America’s Failure – and Russia and Iran’s Success – in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War – By Joshua Landis

America’s Failure — and Russia and Iran’s Success — in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War

By Joshua Landis interviewed by John Judis for TPM, where this was published on
January 10, 2017

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Judis: What’s your assessment of the Obama administration’s intervention in Syria. How has it gone? Is it a success or a failure?

Landis: You know, I think that in one important respect, it’s a success. That’s because he kept his foot on the brakes and resisted what he has called “the playbook” of foreign policy circles in Washington, which is to get sucked into these civil wars in the Middle East. There is no way that the United States was going to solve the Syria Problem in any constructive way – and just keeping us out of it to the extent he did was a boon.

Everyone wanted us to solve their Syria problem, whether it was Lebanon or Israel or Turkey or Iraq, because they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, they all had different visions of who we should be helping and what kind of Syria would come out of the other end of the meat grinder. And had the United States gotten in there, it would not have made a better sausage. We’ve seen that regime change has been a bad idea.

Obama’s Call for Regime Change

Judis: But Obama did intervene. In 2011, he called for Syrian President Basher al-Assad to step down. Didn’t saying that appear to commit the United States to do something about it?

Landis: It did, and it was a mistake. Obama’s statement that Assad had to step aside was an aspirational statement. He never intended to commit America to carrying it out. It is easy to understand why he said it. The whole world was looking at America during the early days of the Arab Spring to see what its policy would be. America was torn about the meaning of the Arab Spring uprising. Both the media, western pundits, and Arab activists in the Middle East had convinced the Western world that the Arab Spring was about democracy.

They said it was 1848, it was Paris 1968, it was the fall of communism in 1990.* The metaphors could go on and on. Journalists were grasping for every metaphor and similar episode in Western history to demonstrate that the Arab people were finally rising up against their bad governments to demand democracy and be more like the West. In his remarkable 1991 book The Third Wave Samuel Huntington argued that the modern world had seen three moments of liberalization and democratization. Western observers and Arab liberals alike hoped that the uprising, which they named a “Spring” to confirm their aspiration, would herald in a fourth wave.

The only problem is that the Arab uprisings were not primarily about democracy or even liberalism. Democracy was not a central demand voiced in the slogans of the demonstrators. “Dignity” or “karama” in Arabic and “freedom” or “hurriya” were central words used from Tunisia to Syria; so were phrases such as “down with the regime,” and “get out, Bashar.” Demonstrators were unanimous in wanting to get rid of the oppressive and corrupt dictators that ruled over them. The benefit of these general demands was that Islamists, who wanted a caliphate or Sharia law, could use them as readily as liberals who shared western values.

“The only problem is that the Arab uprisings were not primarily about democracy or even liberalism. Democracy was not a central demand voiced in the slogans of the demonstrators.”

 

Judis:I remember Obama’s speech at the State Department in May 2011 when he extolled the Arab Spring and said “it will be the policy of the United States…to support transitions to democracy.”

Landis:[The administration] bought into this notion that they should put their shoulder to the wheel of regime change in order to help be a midwife to this democracy movement. The problem was that it was not a democracy movement. It was a change movement. People wanted dignity but it was a very disorganized and chaotic movement. The trouble is that in each of the Arab countries, once you destroy the very fragile state structures that have been assembled since World War I and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, you don’t get a George Washington bringing together the 13 colonies. You get fragmentation and lots of warlords and emirs.

Nationalism is not a strong enough identity to bind the people of Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq together. Or the Palestinians, for that matter. Instead, subnational and supranational identities emerged among the people of each country to undermine common national sentiment. Loyalty to clan, village, region, tribe and religion have bedeviled the Arab uprisings. This is why the opposition movements in Libya or Syria have been so fragmented. It is why thousands of militias formed in Syria. The US was powerless to unite them.

This is what America faced in Iraq when it destroyed Saddam’s regime. And it’s what happened in Libya. In Libya, western politicians argued that the opposition was sufficiently united for us to throw our weight behind it. We convinced the United Nations Security Council to declare it the legitimate government, based on this false assumption, and to shift all the money that belonged to Gadhafi’s state to the Libyan opposition. Of course, the opposition was not united. We just wanted it to be. It was a bunch of propaganda. And that’s the same propaganda we fell for in Iraq with [Ahmed] Chalabi.

Judis: So in the sense of seeing America’s role in the region as promoting democracy and regime change, the Obama administration was continuing what George W. Bush did in the region.

Landis: Our national religion is democracy. When in doubt, we revert to our democracy talking points, which is what Obama did. It is a matter of faith. He didn’t know what the hell was going on in Syria. I was invited to participate in a number of CIA confabulations and policy “think-out-of-the-black-box” hoedowns during the first months of the uprising. The intelligence community was unanimous in predicting that Assad would fall quickly. People were lost. Everyone was simply projecting their own interests and pet theories onto the uprisings. It was only natural that our aspirations would overtake fact-based analysis. We didn’t have many facts. The situation was moving so fast. We were facing unprecedented changes, so it was easy to get caught up in imagining all sorts of transformations.

Obama also felt pressure from domestic interest groups and Middle Eastern allies to get out in front of Assad’s fall. In Egypt, Obama had been criticized for backing [Hosni] Mubarak until the eleventh hour; he didn’t want to make the same mistake in Syria, and he didn’t have to. Unlike Egypt, Syria had been a thorn in America’s side. It had been an enemy since opposing the United States’ decision to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, Washington supported several coup d’états in Syria beginning in 1949. When successive coup attempts in 1956 and 1957 failed, Damascus veered squarely into Moscow’s sphere of influence, never to come out of it. Syria’s military is entirely armed and trained by Russia. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria since the 1970s. For its part, Syria has consistently supported America’s enemies: Hezbollah, Palestinian groups, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To add insult to injury, Assad actively opposed America’s occupation of Iraq. For these reasons, Obama’s decision to demand that Assad step aside was a no-brainer.

The only problem was that no one in Washington had any real understanding of the Syrian opposition. They couldn’t name one opposition group that had any support in the country. There were lots of demonstrations and plenty of popular energy demanding change, but Assad still had the army, air force, and intelligence agencies on his side. Their upper ranks were packed with sympathizers, who would not defect. He has lots of teeth and the willingness to use them. There were lots of reasons to think that he was going to survive for a long time and to doubt Western assertions that he had lost his “legitimacy.”

Everyone wanted to speak about the “Syrian people,” but there was no “Syrian people” who speak with one voice. Syrians are deeply divided along religious, ethnic, class and regional lines. Anyone who had lived in Syria for a significant amount of time understood that lots of Syrians would support Assad to the death, especially if they felt that Islamists might come to power. I had written several articles about the Syrian opposition before 2011, and the conclusion that I had come to was that they were hopelessly divided and back-biting. They hated each other and would never agree among themselves on an alternative to Assad. The liberal, pro-Western class in Syria was small. It would be quickly destroyed between the hammer of Islamist groups and the anvil of Assad’s security apparatus.

President Barack Obama delivers his Middle East speech at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Would Arming the Rebels Have Helped?

Judis: So by setting up the Syrian National Council in August 2011 as a transition to a new Syrian regime, were Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fostering illusions?

Landis: Yes. We were gambling that we could create a unified Syrian opposition. And Syrian opposition people were telling us that Syria was not like Iraq or Lebanon — that the Syrian trading mentality was one of compromise and moderation, and that Syrian Islam was moderate as well, dominated by Sufis and opponents of Salafism. Extremism would not prevail, they insisted. Syria would neither radicalize nor fragment.

President Obama bought into the aspirational talking points about Assad’s likely fall as well as the desire to support democracy, human rights and opposition to dictators, but he was adamantly opposed to involving the US in another regional civil war without a clear exit strategy. He put his foot on the brakes as soon as it became clear that Assad wasn’t going to go quickly. He refused any demand that the U.S. spend real money. We may have ponied up several billion dollars a year for Syria between humanitarian, non-lethal, and military support to the opposition, but we were not going to do an Iraq, where we were spending $5 billion dollars a week.

Judis: Hillary Clinton’s argument was that if we had armed the so-called moderate rebels in 2012, as she and David Petraeus advocated, the results would have been different.

Landis: Syrian rebels were going to radicalize regardless of American largesse or arms. The notion that the United States could shape the Syrian opposition with money is spurious. Many activists and Washington think tankers argue that the reason the radicals won in Syria is because they were better funded than moderate militias; Gulf states sent money to radicals while the United States and Europe starved moderates. No evidence supports this. Radicals got money because they were successful. They fought better, had better strategic vision and were more popular. The notion that had Washington pumped billions of dollars to selected moderate militias, they would’ve killed the extremists and destroyed Assad’s regime, is bunkum.

Judis: Yes, that’s the argument that Clinton was still making in some form last year.

Landis: That logic was pie in the sky. There’s nothing to support that logic. If we look across the Middle East, every time a regime has been destroyed, whether in Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan, there has been a grace period of three to six months during which the whole society is, in a sense, in shock and has hunkered down to see what regime change would bring. Will the Americans magically provide substitute state structures and services?

Then when they realize that the U.S. is clueless and chaos prevails, they begin to get organized. Islamists push aside civic groups preferred by the U.S. because they are willing to fight. They’ve got an ideology and a plan. They have good fighters and a deep back bench. Al-Qaeda and other radical groups have been fighting to overthrow the regional order and its secular regimes for decades. Assad managed to corner the market on secular nationalism and notions such as the separation of church and state. Moderate nationalist elements among the opposition failed to put forward a compelling vision of an inclusive, non-Sharia-based Syria that would treat religious minorities and non-Arabs as equals. None of the opposition groups championed secularism. Islamists won the ideological battle for hearts and minds and the black flag of Islam was quickly raised above that of the Syrian tricolor among the dominant opposition groups.

America did try to organize the “moderates.” America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.

It pursued three different strategies to build a moderate opposition in Syria and each failed more spectacularly than the one before it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did everything she could to get 97 nations together as the Friends of Syria and begin to offer diplomatic and financial support to the Syrian opposition at conferences and international meetings. She sought to mold the opposition into something that America and the West could get behind. Something moderately liberal, open minded and nationalist. With the help of Qatar, she nurtured the emergence of the Syrian National Council to act as the political representatives of the opposition. In each of their several elections, the Muslim Brothers won because they were the best organized. America would find an excuse not to recognize its leadership. America’s effort to shape and promote a military strategy for the opposition failed even more spectacularly. It promoted the construction of a Supreme Military Council in 2012 to act as the military counterpart to the Syrian National Council.

“Syrian rebels were going to radicalize regardless of American largesse or arms. The notion that the United States could shape the Syrian opposition with money is spurious.”

 

The Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army was led by a Chief of Staff named Salim Idris, a portly defector from the Syrian Army with zero charisma. He oversaw multiple warehouses jammed with equipment supplied by various intelligence agencies that he could dole out to the moderate militias in an effort to purchase their loyalty and theoretically bind them together under his leadership. He never gained any authority over the swarm of militias he helped to outfit. When radical Islamist militias decided that he wasn’t generous enough, they marched on his warehouses and plundered them. They took all equipment and everything that had been supplied by the United States. They stripped the men guarding the warehouses down to their skivvies, hogtied them, and left them rolling on the floor.

Not one Free Syrian Army militia came to his defense; instead, they mocked his misfortunes on social media. Idris had to hightail it back to Turkey, where he blamed… who? Washington. Idris fell back on the same tired excuses that Syrian activists had practiced for their own failure: Washington wasn’t generous enough. But the truth was just the opposite. Washington had given him too much materiel and it was now in the hands of al-Qaeda and friends. In Iraq, where the U.S. was infinitely more generous in arming bumbling “moderates,” we all know the shameful story of how ISIS stripped Iraq’s American trained brigades of hundreds of tanks, Humvees and artillery pieces with hardly a shot fired.

That was a terrible embarrassment for the CIA and for the United States. And so they came up with a new strategy, which was to contact scores of militia leaders in Syria directly. We built them up for quite some time, until March 2015, but those guys, most notably the Hazm Movement and Jamal Maarouf’s, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, got crushed by Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist ally of Nusra. Once again, America’s proxies either joined the jihadists and other Islamist groups or they abandoned the battle field and left arms to be gobbled up by the radicals. Critics argued that the U.S. was effectively arming al-Qaeda, even if unintentionally.

The final major effort by Washington to help the rebels was an official Department of Defense “train and equip” project, for which 1.5 billion dollars were earmarked. We decided we were going to bring individuals out of Syria that could be properly vetted, train and armed training camps situated in Jordan and Turkey. These brigades would be controlled directly by Americans. But we only trained and equipped 65 guys in Turkey, and when we sent them back, they were destroyed! The commander of our vetted troops defected to al Qaeda with arms and with many of the best trained men. So all three strategies for uniting, arming, equipping, and training anti-Assad rebels failed miserably.

The radicals won not because America ignored the moderates and starved them. They won because they had better fighters, who were more committed and better led by seasoned fighters who had a vision of the sort of society and government they wished to build. They dominated the battlefield. That’s why ISIS swept through the area Eastern Syria in 2014 and gobbled up most of Sunni Iraq without firing a shot. Islamism proved to be the only ideology capable of uniting Syrians on a national level, binding rebels together from north and south of the country.

The so-called moderates were simply local strongmen who gathered around themselves cousins, clan members and fighters from their village and the village next to theirs. But go two or three villages away, and they were viewed as foreigners and troublemakers, who were venal and predatory. They were warlords. Few could gather more than a thousand men around them. Most a lot less. They didn’t have an ideology and couldn’t articulate a vision for Syria. This is why America’s effort to unite the Free Syria Army amounted to a hill of beans. Syrian society is fragmented. Assad and ISIS both deploy lots of coercion, corruption and clientelism to hold their states together, whether they profess ideologies of secular nationalism or Islamic Caliphalism. America cannot buy its way to success in such an environment.

Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan, near Idlib, Syria. The training is part of an attempt to transform the rag-tag rebel groups into a disciplined fighting force. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Obama and the Red Line

Judis: Even those who didn’t favor arming the rebels in 2012 might still say that when Obama laid down the “red line” on Assad’s use of poison gas in 2012 and then failed to follow through a year later with an air attack against the regime, the United States lost an opportunity to cripple the regime and force some kind of compromise.

Landis: The people who were filled with hope that America would somehow destroy the Assad regime and put Syria back together constantly projected their wishes onto Obama. He was saying from the beginning that he was not going to get involved, that America would not lead in Syria. And he constantly iterated on the redline that the United States would do some punitive strikes but would not try to change the balance of power in the civil war. What he did say he was going to do was uphold the internationally accepted norm that chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction should not be used, and he did that.

Judis: So Obama was being consistent when he rejected air strikes and opted instead for negotiating with the Russians and Syrians?

Landis: Totally. If he had not negotiated with the Russians and Assad to get those things out of the battlefield, if he had instead chosen to bomb 200 Syrian soldiers and blow up some sites of chemical weapons in a punitive raid, it might have had no effect. Or if, let’s say, he had destabilized the Assad regime and it had fallen, by that time the radical militias were the dominant militias and they would’ve taken Damascus! You would’ve had 1000 different militias grabbing chemical weapons from the various places they were hidden and stored around Syria. The whole Middle East would be a giant silo for saran gas and nerve agents of every kind! It would’ve been a disaster. So Obama’s achievement of getting rid of those chemical weapons was a great boon to the Syrians, to the Middle East more generally, and to the West.

Judis: Since then, has the administration’s strategy has been implicitly to leave Assad in place and to concentrate instead on defeating ISIS?

Landis: Yes, because it became increasingly clear that if Assad were destroyed, radicals would likely take over. You could possibly have al Qaeda, or later ISIS, take Damascus. Had a major Middle Eastern capital fallen to either, what a disaster it would have been. At least in Iraq, we have been able to build up the Iraqi army to retake Mosul, a city less than half the size of Damascus. In Syria, who could we arm? We are finding it difficult to retake Raqqa from ISIS, a dusty provincial capital of a few hundred thousand people. Would the U.S. army try to retake Damascus alone? Would it try to reconstitute the Syrian Army to serve as a partner? Imagine the embarrassment of such a solution. Were ISIS to have ensconced itself in Damascus, Lebanon would surely have fallen and Jordan would’ve been up against it. Talk about dominoes.

“The U.S. doesn’t know what the cause of jihadism is. Washington doesn’t know how to get rid of the conditions that produce dictators. Every time we remove a dictator, we spread chaos and multiply jihadists.”

 

Saudi diplomats, Syrian activists and many analysts in Washington insist that to destroy ISIS, the U.S. must first destroy Assad. They argue that by leaving Assad in place, the rest of the Middle East is going to fall apart because Assad created ISIS. This is spin. Assad did release most Islamists from his jails in 2011 and several made their way into ISIS’s ranks, but they are chicken feed compared to the top cadres of ISIS who were released from American-run jails. Caliph Baghdadi himself was held in Iraq’s Camp Bukka. He, of course, is the leader of ISIS. One might also point to the two Moroccans released from Gitmo who made their way to Syria, started militias and killed hundreds of innocent Syrians. Using the released-from-prison criteria, one should sooner argue that ISIS was created by the United States than Assad. I haven’t heard anyone in D.C. arguing for the destruction of the American government as a solution to ISIS.

The fact of the matter is that radical Salafist ideology has spread from one corner of the Middle East to the other. It is a dominant force in many places where Assad is unknown. Violent regime-change has been a primary cause of the spread of radical Islamic groups, and should not be a viewed as a solution to it. Certainly, bad government, anemic economic growth, oppression and dictatorship must be contributing factors to the popularity of radical ideologies, but the U.S. doesn’t know what the cause of jihadism is. Washington doesn’t know how to get rid of the conditions that produce dictators. Every time we remove a dictator, we spread chaos and multiply jihadists. The answers that Washington has come up with for combating terror and dictatorship in the Middle East have failed. We should stop trying the same old things – regime-change chief among them.

Trump and The Russian Playbook in Syria

Judis: What about the Russian role in Syria? They brought their air force to bear in September of 2015.

Landis: Indeed. Russia escalated as soon as they sensed that Assad might fall. So did Iran. Not only does Russia have a major naval base in Tartus and an historic alliance with Syria, but more than that, Syria is the last redoubt of Russian’s major presence in the Middle East during the Cold War. After the fall of communism in 1990, Russia was forced to retreat from the region, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is rebuilding. He sees Syria as the key to a much larger sphere of influence to the south of Russia. Syria is centrally located, it sits on the border with Israel and gives Russia a cockpit to rebuild a new security structure in the northern Middle East that extends from Iran to Lebanon. Putin has become a major player on the world stage because of his dominant role in Syria. He has leveraged his position there to negotiate with [Secretary of State John] Kerry over 30 times in Geneva and other places.

Russia also has a good argument behind its strategy in Syria. Putin believes that Middle Eastern societies are not ripe for democracy. He has stated that America’s policy of democracy promotion has caused spread chaos and jihadism. He believes that the Middle East needs strong men just as surely as Russia does. Russia knows how to administer that. Whether it’s Erdogan in Turkey, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, he believes that strong state authority is necessary. Getting rid of the corrupt dictatorial class will not give birth to a Jeffersonian democracy. He has accused America of spreading chaos and radicalism. Putin has said that he is not going to let America do that in Syria because over three thousand Chechen and other Russian citizens are fighting in Syria. He fears that if they come home, they will attack Russians and spread mayhem.

Judis: So what does Donald Trump do now?

Landis: It’s not easy to make sense of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East from the few little one-liners that he’s gotten off. But let me try. He is not a democracy promoter, and he probably shares Putin’s belief that democracy doesn’t fit the region. He doesn’t have a high regard for Muslims altogether. He’s an isolationist. In some ways he’s a throwback to the America Firsters of the 1930s. He only believes that the United States should intervene if it is directly threatened.

“Trump has looked at the Russian playbook and pronounced it smart! Trump’s critique resonated with the American people, who warmed to it. They are tired of paying for misguided foreign adventures.”

 

He is also against regime-change. He formulated his critique of Middle East policy from what happened in Libya, which gave him an easy way to take pot shots at Clinton. He proclaimed Libya was a disaster. What Clinton did in destroying a dictator – even one as nasty as Qaddafi – was to make the situation worse. Regime change was a disaster, he stated.

Judis: Didn’t Trump actually start by attacking Jeb Bush and his brother’s invasion of Iraq, highlighting its disastrous consequences? That happened in 2015 in the primary.

Landis: He was initially reluctant to criticize the whole Bush legacy, but he warmed up to the task and then he really let it rip. He stated that Iraq had turned into the “Harvard of jihadism.” He was restating the Russian critique, in a sense. He concluded that America shouldn’t do regime change. It should recognize that strongmen are necessary to keep order. In a sense he’s taken the Republican party back to its pre-neoconservative days. One can hear undertones of [former UN Ambassador] Jeane Kirkpatrick in his statements. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, she argued that there are some dictators that are better than other dictators.* In his case, the others are the Islamists. Therefore we should have stuck with Gadhafi, Saddam and Assad.

He also suggested that we should let the Russians take care of Syria. They’re killing ISIS. Let’s team up with them, and leave Assad in power. He may be a terrible dictator but he’s better than the alternatives. So Trump has looked at the Russian playbook and pronounced it smart! Trump’s critique resonated with the American people, who warmed to it. They are tired of paying for misguided foreign adventures. Even [Senator Ted] Cruz, who was following the Bush handbook, reversed himself! Almost all the Republicans started making the Trump argument. It was an amazing about-face.

Judis: So do you expect he will continue to look to the Russian playbook when he becomes president?

Landis: The trouble is that Trump doesn’t have any isolationists around him. There hasn’t been an isolationist party in America since the 1930s and so he has no isolationist cadres to draw from. We see him drawing from a lot of tough generals for his cabinet. Although they are not neocons, they are certainly in favor of a more robust American foreign policy. They are not isolationists. They are universally anti-Iran; most seem to be anti-Russian as well, despite Trump’s proclivities, so it’s hard to know what he’s going to do.

President Reagan jokes with former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick during the playing of the National Anthem in this Feb. 11, 1988 file photo at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Iranian-Russian dominance

Judis: What kinds of choices does Trump have in Syria?

Landis: Many people want to force Russia and Iran out of Syria – at least, that is what they suggest. The only way to do that would be to fire up the rebels. We should not do that. The rebel strategy has failed. We need to come to terms with that. But let me take a different tack in explaining the realities for Washington.

What we see happening in the Northern Middle East today is the construction of a new security architecture that is dominated by Iran and Russia. This has happened in large part because of America’s miscalculation in Iraq. When we destroyed Saddam’s Sunni supremacy in Iraq and helped Shiites to power, we opened the way to the formation of a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

Our stated talking point is that Iran is an aggressive and malevolent power that is forcefully trying to assert itself across the Middle East; it must be contained. But our military strategy is diametrically opposed to our stated goal of containment. Our military strategy has been to help the spread of Shiite and Iranian power. We have poured arms and money into the Iraqi army that is dominated by Shiites. We are bombing ISIS which is the most capable part of the Sunni rebellion. We have thwarted every attempt to overthrow the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. Russia is doing the exact same thing in Syria. To combat Sunni extremism and terrorism, the US and Russia have aligned themselves with Iran. They are using Shiite dominated militaries and militias to destroy ISIS and al-Qaeda.

In Iraq, in order to roll back ISIS and al-Qaeda which are targeting Americans and Europeans, the United States has no alternative but to ally itself with these Iranian backed militias. They have fire in their bellies to destroy ISIS. Several weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend who commands Coalition Forces in Iraq praised the rapid progress of Iraq’s Shiite militias that have been trained by Iran, claiming that they had “advanced more rapidly than we expected and they’ve done a good job.”

The Iraqi army that America had trained and equipped was designed to be loyal to an Iraqi constitution and nation that few believe in. It crumbled in the face of ISIS. America did not understand the nature of military power in the Middle East which is based on traditional loyalties, which means defending your sect and your clan and your village or proverbial tribe. The local Shiite militias believe that if they don’t kill ISIS they will be wiped out by them, which they will be. They are not driven by religious fervor, but by communal loyalties around a shared religious culture. In some respects, religion is the new ethnicity in the Middle East. With the collapse of secular dictators that have held sway since World War II, religious identities have become ever more bound up in national identities.

Judis: But the Sunni countries are not going along with this change in power relations.

Landis: The Syrian civil war, like that in Iraq, quickly became a sectarian war as each side tried to mobilize support along religious lines. Both sides fear that the other will carry out ethnic cleansing or genocide. The geo-strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has only exacerbated this polarization along religious lines. Each regional power has funded or trained sectarian militias. But along the geographic arch stretching from Iran to Lebanon, Shiites are winning out, and it is making Sunnis apoplectic. It seems to them as if the world is being turned upside down.

The Arab world was always a Sunni world. The Ottoman Empire was a Sunni Empire. The Shiites were the dirt farmers and officially discriminated against. To have the underprivileged rise and become the dominant force in politics in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is shocking. To many it seems to defy a divine order. In Iraq, many Sunnis confronted the new reality with denial. They refused to recognize that Shiites made up the majority of Iraq’s population. Many Shiites were accused of being Persians and not true Iraqis.

“With the collapse of secular dictators that have held sway since World War II, religious identities have become ever more bound up in national identities.”

 

The derogatory language used by much of opposition to refer to Shiites and Alawites in Syria reveals how sectarian the struggle has become. Militia leaders do not view Shiites as true Muslims; rather, they accuse them of being “Arfad” or “rejecters,” who denounce the founding fathers of true Islam. And because they have the wrong religion, they are commonly seen to also have the wrong ethnicity. A common epithet for Shiites in Syria is “Majous,” which can translate to “Magi” in English. It is used to suggest that Shiites are crypto-Persians and not true Arabs.

Hezbollah is almost universally referred to in opposition videos coming out of Syria, not as “The party of Allah,” as its name would correctly be translated, but as “The Party of the Devil,” or “Hezbolshaitan.” Shiites are frequently described as “najis” or “filth.” This is a term from the Qu’ran that carries religious significance as impure. A number of rebel leaders in Syria have publically called for purifying Syria of the Shiite filth that defiles it and of driving the Alawites into the sea. Of course, some of this rhetoric can be dismissed as simple propaganda meant to whip up fighting spirit.

All the same, this conflict over religious identity has become integrated with a conflict over national power. This is a dangerous situation because it can so easily result in ethnic cleansing and even genocide. We have witnessed similar ethnic and religious conflicts taken to extremes in Central Europe during World War II when six million Jews that were destroyed in the name of nationalism and when an estimated 35 million people were ethnically cleansed.

Judis: And why are the Shiites winning out? Is it all because of America’s inadvertently helping them against their enemies?

Landis: Yes, Shiites are winning in the northern Middle East. They are winning for four reasons. When western intelligence agencies initially predicted that Sunni rebels would win, they made the common mistake of viewing Syria as a discrete country bounded by impermeable borders. They assumed that because Sunni Arabs make up 70 percent of the Syrian population and Alawites only 12 percent, Sunnis would win. The Syrian struggle, even if it turned into a war of attrition, would favor Sunnis who had larger numbers.

But this turned out to be a mistaken calculation because the entire region became a battlefield. If we count the sectarian balance of the Arabs who live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian border, Shiite Arabs predominate. The Shiite Arabs of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq exceed the Sunni Arabs of the same region in numbers, even if only slightly. I would argue that this is part of the explanation for why the Sunnis are losing today. Shiites have greater numbers.

Hezbollah and Iraqi support for Assad has also been crucial to the survival of the Syrian Arab Army. This is not to mention the critical support of Shiite Iran, which has been overwhelming. All believe that if the Shiites allow the Sunnis to cut their “Shiite Crescent” in two by destroying Assad’s hold on Syria and imposing a Sunni ascendency there, they will all be greatly weakened. They cannot allow their Gulf, Israeli, and Turkish enemies – not to mention the “West” defeat them. This is the “conspiracy” that Assad and the others constantly refer to.

In Syria, the regime, by turning the revolt so quickly into an armed conflict, has been able to cement the loyalty of the urban elites. Upper-class urban Sunnis have stuck by the regime. They had to weigh the benefits of sticking with their Alawite praetorian guard, whom they disdain, against backing rural Islamist militias, whom they fear. Western sanctions failed to persuade the wealthy to abandon the regime and join the predominately rural poor. In Aleppo, the industrial city of Syria, the rich saw that rebels would show them no mercy. Over a thousand factories in the suburbs and industrial outskirts of Aleppo were ransacked and stripped by militias in the early months of the armed conflict. Wealthy urbanites were taken as hostages and their stuff robbed. As the old adage has it, “the wealthy don’t like revolutions.”

When the Sunni militias embraced Salafi-jihadism , that precluded whole-hearted Western support and ultimately caused Obama and others to turn away from them. As the the United States has retreated from its role as policeman of the world to concentrate on the regions of priority to it, powerful countries are again reasserting zones of influence. In this case, Iran and Russia are claiming the Syria-Iraq-Lebanon corridor. This “Shiite Crescent,” for lack of a better term.

Judis: But isn’t it dangerous to allow Russia and Iran to spread their authority?

Landis: Analysts in Washington are telling us that the United States must destroy this new Iranian-Russian arc of influence. The problem is that, with America’s help, Iran and Russia have consolidated their power in the region.

The only way to destroy it would be to fire up the Sunni insurgencies that are now largely destroyed. This would be a mistake. Not only would it fail, but it might also lead to the ethnic cleansing of Sunni populations if passions are not cooled and stability restored.

Judis: And does the recent agreement among the Russians, Turks, and Syrians signal further movement toward Assad reconquering Syria and Russia consolidating its place in the region?

Landis: Yes, it does. Only last week Turkey, Russia and Iran issued a joint statement to the effect that everyone must respect Syria’s sovereignty. With this statement, one must conclude that Turkey is prepared to throw in the towel on the Syrian opposition in exchange for Assad helping to thwart the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Syria.

Trump’s Choices in Syria

Judis: So what does this mean for a Trump presidency?

Landis: The question is whether Trump should resign himself to this new security architecture — to the fact that Iran and Russian are going to be the dominant players in the northern region. I think he has to concede this role to Russia. First, Syria has always been a Russian client. Second, President Obama has already made this decision. When the Russians jumped into the Syrian war in 2015, Obama declared that the United States would not fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. The moment he said that I knew that the Syrian rebels were finished. The writing was on the wall. Only U.S. escalation could have stopped Assad’s military from making a comeback.

The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.

Assad is on his way to reconquering Syria one village after another. The insurgencies that are still there cannot hold up against an army that has Russian backing. For America to give Syrian rebels hope that they can hold would be a deception. It would simply extend the killing and prolong the civil war.

The coalition around America including the Gulf states and Turkey have poured over $20 billion into Syria to arm the rebels. If they hadn’t injected that money, Assad would’ve won a lot more quickly. Fewer Syrians would have been killed. And many fewer Syrians would have fled their homes.

Judis: So let’s return to Trump. What can he do?

Landis: Trump ultimately needs to bite the bullet just as Obama did and resist getting sucked into a very fragmented society and civil war. The Russians and Assad are going to re-impose the Assad state over Syria. That is of course a very brutal reality, but at this point, the majority of Syrians probably want stability and security. They are willing to bow their head to any authority that can offer it. America is not going to change that reality so it shouldn’t keep the embers of this revolution alive.

The dilemma for the next administration will be how to position itself vis-a-vis Assad’s Syria. Should it simply turn its back on Syria and force Russia and Iran to rebuild it? Should it continue to impose crushing sanctions on the regime? This might be emotionally satisfying. We could preserve our taking points, which are that Syria should be a democracy and that we do not support dictatorships.

I just attended a conference at the Baker Institute where the attitude of many analysts was to let Russia and Iran choke on Syria. Let’s see if we can turn it into a swamp for them, seemed to be the prevailing attitude. They want to punish Iran and Russia. But this condemns the Syrians to prolonged deprivation and would ensure that many refugees never go home.

“The dilemma for the next administration will be how to position itself vis-a-vis Assad’s Syria. Should it simply turn its back on Syria and force Russia and Iran to rebuild it? Should it continue to impose crushing sanctions on the regime?”

 

Alternatively, we could try to achieve some modest goals by offering sanction relief. After all, America will not be a big player in Syria. It renounced that role. What could the United States hope to achieve? One possibility would be to get Red Cross observers into the prisons in Syria to catalogue prisoners and alleviate the worst abuses we know are taking place there. We could help with education. Any future hope of rebuilding civil society and democracy in Syria will come through education. What about helping to preserve and rebuild the historic downtowns destroyed in Aleppo and Homs? What about world heritage sites, such as Palmyra?

Should the U.S. try to do these things, all of which would require some level of engagement with the Assad regime? Or do we keep our “hands clean” and say, “screw Syria?” That is our choice. It is not a good choice, but I think there is only one correct answer. The sooner we come to terms with our inability to change the regime in Syria, the sooner we will be able to do some good, even if it is modest. Syrians have experienced enough suffering and deprivation.

______________________________________

* In 1848, anti-monarchical revolutions swept through Europe. They were put down, but were the precursor in several countries to parliamentary government. In 1968, a revolt against Charles de Gaulle’s presidency began among college youth and spread to the working class, eventually leading to de Gaulle retiring.
* In 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an influential essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she argued that the United States should not hesitate to back an authoritarian regime if the alternative were a communist one.

Local Loyalist Militias of Suwayda’: Katibat Jalamid Urman (Dir’ al-Jabal)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Katibat Jalamid Urman, featuring the group’s name on top as well as the appended name Dir’ al-Jabal on the bottom. In the middle is the star that represents the Druze faith. The rim of the emblem consists of the Syrian flag.

Previous posts on regime loyalist factions in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’ have primarily looked at groups existing on the wider provincial level, such as Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar of Nazih Jerbo’ and the Dir’ al-Watan grouping led by Syrian army officer veteran Nayef al-Aqil and Yusuf Jerbo’, who is one of the mashayakh al-‘aql of Syrian Druze. In contrast, the Katibat Jalamid Urman is a more local outfit. The group’s name translates to “The Rocks of Urman Battalion.” Urman is a village in southern Suwayda’ province located to the northeast of the town of Salkhad. The group’s appended name Dir’ al-Jabal means “The Mountain Shield,” referring to the Suwayda’ area that is also called Jabal al-Arab/al-Druze (“Mountain of the Arabs/Druze”).

Like the other Druze militia factions in the province, Katibat Jalamid Urman frames its activities in defensive terms. In the About section on its Facebook page, the militia describes itself as “an auxiliary organization for the Syrian Arab Army whose task is to defend the land and honour and protect the dignity of the mountain under the banner of the homeland.” The term ‘auxiliary’ (Arabic radif) is a common term among pro-regime militias. The pro-regime orientation also becomes apparent in other social media posts, such as tributes offered to regime forces personnel injured on fronts outside of Suwayda’ like East Ghouta in the Damascus area and the Sha’er field in the Homs desert. The latter case involved a certain Lu’ay Ghalib Rashid (originally from Urman), who was injured alongside a number of other Suwayda’ National Defence Forces personnel in fighting in the Sha’er area in late November 2016.  Besides tributes to wounded fighters, Katibat Jalamid Urman also offered condolences on the death of Osama Akram Hamza, a soldier originally from Urman and killed on the Deir az-Zor front in eastern Syria in June 2016.

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Madin Mahmoud al-Dbaisi, originally from Urman and killed in Darayya on 21 February 2016. Katibat Jalamid Urman has offered condolences for his death too.

In terms of its affiliations, Katibat Jalamid Urman appears to be equated in discourse to the Popular Committees (al-Lujan al-Sha’abiya), which were among the first manifestations of local pro-regime mobilization in the Syrian civil war. In a similar vein, account from June 2015 emerges on a page called Urman Bint al-Jabal (“Urman: Daughter of the Mountain”), which wrote the following in relation to Katibat Jalamid Urman:

“Armed battalions have been formed in every village of the villages of the province to be prepared for whatever danger may arise. As an example, in Urman came the formation of “Katibat Jalamid Urman- Dir’ al-Jabal,” which was formed four years ago both in a secret and organized form and operates on the ground with all determination and willpower. They [the battalions] must be a true nucleus for future projects that the many can rely upon. And here comes the role of our dear exiled ones in supporting the popular activism and charity associations that have begun earnest work in their role, with the formation of special committees and intense connection and the exertion of all efforts to make available the goods of necessity and the necessary foundation for the citizen’s daily life as well as provision of security and guarantee for the citizen.”

To be sure, public references to Katibat Jalamid Urman by name only seem to date as far back as 2015. Yet it does not follow from such an observation that the group did not exist before 2015. Rather, going by the Urman Bint al-Jabal account, the militia simply existed in a more low-key form.

Similar to the testimony of the Urman Bint al-Jabal posting, an account from July 2015 highlights the role of mughtaribeen (‘exiles’) in supporting the Katibat Jalamid Urman, as part of a series of interesting details on pushback against the more third-way Rijal al-Karama (“Men of Dignity”) movement of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous in a number of Suwayda’ localities:

“After the sheikh of fitna [derisive term for Bal’ous, referring to the notion he was stirring up internal quarrels] directed his arms at the sons of the noble Bani Ma’arouf and wounded two people with dangerous wounds such that they remain in intensive care, the responses of the people of the mountain and the noble Bani Ma’arouf have been as follows:

The village of Dhibin requests no visit from the one who has called himself the sheikh of karama [Bal’ous] and rejects the theatrics of gifts (portion of arms). The village of al-Gharayya is a blazing fire on account of the error in using the name of our sayyid Sheikh Abd al-Wahhab [see here for this sheikh and the village of al-Gharayya] for lack of respect [of him] and his heirs and inserting his name for interests. And after that, Salkhad al-Zaghaba [al-Zaghaba is an epithet frequently attached to Salkhad] warns against a visit and is actually threatening kill him. And after that, [there is] Urman, which formed the Jalamid Urman faction with support from its noble exiles, and they said if one of the families of Suwayda’ hands over the banner to the sheikh of karama, all of the sheikhs of Urman are karama and no one bears the banner of Urman except is people.”

Bal’ous appears in video footage showing that he did visit Urman as part of his outreach. While there does not appear to be a formal Rijal al-Karama contingent in the village, there does seem to be some sympathy in Urman for the movement’s aims, such as a statement issued by “Rijal Urman al-Karama” in November 2015 rejecting forced military conscription at the hands of the security apparatus.

Like Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar, Katibat Jalamid Urman has tried to promote an image as a force of the state and upholding law-and-order through its publicised activities. For example, an enduring problem in Suwayda’ province has been smuggling activity. In April 2016, Katibat Jalamid Urman stopped a car loaded with a large quantity of drugs and then burned the contents of the car in front of the people of Urman in the village square. In January 2016, the group took responsibility for ensuring order when secondary students leave school at the end of the school day:

“To reduce and avoid the problems caused by some of the youth after the students go out from secondary school, Katibat Jalamid Urman has decided to take responsibility for the situation, and a number of its members have gone out when the students come out and have closed all the entries and have ensured the students’ safety until they arrive at their homes.”

The militia has also engaged in patrols of Suwayda’ border areas alongside other groups both on the eastern border areas and on the southern Syria-Jordan border areas, as part of ensuring readiness to respond to any emergency. Besides all these activities relating to maintaining security and upholding law-and-order, the group has undertaken some social outreach, notably replanting trees in the village of Tell Abid Mar, where many trees had been cut down amid the circumstances of the civil war environment.

Members of Katibat Jalamid Urman can be identified by their distinct insignia worn on the arms and chest, as can be seen from the photos below:

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On left, note the Dir’ al-Jabal insignia patch on the chest. On right, note the arm-patch identical to Katibat Jalamid Urman’s emblem.

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Similar use of insignia as above, with Dir’ al-Jabal chest-patches and the group’s emblem in the form of an arm-patch.

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Closer view of the arm-patch.

The existence of the group’s symbols on the ground is also attested in certificates issued for Mother’s Day for mothers of ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting for the regime. This honouring of mothers of ‘martyrs’ was done as a joint event with the Kata’ib al-Ba’ath and two notables called Ghassan Amro and Osama al-Abbas.

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Certificate issued by Katibat Jalamid Urman for the mother of Raghed Fadl Allah al-Shariti. Originally from Urman, he was killed in Deraa on 27 June 2013 and is said to have been its tenth ‘martyr.’

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Certificate issued by Katibat Jalamid Urman for the mother of Kadhim Nasr Sharuf. Originally from Urman, he was killed in Yabrud in March 2014.

The current level of security threats posed to the locality of Urman is very low, but the case of Katibat Jalamid Urman does provide an interesting look at militia mobilization and regime loyalist sentiment on the more local level in Suwayda’ province. No militia mobilization is occurring within the province at the local or province-wide level that envisions overthrowing the regime structure in place.

The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Though numerous militias exist on the regime side in Syria, only a few have garnered wider media attention. The most notable of these few groups is of course the National Defence Forces (NDF), set up as a counter-insurgency and auxiliary holding force in late 2012 with help from Hezbollah and Iran. The NDF has centres throughout  the Syrian provinces where the regime still maintains a viable presence and remains an important force. Another group that garnered attention was the Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel), set up in 2015 as the regime experienced substantial losses in Idlib province and the Homs desert to the rebels and the Islamic State (IS) respectively. The ‘shield’ aspect reflected a broader shift in the strategic thinking at the time, in which the emphasis shifted to defending vital areas amid exacerbating manpower problems.

If the previous year had a defensive focus for the regime though prior to the beginning of the overt Russian intervention in October 2015, then this year has very much seen the opposite approach, which has now culminated in the successful recapture of Aleppo city. While the assault on the rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo was going on, a new auxiliary force was announced to have been formed last month. This force is called al-Faylaq al-Khamis (“The Fifth Legion”), with the word Iqtiham (“Assault”) appended to its name, very much signifying the offensive emphasis of the regime at the present time. The following statement was issued by the General Command for the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces on 22 November:

“In response to the rapid developments for events, to reinforce the successes of the intrepid armed forces and heeding the desire of our defiant people to put an end to the terrorist acts upon the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, the General Command for the Army announces the formation of the Fifth Legion- Assault, from volunteers, with the mission of destroying terrorism alongside the rest of the formations of our heroic armed forces and the auxiliary and allied forces to restore security and stability to all the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic. The General Command for the Army and the Armed Forces calls on all citizens who desire to participate in realizing the final victory over terrorism to go to the reception centres in the provinces.”

The statement then defined a number of these reception centres:

– Damascus: Southern Regional Command-Damascus Area Command-10th Division Command Qatana.
– Homs: Central Regional Command.
– Hama: Hama Area Command-Administrative Affairs College in Masyaf.
– Aleppo: Northern Regional Command.
– Tartous: Tartous Area Command.
– Latakia: Coastal Regional Command.
– Deraa: 5th Division Command.
– Suwayda’: 15th Division Command-Special Forces.

Notably absent from this list are Hasakah, Deir az-Zor and Raqqa provinces. In Hasakah and Deir az-Zor provinces, the regime maintains remnant presences, primarily in Qamishli and Deir az-Zor city respectively. In Raqqa province, there is course no regime presence at all. Nonetheless, the statement by the General Command specified that people of the eastern region, like other citizens, could register at any of the centres mentioned above. Conditions for enlistment were specified as follows:

– Must be at least 18 years old and not obliged for compulsory military service (khidmat al-‘alam) and has not deserted from compulsory service.
– In good health.

Eligible for acceptance are state employees and those who have completed their compulsory military service from all classes, including officers, non-commissioned officers and ordinary personnel. Their enlistment will be according to a contract of one year subject to renewal through appropriate agreement. State employees in particular who enlist are entitled to claim a salary from the Fifth Legion while maintaining the salaries and benefits of their existing jobs.

From the conditions for recruitment outlined above, the most important point to note is the contrast with many of the militias that try to recruit through offering an amnesty for those who have avoided and deserted compulsory military service. In addition, the terms for state employees seems to suggest that the army is trying to tap into this demographic in particular as a potential source of manpower for the Fifth Legion. The emphasis on a definitive victory over ‘terrorism’ also points to the regime’s calculus at this point: namely, that it is on the road to decisive victory, eventually entailing the retaking of all of Syria.

It should be noted that a formation similar to the Fifth Legion was announced last year as the overt Russian intervention in the form of airstrikes was getting underway. That formation was called al-Faylaq al-Rabi’- Iqtiham (“The Fourth Legion- Assault”). This force was said to have been formed from Syrian soldiers and volunteers with Russian specialists, in addition to a joint Russian-Syrian command. Its first operations were due to take place in the Idlib, Hama and Latakia countrysides. Subsequent evidence quickly emerged of engagements on the ground. For example, in early November 2015, a ‘martyr’ for the Fourth Legion was claimed in one Rami Marwan al-Khouli, originally from the Homs province town of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border and killed in fighting in Latakia province. Another individual presented as a Fourth Legion ‘martyr’ at the time by at least one account was Mohsen Afifa, also killed in the Latakia fighting. The Fourth Legion appears to have endured as a formation, with references to the contingent’s existence, its operations and slain fighters occurring throughout 2016, primarily on the Latakia front. In fact, in July 2016, the General Command for the Syrian army reportedly changed the leader of the Fourth Legion (Shuqi Yusuf) on account of repeated errors and false assessments of the battle, leading to substantial setbacks especially on the Kanasba front in Latakia at the time. Below are some more photos of slain fighters from the Fourth Legion.

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Memdouh Ken’an, originally from al-Qardaha. Killed on the Latakia front. He was apparently a veteran of campaigns in Deraa and the Hawran area. At least one account also has him as being a part of the Syrian army’s 5th Mechanized Division.

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Mahmoud Ahmad al-Ahmad, originally from al-Hamdaniya in Aleppo. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.

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Abd al-Hameed Hilal al-Daman, originally from Himo Hanadi in Hasakah province. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.

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Amir Ibrahim Hazim, originally from al-Salukiya of the Masyaf area. Killed in Kanasba area, Latakia province.

The issue of mistakes in the field, as illustrated partly in the experiences of the Fourth Legion, is touched upon in an article in the pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper al-Safir regarding the formation of the Fifth Legion. Specifically, the article says that some mistakes and insufficient levels of coordination were revealed in the field and battle experiences since the time of the Russian intervention and the formation of the Fourth Legion. These mistakes are said to have been looked at by the concerned parties, with an aim to resolving them, paving the way for the entry of the Fifth Legion into the battlefield.

The newspaper further claims that the foundational force for the Fifth Legion will be a mixture of existing combat groups that have acquired high-level experience, alongside new recruits or former fighters from the NDF branches. According to the article, forces of Suqur al-Sahara’ (a private elite militia) and Liwa al-Quds (a Palestinian-Syrian militia from the Aleppo area that played an important role in the recent retaking of east Aleppo) are expected to be the tip of the spear and strike force of the volunteers. In addition, the newspaper says it is expected that some of the military command of Hezbollah will play a foundational role in leading groups of the fighters that will join the Fifth Legion, and that some elite forces of Hezbollah will operate either under the Fifth Legion’s banner or in operational coordination with it.

Some commentary has focused on this suggested Hezbollah involvement in the Fifth Legion as a key development of “official integration” pointing to a future trend of Iranian-backed militias being granted legal cover in Iraq and Syria. Leaving aside the Iraqi aspect of the situation with regards to integrating the Hashd Sha’abi units (partly driven by PM Hayder al-Abadi’s desire to exert stronger control over the militias), this interpretation seems to be an over-reading of the available information on the Fifth Legion that also overlooks the fact that Iranian-backed militias are already using the legal cover of the Syrian state in certain ways, such as the Iraqi group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar under the Dir’ al-Watan conglomeration of the al-Bustan Association, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein overlapping with the 4th Armoured Division, and some Hezbollah personnel operating under the NDF.

In any case, characterizing the Fifth Legion as an “elite” part of the Syrian army is premature. Properly speaking, the Fifth Legion defines itself as affiliated with al-quwat al-sadiqa (“forces of friends”). To be sure, it is a slightly ambiguous term. On one reading, it can be seen as synonymous with Quwat al-Asdiqa’. This means a function as a formal auxiliary force of some sort for the Syrian army, and one should compare this designation with the case of Quwat al-Ghadab, a Christian militia in the Suqaylabiyah area of Hama province. In initial reporting, the pro-regime outlet Damascus Now wrote that the Fifth Legion will get its training, equipment and salaries from the Asdiqa’ (“The Friends”), though it did not specify further what it meant by this term. An alternative way to read al-quwat al-sadiqa is to look at other occasions on which the term has been used: it often refers to the regime’s foreign allies and their forces assisting the Syrian army on the ground (e.g. the Iraqi militia Harakat al-Nujaba’ and the Russian forces).

If al-Safir’s unconfirmed information on integrating forces from a variety of militias into the Fifth Legion is correct, a motivation clearer than just officially integrating Hezbollah into the Syrian state’s armed forces appears to be improving operational abilities through overcoming rivalries and competition for influence that have emerged between various forces on the regime side and sometimes impeded effective coordination. This is of course suggested in the newspaper’s article.

As of the time of writing, the Fifth Legion has not emerged as an actual operational force on the ground. Amusingly, mobile text messages urging people to join the Fifth Legion have become a subject of mockery and annoyance even among some people on the regime side, prompting the main page for the Fifth Legion to issue an apology:

“Messages are reaching us condemning the frequency of text messages that announce the Fifth Legion and call on the citizen brothers to join its ranks. We will say in simple words: ‘We apologize for annoying you, for we are working for your sake.'”

Where exactly the Fifth Legion will operate for its first assignment is not yet fully confirmed. That said, a post on 21 December by the Fifth Legion’s main page stated the following:

“Leadership from the officers of the Fifth Legion- Assault is participating in the preparation for the battle to recover the city of Palmyra from the Da’esh terrorist organization, and information about the possibility of ruling out one of the auxiliary forces that was a reason for what happened when the city fell.”

The latter part of that statement is particularly interesting. While the regime was focusing its efforts on Aleppo, the Palmyra front was manned by a number of militias, but they appear to have put on a pretty dismal performance in trying to defend the city from IS. These militias on the Palmyra front included Syrian Hezbollah groups like al-Ghalibun, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and Quwat al-Ridha. In particular, the IS offensive on Palmyra was the first major engagement on the Palmyra front for Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and appears to have been set as an emergency assignment for al-Ghalibun. The Afghan Shi’a unit affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)- Liwa Fatemiyoun– has also had a presence in Palmyra, with four special contingents stationed there as part of a long-standing line of defence against IS, according to a Fatemiyoun commander quoted by IRGC news outlet Tasnim News.  Since the fall of the city, the regime has called up additional forces like the Syrian army’s 10th division, the NDF branch Fawj al-Jowlan and the Qalamoun Shield Forces as IS has also threatened the important T4 airbase. Abu Hayder al-Harbi, an Iraqi member of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, further told me that Hezbollah and the IRGC are currently fighting on the Palmyra front.

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Quwat al-Ridha and the Syrian army on the Palmyra front. December 2016.

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Fawj Nusur Homs, another militia (air-intelligence affiliated) on the Palmyra front.

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Samer Kurdi, a Hezbollah fighter from the Idlib Shi’i village of al-Fu’a, recently killed on the Palmyra front.

How far the Fifth Legion will come to play a real and important role in the battlefield remains to be seen. The provincial governor of Latakia- Ibrahim Khidr al-Salim- seems particularly keen to have people enlist in the Fifth Legion, involving state administrative bodies in the process. He has even reportedly directed Latakia institutions and foundations to cancel work contracts of male workers in Latakia between 18 and 50 years old from other provinces if they do not join the Fifth Legion. This ultimatum is not to be applied if the worker has been exempted from the Syrian army for reasons such as health. The authenticity of documents circulated with regards to this matter appears to have been subsequently confirmed by postings such as this one on teachers in Latakia joining the Fifth Legion. This may indicate that recruitment efforts into the Fifth Legion have not been as successful as the regime might have hoped. Indeed, it is possible the Fifth Legion will end up going the way of Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel: much hype initially but then fading into obscurity and becoming of little or no operational significance. In any case, there is no doubt of the ongoing manpower problems facing the regime, despite the confident offensive-minded mentality in light of the Aleppo victory.

The Situation in al-Fu’a and Kafariya

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The two Twelver Shi’i villages of al-Fu’a and Kafariya have come to the forefront of media attention in light of the stipulation of evacuations of rebels and civilians from the recently reconquered east Aleppo towards Idlib in return for evacuations from these two villages. Since the rebel conquests led by Jaysh al-Fatah in spring 2015 that saw the regime lose its remaining control of all major towns in Idlib province including Idlib city itself, al-Fu’a and Kafariya have remained as isolated regime outposts under siege.

Naturally, given the religious affiliation of the people of these villages, their siege is a matter of strong concern to Iran and the native and foreign Shi’i militias operating in Syria. For example, in September 2016, Akram al-Ka’abi of Harakat al-Nujaba’- aligned with Iran and one of the most important Iraqi Shi’i factions intervening in Syria – claimed the start of a new operation to break the sieges of al-Fu’a and Kafariya, though it should be noted that al-Ka’abi frequently engages in outlandish rhetoric and did not make clear how exactly such an operation was to be carried out. Even so, that Iran in particular has felt pressured on account of al-Fu’a and Kafariya’s status became most evident in a deal reached with rebel factions including Ahrar al-Sham to impose a ceasefire status on the two villages in return for a ceasefire status for the towns of al-Zabadani and Madaya in the Damascus countryside that were besieged by the regime and allied militias including Hezbollah. As part of this deal, all four localities were to receive humanitarian aid.

In the broadest terms, this deal has held, whatever might be said of manipulation/restrictions on the aid arriving and clashes from time to time. For instance, reports of the arrival of aid for al-Fu’a and Kafariya can be found in late November and early December. That aid has been allowed in has sometimes been a talking point invoked as a stick to beat the rebel factions. A case-in-point is Abu Ahmad al-Shari’i- a cleric affiliated with the Islamic State-linked Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed- who wrote on Twitter regarding the arrival of aid to the villages in late November: “After Assad seized the Hanano residences [part of east Aleppo], Ahrar and Fatah al-Sham respond by allowing 40 trucks to enter Kafariya and al-Fu’a: all this in order to please the people of the Cross.” Yet this kind of polemics should not distract us from the hardships of life faced by the inhabitants of these villages, and that civilians including children have been killed and injured in shelling by rebel factions. It is sometimes pointed out that the problem is that the regime side more generally is more reluctant to talk to outside media than the rebels, and thus the plight of these villages has understandably been given less attention. There is some truth to this point, though there is also quite a lot of open source material on Facebook in particular for those who wish to look.

As for the military situation in the two villages, the forces fighting to defend al-Fu’a and Kafariya are frequently referred to as lujan sha’abiya (“Popular Committees”), a common term for local pro-regime militias. However, the villages’ isolation has not prevented foreign militia involvement in the military efforts to defend the villages. Indeed, one source from al-Fu’a told me in October that most of the fighting force is affiliated with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In July 2015, the Hezbollah military commander Jamil Hussein Faqih (al-Hajj Abu Yasir) was announced to have been killed: he was described as the Hezbollah official responsible for the portfolio of al-Fu’a and Kafariya, and his grave is said to be in al-Fu’a. Undoubtedly in reference to him, a Saryat al-Shaheed Abu Yasir (“Martyr Abu Yasir Squadron”) turns up in at least one photo of a festival and parade from the area, as seen below.

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Another brand name that turns up for al-Fu’a and Kafariya is Saryat al-‘Ishq (“Squadron of Love”)- as in, loving/longing for martyrdom (‘Ishq al-Shahada). For example, the name turns up in the ‘martyr’ graphic for a fighter from al-Fu’a called Kadhim Muhammad al-Muhammad, declared to have been killed defending the two villages on 11 September 2016. The graphic can be viewed below.

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Note the Sayyida Zainab shrine of Damascus in the top-left corner, and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s portrait in the top-right corner. The Saryat al-‘Ishq name appears in the bottom left. The banner next to the slain fighter’s portrait reads: “Ya latharat” (“Oh avengers”), referring to those who avenge Imam Hussein.

The Saryat al-‘Ishq brand also turns up in other ‘martyrdom’ announcements from the two villages. For example, observe the post below for three ‘martyrs’ from July this year.

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“Martyrs of the fine age: Saryat al-‘Ishq_al-Fu’a_Kafariya. The martyr Saleh Muhammad al-Hussein, the martyr Majdi Ahmad Mando, the martyr Yusuf Ibrahim Aslan.”

Other graphics for ‘martyrs’ from al-Fu’a and Kafariya do not give a specific name but do feature the Hezbollah flag. For example, see one below for a certain Hussein Hassan al-Shabab.

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Top left: “Living they are nurtured” (a reference to a Qur’an quotation that one should not reckon that those who have been killed fighting in God’s cause are dead, but rather nurtured and living with their Lord). Top right: Sayyida Zainab shrine.

By itself, the inclusion of the Hezbollah flag in a person’s ‘martyrdom’ graphic does not automatically make that person a member of Hezbollah. However, the pervasiveness of the name and brand in al-Fu’a and Kafariya and more generally among the Syrian Shi’i communities- something that can also be observed for comparison in the Aleppo Shi’i villages of Nubl and Zahara’, which has at least two identifiable formations affiliated with Hezbollah (Junud al-Mahdi and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja)- only illustrates the way the Syrian Shi’i demographic has come to identify thoroughly with the group and by extension its Iranian patron and ideology.

Besides the involvement of al-Hajj Abu Yasir in al-Fu’a and Kafariya, a concrete line of evidence for Hezbollah involvement in the villages can be found in the form of Kashafat al-Wilaya (“al-Wilaya Scouts”). This scout association, like the Imam Mahdi Scouts (Kashafat al-Imam al-Mahdi), is affiliated with Hezbollah. The main difference is that Kashafat al-Wilaya appears to be specific to Syria. Even so, the Imam Mahdi Scouts has a branch in Nubl and Zahara’ that was formally established in Ashura’ of the year 2012 and goes by the name of the Imam Mahdi Scouts. So it is not immediately clear why both names and brands should be used, unless perhaps it is analogous to Hezbollah’s creation of multiple militia fronts and brands to recruit more and more Syrians and build a native Syrian ‘Islamic Resistance’ (e.g. Quwat al-Ridha and Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi).

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Emblem of Kashafat al-Wilaya. The emblem is given a distinct Syrian flavour through including the Syrian flag and a version of the emblem of the Syrian Arab Republic. On bottom: “And obey.” This slogan is also used by the Imam Mahdi Scouts on its emblems.

Kashafat al-Wilaya has multiple local branches. For example, the branch for girls in the al-Abbasiya area of Homs- where many Syrian Shi’a are located- is called Fawj al-Sayyida al-Zahara’ (“Sayyida al-Zahara’ Regiment”). The branch for the al-Fu’a area (and presumably by extension, Kafariya as well) is called Fawj Fatima al-Zahara’ (“Fatima al-Zahara’ Regiment”), named for the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad. Multiple photos on the ground attest to the existence and activities of Fawj Fatima al-Zahara’.

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Photo including placards of Fawj Fatima al-Zahara’. The top one includes portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini, Ayatollah Khamane’i, Bashar al-Assad and Hassan Nasrallah. Also note the Hezbollah flag in the photo. This was part of Ashura’ 2016 commemorations. “Patience and Victory” (central placard) was the main slogan for Ashura’ commemorations in the area this year.

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Young girls with Fatima al-Zahara’ headbands.

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Commemorating the birth of Fatima al-Zahara’. The banner reads: “Honesty, Purity, Sincerity.”

Overall, it is entirely unsurprising that this kind of polarisation has happened. Regardless of the initial rights and wrongs surrounding the entire rebellion, considering the siege status and being surrounded by rebels led principally by Jaysh al-Fatah, which includes Jabhat Fatah al-Sham that forced the Druze of Idlib to convert to Sunni Islam and would probably have done the same to the Shi’a if al-Fu’a and Kafariya had been taken over, it is clear many if not most in the villages see Hezbollah and Iran as their main protectors intervening from outside. The notion of being the protectors of Shi’a has allowed Iran and Hezbollah to expand their influence strongly among Syrian Shi’a. Rather than Syria becoming the next Islamic Republic, it is apparent the Syrian Shi’a, who constitute only 1-2% of Syria’s population, are most amenable to ideological influence from Iran and Hezbollah. This fits a wider pattern in the region where Iran in particular most successfully builds patron-client relations with fellow Twelver Shi’a in particular. In any case, none of this should be used to minimize the humanitarian impact of the sieges on al-Fu’a and Kafariya. At the same time, one should not forget that the regime sieges of rebel-controlled communities are more numerous and have often been more severe in impact. None of these cases merits being exploited for the purpose of partisan political debate on the Internet.

Roy Gutman Responds to Ehsani2’s critique of his articles arguing that Assad built ISIS and Staged al-Qaida Bombings

Response to Ehsani2
By Roy Gutman – @Roy_Gutman

Dear Josh,

I have carefully read the letter “Ehsani2″ wrote and that you posted on Syria Comment. I would like to respond.

Isis soldiers beheading five people charged with "spying for Syria's New Army and the Crusade forces. [sic]." Their heads were displayed on metal pegs (Facebook/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

ISIS soldiers beheading five people charged with “spying for Syria’s New Army and the Crusade forces. [sic].” Their heads were displayed on metal pegs (Facebook/Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – June 2016)

First, I welcome a discussion about the content of my articles published by the Daily Beast: 1 How ISIS Returned to Syria; 2 How Assad Staged al Qaeda Bombings; 3 Assad Henchman: Here’s How We Built ISIS

The subject of the series, the Assad regime’s role in the rise of radical Jihadist groups in Syria, is of utmost seriousness, and the failure of U.S. intelligence to debrief high level security defectors who witnessed the regime’s actions from the inside is news in itself. You will note that I named my sources throughout the articles, so that anyone can double-check my work. The objective in reporting and writing a series such as this is not only to put the facts before the public but to do it in a way that is credible and replicable.

A critic of my story can go to the same sources, attempt to disprove the facts my sources have cited, prove that I misquoted my sources  or provide an alternative explanation after demonstrating that my sources deliberately misled me. That failing, the story stands.

Far from discrediting the story or the sources, “Ehsani2’s”  letter does just the opposite. Any number of claims in the letter are based on anonymous sources. Moreover he himself is an anonymous commentator. This doesn’t illuminate the discussion but raises major questions about his comments.

So first of all Ehsani2 should write under his own name and not hide behind a pseudonym.  Second he should state his credentials, his affiliations if he has any link  or even friendly with the government I have written about.  And he should name his sources. I don’t make claims based on anonymous sources, nor should he.

Second, you as the editor, should edit the comment so that they are pertinent. He can’t just assert that an element in this carefully reported series is “preposterous”: he should prove it. Your anonymous writer uses that term three times in his 3,000 word message.

Instead of examining my sources, analyzing the events they describe and determining whether my sources are valid observers, Ehsani2 devotes a significant portion of his letter to issues that have nothing to do with the series. His attempt to discredit Mr. Barabandi’s statements—  based on an article he wrote but that was not quoted in my reporting — makes no sense. The references to the late Ahmed Chalabi are completely extraneous to the series.

He refers to one of my sources, the former chief of criminal investigations, as “an opposition source.”  Gen. Al Ali’s political views are not the issue. Was he a valid observer of the attempt to blow him up or not? If he is, and I quoted him accurately, then the anecdote stands. If it’s not correct, please prove it. Quoting James Clapper — which I already did in my article — doesn’t disprove Gen Al Ali’s assertions.  Indeed, the sub-theme of the article is that U.S. intelligence did not interview Gen. Al Ali but should have.

On the bombing of the Crisis Group, If Ehsani2 thinks the sources I quote are wrong, again he prove it. But you can’t discredit named sources with anonymous sources, certainly not if you’re an anonymous commentator. I don’t quote anonymous diplomats from unnamed European countries, and I find it incredible that an anonymous contributor asks the reader to accept anonymous assertions as factual.

I note that in one respect, Ehsani2 appears to accept the contention of the story that Syrian intelligence penetrated the Jihadists who traveled to Iraq to fight U.S. forces there and then returned to Syria. But who are his sources even for that? And what are the implications of that penetration?  Tell us more, please.

Towards the end of his message, he refers to anonymous “loyalists and leadership insiders” who believe the national uprising was radicalized early on, hijacked by Islamists. But this sounds self-serving.  First, who are the loyalists and insiders? what makes them “believe” what they believe, and are they telling the truth or just giving a cover story? My series quotes former intelligence officials by name as saying the regime deliberately militarized the uprising and facilitated the rise of Islamist groups. If Ehsani2 can’t disprove the assertions of my sources with solid and sourced information of his own, the assertions of my sources stand.

Kind regards,
Roy Gutman

Usud Al-Cherubim: A Pro-Assad Christian Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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A flag of Usud al-Cherubim, using the cross in place of the initial ‘alif in the word Usud.

In a post in February 2016, a pro-Assad Christian page called Junud al-Massih (“Soldiers of Christ”) wrote: “Syria is beautiful in its Assad. At your service in soul and blood, my lord President Bashar al-Assad. We began with 5 groups on the ground and today we have become more than 15 armed Syrian Christian factions.” Though that post did not name any specific groups, perhaps the most recognisable Christian militia of pro-Assad orientation has been the Sootoro group in Qamishli in northeast Syria, a group I have discussed multiple times previously. However, there are much more obscure Christian formations that the Junud al-Massih page likely has in mind in its counting in that post, one of those groups being Usud al-Cherubim (“Lions of the Cherubim”). The word “cherubim” in the militia’s name can be seen as a double entendre. In the Bible, there are multiple references to the cherubim as beings associated with God (e.g. Ezekiel 10:2). Yet looking at the Arabic orthography for the word “cherubim” in the case of the militia’s name, there is in fact also an allusion to the Deir al-Cherubim (“The Cherubim Monastery,” with Arabic spelling: دير الشيروبيم) near Saydnaya, which is best known as the site of the prison that housed many Islamists who were released in an amnesty in 2011 and went on to found key rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. A fighter in Usud al-Cherubim confirmed to me that the group’s name derives from Deir al-Cherubim.

According to this fighter, Usud al-Cherubim was formed in 2013 during “the terrorist attack on the monastery” and the group lost a fighter called Joseph al-Kibba “in the battles of the monastery in defence of the monastery.” For context, Joseph al-Kibba is a widely renowned Christian ‘martyr’ of the Saydnaya area who was born in 1989 and killed on 26 November 2013. His funeral was promoted in a video uploaded by the official channel of the National Defence Forces, which were reported to have played a role at the time alongside the Syrian army in fending off the attacks on Deir al-Cherubim. For their part, pro-rebel media during this period accused the regime of deliberately placing tanks near the monastery to bombard neighbouring areas, thereby attempting to score a propaganda victory against the rebels in their response to the bombardment.

Public references to Usud al-Cherubim appear to go back as far as January 2014. Though the militia can be seen as initially having been set up as a local ‘monastery defence’ force, the group has subsequently participated in a number of military engagements beyond the Saydnaya area. According to the Usud al-Cherubim fighter, engagements have included “all the battles of East Ghouta, Darayya, Homs countryside, the battles of al-Qalamoun, and in Jobar in Damascus.” In addition, Usud al-Cherubim has a “contingent in the north Hama countryside participating in the battles of honour.” Some of these expeditions have been promoted on social media. For example, in September 2015, Usud al-Cherubim reportedly helped capture the hills surrounding the Christian locality of Maarouneh in the Damascus countryside, driving back the rebels to the Harasta highway and handing the hills to the Syrian army. In November 2015, the group was reported to be operating in areas of the Homs desert near al-Qaryatayn such as Mahin and Sadad, fighting against the Islamic State (IS). A number of other groups participated in the efforts to push back IS in the area, including the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a and Sootoro. Below is some photo and other media output associated with Usud al-Cherubim’s operations.

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“Merry Christmas from Usud al-Cherubim in Jobar”- 2014.

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The Zilzal Jobar (“Earthquake of Jobar”) contingent of Usud al-Cherubim. Its leader- Jihad Hilala- was reported in late February 2016 to have been wounded.

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“Operations Battalion- Usud al-Cherubim- at your service Syria, at your service, ya Adra.” Though Adra is the name of a town in the wider Damascus area, the invocation ‘Ya Adra’ normally refers to the Virgin Mary. Note the logo design featuring the cross in the top-left.

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“North Hama countryside- Operations Contingent- Usud al-Cherubim.”

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“Operations Battalion- Usud al-Cherubim in Darayya.” The participation in the Darayya operations was partly framed as “liberating its churches” (in a similar way, Shi’i militia participation in the Darayya operations was portrayed as defending/liberating the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in the area). The idea of holy struggle is also conveyed in the frequent self-description as “mujahideen of the cross.”

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Usud al-Cherubim graffiti in Shebaa, East Ghouta. The graffiti, marked with the date 4 May 2016, reads: “Usud al-Cherubim: we are the descendants of Georgius [St. George]. We were not created to die, but rather we were created for eternal life.”

In total, the fighter from Usud al-Cherubim told me that the group has 3 ‘martyrs’ and 12 wounded thus far. One therefore ought to keep the scale of the group’s military contributions in perspective. As for the militia’s affiliation, the source stated that Usud al-Cherubim is affiliated with the air intelligence, with which a number of  pro-regime militias have links/affiliation, including the elite Tiger Forces and the Suqaylabiyah-based Christian militia Quwat al-Ghadab. Indeed, a key to realizing the affiliation of Usud al-Cherubim with the air intelligence is that the group is referred to on social media as being part of Hurras al-Fajr (“Guardians of the Dawn”), which is a collection of primarily Christian militias affiliated with air intelligence.

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“Air Intelligence Administration: Guardians of the Dawn Groups. A homeland that we do not protect is one we do not deserve to live in.” Like many pro-regime militias, Guardians of the Dawn has sought to recruit through Facebook, urging those wishing to join the ranks to correspond for inquiry and further information.

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Guardians of the Dawn insignia

According to the fighter from Usud al-Cherubim, the Guardians of the Dawn conglomeration was set up around a year ago, and Usud al-Cherubim joined it. In other words, Usud al-Cherubim may have initially been its own independent faction having sprung up from the notion of local monastery defence, but eventually became air intelligence affiliated. As the source put it, “We had been working with many sides. Later we remained as air intelligence.” The Guardians of the Dawn conglomeration, though consisting of primarily Christian militias, promotes a nationalist image in the slogan “a homeland we do not protect is one we do not deserve to live in,” as can be observed above. Besides Usud al-Cherubim, the constituent groups of Guardians of the Dawn have included:

– Ararat Group
– Usud al-Wadi (referring to Wadi al-Nasara in Homs province)
– Usud al-Hamidiya (referring to the Hamidiya neighbourhood of Homs)
– Intervention Regiment
– Usud Dwel’a (referring to the Dwel’a neighbourhood of Damascus)

Of these groups, one should note that Usud al-Hamidiya-led by Rami Marina from Homs– appears to have left Guardians of the Dawn, and is now affiliated with the military intelligence under the formation of Fawj Maghawir al-Ba’ath (“Ba’ath Commandos Regiment”) led by Jihad Barakat.

According to an account by Guardians of the Dawn leader Fadi Abd al-Massih Khouri written in September 2016, the Guardians of the Dawn conglomeration was formally established on 11 September 2015, and Usud al-Cherubim had a key involvement in events that led to its establishment. According to this account, Usud al-Cherubim issued a distress call to Khouri on Thursday night on 10 September 2015, warning that the locality of Maarouneh was under assault by Jaysh al-Islam, that the situation was difficult and that these rebels were threatening to seize the international highway. This prompted Khouri to make connections with the other groups (i.e. the constituents of what became the Guardians of the Dawn conglomeration) and set up the Intervention Regiment in particular. By 12 September 2015, Khouri claims to have set out with a contingent of fighters to provide relief. All this, he writes, is based on the idea that the groups should work to help each other out in times of distress as their villages come under assault.

Although there is a nationalist line of rhetoric included in the account, with the affirmation that “all the land of Syria is our people and everyday someone seeks our help and of course we will heed the call,” all the actual instances of relief provision named are Christian areas, “from Maarouneh to Sadad to Mahrada.” Mahrada is a Christian town in Hama province that was threatened by some rebel advances earlier this year, prompting a mobilization including Guardians of the Dawn to defend it.

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Like many people involved with the militias on the ground, Khouri attempted to push for political influence by running as a parliamentary candidate for the April 2016 elections. However, unlike Liwa al-Baqir’s Omar al-Hassan, he was unsuccessful.

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Social media graphic: “Ararat Group: Dir’ al-Watan Groups.” Dir’ al-Watan (“Homeland Shield”) appears to have been the initial name for Khouri’s conglomeration of militias, though having the same air intelligence affiliation. In relation to the Sadad operations in November 2015, Sootoro wrote: “Dir’ al-Watan. Entering Sadad. Big thanks from all the groups to Ustadh Fadi Khouri for his support and great work.” Thus, this Dir’ al-Watan should not be confused with the Dir’ al-Watan of the al-Bustan Association, or the Dir’ al-Watan in Suwayda’. As an actively used and promoted brand on social media for Khouri’s conglomeration of militias, Guardians of the Dawn does not seem to appear initially until March 2016.

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Ararat Group, using a slight variant on the Guardians of the Dawn slogan: “A homeland you do not protect is one you do not deserve to live in.”

In short, the case of Usud al-Cherubim provides an interesting case of evolution from a local initiative to an affiliate of a wider militia conglomeration attached to the air intelligence. The existence of Usud al-Cherubim also illustrates that notions of defence of holy sites as rallying calls are by no means limited to the Shi’a alone. Indeed, as the case of the Syriac Military Council demonstrates, the idea of defending churches and other holy sites from desecration and destruction has been an important talking point among Christians in the east of the country as well.

Of course, Usud al-Cherubim goes beyond mere defence of the Deir al-Cherubim monastery, and has been actively fighting for the regime elsewhere in western Syria. The developments surrounding Guardians of the Dawn also point to wider trends among pro-Assad militias: namely, a desire to assert political influence (while not threatening Assad’s position as president of Syria) and competition for power on the ground (which, in the case of the various intelligence agencies in particular, also represents continuity with the past).

DAM WARS: How Water Scarcity Helped Create ISIS – by Quentin de Pimodan

quentin-portraitDAM WARS: How Water Scarcity Helped Create ISIS
by Quentin de Pimodan
December 12, 2016

Quentin de Pimodan sent me this interesting paper on ISIS and water wars. He writes:

I have finally completed my paper that proves that ISIS emerged thanks to the catastrophic water management and policies implemented in Iraq since Saddam ruled. It has been published by the Greece-based Think Tank, The Research Institute for European and American Studies.

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I explain that the Agricultural economy in Iraq collapsed a long time ago. Then the harsh natural environment of Iraq is connected to the regional battle over water resources, the failure of the water policies, the huge mistakes made in writing the 2005 Iraqi Constitution, how this precipitated the rise of ISIS and their strategy to control dams, and the failure of the counter-insurgency efforts. Then I highlight priorities and end with some predictions.

IRAQ-SECURITY/MOSUL-DAM

IRAQ-SECURITY/MOSUL-DAM (Youssef Boudlal/Reuters)

The paper is long, but I think that I have managed to prove my point. I have used approximately 200 sources including international organizations’ data, NGOs, or journalists’ articles.


Quentin de Pimodan
studied engineering in Paris and then for several years worked for a French publishing house that focuses on explaining national and international administrations to young audiences. He spent a year in Yemen in 2008 and based in Bahrain for two years in Bahrain in 2014 he co-authored “The Khaleej Voice”, a six books series documenting the urban artists in the GCC. He currently works as an analyst for Katch & Reyners, a public affairs company based in Paris and contributes to Greece-based thin-tank, the Research Institute for European and American Studies (RIEAS).
http://qdepim.pressfolios.com
FRA: +33.622276001

Saraya al-Areen: An Alawite Militia in Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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An emblem of Saraya al-Areen.

The coastal province of Latakia is home to a variety of militias aligned with the Assad regime. One kind that can perhaps be distinguished consists of groups that seem to be independent in affiliation but are clearly associated with the Alawite community and identity. A previous case I have examined is that of Liwa Usud al-Hussein (“The Lions of Hussein Brigade”), reconstituted as Quwat Humat Souriya (“Forces of the Protectors of Syria”) and led by one Hussein Tawfiq al-Assad, who comes from the Assad family’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha. In the summer, the militia launched a recruitment campaign, urging those interested in joining to head to the group’s base near the al-Qardaha bridge, with an offer of a salary of 80,000 Syrian pounds a month for fighting on the Palmyra front and 50,000 Syrian pounds a month for fighting on the Latakia countryside front. Like many other militias, Quwat Humat Souriya sought to address the issue of draft avoidance and desertion by offering taswiyat al-wada’ (“sorting out of affairs”).

Saraya al-Areen (“Brigades of the Den”)- the group under consideration in this article- is a militia similar in nature to Liwa Usud al-Hussein. The “Areen” (“Den”) part of the group’s name can be taken in a number of ways: as in, the lion’s den- Areen al-Assad- that has the double entendre of referring to the lions in the militia emblem above and to Assad himself. There is also the use of the word areen in the Syrian national anthem, which describes Syria as the Areen al-Uruba (“Den of Arabism”).

Of note alongside the lion imagery in the emblem above is the feature of the number 313. This number also appears in other symbols associated with the group, including those that feature its alternative name of Fawj Abu al-Harith (“The Abu al-Harith Regiment”), named for the militia’s leader who goes by the name of Abu al-Harith.

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Fawj Abu al-Harith: 313.

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Another Fawj Abu al-Harith emblem, incorporating the lion symbol.

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Insignia patch for Fawj Abu al-Harith. Again the 313 appears.

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Saraya al-Areen insignia patch featuring the number 313, as well as the Dhu al-Fiqar of Imam Ali.

The number 313 has multiple connotations. In the life of the Prophet Muhammad, it refers to the number of Muslim soldiers at the Battle of Badr in a significant victory over the Quraish. In this regard, it should be noted for example that there is a rebel group called “Soldiers of Badr: 313” operating in the north Homs countryside rebel enclave. The number 313 also has eschatological significance, in referring to the companions of the Imam al-Mahdi. It is therefore associated in the eschatological context foremost with Twelver Shi’i Islam, of which the Alawite religion is an offshoot. Unsurprisingly, the number 313 has been observed in Shi’a militia discourse and social media on Syria.

Perhaps part of the Saraya al-Areen’s image can be seen as influenced by the presence of Shi’i militias, since the group’s social media output has also featured slogans like Labbayk ya Zainab (“At your service, oh Zainab”), foremost associated with the Iranian-backed Shi’i militias fighting in Syria under the notion of defending the Sayyida Zainab shrine in Damascus. I have touched on the wider use of Shi’i sloganeering previously. Even so, the Saraya al-Areen identity is clear through its promotion of photos of Alawite shrines in the al-Qardaha area.

Like Liwa Usud al-Hussein, Saraya al-Areen is said to be an independent faction, going by the testimony of a source in the Muqawama Souriya of Ali Kayali (whose primary base is also in Latakia province, though curiously Kayali tells me he has not heard of the name of Saraya al-Areen). The leader of Saraya al-Areen- Abu al-Harith (not to be confused with the Abu al-Harith who leads the Hawarith contingents of Suhail al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces)- is a man called Yisar al-Assad. He comes from the wider Assad family of the al-Qardaha area in Latakia province. While social media advertising for the brands of Saraya al-Areen/Fawj Abu al-Harith only seems to have come about this year, Yisar al-Assad had previously been identified as leading an armed contingent. A revealing post written in April 2015 by a Syrian army soldier from Latakia complaining about the privileges and lives of luxury of government officials’ children as opposed to the hardships of those serving in the army makes reference to Yisar al-Assad, upholding him and other members of the wider al-Assad family as virtuous in contrast to these officials and their children:

“Bitter truth and hurtful frankness…Oh son of the official, what do you feel when you ride in your car and you have a soldier serving you? Oh son of the official, what do you feel when you see the news that the army has advanced in a certain place and has liberated a certain area? Oh dear, is it possible for you to tell me what you feel when you hear that this poor soldier has been martyred to defend you and protect you? Oh son of the official, what do you feel when you know that the salary of the reservist soldier is only 15,000 Syrian pounds a month and under your stead is great wealth? Oh son of the official, is it possible for you to tell me what you feel when the soldier has for breakfast 5 olives, a piece of halawa or potato while you have the most magnificent food for breakfast (God make you eat samm al-hari!)? Oh you, official, and your son: what do you feel when the soldier has to wait for months to see his family and wait for months to have a bath? Soldiers lie down on the soil, wrapped in the Pleiades, while people lie down on ostrich feathers, wrapped in silk covering.

Fine, let’s begin now with this talk, and I will begin with the al-Assad family so no one is startled at us on your behalf and speaks: from the al-Assad family, Hilal al-Assad was martyred in Kessab- may God have mercy on him- and his group is from the poor of the coastal region. The Sheikh of the Mountain Muhammad al-Assad- may God have mercy on him- was daily in the Durin region in the Latakia countryside and I saw him with my own eye in complete civilian clothing, and when the leadership asked him to form the mountain brigade, he was exposed to assassination. Yisar al-Assad Abu al-Harith has the strongest fighting group in the mountain, and their salaries and expenditures are on his personal shoulder. May God protect him and his group of poor people from the region. As for what remains from the wealthy and the officials, their children are living with the comfort and eye of God upon them, but God’s curse be upon their effeminate manliness! The poor of Syria are the ones who have borne the burden of the cause. The poor of Syria are the ones who have offered martyrs. The poor of Syria are the ones who have sacrificed what is most precious and dear in self-sacrifice for the homeland.”

While one may wish to dismiss this post as a rant, it makes some important points. Syrian army service is indeed long, has poor working conditions and very low salaries. The bad terms of service are a key factor behind militia recruitment, as militia groups can offer better salaries and amnesty terms to prevent arrest for draft evasion. It is also true that the Sahel [coastal] region has many poor people, including among the rural Alawites. That Alawites are over-represented in the regime and its security apparatus leadership in particular does not mean Alawites are somehow immensely wealthy compared to the rest of the population. On the contrary, many parts of rural Latakia are underdeveloped. As for using the wider al-Assad family as a foil against wealthy government officials and their scions, one can make what one will of this line. In any case, the reference to Yisar al-Assad as providing the salaries and expenses for the fighters of his group corroborates the view of Saraya al-Areen/Fawj Abu al-Harith as an independent faction, in that it appears to be Yisar al-Assad’s own initiative rather than having a larger affiliation.

Other references to Yisar al-Assad are rather scarce. He played a role in 2014 in overseeing celebrations in the al-Qardaha area congratulating Bashar al-Assad on his predictable re-election as president. A reference to him also turns up at the very start of the civil war in March 2011, in which he is described as being one of the shabiha of al-Qardaha. In so far as the term shabiha is used in keeping with its historical origins to refer to Alawite smugglers in the coastal region who have made large profits and acted as though they were above the law, then it might appropriately apply to Yisar al-Assad. The pro-opposition newspaper Zaman al-Wasl, claiming to have criminal and intelligence records on people from the wider al-Assad family, identifies a Yisar al-Assad as born in 1977 in al-Qardaha and involved in smuggling and possession of war weapons.

sarayaalareenposter
Saraya al-Areen poster, featuring an image of Bashar al-Assad.

When did Saraya al-Areen/Fawj Abu al-Harith come into existence? As mentioned, social media promotion only seems to have come about this year, but that does not mean Yisar al-Assad’s group did not exist in some form prior to 2016. Besides the April 2015 post cited above that identifies him as leading a fighting contingent, a representative for Saraya al-Areen told me that “we have been fighting since the beginning of the crisis, affiliated with the Syrian Arab Army. We fight terrorism in any place.” These remarks can be seen as little more than standard rhetoric, in that it can be a matter of prestige to say your group has been fighting from the outset of the civil war, but there can also be an element of truth in that militias that only recently started promoting themselves on social media can still have existed on the ground under prior names and forms (cf. Liwa al-Baqir and the Local Defence Forces in Aleppo).

In terms of military engagements promoted under the Saraya al-Areen/Fawj Abu al-Harith brands, they primarily concern the Latakia front, as regime forces aim to push the rebels out of the last strongholds in the northeastern corner of the province, contrasting with the threat posed in 2013 when a rebel offensive spearheaded by jihadists came very near to al-Qardaha. The operations in Latakia have included coordination with the Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari (“Military Security Shield”) forces that are affiliated with the military intelligence in Latakia province. The militia also promoted deployments earlier in the year on the Aleppo front. Alongside these operations, the militia has claimed a number of ‘martyrs’, some of which are noted below.

alijamilzahra
Ali Jamil Zahra. Death announced on 3 June 2016. Killed on Kabani front in Latakia countryside. Note his Fawj Abu al-Harith 313 armpatch.

abdalbadinuaimalhashim
Abd al-Badi’ Nu’aim al-Hashim. Death announced on 12 June 2016. Killed on Latakia countryside front.

muatazzhassanfidhdha
Mu’tazz Hassan Fidhdha. Death announced on 15 June 2016. Killed in Khanaser, south Aleppo.

ahmadmutiarmit
Ahmad Muti’ Armit. Death announced on 15 June 2016. Killed in Khanaser, south Aleppo.

mahmoudsamirshahira
Mahmoud Samir Shahira. Death announced on 20 July 2016. Killed on Kabani periphery, Latakia countryside.

samalialqayyim
Sam Ali al-Qayyim. Death announced on 5 October 2016. Killed in Tallat Hassan al-Ra’i, Latakia countryside. He was a field commander in the militia: specifically, the leader of the “the first assault group.”

muhammadjumajabiro
Muhammad Jum’a Jabiro. Death announced on 7 December 2016. Killed on Kabani front, Latakia countryside.

talalabdullahmustafa
Talal Abdullah Mustafa. Death announced on 10 December 2016. Killed on Kabani front, Latakia countryside.

In short, the existence of Saraya al-Areen/Fawj Abu al-Harith, like Liwa Usud al-Hussein, provides an interesting case study for the militias of distinctly Alawite identity with roots in the wider al-Assad family of the al-Qardaha area, seemingly lacking the familiar affiliations to larger bodies like elite army units or one of the intelligence branches. This case illustrates one of many aspects of the complex militia landscape in regime-held Syria.

Kurdish Blockade of Sinjar Harms Yazidis: New HRW Report

HRW witnesses KDP asa’ish preventing a Yazidi civilian family from bringing rice and pillows for their own use into Sinjar. Photo: 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

HRW witnesses KDP asa’ish preventing a Yazidi civilian family from bringing rice and pillows for their own use into Sinjar. Photo: 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Human Rights Watch has issued an important new report on how the Kurdish Regional Government’s implementation of an economic blockade of the Iraqi Sinjar region is preventing Yazidi families (displaced during ISIL’s genocide of Yazidis in 2014) from returning and rebuilding their homes and lives. This situation has persisted for most of the past year, though it has not been significantly reported upon by media.

READ the FULL REPORT HERE.

HRW personnel witness KDP asa’ish preventing a Yazidi man from transporting a single sheep for a funeral. Photo: 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

HRW personnel witness KDP asa’ish preventing a Yazidi man from transporting a sheep for a funeral. Photo: 2016 Belkis Wille/Human Rights Watch

Is Assad the Author of ISIS? Did Iran Blow Up Assef Shawkat? And Other Tall Tales – By Ehsani2

Is Assad the Author of ISIS?  Did Iran Blow Up Assef Shawkat?
By Ehsani2
5 December 2016
For Syria Comment

Roy Gutman, Journalis

Roy Gutman, Journalist The Daily Beast

In a three-part series, Pulitzer Prize winning reporter Roy Gutman relies on a number of Syrian opposition members to make the central claim that “the Syrian regime’s collusion with the terrorists of the so-called Islamic State goes back a decade.” This is not the first time that Assad has been accused of complicity in the horrors of ISIS. But the claims have renewed urgency because the Syrian opposition is worried that Donald Trump’s anti ISIS strategy will come at the expense of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. They worry that Washington will “shift policy in the Syria conflict from one of support for the moderate opposition to collaboration with the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.”

Credibility of the Sources:

The article is based on testimonies from what Mr. Gutman refers to as political activists, defectors, Islamists from Hama province, former State officials and diplomats (asking for political asylum in the U.S), and former head of the Syrian Opposition coalition.

Bassam Barabandi, a former employee of the now closed Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC.

Bassam Barabandi, a former employee of the now closed Syrian Embassy in Washington, DC.

One key source whose name seems to appear often throughout the article is Bassam Barabandi. Mr. Barabandi is a 41 year-old ex-diplomat who worked at the Syrian Embassy in Washington. He defected to the opposition after he used his position as a consular officer to issue Syrian passports to a number of opposition figures whose travel documents had expired. Back in 2014, he wrote an article for the Atlanic Council, entitiled “Inside Assad’s Playbook: Time and Terror with Tyler Jess Thompson who is a director at United for a Free Syria.  This was an early attempt to link President Assad to Islamist terror groups. Had Mr. Gutman known anything about Syria, he would have been more suspicious of Mr. Barabandi based on a preposterous single claim he makes in the article. Supposedly, during a visit from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Mr. Barabandi remembers being huddled with Deputy Vice President Mohammad Nasif and “taking notes, monitoring interactions, disrupting conversations and altering room dynamics.”  Mr. Barabandi quickly concludes that “no detail is too small for the Assad regime to overlook. There is always a plan, opportunities are never missed, and there are no accidents: the rise of ISIS is no exception to this rule.” Barabandi’s story about sitting in the Four Season’s Hotel with Syria’s Deputy Vice President is unbelievable for several reasons. The most obvious is that Nassif, an elderly man and top security chieftain would not be hanging out with Barabandi, a young 30 something civil servant who had yet to take up a post of any consequence. Moreover, Nassif would certainly not explain to him the inner-most secrets of the regime, nor demonstrate to him how the secret service operates behind one-way mirrors to manipulate foreign dignitaries. This account is absurd.

When reading this article, one is reminded of Frontline’s Martin Smith when he confronted Ahmad Chalabi in Baghdad following the U.S invasion. Smith challenged Chalabi to provide the evidence of that he had promised existed to prove the existence of chemical weapons and Saddam’s links to Al-Qaida. Chalabi simply looked at Martin Smith with consummate distain and brushed off his nagging with the suggestion that such details were no longer important. He simply stated, “We are in Baghdad now.” For Chalabi, any number of fabrications were well worth the result. Saddam was destroyed and America had returned Iraq’s opposition to Baghdad where they could hope to take power. Chalabi’s smug dismissal of Martin Smith was well warranted because the date was 2003, before the Iraq insurgency had been able to organize, before al-Qaida had spread from one end of Iraq to the other, and before hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis had been killed and millions more driven from their country.

The sources of Mr. Gutman’s articles read like mini versions of Iraq’s Ahmad Chalabi connections. They are advocates for the rebel cause, who will say whatever they believe will convince the United States to invade Syria and depose Assad. They see no problem in stretching the truth if it can lead to foreign military action. After all, they have concluded that only U.S. military action can remove Assad and bring victory to the opposition. Mr. Gutman meets most of his opposition contacts at a coffee shop in Istanbul; they spent hours offering him spectacular details on how the government bombed its own capital, assassinated its highest government security officials, and trained lethal Islamists to run terror organizations that have killed thousands of his best soldiers. All of this in order to convince the world that ISIS and al-Qaida are not products of the Sunni opposition but rather the Frankensteins of Assad’s invention. “Kill Assad,” they seem to be saying, “and you will kill the jihadists and win the war on terror.” This is all too good to be true, of course. They insist that Assad’s war against jihadists is fake. Faithful to his sources, Roy Gutman argues that President Assad is not only in cahoots with ISIS, but that he “built ISIS.”

BU

BU

Gutman relates that one opposition source explained that President Bashar al-Assad himself issued an order to remove roadblocks in Damascus so that a car bomber, claiming to be Nusra, could have easy access to a Damascus neighborhood, set off his huge explosion and make it look like the capital was being attacked by jihadists. This explosion was a false flag operation, Gutman argues, masterminded by Assad himself in order to deceive the world into believing that jihadists were a menace when they were not. Never mind that James Clapper, the director of U.S. National Intelligence, told Congress in mid-February that the explosions “had all the earmarks of an al Qaeda-like attack and so we believe al Qaeda in Iraq is extending its reach into Syria.” Never mind that Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani, the head of al-Qaida’s surrogate in Syria, the al-Nusra terrorist group, claimed responsibility for the explosion. Gutman insists that his source is telling the truth and everyone else, including the intelligence services of the United States are deceived by Assad propaganda. Why would U.S. news services publish these assertions? They make no sense. They reek of conspiracy theory, are transparently self-serving, and defy logic.

screen-shot-2016-12-05-at-9-59-54-amAssassination of Assef Shawkat, the President’s Brother-in-Law, 18 July 2012

Mr. Gutman’s sources are convinced that Iran, Syria’s closest ally, ordered the killing of Assad’s top security team. Not only do they speculate on who was behind the Damascus explosions, but they also attempt to deconstruct one of the most spectacular bombings that struck the inner circle of the Syrian leadership. On 18 July 2012 Assad’s Crisis Management Group was meeting at the heavily guarded National Security building in Rawda Square in central Damascus. Those killed included top members of Assad’s Crisis Group: Defense Minister Gen. Dawoud Rajha, his deputy, Assaf Shawkat, who was Assad’s brother-in-law, Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar, a top national security adviser to the president, and Gen. Hassan Turkmani, a former defense minister.

Gutman explains that Syrian Interior Minister Shaar placed a brief case against the wall in the room in order to blow up the security group. None of this makes sense, of course. Mr. Shaar stayed in the building, rather than escape. He blew himself up, severely injuring himself in the blast. He spent almost 40 days at Chami hospital in intensive care.

Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian intelligence apparatus

Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian intelligence apparatus

If this is not crazy enough, Mr. Gutman offers an even more preposterous story to explain why Iran would blow up its ally’s leading security chieftains. Gutman, once again quoting sources “within Assad’s entourage” insists that Iran killed Shawkat, the President’s relative, in order to place their own man, Ali Mamlouk, as the head of intelligence. All of this is preposterous. It includes stories about Assad’s mother and brother, who are part of this great plot. They are intimately involved in this family intrigue. How could Gutman’s low level defectors possibly know the details of this Assad family saga? The simple answer, of course, is they couldn’t. Gutman repeatedly expresses outrage and consternation at the perfidy and incompetence of the CIA for not debriefing his Syrian opposition contacts to find out the deepest secrets of the Assad regime that he has found out. The Daily Beast, which publishes Gutman’s revelations, shares his outrage. Little wonder that so many Americans are having a hard time figuring out how to evaluate the “post-truth” age, when their news organs feed them such pablum. How in the world could Iran, Assad and Hizbollah be winning this regional war against Turkey, the Gulf States, Israel and a large array of Sunni rebel militias if Iran were blowing up the leadership of its closest ally? Certainly, it is comforting to believe that one’s enemies are incompetent, malevolent killers, but could they really have maintained a thirty-five year alliance if they were busy killing off family members and security chieftains of each other? These sorts of explanations for what is happening in Syria beggar belief. Such conspiracy theories are attractive in the absence of facts. Here is what I can reconstruct from a few sources who in a position to know.

The Real Perpetrators of the Bombing of the Assad’s Crisis Group 

The only truth that Mr. Gutman’s sources told was that no one was “allowed to get close” to the investigation after the bombing. As we will see below, this would become an important factor in confirming the identity of the real perpetrators of the bombing.

The crisis group regularly assembled at the office of the National Security inside the Qiyade Qutriye (Central Command building) and not at Turkmani’s office as Mr. Gutman’s article posits. Nearly 3 months before the July 18th bombing, an insider placed Mercury Cyanide inside the lentil soup that was offered to members of the crisis group. The poison almost killed Interior Minister Shaar and Turkmani. Asef Shawkat declined the soup dish and was not harmed. Following the incident, a decision was made to heighten security by regularly changing the meeting location. The offices of Hisham Ihtiyar and the Defense Minister became alternative venues for the meeting.

Nearly 7 months after the bombing, European diplomats, the identity of whom I have been asked not to disclose, called a meeting between a Syrian official and an opposition figure who insisted that he had been behind the assassination of Assef Shawkat. The reason that the European diplomats called for the meeting was to pressure President Assad and his generals to resign. They believed that the success of the opposition figure in assassinating so many top government officials would intimidate Assad and convince him to leave Syria. The opposition figure asked the Syrian official with whom he was meeting to relay to President Assad and his men that the opposition could assassinate him as surely as it has assassinated Assef Shawkat and the other principals of the regime.

In order to establish his credibility, the opposition figure explained in great detail how and where the bomb had been planted in the National Security building in Rawda. His details matched the evidence that was being uncovered by the regime investigation of the bombing and convinced its officials that the opposition figure was not bluffing. He knew that the bombs were placed in a suspended or drop ceiling that had been installed in the National Security room years earlier. A total of 5 explosives were placed inside the drop ceiling. One of the five did not explode. Such details were impossible for anyone outside the inner circle in Damascus to verify. It was clear that the opposition figure knew what he was talking about. The Syrian official quickly concluded that the opposition member, a Damascene

Syrian Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha

Syrian Defence Minister General Daoud Rajha

financier, had been involved in the bombing that killed the President’s brother-in-law. He went on to explain how Saudi Arabian officials had promised him a large sum of money that he later collected once the bombing had been successfully carried out. This was further confirmed when he described how he was able to recruit an Armenian officer who worked at Major General Hisham Ikhtiyar’s office to smuggle the explosives inside the building and use the adjacent office from which he was able to insert the bombs into the ceiling and have them placed into Mr. Ikhtiyar’s office, directly above the table around which the group convened. Fifteen minutes before the explosion, the Armenian officer left the building, claiming that he had to empty the garbage. He never returned. He had placed a timer in his office that triggered the explosion. He has never been seen again. His reward was $2 million out of the total of $7 million that was paid to the group. In 2012, barely a year into the Syrian crisis, the idea that the Syrian state might be the next government to fall in the Arab Spring was gaining momentum. With the probability of state collapse on the rise, it made sense for an Armenian officer and others like him to accept a $2 million payment in the hope starting a new life overseas.

Recall that officials from a European capital witnessed the meeting in which the Syrian financier explained to Syrian officials how he had executed the assassination of Asef Shawkat. They can confirm this entire account. Contrary to the speculations of Mr. Gutman’s sources, Iran was not involved in the bombing. The regime was not turning on itself. Assad’s closest ally was not assassinating Assad family members in order to gain control over Syria.

Iraq and the Jihadi Nexus:

Almost immediately after 9/11, Assad authorized his intelligence services to share many of their files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Europe. Late in 2002, Syrian intelligence helped disrupt an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. Assad then also agreed to house suspected terrorists for the CIA in Syrian prisons.  This developing collaboration between Damascus and Washington based on having al-Qaida as a common enemy was soon to go cold after Assad begun to publicly oppose the Iraq war.  George W. Bush soon responded by linking Syria to   an ‘axis of evil’ containing Iraq, Iran and North Korea.  With the Iraq invasion gathering force, both the Syrian leadership and their Islamist enemies started to plan for the possibility that Damascus could be next after Iraq. The Syrian Islamist militants started to move to the north east of the country ahead of the American invasion of Iraq. They planned to fill the void should the Syrian state become the next target of the U.S. The Syrian state was becoming equally convinced of the American plans towards Syria. It was the head of one of the Intelligence agencies who soon saw an opportunity in infiltrating those Islamists moving to the border and then organizing them to move into Iraq rather than wait for the Americans to cross into Syria.  This plan meant that those who cross into Iraq to fight are known to Syrian intelligence when they cross back into Syria. It was through this system that Syrian prisons saw a nearly 10 fold increase in jihadist ranks. These hardened fighters were to spread their ideology throughout an overcrowded and largely mismanaged Syrian prison system infecting the minds of many none jihadist Syrians in the process.

Flirting With the Islamists:

Since fighting an earlier war with the Moslem Brotherhood in the early 1980’s, Syrian jails have been home to many Islamists. Syrian security agencies have traditionally trumped the Syrian justice system when it comes to the final say on the length of stay of those arrested. Often, when the justice system sentenced a person, the security services had the authority to ignore the end of the sentence by invoking “national security” concerns. This meant that many of those in prison were there beyond their legal stay. Scores of families never got to see their loved ones even after their original legal sentences were over.

Zahran Alloush, Leader of the Islamic Army.

Zahran Alloush, Leader of opposition militia, the Islamic Army. See this article about his ideology and beliefs

As the events in Daraa unfolded, the President invited key figures from the town to see what can be done to calm the demonstrations. One such figure was cleric Sayasneh. One of the consistent demands of such meetings was the release of prisoners. It was no different when Douma joined the uprising. Foreign Embassies were also pushing the Syrian State to release what it called political prisoners. People like Zahran Alloush were sentenced to seven years in prison when he was arrested with a group of 40 people on the charge of promoting Wahhabi ideology and gun possession.  They had not killed anyone or even fired a shot. Yet, they were sent to prisons like Sednaya and kept there beyond the end of their sentence on the whim of one of the security agencies.  It was in this context when the residents of Douma demanded the release of prisoners from their districts. The Syrian leadership was under intense pressure to calm the crisis. The people of Douma promised to do their job at calming their own streets if some of those prisoners were released.  Zahran and many others like him were released under this rationale. This is not too dissimilar to the way the American prisons in Iraq worked. Zarqawi, Baghdadi and Golani were all released from those prisons either when their terms ended or when the local populations demanded their release. Just like in Syrian prisons, the prisoners in American jails were also indoctrinated with jihadist ideology. Syria erred by releasing Alloush and Abboud who would go on to form Jeish al Islam and Ahrar just like the U.S. erred when it released Baghdadi who would go on to form ISIS.

The Aleppo Central Prison:

One of the longest standoffs between the Syrian Army and armed groups was at the Aleppo prison complex.  Nearly 3,000 inmates and 500 Syrian police and soldiers were trapped inside the prison for close to 3 years by armed militias that regularly shelled it. Like so many similar regime-opposition standoffs, intense negotiations were regularly attempted between the two sides. Mr. Fedaa Majzoub, an Australian citizen, was the point man in the negotiations between the two sides. One of the key demands of al-Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, the two militias that led the seige of the Aleppo prison, was the release of 80 jihadist comrades that were amongst the 3000 inmates. Had Damascus been following a strategy of releasing jihadists from Al Qaeda and the like onto Syrian streets to change the image of the uprising as suggested by the sources of Mr. Gutman’s article, there was never a better opportunity to do so by Assad. Instead of yielding to the demands of the negotiator to release the 80 jihadists, the Syrian leadership chose instead to defend the complex for resulting in a standoff that lasted nearly three years.

Almost since the start of the Syrian crisis, the debate on the timing of the radicalization of the conflict still rages on.  Supporters of the Syrian opposition refer to articles like Mr. Gutman’s to portray a peaceful uprising that Damascus desperately tried to radicalize through all means possible. Such sinister attempts were thought to include colluding with terrorists and releasing from their jails as well as bombing its own capital to prove a point. Loyalists and leadership insiders, on the other hand, believe that the uprising was radicalized very early on after the initial events were quickly hijacked by Islamists who had sat waiting for decades for this moment to start. Based on extensive personal conversations with ex White House officials, there seems to be a consensus that the defining moment of this debate was the incident that occurred at the town of Jisr al –Shugour in June of 2011. This is when 120 soldiers were killed between 3 and 6 June. Opposition activists say it was one part of the army firing on another for refusing to kill protesters. Thousands of miles away in Washington, American officials were already eavesdropping on Syrian opposition and others. On Friday June 3rd, White House officials knew that those soldiers were shot and killed by the opposition as the latter used various communication devices to boast about the incident. One particular official became convinced that the response of Damascus will be swift and devastating. He therefore decided to be at his desk over the weekend to monitor the situation. The weekend passed with no such response by Damascus. By Monday, officials at the White House were pleasantly surprised. Their worst fears of a harsh crackdown were never materialized. Over the coming weeks and months those early thoughts turned to be wishful thinking as Syria soon descended into its black tunnel.

[End]

Joshua Landis and Roy Gutman debate the notion that Assad helped create ISIS and planned false flag operations to bomb Damascus on “NPR’s To The Point”