Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Syria Joins The Islamic State?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As outlined previously on this site and elsewhere in my writings, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI) is a jihadi group that originated in Iraq and expanded into Syria in 2011 thanks at least in part to the efforts of one Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir (an Iraqi himself who was later killed near Mosul while returning from Syria to Iraq). A rival of the Islamic State (IS) because it did not accept the statehood claims of IS or its previous incarnations, JAI tried to ride the initial rapid wave of IS-spearheaded insurgent gains in Iraq beginning with the fall of Mosul in June 2014 but soon found itself suffering from arrests, killings and defections at the hands of IS.

By the end of August 2014, a statement had been issued in the name of JAI Iraq’s Majlis Shura affirming the dissolution of JAI in Iraq and joining IS. Although this statement was denied by those controlling JAI Iraq’s official Twitter account, it is apparent that the affirmation of allegiance to IS represented the vast majority of JAI Iraq, leaving the remnant loyalists no choice but to quit the field, with the result that there have been no more releases in the name of a JAI Iraq, including a very significant break from previous years with the lack of an Eid al-Adha message or media release. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, JAI Iraq has ceased to exist.

All this is in contrast with JAI’s Syria branch, which had originally spanned the entirety of northern Syria but on account of conflict with IS became confined mainly to Aleppo and Idlib provinces, more recently making a claimed showing in Latakia province. JAI Syria, which put out photos for Eid al-Adha, continued to advertise its presence on the ground with photos displaying its banner and members via its official Twitter account @ansarulsham.

JAI Syria reportedly in the ‘Sahel’ region of Syria (Latakia). Photo released last month by the @ansarulsham account.

Now, however, a controversy has arisen whereby the @ansarulsham account has issued a statement declaring a supposed decision by JAI Syria’s leadership for the group to pledge allegiance to IS:

Statement 449
17 Rabi’ al-Awal 1436
8 January 2015

Allegiance of JAI in Bilad al-Sham [Syria] to IS


Indeed we give good tidings to the Islamic Ummah in the east and west of the land of the fact that ‘JAI in Bilad al-Sham’ is following the example of their brothers from ‘Ansar al-Islam in Iraq’ and so we announce our pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to Caliph Ibrahim- may God protect him- the Caliph of the Muslims…And this pledge of allegiance is to be considered the dissolution of ‘JAI in Bilad al-Sham’ in answer to the command of God Almighty both to do away with division and unite the Muslims under one banner and Caliph who may implement the ruling of God’s law in the land, declare all tyranny of idolatry to be disbelief, defend the sanctities of the Muslims, give victory to the Ahl al-Sunna in every region of the Earth, while not compromising his religion for the material world or bartering at the expense of the upright direction [program]. We have announced this pledge of allegiance and hope it to be a source of pain for all the disbelievers and hypocrites and a source of joy and happiness for all the Muslims.

This statement is to be considered the last from the group in Bilad al-Sham and this account is the sole official account for the group and any statement issued after this number as false and coming from factions not linked to us (…).

Leadership of JAI in Bilad al-Sham.
17 Rabi al-Awal 1436
8 January 2015

This statement had been preceded in time by the establishment of another account on Twitter- @ansarulislam_sh- that claimed the @ansarulsham account had been hijacked:

“After we lost connection with our account @ansarulsham and until we recover it, we will tweet and work using this new account. And we inform you that the group is not responsible for what is published on the aforementioned account, including the last two tweets [from January 5 urging followers to expect a new release] and what will be published after. And the brothers are currently working to recover it, so until then this is our sole official account on Twitter.”

The account then published a series of images of a graduation of a new cohort of children from Qur’an memorization school- a program said to have been done in cooperation with JAI Syria. The date given is 17 Rabi al-Awal 1436 AH, though the corresponding Gregorian date given (4 January 2015) appears to be incorrect. Perhaps there is a confusion in that the photos may have been produced on 4 January 2015.

Photo from the latest series released by @ansarulislam_sh

So what is going on here? Which of the two accounts represents the majority of JAI Syria? Is this the end of JAI Syria?

To answer the last of the above questions in a short phrase: probably not. To preface though, one should not give too much credence to Ansar al-Islam fanboy accounts like @ansaruna, who has his/her facts confused in claiming a logical contradiction between this purported allegiance to IS by JAI Syria and a supposed IS claim that ‘hole [sic: whole] Ansar al-Islam give them bay3a [bay’ah]’ 5 months ago. Actually, the original statement put out in JAI Iraq’s name by the majority of IS loyalists in August 2014 never claimed the dissolution of all of JAI but only the Iraq branch, while urging the Syria branch to follow its example.

In any case, the situation in Syria vis-a-vis JAI and IS is not exactly analogous to that in Iraq. In Iraq, territory can be divided three ways: Sunni insurgent control, central government forces control, and Kurdish control. For the non-IS insurgent groups in Iraq, the latter two do not offer a ‘third way’ of safety from the power of IS in the way that remaining rebel-held territory in Syria does. Already another notable difference exists in that the @ansarulislam_sh account is at least trying to substantiate JAI Syria’s continued existence with visual evidence, something which the JAI Iraq remnants that controlled the official Twitter account failed to do after denying the statement of joining IS (with no subsequent statements, photos, videos etc.). Further, in Iraq, the eventual statement by IS loyalists in JAI Iraq did not come from nowhere but had rather been the product of two months of direct pressure on the group from IS’ power with a series of pledges of allegiance first advertised by IS in late June 2014.

There is also the issue of practicality: being spread in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia, would it be so easy for the entirety/majority of JAI Syria, if it merged with IS, to evacuate to IS-held territories? Here, some further context and clarification of the JAI Syria presence are needed. According to a Jabhat al-Nusra member from Aleppo with whom I spoke on my trip to the Azaz district last month (18th-22nd December), JAI Syria is thought to have “hundreds” of members and has been working with Jabhat al-Nusra on e.g. the contested Handarat front in Aleppo province. This is so even as some members of JAI Syria have given allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra. Further, the spokesman of Northern Storm, which also fights on the Handarat front, claimed to me that JAI Syria is specially protected by Jabhat al-Nusra (I would add that there appears to be a close bond with the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din). Indeed, it was precisely my asking about JAI Syria that attracted the suspicion of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Azaz area, on the grounds that I might be gathering information on Jabhat al-Nusra and JAI Syria positions to hand over to the coalition.

Yet the control of the @ansarulsham account by IS loyalists within JAI Syria’s ranks could not have come from nowhere. Some serious defections have clearly happened. Indeed, Abu Obeida the Salafi- JAI’s ‘intellectual heavyweight’ based in Iraq and still supporting JAI in Syria- wrote on Twitter before the issuing of the allegiance pledge by @ansarulsham: “How odd! Some [emphasis my own] of the soldiers and amirs from JAI don’t know of the coming decision….” He thus concedes that the allegiance pledge has involved at least some commanders within JAI Syria.

It is also evident here that IS has pursued the familiar strategy it applied to JAI Iraq and Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai/Gaza: that is, urging those within the group ready to pledge allegiance to issue a statement in the name of the entire group announcing allegiance in the hope of overcoming those who object. That some high-rank JAI Syria members might choose to join IS should not come as much of a surprise: similar defections have happened within Syria’s other jihadi groups. But the evidence at present does not quite suggest that this latest IS move against JAI Syria is fatal. In short, expect JAI Syria’s presence to continue on the ground for the time being, though it is possible that those from JAI Syria who have not pledged allegiance may end up fully merging with Jabhat al-Nusra and/or Jabhat Ansar al-Din if it is felt the group’s continued existence is an unviable project. On the whole, looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, JAI is a mere shadow of its former self.

H/T to my friend and colleague Caleb Weiss for drawing the @ansarulsham statement to my attention and first raising the questions that led to the genesis of this article.

Syria Photo Guide


Syria Photo Guide is my attempt to share with the world the immense beauty and rich heritage of the country in which I spent several wonderful years. The website was originally envisioned to serve as a guide for travelers wishing to explore Syria’s incredible range of archaeological, cultural and natural sites, and I began work on the project in 2006. Given the horrific conflict that has engulfed the country since 2011, I hope my website will inspire those working to preserve and protect Syria’s wealth of historic sites and provide a resource for those interested in learning more about Syria’s history and culture.

I first visited Syria in 2003, and quickly found myself becoming deeply immersed in the country’s people, culture and history. Despite having traveled to over thirty countries prior to visiting Syria, nowhere had I encountered people so welcoming and hospitable. The country’s amazing diversity, fascinating history, and incredible variety of archaeological sites and natural attractions amazed me. Having initially planned only a few weeks in the country, I spent over nine months there. I cancelled plans to continue traveling overland through Central Asia to China, instead refocusing my journey on better understanding the Middle East.

In 2006 I undertook another trip to Syria, determined to get to know the country in even greater depth. Basing myself in Bab Sharqi, Damascus, I ended up living in Syria for nearly two full years of 2006 and 2007. In addition to teaching English at a local language center, I spent much of my time visiting, documenting and photographing Syria’s wide range of archaeological, cultural and natural attractions. I contributed articles about these sites to a local English-language magazine called “What’s On”. Through this work, Syria Photo Guide was born. My last visit to Syria was from September 2008 through March 2009. I am from Los Angeles, California and currently reside in San Luis Obispo with my wife, Rasha, who is from Mosul, Iraq.

The website currently features information and photo galleries of 235 sites throughout the country, and a total of over 8,000 high resolution photos. It remains a work in progress, and I anticipate reaching roughly 280 sites and 10,000 photos by the time I complete the project. The website is entirely non-profit and is dedicated to the Syrian people, to whom I will always be indebted for their hospitality, generosity and kindness. Any comments, suggestions or questions are welcome. I will try to address any questions made in the comments on Syria Comment, or by e-mail to info@syriaphotoguide.com.

Below is a photo gallery with a selection of some of my favorite images.

– Daniel Demeter

Footnotes on the SSNP—Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs

by John Eibner

Dr. John Eibner is the CEO of Christian Solidarity International USA and member of CSI’s International Management. He has directed research and advocacy campaigns on behalf of endangered Christian communities in the Caucuses and the broader Middle East, and has traveled into the Sudan over 100 times to document and combat its slave trade where he was involved in efforts that freed tens of thousands of Black Christian and traditionalist slaves. He has recently performed aid-delivery and fact-finding missions in both Syria and Iraq.

Following Joel Veldkamp’s recent illuminating article about the SSNP for Syria Comment, I want to offer two footnotes in the form of comments given me by Nouhad Samaan, head of the SSNP in Homs.

Dr. John Eibner and Nouhad Samaan (right) in Homs

Dr. John Eibner and Nouhad Samaan (right) in Homs

I had an encounter with Mr. Samaan on the 20th of November, 2014 while on a trip conducting visitation to CSI’s humanitarian aid partners in Damascus, Saydnaya, Maaloula, Homs, Wadi al-Nazara, and Tartus. The doings of Syrian political parties were not on my agenda, as all of my meetings were with displaced people, volunteer aid workers, church personnel, and the Grand Mufti. However, CSI has a strong interest in helping create conditions for the return of displaced Syrians to their homes, and my curiosity had been aroused after hearing from friends that the SSNP has been rapidly gaining popularity among secular-minded Syrians, becoming a political force of some significance, especially, though by no means exclusively, within the Christian community. I had also taken note in old Homs of the SSNP logo sewn on the sleeves of uniformed soldiers at checkpoints, and stamped on the side-walls of streets.

I therefore accepted an offer to meet Nouhad Samaan, the primary SSNP leadership figure for Homs, who now carries significant responsibility for governance in a strategically-important city center. Mr. Samaan was eager to promote awareness regarding efforts his once-banned political party has been making, following the evacuation of rebels in May 2014, to shore up security and create conditions for repair and reconstruction in the thoroughly-ruined old city of Homs.

My first footnote is extracted from the content of my conversation with Mr. Samaan. This is the substance of his remarks to me:

The Syrian Social National Party (SSNP) has a long history of opposition to the Baath Party, and has paid dearly for it over many decades. But in the current crisis, the government felt they needed our party because we face the same enemy—one that wants to destroy all of us who represent secular principles and the rights of minorities. The threat is existential. From the earliest days of the anti-government demonstrations in the spring of 2011, we detected that a strong undercurrent of religious supremacism had been unleashed. We are very sensitive to this problem. It is one that has plagued this part of the world for the past 1,400 years. The Damascus massacre of 1860 and the genocide of Christians 100 years ago marked high tides of this destructive phenomenon in modern times. In response to the current high tide of sectarian intolerance, our Party decided to cooperate with the government.

The SSNP was legalized already in 2005. But our acceptance of responsibility for governance in certain areas dates from the autumn of 2013. Our party, like all the historic parties in this part of the world, has always had a militia. The SSNP militia participated in the military operations that drove the rebels out of the predominantly Christian village of Sadad, near Homs, in November 2013. The rebels had religiously cleansed the village. But once Sadad was under the control of the SSNP forces, the Christians were free to return. After the expulsion of the rebels, President Assad accepted the presence of the SSNP militia as the force to guarantee the security of the Sadad and its environs. The same thing happened in Saydnaya and Marmarita.

After the evacuation of rebels from the old city of Homs last May, the SSNP assumed the leading role in providing security and establishing an infrastructure to support the return of the local population. Security, of course, was the number one priority. We had to deal with booby traps left behind by the rebels and ward off bands of thieves. The old city has been so badly damaged that fewer than 2,000 people, out of a pre-conflict population of 150,000 have been able to return to their homes. We are still in the phase of cleaning up the mess. Most dwellings are currently uninhabitable, and many side-streets are still littered with debris. But clean-up is well underway, a few shops have reopened, as have two schools, which now have about 300 students between them.

One of our great challenges will be to create conditions in old Homs that will encourage the minorities to return to their homes. After what has happened to them, they feel vulnerable and insecure. The Christian community is a source of stability. The destruction of the Christian community would therefore lead to yet more instability. The demographics of Syria are changing, and it is not for the good of the country. The two schools that have reopened in Homs are state schools. If the Christians are able to reopen their own schools, it will be a great incentive for Christian families to return. Right now the churches do not seem to have the funds to rebuild and run Christian schools.

My second footnote is a comment sent to me by Nouhad Samaan after he read Joel Velkamp’s article. He remarks on the religious composition of the SSNP and the party’s involvement in the Lebanese Civil War:

I am an Orthodox Christian, but we have members from all of Syria’s ethnic and religious groups. While the SSNP was founded by a Christian, the SSNP leader here in Syria is currently led by a Muslim, Nazir al-Athma. In fact, the martyr whose picture was posted with the Syria Comment article was not a Christian, though he fought and died in Sadad, a “Christian” village. The three martyrs that died before him in Sadad were also non-Christians. They were from three different religious groups: Shiite, Sunni, and Alawite. We have martyrs from all the various communities. Members of our multi-ethnic and multi-religious party have fought throughout Syria.

Regarding our role in the Lebanese Civil War, yes we were supported by the Syrian regime back then. But our involvement in that conflict was based on two principles: Firstly, we were part of the Lebanese resistance front against the Israeli occupation, acting in support of Palestinians rights. Secondly, we were opposed to the radical sectarian groups in Lebanon such as Kataeb and the Lebanese Forces.

As Joel Veldkamp observed, the current role of the SSNP merits further research. With the Levantine and Mesopotamian state system in disarray, and with the rise of a new de facto Sunni state in the region, it will be interesting to see whether there is place in the new emerging order for a historic party whose nationalistic ideology is based neither on Islam nor Arabism.

Sample Concepts of a Christian-Shi’a Alliance in Iraq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

With the fragmentation of Iraq and Syria primarily along sectarian fault-lines- principally that of the Shi’a vs. Sunni dynamic- third way ethno-religious groups such as the Christians find themselves caught in the middle. Lacking organizational coherence, unity and strength to form their own separatist projects, Christians in Iraq and Syria generally find themselves forming alliances with one major player or another in the respective conflicts. In Syria, two choices exist: the regime and irregular aligned forces (e.g. the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in Wadi al-Nasara in Homs province) or the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) autonomous administration. In Qamishli, the dichotomy of regime vs. PYD administration has played out in the split of the original ‘Sutoro’ militia of the Syriac Union Party (SUP), whereby the SUP loyalist Sutoro has tied itself to the PYD, while a ‘Sootoro’ in Qamishli is aligned with the regime.

Merry Christmas from the pro-Assad militia Muqawama Suriya last year. For similar outreach and on the Qamishli situation, see this article I wrote.

In Iraq, discrepancies in Christian population by region mean that the main accessible actor to which the majority of Christians at the present time can turn is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). For instance, the Dwekh Nawsha militia active in the Nineveh Plains and tied to the Assyrian Patriotic Party- whatever ideals may be espoused of being able to achieve self-sufficiency in arming- finds itself heavily dependent on the Peshmerga. However, there is still a Christian population in Iraq outside areas of KRG control, and it is largely in this context that we find notions of a Christian-Shi’a alliance- something that has ample precedent in Lebanon with Hezbollah’s outreach to Christians (for the latest examples of this phenomenon, see this excellent report by my friend Kareem Shaheen of The Daily Star in Beirut).

To be sure, in Iraq some components of the Sunni insurgency do try to play up the idea of supposedly having Christians in their ranks, principally as part of a Ba’athist superficial cross-sectarian messaging strategy. The most notable case here is the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (Army of the Men of the Naqshbandi Order/JRTN) of Iraq Ba’ath Party leader Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri’s Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation. JRTN claims it is an “extension of the prior Iraqi national army” with members from all ethnicities and religions, including Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, as well as Yezidis, Christians and Mandaeans. Unsurprisingly, such a narrative hardly proves appealing in the face of the dominance of the Islamic State (IS), which has displaced all Christians from Mosul amid a dhimmi pact ultimatum. Though JRTN condemned the displacement, it did not denounce IS by name, opting instead for the conspiracy theory that this tragedy was all the work of the government in Baghdad.

Thus, it should hardly prove surprising that with the militiafication of much of the Baghdad government-aligned forces following the fall of Mosul in June 2014, Shi’a militias in particular can capitalise on the rise of IS and engage in outreach to Christians on the basis of fighting a common enemy. At the most rudimentary level, this takes the form of social media graphics emphasizing affinity between Jesus and Imam Ali.

Sample graphic of Christian-Shi’a solidarity: “The Messiah forever and oh Ali, grant strength.”

Turning to specifics on the ground, illustrative of Shi’a militia outreach to Christians is the recent case of the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, a group headed by Aws al-Khafaji, a one-time figure in Muqtada al-Sadr’s office who reportedly visited Damascus in support of the Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting against Syrian rebels. Indeed, it seems likely that his Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces, with similar name, is based on Syria’s Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. For Christmas, Khafaji and his militia paid a visit to the Evangelical Church in Baghdad, with Khafaji delivering a speech inside the church and granting an interview. In the latter, he emphasized: “On this day, Christmas Day, we want to send a message to the whole world that the religion of Islam is a religion of compassion and brotherhood. The religion of Islam calls on us to protect our Christian brothers…Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh [IS guys] that forced the Christians to leave. Our religion is not the religion of the Dawa3esh that destroyed the churches. Indeed we respect the churches….We defend our country, our lands and every religion present in our country.”

“The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces wish you a Merry Christmas”- featuring Christian-Muslim unity symbolism and the militia’s logo on the top-right.

“Iraq brings us together. The Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces congratulate you on the occasion of Christmas.”

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 18.10.21
Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Forces fighters outside the church with their flags.

An even more interesting case of Shi’a-Christian alliance in Iraq is that of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali and its creation of the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions.” The particular social media pages advertising this concept are not associated with Assyrian identity symbolism but rather Syriac/Aramean. The group is of particular interest because it bases the work with Kata’ib al-Imam Ali on the grounds of Kurdish betrayal and handing over of areas to IS. It should be noted that this sense of disappointment and distrust of Kurdish forces in light of the fall of many areas of Ninawa province is not limited to Christians but is also a sentiment felt by many Yezidis.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 18.27.10
“Syriac Sons’ Brigades”- a Facebook page promoting the “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” as part of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. The page describes itself as follows: “For the defence of our land and homeland: Syriac Christian brigades.” The symbol used is employed by proponents of Syriac and Aramean Christian identity in opposition to Assyrian identity narrative. Cover photo features “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions” insignia on left.

Screen Shot 2014-12-31 at 18.31.38
Promotional video for “Spirit of God Jesus Son of Mary Battalions,” featuring a procession with the Christian cross, flag of Iraq (right) and the flag of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali. Those marching in this procession are wearing Kata’ib al-Imam Ali shirts.

The cohort of Kata’ib al-Imam Ali featuring the Christian cross.

The true size of this Syriac brigade is unclear, and it is hardly evident that it is some kind of major military force in the Nineveh plains. Nonetheless, it is of great interest particularly with the playing up of affinity between Shi’a and Christians. The promotional video features an interview with one Sheikh Ahmad al-Rubai’e, who emphasizes: “And we see that with the companions of Imam al-Hussein [key figure in Shi’a Islam] were groups of Christian soldiers, and today also the Christians go with whosoever supports Hussein.”

In the end, the two-way choice between the Shi’a and the Kurds for Iraq’s Christians was inevitable. Not all Christians are going to trust the KRG and its forces, and in the end, the Shi’a militias do not pose for them the existential threat from IS that has come to be the main authority in all major majority Sunni localities outside of government control. The situation is ever further from the ideal of a coherent, national Iraqi army to maintain order.


Syria Year-End Predictions and Analysis – by Joshua Landis (28 December 2014)

Year-end Predictions and Analysis by Joshua LandisMurad Basha Mosque
Syria Comment 28 December 2014

Syria will become increasingly fragmented in 2015. The Somalia-ization of the country is inevitable so long as the international community degrades all centers of power in Syria and the opposition fails to unite.

Who owns what?

The four strongest authorities in Syria are the Assad government, ISIS, Nusra, and the Kurds. They rule close to 95% of Syrian territory. The Assad government rules 45% of the land and perhaps 65% of the population, give or take. ISIS rules 35%, but controls less than 3 million people. Kurds may control about 8% or 9% of Syria and Nusra another 5%. This leaves the hundreds of additional militias controlling the remaining 5%, but in some areas “No FSA faction can operate without Nusra’s approval.” Jihadis prevailed in 2014.

Screen Shot 2014-12-28 at 5.52.36 PM

Thanks to @deSyracuse for his maps. Click on it to go to his site and use interactive features


All authorities will become weaker, with the possible exception of the Kurds. The United States is at war with all important Arab factions. It is actively bombing ISIS and Nusra, while sanctioning Assad.  Although Washington has been funding a “train and equip” project to the tune of half a billion dollars, it appears to have neither urgency nor teeth. Coalition forces are divided on objectives. This means that all centers of authority in Syria are being degraded while none are being built up. It means no one can win. The Assad regime, ISIS, and Nusra are all likely to see their power diminish over the coming year. The FSA militias have become practically irrelevant and must take orders from the radicals. The educated and worldly activists who played such a vital role in launching the revolution have been pushed aside and are today without influence. One can interpret this either as: a) Liberals and democrats in Syria were such a small elite that they were quickly swept aside by the tide of sectarians, fascists, and Islamists; or B) Assad intentionally destroyed the liberals and moderates so that he would face only extremists, leaving the world to face an either-or choice: Assad or al-Qaida. The reality is probably a measure of both.

The Assad government strengthened its control over major cities, while losing control over rural areas. It gained ground in the Damascus suburbs, Kalamoun, Homs and Aleppo, but it lost territory in others, such as Idlib, the Golan, Deraa and the Jazira. This strategy reveals Assad’s urban bias. He believes he can regain the support of the urban middle classes who fear the radicalized and poorer country-folk. The Baath originally relied on rural support against the cities. But as it went bankrupt and turned away from subsidies and socialism toward neo-liberal policies mixed with a heavy dose of corruption, it turned its back on the urban poor and struggling countryside. Today the regime is trying to turn the rich against the poor in an effort to convince them that the revolution was a pipe-dream and that they must fight “terrorism.” Collapsing oil revenues in Iran and Russia mean that Assad will have to suffer with less money in 2015. But so too will the rebels because they are as reliant on oil money as the regime. All incomes will take a nosedive. Ninety percent of Syrians live below the poverty line, according to the UN. But poverty can get worse.

NusraJihadis and extremists prevailed

Although 2014 began with US-backed militias teaming up with the Islamic Front and Nusra to drive ISIS “out of Syria,” they failed. They succeeded in expelling ISIS from Idlib province and villages north of Aleppo, but Nusra quickly routed the pro-US rebels and asserted itself over the Idlib region. It has also spread its power in Deraa and planted its flag on the Golan. Nusra refrains from swallowing up FSA militias in part because their purported independence is useful. As one USA vetted fighter in Northern Syria explained, “Nusra lets groups vetted by the United States keep the appearance of independence, so that they will continue to receive American supplies.” Once received, the radicals have the authority to commandeer the advanced arms. This is why the US is abandoning the vetted FSA militias and beginning its policy of “train and equip,” an effort to build a Syrian Army completely controlled by the US. Washington explains that the new force will be used to fight ISIS, then weaken Assad with the goal of forcing him to first accept a political solution and then leave the country. This is unrealistic, but what else can the US say it is doing?

ISThe creation of new states was the rage in 2014.

ISIS began the craze with the announcement of the Islamic State shortly after its leader, Baghdadi, declared himself Caliph. Nusra followed suit with the declaration of an Emirate. The Kurds showed restraint by refusing to declare their independence, but made considerable headway in that direction. Rojava, the Kurdish name for Syrian Kurdistan, is now on everyone’s lips. In the last months of 2013, the PYD announced an interim government divided into three non-contiguous autonomous areas or cantons, Afrin, Jazira and Kobani and military service was declared compulsory in July 2014. The war against ISIS has strengthened the state attributes of Kurdistan. Iraqi Kurdistan received new direct military aid from many countries. Rojava gained US and international backing for its military efforts, especially in the battle for Kobani. Although the region has been depopulated, the new partnership between the PYD and Washington is big. Even Turkey was forced to break its embargo on the PYD.

The Great Sorting Out and Rise of Religious Nationalism

Religious nationalism has become the dominant ideology in the Middle East. The “secular” nationalism that was once the hallmark of post colonial regimes and leaders, such as Nasser, Assad, Hussein, Bourgiba, Arafat, and Boumediene is moribund. Interestingly, Egypt and Tunisia have reacted against this trend. Is their reaction a harbinger of Islamist retreat more broadly or merely a hiccup? Hard to tell, but my guess is that 2015 will see religious identities harden throughout the Levant. This means bad news for reconciling Syria’s waring parties. The Levant Front, the most recent effort by Syria’s many militias to unify, does not look more promising than past efforts. The Syrian opposition seems to be organized along regional and local village and clan lines, hence its inability to unite. Traditional loyalties of religion, village and family have trumped national ones. The only ideology able to attract followers on a national scope is Islam.

I have spoken at some length about the “Great Sorting Out” that I believe is taking place in the Levant countries. The Syrian civil war fits into a larger pattern of nation-building in which the many ethnic and religious communities of the region are caught in a brutal struggle for primacy and survival. It is strikingly similar the nation-building process that dominated Central Europe during WWII. Multi-ethnic and mutli-religious lands are being transformed into boringly homogenous nations. We are witnessing the rearrangement of populations in the region to better fit the nation states that were fixed after WWI.

Some new borders are being drawn, such as those around the Kurdish regions of Iraq and perhaps Syria, but mostly, what we are seeing is the ethnic cleansing of the smaller minorities and rearranging of populations to fit their borders. This means that the smaller minorities of the region, those that are scattered, such as the Christians, Armenians, Roma, Bahai, Mandaeans, and Jews, before they massed in Palestine and forced out the Palestinians, will likely be swept from the region. The “compact minorities,” those that live together in one region, are more capable of defending themselves, such as the Jews of Israel, the Shiites of Lebanon, the Alawites (so far), and the Druze (who have simply been lucky). But the smaller compact minorities, such as the Yazidis, Assyrians, Ismailis, and Shabaks—may God protect them.

JunudRahmanSyria is locked into perpetual war

The great powers are determined to support their Syrian proxies enough that they will not lose, but not enough to win. This means prolonged struggle. Most regional civil wars have come to an end only with foreign intervention. Lebanon and Iraq had foreign powers disarm militias in order to facilitate state-building and political compromise. No foreign power is likely to intervene in Syria to disarm radicals or nurse moderates back into the political center.

Has the US changed its position on Syria?

Officially, the US continues to see Bashar al-Assad as a “dead man walking” and to insist that he “step aside.” Secretary of State Kerry began the year at the Geneva peace talks announcing that Bashar al-Assad had lost all legitimacy. He added that no one could conceive of his playing a role in the future of Syria. This week General Allen, Obama’s special envoy said, “as far as the U.S. is concerned, there is no Bashar al-Assad, he is gone.” The United States finds talking to Assad too ideologically costly. But it equally finds the notion of unifying & arming the opposition too costly & improbable. Thus, Washington seems determined to stick to a narrow policy of counter-terrorism—killing ISIS and Nusra when opportunity presents itself and keeping them on their heels. Washington sees the Syria problem as unfixable. The American people want no part of it, hence the threatened “no” vote in congress when the issue was bombing Assad for his use of chemical weapons as well as the more recent cutting of 300 million dollars of additional support from a larger spending bill that was earmarked for Syria’s “moderate” militias.

But if US talking points about Assad remain unchanged, underlying realities have shifted. Exactly one year ago, Ambassador Ryan Crocker wrote in a prescient article, entitled “Assad Is the Least Worst Option in Syria,” that “we need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad—and consider that as bad as he is, there is something worse.” That something, which was Nusra and ISIS, sucked the United States back into the region this summer. When ISIS swept through Sunni Iraq without a real fight and threatened to conquer Irbil and Baghdad, President Obama was forced to go to war. He could not allow al-Qaida to rule Iraq. Once President Obama threatened to “degrade and destroy” ISIS, the US effectively became an ally of the Assad regime and Iran, like it or not.

The Syrian peace talks that Russia has announced for 2015 may seem like a joke, but they are perhaps designed to get the US to officially accept the fact that Assad may remain leader of Syria. After all, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov assured the press that he “was in contact with our American partners” about the peace talks. It is hard to believe that Obama will climb down from his stand that Assad must step aside unless Assad makes real concessions and can draw the US-recognized Syrian Opposition Coalition into negotiations. The chance that this could happen seem slim.

Is the Syrian Army a Bulwark against Extremism?

In the bowels of the Pentagon, officers probably look at Assad’s state as a bulwark against ISIS and Nusra. They cannot allow it to be destroyed for fear that the the Jihadists will sweep into Damascus and Syria’s cities. Once ensconced in the capital, they would own Syria. What is more, a new wave of refugees would flee from Syria into Lebanon and Jordan, possibly overwhelming both governments. Certainly Baathists, security personnel, and regime apparatchiks would flee. If Alawites, Christians, Druze and Shiites believed that they were no longer safe due to religious persecution, refugee numbers could reach into the millions. America’s policy has been to contain the violence in Syria. Regime collapse could defeat that policy, just as regime survival seems to defeat it. Most of America’s allies and the Syrian opposition insist that US war planes should be bombing Assad as well as ISIS. The US cannot risk an extremist victory by destroying the Syrian Army. But US politicians also want to weaken the regime. Israel wants to destroy its advanced missile systems. Syria is a perfect case where US military planners may want a policy quite different from that set out by politicians.

The Syrian army is likely to remain weak and over-extended. It is desperate for soldiers and alienating its own supporters with draconian draft measures. Syrian National Defense Forces or popular militias will do more of the work. As Aron Lund has pointed out, they tend to be local forces that are reluctant to move out of their home districts or travel beyond their villages. This is part of the overall fragmentation.

Why De Mestura’s Plan Makes Sense

Staffan de Mistura’s UN backed plan makes sense if one sees the future of Syria in the bleakest light, where fragmentation is the rule and regime strength is limited largely to the cities. Because disunity precludes a comprehensive peace plan, de Mistura has come up with the notion of local freezes and sees Aleppo as a likely starting point. Activists have pronounced this plan defeatist, if not pro-Assad, but de Mistura has little choice. He has no army with which to change the balance of power. His mission is to save lives and provide food. If local rebels want out, as they did in Homs, the UN can help. Likewise, if pro-regime towns, such as Nubl and Zahraa, are starving, the UN can try to freeze fighting and get aid in or help officiate a surrender. All sides will have to agree. It is the lowest common denominator, but an essential role that only the UN can fill.

BqfFygOCAAA35uL2014 was the year of ISIS

The past year was ISIS’ year. But 2015 is likely to see ISIS seriously degraded, if not destroyed. The Baghdad government may able to dislodging ISIS from important strongholds in Iraq and shove it back into Syria. It is hard to envisage a new force rising up to take ISIS’s place, however.  ISIS’ success among the rebel militias is founded on its brutal authoritarianism. “Caliph” Baghdadi has copied the Assad and Saddam regimes. It is no surprise that his top 20 officers are largely Iraqi ex-Baathists. The Syrian opposition has not found a way to compromise or unify without the use of force and terror. Thus ISIS is deploying the same paranoid style and traditional loyalties to unify Syria’s fissured society as did the Baath. To succeed it is becoming even more terrifying than the regime it hoped to replace.

[End of Landis analysis]

The following round-ups were sent to me by members of the Syria Comment team.

Handala bin Baal writes:

In the first days of 2014, Nusra, IF and FSA united to expel ISIS. Today, IS controls most of east Syria, and in the areas where ISIS was driven out, Nusra simply finished what ISIS had started and killed, kidnapped and routed most of the western backed rebels in aleppo, idlib, homs and Daraa. The jihadis are stronger than ever in rebel held Syria and Nusra is moving forward with its Islamic emirate. Meanwhile the Syrian army is running out of fucks to give for what happens in Sunni areas of no economical value.
Going into 2014, the syrian army priorities are, reaching nubul and zahraa in Aleppo, maintaining Deir ez zor as main iranian supply base and making sure that things remain under control in Damascus, Homs, and coast by keeping the Sunnis busy in ghoutas, daraa, hama, idlib and jabal al akrad.

When will this war end? When all the people die. Listen to the kid in this video. Out of the mouth of babes… https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IIrBtCfX4tI#t=724

Ehsani2 writes:

The biggest change in 2014 was the continued confirmation that the regime was not going to fall anytime soon. Ahrar al-Sham’s leadership was eliminated. ISIL invited US strikes after senseless beheadings of westerners.

2015 is going to be shaped by who will turn out to be the ultimate winner of Aleppo. Local truce deals will continue to be the preferred outcome by negotiators. The White House may not turn away from its stated goal of Assad-must-step-aside but in practice it will continue to move further from any notion of direct military involvement or regime change. The Syrian opposition has failed to win the hearts and minds of enough congressmen or senators who would pressure a change in strategy in DC. While Syrians will be told that only a political solution exists for their country, fighting will continue. Neither the government nor the opposition will still be ready to negotiate during 2015.

2014 Roundup and 2015 Predictions by Aron Lund

lund2014 Roundup and 2015 Predictions
By Aron Lund
December 25, 2014 for Syria Comment

Lots of things happened in 2014, but the single most important development was the rise of the Islamic State as an independent actor in Syria and as a global bogeyman, shifting the terms of Western and Arab Syria debate. The split between the Islamic State and the rest of the rebels in Syria has changed dynamics within the Syrian opposition and forced other rebels back into the Western/Gulfie fold. It’s also slowly but surely alienating Jabhat al-Nosra from the rebel mainstream. The end result is a somewhat clearer bloc formation but also an overall weakening of the anti-Assad side, particularly the non-jihadi rebels in the north.

Even more, the IS capture of Mosul in June, which threatened to bring down the Iraqi state–already rotting from the inside–has changed the international and regional dynamics. Now we have a US-led international military intervention in both countries, with mission creep in one or more directions being almost inevitable over time. And with all eyes on the Islamic State, Western media/political debate are increasingly beginning to describe the Syrian war as a counter-terrorism issue and have lost track of the fundamentals in a rather worrying way. This might seem like good news for Bashar, and it is – but so far not good enough to rehabilitate his regime politically or make it strong enough to claw back the parts of Syria that it lost. We’ll see how this develops. (The US is already flying air support for the Syrian Arab Army in Deir al-Zor, but it’s not something we’re supposed to talk about.)

In 2015, there are a few things to watch, including of course the Aleppo situation and the UN freeze, the international aerial campaign and whether it will burst the Islamic State bubble or not, the various international realignments, and the (lack of) efforts to contain Lebanon’s northeastern meltdown. But if I were to point to one single factor that gets nowhere near the attention it deserves and that could suddenly turn Syria upside down, it’s the regime’s fraying base: finances, infrastructure, and perhaps manpower.

The fuel crisis and other internal systemic failures are growing and may at some point become unmanageable. It’s winter now and that’s of course part of the reason, but it seems more profound than that. From the looks of it, Bashar has simply run out of money and the infrastructure has deteriorated too far over four years of war. In addition, the IS is currently hitting key energy nodes like the Shaer fields and the US bombings in the east are sapping overall fuel supply. Iranian and Russian supplies are what has kept the regime afloat so far, but now their own economies are under terrific strain, due to the plunging oil price and sanctions. International humanitarian aid is not keeping up with rising needs either, and donor fatigue is already a major problem – 2015 will undoubtedly be worse. So, will the pressure ease up or not? If not, how long can this go on without something breaking?

Related to this, there’s an increasing number of reports about the dire manpower situation on the regime side. There are reports of the SAA rounding up young men in regime territory, renewed enforcement of travel bans for military-age males, and rumors of a general mobilization that – even if false – reflect a genuine concern. Why is this becoming an issue now? One reason is probably that Assad has trouble paying his footsoldiers, or that Iran and others aren’t chipping in in the same way they used to. Another is that Iraqi Shia militias have drifted back across the border to fight the Islamic State in their homeland since June. Another is that Bashar will need more people than he currently has to sustain an increasingly ambitious military posture: he wants to secure gains in Damascus/Homs, hold the fort in Hama and Deraa and the northwest, and also tip the scales in Aleppo. More fundamentally, the militiafication of the regime seems to have advanced to a point where it’s having trouble shifting forces around according to military needs. Even if Assad has tens of thousands of available reserves on paper, many of them are now essentially village guards and sectarian/tribal militias that won’t go voluntarily to fight outside their home areas and that would in many cases be fairly useless if compelled to do so.

To be clear, the regime remains at an advantage in purely military terms and seems to be within reach of a breakthrough in Aleppo – that’s a potential game-changer. And Bashar continues to reap the benefits of fighting an opposition so venal and dysfunctional that no one wants to help it to power anymore – except maybe Erdogan. That remains his trump card. But if Bashar was betting that time is on his side, it’s really not and this must surely affect regime calculations, now that the UN freeze plan, the rise of the Islamic State, and other international dynamics are starting to offer new political horizons.

Aron Lund,
editor of Syria in Crisis

Resurgence of the SSNP in Syria: An Ideological Opponent of the Regime Gets a Boost from the Conflict

University of Chicagoby Joel Veldkamp

Joel Veldkamp is an MA candidate at the University of Chicago’s Center for Middle East Studies. He lived in Damascus, Syria from September 2010 until May 2011. Follow Joel on Twitter: @joelman42

The Facebook page of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Homs branch recently boasted: “The families of Homs return to their homes and thank the Party for providing security for them.”

According to reports I’ve received from colleagues in Syria, this boast is not empty. Following the retaking of Homs’ Old City from the rebels in May of this year, the regime has turned over responsibility for security and administration in the Old City to the Syrian Social Nationalist Party and its militia.

flag of Syrian Social Nationalist Party

Indeed, this Facebook post from September 18 is accompanied by a photo album of Homs’ Old City that resembles a victory parade: photo after photo of Old City homes and alleyways decorated with the flags and slogans of the SSNP—the red “hurricane,” posters of the party’s martyrs, and the phrases “Eagles of the Hurricane” and “Long live [Greater] Syria.”

flags of Syrian Social Nationalist Party hang in Homs

“Go back only two years, and we would not see the party’s symbol or slogan except on the inside of houses and in secret,” the post says. “Ask the people of Homs about the Nationalists, and one of them will answer you, laughing, ‘I asked them for a flag of the party to hang in my house but there were none left, so I painted the “hurricane” on the entrance to my house myself.’”

The SSNP, which recently celebrated its 82nd anniversary to much positive coverage from Syrian state media, has a long and tortured relationship with Damascus. Founded by the Lebanese Greek Orthodox intellectual Antoine Saada in 1932, when the postcolonial future of the region was still up for grabs, the SSNP was devoted to secularism and a particular version of pan-Syrian nationalism that saw the area now covered by the nation-states of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Kuwait, and even Cyprus, as a single historical nation, which should be united as such.

Syrian Social Nationalist Party

As it happened, after the European evacuation, residents of the French Mandate area were divided between supporters of an independent Lebanon and the pan-Arabists, leaving little oxygen for Saada’s pan-Syrianism. While the SSNP proved very influential for its small size, its several coup attempts in Lebanon and Syria failed and earned it great enmity on the part of those governments. Saada himself was executed by Lebanese police after the Syrian strongman Husni al-Zaim delivered him into their custody. But in the Second Lebanese Civil War, Hafiz al-Assad nurtured the Party as a tool of Damascus’ interests. It entered the war with Syrian sponsorship and under considerable Syrian influence. An SSNP member was arrested for the assassination of Bashir Gemayel in 1982 and was later released by the Syrians after they took control of Lebanon. Nevertheless, the Party remained officially banned in Syria until 2005 when it was integrated into the Baath Party’s “National Progressive Front.”

Assad and the Syrian Social Nationalist Part

Interestingly, in its public social media statements, the Party does not gloss over this history of strife. While strongly endorsing Bashar al-Assad’s reelection bid, including his image in most of their public events, and toeing the regime’s line on the war (sample SANA headline: “What is happening in Syria is an American-Israeli scheme funded by the Gulf”), the Party’s social media outlets recount the struggle with the Ba’ath and their predecessors in dramatic tones:

“The words ‘Long Live [Greater] Syria’ would bring trouble to the one who uttered them publicly, from one branch of security or another.  The ‘Nationalist’ party, as it is termed today, was stricken from Syria in the 1950s, prohibited from political work, and its members put in prison. These prosecutions diminished in the 70s but didn’t end. Even in the recent period, the party was not a member of the National Progressive Front [It was, in fact, from 2005 to 2012], and its principles intellectually contradict the Front’s principle of complete Arab unity. Because of this, it was legally not licensed and its members were not permitted to practice overt political work.”

If this rhetoric is representative, the SSNP is keen to retain its ideological independence from the regime—perhaps more so now, in the space created by the crisis, than before. “This has never been the party in power or the party of interests. …This is the party of the people, of the defenders of the people.”

Martyrdom narratives notwithstanding, the SSNP benefitted tremendously from legalization in 2005. A Greek Catholic friend from the Qalamoun region (like most young Syrian professionals, himself a member of the Ba’ath party) writes, “The SSNP is very popular, especially in Christian areas like Wadi al-Nasara. They are very organized and active. In the last ten years, they showed a lot of interest in people. In my town, they were always organizing youth activities—museum trips, pool outings.” A widely-cited (but probably unverifiable) figure puts the total membership of the SSNP in Syria at 100,000.

With the onset of the crisis, as the SSNP Homs’ Facebook page puts it, “the party’s status has changed radically—what it was before the Syrian crisis is not what it is after.” My friend writes that as the violence began, “The SSNP started training people in Wadi Nasara, in self-defense, in using weapons, in first aid.” When the regime began organizing the National Defense Forces in various towns, “they went to the church leaders, to the local Ba’ath Party and to the SSNP.” In some areas of Syria, the SSNP fighters form merely a part of the NDF; in other areas, “they are the leaders:” “They don’t just hold guns and stand at the entrance. They are law enforcement in some of these towns. Their support and guns come from the government.”

Another Syrian Greek Catholic friend, only 14 when the uprising started, regularly posts photos to Facebook of himself holding machine guns and wearing the SSNP patch. In October, he posted photos of himself in Dukhaniyah, near Qunaytrah, after fighting to retake the city for the regime.

Dukhaniya  SSNP youth

Non-Maronite Christians’ attraction to the Party is natural. Writing in 1988, Pipes argued:

“Pure Pan-Syrianism held up as an ideal a geographic unit in which non-Sunnis constitute about half the population; in contrast, they almost disappear in larger Arab units. By bridging the historic gap between Muslims and Christians, Pan-Syrianism promised full citizenship and equality for the latter; by glorifying pre-Islamic antiquity – the civilization that Islam vanquished – it celebrated the common past; and it offered a state that would include nearly all Orthodox Christians within its confines.”

My Greek Catholic friend notes, “It’s convincing even for me. I feel closer to a Palestinian or a Lebanese person than to an Emirati or an Egyptian or a Bedouin.” Jihad el-Zein writes in al-Monitor that today “the SSNP is appearing as the ‘fighting Christians’ party on the side of the Syrian regime.”

In February of this year, al-Akhbar reported that:

“SSNP fighters are primarily deployed in the governorates of Homs and Damascus. …SSNP fighters stood out in the battles of Saddad and Mahin a few months ago, and in Nabek, Fallita, and Maaloula. Currently, they are working to repel attacks by opposition militants against the towns of Sednaya…The SSNP is the most formidable military force in Suweida other than the Syrian army…”

The killing of an SSNP leader from Homs named Subhi al-Eid in the battle for the Christian town of Saddad last November is commemorated on the SSNP Homs’ website and the first anniversary of his martyrdom was marked in a public ceremony this year. SSNP Homs’ Facebook page boasts:

“You ask about the Party’s martyrs in the alleys of Homs and you will receive a good answer, for they are known to the people: this one was martyred here and that one wounded there, at the battles of Saddad and al-Husn and Zara and Kassab and Saydnaya and Maleeha and Maherda and not ending in the Old City of Homs.”


While the SSNP does not spout sectarian rhetoric, it goes without saying that Syrian Christians perceived the rebel attacks on the Christian towns of Saddad, Maaloula, Sednaya and Kassab as attacks on their faith group.  One possible interpretation of the SSNP’s vigorous fight against the Syrian opposition is that of a Christian resistance against Sunni Muslim attack.

But there may be an ideological precedent for the SSNP’s role in the Syrian Civil War as well. In Lebanon’s first civil war, the SSNP took up arms on the side of the Chamoun government, in defense of a nation-state it believed should not exist, because other forces were threatening to drag Lebanon into a political union with non-Syrian Egypt. Today, in the face of a rebel movement rife with Islamists and supported by Turkey and the non-Syrian Arab states, the SSNP has again thrown in their lot with a regime they are fundamentally ideologically opposed to. From the 1950s until now, it seems, the SSNP will fight to keep any part of Greater Syria from being absorbed into a pan-Arab or pan-Islamic grouping.

The resurgence of the SSNP deserves much more attention. A wealth of information can be gleaned from the SSNP’s social media outlets alone.

Here I will suggest two possible implications of this resurgence:

1)  For decades, the SSNP’s pan-Syrian ideology was hamstrung by a division of its potential supporters between Lebanese nationalism and Arab nationalism (and later, Islamism). Could it be that the upheaval seen in the Syrian civil war is so great that it will allow for a resuscitation of the SSNP’s program as an ideology of influence in the region?

2)  The Syrian regime’s delegation of responsibility to the SSNP at the battlefront and in administration of “liberated” areas like Homs’ Old City suggest that the “militiafication” of Syria, ably described by Aron Lund on Syria Comment last year, continues apace. The regime is pushing back the opposition using a fragmentary coalition of parties with disparate ideologies and interests—parties that will be in a position to make demands when and if victory ever comes. To the long list of parties in this coalition—including Hezbollah, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderoun, the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, and the Jaysh al-Muwahhideen—we must add the SSNP.

“The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State,” By Mara Revkin

The Legal Foundations of the Islamic State
By Mara Revkin – @MaraRevkin
December 17, 2014 for Syria Comment

Notoriously violent groups such as al-Qaeda, the Islamic State (IS), and the Taliban are widely assumed to be lawless organizations. Judge Abraham Sofaer, former Legal Adviser to the U.S. State Department, summed up this attitude when he stated in 1989, “Terrorists have no respect for law and no commitment to accept the rules of any legal system.” In this article, I explain why Sofaer’s claim is false. Evidence from recent and current insurgencies in the Middle East indicates that jihadist groups are in fact pre-occupied with the creation of law, justice, and order as a platform for state-building. Observers of Islamist insurgencies in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, and Mali, have noted that one of the first things that jihadist groups do when they take over new territory is to establish courts and other legal institutions that facilitate governance. In order to understand and effectively confront the dangers posed by violent Islamist groups, it is imperative that policymakers take seriously their internal legal infrastructure and state-building aspirations. Although IS and other insurgent groups are promoting a version of rule of law that is deeply incompatible with liberal democratic principles of justice and equality, studying jihadists’ legal systems is essential to understanding how they use law to create a foundation for political power and legitimacy.

Examples of lawmaking by Islamist insurgent groups are abundant:

  • The Taliban establishes courts and appoints judges in newly conquered territories. It has built a school system to train judges.
  • IS’s  “caliph,” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, appealed to judges and fuqaha’ (experts in Islamic jurisprudence) to join the Islamic state as one of his first acts of statesmanship. This targeted recruitment of legal experts is evidence of the centrality of law in al-Baghdadi’s state-building project.
  • IS deploys legal jurists known as shari’is alongside combatants in Syria to underscore the primacy of law. One of the functions of these embedded jurists is to advise military commanders on the legality of operations according to Islamic law, not unlike the role that American JAG lawyers play in monitoring and advising U.S. military commanders.
  • IS has created accountability mechanisms that enable civilians to seek legal redress for their grievances. For example, in early December, IS issued a document in Aleppo stating that civilians are entitled to legal redress through IS courts for alleged violations of their rights by IS combatants or commanders. In this video, an elderly civilian man describes how he successfully brought charges against an IS emir, who was subsequently convicted in an IS court and sent to prison.
  •  In December, IS distributed an illustrated pamphlet in Mosul clarifying the rules governing the treatment of non-Muslim female slaves. Although the pamphlet describes captured female slaves as “merely property” who can be bought, sold, beaten, and under certain conditions raped, the pamphlet does guarantee some very limited rights for captives. For example, a female slave can buy her freedom, a pregnant slave cannot be sold, and mothers cannot be separated from their children. The fact that IS would seek to impose any codified rules on the treatment of slaves – rather than allow their owners to exercise unlimited discretion – is another example of the many ways in which IS uses law to control populations in the territory it occupies.

The Paradox of Power and Constraint

Insurgent groups such as IS have the ability to wield violence and terror arbitrarily. Yet the examples above indicate that these groups frequently choose to create legal institutions and rules of warfare that restrict when and how they can they can use force against enemies. The fact that so many jihadist groups voluntarily tie their own hands by adopting legally binding rules of engagement suggests that insurgents derive strategic benefits – in terms of local support and legitimacy – when they establish systems of law and order. Legal scholars have long noted a paradoxical relationship between power and constraint, whereby leaders who voluntarily limit their own authority with self-imposed checks tend to enjoy greater popular support and therefore greater power. Insurgent groups that constrain themselves by establishing courts and other disciplinary institutions appear to be benefiting from this paradox.

 An Islamist rebel group in Aleppo called "the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Supporting the Oppressed" reviews applications for aid on Feb. 25. In addition to handing out aid, the Islamist group says it is carrying out civilian administration in parts of Aleppo. Hamid Khatib/Reuters/Landov Attorney Jamil Osman says he joined the court system to try to insert Syria's civil code into these proceedings. "There needs to be the presence of lawyers because, frankly, the Shariah people do not know the procedures of the judiciary," he says. But it's the religious ruling that Syrians want, says Osman. The memories of the corrupt court system of the regime of President Bashar Assad are too fresh. "Most people in Syria prefer to have this system in place because it creates a large amount of trust," Osman says. "People trust the religious scholars."

An Islamist rebel group in Aleppo called “the Authority for the Promotion of Virtue and Supporting the Oppressed” reviews applications for aid on Feb. 25, 2013. In addition to handing out aid, the Islamist group says it is carrying out civilian administration in parts of Aleppo. Hamid Khatib/Reuters/LandovAttorney Jamil Osman says he joined the court system because “it’s the religious ruling that Syrians want. The memories of the corrupt court system of the regime of President Bashar Assad are too fresh.” IS refused to join the Aleppo Sharia Council, but Shaykh Maqsuwd (الشيخ مقصود), who sits at the left with black headdress and serves as the head of the court, is an al-Nusra Judge. 


In Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria, Islamist insurgencies have established justice systems that are widely perceived by civilians as more neutral, efficient, and committed to rule of law than state courts, which are frequently plagued by corruption, or in cases of extreme conflict such as Syria, have ceased to function at all. For example, in this video, a civilian resident of Idlib describes how the establishment of an IS court in the city has improved security and stability, and notes that residents prefer IS courts over the “corrupt courts” of the Assad regime. In another video, a Syrian civilian claims that IS courts have reduced crime by 90 percent. Although IS and other insurgent courts often inflict severe punishments and even torture, civilians may still view these courts as a fairer and more legitimate alternative to regime courts as long as their rulings – however punitive and harsh they may be – are administered according to consistent and transparent procedures.

There is strong historical support for the claim that law is an effective tool for legitimizing and maintaining political power in modern states, and if we think of insurgencies as “quasi-states,” “proto-states,” or even full-blown states – as IS purports to be – then we should expect to find that law plays as important a role in the formation of insurgent states as it did in the formation of modern bureaucracies.

The role of law in insurgent state-building is poorly understood, and this blog post will suggest some of the ways in which the creation of courts and justice systems may help insurgent groups to build legitimacy and consolidate power. In doing so, I draw on the history of legal institutionalization in modern Europe to argue that insurgent groups are using law to build political institutions in ways that are strikingly similar to processes of state formation that gave rise to Western industrialized bureaucracies.

Entrance to the Aleppo Sharia Commission in Aleppo City, headquartered in what was the Eye Hospital

The Legal Foundations of Insurgent States

Legal institutionalization has long been recognized as a critical phase in the consolidation of modern states, particularly in Europe, where Max Weber traced the origins of industrialized bureaucracies to a process of “legal-rational bureaucratization” in which traditional models of governance based on personal loyalty were gradually replaced by impersonal, “faceless” administrative institutions and objective legal rules. For those familiar with the history of bureaucratization in Europe, it should not be surprising that law is playing a similarly important role in the consolidation and expansion of the Islamic State. I outline below several of the ways in which IS, like any other state, is using law to strengthen its control over people and territory:

Legitimizing Violence

An essential criteria of statehood is the ability to claim a monopoly on legitimate violence that is justified by law. Islamist insurgent groups including IS appear to be more successful in gaining local support when they legitimize their use of violence through the establishment of a legal framework based on clear rules and procedures, as opposed to wielding violence arbitrarily. This claim is consistent with research suggesting that when insurgent groups resort to indiscriminate violence that is not disciplined by rules, civilians turn against them. As Jason Lyall has argued, “Indiscriminate violence can undermine an insurgent organization’s military effectiveness by driving a wedge between locals and insurgents.”

The alienating effects of arbitrary violence by Islamist groups were seen in the cases of Algeria (1990s) and Iraq (post-2001), where indiscriminate targeting of civilians by insurgent groups provoked a violent backlash. Al-Qaeda leaders later pointed to these unsuccessful insurgencies as cautionary lessons about the counterproductive consequences of unrestrained violence. For example, after the killing of former al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, U.S. intelligence recovered a letter in his possession from an Algerian al-Qaeda official who urged him to avoid repeating the mistakes of his country’s Armed Islamic Group: “[In] Algeria between 1994 and 1995 when [the GIA] was … on the verge of taking over the government … they destroyed themselves with their own hands with their lack of reason, delusions, ignoring the people, their alienation of them through oppression, deviance and severity, coupled with a lack of kindness, sympathy and friendliness.” Similarly, a member of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, Ansar al-Sharia, stated in an interview in 2012 that the group had “learned their lesson from Iraq,” and were focused on a “hearts and minds” campaign.

The cases of Iraq and Algeria suggest that one of the motivations underlying IS’s creation of an elaborate court system is to maintain discipline and cohesion within its own ranks and prevent the type of arbitrary violence that has undermined popular support for other Islamist insurgencies. Insurgencies are more successful when they develop internal regulatory mechanisms to ensure that violence – however extreme and brutal it may be – is only used according to well-defined rules and procedures, and IS is a clear example of this phenomenon. The practice of embedding jurists (shari’is) alongside combatants exemplifies the type of legal disciplinary mechanism that states create to justify and legitimize their monopoly on violence.

Discipline and Socialization

In addition to legitimizing violence, states have historically used law as a tool to discipline and socialize their citizens. Antonio Gramsci identified courts, along with schools, as the two most important instruments of state formation, citing the role of the “school as a positive educational function, and the courts as a repressive and negative educative function.” IS appears to be using judicial and law enforcement institutions in a similar manner to maintain discipline within its own ranks and to socially engineer the society that it aspires to govern. In a clear example of the disciplinary function of jihadist lawmaking, this video shows IS morality police (referred to as al-hisba) confiscating hundreds of containers of cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, and lighting them on fire. IS also uses law as a disciplinary tool to regulate the behavior of its own fighters and leaders. For example, in October, IS executed two of its own fighters after they were tried and convicted on charges of banditry, spying, and embezzlement. In the same month, IS executed two of its own judges – both Kuwaiti nationals – after they were charged with spying. These examples illustrate how IS uses law to maintain internal discipline and obedience.


Another way in which law facilitates state-building is by enabling the enforcement of contracts that are essential to regulating social and economic relations, including not only concrete agreements concerning the exchange of property or money, but also the abstract “social contracts” that provide a basis for reciprocal rights and obligations between rulers and citizens. Anthony Giddens’ account of state formation emphasizes the importance of a “centralized legal order permitting and protecting an expanding range of contractual rights and obligations.” The Islamic State appears to be using written contracts to organize economic and political activities in a similar manner. For example, IS drafts and signs written contracts governing the sale of smuggled oil – a lucrative black market industry that generates millions of dollars a day. The fact that IS goes through the trouble of formalizing oil sales with written contracts suggests that the group is actively trying to legitimize its activities to its followers and to the world.

Legal Pluralism and Fragmentation in Syria

While it is clear that IS and other Islamist insurgent groups in Syria are using law to consolidate political power and legitimacy, it is important to note that different factions are promoting competing and sometimes irreconcilable interpretations of Islamic law. IS’s understanding of shari’a is the most conservative and orthodox – based strictly on the text of the Quran – but some of the more moderate Islamist groups are open to more flexible interpretations of Islamic law. The rivalry and fragmentation between different insurgent justice systems has given rise to a situation that law scholars recognize as “legal pluralism” or the coexistence of multiple systems of order within the same territorial jurisdiction.

The sharpest dispute between IS and other Islamist factions is over the permissibility of codifying (taqnīn) the shari’a in a written code. The Islamic State, like most other Salafi jihadist groups, fundamentally rejects the validity of codified or “man-made” law as an illegitimate violation of the principle of absolute divine sovereignty (tawhīd). According to this view, the shari’a is a complete and comprehensive body of law that can be interpreted and applied by judges; codification would unnecessarily distort its original meaning by introducing fallible human judgment.

Arguing against the strict textualist approach favored by IS, other Islamist factions and even a Salafi group with alleged ties to al-Qaeda are supporting the adoption of the Unified Arab Code (UAC), a codified body of law developed by the Arab League in the 1980s that is based primarily on the shari’a. In August, the Islamic Sham Organization (a revolutionary Islamic scholarly association) published a document recommending the adoption of the UAC. Islamic Sham makes several pragmatic arguments for codification, summarized by Maxwell Martin, including the claim that a written code will make it easier for judges to apply the law and will provide a stable legal order until a unified national judiciary is established. The document points to the drawbacks of allowing a diverse and decentralized assortment of insurgent courts to interpret and apply the law as they see fit – a chaotic scenario that could be remedied by the adoption of a written code to which judges could look for guidance.

The debate over whether to codify the shari’a or instead allow judges to interpret it freely has important implications for legal stability and eventual post-conflict reconstruction in Syria. Interestingly, the arguments for and against codification are reminiscent of debates in European history concerning the design of legal systems under conditions of civil war, where the choice was between common law systems (where judges have broad discretion to shape the law according to independent interpretation) and civil law systems in which judges are constrained by a written code.

Edward Glaeser and Andrei Shleifer have argued that common law systems are easier to implement in peaceful contexts (citing the example of 12th-13th century England), whereas civil law systems are more appropriate for conflict-ridden states in which judges are likely to be subject to “bullying” and coercion (such as France). Under conditions of conflict, civil law systems supposedly insulate judges “from coercion by litigants through either violence or bribes.” This claim is relevant to the Syrian case, where a major obstacle to the establishment of a coherent and unified legal system will be the problem of distrust and infighting among rival factions.

The debate over the codification of Islamic law in Syria provides further evidence for my claim that insurgent groups use law to control people and territory in ways that are surprisingly similar to Western patterns of state formation. If Islamist insurgencies are understood as state-building projects, then it is logical to expect that law should play as important a role in the formation of IS’s caliphate as it did in the creation of Western bureaucracies. It is impossible to understand the rapid rise of the Islamic State without understanding the laws on which it is based.

Mara Revkin is a J.D./Ph.D. student in Political Science at Yale Law School/Yale University. She is on Twitter @MaraRevkin. Email mara.revkin@yale.edu

Will the Revolutionary Command Council be Syria’s New Rebel Government?

By Maxwell Martin, a researcher at ARK, a stabilization consultancy based in Istanbul. He has previously written for Foreign Policy and Syria Comment. Follow him on Twitter @WilayatNowhere

RCC members at the organization's founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh

RCC members at the organization’s founding conference; Qays al-Sheikh seated second from right

Between November 27 and 29, the Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) was formed after months of preparations, its backers having announced their intention that the RCC would be the unified body to lead the Syrian revolution. Although the RCC is chiefly a military unification initiative similar to the (now mostly defunct) Supreme Military Council (SMC), the body has also taken upon itself the ambitious task of administering territories in Syria no longer controlled by the regime. The choice of Qays al-Sheikh to lead the RCC is indicative of these ambitions; before becoming the leader of the new Council, al-Sheikh was one of the primary figures within the High Institute for the Syrian Judiciary, an organization that trains lawyers and jurists working in Syria’s opposition courts with some Qatari support. In its charter, the RCC claims for itself the right to “establish judicial institutions” and “issue all measures and promulgate laws that will organize the administration of the liberated territories,” highlighting its governance mission.

What is the RCC’s plan for administering territories outside of regime control? Will the RCC seek to supplant the opposition National Coalition (NC) and Interim Government (IG)? More importantly, is the RCC’s vision a viable solution to the fragmented provision of governance in areas outside of regime, Islamic State, and Jabhat al-Nusra control?

In this post, I hope to sketch out some preliminary answers to these questions. In short, although the RCC has a more viable and practical plan to govern opposition-held territories than the NC or the IG, it still faces large obstacles to improving the provision of justice and other services in Syria. This post is based on my interviews with RCC head Qays al-Sheikh (Dec. 3), members of armed groups, employees of opposition courts, and members of local councils, as well as on open sources.

What is the RCC’s plan?

The RCC logo

The RCC logo

According to Qays al-Sheikh, the core of the RCC’s governance program will be the creation of an independent judiciary. However, rather than creating new judicial bodies from scratch, al-Sheikh says that existing opposition courts—mostly self-described sharia courts and commissions with the backing of local armed groups—are expected to participate. The RCC intends to transform these institutions into independent entities through the creation of a higher body with the power to intervene in and reform judicial policies and procedures. “The heart of the judicial project will be the creation of a mechanism in which lawyers and judges participate,” says al-Sheikh, “and that will ensure courts are operating effectively and set new rules for how jurists and judges are appointed.”

The RCC is considering a number of ways to remove opposition courts from the orbit of the armed groups that have backed them. The first is the creation of the Central Force, an army of 7,000+ formed from contributions from RCC component factions. Al-Sheikh noted that the central force, which is to fall under the authority of the RCC Military Office, would be used in part to enforce judicial rulings and to police non-compliant armed groups. Part of the Central Force’s mission is therefore intended to shield opposition courts from the direct influence individual armed groups by giving the courts the ability to enforce rulings against previously unaccountable factions.

The second is the creation of a central funding mechanism intended to wean the courts from their armed backers. “What has delayed [judicial independence] is the issue of funding, because the courts receive all of their funding from armed groups,” says al-Sheikh. “We know that the faction that takes funding from a source is completely subservient to that force, and we intend to become the main source of funds.” The source of the funding, however, is to come in the form of contributions from RCC component factions themselves.

As for the law to be applied within RCC-affiliated courts, a consensus around the Unified Arab Code (UAC)—a set of legal codes that resembles a civil code, but is based on a relatively strict interpretation of Islamic law—has emerged. Although the use of the UAC is contentious among Islamists—part of a larger debate over the permissibility of codifying Islamic law—the codes appear to have garnered a critical mass of support among the armed groups and religious associations that have endorsed the RCC.

This development is somewhat surprising given the relatively hardline ideology that some RCC factions espouse. For example, in August 2014, the Islamic Sham Organization, an activist salafi charity and religious association that is reportedly close to the Islamic Front, issued a ruling that not only deemed the UAC acceptable, but also encouraged its use in Syria until the revolution achieves its primary goal of toppling the regime. Even more surprisingly, Ahrar al-Sham—a salafi Islamic Front faction with links to al-Qaeda and one of the most important backers of the RCC—is reportedly on board with the use of the UAC within the RCC’s new governance scheme, while Muhammad ‘Alloush, the head of the RCC’s Political Committee and a member of Jaysh al-Islam, the Islamic Front’s most powerful Damascus-area affiliate, noted the successful use of the code in opposition courts around Damascus.

However, amendments to the UAC within the RCC’s governance scheme are likely. Hardline factions will likely insist on modifying parts of the codes that do not conform with their interpretation of Islamic law. It is worth mentioning here that to many of its proponents, the UAC is Islamic law, it just happens to be codified, and is therefore not considered a mix of the sharia with other systems, even if parts of the UAC are amended to suit other interpretations. Hardline salafi-jihadi factions such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State—both of which have established their own judicial networks—would of course disagree with this explanation; in their view, the act of codifying Islamic law is ipso facto the mixing of Islamic law with man-made positive law, which is forbidden. This may have been one of the reasons, among others, that Jabhat al-Nusra rejected signing onto the RCC despite, according to Muhammad ‘Alloush, having been invited to do so.

The RCC does not appear to have a clearly articulated plan to create administrative governance entities that provide non-judicial services to the population. It is not clear either how the RCC intends to interface with the array of local administrative councils in opposition-held Syria, many of which are responsible for keeping water and power available, running schools, distributing aid, and providing other services. Local councils, many of which operate in areas where RCC component factions are strong, could, in theory, be compelled to collaborate more closely with the RCC or volunteer to do so. “We hope to have a role in this regard,” said Khalid Hammadi, member of the Kafranbel local council. “[Fursan al-Haqq] is the most important faction in Kafranbel and is one of the strongest supporters of the local council, and it is among the supporters of the [RCC].”

However, many local councils are dependent on the NC and the IG for support through their links with provincial councils, and they may be reluctant to collaborate exclusively with a potential rival entity unless it can give them a reason to do so. At the same time, the RCC and its component factions are not likely to disrupt the rudimentary but sufficient work of the local councils unless they can provide the material support and assistance necessary to replace or exceed what the NC and the IG could offer, an unlikely scenario.

Will the RCC seek to replace the National Coalition and the Interim Government?

Although members of the RCC, including al-Sheikh, have claimed that the new organization does not seek to replace or marginalize the NC or the IG, the RCC appears to pose a direct challenge to them. “The National Coalition and the Interim Government have not led the revolution well and have lost the people’s confidence,” says al-Sheikh. “There are good and wise people among them, but their performance has not led to victories.” Indeed, the sweeping powers the RCC claims for itself in its charter appear to be the opening shots from an organization seeking to claim the mantle of the revolution.

However, details provided about the RCC’s plans indicate that in some important respects, the organization will not actually conflict with the NC and the IG. In particular, the NC and IG have been unsuccessful in forging strong links to security and judicial actors inside the country, precisely the areas that the RCC appears most poised to address. At the same time, the RCC is, thus far, mostly silent in the area of administrative governance, where the NC and the IG actually hold some sway. As such, the RCC will not likely face meaningful resistance from the NC and the IG in the areas it hopes to have the greatest impact, nor does it yet have the vision and resources to replace the external opposition in all aspects of rebel governance.

The IG and the NC also enjoy something that the RCC is unlikely to replicate: a working relationship with Western governments. Because of the participation of hardline Islamic Front factions in the RCC, it is unlikely that the United States and other western governments will have the appetite to seriously engage with it, if at all. This is especially true after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry drew equivalence between major RCC-supporter Ahrar al-Sham and the Islamic State, among other terrorist organizations. At the same time, the West is unlikely to seriously consider abandoning the NC and the IG, organizations in which they have invested a not insignificant amount of time and resources, in favor of a new organization.

Still the RCC may yet carve out a role for itself as an important interlocutor for armed groups in the international arena, a role could have an impact on the course of the conflict. Recently, for example, when U.N. Syria Envoy Staffan De Mistura wished to discuss a plan for a ceasefire in Aleppo city with individual rebel groups, they refused and sent RCC Head Qays al-Sheikh to bargain for them instead. If al-Sheikh is consistently called upon to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of RCC component factions and if they accept the outcomes of negotiations—a big if—the RCC may become an essential player the international community’s efforts to deescalate the conflict in Syria.

Will the RCC’s governance vision succeed?

Although the RCC has a better chance at putting together a functioning rebel government in Syria than the NC or the IG—primarily because of its strong links to some of the largest armed groups in opposition-held Syria—it still faces a number of obstacles that will likely prevent it from significantly improving the rebel administration.

Most importantly, the RCC will probably not be able to solve the problem of rebel fragmentation. The organization itself is unlikely to develop a strong command structure capable of dictating to the armed groups that support it. Instead, the RCC’s component factions are likely to retain their autonomy, their sources of funding, and their chain of command. That the RCC’s component factions include such a diverse array of groups, some of which—such as the Islamic Front—have tried and mostly failed to integrate in the past, raises doubts about the extent to which any will be willing to subjugate their autonomy to the RCC.

In terms of governance, persistent fragmentation will mean that the creation of unified, independent, and mutually acceptable judicial bodies that operate according to the same legal standards, policies, and procedures will entail high, and possibly prohibitive, transaction costs. Because the RCC will have trouble dictating to its component factions, it will have to rely on mutual cooperation between armed groups to implement shared governance plans. In practice, this means that the most important decisions—from appointing of judges to setting rules for the Central Force to deciding the structure and function of judicial bodies—will have to be tediously negotiated among a divisive group of armed actors, a process that hinders even like-minded jihadis in their efforts to build institutions. Usama Shannaq, an employee of an Aleppo countryside-area opposition court supported by two RCC factions, summed up these difficulties in his reaction to efforts to coax his court, which is backed by two RCC factions, to join another court network backed by other RCC factions:

“This [proposal] is lacking and it is impossible to unify the judiciary in this way because it will cancel out some courts and establish alternative ones, and this can only happen after consultations. Whoever wants to sign onto this initiative doesn’t know what his role is and where he will work. What is the judge’s role to which the factions agree? Can the factions even agree on a judge? Why are the factions involved? What makes them qualified? It’s possible that they would agree to a person who is not even a judge, or that there is a judge to whom the factions will not agree. With every plan on the table, its organizers try to shop it around.”

Compounding this problem is the lack of funding that could lure RCC factions and their associated governance bodies to become better integrated. The collective RCC treasury envisioned by al-Sheikh does not seem capable of effectively pooling funds because the free rider problem will likely emerge immediately. Without strong material inducements, the RCC may simply end up like the ill-fated SMC in both its military and its governance dimensions: a potential source of funds and equipment when available, but not an organization that can truly provide incentives for cooperation and punish non-compliance. The RCC could address this problem through securing its own sources of funding, potentially from sources in the Gulf, but details on such a plan were not provided.

Finally, governance gaps in the areas where RCC factions are strong will remain, and the space within which the RCC can even work is shrinking. The participation of a number of Western-backed groups is still in question, Jabhat al-Nusra and its jihadi allies have embarked on their own quest to control and govern territory in large parts of Idlib province, and Harakat Nur al-Din al-Zinki, a group that controls a swath of territory and a small network of courts west of Aleppo city, says it is not part of the RCC. Even in areas where RCC factions are strong, the RCC would still have to contend with the presence of jihadis and non-compliant sub-factions of member brigades possibly seeking to undermine its efforts.

As such, governance in opposition-held Syria is like to remain local, relatively uncoordinated, and beset by existing disagreements among RCC factions. However, populations living where RCC factions are strong may see minor improvements, particularly if the organization is successful in rotating qualified jurists among existing opposition judicial bodies.

On Camps and Cities: The Lived Experience of Displaced Syrians in Jordan

Matthew R Stevens by Matthew R. Stevens

The treatment of Syrian refugees living in urban centres in Jordan is changing radically. New laws, passed in July, are placing strict new limits on who can receive services and support from UNHCR, agencies, and the government.

Until recently, the Government of Jordan allowed all Syrians with refugee status to register for services from UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior in urban areas, with no questions or limitations. This policy meant that even those Syrians who left refugee camps through informal means were able to access monthly food vouchers, health care, and education for children, as well as being eligible for monthly or one-time aid packages allocated based on need. In July of 2014, this regulation changed: Syrians who lack proper bailout documentation are barred from receiving any services or support from the Government of Jordan, UNHCR, or other aid agencies.

Zaatari refugee camp Jordan

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Technically, a Jordanian sponsor is required to secure permission for Syrians to live in urban areas through a procedure referred to as a “bailout”. This sponsor is expected to provide for the family in question, in order to prevent Syrian families entering and influencing the employment and housing markets. After contacting a friend or relative willing to pledge support, processing bailout paperwork can take from a few days to several weeks.

Practically, however, the ideal bailout rarely exists. Over the past three years, leaving the camps informally has been extremely common—smugglers would often approach families the day they arrived with offers to leave that evening. Many Syrians were unaware that leaving the camp is considered illegal by the Jordanian Government, especially when security around Zaatari was less sophisticated and thus easier to evade. The majority of Syrian families who spent time in Zaatari and are now living in Irbid seem to have left by informal means.

Syrians who did secure sponsorship for their bailout documentation (either through friends and family or through bribes to strangers) were often abandoned to their own resources. The result is a large number of Syrians—more than 80% of the 600,000 living in Jordan—are living in urban centres and directly accessing the economy. Syrians have had a large impact on the housing and employment markets: rent is going up, wages are going down. While the negative impacts of Syrians on the Jordanian economy are often exaggerated, it is impossible to deny that the sudden arrival of such a large group has had a major effect on the economy in Irbid Governate.

In an attempt to counter this trend, in the past two months, the Government of Jordan has sharply shifted its policy towards Syrians living in urban areas. After mid-July 2014, UNHCR and the Ministry of Interior are no longer permitted to issue refugee status and identity documents (which are required to access to aid, health care, and education) for Syrians without proper bailout paperwork. Those who approach to apply are instructed to return to the camps where they were registered. While those who currently hold UNCHR and Government of Jordan documentation are able to retain access to these services, aid agencies canvassed were not able to confirm that they will be able to renew documentation when it expires.

It is difficult to emphasize how sharply this regulation may affect Syrian forced migrants living in Jordan. In the course of my research, I have not encountered a single household which relies on a Jordanian sponsor. The vast majority of former camp residents left informally, without following proper bailout procedures. If these households are not able to renew the documentation which grants access to services, their experiences in exile will shift sharply. Without access to WFP food vouchers, food security will quickly become an issue; those who qualify for monthly assistance from UNHCR will be pushed from a relatively secure life into negative coping strategies and desperation. Children will no longer have access to schooling; costs of private healthcare will render medical treatment unobtainable.

Theoretically, these hardships will act as push factors, forcing Syrians to return from urban areas to the camps. Yet initial reports from Azraq camp suggest that the new law has not slowed run-aways. Zaatari camp, the sprawling city-in-vitro that is commonly celebrated in the media, is closed to new arrivals; all Syrians now go to Azraq, where harsh conditions—no electricity, metal cabins with dirt floors deep in the desert, long walks to latrines and food distribution centres—are abhorrent to Syrians now living in urban apartments. Even substandard housing in Irbid Governate offers a proper floor and a private bathroom. No matter the hardships of living in cities, they do not compare to the absolute indignity of life in the camp. And this shows in the numbers: while Azraq supposedly holds 20,000 registered refugees, whispered rumours in Amman say that no more than 4,000 to 8,000 residents have remained. The rest have “escaped” (the word Syrians themselves use) to return to cities.

What, instead, will be the effects of these policies? Some UNHCR staff express fear that the future will bring more “underground” urban refugees, typical of the urban refugee situations in Cairo or Nairobi—uncounted, unmonitored, largely unassisted, actively hiding from aid agencies and the government alike. It is hard to see how the new regulations—understandable from a management standpoint but completely divorced from the lived experience of life in exile—will create a situation which is more stable, sustainable, or beneficial for either Jordanian host communities or displaced Syrians.

Matthew is an MA Candidate in the Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies, at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens or on the web at matthewrstevens.weebly.com