“The Assyrians of Syria: History and Prospets” by Mardean Isaac

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“The Assyrians of Syria: History and Prospects”
by Mardean Isaac* mardean.isaac@cantab.net
for Syria Comment, 21 December 2015

This article will explore the situation of Assyrians in Syria.

  1. The first section deals with the origins of Assyrians in Syria, the Assyrian identity, and the condition of Assyrians under the Assad regime.
  2. The second section deals with the impact of the Syrian uprising and civil war on Assyrians, Assyrian security forces, and the politics of Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration in Hassakah.

Origins of Assyrians in Syria

There was a strong ancient Assyrian presence across Syria, and the most significant historical churches to which Assyrians belong today – especially the Syriac Orthodox Church[1], but also the Assyrian Church of the East[2] and later the Chaldean Catholic Church[3] – navigated a presence across Syria under the various empires that ruled over the region. However, while the deep ethnic origin of Syrian Christians (and all Syrians) is comprised of pre-Arab layers, including Assyrian, these contemporary communities[4] do not today possess a distinct ethnic identity, unlike the Assyrian populations that will form the focus of this article.

Contemporary Assyrian populations are defined by a set of distinct cultural and linguistic traits. They speak the modern Assyrian language, which has two major dialects, as well as retaining usage of classical Syriac – the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the Syriac churches – of which they are the progenitors and stewards. In modern Assyrian, a language partly rooted in Akkadian and Aramaic, but much of whose morphology and lexical features have been self-generated over the centuries, Assyrians refer to themselves largely by the emic terms ‘Suraya/Sur(y)oyo[5]’*2, a variant of the term for ancient Assyrians, ‘Ashuraya/Asoraya.’ The term ‘Athoroyo/Atoraya’ is also deployed.

The major modern Assyrian presence in Syria dates back to the aftermath of the Assyrian Genocide (1914-23).  This was a Genocide distinct to that of the Armenians, although the perpetrators – Turkish nationalists and their Kurdish conscripts – extirpated both peoples in the same period and for the same reason: to rid the emergent Republic of Turkey of its Christian populations. A portion of the fleeing Armenian population also settled in Syria.

Western Assyrians[6] fleeing massacres in the historic Assyrian strongholds of Mardin, Diyarbakir, Midyat, Tur Abdin, and elsewhere, ended up in the province of Jazira, where they established the city of Qamishli (then known as Beth Zalin, ‘the house of reed’ in Assyrian) as well as villages such as those in Qabre Hewore (Al-Qahtaniyah).

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Eastern Assyrians took a more winding route to Syria. Having fled massacres in their ancestral territories in south-east Turkey, mainly in the Hakkari region, they became dispersed across the region. A decade of itinerant uncertainty regarding their fate ended with the Simele Massacre of 1933 – the foundational event of the nascent state of Iraq – after which thousands of remaining Assyrians fled into Jazira and founded villages along the Khabur river. The Khabur villages [2] 2remained a kind of living museum of Hakkari life. The villages were settled by tribe, and their names continue to colloquially bare the titles of the Assyrian tribes that inhabit them in parallel to their official Arab titles.

Assyrians continued to call these settlements “camps” even after they were developed into villages. The recent deracination of Khabur has tragically shown that they were prudent to carry a sense of their transience in their own mouths.

Both western and eastern Assyrian populations retain cultural traits – including festivals, dances, and other folk phenomena – distinct to them.

With the establishment of the Syrian state, some Assyrians also moved to Aleppo (which also hosted some Assyrians fleeing the genocide) and Damascus, as well as more obscure areas such as al-Thawrah.

Assyrians under the Assad regime

One has to first submit questions regarding the Assyrian relationship with the Syrian Government and Assad regime into the general understanding that, in times of peace – even enforced by tyranny – most people are not motivated by political ideology or agenda, but rather respond to their economic, familial, and communal needs. Assyrians in Syria were no exception. It is necessary to assert this platitude since many reports have depicted Assyrians as ‘pro-regime’, tapping into political fault-lines that are observed by analysts more than ordinary people.

Many Assyrians do not perceive the Ba’ath party or the Assad family as synonymous with the Syrian state, despite the stranglehold over political affairs in Syria that the regime possessed until the uprising and subsequent events. This reflected a fundamental attachment to the unitary Syrian state and its institutions which transcended their occupancy by the Ba’ath party and the Assad family. (However, the regime was certainly perceived[7] as a safeguard against the two fundamental fears that Assyrians possess: Islamism and Kurdish nationalism.) This ethos could be described as characteristic of Assyrian populations in all the modern states in which they have resided. The broad tendency of Arab Christian political involvement, whether with the Ba’ath, SSNP, PLO or otherwise, has been ‘greaterist’, whereas Assyrian nationalism is essentially autonomist or separatist in its orientation. However, the armed Assyrian struggle ended with the Assyrian Genocide, the Simele massacre (1933), and only resumed in a lower level form in the resistance to Saddam, entering another decline in the early 90s. In the absence of a viable plan for Assyrian separatism, Assyrian social and political organisation has focused on maintaining the Assyrian presence and, at their most radical political margin (and at considerable cost) reforming the Iraqi and Syrian states, both in general terms and with a specific view to the Assyrian ethnicity and the place of Assyrians in the state.[8]

In the case of Syria, these efforts were largely led by the Assyrian Democratic Organisation (ADO). Established in 1957, mainly by western Assyrians, the party sought democratic reform of the Syrian state as well as to secure recognition of the Assyrian identity and a more meaningful place for Assyrians within the country. ADO members who spoke out against the regime were harassed, arrested or tortured, for example, in response to publicly raising concerns over state neglect of Khabur. Gabriel Moushe, the leader of the political branch of the ADO, was arrested on December 19th, 2013, and remains in regime detention. In the final sections of this piece I will discuss the current place of the ADO in Syria.

The Assyrian Democratic Party, a small party that splintered from the ADO, was established in 1978 by Adam Homeh. In the 1990s, the ADP attempted to provide a pro-regime alternative to the ADO by, for example supporting rival Assyrian candidates for the Syrian parliament that were less oppositional to the government. It was also overtly sectarian, electing eastern Assyrians as the only ‘true’ Assyrians, and exhibiting suspicion of the dominance of the ADO by western Assyrians.

The Dawronoye were established in the mid 1990s, and will be discussed in greater detail in the final sections of this article.

The Assyrian identity and the Syrian state

The Assyrian identity is not recognised by the Syrian government.[9] Despite this, the celebration of Akitu – the ancient Assyrian new year – went ahead largely unhindered by government interference, beyond the inevitable presence of Assad family iconography and mukhabarat. Originally an event held in private, the ADO spearheaded the expansion of Akitu into the public sphere. This process was accelerated by the emboldening of the party after the release of its leadership from government imprisonment in the mid 80s. The event gained in participation and prestige over time. These spectacular and vivid images of Akitu in Hassakah from 2002 show how meaningful the celebration is to Assyrians. A mass wedding here accompanies the festival.

Assyrian cultural and linguistic matters in Syria

An hour of instruction a week in the Assyrian language was permitted by the government, but only in Churches. The Assyrian Church of the East favors the spoken Assyrian language, a position that reflects the independent and autocephalous nature of the Church. Their championing of modern Assyrian also has its roots in the transmission of 19th century European Protestant principles, which drew an association between ecclesiastical independence and using vernacular language as a means of bringing the church closer to its adherents. The Syriac Orthodox Church teaches in Classical Syriac[10], exhibiting indifference and even hostility to spoken Assyrian. Small magazines reporting on church affairs in Syriac were permitted to circulate.

The curriculum appended ‘Arab’ to the names of ancient empires of the Middle East (‘Arab Assyrian’, ‘Arab Babylonian’), claiming that the populations of these civilizations originated in the Gulf, and that after the Islamic invasion, the region became homogeneously Arab. Merely challenging this dogma was an act of intellectual and, by extension, political rebellion. The one reference to Assyrians in the curriculum, which was removed under Bashar, addressed the Simele Massacre of Iraq – but negatively so, implying the Assyrians were fifth columns and traitors to the Arab state of Iraq and that their massacre was justified and necessary. The only specific government mention of the Assyrian name, therefore, was pejorative: Assyrians were acknowledged insofar as their declared ethnic separatism was associated with troublesome and treacherous behaviour which threatened the unity of the Arab state.

A small newsletter in Assyrian (and bearing the identity) was briefly distributed in the late 80s and early 90s. It was tolerated since it belonged to Assyrian parties in northern Iraq who were in opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein, a nemesis mutual to the Syrian government. Beyond that, magazines by the Assyrian opposition were distributed secretly: handwritten or photocopied in small numbers.

Origins of locally derived Assyrian security in Syria

The Syrian Arab Army began to withdraw from the remoter areas of Hassakah province in 2012 in order to buttress areas already under their control in western Syria, confining their military and security presence in Jazira to the cities of Hassakah and Qamishli. This began to expose Assyrians to the possibility of Islamist incursion, vindicated by some early incidents, as well as opening lines of fissure between Arab and Kurdish elements in the region. In late 2012 and early 2013, Assyrian men from Khabur began to quietly meet with a view to organising a local defence force to patrol and protect the villages. Their desire was to remain independent of all political parties, as well as to declare a stance of neutrality in relation to the regime, the YPG and even Islamist forces.

These planners witnessed an original flurry of registration by young men, which reached into the hundreds. They also hoped that enlistment in local security forces would help stem the rising tide of unemployment as well as Assyrian emigration out of Syria. But across 2013, emigration continued unabated, depleting the potential ranks of the guard force (‘Nattoreh’).

There were always discussions among the Assyrians of Hassakah as to whether stockpiling arms was a good idea. A consensus was never reached that it was. Once state security unravelled, the lack of readiness among Assyrians to direct their own fate was sorely exposed. Kurds, on the other hand, have been preparing for the collapse of Arab states since before the inception of those states.

The security situation in Khabur and the future of the Khabur villages

On February 23rd, in the early hours of the morning, ISIS attacked the villages along the Khabur. The whole population of the villages, which by then had dwindled to around 3000, fled to Qamishli and Hassakah. In the course of the incursion, ISIS captured 253 villagers, mainly from Tel Shamiran, Tel Hirmiz and Tel Jazira villages, and in many cases, entire families. 130 Assyrians remain in captivity. ISIS has released the other 123 captives, mainly elderly and infirm individuals, in batches across several months. It is unclear whether their release is the product of ransom payments, negotiations, or both – or whether for ISIS, elderly and sick captives are simply not worth the trouble of maintaining in captivity. Three male Assyrian captives were executed on the morning of September 23rd, on the festival day of eid al-Adha, and footage of the execution was released two weeks later.

The causes and dynamics behind the attack continue to haunt Assyrians contemplating their fate in Syria. Some villagers blame the YPG, and the MFS (Syriac Military Council), an Assyrian militia allied with the Kurdish force, for inciting ISIS through their position of open hostility towards the group — a step that Khabur Assyrians felt would unnecessarily imperil them. There is of course no way of knowing what the consequences of accepting YPG protection along the Khabur River – moving the frontier of the control of Kurdish self-administration along and beyond the villages – would have been. Nor of how committed, and at what cost to the Assyrian population, the YPG’s protection would have been. Accommodations had been made for ‘co-existence’ with ISIS in the weeks prior to the invasion, including taking down crosses from churches. Some MFS soldiers, emboldened by the strength of the YPG, had brashly and publicly restored the crosses on some churches in Khabur, alongside other belligerent gestures such as the kidnapping of ISIS militants.[11]

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It is, however, impossible to imagine that any sustainable arrangement could have prevented ISIS from entering the villages, as they did, unprovoked by any Assyrian conduct, in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq in August 2014. There is something in the psychology of the desire for neutrality in the midst of war that reflects the deep-seated sense of paralysis among the Khabur community, whose parochialism was sustained by state auspices and then badly exposed by their withdrawal.

Blame is also apportioned by some Assyrians to the ADO and other political parties for refusing to facilitate the arming of the Khabur Guards. The ADO does not support the contribution of Assyrians to the armed opposition – let alone in implicit defense of the regime or the PYD project to which they are explicitly opposed and critical, respectively. This position does not square with the stated desire of the Khabur Guards to remain independent of politics; it should be understood as a feeling of betrayal by fellow Assyrians who, as one interviewee put it to me, “used to talk a good game about the tyranny of the regime and democracy, but abandoned us and left Syria as soon as things got difficult.”

The Khabur villages are now free of ISIS, yet exist in a state of ruination

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8 and are still heavily mined and booby-trapped. Following the expulsion of ISIS, several bodies belonging to the overwhelmed Assyrian military resistance to the incursion were discovered. There have been a few incidents of Khabur Guardsmen dying or incurring injury while patrolling the mined wasteland of the River.

ISIS, as well as the YPG and the MFS, have extensively looted the Khabur villages.

Assassination of David Jindo

On the evening of Tuesday, April 21st, David Jindo[12] and Elias Nasser, two leaders of the Khabur guards, were abducted from their homes, blindfolded, beaten and tortured, shot at, and left for dead.[13] As their assailants fled the scene, somewhere close to the village of Jumayla, Elias Nasser crawled to a main road where he was picked up by a passing car and taken to hospital in Qamishli.

Over the coming days, two pro-ISIS Twitter feeds claimed the attack.

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I spoke to a PYD supporter who perceived the hand of the regime at work, dividing Assyrians and Kurds in Hassakah to stop what he saw as a joint project of ethnic renewal after decades of Ba’ath homogeneity. “The regime wants Assyrians to remain slaves to the church and forget their nationality,” he wrote. “The YPG trusted Jindo because he seemed like a man of his word. Why don’t people see that the PKK sacrificed a lot for Assyrians?”

As he lay in hospital in Qamishli, Elias was unable to speak owing to bullet wounds in his face and chest. But as friends went to visit him, he wrote down information conveying his certainty that his assailants were members of the YPG.

That YPG fighters were responsible for the attack came as a surprise to casual observers in the Assyrian Diaspora, who assumed, with the emergence of ISIS, that lines of combat in Syria had become morally delineated. But it was no surprise to the Khabur Guards. In the weeks prior to the assassination, a few of their leading members had been called to a meeting with YPG fighters. They customarily all left their guns and phones at the entrance. Their host brandished an AK-47 once they were seated, making it clear their options were to accept the existence of and fight for Rojava (western Kurdistan), leave Syria, or face death.

Like all the peoples of the Middle East, Assyrians have very long memories. The murder of David Jindo resonates deeply in the Assyrian imagination. There is a long and iconic list of Assyrian leaders murdered by Kurdish nationalists: Patriarch Mar Shimun, Franso Hariri, Margaret George (one of the first female Peshmerga), Francis Shabo, and so on. That many of these figures were killed in spite of their attempts to engage with, or even work under, Kurds only enhances the deeply embedded popular perception among Assyrians of an inexorable Kurdish tendency towards treachery.

The trial of the killers of David Jindo will be discussed in subsequent sections.

Assyrian security and politics under the Kurdish self-administration

The Dawronoye (“revolutionaries”) movement is arguably the most quixotic and amorphous of Assyrian political groups. The group was established as a network bridging the Assyrian Diaspora and communities in southern Turkey. Inspired by the PKK’s resilience in the face of Turkish state oppression, they operated under the auspices of the Kurdish militants, settling into a minor role as a military force in northern Iraq in the late 1990s.

In 2005, the group established the Syriac Union Party, which began to organize in Syria. With the regime-sanctioned rise of the PYD and the declaration of the autonomous Cantons in November 2013, including ‘Rojava’ in Hassakah, the Dawronoye movement finally found a true foothold in the region. The SUP called upon an expanding network of patronage and advocacy in Europe, a television channel based in Sweden, Suroyo TV, along with a branch in Lebanon, and civil society organizations in Syria under PYD auspices to attempt to entrench and expand their activities. In January 2013, the group announced the creation of the MFS (Syriac Military Council), their military wing in Gozarto[14]. More recently, the MFS established a female division, the Bethnahrain[15] Women Protection Forces, a clear parallel to the YPJ.

In their unveiling ceremonies, both the MFS and the HSNB lashed out against the Assad regime. The MFS noted the ‘murder machine’ of the regime killing ‘the Syrian people’, endorsed the ‘legitimacy of the Syrian people’s revolution’ in its desire to ‘bring down the Ba’ath regime’, but also emphasised a broader desire to oppose anyone who wished to further marginalise the Syriac people. The HSNB decried the dictatorship and chauvinism of the Assad regime. In a recent article on the group, HSNB fighters – again echoing the ethos of the PKK – said that their taking up of arms would help dispel “the idea that the Syriac woman is good for nothing except housekeeping and make-up.”

The SUP has been persecuted by the regime. Several members have been detained: most notably their Vice President Sait Cosar, who was arrested in 2013, and whose fate remains unknown. (His son, Johan Cosar, later relocated to Syria from Switzerland to train the MFS.) The SUP, however, is not part of the opposition, and neither the MFS nor the HSNB have fought regime forces. This is unsurprising given that the regime partly facilitated the rise of the PYD in Hassakah and has not entered into open conflict with the YPG. In exchange for a degree of autonomy and the license to control the direction of it, the PYD put down revolts by Arabs and Kurds[16] seeking to overthrow Bashar and used the YPG as an outsource point for security aligned with regime interests: fighting opposition forces and acting as a thorn in the side of Turkey.

Many ordinary MFS soldiers are motivated by an apolitical sense that they are protecting their own in a time of flux, and have been empowered instinctively by the ethnic and communal solidarity that the MFS offers as opposed to the SAA or the YPG proper. This situation itself finds a parallel with the YPG itself, many of whose rank and file soldiers do not share the lofty and complex ideological principles espoused by the PYD’s leadership, but rather see themselves as fighting for an independent and ultimately unified Kurdistan, in contradiction to the PYD’s proclaimed distance from ethnic separatism, belief in a unified Syria, and even disavowal of belief the nation-state per se. However, Assyrians have no greater political and land aim in Syria, unlike Kurds.

The feeling of fundamental repression, especially to the extent of wanting to overthrow the regime, is rare among Assyrians, and is commoner among Kurds, who were largely denied even rights of citizenship and title and marriage deed under Ba’athism. In that sense, it is clear that the PYD – regime alliance is a political one rather than one made durable by a shared belief in Syrian unity or ideology. The anti-regime ideological stance preferred by the MFS leadership is another incarnation of the Dawronoye attempt to ground and direct their vaguely revolutionary and anti-authoritarian ethos. But their direct motivation in openly declaring this stance is less explicit. It is prospectively useful for garnering international support for their armed struggle and the ambitions of the SUP, and certainly provides a globally understandable frame of legitimacy for their endeavour, in light of the unpopularity of the regime on the world stage.

Local tensions exist between the Khabur Guards and the MFS. However, even Elias Nasser, in his first interview following the attempt on his life, made it clear that he did not want these tensions to blossom into full ethnic ‘fitna’ between Assyrians and Kurds. Intriguingly, Dawronoye attempts to provide stewardship of the Assyrian community entire extends to commemoration of David Jindo – killed by their YPG allies – as a martyr, alongside MFS fighters who died fighting Islamists, as can be seen in this MFS martyr monument in Qamishli.

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This is clearly part of an attempt by the pro-PYD MFS to try to encompass the concerns of the entire Assyrian community.

The original ruling of the killers of David Jindo saw two men receive two years each, with no punishment handed to the two other individuals involved. A re-trial in July saw the sentences extended to 20 years for two of the killers, and four years and one year respectively for the other two men. Suroyo TV broadcasted footage of the trial. In the news clip, the Kurdish judge, wearing traditional clothing and presiding over a court room with a photo of Abdullah Ocalan above its entrance, speaks of the dynamics of the ruling. He points to “open meetings” that took place with Assyrian, Arab and Kurdish representatives in which the opinions of individuals and “left wing” parties were noted, and claims that these discussions led to the revised decision regarding the sentence. He asserts that the sentence will help guarantee the brotherhood and unity of all the peoples of Rojava. There is no discussion of the actual procedures and principles of the ruling: the processing of evidence, establishment of proof, and so on.

In their press release in response to the first ruling, the Bethnahrain National Council (MUB), the overseeing political body of the Dawronoye, decried the murder of David Jindo as an “unpardonable act, not only against our people, but also against Kurds and all oppressed peoples.” The statement also emphasised that the involvement of “some elements in the Kurdish Freedom Movement in the incident saddened and disappointed [the MUB] deeply, as well as our people.” (The final two clauses constitute another interesting attempt to shade their political solidarity with the Kurdish movement across the whole community of Assyrians.) The SUP claimed credit for influencing the subsequent expansion of the sentence, hinting at the political nature of the decision.

Issues of security receive disproportionate coverage in the international press and hold a powerful symbolic, imagistic, and political value. The Assyrian Diaspora imbues security forces in Iraq and Syria with the hopes of their entire destiny, which is deeply unrealistic given their small size. Similarly, the PYD has made very skillful usage of the MFS in their propaganda, frequently mentioning their Christian allies to show that the YPG is not the only force fighting for Rojava. The Russian intervention, backed by the PYD, stepped up the need for American intervention in some form in response. This was seized upon by the PYD, who put together the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, an entity thoroughly dominated by the YPG but also containing small numbers of Arab fighters as well as the MFS. Their flag bears writing in Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian, and the map of Syria emblazoned on it – in a mischievous gesture of antagonism towards Turkey – contains Hatay Province. The YPG, therefore, has not only gained from Russian bombing of opposition targets, but has attracted American support (including specialised training) in the form of the SDF.

The current status of Assyrian security forces independent of the YPG

In May, a security force dubbed the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF) was established. Notably, the GPF bears the same logo as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian security force in northern Iraq, despite the lack of common political party patronage. The GPF and the Sootoro[17], its local security unit division, immediately took part in the defence of Hassakah in May and June. The NPU seeks sanction under the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Law), attempting to utilize the broad anti-ISIS mandate to assist in the liberation and subsequent defence of in the Nineveh Plains following the Peshmerga withdrawal and subsequent ISIS incursion into the region in the summer of 2014.

Despite the discrepancies between the overall state of Iraq and Syria, there are parallels between the NPU and GPF. Both forces seek to operate independently from Kurdish nationalist control seek sanction and support from central governments.

In November, the GPF was flown by Russian planes to assist in the defence of Sadad, a Syriac Orthodox Town north-east of Damascus that was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra in October, 2013. The deployment of the GPF, originally a local force, to assist the SAA close to its heartland, shows signs of a potentially broader engagement with the regime, as well as reflecting the manpower problem in the SAA. The GPF received a raucous reception upon their return to Qamishli from Sadad.

The local security forces of the Guardians of Khabur and the Guardians of Tel-Tamar recently announced their merger.

Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration: Beyond security and military matters

Social relations between Kurds and Assyrians in Hassakah have always been poor. I have never spoken to an Assyrian who has told me that their family had an intimate bond with a Kurdish (or an Arab) family, even to the extent that they would have had dinner at one another’s homes, for example. Even though Kurdish and Assyrian political parties exchanged delegations during Akitu and Nowruz celebrations, popular interest by one ethnic group in the other’s celebrations were almost non-existent. Inter-marriage is utterly taboo: both communities are endogamous. The elopement of Assyrian women with Kurdish men has often ended up with the murder of the woman by her Assyrian siblings, and occasionally both the woman and the man. Assyrian men who have attempted to marry Kurdish women have faced a similar fate at the hands of the Kurdish family, especially if they do not convert to Islam. The state treated incidents where only the ‘offending party’ was murdered as an honor crime, usually sentenced to six months, whereas if the other party was also killed it was treated as murder per se and sentenced appropriately.

Beyond questions of security, there are a series of issues that have arisen regarding the relationship of the Kurdish self-administration to Assyrians.

— Assyrian property, including the villages of the Khabur, was threatened by a law proposed in September in the self-administration parliament of Amuda on Emigrant Properties which stated that all abandoned properties – many of which were emptied due to the flight of Assyrians following the unrest in Hassakah generally and the emergence of ISIS specifically – were liable to confiscation. Following overwhelming objections by Assyrians and others, the law was overturned. The issue of land is deeply significant to Assyrians as well as Kurds in relation to the regime. Land ownership rights were a key cause of the security Assyrians broadly ‘enjoyed’ under the Syrian state, especially in light of the persecutions that robbed them of their previous homeland. They perceived their extensive and legally enshrined ownership of property and the state stability concomitant to it as a guarantor against external or partisan encroachments. The lack of land rights was a profound cause of anger and mistrust by Kurds towards the Syrian state, one dimension of the ‘de-naturalisation’ policies and broader ideological and racial humiliation, antagonism and repression of Kurds by the Ba’ath party.

With the consolidation of PYD authority over Assyrian territories and communities, these divergent positions between Assyrians and Kurds in relation to land have clashed and come to the fore, and are compounded and inflected by questions over the direction of Kurdish nationalist interests. Assyrians in Syria are aware of the extraordinary scale of Kurdish confiscation and forced annexation of Assyrian land in northern Iraq, as well as carrying memories of the same phenomenon in Turkey.

— Ongoing anxieties over the issue of conscription and military service have led to the emigration of Assyrians from Hassakah. Proven completion of SAA service will not necessarily act as a safeguard against conscription into the YPG (either proper or in the form of the MFS) or into six-month terms of duty in the HXP (Self-Defense Units). A report compiled in May by three Assyrians – Sawa Oshanne Ide, Erkin Metin, and Simon Poli, a member of the HDP – quotes members of the ADO describing harassment and arrest of Assyrians in Derik to this effect.

— The educational policies of the PYD led self-administration in the Jazira region have raised alarm among Assyrian and other Christian organizations. The ideological orientation of the curriculum has shifted from a broadly more palatable — to the broadly temperamentally and culturally conservative Assyrian community of Hassakah — combination of church-led and Ba’ath pedagogy to one perceived as being steeped in radical PKK/PYD ideology, especially in the subjects of History and Sociology. Many public schools in Qamishli have closed in response to these developments. Hundreds of Kurdish children, whose families sought to avoid enrolling their children in schools that would teach the PYD curriculum, were turned away from private Syriac schools.

Sixteen Assyrian organisations – largely ecclesiastical in orientation but also including the ADO – signed a statement on November 1st decrying various PYD policies, including the enforcement of new curricula. Negotiations are ongoing regarding the implementation of the new curriculum between the education administration of Rojava, the regime, and private schools.

More fundamentally, it is very rare indeed to come across an Assyrian, aside from those who are direct participants in Rojava, who is comfortable with Kurdish rule, or one who perceives Rojava as anything other than a project of ethnocracy and ethno-national partition. Mistrust of Kurdish nationalism is very deep in the community, expressed in Assyrian proverbs such as “do not put a Kurd in your pocket, he will not turn to gold,” and “have dinner with the Kurd, but sleep at the Arab’s house.” Any encroachment is liable to trigger fear and mistrust. The changes taking place in Gozarto, taking place against a backdrop of far more alien and ghoulish transformations across the country, have overwhelmed the Assyrian community. It is not uncommon to encounter more detailed and up to date knowledge of developments among analysts in Diaspora than Assyrians on the ground. The stability of the Syrian state, which insulated the Assyrian community while allowing it to be overseen by an entity whose perceived order, legitimacy and continuity afforded Assyrians a sense – however tempered by authoritarianism – of civic identity and national belonging, is gone.

“We can never trust them,” an Assyrian man who fled Khabur last year told me. “Arabs can be bought off, but nothing will satisfy a Kurd except a country.”

The future of Assyrians in Syria

Assyrian migration out of the Middle East is constant. A 2003 population of around one million Assyrians in Iraq has dwindled to around 400,000 today. There were 150,000 Assyrians in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979; today, only a few thousand remain. The Assyrian population of Turkey is around 20,000. Assyrians have been leaving Syria steadily from the 1980s, and the uprising and the emergence of ISIS have only accelerated this process. Around 50,000 Assyrians remain in Gozarto. Small numbers of Assyrians also remain in Damascus and Aleppo.

As conditions in the Middle East have become more unstable and extreme, the reality and experience of the Assyrian Diaspora and homeland populations diverges further. Fewer Assyrians return to visit their families and communities. Even though the capacity of Diaspora Assyrians to engage with and support Assyrians in the homeland populations in an organized manner is increasing, the possibility for viable independent Assyrian projects declines constantly along with demographics.

I have observed a transformation in the attitudes and memories of Assyrians who grew up in an atmosphere of opposition to the regime and who now live abroad. Even more fundamentally than a shift in political stance in favour of the regime, which is relatively rare, the extent of the carnage that has befallen Syria has eroded recollections of what it was they had a problem with in relation to the government in the first place. It was almost as if the stability of the regime served as a pivot or fulcrum for their opposition stances – which usually revolved around a disdain for nepotism and corruption, a desire to promote the Assyrian ethnic identity and culture more officially, a yearning for freedom of speech and a freer media, and anger at government neglect of Assyrian areas in favour of Arab ones – which now appear remote and quaint in light of the collapse of the state and the country. Their eyes glaze over in baffled fear when contemplating the future of Syria.

The intellectual and moral stability provided by the ADO has also arguably entered into decline. The party has no firm place in Syrian political affairs today. Having thrown its lot in with the opposition, which has since transformed unrecognisably, the ADO – a member of the Syrian National Council – continues to refuse the legitimacy of the regime without being able to claim a meaningful position among the forces seeking its demise.

The psychological effect of the Khabur kidnappings, especially since so many remain captive, has been devastating. Some trepid return has taken place to the Khabur villages, which is more than can be said for the Nineveh Plains. The recent ISIS suicide bomb attack in the once majority Assyrian city of Tel Tamar, in which four Assyrians died, is a reminder of the constant threat of terrorism, against which Assyrians have no reliable recourse.

Today’s events in the Middle East echo those of a century ago. The overarching structures of political and social organisation – now of the Arab state, then of the Ottoman Empire – are giving way to turmoil, ethnic cleansing, and uncertainty. After the dividing and redrawing of borders was complete, the polities that emerged attempted to yoke together various ethnicities and sects, and Assyrians secured a diminished place within them. There is little reason to believe that the forms of organization that will emerge from the chaos in the region today will feature even the aim of co-existence, let alone the attainment thereof. In the absence of a plan for an independent Assyrian national endeavour, the Assyrian people face an existential threat in their ancestral homelands.

Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians died in the process of dissolving the Ottoman Empire and creating new states from it. The sheer scale of murder, along with the abysmal humanitarian conditions that ensued, is at least being largely spared the Assyrians of today. Also novel, however, is the phenomenon of emigration to western countries, which now contain far more Assyrians than exist in the Middle East. There is mercy here, at least for those privileged Assyrians who manage to find a secure path abroad. Along with their departure will go the Assyrian culture, language, and entire living heritage, permanently confining the Assyrian people to the annals of history.

*Mardean Isaac is a writer of fiction, journalism and essays. He has written and spoken widely on the Middle East & holds an MA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MSt in Syriac Studies from Oxford University.

Footnotes

[1] In 2000, the Syrian Orthodox Church changed its name to the Syriac Orthodox Church.

[2] The Church of the East added the title ‘Assyrian’ to its name in 1976.

[3] The Chaldean Catholic Church is an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East, established in 1552 when Yuhannan Sulaqa, a Church of the East bishop, entered communion with Rome following internal disputes with his peers. The Assyrian population of Iraq is predominantly Catholic, owing to conversions that mainly took place against the backdrop of the travails of the 19th century, but the Chaldean Catholic denomination is a minority among the Assyrians of Syria.

[4] Meaning the ‘Arab Christian’ populations of western Syria, mainly belonging to Melkite, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox confessions.

[5] The western dialect of Assyrian reads the ‘A’ vowel as an ‘O’.

[6] Some western Assyrians, who are largely Syriac Orthodox, refer to themselves by their denominational title ‘Syriac’, an ethnically neutral translation of ‘Sur(y)oyo’. The Arabic version of this title is ‘Syrani’; ‘Süryaniler’ in Turkish. Western Syrian adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church largely describe themselves as ‘Syrani’ as a title of religious belonging, while referring to themselves as ethnic Arabs.
[7] In using the past tense in reference to the regime and the Syrian government in relation to Hassakah, I am not passing a definitive judgment on its future as a whole. Too many variables are at play, both within Syria and regionally, for such an assessment, and a broad discussion of the fate of the country is beyond the scope of this article. However, the prospect of the regime restoring the status quo antebellum, in particular in Hassakah, is remote. In using the past tense, therefore, I acknowledge that the norms I describe in this section are either threatened or no longer apply as they once did, and that an era of relatively stable political and social organisation has come to a likely definitive end, especially in relation to the particular matters I discuss herein.

[8] An old joke that reflects the ideological distance between the Arabist Syrian state and the Assyrian community goes like this: An Assyrian is recruited into the SAA. He is told that his first mission will be alongside the PLO in Tel Aviv. He asks the general, “Tel Aviv… Is that east or west of Tel Tamar [a village along the Khabur River]?”

[9] One instance of a slight reconfiguration in the policy of the state towards affairs related to the Assyrian and Syriac people, rather than churches, can be observed as follows. The Syriac Orthodox Church, which had hitherto never publically addressed the events of the Assyrian Genocide that led to the establishment of the western Assyrian presence in Syria, publically screened a documentary on the Assyrian Genocide in Damascus in August. This facilitation of this public commemoration by the Syrian state reflected the emergence of Turkey, the instigators of the Genocide of Assyrians, Greek and Armenians a century ago, as a foe of the regime in the civil war.

Some contemporary regime aligned media outlets refer to Assyrians as such.

[10] Classical Syriac is understood almost exclusively by scholars and church figures, and is spoken only by monks – in the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Turkey, for example, and erudite hobbyists.

[11] The first MFS martyr, Tamer “Athro” Bahde, died in clashes with ISIS in this period.

[12] David Jindo was a deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East.

[13] The assailants also stole guns and money from Elias Nasser and David Jindo’s property.

[14] The term ‘Jazira’ province is derived from ‘Gozarto’, the Assyrian word meaning ‘Island’.

[15] The term ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – ‘between the rivers [Tigris and Euphrates]’, a Syriac translation of the Greek word ‘Mesopotamia’, is itself controversial among Assyrians. One of the most significant premises of Assyrian nationalism is a land claim. In using the ethnically neutral yet historically resonant term ‘Beth Nahrain’, parties such as the SUP and the Beth-Nahrain Democratic Party, a KRG aligned party in northern Iraq, attempt to create a vision of a homeland that is deeper than and apart from contemporary nation-states without tying it directly to an Assyrian nationalist endeavour. This narrative goes:  We belong to ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – others now partake in it but we were its earliest inhabitants – whereas ‘Assyria’ only belongs to Assyrians.

[16] The PYD does not have a monopoly on political support among the Kurds of Hassakah, but has been able to assert itself over its rivals due to the overwhelming strength of the YPG.

[17] The MFS also has a local security unit called ‘Sutoro’ [sic].

The Factions of North Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Since the beginning of Russian airstrikes in Syria, the north Latakia fighting front has emerged as a key battleground as regime forces- including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a– and Shi’a militias like the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba’ seek to make advances and consolidate the remaining rump state. Contrasting with the Aleppo front but similar to developments in north Hama, the north Latakia front has remained largely at a stalemate, with the two main frontline areas being Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman. The question then arises of which insurgent factions are operating on this front. In general, these factions are diverse in nature, ranging from Western-backed groups to jihadists. Further, they tend to acknowledge that they do not operate alone but rather cooperate with multiple other groups. This is so despite the fact that the last two major offensives launched by rebel forces in Latakia province- summer 2013 (A’isha Mother of the Believers Battle) and spring 2014 (al-Anfal Battle)- were spearheaded by foreign jihadists, with the area having a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen.

For the purposes of this survey of factions, it is useful first to consider the distinctly local groups, and then contingents of more well-known and widespread rebel and jihadist coalitions and factions that are participating on the Latakia frontlines.

1st Coastal Division

1stCoastalDivision

The 1st Coastal Division, which operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas, is a declared Free Syrian Army [FSA] faction that was announced on 21 October 2014 as a merger of three rebel groups in Latakia province: Liwa al-‘Adiyat fi al-Sahel al-Souri, the First Brigade in the Mid-West Front, and the Storm Brigade (Liwa al-Asifa). The FSA affiliation of 1st Coastal comes as no surprise. For example, Liwa al-‘Adiyat was previously involved in the Supreme Military Council (SMC)-affiliated conglomeration known as Ahfad al-Rasul, which has since become defunct. The Mid-West Front similarly had links with the SMC, as when SMC leader Salim Idriss toured the Latakia frontline in the summer 2013 offensive. The Storm Brigade was formed in early 2013 as a merger of five local brigades in Latakia province. Sub-formations of these brigades have evidently carried over into 1st Coastal, such as the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion that was also the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade.

AishaUmmMumineen1stCoastal
A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion, previously a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade but now the 1st Coastal as per the merger.

The 1st Coastal formation statement affirmed that “the mission of this division is to bring down the Assad regime, and secure stability and security for the free Syrian people.” Further, the statement called on “all factions operating in the Syrian Sahel [coastal area] to unite for the sake of realizing the near victory.” The 1st Coastal has received TOW missiles, which it notably used to down a helicopter in a separate incident on the same day in late November that the Russian pilots and their aircraft were shot down by Turkey over north Latakia.

Though the leader of the Storm Brigade component- Basil Zemo- was killed in October reportedly in Russian airstrikes, 1st Coastal continues to have a prolific output of videos and other media content advertising its operations. Though the division does not espouse a particular ethnic or sectarian platform, its membership primarily consists of local Arabs. That said, at least one Turkmen contingent appears to exist within 1st Coastal: the Mustafa Battalion, whose leader- Abu Rashad al-Turkomani– was declared to have been killed in the Jabal al-Turkoman area in early October, along with his companion Abu Rabah.

2nd Coastal Division

2ndCoastalDivision

As the group’s emblem suggests, the 2nd Coastal Division is a Syrian Turkmen brigade operating primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area. The group’s spokesman, whom this author interviewed, claimed that the brigade has some 2000 fighters and was formed approximately a year ago (some time after 1st Coastal) as a merger of some local brigades. The leader of the brigade is one Bashar Mulla. The group’s spokesman says that constituent groups of 2nd Coastal include the Yaldram Bayazid Brigade, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade, and the 1st and 4th Murad Brigades.

The claimed figure of 2000 is likely to be an exaggeration though, and the spokesman for another group on the Jabal al-Turkoman front- Katibat Jabal al-Islam- asserted that 2nd Coastal probably has no more than 500 members. The extent of media output and the ethnic minority composition of 2nd Coastal would suggest that the brigade is likely smaller than 1st Coastal. Similar to 1st Coastal, it identifies as part of the FSA, and offered condolences to 1st Coastal under this moniker on the death of Basil Zemo.

10th Brigade

10thBrigade

The 10th Brigade is another declared FSA faction. Like 2nd Coastal, it is based primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, though it also operates in Jabal al-Akrad. According to the media representative for the 10th Brigade, the group’s beginnings ultimately trace back to a union of a number of local Latakia countryside battalions in August 2012. From the beginning these brigades considered themselves FSA.

That said, the brand of the 10th Brigade did not come to public light until the following year, as the 10th Brigade was announced to be a part of the SMC-linked Mid-West Front  in the summer of 2013. Indeed, soon after that declaration, the 10th Brigade was identified as a participant in the offensive push towards Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha, though its role back then could only be described as minor and auxiliary at best.

Moving forward to the present day, the 10th Brigade’s media representative offered a quite realistic view of the nature of operations in an interview with this author: “The 10th Brigade in the Sahel since its establishment and until today has participated in all the defence battles that have occurred in Latakia countryside, just as it answered demands to provide support on all the fronts that the Assad forces tried to assault: and the most important part is ribat [frontline maintenance duty], for as is well known on the ground of reality but not well known in the media, ribat on the frontlines constitutes more than 80% of the military operations that include battles, provisions of assistance and the like, and it constitutes most of the operations, which lead to attrition.” In total, the representative put current ribat operations at six fronts in Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad.

Despite its FSA identity, the 10th Brigade has also provided training for fighters not necessarily linked to the FSA networks. The most notable case concerns fighters from Homs who later emerged as the Jaysh al-Sunna faction that is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, which controls the majority of Idlib province. As explained by the 10th Brigade representative: “After the fleeing of the fighters from besieged Homs, we received some of them in the 10th Brigade camp in the Sahel that is considered the largest camp for a military faction…but the revolutionaries who fled from Homs and whom we received did not have any moniker at that time except ‘Revolutionaries of Besieged Homs’, and there was not among them at that time any military activity. But after that they decided to head to the regions of Idlib and we heard as others had heard that they had called themselves Jaysh al-Sunna and had become part of the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room, and we have no connection with them outside of the aim of bringing down the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and building a state guaranteeing a life of dignity and freedom and securing a future for the children of Syria in the most preferable manner possible.”

In keeping with an FSA identity, the 10th Brigade professes rejection of sectarian and ethnic distinction in its language, insisting that its members are of Syrian identity alone.

Farqat Asifat al-Hazm

FarqatAsifatHazmBrigade

Farqat Asifat al-Hazm is a faction whose name translates as the “Determination Storm Division.” Its members are mostly local Arabs from Latakia and Baniyas, the latter having once been a focal point of insurgent unrest in Tartous province until put down through sectarian massacres by regime forces aided by the Muqawama Suriya militia in 2013. Farqat Asifat al-Hazm operates solely in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas in Latakia province, and it was established in April 2015. The establishment of the group was announced in a video by one Abd al-Majid Dabis, who summarised the division’s aims as “freedom, security and equality for the Syrian people in all its components.” Abd al-Majid Dabis had been involved with the SMC, also known at the time as the Council of Thirty.  The opposition site all4Syria notes that alongside Abd al-Jayyid in the announcement video appears Hadhifa al-Shughri, who is the leader of a local Latakia province brigade called Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya (Sons of Qadisiya Division). Based on this point and the similarities in emblems for the groups (see below for Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya emblem), it is likely that the two organizations are closely linked to each other. Interestingly, Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya also maintains a da’wa office, which has engaged in activity in the Latakia countryside.

FarqatAbnaQadisiya

FarqatAbnaQadisiyaDawaOffice
Activities of the da’wa office of Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya

According to Farqat Asifat al-Hazm’s spokesman, [outside] aid for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm stopped three months ago and the group is hoping that Turkey will provide support. He also emphasized that the brigade’s primary aim above all is the downfall of the regime: “Before the talk of a civil or democratic state, we want to bring about the downfall of the regime and get rid of Russia and the regime on account of their crimes against the people. After the downfall, let the people choose what it wants. We will not interfere with their will.”

Overall, Farqat Asifat al-Hazm appears to be a more minor component of the north Latakia insurgency in comparison with 1st Coastal, 2nd Coastal and the 10th Brigade.

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid

LiwaSultanAbdalHameed

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid translates as the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade. It will be recalled that the 2nd Coastal claims that a formation with this name is affiliated with it. However, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade profiled here is claimed by its own media representative to be an independent Syrian Turkmen faction, so to avoid confusion it will hereafter be denoted as Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid.

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid, under the leadership of one Omar Abdullah and operating in Jabal al-Turkoman, first emerged in January 2015 as a merger of three local battalions: Omar al-Mukhtar, Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, and Othman Ghazi. Omar Abdullah at the time claimed the new formation’s numbers exceeded some 300 fighters- considerably smaller than the numbers 2nd Coastal claims. Ideologically, Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid seems similar to the other FSA-identifying formations in north Latakia. As the media representative for the group stated to this author: “Our manhaj [program] is that we want to remove oppression from this people. We do not want a Turkmen authority or state, but rather we want to bring down this tyrant and oppressor Bashar.”

OmarMukhtarBrigadevehicles
Vehicles of the Omar al-Mukhtar Battalion of Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid

OthmanGhaziBattalion
Members of the Othman Ghazi Battalion. Note the Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid emblem on the vehicle.

Katibat Jabal al-Islam

KatibaJabalIslamLatakia2

Katibat Jabal al-Islam means the “Mount Islam Battalion.” According to the media representative for this group interviewed by the author, Katibat Jabal al-Islam was established in 2012 and is independent. The group operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman area and is primarily Syrian Turkmen in ethnic composition, though it also claims to have Arabs in its ranks as no distinctions are supposedly made on ethnic grounds in accordance with the group’s ideology, which appears to be of jihadist orientation. Indeed, the group’s representative affirmed that the ideological program is the same as that of Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the group strives to “make God’s law the rule of law in the land.” In this context, it should also be noted that on its Facebook page, Katibat Jabal al-Islam shared the Jaysh al-Fatah statement rejecting “foreign projects” seeking to impose “democracy and secularism” in Syria.

KatibaJabalIslamLatakia

The representative claimed that the group is the largest Syrian Turkmen faction in the area and leads the operations in Jabal al-Turkoman, putting the number of fighters for the group at 300.

Other Rebel Factions

Besides the six distinctly local factions profiled above, there are also a number of more familiar rebel groups that participate in the Latakia fighting. Either they are more widespread as individual factions or they are part of bigger coalitions. The most notable actors here are Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Ansar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Of these groups, Jaysh al-Mujahideen- a rebel coalition native to Aleppo province that was once part of the Shami Front merger but subsequently split off- is arguably the smallest, serving as a very minor auxiliary force in Jabal al-Turkoman. In a somewhat similar vein, Jaysh al-Islam, being primarily based in the Damascus area, has much less influence in the northwest of Syria and seems to serve in a supportive role in the Latakia front through firing of projectiles and rockets at regime positions.

Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham- both officially groups of the Islamic Front that has ceased to function as a real political coalition- have more established presences in Latakia province. Besides regularly advertising its operations in Latakia via photos on social media, Ahrar al-Sham was an important participant in both the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives, and currently has local affiliates such as Liwa Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wustani, whose commander Ahmad Ali Abu Ayham was announced to have been killed on 28 November in the fighting in the Jabal al-Akrad area.

Ansar al-Sham primarily operates within Latakia province and was previously a part of the Ahrar-led Salafi coalition known as the Syrian Islamic Front in the late 2012-2013 period. Like Ahrar al-Sham, it participated in the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives. It is also notable for having jihadist fighters of North Caucasian origin in its ranks and leadership, such as one-time leader Abu Musa al-Shishani, a faction under Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani that subsequently split off from Ansar al-Sham in October 2014 to give rise to Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz/Ajnad Kavkaz, and Hanif al-Kabardini, the deputy leader of Ansar al-Sham who was recently killed in the Jabal al-Akrad area . According to a source of Ajnad Kavkaz origin, Kabardini was from Russia and was born to a Circassian father and a Russian mother. There are also conflicting claims that he was killed alongside a certain Muslim al-Shishani. Though pro-opposition Enab Baladi’s Latakia correspondent denies that the Muslim al-Shishani of Georgian nationality who leads jihadi faction Junud al-Sham has been killed, this author’s source says that the slain Muslim al-Shishani is another Muslim al-Shishani who was serving as leader of Ansar al-Sham.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Sham has tended to keep quiet in its own media channels about the issue of foreign jihadists in its ranks, but one sign of recent key losses and trouble may be a new statement issued on 7 December by the group’s Shari’i council, entitled “The Syrian Sahel between abandonment and attrition”:

“Indeed what our Syrian Sahel [coastal area] is being exposed to in Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman from a vicious campaign in which the nations of the earth have gathered against the oppressed from the Muslims requires every Muslim capable of fighting and supporting his brothers to support them and relieve them as far as he can, just as it requires the factions operating on all of the liberated lands to unite their military capabilities and powers and send what goes beyond their needs from weapons and equipment or manpower support in order to be an aid to their brothers in the Syrian Sahel and foil the plot of the plotters.

Our mujahideen brothers, the continuous succession of strikes on these areas and the repeated daily attempts by the regime supported by Russian aircraft are coming down heavily on the battalions and factions present in these areas, and indeed all following what is going on know the extent of attrition that these factions are being exposed to and the extent of material, military and manpower weakness that has caught up with them especially with the continuous succession of these attacks and the falling of frontline maintainers and defenders between the two fires of securing their people and relatives and protecting the frontlines.

Our brothers…be a source of support for your brothers, make preparations and send aid and arms to support your brothers. Otherwise, be prepared to be the next ones to face this regime after it is done with your brothers. We ask God for guidance and steadfastness for us all: indeed He is the best to be implored.

Shari’i Council
Ansar al-Sham.”

Jihadist Factions

As mentioned in the introduction, Latakia province has had a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen. Indeed, a number of well-known jihadist factions with foreign components/leadership set up base in Latakia province, such as Suqur al-Izz, which was led by Saudis and merged with Jabhat al-Nusra last year, and Harakat Sham al-Islam, a Moroccan-led faction that first emerged in 2013 and has remained separate from Jabhat al-Nusra in being affiliated with the Jabhat Ansar al-Din jihadi coalition, despite the clear al-Qa’ida affinities and the merger of that coalition’s leading component- Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar– with Jabhat al-Nusra earlier this year.

Other notable actors have included the North Caucasian-led Junud al-Sham, which has recently been off the radar of social media, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, whose leader Abu Obeida al-Masri initially headed to Latakia after being forced to withdraw from the Azaz area in summer 2014. However, one must distinguish between using Latakia as a hang-out place as opposed to trying to consolidate one’s influence there in the long-run. For instance, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham seems to have primarily focused on riding the wave of Jaysh al-Fatah-led advances in Idlib province since spring 2015 and building influence among the local populations there. This contrasts with Harakat Sham al-Islam, whose attempts to engage in outreach to local populations in Latakia province have long been apparent.

Overall, based on media output and the testimony of other Latakia groups, the most important jihadist factions operating on the Latakia frontlines at the present time are Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Sham al-Islam and the Uyghur-jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, the last of which has also been involved in heavy fighting in the Sahl al-Ghab plains to the west and can wield influence in Latakia province on the basis of Turkic ethnic solidarity with the Syrian Turkmen. The spokesman for 2nd Coastal had noted the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam in particular but sought to downplay their numbers, while the spokesman for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm pointed to the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkistan Islamic Party in the fighting but attempted to minimise the Jabhat al-Nusra presence and characterize its role as one of occasional auxiliary support.  The Jabal al-Turkoman operations room according to Katibat Jabal al-Islam includes Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam.

From the jihadist propaganda, the Turkistan Islamic Party seems to stand out here recently. On 27 November, one account linked to the group claimed 30 ‘martyrs’ over the past two weeks in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, pointing to deep involvement on the front lines.

DoguTurkistan30shaheed
The Turkistan Islamic Party-linked account claiming 30 ‘martyrs’ over two weeks in Jabal al-Turkoman area (H/T Caleb Weiss).

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Harakat Sham al-Islam in Jabal al-Turkoman. Photo released in late November.

JabhatNusraJabalTurkoman
Jabhat al-Nusra also in Jabal al-Turkoman.

Conclusion

The Latakia frontlines present a myriad of insurgent actors, with no single faction taking the lead across the entire front. In general, the dynamics seem to have shifted from the jihadist-led failed offensives of largely symbolic and diversionary value to a stalemate with constant localized back-and-forth, requiring insurgent groups of all stripes to coordinate their efforts. With the failure of the jihadist-spearheaded offensives, FSA-brand forces in particular also seem to have become better organized and better equipped to play a more serious role in the fighting, balancing out the playing field somewhat.

 

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Relief & Reconciliation for Syria – Help us give the Syrian youth a future!

Our NGO «R&R for Syria» combines peace building with practical help. Under the joint authority of local leaders, we are trying to offer a future to Syrian youth.

More than 1 million Syrian refugees have become stranded in Lebanon. Some of them have lost everything. The Akkar district in the North of Lebanon is itself the poorest region of the country and has been neglected by international assistance for many years. Today, it shelters the highest percentage of refugees in Lebanon. The poorest are welcoming the poor.

With the help of more than 850 individual donors, we opened in 2013 the Peace Center in Bkarzla, a small village next to the district capital Halba. The Akkar is a mixed region where a Sunni majority lives side by side with Christians and Alawis. In this region, family ties have crossed the Syrian border for many years. It is the ideal place to create a model that could also work inside Syria.

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Our Peace Center welcomes the youth of different confessions and groups, both Syrian and Lebanese. We chose a building in a safe, natural setting to give traumatized children and adolescents the possibility to rest. In our Peace Center, they are receiving psychosocial, educational support, as well as material assistance.

In 2014, R&R worked with more than 20 tented settlements through educational and psychosocial work, enrolled 682 students in our regular educational activities and distributed food baskets and other survival aid to 2,161 most vulnerable families, reaching more than 11,000 individuals.

THE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM

R&R created and financially supports a Camp School in the refugee Camp Al-Ihsan, situated in the plain of Minyarah. In the end of 2014, 340 students from a dozen surrounding camps were enrolled in Al-Ihsan School that included 14 school classes and 1 pre-school class.

The lack of French language skills is one of the main reasons preventing Syrian students from accessing Lebanese schools. Unlike Syria, the Lebanese curriculum for most main subjects is taught in French. The starting point for R&R’s work with most of our students is hence Intensive Language Classes in French or English as well as basic knowledge of Arabic and math classes if needed. In 2014, altogether 363 children were enrolled in these classes.

Finally R&R organizes Remedial Homework Help Classes as well as a Work & Learn Scheme targeting students beyond 15 years of age who have to work. In 2014, more than 300 children participated to these activities.

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Daily child care is offered by local volunteers to children enrolled in the Al- Ihsan camp school. In the second half of 2014, international volunteers started implementing regular dance and sport activities once or twice a week, both for women and for men. Local youth clubs were also established in Michmich and at the Al-Ihsan Camp.

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As a peace building initiative, we are politically neutral and not affiliated to any government or party. However we are not neutral in our values. We are pushing for an inclusive peace, based on democracy and human rights. For ourselves, we adopt the principles of nonviolent action, but we do not judge those who are fighting in defense of their beloved.

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“A Trip to the ‘Caliphate’: Oppressive Justice under ISIS,” By Omar al-Wardi

A Trip to the “Caliphate,” Oppressive Justice under ISIS
By OMAR AL-WARDI (a pseudonym for a Syrian who was brought up in the Jazeera region of Syria, where ISIS now rules and who has visited the region many times since.)
For Syria Comment, Nov 21, 2015

Translated by Richard Hanania, a political science PhD student at UCLA

Many believe the subjects of the Islamic State (ISIS) live in a constant state of terror. Some may also think that there is no such thing as normal life in these areas. I myself have written a great deal about the crimes and inhumane acts carried out by the group in its territories in Eastern Syria, particularly Raqqa and Dar al-Zour. Indeed, most of what has been written on these topics is true. But most authors have written from a narrow point of view and with one eye closed. Many of these authors haven’t spent time on the ground and only imagine the reality. They accept the stereotypes repeated ad nauseam by the media. I grew up in the Jazeera and have traveled their a number of times since ISIS took over, spending time in different cities in order to explore the attitudes of acquaintances and relatives alike.

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Region around al-Bukamal

When I traveled to al-Bukamal the first time since after had been conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014, I believed that I was traveling to hell. I was terrified. At any moment, I expected to be picked out on my vehicle, manically and tortured. I thought I would never return from ISIS-controlled territory alive. I had internalized the notion that ISIS rules only through terror. I nearly passed out from fear at the checkpoints along the way. But, aside from the natural intensity of security barriers and checkpoints, I did not see a picture that fit with the ISIS stereotypes that I had accepted and which had been propagated by the media.

In al-Bukamal, I found a city that was surprisingly safe; one where individuals are unable to attack others, defraud people in the market, or festoon the streets with cigarette butts. Indeed, the city looked cleaner and seemed healthier than I had ever seen it; smoking has disappeared completely, as did any appearances of people sitting around wasting time in cafes as they used to do. It was a city completely different than the one I knew at the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. A consensus among its inhabitants, which number around 400,000 in the city and its surrounding towns, has emerged regarding ISIS rule. Perhaps the biggest proof of this is the fact that ISIS areas are among the regions of Syria from which young people are least likely to flee to Europe, a point that many seem to have missed. For if life were truly hellacious in this city and its surrounding towns, everyone would have migrated to Germany, Austria, or even Turkey. Yet most people have stayed put; they do not abandon their homes and land.

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I disregarded the well-known question: Do you hate ISIS? This is because I already know the answer of why some people hate this group, and the question I had come to answer was how others can love such a bloody and criminal organization, which cuts off heads and drags people in the street after killing and cutting them up. The answers I was given were realistic and coherent, converging on a single theme: ISIS had brought “justice” to the city.

With my own eyes, I saw how the people of al-Bukamal are not as oppressed as they had been in the past. In al-Bukamal most of the people that ISIS have imprisoned are ISIS members themselves. The ISIS regime does not hesitate to punish its own members when they break the law. Even an ISIS emir was prosecuted and thrown in prison by the local governor when it was found that he had abused his power and assaulted innocent people.

This is the model of justice that ISIS is strives to bring the residents of al-Bukamal as well as to Raqqa. The cities of the region have embraced ISIS and ceded their right to use violence in order to punish those who commit crimes or do wrong. They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.

The single most important factor that has persuaded people to accept the “Caliphate” is the fact that citizens can go out at any time of day or night without being harassed by the Free Syrian Army or being robbed blind by men claiming to be from Jabhat al-Nusra. This is most true in the tribal areas of the province.

More than one person has told me that the honor of women is never violated. Even the enemies of ISIS in the region concede this. They admit that since ISIS assumed authority, not a single incident of assault against a woman or young girl has occured. This is contrary to the desultory state of social life when Jabhat al-Nusra ruled al-Bukamal. Then, brothels operated openly. Today, you can rest assured that traveling from Dar al-Zur to al-Anbar, a distance of some 350 kilometers, you will not be harmed as long as you obey the law.

One of the main reasons ISIS has been accepted by a vast majority is that corruption was rampant in the area during the first years of the uprising against Assad. First, the militias that called themselves the Free Syrian Army ruled. They disported themselves no differently than thieves and bandits. Civilians lived in a state of anxiety that their possessions would be lifted from them one after the other and fear that they would be harassed and possibly killed. Then came al-Nusra, which was concerned only with power and gave little care to justice or good government. Between the Free Army and Nusra, society was lost. No one dared approach the authorities to resolve disputes. Once the Caliphate established control over the region, however, people have breathed easier and feel less oppressed.

In fact, the residents of al-Bukamal cannot hate members of the organization and those who work with them when they see them trying to deliver water and electricity to the people at affordable prices. Nor can they hate the organization when prices are set at reasonable levels. The ISIS fighters are vigilant on their behalf and up into the night in order to provide for them. This reality destroys hatred, and although some people in the area may not want the organization to remain in power, the weak do, as do the poor who have no one else to fend for them. It is true that some fighters have special privileges, but these are a minority and do not compare to those enjoyed by the officials who were previously aligned with the government, or the fighters of the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra.

ISIS has all the moral and material capability it needs in order to rebuild the cities it controls. More importantly, it possesses the will to provide a better life for the people. It is still unable to adopt the modern techniques necessary to improve the lives of its people as it promises, but it strives to attain them.

The planes that fly over ISIS-controlled territories have had only one real victory. It is not the killing of fighters or the obstruction of the movement of the organization. Rather, they have simply prevented the group from delivering services to the community, and this is the only real achievement of the coalition fighting ISIS.

I seek to draw a realistic image of ISIS, one that can be compared with and contrasted to the picture of a bloody organization. For it is impossible for a bloody murderous regime to rule without inducing physical and societal security. But this is rarely mentioned in order to tarnish the image of the organization, one that does not need any more than the truth to do so.

The question is, has there developed an ISIS society, meaning has the organization integrated into the larger community? Until now, the group cannot speak of an “ISIS society” in any real sense; in that it is fear and terror that still rules the community. But with the passage of time, if the regime stays in power at least three more years, I expect that there would be a real ISIS society, and this is the biggest fear with regards to the Eastern regions. From this ISIS society will be born extremist and terrorist ideas.

In the next report: How ISIS exploits societal contradictions and historical grudges.

“Regime-Change without State Collapse is Impossible in Syria,” Landis Interviewed by RT’s Sophie&Co

Sophie Shevardnadze of RT interviews Joshua Landis on Russian TV

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Joshua Landis

The following written version is a “cleaned” up “edited” version of my interview. I edited it for grammar, diction and clarity. None of the arguments made in the video (linked below) are missing or altered.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and influential analyst on Syria, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. Professor, President Obama is sending up to 50 SpecOps forces to Syria to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State. Fifty people is not a lot of help. What’s he hoping to change in the grand course of things? Is there a hidden point to this move?

JL: I think President Obama is trying to respond to his critics, more than anything else. 1. One set of critics are the 50 intelligence analysts who complained a month ago that the administration was spinning intelligence to suggest that the U.S. was winning the war against ISIS when it was not. 2, The Iraqis have been asking the Russians to help them bomb ISIS. They complain that the US isn’t doing enough. And 3, U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have complained that Washington isn’t helping them enough. They complain that the reason Russia is moving into Syria is because the US has left a vacuum. So, Obama is inserting extra troops to satisfy his critics. At the same time, the troops are small enough in number to avoid getting the U.S. sucked into a third Middle Eastern war.

SS: Ok, but doesn’t that number strike you as not even symbolic? Fifty people? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that 50 people can’t really do anything…

JL: Well, I’m not sure they can’t do anything. We’ve seen some important actions by Special Forces. They liberated a bunch of captives in Iraq. In Syria, they killed Abu Sayyaf, the economic brains of ISIS, and captured his wife along with his computers which provided important information about ISIS. They can make a difference, but you are right; no one believes they will change the course of events in any significant way. They are not meant to defeat ISIS.

SS: Okay. 75% of American sorties in the anti-ISIS campaign come back without having fired. And that’s according to Senator John McCain. Should the U.S. air effort be more intense?

JL: Well, obviously, the US is trying not to kill innocent Syrians. They’re very worried about collateral damage. It is important to understand that the U.S. is not trying to destroy ISIS but to contain it and keep it weak enough so that it cannot kill Americans or destabilize Jordan and its neighbors. I think President Obama has largely abandoned the notion that he’s going to destroy ISIS. He is pursing a very narrow counter-terrorism campaign. Of course, many people expect them to destroy ISIS, because he said he would destroy it – but immediately after saying those words, he began to say “well, it’s going to take many years.”

SS: So, Iran has joined Syrian peace talks, sitting down with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The two were staunch opponents of Iran taking part in the talks. So, what has changed?

JL: The U.S. wanted Iran at the table. Everybody knows that Iran is important. It has thousands of troops in Syria and funds Syria to the tune of billions of dollars. Hezbollah is also in Syria at Iran’s urging, to a certain degree. Iran is a key player. No peace agreement can stick without Iran. The U.S. understands that. And, in some respects, the Russia incursion in Syria has given cover for Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama to revise some of their past policies toward Syria.

SS: Neither the Syrian regime, nor the opposition were invited to peace talks. Why not? Do powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more control over the situation in Syria than Syrians themselves at this point?

JL: Well, that’s a very good question: everybody was been scratching their heads about the absence of Syrians at the talks. But it would be very difficult to get Syrians to the peace talks. Assad will not attend so long as the US and coalition members are demanding that he step down. The opposition is too fragmented and numerous. There are a thousand five hundred militias, according to the CIA. Of course, there are about 20-30 that are big, important militias, but they refuse to talk to Assad. So, if one waited for Syrians to attend, one would have to wait until hell froze over. I think that the Great Powers made the logical decision that “we’re going to meet anyway.” Moreover, all combatants in Syria depend almost entirely on outside powers for arms and money. If the powers could agree to stop sending arms into Syria, it would result in a dramatic decrease in the amount of people being killed. Syrians are so weak and poor that external powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia can make a tremendous difference even if they meet without Syrians.

SS: Assad has agreed to take part in early elections – can Syria in its current state hold the vote? Can there be a vote before Islamic State is beaten?

JL: First, Syria is in such terrible physical state and so many people have been forced from their homes or left the country that it would be almost impossible to have fair elections. Secondly, and more importantly perhaps, it is hard for anyone to believe that the outcome would be different from the elections held in the past 45 years? All ended up with a 99% vote for the President. There’s such distrust between all sides. Nobody puts much faith in the idea of elections. Most people understand that lurking beneath the question of elections is another question: “Can the Assad regime stay or not?” Now that Russia has intervened on the side of Assad, it’s quite clear the Assad regime is staying and will stay. How the West is going to accommodate itself to this fact is not yet clear.

SS: The Western-backed FSA commander Ahmad Sa’oud told AP: “What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism”. So, they don’t really care about the fight against Islamic State as well…

JL: You’re right. Most actors in Syria have other priorities besides destroying the Islamic State. Almost all rebel groups insist on destroying Assad before the Islamic State. They refuse to be drawn into what they call a “sahwa.” They do not want to become “agents of America” and so forth. The vast majority want nothing to do with the fight against ISIS before they have defeated Assad. Many members of the Coalition that are fighting ISIS also have other priorities. That is a big problem for both for the Russians and for the U.S. Indeed, the US has other priorities as well. We saw in Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere, the US would not attack ISIS if it believed Assad and his military would benefit. It preferred to have ISIS take Palmyra than to be seen to be helping Assad.

SS: So, why does the West keep supporting those rebels? For the West it’s not a fight about removing Assad rather than fighting Islamic State.

JL: This is true, but many top US generals, like the Syrian opposition, continue to insist that Assad is the magnet drawing ISIS into Syria and thus must be destroyed first. This argument makes little sense. After all, when did Al-Qaeda pour into Iraq? Only after Saddam was deposed and the Americans ruled the country. I don’t think any of the US generals who now claim that Assad must be destroyed in order to defeat ISIS would also argue that America had to be destroyed in Iraq in order to rid it of al-Qaida. If fact the US is building up the Iranian supported Shiite regime in Iraq to destroy ISIS, whereas it is seeking to destroy the Iranian backed “Shiite” regime in Damascus in the name of destroying ISIS. The American policy in Iraq is to kill al-Qaida not to accommodate it.

I think everyone can agree that Al-Qaeda spread in Iraq because the state was destroyed and insecurity prevailed. The same is true in Syria. When Assad pulled his army out of the East, al-Qaida and other forms of Islamic extremism spread. ISIS spreads where states fail.

The U.S. does not use the same logic in Syria that it uses in Iraq. This is simply part of the political landscape in America. You need to understand that the U.S. has two different metrics – one for Iraq and one for Syria.

SS: Does the U.S. have enough influence over the opposition they’re backing to make them agree to a political process in Syria?

JL: No. That’s the short answer.

SS: So people who represent the opposition in peace talks, are they controlling forces on the ground?

JL: No, they’re not. The strongest militias in Syria are the more extreme and more Salafist militias. The Islamists have a real ideology to sell; they are the militias who have national reach and representation in all provinces of Syria. The US backs the weakest militias in Syria. They are the non-ideological militias and are extremely local. For the most part, they are composed of clan and tribal leaders. They may hold sway over a village or two; they may command a thousand men, perhaps two thousand, but not more than that. The Islamic militants, such as Al-Qaeda, Ahrar ash-Sham, ISIS and the Islamic Army, have purchase over a broad segment of Syrian society that stretches from north to south. The US refuses to deal with Islamist militias. It insists on dealing only with the weaker ones, which operate with some independence, but in many cases have to defer to the tougher and stronger Islamist militias that hold sway in most parts of Syria.

The US policy of trying to bring forward moderate militias has failed three different times. It was never likely to succeed. I think Obama was correct not to go down the road of betting on the moderates. The US would have gotten stuck in a third Middle Eastern war. It would be committed to the impossible policy of making them win.  Those that argue that the US squandered its opportunity to train, arm and finance moderates to destroy both Assad and Jihadist militias delude themselves. The US is at a loss in Syria now that the policy of arming moderates has failed. Russians have an opportunity to shape the Syrian political landscape because of America’s confusion.

The US will not like what Russian is doing, but it will stand by without opposing Russia too much. We will see if the Syrian army has enough oomph, enough strength to do the things that it claims to be able to do, such as take Aleppo and Idlib. Right now, Russia is confident, the Syrian authorities are confident; they believe that they can win. But I think people in the U.S., the top brass, are thinking that Russia will fail. Obama explained that he believes Russia will be sucked into the Syrian swamp. Evidently Saudi and others are pumping in more TOWs and advanced weapons to ensure Russia does get sucked into a swamp. They will ensure that Assad doesn’t win; it should be easy. U.S. policy makers are betting that in a year’s time, or even less, Russia and Assad will come back to them on bended knee. We’ll see what happens. Of course, in that time, Syria is going to be further brutalized, and a lot more people will be killed.

SS: So, Professor, you were talking about America supporting moderate rebels just before the end of the first part of our program. A CIA veteran Graham Fuller told me that being a moderate and fighting a civil war contradicts itself. When you pick up a gun, that means you’re already not a moderate – what do you think?

JL: Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. None of the militias are taking prisoners. I don’t know what the US uses as its metric for determining moderation, but if human rights is one of the metrics, none of these militias are following anything remotely close to what the United States would consider moderate or acceptable. Separation of church and state? I’m not aware of any militias that call for secularism or separation of church and state as the US does. All want some form of Islamic state – how much is really the measure. I guess, the U.S. is trying to measure how long their beards are and whether they are really committed Salafists or not. America has sided with tribal and clan leaders, as I said before, that are not very ideological. The danger of this policy is that clan leaders are prone to become warlords who will side with anybody so long as they pay and provide arms.

They are more interested in carving out their own little territories to rule. They cannot presume to conquer Damascus or rule the country. They are teaming up with their cousins and other close relatives and friends in order to protect their families and villages. In the south, Jordan and Israel use friendly militias to build buffer zones. They ensure that radicals, such as al-Qaida and ISIS don’t become neighbors. They also provide their sponsors with leverage against Assad. They can hurt Assad when they need to. In the north, Turkey looks to its favored militias to give it leverage in Northern Syria and prevent Kurdish expansion. Turkey’s aim is to prevent the Kurds from joining Kobani to Afrin.

SS: But also, the rebels inside Syria, they haven’t united against Assad. Do they even want to unify?

JL: They claim to want to unify but have failed to do so because they all want to be the leader or “top dog” in their neighborhood. This is the problem with the larger Middle East – it’s very fragmented. Family, clan, and village still predominate over a sense of the nation. Compromise is a bad word that signifies weakness. It is an important reason for the failure of democracy and secular nationalism. Dictators dominate all the Middle Eastern states. Why? Because there are no ideological bonds that unite the people or democratic traditions. The socioeconomic and ideological prerequisites for democracy are weak.

SS: Does that mean that if Assad is gone, the power struggle between these factions will continue and there will be no unity – so we’re going to get another Libya on our hands?

JL: I believe so, yes. The West falsely believes that it can separate the regime from the state. It argues that it can pursue regime-change while simultaneously preserving the state and its institutions. Washington believes it can avoid the chaos it sewed in Iraq. I don’t believe it can. It wasn’t only Bremer that criminalized the Baath Party and disbanded the army. The Shiite politicians he empowered insisted on it. In most Middle Eastern countries, the regimes, for better or worse, have transformed the states into reflections of themselves. They have cannibalized the state. They have crammed their loyalists into every nook and cranny of the national institutions. They had to in order to coup-proof their regimes. They justified it in the name of bringing stability. State institutions are not autonomous.  Westerners believe that because their own state institutions are run by professional civil servants, Middle Eastern states are too. But they aren’t. Political appointees make up the entire edifice. They cannot simply be swapped out. Regime-change for an Arab country is not like administration change in a Western country. Destroying the regime means destroying the state. The price of regime-change is chaos. That is the situation in Syria today. It is the situation almost everywhere in the Middle East. Think of Saudi Arabia without the Saudi family. What would be left of the state?

Were the Russians to place a Sunni on top of the regime, as the US and opposition insist it do, the Sunni leader would have to smash the state and fire tens of thousands of state employees just as was done in Iraq. He would have to assume that they were disloyal and would seek to overthrow him. He would also in all likelihood insist on putting his cousins and those loyal to him in power. This is what happened in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. This is the Middle Eastern dilemma. This is one reason U.S. led regime-change has failed so miserably. The United States claims the Middle East needs democracy. But democracy has failed, at least democracy promoted by regime-change. Perhaps, this is why so many people in the world today look at Russia and think: “maybe they’re right? Maybe, the Middle East does need strongmen.”

SS: What do you think Russia understands more about Syria that U.S. doesn’t? If you can say it in few words…

JL: Both countries, both Russia and the U.S. look at the Middle East and see themselves. The religion of the United States is democracy; It looks at the Middle East and thinks: “Oh, we can solve its problems by exporting democracy. Freedom will dry up the swamp of angry youth; it will dry up terrorism, which is the product of dictatorship. They believe that Jihadism and Salafism will vanish as merit-driven, young strivers embrace capitalism and self-improvement.

SS: And that never worked – what about Russia?

JL: Well, Russia looks at the Middle East and says: “We need a strong man; there needs to be stability or things will crumble”. Look at Russia at the time of Perestroyka, when insecurity reigned and the country was weak. I think, the President says: “We need somebody strong.” This reaction is wide spread. It is the reaction of all strong men. Turkish President Erdogan used the same logic and slogan to win recent Turkish elections: “You want stability – I am the only one who can save you from chaos!”. Unfortunately, in Syria, the Assads have been intoning this slogan of “Amn wa istiqrar“, “security and stability” for 45 years. Clearly, many Syrians were fed up with it and hoped to break out of this Hobbsian choice. But the situation in Syria has gotten so bad over the last four and a half years that many Syrians are embracing dictatorship again. They want authority over chaos and stability over insecurity, even at the cost of living under dictatorship and giving up political freedoms? We see this in the ISIS territory, where many people claim that they are happier under a cruel authority than no authority at all. They tasted militia chaos, which prevailed before ISIS swept through the region. They learned how dangerous it can be. They may not like ISIS, but they like the security, the institutions, and and semblance of order that ISIS has brought. Assad benefits from the same calculations on his side. He can point to the chaos and absence of state-supplied services that prevail in rebel territory. Of course, he is doing everything he can to ensure rebel chaos. But there is no getting around the fact that the rebels have failed. They could not unify. For the most part, they do not offer more freedoms than Assad does. The successful rebels replicate the authoritarian structures they complained of under Assad. The major difference is that rebels offer authoritarianism with a distinct Sunni-religious stamp, rather than a “secular” or “godless” Alawi stamp.

SS: Al-Qaeda has called on all jihadists to unite against the West and Russia. Are we entering a new phase of a War on Terror? One where Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and the Taliban all act as one against us and Americans?

JL: Would America openly sided with Russia? It’s hard to see that. Russia has been demonized in America for many years now, and the Cold War is not entirely dead. The Ukraine issue has returned the Cold War mentality to a certain extent. It’s hard to imagine the rebels uniting in Syria. I think it is more likely that they will continue to fragment.

SS: So, tell me something, you’ve just said that there’s probably no chance that America will openly sided with Russia on Syria, but why is it important for American politicians to look tough on Syria? What’s really so beneficial for America? For America to be involved in Syria, why does the U.S. even care?

JL: That’s an excellent question! It’s like asking why the U.S. drove Russia out of Afghanistan. One of the stupidest things America ever did was try to arm up the mujahidiin to drive secular Russia out of Afghanistan. Look what we got: we got Al-Qaeda, we got 9/11, and we got a war in Iraq from which we cannot escape. A lot of our troubles came from trying to drive Russia out of Afghanistan. And you could ask the same question about Syria. We were wrong to do it then, are we wrong to do it now? Syria is not that important to the U.S. so one might ask, “why not let Russia have it.” Of course there are people who think that in the U.S. administration. But it is very difficult for the U.S., which has been used to being the superpower, the Decider, and the policeman of the world, to come to the understanding that it can’t control places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. It is hard to relinquish the role of policeman to someone else, and particularly, to Russia.

SS: What does the U.S. see as a good outcome of the civil war? Who does it want to win? Or maybe it just wants to contain this whole thing for a couple of years to come?

JL: I think the U.S. is after containment. What does America want? America doesn’t know what it wants. It wants “moderates” to win, Syrians who have a secular and democratic vision for Syria. But moderates are not going to win in Syria; most liberals have been scraped off the top of Syrian society and now sit powerless in foreign countries; the moderate militias are too weak. Of course, moderates complain that they are losing because America doesn’t give them money and arms and didn’t stand by its red lines, but chances are, they’re too weak. Moderates have been beaten everywhere you look in the Middle East. God bless Tunisia. Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. They have been too weak across the Middle East. They could not agree on a common vision of Syria and could not unite. The US gave them opportunities and sought to unite the international community with the Friends of Syria effort. A dizzying array of Syrians, of would be leaders, insisted that they could unite Syrians if only the CIA would give them the money and arms. Anyway, there have been a lot of recriminations. We may never know the truth of America’s squandered moderate opportunity.

Whom does America like today? It does not like any of the three major actors in Syria that could possibly win. They are Assad, Jaysh al-Fateh, and ISIS. The US has placed brutal sanctions on Assad and the 65% of Syrians that he controls; it arms rebels to attack him. It is bombing ISIS, which owns almost 50% of Syrian real estate; and it doesn’t like Jaish al-Fatah, which owns the province of Idlib because it has Al-Qaeda at its core and is dominated by Salafists. Consequently, America doesn’t have an answer. The result is that it will try to keep everybody weak. It doesn’t want Assad to win, but also doesn’t want ISIS or Jaish al-Fateh to win. The U.S. will let the Syrian swamp boil. As one U.S. military analyst joked to me recently: “We should build a stadium around Syria and sell tickets.” It was an attempt at gallows humor that horrified many State Department officials who were also in the room, but it expressed the dark mood and sense of futility many in the Obama administration share.

SS: So, I spoke recently to the former French PM Dominique de Villepin, and he told me that the federalization of Syria once ISIS is defeated may be the answer to its political problems. Do you think it will give Syria a chance?

JL: Each side in Syrian still believes that it can win. As long as they think they can win, they will not come to the peace table and talk about federalism, about ceasefires, and about sharing power. Federalism in this context is really about dividing Syria. Seventy percent of Syrians in a recent poll said that they were against dividing Syria. It will take more time before Syrians are ready to sit down and talk about federalism and dividing authority in Syria. They are still in love with their country as it used to be and cannot accept that it is gone.

SS: Professor, thank you very much for this interview. We’ve been talking to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, influential commentator on Syria, making sense of the maze of country’s civil war and its effect on the region and beyond. That’s it edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.

The Interview on video:

Media Maskirovka: Russia and the Free Syrian Army

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

“We are ready to support from the air the patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently told Russian state television. But, he said, Moscow is currently unable to do so, since it cannot figure out who leads the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the United States won’t help identify them. Lavrov’s comments were met with derision and scorn by Syrian rebels, including many self-declared FSA members, who complain that the Russian Air Force has been bombing them since September 30.

But lo and behold—on October 25, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that other members of the FSA are ready for “dialogue” in the hope of Russian “assistance.” The agency quoted Fahd al-Masri, whom it described a founder of the FSA, as saying that the two sides “need to facilitate a new meeting, so we could express our position and discuss our joint actions.” Masri’s comments were widely echoed in media friendly to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, including Iran’s Press TV, which quoted Masri as saying that “it is in the interests of Russia and FSA to hold this meeting as soon as possible.”

Suddenly, rumors were everywhere that FSA reprsentatives were en route to Moscow. The Syrian exile opposition tried to deny them, but no use. Russian state media kept going. On October 26, Sputnik News referred back to Masri’s purported proposal for a Russia-FSA conference in Cairo and then dropped a diplomatic bomb: ”Moscow has confirmed that Free Syrian Army (FSA) envoys had visited Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday.”

A few days later, on October 30, Bogdanov spoke on the sidelines of a meeting on Syria in Vienna to explain that Russia wants the FSA to be included in future peace talks, while ”one of the founders of the so called FSA,” who once again turned out to be Fahd al-Masri, was heard praising Moscow’s newfound flexibility in Russian state media.

On November 3, we were told that the Russian military is now in touch with a large number of opposition groups, which have begun feeding the Russians battlefield coordinates to help them take out “terrorists.” Then, finally, on November 5, Sputnik News brought on one Mahmoud al-Effendi to announce that officials from the Russian foreign and defense ministries will meet with the FSA leaders in Abu Dhabi next week.

Is this the long-expected Syrian game changer? Is the Free Syrian Army, Syria’s much-vaunted moderate mainstream opposition, now defecting from its Western and Gulf allies to instead hook up with Russia and Bashar al-Assad?

No, not quite.

All-American Agitprop

These reports come as Russian officials are trying to manage the political fallout of President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to claim that its attacks target the so-called Islamic State, an extremist group that is hostile to both Assad and other rebels, the geographical pattern of Russian Air Force strikes shows no attempt (or ability?) to distinguish between rebel groups. Islamic State-affiliated groups are in fact a small minority of the targets and some of the very first strikes seem to have hit an American-backed faction. In other words, the Kremlin is trying to play on Western fears of terrorism as political cover for a mission designed to shore up Assad’s government.

Of course, wartime propaganda is not an exclusively Russian domain. When the United States was occupying Iraq, senior Bush administration officials like Washington Don kept blaming “terrorists” of the “Baathist dead-ender” or “al-Qaeda” variety for everything new setback. To be sure, Baathists and al-Qaeda loyalists were a prominent part of the mix, and they would later become dominant. But in the early days, Iraq’s insurgency seems to have been considerably more diverse than what we now see in Syria. In 2003-2004, it consisted of innumerable little local groups that spanned the full range of ideologies from secular nationalism to jihadism; they would even on occasion bridge the Sunni-Shia divide. And yet, U.S. President George W. Bush could get away with telling his people that the Iraqi resistance was all “al-Qaeda types, Ansar al-Islam types, terrorist groups” and conclude that it was better to “fight them there than here.”

A decade later in Syria, the roles are reversed. Russian politicians will contemptuously label any Syrian who has taken up arms to stop the depredations of Bashar al-Assad’s army a “jihadi terrorist” and in lieu of a political strategy, they smirk and puff their chests and say “bring ‘em on.” Their American counterparts sound like the anti-Iraq War tankie left in 2003-2004, eyes darting nervously around the room as they try to explain that there are good salafi insurgents and bad salafi insurgents. Give it a year more, and they’ll be complaining about Russia’s “cowboy attitude.”

Not that their respective supporters seem to notice, or care. But if you’re not a die-hard partisan of either Vladimir Putin or of the late and unlamented presidency of George W. Bush, you will by now have noticed that the Kremlin’s “anti-terrorist” discourse is essentially indistinguishable from the bullshit shoveled into the media by the American White House ten years ago, and equally self-serving, misleading, and destructive. And it, too, works beautifully.

The Russian Defense

Since anyone with access to a map of Syria can easily confirm that the Russian government is lying about its activity in Syria, the international media has started to raise questions. Reuters, for example:

Almost 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Islamic State, a Reuters analysis of Russian Defence Ministry data shows, undermining Moscow’s assertions that its aim is to defeat the group.

When faced with such accusations, Moscow has responded in a chaotic fashion. Instead of settling on a single political message, officials have presented different and often contradictory explanations of what they are doing in Syria, why they are doing it, and why they said they would be doing something else. Some now claim that the intervention was never only about the Islamic State, which would be an excellent defense if not for the fact that the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to falsely claim that it is attacking … the Islamic State. Others prefer to simply change the subject. Still others will continue to retell the original lie and shrug off any objections, since they are well aware that their core audience—largely made up nationalistic and/or apolitical Russians, plus Western tabloid scribblers and conspiracy theorists—neither knows nor cares about the truth.

For example, here’s an actual headline from the British Daily Express on Oct. 30, 2015: “More than 800,000 refugees RETURNING to Syria as Putin OBLITERATES Islamic State.” All of it is nonsense, based off of the tall tales told by Russian officials, but what do they care?

And in Russia, an independent poll shows that 48 percent of respondents think their air force is attacking the Islamic State, and only 13 percent think that the targets are mostly other Syrian opposition groups, while Putin’s own approval ratings have soared to more than 90 percent, according to a state-run pollster.

No need to be surprised. This is how propaganda works. Its primary purpose is to mobilize the base and produce talking points for those already inclined to support you. A secondary purpose, however, is to keep your opponent uncertain, uncommitted, and off balance. And this is where Fahd al-Masri and the FSA come into the picture.

A Meeting in Paris

On October 7, a week into its Syrian campaign, the Russian Foreign Ministry suddenly announced that it would begin talks with the FSA. That same day, a meeting took place at the Russian Embassy in Paris, which brought together Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov—who is a chief architect of Russia’s policy in Syria—with a very interesting cast of characters: “Fahd al-Masri, who is the coordinator of the National Salvation Group in Syria, the retired American general Paul Vallely, and his adviser on Middle Eastern affairs, Nagi Najjar, who is a former intelligence officer.” (We know that the meeting took place since Russian authorities have confirmed that Bogdanov was in Paris at the time, also speaking to French officials and a Syrian Kurdish leader, and Vallely has released a photograph of himself with Bogdanov.)

After the October 7 meeting, the Russian press began to float stories about a Moscow-FSA connection. In two articles, Kommersant cited Masri’s press statement and referred to him as “one of the founders of the Free Syrian Army,” while the state-owned Sputnik News took it a step further: “The Free Syrian Army is ready to establish contacts with the Russian leadership.” Masri was also brought up in another Sputnik News article headlined “Russia Reaffirms Readiness to Cooperate With Free Syrian Army.”

A couple of weeks later, the campaign was turned up a notch, when Russian state media released the information cited at the start of this article, about Fahd al-Masri’s overtures to the Kremlin, his proposal for a political conference in Cairo, and the mysterious FSA delegation in Moscow.

In other words, the meeting with Fahd al-Masri, Paul Vallely, and Naji Najjar has suddenly become part of the Russian government’s claims of a budding relationship with the FSA. But who are they and in what way could they represent the FSA?

Before we answer that question, let’s first step back and define what we mean by “FSA.”

A Brief History of the Free Syrian Armies

The Syrian insurgent movement has always been composed of many different factions. Today, there is about ten or twenty larger organizations, but most of them remain regionally focused and they are continually fragmenting on the fringes, with additional hundreds of smaller rebel bands drifting and out of local alliances.

Many of these groups refer to themselves as part of the FSA, and when the United States and other Western governments provide support to the rebels, they also talk about aiding the FSA. Much of the media has thrown the FSA term around for years, only rarely trying to clarify what’s meant by it except to say that the FSA is a “moderate rebel group” or a “loosely aligned movement” or some such. The confusion stems from the fact that there is no straightforward definition and that many different people, groups, and countries use the word “FSA” to apply to many different things.

The concept of a “Free Syrian Army” first emerged in July 2011, when a “Supreme Command for the Free Syrian Army” was launched by Syrian military defectors in Turkey. Their highest-ranking member, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, took the title of FSA Supreme Commander. Col. Asaad’s FSA group was backed by Turkey and others in order to channel funds to local rebels and create a more cohesive insurgency—one that would be able to topple Assad by some combination of disciplined military action and negotiation. This strategy failed. The insurgency remained chaotically divided, and Col. Asaad’s FSA never evolved far beyond the role of “a fax machine in Turkey,” pouring out press releases in which it claimed credit for attacks staged by others.

Yet, the FSA was wildly successful as a branding operation. The name and the associated logotype caught on among the rebels and is still in widespread use today. It is typically used to refer to those rebels that accept Western and/or Gulf State support, publicly profess some level of belief in democracy and Syrian nationalism  (as  opposed to pan-Islamism), and maintain a healthy distance from al-Qaeda.

Since the creation of Col. Asaad’s original outfit, and its swift decline, there have been repeated foreign-backed attempts to create a new central node for the rebellion, or at least for its more pragmatic and moderate factions. Most of these projects have used the FSA brand.

In December 2012, several countries pooled their efforts to set up something called the General Staff, which had an appended Supreme Military Council. This evolved into the “new FSA,” under the leadership of Brigadier General Salim Idriss. While Idriss’s FSA command would become far more successful than previous unification attempts, it remained a virtual army at best—a kind of political superstructure resting on top of a Gulf Arab-Western-Turkish funding stream for selected Syrian factions, which lacked any central control over them. After limping along for a year and a half, this version of the FSA finally imploded in 2014.

Successive attempts to rebuild this type of central FSA leadership have fizzled. Most recently, we’ve seen the Revolutionary Command Council set up in December 2014 and the reincarnated FSA Supreme Military Council of July 2015. Another project, the FSA High Command , is backed by the exile opposition, but it remains a work in progress. The list will surely continue to grow.

Behind the Scenes: MOM and MOC

The failure to produce an official FSA leadership does not mean that there are no material structures connecting these segments of the insurgency. Thousands of rebel fighters have by now been vetted, trained, and approved for material support via two Military Operations Centers, which feed the insurgency from across the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The one in Turkey is colloquially known as the MOM, for Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, while its Jordanian counterpart is called the MOC, after its English initials.

Apart from Turkey and Jordan, these centers gather representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, and a bunch of other governments. Their role is to coordinate and supervise the flow of arms and ammunition to a select number of rebel groups. Foreign intelligence services, chief among them the CIA, collaborate through these centers to pick which groups should be eligible for support. They will not receive a stamp of approval until their members have been vetted for suspicious contacts, declared that they will stay away from alliances with al-Qaeda, and showed some interest in a negotiated solution to the conflict. The groups involved enjoy different levels of trust and approval, but many also receive “unofficial” support on the side from, for example, Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or various private funders.

So far, this arrangement has been accepted by something like a hundred rebel factions all in all, although a head count is complicated by the fact that they are often folded into overlapping regional umbrellas. While each faction is typically quite small and few of them enjoy national name recognition, they collectively make up a fairly significant segment of the armed opposition. In southern Syria, MOC-funded groups seem to account for a majority of the insurgency. The northern MOM-backed factions enjoy less influence than their southern counterparts, but they are still a considerable force around Aleppo, and some have used U.S.-manufactured missiles to establish themselves in an important niche role as anti-tank units in the Idleb-Hama region.

These groups are what the U.S. government typically refers to when it talks about “the FSA” and there is indeed a very considerable overlap between MOM/MOC-backed factions and factions that self-designate as “FSA.” This crude definition (MOM + MOC = FSA) is also increasingly used by the Syrian exile opposition, the rebels themselves, and others who follow this conflict.

All Those Other People Who Call Themselves “FSA”

Still, there isn’t a perfect correspondence. Anyone can raise an FSA flag without having the approval of the MOM/MOC structure. Some factions do so because they see it as a way to underline their moderate nature and curry favor with foreign funders. Others claim the FSA heritage as part of their revolutionary identity, and say that it shouldn’t be reserved for foreign-backed factions. Conversely, there are MOM/MOC backed factions that do not use the FSA name or symbols, or at least do so very infrequently. This is typically because they previously rejected the FSA brand and developed their own political identity, typically along Islamist ideological lines, and now prefer to maintain that distinction even after being coopted into the MOM/MOC network.

Many groups mean different things when referring to the FSA and use the term opportunistically. For example, when nearly fifty rebel groups recently issued a statement on behalf of the FSA, the signatories included many well-known MOM/MOC affiliates, but also the Islam Army, an Islamist faction that does not normally use FSA insignia and often rejected the label.

In northeastern Syria, there is also a number of self-identified FSA groups that fight the Islamic State alongside the American-backed Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG, in turn, is a front for the pan-Kurdish PKK movement, which has excellent working relations with Moscow. These “FSA” groups are mostly small Arab splinter factions or tribal groups that have been coopted by the PKK to provide extra manpower and put a multi-ethnic face on what is in reality a wholly Kurdish-run project. Some of them also call for Russian intervention, and a prominent Syrian rebel leader who works for a MOC-backed group has claimed that these Kurdish-backed factions are responsible for some of the chatter about “the FSA” visiting Moscow. (Perhaps in connection with some small service to the PKK?)

Then, there are the exiles. The decaying remains of former “FSA leaderships” cover the hotel lobbies of southern Turkey like jellyfish on a shore. Hundreds of defected Syrian military officers still whirl around the exile circuit and most seem to consider themselves to be part of the FSA in some fashion. Some will happily appear in the media as “FSA members,” “FSA advisers,” or even “FSA commanders,” whatever their actual relationship to the insurgency on the ground. Among them, there are indeed those who work closely with the MOM/MOC or its associated factions, but others claim the mantle merely by virtue of past association with some long-since collapsed FSA unity project, often dating back to the pre-Idriss era. For example, the FSA brand’s original inventor in 2011, Col. Riad al-Asaad, still toils in obscurity in Turkey as one of several self-declared “supreme commanders of the FSA.”

In other words, the term “FSA” can mean a great many things. If it is to have any sort of substance and be relevant to the war in Syria these days, it means a rebel group backed by the MOM/MOC structure. Nine out of ten times that you hear about “the FSA” having done something on the Syrian battlefield, it means those groups. But among the groups actually fighting in Syria, there are also the PKK-backed FSA groups and various other claimants, particularly among the exiled officers. Some of their now-defunct unity projects were at one point genuinely representative of armed groups on the ground, while others were ephemeral creatures of Facebook.

As for Fahd al-Masri, he ran one of the latter.

Meet Mr. Masri

The name Fahd al-Masri first came to my attention around six or seven years ago, when I was writing a book on the Syrian opposition. Born in the Midan Quarter of Damascus, he had left Syria in the mid-1990s and ended up in Paris, where he sought work as a journalist. In 1996, he worked for about six months as a technician at the Arab News Network, a satellite channel controlled by Refaat al-Assad, Bashar’s exiled uncle (who recently visited Moscow). When I ask him about this, Masri tells me that he simply needed a job and that he does not support a “murderer” like Refaat al-Assad. He was also seen as close to Syria’s former Vice President Abdelhalim Khaddam, who, after being kicked out of office by Bashar al-Assad in 2005, had moved to Paris and begun to bankroll opposition activity. By the end of the 00s, Masri was hosting a talkshow on Barada TV, a London-based anti-Assad satellite station (which was covertly funded by the U.S. State Department). He returned to Paris in late 2010 or early 2011.

All in all, Fahd al-Masri was a minor figure at the time—a small shard of Syria’s great tragedy, as one of tens of thousands of political émigrés huddled around Europe and the Middle East, human byproducts of the Assad family’s machinery of fear, wealth, and power.

With the advent of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Fahd al-Masri’s stature began to grow. Media outlets all over the world began a frantic search for representatives of the budding insurgency in Syria, but only a small number of long-time correspondents, nerds, and academics seemed to have any idea about who was who in the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the Assad government, many different opposition groups, regional intelligence services, and what at times appeared to be a global army of narcissists were all jostling to get in front of the cameras. The results were confusing, at times tragic, and occasionally hilarious—such as the media uproar over Mohammed Rahhal’s 2011 declaration of war, or the Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a straight man in Edinburgh.

Into this chaos stepped Fahd al-Masri. As early as August 2011—when most of the mainstream political opposition still clung to nationalist-democratic rhetoric and peaceful protest—he would appear on al-Arabiya from Paris to demand a foreign intervention in Syria. He didn’t represent any known activist group or political party, but some combination of availability and incendiary statements still made him a sought-after commentator.

The FSA Joint Command

Masri has told me that in late 2011, he promoted an aspiring rebel leadership known as the FSA Supreme Military Council, which was headed by Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh. Briefly considered a Saudi favorite, Sheikh’s group fizzled in mid-2012 and he later went into exile in Sweden. But by that time Masri, who does not appear to have had any official link to Sheikh’s group, had already moved on. In this period, “[h]e tried to build himself up as FSA spokesman, but it didn’t work out,” says a person who has worked with Masri. “The officers he had allied himself to all flopped.”

In March 2012, Masri was invited to the founding congress of a new rebel unity project, the FSA Joint Command of Colonel Qasem Saadeddine. Masri then began to appear as the FSA Joint Command’s media spokesperson, although it is not clear to me whether this was approved by the group itself. Some have claimed that Col. Saadeddine’s group fired him after only a week. While Masri disputes that, he certainly seems to have drifted away from the rest of the leadership at some point.

As a military coalition, the FSA Joint Command soon declined into irrelevance, but not before endowing Col. Saadeddine with name recognition and useful foreign contacts, which he would later trade in for a position in Salim Idriss’s Western-endorsed FSA network.

By that time, the FSA Joint Command had been forgotten by everyone—except its erstwhile spokesperson. In an e-mail to me, Masri says the creation of the Idriss-led FSA in December 2012 was part  of a plot by the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood” to “gain hegemony over the FSA” and insists that many officers involved with the FSA Joint Command had refused to accept its dissolution. Therefore, he says, “we continued our work despite the withdrawal of Col. Qasem Saadeddine and others.”

In reality, this version of the FSA Joint Command seems to have consisted of Fahd al-Masri alone. The Idriss-led FSA and the FSA-branded rebel factions inside Syria would invite journalists to travel with their troops and they often uploaded videos from the battlefield. Masri’s own FSA Joint Command could produce no such evidence. Though Masri often hinted that he represented tens of thousands of military defectors on the battlefields in Syria, “security reasons” prevented him from naming them.

Instead, the FSA Joint Command remained restricted to a ghost-like virtual existence, maintained by the generous distribution of online statements. Every week or so, people interested in Syria would receive a formal-looking Arabic-language communiqué in their mailbox, signed by Fahd al-Masri, who called himself head of media relations for the FSA Joint Command. The content was always savory stuff.

Masri would often call for foreign intervention—although he later changed his mind—or rail against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. In February 2014, for example, he announced that the FSA Joint Command had declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and would arrest any member who dared set foot in Syria. On other occasions, the FSA Joint Command would share secret intelligence about chemical weapons, “revealing” that Assad had smuggled them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. More and more often, Masri would condemn the internationally recognized opposition bodies, such Idriss’s FSA leadership, the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition, and its Turkey-based exile government. These statements would soon be the source of innumerable media reports about opposition disunity and “splits in the FSA.” Typically, some rebel commander in Turkey or Syria would be quoted saying this or that, only to be swiftly contradicted by “another FSA representative,” namely Fahd al-Masri.

Some of his critics suspect Masri of working on behalf of a third party, though no one seems sure of exactly which one that would be. “Knowing Fahd, he doesn’t do anything for free,” says the person who once worked with Masri. “He’s not crazy, just a conman, a chancer. There’s many of them in the Syrian opposition.”

When asked about his sources of funding, in late 2013, Fahd al-Masri told me that he funds his activism from his own pocket, although he added that hosting organizations or governments sometimes pay travel and accommodation for conference visits. This may very well be true, since Masri’s activism cannot have been very expensive: a Hotmail account is free to register and media appearances will often come with a small honorarium. However, Masri also told me that certain ”well-known Syrian citizens” and ”Syrian friends who believe in the importance of what I do” have helped him and his family financially, enabling him to work full time for the Syrian revolution. He did not name them.

Spokesperson of the Revolution

Even though Masri’s FSA communiqués had at most a coincidental relationship to reality, journalists ate them up like tabbouleh. Soon, FSA Joint Command Media Director Fahd al-Masri had become one of the most frequently employed talking heads of the war—the voice of the Syrian revolution, or perhaps its ventriloquist.

In the past few years, he has appeared as a representative of the FSA, or the opposition more generally, on any number of Arabic- and French-language talkshows and newscasts. TV channels include the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, Qatar’s Aljazeera, Russia Today, the British BBC, American channels like NBC News, Fox News, and al-Hurra, the Colombia-based NTN24, Turkey’s TRT, France24 and TF1 in his own country of residence, Egypt’s ONTV, and Lebanon-based channels like al-Mayadin, OTV, and MTV, as well as religious channels like al-Safa… and the list goes on.

He has been a frequent source for the printed press, too. Whether pulled from his e-mailed communiqués, copied off newswires, or extracted through interviews, Fahd al-Masri’s many colorful declarations and revelations have found their way into the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, the Daily Star, al-Ahram and al-Ahram Weekly, al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Hayat, Haaretz, the Times of Israel, the Jordan Times, Kommersant, Izvestia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Le Monde, Le Figaro, El Mundo, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, and many other newspapers.

International officials would also occasionally try to bring the FSA Joint Command into their political schemes and peace processes, such as when UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Fahd al-Masri in Paris in August 2012.

By October 2013, Idriss’s FSA General Staff had grown so frustrated that it issued an official statement in which it denied any connection to Masri. This did nothing to clear up the confusion—instead, it led to garbled reports about Idriss having fired his longtime media spokesperson. Masri’s FSA Joint Command hit back by calling for Idriss to be arrested, which led to another round of reports about splits in the FSA. A few months later, Masri appeared on Lebanese television to announce a startling discovery: information had emerged to prove that Salim Idriss’s leadership was infiltrated by Hezbollah.

And on it went.

From the FSA Joint Command to the National Salvation Group

Then all of a sudden, Fahd al-Masri dropped out of the FSA representation business. What happened isn’t clear—and Masri says it was a voluntary decision—but perhaps he had finally taken his game too far. Certainly, there must be downsides to provoking an armed guerrilla movement backed by the government on whose territory you reside.

On March 31, 2014, the FSA Joint Command issued one final grandiloquent statement entitled “To Whom It May Concern,” in which Fahd al-Masri announced his decision to “cease my voluntary work in the Central Media Administration of the FSA Joint Command” and return to his previous vocation as an independent activist. Since then, nothing more has been heard of the FSA Joint Command.

And yet, Masris’ e-mailed statements kept coming. In the first few months, they were signed only by himself, as an individual activist, but institutional affiliations soon began to crawl back onto the letterhead. In summer 2014, he represented a “Preparatory Committee for the Creation of the Independent National Commission for Inspection, Oversight, Accountability, and the Struggle Against Corruption,” which kept up the attacks on other opposition movements. Then came the “Center for Strategic, Military, and Security Studies in Syria,” which has, among other things, been considered a reliable source on the Islamic State by the Daily Mail.

Sometime in late 2014, Masri also launched a “Project for National Salvation,” which then reconstituted itself as “the National Salvation Group in Syria.” It portrays itself as a broad political umbrella for Syrians on the inside and in the diaspora. But just like the now-vanished FSA Joint Command and the other groups mentioned above, the National Salvation Group only seems to exist in the form of statements from its coordinator, Fahd al-Masri.

Masri’s Own Version

In Masri’s view, he has done nothing wrong and has not deliberately misled anyone. If you look closely at what he has been saying, he has in fact never claimed to represent any political or military body except those listed above, which are of his own invention. When I asked him about this in late 2013, he responded (swiftly and professionally) with a frank admission that he had absolutely no ties to the internationally recognized FSA leadership of Salim Idriss; indeed, he condemned Idriss and his men as “blood merchants” and tools of foreign conspiracies. Still, he insisted that he had every right to represent the FSA as a concept and argued that any confusion that might result from this would be entirely in the eye of the beholder:

I was among the first who spoke in the name of the FSA, before Idriss’s General Staff was formed, so I don’t need the approval of either Salim Idriss or his General Staff. I am one of the founders of the FSA Joint Command and my role is in leading the media war on the regime.

Masri stuck to his guns when I contacted him again in October 2015, a year and a half after he terminated his FSA Joint Command:

I know myself and my history in opposing the regime well, and I know my role in supporting the revolution and the FSA. Thus, it doesn’t matter to me what this person or that person may say and I have no need to defend myself, because my history is well known. […]

The FSA is not a regular military institution that could issue an authorization for this or that party [to speak on its behalf]. The FSA is a national and revolutionary condition and I was one of its founders, or a leadership for the FSA. [However,] I announced more than a year ago that I have stopped my work as media spokesperson for the FSA, as a protest against the regional and international powers that restrict support to the FSA in favor of Islamic and extremist organizations.

When I asked about the recurring rumors about him leading FSA delegations to Moscow—they have made the rounds many times, including winter 2013, summer 2015, and again in October 2015—Masri denies ever having visited Moscow. He also made a clarification that puts a rather different spin on the stories peddled by Russian state media:

When I invited Russia to a meeting in Cairo, I didn’t issue the invitation in the name of the FSA and I didn’t claim to represent the FSA or any of its factions. Rather, I spoke in the name of the National Salvation Group in Syria, of which I am a representative.

What to make of this is up to you. I cannot claim to know anything about Fahd al-Masri’s rationale for doing what he does and it is possible that his intentions are perfectly sincere. But, to me, it seems perfectly clear that he cannot be considered a spokesperson for the insurgency on the ground in Syria, or any part of it. It is equally clear that this will be obvious to anyone who spends a moment researching the matter. Indeed, most of the major news organizations that cover Syria no longer pay any heed to his statements, even if they have reported them at some point in the past.

Regarding his interactions with the Russians, however, Fahd al-Masri seems to be telling the truth. When reviewing the statements and media reports of the past few weeks, it becomes clear that it is the Russian side that has consistently sought to portray Masri as a representative and/or founding member of the FSA. Even though Masri tries to highlight his own National Salvation Group, Kremlin-friendly media sources invariably use his statements to promote the Russian government’s own narrative of a Moscow-FSA rapprochement.

The Rest of the October 7 Troika

Fahd al-Masri was not alone in his meeting with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He was flanked by two other persons, supposedly invited to discuss Russia-FSA connections: former U.S. Major General Paul E. Vallely and his Lebanese associate Naji Najjar. When asked about these two individuals, Masri says he was introduced to Vallely through Najjar, whom he met in Paris around two months ago.

Paul E. Vallely is indeed a former U.S. major general, as advertised, but with a strong emphasis on “former.” His current role is as a political commentator on the fringes of American conservatism. Having left the military nearly 25 years ago, Vallely now runs “a network of patriotic Americans” called Stand Up America, which seems to envisage itself as a foreign policy arm of the Tea Party movement. Its website features a heady mixture of military news, Muslim-baiting, and conspiracy theories. To provide some indication of his place on the political spectrum, Vallely has claimed in a radio interview that the “corrupt and treasonous” Barack Obama was illegally installed as president with the aid of billionaire George Soros and a faked birth certificate, in order to make the United States a socialist country.

Najjar is a former member of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian group in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and claims to have been an intelligence official of some sort. Since the end of the civil war, he has been involved with a variety Lebanese-Christian, anti-Assad, and pro-Israel groups. Among other things, he apparently ran a group that defended the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila and advocated against the war crimes prosecution of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Najjar now appears to be Vallely’s link to Syria, through an amazingly shady entrepreneurial entity called the Syria Opposition Liaison Group, which claims to be involved in Syrian politics and hostage negotiations. To what extent this is true, I don’t know.

In 2013, Vallely and Najjar traveled into northern Syria, shook hands with a lot of rebels, and met with Col. Riad al-Asaad, the man who first came up with the FSA name in July 2011. It must have been an interesting trip and it has provided plenty of fodder for online conspiracy theorists, but this little publicity stunt does not indicate that either of them could serve as a useful link to today’s real-world FSA insurgents, namely those backed by MOM and MOC. In other words, while Vallely and Najjar have enough curious political connections to make a LaRouchie weep with joy, neither they nor Masri ever commanded a single fighter inside Syria.

Yet, there they are, at the center of Russian public diplomacy. In fact, according to Masri (who has repeated this story to me personally, in an e-mailed statement, and on Turkish television), the Russians were sufficiently impressed by the meeting with Bogdanov to immediately ask for a follow-up session. The next day, he says, “we received a phone call from a Russian military official who asked for an urgent meeting at the request of the Russian minister of defense. We accepted the invitation and gathered in Paris in a meeting that lasted for nearly three hours.”

Mahmoud al-Effendi and the Abu Dhabi Meeting

The latest bid, on November 5, is the announcement via Russian state media of a meeting in Abu Dhabi. It will supposedly bring together ”28 brigades of the FSA in the suburbs of Damascus, Qunaitra, Hama and the western suburb of Homs, as well as the northern front from the suburbs of Aleppo and Idlib with the representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian  Defense Ministry” to discuss how these groups can negotiate a separate peace with the Syrian government and establish a permanent collaboration with Russia.

The source of this amazing piece of information was the meeting’s official coordinator, Mahmoud al-Effendi, who doubles as head of “the Popular Diplomacy Movement.” Little known in Syrian dissident circles, Effendi has trundled around the exile opposition for a while and most recently popped up in Astana, Kazakhstan, at an event called by a number of ostensible Syrian opposition groups.

In fact, the Astana meetings (there have been two so far) are political theatre directed from Moscow and/or Damascus. The attendees are mostly elderly leftists who seek a compromise with Assad based on limited reforms. Some of them are surely sincere, but others are essentially proxies of the Russian or Syrian intelligence services. They are estranged from most of the rest of the opposition and have no relation at all to the insurgency raging on the ground in Syria. Any actual FSA brigade that they encountered would be more likely to shoot them than to accept their conference invitations.

As for the “Popular Diplomacy Movement,” it seems to be another single-member group (but I shall generously grant the possibility of a handful more) and whatever Effendi’s real role is, he is certainly not someone who can mobilize “28 brigades” of the Syrian guerrilla in service of Russian diplomacy.

While a few rebel factions apparently responded to the initial Russian approaches, only to then cut off contacts, the vast majority reject the Russian entreaties out of hand. On hearing the reports about Effendi’s upcoming Abu Dhabi meeting, FSA-branded groups immediately began to deny, condemn, and ridicule these claims. On November 6, most of the main rebel factions inside Syria—nearly fifty, all in all— issued a joint statement in the name of the FSA, in which they denied their participation and condemning the Russian operations in Syria. (Most of the groups that did not sign the statements were Islamist and jihadi factions like Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and others, who have never referred to themselves as FSA groups.)

A meeting in Abu Dhabi could very well take place anyway. It shouldn’t be that hard for Russia to buy over a commander or two, and then pad out the roster with minor non-MOM/MOC factions in search of funding, pseudo-FSA groups, PKK clients, various ex-rebels turned by Assad’s intelligence services, some oddballs-in-exile, and any number of disgruntled military defectors. Such a group could certainly be relied on to generate more headlines about Russia meeting with the FSA, but what it couldn’t do is to speak for any meaningful number of armed insurgents inside Syria.

Who Is Using Whom?

At this point, it should be obvious that someone is being conned, but I’m still not quite sure about who is is using whom. The deeper you dig into the connections between Russia and fringe figures in the Syrian diaspora, the more bizarre it gets; a world halfway between Joseph Conrad and Thomas Pynchon, only without the redeeming qualities of style and credible characters.

So what is actually going on here? I see two options.

Either we must believe that the Russian government, at cabinet level and despite the best efforts of SVR and GRU intelligence, is so grossly uneducated about Syrian politics that it would perceive Masri, Vallely, Najjar, the little PKK-backed Arab groups, or  Effendi as credible links to the mainstream American-backed FSA, whatever the Russians may imagine that to be. If so, we would now be witnessing the government of Russia being played by a variety of Syrian, American, and Lebanese political entrepreneurs and charlatans, with the Kremlin a hapless victim of its own famously childlike innocence and wide-eyed trust in humanity’s best intentions.

The alternative, because fortunately there is an alternative, is to imagine this as a diversionary trick on the part of the Russians—a bit of political Maskirovka, or camouflage, in which Bogdanov takes time off from an otherwise busy schedule to talk to people whose influence in Syria he knows to be zero, because it is zero. By bestowing top-level attention on otherwise unimportant interlocutors, the Kremlin has produced the raw material that its propaganda factory needs to push products onto the Syrian rumor market.

Why?

Feeding the media with rumors, hints, and disconnected bits of genuine information about a Russian-FSA connection serves the Kremlin’s political agenda in two ways:

First, it tricks some people into believing that Russia is skillfully peeling away Syrian allies from the USA. It will mostly be people who know nothing about the politics of the Syrian insurgency, but then again, that’s most people.

Secondly, and no less important, Russia’s rivals cannot protest Moscow’s fraudulent claims without engaging in a debate about who actually should represent the FSA in talks with Assad, if it shouldn’t be Masri, Effendi, or the other candidates suggested by Moscow. Since there is no central FSA leadership and no consensus on which groups should be labeled “FSA,” that’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

It is a problem partly of the Americans’ own making. Indeed, one could say that the opposition’s backers are now falling victim to their own propaganda. For years, officials in the US, Europe, Turkey, and the Arab World have been promoting ”the moderate FSA” or even “the secular FSA” as Syria’s great hope for the future, without ever arriving at a better explanation of what that means than ”any damned armed group in Syria that we can work with.” It is undoubtedly a definition, of a kind, but how do you sell it to the general public? What do you do when journalists, voters, or even congressmen start to ask questions about who, exactly, is at the receiving end of all this taxpayers’ money?

The Russian government has now started to exploit this deliberately engineered ambiguity for its own purposes. By rebranding their own allies and all kinds of random exiles as “FSA representatives,” they are trying to wring a very useful fiction out of the hands of their enemies or, failing that, to destroy it by adding to the confusion.

As a poker-faced Bogdanov recently put it when discussing whether the FSA should be part of hypothetical future peace talks:

In general, we support their participation as a structure. We do not yet understand who will represent it. We are waiting for them to manifest more clearly or for our partners who maintain relations with the Free Syrian Army to tell us.

Some might call this diplomacy. I call it elite-level trolling.

“Russia’s Intervention in Syria – A View From the Past,” by Meir Zamir

Meir Zamir

Russia’s Intervention in Syria – A View From the Past
by Meir Zamir
Oct 27, 2015 for Syria Comment

Russia’s current military intervention in Syria marks a major turning point in the civil war there and in the regional and international balance of power in the Middle East. The many attempts to decode Putin’s motives are therefore understandable. Various explanations have been put forward, including: Putin’s attempts to prop up President Bashar Assad, his faltering ally in Damascus; to protect Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast, its only connection to the Mediterranean Sea; to challenge the United States and NATO in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general; and to reassert Russia’s position as a super power. Some have pointed to domestic considerations, including Russia’s faltering economy following the economic boycott led by the United States after its intervention in the Ukraine.

While these and other explanations are plausible, the historical perspective is lacking, which might give a better understanding of Russia’s objectives. Indeed, the Russian president illustrated that in his address to the General Assembly on September 28, when he praised the collaboration between the three powers at the end of World War II, implying that it should be re-adopted now to resolve the Syrian and other crises in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than the American policy of “exclusivity”.

The 13 documents included in this post aim to provide the missing historical dimension. These are secret Syrian and British documents obtained by the French intelligence in Damascus and Beirut between 1944 and 1948 and uncovered by the author in archives in France. (They have been selected from 400 such documents recently published in a book examining the secret Anglo-French war in the Middle East during and after World War II*). These documents, together with many others that are not given here, reveal that questions regarding Syria, which greatly preoccupied the Soviet Union in the 1940s, continue to preoccupy Russia today despite the years that have passed and the different circumstances. The similarity between the issues then and now results, to a large extent, from Syria’s unique geostrategic position coupled with its enduring internal divisions.

The first document (June 1944) is one of many relating to the Soviet Union’s recognition of Syria as an independent state. It has emerged that Soviet diplomats conditioned that recognition on the Syrian government’s assurances that the country would maintain its independence and national sovereignty. But after learning of attempts by British secret agents to expel France from Syria and incorporate it in a Hashemite Greater Syria and a union with Iraq, with the tacit support of Jamil Mardam, the acting Syrian Prime Minister, Daniel Solod, the Russian Minister in Syria and Lebanon, warned Mardam that his government would actively oppose any attempt to undermine Syria’s independence. (doc. 2) Solod repeated this warning at a meeting with President Quwatli, in the presence of Mardam and Sa’adallah al-Jabiri, the head of the Syrian parliament.(doc. 3) Details of the meeting are revealed in a report given by Muhsin al-Barazi, President Quwatli’s secretary, who was at that time operating as a British agent, to his controller, Colonel Walter Stirling from the MI6. (Barazi was to serve later as a minister in various Syrian cabinets and as Prime Minister under Husni al- Za’im. He was excuted in August 1949 after Sami al-Hinawi’s coup d’état.) It is obvious that the Russians were fully aware of Mardam’s tacit involvement in the Anglo-Iraqi plot.

Despite the Soviet warnings, on May 29, 1945, President Quwatli signed a secret agreement with Britain recognizing its dominance over Syria in return for its expulsion of France.  Shortly after learning of the agreement, Russian diplomats in Damascus and Moscow began to openly criticize and even threaten the Syrians.(docs. 4, 5) The Russians’ concern intensified after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id was seen to be collaborating with British agents with the aim of incorporating Syria in an anti-Russian regional defense bloc and solving the problem of Alexandretta, which had been an obstacle to improving Syro-Turkish relations. (docs. 7,8)

Aside from direct diplomatic pressure, Russian secret agents fomented opposition to the Syrian government, especially among the Kurds in the Jazira and the Armenians in northern Syria. The Syrian Communist Party under Khalid Bakdash was also involved. In fact, the Russian consulate in Damascus became a center for covert activities led by a Russian intelligence officer whom the French called “the Red Lawrence”. And then, like now, all the powers involved attached great importance to the role of the Kurds. (doc. 6)

After learning of the British and American attempts to persuade the Syrian government to accept military and economic aid, the Soviet Union in January 1946 offered to provide its own such aid to Syria to ensure its independence. (doc. 9) The Soviet proposal was rejected by Sda’allah al-Jabiri, then Syrian Prime Minister. But following renewed Anglo-Iraqi pressure on the Syrian government to acquiese to a Syro-Iraqi union, Jabiri changed his stand and at the end of 1946 agreed to negotiate a secret agreement with Russia. As a result, the British secret agents pressed President Quwatli to replace Jabiri with Jamil Mardam. (docs. 10, 11, 12) In June 1947, after King Abdallah threatened to compel the Syrian government to join a Greater Syria monarchy under his rule, the Soviet government once again offered to protect Syria’s independence. (doc.13)

This short analysis, basd on Syrian diplomatic documents from the 1940s, demonstrates that Russia, now, like before, is determined to ensure that Syria remain an independent and united state and to prevent another superpower, namely the United States, or any regional power for that matter, from taking control over Syria, as it had undermined Britain’s attempts in the past. In the Syro-Soviet defense treaty of 1970, the Soviet Union realized its long-standing ambitions and became the dominant power in Syria. From that perspective, Putin’s current military intervention, intended to secure Russia’s strategic role in Syria, is to a certain extent a continuation of Stalin’s policy in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular.

*Meir Zamir is the author of The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948, (Routledge, London, 2015), 502 pp. He is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and was the founder of its Department of Middle East Studies. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and has taught at universities in Canada and the US. 

Secret British and Syrian Documents on Syro-Soviet Relations

  1.    Jamil Mardam’s report on the establishment of diplomatic relations with the  Soviet Union

Top secret

Report by Jamil Mardam Bey on the negotiations

which resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations

between the USSR and Syria

Summary for the Council of Ministers

The conversations that took place between the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Members of the Political Mission, representing the Government of the Soviet Union, ended today.

I have the honor of communicating the summary of these conversations to your esteemed Council.

Above all, we kept secret the question of the Commission’s presence for fear that negotiations would fail, and that disappointment would be bitter, with unfortunate consequences.

I think it important that the esteemed Council of Ministers should know that Mr Khalid Bakdash, President of the Syrian Communist Party, has made praiseworthy efforts to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. He has shown, in all his actions, a praiseworthy patriotism which deserves thanks and appreciation.

The Soviet Political Commission has asked, above all, for the following:

  • information on the history of Syrian independence
  • details on the situation of parliamentary representation in Syria
  • a summary of Franco-Syrian relations, and the conditions in which General Catroux proclaimed Syrian independence
  • precise details on England’s degree of participation in consolidating this independence as well as the strength of political relations linking us to Great Britain

The Commission has tried to find out if a second public or secret agreement exists between us and a foreign power.

It asks for information on:

  • the economic and financial situation of Syria with regard to the laws concerning production, taxes and the state of agricultural, industrial and commercial property.

It is informing itself on ethnic and religious minorities and on their origins.

It is enquiring into the government apparatus, its shape and the degree of religious representation at its center.

It asks for information:

  • on the teaching and educational system of the nation
  • on mining, and on industrial, agricultural or mineral monopolies
  • on the Syrian oil company and its agreements
  • on the reasons for the non-development of Syrian oil and on the attitude of the Syrian Government towards this. Is the Government determined to maintain the status quo or not?

The Commission discussed the financial situation and the Issuing Bank with us. We showed it the Bank of Syria’s agreement and concession.

Lastly, it asked us for guarantees, which we have provided in the name of the Syrian Republic, and a copy has been sent to your esteemed Council.

In reviewing the information that the Commission tried to obtain, it has emerged that this Ministry has had a praiseworthy success in clearly setting out the Syrian position in all its respects, allowing the Commission to pronounce itself satisfied and to recognize, in the name of the Government of the Soviet Union, our independence unconditionally and without reservation.

It is my pleasure to announce this happy news to the esteemed Council of Ministers.

June 25, 1944                                                              s/ Jamil Mardam Bey

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 15 – Diplomatic correspondence – the Soviet Union

  1. From Daniel Solod, Minister of the Soviet Union in Syria

To the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Top secret

I have the honor of informing you that my Government has charged me with the task of notifying you of the following:

The plan for Greater Syria, about which H.E. the President of the Council issued a denial and which he has recently repudiated publicly in the Syrian Chamber, continues to be, as far as we are aware, a reality. Certain authorities, which the Government of the Syrian Republic considers its friends and advisors, work for and lead a campaign in favor of its realization.

The Government of the Soviet Union, which has unconditionally recognized Syrian independence, does not believe that it would be in independent Syria’s interest to throw itself – thoughtlessly or after determined efforts – into an unknown and obscure future.

My Government has asked me to warn you of this. I convey this view to you above all as a friend.

Unsigned

Memorandum presented by Mr Solod on April 25, 1945

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Diplomatic correspondence from the Soviet Legation

No 3517/177

 

  1. Report by Muhsin al-Barazi, Secretary General of the Presidency of the

             Republic to his controller Colonel Walter Stirling           

British agent no 325

Top secret

Handwritten: 7 May 1945

—-

Today the President saw Mr Solod in my presence and that of Messrs Sa’adallah Jabiri and Jamil Mardam Bey.

After the usual polite words, the President said:

“Syria wants to know how far the government of the Soviet Union will back Syrian independence.”

The conversation was long, but the reply finally made by Mr Solod is that the Soviet Union will support Syrian independence in any case, on condition that it exerts itself in favor of Syria and its people and not in favor of Anglo-American imperialism.

Mr Solod in his turn asked questions about certain correspondence exchanged between the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the British Minister Plenipotentiary about the Liwa of Alexandretta. Jamil Bey denied the existence of such correspondence. He said he had not discussed this matter with the English and had not been asked to by them.

Then Mr Solod asked:

“What is the current situation between you and the French?”

The President replied:

“We await the arrival of General Beynet. Be assured, Minister, that Syrian opinion generally can no longer bear the French, who make fun of us.”

“I do not believe,” said the Minister, “that the French make fun of you. Although we do not support any colonizing ambitions or attempts at exploitation, I believe that the French are correct from one point of view, because they do not want to give their place up to others.”

“And who are these others?” Jamil Bey asked.

“You know that better than me,” replied Mr Solod, “those to whom you grant privileges and with whom you reach agreements which no one knows anything about. Completely secret things.”

President Quwatli then showed his surprise about these secret things, saying that he knew nothing about them.

Mr Solod said:

“The agreement over oil for example, the agreement over the pipeline installation, the agreement on monetary unification using the standard of the pound sterling, and the civil and commercial aviation project. All these things are more dangerous and more threatening to your independence than the Mandate Charter itself.”

The banquet of honor was thus transformed into a battlefield between the two parties. The Soviet Minister tried to convince the President and his companions that they were setting little store by the rights of the country, and that just at the moment they were trying to emancipate themselves from the French yoke, it was to throw themselves into the arms of the English; that if his government did not want the French colonizers to stay in Syria, neither did he, categorically, want the English to stay here to replace them.

The meeting ended on a not very cordial note. The two parties have bitterness in their hearts.

After the Minister’s departure, the President reproached Jamil Mardam Bey and said to him,

“All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”

From all this, Sa’adallah Bey concluded that duty demanded that all parties now in existence be suppressed and that all their members be arrested.

I believe that the Russians will quite soon make a show of a lot of activity and that this activity will cause us a lot of trouble.

Monday, May 7, 1945                                                                                   s/ Muhsin

Report addressed to Colonel Stirling.

Copy filed in the Political Bureau of the British Legation in Beirut, No. S 1754

 

After meeting with Solod, Quwatli reprimanded Mardam, telling him: “All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”

  1. From Fa’iz al-Khuri, the Syrian Minister in Moscow

                       To H.E. the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus

Secret

I was summoned to the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs where I was told, with great friendliness, that, for the following reasons, the current conduct of the Syrian Government was not encouraging for the establishment of a sincere collaboration profitable to our country:

First: They believe that we are ousting the French to replace them with the English.

Second: That we are delivering our country’s resources to the English (an allusion to the ‘Mira’ agreement).”

My interlocutor added:

“The Soviet Union will heartily support the Arabs’ position against the Zionist movement, which aims to take Palestine and chase them out of it. It is up to the Arabs to adopt a suitable position in defense of their threatened country.”

I am sending you a summary of what was said to me.

Yours sincerely,

July 28, 1945                                                                        s/ Fa’iz al-Khuri

No 443/7 – Diplomatic correspondence

 

  1. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria

                 To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Secret

Note

My Government has asked me to enquire of your Ministry about the efforts Nuri al-Sa’id is making and which, in addition to defense of the Palestinian question, have, I believe, a bearing on other plans which threaten security in the Middle East, and which are related to high politics.

My information regarding Mr Sa’id’s plans in Syria – which are of course not on his own initiative, but for which he is authorized to act – consist of the abolition of the Syrian Republic and the establishment of a Hashemite monarchy. Does the Syrian Government know this?

As far as the formation of an Eastern Islamic bloc goes, it seems that he wants, or is asked, to work towards the creation of a cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. Does Syria wish to take part in that?

As for Palestine, Mr Sa’id wants to give, or is asked to give, the Jews a state at the expense of Palestine, the Arabs, the Lebanese and the Syrians. Does the Syrian Government know that?

In placing these truths before the Syrian Government, I would like to know if it is wholly aware of them and what its inclinations are with regard to accepting or rejecting these plans.

October 5, 1945                                                                                              s/ D. Solod

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 815/42 – Diplomatic correspondence

  

  1. From the President of the Council, the Foreign Minister

                        To H.E. the British Minister Plenipotentiary, Damascus

 

Top secret

The information I have and which is based on official reports proves that the Soviet Legation has so far made contact with a large number of Kurdish leaders in the various regions of the Syrian Republic.

In drawing Your Excellency’s attention to this I know that you are perfectly aware of what is happening and that your specialised departments are not unaware of the maneuvers that are being prepared despite our willingness and yours.

However, the duty that I have towards you brings me to remind you that the Syrian Government, rightly concerned about the consequences of this Soviet activity, can only continue to reject all these activities and inform you of the inability in which we find ourselves of taking any measures whatsoever against this Legation. It invites you, in your capacity as the official responsible for maintaining security and peace in this country, to take the measures you judge fitting.

The Syrian Government agrees in advance to whatever you decide.

November 12, 1945                                  The President of the Council ofMinisters

s/ Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no 935/427

  1. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria

                 To the President of the Council of Ministers, the Syrian Minister    

                                 of Foreign Affairs, Damascus

Secret

Your Excellency,

My Government wishes to know if the Government of the Syrian Republic has entered into discussion or agreements of a political or economic nature with the British Government.

Great Britain, in adopting the line it has adopted since the Franco-British agreement, whose appendices are still unknown, has arrogated to itself rights determined with regard to Syria and Lebanon. It goes without saying that it only attributed these rights to itself because the two Syrian and Lebanese Governments have granted it privileges allowing it to act in this way.

I refer in particular to the exchange of letters which took place between you and the British Government following the events of last May.

I am notifying you in the name of my Government that we will not intervene in favor of Syria unless we know that our intervention is opportune and that it will not be regarded as undesirable at a time when you have granted the British Government rights which allow it to adopt the line that it has adopted towards you.

Yours respectfully,

December 22, 1945                                                  The Minister Plenipotentiary                                                                                                         s/ D. Solod

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 991 – Political reports

 

 

  1. From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus

                        To H.E. the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus

Secret

Your Excellency,

Following on from the verbal note I gave you about the future of the Liwa of Alexandretta, its current situation and the future that the Government of the Soviet Union wants for it, I draw your attention to the activities of nationalist Kurdish elements on the future they want for themselves and on the desire for unity, progress and emancipation that the Soviet Union is formulating for them.

Right now I can give the Syrian Government the assurance that these elements, which are dispersed among a number of states and which enjoy the Soviet Union’s sympathy, will never adopt a position unsatisfactory to the government and people of Syria.

Thus, I will have unequivocally expressed to you, from now, the reality of our intentions.

December 30, 1945                                                                             Yours sincerely,

The Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation

s/ Cherniaguin

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no. 10a

  1. 9.     From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus

                             To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus                                                                                                 

Secret                                                                                                        

Verbal memorandum

In the name of its Government, this legation had told the Syrian Government of the strong sympathy it had towards its demands for independence and the desire it had to support it and to give it complete support in everything to do with its development and its social progress.

My Government would be happy to see the Syrian Government officially requesting help, not only politically but also militarily and economically.

This is why my Government has asked me to indicate to it the wishes of the Syrian Government, its desire for this help and the conditions it puts on it.

January 3, 1946                                                                      For the Soviet Legation                                                                                                                  s/ Cherniaguin

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 926 – Documents

  1. Sa’adallah al-Jabiri to Mr Fares al-Khuri

          Through the intermediary of the Syrian Minister Plenipotentiary

                                         in Washington

Top secret

The Syrian Government is wholly in agreement with opening negotiations on an agreement with the Soviets.

It is important that these negotiations take place without the English being informed of them. It would also be good to know what our interlocutors are inclined to grant us and what they want.

November 2, 1946

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 3,311/381 – Diplomatic correspondence

 

  1. Fares al-Khuri to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus

Top secret

Novikof, ex-Minister Plenipotentiary in Cairo has had a conversation with me. They want the following:

that we do not support Turkey;

that the Arab League does not become a defensive tool in the hands of British imperialism;

that we reject the division of Palestine;

that we inform them of the terms of our agreement with the English. In exchange, they will grant us all the help we can ask of them without conditions.

November 9, 1946

Signed: Fares-al Khuri

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1,311 – Diplomatic documents

  1. The Minister Plenipotentiary in Turkey

                       To the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damascus

Top secret

The atmosphere here is becoming more and more sombre, and although Russia is not openly applying pressure, the pressure on the Turks continues and with some force. The English encourage the Turks each day in a new way and the latter refuse to concede anything to Russia.

On the other hand, what is certain is that they refuse to recognise that we have any claims on Alexandretta.

I am convinced that our interest now forces us to reach an understanding, even if it were with the Russians, to preserve our rights, as long as our friends the English refuse to help us, for in fact they would leave Alexandretta with the lion’s share.

The Soviet ambassador here has, in conversations with me, expressed the desire of the Soviet Government to persuade the Arabs that no danger threatens them from their side and that the Moscow Government is inclined and even wants to help us take back from Turkey the rights it has snatched from us with the help of France and England.

I am convinced that an intention from this side will never be detrimental and that if it cannot be used to persuade the English of our importance, it can, however, not do us any harm.

November 26, 1946                                                   The Minister Plenipotentiary

in Turkey

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1325 – Political reports

  1. The Soviet Legation to President Quwatli

Top secret

Memorandum

My Government asks the Syrian Government to take note of the fact that it does not give its agreement to the maneuvers that King Abdullah is carrying out for avowed colonialist principles.

At this time when the threat of these maneuvers has become a constant, my Government feels itself inclined to provide the necessary aid to protect and safeguard Syrian independence.

My Government considers that the current situation as a whole in Syria, which is the basis of security in the Middle East, is a fact that must be respected and guaranteed.

The information I have allows me to confirm the existence of a continuing plot directed by British military officials under the command of King Abdullah and in complete agreement with the Iraqi and Turkish governments.

A complaint lodged with the Security Council by the Syrian Government would be viewed favorably and this would then win the complete support of my government. We are also disposed to provide material aid as well as military experts should the Syrian Government so wish.

June 2, 1947                                                                Seal of the Soviet Legation

Damascus

Oral memorandum given by the Soviet Minister to the President of the Syrian Republic

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1734 – Political documents

Rijal al-Karama after Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous’ Assassination

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

On 4 September, the Druze sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous and a number of his associates within his Rijal al-Karama (‘Men of Dignity’) militia were assassinated in bomb attacks in Suwayda. Bal’ous- a very popular figure on Druze social media- had advocated a ‘third-way’ line that called for reform within the existing regime system in Suwayda province rather than revolution. This agenda focused on anti-corruption as well as prioritising local defence over forced conscription into regime forces to fight far-off battles within Syria. Though Bal’ous was often perceived wrongly by outside observers as an opposition/revolutionary figure, many Assad loyalists in the province undoubtedly viewed him as a threat to regime authority, and are accordingly the most likely culprits in the assassination.

Initial hype on social media in the aftermath of the assassination asserted that the ‘revolution’ had come to Suwayda with dubious claims of the supposed raising of the revolutionary flag, toppling of a statue of Hafez al-Assad and a fake Rijal al-Karama statement declaring that “Jabal al-Arab [Jabal al-Druze/Suwayda] is an area liberated from Assad’s gangs and their troops.” The actual prevailing atmosphere has been one of calm with no further escalations by Rijal al-Karama or pro-Assad factions like Dir’ al-Watan, as all sides appealed for calm. Following the death of Bal’ous, Rijal al-Karama officially declared his brother Sheikh Abu Yusuf Ra’fat al-Bal’ous as the new leader. As Ra’fat was injured in the attacks, it was necessary for him to recover in order to be able to assume actual leadership and issue an official statement, which I have translated below. Analytically, several points are worth noting from the statement, which was first released on 17 October.

a) The statement casts doubt on the regime media narrative– deemed “comical theatrics”- that blamed the Suwayda bombings on one Wafid Abu Turaba/Turabi. This narrative included a televised ‘confession’ on Wafid’s part and has unsurprisingly been widely derided. Instead, the statement implicitly blames the assassination on actors linked to the regime, claiming that the explosives used are of the sorts only possessed by states, and that there was a link to intelligence planning at the most senior levels. The alternative interpretation of the relevant parts of the statement- supposing a foreign-backed conspiracy against Bal’ous- does not seem plausible.

b) Despite implicit blaming the assassination on regime loyalists, the statement clearly shows that Rijal al-Karama intends to continue operating within the framework of regime authority existing over Suwayda and has no interest in confrontation. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the insistence on ultimately respecting the authority of the mashayakh al-aql: Druze spiritual figures whose opinions remain vital in determining the general framework and atmosphere within Suwayda province. Two of the mashayakh al-aql, Sheikh Jerbo and Sheikh Hanawi, are involved in the pro-Assad Dir’ al-Watan faction that has been competing for influence with Rijal al-Karama. However, following on from Bal’ous’ assassination, Hanawi in particular reached out to Rijal al-Karama in a bid to calm tensions, and for this reason he is singled out among the mashaykh al-aql for thanks in this statement.

HamoudHanawiBalous9Oct
Sheikh Hanawi [just left of centre] at a reception commemorating Bal’ous on 9 October with other mashayakh and Rijal al-Karama.

The point is not that the Rijal al-Karama have to show the same level of pro-Assad loyalism as the mashayakh al-aql, who, as Tobias Lang notes, are “completely co-opted by the regime.” Rather, the co-optation of the mashayakh al-aql has determined an environment that cannot envision Suwayda outside regime authority, and thus no one can seriously advocate overthrowing the regime in the province. When this point is noted along with the fact that there is no viable alternative forthcoming from opposition forces, it becomes clearer why it is more accurate to characterize Rijal al-Karama as reformist, with an emphasis on not attacking the fundamental foundations of the Syrian state or the Syrian army.

c) Though Rijal al-Karama officially respects the Syrian army as a Syrian nationalist institution and thus in principle does not object to cooperating with it in Suwayda province to repel incursions and supports its resistance to rebel attempts to attack other Druze localities like Hadr in Quneitra, the group recognizes the nationalist spirit is not compatible with the extent of the regime’s reliance on foreign forces in the wider fight across Syria.

The issue of foreign forces making their mark is not so apparent inside Suwayda itself on account of the calm of the situation relative to other provinces with fierce fighting fronts like Aleppo and Hama. Hints of discontent at the heavy dependence on foreign manpower- principally in the form of Iranian proxy militias- can even be found within some staunchly pro-Assad militia circles. This dependence allows these foreign actors to carve out their own spheres of influence within what remains of the regime rump state. For instance, Hezbollah has most notably been projecting its influence into Homs province in the development of ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ in the form of Quwat al-Ridha. Meanwhile, areas outside regime authority are set to see jihadi actors like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra as players for the long-run. All of this is apparent to Rijal al-Karama- hence the question about whether the land really belongs to Hezbollah, Iran, the jihadis, or now the Russians who have intervened directly.

d) Rijal al-Karama’s component formations take the name of ‘Bayraq X’ (‘Bayraq’- banner, pl. Bayariq), where X is a given title. I have previously covered some of these groups- such as Bayraq al-Nidal and Bayraq al-Haq- in my survey of new Druze militia factions in Suwayda province. Here is a larger list of named Bayraq formations provided by the main Facebook page representing Rijal al-Karama:

“Bayraq al-Izz, Bayraq al-Fahad, Bayraq al-Haq, Bayraq al-Sheikh, Bayraq al-Nidal, Bayraq al-Basha [Pasha], Bayraq al-Fakhr, Bayraq Sayf al-Jabal, Bayraq al-Meqdad, Bayraq al-Nabi Dawoud, Bayraq al-Khidr, Bayraq al-Harm and many others besides them. These are examples from them of banners (Bayariq) to protect the land, honour and religion, as is the path outlined for them by Sheikh Abu Fahad that they will fulfil under their leader Sheikh Abu Yusuf [Ra’fat al-Bal’ous].”

Of these mentioned formations, Bayraq al-Meqdad is the newest to declare itself officially, announcing in a statement on 20 October:

“By the power of God and assignment of the men of the Jabal [Jabal al-Druze/Suwayda], the formation of Bayraq al-Meqdad has been completed: to defend the land, honour and religion. Also we announce complete loyalty after God to the Jabal and the noble Ma’aroufi sect [Druze are also known as Bani Ma’arouf], and we are all the more proud that we are of the Rijal al-Karama, the men of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous. And similarly Sheikh Abu Fahad said that we imitate the just precedent and we say: ‘Whoever commits aggression is not of us, and whoever does not respond to aggression is not of us, but we defend and are victorious by the assignment of God and our great leader Abu Ibrahim [Ismail al-Tamimi: see here].’

Similarly we call on all noble ones to stand side by side to defend the land of the beloved Jabal and raising the banner of Truth, for Truth is the beloved of God that we may revive the ancestors’ history and follow the course in the path of Dignity. And we pledge to all of you that we will be bullets in the rifles of those who defend our land and swords in the face of the apostates [sic: ‘aggressors’ is probably meant] coveting its soil. Long live you and the Jabal. Rejoice, Abu Yusuf, at the honour, oh students of Dignity. Rejoice, Abu Yusuf, at the victory, oh attire of the turban. Rejoice, oh Jabal of ours, at the blood of your men in nobility and audacity. Rejoice, oh Jabal of ours: we are your guardians till the Judgement/Resurrection.”

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Bayraq al-Meqdad flag: note Rijal al-Karama inscription on the top of the flag.

Another Bayraq group that has come to light recently is Bayraq Al Kiwan (Banner of the Family of Kiwan). Led by one Sheikh Abu Yazan Marwan Mazid Kiwan, the group commemorated Bal’ous in a post on 17 October, declaring:

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“Your pure soul has not died and continues living in our souls and your words continue to be lights by which we are guided because your soul is of the soul of our noble heroic ancestors who made history by their glorious deeds. And your blood has not and will not be squandered in vain. And we will go on the path of Truth, in your steps and the steps of our ancestors. Here is our land, here we remain. We will live and die here, continuing, resisting, victorious or martyrs. Wa ya hamlat Allah.”

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Bayraq Al Kiwan emblem.

The Bal’ous tribute very much matches the Bal’ous-aligned sentiments of a statement issued by Bayraq Al Kiwan on 20 August outlining the group’s aims. For instance, point 4 affirms: “We are aligned with Truth only, and not the loyalist or oppositionist. Our loyalism is to the land, the homeland and the people. And our resistance is against all types and forms of enemies of the land and humanity.” Similarly, point 5 declares: “We do not attack anyone, and we do not oppose anyone, except in Truth…We defend against, wage war on and resist whoever attacks until the last drop of our blood, and we have pledged to be shields for that.” Other points in the statement call for peaceful co-existence with all people in principle, particularly focusing on the various sects and ethnicities as well as internally displaced persons currently residing in Suwayda.

Thus it can be seen that Bal’ous’ death has by no means spelled the death-blow for the Rijal al-Karama. On the contrary, the brand remains potent.

e) Considering Bal’ous’ popularity on social media and in the Druze diaspora, it is hardly surprising how extensive the commemorations of him were in the aftermath of his assassination, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Note though that Rijal al-Karama refuses to refer to Israel as a country by name, extending tribute instead to the Druze in the Golan and ‘Palestine’, who were notably singled out previously for their support for the Rijal al-Karama. In not referring to Israel by name, Rijal al-Karama reflects the Syrian consensus that does not recognize Israel as a state. This continues to rule out cooperation between Israel and the Rijal al-Karama to realize a Druze separatist project, which goes against the Syrian nationalist spirit of Rijal al-Karama- a spirit reinforced by the reverence for Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who led the Great Syrian Revolt/Revolution against the French occupation in the 1920s. There is also no evidence that Rijal al-Karama is any closer to anti-Assad Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt since Bal’ous’ death.

Statement (see here for original copies of the pages)

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

And there is no guarantor of success except in God

And do not reckon that those who have been killed in the path of God are dead, but rather are living, nurtured among their Lord- [Qur’an 3:169].

According to what happened from events in the recent period in the province of Suwayda including demonstrations and protests for the sake of realizing the rights of the citizens in the Jabal and that occurred over some days.

But the most notable incident and momentous mishap that occurred was the assassination operation against the Sheikh of Dignity and his fortunate companions- this incident that changed many of the misunderstandings that were present on the field of this province.

The Sheikh of Dignity is a unique personality, a difficult figure in this critical time of our life, and a personality that will not be replicated in this time of ours.

The Sheikh of Dignity had worked to bring about a special culture: the culture of Dignity that was founded as a path to all the sons of the noble mountain, inside and outside it.

This culture that comprised a number of principles and foundations of which the most important were:

1. We are the guardians of the land, honour, and religion, rooted in the land of the homeland.

2. We forbid aggression on our part and we forbid aggression against us, for this is the outline of our just predecessors.

3. Syria is our motherland and we are an indivisible part of it, and we are not on the project of dividing it.

4. Our arms are our dignity and in them are the protection of our security, peace and they are a part of our body.

5. We are neither loyalists nor oppositionists, but nationalists, of Arab identity, of the people, and even people of humanity.

And on these principles we pledge to you oh Sheikh of Dignity: that we remain on this pledge and unimpeded on your path. Both your blood and the blood of the martyrs of Dignity are a solemn pledge on our necks and Truth sought behind it will not die. And we are companions and seekers of Truth.

Regarding the assassination operation:

This cowardly operation that also targeted one of the symbols of the homeland is linked to intelligence planning at the highest levels and the explosive devices used in the operation contained explosive materials that only states can possess. And they were present under the ground at a depth interval not exceeding two metres beneath the road. And that was on the road of the Dhuhur al-Jabal in the area of Ayn al-Marj and there was besides the explosive on the surface of the road a rigged pick-up car and the explosion was carried out from a distance in synchronization between the explosive and the car. And there was also a group of people present at a distance of not more than 200m from the place of the explosion from the east and north of the road. And their aim was to kill whatever remained alive from the convoy by firing multiple rounds of gunshots randomly on the convoy.

In addition to the closing of the checkpoint and not allowing the arrival of ambulances to the place of the explosion, it was not even allowed for cars coming from Dhuhur al-Jabal to Suwayda [to enter] even as they might have provided aid to one of the wounded.

Despite all that happened, the suggested and important question is what the reason is for the explosion that happened in the hospital…As for the comical theatrics of Wafid Abu Turaba and what concerns that and all the followings and media coverage of it on the television airwaves, they are a point of discussion for you.

As for what concerns the three names: Rami al-Hussein, Salim Abu Mahmoud, Hamad al-Sahnawi. We for our part neither accuse them nor deem them innocent, but refer them to their associates to be judged.

Regarding our people in the Jabal:

We offer them regards of love, esteem, reverence and tribute- for all the people of the Jabalin its sects and components. For we and you are one house.

And thus we affirm to you the words of the Sheikh of Dignity in that:

– The position of the triumvirate of the mashayakh al-aql is the head of the pyramid among us and it has all respect and valuation of esteem.

And we note in particular our Sheikh- the Sheikh Abu Wa’el Hamoud al-Hanawi who was with us in all our circumstances and especially in our latest calamity.

– Indeed our aim is one and our blood is one and according to this we have shared the bodies of our martyrs with our people in the graves and this is a noble distinction for us.

– A question in tracing out the answer: why did Sultan Pasha al-Atrash- leader of the Great Syrian Revolt- depart from the Jabal in 1954?

– Despite our great affliction on that dreaded day, we have not undertaken any act of destruction and we have not attacked any of the foundations of the state, and we disavow all that.

– Indeed Rijal al-Karama are well-known inside the mountain and outside it, and we do not allow any person- whoever he may be- to infringe on their respected status or use their name in personal objectives beneath inquiry on our part.

– Let all know that we continue on the pledge of our Sheikh in forming bayariq [banners] in all the villages and localities of the province: these banners that are the symbol of our honour and dignity and we will sacrifice for them with our souls and will remain raised till the Day of Judgment.

Concerning the soldiers:

– Indeed our soldier sons in this Jabal and on the passing of history they have waged battles against the Turks followed by the French. They have a history that no one can condemn from courage and sacrifices for the sake of this homeland Syria.

– Working to hold to account all who transgress against our military sons from the various ranks and we do not accept attacks against them from anyone. And we inform you that our hands are extended into every place in this land.

– Joining the army is a deed of choice, not compulsory, because the fighting in Syria is between Syrians themselves and we are innocent of every drop of blood and tear of a child. Thus, the decision to join goes back to the owner of the relation as a personal matter because we no longer know for whom this land is: is it for Iran or Hezbollah or Nusra or Da’esh [Islamic State] or is it for the Russian army that has entered our land?

And in conclusion:

– We extend tribute to all our Syrian people who shared with us in our pains and sadness in our momentous calamity and we will not forget the stance of our people in the beloved Golan.

– To our people in Lebanon, tribute of affection, reverence and recognition in what they offered from true participation whether in attending personally or through connection networks. And we note in particular those who established the funeral rite on their land and in their abode from mashayakh, leaders, officials and MPs.

– Tribute of honour to our people in beloved Palestine for what they offered and continue to offer and expend for the sake of the dignity of the Jabal.

– And all thanks are due to our people in Jordan on consoling us in our mishap and it is not far removed from them, for they are the ones who offered benevolent treatment to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash in his ordeal.

– To all our people in exile in all the states of the world, including Arab and foreign, for them all thanks and respect for sharing with us in our affliction and we call on them to return safely to the land of the beloved homeland and we say to them that we are living in this homeland like falcons for the black summits.

“And whether above the land with dignity or beneath the land with dignity…and ya hamlat Allah.”

The Mujahid Martyr Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous

Your servant

Ra’fat al-Bal’ous.

Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria,” by Waleed Rikab

Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria
by Waleed Rikab*
for Syria Comment – 7 October 2015

Abdallah al-Muhaysini came to Syria in 2013 to partake in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. He presents a unique case of the outsized role a single person can play in the lawless world of the Syrian rebellion.  He has positioned himself at the center of radical jihadist politics, fund raising, and legal opinion.

Al-Muhaysini with a captured Syrian pilot. Jabhat al-Nusra’s flag, which also includes the al-Qaeda insignia, can be seen in the background

Al-Muhaysini hails from the al-Qassim region in Saudi Arabia. Prior to his arrival to Syria, he completed his MA and PhD studies in Islamic Jurisprudence in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, with a dissertation on “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in Islamic Jurisprudence.” A self-professed Salafi jihadist scholar, al-Muhaysini is often seen on the battlefields of northern Syria together with various Islamist factions, prominent among whom are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in addition to other factions affiliated with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition. He has set up institutions that provide military and financial aid to jihadist groups, and runs a proselytization (Dawah) center (named “The Jihad’s Callers Center“) in Idlib Province.

Al-Mushaysini holds the title General Judge of Jaish al-Fateh. He is highly revered in the jihadi-Salafi landscape (notwithstanding Islamic State adherents), embracing a leading role in the warfare – most recently in the Jabha al-Nusra takeover, together with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) of the Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base and in the Jaish al-Fatah battles for control over al-Fuah this month (September 2015). During clashes in the last year, he was documented delivering inflammatory speeches to the troops and bestowing religious blessing upon suicide bombers before embarking on their missions.

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Al-Muhaysini gives his blessing to a suicide bomber in al-Fuah

A picture of his activities since arriving to Syria two years ago reveals a person immersed in all aspects of the effort to establish Islamist rule in Syria, currently developed mainly in the Idlib Province, but also spreading to other regions (as demonstrated in the creation of Jaish al-Fateh – Qalamoun and Jaish al-Fateh – the southern region). His main activities are:

  • The highly successful Jahed bi-Malak (wage jihad with your money) enterprise that operates with the declared aim of collecting donations to arm mujahedeen groups in Syria. In May 2015, he claimed that the Idlib campaign needed US$ 5 million that the rebels were able to secure.
  • The aforementioned Jihad’s Callers Center that has been steadily developing in Idlib Province and now boasts branches in many towns and villages.
  • Active participation in all major military campaigns in northern Syria in the last year, such as the takeover of Idlib city and Jisr al-Sughour in March-April 2015, and Wadi al-Dief in December 2014. During the Idlib city campaign, al-Muhaisni was documented surviving a rocket attack. Al-Muhaysini is also involved in the sanctioning and enlisting of recruits for martyrdom operations.

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Al-Muhaysini with Syrian Army captives at Abu-Dhuhur Air Base

The 56 captives following their execution

A glimpse into the ideology espoused by al-Muhaysini was revealed through his role in the reported summary execution of Syrian Army soldiers and officers following JN’s capture of Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base. Al-Muhaysini gave a speech while standing alongside the blindfolded captives: “These are only some of the prisoners that were captured by the Mujahideen…they claim to be Sunnah. I don’t like to call them Sunnah. They were once Sunnah but became murtadin (apostatized) once they enlisted in the Nusairi (a derogatory term for Alawites) regime…Oh mothers of (Syrian Army) soldiers, either you see your sons like this and then you see them killed, or you force them to desert this army…the battle is between the Sunnah and the Nusairis and Rafida (derogatory term for Shiites) so why would you involve your sons in this carnage?…No doubt, whomsoever sheds blood, his blood shall also be shed.”

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Al-Muhaysini in TIP footage from Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base

Indeed, validating al-Muhaysini’s words, several days later it was reported that JN had executed 65 soldiers and officers at the air base, with images being circulated on social media of the captives standing on the tarmac before their execution.

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Photos confirming the mass killings surfaced on social media, but were not officially published by JN. The fact that there was no formal documentation of the aftermath of the mass killing, at odds with the large volume of JN and TIP publications regarding the capture of the air base, may stem from JN media strategy, which tries to distance itself from the negative image of the Islamic State and its affinity for gore. It is also in line with guidelines given by al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the group not to alienate the local population. On a separate note, these guidelines also explain the successful cooperation between JN and other Islamist factions, as opposed to the Islamic State.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s operation at Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base, the overall success of the Idlib campaign, the co-optation with the TIP and the recent pledge of allegiance by Jaish al-Muhajiroun wal Ansar, are all signs that JN continues to enjoy momentum in Syria. It is able to generate the appeal and success needed to further consolidate its hold over regions in Syria that are all but an unprecedented base of operations for AQ since Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks.

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Arms training for children at the Jihad’s Callers Center

Al-Muhaysini propagates hardline Salafist concepts through the Dawah initiatives of the Jihad’s Callers Center in areas held by Islamist rebels in northern Syria. This enterprise promotes a militant worldview among residents of Idlib Province, and is expected to provide an inventory of future recruits to Islamist groups, as is already demonstrated in this video, where al-Muhaysini personally trains children on his version of jihad. The maintenance and expansion of these Dawah centers requires substantial funding, apparently provided by al-Muhaysini. Furthermore, an article by Jordanian cleric Eyad Qunibi that appeared in a magazine published by the center titled Jihadi Reflections leaves no doubt as to the goal of the Dawah activities conducted by the center in Syria – to shape a state of affairs in which a Sharia-ruled Syria will be perceived as the only option by the Syrian population, without democratic elections.

Al-Muhaysini’s activities are crucial to ascertain the degree to which Ahrar al-Sham (and Jaish al-Fateh in general) and JN differ in their orientation and plans for Syria. Al-Muhaysini seems to play a crucial role in aiding both, providing financial aid and religious guise to their operations. Furthermore, his presence in both JN and Jaish al-Fateh operations, and his official role in Jaish al-Fateh, are proof of the persisting links between the two fighting forces.

The Jaish al-Fateh push toward the Alawite heartlands on the coast may be one reason why Russia jump into Syria to support its ally. If unchecked, al-Muhaysini will continue to help entrench Islamist groups in Syria and radicalize Sunni rebels. Finally, if al-Muhaysini’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian population succeed, it will surely complicate U.S. efforts to promote a democratic post-Assad Syria, due to his rejection of democracy in favor of Sharia governance.

* Waleed Rikab heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism  company.

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: History and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Establishment and Beginnings (2012-2013)
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Initial emblem of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) was formed in the summer of 2012 initially using the name Katiba Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and based primarily in southwest Deraa province. The group first came to prominence with the capture of UN peacekeeping troops in March 2013 in the Jamla area near the UN patrolled portion of the Golan Heights. In the initial statement on the hostage taking, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk justified its actions as follows:

“At a time in which the UN is silent about the crimes of the regime against the Syrian people, here are the UN forces providing aid to the criminal regime forces besieged for days by the heroes of the Free Army [FSA] on frontline duty in the area defending our people there from the barbarity of the regime and its shabiha…at a time in which the Yarmouk Valley area is witnessing artillery and rocket bombing as well as continual Assad war plane bombing raids that have led to the destruction of a great number of homes and the killing of unarmed civilians without mercy, as well as displacement of families.

Why is this aid not offered to the unarmed civilians instead of the criminal gangs? Therefore we have decided to detain and keep hold of the aid together with its UN personnel until Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area and the Assad bombing and war plane raids stop. And these personnel will remain safe, and when the bombing stops and Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area entirely and the UN fulfils its humanitarian and international obligation for which it is present in the area, we will immediately release them.

Long live Free Syria and down with the criminal Assad regime.”

However, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk very quickly retracted this hostile statement, claiming it was actually protecting the UN personnel from the “barbaric bombing that Assad’s criminal gangs are launching against the western villages of Deraa province and all of Syria.” The group then called on the UN to hold a secure meeting to hand over the personnel. Eventually, the incident was resolved. Another kidnapping incident took place in May involving 4 Filipino  UN peacekeepers , though they were also released. At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk seemed keen to assure outsiders of its supposedly good intentions, even telling the Times of Israel that the group’s quarrel was only with Assad regime and praising Israeli medical treatment for refugees.

Through 2013, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk gained prominence as a player on the battlefield, acquiring some new local affiliates. In late March, the group coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra in an assault on the 38th division air defence base. In May- at a time when Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was participating in the “Yarmouk al-Karama” battle focused on localities to the south of Nawa town like Ain Dhikr– the Omar al-Mukhtar battalion for the Nawa area was announced, employing nationalist rhetoric typical of what one would associate with the FSA brand: “I swear by God the Great to defend my religion, my homeland [watani] and my honour, and expend what is dear and precious in liberating all the soil of the homeland from the claws of the criminal Assad occupation.”

In July, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk announced participation in the “Umm al-Ma’arak” (“Mother of Battles”) to capture Nawa from regime forces, though that operation was ultimately unsuccessful. At this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s nationalist rebel affiliations were still apparent, and in October the group joined a coalition of 50 southern formations embodied in the “Revolution Leadership Council- Southern Region.” In a show of military strength, a video emerged in November 2013 of a large military parade held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.  At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader Ali al-Baridi (nickname: al-Khal) claimed that the group’s control of territory extended from the area of Tel Shehab (near the border with Jordan) to the occupied Golan.

All that said, the group was not without its critics in 2013: for example, one page entitled “Secrets and Revelations of Shabiha and Thieves of the Free Army in Deraa” in September accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of laziness under the leadership of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, asserting: “There is an abundance of arms yet it has stopped operating on many fronts like the Sheikh Sa’ad front in waiting for additional support…and today we have heard calls to provide relief from Sheikh Sa’ad so what will Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and the other brigades sleeping in Tafis and the majority of the western areas?”

Developments in 2014

Moving into 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to participate in rebel operations, being one of the declared participants alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and other brigades in the “Hold fast to God’s rope entirely and don’t separate” battle announced in late February to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra. In that same month, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was also one of the declared components of the ‘Southern Front’ initiative backed by the West and Gulf states. At the end of April, the brigade along with some other groups announced a new offensive to take Tel al-Jumu’ and other areas to the south of Nawa, though that came to nothing as an identical initiative with more participants including Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was announced in June.

Even at this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s public affiliations were ostensibly clear in its appearance as a signatory to a statement signed by 54 southern groups affirming respect for human rights and democracy: as per the third clause, “We fight so that Syrian men and women may choose a free and democratic system that establishes a prosperous state respecting the aspirations of Syrians in the freedom and dignity for which they have fought.”

It is in July 2014 that some signs of tension emerge between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and other factions, beginning with an apparent clash with Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, a Salafi group primarily operating in Deraa province. One may also argue that in this clash lies the first hint of links with the Islamic State [IS], as there is an echo of IS discourse in pronouncing takfir on the group with whom one clashes. Thus from a Facebook page in support of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk at the time:

“Harakat al-Muthanna- which calls itself ‘Islamic’ but it has no connection to Islam- launches an attack on the al-‘Alan checkpoint at which the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are based, blows it up and arrests the members of the checkpoint affiliated with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, exploiting the fact that most of the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are present in the town of Sheikh Sa’ad to liberate it from Assad’s gangs and shabiha. And while the brigade was moving Mahmoud Suleiman al-Baridi, one of the most important field commanders in Deraa province, who was wounded during the liberation of Sheikh Sa’ad, they got in the way and held him back, which led to the aggravation of his condition…So, a question that suggests itself, Harakat al-Muthanna, which calls itself Islamic, is it Islamic in deed or….?”

In a follow-up statement, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader mentioned that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division had participated alongside Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya in the attack, and had allegedly accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of “apostasy and disbelief.” Al-Khal gave an extended account in which he claimed that after the capture of Tel al-Jumu’ it had been agreed that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk would participate on the Sheikh Sa’ad front but then members had been approached by a convoy of cars that also claimed to be participating on that front. Approval was granted for joint participation by the leadership, but soon after that, Harakat al-Muhthanna al-Islamiya, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division began the attack on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s media office released a statement simply clarifying on which fronts it would continue to operate: Nawa town, Atman and Kharbat Ghazala.

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By summer 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk had adopted a more Islamic-style emblem (variant featuring a white flag).

Even so, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to identify with the Southern Front operations, participating in the Imam Nawawi offensive to take Nawa from regime forces. The group also participated in the wider fighting over Shaykh al-Maskin, Nawa and other parts of Deraa in November 2014 that eventually culminated in disaster for regime forces, with the total loss of Nawa and other holdings such as Liwa 112 base, in which Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk advertised its presence after the routing of regime forces.

The following month came a major conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, from which point onwards Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s pro-IS affiliations have become so obvious that it does not really make sense now to speak of the group as secretly pro-IS. Jabhat al-Nusra’s fight with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk basin was rooted in its perception of the latter as an IS cell, an allegation that Southern Front commanders apparently rejected at the time. Though the exact sequence of events remains somewhat unclear, the Dar al-‘Adl (House of Justice), a southern rebel judicial body, initially called for a ceasefire and its own judicial investigation (15 December) with the backing of multiple factions, including the Al-Hamza Division, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya. As in July of that year though, when Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya had already clashed with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, it appears the group had also been involved on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra in the initial clashes with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya proposed its own ceasefire and the Dar al-‘Adl issued a new statement on 23 December, requiring the warring sides to return to frontline posts against the regime and for the Dar al-‘Adl to receive the checkpoints set up within the Yarmouk basin.

Leaving behind the Southern Front: Moving overtly towards IS

Since the December clashes, multiple lines of evidence point to Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s IS affinities that build a very clear case when taken together. To begin with, the group’s current emblem featuring IS’ flag:

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Further, a key figure involved in the December 2014 clashes was Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, widely perceived as one of the most pragmatic members of the al-Qa’ida affiliate, though he has since been sidelined. He has been the subject of verbal attack from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk using discourse identical to IS, namely in referring to him as ‘al-Harari’ (H/T: @AbuJamajem). For example, in a statement entitled “To our people in the town of Nawa,” Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk says it released two people on verifying they had no link to Jabhat al-Nusra, while warning “our people in Nawa…to be careful of the conspiracy in which al-Harari is trying to embroil them, whereby he makes from among them cannon fodder for his ambitions that his agenda, which is not hidden from anyone, imposes upon him. This already happened in reality when he embroiled some of the sons of Nawa, deceiving them, in the attempt to commit treachery against Saraya al-Jihad…and it was established to all that Saraya al-Jihad was in a state of defending itself.” Saraya al-Jihad is a jihadi group in Quneitra that became part of the coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, also suspected of being an IS cell: its name appears to be used interchangeably with Jaysh al-Jihad here.

In this context, one should then note an interview uploaded on 1 May 2015 with the deputy leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, in which he denies that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has links with Jaysh al-Jihad but says Jabhat al-Nusra committed aggression against them. When asked as a follow-up whether Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has allegiance to IS, he avoids giving a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question. This interview followed on from a lengthy statement by the Dar al-‘Adl on 30 April, which condemned Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk for violating terms imposed upon them. Though the brigade handed over leaders of sub-groups who had pledged allegiance to IS for questioning and verification as stipulated, the Dar al-‘Adl claims that those handed over actually affirmed that the leadership of the brigade had also pledged allegiance and received financial support from IS.

According to the Dar al-‘Adl, other violations on the part of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk include re-opening an alternative court in violation of the agreement, declaring takfir on the Dar al-‘Adl, kidnapping and torturing civilians and leaders of rival brigades (e.g. the leader of Liwa Buruj al-Islam affiliated with the First Legion), and running a cell to assassinate rivals in the town of Nawa. These patterns of behaviour are very similar to IS conduct in 2013 and in Fallujah in early 2014 (back when it was just ISIS), whereby an alternative proto-administration was set up (most often in the form of a da’wa office and/or Islamic court), combining an approach of outreach and subversion. Criticism of the Dar al-‘Adl as a judiciary body was also the subject of an official IS Damascus province video.

Over the course of this year, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has further developed its administration along the IS model in the Yarmouk basin, with its own da’wa office, Islamic court, Islamic police force and apparently a Diwan al-Hisba, as per below.

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Da’wa office of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Here is a video of a sample da’wa meeting held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: note the use of the Islamic State song “The Shari’a of Our Lord.”

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Da’wa pamphlet cover from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.

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Establishment of the Islamic court dated 11 Shawwal 1436 AH (27-28 July 2015): “Striving on our part to realize the religion and the ruling of God’s law…over the land, supporting those who are wronged and standing in the face of wrongdoers and those who sow corruption, we announce the formation of the Shari’a court. This court is to be considered the sole legitimate place from which judicial rulings are to be taken in the Yarmouk basin area according to the Book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) on the understanding of the just predecessors, may God be pleased with them. And we ask our people to be an aid to us in this court and that to restore rights to its people.”

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“The Shari’a court in the Yarmouk basis announces its desire to appoint Islamic judges affiliated with the court and working in it. Thus we ask all whom God has cultivated with Shari’i knowledge to be kind enough to undertake judicial work in the court. Appointment of the judges for work will be completed within the cadre of the Shari’a court according to specialities and suitability. To apply: base of the Shari’a court in al-Shajra everyday from 9-11 a.m. beginning from the issuing of this statement- 11 Shawwal 1436 AH.” The al-Shajra court was mentioned earlier in the year by the Dar al-‘Adl as something reopened by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk contrary to its wishes.

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Announcement by Shari’a court for the recruitment of Islamic police to be affiliated with the court (not military matters).

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From a Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk account on Twitter: Diwan al-Hisba organizing distribution of niqabs to locals.

In this vein, recent Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk photo releases mimic IS propaganda, portraying scenes of normality in the Yarmouk basin area it controls, as well as distributions of da’wa pamphlets and revelling in the destruction of its enemies, who have generally failed to dislodge it from its strongholds. For comparison, note that another group that eventually pledged allegiance to IS- Boko Haram- also had its own media outlet- al-Urwat al-Wuthqa- that imitated IS photo releases.

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Football match in the Yarmouk basin area

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Distribution of da’wa pamphlets

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“Corpses of the slain of ‘Jaysh al-Fatah’ [in the south, comprising Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham et al.] who tried to assault the areas controlled by Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.”

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Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk member Ahmad al-Baridi featuring a quotation from IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on his Twitter account.

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Purported areas of control of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (in green) vs. rebel rivals (in red) as of early August 2015.

Given the numerous lines of evidence for the IS affinities of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, one may ask why IS has not already announced a new ‘wilaya’ (province), in this case a Wilayat Deraa, which would from a propaganda viewpoint mark a significant ‘expansion’ in that even its predecessor ISIS, which was much more widely (and thinly) spread across Syria, never had a foothold in the province on account of the loyalty of Jabhat al-Nusra affiliates to Jowlani. One answer may be that the problem for IS is that the territory currently controlled by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk is not contiguous with the rest of its holdings in Syria and Iraq, or it may be the announcement is only a matter of time.

In any case, the growth of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk poses a significant problem for the rebels, and the Dar al-‘Adl continues to be targeted in sabotage operations, with the assassination of its deputy head most recently, but it seems no one has the strength to dismantle Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s presence. This is particularly telling with regards to the relative strength of Jaysh al-Fatah in the south (which seems most keen to destroy Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk) as opposed to its much more successful counterpart in the north. More generally, southern rebel efforts have stalled with the faltering offensive on Deraa city despite the regime’s thin line of control through the province.