good with your son”. The father was not devout, he didn’t quite understand what that meant. He came to see me one rainy night in Whitechapel, to see if I could locate him. I didn’t know how to break it to him, his red nose with delicate red veins hinted at a man who liked Jack Daniels, I told him that the Grapevine said that Abu Sa’ad had been killed.

He stumbled, he woke up, his eyes watered up, his lips quivered for a moment. I wanted to give him a hug. I felt like a scumbag. But he didn’t let me hug him, he composed himself. He told me about the phone call. I explained what that meant.

“To Islamic State death means martyrdom. For them it’s good news”

“I don’t know what to tell his mother” he said as if Flamur was still alive. “Is there anyway we can get Fatlum back? I need to tell him to come back? If we lose him, we are finished you know? Finished. I will not tell anything to the mother for now.”

A month later I called him to ask about Fatlum’s death.

Perhaps Flamur’s death made Fatlum want to join his brother, by this time he had lost Mohammed Nasser and now his brother. And so he stepped into a truck laden with explosives and stuck his index finger out for the camera and drove towards his target. He blew himself up hoping to be flung in to paradise. Whilst his friends in Islamic State rejoiced in his self-annihilation, the reverberations of the explosions were also felt in Ladbroke Grove. Friends and locals were shocked by the fate of such a popular young man. Some of the younger ones rated him for dying for his beliefs, “he was a man of action y’get me- he talks the talk and walks the walk. To the old timers there is a sense of foreboding that the spotlight will once again fall on a community that is afflicted by far greater problems than ISIS.

[1] http://www.itv.com/news/2015-05-22/revealed-the-british-schoolboy-who-became-an-islamic-state-suicide-bomber/

[2] https://www.academia.edu/8689148/The_Radical_Nineties_Revisited_Jihadi_Discourses_in_Britain

[3] https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=lf1YAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA20&lpg=PA20&dq=british+moroccans+are+marginalised&source=bl&ots=I4vsPXJqsi&sig=V4s4EkLI-he1KF23UdMey7ZKG-c&hl=en&sa=X&ei=URqTVcCkNMa4UbfIgagF&ved=0CFIQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=british%20moroccans%20are%20marginalised&f=false

[4] http://www.kcsc.org.uk/news/8-mar-2012-1448/golborne-ranked-second-most-deprived-ward-country

[5] Facebook post on 7 July 2002

[6] http://www.channel4.com/news/unmasked-the-man-behind-top-islamic-state-twitter-account-shami-witness-mehdi

[7] http://www.channel4.com/news/iftikhar-jaman-syria-death-isis-jihad-british-portsmouth

[8] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2723659/ISIS-militants-seize-key-towns-villages-close-Syrian-border-Turkey.html

[9] http://eng.majalla.com/2014/02/article55248465

* Tam Hussein is an award winning investigative journalist and writer. He speaks five languages and holds an MA in Near and Middle Eastern Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies. His work appears in the Guardian, New Statesman, New Internationalist, Sharq Al-Awsat, etc.

“Mohammad Nassif: The Shadow Man of the Syria-Iran Axis,” by Mohammad Ataie

nassifThe Shadow Man of the Syria-Iran Axis
For Syria Comment, July 16›
By Mohammad Ataie

Throughout the Syrian-Iranian partnership, few men had a more important role in the genesis and evolution of the alliance than Major General Mohammed Nassif. Known by his sobriquet, Abu Wael, he was the last of Hafez Asad’s men to remain at the heart of the regime. He died on June 28, 2015 in his 80s. The secretive Major General was central, from the early 1980s, in forging Syrian policy towards Iran and directing their often turbulent cooperation in both Lebanon and Iraq.

Nassif was known for his political clout and elusive character as a central member of the security apparatus. His star began to rise in the 1970s, when Lebanon’s Shia emerged as an important political force under the leadership of Musa Sadr. Musa Sadr turned to President Asad as an ally when he fell out the Shah of Iran. Asad directed Nassif to take responsibility for Shia affairs in Lebanon and to act as liaison with the clergy there. According to Sadr’s family, Musa Sadr stayed at Nassif’s house when he visited Damascus. Nassif also cultivated friendships with leaders of the Lebanese Amal movement, such as Nabih Berri and Mustafa Chamran, who was an Iranian member of Amal. After 1979, Chamran became minister of defense in Iran. With Sadr’s disappearance, Nassif’s ties remained strong with his family, including Sadr’s nephew, Sadegh Tabatabai. In 1981, Nassif while on an official visit in Tehran, asked Tabatabai to arrange a meeting for him with Ayatollah Khomaini, the leader of the revolution. The meeting did not take place.

With the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon two years later, Damascus drew closer to Tehran. Nassif’s importance in nurturing the creation of Hizbullah and the emerging “Shiite Crescent” could not have been more important for Iran because Saddam threatened the survival of young Islamic Republic. Claiming to be the shield of the Sunni Arab World, the Iraqi leader dragged his country into its eight-year conflict with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf accustomed to Sunni supremacy and Shiite docility believed that Saddam could contain, if not crush the new revolutionary force in Tehran.

Mohammad Nassif sensing that Syria could harness the Shiite awakening to its advantage became infatuated with Ayatolah Khomaini and Shia doctrine. His rapport and common intellectual outlook with Iran’s revolutionary clerics helped make him indispensible in Damascus, where secular Arabism seemed to preclude real sympathy with the Persian upstart. The secretive Major General was one of very few people, according to Patrick Seale, who could telephone Asad at any time of day or night. In the eyes of Iranians, he was not only a key channel to the Syrian President but also a power behind the throne.

In 1980, when Ali Akbar Mohtashami went to Damascus in the hope of exporting the Islamic Revolution, he was sorely disappointed by his cold reception by the secular Baathist leaders of Syria and with a “sluggish bureaucracy” in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. He was unable to get an audience with the President himself or stimulate interest in the president’s office. Mohtashami, the key Iranian in building the eventual Syro-Iranian alliance, was not put off. Undaunted, he cultivated a close relationship with Muhammad Nassif, a winning strategy. If either the Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office threw up road-blocks in front of Mohtashami or if conservative Sunnis, such as Abdulhalim Khaddam or Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, looked with distaste at Iranian advances, Nassif could find ways around them; he helped convince Assad that the Iranians offered a stable and strong ally in the dangerous sea of fickle Arabs partners surrounding Syria. For the Iranians, he was the right man in the right place.

Musa al-Sadr

When Iran’s revolutionary leaders sought to get to the bottom of the 1978 disappearance in Libya of Musa Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese divine and Shiite politician, they turned to Mohammad Nassif. To their surprise, Nassif openly accused Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of kidnapping Musa al-Sadr and used the strongest invective in characterizing Libya’s strongman, but despite his belief in Qaddafi’s guilt, Nassif explained to his Iranian counterparts that any investigation into Sadr’s death would be useless. All the same, the Iranians insisted on talking to Hafiz al-Asad. True to Nassif’s warning, the President told the Iranian envoy: “the issue of Mr. Imam Musa Sadr is over. Unfortunately, I must insist that you not follow up Mr. Sadr [‘s case]”. Syrians never publicly accused the Pan-Arab leader of Libya of murdering Musa al-Sadr and, as it turned out, neither did Tehran. They swallowed their anger in recognition that Libya was too important to the unfolding Middle Eastern chess game to be sacrificed in an unconsidered fit of rage. Some insisted that Qaddafi murdered Sadr because the Libyan leader was furious at the mocking tone adopted by the learned Imam as the two leaders debated Sunni-Shiite theological differences. Others claimed that Yasser Arafat had asked Qaddafi to dispatch Sadr, a competitor in Lebanon. Now that Qaddafi has met his grisly death, the real reasons for Sadr’s death may never be known.

In the early 1980s, Syrians were concerned lest Iran embrace Yasser Arafat as an instrument of its broader revolutionary policy in the region. Khomeini seemed to flirt with the idea of forming an alliance with the PLO to harness the passions created by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mohammed Nassif took a strong anti-Arafat position; he advised Tehran against cooperation with the mercurial Palestinian. In 1981, an Iranian delegation dispatched by Tehran to meet Arafat in Beirut, stopped off in Damascus to see Nassif on their road West. Nassif argued against depending on Arafat who he described as unreliable and two-faced. Instead, Nassif asked the Iranians to side with Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, Lebanon’s dominant Shiite political movement. Syria’s anti-Arafat stand kept Iran from choosing Arafat, but despite Syria’s advocacy of Berri, Ayatollah Khomaini never agreed to meet Berri and the revolutionary clerics hung back from choosing a Lebanese client until the rise of Hizballah following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Nassif remained a key player in the triangular relations that bound Syria to Iran and Lebanon during the next decades. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he added Baghdad to his brief. In both Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s two principal arenas of cooperation and competition with Iran, Nassif played a crucial role. A loyal and substantial figure under both Asads, he knew how to remain in the shadows and eschewed self-aggrandizement or promoting family. His death brings to an end the influence of the original architects of the Asad regime.

* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than Northern Front” by Marika Sosnowski

MSosnowski-1The Syrian Southern Front: Why it Offers Better Justice and Hope than the Northern”
For Syria Comment – 9 July 2015
by Marika Sosnowski – @mikisosnowski

The coalition of several dozen local insurgent groups, known as ‘the Southern Front’, is consolidating its control in and around Daraa and the Houran Plain in Syria. While the Southern Front is not a cohesive organization but instead an alliance of units that are each individually linked to and funded by the Western- and Arab-backed Military Operations Center (MOC) in Amman, the coalition has in recent months shown itself to be adept in understanding the importance of establishing and maintaining a legitimate and authoritative justice provider. This is because a strong judiciary shows Syrians, and the world, that the Syrian opposition can effectively govern areas under its control. A strong judiciary also makes the Southern Front one of the few viable alternatives to the Assad regime that has emerged from this crisis.


Syrian policemen stand in front the burned court building that was set on fire by Syrian anti-government protesters, in the southern city of Daraa, Syria, Monday March 21, 2011. Mourners chanting “No more fear!” have marched through a Syrian city where anti-government protesters had deadly confrontations with security forces in recent days. The violence in Daraa, a city of about 300,000 near the border with Jordan, was fast becoming a major challenge for President Bashar Assad, who tried to contain the situation by freeing detainees and promising to fire officials responsible for the violence. (AP Photo/Hussein Malla)

Around November 2014, financial and military setbacks forced Jabhat al-Nusra, which also has a strong presence in the south, into an alliance with the Southern Front and other Islamists. The alliance consolidated the various Hay’at Al Sharia, or Islamic Justice Committees, that had been operating in the Southern Front’s area of control, into one Dar al-‘Adl known as the Dar al-‘Adl fi al-Hawran, or the Houran Courthouse, which is located in Gharz, southern Syria. Before that, the Islamic Justice Committees of the Southern Front had used a mix of tribal, Islamic, and customary law to maintain order, with some success.

While in many ways the union is borne out of strategic necessity the real difference with the formation of the Dar al-‘Adl is that nearly all the factions seem to back it, whereas the courts in the north are more fragmented and affiliated with smaller sets of armed groups. As such, the northern courts do not command the same authority or legitimacy with Syrians that the southern court seems to be garnering. Additionally, the relative strength of the Southern Front, gained in part through the consistent coordination and backing of the MOC, have enabled the creation of a unified court that includes groups such as al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The formation of the court draws on lessons learned from the north in seeking to prevent the Islamists from creating their own systems of governance.



In a display of both military power and good faith, the groups negotiated to appoint sixteen judges to the court. Half were chosen by the Southern Front with al-Nusra appointing four and the remainder selected by other Islamist groups that are part of the alliance, Harakat al-Muthana and Ahrar al-Sham. It is not clear whether the judges are independent or simply members of their respective factions. However, the Courthouse is not wholly religious or civil, following the original Justice Committees by using tribal, Islamic, and customary law to deal with cases common in rebel-held Syria. These include military, criminal, and administrative matters, as well as reconciling disputes involving civilians and armed factions. For example, once the court was established detainees being held by the various factions were handed over to the court for sentencing and detention. The Court also seems to be playing an active mediation role between armed factions, such as the Shohadaa al-Yarmouk Brigade and Jabhat al-Nusra. In the aftermath of a military operation in April to secure the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, the Court was also charged with establishing a judicial committee to record the claims of people affected during the operation.

While each faction would certainly prefer sole-control, the establishment of the Houran Court reflects a necessary practicality. With all sides unable to decisively establish dominance over the others on the battlefield, they have been compelled into compromise. Additionally, the establishment of one main justice provider is part of a pragmatic effort by the Southern Front to win civilian hearts and minds. External backers of the revolution may also see the Court as a relative success story for pragmatism showing that the Syrian opposition can create, ‘a “third way” of local governance that threatens Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the Syrian opposition movement as extremists and terrorists.’

The effectiveness of the Courthouse in Houran in upholding and enforcing the law is in stark contrast to the situation in the north of Syria. In rebel-held Idlib and Aleppo, many courts have been essentially white-anted by the armed groups or other power brokers in town making it impossible for them to enforce the law. While some courts operating in rebel-held areas, such as those established in the image of armed groups like the Islamic Front’s Aleppo Sharia Court, have the ways and means to enforce their rulings, other courts, such as the Unified Judicial Council that operated until February 2014 in Aleppo and northern Idlib, have little to no ability to implement the law without the support of an armed group.

Additionally, because a cohesive legal structure is essential to effective governance, local communities need to establish and develop one main justice provider (and an associated legal hierarchy) as well as decide on one consistent body of law to deal with legal issues. In Kafr Nobel and Saraqib in northern Idlib province, for example, there are as many as five justice providers including a Sharia Court, the local police force and a Security Committee. Additionally, there is as yet no opposition agreement on whether pre-Ba’athist Syrian Law, the Unified Arab Code or Sharia law should be used to arbitrate disputes. Particularly regarding civil matters, the opinion of local tribal leaders also remains authoritative.

The obstacles that plague the establishment of the rule of law in northern Syria don’t seem to be happening with the Dar al-Adl in the south. Groups have so far honoured the courts decisions including cases of criminal allegations against their own members. The Court also seems to be using a consistent body of law that builds on the work of the Southern Front’s original Justice Committees. However, at this stage, the Court remains firmly wedded to its armed backers.

In wartime, fortunes are won and lost on the battlefield. As the most recent battle for control of Daraa unfolds, it will be interesting to see how military results affect the Southern Front’s relationship with its Islamist partners. If the Southern Front gains militarily, its professed nationalist and democratic agenda could offer new hope for a Syrian opposition that, until relatively recently, was considered by many as either extremist or fratricidal.

*Marika Sosnowski is a Middle East researcher. She has taught the history and politics of the region at a number of universities and is a regular guest on Melbourne radio station Triple R.

End article


Idlib Falling Victim to Systematic Looting

Weeks after the city fell in the hands of rebel groups, Idlib is reportedly witnessing the systematic looting of public and private properties.

In the last few days, a number of activists from the city have been reporting the rising number of incidents involving the theft of state institutions and private assets alike.

In an interview on an opposition-affiliated radio, Ghazwan Qronfol, the head of the Free Syrian Lawyers Assembly, said, for instance, that members of the armed opposition groups had stolen hundreds of passenger cars and looted the private homes of many residents of the city, in particular those considered wealthy.

Other activists have also reported that public assets stolen have included the warehouse of the agricultural directorate of the city as well as the equipment of the Olive Bureau, the body in charge of monitoring the country’s olive sector and that is affiliated to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Also, machinery and equipment at the Idlib Spinning Plant, a large factory employing thousands of people, are reported to have been stolen.

Other parts of northern Syria that were taken over by opposition groups in the last three years have already been largely victim of chaos, theft and looting. Aleppo’s city, for instance, has seen the looting of hundreds of its plants.

However, many had hoped that Idlib would not face the same fate because of warnings by civil society groups and statements by rebel leaders that the same mistakes would not be repeated.

The chaos engulfing the city, however, raises again the case of the incapacity of the opposition to administer areas that fall outside the control of the regime.

The Syrian regime lost Idlib at the end of March after only a few days after the beginning of an offensive led by the Nusra Front and other radical Islamist groups.

At the time, the issue of how the city would be administered was raised and the National Coalition, the main non-military grouping of the opposition had asked rebel groups to protect private and public properties, to preserve the state’s institutions and ensure that they continued operating normally “to prove to the world that Syrians are capable of managing their country properly.”

While activists are making their anger increasingly heard on social media, there haven’t been yet reports of an opposition on the ground to the behaviour of the armed groups.

In addition to the prevailing lawlessness, the city faced a systematic bombing from the Syrian air force as soon as it fell outside the hands of the regime.

In a scenario that is reminiscent of many similar events in the last few years, the actions of the regime and of armed rebel groups have combined to make life unsustainable in the so-called “liberated” areas.

Who was Mohammad Nasif Kheirbek?” by Mohammad D.

Who Was Mohammad Nasif?
By Mohammad D.

For Syria Comment – June 30, 2015

Muhammad Nasif

Muhammad Nasif

Mohammad Nasif Kheirbek, one of Bashar al-Assad most trusted aids, died around 5 AM. Sunday, 6/28/2015 in al-Shami Hospital in Damascus  from Prostate cancer, which he was diagnosed with about 8 years ago.  Mohammad Nasif, as he is known in Syria, held important security positions under Hafez al-Assad, and then became an Assistant to Vice President Farouk al-Shar’a during the current rule of Bashar al-Assad.  He was very highly trusted by both Assads, and was one of the very few who made it from the reign of Hafez al-Assad to that of his son Bashar.

The family of  Mohammad Nasif

Not too many people know that Mohammad Nasif Kheirbeik hails from a very big and important Alawite family.  His grandfather is Isma’il Kheirbek (1822-1858), the head of al-Mtawra Alawite tribe. He traces his ancestry to al-Makzun al-Sinjari (1187-1240), one of the most important figures in Alawite history.

Ismai’il Kheirbek rebelled against the Ottomans and was able to carve out an independent enclave for about two years 1856-1858 that was centered in Misyaf (45 km west from Hama).   He fought the Ottomans and  their local allies, like al-Danadesheh, and allied himself with local Christians, like M. Nawfal. He and his allies tried to build bridges with the British.  Ismail’s effort at rebellion and independence ended when his uncle Ali al-Shilleh  poisoned him. Most of his family were subsequently killed and their bodies sent to the the Ottoman authorities. Soon, the Ottomans shelled al-Laqbah, Ismail Kheirbek’s village. Although Ismail had build a Sarai, with their artillery. That year, 1858, the Alawites rebelled again.

Hawash, the son of Isma’il Kheirbek, who survived the family bloodbath, started a rebellion. But, he was caught and exiled first to Akka and then to Rhodes, where he died in 1897.

The Hawash Kheirbek family played a prominent role in the Alawite State that was granted a broad degree of autonomy during the French during the Mandate (1920-1946).  Aziz Hawash became the  governor/muhafez of Damascus in 1936, Jihad Hawash, an Ambassador in the 1950s, married a granddaughter of Abd al-Qader al-Jazairi. Mohammad Hawash was an army general in the 1950s who also wrote a history about the Alawite State.

The life of Mohammad Nasif

Mohamamd Nasif was born in al-Laqbeh in 1937.  His father died when he was 4.  Later, as a teenager, he moved to live with his well-to-do father’s sister living in Hama.  Not too many Alawites lived in Hama at that time.  But his aunt took care of him and Mohammad was able to graduate form Ibn Rushd high school.

After high school, he moved to Aleppo to get Ahliyat al-Ta’lim (certified as a teacher), at a two-year institute.   He became an elementary school teacher in 1958.  Then, he was appointed in al-Qamishli becoming a principle for an elementary school in two years.  But, in 1960 he was called to do mandatory army service.  At this moment, he changed his career outlook and joined the Military Academy in Homs, where he graduated in 1964.  In 1965 he was appointed in Far’a 225 where he spend the next ten years. In 1975, he was transferred to head Far’a 251 of Amn Dakhili (Interior Security).

It was during his years working for al-Amn al-Dakhili that Nasif became what he is.  So, when the fight between Hafez al-Assad, and his regime versus the Muslim Brothers’s started in 1979, Mohammad Nasif was in the midst of it.  His loyalty to Hafez al-Assad was crucial.

During this time period, Mohamamd Nasif played an important role combating the enemies of Hafez al-Assad in and around Damascus.  “He was a very hard working man. Did not get married and spent all of his time in his office at that time period,” according to a source.   His security branch, along with the two headed by Ali Duba (Mukhaba Askariyah/Army Intelligence) and Mohamamd al-Khuli (Mukhabarat Jawiyyah/ Air Force Intelligence), were according to many, the bedrock of Hafez al-Assad’s rule.

The enemies of Mohamamd Nasif speak of his reign on top of al-Amn al-Dakhili as an era of terror, intimidation, and torture.

Muhammad Nasif was let go from al-Amn al-Dakhili in 1999.  He was given a high job in the Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-‘Ammah (Intelligence General Directorate), and later in 2005 he was appointed the Assistant to Faruk al-Shar’, the Syrian Vice President.  He was one of the few that were left from the old guards of Hafez al-Assad.

When the Syrian Crisis started in 2011, Muhammad Nasif was almost retired, according to members of his family.  He was brought back because of his knowledge and good relations with many people. Most important was his close relationship with Iran’s top leaders.

According to those who knew him, Muhammad Nasif was a workaholic and man of few words. He rarely answered questions and always spoke politely.  Not too many things were known about him, which was just as he liked it.

The Massacre of Druze Villagers in Qalb Lawza, Idlib Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

Muhammad Sharif Aqfali (Abu Aymenn)

Badro Khayro al-Shabali

Aymenn Muhammad Aqfali, son of Abu Aymenn above.

Maymun Muhammad Aqfali

Rashad Faysal al-Shabali

Sheikh Rasheed Sa’ad

Ahmad Muhammad Hussein (Abu Muhammad)

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

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

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

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


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

Kaftin: 20 Rajab  1436 AH”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mohammed AtaieThe Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik?

by Mohammad Ataie


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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