Bay’ah to Baghdadi: Foreign Support for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the Islamic State (Part 2)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Introduction

In a post for Jihadology in August 2013, I documented examples of foreign support for what was then the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). Signs of such support included anonymous placards and other gestures from ‘Bilad al-Haramain’ (Saudi Arabia), a rally in Somalia for ISIS, support for ISIS in Gaza, an apparent pledge of allegiance from jihadis in the Sinai area to ISIS, along with hints from Lebanon (particularly the Tripoli area) and support from the Ansar al-Shari’a movements in Tunisia and Libya, resulting in disproportionate representation of Tunisians and Libyans in the foreign fighter ranks of ISIS. Over the course of 2013 and into the start of this year, some of these trends solidified: the most notable example being statements of support shown for ISIS in the face of its fight with rebels in Syria put out by the Gaza-Sinai jihadi organizations Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen and Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis. Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia also advertised this year on its official Twitter feed a placard of support shown by an ISIS fighter in Syria.

However, a key shift now in the question of support for Baghdadi and his project is the fact that ISIS has now become the Islamic State (IS): a Caliphate demanding formal allegiance from all Muslims. The declaration at the end of June was of course partly designed to unleash a new wave of support for the group on the domestic and international level: at the former, there has certainly been some success when coupled with IS’ advances on the ground and displays of superior military and financial power. For instance, in Iraq, the jihadi group Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- which has the same end-goal of a Caliphate but has rejected IS’ claim to be a caliphate/state in a dispute going back to IS’ incarnation as the Islamic State of Iraq- has seen its presence significantly eroded in Ninawa province in particular as members have pledged allegiance to IS. The defections have undoubtedly been facilitated by ideological overlap.

On the international level, the Caliphate declaration has not quite proven as galvanising in the face of ongoing competition with al-Qa’ida. Most importantly, it needs to be stressed that having come out in support of what was then ISIS does not translate to being ‘IS-aligned’ now. Below, examples of support for and alignment with what is now IS will be examined by country and region.

Gaza-Sinai

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The main online presence associated with Gaza-Sinai alignment with the Caliphate: “al-Nusra al-Maqdisia” (“Maqdisi Support”).

Above it was noted that both Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen had come out in support of ISIS at the beginning of this year, arguing for the group’s right to ‘self-defence’ in the fighting with other rebels. However, neither group has declared allegiance to IS’ Caliphate, which is so even as Reuters reported contact between Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and IS with the latter providing advice on carrying out operations. The Egyptian press had circulated rumours of a supposed pledge of allegiance to IS by Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, but as I have documented previously, the sourcing was faulty and not going back to any actual source or authority within the group. It would thus seem that Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis is trying to have it both ways: showing sympathy for IS while not subsuming itself under the Caliphate. In turn, IS does not seem to mind this position, as the group’s spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani hailed the jihadis in Sinai- without specific mention of any group- for their efforts against the Sisi-led Egyptian government. In addition, it should be noted that Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis’ statements and photos are advertised on pro-IS media, including forums such as al-Platform Media (al-Minbar al-’Ilami al-Jihadi).

Of more interest is an obscure group called Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis (‘The Group of Helpers/Supporters of the Islamic State in Bayt al-Maqdis’), whose official outlet is al-Platform Media. Also known as “Ansar al-Khilafa”, the group engages in da’wah activity for IS in Gaza and has sent fighters and specialists to join IS in Syria via Sinai. IS, it should be recalled, has a Gazan contingent known as the Sheikh Abu al-Nur al-Maqdisi Battalion. Thus it would be fair to characterize Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis as IS’ network in the Gaza-Sinai area. Though the group claims a West Bank coordinator, little evidence has emerged of meaningful activity in the West Bank. In any event, Jamaat Ansar al-Dawla al-Islamiya fi Bayt al-Maqdis should be borne in mind amid sensationalist Israeli media coverage that has often mistaken rallies for Hizb-ut-Tahrir (which rejected the IS Caliphate announcement) and simple black flags of jihad as indicating support for IS.

More recently, a statement was put out on jihadi forums with the announcement of a “Jund al-Khilafa bi Ard al-Kenana” (“Soldiers of the Caliphate in Egypt”), declaring a pledge of allegiance to IS. Pointing to the actions of the “dogs of the Rafidites- the agents of the Majus from the filthy Safavids, and the disbelieving Nusayris [Alawites]” against Sunnis in Iraq and al-Sham, and attacking the “dog of the Jews- the disbelieving tyrant of Egypt” Sisi, the purported new group pledged its allegiance to “the commander of the believers, the Caliph of the Muslims- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini (may God protect him).” A threat was also issued to the “enemies of Islam from among the Americans and the Cross-Worshippers,” making clear that their bases and embassies are legitimate targets. But perhaps most notably, affinity was declared with Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: “We have not found from the ‘ulama of Egypt whom we reckoned sincere anyone who would make clear to the people what was ambiguous and clarify rulings except Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis: may God protect them and given them victory…” This illustrates the affinity IS supporters show for the group despite its lack of pledge of allegiance to IS.

Tunisia

Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia was known for its staunchly pro-ISIS stance last year, as one of its leading members had written a lengthy tract concluding that it was obligatory on members of Jabhat al-Nusra to switch allegiance to ISIS. However, the group has found the notion of IS as the Caliphate more difficult to accept, having shared on an official Facebook page al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb’s [AQIM] rejection of the Caliphate announcement. Despite this rejection, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia’s leadership still wants to show appreciation for IS, extending tribute to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in its Eid al-Fitr message this summer, but it should also be noted that this message paid regard to Aymenn al-Zawahiri. This position is ultimately incoherent.

One problem that Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia may face is a disconnect between its leadership and rank-and-file ground members aligning with IS and then heading off to Iraq-Syria to become fighters for IS. One group dedicated to da’wah work that may be an activist front for Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia- namely, “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia”- continues to advertise IS material, at least going by social media pages bearing its name.

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A “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” logo

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A “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” Facebook page advertising a pro-IS online initiative: “The Islamic State: Emirate of Tunisia: Islamic Kairouan.”

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Similar to the previous photo: “Emirate of Kairouan: Islamic Tunisia.” It should be noted that Kairouan can refer either to a region in central Tunisia or Tunisia as a whole. The region of Kairouan is known as a hotbed of pro-IS sentiment, as will be discussed below.

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Example of “Shabab al-Tawhid in Tunisia” Facebook page advertising IS material.

A more concrete example is the case of a recent statement put out in the name of “Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi“- a joint insurgent project between AQIM and Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, as I have mentioned before. The statement- declaring support for IS- was not shared by any official outlets for Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, which might serve as a grounds for skepticism as regards its authenticity. What seems equally possible if not more likely is that it is only reflecting a provincial contingent of Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi that has been a source for IS’ Tunisian fighters: namely, the contingent in Kairouan province. This conclusion, which I share with Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, is in my view strengthened by one additional point about the statement: if it were reflecting the whole Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi, then it would have to be a pledge of bay’ah [allegiance] to IS rather than a mere affirmation of nusra lil-dawla al-islamiya [support for the Islamic State] that is essentially a re-statement of already existing pro-IS sentiment in the face of growing international action against IS. Here is my translation of the relevant parts of that statement (parts in italics my own emphasis):

“Kairouan Support for the State of the Islamic Caliphate,

[...]

Before the Ummah of Islam in general and the State of the Islamic Caliphate in particular lies an alliance of the proprietors of global disbelief and the forces of idolatrous tyranny of the Arabs and hypocrites, with their brawl against them [the Ummah etc.] and their coming together to wage war on them and break their courage and the courage of the Muslims…and in response to the command of God and His Messenger (God’s peace and blessings be upon him), the mujahideen brothers in the Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi from the land of Kairouan show support, help and aid for the State of the Islamic Caliphate, and urge it to continue moving forward in breaking the borders and smashing the thrones of the forces of idolatrous tyranny in every place, and we say to our brothers in the Islamic State: ‘Do not be in despair or be sad, for you are supreme if you are believers.’

Oh God, give victory to the Islamic State, raise its banner and unite the ranks of the mujahideen in every place…”

Libya

Like Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia, many of Ansar al-Shari’a Libya’s rank-and-file members have undoubtedly had IS leanings, translating to a Libyan fighting division within IS: Katiba al-Bittar al-Libi, which played an important role in fighting in eastern Syria both in fending off rebel attacks on IS’ southern Hasakah province stronghold of al-Markadah and pushing into Deir az-Zor province in an ultimately successful bid to capture it. However, other Ansar al-Shari’a members had ties with the Katiba al-Muhajireen in Latakia that joined Jabhat al-Nusra at the end of 2013. In any case, there has been no formal pledge of allegiance to the Caliphate from Ansar al-Shari’a Libya. Of interest though is a statement from the Abu Mohjen al-Ta’ifi Battalion, which describes itself as “Tanzim al-Qa’ida in Libya.” For ‘Sha’aban 1435 AH’ (30 May-28 June 2014), the group issued a statement warning the United States against intervention in Libya, invoking a prior warning from the “amir [commander] of the Ummah” Aymenn al-Zawahiri, reflecting the group’s allegiance. Yet on 4 July 2014, after the Caliphate declaration, the group issued a statement offering “munasara” (‘support’) for IS but not explicitly affirming a pledge of allegiance and still calling itself “Tanzim al-Qa’ida in Libya”:

“From the amir of the Abu Mohjen al-Ta’ifi Battalion to our sheikh- the amir of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham- as-salam alaykum wa rahmat Allah wa barakatuhu. We heard your recent speech about the Islamic State, so I ask the Almighty to bless your effort…and that the state should spread the spring of the land in its perfection. And I ask Him- the Exalted- to accept your blessed jihad. And thus, we have decided to send 50 mujahideen: among them the doctor, an oil engineer, someone experienced in military tactics, and suicide bombers. Accept this oh our sheikh…oh our beloved in the Islamic State…I ask God- Almighty and Exalted is He- to strengthen you on tawheed and jihad and to establish the Islamic State over the entire Earth and that its light may be accomplished at your hands.”

It would appear that this battalion is like Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia trying to have it both ways (i.e. showing support for Baghdadi while not formally subsuming itself under the Caliphate): on the one hand the group refers to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as ‘our sheikh’ but uses at the beginning of the statement IS’ prior name ISIS and does not mention the word ‘Caliphate’ once, which is now a fundamental part of the group’s image. There is also no renunciation of the prior reference to Aymenn al-Zawahiri as the ‘amir of the Ummah’.

Maghreb Area

Of note here is a pro-IS break-off from AQIM known as “Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir” (‘The Soldiers of the Caliphate in the land of Algeria’), which released a statement this month affirming a ‘renewal’ of allegiance to the Islamic State, criticising the “corruption” of the “manhaj [program] of al-Qa’ida.” This group, following on also from a pledge of allegiance in the summer by “Katiba al-Huda from the Islamic Maghreb,” is said to be under the leadership of one Khalid Sulayman. Invoking discussion of “the victorious sect,” the statement concluded with a vow to follow Baghdadi’s orders as the caliph, promising to help raise the banner “from China to Andalus” (i.e. accomplishing the more immediate goal of a Caliphate spanning the Muslim world). More recently, Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir has come to public attention for the beheading of a French hostage, as part of a “message from Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir to the dog Francois Hollande.”

In keeping with the alignment with IS, the group in a 22 September media release on the hostage taking cited Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s speech calling for supporters of IS to ‘defend’ IS and attack citizens of countries participating in the fight against IS, singling out in particular among Westerners the “hateful, filthy French.” In the media release, one of Jund al-Khilafa fi Ard al-Jaza’ir’s members had announced:

“[...] The Almighty has said: ‘Indeed the believers and believing women are helpers of one another’ [Qur'an 9:71], for we are the soldiers of the Caliphate in the land of Algeria in compliance with the orders of our amir- the Caliph of the Muslims- Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (may God protect him)- and on the tongue of the official spokesman Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani (may God protect him)- we give a deadline of 24 hours from the issuance of this statement to the Hollande, the president of the criminal French state, to stop its aggression against the Islamic State; if not, the fate of their citizen will be beheading. If you want to preserve his life, you must put out an official statement making clear your aggression against the Islamic State will be ended…”

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It is likely that the name of Jund al-Khilafa has served as the inspiration for the outfit just announced in Egypt using the same name. However, too little suggests that this AQIM break-off in Algeria has fundamentally hurt AQIM.

Somalia

I noted above that there had been some show of support for ISIS in Somalia last year (specifically, note the photos released by the pro-IS ‘al-Sham Media’). Since the Caliphate declaration there has been no indication of pledges of allegiance: on the contrary, the al-Qa’ida affiliate Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen (HSM) reaffirmed its allegiance to Aymenn al-Zawahiri after the death of its leader Mokhtar Abu Zubayr.

However, an interesting statement was issued on 6 May this year by the “Rightly Guided Leadership for Jihad in Somalia” regarding supposedly one-time close relations between HSM under Abu Zubayr and ISIS. It should be noted that this “Rightly Guided Leadership for Jihad in Somalia” consists of al-Qa’ida-aligned critics of Abu Zubayr’s leadership of HSM deriving from the fact that Abu Zubayr had killed one of HSM’s founders Abu Bakr al-Zaila’ie (Ibrahim Haji Juma/Ibrahim al-Afghani) in June 2013 as he had been a long-standing critic of Abu Zubayr:

“Our brothers in God:

It has no longer remained hidden from anyone the truth of what has happened and is happening in Somalia as regards corruptions in the manhaj with killing and eviction for the mujahideen and their leaders just as the mutual affection between Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia under Abu Zubayr’s leadership and the group of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham is not hidden.

And it is well known that Abu Zubayr’s leadership has previously shown through its media foundations, channels and broadcasts a great deal of courting and nearness to jamaat ad-dawla ['group of the state'- standard AQ terminology now for ISIS and IS] that rebelled against the orders of its leadership in tanzim al-Qa’ida [AQC] and their instructions. The situation came to such a point that the publication and circulation of Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s speech and Sheikh Abu Azzam the American’s [Adam Gadahn] speech (may God protect them both) among the ranks of the soldiers of Harakat al-Shabab in Somalia were prevented.

But after the speech of Abu Azzam the American (may God protect him) in which mercy was extended to the leaders of jihad whose blood had been spilled at Abu Zubayr’s hands and he described whosoever killed them as tyrannical, and after many indications emerged that the general leadership in Khorasan had received a picture of the situation and the truth of what happened in Somalia without distortion and concealment and had thus begun to adopt stances critical of Abu Zubayr’s leadership that had deviated from the upright direction and become entangled in the bloodshed of the mujahideen, the leadership of Harakat al-Shabab began to turn over again but this time again against jamaat ad-dawla, for a general notice was issued not to publish anything relating to jamaat ad-dawla, including their nasheeds in their broadcasts, and described them as khawarij…And we announce here that the mujahideen in Somalia coming out openly with the truth are neither with extremism nor the aggressors as the criminal Abu Zubayr circulates: further they will continue coming out openly with the truth before the oppressors despite the wounding of us on account of misfortunes like killing, assassinations and arrests.

Some days ago, Abu Zubayr’s deputy…spoke before a gathering of the Muslims and described jamaat ad-dawla as khawarij, and that they are ‘the movement’ following Sheikh Aymenn (may God protect him) so the attendance said to him: “If dawla are khawarij, then you are like them, for you have killed and sowed corruption just as they have done but more so than they,” so the attendance was very angry.

[...]”

If this statement reflects true developments, compare the apparent prior ISIS-sympathetic position of the HSM leadership of Abu Zubayr with the stance of al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula’s [AQAP] Ma’mun Hatem, who showed sympathy for ISIS even after AQC had disavowed links with ISIS but remained in the fold of AQAP. In any case, this document also says the same HSM leadership eventually did a 180 degrees turn, and to this day the affirmation of loyalty to AQC remains.

Philippines

There have been some indications of support for IS (and its prior incarnation ISIS) from some members of the jihadi group Abu Sayyaf: the most notable case being a bay’ah to IS by a senior Abu Sayyaf leader called Isnilon Hapilon, who emerged with a group of followers in a video pledging allegiance to the ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This fits in with an earlier release by the pro-IS media outlet al-Bittar Media, which in late June just prior to the announcement of IS had released a video entitled “Filipino Support for the Islamic State (in Iraq and al-Sham): Jamaat Abu Sayyaf,” featuring a speech by a purported member of Abu Sayyaf called Abu Muhammad the Filipino, declaring support for ISIS in the face of efforts against it by the group’s opponents, and so he affirmed that ISIS is in Abu Sayyaf’s prayers for success: “You are our brothers in religion and creed, so it is our obligation to support you.”

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Advertisement for the al-Bittar Media release.

One should also note this video from some members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front offering bay’ah to Baghdadi.

Lebanon

Last year, I noted that the main place to watch for pro-ISIS sentiment in Lebanon was the city of Tripoli. This trend of support- extending into the period since the Caliphate’s announcement- has endured. Online, it is represented by an outlet calling itself “News of Tarabulus [Tripoli] of Sham” (reflecting the fact that Lebanon is considered a part of al-Sham).

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Logo of “News of Tarabulus al-Sham,” which recognizes on its Twitter page the “State of the Islamic Caliphate.”

During this summer, pro-IS sentiment has been reflected in the clashes in Qalamoun (Damascus province) extending into rebel incursions into Arsal in Lebanon. Though some months back, a Jabhat al-Nusra spokesman for the Qalamoun area in an interview with me had tried to downplay ISIS’ presence (contrasting with the earlier public vow to defend ISIS on the grounds of ‘same manhaj’), it is apparent that ISIS/IS and Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun area have been quite close for some time and work together, translating to cooperation in Arsal as well. Occasionally this closeness has been reflected publicly on social media.

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“The soldiers of Jabhat al-Nusra and the soldiers of the Islamic State side by side in Arsal.”

More recently, in the wake of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on IS, combined with IS and Jabhat al-Nusra playing on sectarian tensions and local animosity in Arsal against Hezbollah, there was a pro-IS demonstration in Arsal after Friday prayers this week, featuring the slogan: “The people want the Islamic State.”

Conclusion

The examples of support shown for IS above are by no means insignificant but fail to show that ‘IS has eclipsed al-Qa’ida.’ All of al-Qa’ida’s affiliates at the highest level have retained their allegiance to Aymenn al-Zawahiri, and any defections that have occurred from within AQAP, AQIM and HSM have not split the organizations such as to damage them. It is also of interest to note that despite IS’ demand for allegiance that cannot really allow for any in-between stances, some within the global jihadi community are still aiming for an incoherent compromise position of showing support/sympathy for IS and al-Qa’ida. In short, I would say the overall trend is not definitely pointing any way just yet. I do not quite buy the notion that al-Qa’ida needs to carry out a large-scale attack on the West in the near-term to fend off competition for support with IS.

That said, projections into the future need to take account of current developments and possible scenarios. First, it still remains true that the majority of foreign Sunni jihadis who head to the Syria-Iraq arena join IS, primarily because it is easier to join than Jabhat al-Nusra and places emphasis on the Islamic state-building enterprise and its ultimately global scope: how the Arab world jihadis who end up returning to their home countries will affect local jihadi group dynamics needs to be considered. Further, in my view both IS and al-Qa’ida Central are vulnerable to loss of stature if the leader is taken out: IS has invested so heavily in Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s image as a caliph- particularly with the lineage claims- and his accomplishments that it seems doubtful IS has a contingency plan for succession to the Caliphate in the event of his death. Meanwhile, in the Afghanistan-Pakistan area, one can legitimately ask if there is anyone in al-Qa’ida Central to replace Zawahiri in the event of his death.

The Suwayda village of Dama and Druze Militias: A Case Study

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

I have previously written about Druze militias in Suwayda province and other areas of southern Syria here and here. To summarize briefly the conclusion of those studies, it is clear that ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ (‘Army of the Monotheists/Unitarians’) and ‘Forces of Abu Ibrahim’ are banners for Druze militias of mainly pro-Assad orientation, working with regime forces via ‘Popular Committees’ that had been set up in coordination with the regular Syrian army; further, the boundaries are not always so clear cut between these militias/banner names and organized regime forces. Indeed, many of the localities where these Druze militia banners are advertised are also identifiable sources of recruits for the Syrian army and the National Defence Force (NDF: an evolution from Popular Committees). Unfortunately though, Wikipedia, in attempting to summarize my work, erroneously presents ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ as a coherent military group spanning localities.

In any event, I present the northern Suwayda province village of Dama as a new case study into the use of the banner ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ for Druze militias: around a month ago (16 August), the locality came under attack from rebel forces, subsequently being occupied by them. These rebels were purportedly from Jabhat al-Nusra, though it should be noted that the source for this claim is regime sourcing and so of course the attack will be ascribed to Jabhat al-Nusra, considering that there is no Islamic State presence in Deraa or Suwayda provinces. The locality was reportedly recaptured from rebel forces in less than 24 hours, albeit with some casualties among the Druze locals. A ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ activist source gives the following ‘martyrs’ list for the “Battle of Dama” (this list also contains ‘martyrs’ for a battle in a nearby locality called Deir Dama):

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To translate, the names of the ‘martyrs’ for Dama are:

Sheikh Danial Yusuf al-Shabali (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Yamin Sa’adu Hamsho (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Ihab Salman Azzam (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Sheikh Rami Salam al-Khatib (Jaysh al-Muwahhideen)
Nuris Sa’id al-Safidi (Popular Committees)
Milad Jayid al-Safidi (Popular Committees)
Adham Ammar Faraj (Popular Committees)
Naji Saleh Abu Shaqra (Popular Committees)
Adham Saber al-Jaramani (Popular Committees)

Here also are photos of some of those mentioned above:

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Sheikh Yamin Sa’adu Hamsho

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Sheikh Danial al-Shabali

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Adham Ammar Faraj, said to be from the Suwayda village of Ghariya

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Nuris Sa’id al-Safidi

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Adham Saber al-Jaramani

Pro-regime TV claims a variety of forces who helped to recapture Dama from the rebels, including Popular Defence Committees, the Ba’ath Brigades and the Syrian army. Of interest though is the ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ graphic above that distinguishes ‘martyrs’ according to ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ or the ‘Popular Committees’. According to this source in an interview with me, the distinction made between the ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ and the Popular Committees is as follows:

“Jaysh al-Muwahhideen is composed of mashayakh [Druze sheikhs] protecting the land, honor and religion against every attacker- whoever he may be- and is independent. Popular Committees are composed of families supporting the army.”

This re-affirms a familiar line of the Druze militia narrative of strict self-defence and repelling anyone who infringes on Druze land- regime-affiliated or rebel. It should also be noted that on the day of the attack on Dama, Druze militias under a variety of names in Suwayda province (Jabal al-Arab) issued a statement under a Jaysh al-Muwahhideen umbrella banner:

“Jaysh al-Muwahhideen in Syria announces general mobilization and all targets in the line of its fire, and warns that any operations within Jabal al-Arab will be met with a severe response and without mercy.

- Saraya Sultan al-Atrash
- Kata’ib Abu Ibrahim
- Saraya al-Jabal
- Special Forces: Jabal Commandoes
- Saraya Souria al-Assad
- Kata’ib al-Tawheed”

What to make of the testimony relayed regarding the ‘Popular Committees/Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ distinction? It may make sense here at the local level of the village of Dama and the surrounding area: that is, perhaps Druze mashayakh in Dama have organized their own ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen’ militia intended only for local mashayakh and without help in the first place from the Syrian army. Yet in practice the distinction is meaningless, because there is no evidence of concern about the regime infringing on Druze land in Dama. The natural result is that there will be close coordination with regime forces- in the form of the Syrian army with the Popular Committees- to repel attacks on the area, which will for the foreseeable future be the work of rebels trying to bring Suwayda province out of government control. This translates to an Assad-aligned orientation, which is in fact apparent from the source I interviewed anyway. In short, the case study of Dama reinforces the conclusions from the earlier studies mentioned above.

If the U.S. Wanted To, It Could Help Free Thousands of Enslaved Yazidi Women in a Single Day

Matthew Barber 3

by Matthew Barber

 

The plight of thousands of Yazidi women, kidnapped by the Islamic State (IS) during its August 3 attack on Iraq’s Sinjar mountains and in the following weeks, has received some media attention, but most people are unaware of just how far-reaching this disastrous phenomenon is. Boko Haram kidnapped girls in the hundreds, prompting international outcry and an online campaign demanding that they be freed; IS has kidnapped Yazidi women and girls in the thousands in a sexually-motivated campaign  that has rent apart countless families and wrought unimaginable levels of pain and destruction.

During the Syria conflict there have been numerous allegations of forced jihadi marriages that have been difficult to confirm, and widely denied by IS supporters online. Many of those stories were dropped, lacking credible evidence. As the past few years in Syria have demonstrated, rumors run rampant in contexts of conflict, and the initially difficult-to-confirm cases of kidnapped Yazidi women of this summer have been treated with appropriate caution.

Despite this initial caution, the sheer scale of the kidnapping of Yazidi women and the firsthand reports of escaped survivors—and those still in captivity via telephone—have made details of the phenomenon, and its sexual motivations, certain.

Having stayed in northern Iraq all summer, I can confirm the assertions of the journalists who have written about the problem. I have worked directly with those involved in rescue efforts and have personally interacted with families whose daughters have been kidnapped and are now calling their relatives from captivity.

I have no trace of doubt that many women have been carried off and imprisoned; the question that remains is about the numbers. Restrained estimates have posited numbers of kidnapped Yazidi women in the hundreds. However, the reality is likely to be in the thousands.

Though the picture is grim, if the US is willing to back up its overtures of support for Iraqis and Kurds with action, we have the ability to help quickly free a large percentage of the kidnapped Yazidis.

 

Yazidi refugee women in the Dohuk governorate

Yazidi refugee women, young and old, share their fears and sorrows with me in an empty warehouse now housing their families. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment 

 

The enslavement phenomenon is real

Yazidi leaders and volunteers have been working over the past month with families whose female members were kidnapped, and they have been able to piece together a much clearer picture of the numbers—and locations—of the kidnapped women.

It is no longer a secret that many of the kidnapped women still have their cellphones with them and are calling their families. Many of their captors haven’t even taken steps to prevent this; in some cases jihadists have exploited this contact as a means to sow further terror, in other cases the new “masters” are allowing their “slaves” to have contact with family as they seek to incorporate the kidnapped woman into a slave’s household role with certain privileges and duties.

By speaking with kidnapped women and girls by telephone, and by speaking with the families receiving calls, Yazidis working on the problem are beginning to form more accurate counts of incarcerated women in various places.

It is also no longer a secret that extensive rescue operations are underway, through the participation of local Arabs and Muslims in the communities where the girls are entrapped. Some have been able to purchase girls from IS jihadists and then return them to their parents. Others have been able to escape on their own.

Other kinds of rescue efforts are underway as well. A Yazidi friend I’ve been working with in Dohuk arranged for a group of gunmen to be paid to carry out a rescue operation in one Iraqi city, far to the south of Mosul, where girls had been taken. They broke the girls out of the house where they had been imprisoned by their jihadist “owner” and carried them to safety. Those who conducted the operation are Sunni Arab fighters who do not align with IS (and who are willing to conduct such an operation in exchange for compensation).

These particular girls were transported halfway across the country, placed in the house of their “acquirer,” and made to cook and clean. The new “master” told them: “You are our jawari [slaves taken in war], but don’t worry, you will become as our own women,” meaning that they would be integrated into the household and live as the other wives.

One of the rescued girls was only 15 and was tortured for resisting the demands of her captor for sex. Another suffered such severe psychological trauma due to the kidnapping, subsequent rape, and being shipped across Iraq that she is now very ill.

Attempts to find a religious justification

The philosophy underpinning the taking of Yazidi slaves is based in IS’ interpretation of the practices of Muslim figures during the early Islamic conquests, when women were taken as slave concubines—war booty—from societies being conquered.

Though they have robbed them of their wealth, IS has not targeted the Christian community in the same way that they have the Yazidis. As “People of the Book,” Christians are seen as having certain rights; Yazidis, however, are viewed by IS as polytheists and are therefore seen as legitimate targets for subjugation and enslavement, if they do not convert to Islam.

Many discussions will continue regarding the similarities and differences between IS’ methods and the actual practice of the early Islamic community. Historical context will be discussed by scholars, and God’s intentions will be parsed out by those with a theological bent. But regardless of how our contemporaries interpret the past, IS’ attempts to recreate and relive a period in which slaves were taken in war have shattered families that now reel in pain after their children have been snatched away from them.

First moment of pause: After fleeing the violence and kidnapping in Sinjar, a teenage Yazidi girl sits & cries upon arriving in her new home—a school classroom in Zakho. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

First moment of pause: After fleeing the violence and kidnapping in Sinjar, a teenage Yazidi girl sits & cries upon arriving in her new home—a school classroom in Zakho. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

Is this the Islamic State or just bands of local criminals?

The online jihadists (or “ehadists”) that defend IS on Twitter and Facebook have had three options in how they respond to this shocking moral collapse. The first is to deny that the kidnapping of Yazidi women and forcing of them into sexual slavery (“concubinage”) is occurring.

But despite the denial of IS supporters on social media, these are not rumors, but cases to which I’m personally connected. Journalists have attested to the same phenomenon in their reporting (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10), and I spent the summer making contact with Yazidi families who have endured this scourge.

The second option for IS supporters on social media is a line of argumentation that acknowledges this trend of sexual slavery while attempting to justify it as a form of revenge for oppression of Sunnis (which, ironically, Yazidis have never participated in—rather, they were victims of some of the highest levels of al-Qaida violence during the Iraq war, as well as previous targets of religious persecution).

The third argument, coming from some IS supporters, claims that this sick and deplorable pattern is not occurring at the hands of the IS membership itself, but is rather the action of other local Sunnis who are opportunistically taking advantage of the war-chaos to rape, pillage, and kidnap. I have also been perplexed by the question of IS’ methods and behavior and have felt a need to understand the fact that they work according to specific ideals and a strict religious code for behavior, yet often seem to act outside of what such a code would permit. They are not alien creatures but human agents with aspirations of state building who even demonstrate acts of compassion. Christians who fled one Iraqi town described to me how IS fighters provided food for their elderly and disabled Christian relatives who were not able to flee, and then later transported them to an area near Kirkuk where they would be able to rejoin their relatives. How are we to reconcile these humane instances of goodwill with the apparent criminality and destruction that is so pervasive with IS?

Regardless of how we come to understand the IS movement psychologically, this third argument—that responsibility for all repugnant acts lies only with local, self-seeking, non-IS actors, and not with IS fighters—is patently false.

It is certain that many local actors have stepped in and plundered their neighbors’ wealth during IS attacks on new areas. However, I have confirmed with multiple eye-witnesses who were present upon IS’ initial Aug. 3 attack of Sinjar, including Sunni Muslims, that the operation of separating women from men and carrying the women off in trucks was conducted by the IS fighters themselves and was carried out as soon as the fighters reached the area.

Muslims trying to flee Sinjar city described to me how, even before reaching the city itself, fighters conducting the initial attack intercepted fleeing families on the road, stopping their vehicles and taking the female passengers—if they were Yazidi. The campaign to seize female Yazidis and enslave them as concubines is an Islamic State project.

US airstrikes could quickly free several thousand Yazidi women and even entire families

Kidnapped women have been transported all over the Sunni regions of Iraq, and into Syria. The location with the highest number of kidnapped is likely Mosul itself. Rescue efforts for many of these women will take years. Some may never return. Some may remain in captivity and reemerge at some distant point in the future. Others will continue to be rescued or escape in the near future.

Despite the enormous challenge of responding to such a monumental tragedy, the possibility exists of freeing a very large number of those kidnapped in a short time. I’m referring to around 2,000 kidnapped Yazidis currently imprisoned in towns and villages in the vicinity of the Sinjar mountains.

Just south of Sinjar are a number of sites where kidnapped Yazidis are being held. Through phone conversations with captured victims, Yazidi leaders in the Dohuk governorate who are working on the problem have been able to get counts and exact locations for most of them. In over a dozen primary holding sites within at least six separate towns, approximately 2,000 Yazidis are trapped. Most of these contain just women, but at least one site contains entire families that have been kidnapped, including male members.

One man I spoke with lost seven family members: his daughter, her husband, and their five children were nabbed by IS in one fell swoop. They were able to contact him once and inform him of their location, but contact was severed after that.

Most of these kidnapped people know where they are. They’re in familiar territory, not far from Sinjar. If their captors were subjected to an aerial campaign—an intense helicopter assault on IS targets for as little as a half-hour—most of these people would be able to flee. The attacking force wouldn’t even be required to regain control of these towns, they would only need to occupy the moderate numbers of IS fighters in the area. The window of distraction would allow many to escape.

Prior to the Kucho massacre (in which IS jihadists lined up and shot all Yazidi males of the town, on Aug. 15), my contacts inside the town (no longer alive) said that every time a US airstrike occurred on nearby IS positions, the IS militants would run for cover. This was without the IS stronghold in Kucho itself being attacked. Kucho was more isolated and even in those moments of distraction the flight of the townspeople wasn’t possible. But for the large numbers of Yazidis currently imprisoned just south of the city of Sinjar, a different outcome is possible.

US airstrikes could also be conducted while coordinating with the newly formed “Yazidi Forces for the Protection of Sinjar,” local volunteers that have been working with the Peshmerga, trying to defend the remaining parts of Sinjar not captured by IS, and hoping to regain their own villages and towns. If a more sustained aerial campaign was undertaken to combat IS in Sinjar, these local Yazidi forces could cooperate in joint rescue efforts and help free many of the enslaved.

Let’s get as many back as possible

Though US airstrikes were conducted to prevent IS from pushing into Dohuk and Erbil (without which I estimate IS might have reached Dohuk in as few as two days), no sustained campaign has been undertaken to facilitate the Kurdish re-taking of Sinjar. People are confused as to why, and I have no answers.

What I do know is that without greater US air support, 1) Sinjar will not be regained by Kurdish forces and the people of Sinjar will not be able to return home, and 2) large numbers of Yazidi women who might otherwise be freed will continue to be sold by IS jihadists as sexual objects. The Dohuk governorate is bursting at the seams with hundreds of thousands of Yazidi and Christian refugees, who, following those that already fled three years of conflict in Syria, have pushed the area’s capacity for refugees beyond its breaking point. Schools should be opening for local children this week, but they cannot, because hardly any school exists in the entire governorate that doesn’t have several families sleeping on the floors of every room.

Sinjar is the population center for the largest segment of Yazidi people in the world. The Yazidi religion is also inextricably linked to holy places in Sinjar. If they are unable to return, it will do lasting damage to one of the Middle East’s last non-Abrahamic minorities, and thousands of victimized women will remain enslaved in 2014. Let’s do what it takes to get these people safely home and free of the most selfish form of evil I’ve personally witnessed in my life.

Al-Qa’ida in Islamic Maghreb and Arabian Peninsula Statement on the U.S.-led coalition against IS

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Intro and Analysis

This new joint statement from al-Qa’ida’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and the Islamic Maghreb (AQAP and AQIM)- which seems unprecedented- comes in opposition to the U.S.-led international coalition to fight against the Islamic State (IS), characterizing instead as war against Islam and Muslims. Several things to note in analysis:

a)- This statement does not mean AQAP and AQIM are getting closer to IS or warming to the idea of pledging allegiance to IS. Indeed, they have firmly rejected IS’ Caliphate declaration, and have maintained their loyalty to al-Qa’ida Central (AQC). For comparison, note that members and supporters of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam- an Iraqi jihadi group (with a Syrian branch) which like al-Qa’ida does not accept IS’ claim to be a state or caliphate- have also denounced the U.S. airstrikes etc. targeting IS as constituting war against Islam, and like al-Qa’ida would want an ideal situation where all jihadis having the end-goal of a Caliphate unite against a common enemy, while rejecting IS’ assumption of supreme authority. Thus Abu Bakr al-Iraqi of Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, who previously praised IS’ beheading of James Foley while condemning IS’ massacre of the Sha’itat rebellion against its rule in Deir az-Zor province:

“America in its war against Islam will rely on two components:

1st. Its allies outside of Syria and Iraq who will provide it their military bases, financial support, and increase the stranglehold on the two lands.

2nd. Its allies inside Syria and Iraq and they are:

1. The Safavid Iraqi army.
2. The secular Kurdish army [Peshmerga]
3. The so-called ‘moderate Syrian opposition.’
4. Some of the mercenary gangs of the Sahwa of money and slaves of the dollar.” 

Others outside the transnational jihadist circles have also not hesitated to characterize the U.S.-led initiatives as war on Islam, most notably the Islamic Army in/of Iraq, which by admission of sources from within the group and its supporters is having problems with IS in Iraq. Nonetheless, the group’s spokesman Ibrahim al-Shammary affirmed the following:

“On the anniversary of 11 September [9/11], America is forming an international alliance while claiming that it is for the war on terrorism. Oh Muslims, be wary and heed the strongest warning, for you are the intended target.” 

These kinds of statements have wider implications for outside hopes of building an internal Sunni coalition within Iraq to fight against IS beyond those already working with the central government. Interestingly, the joint AQIM-AQAP statement is dated 11 September: just as AQC in its propaganda portrayed post-9/11 as part of a new initiative of war on Islam, so too AQIM and AQAP, like Ibrahim al-Shammary, attach significance to the building of the anti-IS coalition by Obama as coinciding with the 13th anniversary of 9/11.

In short though, it is the internal Iraq insurgent dynamic that is of greater analytical interest, while AQ-affiliates denouncing the U.S. actions as war on Islam is fairly predictable. One might argue that a recent purported statement from Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi [KUN]- a joint AQIM-Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia project- in support of IS as a Caliphate project reflects an international jihadi trend getting behind IS in the face of the U.S.-led alliance against IS, but I share Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’ skepticism of the authenticity of this statement for some reasons of my own. First, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia’s official Twitter news feed, which advertises KUN social media output, has not shared this statement, and second, its only source appears to be in pro-IS circles: besides this, other problems exist with the statement, such as a lack of date on it.

[Update: However, it is also to be noted that the opening of the statement refers to "Kairouan support for the state of the Islamic State"- thus, as Gartenstein-Ross notes, this statement could be genuine and just from a Kairouan province contingent of Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi- which has produced a number of IS alumni- rather than on behalf of the whole battalion as the statement might misleadingly imply at first sight, because 'Kairouan' is also used to refer to Tunisia as a whole].

The problem for IS in trying to get new allies for its Caliphate is that its fighting other rebels- including Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria- and brutality towards Muslim dissenters and opponents within its dominion often blunts any potential sympathy for its actual project in the face of U.S. airstrikes etc.

b)- The joint statement refers to IS but without prefixing jamaat ['group'] to IS’ name to indicate rejection of IS’ claim to be a state/caliphate. This is an interesting contrast with the standard al-Qa’ida approach (also echoed by Jabhat al-Nusra), which had previously accepted IS’ prior incarnation of the Islamic State of Iraq as a legitimate emirate in its own right, despite lacking control at the time of substantial contiguous territory and the workings of an actual state. Nonetheless, I would urge that one should not make too much of this and it most likely just reflects the broader official anti-fitna stance of this statement urging for unity in the face of the U.S.-led coalition (including an end to infighting and name-calling), thus I suspect AQAP and AQIM simply do not wish to bring up the fundamental AQC-IS dispute at this point.

c)- The tribute to Ahrar al-Sham in the wake of the massacre of its leadership comes as no surprise, to be noted in conjunction with Jamaat Ansar al-Islam’s tribute to the group. This reflects the high regard in which global jihadism generally holds Ahrar al-Sham and the group’s status as the link between this ideological trend and Islamist projects focused on the national framework (cf. Jaysh al-Mujahideen Iraq- a Salafi nationalist, revolutionary and anti-Shi’a insurgent group- also extended tribute to the fallen leaders of Ahrar al-Sham).

Below is a translation by me of the statement.

Joint Statement (11 September: Statement No. 1)
Situation: Support for Muslims over the alliance of Crusaders and Apostates.

[...]

The suffering of our people in Iraq and al-Sham has not been absent from our minds, and what they have offered from bodily sacrifices. Nor have the negative consequences- which have followed on for the people of al-Sham from the infighting of the mujahideen- been absent from our minds. Nor has the sadness of the arenas of jihad for the loss of its best leaders and sons from infighting- in which the beneficiary has been the people of the Zionists [Israel], the Cross worshippers, the Rafidites [Shi'a], the Nusayris [Alawites] and their followers- been absent from our minds.

Then there is America- the head of disbelief- and the symbol of the enemy and tyranny, rearing its head again, enlisting behind it allies from the Crusaders and their apostate collaborators, leading the Crusader attempt to wage war on Islam and Muslims, to increase the misfortunes of the Ummah, under the pretext of striking the Islamic State and annihilate it- so they have claimed!! We ask God to render them disappointed, defeated and slaughtered.

As for this oppressive Crusader effort, we can only stand with Islam and Muslims, against Crusader America and its alliance (Jewish-Crusader-Safavid-Apostate) that is the true enemy of the Ummah and the Path and the first to wage war on Shari’a, so we declare this stance of ours to please God, to support our mujahideen brothers over the disbelievers, and defend our Muslim people wherever they are. Thus we say:

. Our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and al-Sham…stop infighting among yourselves and stand as one rank in the face of the initiative by America and its Satanic alliance lying in wait against us all to break us again and again. Counter the unity of the nations of disbelief against you by your unity against them, in accordance with the speech of the Almighty: “And fight the polytheists as a whole just as they fight you as a whole, and know that God is with those aware of Him” [...]

. Oh mujahideen and ansar [helpers/supporters], stop name-calling and hurling of insults, and turn your truth-telling pens and cutting swords on the head of disbelief- America- and its oppressive, aggressive alliance.

. To all who bear arms in the face of the tyrant Bashar and his shabiha, it is you that America will seek to finance with its double-dealing and deception, that you may deviate from your path and only be banners in its hand realizing its interests.

. To our people- the Ahl al-Sunna [Sunnis] in Iraq and al-Sham, do not forget America’s crimes against your lands, and do not forget its stance in the line of your battles, and its poisonous daggers remain planted in your chests, so do not let its trickery deceive you, or enter into its alliance, or become among its soldiers against your mujahideen sons. 

. We call on our Muslim Ummah to support our people in Iraq and al-Sham, and support them with what is precious and costly, and stand in their rank against America, the head of disbelief, the source of evil and the symbol of corruption and oppression.

. We call on our Muslim Ummah to disavow the calls of the apostate rulers and their collaborators in error and leading astray to support the disbelieving Americans against the mujahideen, just as we call on them to stop their conscripted sons from participating in this oppressive enemy war that aims in truth to preserve American Crusader hegemony over our Muslim Ummah and protect the state of the people of Zionists [Israel].

. We call on our people in the Arabian Peninsula in particular and in all the states in this Satanic alliance in general to stand against their collaborationist governments and prevent them- by all lawful means- from continuing this war on Islam under the pretext of waging war on terrorism.

. As for you, oh allies of disbelief and evil, take heed of what will afflict you, for black days await you. For these leaders of yours today are sinking and are afraid to confront the knights of Islam. And indeed you hav tested the swords of the soldiers of Islam and the assault of the heroes of Iraq and al-Sham, so God brought you to defeat and degradation at their hands, and your armies were defeated bearing the consequences of failure.

. We conclude these calls by reminding the Islamic Ummah of the words of the renewer of time and vanquisher of the Americans- Sheikh Osama [bin Laden] (may God have mercy on him and make good his soil): “Consult no one in [fighting] the Americans.”

To conclude this statement, we offer our sincere condolences to the mujahideen of the group Ahrar al-Sham…and we ask God to have mercy on their martyrs and remunerate us and them in their misfortune and render us better from it, just as we offer to our people in al-Sham in general and the families of martyrs in particular our sincere condolences and we ask God the Almighty, the High to connect with their hearts and pour out endurance on them.

God, provide for this Ummah a just situation in which the people who obey you are made mighty and the people of your misfortune are laid low. God, give victory to our mujahideen brothers in Iraq and al-Sham and in every place.God, ruin America and whoever of its allies and those taking its side against the mujahideen.

[...]

Qa’ida al-Jihad in the Arabian Peninsula and in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb.

“Dreaming of Home: Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?” by Matthew R. Stevens

Dreaming of Home : Syrian Refugees in Jordan’s Cities – Will They Be Repatriated?
by Matthew R. Stevens – @Matt_R_Stevens
for Syria Comment, Sept 16, 2014

“What do I think will happen?” He sighs. “I think that it is over. I think Bashar will win.”

I am cross-legged in the sitting room of a Syrian family, hot tea half-forgotten in my hand. I give the man a long, searching stare. He nods in confirmation. Asad will win. Asad already has won.

This point of view has become familiar through the first three months of research on post-conflict Syrian social structures in Irbid. The second largest city in Jordan, Irbid rests about 20km from the Dar’a border crossing. Irbid Governate held a population of approximately one million before the conflict began in Syria; now, it is home to an additional 160,000 Syrians.

Opportunistic sampling of Syrians living in Irbid has revealed greater diversity in political leanings than initially expected. Few report being staunch supporters of either Asad or the FSA. Irrespective of previous political hopes for Syria, many seem to be playing a pragmatic game of reconciliation—re-obscuring political affiliations in a preparation for rehabilitation with the regime.

‘Message to the world: “My Syria… when will we return?” In Syria, war prevented teachers from reaching a school in this young woman’s neighborhood. She lived closer to the school and volunteered to teach the students “so they wouldn’t forget.”‘

Similar to reporting on the emerging scenario in the north, displaced Syrians living in Irbid describe the FSA in as scattered, under-resourced, devoid of unity—and increasingly, bit players in a drama between two unthinkable antagonists, Asad and “Da’esh,” the local slang for the Islamic State. Other Islamist groups are not generally viewed as serious contenders; they will consolidate with IS or disappear. Pockets of resistance in Dar’a notwithstanding, few here expect the FSA will ever regain the strength to pose a serious challenge Asad in the south. The Syrians I speak to further insist the Islamic State will never be allowed victory: ironically and at last, IS is an issue the international community will be forced to rally around—if not exactly in support of Asad, then to his government’s mutual benefit.

So, Asad has won. It is a simple calculus.

Would Syrians living in exile return to a southern Syria stabilized by the Asad regime? This question is difficult to answer. The challenges of sampling an urban refugee population are well-documented. These challenges demand a great deal of speculation when attempting to predict the desires or behaviours of a non-homogeneous group of people who are distributed through geographical space by a multitude of factors such as economic class, social affiliations (such as regional, political or religious identification), and family relations. Realistically, a researcher must rely on chance encounters and word of mouth to find willing respondents, and has no way of knowing whether the communal networks accessed are representative. The fact that Syrians have spent their pre-conflict lifetimes carefully managing their relations with Asad’s obtrusive secret service only increase the uncertainty of predictions.

Accepting this caveat, and recognizing these findings are further limited to the specific geographical location of urban Irbid, I suspect a significant number of urban Syrian refugees would return to a south ruled by the Asad regime.            Cautious and pragmatic political negotiation is an old standard of pre-conflict Syrian society, which most have spent their lives mastering. If Asad is to be the inevitable victor, return will be contingent on refugees’ abilities to convince the government of their loyalty.

Many here go so far as to cite grievances with the FSA. “Asad is not good, the FSA is not good, so what are we to do?” is a common refrain. Especially in central Irbid, many displaced families come from middle class backgrounds—those who had the most to lose to less scrupulous brigades willing to treat local civilians as a resource. Frustration with a lack of oversight or unity in the FSA is common, and some seem to suspect the upper levels of the resistance movement as self-interested and corrupt.

Conversely, urban Syrian households that report ongoing FSA support tend to have ties to the resistance movement, which would be difficult to obscure. This includes a history of service with resistance brigades (especially those who have been visibly injured), family members who are publicly affiliated with the FSA, and SAA army defectors or individuals who fled SAA drafts. Even these families maintain that Asad will likely re-consolidate control of Syria, and do not express hope of ever returning to their homes. They expect to remain in permanent exile.

Notably, the Syrian families I have spoken with in Irbid have not reported any support for Da’esh or other Islamist groups. Whether this represents a sample bias or reporting bias is difficult to ascertain, but research suggests that victory by the Islamic State would result in lifelong displacement for a large number of Syrians in Irbid—much more so than in the case of an Asad victory.

Overall, the reported desire by Syrians in Irbid is to return home, and to return as quickly as possible. Tolerance of the difficult life of a refugee is waning as war drags on and host country patience wears thin, especially in light of new Government of Jordan laws which more strictly regulate Syrians’ lives outside the camps. There is little enthusiasm for a reinvigorated FSA making a new bid for power: Syrians canvassed are simply not in favour of another long phase of civil war fueled by further foreign influence. Political dreams are seen as waning in importance in the face of overwhelming desire to cut losses and restart lives—people yearn for careers, home ownership, marriage, children, all of which are near impossible for displaced Syrians in the current political climate in Jordan. Many are actively considering return in the short term, despite the risks. This is especially so for those who originated from areas such as Suwayda, which have already been reclaimed by SAA forces. Others talk of restarting lives in Damascus, though they cite the dangers of a life riddled with government checkpoints while carrying identification which associates them with the rebellious province of Dar’a.

While these findings can not be assumed reflect the desires of all Syrians in Jordan—notably they do not include residents of Zaatari, who are reported to be more staunch FSA supporters—I suspect that a concrete offer of amnesty from Asad, backed up by safe and successful reintegration of those who first repatriate, could spark large numbers of urban-based Syrians to return. Exhausted by the refugee experience, repatriated Syrians may constitute a major influence on the conflict sooner rather than later.

Matthew is an MA Candidate in Department of Geography, affiliated with the Centre for Refugee Studies and the York Centre for International Security Studies at York University, Canada. His research focuses on the interplay between community-based social ties and self-support strategies among urban Syrian forced migrants in Jordan. Find him on twitter at @Matt_R_Stevens.