Rollback? Trump’s Iran claims not just flawed but dangerous – by Steven Simon

Rollback? Trump’s Iran claims not just flawed but dangerous.
Steven Simon argues that Trump’s view on Iran is not only analytically flawed, but also dangerous.
July 5, 2017
Previously published on IISS blog
By Steven Simon, John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of History at Amherst College, and Contributing Editor to Survival

The Trump administration, for all its disarray, has a clear and consistent policy toward the Middle East. In other theatres, administration policy seems to lack organising principles – in Europe, for example, where the United States’ commitment to NATO has been both derided and valourised, and in Asia, where China is a threat one minute and an ally the next.

Washington’s approach to the Middle East, by contrast, is distinguished by its clarity. The organising principle is that Iran is the root of all evil.

There is no doubt that Iran is the root of some evil, but Mr Trump’s totalising claim and the exculpation of other regional states’ role in the current instability is not just analytically flawed but dangerous, leading ineluctably to hazardous policy objectives.

During the Cold War, American hardliners demanded ‘rollback’ of Soviet power from Eastern Europe. They viewed containment, the prevailing strategy toward the Soviet Union, as strategically and morally obtuse. The problem with rollback, however, was that the Soviet Union had an asymmetrically greater interest in holding on to Eastern Europe. These states were the mostly flat plain through which Germany had funneled an army that killed millions. Moscow was not going to surrender this vital bufer easily; a US effort to wrest Eastern Europe from Soviet rule might, therefore, escalate uncontrollably. Rollback never really gained traction, until the Soviets, under Mikhail Gorbachev’s leadership, came to trust West Germany enough to be relatively relaxed about dissolving the Warsaw Pact.

After Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and renewed focus on Iran, it is hard not to think of the Cold War rollback debate. Even the language of neo-rollback advocates recalls the apocalyptic wars of the twentieth century. Iran, they contend, wants land corridors to the West to strengthen Hizbullah and launch a second front against Israel while keeping the Assad regime alive.

Strengthening Hizbullah and using it to harass Israel have long been Iranian goals, but in the Trumpian rhetoric they have been transformed into a sinister plan for regional dominion. Phrases such as ‘land corridors’ mimic the geopolitical language of the interwar period, implying an equivalence between the fascist threat to European security in the twentieth century and the Shia threat to Middle Eastern security in the twenty-first. How much of this just bubbles up from the subconscious and how much is sly reference is hard to say. But the effect is to convey urgency and existential danger.

In reality, the Iranian behaviour that has catalysed talk of rollback has not changed since the 1980s, when Israel’s assault on Palestinian militants in Lebanon spurred Shia resentment and ambition, opening the door to Iran. Fighting between Syria and Israel forged a convergence of interest between Damascus and Tehran. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And that was 35 years ago, before many advocates of Iran rollback were born.

Israel rightly points to Hizbullah’s inventory of Iranian missiles as a serious threat. These stockpiles, however, were created without a land corridor. Weapons were flown into Damascus and trucked into Lebanon. The possibility of a land corridor exists only because Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq – the sturdiest possible barrier between Iran and the Levant – was toppled in 2003.

Neither Israel nor the US has devised a way to sever the umbilical link between Hizbullah and Iran, or to split Syria from Iran. There was hope in early 2011, when Bashar al-Assad supposedly agreed to abandon Iran in return for the Golan Heights. This was allegedly curtailed first by Israel’s disinterest, then by war in Syria. Iran’s costly defence of Syria since then has been consistent with their deep reciprocal reliance.

The US has run hot and cold on Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution. The CIA was still passing intelligence to Iran in late 1979. A wish for rapprochement led the US to sell weapons to Iran in the 1980s. That turned into a failed arms-forhostages deal and a renewed tough line toward Tehran. Yet even after Iran-backed suicide bombers killed US marines in Beirut, and Iranian mines blasted a US warship and other vessels under US protection, the Reagan administration declined to escalate militarily.

George H.W. Bush subordinated US hostility towards Iran to the war against Saddam in 1991. The Clinton administration anathematised both Iran and Iraq. Although Iran was complicit in the 1996 Khobar bombing, Mohammad Khatami’s election as president produced a thaw; the US never retaliated. After 9/11, the US and Iran cooperated in Afghanistan, followed by another swing against Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’. The Obama administration embraced toughened multilateral sanctions, cyber war and sabotage, but entered into successful diplomacy after the election of Hassan Rouhani. Given this cyclical pattern, renewed assertiveness and anxiety is no surprise.

The nuclear deal with Iran partly explains the current push for rollback. Israel and the Gulf states have pocketed the deal’s ten years without a nuclear-armed Iran in their neighbourhood, moving the goalposts to what they see as the linked threat of Iranian regional aggression: weapons transfers to Houthi rebels in Yemen; support for a seriously wounded Syrian ally; influence in Baghdad; and a close relationship with Lebanese Hizbullah. It is a remarkable imaginative leap to believe that these concerns, however nettlesome, outweigh the threat of a nuclear Iran, but this calculus does appear to drive Saudi, Emirati and Israeli policy.

The locus of the Iranian challenge is an area in southern Syria where the borders of Jordan, Iraq and Syria meet. Two towns constitute the flashpoint, al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal, straddling the Baghdad–Damascus highway. This trade route has been closed for a long time. Whether it will reopen under US control or under the Assad regime is uncertain. American forces are increasing there, rather than in the areas where the Islamic State is strongest. New powerful artillery systems have been deployed. And the US has been firing on Iranian-led pro-Assad militias extending their tentacles toward al-Tanaf and al bu Kamal.

A long-term US presence, in a bleak desert surrounded by hostile tribes, for the purpose of blocking Iran’s quest for a land corridor is now being contemplated. For the administration, this is where rollback begins. But as in the Cold War, someone needs to be asking where it ends. A version of this post will appear as the Closing Argument in the August–September issue of Survival.

A version of this post will appear as the Closing Argument in the August–September issue of Survival.

Assad cracks down on loyalist militias in Aleppo

by Aron Lund

Half a year after expelling the city’s anti-regime rebels, the Syrian government continues to face problems in Aleppo. Though civilians have trickled back to the eastern neighborhoods – there’s now more people living there than under rebel rule – reconstruction of the bombed-out areas has been sluggish at best, and though Assad’s control is no longer in dispute, question marks remain about basic stability.

In particular, citizens of all political stripes have complained about the lawless behavior of some of the many pro-government  militias that are active in the city.

While most of Assad’s armed forces have moved on to man the temporarily frozen frontlines against Turkey-backed rebels in Idleb and fight the Islamic State near Raqqa, Aleppo is still home to a large number of local militias and so-called popular committees. Some of these groups have become infamous for plundering shops and homes in the former opposition areas, extorting traders at checkpoints, and abusing civilians who object to their behavior.

Though these groups are hated by the opposition and often deeply unpopular with government loyalists, too, they are often protected by high-ranking contacts in the intelligence services. The government continues to rely on their services and, in many cases, officials profit from their criminality. Therefore, despite growing popular resentment, the authorities in Aleppo have mostly turned a blind eye to their behavior. Sporadic police clampdowns and attempts by the Aleppo Security Committee of Lt. Gen. Zaid al-Saleh to enforce rules on checkpoints and smugglers have been stop-gap measures at best.

In early June, Aleppo witnessed a string of particularly brutal and meaningless militia crimes, including the accidental killing of a respected Syrian-Armenian dentist and the senseless murder of a thirteen-year old boy, Ahmed Jawish. The murder was widely reported and condemned across Syrian media, including by stalwart government loyalists, and it seems to have catalyzed a change in the central government’s attitude.

Bashar al-Assad has now sent one of his top intelligence officials to Alepp: State Security director Lt. Gen. Mohammed Dib Zeitoun. He has been tasked by the presidential palace with overseeing a crackdown on organized crime and reining in the militias, and local authorities – including Lt. Gen. Saleh’s Security Commitee, the provincial police chief Lt. Gen. Essam al-Shelli, and the local Baath Party branch of Fadel al-Najjar – are now busily reorganizing the security sector.

The success or failure of Dib Zeitoun’s crackdown could tell us a lot about the Baathist government’s ability to stabilize and restore normal governance to areas of Syria where the rebels have held sway – and you can be certain that both Syrians and foreigners are keeping a close eye on what happens in Aleppo right now.

* * *

I have written a three-part series for IRIN News about how Aleppo has fared since major combat ended there in December 2016. For more on these issues, you can read them all here:

– Aron Lund

Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel – By Geoffrey Aronson

Farewell to Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman: A Syrian-American Who Worked for Peace between Syria and Israel
By Geoffrey Aronson
For Syria Comment – June 10, 2017


Abe Soliman, Jeff Aronson in middle, and Alon Liel at the Bnot Yaacov Baily bridge over the Jordan River

“Hey, it’s Akiva. Who was the old guy with you?”

The “old guy” was Ibrahim “Abe” Soliman.  He and I had just finished a meeting with Ron Prosor, director general of Israel’s foreign ministry, in a nondescript Tel Aviv café. The two of us were exiting to the street when Akiva Eldar, senior correspondent for Ha’aretz, just happened to drive by.

“Oh he’s just a friend, “ I replied. “No one you would know.”

Abe was in Israel during a secret visit in April 2005, part of our quiet dialogue in support of an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement. Together with Alon Liel, a former ambassador and top foreign ministry official, we toured the Golan plateau and walked across the Bailey Bridge across the Jordan River north of the Sea of Galilee Heights.  Abe met with the widow of Eli Cohen and his daughter to discuss the prospect of repatriating her husband’s remains. It’s impossible to keep a secret in Israel. The fact that we were able to keep Abe’s visit out of the press was a testament to the seriousness with which our efforts were viewed … and no small amount of luck.

Eli Cohen’s daughter and widow with Abe Soliman and Jeff Aronson

Some months later we were able to agree upon a “non-paper” outlining the creation of a “park” in the Golan Heights. (link to the Carnegie document). The understanding, drafted with Liel and Uri Saguy, remains the only example of a successful  “track one and one half” engagement between Israelis and Syrians. Eldar’s chance drive by threatened to blow up our three-year effort in mid-course.

Abe died late last month of complications following a stroke. I last saw him only a few days before the debilitating attack. We were making laborious efforts to reconcile opposing combatants in Syria — efforts that, after many frustrating months, had begun to show a hint of promise.  At our last meeting, as Syria’s descent into self-destruction continued, Abe continued to see an opportunity to revive discussions between Israel and Syria on the Golan’s future.

Abe Soliman was all but unknown to the lay public, but he has been a familiar figure to diplomats on three continents who have toiled in the barren vineyard of Israel-Syrian diplomacy for almost three decades.

Beginning with his successful effort to win Syrian approval for the emigration of Syrian Jews in the early 1990s, Soliman worked to improve Damascus’ and the Assad regime’s relations with Washington. And as the Assad’s road to the White House often passed through Jerusalem, this meant that Soliman dedicated time and resources in the last decades to solving the crisis in relations between Israel and Syria.

Abe’s particular role, his effectiveness and its limits, is a reflection of the idiosyncratic exercise of power and authority during the Assad era. Young, Alawi, and dirt poor, Abe was befriended by Hafez al Assad, who had served under the command of Abe’s older brother. Abe tells this evocative story in his self-published memoir, “My Grandfather’s Tree: A Syrian Immigrant’s American Adventures, Friendship with Dictators, and Quest for Peace in the Middle East

Abe emigrated from Syria to the United States in the late 1950s. After establishing himself as a US citizen – a life-changing consequence of a chance friendship with a USFSO whom he met as a young boy  — Abe maintained business ties with his ancestral homeland and continued his close familial relationship with the ruling family and its inner circle.

Syria is a small country steeped in relationships tied to family, geography and religion. Abe was a good businessman and he provided valuable training to woefully ill-equipped members of a new and growing Syrian governing and administrative class. But the real source of his entre was a relationship of trust forged with the Assads, rooted in a shared history that transcended politics or business, and a deeply ingrained belief that quiet understandings reached between men of influence were the key to diplomatic progress.

Abe was intimate with the regime and its shadowy leadership.  But he was not of the regime. Throughout the years he was determined to maintain his independence, including financial independence, from Damascus, and even to risk its displeasure. He understood better than his friends in Damascus that he was more valuable to them and an abler and more effective interlocutor if he stayed outside the wide circle of those who owed everything to the regime.

The gutters of Middle East diplomacy are littered with poseurs and braggarts of all stripes claiming, usually without foundation, privileged access to those in power.

Abe, in contrast, was the real deal. More than one government in the region was satisfied that Abe did indeed have entre to Assad’s inner circle, if only because they could see the star treatment he received upon arrival in Damascus and meetings he arranged for others with the president or his top staff.  Over the years, a parade of US officials made their way to Abe’s modest home outside Washington to sit with senior Syrians around his dining room table.

If on the one hand Abe stood apart from the regime, he well understood that his value to interlocutors from Ankara to Jerusalem and Washington was as an authoritative link to the government and its interests.

He was also well aware that his value to the Assads lay in his ability to articulate their views — not his own  — discreetly and secretly in such a way as to elicit something of value that could maintain or excite interest in Damascus.

Then as now, the regime operated in the dark. The leadership is most at home with the curtains drawn, jockeying for influence among the shadows. Transparency is to be avoided at all costs. Public efforts are all but useless for transacting serious business. This is how power and influence are exercised in Syria.

Abe was a product of this system and a wily, able practitioner who exploited its advantages and was hobbled by its shortcomings. Secrecy was the signa qua non of any effective diplomatic engagement. He was extremely sensitive to the fact that a misstep on his part would not easily be repaired or forgiven by a regime intolerant of any such attempt, undertaken by design or in error. This proved to be the case when Abe arrived in Israel for a second, this time public, visit in April 2007, when he testified before the Israeli Knesset and made an emotional visit to Yad Vashem.

It could not be easy to manage these apparent contradictions — to represent the interests and views of the regime to outsiders while retaining his distance from it and to maintain his personal independence and ability not just to represent but also to influence the policies of Hafez the father and, after his death in April 2000, Bashar the son.

There was also the challenge of maintaining control over the various negotiating tracks that developed during the course of his encounters.  During our efforts from 2004-2007 for example, meetings in Zurich, sponsored by the Government of Switzerland, were only one facet of a multidimensional array of bilateral engagements –like the one with Prosor– some of which at times appeared to be more important to Abe — that is, Damascus –than the track one and one half dialogue with his Israeli counterparts that was nominally the heart of our efforts.  Like the spider at the center of the web, Abe endeavored to make sure that he was the only player with the full picture. I would bemoan this complexity but for Abe it was a natural and necessary state of affairs.

Abe was a son of Syria.  He was only too familiar with the manner in which power and influence were maintained and exercised in Damascus.  Outsiders could never hope to obtain the keys to this particular castle, and Abe was continually critical of the uncanny ability of Americans and others to misread the opportunities for progress.

He had few kind words for the Syrian opposition, especially its expatriate leadership, and many reciprocated his antipathy. But just as he could call upon his lifelong ties to the Assads, he remained a respected figure among some opposition figures whom he had known over a lifetime, and their children, some of whose education he had sponsored at American universities.

Not that he spared the regime. Particularly in these latter years, Abe lamented Assad’s missteps and repression. He despaired for Syria’s independence from Iranian and, less so, Russian designs. And he worried that in Syria, Washington would fall into the trap first opened in Afghanistan, when it succeeded Russia in a war that has yet to end.


For Jeff Aronson’s article, describing the Track II talks with Syria, see

Published on Dec 21, 2010

Geoffrey Aronson, Director for Research and Editor of Report on Israeli Settlement in the Occupied Territories, Foundation for Middle East Peace

Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East – By Sam Farah

Nationalism Between Europe and The Middle East
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – June 9, 2017

Steven Bannon, the man behind the nationalist policy in the Trump administration, is quoted as saying, “I think strong countries and strong nationalist movements in countries make strong neighbors. And that is really the building blocks that built Western Europe and the United States, and I think it’s what can see us forward”.

It is true that Nationalism was born in Europe, and is the foundation of the new modern state. However, what Bannon’s remarks miss is the fact that strong nationalist movements in Europe helped lead to the outbreak of World War I and World War II. It has also contributed to a great deal of strife and death in the Middle East.

Before the late 18th century there were no real nation states. Neither passports nor borders as we know them existed. People had ethnic and cultural identities, but these did not really define the political entities in which they lived. In 1800, almost nobody in France thought of themselves as French. At the time of the French Revolution in 1789, half its residents did not speak French.

Nationalism did not develop among the general population, it was a construct first developed among the intellectual elites of Europe. Johann Gottfried Herder, a German philosopher who believed that language determined national thought and culture, first coined the term “nationalism”. Nationalists expected patriots to then learn their nation’s language and raise their children speaking that language as part of a general program to establish a unique national identity. Poets and philosophers created folk epics and fairy tales, these epic legends and constructed narratives created imagined communities that gave rise to a sense of delusional, inflated self-worth. English Nationalists argued that England is the kingdom that, of all the kingdoms in the world, is the most like the kingdom of Jesus Christ. And the French believed that France had a special mission as representative of the most advanced form of western culture.

The idea that the boundaries of a nation should, as much as possible, coincide with only one culture, and the belief that a people who share a common language, history, and culture should constitute an independent nation set the stage for decades of war and border disputes on the European continent. The history of Alsace Lorraine is a microcosm of the turbulent years of nationalism in Europe and the rivalry between French and German nationalism. The area was a watershed for invading French and German armies and mutual annexation. The Germans pursued a Germanification policy in the Alsace that prohibited its residents from speaking French in public. A person could be fined even for something as innocent as saying, “bonjour”. Street signs, once displayed in French, were replaced with German signage. When the French annexed the Alsace, up to 100,000 Germans were expelled and German language Alsatian newspapers were suppressed.

The zeal of nationalism in Europe and the need to define an identity for these nations states culminated with the Nuremberg law. It added a racial element to the concept of nationalism, and ultimately contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany and the outbreak of World War II.

By the end of the 19th century, as the sun was setting on the Ottoman Empire, Zionists, who were primarily European Jews, worked to create a homeland for the Jewish people in Palestine. Young Turks, eager to modernize their state, and young Arabs intellectuals primarily from the Levant who also wanted to emulate the modernity of Europe embarked on a nation building quest of their own, all with irreconcilable claims and overlapping aspirational maps. This was the framework that set the stage for the endless conflicts in the Middle East that continue to plague the region. Today Kurdish nationalists are trying to establish their own nation state from parts of Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria. Their ambitions have added another layer of complexity to an already intractable situation.

The trauma of the great depression, the threat of communist revolution, the rise of fascism and the ravage of World War II, made Europe search for an alternative to nationalism.

The search for a new framework for Europe was led by Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. They worked to enmesh the economies and societies of Western Europe with one another. These new transnational ties were expected to create a permanent peace between France and Germany. The road to building this new post nationalist space that culminated in the creation of the European Union, was arduous. Many European politicians resisted the notion of ceding sovereignty to a supra nationalist entity. The project, however, achieved is intended objective, and Europe has enjoyed the longest period of peace in its modern history. In the mid 1970s, just 22% of Germans thought they had more in common with other Germans of different social class then with Frenchmen of the same class (Haas 1997). And Alsace is now a multi-lingual region, its inhabitants shop and work in both France and Germany. In the words of Angela Merkel, “The Europe that suffered from German hubris was transformed into a ring of friends organized around NATO and the E.U.”

The European post-nationalist experiment was not without its flaws. It seeded too many controls to Brussels. Like most hierarchical systems it became top-heavy, and incapable of responding to change. In addition, there were structural flaws in the way the Euro was established adding layers of popular resentment against the European project.

While Europe is grappling with reforms of its current framework and fending off rising nationalism, the Middle East is still in the thrall of its failed nationalist experiment, increasingly chaotic, with rising religious extremism and terrorism.

Moving Forward

How should the people of Europe and the Middle East organize themselves to achieve peace, stability and economic growth? Today, questions of identity, complexity and polity are the subject of research and a new field of study by complexity theorists, social scientists and historians. They believe that to have a peaceful world it may not be necessary to abolish the nation state as it remains the most effective body to write and enforce the rules, just to deemphasize it. What we need, they argue, are multicultural states with overlapping authorities, divided sovereignty, fuzzy borders, and the distribution of power to local communities.


The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind & Their Emblem – By Jesse McDonald

The SSNP’s Military: The Eagles of the Whirlwind
By Jesse McDonald
For Syria Comment – June 5, 2017

Nusur al-Zawba’a and Some Figures from Syria Since 2016

The Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), like many political parties in the region, also possesses an armed wing.  In this case, the SSNP’s military wing is called Nusur al-Zawba’a which translates to ‘Eagles of the Whirlwind.’  The Whirlwind here (pictured below) is a reference to the vortex / hurricane-like symbol front and center of the SSNP’s logo.  More on the origins of the Whirlwind (zawba’a) in the piece immediately following this one.

SSNP’s emblem

Much has been written on the roles various militias and National Defense Forces (NDF) play fighting on Assad’s side.  The Eagles of the Whirlwind, being one of these groups fighting with the Syrian regime as well as Hezballah, also, deserves attention and analysis.  However, diving into the groups history and motives for fighting is beyond the scope of this article.  What will be touched upon is a brief overview of these fighters who have died since the beginning of 2016.  This article will point out which towns SSNP members were actively engaged in combat and areas with the highest casualty rates, what the average age was for those who have fallen, and when they joined the party.  Important disclosure: due to lack of information on several party members, this data is not fully complete.  Nevertheless, the intention is to offer a glimpse of recent trends and structure some type of background so the reader can better comprehend the SSNP’s combat role in Syria’s war.

Let’s begin with 2016:

Although active on numerous fronts, the year 2016 did not witness a particularly high mortality rate as a result of armed activities against rebels and jihadists (this is in no way downplaying any low figures or loss of life).  There were a total of eighteen deaths categorized into the following cities/governorates:

Aleppo- 1

Raqqa countryside- 1

Hama- 1

Douma- 2

Homs- 3

Latakia- 10

As one can notice, Latakia registered the highest casualty total out of any province in Syria during 2016.  Five of these ten deaths occurred on February 19 in Kinsaba- one of them being Adonis Nasr (known as ‘Ado’) – who led various media operations for the Eagles of the Whirlwind.[1]  Such operations included recording fighters’ will or testimonials and preparing their autobiographies and ‘martyrdom’ posters.  He also helped run the party’s daily al-Bina’.   The countryside of Latakia was a particular hot spot for the Eagles Whirlwind in 2016, with many battles taking place in the mountains, strategically situated along Turkey’s border and also neighboring Idlib province.  The coastal highlands is crucial for Assad in blocking rebel-held supply lines, linking up to government controlled areas in Hama and creating a buffer between Alawite dominated cities in Latakia and Tartus (Assad’s heartland).  In fact, all but two of the ten deaths in Latakia countyside transpired in Kinsaba (the others died in Kubani).

Photo from Adonis Nasr’s funeral in Lebanon

Five out of six locations mentioned above (where there have been casualties) are areas SSNP fighters have been heavily active.  The one exception is Raqqa’s countryside.  In June 2016, Syrian government troops alongside allied militias, briefly entered Raqqa province only to be repelled and pushed out shortly afterwards by the so-called Islamic State.  It is with this brief incursion a member of the Eagles Whirlwind perished.  However, similar to other examples, it appears this fighter, although an SSNP member, was fighting more with the Syrian army than a powerful SSNP contingent.

Are SSNP members fighting in Syria universally younger or older?  The average age of those who died fighting with the SSNP was around 28 years old.  The oldest, forty-two, was killed near Douma while the youngest was eighteen years of age and died in Homs.  Of the eighteen fighters mentioned, at least seven were thirty years of age or older.  However, I was not able to determine the age of five fighters.

Turning now to party membership.  Ten out of these eighteen SSNP fighters had a clear date as to when they joined the party.  Only two joined the Eagles of the Whirlwind before 2011 while the other eight were either in 2013 or some time after.  I mention 2011 in an attempt to discover whether a pattern emerges between the beginning of the war and overall length of party membership.  Several signed up as recently as 2015 (four people with the possibility of six), and thus, presents an interesting development for analyzing certain fighters on the front lines compared to their duration of time in the SSNP.  Out of the eight which could not be determined, two fighters were around the age of twenty when they died.  Assuming they enrolled in the Syrian army first at eighteen, it is most likely safe to say they joined after 2013 as well.  Albeit on a very small scale, this shows members are signing up to join SSNP’s ranks fairly recently (at least based on information from those who have died).  As opposed to those who have been party members for an extended period of time, prior to violence breaking out, losing their lives on the front lines.  Granted, this does not paint a complete accurate picture of overall party membership since just the fatalities are being examined.

There is debate surrounding to what degree the SSNP is a crucial fighting element for the Syrian army.  Adding to any confusion over just how independent the SSNP is from the Syrian army, half of SSNP fighters who died in 2016 only joined the Eagles Whirlwind after several military courses with the army.  Considering many weapons and vehicles in SSNP’s arsenal are courtesy of the Syrian army, and that the two fight side-by-side on several fronts, more analysis is needed to determine how much leeway members have in joining without first serving in the army.  Besides wearing seemingly identical combat fatigues at times, rendering them indistinguishable in appearance minus SSNP patches or flags, it is difficult to resolve how formidable their fighting prowess is outside of any Syrian army formations.  In stark contrast to the Tiger Forces or Desert Hawks and obviously Hezballah for example.  One of these SSNP members was still in the Syrian army reserves while another fought with the army where he was killed in Aleppo.  Hence, at times it appears the lines are blurred as to the sovereignty and independence of those wearing the al-zawba’a patch.  Another important disclosure: information on prior military service before fighting with the SSNP was not available for half of the deaths that occurred in 2016.

Finally, almost no one fought and died where they were born (including even geographically in the same province).  Granted, such data does not imply fighters were never active at some point near or in the same towns they were born.  This is mentioned because several speculations center around whether SSNP members are able to evade serving in the Syrian army, often times feared on front lines in distant provinces, to act instead as local protection forces in cities of their birthplace.  The SSNP’s Eagles Whirlwind are nevertheless engaged in very active battle zones throughout multiple regions in Syria.  Some of the more prominent or well – known areas and towns include the province of Hama- Salamiyah, Mahardah, Suqaylabiyah and Sahl al Ghab plains to name a few; Homs city, Sadad, al-Qaryatayn in Homs; the countryside of Latakia province-Jabal al-Akrad, Kubani, Kinsaba, Khammam and Salma; in addition to the cities of Aleppo, Zabadani; Douma; Suwayda; Quneitra; and the Qalamoun region.

Eagles Whirlwind in 2017:

According to official Eagles Whirlwind social media pages, three members have fallen so far this year in battle.  One fighter each from Salamiyah (Hama)—24 to 25 years old; Aleppo—39 to 40 years old and Douma—26 to 27 years of age.  The fighter from Aleppo seemed to be more of a symbolic presence alongside Syrian army troops and various militias while the other two died as part of operations with the army (one member who died in Salamiyah actually is said to have been within the army’s formations-adding to previously mentioned blurred lines).  Additionally, all three formally became SSNP party members within the last three years or so.

Interestingly, there is a split off branch from the SSNP’s Eagles of the Whirlwind also fighting with the Syrian army.  This group is called the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Syrian Arab Republic.  Apparently, Rami Makhlouf is their main supporter and members are more susceptible to Arabism.  One of these fighters was present when pro-regime forces advanced inside a de-confliction zone near the city of Tanf on the Iraq-Syria border.  The town hosts a base where U.S. and British special operations soldiers are training a rebel faction for future incursions into Syria’s eastern desert-near the town of Deir Ezzor.  Based on a SSNP social media site, this fighter ended up succumbing to his wounds on May 21st after coalition jets struck the convoy on May 18th.  He was a party member since 2008, and along with his brother who died in 2012, happened to be a founder of the NDF’s Idlib branch.  Pictured below is a “martyrdom” poster for this fighter killed near Tanf from SSNP’s group that broke away.  One can clearly differentiate between this and Eagles of the Whirlwind posters honoring their comrades.

SSNP in the Syrian Arab Republic member killed near Tanf

The majority of the eighteen fighters or so from the Syrian Social Nationalist Party in the Syrian Arab Republic who have been killed since 2016 occurred primarily in Palmyra and Aleppo.  It does appear more fighters in this group fought around the towns they were born and rarely ever experienced combat in cities Eagles of the Whirlwind fighters were present.  Additional analysis regarding this development will be key in gathering potential negative effects from a split and any coinciding repercussions the SSNP’s influence may suffer as the Syrian war drags on.  Has the Assad regime strategized to split up armed groups gaining influence? Possibly a smart maneuver in order to gain more control over these militias which could one day threaten the regimes power.  In specific areas where rebels and jihadists were defeated, vast amounts of unmonitored armed militias roam the streets, surely Assad is plotting for what comes next to secure his grip.

Lastly, patterns are difficult to detect in only a year and a half.  As such, analysis within that timeframe may cause speculation.  This is understandable.  Moreover, lack of information on certain fighters coupled with an overall low death count makes sweeping declarations mere hypotheses.  Nevertheless, the intention of this article is to act as a starting point for future studies while also laying a basic foundation to garner a better understanding of SSNP activities throughout the Syrian war.  SSNP fighters are very active on multiple fronts across Syria, witnessing some of the more strategic battles, and low casualty figures since 2016 should not mislead such a fact.  The year 2015 saw far more activity for the Eagles Whirlwind.  More on that in the next paper.

[1] Appears he is the only SSNP fighter to have died since 2016 who was not born in Syria.  He was born in Choueifat, Lebanon.

— End —

The Source of SSNP Emblem or the Whirlwind
by Jesse McDonald

Following our previous discussion that sheds light on the Eagles of the Whirlwind in Syria since 2016, we turn to the emblem their SSNP party members display so proudly. Emblazoned with an eagle carrying the SSNP’s logo, the “whirlwind.” What is the inspiration for this symbol? A combination of a cross and crescent- signifying the unity and diverse makeup of the SSNP? Perhaps the Nazi swastika? Or perhaps something entirely different? The SSNP has vehemently denied any link between their emblem and the swastika used by the Nazis.

This photo shows the swastika on a Sumerian bowl from approximately 6000 B.C.
Now, I wish to expand on the early origins of al-zawba’a.

Symbols were often used throughout the ages in ancient cultures as a powerful form of expression. Spanning from South America to Europe and continuing to the Middle East, while also impressing India and China, such images were extremely meaningful and popular within these civilizations. They explained known facts while also depicting energy of the unknown (cosmic universe). It is from these early times the swastika symbol was revealed to the world.

Swastikas were a common geometrical pattern used in ancient art and did not have the same negative connotations it has today. The name swastika typically means “good fortune” or “well-being” in the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit. Illustrations of this symbol can be found all over the world dating back ten thousand years. Common to antiquity periods, symbols displayed in such a manner usually depicted energies of the universe fashioned around a center point. Notice the appearance of a whirlwind symbol in rotation along with an image of a swastika in the center below.

Photo shows the swastika on a Sumerian bowl from approximately 6000 B.C.
Moving away from the swastika for a moment. In this instance (SSNP), the universe is symbolized by a circle which is always moving. In the center is the mandala- a whirlwind that has a unique and close relationship with the circle. The center radiates towards the circle and the circle gives depth to the center. Why is this relevant? The SSNP believes this universe was centered in Syria when the land sprouted numerous advanced and powerful civilizations thousands of years ago.

Most of the Syrian legends revolve around various cosmic and human themes, most notably the emergence of the universe, creation, death followed by emancipation, conflict, construction, order, et cetera. Inheritance is the primary line, it is the indistinguishable energy and the symbol is the appearance of this energy. It is this focus on the centers energy, specifically marked by the universe and how everything radiates around it, the whirlwind image resonates with the SSNP. Fascination therefore does not appear to derive (although not ruling out any fascist inspiration considering the time period) from the Nazi swastika or a combination of a crescent and cross; both debated and contemplated in Western media publications.

The whirlwind inscriptions found throughout the Levant are also thought to be Phoenician. Antoun Saadeh chose the whirlwind as a symbol of the immortality of the Syrian nation, a symbol symbolized in more than a historical epic of the annals of Syrian history.

Saadeh expanded on the symbol when he said, “The symbol of the Whirlwind was found engraved on more than one fossil in Syria. It symbolizes the interaction of matter and spirit. It symbolizes life, survival, immortality and within the four corners of ‘freedom, duty, order and power.’”

It appears, contrary to popular debate, the SSNP logo derives from a symbol dating back thousands of years found throughout the Levant and Mesopotamia. All things considered, especially when examining their ideological outlook and affinity for ancient ‘Syrian’ civilizations who once dominated the region, this is actually not extraordinarily surprising.

The End of the PKK in Sinjar? How the Hashd al-Sha’bi Can Help Resolve the Yazidi Genocide

This article was published May 30, 2017 by NRT, a media service in Iraqi Kurdistan. The original article is available here. Photos and Images have been added to this re-post that were not present in the original.


Barber, Matthewby Matthew Barber

Sinjar is at a pivotal moment of transition and the next phase of its future will likely be determined by what happens over the next few weeks. This environment of change offers the US, UN, and EU a significant opportunity to help resolve the political crisis in Sinjar, and some specific recommendations for action will be detailed in this article.

Background on the Yazidi Hashd

Observers who have followed events in Sinjar over the past few years have probably seen the KDP-PKK rift as the salient competition in the area. This dynamic is now complicated by the presence of a third major actor, the Hashd al-Sha’bi and their quickly growing local Yazidi battalions.

The Hashd al-Sha’bi (or Popular Mobilization Units—PMU) are mostly known as a set of Shi’i militias, but the Hashd Body (or PMU Committee – هيئة الحشد), the institutional entity under which the Hashd al-Sha’bi are administrated, also serves as an umbrella for affiliated forces among many other Iraqi communities, including Christians, Turkmen, Sunni Arabs, and Yazidis.

Initially, the Hashd Body financially supported Haider Shesho’s forces in Sinjar (from fall 2014 to April 2015), but withdrew their support after his organization mismanaged Hashd funds, and more importantly, after Haider was politically pressured and attacked by the KDP (he was arrested and held for nine days in April 2015 by the KDP asaish). After this, the Hashd began financially supporting the YBŞ, a PKK affiliate in Sinjar mainly comprised of local Yazidis. Baghdad’s interest in supporting these local Yazidi actors who were in political competition with the KDP has to do with Sinjar’s status as a disputed territory to which Baghdad and Erbil both lay administrative claims. The Hashd Body suspended financial support of the YBŞ in October 2016 around the time when the battle for Mosul began, temporarily capitulating to KDP demands in order to maintain harmony among allies in this key operation. This financial support has now resumed, with salaries for the YBŞ having been paid again this month, the first time since October. However, it is uncertain how long this support will last, as this article will question the future relevance of the YBŞ.

In addition to the Hashd Body’s financial support for these Yazidi forces in Sinjar, a Yazidi Hashd force was also created, but it could not reach Sinjar to participate in the fight against IS, because these Yazidi forces were not allowed to pass through Kurdistan.  The Yazidi Hashd force was formed around a year ago by a Yazidi man from Khanasor who goes by the nickname of Khal Ali, but whose official name is Ali Serhan Eissa. (This name deviates from the common patronymic naming system, because Ali’s father’s name is Walati, but this name is not included in Ali’s official name. Walati was killed in Khanasor on Aug. 3, 2014 by IS, and his body is among those in one of Khansor’s mass graves. Khal Ali is therefore a genocide survivor who believed that a Yazidi Hashd force was the best option to provide security to Sinjar.) The initial Hashd force created for Yazidis was called the Lalish Battalion (فوج لالش).

The recent successes in the battle for Mosul have opened up access to Sinjar without the need to pass through the Kurdistan Region. Ever since IS took the Mosul, Tal Afar, and Ba’aj areas in 2014, the KDP has enjoyed exclusive control over civilian and NGO access to Sinjar from within Iraq, a factor that has led to political problems due to the economic blockade and other measures that have prevented Yazidi IDPs from returning to their homes. This is changing as IS is being cleared out of significant portions of the Nineveh governorate, which has allowed the Yazidi Hashd forces to reach the Sinjar area.

The KDP’s Failure to Liberate Yazidi Villages South of Sinjar

Aside from the smaller farming villages around the foothills of Sinjar Mountain, Sinjar’s main population centers are Sinjar City (the largest urban area, located on the south side of the mountain), and lines of large Yazidi towns on both the north and south sides of the mountain (called “collective villages”). All areas to the north of the mountain were cleared of IS in December 2014. In November 2015, the KDP Peshmerga led an operation to retake Sinjar City. PKK forces and their affiliates, not strong enough to retake the city on their own and without the US air support that accompanied the Peshmerga operation, joined in the brief campaign, which many Peshmerga commanders described to Western reporters as “easy” or performed with “little resistance.” Upon the completion of this operation, the Peshmerga did not establish the front line far enough south to place the city beyond shelling range; IS therefore continued to shell the city (beginning to use chemical weapons around February 2016), which resulted in ongoing injury to Yazidi Peshmerga and prevented the return of civilian life to the city. More important than the city (which is almost entirely destroyed) are the southern collective villages, where most of the Yazidi population of the mountain’s south side lived. Fearing that a large-scale return of Yazidi civilians could further degrade KDP influence in the area (while the PKK remains a very present competitor) and preclude the chance for the KDP to regain total control, the KDP has not moved forward on the liberation of the southern collectives and the Peshmerga have sat idle on the front line for a year and a half. Despite official rhetoric on “reclaiming Sinjar for the Yazidi people,” from November 2015 to the present, all of the Yazidi towns south of Sinjar have remained under IS control, even though in many cases these towns have been guarded by a minimal IS presence, and in all cases a presence far less significant than had been the case in Sinjar City. This, combined with the economic blockade designed to prevent Yazidi civilians from returning from the camps to their homes on the north side, even further exacerbated the sense of victimization that the Yazidis felt vis-à-vis the KDP.

These policies have contributed to significant frustrations among the Yazidi Peshmerga, who have not been equipped with the weaponry necessary to liberate their own villages—lying just a few kilometers away—and has produced the conditions favorable for the shift of support toward the Hashd al-Sha’bi, which is underway now.

The Current Hashd al-Sha’bi Operation in the Sinjar Region

On May 12, the Yazidi Hashd began operations on the south side of Sinjar Mountain. They began in the Tal Banat (southeastern most Yazidi collective village) and Nahiya Blej (Arab-majority subdistrict) areas. (This has been part of a larger operation to liberate the entire area from Qayrawan to Ba’aj.)

Hashd al-Sha’bi and Yazidi forces in the process to liberate Yazidis village south of Sinjar

When this operation began, Yazidis begged the Peshmerga leadership to give the order to cooperate with the Hashd and join the effort to liberate the Yazidi towns. This request was refused, leading to great internal frustration among the Yazidi Peshmerga who had long been promised that they would receive support to liberate their homes, but who have instead waited indefinitely.

Naif Jasso (rright), who left the Peshmerga May 15 to form a second Yazidi Hashd battalion, stands next to Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis

Qasim Shesho (head of the Yazidi Peshmerga in Sinjar) has had 14 battalions under his command. On May 15, Naif Jasso, for whom one of the battalions was named, and his son Talib who commanded the battalion (which was stationed in the vicinity of the cement factory, several kilometers east of Sinjar City), left the Peshmerga with the men under their command and joined the Yazidi Hashd. Naif is from Kocho, the southernmost Yazidi town on the mountain’s south side, which was the site of the Kocho Massacre (Aug. 15, 2014), probably the single worst massacre of the larger Yazidi Genocide. Naif is the brother of Kocho’s mukhtar, Ahmed Jasso, who was killed along with the other teen and adult males of the town, in the massacre. (Naif was outside of Kocho when the massacre was conducted.) Naif and Talib had served in the Yazidi Peshmerga in Sinjar for about two years before dissociating from it.

From the 15th on, these former Peshmerga participated with the rest of the Yazidi Hashd in retaking Yazidi areas. Other Yazidi Peshmerga also left their units and joined the Yazidi Hashd, whose ranks quickly expanded by the hundreds. To accommodate this rapid influx of new recruits, a second battalion of Yazidi Hashd was created to function alongside the Lalish Battalion; the second force is called the Kocho Battalion (فوج كوچو) and is commanded by Naif Jasso.

Sinjar Yazidis Kocho Kojo Kucho Kujo

The second Yazidi Hashd al-Sha’bi Force, the recently formed “Kocho Battalion”

The Hashd in Sinjar (the two Yazidi battalions along with Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi) first liberated some of the Arab villages from IS control, and by the 21st they had fully liberated the Yazidi towns of Tal Banat and Tal Qasab.  On May 25th, Kocho was liberated. On the 28th, Elias Tala’, a Yazidi Peshmerga company commander left the Peshmerga with his men and joined the Yazidi Hashd. By May 29th, all of the remaining large Yazidi collectives (Ger Zerik, Tal Ezeir, Siba Sheikh Khidr) were under Hashd al-Sha’bi control and the Hashd forces completed the total elimination of the IS presence in the Sinjar Region.

Le Carabinier map of Sinjar Shingal Iraq, May 29, 2017 - Yazidis

Detailed map from Le Carabinier showing situation of militias in Sinjar as of May 29, 2017. Click map image to download full resolution map or visit his website.

The KDP Response: Propaganda and Arrests

As soon as the Hashd al-Sha’bi began liberating Yazidi villages, KDP officials and KDP media articles began to condemn the Hashd, demanding their withdrawal, and saying that “only the Peshmerga forces should liberate the remaining areas” or accusing Baghdad of “ignoring Article 140,” referring to the Iraq Constitution’s article about the resolution of disputed territories. It is brazen and even quite comical for Kurdish officials to invoke Article 140, considering the degree to which Peshmerga militias have unilaterally seized many disputes territories in Iraq, including Sinjar itself. Kurdish officials have also claimed that Baghdad is violating an agreement with the KRG, in which Baghdad had said that its forces “would not enter Kurdish areas.” Ironically, this position makes the KDP culpable for not liberating the Yazidi collectives sooner, as it places the onus of responsibility on KDP forces.

In a period of just over two weeks, the Hashd forces did more than the KDP Peshmerga had accomplished in a year and a half. Of course, the KDP is not happy amid their increasing inability to maintain the loyalty of their own troops, whom they have not helped to reclaim their towns.

During the week of May 14, Sarbast Lazgin, Massoud Barzani’s envoy in Sinjar, held a meeting with Peshmerga commanders and other local officials, ordering them to deal severely with any Yazidi from among their troops or tribes who supported or joined the Yazidi Hashd. Yazidis who were present in the meeting report that they were told to forcibly expel from Sinjar the families of anyone who joined the Yazidi Hashd. During the meeting, the KDP authorities said, “Anyone who joins the Hashd al-Sha’bi can leave Shingal and Kurdistan and move to Karbala or Najaf.”

Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida, arrested May 24 after visiting his village, Tal Banat, on May 21

To try to prevent Yazidis from joining the Yazidi Hashd, the KDP began blocking all movement into the areas south of the mountain. In effect, they were preventing Yazidis from going to liberate their own villages. During the beginning of the operation, those desiring to join the Yazidi Hashd had to travel to the Kurdistan Region, then to Baghdad, then through liberated Mosul, and then finally to the Tal Banat/Tal Qasab areas. Despite these measures intended to prevent Yazidis from joining the ranks of the Hashd just a few kilometers away, many were willing to travel through the entire country to participate in the fight for their homes, and the ranks of the Hashd swelled by the hundreds from the outset. A number of Peshmerga also began to leave their posts during their shifts, weapons in hand, to join the Hashd. Some of these were apprehended and arrested as they tried to desert.

But in addition to the arrests of those trying to leave Peshmerga militias to join the Yazidi Hashd, on May 24, KDP asaish arrested a Yazidi civilian religious figure after he visited his own village, Tal Banat, newly liberated. The arrested man’s name is Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida. He is a chilagir (چلەگر), one of a small number of Yazidis who adopt a holy, somewhat ascetic lifestyle, observing a 40-day fast each year. A possible reason for the asaish targeting him was that he met with many Hashd commanders, both Yazidi and Shi’i, including the controversial Hashd al-Sha’bi leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who participated in the operation to liberate the villages on the south side of Sinjar Mountain. Fakhr was photographed meeting with these commanders in Tal Banat, which, as a religious figure, lent an aura of legitimacy to the Hashd forces. Still, it was shocking to the Yazidi community that KDP forces would arrest a holy man who sought to boost the morale of Yazidi troops fighting IS on the front line. The episode reflects the growing insecurity that the KDP feels as they witness the popularity of political competitors who reject the KDP’s claim to administrative authority over Sinjar.

Fakhr Khalaf Khoudeida visits Shi’i and Yazid Hashd commanders, including Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, May 21 in Tal Banat or Tal Qasab

In the current situation, the KDP cannot use the argument that it directs toward PKK affiliates—that they are “foreign” forces. The Yazidi Hashd are not only comprised of local Yazidis from Sinjar, but they are an official force belonging to the central government. Nevertheless, KDP media has been describing the Yazidi Hashd as a “Shi’i force,” failing to mention the Yazidi battalions, just as they describe the YBŞ as a “foreign PKK” force and fail to mention their local Yazidi composition.

A Political Exodus

Eventually, the measures to prevent Yazidis from joining the Hashd forces broke down, as some Yazidi Peshmerga refused to enforce the order and began helping Yazidis get through to the south side of the mountain. Haider Shesho’s forces (which also belong to the Peshmerga) have lost significant numbers of men, as well, and Peshmerga defections have continued. Some locals estimate that the total number of Yazidis who have joined the Yazidi Hashd in the past couple weeks is nearing 1,000 (this does not include the Yazidi Lalish Battalion that existed before the operation).

The widespread readiness of many Yazidis to dissociate from the Peshmerga and join these Baghdad-affiliated forces is driven by growing dissatisfaction exacerbated by a number of factors:

– The families of these Yazidi Peshmerga are now nearing three full years in the camps with their lives on pause;

– For over a year they were prevented by the economic blockade from returning and rebuilding on Sinjar’s north side;

– The Kurdish Peshmerga Rojava now besiege the YBŞ, the main defender of Sinjar against IS, also harming the return of civilian life to Snune and Khanasor; and

– The KDP assisted Turkey in bombing the bases of PKK-affiliated Yazidis in Sinjar who have been at the front line with IS for almost three years.

This behavior was topped off by the refusal to allow the Yazidi Peshmerga to participate with the Yazidi Hashd in an operation to free their own towns—towns that the Yazidis have desperately waited to liberate. The KDP is finding itself on the wrong side of history in this development, as its policy pattern inadvertently produces the perception among many Yazidis that it actively works to thwart the fight against IS. More Yazidis are joining the Hashd every day, and though it is too soon to tell how far-reaching this trend will be, we could eventually witness at least a partial collapse of the KDP Peshmerga in Sinjar.

The Effect of the Hashd Presence on the Future of PKK Influence in Sinjar

Insignia of the Peshmerga Rojava, a force of Syrian Kurdish refugees recruited by KDP asaish out of refugee camps inside Iraqi Kurdistan and trained (with Turkish military support) to be KDP-loyal Syrian force that can compete with the YPG/PYD, currently besieging YBŞ positions in Khanasor, Sinjar

Most observers immediately assume that the new presence of the Hashd al-Sha’bi in Sinjar will be a boon to the local PKK affiliates. The YBŞ has been besieged by the Peshmerga Rojava for nearly three months, with its movements restricted and its fighters harassed by KDP asaish. Baghdad’s financial support for the YBŞ (resumed this month) and the new presence of a military competitor with the KDP would intuitively indicate an upswing in the fortunes of PKK affiliates. But in fact, the presence of this new “ally” will more likely spell the decline of PKK influence in Sinjar. Even if the presence of the Hashd alleviates some of the pressure facing the YBŞ, giving it a longer lifespan than would be the case if it had no support against KDP forces and Turkey, the relevance of the group over the long run may wane.

As I have written previously, Yazidis have hoped that the PKK role in Sinjar would be temporary. Most did not buy into the PKK’s larger ideological message but hoped that the PKK would act as a bulwark, preventing the KDP from regaining hegemony until the Yazidis could create a framework of self-administration. Many Yazidis have been wary of exchanging one form of single-party Kurdish rule for another, but joined the YBŞ and its related civil administrative entities (such as the “Self-Administrative Council”) hoping to resist the KDP’s attempts to restore its dominance until a new opportunity presented itself for the creation of a more autonomous form of local governance. In a sense, they have succeeded in this.

Flag of the Self-Administrative Council of Sinjar

As soon as the Hashd al-Sha’bi arrived on the scene, a crisis began inside the YBŞ. Yazidis are not only deserting the Peshmerga—the YBŞ is also losing many fighters who are flocking to join the Yazidi Hashd. Though Yazidis do not blame the YBŞ for not liberating the southern collectives the way they blame the Peshmerga (they know that the YBŞ have not been capable of doing it alone and yet have been highly active on the front line), other frustrations have led to a gradual increase of tensions with the PKK leadership.

Many fighters have been frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the YBŞ in countering the Peshmerga Rojava’s endeavor to thwart their mobility. The local Yazidis in the YBŞ are frustrated with the PKK leadership for not taking a tougher stance on Peshmerga expansionism in the mountain. But beyond these more circumstantial challenges, the biggest mistake of the PKK has been its inflexibility in pushing its ideological agenda, which is in many ways culturally foreign to Sinjar’s Yazidis. The Yazidis who have joined the PKK-affiliates and helped lead the Self-Administrative Council have repeatedly asked the PKK to empower them to create a more locally-specific system rather than one that has to mirror PKK institutions elsewhere. But as a former Council member confided in me, “What they promise and what they do are different.” Council members also feel that the PKK is not transparent with the Yazidi leaders about its own political agendas, which may not completely align with the goals of the local community. Though in word, the PKK always conveys receptiveness regarding Yazidi aspirations, many Yazidis feel that instead of delivering on these overtures, the PKK ultimately wants the YBŞ to be an extension of the PKK in Sinjar rather than giving it the freedom to be a locally distinct entity that is also part of Iraq.

Senior members of the Council are therefore leaving it, at the same time that many YBŞ fighters are leaving the YBŞ and joining the Yazidi Hashd. The changing affiliation of the fighters is being prompted by both the successes of the Hashd al-Sha’bi and the frustrations with the PKK leadership. An exodus is underway from both the military and civilian organizations affiliated with the PKK in Sinjar.

This could be the beginning of the end of the PKK in Sinjar.

The Misconception of PKK–Hashd al-Sha’bi Alignment in Sinjar

After Turkey bombed YBŞ and PKK positions in Sinjar, several media outlets reported that the PKK and its affiliates were beginning to fly Iraqi flags, as a way to assert that these forces and parties were part of Iraq and that by bombing them, Turkey was attacking Baghdad.

Flag of the YBŞ, a local Yazidi PKK affiliate in Sinjar

These reports were exaggerated; very few Iraqi flags were raised, and only by a few local institutions. The YBŞ and other PKK-affiliated militias did not adopt the Iraqi flag.

When, on March 27, the YBŞ began attacking IS from the west in the Siba Sheikh Khider area (as Hashd forces attacked from the east), the Hashd asked the YBŞ to halt their advance. One of the main disputes was reportedly that the YBŞ were not flying the Iraqi flag. A meeting occurred the morning of May 28 between YBŞ and Hashd leaders; the substance of the meeting is unknown, but afterwards the participation of the YBŞ in the Siba area resumed.

Though there has been a tacit alliance between Baghdad and the PKK affiliates in Sinjar (primarily in the absence of Baghdad forces proper), it is now evident that the relationship between the Hashd al-Sha’bi and the PKK will be uneasy. On May 28, Qasim Shevan (the commander of a nonpartisan force of local Yazidis who stayed to defend Sinjar after the genocide, who has remained active yet unaffiliated up to the present) declared his intention to join the Yazidi Hashd. He and his men attempted to travel around the western end of the mountain (from Khanasor through Bara where they would then be able to come eastward along the highway to join the Hashd), but at Bara, the PKK did not allow them to pass. The next day, May 29, fighters affiliated with “Ezidi House,” a Yazidi political organization that advocates keeping Sinjar under Baghdad administration, also decided to join the Yazidi Hashd, but were likewise halted at Bara by the PKK. This move would not have been at all surprising coming from the KDP, but was unexpected from the PKK and illustrates the fact that all three players have distinct agendas. (It is interesting that these groups were not stopped in Khanasor by the Peshmerga Rojava—perhaps the KDP feels that it can no longer stem the tide now amid the massive momentum.)

Yazidi Sinjar PKK Bara Qasim Shevan

May 28, Qasim Shevan blocked by PKK in Bara from joining Yazidi Hashd al-Sha’bi south of Sinjar Mountain

Here it should be pointed at that PKK personnel in Bara, and not Yazidi YBŞ, blocked the passage of these independent fighters traveling to Hashd-controlled territory. Yazidis on their own would not perform such a maneuver, but the PKK tries to guide the YBŞ into following its agenda. This was a fairly deliberate act against Hashd interests. What it underscores is the fact that despite the conflict between the PKK and KDP, both Kurdish groups see the entry of central government forces as a threat to their respective agendas in the area, and like the KDP, the PKK does not want to see large numbers of Yazidis join the Yazidi Hashd. (On May 30, the PKK finally lifted its blockade at Bara, and hundreds of new men immediately joined ranks with the Yazidi Hashd.)

One reason why the Self-Administrative Council has lost members is due to a frustration with the PKK on the issue of working with Baghdad, in particular. The majority of Sinjari Yazidis see the administration of the central government as providing a greater opportunity for local Yazidi governance in Sinjar, in contrast to affiliation with the Kurdistan Region which would never provide the opportunity for local administration separate from KDP control. The YBŞ and the Council, as local entities, have frequently tried to develop a relationship with Baghdad, but feel that the PKK has quietly worked to undermine this. As YBŞ insiders report, the essential PKK message is: “Sinjar is not part of Iraq and you are not part of the Iraqi forces.” That this attitude characterizes the PKK approach to Sinjar explains why there was little coordination between the YBŞ and the Hashd al-Sha’bi when the operation south of the mountain began this month.

Flag of the YJŞ, the female fighters associated with the YBŞ

Consistent with this, although some photos of a few YBŞ fighters standing with Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi forces were circulated on the 29th, claims of “cooperation” between the two groups are exaggerated. YBŞ forces came to support the fight for Siba Sheikh Khider in the general area outside the town, but their involvement was tenuous and the Hashd al-Sha’bi ended up preventing the YBŞ from entering the town. After the issue on the 27th-28th regarding the use of the Iraqi flag, the Shi’i Hashd al-Sha’bi commanders on the 29th expressed their objection to the participation of the female fighters of the YJŞ (female counterpart to YBŞ) on religious grounds. After then noting the presence of PKK guerrillas accompanying the YBŞ forces, the commanders decided not to allow any YBŞ forces to accompany the Hashd al-Sha’bi into the town.

If the Hashd forces develop a permanent presence in Sinjar, Baghdad may begin to see the PKK affiliates as superfluous. The PKK presence may also be seen by Baghdad as a risk in that it could provide Turkey with a pretext for ground intervention, however unjustified such action would be.

Sinjar—A Part of Iraq?

Sinjar has always officially been part of Nineveh administration and the central government has always provided the budget for almost all of Sinjar’s services and infrastructure. Since 2003, however, the KDP has used strong-arm tactics to push out non-KDP affiliated administrators, giving its own loyalists complete control over a budget that does not originate with the KRI. Ask almost any Sinjari Yazidi—in private—what they think of the KDP-appointed Yazidi officials in Sinjar and prepare for an earful of derision. Officials such as the token “mayor” of Sinjar can legitimately speak for very few Yazidis.

Referring to disputed territories, a recent Rudaw article made the claim that “most of the local population is expected to vote for full integration into the Kurdistan Region.” In regards to Sinjar, the opposite is true. Ask Sinjari Yazidi IDPs in the camps—or those families who have returned to Sinjar—in private whether they prefer to see Sinjar remain under Baghdad administration or become an official part of the Kurdistan Region, and most everyone will declare a preference for Baghdad. This is not the expression of a special affinity for Baghdad, or even a rejection of the Yazidi homelands as part of a “greater historical Kurdistan.” Rather, it is about the fact that central administration provides an opportunity for governance in Sinjar to bear a more local character in which Yazidis will be able to manage their own affairs and security without external pressure and cooptation. This preference is not a wholesale rejection of the KRG as much as an acute awareness of the fact that Erbil’s authority over Sinjar will inescapably mean KDP rule. Overtures of “Yazidi self-administration within the KRG” are misleading and meaningless.

Baghdad is competing with the KRG for administration in many areas of Iraq. Sinjar—the site of a recent genocide—needs to be dealt with separately from other areas. Whereas Kurdistan may have legitimate claims to certain disputed areas, Sinjar is a Yazidi homeland where the majority of the population maintains a preference for local administration rather than inclusion in the KRI.

Despite this talk about referendums, we will never see the KDP push for a referendum on Sinjar because they know that the local people will not support KDP administration there. Regardless of the KDP’s ceaseless claims to this disputed territory, they cannot overcome the simple fact that the local majority prefers to work with the central government.

An Iraqi Yazidi Solution

In October 2014, I joined a delegation of Yazidis to Washington that included tribal leaders from Sinjar. In the White House, we met with Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes who worked closely with President Obama to define US policy in the Middle East. In the meeting, the Yazidis asked the US administration to empower them to create a local, nonpartisan security force for Sinjar. Rhodes replied that the US was willing to support a Yazidi component within a theoretical Iraqi national guard system. Unfortunately, that support never appeared and the political competition over Sinjar has only further deteriorated.

The new role of the Hashd al-Sha’bi, and of its affiliated Yazidi battalions, provides an opportunity for Western governments to help end the standoff between external Kurdish parties and enable the Yazidis to accomplish what they have consistently asked the international community for since the first day of the genocide: nonpartisan security, administration, and governance, managed by local Yazidis from Sinjar and—appropriately for a context of genocide—sponsored by the international community.

Yazidis are not calling for the kind of autonomy that the Kurdistan Region enjoys within Iraq’s federal system, but rather envision the opportunity to manage their own homeland—as part of a unified Iraq—free of the scourge of single-party rule external to Sinjar. The US and other Western governments can help hold Baghdad accountable in guaranteeing a local, Yazidi administration in Sinjar.

That so many Yazidis are now joining the Yazidi Hashd creates an opportunity to develop this local security force. The Yazidi Hashd can be transitioned into a permanent, local force in Sinjar that does not necessarily need to remain a part of the Hashd system, but could be administered by the appropriate ministry in Baghdad.

Many of the Yazidis who joined the Peshmerga in Sinjar will disclose that they only did so for a salary and do not possess any real loyalty to the KDP. As Yazidis in the KDP Peshmerga and PKK affiliates join a nonpartisan security force (just as they are now leaving their respective militias to join the Yazidi Hashd), the competition on the ground in Sinjar would be rendered irrelevant and the influence of these Kurdish parties would decrease. This would occur without an outbreak of conflict between the KDP Peshmerga and the Yazidi Hashd, as opposition to a new security order will not be significant if the ranks of Peshmerga continue to dissolve. The same will be the case for the YBŞ. We have observed a refusal among the Yazidi Peshmerga to fight any other Yazidi force, which is why the KDP instead sent the non-Yazidi Peshmerga Rojava to besiege Khanasor, backed up by additional Peshmerga from the Gergeri population of Zummar who have occupied Snune. Most Yazidis just want to live a simple life in Sinjar, and will wholeheartedly reject party politics, if a healthy alternative is provided.

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The PKK and its affiliates will always be deeply respected by Sinjar’s Yazidis for saving them when IS besieged Sinjar Mountain, for helping the Yazidis maintain the most effective front line resistance against IS in Sinjar thereafter, for supplying tremendous amounts of food aid to Sinjar for well over a year after August 3, 2014, and for building schools and health centers for IDPs who built their camps on top of the mountain. Nevertheless, the long-term objectives of the PKK in Sinjar are not fully compatible with what the majority of Yazidis want for their homeland: a peaceful area that avoids becoming embroiled in national and regional politics, or pressured to adopt identity definitions imposed by proponents of competing nationalisms.

The new presence in Sinjar of forces affiliated with the central government has immediately diminished the importance of both the KDP and the PKK in the area. If Yazidis continue to join the Yazidi Hashd battalions, the PKK will steadily fade in importance, even if some die-hard members who have fully embraced PKK ideology remain active. The ranks of the Yazidi KDP Peshmerga will probably continue to decline, but with the Peshmerga Rojava and KDP asaish in the area, the KDP will endeavor to forcibly maintain its presence. The international community can facilitate the transfer of authority to the new Yazidi security system while helping the KDP accept the fact that it has lost the contest for popular legitimacy in Sinjar.

KDP administration in Sinjar is spotty at best and by no means indispensable: it currently exists alongside the YBŞ-affiliated Self-Administrative Council—two civil administration systems simultaneously claiming legitimacy in Sinjar. Despite the return of several thousand families to Sinjar’s north side, the KDP has been unable or unwilling to provide much in the way of restored infrastructure or services. If the responsibility for and means to maintain security are transferred to politically-unaffiliated local leaders with good reputations among the people, the community can choose respected representatives to work with the central government in developing legitimate administration in Sinjar.

The UN, US, and a number of European governments have all recognized the Yazidi tragedy as genocide. The urgent priority, therefore, should be facilitating the return of the Yazidi people to their homeland (which is now completely free of IS) and assisting with the reconstruction of their infrastructure and homes, without the harmful presence of Kurdish militias. If the roles of PKK and Peshmerga militias are reduced, and security responsibilities are transferred to a legal, local, nonpartisan Yazidi force, a major step will be taken to end despair-driven emigration from Iraq and ensure the future survival of this minority in its homeland, in the way that they themselves are requesting.

This is an opportunity that must be seized now.

China, the U.S, and the Future of the Middle East – By Sam Farah

Sam Farah

China, the U.S., and the Future of the Middle East
By Sam Farah
for Syria Comment – May 1, 2017

Richard Fontain, and Michael Singh propose Chinese – US cooperation to stabilize the Middle East in a recent article:

The United States and China undeniably have overlapping interests in the region, providing a possible basis for competition, collaboration, or both. They also share a modest record of cooperation, including the Iran nuclear negotiations and on antipiracy operations…. Given the likelihood that the United States and China will remain at loggerheads in East Asia for the foreseeable future, the Middle East could represent an important arena through which to lower bilateral tensions and demonstrate that the otherwise highly competitive relationship need not be zero-sum.

Fontain and Singh are correct. The benefits of a cooperative relationship between the U.S. and China in the Middle East can have tangible benefits for both countries. A stable Middle East is at the heart of China’s new vision for its One Road One Belt project, a strategy that underlines China’s push to take a bigger role in global affairs.

The increased instability and radicalization in the Middle East poses a security threat to China’s mainland.  Thousands of Chinese jihadists from the western province of Xinjiang have come to Syria since the country’s civil war began in March 2011 to fight government forces. And in 2016 a suicide bomb attack on the Chinese embassy in the Kyrgyz capital was ordered by Uighur militants active in Syria.

At the same time, the Middle East has become a major source of energy for China.

And while the Middle East remains a security threat for the U.S. as a source of terrorism, it is less strategically important than it once was. The U.S. has become more energy self-sufficient, and is projected to significantly cut its reliance on oil from the Middle East.

In the same article, Fontain and Sing make a misguided proposal that the U.S. should reengage in the region the” traditional way”:

The best way for Washington to minimize the opportunities for further inroads by Beijing or Moscow—or at least to set the framework by which other external powers engage in the region—is to shore up key relationships with allies like Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and the Gulf states.

This traditional engagement will polarize the Middle East further, and exacerbate the war in Syria.  U.S. officials know that these allies are arming and supplying the most radical terrorist organizations including ISIS and Al Qaeda in their bid for regional influence.

The traditional U.S.  peace-building effort in the Middle East has focused on individual conflicts and has yielded precious little despite intense effort by several American administrations. Neoconservatives, who argued that the promotion of liberal democracies is a precondition to peace in the Middle East, have pushed for regime change in many countries in the region, only to see violence, extremism and terrorism reach new heights, all at a huge cost to the American taxpayer.

The Chinese approach to the Middle East will be different. According to Yang Guang, the Chinese solution would pair a regional approach with economic development. This is a much different and likely a better approach to peace building in the Middle East. It is clear that the Syrian crisis is a regional war, and the Kurdish issue is a regional issue as is the Israeli – Palestinian issue. The Chinese would also have an easier time than the U.S. facilitating dialogue in the region. China won’t be viscerally rejected by the leftists in the region, and is less suspect than the Europeans whose colonial history in the Middle East has never been forgotten.

The current conflicts in the Middle East are not primordial. The same communities that are at war today have lived peacefully together for centuries. According to Philip Mansel’s book Levant; Splendor and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, many of the cities in the Levant were multicultural, multilingual and mixed; mosques, churches and synagogues were built side by side. Trade bound its inhabitants, and their cities were at once Middle Eastern and Mediterranean. They were cosmopolitan then, as Singapore, London, and New York are today.

The descent of the Middle East into what seems today as perpetual war began with the rise of nationalism in the Middle East at the turn of the twentieth century.

When it comes to the Middle East today, all the major global powers are engaged in reactionary stopgap measures. What the region needs is a departure from nationalist and identity politics.  Creating the conditions and framework in which nationalistic and identity politics dissipate, allowing for communities to live peacefully side by side is the answer. That won’t happen at the bilateral level; it requires a regional approach.

A stable Middle East, neutralized political Islam (depoliticizing islam), and secure energy and trade routes are a win-win for Russia, China, and the U.S., not to mention Europe.

Neither China, the U.S. nor Russia can do it alone. It is also doubtful that any of these major powers want to “win” in the Middle East and be held solely responsible for the stability and security of the region.

Reconciliations: The Case of al-Sanamayn in North Deraa

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Photo from al-Sanamayn, April 2017.

It is often thought that the regime has a grand strategy for suppressing the rebellion in the western half of the country that constitutes the main conflict within the Syrian civil war. In reality though, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and the question of how the regime deals with restive areas very much depends on area and circumstances. In some places, a Sunni-Alawite sectarian faultline has influenced the regime’s approach: thus we see a clear demographic shift in the city of Homs in favour of the Alawites, with the rebellious and predominantly Sunni neighbourhoods largely depopulated. Indeed it seems unlikely that the majority of the original inhabitants of those neighbourhoods will return for the foreseeable future. Some areas that are not tied to this sectarian faultline but proved to be a thorn in the regime’s side for years- such as Darayya, a suburb to the south of Damascus- will also likely remain depopulated for the time being. Indeed, as of the time of writing, Darayya remains a military zone that can only be visited with a special permit, even for Shi’i pilgrims who may want to see the largely ruined Sakina shrine in the area.

However, it would not be feasible for the regime to depopulate every restive area. It is in this context that the mechanism of ‘reconciliation’ (musalaha) exists, whereby an agreement is struck in order to bring an area officially back under regime authority. The exact terms of the reconciliation agreements have varied from place to place, perhaps reflecting some experimentation. This article will focus on the case of al-Sanamayn, a town in north Deraa province where a reconciliation agreement was struck at the end of December 2016. It is of course also important to give the context of the agreement, thus this article will first provide a general description of the town and its history during the Syrian civil war.

Unlike some other Deraa localities, al-Sanamayn has no Shi’i population. Rather it is entirely Sunni. The populations of Deraa localities can also normally be divided into the most important extended families/clans. In al-Sanamayn, these families are:

– al-Atmeh
– al-Nasar
– al-Falah
– al-Labad
– al-Dhiyab
– al-Haimid
– al-Shatar

In addition to the original population, the town also hosts a number of people internally displaced from nearby villages over the course of the Syrian civil war.

On account of its location, the town of al-Sanamayn has been regarded as an important strategic point. From the rebel perspective, capturing the town could have served as a ‘gateway’ to connect with the rebel-held areas in the Damascus countryside and suburbs and thus launch a serious fight to take Damascus from the regime. However, in light of the regime’s consolidation of control of much of the Damascus area since 2013-2014, and the constraints faced by the Southern Front (primarily consisting of local Free Syrian Army-banner units working with an operations room in Amman), any notions of taking Damascus from the regime can only be seen as fanciful at this stage. For the regime, the al-Sanamayn area is home to an important base for the Syrian army’s 9th division serving as a logistics point and a position to fire on rebel positions in the wider north Deraa area. The al-Sanamayn area also has a base for the 15th brigade affiliated with the 5th division. In addition, al-Sanamayn bears some industrial importance for the regime’s development plans in Deraa, as al-Sanamayn is supposed to feature an industrial area that was partly the subject of a recent conference attended by the artisans union and the Deraa provincial governor Muhammad Khalid al-Hanus. There are also some personal loyalist connections to al-Sanamayn: most importantly, the head of the Deraa province branch of the Ba’ath Party- Kamal al-Atmeh– is from al-Sanamayn.

Though there was never a major battle waged by rebels from outside the town to advance into al-Sanamayn and take control of it, the town saw the rise of a number of local rebel factions within its neighbourhoods. This development is hardly surprising considering that the town saw protests against the regime on multiple occasions in 2011, indicating the existence of considerable popular discontent. In late March 2011, a violent crackdown on protests in al-Sanamayn occurred, dubbed a massacre in pro-opposition media.

A protest on 6 November 2011 in al-Sanamayn. The banner in the name of “Revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn” reads: “We don’t love you.” The Syrian Arabic- Ma Manhibbak– is a play on the common slogan in support of Assad: Manhibbak (“We love you”).

The town of al-Sanamayn has never featured some of the more familiar names of the Syrian insurgency like Jabhat al-Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham, even as many rebels of al-Sanamayn origin have participated in fighting outside the area. Instead, the factions that emerged within al-Sanamayn derived from a strictly local basis. The first faction to arise in al-Sanamayn was Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn (“The al-Sanamayn Martyrs Battalion”) in late 2012, under the leadership of Abu Fadi al-Saydali (real name: Muhammad Jaber al-Atmeh), who worked as a service taxi driver between Damascus and al-Sanamayn before the uprising. Other local groups were then formed through the course of 2013 as rebel forces inside al-Sanamayn gained strength. Most notably, in May 2013 came the announcement of the group Katibat Nusrat al-Haq (“Supporting the Truth Battalion”), under the leadership of one Abd al-Latif al-Haimid, who studied at the Shari’i college in Damascus university and taught Islamic education, thus the use of the honorific title of sheikh in reference to him.

Soon after it was formed, Katibat Nusrat al-Haq came into conflict with Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, which accused the group of engaging in criminal behaviour through taking money from civilians in the al-Sanamayn area under threat of arms, while falsely using Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn’s name and the pretext of buying weapons for the battalion. Notice the deriding of Abd al-Latif al-Haimid’s title of sheikh by Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn. The other side of the story is the claim that this dispute was rooted in al-Saydali’s perception that Katibat Nusrat al-Haq posed a threat to his influence over the rebel milieu in al-Sanamayn, as Abd al-Latif al-Haimid was supposedly not the sort of character who could have sanctioned criminal behaviour in light of his Islamic background. Abd al-Latif al-Haimid was found dead at the end of 2013 in rather murky circumstances while outside of al-Sanamayn, though accusations of kidnapping and assassination were directed at the Mujahideen of Hawran Battalion affiliated with the group Liwa Hamza Assad Allah, with which Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn also had links in 2013.

Like many other rebel environments, the al-Sanamayn area saw its share of faction merger initiatives. In February 2014 came the announcement of the formation of Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra (“Fire of the Revolution Brigade”), likely a homage to the title of Sha’alat al-Thawra that has become associated with al-Sanamayn. With a purview beyond the town of al-Sanamayn, the brigade was declared to be “operating in the northwest region of Deraa province.” The formation statement declared the leader to be Yahya al-Rifa’i, with one Maher al-Labad as his deputy, while al-Saydali would serve as the head of civil affairs for the group. Probably owing to tensions with al-Saydali, Katibat Nusrat al-Haq did not join the initiative. Later in July 2014, Maher al-Labad would also found his own contingent: Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir (“Dawn of Liberation Brigade”), though that did not necessarily amount to a defection from Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra. The names of both Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir and Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra are mentioned in conducting operations against regime forces in the months following the former’s formation. The links between the two are also illustrated by the fact that they have adopted the same subsequent affiliations, mostly recently being affiliated to the Southern Front’s 46th infantry division. The main difference now is that Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir maintains a presence inside al-Sanamayn city, whereas Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra does not. As for Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, it had apparently gone its own way by 2015, as al-Saydali had allegedly sought to marginalise others like Maher al-Labad in Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra and claim the leadership for himself. There were also claims of criminal behaviour and imposition of extortion fees on civilians.

As the rebel presence inside al-Sanamayn town developed, a limited form of civil society embodied in local councils emerged. The first local council was announced on social media in August 2013. Another local council was announced in November 2013. The local council announced in November 2013 still exists to this day, is headed by one Yassin al-Atmeh (himself currently based in Jordan) and is affiliated with the Deraa provincial council tied to the Syrian interim government. This local council was also tied to the Union of Local Councils in Deraa Province (an initiative headed by one Ali Ahmad al-Rakab who is based in the Gulf region) but subsequently withdrew from it, and urged all aid organizations not to work with it for provision of any aid to al-Sanamayn. Its authority was most notably backed by Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra’s leadership in a statement in late October 2014. Meanwhile, the local council that had been declared on social media in August 2013 joined the Union of Local Councils in Deraa Province, and enjoyed backing from several of al-Sanamayn’s factions, including Katibat Nusrat al-Haq and Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed (about which more later). In the end though, over the course of 2015 the local council under Yassin al-Atmeh prevailed, likely because it had stronger support.

Even so, it should be noted that despite the apparent comprehensiveness of the offices announced for the local councils, most of the public services in al-Sanamayn have been provided throughout by the regime. The local council bodies have instead been limited to distribution of gifts and aid on particular occasions (cf. here and here). According to Yassin al-Atmeh, his local council, which on the ground in al-Sanamayn is presently headed by one al-Tayyib Abu al-Nur, continues some of these activities today, telling me: “The council still provides what it can to aid the orphans and the sons of those detained, along with aid from organizations and the people of benevolence, who have taken it upon themselves to pay sums for the orphans.” All that said, there are allegations that Yassin al-Atmeh has enriched himself, along with Muhammad Jaber al-Atmeh, through corruption and theft of local council money.

So how did the reconciliation come about? As mentioned above, rebel forces inside al-Sanamayn gained strength through 2013. While service provision by the regime remained, large parts of al-Sanamayn effectively fell outside of regime control. The main exceptions were the market road and the general road in al-Sanamayn. The rebels would target regime positions and bases with projectiles or engage in relatively small-scale clashes. Instances of kidnappings by one side would lead to tit-for-tat escalation. The worst such incident appears to have been a massacre conducted by regime forces in April 2013, reportedly killing more than 60 people in an assault that was focused on al-Sanamayn’s southern neighbourhoods. Civilians would sometimes be caught in the crossfire more generally. For instance, in November 2015, at least one civilian was killed and a number of others wounded as rebel mortar fire landed at the site of the bakery.

The regime’s main leverage over the rebel factions in al-Sanamayn was to impose a siege on the neighbourhoods in which the rebels had effective control, blocking access to commodities and goods. Thus in December 2015, the regime’s forces imposed a blockade on those neighbourhoods, reportedly in retaliation for the rebel factions targeting a car carrying an army officer and a number of personnel. The rebel factions in turn had reportedly carried out the attack in response to the arrest of a youth from al-Sanamayn at one of the regime checkpoints around the town. The blockade was lifted after negotiations between the rebel factions and the regime forces, on condition that the rebels do not attack regime positions or personnel. Another condition of this virtual ceasefire was that people in al-Sanamayn should be able to participate in the subsequent parliamentary elections, which took place in April 2016.

The regime would go on to impose a new siege on the rebel-held areas of al-Sanamayn in response to a perceived violation of the de facto truce, as a man called Imad al-Labad and his group- well known for criminality among the people of al-Sanamayn- had stolen a number of cars, including one belonging to one of the regime’s security apparatuses. The regime then used this opportunity to try to resolve the problems it faced in al-Sanamayn by pressing for a reconciliation agreement. Rebel opinion was divided at the time regarding how to respond to the new siege. Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed, based only inside of al-Sanamayn, rejected the idea put forward mostly by al-Sanamayn rebels based outside the town to target the regime’s military points inside the town, fearing the consequences for those already besieged inside the town. There does appear to have been some outside rebel firing on the town to target the regime, which killed at least one civilian.

The pressure created by the siege was a contributing factor to negotiations in December 2016 and the formal reconciliation agreement towards the end of that month. Key to the negotiation of this agreement on the regime side was Wafiq Nasir, head of the military intelligence in southern Syria. Wafiq Nasir is widely disliked among more third-way Druze in Deraa’s neighbouring province of Suwayda’ where his authority also applies. The other key figure on the regime side was the head of the Syrian army’s 9th division. Intermediaries in the reconciliation agreement were Jamal al-Asha, head of the reconciliation committee in al-Sanamayn, and one Antar al-Labad, who is accused of dealing in stolen cars, wider theft and of being close to Wafiq Nasir. He had set up his own very small armed group that was initially on the side of the rebels, but well before the reconciliation, he had established relations with the regime. During the siege of al-Sanamayn prior to the reconciliation, he was able to use his influence to bring about a lifting of the siege at the end of November 2016. Jamal al-Asha is apparently of the al-Labad family, with his son allegedly on the side of the rebels and based in Nawa. Both a Jamal al-Labad and an Antar al-Labad are named along with a number of other locals by pro-opposition outlet Zaman al-Wasl as those who had been pushing for a reconciliation agreement in al-Sanamayn to avoid a Darayya-style scenario. Observe that the family names of those named by Zaman al-Wasl indicate that they are mostly from al-Sanamayn’s biggest families.

The reconciliation agreement did not require a formal undertaking of the reconciliation process by every inhabitant of al-Sanamayn. Rather, the idea was that a certain number of people would undertake the process to represent the entire town. The pro-opposition outlet al-Modon says that the reconciliation was imposed on a clan basis: that is, that each clan/extended family should have a representation in the reconciliation agreement. For its part, the regime’s state media outlet SANA claimed on 25 December 2016 that 510 people in al-Sanamayn- among them 150 “armed men”- carried out taswiyat al-wad’ (“sorting out of affairs”) as part of the reconciliation, while handing over weapons to the security apparatuses. No one inside al-Sanamayn was compelled to leave for Idlib or other rebel-held areas.

Among those who formally reconciled, one important motive to undergo reconciliation would be to deal with the problem of being wanted for military service. In this case, taswiyat al-wad’ would grant a temporary formal respite. As for the rebel factions inside al-Sanamayn, it is clear that not every member or even leader of every faction formally reconciled and handed over weapons. Indeed, there was no requirement for them all to do so, and any formal reconciliation on the part of the rebels can be seen as symbolic. The most notable rebel faction leader who formally reconciled was Tha’ir al-Falah, leader of Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed. In contrast, Abu Fadi al-Saydali, leader of Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn, did not formally reconcile, though he did meet with Wafiq Nasir.

It must be emphasised that while not every rebel or rebel leader inside al-Sanamayn formally reconciled, all the rebel factions operating inside the town have agreed to abide by the state of affairs imposed by the reconciliation. This situation is not all that different from the agreement struck after the lifting of the siege in December 2015. Thus, as of now, the factions still exist inside of al-Sanamayn and have kept hold of many of their weapons, but they do not attack any regime positions or personnel. Meanwhile, the regime provides services as usual, maintains state institutions in the town, and allows regular flow of commodities and goods to all areas of the town. Also as will be recalled from above, the local council of Yassin al-Atmeh still exists at a very modest level as before. Furthermore, the regime’s army and security forces do not generally intervene in security and criminal incidents in the town, allowing the factions to deal with these matters, while legal affairs such as marriage are dealt with by the regime’s court system. Thus, the regime avoids arresting anyone inside al-Sanamayn. That said, the regime has helped to set up a new faction inside al-Sanamayn to try to help maintain security in the town, about which more below.

At present, the main factions inside al-Sanamayn are:

– Katibat Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn of Abu Fadi al-Saydali.
– Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed of Tha’ir al-Falah (aka Tha’ir al-Abbas).
– Liwa Fajr al-Tahrir of Maher al-Labad, though Maher al-Labad is not inside al-Sanamayn. By virtue of links to Liwa Sha’alat al-Thawra and the 46th infantry division, there is a presence for this group outside al-Sanamayn as well.
– Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, led by one Abu Zaher al-Labad (real name: Barhum Mahmoud al-Labad): a new group created after the release of Abu Zaher al-Labad from prison as per the reconciliation agreement requiring the release of sets of detainees. The group mostly contains people from the al-Labad family and was set up with help from the military intelligence.

In addition to these factions, there are some smaller armed groups, each of which does not have more than 10-15 people. These groups may constitute criminal gangs and/or partly reflect remnants of al-Sanamayn’s minor factions from earlier years. Muhammad Khalif, the leader of Katibat Dir’ al-Sanamayn (aka Liwa Dir’ al-Sanamayn), and a representative on his behalf, for instance, insisted to me that his group is still a real actor on the ground in al-Sanamayn (recall the group’s name among the signatories that backed the local council that lost out to Yassin al-Atmeh’s outfit). Yet a media activist in al-Sanamayn- Abu al-Awras al-Shami- insisted that the group does not have a presence on the ground and was dissolved some time ago. The reality is perhaps somewhere in between. It may be the case that Katibat Dir’ al-Sanamayn no longer exists as a meaningful name on the ground in the town, but perhaps Khalif can call on some armed supporters in times of trouble for him or his family.

Other factions of note and bearing the name of al-Sanamayn (e.g. Liwa Shuhada’ al-Sanamayn of the Tajammu’ Alwiyat al-Omari and Liwa Suqur al-Sanamayn of the First Army) do not have a presence inside al-Sanamayn at present, but are operating in other rebel-held areas in the south. Foreign militias supporting the regime like Hezbollah do not maintain a presence inside al-Sanamayn or try to recruit from the people of al-Sanamayn. With the at least temporary respite in conscription, the regime has opened an office in al-Sanamayn aiming to recruit people into the Fifth Legion, a formation strongly backed by Russia and intended to recruit people on a voluntary basis with substantial benefits, including those who have done taswiyat al-wad’.

al-Sanamayn, April 2017.

So on the whole, how is life in al-Sanamayn after the reconciliation? Commenting in general on the reconciliation, the media representative for Muhammad Khalif did not necessarily object to it, clarifying: “If these reconciliations prevent bloodshed, we all welcome them…The reconciliation happened through pressure from the people of al-Sanamayn town on the revolutionaries present inside, because all the revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn are from the people of the town.”

For many opposition/rebel supporters and activists, the reconciliation amounts to little more than cynical regime propaganda. “This reconciliation arose for media purposes for the regime’s interest only in order to promote reconciliations to the rest of the localities in Deraa province,” said Aboud al-Hawrani, an activist for the pro-opposition “Revolutionaries of al-Sanamayn” media office. He elaborated: “Even before the reconciliation, al-Sanamayn was in a state of ceasefire with the regime [referring to the agreement in December 2015]  and the problems that arose with the regime arose on an individual basis only: i.e. if the regime arrested one of someone’s relatives, that person would cause problems with the regime like kidnapping military personnel and firing on a military zone…This state of affairs remains the case even after the reconciliation. This reconciliation is a media movement only for the regime on the basis that al-Sanamayn has come under complete control.”

Other people in al-Sanamayn with whom I spoke agreed with the basic point that the current situation is little different from the previous status quo (i.e. the one prior to the siege imposed just before the reconciliation). In this state of affairs, the existence of multiple armed factions and gangs without a real central intervening authority poses an important problem for those who just want greater stability, order and rule-of-law. Indeed, Ala’ al-Din al-Labad, one of the individuals named by Zaman al-Wasl as being behind the efforts to push for a reconciliation, seemed gloomy about the current situation. He was never a supporter of the opposition but not necessarily an ideological loyalist of the regime. Rather, his primary desires are stability and security. “The situation is like the silence before the storm,” he said. He went on to explain: “When arms spread in the hands of the ignorant, there is much killing, as well as treachery, extortion and theft. This is our state of affairs now.” He also pointed out the poor state of services provision, affirming that “there is one hour of very weak and intermittent electricity for every four hours it is cut off. Water is available for 4 hours a week. Insufficient.” The provision of national grid electricity (Arabic: kahraba’ wataniya) by a ratio of around 1-1.5 hours for every 4-5 hours it is cut off was corroborated by others residing in al-Sanamayn.

At this stage, the main factions inside al-Sanamayn primarily amount to clan-interest groups. As Tha’ir al-Falah explained, “We no longer have [political] factions in al-Sanamayn, they have become clan factions: every armed person affiliated with his family.” Thus, his group- Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed- mostly consists of members of the al-Falah clan that primarily inhabits the northeastern part of the town. Abu al-Awras al-Shami, himself from the al-Haimid family, offered a similar assessment: “In the recent time, the armed factions in al-Sanamayn have become clan factions: that is, every family has armed men from its sons, whose aim is to protect the family from any attack.”

When this point is taken into account along with the existence of criminal gangs, Ala’ al-Din al-Labad’s concerns about lack of security are hardly surprising. As Abu al-Awras al-Shami also explained, “There are many security problems in the town from theft, kidnapping and assault on the people by force of arms, and no one can put a stop to these criminals.” One example of these problems is an incident that received some opposition media attention around a month ago, as it involved the new Katibat Maghawir al-Haq. The event- a clash that killed at least one person and wounded a number of people- was portrayed in the pro-opposition media outlet All4Syria as a clash along loyalist-rebel lines (Katibat Maghawir al-Haq vs. “the battalions of the revolutionaries”). In fact, this portrayal is quite off-base. Fundamentally, the incident involved clashes between members of the al-Dhiyab family and members of the al-Labad family. The roots of the issue lie in an attempt by at least two people from the al-Dhiyab family- apparently members of a notorious criminal gang led by one Nadim al-Dhiyab- to impose an extortion fee on a shop, allegedly demanding 500,000 Syrian pounds and threatening to burn the shop if the owner did not pay the extortion fee. This threat was rejected by the shop owner, who then contacted Barhum al-Labad to intervene. Barhum al-Labad then came with one Abu Abdo al-Shatar and someone else from the al-Labad family, and tried to get the gang members to leave. When they refused, one of them was shot in the leg. Barhum then sent men to members of the al-Dhiyab family to try to prevent a wider clash. Despite an apparent initial agreement from the wider al-Dhiyab family, there was then an assault by members of the al-Dhiyab family on the Harat al-Labad (the part of the town where the al-Labad family is found in large numbers).

Also of note with regards to All4Syria’s coverage of the incident is the claim that Katibat Maghawir al-Haq is affiliated with the Fifth Legion. An interesting follow-up item was posted on All4Syria, in which Katibat Maghawir al-Haq ostensibly denied this affiliation in a statement, which is reproduced below.

The statement at first sight has all the trappings of a typical Deraa rebel faction, using the monikers of  “the Free Syrian Army” and “the Southern Front.” The statement includes revolutionary affirmations like the following: “Our complete readiness…to defend our land against the Assadist criminal gangs.” It concludes with the declaration: “Victory to our blessed revolution.” The interesting thing about this statement though is that it may not have been written by Abu Zaher al-Labad at all, but rather Maher al-Labad, who was angered by All4Syria’s claim about Katibat Maghawir al-Haq and told Abu al-Awras al-Shami that he intended for an apology statement from All4Syria, as he considered that All4Syria’s article would be harmful to the al-Labad family.

In any case, the conflict involving Katibat Maghawir al-Haq required intervention from Wafiq Nasir. According to Tha’ir al-Falah, Wafiq Nasir has formally distanced himself and the military intelligence from the faction in statements to the people of al-Sanamayn. Tha’ir al-Falah attributes this distancing to the problem of this clash, adding that “Maghawir al-Haq is a faction that does not have popular support in al-Sanamayn. The town has agreed on this point.” A more sympathetic view of the faction was offered by Ala’ al-Din al-Labad, portraying it as a group dedicated to cracking down on criminal behaviour. Family affiliation biases are likely at play here.

Tha’ir al-Falah’s own faction was involved in a minor clash this month, after a member of an armed gang demanded that a doctor provide him with free treatment, threatening him with his weapons. When the doctor refused, the member of the armed gang attacked him and opened fire on his clinic, prompting an intervention from Tha’ir al-Falah, resulting in a clash that lasted no more than a matter of minutes. Afterwards the armed gang came to Liwa Ummat al-Tawheed’s base and apologised to the doctor, resolving the case.

It would be a mistake to presume that all conflicts inside al-Sanamayn are between members of different families, just as not all conflicts within Iraq and Syria more generally take place along ethno-religious sectarian lines. A recent case that culminated in a trial and execution of the accused by qisas ruling involved people from the same clan: al-Atmeh. In particular, a young man called Ismail Yahya al-Atmeh, a member of Abu Fadi al-Saydali’s faction, killed a father and son (also of the al-Atmeh clan) in a quarrel. After much pressure from people in al-Sanamayn on Abu Fadi al-Saydali, Ismail al-Atmeh was arrested, and he then acknowledged his crime. Interestingly, in keeping with the regime’s general non-interference in security and criminal matters in al-Sanamayn, the case was referred to the Dar al-‘Adl (“Abode of Justice”), the main rebel judicial authority in southern Syria. To be sure, the Dar al-‘Adl does not have a base in al-Sanamayn: rather the connection was done remotely. Ismail al-Atmeh fled from his imprisonment but was recaptured. He was then executed in accordance with the qisas ruling at dawn on 18 April.

The security problems in al-Sanamayn are recognised to a degree by the leadership of the main factions, thus on the night of 14-15 April there was a meeting involving the faction leaders and town notables. The principal outcome of this meeting was that the majority agreed on the need to form a security force that has joint participation from all the factions and families. The meeting also pointed to the wider lack of popular support for Katibat Maghawir al-Haq, with the consensus view being that its members do not adhere to good conduct or values, and town notables opined that it should not be entrusted to deal with security problems alone. That said, it remains to be seen how exactly the joint security force will be constituted, and whether it will lead to something that endures practically on the ground.

al-Sanamayn, April 2017.

The situation in al-Sanamayn bears a number of analytical implications for wider analysis of how the regime will deal with restive areas. It is clear that al-Sanamayn is considered by the regime to be a model for how it should eventually deal with the wider rebel-held south. Facing wider manpower shortages, it would not be feasible for the regime to retake every Deraa province town by sheer force and depopulation, which would also risk further large-scale displacements towards Jordan and likely upset the Jordanian government’s less hostile stance (in comparison with some other regional players) towards the regime. Instead, some kind of accommodation with what are largely local, more malleable factions- granting them autonomy in security affairs within ‘reconciled’ localities- is the most realistic option for the regime, even as al-Sanamayn is not a wholly identical situation because it never fell entirely out of regime control and arguably has more strategic importance than an entirely rebel-held town like Nawa. For the rebel factions, a possible additional motive to ‘reconcile’ is the risk of feeling trapped in a pincer between the regime’s forces and its allies on one side and the Islamic State-linked Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed on the other, which exploited rebel weaknesses to secure some advances earlier this year. Civilian pressure on account of war weariness may also be a motive to settle with reconciliation agreements.

At the same time, it is clear that this model does not come without its problems: namely, an atmosphere of lawlessness created by the large number of armed factions and gangs. This phenomenon exists elsewhere in regime-held territory on account of reliance on auxiliary militias, even as the regime continues to provide services and government jobs in those areas. The difference in al-Sanamayn from those other regime-held areas is that the factions occupy a curious limbo position, whereby they do not attack any regime positions or personnel and the Syrian state institutions function in their place, but they are appealing to a rebel/opposition judicial authority (Dar al-‘Adl) to resolve at least some criminal cases. Within areas controlled by Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed, it is clear from some civilian residents that one perceived advantage of the group’s rule is that it is rule by one faction, and thus brings a sense of order. This issue might make the group’s rule more attractive than continued formal rebel control or a reconciliation agreement on the model of al-Sanamayn.

Could the al-Sanamayn reconciliation framework be applied elsewhere in Syria, especially in Idlib province that is the last epicentre for the insurgency’s conflict with the regime? It seems more doubtful on account of the dominance of far more irreconcilable and ideologically hardline elements, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham. To be sure, both of these factions were important inside the Damascus countryside towns of Madaya and Zabadani on the border with Lebanon that were the subject of recent mutual evacuation agreements, but the negotiations took place and were exceptional in nature most notably because there was leverage over Iran in besieging the two Idlib Shi’i towns of al-Fu’a and Kafariya. For Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib more generally, there is no further leverage in trying to resist a forthcoming push by the regime and its allies into Idlib. It is more likely in the endgame to go with al-Qa’ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri’s advice to move away from the idea of controlling territory and instead focus on guerrilla tactics.

Revisiting the Malki Affair – By Christopher Solomon

Revisiting the Malki Affair
By Christopher Solomon @Solomon_Chris
For Syria Comment – April 23, 2017

On April 22, 1955, a charismatic young Syrian army officer was gunned down on a football field. The assassination of Adnan al-Malki brought about the one of the first political crackdowns in Syria’s history. The Malki Affairs and its aftermath shed light on one of the country’s earliest shifts towards authoritarianism along a sharp turn towards anti-western sentiment.

The first sign that Pax Syriana was coming to an end was the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005. Demonstrations against Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution and the West were held in defiance in Damascus. State-organized rallies across the capital illustrated the regime’s discontent with the political blowback that followed the killing of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Part of this discontent was exhibited through the widespread display among the crowds of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s (SSNP) flags along Adnan al-Malki Boulevard. The black flags emblazoned with the red hurricane device signaled the official return of Pan-Syrian nationalism in the country where it was banned since the 1955 assassination of the boulevard’s namesake, who was the Deputy Chief of Staff in the Syrian army and a rising star in Syrian politics.

Malki’s assassination rocked Syria and brought about a harsh crack down on the SSNP that ultimately eradicated them from Syrian politics for fifty years. It was also a major political spectacle that marked a turning point in the country’s brief return to democracy back to a long era of authoritarianism under the Baath.

Today, the SSNP has not only been rehabilitated in Syria’s political sphere but the movement is now fighting on the side of the regime against opposition forces on multiple fronts. The party’s militia, the Eagles of the Whirlwind, has fought in Homs, took part in the siege of Aleppo, and the recently recaptured desert town of Palmyra from the Islamic State (IS). The dramatic turnaround for the once outlawed movement, officially legalized in 2005, is striking. Prior to the start of the current civil war the details surrounding the so-called “Malki Affair” was one of Syria’s greatest mysteries. Who ordered his killing and why continue to be debated. The story of the assassination and ensuing purge are essential to understanding Syria’s history and the SSNP’s eventual reconciliation with the Baath and perhaps their future in Syria.

Adnan al-Malki’s background and political activities

Colonel Adnan al-Malki came from a dominant Sunni family in Damascus made his career in the Syrian army and like much of the country’s officer corps, was a graduate of the Homs Military Academy. Despite never being an official member of Michel Aflaq’s Baath Party, he was strongly affiliated with the movement and was well-known as a firm support of Nasser and Pan Arab nationalism. His brother Riad al-Malki was a staunch Baathist and later become an MP in the Syrian parliament. The renowned historian Patrick Seale described him as having a “strikingly European” appearance.

Malki’s first major political intrigue came when he became a central player in the plot to overthrow Shishakli, organizing with former President Atassi and the influential Druze leader Sultan al-Atrash. He worked closely with the leftist nationalist Akram al-Hawrani and encouraged him to unite his Arab Socialist Party with the Baath movement, which Shishakli had outlawed. In 1953, Malki famously confronted Shishakli on the airport runway after the President had returned from a visit to Egypt. The young officer handed over a list of demands which included allowing political pluralism, freedom of press, and for Shishakli to abolish his Arab Liberation Movement party and relinquish power. The strongman accepted the list from him and consequently rounded up the document’s signatories to throw them in jail, Malki included.

A 1946 photo shows al-Malki marching as an army cadet during Syria’s first Independence Day.

After the fall of Adib al-Shishakli’s regime in 1954, Malki endured an intense spell of popularity, even overshadowed his army superior. Politically astute, hardworking, and willing to risk his life for the Palestinian cause and his ideals and justice, he was widely admired and had a large following in the army. By all accounts, Malki appeared destined to become a powerful political leader in Syria’s post-Shishakli era.

Malki was restored to his position in the army, becoming deputy Chief of Staff. The army’s Chief of Staff, Shawkat Shuqayer, was a Lebanese Druze and was always regarded by many Syrians as a foreigner. In fact, Shishakli had tapped him for the role, specifically because of sect, he was considered politically vulnerable and therefore a safe bet in coup-prone Syria. Shishakli even once said, “Shuqayer has no past and no future!” Though Shuqayer retained his position, his background brought much of the public support and from within the army to Malki.

Malki continued his foray in politics and was instrumental in corralling his fellow army officers to support the efforts to achieve a political and military unification with Egypt. There was even speculation that Malki would’ve launched a coup if Prime Minister Faris al-Khury not abandoned his attempts to move Syria towards the western sphere of influence. He regularly represented the official position of the government and the army in the press. For example, in February 1955, Malki spoke to the Syrian newspaper, al-Jihad for an interview, in which he downplayed the prospects of a Turkish military incursion along the Syrian border.

The Baath Party, during this time, had been in a fierce competition with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. George Abd Messih had just taken command of the SSNP after the execution of Antun Saadeh in 1949 and was struggling to implement his control over the party’s factions. Malki was soon engaged in a public spat with Abd Messih, who accused him of using Arab nationalism to secure power for Syria’s Sunnis. Malki, in turn, tried to intimidate the SSNP leader by promising to hand him over to Lebanon, where he had been sentenced to death in absentia for the July 1951 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Riad al-Sohl.

Colonel al-Malki in his army office in 1954

The fierce competition between the two parties played on within the army. Another opponent of Malki was a fellow army officer, Ghassan Jadid, who, through his friendship with Shishakli, became the head of the Homs Military Academy. Jadid was an Alawite and a leading figure in the SSNP. He used his position at the academy to recruit officers to the party, a move which riled Malki. Jadid also rivaled Malki in his charisma and Ghassan’s brother Salah was a member of the Baath who helped retained a level of contact between the two parties. Salah later became a leading architect in the establishment of the United Arab Republic and essential for aligning Syria with the Soviet Union.

The political rivalry extended outside of the military all the way through Syria’s educational institutions, polarizing a generation of youth. A young Hafez al-Assad recalled how during his school years, when asked your religion, you were either a Baathi or Qawmi (the latter meaning nationalist, taken from the party’s name in Arabic, al-Ḥizb al-Suri al-Qawmi al-‘Ijtima’i).

The Assassination and political motives

On April 22 1955, Malki was attending a football match between the Syrian army’s team and an Egyptian team at the Damascus Municipal Stadium. A gunman approached and fired two shots, killing the colonel instantly. The gunman identified as Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, a military policeman and an Alawite member of the SSNP who killed himself on the spot. Two other party members, Badi Makhlouf and Abdul Munim Dubussy were in attendance at the match and were arrested as accomplices.

Malki’s killer, Yusuf ‘Abd al-Rahim, an Alawi military policeman and SSNP member

The main theory is that Rahim was selected by George Abd Messih since the former had been denied entrance to the military academy due to his sect. Another potential motive seldom discussed was put forward by the US State Department, which claimed that Malki had crossed Rahim by fathering the child of his teenage sister, who was employed as a domestic aid in his household. Patrick Seale reported that thousands of Alawite women worked in homes across the capital as servants, often in dismal conditions. Though this story was never proven, the status of Syria’s religious minorities would have political implications for both the SSNP and the Baath during the subsequent crackdown and well into Syria’s future. 

Ghassan Jadid, army officer and SSNP leader

The most dominant story is that assassination was ordered by George Abd Messih due to his personal feud with Malki. Ghassan Jadid stated during his trial that this was the case since the assassination occurred without the knowledge of the party’s leadership. Another view was that the assassination was actually perpetrated by Egyptian intelligence in order to galvanize support for Arab nationalism and secure a free reign to eliminate the threat of the SSNP. Though Arab nationalism was already immensely popular in Syria, the country still had a slew of political parties across the ideological spectrum. Furthermore, anti-western sentiment wasn’t completely present at all levels of Syrian society, a trend that would change dramatically after the purge commenced.

The purge

A military court that held the show trials for SSNP members. The leftist army officer Afif al-Bizri, seated in the middle, later became the army’s Chief of Staff.

The show trials that followed the assassination have often been compared to the trials carried out by Joseph Stalin in the 1930’s. This period marked a turning point where the Baath now had the opportunity to finally isolate and eliminate their primary competitor. The Baath and Communist orchestrated a full scale purge of the SSNP. First, the Arab nationalists and leftist factions urged parliament to implement a state of martial law. Other parties resisted but eventually a compromised was reached. A military tribunal would be carried out with full power to investigate and arrest anyone suspected of being connected to the assassination, which quickly had morphed into a larger anti-government conspiracy.

The SSNP’s official party organ, al-Bina’ was burned to the ground. The SSNP’s members were accused of purposely destroying their own offices and documents to cover up evidence of their conspiracy against the Syrian government. The SSNP, shut out of the press, was reduced to facilitating their meetings and activities in secret. To offer a counter narrative, they handed out pamphlets and flyers in which they claimed they were the victims of a Zionist plot facilitated by the Communists and Baathists. Some of these materials took on an anti-Semitic tone with complaints of Jewish “exploitation and fraud.”

“Accused of the crime of the assassination of Adnan al-Malki.” Issam al-Mahayri and Juliette El-Mir Saadeh, Antun Saadeh’s widow on the far left.

Thousands of the party’s members were rounded up and paraded through the military tribunals for a certain verdict of a lengthy jail sentence. Issam al-Mahayri, the SSNP’s leader in Syria, was arrested and forced to testify against his fellow party members. Once a leading journalist and co-owner of the Daily Press Corporation, Mahayri was publically ridiculed by the courts and his influence greatly diminished and he became ostracized from Syria’s political sphere. He was eventually sentenced to a long spell in Damascus’ Mezzeh Prison.

The crackdown on press freedoms trickled across the political spectrum. Even non-SSNP outlets fell victim to the Baathist-Communist witch hunt. Husni al-Barazi, who owned the al-Nas (the people), an anti-communist outlet, was forced to close after an editorial discussed the allege torture of SSNP suspects and connected the mistreatment to the Baathist Speaker of the Parliament Akram al-Hawrani. Other newspapers and outlets quickly learned to adhere to the official government line concerning the Malki Affair and the military tribunals.

Army Chief of Staff Shuqayer suggested that the party was dominated by sectarian minorities, such as Alawites and Christians, and therefore sought to isolate Syria from the rest of the Arab world through their plan to eventually establish a Pan-Syrian state as stipulated by the party’s ideology. Many Alawites who were not members of the SSNP fled to Lebanon since they feared the growing extent of the purge.

Badi Makhlouf

The emergence of Syria as a mukhabarat state during this period is well known. Abdul Hamid al-Sarraj, who had been appointment as head of intelligence in March 1955, a month prior to the assassination, was tasked with investigating and implementing the purge of the SSNP. Imprisonment and torture were tools used by his Deuxieme Bureau. Badi Makhlouf, Abdul Munim Dubussy and Fu’ad Jadid protested at their trial that their confessionals had been extracted under torture, describing secret interrogation sessions involving severe beatings and electric shocks.

Makhlouf, a first cousin of Anisa Makhlouf (the wife of Hafez al-Assad), said the torture was not even comparable to what the early Christians had suffered from under the Romans. Despite his defense, Dubussy and Makhlouf were executed by hanging and Fu’ad Jadid was sentenced to life imprisonment. Fu’ad Jadid reportedly had his death sentence reduced since his brother Ghassan had been killed in Beirut outside the SSNP party headquarters by agents of Sarraj.

Another component of the show trials was the allegation that the SSNP was working in concert with the Americans and western intelligence. A memo by the U.S. State Department from July 1955 lamented the prevailing views of the Syrian political establishment that the U.S. government was using the anti-communist SSNP in order to undermine Syria’s sovereignty. This was manifested prominently in the “Sharabi letters,” an alleged correspondence between Issam Mahayri and Georgetown professor Hisham Sharabi. Dr. Sharabi was an early member of the SSNP and had served as an editor for their magazine, called al-Jil al-Jadid (The New Generation) before seeking refuge in the United States. The letters supposedly revealed that Dr. Sharabi had helped Mahayri obtain a visa to travel to the U.S. with the goal of organizing an anti-leftist movement in Syria to counter the Soviet’s presence in the Middle East. This evidence allowed Sarraj to claim that Syria had been able to defeat an imperialist conspiracy which was being facilitated by “indigenous anti-communist elements.”

SSNP leader Issam al-Mahayri (second from the right) in Mezzeh Prison in Damascus in 1957 following the purge of the party in the wake of the assassination.

The Malki Affair’s Legacy

Malki’s funeral on April 23, 1955.

The assassination propelled Malki to a level of veneration and praise that was unprecedented in Syria. The sculptor Fathi Kabawah was commissioned to design Malki’s statue. Riad al-Malki also authored a biography of his brother. Malki, as a martyr, became the embodiment of Pan-Arab nationalism that cemented the Baath into Syria’s political and social fabric for a generation and fixed the country onto its course for an eventual union with Egypt. Sultan Pasha al-Atrash wrote a memorial for his fallen comrade in al-Jundi (The Soldier) magazine in the summer of 1955:

There is no civilization that had more victims and martyrs

like our beloved Arab civilization.

If peoples’ lives ended with death

the martyr’s life begins with death.


That was the fate of the immortal

Adnan al-Maliki, who lived two generous lives,

a short life hard lived until his last breath,

and another long lived in the peoples’ consciousness.


Therefore, Adnan did not die

and here he is personified in the leader

Col. Shawkat Shuqayer and in every

comrade of his fellow free officers,

but also in every Syrian citizen,

because in every one of those

Adnan, in his beliefs and values,

Adnan in his determination for liberation and development.

Adnan in his keenness for Arab unity.


There is no harm on us and this situation, if

we lost Adnan yesterday – although it was a huge loss – and no

harm in sacrificing more like Adnan tomorrow. Because they are eternal in

the consciousness of the nation forever.

Adnan al-Malki Square in Damascus in the 1960’s.

The show trials and systematic purge in the wake of the Malki Affair was not the last. Others included the November 1970 Corrective Movement, the fallout after Damascus Spring of 2000 and most recently the regimes attempts to maintain control at the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the civil war. Whether or not the Assad regime can fully reconstruct the police state that existed before 2011 is yet to be seen.

The SSNP is now heading the reconciliation efforts on behalf of the regime under the leadership of Ali Haidar. An SSNP member relayed to me how negotiating with local rebels is a delicate process that takes time and has to carefully distinguish between Syrians and foreign fighters. Many Sunnis that have fled to neighboring countries (often characterized as an ethnic cleansing campaign orchestrated by the regime, will ultimately face the choice of either staying abroad or returning home after the conflict. This sectarian crisis is also playing out against the backdrop of an internal “demographic engineering,” most recently facilitated by the four towns agreement. The prospect of a post-war purge indeed hangs over all sides involved in the conflict.

The Malki Affair and the purge forced the SSNP underground where they reemerged in Lebanon. The incident also expedited Nasser’s domination over Syria. It solidified the Baath’s hold on the army and created the foundations for the Assad family’s power. Today, Arab nationalism, weakened and long since tainted by the years of the Baath’s authoritarian rule, once again competes with the old but familiar ideology of Pan-Syrianism. The SSNP and their fierce red hurricane, both surrounded by the darkness of the past, have returned to Syria at the behest of the Baath, but for how long?

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

Paradise Lost: The Rise and Fall of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi by Tam Hussein

By @tamhussein

I entered Najiyeh, a small town of no consequence, without their permission. The town claimed to be an ISIS principality. The claim seemed ridiculous but as we drove in to the town it seemed less so. They had fixed the prices, the markets were bustling, even the gold shops were open. It was a stark contrast to what I had heard about their ‘state’. I understood why the people accepted their rule; order is key in conflict especially in one as brutal as this. Even non-ISIS people in the surrounding countryside told me good things about them. “You could bring your case to their courts”, they would say, “and it would be resolved with out fear or favour”. Their entry reminded me of the Taliban being welcomed with loud cheering and flowers in Kabul but they left with the inhabitants shaving off their beards and smoking cigarettes even if they had never touched one before.

A few months later I met Abu ‘Ali in Tarsus, Turkey. The young commander from Ansar al-Sham looked like a young St. Paul, dark black beard with long hair that was slightly thinning on top. He was recovering from a leg injury that if miracles weren’t real, should mean him being minus one leg. The wound was horror personified. Abu ‘Ali informed me that the people alongside the local battalions had kicked ISIS out of Najiyeh.
“Why?” I asked.
“They were harsh people” he replied, I noticed disappointment in his face, it was as if they had betrayed the Syrians. The Revolution, if you will, had made these insignificant men into Mujahideen, warriors of God. Some of these men had been eking out their existence as smugglers, farmers or hiding from the authorities. The Revolution had made them. Now the likes of Abu ‘Ali who had emerged from the mosques calling for the removal of Assad, facing live bullets after Friday prayers were lectured to by Abu so-and-so al-Britani who, only six months ago, was checking out some winding girl’s batty rider in some funked up club. Here came Abu so-and-so to the land of Muslim scholarship and lectured the people on the intricacies of kufr, taghut, tawheed and the incompatibility of Islamic theology with democracy. Syrians didn’t need lessons in creed. They wanted to stop the barrel bombs from killing their children.

A few years later in Saraqeb, whilst filming with Jund al-Aqsa, I was told that the local leader of Ahrar al-Sham had shot the local ISIS emir in the back. The ISIS emir, a native of the city, considered it sacrilege to turn his gun against his co-religionists. However, the leader of Ahrar had no compulsion in dispatching him to eternity. The people had liked the ISIS emir but these same people had also defaced the testimony of faith in the Islamic State’s court house. They wrote sarcastic comments over it. ISIS would no doubt consider it apostasy, still none of the locals had renounced Islam but they too, like the Kabulis had shaved off their beards, increased their smoking even though they readily admitted that smoking was ‘forbidden’ in Islam. More recently, incredulously, I heard an Iraqi man preferring the Iranian backed Shi’te militia, the Popular Mobilisation Group in Mosul instead of ISIS. Moslawis had few issues in raising the Iraqi flag and lowering the ISIS flag, even though everyone knew that the former banner was born in the gentlemen’s clubs in London and the latter in Abbasid Baghdad. And yet without any sense of irony, Moslawis had preferred the latter. Why when everyone professed to be Muslims, did the ISIS come to this? Why did al-Baghdadi’s nascent project fail?

Anthony Quinn plays Hamza the uncle of the Prophet and Omar Mokhtar

Arguably, ISIS did not lose because of a determined opponent, for they are not short of courage and military experts attest to their mastery of asymmetric warfare. ISIS lost because the local populace stopped believing in them. So much so that the people reviled them more than they reviled Assad. People hate Assad because he killed their children but they hate ISIS for stabbing them in the back whilst they were trying to overthrow former. Assad never claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and in a way, nothing was expected from him. He could do what he wanted, he was after all from a long tradition of Middle Eastern tyrants who crushed uprisings whether they be Muslim Brotherhood, Iraqi marsh Arabs or Shi’ites. Brutal cruelty was expected. Even though the deaths inflicted by ISIS remain minuscule compared to the former, when ISIS claimed to be ‘Islamic’ and acted with such wanton cruelty, it provoked disgust and revulsion from even the most dissolute of Muslims. Even that hard drinking, stripper ogling Muslim who puts his head down on the carpet once a year if that, knows that the bar has been raised. He knows that it is unbefitting for a ‘holy warrior’ to behave thus.

Whatever Graeme Wood argues about ISIS and its level of ‘Islamicness’, what Ahmed on the street recognises instinctively is that al-Baghdadi and his group are far from ‘Islamic’; no Fatwa needed. Muslims are inculcated with a conception of what a Mujahid or ‘holy warrior’ is meant to be. The stories of the Companions of the Prophet, Hamza the lion of God or Omar Mokhtar the lion of the desert, both usually in the guise of Anthony Quinn are found in their mothers’ milk. Sons are named Mujahid, Ghazi, Faris and Shaheed in the hope that they epitomise that exceptional person who perfects his moral and martial virtues in a situation where bestial brutality is permissible and yet he manages to retain his humanity. The nobility of man is truly tested in war.

A eulogy of Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. This is a classical genre in Arabic literature.

It is here that al-Baghdadi and his men have failed so miserably. His heroes who populate the telegram channels make Muslims recoil. Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, his deputy, is certainly eloquent and no doubt courageous but ordinary in his brutality and harshness, no matter how many texts his eulogist claims he has studied. Jihadi John too is ordinary in his inhumanity. Go to the local halal butcher on Harrow Road, London and he will tell you that Islamic rites dictate that an animal should be given its final sip of water and slaughtered away from the gaze of another animal to lessen its distress and that of the other animals. Yet, here stands Jihadi John slaughtering innocent men in front of the whole world so brazenly. There is no sense of shame, even Cain felt ashamed after he killed Abel.

There seems to be something thoroughly modern about Jihadi John’s actions as he points that knife at you. Arguably, Jihadi John’s actions have roots in the London of the Nineties, when Jihadi snuff tapes were sold openly outside mosques. These videos showed in graphic detail the exploits of the Chechen mujahideen against Russian aggression in Chechnya. One of the Imam’s who used to teach in Lisson Green youth club, where Mohammed Emwazi used to attend, recalls that soon those tapes:

“…became dark there was a Russian beheaded by some Chechens, and whenever I saw the brothers, some of them would creep up from behind and greet you by cutting you in the neck.”

Perhaps the mood music for Mohammed Emwazi’s deeds had been set up then. The Imam continues:

“I remember, even at the time that this is not how you greet each other, and I always reminded the brothers that the point of Jihad is not to be blood thirsty and I used to quote the hadith of the Prophet: “Don’t look forward to meeting your enemy, but if you meet him remain steadfast.”

Jihadi John is unrecognisable as a mujahid by your average Muslim, but take Jihadi John to the cold harsh streets of West London and any road man who listens to Stormzy recognises his deed to be pure gangsta.

The mujahid of now is very different from the mujahid of then. Let us demonstrate this with a tangible example, let us use a paragon of a holy warrior of the 19th century, Abdel Kader al-Jaza’iri. He was also known as the Commander of the Faithful although, admittedly, under the suzerainty of the Sultan of Morocco. Abdel Kader, like al-Baghdadi, tried to build a state by uniting the various tribes in Algeria and was harsh to those who collaborated with the French. Like al-Baghdadi, he was a scholar, a jurist and descended from prophetic lineage. He fought the French invaders and was described by his foes and friends alike as a fearless military genius and as illusive as al-Baghdadi. William Thackeray wrote of him:

Nor less quick to slay in battle than in peace to spare and save,
Of brave men wisest councillor, of wise councillors most brave;
How the eye that flashed destruction could beam gentleness and love,
How lion in thee mated lamb, how eagle mated dove!

And yet the gulf between al-Jaza’iri and al-Baghdadi, as Thackeray’s poem shows is vast. Whilst war is harsh and brutal, the former was known for his chivalry and treated his prisoners humanely; so much so that these prisoners of war petitioned France to release him when he found himself in the same predicament. Some even offered to be his guard of honour on account of the kindness he had shown them. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi showed no quarter. He burns and drowns his prisoners alive. Abdel Kader condemned his brother in law for massacring prisoners, the latter revels in it and encourages it. The sadism is so creative that one wonders whether there is a whole unit in Raqqah whose sole job is to come up with creative and cruel ways to execute people. Al-Baghdadi, this product of the Iraq war, has embraced terror wholeheartedly.

Abd el-Kader al-Jaza’iri

Abdel Kader is careful not to harm civilians. When sectarian riots broke out in the Christian quarter of Damascus he saves countless number of Christians. Al-Baghdadi sends a suicide bomber on Palm Sunday to a Coptic church in Tanta and murders countless. The former honoured men of religion; priests were allowed to minister to the French POWs and act as go-betweens. The latter kidnaps the Jesuit priest Father Paolo Dall’Oglio. The fate of the man committed to building bridges between faiths, remains unknown. Abdel Kader stops the practice of beheading prisoners, the latter puts their heads on social media. The former releases those who renounce their faith to escape, al-Baghdadi doesn’t care if they have converted or not. If they do not accept the Caliphate he’ll send one of his soldiers to ram an explosive laden car into a busy market or get one of his soldiers to line up in rows and offer the evening prayer and then detonate his explosives belt.
As one former ISIS fighter told me, “Dawla [Islamic State] isn’t all that it’s made out to be you know.”
You think? One can’t help but ask how many lives he had to take to come to that conclusion?
“Don’t worry” he reassures me, “they were apostates anyway.”
Fantastic. Lessons have been learnt then, no nightmares when he goes to sleep.

On a final note, Abdel Kader realised that noble ends have noble means. He surrendered because he realised that his battle with the French would be too hard on the surrounding tribes and submitted to Providence. For as the old Islamic adage goes, victory lay in His hands. And yet History wrote this loser to become the victor. Abdel Kader gained universal admiration. His enemies who once reviled him honoured him. The ultimate proof of his moral character comes from the people of Bordeaux who voted to get his name on to the ballot paper for the French presidential elections. As the Progres d’Indre et Loire notes:

“We have learned that certain voters of Bordeaux were so impressed by the manners, the character and royal air of Abd el-Kader, they put his name on the ballot for president of the Republic. If this idea spreads it will hurt Louis-Napoleon. To be a good president one must have a reputation of courage, wisdom and talent. Of the two, would not Abd el-Kader better meet those conditions?”

ISIS and The Challenge of Modernity

Saïd Kouachi’s grave- photo Tam Hussein

In Reims, the nameless flowerless grave of Saïd Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo attacker, is slightly apart from the other dead souls. It is as if he would offend the repose of the interred Muslim souls. In this solitary place one of the sons of the dead asked me what I was doing taking photographs of this newly dug grave. I couldn’t deceive the man and told him whose grave it was. The Franco-Algerian spat on Kouachi’s grave and cursed him. The man, no doubt loved the Prophet just as much as Saïd Kouachi did and yet he shouted: “How is my father going to have peace next to this dog!”

Kouachi didn’t belong to ISIS, but Kouachi and indeed Ahmed Coulibaly one of his companions had the same father. I pitied Saïd Kouachi, few Muslims will ever raise their hands in prayers for this man’s soul. His children would be ashamed to acknowledge him and they will feel strongly the shame of Oedipus Rex himself. I would wager that if I had asked that French Algerian visitor to his father’s grave whether Kouachi was a Mujahid, I would know what that reply would be. He may have understood Kouachi’s anger, he may have experienced the deep racism of French society towards its Muslim population, but I know what his reply would be. I have asked similar questions in all the major terror attacks in the European mainland, Paris, Brussels, London, Stockholm and the average Muslim knows that these men are far from Abdel Kader or Hadji Murat. Kouachi lies in a nameless grave remembered by none. Abdel Kader has a city named Elkader no less than in Iowa and Hadji Murat has a novella written in his honour by an old foe of his, Leo Tolstoy. Both Abdel Kader and Murat lost, and yet Providence in spite of the victor writing history, has preserved their names. They inspire universal admiration. They were ‘holy warriors’ if you will, where as Saïd Kouachi at best was just a ‘warrior’ and at worst a butcher- and a very modern butcher at that.

Let us use General Petraeus’ playbook, Jean Lartéguy’s, The Centurions, to demonstrate the last assertion. Ostensibly, The Centurions follows the journey of several French paratroop officers from defeat at the hands of the Communists in Indo-China to a victory of sorts in Algiers. But in the process of defeating the F.L.N in Algiers they lose something of themselves. Whilst the novel is blind to the century of oppression that Algerians tasted, it is nevertheless a deep rumination on modern warfare and based on Lartéguy’s own experiences as a paratrooper and war correspondent. Lartéguy realises very quickly that the F.L.N used Jihad as a rallying cry for independence, but what it produced was something thoroughly different: it created an Ersatz France. This is why the novel is useful for this essay. Arguably, ISIS too has done the same and produced something that appears to be a bastardised version of what a caliphate is ‘meant’ to look like in their very modern mindsets.

In some ways what Abbas and Mohammed expected of these very ordinary fighters who called themselves mujahideen were exceptional standards in virtue. What they got instead were merely the usual fare. They were like everyone else, they looted, they robbed, they killed and behaved just like every other militia in the world. There was a banality in them and an absence of holiness. Al-Baghdadi was just like Saddam Hussein, ordinary. He was part of the fabric of rulers and tyrants in the region’s bloody history from Saffah to Sisi who massacred men for worldly authority. There was very little difference between a mujahid, a warrior and a terrorist. It is as an F.L.N leader opines in The Centurions:

“what difference do you see in the pilot who drops cans of napalm on a Mechta from the safety of his aircraft and a terrorist who places a bomb in the Souq- the terrorist requires far more courage.”

But the F.L.N leader forgets that what was expected from the Mujahid was not just the courage to step into a truck laden with explosives. The modern mujahid might be a master of asymmetric warfare but he was not meant to be stuffing explosive booby traps into dolls and toys such as those found in Mosul. For whilst the Prophet has said “war is trickery” would he sanction such an act? Does the Muslim martial tradition not abhor such things? Otherwise surely the ‘holiness’ of the warrior has been lost to the banal ordinariness of all warriors. Is he merely an ‘atheist’ mujahid like Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who prays but does not believe in God? Is he then the sort of Mujahid who has to suppress his moral conscience for the sake of victory? The modern Jihadi seems to have sent paradise to hell, and is simply not too bothered if children, the elderly, women, monks, fruit trees or the enemy’s flock are destroyed, even if his religious tradition forbids him from touching them. This Jihadi seems to revel in it. Mohammed Rezgui, for instance, filmed himself elated before gunning down innocent British tourists in Sousse, Tunisia. But the post mortem autopsy seems to suggest that the drugs found in Rezgui’s body created:

“The feeling of exhaustion, aggression and extreme anger that leads to murders being committed. Another effect of these drugs is that they enhance physical and mental performance.”

Why would a holy warrior need to take an amphetamine type drug in order to commit a ‘virtuous’ act? What exactly was he suppressing? Was he like those French paratroopers who were suppressing that feeling of guilt that the intangible soul within knows is committing something morally reprehensible?

In some ways then, the Jihadi is so thoroughly modern that the average Muslim on the streets turns around and says: hang on, this isn’t what we were told by our mothers and fathers. We weren’t reared on Osama bin Laden or Zawahiri but on Hamza, the Lion of God. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become just like the French Paratroopers and F.L.N leaders in The Centurions: in order to win they had to loose their souls.

Come, let us be generous, and afford al-Baghdadi some empathy as we do with the protagonists in The Centurions. We are generous towards Esclavier even as he slits the throats of all the men in an Algerian village. Perhaps the reason why al-Baghdadi joined Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda franchise was for similar reasons outlined by the head of French intelligence in Algeria, Jean Vajour who noted the heavy handed tactics of the French:

“To send in tank units, to destroy villages, to bombard certain zones, this is no longer a fine comb, it is using a sledgehammer to kill fleas. And what is much more serious, it is to encourage the young- and sometimes the less young to go into the Maquis [rural guerrilla fighters]”

Perhaps the heavy handed tactics used by US army in Fallujah led the not so young al-Baghdadi, to join the insurgents. Maybe at one point this Abu Bakr was just an ordinary man, a devout man who to all accounts lead prayers at his mosque, played around with the kids, listened quietly to the complaints of the locals and advised them on Islamic law since he possessed a doctorate. On Fridays he played football on the dusty streets of North Samarra, a suburb of Baghdad. Maybe this is how his life would have continued till the end of his days. But war has a way of twisting men’s souls, and just like the French paratroopers in The Centurions who spent several years in the camps of the Communists, Abu Bakr too ended up in Camp Bucca. His captors taught this Dr. Ibrahim Awad or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi a thing or to. Like officer Mirendelle in The Centurions, he too learnt how to mediate, how to win alliances and how the Americans behaved. Perhaps just like the French Paratroopers who learnt much from the Communists and applied the lessons with deadly effect in Algeria, Abu Bakr too learnt things in Camp Bucca and applied it to deadly affect. He certainly learnt how to put people in orange jump suits. When he emerged, he experienced the intensity of asymmetric warfare, he learnt that stuffing bombs inside corpses and dogs were effective, how to create grey zones by dividing Sunnis from Shi’ites, how to sit completely still when a drone flew ahead and the art of illusiveness. He learnt all such things over the years without rest or respite- constantly hunted with a price on his head. Perhaps, by the time the Syrian uprising began, he became that amoral man in The Centurions, Captain Julien Boisfeuras, an expert in unconventional and political warfare, who like the real life monster captain Paul Aussaresses tortured, waterboarded, raped, electrocuted a man in the balls, if only to achieve victory. Abu Bakr al-Baghadi, in the light of modern warfare, fitted in with that landscape. In fact perhaps, all of us given the circumstances, could become just like him. Consider Youssef Ben Khedda, a pharmacist, whose hands according to Alistair Horne’s masterful A Savage War of Peace, were clean. Horne writes:

“He wrote a joint letter to Alger Républicain complaining about the blind arrests. Two days later he too was in prison, followed shortly by his fellow signatories; immediately he was released, five months later, he joined the F.L.N”

Could this story of ‘radicalisation’ not apply to al-Baghdadi or even us? Isn’t that human nature? When the Nazis invaded France what tactics did the Free French use against them? Billion dollar armies can afford to have rules, resistance movements have to make conscious choices to have them or not. It even begs the question whether the likes of Abdel Kader could even be allowed to flourish in the murky ethical terrain of modern warfare.

And yet it is perhaps what Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had become that the Muslim guy and gal on the street recoils at. “That’s precisely it” says one worshipper in Norbury mosque, “we can all be like him but that’s not what a mujahid is meant to be! He’s meant to be like Imam Ali when the Arab spits at him as he is about to kill him, he leaves him”. The anger is visible in his face, Abu Bakr doesn’t deserve the title of mujahid. Perhaps the political philosopher John Gray is spot on when he says that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s Islamic State:

“…shares more with the modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West”

And everything he does seem to support Gray’s view. Al-Baghdadi, calling on terror attacks on the West, is following Abu Bakr Naji’s tactics outlined in his tract, The Management of Savagery. The intention is to create grey zones that divide the population into an ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ scenario. These tactics, these very modern tactics were advocated by the Brazilian guerrilla leader Carlos Marighela, and also used by the F.L.N as one of Lartéguy’s protagonists observes:

“…a bomb exploded….at the cafeteria some medical orderlies laid a child screaming with pain, on a stretcher- another bomb exploded in 5 October in Algiers killing nine Moslem passengers. Horror reigned in Algiers- horror was succeeded by fear and hatred- Moslems began to be beaten up without rhyme or reason. Europeans got rid of their old Arab servants and Fatmahs who had been part of the family for twenty years. Within a few days Bab al-Oued witnessed a distinct rift between the Moslems on one hand and the Jews and Europeans on the other. This was exactly what the F.L.N wanted to divide that ill-defined zone and split up its inhabitants who tended to resemble one another more and more. For they had so many things in common, certain nonchalance, love of gossip, contempt for women, jealousy, irresponsibility and inclination to day dream.” [pp.452-453]

French atrocities in Algeria bolstered support for the F.L.N

ISIS realised what the French paratroop officers understood in fighting the F.L.N; in order to win they had to get on an equal footing with the native population. They had to get “as covered with mud and blood as they are. Then one shall be able to fight them, and in the process we’ll lose our souls, if we really have souls.” And so the paratroopers extended the ill treatment of native Algerians and did things irrespective of legality; they massacred, tortured and raped. They took the local women away, treated them like queens as they ironed and washed for them and then returned them to their men. The French thought they were freeing the Algerian woman from Arab patriarchy and emasculating them by showing how little control they had over them. But when they met a troublesome one, they simply raped her. As one of the Paratroop officers recognised:

“…the ghastly law of the new type of war. But he had to get accustomed to it, to harden himself and shed all those deeply in-grained, out-of-date notions which make for the greatness of Western man but at the same time prevent himself from protecting himself”- [p490]

And the truth was these French paratroopers as Lartéguy says, fought an enemy very much like themselves. Some of the F.L.N leaders were former officers, some were university educated metropolitans treated with disdain in Paris cafes like many French of North African descent are treated to this day. They were thoroughly modern creatures and so employed the same tactics as the paratroopers. They massacred Pieds Noirs civilians in Philippeville, they liquidated their own members, gouged out the eyes of collaborators and believed that the end justified the means. Arguably, ISIS mirrors what the F.L.N did in Lartéguy’s novel. But where as the F.L.N in Lartéguy’s model understood that they were moderns somewhere along the line, Abu Bakr and friends did not understand the fact that they were too.

For al-Baghdadi is in a sort of denial. He has failed to deal with modernity itself and in it lie the seeds of his defeat. It is this reason that made the people of Najiyeh boot ISIS out, the commander of Ahrar shoot the ISIS emir and the locals scrawl sarcastic comments on their Shariah court. This inability to grasp modernity, to understand that a process has occurred between their ‘Islamic State’ and the past. The Muslim world has experienced a traumatic rupture, not just defeat, humiliation and loss but colonisation, industrialisation and societal changes which have fundamentally altered the times we live in. In the past, life was organised and configured differently, the same rules which applied to the pre-modern world cannot be applied anymore. The Islamic State is like a car crash victim who, after recovering, thinks he can just go back to living the same way when in reality his limbs do not function in the same way. He can’t come to terms with his accident and so disasters ensue. Since he can not remember what the past looks like before the crash, he conjures it up just like the F.L.N leader does in The Centurions:

“There’s only one word for me Istiqlal, independence. Its a deep fine-sounding word and rings in the ears of the poor fellahin [farmers] more loudly than poverty, social security or free medical assistance. We Algerians steeped as we are in Islam are in greater need of dreams and dignity than practical care. And you? What word have you got to offer? If its better than mine you’ve won.”

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi came up with ‘Khilafa ‘ala minhaj an-Nubuwwa’-‘the Caliphate on the Prophetic Methodology’, and the Muslim world looked up for a second, with a sense of hope and nostalgia; for this was their historical past, just as the British looks to their Empire, their Raj and the Battle of Britain nostalgically, not quite coming to terms with the fact that they are no longer a great power. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi tried to realise the word ‘Khilafa’. But what did the word ‘Khilafa’ mean in the context of modernity and the post-colonial world? In the Pre-Modern Islamicate, people were divided into millets or religious communities because that was the reality on the ground. Now we had the concept of citizenship, this is the new reality. ISIS denied this new reality and sought to extract the Jizyah, the poll tax from Syrian Christians thinking that it was more merciful on them than paying higher taxes. These Christians who had lived on that land for millennia would be paying this Jizyah to Abu Marwan or Luqman from Ghafsa, Tunisia. ISIS failed to comprehend that even if the Jizyah was lower, and the Christian is protected by the Muslim armies, in the modern context it is simply put, humiliation. We are all sons of egalité now, whether we like it or not. The Syrian Christian has for generations grown up with the concept of equality. In fact, he may be like the ancient Northern Syrian tribe of Ghassasina who preferred to pay a higher tax rate to the second Caliph, Umar, than accept the status of second class and pay the Jizyah. In the past, the French made Arabs in Algiers wear the necklace akin to the Star of David to signify that they had ‘submitted’ to French laws. Arabs accepted it in the 19th century. Jews wore different colours in the Middle East during the Medieval period. Modern man cannot accept any of these things, even if it is deemed for their own ‘good’. ISIS couldn’t come to terms with this.

In fact, al-Baghdadi creates what Benedict Anderson calls “an imagined community” through the use of powerful propaganda, tapping into the emotions of many Muslims. This isn’t just a cynical attempt, Graeme Wood is right here, ISIS are True Believers-zealots. They may have been former secular officers who were thrown into Abu Ghraib but, just like the F.L.N commander in The Centurions, they had rediscovered their religion, their reality had been shaken with the fall of the modern Iraqi state. These highly trained officers couldn’t just return to the coffee shops to smoke a fat Zaghloul and drink bitter coffee, lamenting the presence of US marines on their streets. That jarred with their sense of honour, no, they would return to Fallujah and Mosul where their families were and fight. These officers did what an Algerian officer in The Centurion did, they gave their failed country “a history and a personality.” They grabbed the black ‘Abbasid’ flag and made it synonymous with Islamicate. Heavily reliant on ‘salvation history’, they created a vision that the banner of Islam spread from East to West. They ignored historical reality where at one point there were three caliphates that vied for power with each other, and that even after the fall of the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad, no caliph existed at all for several years. ISIS did what Lartéguy says happened in Algeria, they created a history based on the cemeteries of the dead not based on historical reality. It was Fake News caliphated. As one F.L.N leader says, congratulating a French paratroop officer on his country’s contribution to the creation of modern Algeria:

“The Algerian people have been scarred by war, their existence has been too disturbed to turn the clock back at this stage. You yourselves are creating Algeria through this war, by uniting all the races, Berbers, Arabs, Kabyles and Chaouias. The rebels should be almost grateful to you for the violent measures of repression you have taken.” [p473]

And so the invasion and the sectarianism within Iraq and lately Syria helped to create this ‘nation’ if you will. When ISIS broke through the Sykes-Picot border, it was seen as restoring parity between the oppressed and the oppressor. It was like Horne says of France’s defeat at Dien Bien Phu by the Viet Minh in 1954:

“Suddenly this unbelievable defeat deprived the French army of its baraka, [blessing] making it look curiously mortal for the first time.”

ISIS’ ‘yes we can’ moment

The breaching of the Sykes-Picot line was the biggest paradigm shift since Ben Ali fell in the Middle East. It showed the world and indeed Muslims that the status quo can be changed, that the West’s grip on the Muslim world was not supreme. This was Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s ‘Yes we can’ moment and perhaps his legacy even as we begin to write his obituary. In post-colonial theory at least, he had done what Franz Fanon believed was essential between coloniser and colonised. He had restored parity, not through the coloniser granting him his freedom which instilled an inferiority complex in the manumitted. Rather, he took it by giving the coloniser a bloody nose. When ISIS broke through Sykes-Picot, they had restored a sense of honour for many in the Middle East. Similarly, when the Islamic State reintroduced concubinage and traditional female roles, they reasserted this injured manhood. And yet at the same time, they displayed their inability to accept that modernity had changed us so fundamentally that Jefferson could own slaves and still be considered a ‘good’ and ‘virtuous’ man then. But today, should he practise the same thing, he’d be considered a monster.

ISIS may have signalled its independence by purporting to ‘mint’ gold coins and arbitrarily declaring ‘provinces’ all over the Muslim world and yet, just like the Algerian officer Mahmoudi in The Centurions, who knew that Algeria could not exist without France, the Islamic State also demonstrated that it could not exist outside of the modern world. The creation of uniform ISIS courts were in reality the importing of Western law courts, which made the Rule of Law the basis of the state. Partly, ISIS knew that it had to compete with that model and partly because it didn’t know anything else. On one hand, it was proof of their ingenuity at state building, but also an admission that the paradigm to beat was still the Western model. According to Wael Hallaq’s Impossible State, Islamic history didn’t have uniform law courts as we see them in modern nation states. Far from it, they were extremely organic and functional affairs tailored to the needs of the local community. The historical Islamicate had never made the Rule of Law, king. Now it did. Similarly, when ISIS introduced ISHS, Islamic State Health Services, it based itself on the British National Health Services, NHS, rather than the hospitals of Medieval Andalusia. ISIS then, could not exist outside of time, theirs was a modern project however much it tried to deny it. ISIS’ predicament was like that of the Jihadist who blew up the ancient Buddha statues or the temples in Palmyra for being an expression of infidelity and irreligion but did not realise that his Nike trainers were paying homage to a Greek deity.

In al-Baghdadi’s denial of modernity therein lies his demise. His group failed because the Mohammed and Ayesha in Raqqah and Mosul instinctively realised that they were un-Islamic in spite of the long beard, ankle swingers and tooth stick. It is likely that there will be other groups who will want to emulate ISIS, but for them to be successful they will have to come to terms with modernity. One suspects that they too will fail. Sometimes an old timer can grasp the un-tangible better than many learned men. These ancient looking men don’t know many religious texts but have an earthy piety and remain a reliquary of wisdom that sees things plainly.
“Now these youngsters,” says wispy bearded uncle Forid sitting in Brick Lane mosque waiting to meet his Maker, “are running around killing this and committing God knows what sin thinking that they are doing the Prophet’s work! Idiots! They are so far from him! When the Mehdi comes everything going to be fine.” Uncle Forid is resigned to the arrival of the Mehdi, the messianic saviour who will come at the end of time in Muslim apocalyptic narratives. Uncle Forid knows that the youth are too impatient, they want paradise now. They don’t want to lose. The youth forget that what goes on in the world is often a reflection of a sick heart.  They forget that the Muslim pantheon contains plenty of winners but also plenty of losers; Abdel Kader, Hadji Murat, Imam Shamil, Omar Mokhtar but history honoured them because they remained true to their martial tradition and moral code. To eternity, it seems, winning isn’t everything. An anecdote of Omar Mokhtar told to me by a Tunisian activist is pertinent here: one of Omar Mokhtar’s Mujahideen demanded that two Italian POWs be given no quarter just like the Italians did to them. Omar Mokhtar replied: ‘They are not our teachers’. Whoever comes after the fall of Mosul will need to convince a sceptical Muslim population, tired of the killing and the blood, that they match up to mujahids like Omar Mokhtar.