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New Dabiq Issue Reiterates Justifications for Yazidi Enslavement

Dabiq issue 9, They Plot and Allah Plots

Click here to download Dabiq issue #9.

A new issue of Dabiq was released today (#9, They Plot and Allah Plots), which contains another article justifying the practice of slavery against enemies. (Thousands of Yazidi women were kidnapped and enslaved as concubines when IS attacked Sinjar in Northern Iraq, in August 2014. See: 1, 2, 3. A previous issue of Dabiq presented IS’ first public justification for the practice; see this post.) Scores of survivors have described how Yazidi women (including prepubescent girls) are subjected to continual rape by the jihadists who took them captive, and are sold or exchanged among multiple men. This new article seeks to present IS’ response to the world’s discussion of this atrocity.

The article (entitled “Slave-Girls or Prostitutes?”) is purportedly written by a female author, contains religious justifications for the enslavement of Yazidis, and is designed to inflame the anger and sorrow of the reader through provocative language. Some excerpts follow.

The article presents IS’ assertion that it is religiously permissible to take slaves of women whose husbands were enemies:

… The right hand’s possession (mulk al-yamīn) are the female captives who were separated from their husbands by enslavement. They became lawful for the one who ends up possessing them even without pronouncement of divorce by their harbī husbands.

Sa’īd Ibn Jubayr reported that Ibn ‘Abbās (radiyallāhu ‘anhumā) said, “Approaching any married woman is fornication, except for a woman who has been enslaved” [Al-Hākim narrated it and said, “It is an authentic hadīth according to the criteria of al-Bukhārī and Muslim”].

Saby (taking slaves through war) is a great prophetic Sunnah containing many divine wisdoms and religious benefits, regardless of whether or not the people are aware of this. The Sīrah is a witness to our Prophet’s (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) raiding of the kuffār. He would kill their men and enslave their children and women. The raids of the beloved Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) convey this to us. Ask the tribes of Banī al-Mustaliq, Banī Quraydhah, and Hawāzin about this.

… The Sahābah and their followers in goodness treaded upon the path of the Prophet (sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam) after him. Therefore, we almost cannot find a companion who didn’t practice saby. ‘Alī Ibn AbīTālib (radiyallāhu ‘anh) had nineteen slave-girls.

After all this, the ramblers dare to extend their tongues with false rumors and accusations so as to disfigure the great shar’ī ruling and pure prophetic Sunnah titled “saby”? After all this, saby becomes fornication and tasarrī (taking a slave-girl as a concubine) becomes rape? If only we’d heard these falsehoods from the kuffār who are ignorant of our religion. Instead we hear it from those associated with our Ummah, those whose names are Muhammad, Ibrāhīm, and ‘Alī! So I say in astonishment: Are our people awake or asleep? But what really alarmed me was that some of the Islamic State supporters (may Allah forgive them) rushed to defend the Islamic State – may its honor persist and may Allah expand its territory
– after the kāfir media touched upon the State’s capture of the Yazīdī women. So the supporters started denying the matter as if the soldiers of the Khilāfah had committed a mistake or evil.

… I write this while the letters drip of pride. Yes, O religions of kufr altogether, we have indeed raided and captured the kāfirah women, and drove them like sheep by the edge of the sword. And glory belongs to Allah, to His Messenger, and thebelievers, but the hypocrites do not know!

… Therefore, I further increase the spiteful ones in anger by saying that I and those with me at home prostrated to Allah in gratitude on the day the first slave-girl entered our home. Yes, we thanked our Lord for having let us live to the day we saw kufr humiliated and its banner destroyed. Here we are today, and after centuries, reviving a prophetic Sunnah, which both the Arab and non-Arabenemies of Allah had buried.

… some slave-girls in our State are now pregnant and some of them have even been set free for Allah’s sake and got married in the courts of the Islamic State after becoming Muslims and practicing Islam well.

… Rather, let me add to the heartache of the spiteful. Indeed, from the slave-girls are those that after saby turned into hard-working, diligent seekers of knowledge after she found in Islam what she couldn’t find in kufr, despite the slogans of “freedom” and “equality.” Indeed it is our pure Islam, which upraises every lowly-one and puts anend to every deficiency.

The author claims that Yazidi women are not forced to convert to Islam, while ignoring the fact that Yazidi men in IS captivity (to the best of our knowledge) are able to remain alive only by converting:

Yes, this is our – as they allege – “savage” Islam, ordering us with kindness even towards slaves. This is demanded even if they were to remain upon their kufr. And I swear by Allah, I haven’t heard of nor seen anyone in the Islamic State who coerced his slave-girl to accept Islam. On the contrary, I saw all of those who accepted Islam had done so voluntarily, not against their will.

The author then tries to justify enslavement by making a comparison with prostitution in other countries:

Are slave-girls whom we took by Allah’s command better, or prostitutes – an evil you do not denounce – who are grabbed by quasi men in the lands of kufr where you live? A prostitute in your lands comes and goes, openly committing sin. She lives by selling her honor, within the sight and hearing of the deviant scholars from whom we don’t hear even a faint sound. As for the slave-girl that was taken by the swords of men following the cheerful warrior (Muhammad – sallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then her enslavement is in opposition to human rights and copulation with her is rape?! What is wrong with you? How do you make such a judgment? What is your religion? What is your law?

In a further attempt at provocation, the prospect of Michelle Obama being sold at a slave market is suggested:

And who knows, maybe Michelle Obama’s price won’t even exceed a third of a dīnār, and a third of a dīnār is too much for her!

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis – by Fabriche Balanche

Sectarian Distribution in Syria Fabrice Balanche

The Alawi Community and the Syria Crisis

by Fabriche Balanche – original post here

“Alawis to the grave and Christians to Beirut!” This troubling slogan was chanted during demonstrations against the Assad regime in spring 2011, and exactly who was behind the chanting remains a controversial question. The Syrian opposition claimed that the slogan’s authors were members of the intelligence services who had infiltrated the demonstrations. According to this view, Syrian government agents were seeking to portray the opposition as primarily motivated by sectarianism and dominated by Salafis in order to frighten minorities and those wishing to live in a secular Syria.

It is still unclear whether the menacing anti-Alawi chants were the result of meddling by the intelligence services or the expression of sentiments held by a part of the Syrian opposition. But it is indisputable that Syria has since been gripped by a civil war between Sunnis and Alawis, and that other minorities have become collateral victims. Syria’s descent into intercommunal conflict has resembled the Lebanese civil war and, more recently, the ethno-sectarian fragmentation of Iraq. Sunni fundamentalists who dominate the military opposition in Syria consider the Alawis heretics unfit to live in dar al-Islam (the abode of Islam), let alone to rule the country.

… Alawis were officially recognized as Muslims thanks to a fatwa issued by the mufti of Palestine, Imam Haj Amin al-Husseini, in July 1936. In 1973, due to the pressure exerted by Syrian President Hafez al-Assad on Musa al-Sadr—the Lebanese imam who founded the Amal movement—the Alawis were formally recognized as members of the Shi‘i community.

However, these two “certificates of Islamic-ness” did not convince some, including the Muslim Brotherhood, who killed many Alawis during the 1979-1982 uprising because of their religion. More recently, in his sermons on al-Wisal, a Saudi satellite channel, the Salafi Shaykh Adnan al-Arour has threatened to chop them up with a meat grinder. …

Changes in Minority-Majority Population Growth

Demographic Growth in Syria by District, 1994_2004 - Frabrice Balanche

The relative decline of the Syrian Alawi population since the 1980s is due to an accelerated demographic transition experienced by all minorities—Alawi, Christian, Druze, and Ismaili. In 2011, the non-Sunni population of Syria shrank to about 20 percent, compared to 30 percent in 1980. This is due largely to women’s improved access to education and their integration into professional life. Fifty years ago, when Alawis experienced higher poverty and illiteracy rates, their fertility rate was also high, but it fell sharply as access to education and administrative jobs increased. Moreover, the Alawis, unlike the Sunnis, are not compelled to have a male descendant. While the Alawi fertility rate has fallen, that of their Sunni counterparts remains above three children per woman, even in higher social classes. This demographic decline challenges the power relationships within Syrian society. Over time, for example, the proportion of Alawis in the army and the intelligence services decreased. At the time the civil war began, Sunni soldiers constituted a majority of the Syrian Army, though Alawis retained a disproportionate share of the posts held by senior officers. Since the beginning of the conflict, however, the composition of the army has changed, with Alawis the majority at all echelons. This is why it has been so difficult for the Syrian Army to defeat the insurgency and why the regime has had to depend heavily on the support of Hezbollah. Indeed, the Alawi community is unable to provide enough soldiers to fight against the numerous rebels coming from abroad and from the large Sunni population.

The Civil War’s Impact on the Alawi Community

The Alawis have privileged access to state employment thanks to their deep integration into the networks of Syrian power. Obvious discrimination in public sector hiring has caused frustration among Sunnis, but the fact that Alawis are generally more assured of getting jobs does not mean that they have a higher standard of living since government salaries are relatively low. Hafez al-Assad used the Alawi community to build his political system, but he did not seek to create prosperity for Alawis because he knew that their loyalty to the regime was mostly based on economic dependence.

An Alawi middle class emerged with the growth of the civil service, and over the past decade the freezing of public sector recruitment has affected the Alawi community less than any other because Alawis are protected by a system of political patronage. But the freeze has resulted in a high rate of unemployment among Alawi youth in the coastal region and has also had disastrous political consequences for Bashar al-Assad, because more than 80 percent of the Alawi community works for the state. In fact, since coming to power, Bashar has supported the Alawi community less than his father, calculating that it would feel obliged to support him anyway in order to maintain its privileges. Instead, he made it a priority to integrate the Sunni and Christian economic elites into his inner circle and share with them the benefits of economic liberalization.

The Alawi community has not always given its full support to the regime. In the 1980s, the main Marxist opposition movement, the Communist Action Party, attracted many young Alawis. In the ongoing revolution, large protests against the regime have not mobilized the Alawi community, but some Alawis have joined demonstrations, and the opposition includes many Alawi figures (such as Aref Dalila, an academic who spent 10 years in prison for his criticism of the government). However, in March 2011, when the demonstrations began in Baniyas, the majority of Alawis did not support the Sunni imams, who were asking for single-sex schools and the communitarian rebalancing of public employment “confiscated by the Alawis.”

Protests in the coastal region did not lead to an escalation of violence as occurred in Homs because the Sunni rebel enclaves were quickly contained by the army. The protests found fertile ground in Homs because Alawis represent a minority of the population in the city and the surrounding countryside. In spring 2011, the tension in Homs between the communities was palpable. Taxis refused to drive passengers from Sunni to Alawi areas, and clashes proliferated along the borders of these areas. Kidnappings and assassinations on religious grounds have also been reported. The Alawi neighborhoods have been targeted by snipers and mortars from Sunni rebel areas. Many observers have compared the ongoing violence in Homs with the disintegration of Beirut during the Lebanese civil war.

The conflict has forced hundreds of thousands of people to migrate, and many Alawi families have returned to their villages in the coastal mountain range. Fleeing Christian families have settled in the seaside resorts of Mashta al-Helu and Kafroun—near Tartus—though Christian men continue to work in Homs. The Alawis of Damascus have not left for the coast because most of them live far from the areas of insurgency (such as Douma) and from the military camps in the suburbs. But if the regime falls, the coastal region could become a haven for hundreds of thousands of Alawis fleeing Damascus and the purge of the army and the administration that is likely to follow—not unlike what the Sunnis in Iraq experienced after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Military situation in Syria_May 2015, Fabriche Balanche


For centuries, the Alawis lived as prisoners in the coastal mountains and came out only to serve as labor for the landowners of Latakia, Tripoli, Homs, and Hama. The rise to power of Hafez al-Assad provided the community a chance for upward mobility. Even if the economic and political context has changed since the days of Ibn Taymiyya, the re-Islamization process within Syrian society raises concerns in the Alawi community, especially since the military opposition is dominated by ISIS and the Nusra Front.

If the Bashar al-Assad regime is ousted, the Alawis may choose a territorial partition. They could rebuild the former Alawi state created between 1920 and 1936 by France in the coastal region, though this time the external support would come from Russia and Iran. …

Read the full article at its original location here

Conference Announcement—Syria: Moving Beyond the Stalemate

Syria moving beyond the stalemate university of St AndrewsAnnouncing the St Andrews Third Biennial Conference on Syria: “Moving Beyond the Stalemate,” 1-3 July in St. Andrews, Scotland. The international conference will bring together in one place the largest and most diverse concentration of scholars of Syria. It will feature papers by some 25 based on innovative and cutting edge research. The Roundtable discussions feature the biggest names in the field of Syrian studies, diplomacy and conflict resolution. Roundtable participants David Lesch, Steven Heydeman, Nir Rosen, Samir Aita, Michael Williams and Carsten Wieland have all been intimately involved in diplomacy, track II and conflict resolution projects regarding Syria. I William Zartman is the world’s most famous expert on conflict resolution in failed states. The workshops will give all conference attendees a chance to interact with these scholars and practitioners in debating the way forward in the Syrian crisis.

Conference Aims

The conference aims at attracting scholars at all career levels, including post-graduate students, from a broad range of disciplines. Original research based on empirical data and/or new theoretical approaches are encouraged. Contributions by Syrian scholars are especially welcome. Papers may cover a variety of topics and are not confined to the following suggestions:

  • The nature of the Syrian war: actors, identities and interests
  • The Silent and Marginalized voices: Is there a “third force/way”?
  • The Islamist opposition and the evolution of Syrian Islam amidst the conflict
  • Regime survival
  • State collapse, violence and the disappearance of borders: the rise of ISIS, sectarian transnationalism, and international intervention.
  • The future of Syria: Is a diplomatic solution viable? Is an Iranian-Saudi détente over Syria possible? Is a power-sharing formula (or consociational democracy) possible?

The registration fee includes three nights accommodation, plus many meals, teas and coffee, etc. For details and registration please visit: http://syriaconfstandrews2015.co.uk

“Did Ali Mamlouk, Assad’s Spy Chief, Try to Carry out a Coup?” by Joshua Landis

[Addendum: 3 hours after posting: A trusted source says that Mamlouk has been working as normal this past week.]

I have been asked about what I think of the latest Telegraph news story that claims that Ali Mamlouk, the head of intelligence in Damascus, has been arrested for trying to carry out a coup and talking to the opposition because he has qualms about Iranians calling the shots in Damascus.

It doesn’t make sense to me. What does Mamlouk have to gain by talking with “the opposition”?

Ali Mamlouk, the head of the country’s National Security Bureau

1. His throat will be cut as soon as opposition members get their hands on it. His only hope is the Iranians; It has been since the beginning.

2. There is no “opposition” for him to productively talk to. Who could he be talking to from the opposition? Nusra? Jaysh al-Islam, Ahrar? None of them would accept Mamlouk in any other condition but dead. Why would he talk to the Syria Opposition Coalition? They cannot deliver anything. They certainly cannot stop the fighting or save his life or that of the regime. It doesn’t make sense.

3. The regime lost Jisr ash-Shaghour. This was a big loss. It is of immense strategic value – much more so than Idlib, which was surrounded by a sea of opposition controlled territory. Jisr guards the Ghab valley, the back door to Hama; it also stands at the entrance to Latakia, which is some 45 miles away.   It is right along the Turkish border and cuts the main road from Latakia to Aleppo. The regime is making a big push to retrieve the city. We will see what sort of success the Syria Army will have in this effort. The rebels are determined to keep it. Only a day ago, they blew up a large hunk of the main hospital, where many regime soldiers remain surrounded inside the city.

4. The narrative about the top Sunnis in the regime getting cold feet about working with Persians seems too neat and too manufactured. Of course, if the wheels are falling off the regime, people will try to find a way out, but it is much more likely that they will simply flee, rather than try to pull off a coup and then negotiate a deal for the regime. It would be like the first mate of a sinking ship trying to negotiate with the sea. If the regime splinters, there will be no saving it. This rumor follows the Ghazaleh affair in March, at which time, the opposition insisted that Mamlouk (the other top Sunni in the regime) would be next to die mysteriously, be arrested, or come to a sudden end. There are many rumors. Last week, everyone was saying that Mamlouk was in a hospital; now this.

5. I cannot believe that Mamlouk would think of Rifaat al-Assad as a possible successor to Bashar. Rifaat expiry date passed long ago. He has no following. It all seems too far fetched.

6. The regime still has punch left in it, and the rebels are far from Damascus. Of course, if the Saudis and Turks are willing to send a lot more money and weapons, the rebels have numbers on their side. Their best strategy is the war of attrition. But the regime continues to maintain the upper-hand today. It has an air force and more armor. Iran and Russia have made no indication that they are giving up the fight or willing to throw Assad overboard.  Losing Assad and his regime would be a tremendous blow to both. They can also play the long game. Saudi Arabia with its new king and thirty year-old defense minister is not a combination one would want to bet on for the long run. The war in Yemen may be popular in Saudi Arabia today, but it will be disastrous for the new King in the long run. His opponents, who have been pushed from power, will come out of the woodwork when Saudis sour on it. We are far from an end-game.

For these reasons, I am skeptical of the notion that Assad regime principals, such as Ali Mamlouk, believe that they have better options than sticking with Assad, the Iranians, and the hand they have been dealt. I am sure none of them particularly like the hand they have, but reshuffling the deck now, would likely bring their swift and certain end.

“The evolving humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis,” by Marika Sosnowski

The evolving humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis
Marika Sosnowski – @MikiSosnowskihttp://marikasosnowski.com/
For Syria Comment, May 2015

In 2015, the UN has requested a staggering US$8.4 billion to help 18 million people within Syria and the immediate region. This is a huge sum and the largest humanitarian appeal in UN history. Five years in to the brutal civil war, the humanitarian response to the Syrian crisis has predominantly focused on providing immediate relief in the form of food, health and sanitation. However, the complex and extended nature of the Syrian conflict now means that humanitarian actors are grappling with the medium to long-term issues the conflict has caused for Syria and its neighbours. These challenges include civil society development and increasing the rule of law within liberated Syrian communities, providing children with access to education as a normalising measure and an increased focus on livelihoods and creating economic opportunities in refugee populations.

At a meeting of donor countries in Berlin in December 2014, the UN announced the Strategic Response Plan for Syria that ‘incorporates, for the first time, significant development aspects’ in addition to addressing essential humanitarian needs (my italics). The Strategic Response Plan shows that the situation in Syria is no longer all about immediate disaster relief but has shifted to also include resilience and development aspects. As the term suggests, rather than addressing immediate needs, the aim of resilience and development programs is to act as a crucial bulwark against future instability and violence spawned by the Syrian conflict regionally and globally.

The medium to long-term advantages of resilience and development programming not only include regional stability but domestic benefits for national security and counter-terrorism. However, in order to be fully effective, donor requirements in the allocation of aid funding, particularly towards small Syrian NGOs, need to be rethought as well as supporting greater access for larger donors to hard-to-reach areas within Syria. These initiatives will hopefully provide more effective programming, value for money and ultimately, benefit people searching for some level of stability amongst the chaos.

Aid as a counter terrorism measure

A concern for most donor countries has been the threat posed by foreign fighters returning from the Syrian conflict or homegrown terror attacks inspired by the likes of ISIS. Given that many Western countries are now directly involved in military action against ISIS, an increasing number of foreign fighters may be likely to view their circumstances through the prism of a global war. This places countries in the military coalition at greater risk of blowback. Additionally, the dominant counter-terrorism response in many countries such as Australia, the US and France has so far been punitive and involved blanket prohibition and imprisonment of foreign fighters. For example, France recently jailed two underage boys who had returned voluntarily from Syria and Iraq after becoming disillusioned with IS and Australia has passed wide-ranging counter-terrorism legislation that includes imprisonment for entering areas of Iraq and Syria.

A recently published policy paper by the Brookings Institute suggests that instead of over-relying on punitive measures to combat terrorism, increasing funding and involvement in humanitarian programs that aim to help people affected by the conflict in Syria has the potential to deradicalise a significant portion of foreign fighters who were originally motivated, not by violence, but by a genuine desire to defend the Syrian people against the brutality of the Assad regime. Older research by AidData also suggests that foreign aid has the ability to decrease incidents of terrorism especially when the funding is targeted towards resilience and development sectors such as education, health, civil society and conflict prevention.

Agile and targeted aid

Syrian NGOs and local community organisations such as local councils are well placed to play a larger role in the delivery of these resilience and development programs given that they have direct access to many hard-to-reach areas and communities within Syria, local knowledge, language skills and are well connected with the ability to negotiate between different groups and areas. Unfortunately, the international community has so far been somewhat suspicious of supporting Syrian humanitarian organisations because many are considered unknown entities that cannot fulfil various funding and reporting requirements. These requirements include being in existence for more than five years (many were only created as a result of the uprising that began in 2011), being registered in Syria (there were various restrictions placed on the registration of civil society organisations under the al-Assad regime) or having undertaken a number of audits. While there are genuine donor concerns with monitoring and evaluating aid delivery – ISIS’ distribution of World Food Program marked packages early this year remains a very public example of failure – restrictions on funding Syrian organisations need to be rethought in light of the benefits they can offer.

Additionally, Security Council resolution 2191, and its two predecessors 2139 and 2165, succeeded in securing authorisation for UN agencies to use the most direct routes available for delivering relief inside Syria without the prior approval of the Assad regime. This includes through border crossings and across conflict lines. Thomas H. Staal, acting assistant administrator for USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance said in a recent statement that, ‘this resolution [2191] has allowed us to access people in need in an average of 66 hard-to-reach areas each month.’ In practice, many issues remain. A recent multi-author report assessing the impact of the resolutions suggests that in order to be effective, influential countries must continue to press for the streamlining of administrative processes for aid agencies and maintain timely access through border crossings. However, the fact that they were passed by the Security Council at all does potentially mark an important shift in international humanitarian law with repercussions for humanitarian access going beyond the Syrian crisis.

Rethinking aid to Syria

Jordan and Lebanon have recognised the need for longer-term development and stabilisation initiatives to address the structural deficiencies and challenges to social, economic and environmental sustainability associated with the influx of large Syrian refugee numbers. However, the international community has generally been slow to recognise the ongoing and complex nature of the Syrian conflict and see that shifts in humanitarian response cannot be linear, from humanitarian to resilience to development, but rather need to consider and address all these elements in tandem. While some donor countries, such as the USA, UK, Denmark and Canada have begun to adopt this approach, other countries like Australia lag in this area.

Large and reputable humanitarian agencies like the UN, Oxfam, World Vision and Save the Children continue to play a significant role in the delivery of the humanitarian response to the Syrian quagmire. However, new thinking is also necessary in diversifying the allocation of aid money as well as supporting the implementation of SC resolution 2191 as ways to effectively access areas within Syria given the vast scale and rapidly changing nature of the conflict.

In uncertain times citizens crave even basic levels of stability. Sadly, there remains a very real need to continue life-saving essential support to millions within Syria and regionally. The additional focus of the international community and the UN on development and resilience initiatives inside Syria and for refugees can also hopefully contribute to increasing levels of stability and normalcy for the all too many people affected by this conflict.

How Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?

1_VahikHow Far is Hezbollah Willing to Go in Syria?
By Vahik Soghom,
BA. AUB, MA. Univ of St. Andrews, Humboldt Univ of Berlin
For Syria Comment April 20, 2015

The melting of snow in the Qalamoun mountains signals the end of the especially harsh winter of 2015. By extension, it opens the door for the much anticipated “Spring battle” of Hezbollah and the Syrian army against Islamist factions stationed in Qalamoun. The battle is meant to achieve Hezbollah’s goal of cleansing the area of Takfiri militants, who consist mainly of Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra units. Hezbollah is confident of its impending victory in Qalamoun, yet one question that has received little attention revolves around the strategic implications of such a victory in the broader context of the Syrian civil war and the regional struggle against the Islamic state.1_Ranqous Plain

Regime forces fight for Ranqous plain in Qalamoun region

The fight for control of the strategic Qalamoun region separating Lebanon from Syria really began with the May 2013 battle of Qusayr in the North. Hezbollah learned to fight in dense urban settings there. Since then, Hezbollah has been bogged down in constant clashes with the IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in Qalamoun, clashes which extend not only to the Syrian-Lebanese border, but within Lebanese territory itself. In the summer of 2014, fierce clashes between the Lebanese army and Islamist forces in Arsal highlighted the severity of the Takfiri threat faced by the Lebanese. Due to fears of heightened sectarian division within Lebanon, Hezbollah refrained from participating in the battle, and its operations have thus been limited to the Lebanese-Syrian border and the Syrian Qalamoun region.


Central square of Qusayr after fierce battle b/n pro-regime forces and rebels

There are two questions to ask about the upcoming Qalamoun war: what are Hezbollah’s immediate strategic objectives and what are its long term goals? How far is Hezbollah willing to go in helping Assad and Iran reconquer Syria and defeat the Takfiri militants in the region? The first objective is to protect Lebanese border villages from militants, a threat that has been hanging over Bekaa residents for the past two years. Secondly, the objective is to impede the infiltration and spread of Takfiri ideology in Lebanon. The under-equipped Lebanese army does not stand a chance against a Takfiri assault, especially one that is coordinated among rival Islamist factions. Thirdly, by pacifying the roads between Lebanon and Syria, Hezbollah will secure access to Damascus and Homs.

But what if Hezbollah is victorious in Qalamoun, what will it do next? Almost certainly, Hezbollah will expand operations to key fronts crucial to the survival of the Assad regime. Given the heavy losses Hezbollah has suffered in Syria, it will be hesitant to spread itself too thin.

In recent weeks, the Islamic State has been targeting crucial supply lines that, if successfully disrupted, will prove fatal for the survival of Assad’s forces in the north of the country. On March 23, fierce clashes were reported around Sheikh Hilal village on the eastern edge of Hama province. This assault by the Islamic State, which included a reported massacre of civilians, was meant to cut off the Salamiyah-Khanasir-Aleppo highway, a vital regime supply line for its Aleppo front. Another goal is accessing Idlib province, which is mostly dominated by al-Nusra and its coalition of Islamist forces. If IS successfully blocks the highway, Aleppo will run the risk of falling entirely to rebel and Islamist factions.


Jaysh al-Fatah coalition celebrates after capture of Idlib

Another crucial front that has made the headlines in the past couple of weeks is Idlib, where a coalition of Islamist forces, headed by al-Nusra, managed to expel regime forces from the city. Though the regime has referred to its defeat as a “regrouping operation” and sent reinforcements from Hama to recapture the city, this battle will likely be extremely challenging. Part of the difficulty, and one that applies to all major fronts, is the Syrian army’s drastic losses in men over the past few years. The regime has long lost the luxury of recruiting soldiers from its civilian population, and only by calling in reinforcements from other fronts can it manage to deal with military crises. But what makes recapturing Idlib particularly difficult has to do with al-Qaeda and its newly-formed Jaish al-Fath coalition. Over the past year, al-Nusra has been overshadowed by the Islamic State’s expansion and public display of brutality, but looking at al-Nusra’s success in Idlib province as well as the Southern front, it is giving the IS a run for its money. And with fertile ground for expansion and episodes of success in Yemen and North Africa, al-Qaeda will improve rather than decline, and al-Nusra will benefit from this general resurgence. If, as expected, Idlib remains in the hands of the Jaish al-Fath coalition, the regime will virtually have lost Idlib province. Assad’s Syria will then only be limited to the western stretch of the country, comprised of the provinces of Latakia and Tartous on the Mediterranean, the central to western portions of Hama and Homs provinces, Damascus province, as well as parts of Aleppo.

But there is another crucial province the fate of which is at stake—Daraa. Though the regime still has a significant presence in the province, half of the city and most of its countryside is controlled by a mix of FSA and Islamist factions. Its neighboring Quneitra has witnessed a growing presence of Jabhat al-Nusra, which is most worrying for both Hezbollah and the regime due to the invaluable strategic importance of the Golan. In the event of the fall of these provinces, the regime will no longer enjoy its status as an Arab resistance state, and Damascus will be further squeezed in and surrounded from all sides. All three fronts mentioned—the eastern, northern, and southern—are crucial for the survival of the regime as well as the total disintegration of Syria.

But for the same reasons, these fronts are equally important for Hezbollah. For now, its priority is to secure Qalamoun and Lebanon’s borders. But in the event of victory in the Qalamoun, Hezbollah will extend its operational activities to other Syrian provinces in which it now lacks a strong presence. Which fronts it will prioritize will depend upon circumstances. Hezbollah’s participation will improve not only the regime’s chances for survival, but also allow the Assad regime to maintain its access to Aleppo, as well as launch a more effective offensive on Idlib. Finally, Hezbollah will increase its role in Quneitra and Deraa provinces. And let us not forget that the regime still has a presence both in Deir el Zor itself as well as the eastern edge of Homs bordering Deir el Zor. If, with much needed assistance from Hezbollah, it is able to fend off IS attacks in Hama, it may even be able to start planning an offensive in Deir el Zor. Whether it will be capable—or even willing—to do so, will depend on the outcome in Qalamoun. Should Hezbollah suffer an unexpected defeat in Qalamoun or a decide to reduce its exposure in Syria following a tough fight, the country will be on the road to partition.

Hezbollah will likely win in Qalamoun. Jabhat al-Nusra and IS will remain its strongest of enemies. Their limited cooperation in Qalamoun will not likely translate into cooperation elsewhere. In fact, a recent report suggests that both factions are ready to hand over Qalamoun to Hezbollah in order to migrate to other fronts in Syria. If so, Hezbollah may be spared a grueling battle near home and be drawn further into Syria. It is worth noting that neither the FSA, Jabhat al-Nusra, nor IS will be the biggest obstacle to Hezbollah’s expanding operations. The strongest opposition will come from its Lebanese supporters who, although ready to sacrifice their sons to protect Lebanon, may not be so willing to commit to slaying distant enemies. For now, however, we must await the outcome of the battle for Qalamoun.

HRW: “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape”

Human Rights Watch today released new findings about IS’ sexual enslavement project that targeted Yazidi women and girls. Their report, entitled “ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape,” contains many new interviews with survivors who escaped IS, some as young as 12 years old, who describe the forms of abuse experienced while in captivity. The report also details the important issue of the survivors’ need for health care options, both medical and psychological. Portions of the report are quoted below (though I recommend reading the entire report), followed by a round-up of several other recent articles on the Yazidi situation.

Iraq: ISIS Escapees Describe Systematic Rape – HRW – April 15, 2015

Yazidi refugee IDP girl in Kurdistan

Displaced Yazidi girl living in an unfinished building near Dohuk. Photo: Samer Muscati/HRW 2015

Human Rights Watch conducted research in the town of Dohuk in January and February 2015, including interviewing 20 women and girls who escaped from ISIS, and reviewing ISIS statements about the subject.

Human Rights Watch documented a system of organized rape and sexual assault, sexual slavery, and forced marriage by ISIS forces. Such acts are war crimes and may be crimes against humanity. …

The 11 women and 9 girls Human Rights Watch interviewed had escaped between September 2014 and January 2015. Half, including two 12-year-old girls, said they had been raped – some multiple times and by several ISIS fighters. Nearly all of them said they had been forced into marriage; sold, in some cases a number of times; or given as “gifts.” The women and girls also witnessed other captives being abused.

Human Rights Watch also interviewed more than a dozen international and local service providers, medical workers, Kurdish officials, community leaders, and activists who corroborated these accounts. A local doctor treating female survivors in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that of the 105 women and girls she had examined, 70 appeared to have been raped in ISIS captivity.

All of the women and girls interviewed exhibited signs of acute emotional distress. Many remain separated from relatives and sometimes their entire families, who were either killed by ISIS or remain in ISIS captivity. Several said they had attempted suicide during their captivity or witnessed suicide attempts to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion.

… The director general for health in Dohuk told Human Rights Watch that local authorities had identified fewer than 150 women and girls who had escaped from ISIS and that only about 100 had received medical treatment. According to the KRG Directorate of Yezidi Affairs, 974 Yezidis had escaped ISIS as of March 15, 2015, including 513 women and 304 children. …

Sexual Violence and Other Abuse

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described repeated rape, sexual violence, and other abuse in ISIS captivity.

Jalila (all survivors’ names have been changed for their security), age 12, said that Arab men whom she recognized from her village north of Sinjar accosted her and seven family members on August 3, 2014, as they were trying to flee ISIS. The men handed the family over to ISIS fighters, who separated Jalila, her sister, sister-in-law, and infant nephew from the other family members and took them to Tal Afar. Later, the fighters took Jalila and her sister to Mosul. Thirty-five days later they separated Jalila from her sister and took her to a house in Syria that housed other abducted young Yezidi women and girls. Jalila said:

“The men would come and select us. When they came, they would tell us to stand up and then examine our bodies. They would tell us to show our hair and sometimes they beat the girls if they refused. They wore dishdashas [ankle length garments], and had long beards and hair.”

She said that the ISIS fighter who selected her slapped her and dragged her out of the house when she resisted. “I told him not to touch me and begged him to let me go,” she said. “I told him to take me to my mother. I was a young girl, and I asked him, ‘What do you want from me?’ He spent three days having sex with me.”

Jalila said that during her captivity, seven ISIS fighters “owned” her, and four raped her on multiple occasions: “Sometimes I was sold. Sometimes I was given as a gift. The last man was the most abusive; he used to tie my hands and legs.”

Another 12-year-old, Wafa, told Human Rights Watch that in August ISIS fighters abducted her with her family from the village of Kocho. The men took the family to a school in Tal Afar filled with other Yezidi captives, where the fighters separated her from her family. From there they took her to several locations within Iraq and then to Raqqa, in Syria. An older fighter assured Wafa that she would not be harmed but he repeatedly raped her nevertheless, she said.

“He was sleeping in the same place with me and told me not be afraid because I was like his daughter,” she said. “One day I woke up and my legs were covered in blood.” Wafa escaped three months after her abduction, but her parents, three brothers, and sister are still missing.

The women and girls who said that they had not been raped said they endured constant stress and anxiety when witnessing the suffering of other women, fearing they would be next.

Dilara, 20, said ISIS fighters took her to a wedding hall in Syria, where she saw about 60 other Yezidi female captives. ISIS fighters told the group to “forget about your relatives, from now on you will marry us, bear our children, God will convert you to Islam and you will pray.” She told Human Rights Watch she lived in constant fear that she would be dragged away like so many women and girls before her:

“From 9:30 in the morning, men would come to buy girls to rape them. I saw in front of my eyes ISIS soldiers pulling hair, beating girls, and slamming the heads of anyone who resisted. They were like animals…. Once they took the girls out, they would rape them and bring them back to exchange for new girls. The girls’ ages ranged from 8 to 30 years… only 20 girls remained in the end.”

Two sisters, Rana, 25, and Sara, 21, said they could do nothing to stop the abuse of their 16-year-old sister by four men over several months. The sister was allowed to visit them and told them that the first man who raped her, whom she described as a European, also beat her, handcuffed her, gave her electric shocks, and denied her food. She told them another fighter later raped her for a month and then gave her to an Algerian for another month. The last time they saw her was when a Saudi ISIS fighter took her. “We don’t know anything about her since,” Sara said. The two sisters said they were also raped multiple times by two men, one of whom said he was from Russia and the other from Kazakhstan.

Some women and girls told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters beat them if they resisted or defied them in any way.

Zara, 13, said that ISIS fighters accused her and two other girls of desecrating a Quran while holding the girls captive on a farm. “They punished the three of us by taking us to the garden and tying our hands with wire,” she said. “We were blindfolded and they said they would kill us if we didn’t say who had done this. They beat us for 10 minutes and they fired a bullet in the air.”

Leila, 25, managed to escape from the house where she was held captive, but because she was behind ISIS lines, she realized she was trapped and felt compelled to return. The commander, an Iraqi, asked her why she had tried to escape. She said she replied: “Because what you are doing to us is haram [forbidden] and un-Islamic.” He beat her with a cable and also punished the guard who had failed to prevent her escape attempt. The guard beat her as well. “Since then, my mental state has become very bad and I’ve had fainting spells,” she said.

… Nadia, 23, said she was separated from the men in her family when ISIS fighters abducted them in her village near Sinjar in August. She tried to convince the ISIS fighters that she was married to escape being raped, because she had heard that ISIS fighters preferred virgins. However, after they took her to Syria, one of the men said that he would marry her. “The other girls with me said it’s forbidden to marry married women,” Nadia said. “He replied, ‘But not if they are Yezidi women.’”

Suicide Attempts

The women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch described their own suicide attempts or attempts of others as a way to avoid rape, forced marriage, or forced religious conversion. They described cutting their wrists with glass or razors, attempting to hang themselves, trying to electrocute themselves in bathtubs, and consuming what they thought was poison.

Rashida, 31, managed to speak to one of her brothers after her abduction by secretly using a fighter’s phone. She told her brother that ISIS fighters were forcing her to convert and then to marry. He told her he would try to help her but if he couldn’t, “I should commit suicide because it would be better than the alternative.” Rashida said:

“Later that day they [ISIS fighters] made a lottery of our names and started to choose women by drawing out the names. The man who selected me, Abu Ghufran, forced me to bathe but while I was in the bathroom I tried to kill myself. I had found some poison in the house, and took it with me to the bathroom. I knew it was toxic because of its smell. I distributed it to the rest of the girls and we each mixed some with water in the bathroom and drank it. None of us died but we all got sick. Some collapsed.”

Leila said she saw two girls try to kill themselves by slashing their wrists with broken glass. She also tried to commit suicide when her Libyan captors forced her to take a bath, which she knew was typically a prelude to rape:

“I went into the bathroom, turned on the water, stood on a chair to take the wire connecting the light to electrocute myself but there was no electricity. After they realized what I was doing, they beat me with a long piece of wood and with their fists. My eyes were swollen shut and my arms turned blue. They handcuffed me to the sink, and cut my clothes with a knife and washed me. They took me out of the bathroom, brought in [my friend] and raped her in the room in front of me.”

Leila said she was later raped. She said she tried to commit suicide again and showed Human Rights Watch the scars on her wrists where she cut herself with a razor.

Forced Conversions

About half the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said the ISIS fighters pressured them to convert to Islam. Zara, 13, said she was held captive in a three-story house in Mosul with girls ages 10 to 15:

“When they came to select the girls, they would pull them away. The girls would cry and faint, they would have to take them by force. They made us convert to Islam and we all had to say the shahada [Islamic creed]. They said, “You Yezidis are kufar [infidels], you must repeat these words after the leader.” They gathered us all in one place and made us repeat after him. After we said the shahada, he said you have now been converted to our religion and our religion is the correct one. We didn’t dare not say the shahada.”

ISIS fighters held Noor, 16, in various places including Mosul. “The leader of this group asked us to convert to Islam and read the Quran,” she said. “We were forced to read the Quran and we started to pray slowly. We started to behave like actors.” …

Provision of Health Services

Medical Care

KRG authorities have made significant efforts to provide health and other services to Yezidi women and girls and have designated a health committee in Dohuk to coordinate the identification and referral of survivors to services. The director general for health in Dohuk, Dr. Nezhar Ismet Taib, who heads the committee, said that some families do not wish to reveal that their female relatives were abducted and this has made it difficult for the committee to identify and support those in need.

Almost all of the women and girls who spoke to Human Rights Watch said they had received medical examinations. A local doctor said the medical tests included blood tests for sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy. In some cases, medical workers provided emergency contraception and post-exposure prophylaxis for HIV, as recommended by the World Health Organization.

It is not clear that doctors have always obtained informed consent before conducting examinations. Narin, the 20-year-old woman from Sinjar, told Human Rights Watch that she was abducted on August 3 and given as a “gift” to an ISIS fighter, who tried to force her to marry him:

“I wasn’t raped – [the ISIS member] didn’t touch me because I told him I was sick.… I got a forensic gynecological exam in Dohuk, which cleared me of abuse. I wasn’t comfortable during this exam, and [the doctor] didn’t explain what she was doing to me beforehand.”

Those who take the medical tests do not always receive the test results. The two sisters, Rana and Sara, said that they spent five months in ISIS captivity and that ISIS fighters raped them multiples times. They said that soon after they escaped in December they received medical treatment and tests, but six weeks later, they had still not received any test results. Eighteen-year-old Arwa, from Kocho, managed to escape in December after ISIS fighters raped her. She told Human Rights Watch that she was still waiting for her test results seven weeks later.

Local authorities should ensure that health workers inform women and girls of the purpose of each test and that they consent to each procedure. The World Health Organization has provided guidelines for carrying out such tests and obtaining informed consent.

Withholding test results, whether positive or negative, can compound women’s and girls’ fears about the state of their health. Health workers should ensure that there is follow up for such women and girls, including providing test results and any further treatment and information they need.

Psychosocial Support

Psychosocial support for women and girls who escaped ISIS is a crucial service that is largely lacking in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the women and girls interviewed showed signs of trauma. Jalila, the 12-year-old raped by four ISIS fighters, said she “can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me. I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better, I don’t want to be captured again.” She had not received professional counselling.

Sixteen-year-old Noor told Human Rights Watch that ISIS fighters abducted her on August 3 from Tal Afar and held her until September, when she escaped. An ISIS fighter raped her multiple times over a period of five days, she said. In the first two months after her return, she said she remained traumatized and cried most of the time.

Noor did manage to get psychosocial support. A local activist arranged for her to visit a psychotherapist in the hospital three or four times and visited her frequently to encourage her to get regular psychosocial counselling. Noor was undergoing regular psychosocial treatment as well as attending a handicrafts course and leaving the camp for social activities with activists from local organizations.

However, representatives of international agencies and nongovernmental groups told Human Rights Watch that there was not only a lack of available psychosocial support, but also reluctance by the community to accept such help. One activist said that he had to visit girls and their guardians repeatedly to encourage the girls to participate in psychosocial counselling before they would agree.

Several of those Human Rights Watch interviewed stated that they would like to receive psychosocial therapy. Narin, the 20-year-old from Sinjar, said:

“No one has offered me one-on-one counselling of any kind. I’d be interested in receiving professional counselling to help me process my experiences if it was available.… I have trouble sleeping at night, and only sleep a few hours at a time. When I sleep, I often see my parents and siblings in front of my eyes, especially the image of my brothers being forced to kneel on the road, and my mother’s face.”

International and local groups agreed that there are not enough psychosocial therapists available to the women and girls to meet the need, given the number of escaped women and girls and the prospect of more to come.

Dr. Taib told Human Rights Watch that although he was not aware of any suicides of women or girls who had escaped, many were suicidal. He said that women and girls who sought treatment with local officials were assessed by a psychologist at the same time they received medical treatment. The health team designated to help Yezidi women and girls has two psychologists and two psychosocial therapists but plans to increase the number of psychosocial therapists to ten. In addition, some groups and international agencies are providing psychosocial support. A psychosocial therapist at Jian Centre for Human Rights said she and her colleague had provided support to 20 Yezidi women and girls who had escaped.

In the short term, psychologists and social workers, particularly those who speak the local Yezidi dialect, need training on counselling methods. This should be in addition to recruiting psychosocial therapists to deal with the urgent cases. More efforts are also needed to encourage and educate people who might need the services about how the services can help them.

Another recent article deals with the release of some abducted Yazidis, mostly elderly or very young. According to aid workers cited in this article, as many as 200 escaped or released Yazidi women are now pregnant from rape. These included a 9-year-old girl that had been raped by at least 10 fighters, whose life is endangered by the pregnancy:

Yazidi girls kidnapped by Islamic State return traumatized – Olivia Ward – Toronto Star – Apr. 9, 2015

… The youngest of these is 9, according to volunteers working in the refugee camps and abandoned buildings where they are sheltering.

“This girl is so young she could die if she delivers a baby,” said Yousif Daoud, a Canadian-based aid worker who recently returned from the region. “Even a caesarian section is dangerous. The abuse she has suffered left her mentally and physically traumatized.”

…“I don’t know what the future would be for their babies,” said Daoud. “The girls and women don’t want them. They have suffered so much they just want to forget. If they are married, their husbands won’t take them back if they are pregnant. And it’s clear that the babies will never be accepted.”

The kidnapped 9-year-old girl, he said, “was sexually abused by no fewer than 10 men. Most of them were front-line fighters or suicide bombers who are given girls as a reward. She was in very bad shape.”

This week a Kurdish aid group took her to Germany, where a medical charity is looking after her.

Fortunately, the Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram—and still missing—received some media attention this week with the anniversary of those kidnappings. This, however, is a sad reminder that despite many good articles on the Yazidi disaster, considering the several thousand women and girls enslaved, the Yazidi case has received far less global attention, relatively.

Thankfully, Foreign Policy on Monday published an article reminding readers that this trauma is ongoing:

The Preteen Sex Slaves of the Islamic State – Samer Muscati – FP – Apr. 13, 2015

The nightmare of 12-year-old “Jalila” began when Islamic State fighters abducted her, along with her family, in northern Iraq. They separated her from her family and imprisoned her in a house in northeastern Syria with other abducted Yazidi women and girls. Then the jihadi fighters came, one after another, to inspect them. One singled Jalila out, took her home, and proceeded to rape her for three days. Six other Islamic State fighters eventually took possession of Jalila during her captivity, she told me recently — three of them raped her.

… Jalila eventually escaped, but her ordeal is far from over. When I visited Iraq in January and February to interview Yazidi women and girls about their experiences, I found that many of them desperately need psychological counseling and other medical care, which is often unavailable or inaccessible.

“I can’t sleep at night because I remember how they were raping me,” Jalila told me in the northern Iraqi city of Dohuk. “I want to do something to forget about my psychological problems. I want to leave Iraq until things get better; I don’t want to be captured again.”

As an investigator of human rights violations, I have documented many atrocious acts of sectarian violence and wanton bloodshed over the last decade. But the Islamic State’s targeting of Yazidi women and girls is unique in its ferociousness. This apparently systematic abuse constitutes war crimes, and may well amount to crimes against humanity. …

… However the conflict against the Islamic State plays out, the needs of the survivors and their communities should be addressed. While, in many ways, Jalila is lucky to have escaped captivity, her family is still missing and she is ensnared by her harrowing past. By ensuring that girls like Jalila receive the psychological help that they need, the world can rehabilitate former captives, restore broken communities, and prevent the Islamic State’s misogynist cruelties from ruining lives forever.

Depicting horror: Iraqi artist puts Yazidi trauma to canvasJonathan Krohn – April 14, 2015

Ammar Salim - Photo: AFP

Ammar Salim – Photo: AFP

A jihadist fighter slits a man’s throat, another brandishes a severed head spiked on his rifle while more militants dump bodies into a trench overflowing with corpses.

This is how painter Ammar Salim depicts the massacres the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group perpetrated against his Yazidi minority in northern Iraq last summer.

In his tiny apartment in the city of Dohuk in Iraq’s Kurdish region, Salim has attempted to put the collective memories of his community to canvas in a series entitled “The Yazidi Genocide”.

This particular piece, his most recent, includes more than 100 characters and was inspired by mass graves found in the Sinjar area.

“Most people fight through weapons, writing, or the press. I said I’d fight through art,” Salim says. “I want people to see what they haven’t seen.”

The paintings, including many crowded and colourful scenes reminiscent of Renaissance depictions of hell, are intentionally shocking.

One work depicting the fall of Sinjar shows women being raped, killed, and carried away. Another presents cackling jihadists buying and selling Yazidi women in the city of Mosul, their main northern Iraqi hub.

Salim fled the town of Bashiqa when IS fighters took over Mosul in June 2014 in an onslaught that overran large areas of Iraq. …

Yazidis wary amid stalled Sinjar offensive – Shelly Kittleson – al-Monitor – April 12, 2015

 … Peshmerga fighters allied with various other forces say they will move forward as soon as the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) authorizes them to do so.

Meanwhile, several members of the Yazidi ethno-religious minority expressed bewilderment to Al-Monitor about the halt of the offensive in late December 2014, after major gains were obtained with the help of US airstrikes, when over 3,000 square kilometers (1,864 square miles) in the Sinjar area were reportedly taken back from IS in less than 48 hours.

… As to why they were not trying to advance, Zaway replied, “If we get the order from [KRG President] Massoud Barzani.” He continued, “We need two to three days to ‘clean up’ the entire city,” implying that the operation would be relatively easy as soon as orders were received to go forward.

… Domle told Al-Monitor of a new program that would relocate many of the women and girls who suffered torture and rape at the hands of IS to Germany for health and psychological support.“The first group arrived [in Germany] last Saturday,” he told Al-Monitor earlier this month. The second group will leave April 15. “This is the result of an official agreement between the KRG and Baden state in Germany to take more than 600 women and children.”

“They are happy with the military operation,” he added, in reference to the community, “but they don’t know why it stopped and are waiting for the other Yazidi areas north of Mosul to be liberated.”

… Domle said, “The problem is that it is now eight months and nothing has been done to rebuild the trust between the Yazidis and their neighbors.”

“The KRG and the central Iraqi government should make a plan to start rebuilding the area as soon as it is liberated,” he suggested, calling for Yazidis to be given a leading role.

And the military offensive must go forward, he stressed. The central government “doesn’t promise anything,” he said, “it just says we hope you will all return to your areas.”

The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry

by Asaad Al-Saleh

Photo: IMB

When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I chose not to cover their stories because they are being used and abused to promote propaganda in Syria. The immoral exposure of children to the war is heightened by the disturbing fact that they have been used repeatedly throughout the conflict to endorse various political positions. During the bloodiest confrontations of the Arab Spring, those between the Syrian regime and the hundreds of factions fighting it, children have become victims of the violence resulting from both the uprising and the subsequent civil war. Despite this tragedy, children are still used in the rhetoric of revolt, war, and jihad.

Reports and studies marking the fourth anniversary of the uprising and civil war in Syria show that more than 4 million people are refugees outside the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Almost half of these are children whose need for assistance (such as shelter and education) is only partially being met. Of the 200,000 killed in the 4-year span of the conflict, over 10,000 were children, some of whom died as a result of torture. Citing the international standard that the percentage of civilians targeted in war should not exceed 2%, reports on Syria point out that the percentage of targeted children and women reached 4.5%. On the same occasion, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised awareness about the emotional trauma affecting Syrian children, some of whom are suffering the effects of rape and the loss of parents. Labeling them the “lost generation,” UNICEF also reported that more than 20% of Syrian schools have been either destroyed or rendered effectively unusable because they are currently used for shelter by displaced families.

As if this tragic plight were not enough, images of children are used in Syria as a propaganda tool by many sides. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a rhetoric of defending children has been employed to portray its enemies as abusers of children and the regime as their protector. In September 2013, the regime aired on television the testimony of a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Qadah, who gave details about the alleged “jihad sex” she was asked to perform at the request of her father. The opposition immediately responded by stating that Rawan had been kidnapped, forced to tell the same lies the regime was spreading about its opponents, and appeared too young to be a reliable witness in regards to verifying the regime’s claims. Rawan’s story demonstrates how children can be easily used for political agendas in the context of war. For some revolutionaries, or those who revolted peacefully in Syria four years ago, it was likewise customary to use children while calling for regime change and to attract the world’s attention to al-Assad’s crimes. This position comes from the assumption that children are “part of the revolution” and that their role must therefore be presented. The world cares about children, and the situation in Syria has been exceedingly desperate. Thus, children are used to provoke emotions and elicit more attention, political pressure, and eventually humanitarian or military intervention to “help” or “save” the children. The regime’s behavior is highly unethical concerning Syrian children considering the widespread displacement and death that occurs for the sake of al-Assad’s staying in power.

As for rebel groups that use terrorism in Syria, children are considered the future of Islam—as it is envisioned by al-Qaeda or ISIS. Their participation in the terrorists’ programs, most of which are symbolic but are sometimes extremely graphic, is done without the least attention to legal, moral, or psychological considerations. One of the early instances of the use of children’s images was performed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. In June 2013, a video of a child about 5-years-old was circulated by al-Nusra to promote their dogma. The child, who was carried on a man’s shoulder, was chanting a song full of bigotry and terrorist rhetoric:

Our leader is Bin Laden … O you who terrorized America

We destroyed America … With a civilian airplane

The [World] Trade Center became a heap of sand

O you Nusayri Police … Wait for us O Alawites

We are coming to slaughter you … Unheeding any convention

[The child is then handed a knife to pretend that he is killing someone, before continuing:]

They say I am a terrorist … “It is my honor,” I replied

Our terrorism is highly praised … It is a divine call.

Children often play games imagining themselves as heroes with guns to fight the bad guys. But in Syria they are being dragged into a real war zone, even as instigators. The image industry in Syria uses journalistic and political outlets to make children represent a cause that is not theirs. It circulates hundreds of images of children carrying conventional weapons or dressed in military costumes, and more recently playing with slaughtered heads as part of ISIS propaganda. Such visibility is hardly the outcome of genuine consent of the child since he or she is not cognizant of the meaning or the consequences of participating in such functions. These children are growing up in one of the ugliest war zones in the world. One day, they will tell stories full of bad guys, including those who let this war drag on and on.Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

The regime, the opposition, and the jihadis in Syria are all responsible for such unethical manipulation of children and their images. These players need to grow up and leave children alone.


Asaad Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah and author of the new book Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

Syrian Rebels Capture Idlib, by Aron Lund

— Guest post for Syria Comment by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

On March 28, Syrian rebels and jihadi fighters announced that they had captured the city of Idlib, posting pictures and videos online that showed them in control of government buildings and other landmarks. This followed a lightning offensive of several days, by a coalition of Sunni Islamist militias that assaulted the city from several directions.

After the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad violently put down protests inside the city in 2011 and 2012, resistance had been relegated to the countryside. With most of the surrounding Idlib Province captured, rebels had in the past year slowly but surely increased pressure on the city itself. They repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to block access roads as a way to force concessions and prisoner exchanges, which must have been a demoralizing experience for pro-Assad forces inside the city. In December 2014, the bell tolled for Idlib City, when the opposition overran the long-besieged Wadi Deif base, freeing up hundreds of crack rebel fighters for new campaigns.

At the time of writing, the situation remains unstable and it cannot be ruled out that Assad’s forces will launch a counterattack from areas still under their control. The government-run SANA news agency only speaks of “repositioning forces” in the southern neighborhoods of the city. Still, the apparent collapse of government defenses in Idlib has punched a gaping hole in the government’s narrative of approaching victory and boosted the opposition politically as well as militarily, spelling trouble for Bashar al-Assad.

A Sign of Government Overstretch

Out of thirteen provincial capitals, Idlib is only the second to be lost to the government, after the northeastern town of Raqqa was captured in early 2013. And like Raqqa, Idlib is a regional center rather than a major city – it would not fit on a top-five list over Syria’s most important cities. But the blow is heavy nonetheless.

The government remains much stronger than any rebel group on the national level, controlling perhaps two thirds of the population. Assad’s semi-cohesive central leadership and his control of a fully functional air force makes him Syria’s by far most powerful political actor, but his regime suffers from serious shortcomings nonetheless. It lacks enough reliable troops to conduct multiple offensives while also controlling its current territory and has been forced to farm out sensitive security tasks to local militias and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, the state-run economy is withering, with a currency crisis and increasingly debilitating lapses in the fuel supply system and electricity production. The falling oil price is likely to cap Russian and Iranian support at levels too low to sustain the current ambitions of their Syrian ally. In short, it seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become.

The Islamic Emirate of Idlib?

The fall of Idlib is not without its risks for the rebels. Previous attempts by opposition groups to govern urban areas in Syria have been disastrous failures. Of course, a major reason has been Assad’s systematic bombings of civilian areas and infrastructure, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Syrians and forced millions out of their homes – a treatment now likely to be extended to Idlib. Even so, the rebels themselves are far from blameless. They have by and large failed to produce anything other than chaos and economic collapse, with what they refer to as liberated territory now suffering from chronic infighting, predatory criminal bands, and the brutal imposition of ultra-conservative Islamist norms. Most infamously, Raqqa has since its capture in 2013 transformed into a local capital of sorts for the self-declared Islamic State.

In the case of Idlib, many different groups were involved and all of them are hostile to the Islamic State, but the offensive appears to have been spearheaded by jihadis from the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and the large Islamist faction known as Ahrar al-Sham. While there are important sources of friction between these two groups – Ahrar al-Sham refuses to endorse al-Qaeda’s anti-Western attacks and is seeking local allies to avoid being swallowed up by the Nusra Front’s increasingly bold bid for hegemony in Idlib – they are both overtly anti-democratic, hostile to religious minorities, and committed to establishing a Sunni Islamist theocracy in Syria.

There is already great concern in the United States and Europe over the riseof jihadi groups in Syria. Now, early headlines in the Western press speak of a city that has “fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda,” which is hardly the kind of coverage that Syrian rebels were looking for.

This will be a serious problem for the rebels in the coming weeks and months. If Idlib becomes the scene of public floggings and streetside executions of “immoral” women, such as the Nusra Front has committed elsewhere in Idlib Province, or if it collapses into a turf war between rival groups, it would not only weaken more moderate rebel factions – it would also provide Bashar al-Assad with an opportunity to turn military defeat into political gain.

Where Next?

Militarily, however, the Idlib defeat puts Assad in a difficult spot as he needs to foresee the next rebel assault and deploy accordingly. Rebels already controlled most of the Idlib Province, but some pro-regime pockets remained apart from the provincial capital – notably the twin Shia towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, near the Sunni Islamist-controlled town of Binnish to the northeast of Idlib City. On March 27, Ahrar al-Sham announced that it had cut the last remaining supply route via Idlib City to Fouaa and Kefraya, meaning that these towns will now have to sue for peace with the rebels or risk destruction and perhaps a sectarian massacre.

To the south of Idlib City, the government controls a string of towns in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region, the largest being Ariha, that served to supply forces inside Idlib. If that is no longer an objective, the regime may decide to abandon some of them to focus on defending territory of larger strategic value. However, at the other end of the road controlled by Ariha, we find the city of Jisr al-Shughour which connects the Idlib province to the Sunni-populated and rebel-friendly northern areas of Latakia Province. While Jisr al-Shughour is of little value in itself, Assad will presumably be reluctant to allow for increased pressure on his strongholds on the Alawite-majority coast. According to some sources, the government transferred its provincial government offices from Idlib to Jisr al-Shughour already two weeks ago.

South of Jisr al-Shughour lies the Ghab area of Hama, a heavily irrigated agricultural plain that butts into the Idlib Province alongside the Alawite Mountains. This religiously mixed powder keg has seen fierce fighting and may be of particular value to some rebel groups – for example, many of the founding fathers of Ahrar al-Sham hailed from villages in the Ghab. It is also possible that rebels from Idlib could move further south past Khan Sheikhoun and the battleground town of Morek, thereby attempting to put pressure on Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. It is a Sunni stronghold that has remained under Assad’s rule but could prove difficult to control once rebels gather critical mass on its outskirts. A rebel advance on Hama would certainly force the army to concentrate forces there, even at the expense of other fronts.

To the east, there is another very attractive target: the Abu Duhour air base. Capturing it would not only hobble Assad’s air campaign, it would also open up an area of coherent rebel control from the Turkish border to the desert south of Aleppo. In so doing, the rebels would also expose Assad’s only remaining supply line into Aleppo, a desperately improvised logistics trail through the rural towns of Khanaser and Sfeira that would be tremendously difficult to defend against multi-pronged attacks, especially if air cover falters. Under that scenario, the rebels could turn the tables on Assad in Aleppo, threatening his control over the city by cutting it off entirely from the rest of Syria.

At the end of the day, however, Idlib City is of limited value in itself. It is possible that the regime will counterattack or that none of the scenarios sketched out above will materialize. But considering the military and economic resources invested by Bashar al-Assad in its defense over the past four years, the loss of Idlib would undoubtedly signal to many of his supporters that the government’s current strategy is untenable in the long term.

— Aron Lund is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs and the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs.

Review of “ISIS: The State of Terror”

ISIS the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM BergerISIS: The State of Terror
(available here
By JM Berger & Jessica Stern
385 pp. (hardcover), HarperCollins

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The ISIS phenomenon that has swept Iraq and Syria with global repercussions has produced a demand for information on the origins, rise, operations and future of arguably the most brutal jihadist movement yet. Following on from “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” Berger and Stern’s book is the second major title to come out on the subject. In 11 chapters, the authors begin with the origins of ISIS through Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his predecessor groups in the days of the Iraq War, with the apparent fall of what then became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in the aftermath of his death on account of the surge and Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, to the rebirth of ISI under new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since 2010. This rebirth culminated in the renaming to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), expansion through Syria, and the eventual lightning surge through northern and western Iraq that led to the further rebranding as just the “Islamic State” or the Caliphate, currently controlling a vast swathe of contiguous territory from Mosul in Iraq to northeast Aleppo countryside.

What follows- and this constitutes the main bulk of the book- is an in-depth analysis of ISIS’ use of media techniques to advertise itself, including focus on video releases of military operations, recruitment of foreign fighters, manipulation of Twitter to inflate ISIS’ presence and the pushback against the ISIS presence on social media. The authors then analyze the ongoing international competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida for support, while also exploring the psychological impacts of ISIS’ actions (e.g. child recruitment) and the apocalyptic nature of its ideology. The book concludes with a survey of Western policy responses, real and potential, to the ISIS phenomenon. There is also an appendix written by a doctoral student with a primer on Islam and notions of the Caliphate, jihad and takfir (the practice of declaring others who say they are Muslim to be non-Muslims).

The main strength of the book and its most original contributions come in the sections on ISIS’ exploitation of social media. Rather than simply stating the obvious that ‘ISIS is on social media and is good at it’ (a non-story), the authors explore in detail the manipulation techniques used, with a noteworthy account on the development of the “Dawn of Glad Tidings” application (p. 148f.), created by a Palestinian and designed to tweet out links to official ISIS media releases and promote hashtags ISIS wanted to use. The most notable result of this phenomenon- from April till June 2014- was to scare Iraqis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul with threats of an ISIS march on Baghdad to conquer the capital: qadimun ya Baghdad, as one of the Arabic slogans went.

Incidentally, there are two things about this instance of inflation on social media not noted by the authors. The first is that this scare tactic has contributed in no small part to the mythology that endures to this day among Iraq’s Shi’a (and also among many analysts) that had there been no mass Shi’a militia mobilization, Baghdad would have fallen. This mythology has helped to consolidate the sectarian paramilitary response ISIS wanted. Second, the particular slogan ISIS exploited is one widely known and used among Iraq Sunni insurgent circles in the belief that Baghdad should be under Sunni control. Indeed, it is most popular with ISIS’ main insurgent rival in Iraq- the Ba’athist-Sufi Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). Arguably, this ISIS hijacking of a popular Sunni insurgent slogan helped it to gain the upper hand very rapidly over other factions in places like Mosul and Tikrit (where one thought JRTN might have been able to wield more influence), as locals and insurgents saw ISIS as the winning horse that would retake Baghdad, prompting defections to ISIS.

Besides the Dawn application, another notable strategy of online ISIS inflation highlighted by Berger and Stern is the use of so-called mujtahidun- supporters who would begin a process of obsessive retweeting with hashtags to further ISIS’ reach on social media (p. 155). The authors further make a sound argument on the net benefit of terminating ISIS/pro-ISIS accounts to reduce online appeal: though they note it is not full-proof to stamp out ISIS completely from the world of the Internet, suspensions seem to reduce the overall reach of replacement accounts, and trump the argument of allowing complete free space to collect intel. Indeed, as Berger and Stern point out, no one ever makes a similar argument to allow child pornographers to operate online- let alone open access social media- without impediment, even as doing so would allow much intel to be gathered on their activities (p. 141).

The concluding section on policy recommendations deserves credit for some insightful thoughts. Rather than proposing a grand master plan to ‘defeat/destroy ISIS’ as has become so common in think-tank circles, the authors broadly suggest a policy of containment and online messaging disruption, noting that the present approach of trying to defeat/destroy ISIS via airstrikes and some training of native ground troops in Iraq and Syria likely cannot realize such an ambitious goal. Critics of the terrorism analysis field often accuse those who work within it of overhyping the threat for personal gain. This charge certainly cannot be applied to Berger and Stern, who affirm that “ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any Western country” (p. 236).

Indeed, they rightly note media overstatement of the threat of ISIS helps to reinforce the group’s narrative of a cosmic clash between good and evil. The authors also wisely caution against simplistic policy solutions: for instance, an intervention in Syria that “simply removes Assad, as the Libyans removed Gadhafi, creates new and different problems for the Syrian people, and these new problems may be even more intractable” (p. 254). This does not mean the authors advocate the folly of forming an alliance with Assad (and/or Iran, for that matter), but rather there is sober warning here against monochromatic analysis and policy proposals, as Libya finds itself amid chaos post-Gadhafi engulfed with a significant jihadist phenomenon of varying stripes, including ISIS.

However, for all these merits, there are many substantial shortcomings to this book. When it comes to any book or extended dissertation on ISIS, one inevitably faces a problem of how much attention should be devoted to certain parts of the chronology tracing the group’s origin and rise. This is a common issue for a range of historical and contemporary subjects: compare Tacitus’ affirmed approach in the Annals of dealing with the lengthy reign of Augustus in brief and general terms (with focus on succession and the last days) with the year by year documentation of events in Tiberius’ reign. Since the bulk of Berger and Stern’s book deals with ISIS and its use of media, the group’s history is only covered in summary form and the account presented is little more than a readable rehash of what is already common knowledge.

Worse still, some serious errors have creeped into the chronology and historical narrative as a result of insufficient research. In the summary timeline, the authors put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s release from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in “Fall 2009” [Timeline: XVII], and affirm that many of Baghdadi’s allies “had spent several years with Baghdadi in Camp Bucca” (p. 37). This chronology is wholly erroneous: Baghdadi was captured in early 2004 and released in December of that same year. Not only do detainee file records demonstrate this, but Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a Salafi nationalist Iraqi insurgent group, affirms that Baghdadi was among its ranks in 2005 following his release from Camp Bucca, rather than immediately joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq or its subsequent manifestations as the authors claim. Further, for “August 14, 2013,” the authors write: “ISIS pushes Syrian rebels out of Raqqa” [Timeline: XIX]. Actually, ISIS in that month expelled the rebel group Ahfad al-Rasul from Raqqa city, but Ahrar al-Sham remained in the city, undoubtedly content to stand by and allow ISIS to expel what it saw as a greater non-Islamist threat. The next month Jabhat al-Nusra marked its official return to Raqqa city.

For the date “September 25, 2013,” Berger and Stern write: “Rebel groups form the Islamic Front from eleven Western-backed opposition groups” [Timeline: XX]. In fact, the Islamic Front was not formed till November 2013, was initially composed of seven groups, and none of those constituents was ever Western-backed: on the contrary its constituents have been distrusted by the West because they are seen as too Islamist. The authors appear to have confused the Islamic Front with the al-Tahaluf al-Islami (“Islamic Alliance/Coalition”) formed in September 2013 that was primarily an Aleppo-based phenomenon, formed in opposition to the Western-backed opposition-in-exile and including a number of groups opposed to the West, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Sykes-Picot agreement was in 1916, not 1906 [ibid.].

Nor did ISIS ever name Raqqa city the “capital of the ISIS emirate” [ibid.]. It is true there was talk of this notion on pro-ISIS social media following the seizure by ISIS of all major Raqqa province localities by the end of January 2014 and Raqqa city could be seen as the de facto capital where new aspects of ISIS governance were tested, but there was never any official declaration: had it been the case, it would surely have been referenced in the imposition of the dhimmi pact on the Christians of Raqqa by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in February 2014. Moreover, the term “emirate” was not applied to the totality of ISIS’ territory at this stage (or from mid-2013 onwards, when ISIS began to acquire strongholds in Syria where it could advertise governance) but rather for individual towns they controlled/intending to seize by force (e.g. JarabulusAzaz and al-Bab). It was this declaration of ‘mini-emirates’, together with the emergence of slogans like “The Promised Project of the Caliphate” in the fall of 2013 that really marked the beginning of ISIS’ testing of messaging of the coming establishment of the Caliphate, rather than the Twitter campaign in March 2014 demanding that Baghdadi declare the Caliphate (p. 157).

Interestingly, mid-2013 onwards presents an interesting discord in ISIS messaging by location. Though media output in Syria, given ISIS’ control of meaningful territory and urban areas, meant emphasis on the state-building project and the coming of the Caliphate, Iraq operations statements still tended to present attacks as revenge/in defence of Sunnis, emphasizing perceived ‘Safavid’ government crimes against them such as ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad Belt area. This is not touched on by the authors.

Some other errors: the authors claim that ISIS “captured Fallujah in January [2014]” (p. 44). In fact, Fallujah fell to a number of insurgent factions including ISIS, which only came to dominate the city over its rivals (including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and JRTN) after 5-6 months or so. At times, excess repetition leads to some more minor mistakes: “in early 2013, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced…” (p. 66) when the Islamic State of Iraq is meant; “in the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed ISIS, which was at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate” (p. 180) when February 2014 is meant.

The last of those aforementioned errors comes in the overview section of the competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida. This section is generally adequate- and slightly outdated on Boko Haram out of no fault of the authors- but could have made for a more insightful discussion by e.g. delving more into cases of pledges of allegiance to ISIS that have not been officially acknowledged to lead to the creation of new ‘provinces’ (e.g. Ansar al-Tawheed in India and elements of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines; for the latter, the scanty evidence does not suggest the whole group has pledged allegiance pace the authors’ assertion in the glossary [Glossary IX], which may be one reason why ISIS has not created a ‘Philippines province’). Though touched on briefly by the authors, more could have been said on the question of ISIS social media manipulation and allegiance pledges from (components of) other jihadist groups, such as Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Syria– a group whose predecessor Ansar al-Islam is only referenced twice in the entire book, once in the glossary and once in the main content (p. 17).

In sum, parts of this book can serve as a useful primer for the general reader or university courses on ISIS regarding the relationship between ISIS and media, particularly open access platforms such as Twitter- a welcome relief from repetitive and sensationalist conventional media coverage. The book can also be a tab on some of the more infamous ISIS videos (such as the Saleel al-Sawarim/’Clanging of the Swords’ series) for those who may have missed them when they were released, with worthwhile background for those unfamiliar with how jihadis before ISIS have tried to exploit the online world.

Yet the opening historical narrative on the rise of ISIS is too terse, too unoriginal and has too many mistakes. We are also given very little insight into how exactly ISIS is managing territories it controls. More generally, there is over-reliance on secondary sources in the sections that are clearly outside the authors’ specialties, and the book is marred by lack of fieldwork and local contacts in Iraq and Syria. Hopefully the errors highlighted here will be corrected in a subsequent edition, but this work is by no means the definitive text on ISIS, which is still years, if not decades away from fruition- as the authors themselves implicitly acknowledge (p. 7).