Syria News Round-Up Feb. 9, 2015

From a friend commenting on discrepancy in SOHR’s recent numbers:

SOHR is all over the place with numbers. This is his latest: here. The new number is 210k; he says that 100k are civilians 80%+ of which are men. He estimates 85k+ fighters unaccounted for across all sides. 1.5 million injured. 50% displaced. His detailed stats are here. His number of civilians jumped 40K from December stats. And his 210K total is off by ~35K if I’m totaling his numbers correctly. According to the numbers he’s listing, the total is 245K.

SOHR casualty numbers These are his numbers from December:

SOHR December 2014 numbers casualties


Meet ‘Average Mohamed,’ a gas station manager who’s using cartoons to fight ISIS recruitment – PRI’s The World

average Mohamed

The 39-year-old Somali-American businessman by day has turned activist by night, creating the website “Average Mohamed.” It’s a series of animated cartoons voiced by Mohamed Ahmed (Average Mohamed) to rebut Islamic extremists recruitment videos.

“It takes an idea to destroy an idea and my concept was to create ideas.” says Ahmed, who was frustrated that the ideology Islamic extremists peddle was not being effectively countered. “The cartoons offer talking points to parents, mosque leaders, youth activists and law enforcement that they can use to thwart the narrative of extremists.”

The animated cartoon called “Islamic State Job Description” has a Disney-ish cartoon style but the voiceover is grim: “Average Mohamed asks: What do you think your job description is when you join Islamic State? Your job description is to commit genocide against Muslims, Christians, Yazidis and Jews; terrorize innocent women, men and children like your family, into blind obedience. Behead unarmed innocent people you round up; destroy World Heritage sites, mosques, tombs and shrines; empower unelected, self-nominated, murderous, bloodthirsty individuals as leaders. Not exactly DisneyWorld … like the propaganda says it is, is it?” …


War Fronts:

Islamic State pulls forces and hardware from Syria’s Aleppo – Reuters

Islamic State has withdrawn some of its insurgents and equipment from areas northeast of the Syrian city of Aleppo, rebels and residents say, adding to signs of strain in the Syrian provinces of its self-declared caliphate. …

Kurds recapture scores of Kobane villages from ISIL – al-Jazeera

Kurdish fighters say they have recaptured more than 120 villages in northern Syria from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). …

The political geography of Syria’s War: An Interview with Fabrice Balanche – Carnegie – Aron Lund

 …You could follow the sectarian patterns across the map. In mixed Alawite-Sunni areas, the protests only took place in the Sunni areas. In Latakia, Banias, and Homs, the demonstrators clashed with Alawite counterdemonstrators. This pro-Assad mobilization was not simply organized by the government. Rather, it was part of the phenomenon of urban asabiyya (communal solidarity) that has been so well described by Michel Seurat in the case of Tripoli. In the Daraa Province, the population is almost exclusively Sunni and the demonstrations naturally spread—but they stopped right at the border of the Druze-populated Sweida Province, which did not sympathize with them at all. In Aleppo, the divisions were mainly social, between the well-to-do and poorer people, and between indigenous city dwellers and new arrivals from the countryside who lived in the slums. But the sectarian factor was present in Aleppo too, with Christians remaining staunchly pro-regime and the Kurds playing their own game, as we have seen with the autonomous cantons in Afrin, Ein al-Arab (Kobane), and Qamishli…

What’s behind the Kurdish-Arab Clashes in East Syria – Carnegie – Aron Lund

 …The situation in Hasakah is peculiar. The city and the wider region is divided between Kurds and Arabs on the one hand, and internally among Arab tribes and villages, on the other. There are also significant Christian groups in the city, including Syriacs and Armenians…

The Battle for the Qalamoun Mountains – FP – Nour Samaha

Syrian army attacks Qamishli countryside, mass displacement reported – ARA News

Syria conflict: Dozens killed in heavy Damascus fighting – BBC

U.S.-led strikes kill 30 Islamic State fighters in Syria: monitors – Reuters

New map from Agathocle de Syracuse:

Agathocle De Syracuse - Syria Map


Experts: Kobane defeat a sign of ISIS weakening – Al-Arabiya

Islamic State in Syria seen under strain but far from collapse – Reuters

Syria’s Kurds celebrate after winning Kobani, but self-rule far off – Reuters


International Political Negotiations:

Syria: The Ultimate Example of Cynical Realpolitik – EU Observer – Mark Pierini

…What the interview reveals – for those who have not met both father and son – is that Bashar al-Assad will cling to power irrespective of the destruction it rqeuires. He will use any method to that end, from his residual stock of chemical weapons to alliance reversals to an extension of the conflict beyond Syria’s borders…

The US needs Turkey and vice versa — but it isn’t working – Business Insider – Soner Cagaptay

Paying the Piper: How America’s Iraq War haunts its Failed Syria Policy – Informed Comment – Michael MacDonald

The Syrian Opposition Meeting in Cairo: One Small Step – MEI – Geoffrey Aronson

…The Syrian conflict might still take many years to resolve. But the noninflammatory tone of the meeting in Cairo could mark one small step along the long path of dialogue and negotiation required to bring Syria’s destructive civil war to an end…

Engaging in Politics, Assad-Style – Al-Hayat – Yezid Sayigh

…More likely is that the U.S. will abandon the effort to unseat Assad, without recognizing his legitimacy or resuming direct political contacts. This may be enough for his regime to survive, but with ever-dwindling resources. Already, the concentration of business deals in the hands of ruling family has sparked the flight of many of the businessmen whose continued stake in Syria had previously been a crucial mainstay for the regime. Coming at a time when the regime desperately needs income, and has even granted the private sector the right to import oil to compensate for the inadequacy of Iranian supplies, this reflects complete unwillingness to change how it operates…

Secret dialogue between Syrian regime and opposition in Beirut – Al-Bawaba

U.N. plan for Syrian cease-fires frozen – The Daily Star


Regional Analysis:

PF138image900x600-198x132A report that outlines Iran and Hezbollah involvement in the conflict:  THE SHIITE JIHAD IN SYRIA AND ITS REGIONAL EFFECTS – The Washington Institute – Phillip Smyth

A discussion about some of the report’s findings:  The most important thing in the Middle East that no one is talking about – Business Insider – Armin Rosen

 …As Smyth explains, Iran has used the Syrian civil war to expand its influence over the Shi’ite communities in the broader Middle East and advance the clerical regime’s strategic and ideological goals. Iran’s support for the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar Al Assad is well-documented…


Jordanian Pilot Execution:

Video Of Jordanian Pilot’s Death As Horrific As It Was Symbolic – NPR – Robert Siegel

Barbarians Burn Pilot Alive – Daily Beast

… The king says that when Jordan joined the coalition, the F-16 pilots were told only volunteers had to take part. “Every single pilot raised his hand and stepped forward,” the king tells Charlie Rose in the video clip used by ISIS.

In fact, in Jordan there was some negative reaction to that interview at the time. It appeared to many Jordanians as if the king was playing to an American audience, not to their own concerns. Many had expressed doubts about whether the coalition war really was Jordan’s war. …

Experts React to ISIS’s Gruesome Execution of Jordanian Pilot – Rand

After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal – Syria Comment – Matthew Barber

… Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world. …

Just Because You Quote Clint Eastwood Doesn’t Make You a Cowboy – FP – Steven Simon and James Fromson

Jordan’s Executions of Jihadists Could Backfire – CNN – Lina Khatib

The Islamic State’s Psyops – Ultimate War – Red (team) Analysis – Dr. Helene Lavoix

Crime and Punishment in Jordan – FP – David Schenker

How to read the medieval scholar the Islamic State used to justify al-Kasasbeh murder – Prof. John Hoover

Just when you think ISIS can’t get any worse – MEI

Angry Jordanian Crowds Rally over ISIL Murder of Pilot, but some blame US, King – Juan Cole

Isis has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic behind it. – The Guardian – Hassan Hassan

Jordan’s Executions Are Not the Answer to ISIS Brutality – HRW – Eric Goldstein

… While the government’s desire to address public outrage is as understandable as the outrage itself, executing death row prisoners does not weaken ISIS. This round of executions, the second in two months, is a further regression by a country that was until recently a regional leader in resisting use of the death penalty. On December 21, Jordan ended an eight-year de facto moratorium on executions by hanging 11 men convicted of murder. In that case as well, authorities cited public sentiment as the reason behind the executions.

The executions of al-Karbouli and al-Rishawi were carried out following trials that included an appeals process. But to dispatch them from death row to the gallows immediately following news of al-Kasasbeh’s murder, to which they had no connection, amidst official vows to avenge his death, shows that revenge was a motive in ending their lives. Human Rights Watch opposes capital punishment under all circumstances, as a practice unique in its cruelty and finality. But to execute death row inmates in response to external events alarmingly suggests that retaliation against third parties is driving policy, rather than justice based solely on fairness and individualized guilt.


Islamic State:

Scenes from Daily Life Inside ISIS-Controlled Mosul – Vanity Fair – Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple Mosul drawings

Islamic State executes 7 men in Aleppo and al- Raqqa – SOHR

Kayla Mueller’s Parents Opposed Military Mission to Rescue Her From Islamic State – FP – Sean D. Naylor

ISIS and Syria’s Southern Front – MEI – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

 …the rebels in the south comprise a diverse array of fighters whose relative lack of infighting and increased cooperation mean that the regime is not on the verge of any decisive gains in the area. However, the prospect of the fall of Aleppo to the regime in the north, though not imminent, is an ever growing concern among non-jihadi rebels, many of whom feel increasingly squashed between the regime, ISIS, and JN…

Fledgeling Gaza ISIS Groups Operate Under Watchful Eye of Hamas – Newsweek – Lucy Draper

ICSR Insight: The Islamic State Model – ICSR

ISIS : al-Hayat media ~ From inside Aleppo – pietervanostaeyen

ISIS media outlet al-Hayat releases another video featuring the British ISIS hostage John Cantlie.


Anti-Islamic State Militias:

Westerners join Kurds fighting Islamic State group in Iraq – AP

‘Thousands’ of Iraqi Christians form their own militia to fight Isis militants in northern Iraq – The Independent

Want to Hurt the Islamic State? Here’s How. – FP – Christian Caryl

 …The Kurds have an army, and they’re willing to fight and die. So why isn’t the United States sending them the weapons they need?…

Compulsory military service raises concerns among Syrian Kurdish youth – ARA News



Syrian Refugees and Regional Security – Carnegie – Benedetta Berti

UN Syrian refugees


…Lebanon faces rising unemployment and decreasing wages as Syrians are forced to accept work for lower wages, harsher conditions, and fewer rights than their host counterparts. Wages in the service and agricultural sectors have decreased by as much as 50 percent in Lebanon between 2011 and 2013—with similar dynamics occurring in all host countries. This has created intense domestic pressure that affects economic performance, social cohesion, and ultimately internal stability…

Prince Charles tours camp for Syrian refugees; UK raises aid – WP

NBC Weapons: Smashing The Syrian Caverns Of Doom – Strategy Page

…Finally, in late 2014 Syria began destroying a dozen underground facilities used to produce and destroy chemical weapons. This effort was delayed several times during 2014 but eventually the Syrians got going under the threat of air strikes on their military facilities…

How Syrian rebel fighters fell for ‘honey trap’ hackers – Christian Science Monitor

…A hacker, using a fake Skype or Facebook profile, would strike up a conversation with a target and invite him to swap photos. The hacker’s photo, invariably that of an attractive woman, would contain malware that once downloaded by the target would copy chat logs, tactical strategies, and contact details from the target’s device, according to FireEye’s research…

To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy – Al-Fanar Media

…Syrian professors have two choices: Stay in their country and risk their lives or scatter to the winds and live largely in isolation…

UN sets sights on Syria antiquities, Islamic State oil, ransoms – Reuters

Refugee artists raise awareness for Syria’s plight – DW

Syrian artists

J.K. Gani’s “The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations” — Reviewed by Julio Rivera

Julio Rivera - University of Chicagoby Julio Rivera

Julio Rivera is a PhD student in the department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago where he focuses on Syrian political history. Before pursuing his PhD, Julio spent three years working as a Syria political analyst for the Department of Defense, spanning the period prior to and during the current Syria crisis. Follow Julio on twitter: @juliorivera77

J.K. Gani’s The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations: Conflict and Cooperation is an excellent resource for scholars, policymakers, and Syria watchers alike who are interested in understanding how Washington’s policies from 1946 to 2000 have solidified Syria’s ongoing mistrust of and hostility toward the US role in the region, as well as a useful guide to identifying the limits of Syrian-US cooperation. This book fills a large gap in the history of Syrian-US relations, as prior works often dealt narrowly with the peace process, the post-9/11 era, or the post-Ottoman era up to the moment of Syria’s political union with Egypt in 1958—a time when Damascus still controlled the Golan Heights.

JK Gani, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations, Conflict and Cooperation - book cover

Author: J.K. Gani (Lecturer in IR at the University of St. Andrews, UK)
Series: Middle East Today
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan (October 2, 2014)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1137358343
ISBN-13: 978-1137358349

Due to the dearth or inaccessibility of Syrian internal memos detailing their private perceptions and motivations during this period, Gani’s research draws primarily on US and British archival material that sheds light on the thinking of Syrian officials. The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations makes the compelling argument that Syria’s Arab nationalist and anti-imperial outlook, hardened over time by what was perceived as the US’s disingenuous agenda in the region, has greatly influenced its foreign policy and contends that Syria’s decisions to either confront or cooperate with the West should be viewed as pragmatic calculations guided by—as opposed to a blind adherence to—ideology.

Gani’s primary research method is historical analysis, which helps to contextualize Syrian animosity towards Western hegemony over the years. The book is broken into four parts highlighting different stages of the Syrian-US relationship: 1) The emergence of US-Syrian relations from Truman to Kennedy; 2) Syria’s isolation and the birth of the US-Israeli special relationship (specifically as it relates to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War); 3) US-Syrian disengagement talks from 1973-1975; and 4) instances of US-Syrian cooperation in the post-Cold War era. The book argues that while Syrian uneasiness regarding Western intentions (due largely to the country’s experience under the French Mandate) pre-dated Damascus’ suspicious attitude towards Washington, the US’s actions following Syrian independence in 1946 would result in a perception of the US being “second-generation imperialists” from the viewpoint of Damascus.

However, Gani points out that to assume Syrian-US relations were doomed from the start (given Syria’s prior attitudes towards the mandate authorities) overlooks the hopes Syrians and the region in general had for the US to chart a different course. Unlike the French and the British, Washington maintained a largely isolationist policy following WWI, and the Wilsonian Principles of Self-Determination (1919) coupled with the US’s support for the dissolution of the mandate system within the UN positioned the US to play a positive role in supporting the aspirations of self-determination throughout the region. Despite its initial openness towards Arab self-determination, Washington’s backing of the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, which prompted an ensuing refugee crisis, and the shift in focus towards combating the spread of communism throughout the world, altered the paradigm and prompted the US to view the region solely through the lens of collecting resources to strengthen itself and its allies against the Soviets. In light of these changing dynamics, any critique by Syrian officials of the US or its regional allies made Damascus appear as if it were simply a Soviet satellite.  Such appearances prompted the Eisenhower administration in 1957 to support a coup in Syria, which was discovered and prevented by Damascus.

Although suspicion and aggression have continued to cast a shadow on Syrian-US relations even up through the present conflict, the book highlights moments, particularly during and after the First Gulf War, where Damascus appeared to shed its anti-Western ideology in favor of cooperation with the US. While Gani acknowledges that Damascus was likely motivated in part by Washington’s “unipolar” moment following the collapse of the Soviet Union, she notes that from Syria’s perspective, it wasn’t necessarily abandoning ideology but rather calibrating its response in light of the more global consensus in favor of US and coalition action, as well as the support from the UN. By allying with the West in this moment, Damascus was attempting to not only safeguard Arab unity by preventing inter-Arab warfare, but was also calling for Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait in an effort to create parallels with the peace process in the hopes of convincing the US of the rationale for Israel to similarly withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for peace.

Syria’s cooperation with the US did provide added reason to jumpstart the peace process in 1991, this time in Madrid; yet Syria’s hopes for achieving results were ultimately dashed.  Gani views Damascus’s willingness to compromise its longstanding principle of not holding separate bilateral negotiations with Israel, as an important step. For their part, Israeli negotiators, feeling insulated by prior promises from earlier US administrations, did not believe they had to compromise on the Golan Heights and even continued settlement construction at the time despite US pronouncements that such activity was “a deliberate effort to sabotage peace.” The Syrian track would soon result in a stalemate, while separate negotiations with the Palestinians and subsequent Oslo agreements in the mid-90s further convinced Damascus that such “second-generation imperialists” were merely looking to divide and conquer the Arab states.

By virtue of her historical analysis, Gani calls on her readers to understand Damascus’ adherence to an ideology which is pro-Arab nationalist, pro-self determination, and reasonably suspicious of the West’s regional ambitions. Unlike other works which often offer a very US-centric version of Syria as the “obstructionist” in the relationship, this book presents Damascus’ rationale for sticking to its anti-Western, Arab nationalist ideology in the face of repeated empty promises and outright hostility.

Ultimately, this work leaves the reader with the feeling that the prospects for genuine, long-term cooperation between both parties are slim to none. The US has done little over the years to convey that it has Syria’s interests at heart, which has only entrenched Syria’s confrontational attitude towards Western hegemony. So while temporary situations may present themselves as opportunities for cooperation between Damascus and Washington, they are likely to remain short lived as the overall trajectory portends continued mutual hostility. The current debates surrounding the question of whether or not the US should cooperate with the Asad regime in their mutual fight against ISIS is a prime example of the moments when interests align, yet such an approach is unlikely to translate into a long-term strategic partnership given the several other outstanding issues in the US-Syrian relationship.

It would have been useful had the book contained a developed suggestion on the most promising solution to the projected impasse in the relationship. Gani briefly mentions a few possible scenarios wherein the Syrians could give up their ideological stance or the US could drop its support to Israel, but both seem highly unlikely given the compounding US actions which continue to widen the gulf between the two and the limited positive signals from Damascus that could demonstrate its potential as an ally worth exchanging Israel for. While she does mention that an end to external interference or a handing over of Israeli-occupied lands is another alternative, she doesn’t seem to place the onus on either Syria or the US to bring about that change.

To extend a brief argument informed by Gani’s work, I would propose that from a long-term strategic perspective the ball is in the US’s court, regardless of whether the Asad regime or some other post-Asad system emerges from the current crisis. For the current regime—absent a more even-handed approach to Syria, and a clear US role in implementing an equitable resolution to Palestinian statelessness and the Israeli-occupied territories, including the Golan Heights—Washington’s policies will continue to aggravate a country that maintains its right to regain its lost territory, as Egypt did, on the basis of international agreements like UN Resolution 242 and 338. Without such a shift, Damascus will continue to provide support to Israel’s enemies—armed Palestinian resistance groups, Hizballah, and Iran—and thus fail to build confidence with its southern neighbor. This is another side to this discussion that this work could have benefited from. For the Syrian opposition, should the US fail to adequately respond to the humanitarian crisis and provide genuine assistance to anti-regime forces, not to mention prepare for the possibility of leading the post-Asad state building efforts, the Syrian oppositionists will determine—as many already have—that the US is not a true partner with the Syrian people and that they will have to look elsewhere, potentially among the US’s enemies, for support. Without such unlikely shifts in policy, the US should not hope that hedging its bets by not fully committing to either side will yield anything more than a short term status quo lacking any true long-term improvement in its relationship with either side in Syria.

It is important to consider the insights that Gani’s work can provide at a time when some US policymakers may entertain the possibility of an alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS. What policy makers need to decide at this juncture is whether the short-term gain of cooperating with the Asad regime in the fight against ISIS is worth the long-term consequences. Reports already suggest that the U.S. has spent over $1 billion with estimated projections ranging as high as $10-15 billion a year in an expanded air campaign. The U.S. could decide to work with Asad’s troops in the hopes of having a reliable ground force for combined air and ground operations against ISIS inside Syria, but such a strategy does not guarantee military success against ISIS in Iraq. Additionally, this level of cooperation will not erase the decades of mistrust Damascus has towards Washington (and vice versa) and without a major shift in the U.S.’s regional policies, Syria’s leaders will continue to hold political positions towards Israel that will remain unpalatable to Western officials. What Gani’s work teaches us is that there are limits to U.S. cooperation with the current Syrian regime, and Washington must decide if the billions it will spend are worth investing in a government that history has shown will not easily embrace a genuine strategic partnership.

All in all, The Role of Ideology in Syrian-US Relations provides a well defended argument for why Syrians justifiably felt cornered throughout their history and continue to remain suspicious of Western involvement in the region. Misunderstandings and perceptions of the other have negatively impacted Syrian-US relations over the years, and J.K. Gani’s scholarly contribution is not only timely but critical in a period of great uncertainty regarding the future of Syria and how the US will address this question. Gani’s book therefore serves as a great resource and a must have for scholars of modern Syria or US foreign policy after World War II, and those interested in contextualizing what a short-term alliance with the Asad regime against ISIS may or may not mean for their mutual long-term relationship.

After Burning of Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Jordan & al-Azhar’s Gestures of Vengeance Will Not Heal

Matthew Barber 3by Matthew Barber

The following is not research or analysis, but a few reflections on the film released by IS in which Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh was burned alive inside a metal cage. I won’t claim that my moral reflections are especially profound, but I believe the traumatic nature of this event warrants further conversation.

Horror and Trauma

The anthropologist Talal Asad has famously asked what it is about certain kinds of violence, such as suicide bombing—and we can extend the question to IS’ regular use of beheadings—that evokes greater horror in observers than state-administered violence, which can often be further-reaching or more massive, as in the case of war. I don’t have an answer to the question, but this video, perhaps the goriest that IS has produced so far, was brutalizing to watch and is very capable of effecting trauma. Produced with audio and visual effects to resemble a horror film, the video is abusive to the viewer. By turning killing into theater, IS has uncomfortably blurred the lines between reality and performance. Beyond empathizing with how painful such a death must have been, I couldn’t help wondering what was it like for Muaz to die as the eyes of several cameras stared into him.

1053072By viewing the footage, IS does a kind of violence to me—or perhaps I am doing violence to myself by choosing to watch. There seems to be something problematic about becoming consumers of this horrific product that IS pushes. Does that extend to the political analyst? The intelligence analyst? Who legitimately needs to consume this product and who should not view it?

Though some experts will inevitably have to analyze this kind of material, promoting it to the public is reckless and harmful and will only help IS do violence to more people. On Tuesday, Fox News posted the entire, uncut video on its website and even aired portions of it on television, something no other media outlet would do.

There’s some irony in Fox News—with its avowedly “anti-terror” agenda—featuring uncut IS propaganda on their website, as others have noted. Also ironic is that some of the images contained in the lengthy propaganda video are of some of the more scandalous incidents during the Iraq War, when US soldiers killed unarmed civilians. These are not the aspects of the war that Fox News would normally draw attention to. The fact that major elements within our country cannot take responsibility for the more uncomfortable aspects of the war, yet then inadvertently provide them to the American public through the lens of a terrorist entity, verges on the absurd.

There seems to be a kind of misuse of this heartrending film as Fox News pursues its own agenda. One wonders what the motivations are for publicizing the video to the American people when an English translation wasn’t provided. Without context, viewers might make dangerous assumptions based on this video—like that their Muslim neighbors next door support such sickness. This film necessarily produces anger on the part of the viewer—but to be directed where? Fox News is spreading material capable of traumatizing those who ingest it, without helping them make sense of it. Perhaps they prefer not to translate the propaganda portion of the film, which might raise uncomfortable questions that are easier to avoid.

The images of Iraq war violence (that more Americans should have been exposed to and discussed long ago) now being transmitted by Fox News are made more tragic in that they are being presented through the lens of IS’ even more twisted logic. IS includes these images as justification for their own atrocities. That violence can heal is a lie that perhaps humanity may one day outgrow, a lie that now forms the basis of IS’ assumptions about the world. (Even this video was entitled “Healing the Believers’ Chests.”) IS exposes its broken reasoning when, in its videos, it showcases the dead bodies of those targeted by its enemies, apparently to justify its gory executions, yet ignores the countless victims it has similarly killed across Iraq and the Levant, many of whom had never lifted a finger against it.

Unhelpful Reactions

Just as IS members are misled in thinking that violence can produce healing for the Sunni victims of Iraq War violence, we are also misguided in assuming that revenge will produce healing for IS victims.

Jordan responded to this brutal message by quickly executing Sajida al-Rishawi, convicted of attempting a suicide bombing in Jordan, and Ziad al-Karbouli, an al-Qaida leader.

Jordan’s immediate reaction to the burning—“OK, then we’ll kill some Islamists”—worries me. This logic of revenge isn’t that far off from that which underpins IS’ own thinking.

Offenders should be dealt the appropriate penalties for the crimes for which they’ve been sentenced (and I’m not suggesting that capital punishment is acceptable), but not kept on hand until their killing will serve some political purpose. Jordan’s execution of the two Islamists has turned violence into a political tool. Admittedly, that is often the case with violence, yet the violence of the state is, in theory, supposed to transcend the impassioned reactions of individuals, keeping with its assumed role of impartially dispensing justice—which might be why its violence evokes less horror than that of a suicide bomber whose responsibility for acting to punish or exact revenge or effect change cannot be shifted to an institution.

Of course, in getting back at IS, Jordan did not burn in cages those it executed… because that would be wrong. If IS’ execution was directed at Jordan, and Jordan’s executions were directed at IS—both instances of killing intended to psychologically wound the other—the main feature differentiating these two acts is the manner in which they were performed. That these killings differed in form but not in purpose, it must be asked whether killing for such motives is acceptable at all. (One could argue that Jordan merely administered the penalties with which the criminals had been sentenced, but the points still stands that punishment is supposed to be meted out for crimes, not used as a political weapon.)

And now al-Azhar is calling for crucifixions of IS members, and to have their limbs chopped off. This is also unhelpful.

Al-Azhar is basically saying: “Yes, we’ll concede that these punishments you perform are Islamic, yet despite the fact that they haven’t been implemented in recent memory, we deem you to be those evil enough to warrant us bringing them out of the closet.” By calling for the crucifixion and limb-chopping of IS members, they are validating the same fundamentalist positions that IS appeals to, that under certain conditions these punishments should be used. If various groups and parties contend over who deserves to be crucified or subject to amputation, humanity won’t be making much progress. The bottom line should be that such treatment is wrong, and that resurrecting its use represents social decline, not advancement.

Both Jordan and al-Azhar’s reactions seem more akin to the sickness than to a solution. Allowing our disgust at IS brutality to define our response risks transforming us into their image, something that would spell victory for them and legitimize their war against the world.

Violence Is the Right Response

The immediate reaction of many upon seeing the video was a desire that efforts to fight IS be stepped up quickly. Today Jordan intensified attacks on IS targets, and the UAE has suggested they may resume their participation in the offensive against them. This is good: the response to IS does require violence, and it should be carried out swiftly and surely—not to satisfy the urge born of our rage and wounds, but to protect the earth and the innocent from this virulent plague. This latest video underscores the fact that IS must be eliminated, to ensure the future security of the region and the globe. This cannot happen without a fight, but it should be a fight of the right kind.

Is it possible to fight without hate? It may be difficult in the face of such callous oppression and cruelty, but it is the approach we must strive to maintain.

Book Review: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror

ISIS, Inside the Army of TerrorISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
Michael Weiss & Hassan Hassan
£5.99, 1169p. (I-Phone Reading).

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi.

The rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS, subsequently calling itself just “The Islamic State” since the Caliphate declaration of  29 Jun 2014) across Iraq and Syria will naturally provoke much questioning as to how this phenomenon came to such prominence. Overall, this book ably accomplishes the task in a concise manner, and is a valuable, compelling read for anyone- general reader or specialist- interested in ISIS. While minor errors exist here and there and one might disagree with some of the authors’ analysis in the detail, the book is extremely well-researched, drawing on an array of sources including much original interview testimony, and the overall conclusions that emerge are hard to contest.

The authors begin by tracing the history of the most important forefather of ISIS: Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, including his early years in the Afghanistan-Pakistan (Af-Pak) area in the closing days of the Soviet military presence in Afghanistan, his journey home to Jordan by 1992 and relationship with jihadi intellectual Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi that culminated in his imprisonment, and his subsequent return to Af-Pak in 1999 that first saw signs of tensions between Zarqawi and al-Qa’ida leader Osama bin Laden (OBL), where he nonetheless secured an alliance of convenience and ran a training camp in Herat, Afghanistan.

Following the invasion of Afghanistan, Zarqawi forged another alliance of convenience with Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan, moving there and throughout the region via Iran before his firm establishment on the scene of the Iraq War in 2003 with his Jamaat al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad and subsequent allegiance to OBL as the affiliated al-Qa’ida in Mesopotamia/Iraq. Where appropriate, Weiss and Hassan are keen to draw analogies in Zarqawi’s history and strategy with the present-day approach of ISIS, such as the same genocidal attitudes towards Shi’a designed partly to provoke murderous counter-responses and draw Sunnis further still towards the notion of Zarqawi/ISIS as ‘protector of Sunnis’, so to speak.

Indeed, one cannot really overstate the link between Zarqawi and ISIS, but it might also be worth noting that the tensions between OBL and Zarqawi (despite OBL’s acceptance of Zarqawi’s allegiance) and ISIS’ break from al-Qa’ida do not stop ISIS today from attempting to appropriate OBL as one of their own, as well as the likes of Abdullah Azzam.

The ISIS-run Osama bin Laden Mosque in Tel Abyad, Raqqa Province. ISIS also runs at least one school and training camp each named after OBL.

Another analogy drawn is the issue of tactical alliances between Zarqawi’s men and Ba’athists and between ISIS and the latter today in the form of the Naqshbandi Army (JRTN). While JRTN and ISIS did cooperate in events such as the fall of Mosul in 2014, a significant difference now as opposed to the years of the Iraq War is the much greater dominance of ISIS, which meant that JRTN was in effect more trying to ride the wave of the ISIS-spearheaded offensives rather than there being a relationship of essential co-dependence between the two groups. This is why ISIS very quickly asserted itself as the dominant power in areas such as Mosul at the expense of the likes of JRTN, able to impose its most draconian measures and establish its ‘diwans’ (government departments) despite JRTN’s objections. Indeed, the concept of “tactical partnering” with JRTN that is mentioned elsewhere is something liable to be overplayed.

A more original contribution deserving great credit is the rightful attention drawn to the jihadist text Idarat al-Tawahhush (“The Management of Savagery”) by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004 and its importance to both Zarqawi’s ilk and ISIS today as a means to justify acts of brutality in the context of jihad.

The authors then trace the local sparks in areas such as al-Qa’im (on the border with Syria in Anbar province) in 2005-6 where Zarqawi’s AQI had overplayed its hand that would help give rise to the coordinated Sunni Sahwa movement in Iraq by 2007 against what had by then become the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), which had emerged after Zarqawi’s death as an official umbrella including the AQI front-group Mujahideen Shura Council (MSC) in early 2006 that had been created in a bid to give Zarqawi’s outfit a more Iraqi face. At the same time, the problems that had been created by sectarian Shi’a militias and their human rights abuses as well as Iran’s not stopping the flow of al-Qa’ida operatives and funds through Iranian territory are not disregarded.

The authors also correctly identify traces of what would become the formal split between ISIS and al-Qa’ida in the deliberately ambiguous relationship maintained by ISI with al-Qa’ida during the years of Abu Ayyub al-Masri/Abu Hamza al-Muhajir and Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (2006-2010). For al-Masri, who officially subsumed the MSC under Abu Omar al-Baghdadi’s ISI, “was indeed trying to have it both ways: to remain the amir of AQI while also flirting with outright secession from it to command his own independent operation” (p. 291), bolstered by the pretensions to statehood in the name of ISI and its self-declared ministries.

Much of what follows on the U.S.-troop surge and the rolling back of ISI by the Sahwa in coordination with coalition forces is history that has been extensively discussed and need not be reproduced in too much detail, along with the marginalization of the Sahwa movement and Iraq PM Maliki-led crackdowns on Sunni politicians in the face of the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq that sparked the Sunni Arab protests in 2013, going right up to the fall of Fallujah at the beginning of 2014. One could argue for some differences in interpretation here. For instance, while it’s certainly true Iran played an important role in bringing together the second Maliki-led government as the authors note, it is questionable whether Ayad Allawi and his Iraqiya-bloc could really have engaged in successful outreach to the other Shi’a political blocs to form a coalition. Further, the coverage of Maliki’s response to the 2013 protests does not mention that he allowed for political concessions to be drafted by deputy premier Saleh al-Mutlaq and to be put to the parliament. The fact these reforms died in the parliament points to a broader failing on the Shi’a political spectrum to address Sunni grievances such as de-Ba’athification.

The book- now at chapter 7- then reverts in chronology to discuss in detail the Assad regime’s extensive collaboration with jihadis during the Iraq War in facilitating the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, as well as the regime’s complicity in terrorist attacks aimed at destabilizing the first Maliki government. Chapter 8 discusses key personalities in ISI and its successors under the tenure of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, including a profile of the leader himself. Usefully correcting press reports that suggested Abu Bakr was released from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison facility in 2009, the authors rightly note that his time in Camp Bucca was only in 2004, while also citing journalist Wael Essam who points out Baghdadi’s stint in the Salafi group Jaysh al-Mujahideen (which would be in 2005, besides founding his own Jaysh Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama’at in 2003) prior to his involvement with ISI.

Other figures profiled include Abu Ayman al-Iraqi and Abu Ali al-Anbari, both former officers in the Saddam regime’s armed forces, and Abu Omar al-Shishani. On the subject of Shishani, some corrections need to be made. He did not first emerge in Syria in 2013 (p. 535) but 2012. Further, Shishani actually pledged allegiance to ISIS in May 2013 and thus became ISIS’ ‘northern’ amir for Syria, which is why his Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar (JMWA) outfit over the summer of 2013- including the fall of Mannagh airbase- was described as affiliated with ISIS. A split occurred in the ranks in late November 2013, whereby some in JMWA would not pledge allegiance to Baghdadi because of a prior oath to the Caucasus Emirate, marked the split whereby Shishani and his loyalists dropped JMWA labels and solely became ISIS, while the remnants continued the JMWA name and banner under a new leader. All that said, the authors are right to point out the way in which Shishani’s persona has been hyped somewhat by sensationalist Western media coverage- something that can be said for coverage of ISIS more generally.

Chapter 9 onwards deals with ISIS and the history of the Syrian civil war, and it is in these parts where the authors’ most original contributions shine, relying on testimony from an array of ISIS members undoubtedly thanks in good part to Hassan’s extensive connections in eastern Syria, much of which is now under ISIS control. The authors draw a particularly nuanced and insightful picture in their various categories of ISIS recruits: for example, one category are those “who already held Islamist or jihadist but had limited themselves to only orbiting takfiri ideology [NB: the practice of declaring other Muslims apostates to be killed]. The final gravitational pull…differed depending on circumstance” (p. 667). Thus some joined because ISIS overran their territories, thus being the only horse to back, others were impressed with ISIS’ resilience and successes against rival rebel groups, while others had disputes with their original group affiliations and found ISIS a better organized, disciplined and capable body.

Contrary to what might be supposed, this tendency to defection was already under way during ISIS’ early months inside Syria, most notably when Islamist groups issued a statement rejecting the opposition-in-exile (the text puts this as September 2014; actually 2013- a simple typo- p. 669). The authors also note in this context of ISIS recruitment how ISIS’ emphasis on global conquest takes a sharp swipe at other Salafi-Jihadi and Islamist brands, including Jabhat al-Nusra (JN: Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate), that try to steer clear of the notion. Indeed, in agreement with Weiss and Hassan, it must be noted how little JN has until 2014 talked about notions of establishing the transnational Caliphate, with hints of it generally coming from unofficial footage and testimonies from its foreign fighters. In light of that, the authors’ characterization of JN as having positioned itself somewhat “as a ‘nationalist’ outcropping” (p. 673) makes perfect sense.

Other subtle categories of ISIS recruits noted by the authors range from those supporting ISIS as a political project- such as Arabs in Hasakah province who see ISIS as a bulwark against Kurdish expansionism (a serious dynamic often overlooked)- to opportunists such as Saddam al-Jamal, who originally commanded the local Supreme Military Council affiliate in the town of Albukamal on the border with Iraq before defecting to ISIS.

Weiss and Hassan further document in considerable and revealing detail how ISIS has been able to co-opt tribes in eastern Syria. Everyone by now knows of the Shaitat tribal uprising in Deir az-Zor province against ISIS in August 2014, but less observed is the fact that ISIS got members of the same tribe to put down the rebels by brute force (p. 842). ISIS’ divide-and-rule strategies for individual tribes- together with its ability to act as mediator between other tribes- severely complicate efforts to stir a tribal backlash to roll back ISIS in the heart of its territories.

The final chapter (ch. 14) deals at great length with ISIS’ running as a supposed state, with much new information to contribute. For instance, the “separation of powers” where those with various specialties affiliated with ISIS (whether a cleric, military commander, those in public services) do not know precisely what the others do or know, helping to protect against infiltration (pp. 865-6). The authors do not gloss over ISIS’ harsher aspects of governance such as torture of detainees but in the case of the town of Manbij in Aleppo province- currently controlled by ISIS- it is clear there has been much local sympathy for ISIS as its rule stamped out lawlessness and corruption. This is one big advantage ISIS has in competing with other rebel groups: in offering a single-party model of governance in the context of years of ongoing civil war that will, inter alia, promptly answer complaints from a local about another person, apply its laws to its own members, disarm local communities etc., ISIS can bring a sense of order that Syrian rebel groups can’t. Indeed, as the ISIS Ajnad Media nasheed “The Shari’a of Our Lord” puts it, ISIS’ rule can indeed bring a “life of security and peace.”

In the realm of public services and economics too, ISIS’ public advertisement of itself- at least in Syria- has not been wholly divorced from reality, such as in forcing municipality personnel to work in contrast to prior groups that allowed them to receive salaries from the state while doing nothing (p. 952), while also introducing price controls on commodities such as oil by-products (p.954).

The book’s epilogue offers a number of spot-on conclusions. First, one must be wary of Iran and the Assad regime’s presentation of themselves as the solution to the ISIS phenomenon, as their own repressive approaches towards the original Syrian uprising especially have helped contribute to the problem. Iran in particular, with its ongoing strategy of cultivating sectarian proxy militias in Syria and Iraq that employ brute force, can only be seen as aggravating the situation, even as notions of cooperation with Iran amid the context of striking a grand bargain over the nuclear deal become ever more prevalent. Second, the ISIS split from al-Qa’ida, far from being a case of a ‘let them fight each other and engage in jihadi blood-letting’ bonus, actually presents a threat to the West as the two brands may look to compete as to who can pull off the better attack on Western soil.

Finally, when all is considered in the analysis, recent reported local gains against ISIS, such as in pushing the group out of the city of Kobani, or scoring hits with killing prominent members or destroying convoys in coalition airstrikes on ISIS, do not change the fact that ISIS has been ruling for quite some time the heartland of its territories and most important strongholds, from Manbij and al-Bab in Aleppo province to Mosul and Tel Afar in Ninawa province, without any significant local rivals to challenge its power. There is no extensive ground force analogous to the U.S. troop presence at the height of the Iraq War to help coordinate local Sunni forces to ‘roll back’ ISIS this time around.

ISIS has a well-known official slogan: baqiya wa tatamaddad (‘remaining and expanding’). ISIS may not be tatamaddad so much these days, but it is certainly baqiya now and for the foreseeable future.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Druze of Idlib Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

While most analysis of the Druze in Syria focuses on their positions in Suwayda province- where they constitute the majority of the population- as well as Jabal al-Sheikh in Damascus/Quneitra provinces, it should be remembered that there is also a Druze community in the Jabal al-Samaq area of Idlib province, more widely known as Jabal al-Zawiya. This community consists of numerous villages, whose names can be found here. Unlike their co-religionists in the south, these Druze have no capacity for the formation of self-defence militias analogous to the banners of ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen‘ (‘Army of the Unitarians/Monotheists’) or ‘Forces of Abu Ibrahim’ (named after Druze figure Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi). The Druze in Jabal al-Samaq are therefore dependent for preservation on the good-will of whichever external actors are present in their areas.

During the high-point of the influence of Jamal Ma’arouf and his Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF] in 2014 following the withdrawal of the Islamic State from Idlib province, there was some attempt to engage in outreach to this Druze community, best illustrated in an al-Aan TV report that featured Ma’arouf talking to Druze locals and ostensibly affirming a non-sectarian vision for Syria. “We are one,” he declares at one point in the video, while acknowledging Druze concerns about problems of extremism and criminality among rebel groups.

It should be noted that this apparent SRF tolerance for local groups of minorities that cannot be seen as having an active role in the civil war is not unique. For comparison, despite prior reported Northern Storm Brigade attacks on Yezidis in north of Aleppo province that are said to have led to clashes with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Northern Storm today tolerates a tiny Yezidi community that works inside Azaz town (no more than ten individuals), and in accordance with the group’s current neutral stance towards the PYD, leaves any Yezidi villages alone. In contrast, the bulk of sectarian animus is unsurprisingly directed at Alawites and Shi’a.

In Idlib province, however, the SRF has since been routed at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), with Ma’arouf forced to flee to Turkey in exile. JN’s attitude towards the Druze- an offshoot of Shi’a Islam- is hardly going to be conciliatory, and in line with JN’s assertion of an increasingly hardline Islamic face of governance in its Idlib proto-emirate (cf. the execution of women on charges of ‘prostitution’, the crackdown on opponents in Kafr Nabl etc.) are some notable reported developments concerning the Druze of Idlib province. First, JN reportedly destroyed the tomb of the Druze Sheikh Jaber. Second, a document has emerged of a meeting between JN officials and proclaimed Druze village representatives who have converted to Sunni Islam, agreeing on the implementation of Shari’a and Sunni Islamic supremacy:

“Statement on the first meeting for the villages of the mountain [Jabal- i.e. Jabal al-Samaq]

Attendants of the session:

JN representatives:

Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi [the Tunisian]: area official
Abu Hafs al-Homsi: Shari’a official of the area
Abu Muhammad and Abu Khadija: Administration guys.

Representatives of the area [NB: names blocked out but villages listed, compare with the first listing of Druze villages in Jabal al-Samaq]:

Kafr Maris
Qalb Lawza
Ma’arat al-Ikhwan
Bairat Kiftain
Kafr Kayla

The representatives of these aforementioned areas have disavowed the Druze religion and have said that they are Muslims of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaat [Sunnis]. And an agreement has been made between them on one side and the representative of Jabhat al-Nusra (Sheikh Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi) on the other on what follows:

a) Implementation of God’s law in the aforementioned areas with focus on the following points:

(i) Searching of the idolatrous tomb-shrines, destroying their structures and flattening them on the ground.

(ii) Securing of places for prayer in all the aforementioned villages in which there are no designated places for prayer; teaching of the Qur’an, aqeeda [creed] and jurisprudence therein for the youths and children.

(iii) The obligation of wearing hijab according to Shari’a for women outside their homes.

(iv) No display of gender-mixing in schools.

b) Choosing of two persons from each village for the organization of matters concerning services, aid, and oversight of contraventions under the stead of JN.

The beginning of that operation is to be implemented before the appointment of the next meeting.

Reminder: Any person in the Jabal region and aforementioned villages who contravenes/disagrees with these issues will expose himself to penalty according to Shari’a and censure.

Meeting adjourned until 1 February 2015.”

These regulations imposed on the Idlib province Druze by JN are of some concern when one also considers that there is a growing JN presence and influence in areas like Azaz where other minorities are to be found. Were JN to gain sufficient strength to take over Azaz from Northern Storm, it is certainly possible that the group would attempt to assert supremacist authority over the area’s Yezidis as well. In any case, news of the latest developments as regards the Idlib Druze only make the SRF’s guarantees of protection ring hollow and cause further concern among Syrian Druze about the rebels, even as there are signs of increasing resentment in Suwayda province about conscription into the Syrian army.

News Round-Up

Frontline Developments:


From a friend:
Souriatna is a rebel newspaper distributed in rebel territory. In a recent issue they printed a full page “je suis charlie” poster (viewable here, page 9: Nusra found out about it and started knocking down doors to find the place that published it. They attacked the Radio Fresh station in Idlib where Hadi al-Abdallah, the guy from the Qussair battle, was working. They accused him of insulting Mohammad and beat him, then realised that they got the wrong guy and apologized. They then proceeded to raid a women’s center across from the radio station and beat the women there and insulted them for not wearing hijab. Then they realized again that they got the wrong people and apologized and left.  Post from the newspaper about the events here . Subsequent video purports to show Ahrar al-Sham burning Souritatna and three other magazines, saying they’re now banned for supporting Charlie Hebdo.

Mapping of the recent and continuing 3-way conflict between Kurdish YPG, Syrian regime, and IS in Hasakeh from Agathocle de Syracuse:


The clashes started on January 17; reports Loyalists attempted to set-up checkpoints near the industry area and in the north entrance following YPG reinforcement in the city. YPG initially seized industry & silos area as well as police station, capturing 30 Loyalists forces members. Heavy clashes followed in the city center, near Assyrian church and Pullman garage, Marsho round-about, and along the control line in Mufti and Azizieh neighborhoods. Mutual shelling forced people to flee from Tall Hajar, Mufti and Kashman areas. On Jan 19 in the morning, a cease-fire was agreed although sporadic clashes continued

These regime-Kurd clashes started last Saturday: Kurds Battle Assad’s Forces in Syria, Opening New Front in Civil War – Reuters

violence broke out when army soldiers and allied militiamen took control of buildings in an area that both sides had agreed would stay demilitarised, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said...

Syrian Kurds, who say they suffered years of marginalisation under Assad, had on occasion fought with the president’s loyalists in territorial disputes, but never in sustained clashes…

First Peshmerga killed in Kobane fighting – Rudaw

Iraq: New German and French Weapons Reach Peshmerga on Frontlines – BasNews

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been injured in airstrike in Syria: ISIS leader Baghdadi injured, stays in Syria – al-Arabiya

Iraq: First ground combat between IS and Western forces: Canada Special Forces Clash with IS in Iraq – The Daily Star

…Ottawa: Canadian special forces exchanged gunfire with Islamic State fighters in Iraq in recent days, in the first confirmed ground battle between Western troops and IS, a senior officer said Monday.

“My troops had completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines,” Canadian special forces commander Brigadier General Michael Rouleau said. “When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gunfire.”

The general said the Canadians used sniper fire to “neutralize both threats” and there were no Canadian injuries… Canada has some 600 troops in the region participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State…

Are Israel, Jabhat al-Nusra coordinating on attacks in Syria? – al-Monitor

…UN reports published in December appear to vindicate the regime’s arguments that Israel is involved with the southern rebels.

According to a UN report covering the period from March to May 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) detected contact between rebels and the Israeli army across the Golan cease-fire line, particularly during fierce clashes between the Syrian army and the rebels. The report also confirmed that the UN forces spotted rebels transporting 89 wounded across the cease-fire line into the Israeli occupied zone, where they were handed over 19 people who had received medical treatment in addition to two dead. The UN forces also noted that the Israeli army delivered two boxes to rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Communications increased between rebels and the Israeli army before the eruption of the southern front in Daraa and Quneitra in September, according to Quneitra opposition activist…

ISIL threatens to kill Japanese hostages – al-Jazeera

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has released a video threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive $200m in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, during his visit to the Middle East…

Strike on IS-held village kills dozens – BBC



We are Failing the Children of Syria and Lebanon. This Tragedy is Avoidable – Guardian – Gordon Brown

That Smallest Victims: Syria’s Children – Mashable – Cengiz Yar Jr.


U.S. Policy On IS:


IS Gaining Ground in Syria, Despite U.S. Strikes – Daily Beast – Tim Mak and Nancy A. Youssef


Pentagon to Deploy 400 Troops to Train Syrian Rebels – Reuters

Western Intervention Can Only Strengthen Jihadis – Daily Star – Fareed Zakaria

Hammer and Anvil – Foreign Affairs – Robert Pape

…Defeating ISIS requires a new strategy for retaking Sunni territory. The strategy should incrementally build on the current hammer-and-anvil approach that has successfully blunted ISIS’ expansion into Kurdish and Shia areas. The conditions are ripest for a Sunni anvil in Nineveh and Anbar provinces in Iraq, so these areas should be the focus of a new plan with four components…

Robert PapeRobert Pape 2



Escape to Syria of Charlie Hebdo Suspect Shows Turkey’s Role as Jihadi Highway – McClatchy

Dutch opposition says has documents proving Turkey sent arms to Syrian jihadists – Today’s Zaman

Turkish Military Says MIT Shipped Weapons to Al-Qaeda – Al-Moniter

Explaining the Turkish Military’s Opposition to Combating ISIS – The Washington Institute – Ed Stafford


Hezbollah in Syria:


Israel Strike Underscores Security Concerns in Syrian Beyond ISIS, Upping Stakes for U.S. – Huffington Post – Akbar Shahid Ahmed

This is not your Father’s Hezbollah – Foreign Policy – Susannah George

Corruption in the ranks. Spies in their midst. Discipline problems. How the Syrian war is changing Lebanon’s most infamous militia…

Israel on high alert for possible Hezbollah retaliation – WP

Hezbollah Chief Threatens Israel Over Syria Strikes – AFP

Israel Strike Kills Son of Top Hezbollah Commander – CNN

Hezbollah Says Israeli Helicopter Strike Killed 5 Fighters in Syria – NYT

Are Hezbollah and Israel on the Verge of Open War? – Al-Arabiya

Tehran Threatens to Open the Golan Front in Response to Israeli Strike – Al-Akhbar

Russia and Iran sign military cooperation deal – AP


Foreign Jihadis:


The Clear Banner: Tajik Fighters in Iraq and Syria – Jihadology – Lemon

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia – International Crisis Group

British Jihadist who Faked Death Admits Terror Offences – BBC




French source on opposition (National Coalition)

Recent from Aron Lund: Russia Fails to Sway the Syrian Opposition – Carnegie – Aron Lund

…The bar seems to have been set very low, with Russia not even attempting to bring onboard the armed rebels that actually matter for the outcome of the conflict...

Recent from Tamimi:

Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz (Syria) – MERIA – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Impasse in Iraq: Part 1 (The Shi’a Side); Part 2 (The Sunni Side)

Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part I & Part 2

Does the Islamic State Pose a Threat to Morocco and Jordan? – Nick Heras & Amanda Claypool

Nearly Killed for Satire, Syrian Cartoonist Stands Proud – CNN – Amanpour

Syrian Christian Women in Sednaya Take up Arms to Defend their Community – Channel News Asia

Ideology and a Conducive Political Environment – Oxford Press Blog – Shadi Hamid

…In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world — it doesn’t — is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war…

Iraq Situation Report: January 17-18 –ISW:

ISW 2015-1-17-18 High -01

Syria: Should the United States Do More? — Debate at the McCain Institute

“Syria: Should the United States Do More?” January 15, 2015 debate at the McCain Institute for International Leadership with Mike Doran, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, and Aaron Miller. Elise Labott moderated. Video set to begin in the 11th minute, after the insufferably lengthy intro.


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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo from the latest series released by @ansarulislam_sh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syria Photo Guide


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

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

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

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

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

– Daniel Demeter

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

by John Eibner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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