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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad’s Fateful Choice
by David W. Lesch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Submissions in languages other than English are welcomed.

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

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

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

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As for Samir Quntar, he adds the following:

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

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

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

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

The Dir’ al-Watan Brand: Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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A logo of Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi

The previous post profiled the emergence of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield Brigade) as a Damascus-based militia during the autumn of 2015, complete with its own media office and social media profile. As was also made clear, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, despite its outward Syrian nationalist appearance, is actually led by the commander of the Iraqi Shi’a militia Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar: Hayder al-Juburi (aka Abu Shahed). A notable and lengthy clarification was later provided to this author by Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar’s spokesman regarding the rationale behind the whole initiative of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan:

“The brigade, by which I mean Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, has been incorporated under the cover of the Syrian state which has meant that the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi is the military commander for the Dir’ al-Watan forces…in other words it is the case that Abu Shahed al-Juburi has assumed two roles in that at the same time, he is the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and the military commander for Liwa Dir’ al-Watan…and the important issue is legal cover for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, having taken into account media criticism from those who fish in troubled waters, international criticism and the European Union that have asserted that there are Iraqi Shi’a militias fighting alongside Assad…Indeed both Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar are under the cover of the al-Bustan Association [owned by Rami Makhlouf].”

However, it would be erroneous to assume that the devising of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan on this basis came out of no prior groundwork. In fact, the branding of “Dir’ al-Watan forces” (Quwat Dir’ al-Watan) in relation to Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar goes back at least some months before the establishment of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan. In this context comes the importance of noting prior coordination in this framework with pro-Assad Syrian militias in the Damascus area and the wider south. One of the units of relevance here is a militia known as Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi (The Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Brigade), named for the famous Muslim commander who fought against the Crusaders. The militia, which also appears to advertise links with the al-Bustan Association, is led by one Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi. Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi has claimed operations in a variety of areas including Zabadani, Jobar, Douma and Kfeir Yabous in the Damascus area, as well as Deir al-Adas in Deraa governorate. The group’s use of the “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan” brand goes back to at least March 2015, around the same time as the emergence of Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra, which also uses the moniker of “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan.” Note this post from Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi suggesting links with Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra.

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Graffiti featuring Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi.

Coordination between Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi is first mentioned in May 2015, and at the same time reference to Dir’ al-Watan forces as led by Hayder al-Juburi begins to appear. This forms the basis for increasing references to Quwat Dir’ al-Watan in connection with Hayder al-Juburi over the course of summer 2015 with a similar format to the promotion of posts from the Liwa Dir’ al-Watan media office later in the year, as can be seen below.

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From a Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar account on 12 July 2015: “The general commander of Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahad al-Juburi and the general commander of Liwa Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi unite forces to realize victory.”

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From a Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar account on 4 July 2015 (note the Quwat Dir’ al-Watan logo): “As has happened now…Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and the Syrian Arab Army liberate the al-Tal fortress in the Zabadani area with the killing of many armed men. The Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi confirmed to us that the men of Quwat Dir’ al-Watan and the guardians of the abode- the men of the Syrian Arab Army- are now raising the flag in the al-Tal fortress and consolidating complete control over it. He added in confirmation for us that the men of God are continuing in the advance to liberate all the areas in which the armed men are present.”

Following the establishment of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi has begun to feature a Liwa Dir’ al-Watan graphic in certain postings: e.g.

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Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi wishing a Happy New Year for Syria.

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A post by Abu Ahmad al-Ayyubi from January 2016 (notice the interchange of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and Quwat Dir’ al-Watan): “Breaking: Quwat Dir’ al-Watan advances in Darayya, cuts off Moadhamiya from Darayya, cuts all the reinforcement lines between the terrorists and inflicts losses on them of dozens among killed and wounded.”

Thus, rather than thinking of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan as an isolate entity that simply came into being in October 2015, it is more appropriate to see it as continuity and development from prior coordination and overlap between Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar and certain southern Syrian pro-Assad militias over a number of months under the label of Quwat Dir’ al-Watan. In the grander scheme of things, it reflects a broader initiative to give a more acceptable ‘Syrian face’ to foreign militia involvement on the side of the Assad regime. This paradigm of analysis can be applied in a somewhat similar way to other pro-Assad militias like Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya and Quwat al-Ridha, both tied to foreign militias (the Iraqi Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ and the Lebanese Hezbollah respectively) but designed to recruit native Syrians (mostly Syrian Shi’a) and give a Syrian face to the concept of the “Islamic Resistance” (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

Liwa Dir’ al-Watan: A New Pro-Assad Militia in Damascus

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan

The brand of “Dir’ al-Watan” (“Homeland Shield”)- and more broadly the concept of a “shield” force- gained increasing currency among pro-Assad militias last year. In part, this branding reflected a regime strategy of consolidating and defending areas deemed more vital in the wake of the loss of more peripheral areas like Idlib and Palmyra, while also dealing with manpower problems related to conscription avoidance by allowing locals to focus on defending their home turfs rather than fight in distant battles. Examples of this trend include Dir’ al-Watan in the predominantly Druze province of Suwayda that competes with the more third-way/reformist Rijal al-Karama for influence, the rise of “Quwat Dir’ al-Watan- Liwa Suqur al-Quneitra” in Quneitra province, and the formation of Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel affiliated with the Republican Guard in Latakia province. Of these formations, Liwa Dir’ al-Sahel seems to have been the least successful, having largely become defunct in operation by September 2015.

The emergence of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan (Homeland Shield Brigade) around the time of mid to late autumn of 2015 points to a wider regime effort to consolidate control of the Damascus area. Similar to other pro-Assad militias, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan portrays itself as one of a number of “auxiliary forces” for the Syrian army. Some notable advertised engagements since its inception include the fighting in Jobar in December 2015, in which the group claimed to be engaging in artillery fire clearing work in preparation to retake the area, the December 2015 operations in the vicinity of Marj al-Sultan airbase and the Masraba farmlands in East Ghouta, fighting in the Zabadani mountains the following month, and more recently operations in Harasta as well as the sieges of Douma and Darayya (though participation in the siege of Darayya also goes back to at least November 2015). In this context, note the participation of another pro-Assad militia- Liwa Usud al-Hussein– in the Marj al-Sultan airbase operations in December 2015.

In keeping with its Syrian nationalist image, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan social media regularly mention coordination with the Syrian army, but omit any notion of cooperation with foreign militias aiding the regime in Damascus: in particular the Iraqi Shi’a factions that emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas. In the realm of open source information, it becomes apparent that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan works closely with Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar, an Iraqi militia that first emerged in the Damascus area in 2013 and is led by Hayder al-Juburi (Abu Shahed). This is evident because Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar’s main media page on Facebook regularly advertises Liwa Dir’ al-Watan’s claimed operations, while also providing certain posts with some frontline testimony from Abu Shahed himself. For example, this bulletin from late January 2016:

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“A short time ago the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi affirmed to us from the battlefield that the Dir’ al-Watan forces and the heroes of the Syrian Arab Army are advancing widely in Darayya, seizing wide areas of buildings and blocks.”

And similarly from late November 2015:

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“The Dir’ al-Watan forces continue their military operations and advance in Darayya while the Secretary General for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar Abu Shahed al-Juburi confirmed to us a short time ago that the men of God are destroying the takfiri enemy and presenting the most magnificent pictures of heroism and jihad on the battlefield.”

Additionally, in an interview, the spokesman for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar confirmed to this author cooperation between Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and his group, adding that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan was formed last year and mostly consists of locals from the al-Sham (Damascus) area. Another Iraqi Shi’i militiaman who regularly works in Damascus- Marwan al-Asadi- asserted to this author that he had heard of cooperation between Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and Shi’a militia factions (al-muqawama: ‘the resistance’) and had heard that Liwa Dir’ al-Watan is affiliated with Syrian air intelligence.

More insight was provided from Hayder al-Juburi himself. He told this author that in fact he is the commander of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, adding that it was founded in October 2015 and has both Syrian and Iraqi staff. This testimony readily explains why Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar media routinely advertise Liwa Dir’ al-Watan operations and cite Abu Shahed on the frontlines with Liwa Dir’ al-Watan. In terms of links, Abu Shahed clarified that the militia has an affiliation (undoubtedly financial) with the al-Bustan Association set up by the wealthy Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, who is closely tied to the Assad ruling dynasty.

Therefore, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan appears to provide another interesting case of overlaps and links between Iraqi Shi’a militias and pro-Assad Syrian militias. Compare with the case of Suqur al-Sahara’ and the advisory role played by members of Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (which also emerged from the original Liwa Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas) in the formation. Further, note the openly asserted affiliation of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya with Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’.

In terms of ‘martyrs’ for Liwa Dir’ al-Watan, scant information seems to exist on specific cases, though one in particular advertised by the group’s social media is worthy of note-Ibrahim Abd al-Ghaffar Taha- as it also gives a broader historical perspective on the brigade’s operations. According to Liwa Dir’ al-Watan:

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“He was martyred in the month of Tishreen Awal [October] 2015 at the beginning of our unit’s work in Ghouta towards the village of Nola and he obtained martyrdom there…he was a hero and affectionate towards his companions. We have lost him just as the homeland has lost him…We pledge to the martyr, Liwa Dir’ al-Watan and the leader of the homeland [President Assad] that we will remain on the path until the liberation of every grain of soil of our precious homeland

Media Office of Liwa Dir’ al-Watan.”

As the regime has made advances in Aleppo and Latakia provinces, it will be of interest to see what kind of difference Liwa Dir’ al-Watan can make, if any, in the Damascus field of warfare over the coming months.

Liwa Usud al-Hussein: A New Pro-Assad Militia in Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Original emblem of Liwa Usud al-Hussein.

The province of Latakia has seen a variety of militias operate in its territory in the bid to drive out rebel forces entirely from the coastal front, including the Muqawama Suriya, the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a, and Suqur al-Sahara’. Foreign Shi’a militias have also participated in Latakia battles, the most notable recent case being the Iraqi group Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib, which, according to one of its members I have spoken with, has some Syrian members and has personnel playing an advisory role in Suqur al-Sahara’. The links between Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib and Suqur al-Sahara’ are borne out in recent social media output by the former, as per below as an example:

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From the Latakia front: note the Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib flags and the Suqur al-Sahara’ arm-patches.

Unlike the formations mentioned above, Liwa Usud al-Hussein (The Lions of Hussein Brigade) is a much newer militia based in Latakia, having been formed approximately 7 months ago (i.e. around late June-early July 2015), according to a media representative for the group. The formation of Liwa Usud al-Hussein thus came soon after the creation of Coastal Shield, a local militia affiliated with the Syrian army’s Republican Guard that reflected a regime strategy at the time of both dealing with manpower shortages exacerbated by conscription avoidance and focusing on defending areas deemed strategically vital.

However, unlike Coastal Shield, Liwa Usud al-Hussein does not appear to claim affiliation with the Syrian army. The leader of the brigade- originally from Qardaha– is one Hussein Tawfiq al-Assad, undoubtedly part of the larger al-Assad family that is in Qardaha. One can understand the name of Hussein in the brigade’s name in two ways: not only can it refer to the leader of the group, but also to Imam Hussein. Indeed, in an early video posted by Liwa Usud al-Hussein showing the group’s presence in the Homs desert area near Palmyra, the accompanying soundtrack is the song “Salam Allah ‘Ala Sawtak Habibi Ya Hussein” (God’s peace be upon your voice, my beloved Hussein”). These data point to the Alawite background of the militia (for more on the status of Imam Hussein in Alawite theology, see this book by Yaron Friedman). This observation should not come as a surprise. Another militia in Latakia province, the Katibat al-Jabal, affiliated with the National Defence Forces and primarily based on the Nabi Yunis summit, has also made its Alawite affinities clear.

The main operations publicly claimed to date have been participation in the fighting in the Homs desert area near Palmyra against the Islamic State in July 2015, combat in the Sahl al-Ghab in the late summer of 2015, the offensive to take Marj al-Sultan airbase in the Damascus area towards the end of 2015, and most recently the new offensives in north Latakia province that have gone decisively against the rebels, who have suffered high attrition rates partly on account of the intense Russian airstrikes. Specifically in the most recent Latakia initiatives, Liwa Usud al-Hussein took part in the capture of Rabi’a, rather than the rebel stronghold of Salma. Over the course of all these campaigns, Liwa Usud al-Hussein has publicly claimed 3 ‘martyrs’, two of whom were claimed to have been killed in the operations near Palmyra, and one in the Sahl al-Ghab battles.

However, it should be noted that discrepancies exist in the data for the two supposedly killed fighting for Liwa Usud al-Hussein near Palmyra: Nader Saleh Douba, originally from the village of al-Boudi to the southeast of Qardaha, and Rami Aboud Muhammad, originally from Bashnana in Tartous province. Rami is agreed by multiple sources to have been killed in the Aqrab area in Hama governorate, while Nader is variously said to have been killed either in north Homs or Jobar in Damascus. In fact, the media representative for Liwa Usud al-Hussein affirmed to me that only two ‘martyrs’ for the group are confirmed since the founding of the brigade, though names were not specified.

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Militia commander Hussein al-Assad claimed to be posing in Rabi’a (Latakia) following its capture from rebel forces.

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Screenshot from a video advertising the group’s participation in operations near Palmyra, set to the soundtrack of “Salam Allah ‘Ala Sawtak Habibi Ya Hussein.”

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Screenshot from a video showing Liwa Usud al-Hussein fighters posing over the corpse of a dead Islamic State fighter apparently in the T4 airbase area in the Homs desert. Note the distinct Liwa Usud al-Hussein arm-patches on two of the fighters (centre and right). For the soundtrack, see this video.

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From a video posted by Liwa Usud al-Hussein, advertising a convoy as heading off to fight in the Palmyra area. Close-up of a car with the group’s logo.

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From the same video as the previous photo: Liwa Usud al-Hussein arm-patch.

As of now, the Liwa Usud al-Hussein media representative asserted to me that the brigade has undergone a reformation and reconstitution, now using the name “Quwat Humat Souriya- Usud al-Hussein” (Guardians of Syria Forces- Lions of Hussein). The precise reasons for this development were not made clear.

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The new emblem of Liwa Usud al-Hussein under the name of Quwat Humat Souriya- Usud al-Hussein. On bottom, a familiar slogan: “Watan, Sharf, Ikhlas” (Homeland, Honour, Sincerity).

Like many other pro-Assad militias such as Liwa Khaybar, the number of ‘martyrs’ claimed by Liwa Usud al-Hussein suggests a very minor role in the overall conflict, but the group provides another interesting case study of militias on the regime side of the conflict.

The Life of al-Khal: First Leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Graphic dedicated to al-Khal’s ‘martyrdom’.

The figure of al-Khal (a nickname meaning ‘The Uncle’)- also known by his real name Muhammad al-Baridi (Abu Ali al-Baridi)- presents one of the more interesting stories behind leaders of the various Syrian rebel groups. As one of the founders and the leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) from its inception in around summer 2012 until his death in November 2015, al-Khal gained notoriety as his brigade moved from a Free Syrian Army [FSA] brand group that was even part of the Southern Front coalition in 2014 to an overtly pro-Islamic State [IS] orientation in the aftermath of clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of that year, as Syria’s al-Qa’ida affiliate had accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of having secret links with IS.

I have already traced out the history of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group in considerable detail, but what of the life of al-Khal himself? So far there is little biographical detail available on him. This post hopes to rectify that deficiency, drawing in part on testimony from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles. At the same time, one must be aware of the need for source criticism when it comes to particular details, as will be seen later. For purposes of clarity, it will help to read the aforementioned historical account of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk as a group.

Muhammad al-Baridi was born in 1970 in the village of Jamlah in Hawdh/Wadi al-Yarmouk (the Yarmouk Basin/Yarmouk Valley), an area in the corner of southwest Deraa province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. So close are Jamlah and nearby localities in the Yarmouk Basin to the border that they are visible in the distance from the Israeli-controlled side.

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Looking out from the Golan Heights towards Hawdh al-Yarmouk beyond the border fence (photo my own, taken from farmland near the Israeli settlement of Haspin).

As al-Khal’s family name suggests, he was born into the Baridi family/clan that is local to the Yarmouk Valley. The name is of importance because the Baridis are prominent landowners in the area- they are also the main founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Indeed, this dynamic seems to be key as to explaining the group’s staying power and grip over Hawdh al-Yarmouk until now, despite the casualties inflicted on account of the war with Jabhat al-Nusra and the southern Jaysh al-Fatah coalition it leads. Like so many other rebel groups, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade originated as a very local start-up.

In keeping with the status of the Baridis, al-Khal’s father was a renowned wealthy landowner in the area working in the realm of agriculture, and his son followed in his father’s footsteps from the beginning of his working life. He then moved into selling produce in the Deraa markets while not abandoning agricultural work. Likely on account of the family wealth, al-Khal had access to a relatively good education, and was even able to study Arabic language for a time in Damascus University, though he does not appear to have graduated with a degree.

Of particular interest is whether al-Khal had already begun delving into Islamist and jihadi thought prior to the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Here, one should perhaps exercise some caution as there may be polemical interests in projecting the adoption of radical ideology onto an earlier stage of al-Khal’s life, despite the fact that his brigade was clearly aligned with FSA-brand forces in the south for two years or so and did not begin to implement substantial Islamic-style governance on the ground in the form of a ‘reform’ (islah) program imitating aspects of IS administration until the turn of the New Year in 2015. From Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk circles, a recurring talking point now is that the brigade’s orientation was ‘Islamic’ from the outset, and linked to this narrative is a claim that al-Khal had always espoused an Islamist/Salafi manhaj.

All accounts agree that al-Khal was eventually imprisoned by the regime and released. The timeline of imprisonment and nature of the offences are a matter of some dispute. An opposition activist and critic of al-Khal quoted by The National claims that he was imprisoned on account of thefts of antiquities from archaeological sites, while a rebel commander cited by the same paper says it was on account of extremist tendencies. A person from Hawdh al-Yarmouk who called himself Asad al-Baridi told me that he had been imprisoned by the regime twice before the revolution- each time for less than a year. The exact time of his release and the reasons for imprisonment were not specified by this source, though he did claim that al-Khal had desired the implementation of Islamic law before the revolution. Another Baridi who is in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and was close to al-Khal told me that al-Khal was imprisoned because “he was interested in extremist thought” and had been released after the beginning of the revolution as part of the “second amnesty” issued by the regime for a number of political prisoners over some months in 2011. Many of those released detainees were Islamists and jihadis held in the notorious Sednaya prison, who went on to found prominent rebel groups like Ahrar al-Sham (Hassan Aboud) and Jaysh al-Islam (Zahran Alloush). On this reading it seems likely that al-Khal was among that contingent of Islamists released from Sednaya.

In any case, there is no evidence that al-Khal was a jihadi veteran of prior conflicts, unlike many Syrian Islamists and jihadis who most recently distinguished themselves as combatants in the insurgency against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, “He wanted to go to Iraq but could not because the Syrian mukhabarat caught up with him.” If so, that would fall under the double game the regime played with Islamists and the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq via Syria, whereby active facilitation existed but also crackdowns took place from time to time- for example, as Charles Lister notes, while 2005 saw a decrease in the foreign fighter flow to Iraq, 2006-7 saw a re-expansion of that flow (The Syrian Jihad- p. 39).

Contrasting with al-Khal’s lack of prior military experience is the figure of Abu Obeida Qahtan, who is the current amir of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. According to the Baridi who was close to al-Khal, he was also one of the founders of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. A Palestinian Syrian from the Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus, Abu Obeida Qahtan most notably fought in the Afghan jihad alongside Osama bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam against the Soviet invasion. He may also have had a role in the subsequent jihads in Chechnya and Iraq. I have not found corroboration of a notion that Abu Obeida Qahtan was in Jama’at Bayt al-Maqdis al-Islamiya, a jihadi group in the south suspected of links to IS partly on account of its flag resembling that of IS. Though this group is often thought to be Palestinian because of the ‘Bayt al-Maqdis’ (referring to Jerusalem) in its name, it primarily consists of locals from Deraa and Quneitra with some muhajireen from Jordan and not Palestinians, according to a member of the group I spoke with. This member also denied that there is allegiance to IS.

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Abu Obeida Qahtan (left) with al-Khal (right). The image first appears to have emerged in 2014. The figure on the left has been misidentified as Abu Muhammad al-Masalama, about whom more below.

Abu Obeida Qahtan’s presence and status in the brigade are rather exceptional in nature, because the group has drawn its manpower almost entirely from the wider Hawran area in southern Syria. While the majority of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk fighters come from the Yarmouk Valley, the group has also absorbed remnants of the Quneitra province jihadi coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, which was accused by rebels of having links with IS and consequently dismantled by mid-2015, even as Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk expressed solidarity with Jaysh al-Jihad.

As for foreign fighters who mostly attempted to come in via Jordan, al-Khal “would reject the muhajireen and send them to the north”- as per the testimony of the Baridi who was close to al-Khal. The only case of an actual foreigner in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk appears to be an Israeli Arab who paraglided into Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory in October 2015, less than a month prior to al-Khal’s death. According to the same Baridi source, there was prior agreement from al-Khal for this Israeli Arab to join the group, and he remains alive and within its ranks today.

It should be noted in this context that another jihadi group in Deraa province- Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya (“The Islamic Muthanna Movement”), which recently clashed with a number of Southern Front groups that accused it of running secret prisons to detain rivals, has a similar policy of rejecting muhajireen. The group, founded as Katibat al-Muthanna bin Haritha Qahir al-Faras by a former Sednaya detainee in 2012 (Abu Ayyub al-Masalama, who was killed in March 2013), has this policy in order to build popular support in Deraa, according to a member I spoke with. As can be seen, a ‘Syrian-only’ membership policy does not necessarily tell against radical tendencies. Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya has rejected participation in the war on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, despite some local clashes back in mid-summer 2014.

How does one piece together al-Khal’s life and the evolution of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk over time? If al-Khal was indeed a radical all along and if Abu Obeida Qahtan was among the founders of the group, it suggests that the FSA-branding, including the co-signing with dozens of southern groups of an affirmation for a civil democratic state in mid-2014, was in fact an exercise in sweet-talk and deception practised over a considerable period of time, likely in order to maintain foreign support via the Military Operations Command (MOC) room in Amman that is jointly backed by Western and Gulf states as well as Jordan, responsible for oversight of support for southern factions deemed acceptably ‘moderate’.

By 2013, it would appear that there were already suspicions on the part of Jordanian intelligence about al-Khal, who had apparently received treatment in Jordan for wounds, but MOC support was not halted.  If The National account is right in terms of the timeline of MOC support for Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, then the first actual suspension of MOC support amid concern about the group’s direction and conduct in mid-2014 was soon followed by the first signs of a shift in the outward display of orientation, most notably as a new, more Islamic-looking emblem was adopted. Here, it should be added that The National has things slightly wrong: the new emblem adopted at that time (summer 2014) did not use an IS flag but a more generic white/black flag associated with jihad (see my history of the group).

While The National reports allegations of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and a Brotherhood-linked Syrian cleric called Sheikh Muhammad Sorour Zain al-Abidain that increased over time, it should be noted that this narrative, which implies an adoption by al-Khal of more radical ideas over the course of the revolution rather than adhering to Islamist ideology from the outset, is not corroborated by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk sources. It is possible that the Muslim Brotherhood-influence narrative derives from long-standing concerns Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular have had about the Muslim Brotherhood, although the former’s stance has softened slightly since the beginning of King Salman’s reign in January 2015.

One can perhaps point to another jihadi figure- Sheikh Ahmad Kasab al-Masalama (Abu Muhammad al-Masalama)- as having a role in the shift in public display of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s orientation. From Harasta in the Damascus area, Masalama was reportedly part of the ‘Fighting Vanguard‘ before going to join the Afghan jihad, eventually returning to Syria some time in 2012 to play a role in the insurgency in the south. He was apparently appointed a Shari’i judge in Jabhat al-Nusra but by some point in 2014 had left the group and had some involvement as a Shari’i official or advisor in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, reputedly being a close friend of al-Khal. Step News Agency even describes them as associates in the same jihadi trend before the revolution. Masalama was assassinated in November 2014.

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Purported photo of Abu Muhammad al-Masalama.

Since the clashes with Jabhat al-Nusra in December 2014, the pro-IS orientation of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has been openly on display and the Yarmouk Valley has been under a state of siege as part of the war between Jabhat al-Nusra/southern Jaysh al-Fatah and Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, which has cost both sides heavily and has in fact played a significant role in the diminishing of Jabhat al-Nusra’s power in the south. For Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, the biggest loss has been the assassination of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, also a native of the Yarmouk Valley, in an operation in Jamlah in November 2015.

While Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s administration and media output have been imitating IS in many recognisable respects, the group continues to deny allegiance and/or having links with IS and does not quite take the same approach of speedy and forceful implementation of Shari’a. In a denial of links posted on 31 December 2015, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk even referred to IS as “jama’at al-dawla al-islamiya” (“Islamic State group”)- a designation also used by IS’ jihadi rivals like Jabhat al-Nusra and regarded by IS as an insult for not according legitimacy to its statehood claim.

Ideologically, therefore, the position is quite incoherent, for IS demands allegiance and subsuming all group identities under its state framework- mere words of support are not enough. Contrast the case of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk with Jama’at Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (now IS’ Sinai Province). When the latter denied a prematurely released statement pledging allegiance to IS, it did not attempt to deny IS the status of statehood on its official media channels.

In addition, it remains the case as I reported back in October 2015 that the niqab is not compulsory in Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk territory. This contrasts with IS territory where the niqab is imposed almost immediately after the conquest of any new territory. Back when IS was just ISIS, the niqab imposition in Raqqa came within days of ISIS’ consolidation of control of the city in mid to late January 2014.

It is possible that IS is playing an elaborate long game, in that denial of links are encouraged because it is not strategically useful to declare a Wilayat Deraa for now. Indeed, considering the proximity of the territory to Israel-controlled territory, it may be the case that there is concern that an official IS announcement will lead to airstrikes of some sort on Hawdh al-Yarmouk, which is not currently subjected to any bombing raids, whether from the regime, Russia or the coalition against IS.

In total, al-Khal sired six daughters and two sons. Of the two sons, he did not see one of them as his spouse gave birth to this son two months after his death.

Report on Mass Graves of Yazidis in Sinjar

Click the above map to download a full-size image

Click the above map to download a full-size image

by Matthew Barber

Yazda is a Yazidi humanitarian and advocacy organization founded after the attempted genocide of the Yazidis by IS on Aug. 3, 2014. Beginning this past fall, I took a one-year leave of absence from my PhD program at the University of Chicago to serve as Executive Director for Yazda during this period of urgent need. The accompanying responsibilities have unfortunately kept me away from Syria Comment of late.

One of Yazda’s projects is to document the crimes of genocide that were committed against the Yazidi people. Our genocide documentation project focuses on examining physical evidence of mass graves (bones, clothing, grave mounds) while gathering survivor testimonies to corroborate the physical evidence that we find.

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidenc of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidence of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Yazda is now issuing a full report on the mass graves in Sinjar, which is available on the Yazda website. VICE News has just published the full report here, and Human Rights Watch and Yazda have released a joint press statement on the urgency of protecting and performing forensic analyses of the mass graves.

The full report is also available for download here, and can be read in the PDF viewer below.

The Ten Most Important Developments in Syria in 2015

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.

I wrote a post for Syria Comment last year listing the top events of 2014 and what to look for in 2015. So here’s another one—a very long one, in fact. It has been compiled in bits and pieces over a few weeks but was finalized only now, a few days after the fact.

In keeping with the buzzfeedification of international political writing, I have decided to make it a top ten list and to provide very few useful sources, just a lot of speculative opinion. I’ll rank them from bottom to top, starting with number ten and moving on to the biggest deal of them all. Enjoy!

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10. The Death of Zahran Alloush.

In October 2013, the esteemed proprietor of Syria Comment, Professor Joshua Landis, compiled a top five list of Syria’s most important insurgent leaders, excluding al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish YPG. It contained the following five names:

  • Hassane Abboud (Ahrar al-Sham)
  • Zahran Alloush (Islam Army)
  • Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Suqour al-Sham)
  • Abdelqader Saleh (Tawhid Brigade)
  • Bashar al-Zoubi (Yarmouk Brigade)

Of these five, two remain alive but have been demoted to second-tier ranks in their factions. In March 2015, Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh merged his group into Ahrar al-Sham and took up a less prestigious job in the new outfit. In October, the Free Syrian Army heavyweight Bashar al-Zoubi was reassigned to run the political office of the Yarmouk Army, as it is now called, and replaced as general commander by Abu Kinan al-Sharif.

The other three are dead. Abdelqader Saleh was hit by a missile in Aleppo in November 2013. Soon after, his powerful Tawhid Brigade began to fall apart. Most of its subunits are now dispersed across two rival-but-allied outfits, called the Levant Front and the First Corps, which are both active in Aleppo. Hassane Abboud was killed alongside other Ahrar al-Sham leaders in a September 2014 bombing—or whatever that was. And on Christmas Day 2015, Zahran Alloush suffered the same fate. A missile hit a building in the Eastern Ghouta where he was meeting with other local rebel leaders.

Since Zahran Alloush died just a week ago, we don’t know how much this will matter in the end. But he was indisputably one of the best-known rebel commanders in Syria, the one best positioned to dominate Damascus if Assad lost power, one of the very rare effective (because ruthless) centralizers within the Syrian opposition, a trusted ally of the Saudi government, and the most powerful Islamist leader willing to engage in UN-led peace talks. Those five qualities all seemed to promise him a major role in Syria’s future. But now he’s dead. And since his group always seemed like it had been built around him as a person, many now fear/hope that it will start unraveling like Saleh’s Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo. We’ll see. If the rebels start to lose their footing east of Damascus, it will be an enormous relief for Assad.

9. The Failure of the Southern Storm Offensive.

Map by @desyracuse

Map by @desyracuse

This summer, the loose coalition of rebel units known as the FSA’s Southern Front got ready to capitalize on a year of slow and steady progress, during which Sheikh Miskin and other towns had been captured from Assad. They encircled the provincial capital, Deraa, for a final offensive dubbed Southern Storm. The city actually looked ready to fall. After Idleb, Jisr al-Shughour, Ariha, Palmyra, and Sukhna, the fall of Deraa was intended to be the nail in Assad’s coffin and a show of strength for the Western-vetted FSA factions in the south, drawing support away from their Islamist rivals.

Stories differ on what happened next, but the Southern Storm campaign was a fiasco. Regime frontlines hardly budged, the Allahu Akbars trailed off into a confused mumble, and commanders were called back to Jordan. Half a year later, with Russian air support, Assad has begun an offensive to retake Sheikh Miskin in the hope of finally loosening the rebel stranglehold on Deraa—although at the time of writing, this is still a work in progress.

What happened? I really don’t know. Many things, probably. The operation seems to have been poorly coordinated, with rebels pursuing a plan that their foreign funder-managers in the Military Operations Center in Jordan didn’t agree on. Stories have been told about some nations cutting support, rebels defecting to Assad or heading for Europe, arms having been sold on to jihadis, and groups splitting over obscure internal intrigues. Some of those stories may be false, but the failure was a fact and the rebels have since been restrained from further advances.

Of course, it might seem strange to say that rebels not taking a city was Syria’s ninth most significant event in 2015. It is not even a Dog Bit Man story, it’s a Dog Didn’t Bite Man story. But the Deraa affair seems to have done a great deal of damage to Western and Arab hopes for the FSA’s Southern Front, which had until then been portrayed as a model for the rest of Syria’s insurgency. Unless the southern rebels manage to reorganize, unify, and go back on the offensive, I think the events of summer 2015 might end up being seen as a turning point in the southern war.

8. Operation Decisive Quagmire.

afp-15a98bf10482c310755007248667f3649b607c81In keeping with local tradition, the princes of Saudi Arabia can be wedded to four regional crises at once. In early 2015, they were sulking over Syria, emotionally drained by Egypt, flustered by unfaithful Libya, and at wits’ end over that shrew in Baghdad, when Yemen suddenly walked into their lives—a huge, incoherent, boiling mess of splintering armed factions, collapsing institutions, Africa-level poverty, jihadi terrorism of every imaginable stripe, and aggressive interference by rival foreign governments.

It was love at first sight.

Since then, the March 2015 Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has of course turned out to be exactly the self-defeating, facepalm-inducing clusterfuck that everyone who is not a member of the Saudi royal family had predicted.

To make a long story short, the Saudis are still in Yemen with no victory on the horizon and no face-saving exit available. This means they have much less time and resources left for Syria than they did a year ago. They have become more exposed to Iranian pestering and are more dependent on their regional and Western allies, several of whom do not share their views on how to deal with Bashar al-Assad. Rather than being able to leverage their intervention in Yemen against Iran and Assad in Syria, the Saudis now seem at risk of having it leveraged against them.

Thanks to the over-confidence and under-competence of the Saudi royal family, Syrian rebels may therefore turn out to be among the biggest losers of the Yemeni war.

7. Europe’s Syria Fatigue vs. Assad’s Viability

2The huge numbers of refugees coming from Syria and other countries to the European Union in 2015 had many causes, but one of the effects was to rearrange Europe’s list of priorities in the Middle East. Goals number one through three are now as follows: stability, stability, and stability. Number four is anti-terrorism, number five is economic growth, and then there are a few others along those lines. Promoting democracy is also on the list, right after ”fix the nose of the Sphinx.”

In 2015, we have also seen a slow but persistent drip of terror scares and occasional massacres, including two big ones in Paris in January and November. This is obviously not the refugees’ fault, but many Europeans link these attacks to Syria anyway—including some of the attackers, like the wanker that began stabbing random people in the London Underground this December.

These things tap into the West’s darkest impulses. Reactions to immigration, painful social change, and terrorist pin-pricks may be irrational—in fact, they mostly are—but they carry real weight and win votes. Policy specialists might recommend some mixture of strategic patience, cautious reform, and nuanced rhetoric, but European rightwing populists eat policy specialists for breakfast.

Islamophobic far-right movements were already growing all over Europe, for reasons largely related to the continent’s own internal diseases, but the refugee crisis and the terror attacks are a godsend for them. Some of these groups are not content with merely hating and fearing the Syrian rebels for their Islamism, but also adopt pro-Assad positions. In addition, European extremists on both the far right and the far left are increasingly friendly with Putin’s Russia; some are even funded by the Kremlin. These parties are no longer bit players. They’re going to be in government soon, or close enough to government to shape policy. Add to that the old-school authoritarian national-conservatism that has begun to resurface in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Poland, and other places, and the fact that countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary are already the Baath’s best advocates in the EU, and you have the nucleus of a slowly forming pro-Assad constituency.

Of course, many European politicians are also re-evaluating their views on Syria for perfectly non-racist and non-paranoid reasons. The most common one is probably a widespread and profound loss of faith in the Syrian opposition, not merely as an alternative to Assad, but even as a tool for pressuring him and engineering a solution. Others were never interested in a policy to overthrow Assad, although they happen to think he’s a crook.

The point is that all of these things now reinforce each other and for the Syrian regime, it looks like vindication. In 2011, Bashar al-Assad made a bet, wagering that (1) the West would one day recoil from its love affair with Middle Eastern revolution and return to the familiar comfort of secular authoritarianism, and that (2) his own regime would still be standing when that happened.

It is now happening, but whether or not Assad’s regime is still standing, qua regime, is a matter of definition. The Syrian president has so far shown little ability to exploit political openings like these. To an increasing number of European politicians, he does indeed look like the lesser evil, but also like a spectacularly incompetent evil. His regime appears to them to be too broken, too poor, too polarizing, too sectarian, too inflexible, and too unreliable to work with—more like a spent force than a least-bad-option. Assad’s diplomacy may be far more elegant but is ultimately no more constructive than that of Moammar al-Gaddafi, who, as you may recall, kept refusing every kind of compromise and even shied away from purely tactical concessions, until he was finally beaten to death by screaming Islamists in a country so broken it will perhaps never recover.

Then there is the question of Assad’s own longterm viability. Even in pre-2011 Syria, no one could be quite sure whether the Baathist regime would remain in one piece without an Assad at the helm. In a conflict like this, there must be dozens of assassins trying to worm their way into the Presidential Palace at any given moment and for all we know one of them could get lucky in 2016, 2017, or tomorrow. And what about his health? The Syrian president turned 50 this September. That’s no age for an Arab head of state and he looks perfectly fine in interviews. But if Western intelligence services have done their due diligence, they’ll know that his father Hafez suffered a ruinous stroke or heart attack at age 53, which nearly knocked him out of power. Who knows, maybe it runs in the family?

At this point, however, a growing number of European policymakers are so tired of Syria and its problems that they’ll happily roll the dice on Assad being the healthy, happy autocrat that he looks like. They would be quietly relieved to see Syria’s ruler reemerge in force to tamp down the jihadi menace and stem refugee flows with whatever methods, as long as they don’t have to shake his bloody hands in public and on the condition that he delivers a semi-functional rump state for them to work with, at some unspecified point in the future.

Obviously, Assad isn’t going to become best friends with the EU anytime soon, but it might be enough for him if major cracks start to appear in the West’s Syria policy. If so, there is now a window of opportunity opening up that wasn’t there for him a year ago. If the Syrian president manages to break some bad habits, tries his hand at real politics instead of Baathist sloganeering, and produces a stabilization plan slightly more sophisticated than murdering everyone who talks back to him, then 2016 could be the year that he starts breaking out of international isolation. If not, he’s likely to stay in the freeze box for at least another year—and since his regime keeps growing weaker, nastier, and less state-like by the day, it’s uncertain if he’ll get another chance.

This is a potential game changer worth watching, but don’t get too excited. Given the way that the Assad regime has conducted itself in the past half-century, the odds are long for transformative politics and persuasive diplomacy from Syria’s strongman.

6. The Vienna Meeting, the ISSG, and Geneva III.

b03582e6b20396c6ed25a6cb72406b35f8745e5dWhile not the most important, the November 14 creation of the International Support Group for Syria (ISSG, not to be confused with ISIS or ISIL) was certainly the most unambiguously positive piece of news of the year.

A debating club of interested nations and international organs won’t be enough to end the Syrian war, but it means that the terms of the debate have been readjusted for the better. Recognizing the conflict’s international dimension and engaging constructively with the fact that this is now partly a proxy war was long overdue. As currently construed, the ISSG might be too broad and unwieldy to function properly, since the core players (USA, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc) always seem to have to hold preparatory pre-meetings before settling down in the ISSG format. But if that’s what it takes to get the screaming and sulking teenagers that rule Tehran, Ankara, and Riyadh to sit down and talk like adults, then so be it.

That the creation of the ISSG has for the first time made Iran a formal party to the Syria talks is a good thing, whatever Syrian rebels and their Saudi paymasters may think of it. Iran is a key player both on the ground and in the diplomatic struggle over Syria; that’s not something you can change by pretending otherwise, though many have tried. Of course, now we’re all waiting for Iran to come to the same conclusion about the Syrian rebels, instead of childishly insisting that Assad must be allowed to negotiate with an opposition of his own choosing.

After its meetings in Vienna and New York, the ISSG has empowered UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to call for a new round of Syrian-Syrian talks, currently scheduled for January 25 in Geneva. As many have already pointed out, these talks are unlikely to solve Syria’s problems. The ISSG-backed goal of a transition through free and fair elections by 2017 is almost cartoonishly unrealistic.

So, what to do about that? Many pundits have reacted to the Vienna statement and the Geneva peace process only by ridiculing it and then restating their preferences for the outcome. That’s not helping. The talks are indeed almost certain to fail to reach their overly ambitious goals, but then let’s work from that assumption instead of scoffing at it.

The actors involved in Syria’s war should plan for failure even more than they plan for success. They should already be preparing for a post-Geneva situation where they need to salvage, secure, and build on any shred of progress achieved in the talks.

Reaching a comprehensive ceasefire by June seems incredibly difficult, but a dampening of violence just might be possible, with some luck. If serious about it, Syrian negotiators could presumably also reach meaningful agreement on more limited and less controversial issues.

They could also agree to keep talking. Since so many now favor some sort of political resolution, and unsuccessful negotiations may give way to military escalation, it would be useful to avoid a full stop and the taste of failure. A faltering Geneva process could be drawn out into many sessions and postponed, with negotiators on both sides sent back for a couple of months to do their homework, instead of ended. Transforming the Geneva process into a semi-permanent platform for negotiations on a talk-while-you-fight model would transfer some of the combatants’ attention to a political track. That would be a good thing, both in the hope of achieving a breakthrough later on and for day-to-day crisis management.

Most of all, international actors should make sure to safeguard the ISSG framework, or some version of it, against an underwhelming performance in Geneva. Even if the war goes on and intensifies, some form of international contact group will be useful to facilitate communication and solve side-issues, and it remains a necessary ingredient in any future de-escalation deal.

5. The Donald.

The politics of the United States is a key part of the politics of Syria, although the reverse is rarely true.

Right now, it looks very likely that Donald Trump will either win the Republican nomination for president, or run as an independent and split the Republican vote out of pure spite. If so, Hillary Clinton is almost certain to be elected president of the United States, which would give her final say over the superpower’s Syria policy from January 2017 to 2020, or even 2024.

Of course, one never knows: some extraordinary scandal could knock her out of the race, or maybe Trump slinks away or is bought off after losing the primaries. We’ll see. But right now, Clinton seems like the smart person’s bet.

From what we know of her performance as President Obama’s secretary of state during the first three years of the Syrian war, a Clinton presidency would probably mean a more hawkish attitude to Assad. For example, she keeps declaring herself in favor of a no fly zone to ground the Syrian air force. Whether that is feasible is another matter, what with these Russian jets and air defense systems all over the place, and tough talk on the campaign trail will not necessarily translate into White House policy. But a more interventionist American line in Syria could definitely make a difference in the war, for good or bad or both.

The high likelihood of a Clinton presidency also means that we can tentatively exclude the sort of radical break in American Syria policy that might have followed a Republican restoration. Some of the GOP candidates are more aggressively anti-Assad than Clinton and have no interest in preserving any part of Obama’s legacy. Others are the exact opposite: more or less pro-Assad and starkly opposed to the rebels, whether for pandering to the anti-Muslim vote or out of anti-interventionist principle. But because of Donald Trump, it now seems like those points of view are going to get schlonged back into permanent opposition.

4. The Iran Deal.

iran-nuclearThe effects of the Iranian nuclear agreement, which was finalized between April and June 2015, are only very gradually becoming apparent. But unless the deal is somehow scuttled by the combined efforts of hawks in the United States, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, it could reshape the region.

As a consequence of the agreement and the American-Iranian thaw, the international isolation of Tehran is withering away. After four years of being shut out of Syria diplomacy, but not out of Syria, Iran has been invited to the UN-led negotiation process via the ISSG. The United States is also starting to accept Tehran as a regional power to be engaged coldly but constructively, although this is still unfamiliar terrain for all involved.

Meanwhile, European companies are flocking to Tehran to get a slice of the end-of-sanctions pie. Expecting billion-dollar construction contracts and racing to beat their Russian, Chinese, American, and Arab competition, the EU governments will soon start to pay a lot of attention to what Iranian diplomats have to say. More soft power for the ayatollahs, then.

Though often viewed, somewhat inexplicably, as a third-tier actor in the Iran talks, Russia is also paying the greatest attention to this process. Once the nuclear deal was done, Putin swiftly began to transform a complicated but friendly relationship into an emerging pact, seeing in Iran’s combination of oil, gas, military muscle, and poor ties to the West a perfect regional ally for Russia. Russian state media just announced that Moscow will start shipping its powerful S-300 air defense system to Iran next month.

This is all great news for Bashar al-Assad, of course, though it’s not yet clear whether his regime can stick around long enough to fully capitalize on Iran’s growing influence.

3. The Continuing Structural Decay of the Syrian Government. 


down-with-hafezAssad took some real body blows in spring and summer 2015. After an upward curve in 2014, the Syrian army started to seem exhausted by the end of the year and its offensive in Aleppo petered out after a last hurrah in spring 2015. With rising support for the rebels, the hollowed-out base of Assad’s regime began to show.

Most obviously, Assad lost a lot of territory in the first half of 2015. In March, a coalition of Islamist rebels captured Idleb City in the north and Bosra in the south. In April, Jisr al-Shughour fell, followed by the Nassib border crossing to Jordan. In May, it was time for Ariha in Idleb, with other rebels pushing into the Ghab Plains. Further east, the Islamic State took Sokhna and Palmyra. Southern rebels grabbed a military base known as Brigade 52 in the Houran in June and began preparing their (ultimately ill-fated) assault on Deraa, the provincial capital. That same month, Assad’s forces in Hassakeh were mauled by the Islamic State. They survived only thanks to an uneasy alliance with the Kurds, which increasingly turned into dependence on them. In July, Assad was hard pressed and held a speech declaring that the army would have to focus on keeping the most strategic areas of Syria, though it would not stop striving for total victory.

The rebel and Islamic State offensives have mostly been blunted since then, thanks to raised levels of Russian and Iranian support, and they did not go far enough to deal critical damage to the regime. Yet, at the time of writing, Assad remains unable to recapture any of the cities he lost in the first half of 2015. The northern Hama front, in particular, continues to cause headaches for his government.

Even though you can’t see it on a map, Assad has also lost strength in other ways in 2015. His primary source of power—apart from the military—was always the fact that he controlled the state, and along with it a number of institutions on which every Syrian family relies, including courts, police, public services, state-run businesses and banks, and a system of food and fuel subsidies. While it does not mean that the regime’s subjects love their president, it has allowed Assad to co-opt, control, and mobilize millions of Syrians in ways that the insurgents cannot. Owning the government also allows Assad to hold out the promise of continued central control, institutional rollback in the provinces, and coordinated reconstruction—i.e., some sort of plan for a post-war Syria.

By contrast, his opponents may be skilled at breaking down existing institutions, but they have so far proven unable to build new ones that stretch further than a few towns. This weakness is a primary source of Assad’s strength.

The Islamic State and the Kurdish PKK are partial exceptions to the rule, clearly capable of organizing rudimentary governance after destroying, expelling, or subjugating regime-connected local elites. But, for various reasons, they are not credible alternatives to the existing central state. As for the situation in the remaining Sunni rebel regions, it is very bleak. After nearly five years, there is a handful of multi-province militias, three or so regional networks of Sharia courts (the Sharia Commission of Ahrar al-Sham & Co. and the Nusra Front’s Dar al-Qada in the north, and the more broadly based Dar al-Adl in the south), a lot of little local councils linked to the exile opposition, and a web of foreign-funded aid services operating out of Turkey and Jordan, but not much more.

When Idleb fell to the insurgency earlier this year, it was only the second provincial capital to slide out of Assad’s hands, after Raqqa. It was destined to become an example of what rebel rule would mean. And what happened? The city started out at a disadvantage because of the war, Assad’s retaliatory bombings, and so on. A decent number of public employees seems to have stayed and continued in their jobs, but salaries and electricity provision dried up. That meant that things like water pumps and schools went out of commission. Rebel factions did what they could to organize civilian life, such as forming a joint council, which has administered the city through some combination of inherited municipal regulations and Sharia law. Despite the prominent role of al-Qaeda in the Jaish al-Fath coalition now running Idleb, foreign governments have chipped in by donating food and medical supplies to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Still, even under a comparatively well-organized, broadly based, and locally rooted coalition like Jaish al-Fath, the basics of a new political order never seem to fall in place. After eight months of insecurity, crime, and armed men swarming the city, the new rulers have yet to organize a credible police force. Whatever the opposition may claim, such failures are not merely the result of Assad’s barrel bombing.

The rebels’ manifest inability to govern, along with merciless airstrikes on nonregime territory, is what makes Assad able to compel most of the population to live under his rule; and the fear of irreversible state collapse is what has made foreign states hold back support from the rebels at critical junctures. However, this key advantage of the Assad regime is also slowly fading away, along with the state itself. The resulting problems are almost too many to list.

For one thing, the Syrian army’s manpower deficit is turning into a major issue. Assad has mobilized his security apparatus to hunt down draft dodgers through house calls and flying checkpoints, in order to replenish thinning ranks. The main effect seems to have been to send a growing stream of seventeen and eighteen year old men across the border, often with their families in tow. They may or may not prefer the government over the rebels, it doesn’t matter. In a Syria at peace they would have grumblingly gone for their one-and-a-half years of army training. But as things stand, they know full well that army service has no time limit: discharge is equal to death. As it turns out, most Syrians have no intention of giving their lives in service of Bashar al-Assad and draft dodging is now pervasive. Tensions have become so great that in the Druze-majority Sweida region in the south, the government apparently decided in 2015 to abstain from normal recruitment to the Syrian Arab Army out of fear of provoking a local rebellion. Druze men can instead report for home defense units, on the understanding that they won’t be shipped away to die in distant Hassakeh or Latakia. A similar arrangement reportedly applies in Aleppo and they seem to be creeping into other regions as well.

On the frontlines, Shia foreign fighters are taking a greater role. They appear to be behind much of the successful offensive south of Aleppo. Iran is rallying Iraqi and Lebanese fighters with both religious and financial inducements, but its client groups—Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, Asaeb al-Haqq etc—do not seem able to mobilize enough fighters. According to some reports, Iranian authorities have resorted to press-ganging young Hazara Shia refugees into going to Syria, under threat of deporting their families back to Afghanistan.

Russia has acted even more decisively, by sending its own air force and huge amounts of military materiel to shore Assad up.

Drawing on all of these resources, the Syrian president and his allies have managed to supply the army with the manpower it needed to regain some sort of strategic composure after the difficult first half of 2015. The army now seems to stand its ground again. But though the regime’s counterinsurgency apparatus is now back in working order, this is still the military-logistical equivalent of fixing your car engine with chewing gum and a prayer.

Though it remains the country’s single most powerful armed force, the Syrian Arab Army appears to have boiled down to a skeletal organization. Many elite and specialist units remain in service, but officers have far fewer regular soldiers under their command and are haphazardly recruiting local hangers-on to pad out the ranks in their sector. A huge number of more or less local militias have been set up by pro-Assad civil society figures, including businessmen, neighborhood strongmen, and tribal leaders, and Iran has helped Assad to organize tens of thousands of fighters under the National Defense Forces umbrella. Much of the broader ground force has thus been replaced by local irregulars, although army and intelligence officers still appear to oversee the action and report back to Damascus.

An example of what the Syrian Arab Army now looks like is Brigade General Soheil al-Hassan’s Tiger Force. So called after its commander, whose nickname is ”The Tiger,” it is one of the government’s most acclaimed elite units, which shuttles back and forth across northern Syria to put out fires and break up stalemates. While the Tiger Force is presented in regime media as an exemplary representative of the regular Syrian Arab Army, Hassan is in fact an air force officer who reportedly served as part of Air Force Intelligence at the Hama Airport when the conflict began. Having moved into a frontline role from 2011 onwards, he does not seem to control a huge force, instead relying on local troops and a smaller entourage of personal loyalists from varied backgrounds. Even now, when he is stationed on the front against the Islamic State east of Aleppo, he is surrounded by some of the local militias he worked with in Hama earlier in the war.

The civilian side of the government is also suffering. The state economy has declined at an accelerated pace since summer 2014. Then, the Syrian pound began to lose value quicker, fuel supplies dwindled, and the government was forced to begin a painful retreat from its costly system of subsidies for basic goods. Assad also lost access to the Jordanian border in 2015, complicating trade with Iran and the Gulf Arab markets and hurting farmers and other exporters. Iran’s decision to turn the credit tap back on in spring 2015 surely helped to slow the decay. But with Assad having run down his currency reserves and facing an array of other problems, the value of the pound continues to melt away, the lack of fuel causes cascading problems throughout the economy, the institutional rot worsens, and we’re seeing an accelerating middle class exodus from Damascus and the big cities.

When I recently polled some specialists on the Syrian economy, answers were uniformly pessimistic. Jihad Yazigi, who publishes the well-regarded economic newsletter The Syria Report, concluded that 2016 will see Syrians ”poorer, living a more miserable life, and emigrating in higher numbers.” José Ciro Martínez, an expert on food in conflicts, noted that bread prices have tripled in government-controlled areas (and also in the parts of Syria under Islamic State control), while they are stabilizing in rebel-held regions, where foreign governments are trucking in flour and food.

For the Baathist government, which still today controls a sizable majority of the Syrian people, this has started to eat away at one of Assad’s most important competitive advantages: his ability to provide basic goods and salaries in areas under his control, which draws civilians away from the bombed out and broken rebel badlands and places them under the control of his state, army, and security apparatus. In the past year, humanitarian workers and diplomats monitoring these issues have started to speak about internally displaced people being turned away from government areas that no longer feel that they can afford to care for them, or view them as potential fifth-columnists for the Sunni insurgency. The situation is so bad that in northern Syria, thousands have headed for Islamic State-run Raqqa—a city ruled by fundamentalist psychopaths and targeted by a dozen different air forces, but still safer and more livable than wherever they came from.

The decay of the central government, the army, state institutions, and the Syrian economy more generally means that Assad is growing less credible as the steward of all or part of post-war Syria, even for those inclined to imagine him as such. For years, the Syrian government has spent considerable resources running basic governmental functions even in areas outside of its control—for example by paying salaries to government workers, teachers, and hospital staff in some opposition-held regions. As a consequence, many insurgent areas are paradoxically enough dependent on regular payments and institutional services from the government they’re fighting.

In some cases, these are quid pro quo deals, where the government tries to leverage its ability to shut down services, in order to get the rebels to let traffic through a checkpoint or stay out of certain towns. In other cases, there are overriding shared interests, such as when the government and Islamists work out arrangements to keep Damascus and Aleppo supplied with potable water. There is also the spectacle of unhappy government oil workers sent out to run power plants under Islamic State supervision, because both sides want to keep the lights on and hope to make money off of the other.

But in many other cases, the central government simply seems to be paying for services in areas it does not control. This is not a humanitarian measure and neither is it mere bureaucratic inertia. (Sometimes, the government shuts down services and stops food deliveries as a means of collective punishment.) Rather, it appears to result from a strategic choice to maintain a skeletal grid of institutions in as many regions as possible. That’s a core interest for the Syrian state as such, but also for Assad personally, who hopes to win the war by safeguarding the government’s institutional base and making it contingent on the continued existence of his regime.

Given current trends, it seems unlikely that the central government will be able to keep these payments up forever. In so far as the current rulers of the state are forced to chose, they will no doubt prioritize loyalist areas. (Or corruption and clientelism will make that choice for them.) Also, many areas have already lost any presence of the state and functioning public institutions, whether due to the war, rebel depravations, or regime terror bombing. Recreating them will be even more costly than just keeping them in operation. If Assad’s government does not have the resources or the institutional capacity to rebuild reconquered areas, then it will rule no more effectively than the rebels. If it turns out to be too dependent on radical sectarians to allow Sunni refugees back, and cannot in fact operate as an institutional state and a national government, then President Assad is just a warlord with a fancy title.

For the regime, this is a do or die issue. Unless it manages to bring these structural problems under control in 2016, Syria may be heading into unknown territory.

2. The American-Kurdish Alliance.

indexSince late 2014 and early 2015, the United States Air Force has transformed itself into something that more closely resembles the Western Kurdistan Air Force. Under U.S. air cover, Kurdish forces are constructing their own autonomous region (called Rojava) and in autumn this year, the U.S. started delivering ammunition and small arms directly to Arab units working under the Kurdish umbrella, currently called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). We’re still in the early stages of what may or may not turn out to be a longterm relationship, although certainly not a monogamous one.

Militarily, it is a match made in heaven and the results are impressive. Despite their limited numbers, the Kurds have created a disciplined force that uses air support effectively. They’re chewing up jihadis and spitting them out from Kobane to Hassakeh. At the moment, they’re threatening to march against Shedadi near the Iraqi border and have just seized the October Dam on the Euphrates, giving them land access to Manbij and the Aleppo hinterland.

Such victories do not look like much on the map, but they are doing systematic and significant damage to the jihadis in sensitive areas. Oil fields, roads, border crossings, and bridges: these are things the Islamic State cannot live without. Now, the American-Kurdish coalition is buzzing around northern Syria like a giant vacuum cleaner, gobbling up all those goodies and leaving nothing for anyone else. If 2016 turns out to be the year when the Islamic State begins to crack and contract, the Syrian Kurds will have played a huge role in getting us there.

Politically speaking, however, the American-Kurdish alliance is not such a perfect marriage. It’s more like an unfortunate Tinder date: initial ambitions align, but you don’t have a lot of interests in common and your friends roll their eyes.

First of all, the Kurds are an ethnic minority with a very particular set of problems and ambitions in Syria, which have little to do with the wider war within the Sunni Arab majority. Their current crop of leaders are ideologically doctrinaire PKK loyalists. They have atrociously poor relations to the rest of the U.S.-backed opposition and disturbingly (as seen from the White House) close contacts with Moscow. If it wishes to act on the central stage of Syrian politics, the United States ultimately needs to win strong allies within the religiously flavored Sunni Arab majority, but it has instead come to rely on a foreign-linked, Russian-friendly, authoritarian, and secular Kurdish group with a (partly undeserved) reputation for separatism. Needless to say, this rubs every dominant ideological camp within the popular majority the wrong way: Islamists, Baathists, Syrian nationalists.

Secondly, the PKK is listed as a foreign terrorist organization in the United States. That means it is illegal for American citizens to provide it with any form of ”material support or resources,” possibly including enormous truckloads of ammunition and billions of dollars worth of close air support. Of course, the sanctioning of the PKK is more due to its violent conflict with Turkey than because of any Kurdish attacks against Americans. Therefore, one would logically expect there to be at least a debate in the United States about whether this key anti-jihadi ally should perhaps be removed from the black list, since this would seem to be an urgent national security interest. But there is nothing of the kind. Instead, the executive branch just goes about its business and the PKK gets its guns as intended. It is a rare case of a political system being so dysfunctional that it becomes super-functional, but it might not last forever.

Third and last, but not least—you may have heard of NATO. The United States is in a military alliance with Turkey, which is a key backer of the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition but also the PKK’s arch-enemy. Both Ankara and the Kurds rank each other far higher than Assad or the Islamic State on their respective lists of evils for urgent destruction. It’s getting worse, too. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently sending jets and tanks to bomb Kurdish cities, and he is backing attempts to destroy the HDP, which serves as PKK’s Sinn Féin and is a necessary component of any peaceful solution to Turkey’s conflict. If Turkey-PKK relations were antagonistic before, they are positively murderous right now.

These contradictions threaten to rip apart the United States’ Syrian alliance network, undermining its policy to pressure both Assad and the Islamic State. Resolving them is probably impossible; ignoring or transcending them won’t be much easier. At the moment, the United States is drifting towards the PKK almost by default. This is both because the Kurds have offered something that actually works on the ground and because Erdogan has been such a singularly unhelpful ally in Syria. Turkish obstructionism may have started to fade away now, with Ankara belatedly realizing its need for Western support and the costs of playing spoiler. That could change things. But unless Turkey’s behavior changes radically and other current trends continue, the unlikely alliance between the Pentagon and the PKK looks like it might just beat the odds and survive for the long term.

1. The Russian Intervention.

putsyr4Here we are, at number one, and it’s an easy choice. The single most important event of the Syrian war in 2015 was of course Russia’s September 30 military intervention. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to pin down exactly why this is so important: because it strengthened Assad so much or because it didn’t strengthen him enough?

Most of the discussion in Western Europe and the United States has been over whether Russia intervened against the Islamic State, as it claims, or against other rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. That question is easy to answer: Russia did not intervene against anyone in particular, it intervened for Assad. Who gets hurt depends on who stands in his way. So far, attacks overwhelmingly focus on the other rebels, not the Islamic State—although the Russian government and its media toadies continue to claim otherwise with a sanctimonious pigheadedness unseen since Baghdad Bob.

If we instead judge the Russian intervention against its undeclared but actual goal, which is to aid Assad, a nuanced picture emerges. The airstrikes themselves are intense and seem effective, but they will ultimately matter little unless a capable ground force can exploit the openings created. Assad’s army leaves much to be desired, as already noted, and his government will struggle to resume firm control over the areas and populations it might capture.

So far, there have been limited gains on the ground, mostly in low-value areas south of Aleppo and some hard-won mountain terrain in northern Latakia. The Syrian army is also seeking to wrest back control of Sheikh Miskin in the south, to make Deraa easier to hold. Less visibly but perhaps more importantly, a series of local ceasefire-and-evacuation deals have helped neutralize rebel strongholds in the Homs and Damascus regions. Since the costs to Russia seem to be fairly limited, they can probably keep this up for a long time, meaning that Assad is in no hurry and can focus on preserving cohesion and manpower.

But on the other hand, three months have already passed and Assad has not recaptured a single one of the cities he lost in spring and summer 2015. Not Jisr al-Shughour, not Bosra, not Idleb, not Palmyra. And on the North Hama front, which has been a main focus for the Russian Air Force, Assad has actually been pushed backwards. Soon after the Russians intervened, he lost Morek, a small town that has been fiercely contested for both sides; that was no sign of strength. If the rebels were to move just a few villages further south of Morek, they’d be within comfortable range of Hama City and could start shelling the crucially important Hama Military Airport. (Perhaps that is a reason for why Assad and the Russians are now hastily restoring the discontinued Shaayrat Airport southeast of Homs?)

In other words, while the intervention has helped Assad turn the tide, he’s nowhere near as effective at capturing territory as his enemies were half a year ago. By now, the initial shock and awe has started to wear off. The Russian state media continues to claim that they’re winning, winning, winning, but if people were willing to listen to that on September 30, they don’t any longer. After three months of nonstop lying and braggadocio, the progress reports from Russia’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs seem no more credible than the shrill propaganda we’ve grown accustomed to from Syria’s rebels and regime.

That said, I think it is quite possible that the Russian bombings will have made a deep cut in the rebellion’s fortunes by spring 2016. The longterm and cumulative effect of all this pressure should not be ignored. How long can the Idleb insurgents fight a three-front war against forces coming from Aleppo in the east, Latakia in the west, and Hama in the south? Both the Syrian and the Russian air forces are now hitting munitions storages, supply routes, and transports all over Idleb and Aleppo. The longer-term effects of these bombings may remain invisible to us still. They are also bombing civilian trade and points of access for food and medical aid in areas that had previously been off limits to the Syrian air force. This is either a calculated gamble or part of a deliberate strategy to create a humanitarian disaster, since the Russians are well aware that hundreds of thousands of people depend on deliveries channeled through these areas. Whatever the case, it stirs up the situation all over northern Syria. Rebel forces could theoretically begin to unravel structurally in the same way that the Islamic State is now doing on some fronts, after a year of mostly Iraqi, Kurdish, and American pressure.

Indeed, we are seeing signs that all is not well in the Syrian rebel movement. The Jaish al-Fath coalition, a powerful Idlebi alliance built on the Nusra-Ahrar axis, has just issued a desperate-sounding call for outside support and foreign fighters. The fact that the alliance now openly invites foreign jihadis to come join them breaches a longstanding redline for the non-Qaida segments of the Islamist opposition. One of Jaish al-Fath’s founding factions, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Feilaq al-Sham militia, was so troubled by this (and perhaps by how their funders would react) that they pulled out of the alliance days after the statement. That Jaish al-Fath’s dominant factions would throw caution to the wind in this way, to the extent that the alliance is starting to wither, is a sign of how much pressure they are under since September 30.

Another possible metric is the death of senior commanders. There is no shortage of new recruits for the rebellion, so one shouldn’t overstate the overall significance, but if leaders get killed it’s at the very least a sign that something is wrong. Since September 30, there has been a lot of reports about dead and injured senior figures in the insurgency. The most well known victim is of course Zahran Alloush in Damascus, though we do not know if the Russians were involved in that attack. Further north, recent deaths include Abu Abdessalam al-Shami, an Ahrar al-Sham member who served as Jaish al-Fath’s governor of Idleb City, Ismail Nassif, who was the military chief of the Noureddine Zengi Brigades, and his counterpart in the Thuwwar al-Sham Front, Yasser Abu Said. All three were killed on the south Aleppo front. Jaish al-Fath’s chief judge, the Saudi celebrity jihadi Abdullah al-Moheisini, was wounded just before Christmas (but survived), while Sheikh Osama al-Yatim, who ran the Dar al-Adl court system in the Houran, was killed in mid-December. The list could be made a lot longer.

It’s also worth noting that the political effect outside Syria has been far bigger than the military gains inside Syria. September 30 shook up conventional wisdom about the conflict and increased Putin’s influence across the board, for having yet again out-escalated the West and proven his commitment to Assad. It created some hard-to-win debates for John Kerry, added to an already growing European pessimism about the wisdom of backing Syrian rebels, and made it less likely that a no fly zone would be imposed in Syria by Obama or his successor. By focusing the minds of people in Moscow, Washington, and elsewhere, the Russian intervention has also helped bring about the Vienna meetings, the creation of the ISSG, and consequently also the upcoming Geneva III talks in January. The November 14 Vienna Communiqué (which Assad doesn’t like) is now overtaking the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 (which Assad really hated). However you rate these things, they’re not nothing.

Most analysis of the Russian involvement has been so politicized as to be almost useless. Putin’s and Assad’s supporters have been quick to pronounce the operation a resounding success, while rebel backers dismiss it as a murderous fiasco. The safe bet is, as always, to look for the truth somewhere in between those extremes. My best guess is that Putin is probably worried over the Syrian Arab Army’s underwhelming achievements and increasingly concerned over what he has gotten himself into. Nevertheless, Assad is definitely in a stronger position than he was half a year ago and can still hope for a bigger dividend in 2016. One also has to consider the alternatives: the Syrian army would no doubt have been much worse off now if the intervention had not happened, and that would have undercut Russia’s influence as well.

Finally, one must note the risks involved in raising the stakes. If the Geneva III talks falter and Assad fails to achieve a decisive breakthrough in 2016, then what? Russia can hardly pull back, now that Assad has grown dependent on its support, not without losing face and seeing its investments frittered away. And what then, Mr. Putin: will you just keep going with no end in sight, or will you escalate even further? In other words, Russia is now at risk of getting stuck in an intractable conflict without an exit strategy and without clear political gain. It would be like Saudi Arabia in Yemen, but on a much bigger scale. If Putin ends up sending ground troops into battle, the risks and costs involved would rise considerably—but even that might not be enough to bring about a Kremlin-friendly conclusion to the Syrian mess.

Some of the less responsible actors on the pro-rebel side (you know who you are) might find this scenario to be in their interest. By exposing himself to injury in Syria while simultaneously continuing to provoke Western and Sunni Arab nations in Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere, Putin has effectively offered them the choice of a full-blown proxy war. Once he seems to have tied his personal prestige firmly enough to Assad’s fate, they just need to abandon any lingering hopes they might have for stability in Syria and start kicking at the pillars that still keep the state standing, thereby turning Syria into Putin’s own Afghanistan. It would be very bad news for the Russians, but it would be a catastrophe for Syrians.

Barring a military breakthrough, much could depend on the outcome of the otherwise uninspiring Geneva III talks in January. The behavior of Russia and the Assad government will be watched closely by Western states. If Putin acts constructively and demonstrates real leverage over his ally, or meaningful agreements between Syrians seem to be within reach, then so far so good. But if it turns out that Putin refuses to fulfill his side of the deal, which is to deliver Assad’s approval of a transition plan, or if Assad simply ignores Moscow’s advice, then what good is the Russian presence in Syria to Arabs, Americans, and Europeans? We would be back in a purely military contest. The ramped-up Russian investment in Assad’s regime would then look less like a unilateral readjustment of Syria’s balance of power and more like a target of opportunity.