A Day in The Life of The Jungle: Syrians Camped out in Calais

A Day in The Life of The Jungle: Syrians Camped out in Calais
by Tam Hussein – @tamhussein
For Syria Comment, May

Apart from the odd father attending to the needs of their families, most Syrians sleep in late in the Jungle in Calais. They are wrapped up inside their tarpaulin and plywood hovels resembling one of those Hoovervilles from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Sometimes new arrivals, exhausted, just curl up and sleep on the dusty path, not caring that in this makeshift camp rats are oblivious to men. In fact, this is the very reason why they call it the Jungle; for here men live like animals. The Junglists though, whether Syrian or not, don’t sleep in because they are idle. They have been up all night trying; trying with an indomitable will to reach the white cliffs of England.

The Pump in the background, motorway to port- Author

The Pump in the background, motorway to port- Author

England though doesn’t want the Syrians or any other Junglist. Westminster has invested France with vast funds to put up fencing as white as the cliffs of Dover. These fences tear apart Calais’ green expanse and resemble the Israeli security measures in the Occupied Territories. These are patrolled night and day by the police, gendarme and the hated CRS, the riot police. The CRS have the role of Roman centurions on a frontier outpost, desperately trying to keep the barbarians out. As the sun sets, you see them putting on their shin guards, shields and helmets at the petrol stop where the English stock up on some cheap plonk. Usually there are eight CRS vans, each carrying twelve men. There are other vans concealed in the shrubbery, ready to throw their spotlights at opportunistic Junglists, so the riot police can move in with harsh batons and pepper spray.

The powers that be have taken many measures to prevent the men from going to England. They have advised that the lorries with no cargo leave their carriages open during the night, so that the Junglist knows that there will be nothing to protect him from the pepper spray once it’s opened. The trucks heading towards the Calais port follow a strict procedure. Once they reach junction E16, they are inspected by the police and then they are instructed to launch themselves towards the ferry port so they are not intercepted by the Junglists. This enclosed stretch of motorway runs right alongside the camp and you can see the trucks hurtle down towards the port as if taunting the men.
As a further precaution, the authorities have created a buffer zone along the fenced motorway. Now the Junglist will have to make that hundred and fifty meter run towards the fencing to get at the trucks.

The buffer zone and the wall- Author

The buffer zone and the wall- Author

Volunteer training with residents of the Jungle- Author

Volunteer training with residents of the Jungle- Author

***

There is always a police presence in and around the camp. But it is in the evening that the CRS makes their presence felt because, under the cover of darkness, the Junglists try to make it to England. In the evening, if the men have managed somehow to evade the police, they cut the fencing and wait for one of those trucks. When they see one truck hurtling towards them, they jump in front of the truck hoping that it will stop. Many lives are lost in this way, especially the children, because they are harder to spot and tend to work in packs. Other times the Junglists throw something in the path of the truck. Whatever the methods, the objective is the same: create a Dugar- a traffic jam of lorries.

When the cry for Dugar is heard, distinct whistling noises spread across the camp and the Junglists start to move in the direction of the Dugar. They have half an hour to try to get through the gap in the fencing and clamber into the trucks that pile up before the police arrive. It used to be two days before they came but now they are here within half an hour. The police have little choice but to fire rubber bullets at close range because they are outnumbered and most men will have knives as standard issue; how else are they going to cut the fencing? Sometimes the hot tear gas canister gets thrown back by an Afghan wearing gloves and the police get to taste its acrid smell. Most men fail and laugh about it afterwards, showing their bruises; it’s gallows humour, the same humour you find in war torn Syria- a bitter dark sort formed in the hearts of cynical men.

Empty Trucks in Calais- CRS were hidden in the shrubbery

Empty Trucks in Calais- CRS were hidden in the shrubbery-Author

More recently the authorities have cut the camp down to size. The camp used to be one kilometre by half a kilometre, but the authorities have bulldozed two thousand Hoovervilles which promptly moved to the southern precinct. They then destroyed the southern precinct so that in eight weeks the population in the northern precinct increased fourfold. But it is not all bad news: the buffer zone now serves as a great place where Afghans can bowl googlies and be struck for six. They can shout ‘no ball’ or ‘Howzat’ as if they were playing at Lord’s cricket ground to their hearts’ content. Others, like the Eritreans and the Syrians, don’t quite understand cricket, and you hear them making comments as to why you need to keep your arm straight when bowling. They stick to the simplicity of football.

When one of the Syrians try a ‘muhawala’- an attempt to cross the English Channel- it is as if the man is going off to the war front. I met Ammar cutting onions at a soup kitchen. He is a pensive quiet man, thinning prematurely at the top. He smokes rolling tobacco sitting on the roof of the soup kitchen. Men say he should be on suicide watch or on anti-depressants. It is hard to tell whether this is the case. Ammar is from Qusayr, Syria. He escaped after his city fell, his family is scattered all over the world. His mother is in Egypt, and three siblings in Lebanon, Sweden and the UK. He says he doesn’t care for any country and will return to Syria, “better to die there in dignity”. But despite this, he is still going to try to get to England.

The fenced motorway to the port and the camp. Author

The fenced motorway to the port and the camp. Author

Ammar in the soup kitchen- Author

Ammar in the soup kitchen- Author

Ammar serves dinner to the Junglists who form an orderly queue at seven o’clock. And then wearing his crocs, with a bag donated by a French girl, he bids farewell and off he goes into the night. He is convinced that he will make it to England tonight. Perhaps we will never see him on this earth again. He’s jumped trains, clambered onto trucks, by hook and crook tried it all and failed. And yet tonight he is convinced he will make it. Everyone thinks they will be the one. There is another, Ali, sitting in front of a shop. He is visiting the Jungle. He made made the journey from Afghanistan through Italy, stayed there long enough in Naples for him to speak Italian. He too, ripping up a naan, says he’s been trying. He once made it to England but was sent back. But he is going to try again, “Fanculo tutto il mondo” he says apologising for his swearing, “only England will do. Germany, France, Italy is (sic) racist, they treat us like animals.” And then there is fourteen year old Hani, from Aleppo whose parents were killed by the Syrian regime, he too tries every night. He too has tried to get on the Eurostar which, if it catches you, doesn’t even stop. Apart from a slight bump, no one onboard will know that a child died on their journey into St. Pancras International.

Evening in the Jungle, Calais.

Evening in the Jungle, Calais- Author

It seems impossible to pass through the fencing, the walls, the buffer zones and tunnels, but they do. There is something quietly quixotic about them as they try night after night. They embody the indignity of the ‘have nots’ against the ‘haves’, of human folly and yet at the same time hope. Has England become an obsession or does it contain some hidden street paved with gold? In the UK a refugee will receive five pound twenty a day, he will rely on food banks and suffer hardship but he is safe and that is worth its price in gold. After all, these people have journeyed from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and many other countries escaping brutal dictators and war. The English channel will not thwart them. In fact, during the night, the Syrian corner of the camp is lit up by a twelve foot flame seen by all. Initial fears that the shanties are ablaze are dispelled by the sound of whooping and singing. One of their brothers have made it to London. How? God knows, but the story is a testament to human resilience.

If Ammar makes it he has to convince the UK authorities that he has arrived with out knowing that he has been transiting through other European countries. More than that, he hopes that he hasn’t been snapped up by one of the men working for the British intelligence services. Junglists are aware that many people at the camp work for the intelligence services because friends who have made it, have seen them at Dover police station fraternising with the officers. In truth, the security services have no choice. The Jungle is a security concern, especially in the wake of Paris and Brussels.

For Ammar, though, there are easier ways. He can seek asylum in France and then be put in Camp Salaam with its the pristine white containers and warm showers. But Camp Salaam feels like prison. They are kept there till their application is processed. Those that apply seem to be from the Francophone world so France is the most logical destination to seek asylum. In any case, they probably do not have any finger prints any where else in Europe. If they do, the Dublin Agreement III requires that the host country send them back to the first European country of entry. They will be deported from that camp and find themselves in Serbia or Greece. This is what the Junglists fear the most; being sent back. These refugees prefer the freedom outside of Camp Salaam, but the freedom of the Jungle is fused with the ever pervasive smell of human excrement and rank green water that gather in pools where brown rats have pool parties.

***

The Prophecy of Micah

The Prophecy of Micah- Author

Even though there is no capo in the camp, somehow things just fall into place. There is an anarchic sort of order here. One would expect the Junglists coming from such different cultures to be at each others’ throats. But they behave very much like the prophecy of Micah, in the Old Testament, whose message is displayed in the camp for everyone to see:

“They shall all sit under their own vine and the fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”

Each community rests with their own. Each area is loosely identifiable. The Kurdish area has its flag fluttering red, white and green with the sun in the middle. The Afghans with black, red and green, the Sudanese more so for their practice of playing dominoes at all times of the day and burning incense.

The Syrians have no flag, neither the flag of Assad, nor the flag of the revolution flutters here. Most are barely men, sons of farmers who joined the uprising in their teens. It is hard not to love their generous spirit. They continuously fill your cup with coffee and tea. Many of them, as Umm Sulaiman says, hail from “Der’aa al-manquba”- “The city of Dera’a that is riddled with holes”. It is the same city where the Syrian uprising began.

And yet, after five years, the revolution, at least from the Jungle, is hard to discern. In April 2013, the former Syrian Brotherhood Spokesman Zuheir Salem warned: “If Assad stays, you will see Europe flooded with fifteen million Syrian refugees.” This is coming to pass. But Syrians do not unquestioningly apportion all the blame on the regime or its barrel bombs for the failure of the revolution. The rebels have had five years to cobble together a credible opposition and they have failed miserably. Syrians can’t quite figure out why the revolution has failed. Some of the refugees say, without providing a shred of proof, that DAESH or ISIS is the creation of Shi’ite Iran with its head quarters in London. Others blame America and others blame themselves. Abu Umar from Idlib, pulls on his cigarette, sitting in his tidy hut and says: “Is there any government in the world that isn’t oppressive now? Is it not the case that my cousin took the bribe, my brother tortured prisoners, my neighbour did such and such? We are given rulers that we deserve as the Quran says.” Abu Umar believes that Syria’s solution can only be solved once Syrians achieve inner piety.

The men from Dera'a celebrating

The men from Dera’a celebrating- Author

But though they have no common flag, there are still strong kinship ties. Umm Sulayman, for instance, has no one. She looks like one of those Okies from 1930s America. Her children, one six year old boy and one two year old girl, play barefoot in the sand. Her husband was killed by the Assad regime and now she relies on her countrymen and the Jungle to support her. There are men like Jamal, an engineer from Newcastle, who ensures that her camper has enough gas, that they are fed and that her two children are looked after. Like the Okies who dreamt of going to California, she hopes to join her family in England. But in truth; there is no possibility of that. The lawyers can’t help her, the Dublin Agreement III again is the problem. If she arrives in the UK her application for asylum will fail. She has to convince the immigration officers that she did not stop in any other country. If her story is not airtight the immigration officers in Lunar house, Croydon, will put holes in it.

In the camp, religion does play a part in ordering the lives of the Junglists. One greeting of salaam, one prayer to protect their family breaks down barriers and suspicion. There is one church and seven mosques. Masjid al-Mouhajer is the one the Syrians go to. The central mosque is the Umar mosque, a tarpaulin structure, set up in order to unify and give a sense of solidarity amongst the Junglists. Umar mosque was the brain child of a Syrian, Abu Omar, Jamal and other imams who came together and encouraged the men to set up a mosque for the sake of fraternity. It is this mosque that helps to diffuse the tensions that flare up in the camp periodically. The mosque is led by Imam Katibullah, a Pashtu with piercing grey eyes who speaks Arabic, walks the camp in his black shawl, panjabi and Pakhool, and gives pastoral care to all and sundry and seems loved by the camp.

At evening prayer, it is as if all the ills suffered by the Muslim world gather; there stands its past glories and its present misery and its future hopes, all united behind the Afghan Imam, Katibullah. Watch the men pray and raise their hands to their Maker and you see that some pray for paradise and some, dare one say it, pray to England, and some pray as if tonight will be their last day on Earth. And sometimes it really is their last day.

Whilst the politicians in Westminster wrangle over what is to be done, the people of England show the same generous spirit that accepted refugees in the past, whether Hugenot Protestant, Jew, Pole or East African. This is acknowledged by the Junglists. One guesstimate puts it that ninety percent of the volunteers are from Britain. They donate disused caravans that go to the most vulnerable. There are makeshift medical clinics offering primary care, youth clubs, legal advice and other services, all funded by these volunteers. Names like Sophie, Claire, Iona are mentioned with intense reverence and affection and, though some of these volunteers do not believe in saints or God for that matter, they are trusted like saints and many children are given to their care. But there is also a sense that whilst these men and women give to the refugees, they too seem to gain something. It is hard to tell as to exactly what that is, but as Jamal says: “they cannot go back to their societies and live normally after the Jungle.” Whilst some volunteers come to experience the anarchic freedom, the hospitality of the men with nothing, perhaps even to savour the cannabis, you get the sense that they too maybe searching for something.

There are also those like Jamal who are clear as to why they do it. Him and his wife and a handful of Malaysian volunteers feed a thousand men a day and run it purely on the good will of those across the English Channel who donate food and goods. He sold everything to set up a soup kitchen and is also the camp’s handyman. Why give up everything, I ask? He replies: “My father used to read a Hadith of the Prophet at bed time, which stayed with me: ‘no one of you really believes if you go to bed with a full stomach and your brother’s stomach is empty’”. And so Jamal, his wife and a bunch of volunteers serve food to the camp every evening. But it is not enough; most newborns in the camp are still undernourished.

That is not to say that there is not ugliness. The camp is etched with the pain and desperation of its inhabitants. One Junglist, an Iraqi from Salahdin, who looks like a cross between a guitarist from Nirvana and an army major, complete with blond beard and bob tail, chops onions and serves the poor and yet he goes to bed seeing visions of both his brothers having their throats slit in front of his very eyes. Abu Uday, a Damascene, has the picture of his six and three year old in Lebanon hanging on his wall, as a permanent reminder of his duty towards them. Two days ago six boys were found in a Hooverville in great distress. They had been raped. Children disappear in the camp. Jamal tells of a story where a mother abandoned her six month old infant and it was looked after by the camp; moved from family to family. A phone call came, and the voice claimed to be the newborn’s family, Jamal rushed to the hospital where he was told to go with the child. But on the way, they stopped at a cafe and he was asked to hand the baby over to some men; he realised they were people smugglers and pulled out. There was a notorious Kurdish smuggler known as Hajji, he was hated in the camp. Before making it to England Hajji had already spent considerable time in an Italian prison smuggling people to Italy from Libya and had set up shop in the Jungle. It is the presence of these undesirables that means that the camp has ears and is rife with intelligence services who do not know who these men are and what their motives are.

Night: Going to England- Author

Night: Going to England- Author

War has no doubt changed the character of these people. Jamal recalls a scene described as if it was from the battle of Agincourt, where the Afghans squared up to Sudanese and battled each other with flaming projectiles, sticks and knifes. Sixty men were injured, ten were hurt critically. The fighting occurred right in between the mosque and the kitchen, the latter being used for first aid. None of the Afghans knew why they were fighting; it was merely in solidarity with their compatriots and the Sudanese likewise. It turned out that it was a dispute over a bicycle: an Afghan had not paid the ten euros owed. And so the Sudanese came to collect and a medieval battle started. The Afghans went to aid their man and the Sudanese theirs. Hajji fired two shots in the air, only the playing of Quranic verses on the loud speaker from Masjid Umar calmed the situation down, and the next day, battered and bruised, the same men were hugging each other and asking each other for forgiveness. As Jamal explains, when you have witnessed twenty years of war it corrupts you. It becomes instinctive to fight, that’s why the French police are puzzled as to why the Afghans just react by fighting and throwing stones when there is no need to. They have seen nothing but war.

Author

Author

The jungle has the good, the bad and the ugly. And no doubt politicians will continue to build bigger walls that cost millions to keep them out. There is a sign in the Jungle asking the question: “Is me majnoun [mad] I am thinking about the world. I hope that we can be treated equally.” But the Jungle is not unique, there are more Jungles being built all over the world. The same phenomenon can be seen in Buenos Aries, Santa Fe and Rio De Janeiro. In Lima, poor Chileans scale the 10 km wall to glance at the Haves, they are all Junglists. All over the world walls are being built to keep out the needy, the destitute and the poor. At some point those walls will fall, and if England is not careful, perhaps Micah’s Prophecy may come true in London, just as it did for Jerusalem. As for the Syrians they will keep on coming, English Channel or no English Channel, if this conflict is not resolved.

Tam Hussein is an a ward winning investigative journalist and writer published by BBC, C4, ITV, Guardian, Huffington Post, New Statesman etc.

The Leopards of Homs: A Pro-Assad Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

FuhudHomsEmblem
Emblem of The Leopards of Homs. The Arabic reads: “Fuhud Homs: Fawj al-Maham al-Khasa” (The Leopards of Homs: Special Operations Regiment). See older emblems of the militia here.

The Homs area has seen the creation and growth of multiple militias on the regime side over the course of the Syrian civil war, including Liwa Khaybar (The Khaybar Brigade) and Quwat al-Ridha (The Ridha Forces, part of Syrian Hezbollah). The Leopards of Homs (hereafter: Fuhud Homs) is another such formation.  According to the militia’s media office, the formation dates back to 2013 in its first iteration, but was established with its current affiliation in 2015. In terms of Fuhud Homs’ relations with other pro-Assad militias, it should be noted that the leader of the formation is one Shadi Jum’a, a close associate of Abu Ja’afar (aka The Scorpion), who, as will be recalled, is the leader of Liwa Khaybar and one of the founders of the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Homs. The link between the two men is apparent from a post written by The Scorpion in late December 2015, referring to the bomb attacks that had most recently taken place in the city of Homs at that time:

“My brothers…heroes…I implore those who bore arms with me against the terrorists from the first of the events [‘events’- a pro-regime term for the civil war]: my brother Muhammad al-Ali, my brother Shadi Jum’a, my brother Muhannad [typo?- Muhammad] al-Hajji, all my brothers in the National Defence in Homs, the family of Ghanim al-Sayis, the resisters, and I refrain from mentioning the rest of the names: we must do something for our people in Homs, our children, women and brothers are being killed every day. Others besides us will not protect our people, we do not want rebellion, and we will not direct our arms against our state that we have protected with our people, but we will not barter, and we only want to protect our areas.

The Scorpion.”

The Scorpion himself clarifies to me that there is a distinction between the Fuhud Homs of Shadi Jum’a and the Fuhud Forces [aka Fuhud Groups] contingent of Suheil al-Hassan’s well-known Tiger Forces militia. The latter’s leader- Muhammad al-Hajji, was killed last month fighting the Islamic State (IS) in the vicinity of Palmyra, and was the brother of the group’s founder and prior leader Ali al-Hajji, who was killed in fighting in the Sahl al-Ghab in August 2015. The brothers were from the Talkalakh area of Homs.

In contrast with the Fuhud Forces, Shadi Jum’a was originally working with The Scorpion and the Homs NDF circles (which is presumably what the Fuhud Homs media office means by the militia’s original iteration in 2013). By May 2014, Shadi Jum’a was already identified as leader of a militia contingent in an account of a prominent incident of infighting that took place between pro-regime militias in the city of Homs. In 2015, he established Fuhud Homs in its present iteration of affiliation with prominent regime businessman Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association. Thus the Fuhud Homs media office denies an NDF affiliation in the current formation (contrary to an al-Quds al-Arabi report that mentions Fuhud Homs).

It should further be recalled that the al-Bustan Association officially has other militias under its umbrella, most notably the Dir’ al-Watan Forces led by the Iraqi Shi’i militia commander Hayder al-Jiburi, which partly constitutes a project of providing cover for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar under the supposed framework of the Syrian state in order to counter criticism of Iraqi Shi’i militia intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. On its own media page, Fuhud Homs mentions the al-Bustan Association affiliation in one post:

“And from Fuhud Homs- Special Operations Regiment (al-Bustan Association)- one of the popular defence formations- we pledge to God, the homeland and the leader of the homeland to complete the path of victory behind him, and shoulder to shoulder with our Syrian Arab Army, until victory, rebuilding and returning with Syria more beautiful than what it was under the protection of its leadership.

Soldiers of Assad, Fuhud Homs, Guardians of the Den.”

In its current iteration, Fuhud Homs has advertised operations on two main fronts, though unlike other pro-Assad militias there appears to be a lack of distinct insignia for fighters on the ground. The first main front comprises engagements against IS in the Homs desert, with the ongoing fighting involving the strategic asset of al-Maher gas field. Operations in the Homs desert have also involved securing the Jazal oil field area as well as combat on the Qaryatayn and Palmyra fronts. The other major operations front for Fuhud Homs is participation in the ongoing siege of the rebel-held Damascus suburb town of Darayya, during which Fuhud Homs has claimed more than one ‘martyr’ (fallen fighter). One such ‘martyr’ was Hayder al-Nasir, who was reportedly from Bayt al-Tawil street in the Wadi al-Dhahab neighbourhood of Homs city and was killed in December 2015 by sniper fire as he tried to help a wounded companion. More recently on the Darayya front, Fuhud Homs claimed a ‘martyr’ called Tamam al-Ali, who was reportedly from the Karm al-Zaytoun neighbourhood of Homs city and was killed in late April 2016.

Fuhud Homs also claimed a number of ‘martyrs’ in May 2015 as Palmyra fell to IS. A table below gives their names and reported origins. The majority of these ‘martyrs’ appear to come from predominantly Alawite areas. One should also note that other sources beyond Fuhud Homs giving the names of these ‘martyrs’ do not necessarily agree on group affiliation. For example one of the pages cited attributes some of these ‘martyrs’ to the NDF. This may be a product of overlap in affiliation or simple error. There are also some discrepancies in origins that may be a result of conflation with place of residence.

Name Reported Origin
Ali al-Sheikh Bayt al-Tawil Street
Mohsen Makhlouf Zahara’, Homs [?]
Raghed Sadiq Karam al-Louz, Homs
Muhammad al-Suleiman Ein Hussein, Homs [?]
Salah Ibrahim Al-Mukharram, Homs
Mudhhir al-Hassan Wadi al-Dhahab
Hafez Gharra Ram al-Anz, Homs
Muntajib Sarhan Ram al-Anz, Homs
Samer al-Barudi Warida, Homs [a Christian village]

In short, the case of Fuhud Homs presents an interesting insight into the evolution of the pro-Assad militia networks in the Homs area. The militias will likely compete among each other for influence in the Assad regime rump state as they will probably continue to grow in power, partly because they present a better financial alternative for recruits than the regular Syrian Arab Army, which faces an ongoing crisis with the declining value of the Syrian pound.

 

Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the War in Syria

 By Jesse J. McDonald

The larger and more influential groups fighting in Syria have garnered much media attention for all the obvious reasons.  However, one organization is sparsely mentioned considering it has existed since 1932[1].  This party is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).  Members do not come from one religious background (although often portrayed as a Christian organization).  Members are not technically fighting for the Ba’ath party to indefinitely remain in power.  Members are not involved to protect the interest of powerful foreign governments.  Members also are not participating on the conviction of any divine religious mandate.  So what are individuals in the SSNP fighting for in Syria?  In order to grasp the SSNP’s outlook and motivation to join the Syrian conflict one must take a closer diagnosis of the party’s beginning stages as well as its founder.  A full analysis of the SSNP’s history however is beyond the scope of this article since much is widely known.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to provide a brief background in order for the reader to gain a perspective of the party’s views regarding the Syrian nation and how they fit into the current battle.  The preceding section will shed light on their relationship with the Syrian Ba’ath regime followed by some of the SSNP’s recent military activities in Syria and what this could entail looking to the future.

Founded in 1932 by Antoun Saadeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian from just outside Beirut[2], he felt that a long history of subservience to foreign occupation and intellectual and economic decadence had left a population with no direction, no true self -identity and no belief in self-worth.  The SSNP’s ideology is thoroughly secular (their first reform principle calls for the separation of religion and state) so consequently they are not as concerned with various religious affiliations or ethnicities.  The elimination of social barriers between the various sects and creeds is a basic principle of the SSNP.  Saadeh wrote a letter from prison in 1935 emphasizing this point by saying the SSNP is united in a single faith- “Syria for the Syrians.”[3]  National loyalty should surpass and supersede religious and ethnic loyalties and affiliations.  The party therefore, Saadeh wrote, is not based on the principle of xenophobia but on the principle of social nationalism.  This nationalist ideology is based neither on Islam nor on Arabism.  Hence, minority groups in Syria and Lebanon were immediately attracted to their message.

 

ssnp flag

There are four fundamental pillars to the SSNP’s nation- freedom, duty, organization, and power- which are symbolized by the four pointers on their flag.[4]

Nevertheless, the SSNP found it difficult to gain more power and influence over the years in both Lebanon and Syria.  The death of Antoun Saadeh in 1949 certainly diminished the cogency of the SSNP considering his personality and literary accomplishments created a cult-like following.[5]  This setback is also partially due to its ideological outlook in a region populated predominantly by Arab Muslims and the politicking of nationalism by those ruling in the two abovementioned countries.  Syria in particular has had in the Ba’ath regime not only a competing ideology for the hearts of minorities but also has been more successful at drawing Sunni’s into its orbit.

The SSNP has a long history of opposition to the Ba’ath Party and over the decades has suffered the consequences.  The party was only recently legalized again in 2005 (banned in 1955) under Bashar al-Assad’s “reformation” and integrated into the “National Progressive Front.”  In fact, the leader of the SSNP in Syria- Ali Haidar- is the Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs.[6]  However, tensions came to a boiling point in 1955 when an SSNP member shot and killed Lieutenant Colonel ‘Adnan al-Maliki, a leading Ba’athist and one of the most powerful officers in the Syrian army.  The killing of al-Maliki created a bitter atmosphere between the two parties and witnessed thousands of SSNP members sent to prison.  One SSNP affiliated Facebook page last November honored those party members who suffered in Syrian jails after the killing of al-Maliki claiming they were falsely accused.  Interestingly, this post first pays respect to Hafez al-Assad and reiterates how Bashar has now strengthened their presence.

 

 

ssnp 2

Picture from an SSNP Facebook post praising the Assad’s and honoring those who went to prison after the assassination of al-Maliki. One can clearly notice the pictures of Bashar with SSNP flags

The breaking up of the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Syria and Egypt in 1961 harnessed certain elements of the Syrian Ba’ath regime to focus more on Syria and less on the Arab world.  Those adhering to the latter were pan-Arab nationalists of the old-guard Ba’ath leadership under Michel Aflaq, while those in the former, placing an emphasis on Syria, became known as regionalists (Neo-Ba’ath).  The Assad’s fall into the regionalist camp-an important point when analyzing the close cooperation currently displayed between Bashar’s government and the SSNP.  Such close support is not surprising considering both parties offer a similar set of attractions to roughly the same constituency.  In particular, secularism, which attracts minorities but also appeals to pockets of upper class elites (in this case the Sunni merchant class).

Although the SSNP’s ideology of “Greater Syria” and the Ba’athist outlook on pan-Arabism clashed, the two sides also intimately worked together at times.  Asaad Harden, who is the leader of the SSNP in Lebanon, stated at a conference in 2008 honoring his new leadership position the following, “Our party has found in Damascus the beating heart of the nation…we call on all great Lebanese to realize the truth of the positive role of Syria in preserving Lebanese unity and Arabism.”[7]  In addition, leader of the SSNP in Homs, Nouhad Samaan recently said, “In response to the current high tide of sectarian intolerance, our party decided to cooperate with the (Syrian) government.”[8]  Closer cooperation materialized significantly when both parties softened the tone of their messages.  The SSNP found it useful to ease their criticism of Arabism while the Ba’ath party embraced Syrian nationalism more at the expense of the larger Arab world.  One clear example addressing this originates from an early SSNP pamphlet written by Saadeh stating, “Those who believe that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party seeks Syria’s withdrawal from the Arab world, because they do not distinguish between Syrian national awakening and the pan-Arab cause, are grossly mistaken.  We shall never relinquish our position in the Arab world, nor our mission to the Arab world.”[9]  For now, differences have not gotten in the way of their similarities, even if tentative at times, and this is in large part due to the so-called Islamic State’s advances.  Which brings us to today.

The threats posed by jihadists in Syria strikes at the SSNP’s ideological core.  Any attempts to fracture, divide, or invade the nation will be met with deep hostility from the organization.  Jihadists and their foreign backers are the antithesis of what the SSNP’s vision of an independent Syria represents.  Syrians are suddenly being gathered together by religious affiliations or ethnic groups.  On top of this one can further split depending on which end of the spectrum their religious zeal swings.  Foreigners are beholden to their home countries or wealthy donors.  Ultimately, in the eyes of the SSNP, identity is lost.  In Antoun Saadeh’s first major policy address delivered to members of the SSNP he said, “Every member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party feels that he is being liberated from foreign hegemony and external dominating factors.”[10]  Consequently, the SSNP once again finds itself fighting alongside the Assad government to confront what they view as an existential threat to the unity of Syria and the Syrian people.  For the leaders of the SSNP, the emphasis was on the nation (Syria) and her independence.  Hence their slogan- “survival of the nation.”

The SSNP is no stranger to armed conflicts.  The party was very active during the Lebanese civil war and in addition to fighting the Phalangists on behalf of the Assad government[11], SSNP fighters also engaged Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon with deadly suicide missions.  This may come as a surprise considering many might not associate suicide bombings with secular (in the SSNP’s case also largely Christian) organizations.  However, the SSNP claimed responsibility for eight of the eighteen suicide bombings directed against Israel in southern Lebanon between March and November 1985.[12]  In fact, a young SSNP woman from southern Lebanon is considered to be the first female suicide bomber in the region.  On April 9, 1985, Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”) was 17 years old when she willingly drove her vehicle towards Israeli troops stationed in southern Lebanon.  At least two Israeli soldiers were killed.  Sana’a recorded her own video before the bombing asking, “All young women and my youth to join the ranks of the national resistance because they alone are able to expel the enemy from our land…”  She concluded by saying, “I am going to a greater future, to the unspeakable happiness.”[13]

 

 

sanaa

Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”)

Following the Lebanese civil war the SSNP’s military activities significantly abated.  As a result, the group in both Lebanon and Syria witnessed a bit of a lull in its popularity and relevance.  However, the Syrian civil war has rejuvenated the organization both in terms of its military prowess and in its propaganda encountering fewer restrictions.  More Syrians are exposed to the vast amounts of literature from SSNP websites that otherwise may have been confined had the fighting not escalated.  Seemingly symbolic, the SSNP nevertheless had a handful of fighters participating in battles with the Syrian army and National Defense Forces (NDF) during the nascent stages of the war.  It was not until mid to late 2014 however when the SSNP clearly played more of a direct role.  This is especially noticeable from social media sites paying homage to their martyrs killed in battle.  Steadfast in their rejection of the Free Syrian Army and jihadists groups- SSNP members found themselves more involved along the front lines especially around the time Syria experienced an explosion of foreign fighters.  Aligning with the Ba’athists has proven favorable, even if just for the time being, as SSNP fighters are handsomely supplied with weapons and support.

During the past several years the SSNP has become more of an organized fighting force while simultaneously growing in popularity.  The armed wing of the SSNP is Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) which more or less guarantees security in several towns of Syria after rebels were expelled.  The Assad regime is simply too overstretched and undermanned to govern every city once rebels lose control.  Outsourcing security to other groups with a significant support base has been a tactic used by the regime.  However, such distance may prove costly as those taking advantage, in this case the SSNP, continue to gain power and supporters.

Side by side with the Syrian army, the SSNP has benefited tremendously in the last two years by engaging in more battles against a seasoned enemy.  This particularly holds true in northern Latakia countryside; in the countryside of Homs province near the town of Sadad; as-Suweida province in southwestern Syria close to the Jordanian border; Dara’a province also in southwestern Syria; Damascus countryside (notably in Douma and Ghouta); and around the city of Mahardeh in the countryside of Hama province.  It is reported members are even governing in the old city of Homs.[14]  Such close coordination with the Syrian army also puts them into close contact with Hezballah where the alliance carries into neighboring Lebanon.[15]

 

zawbaa emblem

Nusur al-Zawba’a emblem

Most recently they have been very active in the mountainous regions of northern Latakia.  The Assad regime is seeking to secure victories close to their Alawite strongholds while driving an array of jihadists and Islamists groups further away from their supply arteries.  The following fronts are several locations SSNP fighters are stationed in northern Latakia: Jabal al- Turkman; Jabal al-Akrad; Salma and Ghamam and also Deir Hanna.   This strategic launching area for operations adjoins the Turkish border and provides supply routes for Jabhat al-Nusra, Chechens and Turkmen factions.  Additionally, control of this area blocks future advances into Latakia countryside while opening corridors into Idlib province.

 

deir hanna

Fighters in Deir Hanna- northern Latakia province. Posted on their social media outlets on 11.17.15

Just south of Latakia in northern Hama province lies an active district with a significant SSNP presence.  Sahl al-Ghab is one such area.  Hotly contested, this plain runs alongside the western coastal mountains as well as being in close proximity to the provincial capital of Hama city.  Controlling the al-Ghab plains creates a buffer zone which is paramount to securing the coastal areas while potentially penetrating into Idlib province not far from the city of Jisr al-Shughur.  Near the al-Ghab plains are the towns of Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah- both Syriac Christian towns located in the northern Hama countryside with a heavy contingent of SSNP fighters.  Situated along one of the front lines to push al-Qaeda aligned jihadists and other Islamists groups further north, both towns are teeming with violent actors and intense battles.  The SSNP has been influential keeping Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah in the overall grasp of the Syrian army. Several hundred SSNP fighters (mostly locals) are on the front lines in or around both towns.

 Further south, in the countryside of Homs province sits the town of Sadad, which is also a popular front for SSNP fighters.  Inhabited primarily by Syriacs as well, Sadad has been in the spotlight several times due to attacks by al-Qaeda and their allies in addition to the so-called Islamic State.  Opposition fighters and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front first captured Sadad from October 21-28 in 2013.  Human Rights Watch described at the time how 46 Syriacs were killed, some dumped in a well, and churches vandalized.  Forty-one of the dead were civilians including fourteen women and two children.[16]  The Syrian army eventually was able to push these groups out of Sadad after intense clashes.  Two years later at the end of October/ beginning of November 2015, the so-called Islamic State descended upon Sadad after capturing the nearby town of Muheen.  However, locals with help from the Syrian army, in addition to 500 Syriac Christian fighters, including 200 from the SSNP and 200 more Syriac fighters from the Qamishli-based Sootoro militia were able to block any further advancement.[17]  This act of utilizing Sootoro members on a different front outside their sphere of influence was unprecedented in the Syrian conflict.  Considering fighters were transported to Sadad from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria, via a Russian cargo plane, to defend the town showcased a new level of coordination and cooperation.[18]   

 

sootoro

Fighters with Sootoro in Sadad helping with the defense.  Notice the ‘Gozarto Protection Forces’(GPF) flag on the right which is a combination from another Syriac group- Khabour Guards.  Their flag is similar to the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) based in northern Iraq.

 

 

sootoro to sadad

Sootoro fighters from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria on their way to Sadad

 

ssnp sadad 

More extraordinary was the visit by Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who travelled to Sadad to visit the fighters, attend a funeral, and boost morale as this town is one of the last remaining Syriac towns to hold out against the vast array of rebel and jihadi groups.  Ultimately the SSNP and their allies were successful in beating back the so-called Islamic State.

 

aphrem in sadad

Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, visiting fighters in Sadad.

 

aphrem in sadad 2

 

 

 

ssnp fighter from sadad

Christian SSNP fighter from Sadad killed in the nearby town of Muheen

Despite the fact these two cities mentioned above are almost exclusively inhabited by Syriac Christians does not take away from the actuality that members of all faiths find the SSNP attractive and consequently have died fighting for the organization.  Amidst the battle for Sadad several Muslim SSNP members lost their lives fighting not for a Christian city, but in SSNP methodology, a Syrian city.  Fighters of all faiths have been deployed throughout many regions in Syria (as previously mentioned) despite the religious component of a particular city.  Pictured below are a few Muslim SSNP fighters who lost their lives within the last year including two who were killed alongside Christian fighters in or around the town of Sadad.    

 

mohamed taamer

Mohamed Taamer Raslan killed on 11.2.15 near Muheen and Sadad

 

anas hussein 

Anas Hussein al-Ahmed killed on 11.5.15 near Muheen and Sadad

 

Important to point out here that in the battle which Anas Hussein (pictured above) was killed, another Muslim as well as a Christian fighter were killed as well.  This is a small sample of Muslims and Christians fighting together regardless if a town has a certain religious element.

 

ahmed hajj

Ahmed Hajj Mahmoud killed on 4.20.16 in Latakia countryside

It is no secret minority groups historically have been drawn to the SSNP’s secularism and inclusive culture of not emphasizing ethnicity or religion.  However, more recently its armed wing (Nusur al-Zawba’a) has been portrayed as a means for the Assad government to pull more Christians into the fight on the side of the Syrian army.  It is interesting to note here that when pro-government media outlets report on the various groups fighting alongside the Syrian army the SSNP is always listed separately from the National Defense Forces (NDF).  Christians in Syria have been extremely hesitant to join the Syrian army or NDF and fight in remote areas far from their ancestral roots.  The popularity of the SSNP on the other hand is allowing many people to join a force where they can exclusively protect their land somewhat independently from the decision makers in Damascus.  We will have to wait and see how this plays out.

Ultimately, the SSNP’s ideology is at odds with the pan-Arab Ba’ath regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The question is not about ideological disagreements at the moment, but rather, how long this marriage of convenience will last.  A Facebook post commemorating the SSNP’s 83rd anniversary (occurred on November 16, 2015) states how they are fighting with the Syrian regime in order to defend their civilization, land, cultural identity, and freedom.[19]  In remarks stated by Daniel Pipes over twenty seven years ago, bearing similarities to their current relationship, he determined that the SSNP’s close alliance with the Assad (Hafez) regime will ultimately not be a platform for future growth.   He went on to further say, “The potential danger was clear; by agreeing to work so closely with Syria’s rulers, the party forfeited the strength that made it an important force over the decades- its visionary politics and fierce independence.  Asad’s success in dictating terms restricted the SSNP’s capacity for autonomous action.  If money and arms from Damascus allowed the SSNP to flourish temporarily, absorption by a police state rendered its future bleak.  Alliance with Damascus contained the likely seeds of the SSNP’s demise.”[20]  The outbreak of the Syrian civil war somewhat muddies the comparison to today simply because neither Assad nor the Ba’ath party can exert quite the same pressures.  After all, their number one priority is survival.  Judging by the amount of propaganda pouring out of SSNP portals boasting about their popularity the future appears bright (at least for the short term).  New recruits sickened by the sheer amount of killing in the name of religion have found the SSNP’s inclusiveness comforting.  In addition, a sense of alienation precipitated by the fighting seems to have fostered a new appreciation (especially the younger generation) for the SSNP’s vision of a “Greater Syria.” Interestingly, many fighters who have died in battle only recently joined the party.  The SSNP’s reputation is clearly resonating but for the time being they are still too reliant on and attached to the Ba’ath party.  However, for many this is also a long term project and what seems certain is that the SSNP will experience a level of independence not seen in decades.

*Jesse J. McDonald is an independent researcher with a background in Middle East Studies.  He spent two years in Cairo and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Footnotes

[1] Saadeh and several of his lieutenants were apprehended on November 16, 1935.  The founding of the party took place in the fall of 1932, but without a specific date, the 16th of November was subsequently adopted by the SSNP as its founding day.

[2] Antoun Saadeh was born on March 1, 1904 in the town of Shweir which is a district of Mt. Lebanon.

[3] Antoun Saadeh, “What Motivated me to Establish the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” SSNP.com.   Note: This letter was written by Saadeh during his first imprisonment in 1935.

[4] There were initially two designs put forward to Saadeh- the current one with four points and another one with three points. The idea being that a slogan displaying three points would avoid similarities with the Nazi emblem.  Saadeh chose the one with four denying there was any similarity.  The SSNP emblem shown above is a convergence of a straight line and semicircular meeting together (some argue a cross and a crescent).

[5] On July 7, 1949, Syrian dictator Husni al-Za’im betrayed Saadeh and delivered him to the Lebanese authorities who tried and executed him within 24 hours.

[6] In 2012, the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) designated Ali Haidar to their Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

[7] “Asaad Harden assumes SSNP’s reins,” The Daily Star, June 04, 2008.

[8] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[9] Dr. Haytham A. Kader, “Ideology,” SSNP.com

[10] This speech was given on June 1, 1935

[11] Habib al-Shartuni, the man arrested for killing President-Elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon in September 1982, was a member of the SSNP.

[12] Daniel Pipes, “Radical Politics and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, August 1988.

[13] Latakia SSNP Facebook post on November 22, 2015.

[14] [14] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[15] The two parties are in the March 8 Alliance (SSNP has two seats out of 128 in the Lebanese parliament).

[16] “Syria: Opposition Abuses During Ground Offensive,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2013.

[17] Jack Moore, “Hundreds of Christian Fighters Scramble to Defend Syrian Town as ISIS Advance,” Newsweek, November 10, 2015.

[18] The Sootoro is a Christian self-defense group located primarily in the north eastern Syrian city of Qamishli.  Sootoro members fight on the side of the Syrian army and is not to be confused with the Hasaka based Sutoro which is the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party (SUP).  Sutoro’s more military wing is the Syriac Military Council (MFS) and fights alongside the Kurdish YPG.

[19] SSNP FanPage Facebook post on November 16, 2015.

[20] Daniel Pipes, “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, (Page 129).

 

Liwa al-Jalil: A New Pro-Assad Palestinian Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaJalilemblem
Emblem of Liwa al-Jalil, which features in the centre the name of the militia’s political wing: “National Resistance Action Movement.”

In the branding of pro-Assad Palestinian militias, it is hardly surprising that there should be references to locations within the land of Palestine. Liwa al-Quds (The Jerusalem Brigade), a Palestinian militia operating in Aleppo, is one example of this phenomenon. Another example is the Quwat al-Jalil (The Galilee Forces), previously profiled at this site. The Galilee reference is of particular importance on account of its proximity to Syria and border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The more recent emergence of Liwa al-Jalil (The Galilee Brigade), which claims to be distinct from Quwat al-Jalil and traces its founding to 29 May 2015, fits into this trend.

Typical of the discourse of pro-Assad Palestinian militias, Liwa al-Jalil, which explicitly describes itself as a “secular, leftist movement,” focuses on the language of muqawama (resistance), Arab nationalism, the primacy of the Palestinian cause and the crucial role of Syria in the resistance axis. Thus, from the group’s official page explaining its formation:

“In view of the circumstances that our Arab Ummah in general and our Palestinian cause in particular are going through, and the danger that is threatening every country of resistance in this region, a fabric of our Palestinian and Syrian youth decided to form an entity of resistance that will be supporting those countries in the face of tyranny and hegemony that have not ceased since the occupation of Palestine until now. And the ideology of this entity depends on being the movement in the vanguard of the youth of resistance that wages war for the sake of liberation and independence whatever the circumstances and capabilities. And indeed our success in supporting this cause in Palestine or the countries of resistance that support Palestine is success in breaking the collar of servitude for every human being just as this fabric of the youth of resistance has strived and strives for.

The movement arises on the basis of considering the Palestinian cause as the base cause since it is the first cause of humanity in its struggle with occupation and hegemony for the sake of liberation, therefore from a foundation of humanity and nationalism we take up our role in this conflict ideologically, politically and militarily to realize victory.

The National Resistance Action Movement has been established in the midst of this ongoing conflict between the ideology of the resistance and the other side whose existence depends on waging war against this ideology. We will strive to rout and exterminate it under any cover because the liberation of peoples cannot come with the destruction of their lands and erasure of their identity of resistance. Therefore in our political plan we are intent on uniting ranks among all the Palestinian factions that support the ideology of resistance in word and deed, as well as preserving our Palestinian cause as the central cause, and that our sacrifices should be in the path of liberating the entirety of the Palestinian national soil through relying on the principle of resistance, not bartering with the enemy and its retinue.

Our work on the land of the Syrian Arab Republic is to support the resistance axis and to keep safe at a distance the Palestinian camps that are present in the diaspora and are the most important components of the steadfastness of our Palestinian people and a focal point to support the victory of the cause: thus they should not be transformed and made a part of the internal conflicts for these lands to be rendered into an environment nursing ideas, deeds and plans against the countries that have supported and continue to support Palestine and the liberation of the Palestinian man. And they should not be transformed into a thorn in the side for these countries, for the deeds that are brought to bear on the name of the people of resistance not only aim to destroy the components of its steadfastness but also for deeds of greater ugliness and defaming this cause and the supporters of this cause, because the Zionist hands and their illegitimate entity are clear in these deeds, including the revival of the Antoine Lahad project in the southern region of the Syrian Arab Republic, whose plans and conspiracies we will undertake to thwart side by side with the Syrian Arab Army, and we will cut the hands of this entity from the source. Indeed our conflict is an existential conflict with Zionist thought, global hegemony and oppression of peoples.”

Note that the ‘Antoine Lahad project’ reference concerns the South Lebanon Army militia that worked with Israel during its occupation of parts of Lebanon. Liwa al-Jalil is thus portraying the rebel forces particularly in the south of Syria as allies and proxies of Israel.

Similar sentiments to the aforementioned post are expressed in the charter issued by Liwa al-Jalil: e.g. article (1) affirms that “Palestine is a part of the Arab homeland and the Palestinian people is a part of the Arab Ummah. And its struggle is their struggle.” In a similar vein, article (3): “Revolutionary resistance is the only means to liberate Palestine: all of Palestine.” Likewise, article (9): “The liberation of Palestine is all of Palestine and destroying the Zionist entity in all its pillars.” As far as organization structure goes, the charter claims a leadership structure operating on democratic principles: “Democracy is the means used to discuss and adopt decisions in the council of the secretariat of the movement.” The overall leader of the group goes by the name of Abu Jihad, while the security official is one Ahmad al-Masri (see here).

On the military scale, the activities of Liwa al-Jalil appear to be very limited, and the group’s openly advertised output is primarily related to the issuing of political statements and commemorations of various occasions. Examples of the latter type of activity include emphasizing the necessity of recapturing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as the path to liberating Palestine, congratulating the Syrian army and Assad on the recapture of Palmyra, commemorating Mother’s Day, rejecting Gulf states’ designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (thus claiming attendance at a Palestinian festival on the peripheries of the Yarmouk refugee camp in solidarity with Hezbollah), and commemorating the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The group has most notably claimed military operations in defending the important al-Salam Highway, which connects Damascus and Quneitra, particularly focusing on the Khan al-Shih area in southern Damascus lying along this route (see map here for geographical orientation). In this context, it should be noted that Khan al-Shih is the site of a Palestinian refugee camp. Within the Quneitra area, Liwa al-Jalil has also claimed operations in Kurum Jaba. All of these reports are in keeping with the group’s description of itself as operating in southern Syria.

On 13 December 2015, Liwa al-Jalil declared a ‘martyr’ in one Muhammad Suleiman Harura, who was claimed to have been killed fighting in the Zabadani area. This ‘martyr’ is of particular interest as he had his own Facebook account, in which he had a number of public posts. Some of the posts interestingly suggest an affinity with Shi’i Islam and Hezbollah. His posts also suggest he was particularly young, unlikely to have been much older than a teenager at the time of his death.

 

SuleimanHaruraYaZainab
[Muhammad] Suleiman Harura posing with a Hezbollah flag including the slogan “Labbayk ya Zainab!” (“At your service, oh Zainab”), a common Shi’i jihadi slogan in reference to fighting in Syria.

SuleimanHaruraarmpatches
Notice the “Labbayk ya Zainab!” armpatch. His post reads: “God deliver Syria and the people of Syria, we offer our souls in sacrifice for Syria and the great people of Syria, and I swear by God Almighty that I will not abandon mother Syria: My regards to his excellency the President Bashar Hafez al-Assad.”

SuleimanHaruraYaHussein
A post by Suleiman Harura featuring the Shi’i slogan “Ya Hussein!”

SuleimanHaruralookout

SuleimanHarurarifle

SuleimanHaruraLiwaJalil
“If you are the dhabiha, we have come as the shabiha, members of Kata’ib al-Ghadab (Liwa al-Jalil).”

SuleimanHaruraLiwaJalil2

SuleimanHarurashawerma

On the whole, Liwa al-Jalil is a very minor militia actor. Ideologically, the creation of multiple pro-Assad Palestinian militias, however insignificant they may be as military players, is useful for the regime narrative of being the upholder of the Palestinian cause and Arab nationalism (cf. the Arab Nationalist Guard, another pro-Assad militia) and the wider ‘resistance’ bloc narrative of opposition to imperialism and colonialism. The existence of these groups may serve to give an inflated impression of Palestinian support within Syria for the regime.

Remembering Dr. Hassan al-Araj

Dr HasanRemembering Dr. Hassan al-Araj
by Cindy Coffman
For Syria Comment May 4, 2016

First, I will introduce myself and then I would like to tell you about a dear friend and colleague, who was recently killed in Syria, Dr. Hassan Mohammed al-Araj of Hama.

I have been in the humanitarian field since 2010 and have worked in Africa and the Middle East, including assignments in Jordan and Iraq. Most recently I worked in Gaziantep, Turkey as Program Manager, responsible for the cross border program inside Syria. I spent 16 months in Gaziantep and it was during this time that I had the great honor to meet Dr. Hassan and work closely with him supporting health facilities in Hama province and elsewhere.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.15.48 AMI am writing to you today as Dr. Hassan was killed two weeks ago in Hama province by a Russian airstrike as he traveled between two hospitals, the “cave” and Kafr Zeta. The cave hospital has literally been carved into a mountain in an attempt to protect it from Assad regime and Russian airstrikes. I am not sure whether you have written about the relentless airstrikes destroying health facilities in Syria, killing medical staff and civilians but it is an on-going tragedy and disaster with no apparent end in sight. Dr. Hassan was the last cardiologist in Hama province. In addition to performing lifesaving surgeries, speaking out against the targeting and destruction of hospitals in Syria, he was also the head of the Hama Health Directorate and worked closely with Syrian American Medical Association (SAMS).

Dr. Hassan was greatly admired and respected, his tragic death has left a huge gap in Syria.

Since Dr. Hasan was killed, the airstrikes have continued relentlessly, attacking health facilities, civil defense centers, bakeries and other civilian areas. Just a few days ago, a hospital in Aleppo, Al Quds, was destroyed in either a Syrian regime or Russian airstrike.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 7.54.31 AMIn addition to killing children, they killed the last Pediatrician, Dr Wassim, in opposition held Aleppo. This hospital was supported by several humanitarian organizations and was part of the program that I was responsible for until I left Gaziantep in November 2015. Dr. Wassim now joins Dr. Hassan on the long list of courageous medical workers and other innocent civilians, killed in airstrikes in Syria.

My Syrian colleagues and friends are feeling a growing sense of despair and desperation as more and more health facilities are destroyed and little is being done to stop these senseless and brutal attacks on civilians.

Please let me know if you would be interested in helping keep the memory of Dr. Hassan alive and so many other brave heroes by telling their story. Every time I talk to friends and family about the ongoing attacks on health facilities and medical staff, they ask me why so few people are telling this story. I don’t know the answer.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you about the brave people that I have had the great honor to work with.

“A good man is gone” was written by my brother Chris and posted. Here is a link from the US Embassy in Damascus.

I have also attached two pictures of Dr. Hassan. One of the pictures is from December 2015, when Dr. Hassan attended a meeting in Geneva calling for the protection of hospitals and medical workers in Syria. The last two pictures are from the airstrike that killed Dr. Hassan as he drove to Kafr Zeta hospital from the cave hospital. A member of my team spoke to him by telephone ten minutes before he was killed.

Doctors

Best regards,

Cindy Coffman

  • Cynthia Coffman has worked in the humanitarian field since 2010 starting with the earthquake in Haiti. She has worked in Africa, the Middle East and most recently in Gaziantep, Turkey, where she was responsible for a health program supporting medical facilities inside Syria.

p.s. [by Joshua Landis]

Dr. Hassan’s death adds to the 730 medical personnel killed in Syria that have been documented by Physicians for Human Rights since March 2011. Between the beginning of hostilities and December of 2015, some 246 facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the Syrian conflict. Estimates for the first quarter of 2016 are of 13 additional attacks on health facilities. In 11 of the world’s war zones, between 2011 and 2014, the International Committee of the Red Cross tallied nearly 2,400 acts of violence against those who were trying to provide health care. That works out to two attacks a day.

The effort by the international community to stop attacks on Health workers is the subject of Somini Sengupta’s article, “U.N. Security Council Condemns Attacks on Health Workers in War Zones,” in todays’ New York Times. She explains that “in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, a fourth of all health care facilities were destroyed or shuttered in one year of war, according to the United Nations.” Unfortunately, “the new UN resolution drafted by Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and Uruguay, avoids a direct reference to possible prosecutions by the International Criminal Court, a delicate topic for some countries.” To understand the politics that make UN efforts to condemn the targeting of health officials in places like Syria difficult, also read Colum Lynch, “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Push to Silence Criticism of Its Brutal War in Yemen.” Also see Colum Lynch and John Hudson, “MSF Blasts U.S., Russia, Syria, and Saudi for Hospital Strikes:” After another attack on one of its hospitals, Medecins Sans Frontieres takes to the United Nations to settle scores.

“The Lens of History and Assad,” by David W. Lesch & Carey Latimore

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.17.49 PMThe Lens of History and Assad
by David W. Lesch and Carey Latimore
For Syria Comment, 28 April 2016

Abraham Lincoln and Bashar al-Assad. Yes, we know. These two names should probably never appear in the same sentence. One is a revered American icon and the other is a brutal Syrian dictator who plunged his country into a devastating civil war.

Let’s be clear. We are in no way, shape, or form equating a giant historical figure such as Lincoln with Bashar al-Assad. But history is a funny thing. It is alive and malleable depending upon perspective, context, and circumstances. Contemporary commentaries of Lincoln in both the North and South often described him as a dictator or, ironically, a racist, the latter due to the fact that before he decided it was prudent to free the slaves, he reflected the tenor of his time by advocating—among other things—the removal of African Americans from the US and shipping them off to some remote land. After all, John Wilkes Booth, when he jumped on stage after shooting Lincoln, shouted out, “sic semper tyrannis,” which is a shortened form of a Latin phrase that essentially means “death to tyrants.”

We have now lived and worked in a southern state for years, and it is still sometimes difficult to find native southerners who can muster up a few kind words about our 16th president. Potent symbols from the civil war, such as the Confederate flag, are still divisive issues some 150 years later. The war that many feel Lincoln waged killed over 700,000 soldiers and civilians. A number of cities in the South, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Atlanta, bombed by both sides and looted, were pretty much completely destroyed.

But perspectives changed with the passage of time. Since the Civil War, Lincoln, for the most part, has been mythologized and is regarded as our greatest president, having preserved the union and played the primary role in eradicating slavery. The United States became a prosperous and powerful country. What Lincoln did mattered because of this. Had the country, following Lincoln’s death, essentially flat-lined, never coming close to reaching its potential or eventually breaking apart, his actions—and his standing—would no doubt be viewed today through a quite different lens.

Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, is someone who most believe should be dragged off in chains to the International Criminal Court for numerous war crimes. He has made terrible, tragic choices. Most importantly wScreen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.21.11 PMas his decision—and he did have a choice–in the initial stages of the uprising in Syria in 2011 to revert to the dictator’s survival handbook and sanction a harsh crackdown on the protestors instead of implementing necessary reforms, pushing an uprising into a destructive civil war now five years hence with some 300,000 dead and half the country’s population internally or externally displaced.

But with enhanced Russian and Iranian military support, the Syrian regime has experienced quite a bit of military success of late, to the point where some believe it is on the precipice of something resembling victory. At the very least, the Syrian regime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So whether we like it or not, it appears Assad will survive and continue as president. As a result of this turn of events, Assad might actually get a second chance. What will he do with it? How can the best be made out of this bad situation?

Despite an enraged and battered South, over a month before he was assassinated (and before Appomattox), Lincoln set a remarkable tone of reconciliation in his 2nd inaugural address, highlighted by the memorable phrase, “…with malice toward none, with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Even with the clumsiness of Reconstruction that most historians believe Lincoln would have handled much better had he lived, the country, despite its long and tortured racial climate, eventually recovered and entered a long healing process.

The apparent differences between someone like Lincoln and someone like Assad—or their comparative situations–are too numerous to mention. Most importantly, Lincoln was a brilliant politician and strategist who astutely knew when he needed to shift 180 degrees for the good of the country; Assad has not shown anything close to this type of foresight, flexibility, or courageous leadership. So if there is to be a political settlement at some point with Assad remaining in power, can he, with appropriate self-awareness, re-set his country in a positive direction? Despite what will certainly be long-lasting animus against him, he may have an opportunity to re-caste (or re-invent) his legacy, but through a healing rather than vengeful process. Realism, not triumphalism. Countries coming out of national traumas need leaders. If you end up on the right side in a way that creates a foundation for national prosperity, historical narratives can be very forgiving. Can he begin to restore the dignity of a nation and a people? Is he finally willing to change the nature of governance in Syria and launch a period of transition and reconciliation? Can he face the reality of a Syrian population that has largely moved on from him and his cronies? The answer is most likely a resounding “No.” So how bout it, Mr. Assad? Prove us wrong. Malice toward none and charity for all.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad; Carey Latimore is Chair of the History Department at Trinity and author of The Role of Southern Free Blacks During the Civil War Era.

“President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account,” by Ehsani

President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account
by Ehsani
For Syria Comment – 19 April 2016

During a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations, three prominent western Syria analysts met to discuss “the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies” of President Bashar al-Assad. The moderator started by asking the participants to analyze the President through covering his first speech to the nation on March 30, 2011. One member on the panel, David Lesch, recounted how a confidant of the President who claimed to have seen one draft about an hour before the speech that included concessions and announcements of reforms.  When the President spoke to the Parliament, however, this person was shocked to see that the President read from a different and more hardline version. The implication here is that had the President stuck to the more dovish draft, the Syrian crisis may have turned out differently or even been averted. The conclusion analysts draw from this account is that the President’s decision to embrace regime hawks and reject reforms and use force marked a seminal or “fateful moment” in the crisis.

The only problem with this account is that it is inaccurate. Multiple drafts of the speech did not exist. The Syrian leadership is not in the habit of providing multiple drafts of Presidential speeches. The President did indeed confer with his advisors before addressing the nation, but his final choice was to embrace the advice of regime doves and not regime hawks. If he had followed the advice of his hawks, he would not have given a speech at all.

The President’s more hawkish advisors insisted that any attempt to offer reforms or concessions would be dismissed as too little, too late. Demonstrators would only be encouraged and set the country on the slippery slope to chaos. Hawks viewed the crisis as a matter of life and death for the leadership and the regime. They reminded the president that numerous terrorist and jihadi cells had been penetrated and closed down over the previous years. Any collapse in state security would lead to the quick mobilization of jihadists who were lying in wait for an opportunity to mobilize. Westernized liberals were few and would be quickly swept aside, they insisted. The hawks warned against giving a speech.

Instead of speaking to the nation, this group argued that any hesitation on the part of the President or protracted discussion of reforms would fall short of popular demands, which were unrealizable and becoming more extreme by the day. Instead, the regime hard liners pressed the President to send tanks into the streets. The state must show no mercy, they insisted. It must adopt a shoot to kill policy to avoid any sign of hesitancy. Otherwise, all would be lost. Gentleness would only encourage demonstrators to come out in ever greater numbers. This was the advice of the hard liners; the President did not follow it.

The less hawkish advisors pleaded with the President to speak to the nation. They wanted him to hint at the possibility of rescinding the emergency laws and article 8 of the constitution, the article that establishes the Baath Party as the ruling party. They argued that these concessions would show that the leadership understood the gravity of the situation. By meeting the demonstrators’ demands part way and establish the good will of the president, some of his advisors insisted, the demonstrators would be mollified. They would stop coming out at the call of the organizers. Those demanding regime-change would be isolated and soon defeated.

As the President considered the advice of his contending advisors, the leaders of Qatar were becoming increasingly emboldened. They were playing a leading role in the Libya uprising. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square was also key to events unfolding in Egypt. The Emir was convinced that Qatar could play a decisive role in shaping Syria’s revolt too. As early as March 6, 2011, Al Jazeera TV reported that Assad was sending pilots to Libya. The evidence is that one had been shot down fighting in support of Gaddafi. The constant repetition of this news sent shock waves through the Syrian populace. Turkey too, got into the act. As the events in Daraa unfolded, Erdogan reached out to Damascus with a suggestion for solving the crisis. He counseled Assad to include the Moslem Brothers in the political process. The Emir of Qatar jumped in behind Erdogan with a promise that Al Jazeera would temper its media coverage of the events in Syria if Damascus embraced the Turkish recommendations. Assad’s rejection of this advice was swift and predictable. He and his advisers interpreted the Qatari and Turkish involvement to be part of a developing plan to sweep away the regimes of the Arab World. He called it a “foreign conspiracy” in his speech. Just minutes after he descended from the podium, the most popular social media site at the time, a Facebook page curated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote “Is this the speech we were promised? I swear to God, it’s scandalous that somebody like this rules us. To the streets shabab [youth] of Syria!”

In the end, Assad’s speech was a classic case of expectations running ahead of reality. The fact that it was made at all should have been interpreted that the President did not side with Syria’s hawks. Ironically, what happened instead was that as soon as the speech was over, President al-Assad was forever seen as the ultimate hawk himself.

“Assad’s Fateful Choice” by David W. Lesch

Assad’s Fateful Choice
by David W. Lesch

This spring marks the fifth year anniversary of the events that launched a civil war in Syria.  Typically, there were some huge miscalculations early on that set the conflict in motion, such as the Syrian opposition’s expectation that the West would militarily intervene to facilitate the overthrow of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  And then there was the West’s mistaken assumption that Assad would be the next domino to fall following the exits of dictators elsewhere in the Arab spring. Expecting this led to calls for Assad to step down, thus backing the West into a corner regarding a negotiated settlement once it became clear the Syrian president wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon.  From the regime’s perspective, it made war the only choice.

But it is important to remember that the first—and biggest—mistake occurred at the onset, when Assad made the decision to crackdown harshly on the popular protests rather than offer real concessions. Indicative of this was Assad’s speech to the nation on March 30, 2011, his first to address the rising tensions. This was a seminal moment in modern Syrian history.  The whole country, supporters and opponents, waited with bated breath to hear what he had to say.  Syrians believed this would be the moment when Assad would finally live up to expectations.

From interviews I have conducted with current and former Syrian officials close to Assad and involved in the speech preparation, there were pronounced differences and confusion within the regime inner circle over how to react to the crisis.  Several indicated that talk of internal coup was in the air…and not just potentially against Assad should he make the wrong move.  One recommended that Assad himself should carry out a coup against hard line elements.  Assad’s response was simply, “you are naïve.”  Another former top official blatantly accused Baath party members of being in cahoots with security forces to use the crisis as an opportunity to force out the more reformist elements in the regime.  Clearly there was intrigue at the top during this critical period, and Assad had to navigate his position—and response—very carefully.

As a result, there were different versions of the speech.  One confidante of Assad saw a draft only a couple of hours before the speech was delivered. What he saw was relatively mild, concessionary and pro-reform.  He believed this was what Assad was going to deliver.  He was later shocked when he heard the much harsher version of the speech. Syrian government officials reportedly even sent snippets of the speech to reporters in the West that reflected a more pro-reform platform.

As we know, Assad’s speech was defiant, framing the crisis by blaming the uprising on insidious terrorists supported by Syria’s external enemies.  Asad was taken to task in the international media for what was viewed as a blatant misdirection from the real socio-economic and political factors behind the protests.  Either this or Assad was numb to the real causes of the uprising, blinded by a conceptual paradigm that defined the nature of threat to Syria in a profoundly different way. The speech proved to many Syrians that he was just another dictator. A top pro-Assad Hizbullah figure told me: “Bashar had real popularity in Syria. If he had taken the proper measures…it would have made things better. He had to take the decision to confront some clans inside the leadership…and I think he could have. This would have divided the ranks of the opposition, and he would have had a larger popular base.”

This is perhaps the saddest part of the story.  Instead of resorting to the dictator’s survival handbook and succumbing to the convulsive reaction of the security state, Assad could have avoided civil war. As one former top Syrian official said of Bashar: “He was tilting on both sides. At some point they [the security chiefs] must have told him to just move aside, relax, and we’ll deal with it.”  They figured the protests could be put down in a matter of weeks and then return to the status quo ante. Reality was much more nuanced.

As a result of amped-up Russian support, and as the re-taking of Palmyra from the Islamic State has shown, Assad has now secured his position for the time being. The popular protests that sprang to life recently during the cessation of hostilities, however, suggest that the opposition to Assad has not dissipated despite a half-decade of war. Indeed, the regime grossly underestimates how much the Syrian population has moved on, empowered by living five years without the state.  If the regime wants to start a long healing process, Assad will have to find the courage he lacked in 2011 by accepting a managed transition of governance, which at the very least will significantly reduce his power. To do so he will have to fight against his authoritarian instincts—and possibly against hard liners. If past is prologue, this is wishful thinking.

But with Russia’s announcement to withdraw some of its forces from Syria, Assad has been put on notice. He is on the diplomatic hot seat, and he must choose how he gets off of it. He can continue to fight armed with the delusion that he can re-conquer all of Syria.  Or maybe those officials who are still in the government who wanted him to deliver a softer version of his 2011 speech, chastened by the reality of what Syria has become, can form a critical mass of pressure on Assad to make the right choice this time around.  They reflect that part of the regime—and Assad—who may be looking for a way out of this, satisfying their Russian patron while holding on to enough power. The West failed to understand the various competing factions inside the Assad regime back in 2011.  Let’s not make that mistake again moving forward with whatever peace process emerges, because I am convinced that given the current state of affairs—and a with a great deal of diplomatic massaging—there is a formula of governance out there to be found and negotiated.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of “Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.” 

Call for Submissions: Syrian Studies Association Prizes for Outstanding Dissertation and Article on Syria

Call for Submissions: Syrian Studies Association Prizes for Outstanding Dissertation and Article on Syria

In order to promote and highlight excellence in research, the Syrian Studies Association each year awards prizes for the best writing on Bilad al-Sham until 1918 and on Syria in the period following.

In 2016, the SSA seeks submissions for the most outstanding dissertation completed between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2016, and the most outstanding article or book chapter published between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016.

In order to be considered for the prize, candidates must join the association. Information about the Syrian Studies Association is available at the following website: http://www.ou.edu/ssa/index.html

Submissions in languages other than English are welcomed.

Articles should be sent electronically. Books can be sent either electronically or in hard copy.

The deadline for submissions is July 15, 2016. All submissions should be sent to Charles Wilkins, Chair of the Prize Committee, at the following address: charleslwilkins@gmail.com. Winners will be announced at the SSA annual meeting in November 2016. Inquiries should be directed to Charles Wilkins.

Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya: Defending Druze Identity in Suwayda’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

DefendDruzeIdentityLogo
Emblem of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya, using the familiar colours associated with the Druze sect.

Although the Druze originate from a sect within Shi’i Islam, the religious movement evolved over time such that the Druze identity is deemed separate from that of the Shi’a. The same has been true of the Alawites, though as is well known, a number of efforts have been made in the recent past to bring the Alawites into the fold of mainstream Shi’i Islam, such as Musa Sadr’s fatwa in 1974 that recognized the Alawites as Shi’a- a trend of identification strengthened by the post-1979 alliance between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Assad dynasty. More recently, extensive Iranian and pro-Iranian Shi’a militia involvement on the ground in the Syrian civil war has given rise to claims of further Shi’ification trends targeting the Alawite community in particular, such as the opening of husseiniyas (Shi’i centres) in the Damascus and Latakia areas.

Less well known is that allegations of Shi’ification efforts also exist with respect to the Druze community in Syria. It seems that primarily in response to these developments has come the emergence of the Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya (“The Arab Druze Identity Movement”), also known as the Harakat al-Difa’ ‘an al-Hawiya al-Druziya (“The Movement to Defend Druze Identity”), which first appears to have come on the scene in late 2015 (c. October 2015). Ethnically speaking, the ‘Arab’ aspect has long been a strong component of Druze identity.

Unsurprisingly, given the context in which this movement has emerged, it is highly critical of the regime and those associated with it. However, it is also consistent in its opposition to attempts to alter Druze identity (real and perceived), and so has also drawn attention (approvingly quoting independent Druze opposition activist-in-exile Maher Sharf al-Din) to the treatment of the Druze in Jabal al-Summaq in Idlib at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra, which has not only implemented forced conversions to Sunni Islam but has also confiscated property of those from the area who fled to/live in regime-held areas and are thought to work with the regime, while altering the demographics with an influx of Turkmen people. This contrasts with the reluctance of anti-regime Druze in Lebanon associated with Walid Jumblatt to admit these realities, playing up instead the false idea that some kind of agreement to protect the Druze was reached with Jabhat al-Nusra (a falsehood recently repeated by Fabrice Balanche).

In addition, in late December 2015, Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya criticized an alleged Christian missionary campaign targeting the Druze in Suwayda’:

“We have avoided until now- out of respect for our Christian people in the Jabal [Jabal al-Druze/Arab: Suwayda’ province]- talking about the financed and provocative missionary campaign that some of the churches in Suwayda’ are undertaking, exploiting the abundant wealth that has been poured out on them because of the crisis on one hand, and the chronic state of need for aid that many of the families are suffering from on the other…but what the St. George Greek Orthodox church (Suwayda’- Tariq Qanawat) is doing infringes on all ethics of shared co-existence and mutual respect between the Druze of the Jabal and its Christians! For this church and others besides it from the churches in Suwayda’ have begun imposing as a condition on the families benefiting from their aid that the children of those families must attend Gospel missionary lessons! And the families that refuse to send their children are barred from the aid! To this degree we have been shown disdain and considered goods for division between one front wanting to ‘Shi’ify’ us, takfiri movements wanting to ‘Sunnify us’, and churches whose clergymen- though not daring to raise their heads in the rest of the Syrian provinces- nonetheless in Suwayda’ infringe on our identity in this public manner in the heart of our abode!”

However, as mentioned above, the movement’s concerns at the present time primarily focus on the Shi’ification efforts. A central personality that surrounds this controversy is that of Hezbollah commander Samir Quntar, who was of Lebanese Druze origin and was killed in an Israeli airstrike in the Jaramana area of Damascus in late December 2015, alongside Farhan Sha’alan, a National Defence Force commander in Jaramana originally from the Druze village of Ein Qiniyya in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Sha’alan’s Druze identity is not in dispute.

photo (26)
The village of Ein Qiniyya (author’s photo).

EinQiniyyaFarhanShalan
Procession in Ein Qiniyya following the Israeli airstrike in Jaramana: note the focus is primarily on commemorating Farhan Sha’alan rather than Quntar.

In contrast, Quntar is known to have married a Shi’i woman- something forbidden among the Druze as it constitutes marriage outside of the sect and is therefore subject to ostracism. Further, Quntar is alleged to have converted to Shi’i Islam. During his time in Syria, Quntar seems to have been used in Hezbollah outreach to the Druze populations, as embodied, for instance, in his visiting the staunchly pro-regime Quneitra Druze village of Hadr (opposite Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights) multiple times. Extensive tribute was paid to Quntar and the ‘resistance’ cause associated with him by Hikmat al-Hijri, one of the three mashayakh al-‘aql of Suwayda’. The mashayakh al-‘aql, it should be noted, are all co-opted by the regime. The commemoration of Quntar by them and other pro-regime Druze was criticized by Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya:

“The insistence of the regime (and its tools from the mashayakh [al]-‘aql and others besides them) on establishing religious and popular mourning for the Shi’i convert Samir Quntar in Suwayda’…comes in the context of conditioning the Druze to the idea of accepting a portion of them converting to Shi’i Islam without being ostracised in society!”

The movement attacked Quntar for recruiting Syrian Druze to Hezbollah (who were also allegedly subjected to Shi’ification): “On the neck of the ‘Shi’i convert’ Samir Quntar is the blood of dozens of Druze youth he recruited in the Hezbollah militia and were killed outside their areas.”

A somewhat similar position of non-acknowledgement of/disdain for Quntar appears to have been taken by the third-way reformist Rijal al-Karama [and its ‘religious/political wing’ Mashaykh al-Karama] founded by the assassinated Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous. As one member of Rijal al-Karama from Suwayda’ put it to this author, “Yes. Samir was Shi’i and he married a Shi’i woman. Everyone in Suwayda’ who has karama does not acknowledge him.”

Besides the eulogies for Quntar, the movement highlights the existence of a Shi’ification office in Suwayda’ city: “The centre for conversion to Shi’i Islam in Suwayda’ city: the name of the office is the Liwa Zain al-Abidain, whose base is on the Tariq Qanawat. And this centre has managed to convert dozens of the Druze to Shi’i Islam. We have come to know two of them from the house of Abu Maghdhab and four from the house of al-Mahithawi. And the names of the rest will be realized soon so that they may understand that betrayal is not a point of view!”

The existence of Shi’ification offices, as in the case of the Alawites, is unsurprisingly tied to Iran. As the Rijal al-Karama member said to this author, “There are recruitment offices for the interest of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Suwayda’ that are calling for conversion to Shi’i Islam.” In this context, Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya also refers to a perceived threat from Iranian expansionism to Druze identity: “In the recent years the Iranian project to infringe on the identity of Jabal al-Druze has emerged as one of the most dangerous projects that we face because it wants to adopt through strategy what the rest of the projects were incapable of taking up by force. And in the future we don’t know what project of which state we will face, but so long as we are weak and lack the political project it will be suggested to all states that have projects that it will be easy to subject us to affliction!” Relevant to this narrative is the claim by Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya that Iran is trying to alter the demographics of Suwayda’ through an influx of Shi’a from the Hawran area in southern Syria, using Christian and Druze real estate agents to sell property and land for the interests of Iran.

Politically, where does the Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya stand? To begin with, the group denies that its agenda is particularly religious, but rather that it is aiming to defend the Druze identity as a cultural and civil identity. The group also denies an affiliation with the Rijal al-Karama movement, but it does appear that an associate of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya is Sheikh Marwan Kiwan of Bayraq Al Kiwan, one of the Rijal al-Karama factions. Indeed, from the beginning he has been approvingly quoted by the group, affirming that “the Khomeinists (replacing the Wahhabis) are the first danger threatening our existential identity, not only culturally speaking…”. There is a clear sense of solidarity with Rijal al-Karama elsewhere in the group’s posts: for instance, in an attack on a Druze sheikh called Aymenn Zahr al-Din (Abu Khaz’ali), Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya accuses him of promoting Shi’i Islam through providing accommodation to Shi’i proselytizers and taking financial support from Iran, while “establishing a military militia whose sole mission is to stand against the Youth and Mashayakh al-Karama movement!”

As for the vision for a future Syria, the movement- like most actors in the Syrian civil war on the rebel and regime sides- rejects the notion of partitioning Syria, but suggests that a federal model of governance might be appropriate. In terms of its activities, the evidence would suggest that while the movement is present on the ground in Suwayda’ (something corroborated by the Rijal al-Karama member), it is still in a nascent stage and not able to mobilize in order to organize demonstrations or form a militia wing. Accordingly, the group’s significance as a political actor should not be overstated, but its existence does highlight some real Syrian Druze concerns of Iranian-led attempts to Shi’ify their identity- a trend worth monitoring for the future as a potential popular grievance alongside conscription avoidance and concerns regarding corruption and services provision for more third-way Druze actors to exploit.

————————–

Update (7 March 2016): a member of the Rijal al-Karama-affiliated militia Bayraq al-Fakhr says the following with regards to Shi’ification:

“It is possible that there is a pull towards conversion to Shi’i Islam but it is not in open form. Through a number of means: in recent times there has been the spread of Shi’i songs and nasheeds in [one] way. There has been the purchase of lands of the province and it has come to us that that it is for people outside Suwayda’ affiliated with Iran. There was an attempt some time ago to build a husseiniya. The recruitment of a number of youth of the province in Shi’i militias like Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, frequent visits by Shi’i religious men to Suwayda’. These are clear matters and God knows what is hidden. But my information about this situation is weak.”

As for Samir Quntar, he adds the following:

“From the nationalist perspective, Quntar resisted Israel in the past and was held as a prisoner in its prisons. But in the ongoing war in Syria, he joined with the Shi’a against the Sunnis and perhaps he had a role in encouraging conversion to Shi’i Islam among the ignorant [i.e. non-religious] Druze youth. From the religious perspective, Samir was married to a Shi’i woman and was therefore outside our religion.”

The source added that the officials of Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya could respond to this author better on the subject of Shi’ification than he. Further, he affirmed that Shi’ification is not really an issue currently affecting Rijal al-Karama:

“We are not against the Shi’a, Sunnis,Christians or any religion. All religions are for the worship of God. But we are against anyone who attacks us or leads us to conflict with sect against sect. With regards to Shi’ification, it does not have an effect on us. He who wants to become Shi’i, let God make it easy for him.”

So, to emphasize as before, this issue of Shi’ification in Suwayda’ is still a matter of some controversy and does not yet rank with conscription avoidance and concerns regarding corruption as a focal point of popular anger and resentment. It is nonetheless a trend worth keeping an eye on for the future, having the potential to increase the influence of actors like Harakat al-Hawiya al-Arabiya al-Druziya and influence the agenda of the likes of Rijal al-Karama.