Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random

Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random
By an Informed Observer in Damascus
For Syria Comment, June 13, 2016

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Marie Colvin’s death was tragic, especially for her family and friends and the international media community. Colvin was a courageous and legendary journalist. But her death was random, like hundreds of thousands of other deaths in the Syrian war that the world does not hear about. She was not “assassinated,” as claimed in the lawsuit submitted by her relatives or emphasized in news headlines, such as this Washington Post article: War reporter Marie Colvin was tracked, targeted and killed by Assad’s forces, family says.

Gilles Jacquier, French Photojournalist. An investigation by the French Ministry of Defence concluded that Jacquier had been killed in an attack carried out by anti-Assad rebels. Caroline Poiron, Jacquier’s wife, published the book Attentat Express in June 2013 with Vallelian and Hammouche that accuses Syrian government intelligence of planning the death of her husband. She claims he was killed either by a 22 millimeter gun associated with Syrian secret police or a long knife.

 

Colvin was embedded with the media wing of an insurgency in an active war zone. She was not targeted by Syrian government forces any more than the French journalist Gilles Jacquier was when he was killed by insurgent retaliatory mortars fired from the Old Homs neighborhood they controlled at the majority Alawite neighborhood of Akrama, in January 2011. A lot of people die in wars, most are not directly targeted as individuals. Most local journalists and western journalists are also not targeted. The US military has accidentally killed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were usually Arab so few of us know their names. But they too were not targeted. Those few from the brave and reckless pack of international journalists who dare to venture into war zones do the world a great service, but they volunteer to leave a world of safety and laws to enter chaos and risk death. They do so believing the mission is worth the risk, and we owe them a debt to be sure, but when they get killed it should not shock us for they have entered a world that their typically privileged audience does not know, where death is random, merciless, fickle and ubiquitous.

There is no doubt that Colvin was killed by artillery fired by the Syrian armed forces. Apart from that basic fact, the legal complaint submitted reads as if it was written by a Syrian opposition activist and contains many factual errors. The shells that killed her and French photographer Remi Ochlik were fired from the Hassan ibn al Haitham military base in Homs’ Tadmur Circle, quite a distance away, and with a range of error of fifty meters. It was not a sniper rifle. The artillery was fired at Baba Amr, a large Homs suburb seized by insurgents who were attempting to penetrate government held areas in the city itself such as Inshaat. Government forces had launched an offensive to retake the neighborhood after the previous battles had ended in late 2011 with insurgents remaining in the neighborhood.

The complaint recounts a naive narrative about the birth of the insurgency, claiming that “in response, defectors from the Syrian army joined with local volunteers to defend opposition neighborhoods from attack. In November 2011, a group of officers who had defected from the Syrian army entered Baba Amr, a district in southwest Homs. They announced the formation of the al-Farouq Battalion, a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a national network of moderate, pro-democracy rebels (“FSA rebels”). Composed of several hundred army deserters and volunteers, equipped only with small arms, the FSA rebels launched raids against government checkpoints in Baba Amr.”

In fact the overwhelming majority of insurgents from March 2011 were not defectors from the military but angry civilians. Especially in Homs city former criminals and low level street gangsters played a key role in the formation of insurgent groups and became local defenders. Much like the so called shabiha in fact. The Farouq Battalion described in the complaint was not a moderate pro-democracy faction. it was led and financed by salafis, its ideology was Islamist and it engaged from the beginning in attacks against civilians perceived to be loyal to the state and kidnappings of Alawites in particular. The complaint is correct that “In late November 2011, the FSA rebels expelled Assad regime forces from Baba Amr, established a defensive perimeter around the neighborhood, and declared it a “liberated zone.”” But then it should be no surprise that the Syrian state would not tolerate this and would have to take military action to retake this zone. The insurgents took an entire neighborhood hostage, and later much of the country, without prior invitation by locals. These insurgents received funding from state and non-state actors throughout the Middle East and especially the Gulf and were backed by businessmen affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They laid waste to institutions and infrastructure, as does any insurgency, and displaced all who have differing views or were from other sects. They also displayed callous disregard for the predictable consequences their strongholds would face when the Syrian security forces responded.

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See original Map of Homs here

While the Syrian armed forces do use indiscriminate force when targeting insurgent held areas, they are indeed insurgent held areas and their conduct is not inconsistent with how other states respond to insurgencies. Baba Amr was full of insurgents threatening to penetrate the city and destroy the state. It is no surprise that the state would use all its force to prevent this. This is why it was placed under siege. Syrian forces surrounded Baba Amr in order to deny the insurgents the ability to seize the rest of Homs city.

The complaint claims that “Syrian military and intelligence forces launched a scorched-earth campaign against Baba Amr.” In true Syrian style it was not a surgical operation and no doubt the laws of war were violated and violence was used indiscriminately without the proper concern for civilian collateral damage. But less than 20 percent of Baba Amr was badly damaged and today the neighborhood is overwhelmingly intact. Compared to operations that would come in the following years of the civil war the use of violence in the Baba Amr campaign was consistent with western standards, if not as efficient.

Contrary to the complaint, Maher al Assad was not involved in the Baba Amr operations at all. But in November 2011 a brigade of “BMP” armored personnel carriers trained in urban combat was sent by the 4th Division to Homs and placed under the command of the 18th Division which only had tanks that were unwieldy for urban combat. But even these APCs had not belonged to Maher’s liwa, which was liwa 47. Maher al Assad does not command the 4th division, contrary to popular belief. The APC’s belonged to Jamal Sleiman’s liwa.

The Syrian government’s capabilities pinpointing locations based on communication were always very weak, especially in those early days of the war. At best they could locate a neighborhood where the communication was taking place. And they were overwhelmed with mobile phones and satellite communication taking place in insurgent held areas so their primitive tracking abilities were even less effective. The complaint claims that “the Computer and Signals Section of Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate informed General Shahadah that the informant’s account matched the location of broadcast signals they had intercepted earlier that night.” But in 2012 the most advance device in Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate was a Chinese radio and it did not have the ability to analyze intercepted signals and determine a location. Branch 225 in Damascus did have those capabilities but at the time they were not mobile and only available in Damascus. It would be over a year before the Syrian government obtained mobile devices that could help identify the location of communications. Even then, we’re not talking about very sophisticated capabilities.

In early 2012 more and more of Homs was falling to insurgents. A regime which had little regard for international media was too busy struggling to survive and responding to a burgeoning insurgency to hunt down a small team of westerners. The regime was much more concerned about Syrians. It was struggling to win the domestic battle and root out activists working with the insurgents. They were a far greater priority for it than westerners. And indeed when it captured them, depending on the location and the time, they were often treated brutally. Westerners were largely immune to such treatment.

The “shabiha” were not a paramilitary death squad. Shabiha was a colloquial name to describe a pre-war phenomenon of organized crime with connections to the regime. Once the uprising began the name was used to describe any government supporter but also more specifically to describe a parallel phenomenon that emerged alongside the nascent insurgency of loyalist civilians organizing themselves as self defense (in their minds) committees that also engaged in attacks on the opposition with loose cover from government security forces. These would eventually become organized into a handful of official paramilitary forces such as the National Defense Forces. It is wrong to view them as death squads. And they were not under the command of Maher al Assad. Instead, once they gradually became organized various groups were affiliated with various security agencies and army units depending on the area and who had jurisdiction.

Moreover Khaled al Fares, the individual described in the complaint as “a shabiha militia leader” was nothing of the sort. Khaled al Fares was a businessman with a shady past in semi legal or illegal activities who gradually became a legitimate businessman with interests in car dealerships, chicken coups, a marble factory, and money lending. He was also close to Asef Shawkat, brother in law of the president, a former intelligence chief and at the time deputy minister of defense. Al Fares was not affiliated with Maher al Assad in any way at the time. Al Fares was part of an informal committee of influential Homs citizens, Alawis and Sunnis, loyalists and opposition, who gathered at the Safir Hotel with government officials occasionally to try to mediate and prevent the city from collapsing into civil war. Because he had a tribal background he was a useful asset for the government in reaching out to various constituencies. Not only was he not a militia commander, al Fares (who lived in the upper class Inshaat neighborhood at the time) only had a couple of bodyguards and 4 AK-47s to his name.

Al Fares did play a small role in this story, but not as an informant to help kill Colvin. When the death of Colvin was announced, the Syrian government did not believe it at first. One of their sources had falsely told Syrian intelligence that she and her colleagues had snuck out using tunnels to the western Homs country by Qatini Lake and that the death announcement was a tactic to deceive the government and allow Colvin to flee. Then an old man living in Baba Amr came to the Safir and met with security officials. The old man was originally from Wadi Khaled and his son was a member of an insurgent group in Baba Amr. He wanted to safely evacuate his son from Baba Amr and was also hoping for financial compensation in exchange for revealing to the government that the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik were buried in his back yard. He also informed the security officials that the insurgents were gathering at the edge of Baba Amr to prepare to evacuate to Quseir in western Homs. Khaled al Fares overheard this and told Asef Shawkat. Some in the government wanted to ambush the insurgents before they fled while others wanted to recover the bodies. Asef claimed he had told an EU official that he could get the bodies. Al Fares claimed that he took part in the operation to recover the bodies while in fact it was a team of low ranking security men who snuck in on a cold and snowy night and recovered the wrapped up corpses. They were surprised to find that insurgents had largely abandoned Baba Amr. When the bodies were taken to the Political Security branch Khaled al Fares took his picture with them.

Senior Syrian officials at the time claimed they had tried to mediate with the western journalists before the offensive was launched, going through local and international organizations and offering safe passage out to Lebanon. Security officials were also in touch with local insurgents about this. They worried about the consequences should westerners be harmed in their offensive. They claim Colvin was adamant on staying or made demands such as evacuating wounded insurgents. Syrian security chiefs surely wanted to detain and expel foreign journalists who had entered Syria illegally to report and at least in their view promote an insurgency, but they did not want to kill them, even in Syria western lives have more value than those of locals.

The complaint states that “Colvin and Conroy feared that it would be unsafe to embed with the Syrian government on an official press tour.” This is silly. While Colvin and Conroy were providing a necessary and valuable service informing the world about the suffering in insurgent held areas, it is absurd to think it is more safe to embed with insurgents than to go on a state sanctioned visit. The complaint claims that “two Swiss journalists who were with Jacquier at the time accused the Syrian government of leading Jacquier into an ambush.” This is nonsensical because Jacquier was in a safe majority Alawite neighbourhood with government escorts and streets full of people that suddenly came under insurgent mortar attack.

This is the footage of the moment that Gilles Jacquier was killed along with eight Syrians. It taken by an Arab camera crew and released by Adduniya TV, a pro-government channel.

He had bad luck, just like the others killed that day. But as usual the lives of Syrians wounded or killed are not as important and if a westerner is hurt than surely he must have been targeted. The complaint names a plethora of the most senior officials in Syria as part of a conspiracy to kill these western journalists. This is absurd. These officials were dealing with far more urgent matters than a couple of western journalists.

It is naive and misleading to call Khaled Abu Salah a poet and media activist. One can support his cause but the fact is he was a leading member of the media arm of the insurgency in Homs and his job was to be a propagandist on their behalf. Indeed after Baba Amr was retaken footage was discovered of him and his colleagues fabricating claims and footage to add drama to their media appearances. As Khaled Abu Salah played an important role within the Homs insurgency, but he was less of a poet and “activist” and more the equivalent of one of Hamas’ spokesmen in Gaza. These so called media activists were no doubt passionate and brave but they operated under the permission of insurgent commanders and in support of their armed struggle. Thus embedding with them would naturally expose one to the same retaliation the insurgents could expect.

The complaint claims that a female informant revealed the location of the western journalists. In fact Syrian officials believed the journalists had fled. It was only the old man from Wadi Khaled who revealed to them that they had stayed behind and two were dead. The old man also claimed that insurgents had killed them in order to tarnish the image of the Syrian government. This of course was not true but as a result some government officials wanted to take the bodies for an autopsy in Damascus but they were overruled and the bodies were hastily handed over to the ICRC.

In the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.07.10 AMIn the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria
By Cyrus Mahboubian, an NGO worker in Damascus (Pseudonym)
For Syria Comment, July 4, 2016

Since the war in Syria began, aid delivery has been politicized. The anti-regime camp rejected the very notion of delivering aid through government held areas. Western countries who backed the insurgency and supported regime change pushed for most aid to be delivered “cross border,” from Turkey or Jordan. Diplomats and aid workers based in Turkey or Jordan often went native and viewed aid agencies based in Damascus as the enemy. Even the UN faced divisions and rivalries. At the center of this was Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Syria since August 2013. El Hillo’s very existence was an affront to those who prioritized regime change above all else and because he was based in Damascus and accredited by the Syrian government he was required to acknowledge the Syrian government as it continued to represent the sovereignty of Syria at the United Nations. This cooperation with Syrian state institutions was anathema to those who hoped El Hillo could be some kind of humanitarian dictator, operating as if there was no Syrian state. But since most Syrians still live in government held parts of Syria and there is still a government with institutions and security forces, the UN must work especially with institutions that provide services to people such as health, education, water, electricity and vaccination.

Based in Damascus El Hillo, with his committed team, tried to reach as many people as he could including in all the besieged locations (and he succeeded this year to deliver aid in all 18 of them). El Hillo publicly advocated against sieges and denial of access and was engaged in near daily struggles with government officials to obtain access. El Hillo and his colleagues physically entered besieged areas, sometimes under fire — Homs in February 2014, and most recently Zamalka and Arbin on June 29 (in which a driver was shot in the chest).



The UN in Syria reaches one million people in opposition areas by crossing the border every month and they work everywhere in Syria either directly or through partners both national and international, while roughly 70% of people in need in Syria are reached from inside (Damascus but also the UN Hubs in Homs, Aleppo, Tartous and Qamishli).

In mid June an advocacy group called The Syria Campaign accused the UN of collaborating with and supporting the government’s policies. When it was announced in late June that El Hillo had been appointed to a new job in Liberia the Syria Campaign was quick to take credit. This is false however. El Hillo applied for the position in Liberia in early April, over two months before the Syria Campaign report came out and he was approved for the position of Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General with the United Nations Mission in Liberia ON 13 JUNE, before the report came out. It is laughable to think that the UN can ever respond so quickly to anything, let alone a report by an advocacy group criticizing the necessary compromises THE UN must make when dealing with a sovereign government. Yacoub El Hillo’s new position in Liberia is not punitive and it is in fact a promotion- and it was overdue. When he first came to Syria in early August 2013 he had committed to serve for two years. He chose to extend for a third which concludes in early August 2016.

In the the post-2003 Canal Hotel bombing culture of the UN, which was so traumatized by the al Qaeda attack on its staff in Iraq that in much of the Middle East it simply cowered in Green Zones and hid from the population, El Hillo pioneered a courageous return to UN principles, boldly leading missions into war zones under fire, challenging all actors from Jabhat al Nusra to the Syrian security forces, thus restoring the UN’s reputation.

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United Nations members prepare to load flag-draped metal transfer cases carrying the remains of bombing victims from the UN Office of Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq

The allegations made by the Syria Campaign and others were written by people who know nothing about the UN and how it must work. In 2015 cross-line deliveries were very restricted but the UN was also working cross-border. Beginning in 2015 the UN implemented its Whole of Syria Approach which means there is a coordinated effort. In 2016 the UN has reached almost one million people in need in besieged and hard to reach areas. One can reasonably disagree about the difficult and imperfect choices the UN made when dealing with the Syrian government but those who criticize the UN country team based inside Syria offer no better alternatives. What would they have the UN team in Syria do? Should they withdraw in protest and serve nobody? The decision to withdraw from the country is made by the Secretary General. Or would they have the UN drive through checkpoints that have turned them away? The UN cannot move around without the approval of parties to the conflict in any country. The UN must notify parties in Syria, and if they say no and they have tanks and weapons what does it do? And the UN needs operational capacity, it cannot scream and yell and then lose access, it has to be able to move around and deliver and save lives. If UNICEF gets thrown out of Syria who does it help? The UN in Syria is not the problem. If one has a criticism to make it should be made by taking it to the Security Council and to the various countries involved in the conflict, not be falsely trying to defame a UN official who is concluding a mission  after three exhausting years in Syria.

Quwat al-Ghadab: A Pro-Assad Christian Militia in Suqaylabiyah

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Social media graphic for Quwat al-Ghadab (no official insignia/emblems in existence). Another appellation used in reference to these forces is Junud al-Masih (‘Soldiers of Christ’).

Christians in the east of Syria, where Syriac liturgy denominations constitute the majority of Christians, are primarily known to have joined militias of Syriac orientation, such as the pro-regime Sootoro/Gozarto Protection Forces based in Qamishli and the pro-PYD administration Sutoro affiliated with the Syriac Union Party. Closely linked to the Sutoro is the Syriac Military Council, which is affiliated with the Mesopotamia National Council. In the west of Syria, the main militia known to have attracted Christian support is the Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is aligned with the regime and has engaged on a variety of fronts throughout western Syria, including a recent attempted regime push into Raqqa province alongside other militias like Suqur al-Sahara’ and Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr.

A more local formation of interest in the west of Syria is Quwat al-Ghadab (‘The Forces of Rage’), which is based in the Christian (specifically Greek Orthodox) town of Suqaylabiyah in northwestern Hama province. Suqaylabiyah is known as a base of support for the regime and hosts multiple political and military actors on the regime side, including a local branch of the National Defence Forces (NDF) and a local branch of the SSNP.*** According to one representative for Quwat al-Ghadab, the militia’s founding dates to 16 March 2013 in order to defend Suqaylabiyah and its countryside, and it is affiliated with the Republican Guard and the general command for Syria’s army and armed forces. Some posts also point to links with Syrian air intelligence, such as this notification on the New Year for 2016 featuring a Syrian air intelligence logo:

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“We ask our people in the town of Suqaylabiyah not to celebrate the advent of 2016 with gunfire and take the foremost measures of caution and safeguarding. And this is not out of fear of terrorism on their part but rather to preserve your safety. And the men of al-Ghadab, of the sleepless eye, are in utmost readiness and at points of confrontation in their correct places, ready to respond and resist in order to protect the beloved Suqlab, the town of steadfastness. We will not let them pass except as lifeless corpses.”

The representative further claimed that Quwat al-Ghadab has 163 martyrs and has fought on all fronts, likely reflecting exaggerations. From the open source data, the engagements seem to be primarily confined to areas in relative proximity to Suqaylabiyah. For example, Quwat al-Ghadab was involved in the defence of Tel Othman against rebel forces, which captured Tel Othman in early November 2015. During the Tel Othman, Quwat al-Ghadab lost at least one fighter in a person called Hadi Adnan al-Adli (also known as Hadi al-Adlah):

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Invitation to a commemoration of Hadi al-Adlah in Suqaylabiyah on 11 December 2015, 40 days after his death. The imagery is common for Christian ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting for regime forces in the Syrian civil war.

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Note the tattoo of the cross on his arm. Posts on Hadi’s personal Facebook account suggest he was a devoted Christian. For example, in a post on 22 September 2015, he called on Jesus to have mercy on him, describing himself as his ‘servant in error [/sin].’

More recently, Quwat al-Ghadab has been operating in the mountains of Latakia, as illustrated by a post below from a member called Tony Nasab, who is identified in another post as being in the ranks of the Republican Guard, pointing to the links mentioned above between Quwat al-Ghadab and the Republican Guard.

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The leader of Quwat al-Ghadab is a man called Philip Suleiman, who appears to be particularly close to the leader of the Suqaylabiyah NDF branch Nabil (al-)Abdullah. A document from October 2014 gives a more precise outline of Philip Suleiman’s role in Hama, pointing to his militia’s function as a reserve force for the Syrian army in part to deal with issues of draft dodging, which became more apparent after the regime’s losses in 2015 to rebels in Idlib and the refugee crisis:

“Syrian Arab Republic
General Command for the Army & Armed Forces
Brigade 47: Asdiqa’
No. 203
Date: 10 October 2014

Approved by the head of the security and military committee in Hama
Major General Jamal Mahmoud Younis

Mr. Philip Farid Suleiman from the town of Suqaylabiyah national ID number 05100010726 born in 1968 is entrusted with an official assignment by Quwat al-Asdiqa’ and that is to draw in and recruit civilian personnel and those wanted for compulsory and reserve service in the province of Hama for the interest of Quwat al-Asdiqa’. The security authorities are asked to provide the necessary aid and facilitation, thanking you for your cooperation.

Head of base.”

Quwat al-Asdiqa’ referenced in this document translates as ‘The Forces of Friends’. The term can be found elsewhere in reference to auxiliary forces in places like Aleppo. Here, Quwat al-Asdiqa’ is synonymous with Quwat al-Ghadab, as shown by the photo and posts below:

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Philip Suleiman in his base. Note the plaque on the table:”Quwat al-Asdiqa’: Regiment 45. Base leader: Philip Suleiman.”

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Post from March 2015, second paragraph: “The situation inside Suqaylabiyah is secure. There is no security incident inside the town and we ask all to beware only of any treachery that may strike Suqaylabiyah. The NDF, Quwat al-Asdiqa’ (Kata’ib al-Ghadab) and Nusur al-Zawba’a are spread in the interior and periphery of Suqaylabiyah and some of the neighbouring villages to observe any suspicious movement and deter it.”

Philip Suleiman came to greater attention in late March of this year when he was briefly detained by the regime. According to the Quwat al-Ghadab representative this author spoke with, he was arrested on accusations of smuggling diesel and petrol. His arrest sparked widespread outrage on the local social media and protests in the town:

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“The car of the lion Abu Uday Philip Suleiman and traces of his blood on it. The beasts of the regime’s security apparatus arrested him after opening fire on his car!!!! He has not hoarded anything, stolen from anyone, paid or taken bribes from anyone, or betrayed his homeland and town. So the corrupt people hated him. He will come out with his head high and in defiance, while every dog who has written a false report against him will taste and drink his death. On your reckoning, but the hero will return.”

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From the demonstrations in Suqaylabiyah that called for Philip Suleiman’s release. One of the placards reads: “We are not terrorists. We are the Syrian Arab Army: Majmu’at al-Ghadab [the Rage Groups- another name for Quwat al-Ghadab].”

SuqaylabiyahdemoMarch2016
“Civil demonstration now in front of the area directorate in Suqaylabiyah to demand the release of Mr. Philip Suleiman and punish the writer of the false reports Captain Hassan Imad Hassan who raised a number of reports describing the Jawiya groups [Suleiman’s forces] maintaining the frontlines on the forward points as ‘terrorists’ as a result of a personal dispute with the group leader Philip Suleiman when Philip tried to prevent him from taking large quantities of fuel combustibles from one of the petrol stations of Suqaylabiyah in order to hoard them, smuggle them and deliver them to the armed terrorist groups in the area, in order to carry out his work of conspiracy against the homeland the army of the homeland.” The placard in the photo on the left reads: “Captain Hassan!!! You have no place in our town of Suqaylabiyah.”

Philip Suleiman was eventually released, and returned to Suqaylabiyah in a procession with greetings. No further incident has since come to light. Despite this brief flare-up of internal tensions, the town is unlikely to shift towards any sentiments of sympathy for the insurgency anytime soon, particularly as it has been subject to rebel bombardment on multiple occasions, leading to the death of civilians. Moreover, from Kasab in Latakia to Qamishli in Hasakah, the record of the rebel groups and the Islamic State towards the Christian minorities is hardly reassuring.

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***(Appendix note on the SSNP): The SSNP is known to exist in two distinct branches, the Syrian under Joseph Sweid and the Lebanese under As’ad Hardan. In terms of the Nusur al-Zawba’a output that is observed on social media, it can largely be traced to the efforts of Hardan’s branch, which is indeed the main force organizing the Nusur al-Zawba’a militia effort in Syria. Thus, the best known Facebook page for Nusur al-Zawba’a- SSNPMediawars– and the associated Telegram channel show an affiliation with Hardan. For example, this post from 8 June 2016 on SSNPMediawars:

SSNPMediawarsAsadHardan2
“The ‘political direction’ in the forces of ‘Nusur al-Zawba’a’ displays sections from a direction speech by the head of the party, secretary [general] As’ad Hardan inside one of the ‘Nusur’ camps.”

Similarly, a page for the “Suqaylabiyah directorate” of the SSNP points to an affiliation with Hardan. Besides the military contribution in the form of the Nusur al-Zawba’a militia, there is also outreach to the local population, including the youth of Suqaylabiyah. It is therefore apparent that Hardan’s SSNP has used the Syrian civil war to project influence into regime-held Syria, reflecting a wider trend among the militia actors on the regime side. Indeed, 30 candidates were fielded for the Syrian parliamentary elections in April.

In contrast, the Syrian SSNP maintains its own Facebook page- wssnpsy. There is evidence for tensions between the Syrian and Lebanese SSNP branches inside Syria, as members of Nusur al-Zawba’a affiliated with the Lebanese SSNP attacked an office of the Syrian SSNP in Damascus, prompting a condemnation from the Syrian SSNP issued on 14 June 2016. While the Syrian SSNP urged for its members not to be drawn into internal strife, it asked the Lebanese SSNP to condemn the assault, warning that failure to do so would lead to repeated incidents of this type and amount to approval/orders from the Lebanese SSNP.

“Why the Islamic State Is Losing, and Why It Still Hopes to Win”

I have just published a new paper on the war against the so-called Islamic State over at The Century Foundation, arguing that the group is now clearly losing the war on the ground in Syria and Iraq. But the tide may turn, depending on what happens in the Syrian Civil War, among the rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, and with the increasingly tense situation in Baghdad. The introduction is below and you’ll find the full thing here. — Aron Lund

Islamic State FlagThe Sunni extremist group known as Islamic State (IS, also known by an earlier acronym, ISIS) is taking a terrible beating. In the past few days, it has lost territory in both Syria and Iraq. Syrian Kurds have attacked it east of Aleppo and north of Raqqa City, while it is battling Sunni Arab rivals north of Aleppo. The Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad is pressing into the Raqqa Governorate and taking ground in the deserts east of Palmyra. In Iraq, other Kurdish groups have struck east of Mosul, while an alliance of Shia militias and the Iraqi army is moving into its stronghold in Fallujah. Further afield, the jihadis are being purged from the Libyan city of Sirte.

Islamic State’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is nowhere to be seen or heard as his fighters face attacks on all fronts. According to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, the jihadi group has now lost half of the area it controlled in Iraq at its peak in late 2014 and a fifth of its territory in Syria. Revenues from oil and other assets are reportedly down by a third and a U.S. government official recently claimed the coalition has “cut off entirely their revenue that’s coming from the outside.” The coalition also says that the total number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria has dropped from a peak of around 31,000 in December 2014 to between 19,000 and 25,000 today, and the influx of foreign jihadis has allegedly been reduced by three-quarters.

Islamic State has not scored a major victory on the battlefield in more than a year, and its ability to govern efficiently is withering. People with their ear to the ground in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa speak of frail governance and worsening repression, since the group can no longer afford to buy civil peace. If popular discontent continues to grow, a weakening Islamic State could face internal dissent and tribal uprisings.

Still, the decline of Islamic State is certainly not irreversible and its enemies could be in for rough surprises ahead. In some areas, the forces confronting Islamic State are even more dysfunctional than the group itself, held together only by foreign influence and the fact that they face a common enemy. Now, with Islamic State’s influence finally receding, that brittle unity is being tested. Syria has long been torn asunder by civil war and regional rivalries, while Iraq suffers from a worsening political paralysis. Islamic State is weaker than at any point since it conquered Mosul two years ago, but thanks to the chronic disorder among its enemies, it may still be able to regroup and reclaim the initiative.

For more, read the full report.

“The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist,” By Stefan Winter

The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist
By Stefan Winter
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

This week marks the 80th anniversary of a now famous petition, supposedly addressed by six ‘Alawi notables from the Latakia region—including Hafiz al-Asad’s grandfather Sulayman al-Asad—to French prime minister Léon Blum on 15 June 1936. The six ‘Alawi notables criticize the negotiations undertaken by the Front populaire government for the independence of Syria; they decry the “spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims” against the ‘Alawis, Jews, Yezidis and other minorities and reject the idea that the Governorate of Latakia (the “Alaouites”) be included in the rest of Syria. They propose that the Alawi State be joined with Lebanon rather than Syria and demand to remain under French protection.

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The petition, reportedly registered as document “no. 3547” at the French Foreign Ministry, is translated in Abu Musa al-Hariri’s 1984 monograph Al-‘Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun: Bahth fi’l-‘Aqida wa’l-Tarikh, with lengthy excerpts (translated back from the Arabic) appearing in such works as Matti Moosa’s Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988), Daniel Le Gac’s La Syrie du general Assad (1991), and a host of press articles and internet blogs in recent years. A copy of the original together with the Arabic translation is said to be held by the Asad library in Damascus, and in August 2012, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reacting to a Syrian diplomat’s negative portrayal of French mandatory rule before the UN, invoked the petition as proof of president Bashar al-Asad’s grandfather’s (rather than his great-grandfather’s) pro-French position and reaffirmed that the “official” document is preserved in his Ministry’s archives.

From a historian’s standpoint, however, the petition presents a couple of problems. To begin with, “no. 3547” does not correspond to any actual archive classification (one might expect the Ministry’s holdings to go beyond 4-digit serially numbered items), and no corresponding document has ever been cited in the literature or, indeed, produced by the Minister. The only known image of document “no. 3547” appears to be one provided to Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University and published on www.jewishpress.com in September 2012, from where it has been copied and circulated on numerous internet sites ever since. Either the image, however, or the document collage, is an obvious fake. Already a cursory glance shows that the purported original on the left, prominently stamped with “no. 3547” in red, is written in a long hand typical of French consular correspondence of the early 19th century or before (and appears to concern a commercial account), whereas the petitions submitted to the French authorities in the 1930s were almost invariably written by typewriter. Even more blatant is the black stamp at the top, spread across both the handwritten document and the Arabic typewritten translation: this is in fact an ancien-régime municipal fiscal stamp (“Petit Papier, [x] sous la feuille, Généralité de Paris”)—which clearly displays the classic 3-lily Bourbon coat of arms, a complete impossibility for any document handled by the Third Republic Foreign Ministry in 1936.

Kedar1

Not that the subject and tone of the petition in itself are implausible. On the contrary: many ‘Alawis were in fact opposed to the end of French rule and the eventual inclusion of the “Alaouites” in an independent Syria. The archives of the French Foreign Ministry (the “Quai d’Orsay”), now located in La Courneuve suburb just north of Paris, do contain numerous letters sent by ‘Alawi and other notables to French government officials in 1936 to lobby against Syrian independence, and some of these do reject the prospect of “Muslim majority rule” in the strongest terms, demand the Alaouites’ inclusion in Lebanon or compare the plight of the ‘Alawis and Druze to the discrimination suffered by Jewish immigrants settling in Palestine. None of these separatist petitions, however, correspond to “no. 3547”, and none appear to bear the signature of an Asad.

Historians such as Matti Moosa (who did in fact use the French archives for his book, but can only cite al-Hariri as his source for “no. 3547”) and others have focussed too one-sidedly on these separatist petitions, which supposedly “reveal” that the “Nusayri leaders feared and detested the Sunnite Syrian nationalists” (Extremist Shiites, pp. 286-289). This is unfortunate—because a quick look through the relevant series at La Courneuve shows that there are in reality about as many pro-independence, pro-Syrian-unionist petitions sent by the ‘Alawis in the 1936 as there are separatist petitions. And sure enough, one of these pro-unionist ‘Alawi petitions, dated 2 July 1936 or just two weeks after the supposed “no. 3547”, is signed not by Sulayman al-Asad—but by his son ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad, i.e. the current president’s grandfather.

Courneuve ELSL

The virulent, 4-page missive, addressed “in exasperation” to the Ministre des affaires étrangères over France’s “nefarious politics of division”, is signed by 86 ‘Alawi notables in all, including not only the younger Asad (in his capacity as “former member of the constitutive assembly of the Alaouites”) but also by scions of the Raslan, al-Khayyir and other leading families, as well as Ismail Hawwash, head of the Matawira tribe, past representative on the “conseil fédéral syrien” and son of ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, one of the alleged signatories of “no. 3547”. Ridiculing the idea that ‘Alawis could not live together with their Muslim countrymen, the petition goes on to blast in no uncertain terms those of their compeers who would agitate merely “out of personal ambition” and “bad faith” for the continuation of separate French mandatory rule and thereby impede full Syrian union. (See my forthcoming A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 260-261 for details). If there is such a thing as a petition “no. 3547”, this one reads like a straight rebuttal.

Ali Sulayman al-Asad (1875 – 1963) Grandfather of President Bashar al-Asad

The “Asad petition” that is actually contained in the French Foreign Ministry archives, in other words, directly contradicts what has often been claimed (including by Laurent Fabius) about the Asads’ attitude toward the French mandate, and therefore raises a number of questions. Should we conclude that “no. 3547” is a forgery, but if so, why would it be on display at the Asad library in Damascus when it casts aspersions on the Asads’ nationalist credentials? Or could it be that both petitions are genuine, and reflect a real political—in fact a generational—conflict within the ‘Alawi community in 1936, between old-guard separatists like Sulayman al-Asad and ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, on the one hand, and their unionist sons ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad and Ismail al-Hawwash, on the other? This should not come as a surprise, after all, when it is clear that neither the ‘Alawi nor any other confessional community adopted a single, uniform opinion on French rule and independence, when as careful a historian as Patrick Seale has already shown that many ‘Alawi figures were indeed “neither Syrian nationalists nor collaborators” but adjusted their stance throughout the mandate period, depending on their changing political and personal circumstances (Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, pp. 18-23).

What the existence of the unambiguously pro-unionist Asad petition does demonstrate, in any event, is to what extent political myths in current-day Syria are often based on flimsy—or at least partial and very incomplete—evidence, how some writers will purposely concentrate only on the scandalous, irrespective of the archival material available to them, and how bloggers, media commentators and perhaps even the French Foreign Minister will uncritically copy and paste from one another rather than spend 10 minutes actually going through the catalogues at La Courneuve. Spreading unqualified claims about the president’s grandfather, the ‘Alawis or anyone’s historical loyalties is not a recipe for stability in the current context of Syrian politics. The separatist petition “no. 3547”, if it is indeed authentic, must at the very least be weighed against the very genuine unionist petition that is indeed in the archives.

Stefan Winter is associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). His previous publications on the ‘Alawis under Ottoman rule are available on his Academia page; A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic is due out from Princeton University Press in September 2016. With thanks to Mordechai Kedar, Pascal Bastien, Stéphane Valter and Joshua Landis for their help with this note.

Addendum (added by Joshua Landis): The following is the shortened text of the disputed 1936 petition published in English translation by Matti Moosa in his book: Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988) pp. 287‑88.

The Alawite people, who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authority of the cities of the interior.

The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels….

The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief…

The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam…

We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.

The Alawite people are certain that they will find a strong and faithful support for a loyal and friendly people threatened by death and annihilation and who have offered France tremendous services.

Here is a more recent publication of the petition in 2013 by “Syria Direct,” a “non-profit journalism organization that produces timely, credible coverage of Syria.” It mistakenly identifies the date of the petition as 1926 rather than 1936, but provides a complete translation of the now disputed petition that cannot be located in the French archives.

Dealing with Syria’s Foreign Fighters: A Liberal Conundrum

The Case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani
by Tam Hussein @tamhussein
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

As a result of Syria’s bloody conflict Europe is at a turning point. The threat of terrorism, the fear of lone wolf attacks, of independent cells operating with in Europe has changed the political landscape. Europe is wrestling with a liberal conundrum. But whilst policy makers and intelligence services must be vigilant to the threat of terrorism it must also be aware of the nuances  when dealing with returnees, foreign fighters and indeed Syrian refugees. Tarring everyone with the same brush can have disastrous consequences.  At the expense of greater security Europe must not loose its soul: that is the Rule of Law.  The following case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani illustrates these points perfectly.

In late January 2016, Amer al-Hasani, 20, decided to travel to Greece with his friend Mirsad Bectašević, 29. They had met at the local mosque in a Gothenburg suburb in Sweden. Amer, a devout Muslim, had been involved in Islamic proselytisation and charity work there. The two had travelled to Copenhagen from Gothenburg crossing over from the magnificent Øresund bridge that links Southern Sweden’s Malmö to the Danish capital, Copenhagen. From Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport they boarded a flight to Athens. On arrival, Amer called his mother to let her know that he was well. They spent several days galavanting in Athens. Nothing of note happened except, that Bectašević bought two Bear Grylls machetes at a bargain price from an Airsoft store. According to him, he asked the lady if it was legal to carry such knives and she confirmed it. Then they travelled to Salonika, spending two days there, and on to Thrace to the sleepy fishing town, Alexandropoulis, close to the Turkish border.

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Amer claims that they wanted to visit the surrounding villages from the town, and so they went to the bus station to buy two tickets to Peplos, a small village even closer to the border. It seemed like a straightforward affair. But the employee, got suspicious and made a phone call. According to Bectašević it was an instance of racial profiling pure and simple. After all they weren’t Swedes of the blond and blue eyed variety; they were swarthy types, of pure Invandrar- immigrant – stock that grew up in Sweden’s förort, the satellite conurbations around Stockholm or Gothenburg which is Sweden’s equivalent of ghetto if Sweden ever had one. But instead of boarding the bus, several policemen on motorcycles pulled up and gruffly took them away for questioning.

The press couldn’t help but jump on the arrest whether that be Sweden’s tabloid paper Aftonbladet or its broadsheet equivalent Svenska Dag Bladet. It made for great copy. After all, it’s not everyday you bag Mirsad Bectašević, the man who once plotted to blow up Western targets in the European mainland.

Moreover, these men were arrested around the same time as three Iraqi Kurds carrying British passports. The latter were caught with 200 000 rounds of ammunition trying to cross Greece’s porous border. The media also claimed that their arrest was intelligence led, apparently they had been under surveillance for several days as they made their way to Alexandropoulis and had intended to cross over to Turkey and then onto Syria as many foreign fighters do. In fact, I knew that SÄPO, Swedish intelligence, was keeping tabs on Bectašević when I met him in May, 2015.

Amer al-Hasani

Amer al-Hasani

The Interrogation

After their arrest the two men were immediately separated. On the face of it, the prosecution had a relatively a simple case. To convict all you had to do was to prove that Bectašević the more experienced of the two, recruited the young and impressionable man in Gothenburg and then convinced him to go to Syria to join ISIS. But if the allegations of Amer, his brother, Mohammed, Bectašević and others who knew them are true, there seems to be grave problems from the very outset. One should add, that a request for comment from the Greek authorities have not been forth coming.

Bektašević was offered legal representation, one of the best according to him. He was interrogated by the police for forty eight hours, he was no doubt asked, where he was going. His response was that of a man used to interrogation, “I am exercising my right to travel”. Peplos is awfully close to the Turkish border isn’t it? He replies “even if we were going to Turkey we didn’t do anything illegal.”

The interrogators didn’t come up with much. Perhaps the interrogators took it as a given, perhaps it wasn’t from their line of inquiry but according to Bectašević they didn’t focus on why he had black police boots, a 5.11 tactical vest, one weapon sling he claimed to have forgot from his last visit to Syria in 2015. He says, “I had ‘ordinary stuff like T-shirts and jeans. Muslim clothes when praying. They took that as ‘evidence’”. The Greek interrogators focused more on his level of devotion and practice rather than his connections to ISIS or Syria.

Initially, he was charged with trying to supply a terror organisation with weapons. Now, it wasn’t 200 000 rounds of ammunition he was accused of supplying but the Bear Grylls machetes. One presumes that this unspecified terror organisation can’t get hold of such precious hardware anywhere else.

However, as to who he was affiliated to was unclear. At Bectašević’s hearing there seemed to be much confusion as to precisely what organisation he belonged to. The Greek prosecutor had even asked him, but the accused denied any affiliation. Bectašević only found out that he was accused of belonging to ISIS a month later. Some of these lawyers, he complained, didn’t even realise that ISIL and ISIS was the same organisation. Simply put the Greeks were not literate as to the various factions operating in Syria. After several months of languishing in Korydallous High Security prison, Bektašević claims he still hasn’t seen the evidence against him so that he can prepare his defence. The Swedish embassy have been in touch with the Greek authorities in March, 2016 however the results of that meeting still remain to be seen.

Of course, all of this might just be the Greek authorities knowing based on intel, that here they have a convicted terrorist, perhaps one that intends to commit future acts of terror, but they simply don’t have the requisite laws to deal with the likes of him. And so they throw anything at him to keep him locked up. The case of Mirsad Bectašević then, is the epitome of the liberal dilemma that the Greeks and indeed many Western countries are having to face up to. What does one do with the likes of Bectaševič and others like him, who may be working to undermine the security of the West or may not? And as such his case has important lessons for all European countries.

The case of Amer has not been treated in the same manner- that is he has not been given even a semblance of procedural justice. Is that because he is a Yemeni political refugee and not a Swedish passport holder? Does procedural justice not apply to the likes of him? His brother, Mohammed, 21, told me that in the first week of his arrest, intelligence officers beat him smashing his face against the table and tearing at his hair. They asked him why he was in Greece and where he was going as I did over the phone. He must have repeated the same thing he said to me, “I am here on holiday.” They said he had to admit that he was part of ISIS and belonged to a cell in Eastern Europe that was planning to launch an attack in the West. They were going to get that out of him no matter what. Greece, they said, is a democracy, when Amer, retorted that they were breaking their own principles, they laughed and replied that people think Greece is a democracy but it’s not. He had to admit he belonged to ISIS or else. But Amer did not admit it.

According to his brother, they brought in a girl who tried to seduce him, just like they do in interrogations in Egypt, whilst all the time they were hoping to film him perform a sex act. The brother believed that the security services could use the film to black mail him with it. But Amer is devout, and he repelled her advances. Next one man threatened him with anal rape if he did not testify against Bectašević. All the time, he could not get access to his legal counsel, apparently they replied only after a month. More recently Bectašević told me that Amer was being forced “to sign some papers in Greece [sic] it was around five…eight people there and they forced him to sign some papers. He didn’t even understand what it was.”

This was also confirmed by his brother who said that they have been appealing to the Swedish embassy for assistance. The embassy replied that the matter is out of their hands there has however, been some contact between the embassy and Amer in prison. Amer has told me that now the Greek authorities are applying psychological pressure on him in Volos young offenders prison. He feels that he is in limbo. His brother is worried sick about his health as he suffers from a childhood throat condition that requires an operation.

The Crux

Admittedly, the case of these two men are not as straight forward as it seems. The Greek authorities are dealing with a crippling economic situation, with the movement of people escaping Syria on a biblical scale, and so the rights of two men, one having a previous conviction for terrorism don’t really figure on its list of priorities. Arguably, Islamist terrorism is something that the Greek judiciary doesn’t have to deal with much. Yet, overlooking the case of these men could have an immense impact; for Bectašević is no small figure in Jihadi circles and is looked up to by those inclined to Salafi-Jihadism in Gothenburg. He, after all, has impeccable credentials in this regard.

Some inconsistencies of the testimonies and the difficulty of this author to verify their accounts aside, the whole case hinges on three points. The first, is the figure of Bectašević himself and his previous convictions. Secondly, his relationship with Syria and thirdly, the fractious politics of Syria’s Islamist rebels.

Prima Facie evidence

On the face of it, Bektašević is a man who holds views that are antithetical to Western ideals. He is an out and out Islamist of the radical variety, there is no shadow of a doubt in that. As one analyst noted, his twitter handle had a picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri. That started at a young age. The Swedish national from Serbia’s Sanjaki community, the minority Muslim community, became devout following his father’s death in 1994. He moved to Gothenburg, Kungälv where he spent his formative years. During the 80s and 90s Sweden was a popular destination for the Post-Yugoslav nations. A combination of factors, faith, the various Islamic ideological currents at the time, the legacy of conflict in Bosnia, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made him adopt a radical interpretation of his faith. There are also some allegations that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for instance the fact that he met Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, but these allegations have been rubbished by Bectašević, as he told me: “I always made travels with my own passport and they [authorities] know I never was in the Middle East back then.”

Nevertheless, his radical politics resulted in prison. He was convicted for his part in a terrorist plot in Sarajevo on 19th October, 2005 alongside others. In May, 2015 Bectašević told me that he had his Damascus moment whilst being interrogated by an FBI officer. He had told the FBI officer that Democracy was his religion and had been relying on Sh. Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi’s teachings. The officer dismissed the assertion, replying that it was just politics. The response threw him off balance, he had been so reliant on Maqdisi’s authority that he didn’t see the absurdity of the argument. He decided, from then on, to never blindly follow what other people had said and would find out for himself. Damascus moment or not, in January 2007, he received fifteen years for plotting to attack all those nations that were involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent the last period in Sweden in isolation. The sentence was the longest for terrorism in Swedish history. And it was also one of the biggest plots that was foiled in main land Europe especially after the Madrid bombings in 2004.

Perhaps more importantly for us in the age of social media, Bectašević’s online activity heralded in the era of Cyber-Jihad. Using his avatar Maximus he was in contact with Salafi-Jihadis all over the world, more specifically with Jihadi forums such as at-Tibyan, the forum for the dissemination of Jihadi texts in the English speaking world. It was also through this internet forum that he came in contact with Younes Tsouli, a Moroccan man from an elite family, known by his avatar Irhabi 007. According to a source who knew him in prison, Tsouli who arrived in the UK on 9/11, became radicalised after the failure of the anti-war rallies in the UK to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tsouli’s IT skills had been immensely important in disseminating AQIM propaganda to the wider world. It was through Bectašević’s avatar that was uncovered after his arrest that led to Tsouli and his associates being raided in West London. For the Greek authorities then, it seems tempting to just throw the keys away based on Bectašević’s past. He does fit the profile of an ISIS supporter

Younes Tsouli

Younes Tsouli

Moreover, there are other pieces of evidence. One being Bectašević’s previous connection to Syria. After his release in 2011, Swedish media reported that Bektašević was convicted of firearm’s violations linked to Gothenburg’s criminal underworld and spent a further spell in prison. Swedish media linked him to Muhammed Jouma, considered to be an al-Shabaab middle man. Bectašević though maintains that he met Jouma a few times in the local mosque in Gothenburg and that the former just sits at home idly, the only connection being that he wanted to use Jouma’s address for correspondence. He didn’t like the media intrusion on his mother’s home and so he regularly changed his correspondence address.

Bektašević did get involved with criminality due to a shortage of funds. He kept his prayers up in secret and adopted the name Micke. But the criminal underworld and his rise in it didn’t sit well with his conscience, in the end and after his arrest for arms possession he decided to leave it.

Then, Swedish media reported that he was fighting in Syria. Bektašević has revealed that the Arab Spring and the events in Syria had a profound impact on him. He believes alongside many other Muslims in the Ummah, a pan-Islamic concept of fraternity based on faith. Tyrants were falling left right and centre in the Muslim heartlands and it grabbed the imagination of the world let alone Islamists like him. He felt that he had a duty of care towards Syrians and so he wanted to go to Syria to help in whatever way he could. Syria plays an important role in the end of time narratives in Islamic tradition, no less in the Salafi-Jihadi discourse. Abu Musab al-Suri for instance, mentioned Syria as one of the key territories that would be crucial to the revival of the Muslim Ummah.

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

In the end it was a dream that pushed him towards Syria. Dreams do play an important role in Islamic eschatology and though Bektašević didn’t give it too much importance the dream came to pass. He got a passport, the Turks let him through and he boarded an eighteen hour bus to Hatay and crossed over to Syria.

Photographs emerged from his Facebook page of him in Taftanaz where he donned military fatigues and carried arms. I posed this question to him recently and his response was the following:

“The picture with hat and came [camouflage] dress is worn was in Atmah [sic]. So no fighting place. The other one with Kalash was from Taftanaz [Idlib] at home of one friend. So not a fighting place. It is not illegal to carry arms. I was there to assist ordinary people from giving food to protecting hospitals. Prior to arriving to Syria, Atmah there was a car bomb placed outside the hospital in Atmah. After that incident they needed some to guard.

It is easy to equate anyone who was in Syria in 2013 to be fighting with ISIS but as any specialist in foreign fighters will tell you this is simply not the case. Amarnath Amarsingam a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism says:

“So, what is clear from my interviews with some fighters is that 2013 was a time of flux. Many fighters at the time switched allegiances from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra shortly after Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s letter became public – around June 2013. Many fighters at the time were unclear about whether the Zawahiri letter was real and whether it was to be believed. Zawahiri was talking about, in essence, respecting the border between Iraq and Syria. Many fighters believed that Zawahiri would never say this. It was a time when many fighters moved back and forth, shifted allegiances and so on. So, it’s not accurate to say all muhajireen were with ISIS in 2013. In fact, I spoke with several fighters who switched precisely during this period when they saw ISIS’s excessive takfirism. As one fighter told me, when he saw ISIS members turning against other mujahideen, he took that as God’s guidance – a message from God about which group was on the right path and which group wasn’t.”

What is important to realise in 2013 then, is that the groups and factions had not fully crystallised in the way they have now. There were and still are, small battalions that may subscribe to Islamist ideology but are independent of any proscribed battalions. In fact, Amer al-Deghayes, who insists that he is part of such a battalion, says he met Bectašević in April 2013 in Kassab, Northern Syria, and likened him to a freelancer. He states that Bectašević was in fact against ISIS adding “he disagreed with them ever since I met him in April 2013.”

Moreover, in a statement obtained from Sawarim as-Sham a battalion affiliated to Failāq as-Shām or the Sham Legion, a moderate Islamist front, states that Bectašević entered the freed territories to render humanitarian aid and “was not with any organisation designated as a terrorist”. Abu Ahmed Khaled an official with a charity Jami’ya Nūr al-Insāniya, also told me that he was doing aid work in the border areas and was a “a friend of the Syrian people”.

Letter from Sham Legion

Letter from Sham Legion

In any case whatever Bectašević was up to in Syria which could have been a mixture of aid work and fighting, he returned to Sweden and in May, 2015 we met. He had agreed to meet me because he was aware of my work on Syria. We met in a coffee shop close to T-Centralen, Stockholm. We spent a good couple of hours drinking coffee while he told me off-record his life story. We were in discussions over writing a book and possibly a documentary. This is something that many radicals, jihadists and Islamic pentitos tend to do; writing books is a lucrative venture. I was not allowed to divulge any of the details of the conversation because- that would break one of the principal tenets of journalism- protecting your source and confidentiality. However recently, I do not quite know how, he contacted me from Korydallous High Security prison and gave me permission to divulge the details of this meeting. I informed him that what his allegiances and mindset are presently I do not know, but I could certainly reveal the details of what I saw when I met him. Over the following weeks I managed to contact Amer al-Hasani, family members and friends to verify the story. And I felt that I had an ethical duty to reveal it, not as an advocate for Bectašević or Amer, but rather to expose wrong doing and to highlight the difficult challenges that men such as Bectaševic and his ilk present to the West.

The crucial point that the case rests on is this: does Bectašević belong to ISIS? Bektašević denies this as he told me:

“They accused me of being in this organisation because I have my address in Sweden, with one guy who left the country to Syria to join ISIS. After one month, I rent (sic) myself into this address where he lived in. But he didn’t live there, man. He rent it out. He’s married with three kids, he lived in a totally other place. So they claim I am with this organisation because I have an address with this guy.”

The man he is referring to is Mikael Skråmo, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Sweidi. Mr. Skråmo converted to Islam in 2005, studied Islam and Arabic. According to Per Godmundson, a blogger for Svenska Dagbladet, Skråmo became a radical preacher and an open supporter of Anwar Awlaki, an al-Qaeda ideologue and US citizen killed by a US drone. That then is the link. Ahmed Abbassi, a childhood friend from Kungälv says that he would regularly list his address in various flats even though he was always living with his mother because he wanted to avoid press intrusion.

Bektašević further told me speaking against Islamic State:

“There are so many reasons why I am against this group. Foremost is religiously. This group is known for blowing up Muslims in mosques. They are fighting other Muslims. They are fighting people they should not fight. They are not protecting borders which they should protect. In fact they are attacking…already freed areas that the Muslims have freed from the Tyrants and still they are continuing this things and this is one of the reasons. Secondly, I am against them attacking other countries Europe or whichever country it can be in Europe. I am against it. This is not what I am for or what I stand for.”

A similar view was held by Amer too. Recently Abbasi says that Bectašević has dissuaded several young girls from joining ISIS and that if he had an opportunity he would fight them harder than he would fight Assad.

Mikael Skråmo

Mikael Skråmo

At the time of my meeting with him in 2015, Bectašević was vehemently against ISIS and was jousting with ISIS fanboys and tweeps on social media. Further, this author can confirm that at the time that we met he held a similar position to what he has told me recently; that is he considered ISIS to be little more than ‘highway men’ or Khawarij, a heretical sect in Islam famous for extremism and banditry.

Of course, there are limitations, Bectašević can be dissimulating. It doesn’t exclude the fact that his thoughts may have evolved into that of an ISIS supporter, neither does it exclude the possibility that the two men were planning to go to Syria. But even if we assume that none of the allegations the men make are true, that he and indeed Amer are ISIS supporters, it should not exclude them from receiving a fair trial and recourse to due legal process which clearly has not occurred in Greece. The Greek authorities have not responded to requests for comment and may quite understandably, go with its natural instinct which is to bury this case, to do a Trump and throw the keys away. After all many Muslim countries such as Egypt lock up men for lesser crimes than that of Bectašević’, but Egypt of course never prided itself on the Rule of Law. In fact, Rule of Law is something most people admire about the West, even hardened Islamists. And it is adherence to this idea that should be the driving force in dealing with foreign fighters, returnees, and terrorists.

The situation you don’t want to be in is the place where Amer’s mother cries every night pleading to God for justice. For that ancient refrain is not what Democracy is meant to provoke. God is not meant to give justice in Democracy. In fact, the whole point of a liberal democracy is that the Rule of Law is meant to be above God and such pleas for God’s justice should be redundant. It is after all, Lady Justice the personification of the Greek deity Lady Themis that stands as the symbol of justice not Jesus, God or any other religious symbol from the West’ rich Christo-Judeaic heritage. The Rule of Law is so basic that Locke, Rawls and Aristides N. Hatzis from the philosophy department at the University of Athens, says:

“In a liberal democracy there is a personal domain protected by negative rights. This domain should be shielded not only from an authoritarian government but also from a democratic majority (Danford, 2000, pp. 159-172). This domain should be under the protection of the rule of law and its most powerful institutional weapon:” The constitution. Let’s call this the liberal principle.”

In some way, many like the al-Hasani family, being political refugees from an illustrious tribe in Southern Yemen, believe in it even more so than Westerners do. An indignant Mohamed al-Hasani mentioned that Greece was a signatory to European Convention of Human Rights. He expected that they would respect Article 3 – the right to be free of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and of course Article 6, the right to a fair trial. And yet, if the allegations are true, the Greek judicial system has failed in this regard. It is worth noting that it is this that ISIS uses to lambast the West; it does not even uphold its own fundamental values; why else does ISIS dress up its victims in the orange jumpsuits that they wore in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? And so it proposes that the Rule of Law is hypocritically applied in the West.

Moreover, al-Hasani and especially Bektašević’s treatment does have consequences. The way he is treated will confirm a narrative that there is one rule for Muslims and another rule for the rest. Otherwise those who incline towards this narrative will probably echo Bektašević’s feelings:

“I am in a situation where nobody cares if I’m guilty or not. People who know me and my position against DAESH are quiet and I am here for nothing facing a sentence in a screwed up UFO land…
I have never supported the so called IS, contrary I have been against their actions. I don’t hide that I support the Syrian Jihad but in Syria you have good groups who put themselves under the Shariah not like IS who act like they are above the Shariah. If I would receive a conviction for being part of IS it would not be a conviction based on proofs rather it would be a political one.”

What is clear is that justice and fairness is key. If the Greeks vis-a-vis the West does not want to fuel a grievance narrative that many Muslim demagogues utilise to rail against the West, judicial process is crucial this after all is what Europe is about.

The Greeks and indeed all European countries must not overlook the various factions and groups that exist with in Syria’s rebel milieu and its dynamic in a constantly changing environment. This case will show whether the Greek authorities can manage to be just, fair and respectful of all the values and principles that it subscribes to. If they fail, the level of Bektašević’s celebrity in Jihadi circles will increase and might become a propaganda tool for those who say that the West does not have the ability to be just.

On a final note, the treatment of Amer al-Hasani, whose political ideas are yet unformed and if true, is shocking. It shows us what happens when we throw away the legal rule book, one becomes exactly like those tyrants that Salafi-Jihadis have been speaking against for three decades, one becomes as despotic as Sisi’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria. Perhaps the saddest most surprising thing about the post 9/11 world is the sheer fragility of Western ideals. Perversely in the name of protecting those values it holds so dear it has discarded them so quickly. It poses the question how is it that so few terrorists could shake the faith of so many men so easily?

 

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The ‘Martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (The Ja’afari Force)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaSayyidaRuqayyaNewEmblem
Current emblem of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya. Top: “If God supports you, no one can overcome you” [Qur’an 3:160]. Centre: “The Ja’afari Force: Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.” Bottom: “The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

Readers may be familiar with the previous post on this site about Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (Sayyida Ruqayya Brigade, named for the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Damascus), also known as the Ja’afari Force. A militia recruiting primarily from the Shi’a in Damascus and identifying ideologically with Iran, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s evolution over time can be principally traced through the presentation of its claimed ‘martyrs.’ A large number of cases can notably be traced to the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Damascus. Other labels emerged such as ‘Liwa Ansar al-Hussein’ (Supporters of Hussein Brigade), but over the course of 2014-2015, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya came to present itself as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi’i militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’, with the latter’s emblem, flag and insignia featured in social media output.

However, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya now presents itself as an independent group, according to a media representative who corresponded with me. The reason for the shift away from the affiliation with Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ was not given, but one plausible explanation for this development is that Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya may have attached itself to Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ for a temporary time in order to receive weapons and training. In a somewhat similar vein, Liwa al-Baqir of the Local Defence Forces in Aleppo reportedly received weapons and training in the beginning from Harakat al-Nujaba’- another Iraqi Shi’i militia- before separating off from it. It may also be that this process of separating off is intended to give an ever more ‘Syrian’ feel to the building of ‘Islamic Resistance’ formations in Syria. In any case, the break-off from Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ is clear in Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s latest social media manifestations, as the Iraqi group’s insignia and logo are absent now, while the Syrian image is reinforced by the inclusion of the Syrian flag in the current emblem.

CakeLiwaSayyidaRuqayya
A cake dedicated to the mothers of the ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.

In total, the militia representative put the number of ‘martyrs’ at 25. Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya has recently been providing more detailed profiles of many of its claimed ‘martyrs’, which I have translated and featured below. They provide deeper insight into the engagements and origins of the group’s fighters, corroborating that most of the group’s personnel are Damascene Shi’a. Unsurprisingly, the recurrence of certain names points to much recruitment based around families (cf. multiple people with the family name Khaloof are involved in another Syrian ‘Islamic Resistance’ militia known as al-Ghalibun). I have also provided additional notes on many of these ‘martyrs’ where applicable.

MuhammadSousJaafariForcemartyr
Name: Ismail Muhammad Ali al-Sous (Abu Ali)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1967
Place of death: Harasta al-Qantara, East Ghouta
Date of death: 20 May 2016

Part of the recent regime offensive on East Ghouta taking advantage of the rebel-infighting.

HassanAhmadKenanNibrasJaafariForceMartyr
Name: Hassan Ahmad Ken’an (Nibras)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1992
Place of death: Deraa area
Date: 27 July 2015

The Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ association could be observed at his funeral.

MuhammadAliZaynJaafariForceMartyr
Name: Muhammad Ali al-Zayn Abu Ali (Habib)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1956
Place of death: Deraa area, Sheikh Maskeen
Date of death: 26 November 2014
Body returned: 25 July 2015

This claimed ‘martyr’ is particularly interesting because he was actually also presented as a ‘martyr’ by Hezbollah. In addition, reports from the time of his death show he had an NDF ID card. In terms of broader context, it should be pointed out that Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ was heavily involved in the Deraa front over the course of winter 2014-2015 (e.g. see here).

AdnanHassanMatouq
Name: Adnan Hassan Ma’touq (Zayn)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1988
Place of death: Mleha area [East Ghouta]
Date: 1 July 2014

Originally from Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus, he can be observed here to be wearing Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya insignia. The reference to him as ‘al-mulazim sharf’ may also suggest he was in the Syrian army/NDF. The al-Mleha campaign in 2014 involved a large number of Shi’i militias, including Hezbollah, the Rapid Intervention Regiment (Iraqi), Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein (Iraqi), Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar (Iraqi) and Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (Iraqi).

AlaMohsenKawayfati
Name: Ala’ Mohsen Kuwayfati (al-Doushka)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1988
Place of death: Mleha area
Date of death: 16 June 2014

Photos exist of this ‘martyr’ wearing Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ insignia.

HusseinAbdalKarim
Name: Hussein Abd al-Karim Ala’ al-Din (Gharib)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1994
Place of death: al-Otayba area
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Note photos featuring a portrait of him under the title of al-mulazim sharf, which in this case points to NDF affiliation. The bodies of the 10 fighters were brought to Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

AliMahmoudDarwish
Name: Ali Mahmoud Darwish (Karar)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1989
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date  of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

MuhammadDibAbbas
Name: Muhammad Dib Abbas Halawa al-Bani (Muntadhar)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1985
Place of death: al-Otayba area
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

His portrait in a funeral procession is featured in an official NDF video.

HassanHaithanNahas
Name: Hassan Haitham al-Nahas (Muslim)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1995
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

AhmadHassanHalawaalBani
Name: Ahmad Hassan Halawa al-Bani (Jareh)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1994
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

MuhammadJawadAbbasDarwish
Name: Muhammad Jawad Abbas Darwish (Abu Turab)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1997
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport. Described as the youngest of the fighters killed, he was 15 or 16 years old at the time of his death).

Like Ala’ Zahwa, he can be observed with the Liwa Ansar al-Hussein insignia.

TalalHaddad
Name: Talal Haddad
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

MuhammadAliHamti
Name: Muhammad Ali Hamti
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

MohsenAkramalKhayat
Name: Mohsen Akram al-Khayat (Maymum)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1989
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

AlaMuhammadZahwa
Name: Ala’ Muhammad Zahwa (Martyr of Hussein)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1984
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

EmadIbrahimKanan
Name: Imad Ibrahim Kan’an (Abu al-Abbas)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1995
Place of death: Al-Bweida area (Damascus countryside)
Date of death: 31 November 2013

MuhammadAhmadKhadir
Name: Muhammad Ahmad Khadir (Abu Ruqayya)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1996
Place of death: Al-Bweida area
Date of death: 31 November 2013

Featured in an official NDF video.

RidhaMuhammadZahwa
Name: Ridha Muhammad Zahwa (Sajid)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1986
Place of death: Al-Bweida area
Date of death: 17 October 2013

Specifically from Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

MuhammadAhmadAjuz
Name: Muhammad Ahmad Ajuz
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1991
Place of death: Bab Touma area (Damascus)
Date of death: 11 April 2013

Specifically from the Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

RashidShakerDarwish
Name: Rashid Shaker Darwish (the Ja’afari)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: Jobar area (Damascus)
Date of death: 6 April 2013

A video exists giving a description of his life. He was specifically from the Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus and had visited a number of Shi’i holy sites. In his death, he left behind a six-year old son called Ja’afar al-Sadiq Darwish. An account from the time of his death mentions he was in the NDF.

RadwanFawziMarey
Name: Radwan Fawzi Mara’i (Abu Ali)
Born in: Machgara, Lebanon (located in the Beqaa Valley)
Year of birth: 1960
Place of death: Jobar area
Date of death: 14 March 2013

According to an account at the time of his death, he was “one of the members of the popular committees defending the holy shrines in Syria.” His will stipulated that he was to be buried in Sayyida Zainab.

SaadAliZamam
Name: Sa’ad Ali Zamam (Abu al-Zayn)
Born in: Safita (Tartous province)
Year of birth: 1970
Place of death: Douma area (Damascus)
Date of death: 2 December 2012

According to Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, he was “the first of the founders of the Islamic Resistance in Syria.” He is actually quite a famous ‘martyr’ in the pro-Assad world. For example, one article notes that he was originally a sculptor, but says that he was born in 1964. The article credits him as a founder of the concept of setting up popular committees as auxiliary forces for the Syrian army. He eventually became involved on Damascus area fronts in Douma, al-Qabun, west Harasta and Sayyida Zainab. He was reportedly killed by an IED, which he came across in one of the gardens in the Douma area and tried to dismantle. It should also be noted that there is a branch of the NDF named after him.

AhmadHassanNahas
Name: Ahmad Hussein al-Nahas (Muslim)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1987
Place of death: Sayyida Zainab area (Damascus)
Date of death: 14 August 2012

Described by Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya as “the first guardian of Zainab.”

General Gouraud: “Saladin, We’re Back!” Did He Really Say It?

Gouraud: “Saladin, We’re Back!”
Did The French General Really Say It on Conquering Syria in 1920?
by James Barr @James_Barr
For Syria Comment, May 27, 2016

“Saladin, We’re Back!” So France’s general Henri Gouraud is said to have declared when he entered the Kurdish warrior’s tomb beside the Umayyad Mosque in August 1920 after the French had seized Damascus.

French general Henri Joseph Eugène Gouraud (1867-1946) in 1923

It is one of those quotes that is too good not to use. Saladin’s biographer, Anne-Marie Eddé, starts her book with it to prove the endurance of her subject’s reputation, seven hundred years after his death. I quoted it myself in my 2011 history of the mandate era, A Line In The Sand. But when I was revising the text for the forthcoming French edition, I thought I might just check its source.

The quote seems plausible enough. Gouraud, in the words of his lieutenant, Georges Catroux, viewed his mission “as a Christian, as a soldier and a romantic”. He saw Damascus as the “unconquered fortress which defied the assaults of the Franks, the capital and burial place of the great Saladin, chivalrous victor over Lusignan at Hattin.”

General Henri Gouraud inspecting the French Army that occupied Damascus on July 25, 1920

But did he actually tell Saladin he was back? The earliest evidence Eddé could find was in Gabriel Puaux’s Deux Années au Levant, which was only published in 1952, though Puaux served as France’s high-commissioner in the Levant from 1938-40. In this memoir Puaux says that Gouraud entered the tomb and exclaimed, “Saladin, nous voilà.” Despite Puaux’s distance from the events he was describing, this reference remains valuable because it predates the moment when the phrase gained more general notoriety when it was used by Nasser in a speech in March 1958 after he had visited Syria and seen Saladin’s tomb the previous month. Evidently it was a story frequently repeated in Damascus.

Nasser and Quwatli 1958

President Quwatli gives Nasser a tour of Salahidin’s tomb during his first visit to Damascus in 1958, when he came to sign the Syrian-Egyptian Union. The tomb of Saladin is located behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus. This Photo is thanks to Sami Moubayed.

But one man who had served in Gouraud’s army in 1920 did not certainly attribute it to Gouraud. In 1970, Louis Garros, by then a distinguished historian, wrote an article for Le Monde to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the French takeover of Syria. In it he referred only to “a general” entering the Umayyad mosque and saying “Saladin, nous voici”. It is unclear whether he was referring to Gouraud or his general Mariano Goybet, the man who actually took over Damascus.

The commander of the French forces was General Mariano Goybet.

Goybet entered Damascus on 25 July 1920. Gouraud made his formal entrance on 7 August. A reporter, Maria Rosette Shapira, who was attached to the French force, covered both events for the French weekly, L’Illustration. Shapira, who wrote under the pseudonym Myriam Harry, described the battle of Maysaloun and, briefly, Goybet’s arrival in Damascus in an article published on 21 August. It is her follow-up piece, which was printed on 11 September, that is of interest, because it hints that Goybet may have said something that caused offence.

The article, “Le Général Gouraud à Damas”, is a colour piece on Gouraud’s arrival, datelined Damascus, August 1920. In it Harry says that Gouraud went first to the Umayyad mosque and on leaving the mosque arrived before the tomb of Saladin. The key sentence is this: “Nous n’entrons point dans le mausolée que nous avons visité à notre premier séjour.” In English: “We did NOT go into the tomb, which we entered on our first stay.”

Harry goes on to say that Gouraud preferred to sit outside in the shade of a lemon tree, from where they remarked on an ugly clock given by the Kaiser during his 1898 visit, which was fixed to the outside of the tomb. (Lawrence had of course made off two years earlier with the bronze wreath also given by the Kaiser, which is now in London’s Imperial War Museum). From there, Gouraud returned to the mosque where he was received by various Muslim dignitaries from the city. According to Harry Gouraud’s tone with these men was conciliatory. She reports him assuring them of his religious impartiality and his desire to maintain Arab independence. He then left to visit the Maidan.

General Gouraud escapes an assassination attempt on route from Damascas to Kunaitra, 1921.

General Gouraud escapes an assassination attempt on route from Damascas to Kunaitra, 1921.

Why the need for the emphatic denial that they did not enter the tomb? Given this was Gouraud’s first ever visit to Damascus, the implication of the sentence is that Harry had visited the tomb with Goybet and that whatever happened on that earlier occasion was controversial enough that it obliged Gouraud to make a show of not doing so himself on this first visit. The absence of any reference to Goybet’s visit to the tomb in Harry’s first piece, but then the reference to it in the second, makes me wonder whether the censor had been at work.

Unless a definitive eye-witness emerges, Harry’s reportage suggests that it was Goybet, rather than Gouraud, who is more likely to have made the notorious remark.

* James Barr is an Historian. Author of A Line in the Sand, on how Anglo-French rivalry helped shape the modern Middle East.

Another excellent short article by Barr on the Sykes-Picot & the Balfour Declaration:

“India and the Syrian Conflict,” by Niraj Srivastava

NirajIndia and the Syrian Conflict
by Amb. Niraj Srivastava
For Syria Comment, May 26, 2016

It was reported in the Indian media that on May 20 the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a new 22-minute Arabic language documentary online featuring purported Indian Jihadi fighters in its ranks. The video included interviews with five Indian Jihadis known to have joined the ISIS since 2014. In one of the interviews, Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, an Indian student from Thane, says that he will return to India to “avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar.”

Al Masdar News has also reported that in a video released on May 20, ISIS “showed off their large Indian force operating against Syrian government forces in east Homs countryside,” and called on Indians to leave their country and join the Jihad in Syria against the “infidels.” The agency, however, stated that it was not clear how many Indians were fighting with Islamic State forces in Syria.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.54.19 AM

The above developments have brought the ISIS, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, uncomfortably close to India. So far, the Syrian conflict had been seen in India as an event taking place in a distant land. But the release of the above video suggests that the ISIS is perhaps planning to draw more Indian nationals into the Syrian imbroglio, as well as expand its operations in this country. This cannot be good news for India, which may have to track the activities of ISIS more carefully, both here as well as in Syria.

India’s position on Syria, as on Libya, has been that it is for the people of Syria to decide who should govern them. The destiny of Syria should be decided by Syrians. India had abstained on the vote on Libya in the UN Security Council in March 2011, when it was a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

The Feb. 27 partial cease-fire in Syria and the resumption of peace talks in Geneva between the opposition and the Assad government had raised hopes of finding a political solution to the bloodbath in the country, which has so far resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million people and displacement of almost half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 23 million. However, developments in April and May 2016 belied any such hopes, pointing, instead, to further complications.

First, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), representing the opposition groups in Syria, walked out of the Geneva talks on April 18, ostensibly due to cease-fire violations by the Assad regime. It had also failed to reach an agreement over the formation of a transitional governing body before elections are held in Syria to form a new government. The HNC did not want President Assad to be a part of any such body while the regime insisted that Assad’s role in it was not up for discussion in Geneva.

Second, fighting flared up in Syria around the same time, particularly in Aleppo. Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed the rebel-held areas in the east while the Nusra Front directed artillery fire at western Aleppo. Some of the bombs and shells hit hospitals on both sides, resulting in the deaths of several doctors, patients, and innocent civilians. Fighting also broke out in parts of Idlib, Homs, and Hama. It had continued for almost two weeks before a fragile truce was brokered by the US and Russia on May 4. By that time, nearly 300 people had been killed, most of them civilians.

Third, it is also clear that the two sides used the two-month truce to strengthen their military capabilities as well as their positions on the ground. More sophisticated military hardware continued to flow to the Russian and Syrian forces, whose ranks were also augmented by paramilitary fighters from Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. On the other hand, the rebels received TOW anti-tank missiles and possibly shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), which were probably used to shoot down two Syrian air force aircraft in March and April.

It is evident that the Syrian and Russian militaries launched a determined assault in April on Aleppo and the other areas to regain territory held by the rebels, but did not fully succeed. On the other hand, it is also clear that the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their allies have not given up their goal of “regime change.” In defiance of their stance, the Syrian government held Parliamentary elections in April in areas controlled by it. The elections were won handsomely by the ruling Baath Party. Both sides are still pursuing a military solution to the conflict, although talks might continue in Geneva to find a political settlement, which would be more durable.

Another significant development has been the deployment of more US “boots on the ground” in Syria, contrary to earlier US statements. On April 25, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 troops, including Special Forces, in addition to the 50 deployed in Nov. 2015. The stated objective of the deployment is to fight ISIS in Syria. But the troops could also be used to target other groups, including the Syrian military.

Significantly, the US, Britain and France recently turned down a Russian proposal to the UN Security Council to designate the Saudi and Turkey-backed groups Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which have links with ISIS and Al Qaida, as terrorist groups. On May 3, Secretary Kerry also warned Assad of the consequences of a “new US approach” if he does not accept a political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, without specifying what that “new approach” would be.

Meanwhile, as mentioned above, there is no softening of the positions of the other leading players including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all of whom appear intent on regime change in Syria. They will also benefit if Syria breaks up. Netanyahu, in fact, held a meeting of his cabinet on the Golan Heights on April 17 during which he declared that Israel will never give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Turkey has regularly called for setting up “safe zones” or “no-fly zones” in Syria, which it could easily annex if Syria disintegrates.

On May 17, the 20-member International Support Group for Syria (ISSG) met in Vienna under the Co-Chairmanship of the US and Russia. The Group agreed to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, facilitate full humanitarian access to relief agencies in Syria, and ensure progress towards a peaceful political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The political transition will be overseen by a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent of the main parties concerned.

The actual implementation of the above recommendations may be problematic, due to the reasons cited above. Fighting continues to rage in some parts of Syria. Humanitarian access has improved, but more needs to be done. The most difficult part may be the constitution of the transitional governing body. As mentioned above, the HNC does not want President Assad to have any role in it, which is entirely unacceptable to the regime. It is not clear how this deadlock can be overcome. Significantly, no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Geneva talks.

As things stand, the situation in Syria remains fluid and uncertain. Though Russian and Syrian aircraft continue to bomb ISIS and Al Nusra strongholds around Aleppo and other strategic areas, there seems to be a stalemate on the ground. All the players are keeping all their options open—including the military one—which makes it difficult to predict future developments in that country. But one thing appears certain—the conflict in Syria is not going to end anytime soon. It is likely to continue beyond the US presidential elections in Nov. 2016. India will have to ensure that its nationals do not get sucked into the Syrian conflict and that ISIS is not allowed to expand its footprint in this country.

Niraj Srivastava is a retired Indian diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Denmark and Uganda, and has spent more than ten years in Arab countries including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. He has also taught undergraduate students at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. His other postings include the United States and Canada. He is currently an independent international affairs consultant based in New Delhi, India. The views expressed are personal.

The Local Defence Forces: Regime Auxiliary Forces in Aleppo

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LocalDefenceForcesemblem
Emblem of the Local Defence Forces. On top: “Homeland, Honour, Sincerity.” Below: “Syrian Arabic Republic. The army and armed forces- Local Defence Forces.”

Besides the well-known National Defence Forces (NDF) that were set up in 2012 with oversight from Iran to act as a counter-insurgency force and auxiliary militia network for the Syrian army, there exists a similarly named but distinct set of militias specific to the Aleppo area known as the Local Defence Forces (Quwat al-Difa’ al-Mahalli- LDF). In brief, the LDF consists of a variety of local militias such as Katibat al-Nayrab al-Maham al-Khasa (The Nayrab Battalion- Special Operations), Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade), Fawj al-Safira (The Safira Regiment) and Fawj Nubl wa al-Zahara’ (The Nubl and Zahara’ Regiment). These names mostly refer to areas and towns in the vicinity of Aleppo city, but Liwa al-Baqir is named after the fifth Shi’i imam Muhammad al-Baqir.

A representative for Katibat al-Nayrab affirmed to me that the LDF totals 50,000 fighters (an obvious exaggeration), set up in 2012 by Iran as an auxiliary force for the Syrian army in the Aleppo area. Unsurprisingly, the LDF is linked with Hezbollah as well, though it is Liwa al-Baqir that advertises this connection more than the other LDF formations: something reinforced by the fact that the Lebanese singer Ali Barakat, most well known for his songs for Hezbollah, put out a song dedicated to Liwa al-Baqir. Liwa al-Baqir also appears to be tied in particular to the al-Bekara clan in Aleppo that has gained notoriety for its support for the regime, especially as it is predominantly Sunni (the evidence may suggest a degree of Shi’ification as well in relation to Liwa al-Baqir).

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“Liwa al-Imam al-Baqir: al-Bekara clan.” Note the portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the left and Bashar al-Assad on the right. Also note one of the portraits featuring the Hezbollah and Syrian flags.

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“The mujahideen of Liwa al-Baqir from the base of operations: God protect you, our mujahideen”- note the Hezbollah armpatch.

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Social media graphic for Liwa al-Baqir, featuring the familiar moniker of “The Islamic Resistance” (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

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Liwa al-Baqir posters. Note the central one: “Men of the Resistance.” Includes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i, Assad and Nasrallah.

Describing itself as “the first auxiliary [/reserve]” for the Syrian army, Liwa al-Baqir seems to be the most prominent LDF formation. For example, most recently the militia’s social media have advertised heavy involvement in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) focused around the village of Kafr Saghir and fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel forces in south Aleppo countryside. Thus, on 20 March 2016, Liwa al-Baqir claimed at least 15 ‘martyrs’ (fallen fighters) in fighting on the Kafr Saghir front to the north-east of Aleppo city, followed by a claim of 5 more ‘martyrs’ two days later. In April, Liwa al-Baqir media mention coordination with Hezbollah in fighting in the south Aleppo countryside, focusing initially on the village of al-Eis. These south Aleppo operations have been advertised as being in coordination not only with Hezbollah (e.g. see here) but also the Iraqi Shi’i militia Harakat al-Nujaba’. The accounts of these operations include this short story:

“We, the men of Liwa al-Baqir, were in the company of the men of Hezbollah when they arrested dozens of the pigs of Nusra whom we wanted to kill but then one of the mujahideen reminded us saying: ‘Oh youth, remember the words of Imam Ali- peace be upon him- who says: ‘And don’t kill those who surrender but rather grant them food and grant them protection.”

Prior to these engagements, Liwa al-Baqir claimed participation in the operations leading to the breaking of the rebel sieges of the Shi’i villages of Nubl and Zahara’ to the north of Aleppo city, as well as operations in south Aleppo countryside as part of the series of Russia-Iran backed offensives that began in October of last year to allow the regime to regain the initiative against the rebels.

Unlike a number of pro-Assad militias whose total numbers of ‘martyrs’ since inception normally do not amount to more than a few or several dozen, Liwa al-Baqir claimed 246 ‘martyrs’ as of 21 March 2016. This claim to a large number of ‘martyrs’ is corroborated to a certain extent by the displays of posters of these ‘martyrs’, samples of which appear below.

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Dedicated to ‘martyr’ Muhammad Hussein Raslan, Top-right inscription: “Liwa al-Imam al-Baqir: Local Defence Forces.” Note the faint Hezbollah imagery in the background.

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Some more ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Baqir, though here the term used is ‘Fawj al-Imam Baqir’ (no real difference in meaning).

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Large Liwa al-Baqir mural, likely dedicated to ‘martyrs’ in the militia or linked to it.

Just as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party has used its militia presence in Syria to push for political influence in the form of candidates for the recent Syrian parliamentary elections, so too did Liwa al-Baqir throw its weight behind an ostensibly independent candidate called Omar Hussein al-Hassan.

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“Vote for the independent candidate for membership of the People’s Council. Aleppo countryside (group A). Omar Hussein al-Hassan. Offering from: al-Bekara clan, Liwa al-Baqir. The homeland will remain on high by our steadfastness.”

The candidate in question is notable for having the same surname as the leader of Liwa al-Baqir: Khalid al-Hassan, who also goes by the name of Baqir. Khalid is linked to the Syrian state apparatus through the State Ministry for the Affairs of National Reconciliation, as per a post below from January 2016:

“Syrian Arab Republic
State Ministry for the Affairs of National Reconciliation
Document no. 845

The leader of Liwa al-Baqir Khalid al-Hassan (Baqir)…and the distinguished members- members of the Committee of Reconciliation, National Accord and Social Coordination- are operating in the framework of the project of national reconciliation in Aleppo province. We request aid within the systems and laws and in cooperation with Mr. Governor of Aleppo in making their mission succeed. To connect with us in the Liwa al-Baqir centre in Tarkan [a village in the Safira district].”

In this context, it should be noted that Liwa al-Baqir was also involved in a prominent conciliation event at the end of 2015 involving two major families- Abu Ra’s and Berri (the latter also notorious for its support for the regime)- including an event involving military and security officials as well as ‘ulama’ in Aleppo.

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Khalid al-Hassan

Interestingly, in March 2016 Liwa al-Baqir claimed the ‘martyrdom’ of Khalid’s brother. No specific details were offered as to the circumstances surrounding his death, though one page for Liwa al-Baqir seemed to present it as a ‘martyrdom’ jointly claimed with Hezbollah. According to the Katibat al-Nayrab representative, he was actually assassinated in Lebanon.

The other LDF formations are less remarkable. For example, Fawj al-Safira, as its name suggests, operates in the Safira area of Aleppo, also renowned as a bastion of regime support. Fawj al-Safira, in repelling IS attacks in the Safira area, has notably coordinated not only with the Syrian army but also the local Safira branch of the Muqawama Suriya, a militia primarily based in Latakia whose founder Ali Kayali has been declared by the Muqawama Suriya to have been ‘disappeared’ (mughayyab) in a possible cover-up of his death since his suspected killing in late March 2016.

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LDF forces have had a role in fighting to the south of Aleppo city as IS has repeatedly harassed regime control of the supply line to Aleppo city via Khanaser. Among items captured by IS in an assault in mid-April were LDF ID cards as shown in this photo.

Instead of giving a chronological list of engagements by the LDF, it remains to note that on a wider level the LDF has a ‘political direction’ division that puts out newsletters, featuring political and military developments as well as excerpts from media outlets and political analysis. For example, issue no. 81 that was recently put out opens with commemorations for the deceased Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine (aka Dhu al-Fiqar), who was central to organizing Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria. The political analysis section also gives a summary of Badreddine’s life and accomplishments.

In comparison with many other pro-Assad militias, the LDF clearly amounts to much more than a seemingly ‘exotic’ name and brand. On the contrary, the LDF has been important for organizing local pro-Assad support networks in Aleppo that transcend the sectarian divide to a degree. In part these networks explain the regime’s staying power in Aleppo, rather than just foreign manpower influx in the form of Iranian personnel and Shi’i militias. At the same time, one should not forget the importance of Iran and Hezbollah in the organization and advising of local militia support networks- an analysis that clearly applies to the LDF.

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Appendix update (24 May 2016): An account of the origins of Liwa al-Baqir is offered by the pro-opposition site alSouria.net in an article from January 2016. According to this account, Liwa al-Baqir was set up as a distinct brand and formation by the LDF in 2015, initially working under Harakat al-Nujaba’, which was responsible for the Shi’ification and arming of its fighters. This same report affirms that Liwa al-Baqir now operates separately from Harakat al-Nujaba’.

The LDF more generally, though having roots in and ties to predominantly Sunni ‘shabiha’ clan networks, is portrayed in this article as having come under the increasing influence of the foreign Shi’i militias that have come to the Aleppo area. There is likely something to this, for as I noted in the main article, the evidence from Liwa al-Baqir seems to suggest at least some Shi’ification among al-Bekara clan members. In any case the LDF was set up in the first place by Iran, so it is hardly surprising if Shi’i militias tied to Iran (which have made a prominent mark in Aleppo since 2013) have sought to influence the LDF even further in orientation.

The bulk of the article from alSouria.net is translated by me below:

“Aleppo has seen since the beginning of the protests in it formations affiliated with the LDF formation led by the Berri family a great part of which is known for its support for the regime and its participation in repressing demonstrations, but the feared status and importance of this formation has retreated with the beginning of the arrival of foreign militias to the regime’s areas in Aleppo, and the Shi’a militias have managed to include the LDF through Shi’ification of its fighters.

The alSourianet correspondent in Aleppo, Muhammad al-Shafi’i, points out that the LDF formed Liwa al-Baqir last year, with its base in the village of Tarkan in south Aleppo countryside, clarifying that the brigade worked within the militia formation of the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba’, which uses the al-Assad academy as a base for its military operations.

And special sources mention to alSouria.net that Liwa al-Baqir currently works separately and independently from Harakat al-Nujaba’ to regain authority over Aleppo, and has portrayed itself as an auxiliary for the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to the same sources the brigade’s numbers are around 2000 fighters, who have obtained their weapons previously from Harakat al-Nujaba’, in addition to their receiving salaries of 25,000 Syrian pounds [per month].

The Iraqi militia supervised the formation of this brigade after the Shi’ification of its members and the establishment of special camps for them. They were trained in assault methods and were deployed in the recent south Aleppo battles, and Liwa al-Baqir is led by “Khalid al-Hassan al-Aloush al-Baqir” and with protection from people in the Berri family. And the sources mention to alSouria.net that the number of those from the brigade killed in the recent battles of south Aleppo countryside reached 50 members, all of whom are from the ‘Shabiha,’ while the number of those killed from the brigade since its formation until the beginning of this year reaches up to 300 killed.

The brigade participates in frontline duty operations in the villages of south Aleppo countryside controlled by the regime and its militias since two months ago, in addition to the presence of military checkpoints of the brigade inside Aleppo. In addition Liwa al-Baqir has special training camps in the villages of Tel Shaghib, Issan, Ain Issan and Tarkan in south Aleppo countryside.”