“Educating Syrian Refugees in Turkey,” by Salih Yasun

Screen Shot 2016-07-23 at 11.43.22 AMThe Educational Opportunities and Challenges of Syrian Refugee Students in Turkey: Temporary Education Centers and Beyond
By Salih Yasun*
For Syria Comment, July 25, 2016

Almost 3,000,000 Syrians have fled to Turkey since the Syrian uprising began. Approximately 880,000 of those are school-age. 45% of those, or more than 400,000, attend school.[1]

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Syrian refugee students in Turkey who are in preschool or first grade attend only Turkish schools. They do so through a government mandate. After first grade, they face two main options for for education from grade two to twelve. Syrian students can choose to attend either Turkish public schools or temporary education centers. Temporary education centers (TEC) are primary and secondary education centers that provide educational opportunities for school-age Syrian children in Turkey (MEB, 2014). These schools use Arabic as the medium of instruction; they follow a curriculum designed by the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government and modified by the Turkish Ministry of Education.[2] Currently, approximately 78% of Syrian refugee students attend TEC, and 22% attend other schooling institutions, consisting of mainly Turkish public institutions.[3] In order for students to register at TEC, they need to obtain an international protection ID from a nearby police station. Students can physically attend classes at TEC even if they do not have IDs provided by the Directory of Police if they provide basic information to TEC officials through personal statements. However, students still need to obtain IDs to be able to receive diplomas and grade reports. To be placed in the appropriate classroom at TEC, students need to prove their academic trajectory in Syria or take a placement exam. These exams are not uniform as each TEC has its own exam with different questions. The score of the exam determines the placement of the student into a grade level. Students wishing to transfer to Turkish schools are automatically placed in the nearest Turkish school in proximity of their residence. However, cases of transition remain significantly low. Students who complete their education at TEC can attend in Turkish universities if they succeed through Baccalaureate and YÖS examinations.

The support for TEC comes from different agents such as NGOs, local municipalities, the Ministry of Education, and private donations. The services provided by such agents have included scholarships, meals, transportation, activities for students, wages for teachers, and spaces for education. However, the support is still not sufficient for many TEC to cover the expenses of education. TEC are commonly located in office blocks, NGO buildings, and Turkish public school buildings.

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The basic challenges of TEC can be categorized under three groups. The first group consists of the challenges related to the accessibility to education, which are also relevant for the accessibility to education at public schools. The second group consists of the challenges with the quality of education at TEC, and the third group consists of the challenges of transferring to public schools or universities from TEC. The challenges faced in accessing to education can be summarized as follows:

An important segment of students has to work to cover the living expenses of their families. Some TEC organized conditional aid programs to provide aid for families of students while returning students to TEC. However, the conditional aid programs remain very limited in scope nationwide. Students and parents may not know about educational opportunities in Turkey. The Ministry of Education has coordinated with UNICEF to provide information regarding educational opportunities to students and their parents. School fees can prevent the access to education for many students. Although education is free for refugee children, most TEC are dependent on donations from students with wealthier parents. As a result, in some cases these TEC may choose to admit students whose parents could provide donations over those who could not. This could prevent the orphans or children of poor families from accessing the educational opportunities. Many TEC have not provided uniforms to students. This may prevent students without appropriate clothing from accessing the educational opportunities. This problem is especially acute for girls. Some parents have discriminatory views about girls’ educational attainment, which hinder girls from accessing the educational opportunities.

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The challenges associated with the quality of education can be examined under the topics such as the provision of counseling services, Turkish language education, the quality of teachers, and the provision of educational materials.

Refugee children’s exposure to violence might lead them to develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[4] TEC need counselors that can assist students experiencing PTSD. A majority of TEC do not have counselors or the existing counselors are insufficient in meeting the needs of students. Male students tend to be more comfortable consulting with male counselors whereas female students were more comfortable consulting with female counselors. At some TEC all of the counselors are male and at some other all of the counselors are female.

Currently, students at TECs receive four to five hours of Turkish education per week. At some TEC the Turkish education is provided by volunteers free of charge, at others the expenses of Turkish teachers are covered by the TEC or NGOs. The Turkish education is considered insufficient because of the low quantity of language hours the lack of quality of teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. In addition, the reliance on volunteers may also hinder the language acquisition process due to the absentees of teachers. The opportunities for students at TEC to speak Turkish outside of the classroom is also very limited. The Ministry of Education is providing training for teachers in teaching Turkish to non-native speakers. The Syrian teachers at TEC utilize teacher-centered methodologies with great emphasis on memorization, which hinder the adjustment process of students to the Turkish educational system.

Currently, the Ministry of Education of the Syrian Interim Government provides the textbooks for courses other than Turkish free of charge to the students of TEC. Some TEC provide Turkish language textbooks free of charge, whereas some others charge fees. Some TEC do not provide Turkish language textbooks. Many of the TEC lack the basic science equipment.

Students face some problems in transferring from TEC to public schools. Although the curriculums are close, there are some discrepancies. For instance, a subject might be taught at the 5th grade at TEC but at the 4th grade at public schools, which could add extra challenges to the adjustment phases of Syrian students transferring to Turkish schools. Another problem is the lack of information about the accreditation exams. In the last education year students were given almost no information prior to the exam which prevented students from studying for the exam effectively. At some public schools Turkish teachers and counselors do not pay proper attention to the education of Syrian students despite the fact that Syrian students, many of whom lack the proper Turkish language skills, require more attention than their Turkish peers to succeed in the classroom. In addition, deeply established discriminatory views exist among the Turkish community towards Syrians, which prevent Syrian students’ integration among their Turkish peers.

The problems at TEC can be solved through coordination between NGOs, TEC, ministries and municipalities. Students can be provided with daily meals at TEC to lessen the financial burden of families and incentivize families to send their children to TEC. Special TEC can be opened to target students who have missed years of schooling in order to help them to catch up their peers. The conditional aid programs can be expanded. Transportation means and uniforms can be provided. The ministry of education can open vocational training programs that can enable refugee students to provide meaningful income for their families while earning valuable skills that they can transfer to their home countries.

The wages of teachers can be increased above the minimum wage and provided for 12 months in order to ensure that the highly skilled teachers continue practicing their profession. The number of trained counselors can be increased, with the goal of having at least one female and one male counselor to ensure that both male and female students can access counseling services. Once this is accomplished, the student/counselor ratio can be lowered. Turkish instruction hours can be increased. Turkish language books and basic science equipment can be provided. Sister school projects can be established between TEC and public schools which can enable Turkish and Syrian students to interact with their peers. The teachers at TEC can receive orientation on student-centered teaching methodology.

Free YÖS courses can be opened and the contextual differences between Syrian and Turkish curriculums can be removed to ensure smooth transitions to public schools and universities. Students can be informed in a timely manner regarding the accreditation exams. Orientation services can be provided to teachers and principals at public schools regarding the refugee education. The visibility of Syrian community and refugee students in the public can be increased by providing public service broadcasts focusing on Syrians in Turkey.

* Salih Yasun is a PhD student at the political science department of Indiana University and a graduate of Sabancı University’s master’s program in political science. e-mail syasun@umail.iu.edu

You can find the Full article is here

Pictures:  Source & source

[1] Interviews with government officials.

[2] The current curriculum mimics the curriculum utilized in Syria prior to the Civil War. The material in favor of Assad dynasty, Baas party and some controversial elements about Syria-Turkey relations have been excluded from the current curriculum.

[3]Estimations based on Emin, M. N. (2016). “Türkiye’deki Suriyeli Çocukların Eğitimi, Temel Eğitim Politikaları.” SETA.

[4] Brown, D. (1996). “Counseling the victims of violence who develop posttraumatic stress disorder.”

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi: A Syrian Hezbollah Formation

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

An emblem of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Brigade): “Liwa al-Imam Mahdi: The Imam Ali Battalion. The Islamic Resistance in Syria.” Note the classic extended arm and arm associated foremost with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The quotation above the rifle reads: “Indeed the party of God are the ones who overcome” (Qur’an 5:56), a play on ‘Hezbollah’ (The party of God).

The Syrian civil war has seen the rise of a number of formations that promote the idea of building a native Syrian Muqawama Islamiya (‘Islamic Resistance’) and Hezbollah. Examples include Quwat al-Ridha (recruiting mainly from Shi’a in the Homs area), the National Ideological Resistance (based in Tartous/Masyaf area), the Ja’afari Force (recruiting mainly from Damascene Shi’a) and al-Ghalibun. Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi, referring to the twelfth Shi’i Imam, is another group along these lines. For comparison, the National Ideological Resistance also has the label Jaysh al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Mahdi Army).

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi appears to have at least two sub-components: the Imam Ali Battalion and the Special Operations al-Hadi Battalion. The information available on Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi through social media is patchy at best, but I was able to speak to the commander of the Imam Ali Battalion, who goes by the name of al-Hajj Waleed and is from Ba’albek in the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon. According to al-Hajj Waleed (who is a member of Hezbollah), Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi was set up two years ago by Hezbollah and has recruits from all of Syria. Of course, this latter assertion is a fairly standard rhetorical line. Private Facebook accounts run by those associated with Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi largely point to origins in western Syria.

The commander added that the group has participated in a number of battles, including Deraa, Quneitra, Ghouta, Aleppo and the Ithiriya-Raqqa route. Some of these operations (e.g. fighting in south Aleppo countryside and positions on the Ithiriya hills) have been mentioned on social media. More images of relevance can be found below.

Abu Hadi, the leader of the al-Hadi Battalion. His real name appears to be Rani Jaber and he is Syrian (specifically from Deraa). Note his Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi armpatch. The al-Hadi Battalion claims at least two squadrons: the first led by ‘al-Saffah’ and the second led by ‘Abu Ali Karar.’

Fighters posing with the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). Identical with the emblem at the top of the article.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi fighters in Aleppo. Note their armpatches.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion) fighters as part of preparations for “the battle of the north” (according to a source that posted this photo and others in early June 2016). This likely refers to participation in the Aleppo fighting.

Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (al-Hadi Battalion) fighters. Note the portrait immediately behind them featuring the Syrian flag design. Portrait on top: “Come and behold me, for I am the sister of Hussein. At your service, oh Zaynab” (latter phrase in Arabic- Labbayk ya Zaynab– referring to Sayyida Zaynab, a central figure in Shi’i jihadi discourse on account of the concept of defending her shrine in the Damascus area).

Al-Hajj Waleed

Photo from al-Hajj Waleed featuring the flag of Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi (The Imam Ali Battalion). The portrait on the wall reads: “Oh Zaynab al-Kubra” (‘al-Kubra’ a common epithet given to Sayyida Zaynab).

The leader of the al-Hadi Battalion with a sword on the design of Imam Ali’s Dhu al-Fiqar. The text inserted into the photo reads: “Liwa al-Mahdi: remaining on the pledge, al-Hadi Battalion.”

A Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi member: note the armpatch featuring Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i. This affinity should not be surprising considering the group’s connection to Hezbollah, which is itself ideologically loyal to Khamene’i.

In the red chair: Muhammad Jaber (Abu Zayd), brother of Rani Jaber. Note the Hezbollah insignia on the person standing next to him.

In total, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi’s contribution to the fighting in Syria seems similar in scale to that of the Ja’afari Force and the National Ideological Resistance. Al-Hajj Waleed gave his toll of killed (‘martyrs’) and wounded at 25 and 55 respectively. Thus, the military capabilities of these groups should not be exaggerated, but it is apparent how Hezbollah is trying to project influence into Syria through the creation of multiple formations and brands in order to recruit Syrians.

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He? – By Ehsani2

The Boy Beheaded by Zinki Fighters, Abdullah Tayseer, Who Was He?
By Ehsani2
For Syria Comment, July 22, 2016

The video of the beheading of the young Syrian boy by the Zanki group in Aleppo caused widespread public shock. Since the appearance of the video, the boy’s identity has been the subject of much speculation.  This account of his identity is based on hours of conversations with Aleppo residents who knew the deceased, personally.

The boy’s name is Abdullah Tayseer, as has been widely reported. A copy of his ID has been circulating online.

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While the ID states that he is born in 1997, which would make him 19 years old, he is actually 14. The reason for the discrepancy is because the only way he could obtain this type of ID was for him to be above the age 18. He lied to get it. The person or group that issued him the ID most likely knew his true age. Sadly, as this war has gone on, young men have joined fight. The coalition representing the Syrian opposition released a communique deploring the use of child soldiers by the Syrian government. The communique failed, of course, to look into how widespread this practice has been among the armed groups.

The Zanki group that beheaded Abdullah Tayseer claimed that he was working for the Quds brigade, which is true. His ID, however, shows his affiliation to be with Air Force Intelligence. The reason for this discrepancy is that the ID he had on him was out of date. He joined the Quds Brigade a month ago, but was yet to be issued a new ID by this group.

Abdullah was Palestinian and not Syrian. He had accompanied a group of fighters to Handarat. As the fighting intensified, he could not escape and was caught by the Zanki fighters as a number of the videos have shown. Most fighters who were captured have been held under arrest until they could be used in prisoner exchanges. This may explain why Abdullah seems to have been medically treated first. The group that is seen taking selfies with him before he was killed decided to punish him after taunting him repeatedly on video. The Zanki fighter who performed the beheading was reportedly angry at having seen his own brother killed recently in Handarat. Personally beheading this 14 year old was his way of extracting revenge.

The United States, which has previously provided military support to the Nour al-Din al-Zinki Movement, said it was “seeking more information” and that it could not confirm the “appalling report” at a press briefing on Tuesday.

“If we can prove that this was indeed what happened and this group was involved… it would give us pause about any assistance or, frankly, any further involvement with this group,” state department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters.

Kata’ib al-Jabalawi: A Pro-Assad Militia from Homs

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi. The top reads: “Syrian Arab Republic.” The bottom: “Katibat al-Jabalawi” (al-Jabalawi Battalion, interchangeable with Kata’ib al-Jabalawi). The person in the centre of the emblem is one Mazen Jabalawi, about whom more below.

The Homs area is home to a number of pro-Assad militias, including Liwa Khaybar and the Leopards of Homs. Kata’ib al-Jabalawi is another militia from Homs. The group’s name derives from a prominent pro-Assad commander and ‘martyr’ called Mazen Ali Ahmad (al)-Jabalawi. He was originally from the Alawite village of Jabalaya located to the northwest of Homs city, and was said to have been killed in Deraa on 11 November 2013. A contemporary tribute to him posted on social media identifies Jabalawi as the leader of a contingent who fought in many battles across Syria:

“The mujahid commander, amir of martyrs, the martyr hero Ali Khazzam with the leader hero, leader of the group of glory, honour and sincerity that rushed since the beginning of the events in Homs to defend the people of Homs, the martyr hero Mazen Jabalawi, the brother-in-law of the martyr Ya’arab al-Darbuli who was martyred in Deraa a week ago. The martyr commander Mazen Jabalawi has been newly-wed since only two months ago. The martyr leader Mazen Jabalawi waged many battles with his martyr companions in most of the towns of Syria: Homs, Homs countryside, Aleppo, Aleppo countryside, Deir az-Zor and finally Deraa, where he wished only to be a newly-wed in her while breaking the siege from companions-in-arms. The martyr Mazen Jabalawi: Bab Hawd, Jurat al-Shiyah and al-Khalidiya [areas in Homs city] know him very well. Every stone in them knows this hero and the members of his group. Ask the pigs of old Homs how many woes this lion made them taste. Ask Qusayr how many pigs were trampled on at his hands. Ask the noble people in Homs about the field commander Mazen al-Jabalawi who took martyrs as brothers to him, heeded the call and has joined them as a noble newly-wed leader not knowing defeat.”

The formation in his name- Kata’ib al-Jabalawi- notably turns up in March 2014 in a pro-opposition report on pro-regime militia dynamics in Homs, relying on an alleged leaked document, which “on one of its pages points to the appearance of a new type of militias and considers them to be more dangerous than the [National] Defence militias themselves, and it dubs the militia as being called ‘Kata’ib al-Jabalawi’ that became independent of the National Defence, and harbours hostility to the Syrian army and all the battalions and militias loyal to it, including Hezbollah.” In one instance, the document supposedly says that Kata’ib al-Jabalawi carried out an ambush against rebels in the Sakra region in eastern Homs countryside, bringing the bodies to the heart of Homs and inviting media to cover the event. However, the militia barred the Iranian channel al-Aalem from covering the event on account of its coverage of news related to Hezbollah, while threatening any outlet that credited other forces besides Kata’ib al-Jabalawi as participants in the operation. On social media, some brief references can be found to Kata’ib al-Jabalawi in 2014, as per below:

From a pro-regime account from Homs: “The greatest jihadi organization in the path of Truth: Kata’ib al-Shaheed al-Jabalawi” (cf. this post from November 2014).

In the current form that can be found on social media, active promotion of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi can be traced to around the spring and early summer of 2015. This is rather similar to the Leopards of Homs, which dates back in its first iteration to 2012- with its leader Shadi Jum’a becoming involved in National Defence Force circles in Homs and then apparently identified as leader of a contingent of his own by 2014- but in the current iteration on social media can be traced to roughly the same time frame of spring and early summer of 2015, as it became affiliated with the al-Bustan Association of prominent regime businessman Rami Makhlouf. Likewise, Kata’ib al-Jabalawi as it is currently promoted, under the military leadership of one Abu Ahmad Khalid Wusuf and the general leadership of an Abu Ibrahim, shows an affiliation with the al-Bustan Association. Indeed, one page set up for Kata’ib al-Jabalawi is dedicated to various ‘martyrs’ for the group and explicitly mentions the affiliation. The militia is also defined as part of the “Popular Defence Forces in Homs“- a term used to refer to the Leopards of Homs as well. Sample activities that point to the al-Bustan Association affiliation include the provision of protection for an iftar celebration set up last month by the al-Bustan Association to commemorate the anniversary of Hafez al-Assad’s death.

In keeping with the idea of continuity with Mazen Jabalawi, claims and commemorations for ‘martyrs’ can be found going all the way back to at least 2012. Examples follow below.

Name Year of birth Marital status Date and place of death
Tamam Muhammad Mansour 25 November 2013: Deraa
Aamer Ahmad Ibrahim 1986 Single 9 June 2013: Hasya’ (south of Homs city)
Ahmad Sweid Khadur 1976 Married with three children 2 June 2013: Qusayr
Jawd Jihad al-Muhammad 1989 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Eisa Hussein al-Hassan 1984 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Aymenn Hassan al-Khidr 1977 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Ahmad Jihad Gharib 1986 Single 5 July 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Shadi Ali al-Ali 1983 26 June 2012
Tamim Nasr Abboud 1972 Married 22 June 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Suleiman Majid Dilla 1994 Single 22 June 2012: Jurat al-Shiyah
Hassan Hashim Khudur 1994 Single 12 June 2012: Umm Sharshuh (north of Homs)

(Sources: here and here)

More recent engagements of note include fighting in East Ghouta, where Kata’ib al-Jabalawi has claimed at least one notable ‘martyr’ in Ammar Jamal Mahmoud, who was killed on 29 November 2015 and had previously been renowned for his role in the fighting in Deraa, where Kata’ib al-Jabalawi had also been fighting in early 2016. In addition, Kata’ib al-Jabalawi participated in operations in the Qaryatayn area to the east of Homs against the Islamic State that ultimately led to the recapture of the town by early April 2016: during this operation, the militia most notably claimed a ‘martyr’ in an individual named Ali Abbas Muhammad, who was said to have been killed on 21 March 2016. Katai’b al-Jabalawi had also taken part in operations in eastern Homs countryside in the previous summer as the Islamic State had been making rapid advances across the Homs desert at the expense of the regime: for instance, the group claimed a ‘martyr’ in an individual called Kenan Dayub, killed fighting in the Sha’er field area, and some fallen fighters in the Jazal area. Finally, the group participated in the siege of Zabadani through the summer of 2015 (claiming that one of its fighters by the name of Muhammad al-Qasim was killed on 26 August 2015) in addition to fighting in the al-Ghab plains in the northwest of Hama province as the Russian intervention commenced.

The history of Kata’ib al-Jabalawi points to a complex evolution over time, evolving from pro-Assad militia networks in Homs that cannot simply be reduced to monochromatic labels like shabiha, which as Aron Lund notes has often been adopted uncritically as a generic term when its applicability is much more specific. The militia with the seemingly closest parallel history is the Leopards of Homs. Both the Leopards of Homs and Kata’ib al-Jabalawi seem to have grown within the Homs National Defence Force networks, then became their own outfits in some way before apparently reforming under affiliation with the al-Bustan Association in 2015. The al-Bustan Association affiliation can perhaps be seen as part of a wider project of bringing Homs militias seen as loose cannons under the cover of the Syrian state, particularly if we give credence to the early 2014 report suggesting tensions between Kata’ib al-Jabalawi and other pro-Assad actors in Homs at the time.

Update (21 July 2016): An earlier reference to Kata’ib al-Jabalawi and an al-Bustan Association affiliation can be found at least as early as May 2014. Therefore the chronology of the group’s evolution seems to diverge somewhat from that of the Leopards of Homs. Also of note was participation in an operation in the Damascus area in late 2014.

Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random

Marie Colvin’s Death Was Tragic, But It Was Random
By an Informed Observer in Damascus
For Syria Comment, June 13, 2016

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Marie Colvin’s death was tragic, especially for her family and friends and the international media community. Colvin was a courageous and legendary journalist. But her death was random, like hundreds of thousands of other deaths in the Syrian war that the world does not hear about. She was not “assassinated,” as claimed in the lawsuit submitted by her relatives or emphasized in news headlines, such as this Washington Post article: War reporter Marie Colvin was tracked, targeted and killed by Assad’s forces, family says.

Gilles Jacquier, French Photojournalist. An investigation by the French Ministry of Defence concluded that Jacquier had been killed in an attack carried out by anti-Assad rebels. Caroline Poiron, Jacquier’s wife, published the book Attentat Express in June 2013 with Vallelian and Hammouche that accuses Syrian government intelligence of planning the death of her husband. She claims he was killed either by a 22 millimeter gun associated with Syrian secret police or a long knife.


Colvin was embedded with the media wing of an insurgency in an active war zone. She was not targeted by Syrian government forces any more than the French journalist Gilles Jacquier was when he was killed by insurgent retaliatory mortars fired from the Old Homs neighborhood they controlled at the majority Alawite neighborhood of Akrama, in January 2011. A lot of people die in wars, most are not directly targeted as individuals. Most local journalists and western journalists are also not targeted. The US military has accidentally killed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan, they were usually Arab so few of us know their names. But they too were not targeted. Those few from the brave and reckless pack of international journalists who dare to venture into war zones do the world a great service, but they volunteer to leave a world of safety and laws to enter chaos and risk death. They do so believing the mission is worth the risk, and we owe them a debt to be sure, but when they get killed it should not shock us for they have entered a world that their typically privileged audience does not know, where death is random, merciless, fickle and ubiquitous.

There is no doubt that Colvin was killed by artillery fired by the Syrian armed forces. Apart from that basic fact, the legal complaint submitted reads as if it was written by a Syrian opposition activist and contains many factual errors. The shells that killed her and French photographer Remi Ochlik were fired from the Hassan ibn al Haitham military base in Homs’ Tadmur Circle, quite a distance away, and with a range of error of fifty meters. It was not a sniper rifle. The artillery was fired at Baba Amr, a large Homs suburb seized by insurgents who were attempting to penetrate government held areas in the city itself such as Inshaat. Government forces had launched an offensive to retake the neighborhood after the previous battles had ended in late 2011 with insurgents remaining in the neighborhood.

The complaint recounts a naive narrative about the birth of the insurgency, claiming that “in response, defectors from the Syrian army joined with local volunteers to defend opposition neighborhoods from attack. In November 2011, a group of officers who had defected from the Syrian army entered Baba Amr, a district in southwest Homs. They announced the formation of the al-Farouq Battalion, a rebel group affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, a national network of moderate, pro-democracy rebels (“FSA rebels”). Composed of several hundred army deserters and volunteers, equipped only with small arms, the FSA rebels launched raids against government checkpoints in Baba Amr.”

In fact the overwhelming majority of insurgents from March 2011 were not defectors from the military but angry civilians. Especially in Homs city former criminals and low level street gangsters played a key role in the formation of insurgent groups and became local defenders. Much like the so called shabiha in fact. The Farouq Battalion described in the complaint was not a moderate pro-democracy faction. it was led and financed by salafis, its ideology was Islamist and it engaged from the beginning in attacks against civilians perceived to be loyal to the state and kidnappings of Alawites in particular. The complaint is correct that “In late November 2011, the FSA rebels expelled Assad regime forces from Baba Amr, established a defensive perimeter around the neighborhood, and declared it a “liberated zone.”” But then it should be no surprise that the Syrian state would not tolerate this and would have to take military action to retake this zone. The insurgents took an entire neighborhood hostage, and later much of the country, without prior invitation by locals. These insurgents received funding from state and non-state actors throughout the Middle East and especially the Gulf and were backed by businessmen affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. They laid waste to institutions and infrastructure, as does any insurgency, and displaced all who have differing views or were from other sects. They also displayed callous disregard for the predictable consequences their strongholds would face when the Syrian security forces responded.

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See original Map of Homs here

While the Syrian armed forces do use indiscriminate force when targeting insurgent held areas, they are indeed insurgent held areas and their conduct is not inconsistent with how other states respond to insurgencies. Baba Amr was full of insurgents threatening to penetrate the city and destroy the state. It is no surprise that the state would use all its force to prevent this. This is why it was placed under siege. Syrian forces surrounded Baba Amr in order to deny the insurgents the ability to seize the rest of Homs city.

The complaint claims that “Syrian military and intelligence forces launched a scorched-earth campaign against Baba Amr.” In true Syrian style it was not a surgical operation and no doubt the laws of war were violated and violence was used indiscriminately without the proper concern for civilian collateral damage. But less than 20 percent of Baba Amr was badly damaged and today the neighborhood is overwhelmingly intact. Compared to operations that would come in the following years of the civil war the use of violence in the Baba Amr campaign was consistent with western standards, if not as efficient.

Contrary to the complaint, Maher al Assad was not involved in the Baba Amr operations at all. But in November 2011 a brigade of “BMP” armored personnel carriers trained in urban combat was sent by the 4th Division to Homs and placed under the command of the 18th Division which only had tanks that were unwieldy for urban combat. But even these APCs had not belonged to Maher’s liwa, which was liwa 47. Maher al Assad does not command the 4th division, contrary to popular belief. The APC’s belonged to Jamal Sleiman’s liwa.

The Syrian government’s capabilities pinpointing locations based on communication were always very weak, especially in those early days of the war. At best they could locate a neighborhood where the communication was taking place. And they were overwhelmed with mobile phones and satellite communication taking place in insurgent held areas so their primitive tracking abilities were even less effective. The complaint claims that “the Computer and Signals Section of Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate informed General Shahadah that the informant’s account matched the location of broadcast signals they had intercepted earlier that night.” But in 2012 the most advance device in Branch 261 of the Syrian Military Intelligence Directorate was a Chinese radio and it did not have the ability to analyze intercepted signals and determine a location. Branch 225 in Damascus did have those capabilities but at the time they were not mobile and only available in Damascus. It would be over a year before the Syrian government obtained mobile devices that could help identify the location of communications. Even then, we’re not talking about very sophisticated capabilities.

In early 2012 more and more of Homs was falling to insurgents. A regime which had little regard for international media was too busy struggling to survive and responding to a burgeoning insurgency to hunt down a small team of westerners. The regime was much more concerned about Syrians. It was struggling to win the domestic battle and root out activists working with the insurgents. They were a far greater priority for it than westerners. And indeed when it captured them, depending on the location and the time, they were often treated brutally. Westerners were largely immune to such treatment.

The “shabiha” were not a paramilitary death squad. Shabiha was a colloquial name to describe a pre-war phenomenon of organized crime with connections to the regime. Once the uprising began the name was used to describe any government supporter but also more specifically to describe a parallel phenomenon that emerged alongside the nascent insurgency of loyalist civilians organizing themselves as self defense (in their minds) committees that also engaged in attacks on the opposition with loose cover from government security forces. These would eventually become organized into a handful of official paramilitary forces such as the National Defense Forces. It is wrong to view them as death squads. And they were not under the command of Maher al Assad. Instead, once they gradually became organized various groups were affiliated with various security agencies and army units depending on the area and who had jurisdiction.

Moreover Khaled al Fares, the individual described in the complaint as “a shabiha militia leader” was nothing of the sort. Khaled al Fares was a businessman with a shady past in semi legal or illegal activities who gradually became a legitimate businessman with interests in car dealerships, chicken coups, a marble factory, and money lending. He was also close to Asef Shawkat, brother in law of the president, a former intelligence chief and at the time deputy minister of defense. Al Fares was not affiliated with Maher al Assad in any way at the time. Al Fares was part of an informal committee of influential Homs citizens, Alawis and Sunnis, loyalists and opposition, who gathered at the Safir Hotel with government officials occasionally to try to mediate and prevent the city from collapsing into civil war. Because he had a tribal background he was a useful asset for the government in reaching out to various constituencies. Not only was he not a militia commander, al Fares (who lived in the upper class Inshaat neighborhood at the time) only had a couple of bodyguards and 4 AK-47s to his name.

Al Fares did play a small role in this story, but not as an informant to help kill Colvin. When the death of Colvin was announced, the Syrian government did not believe it at first. One of their sources had falsely told Syrian intelligence that she and her colleagues had snuck out using tunnels to the western Homs country by Qatini Lake and that the death announcement was a tactic to deceive the government and allow Colvin to flee. Then an old man living in Baba Amr came to the Safir and met with security officials. The old man was originally from Wadi Khaled and his son was a member of an insurgent group in Baba Amr. He wanted to safely evacuate his son from Baba Amr and was also hoping for financial compensation in exchange for revealing to the government that the bodies of Colvin and Ochlik were buried in his back yard. He also informed the security officials that the insurgents were gathering at the edge of Baba Amr to prepare to evacuate to Quseir in western Homs. Khaled al Fares overheard this and told Asef Shawkat. Some in the government wanted to ambush the insurgents before they fled while others wanted to recover the bodies. Asef claimed he had told an EU official that he could get the bodies. Al Fares claimed that he took part in the operation to recover the bodies while in fact it was a team of low ranking security men who snuck in on a cold and snowy night and recovered the wrapped up corpses. They were surprised to find that insurgents had largely abandoned Baba Amr. When the bodies were taken to the Political Security branch Khaled al Fares took his picture with them.

Senior Syrian officials at the time claimed they had tried to mediate with the western journalists before the offensive was launched, going through local and international organizations and offering safe passage out to Lebanon. Security officials were also in touch with local insurgents about this. They worried about the consequences should westerners be harmed in their offensive. They claim Colvin was adamant on staying or made demands such as evacuating wounded insurgents. Syrian security chiefs surely wanted to detain and expel foreign journalists who had entered Syria illegally to report and at least in their view promote an insurgency, but they did not want to kill them, even in Syria western lives have more value than those of locals.

The complaint states that “Colvin and Conroy feared that it would be unsafe to embed with the Syrian government on an official press tour.” This is silly. While Colvin and Conroy were providing a necessary and valuable service informing the world about the suffering in insurgent held areas, it is absurd to think it is more safe to embed with insurgents than to go on a state sanctioned visit. The complaint claims that “two Swiss journalists who were with Jacquier at the time accused the Syrian government of leading Jacquier into an ambush.” This is nonsensical because Jacquier was in a safe majority Alawite neighbourhood with government escorts and streets full of people that suddenly came under insurgent mortar attack.

This is the footage of the moment that Gilles Jacquier was killed along with eight Syrians. It taken by an Arab camera crew and released by Adduniya TV, a pro-government channel.

He had bad luck, just like the others killed that day. But as usual the lives of Syrians wounded or killed are not as important and if a westerner is hurt than surely he must have been targeted. The complaint names a plethora of the most senior officials in Syria as part of a conspiracy to kill these western journalists. This is absurd. These officials were dealing with far more urgent matters than a couple of western journalists.

It is naive and misleading to call Khaled Abu Salah a poet and media activist. One can support his cause but the fact is he was a leading member of the media arm of the insurgency in Homs and his job was to be a propagandist on their behalf. Indeed after Baba Amr was retaken footage was discovered of him and his colleagues fabricating claims and footage to add drama to their media appearances. As Khaled Abu Salah played an important role within the Homs insurgency, but he was less of a poet and “activist” and more the equivalent of one of Hamas’ spokesmen in Gaza. These so called media activists were no doubt passionate and brave but they operated under the permission of insurgent commanders and in support of their armed struggle. Thus embedding with them would naturally expose one to the same retaliation the insurgents could expect.

The complaint claims that a female informant revealed the location of the western journalists. In fact Syrian officials believed the journalists had fled. It was only the old man from Wadi Khaled who revealed to them that they had stayed behind and two were dead. The old man also claimed that insurgents had killed them in order to tarnish the image of the Syrian government. This of course was not true but as a result some government officials wanted to take the bodies for an autopsy in Damascus but they were overruled and the bodies were hastily handed over to the ICRC.

In the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria

Screen Shot 2016-07-04 at 9.07.10 AMIn the Line of Fire — the War Against the UN in Syria
By Cyrus Mahboubian, an NGO worker in Damascus (Pseudonym)
For Syria Comment, July 4, 2016

Since the war in Syria began, aid delivery has been politicized. The anti-regime camp rejected the very notion of delivering aid through government held areas. Western countries who backed the insurgency and supported regime change pushed for most aid to be delivered “cross border,” from Turkey or Jordan. Diplomats and aid workers based in Turkey or Jordan often went native and viewed aid agencies based in Damascus as the enemy. Even the UN faced divisions and rivalries. At the center of this was Yacoub El Hillo, the United Nations Resident Coordinator, Humanitarian Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative in Syria since August 2013. El Hillo’s very existence was an affront to those who prioritized regime change above all else and because he was based in Damascus and accredited by the Syrian government he was required to acknowledge the Syrian government as it continued to represent the sovereignty of Syria at the United Nations. This cooperation with Syrian state institutions was anathema to those who hoped El Hillo could be some kind of humanitarian dictator, operating as if there was no Syrian state. But since most Syrians still live in government held parts of Syria and there is still a government with institutions and security forces, the UN must work especially with institutions that provide services to people such as health, education, water, electricity and vaccination.

Based in Damascus El Hillo, with his committed team, tried to reach as many people as he could including in all the besieged locations (and he succeeded this year to deliver aid in all 18 of them). El Hillo publicly advocated against sieges and denial of access and was engaged in near daily struggles with government officials to obtain access. El Hillo and his colleagues physically entered besieged areas, sometimes under fire — Homs in February 2014, and most recently Zamalka and Arbin on June 29 (in which a driver was shot in the chest).

The UN in Syria reaches one million people in opposition areas by crossing the border every month and they work everywhere in Syria either directly or through partners both national and international, while roughly 70% of people in need in Syria are reached from inside (Damascus but also the UN Hubs in Homs, Aleppo, Tartous and Qamishli).

In mid June an advocacy group called The Syria Campaign accused the UN of collaborating with and supporting the government’s policies. When it was announced in late June that El Hillo had been appointed to a new job in Liberia the Syria Campaign was quick to take credit. This is false however. El Hillo applied for the position in Liberia in early April, over two months before the Syria Campaign report came out and he was approved for the position of Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General with the United Nations Mission in Liberia ON 13 JUNE, before the report came out. It is laughable to think that the UN can ever respond so quickly to anything, let alone a report by an advocacy group criticizing the necessary compromises THE UN must make when dealing with a sovereign government. Yacoub El Hillo’s new position in Liberia is not punitive and it is in fact a promotion- and it was overdue. When he first came to Syria in early August 2013 he had committed to serve for two years. He chose to extend for a third which concludes in early August 2016.

In the the post-2003 Canal Hotel bombing culture of the UN, which was so traumatized by the al Qaeda attack on its staff in Iraq that in much of the Middle East it simply cowered in Green Zones and hid from the population, El Hillo pioneered a courageous return to UN principles, boldly leading missions into war zones under fire, challenging all actors from Jabhat al Nusra to the Syrian security forces, thus restoring the UN’s reputation.

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United Nations members prepare to load flag-draped metal transfer cases carrying the remains of bombing victims from the UN Office of Humanitarian Coordinator for Iraq

The allegations made by the Syria Campaign and others were written by people who know nothing about the UN and how it must work. In 2015 cross-line deliveries were very restricted but the UN was also working cross-border. Beginning in 2015 the UN implemented its Whole of Syria Approach which means there is a coordinated effort. In 2016 the UN has reached almost one million people in need in besieged and hard to reach areas. One can reasonably disagree about the difficult and imperfect choices the UN made when dealing with the Syrian government but those who criticize the UN country team based inside Syria offer no better alternatives. What would they have the UN team in Syria do? Should they withdraw in protest and serve nobody? The decision to withdraw from the country is made by the Secretary General. Or would they have the UN drive through checkpoints that have turned them away? The UN cannot move around without the approval of parties to the conflict in any country. The UN must notify parties in Syria, and if they say no and they have tanks and weapons what does it do? And the UN needs operational capacity, it cannot scream and yell and then lose access, it has to be able to move around and deliver and save lives. If UNICEF gets thrown out of Syria who does it help? The UN in Syria is not the problem. If one has a criticism to make it should be made by taking it to the Security Council and to the various countries involved in the conflict, not be falsely trying to defame a UN official who is concluding a mission  after three exhausting years in Syria.

Quwat al-Ghadab: A Pro-Assad Christian Militia in Suqaylabiyah

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Social media graphic for Quwat al-Ghadab (no official insignia/emblems in existence). Another appellation used in reference to these forces is Junud al-Masih (‘Soldiers of Christ’).

Christians in the east of Syria, where Syriac liturgy denominations constitute the majority of Christians, are primarily known to have joined militias of Syriac orientation, such as the pro-regime Sootoro/Gozarto Protection Forces based in Qamishli and the pro-PYD administration Sutoro affiliated with the Syriac Union Party. Closely linked to the Sutoro is the Syriac Military Council, which is affiliated with the Mesopotamia National Council. In the west of Syria, the main militia known to have attracted Christian support is the Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which is aligned with the regime and has engaged on a variety of fronts throughout western Syria, including a recent attempted regime push into Raqqa province alongside other militias like Suqur al-Sahara’ and Fawj Maghawir al-Bahr.

A more local formation of interest in the west of Syria is Quwat al-Ghadab (‘The Forces of Rage’), which is based in the Christian (specifically Greek Orthodox) town of Suqaylabiyah in northwestern Hama province. Suqaylabiyah is known as a base of support for the regime and hosts multiple political and military actors on the regime side, including a local branch of the National Defence Forces (NDF) and a local branch of the SSNP.*** According to one representative for Quwat al-Ghadab, the militia’s founding dates to 16 March 2013 in order to defend Suqaylabiyah and its countryside, and it is affiliated with the Republican Guard and the general command for Syria’s army and armed forces. Some posts also point to links with Syrian air intelligence, such as this notification on the New Year for 2016 featuring a Syrian air intelligence logo:


“We ask our people in the town of Suqaylabiyah not to celebrate the advent of 2016 with gunfire and take the foremost measures of caution and safeguarding. And this is not out of fear of terrorism on their part but rather to preserve your safety. And the men of al-Ghadab, of the sleepless eye, are in utmost readiness and at points of confrontation in their correct places, ready to respond and resist in order to protect the beloved Suqlab, the town of steadfastness. We will not let them pass except as lifeless corpses.”

The representative further claimed that Quwat al-Ghadab has 163 martyrs and has fought on all fronts, likely reflecting exaggerations. From the open source data, the engagements seem to be primarily confined to areas in relative proximity to Suqaylabiyah. For example, Quwat al-Ghadab was involved in the defence of Tel Othman against rebel forces, which captured Tel Othman in early November 2015. During the Tel Othman, Quwat al-Ghadab lost at least one fighter in a person called Hadi Adnan al-Adli (also known as Hadi al-Adlah):

Invitation to a commemoration of Hadi al-Adlah in Suqaylabiyah on 11 December 2015, 40 days after his death. The imagery is common for Christian ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting for regime forces in the Syrian civil war.

Note the tattoo of the cross on his arm. Posts on Hadi’s personal Facebook account suggest he was a devoted Christian. For example, in a post on 22 September 2015, he called on Jesus to have mercy on him, describing himself as his ‘servant in error [/sin].’

More recently, Quwat al-Ghadab has been operating in the mountains of Latakia, as illustrated by a post below from a member called Tony Nasab, who is identified in another post as being in the ranks of the Republican Guard, pointing to the links mentioned above between Quwat al-Ghadab and the Republican Guard.


The leader of Quwat al-Ghadab is a man called Philip Suleiman, who appears to be particularly close to the leader of the Suqaylabiyah NDF branch Nabil (al-)Abdullah. A document from October 2014 gives a more precise outline of Philip Suleiman’s role in Hama, pointing to his militia’s function as a reserve force for the Syrian army in part to deal with issues of draft dodging, which became more apparent after the regime’s losses in 2015 to rebels in Idlib and the refugee crisis:

“Syrian Arab Republic
General Command for the Army & Armed Forces
Brigade 47: Asdiqa’
No. 203
Date: 10 October 2014

Approved by the head of the security and military committee in Hama
Major General Jamal Mahmoud Younis

Mr. Philip Farid Suleiman from the town of Suqaylabiyah national ID number 05100010726 born in 1968 is entrusted with an official assignment by Quwat al-Asdiqa’ and that is to draw in and recruit civilian personnel and those wanted for compulsory and reserve service in the province of Hama for the interest of Quwat al-Asdiqa’. The security authorities are asked to provide the necessary aid and facilitation, thanking you for your cooperation.

Head of base.”

Quwat al-Asdiqa’ referenced in this document translates as ‘The Forces of Friends’. The term can be found elsewhere in reference to auxiliary forces in places like Aleppo. Here, Quwat al-Asdiqa’ is synonymous with Quwat al-Ghadab, as shown by the photo and posts below:

Philip Suleiman in his base. Note the plaque on the table:”Quwat al-Asdiqa’: Regiment 45. Base leader: Philip Suleiman.”

Post from March 2015, second paragraph: “The situation inside Suqaylabiyah is secure. There is no security incident inside the town and we ask all to beware only of any treachery that may strike Suqaylabiyah. The NDF, Quwat al-Asdiqa’ (Kata’ib al-Ghadab) and Nusur al-Zawba’a are spread in the interior and periphery of Suqaylabiyah and some of the neighbouring villages to observe any suspicious movement and deter it.”

Philip Suleiman came to greater attention in late March of this year when he was briefly detained by the regime. According to the Quwat al-Ghadab representative this author spoke with, he was arrested on accusations of smuggling diesel and petrol. His arrest sparked widespread outrage on the local social media and protests in the town:

“The car of the lion Abu Uday Philip Suleiman and traces of his blood on it. The beasts of the regime’s security apparatus arrested him after opening fire on his car!!!! He has not hoarded anything, stolen from anyone, paid or taken bribes from anyone, or betrayed his homeland and town. So the corrupt people hated him. He will come out with his head high and in defiance, while every dog who has written a false report against him will taste and drink his death. On your reckoning, but the hero will return.”

From the demonstrations in Suqaylabiyah that called for Philip Suleiman’s release. One of the placards reads: “We are not terrorists. We are the Syrian Arab Army: Majmu’at al-Ghadab [the Rage Groups- another name for Quwat al-Ghadab].”

“Civil demonstration now in front of the area directorate in Suqaylabiyah to demand the release of Mr. Philip Suleiman and punish the writer of the false reports Captain Hassan Imad Hassan who raised a number of reports describing the Jawiya groups [Suleiman’s forces] maintaining the frontlines on the forward points as ‘terrorists’ as a result of a personal dispute with the group leader Philip Suleiman when Philip tried to prevent him from taking large quantities of fuel combustibles from one of the petrol stations of Suqaylabiyah in order to hoard them, smuggle them and deliver them to the armed terrorist groups in the area, in order to carry out his work of conspiracy against the homeland the army of the homeland.” The placard in the photo on the left reads: “Captain Hassan!!! You have no place in our town of Suqaylabiyah.”

Philip Suleiman was eventually released, and returned to Suqaylabiyah in a procession with greetings. No further incident has since come to light. Despite this brief flare-up of internal tensions, the town is unlikely to shift towards any sentiments of sympathy for the insurgency anytime soon, particularly as it has been subject to rebel bombardment on multiple occasions, leading to the death of civilians. Moreover, from Kasab in Latakia to Qamishli in Hasakah, the record of the rebel groups and the Islamic State towards the Christian minorities is hardly reassuring.


***(Appendix note on the SSNP): The SSNP is known to exist in two distinct branches, the Syrian under Joseph Sweid and the Lebanese under As’ad Hardan. In terms of the Nusur al-Zawba’a output that is observed on social media, it can largely be traced to the efforts of Hardan’s branch, which is indeed the main force organizing the Nusur al-Zawba’a militia effort in Syria. Thus, the best known Facebook page for Nusur al-Zawba’a- SSNPMediawars– and the associated Telegram channel show an affiliation with Hardan. For example, this post from 8 June 2016 on SSNPMediawars:

“The ‘political direction’ in the forces of ‘Nusur al-Zawba’a’ displays sections from a direction speech by the head of the party, secretary [general] As’ad Hardan inside one of the ‘Nusur’ camps.”

Similarly, a page for the “Suqaylabiyah directorate” of the SSNP points to an affiliation with Hardan. Besides the military contribution in the form of the Nusur al-Zawba’a militia, there is also outreach to the local population, including the youth of Suqaylabiyah. It is therefore apparent that Hardan’s SSNP has used the Syrian civil war to project influence into regime-held Syria, reflecting a wider trend among the militia actors on the regime side. Indeed, 30 candidates were fielded for the Syrian parliamentary elections in April.

In contrast, the Syrian SSNP maintains its own Facebook page- wssnpsy. There is evidence for tensions between the Syrian and Lebanese SSNP branches inside Syria, as members of Nusur al-Zawba’a affiliated with the Lebanese SSNP attacked an office of the Syrian SSNP in Damascus, prompting a condemnation from the Syrian SSNP issued on 14 June 2016. While the Syrian SSNP urged for its members not to be drawn into internal strife, it asked the Lebanese SSNP to condemn the assault, warning that failure to do so would lead to repeated incidents of this type and amount to approval/orders from the Lebanese SSNP.

“Why the Islamic State Is Losing, and Why It Still Hopes to Win”

I have just published a new paper on the war against the so-called Islamic State over at The Century Foundation, arguing that the group is now clearly losing the war on the ground in Syria and Iraq. But the tide may turn, depending on what happens in the Syrian Civil War, among the rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, and with the increasingly tense situation in Baghdad. The introduction is below and you’ll find the full thing here. — Aron Lund

Islamic State FlagThe Sunni extremist group known as Islamic State (IS, also known by an earlier acronym, ISIS) is taking a terrible beating. In the past few days, it has lost territory in both Syria and Iraq. Syrian Kurds have attacked it east of Aleppo and north of Raqqa City, while it is battling Sunni Arab rivals north of Aleppo. The Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad is pressing into the Raqqa Governorate and taking ground in the deserts east of Palmyra. In Iraq, other Kurdish groups have struck east of Mosul, while an alliance of Shia militias and the Iraqi army is moving into its stronghold in Fallujah. Further afield, the jihadis are being purged from the Libyan city of Sirte.

Islamic State’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is nowhere to be seen or heard as his fighters face attacks on all fronts. According to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, the jihadi group has now lost half of the area it controlled in Iraq at its peak in late 2014 and a fifth of its territory in Syria. Revenues from oil and other assets are reportedly down by a third and a U.S. government official recently claimed the coalition has “cut off entirely their revenue that’s coming from the outside.” The coalition also says that the total number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria has dropped from a peak of around 31,000 in December 2014 to between 19,000 and 25,000 today, and the influx of foreign jihadis has allegedly been reduced by three-quarters.

Islamic State has not scored a major victory on the battlefield in more than a year, and its ability to govern efficiently is withering. People with their ear to the ground in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa speak of frail governance and worsening repression, since the group can no longer afford to buy civil peace. If popular discontent continues to grow, a weakening Islamic State could face internal dissent and tribal uprisings.

Still, the decline of Islamic State is certainly not irreversible and its enemies could be in for rough surprises ahead. In some areas, the forces confronting Islamic State are even more dysfunctional than the group itself, held together only by foreign influence and the fact that they face a common enemy. Now, with Islamic State’s influence finally receding, that brittle unity is being tested. Syria has long been torn asunder by civil war and regional rivalries, while Iraq suffers from a worsening political paralysis. Islamic State is weaker than at any point since it conquered Mosul two years ago, but thanks to the chronic disorder among its enemies, it may still be able to regroup and reclaim the initiative.

For more, read the full report.

“The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist,” By Stefan Winter

The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist
By Stefan Winter
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

This week marks the 80th anniversary of a now famous petition, supposedly addressed by six ‘Alawi notables from the Latakia region—including Hafiz al-Asad’s grandfather Sulayman al-Asad—to French prime minister Léon Blum on 15 June 1936. The six ‘Alawi notables criticize the negotiations undertaken by the Front populaire government for the independence of Syria; they decry the “spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims” against the ‘Alawis, Jews, Yezidis and other minorities and reject the idea that the Governorate of Latakia (the “Alaouites”) be included in the rest of Syria. They propose that the Alawi State be joined with Lebanon rather than Syria and demand to remain under French protection.

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The petition, reportedly registered as document “no. 3547” at the French Foreign Ministry, is translated in Abu Musa al-Hariri’s 1984 monograph Al-‘Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun: Bahth fi’l-‘Aqida wa’l-Tarikh, with lengthy excerpts (translated back from the Arabic) appearing in such works as Matti Moosa’s Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988), Daniel Le Gac’s La Syrie du general Assad (1991), and a host of press articles and internet blogs in recent years. A copy of the original together with the Arabic translation is said to be held by the Asad library in Damascus, and in August 2012, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reacting to a Syrian diplomat’s negative portrayal of French mandatory rule before the UN, invoked the petition as proof of president Bashar al-Asad’s grandfather’s (rather than his great-grandfather’s) pro-French position and reaffirmed that the “official” document is preserved in his Ministry’s archives.

From a historian’s standpoint, however, the petition presents a couple of problems. To begin with, “no. 3547” does not correspond to any actual archive classification (one might expect the Ministry’s holdings to go beyond 4-digit serially numbered items), and no corresponding document has ever been cited in the literature or, indeed, produced by the Minister. The only known image of document “no. 3547” appears to be one provided to Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University and published on www.jewishpress.com in September 2012, from where it has been copied and circulated on numerous internet sites ever since. Either the image, however, or the document collage, is an obvious fake. Already a cursory glance shows that the purported original on the left, prominently stamped with “no. 3547” in red, is written in a long hand typical of French consular correspondence of the early 19th century or before (and appears to concern a commercial account), whereas the petitions submitted to the French authorities in the 1930s were almost invariably written by typewriter. Even more blatant is the black stamp at the top, spread across both the handwritten document and the Arabic typewritten translation: this is in fact an ancien-régime municipal fiscal stamp (“Petit Papier, [x] sous la feuille, Généralité de Paris”)—which clearly displays the classic 3-lily Bourbon coat of arms, a complete impossibility for any document handled by the Third Republic Foreign Ministry in 1936.


Not that the subject and tone of the petition in itself are implausible. On the contrary: many ‘Alawis were in fact opposed to the end of French rule and the eventual inclusion of the “Alaouites” in an independent Syria. The archives of the French Foreign Ministry (the “Quai d’Orsay”), now located in La Courneuve suburb just north of Paris, do contain numerous letters sent by ‘Alawi and other notables to French government officials in 1936 to lobby against Syrian independence, and some of these do reject the prospect of “Muslim majority rule” in the strongest terms, demand the Alaouites’ inclusion in Lebanon or compare the plight of the ‘Alawis and Druze to the discrimination suffered by Jewish immigrants settling in Palestine. None of these separatist petitions, however, correspond to “no. 3547”, and none appear to bear the signature of an Asad.

Historians such as Matti Moosa (who did in fact use the French archives for his book, but can only cite al-Hariri as his source for “no. 3547”) and others have focussed too one-sidedly on these separatist petitions, which supposedly “reveal” that the “Nusayri leaders feared and detested the Sunnite Syrian nationalists” (Extremist Shiites, pp. 286-289). This is unfortunate—because a quick look through the relevant series at La Courneuve shows that there are in reality about as many pro-independence, pro-Syrian-unionist petitions sent by the ‘Alawis in the 1936 as there are separatist petitions. And sure enough, one of these pro-unionist ‘Alawi petitions, dated 2 July 1936 or just two weeks after the supposed “no. 3547”, is signed not by Sulayman al-Asad—but by his son ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad, i.e. the current president’s grandfather.

Courneuve ELSL

The virulent, 4-page missive, addressed “in exasperation” to the Ministre des affaires étrangères over France’s “nefarious politics of division”, is signed by 86 ‘Alawi notables in all, including not only the younger Asad (in his capacity as “former member of the constitutive assembly of the Alaouites”) but also by scions of the Raslan, al-Khayyir and other leading families, as well as Ismail Hawwash, head of the Matawira tribe, past representative on the “conseil fédéral syrien” and son of ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, one of the alleged signatories of “no. 3547”. Ridiculing the idea that ‘Alawis could not live together with their Muslim countrymen, the petition goes on to blast in no uncertain terms those of their compeers who would agitate merely “out of personal ambition” and “bad faith” for the continuation of separate French mandatory rule and thereby impede full Syrian union. (See my forthcoming A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 260-261 for details). If there is such a thing as a petition “no. 3547”, this one reads like a straight rebuttal.

Ali Sulayman al-Asad (1875 – 1963) Grandfather of President Bashar al-Asad

The “Asad petition” that is actually contained in the French Foreign Ministry archives, in other words, directly contradicts what has often been claimed (including by Laurent Fabius) about the Asads’ attitude toward the French mandate, and therefore raises a number of questions. Should we conclude that “no. 3547” is a forgery, but if so, why would it be on display at the Asad library in Damascus when it casts aspersions on the Asads’ nationalist credentials? Or could it be that both petitions are genuine, and reflect a real political—in fact a generational—conflict within the ‘Alawi community in 1936, between old-guard separatists like Sulayman al-Asad and ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, on the one hand, and their unionist sons ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad and Ismail al-Hawwash, on the other? This should not come as a surprise, after all, when it is clear that neither the ‘Alawi nor any other confessional community adopted a single, uniform opinion on French rule and independence, when as careful a historian as Patrick Seale has already shown that many ‘Alawi figures were indeed “neither Syrian nationalists nor collaborators” but adjusted their stance throughout the mandate period, depending on their changing political and personal circumstances (Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, pp. 18-23).

What the existence of the unambiguously pro-unionist Asad petition does demonstrate, in any event, is to what extent political myths in current-day Syria are often based on flimsy—or at least partial and very incomplete—evidence, how some writers will purposely concentrate only on the scandalous, irrespective of the archival material available to them, and how bloggers, media commentators and perhaps even the French Foreign Minister will uncritically copy and paste from one another rather than spend 10 minutes actually going through the catalogues at La Courneuve. Spreading unqualified claims about the president’s grandfather, the ‘Alawis or anyone’s historical loyalties is not a recipe for stability in the current context of Syrian politics. The separatist petition “no. 3547”, if it is indeed authentic, must at the very least be weighed against the very genuine unionist petition that is indeed in the archives.

Stefan Winter is associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). His previous publications on the ‘Alawis under Ottoman rule are available on his Academia page; A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic is due out from Princeton University Press in September 2016. With thanks to Mordechai Kedar, Pascal Bastien, Stéphane Valter and Joshua Landis for their help with this note.

Addendum (added by Joshua Landis): The following is the shortened text of the disputed 1936 petition published in English translation by Matti Moosa in his book: Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988) pp. 287‑88.

The Alawite people, who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authority of the cities of the interior.

The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels….

The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief…

The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam…

We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.

The Alawite people are certain that they will find a strong and faithful support for a loyal and friendly people threatened by death and annihilation and who have offered France tremendous services.

Here is a more recent publication of the petition in 2013 by “Syria Direct,” a “non-profit journalism organization that produces timely, credible coverage of Syria.” It mistakenly identifies the date of the petition as 1926 rather than 1936, but provides a complete translation of the now disputed petition that cannot be located in the French archives.

Dealing with Syria’s Foreign Fighters: A Liberal Conundrum

The Case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani
by Tam Hussein @tamhussein
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

As a result of Syria’s bloody conflict Europe is at a turning point. The threat of terrorism, the fear of lone wolf attacks, of independent cells operating with in Europe has changed the political landscape. Europe is wrestling with a liberal conundrum. But whilst policy makers and intelligence services must be vigilant to the threat of terrorism it must also be aware of the nuances  when dealing with returnees, foreign fighters and indeed Syrian refugees. Tarring everyone with the same brush can have disastrous consequences.  At the expense of greater security Europe must not loose its soul: that is the Rule of Law.  The following case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani illustrates these points perfectly.

In late January 2016, Amer al-Hasani, 20, decided to travel to Greece with his friend Mirsad Bectašević, 29. They had met at the local mosque in a Gothenburg suburb in Sweden. Amer, a devout Muslim, had been involved in Islamic proselytisation and charity work there. The two had travelled to Copenhagen from Gothenburg crossing over from the magnificent Øresund bridge that links Southern Sweden’s Malmö to the Danish capital, Copenhagen. From Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport they boarded a flight to Athens. On arrival, Amer called his mother to let her know that he was well. They spent several days galavanting in Athens. Nothing of note happened except, that Bectašević bought two Bear Grylls machetes at a bargain price from an Airsoft store. According to him, he asked the lady if it was legal to carry such knives and she confirmed it. Then they travelled to Salonika, spending two days there, and on to Thrace to the sleepy fishing town, Alexandropoulis, close to the Turkish border.

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Amer claims that they wanted to visit the surrounding villages from the town, and so they went to the bus station to buy two tickets to Peplos, a small village even closer to the border. It seemed like a straightforward affair. But the employee, got suspicious and made a phone call. According to Bectašević it was an instance of racial profiling pure and simple. After all they weren’t Swedes of the blond and blue eyed variety; they were swarthy types, of pure Invandrar- immigrant – stock that grew up in Sweden’s förort, the satellite conurbations around Stockholm or Gothenburg which is Sweden’s equivalent of ghetto if Sweden ever had one. But instead of boarding the bus, several policemen on motorcycles pulled up and gruffly took them away for questioning.

The press couldn’t help but jump on the arrest whether that be Sweden’s tabloid paper Aftonbladet or its broadsheet equivalent Svenska Dag Bladet. It made for great copy. After all, it’s not everyday you bag Mirsad Bectašević, the man who once plotted to blow up Western targets in the European mainland.

Moreover, these men were arrested around the same time as three Iraqi Kurds carrying British passports. The latter were caught with 200 000 rounds of ammunition trying to cross Greece’s porous border. The media also claimed that their arrest was intelligence led, apparently they had been under surveillance for several days as they made their way to Alexandropoulis and had intended to cross over to Turkey and then onto Syria as many foreign fighters do. In fact, I knew that SÄPO, Swedish intelligence, was keeping tabs on Bectašević when I met him in May, 2015.

Amer al-Hasani

Amer al-Hasani

The Interrogation

After their arrest the two men were immediately separated. On the face of it, the prosecution had a relatively a simple case. To convict all you had to do was to prove that Bectašević the more experienced of the two, recruited the young and impressionable man in Gothenburg and then convinced him to go to Syria to join ISIS. But if the allegations of Amer, his brother, Mohammed, Bectašević and others who knew them are true, there seems to be grave problems from the very outset. One should add, that a request for comment from the Greek authorities have not been forth coming.

Bektašević was offered legal representation, one of the best according to him. He was interrogated by the police for forty eight hours, he was no doubt asked, where he was going. His response was that of a man used to interrogation, “I am exercising my right to travel”. Peplos is awfully close to the Turkish border isn’t it? He replies “even if we were going to Turkey we didn’t do anything illegal.”

The interrogators didn’t come up with much. Perhaps the interrogators took it as a given, perhaps it wasn’t from their line of inquiry but according to Bectašević they didn’t focus on why he had black police boots, a 5.11 tactical vest, one weapon sling he claimed to have forgot from his last visit to Syria in 2015. He says, “I had ‘ordinary stuff like T-shirts and jeans. Muslim clothes when praying. They took that as ‘evidence’”. The Greek interrogators focused more on his level of devotion and practice rather than his connections to ISIS or Syria.

Initially, he was charged with trying to supply a terror organisation with weapons. Now, it wasn’t 200 000 rounds of ammunition he was accused of supplying but the Bear Grylls machetes. One presumes that this unspecified terror organisation can’t get hold of such precious hardware anywhere else.

However, as to who he was affiliated to was unclear. At Bectašević’s hearing there seemed to be much confusion as to precisely what organisation he belonged to. The Greek prosecutor had even asked him, but the accused denied any affiliation. Bectašević only found out that he was accused of belonging to ISIS a month later. Some of these lawyers, he complained, didn’t even realise that ISIL and ISIS was the same organisation. Simply put the Greeks were not literate as to the various factions operating in Syria. After several months of languishing in Korydallous High Security prison, Bektašević claims he still hasn’t seen the evidence against him so that he can prepare his defence. The Swedish embassy have been in touch with the Greek authorities in March, 2016 however the results of that meeting still remain to be seen.

Of course, all of this might just be the Greek authorities knowing based on intel, that here they have a convicted terrorist, perhaps one that intends to commit future acts of terror, but they simply don’t have the requisite laws to deal with the likes of him. And so they throw anything at him to keep him locked up. The case of Mirsad Bectašević then, is the epitome of the liberal dilemma that the Greeks and indeed many Western countries are having to face up to. What does one do with the likes of Bectaševič and others like him, who may be working to undermine the security of the West or may not? And as such his case has important lessons for all European countries.

The case of Amer has not been treated in the same manner- that is he has not been given even a semblance of procedural justice. Is that because he is a Yemeni political refugee and not a Swedish passport holder? Does procedural justice not apply to the likes of him? His brother, Mohammed, 21, told me that in the first week of his arrest, intelligence officers beat him smashing his face against the table and tearing at his hair. They asked him why he was in Greece and where he was going as I did over the phone. He must have repeated the same thing he said to me, “I am here on holiday.” They said he had to admit that he was part of ISIS and belonged to a cell in Eastern Europe that was planning to launch an attack in the West. They were going to get that out of him no matter what. Greece, they said, is a democracy, when Amer, retorted that they were breaking their own principles, they laughed and replied that people think Greece is a democracy but it’s not. He had to admit he belonged to ISIS or else. But Amer did not admit it.

According to his brother, they brought in a girl who tried to seduce him, just like they do in interrogations in Egypt, whilst all the time they were hoping to film him perform a sex act. The brother believed that the security services could use the film to black mail him with it. But Amer is devout, and he repelled her advances. Next one man threatened him with anal rape if he did not testify against Bectašević. All the time, he could not get access to his legal counsel, apparently they replied only after a month. More recently Bectašević told me that Amer was being forced “to sign some papers in Greece [sic] it was around five…eight people there and they forced him to sign some papers. He didn’t even understand what it was.”

This was also confirmed by his brother who said that they have been appealing to the Swedish embassy for assistance. The embassy replied that the matter is out of their hands there has however, been some contact between the embassy and Amer in prison. Amer has told me that now the Greek authorities are applying psychological pressure on him in Volos young offenders prison. He feels that he is in limbo. His brother is worried sick about his health as he suffers from a childhood throat condition that requires an operation.

The Crux

Admittedly, the case of these two men are not as straight forward as it seems. The Greek authorities are dealing with a crippling economic situation, with the movement of people escaping Syria on a biblical scale, and so the rights of two men, one having a previous conviction for terrorism don’t really figure on its list of priorities. Arguably, Islamist terrorism is something that the Greek judiciary doesn’t have to deal with much. Yet, overlooking the case of these men could have an immense impact; for Bectašević is no small figure in Jihadi circles and is looked up to by those inclined to Salafi-Jihadism in Gothenburg. He, after all, has impeccable credentials in this regard.

Some inconsistencies of the testimonies and the difficulty of this author to verify their accounts aside, the whole case hinges on three points. The first, is the figure of Bectašević himself and his previous convictions. Secondly, his relationship with Syria and thirdly, the fractious politics of Syria’s Islamist rebels.

Prima Facie evidence

On the face of it, Bektašević is a man who holds views that are antithetical to Western ideals. He is an out and out Islamist of the radical variety, there is no shadow of a doubt in that. As one analyst noted, his twitter handle had a picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri. That started at a young age. The Swedish national from Serbia’s Sanjaki community, the minority Muslim community, became devout following his father’s death in 1994. He moved to Gothenburg, Kungälv where he spent his formative years. During the 80s and 90s Sweden was a popular destination for the Post-Yugoslav nations. A combination of factors, faith, the various Islamic ideological currents at the time, the legacy of conflict in Bosnia, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made him adopt a radical interpretation of his faith. There are also some allegations that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for instance the fact that he met Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, but these allegations have been rubbished by Bectašević, as he told me: “I always made travels with my own passport and they [authorities] know I never was in the Middle East back then.”

Nevertheless, his radical politics resulted in prison. He was convicted for his part in a terrorist plot in Sarajevo on 19th October, 2005 alongside others. In May, 2015 Bectašević told me that he had his Damascus moment whilst being interrogated by an FBI officer. He had told the FBI officer that Democracy was his religion and had been relying on Sh. Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi’s teachings. The officer dismissed the assertion, replying that it was just politics. The response threw him off balance, he had been so reliant on Maqdisi’s authority that he didn’t see the absurdity of the argument. He decided, from then on, to never blindly follow what other people had said and would find out for himself. Damascus moment or not, in January 2007, he received fifteen years for plotting to attack all those nations that were involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent the last period in Sweden in isolation. The sentence was the longest for terrorism in Swedish history. And it was also one of the biggest plots that was foiled in main land Europe especially after the Madrid bombings in 2004.

Perhaps more importantly for us in the age of social media, Bectašević’s online activity heralded in the era of Cyber-Jihad. Using his avatar Maximus he was in contact with Salafi-Jihadis all over the world, more specifically with Jihadi forums such as at-Tibyan, the forum for the dissemination of Jihadi texts in the English speaking world. It was also through this internet forum that he came in contact with Younes Tsouli, a Moroccan man from an elite family, known by his avatar Irhabi 007. According to a source who knew him in prison, Tsouli who arrived in the UK on 9/11, became radicalised after the failure of the anti-war rallies in the UK to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tsouli’s IT skills had been immensely important in disseminating AQIM propaganda to the wider world. It was through Bectašević’s avatar that was uncovered after his arrest that led to Tsouli and his associates being raided in West London. For the Greek authorities then, it seems tempting to just throw the keys away based on Bectašević’s past. He does fit the profile of an ISIS supporter

Younes Tsouli

Younes Tsouli

Moreover, there are other pieces of evidence. One being Bectašević’s previous connection to Syria. After his release in 2011, Swedish media reported that Bektašević was convicted of firearm’s violations linked to Gothenburg’s criminal underworld and spent a further spell in prison. Swedish media linked him to Muhammed Jouma, considered to be an al-Shabaab middle man. Bectašević though maintains that he met Jouma a few times in the local mosque in Gothenburg and that the former just sits at home idly, the only connection being that he wanted to use Jouma’s address for correspondence. He didn’t like the media intrusion on his mother’s home and so he regularly changed his correspondence address.

Bektašević did get involved with criminality due to a shortage of funds. He kept his prayers up in secret and adopted the name Micke. But the criminal underworld and his rise in it didn’t sit well with his conscience, in the end and after his arrest for arms possession he decided to leave it.

Then, Swedish media reported that he was fighting in Syria. Bektašević has revealed that the Arab Spring and the events in Syria had a profound impact on him. He believes alongside many other Muslims in the Ummah, a pan-Islamic concept of fraternity based on faith. Tyrants were falling left right and centre in the Muslim heartlands and it grabbed the imagination of the world let alone Islamists like him. He felt that he had a duty of care towards Syrians and so he wanted to go to Syria to help in whatever way he could. Syria plays an important role in the end of time narratives in Islamic tradition, no less in the Salafi-Jihadi discourse. Abu Musab al-Suri for instance, mentioned Syria as one of the key territories that would be crucial to the revival of the Muslim Ummah.

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

In the end it was a dream that pushed him towards Syria. Dreams do play an important role in Islamic eschatology and though Bektašević didn’t give it too much importance the dream came to pass. He got a passport, the Turks let him through and he boarded an eighteen hour bus to Hatay and crossed over to Syria.

Photographs emerged from his Facebook page of him in Taftanaz where he donned military fatigues and carried arms. I posed this question to him recently and his response was the following:

“The picture with hat and came [camouflage] dress is worn was in Atmah [sic]. So no fighting place. The other one with Kalash was from Taftanaz [Idlib] at home of one friend. So not a fighting place. It is not illegal to carry arms. I was there to assist ordinary people from giving food to protecting hospitals. Prior to arriving to Syria, Atmah there was a car bomb placed outside the hospital in Atmah. After that incident they needed some to guard.

It is easy to equate anyone who was in Syria in 2013 to be fighting with ISIS but as any specialist in foreign fighters will tell you this is simply not the case. Amarnath Amarsingam a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism says:

“So, what is clear from my interviews with some fighters is that 2013 was a time of flux. Many fighters at the time switched allegiances from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra shortly after Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s letter became public – around June 2013. Many fighters at the time were unclear about whether the Zawahiri letter was real and whether it was to be believed. Zawahiri was talking about, in essence, respecting the border between Iraq and Syria. Many fighters believed that Zawahiri would never say this. It was a time when many fighters moved back and forth, shifted allegiances and so on. So, it’s not accurate to say all muhajireen were with ISIS in 2013. In fact, I spoke with several fighters who switched precisely during this period when they saw ISIS’s excessive takfirism. As one fighter told me, when he saw ISIS members turning against other mujahideen, he took that as God’s guidance – a message from God about which group was on the right path and which group wasn’t.”

What is important to realise in 2013 then, is that the groups and factions had not fully crystallised in the way they have now. There were and still are, small battalions that may subscribe to Islamist ideology but are independent of any proscribed battalions. In fact, Amer al-Deghayes, who insists that he is part of such a battalion, says he met Bectašević in April 2013 in Kassab, Northern Syria, and likened him to a freelancer. He states that Bectašević was in fact against ISIS adding “he disagreed with them ever since I met him in April 2013.”

Moreover, in a statement obtained from Sawarim as-Sham a battalion affiliated to Failāq as-Shām or the Sham Legion, a moderate Islamist front, states that Bectašević entered the freed territories to render humanitarian aid and “was not with any organisation designated as a terrorist”. Abu Ahmed Khaled an official with a charity Jami’ya Nūr al-Insāniya, also told me that he was doing aid work in the border areas and was a “a friend of the Syrian people”.

Letter from Sham Legion

Letter from Sham Legion

In any case whatever Bectašević was up to in Syria which could have been a mixture of aid work and fighting, he returned to Sweden and in May, 2015 we met. He had agreed to meet me because he was aware of my work on Syria. We met in a coffee shop close to T-Centralen, Stockholm. We spent a good couple of hours drinking coffee while he told me off-record his life story. We were in discussions over writing a book and possibly a documentary. This is something that many radicals, jihadists and Islamic pentitos tend to do; writing books is a lucrative venture. I was not allowed to divulge any of the details of the conversation because- that would break one of the principal tenets of journalism- protecting your source and confidentiality. However recently, I do not quite know how, he contacted me from Korydallous High Security prison and gave me permission to divulge the details of this meeting. I informed him that what his allegiances and mindset are presently I do not know, but I could certainly reveal the details of what I saw when I met him. Over the following weeks I managed to contact Amer al-Hasani, family members and friends to verify the story. And I felt that I had an ethical duty to reveal it, not as an advocate for Bectašević or Amer, but rather to expose wrong doing and to highlight the difficult challenges that men such as Bectaševic and his ilk present to the West.

The crucial point that the case rests on is this: does Bectašević belong to ISIS? Bektašević denies this as he told me:

“They accused me of being in this organisation because I have my address in Sweden, with one guy who left the country to Syria to join ISIS. After one month, I rent (sic) myself into this address where he lived in. But he didn’t live there, man. He rent it out. He’s married with three kids, he lived in a totally other place. So they claim I am with this organisation because I have an address with this guy.”

The man he is referring to is Mikael Skråmo, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Sweidi. Mr. Skråmo converted to Islam in 2005, studied Islam and Arabic. According to Per Godmundson, a blogger for Svenska Dagbladet, Skråmo became a radical preacher and an open supporter of Anwar Awlaki, an al-Qaeda ideologue and US citizen killed by a US drone. That then is the link. Ahmed Abbassi, a childhood friend from Kungälv says that he would regularly list his address in various flats even though he was always living with his mother because he wanted to avoid press intrusion.

Bektašević further told me speaking against Islamic State:

“There are so many reasons why I am against this group. Foremost is religiously. This group is known for blowing up Muslims in mosques. They are fighting other Muslims. They are fighting people they should not fight. They are not protecting borders which they should protect. In fact they are attacking…already freed areas that the Muslims have freed from the Tyrants and still they are continuing this things and this is one of the reasons. Secondly, I am against them attacking other countries Europe or whichever country it can be in Europe. I am against it. This is not what I am for or what I stand for.”

A similar view was held by Amer too. Recently Abbasi says that Bectašević has dissuaded several young girls from joining ISIS and that if he had an opportunity he would fight them harder than he would fight Assad.

Mikael Skråmo

Mikael Skråmo

At the time of my meeting with him in 2015, Bectašević was vehemently against ISIS and was jousting with ISIS fanboys and tweeps on social media. Further, this author can confirm that at the time that we met he held a similar position to what he has told me recently; that is he considered ISIS to be little more than ‘highway men’ or Khawarij, a heretical sect in Islam famous for extremism and banditry.

Of course, there are limitations, Bectašević can be dissimulating. It doesn’t exclude the fact that his thoughts may have evolved into that of an ISIS supporter, neither does it exclude the possibility that the two men were planning to go to Syria. But even if we assume that none of the allegations the men make are true, that he and indeed Amer are ISIS supporters, it should not exclude them from receiving a fair trial and recourse to due legal process which clearly has not occurred in Greece. The Greek authorities have not responded to requests for comment and may quite understandably, go with its natural instinct which is to bury this case, to do a Trump and throw the keys away. After all many Muslim countries such as Egypt lock up men for lesser crimes than that of Bectašević’, but Egypt of course never prided itself on the Rule of Law. In fact, Rule of Law is something most people admire about the West, even hardened Islamists. And it is adherence to this idea that should be the driving force in dealing with foreign fighters, returnees, and terrorists.

The situation you don’t want to be in is the place where Amer’s mother cries every night pleading to God for justice. For that ancient refrain is not what Democracy is meant to provoke. God is not meant to give justice in Democracy. In fact, the whole point of a liberal democracy is that the Rule of Law is meant to be above God and such pleas for God’s justice should be redundant. It is after all, Lady Justice the personification of the Greek deity Lady Themis that stands as the symbol of justice not Jesus, God or any other religious symbol from the West’ rich Christo-Judeaic heritage. The Rule of Law is so basic that Locke, Rawls and Aristides N. Hatzis from the philosophy department at the University of Athens, says:

“In a liberal democracy there is a personal domain protected by negative rights. This domain should be shielded not only from an authoritarian government but also from a democratic majority (Danford, 2000, pp. 159-172). This domain should be under the protection of the rule of law and its most powerful institutional weapon:” The constitution. Let’s call this the liberal principle.”

In some way, many like the al-Hasani family, being political refugees from an illustrious tribe in Southern Yemen, believe in it even more so than Westerners do. An indignant Mohamed al-Hasani mentioned that Greece was a signatory to European Convention of Human Rights. He expected that they would respect Article 3 – the right to be free of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and of course Article 6, the right to a fair trial. And yet, if the allegations are true, the Greek judicial system has failed in this regard. It is worth noting that it is this that ISIS uses to lambast the West; it does not even uphold its own fundamental values; why else does ISIS dress up its victims in the orange jumpsuits that they wore in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? And so it proposes that the Rule of Law is hypocritically applied in the West.

Moreover, al-Hasani and especially Bektašević’s treatment does have consequences. The way he is treated will confirm a narrative that there is one rule for Muslims and another rule for the rest. Otherwise those who incline towards this narrative will probably echo Bektašević’s feelings:

“I am in a situation where nobody cares if I’m guilty or not. People who know me and my position against DAESH are quiet and I am here for nothing facing a sentence in a screwed up UFO land…
I have never supported the so called IS, contrary I have been against their actions. I don’t hide that I support the Syrian Jihad but in Syria you have good groups who put themselves under the Shariah not like IS who act like they are above the Shariah. If I would receive a conviction for being part of IS it would not be a conviction based on proofs rather it would be a political one.”

What is clear is that justice and fairness is key. If the Greeks vis-a-vis the West does not want to fuel a grievance narrative that many Muslim demagogues utilise to rail against the West, judicial process is crucial this after all is what Europe is about.

The Greeks and indeed all European countries must not overlook the various factions and groups that exist with in Syria’s rebel milieu and its dynamic in a constantly changing environment. This case will show whether the Greek authorities can manage to be just, fair and respectful of all the values and principles that it subscribes to. If they fail, the level of Bektašević’s celebrity in Jihadi circles will increase and might become a propaganda tool for those who say that the West does not have the ability to be just.

On a final note, the treatment of Amer al-Hasani, whose political ideas are yet unformed and if true, is shocking. It shows us what happens when we throw away the legal rule book, one becomes exactly like those tyrants that Salafi-Jihadis have been speaking against for three decades, one becomes as despotic as Sisi’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria. Perhaps the saddest most surprising thing about the post 9/11 world is the sheer fragility of Western ideals. Perversely in the name of protecting those values it holds so dear it has discarded them so quickly. It poses the question how is it that so few terrorists could shake the faith of so many men so easily?


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