Saraya Al-Tawheed: A Pro-Assad Druze Militia in Lebanon and Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Saraya al-Tawheed. In the centre is the symbol of the Hizb al-Tawhid al-Arabi (“Arab Unity Party”), the political wing of Saraya al-Tawheed.

The involvement of the Arab Unity Party- primarily supported by Lebanese Druze opposed to Walid Jumblatt- and its leader Wi’am Wahhab in the Syrian civil war has long been known, as Wahhab and his party have played a role in organizing forces in support of the Assad regime among Syrian Druze. Indeed, the Arab Unity Party has openly identified a militia called the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion as its affiliate operating in Syria, claiming ‘martyrs’ on fighting fronts in both Suwayda’ and Quneitra provinces as part of efforts to defend Druze areas.

However, more recently another armed affiliate of the Arab Unity Party has come to attention: Saraya al-Tawheed (“The Unity Brigades”). The group received widespread coverage in the Arabic press for a parade and festival held in the Lebanese locality of al-Jahiliya (Wahhab’s hometown) in late November 2016. According to the Lebanese newspaper al-Diyar (which is pro-Assad), the event was attended by a variety of notables from both Lebanon and Syria: “Representatives from diplomatic commissions, national parties, heads of municipalities and elective commissions in all the regions and villages of Chouf and Aley, as well as a number of the mashayakh [Druze sheikhs] in Hasbaya, Rashaya, Aley and Matn, along with mashayakh from Suwayda’, Jabal al-Arab and Jabal al-Sheikh, and popular delegations from all regions of Chouf, Aley, Rashaya and Hasbaya.”

Among those attending was Mahmoud Qamiti, a member of the political office of Hezbollah, which is an ally of the Arab Unity Party. Echoing familiar ‘resistance’ axis discourse, Qamiti affirmed:

“Our honour will only be the honour of confronting the occupation and confronting the conspiracy, the Western-American project, the takfiri enemy and the Israeli enemy. Our honour is from Palestine and in Palestine, from Gaza and in Gaza, and in all the land of Palestine. Our honour is in Syria and in the face of the conspiracy against Syria, and our honour is in the resistance.”

For some context, takfiri refers to the one who declare others to be disbelievers, even when they profess to be Muslims. In the discourse of Hezbollah and the ‘resistance’ axis, the term is often used to refer to the wider Sunni insurgency in Syria, which, to be sure, harbours considerable anti-Shi’a sentiment to the point of pronouncing Shi’a to be non-Muslims. Qamiti also took the opportunity to emphasize the supposed role of the ‘resistance’ in protecting Lebanon, working alongside the Lebanese army and the security apparatus. Finally, Qamiti appealed to the Druze in the Golan as well as Jabal al-Arab and Jabal al-Sheikh, saying that they are “our brothers and allies in the resistance and working to the protect the Golan and Syria.”

For his own part, Wi’am Wahhab outlined the supposed role of Saraya al-Tawheed, clarifying that the group does not comprise “military or security brigades, or terrorist as the anxiously afraid say, but rather brigades of the coming change, the stormy change, the change towards a better tomorrow for us, our mountain and our people from Iqlim al-Kharoub to the last mountain and last patch of eart in Lebanon, from the south to the north: they are civilian brigades, rejecting the use of weapons except in self-defence and supporting the Lebanese army and the security forces if anything requires that, and confronting any ‘Israeli’ aggression. They are part of the resistance.” Wahhab also highlighted his solidarity with the Assad regime, the Syrian army, “the Lebanese resistance” that has stood by Assad, and the Druze communities in Syria that have fended off rebel assaults (e.g. Hadr in Quneitra). Wahhab further took the opportunity to address his rival Walid Jumblatt, calling on him and others to come together “in solidarity under the banner of the mashaykh and not under the banner of anyone else.”

Here, it is worth noting two points with regards to Saraya al-Tawheed. First, the group did not suddenly come into existence last month. Rather, the groundwork was being laid for months prior to the parade and event in al-Jahiliya. According to the official for the Saraya al-Tawheed Facebook page who spoke with me, Saraya al-Tawheed was established six months ago. Indeed, in October 2016 the group was discussed in an article in the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar, in which the Arab Unity Party’s media director Hisham al-Awar made clear that the outlining of the framework and aims had already begun some time ago  and that there were plans to hold a Saraya al-Tawheed parade on 20 November (as reported above) as part of “a celebration of solidarity with our Arab people in the occupied Golan, Jabal al-Sheikh and Jabal al-Arab”- all areas inhabited by Syrian Druze.

In the same discussion with al-Nahar, al-Awar claimed that Saraya al-Tawheed already had “hundreds of members” not limited to Druze areas only, and that there were young women in the group as well. According to al-Awar, the notion of women being encouraged to join Saraya al-Tawheed was partly based on what Wahhab saw on his last visit to Hadr, in that a group of young women were apparently fighting in the area (cf. Labawat al-Jabal in Suwayda’). On the subject of whether there were links with Hezbollah’s Saraya al-Muqawama (“The Resistance Brigades”) that recruits non-Shi’a, al-Awar said that while the aims of Saraya al-Tawheed and Saraya al-Muqawama may overlap in many respects, Saraya al-Tawheed is “independent with its own framework, assignments, responsibilities and administrative organization.”

The second important point to make is that Saraya al-Tawheed’s scope is not limited to Lebanon, even as the Arab Unity Party’s messaging at the present time has largely focused on the idea of Saraya al-Tawheed as a youth group and support force for the Lebanese army and security forces to defend against attacks on Lebanon. The same official for the Saraya al-Tawheed Facebook page affirmed to me that “Saraya al-Tawheed in Syria is defending the land and honour in the localities and villages, particularly in Hadr and Suwayda’.” The members of Saraya al-Tawheed in Syria, according to this source, are “of Syrian origin.” A photo circulated on 24 November appears to show members of Saraya al-Tawheed in the Hadr area, put out with a caption on a Wi’am Wahhab Facebook page: “Tribute to Saraya al-Tawheed in Hadr who have prevented the terrorists from entering the locality with the participation of the rest of their brothers, mashaykh and people.”

Photo said to be of Saraya al-Tawheed members in the Hadr area. Note that the men are posing in front of a poster of Wi’am Wahhab.

It may then be asked what the difference is between Saraya al-Tawheed and the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion. Well, not much, really. As per the official for the Saraya al-Tawheed Facebook page, the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion has supposedly been around since “the July war until today,” whereas Saraya al-Tawheed is a newer formation, even as both groups are “two faces of one coin.” The July war, known in Arabic as Harb Tamuz, refers to the conflict between Israel and Lebanon that began in July 2006 after Hezbollah attacked a group of Israeli soldiers. These events took place soon after the initial foundations of the Arab Unity Party in late May 2006. It should be noted that there appears to be no public information attesting to the existence of the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion as far back as 2006, though that does not necessarily mean it did not exist at that point. For comparison, the Iraqi militia and political faction Saraya al-Khorasani only really came to public light at first in 2013 with its involvement in the Syrian civil war but in reality, as subsequent information that has come to light has shown, it has roots going back much further to the 1980s and 1990s. Another case for comparison might be the Syrian Hezbollah faction called the National Ideological Resistance, which, as its leader claimed to me in an interview in 2014, has roots going back to mid-2009. Of course, there could be a degree of rhetorical exaggeration here, but one must not automatically assume that a movement comes into being simply when it begins announcing its existence on contemporary social media.

The most likely motivation for the establishment of Saraya al-Tawheed is that it ostensibly represents more than just a mere militia amid a Lebanese political climate that may be wary of new militias that simply display shows of armed force. In contrast, the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion is something that has been very low-key apart from the claiming of ‘martyrs’ in Syria and cannot necessarily be presented as something beyond an armed group/militia. Wahhab also presents Saraya al-Tawheed as embodying something analogous to sports associations, while emphasizing a defensive function in support of the Lebanese state and within the framework of the law.

Accordingly, Saraya al-Tawheed can perhaps be seen as more useful than the Ammar bin Yasir Battalion in terms of being a means of asserting greater political influence in Syria and Lebanon, by functioning as both a militia force and a form of wider social outreach. To conclude, an analogue here might be the Lebanese branch of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which has a militia in the form of Nusur al-Zawba’a that has been fighting in support of the Assad regime in Syria and presenting itself as defending Lebanon, while engaging in wider social outreach in its zones of influence and control. The Lebanese SSNP has been able to extend its influence deep into regime-held Syria in particular, especially among the Christian populations in Homs and Hama. Perhaps the Arab Unity Party could achieve something similar with the Druze populations in Syria through the Saraya al-Tawheed project.

Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar: A Prominent Loyalist Militia in Suwayda’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar, featuring Syria as the main part of the emblem and the group’s name beneath it.

The predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’ in southern Syria has a variety of militia factions, some of which lean more third-way and reformist from within (most notably the Rijal al-Karama movement) and others of a more Assad regime loyalist orientation. Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar (“Guardians of the Abode Battalions,” whose name references the Syrian national anthem Humat al-Diyar) represents one of the latter factions. It is led by Nazih Jerbo’ (Abu Hussein), who is a relative of Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’, one of the three Mashayakh al-‘Aql representing the highest religious authorities among the Druze in Syria. On account of the Mashayakh al-‘Aql’s links with the regime, Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’, who succeeded Nazih’s father Hussein on the latter’s death in December 2012, is firmly on the regime’s side and indeed has played an important role in the building of Dir’ al-Watan, a pro-regime formation in Suwayda’ province that was set up more recently than Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar. According to Samir al-Shabali, who led a Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar contingent in the Suwayda’ village of Ariqa but is now in the Kata’ib al-Ba’ath (“Ba’ath Brigades”), Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar’s origins date much further back to 2012.

Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar Ariqa contingent placard, featuring Bashar al-Assad’s portrait. Photo from June 2014.

Photo featuring members of Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar with the group’s logo on their jackets. The post says: “Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar: groups of lions of Suwayda’ spread in all regions of the province to protect it from any emergency to which Suwayda’ might be exposed during the past two days.” Indeed, according to the media director for Rijal al-Karama, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar has been around for a long time and has “many people” in its ranks, though he adds that the National Defence Forces in Suwayda’ province is bigger than Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar. One member of Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar claimed that the formation has 2000 fighters.

Considering Nazih Jerbo’s relation with Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’, it is unsurprising that Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar also reflects a regime loyalist position. This stance is made very clear in the group’s social media output. For example, in August 2015, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar advertised a visit to its base from the Arab Unity Party “to affirm shared positions in protecting the mountain [Jabal al-Arab/Druze: Suwayda’].” For context, note that the Arab Unity Party (Hizb al-Tawhid al-Arabi) is a Lebanese party primarily supported by Druze opposed to Walid Jumblatt, who has come out against Bashar al-Assad during the Syrian civil war. The leader of the Arab Unity Party- Wiam Wahhab- has played a notable role over the past few years in organizing efforts in Suwayda’ province in defence of the regime. Indeed, the group even has a militia fighting in Syria- under the monikers of Katibat Ammar bin Yasir and the “Arab Tawhidi Resistance”- that has claimed ‘martyrs’ in fighting in northern Suwayda’ in summer 2014 (though note the particular individuals named were also presented as ‘martyrs’ of the Popular Committees) and more recently in the Druze area of Hadr in Quneitra province in November 2016. The reference to Ammar bin Yasir- one of the companions of the Prophet- is a reflection of Ammar bin Yasir’s importance in the Druze faith, while Tawhidi can refer to the “Unity” part of Wiam Wahhab’s party, as well as the fact that Druze call themselves Muwahhideen (“monotheists”: like Tawhid, based on the same derivative form of Arabic root w-h-d). The “Resistance” aspect clearly references the notion of the regional “resistance” axis supporting the regime.

Photo from the post concerning the visit of the Arab Unity Party to Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar’s base. Note the portrait of Bashar al-Assad in the background.

Besides the meeting with the Arab Unity Party itself, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar has participated in events convened by other factions supporting the regime in Suwayda’, such as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which has an important base of support in Suwayda’ province and opened a new base in Ariqa in July 2015, an event that was also attended by the National Defence Forces, Ba’ath Brigades and a local faction known as the Ammar bin Yasir group, an obvious reference in this case to the shrine in Ariqa for Ammar bin Yasir. According to Samir al-Shabali, this Ammar bin Yasir group is independent and relies on arming from local people. Therefore it should not be confused with the Arab Unity Party’s Katibat Ammar bin Yasir that is fighting in Syria.

Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar has engaged in other forms of local outreach such as through  hosting local sheikhs for meetings, who have visited both the group’s base and the house of Nazih Jerbo’. These meetings, advertised in June and August 2015 respectively, partly reflected the same and familiar rhetorical stances, such as standing united against threats from “terrorism” and/or the “enemies of the homeland,” while warning against fitna (“strife”). The concept of fitna is a common talking point within discourse in Suwayda’ province, referring most notably to the dangers posed by internal partisan rivalries that can distract from threats that the province is facing from outside forces such as the rebels to the west in Deraa province and the Islamic State to the northeast. This is particularly relevant in the case of the competition for influence between Rijal al-Karama and the loyalist factions in Suwayda’ province.

Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar’s activities on the ground, as promoted by the militia itself, primarily concern maintaining internal security in Suwayda’ province including inside Suwayda’ city alongside popular committee militias that are also aligned with the regime. The main military engagement that appears to have been claimed by the militia outside Suwayda’ province thus far came amid the mobilization of Syrian Druze to defend the village of Hadr  after the rebels launched a new offensive in the area in September 2016.

Though the maintenance of internal security has included battles within Suwayda’ province such as one in May 2015 that was fought in the Haqaf area in eastern Suwayda’ province in coordination with multiple factions (including Rijal al-Karama) against the Islamic State, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar mainly seems to focus on confiscating smuggled goods, such as medicines, drugs and oil. Portraying itself as a group upholding the state and the nation, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar says that the medicines and oil in particular are bound for areas like Deraa under rebel control, and thus the smugglers are bartering with people’s lives and the nation’s existence for the sake of profiteering. In the case of smuggled medicines, in May 2015 the group claimed that its leader directed sending confiscated medicines to the health directorate in Suwayda’ by the agreement of Atef al-Nadaf, the provincial governor at the time. These medicines were then to be distributed to the various health centres in the province in order to help the children and sick.

However, like many militias in the Syrian civil war, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar faces accusations of criminal behaviour and acting outside the rule of law. For example, the anti-regime leaning Arab Druze Identity Movement, also known as The Identity Movement in Jabal al-Arab, wrote in May 2016 that one of the members of Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar killed a person from the village of al-Dur following a driving incident, but has been able to find safe refuge thanks to his affiliation with the militia. This event, the group adds, follows on from one last year in which the militia killed someone from the Murshid family. The latter incident involved the killing of a university student called Murad Sanad Murshid as armed men who had set up a checkpoint opened fire on his car. The exact identity of the perpetrators appears to be disputed. One account from the time of the incident in July 2015 says that the perpetrators were from the Kata’ib al-Ba’ath, though adds that the deceased’s family initially thought Nazih Jerbo’s men were responsible and accordingly attacked his home. It was partly in this context that the meeting with local sheikhs advertised in August 2015 by Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar came about, whereby sheikhs from the deceased person’s village of Haran came to the house of Nazih Jerbo’. In a similar vein, the meeting advertised by the militia in June 2015 partly referred to another controversy in which Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar was accused of arresting, torturing and killing a few people from the Bedouin minority on the grounds of bombarding Suwayda’ city. Again, as with the July 2015 incident, the identity of the perpetrators is disputed, with some accounts holding that it was actually al-Amn al-Askari (The Military Security: i.e. Military Intelligence) that carried out these acts and then accused Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar, which denied any wrongdoing.

Even so, Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar is accused of being one of the leading groups relied on by the regional al-Amn al-Askari head Wafiq Nasir for kidnapping operations in Suwayda’ province, a lucrative business said to be worth more than 850,000,000 Syrian pounds in the province in terms of ransoms paid. Also, despite the anti-smuggling image of the group, allegations also exist of certain members’ involvement in profiteering through setting up checkpoints to allow smugglers to pass (e.g. here) or similar involvement in smuggling operations deemed detrimental to the security of the province (cf. here).

In any case, this overview of Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar illustrates that the influence and size of the loyalist factions in Suwayda’ province should not be underestimated, despite the growth of Rijal al-Karama. Indeed, third-way leaning groups cannot afford full-blown open confrontation with the loyalist groups as it would simply prove too costly, and ultimately the priority must be to defend Suwayda’ province from external attack. As the media director for Rijal al-Karama put it, “In the event of an external attack on the Jabal, all factions unite.”

China’s Interests in Syria and the Middle East – by Dr. Christina Lin

screen-shot-2016-11-13-at-6-10-25-pmChina’s Interests in Syria and the Middle East
By Dr. Christina Lin
Syria Comment – November 13, 2016
Interview with Dr. Christina Lin about China’s view of Syria, ISIS, Ughurs and Turkey
  • What is China’s motivation for a greater involvement in Syria, considering that many Uighur fighters seem to be going to Syria, with the goal of making a new permanent home for themselves, and thus not returning to China?

China does not want Syria to turn into a haven/base for Uyghurs to attack Chinese citizens and interests overseas as well as in the Chinese homeland.  The August 30 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Krgyzstan, planned by Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria and financed by Al Nusra, is a sign of what is to come if they continue to grow.  This is similar to what provoked Washington to invade Afghanistan in 2001 to deny Al Qaeda a base to plan further attacks against the US.

  • China has traditionally not been very interested in Syria, unlike Russia for example – what are they hoping to gain from helping Assad?

The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is the most effective fighting force countering terrorists in Syria.  I’ve documented in my previous Asia Times article about Asian jihadists especially from Uzbekistan and China based in Aleppo and Idlib. So SAA is fighting Asian militants in Syria (which China dub as the new Afghanistan) on behalf of the Chinese and Central Asian states.  It is natural that China would help the Syrian government’s counter-terrorism efforts against anti-Chinese militants and other terrorist groups in Syria.

It is important to understand that China is taking a comprehensive approach towards the two Afghanistans—one in Central Asia and one in the Middle East—they are not separate and are interlinked with the same terrorist actors. China is already training Afghan security forces and will step up its aid to the Syrian security forces.  The West makes a mistake in looking at them separately, but they are the same issue for China.

Also, China is dependent on Central Asia and Mideast energy sources, and instability in these countries or a take-over by Salafist regimes sympathetic to Uyghur separatism threaten China’s energy supply as well as the Eurasian One Belt One Road project.  Xinjiang is the bridgehead and crown jewel of China’s grand strategy.

  • What would a Chinese involvement in Syria look like? Could we be seeing actual Chinese troops on the ground, or would it be more logistical?

Chinese military advisors are already on the ground in Syria. They have a history of military cooperation so this is normal, and a lot of Syrian weapon systems are procured from China. There is intelligence sharing and Chinese would train Syrian forces as they are doing with Afghan forces, and provide medical/humanitarian aid as well as additional arms.  For example, China provided combat drones to Iraq so they have a new counter-terror capability.

Whether China enhances its military assistance to Syria depends on the US and Turkey/Saudi/Qatar coalition.  Because of “inter-mingling” with Ahrar al Sham and other so called “moderate” jihadists, TIP and Nusra enjoy US and its allies’ protection even though they are designated as terrorist organizations.  The Chinese have been increasingly alarmed that TIP continues to procure advanced western weapons such as US-supplied anti-tank TOW missiles, Grad missiles, and likely anti-aircraft MANPADS, and drones that they used to record their recent suicide campaigns against the Syrian army.

These western weapons enhance anti-Chinese militants’ war fighting capabilities to launch future attacks on China and Chinese interests.  If US decides to up the ante and impose a no fly zone to protect the Army of Conquest (Jaish al Fatah, which include TIP, Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusra among others), this could be a trip wire and force the Chinese to escalate militarily as well.  Just as Israel discussed with Russia its red lines regarding chemical weapons and advanced arms transfers to Hezbollah, Chinese red lines would likely also be advanced arms transfers to TIP (which they consider the anti-Chinese ISIS) in the Army of Conquest. 

  • There has been reports that Turkey has been supplying many Uighurs with Turkish passports and access to Syria, and Erdogan has earlier voiced his opposition towards what he and many others view as Chinese oppression of the Uighurs. Considering this, and also considering Turkey’s repeated calls for toppling the Assad regime, how will a Chinese involvement influence it’s relations with Turkey?

 I think Turkey may be changing its tone already to topple Assad as it draws closer to Russia.  Turkey knows establishing a Salafist/Al Nusra regime that protects Chechen and Uyghur jihadists is a red line for China and Russia. As Turkey realigns with Eurasian states, it may improve relations with Russia, China, India and other Asian states concerned with ISIS and Al Qaeda’s pivot to Asia.

  • Another key actor in the region is the US, with whom there has been an increasing amount of tension. What American response could we be witnessing if China chooses to get further involved in Syria? And how could it influence the situation in South East Asia, where China is challenging the US hegemony?

 As I mentioned earlier, China’s further involvement depends on US behavior and not the other way around.  It’s due to US/Turkey/GCC support for anti-Chinese militants in Syria the past few years that provoked China to get off the side lines and enter into the fray to help Syrian army fight TIP.  China already fears US would use TIP as an asset to attack and destabilize its territory due to persistent military writing regarding war with Beijing.  The biannual Talisman Sabreamphibious exercise is also about choking China’s access to energy and resources in the Middle East.  There is already much distrust and tension in the Western Pacific, and if this is fueled by military escalation in the Middle East to protect the TIP in Jaish al Fatah and enable further attacks on Chinese citizens and interests, there is a higher risk of misperception, miscalculation and potential escalation into a military conflict.  In 1950, the Chinese warned US not to cross the Yalu River in Korea, but we ignored their red line and ended up fighting the Chinese in the Korean War. The Chinese take their core interests seriously and will enforce their red lines, and it’s important that the US establishment learns from history.

  • Finally, and in relation to the previous question, is this a part of a larger Chinese strategy aimed at becoming a global power, and if so, should we in the future expect China to play a more active role in the Middle East?

China’s rise as a global actor—not yet a global power as US is still the dominant power–is organic just as it was for Great Britain in 19th century and US in the 20th century.  A trading state must be a maritime power to protect overseas interests, and China now is the largest trading state in the world, second largest economy, and as a Mideast energy importing state while US becomes an energy-exporting state, means Beijing will play a more active role in the Middle East and Central Eurasia.  The US has been criticizing China for being a free-rider in the global commons and now that they are willing to become a partial security provider to address non-traditional security challenges such as counter-terrorism, maritime and energy security, the West should welcome and engage their efforts, and not view them through a zero-sum/cold war lens when we have so many shared threats that are global in nature.

* Dr. Christina Lin is a Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at SAIS-Johns Hopkins University where she specializes in China-Middle East/Mediterranean relations, and a research consultant for Jane’s Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Intelligence Centre at IHS Jane’s.
This interview was conducted via email on 8 November with Mr. Jonatan Mizrahi-Werner for IPMonopolet, a Danish journal for international relations published in collaboration with the Department of Political Science in the University of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Prison Radicalisation: Dealing with Muslim Inmates with Terror Convictions, By Tam Hussein

Anjem Choudhary

Anjem Choudhary, 49, founder of Sharia4UK convicted for supporting the Islamic State.


Recently, Anjem Choudhary, 49, and Mizanur Rahman, 33, were imprisoned for their active support of the Islamic State. Choudhary’s imprisonment ends, for a small period at least, his decade plus history of agitation in the UK. Whilst the British press lapped up his colourful and extreme pronouncements, his influence amongst the majority of UK Muslims was minimal. At best he is seen by most British Muslims as a rabble-rouser and a demagogue. However, Choudhary’s influence outside of the UK has been greatly underestimated. The East London solicitor was considered a Mufti by some of his followers. He was seen as a man who spoke the Truth to power like a modern day Moses to the secular Pharaoh. He is the founding father of Shariah4UK, an organisation which gave birth to other franchises like Shariah4Belgium whose members became linked to the attacks in Brussels.

The judge, whilst sentencing, was fully aware of Choudhary’s influence and the impact he could have on the prison population. One prison staff member who wanted to remain anonymous told me most inmates are “poor, vulnerable and aggrieved” and ripe for radicalisation. He added that “if there is a confident personality he can turn them. I mean some of these guys actually believe in David Icke!” Thus charismatic prisoners who question authority, whether that be by Far-Right activists, Salafi-Jihadists, Irish Republicans or conspiracy theorists for that matter, can influence prisoners. And it seems plausible that the magic of Choudhary can have the same effect in prison. Choudhary himself has boasted that he will radicalise prison inmates.

On the face of it, it seems sensible that he spends most of his time in prison isolated. Especially as there is growing evidence that there is a link between criminality and ISIS, as has been shown by the likes of Callimachi and others. According to Robert Verkaik, Aine Davies was radicalised in prison, Jafar Turay, another fighter, is believed to have been radicalised by a Ladbroke Grove jihadist and so on. Martin Chulov has also shown how networks develop within prisons. Indeed many of the links of Syrian Islamists and Jihadists were forged in Saydnaya prison in Syria. However, whilst acknowledging that prisons can be incubators of extremist ideologies of all sorts, does it warrant a response that exceptionalises Muslim prisoners and shows them to be different from the rest of the prison population? Might that not be counter-productive? Prison experiences after all can contribute to an individual’s radicalisation, as Lawrence Wright writes in the Looming Tower:

“America’s tragedy on September 11 was born in the Prisons of Egypt. Human-Rights advocates in Cairo argue that torture created an appetite for revenge, first in Syed Qutb and later in his acolytes, including Ayman al-Zawahiri.”

Admittedly, UK prisons are relatively humane in comparison to the brutal prisons of Syria, Egypt and Iraq, but a misstep can have disastrous consequences. It is therefore absolutely crucial to get the balance right and understand how and to what extent radicalisation occurs in prisons.

It is with this in mind that I interviewed former UK Terror charge inmates to explore the idea. The sample is qualitative and hopes to add to our understanding of how radicalisation occurs in prison.

Case study: Ahmed* [name changed]

I met Ahmed in an Italian Gelateria in Westbourne Grove, West London. The convicted terrorist could be a boxer or a doorman standing outside a seedy nightclub in Leicester Square. His thick fingers, thick neck, thick arms should be throwing out some punter who has had one too many. But he is what he has always claimed to be; at best an intellectual at worst an Ossipon like figure from Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a propagandist disseminator. The man devours books; bookshops to him are like cameras to the Kardashians; he just can’t resist them. In Prison he read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Hallaq’s the Impossible State and his favourite-the Count of Monte Cristo. He has this enigmatic smile that doesn’t care what you do to him. It is as if he was challenging the authorities: what could you possible do to me here in the UK that you haven’t done already? He’s done six years of prison, two years were spent in the High Security Unit, Belmarsh or as it is known by its inmates, the Unit. He has shared his association time with some of Britain’s most notorious killers and Terror-Charge prisoners from Kenny Noye, Colin Gunn to Dhiren Barot, the man who plotted to take down the New York Stock exchange and others like Muktar Said Ibrahim responsible for the 21 July plot of 2005.

Belmarsh prison

Belmarsh prison

Belmarsh became operational in 1992. It was intended to be the securest prison in the country and designed to house IRA prisoners. By its critics it was dubbed the UK’s Guantanamo but in fairness Guantanamo doesn’t offer counselling, therapy sessions and podiatry like Belmarsh. To Ahmed, though,  Belmarsh wasn’t a holiday camp. He recalls an anecdote that Brian Wright told him:

“The nuttiest person is the person who designed this unit, you can’t hide anything you can’t kill anyone or even kill yourself he told me. The whole place is made of metal and the guards check on you every hour making a note on whether you are still there. The sound of the little window opening drives you nuts at first.”

The Unit, he recalls “was designed to break you down.” Everything is bad. In the morning you are given a small box of cereals, lunch is merely one of those shadows of reality that Plato talks about and dinner need not be discussed. But UK prisons are not the ones experienced by Dostoyevsky nor Solzhenitsyn’s Ivan Denisovich. Ahmed knows very well that Belmarsh is a far cry from Chateaux D’if or Assad’s Tadmor prison. It is twenty two or three hour lock up, with a small square where you can do some exercise. But the twenty yards to the exercise area takes a full twenty minutes to get to, the prisoner is escorted, buzzed through thirteen doors and patted down thirteen doors. Ahmed finds it absurd but then again, considering the company he keeps, it is understandable. The gym is “a shambles designed in a way so that the weights can’t be used as a weapon”. The library consists of a set of shelves on wheels which is called without irony, a mobile library. At the Unit, according to Ahmed, the wardens or ‘screws’ don’t punish you, they just behave vindictively. In the summer they make the water scalding hot so it peals your skin off and in the winter it is ice cold and the wardens always blame the maintenance crews. “We all knew” says Ahmed, “that this was just a game, because the other spurs had nice temperate water to shower in during association.”

Cerie Bullivant who spent 2007-2008 in Belmarsh and Wandsworth on remand seemed to confirm Ahmed’s view:

“I would be praying during Ramadan with another brother in my cell and they would kick off about it. Whilst in the other cell there would be four non-Muslim inmates playing music and it would be absolutely fine. It goes both ways though, during Ramadan Muslim inmates would get special food packs to break their fasts and the non-Muslim inmates would complain. There was a lot of tension between the Muslim and the non-Muslim inmates.”

If they do want to punish an inmate then they send in the DST, Detailed Search Team. Ahmed’s face changes into one of contempt and laughter as he recalled them:

“They come in dressed from top to bottom in black, they are often in riot gear, usually at some odd hour, three in the morning. As soon as they enter, they step up to you. They rip up your cell, I have been raided many times, they pour shampoo on your clothes, they took my Quran CD given to me by the Prison chaplain and they scratched it. Why? What did the CD ever do to you? I can’t forget the Quran CD given to me by the prison imam. They steal your papers. They check your arse…you bend over and they stick their heads down and look into your arse [laughs]…sometimes with a mirror what sort of human does that looking for a phone in your arse!? If they want to beat you up they will take you to the segregation unit, and over there they will beat you up because it’s isolated.”

Prison life is not all boredom though, there are things you can do in prison. Ahmed read and worked on his case. A lot of T-Charge prisoners work on their case or their appeals. “As long as they are in prison there is hope” he says because one day they can get out. Many of the T-Charge prisoners keep their spirits up by worshipping because in here you needed God the most. Here T-Charge prisoners see themselves and are viewed by the rest, not as common criminals but political prisoners. They are kings without crowns.

Bullivant recalls a story in Wandsworth:

“There used to be these Algerians who used to bring in drugs into the prisons and do lines [taking Cocaine]. Because I was a convert and a T-Charge they would tell me that if anyone messes with me I should tell them because they would kill them…there’s always been a hierarchy in prison.”

The T-Charge prisoners see themselves as different. They don’t hustle, they don’t carry on like “low life crims”.

Bullivant says:

“They have manners and are generous: One brother would save up all his money and buy sauces, sweets and food for Ramadan and then give them out to non-Muslims and Muslims during the month. He won a lot of friends that way.”

They also have examples to emulate, these men are fully aware that many of the Prophets spent time in prison, Joseph in the dungeons of the Pharaoh, Jonah in the belly of the Leviathan and so their situation relatively speaking doesn’t seem that bad. Moreover Syed Qutb, Omar Mokhtar, Malcolm X, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Zarqawi and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; Muslims from all over the spectrum whether that be freedom fighters, radicals, extremists and terrorists have all done bird. So for some inmates it reconfirmed the very rightness of their cause. They were following in the right footsteps. Especially as there is a well known Prophetic tradition that says when God loves someone, He afflicts them with tribulation, and so their incarceration is interpreted as such.


Ayman al-Zawahiri was regularly tortured and beaten by the Egyptian authorities in prison.

In fact for the likes of Ahmed, prison merely reinforced the view that he was right otherwise why would the system try to imprison him and put him in the Unit? “Even Dhiren Bharot” he says, “told me: Why are you in here? You are so young?” The harsh sentence he received, whether correct or not, he believes is a reflection of this politically motivated witch-hunt against his politics. Thus prison to him was a confirmation of the righteousness of his chosen path rather than punishment. “If I was a terrorist” he says eating his crepe, “why don’t they kill me?” Any other state would. The Islamic State certainly would. Ahmed accepts his own extinction as fair game. It is the bargain that he made from the time Iraq was invaded in 2003. In fact, this softness, this woolliness, this dare I say it, half-way house of not dealing with his likes makes him disrespect the UK. One wonders whether the UK knows how to deal with prisoners with such grand ideas anymore.

So are prisons places of radicalisation- that catch all ill defined term that seems to apply mostly to Muslims? The fact that Muslim prisoners should resort to their faith is hardly surprising; it is part of the human condition but how it occurs has mystified analysts. Ahmed recalls a far right white inmate who adopted the name Omar Jones simply because he read everything and anything he could get his paws on. He grabbed some Islamic literature from a Muslim inmate who was throwing them away. The Muslim inmate even tried to dissuade Jones, it wasn’t his type of literature. But Omar insisted on reading the material and within a week he had converted to Islam.

When an inmate converts the first priority are the basics, how to pray, how to make ablution, how to recite verses of the Quran. And so the convert would go to the T-Charge inmates during Association, the hour when inmates get to socialise. According to Ahmed, he never witnessed any radicalisation of new converts. The most these T-Charge prisoners did was to teach the new convert the basics. As Bullivant puts it: “That’s not radicalisation, that’s brotherhood.”

A convert like Omar would search out the most ‘righteous’ T-Charge prisoner because they were different in the same way the Protagonist from Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead admired the Chechens for their political principles and upright characters. He like Omar Jones, recognised that those prisoners were there due to their beliefs, not because they were lowlife criminals that had murdered, raped and looted for the sake of criminal gain. Their manners were usually better, they didn’t swear, they offered hospitality for three days whenever a new ‘brother’ came in to the ward as is Muslim custom.

They looked after you like Abbè Faria did to Edmond Dantes in the Count of Monte Cristo. And perhaps the most important point here is that Omar Jones instinctively recognised that T-Charge prisoners were on the right side of the fence. In other words, they were not employees like prison wardens or chaplains and imams. One should not underestimate the role of the charismatic personality, as Haroro Ingram has pointed out. Islamic tradition fosters charismatic leadership and the idea of transformative charisma. Zarqawi inspired intense loyalty in prison precisely because he took the punishment on behalf of his group whenever the group would receive one. It was not his learning but his loyalty to his men. It didn’t matter if you were the most knowledgable prison imam, the simple fact was you were on the wrong side. It’s not that the imams didn’t do their jobs, they started off on the wrong side of the fence in the first place. It takes a special type of Prison chaplain to get through to inmates. How they could even influence Muslims, converts and others was beyond Ahmed. All they were good for it seems was for official matters, you registered your conversion with him so you got on the Halal list.

As Bullivant says:

“No one trusted the prison imams. You were polite and respectful and you went to him when you needed a Quran or a prayer carpet. On Fridays you didn’t go to listen to the Friday Khutba [Sermon] but to catch up with the rest of the brothers from the other wards. It was the only day you could see each other.”

Ahmed doesn’t deny that radicalisation does happen but questions the way it has been portrayed in the media. According to him, T-Charge prisoners become symbols and reference points for the convert prisoners. These men would be their example and guide for their time in prison, not the prison chaplain who according to Ahmed, was well meaning but was “mostly hit and miss”.

Bullivant, speaking about remand prisons, explains it in a different way. “The Brother’s talked about dīnī [religious] stuff but they rarely talked about politics. Everyone was paranoid that the cell was bugged.” In any case, he adds, “in remand you had hope of getting out…politics didn’t come into it. Most inmates will do dawah [proselytise Islam] because what else can you do? You have nothing else. But of course everyone was aware of the injustices outside. It was unspoken, no need to say it.” Religious proselytisation might be seen as radicalisation by the authorities, but proselytisation happened in Dostoyevsky’s House of the Dead and will continue for as long as prison exists. For Muslim inmates, it wasn’t a case of directly recruiting inmates to a cause, rather it was viewed within a religious architecture: souls needed saving even in prison, perhaps even more so. Ahmed recalls one of the inmates:

“An Afro-Caribbean brother, the nicest guy in the world. The brother had beautiful akhlāq [manners]. He used to be a hitman, bodies turned up all over Europe wherever he went. After his conversion he became the most pious brother I knew.”

But saving souls comes with baggage.  According to Bullivant, the inmate who had a hand in another’s inmate’s conversion could be blamed by the Prison service for radicalising inmates.  It might count against him in upcoming parole hearings or he might be moved to another prison.

This is confirmed by Ahmed too, if an inmate converts to Islam he is immediately viewed as radicalised. But sometimes they become devout purely on their own as he recalls:

“There was one young brother, he was half-Pakistani, half-English, killed a man because he put his hands on his sister’s thighs. He stabbed people left right and centre and ended up in the Whitemore unit, he offered to deal with anyone who threatened T-charge prisoners, ‘do you want me to stab him up?’ he used to ask me and I would calm the brother down. But then I received letters from him in perfect written Arabic, he had become fluent in written Arabic in eight months, he had taught himself.”

Of course some converted to Islam because they wanted to be part of the gang that had the most clout, the ones who could protect you. But usually you could spot those ones. Ahmed had little respect for those kinds of prisoners. According to him it showed on their faces, in their eyes they were low life scums who used Islam as veil. No one bought the argument that their drug dealing and criminal activities was a tool to harm the infidel enemy. There was no conviction in these men and he didn’t respect it.

Neither Ahmed nor Bullivant deny that T-Charge prisoners ran things in prison. Cream rises to the top and there are emirs, albeit unofficial ones in British prisons just as much as there are capos, dons, bosses in prisons all around the world. Networks do exist. Word spreads pretty quickly amongst prisoners, who is coming through to which wing and why. During Association, even if a murder or a robbery had occurred on the outside, the prisoners would know about it and sometimes they even knew who did it before the police.

If an emir didn’t want a certain prisoner in his wing he could make it such that the prisoner would be segregated or moved to a different wing. If there’s an inmate who attacked a ‘brother‘ and is being transferred to his wing,  the emir would ensure that the inmate gets beaten up, stabbed or smashed with a contraption that resembles a morning star made out of two cans of tuna in a sock as punishment for that transgression. They might wait for the prisoner to get settled in and one day pour boiling sugar syrup on him. The syrup behaves a bit like napalm and sticks your skin scalding it permanently. Ahmed remembers a story in Long Lartin prison:

“Some Australian guy messed around with Sheikh Abu Qatada in the gym, he was saying something about his beard in Long Lartin, he was mocking it, a brother saw it, that evening he had several litres of boiled butter over his head and face and his whole face was melted and he was about to be released as well- that sort of reinforced the hierarchy”


Abu Qatada al-Filistini was held in Belmarsh and Long Lartin prisons on immigration charges.

It is not done with malice just sheer ingenuity. It would have been better if the inmate had been sensible and asked to be put into the segregation unit immediately. The consequences? Ahmed laughs “some get taken to segregation and the rest of us get a few days lock up and privileges get taken away and then life moves on. Nothing changes. Usually there’s little evidence to charge the inmate.” It is no wonder one former disgruntled prison warden told me: “We don’t run the ward the prisoners let us run it”.

If you were a warden than you might get ‘shitted’ on- a technical term referring to a prison warden getting human faeces on their heads, usually the offending turd is disguised in a prison sock and smashed on to his head or put into a bottle and poured on him from above.

On the other hand, if you are a new T-Charge prisoner or just a normal prisoner, nervous about what prison life is like, the emir and the ‘brothers’ get together to cook and host the prisoner for three days to make him feel at ease with his surroundings. An intense loyalty towards the emir and the senior ‘brother’ is built up as a consequence.

Moreover, the T-Charge prisoners are also seen as mediators because they are not involved in the bitter disputes between rival criminal gangs. They are seen as neutral arbitrators and are often brought in to resolve disputes. This again gives them added status and importance amongst inmates. This is not un-similar to the way the young Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi behaved when he was incarcerated in Camp Bucca, Iraq.

When Ahmed was released he was asked if he wanted to become an informer. He was scornful of such a proposition: “you wasted the best years of my life for nothing and now I am going to do you a favour and turn grass?” It just didn’t make sense.

He was unrepentant and it seems that he would have preferred to have been martyred. “You would have saved yourself a whole lot of money and time.” Now he is older and wiser he still watches events in and around the Middle East with interest. His views remain radical perhaps a bit more tempered, and he is still aggrieved by what the British state has done to him. “Even killers told me I shouldn’t be here in the Unit.” Prison, it seems, hasn’t broken him, it hasn’t made him repent, far from it, he is even more confident. Sometimes as the Russian writer Dostoyevsky points out the worst punishment is not the crime itself but living with what you have done. Ahmed lives with it quite well because in his view, he has done nothing wrong. For Ahmed, Syed Qutb’s Milestones which he read at the tender age of fifteen and Malcolm X Autobiography at the age of twenty, both had a profound impact on his life, Belmarsh didn’t remove his grand idea.

I ask Ahmed about the current worry about prison radicalisation. He thinks for a while and replies casually “maybe a stake in society might work for some. Prison will definitely not work for others.” He overheard a T-Charge brother as he was being deported saying “the game isn’t over yet”.


After Choudhary and Mizanur Rahman’s conviction, I met up with Ahmed for a coffee not too far from Ladbroke Grove. I asked him about throwing Choudhary into isolation units like the Acheson report has recommended. I asked him whether that would stop radicalisation. He laughs and says:

“It’s not like the US, he’s not going to be like Babar Ahmed! Isolation units have already been done. Long Lartin was like that. We loved it. We kept it clean. Had circles [Islamic study circles], even the screws liked it. No drugs or crime. I see both perspectives but it’s a drain on resources to be honest.”

Bullivant says of the those like Anjem Choudhary:

“I’m sure in theory he could [radicalise], but he’s in solitary because he’s a name, nothing else. Many people inside are better placed to ‘radicalise’. Thing is, there’s as much chance inside that he’d get convinced by brothers to leave his silly ideas. Also there’s the basic injustice of solitary, people need people… so to put him in solitary for no measurable benefit isn’t the right way to go.”

As far as exceptionalising Muslim prisoners, Bullivant added that it fed into this ‘War on Islam’ narrative that Choudhary’s followers feed off. Choudhary will be seen as a martyr for the cause, victimised solely because of his uncompromising stance towards his faith. It sends a message as Bullivant puts it, that the British state “can’t handle the ideas of these people.” In fact, Bullivant’s view is that isolation is the wrong approach:

“I really think that in my time in prison most of the Mojo’s [Muhajiroon] realised they had made errors from being in prison and actually being forced to mix for once. They couldn’t isolate like they do on the outside…no one took Mojo Dawah [proselitisation] seriously, and they ended up all… becoming much more mainstream”

Bullivant seems to be echoing the ideas proposed by a former prison governor, Peter Dawson, who argues that these isolation units will not work. Partly, because they tried it in Northern Ireland and it failed. And partly because with an increase in prison numbers and a reduction in prison staff, it will be unsustainable. Instead Dawson argues that if prison is about punishment and rehabilitation then the best way is to have well funded prisons where well trained and motivated prison staff build long term relationships with inmates of any radical persuasion.

Labawat al-Jabal: A Druze Female Militia in Suwayda’ Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Female fighters in the Syrian civil war are foremost associated with the Kurds, in particular the YPJ division of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)’s armed militias. Indeed, a female role in fighting fits in naturally with the secular and leftist ideology of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), of which the PYD is the Syrian affiliate. However, the phenomenon of female fighters and militia members is not confined to this side alone: they can also most notably be found on the regime side. In fact, such a case came to light recently with the killing of one Ghasun Ahmad, who died fighting on the Aleppo front in late August. Also known by the nickname Amirat al-Assad (al-Assad Princess), she was originally from Tartous governorate and was most notably affiliated with the National Ideological Resistance, a Syrian Hezbollah militia that originates from the Tartous and Masyaf areas and has fought in most parts of western Syria. This affiliation became particularly apparent in footage broadcast by Sama TV of her funeral, featuring the appearance of National Ideological Resistance insignia and outfits at the proceedings. Other posts on social media claimed she was in the ranks of the military intelligence militia Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari. It is possible she was affiliated with both groups at the same time. After all, the Syrian Resistance has claimed overlap with the ranks of Quwat Dir’ al-Amn al-Askari on the Aleppo front.

Ghasun Ahmad in Khanaser, an important point for the regime’s supply route to the Aleppo frontlines. She is wearing National Ideological Resistance insignia in this photo.

Ghasun Ahmad with the National Ideological Resistance.

However, there also exist female militia groups. A notable case can be found in the Labawat al-Jabal (‘Lionesses of the Mountain’) group of the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’. The ‘mountain’ reference in the militia’s name refers to the other common names for the Suwayda’ area: Jabal al-Arab (Mountain of the Arabs) and Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Druze). An account of the militia and its origins was posted on the page Suwayda’ 24 in June this year, putting it in the camp of regime loyalist Suwayda’ factions (as opposed to the more third-way and reformist Rijal al-Karama movement that has a number of militias under its wing):

Labawat al-Jabal shirt.

“The faction Labawat al-Jabal was formed in the seventh month last year [July 2015] by recommendation from the Brigadier Wafiq Nasir, leader of the military intelligence of south Syria. It is a faction exclusive for women who desire to enlist, and they have been subjected to three training sessions at the hands of officers from the military intelligence branch as their numbers have exceeded 30 young women. But strong opposition to this faction has appeared from a wide section of the people of Suwayda’. Among those who opposed this faction was the previous leader of the ‘Rijal al-Karama’ movement Sheikh Waheed al-Bal’ous [assassinated in September 2015] who attacked them and said it was shameful for women to bear arms so long as there are men defending the province. On the other hand, a portion of the people of Suwayda’ welcomed this faction and said that it is obligatory on every woman to train for use of arms in the face of the gradually growing danger that the province is witnessing. It should be noted that a number of the women in this faction tried to attack the recent demonstrations that this province witnessed to demand improvement of living circumstances, through provoking the demonstrators and vilifying them, but the demonstrators did not react towards them [referring to the small anti-regime ‘Hatamtuna’ protests in Suwayda’ earlier this year, the campaign name meaning “You have smashed us”].

This is so, and the faction announced opening the door of recruitment again for every woman who desires that, together with announcing a new training session of a period of 15 days beginning from 1 July 2016. This session includes training in arms, physical competence, first aid and morale support, at the hands of specialist officers from the military intelligence branch. It should also be noted that this faction has not yet been dispatched to the hot zones or made to participate in fighting operations until today.”

As it so happens, Labawat al-Jabal has a Facebook page in which it announced the opportunity of registration for these training sessions during the summer. Like many other militias, Labawat al-Jabal offered connection for inquiry and further information via phone number, with the place for registration located at the base of Madhafat al-Watan [“The Homeland Guest House”: also just called Madhafat Watan] in Suwayda’ city, which as an institution engages in a variety of activities in the province including financial assistance for students and honouring those who have fought and/or died for the Syrian army. These activities include maintaining relations with key regime figures in Suwayda’ such as the provincial governor.

The Labawat al-Jabal sessions during the summer- referred to as ‘the fourth session’ (al-dawra al-rabi’a) and acknowledged to have been supported by Madhafat al-Watan– were subsequently promoted on the group’s page with photos of training, as per below.

Training for Labawat al-Jabal

First-aid training for Labawat al-Jabal.

Considering Labawat al-Jabal’s links to Madhafat al-Watan, it is unsurprising that the group is pro-regime in orientation– something reflected in its page’s posts. However, Labawat al-Jabal denies the claims of being affiliated with military intelligence, writing in August 2015 in response to a story about a supposed meeting with Wafiq Nasir:

“The Labawat al-Jabal group is not affiliated with anyone. And we are an independent group socially and as an auxiliary for the Syrian Arab Army. Secondly, this photo [the one circulated regarding the story] is the photo of the graduation of Kata’ib al-Ba’ath for girls.”

A representative for Madhafat al-Watan affirmed to me that Labawat al-Jabal is affiliated with Madhafat al-Watan. Another representative- one Muzna al-Atrash, the media activist and media official for Madhafat al-Watan- clarified further:

“Labawat al-Jabal is not a faction but rather an initiative within the initiatives of Madhafat al-Watan, both of them being a nationalist, popular civil movement not affiliated with any side.”

Conversely, Sheikh Marwan Kiwan of the Rijal al-Karama faction Bayraq Al Kiwan, who derides Labawat al-Jabal as “enemies, female shabiha of the sectarian criminal Wafiq Nasir…apostates,” claims that Madhafat al-Watan is actually under Wafiq Nasir. Though the institution has participated in at least one meeting that has included Wafiq Nasir, no solid evidence corroborates Marwan Kiwan’s claim that Madhafat al-Watan is under his leadership. Further explanation of Labawat al-Jabal and the relation with Madhafat al-Watan was offered by the Muzna al-Atrash:

“Maha al-Atrash, who is a graduate of the Higher Institute of Dramatic Arts and a musical composer, established it [the Labawat al-Jabal initiative] on account of her belief in the role of women in protecting the land and homeland, and so that it should be an auxiliary for men in defending the homeland, so she prepared a group of instructors, including a close combat instructor, an instructor for street fighting, an instructor for self-defence, an arms instructor to teach how to deal with arms and teach use of rifle magazines, and a first aid instructor, as well as training the woman to confront disasters and teaching women to prepare food for fighters.

By this training, the woman should be capable at least of protecting herself and her children, and most importantly protecting them from mistakes that may end her life and the life of her family. Four sessions have come out for women in the province of Suwayda’: the number of women in each session reaching 50. So the result in total, 200 ladies. This operation is completely voluntary and free. Maha is the daughter of the director and writer Memdouh al-Atrash, the founder of Madhafat Watan.”

Labawat al-Jabal graphic.

Labawat al-Jabal is by no means a major militia force in Suwayda’ province, which, according to one source in Bayraq Al Kiwan who spoke with me in May this year, is now host to more than 35 factions. Nonetheless, it offers an interesting case study of female militia mobilization and its political connections within regime-held Syria. Whatever resentment there might be towards Labawat al-Jabal among those who lack the regime loyalist inclinations, full-blown war between the Suwayda’ factions remains a remote prospect, as no one side would emerge decisively victorious. In addition, incidents such as the Qadisiya al-Janub rebel offensive in Quneitra province last month that pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr only served to draw attention away from internal quarrels as forces mobilized to defend Hadr out of Druze solidarity, whatever assurances might have been made that the intention was not to capture Hadr itself. According to a media director for Rijal al-Karama who spoke with me, this mobilization to defend Hadr included fighters from Rijal al-Karama though not going under this name on account of problems with the regime’s intelligence apparatuses. In any event, hopes of the ‘revolution’ coming to Suwayda’ remain a long way off.

How Will the Syrian Crisis End? – By Ehsani2

How Will the Syrian Crisis End?
By Ehsani2 @EHSANI22
For Syria Comment – October 10, 2016


Westerners find it hard to believe that a crisis, such as that afflicting Syria, cannot be stopped. “Surely, someone can and must do something” is the consensus thinking. If the UN has failed to stop it and diplomacy cannot bring it to an end, then the White House must stop the blood letting and use military power to do so. “We just cannot sit back and let this tragedy unfold without doing something.” That is the montra of pundits on TV and commentators on social media.

The sad truth is that those hoping for a quick resolution to this crisis are likely to be disappointed. Contrary to expectations, the US is unlikely to enter into war with Russia over Syria. The moral argument for intervention cannot out-weigh the immense risks that the US military would be taking were it to engage in a direct and costly war with Russia. Despite the hawkish rhetoric of Hillary Clinton on the campaign trail, chances are that once in the White House, she will come to the same conclusion about using American military force as President Obama. Real world constraints reduce the chance that US will deploy force in Syria. The Syrian opposition and their backers will be forced to rethink their current path.

Political Solution

Most policy makers involved in the Syria crisis insist that “there is only a political solution to the Syria crisis.” The unstated problem with this argument is timing. Can a political solution be arrived at before a clear military winner emerges on the battlefield? Mustn’t one side realize that it has no choice but to accept a settlement before both sides will come to the table? The answer to this question is clear. No political solution can take place before a clear winner emerges on the battlefield. The longer this process is delayed, the longer the crisis will drag on, and the greater will be the death count.

Salafists and Jihadists

Regardless of how liberal and reform minded were the masses who made up the opposition at the beginning of the uprising, those who make up the armed groups today are largely Salafists and Jihadists. They control the battlefield. The Syrian state has long been accused of releasing Islamists from its prisons in an effort to achieve precisely this outcome. While such accusations are impossible to dismiss wholesale, it is important to recall that one of the early and consistent demands of the opposition was for the release of political prisoners. And who were those prisoners? The vast majority were Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood had long been the central enemy of the Baathist regime. Liberals were inconsequential and presented little threat to Assad’s control. The vast majority of the political prisoners brought before the security courts and convicted to lengthy prison terms were jihadists returning from Iraq or Salafists who preached against the regime in surreptitious dawa circles. Leading up to the events of Daraa in 2011, Damascus had for decades charged Islamists with long sentences, often seven years, in prisons such as Sednaya.

The release of prisoners

As the crisis first unfolded in Daraa, Sheikh Sayasneh was invited to Damascus in an attempt by the authorities to de-escalate the situation. One of the key demands of the cleric was the release of prisoners, the majority of whom were Islamists. This pattern was often repeated throughout the early phase of the crisis. The U.N special envoy, Kofi Annan, took up this demand. He too insisted that all political prisoners be released. While many in the opposition are convinced that the release of salafists, such as Zahran Alloush, who was imprisoned for organizing prayer meetings, was engineered by Damascus to help radicalize the opposition, the truth is probably more nuanced. The Syrian State was desperately trying to stop the uprising by using both the stick (swift response against protestors) and the carrot (release of prisoners when urged). While one may still debate this argument and claim that the government’s secret intent was to turn the uprising into an jihad, the fact is that what Damascus sees today are insurgents and Islamist armed groups who want nothing less than to destroy the Syrian State and replace it with a one of their own design, one that would conform to sharia. They call it “more Islamist in identity”.

Different visions of government

The two completely different sorts of government envisioned by each side do not permit a credible political solution at the present time. As for the political wing of the opposition that maintains close relations with Washington, Damascus believes that Qatar has repeatedly prevented this largely powerless group from following US suggestions of entering into more serious political talks during the previous Geneva talks.

Only the battlefield will decide

What the above leaves us with is the hard truth that only the battlefield will decide the next phase of this crisis. This means that the war is likely to continue. The armed groups and their supporters are unlikely to give up the fight. The same is true of Assad and his backers. No one will be able to stop this war until one side begins to collapse or loses enough to bring the fight near to its conclusion. Sadly, when this point of inequality between the opposing sides is reached, the loser will have little to gain from negotiating. Until this scenario becomes the accepted wisdom, we are likely to read the inevitable daily op-eds and opinion pieces that decry the unfolding tragedy and demand that the United States escalate its military intervention.

Aleppo and America’s Syria Policy – by Robert G. Rabil

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-42-16-pmA Historical and Contemporaneous Context for American Policy on Syria
By Robert G. Rabil – @robertgrabil
For Syria Comment October 4, 2016

With Aleppo under indiscriminate heavy bombardment and siege by the Syrian regime and its allies, Russia, Iran, Iraqi Mobilization Units and Hezbollah, the pitch of the chorus of voices blaming and shaming the U.S. for not intervening militarily in Syria to stop the bloodshed has reached a crescendo not seen since the days preceding the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Whereas some critical views offered heartfelt appeals to salvage Syria as a state and a nation, others bluntly blamed the failed policies of the Obama Administration for the tragedy befalling Syria.


This debate over the Obama’s administration policy on Syria was put recently on display by Secretary of State John Kerry. In a meeting with a small number of Syrian civilians, Secretary Kerry confessed that he had lost an argument within the Obama administration to back up diplomatic efforts with the threat of using military force against the Syrian regime. He also added that Congress would never agree to the use of force. According to the New York Times, several comments made in the meeting “crystallized the widespread sense of betrayal even among the Syrians most attractive to Washington as potential partners, civilians pushing for pluralistic democracy.”

No doubt, this notion of American betrayal and culpability cast a pall over the reliability and essence of Washington’s role in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. On closer examination, however, it becomes clear that the American role in Syria, though not beyond criticism, has been more emotively criticized than cerebrally expounded, especially as it relates to American national interest. Herein lay the confusion over and frustration with American foreign policy. In fact, the American role in Syria cannot be fully understood without being contextualized in a framework of reference according to which American national interest is evaluated on the basis of the modern history of U.S.-Syrian relationship, the crisis of the Arab world and American war on terrorism, and the new dawning of a global reality.


The history of the U.S.-Syrian relationship is conflicted and had been grounded in ambivalence, making a potential U.S. military involvement in Syria hardly possible. As I have shown in Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East, U.S.-Syrian relations have been marked by antagonism and ambivalence, not limited to the Asads’ reign. In fact, U.S. overtures to Syria were not only shunned but opposed. The U.S., unlike Britain and France, entertained no colonial ambitions in the Middle East. The U.S. relationship with Israel and Syria started on an equal footing after World War Two. The U.S. recognized the independence of Syria before supporting the creation of the state of Israel. The support for Israel was not meant to serve either as a bridgehead to American influence or as an outpost of imperialism. Nor was it a ploy to dictate Syrian policies. The Cold War and Arab nationalist policies, which equated Israel with colonialism, opened the gates of the heartland of the Middle East to the rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The main objective of the U.S. was to check Soviet expansion in the region, which fed on Arab grievances against the Western powers and their support of Israel.

When in November 29, 1947 the UN General Assembly voted for the partition of Palestine into two states, one Jewish and the other Arab, with Jerusalem as a separate enclave to be administered by a governor appointed by the international organization, Syrian demonstrators attacked the U.S. legation in Damascus.  When in October 1950, the U.S., Britain, France, and Turkey formally proposed to Egypt the formation of a Middle East Defense Organization (MEDO), the purpose of which would serve to extend the containment of the Soviet Union to the heartland of the Middle East, Syrians denounced MEDO as an imperialist plot. Egypt’s refusal to enter MEDO and Syria’s opposition to it doomed it to failure. At the time, the U.S. had no special relations with either Syria or Israel. Its concern with containing the Soviet Union made it look at Israel and Syria through the prism of Cold War politics. When Western powers supported the Baghdad pact of 1955 as a means to counter the threat of communism, “progressive forces” in Syria, the Ba’th, the Democratic Bloc, and the Communists opposed the pact and consequently moved Syria in the direction of Egypt and the Soviet Union. This set the stage for the Middle East to become a ground of rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

No sooner, in July 1956, after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, the British, French, and Israelis led a joint attack on Egypt in late October, which was frowned upon by the U.S. This emanated from a cluster of complex considerations. Prominent among them was, on the one hand, the attempt to woo away Egyptian nationalists from the Soviet embrace and, on the other hand, the concern over taking action that could deepen the Soviet embrace. In his memoirs, Eisenhower emphasized the implications of the attack for Arab nationalism:

I must say that it is hard for me to see any good final result emerging from a scheme that seems to antagonize the entire Moslem world. Indeed I have difficulty seeing any end whatsoever if all the Arabs should begin reacting somewhat as the North Africans have been operating against the French.[i]

The U.S. compelled Israel to withdraw from the Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza strip, both captured during the Suez war. Syria, for its part, immediately supported Egypt when the three powers invaded it. At the height of the crisis, Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli flew to Moscow to seek political and military support. Clearly, despite the high ground the U.S. had achieved in the Middle East in the aftermath of the Suez crisis, the Syrians saw in the Soviet Union a protector that readily poured much needed economic and military assistance in perilous times. Similarly, U.S. expectations of appreciation from the Arabs for intervention in the Suez crisis in their favor turned hollow.

Consequently, the U.S. feared a total Soviet victory in the region. In January 1957, Dulles addressed Congress stressing that “it would be a major disaster for the nations and peoples of the Middle East, and indeed for all the world, including the U.S., if that area were to fall into the grip of international communism.” He added that the U.S. “must do whatever it properly can to assist the nations of the Middle East to maintain their independence.”[ii] The Eisenhower administration had its way when Congress passed the joint resolution in March 1957, henceforth known as the Eisenhower Doctrine, conceding to the administration request that

The president is authorized to…employ the armed forces of the United States as he deems necessary to secure and protect the territorial integrity and political independence of any such nation or group of nations requesting such aid against overt armed aggression from any nation controlled by International Communism.[iii]

The U.S. president sent Ambassador James P. Richards to the Middle East to inaugurate the new doctrine. Only Lebanon and Iraq endorsed the Doctrine. Syria refused to receive the Ambassador. Initially, Syria had rejected the Eisenhower doctrine on the grounds that intervention in the affairs of a nation over economic interests was a flagrant violation of the sovereignty principle; and that the American assertion that a power vacuum existed in the region was but a pretext for imperialist intervention and hegemony.[iv] By August 1957, the relationship between the U.S. and Syria sank to a new low when the Syrian government charged the U.S. with an attempt to overthrow it. The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs released a communiqué on August 19 announcing the discovery of the American plot. The communiqué emphasized that the goal of the Eisenhower doctrine was to seize the independence of Middle Eastern countries and offer them as easy prey to Zionism and imperialism. The U.S. rebuffed Syrian accusations, interpreting them as a “smokescreen behind which people that have the leftish leanings are trying to build up their power.”[v] Subsequently, the U.S. and Syrian ambassadors were declared personae non gratae in their respective host countries.

In 1963, the Ba’th party came to power through a coup d’etat. In order to support its militant attitude toward the Arab-Israeli conflict and its socialist domestic policy, the Ba’th government cooperated closely with the Soviet Union to obtain financial and military aid. By contrast, Syria’s relations with the U.S. continued to deteriorate. The U.S., however, held both Syria and Israel responsible for the growing violence along their borders[vi]. It called later on upon Syria to insure that its territory would not be used as a base for terrorism against Israel.[vii] Heightened tension along the Israeli-Syrian border contributed to the eruption of the June 1967 War, following which Damascus broke off diplomatic relations with Washington.

US-Syrian relations remained abysmal until Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, following the 1973 war, brokered the 1974 Israel-Syria Disengagement Agreement over the Golan Heights. Kissinger’s shuttle diplomacy was arduous but important because it conveyed to Arab leaders and particularly to Syrian president Hafiz Asad that without American support there is no return to the status quo ante. This complemented the overall strategy of the Nixon Administration in the Middle East, which set out to demonstrate that the Soviet Union’s capacity to foment crises was not matched by its ability to resolve them.[viii] The underlying implications of the American strategy were to prod the Arab leaders to approach Washington for assistance in the peace process and to make manifest the Arab’s anachronistic concept of all-or-nothing approach towards Israel.

This uneasy rapprochement between the U.S. and Syria was carried on by the Ford and the Carter administrations, especially that the latter had made the reflection of American values in foreign policy one of its central themes. The realpolitik and elliptical approach to foreign policy, which had characterized the State Department under Kissinger, was to be replaced by an open foreign policy, substituting “world order” for “balance of power,” and placing Human Rights issues high on the Administration’s agenda. Not surprisingly, Carter’s quest for idealism in foreign policy clashed with his geopolitical realism, resulting in an ambivalence, which was reinforced by the divergent world views of his principal advisers.

Significantly, this brief evolution of U.S.-Syrian relations was seriously hobbled when Syria appeared on the US State Department’s “terrorism list” in 1979. Still, Washington maintained a belief in Syria’s key regional role and in its capacity to influence events in the region. This led to the emergence of Washington’s ambivalent attitude toward Damascus, which became first apparent in Lebanon and then a hallmark of US-Syrian relations until the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ironically, the terrorism issue, which precluded the US from improving its relationship with Syria, became the issue responsible for bringing the two countries together.

At the same time, U.S.-Syrian relations, mainly in the 1980s, were affected by the Cold War and the complexities and harsh realities of the Middle East in general and Israel and Syria’s struggle for Lebanon in particular. Significantly, the Reagan administration launched a peace initiative following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. However, the American involvement in Lebanon suffered a painful blow when 240 U.S. marines died in a terrorist attack on their headquarters in West Beirut in October 1983. Though fingers were directed to Iran as the sponsor of the terrorist who carried out the suicidal attack, Syrian involvement could not be ruled out.

The U.S., backing its diplomacy with the threat of force, fired battleship guns (the carrier, New Jersey) on Syrian dominated Lebanese positions. Syria fired back and shot down two American war planes, which had engaged in an exchange of fire. This marked the first direct confrontation between Washington and Damascus. However, amid sharp division and opposition to the U.S. role in Lebanon within the Reagan administration, President Reagan chose not to escalate the skirmishes to a full war. Both complexities and treacherous realities of the Lebanese civil war and the Arab-Israeli conflict flew in the face of America’s policy in the region. The U.S. redeployed its troops to U.S. ships offshore and put the peace initiative on the back burner.

US relations with Syria remained ambivalent straddling the ground of sanctions and cooperation. Interestingly, Syria was the only country listed on the US State Department’s terrorism list with which Washington maintained diplomatic relations. The height of cooperation ensued when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990 and Syria participated in the US-led international coalition to extract Iraq from Kuwait. Consequently, US-Syrian relations warmed and Damascus became central to the Arab-Israeli peace process launched after the end of the Gulf War. Asad was hailed in the Arab world as Salahuddin, who wrested Jerusalem from the Crusaders, and the steadfast Arab nationalist leader. During the peace process, Asad helped build the power of Hezbollah in Lebanon at the expense of the legitimacy of the state. Arab leaders and many intellectuals applauded him.

Upon his assumption of power after the death of his father in 2000, Bashar Asad promised an era of political openness. Syrian intellectuals and quasi-civil society groups responded by what became known as the Damascus Spring. However, their call for pluralism and political and civil rights were soon muzzled. Clearly, the Syrian regime feared on his hold to power and decided to censor all socio-political activities. Syrian activism reemerged following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Notably, the activists’ call for reform was couched in the interest of safeguarding Syria from the spillover of the profound changes sweeping Iraq and by extension the region. No calls for removing Asad or his regime were declared. No less significant, reformers of all ideological stripes and backgrounds failed to unite. In hindsight, no time period during the modern history of Syria was more opportune to pressure the regime into making significant changes than in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Washington’s relations with Damascus swiftly deteriorated once Asad opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and then sank to a dangerous low when the Syrian regime helped Jihadists cross Syria into Iraq to fight U.S. troops. Yet, Arab condemnation of U.S. invasion of Iraq to remove a Ba’thi dictator stood in sharp contrast to the deafening silence of Arab condemnation of Syrian complicity in murdering U.S. troops. This attitude prevailed in Syria until the eruption of the rebellion against the Asad regime.

Simply put, Syria, throughout most of its modern history, did not support the U.S. Even during the peace process no relational structures were considered by either country to support a warm and/or mutually beneficial strategic cooperation or alliance between the two countries. Taking all this under consideration, one cannot fail but observe that American attitudinal role in Syria has been more or less affected by the history of this conflicted and ambivalent U.S.-Syrian relationship.

Second, for a nation fighting a war on terrorism whose ideology and praxis are mostly traced to the Middle East, it is arguably hardly possible for United States to entertain a role in Syria not associated with counterterrorism. Admittedly, the Obama administration has done serious mistakes, chief among them calling on President Asad to step down and creating a red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Eventually, the U.S. did not back its words with action. At the same time, the U.S. relegated the political initiative to deal with the Syrian crisis to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Whereas the first fanned the ideological and monetary support for the jihadists, the other paved for the Jihadists the route to Damascus. Yet, the U.S. has struggled to support moderate opposition groups. As it turned out, some of these groups have shifted their allegiance to al-Nusra Front or other Salafi-Jihadist groups, which are dedicated to killing Americans. In addition, can the moderate opposition be absolved of the tragedy befalling Syria? When the U.S. designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in November 2012, members of the Syrian opposition deplored the American act, asserting the indispensability of the al-Qaeda-affiliate group in fighting the Asad regime. This was a serious strategic mistake that helped further legitimize Salafi-jihadism within the Syrian revolution. Therefore, how could anyone blame the U.S. for the rise of Salafi-jihadism in Syria? Did the U.S. support, equip, train, or fund Salafi-jihadists? Did the U.S. prefer supporting Jihadists more than the moderate opposition? In fact, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE all supported various Islamists and Jihadists significantly more than the moderate opposition. No less significant, it is the Arab world, which applauded and hailed the violent and oppressive Asad regime, that supported the jihadists and helped bring Syria to its tragedy. Certainly, ISIS is the latest manifestation of an Arab world mired in deep social and political crisis.

Meanwhile, once the regime’s hold onto power had begun to teeter, despite considerable support from Iran and Hezbollah, Russia stepped in not only to save its old satellite capital but also to entrench itself in the Mediterranean basin as a bulwark against what it considers American hegemony. Strategically speaking, by helping the Syrian regime, Moscow would create in Western Syria a bastion of Iranian influence beholden to Russian power, while at the same time turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake. No doubt, the entry of Moscow into the Syrian fay further complicated Washington’s maneuvers. Whereas Moscow came to the help of an old client, Washington has had reservations with certain predominant Salafi-jihadist group spearheading the opposition. And, if history is any guide, it is naïve to think that Russia would not pursue a Grozny-like campaign to ensure that its military involvement in Syria would not become ominously perpetual. This explains the forcible displacement of Sunnis from parts of Western Syria and the savagery with which Russia and its allies have pursued their campaign to seize full control of Aleppo.

Consequently, Washington found itself in a quandary. It ironically found itself on the same side with Russia and the Syrian regime fighting Salafi-Jihadist opposition groups while at the same time supporting the moderate opposition whose power paled in comparison to the Jihadists.  Expectedly, neither the Obama Administration, Congress, nor the US public support sending troops to an unfriendly land crisscrossed by jihadists on one side, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization units on the other. How could one expect the U.S. to attack the regime, even in a limited capacity, without potentially incurring the wrath and retaliation of its Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Iraqi allies, all of which are really running the deadly show? Similarly, should anyone expect that Salafi-jihadists will not jump at the opportunity of Washington striking at the regime to widen their sphere of influence and in the process slaughter non-believers? Or should anyone brush aside the possibility that the Iraqi mobilization units would use their partnership with the Iraqi government to attack the approximately 6000 American soldiers advising the same government? Or should American people forget the high pitched fictitious slogan that Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers as liberators in 2003? Certainly, the U.S. is in an unenviable position in both Syria and Iraq, where American enemies vastly outnumber American friends! Nevertheless, The U.S. has been the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, and has sent dozens of U.S. troops to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces.

Speaking recently before the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew a bleak but accurate picture of the Syrian crisis: “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians…Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.”

This is the tragedy of Syria and, by extension, the tragedy of the Muslim world in the Middle East. Be that as it may, the U.S. should apply its soft influence to reach a permanent cease fire and end the slaughter and displacement of Syrians. No doubt dealing with Russia is exhausting and at times unproductive. But the reality of the world today is that the U.S. cannot force a cease fire as part of a settlement on its own without introducing a massive number of troops to eventually occupy Syria.  In his most recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger affirms that the main challenge for the twenty-first century is how to shape an international order in a world buffeted by violent conflicts, technological proliferation and radicalism. He adds that unless the major powers reach a new kind of accommodation about their global roles chaos would ensue. In other words, the United States would find it difficult to play the leadership role it had carried out in post-Cold War. Consequently, the United States confronts a paradox whereby it continues to be the undisputed global leader but in an often contested, sometimes uncertain global position. This is the international backdrop against which the tragedy in Syria continues to unfold.

More specifically, however, Syria as a nation is paying the deep price for the social, political and sectarian flaws in Arab society. Following the Arab defeat in 1967, the Syrian and Arab philosopher par excellence Sadek al-Azm wrote a book entitled Al-Naqd al-Thati Ba’da al-Hazima (Self-Criticism After the Defeat), in which he argued that the defeat of Arab armies was not brought about by the might of the Israeli army but rather by the flaws of Arab society. Today these flaws are deeper than ever!

Currently, the tragic reality today is that Aleppo is all but a foregone conclusion, for the city is essential to consolidate Russian-Iranian-Syrian regime control over Western Syria. It’s clear from Secretary Kerry’s statements that the U.S. will not go to war with Russia over Aleppo. But that does not mean that the U.S. and the international community should not apply significant pressure, including by proxy, on Russia and the Syrian regime to stop their indiscriminate warfare. This begs the essential question following the day after the likely fall of Aleppo: How to change the dynamics in Syria in favor of the moderate opposition without creating a bigger war and tragedy. Until a new American administration moves into the White House, this remains to be seen!

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-12-50-06-pmRobert G. Rabil is a professor of political science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of a number of books including Syria, United States and the War on Terror in the Middle East (2006); Religion, National Identity and Confessional Politics in Lebanon: The Challenge of Islamism (2011); Salafism in Lebanon: Apoliticism to Transnational Jihadism (2014); and The Syrian Refugee Crisis in Lebanon: The Double Tragedy of Refugees and Impacted Host Communities (2016). The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those at FAU. Dr. Rabil can be followed @robertgrabil.

[i] Dwight D. Eisenhower, Mandate for Change: The White House Years 1953-1956 (New York: Doubleday, 1963), p. 252.

[ii] John Foster Dulles, Economic and Military Cooperation with Nations in the General Area of the Middle East, (Washington, DC: GPO, January 1957), pp. 2-5.

[iii] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1961), pp. 816-817.  

[iv] Ministere Syrienne des Affaires Etrangeres, Declaration du Gouvernment Syrien au Sujet du Projet du President Eisenhower (Damas: Bureau des Documentations Syriennes et Arabes, Janvier 10, 1957), p. 1.

[v] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1957, p.1036.

[vi] DOS, AFP: Current Documents 1966 (Washington, DC: GPO, 1969), p. 525.

[vii] Ibid., pp. 530-531.

[viii] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), p. 738.

“Remember Syria’s Adib Shishakli,” by Christopher Solomon

Remember Syria’s Adib Shishakli
Christopher Solomon – @Solomon_Chris
For Syria Comment Sept 27, 2016


Nearly 52 years ago, a Syrian political leader hiding in exile was killed in the heart of Brazil. As Syria watchers continue to monitor and understand the country’s grinding civil war, the era of the former Syrian political figure Adib Al-Shishakli could yield some clues.

The flag of the Syrian opposition factions bares the green, white, and black tricolor with three red stars. The very same flag once flew over Syria from its independence until the late 1950’s, a turbulent era marked by political intrigue, military coups, early experiments with democracy, and authoritarian rule. At the center of this era was a powerful political figure now barely remembered both outside of Syria, Adib Al-Shishakli.

As policy makers in capitals across the Western World grapple with Syria’s endless violence, Shishakli’s legacy and the lessons from his time are worth remembering today. Shishakli’s rule over Syria, geopolitical trends, his relationship with the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), and his ensuing ouster yield some clues on what we might expect as the civil war prepares to enter its sixth year.

shishakliCoups, Stability, and Authoritarian Rule

Hailing from Hama, Shishakli was a Syrian Kurd who served in the Arab armies that took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. His exploits on the front lines earned him a following among Syria’s officer corps. Though Shishakli was not known to be an ideologically driven figure, he entertained many of the nascent political activists at the officer’s club in Damascus. Shishakli was largely known for his close association with Antoun Saadeh’s SSNP, also sometimes referred to as the Parti Populaire Syrien (PPS). In addition, his participation in nationalist inspired actions against the French, such as the take over and occupation of the Hama citadel in 1944, only added to his reputation as a man of action.

Syria’s politically turbulent years in the wake of independence saw the reigns of leadership held by prominent nationalist personalities, such as Shukri Quwatli, and subsequent power squabbles between his National Bloc and the pro-Iraqi Aleppo-based People’s Party, with plenty of political intrigue from the SSNP and its primary competitor, the student dominated Baath movement. The country was soon rocked by a series of coups that turned the country into a pariah state.

Shishakli came to power in 1950 with the third military coup which brought about a short period of stability. Shishakli had aided General Husni Ziam in Syria’s first coup by leading an army division. However, it was Shishakli’s rule which marked the first time the military would fully enter political life in an Arab country, establishing a trend that would acquaint regional armies with the taste of high office.

For some, the period of military rule had benefits. The Shishakli regime cracked down on crime, enforced strict control of Syria’s porous borders, and work to build the army into a modern force. Shishakli also harnessed the power of the radio and was well known throughout the region even before Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser for his oratory and zeal that reverberated through the airwaves. He was the first post-independence Arab leader to cultivate a cult of personality with his pictures appearing in every shop window and established a government ministry of information and propaganda.


His spies and security agents were posted throughout the country to monitor any potential anti-Shishakli activity. All political parties were banned, especially religious parties. Long before Egypt’s deadly cat and mouse game with the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Shishakli barred the Islamic Socialist Front (Syria’s early incarnation of the MB) from participation in politics. Maarouf al-Dawalibi of the MB, was close to the Aleppo’s People Party and was removed as the Minister of Economy after Shishakli’s coup.

shshakli2Upon returning from Egypt, Shishakli was greeted at the airport by the pro-Baath army officer, Adnan al-Malki with demands for political reform. Shishakli had Malki compile a list of everyone involved in the confrontation and threw them in prison.

Despite the crackdown, there are those who recall Shishakli’s era, or have studied it, that speak fondly of him, remembering the avant garde laws that were enacted during his time. The Damascus International Fair of 1954 was one of Shishakli’s development projects to raise the country’s international profile, along with the Port of Latakia. The first woman to run for office was schoolteacher Thuraya al-Hafez, who sat in Shishakli’s 1953 Parliament. Even after his overthrow, Syrians were for years in awe of his rule.

The Assad regime maintains the aura of stability, modernity, and progressive attitude towards women over the territories it controls. Despite being part of Iran’s so-called Axis of Resistance, Assad’s regime still embraces secularism to generate support from Syria’s religious minorities and those who wish to keep Sunni Islamists from dominating the public sphere.

Regional and geopolitical trends

“Syria is the current official name for that country which lies within the artificial frontiers drawn up by imperialism.” The famous quote from Shishakli from 1953 still holds a measure of truth.

Syria’s borders have constantly been subjected to bouts of internal secessionism or tested by neighboring states. Historical examples include the Golan Heights, Hatay, and most recently, Rojova. Analysts often speak of creating an Alawite state. Just as internal political and ethnic rivalries fostered instability, so did the region’s geopolitics, which during Shishakli’s time was primarily a contest of dominance between Iraq and its British-backed Hashemite rulers, and the Egyptian-Saudi alliance. For the West, Syria was viewed through the prism of the Cold War and the battle against Communism. France continued to vie for influence in its former colonial dominion in order to check the British.

screen-shot-2016-09-27-at-9-55-55-pmAside from his coup and military rule, Shishakli was known for preserving Syria’s independence and sovereignty during a period of heightened Western influence in the region. He shunned military aid from the Eisenhower Administration and but also kept Syria from falling into the Soviet Bloc. The Fertile Crescent Project (sometimes referred to as the Baghdad Pact) was the primary driver of the region’s geopolitical trends during his time. The British sphere of influence extended over Iraq and though there was a desire to erase the artificial borders, the potential threat of Western interference led the nationalist forces inside Syria to keep prospects of a union between Damascus and Baghdad at bay.

Syrians are fiercely protective against potential foreign interference, real or perceived. For Assad, the role of safe guarding Syria’s independence from foreign influence remains a primary factor in resisting the negotiations in Geneva and the notion of a political transition. Assad’s recent anti-Western comments outside Daraya mosque further demonstrates this resistance. The heavily reliance on Russia and Iran is regarded by Assad’s supporters as a genuine friendship and it is not yet known how their increased influence will impact Syria for the remaining duration of the war.


Shishakli as president, 1953

Shishakli was able to court Egypt and Saudi Arabia and allowed France to maintain a level of nominal influence inside of the country. Just as Assad has leveraged Russia and Iran, Shishakli knew how to utilize the region’s players to keep Syria neutral during the Cold War and safeguard its independence. Iraq was a key instrument in fomenting internal dissent and organizing the forces that ultimately united against him.

It is easy to see how Syria’s central government historically wrestled with control over various regions. Towards the end of his rule, Homs was the key center of anti-Shishakli activity. However, he perceived the Druze as a threat to his regime. Shishakli was perhaps most notorious for his efforts to curtail the tribal-based power of the Druze located in southern Syria. The Druze never forgave him for the shelling and military assault on Jabal Druze (Druze Mountain) and many Druze officers in the Syrian army later formed the backbone of the coalition (supported by the Iraqi government) that conspired against him.

Today, regional agitation plays out in all parts of Syria. Aleppo remains the central stronghold for anti-Assad Arab rebel activity. In addition, the Baath Party’s years of brutal Arabization policies towards the Kurds in northeastern Syria present a similar case. The Kurds and the Assad loyalists have frequently clashed in the city of Hasakah. A central component of the Islamic State’s strategy to recruit Sunnis and hijack anti-Assad sentiment of the Syrian rebellion was the border destroying ideology of its so-called caliphate.

Whether consolidating power over Syria from Damascus or Raqqa, figurehead leaders have relied on a strategy of projecting the image of strength and an absolutist position to maintain the state’s sovereignty over the country. As it was difficult to enforce during Shishakli’s time, it is overwhelmingly obvious for Assad. If Syria is to remain united, the same will hold true for whoever follows him.

Shishakli, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, and the Arab Liberation Movement


Antoun Saadeh and SSNP members

Secular and progressive, the SSNP enjoyed the height of its popularity during Shishakli’s Syria. It wasn’t until after Shishakli’s overthrow that the SSNP’s political fortunes took a turn for the worse. Lebanon acted as a hideout for political exiles, such as the Baath Party ideologue Michael Aflaq, who returned to Syria to enact revenge on the SSNP after Shishakli’s downfall.  After the 1955 assassination of the widely popular Baath Party member and army Deputy Chief of Staff Malki, the SSNP was blacklisted and effectively driven underground by the rising Baath.

Shishakli entertained the SSNP during the first year of his rule. However, he eventually abstained from fully embracing the party’s central tenant of Pan-Syrianism in favor of the more vastly popular Pan-Arabism. He founded his own party, the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM) to cultivate this trend.

While there are no ideological ties between the SSNP and ALM, there is a strong influence of the first over the latter in terms of party structure, salute, hierarchy of power, etc. The ALM worked to embrace pan-Arabism whereas the SSNP emphasized its concoction of nationalism, mythicism and pan-Syrianism. Both of these parties, along with the Baath and Communist Party, were progressive in nature, allowing women and Syrians regardless of sect to join.

As for the Arab Liberation Movement, it has disappeared completely. In 1954, President Hashem al-Atasi, picking up the pieces after Shishakli’s departure, choose not ban the former dictator’s party, and even allowed the ALM secretary Maamoun al-Kuzbari to run for parliament (and obtain a seat). The ALM eventually died out with the start of the Syrian-Egyptian Union.

Women members of the ALM in 1953

Women members of the ALM in 1953

The ALM was ultimately unable to survive without Shishakli. A few hidden reminders of the ALM remain in plain sight. There is a major square in Damascus, when entering the Christian sectors, called “Sahet al-Tahrir” which was actually named after the Arab Liberation Movement (Freedom or Liberation in Arabic is Tahrir, noted in the name of the party, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi).

Al-Kuzbari (who later became Prime Minister) was allowed to be buried in Damascus when he died in 1998 and was given a semi-official funeral. As of 2016, his picture hangs in the main hall of Syrian Parliament to honor his role as the speaker of Parliament during the Shishakli era.

ALM rally in 1953. The sign reads the party’s name, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi.

ALM rally in 1953. The sign reads the party’s name, Haraket al-Tahrir al-Arabi.

The SSNP suffered both persecution and a popular decline in Lebanon and Syria until the late 1960s, when many of the SSNP leaders were freed from Lebanese prisons and began to rebuild the party during the 70s and 80s. It was during the Lebanese Civil War, that the party tentatively tested a friendship with Hafez al-Assad. This friendship later paid off. The SSNP has not only survived but has seen a resurgence during the Syrian Civil War.

The Baath have always held a distain for Shishakli, regarding him as a foreign stooge. There are no references to Shishakli in the SSNP’s party literature, since it would antagonize Syrian Druze and the Baathists, the latter are their political allies and who the SSNP are backing in the civil war.


SSNP leader Issam al-Mahayri in Parliament (right with glasses).

The SSNP’s older generation still speaks very fondly of Shishakli, but always in private. “Party President Issam al-Mahayri stepped down in late 2015 and was a good friend of Shishakli. When giving a four-part interview to the semi-official Al-Dunia TV channel in 2010, al-Mahayri spoke positively of Shishakli and his words were aired on state TV uncensored,” said Sami Moubayed, the founder of the Damascus History Foundation.

The SSNP’s leadership is proud of the fact that he and his brother Salah were early members of the party, along with Akram al-Hawrani, who later became a key member of the Baath Party. However, Shishakli was never instrumental as an ideological figure in the party and his influence is more nostalgic than anything else. Shishakli is thus still celebrated by the SSNP as a VIP member without ideological the inspiration.

Despite this, should the Assad regime win, the SSNP may play a greater role in post-war Syria as a vehicle for fostering a renewed notion of national unity. With so much harm coming from Syria’s Arab neighbors, the Baath’s concept of pan-Arabism might truly be dead. If the SSNP increases their political influence, Shishakli could perhaps become rehabilitated in the public discourse.

Shishakli’s downfall in 1954 and his legacy in Syria

Shishakli began to scale back the role of the military in Syria’s political scene in an effort to legitimize his rule. Many well-connected officers who suddenly felt detached and disenfranchised turned to Shishakli’s political enemies. With the help of Iraq, factions of the army were able to present a united front to subsequently oust him from Damascus. Once the Baath came to power, they worked to erase his existence from Syria’s collective memory. For many years, the ruling party worked to erase him from Syrian history. In private, he is still regarded and respected as a prominent and transformative Syrian leader.

“There is no mention of Shishakli in school books, at any level, and he is never mentioned on Syrian TV with the one exception of a television series called Hammam Al Qishani produced during the 1990s, where a Syrian actor, Ussama Roumani, played his role. Only one book was published in Syria about Shishakli since his resignation in 1954, and it was a mediocre one that failed to do him any justice,” explained Moubayed.

In Damascus, there is not a single monument or a plaque bearing his name. Even the official history of the Presidential Palace that Shishakli constructed at the tip of Abu Rummaneh Boulevard (now office of Vice-President Najah al-Attar) is obscured. The palace is usually associated with Nasser, who addressed Syria from its balcony in 1958 to herald in the country’s ill-fated union with Egypt.

Shishakli never returned to the presidency in Syria after leaving office in February 1954. Though there are two examples of when Shishakli had planned to return to power. First, it was revealed that immediately after his departure he tried to reroute the plane to Beirut when his supporters urged him to return. This effort, however, was stymied by the U.S. State Department and his plane was denied a landing permit at the Beirut International Airport.

Shishakli pictured in exile in Brazil a few days before his assassination.

Shishakli pictured in exile in Brazil a few days before his assassination.

The second event was a few years later when the SSNP facilitated several rounds of secret meetings in Beirut with Shishakli, his brother Salah, and a group of coup-plotters. However, Shishakli, a military man through and through, knew that the plot did not have the support of the Syrian army and decided against participating. Should Assad eventually decide to seek exile in Russia, it is possible that following years of political turbulence and terrorism, he could orchestrate his own return to power. To enact such a maneuver would be dependent on the level of support both in and outside of Syria.

The elections that followed Shishakli’s four years of dictatorship brought about the short-lived union with Egypt, a union that’s end brought about years of political squabbles. This was compounded by the breakdown of the army, which became factionalized and rudderless without Shishakli. An array of officers organized and formed their own secret networks of political patrons. An alliance of mutual interests between Aflaq’s Baath Party and the Syrian Communists ushered in a new era of authoritarian rule that led to the Neo-Baathist coup of 1966 and ultimately the Assad family’s current dynasty.

When considering Shishakli and his time, it is important to recall that when confronted with the news of rebellion, he could have resorted to the use of force (he did, after all, still control loyal factions of the military including heavy armor divisions) but abdicated in favor of self-imposed exile and avoided certain civil war. It is possible he knew that Syria, with its fragile political foundations and regional rivalries, would be at risk for long term turmoil. This very fear that Shishakli sought to avoid continues to play out in full earnest today.

For Syrians who remember him, Shishakli was a divisive leader, either regarded as transformative and progressive or despised as a dictator. His eventual assassination in Ceres, Brazil, coupled with the many years of rule by the Baath helped to cement the shroud over the memories of his existence. As the Syrian independence flag once again flutters in a period of uncertainty, it recalls the history of Shishakli and Syria’s forgotten past.

  • 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.

Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain: Building a ‘Resistance’ in Eastern Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Banner of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain. On top: “The Syrian Resistance” (al-muqawama al-suriya). On bottom: Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain (“The Imam Zain al-Abidain Brigade”).

In analysis of militiafication on the Assad regime side, one of the most understudied fronts is that of Deir az-Zor province in eastern Syria, as the regime maintains an outpost in parts of Deir az-Zor city, the military airport and some of the surrounding areas, with no supply routes by land in existence. Despite the regime’s rather precarious situation, the Islamic State (IS) has not yet completely wiped out the regime presence in the way that it took the regime’s isolated bases in Raqqa province by storm in the summer of 2014.

Though reporting commonly just refers to the Syrian army in Deir az-Zor province, there exist a number of supporting militias. The latest of these militias to have been set up on this front is Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, named for the fourth Shi’i imam. For context, it should be noted that there are a number of militias on the regime side that have adopted the moniker of Zain al-Abidain. For example, there is another Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain that has most notably fought on the Ithiriya front as advertised in late 2015. According to someone who was in the Republican Guard and then joined this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain, the group was formed around 2-3 years ago. A notable leading figure in this Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is one Zaher Hasan al-Asad, who is particularly interesting because he is also a member of Mihrac Ural’s group known as The Syrian Resistance (al-muqawama al-suriya), which should not be confused with the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Deir al-Zor that is the main subject of this piece and also bears the moniker of “The Syrian Resistance.” Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s affiliation with Ural’s group was confirmed by a source in the latter last month, who also mentioned that a squadron from Hasan Zaher al-Asad’s Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain was in Aleppo.

The Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain of Zaher Hasan al-Asad. The top of the emblem reads: “The Resistance Support Forces.”

Zaher Hasan al-Asad. Note his insignia from Mihrac Ural’s Muqawama Suriya.

Zaher Hasan al-Asad with his Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain members, posing in front of a banner that reads: “God’s peace be upon you oh Hussein.” The reference is to Imam Hussein, a key figure in Shi’i Islam. For similar sloganeering, see here.

Indeed, the leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor- a petroleum engineer  by occupation who is originally from Deir az-Zor and goes by the name of Abo Abod- told me that the name of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain exists among formations in various parts of Syria, including Ithiriya (likely referring to the presence of Zaher Hasan al-Asad’s group), Palmyra and Quneitra. He mentioned this fact in response to a query as to why this name was chosen for the group. He added that there were connections “with all the formations.”

More specifically on his own group in Deir az-Zor, he mentioned that it has been operating for four months (i.e. first set up in May-June 2016). Officially describing his group as independent, he affirmed that it was one of the supporting militias for the regime in Deir az-Zor. By his account, other militias that have participated in fighting on the Deir az-Zor front, according to Abo Abod, have included:

-The National Defence Forces.
– The Lions of the Eternal Leader: a militia whose name refers to Hafez al-Assad: affiliated with the Military Intelligence (al-Amn al-Askari: cf. here) and led by al-Hajj Azra’il, originally from the Shi’i village of Nubl in north Aleppo.
– The Lions of the Euphrates: affiliated with the Amn al-Dawla (“State Security”) intelligence agency.
– The Lions of the East: a tribal militia mainly drawing on Sha’itat tribesmen, who work closely with the Republican Guard and Issam Zahr al-Din, a Druze general in the Republican Guard who plays a leading role on the Deir az-Zor front, having recently returned to the front after a visit to the Quneitra frontlines that currently involve a rebel offensive that has pushed towards the area of the Druze village of Hadr, prompting a large Druze mobilization to defend the area. Together, under Zahr al-Din, members of the Republican Guard and members of the Lions of the East constitute the Majmu’at Nafidh Assad Allah (“Nafidh Assad Allah Group,” referring to a nickname for Zahr al-Din).
– The Ba’ath Brigades.
– al-Hashd al-Sha’abi: “Popular Mobilization”- undoubtedly taking its name from Iraq’s militia phenomenon that goes under this moniker- but not related, rather affiliated with the Syrian regime’s military commander for Deir az-Zor city.
– Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

This list of auxiliary forces more or less correlates with that compiled by the anti-IS and anti-regime group Deir az-Zor is Being Slaughtered Silently (DZBSS). Most notably, DZBSS correctly points out in addition the role of the Palestinian militia Quwat al-Jalil (“The Galilee Forces”), which actually claims the bulk of its ‘martyrs’ from fighting in Deir az-Zor. Despite some occasional claims that have surfaced on social media, little reliable evidence points to the presence of Iraqi Shi’i factions on the Deir az-Zor front, something denied by Abo Abod. It should also be noted that Abo Abod clarified that the Lions of the Euphrates militia has been dissolved by the Amn al-Dawla, with fighters distributed to other formations. According to him, al-Hashd al-Sha’abi has also been dissolved.

As might be expected, Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain in Deir az-Zor primarily draws on local people from Deir az-Zor as recruits, though Abo Abod was keen to emphasize as wide a manpower base as possible in terms of origins, claiming fighters from Albukamal (in eastern Deir az-Zor on the border with Iraq), Raqqa, Hasakah, Qamishli Damascus and Deraa. He put the monthly salary per fighter at $200, which he said was partly used to support civilians in Deir az-Zor. Concomitant with the wide range of origins, Abo Abod was also keen to put forth a cross-sectarian image for his group. “Do you know that I have Christian youth in the brigade?” he asked rhetorically in a bid to impress me. He added that “some of them are from al-Deir [Deir az-Zor] and some have come down with me from al-Sham [Damascus].”

Photo of Abo Abod

The photo of Abo Abod above, with the “Labbayk ya Hussein” (“At your service, oh Hussein”) insignia, may raise the question as to whether he is Shi’i himself. To this question, he gave a rather interesting response: “I belong to all sects. I wage war on all who wage war on the Shi’a. I serve [/revere] the Al Bayt [Prophet Muhammad’s family] and my lineage is Husseini.” He then elaborated: “Do you know that Deir az-Zor is Shi’i in character? The black abaya, the al-Abbas bread, Allah wa Ali, all of them are from the customs of the people of al-Deir.”

These kinds of remarks touch on an issue I raised in my previous article profiling Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib, a militia affiliated with the Republican Guard and based in Sayyida Zainab in Damascus. That is, whether or not there is formal conversion to Shi’i Islam, many pro-regime militias have displayed increasing affinities with Shi’i Islam and associated slogans and symbols, undoubtedly influenced by the extensive intervention of Iran and client Shi’i militias in Syria. Indeed, as Abo Abod told me, “The youth I have- Sunni before Shi’i- have adopted Labbayk ya Hussein, out of love and desire. We in the brigade deal with each other as one family and one house. Muhammad is our Prophet, Ali is our lord, Hussein is our leader….All demanded it [the slogans/symbols]. They said: ‘Hussein, Ali, Zainab and Fatima- peace be upon them- are our lords.'”

Photo of a person bearing the Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain flag.

So far, Abo Abod only claims 5 ‘martyrs’ for his formation, a recent example being one Nasim Muhammad al-Hamid, killed in fighting to retake Tel Baruq near the 137th brigade base. In the recent U.S. airstrikes in Deir az-Zor that erroneously targeted regime positions, there were no reported or confirmed deaths for the ranks of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain.

Analytically, it could be as my friend Tobias Schneider suggests to me that Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidain is a project analogous to Hezbollah’s Saraya al-Muqawama (“The Resistance Brigades”) project in Lebanon that is designed to outreach to non-Shi’i constituencies. Though Abo Abod said his group is independent, such a claim should probably be taken as formal distancing. In any case, the study of this militia in Deir az-Zor offers useful insight into regime dependency on auxiliary fighting forces even out on this front, and how apparent cross-sectarianism can still contribute to antagonistic sectarian dichotomies.

Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib: A Republican Guard Militia in Sayyida Zainab

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib. With a balance flanked by two Syrian flags, the bottom of the emblem features the legendary Dhu al-Fiqar sword of Imam Ali, with the inscription: “There is no hero but Ali and no sword but the Dhu al-Fiqar.”

The Sayyida Zainab area in Damascus- home to the Sayyida Zainab shrine- serves as a primary base for many Shi’i militias, including a number of Iraqi formations like Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein, Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the Rapid Intervention Regiment. The Sayyida Zainab area is also the main base for the Syrian Shi’i militia Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, which is affiliated with the 4th Armoured Division and has primarily served to maintain checkpoints. Somewhat similar in nature to Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib (“The Sword of Truth Brigade: The Conquering Lion of God”). The latter part of the group’s name is a reference to Imam Ali. The imagery is reinforced by the inclusion of the Dhu al-Fiqar in the emblem.

Like Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib is a Syrian militia with its base in the Sayyida Zainab area. However, its affiliation is not with the 4th Armoured Division, but rather the elite Republican Guard. This point is corroborated in open source data and the testimony of one Abu al-Layl al-Sadri, a fighter with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar who resides opposite the militia’s base. According to Abu al-Layl al-Sadri, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s base is located in the vicinity of the Mudhafa Fatimiya (‘Guest-House of Fatima’) in the Sayyida Zainab area. For context, the Mudhafa Fatimiya has also served as a conference venue, featuring one in November 2014 on the rebellion of Imam Hussein organized by Ayatollah Khamenei’s office in Syria and attended by the Social Committees Commission in the Sayyida Zainab area. More recently, the venue hosted a solidarity event with Hezbollah in March 2016 following its designation as a terrorist organization by Gulf Arab states. The event was notably attended by pro-regime Palestinian factions and militias, such as the PFLP General Command.

Though the group’s emblem suggests that Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib is a Shi’i militia, Abu al-Layl al-Sadri noted that this impression is not quite the case. Whereas Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi is described as a militia composed of Syrian Shi’a, he clarified that the members of Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib “show affection- you can say- and believe in the traditions of the Shi’a, following and participating in the occasions.” This may reflect a trend whereby some pro-regime factions, on account of the important role played by Iran and foreign Shi’i militias in supporting the regime, display affinities with Shi’i Islam even if there is no outright conversion, which has taken place in the case of Liwa al-Baqir, a militia of Shi’ified Bekara tribesmen in Aleppo.

The trend of affinity with Shi’i Islam can be influenced by recruitment of Syrians into the ranks of the foreign militias and close cooperation between those militias and the native formations. For example, a video uploaded by Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, one of the components of the Dir’ al-Watan (‘Homeland Shield’) collection of Syrian militias led by Hayder al-Juburi (leader of the Iraqi Shi’i militia Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar), features the song ‘Ya Zainab’ by the Iraqi Shi’i munshid Ali al-Mawali. In a similar vein, Muhammad Suleiman Harura, a declared ‘martyr’ for the Palestinian militia Liwa al-Jalil (which seems to be inactive at the present time), posed with insignia and banners of ‘Labbayk ya Zainab’ (‘At your service, oh Zainab’). Yet another example of Zainab sloganeering can be found in the militia Fawj Abu al-Harith 313 (also known as Saraya al-Areen), which appears to be based in Latakia and has fought on that front in addition to Aleppo.

Abu al-Layl al-Sadri added that the group’s formation dates back to two years ago. Under the leadership of one Ghalib Abu Ahmad (whose son Ahmad is actively involved in fighting, distinguishing himself in the Qalamoun mountains), Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s main engagements to date appears to have been in Damascus and the wider countryside area. For example, in January 2015, the group posted photos of its fighters in the snow-covered Qalamoun mountains. In March 2015, the group posted a photo of a group of its fighters near the locality of Falita in Qalamoun. In May-June 2015, the group claimed participation alongside Hezbollah and the Republican Guard in fighting against rebels in the Jaroud al-Qalamoun area. Later in the year, the group claimed to be fighting on the periphery of Dahiyat al-Assad and the Harasta area to the northeast of Damascus alongside the Syrian army, in addition to maintaining frontline positions in the Qalamoun mountains and participation in efforts to reopen the Harasta highway.

In the fighting on the periphery of Dahiyat al-Assad, the group claimed at least three ‘martyrs’. During the Harasta operations, a ‘martyr’ was claimed for Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib in one Haitham Hayel Saleh. Originally said to have been from the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabina in Damascus, he was buried in the Martyrs cemetery in the Sayyida Zainab area.

‘Martyrdom’ portrait for Haitham Hayel Saleh. Note the inclusion of the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and the Palestine flag covering the entirety of what is the Israel-Palestine area today.

Most recently this month, Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib’s leader announced the loss of a field commander by the name of Nour Abdullah Muhammad, said to have been killed fighting on the East Ghouta front.

Coffin for Nour Abdullah Muhammad. Note the ‘Liwa Sayf al-Haq’ inscription.

Ghalib Abu Ahmad’s son advertising his presence as being in the Ghouta area, late August 2016.

Social media content for Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib also points to social outreach activities. For example, the militia’s leader has participated in events to commemorate ‘martyrs’, including the annual occasion of Martyrs Day in May.

Ghalib Abu Ahmad (centre) at Martyrs Day commemoration: “Religion is for God and the homeland is for all [a saying attributed to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, the Druze leader of the Great Syrian Revolt in the 1920s], in the presence of the sheikhs al-‘aql of the Bani Ma’arouf [Druze]: they had a distinguished presence.”

Liwa Sayf al-Haq Assad Allah al-Ghalib, like Liwa Sayf al-Mahdi, presents an interesting case of a militia with a religious image attached to an elite Syrian army division: an image no doubt influenced by the presence of the group’s base in the Sayyida Zainab, the main hub of Shi’i militancy in Syria. This phenomenon undoubtedly contributes to sectarian perceptions of the Syrian civil war along the Sunni-Shi’i line.