The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’s dhimmi pact for the Christians of Raqqa province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Traditionally, a ‘dhimmi’ in Islam is a Jew or Christian who agrees to live under the authority of an Islamic state, agreeing to pay a ‘jizya’ (poll tax) and enduring a number of discriminatory conditions in return for ‘protection’ from the state. The Qur’anic basis for this arrangement is 9:29. In practice of course, the dhimmi pact, far from being a model of historical multiculturalism and tolerance as hailed by Western Islamic apologists such as Karen Armstrong, is actually equivalent to Mafia racketeering, as failure to pay ‘jizya’, whose financial burdens often proved heavy historically, leads to a loss of ‘protection’ by the state.

For the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), which has the backing of broad elements of classical Islamic theology in this regard, such a development comes as no surprise, as the group’s predecessors- Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and al-Qa’ida in Iraq- similarly imposed jizya on Christians both in the Baghdad area (al-Dura neighborhood) and the north of the country. In Syria, the group has already imposed dhimmi terms in practice on Christians in Raqqa province, such as in Tel Abyad, where supposed violation of the dhimmi pact was the pretext for ISIS’ desecration of the Armenian church in the fall of last year.

One should also note that this pact has been imposed by ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and bears his signature as the amir al-mu’mineen (“Commander of the Faithful”- the traditional title of a Caliph, illustrating how ISIS is aiming to build the Caliphate and is projecting its leader as the future Caliph). It would thus indicate that Baghdadi is likely to be in Raqqa province at the moment.

Indeed, such a conclusion on Baghdadi’s location is quite logical, for I would also note how my ISIS contacts within Raqqa province have been referring to Raqqa city in particular as ISIS’ ‘capital’ since ISIS took over the city and most of the rest of the province, with the exception of a Kurdish enclave just west of Tel Abyad and two regime airbases (Brigade 17 and Tabqa military airport). Meanwhile, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, FSA-banner groupings, and some Jabhat al-Nusra continue to wage an underground insurgency with sabotage attacks (which are also happening in other ISIS strongholds such as Manbij in Aleppo province), and an underground regime presence, which has existed since Raqqa province largely fell into rebel hands, is beginning to flaunt its presence in the city of Raqqa, for a Raqqa branch of the National Defence Force (NDF) has recently been proclaimed, giving news of raisings of regime flags and displays of pro-Assad graffiti in Raqqa.

BhGTVQuCYAALSID
Figure 1: Regime flag recently put up in Raqqa city.

Here is my preliminary translation of the relevant excerpts of the first formal dhimmi pact:

“In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful:

Text of the pact of security the Islamic State has given to the Christians of Raqqa with their embracing the rulings of dhimma.

Fight those who believe not in God, nor the Last Day, nor in what God and His messenger have forbidden, nor adopt the true religion [Islam], [even if they be] from the People of the Book [Jews and Christians], until they pay jizya with the hand, and feel themselves subdued- Qur’an 9:29.

We bear witness that there is no deity but God alone. He has fulfilled his promise. He has given victory to His servant. He has made mighty His soldiers. He has defeated the parties on His own: there is no deity but God whom we worship, having purified religion for Him even if the kuffar hate it.

And we bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and messenger- may God’s peace and blessings be upon him…and we bear witness that Jesus the son of Mary is God’s servant and His messenger…the Almighty has said: ‘Never would the Messiah disdain to be God’s servant, and nor would the Angels who are near, and whosoever disdains to worship Him and is haughty- He will gather them to Himself together’- Qur’an 4:172.

[...]

And for what follows: This is what the servant of God- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Commander of the Faithful [NB: this is the title of a Caliph] has given to the Christians concerning the pact of protection. He has given them security for themselves, their wealth, their churches and the rest of their property in the province of Raqqa: their churches should not be attacked, nor should anything be taken [by force] from them, nor from their domain, nor anything from their wealth, and there should be no compulsion against them in religion, and none of them should be harmed.

He has imposed these conditions on them:

1. That they must not build in their town or the periphery a monastery, church or monk’s hermitage, and must not rebuild what has fallen into disrepair.

2. That they must not show the cross or any of their scriptures in any of the roads or markets of the Muslims and they must not use any means to amplify their voices during their calls to prayers or similarly for the rest of their acts of worship.

3. That they must not make Muslims hear recital of their scriptures or the sounds of their bells, even if they strike them within their churches.

4. That they must not engage in any acts of hostility against the Islamic State, like giving housing to spies and those wanted for a reason by the Islamic State, or whosoever’s brigandery is proven from among the Christians or others, they must not aid such persons in concealing or moving them or other such things. If they know of a conspiracy againt the Muslims, they must inform them about it.

5. That they must not engage in any displays of worship outside the churches.

6. That they must not stop any of the Christians from embracing Islam if he so wishes.

7. That they must respect Islam and Muslims, and not disparage their religion in any way.

8. The Christians must embrace payment of the jizya- on every adult male: its value is 4 dinars of gold…on the Ahl al-Ghina [the wealthy], and half that value on those of middle income, and half that on the poor among them, on condition that they do not conceal anything from us regarding their state of affairs. And they are to make two payments per year.

9. They are not allowed to bear arms.

10. They are not to deal in selling pork and wine with Muslims or in their markets; and they are not to consume it [wine] publicly- that is, in any public places.

11. They should have their own tombs, as is custom.

12. That they must accept the precepts imposed by the Islamic State like modesty of dress, selling, buying and other things.

[...]

So for them is nearness to God and the dhimma of Muhammad, the Prophet and Messenger of God- may God’s peace and blessings be upon him- even as God brings his command: what they have embraced in the conditions outlined in this document.

But if they disagree with anything in this pact, then they have no dhimma, and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham will deal with them as it deals with the people of war and stubborn enmity.”

Update: After the implementation of this dhimmi pact in Raqqa province, the practice looks set to spread to Hasakah province (Wilayat al-Baraka in ISIS terminology), where ISIS is the dominant force in rebel-held areas. A Twitter account associated with ISIS news from Hasakah province- @barakah53731284- says “After Raqqa province, Christians from Baraka province offer to pay jizya and the Islamic State postpones their matter until it can be made completely possible with a guarantee of being able to implement the dhimmi pact.”

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Update 2: In case ISIS’ ambitions to a global caliphate were still not apparent to anyone, ISIS’ official Twitter account for Raqqa province had this to say on the imposition of the dhimmi pact: “Today in Raqqa and tomorrow in Rome.” Rome is traditionally seen as the Christians’ global capital.

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Christian Militia and Political Dynamics in Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Introduction

When it comes to news reports on Christians in Syria, the general focus is on the concerns Christian civilians have about their future, if any, in the country. Though such anxieties are not invalid, reports rarely break new ground. Here I intend to explore how Christians play a role on the ground in the civil war, both on the political and military level.

Christians in Syria fall under a number of different sects, including Antiochian Greek Orthodox, Melkite Greek Catholic (which split from the Antiochian Greek Orthodox in the 18th century and aligned with Rome), Syriac Orthodox, Assyrian Church of the East, Armenian churches, Maronites and Chaldeans. To a degree, sect affiliation corresponds with geography, with more Melkites and Greek Orthodox found in western Syria, particularly the major urban centers like Damascus. Though many Syriac Orthodox are also found in the western urban areas, Christians from the Syriac and Assyrian denominations have been the primary Christian demographic in the east of Syria.

Sect affiliation also has implications for ethnic identity, which has been a hot topic for contention among the region’s Christians more generally. The main competing terms are Arab, Syriac, Aramean, and Assyrian (and of course, Armenian naturally comes among the Armenian Christians). The Arab identity tends to prevail particularly amongst the Melkites and Antiochian Greek Orthodox, for whom Arabic plays a fundamental role as a liturgical language.

Arab Christians and Western Syria

Given the Assad regime’s own emphasis on Arab identity in line with the Ba’athist ideology, it follows that there is some affiliation with the regime on an ideological foundation. Note, for example, my prior overview here of statements by the Melkite Patriarch Gregory III Laham, who in aligning with the regime has placed emphasis on traditional pan-Arab causes such as the Palestinian issue.

Another important figure in this context to bear in mind is Mother Agnes Mariam, a Melkite nun of Palestinian origin espousing similar politics and conception of identity to those of Gregory III Laham. Though Jonathan Steele and others may claim that she is a mere figure for reconciliation among Syrians, it is quite apparent that she is with the regime. Besides considering the article linked to over her name, it should be noted that Mother Agnes maintains close ties with regime and regime-linked figures, and her apparent reconciliation efforts are merely designed to give the regime a face of legitimacy.

On the ground, Melkites and Antiochian Greek Orthodox are particularly concentrated in the Wadi al-Nasara (“Valley of Christians”) area of rural west Homs governorate, in proximity to jihadi groups such as Jamaat Jund ash-Sham: a battalion founded by Lebanese muhajireen that subscribes to the same ideology as that of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS), which as regards Christians would mean subjugation to second-class status as dhimmis-paying an extortionist jizya tax- or conversion or death. Unsurprisingly, pro-regime Christian circles in Wadi al-Nasara have not failed to notice the presence of Jamaat Jund ash-Sham.

In addition to forming local defense militias first through the Popular Committees and now the National Defense Force (NDF), Christians in Wadi al-Nasara have been drafted into the Syrian armed forces with little resistance. Similar phenomena have been observed as regards the enlistment and martyrdoms of Suwayda and Jabal al-Sheikh-based Druze. In short, Wadi al-Nasara remains a staunchly Assad loyalist area.

AgnesKayali
Figure 1: Mother Agnes in Latakia with Ali Kayali, the leader of the pro-regime militia The Syrian Resistance. Photo from autumn 2013.

KayaliCross
Figure 2: Reflecting traditional Alawite-Christian solidarity, Ali Kayali stands with a Christian clergyman and holds a cross and a Qur’an in solidarity with the Christian victims of the massacre by rebels at Sadad in Homs governorate in late November 2013. The rebels were led by the Green Battalion, ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

ChristianAlexandretta
Figure 3: Ali Kayali has also tried to show a Christian component to his particular cause and associated ideologies (namely, liberating the Sanjak of Alexandretta from Turkish control, and a leftist ‘resistance’ outlook in opposition to American and Israeli influence in the wider region). In this video from November, he commemorates martyrs from the Sanjak who fought for “the Palestinian cause” against the Israeli occupation of Lebanon. Here, he notes one Hanna Mabtun, a Christian from Antakya, who died fighting the “Zionist enemy” in Lebanon.

AntounDibah
Figure 4: Antoun Nasri Dibah, a martyr from Wadi al-Nasara for Syrian army special forces in Aleppo in mid-November.

TwoChristians
Figure 5: Two more martyrs for the Syrian army from Wadi al-Nasara: Elias Mikhail Nader and Rami Na’im Farah.

AbdalKarim
Figure 6: Abd al-Karim Jarji Ta’amah, a regime soldier from Wadi al-Nasara killed during the regime-Hezbollah offensive on Qusayr in late May last year.

EliasOthman
Figure 7: Elias Othman Jarjous, an army officer from Wadi al-Nasara killed in mid-June last year.

3ChristianNDF
Figure 8: Commemorating 3 Christian fighters for the NDF in Wadi al-Nasara, killed in late August of last year.

SamirWatafa
Figure 9: One of the NDF Christian martyrs of Wadi al-Nasara: Samir Aabad Watafa.

DeathAnnouncement
Figure 10: Announcement circulated in Wadi al-Nasara in late January this year on the martyrdom of Tony Sami al-Sahli.

This is not to deny that there are Christians who have joined the rebel ranks in western Syria, but as with the Druze, the same rule applies: of those who have taken up arms, the majority have done so on the side of the regime.

Syriac Identity and Eastern Syria

Out towards the east of Syria (mostly Hasakah province in the north-east, which has absorbed many internally displaced Christians from Deir az-Zor governorate), the situation is somewhat more complicated, as there is much less propensity to identifying as Arab. Traditionally, Christians in Syria who have not identified as Arabs have had problems with the Ba’athist regime’s lack of acceptance of open expression of non-Arab identity.

The primary competing identities in the east of Syria are Syriac, Aramean and Assyrian, with the common element being the primacy of the use of Syriac in liturgy. There are also some political organizations representing these identity interests, such as the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO) and the Syriac Union Party (SUP).

An additional bolster to the non-Arab identity is the use of the Eastern neo-Aramaic language Turoyo. Observers will have noted the use of Western neo-Aramaic (the nearest relative of the language of Jesus) in the village of Maaloula in Damascus province, but this phenomenon was in fact co-opted by the Assad regime to promote the Arabist narrative.

However, like the inhabitants of Wadi al-Nasara, the Christians in Hasakah province must face the reality that the rebels leading offensives on regime and Kurdish-held territory in the province are primarily of jihadi orientation. The most notable of the groups in operation is ISIS, which has recently consolidated its hold in most rebel-held territory in Hasaah province, having subjugated its two main rivals- Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham- in the north and central areas with nominal pledges of bay’ah to ISIS, besides seizing the southern border locality of al-Markadah from these two groups.

The locality of al-Markadah is strategically important as an entry point into Deir az-Zor province, and so Jabhat al-Nusra has sent up reinforcements from Deir az-Zor province to take al-Markadah, but with no success so far. This reflects the overall strategic stalemate emerging between ISIS and its rivals, whereby ISIS has strengthened its hold on areas where it was previously well-established: namely, Raqqa and Hasakah provinces as well as northeastern Aleppo province.

Coming back to Hasakah province, ISIS does have some real allies among other rebel groups: most notably, according to a local pro-ISIS contact, the various groups in the province going by the name of Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa. I have discussed Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa before in my article on fighting on the Qamishli Front. In early January, even as infighting broke out between ISIS and other rebels elsewhere, at least one Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa grouping was part of a joint offensive with ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham on the Qamishli countryside.

Thus, a key question facing Christians in Hasakah province is: which actor, if any, can guarantee their protection and interests?

Churchblasphemy
Figure 11: Graphic circulated in ISIS circles last summer denouncing churches as houses of blasphemy against God, in contrast to the mosque as a house of monotheism.

LiwaAnsarKhilafa
Figure 12: Logo of Liwa Ansar al-Khilafa for western Aleppo countryside, which has participated in fighting against Kurdish and regime forces in Hasakah province, coordinating with ISIS.

For the SUP, the answer has been to form its own self-defense militias from youth volunteers, cooperating and training where necessary with the Kurdish YPG (some Christians have gone further and simply joined the PYD’s YPG or Asayish police force altogether). This defense militia is known as ‘Sutoro’, and began in the town of al-Qahtaniya following the withdrawal of regime forces, spreading subsequently to the towns of al-Malikiya (from which regime forces also withdrew) and Qamishli by spring 2013. Politically, the SUP sees the PYD as the most viable political force to turn towards, and has accordingly declared support for the PYD’s unilaterally announced autonomous interim administration. Operationally, Sutoro plays a strictly defensive role.

Sutoro
Figure 13: The emblem of Sutoro. Note that the specific Roman spelling ‘Sutoro’ (as opposed to ‘Sootoro’, as we will subsequently see) indicates affiliation with the SUP.

However, in Qamishli, where a regime presence still remained, events took a different course, as over the course of the summer and fall of last year, the Sutoro branch evolved to become Sootoro, taken over by regime loyalists affiliated with the Civil Peace Committee for Syriac Orthodox in Qamishli. This Sootoro, also known as the “Syriac Protection Office,” takes on a strictly defensive role like the SUP Sutoro. However, not only does it have a different emblem from the SUP Sutoro, but the Qamishli Sootoro also claims that the SUP Sutoro to be observed in al-Qahtaniya, al-Hasakah city and al-Malikiya has appropriated its name.

QamishliSootoro
Figure 14: The emblem of the Qamishli Sootoro. Commenting on a query in November 2013 asking about Figure 13, the media office for the Qamishli Sootoro stated: “We have previously issued a statement in which we mentioned and confirmed that we have no connection with any armed faction or office bearing our name outside of the city of Qamishli” (for that statement see the URL in the previous paragraph).

An explicit affirmation of the split between the SUP Sutoro and the Qamishli Sootoro (i.e. where the latter mentioned the SUP by name) came in a statement released at the end of December 2013, in which the following was stated:

“Stories have proliferated recently about the arrival of material support for the Sootoro protection office. We in the Syriac Protection Office of Sootoro are affiliated with the Civil Peace Committee for Syriac Orthodox and the committee is the one that offers us support from a headquarters and mechanics (thanks for their efforts).

But we are suffering from a lack of possibilities as the current ammunition in the office is from collections that have been gathered at the beginning of the crisis. We would like to emphasize that it is possible that wealthy persons have sent us support but it arrived by a mistaken path to ‘Sutoro affiliated with the Syriac Union Party.’

So until this moment nothing has reached us. To offer immediate material support to the Syriac Protection Officer of Sootoro, we have set up a bank account number in Germany and it is in the name of a well-known Syriac working man living in Qamishli.”

This resource shortage has comes in spite of the attempts of multiple declarations by the Qamishli Sootoro to expand beyond Qamishli and set up Sootoro branches in other towns. Besides a statement noted in my previous article on Qamishli, one should also note a “clarification statement” released at the beginning of December 2013 and in the Turoyo language, making it clear that Sootoro does not distinguish between Christians of different sects- whether Chaldean, Assyrian or the like- as all deserve protection; and that this protection will soon be expanded. It should be noted that the statement is in Turoyo, showing that the issue of identity or language suppression feared in past times is quite irrelevant now and the regime can be looked to as a guarantor of Christian interests in the northeast of Syria. For now, however, the Qamishli Sootoro remains confined to its own town and lacks resources for expansion.

Turoyostatement
Figure 15: Clarification statement in Turoyo released by the Qamishli Sootoro in December 2013. Note the regime flag in their office.

QamishliDemo
Figure 16: Pro-regime demonstration in Qamishli on 19th February (h/t: Wladimir Van Wilgenburg). Notice the Qamishli Sootoro flag at the front. The Qamishli Sootoro flags can also be observed in a video of the demonstrations here. This is so despite the official claim of neutrality. Ba’ath flags can also be seen in the video footage.

QamishliStatement
Figure 17: The ADO’s leadership- officially against the regime and opposed to the PYD administration- is affiliated with the opposition-in-exile, and on 19th December 2013, regime forces in Qamishli arrested the head of the ADO’s political office. However, there is disconnect to an extent on the ground between the leadership and members on the ground. In Qamishli, members of the rival Assyrian Democratic Partygenerally seen as pro-regime from the beginning and active since the 1970s- seem to have reached an accommodation with the Qamishli Sootoro and the Civil Peace Committee, both of whom publicized this statement to which it is  a signatory. In this statement, the signatories affirm their belief in the need for the unity of Syria’s land and people; rejection of foreign intervention in all forms [NB: contrary to the opposition-in-exile], belief in the “necessity of peaceful democratic change,” and the rejection of violence and partisanship in all forms [h/t: Hans Scholl for correction; I initially read this as ADO a signatory].

The last main Christian military organization in the northeast to consider is the Syriac Military Council. This body was announced in a video at the beginning of last year, declaring its opposition to the Assad regime and calling for the “liberation of Syria and the fall of the despotic Ba’athist regime and fighting for a just, pluralist, democratic and secular state,” while emphasizing no partisan affiliation and repeatedly stressing the need to defend “our people” with their cultural and historical rights. This goes back to the earlier theme I mentioned of the regime’s traditional non-acceptance of non-Arab-Christian identity. At the time, the Syriac Military Council had the support of the global Syriac Union Party.

SyriacMilitaryCouncil
Figure 18: Emblem of the Syriac Military Council.

However, with the rise of ISIS and other jihadi groups in Hasakah province, it is clear that the Syriac Military Council’s focus has shifted entirely to combating jihadis. Indeed, the group had largely been dormant for much of 2013 but emerged as an active player towards the end of the year, eventually announcing its full joining of the YPG in January 2014. Since then, the Syriac Military Council has not only played a role in defending Christian areas but has also worked with the YPG in its offensives to retake territory from the jihadis.

SyriacStatement
Figure 19: Syriac Military Council statement joining the YPG. The key part to note is: “We have considered the attempt by the extremist takfiri battalions- among them ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and others- to enter the towns and villages in the al-Jazira region to be among the greatest of threats facing the region with all its people of Syriacs, Kurds, Arabs and others, and its aim was not to fight the regime since most of the areas have been freed.” The statement describes the jihadis’ conduct as “far removed from the Islamic religion”: including the “targeting and destruction of churches, taking Christian religious symbols to terrorize the people.” So to unite defense forces fighting the jihadis, the Syriac Military Council joined the YPG.

TelHamees1
Figure 20: Syriac Military Council fighters in Tel Hamees as part of the recent YPG operations against ISIS in the area.

TelHamees2
Figure 21: Another photo of Syriac Military Council fighters in Tel Hamees area.

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Figure 22: Syriac Military Council recruits.

Syriacfighters
Figure 23: Syriac Military Council fighters.

SyriacFlag
Figure 24: Syriac Military Council flag.

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Figure 25: Training exercises for the Syriac Military Council.

Not all Christians in the area look favorably on the Syriac Military Council. Indeed, the group has drawn particular condemnation from pro-regime Christian circles, with regime and Qamishli Sootoro supporters from the town of al-Malikiya releasing a statement in late January condemning the Syriac Military Council for joining the YPG in offensive operations, seeing it as a mere front for the SUP:

“This council was established with the sponsorship of the Syriac Union Party…it is trying to recruit youth with a salary of 20,000 Syrian liras of unknown financial sourcing. This council claims that it was founded to protect Christians in the areas they are found in Hasakah province.

It has recently undertaken to create fitna between Arabs and Christians in Hasakah province by fighting against them in the villages of Tel Hamees despite knowing that the villages of Tel Hamees are solely Arab and there are no Christians or churches found in the area.

As Christian people we totally reject this conduct and it will never represent us since we call for peace and not transgressing on other people’s areas. We protect our regions and resist any attack from foreigners against us but we do not attack others. We as Christian people affirm that this Syriac Military Council will never represent us but it only represents the forces that support it in the Syriac Union Party.”

It is certainly true that SUP members know of the Syriac Military Council’s activities and offered support for the group when it was first established. When the Syriac Military Council re-emerged, an activist for the “Syrian Syriac Union” said in an interview with Iraqi outlet Sumaria News: “The Syriac Military Council began its activities recently in the establishment of a military forces comprising 300 members of both genders. The establishment of the force aims to protect our lands and defend Syriac citizens and the Syriac cause in the al-Jazira region. All members of the force are volunteers, receive professional military training and carry Russian rifles and weapons. The force is affiliated with the Syrian Syriac Union.”

However, it should be noted that the Syrian Syriac Union is not the same as the SUP, as both the head of the SUP and a representative of the European Syriac Union made clear to me that the Syriac Military Council is independent of the SUP.  That said, it is evident that the Syriac Military Council coordinates with the SUP loyalist Sutoro, and the SUP maintains cordial relations with the Syriac Military Council, perhaps even offering some kind of financial support.

Sutorotruck
Figure 26: Syriac Military Council photo featuring a Sutoro truck.


Conclusion

Christian militia and political dynamics in Syria are by no means as simple as notions that all Christians side with the regime or look to the regime as their protector. As we have seen, sect affiliation and geography matter here, and divisions in alignments are particularly sharp in northeastern Syria.

However, one common thread is apparent: the rebel forces on the ground have overwhelmingly failed to attract Christian support for their cause, however many Christians may be in the opposition-in-exile. Christians on the ground look to the regime, Kurds or have formed their own independent groupings generally working with the latter while opposed to the regime, but they have not joined the various FSA-banner formations or other main rebel groupings in significant numbers. One of the biggest failings of the rebels in this regard is the degree to which they have allowed jihadi groups to grow, particularly Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS.

Of these two groups, the former is still the subject of much praise from rebels of all kinds in light of the fighting between ISIS and other rebel groups. Though Jabhat al-Nusra has been hailed as somehow magnanimous towards Christians because it protected the churches in Raqqa following the fall of the city to rebels in March 2013, this narrative is deeply flawed.

As al-Qa’ida envisions it, preventing Christian places of worship from being harmed is to be expected provided Christians accept second-class dhimmi status as accorded by Qur’an 9:29. Even once ISIS came into being in Raqqa, the churches were not harmed for some months. That they were eventually taken over by ISIS and converted into da’wah offices is simply the culmination of the dwindling of the Christian community in the city to negligible size. Indicative of the importance of dhimmi status is the case of Tel Abyad, which saw its Armenian church desecrated by ISIS on the grounds of violation of dhimmi conditions.

Elsewhere, al-Qa’ida’s ideals have not always translated into reality. In Tabqa, the situation was somewhat different, as desecration and looting of Christian property, with the destruction of local churches, began in earnest once rebels including Jabhat al-Nusra took over the city. This happened, it should be noted, before the announcement of ISIS. In any event, Jabhat al-Nusra was also a participant in the Sadad massacre of Christians, and is accused by the Syriac Military Council of being behind the burning down a specific church in Qamishli countryside. Simply blaming any abuses that happen against Christians on ISIS- typically characterized as a foreign-dominated group- is a distortion of the record that diverts attention from the rebels who abetted the rise of the jihadi groups.

MarMalki
Figure 27: Syriac Military Council fighters outside what was the Mar Malki church in Qamishli countryside, said to have been burnt down and desecrated by Jabhat al-Nusra.

Linked to the point on the growth of jihadi groups is another key rebel failing: namely, the obsession with the YPG as a supposed agent of the regime and the desire to take over its areas of control. Whatever the supposed rights or wrongs of the YPG, strategically for the rebels, fighting with the YPG has proven to be merely a waste of resources, particularly on the Hasakah front. Even now, the fighting with the YPG produces an odd cognitive dissonance in the discourse of rebels and pro-FSA-banner activists in particular: namely, despite the fact that ISIS-widely accused by FSA-banner rebels and their supporters of being a regime agent- dominates the rebel front in Hasakah province, there is nonetheless condemnation of the YPG as it makes advances against ISIS, with accusations of the YPG being a regime agent.

Thus did prominent pro-FSA Twitter activist “Jad Bantha” decry the “pro-Assad YPG Kurdish militias” for a supposed “massacre in Tal Barek [Tel Barak].” Unless one wants to suppose an elaborate game devised by the regime to set its agents off against each other, one wonders how it can be claimed, as Bantha constantly tries to insinuate, that ISIS is a regime agent if it is fighting the YPG, a supposed agent of Assad (and indeed, unlike ISIS, the YPG does have a de facto though nebulous territorial accommodation with the regime in Qamishli). Yet this hostility to the YPG extends beyond the realms of social media: one should note the opposition-in-exile’s condemnation of the YPG for the takeover of the border town of Yaroubiya despite the fact that the takeover involved the expulsion of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.

The point is that this enduring rebel hostility to the YPG- when considered along with the growth of the jihadi groups- has prevented the reaching of any kind of cordial understanding with the YPG and the PYD, which in turn might have been able to persuade more Christians in the east of Syria of the validity of the rebel cause. Instead, all that has happened is the boosting of the PYD’s and regime’s status as protectors of Christians.

Thus far, the current attempts in opposition circles to try to counter the regime’s narrative of its being protector of Christians consist of pointing to incidents of regime bombing that have struck Christian areas and led to damage of churches. One example is the bombing of Tel Nasri in Hasakah province in November 2012, which damaged the village church. However, the opposition counter-narrative is ultimately unconvincing and hardly equates to a supposed persecution campaign against Christians by the regime, for the incidents in question are exceptional in nature, and merely reveal that the regime has scant regard for civilian casualties or historical heritage sites when it bombards areas in attempts to flush out rebels. One should compare with the regime’s willingness to bombard the Krek des Chevaliers area to rid it of Jamaat Jund ash-Sham, which uses the site as a base.

Of course there would still be Christians supporting the regime- particularly among the senior clergymen- regardless of whether the rebels strike an accord with the PYD, but to state it more generally, the most sensible policy for rebel groups to pursue would be simply to leave Christian areas alone (just as they should leave Druze areas alone), though given the overall lack of rebel unity and the prominence of jihadi groups, it seems doubtful whether such an approach can be implemented at this stage.

Saudis and CIA agree to Arm Syrian “Moderates” with Advanced Weapons

Saudis and CIA agree to Arm Syrian Moderates with Advanced Anti-aircraft and Anti-tank Weapons
by Joshua Landis

The news that the “Saudis Agree to Provide Syrian Rebels With Mobile Antiaircraft Missiles,” as reported by the Wall Street Journal (article copied below), will change the battle field in Syria.

The newly formed “Southern Front” led by Bashar al-Zoubi, will be the main recipient. The WSJ says Zoubi has a direct line to Western and Arab intelligence agencies in a military operations room in Amman. He will be the primary recipient of these new, more lethal weapons. He went to Geneva for the talks with the Assad regime.

Zoubi was included in my “Syria’s Top Five Insurgent Leaders.” He was #5. That ranking will now likely change. Here is what I wrote about him on Oct. 1, 2013:

5: Bashar Al-Zoubi, the Commander of Liwa al-Yarmouk in the south of Syria around Deraa. The Supreme Military Command (the US backed leadership of the Free Syrian Army) has named him the commander of the Southern Front. He is the only member of this top-five who has not expressed a wish to see an Islamist Syria.

Michael Weiss wrote this of Zoubi in Aug. 2013

Zoubi (aka Abu Fadi) is a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the tourism industry and hails from a clan in Syria that numbers as many as 160,000. (The al-Zoubis are, in fact, transnational, with some residing in Syria and others residing in Jordan, which makes them particularly well-placed as interlocutors between Amman and the opposition in Deraa and Damascus. In a sense, they strongly resemble the Jarba clan, which has retained prominence in both Syria and Saudi Arabia, and whose most recognizable member is the current, Saudi-backed head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba.)

Abu Fadi told me in a Skype interview that he’s got 4-5,000 men under his direct command in the al-Horan region. In total, 30-40,000 troops subscribe to the SMC, albeit without anything like a top-down command-and-control structure. The SMC is effectively a political and coordination apparatus.

I asked Abu Fadi why the south was relatively free of al-Qaeda in comparison with the north. “The only reason folks starting fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra,” he said, “was the lack of any real support to the FSA, weapons and ammunition being delivered to us.” Mostly, the FSA has been successful from Damascus to Deraa because of its integration with local tribes and communities.

video of Zoubi

Jamal Maarouf and the norther Syria Revolutionaries Front

Jamal Maarouf

Jamaal Maarouf is the other commander that the US and Gulf Arabs seem to be betting on. He is presently the commander of the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Norther Syria. This group was made out of remnants of the FSA after Idriss and the Supreme Military Council was expelled from Syria. This is what I wrote about him last Oct.

Jamal Maarouf (Abu Khalid) of Shuhada Souria, Syrian Martyrs’ Brigade, Idlib governate, FSA. Jamal claims to have 18 ,000 fighters between Idlib and Aleppo, but like all troop estimates, this should be taken with a grain of salt. He’s a non-Islamist leader. He is both religious and conservative, but not Ikhwan and not salafi, just not ideological.

Aron Lund wrote this on Dec 13 about Maarouf and his The Syria Revolutionaries’ Front

On December 9, a group of Syrian rebel factions created yet another alliance, called the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (SRF). According to the SRF’s first statement, it includes fourteen different factions….. Some of these groups are well-known and have a strong presence in their local areas, but most seem to have their glory days behind them.

Jamal Maarouf’s Syria Martyrs’ Brigade was also once a formidable force in the Idlib region and a primary recipient of Saudi support. But Maarouf has been widely accused of diverting resources for his own use rather than deploying them to the front lines. Islamist rivals disparage him as a warlord and “a highway robber.” From early 2013, the Syria Martyrs’ Brigade seems to have lost much of its support, and Maarouf’s influence has dwindled.

Ahrar al-Shamal is another very active group in the Idlib region, while Afif Suleiman’s Military Council has long been a foreign-backed player in arms distribution. He, Maarouf, and the Ahrar al-Zawia Brigades have all been viewed as local rivals of the Idlibi Islamist leader Ahmed Abu Issa, whose Suqour al-Sham Brigades have now joined the Islamic Front.

Even if most of these groups are now second-tier actors and the SRF has a strong Idlibi flavor, real unity between them could create a significant force on the ground, especially if backed by strong foreign funding.

Rania Abouzeid wrote this about Jamal Maarouf last month before he was slated to get U.S. assistance:

Maarouf, the most public face of the SRF, has declared war against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a move that has rehabilitated his image in the eyes of those who also describe themselves as FSA. By the end of 2013, he was looking like a spent force. Many of his colleagues had long taken to calling him Jamal Makhlouf, pinning him with the surname of Assad’s cousins who hold business monopolies in the country thanks to nepotistic corruption. Commanders frequently complained that Maarouf was more of a showman and warlord than a fighter, promising to participate in a particular battle, securing the funding for it from sponsors (mainly Saudi Arabia), and then withdrawing soon after the fight began after filming enough footage to upload to YouTube to boast of his group’s participation. It was a common complaint. Now, many of those same men speak with admiration of how Maarouf is personally fighting and how his men are pushing back ISIS with vigour.

Maarouf has always been in Saudi Arabia’s orbit, but to date the Saudis haven’t markedly stepped up their assistance to their people, according to a Syrian weapons distributor responsible for dishing out Saudi state-sponsored guns and money to rebels in the north. The SRF is a natural recipient, as is one of the components of the Islamic Front (IF), the Army of Islam, which is increasingly looked at by other Islamists as a Saudi project to potentially weaken more conservative Islamists.

Maarouf’s second wind, however, hasn’t won him many friends among the more hardcore Islamists, even those who have their quarrels with ISIS, like the IF and Jabhat al-Nusra. “Maarouf won’t live long”, a senior JAN fighter in Turkey said. “Everybody wants his head.”

Hassan Hassan حسن ‏@hhassan140 tweeted this picture. “Ahmed Jarba (bald headed man) tells rebels in Idlib that ‘advanced weapons will now be flowing till we liberate Syria’. Maarouf is the one in military fatigues.”

Yasser Qazoz, head of Liwaa al Jabalen

Jarba traveled to Kansafra, Idlib to visit Maarouf and offer condolences to the family of Yasser Qazoz, the head of Liwaa al Jabalen, a Syria Revolutionaries Front group under Maarouf’s command. Yasser Qazoz was killed by a Jabhat al-Nusra fighter. On January 25th, Yasser explained that he was shot by a neighbor and guest — someone whom he thought was his friend. He died on Febraury 5th.

Hussain Mortada says that the clash between Qazoz and Nusra was provoked by a dispute over divvying up loot plundered from ISIL after kicking it from their area. Ziad Benjamin says that Nusra attacked Qazoz over an insult to God.

Despite the confrontation which might have sparked a broader war between Maarouf and Nusra, their differences were quickly smoothed over. Liwaa al Jabaleen posted a joint statement under the name of both Nusra and the SRF refuting the rumors of a dispute and affirming their brotherhood in God. In the statement they insist that they fight in the same trench and brush aside any differences as a personal dispute that was rapidly resolved the following day.

Jarba’s visit to Idlib and meeting with Jamal Maarouf may have been more than to simply promise him an endless supply of arms. It might have been an attempt to instigate Maarouf against Nusra, the al-Qaida affiliate, which the U.S. and Jarba will eventually demand that he confront.

Will the Islamic Front accuse the new “moderate” groups cooperating with the CIA of being Sahwa?

Western and Arab support for the new groups will not go over well with the Islamic Front, an alliance of conservative, religious rebel factions that recently coalesced as the biggest fighting force in Syria. The Islamic Front is mainly a Qatari-Turkish supported coalition. Saudi Arabia might not be as keen on them as many at first thought. Saudi Arabia does seem to favor Zahran Aloush’s Islam Army, one of the more prominent militias that joined with the Islamic Front in December.

Trying to keep these advanced weapons out of the hands of Islamists will be difficult because everyone works with everyone to some extent – and they need to in order to defeat the Syrian Arab Army.

The new targeted funding will open up bitter feuds among the militias. Those that get Western and Saudi largesse and work closely with Western officials will be accused of becoming Sahwa. It is not known if an Israeli is included in the  operations room in Jordan. The WSJ only had this to say:

The operations room hosts officials from the 11 countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K. Mr. al-Zoubi was also among a select group of rebel commanders who joined the political opposition in Geneva for the latest round of peace talks.

But even if Israel is not represented directly in the room, its influence will be felt. Ehud Ya’ari writes of the “operations room” in Amman where “Jordanian military and intelligence officers coordinate military assistance to local rebel groups alongside Saudi and Western advisors.” He adds, “the Israeli part of the effort should be viewed as complementing but not necessarily coordinated with the Jordanian endeavor.”

All the same, he writes that Israel has developed “a system of communications and frequent contacts have been established with the local rebel militias that operate near the Golan.”

Jordan and Israel share an interest in keeping the region around their borders with Syria friendly and under local supervision. Both are concerned lest Islamists and particularly Jihadist groups become ensconced along their borders.

-End-

Saudis Agree to Provide Syrian Rebels With Mobile Antiaircraft Missiles
U.S. Also Giving Fighters Millions of Dollars for Salaries
By Maria Abi-Habib and Stacy Meichtry
Feb. 14, 2014

AMMAN, Jordan—Washington’s Arab allies, disappointed with Syria peace talks, have agreed to provide rebels there with more sophisticated weaponry, including shoulder-fired missiles that can take down jets, according to Western and Arab diplomats and opposition figures.

Saudi Arabia has offered to give the opposition for the first time Chinese man-portable air defense systems, or Manpads, and antitank guided missiles from Russia, according to an Arab diplomat and several opposition figures with knowledge of the efforts. Saudi officials couldn’t be reached to comment.

The U.S. has long opposed arming rebels with antiaircraft missiles for fear they could fall into the hands of extremists who might use them against the West or commercial airlines. The Saudis have held off supplying them in the past because of U.S. opposition. A senior Obama administration official said Friday that the U.S. objection remains the same. “There hasn’t been a change internally on our view,” the official said.

The U.S. for its part has stepped up financial support, handing over millions of dollars in new aid to pay fighters’ salaries, said rebel commanders who received some of the money. The U.S. wouldn’t comment on any payments.

The focus of the new rebel military push is to retake the southern suburbs of Damascus in hopes of forcing the regime to accept a political resolution to the war by agreeing to a transitional government without President Bashar al-Assad.

But if the Manpads are supplied in the quantities needed, rebels said it could tip the balance in the stalemated war in favor of the opposition. The antiaircraft and Russian Konkurs antitank weapons would help them chip away at the regime’s two big advantages on the battlefield—air power and heavy armor.

“New stuff is arriving imminently,” said a Western diplomat with knowledge of the weapons deliveries.

Rebel commanders and leaders of the Syrian political opposition said they don’t know yet how many of the Manpads and antiaircraft missiles they will get. But they have been told it is a significant amount. The weapons are already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.

Earlier in the conflict, rebels managed to seize a limited number of Manpads from regime forces. But they quickly ran out of the missiles to arm them, the Western diplomat said.

Rebel leaders say they met with U.S. and Saudi intelligence agents, among others, in Jordan on Jan. 30 as the first round of Syrian peace talks in Geneva came to a close. That is when wealthy Gulf States offered the more sophisticated weapons.

At the meeting, U.S. and Gulf officials said they were disappointed with the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss Mr. Assad’s ouster at the talks and suggested a military push was needed to force a political solution to the three-year war.

President Barack Obama this week acknowledged that diplomatic efforts to resolve the Syrian conflict are far from achieving their goals.
“But the situation is fluid and we are continuing to explore every possible avenue,” Mr. Obama said.

The weapons will flow across the border into southern Syria from the warehouses in Jordan and across the northern border from Turkey, the Western diplomat said. Rebel leaders said the shipments to southern Syria are expected to be more substantial because opposition fighters are more unified in that area and there is a lower risk the weapons will fall into the hands of al Qaeda-inspired groups—a big concern for the U.S.

With the rebels still deeply divided and infighting growing, the new aid is aimed squarely at the more moderate and secular rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) that the U.S. has always favored.

The plan coincides with the reorganization of rebel forces in the south, where 10,000 fighters have formed the Southern Front. The new front aims to break the government’s siege of the southern suburbs of Damascus.

Last month, rebels in the north unified into the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, turning their weapons on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the most deadly al Qaeda-inspired rebel faction. The SRF, along with other groups, forced ISIS to retreat from key territories across the north. Both the northern and southern forces are technically under the FSA’s umbrella.

Western and Arab support for the new groups won’t go to the Islamic Front, an alliance of conservative, religious rebel factions that is helping the northern front rebels fight the more radical ISIS.

The Southern Front is under the leadership of Bashar al-Zoubi, who has a direct line to Western and Arab intelligence agencies in a military operations room in Amman, rebels say.

The operations room hosts officials from the 11 countries that form the Friends of Syria group, including the U.S., Saudi Arabia, France and the U.K. Mr. al-Zoubi was also among a select group of rebel commanders who joined the political opposition in Geneva for the latest round of peace talks.

The Southern Front has captured a string of government-held areas and military bases since it launched its first offensive in late January.

But any push toward the capital from the south faces formidable challenges. An arc south of the capital is the domain of the army’s Fourth Division, elite troops led by Maher al-Assad, the president’s brother. Closer to the capital, Syrian forces are fortified by elements of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia from Lebanon.

The regime has been ruthless in snuffing out any hint of escalation by rebels in the south.

“The Saudis and Emiratis at the same meeting said that their priority is to lift the siege on the entire southern area of Damascus,” said an aide to a rebel leader who attended the meeting in Amman on Jan 30. Once we reach this stage, it will become political pressure and Assad will have to listen to the international demands,” the aide said.

At the meeting between leaders of the Southern Front and Western and Arab intelligence agencies last month, rebel leaders said they were given salaries for their fighters and equipment such as military rations and tents.

Rebels said the U.S. spent $3 million on salaries of fighters in the Southern Front, delivering the payments in cash over two meetings in Jordan—one on Jan. 30 and the other late last year.

The opposition will also ask Congress next week for weapons to help rebels fight al Qaeda. That mandate would give the opposition a better shot at securing arms than previous requests for support to topple the regime.

Congressional aides confirmed there are scheduled meetings with opposition leaders next week to discuss their request for more advanced weapons. But Congress remains sharply divided about the conflict in Syria. Some lawmakers favor stepped-up support to moderate opposition groups, but others question the wisdom of providing heavy weapons.

“We’re trying to assure the international community that they can support moderates without the threat of arms falling into the hands of al Qaeda,” said Oubai Shahbandar, a senior adviser to the Syrian opposition.

—Sam Dagher and Suha Ma’ayeh contributed to this article.

“Inter-Rebel Fighting Enters a New Phase as Salafists Declare Open War on ISIS,” by Daniel Abdallah

Inter-Rebel Fighting Enters a New Phase as Salafists Declare Open War on ISIS
by Daniel Abdallah
for Syria Comment, February 14, 2014

Three days ago, the inter-rebel fighting entered a new phase.  For the first time, Salafist factions have openly publicised their attack on the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham and the feircest battles have moved from the Northwest to the East of Syria. Ahrar ash-Sham (AS) and Jabhat an-Nusra (JN) – al-Qaeda’s official branch in Syria – are officially at war with ISIS. The recent fighting spans many governorates, but two – Deir az-Zour and al-Hasakah – have seen the most intense fighting between ISIS and JN/AS. Concurrent attacks on ISIS have taken place in rural Aleppo and Raqqa on a smaller scale, perhaps to take advantage of ISIS’s vulnerability because it was preoccupied in the East.

Although there were previous direct engagements between AS and JN, on the one hand, and ISIS, on the other, they were never at such scale, never so exacerbated, at least, as will be shortly explained, from the AS and JN side. The most well-known precedent took place in the days leading to 12th January 2014 – the date on which Raqqa fell into the sole control of ISIS. ISIS had been surrounded in the gubernatorial palace by AS from the West and by JN from the East, and the outcome of the battle looked all but certain. Quite unexpectedly, JN fighters were informed on their radios by ISIS to ‘surrender or withdraw because AS have left the battle field and you are on your own’.[1] For ideological reasons, AS fighters had decided not to participate in the fitna (civil discord among Muslims) and to avoid having the blood of their ‘brothers’ on their hands. They, however, were not rewarded for their attempt to remain neutral. They were captured and executed by a different ISIS force outside Raqqa, although ISIS had initially agreed to grant them safe passage.[2]

The infighting under discussion had its origin in a dispute over the control of the Konicko oil field in Khasham, Deir az-Zour. Cottage-industry methods of refining crude oil have become a profitable source of cash for rebels and tribesmen alike in the ‘liberated’ areas of North Eastern Syria.[3] The oil field was originally under the control of tribes who had pledged allegiance to ISIS, but the Common Islamic Court (Hay’a Shari’a) in Deir az-Zour – largely under the influence of JN, as they readily admit – decided to unseat those tribes and put the field under its direct control on 14th November 2014. ‘It is unacceptable that a small group should be allowed to control the common wealth of the Umma [the wider Islamic society], and in such an unorganised manner that led to electricity being cut off for many days leading to the death of innocent children and the spoilage of food and medical supplies’, it cited as reasons.[4] On 2nd February 2014 the Bu Jamel and the Bakeer tribes – allied with JN and ISIS respectively – entered into a row that resulted in ISIS retaking control of the field, and a few other facilities.[5] On 7th February, JN issued a statement intended as a stern warning to ISIS and as comment on what happened.[6] ‘ISIS has shocked us by taking control of some vital facilities in Dair az-Zour, which were under the control of the Hay’a Shari’a […] cutting supply routes to the soldiers of Islam who are standing at the frontlines inside the city and, at the same time, separating them from their strategic depth in the Deir az-Zour governorate’, they claimed. For ‘strategic depth’, read “disturbing cash flow” – the Konicko field, under rebel control, has been reported to generate $330,000 a day.[7] They further say that, once the field was in their hands, they had to give a cut to the local ISIS commander because, he insisted, he had ‘intended to liberate it’ before JN. Although JN admits the guards they had put in charge of Konicko had defected to ISIS, they say this does not give ISIS the right to retake it. JN relate that such actions are to be expected from people like ISIS, their commander had, after all, stolen $5 million from JN. JN, then, find no other way to describe ISIS’ actions than baghi (injustice), which Islamic theology allows retaliation to. ‘Either give back what you have wrongfully taken to those to whom it belongs’ or, stand warned, we have men who are ready to ‘counter your aggression and stop your injustice’.[8]

JN’s threats appeared credible. On the next day (8th February), they started shelling ISIS positions all over Deir az-Zour, the reports also mentioned that AS and other factions were collaborating with JN in this effort.[9] JN put ISIS’ biggest headquarters in Deir az-Zour – their centre near the salt mines of at-Tibni – under siege.[10] A scholar in JN tweeted that ‘there is only slaughter for those transgressors [ISIS]’.[11] One time JN enemies, the Busaraya local clan from the Masrab village joined the fight on JN’s side.[12] JN, however, said that no men from Masrab were fighting with it.[13] By the end of the day, JN and the Islamic Front (of which AS are members) had overtaken al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border,[14] and could count the ISIS military commander in Deir az-Zour – Abu Dujana the Libyan – among the casualties.[15]

According to Aaron Zelin’s analysis, during the first stage of the infighting ISIS was able to reconquer most of the territory it was almost driven out of and exercise sole control over it by, among other things, securing localised ceasefires and, while exploiting this and the hesitation of Salafist factions to fight them, thereby allocating resources where they were most needed.[16] ISIS may have tried to use the same tactic in this phase but, so far, its efforts appear to have been unsuccessful. They were able to secure a ceasefire with JN in Mouhasen,[17] and there were reports that they had called for reinforcements from Raqqa and Aleppo.[18]

The second day of fighting witnessed considerable escalation, ISIS detonated a car packed with explosives in the oil market in Sabha.[19] The car set off from the Jafra oil field, which ISIS controlled, and was reportedly headed to a JN checkpoint in al-Busaira. However, it was stopped in as-Sabha by one of the market guards. The guard asked the driver to get out of the car but he told him he was a suicide bomber and asked him to let him pass as this was not the area he wanted to blow up. The guard attempted to force him to get out of the car, but the suicide bomber ended up detonating the explosives killing 22 people, six of whom were children.[20]  In a different incident, JN was reported to have executed 20 ISIS members.[21]

The same day (9th February) ISIS issued a statement about the events in Deir az-Zour.[22] It said JN had wronged ISIS before: by not joining ISIS when it was formed, by collaborating with Sahawat (a pejorative reference to AS) against it in Raqqa and, now, by seeking ‘revenge’ on ISIS whose peaceful efforts to ‘correct the path of Sahawat and counter their aggression’, ‘being careful not to spill any blood’ had caused, so ISIS claimed, many JN fighter to defect and join ISIS.[23] It also explained that JN were now collaborating with “Sahawat” again in this fight, which include: Liwa al-Ahwaz, AS and Liwa Ja’far at-Tayyar (part, with AS, of the Islamic Front), and with the ‘criminals of the Masrab village’. It identified the ISIS positions which had been shelled and fired upon with tanks by JN and its allies as: at-Tibni, Ma’dan, Mintaqat al-Jadeed and al-Jafra – where JN had reportedly executed 20 ISIS members. The statement ended with a threat.

ISIS, the next day (10th February), withdrew from all their positions in Deir az-Zour,[24] except for their centre at the Tibni salt mines.[25] Casualty reports in the ISIS camp ranged from 20 to 50.[26] The day also witnessed JN blowing up the ISIS communication centre in Deir az-Zour.[27]

While JN, AS et al where enjoying these tactical advances on ISIS in Deir az-Zour; concurrently, it was ISIS who was on the advance, against these very same groups, in al-Hasaka. A local media activists informs me that there had been a tactical alliance between all these factions when they were fighting the YPG in rural Hasaka – the alliance had even been codified into an ‘official’ agreement between ISIS and AS, as will be shortly explained.[28] Once they had been able to drive the YPG out of Tal Barak and Tal Hamees, however, ISIS turned on its allies forcing many, according to the AS narrative, to pledge allegiance to it. By 9th February, ISIS had emerged as the sole power in Tal Barak, Tal Hamees and al-Hool in rural Hasaka.[29] Both AS and JN released statements about the events in rural al-Hasaka. AS claimed that they have a recording in which ISIS scholars deem AS members infidels (kuffar) because they are ‘in league with other infidels since they refrain from publicly showing any animosity toward them’.[30] This is a reference to the West and to regional powers all of whom ISIS considers infidels. They said they were going to release the recording later. According to the statement, on 6th February ISIS took a ‘treacherous stab’ at AS – attacking AS centres all over Hasaka, stealing money and weapons, and capturing fighters and forcing them to pledge allegiance to ISIS. All this happened despite an earlier official agreement between the two parties ‘not to fight and to concentrate on fighting the regime and its allies in the area’. The agreement opened with the phrase: ‘we swear to Allah the Great that we shall not raise our arms in the face of our brothers or each other or any factions that fight the regime’. For the above reasons AS considers that agreement null and void and that the ISIS are a ‘treacherous and betraying group’. The JN statement talks of ISIS capturing JN fighters in Shaddadi, al-Hasaka and killing their soldier Abu Ishaak al-Mashhadani, in ‘cold blood’.

During the same period, perhaps to take advantage of ISIS involvement in the East, there were sporadic attacks on it in the Northern West. In Tal Abiadh, Jabhat Tahreer al-Furat al-Islamiya managed to capture 3 ISIS fighters, for example.[31] In ar-Raqqa, there were reports of an AS suicide bomber detonating himself in an ISIS stronghold killing 11 ISIS members, although the report is of questionable accuracy.[32] ISIS was also engaged in al-Ula and Tal Shheer in rural Aleppo[33], and the result was al-Ula slipping out of its hands.[34] A local contact in Jarablus (Northern rural Aleppo) informed me that the ISIS contingent stationed there had partially blown up the bridge, over the Euphrates, connecting Jarablus with ash-Shuyoukh and Ain al-Arab further to the East, to fend off an imminent attack by brigades loyal to Liwa’ al-Tawheed (part of the Islamic Front).[35] He sent this photo in which one can see the damaged Western end of the bridge:

ISIS has now been expelled from one the most economically important regions (because of the oil) for the armed groups, which might impact it in a too insignificant way. Can this stage be read as a prelude to a wider engagement between JN and AS and ISIS? For JN, AS and the Islamic Front in general fighting ISIS in Deir az-Zour has been an epiphenomenon brought about by local conditions, rather than a key concern grounded in a central strategy. Similar conditions exist in Hasaka, but unless these groups are able to mobilise a sufficient force to counter ISIS locally, it is unlikely that they would move contingents from the much more important region of Deir az-Zour. The presence of the YPG might be an important local factor forcing unity, however uneasy, and working to preclude the possibility of wider conflict à la Deir az-Zour. Conditions that could allow for the justification of escalation in Raqqa, on the one hand, and the will to mobilise a force large enough to do so by JN and the IF, on the other, are lacking. The strategy used by ISIS’ ideological siblings (AS and JN) to justify attacks on it has been centred around using local grievances caused by ISIS, that are fresh in memory, and frame their attacks as fights for justice – not, and this is important, as attempts to defeat ISIS or cause it to cease to exist as such. This framework currently remains inapplicable to Raqqa, which is, also, much less economically significant than Deir az-Zour or Hasaka. There is a moderate possibility for further escalation in rural Aleppo, because the region is under a much more heterogeneous form of control and different factions, with different loyalties, co-exist in close proximity to one another.

Could ISIS retaliate and regain its positions in Deir az-Zour? As noted above, in the first stage of the infighting, ISIS was able to make advances by capitalising on local ceasefires to divert resources to the front lines. In this stage, such possibilities seem to have been exhausted. Retaking Deir az-Zour, now, requires ISIS to gather troops from its strongholds such as Raqqa or Eastern rural Aleppo, leaving these areas vulnerable to local take overs. Although this is an embarrassing defeat for ISIS, fighting all other militias combined in Deir az-Zour may turn into a significant threat to its ability to control large territories. They might opt out, instead, for small scale operations, sabotage and suicide bombings to destabilise the area for the other factions, and try to frame this as a tactical victory.

What about Assad? Assad is still capable of marketing himself as a potential partner in fighting ‘terrorism’, for although the rebels are attacking ISIS, something he is not doing, they are in close cooperation with JN – al-Qaeda’s official branch, which the US deems a terrorist organisation.

The overall situation in the inter-rebel war is highly atomised, with a mixture of small scale victories and losses throughout the country. This characterisation is likely to remain true, as not only the infighting between the rebels but the Syrian Civil War in general have proven to be governed by reverse hierarchies of conditions where the local governs the global, rather than the other way around.

[23] Jabhat an-Nusra was originally an unofficial branch of the Islamic State in Iraq. After a while, Baghdadi – leader of the ISI – annulled JN and declared the creation of the ISIS. Jawlani – leader of JN – did not accept, said he was not consulted and appealed to the authority of Ayman az-Zawahiri – head of Al-Qaeda Central, who ruled in his favour. It recently turned out, however, that neither the ISI, nor the ISIS, were under the authority of Zawahiri as they were not part of al-Qaeda.
The Sahwa (awakening) movement started in Iraq when local tribes collaborated with the US army to fight al-Qaeda. ISIS uses the term pejoratively to refer to groups who fight it.

[28] The YPG (Yekîneyên Parastina Gel, the People’s Protection Units) are a largely Kurdish group that is considered to be the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (although they deny this). They have been clashing with different rebel factions in an attempt to keep Kurdish-majority areas neutral and to establish a nascent order as the basis of a future federal, some would say independent, Kurdish region in North-eastern Syria.

[35] He gave the names of the specific brigades as: Ahrar al-Qubba (Tawheed), Ansar ash-Sharia (Liwa’ al-Islam), ash-Shaheed Juma’a al-Jader (Tawheed), and ath-Thaher Beibars (Tawheed). They are all part of the Islamic Front.

“Syria, Iraq and Lebanon: the new Af-Pak,” by Anno Bunnik

Anno Bunnik

Syria, Iraq and Lebanon: the new Af-Pak
By Anno Bunnik
for Syria Comment, Feb 13, 2014

Developments in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon are so deeply intertwined that we might start speaking about these countries in similar terms as we talk about “Af-Pak.”

In less than a decade, pro-Iranian forces have entrenched themselves in Damascus and seized near absolute power in neighbouring Baghdad and Beirut. The structural marginalisation of the Sunnis in Iraq and Lebanon is splitting these communities as evident from the rise of Jihadi groups. This is the context of Syrian conflict.

Three years after the Arab uprising the “Syrian revolution” is dead and to label it the “Syrian conflict” would not entirely be right either. Due to its entanglement with existing political and sectarian divisions in Iraq and Lebanon the war is no longer strictly confined to Syria: the region is witnessing the emergence of a single theatre of war in what we could call the SIL region.

Some would argue this is solely the consequence of a spill-over of the Syrian conflict into neighbouring states but that is too simplistic. After all, the consequences of the war are totally different to its other neighbours Turkey, Jordan and Israel. They too feel the burden (notably Jordan, in terms of refugees) but their fate is far less dependent on developments in Aleppo and Damascus.

The social fabric of society and the political alignments in Iraq and Lebanon, however, follow very similar fault lines as is the case in Syria. The SIL region faces a shared predicament: fragile state institutions, growing Sunni marginalisation and, consequently, the rise of al Qaeda affiliated (or originated) groups that increasingly operate irrespective of national borders. As a result, domestic politics in all three countries is no isolated affair.

The Iranian belt of influence stretches from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean Sea. But this hegemonic position is increasingly under threat by Jihadi groups such as Jabhat al Nusra (JN), Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), Abdullah Azzam Brigades (AAB) and Jabhat al Nusra in Lebanon (JNL).

The majority of Sunnis still support moderate political parties, such as Saad Hariri’s Future Movement and the Iraqi Islamic Party, which operate within the democratic system but with little success. The longer those parties are shunned from the centres of power the more attractive the Jihadi alternative will become.

The old adage is at play here: if one cannot achieve participation through non-violent means, violence becomes a credible and legitimate alternative to some. It should therefore come as no surprise that the opposition is becoming increasingly militarised.

The violent response to the power grab of pro-Iranian forces over the state apparatus and its security forces is twofold: Shiite neighbourhoods and state institutions have become a legitimate target for the various Jihadi groups. In addition to the surge in anti-Shia terrorism, the region is witnessing an increase in attacks on the Iraqi and Lebanese Armed Forces, which are perceived to be tools of Iran.

In Lebanon, the radicalisation of the Sunni citizenry (over a quarter of the population) can be traced back to Hezbollah’s gradual take-over of the Lebanese state. Through its omnipresent threat of violence and assassination of top Sunni figures, it has manoeuvred itself as the most powerful political party in Lebanese politics

Meanwhile opposition leader and former Prime Minister Saad Hariri has not set foot in Lebanon in two years over fears of facing the same fate as his late father. With Hariri out of touch with his constituency, local hardliners, such as sheikh Assir in Sidon and Sheikh Houssam al-Sabbagh in Tripoli, seized the opportunity to present themselves as alternative resistance figures against Hezbollah.

Hassan Nasrallah has de facto pushed Hariri out of politics and is now finding himself having to deal with al Qaeda instead, as evident from the regular car bomb attacks in the Hezbollah strongholds South Beirut and Hermel. Like their “brothers” in Baghdad, Lebanese Shiites have now become one of the main victims of Jihadi terrorism.

Iraq’s political mess is strikingly similar. Nouri al-Maliki has championed Shia politics within the Iraqi political system and has increasingly marginalised the Sunni population whilst not shying away from sectarianism. Al-Maliki framed the battle with ISIS “a fierce confrontation between the supporters of Hussain and the supporters of Yazid”, a reference to the battle of Karbala in 680 which is a key event in Shia identity and tradition. Meanwhile, numerous pictures emerged on social media of Iraqi soldiers carrying Shia flags and symbols.

Similar to Lebanese Sunni dilemma, Iraqi Sunnis are also forced to choose between mainstream political parties that have little influence and radical groups that offer violent resistance against the Shia-dominated state apparatus. For groups such as ISIS this provides fertile ground for mobilisation of new recruits. Al Maliki’s sectarianism reinforces their message that the Shiites have taken over the country.

2014 was not even a week old and ISIS has already engaged in heavy fighting with rebels in Syria, detonated a deadly car bomb in Beirut and attacked Iraqi-government troops in Ramadi and Falluja. ISIS is more active and controls more land than al Qaeda Central in over two decades. ISIS’ cross-border activities, and the emergence of a Jabhat al Nusra faction in Lebanon, are clear indicators of the rise of Jihadi networks in the SIL region.

The take-over of the Syrian, Iraqi and Lebanese state by pro-Iranian forces paints a complex and dark picture for the future. If the Sunnis continue to be excluded from decision-making, more and more young men will opt for the black flag of al Qaeda instead. This is the shared predicament that Syria, Iraq and Lebanon face.

*Anno Bunnik is a PhD Fellow at the Centre for Applied Research in Security Innovation at Liverpool Hope University. He blogs on www.eurabist.com and can be found on Twitter @Eurabist

1picBeirut 2012, anti Hezbullah protesters after the assassination of Wissam al Hassan. Photo: Anno Bunnik

Aftermath of car bomb in Hebzollah stronghold, January 2014. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images