The National Ideological Resistance in Syria: A ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ Brand

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Hezbollah’s participation in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime is well-known, most notably in the captures of Qusayr in Homs province in May 2013 and Yabroud in Damascus province in March 2014. Considerably less attention has been given though to the emergence of native brands, which, if not actually set up by Hezbollah, are nonetheless identical in ideology and messaging. “The National Ideological Resistance in Syria” (NIR. Arabic: al-muqawama al-wataniya al-’aqa’idiya fi Souria) is a case-in-point.

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One of the logos of NIR.

As becomes immediately apparent from a glance at the above figure, there is clear affinity with Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy militias, with the familiar extended arm and rifle, as well as the featuring of a globe to indicate the worldwide scope of ideological godfather Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision for the ‘Islamic Revolution.’ In this context, the mere use of the term muqawama ['resistance']*- popularized by Iran and its proxies- also points to NIR’s alignment, which is further demonstrated with other social media graphics and logos put out in the group’s name.

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In the above logo put out by NIR social media, the group demonstrates its ideological vision combining Syrian nationalism and Khomeinism. Beginning from the left of the outer circle, we have Bashar al-Assad, Ayatollah Khomeini, Hafez al-Assad, Sheikh Saleh al-Ali (an Alawite who spearheaded a revolt against the French presence in what is now Syria soon after the First World War), Ayatollah Khamenei (Iran’s current Supreme Leader, who also features prominently on ‘martyrdom’ posters and other social media output for Iranian proxy militias like Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Badr Organization), and Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah.

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For a further point of comparison with the previous image: from a video screenshot to accompany Kata’ib Hezbollah’s song “Battalions of Iron and Fire.” Note the familiar shadow-figure fighters at the bottom: cf. this video for the pro-Hezbollah song “It has been written on the earth with blood.”

The inclusion of Hassan Nasrallah alone would not be sufficient to demonstrate NIR’s affinity with the Iranian regime’s ideology: after all, his face can also be found on posters of the Arab Nationalist Guard (see my profile of this pro-Assad militia group here). It is rather the inclusion of Khomeini and Khamenei as well that needs to be considered here. Yet the clearest evidence pointing to NIR as a ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ comes in an NIR graphic below, where the name ‘Hezbollah’ is explicitly used.

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Advertising the ‘military wing’ also of NIR (the ‘Army of the Imam al-Mahdi’- Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi), with the name Hezbollah below.

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Another NIR graphic, this time featuring the logos of Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah (Iraqi proxies of Iran) as well as Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Main featured slogan here: “Our decision is resistance.”

An NIR media representative advertised the group thus in a conversation with me:

“We are from the land [i.e. Syria], in the land and on the land. We are present in all the land of Syria, all areas of Syria and all sides- resisting Syrian nationalists- resisting ideological nationalists. Our goal is to cleanse the land, preserve honour, and build souls. Our relations are good with all the honourable ones in existence [NB: referring to my question about relations with Hezbollah]. Our creed is one of love and faith. Our men, youth and cub-scouts are embarking on all the fierce battles with arms, good word, love and humanity. Our force follows from our faith, nationalism and creed…”

One may legitimately ask where exactly NIR is based and whether it is a meaningful fighting force in any way. Information indicates that the NIR movement had its beginnings in the Hama locality of Masyaf and has reached out to a recruiting base in Tartous governorate, which has been virtually untouched by the ravages of the civil war. Indeed, the group’s orientation, with potential outreach to a large local Alawite recruiting pool, appears to reflect a strand of ‘Shi’afication’ of Alawite identity that is otherwise multi-faceted, attempting to bring it ever more in line with Twelver Shi’ism and in this case in support of Iran’s system of governance of wilayat al-faqih.

The emphasis on Shi’ism is also made clear in songs used by NIR in its social media: most notably the songs of pro-Hezbollah Lebanese singer Ali Barakat, who has also put out numerous hits in support of Assad. For example, one Barakat song used by NIR includes the lyrics: “It is a finest land: the mother of Khaybar [NB: Khaybar, where Muhammad subjugated his last Jewish opponents, is prominent in Shi'a militia music]. The men of God are not defeated. The Wahhabi-Salafi will not be safe. The expansion of Ali is exploding.” Note the NIR video includes slogans such as “Labbayk ya Ali” and “Labbayk ya Hussein” (at your service Ali/Hussein- typical Shi’a militia sectarian rhetoric).

As for whether NIR is a meaningful fighting force, my answer to this question is in the affirmative. From what can be gathered, fighters of the group have been active not only in the Hama area but also in Aleppo province, assisting along with other militia forces like the Muqawama Suriya the regime’s ongoing offensive in a bid to bring a fatal psychological blow to the rebels. To corroborate this assessment, below are some ‘martyrdom’ announcements from NIR under its ‘Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi’:

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Aymenn Shawqi Shaheen. Comparison with other data shows he was reported to have been killed on 2 March 2014 in the al-Safira area of Aleppo province. He was originally from Tartous. Note the Muqawama Suriya- another pro-regime Alawite/Twelver Shi’a militia- is present in al-Safira too.

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‘Martyrdom’ poster for Aymenn Shawqi Shaheen, featuring NIR’s logo etc.

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Ali Abbas: reportedly commander of the “Sheikh al-Wadi” contingent of NIR. His military efforts were said to have been known particularly in Mork, Hama province. He was also hailed as the “martyr of Wadi al-Uyun,” which is part of the Masyaf district of Hama province.

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Ghadeer Suleiman Ali: reported by NIR to have been killed in Aleppo.

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Ihab Ali Ali, reported to have been killed in Aleppo countryside on 10 December 2013. He was originally from the village of  Tayshour in Tartous governorate. Note the distinct Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi headband of NIR.

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Omar al-Shayet: originally from Aleppo and reportedly killed in north Aleppo countryside. He apparently moved to Tartous but then decided to return to Aleppo to fight against the rebels. Undoubtedly he came under the influence of NIR while in Tartous. His funeral took place in Tartous on 29 January 2014.

Note further this ‘martyrdom’ announcement for one Muhammad Muhammad Nour al-Shwaykh, who died fighting in Mork and whose burial took place on 27 May 2014 in Wadi al-Uyun.

Other photos besides death announcements attest to NIR’s existence as a fighting force.

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NIR fighters advertised by one “Sayyid Hashim Muhammad Ali,” who, based in Tartous, appears to function as secretary general for the group. Photo emerged in May 2013.

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NIR member Mohieb Khierbek, who has advertised himself as being present in Aleppo province (specifically, the Mount Simeon district) poses with his NIR headband, together with a Syrian flag, an NIR banner, and a Hezbollah flag, pointing further to the NIR as a ‘Syrian Hezbollah.’

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Mohieb Khierbek poses with his gun. Note his NIR headband and armband as well as the Hezbollah flag in the background.

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Mohieb Khierbek and fellow fighters pose with a Hezbollah flag.

In conclusion, it can be seen how the NIR- though admittedly a rather minor militia brand- attempts to blend distinct Syrian nationalism (contrasting with the pan-Arab messaging of the Arab Nationalist Guard) with Hezbollah’s imagery and ideology: hence a ‘Syrian Hezbollah’. It will be of interest to see if this brand expands in the future, with the overall effect of strengthening Iranian ideological influence over Alawites and perhaps Syrian Shi’a sects more generally.

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Another symbol of NIR: featuring the logo of the group inside the eagle of Syria’s national emblem, with inscription “Syrian Arab Republic” at the bottom.

Notes

*- In the Iraqi context, ‘muqawama’ is not the exclusive preserve of Iranian proxies and the Shi’a more generally. Non-Islamic State Sunni insurgent brands- such as the Islamic Army in Iraq- also deploy the term as an identity symbol.

The genesis of this article was due to a query put to me about NIR by Syria Conflict Monitor on Twitter.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Rubin Research Fellow at the Interdisciplinary Centre.

Further Thoughts (11 October 2014)

- In the opening of this piece, I wrote a conditional- ‘if not actually set up by Hezbollah’- but I am more inclined to see this group and any other ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ brands as the creation of Hezbollah. For further note, Syria Conflict Monitor points out to me that much of the reported presence of Hezbollah aiding the regime in Hama- with evidence of Hezbollah insignia and the like- points back to NIR.

- NIR is not the only pro-regime militia brand in Masyaf. The Muqawama Suriya, whose Alawites do not espouse a Shi’a identity aligned ideologically with Iran, also has a branch in Masyaf. In future, it will be of interest to see if these differing brands end up competing for local support and clashing, whatever public ‘brotherology’ may be espoused.

- Secretary General= Commander.

 

Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen: Support for the Islamic State

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Intro and Analysis

The Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen [more fully, Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen in the Environs of Bayt al-Maqdis], a Gaza-Sinai jihadi group and opponent of the Hamas government in Gaza, had previously come out in support of the Islamic State’s [IS] predecessor ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and ash-Sham) in February of this year, defending ISIS’ supposed right to ‘self-defence’ in the face of fighting with rebel groups in Syria. This reflected a wider trend of sympathy for ISIS in the Gaza-Sinai area, which now features an IS network in the form of Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis.

However, such sympathy/support [nusra in Arabic] needs to be distinguished from an actual pledge of allegiance [bay'ah] that is now an essential part of IS’ identity. That is, for IS, there are in reality no compromise positions when it comes to alignment with the group’s Caliphate agenda: one must declare bay’ah and subsume oneself under IS. Yet the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen has not declared allegiance to IS and- like Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia and Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis- is aiming for an ultimately incoherent ‘third way’: that is, showing sympathy for IS while not subsuming itself under IS’ formal demand for recognition of its supposed supremacy and authority over Muslims worldwide and eventually the entire world.

Those within the global jihadi community trying to uphold this ‘third way’ are doing so on anti-fitna grounds: namely, the notion that since all jihadis have the same end goal of a worldwide Caliphate, they should put aside differences and unite ranks as ‘brothers’ in creed and manhaj (‘program’), while confronting the common enemies. Indeed, this latest Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen concludes with just such a call to unity in light of the U.S.-led coalition against IS, and invokes the targeting of Jabhat al-Nusra as evidence of a wider war on Islam.

It should be noted though that some others who were to be noted for an anti-fitna position during the period when IS was just ISIS have now declared bay’ah to IS, with the most recent case-in-point being Ansar al-Tawheed in Bilad al-Hind [India], which had released a message in May appealing for help from both Aymenn al-Zawahiri of al-Qa’ida and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIS. This month, the group declared allegiance to IS.

Below is my translation of the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen statement.

Translation

Support for the Islamic State in the face of the Crusader attack

[...]

In these days the mill of a new Crusader war is turning against the Ummah of Islam, through a Crusader alliance led by America and standing with it the creeds of disbelief and organizations of apostasy despite their differences, in an attempt to stop the Islamic expansion embodied in the Islamic State’s conquests and their expansion over wide portions of terrain of Iraq and al-Sham, and in light of those developments we say good luck by God.

Indeed the rapid victories of the mujahideen of the Islamic State and their huge successes on the ground, with the defeat of herds of the Rafidites [Shi'a], driving away the remnants of the Peshmerga, and resisting the Sahwa gangs: all this can only be from the preference of God Almighty for our brothers after years of preparation, jihad, spending and giving. For it was not a coincidence or mere spur of the moment, but rather God’s victory that comes down on his faithful, enduring and steadfast worshippers waging jihad. And those victories have made rough the beds of the forces of tyrannical idolatry of the Arabs and non-Arabs.

So they have stood perplexed and baffled before this growing Islamic expansion, which also bears for them in its fold emerging signs of the danger of the beginning of a new historical stage in which the supremacy and leadership of the Ummah of Islam will return, the men of Tawheed and the people of jihad in the path of God will take up the reins of affairs. Further, they have intimated to each other thus: “Come forward to destroy these people [IS] before their soles trample on the thresholds of our capitals and the palms of their hands knock on the doors of our forts!” And they have held their determination to wage war on the Islamic State, have made promises to some of them, and blessed themselves with victory. God Almighty says: “The oppressors have only promised each other delusion” [Qur'an 35:40].

With the growing seriousness of that Crusader alliance (rendered helpless by God’s permission), responsibility and faithfulness on the shoulder of the Muslims in every place as regards what is happening are growing greater and more serious: thus support for the Islamic State is obligatory on every Muslim with any means he has, for God only entrusts to a soul what it is capable of, and it is not necessary for differences here and there to act as an obstacle to the fulfilment of the obligation of support, help and all forms of good will, which is being steadfast in our religion for all who have approached Islam. How can we delay in supporting the Islamic State when the nations of disbelief have gathered against it? God Almighty says: “Those who have disbelieved are helpers of each other: if you do not take action, there will be fitna and great corruption on the earth” [Qur'an 8:73]. And it has come in interpretation of this verse: “Those who have disbelieved are helpers of each other, and if you, oh believers, are not helpers of each other, there will be for the believers in the land strife from God’s religion, and widespread corruption deviating from God’s path and the strengthening of the pillars of disbelief.”

The one looking at the Crusader alliance today finds that it gathers among its components nations fighting each other and peoples hating each other, particularly from countries of the West that modern history witnessed as participants in conflicts and world wars among them during which states were destroyed in their entirety, and in which they spilled each other’s blood by the hundreds of thousands. But they have pretended to have forgotten their upheavals and they have glossed over their differences, and they have gathered their affairs under the banner of the Hubal of the age- America- for the sake of waging war on Islam and Muslims. For the cowardly air-raids that have targeted the bases of a number of fighting factions- among them Jabhat al-Nusra- bear in their interior clear messages that the attack will not be limited to the Islamic State, and that there will be targeting of all who bear arms and call for the application of Shari’a whatever their name or appearance, including and even if they are from among the adversaries of the Dawla itself [IS]! [...]

In the shadow of this war, how can we content ourselves with a land that is not the land in which God and His Messenger would like to see us? A land of support for the believers and irritation of the disbelievers, a land of the unity of the Muslims and their solidarity as the single edifice, and their summoning of each other towards the wound of their brothers like the single body, as there is no place to sit on the fence and embrace silence [...].

And it was from God’s preference that the new Crusader attack- and the last by God’s permission- revealed many of the dark faces that have been made to drink hypocrisy for some time, and the day has come on which the veil will be removed from in front of the disbelievers and their hatred for Islam and its people. By that we mean without the turban of the age of the sheikhs of the authorities and the scholars of the Marines who are not ashamed to express frankly their hostility to the Islamic State and publicly support the Crusader attack on it, showing no regard for the fact that supporting the disbelievers over the believers constitutes recalcitrant apostasy…They have persisted in their transgression even after many women, children and elderly from the Muslims fell on account of coalition bombing. And God willed to expose all the conspirators and participants- even in word- in this project to fight the Islamic State. So there has appeared for us the malignant nature of their consciences as well as the corruption of their creeds, so that what is happening today is an ample opportunity that must be seized to warn the general populace of Muslims about these snake-oil salesmen in religion who pick a quarrel with knowledge: religion and knowledge have nothing to do with them.

As for the organizations of apostasy and collaboration- particularly in the Arabian Peninsula- the striking hand for the Crusaders has remained, and it will make most of those besides it aware that the light of Islam has begun to emit rays and become visible for everyone who sees, so they have mobilized with the incentive of submissiveness to the supremacy of the disbelievers, and with incentives to preserve their thrones and flimsy power-bases.

And it is amazing that they with the rest of the states of the alliance are standing today- from where they have not taken into account- in a land of defence, not attack, for this one defends its chair, that one its interests, and another the stability of its land after their corners were shaken by the victories of the Islamic State- whose mujahideen have continued to take up the reins of initiative, attack the dens of the forces of idolatrous tyranny, and expose their edifice, in parallel with the efforts of their brothers who are carrying the banner and striving towards the goal in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Chechnya, Somalia, the Islamic Maghreb, the environs of Bayt al-Maqdis [Jerusalem], the Arabian Peninsula and India. We ask God Almighty to gather the word of the mujahideen on righteousness, unite their ranks, remove the shackle from their chests and raise the banner of Islam on their hands [...]

Finally we say to our brothers in the Islamic State: Be patient, endure, remain steadfast, and be aware of God: perhaps you will prosper, and know that this is a new cycle from the cycles of tribulation that God promised His worshippers when he said: “We will surely test you with an element of fear, hunger, and loss of wealth, lives and fruits, but give good tidings to those who endure” [Qur'an 2:155]. So accept the escort of God, His protection and His fortified victory. Know that your enemy is an alliance of people quarrelsome with each other whom God is on the verge of confounding to failure and turning their strategy on them to destroy them by the Almighty’s permission [...]

Oh God, give victory to Islam, strengthen the Muslims, and preserve the God-fearing mujahideen…oh God, defeat America, and whoever has allied, cooperated with or supported it.

[...]

Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen
Environs of Bayt al-Maqdis

Wednesday, 7 Dhu al-Hijjah 1435 AH, corresponding to 1 October 2014.

“What’s at Stake in Kobani: Islamic State and Kobani Calculations,” By Carl Drott

What’s at Stake in Kobani: Islamic State and Kurdish Calculations
By Carl Drott (freelance journalist, visited Kobani in August-September)
for Syria Comment – October 9, 2014

The situation currently looks grim for the People’s Protection Units (YPG) and others defending Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) from the Islamic State (IS). Still, it is conceivable that air strikes together with reinforcements and armaments could enable YPG to not only prevail, but go on the offensive again. While both IS and YPG would ideally want to see the other side utterly defeated, there are also more local goals. In the wider area around Kobani, the conflict dynamics and prospects for successful rule are also affected by the role of Arab civilians and anti-IS rebels.

Why Did IS Attack Kobani?

IS’ decision to attack Kobani in mid-September appears rational in the light of its somewhat crippled capabilities in Iraq and recent defeats against YPG in the Jazira area. Not only was Kobani the low hanging fruit, but it could be plucked quickly. IS understood that time was short before the coalition air campaign was extended into Syria.

Local Kurdish volunteers in Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) gather in a ceremony to form new units. They will assist in the defence of the town against Islamic State (IS) attacks. (Taken by the author)

The Strategic Prize

Before the attack started, YPG controlled some territory between Shiukh bridge and Qara Quzak bridge along the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Even more importantly, YPG controlled a stretch of the main motorway east of Qara Quzak bridge. This territory has now been captured, which means significantly improved communications within the northern parts of the “caliphate.” Kobani town itself is relatively insignificant, but the survival of a YPG-controlled enclave would tie up military resources and constitute a security problem for IS in the longer term.

If the tables are turned at some point in the future, YPG will certainly look east towards Tel Abyad. The capture of this town would enable the isolated Kobani enclave to be connected with the much larger Jazira area that also borders the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (a successful attack would most likely come from this side). For IS, on the other hand, getting expelled from this area would mean losing all access to Turkey east of Jarabulus.

Another goal for YPG would be to capture the eastern shore of the Euphrates. Not only would this mean a huge security improvement, but it would also give much-needed access to water. A station near Shiukh used to pump water to Kobani, but IS cut the supply completely when it took over the area early this year. The Kurdish administration then connected deep new-dug wells to the water treatment plant in Qaraqoy. These facilities have now also been captured by IS, which means that Kobani’s only water supply comes from smaller wells inside the town itself.

Electricity from the Tishrin dam used to reach Kobani through a sub-station near Sarrin, which also supplies IS-controlled towns like Shiukh and Jarabulus. IS cut the supply to Kobani when the sub-station was captured in March, forcing the town’s population to rely solely on generators. Recapturing the sub-station might be a worthwhile objective for YPG, unless IS is prepared to cut off electricity to its own towns as well.

The Ethnic Map

With regards to the human geography, Kobani town and its environs are nearly completely Kurdish, and staunchly pro-YPG. Kurdish civilians fled their villages in anticipation of IS’ advance – and so will the remaining inhabitants of Kobani town if defeat appears imminent. IS will then be in control of substantial resources in the form of houses, businesses and farm lands, which can be distributed as “war spoils” to fighters and local collaborators.

There used to be a large Kurdish minority in Tel Abyad, but as a result of the ethnic cleansing campaign that was initiated last summer and lasted until the spring, the town is now entirely Arab-populated. The main Baggara tribe as well as smaller tribes like Assafah and Naem all support IS, according to a Kurdish former resident.

Tribal Divisions

Between Tel Abyad and Kobani as well as along the eastern shore of the Euphrates sit a number of Arab villages, interspersed among Kurdish and mixed ones. According to an Arab source within the Kurdish administration, there are no clear political divisions between the tribes along the Euphrates, although there are some general tendencies. Jawader, Jubanat and Awn are largely on YPG’s side; meanwhile Degarat, Jeth and Serezat tend to support IS. An official from the Asayish police force stated that the largest of these are Awn and Serezat.

According to a group of Awn tribesmen in Jadah, located by the Euphrates, the tribal leaders have little influence over the political allegiance of their members. As frontlines have moved back and forth and various groups have come and gone, local Arabs appear to have turned to “fence-sitting” (supporting no one), “hedging” (supporting both sides) and “coat-turning” (supporting the group currently in power). More substantial support will probably only emerge when either IS or YPG proves its ability to hold onto territory.

Local Calculations

According to several commanders, YPG never capture Arab villages unless requested by a local delegation. While there are also military needs and ambitions for territorial contiguity to take into account, YPG obviously holds no desire to rule over a wary or even hostile Arab population. There are some Arabs in YPG and the Asayish police force, but probably too few to successfully rule larger Arab population centres.

Ismet Hesen, the Defence Minister of the Kobani canton government, stated in late August that YPG forces were about to go on the offensive – and he appeared confident that local Arabs would welcome them. Two weeks later, the establishment of a joint YPG-rebel command centre was declared in an on-line video. Some of these rebels had previously fought against YPG, and only switched sides after they were driven out from nearby towns by IS. Despite such concerns, the new alliance probably raised the perceived legitimacy of YPG among local Arabs, and concerns about this might even have urged IS to strike first.

To conclude: If IS forces capture Kobani, their victory will be definite and irrevocable. If YPG manages to hold IS at bay, its forces will eventually have to take back enough territory to create sustainable living conditions. The scale of their ambitions will depend on what is feasible. In their very different ways, IS and YPG both have the capacity to govern these areas over time.

* Carl Drott’s previous work can be found on his homepage: http://carldrott.wordpress.com

The Yazidis Are Not Getting Support

The Yazidis Are Not Getting Support

by Matthew BarberMatthew Barber 3

with a translated statement from the Yazidi Prince, Mir Tahsin Beg

 

When the Islamic State attacked Iraq’s Sinjar Mountain range—home to the largest population of the Yazidi minority—on August 3, they arrived in only a few convoys, estimated to be carrying around 1,000 jihadist fighters. According to a new, private report by an Iraqi with military knowledge (yes, it will become public, hopefully soon), the mountain had a defense force consisting of 16,000 Kurdish Peshmerga and the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army—led by a Kurdish general. None of the military leaders responsible for defending Sinjar were Yazidis, despite the mountain having a Yazidi majority population estimated at over 84%.

Yezidi Protection Forces

A Yazidi member of the Sinjar Protection Forces poses with a child whose family never left Sinjar. The family hid until local Yazidi defenders reached them and now remain under their protection.

Though vastly outnumbering the attacking jihadists—and maintaining the high-ground advantage—the Peshmerga defenders fled the IS attack without a fight. In mid-August, Christine van den Toorn documented this ignoble abandonment of perhaps the Middle East’s most vulnerable minority group, but only now are we getting a sense of the numbers of Peshmerga who could have successfully defended them and prevented the displacement of several hundred thousand people.

Though as many as 16,000 Peshmerga fled the IS attack on Sinjar—supposedly for not having adequate defenses against the more up-to-date weaponry of the vastly smaller IS force—a group of just 3,000-4,000 local Yazidis with no support has continued to defend a few parts of Sinjar until this very day—embattled but remaining unconquered by the jihadists.

Theories that verge on the conspiratorial circulate among Yazidis who believe the KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) threw them under the bus in order to elicit greater US military support. Yazidis see Sinjar—an outlying area not contiguous with the three governorates that make up Kurdistan Province—as a sacrifice made by the KRG for longer-term political goals. Perhaps simple cowardice is a better explanation, though one that runs against the grain of the lionized Peshmerga’s popular reputation.

Regardless of why the Peshmerga forces didn’t remain to defend Sinjar against IS for even one day, all of the claims—by Kurds and Iraqis alike—that it would be soon retaken have failed to materialize. Even after two months of US airstrikes in Iraq, IS still maintains control of almost every area that they took from Iraq and Kurdistan, including Sinjar, Tel Afar, and the Yazidi and Christian towns of the Nineveh Plain near Mosul.

Kurds finally captured Rabia from IS this past week, but were unable to continue to Sinjar, and their offensive prompted severe retaliatory attacks from IS that continue today—against Yazidi targets in Sinjar.

One would expect that the US airstrikes would be conducted in coordination with Kurdish ground forces in order to retake important Yazidi homelands—especially since the refugee crisis is choking the Dohuk governorate so badly that schools cannot open, their classroom floors being the new homes for thousands of expelled Yazidi families. But the particular IS bases on and near Sinjar that Yazidis have repeatedly requested be targeted by US airstrikes remain untouched.

Yazidis have given up all confidence in the KRG, most now self-referring as “Yazidi, not Kurdish.” With almost no arms/munitions support from the Iraqi or Kurdish governments, local Yazidi defenders in Sinjar (calling themselves the Sinjar Protection Forces) are trying to stave off IS attacks into the few areas unconquered by the jihadis. Thousands of kidnapped women being held in locations near the mountain—whose presence is confirmed by the UN and whom Yazidi volunteers are keeping track of—could be liberated by the Yazidi Sinjar Protection Forces, if they could just get US airstrikes to hit the IS bases and provide cover for the fleeing women.

I’ve written and spoken on international media about this problem as have many journalists and others (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15). Yazidi representatives have begged the State Department and Department of Defense to work directly with local Yazidi defenders in Sinjar. Instead, a pattern of sporadic and occasional US airstrikes continues in Iraq, more than two months since IS began a genocidal campaign of forced conversions, massacres, and sexual enslavement.

Less than one airstrike per day is occurring on IS targets in Sinjar.

 

A statement from the Prince—the highest figure of Yazidi leadership

The Yazidi plight has become so dire that it has shaken the Yazidi Mir, or Prince—the spiritual leader of the community—from his usual sleepy state of towing the Kurdish political line. Mir Tahsin Beg has issued the following statement in Arabic, which we have translated into English, below:

 

An Urgent Call to the Iraqi Government of Baghdad and the Kurdish Government of Erbil

Since the 3rd of August our Yazidi people have been exposed to the fiercest campaign of genocide [that they’ve experienced] in this century which has taken the lives of more than 5,000 innocent people through the violence of the Da’esh [Islamic State] terrorist organization. More than 7,000 have been kidnapped—mostly women & children—and around 350,000 are now displaced and expelled into the Kurdistan Region, Syria, Turkey, and other countries, and living in very poor conditions, without access to the minimum requirements for basic human needs.

Despite the passing of more than two months of the Yazidi tragedy, and the IS occupation of Sinjar and other Yazidi areas such as Ba’shiqa and Bahzany, and the presence of a Yazidi resistance defending with a patriotic spirit the very existence of the Yazidis—which is simultaneously a defense of the existence of Iraq, of an integral part of Iraq, and its people, honor, and dignity—until now we haven’t seen any serious attempt to support this resistance in order to free Sinjar and other Yazidi areas, and to save those that can be saved from among the kidnapped and expelled Yazidis who are headed for an unknown destination, without the slightest concern of the central [Iraqi] and regional [Kurdistan] governments, as though the Yazidis were part of neither Iraq nor Kurdistan.

In the face of this horrific and catastrophic situation, we are filled with surprise at the Iraqi and Kurdish Regional Governments’ ignoring of our Yazidi tragedy as though this tragedy is not an Iraqi one.

A few days ago, the Kurdish Peshmerga forces announced the beginning of a battle liberate Sinjar via Rabia in coordination with Iraqi forces and with the support of coalition airstrikes led by the U.S., but these forces have not achieved as great an advance as had been expected. This has prompted the IS forces to start fierce attacks on more than one front in Sinjar to tighten the noose on the Sinjar Protection Forces [local Yazidi volunteer defenders] by closing in on them from all sides.

We call on officials of the central and regional governments to bear responsibility—national, political, humanitarian, and moral—for the deterioration of the Sinjar situation and the consequences of it. We urge them to carry out their national duties to our besieged people in the Sinjar mountains, ask them to support the Sinjar Protection Forces logistically and militarily, and to facilitate the prompt delivery of weapons, equipment, and supplies—immediately.

—Prince Tahsin Sa’eed Ali, Head of the Yazidi High Spiritual Council of Iraq and the World

 

The Dawn of Freedom Brigades: Analysis and Interview

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Logo of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades

One of the more noted recent trends in rebel dynamics in Syria is the weakening of the Islamic Front, widely noted last year as the most powerful rebel alliance in terms of manpower and fighting capabilities. However, the coalition was always weaker than it seemed at first sight, with one of the most pertinent questions being why the constituent groups never abandoned their own individual names and banners if they were really so united. This year, the Islamic Front has seen its constituents- particularly Ahrar al-Sham- hit by defections to the Islamic State (IS), assassinations of leaders, and fracturing on account of tensions between and within the coalition’s factions. The group Liwa al-Tawheed- previously considered one of the most powerful Aleppo factions- has suffered from internal fragmentation and manpower loss, with many of its local eastern Aleppo province affiliates having become defunct but now re-emerging as break-off groups, lacking any distinct ideological program equivalent to the Islamic Front’s “Project of the Ummah” that aimed for a clear assertion of the Islamic Front as a serious Islamist political force to be reckoned with.

The new rebel coalition Tajammu’ Alwiya Fajr al-Hurriya (‘Grouping of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades’) is a case-in-point. For example, one of the constituents of this coalition is Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal (‘Sun of the North Battalions’), whose official Facebook page ‘likes’ a page set up for the Manbij Martyrs’ Battalion, a one-time Liwa al-Tawheed affiliate in the town of Manbij that has since January of this year fallen under the exclusive control of the IS, having previously been a place where IS was merely one of a number of groups in the town including local Islamic Front groups’ affiliates. This points to the link between the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal formation and the now defunct Liwa al-Tawheed affiliates it has come to supersede in the northeast of Aleppo province.

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Logo of Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal: “The Free Syrian Army.”

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The Facebook ‘likes’ of Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal, including the Manbij Martyrs’ Battalion.

The Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition is of importance at the moment because it is a participant in the fight against IS in the Kobani (Ayn al-Arab) area (e.g. see this video, said to be in the countryside just to the south of the main town) that is one of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) self-declared autonomous cantons. The coalition is thus cooperating with the PYD’s armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG). This cooperation, as will be seen below, is something openly admitted: compare with this video* announcing the “Euphrates Volcano” joint operations room including Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal and the YPG for eastern Aleppo countryside to fight IS.

This pointedly contrasts with last year’s dynamics that saw the parent organization Liwa al-Tawheed work with IS against the YPG in Aleppo province, in part contributing to severe losses for the YPG in that area. Such coordination with IS- following on from the YPG’s expulsion of IS and Jabhat al-Nusra from Ras al-Ayn town in Hasakah province in mid-July- was also undertaken by other major rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham. It was justified by many rebels at the time as necessary against a perceived ‘regime agent’ but was also rooted in wider Syrian Arab suspicion of Kurdish autonomy or separatist agendas. Undoubtedly the cooperation between IS and these rebel groups against the YPG allowed IS to grow.

To be sure, relations somewhat shifted at the start of this year as infighting broke out between IS and rebel groups across northern and eastern Syria: limited cooperation, for instance, was in evidence between Liwa al-Tawheed and Jabhat al-Akrad- a front-group for the YPG- in the Azaz countryside, but there was nothing on a par with rebels helping the YPG to defend a stronghold under PYD control. The current Dawn of Freedom Brigades-YPG effort in Kobani needs to be tied to a broader trend of some FSA-banner figures coming to terms with past mistakes vis-a-vis relatons with the YPG: foremost embodied in one-time Aleppo FSA Military Council head Col. Oqaidi’s visit to the YPG in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Aleppo province in late August, reflecting a 180 degree turn from his defences of IS and anti-YPG stance in summer 2013, even as he goes on about the need for unity against the niẓam (‘regime’).

In my view, however, this cooperation is too little, too late to lead to substantial setbacks for IS, hindered as it is also by Turkey’s hostility towards the PYD on account of links with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and Western regard for such concerns. In the long-run too, there is a problem of differing agendas: the PYD has too little interest or resources to attempt to take the fight all the way to Raqqa city, for example, being more concerned with its own proto-state project in the territory it already controls.

Below is an interview I conducted with Abu al-Layth, one of the leaders of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades (see here for the Dawn of Freedom Brigades’ organizational structure).

Q: What are the factions in the Dawn of Freedom Brigades? Is it true that the factions used to be in Liwa al-Tawheed?

A: The majority of the military factions were sidelined from Liwa al-Tawheed and others beside it previously; and we do not fight with any side that has no firm decision-making on the ground.**

Q: What are your aims? Do you want a democratic state or a state in which Shari’a is the sole source of legislation?

A: We are not planning on anything for when Assad falls. We hope that there will be protection for all the peoples [of Syria] and that we will co-exist- all of the Syrian people. And it [the Syrian people] is the one that decides what it wants. We are with the Syrian people.***

Q: With protection for all sects?

A: The people decides and we came out because of the racism of Bashar al-Assad.

Q: Is there cooperation with the YPG in the Ayn al-Arab area against the IS organization?

A: Yes. We of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades- when IS launched the assault on Ayn al-Arab- sent 250 fighters to Ayn al-Arab to protect the Kurdish and Arab people in this area. And we have tried to protect the Suleyman Shah tomb**** but we will not be able to do so because of the paucity of our heavy equipment.

Q: In your opinion are the American airstrikes helping the effort against IS?

A: This is in God’s hands. We are against the coalition’s airstrikes because they do not target the regime which is greatly criminal. The two states [i.e. IS and the regime] compete as to who can destroy civilian life more.

Q: And is it a problem also that the strikes are targeting Jabhat al-Nusra that fights the regime?

A: No. Jabhat al-Nusra fights on all sides, but has also yielded on more than one of the fronts between it and the regime.***** Examples: the battle of Kassab; it and Ahrar al-Sham of the battle of Hama recently; it and the Islamic Front in the battle of the Industrial Area in Aleppo. I mean they have many bad things about them as well. And we as a Syrian people don’t accept any organization that is neutral or against our people.

Q: So the Islamic Front also withdrew from the Industrial Area in Aleppo?

A: The reason being the weakness of the two fronts [Nusra & the Islamic Front], so the regime seized the Industrial Area. Weakness and not withdrawal: I mean retreat.

Notes

*- Others mentioned in the video include brigades that have been working with the YPG for several months now following IS’ takeover of all major urban areas in Raqqa province, such as Liwa Thuwar Raqqa (ex-Nusra affiliate) and Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabeel Allah (tied to the Western-backed SMC). The cooperation originates from the fact that many members of these groups sought refuge with the YPG west of Tel Abyad. The YPG would then help these groups to reclaim some villages from IS in return for power-sharing in those localities.

**- Referring to the lack of real unity and direction with the Islamic Front.

***- The mark of a non-ideological program, also contrasting with the “Project of the Ummah” of the Islamic Front from which the Dawn of Freedom Brigades coalition has emerged.

****- The site has been under the protection of Turkish troops and IS allegedly threatened an attack in March this year if they did not withdraw within 3 days, though even if the threat had been real, it was never acted on.

*****- cf. Aron Lund’s article on Jabhat al-Nusra, which notes also the consolidation of control of towns and territory in Idlib province that have followed on from at least some withdrawals.