Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Civil Society in Jabal al-Summaq

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The formation of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (‘Liberation of al-Sham Commission’- HTS) has understandably provoked fear of a total jihadist/al-Qa’ida takeover of Syria’s rebel-held northwest, centred around Idlib province. HTS was announced on 28 January amid wider rebel infighting in Idlib that saw multiple groups merge under Ahrar al-Sham in a bid to protect themselves from Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS), the rebranded Jabhat al-Nusra that had ostensibly dropped links to al-Qa’ida in July 2016. The largest single component of HTS is undoubtedly JFS, whose leader Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani was recently confirmed in a video release to be the overall military commander of HTS, even as the overall leader Hashim al-Sheikh was originally in Ahrar al-Sham and had been pushing for his group to merge with JFS.

At present, there is still a substantial presence of Ahrar al-Sham in northwest Syria, but it is evident that the recent turns of events have severely diminished the influence of rebel factions in the area that are vetted and supported by the MOM operations room in Turkey. A merger with Ahrar al-Sham means an end to vetted status, while rebel factions more widely are being pressured by Turkey and other external backers to take a firmer line against HTS. Yet the prospect of a full-blown confrontation and all-out war with HTS could be fatal to the entire insurgency in the northwest as the regime and its allies would likely exploit the opportunity to secure major territorial gains.

Rebel factions (including Ahrar al-Sham) can of course opt for a closer relationship with Turkey, bolstering the Euphrates Shield operation in north Aleppo countryside that recently took al-Bab from the Islamic State. But this option means drawing more resources and manpower away from Idlib province and the wider northwest, which allows HTS to increase its influence. Whatever way one looks at it, the best that the rebel factions can hope for in the northwest is keeping HTS in check somehow: that is, maintaining some kind of stalemate in the balance of power. Even so, it is apparent that HTS is taking an ever more assertive line on the ground, not only in its drive to absorb more and more factions but also in its relations with civil society structures where non-HTS actors might hope to maintain some influence.

The area of Jabal al-Summaq in north Idlib province is a notable case-in-point. Of Druze origin, the area’s original inhabitants have been forced to renounce their faith and convert to Sunni Islam twice. The first time was under pressure from what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham as it expanded its influence across northwest Syria through 2013. The second time was under Jabhat al-Nusra, which gained control over the area in late 2014 after the expulsion of the Syrian Revolutionaries Front from Idlib province. Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors have remained in control of the area since that time.

The existence of a services wing established under Jabhat al-Nusra has long been known: the General Administration for Services (al-Idarat al-Aama lil-Khidimat). However, its presence and functioning have not always correlated with the existence of strongholds under Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors. In some areas, such as Khan Sheikhoun in south Idlib province but coming under the Hama division of the General Administration for Services, we find that this services department for what is now HTS has been competing alongside the local council. Local councils- which are supposed to be civilian bodies embodying local governance in ‘liberated’ areas-are considered to be among the main pillars of civil society in insurgent-held territory. In the case of Khan Sheikhoun, the local council is affiliated with the Idlib provincial council, which is in turn backed by the opposition-in-exile/the interim government.

In Jabal al-Summaq, despite the dominance of Jabhat al-Nusra and its successors since the end of 2014, there has not until now been a functioning branch for the General Administration for Services. Instead, services have been managed by local councils that share the same chain of affiliation and support as that of the Khan Sheikhoun local council. For example, in the village of Kaftin, one of the larger villages of Jabal al-Summaq in which a substantial proportion if not the majority of the original inhabitants has remained (also true for Ma’arat al-Ikhwan, whereas other villages like Duwair are completely depopulated of their original inhabitants). Displacement has occurred for a variety of reasons: some prefer to work in regime-held areas, others did not want to live under forced conversion to Sunni Islam, a combination of these factors etc.

The local council of Kaftin was set up three years ago and is led by an administrative office consisting of nine people.

Emblem of the local council for the village of Kaftin. On bottom: “We work for your sake.”

Perhaps the most notable service the local council in Kaftin has undertaken is management of an oven that makes and distributed bread for locals. According to a post by the Idlib provincial council in December 2016, this oven in Kaftin serves around 5000 families, translating to approximately 25,000 individuals, in three localities. Based on other information, the other two localities besides Kaftin are Birat Kaftin and Ma’arat al-Ikhwan (both villages also in Jabal al-Summaq, the former having seen more displacement of its original inhabitants than the latter). This oven was opened in November 2016 and the Kaftin local council had announced a recruitment campaign for personnel to operate the oven at the time.

The Kaftin oven. Note the symbol of the Kaftin local council on the banner, which reads: “Our bread is among the treasures of our land.”

Bread packs with the marking of the Kaftin local council.

The local council in Kaftin also plays a role in education for the youth. Kaftin has four schools, but they teach according to the education programs of the regime. These programs are considered better than those offered by the opposition, and so people from neighbouring villages have sought to have their youth study in the schools of Kaftin. That said, there are regulations in place regarding certain subjects, notably the removal of nationalist ideology, modification to the teaching of history and removal of art subjects (i.e. art and music). There is of course also religious education in line with HTS’ rules (i.e. only teaching Sunni Islam). One should compare with regulations put in place in late 2014 by the Dar al-Qada– the judicial branch for what was then Jabhat al-Nusra- in the Idlib locality of Darkush, a stronghold for the group. Some specifications on education were also noted on the second imposition of Sunni Islam on the original inhabitants of Jabal al-Summaq, requiring Islamic teaching for the youth in designated places of prayer- which amounts to standard da’wa practice- and a prohibition on gender mixing in schools.

Many of the teachers and education personnel continue to receive salaries from the regime in Hama province: a key example of how the regime tries to maintain some leverage in rebel-held areas, ultimately seeking to regain them (another case-in-point is that the regime pays salaries of retired state employees in those areas). Yet there are also some teachers who are working on a voluntary basis or have defected from the regime. Their salaries are paid by the local council in Kaftin, which also provides for the needs of the schools (e.g. fuel).

Other services of note include public cleaning, agricultural land auction for the purposes of grazing, working with the Syria Immunization Group to implement vaccine programs, and working on land telephone lines.

Like many other local councils, the local council in Kaftin works with international aid programs and organizations to provide some services. For example, in May 2016, the council advertised distribution of emergency aid to displaced people. The aid was provided by the World Food Program and Human Appeal.

At the head of the Kaftin council is Abd al-Majid Sharif, an anti-regime political thinker and activist originally from Kaftin and presently residing there. Some readers may recall that the outlet Syria Direct interviewed him in March 2015 regarding the situation in Jabal al-Summaq, in which he outlined the reality of the forced conversions and the failure of Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt’s supposed mediation. According to Sharif, the council does not have elections, whether internally done within the council or externally through popular elections for positions. Sharif clarified further: “I want to abandon [my position in the local council] to have time for theoretical work, but no one wants to undertake the job and the other members are threatening me with resignation if I resign.”

The status-quo whereby the realm of services provision in Jabal al-Summaq has been in the hands of these local councils that are ultimately tied to the opposition-in-exile is now under threat from HTS. On his Facebook page late last month, Sharif wrote of a new initiative from HTS to subsume the local councils under its services wing:

“In the province of Idlib and the north of Aleppo, whereby HTS control has arisen without contests and the rest of the factions and formations have gone into seclusion, or even many of their members handed over their weapons to Jabhat Fatah al-Sham or joined it, the commission [HTS] is currently forming a civil administration in the name of the General Services Administration, and is directing for the previous administration represented in the local councils to become affiliated with this General Administration. The cadres of Fatah al-Sham say that the council that will not accept this affiliation to it will be dissolved and a replacement will be formed for it.

But the problem is also with the cadres of the councils who fear the commission’s [HTS’] revenge if the cadre rejects working with it. The second problem concerns the possessions of the councils that will be automatically transferred to the new councils affiliated with the General Administration. The third is that this will annul the work of the provincial council and the interim government. The fourth and most important is that the commission is classified worldwide with terrorism legally speaking since Fatah al-Sham forms its main body, and so also the countries and organizations will reject working with it and we will be turned to a form of siege even if there are no bombing and destruction of the installations that these countries and organizations had previously offered to the local councils.

We are in a true dilemma, I do not know how we can get out from it. But it should be noted that the new General Administration has covered or deceived the entire area with aid, especially free bread and semi-free bread. This aid is being offered by Turkish organizations: it is as though Turkey is trying to pressure the international community through its support to obtain something in return. I do not believe this will last long if something must be sorted out with Turkey and this aid stops.

I asked one of the members of the provincial council: What is your opinion? And where are things headed? He replied: To the precipice.”

Though Sharif told me on 27 February that he had only heard of this services branch for HTS twenty days ago, the reality is that it is not a new institution but reflects the General Administration for Services discussed earlier in this article. The difference now is that HTS is simply being more assertive in trying to ensure services provision comes under the affiliation of this services branch in areas of its control. In Jabal al-Summaq, though the idea of services oversight by what was then Jabhat al-Nusra had been mentioned in the second imposition of Sunni Islam, it does not seem to have been realized. As for what Sharif writes about aid of Turkish origin, it is slightly to make out his exact meaning, but one can only suppose that if the Turkish state is involved in mass aid provision here, the idea is actually to try to undermine HTS, considering that Turkey wants the broader opposition and insurgency to take a firmer stance against HTS. If the aid is being appropriated by HTS though, it only reflects the problem of supply lines into Idlib province being controlled by HTS.

So far in Jabal al-Summaq, according to Sharif, HTS has only set up its own local services administration in the village of Qalb Lawze, which has seen more than half of its original population displaced as well as settlement of Uyghurs, in addition to being the site of an infamous massacre in June 2015. In response, some members of the local council in Qalb Lawze withdrew, while others have remained and overhauled the local council, thus choosing to work under HTS’ services administration. Sharif said that in Kaftin, the ultimatum had not yet come, but he indicated that he does not see an interest in working with an HTS services administration. As Sharif also put it, “I prefer that we administer our affairs ourselves.”

In short, these developments reflect how the declaration of HTS represents an ever bolder assertion of jihadist influence and power, not only in terms of relations with the more ‘mainstream’ insurgency but also wider civil society. The options for these non-jihadist actors in Idlib province in particular in the face of HTS’ ascendancy seem ever more constrained. Undoubtedly, a significant reason for this quagmire is that the growth of HTS’ main predecessors in the northwest and Syria more generally was allowed to fester for too long. Now the broader insurgency and opposition must live with the consequences of that.

Akram al-Hawrani: Syria’s Left-Wing Populist and the United Arab Republic – By Christopher Solomon

Akram al-Hawrani: Syria’s left-wing populist and the United Arab Republic
By Christopher Solomon
For Syria Comment – February 15, 2017

Gamal Abdul Nasser (left) with Akram al-Hawrani (center) and Egypt’s Abdul Latif al-Baghdadi (right).

As the pro-Assad forces recaptured the last sections of rebel-held Aleppo in December, they excitedly declared that these areas now had “green eyes” (eyoon khadara) in reference to the twin green stars found on the national flag. Now heavily associated with President Bashar Al-Assad’s Baathist government, the flag’s origins can be traced to the United Arab Republic (UAR), which was founded in February 1958 and last until September 1961. The green stars represented Syria and Egypt’s unification and the tricolor served as inspiration for several other Arab countries with Pan-Arab ideological foundations. For the Baath Party, this union was the long-awaited realization of their key political tenant which would propel the Arab World towards unity.

The UAR flag that flew over Syria from 1958 to 1961 and now currently in use since 1980

Recently, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi has slowly begun to depart from the stance of the rest of the Sunni Arab bloc and rebuild ties with Assad’s government. There has been a noted emphasis by

Egypt on the need for enhancing bilateral security and military cooperation. What this means for Syria in the remaining years of the conflict and, eventually the post-conflict era, is not yet clear. The history of Egyptian-Syrian relations is long, at the center, looms the UAR. In order to understand Syria’s place in the UAR, its importance for the Baath Party’s history, and its impact in the social and political direction of the country, one should look to Akram al-Hawrani, now a relatively obscure personality in more recent Middle Eastern history, as an important and revolutionary Syrian political figure of this bygone era.

Early Life in Hama

Hama in the 1950s

Hasan Akram al-Hawrani was born in 1911 to a respected Sunni family which followed a Sufi religious order that emphasized helping the poor and disadvantaged. His father, Rashid al-Hawrani, was a textile weaver and upon entering local politics, won a seat on the Hama City Council. Hawrani’s childhood had seen his family’s wealth squandered and he subsequently grew up loathing the land owning elite that dominated the countryside. Hawrani’s life in politics began in the city of Hama as a social leader and agitator. The center of his focus were the elite Hama area families – the Azms, the Kaylanis, and the Barazis – who ruled over the region with ruthless and unchecked power. They controlled over 100 villages and had their own private armies to enforce their will. It was Hawrani’s tireless quest during the backdrop of this extreme class divide to fight and to obtain social justice for Syria’s rural peasants that won him vast popularity with Syria’s poor and impoverished. In his home city, Hawrani would build his populist movement into a force to be reckoned with that radically influenced and changed Syria’s society and politics. Hawrani had taken the reigns of leadership over the Youth Party of Hama that had been founded by his cousin, Uthman al-Hawrani. Violent battles between Hawrani’s movement and the landowning families were frequent. His early victories against the Landowner’s paid thugs won him widespread praise. Likening him to knights of old, common people wore badges with his picture and hung his photo in their homes.

Onset of Nationalism

Aside from social justice, Hawrani had strong nationalist sentiments as well. His childhood memories recalled the 1920 French’s victory which destroyed the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria that had been established after World War I by Faisal bin Hussein. When the 1941 Rashid Ali revolt broke out in neighboring Iraq, Hawrani used his connections in the Syrian army to recruit officers to join him in the fight against the British. When the revolt failed, he was captured by the French upon crossing the border and was detained at their desolate military base in Deir el-Zor for a short period of time. Among his cellmates were two other figures who would later become central leaders in the formation of the UAR, the Baathist thinker Dr. Jamal al-Atasi and the leftist army officer Afif al-Bizri.

Flag of the Arab Kingdom of Syria, from which the Pan-Arab colors are derived, lasted only a few months, from March to July of 1920.

Hawrani also was known to have used his early affiliation with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) which he viewed primarily as an opportunity to cement his anti-Imperialist credentials and to bolster his movement. It was the party’s militant nature that appealed to Hawrani along with its desire to end foreign domination in the Levant, to eradicate feudalism, and to establish a secular and socially progressive state.

To cover up his activities with the SSNP, he established the Arab Socialist Movement. In reality, Hawrani’s ties to the Pan-Syrian party were relatively thin. Ultimately, he felt that the SSNP was too intellectual and cumbersome to grow into an effective mass political organization. It would be his army connections and the ideology of Arab nationalism that ultimately determined his fate in Syria’s political future.

In 1943, Hawrani secured a seat in Syria’s national parliament where he first met Michel Aflaq and Salal al-Din Bitar. Aflaq was an urban intellectual who had founded his Baath movement (Baath translates to renaissance or resurgence) in the late 1940’s in Syria’s cities, schools, and universities. Though Hawrani did not join their Pan-Arab party at this stage, he became friends with the two men and frequented the party’s headquarters in Damascus. Along with the Baath, Hawrani built ties with the Communist Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. It was in Damascus where Hawrani established a reputation as an ardent champion of freedom of speech and as a fighter, sometimes quite literally, with fist fights breaking out on the floor of Syrian parliament between him and supporters of President Shukri Quwatli’s old guard.

Being primarily active in Hama, Hawrani’s proximity to the Homs military academy made it possible to link his movement to the support of army officers nearby. He also joined his friend and military figure Adib al-Shishakli (also an early member of the SSNP) in attacking the local French garrison in Hama. These violent actions were so successful that he was instructed by Syrian independence leaders to stop since these facilities would eventually fall into Syrian hands after the anticipated departure of the French. Hawrani’s network within the army was also further extended with his participation in campaigns on the frontlines of the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The full extent and endurance of Hawrani’s power base would be tested during Syria’s era of military coups.

Hawrani during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War

Hawrani and Syria’s military coups

Although Hawrani did not directly plan and implement Syria’s first coup headed by General Husni Ziam, he supported them politically. In his view, it was an opportunity to implement his land reform schemes. Hawrani was later able to land a spot as the general’s advisor with the help of the nationalist officers in the army. He had also channeled members of his youth movement towards careers in the military. However, it wasn’t long before a rift grew between Hawrani and Ziam. This was due to Ziam’s close ties with Hawrani’s archenemies from the old landowning clans in Hama. After Colonel Sami Hinnawi overthrew Ziam, Hawrani become the Minister of Agriculture in the new regime.

The Baath, for their part, had grown in size and popularity due to their criticism of the government’s defeat in the Arab-Israeli War. Consequently, the party was repeatedly repressed during the periods of military rule. Aflaq spent a couple spells in Mezzeh Prison in Damascus. This practice of authoritarianism was something the Baath learned from and would eventually come to utilize themselves.

It wasn’t until Hawrani’s friend Shishakli seized control that he was able to finally introduce his land reform program with the backing of the national government. Order Number 96 restricted the expansion and ability of landowners to obtain unregistered land, which was reallocated to peasants.

Hawrani (left page, bottom right panel) dreams of a gun to carry out a coup in this Arabic political cartoon from 1955.

During the Shishakli period, Hawrani gave a speech in 1951 before a crowd of 10,000 in Aleppo, “My friends! We are weak when we are alone, but stronger than iron and fire when united! With the blood of our ancestors flowing through our hearts, we can rebel against tyranny and injustice!”

The growing use of the automobile brought about the ability to shuttle peasants on buses from the countryside to the cities to attend political demonstrations and thus project a show of force. It also served to add new members to his party. The Arab Socialist Party grew by merging the rural peasants with the urban industrial workers. In the countryside, Hawrani’s “This Land Belongs to the Peasants” campaign took a violent turn with villagers taking up firearms against the wealthy landowners.

When Shishakli began to assert his crack down on political opposition (which was largely in response to several plots against him that were uncovered) the Arab Socialist Party, along with the Baath Party, was banned. In January of 1953 Hawrani, Bitar, and Aflaq went into exile where they began to plan Shishakli’s downfall. With the support of friendly officers in the army, Hawrani, Bitar, and Aflaq were able to create a coalition (in large part with help from the military) that opposed Shishakli’s rule from exile and force him to resign. The trio returned to Syria where the country experienced a brief revival of democracy.

In the years that followed his overthrow, Shishakli traveled to Beirut to discuss the potential coup with the SSNP against the Syrian regime, his old friend and associate, Hawrani, was allegedly one of the names compiled on the hit list for the SSNP’s assassination squads. However, Shishakli’s coup plans with the SSNP never materialized.

Hawrani (left) with Salah al-Din Bitar (center) and Michel Aflaq (right) in exile in Rome during the Shishakli period

In 1952, while in exile in Lebanon, Hawrani had reached an agreement with Aflaq to merge the Arab Socialist Party with the Baath Party, thus becoming the Arab Socialist Baath Party, the name by which it is known today. The marriage of rural peasants and poor laborers to the student and urban intellectuals turned the party into the mass popular movement it had to become in order to secure and sustain power. This merger was officially blessed during the Baath Party’s 2nd Congress in 1954 that followed the overthrow of Shishakli.

A Baath Party Logo showing the Arab World united

United Arab Republic

Hawrani seated next to Abdel Nasser during a meeting with Lebanese leaders on the Syrian-Lebanon border following the 1958 Lebanon crisis. Note the appearance of the two starred flag of the UAR.

Following the Suez War of 1956, there was a renewed push within Syria to move ahead with the proposed union with Egypt. Dr. Jamal al-Atasi touted the pro-Nasserist line through the party newspaper. Afif al-Bizri, with his strong leftist leanings, was now chief of staff in the army. He was instrumental in packing the army with pro-Nasser officers. Furthermore, Bizri led purges against politicians with anti-Nasser sentiments. Bizri’s supposed communist ties generated much fear in the West that Syria was quickly becoming a Soviet satellite state. The purges led to a moment of heightened tension in the Cold War which subsequently saw Egyptian troops land in Syria in order to check the mobilization of Turkish troops along Syria’s northern border.

Syrian women of the Popular Resistance Committees during the Suez War shows Hawrani’s wife, Naziha al-Homsi (center) in 1956

Syrian Communist Party leader Khaled Bakdash (second on the right) and his wife, Wisal Farha Bakdash, with a Chinese delegation in 1957

Meanwhile, the competition between the Baath and the Communists was increasing dramatically. Each side had their own views on how to implement a union with Egypt and Khalid Bakdash, the head of the Syrian Communist Party (SCP), personally disliked Nasser due to his frequent imprisonment of Egypt’s communists. The challenges from the SCP brought about pressure from the Baath’s own left flank which caused the party to struggle with internal divisions. A critical turning point for the Baath Party and Hawrani’s political future was his decision as Speaker to cancel the Baath’s participation in the November 1957 elections. Hawrani used his position as the Speaker of Parliament to forge ahead with the formation of the UAR, becoming the Vice-President in Nasser’s UAR government.

Stamp with the date February 1, 1958 showing a bridge linking Syria and Egypt with the inscription reading al-Jumhuriyah al-Arabiyah al-Muttahidah (United Arab Republic)

For his part, Nasser had preached for Arab unity but was quietly skeptical since he was personally opposed to the practice of political pluralism. In order to achieve their goal of Arab unity, the Baath Party made the hard decision to suspend all party activity as demanded by Nasser. For Bakdash, the decision to disband the SCP was an ideological anathema. His continued protests during the UAR years brought about a crackdown against the communists which in turn led Bakdash to leave Syria for safety in the Soviet Union.

Though many Syrians had long waited for a union with Egypt, the new life in the UAR was not what many had expected. Syrians found Nasser’s rule to be far more politically repressive than anything they had experienced under Shishakli. With the help of Nasser’s Syrian ally, Colonel Abdul Hamid Sarraj, their country had essentially become a police state under the domination of Egypt. In addition, Nasser’s heavy-handed rule brought about much disenchantment with the union and his extreme nationalization policies alienated many former supporters in the business community and the army.

Political Exile

Although Hawrani had been instrumental in the creation of the UAR, he began to fall out with Nasser who had eventually turned his sights on the Baath. Disillusioned with the UAR project, Hawrani made the fateful decision to add his name to the document in circulation that would bring about Syria’s succession and lead to the dissolution of the UAR. For the Baath, this move would dramatically change the face of the party. In 1961 the Syrian army implemented a successful coup which forced the Egyptians out of Syria. Egypt returned the favor by expelling the nearly one thousand Syrians working in various government or military positions in Cairo back to Syria. One of these men was a young Alawite air force officer named Hafez al-Assad.

For the Baath Party this was a painful period where the long awaited dream of forming an Arab federation was now dashed. For many party members, especially the young military officers, they still held strong pro-Nasser sentiments and soon aligned themselves with the remaining Nasserist elements in Syria. This brought about the 1963 Neo-Baathist coup that overturned the secessionist government. The small and tentative steps towards returning democratic practices to Syria were destroyed.

Akram al-Hawrani in exile in his later years with a friend in Strasbourg, France in 1972

Hawrani’s personal support within the Baath was destroyed as well. His name had been attached to the secessionist movement and he was never able to recover from this stigma. Hawrani reestablished his Arab Socialist Party but, as the Neo-Baathist commenced their purges, he left Syria again for good, living his remaining years in exile until his death in 1996. However, the Neo-Baathists were ultimately unable to reignite the UAR project. Syria would soon divert its focus from Pan-Arabism to objectives closer to home, eventually aligning the Baath’s emerging geopolitical interests in Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel with the SSNP.

Many historians have argued that Hawrani was within a hair of becoming the Syrian Fidel Castro. For Hawrani’s ideology was not built on the direct influence of Marxist thought but rather through his own values and interpretation of Arab culture and religion, along with his political experience which was formed during his time with the SSNP. The Pan-Syrian party had regarded feudalism as a foreign invention that would forever keep the Arab World in a socially regressive state.

Hawrani’s war on feudalism forever changed Syrian society and politics. Hawrani’s speeches mobilized thousands of disadvantaged minority sects into influential positions in the military (Hafez al-Assad, being a poor rural Alawite, was one of the people who answered Hawrani’s call) and took on the foundations of Syria’s stuffy, old Sunni merchant elite. He transformed the Baath Party into a populist party that was able to capture the imagination of masses and establish a political union that was once unthinkable.

Now, once again Syria and Egypt are taking tentative steps to build a relationship in a time of rapid change and political uncertainty. As the Syrian government continues to battle the remaining Islamist factions and confront Kurdish aspirations, Egypt will continue to step into the picture, lending its political and military support.

The UAR and its flag only lasted a few years before the Baathist Pan-Arab dream ended, and with it, much of its original ideological composition. The party soon became an organizational tool for Assad’s governing structure. It may have been the Neo-Baathist under Hafez al-Assad that would later resurrect the UAR flag by hoisting it as Syria’s official flag in the 1980’s, however, it was Hawrani and his time in Syria’s echelons of power that set about the political trajectory for the country. For now, the flag of the United Arab Republic survives, unlike the union it once herald into existence, and will likely to continue fluttering over Syria, along with an unknown future for the government it now represents.

*Christopher Solomon is an analyst with Global Risk Insights. Chris traveled to Lebanon and Syria in 2004 with the CONNECT program at the University of Balamand. He earned his MA from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. He also interned at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris

Further Response to Roy Gutman: Balancing the Picture

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

In his reply to my comments on his recent piece for The Nation, Roy Gutman takes exception to my supposed challenge to his “professional integrity.” I should thus begin by emphasizing that I did not intend my piece to be calling professional integrity into doubt: opinions and definitions may differ, but for me doubts about professional integrity would only be an issue if I were accusing him of outright invention, deliberate and malicious manipulation of evidence or something similar. It is not my contention that he engages in any of these things, and such accusations must always be carefully considered before being put forward. Rather, a bias for a particular side, while problematic, need not have malevolent intent behind it. Bias can arise innocently and unconsciously. It can be driven, for example, by honest empathy and anger about the sufferings of civilians at the hands of a particular group or side.

Gutman proceeds to complain that my assertions regarding his bias read like an attempt to “discredit the entire content” of his article. Such a reading of my response fails to take into account my prefatory point that Gutman raises some valid points for discussion. The fact that I talked about these points on a general level- e.g. in noting there are serious issues to be raised about displacement of Arab populations by the YPG- is not the same as not engaging with them at all. I even provided a link to a report by a human rights monitor to give examples of specific cases.

On the broader issue regarding the inference that I am supposedly attempting to discredit the entire content of the article, I should also add a clarification regarding the Seymour Hersh comparison: the point is not to claim that Gutman and Hersh are exactly equivalent (for one thing, as Gutman correctly points out, Hersh based his claims about the 2013 chemical weapons attack on anonymous former intelligence officials): rather, the point is that winning a Pulitzer Prize does not make one’s reporting impervious to questioning. As it happens I don’t believe Hersh is maliciously motivated in his biases either. But again, the idea is not to say that none of Gutman’s claims merits being taken seriously.

So, in response to Gutman’s questions about whether abuses and war crimes have been committed by the YPG, the answer is yes, and that should not come as a surprise to anyone. There is regrettably little or no accountability on the ground in Syria for abuses and war crimes committed by all sides, and a comprehensive reckoning is unlikely to occur for the foreseeable future.

Thus, I do not have a problem with whether Gutman reports on bad aspects of the YPG, and the PYD party with which it is affiliated. I was taking specific issue with uncritical relaying of more dubious narratives that reflect lines promoted by Turkey and the Syrian opposition. In the case of his article for The Nation, I was touching in particular on the supposed IS-YPG collusion pattern.

In this context, I should note that Gutman is upset about my reference to a 2012 article he wrote for McClatchy on the testimony of a claimed PKK defector, yet he does not address the specific problem I raised. It is certainly true that “obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise,” as Gutman says. But journalists cannot simply relay debriefings and intelligence reports without appropriate critical scrutiny, as we have seen happen all too often in recent times with cases like U.S. intelligence reports in the run-up to the Iraq War, and even more recently the raw intelligence dossier on the alleged Trump-Russia connections and supposed dirt the Russians have on Trump that can be used to blackmail him.

In a similar vein, the debriefing Gutman reported on has sensational allegations regarding PKK approaches towards religion. As I have already pointed out, the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion. To relay the allegations without critical comment is irresponsible, considering the historical persecutions of Zoroastrians by Muslims and that a common Islamist militant talking point against the PKK and “Kurdish militias” is that they are heretics and apostates. Undoubtedly there are some PKK and YPG members who could not care for religious belief and/or are completely secular, but what evidence is there besides the testimony of this debriefing that the PKK and its sister affiliates promote Zoroastrianism and teach fire worship?* It was the fact that these claims were relayed by Gutman without appropriate consideration that made me see a reflection of bias at work (again, I should stress, not necessarily malicious in intent).

Turning more specifically to the contents of his article for The Nation, Gutman takes issue with my account of the fighting over the Tel Hamis area. In his response, he offers an account from a certain Abu Ahmad who says the YPG waited three days before entering without firing a bullet. Again, there is no problem in offering this account per se, but it also has to have the caveat analytical note that it is ultimately second hand, and an effort should be made to try to obtain other accounts for comparison (e.g. testimonies of YPG fighters, open source data from the time).

As for what I wrote about Tel Hamis, on a technical note, I will begin by pointing out that Gutman is off the mark regarding some of the death notices I initially cited. Two of the death notices are for fighters killed in February 2015 prior to the 27th of that month: the Australian , and if he reads the original posts more closely, Hussein Masoud’s brother. Regarding my own wording, by ‘extended campaigns,’ I meant bouts of fighting that took place over multiple months in the wider area. One can criticise me for geographic imprecision, but it is important to remember in speaking of Tel Hamis that we mean not just the town/village by that name but also the wider area (cf. references in Arabic to mantaqat Tel Hamis and rif Tel Hamis). Of course, not every day meant intense clashes and battles. Indeed, in the Syrian civil war, much of what goes on in terms of engagements between various sides can appropriately be described as ribat (frontline maintenance etc.). On a given day there might be no fighting at all: a mere gunshot or two and/or firing mortar rounds. Then a flare up may occur. In relation to the Tel Hamis area, one example of a flare up occurred in September 2014, as the YPG launched an offensive that claimed the capture of multiple villages. During this flare up multiple YPG fighters were pronounced to be ‘martyrs’ . Here is another example of clashes reported in late December 2014 in the Tel Hamis area, with at least four YPG fighters reported to have been killed at that time.

It may well be that when Tel Hamis as a town/village finally fell to the YPG in February 2015, there was no grand or major battle to accompany it. However, to overlook all that happened in the time between IS solely becoming responsible for that wider frontline against the YPG after it destroyed the rebel factions in Hasakah province and the YPG capture in February 2015 is painting a highly misleading picture. It is also highly misleading to overlook the prior rebel-IS cooperation against the YPG on that front, which resulted in many YPG fighters being killed in late 2013/early 2014. Thus it can be seen how the fighting between IS and the YPG in the Tel Hamis area reflects continuity. Likewise we must note the reports of fighting and casualties in the wider area that occurred following February 2015. I thus stand by my original ‘travesty of the truth’ comment, having elaborated more fully here what I meant.

A somewhat similar case for what would constitute a misleading picture would be to note that the village of Dabiq fell out of IS hands without a grand final battle despite the village’s symbolic importance to IS, while overlooking the long war of attrition that occurred between the rebels and IS prior to that, also featuring episodes of ribat and calm juxtaposed with flare ups. Or again, note the case of Jarabulus I mentioned in my previous piece.

Can casualty figures and losses be exaggerated in reports? Of course. Yet the narrative of Gutman’s sources paints a very implausible picture that is designed to promote a line of some kind of IS-YPG collusion. To buy into it would mean supposing all those clashes etc. that occurred in the wider area over multiple months were a mere farce/fabrication. Thus, here we have an encapsulation of the job of journalists and analysts: weigh up the contrary accounts and try to come to a judgement that accounts for the various lines of evidence available. In the specific case of the Tel Hamis area village of Husseiniya mentioned by Gutman, who also points out that Amnesty International cited residents as saying that no clashes occurred in the withdrawal from that village, it is perfectly possible to accept that testimony, and the subsequent destruction of property by the YPG, without supposing a conspiracy of some kind as pushed by Gutman’s sources.

To bolster the collusion narrative, Gutman had cited in his original piece a certain Mudar al-Assad as saying that there are hundreds of examples of the YPG-IS pattern of the latter taking a village from rebels and then turning it over to the YPG without a fight. It would be interesting to see specific naming of those hundreds of cases, if that is really the case.

I draw the line here in this discussion. I stand by my initial assessment while reaffirming that I am not questioning Gutman’s professional integrity. Similarly I reject notions of supposed anti-Kurdish prejudice on Gutman’s part and other personal attacks on him. However, a serious debate about the YPG and its relationship with the U.S. must be based on reasoned consideration of the evidence, taking into account the benefits the partnership has brought in blunting IS while also noting the human rights abuses and the PKK connections and understanding why there are Turkish concerns. Looking forward,  seemingly intractable land disputes similar to those we observe in Iraq between the Kurdish and Arab actors will mar the Syrian landscape for a long time even if IS were completely removed. There will be no easy resolution.

*- (Appendix note: PKK and Zoroastrianism): While it is important to note the lack of evidence for the PKK promoting the Kurds’ religion as Zoroastrianism and teaching fire worship, there is an interesting strand of thought within Abdullah Ocalan’s writings that idealizes Zoroaster as a figure who promoted equality and care for nature, thus trying to link him to Kurdish ethnic and cultural heritage. This contrasts with a depiction of Islam as a vehicle of Arabism. On the other hand, Ocalan also wants to praise certain aspects of Islam, equating the rise of the religion historically with bringing about feudal system that constitutes an improvement over the supposed ancient slave civilization, while presenting Muhammad as a figure embodying revolution that becomes corrupted. These arguments, as Matthew Barber points out to me, partly reflect Ocalan’s views of history according to his Marxist ideology and political worldview as well as a desire not to be too offensive to the pious sensibilities of fellow Kurds.

In any event though, Ocalan is ultimately an atheist, and does not promote the idea that Kurds should practise the Zoroastrian religion and formally identify as Zoroastrians, let alone engage in fire worship, though some Kurds who do identify as Zoroastrians seem to be partly influenced by Ocalan’s idealization of Zoroaster. The kinds of nuances in Ocalan’s views and their impacts are obscured by silly polemic as conveyed by that supposed PKK defector.

Yes, Syrian Kurds Have Committed War Crimes – Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn Tamimi

Roy Gutman Responds to Aymenn al-Tamimi on “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”
By Roy Gutman – @Roy_Gutman
For Syria Comment – February 12, 2017

Any journalist covering a controversial topic like alleged war crimes can expect a hostile response from the subject of the story, but it’s extremely rare in my experience for a specialist in the field to respond to a major journalistic investigation by challenging the reporter’s professional integrity.

The report I wrote for the Nation on Feb. 7, the first of two parts, details the pattern of mass expulsions and political suppression by the ruling People’s Protection Units or YPG that has led to the flight of an enormous number of Arabs and Kurds from the region.

Mr Tamimi’s statements that the “author’s bias for the Syrian opposition and Turkey has been evident for years” and that he “uncritically relays dubious testimony that a far-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny” reads like an attempt to discredit the entire content of my story.

It calls for evidence.

The only previous article Mr Tamimi cites is my report from October 2012 about a defector from the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK and his debriefing by Turkish security services. The story reveals where the volunteer had served and why he defected, and provides a first person account of the rigors of life in the PKK.

I was the only foreign journalist to report from Semdinli the previous summer. I first heard about the defection from the governor, so I had no reason to doubt that it had occurred. Obtaining the debriefing was an example of journalistic enterprise. I am sure the PKK was embarrassed. But that doesn’t discredit the 2012 story. It certainly doesn’t discredit this latest one.
Likewise, in May 2013, at the start of a cease-fire with the PKK, I trekked into the no-man’s-land in southern Turkey and interviewed PKK fighters who were withdrawing from Turkey, but very slowly. I was once again the only reporter who ventured into the wilderness area to find the departing forces.

Of the 50 plus articles I wrote for McClatchy about the PKK, why does Mr Tamimi pick one from 2012, that anyone else would say is good journalism?

Mr Tamimi also lumps my reportage together with that of Sy Hersh, whose April 2014 report on the chemical weapons attack outside Damascus was based on unnamed former intelligence officials. Yet my sources are named, their statements can be verified and they can be checked out. This disparaging reference by Mr Tamimi also reads like is an attempt to discredit the entire story in The Nation.

My biggest single objection to his posting is that while Mr Tamimi says my article “does raise some valid points for discussion,” he doesn’t discuss them.

So here they are:

  • Tens, possibly hundreds, of thousands, of Arabs were forced from their homes by the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, the People’s Protection Units or YPG.
  • Well over 500,000 Kurds fled rather than submit to YPG rule and abuses.
  • The expulsion of the Arabs was carried out in close cooperation with the Assad regime, which sought to rid the region of political dissenters and joined the YPG in destroying villages.
  • Brutal expulsions continued through mid 2016.
  • The YPG and its political organization, the Democratic Union Party, don’t acknowledge any of this, haven’t investigated haven’t punished anyone.
  • Iran played a major role in the setting up of YPG role in northern Syria.
  • The U.S. has been all but silent about the human rights abuses and possible war crimes.

Did these alleged abuses and war crimes occur? Should the YPG acknowledge, investigate and punish them? Mr Tamimi doesn’t say.

Instead of dealing with the content of the story as presented, he focuses on a few details. He questions the assertion that in Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province, the YPG burned houses and expelled residents after taking the towns without a fight. Amnesty International verified in 2015 that the destruction of Husseiniya occurred after it was captured without a fight. But my assertion that Tel Hamis was yielded without a fight in 2015 “can only be described as a travesty of the truth,” he says.

Once again, Mr. Tamami can’t produce the evidence. He writes there were “abundant martyrdom’ commemorations” in the “extended campaign” to take the town. But surely he must be aware that one of the five death notices he links to, one was for a death in 2013, and the other four, including one for an underage fighter, were spread through March 2015. But ISIS abandoned Tel Hamis on Feb. 27. So the death notices don’t prove there was a major battle, or a battle at all. They certainly don’t support his claim there had been an “extended campaign.”

According to Abu Ahmed, a commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Falcan Brigade, which ISIS had earlier ousted from Tel Hamis, the YPG waited three days before entering Tel Hamis and did so “without shooting a bullet.” Abu Ahmed, who no longer lives in the area, said he assembled his narrative from former brigade members who stayed in the area. He asked that his real name not be used.

But I suppose Mr. Tamimi will discount that testimony as it came from the rebel side and that it hasn’t been “subjected to appropriate scrutiny.” But has he subjected his sources, whoever they may be, to “appropriate scrutiny?”

Roy Gutman
Middle East correspondent

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A Response to Roy Gutman’s “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

A recent article in The Nation by Roy Gutman has generated considerable controversy, as the article attempts to highlight what it portrays as the more unsavoury and neglected aspects of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the main Kurdish faction operating in Syria and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.

The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” Such a simplistic assertion overlooks complications like the sharp political division between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PYD-administered areas in Syria, the financial crisis afflicting the KRG and its inability to become economically independent, and the lack of a vision for real independence in the PYD’s approach to governance that is heavily influenced by the thinking of PKK luminary Abdullah Ocalan. Besides, there are real problems concerning the behaviour of Kurdish forces towards Arab populations in both Iraq and Syria, with cases of destruction of homes and villages documented by human rights monitors (cf. here). Political authoritarianism in the Kurdish entities should also be a major concern: Masoud Barzani still clings to the KRG presidency despite the fact that his mandate expired long ago, and the PYD’s harsh behaviour towards its political opponents cannot be ignored.

However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”

Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.

The notion that the YPG and IS are in collusion with the latter supposedly yielding territory to the former without a fight is a recurring trope. For instance, it is repeated on multiple occasions in Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla’s book that consists of interviews with IS defectors. The fact that this notion is repeated so many times does not make it any more true. The biases of the sources making these claims as well as the wider tendencies in the region towards conspiracy theories have not been sufficiently taken into account. On the wider level, even when we do suppose or note a withdrawal without a real fight, there are simpler and more logical explanations that need not entail a conspiracy, such as manpower issues, the assessment of a particular location’s strategic importance or lack thereof, and the like. For example, IS yielded the border town of Jarabulus to the Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces in August 2016 without a real fight: the reason for this withdrawal is that IS probably determined that the town was not worth defending and that better defensive positions needed to be taken up further south within Aleppo province. As it so happens, the recent fight for the IS stronghold of al-Bab has proven to be protracted and difficult for the rebels participating in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. In a similar vein, the YPG’s relatively swift capture of Tel Abyad in 2015 was not the result of a joint YPG-IS conspiracy against the rebels: rather IS’ fighting lines in the area had largely collapsed on account of devoting so much manpower and resources to the fight for Kobani in a wasteful attempt to show defiance in the face of so many coalition airstrikes.

The question of the U.S. relationship with the SDF going forward is an important one as the issue of who takes the key IS-held areas in Syria of Raqqa city and Deir az-Zor continues to be discussed. American attempts to deny SDF links with the PKK are not only absurd but also harmful in handling relations with Turkey. However, debates need to be held on serious grounds rooted in facts and credible evidence. Gutman’s work here has fallen far short of those standards. Unfortunately, similar problems in his reporting with regards to the PKK can be traced in his earlier work. In an October 2012 article for McClatchy purporting to offer an inside account of the PKK, Gutman relayed in an almost entirely uncritical manner the testimony of a supposed PKK defector to Turkish authorities, including claims that the PKK prohibits Islamic practices like daily prayers for its fighters and tells them that the Kurds’ religion is Zoroastrianism and that they should worship fire. The latter two claims are particularly absurd because the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is in fact a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion.

It is apparent that Gutman’s opinion biases have had and still have a problematic impact on his reporting. This matter needs to be highlighted rather than showing uncritical deference simply because Gutman once won a Pulitzer Prize, just as we should not show uncritical deference to Seymour Hersh’s claims of rebel responsibility for the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in 2013 simply because he also once won a Pulitzer Prize.

The rise and fall of a CIA-backed rebel commander in Syria – by @ErikaSolomon

This is a wonderful and important article by Erika Solomon@ErikaSolomon for the Financial Times.
I have cut out sections, marked with a “….”

The rise and fall of a CIA-backed rebel commander in Syria: Former ‘fixer’ for anti-Assad forces comes to terms with failed US policy
By Erica Solomon


Abu Ahmad: ‘I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong’ © Ivor Prickett / Panos Pictures

There was a time when “Abu Ahmad”, a bulky man with a heavy limp, held court in the smoke-filled cafés of southern Turkey. Fellow Syrian opposition leaders looked to him for help; foreign intelligence officers sought his opinion. When he crossed into Syria, he brought bags filled with hundred-dollar bills to hand out to rebel fighters. His comrades received US-approved anti-tank missiles, discreetly delivered at the border.

Some rebels called him the CIA’s man in Syria. Now, he struggles to get his calls returned. “We used to joke, ‘If you want something from Barack Obama, call Abu Ahmad,’” another CIA-backed rebel commander recalls. “If someone in the opposition wanted to meet the Americans, they went to him. Now, guys like us, we’re headed to the rubbish bin of history.”

After two years as the CIA’s “fixer”, distributing arms and planning military operations in Syria, Abu Ahmad was thrown into prison. On his release, he was temporarily forced into hiding, then fell into ignominy in the eyes of fellow rebels.


The story of his rise and fall offers a rare insight into how the CIA operated within the confines of President Obama’s halfhearted Syria policy. It reveals how the rivalries between US bureaucracies — and, even more importantly, the growing divergence between Washington and its Nato ally Turkey — exacerbated Syria’s mayhem.




…..A determination not to be dragged into Syria’s war, alongside a recognition of its regional significance, left Washington with one foot in and one foot out — a situation that may prove as problematic in the long run as full-fledged intervention.

Syrians such as Abu Ahmad embody the consequences of this dilemma. In 2013 he joined a covert CIA programme established to channel arms and cash to moderate rebels. He — along with several other commanders — bet that hitching himself to the US would eventually yield the kind of support that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammer Gaddafi in 2011. He lost the gamble badly.


“I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong,” he tells me over raucous Turkish pop music and gurgling water pipes at a café near his home.

“What I cared about was having a good relationship with the Americans. They gave me weapons, I brought them to Syria. The fact that Turkey didn’t like the Americans or the Americans didn’t like the Turks — none of that mattered to me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.”


The [Aleppo] victory for Assad and his patron Russia was not only a human tragedy for the civilians bombarded and expelled from their homes, it was a potent symbol of waning US influence in the region. Diplomatic efforts to end the war led by Moscow and Ankara have sidelined Washington.

Arms belonging to the Free Syrian Army, Aleppo © Panos Pictures

Obama and his aides defended their Middle East stance as a break with America’s costly legacy of bungled interventions — particularly George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Abu Ahmad’s story shows that even limited interventions can be bungled too — with local allies often paying the highest price.


Rebels and regional diplomats alike share that irritation. “People have this perception the Americans weren’t very involved [in Syria]. But that’s not true — they were, and to a minuscule level of detail for a while in places like Aleppo when [the CIA programme] started,” a regional diplomat says. “The problem with American policy in Syria was in some ways the same as it always was: all tactics, no strategy . . . It was a mess.”


Despite a cheery air and a hearty laugh, the circles ringing Abu Ahmad’s eyes are as dark as the shrapnel scars on his legs. During our meetings, he wore the same T-shirt two days in a row and popped about 1600mg of Ibuprofen to keep himself going each day.

It’s easy to see why American officials were once drawn to him. In contrast to the increasing religiosity of some dispirited rebels and their deep-rooted wariness of US interventions, Abu Ahmad relishes banter with his “foreign friends”. He portrays himself as a straight shooter, intolerant of corruption and suspicious of Islamists — or, as he puts it, “anything with a beard”. Other rebels interviewed to corroborate his story jokingly call him a “secular extremist”.

“If you had a question about a battle rebels wanted to do, Abu Ahmad would immediately say this is how many bullets you’d need, how many fighters are actually there, which way they should approach it,” the diplomat says. “The Americans ate it up.”

An anti-government protest in Hama, Syria, July 2011 © Getty

When Syrian protesters took to the streets in 2011 to demonstrate against four decades of Assad family rule, Abu Ahmad had a comfortable job as an army officer in central Syria. Then security forces started firing on the demonstrators. Farmers, army defectors and local merchants banded themselves into armed units to fight back, and a full-tilt insurgency erupted.


While other commanders hoarded weaponry, Abu Ahmad says he calibrated his usage based on assessments of his men and the Assad forces’ likely avenue of attack. “It was like playing chess for me. I love chess,” he says, holding up his phone, on which he was playing the game during our interview.

In 2012, Abu Ahmad was wounded in an air strike and knocked unconscious for 10 days. He woke up in hospital with a metal rod in his leg. His wife, Um Ahmad, a slender woman with perfectly applied make-up, remembers sitting with him day and night, struggling to get him to sit up, eat or speak. “Then, when some of the fighters came to visit him he sat right up, talked and laughed,” she says. “That’s when I realised that from now on, there would be three of us in this relationship: me, him and the revolution.”


Abu Ahmad returned a few months later to a drastically changed battleground. The motley crew of the Free Syrian Army had failed to become anything like the force their name aspired to. Corruption had infected many groups. Islamist groups had risen to the fore with the backing of US allies such as Qatar and Turkey, who saw them as more organised and trustworthy clients than their less ideologically driven counterparts.

President Obama briefs reporters on US policy in Syria, April 30 2013 © Getty

That climate, along with Turkey’s loose border policy, fostered a rise in jihadis bolstered by foreign fighters. Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and a splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), leveraged superior military capacity and a developed ideological programme to rise to dominance. (Nusra has since rebranded itself twice, most recently as the Sham Liberation Front, and says it has cut ties with al-Qaeda, although few see the move as genuine.)

“We were so dumb. I was so dumb,” Abu Ahmad says, shaking his head. “What was I thinking? I thought the regime would fall, and we’d go back to where we started. When I came back, I found Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis spreading, and they had all these plans. That’s when I knew we’d eventually need to have a counter-operation against these guys too.”

Some Islamist leaders began questioning Abu Ahmad over rumours he didn’t pray. Fellow rebel commanders, worried about his safety, sent him across the border to help the effort from Turkey. In this newly bustling border region, where once-sleepy towns such as Gaziantep, Kilis and Antakya brimmed with humanitarian workers, refugees and activists, Abu Ahmad met a Saudi intelligence officer looking to co-ordinate a rebel pushback against Isis.

By late 2013, the jihadi group was menacing opposition-held territories in Syria and steadily expanding in neighbouring Iraq. Abu Ahmad co-ordinated between the Saudis and rebels, who managed to push Isis out of the northwestern Idlib province in early 2014.

It was then that he got a call from members of a covert CIA programme based in the Turkish coastal city of Adana. Three men met him at a restaurant. “They were really nice,” he recalls. “They knew everything about me already.”

The CIA declined to comment on Abu Ahmad’s story, but a Washington-based source in the intelligence community confirmed Abu Ahmad had worked with the agency. But he downplayed the significance, saying he was “just a Syrian fixer”. Other elements of Abu Ahmad’s story and details of his relationship with the CIA were corroborated by rebels, activists and diplomats — all of whom declined to be named.

The Americans invited Abu Ahmad to join a covert operations room they were forming with allies including Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support moderate rebels. Known as the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM), it was modelled on a joint operations centre set up in Jordan a year earlier.

The CIA knew about the corruption, of course, everyone in the programme did. It was the price of doing business

From the beginning, the operation faced major obstacles. Turkey’s 800km border with Syria was difficult to control. Furthermore, by 2014, the role of jihadis and the relationships between foreign backers and local clients were deeply entrenched, making it almost impossible to manage the flow of weapons.

“Throughout this [programme] there have been major disagreements between countries and even within governments,” says Noah Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group, an NGO. “Have the rebels failed tremendously? Absolutely. Have the supporting states been just as factious as the rebels? Absolutely.”

Many rebels considered MOM little more than a foreign intelligence foothold within the opposition. But some, like Abu Ahmad, hoped it could at least solidify the rebel hold on northern Syria and ensure a stronger position in peace negotiations.

The operation was based in a nondescript villa in southern Turkey, where rebel commanders met intelligence officers around a long, oval table to propose battle plans and lobby for weapons.

Rebels approved as ideological “moderates” received a monthly salary of about $150 for a fighter and $300 for a commander. “They never told us where we were going,” Abu Ahmad recalls. “ They would put us in a car with the blinds closed. It was like a spy movie, but it was a bit of joke, because we learnt the route over time.”


At first the atmosphere was convivial. The Turks let the commanders sleep at the building, which had a kitchen and a cook, so they could finish late-night sessions poring over maps and plans. Soon, however, MOM bureaucracy became a problem for the rebels: battles could turn in hours while it sometimes took weeks for foreign representatives to agree on plans and get approval to deliver supplies such as ammunition, medicine and boots. Rebels turned to the media with tales of MOM’s stinginess.

Some opposition figures and diplomats, however, argue the problem was just the opposite. “MOM became a vehicle for corrupting the Free Syrian Army, not because they gave them too little but because they gave them too much,” says an opposition figure close to MOM-backed commanders.

He says commanders regularly inflated their forces’ numbers to pocket extra salaries, and some jacked up weapons requests to hoard or sell on the black market. Inevitably, much of that ended up in Isis hands. Other groups cut in Jabhat al-Nusra on deals to keep it from attacking them. “The CIA knew about this, of course, everyone in MOM did. It was the price of doing business.”

Forces that rose to prominence in Syria include (from top) Kurdish militia YPG, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) © Getty

Abu Ahmad openly accused fellow commanders of such activities, which he says impressed the Americans. “I would say, ‘That guy claims he has 300 fighters, but he has 50. And this guy was doing that’ . . . I would embarrass everyone,” he recalls. “The Syrians were frustrated and saying, ‘He’s a US agent, an informant — how is he talking about us like that?’ But my thinking was that they were stealing from our revolution.”

It’s hard to verify whether Abu Ahmad was as clean as he claims, but his current status is in contrast to that of many rebel commanders, who have large apartments in Turkey, drive new cars and own the latest iPhones.

Abu Ahmad, his wife and their two children share a small flat with his parents and his brother’s family. He sometimes indulges in a bitter fantasy about how his life would be if he’d conspired with other commanders to get a cut for himself. “I wouldn’t have been a ‘traitor’. The people would have held up my picture. I would have had the best cars,” he says. “I could have done it that way, but I didn’t. Instead, I was humiliated.”

But perhaps more damaging than the corruption were the growing rivalries between MOM’s foreign backers. As divides opened, each power moved to bolster its favoured commanders.

“A toddler could enter the MOM room and be able to tell which guy the US was pushing for, who the Turks wanted, or who the Saudis were pushing,” says Abu Omar, a friend of Abu Ahmad and a fellow US-backed rebel commander (not his real name). “MOM became the legal face to cover all the extra support they were giving these groups behind each other’s backs.”

The worst split was between the US and Turkey. Tensions rose after Isis seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June 2014 and blitzed across Iraq and Syria. Washington began a Pentagon-led air campaign against Isis but support for ground forces went to a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, rather than the rebels.

The Pentagon found the YPG attractive partners because they didn’t have to worry about Islamist infiltration — and, unlike the rebels, they were not fighting Assad. But Ankara was infuriated: it has fought a four-decade war with the YPG’s parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), over Kurdish ambitions for self-rule in south-eastern Turkey, and saw their growing enclave across the border as a threat.

‘America was pressuring us with its control of aid, Turkey with its control of border access. They’re not allies, they’re liars’

“I’ve been struck by how sincere US and Turkish officials seem in their misunderstanding of each other. Sometimes US officials seem to genuinely not understand why YPG backing is such a big deal to Turkey,” says Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group.

“By the same token, Turkish officials didn’t seem to understand how upset US officials were with their lack of an effort to weaken the facilities of jihadi groups using their border. They were talking past each other.”

US-backed rebels felt caught in the middle, suddenly seen as traitors by their Turkish hosts and the Islamist groups they supported. Abu Ahmad started to hate visiting MOM. “I was stuck between squabbling parents,” he jokes.

He recalls a meeting where a Turkish official pointedly asked him, in front of his US counterparts, why the US strikes were helping the Kurds but not rebels like him. The CIA officials sat quietly before jumping in to say the strikes were conducted by the Pentagon, a separate entity.

The vagaries of US policy became harder to explain to outraged fighters, already growing more sympathetic to the Islamists, says Abu Omar, especially after US-backed YPG forces seized several rebel-held towns near his base in north-western Syria in the winter of 2016.

“I had 57 fighters who died on the frontline, and twice as many who lost their limbs,” he says. “How can I explain to them that the YPG means Pentagon support? And that MOM means CIA support? These are Syrian country boys — they don’t understand this stuff.”

CIA-linked commanders such as Abu Ahmad and Abu Omar also found it harder to work in Turkey. Abu Omar struggled to get his residency permit renewed and was informed he had been put on a security watch list. When he asked the Americans to raise the issue with Turkish officials, they told him the matter was out of their control.


Abu Ahmad’s dilemmas bordered on farcical. In MOM’s early days, he says, Turkish officials escorted him over the border for meetings. Then, after the spat with the Americans, they said they could no longer help. He started paying smugglers to get to Turkey for the international meetings.

He recalls arriving one day at the border in time to see one of Turkey’s favoured commanders jump into a car bound for a meeting. “He waved at me and said, ‘Bye!’ I just stood there staring,” Abu Ahmad says. When he complained to the Americans, they laughed but again said they could do nothing.

It was at this time that rebels, seeking to organise their factious forces, formed a new alliance called Jabha Shamiya. They hoped it would lessen the tug of war between Washington and Ankara. Instead it grew worse, and the alliance was forced out of the covert programme.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Turkey, November 15 2015. The Nato allies remain divided on Syria © Getty

“America was pressuring us with its control of MOM aid. Turkey was trying to pressure us with its control over border access,” says another rebel leader from Aleppo, who asked not to be named. “They’re not allies, they’re liars. When you have allies like Syrians have, you don’t need enemies.”

Abu Ahmad resigned rather than join Jabha Shamiya but soon the Americans asked him to be their consultant, handing him about $1,000 a month. He became known among Syrians as someone who could arrange meetings. His critics insisted he was helping the CIA plot failed assassination attempts on Nusra leaders and undermine Turkish-backed groups. Abu Ahmad denies any plots, but admits he worked to lure groups back into MOM.

In the summer of 2015, the US launched the Pentagon’s “Train and Equip” programme for select rebel fighters. It cost $500m, and went horribly wrong. “I was shocked,” Abu Ahmad says. “The Pentagon came and started to meet with people in Gaziantep, and picked people both the CIA and MOM saw as failures.”

After the first group of T & E fighters was kidnapped by Nusra, he suspected the American departments were not sharing information. Then a second group, under a newly dispatched commander, surrendered to Nusra.

“This is when I realised the Americans were working in two different directions,” he says. He started asking western diplomats to explain the US political system. They told him about Congress, the White House and different intelligence and military branches. “If Obama is going this way, and people in Congress that way, and the people working on the ground are saying, ‘No, this works, that doesn’t’, is a decision actually made?” he laughs. “Maybe this is a case of too much democracy.”

‘I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong’

Abu Ahmad

Meanwhile, the US-Turkey dispute was deepening as they debated a potential no-fly zone in northern Syria. One of the failed plan’s many points of contention was over who in Syria should be their point person. The CIA wanted Abu Ahmad, according to several commanders. The Turks wanted someone closer to them.

A day before a contentious MOM meeting to discuss the issue, Abu Ahmad says a Turkish police car pulled up outside his home. Alarmed, he stuffed all his cash in his pockets as the officers knocked on his door.

With that, a Nato ally had arrested one of Washington’s local allies. Abu Ahmad was shuttled between different security headquarters for hours. “They asked me to tell them what I was arrested for,” he says. “I told them, ‘I don’t know either. You’re the ones who brought me here, you’re supposed to tell me the charge.’”


Eventually he was thrown into a nearby prison, where he waited for days while his wife and friends made frantic calls to US officials. The CIA was unable to secure his release. “They did try to help him get freed,” says the Washington-based intelligence source, “but it is unlikely it went up very high, given that he was helping with a supposedly secret CIA operation.”

Abu Ahmad soon realised the only way to get out was to agree to be deported to Syria — essentially a death sentence, given how much Islamists despised him. But he signed the paperwork and was dropped at the border. “I used the money I had and paid a smuggler to sneak right back in to Turkey.”

He hid in a house on the border for more than a month. Eventually, the Turks promised to leave him alone, as long as he stopped working with the Americans and the rebels. He was heartbroken but accepted the terms, and has since lived on the margins of Syrian society in Turkey, relying on friends such as Abu Omar to lend him money.

One summer evening, Abu Ahmad drove us to Abu Omar’s home on the Turkish coast for “some good reminiscing about the revolution”. Abu Omar looked trim, with short hair, a polo shirt and a brand new iPhone. He took us out for a platter of fish and immediately launched into lamentations.

His group has lost territory and popularity to Nusra, he says, and no one seems to care any more about working with the Americans. “The Turks treat me as though I’m an American. Jabhat al-Nusra treats me like I’m a traitor. No one treats me like I sit with the Americans because I’m a Syrian who wants to do the best he can for his cause,” he says. “I wonder how the Americans see me. Do they see me as a patriot? Do they see me as a mercenary?”

The Turkish-American relationship has remained fraught, despite President Trump’s renewed discussion of a no-fly zone and Washington’s tacit approval of Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria to clear Isis and the YPG from along its border. “There’s been a 1,000 per cent increase in the improvement of relations — and it’s still terrible,” says analyst Aaron Stein, at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

For Abu Ahmad, the psychological strain has become physical. His wife calls on the drive home, fretting. Over the past few months, she says, he has pulled the car over three times, worried he was having a heart attack. “Nothing is ever wrong,” she says. “The doctors say it was a panic attack.”

On some days, Abu Ahmad thinks of leaving the region behind altogether. But that isn’t easy. Germany rejected him over his past ties to a rebel group that has since been accused of war crimes.

Last year, he says, he asked some American officials to help him move to the US. They told him to register first with the UN as a refugee. He never heard back, and Trump’s recent executive order makes it increasingly unlikely that he would now be accepted into the US.

He called up his old CIA contacts to see who could help. “They told me, ‘We’re sorry, that is a State Department issue,’” he says. “‘These are separate departments.’”

Erika Solomon is the FT’s Middle East correspondent

Photographs: Ivor Prickett / Panos Pictures; AFP/Getty; Tristan Vickers / Panos Pictures; Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty 

The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal (Sinjar)

This article was published January 31, 2017 by NRT, a media service in Iraqi Kurdistan. The original article is available here.

The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal (Sinjar)


Barber, Matthewby Matthew Barber

Following the closure of Yazda, a Yazidi humanitarian and human rights organization, by the KDP asa’ish (security police affiliated with Kurdistan’s largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party) on January 2, 2017 in Dohuk, people have been asking many questions about why this took place. Fortunately, the government has now reversed its position on the closure and Yazda has reopened. Nevertheless, this episode points to some serious political issues that impact the status of the Yazidi minority in Kurdistan. I will explore these issues in this article.

Having left the country last August after a year of leading Yazda’s Iraq and Kurdistan-based operations, I will not speak for Yazda now. But I will present my opinions on the Yazidi situation and discuss the feelings of the Yazidi people, which may shed light on why Yazda was persecuted by the authorities.


A Broken Relationship

Understanding the tension between KDP government and the Yazidis requires investigating why the KDP generally has an adverse relationship with the majority of the Yazidis. In fact, those Yazidis who become close to the KDP political establishment usually lose favor and respect among much of their community. This is because the agendas of the KDP often conflict with the welfare of the Yazidi people, and a number of crucial issues jeopardizing the future of the Yazidis have come to a head this past year.

What do I mean by a clash of interests between the Yazidis and the KDP? Ever since the fall of Saddam, Kurdistan has worked hard to expand the boundaries of what is hoped will be a future independent Kurdistan. These aspirations and efforts are noble considering the many ways that Kurds have been victimized by the various regimes in Iraq through history. But many Kurds today do not realize that despite this history of victimization, their newfound power also creates the possibility and risk of victimizing others—especially the minorities who often inhabit the disputed territories that Kurdistan would like to appropriate.

The Sheikhan district in the Nineveh Plain used to be a Yazidi-majority area, but just since the fall of Saddam, it has been targeted with a program of demographic change that has involved settling Sunni Kurds in the area in order to strengthen the claim that it should be included within the Kurdistan Region. This program is similar to the Arabization schemes to which Saddam subjected the Kurds, and Yazidis call it “Kurdification.” Sheikhan, a historic Yazidi homeland, is now a Muslim-majority area, a change that occurred entirely post-Saddam. Even the Mir, the highest Yazidi religious authority, spoke to US officials about this problem.

In Shingal (“Sinjar” in Arabic) after 2003, the KDP quickly became a powerful presence. Many Yazidis were open to pursuing a future for Shingal as part of Kurdistan, hoping that life under Kurdish government would offer greater rights for minorities than had been the case under Ba’thist rule. But from those early days, KDP asa’ish began systematically arresting and intimidating Yazidi civilians who joined competing political parties, especially those who favored keeping Shingal’s administration under the authority of the central government. Though services in Shingal are almost entirely paid for by Baghdad, the KDP bullied non-KDP Nineveh officials out of Shingal so that it could maintain administrative control. Shingal’s “mayors” (qaymaqam), including the current one, are never elected by the local people, but are appointed by the party and are, of course, always party loyalists. Despite the fact that the KDP completely dominated Shingal, it remained one of Iraq’s least developed and most marginalized districts.

Because of this legacy, by 2014 the majority of the Yazidis of Shingal already resented KDP control; the Peshmerga withdrawal the morning of the genocide was simply the final straw, severing trust with the KDP forever. But because of KDP policy, the Yazidi situation has become even worse following the genocide, which is the main issue that this article will explore.

Today there is a bitter political standoff in Shingal that is exacerbating the already poor relations between the Shingali Yazidis and the KDP. In order to understand the development of this conflict, we must first clarify some key aspects of how the genocide unfolded, and also debunk several myths propagated by government officials regarding the day of the genocide.


Setting the Record Straight on Shingal

Though everyone is familiar with the Peshmerga withdrawal on August 3, 2014, the day the Yazidi Genocide began, many citizens of Kurdistan and Iraq have been led to accept three key excuses advanced by KDP officials trying to justify the withdrawal: 1) that the IS (Islamic State) invasion of Shingal was a surprise attack; 2) that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry to defend local Yazidis from IS; and 3) that the Peshmerga defended but IS was just too powerful and the front line collapsed.

The first claim is obviously false since everyone knows that Mosul was conquered in early June, almost two months prior to the attack on Shingal. During the period between the conquest of Mosul and the Yazidi Genocide, IS gradually solidified control over the Arab areas south and east of Shingal. Tel Afar was conquered during that period, and IS forces grew increasingly close to Shingal. In fact, several small attacks occurred on outlying Yazidi villages southeast—and even north—of Shingal, prior to August 3. Tel Banat was attacked several times. In other words: The IS threat was well-known and there was plenty of time to prepare for any potential conflict, and to put an evacuation plan in place for civilians.

The second claim is an attempt to side-step responsibility for the failure to defend the Yazidis. It ignores the fact that after the Iraqi military dissolved in the areas near Mosul, Kurdish forces seized control of Iraqi weapons depots and snatched up all of the weaponry and ammunition. This included Kesek, which housed the “regional ammunitions center” that provided weapons and ammunitions to the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi army divisions and to military academies in Zakho and Suleimani. Moreover, when Iraqi army forces were retreating from Tel Afar and leaving the Shingal area, they were unable to retreat to Baghdad without passing through Kurdish-controlled territory. KDP-affiliated forces, therefore, forced these sections of the Iraqi army to hand over all of their weapons, ammunition, equipment, and military vehicles—at the KDP headquarters in Shingal, no less. This included the 10th brigade of the 3rd division and the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army. Despite holding out and defending Tel Afar for some time, once these troops were pushed out by IS, they were effectively looted by KDP forces and sent back to Baghdad wearing civilian clothing. But beyond this evidence contravening the claim that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry, the question should be asked as to how the Syrian YPG forces, who have smaller weapons, inferior vehicles, and are generally less equipped than the Peshmerga, were able to enter an unfamiliar area that they had never controlled, without the high-ground advantage, and fight through IS lines after IS had already established itself in the area and surrounded the mountain. The point is that the alleged superiority of IS weaponry had nothing to do with the withdrawal. Keep in mind that there are numerous locations in the foothills of Shingal Mountain where just a handful of Yazidi farmers with old rifles were able to prevent the jihadists from ascending into these enclaves—such is the advantage of the higher ground. The idea that the Peshmerga had to flee to Dohuk, rather than move to the protection of the mountain while providing cover to the evacuating civilians, is patently absurd.

But most important is the third claim, that the Peshmerga’s lines were overwhelmed by the might of the IS jihadists. This claim is demonstrably false in light of the way that the withdrawal was conducted. The withdrawal was not a chaotic, haphazard fleeing after engaging the enemy; Shingal Mountain is 72 kilometers long, and with the security presence in many of the towns all around, it would be nearly impossible that every single “front line” would collapse simultaneously. If troops had been overwhelmed in one location, many other troops would have been able to hold their ground in other locations. But the withdrawal was collective (involving almost all security and militia personnel in the entire district), and was conducted in an organized fashion, with all weapons and military vehicles being transported out of Shingal and back to Kurdistan. When local Yazidi civilians saw that the Peshmerga were abandoning them, they begged them to at least leave behind the weapons so that they could defend their own families. But the Peshmerga refused. According to hundreds of survivor accounts, this planned withdrawal occurred before the jihadists reached Shingal. These countless testimonies of civilian eyewitnesses were corroborated by a Peshmerga leader named Sime Mulla Muhammad, responsible for troops in Shingal, who disclosed to the Xendan newspaper in an interview published August 3, 2016 that he withdrew his men without engaging the enemy, prior to the arrival of the jihadists, after it was known that IS was moving on the area. Beyond all of this, not only did Qasim Shesho (the current leader of the KDP Peshmerga in Shingal) state for the record that the Peshmerga fled before the civilians could evacuate, but President Barzani’s reaction to the withdrawal also dispelled any notion of the front line breaking, as in early August 2014 he referred to the “negligence” of those in command and formed a committee to investigate possible desertions.

The facts presented above become even more painful when considering that the day before the genocide, August 2, 2014, local people in Shingal knew that IS was mobilizing. They could sense that an attack might be imminent. Yazidis asked those responsible for security if the people should evacuate. Peshmerga leaders gave assurances to the people that they would be protected, and told them to stay in their villages. In some cases, asa’ish even prevented families from evacuating; some families had loaded up their cars and were attempting to drive to Kurdistan but were turned back at the checkpoints guarding village entrances.

I have presented this background to make it perfectly clear why the trust of the Shingali Yazidis in the KDP was irreparably shattered on August 3. This should also explain why the YPG and PKK forces that entered Shingal to defend the Yazidis won so many hearts and minds. Not only did those forces save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis that had been left to die, but they enabled the local Yazidis to hold the front line against IS for the next 15 months, killing more jihadists than any other militia.


Preventing Yazidis from Returning and Rebuilding: The Economic Blockade

This brings us to the present political conflict that is victimizing the Yazidis. As is common knowledge, after the PKK-affiliated forces rescued the Yazidis in the absence of the Peshmerga, they helped the Yazidis form a local militia known as the YBŞ. This force is affiliated with the PKK but is primarily comprised of local Shingali Yazidis who came together to defend their own families and homes.

The KDP wants the YBŞ to disappear. They want all non-KDP militias to dissolve so that the KDP Peshmerga can again enjoy full control of Shingal and return to business as usual. But the KDP knows that if the displaced Yazidis now living in the camps in Dohuk return to Shingal, they will be more likely to support a rival militia, like the YBŞ, because they have no loyalty for the KDP.

And that brings us to the most discouraging of facts, the economic blockade of Shingal, which is the KDP’s disgraceful strategy to keep Yazidi families, who survived a genocide, trapped in camps that they have lived in for over two and a half years, rather than allowing them to return to Shingal. The north side of Shingal Mountain has been free of the IS presence since December 2014, without any IS-related security incident. The north side has eight major towns and over 25 smaller locations inhabited by Yazidis. It is viable for return and reconstruction, and several thousand Yazidi families have already taken up residence there, trying to rebuild their destroyed homes and farms. However, for over a year now, the KDP asa’ish have been effectively starving these families—and preventing the return of thousands more who would like to begin rebuilding a normal life—through an economic blockade. At the primary checkpoint controlling access to Shingal from Dohuk (Fishkhabour, near Suheila village), asa’ish do not allow Yazidis to bring goods to Shingal upon which a basic economy depends, such as livestock or most products for retail shops. Even beyond the commercial level, Yazidi families are not allowed to bring into Shingal basic household goods and foodstuffs upon which any family depends for their livelihood. There are countless examples of what is not allowed though. Here are a few examples that I gathered personally through my own conversations with affected families, farmers, and shop owners:

  • Auto mechanics are not allowed to bring in spare parts for vehicles, including parts for pickup trucks and tractors, both depended upon by farmers.
  • Small amounts of bulk food items for the use of a single family (such as a single bag of sugar, flour, or rice) are generally not allowed through.
  • Farmers report not being allowed to bring motor oil through which is needed for their harvester machines (Shingal depends on wheat and barley farming). Fuel (for gas stations) is also occasionally restricted.
  • Cement and cinderblocks needed for the rebuilding of homes destroyed by IS are often not allowed through.
  • Many families have been prevented from bringing a single sheep or lamb through the checkpoint.
  • Fertilizer is not allowed through. The asa’ish claim that it is to prevent terrorists from making bombs; this is not a risk among poor Yazidi farmers. Without fertilizer, farmers lose 50% to 70% of their yield.
  • Farmers are not being allowed to being ordinary farming equipment, such as irrigation supplies, to Shingal.
  • The headmasters of schools in Shingal have not been allowed to bring basic school supplies (such as paper, a single printer, or a single laptop) through the checkpoint, and have also been prevented from bringing fixtures for the schools, such as well pumps for the schools’ water systems.
  • Displaced families trying to return have been turned back to the camps when attempting to transport their own furniture or tents in which they need to live while rebuilding their destroyed homes.
  • Veterinary medicine has not been allowed through. Shingal’s families live off of herds but shop owners who sell veterinary medicine are not able to reopen their shops in Snune or the other collective villages because of the restrictions.

As an unannounced and therefore “unofficial” blockade, it is selectively enforced. Those with close ties to the government, asa’ish, or Peshmerga are sometimes allowed to bring some goods through. A few basic retail items are allowed through for the shops in Snune. This allows government officials to deny the existence of the blockade when challenged about it. But even when certain goods are allowed through, drivers are often treated roughly and humiliated by the asa’ish, being forced to unload their entire delivery (crates of vegetables, for example) in the sun. Many drivers for hire have simply given up trying to transport goods to Shingal. When some farmers complained about the restrictions on moving ordinary goods, government officials told them that they must apply for certain permits in order to bring goods to Shingal (permits that never existed before and that no one had heard of). Farmers that have tried to navigate this process are given a runaround, being sent from office to office, and the process—just to get official authorization to take farming supplies to one’s small farm—can take months. This can mean missing a planting or harvesting season. Most people simply give up trying. One farmer who finally succeeded in securing a permission document from the Dohuk governorate was still blocked from transporting the goods to Shingal by the asa’ish at the checkpoint: there’s no guarantee that the asa’ish will respect government documents.

Human Rights Watch investigated this blockade and recently issued a report, condemning the government for actively preventing reconstruction. I have personally always been in favor of reconstruction so that Yazidis can have a future in their homeland instead of being forced to emigrate. Emigration destroys the traditional diversity of the local society and puts the heritage of small minorities at risk. However, current policies actively prevent Yazidi families from returning and rebuilding, which produces hopelessness and prompts greater emigration from the country.


Political Violence toward Yazidis

This situation becomes even worse. Not only are families who were targeted with genocide and are now in their third year of living in camps prevented from returning home to resume normal lives, they are also punished severely if they complain about this situation. The asa’ish maintain strict control of Yazidi activities in the camps. Yazidis in the camps are generally not allowed to organize a public meeting unless it is for an activity related to an official political party. This included memorial gatherings to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide, last August, which asa’ish feared could turn into opportunities where dissent would be expressed. Yazidis in the camps holding peaceful demonstrations or speaking out on social media to protest the political policies that harm them have often been arrested, beaten, or threatened. In general, the asa’ish have succeeding in suppressing the voices of Yazidis who are broken and frustrated about their situation.

Worst of all is the political violence targeting Yazidis who join rival militias. These young people—and their families—can be persecuted through arrests, jailing, interrogations, and beatings. Young Yazidi men and women who join the YBŞ cannot visit their displaced relatives in the IDP camps in Dohuk, or else they will be arrested. In fact, KDP asa’ish have arrested poor taxi drivers accused of carrying YBŞ-affiliated passengers as customers in their taxis. Some taxi drivers have no knowledge of the identities of their paying customers, but have been arrested and jailed all the same. Some young men and women have not seen their families in the camps—only a three-hour drive away—for over two years for fear of being arrested.

One of my employees when I was leading Yazda in Iraq and Kurdistan was an uneducated, destitute man who worked as a cleaner in Yazda’s health care center. He had no interest in politics, but several of his grown children decided that they would join the YBŞ to defend their homeland. One day, he was taken by the asa’ish to an office where he was interrogated and told that he would be made to disappear (i.e., imprisoned without charges or trial) if he did not convince his children to disaffiliate from the YBŞ. He could not convince them to leave their cause of defending Shingal, so he had to leave the Kurdistan Region. He moved back to Shingal where he has no work and no resources, out of fear for his safety. Such stories are commonplace.

The political persecution of Yazidis who voice criticism of the government is so severe that it has prompted many families to immigrate to Europe. A number of Yazidi activists and journalists, not affiliated with any party, received threats against their families from the asa’ish because they spoke out. They chose to leave the country rather than live in fear. Individuals and families are not the only ones targeted; organizations are also victims of the crackdown on free speech.

Yazda Iraq is not the first local Yazidi organization to be shut down by the KDP since the genocide. Rainbow, a Yazidi-created project doing activities with children in Mamilian camp, was shut down in late 2015 after some of its volunteers joined peaceful demonstrations against the treatment of the Yazidis. Hezar Dinar, or the “Thousand Dinar” campaign, was an influential project with a huge impact. Yazidi volunteers collected small donations from large numbers of local people to redistribute to the needy in the camps. The project was apolitical but was shut down just before summer 2016 by KDP asa’ish after some of its members were seen in a photograph holding a non-KDP flag. Yazda was simply the latest casualty in an ongoing campaign to silence the free expression of any critical sentiments among the Yazidis.

While working in the KRI, I was frequently attacked by Kurdish officials if I voiced even the smallest concern about the situation and how it was affecting the survivors of the genocide. If I mentioned in a UN cluster meeting that the asa’ish were preventing certain goods from being transported to Shingal, I was ridiculed publicly by the government representative and accused of being a “troublemaker.” Of course, it was the government that was making trouble for the victims of the genocide.

Individuals or organizations expressing any criticism of KDP policy in Shingal were often accused of “supporting the PKK.” This is a strange allegation; critiquing harmful KDP policy does not constitute support for the PKK.

Aside from the competition in Shingal, the political dynamics inside the Kurdistan Region were also unhealthy. In the spring of 2016, I was visited by a PUK Peshmerga captain who commanded the small contingent of PUK Peshmerga in Shingal. He described to me how he had a large shipment of medicine that he was trying to bring to Shingal but was being prevented from doing so by the KDP asa’ish, despite being a Peshmerga leader. During my period of work in the country, the primary health centers in the Shingal region suffered from a lack of medicine. I am not speaking of the health centers created by the PKK to serve displaced Yazidis on top of the mountain; I am referring to the established, government-run health centers serving the collective villages on the north side of the mountain. These health centers are part of Nineveh administration and are responsible for the health care of several thousand local Yazidi families that had returned to Shingal. However, the managers of those health centers frequently disclosed to me that they were not being allowed to bring any shipment of medicine originating with the Nineveh government to their centers. I visited such centers personally and saw that their stores of medicine were empty. In the spring, I also spoke with a member of the Kurdish parliament who visited camps in Dohuk to inquire about the needs of genocide survivors and learn how she could help support them. She asked a camp manager what the needs were of the people in the camp. Knowing that she belonged to the PUK, he replied, “Nothing—they have everything they need.”


The Risk of Demographic Change

Like the program to change the demographics in Sheikhan, Shingal is at risk of being targeted with a similar project. Yazidis are very afraid that the KRG may inhibit them from returning home and instead try to settle them within the Kurdistan Region where they will be easier to rule, leaving Shingal open for settlement by KDP loyalists, making the district easier for the KDP to control. As a disputed territory that still officially belongs to the central government, it would be far easier for Kurdistan to gain permanent control of Shingal if it could be populated with Kurdish party loyalists, rather than by an “unruly” minority. As soon as the mass displacement of Shingal occurred in 2014, Yazidis began voicing fears of a possible long-term strategy to prevent them from returning home. Yazidi suspicions of a plan among high-level Kurdish officials to resettle Shingal’s Yazidis inside the Kurdistan Region were corroborated when I and some other Yazda volunteers met with Dr. Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to the Presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government, on November 3, 2015. In our meeting, I pressed Dr. Fuad about the need to rebuild Shingal so that Yazidis could return home. Dr. Fuad told me that it would be too expensive and said that “those people need to be resettled elsewhere.” I responded that it would be less expensive to rebuild their existing homeland than it would be to construct an entirely new home for the Yazidi people.

Of course, if the Kurdish government continues to prevent the Yazidis from returning to Shingal, the real tragedy will be for the Yazidis to lose their historic homeland, with all of its sacred religious and cultural sites.


The Future That the Yazidis Need

Recently, Kurdish officials have intensified calls for the PKK to “leave” Shingal. The PKK itself has only a minimal presence in Shingal. What they mean is that they want PKK support for the Yazidi YBŞ forces to be eliminated so that the YBŞ will dissolve. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is presenting this as a prerequisite for the ending of the blockade.

By saying that the PKK presence prevents peace from returning to Shingal, Nechirvan Barzani is pretending that the KDP has no choice in its implementation of the blockade. He is effectively saying, “We are helpless in victimizing the Yazidis unless we get the political outcome we want.” But of course the KDP has control over its actions and could lift the blockade today, whether or not it gets its way.

Nechirvan Barzani’s remarks do not acknowledge that the YBŞ’s forces are primarily local, consisting of Yazidis from Shingal—not a foreign force that has invaded the country. (The largest foreign force in the area is actually the Peshmerga Rojava, a KDP-affiliated militia created by the KDP by recruiting from the Syrian refugee camps inside the Kurdistan Region.) Though I do not support the YBŞ or any other partisan militia, or any of the parties with which these militias are affiliated, I nevertheless firmly believe in the Yazidis’ freedom to choose their political affiliation—this is democracy. But this issue is about much more than the right to choose a party. What most Yazidis want now is not to choose a party, but to build their own administrative infrastructure, independently of any major party.

Most Yazidis from Shingal are worried about the PKK becoming the next KDP in Shingal. They do not want to see the PKK replace the KDP as a new hegemon in Shingal—the next chapter in single-party authoritarianism maintaining complete control over a population. But Yazidis are even more fearful about an end to PKK support for Yazidi militias, because this will result in the return of KDP hegemony, which is viewed as the worst-case scenario. Yazidis therefore recognize that PKK influence is creating balance for the moment; neither the KDP nor the PKK are strong enough to gain full control of Shingal. This deferment of an outside force again taking complete control of Shingal is allowing the Yazidis time to plan their own form of local administration, security, and governance, but they need better support and guidance from the U.S. and European countries to accomplish this. This is what the vast majority of Yazidis want. Rather than leaving their security to party-affiliated forces originating outside of Shingal—forces that failed to protect them in the past—Yazidis want to oversee their own affairs, by building local, nonpartisan institutions of administration and security that will be officially recognized under the Iraqi legal framework. Yazidis want to maintain a relationship between the Shingal district and the Kurdistan Region, but they prefer to be in charge of their own security and infrastructure, while promoting the development of an environment of political pluralism. This is very reasonable.

Therefore, the desire of most of the Yazidis who join the YBŞ is not to support the pan-Kurdish ideology of the PKK, but rather to protect their own homeland and strengthen their capacity for local governance. They simply do not see an alternative sponsor qualified to defend Yazidi interests at the moment. For the Yazidis, the issue is not a choice of loyalty between Erbil versus Baghdad, but is about creating a framework for self-administration—something that Erbil will never tolerate. By rejecting Erbil’s claims to Shingal (something the vast majority of Shingali Yazidis are united in), Yazidis are not expressing some kind of preference for a special relationship with Baghdad. Rather, they simply want to work within the framework of the government that will best provide the opportunity for self-administration.

The KDP had a decade to convince the Yazidis to join with them instead of seeking their own administration under Baghdad. They failed in this endeavor because they used excessive intimidation rather than extending goodwill and respecting the right of the Yazidis to choose. When I was in Shingal in the summer of 2015, I spoke to wheat and barley farmers who had left the camps in Dohuk to temporarily return to their farms on the north side of the mountain, in order to harvest their fields that had been left standing after the genocide. They hoped to sell their grain and return to the camps. But instead of facilitating this effort on the part of the poor families, Peshmerga leaders in charge of the area after the liberation of the mountain’s north side were not allowing Yazidis to bring their grain to Dohuk. (This was prior to the economic blockade discussed in this article.) The Peshmerga leaders were forcing the Yazidi farmers to sell their grain within Shingal, below the current price, to the Peshmerga leaders themselves, who were then transporting it to the Kurdistan Region to sell for a large profit. This is only one example of the kind of corruption that Shingal suffers under single-party rule and it was heartbreaking to see a broken people continue to be subjected to such exploitation even after the genocide.

Today should mark the end of these abuses. The desire of the Yazidis for self-administration within Iraq’s legal framework should now be respected by all sides. The wishes of the Yazidis are not unreasonable or unrealistic. They are not asking to secede from Iraq and create their own country. They simply want to work within the parameters of the Iraqi constitution to effectively manage and protect their historic region. Such goals are sensible—if this minority is to survive in its homeland—and achievable with local and international support.


A New Message from Kurdistan to the Yazidis

At this stage, the KDP has lost the contest for Yazidi loyalty. The best thing for the KRG to do now is to approach the Yazidi community with a new message. Here is the message that President Barzani, the KDP, and all of Kurdistan should give to the Yazidis of Shingal:

  • First, we would like to take responsibility for abandoning you in your hour of need, and for allowing the genocide of the Yazidis to take place. We want to apologize in humility for the terrible negligence that left your people defenseless. We should have apologized to you directly, long ago, and we are sorry for the long delay in giving you this honest message. Apologies are painful, but the pain of humility is worth the chance to rebuild trust and good faith with you.
  • Second, we recognize that it was not a genocide targeting all Kurds for their ethnicity, but rather targeting Yazidis specifically, for their religious identity. As your brothers and sisters, we stand with you, and we recognize that you alone were targeted with a special project of extermination and enslavement.
  • Third, we recognize that no one has the right to choose your leaders for you, except you. Shingal has always been your historic homeland, and you have the right to shape its future. Even after the way that we have broken trust with you, we hope that you will still want seek a future with Kurdistan, but we recognize that the choice is yours, and we will respect whatever decision you make, and will always seek to maintain friendship with you.
  • Fourth, we will immediately lift the economic blockade that we have levied against your homeland, Shingal, for the entire past year. We recognize that our actions have further victimized you and inhibited your recovery, even after the terrible trauma of the genocide that you have endured. We do not have the right to tell you not to return to your homeland, or to keep your population in camps for years at a time, while your children grow up hopeless about their lack of a future.
  • Fifth, regardless of what political loyalties you democratically choose within your homeland, we pledge to not only allow you free passage with your personal goods from the Kurdistan Region to Shingal, but we also pledge to assist your reconstruction in whatever way we are able, recognizing that after our own negligence, we are now responsible to do what we can to help you rebuild, regardless of whether you place your political loyalties with our parties or not. Kurdistan is contending with economic crisis now, which limits our ability to perform significant reconstruction, but we will do our best to assist you.
  • These positions represent the goodwill of the Kurdish people who believe in democracy and justice and this statement represents the Kurdish values of fairness, equality, and integrity.


The purpose of this article has not been to attack Kurdistan, but to address some problems that are weakening social cohesion among communities in Kurdistan and northern Iraq. Kurdistan is a wonderful place with wonderful people who have fought very hard for their own rights and freedoms. On my first visit to Kurdistan years ago, I visited a prison that Saddam had built in which he would imprison Kurds who expressed dissent about their situation. The prison was turned into a museum and I was moved by the depictions of human suffering that the Kurds had endured at the hands of Saddam, and by the bravery of the Peshmerga that had labored so tirelessly to liberate their people. Being honest in our confrontation of new political realities of this generation, and the failure of the Peshmerga in Shingal, does not constitute a denial of the heroism of the Peshmerga over the many years that they have defended Kurdistan. Nevertheless, it is essential that we confront the Ba’thist-like behavior of the asa’ish toward the minority populations, and the political system that looks the other way when abuses occur. Sadly, I have lost some valued friendships with Kurds who are very dear to me, because of the position that I have taken on these issues. It is sad to lose those friendships, but in this context of genocide, I cannot compromise on the truth. In America we say “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” We can critique government action in Kurdistan because we love Kurdistan and want to see it thrive, just as it is our duty to critique the treatment of minorities in the U.S. whenever our government abuses freedoms. Because of campaigns for the rights of minorities, many people in America today have rights that they did not have a few short years ago. Those rights are always placed in jeopardy when we stop speaking out. My involvement in the Yazidi situation is not that of someone with any stake in political factions. I have never had an affiliation with or affinity for any political group in Iraq, Syria, or Turkey. Rather, I am approaching this situation as a historian who understands how fragile the existence of a minority group like the Yazidis is, and how real the possibility is that the Yazidi people could disappear from the region. We have witnessed the recent decline of many minority communities in the Middle East, not only because of the threat of extremist violence, but also because of the harmful politics of nationalism. It is vital that citizens of Iraq and Kurdistan work to ensure that the Yazidis are not another casualty of politics. You—the people of Kurdistan—must speak out and let your government know that their treatment of the Yazidis is unacceptable and contrary to your values.


Matthew Barber is a PhD student studying Islamic thought and history in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He was working in Kurdistan when the Yazidi Genocide began and later served as the Iraq Executive Director of Yazda for one year in 2015-2016. He has conducted research on the Yazidi minority and can be followed on Twitter: @Matthew__Barber


A Post-National Framework for Peace and Stability in the Middle East – by Sam Farah

Sam Farah

A Post-National Framework for Peace and Stability in the Middle East
Sam Farah – txtwxe@google.com
For Syria Comment – January 2017

The Syrian crisis, about to enter its sixth year, has created the largest humanitarian disaster since the Cold War, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and creating the worst refugee crisis of our generation. Yet, the Syrian crisis is hardly the only fire burning in the Middle East. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Middle East has been stuck in endless wars and an ever-worsening cycle of violence and extremism.

Beyond the devastating human cost of these conflicts, instability in the Middle East has the potential to destroy the global order. In his recent article “Toward a Global Realignment,” Zbigniew Brzezinski warns that if not contained the current violence in the Middle East can spread to Russia’s southern and eastern territories as well as the western portion of China.[1] Mr. Brzezinski is not the only one sounding alarms about the increasing instability in the Middle East. General David Petraeus has described the Syrian conflict as a “Chernobyl, a potential geo-strategic catastrophe.[2]  The flood of refugees into Europe was a major driver behind Brexit and the rise of nationalism across Europe, which threatens to unravel the continent’s post-nationalistic framework.

Mr. Brzezinski warns that America’s quest for a one-sided militarily and ideologically imposed outcome in the Middle East is an act of prolonged and self-destructive futility. Instead Mr. Brzezinski encourages the United States to forge a cooperative relationship with Russia, China, and the EU, who can partner with more established and historically rooted countries in the Middle East to shape a wider framework for regional stability.

The Current Framework of the Middle East

The framework for the Middle East was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, mostly on a nationalistic basis.

Nationalism is defined as a political movement to unite people into nations based on shared language, race or religion. This idea emerged in Europe in the 19th century, and spread to the Middle East in the early 20th. Nationalism held that the boundaries of a nation should as much as possible coincide with one culture.

The Armenians and Assyrians were the first victims of nationalism in the Middle East. The Young Turks, in an effort to Turkify the new republic, executed a systematic campaign to exterminate the Assyrians and Armenians from eastern Turkey, a plateau they had inhabited for 3,000 years. As many as 1.5 million people were killed in what is today known as the Armenian Genocide.

Two other nationalist movements, Arab nationalism and Zionism, were also gathering strength and about to collide. Zionism was born in Europe in the 19th century. Its founder, Theodore Herzl, was once a member of the German nationalist fraternity (Burschenschaft). Zionism’s founding was not a reaction to the Holocaust, which occurred 40 years after the Zionist movement emerged. It was a nationalist movement to build a nation for the Jewish people. David Ben-Gurion, who was born in Poland, and then immigrated to Israel in 1906, wrote (quoted in Wikiquote, 2016), “For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication to Zionism. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. We emigrated not for negative reasons of escape but for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland.”[3]

European-educated Arab intellectuals from the Levant were also eager to establish an Arab homeland. In 1911, they founded the Young Arab Society, Al Fatat, in Paris. Their goal was to gain independence and unify Arab territory under the Ottoman Empire.

In 1919, Ben-Gurion (quoted in Wikiquote, 2016) wrote, “We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”[4] Tensions between Arabs and Jews grew. In 1947, the Arabs rejected the UN partition plans for Palestine, and Arab nationalists vowed to eradicate the new Zionist entity. Between 1947 and 1949, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Later, a series of laws in the newly declared state of Israel prevented them from returning to their homes or claiming their properties. Towns and streets, which had traditionally carried Arabic names, were given Hebrew ones. Against this backdrop, the Arab-Israeli conflict has continued for 67 years.

Kurdish nationalists have demanded a homeland partitioned out of territories in parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurdish-Turkish war, which has escalated with the Syrian crisis, has caused tens of thousands of deaths and created masses of refugees. Turkey, in its effort to combat Kurdish nationalism, has restricted the use of the Kurdish language in Turkey. At one point the Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names were prohibited.

Today, the Arab countries of the Levant have collapsed into proxy, sectarian and civil wars. In the Middle East there are three competing regional projects, all exacerbating the regional conflicts and contributing to the radicalization of the population. Turkey’s Neo-Ottomanists are trying to extend Turkey’s influence in the Middle East; Iran cloaked in a Shia theocracy is extending its regional influence through a network of proxies and regional allies; and Israel remains strongly nationalist and is becoming increasingly right wing. In the middle of this regional dysfunction, ISIS has sprung up with an appalling mix of fascism and religious extremism, and Al Qaeda has gained a foothold on the Mediterranean.

Religious radicalism and terrorism thrive in the Middle East today. These conflicts are polarizing and each side rallies its base using the most divisive issues, often religion. The governments of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all been accused or are at least suspected of supporting the most sectarian, often-terrorist groups, even ISIS, in their bid for regional influence.

While the Middle East is becoming increasingly unstable, its strategic importance as an oil supplier to the United Stated is diminishing. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer by the end of this decade, and will become self-sufficient in energy production by 2035.[5] The United States’ shift away from the Middle East started during the Obama administration as it pivoted to Asia. An estimated $5 trillion, $1.2 trillion of which is in American goods, is traded through the South China Sea shipping lanes each year, which is a vital national security interest for the United States. President Donald Trump also campaigned with the promise that the United States would disengage from the Middle East and prioritize fighting terrorism. The continued crises in the region however, risks sucking the United States back into the Middle East.

A stable Middle East is of vital importance to China. It is estimated that there are around 5000 Chinese from the Uighur region fighting alongside radical Islamic groups in Syria. The recent suicide attack against the Chinese embassy in the Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was ordered by Uighur militants active in Syria.[6] China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are, and will be for the foreseeable future, heavily dependent on the flow of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The E.U. is in desperate need of stability in the Middle East as well. They are struggling to deal with the flood of immigrants coming from the region and with the threat of radicalized European Jihadists fighting in Syria. In many proxy wars, regional players manipulate their external backers and not the other way around.[7] None of these major powers wants to be dragged into these conflicts in the Middle East as long as their geostrategic interests are protected.

A New Framework

Many blame the current arbitrary borders of the Middle East for its many troubles. The British and the French drew up these borders after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1900s under Ottoman rule there were provinces – Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul – that corresponded to today’s Iraq. The other provinces were those of Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo, and Deir al Zor, plus the district of Jerusalem, which had special administrative status. These areas included today’s Syria, Lebanon, and much of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Mixed communities with a myriad number of religions, sects, and ethnicities populated these provinces. The new colonial borders divided communities and restricted the movement of people and commerce, but they were not a cause of war. It was the nationalists who caused wars. The territorial claims of the different nationalist movements that sprung up in the late 19th and early 20th century overlapped and set the stage for conflict.

Nationalism as a cause of war, authoritarianism, and racism is well established.  The role of nationalism in European wars, including the two world wars, is well documented. After decades of war, Europe had to build a new framework for a lasting peace. It began with the Schuman Declaration in 1950. It laid the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) the first supra-nationalist organization in history. Pooling coal and steel production – in the words of the Declaration – made war between historic rivals “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”[8]Then through successive steps including de-emphasized borders, Europe led the world in pioneering a post-nationalist experiment and established peace.Post-nationalism is also the best framework to resolve the myriad conflicts in the Middle East.

Candidate Countries

The selection of countries for this new framework aims to defuse existing tensions that exacerbate the current conflicts and fuel extremism. These countries are Turkey, Iran, Israel, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Membership in the bloc would be available on a rolling basis and might include other countries like Egypt, whose membership could provide a tripartite peace with Iran and Turkey to anchor the new bloc. Alternatively, Egypt could be part of a North African bloc. Armenia should be considered for membership in this new bloc as well. Armenians were the first victims of nationalism in the Middle East and deemphasizing its border with Turkey would give Armenians peaceful access to areas they have been forced out of including the revered Mount Ararat.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) would continue to develop their own relationships and would not be part of this proposed post-nationalist bloc. Historically, the GCC’s main strategic threats have been Arab nationalism, pan-Islamic movements, and Iran. All these risks would be reduced with the creation of the proposed post-nationalist bloc.

The Pillars of the New Framework

While this proposed framework borrows heavily from the European experience, it is not a proposed union. This proposed framework is built with a series of multilateral agreements between the named countries aimed at replacing the current framework which is built of nationalistic bases with a post nationalist framework built on three pillars, deemphasizing borders, multiculturalism, and regional projects.

In this new bloc, borders would be frozen where they are and deemphasized, with the ultimate goal of guaranteeing the free movement of capital, people, goods and service within the bloc. Borrowing from the example of the ECSC, a regional body would be created to manage the region’s water and energy resources, as well as transit roots for energy from the Gulf area and Russia to the West. All these, especially water rights, are a source of conflict, and are best managed on a regional basis. According to scientists with the World Resource Institute (WRI), water shortages are expected to intensify and will exacerbate conflicts. Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey will all be facing severe water stress by 2040, according to the WRI.[9] Combating terrorism will likewise be a focus of cooperative police forces in the region. Multiculturalism is the third pillar of this new framework, and is the antithesis of nationalism. Where nationalists aim for the primacy of their culture and language in specific regions, often to the exclusion of others, multiculturalism is the celebration of all cultures and religions as equals. Multiculturalism is not meant to mix different cultures and religions together to create a new identity, nor does it weaken people’s connection to their religion and traditions. The Europeans paid special attention to this issue when structuring their post nationalist framework. They made multiculturalism a foundation of their new post-nationalist framework. In contrast with the nationalistic fervor of old Europe that emphasized language as a central part of national identity, in the E.U. there is no official language. All of the 24 languages spoken in the E.U. region are official E.U. languages.[10] Post-nationalism is a different polity than pre-nationalists empires many of which were also composed of many cultures and religions like the Ottoman empire. Those Empires were governed by one religious group or one clan.

This new proposed framework for the Middle East would not simply replicate the E.U.; greater autonomy would be granted to local governments, and a single currency is not necessary for a post-nationalist framework. This is also not a proposed military pact, and is not an invitation to disarmament. Countries in this new proposed bloc will maintain their military treaties with non- member countries, such as Russia’s agreements with Syria and the United States’ agreements with Turkey.

Creating a new bloc with deemphasized borders, regional projects, and multiculturalism should defuse most of the regional conflicts. Since Iran is a majority Shia country, and Turkey is a majority Sunni country, the focus of the countries in this new-shared bloc will be on the shared values of both religions. Christianity and Judaism also share the values that are common to these two forms of Islam. This should defuse religious extremism as well. The conflicts of the Middle East today are regional, the Kurdish question, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the Syrian crisis are all regional, zero-sum conflicts. Regional conflicts require regional solutions.

 A Prerequisite for Peace not a Product of Peace

Some believe that post nationalism will be the result of peace and that creating a post-nationalist bloc would be putting the cart before the horse. The European experience proves otherwise. After decades of conflicts and two world wars, Europeans sought an escape from the nationalism that had devastated the continent. The political elite took the lead in the search for a new structure for governance. The result was the E.U., a pioneering experiment in interdependence and multiculturalism. In 2012, the E.U. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Explaining the Nobel Committee’s decision, Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland argued that the E.U. has transformed Europe, “from a continent of wars to a continent of peace.”[11] While it is possible to argue about the economics of the project, such arguments ignore the fact that the purpose of the E.U. was to prevent war. The Middle East has transitioned from a religious empire to a region torn by nationalism, now it needs to move toward post nationalism as its third political act, to bring stability to the region.

The Alternative

Many have argued that the promotion of liberal democracies is a precondition to peace in the Middle East, and the neoconservatives have pushed for regime change in many countries in the region, only to see violence, and extremism reach new heights. Peace building by focusing individual conflict has yielded precious little despite decades of international efforts. Alternately, the region could undergo further segregation and population transfer as proposed by people such as Michael Bernstam.[12] This approach will lead to ethnic cleansing and the creation of small warring, unsustainable states.

How do we get there?

It took Europe a cataclysmic war to abandon nationalism and seek an alternative framework. Moving the Middle East to a post nationalist structure will require that the regional actors be exhausted by and realize the futility of the current wars. It will also require a paradigm shift in thinking both inside and outside the region.

Post nationalism in Europe remains a deeply misunderstood process in the Middle East. Many on the left believe that the E.U. is a capitalistmanifestation to create open markets and help big business. Islamists see it as areconstitution of Christendom. And nationalists are still attached to their dreamsand view the E.U. as a union of mature nations that have already achieved theirnationalist aspirations. Middle Eastern nationalists also argue thattheir brand of nationalism is different than the European variety. Arabs argue that theirnationalism is rooted in liberation nationalism and that the Zionists use the Holocaustas a reason to hold on to their nationalist project. But all these views ignore the history of the development of post nationalism in Europe, and the history ofnationalism in the Middle East.

Work on the new framework should be initiated by local politicians, most likely from Iran and Turkey, with the consent of the major global powers. It would involve direct negotiations between potential member nations on the first steps toward and the overall parameters of the new structure. The E.U. can provide technical expertise, drawing on it vast experience in regional post nationalist frameworks. Other countries, most importantly Israel and Syria, can join these negotiations. It will be an evolving project that will be built one treaty at a time with an overarching goal of replacing the current zero sum structure with a new post nationalist framework.  Peace-building institutes, like the Carter Center and The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), can take a leading role by hosting politicians and activists from the region to explore and promote this new solution.

Potential Obstacles

There will be resistance to such new framework from Islamists and nationalists inside the region. There are also potential obstacles from outside the region; the U.S might want to continue to isolate Iran. Russia is increasingly suspicious of post nationalism, and U.S.- Russian rivalry and mutual suspicion has the potential to prevent this project from moving forward.

For those who see too much chaos in the Middle East to even ponder post-nationalism, it is worth keeping in mind that the E.U. was born in the aftermath of World War II when war, genocide and religious rivalry had swept the continent. The E.U. has been an evolving, contentious project that took shape in the shadow of the Cold War, in a divided Europe governed by many right-wing military dictatorships well into the 1970s. The E.U. was a top-down project engineered by a few visionary statesmen that allowed Europe to develop into what it is today: peaceful, democratic, and liberal. All of this human progress is at risk today by the escalating violence and dysfunction in the Middle East.

Considering the decreasing strategic importance of the region to the U.S., and the potential seismic geopolitical impact of the continued instability in the Middle East, the U.S. should aim to stabilize the region as it continues to disengage from it.  Patiently guided by long-range vision, The U.S. and in partnership with China, Russia and the E.U., should help guide local countries to seek a new post nationalist regional framework.


Beehner, Lionel. “How Proxy Wars Work: And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria.” Foreign Affairs. Nov. 12, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-11-12/how-proxy-wars-work

Bernstam, Michael. “Redraw Country Lines in the Middle East.” Forbes. Dec. 23, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/23/redraw-country-lines-in-the-middle-east/#78181fda7765

Brzezinksi, Zbigniew.“Toward a Global Realignment.” The American Interest 11, No. 6, (April 17, 2016). http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/

Dzyubenko, Olga. “Kyrgystan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China’s Embassy.”Reuters. Sept. 7, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

Mackey, Peg. “U.S. to overtake Saudi as Top Oil Producer: IEA.” Reuters. Nov. 12, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iea-oil-report-idUSBRE8AB0IQ20121112

Noren, Alexander. 2012 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. video. 80 min. 2012. http://www.lectoro.com/index.php?action=search&ytq=2012%20Nobel%20Prize%20Award%20Ceremony

Petraeus, Gen. David (ret.). Address to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Syria. Sep 22, 2015. Youtube video. 1 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScBrQaDzgpA

Prospero, a blog published by The Economist. http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero.

Schuman, Robert. “The Schuman Declaration – 9 May 1950.” European Union. Last updated Dec. 12, 2016. https://europa.eu/european-union/abouteu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en

WikiQuote. David Ben-Gurion.Last updated on July 1, 2016.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion. Originally published in David Ben-Gurion, Memoirs (The World Publishing Company, 1970), 36.

WikiQuote. David Ben-Gurion. Last updated on July 1, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion.

World Resources Institute Blog. http://www.wri.org/blog


[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Toward a Global Realignment,” The American Interest, 11, no. 6 (April 17, 2016), http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/.

[2] Gen. David Petraeus (ret.), Address to Senate Armed Services Committee on Syria, Youtube video, 1 min, September 22, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScBrQaDzgpA.

[3] Wikiquote, David Ben-Gurion. Last updated on July 1, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peg Mackey, “U.S. to overtake Saudi as Top Oil Producer: IEA,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2012,


[6] Olga Dzyubenko, “Kyrgystan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China’s Embassy,”

Reuters, Sept. 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK.

[7] Lionel Beehner, “How Proxy Wars Work: And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, Nov. 12, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-11-12/how-proxy-wars-work.

[8] Robert Schuman, The Schuman Declaration – 9 May 1950, European Union, last updated Dec. 12, 2016, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en.

[9] Andrew Maddocks, Robert Samuel Young and Paul Reig, “Ranking the World’s Most Water Stressed Countries in 2040,” World Resources Institute (blog), Aug. 26, 2015, http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world’s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040.

[10] “Multiculturalism and the E.U.,” Prospero (blog) The Economist, April 30, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/04/multilingualism-and-eu-0.

[11] Alexander Noren, 2012 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, video, 80 min, 2012, http://www.lectoro.com/index.php?action=search&ytq=2012%20Nobel%20Prize%20Award%20Ceremony.

[12] Michael Bernstam, “Redraw Country Lines in the Middle East,” Forbes, Dec. 23, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/23/redraw-country-lines-in-the-middle-east/#78181fda7765.

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan: From the Cradle of the Jalalabad School of Jihad to Syria and Iraq

Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan

By Tam Hussein @tamhussein

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan questions the foundational myths of the Afghan Jihad which touched a generation of Muslim men growing up in the 90s. It is told by one of the earliest Afghan Arabs, Mustafa Hamid who joined the warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani against the Afghan Communist regime and the Soviet Union. He was also one of the few Arabs who remained after the Afghan Jihad had ended. He became close to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden and his inner circle. Although Hamid is a prolific writer in Arabic his latest account has valuable lessons for all those pondering Jihadism and its effect in the Middle East.

Mustafa Hamid or Abu Walid al-Masri

Mustafa Hamid working together with Leah Farrall, an Australian counter-terrorism expert, gives an account of the genesis of al-Qaeda and the Taliban with extraordinary detail. The very fact that these two could come together to produce such a document is an extraordinary feat in itself and proof that dialogue between two seemingly inveterate enemies is possible. The book is in the form of a ‘conversation’, the dialogues consist of twelve chapters touching on topics such as the Arab-Afghan Jihad, Taliban origins, the Arab Services Bureau; the battle of Jaji, the Arab training camps, Arab-Afghan politics, efforts at unity post 9/11 and the final chapter being the reflections of the authors. The book is complimented by several helpful sections giving brief outlines of people, locations and glossaries.

Hamid argues that many fighters who became known as the ‘Afghan’ Arabs went to fight in Afghanistan because they were despondent about the tyrannical rulers in the Middle East. Their experiences was one of humiliation; Israel had administered several bloody noses in Egypt 1973, in Lebanon with the PLO being expelled in 1978 and 82, in Yemen the Soviet Union was controlling the South and in Syria, Hafez al-Assad ruled with an iron fist culminating in the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Change in short, would not occur and so many Arabs headed to Afghanistan with the invasion of the Soviet Union. If what Hamid says is true, then with the fall of Aleppo, eventually Mosul and the presence of repressive dictatorships in spite of the Arab Spring, will see the emergence of ‘forever-Jihadis’ – grizzled experts in asymmetric warfare who will no doubt seek out new frontiers to carry out their Jihad. In fact, Abu Qatada, the Salafi-Jihadi cleric has already noted this as he commented on the fall of Aleppo:

“I understood that victory would not come without a turning point …But I am convinced that there are major turning points ahead. Among them the expansion of Jihad to other countries, the changing characteristics of leadership and groups, the invasion of the original disbelievers more openly and clearly…”

Another important point that Hamid makes is that often fighting men, and here the focus is on Arabs, follow men not ideas. And he explains why the Afghan Arabs followed leaders that made catastrophic errors. According to Hamid, Osama bin Laden or Abu Abdullah did not have a clear vision or a strategy at the battle of Jaji, Jalalabad or 9/11 for that matter. And though his far more able commanders like Abu Hafs al-Masri, Abu Ubaida al-Banshiri knew it, none disavowed him. Only Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, their in-house jurist resigned in protest when the idea of 9/11 was floated because it contravened Islamic law. Similarly, Khattab, the Saudi commander fighting Russians in Chechnya and often wrongly associated with al-Qaeda, entered into Dagestan provoking a lethal Russian response that resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent civilians. Hamid suggests that both men suffered from same problem that Tony Blair suffered from, they only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.

Khattab, the Arab rebel commander in Chechnya

In fact, Hamid goes as far as questioning the very foundational myths of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and Khattab in his view, were far from ideal leaders. For instance, Hamid rubbishes the notion that Bin Laden was attempting to draw the US into a trap. He believes Bin Laden had no such vision except that he wanted to be the saviour of the Muslim religious community or Ummah. Hamid depicts Bin Laden as suffering at best from quixotic hubris and at worst, megalomania. To Hamid, Bin Laden flagrantly disobeying the orders of Mullah Omar and unleashing the wrath of the USA at the expense of millions of innocent Afghans was inexcusable. Hamid also reveals the immense rivalry between Bin Laden and more long term visionaries such as the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri. He trenchantly criticises Bin Laden for his mistakes in Jaji and Tora Bora as tactical errors. This is also independently affirmed by other Afghan veterans like Abdullah Anas. It is also notable that in Hamid’s narrative, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was only a bit player and mentioned only in passing unlike the bigger role he was given by Lawrence Wright in his classic The Looming Tower.

One of the most valuable insights of the book, if not the most, is the widespread influence of the ‘Jalalabad School of Jihad’. The school Hamid argues, is the progenitor for all the Jihadist movements in the Islamic world. He points out that none of the Arab fighters in Afghanistan had any religious authority. The few Arabs that had religious authority were Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Sheikh Abdel Majid Zindani who came to Afghanistan intermittently, Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman, the ‘blind sheikh’ who lived in Peshawar on a pension, and to a lesser extent Abdullah Anas who was the product of a North African religious education system but was mostly with Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panshir valley. In contrast, Afghans had scholarly authority of the Mullahs and Mawalwis; the late warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani for example was a respected scholar and a product of the Indo-Pak Deoband tradition. Despite this rich tradition of indigenous scholarship, Arab fighters did not respect this mainly Hanafi tradition and only listened to their own.

Hamid argues that this had huge implications, once the few members of religious authority either left or passed away many of these Arab-Afghans especially the later younger arrivals, could not be controlled or directed. Bin Laden struggled to control them and was criticised by his own men for being too pliant to their whims. But he also had little choice; he was in the midst of intense competition for recruits between the various factions and often these young fighters would go off to another camp if they didn’t like what he had to offer. The competition for recruits and the lack of religious authority resulted in many young fighters doing something unprecedented; they claimed religious authority not on the basis of religious knowledge but on the basis of their fighting experience. It gave legitimacy to a largely religiously untrained class of men from Osama bin Laden to al-Zarqawi who had the gall to issue religious edicts and Fatwas which in the past, they would have no right to issue. It was akin to an undergraduate law student claiming the legal authority of a High Court judge. Hamid notes that al-Qaeda always had scholars coming from outside but it could never generate scholars from within its own ranks. Even Abu Qatadah who is often closely associated with al-Qaeda is religiously trained in Jordan under notable Jordanian religious scholars. To his critics the issue with Sh. Abu Qatadah has never been his erudition but his judgement.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The proliferation and competition of various of factions, the disdaining of religious authority amongst the Afghan Arabs eventually morphed into what Hamid calls the Jalalabad school, the mother of all AQ affiliates, that now spreads across the globe. This was a far cry from what al-Qaeda was originally conceived as. It was meant to be the A-Team, a Muslim foreign legion going to the aid of the Muslim Ummah when and where ever it faced difficulties.  Instead it turned into a group of highway men who attacked UN aid convoys and killed innocents in the name of ‘Jihad’. Hamid remarks that some of the most notable leaders of the Jalalabad school were Abdul Majid al-Jazairi who went on to form the GIA in Algeria and others like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who went on to Iraq and committed sectarian violence on a colossal scale. And if one can add another more recent example, the Reina nightclub killer, Abdulkadir Masharipov also came from the training camps of Afghanistan. Perhaps more interestingly Hamid believes that it is the very presence of the Jalalabad school that will scupper all the Salafi-Jihadi projects in the Muslim world especially Syria, because ultimately:

“The Jalalabad school started without any leadership, strategy, or political thought; without belonging to a nation or a homeland. It was and still is characterised by impetuous youth with extreme Salafi thoughts and with a careless approach. They did not care or did not think about the consequences of their actions…this school of youth”

But whilst Hamid condemns the Jalalabad school for extremism he does not let the US off the hook. The US turned into an enemy of the Afghan Arabs when “in 1991, there was a Gulf War and it was widely known America was a big enemy and destroying the Arabs. In ten years 1.5 million people were killed…most of them were children. America became an enemy because of its actions.” It would seem that according to Hamid the US is only reaping what its foreign policy has sowed.

There is no doubt that Hamid’s book is of immense value but there are some points of criticism.  The first point here is minor. Whilst the dialogic format is interesting, the book could improve by further editing as it can occasionally be repetitive. Neither is it always clear, whether it is Hamid or Farrall speaking or whether it is general background given by a neutral voice. This can be off putting and hampers its accessibility. Moreover this being a ‘conversation’ means that the reader has to be sufficiently informed in order to understand that conversation fully, that is a great shame because this book deserves a larger audience.

The second point of criticism is the credibility of the account. I am well aware that Mustafa Hamid has been criticised savagely by his former comrade Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr. Whilst the latter has immense reverence for Hamid nevertheless he speaks out against him because “truth” was being “slaughtered” and “fabricated”. That leaves the reader to ask quite reasonably, how credible is Hamid’s account?

Certainly, here Leah Farrall’s presence is critical because her role is to reign him in, to be sceptical and to challenge him. Nevertheless, to what extent is the book accurate? There are aspects in his account that need further work especially on the Arab Services Bureau, this author has interviewed those who differ with Hamid on how it was created and worked. In fact, the Arab Services Bureau chapter probably needs its own in depth study.  But there are also other aspects that are confirmed by other sources, for instance the tension between Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden has been confirmed by the sterling journalism of Lawrence Wright. The character sketch Hamid gives of Osama bin Laden has been confirmed to this author independently by other Afghan veterans. The Harmony project also confirms many of Hamid’s assertions. As for the Jalalabad school of Jihad, this seems like a plausible theory, Abdullah Anas has told this author that many of these young men who became known as Afghan Arabs came to Afghanistan in the early nineties when the Soviets had left already. By that time, Abdullah Azzam was dead, Sh. Zindani was in Yemen, Omar Abdur-Rahman was living in the US and so it seems reasonable that such a ‘school’ can come about in the camps of Jalalabad. Therefore, whilst one must approach Hamid’s account with a degree of caution, his account doesn’t seem to exaggerate nor does it lapse into conspiracy theories. The points highlighted in this review then, are far from controversial and can be found in the works of analysts such as Don Rassler and Vahid Brown’s The Fountain Head of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus 1973-2012.

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan is an incredibly important work for so many of the reasons outlined.  It has a demystifying effect on an aspect of history which has been shrouded in myth and to find an old veteran talking about the issues with such clarity and candour is of immense value and part of that must be attributed to Ms. Farrall’s academic eye.

Liwa Al-Jabal: A New Loyalist Militia Unity Initiative In Suwayda’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa al-Jabal.

Unity initiatives of various kinds among armed groups are foremost associated with the rebels in Syria. Despite some attempts to argue to the contrary, the popular conception of the wider insurgency and opposition as heavily divided is largely correct. Time and time again we have seen talk of uniting the various rebel factions only to see it amount to little if anything: the most recent case being the merger schemes discussed in the wake of the regime’s recapture of all of Aleppo city last month. Indeed, Sheikh Abdullah al-Muheisseni, the Saudi jihadi cleric based in Syria, recently admitted this problem of failure to achieve unity in the latest rounds of merger talks among rebel factions. Muheisseni had been working on a merger initiative principally involving Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki.

Meanwhile, discussions and a document concerning a third-way option that entailed the revival of a structure akin to the failed Revolutionary Command Council of 2014-2015 were leaked in the media. The signatories to the document outlining the formation of a “Syria Liberation Command Council” included major factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, with one important aim being to form a joint political committee and thus produce joint political stances that bear significance. Peace talks scheduled to take place in Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) were an important context for such an idea, though that concept already seems to be in doubt with Ahrar al-Sham opting not to participate in the Astana talks for a number of reasons, whereas Jaysh al-Islam is set to participate. Besides, broader controversy plagues the proposed Syria Liberation Command Council as a betrayal of meaningful mergers and unity as well as selling-out to the whims of foreign backers, namely Turkey and Qatar.

However, it is important to note that unity initiatives and problems of divisions are not confined to the insurgency: they can also be found among militias on the regime side in Syria, even as it would be an exaggeration to portray them as wholly equivalent to the disunity and divisions in the insurgency and opposition. A case-in-point is the primarily Druze province of Suwayda’. The region is also known as Jabal al-Arab/Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Arabs/Mountain of the Druze), and a large number of militia factions have emerged. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories of orientation. On the one hand, there are factions that are clearly regime loyalist, showing affinities with Assad and the wider war effort. On the other hand, there are also more ‘third-way’ militias whose goal is not to overthrow the regime structure in Suwayda’ but rather to reform it (e.g. reducing corruption), while focusing more on local defence of the province from external attack (whether by the rebels or the Islamic State) and pushing against conscription efforts into the Syrian army.

While larger militia players and brand names can be identified in the province, such as the loyalist Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar of Nazih Jerbo’ and the ‘third-way’ Rijal al-Karama movement, there is overall a high degree of localisation in how the militias have organised by town and village, even when they have an affiliation to a broader brand. For an example of localisation, see the case of Katibat Jalamid Urman that I profiled earlier this month: a local loyalist militia based in the Suwayda’ village of Urman. This trend not only has the potential to impede coordination in times of military crisis, but also gives rise to incidents of kidnapping and settling of personal and local disputes by militia force, undermining the rule of law. Compare this observation with a document recently issued by a new group calling itself Ama’im al-Jabal, claiming to be composed of religious Druze in Suwayda’. The document alludes to some of the aforementioned problems in its introduction.

One attempt to resolve the localisation problem has been unity initiatives, which are particularly apparent on the loyalist side. The most recent of these initiatives is the announcement of the formation of Liwa al-Jabal (The Mountain Brigade), which was publicised as follows in a post on social media earlier this month containing much flowery rhetoric and many platitudes:

“Amid the ongoing danger of the terrorist gangs and the threat of the takfiri groups, which do not know religion, homeland and mercy and have not shown respect for human and ethical values for a day, groups from the popular factions in Suwayda’ province have decided to form a military unit in a united organisational body in the name of Liwa al-Jabal.

For so long as self-defence has been a legitimate right established by God, who put in place its rulings and made Paradise the dwellings of loftiness for whosoever fulfils the trust in defending that right, and so long as Suwayda’ province has been an example of national unity and a true embodiment of good conduct and action in defending land and honour, and [so long as] its sons will remain the good example in values, ethics, religious consciousness and both patriotic and nationalist sentiment: so will its sons remain on the path of their just predecessors.

As they have pledged, so they have fulfilled. As they have promised, so they have been bound by their promises, confronted tribulation through their consciousness, fought adversity through their courage and audacity, and resisted internal strife through their wisdom and the soundness of their minds. Thus they have united ranks, have not rendered them asunder, brought hearts close together and not separated them, protected the one seeking protection, provided relief to the one in need, have never been content for a day with disgrace, have never applied injustice, while treachery and betrayal have never been among their traits. May God grant you success and make right your path- our brothers and loves ones of ‘Liwa al-Jabal’- and may He destine for our people and homeland peace and security.”

Ziyad Abu Tafesh, who is involved with Liwa al-Jabal and appears to have been the first to have put up the announcement above regarding the formation, spoke with me at some length regarding Liwa al-Jabal and the idea behind it. Ziyad began by pointing to continuity in terms of the composition of Liwa al-Jabal: “Liwa al-Jabal represents a formation of the popular fighting groups present in foundation from the beginning of the war on my homeland Syria. They have been supporting the army and the auxiliary forces in the areas of danger and clashes on the administrative borders of Suwayda’.” He also noted the point I have made above regarding the problem of so many militias existing on the ground: “The multiplicity of groups is a cause of confusion in military work on the ground, thus the groups [i.e. those constituting Liwa al-Jabal] have realised the necessity of unity in one organisational and administrative framework in order to raise readiness and preparedness in the event of danger from the forces of terrorism and the gangs of al-Nusra [Jabhat al-Nusra: i.e. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and Da’esh [Islamic State] under the banner of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian army.”

At this point, one may ask what has become of other conglomeration initiatives in Suwayda’, such as the loyalist Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) set up in 2015 by retired Syrian army officer Nayef al-Aqil with support from Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’ (one of the three mashayakh al-‘aql, the highest Druze religious authorities in Syria). It turns out Dir’ al-Watan was a failure and quietly vanished into obscurity, despite initial hype back in 2015 as al-Aqil and Jerbo’ visited various places in the province to garner support for Dir’ al-Watan. Indeed, Ziyad had promoted Dir’ al-Watan in its beginnings, but as he put it to me in somewhat vague terms, “There was an attempt to bring together the nationalist factions under the leadership of the Brigadier General Mr. Nayef al-Aqil in the name of Dir’ al-Watan but for particular circumstances and reasons, success was not destined for it.”

Turning to the organisation and structure of Liwa al-Jabal, Ziyad explained that the leadership of the formation is composed of a military council of five people dividing assignments among themselves, though he did not give any names for these people. He added that Liwa al-Jabal is not affiliated with any security apparatus (e.g. military intelligence or air intelligence) but at the same time is not independent “in the literal meaning.” Rather, as he put it, “There is foundational government support with the guarantee of the brigade’s independence.” Such a description should not come as a surprise: many regime loyalist militias in Syria might have no formal affiliation to a larger particular entity like one of the intelligence apparatuses or Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association, but still get support from the regime in some way, such as weapons provision.

According to Ziyad, so far five groups have come under the conglomeration of Liwa al-Jabal, though he declined to give any specific names for these contingents. He elaborated as follows: “The foundational nucleus is five groups and there is great interest and inquiry about the means of joining in the future. But our brothers do not want to rush and fall into the potholes of factionalism and entry of bad members. Therefore a specific strategy will be ratified, along with conditions for the means of joining and specifications of the groups and their personnel that will come subsequently.”

In short, it is important to appreciate that Liwa al-Jabal is not so much a new militia as yet another attempt to try to bring together local loyalist factions in Suwayda’ under one structure and banner. Nonetheless, if the past record is anything to go by, the prospects of meaningful success for this project are rather dim. If Dir’ al-Watan, which had backing from the mashayakh al-‘aql, could not achieve unity among factions, what gives Liwa al-Jabal- something very low-key by comparison- better chances of success? Localisation and factionalism will probably continue to play an important/dominant role in militia organisation on the ground in Suwayda’ province, just as it has shown itself to be a wider trend across Syria during the civil war, only overcome in considerable part by exceptional actors that take authoritarian/dictatorial approaches towards real and potential rivals  and implement more comprehensive administration systems (e.g. the Kurdish PYD and the Islamic State). Such an overview fits in with Syria’s modern history as a highly unstable state in which the Assad regime eventually came to dominate for four decades prior to the Arab Spring, putting in place a dictatorial system that knew how to exploit localism and other divisions to ensure the regime’s grip on power.