A Response to Roy Gutman’s “Have the Syrian Kurds Committed War Crimes?”

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

A recent article in The Nation by Roy Gutman has generated considerable controversy, as the article attempts to highlight what it portrays as the more unsavoury and neglected aspects of the Democratic Union Party (PYD)- the main Kurdish faction operating in Syria and linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)- and its armed wing the People’s Protection Units (YPG), which constitute the majority of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition.

The article does raise some valid points for discussion. In general, there is a tendency to romanticise Kurdish forces in both Iraq and Syria- a trend exemplified in a piece by Michael Totten, in which he urges Trump to “back the Kurds to the hilt and give them the green light to declare independence.” Such a simplistic assertion overlooks complications like the sharp political division between the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Iraq led by Masoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PYD-administered areas in Syria, the financial crisis afflicting the KRG and its inability to become economically independent, and the lack of a vision for real independence in the PYD’s approach to governance that is heavily influenced by the thinking of PKK luminary Abdullah Ocalan. Besides, there are real problems concerning the behaviour of Kurdish forces towards Arab populations in both Iraq and Syria, with cases of destruction of homes and villages documented by human rights monitors (cf. here). Political authoritarianism in the Kurdish entities should also be a major concern: Masoud Barzani still clings to the KRG presidency despite the fact that his mandate expired long ago, and the PYD’s harsh behaviour towards its political opponents cannot be ignored.

However, acknowledging these issues should not blind the reader to the clear problem with Gutman’s work: namely, the author’s biases for the Syrian opposition and Turkey that have been evident for years. As such, he uncritically relays dubious testimony that a serious and fair-minded journalist would have subjected to appropriate scrutiny. This fault becomes most apparent in Gutman’s claim that the YPG and the Islamic State (IS) “have often worked in tandem against moderate rebel groups,” which I will focus on in particular here. Elaborating on this claim, Gutman asserts that “again and again, in towns where the YPG lacked the manpower or weapons to dislodge the rebels, IS forces arrived unexpectedly with their corps of suicide bombers, seized the territory and later handed it over to the YPG without a fight.”

Gutman attempts to support this narrative with cases such as Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in Hasakah province. What he completely omits is that on numerous occasions in 2013 and January 2014, rebel groups worked with what was then called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) against the YPG. For example, Ahrar al-Sham, ISIS and other rebel militias worked together to expel the YPG from the important northern border town of Tel Abyad in August 2013, only for ISIS to take over the area in January 2014. It is rather strange that Gutman cites Tel Hamis and Husseiniya in a bid to support his narrative, since video evidence that explicitly mentions ISIS-Ahrar al-Sham coordination against the “PKK dogs” in Husseiniya can be found from early January 2014. The coordination eventually fell apart later that month as ISIS proceeded to subjugate all other rebel groups in Hasakah province amid wider infighting with rebel forces across northern and eastern Syria. As for the notion that Tel Hamis was yielded to the YPG without a fight, that claim can only be described as a travesty of the truth. The YPG lost numerous fighters in the extended campaigns to take Tel Hamis, with abundant ‘martyrdom’ commemorations to be found on social media.

The notion that the YPG and IS are in collusion with the latter supposedly yielding territory to the former without a fight is a recurring trope. For instance, it is repeated on multiple occasions in Anne Speckhard and Ahmet Yayla’s book that consists of interviews with IS defectors. The fact that this notion is repeated so many times does not make it any more true. The biases of the sources making these claims as well as the wider tendencies in the region towards conspiracy theories have not been sufficiently taken into account. On the wider level, even when we do suppose or note a withdrawal without a real fight, there are simpler and more logical explanations that need not entail a conspiracy, such as manpower issues, the assessment of a particular location’s strategic importance or lack thereof, and the like. For example, IS yielded the border town of Jarabulus to the Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces in August 2016 without a real fight: the reason for this withdrawal is that IS probably determined that the town was not worth defending and that better defensive positions needed to be taken up further south within Aleppo province. As it so happens, the recent fight for the IS stronghold of al-Bab has proven to be protracted and difficult for the rebels participating in Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation. In a similar vein, the YPG’s relatively swift capture of Tel Abyad in 2015 was not the result of a joint YPG-IS conspiracy against the rebels: rather IS’ fighting lines in the area had largely collapsed on account of devoting so much manpower and resources to the fight for Kobani in a wasteful attempt to show defiance in the face of so many coalition airstrikes.

The question of the U.S. relationship with the SDF going forward is an important one as the issue of who takes the key IS-held areas in Syria of Raqqa city and Deir az-Zor continues to be discussed. American attempts to deny SDF links with the PKK are not only absurd but also harmful in handling relations with Turkey. However, debates need to be held on serious grounds rooted in facts and credible evidence. Gutman’s work here has fallen far short of those standards. Unfortunately, similar problems in his reporting with regards to the PKK can be traced in his earlier work. In an October 2012 article for McClatchy purporting to offer an inside account of the PKK, Gutman relayed in an almost entirely uncritical manner the testimony of a supposed PKK defector to Turkish authorities, including claims that the PKK prohibits Islamic practices like daily prayers for its fighters and tells them that the Kurds’ religion is Zoroastrianism and that they should worship fire. The latter two claims are particularly absurd because the association of Zoroastrianism with fire worship is in fact a calumny against the Zoroastrian religion.

It is apparent that Gutman’s opinion biases have had and still have a problematic impact on his reporting. This matter needs to be highlighted rather than showing uncritical deference simply because Gutman once won a Pulitzer Prize, just as we should not show uncritical deference to Seymour Hersh’s claims of rebel responsibility for the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in 2013 simply because he also once won a Pulitzer Prize.

The rise and fall of a CIA-backed rebel commander in Syria – by @ErikaSolomon

This is a wonderful and important article by Erika Solomon@ErikaSolomon for the Financial Times.
I have cut out sections, marked with a “….”

The rise and fall of a CIA-backed rebel commander in Syria: Former ‘fixer’ for anti-Assad forces comes to terms with failed US policy
By Erica Solomon


Abu Ahmad: ‘I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong’ © Ivor Prickett / Panos Pictures

There was a time when “Abu Ahmad”, a bulky man with a heavy limp, held court in the smoke-filled cafés of southern Turkey. Fellow Syrian opposition leaders looked to him for help; foreign intelligence officers sought his opinion. When he crossed into Syria, he brought bags filled with hundred-dollar bills to hand out to rebel fighters. His comrades received US-approved anti-tank missiles, discreetly delivered at the border.

Some rebels called him the CIA’s man in Syria. Now, he struggles to get his calls returned. “We used to joke, ‘If you want something from Barack Obama, call Abu Ahmad,’” another CIA-backed rebel commander recalls. “If someone in the opposition wanted to meet the Americans, they went to him. Now, guys like us, we’re headed to the rubbish bin of history.”

After two years as the CIA’s “fixer”, distributing arms and planning military operations in Syria, Abu Ahmad was thrown into prison. On his release, he was temporarily forced into hiding, then fell into ignominy in the eyes of fellow rebels.


The story of his rise and fall offers a rare insight into how the CIA operated within the confines of President Obama’s halfhearted Syria policy. It reveals how the rivalries between US bureaucracies — and, even more importantly, the growing divergence between Washington and its Nato ally Turkey — exacerbated Syria’s mayhem.




…..A determination not to be dragged into Syria’s war, alongside a recognition of its regional significance, left Washington with one foot in and one foot out — a situation that may prove as problematic in the long run as full-fledged intervention.

Syrians such as Abu Ahmad embody the consequences of this dilemma. In 2013 he joined a covert CIA programme established to channel arms and cash to moderate rebels. He — along with several other commanders — bet that hitching himself to the US would eventually yield the kind of support that helped Libyan rebels topple Muammer Gaddafi in 2011. He lost the gamble badly.


“I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong,” he tells me over raucous Turkish pop music and gurgling water pipes at a café near his home.

“What I cared about was having a good relationship with the Americans. They gave me weapons, I brought them to Syria. The fact that Turkey didn’t like the Americans or the Americans didn’t like the Turks — none of that mattered to me. I didn’t have anything to do with it. Unfortunately, things don’t work like that.”


The [Aleppo] victory for Assad and his patron Russia was not only a human tragedy for the civilians bombarded and expelled from their homes, it was a potent symbol of waning US influence in the region. Diplomatic efforts to end the war led by Moscow and Ankara have sidelined Washington.

Arms belonging to the Free Syrian Army, Aleppo © Panos Pictures

Obama and his aides defended their Middle East stance as a break with America’s costly legacy of bungled interventions — particularly George W Bush’s invasion of Iraq. But Abu Ahmad’s story shows that even limited interventions can be bungled too — with local allies often paying the highest price.


Rebels and regional diplomats alike share that irritation. “People have this perception the Americans weren’t very involved [in Syria]. But that’s not true — they were, and to a minuscule level of detail for a while in places like Aleppo when [the CIA programme] started,” a regional diplomat says. “The problem with American policy in Syria was in some ways the same as it always was: all tactics, no strategy . . . It was a mess.”


Despite a cheery air and a hearty laugh, the circles ringing Abu Ahmad’s eyes are as dark as the shrapnel scars on his legs. During our meetings, he wore the same T-shirt two days in a row and popped about 1600mg of Ibuprofen to keep himself going each day.

It’s easy to see why American officials were once drawn to him. In contrast to the increasing religiosity of some dispirited rebels and their deep-rooted wariness of US interventions, Abu Ahmad relishes banter with his “foreign friends”. He portrays himself as a straight shooter, intolerant of corruption and suspicious of Islamists — or, as he puts it, “anything with a beard”. Other rebels interviewed to corroborate his story jokingly call him a “secular extremist”.

“If you had a question about a battle rebels wanted to do, Abu Ahmad would immediately say this is how many bullets you’d need, how many fighters are actually there, which way they should approach it,” the diplomat says. “The Americans ate it up.”

An anti-government protest in Hama, Syria, July 2011 © Getty

When Syrian protesters took to the streets in 2011 to demonstrate against four decades of Assad family rule, Abu Ahmad had a comfortable job as an army officer in central Syria. Then security forces started firing on the demonstrators. Farmers, army defectors and local merchants banded themselves into armed units to fight back, and a full-tilt insurgency erupted.


While other commanders hoarded weaponry, Abu Ahmad says he calibrated his usage based on assessments of his men and the Assad forces’ likely avenue of attack. “It was like playing chess for me. I love chess,” he says, holding up his phone, on which he was playing the game during our interview.

In 2012, Abu Ahmad was wounded in an air strike and knocked unconscious for 10 days. He woke up in hospital with a metal rod in his leg. His wife, Um Ahmad, a slender woman with perfectly applied make-up, remembers sitting with him day and night, struggling to get him to sit up, eat or speak. “Then, when some of the fighters came to visit him he sat right up, talked and laughed,” she says. “That’s when I realised that from now on, there would be three of us in this relationship: me, him and the revolution.”


Abu Ahmad returned a few months later to a drastically changed battleground. The motley crew of the Free Syrian Army had failed to become anything like the force their name aspired to. Corruption had infected many groups. Islamist groups had risen to the fore with the backing of US allies such as Qatar and Turkey, who saw them as more organised and trustworthy clients than their less ideologically driven counterparts.

President Obama briefs reporters on US policy in Syria, April 30 2013 © Getty

That climate, along with Turkey’s loose border policy, fostered a rise in jihadis bolstered by foreign fighters. Al-Qaeda’s local affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, and a splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), leveraged superior military capacity and a developed ideological programme to rise to dominance. (Nusra has since rebranded itself twice, most recently as the Sham Liberation Front, and says it has cut ties with al-Qaeda, although few see the move as genuine.)

“We were so dumb. I was so dumb,” Abu Ahmad says, shaking his head. “What was I thinking? I thought the regime would fall, and we’d go back to where we started. When I came back, I found Jabhat al-Nusra and Isis spreading, and they had all these plans. That’s when I knew we’d eventually need to have a counter-operation against these guys too.”

Some Islamist leaders began questioning Abu Ahmad over rumours he didn’t pray. Fellow rebel commanders, worried about his safety, sent him across the border to help the effort from Turkey. In this newly bustling border region, where once-sleepy towns such as Gaziantep, Kilis and Antakya brimmed with humanitarian workers, refugees and activists, Abu Ahmad met a Saudi intelligence officer looking to co-ordinate a rebel pushback against Isis.

By late 2013, the jihadi group was menacing opposition-held territories in Syria and steadily expanding in neighbouring Iraq. Abu Ahmad co-ordinated between the Saudis and rebels, who managed to push Isis out of the northwestern Idlib province in early 2014.

It was then that he got a call from members of a covert CIA programme based in the Turkish coastal city of Adana. Three men met him at a restaurant. “They were really nice,” he recalls. “They knew everything about me already.”

The CIA declined to comment on Abu Ahmad’s story, but a Washington-based source in the intelligence community confirmed Abu Ahmad had worked with the agency. But he downplayed the significance, saying he was “just a Syrian fixer”. Other elements of Abu Ahmad’s story and details of his relationship with the CIA were corroborated by rebels, activists and diplomats — all of whom declined to be named.

The Americans invited Abu Ahmad to join a covert operations room they were forming with allies including Britain, France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to support moderate rebels. Known as the Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi (MOM), it was modelled on a joint operations centre set up in Jordan a year earlier.

The CIA knew about the corruption, of course, everyone in the programme did. It was the price of doing business

From the beginning, the operation faced major obstacles. Turkey’s 800km border with Syria was difficult to control. Furthermore, by 2014, the role of jihadis and the relationships between foreign backers and local clients were deeply entrenched, making it almost impossible to manage the flow of weapons.

“Throughout this [programme] there have been major disagreements between countries and even within governments,” says Noah Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group, an NGO. “Have the rebels failed tremendously? Absolutely. Have the supporting states been just as factious as the rebels? Absolutely.”

Many rebels considered MOM little more than a foreign intelligence foothold within the opposition. But some, like Abu Ahmad, hoped it could at least solidify the rebel hold on northern Syria and ensure a stronger position in peace negotiations.

The operation was based in a nondescript villa in southern Turkey, where rebel commanders met intelligence officers around a long, oval table to propose battle plans and lobby for weapons.

Rebels approved as ideological “moderates” received a monthly salary of about $150 for a fighter and $300 for a commander. “They never told us where we were going,” Abu Ahmad recalls. “ They would put us in a car with the blinds closed. It was like a spy movie, but it was a bit of joke, because we learnt the route over time.”


At first the atmosphere was convivial. The Turks let the commanders sleep at the building, which had a kitchen and a cook, so they could finish late-night sessions poring over maps and plans. Soon, however, MOM bureaucracy became a problem for the rebels: battles could turn in hours while it sometimes took weeks for foreign representatives to agree on plans and get approval to deliver supplies such as ammunition, medicine and boots. Rebels turned to the media with tales of MOM’s stinginess.

Some opposition figures and diplomats, however, argue the problem was just the opposite. “MOM became a vehicle for corrupting the Free Syrian Army, not because they gave them too little but because they gave them too much,” says an opposition figure close to MOM-backed commanders.

He says commanders regularly inflated their forces’ numbers to pocket extra salaries, and some jacked up weapons requests to hoard or sell on the black market. Inevitably, much of that ended up in Isis hands. Other groups cut in Jabhat al-Nusra on deals to keep it from attacking them. “The CIA knew about this, of course, everyone in MOM did. It was the price of doing business.”

Forces that rose to prominence in Syria include (from top) Kurdish militia YPG, al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) © Getty

Abu Ahmad openly accused fellow commanders of such activities, which he says impressed the Americans. “I would say, ‘That guy claims he has 300 fighters, but he has 50. And this guy was doing that’ . . . I would embarrass everyone,” he recalls. “The Syrians were frustrated and saying, ‘He’s a US agent, an informant — how is he talking about us like that?’ But my thinking was that they were stealing from our revolution.”

It’s hard to verify whether Abu Ahmad was as clean as he claims, but his current status is in contrast to that of many rebel commanders, who have large apartments in Turkey, drive new cars and own the latest iPhones.

Abu Ahmad, his wife and their two children share a small flat with his parents and his brother’s family. He sometimes indulges in a bitter fantasy about how his life would be if he’d conspired with other commanders to get a cut for himself. “I wouldn’t have been a ‘traitor’. The people would have held up my picture. I would have had the best cars,” he says. “I could have done it that way, but I didn’t. Instead, I was humiliated.”

But perhaps more damaging than the corruption were the growing rivalries between MOM’s foreign backers. As divides opened, each power moved to bolster its favoured commanders.

“A toddler could enter the MOM room and be able to tell which guy the US was pushing for, who the Turks wanted, or who the Saudis were pushing,” says Abu Omar, a friend of Abu Ahmad and a fellow US-backed rebel commander (not his real name). “MOM became the legal face to cover all the extra support they were giving these groups behind each other’s backs.”

The worst split was between the US and Turkey. Tensions rose after Isis seized Iraq’s second city, Mosul, in June 2014 and blitzed across Iraq and Syria. Washington began a Pentagon-led air campaign against Isis but support for ground forces went to a Syrian Kurdish militia known as the YPG, rather than the rebels.

The Pentagon found the YPG attractive partners because they didn’t have to worry about Islamist infiltration — and, unlike the rebels, they were not fighting Assad. But Ankara was infuriated: it has fought a four-decade war with the YPG’s parent organisation, the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK), over Kurdish ambitions for self-rule in south-eastern Turkey, and saw their growing enclave across the border as a threat.

‘America was pressuring us with its control of aid, Turkey with its control of border access. They’re not allies, they’re liars’

“I’ve been struck by how sincere US and Turkish officials seem in their misunderstanding of each other. Sometimes US officials seem to genuinely not understand why YPG backing is such a big deal to Turkey,” says Bonsey, of the International Crisis Group.

“By the same token, Turkish officials didn’t seem to understand how upset US officials were with their lack of an effort to weaken the facilities of jihadi groups using their border. They were talking past each other.”

US-backed rebels felt caught in the middle, suddenly seen as traitors by their Turkish hosts and the Islamist groups they supported. Abu Ahmad started to hate visiting MOM. “I was stuck between squabbling parents,” he jokes.

He recalls a meeting where a Turkish official pointedly asked him, in front of his US counterparts, why the US strikes were helping the Kurds but not rebels like him. The CIA officials sat quietly before jumping in to say the strikes were conducted by the Pentagon, a separate entity.

The vagaries of US policy became harder to explain to outraged fighters, already growing more sympathetic to the Islamists, says Abu Omar, especially after US-backed YPG forces seized several rebel-held towns near his base in north-western Syria in the winter of 2016.

“I had 57 fighters who died on the frontline, and twice as many who lost their limbs,” he says. “How can I explain to them that the YPG means Pentagon support? And that MOM means CIA support? These are Syrian country boys — they don’t understand this stuff.”

CIA-linked commanders such as Abu Ahmad and Abu Omar also found it harder to work in Turkey. Abu Omar struggled to get his residency permit renewed and was informed he had been put on a security watch list. When he asked the Americans to raise the issue with Turkish officials, they told him the matter was out of their control.


Abu Ahmad’s dilemmas bordered on farcical. In MOM’s early days, he says, Turkish officials escorted him over the border for meetings. Then, after the spat with the Americans, they said they could no longer help. He started paying smugglers to get to Turkey for the international meetings.

He recalls arriving one day at the border in time to see one of Turkey’s favoured commanders jump into a car bound for a meeting. “He waved at me and said, ‘Bye!’ I just stood there staring,” Abu Ahmad says. When he complained to the Americans, they laughed but again said they could do nothing.

It was at this time that rebels, seeking to organise their factious forces, formed a new alliance called Jabha Shamiya. They hoped it would lessen the tug of war between Washington and Ankara. Instead it grew worse, and the alliance was forced out of the covert programme.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan with Barack Obama at the G20 summit in Turkey, November 15 2015. The Nato allies remain divided on Syria © Getty

“America was pressuring us with its control of MOM aid. Turkey was trying to pressure us with its control over border access,” says another rebel leader from Aleppo, who asked not to be named. “They’re not allies, they’re liars. When you have allies like Syrians have, you don’t need enemies.”

Abu Ahmad resigned rather than join Jabha Shamiya but soon the Americans asked him to be their consultant, handing him about $1,000 a month. He became known among Syrians as someone who could arrange meetings. His critics insisted he was helping the CIA plot failed assassination attempts on Nusra leaders and undermine Turkish-backed groups. Abu Ahmad denies any plots, but admits he worked to lure groups back into MOM.

In the summer of 2015, the US launched the Pentagon’s “Train and Equip” programme for select rebel fighters. It cost $500m, and went horribly wrong. “I was shocked,” Abu Ahmad says. “The Pentagon came and started to meet with people in Gaziantep, and picked people both the CIA and MOM saw as failures.”

After the first group of T & E fighters was kidnapped by Nusra, he suspected the American departments were not sharing information. Then a second group, under a newly dispatched commander, surrendered to Nusra.

“This is when I realised the Americans were working in two different directions,” he says. He started asking western diplomats to explain the US political system. They told him about Congress, the White House and different intelligence and military branches. “If Obama is going this way, and people in Congress that way, and the people working on the ground are saying, ‘No, this works, that doesn’t’, is a decision actually made?” he laughs. “Maybe this is a case of too much democracy.”

‘I used to think America was the ruler of the universe. If you ask me whether I was wrong? Yes, I was wrong’

Abu Ahmad

Meanwhile, the US-Turkey dispute was deepening as they debated a potential no-fly zone in northern Syria. One of the failed plan’s many points of contention was over who in Syria should be their point person. The CIA wanted Abu Ahmad, according to several commanders. The Turks wanted someone closer to them.

A day before a contentious MOM meeting to discuss the issue, Abu Ahmad says a Turkish police car pulled up outside his home. Alarmed, he stuffed all his cash in his pockets as the officers knocked on his door.

With that, a Nato ally had arrested one of Washington’s local allies. Abu Ahmad was shuttled between different security headquarters for hours. “They asked me to tell them what I was arrested for,” he says. “I told them, ‘I don’t know either. You’re the ones who brought me here, you’re supposed to tell me the charge.’”


Eventually he was thrown into a nearby prison, where he waited for days while his wife and friends made frantic calls to US officials. The CIA was unable to secure his release. “They did try to help him get freed,” says the Washington-based intelligence source, “but it is unlikely it went up very high, given that he was helping with a supposedly secret CIA operation.”

Abu Ahmad soon realised the only way to get out was to agree to be deported to Syria — essentially a death sentence, given how much Islamists despised him. But he signed the paperwork and was dropped at the border. “I used the money I had and paid a smuggler to sneak right back in to Turkey.”

He hid in a house on the border for more than a month. Eventually, the Turks promised to leave him alone, as long as he stopped working with the Americans and the rebels. He was heartbroken but accepted the terms, and has since lived on the margins of Syrian society in Turkey, relying on friends such as Abu Omar to lend him money.

One summer evening, Abu Ahmad drove us to Abu Omar’s home on the Turkish coast for “some good reminiscing about the revolution”. Abu Omar looked trim, with short hair, a polo shirt and a brand new iPhone. He took us out for a platter of fish and immediately launched into lamentations.

His group has lost territory and popularity to Nusra, he says, and no one seems to care any more about working with the Americans. “The Turks treat me as though I’m an American. Jabhat al-Nusra treats me like I’m a traitor. No one treats me like I sit with the Americans because I’m a Syrian who wants to do the best he can for his cause,” he says. “I wonder how the Americans see me. Do they see me as a patriot? Do they see me as a mercenary?”

The Turkish-American relationship has remained fraught, despite President Trump’s renewed discussion of a no-fly zone and Washington’s tacit approval of Turkey’s intervention in northern Syria to clear Isis and the YPG from along its border. “There’s been a 1,000 per cent increase in the improvement of relations — and it’s still terrible,” says analyst Aaron Stein, at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

For Abu Ahmad, the psychological strain has become physical. His wife calls on the drive home, fretting. Over the past few months, she says, he has pulled the car over three times, worried he was having a heart attack. “Nothing is ever wrong,” she says. “The doctors say it was a panic attack.”

On some days, Abu Ahmad thinks of leaving the region behind altogether. But that isn’t easy. Germany rejected him over his past ties to a rebel group that has since been accused of war crimes.

Last year, he says, he asked some American officials to help him move to the US. They told him to register first with the UN as a refugee. He never heard back, and Trump’s recent executive order makes it increasingly unlikely that he would now be accepted into the US.

He called up his old CIA contacts to see who could help. “They told me, ‘We’re sorry, that is a State Department issue,’” he says. “‘These are separate departments.’”

Erika Solomon is the FT’s Middle East correspondent

Photographs: Ivor Prickett / Panos Pictures; AFP/Getty; Tristan Vickers / Panos Pictures; Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty 

The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal (Sinjar)

This article was published January 31, 2017 by NRT, a media service in Iraqi Kurdistan. The original article is available here.

The KRG’s Relationship with the Yazidi Minority and the Future of the Yazidis in Shingal (Sinjar)


Barber, Matthewby Matthew Barber

Following the closure of Yazda, a Yazidi humanitarian and human rights organization, by the KDP asa’ish (security police affiliated with Kurdistan’s largest political party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party) on January 2, 2017 in Dohuk, people have been asking many questions about why this took place. Fortunately, the government has now reversed its position on the closure and Yazda has reopened. Nevertheless, this episode points to some serious political issues that impact the status of the Yazidi minority in Kurdistan. I will explore these issues in this article.

Having left the country last August after a year of leading Yazda’s Iraq and Kurdistan-based operations, I will not speak for Yazda now. But I will present my opinions on the Yazidi situation and discuss the feelings of the Yazidi people, which may shed light on why Yazda was persecuted by the authorities.


A Broken Relationship

Understanding the tension between KDP government and the Yazidis requires investigating why the KDP generally has an adverse relationship with the majority of the Yazidis. In fact, those Yazidis who become close to the KDP political establishment usually lose favor and respect among much of their community. This is because the agendas of the KDP often conflict with the welfare of the Yazidi people, and a number of crucial issues jeopardizing the future of the Yazidis have come to a head this past year.

What do I mean by a clash of interests between the Yazidis and the KDP? Ever since the fall of Saddam, Kurdistan has worked hard to expand the boundaries of what is hoped will be a future independent Kurdistan. These aspirations and efforts are noble considering the many ways that Kurds have been victimized by the various regimes in Iraq through history. But many Kurds today do not realize that despite this history of victimization, their newfound power also creates the possibility and risk of victimizing others—especially the minorities who often inhabit the disputed territories that Kurdistan would like to appropriate.

The Sheikhan district in the Nineveh Plain used to be a Yazidi-majority area, but just since the fall of Saddam, it has been targeted with a program of demographic change that has involved settling Sunni Kurds in the area in order to strengthen the claim that it should be included within the Kurdistan Region. This program is similar to the Arabization schemes to which Saddam subjected the Kurds, and Yazidis call it “Kurdification.” Sheikhan, a historic Yazidi homeland, is now a Muslim-majority area, a change that occurred entirely post-Saddam. Even the Mir, the highest Yazidi religious authority, spoke to US officials about this problem.

In Shingal (“Sinjar” in Arabic) after 2003, the KDP quickly became a powerful presence. Many Yazidis were open to pursuing a future for Shingal as part of Kurdistan, hoping that life under Kurdish government would offer greater rights for minorities than had been the case under Ba’thist rule. But from those early days, KDP asa’ish began systematically arresting and intimidating Yazidi civilians who joined competing political parties, especially those who favored keeping Shingal’s administration under the authority of the central government. Though services in Shingal are almost entirely paid for by Baghdad, the KDP bullied non-KDP Nineveh officials out of Shingal so that it could maintain administrative control. Shingal’s “mayors” (qaymaqam), including the current one, are never elected by the local people, but are appointed by the party and are, of course, always party loyalists. Despite the fact that the KDP completely dominated Shingal, it remained one of Iraq’s least developed and most marginalized districts.

Because of this legacy, by 2014 the majority of the Yazidis of Shingal already resented KDP control; the Peshmerga withdrawal the morning of the genocide was simply the final straw, severing trust with the KDP forever. But because of KDP policy, the Yazidi situation has become even worse following the genocide, which is the main issue that this article will explore.

Today there is a bitter political standoff in Shingal that is exacerbating the already poor relations between the Shingali Yazidis and the KDP. In order to understand the development of this conflict, we must first clarify some key aspects of how the genocide unfolded, and also debunk several myths propagated by government officials regarding the day of the genocide.


Setting the Record Straight on Shingal

Though everyone is familiar with the Peshmerga withdrawal on August 3, 2014, the day the Yazidi Genocide began, many citizens of Kurdistan and Iraq have been led to accept three key excuses advanced by KDP officials trying to justify the withdrawal: 1) that the IS (Islamic State) invasion of Shingal was a surprise attack; 2) that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry to defend local Yazidis from IS; and 3) that the Peshmerga defended but IS was just too powerful and the front line collapsed.

The first claim is obviously false since everyone knows that Mosul was conquered in early June, almost two months prior to the attack on Shingal. During the period between the conquest of Mosul and the Yazidi Genocide, IS gradually solidified control over the Arab areas south and east of Shingal. Tel Afar was conquered during that period, and IS forces grew increasingly close to Shingal. In fact, several small attacks occurred on outlying Yazidi villages southeast—and even north—of Shingal, prior to August 3. Tel Banat was attacked several times. In other words: The IS threat was well-known and there was plenty of time to prepare for any potential conflict, and to put an evacuation plan in place for civilians.

The second claim is an attempt to side-step responsibility for the failure to defend the Yazidis. It ignores the fact that after the Iraqi military dissolved in the areas near Mosul, Kurdish forces seized control of Iraqi weapons depots and snatched up all of the weaponry and ammunition. This included Kesek, which housed the “regional ammunitions center” that provided weapons and ammunitions to the 2nd and 3rd Iraqi army divisions and to military academies in Zakho and Suleimani. Moreover, when Iraqi army forces were retreating from Tel Afar and leaving the Shingal area, they were unable to retreat to Baghdad without passing through Kurdish-controlled territory. KDP-affiliated forces, therefore, forced these sections of the Iraqi army to hand over all of their weapons, ammunition, equipment, and military vehicles—at the KDP headquarters in Shingal, no less. This included the 10th brigade of the 3rd division and the 11th brigade of the 3rd division of the Iraqi army. Despite holding out and defending Tel Afar for some time, once these troops were pushed out by IS, they were effectively looted by KDP forces and sent back to Baghdad wearing civilian clothing. But beyond this evidence contravening the claim that the Peshmerga lacked adequate weaponry, the question should be asked as to how the Syrian YPG forces, who have smaller weapons, inferior vehicles, and are generally less equipped than the Peshmerga, were able to enter an unfamiliar area that they had never controlled, without the high-ground advantage, and fight through IS lines after IS had already established itself in the area and surrounded the mountain. The point is that the alleged superiority of IS weaponry had nothing to do with the withdrawal. Keep in mind that there are numerous locations in the foothills of Shingal Mountain where just a handful of Yazidi farmers with old rifles were able to prevent the jihadists from ascending into these enclaves—such is the advantage of the higher ground. The idea that the Peshmerga had to flee to Dohuk, rather than move to the protection of the mountain while providing cover to the evacuating civilians, is patently absurd.

But most important is the third claim, that the Peshmerga’s lines were overwhelmed by the might of the IS jihadists. This claim is demonstrably false in light of the way that the withdrawal was conducted. The withdrawal was not a chaotic, haphazard fleeing after engaging the enemy; Shingal Mountain is 72 kilometers long, and with the security presence in many of the towns all around, it would be nearly impossible that every single “front line” would collapse simultaneously. If troops had been overwhelmed in one location, many other troops would have been able to hold their ground in other locations. But the withdrawal was collective (involving almost all security and militia personnel in the entire district), and was conducted in an organized fashion, with all weapons and military vehicles being transported out of Shingal and back to Kurdistan. When local Yazidi civilians saw that the Peshmerga were abandoning them, they begged them to at least leave behind the weapons so that they could defend their own families. But the Peshmerga refused. According to hundreds of survivor accounts, this planned withdrawal occurred before the jihadists reached Shingal. These countless testimonies of civilian eyewitnesses were corroborated by a Peshmerga leader named Sime Mulla Muhammad, responsible for troops in Shingal, who disclosed to the Xendan newspaper in an interview published August 3, 2016 that he withdrew his men without engaging the enemy, prior to the arrival of the jihadists, after it was known that IS was moving on the area. Beyond all of this, not only did Qasim Shesho (the current leader of the KDP Peshmerga in Shingal) state for the record that the Peshmerga fled before the civilians could evacuate, but President Barzani’s reaction to the withdrawal also dispelled any notion of the front line breaking, as in early August 2014 he referred to the “negligence” of those in command and formed a committee to investigate possible desertions.

The facts presented above become even more painful when considering that the day before the genocide, August 2, 2014, local people in Shingal knew that IS was mobilizing. They could sense that an attack might be imminent. Yazidis asked those responsible for security if the people should evacuate. Peshmerga leaders gave assurances to the people that they would be protected, and told them to stay in their villages. In some cases, asa’ish even prevented families from evacuating; some families had loaded up their cars and were attempting to drive to Kurdistan but were turned back at the checkpoints guarding village entrances.

I have presented this background to make it perfectly clear why the trust of the Shingali Yazidis in the KDP was irreparably shattered on August 3. This should also explain why the YPG and PKK forces that entered Shingal to defend the Yazidis won so many hearts and minds. Not only did those forces save the lives of tens of thousands of Yazidis that had been left to die, but they enabled the local Yazidis to hold the front line against IS for the next 15 months, killing more jihadists than any other militia.


Preventing Yazidis from Returning and Rebuilding: The Economic Blockade

This brings us to the present political conflict that is victimizing the Yazidis. As is common knowledge, after the PKK-affiliated forces rescued the Yazidis in the absence of the Peshmerga, they helped the Yazidis form a local militia known as the YBŞ. This force is affiliated with the PKK but is primarily comprised of local Shingali Yazidis who came together to defend their own families and homes.

The KDP wants the YBŞ to disappear. They want all non-KDP militias to dissolve so that the KDP Peshmerga can again enjoy full control of Shingal and return to business as usual. But the KDP knows that if the displaced Yazidis now living in the camps in Dohuk return to Shingal, they will be more likely to support a rival militia, like the YBŞ, because they have no loyalty for the KDP.

And that brings us to the most discouraging of facts, the economic blockade of Shingal, which is the KDP’s disgraceful strategy to keep Yazidi families, who survived a genocide, trapped in camps that they have lived in for over two and a half years, rather than allowing them to return to Shingal. The north side of Shingal Mountain has been free of the IS presence since December 2014, without any IS-related security incident. The north side has eight major towns and over 25 smaller locations inhabited by Yazidis. It is viable for return and reconstruction, and several thousand Yazidi families have already taken up residence there, trying to rebuild their destroyed homes and farms. However, for over a year now, the KDP asa’ish have been effectively starving these families—and preventing the return of thousands more who would like to begin rebuilding a normal life—through an economic blockade. At the primary checkpoint controlling access to Shingal from Dohuk (Fishkhabour, near Suheila village), asa’ish do not allow Yazidis to bring goods to Shingal upon which a basic economy depends, such as livestock or most products for retail shops. Even beyond the commercial level, Yazidi families are not allowed to bring into Shingal basic household goods and foodstuffs upon which any family depends for their livelihood. There are countless examples of what is not allowed though. Here are a few examples that I gathered personally through my own conversations with affected families, farmers, and shop owners:

  • Auto mechanics are not allowed to bring in spare parts for vehicles, including parts for pickup trucks and tractors, both depended upon by farmers.
  • Small amounts of bulk food items for the use of a single family (such as a single bag of sugar, flour, or rice) are generally not allowed through.
  • Farmers report not being allowed to bring motor oil through which is needed for their harvester machines (Shingal depends on wheat and barley farming). Fuel (for gas stations) is also occasionally restricted.
  • Cement and cinderblocks needed for the rebuilding of homes destroyed by IS are often not allowed through.
  • Many families have been prevented from bringing a single sheep or lamb through the checkpoint.
  • Fertilizer is not allowed through. The asa’ish claim that it is to prevent terrorists from making bombs; this is not a risk among poor Yazidi farmers. Without fertilizer, farmers lose 50% to 70% of their yield.
  • Farmers are not being allowed to being ordinary farming equipment, such as irrigation supplies, to Shingal.
  • The headmasters of schools in Shingal have not been allowed to bring basic school supplies (such as paper, a single printer, or a single laptop) through the checkpoint, and have also been prevented from bringing fixtures for the schools, such as well pumps for the schools’ water systems.
  • Displaced families trying to return have been turned back to the camps when attempting to transport their own furniture or tents in which they need to live while rebuilding their destroyed homes.
  • Veterinary medicine has not been allowed through. Shingal’s families live off of herds but shop owners who sell veterinary medicine are not able to reopen their shops in Snune or the other collective villages because of the restrictions.

As an unannounced and therefore “unofficial” blockade, it is selectively enforced. Those with close ties to the government, asa’ish, or Peshmerga are sometimes allowed to bring some goods through. A few basic retail items are allowed through for the shops in Snune. This allows government officials to deny the existence of the blockade when challenged about it. But even when certain goods are allowed through, drivers are often treated roughly and humiliated by the asa’ish, being forced to unload their entire delivery (crates of vegetables, for example) in the sun. Many drivers for hire have simply given up trying to transport goods to Shingal. When some farmers complained about the restrictions on moving ordinary goods, government officials told them that they must apply for certain permits in order to bring goods to Shingal (permits that never existed before and that no one had heard of). Farmers that have tried to navigate this process are given a runaround, being sent from office to office, and the process—just to get official authorization to take farming supplies to one’s small farm—can take months. This can mean missing a planting or harvesting season. Most people simply give up trying. One farmer who finally succeeded in securing a permission document from the Dohuk governorate was still blocked from transporting the goods to Shingal by the asa’ish at the checkpoint: there’s no guarantee that the asa’ish will respect government documents.

Human Rights Watch investigated this blockade and recently issued a report, condemning the government for actively preventing reconstruction. I have personally always been in favor of reconstruction so that Yazidis can have a future in their homeland instead of being forced to emigrate. Emigration destroys the traditional diversity of the local society and puts the heritage of small minorities at risk. However, current policies actively prevent Yazidi families from returning and rebuilding, which produces hopelessness and prompts greater emigration from the country.


Political Violence toward Yazidis

This situation becomes even worse. Not only are families who were targeted with genocide and are now in their third year of living in camps prevented from returning home to resume normal lives, they are also punished severely if they complain about this situation. The asa’ish maintain strict control of Yazidi activities in the camps. Yazidis in the camps are generally not allowed to organize a public meeting unless it is for an activity related to an official political party. This included memorial gatherings to commemorate the anniversary of the genocide, last August, which asa’ish feared could turn into opportunities where dissent would be expressed. Yazidis in the camps holding peaceful demonstrations or speaking out on social media to protest the political policies that harm them have often been arrested, beaten, or threatened. In general, the asa’ish have succeeding in suppressing the voices of Yazidis who are broken and frustrated about their situation.

Worst of all is the political violence targeting Yazidis who join rival militias. These young people—and their families—can be persecuted through arrests, jailing, interrogations, and beatings. Young Yazidi men and women who join the YBŞ cannot visit their displaced relatives in the IDP camps in Dohuk, or else they will be arrested. In fact, KDP asa’ish have arrested poor taxi drivers accused of carrying YBŞ-affiliated passengers as customers in their taxis. Some taxi drivers have no knowledge of the identities of their paying customers, but have been arrested and jailed all the same. Some young men and women have not seen their families in the camps—only a three-hour drive away—for over two years for fear of being arrested.

One of my employees when I was leading Yazda in Iraq and Kurdistan was an uneducated, destitute man who worked as a cleaner in Yazda’s health care center. He had no interest in politics, but several of his grown children decided that they would join the YBŞ to defend their homeland. One day, he was taken by the asa’ish to an office where he was interrogated and told that he would be made to disappear (i.e., imprisoned without charges or trial) if he did not convince his children to disaffiliate from the YBŞ. He could not convince them to leave their cause of defending Shingal, so he had to leave the Kurdistan Region. He moved back to Shingal where he has no work and no resources, out of fear for his safety. Such stories are commonplace.

The political persecution of Yazidis who voice criticism of the government is so severe that it has prompted many families to immigrate to Europe. A number of Yazidi activists and journalists, not affiliated with any party, received threats against their families from the asa’ish because they spoke out. They chose to leave the country rather than live in fear. Individuals and families are not the only ones targeted; organizations are also victims of the crackdown on free speech.

Yazda Iraq is not the first local Yazidi organization to be shut down by the KDP since the genocide. Rainbow, a Yazidi-created project doing activities with children in Mamilian camp, was shut down in late 2015 after some of its volunteers joined peaceful demonstrations against the treatment of the Yazidis. Hezar Dinar, or the “Thousand Dinar” campaign, was an influential project with a huge impact. Yazidi volunteers collected small donations from large numbers of local people to redistribute to the needy in the camps. The project was apolitical but was shut down just before summer 2016 by KDP asa’ish after some of its members were seen in a photograph holding a non-KDP flag. Yazda was simply the latest casualty in an ongoing campaign to silence the free expression of any critical sentiments among the Yazidis.

While working in the KRI, I was frequently attacked by Kurdish officials if I voiced even the smallest concern about the situation and how it was affecting the survivors of the genocide. If I mentioned in a UN cluster meeting that the asa’ish were preventing certain goods from being transported to Shingal, I was ridiculed publicly by the government representative and accused of being a “troublemaker.” Of course, it was the government that was making trouble for the victims of the genocide.

Individuals or organizations expressing any criticism of KDP policy in Shingal were often accused of “supporting the PKK.” This is a strange allegation; critiquing harmful KDP policy does not constitute support for the PKK.

Aside from the competition in Shingal, the political dynamics inside the Kurdistan Region were also unhealthy. In the spring of 2016, I was visited by a PUK Peshmerga captain who commanded the small contingent of PUK Peshmerga in Shingal. He described to me how he had a large shipment of medicine that he was trying to bring to Shingal but was being prevented from doing so by the KDP asa’ish, despite being a Peshmerga leader. During my period of work in the country, the primary health centers in the Shingal region suffered from a lack of medicine. I am not speaking of the health centers created by the PKK to serve displaced Yazidis on top of the mountain; I am referring to the established, government-run health centers serving the collective villages on the north side of the mountain. These health centers are part of Nineveh administration and are responsible for the health care of several thousand local Yazidi families that had returned to Shingal. However, the managers of those health centers frequently disclosed to me that they were not being allowed to bring any shipment of medicine originating with the Nineveh government to their centers. I visited such centers personally and saw that their stores of medicine were empty. In the spring, I also spoke with a member of the Kurdish parliament who visited camps in Dohuk to inquire about the needs of genocide survivors and learn how she could help support them. She asked a camp manager what the needs were of the people in the camp. Knowing that she belonged to the PUK, he replied, “Nothing—they have everything they need.”


The Risk of Demographic Change

Like the program to change the demographics in Sheikhan, Shingal is at risk of being targeted with a similar project. Yazidis are very afraid that the KRG may inhibit them from returning home and instead try to settle them within the Kurdistan Region where they will be easier to rule, leaving Shingal open for settlement by KDP loyalists, making the district easier for the KDP to control. As a disputed territory that still officially belongs to the central government, it would be far easier for Kurdistan to gain permanent control of Shingal if it could be populated with Kurdish party loyalists, rather than by an “unruly” minority. As soon as the mass displacement of Shingal occurred in 2014, Yazidis began voicing fears of a possible long-term strategy to prevent them from returning home. Yazidi suspicions of a plan among high-level Kurdish officials to resettle Shingal’s Yazidis inside the Kurdistan Region were corroborated when I and some other Yazda volunteers met with Dr. Fuad Hussein, Chief of Staff to the Presidency of the Kurdistan Regional Government, on November 3, 2015. In our meeting, I pressed Dr. Fuad about the need to rebuild Shingal so that Yazidis could return home. Dr. Fuad told me that it would be too expensive and said that “those people need to be resettled elsewhere.” I responded that it would be less expensive to rebuild their existing homeland than it would be to construct an entirely new home for the Yazidi people.

Of course, if the Kurdish government continues to prevent the Yazidis from returning to Shingal, the real tragedy will be for the Yazidis to lose their historic homeland, with all of its sacred religious and cultural sites.


The Future That the Yazidis Need

Recently, Kurdish officials have intensified calls for the PKK to “leave” Shingal. The PKK itself has only a minimal presence in Shingal. What they mean is that they want PKK support for the Yazidi YBŞ forces to be eliminated so that the YBŞ will dissolve. Kurdish Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani is presenting this as a prerequisite for the ending of the blockade.

By saying that the PKK presence prevents peace from returning to Shingal, Nechirvan Barzani is pretending that the KDP has no choice in its implementation of the blockade. He is effectively saying, “We are helpless in victimizing the Yazidis unless we get the political outcome we want.” But of course the KDP has control over its actions and could lift the blockade today, whether or not it gets its way.

Nechirvan Barzani’s remarks do not acknowledge that the YBŞ’s forces are primarily local, consisting of Yazidis from Shingal—not a foreign force that has invaded the country. (The largest foreign force in the area is actually the Peshmerga Rojava, a KDP-affiliated militia created by the KDP by recruiting from the Syrian refugee camps inside the Kurdistan Region.) Though I do not support the YBŞ or any other partisan militia, or any of the parties with which these militias are affiliated, I nevertheless firmly believe in the Yazidis’ freedom to choose their political affiliation—this is democracy. But this issue is about much more than the right to choose a party. What most Yazidis want now is not to choose a party, but to build their own administrative infrastructure, independently of any major party.

Most Yazidis from Shingal are worried about the PKK becoming the next KDP in Shingal. They do not want to see the PKK replace the KDP as a new hegemon in Shingal—the next chapter in single-party authoritarianism maintaining complete control over a population. But Yazidis are even more fearful about an end to PKK support for Yazidi militias, because this will result in the return of KDP hegemony, which is viewed as the worst-case scenario. Yazidis therefore recognize that PKK influence is creating balance for the moment; neither the KDP nor the PKK are strong enough to gain full control of Shingal. This deferment of an outside force again taking complete control of Shingal is allowing the Yazidis time to plan their own form of local administration, security, and governance, but they need better support and guidance from the U.S. and European countries to accomplish this. This is what the vast majority of Yazidis want. Rather than leaving their security to party-affiliated forces originating outside of Shingal—forces that failed to protect them in the past—Yazidis want to oversee their own affairs, by building local, nonpartisan institutions of administration and security that will be officially recognized under the Iraqi legal framework. Yazidis want to maintain a relationship between the Shingal district and the Kurdistan Region, but they prefer to be in charge of their own security and infrastructure, while promoting the development of an environment of political pluralism. This is very reasonable.

Therefore, the desire of most of the Yazidis who join the YBŞ is not to support the pan-Kurdish ideology of the PKK, but rather to protect their own homeland and strengthen their capacity for local governance. They simply do not see an alternative sponsor qualified to defend Yazidi interests at the moment. For the Yazidis, the issue is not a choice of loyalty between Erbil versus Baghdad, but is about creating a framework for self-administration—something that Erbil will never tolerate. By rejecting Erbil’s claims to Shingal (something the vast majority of Shingali Yazidis are united in), Yazidis are not expressing some kind of preference for a special relationship with Baghdad. Rather, they simply want to work within the framework of the government that will best provide the opportunity for self-administration.

The KDP had a decade to convince the Yazidis to join with them instead of seeking their own administration under Baghdad. They failed in this endeavor because they used excessive intimidation rather than extending goodwill and respecting the right of the Yazidis to choose. When I was in Shingal in the summer of 2015, I spoke to wheat and barley farmers who had left the camps in Dohuk to temporarily return to their farms on the north side of the mountain, in order to harvest their fields that had been left standing after the genocide. They hoped to sell their grain and return to the camps. But instead of facilitating this effort on the part of the poor families, Peshmerga leaders in charge of the area after the liberation of the mountain’s north side were not allowing Yazidis to bring their grain to Dohuk. (This was prior to the economic blockade discussed in this article.) The Peshmerga leaders were forcing the Yazidi farmers to sell their grain within Shingal, below the current price, to the Peshmerga leaders themselves, who were then transporting it to the Kurdistan Region to sell for a large profit. This is only one example of the kind of corruption that Shingal suffers under single-party rule and it was heartbreaking to see a broken people continue to be subjected to such exploitation even after the genocide.

Today should mark the end of these abuses. The desire of the Yazidis for self-administration within Iraq’s legal framework should now be respected by all sides. The wishes of the Yazidis are not unreasonable or unrealistic. They are not asking to secede from Iraq and create their own country. They simply want to work within the parameters of the Iraqi constitution to effectively manage and protect their historic region. Such goals are sensible—if this minority is to survive in its homeland—and achievable with local and international support.


A New Message from Kurdistan to the Yazidis

At this stage, the KDP has lost the contest for Yazidi loyalty. The best thing for the KRG to do now is to approach the Yazidi community with a new message. Here is the message that President Barzani, the KDP, and all of Kurdistan should give to the Yazidis of Shingal:

  • First, we would like to take responsibility for abandoning you in your hour of need, and for allowing the genocide of the Yazidis to take place. We want to apologize in humility for the terrible negligence that left your people defenseless. We should have apologized to you directly, long ago, and we are sorry for the long delay in giving you this honest message. Apologies are painful, but the pain of humility is worth the chance to rebuild trust and good faith with you.
  • Second, we recognize that it was not a genocide targeting all Kurds for their ethnicity, but rather targeting Yazidis specifically, for their religious identity. As your brothers and sisters, we stand with you, and we recognize that you alone were targeted with a special project of extermination and enslavement.
  • Third, we recognize that no one has the right to choose your leaders for you, except you. Shingal has always been your historic homeland, and you have the right to shape its future. Even after the way that we have broken trust with you, we hope that you will still want seek a future with Kurdistan, but we recognize that the choice is yours, and we will respect whatever decision you make, and will always seek to maintain friendship with you.
  • Fourth, we will immediately lift the economic blockade that we have levied against your homeland, Shingal, for the entire past year. We recognize that our actions have further victimized you and inhibited your recovery, even after the terrible trauma of the genocide that you have endured. We do not have the right to tell you not to return to your homeland, or to keep your population in camps for years at a time, while your children grow up hopeless about their lack of a future.
  • Fifth, regardless of what political loyalties you democratically choose within your homeland, we pledge to not only allow you free passage with your personal goods from the Kurdistan Region to Shingal, but we also pledge to assist your reconstruction in whatever way we are able, recognizing that after our own negligence, we are now responsible to do what we can to help you rebuild, regardless of whether you place your political loyalties with our parties or not. Kurdistan is contending with economic crisis now, which limits our ability to perform significant reconstruction, but we will do our best to assist you.
  • These positions represent the goodwill of the Kurdish people who believe in democracy and justice and this statement represents the Kurdish values of fairness, equality, and integrity.


The purpose of this article has not been to attack Kurdistan, but to address some problems that are weakening social cohesion among communities in Kurdistan and northern Iraq. Kurdistan is a wonderful place with wonderful people who have fought very hard for their own rights and freedoms. On my first visit to Kurdistan years ago, I visited a prison that Saddam had built in which he would imprison Kurds who expressed dissent about their situation. The prison was turned into a museum and I was moved by the depictions of human suffering that the Kurds had endured at the hands of Saddam, and by the bravery of the Peshmerga that had labored so tirelessly to liberate their people. Being honest in our confrontation of new political realities of this generation, and the failure of the Peshmerga in Shingal, does not constitute a denial of the heroism of the Peshmerga over the many years that they have defended Kurdistan. Nevertheless, it is essential that we confront the Ba’thist-like behavior of the asa’ish toward the minority populations, and the political system that looks the other way when abuses occur. Sadly, I have lost some valued friendships with Kurds who are very dear to me, because of the position that I have taken on these issues. It is sad to lose those friendships, but in this context of genocide, I cannot compromise on the truth. In America we say “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” We can critique government action in Kurdistan because we love Kurdistan and want to see it thrive, just as it is our duty to critique the treatment of minorities in the U.S. whenever our government abuses freedoms. Because of campaigns for the rights of minorities, many people in America today have rights that they did not have a few short years ago. Those rights are always placed in jeopardy when we stop speaking out. My involvement in the Yazidi situation is not that of someone with any stake in political factions. I have never had an affiliation with or affinity for any political group in Iraq, Syria, or Turkey. Rather, I am approaching this situation as a historian who understands how fragile the existence of a minority group like the Yazidis is, and how real the possibility is that the Yazidi people could disappear from the region. We have witnessed the recent decline of many minority communities in the Middle East, not only because of the threat of extremist violence, but also because of the harmful politics of nationalism. It is vital that citizens of Iraq and Kurdistan work to ensure that the Yazidis are not another casualty of politics. You—the people of Kurdistan—must speak out and let your government know that their treatment of the Yazidis is unacceptable and contrary to your values.


Matthew Barber is a PhD student studying Islamic thought and history in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago. He was working in Kurdistan when the Yazidi Genocide began and later served as the Iraq Executive Director of Yazda for one year in 2015-2016. He has conducted research on the Yazidi minority and can be followed on Twitter: @Matthew__Barber


A Post-National Framework for Peace and Stability in the Middle East – by Sam Farah

Sam Farah

A Post-National Framework for Peace and Stability in the Middle East
Sam Farah – txtwxe@google.com
For Syria Comment – January 2017

The Syrian crisis, about to enter its sixth year, has created the largest humanitarian disaster since the Cold War, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths and creating the worst refugee crisis of our generation. Yet, the Syrian crisis is hardly the only fire burning in the Middle East. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the Middle East has been stuck in endless wars and an ever-worsening cycle of violence and extremism.

Beyond the devastating human cost of these conflicts, instability in the Middle East has the potential to destroy the global order. In his recent article “Toward a Global Realignment,” Zbigniew Brzezinski warns that if not contained the current violence in the Middle East can spread to Russia’s southern and eastern territories as well as the western portion of China.[1] Mr. Brzezinski is not the only one sounding alarms about the increasing instability in the Middle East. General David Petraeus has described the Syrian conflict as a “Chernobyl, a potential geo-strategic catastrophe.[2]  The flood of refugees into Europe was a major driver behind Brexit and the rise of nationalism across Europe, which threatens to unravel the continent’s post-nationalistic framework.

Mr. Brzezinski warns that America’s quest for a one-sided militarily and ideologically imposed outcome in the Middle East is an act of prolonged and self-destructive futility. Instead Mr. Brzezinski encourages the United States to forge a cooperative relationship with Russia, China, and the EU, who can partner with more established and historically rooted countries in the Middle East to shape a wider framework for regional stability.

The Current Framework of the Middle East

The framework for the Middle East was laid out at the beginning of the 20th century with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, mostly on a nationalistic basis.

Nationalism is defined as a political movement to unite people into nations based on shared language, race or religion. This idea emerged in Europe in the 19th century, and spread to the Middle East in the early 20th. Nationalism held that the boundaries of a nation should as much as possible coincide with one culture.

The Armenians and Assyrians were the first victims of nationalism in the Middle East. The Young Turks, in an effort to Turkify the new republic, executed a systematic campaign to exterminate the Assyrians and Armenians from eastern Turkey, a plateau they had inhabited for 3,000 years. As many as 1.5 million people were killed in what is today known as the Armenian Genocide.

Two other nationalist movements, Arab nationalism and Zionism, were also gathering strength and about to collide. Zionism was born in Europe in the 19th century. Its founder, Theodore Herzl, was once a member of the German nationalist fraternity (Burschenschaft). Zionism’s founding was not a reaction to the Holocaust, which occurred 40 years after the Zionist movement emerged. It was a nationalist movement to build a nation for the Jewish people. David Ben-Gurion, who was born in Poland, and then immigrated to Israel in 1906, wrote (quoted in Wikiquote, 2016), “For many of us, anti-Semitic feeling had little to do with our dedication to Zionism. I personally never suffered anti-Semitic persecution. We emigrated not for negative reasons of escape but for the positive purpose of rebuilding a homeland.”[3]

European-educated Arab intellectuals from the Levant were also eager to establish an Arab homeland. In 1911, they founded the Young Arab Society, Al Fatat, in Paris. Their goal was to gain independence and unify Arab territory under the Ottoman Empire.

In 1919, Ben-Gurion (quoted in Wikiquote, 2016) wrote, “We, as a nation, want this country to be ours; the Arabs, as a nation, want this country to be theirs.”[4] Tensions between Arabs and Jews grew. In 1947, the Arabs rejected the UN partition plans for Palestine, and Arab nationalists vowed to eradicate the new Zionist entity. Between 1947 and 1949, more than 700,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homes. Later, a series of laws in the newly declared state of Israel prevented them from returning to their homes or claiming their properties. Towns and streets, which had traditionally carried Arabic names, were given Hebrew ones. Against this backdrop, the Arab-Israeli conflict has continued for 67 years.

Kurdish nationalists have demanded a homeland partitioned out of territories in parts of Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and Syria. The Kurdish-Turkish war, which has escalated with the Syrian crisis, has caused tens of thousands of deaths and created masses of refugees. Turkey, in its effort to combat Kurdish nationalism, has restricted the use of the Kurdish language in Turkey. At one point the Kurdish language, dress, folklore, and names were prohibited.

Today, the Arab countries of the Levant have collapsed into proxy, sectarian and civil wars. In the Middle East there are three competing regional projects, all exacerbating the regional conflicts and contributing to the radicalization of the population. Turkey’s Neo-Ottomanists are trying to extend Turkey’s influence in the Middle East; Iran cloaked in a Shia theocracy is extending its regional influence through a network of proxies and regional allies; and Israel remains strongly nationalist and is becoming increasingly right wing. In the middle of this regional dysfunction, ISIS has sprung up with an appalling mix of fascism and religious extremism, and Al Qaeda has gained a foothold on the Mediterranean.

Religious radicalism and terrorism thrive in the Middle East today. These conflicts are polarizing and each side rallies its base using the most divisive issues, often religion. The governments of Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have all been accused or are at least suspected of supporting the most sectarian, often-terrorist groups, even ISIS, in their bid for regional influence.

While the Middle East is becoming increasingly unstable, its strategic importance as an oil supplier to the United Stated is diminishing. According to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, the United States will surpass Saudi Arabia as the biggest oil producer by the end of this decade, and will become self-sufficient in energy production by 2035.[5] The United States’ shift away from the Middle East started during the Obama administration as it pivoted to Asia. An estimated $5 trillion, $1.2 trillion of which is in American goods, is traded through the South China Sea shipping lanes each year, which is a vital national security interest for the United States. President Donald Trump also campaigned with the promise that the United States would disengage from the Middle East and prioritize fighting terrorism. The continued crises in the region however, risks sucking the United States back into the Middle East.

A stable Middle East is of vital importance to China. It is estimated that there are around 5000 Chinese from the Uighur region fighting alongside radical Islamic groups in Syria. The recent suicide attack against the Chinese embassy in the Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan was ordered by Uighur militants active in Syria.[6] China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan are, and will be for the foreseeable future, heavily dependent on the flow of oil passing through the Strait of Hormuz. The E.U. is in desperate need of stability in the Middle East as well. They are struggling to deal with the flood of immigrants coming from the region and with the threat of radicalized European Jihadists fighting in Syria. In many proxy wars, regional players manipulate their external backers and not the other way around.[7] None of these major powers wants to be dragged into these conflicts in the Middle East as long as their geostrategic interests are protected.

A New Framework

Many blame the current arbitrary borders of the Middle East for its many troubles. The British and the French drew up these borders after the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. In the early 1900s under Ottoman rule there were provinces – Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul – that corresponded to today’s Iraq. The other provinces were those of Damascus, Beirut, Aleppo, and Deir al Zor, plus the district of Jerusalem, which had special administrative status. These areas included today’s Syria, Lebanon, and much of Jordan, Israel and Palestine. Mixed communities with a myriad number of religions, sects, and ethnicities populated these provinces. The new colonial borders divided communities and restricted the movement of people and commerce, but they were not a cause of war. It was the nationalists who caused wars. The territorial claims of the different nationalist movements that sprung up in the late 19th and early 20th century overlapped and set the stage for conflict.

Nationalism as a cause of war, authoritarianism, and racism is well established.  The role of nationalism in European wars, including the two world wars, is well documented. After decades of war, Europe had to build a new framework for a lasting peace. It began with the Schuman Declaration in 1950. It laid the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) the first supra-nationalist organization in history. Pooling coal and steel production – in the words of the Declaration – made war between historic rivals “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”[8]Then through successive steps including de-emphasized borders, Europe led the world in pioneering a post-nationalist experiment and established peace.Post-nationalism is also the best framework to resolve the myriad conflicts in the Middle East.

Candidate Countries

The selection of countries for this new framework aims to defuse existing tensions that exacerbate the current conflicts and fuel extremism. These countries are Turkey, Iran, Israel, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, and Jordan. Membership in the bloc would be available on a rolling basis and might include other countries like Egypt, whose membership could provide a tripartite peace with Iran and Turkey to anchor the new bloc. Alternatively, Egypt could be part of a North African bloc. Armenia should be considered for membership in this new bloc as well. Armenians were the first victims of nationalism in the Middle East and deemphasizing its border with Turkey would give Armenians peaceful access to areas they have been forced out of including the revered Mount Ararat.

The Gulf Cooperation Council countries (GCC) would continue to develop their own relationships and would not be part of this proposed post-nationalist bloc. Historically, the GCC’s main strategic threats have been Arab nationalism, pan-Islamic movements, and Iran. All these risks would be reduced with the creation of the proposed post-nationalist bloc.

The Pillars of the New Framework

While this proposed framework borrows heavily from the European experience, it is not a proposed union. This proposed framework is built with a series of multilateral agreements between the named countries aimed at replacing the current framework which is built of nationalistic bases with a post nationalist framework built on three pillars, deemphasizing borders, multiculturalism, and regional projects.

In this new bloc, borders would be frozen where they are and deemphasized, with the ultimate goal of guaranteeing the free movement of capital, people, goods and service within the bloc. Borrowing from the example of the ECSC, a regional body would be created to manage the region’s water and energy resources, as well as transit roots for energy from the Gulf area and Russia to the West. All these, especially water rights, are a source of conflict, and are best managed on a regional basis. According to scientists with the World Resource Institute (WRI), water shortages are expected to intensify and will exacerbate conflicts. Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Turkey will all be facing severe water stress by 2040, according to the WRI.[9] Combating terrorism will likewise be a focus of cooperative police forces in the region. Multiculturalism is the third pillar of this new framework, and is the antithesis of nationalism. Where nationalists aim for the primacy of their culture and language in specific regions, often to the exclusion of others, multiculturalism is the celebration of all cultures and religions as equals. Multiculturalism is not meant to mix different cultures and religions together to create a new identity, nor does it weaken people’s connection to their religion and traditions. The Europeans paid special attention to this issue when structuring their post nationalist framework. They made multiculturalism a foundation of their new post-nationalist framework. In contrast with the nationalistic fervor of old Europe that emphasized language as a central part of national identity, in the E.U. there is no official language. All of the 24 languages spoken in the E.U. region are official E.U. languages.[10] Post-nationalism is a different polity than pre-nationalists empires many of which were also composed of many cultures and religions like the Ottoman empire. Those Empires were governed by one religious group or one clan.

This new proposed framework for the Middle East would not simply replicate the E.U.; greater autonomy would be granted to local governments, and a single currency is not necessary for a post-nationalist framework. This is also not a proposed military pact, and is not an invitation to disarmament. Countries in this new proposed bloc will maintain their military treaties with non- member countries, such as Russia’s agreements with Syria and the United States’ agreements with Turkey.

Creating a new bloc with deemphasized borders, regional projects, and multiculturalism should defuse most of the regional conflicts. Since Iran is a majority Shia country, and Turkey is a majority Sunni country, the focus of the countries in this new-shared bloc will be on the shared values of both religions. Christianity and Judaism also share the values that are common to these two forms of Islam. This should defuse religious extremism as well. The conflicts of the Middle East today are regional, the Kurdish question, the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and the Syrian crisis are all regional, zero-sum conflicts. Regional conflicts require regional solutions.

 A Prerequisite for Peace not a Product of Peace

Some believe that post nationalism will be the result of peace and that creating a post-nationalist bloc would be putting the cart before the horse. The European experience proves otherwise. After decades of conflicts and two world wars, Europeans sought an escape from the nationalism that had devastated the continent. The political elite took the lead in the search for a new structure for governance. The result was the E.U., a pioneering experiment in interdependence and multiculturalism. In 2012, the E.U. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Explaining the Nobel Committee’s decision, Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland argued that the E.U. has transformed Europe, “from a continent of wars to a continent of peace.”[11] While it is possible to argue about the economics of the project, such arguments ignore the fact that the purpose of the E.U. was to prevent war. The Middle East has transitioned from a religious empire to a region torn by nationalism, now it needs to move toward post nationalism as its third political act, to bring stability to the region.

The Alternative

Many have argued that the promotion of liberal democracies is a precondition to peace in the Middle East, and the neoconservatives have pushed for regime change in many countries in the region, only to see violence, and extremism reach new heights. Peace building by focusing individual conflict has yielded precious little despite decades of international efforts. Alternately, the region could undergo further segregation and population transfer as proposed by people such as Michael Bernstam.[12] This approach will lead to ethnic cleansing and the creation of small warring, unsustainable states.

How do we get there?

It took Europe a cataclysmic war to abandon nationalism and seek an alternative framework. Moving the Middle East to a post nationalist structure will require that the regional actors be exhausted by and realize the futility of the current wars. It will also require a paradigm shift in thinking both inside and outside the region.

Post nationalism in Europe remains a deeply misunderstood process in the Middle East. Many on the left believe that the E.U. is a capitalistmanifestation to create open markets and help big business. Islamists see it as areconstitution of Christendom. And nationalists are still attached to their dreamsand view the E.U. as a union of mature nations that have already achieved theirnationalist aspirations. Middle Eastern nationalists also argue thattheir brand of nationalism is different than the European variety. Arabs argue that theirnationalism is rooted in liberation nationalism and that the Zionists use the Holocaustas a reason to hold on to their nationalist project. But all these views ignore the history of the development of post nationalism in Europe, and the history ofnationalism in the Middle East.

Work on the new framework should be initiated by local politicians, most likely from Iran and Turkey, with the consent of the major global powers. It would involve direct negotiations between potential member nations on the first steps toward and the overall parameters of the new structure. The E.U. can provide technical expertise, drawing on it vast experience in regional post nationalist frameworks. Other countries, most importantly Israel and Syria, can join these negotiations. It will be an evolving project that will be built one treaty at a time with an overarching goal of replacing the current zero sum structure with a new post nationalist framework.  Peace-building institutes, like the Carter Center and The Norwegian Center for Conflict Resolution (NOREF), can take a leading role by hosting politicians and activists from the region to explore and promote this new solution.

Potential Obstacles

There will be resistance to such new framework from Islamists and nationalists inside the region. There are also potential obstacles from outside the region; the U.S might want to continue to isolate Iran. Russia is increasingly suspicious of post nationalism, and U.S.- Russian rivalry and mutual suspicion has the potential to prevent this project from moving forward.

For those who see too much chaos in the Middle East to even ponder post-nationalism, it is worth keeping in mind that the E.U. was born in the aftermath of World War II when war, genocide and religious rivalry had swept the continent. The E.U. has been an evolving, contentious project that took shape in the shadow of the Cold War, in a divided Europe governed by many right-wing military dictatorships well into the 1970s. The E.U. was a top-down project engineered by a few visionary statesmen that allowed Europe to develop into what it is today: peaceful, democratic, and liberal. All of this human progress is at risk today by the escalating violence and dysfunction in the Middle East.

Considering the decreasing strategic importance of the region to the U.S., and the potential seismic geopolitical impact of the continued instability in the Middle East, the U.S. should aim to stabilize the region as it continues to disengage from it.  Patiently guided by long-range vision, The U.S. and in partnership with China, Russia and the E.U., should help guide local countries to seek a new post nationalist regional framework.


Beehner, Lionel. “How Proxy Wars Work: And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria.” Foreign Affairs. Nov. 12, 2015. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-11-12/how-proxy-wars-work

Bernstam, Michael. “Redraw Country Lines in the Middle East.” Forbes. Dec. 23, 2015. http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/23/redraw-country-lines-in-the-middle-east/#78181fda7765

Brzezinksi, Zbigniew.“Toward a Global Realignment.” The American Interest 11, No. 6, (April 17, 2016). http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/

Dzyubenko, Olga. “Kyrgystan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China’s Embassy.”Reuters. Sept. 7, 2016. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK

Mackey, Peg. “U.S. to overtake Saudi as Top Oil Producer: IEA.” Reuters. Nov. 12, 2012. http://www.reuters.com/article/us-iea-oil-report-idUSBRE8AB0IQ20121112

Noren, Alexander. 2012 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony. video. 80 min. 2012. http://www.lectoro.com/index.php?action=search&ytq=2012%20Nobel%20Prize%20Award%20Ceremony

Petraeus, Gen. David (ret.). Address to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Syria. Sep 22, 2015. Youtube video. 1 min. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScBrQaDzgpA

Prospero, a blog published by The Economist. http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero.

Schuman, Robert. “The Schuman Declaration – 9 May 1950.” European Union. Last updated Dec. 12, 2016. https://europa.eu/european-union/abouteu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en

WikiQuote. David Ben-Gurion.Last updated on July 1, 2016.

https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion. Originally published in David Ben-Gurion, Memoirs (The World Publishing Company, 1970), 36.

WikiQuote. David Ben-Gurion. Last updated on July 1, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion.

World Resources Institute Blog. http://www.wri.org/blog


[1] Zbigniew Brzezinski, “Toward a Global Realignment,” The American Interest, 11, no. 6 (April 17, 2016), http://www.the-american-interest.com/2016/04/17/toward-a-global-realignment/.

[2] Gen. David Petraeus (ret.), Address to Senate Armed Services Committee on Syria, Youtube video, 1 min, September 22, 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ScBrQaDzgpA.

[3] Wikiquote, David Ben-Gurion. Last updated on July 1, 2016. https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/David_Ben-Gurion.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Peg Mackey, “U.S. to overtake Saudi as Top Oil Producer: IEA,” Reuters, Nov. 12, 2012,


[6] Olga Dzyubenko, “Kyrgystan says Uighur militant groups behind attack on China’s Embassy,”

Reuters, Sept. 7, 2016, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-kyrgyzstan-blast-china-idUSKCN11C1DK.

[7] Lionel Beehner, “How Proxy Wars Work: And What That Means for Ending the Conflict in Syria,” Foreign Affairs, Nov. 12, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2015-11-12/how-proxy-wars-work.

[8] Robert Schuman, The Schuman Declaration – 9 May 1950, European Union, last updated Dec. 12, 2016, https://europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/symbols/europe-day/schuman-declaration_en.

[9] Andrew Maddocks, Robert Samuel Young and Paul Reig, “Ranking the World’s Most Water Stressed Countries in 2040,” World Resources Institute (blog), Aug. 26, 2015, http://www.wri.org/blog/2015/08/ranking-world’s-most-water-stressed-countries-2040.

[10] “Multiculturalism and the E.U.,” Prospero (blog) The Economist, April 30, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/04/multilingualism-and-eu-0.

[11] Alexander Noren, 2012 Nobel Prize Award Ceremony, video, 80 min, 2012, http://www.lectoro.com/index.php?action=search&ytq=2012%20Nobel%20Prize%20Award%20Ceremony.

[12] Michael Bernstam, “Redraw Country Lines in the Middle East,” Forbes, Dec. 23, 2015, http://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2015/12/23/redraw-country-lines-in-the-middle-east/#78181fda7765.

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan: From the Cradle of the Jalalabad School of Jihad to Syria and Iraq

Osama Bin Laden in Afghanistan

By Tam Hussein @tamhussein

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan questions the foundational myths of the Afghan Jihad which touched a generation of Muslim men growing up in the 90s. It is told by one of the earliest Afghan Arabs, Mustafa Hamid who joined the warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani against the Afghan Communist regime and the Soviet Union. He was also one of the few Arabs who remained after the Afghan Jihad had ended. He became close to Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden and his inner circle. Although Hamid is a prolific writer in Arabic his latest account has valuable lessons for all those pondering Jihadism and its effect in the Middle East.

Mustafa Hamid or Abu Walid al-Masri

Mustafa Hamid working together with Leah Farrall, an Australian counter-terrorism expert, gives an account of the genesis of al-Qaeda and the Taliban with extraordinary detail. The very fact that these two could come together to produce such a document is an extraordinary feat in itself and proof that dialogue between two seemingly inveterate enemies is possible. The book is in the form of a ‘conversation’, the dialogues consist of twelve chapters touching on topics such as the Arab-Afghan Jihad, Taliban origins, the Arab Services Bureau; the battle of Jaji, the Arab training camps, Arab-Afghan politics, efforts at unity post 9/11 and the final chapter being the reflections of the authors. The book is complimented by several helpful sections giving brief outlines of people, locations and glossaries.

Hamid argues that many fighters who became known as the ‘Afghan’ Arabs went to fight in Afghanistan because they were despondent about the tyrannical rulers in the Middle East. Their experiences was one of humiliation; Israel had administered several bloody noses in Egypt 1973, in Lebanon with the PLO being expelled in 1978 and 82, in Yemen the Soviet Union was controlling the South and in Syria, Hafez al-Assad ruled with an iron fist culminating in the crushing of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. Change in short, would not occur and so many Arabs headed to Afghanistan with the invasion of the Soviet Union. If what Hamid says is true, then with the fall of Aleppo, eventually Mosul and the presence of repressive dictatorships in spite of the Arab Spring, will see the emergence of ‘forever-Jihadis’ – grizzled experts in asymmetric warfare who will no doubt seek out new frontiers to carry out their Jihad. In fact, Abu Qatada, the Salafi-Jihadi cleric has already noted this as he commented on the fall of Aleppo:

“I understood that victory would not come without a turning point …But I am convinced that there are major turning points ahead. Among them the expansion of Jihad to other countries, the changing characteristics of leadership and groups, the invasion of the original disbelievers more openly and clearly…”

Another important point that Hamid makes is that often fighting men, and here the focus is on Arabs, follow men not ideas. And he explains why the Afghan Arabs followed leaders that made catastrophic errors. According to Hamid, Osama bin Laden or Abu Abdullah did not have a clear vision or a strategy at the battle of Jaji, Jalalabad or 9/11 for that matter. And though his far more able commanders like Abu Hafs al-Masri, Abu Ubaida al-Banshiri knew it, none disavowed him. Only Abu Hafs al-Mauritani, their in-house jurist resigned in protest when the idea of 9/11 was floated because it contravened Islamic law. Similarly, Khattab, the Saudi commander fighting Russians in Chechnya and often wrongly associated with al-Qaeda, entered into Dagestan provoking a lethal Russian response that resulted in the loss of thousands of innocent civilians. Hamid suggests that both men suffered from same problem that Tony Blair suffered from, they only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear.

Khattab, the Arab rebel commander in Chechnya

In fact, Hamid goes as far as questioning the very foundational myths of al-Qaeda. Bin Laden and Khattab in his view, were far from ideal leaders. For instance, Hamid rubbishes the notion that Bin Laden was attempting to draw the US into a trap. He believes Bin Laden had no such vision except that he wanted to be the saviour of the Muslim religious community or Ummah. Hamid depicts Bin Laden as suffering at best from quixotic hubris and at worst, megalomania. To Hamid, Bin Laden flagrantly disobeying the orders of Mullah Omar and unleashing the wrath of the USA at the expense of millions of innocent Afghans was inexcusable. Hamid also reveals the immense rivalry between Bin Laden and more long term visionaries such as the Syrian Abu Musab al-Suri. He trenchantly criticises Bin Laden for his mistakes in Jaji and Tora Bora as tactical errors. This is also independently affirmed by other Afghan veterans like Abdullah Anas. It is also notable that in Hamid’s narrative, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri was only a bit player and mentioned only in passing unlike the bigger role he was given by Lawrence Wright in his classic The Looming Tower.

One of the most valuable insights of the book, if not the most, is the widespread influence of the ‘Jalalabad School of Jihad’. The school Hamid argues, is the progenitor for all the Jihadist movements in the Islamic world. He points out that none of the Arab fighters in Afghanistan had any religious authority. The few Arabs that had religious authority were Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, Sheikh Abdel Majid Zindani who came to Afghanistan intermittently, Sheikh Omar Abdur Rahman, the ‘blind sheikh’ who lived in Peshawar on a pension, and to a lesser extent Abdullah Anas who was the product of a North African religious education system but was mostly with Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panshir valley. In contrast, Afghans had scholarly authority of the Mullahs and Mawalwis; the late warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani for example was a respected scholar and a product of the Indo-Pak Deoband tradition. Despite this rich tradition of indigenous scholarship, Arab fighters did not respect this mainly Hanafi tradition and only listened to their own.

Hamid argues that this had huge implications, once the few members of religious authority either left or passed away many of these Arab-Afghans especially the later younger arrivals, could not be controlled or directed. Bin Laden struggled to control them and was criticised by his own men for being too pliant to their whims. But he also had little choice; he was in the midst of intense competition for recruits between the various factions and often these young fighters would go off to another camp if they didn’t like what he had to offer. The competition for recruits and the lack of religious authority resulted in many young fighters doing something unprecedented; they claimed religious authority not on the basis of religious knowledge but on the basis of their fighting experience. It gave legitimacy to a largely religiously untrained class of men from Osama bin Laden to al-Zarqawi who had the gall to issue religious edicts and Fatwas which in the past, they would have no right to issue. It was akin to an undergraduate law student claiming the legal authority of a High Court judge. Hamid notes that al-Qaeda always had scholars coming from outside but it could never generate scholars from within its own ranks. Even Abu Qatadah who is often closely associated with al-Qaeda is religiously trained in Jordan under notable Jordanian religious scholars. To his critics the issue with Sh. Abu Qatadah has never been his erudition but his judgement.

Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

The proliferation and competition of various of factions, the disdaining of religious authority amongst the Afghan Arabs eventually morphed into what Hamid calls the Jalalabad school, the mother of all AQ affiliates, that now spreads across the globe. This was a far cry from what al-Qaeda was originally conceived as. It was meant to be the A-Team, a Muslim foreign legion going to the aid of the Muslim Ummah when and where ever it faced difficulties.  Instead it turned into a group of highway men who attacked UN aid convoys and killed innocents in the name of ‘Jihad’. Hamid remarks that some of the most notable leaders of the Jalalabad school were Abdul Majid al-Jazairi who went on to form the GIA in Algeria and others like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who went on to Iraq and committed sectarian violence on a colossal scale. And if one can add another more recent example, the Reina nightclub killer, Abdulkadir Masharipov also came from the training camps of Afghanistan. Perhaps more interestingly Hamid believes that it is the very presence of the Jalalabad school that will scupper all the Salafi-Jihadi projects in the Muslim world especially Syria, because ultimately:

“The Jalalabad school started without any leadership, strategy, or political thought; without belonging to a nation or a homeland. It was and still is characterised by impetuous youth with extreme Salafi thoughts and with a careless approach. They did not care or did not think about the consequences of their actions…this school of youth”

But whilst Hamid condemns the Jalalabad school for extremism he does not let the US off the hook. The US turned into an enemy of the Afghan Arabs when “in 1991, there was a Gulf War and it was widely known America was a big enemy and destroying the Arabs. In ten years 1.5 million people were killed…most of them were children. America became an enemy because of its actions.” It would seem that according to Hamid the US is only reaping what its foreign policy has sowed.

There is no doubt that Hamid’s book is of immense value but there are some points of criticism.  The first point here is minor. Whilst the dialogic format is interesting, the book could improve by further editing as it can occasionally be repetitive. Neither is it always clear, whether it is Hamid or Farrall speaking or whether it is general background given by a neutral voice. This can be off putting and hampers its accessibility. Moreover this being a ‘conversation’ means that the reader has to be sufficiently informed in order to understand that conversation fully, that is a great shame because this book deserves a larger audience.

The second point of criticism is the credibility of the account. I am well aware that Mustafa Hamid has been criticised savagely by his former comrade Ahmad Hasan Abu al-Khayr. Whilst the latter has immense reverence for Hamid nevertheless he speaks out against him because “truth” was being “slaughtered” and “fabricated”. That leaves the reader to ask quite reasonably, how credible is Hamid’s account?

Certainly, here Leah Farrall’s presence is critical because her role is to reign him in, to be sceptical and to challenge him. Nevertheless, to what extent is the book accurate? There are aspects in his account that need further work especially on the Arab Services Bureau, this author has interviewed those who differ with Hamid on how it was created and worked. In fact, the Arab Services Bureau chapter probably needs its own in depth study.  But there are also other aspects that are confirmed by other sources, for instance the tension between Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden has been confirmed by the sterling journalism of Lawrence Wright. The character sketch Hamid gives of Osama bin Laden has been confirmed to this author independently by other Afghan veterans. The Harmony project also confirms many of Hamid’s assertions. As for the Jalalabad school of Jihad, this seems like a plausible theory, Abdullah Anas has told this author that many of these young men who became known as Afghan Arabs came to Afghanistan in the early nineties when the Soviets had left already. By that time, Abdullah Azzam was dead, Sh. Zindani was in Yemen, Omar Abdur-Rahman was living in the US and so it seems reasonable that such a ‘school’ can come about in the camps of Jalalabad. Therefore, whilst one must approach Hamid’s account with a degree of caution, his account doesn’t seem to exaggerate nor does it lapse into conspiracy theories. The points highlighted in this review then, are far from controversial and can be found in the works of analysts such as Don Rassler and Vahid Brown’s The Fountain Head of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus 1973-2012.

The Arabs at War in Afghanistan is an incredibly important work for so many of the reasons outlined.  It has a demystifying effect on an aspect of history which has been shrouded in myth and to find an old veteran talking about the issues with such clarity and candour is of immense value and part of that must be attributed to Ms. Farrall’s academic eye.

Liwa Al-Jabal: A New Loyalist Militia Unity Initiative In Suwayda’

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Liwa al-Jabal.

Unity initiatives of various kinds among armed groups are foremost associated with the rebels in Syria. Despite some attempts to argue to the contrary, the popular conception of the wider insurgency and opposition as heavily divided is largely correct. Time and time again we have seen talk of uniting the various rebel factions only to see it amount to little if anything: the most recent case being the merger schemes discussed in the wake of the regime’s recapture of all of Aleppo city last month. Indeed, Sheikh Abdullah al-Muheisseni, the Saudi jihadi cleric based in Syria, recently admitted this problem of failure to achieve unity in the latest rounds of merger talks among rebel factions. Muheisseni had been working on a merger initiative principally involving Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki.

Meanwhile, discussions and a document concerning a third-way option that entailed the revival of a structure akin to the failed Revolutionary Command Council of 2014-2015 were leaked in the media. The signatories to the document outlining the formation of a “Syria Liberation Command Council” included major factions like Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, with one important aim being to form a joint political committee and thus produce joint political stances that bear significance. Peace talks scheduled to take place in Astana (the capital of Kazakhstan) were an important context for such an idea, though that concept already seems to be in doubt with Ahrar al-Sham opting not to participate in the Astana talks for a number of reasons, whereas Jaysh al-Islam is set to participate. Besides, broader controversy plagues the proposed Syria Liberation Command Council as a betrayal of meaningful mergers and unity as well as selling-out to the whims of foreign backers, namely Turkey and Qatar.

However, it is important to note that unity initiatives and problems of divisions are not confined to the insurgency: they can also be found among militias on the regime side in Syria, even as it would be an exaggeration to portray them as wholly equivalent to the disunity and divisions in the insurgency and opposition. A case-in-point is the primarily Druze province of Suwayda’. The region is also known as Jabal al-Arab/Jabal al-Druze (Mountain of the Arabs/Mountain of the Druze), and a large number of militia factions have emerged. Broadly speaking, they can be divided into two categories of orientation. On the one hand, there are factions that are clearly regime loyalist, showing affinities with Assad and the wider war effort. On the other hand, there are also more ‘third-way’ militias whose goal is not to overthrow the regime structure in Suwayda’ but rather to reform it (e.g. reducing corruption), while focusing more on local defence of the province from external attack (whether by the rebels or the Islamic State) and pushing against conscription efforts into the Syrian army.

While larger militia players and brand names can be identified in the province, such as the loyalist Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar of Nazih Jerbo’ and the ‘third-way’ Rijal al-Karama movement, there is overall a high degree of localisation in how the militias have organised by town and village, even when they have an affiliation to a broader brand. For an example of localisation, see the case of Katibat Jalamid Urman that I profiled earlier this month: a local loyalist militia based in the Suwayda’ village of Urman. This trend not only has the potential to impede coordination in times of military crisis, but also gives rise to incidents of kidnapping and settling of personal and local disputes by militia force, undermining the rule of law. Compare this observation with a document recently issued by a new group calling itself Ama’im al-Jabal, claiming to be composed of religious Druze in Suwayda’. The document alludes to some of the aforementioned problems in its introduction.

One attempt to resolve the localisation problem has been unity initiatives, which are particularly apparent on the loyalist side. The most recent of these initiatives is the announcement of the formation of Liwa al-Jabal (The Mountain Brigade), which was publicised as follows in a post on social media earlier this month containing much flowery rhetoric and many platitudes:

“Amid the ongoing danger of the terrorist gangs and the threat of the takfiri groups, which do not know religion, homeland and mercy and have not shown respect for human and ethical values for a day, groups from the popular factions in Suwayda’ province have decided to form a military unit in a united organisational body in the name of Liwa al-Jabal.

For so long as self-defence has been a legitimate right established by God, who put in place its rulings and made Paradise the dwellings of loftiness for whosoever fulfils the trust in defending that right, and so long as Suwayda’ province has been an example of national unity and a true embodiment of good conduct and action in defending land and honour, and [so long as] its sons will remain the good example in values, ethics, religious consciousness and both patriotic and nationalist sentiment: so will its sons remain on the path of their just predecessors.

As they have pledged, so they have fulfilled. As they have promised, so they have been bound by their promises, confronted tribulation through their consciousness, fought adversity through their courage and audacity, and resisted internal strife through their wisdom and the soundness of their minds. Thus they have united ranks, have not rendered them asunder, brought hearts close together and not separated them, protected the one seeking protection, provided relief to the one in need, have never been content for a day with disgrace, have never applied injustice, while treachery and betrayal have never been among their traits. May God grant you success and make right your path- our brothers and loves ones of ‘Liwa al-Jabal’- and may He destine for our people and homeland peace and security.”

Ziyad Abu Tafesh, who is involved with Liwa al-Jabal and appears to have been the first to have put up the announcement above regarding the formation, spoke with me at some length regarding Liwa al-Jabal and the idea behind it. Ziyad began by pointing to continuity in terms of the composition of Liwa al-Jabal: “Liwa al-Jabal represents a formation of the popular fighting groups present in foundation from the beginning of the war on my homeland Syria. They have been supporting the army and the auxiliary forces in the areas of danger and clashes on the administrative borders of Suwayda’.” He also noted the point I have made above regarding the problem of so many militias existing on the ground: “The multiplicity of groups is a cause of confusion in military work on the ground, thus the groups [i.e. those constituting Liwa al-Jabal] have realised the necessity of unity in one organisational and administrative framework in order to raise readiness and preparedness in the event of danger from the forces of terrorism and the gangs of al-Nusra [Jabhat al-Nusra: i.e. Jabhat Fatah al-Sham] and Da’esh [Islamic State] under the banner of the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian army.”

At this point, one may ask what has become of other conglomeration initiatives in Suwayda’, such as the loyalist Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield) set up in 2015 by retired Syrian army officer Nayef al-Aqil with support from Sheikh Yusuf Jerbo’ (one of the three mashayakh al-‘aql, the highest Druze religious authorities in Syria). It turns out Dir’ al-Watan was a failure and quietly vanished into obscurity, despite initial hype back in 2015 as al-Aqil and Jerbo’ visited various places in the province to garner support for Dir’ al-Watan. Indeed, Ziyad had promoted Dir’ al-Watan in its beginnings, but as he put it to me in somewhat vague terms, “There was an attempt to bring together the nationalist factions under the leadership of the Brigadier General Mr. Nayef al-Aqil in the name of Dir’ al-Watan but for particular circumstances and reasons, success was not destined for it.”

Turning to the organisation and structure of Liwa al-Jabal, Ziyad explained that the leadership of the formation is composed of a military council of five people dividing assignments among themselves, though he did not give any names for these people. He added that Liwa al-Jabal is not affiliated with any security apparatus (e.g. military intelligence or air intelligence) but at the same time is not independent “in the literal meaning.” Rather, as he put it, “There is foundational government support with the guarantee of the brigade’s independence.” Such a description should not come as a surprise: many regime loyalist militias in Syria might have no formal affiliation to a larger particular entity like one of the intelligence apparatuses or Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association, but still get support from the regime in some way, such as weapons provision.

According to Ziyad, so far five groups have come under the conglomeration of Liwa al-Jabal, though he declined to give any specific names for these contingents. He elaborated as follows: “The foundational nucleus is five groups and there is great interest and inquiry about the means of joining in the future. But our brothers do not want to rush and fall into the potholes of factionalism and entry of bad members. Therefore a specific strategy will be ratified, along with conditions for the means of joining and specifications of the groups and their personnel that will come subsequently.”

In short, it is important to appreciate that Liwa al-Jabal is not so much a new militia as yet another attempt to try to bring together local loyalist factions in Suwayda’ under one structure and banner. Nonetheless, if the past record is anything to go by, the prospects of meaningful success for this project are rather dim. If Dir’ al-Watan, which had backing from the mashayakh al-‘aql, could not achieve unity among factions, what gives Liwa al-Jabal- something very low-key by comparison- better chances of success? Localisation and factionalism will probably continue to play an important/dominant role in militia organisation on the ground in Suwayda’ province, just as it has shown itself to be a wider trend across Syria during the civil war, only overcome in considerable part by exceptional actors that take authoritarian/dictatorial approaches towards real and potential rivals  and implement more comprehensive administration systems (e.g. the Kurdish PYD and the Islamic State). Such an overview fits in with Syria’s modern history as a highly unstable state in which the Assad regime eventually came to dominate for four decades prior to the Arab Spring, putting in place a dictatorial system that knew how to exploit localism and other divisions to ensure the regime’s grip on power.

Quwat Dir’ Al-Qalamoun: Shifting Militia Links

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun. The emblem includes a Qur’an quotation: “If God supports you, no one can overcome you” [3:160].

That many armed groups have shifted their links and affiliations over the course of Syrian civil war should come as no surprise. Think of all the various rebel coalitions that have been announced and dissolved for a variety of reasons. Yet it should also be remembered that changes in links and affiliations can also occur on the regime side. From previous coverage, one case that comes to mind is the small Syrian Shi’i militia known as the Ja’afari Force (aka Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya), whose ultimate origins lie in the National Defence Forces. The group then became affiliated with the Iraqi Shi’i militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ and subsequently broke off from that group.

Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun (“The Qalamoun Shield Forces”) is of interest for similar reasons. As the name suggests, it is a militia primarily drawing on personnel from the Qalamoun area, large parts of which have been retaken from the rebels by now. The earliest references to the group by this name appear to trace back as far as late 2014. The earliest affiliation that can be clearly identified is the Republican Guard, an elite unit of the Syrian army. For instance, one post from October 2014 mentions the “Dir’ al-Qalamoun, heroes of the guard [i.e. Republican Guard] and heroes of al-Qalamoun.”

In a similar vein, the earliest emblem of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun, as shown in the graphic below, explicitly mentions the Republican Guard affiliation. Note in particular that the emblem also uses the moniker Quwat al-Da’am al-Sha’abi (“Popular Support Forces”). A similar name formulation from the Qalamoun area turns up in the Arabic acronym Qadish, which has been used to refer to Quwat al-Da’am al-Sha’abi and Quwat al-Difa’ al-Sha’abi. The latter means “Popular Defence Forces,” and it appears to be no different from Quwat al-Da’am al-Sha’abi. According to a recent account, a Quwat al-Difa’ al-Sha’abi was established on 9 January 2014 in the Qalamoun town of Nabk, which was recaptured from the rebels in December 2013. The formation was set up by notables, retired officers and other locals in coordination with the Republican Guard command, with the aim of coordinating with the security forces in Nabk, aiding the government and state foundations, and preserving private and public property.

“The Republican Guard: Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun. If God supports you, no one can overcome you. Popular Support Forces.”

Thus, the roots of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun can be traced back to wider Republican Guard efforts to mobilise auxiliary forces in the Qalamoun area as areas were retaken from the rebels.

Ahmad Khalid al-Qari, an early ‘martyr’ for Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun. Originally from Yabroud, he was reported to have been killed in late January 2015. In early February 2015, a group of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun fighters from Yabroud were also reported to have been killed, with their bodies found after they had been taken prisoner by rebels in fighting near the Lebanese border.

An early brief profile of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun can be found from March 2015, describing it as a “faction fighting with the Syrian forces, whose formation was completed by units of the Syrian army, and it is a popular brigade fighting in its ranks from the peoples of the towns and villages of west Qalamoun adjacent to the Syria-Lebanon borders. Relevant military sources said that [its] numbers are hundreds of those whose ages range below 30 years old who have rallied within an armed formation organised under the name of the Dir’ al-Qalamoun brigade, affiliated with the special forces [i.e. Republican Guard] and wages war alongside its soldiers in the Qalamoun border battles.”

Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun continued to pursue operations through spring 2015 in the Qalamoun and wider Damascus countryside areas, with units participating in operations in Jard al-Falita of Jurud al-Qalamoun, as well as operations in al-Nasiriya in the Damascus countryside and securing the gas line in the al-Hadath area (also in the Damascus countryside). As the year progressed, Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun expanded its operations, participating in extended campaigns in the Aleppo area as part of an advance towards Kweiris airbase (the siege of which would subsequently be broken following the beginning of the overt Russian intervention around the beginning of October 2015) as well as fighting in Harasta to the east of Damascus city and the Maarouneh hills. The operation to capture the Maarouneh hills along with the Harasta highway was declared to have been finished by November 2015. In that same month, Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun also began participating in operations in the Homs desert against the Islamic State, pushing in the direction of the town of al-Qaryatayn and then returning to that front the following month. Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun also advertised a role as a force of law and order, claiming to have arrested five thieves on the international route between two localities- Bureij and Hasya- in July 2015.

Certificate of commendation from the leader of the Republican Guard- Badi’ Mustafa Ali- to Adel Ibrahim Dellah, then the leader of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun and originally from al-Dwel’a in Damascus. Note he is described here as “from the ranks of the Popular Defence Forces” (Quwat al-Difa’ al-Sha’abi), illustrating Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun’s place in the broader spectrum of auxiliary militias raised by the Republican Guard. This document emerged in October 2015.

Ahmad Shaman Qasim, a Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun fighter killed in the Maarouneh campaign. He was originally from the village of Za’ura in the Golan Heights. Israel destroyed Za’ura after conquering the Golan Heights.

During this time period, hints of links with the Syrian army’s 3rd Division began to appear, as evidence showed the 3rd Division was campaigning in at least some of the same areas as Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun. For example, here is a case of a ‘martyr’ for the 3rd Division who was killed in the Harasta area at the end of October 2015. Here also is another 3rd Division fighter killed in the Harasta area in September 2015, as well as more specific evidence from the time showing campaigning on the mountains overlooking the Harasta highway. In addition, the 3rd Division appears to have participated on fighting in the Mahin area in the Homs desert in late December 2015. This would suggest some degree of coordination between the 3rd Division and Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun in that period. Coordination and links should not come as a surprise: after all, the 3rd Division has bases that amount to an important presence in the Qalamoun area. A particular brigade of the 3rd Division that already becomes associated with the brand of Dir’ al-Qalamoun is the 81st Brigade (a tanks unit), as shown in posts from December 2015.

The links became even clearer in early 2016, as someone emerged in the social media discourse as the mushrif aam (“general supervisor”) for Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun, which in that period was most notably participating in campaigns in Muhassa to the southwest of Qaryatayn. That mushrif aam is Firas Jaz’ah, a Syrian army lieutenant colonel tied to the 3rd Division.

Firas Jaz’ah.

Basil Dellah, a Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun commander originally from the Qalamoun locality of al-Jerajir. He was killed at the beginning of February 2016 in the Mahin area.

Following the recapture of Qaryatayn, the next major engagement for Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun was also against the Islamic State, heading to the Dumayr military airport to the northeast of Damascus in April 2016 in the wake of an offensive launched by the Islamic State. The campaign was presented as being an attempt to root out the Islamic State from its last sanctuary in East Qalamoun.

Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun number plate: “Military Vehicle 103.”

May 2016 turns out to be a key turning point because it marks a split within Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun. Specifically, Adel Ibrahim Dellah announced that Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun would end its relations with the 3rd Division. However, he also made clear in his announcement that some contingents would retain their links with the 3rd Division. Note further the statement’s affirmation of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun’s additional links with entities beyond the Republican Guard and 3rd Division (on which there is otherwise little material available): namely, affiliations with the air intelligence (al-mukhabarat al-jawiya) and the military intelligence (al-amn al-askari: literally “the military security”). Both intelligence agencies have been important actors in raising auxiliary militia over the course of the Syrian civil war.

The relevant parts of the statement are produced below:

“Statement issued by the leader of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun al-Hajj Adel Dellah: Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun affiliated with the Republican Guard, the air intelligence administration and the military security branch (216) announces the breaking of its links with the 3rd Division-tanks, but we remain companions in arms until the liberation of our homeland together from the filth of terrorism. In that regard, Dir’ al-Qalamoun- 3rd Division continues to include the group of al-Jabba, al-Buraij and al-Tawani.”

For context, 216 is a branch of the military intelligence in the Damascus area, also known as Far’ al-Dawriyat. The names of al-Jabba, al-Buraij and al-Tawani referring to contingents of Dir’ al-Qalamoun remaining with the 3rd Division are localities in Qalamoun. The reasons for the split are unclear. In contact with the al-Buraij centre for Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun with regards to this matter, the following response was provided: “These are private matters I will not get into.” The Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun that retains links with the 3rd Division (and the military intelligence, according to the al-Buraij centre) continues to function under the leadership of Firas Jaz’ah, who proceeded to expand recruitment efforts in the wider Qalamoun area, operating training centres in Bada and Deir Attiyeh. Like many other militias, a key incentive to recruit and compensate for the regime’s manpower shortages is taswiyat al-wada’ (“sorting out of affairs”), which entails an amnesty offered for those who have evaded and abandoned compulsory military service. Apparently, growing interest in recruitment for Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun through this offer led to an extension of the recruitment period in late July 2016 for draft evaders and deserters, with the move blessed by Fahad al-Freij, the overall deputy commander of the armed forces and current minister of defence. The opportunity for enlistment for such people was then renewed in mid-December 2016.

A Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun centre in Rankous. Firas Jaz’ah is in this photo, wearing a red beret. Note that his Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun has retained the emblem featured at the top of this article. It can be seen in the background in this photo.

Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun insignia.

A Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun building that also has the 3rd Division name inscribed on it.

The Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun remaining under Firas Jaz’ah and the 3rd Division has participated in a number of engagements, including fighting in the north Hama countryside and being called up as reinforcements to the Palmyra area following the fall of the town of Palmyra to the Islamic State again last month. The fighting in the latter case has been particularly heavy around the important T4 airbase, during which the leader of the al-Jabba contingent (Malek Shafiq Omar) was killed. Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun is also participating in the fighting in the Wadi Barada area that is a crucial source of water for Damascus and has come to the forefront of media attention recently.

On the other hand, contingents of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun that severed links with the 3rd Division evolved into a new group called Quwat Hisn al-Watan (“Homeland Protection Forces”), adopting new emblems as well.

Quwat Hisn al-Watan emblem. On top is a Qur’an quotation: “Victory from God and a near conquest” [61:13].

Another Quwat Hisn al-Watan emblem, using the same Qur’an quotation.

Quwat Hisn al-Watan insignia, identical with the first emblem.

Quwat Hisn al-Watan members posing outside a building bearing the group’s name.

While Adel Ibrahim Dellah has maintained a military command position within Quwat Hisn al-Watan, the group has acquired a new mushrif aam. This mushrif aam is one Muhammad Abdo As’ad, who was successfully elected to the People’s Council (the Syrian parliament) as a representative from the Qalamoun area in the parliamentary elections last year. Though he appears to have run nominally as an independent candidate, he notably had the backing of the local National Defence Forces (NDF) branch in Nabk. Indeed, the NDF in Qalamoun held celebrations to mark Muhammad Abdo As’ad’s election, with one post even referring to him as the Qalamoun NDF’s candidate. One should compare with the case of Liwa al-Baqir in Aleppo, which endorsed an officially independent candidate who maintains close links with the militia.

Muhammad Abdo As’ad, endorsed by the NDF in Nabk as a candidate for the parliamentary elections.

Muhammad Abdo As’ad, with endorsement from the NDF in Yabroud.

Muhammad Abdo As’ad shaking hands with Bashar al-Assad.

Quwat Hisn al-Watan has engaged in fighting on multiple fronts since its inception. This has included deployments on the al-Dumayr front, the north Hama countryside and the Harasta highway. The engagement on the Harasta highway has notably involved participation the NDF forces from Nabk and the wider Qalamoun area.

As for Quwat Hisn al-Watan’s formal affiliation, the available evidence from Quwat Hisn al-Watan-linked sources is somewhat ambiguous although it does point to links with the regime’s intelligence agencies in some form. Nothing currently suggests an affiliation with the Republican Guard and the intelligence. Some evidence implies that the group retains an affiliation with the military intelligence, while other evidence points to an affiliation with the General Intelligence (al-mukhabarat al-aama, aka amn al-dawla- “State Security”). Other posts merely use the term shu’bat al-mukharabat (“intelligence branch”), which by itself is too vague as it can refer to more than one intelligence branch.

It may be that Quwat Hisn al-Watan has links/affiliations with both the military intelligence and the General Intelligence. Multiple affiliations at one time should not come as a shock. After all, Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun before its split- as documented above- had affiliations with the Republican Guard, the air intelligence and the military intelligence, while Liwa Khaybar in Homs (aka Quwat al-Aqrab/Fawj al-Aqrab/Kata’ib al-Aqrab) appears to have links with both the air intelligence and military intelligence.

Overall, the history and evolution of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun provides an interesting look into how pro-regime militias can develop and shift their affiliations and links over time. In this case we even have a divergence into two militia entities  following humble beginnings in Republican Guard auxiliary recruitment efforts in the Qalamoun area as the regime began to retake significant ground in that area from the rebels. Perhaps more importantly, the case of Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun provides wider insight into how the regime is dealing with areas retaken from the rebels.

Much controversy has emerged recently over an article by Martin Chulov reporting on alleged Iranian-backed plans to engineer demographic change in regime-held Syria to reduce the proportion of potentially hostile Sunnis. An unidentified “senior Lebanese leader” is quoted in the report as saying that “Iran and the regime don’t want any Sunnis between Damascus and Homs and the Lebanese border.” Leaving aside the problem that the lack of precise identification of the source means it is impossible to identify the biases, this analysis is an oversimplification. Areas retaken from the rebels are potential sources of additional manpower for the regime, and the Qalamoun area is no exception, and it is not realistic to depopulate the entirety of Qalamoun of Sunnis and somehow hope the deficit can be compensated by influxes of Shi’a.

Thus we see how the recruitment efforts in the Qalamoun area have played over the years with multiple actors for the regime participating in the effort, with wider manpower deficits again playing a role partly on account of draft evasion and desertion. Even rebel supporters and those against the regime say that at least some of the recruits into Quwat Dir’ al-Qalamoun are ex-rebels, with their estimates of the proportion of ex-rebels in these forces ranging from less than 10% to 50% or more. Besides, Quwat Hisn al-Watan in particular has also promoted the notion of tribal recruitment from the Qalamoun area and elsewhere, as broadcast on one occasion by Sama TV.

One should compare pro-regime militia recruitment in Qalamoun with more recent developments surrounding some other remaining rebel bastions to the west of Damascus, like Beit Tema and Beit Saber, where the regime is trying to implement full ‘reconciliation’ initiatives in these areas, recruiting local rebels who accept taswiyat al-wada’ (i.e. amnesty) into a new planned auxiliary militia called Fawj al-Hermon (“The Hermon Regiment”), referring to the prominent Mount Hermon (aka Jabal al-Sheikh) in the area. The village of Beit Jann and its immediate environs, however, took a much more rejectionist stance, with the main rebel factions there being Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, the Jabal al-Sheikh Brigades and Harakat Shuhada’ al-Sham. That said, as of 17 January 2017, a former Syrian member of parliament and current activist in ‘reconciliation’ initiatives in the Damascus countryside- Mus’ab al-Halabi- has claimed progress on the Beit Jann case in addition to the Quneitra village of Jubatha al-Khashab bordering the Golan Heights, asserting that more than 1000 people want taswiyat al-wada’ while up to 140 people or so want to go to Idlib.

It does not follow from all of the above that there is no truth to aspects of the demographic change narrative. Increasing purchases of property in Syria by Iran is very real, along with some Shi’i proselytization efforts. The removal of some rebels and civilians to Idlib, the main rebel-bastion in western Syria now, is very real as well (as documented above). Considerable ethnic cleansing in fighting has also occurred in places like Homs city. However, the regime and Iran cannot wish away the reality of a large Sunni majority in Syria. Multiple approaches are therefore adopted towards dealing with territories retaken from the rebels, one of which includes amnesties and recruitment to pro-regime militias, undoubtedly contributing in the grand scheme to the regime’s long-term plan to reconquer the entirety of Syria.

America’s Failure – and Russia and Iran’s Success – in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War – By Joshua Landis

America’s Failure — and Russia and Iran’s Success — in Syria’s Cataclysmic Civil War

By Joshua Landis interviewed by John Judis for TPM, where this was published on
January 10, 2017


Judis: What’s your assessment of the Obama administration’s intervention in Syria. How has it gone? Is it a success or a failure?

Landis: You know, I think that in one important respect, it’s a success. That’s because he kept his foot on the brakes and resisted what he has called “the playbook” of foreign policy circles in Washington, which is to get sucked into these civil wars in the Middle East. There is no way that the United States was going to solve the Syria Problem in any constructive way – and just keeping us out of it to the extent he did was a boon.

Everyone wanted us to solve their Syria problem, whether it was Lebanon or Israel or Turkey or Iraq, because they couldn’t figure out how to do it themselves. Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, they all had different visions of who we should be helping and what kind of Syria would come out of the other end of the meat grinder. And had the United States gotten in there, it would not have made a better sausage. We’ve seen that regime change has been a bad idea.

Obama’s Call for Regime Change

Judis: But Obama did intervene. In 2011, he called for Syrian President Basher al-Assad to step down. Didn’t saying that appear to commit the United States to do something about it?

Landis: It did, and it was a mistake. Obama’s statement that Assad had to step aside was an aspirational statement. He never intended to commit America to carrying it out. It is easy to understand why he said it. The whole world was looking at America during the early days of the Arab Spring to see what its policy would be. America was torn about the meaning of the Arab Spring uprising. Both the media, western pundits, and Arab activists in the Middle East had convinced the Western world that the Arab Spring was about democracy.

They said it was 1848, it was Paris 1968, it was the fall of communism in 1990.* The metaphors could go on and on. Journalists were grasping for every metaphor and similar episode in Western history to demonstrate that the Arab people were finally rising up against their bad governments to demand democracy and be more like the West. In his remarkable 1991 book The Third Wave Samuel Huntington argued that the modern world had seen three moments of liberalization and democratization. Western observers and Arab liberals alike hoped that the uprising, which they named a “Spring” to confirm their aspiration, would herald in a fourth wave.

The only problem is that the Arab uprisings were not primarily about democracy or even liberalism. Democracy was not a central demand voiced in the slogans of the demonstrators. “Dignity” or “karama” in Arabic and “freedom” or “hurriya” were central words used from Tunisia to Syria; so were phrases such as “down with the regime,” and “get out, Bashar.” Demonstrators were unanimous in wanting to get rid of the oppressive and corrupt dictators that ruled over them. The benefit of these general demands was that Islamists, who wanted a caliphate or Sharia law, could use them as readily as liberals who shared western values.

“The only problem is that the Arab uprisings were not primarily about democracy or even liberalism. Democracy was not a central demand voiced in the slogans of the demonstrators.”


Judis:I remember Obama’s speech at the State Department in May 2011 when he extolled the Arab Spring and said “it will be the policy of the United States…to support transitions to democracy.”

Landis:[The administration] bought into this notion that they should put their shoulder to the wheel of regime change in order to help be a midwife to this democracy movement. The problem was that it was not a democracy movement. It was a change movement. People wanted dignity but it was a very disorganized and chaotic movement. The trouble is that in each of the Arab countries, once you destroy the very fragile state structures that have been assembled since World War I and the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, you don’t get a George Washington bringing together the 13 colonies. You get fragmentation and lots of warlords and emirs.

Nationalism is not a strong enough identity to bind the people of Libya, Yemen, Syria, or Iraq together. Or the Palestinians, for that matter. Instead, subnational and supranational identities emerged among the people of each country to undermine common national sentiment. Loyalty to clan, village, region, tribe and religion have bedeviled the Arab uprisings. This is why the opposition movements in Libya or Syria have been so fragmented. It is why thousands of militias formed in Syria. The US was powerless to unite them.

This is what America faced in Iraq when it destroyed Saddam’s regime. And it’s what happened in Libya. In Libya, western politicians argued that the opposition was sufficiently united for us to throw our weight behind it. We convinced the United Nations Security Council to declare it the legitimate government, based on this false assumption, and to shift all the money that belonged to Gadhafi’s state to the Libyan opposition. Of course, the opposition was not united. We just wanted it to be. It was a bunch of propaganda. And that’s the same propaganda we fell for in Iraq with [Ahmed] Chalabi.

Judis: So in the sense of seeing America’s role in the region as promoting democracy and regime change, the Obama administration was continuing what George W. Bush did in the region.

Landis: Our national religion is democracy. When in doubt, we revert to our democracy talking points, which is what Obama did. It is a matter of faith. He didn’t know what the hell was going on in Syria. I was invited to participate in a number of CIA confabulations and policy “think-out-of-the-black-box” hoedowns during the first months of the uprising. The intelligence community was unanimous in predicting that Assad would fall quickly. People were lost. Everyone was simply projecting their own interests and pet theories onto the uprisings. It was only natural that our aspirations would overtake fact-based analysis. We didn’t have many facts. The situation was moving so fast. We were facing unprecedented changes, so it was easy to get caught up in imagining all sorts of transformations.

Obama also felt pressure from domestic interest groups and Middle Eastern allies to get out in front of Assad’s fall. In Egypt, Obama had been criticized for backing [Hosni] Mubarak until the eleventh hour; he didn’t want to make the same mistake in Syria, and he didn’t have to. Unlike Egypt, Syria had been a thorn in America’s side. It had been an enemy since opposing the United States’ decision to support the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. Thus, Washington supported several coup d’états in Syria beginning in 1949. When successive coup attempts in 1956 and 1957 failed, Damascus veered squarely into Moscow’s sphere of influence, never to come out of it. Syria’s military is entirely armed and trained by Russia. The U.S. has imposed sanctions on Syria since the 1970s. For its part, Syria has consistently supported America’s enemies: Hezbollah, Palestinian groups, and the Islamic Republic of Iran. To add insult to injury, Assad actively opposed America’s occupation of Iraq. For these reasons, Obama’s decision to demand that Assad step aside was a no-brainer.

The only problem was that no one in Washington had any real understanding of the Syrian opposition. They couldn’t name one opposition group that had any support in the country. There were lots of demonstrations and plenty of popular energy demanding change, but Assad still had the army, air force, and intelligence agencies on his side. Their upper ranks were packed with sympathizers, who would not defect. He has lots of teeth and the willingness to use them. There were lots of reasons to think that he was going to survive for a long time and to doubt Western assertions that he had lost his “legitimacy.”

Everyone wanted to speak about the “Syrian people,” but there was no “Syrian people” who speak with one voice. Syrians are deeply divided along religious, ethnic, class and regional lines. Anyone who had lived in Syria for a significant amount of time understood that lots of Syrians would support Assad to the death, especially if they felt that Islamists might come to power. I had written several articles about the Syrian opposition before 2011, and the conclusion that I had come to was that they were hopelessly divided and back-biting. They hated each other and would never agree among themselves on an alternative to Assad. The liberal, pro-Western class in Syria was small. It would be quickly destroyed between the hammer of Islamist groups and the anvil of Assad’s security apparatus.

President Barack Obama delivers his Middle East speech at the State Department in Washington, Thursday, May 19, 2011. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Would Arming the Rebels Have Helped?

Judis: So by setting up the Syrian National Council in August 2011 as a transition to a new Syrian regime, were Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton fostering illusions?

Landis: Yes. We were gambling that we could create a unified Syrian opposition. And Syrian opposition people were telling us that Syria was not like Iraq or Lebanon — that the Syrian trading mentality was one of compromise and moderation, and that Syrian Islam was moderate as well, dominated by Sufis and opponents of Salafism. Extremism would not prevail, they insisted. Syria would neither radicalize nor fragment.

President Obama bought into the aspirational talking points about Assad’s likely fall as well as the desire to support democracy, human rights and opposition to dictators, but he was adamantly opposed to involving the US in another regional civil war without a clear exit strategy. He put his foot on the brakes as soon as it became clear that Assad wasn’t going to go quickly. He refused any demand that the U.S. spend real money. We may have ponied up several billion dollars a year for Syria between humanitarian, non-lethal, and military support to the opposition, but we were not going to do an Iraq, where we were spending $5 billion dollars a week.

Judis: Hillary Clinton’s argument was that if we had armed the so-called moderate rebels in 2012, as she and David Petraeus advocated, the results would have been different.

Landis: Syrian rebels were going to radicalize regardless of American largesse or arms. The notion that the United States could shape the Syrian opposition with money is spurious. Many activists and Washington think tankers argue that the reason the radicals won in Syria is because they were better funded than moderate militias; Gulf states sent money to radicals while the United States and Europe starved moderates. No evidence supports this. Radicals got money because they were successful. They fought better, had better strategic vision and were more popular. The notion that had Washington pumped billions of dollars to selected moderate militias, they would’ve killed the extremists and destroyed Assad’s regime, is bunkum.

Judis: Yes, that’s the argument that Clinton was still making in some form last year.

Landis: That logic was pie in the sky. There’s nothing to support that logic. If we look across the Middle East, every time a regime has been destroyed, whether in Iraq, Libya, Yemen or Afghanistan, there has been a grace period of three to six months during which the whole society is, in a sense, in shock and has hunkered down to see what regime change would bring. Will the Americans magically provide substitute state structures and services?

Then when they realize that the U.S. is clueless and chaos prevails, they begin to get organized. Islamists push aside civic groups preferred by the U.S. because they are willing to fight. They’ve got an ideology and a plan. They have good fighters and a deep back bench. Al-Qaeda and other radical groups have been fighting to overthrow the regional order and its secular regimes for decades. Assad managed to corner the market on secular nationalism and notions such as the separation of church and state. Moderate nationalist elements among the opposition failed to put forward a compelling vision of an inclusive, non-Sharia-based Syria that would treat religious minorities and non-Arabs as equals. None of the opposition groups championed secularism. Islamists won the ideological battle for hearts and minds and the black flag of Islam was quickly raised above that of the Syrian tricolor among the dominant opposition groups.

America did try to organize the “moderates.” America failed not because it didn’t try, but because its moderates were incompetent and unpopular. As soon as they began taking money and orders from America, they were tarred by radicals as CIA agents, who were corrupt and traitors to the revolution. America was toxic, and everything it touched turned to sand in its hands.

It pursued three different strategies to build a moderate opposition in Syria and each failed more spectacularly than the one before it. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did everything she could to get 97 nations together as the Friends of Syria and begin to offer diplomatic and financial support to the Syrian opposition at conferences and international meetings. She sought to mold the opposition into something that America and the West could get behind. Something moderately liberal, open minded and nationalist. With the help of Qatar, she nurtured the emergence of the Syrian National Council to act as the political representatives of the opposition. In each of their several elections, the Muslim Brothers won because they were the best organized. America would find an excuse not to recognize its leadership. America’s effort to shape and promote a military strategy for the opposition failed even more spectacularly. It promoted the construction of a Supreme Military Council in 2012 to act as the military counterpart to the Syrian National Council.

“Syrian rebels were going to radicalize regardless of American largesse or arms. The notion that the United States could shape the Syrian opposition with money is spurious.”


The Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army was led by a Chief of Staff named Salim Idris, a portly defector from the Syrian Army with zero charisma. He oversaw multiple warehouses jammed with equipment supplied by various intelligence agencies that he could dole out to the moderate militias in an effort to purchase their loyalty and theoretically bind them together under his leadership. He never gained any authority over the swarm of militias he helped to outfit. When radical Islamist militias decided that he wasn’t generous enough, they marched on his warehouses and plundered them. They took all equipment and everything that had been supplied by the United States. They stripped the men guarding the warehouses down to their skivvies, hogtied them, and left them rolling on the floor.

Not one Free Syrian Army militia came to his defense; instead, they mocked his misfortunes on social media. Idris had to hightail it back to Turkey, where he blamed… who? Washington. Idris fell back on the same tired excuses that Syrian activists had practiced for their own failure: Washington wasn’t generous enough. But the truth was just the opposite. Washington had given him too much materiel and it was now in the hands of al-Qaeda and friends. In Iraq, where the U.S. was infinitely more generous in arming bumbling “moderates,” we all know the shameful story of how ISIS stripped Iraq’s American trained brigades of hundreds of tanks, Humvees and artillery pieces with hardly a shot fired.

That was a terrible embarrassment for the CIA and for the United States. And so they came up with a new strategy, which was to contact scores of militia leaders in Syria directly. We built them up for quite some time, until March 2015, but those guys, most notably the Hazm Movement and Jamal Maarouf’s, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, got crushed by Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria and Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist ally of Nusra. Once again, America’s proxies either joined the jihadists and other Islamist groups or they abandoned the battle field and left arms to be gobbled up by the radicals. Critics argued that the U.S. was effectively arming al-Qaeda, even if unintentionally.

The final major effort by Washington to help the rebels was an official Department of Defense “train and equip” project, for which 1.5 billion dollars were earmarked. We decided we were going to bring individuals out of Syria that could be properly vetted, train and armed training camps situated in Jordan and Turkey. These brigades would be controlled directly by Americans. But we only trained and equipped 65 guys in Turkey, and when we sent them back, they were destroyed! The commander of our vetted troops defected to al Qaeda with arms and with many of the best trained men. So all three strategies for uniting, arming, equipping, and training anti-Assad rebels failed miserably.

The radicals won not because America ignored the moderates and starved them. They won because they had better fighters, who were more committed and better led by seasoned fighters who had a vision of the sort of society and government they wished to build. They dominated the battlefield. That’s why ISIS swept through the area Eastern Syria in 2014 and gobbled up most of Sunni Iraq without firing a shot. Islamism proved to be the only ideology capable of uniting Syrians on a national level, binding rebels together from north and south of the country.

The so-called moderates were simply local strongmen who gathered around themselves cousins, clan members and fighters from their village and the village next to theirs. But go two or three villages away, and they were viewed as foreigners and troublemakers, who were venal and predatory. They were warlords. Few could gather more than a thousand men around them. Most a lot less. They didn’t have an ideology and couldn’t articulate a vision for Syria. This is why America’s effort to unite the Free Syria Army amounted to a hill of beans. Syrian society is fragmented. Assad and ISIS both deploy lots of coercion, corruption and clientelism to hold their states together, whether they profess ideologies of secular nationalism or Islamic Caliphalism. America cannot buy its way to success in such an environment.

Syrian rebels attend a training session in Maaret Ikhwan, near Idlib, Syria. The training is part of an attempt to transform the rag-tag rebel groups into a disciplined fighting force. (AP Photo/Muhammed Muheisen)

Obama and the Red Line

Judis: Even those who didn’t favor arming the rebels in 2012 might still say that when Obama laid down the “red line” on Assad’s use of poison gas in 2012 and then failed to follow through a year later with an air attack against the regime, the United States lost an opportunity to cripple the regime and force some kind of compromise.

Landis: The people who were filled with hope that America would somehow destroy the Assad regime and put Syria back together constantly projected their wishes onto Obama. He was saying from the beginning that he was not going to get involved, that America would not lead in Syria. And he constantly iterated on the redline that the United States would do some punitive strikes but would not try to change the balance of power in the civil war. What he did say he was going to do was uphold the internationally accepted norm that chemical weapons and weapons of mass destruction should not be used, and he did that.

Judis: So Obama was being consistent when he rejected air strikes and opted instead for negotiating with the Russians and Syrians?

Landis: Totally. If he had not negotiated with the Russians and Assad to get those things out of the battlefield, if he had instead chosen to bomb 200 Syrian soldiers and blow up some sites of chemical weapons in a punitive raid, it might have had no effect. Or if, let’s say, he had destabilized the Assad regime and it had fallen, by that time the radical militias were the dominant militias and they would’ve taken Damascus! You would’ve had 1000 different militias grabbing chemical weapons from the various places they were hidden and stored around Syria. The whole Middle East would be a giant silo for saran gas and nerve agents of every kind! It would’ve been a disaster. So Obama’s achievement of getting rid of those chemical weapons was a great boon to the Syrians, to the Middle East more generally, and to the West.

Judis: Since then, has the administration’s strategy has been implicitly to leave Assad in place and to concentrate instead on defeating ISIS?

Landis: Yes, because it became increasingly clear that if Assad were destroyed, radicals would likely take over. You could possibly have al Qaeda, or later ISIS, take Damascus. Had a major Middle Eastern capital fallen to either, what a disaster it would have been. At least in Iraq, we have been able to build up the Iraqi army to retake Mosul, a city less than half the size of Damascus. In Syria, who could we arm? We are finding it difficult to retake Raqqa from ISIS, a dusty provincial capital of a few hundred thousand people. Would the U.S. army try to retake Damascus alone? Would it try to reconstitute the Syrian Army to serve as a partner? Imagine the embarrassment of such a solution. Were ISIS to have ensconced itself in Damascus, Lebanon would surely have fallen and Jordan would’ve been up against it. Talk about dominoes.

“The U.S. doesn’t know what the cause of jihadism is. Washington doesn’t know how to get rid of the conditions that produce dictators. Every time we remove a dictator, we spread chaos and multiply jihadists.”


Saudi diplomats, Syrian activists and many analysts in Washington insist that to destroy ISIS, the U.S. must first destroy Assad. They argue that by leaving Assad in place, the rest of the Middle East is going to fall apart because Assad created ISIS. This is spin. Assad did release most Islamists from his jails in 2011 and several made their way into ISIS’s ranks, but they are chicken feed compared to the top cadres of ISIS who were released from American-run jails. Caliph Baghdadi himself was held in Iraq’s Camp Bukka. He, of course, is the leader of ISIS. One might also point to the two Moroccans released from Gitmo who made their way to Syria, started militias and killed hundreds of innocent Syrians. Using the released-from-prison criteria, one should sooner argue that ISIS was created by the United States than Assad. I haven’t heard anyone in D.C. arguing for the destruction of the American government as a solution to ISIS.

The fact of the matter is that radical Salafist ideology has spread from one corner of the Middle East to the other. It is a dominant force in many places where Assad is unknown. Violent regime-change has been a primary cause of the spread of radical Islamic groups, and should not be a viewed as a solution to it. Certainly, bad government, anemic economic growth, oppression and dictatorship must be contributing factors to the popularity of radical ideologies, but the U.S. doesn’t know what the cause of jihadism is. Washington doesn’t know how to get rid of the conditions that produce dictators. Every time we remove a dictator, we spread chaos and multiply jihadists. The answers that Washington has come up with for combating terror and dictatorship in the Middle East have failed. We should stop trying the same old things – regime-change chief among them.

Trump and The Russian Playbook in Syria

Judis: What about the Russian role in Syria? They brought their air force to bear in September of 2015.

Landis: Indeed. Russia escalated as soon as they sensed that Assad might fall. So did Iran. Not only does Russia have a major naval base in Tartus and an historic alliance with Syria, but more than that, Syria is the last redoubt of Russian’s major presence in the Middle East during the Cold War. After the fall of communism in 1990, Russia was forced to retreat from the region, but [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is rebuilding. He sees Syria as the key to a much larger sphere of influence to the south of Russia. Syria is centrally located, it sits on the border with Israel and gives Russia a cockpit to rebuild a new security structure in the northern Middle East that extends from Iran to Lebanon. Putin has become a major player on the world stage because of his dominant role in Syria. He has leveraged his position there to negotiate with [Secretary of State John] Kerry over 30 times in Geneva and other places.

Russia also has a good argument behind its strategy in Syria. Putin believes that Middle Eastern societies are not ripe for democracy. He has stated that America’s policy of democracy promotion has caused spread chaos and jihadism. He believes that the Middle East needs strong men just as surely as Russia does. Russia knows how to administer that. Whether it’s Erdogan in Turkey, Saddam Hussein in Iraq, or the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, he believes that strong state authority is necessary. Getting rid of the corrupt dictatorial class will not give birth to a Jeffersonian democracy. He has accused America of spreading chaos and radicalism. Putin has said that he is not going to let America do that in Syria because over three thousand Chechen and other Russian citizens are fighting in Syria. He fears that if they come home, they will attack Russians and spread mayhem.

Judis: So what does Donald Trump do now?

Landis: It’s not easy to make sense of Trump’s foreign policy in the Middle East from the few little one-liners that he’s gotten off. But let me try. He is not a democracy promoter, and he probably shares Putin’s belief that democracy doesn’t fit the region. He doesn’t have a high regard for Muslims altogether. He’s an isolationist. In some ways he’s a throwback to the America Firsters of the 1930s. He only believes that the United States should intervene if it is directly threatened.

“Trump has looked at the Russian playbook and pronounced it smart! Trump’s critique resonated with the American people, who warmed to it. They are tired of paying for misguided foreign adventures.”


He is also against regime-change. He formulated his critique of Middle East policy from what happened in Libya, which gave him an easy way to take pot shots at Clinton. He proclaimed Libya was a disaster. What Clinton did in destroying a dictator – even one as nasty as Qaddafi – was to make the situation worse. Regime change was a disaster, he stated.

Judis: Didn’t Trump actually start by attacking Jeb Bush and his brother’s invasion of Iraq, highlighting its disastrous consequences? That happened in 2015 in the primary.

Landis: He was initially reluctant to criticize the whole Bush legacy, but he warmed up to the task and then he really let it rip. He stated that Iraq had turned into the “Harvard of jihadism.” He was restating the Russian critique, in a sense. He concluded that America shouldn’t do regime change. It should recognize that strongmen are necessary to keep order. In a sense he’s taken the Republican party back to its pre-neoconservative days. One can hear undertones of [former UN Ambassador] Jeane Kirkpatrick in his statements. During Ronald Reagan’s presidency, she argued that there are some dictators that are better than other dictators.* In his case, the others are the Islamists. Therefore we should have stuck with Gadhafi, Saddam and Assad.

He also suggested that we should let the Russians take care of Syria. They’re killing ISIS. Let’s team up with them, and leave Assad in power. He may be a terrible dictator but he’s better than the alternatives. So Trump has looked at the Russian playbook and pronounced it smart! Trump’s critique resonated with the American people, who warmed to it. They are tired of paying for misguided foreign adventures. Even [Senator Ted] Cruz, who was following the Bush handbook, reversed himself! Almost all the Republicans started making the Trump argument. It was an amazing about-face.

Judis: So do you expect he will continue to look to the Russian playbook when he becomes president?

Landis: The trouble is that Trump doesn’t have any isolationists around him. There hasn’t been an isolationist party in America since the 1930s and so he has no isolationist cadres to draw from. We see him drawing from a lot of tough generals for his cabinet. Although they are not neocons, they are certainly in favor of a more robust American foreign policy. They are not isolationists. They are universally anti-Iran; most seem to be anti-Russian as well, despite Trump’s proclivities, so it’s hard to know what he’s going to do.

President Reagan jokes with former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick during the playing of the National Anthem in this Feb. 11, 1988 file photo at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington. (AP Photo/Doug Mills)

Iranian-Russian dominance

Judis: What kinds of choices does Trump have in Syria?

Landis: Many people want to force Russia and Iran out of Syria – at least, that is what they suggest. The only way to do that would be to fire up the rebels. We should not do that. The rebel strategy has failed. We need to come to terms with that. But let me take a different tack in explaining the realities for Washington.

What we see happening in the Northern Middle East today is the construction of a new security architecture that is dominated by Iran and Russia. This has happened in large part because of America’s miscalculation in Iraq. When we destroyed Saddam’s Sunni supremacy in Iraq and helped Shiites to power, we opened the way to the formation of a “Shiite Crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon.

Our stated talking point is that Iran is an aggressive and malevolent power that is forcefully trying to assert itself across the Middle East; it must be contained. But our military strategy is diametrically opposed to our stated goal of containment. Our military strategy has been to help the spread of Shiite and Iranian power. We have poured arms and money into the Iraqi army that is dominated by Shiites. We are bombing ISIS which is the most capable part of the Sunni rebellion. We have thwarted every attempt to overthrow the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad. Russia is doing the exact same thing in Syria. To combat Sunni extremism and terrorism, the US and Russia have aligned themselves with Iran. They are using Shiite dominated militaries and militias to destroy ISIS and al-Qaeda.

In Iraq, in order to roll back ISIS and al-Qaeda which are targeting Americans and Europeans, the United States has no alternative but to ally itself with these Iranian backed militias. They have fire in their bellies to destroy ISIS. Several weeks ago, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend who commands Coalition Forces in Iraq praised the rapid progress of Iraq’s Shiite militias that have been trained by Iran, claiming that they had “advanced more rapidly than we expected and they’ve done a good job.”

The Iraqi army that America had trained and equipped was designed to be loyal to an Iraqi constitution and nation that few believe in. It crumbled in the face of ISIS. America did not understand the nature of military power in the Middle East which is based on traditional loyalties, which means defending your sect and your clan and your village or proverbial tribe. The local Shiite militias believe that if they don’t kill ISIS they will be wiped out by them, which they will be. They are not driven by religious fervor, but by communal loyalties around a shared religious culture. In some respects, religion is the new ethnicity in the Middle East. With the collapse of secular dictators that have held sway since World War II, religious identities have become ever more bound up in national identities.

Judis: But the Sunni countries are not going along with this change in power relations.

Landis: The Syrian civil war, like that in Iraq, quickly became a sectarian war as each side tried to mobilize support along religious lines. Both sides fear that the other will carry out ethnic cleansing or genocide. The geo-strategic competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia has only exacerbated this polarization along religious lines. Each regional power has funded or trained sectarian militias. But along the geographic arch stretching from Iran to Lebanon, Shiites are winning out, and it is making Sunnis apoplectic. It seems to them as if the world is being turned upside down.

The Arab world was always a Sunni world. The Ottoman Empire was a Sunni Empire. The Shiites were the dirt farmers and officially discriminated against. To have the underprivileged rise and become the dominant force in politics in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon is shocking. To many it seems to defy a divine order. In Iraq, many Sunnis confronted the new reality with denial. They refused to recognize that Shiites made up the majority of Iraq’s population. Many Shiites were accused of being Persians and not true Iraqis.

“With the collapse of secular dictators that have held sway since World War II, religious identities have become ever more bound up in national identities.”


The derogatory language used by much of opposition to refer to Shiites and Alawites in Syria reveals how sectarian the struggle has become. Militia leaders do not view Shiites as true Muslims; rather, they accuse them of being “Arfad” or “rejecters,” who denounce the founding fathers of true Islam. And because they have the wrong religion, they are commonly seen to also have the wrong ethnicity. A common epithet for Shiites in Syria is “Majous,” which can translate to “Magi” in English. It is used to suggest that Shiites are crypto-Persians and not true Arabs.

Hezbollah is almost universally referred to in opposition videos coming out of Syria, not as “The party of Allah,” as its name would correctly be translated, but as “The Party of the Devil,” or “Hezbolshaitan.” Shiites are frequently described as “najis” or “filth.” This is a term from the Qu’ran that carries religious significance as impure. A number of rebel leaders in Syria have publically called for purifying Syria of the Shiite filth that defiles it and of driving the Alawites into the sea. Of course, some of this rhetoric can be dismissed as simple propaganda meant to whip up fighting spirit.

All the same, this conflict over religious identity has become integrated with a conflict over national power. This is a dangerous situation because it can so easily result in ethnic cleansing and even genocide. We have witnessed similar ethnic and religious conflicts taken to extremes in Central Europe during World War II when six million Jews that were destroyed in the name of nationalism and when an estimated 35 million people were ethnically cleansed.

Judis: And why are the Shiites winning out? Is it all because of America’s inadvertently helping them against their enemies?

Landis: Yes, Shiites are winning in the northern Middle East. They are winning for four reasons. When western intelligence agencies initially predicted that Sunni rebels would win, they made the common mistake of viewing Syria as a discrete country bounded by impermeable borders. They assumed that because Sunni Arabs make up 70 percent of the Syrian population and Alawites only 12 percent, Sunnis would win. The Syrian struggle, even if it turned into a war of attrition, would favor Sunnis who had larger numbers.

But this turned out to be a mistaken calculation because the entire region became a battlefield. If we count the sectarian balance of the Arabs who live between the Mediterranean Sea and the Iranian border, Shiite Arabs predominate. The Shiite Arabs of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq exceed the Sunni Arabs of the same region in numbers, even if only slightly. I would argue that this is part of the explanation for why the Sunnis are losing today. Shiites have greater numbers.

Hezbollah and Iraqi support for Assad has also been crucial to the survival of the Syrian Arab Army. This is not to mention the critical support of Shiite Iran, which has been overwhelming. All believe that if the Shiites allow the Sunnis to cut their “Shiite Crescent” in two by destroying Assad’s hold on Syria and imposing a Sunni ascendency there, they will all be greatly weakened. They cannot allow their Gulf, Israeli, and Turkish enemies – not to mention the “West” defeat them. This is the “conspiracy” that Assad and the others constantly refer to.

In Syria, the regime, by turning the revolt so quickly into an armed conflict, has been able to cement the loyalty of the urban elites. Upper-class urban Sunnis have stuck by the regime. They had to weigh the benefits of sticking with their Alawite praetorian guard, whom they disdain, against backing rural Islamist militias, whom they fear. Western sanctions failed to persuade the wealthy to abandon the regime and join the predominately rural poor. In Aleppo, the industrial city of Syria, the rich saw that rebels would show them no mercy. Over a thousand factories in the suburbs and industrial outskirts of Aleppo were ransacked and stripped by militias in the early months of the armed conflict. Wealthy urbanites were taken as hostages and their stuff robbed. As the old adage has it, “the wealthy don’t like revolutions.”

When the Sunni militias embraced Salafi-jihadism , that precluded whole-hearted Western support and ultimately caused Obama and others to turn away from them. As the the United States has retreated from its role as policeman of the world to concentrate on the regions of priority to it, powerful countries are again reasserting zones of influence. In this case, Iran and Russia are claiming the Syria-Iraq-Lebanon corridor. This “Shiite Crescent,” for lack of a better term.

Judis: But isn’t it dangerous to allow Russia and Iran to spread their authority?

Landis: Analysts in Washington are telling us that the United States must destroy this new Iranian-Russian arc of influence. The problem is that, with America’s help, Iran and Russia have consolidated their power in the region.

The only way to destroy it would be to fire up the Sunni insurgencies that are now largely destroyed. This would be a mistake. Not only would it fail, but it might also lead to the ethnic cleansing of Sunni populations if passions are not cooled and stability restored.

Judis: And does the recent agreement among the Russians, Turks, and Syrians signal further movement toward Assad reconquering Syria and Russia consolidating its place in the region?

Landis: Yes, it does. Only last week Turkey, Russia and Iran issued a joint statement to the effect that everyone must respect Syria’s sovereignty. With this statement, one must conclude that Turkey is prepared to throw in the towel on the Syrian opposition in exchange for Assad helping to thwart the emergence of an independent Kurdish state in Northern Syria.

Trump’s Choices in Syria

Judis: So what does this mean for a Trump presidency?

Landis: The question is whether Trump should resign himself to this new security architecture — to the fact that Iran and Russian are going to be the dominant players in the northern region. I think he has to concede this role to Russia. First, Syria has always been a Russian client. Second, President Obama has already made this decision. When the Russians jumped into the Syrian war in 2015, Obama declared that the United States would not fight a proxy war with Russia for Syria. The moment he said that I knew that the Syrian rebels were finished. The writing was on the wall. Only U.S. escalation could have stopped Assad’s military from making a comeback.

The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.

Assad is on his way to reconquering Syria one village after another. The insurgencies that are still there cannot hold up against an army that has Russian backing. For America to give Syrian rebels hope that they can hold would be a deception. It would simply extend the killing and prolong the civil war.

The coalition around America including the Gulf states and Turkey have poured over $20 billion into Syria to arm the rebels. If they hadn’t injected that money, Assad would’ve won a lot more quickly. Fewer Syrians would have been killed. And many fewer Syrians would have fled their homes.

Judis: So let’s return to Trump. What can he do?

Landis: Trump ultimately needs to bite the bullet just as Obama did and resist getting sucked into a very fragmented society and civil war. The Russians and Assad are going to re-impose the Assad state over Syria. That is of course a very brutal reality, but at this point, the majority of Syrians probably want stability and security. They are willing to bow their head to any authority that can offer it. America is not going to change that reality so it shouldn’t keep the embers of this revolution alive.

The dilemma for the next administration will be how to position itself vis-a-vis Assad’s Syria. Should it simply turn its back on Syria and force Russia and Iran to rebuild it? Should it continue to impose crushing sanctions on the regime? This might be emotionally satisfying. We could preserve our taking points, which are that Syria should be a democracy and that we do not support dictatorships.

I just attended a conference at the Baker Institute where the attitude of many analysts was to let Russia and Iran choke on Syria. Let’s see if we can turn it into a swamp for them, seemed to be the prevailing attitude. They want to punish Iran and Russia. But this condemns the Syrians to prolonged deprivation and would ensure that many refugees never go home.

“The dilemma for the next administration will be how to position itself vis-a-vis Assad’s Syria. Should it simply turn its back on Syria and force Russia and Iran to rebuild it? Should it continue to impose crushing sanctions on the regime?”


Alternatively, we could try to achieve some modest goals by offering sanction relief. After all, America will not be a big player in Syria. It renounced that role. What could the United States hope to achieve? One possibility would be to get Red Cross observers into the prisons in Syria to catalogue prisoners and alleviate the worst abuses we know are taking place there. We could help with education. Any future hope of rebuilding civil society and democracy in Syria will come through education. What about helping to preserve and rebuild the historic downtowns destroyed in Aleppo and Homs? What about world heritage sites, such as Palmyra?

Should the U.S. try to do these things, all of which would require some level of engagement with the Assad regime? Or do we keep our “hands clean” and say, “screw Syria?” That is our choice. It is not a good choice, but I think there is only one correct answer. The sooner we come to terms with our inability to change the regime in Syria, the sooner we will be able to do some good, even if it is modest. Syrians have experienced enough suffering and deprivation.


* In 1848, anti-monarchical revolutions swept through Europe. They were put down, but were the precursor in several countries to parliamentary government. In 1968, a revolt against Charles de Gaulle’s presidency began among college youth and spread to the working class, eventually leading to de Gaulle retiring.
* In 1979, Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote an influential essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” in which she argued that the United States should not hesitate to back an authoritarian regime if the alternative were a communist one.

Local Loyalist Militias of Suwayda’: Katibat Jalamid Urman (Dir’ al-Jabal)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Emblem of Katibat Jalamid Urman, featuring the group’s name on top as well as the appended name Dir’ al-Jabal on the bottom. In the middle is the star that represents the Druze faith. The rim of the emblem consists of the Syrian flag.

Previous posts on regime loyalist factions in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda’ have primarily looked at groups existing on the wider provincial level, such as Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar of Nazih Jerbo’ and the Dir’ al-Watan grouping led by Syrian army officer veteran Nayef al-Aqil and Yusuf Jerbo’, who is one of the mashayakh al-‘aql of Syrian Druze. In contrast, the Katibat Jalamid Urman is a more local outfit. The group’s name translates to “The Rocks of Urman Battalion.” Urman is a village in southern Suwayda’ province located to the northeast of the town of Salkhad. The group’s appended name Dir’ al-Jabal means “The Mountain Shield,” referring to the Suwayda’ area that is also called Jabal al-Arab/al-Druze (“Mountain of the Arabs/Druze”).

Like the other Druze militia factions in the province, Katibat Jalamid Urman frames its activities in defensive terms. In the About section on its Facebook page, the militia describes itself as “an auxiliary organization for the Syrian Arab Army whose task is to defend the land and honour and protect the dignity of the mountain under the banner of the homeland.” The term ‘auxiliary’ (Arabic radif) is a common term among pro-regime militias. The pro-regime orientation also becomes apparent in other social media posts, such as tributes offered to regime forces personnel injured on fronts outside of Suwayda’ like East Ghouta in the Damascus area and the Sha’er field in the Homs desert. The latter case involved a certain Lu’ay Ghalib Rashid (originally from Urman), who was injured alongside a number of other Suwayda’ National Defence Forces personnel in fighting in the Sha’er area in late November 2016.  Besides tributes to wounded fighters, Katibat Jalamid Urman also offered condolences on the death of Osama Akram Hamza, a soldier originally from Urman and killed on the Deir az-Zor front in eastern Syria in June 2016.

Madin Mahmoud al-Dbaisi, originally from Urman and killed in Darayya on 21 February 2016. Katibat Jalamid Urman has offered condolences for his death too.

In terms of its affiliations, Katibat Jalamid Urman appears to be equated in discourse to the Popular Committees (al-Lujan al-Sha’abiya), which were among the first manifestations of local pro-regime mobilization in the Syrian civil war. In a similar vein, account from June 2015 emerges on a page called Urman Bint al-Jabal (“Urman: Daughter of the Mountain”), which wrote the following in relation to Katibat Jalamid Urman:

“Armed battalions have been formed in every village of the villages of the province to be prepared for whatever danger may arise. As an example, in Urman came the formation of “Katibat Jalamid Urman- Dir’ al-Jabal,” which was formed four years ago both in a secret and organized form and operates on the ground with all determination and willpower. They [the battalions] must be a true nucleus for future projects that the many can rely upon. And here comes the role of our dear exiled ones in supporting the popular activism and charity associations that have begun earnest work in their role, with the formation of special committees and intense connection and the exertion of all efforts to make available the goods of necessity and the necessary foundation for the citizen’s daily life as well as provision of security and guarantee for the citizen.”

To be sure, public references to Katibat Jalamid Urman by name only seem to date as far back as 2015. Yet it does not follow from such an observation that the group did not exist before 2015. Rather, going by the Urman Bint al-Jabal account, the militia simply existed in a more low-key form.

Similar to the testimony of the Urman Bint al-Jabal posting, an account from July 2015 highlights the role of mughtaribeen (‘exiles’) in supporting the Katibat Jalamid Urman, as part of a series of interesting details on pushback against the more third-way Rijal al-Karama (“Men of Dignity”) movement of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous in a number of Suwayda’ localities:

“After the sheikh of fitna [derisive term for Bal’ous, referring to the notion he was stirring up internal quarrels] directed his arms at the sons of the noble Bani Ma’arouf and wounded two people with dangerous wounds such that they remain in intensive care, the responses of the people of the mountain and the noble Bani Ma’arouf have been as follows:

The village of Dhibin requests no visit from the one who has called himself the sheikh of karama [Bal’ous] and rejects the theatrics of gifts (portion of arms). The village of al-Gharayya is a blazing fire on account of the error in using the name of our sayyid Sheikh Abd al-Wahhab [see here for this sheikh and the village of al-Gharayya] for lack of respect [of him] and his heirs and inserting his name for interests. And after that, Salkhad al-Zaghaba [al-Zaghaba is an epithet frequently attached to Salkhad] warns against a visit and is actually threatening kill him. And after that, [there is] Urman, which formed the Jalamid Urman faction with support from its noble exiles, and they said if one of the families of Suwayda’ hands over the banner to the sheikh of karama, all of the sheikhs of Urman are karama and no one bears the banner of Urman except is people.”

Bal’ous appears in video footage showing that he did visit Urman as part of his outreach. While there does not appear to be a formal Rijal al-Karama contingent in the village, there does seem to be some sympathy in Urman for the movement’s aims, such as a statement issued by “Rijal Urman al-Karama” in November 2015 rejecting forced military conscription at the hands of the security apparatus.

Like Kata’ib Humat al-Diyar, Katibat Jalamid Urman has tried to promote an image as a force of the state and upholding law-and-order through its publicised activities. For example, an enduring problem in Suwayda’ province has been smuggling activity. In April 2016, Katibat Jalamid Urman stopped a car loaded with a large quantity of drugs and then burned the contents of the car in front of the people of Urman in the village square. In January 2016, the group took responsibility for ensuring order when secondary students leave school at the end of the school day:

“To reduce and avoid the problems caused by some of the youth after the students go out from secondary school, Katibat Jalamid Urman has decided to take responsibility for the situation, and a number of its members have gone out when the students come out and have closed all the entries and have ensured the students’ safety until they arrive at their homes.”

The militia has also engaged in patrols of Suwayda’ border areas alongside other groups both on the eastern border areas and on the southern Syria-Jordan border areas, as part of ensuring readiness to respond to any emergency. Besides all these activities relating to maintaining security and upholding law-and-order, the group has undertaken some social outreach, notably replanting trees in the village of Tell Abid Mar, where many trees had been cut down amid the circumstances of the civil war environment.

Members of Katibat Jalamid Urman can be identified by their distinct insignia worn on the arms and chest, as can be seen from the photos below:

On left, note the Dir’ al-Jabal insignia patch on the chest. On right, note the arm-patch identical to Katibat Jalamid Urman’s emblem.

Similar use of insignia as above, with Dir’ al-Jabal chest-patches and the group’s emblem in the form of an arm-patch.

Closer view of the arm-patch.

The existence of the group’s symbols on the ground is also attested in certificates issued for Mother’s Day for mothers of ‘martyrs’ who have died fighting for the regime. This honouring of mothers of ‘martyrs’ was done as a joint event with the Kata’ib al-Ba’ath and two notables called Ghassan Amro and Osama al-Abbas.

Certificate issued by Katibat Jalamid Urman for the mother of Raghed Fadl Allah al-Shariti. Originally from Urman, he was killed in Deraa on 27 June 2013 and is said to have been its tenth ‘martyr.’

Certificate issued by Katibat Jalamid Urman for the mother of Kadhim Nasr Sharuf. Originally from Urman, he was killed in Yabrud in March 2014.

The current level of security threats posed to the locality of Urman is very low, but the case of Katibat Jalamid Urman does provide an interesting look at militia mobilization and regime loyalist sentiment on the more local level in Suwayda’ province. No militia mobilization is occurring within the province at the local or province-wide level that envisions overthrowing the regime structure in place.

The Fifth Legion: A New Auxiliary Force

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Though numerous militias exist on the regime side in Syria, only a few have garnered wider media attention. The most notable of these few groups is of course the National Defence Forces (NDF), set up as a counter-insurgency and auxiliary holding force in late 2012 with help from Hezbollah and Iran. The NDF has centres throughout  the Syrian provinces where the regime still maintains a viable presence and remains an important force. Another group that garnered attention was the Coastal Shield Brigade (Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel), set up in 2015 as the regime experienced substantial losses in Idlib province and the Homs desert to the rebels and the Islamic State (IS) respectively. The ‘shield’ aspect reflected a broader shift in the strategic thinking at the time, in which the emphasis shifted to defending vital areas amid exacerbating manpower problems.

If the previous year had a defensive focus for the regime though prior to the beginning of the overt Russian intervention in October 2015, then this year has very much seen the opposite approach, which has now culminated in the successful recapture of Aleppo city. While the assault on the rebel-held parts of eastern Aleppo was going on, a new auxiliary force was announced to have been formed last month. This force is called al-Faylaq al-Khamis (“The Fifth Legion”), with the word Iqtiham (“Assault”) appended to its name, very much signifying the offensive emphasis of the regime at the present time. The following statement was issued by the General Command for the Syrian Army and the Armed Forces on 22 November:

“In response to the rapid developments for events, to reinforce the successes of the intrepid armed forces and heeding the desire of our defiant people to put an end to the terrorist acts upon the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, the General Command for the Army announces the formation of the Fifth Legion- Assault, from volunteers, with the mission of destroying terrorism alongside the rest of the formations of our heroic armed forces and the auxiliary and allied forces to restore security and stability to all the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic. The General Command for the Army and the Armed Forces calls on all citizens who desire to participate in realizing the final victory over terrorism to go to the reception centres in the provinces.”

The statement then defined a number of these reception centres:

– Damascus: Southern Regional Command-Damascus Area Command-10th Division Command Qatana.
– Homs: Central Regional Command.
– Hama: Hama Area Command-Administrative Affairs College in Masyaf.
– Aleppo: Northern Regional Command.
– Tartous: Tartous Area Command.
– Latakia: Coastal Regional Command.
– Deraa: 5th Division Command.
– Suwayda’: 15th Division Command-Special Forces.

Notably absent from this list are Hasakah, Deir az-Zor and Raqqa provinces. In Hasakah and Deir az-Zor provinces, the regime maintains remnant presences, primarily in Qamishli and Deir az-Zor city respectively. In Raqqa province, there is course no regime presence at all. Nonetheless, the statement by the General Command specified that people of the eastern region, like other citizens, could register at any of the centres mentioned above. Conditions for enlistment were specified as follows:

– Must be at least 18 years old and not obliged for compulsory military service (khidmat al-‘alam) and has not deserted from compulsory service.
– In good health.

Eligible for acceptance are state employees and those who have completed their compulsory military service from all classes, including officers, non-commissioned officers and ordinary personnel. Their enlistment will be according to a contract of one year subject to renewal through appropriate agreement. State employees in particular who enlist are entitled to claim a salary from the Fifth Legion while maintaining the salaries and benefits of their existing jobs.

From the conditions for recruitment outlined above, the most important point to note is the contrast with many of the militias that try to recruit through offering an amnesty for those who have avoided and deserted compulsory military service. In addition, the terms for state employees seems to suggest that the army is trying to tap into this demographic in particular as a potential source of manpower for the Fifth Legion. The emphasis on a definitive victory over ‘terrorism’ also points to the regime’s calculus at this point: namely, that it is on the road to decisive victory, eventually entailing the retaking of all of Syria.

It should be noted that a formation similar to the Fifth Legion was announced last year as the overt Russian intervention in the form of airstrikes was getting underway. That formation was called al-Faylaq al-Rabi’- Iqtiham (“The Fourth Legion- Assault”). This force was said to have been formed from Syrian soldiers and volunteers with Russian specialists, in addition to a joint Russian-Syrian command. Its first operations were due to take place in the Idlib, Hama and Latakia countrysides. Subsequent evidence quickly emerged of engagements on the ground. For example, in early November 2015, a ‘martyr’ for the Fourth Legion was claimed in one Rami Marwan al-Khouli, originally from the Homs province town of al-Qusayr near the Lebanese border and killed in fighting in Latakia province. Another individual presented as a Fourth Legion ‘martyr’ at the time by at least one account was Mohsen Afifa, also killed in the Latakia fighting. The Fourth Legion appears to have endured as a formation, with references to the contingent’s existence, its operations and slain fighters occurring throughout 2016, primarily on the Latakia front. In fact, in July 2016, the General Command for the Syrian army reportedly changed the leader of the Fourth Legion (Shuqi Yusuf) on account of repeated errors and false assessments of the battle, leading to substantial setbacks especially on the Kanasba front in Latakia at the time. Below are some more photos of slain fighters from the Fourth Legion.

Memdouh Ken’an, originally from al-Qardaha. Killed on the Latakia front. He was apparently a veteran of campaigns in Deraa and the Hawran area. At least one account also has him as being a part of the Syrian army’s 5th Mechanized Division.

Mahmoud Ahmad al-Ahmad, originally from al-Hamdaniya in Aleppo. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.

Abd al-Hameed Hilal al-Daman, originally from Himo Hanadi in Hasakah province. Killed in fighting in Latakia province.

Amir Ibrahim Hazim, originally from al-Salukiya of the Masyaf area. Killed in Kanasba area, Latakia province.

The issue of mistakes in the field, as illustrated partly in the experiences of the Fourth Legion, is touched upon in an article in the pro-Assad Lebanese newspaper al-Safir regarding the formation of the Fifth Legion. Specifically, the article says that some mistakes and insufficient levels of coordination were revealed in the field and battle experiences since the time of the Russian intervention and the formation of the Fourth Legion. These mistakes are said to have been looked at by the concerned parties, with an aim to resolving them, paving the way for the entry of the Fifth Legion into the battlefield.

The newspaper further claims that the foundational force for the Fifth Legion will be a mixture of existing combat groups that have acquired high-level experience, alongside new recruits or former fighters from the NDF branches. According to the article, forces of Suqur al-Sahara’ (a private elite militia) and Liwa al-Quds (a Palestinian-Syrian militia from the Aleppo area that played an important role in the recent retaking of east Aleppo) are expected to be the tip of the spear and strike force of the volunteers. In addition, the newspaper says it is expected that some of the military command of Hezbollah will play a foundational role in leading groups of the fighters that will join the Fifth Legion, and that some elite forces of Hezbollah will operate either under the Fifth Legion’s banner or in operational coordination with it.

Some commentary has focused on this suggested Hezbollah involvement in the Fifth Legion as a key development of “official integration” pointing to a future trend of Iranian-backed militias being granted legal cover in Iraq and Syria. Leaving aside the Iraqi aspect of the situation with regards to integrating the Hashd Sha’abi units (partly driven by PM Hayder al-Abadi’s desire to exert stronger control over the militias), this interpretation seems to be an over-reading of the available information on the Fifth Legion that also overlooks the fact that Iranian-backed militias are already using the legal cover of the Syrian state in certain ways, such as the Iraqi group Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar under the Dir’ al-Watan conglomeration of the al-Bustan Association, Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein overlapping with the 4th Armoured Division, and some Hezbollah personnel operating under the NDF.

In any case, characterizing the Fifth Legion as an “elite” part of the Syrian army is premature. Properly speaking, the Fifth Legion defines itself as affiliated with al-quwat al-sadiqa (“forces of friends”). To be sure, it is a slightly ambiguous term. On one reading, it can be seen as synonymous with Quwat al-Asdiqa’. This means a function as a formal auxiliary force of some sort for the Syrian army, and one should compare this designation with the case of Quwat al-Ghadab, a Christian militia in the Suqaylabiyah area of Hama province. In initial reporting, the pro-regime outlet Damascus Now wrote that the Fifth Legion will get its training, equipment and salaries from the Asdiqa’ (“The Friends”), though it did not specify further what it meant by this term. An alternative way to read al-quwat al-sadiqa is to look at other occasions on which the term has been used: it often refers to the regime’s foreign allies and their forces assisting the Syrian army on the ground (e.g. the Iraqi militia Harakat al-Nujaba’ and the Russian forces).

If al-Safir’s unconfirmed information on integrating forces from a variety of militias into the Fifth Legion is correct, a motivation clearer than just officially integrating Hezbollah into the Syrian state’s armed forces appears to be improving operational abilities through overcoming rivalries and competition for influence that have emerged between various forces on the regime side and sometimes impeded effective coordination. This is of course suggested in the newspaper’s article.

As of the time of writing, the Fifth Legion has not emerged as an actual operational force on the ground. Amusingly, mobile text messages urging people to join the Fifth Legion have become a subject of mockery and annoyance even among some people on the regime side, prompting the main page for the Fifth Legion to issue an apology:

“Messages are reaching us condemning the frequency of text messages that announce the Fifth Legion and call on the citizen brothers to join its ranks. We will say in simple words: ‘We apologize for annoying you, for we are working for your sake.'”

Where exactly the Fifth Legion will operate for its first assignment is not yet fully confirmed. That said, a post on 21 December by the Fifth Legion’s main page stated the following:

“Leadership from the officers of the Fifth Legion- Assault is participating in the preparation for the battle to recover the city of Palmyra from the Da’esh terrorist organization, and information about the possibility of ruling out one of the auxiliary forces that was a reason for what happened when the city fell.”

The latter part of that statement is particularly interesting. While the regime was focusing its efforts on Aleppo, the Palmyra front was manned by a number of militias, but they appear to have put on a pretty dismal performance in trying to defend the city from IS. These militias on the Palmyra front included Syrian Hezbollah groups like al-Ghalibun, Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and Quwat al-Ridha. In particular, the IS offensive on Palmyra was the first major engagement on the Palmyra front for Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi and appears to have been set as an emergency assignment for al-Ghalibun. The Afghan Shi’a unit affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)- Liwa Fatemiyoun– has also had a presence in Palmyra, with four special contingents stationed there as part of a long-standing line of defence against IS, according to a Fatemiyoun commander quoted by IRGC news outlet Tasnim News.  Since the fall of the city, the regime has called up additional forces like the Syrian army’s 10th division, the NDF branch Fawj al-Jowlan and the Qalamoun Shield Forces as IS has also threatened the important T4 airbase. Abu Hayder al-Harbi, an Iraqi member of Hezbollah’s forces in Syria, further told me that Hezbollah and the IRGC are currently fighting on the Palmyra front.

Quwat al-Ridha and the Syrian army on the Palmyra front. December 2016.

Fawj Nusur Homs, another militia (air-intelligence affiliated) on the Palmyra front.

Samer Kurdi, a Hezbollah fighter from the Idlib Shi’i village of al-Fu’a, recently killed on the Palmyra front.

How far the Fifth Legion will come to play a real and important role in the battlefield remains to be seen. The provincial governor of Latakia- Ibrahim Khidr al-Salim- seems particularly keen to have people enlist in the Fifth Legion, involving state administrative bodies in the process. He has even reportedly directed Latakia institutions and foundations to cancel work contracts of male workers in Latakia between 18 and 50 years old from other provinces if they do not join the Fifth Legion. This ultimatum is not to be applied if the worker has been exempted from the Syrian army for reasons such as health. The authenticity of documents circulated with regards to this matter appears to have been subsequently confirmed by postings such as this one on teachers in Latakia joining the Fifth Legion. This may indicate that recruitment efforts into the Fifth Legion have not been as successful as the regime might have hoped. Indeed, it is possible the Fifth Legion will end up going the way of Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel: much hype initially but then fading into obscurity and becoming of little or no operational significance. In any case, there is no doubt of the ongoing manpower problems facing the regime, despite the confident offensive-minded mentality in light of the Aleppo victory.