“Do Syrians Want To Fight Until Victory or Do they Want a Ceasefire?” by James McMichael

Do Syrians Want To Fight Until Victory or Do they Want a Ceasefire?
by James McMichael [jamesmcmichael.dc@gmail.com]
for Syria Comment, March 26, 2014

A recent survey results show clear-cut differences between the views of civilians and those of rebel fighters with regard to the war and the political future of Syria. Simply put, civilians want a negotiated peace as quickly as possible, while rebel fighters are determined to fight on for military victory. Moreover, civilians want a postwar government with limited religious influence, while rebel fighters want a religion-dominated postwar government. The survey results also contradict some existing theories as to the nature and origins of the war. Three researchers, Vera Miranova, Loubna Mrie and Sam Whitt conducted surveys of civilians in rebel held areas and rebel fighters in Aleppo during August-September 2013 and Idlib during November-December 2013. See the Voices of Syria project.

Civilians and rebel fighters were asked to select the best from several options with respect to negotiating with and fighting against Assad. “Continue fighting until Assad defeated” was selected by an overwhelming majority of 89.29% of rebel fighters but by only 36.36% of civilians. Conversely, “Immediate cease-fire to begin negotiations” was selected by 45.45% of civilians and by a mere 3.57% of rebel fighters. If the “civilians” could be represented in peace negotiations, then perhaps a result different from Geneva II could occur. However, while the views of rebel fighters and the external opposition are heard by Western and Gulf governments, the views of Syrian civilians apparently are heard by no one outside Syria.

Civilians and rebel fighters were asked how large a role religion should play in future Syrian politics. Of civilians, there is nothing approaching a majority position and 39.3% favor a very important role, 22.2% favor a not very important role, and 6.2% favor no role at all. Of rebel fighters, a majority of 53.3% favors a very important role, just 13.3% favor a not very important role, and none favor no role at all. It appears that, if civilians determine the nature of a postwar government, then it possible that a balance might be struck between religion and secularism in government. In contrast, if rebel fighters prevail as to the form of postwar government, then theocracy seems to be in store.

The view that the war is a political revolution appears to be incorrect. Rebel fighters were asked their main reason for joining rebel groups. Revenge against Assad was given by 46.3%, support for the group’s goals was given by just 18.5%, defending their community was given by 13%, and defeating Assad was given by 11.1%. With a majority of 57.4% fighting against Assad, and just 18.5% fighting for their group’s goals, the rebel fighters care whom they are fighting against, but are quite unconcerned as to what they are fighting for. This indicates that the war is not a revolution seeking a new political order but is, instead, an identity-based civil war like Biafra, Northern Ireland and past and present Iraq.

One explanation that has been offered for the 2011 uprising, aside from emulation of the Arab Spring in other countries, is economic deprivation caused by a moribund economy, a high birth rate, a bloated public sector, and a multiyear drought. The survey results rebut that hypothesis. Rebel fighters were asked their pre-war occupation. Pre-war, 35.59% of rebel fighters were students, 27.12% were professionals, and just 13.56% were unemployed. The ranks of the rebel fighters were not filled by the economically deprived.

Although not discussed above, the survey results provide extensive information as to the social effects of the war. Those social effects are, in a few words, physical, personal, economic and psychological catastrophe. This catastrophe goes a long way toward explaining the civilian preference for a negotiated end to the war as quickly as possible and aversion to fighting on for military victory. If only Secretary Kerry and his counterparts in Europe and the Gulf were aware of and amenable to the potential for peace in bypassing the rebel groups and external opposition and providing to Syrian civilians the means to become the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrians. However, nothing of the sort appears to be on the diplomatic agenda.

A few caveats are necessary. Security concerns prevented the researchers from using certain sampling techniques. The surveys were limited geographically. The total sample size was just 150 individuals. No margin of error is provided. Nevertheless, these surveys are an important advance in understanding the nature of the war, the prospects for peace, and the possible forms of a postwar government.
The researchers report as works in progress three papers analyzing their survey results. These are sure to be of value to those trying to understand Syria.

CAVEATS

  1. It was not possible to use standard survey sampling techniques.
  2. The limited geographical area.
  3. The sample size was just 150 individuals.

The research interest was rebel held areas and the surveys were conducted accordingly.

Middle-East’s Sectarian Balance Shifts as Syrian Uprising Enters Fourth Year — by Jawad Anwar Qureshi

Jawad Anwar Qureshi is a PhD candidate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago Divinity School. His dissertation explores debates in Damascus on questions of tradition, Salafism, Islamism, and jihad.  http://chicago.academia.edu/JawadQureshi  Twitter: @jqureshi_

 

Jawad Anwar QureshiThis month, Syria’s uprising enters its fourth year. So far, close to 150,000 people are confirmed dead, over nine million Syrians have been displaced, and carnage has been unleashed in virtually all of Syria’s urban centers.

One of the unintended results from what started out as peaceful protests has been the re-alignment of powers in the Middle East along sectarian lines. Syria has pulled away from Sunni neighbors that were previously invested in Syria—in particular, Turkey and Saudi Arabia—and has drawn itself closer to Iran, the region’s sole Shiite state.

The Arab Spring reached Syria in March, 2011, when the government arrested and tortured teenage boys in the southern city of Deraa for spray painting the Arab Spring slogan—“The people want to topple the regime”—on their school wall. In response, protests erupted throughout the country. Despite using Friday congregational prayer to launch their protests in the beginning months, the Syrian protests, like those in other Arab Spring countries, did not initially have an overtly ideological, sectarian, or even religious tone; protestors demanded freedom (hurriya) and dignity (karama).

However, the government’s violent reaction was, from the beginning, colored by sectarian divisions. President Bashar al-Assad’s brother, Maher, commander of the Republican Guard’s 4th Armored Division, was recruited to lead the crackdown. This division had, thirty years earlier, under the leadership of Bashar and Maher’s uncle, Rifaat, ruthlessly crushed an Islamist-led revolt in Hama, killing tens of thousands. In addition to the Republican Guards, Alawite gangs loyal to Assad known as theShabbiha were dispatched throughout the country to terrorize protestors and intimidate citizens.

The protests gave way to armed resistance when defectors from the army formed the Free Syrian Army (FSA) in July, 2011. A number of Sunni militias loosely affiliated with the FSA emerged throughout Syria shortly thereafter and several Arab countries funneled support to these militias, in particular Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

January, 2012, marks the creation of the al-Qaeda affiliated militia, Jabhat al-Nusra (The Victory Front), whose stated goal was the overthrow of the Assad regime and the establishment of a pan-Islamic state under the leadership of a Sunni caliph. In the wake of the Arab Spring, al-Qaeda’s Sunni leadership has focused on Syria and Iraq as new theaters for jihad, fighting Shiites in both countries. Thus, in April, 2013, the Islamic State of Iraq (i.e. al-Qaeda in Iraq) announced that it was expanding the scope of its operations to include Syria and re-branded itself The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The rhetoric of the opposition—for al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists and non-jihadis alike—is laden with sectarian language.

The Assad regime likewise adopted the language of jihad. In March, 2013, the last two Sunni clerics supporting the regime, the Mufti Ahmad Hassoun and Syria’s most prominent scholar Said Ramadan al-Bouti, issued fatwas, announcing from their pulpits and on Syrian national television that jihad in defense of the state was a religious obligation binding upon all Muslims.

As a result of its response to the Uprising, the Assad regime has been isolated by its neighbors and the international community. To subdue the country, President al-Assad has increasingly turned to Shiite Iran for financial support, weapons, and fighters. For example, in April, 2013, the Iranian backed Hezbollah provided fighters to aid the Syrian army’s siege of the city of Qusayr.

Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has pledged to continue fighting until he has defeated Syria’s Sunni jihadi-militias. At the same time, a number of Shiite militias have emerged with recruits from Iran and Iraq responding to calls for volunteers to protect Syrian mausoleums of Shiite saints.

For now, Assad appears to have weathered the storm. Various international peace conferences have accomplished nothing. Assad has even successfully navigated American pressure to disarm his chemical weapons. The armed opposition remains unable to inflict decisive defeats against the regime and the al-Qaeda affiliates have turned their guns on each other.

Assad might still be standing but Syria’s position in the Middle East has been radically altered. While Syria has long been an ally of Iran it has always balanced that relationship with that of its Sunni neighbors. The latter ties are now severed and Iran’s influence in Syria is unopposed.

To be sure, there is more to the Syrian Uprising—its origin, development, and future—than sectarianism. However, sectarianism remains an endemic problem through which many of the actors involved view, assess, and react to events.

Sources and Additional Reading:

Anonymous citizen in Damascus. “In Secular Syria, Top Muslim Cleric Picks Sides In Civil War.” NPR, March 12, 2013, International.

Chulov, Martin. “Controlled by Iran, the deadly militia recruiting Iraq’s men to die in Syria.” The Guardian, March 12, 2014, World News Iraq.

Haykel, Bernard. “Al-Qa’ida and Shiism.” Fault Lines in Global Jihad. Edited by Assaf and Brian Fishman. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Pierret, Thomas. The Syrian Baath Party and Sunni Islam: Conflicts and Connivance. Brandeis University, 2014. http://www.brandeis.edu/crown/publications/meb/MEB77.pdf.

Qureshi, Jawad Anwar. “Discourses of Damascene Sunni ‘Ulama During the 2011 Revolution.” State and Islam in Baathist Syria, 59-91. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2012.

Zelin, Aaron and Phillip Smyth’s “The Vocabulary of Sectarianism.” Foreign Policy, January 29, 2014, The Middle East Channel.

This article was first posted on Sightings, an online publication of the Martin Marty Center of the University of Chicago’s Divinity School

The Northern Storm Brigade: It’s History, Current Status, and Why It Matters By Chris Looney

The Northern Storm Brigade: It’s History, Current Status, and Why It Matters
By Chris Looney: chris@sreo.org Research Analyst at the Syria Research and Evaluation Organization (SREO) based in Gaziantep, Turkey
For Syria Comment, March 18, 2014

  The Northern Storm Brigade (NSB: Arabic – Liwa Asifat al-Shamal) has been called many things since it was first formed in the early days of the uprisings in Syria. For some, it is a part of a contingent of secular FSA groups that represent the best chance for the West to counter the Islamification of the revolution. For others, it is a brigade of opportunists – smugglers and kidnappers with an ill-defined agenda willing to revise their ideology in order to maintain their influence and power.

In reality, the NSB is all of the above. In many ways, its story mirrors the story of the revolution; early on it was unable to coordinate effectively with other rebel groups or to secure significant western support, and later its downfall at the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) foreshadowed the expanding role of extremists in the conflict. Because of these parallels, the NSB is to some extent a microcosm of the revolution, making its story essential for a thorough understanding of the war.

The Formation of the NSB and the Liberation of Azaz

The NSB was formed midway through 2011 in Azaz, a town in northern Aleppo right across the border from the Turkish city of Kilis. Strategically, this area was very important because of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, one of the main conduits for goods and people flowing into Syria. According to one founding member present at the initial meeting, the group rallied unanimously around Ammar Dadikhi, known to his followers as Abu Ibrahim.

Amar al-Dadikhi aka “Abu Ibrahim”, a large and scarred man who was alternately praised by many opposition activists for battlefield bravery and whispered about as an accomplished smuggler who once maintained extensive ties to the government.

Dadikhi had his roots in `Azaz, where he was a prominent businessman before the uprisings. While he had been known to tell reporters that he was in the fruit trade, activists and even members of the NSB acknowledge that he was a smuggler. However, it is important to note that this was not an entirely stigmatized profession in border towns, and in fact was seen by many residents as a natural part of the economy. While he focused primarily on cigarettes, the conflict opened new opportunities to expand the group’s operations into fuel and weapons trafficking.

Funding for the group came mostly through the business elite (smugglers) of Azaz, who were eager to contribute to the fight against Bashar al-Assad. Members of the NSB deny having received any sort of foreign backing, state or private, though this is impossible to confirm. But activists familiar with the NSB speculate that their story is true – support within Azaz and profits gained through continued smuggling were likely enough to sustain the small, local brigade.

This is in part why the NSB rarely coordinated with other brigades early on. Its geographical scope was at the start limited to Azaz, and that coupled with its self-sufficiency gave Dadikhi little incentive to integrate with other groups or, later, with the Supreme Military Council (SMC). As one activist put it, “(the NSB) was independent because smugglers like full control over everything.”

But this was hardly problematic as the NSB, alongside two other rebel brigades, fought the Syrian Army for control of Azaz. According to activists and members of the NSB, the group enjoyed widespread support during this period. When the town was finally liberated in July of 2012, the group turned over the task of governing to a local council, and despite some squabbles with residents retained its popularity.

Early Divisions

Still, during the battle for Azaz there was some discord within the brigade. In early 2012, a commander known as Ahmed Ebed split from the NSB and formed a new group called the Amr bin al-Aas Brigade. A schoolteacher before the revolution, Ebed was upset with Dadikhi’s focus on smuggling and unnerved by his secularism. He was by no means an extremist, caution two people familiar with the situation, but did believe politics should be informed by Islamic principles.

Because of Dadikhi’s popularity among his men, Ebed was not able to take many NSB fighters with him. Moving his operations outside of Azaz, he began to fill this void by recruiting and training the slow trickle of foreigners that had begun to make their way into Syria. According to the sources mentioned above, the first two men to join Ebed were two Iraqis who went by the noms de guerre of Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi and Abu Staif al-Iraqi. Both had extensive networks throughout the Muslim world, and they were able to leverage them in order to bring more fighters into Syria. By the end of 2012, the Amr bin al-Aas Brigade had largely fallen apart, many of its members leaving in order to join two newly formed groups with a more radical tilt – Jaysh al-Muhajereen and Jaysh Muhammad.

Abu Omar al-Shishani

Jaysh al-Muhajereen was formed during the summer of 2012 by Abu Omar al-Shishani, a Chechen who later would become the northern commander for ISIS. In March of 2013, it merged with Jaysh Muhammad and another group to form Jaysh al-Muhajereen wa-Ansar (the Army of Emigrants and Helpers) under al-Shishani’s leadership. After its forces were consolidated, al-Shishani reportedly controlled over 1,000 fighters. He would later leave and join ISIS, taking some of his fighters with him.

The Battle for Menagh Airbase

The NSB was at the height of its power when Azaz fell. One senior member estimates the group’s strength to have been roughly 1,100 at the time, though others have estimated it to be as high as 2,000. Yet its influence was concentrated almost exclusively in Azaz. It had no competition for the town, as Ebed and Shishani were operating elsewhere in Aleppo province. So with a hard fought victory now under its belt, the NSB quickly moved south to Menagh Airbase, a Syrian Army stronghold between Aleppo and Azaz that was being used by Assad to carry out airstrikes on Aleppo city.

The siege of Menagh began in August of 2012 but quickly stagnated. The base was surrounded by open fields and heavily fortified with tanks, artillery, and snipers, making it difficult for the rebels to break through.

Complicating the situation for the NSB was the fact that the battle took a heavy toll on its senior leadership. In January of 2013, Dadikhi was wounded in a skirmish and evacuated to Turkey, where he would later pass away. Other commanders, including Hadi Salo and Samir Akkash, were killed during the campaign as well, forcing younger, less experienced fighters into high-ranking roles.

In addition, the NSB began to lose some of its forces to brigades with more Islamist orientations. According to one source close to the group, these defections were not too substantial, but did signal the growing role of Islam in the conflict. “(At this time) a lot of Syrians (were becoming) much more religious because of the war,” he says.

As the siege of Menagh wore on, the groups taking part in the fighting mushroomed. By the time the base finally fell on August 5, 2013 extremist groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria) and ISIS had played important roles in its capture. The NSB was part of this victorious coalition, but came out of the fight somewhat weakened.

Hostages, McCain, and Amouri

During the struggle for Menagh, the NSB was also dealing with three separate issues that, according to its members, would profoundly affect the future of the organization. The first stemmed back to an incident that had occurred on May 22, 2012. A bus full of Lebanese citizens had been making their way home from a Shi’a pilgrimage in Iran when they were stopped by the NSB at a checkpoint outside of Azaz. In an interview with NPR, Dadikhi claimed the men in the group introduced themselves as military experts from Hezbollah, believing he and his troops to be government soldiers. The NSB would hold 11 of the men captive, setting off a hostage crisis that would last 17 months.

Dadikhi’s claims were vehemently denied by both the hostages and their families, and were met with intense speculation in the media. Yet the debate within the NSB and other rebel groups was not over the identity of the prisoners – of that they were certain. Rather, it was over what they should be exchanged for. For Dadikhi and many of his followers, they hoped to barter for the release of activists held by the Assad regime. Yet this was hardly unanimous. Liwa al-Tawhid, a moderate Islamist group that enjoyed a friendly relationship with the NSB, pushed Dadikhi to return the hostages only in exchange for a significant supply of weapons. According to one source, this became a mild dispute between Abdul Qader Saleh, Liwa al-Tawhid’s leader, and the NSB.

On May 27, 2013, with the hostages still being held and negotiations largely stalled, a visit from US Senator John McCain would again push the NSB into the spotlight. McCain traveled to Azaz with General Salim Idriss, then the commander of SMC, to meet with a contingent of FSA leaders from across Syria. Among these groups was the NSB, and McCain drew considerable criticism for allegedly crossing paths with Dadikhi and Muhammad Nour, another member of the brigade that was directly involved in the kidnappings. Despite the fact that at this point Dadikhi had been killed and the connection to Nour was later refuted, the speculation still sullied McCain’s visit and made his push for further funding of the FSA ring hollow.

Circled are: Abu Youseff left, and Muhammad Nour, right. Two men Lebanese reports claim were responsible for the border kidnapping and continued detainment of 11 Shiite pilgrims.

But according to members of the NSB, the aftermath of the visit was much worse for the brigade. At this point, the group had taken significant losses in the battle for Menagh, and was hoping McCain’s trip would translate into tangible aid. “We expected him to at least send food, if not weapons or money” spat out one fighter, bitterly. “But he did nothing.”

As several other fighters and activists explained it, the visit turned out to be an inflection point for the brigade. Not only did they fail to secure the support necessary to revive the NSB, ISIS later used McCain’s visit (among other things) as an excuse to attack Azaz. Despite the fact that the fighters acknowledge that this would have happened anyway, the hostility with which McCain is held by many NSB members suggests that he became a scapegoat for the group’s problems as their situation deteriorated.

Another reason the NSB had begun to decline was the death of Dadikhi. While he was alive, his fighters had described him as a “charismatic leader”, a sentiment still echoed today. He is remembered with nostalgia and spoken about with reverence, his followers reminiscing about how he was “more concerned about civilians than his fighters” and “cared about his people” rather than personal gain.

This contrasts heavily with their opinions regarding Samir Amouri, who would take Dadikhi’s place after his death. Amouri had been a political leader within the brigade and was in charge of the Bab al-Salam border crossing, an important source of revenue for the NSB. One journalist recalls being charged up to $300 to cross into Syria, and with Dadikhi gone this proved to be an important source of power for Amouri.[1] In addition, he also had several family members in influential positions within the brigade and thus was the natural successor to Dadikhi, a decision that it seems was not highly controversial at the time. Though in hindsight several NSB members say they knew it was the wrong decision, there is no evidence presented of anyone actively opposing Amouri or splintering away from the group at the time.

Under Amouri’s leadership, however, the hostage crisis would eventually be resolved in a complex deal brokered by Qatar that involved the NSB, the regime, Lebanon, and Turkey. Believing the Turks had the ability to influence the NSB, a group calling themselves the Visitors of Imam Ali al-Rida kidnapped two civilian Turkish pilots in Lebanon on August 9, 2013 and held them as collateral for the release of the Shi’a hostages. By this point, only nine men remained with the NSB, as the group had released two as a gesture of good will. Despite claims in the media that they had been transferred to another rebel group known as the al-Islam brigade, NSB members assert that the prisoners were never outside of their control. Eventually, a deal was struck that released the hostages in October in exchange for 200 women being held by the Assad regime and the Turkish pilots.

ISIS Takes Over Azaz

According to one member of the NSB, after the fall of Menagh, ISIS “went straight for Azaz.” In reality, the group had established a presence there as early as July 2013 through the provision of services and da’wah outreach to the local population. Yet up until September there was no military component to this, and while the NSB remained wary of ISIS there were no outright clashes because the ISIS contingent was at the time very small and did not directly challenge NSB authority.

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Abu Suhaib al-Iraqi and Abu Staif al-Iraqi, the two Iraqi fighters who helped recruit foreigners

But this precarious peace did not last. In mid-September, tensions escalated because of a German doctor working in the local hospital in Azaz. ISIS accused the doctor of being a foreign spy and charged the NSB with aiding him, using this as an excuse to send in military reinforcements and begin attacking Azaz. What followed has been documented in great detail, with Liwa al-Tawhid temporarily securing a ceasefire between the two groups that ISIS would later violate, leading to renewed clashes and the eventual takeover of Azaz by ISIS in early October.

What has not been widely reported is the nagging reluctance within the NSB to engage in combat against ISIS, even after ISIS had begun to assassinate its leaders. While one senior commander in the NSB says he was suspicious of ISIS during the battle for Menagh and warned other brigades about them, within the rest of the group this conviction appears to hardly have been universal. Two activists tell of a meeting in a local mosque that occurred shortly after the incident with the German doctor, where dozens of members of the NSB and locals debated the escalating clashes with ISIS. The room was divided, says one of the men present at the meeting, but eventually those present agreed that they should avoid further conflict if possible and seek a mediated solution. The rationale behind this was not based on the fact that the NSB felt they were not powerful enough to take on ISIS; rather, it was founded on a hesitation to fight with their “Muslim brothers.”

It must be stressed that this was before ISIS, as one activist put it, “revealed (its) true colors.” After having fought alongside the group at Menagh, some members of the NSB were still uncertain of ISIS’ true intentions and skeptical that skirmishes between the two would evolve into full-fledged warfare. Wanting to return their focus to the regime, a quick, peaceful resolution to the dispute seemed not only practical, but also possible.

Of course, ISIS had other plans, targeting NSB’s already weakened leadership and decimating it even further. Now, NSB members say that ISIS fighters are “less than animals… We will burn them.” The war is now entirely against ISIS, they add. “We can deal with the regime after we deal with (them).”

Naddom and the Current Situation

Though some NSB members initially had doubts about direct confrontation, ISIS’ disregard for the agreement mediated by Liwa al-Tawhid quickly spurred them to action. Yet the brigade was no match for ISIS. According to one member, they were fighting with only Kalashnikovs and two machine guns at their disposal, and thus were easily overpowered. Another problem was leadership. Amouri proved to be entirely inadequate in battle, fleeing into Turkey as ISIS gained control. “We failed because of him,” says one senior commander, who notes with a wry smile that Amouri is now wanted by both ISIS and the NSB.

Taking his place would be Mahmoud Naddom, who by all accounts has been a much more effective leader. He would continue the resistance against ISIS, moving what was left of the brigade outside of Azaz and continuing to strike when he had the opportunity. Yet he was constantly losing men and thus had little impact. There were few leaders left, and many fighters fled into Kilis, the Turkish city just across the border. Here, the group remained organized, changing its strategy in an attempt to remain afloat. Realizing it needed help, the NSB began reaching out to other groups in an attempt to develop relationships and begin coordinating with other rebels, something it had been hesitant to do in the past. Its leaders are now actively seeking foreign support as well, maintaining that they are the West’s best hope to counter the Islamification of the revolution. “By encouraging the NSB and supporting us, we can get others to defect from Islamic groups,” says one member.

But there is little evidence that these efforts are working. On February 28, ISIS withdrew from Azaz in order to reinforce its positions in other parts of the country. At the time, one senior member of the NSB estimates that the group had only 300 men inside Syria. While some fighters (~70-100) went back to Azaz from Turkey, Liwa al-Tawhid still took control of the town. In addition, approximately 150 NSB members left the brigade to join Tawhid, leaving the current number of NSB troops inside Syria hovering around 200. Despite this, the group’s leaders are still confident that they can rebuild the brigade and are unwilling to merge with any other factions.

Conclusion

In many ways, the story of the NSB parallels the story of the revolution. Originally formed to combat the regime, internal funding interests impeded the group from actively coordinating with others, hurting the cohesiveness of the rebellion. The influx of foreign fighters and extremists would later weaken the NSB to the point where it ceased to be a factor on the ground. In the wake of the uprisings against ISIS, it now sees the opportunity to reestablish itself. But the road ahead will not be easy, and in a large part depends on securing foreign support. The NSB is not perfect, as one of its fighters acknowledged, but “we are good people… focused on combating (extremism).” Adds another, “we just want freedom for our country.”

 


[1] It is important to note that during the summer of 2013 the border post came to be shared with Liwa al-Tawhid. None of the NSB members interviewed were able to give adequate responses as to why this occurred or what the relationship entailed.

The Syrian Uprising at Three Years

Joshua Landis on the conflict in Syria as it enters its 4th year. Interview with Middle East Week

  • Recent advancements by the Assad regime
  • How the international community views the conflict
  • Fragmentation of opposition forces
  • Rebel governing of territories they control

After three years, no end in sight
by Borzou Daragahi, Financial Times

In another time or place, Abdul Razzaq al-Hammoud would be spending his days coaching football and teaching physical education at the Deir Ezzour secondary school where he once worked. Instead, the moustachioed, mild-mannered Syrian is a warrior in a conflict with no seeming end. He is the seasoned commander of 260 men fighting with Kalashnikov assault rifles and anti-aircraft weapons to maintain control over a hard-won neighbourhood that is under regular threat of regime barrel bombs and artillery shells.

“Two years ago we controlled nothing,” says Mr Hammoud, 53, during a meeting in a hotel in southeast Turkey where he and some of his fighters gathered to discuss strategy with other Syrian activists, rebels and politicians. “Now from the Iraqi border to Deir Ezzour there is no regime.”

Three years on…

Many of his men, his relatives and his neighbours have been killed, martyred to a revolution that began three years ago this month. But there have been many victories, too. “If we lose one fighter we take 10,” he says. “We have so much experience at this point. We have gotten very good. Of course, we are winning; we are advancing all the time.”

As the Syria war enters its fourth year, no question is perhaps more pertinent to the calculations of combatants inside the country and policy makers abroad than who is winning. Ominously for the prospects of ending the conflict that has left up to 140,000 people dead and displaced more than 9m in what the UN describes as the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the second world war, both sides claim they are.

“The fact that we’re in this intermediate situation where both sides can hope to win, but it’s not clear that they will, is the worst of all worlds,” says Jean-Marie Guehenno, former UN and Arab League deputy envoy to Syria. “Because all sides have an interest in continuing the fight rather than going for a political solution, all sides believe they can win.”

The war has mutilated Syria, savaging its economy and infrastructure. Once-vaunted systems of healthcare, education and transport will take a generation to repair. It is also quickly transforming the region, hardening sectarian animosities between the Muslim world’s Shia and Sunni sects and the geopolitical tensions between east and west. And it shows no signs of ending soon. The conflict has become a complicated, multi-layered contest with four big participants, each with its set of foreign backers: the regime, the rebels, the hardline al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, and ethnic Kurds.

All sides publicly claim victories and progress, in part to calm the nerves of their worried backers. Both the regime and the opposition say they would have long ago defeated their adversaries were it not for the meddling of international powers. But no side has been able to deliver a decisive blow against the other and neither is ready to give in on core demands: the opposition insists that Bashar al-Assad, the strongman president and member of Syria’s Alawite Shia minority, steps down; the regime insists on the capitulation of “terrorists”, its catch-all term to describe the largely Sunni opposition.

“There is no military solution to this,” says a western diplomat. “The only way forward is a transitional process. It’s going to be messy.”

For both the regime and its opponents, the war has become an exercise in diminishing expectations and declining returns. Both have retreated to defensive positions, unable to achieve decisive battlefield breakthroughs.

“It’s about control of regional resources,” says the Syrian head of an international aid organisation. “Why does so much of the fighting happen within 5km of the border? It’s about checkpoints and customs and control over goods smuggled in and out of the country.”

From their strongholds, they exchange mortar rounds and rockets. The regime dispatches fighter jets and helicopter gunships to rain death on opposition-held neighbourhoods. All sides have been accused of vicious atrocities.

“The war taking place in Syria is one of the filthiest wars in history,” says Younis Oudeh, a pro-Syrian regime commentator based in Lebanon. “It is a mix of many types of war. If each side had a specific enemy with a specific aim, we might have called it an orderly war, but it is not. And we cannot call it a street war either. It is a filthy, roguish war with diverse aims.”

Since the uprising against Mr Assad’s rule began, the opposition has made big strides. Where Mr Assad and his father for 40 years controlled Syria with an iron fist, huge stretches of the country – including in and around the capital Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo – are now under the control of either the Syrian rebels, Isis or ethnic Kurds. In some critical oil-rich areas, such as the largely Kurdish Jazeera district, Mr Assad maintains only a token presence.

“The war is slow,” says Sobhi Abu Leith, a furniture vendor and former soldier who defected. “It’s not remarkable or easy to witness. The regime cannot make one step advancement, but they can shell.”

Mr Assad has struggled for months to take control of the Lebanese border in towns such as Yabroud, only managing to make progress in recent days with the all-out support of Lebanese Hizbollah fighters who fought Israel to a standstill in 2006.

Rebels who once fought in flip-flops now have fatigues, med­i­cal kits and walkie-talkies. They have set up joint operations rooms inside and outside Syria to co-ordinate attacks. Fighters receive the occasional token salary – sometimes as little as $35 a month, to help support their families.

“Even with the little we have we have managed to fight the regime,” says Col Abdul Jabbar Al-Oqaidi, commander and spokesman of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo province. “We’ve become experienced and stronger and we can hold on to our own territory. We’re fighting a two-front war and it’s a good experience for us. After two years, we’ve become more experienced in street fighting.”

As Mr Hammoud, the Deir Ezzour commander puts it: “He [Mr Assad] controls the sky. We control the ground.”

Opposition leaders estimate that more than 100,000 fighters in about 1,000 brigades are grouped in several big coalitions.

The regime’s armed forces, once numbering 250,000 and considered among the most formidable in the Arab world, appear to be sliding into disarray with each passing day. Analysts say there is strong evidence that the command-and-control structure has broken down. Rebels say they have intercepted radio communications in which regime pilots or ground forces bluntly disobey orders. “There is a chaotic situation in the command of the armed forces,” says Mohamed Suleiman, a former defence ministry inspector who defected to the opposition but maintains contacts within the armed forces. “The military institution has already collapsed. You have gangs fighting for the government.”

According to the regime’s narrative, Mr Assad has survived despite vast forces ar­rayed against him. “The campaign against the Syrian regime is fierce, domestically and internationally,” says Mr Oudeh. “So far the Arab and foreign funds and powers have failed to topple this regime. Syrians are still supporting the regime strongly while state apparatuses such as intelligence and diplomacy are still standing strong.”

The western diplomat warns that “fatigue is going to set in” among Arab and international donors to the opposition the longer the war drags on. Russia, Iran and Hizbollah consider the survival of the Assad regime vital to their wider conflict with the US and the west.

“Bashar is getting major international support; we’re talking thousands of militiamen and millions of dollars,” says Hazem Lotfi, an official of the Aleppo council, which oversees governance and aid distribution in northern Syria. “On the other hand the friends of the Syrian opposition abroad are not delivering.”

The regime also has better equipment. Rebels complain they are forced to fight against the regime’s air power with second world war-era anti-aircraft guns. They long for portable heat-seeking air-defence rockets. But it is not just weapons where the regime has the edge, but surveillance gear, too. “We need more technology,” says Colonel Abdel Salaam Mehdi, commander of the military council of Aleppo. “We need devices to help us hear what the regime says and its plans. We need more intelligence and espionage devices. The regime has the ability to get all it wants of intelligence devices, to fight us with, from Iran and Russia.”

Regime forces have advanced slowly on Homs and Damascus, making an as­sault on Damascus from the northwest a near impossible goal for now. A recent western intelligence assessment predicts that the regime will gain firm control over a rump but feasibly functional area of the country within 18 months, a diplomat said.

Born in part of desperation and a lack of loyal troops, the regime’s vicious bombardment of civilian areas under rebel control not only degrades opposition forces cheaply but also has a political aim: in effect it prevents any alternative to Assad rule taking root anywhere in the country.

“So far there’s no spot where you can say, ‘look, there’s the new Syria’,” says Bassem Kuwatli, a Syrian opposition activist. “The goal is to show people that the revolution won’t bring anything better. They’re trying to destroy the social infrastructure supporting the revolution.”

The gradual erosion of the rebels’ habitat and the fact that much of the world looks the other way as the regime shells densely populated urban areas has led many to conclude the state is winning the conflict, regardless of rebel advances.

“If you look at the regime in the last six months they have been making small strategic advances,” says an aid worker who makes dangerous weekly forays in and out of northern Syria. “Where you get wide boulevards you have the regime. Where you have alleyways the rebels are holding it.”

The strength of the uprising might be its weakness. The fragmentation and disunity that allowed it to take root in hundreds of localities without any central authority is hampering its ability to deliver a knockout blow.

“What I don’t see is a more coherent opposition army,” says the head of the western aid group. “You have guys that are shifting their alliances. They stick together but do not merge.”

While Lebanon and Iraq, facilitated by Iran, provide the regime with fresh recruits, the number of new fighters joining the rebellion has dried up. “If I don’t have enough aid for salaries and weapons, I cannot recruit more fighters,” says Col Mehdi.

Even if the rebels prevail in the conflict, they will have a difficult time winning the peace. “Although the rebels are doing a good job in the field, a lot of Syrian factions don’t trust them,” says Khaled Milaji, a Syrian doctor at an organisation that co-ordinates humanitarian aid.

For many Syrians, including the 2.5m refugees who have left the country and an estimated 7m displaced, the war has meant tremendous losses.

Yousef, 20, an opposition supporter from the northern town of Tal Rifaat, withstood air strikes and shelling but finally fled his home along with his family to Turkey when water and electricity supplies were cut.

“The revolution is not winning,” he says after crossing the Turkish border at the town of Kilis. “There are lot of reasons and I would need hours to explain. But it’s basically because we’re not in unity.”

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon

Iraqi Officer Takes Dark Turn to al Qaeda
Alliance Against Maliki Government Develops After Armed Militants Overtook Fallujah
By Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan
March 16, 2014

For Iraq, he was a decorated war hero, severely wounded in battle. As an officer for the Iraqi army, Brigadier General Mustafa Al Mashhadani fought against Iran in the 1980s, against Kuwait in the early 1990s, and on his home turf against Americans in 2003.

But now, coming out of retirement at age 55, he is doing battle with a new enemy in his hometown of Fallujah: the army he served for decades. And he is doing it with a contingent of more than a hundred al Qaeda-linked fighters.

“Every time I fight, I whisper to myself, “It’s me, you idiots,” said Gen. Mashhadani. “This could have been different.”

His anguish is emblematic of some of the strange alliances that have cropped up since armed militants overtook the important city of Fallujah early this year and placed it under the control of the city’s Sunni majority. That majority may hate al Qaeda and its rigid theocratic mores—but they despise Nouri Al Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, even more.

More than two years after U.S. forces withdrew from the country it occupied for almost a decade, Iraq is on a bloody downward spiral. Devastating terror attacks now kill dozens of people with horrifying regularity. Highly organized and well-armed militants, capable of bold strikes against police and military targets, have been able to take and hold territory.

Indeed, the past year of worsening sectarian tensions and violence has already produced death tolls reminiscent of Iraq’s not-so-distant past. At least 7,818 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2013, the highest annual total since 17,956 were killed in 2007, the year the sectarian civil war first began to subside, according to the United Nations. And the violence hasn’t let up: In Baghdad on Saturday, a car bombing—a style of attack that has become routine—killed 19 people.

Experts say that as the crisis deepens, the country risks returning to the kind of sectarian civil war that, at its zenith in 2005 and 2006, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly tore the country apart.
Nowhere are signs of the country’s crumbling more evident than in Fallujah, a city seared in the minds of U.S. Marines who did fierce battle with insurgents there. Mr. Maliki, who is vying for a third term in parliamentary elections at the end of April, has sought to portray the occupation of Fallujah as an al Qaeda uprising with international links. And U.S. officials, concerned about the deteriorating security there, have responded. In December, the U.S. delivered 75 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, the first such shipment since it left the country. Then in January, the administration notified Congress of a new weapons package for Iraq that includes up to 500 Hellfire missiles.

In Fallujah, many Sunni politicians blame the bloody uprising on Mr. Maliki and his policies, which his critics say amount to Shiite chauvinism. Contrary to recent reports, locals interviewed in the city say the strongest occupying force in the Sunni-majority city isn’t al Qaeda but tribal fighters whose impatience with Mr. Maliki has finally boiled over into violence.

In response, the premier has said the policies aren’t chauvinistic and that militants are trying to use them to stir an uprising. Mr. Maliki’s spokesman also denied criticisms that the prime minister had been playing up al Qaeda’s presence in Anbar province, saying that there would be “no political benefit” to overstating the region’s terrorist threat.

But observers warn that unless Mr. Maliki takes a more conciliatory tone with Iraq’s powerful Sunni minority, the sectarian division could lead to a more permanent political rupture. Mr. Maliki risks pushing Sunnis out of politics altogether only months before this spring’s parliamentary vote, Sunni politicians warn.

“If the government fails to convince people to stand against al Qaeda…it could be the beginning of a civil war in Iraq,” said Rafi Al Essawi, a Sunni who served as Finance Minister under Mr. Maliki, but quit under protest last year after his bodyguards were arrested and accused of terrorism. He said he is working to encourage Fallujah’s tribal leaders to reject al Qaeda.

In all, since the outbreak of violence began in Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province in December, some 400,000 civilian residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The fighting in Fallujah has pushed February’s death toll above 1,000 across the country, according to the U.N. and the Health Committee of the Provincial Council of Anbar.

Known as the city of mosques, Fallujah has long been a focal point of Sunni extremist sympathies. U.S. forces fought two blistering battles against al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the city in 2004. Though some U.S. officials have quietly voiced concern over Mr. Maliki’s policies, a spokeswoman for the White House said this month that the U.S. was actively consulting with Iraqi leaders because of concerns about terrorism.

For the moment, the size of the threat directly from al Qaeda is hard to determine. While al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, can claim a sizable deployment in Fallujah, interviews with local officials, tribal sheiks and antigovernment fighters suggest that much of the fighting is also led by ordinary Sunni Iraqi tribesmen, jilted loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s regime like Gen. Mashhadani and Islamist fighters whose jihad, unlike that of al Qaeda, doesn’t exceed Iraq’s borders.

For the bulk of the fighters, locals say, the goal of the uprising is far more provincial than al Qaeda’s global agenda. Their aims align more closely with the Sunni protesters who erected and maintained largely peaceful protest encampments against Mr. Maliki’s government throughout Anbar and other Sunni provinces over the past year.

Among the Sunni protest movement’s chief grievances is a counterterrorism law that Sunni leaders say Mr. Maliki has wielded disproportionately against Sunnis, arresting them by the tens of thousands.

The Sunnis’ other main complaint is an exclusion law against loyalists of the former regime. Demonstrators say the law against former Baath Party members, the dominant party under the old regime of Saddam Hussein, functions as little more than a sectarian filter to keep Sunnis from getting government jobs or rising in the ranks of Iraq’s bureaucracy and military.

“What Maliki has done, the way the security services operate, this has created support for al Qaeda,” said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who is the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. Al Qaeda-linked fighters, he estimated, make up only about a fifth to a third of the fighters in Fallujah.

Mr. Maliki and his supporters say that both laws are essential tools in the fight against global Islamist extremism and the return of the former regime of Mr. Hussein—very real threats that the prime minister insists are incubating inside at least a dozen Sunni protest camps.

“The de-Baathification law included people from both sides, and even may include more Shiites than Sunnis,” said Ali al-Moussawi, Mr. Maliki’s spokesman, who added that Mr. Maliki is bound by the law and remains “unhappy” that he isn’t able to recommission certain former officers who had “proven their loyalty” to the nation. “These are attempts by the politicians in the Sunni areas to gather people around them by telling them that the government is treating them unfairly as an excuse to create trouble in Iraq.”

Mr. Moussawi acknowledged that some former senior army officers under Mr. Hussein were now colluding with al Qaeda to fight against the Iraqi army. While he didn’t know of Gen. Mashhadani, the general would definitely be considered a traitor if he were caught, Mr. Moussawi said.

Loyalists of Mr. Hussein, who was executed in late 2003, have organized themselves into a group known as the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, a violent resistance movement with loose ties to the global Naqshabandi Order of Sufi Islamic mystics. Their ranks have populated some of the protest encampments in the north of the country.

ISIS, meanwhile, has strengthened as the bloody conflict in neighboring Syria drags on. Syria’s war has given militants access to a plethora of heavy weapons and fighters transported over the two countries’ porous shared border, allowing them to ramp up the scale, frequency and sophistication of their attacks. ISIS operates in multiple countries with the aim of carving out an Islamic caliphate.

Though pro-Maliki politicians acknowledge the Sunni protesters’ legitimate grievances, they say al Qaeda-linked groups like ISIS have exploited sectarian divisions to advance a regional agenda.
“If the government didn’t raid the protest camps, then Anbar would have already been named an Islamist state for al Qaeda,” said Khaled Al Assady, a member of the Dawa Party that Mr. Maliki leads.

Despite their ideological differences, most antigovernment militants in Fallujah see their main goal as preventing Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-majority Iraqi military from re-entering the city—which to them is tantamount to a hostile takeover by foreign occupiers.

Weeks of negotiations between local tribal leaders loyal to the militants and Anbar politicians with ties to Baghdad have revolved around which security force would eventually take charge of the city in lieu of the armed forces.

For Mr. Maliki’s part, the Fallujah calculations include the added complication of the April 30 parliamentary elections, in which the two-term prime minister will be seeking a third chance at the helm. In Fallujah, analysts say the prime minister has what may be his last, best chance to show Shiite Iraqis that he can deal firmly with a rising jihadist threat without further alienating the Sunni minority.

“Maliki needs to demonstrate that he’s cleared Fallujah of al Qaeda one way or another,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the conservative-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There has to be some kind of dependable end to this, otherwise it’s just going to risk humiliation again and again.”

Yet as the fighting wears on, more and more secularists like Gen. Mashhadani are finding themselves seduced by al Qaeda.

When he enrolled in the military academy in 1979 at age 20, he says being in the army was a different experience. Being an officer was “marvelous, and you could propose to any girl.”
Greeting guests in his house in a neighborhood populated by former officers loyal to Mr. Hussein, the sharply dressed, mustachioed Gen. Mashhadani still boasts of the war wounds he earned while fighting against Iran—what he calls “the Persian state of evil.” His disfigured leg recalls where an Iranian shell gouged out a chunk of muscle during a firefight in 1987.

He says he climbed the ranks by fighting in what he termed “the disastrous invasion of Kuwait” in 1991 and then against American air incursions in 1993 and 1997. After the army was dissolved following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Gen. Mashhadani returned to his home in Fallujah, and tried civilian jobs. He says he asked about recommissioning in the army four years later, but says he and other Sunni retirees were turned down under the de-Baathification law.

Ultimately, the former general cites increased crackdowns on his fellow Sunnis as a driving force behind his shift in allegiance. In December last year, after the prime minister declared that a protest camp outside Ramadi was dominated by al Qaeda-linked militants, Iraqi security forces killed at least a dozen protesters while dispersing the camp. Shortly afterward, Gen. Mashhadani says he followed his son to a Fallujah mosque where militants were organizing themselves and distributing weapons.

He says he was quickly assigned as a brigade commander over 60 mostly untrained men, and on the same day found himself face-to-face with the first division of the same Iraqi army he served. He says he ordered his unit to retreat. “Some of my old colleagues serve in that division,” he said.

Gen. Mashhadani believes the presence of at least one hundred former Iraqi army officers among the Islamists’ ranks has made them a more professional, merciful fighting force. He claims to have convinced al Qaeda leaders to halt the practice of launching rockets from civilian neighborhoods.

The former general recalls one incident in which he and his ex-officer colleagues argued with al Qaeda leaders to prevent them from executing 14 captured Iraqi soldiers. Gen. Mashhadani says he saw to it that the men were given over to the protection of a local Fallujah sheik. Such experiences have hardened Gen. Mashhadani’s belief in the dignity of his fight.

“I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a living schizophrenia case,” he said. “On the one side I refuse al Qaeda ideology, but on the other I miss military life and hate the government that commands this army.”

According to Khalid Al Dulaimi, a leading figure in the Fallujah tribal military council that functions as an informal umbrella group for antigovernment militants, Gen. Mashhadani has become a favorite among younger fighters. He now controls a unit of 103 militants, all from different tribal backgrounds, in a southern suburb of Fallujah.

Gen. Mashhadani admits that it was “bad luck” that compelled him to join with al Qaeda. But for the first time since 2003, he says, he is earning a respectable salary of about $1,000 a month—comparable to that of a new army lieutenant, he says. And he has a refrigerator stocked with food, some spare cash to spend and a loyal following of young soldiers who value his hard-won expertise.

“Today I will prove to Maliki and to anyone who refused my return to the army that I deserve to be an army commander,” he said. “Today, I am absolutely with al Qaeda.”
—Uthman Al Mukhtar, Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Matt Bradley at matt.bradley@wsj.com

Syria’s Fourth Year Of War Will Look A Lot Like Its Third,” by Max Rosenthal, Huffington Post

Reuters: Syrian Forces Fully Control Stronghold Near Lebanon

DEBATE – Syria Three Years On,” Christian Chesnot, Naïm KOSAYYER and Joshua Landis – France 24

Joshua Landis speaks with C-Span on Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising

Syria Plans Presidential Elections in Summer
Minister Says Assad Will Likely Be One of Several Candidates
By Sam Dagher, March 16, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria—Syria plans to conduct presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run, the minister of information said.

Omran al Zoubi, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, gave the first confirmation that Syria will definitely hold the vote and that it will be open to other candidates.
He dismissed all concerns about the wisdom and practicality of holding elections in a country mired in a civil war over the legitimacy of Mr. Assad’s rule.

“Presidential elections will occur on time in accordance with the constitution,” he said. “We will implement the Syrian constitution verbatim whether this pleases or angers certain people.”


Damascus ceasefires bring respite but no end to conflict
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“This is how the regime aims to destroy our community. They pressure and pressure until we turn on each other. Can you believe that now rebels are asking store owners for protection money?” said one resident. “We’ve turned into a cowboy movie.”

“Our leadership is a genius to come up with the ceasefire idea in Barzeh,” one intelligence officer boasted in an overheard conversation with a taxi driver in Damascus. “We turned the rebels from fighters into bunnies in our hands.”

That frustration is mixed with resignation that, after a long and costly struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule, some people just want the conflict to end.

Three years after the demands for reform erupted around Damascus and demonstrators chanted “Leave, Leave Bashar”, a new refrain is heard whenever people broach the issue of ceasefires.

“We want to live,” they say.

Detailed Syria Maps; Activists Honor Revolution Dead in Washington

Thomas van Linge ( @arabthomness ) created the following detailed map of the battle lines in Syria:

Download map to view full detail

Download map to view full detail

Jad Yateem ( @JadYateem ) has also written a report containing maps looking at forces on the ground: Mapping Syria’s divided north and east – NOW

Jadd Yateem map of northeastern SyriaJadd Yateem map of Aleppo

 

100,000 Names Project

A project to read aloud 100,000 collected names of people killed in Syria has just been completed in Washington by activists and other participants with a general concern to honor those who have lost their lives. The project’s purpose was less an effort for political action and more an endeavor to call attention to the massive scale of tragic loss of life in Syria. Participants stood in front of the White House and read the list of names, taking four days to accomplish.

Lina Sergie Attar ( @AmalHanano ), from Chicago, one of the event’s organizers and founder of the Karam Foundation humanitarian organization, wrote a NYT blog piece in advance of the project: Counting Syria’s Dead

… In several days, the Syrian revolution will enter its fourth year. Three years have passed since that promising spring of 2011. Three years after thousands of Syrians rose up to fight the Assad regime’s injustice and brutality with chants and flags. Their chants were met with bullets and mass arrests. Later their armed resistance would be met by barrel bombs and chemical-laden missiles. And as the crisis dragged on, foreign terrorists poured into the country to fight for an agenda that does not represent the Syrians’ early demands for freedom and dignity. Today, Syria as we once knew it, is gone: a third of the population is displaced, over a million homes have been destroyed, and over 100,000 people are dead. Spring is no longer a season to celebrate rebirth. It is a season to mourn the death of a country’s dream. …

On March 12, 2014, people will gather in front of the White House to read the names of 100,000 Syrians who have been killed over the past three years. The reading will take place for 72 continuous hours, ending on March 15, the third anniversary of the Syrian Revolution. Readers will recite the names in thirty-minute increments from lists— complied from three independent sources — of Syrians killed by all forms of violence in the brutal conflict.

When you call someone by their name, something materializes that transcends the ephemeral utterance. The concrete syllables of one’s name represents everything that person is or was supposed to be. As we read 100,000 names, our dead gain the weight of recognition that they deserve but were never granted. …

Honoring the memory of 100,000 victims – Daily Star

Fallen Syrians, Molly Crabapple

 As the third anniversary of the Syrian uprising arrives Saturday, the last of 100,000 names of people killed in the conflict will be read aloud outside the White House.

A project lasting continuously for three days, it involves over 140 people reading aloud for half-hour periods, some in Syria itself, participating via Skype, and some who are reading the names of their own loved ones whom they have lost.

While the U.N. may have stopped counting the dead in January, saying it could not keep an accurate count due to the chaos on the ground, those killed in Syria continues to rise by around 100 to 200 each day.

… “I think people have become numb to the death tolls and the protracted conflict. It’s easy for someone to brush Syria away by saying, ‘It’s too complicated,’ or ‘It’s happening across the world and doesn’t affect us,’ but that is not a luxury afforded to Syrians,” Attar says. …

Syria’s war, 3 years on: ‘a horror film’, in faces of the dead and voices of revolt – Molly Crabapple – Guardian

… These faces remind you that the revolution began with hope. In 2011, a wave of protests swept the world, from the US, Greece and Spain to the Arab World. From Tahrir to Tunisia, people took to the streets, mobilizing against the cruelty of their regimes. In Syria, with a police state and its latest neoliberal reforms driving people into shanty towns, these protests were the first time many had ever raised their voices against Bashar al-Assad. …

Many early protesters, like Ghaith Matar, believed in nonviolence. Matar was nicknamed “Little Ghandi” for greeting soldiers with roses. He was arrested by security forces, returning to his family as a tortured corpse.

Assad’s brutality radicalized the indifferent. Aboud Dandachi is an IT professional from Homs who gave dispatches to the international media until he fled to Turkey in 2013. Dandachi told me that, after years working in the Gulf, in 2011 he’d finally bought a house in an upscale neighborhood. He cared little for the revolution at first. Then, in April 2011, the regime killed over 100 people at a sit-in. Dandachi’s brother was almost caught up in the massacre, he told me. “That was the night I turned from a fence-sitter to an activist.” …

Why artist Molly Crabapple decided to sketch Syria’s dead

… “It’s so easy to see the people who die in a war as faceless victims or geopolitical pawns. It’s so easy to forget these were individuals who were loved, who were brave, and who had dreams and hopes in life,” Crabapple says.

“And what I want to do with my pictures is to say each and every one of these people is important. Look at them. It’s about remembering these people as individuals, rather than just statistics.” …