Newly-elected to the Syrian National Coalition, Sheikh Mohammad al-Yaqoubi is moderate, influential, and ready to go to work
From the beginning of the uprising, mainstream Syrian Sunni ‘ulema—the traditional scholars who have spoken for Islam for centuries and who most Syrians recognize as the quintessential voices for religious interpretation—have been marginalized in the Syrian opposition, as Islamists of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood persuasion steamrolled their way to dominance in both the SNC and the National Coalition. But an emerging Sufi current within the Syrian resistance could soon provide an alternative to Muslim Brotherhood hegemony and change the dynamics of the political opposition.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi has just been elected to the National Coalition, the first figure of the Sufi ‘ulema to break through the Islamist exclusivity that has kept them out until now. His appointment will be announced shortly at a National Coalition conference. Along with other Sufi sheikhs, al-Ya’qoubi is heading up efforts to solidify a Sufi bloc of political leadership and nationalist-oriented rebel groups fighting in Syria who give allegiance to the leadership of Sufi ‘ulema. He also supports efforts to train Syrian rebels in Jordan.
Early on in the uprising, the Muslim Brotherhood worked to dominate the political opposition. The SNC primarily consisted of parties loyal to the Muslim Brotherhood. The National Coalition was later created to break this one-sided disparity, but ended up being dominated by others with Muslim Brotherhood connections, as well.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi
While this was the reality of the external opposition, an imbalance also formed on the ground inside Syria, as Islamist rebels received more foreign support and rose to prominence. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi feels that the U.S. made the mistake of “leaving of the ‘Syrian file’ to the regional powers,” which allowed this trend to intensify as Gulf powers targeted Islamist groups with their aid. Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been primarily involved in arming rebels, but the Saudis recently pulled back their level of support. They have an ambivalent relationship with Islamist movements; on the one hand, they support the proliferation of one of the most extreme and anti-Sufi forms of Islam, Wahhabism, throughout the Muslim world. Simultaneously, they fear Islamist movements such as the MB who pose a political threat to monarchy. As the character of the militarized opposition has evolved increasingly toward Islamism, with a recent climax of Jabhat al-Nusra announcing allegiance to al-Qaida and declaring an Islamic state in Syria, reports suggested that the Saudis decided to cut off support they had been offering.
Declining aid, however, has ironically resulted in the end of much of the support that nationalist-oriented rebels were receiving, and many rebels have complained that the remaining contributions from Qatar are reaching only the Islamist fighters. Continuing trends solidifying Islamist domination of both the political and military oppositions have further weakened the desire of the international community for intervention in Syria, though the fact that several regions are now controlled by al-Qaida-linked groups has prompted some to call for the preparation of a drone strategy for Syria, prompting fears that it will end up looking like another Afghanistan.
Sheikh Muhammad al-Ya’qoubi’s entrance into the political opposition marks a development running counter to the dominant Islamist trend. Al-Ya’qoubi is respected as one of the leading scholars and Sufi clerics in Syria, and has been ranked as the second-most influential Muslim religious figure of the country. The brand of Islam he represents is expressed in a statement of sympathy he issued following the Boston Bombing. He studied in the West and is fluent in English and Swedish.
Traditional ‘ulema like Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi served for centuries as the interpreters of Islamic sources and traditions, but after the fall of the last Islamic empire, the process of modernization that accompanied the rise of the nation state presented a challenge to their role of traditional authority. The erosion of their power was further aggravated by the emergence of Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood who introduced new interpretations of Islamic texts, contrary to the classical traditions that had existed for centuries.
Under the Ba’athists, some of Syria’s ‘ulema became seen as coopted figures who stayed close to the regime and lent it legitimacy. Others however, remained at arm’s length from the regime, and when the uprising began, they asserted their criticism of it, as did Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi. In addition to his widespread recognition among Syria’s majority Sunni Muslims, his credibility is bolstered by being the cleric who issued the first fatwa against Bashar al-Assad, in July of 2011.
After publically criticizing the regime’s violence against demonstrators in two sermons delivered at mosques in April and May 2011, he fled Syria and issued his fatwa against the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi represents the kind of moderate, traditional Islam that most Syrians are familiar with, the Islam challenged by both the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafists. Though taking an unambiguous stance against the regime’s violence, injustice, and terror, he also continues to exert his influence encouraging rebels to avoid terrorism through fatwas condemning tactics such as car-bombings, kidnapping, landmines, the killing of prisoners, and violence against non-combatants politically aligned with the regime. Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi has combatted the fatwas of extremist clerics who have called for the targeted sectarian killing of Alawite women and children by issuing his own fatwas prohibiting the killing of civilians of the Alawite minority. He maintains a very clear position defending the rights of all minorities, including those condemned by extremists as heterodox.
Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi also differs with the Islamist agenda to “Islamize” Syria’s laws. The Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist groups promote a kind of activism that seeks to implement a greater degree of Islamic law in the state. The growing use of “Islamic law” by Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in territory controlled by rebels likely prompted the announcement by Mu’az al-Khatib of an effort to introduce a “code” of Islamic law sanctioned by the opposition that the rebels could implement—an apparent attempt to assuage this desire manifesting in a stampede toward “shari’a” while ensuring that such a law would be relatively moderate. Where does Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi stand on this issue? He thinks Syria’s current family laws are just fine, and are already sufficiently compatible with the shari’a. He also believes that legal reform should not be pursued before a constitutionally-based committee can be formed which would tackle any needed changes, after the regime has fallen and a new Syrian government has been created.
Despite being well-known in Syria and playing an important role in the history of the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi ‘ulema like him have been excluded from the political opposition. Desperation following the slow, groaning crisis of the opposition’s ineffectiveness, as well as fears that figures like al-Ya’qoubi may band together and form an alternative opposition have led to his appointment to the National Coalition, following a letter he drafted to Mu’az al-Khatib, signed by 25 Sufi sheikhs and containing an ultimatum about the need for their participation in the political process.
One obvious question is: what level of real influence will the Sheikh have? Does his participation mark the beginning of a trend, or will he merely be the NC’s token member of the ‘ulema?
In addition to having already played an important role throughout the uprising, Sheikh al-Ya’qoubi and other Sufi leaders have been building influence lately, working together for about six months to form an umbrella organization for rebel groups comprised of Sunnis and Sufis aligned with Syria’s mainstream values, rather than Islamist agendas. The organization is called the Movement for Building Civilization. He and his peers have produced a charter document which rebels groups can sign, pledging agreement with a set of foundational principles, including:
Removing the regime while not destroying the state—protecting public institutions;
The rejection of revenge, retaliation, and execution during the uprising, keeping the trials of war criminals for after the collapse of the regime and the establishment of a new government;
After the collapse of the regime, rebel groups should cease to carry arms and their members should return to civilian life or join the national army;
All ethnic and religious communities are to be defended as equal citizens under the law;
No ethnic or religious group is to be held responsible for the crimes of the regime;
A future Syrian government must operate according to a separation of judicial, legislative, and executive powers;
The future government must be a democracy of political multiplicity and the 1950 Constitution should be in effect during the interim period until a new parliament is elected and a new constitution is agreed upon.
Many young sheikhs who joined the Syrian uprising are frustrated with their lack of options regarding conservative political movements to be aligned with. The three main options are Salafis, Hezb al-Tahrir, and Muslim Brotherhood movements, none of which well-represent mainstream Syrian Sunnis who look for the legitimacy of ‘ulema leadership. This concern was a primary motivation for the creation of the Movement for Building Civilization. Al-Ya’qoubi and the sheikhs he works with are in contact with over 200 rebel groups who consult them regarding principles, goals, and methods, but many of these groups are disillusioned with the inability of the Sufi and ‘ulema leadership to offer them any kind of practical monetary support. Lacking funding, groups that would like to follow moderate figures of the ‘ulema will remain vulnerable to recruitment by Islamist forces.
The formation of a Sufi bloc within the opposition could provide an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood, one that would represent far greater numbers of Syrians. Sheikh Ya’qoubi has stated that he supports a government in which the Muslim Brotherhood can operate, but that he opposes a monopoly of any one faction. He told me in a recent conversation: “We may have to deal with an Ikhwaani prime minister in the future Syria. That is democracy. But the real question is: will the government be of all one color, or will it be inclusive?”
There’s no question about which demographic will win this war: the next power in Syria will be Sunni. And the question goes beyond “how big” a Sunni win will occur. The real question is: which Sunni group’s brand of Islam will define the political paradigm of the new state? The influence of ‘ulema who respect Syria’s diversity, promote a tolerant social sphere, and support an inclusive government structure will be extremely important in the nation’s future, and the international community should be in conversation with them.
Addendum: see the following post for an update on how Yaqoubi, though confirmed as a new member of the NC, subsequently had his appointment reversed at an opposition conference in Istanbul.
There’s been some very interesting reports about conflicts within Jabhat al-Nosra, the salafi-jihadi rebel group that has been designated an al-Qaida-connected terrorist organization by the USA and several other countries.
If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:
In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).
In sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.
Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site.
After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.
He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.
The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership.
Writing for Reuters, Mariam Karouny has a much more spectacular take on what is going on. She also quotes people in and close to Jabhat al-Nosra, as well as some rivals to the group.
The narrative that emerges is one of a full-blown split within the group, threatening to unravel the Syrian al-Qaida network. According to this version, Jabhat al-Nosra is now torn between the adherents of Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his Iraqi counterpart and self-styled superior, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
In this version, the ISIS project is going ahead despite Abu Mohammed’s objections, and has already incorporated a significant chunk of Jabhat al-Nosra’s organization. Abu Bakr is said to have moved into the Aleppo region to rally his own adherents, while fighters loyal to Abu Mohammed refuse to submit to his dictates or surrender the Jabhat al-Nosra brand. Karouny quotes a Nosra source close to Abu Mohammed al-Joulani as trying to minimize the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and saying that it came about in an “attempt by [Abu Mohammed al-Joulani] to keep his distance from Baghdadi.” According to another Nosra source quoted in the article, ”The situation has changed a lot. Baghdadi’s men are working but Nusra is not working formally anymore”.
If this is true, we’re talking about a Fukushima-level ideological meltdown in one of Syria’s most important rebel groups.
ISIS vs. Jabhat al-Nosra?
Phil Spencer in the Daily Telegraph makes a similar claim, based on Aleppo sources outside of Jabhat al-Nosra, and says that its fighters are withdrawing from the Aleppo frontlines. An opposition activist in Raqqa is cited by the AFP. He makes the same case, depicting an Iraqi takeover that is being resisted by a rump faction of Jabhat al-Nosra:
The activist said that in Raqa, even within jihadists’ ranks there is division.
“The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria is becoming more powerful than al-Nusra Front in some areas,” he said.
He said the [Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham] had tried to bring the jihadist al-Nusra Front under its full control, but could not.
“Now they are two groups, competing against each other for influence,” said the activist, who is well-informed on political developments in rebel-held areas.
al-Manara al-Beida clams up
Meanwhile, Jabhat al-Nosra’s only approved source of public communications, the online media organization al-Manara al-Beida, has fallen silent since the April 10 release by Abu Mohammed al-Joulani. The ISI’s media wing, al-Furqan, is also out of commission since the April 9 statement by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. (I’m thankful to Aaron Zelin, who helped me check this. His invaluable site Jihadology provides a full list of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI statements in PDF format, drawn from the main jihadi web forums.)
Jihadi communications can be very irregular indeed, for all sorts of reasons, but the total shutdown of both these media offices simultaneously is such a striking coincidence that of course it is no coincidence. al-Manara al-Beida used to publish a batch of field reports about their (oh! glorious!) victories almost weekly, with occasional video releases and the odd media statement in between. But now, when it seems they would be most eager to explain what is going on, there’s been nothing but ghastly silence for a month and a half.
The only thing we’ve heard from Jabhat al-Nosra since April 10 has come through unofficial channels, like leaders speaking to the media, contrary to their own stated policy. There’s also been two statements purportedly from Jabhat al-Nosra’s section in the Deraa region, published on May 7 and May 22. But they didn’t arrive through al-Manara al-Beida. The Deraa statements aren’t reporting attacks either. Rather, they are an odd-sounding laundry list of complaints and sharia rulings about stuff that the Deraa jihadis are fed up with, such as people spreading rumors, fence-sitting Druze people, out-of-control salafi clerics posing as Jabhat al-Nosra representatives, swindlers scamming jihadis for money, and low-quality recruits from Jordan. As if fighting Assad wasn’t enough! But they include nothing directly related to the al-Qaida brouhaha.
Confusion all around
In the absence of any clarification from the actors themselves, nobody seems sure about what is actually going on. Does ISIS exist? Has there been a split in Jabhat al-Nosra? If so, is it between Abu Mohammed al-Joulani and his locally recruited followers, who take issue with his declaration of allegiance to Zawahiri? Or is it between Abu Mohammed and the Iraqi emir Abu Bakr, who has mounted an internal coup against his leadership? And to whom would Zawahiri give his blessing, as supreme commander of al-Qaida?
Maybe it isn’t a nation-wide Syrian split, but a division which plays out differently in different parts of the organization? Maybe it’s just a little local rebellion? Or maybe it’s a huge deal, and the undertow from an ISI thrust into Syria will seep back across the border, and onwards through the global Qaida network?
Maybe. Maybe! Or maybe this is all a simple misunderstanding, a little communications mishap which will be sorted out once the three leaders involved – Abu Mohammed al-Joulani of Jabhat al-Nosra, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of the ISI, and Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaida’s general command – have decided on the proper language for a joint statement.
Despite the fact that both the Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI media wings seem to have been knocked out cold by the April 9-10 controversy, the fighters themselves are still soldiering on. Some Jabhat al-Nosra members are said to have died in the battle in al-Quseir just the other day. And bombs are still going off at an impressive pace in Iraq, leaving little doubt that ISI is still around. Meanwhile, a thin trickle of videotapes in the ISIS name has started to show up online, although not through “official” channels, making it doubtful what or who they really represent. (On the fine Brown Moses blog, Aymenn Al Tamimi writes a guest post about this.)
So what to make of it? Oh, I have no idea. And my guess is that no one else does either, despite the tsunami of speculative hypotheses that is already starting to build at the far end of the Internet.
As far as I’m concerned, the only thing we can assume with a reasonable degree of certainty is that (1) the contradictory statements, and (2) the sudden interruption of Jabhat al-Nosra and ISI communications, and (3) the flood of reports about internal discontent and splits is means that there actually is or has been a significant internal disagreement between two or more of these Qaida factions.
And whatever it is, because of (2) and (3), they will now have to deal with rumors and hostile propaganda too. Even if they’ve now sorted it all out, they have a serious public relations crisis on their hands. That’s no small matter in a situation as media-driven as the Syrian conflict.
Perhaps we will now simply get a statement setting the record straight by affirming that Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI either have or haven’t merged into ISIS. And if so, maybe they’ll shutter al-Manara al-Beida and al-Furqan and present a new media wing for them both, explaining the long silence.
If, on the other hand, there are indeed irreconcileable differences between two or more of the players involved, then I guess there will be several statements, which will make for very interesting reading. Zawahiri should have the final word, but he’s off in Pakistan somewhere, and who knows how long he can keep his Mashreqi lieutenants in line after they’ve outgrown him politically and militarily.
At some point we’ll certainly know more about what’s happening, and then we can start to draw conclusions. But right now, we don’t, and we can’t. So let’s just sit here and listen to the eerie silence of al-Manara al-Beida – the sound of one of the worst Syrian communication gaffes since March 30, 2011.
The documentary series follows a family of Syrian refugees over the course of a year, from their arrival to Za’atari camp in Jordan in December 2012. Selim and Leila were farmers in Der’aa, southwest Syria, until the day their village was shelled by government forces and they decided to leave the country. After a terrifying nighttime journey on foot through government-held territory, escorted by the Free Syrian Army, Selim, Leila and their eight children arrived in Za’atari, a sprawling tented camp which is now home to more than 110,000 refugees.
The series provides an intimate view of their struggles to adjust to camp life and the traumatic effects of the conflict back home, as well as the pressure felt by Selim to return and join the rebellion.
Do the Massacres in Bayda and Banyas Portend Ethnic Cleansing to Create an Alawite State? by Joshua Landis, Syria Comment, May 13, 2013
Map showing the cities of Latakia – Baniyas – Tartus on the Syrian coast
This question is taken up in two thoughtful articles by Hassan Hassan and Michael Young. Hassan Hassan argues that “sectarian cleansing is not being conducted for the purpose of establishing a potential state, but rather for other strategic purposes, including recruitment of Alawi fighters, deepening sectarian tensions in Assad’s favor, and ensuring a popular base of support,” (see Elizabeth O’Bagy). Michael Young sees them as a possible prelude to what may be coming if the Alawites begin to lose, but for the time being, he suggests that “ethnic cleansing” may not have been the intended result, but the massacres did serve as a shot across the bow of the Sunni population of the coast. (see extended quotes below).
Turkey’s Foreign Minister Davutoglu claimed that Syria’s army has begun ethnically cleansing Banyas because it is losing elsewhere in the country. But Assad’s forces are not losing. According to both Liz Sly of the Washington Post and Reuters reports Assad’s forces are gaining ground in Syria, at least for the time being. This can only be cold comfort to the Sunnis along the coast who speak of their fear of ethnic cleansing.
The fighting in al-Bayda began when a bus carrying pro-regime militants, or Shabiha, was attacked, by rebel militiamen, killing at least seven and wounding more than 30, according to activists quoted by DPA. After the rebels attacked a bus, the village became “the scene of fierce fighting between the army and rebel battalions.” The brutality of the shabiha revenge on both al-Bayda and Banyas was depicted in a series of photos and videos that even by the standards of this war were shocking. The religious passions that have now colored every aspect of this fight ran out of control.
How likely is ethnic cleansing along the coast?
The likelihood of ethnic cleansing in the coastal regions is high. It will rise even higher should Assad’s troops begin to lose. The Sunni populations of the coastal cities will be the first to be targeted by Assad’s military, if it is pushed out of Damascus. Should the Alawites be compelled to fall back to the predominantly Alawite region of the mountains stretching along the western seaboard of Syria, the Sunnis of the coastal cities and eastern plan will be the first to suffer. Should Sunni militias, which are perched only kilometers from Latakia, penetrate to the city itself, Alawites may turn against the region’s Sunnis fearing that they become a fifth column. There are many precedents for this sort of defensive ethnic cleansing in the region. Zionist forces in Israel, cleared Palestinian villages of their inhabitants in 1948, rather than leave them behind Israeli lines. Armenians were driven out of Eastern Anatolia by Turks and Kurds, who claimed self-defense in their struggle against Russia in WWI. The Greek Orthodox Anatolians were driven out of Anatolia following the defeat of Greek forces which sought to conquer Anatolia in the early 1920s in an effort to resurrect the Byzantine Empire.
The Sunni cities of the Syrian coast — Latakia, Jeble, Banyas, and Tartous — had no Alawite inhabitants in the 1920s, when the French began taking censuses in Syria. Certainly, Alawite, servant girls, day laborers and peddlers may have worked in the cities, but they were alien to them. Sunnis and Alawites did not live together in any Syrian town of over 200 people, according to Jacques Weulersse, the French academic who published the most thorough and reliable study of the Alawites, Le pays des Alaouites, in 1940. Their demographic segregation was profound. The deep mistrust and hostility that separated the two communities was caused largely by religious differences. Alawites see themselves as the truest Muslims, who possess secret knowledge of God. Sunnis view Alawites to be not Muslim at all, and indeed, not even People of the Book. The many prejudices that were suppressed or attenuated during the modern national era have now reemerged and threaten to divide the two populations anew.
During the modern era, Alawites came down out of their mountain villages, migrating to the cities. Today, most of the coastal cities are only half Sunni because of the growth of Alawite neighborhoods and migration. But that population is new. Most is no older than 60 years and much of it is much newer. The same is true for Damascus, where in 1945 only 400 Alawites were recorded to be living in the capital.
An abandoned kitchen in Salma village situated in the Latakia Province (Warren Allott)
Ethnic cleansing may turn against the Alawites, as easily as it may against Sunnis. If Sunni militias win in their struggle against the regime and penetrate into the Alawite Mountains, Alawites will flee before them, rather than be vanquished. This has already been the case in six Alawite villages north of Latakia. When rebel militias entered the towns, the Alawite families hastily grabbed their possession and fled, leaving dinners on the kitchen table. Not a soul was left in them. In all likelihood, they will run to Lebanon, which is no further than an hour’s drive, The border is open.
Western policy planners have gamed out these possibilities, making them reluctant to arm rebel militias for a total victory. Although opposition leaders plead for more and better weapons to bring them a speedy victory, Western leaders have held back. The fear that three million Alawites could flee into Lebanon, destabilizing the country for decades, undoubtedly plays a role in Western reticence. This sort of population transfer could be as disruptive to the region, as was the expulsion of Palestinians in 1948. Just as the Palestinians have not been permitted to return to their ancestral land, neither, in all probability, would the Alawites.
The fear of ethnic cleansing has increased among all populations of Syria and with good reason. Sunnis claim today that the regime is effectively trying to clear many areas of its Sunni inhabitants. One only has to look at the overwhelmingly Sunni population of the refugee camps in Turkey and Jordan to see the reason for these claims. The Assad regime has devastated whole urban neighborhoods.
The strong possibility of ethnic cleansing means that foreign sponsors of both sides are proceeding with caution. If Assad’s forces are pushed out of Damascus and toward the Alawite Mountains, they could ethnically cleanse the Sunni inhabitants of the coast. If rebel militias penetrate into the Mountain villages, Alawites would almost certainly be cleansed, if they did not simply up and flee to Lebanon.
If Assad reasserts his control over rebel held parts of Syria, large populations of Sunnis would likewise flee. They would fear ruthless retribution and possible massacres.
For this reason, Western powers are searching for a political solution. It is hard to imagine the politics of compromise prevailing in Syria any time soon. Both sides remain convinced of their rectitude and eventual victory. All the same, it is not impossible that a new ethnic balance will eventually emerge in the years, if not months, ahead.
Much depends on whether rebel forces are able to unify their ranks. Their weakness is their profound fragmentation. Much too depends on external powers and their willingness to arm and finance their Syrian allies. Most Western and even some Middle Eastern leaders seem to be growing resigned to the necessity of a political solution, even as their rhetoric remains highly partisan. Erdogan, despite his bluster, seems poised to distance himself ever so slightly from Syria’s rebels. He is eager to allay Kurdish and Shiite discontent within Turkey, just as he fears any real head-butting contest with Russia and Iran over Syria.
Doha, too, seems to have hit the pause button, but continues to supply salafist militias, according to some. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait are withholding arms from radical Islamist groups which have been the most effective fighters. When the Syrian rebellion first broke out, many western pundits urged Obama to intervene if for no other reason than to seize the opportunity to eliminate Iranian influence in Syria and to crush Hizbullah in Lebanon. But to do so, would necessitate defeating the Shiite population so completely as to make it vulnerable to ethnic cleansing. What is more, the US is perhaps wiser to allow a regional balance of power to emerge between Shiites and Sunnis. If the US presses down on the scales of power too dramatically in one direction, as it did in Iraq, bad things can happen. Because the Sunnis in Iraq were so thoroughly purged from state institutions and driven from positions of authority, they have gone on the warpath and remain radicalized. What is more, the US will withdraw, causing the balance of power to swing back toward a balance reflecting regional power arrangements. Better for America not to intervene itself, but to work through regional allies. In the case of Syria, these allies are Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel. They have more permanent interests in Syria and will balance Iran and Iraq out of necessity, rather than out of some momentary fit of anxiety or altruism.
Mihrac Ural, sometimes called Ali Kyali, who has emerged as a leading Shabiha leader.
Key to the heightened fear of Sunnis along the coast, is the growth and power of the Shabiha, or Alawite militias, which have been adopting a raw religious and increasingly Alawite nationalist rhetoric. No one stands out among the Shabiha leaders more than Mihrac Ural, or as he is often called, Ali Kyali, of late. He is a Turkish Alawite who fled Turkey around 1981 and was given Syrian citizenship by Hafiz al-Assad. He is credited to have introduced Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK leader, to the Assads and to have married a secretary of Rifaat al-Assad. The PKK’s first conference took place on Syrian territory in July 1981. Turkish authorities are accusing Ural of masterminding the recent bombing in Reyhanli, Turkey. He is in all likelihood, the leader of the Banyas incident as well.
In this video recorded a few days before the Banyas massacre, Mihrac Ural explains why Banyas is key to the defense of the coastal region and must be cleaned of rebel combatants.
“Banias is the only route for these traitors to the sea,” he says in this video. “Jableh, due to the national forces surrounding it, cannot become a pathway or a coastal headquarters for the enemy. But Banias could, and the whole game in Banias is playing out based on this calculation.”
It is necessary, as soon as possible, to surround Banias, and I mean (someone in audience says “cleanse [tathir] sir”)…surround Banias and start the cleansing….
…The title of the Syrian Resistance is the “cleansing and liberation”, these two. We do not have any political or governing ambitions, as long as the state exists and the governing power exists. We don’t interfere in criminal or civilian matters…..
…The aim of the Syrian Resistance is the liberation of the country (watan) and if we’re needed within this week, we will join the battles in Banias and perform our patriotic duty. Everyone will see how the Syrian Resistance fights.
We fought from Amani, Kassab to Nabii Al Mir…Point 45, Qastal Al Maath, Al Mazraa. Mafraq Al Saraya, Al Mafrqah Al Bassit, Al Arjaa, Al Maydan, Bayt Fares, Al Rawda, Markaz Al Hataab, Borj Al Shaqra, Bayt Hnayn and I was ambushed in Bayt Hnayn along with my comrades and I’m still injured from that ambush. [These villages are situated to the north of Latakia]
Within this line (the cities he just listed), this is the front-line that’s always on fire. The Syrian resistance fought in all these places and collected realistic information from the enemy on the ground. It taught them a lesson. The resistance gave 27 martyrs.
Our plan has always been attack, attack, attack. Those who ask us “OK, so you entered the village, who’s going to hold it”, it doesn’t matter, our job is to cleanse and liberate and its up to the army to hold the ground, when the time comes when the army can’t hold the ground, then it will be a different story, and the Syrian Resistance will have to take additional measures….
You need to pay attention to the story of Banias, the only route from these traitors to the sea. It should be surrounded, liberated and cleansed as soon as possible, and al salam alikum.
Ali Kyali, or Mihrac Ural, the leader(secretary general) of a group calling itself The Popular Front for the Liberation of the Sanjak of Alexandretta – They call themselves The Syrian Resistance. It seems to be composed mainly of Syrian and Turkish Alawites and may have had some connection to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This is their official Facebook page. This was the link to the original version of the video shown above. It is posted to the groups Facebook page, but the video was removed after it went viral on the internet, dated May 2nd, 2013. Here is the google cache version of the page showing the video posting. And here’s a picture of the original posting in case the Google cache page expires
Ali Kyali speech about Banias – Original Facebook posting
Another video posted on their Facebook page shows a visit from a liberated Palestinian prisoner presenting a gift to Kyali as a token of appreciation on behalf of the the Palestinian Liberation front. Kyali is fluent in Turkish.
The importance of religion to Kayali who poses with Alawite religious leaders and defends Alawite religious shrines.
A photo album published on the group Facebook page, on April 29 ,2013, shows what they claim to be the aftermath of their liberation of Kherbet Solas in the mountains above Latakia. Some of the pictures show a Alawite shrine of Saydna al-Khidr that the group claims to have liberated and cleansed from rebel forces. One picture shows shows parts of the shrine destroyed.
Destroyed Alawite Shrine of Saydna al-Khidr
The sheikh sitting next to the speaker in the video above is sheikh Mouwafaq Ghazal, a confounder of the Alawite Islamic council in Syria and in Diaspora. This is his facebook page and this an interview in Arabic, in which he talks about the history of his organization. Here is Mihrac’s facebook page. Look at his many photos for a quick overview of his history and friends.
Mihrac’s Turkish terrorism
According to “Terrorism, 1992 – 1995: A Chronology of Events and a Selectively Annotated Bibliography By Edward F. Mickolus, Mihrac Ural had become leader of the outlawed Turkish People’s Liberation Party Acilcier Organization. The group espouses a Marxist-Leninist ideology and holds an anti-U.S., anti-NATO position. It considers that the Turkish government is under the control of Western imperialism. He seeks to destroy this control by both violent and democratic means. The DHKP-C splinter group called Acilciler, or “Urgent Ones,” has about 500 members and operates from Syria under the name of the “Hatay Liberation Army.” Mihrac’s past connections to the Kurdish Marxist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), is discussed here as well as his possible connection to the US embassy bombing in Turkey. He is now a wanted man and has $100k bounty on his head.
Mihrac Ural is not an out and out Alawite nationalist. He is loyal to the rhetoric of Arab nationalism and defers to the “Syrian Army.” All the same, Turkish Alawites have a particular sensibility. They have not been imbued with Arab nationalist ideology and retain a less self-conscious connection to their religion and traditions. A number of my Turkish Alawite friends have a much deeper knowledge of Alawite religion than do my Syrian Alawite friends. Most Syrian Alawites have internalized the Syrian, Arab nationalism of the regime, such that they deny Alawite nationalist ambitions vehemently. They also cling to the notion that they are good Muslims, rejecting any notion that they believe in Ali as the supreme creator or have a separate religion. Most Turkish Alawites have fewer qualms along these lines. Some have turned away from religion altogether, embracing the secularism of Kemalism, but others have turned inward and embraced Alawite religion as a wellspring of their identity. This makes the emergence of Mihrac Ural particularly interesting. He embraces Alawitism, is proud to sit with Alawite religious sheikhs in his photos, and to defend religious shrines. Some of his photos show him sitting in front of a large library of books and are designed to depict him as a man of wisdom and deep learning. Turkish Alawites may play an important role in leading their Syrian coreligionists toward Alawite nationalism. If so, Mihrac Ural is a man to watch. There is no doubt that he speaks the assurance of a leader on a mission if not a prophet. The original Alawite founder of the Baath Party – Zaki Arsuzi – was from Alexandretta (Hatay). His conversion to Arabism was shaped by Turkey’s takeover of his region. It would be ironic if a Turkish Alawite led the spiritual and possibly nationalist awakening of the Alawites.
[End - Personal News]
I will be traveling in Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for the next six weeks and may not be able to post. Matt Barber, the Syria Video team, and Aron Lund will be able to keep posting on Syria Comment, although not frequently.
The recent carnage in the Syrian coastal city of Banias over the weekend, among the most grisly in the country’s two-year-long conflict, offers lessons into the grim calculations of Bashar Al Assad. Read Article
Although Assad has attempted to consolidate the Alawites behind him and to fortify his position in the northern Alawi coastal mountains and Tal Kalakh in the south, conditions on the ground contradict assertions that Assad is creating an Alawi rump state…..
in a video posted on YouTube, the leader of an Alawi militia in the coastal region, along with an Alawi religious leader, discusses plans to “cleanse Baniyas of the traitors.”
….If the Alawites ever decide to create a rump state, one of their objectives will be to ensure that Sunnis do not challenge this plan. That means Sunnis must either be terrorised into silence or, in the worst case, forced out of coastal areas. The Baniyas and Bayda killings, while extraordinarily brutal, seemed primarily designed to achieve the first aim. Thousands of Sunnis reportedly left the city in fear, but appeared to be heading toward other coastal cities, namely Tartous, south of Baniyas, and Jableh, to its north.
However, the massacres were a reminder that worse may come, especially if the regime makes headway in Homs and Qusayr, allowing it to seal a major Sunni evacuation route. Sunnis in the north-east increasingly feel isolated from their brethren elsewhere in Syria. That is how the regime wants it. The Sunnis’ sense of vulnerability will make them more reluctant to side with the rebellion, and their presence as potential hostages will make Mr Al Assad’s enemies think twice before mounting military operations in coastal areas.
This may be the best the Assad regime can hope to achieve, since wholesale ethnic cleansing would be a major endeavour. There is still a significant Sunni population in coastal cities such as Tartous and Latakiya, and in the latter, Sunnis form a majority. Even if they were driven out for some reason, the consequences could be disastrous for the city itself, which would lose not only a large portion of its population, but many of its most dynamic economic actors…..Mr Al Assad has no plans to abandon Damascus. However, we are witnessing a consolidation of the Alawite statehood option as a fallback position. The Syrian conflict is entering a new phase, where long-term territorial plans and alliances are taking shape. And the ensuing violence can only increase as the stakes become higher.
Recent violence against Sunni communities in Syria’s coastal region raises new concern over sectarianism in Syria. It also suggests to some that Assad will move to form an Alawi state. In fact, these events are perpetrated to demonstrate force and to drive a sectarian narrative that strengthens Assad’s base. Assad’s support in Qardaha has weakened, an influx of internally displaced persons has transfigured the coastal region, and there are opportunities to exploit these fluctuations in Assad’s position there.
Askari said he doubted there would be a new civil war because Sunnis know how much they lost in the sectarian conflict during the U.S. occupation.
“Without the American Army, no single Sunni could have stayed in Baghdad. They would have been cleansed,” he said. “Now there are no Americans. If sectarian war ignited, for sure they would lose Baghdad and most of the other provinces.”
All that would be left is their stronghold, Anbar province, Askari said, where Al Qaeda would gain strength and terrorize the Sunni population.
Quote of the Day
“Moral certainty is always a sign of cultural inferiority. The more uncivilized the man, the surer he is that he knows precisely what is right and what is wrong. All human progress, even in morals, has been the work of men who have doubted the current moral values, not of men who have whooped them up and tried to enforce them. The truly civilized man is always skeptical and tolerant.”― H.L. Mencken
Those urging the U.S. to intervene in Syria are certain of one thing: If we had intervened sooner, things would be better in that war-torn country. Had the Obama Administration gotten involved earlier, there would be less instability and fewer killings. We would not be seeing, in John McCain’s words of April 28, “atrocities that are on a scale that we have not seen in a long, long time.”
In fact, we have seen atrocities much worse than those in Syria very recently, in Iraq under U.S. occupation only few years ago. From 2003 to 2012, despite there being as many as 180,000 American and allied troops in Iraq, somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000 Iraqi civilians died and about 1.5 million fled the country. Jihadi groups flourished in Iraq, and al-Qaeda had a huge presence there. The U.S. was about as actively engaged in Iraq as is possible, and yet more terrible things happened there than in Syria. Why?
The point here is not to make comparisons among atrocities. The situation in Syria is much like that in Iraq–and bears little resemblance to that in Libya–so we can learn a lot from our experience there. Joshua Landis, the leading scholar on Syria, points out that it is the last of the three countries of the Levant where minority regimes have been challenged by the majority. In Lebanon, the Christian elite were displaced through a bloody civil war that started in the 1970s and lasted 15 years. In Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military quickly displaced the Sunni elite, handing the country over to the Shi’ites–but the Sunnis have fought back ferociously for almost a decade. Sectarian killings persist in Iraq to this day.
Syria is following a similar pattern. the country has a Sunni majority. The regime is Alawite, a Shi’ite subsect that makes up 12% of the population, but it also draws some support from other minorities–Druze, Armenians and others–who worry about their fate in a majoritarian Syria. These fears might be justified. Consider what has happened to the Christians of Iraq. There were as many as 1.4 million of them before the Iraq war. There are now about 500,000, and many of their churches have been destroyed. Christian life in Iraq, which has survived since the days of the Bible, is in real danger of being extinguished by the current regime in Baghdad.
All the features of Syria’s civil war that are supposedly the result of U.S. nonintervention also appeared in Iraq despite America’s massive intervention there. In Iraq under U.S. occupation, many Sunni groups banded together with jihadi forces from the outside; some even broke bread with al-Qaeda. Shi’ite militias got support from Iran. Both sides employed tactics that were brutal beyond belief–putting electric drills through people’s heads, burning others alive and dumping still breathing victims into mass graves.
These struggles get vicious for a reason: the stakes are very high. The minority regime fights to the end because it fears for its life once out of power. The Sunnis of Iraq fought–even against the mighty American military–because they knew that life under the Shi’ites would be ugly, as it has proved to be. The Alawites in Syria will fight even harder because they are a smaller minority and have further to fall.
Would U.S. intervention–no-fly zones, arms, aid to the opposition forces–make things better? It depends on what one means by better. It would certainly intensify the civil war. It would also make the regime of Bashar Assad more desperate. Perhaps Assad has already used chemical weapons; with his back against the wall, he might use them on a larger scale. As for external instability, Landis points out that if U.S. intervention tipped the balance against the Alawites, they might flee Syria into Lebanon, destabilizing that country for decades. Again, this pattern is not unprecedented. Large numbers on the losing side have fled wars in the Middle East, from Palestinians in 1948 to Iraq’s Sunnis in the past decade.
If the objective is actually to reduce the atrocities and minimize potential instability, the key will be a political settlement that gives each side an assurance that it has a place in the new Syria. That was never achieved in Iraq, which is why, despite U.S. troops and arms and influence, the situation turned into a violent free-for-all. If some kind of political pact can be reached, there’s hope for Syria. If it cannot, U.S. assistance to the rebels or even direct military intervention won’t change much: Syria will follow the pattern of Lebanon and Iraq–a long, bloody civil war. And America will be in the middle of it.
“Then we’ll have done all we can.”“Very heartless.”“It’s safer to be heartless than mindless. History is the triumph of the heartless over the mindless.”Yes, Prime Minister.
President Barack Obama, it is said, has painted himself into a corner with his repeated statements that the use of chemical weapons by the Assad government will be a “game changer” or cross a “red line.” The difficulty of definitions has produced what must have been one of the most ambiguous letters ever to be put on White House stationery. It came as a response to a demand from two US Senators about presidential policy in the event of such weapons use.
More accurately, however, the president can be said to have painted himself into a corner with Syria on two occasions, initially as early as August 2011, and repeated since, by declaring that “Assad must go.”
Of course, Assad has not gone, thus demonstrating once again the first rule of being US President: never call for something, especially in a simple declaratory sentence, if you are not prepared to follow through and make it happen.
This recitation is not meant to be an attack on the US president. It is an introduction to what has to be a genuine dilemma, indeed, a series of dilemmas, which come in several forms.
The first dilemma regards the potentiality of a positive outcome in Syria. Assad and company are engaged in the massive slaughter of their own people, which, along with those killed by the rebels, numbers more than 70,000 by a recent (likely conservative) count, plus the creation of more than a million refugees. There is meanwhile no resolution in sight of what has become a full-scale civil war.
Let us assume that Assad is killed (or decides to seek a safe haven) tomorrow. What then? It is a vast stretch of the imagination to believe that the killing would then stop.
What is happening in Syria is radically different from what happened in the so-called “Arab spring” in Tunisia, Egypt, or even Libya. This is not primarily a matter of whether a leader who stayed too long and was too repressive will go; but whether a particular minority will continue to be able to dominate the rest of the population, or, with “regime change,” whether there will be a bloody free-for-all competition for power. None of the other three regime changes were about that.
More relevant is what happened in Iraq, when the US and partners, by invading in 2003, overturned centuries of admittedly unjust domination of a majority (Shi’ite) by a minority (Sunni). Or what is happening, or rather not happening, in Bahrain, where the situation is just the reverse but has been kept in check by military power, much of which has been applied by neighboring Saudi Arabia, with the US, concerned about its base in Bahrain for the Fifth Fleet, at best “turning a blind eye.”
It’s therefore hard to see what the United States, or any combination of outsiders, could usefully do — not to help overthrow Assad and his Alawite-dominated military (that can be done) — but to help “shape” a future in Syria that won’t lead to even more bloody chaos before something approaching “stability” could ensue. Even if that were possible, it would likely take the form of a new suppression, but by the majority (Sunni) over various minorities.
The second dilemma — perhaps it should be first — is related to whether the American people are ready and willing to see the US engaged in yet another Middle East war. The answer (“No”) is clear, but so far policy is not — hence the dilemma.
There should be no indulgence in the nonsense that all could be accomplished by providing more lethal arms to the rebels, imposing a no-fly zone, or using air power directly. That would be relatively sterile in today’s military taxology, but even if/when successful, it leads back to the first dilemma. And if unsuccessful, the US would then be called upon to do what, in current jargon, is called “boots on the ground” — that is, invasion. There should be no nonsense, however, about the US being able, as in Libya, to “lead from behind.” Even though the British and the French (the latter was the former mandatory power in Syria after World War I) would like to see something done, they are this time ready to hold the US coat, but not lead themselves.
To his credit, the president so far has been wary of getting more deeply engaged, presumably due to a combination of his awareness of the two dilemmas above, the second of which (US public opinion), if ignored, would surely take attention away from what he clearly sees as his legacy: repairs to the heavily-damaged US economy (and the global financial system) and his historical goal, which can be summarized in a few simple words: the promotion of equality in American society.
The third dilemma derives from the manner in which the conflict in Syria began. It did have domestic roots (as in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya), but it also had external causes and active agents, notably a desire by leading Sunni states (Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and to a lesser degree, Turkey) to right the informal and rough regional “balance of power” between them and Shi’a states that was so heavily upset by the US invasion of Iraq. This came after the spread of the “disease” from revolutionary Shi’a Iran had both been almost entirely contained in the region and had most of its fires banked at home. Some Sunni states still fear contagion, however, notably Saudi Arabia, where oil lands are heavily concentrated in Shi’a territories (hence Riyadh’s desire to get rid of the Alawite rule in Syria).
So here it is: an already slow-rolling civil war across the region, pitting Sunnis versus Shi’as, but only in part about religion, is also about competitions for power. In this case, it’s an essentially four-cornered competition among Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Turkey, the first three of which have as much to do in fueling the current confrontation with Iran as does its nuclear program.
Would the overthrow of the Assad regime cause this regional civil war to intensify? Or would it lead to a new, informal balance among religious groupings that would be reasonably “stable,” whatever that means in today’s roiling Middle East? It would take a Dr. Pangloss to argue the case for stability over more competition and even less stability and predictability about the future of inter-state relations and internal developments.
Dilemma number four flows from the above. As the civil war has continued and intensified, Sunni Islamist militants, including elements of al-Qaeda, Wahhabis and Salafists, have increasingly become engaged. That should be no surprise. These groups batten on conflict, especially a conflict with intense emotion and deep-seated religious inspiration. Thus even with Assad gone — perhaps by magic wand tomorrow — would the outcome of the civil war be ruled by a Sunni strongman, pacifying the country by force? Or solidification of another base for continuing terrorist operations by some of our and our allies’ worst enemies?….
Pickering has been working on a plan to offer a way forward. This would include dropping the precondition that required Assad step down for talks to begin — an idea Kerry embraced this week — an immediate humanitarian ceasefire across Syria, and a U.N.-brokered election process that would lead toward a transitional government.
While all sides note that there are no good answers and no easy solutions, Pickering notes that slow diplomatic action has not increased America’s odds of finding the best outcome among a slew of difficult options.
“I think we have tended to put the diplomatic side aside as in the ‘too hard’ category,” Pickering says. “We need to move this fairly soon or we are going to lose the opposition — certainly the al Qaedization of the opposition has been fairly serious and the fractionation of the opposition is very large.”
On the other hand, those who’ve seen the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan from a front-row diplomatic seat say caution is the better part of policy prudence when it comes to Syria.
“There are no good options here and the pressure is growing to do something because that is what we do, we do things,” says former Amb. Ryan Crocker, who served as ambassadors to both Iraq and Syria and now is a senior fellow at Yale University. ” But everything of significance I can think of doing is likely to make the situation worse, not better and put us in a worse position, not a better one.” In Crocker’s view, the stalemate with the Russians at the United Nations regarding more concerted action has actually benefited America.
“The Russians are actually doing us a favor and I don’t think they are actually going to come off it because they see a rebel victory as deeply destabilizing for the region and particularly for them,” Crocker says. “I hope they go on blocking any Security Council action because if you get an ‘all necessary measures’ resolution, then you are in a very exposed position if you don’t use all necessary means.”
What Crocker does favor, however, is more humanitarian aid and non-lethal support, and greater backing for the Syrian opposition,which gathered this week in Istanbul, in the effort to come up with a vision for a post-Assad political transition.
Crocker, however, rejects the idea that Syria is simply Iraq in a different form. He cites the willingness of the Assad regime to wage war by any means necessary as among the key differences, meaning more weapons for the opposition will not necessarily lead to less fighting.
“They have been training, equipping, and organizing for this for a very long time,” he says of Assad’s forces. “They have got the weaponry, they are ruthless and they know what the alternatives are. Whatever you say about them, they will stand and fight and you did not have that situation with a government in either Bosnia or Iraq.” ….
“Broader regional fighting could bring the U.S. and Iran into direct conflict, a potentially major military undertaking for the U.S. A U.S.-Iran confrontation linked to the Syrian crisis could spread the area of conflict even to Afghanistan. Russia would benefit from America’s being bogged down again in the Middle East. China would resent U.S. destabilization of the region because Beijing needs stable access to energy from the Middle East.
To minimize these potential consequences, U.S. military intervention would have to achieve a decisive outcome relatively quickly through the application of overwhelming force. That would require direct Turkish involvement, which seems unlikely given Turkey’s internal difficulties, particularly its tenuous relations with its substantial Kurdish minority.
The various schemes that have been proposed for a kind of tiddlywinks intervention from around the edges of the conflict-no-fly zones, bombing Damascus and so forth-would simply make the situation worse. None of the proposals would result in an outcome strategically beneficial for the U.S. On the contrary, they would produce a more complex, undefined slide into the worst-case scenario. The only solution is to seek Russia’s and China’s support for U.N.-sponsored elections in which, with luck, Assad might be “persuaded” not to participate.”
The struggle for Syria
Op-Ed – LATimes
Any military intervention by the U.S. would only exacerbate the conflict.
By Majid Rafizadeh, May 7, 2013
My cousin, Ramez, was dead before the echoes of the gunshot that killed him stopped ringing. His 4-year-old daughter, Zeynab, watched him fall on a narrow street in Damascus, but she never heard the shot because she is deaf. She held onto his lifeless hand until a second bullet tore into her chest. She survived.
I tell this story to make it clear that my family and I have experienced the civil war firsthand. Ramez was just one of several family members who lost their lives in the battle against Bashar Assad’s police state. My mother, sister and brother, alongside millions of other war-torn Syrian refugees, were forced to flee to Lebanon and then on to Baghdad.
But despite the seriousness and severity of the situation, I don’t believe that the United States should intervene militarily in Syria. Any direct or indirect intervention by the U.S. would exacerbate Syria’s internal conflict and increase the number of people being displaced and killed.
As you contemplate the ongoing violence in Syria, here are the three things to keep in mind.
First, the United States undoubtedly possesses the wherewithal to topple the regime of Bashar Assad. On this score, the hawks are surely right. Whether acting alone, with allies, or through proxies, Washington over the past decade or so has demonstrated an impressive capacity to overthrow governments. Skeptical? Consider the fate of various evil-doers on whom we trained our gun-sights in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.
Second, once Washington has removed Assad as it did Saddam Hussein, the likelihood of the United States being able to put things right — creating a “new” Syria that is stable, humane, and grateful for American assistance — is approximately nil. Here the evidence supports the doves. Skeptical? Again, consider the course of events in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya once the evil-doers departed the scene.
These two points define the poles around which the policy debate in Washington incessantly revolves. In one camp are those who are fired by humanitarian concerns or persuaded that Assad threatens US (or Israeli) security. They are keen to put American muscle once more to work, and chastise President Obama for his reluctance to act. In the second camp are those wary of the United States once again stumbling into a quagmire. They commend Obama for (thus far) exercising restraint, fearing that American meddling will create more problems than it will solve.
This debate overlooks the third point, which obviates the first two: Whatever Obama does or doesn’t do about Syria won’t affect the larger trajectory of events. Except to Syrians, the fate of Syria per se doesn’t matter any more than the fate of Latvia or Laos. The context within which the upheaval there is occurring — what preceded it and what it portends — matters a great deal. Yet on this score, Washington is manifestly clueless and powerles
History possesses a remarkable capacity to confound. Right when the path ahead appears clear — remember when the end of the Cold War seemed to herald a new age of harmony? — it makes a U-turn. The Syrian civil war provides only the latest indication that one such radical reversal is occurring before our very eyes. For Syria bears further witness to the ongoing disintegration of the modern Middle East and the reemergence of an assertive Islamic world, a development likely to define the 21st century.
Recall that the modern Middle East is a relatively recent creation. It emerged from the wreckage of World War I, the handiwork of cynical and devious European imperialists. As European (and especially British) power declined after World War II, the United States, playing the role of willing patsy, assumed responsibility for propping up this misbegotten product of European venality — a dubious inheritance, if there ever was one.
Now it’s all coming undone. Today, from the Maghreb to Pakistan, the order created by the West to serve Western interests is succumbing to an assault mounted from within. Who are the assailants? People intent on exercising that right to self-determination that President Woodrow Wilson bequeathed to the world nearly 100 years ago. What these multitudes are seeking remains to be seen. But they don’t want and won’t countenance outside interference.
Anyone fancying that the United States can forestall this quest for self-determination should think again. Anyone who thinks Washington can bend the process to suit our own purposes needs to undertake a remedial study of the Iraq War.
Americans have long entertained the conceit that we are bigger than history. We provide the drumbeat to which others march. Sorry: Not so.
By way of comparison, think of those stories about the sea encroaching on some Nantucket or Plum Island home. Those immediately affected might delude themselves into thinking that a bit of sand replenishment will save the day. Grown-ups know better. Ultimately, the winds and tides, reinforced of late by climate change, will have their way.
So too with the Greater Middle East. Pressure on Obama to “do something” about Syria continues to mount. Perhaps he’ll refuse. I hope so. Or perhaps he’ll cave, with Syria becoming yet another active theater in what has become America’s endless War To Be Named Later. One thing is certain: US intervention in Syria won’t affect the tsunami of change that is engulfing the Islamic world.
….The remarkable thing about this drawn-out fight, now entering its third year, is the passivity of the United States. A region of traditional American influence has been left to fend for itself.
Of course, these sectarian enmities do not lend themselves to an outsider’s touch. Nor did Obama call up these furies; they cannot be laid at his doorstep. But the unwillingness of his administration to make a clean break with Assad helped radicalize the Syrian rebellion. The landscape would have been altered by American help. A no-fly zone near the border with Turkey could have sheltered and aided the rebels. An early decision to arm the rebellion would have leveled the killing field. Four of the president’s principal foreign policy advisers from his first term advocated giving weapons to the rebels — Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, CIA Director David Petraeusand the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey. But the president overrode them, his caution of no help in a conflict of such virulence.
Under the gaze of the world, Obama instead drew a red line on the use of chemical weapons and warned that his calculus would change if these weapons were used or moved around. He thus placed his credibility in the hands of the Syrian dictator and, in the midst of a storm of his own making, fell back on lawyerly distinctions.
A Greater Middle East, an Islamic world, used to American campaigns of rescue — Kuwait in 1991, Bosnia in 1995, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, Iraq in 2003, Libya in 2011 — is now witnessing the ebb of American power and responsibility. Obama has held his fire in the face of great slaughter, and truth be known, congressional and popular opinion have given him a pass. America has wearied of Middle Eastern wars.
Syrian rebels sure that the American cavalry would turn up after this or that massacre have been bitterly disappointed. It’s the tragic luck of the Syrians that their rebellion has happened on the watch of an American president who has made a fetish of caution, who has seen the risks of action and overlooked the consequences of abdication…..
As the fighting in Syria drags on, resource flows have adapted to accommodate life inside — and to support the opposition forces vying for control…..
“I know the Blond Duck is a dictator,” said one young Syrian who requested anonymity, using a common nickname for President Assad. “But the opposition, they’re not about freedom, either. Do you really think that Jihadists will bring freedom?”
Like many young Syrians caught between the regime and rebels, he said, he simply wanted stability.
Whatever the outcome, he may be sadly disappointed. For most analysts, it’s not a question of whether the regime will fall, but when. Following that, the persistent fear is that the revolution, to use Jacques Mallet du Pan’s phrase, will devour its children. “If the Blond Duck falls,” the young Syrian said, “there will be complete anarchy.”
And if that happens, a war that has for months swirled around the still-peaceful center of Aleppo will finally rush in.
Eliminating a tyrant is not virtuous if one is knowingly creating even greater conditions of disorder and destruction. Legitimate tyrannicide must flow from a good-faith effort to institute justice. To return to the example of Syria, when we hear news of extreme violence committed (or, in recent reports, claims of the use of chemical weapons) not just by government forces but by opposition forces, too, we must be led to wonder if the latter aim to replace Assad’s tyranny with one of their own making
The effort to institute justice is one of several restrictions that we might impose on tyrannicide. At worst it is an alibi for the execution of political enemies. The most familiar examples of this tendency arose during the cold war, when a tyrant meriting assassination was one with Soviet sympathies and autocrats pliable to Western directives were deemed benign. To avoid this pitfall, we might first define a tyrant in terms familiar throughout history: a leader who rules by force, who has an incontrovertible record of directly ordering large-scale murder, and who is actively using a position of authority to engage in the slaughter of innocents. We might further define that person as a “rogue” in his refusal to participate in the community of nations, so that diplomatic and nonviolent restraint of his actions seems unachievable.
Cases in which tyrannicide seems an especially appropriate remedy will be those where the tyrant is a chief source of destructive commands in the polity, rather than presiding incompetently over a reckless and loosely organized military or security apparatus. In such an eventuality, the removal of the tyrant holds the strong possibility of ending the horrors taking place under his rule. But that removal, as we have said, must arise from the aspiration to implement a new and more peaceable civil order…..
As the Syrian conflict increasingly implicates and spills over into Lebanon, a priority for its government and international partners must be to tackle the refugee crisis, lest it ignite domestic conflict that a weak state and volatile region can ill afford.
“Lebanon’s fate historically has been deeply intertwined with Syria’s. As Syria heads even more steadily toward catastrophe, there is every reason for Lebanese of all persuasions to worry about their own country — and to do something about it.”
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which has a great Syria resource site, just released my new paper on the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. They’re also about to release a second report by Raphaël Lefèvre, a French scholar who recently published a well-received book on the Syrian Ikhwan, called Ashes of Hama. Keep your eyes open for that – I’ve had a look at an earlier draft, and it was great stuff.
My own paper can be downloaded in English or Arabic, or (if you’re the lazy kind of Syria watcher) you can just skim through the summary right here:
Struggling to Adapt: The Muslim Brotherhood in a New Syria
The Muslim Brotherhood was Syria’s strongest opposition faction when the uprising against Bashar al-Assad erupted in March 2011, but it was entirely based in exile. Its aging, exiled leadership is now struggling to influence Syria’s youthful revolt. Its efforts to exercise control are buoyed by the disorganized state of the opposition both abroad and in Syria, but the rise of militant Salafism has complicated its attempts to co-opt fighters on the ground.
The Brotherhood remains the most important Syrian opposition faction in exile, but it has largely failed to root itself in the insurgency in Syria.
The organization exerts influence inside Syria through a network of informal alliances with Islamist figures and rebel commanders, working through family connections and “independent” charitable organizations.
Internal divisions between the so-called Hama and Aleppo branches hobble the group and contributed to a split in early 2011.
The Brotherhood is threatened by the rise of militant Salafi groups that question its relatively moderate ideology and undercut its attempts to recruit disaffected Sunni youth.
The Syrian Brotherhood is not as strong as commonly believed. The incessant focus on the Brotherhood by the Assad regime, Western nations, and rival opposition groups has helped it build a fearsome reputation. Its actual political and organizational capability appears to be far more modest.
The failures of others have benefited the Brotherhood. The real reason for the group’s success in the exile community is the extreme disorganization of the rest of the opposition. As long as rival actors cannot get their act together, the Brotherhood will win by default.
The Brotherhood tries to distance itself from extremism. Despite its theocratic ambitions and a past history of sectarian violence, the Brotherhood now promotes a moderate Islamist approach and seeks to accommodate concerns about its ideology. Since 2011, it has consistently cooperated with secular groups, spoken in favor of multiparty democracy, and worked through mainstream opposition frameworks such as the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition of Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, and the Free Syrian Army.
Several armed groups linked to the Brotherhood fight in Syria. The leadership refuses to admit to having an armed branch, but Brotherhood exiles have been funding armed groups since late 2011. The organization now controls or sponsors dozens of small paramilitary units inside Syria.
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