Posted by Matthew Barber on Thursday, August 1st, 2013
by Matthew Barber
The scale of this propaganda piece is impressive: An ISIS billboard in Raqqa promoting shari’a law. The yellow text at the top says “The state’s civil law is contrary to the religion of Allah,” followed by a verse from the Qur’an (3:83 “Do they, then, seek a religion other than Allah’s, while to Him submits whoever there is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him they will be brought back?”), and finally signed “Your brothers at the Raqqa Da’wa Office.”
In the last post Aron Lund discussed the possibility of the fragmentation of centralized control within the “regime side” (or whatever term we should use to refer to that part of Syria that stands opposite the rebels, but may not entirely be represented by the government/Syrian regime). A simple example of the kind of phenomenon where authority is contested (and therefore weakened) among those under the regime-loyalist umbrella is given in a new article (in Arabic). The gist is as follows:
A member of the National Defense Forces (shabiha) tried to cut the line in front of a bakery where people were waiting to buy bread. An army officer stopped the shabih and yelled at him, whereupon the shabih called for back-up from the “Ba’ath Brigades.” The Ba’ath Brigades arrived, attacked the army officer and his men, and forced them to get down on their knees. The army officer, as well, had already called for back-up, so 5 jeeps arrived (possibly with Air Force Intelligence), and arrested all the shabiha involved. All of this is based on opposition sources and comes following another story of shabiha attacking policemen who were overseeing the distribution of gas canisters. In this case, the shabiha also attacked the officers when they refused to let them cut the line.
Among the Kurds
Following the assassination of Issa Hisso, a Kurdish politician (article in Arabic), Kurdish forces declared “النفير العام” (“general mobilization”—”nafir” refers to a horn blown for warning or before battle) asking all able people to take up arms (article in Arabic). Turkish forces are now in full alert along the border (article in Arabic).
Now in a stellar display of unity and cooperation vis-a-vis the Kurds, the FSA, the ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, and a host of other groups have apparently together issued a joint statement against the PKK. Thanks to A.N. for providing the following translation of the article from عكس السير
We, the battalions working in the cities of Minbij and Sirin and Shyoukh and Jarablos:The revolutionary and military council, Liwaa Al Tawhid, Liwad Jond Al Rahman, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Ahrar Al Sham, Liwaa Ashab Al yamin, Liwaa Al Yarmouk, Liwaa Ahrar Al Shyoukh, Souqour Al Sham:After we became certain that the PKK is without a doubt a party belonging to the regime of the tyrant criminal Bashar al-Assad—because they hosted delegations loyal to the regime (Naser Qandil) in order to setup plans to destabilize the the safe areas; and received weapons and ammunition by air to execute these plans and help this regime as did Hizb Allat in Qusair; and they pulled their forces from the mountains of Turkey and Iraq and brought them to north Syria; and lately they stopped wheat trucks from reaching the liberated areas; and denied checkpoint passage to the mujahidin heading to the battle fronts with the regime; and the big displacement campaign that they’re running in their areas; and the random apprehensions on their checkpoints; and their attempts to create a ethnic fitna between Arabs and Kurds who lived together for hundreds of years and who share a strong bonds and family ties and compassion towards each other and they turned it into a hostile relationship with hate and resentment that drains a lot of our time, effort, blood and money; and thus achieving the goals of the broken and tired regime giving him enough time to catch his breath and arrange his cards and survive in front of the large advancement of our blessed revolution—and based on that we decided:
1 – Initiation of a full siege of the city of Ain al-Arab and preparations for any acts of treachery by the collaborator party2 – Cleansing of the pockets of PKK that are among our ranks3 – Declaration of the Minbij-Hassakah a military road that should be liberated from all PKK checkpoints4 – Cessations of all negotiations and political meetings between us and any group that represents the PKKAnd Thus we say:First: We send a message to all the Kurdish groups that have no connection to the regime or the regime collaborator PKK that we see you like a brother sees a brother and shares his happiness and sadness and land and water and air.Second: Any rebel battalion or inhabitant of the liberated areas that makes an agreement with the PKK is a traitor to Allah, the Prophet, and Muslims, and will be punished by all the battalions.And finally: Our goal is to pleasure Allah and to ensure a safe life for our people in Syria and to maintain the unity of the Muslim Syrian people and to maintain the progress of our blessed revolution until the fall of the criminal regime.
Kurds could help shift course of war in Syria – The Star Online
The head of Turkey’s main Kurdish party has welcomed contacts between the Ankara government and Syria’s Kurds, saying it could step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and help change the course of the civil war,
Turkish intelligence officers met in Istanbul last week with Saleh Muslim, head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group whose militias have been fighting for control of parts of Syria’s north near the Turkish border.
The meeting followed Muslim’s declaration that Kurdish groups would set up an independent council to run Kurdish areas of Syria until the war ends. Ankara fears that kind of autonomy could rekindle separatist sentiment among its own, much larger Kurdish population as it seeks to end a 30-year-old insurgency.
“Saleh Muslim’s visit to Istanbul is a concrete sign that Turkey is moving towards changing a policy that sees Kurds as a menace,” Selahattin Demirtas, head of parliament’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told Reuters in an interview.
“It won’t just affect Turkish-Kurdish relations but also the course of events in Syria by creating pressure on the regime,” he said.
“Kurds can be effective in Syria, and we need to increase support for them. Western countries, including the United States, should establish proper ties with Syria’s Kurds.”
Difficulties for Syrians in Egypt
[I wrote most of this section on Syrians in Egypt over 10 days ago, but wasn’t able to post due to traveling. I believe it’s still relevant.]
Someone sent me a particularly moving image this week. Month after month of viewing bombed homes and beheaded apostates can eventually produce a dull numbness. But something about the tragic character of this image brought tears to my eyes.
It took me back to the feelings many of us experienced when faced with some of those first images to come out of Dera’a, such as one I remember of a man carrying the body of a boy whose head was split apart by a bullet.
The trend of violence from that day until now has only worsened, and as men continue to carry the bodies of young children, the flow of Syrians exiting the country also continues. But the situation for Syrians in the countries where they seek shelter is fraught with other challenges, as has now become the case in Egypt.
I haven’t verified all of their articulations of the new circumstances, but in the last couple days, multiple unrelated Syrian friends who fled Syria for Egypt have contacted me claiming that the Egyptian government is dramatically shifting policy toward the Syrians who have taken refuge there. They feel that there has been a reversal of several policies that were in place to help them. Chiefly, they are saying that the government will not renew their temporary residencies. A tremendous level of uncertainty afflicts them, since they no longer feel welcome in Egypt, yet are faced by the fact that most other countries have closed their doors to immigrating Syrians. Complicating the situation is the fact that without an embassy, those in need of travel documents / passports are no longer able to secure them.
One friend told me today that his wife is about to give birth. He cannot obtain a passport for his child, because former president Morsi closed the Syrian embassy. Egypt will not renew his residency, meaning ought to leave the country. But the Egyptian government will not allow him to travel with a child who has no papers, obviously. They are now caught in a bewildering limbo in which every choice is the wrong choice.
Another friend believes Syrians need to either leave the country or register with the UN as refugees: no third option for residency.
Furthermore, a new wave of anti-Syrian sentiment has begun sweeping through parts of the country. After some Syrians may have participated in pro-Morsi demonstrations, Syrians in Egypt have told me that they are being branded as “pro-Ikhwaan” as a whole, as well as being accused of contributing to prostitution. In amazingly “tribal” style (when every member of the extended unit is judged as carrying the same shared characteristics), suddenly all Syrians as a collective are defined as being aligned a certain way or as engaging in certain activities.
One informed me that though the Syrian dialect was something enjoyed by Egyptians and which he flaunted when he first arrived, he now hides his accent and tries to sound Egyptian.
Egypt is also making it nearly impossible for any additional Syrians to enter the country. A visa is now required, and obtaining it from Syria requires getting cleared by Syrian security… we all know what that means in Syria, and for a government that recently closed its Syrian embassy in order to express its opposition to the current apparatus there, to now force Syrians fleeing the political violence of the Syrian state into the very arms of the abuser it flees—in order to seek permission to leave—is the very height of irony.
Syrians feeling pushed out of Egypt are wondering where exactly they should go; are they expected to return to Syria? A Syrian friend in Egypt, who fled the violence of his native Qabun, sent me this photo of his neighborhood, I assume taken following destruction this week:
Not exactly an ideal time to go home. This is the very edge of Damascus, not a far-outlying suburb billed as “Damascus.”
Another moving image I encountered recently, this one of a father with his young daughter from Homs:
For more of what Homs looks like now, see this from SkyNews: Dramatic Images Of Destruction In Homs. Beyond merely a bad time to go home, for many there will be no home to return to.
Articles have begun appearing discussing the same issues that these Syrians in Egypt have been talking about:
A thin wall was all that separated Syrian refugee Ahmed Al Hemsi from his 62-year-old father at Cairo International Airport when immigration officers told his father he would not be allowed into Egypt.
“He was crying when he talked to me on the phone,” Al Hemsi, 26, told IRIN. “This was the first time in my life I heard my father crying.”
Al Hemsi’s father, who had just arrived from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is one of thousands of Syrians affected by a new set of security measures enacted by Egyptian authorities following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and bloody clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents.
Government supporters accuse Syrian refugees of participating in the clashes and taking part in attacks against anti-Morsi demonstrators in several Egyptian cities.
The new security measures include the requirement that Syrian refugees and asylum seekers get entry visas to Egypt from an Egyptian embassy, as well as security approval.
But many Syrians say, given that Egypt severed its diplomatic relations with Syria, getting an entry visa to Egypt from Damascus is impossible, and that the process is difficult at embassies in other countries.
“Our understanding of the new measures is that we are no longer welcome in Egypt,” said Arkan Abulkheir, a Syrian community leader in Cairo. “The fact that some Syrians had committed violations by getting involved in Egypt’s politics does not mean that Egypt should punish all Syrians.”
There are between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt now, according to the Egyptian government.
The conflict in Syria has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said this week, noting that more than 6,000 people were fleeing every day.
Nearly 1.8 million refugees from Syria are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.
The government’s new tougher line includes tighter security checks for Syrian refugees in Egypt, with the threat of deportation for Syrians who do not have residence permits.
Previously, Syrians were able to get a three-month visa when they entered Egypt for the first time. After that visa expired, the Syrians could then apply for a one-year residence, but this is no longer the case.
A security official told the newspaper Al Watan on 11 July that police have orders to arrest Syrians and check them.
Abulkheir was stopped by a policeman on the street a few days ago. The policeman asked about his passport and his residence permit.
“He told me that he would have sent me back to Syria if my residence permit was not valid,” Abulkheir said. “Thanks are to God, the permit was valid for six more months.”
Syrian refugees say they are afraid to go out lest they be arrested or deported.
Before the change of government and these new security measures, Syrian refugees already faced a variety of challenges, but the new measures are making life even harder.
When they came to Cairo two months ago, Al Hemsi, his mother and his younger brother had to leave their father behind in the Syrian city of Daraa because they did not have enough money to buy him a plane ticket.
He finally travelled to Cairo on 8 July after the family raised US$250 for the flight. Since he was refused to entry to Egypt, he has been living in a mosque in Beirut.
“We do not know how he eats or lives his life,” Al Hemsi said. “He does not have any money. He is also too frail to work.”
Another change has come in the education sector. Syrian refugees were previously allowed to enrol their children in state-run schools and universities, and were given equal treatment with Egyptians when it came to fees. This is no longer the case.
Abu Mustafa, a Syrian refugee in his mid-forties, went to a school in 6 October, a neighbourhood southwest of Cairo, a few days ago to enrol his three children for the new academic year, which is expected to start in September. He was told by the headmaster that Syrians are no longer allowed at state-run schools, which have lower fees than private schools.
“He said I should enrol them in a private school,” Abu Mustafa said. “But this is very difficult for me to do.”
To enrol his children in a private school, Abu Mustafa would have to pay a minimum of 7,000 Egyptian pounds (US$958) for each of them. Unemployed and living on charity, this is too much money for him, and for the tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees in the country.
The new measures against Syrians coincide with a fierce campaign against them by some of Egypt’s politicians and opinion-makers, who accuse them of harbouring support for the deposed president and of contributing to Egypt’s current turmoil.
An Egyptian politician recently called for the execution of Syrians and Palestinians if they are arrested while taking part in protests or fights on the streets. …
Egyptian officials turn back a planeload of Syrians at Cairo airport. A popular presenter on Egyptian television warns Syrians to steer clear of protests or face the consequences. An Egyptian state school refuses admission to Syrian children.
Once welcomed with open arms in Egypt, many of the tens of thousands of Syrians who took refuge here from the civil war at home have now found themselves targets of hate speech and intimidation. Their dramatic change in fortune is one of the unexpected consequences of the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, whose Islamist-dominated government offered them favorable conditions.
The shift could have a profound impact on the lives of Syrians in Egypt as they currently find themselves in a sort of legal limbo, waiting to see where the political winds will drop them. In what many see as a hint of what lies ahead, Egypt’s new military-backed interim government already has imposed new travel restrictions.
That has spooked many Syrians who fear their current visas won’t be renewed and they could be forced to leave Egypt. Many have invested their savings in businesses or simply cannot return to their war-ravaged cities.
… “Egypt may be going through tumultuous times, but it must not return anyone, including Syrians, to somewhere threatening their life or freedom,” Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “While Egypt is going through a very difficult period, it simply should not strand Syrians this way, especially those who have fled such a devastating conflict at home.
The U.N. says some 70,000 Syrians are registered in Egypt, although officials estimate the actual number may be twice that since many have opted not to register. That would make Egypt home to the fourth-largest community of Syrian refugees after Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.
Those who came to Egypt received a warm welcome. Morsi’s government supported the rebels’ cause, and kept in place a decades-old open-door policy that allowed Syrians to come and go without prior visas. They were eligible to receive medical care at state hospitals, while their children could enroll in government schools.
Over the past few months, Syrians redefined some parts of Cairo, opening their own restaurants and cafes in areas where many of them settled.
But the warm welcome quickly evaporated after the military toppled Morsi on July 3 after four days of mass protests calling for the Islamist leader’s removal.
Television networks critical of Morsi aired allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood was paying Syrian refugees to take part in pro-Morsi protests. The arrest of at least six Syrians taking part in violent street clashes only fanned the flames. …
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom provides the following factsheet on the “regional refugee catastrophe.” Information specific to each country receiving refugees is provided.
As of July 17, UNHCR reports that more than 1. 7 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. UNHCR predicts that 3.5 million Syrians potentially could become refugees by the end of 2013. This large number is exerting significant pressure on neighboring countries’ economies and stretching their already limited resources and services. Due to these pressures, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan either have closed their borders or limited daily refugee inflows.
A good writer with interesting reflections on the Syria conflict is posting a blog called Notes on Error. Here are some excerpts from a few posts:
On sectarianism in the conflict: Scenes from the religious war, iii
It is an understandable though melancholy truth that in the tragedy of armed conflict, the narrative that seeks to explain events often lags behind the details that determine events. Policy and psychology work together to delay such inferences as seem, in retrospect, to have been unmissable – as anyone who has paid attention to the long eclipse of Syria will know.
… With the torrent of terrible news pouring out of Iraq, we who are watching from afar must now brace ourselves for another round of narrative delay, which seeks to conceal a fearsome fact: Iraq has been definitively captured and thrown into the Syrian maelstrom. Iraq is now also in a state of civil war.
Martin Kobler, the United Nations envoy to Iraq has proclaimed that that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq (and, sotto vocce, Lebanon) are merging into a single engagement.
From Mr. Kobler’s report to the Security Council, from July 16:
I am deeply concerned by the recent events in Iraq. I regret to report that the last four months have been amongst Iraq’s bloodiest in the last five years. Nearly three-thousand men, women, and children have been killed and over seven thousand more injured. The perpetrators of this violence are taking advantage of two leading factors of instability in the country. These include the ongoing political stalemate and the Syrian crisis.
Narrative – that is, policy – will take some time in catching up with these words, and in the days and weeks ahead there will be much to say about this new war. We may content ourselves at the outset with an unnerving observation: Iraq is the fault-line for the Sunni-Shia divide. It has been since Islam’s first civil war in 656, and remains so to this day.
In other words: the war of religion in the Middle East is metastasizing at a rate that should shock the composure of anyone who makes it their business to pay attention to such things. …
… Beginning in the “local” context: yesterday, The Islamic State of Al-Qaida of Iraq and the Levant staged spectacular, coordinated attacks on two prisons in Baghdad. It would be difficult to overstate the intricate boldness of these attacks, which were the most advanced operations of Islamic terror in the region since the withdrawal of American troops two years ago and demonstrate the enhanced capabilities from the recent merger – uncertain as all the details may be – of the Al-Qaida franchises in Iraq and Syria.
The attacks began with a series of suicide car bombs that were driven into the outer walls of the prisons, followed by waves of suicide attackers wearing explosive vests who ran through the breaches to destroy the inner fortifications. Individual infiltrations followed hard upon and all the while the facilities were bombarded by rocket fire. It was only after the application of air power from the security forces that the attacks were broken, and by that time 500 Al-Qaida prisoners had been liberated.
It is unwise to take seriously Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s claim that the Shi’ite militia of Moqtada al-Sadr was involved (he’s picking his own bones here), but it seems likely that the escapes were husbanded by elements from within the prisons. The central government’s grip on the security situation is tenuous, and requires comment, but Maliki’s vain evasions only aggravate his crisis of credibility.
In any case, this operation, and the consolidation of Sunni extremism between Iraq and Syria that it denotes, is bad news of the first order. But, working in parallel, a hardening within the Shia camp is deepening the overall sensation of impending calamity.
… A struggle is underway between the two intellectual centers of Shia political power: Najaf, in Iraq, and Qom, in Iran. It may be simply said (too simply, really) that the character of this difference has to do with the tensions between Arab and Persian Shi’ism. The former, which has strained itself to interpret events in Syria as a political struggle, and which maintains a certain theological distance from such matters, has urged Iraqi Shias to spurn the fight there and not fan the sectarian flames. It is in no small part through efforts of the clerics in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, that Iraq has remained, for so long, out of the Syrian war.
In Qom, the situation is different. The Islamic Republic of Iran, whose influence in Iraq has steadily increased since the American occupation and the election of a Shia government there, has been issuing quite contrary edicts. Their version of Shi’ism merges the political and theological spheres and, through the counsels of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the faithful are enjoined to travel to Syria and fight against what they regard as a Sunni insurgency.
In other words, as over the past months we have witnessed the Sunni legions consolidate on one side of the sectarian divide, we are now seeing Shia extremism beginning to clarify on the other. Mesopotamia is where these two forces have historically met, and it seems, more so with each passing day, that the two wings of Shia Islam are preparing a critical conclave in the same location.
The struggle has only begun to bloom, but as with so many other prolonged factors in this war, the center of gravity slides to the extremes, and we must wonder whether the dramatic Sunni attacks of yesterday will further decide the contest in favor of the intervening Shi’ism of Qom, and against the more measured Shi’ism of Najaf.
On the further-reaching consequences that the war will necessarily have for the human community, and regarding the prospect of action in response to it: Homs and Shame:
… The time when we might have intervened just in Syria and helped move things in a salutary direction has passed. What was once a national uprising is now a regional sectarian war, and I’m not sure how one intervenes in that. We’re in uncharted territory, but that is partly, in my view, a consequence of not having engaged earlier.
That the problem has become really complicated does not arrest any of the consequences, one of which is as follows: the eastern third of Syria and the western third of Iraq are now a single entity where the only functioning power is Al-Qaida. In other words, a sort of radical Islamic quasi-state is being born, which is the common enemy of humanity. (Even Assad views this development as an existential crisis.)
Your framing of the essential choice is, I think, correct. We either do nothing and watch the horror, or we intervene and make everything, so to say, bigger (if not quite worse). Intervention would mean escalation, but that’s just the way it is.
It is, despite the esoteric religious elements, a geopolitical event, as Russia, and our allies like Turkey and Jordan, know all too well. As for “winning”, I don’t know what that would look like, but I know two necessary components: Assad and Al-Qaida must be destroyed.
One of the articles referenced in the above blog posts is quite interesting: Syrian conflict increases Shi’ite divisions – Asharq al-Awsat
Senior Shi’ite ayatollahs in Qom, Iran, have issued edicts urging their followers to join the fighting in Syria, while many Iraqi clerics based in Najaf remain opposed to involvement in the fighting.
Shi’ite militia commanders responsible for recruiting fighters in Iraq said the number of volunteers has increased considerably since the issuance of these edicts, despite divisions within the clergy.
While the Iranian government and some Qom-based ayatollahs are enthusiastic about supporting Assad, Shi’ite authorities in Najaf, led by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, have objected to Shi’ite volunteers going to Syria to fight in a war which they see as political, not sectarian.
Despite Sistani’s position, however, some Shi’ite parties and militias in Iraq, which are loyal to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have sent their members to fight in Syria. …
Sayyeda Zeinab gets bombed: Shells hit major Shiite shrine near Damascus
Mortar shells struck near a major Shiite shrine outside Damascus on Friday, killing its caretaker in an attack that threatens to further escalate sectarian tensions in Syria’s civil war, the government and activists said.
State-run news agency SANA said shells fired be rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad landed “in the vicinity” of the revered Sayida Zeinab shrine, killing Anas Roumani, the shrine’s administrative director. Several people were wounded in the explosion, SANA said.
… In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has called it “a duty” to protect the shrine, saying that if Syrian rebels destroyed it, that would ignite a sectarian war with no end
Opinion from NYT: End the conflict by engaging with Iran: To Oust Assad, Pressure Hezbollah – by JONATHAN STEVENSON
SYRIA has put President Obama’s enlightened realism in international affairs to its stiffest test. Direct military intervention could immerse the United States in yet another open-ended Middle East war. Doing nothing would mean failing to live up to America’s humanitarian obligations and harming America’s regional interests.
But the main impediment to a political deal remains President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal intransigence. And there is something America could do to pressure him. The most powerful inducement for Mr. Assad to reach an acceptable compromise would be a loss of support from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based, Iranian-financed Shiite militant group. In Lebanon, popular anger over Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is rising, and the United States must exploit this opportunity, even if it means negotiating directly with Iran to rein in its Lebanese proxy.
… The way to Hezbollah’s heart is through Iran. The Obama administration should bite the admittedly hard bullet and start cultivating Iran as a participant in negotiations for a peace deal in Syria. Iran’s newly elected moderate president, Hassan Rowhani, wants better relations with pro-rebel Saudi Arabia. And despite Iran’s insistence that its Syria policy hasn’t changed, Mr. Rowhani is likely to be less obstructionist than his predecessors and could open up space for genuine compromise. America should also be receptive to power-sharing scenarios that preserve a role for Mr. Assad’s fellow Alawites in a new Syrian government.
Washington should also incentivize reluctant anti-Assad forces, whose disunity has lately strengthened Mr. Assad, by indicating that America is prepared to increase arms shipments to moderate rebels in Syria only if they are willing to consolidate and negotiate. Tough diplomacy along these lines could also increase the internal leverage of Iranian officials with doubts about Mr. Assad’s viability while softening Iranian hard-liners.
Some Israelis have argued that the Syrian civil war usefully bogs down both the Assad regime and Hezbollah and bleeds Iran. Though superficially appealing, this rosy view is trumped by the prospect that cross-border violence could destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey. Such a spillover could also cause the current Iranian-Saudi proxy war over Syria to escalate into a more direct and dangerous confrontation that might ultimately discourage Iran from making the nuclear compromises that the United States so badly wants. …
… Homs, long a place where a Sunni majority lived in co-existence co-existed with minority Christian and Alawite communities, has now been a city of cantonments for almost 18 months: Alawite areas are surrounded by security walls that are off-limits to opposition areas. The countryside to the north and east, where Sunni and Alawite communities live nearby each other, has been volatile for much of the past year, with massacres documented in Sunni communities in Houla, Banias and Hoswaie.
The apparent cleansing is not all one way though. North of Latakia, Alawites have been chased out of their villages near the Turkish border by opposition groups, which in that area are dominated by jihadists. …
Containing the Fire in Syria – Ryan Crocker
The awful conflict in Syria grinds on, with more than 100,000 dead and no end in sight. The calls to “do something” – anything – become louder: arm the rebels, enforce a no-fly zone, send in the Marines. Before the United States acts, Americans should reflect on the realities in Syria in a historical context. Here are some relevant dates and events.
Syria, February 1982: The Assad regime corners the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, the country’s fourth largest city. For the minority Alawite government, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the fundamentalist Sunni Brothers are an existential threat. Assad rings the city with armor and artillery, and methodically destroys its center. The Brotherhood is largely eliminated, along with more than 10,000 Sunni civilians. The regime knew that the day of revenge might come and spent years developing the security, intelligence and military apparatus to deal with it. …
… So this current fight didn’t start in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a in 2011. Nor is it part of the so-called Arab Spring. It began decades before. Lebanese, Palestinians, Iranians, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians – Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze – all remember. Americans may not have ever really understood it in the first place. The history helps explain the ferocity of the fight on the part of both the regime and its opponents, and it illustrates why this regime is not like those in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. It was ready for this war.
… The opposition, in contrast, lacks cohesion and organization. As is often the case in these conflicts, the most radical elements demonstrate the greatest discipline such as Al Qaeda in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra. It is what makes arming the opposition such a dangerous and uncertain proposition.
… Much has been said about a political settlement. The conditions are simply not present. Neither the opposition nor the regime is ready to deal seriously with each other, and the opposition is too divided in any event to develop a coherent position. Nor will a meeting between regime representatives and opposition elements in exile produce meaningful outcome, even if it could be convened. The influence of the exiles on those actually doing the fighting is approximately zero.
… I was in Lebanon recently, where the outgoing prime minister gloomily predicted a renewed civil war of which there are already signs with clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli, in the northeast and attacks on Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut. If the violence spreads, the Palestinians will join forces with the Lebanese Sunnis against the Shia, and that in turn will radicalize Palestinians in Jordan’s already fragile monarchy. Both countries need our security and economic support, for the refugee influx and their security forces.
This will be a long war. There is little the United States can do to positively influence events in Syria. Our focus must be on preventing further spillover beyond its borders. There may come a point where exhaustion on both sides makes a political solution possible. We are nowhere near that point. And my fear is that at the end of the day, the Assad regime prevails. We must be ready for that too.
Musa al-Gharbi: Al-Qaeda’s renaissance – Your Middle East
Far from being rendered irrelevant by the Arab Spring, the organization seems to be on the verge of a major and enduring resurgence
“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”
This sentiment was only amplified in light of the U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership: Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Yaya al-Libi and Said al-Shehri (among others)—personality strikes which continue to this very day despite the growing evidence of blowback.
… Although there were certainly methodological and ideological disparities, the aspirations of al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring protesters were superficially commensurate: al-Qaeda had long been working against Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Bashar al-Asad, and Gaddafi—just as they had previously fought Saddam Hussein. They unambiguously embraced each of these revolutions, and even called for further uprisings in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia. However, so long as the protests remained peaceful, al-Qaeda was, in a sense, sidelined. Ironically, the Western interventions/escalations in Libya and Syria gave them an “in” and subsequently al-Qaeda has played a decisive and growing role in those theaters.
Contrary to Western assumptions (fueled by media disinformation), the Libyans did not rise up in great numbers to overthrow Gaddhafi, and there were few military and government defections. Accordingly, the colonel continued to advance on Benghazi despite the NATO-imposed no-fly zone. Foreign fighters from AQIM rushed in to compensate for the lack of indigenous resistance—but even then the local population refused to provide the rebels with provisions or support, forcing NATO allies to overstep their mandate in UNSCR 1973 (just as they did in UNSCR 1441), likely in violation of international law.
The al-Qaeda flag flew next to the rebel flag in the opposition capital of Benghazi, while an al-Qaeda detainee released from Guantanamo Bay became one of the more prolific leaders of the rebellion. To this day, al-Qaeda and its affiliates maintain a strong presence in Libya, largely thanks to the lawlessness which continues to prevail over much of the country, and due to the gratitude of the local population.
Ultimately, these groups would deploy the very resources which NATO provided, and the autonomy afforded them in the absence of Gaddhafi, in order carry out an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. AQIM subsequently took advantage of their base in Libya to plan and execute a successful conquest of northern Mali, prompting a French intervention of unspecified length in their former colony. This, in turn, led to an AQIM response attack in Algeria which killed scores of foreign nationals from around the world.
In Libya, al-Qaeda and its affiliates were among the primary beneficiaries of U.S. and allied arms, funding, training, and supplies. We know this, in part, because they have subsequently deployed these assets throughout the Maghreb, but they have also been relied upon in Syria—just as the weapons provided to the rebels in Syria were used in a failed al-Qaeda attack in Jordan; and yet the Obama Administration has decided to openly endorse arming the rebels (under the false-pretext of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government), despite the overwhelming evidence that most of these weapons have ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups.
Al-Qaeda was quick to endorse the Syrian “uprising;” they began by bombing targets in Damascus and quickly stepped up their involvement from there. The late Abu Yaya al-Libi called for a “violent jihad” in Syria without compromise or “illusions of peacefulness” until President al-Asad is overthrown. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front was primarily responsible for the rebel gains in Aleppo, which marked a turning point in the rebellion—they have since become the most effective and influential fighting force in the Syrian theater. Even rebel forces which are not directly affiliated with al-Nusra or the ISI are increasingly adopting al-Qaeda tactics (guerilla warfare, suicide bombings, IED’s, etc.) in order to combat the superior firepower of the Syrian government. …
… It would be hard to imagine a better scenario for al-Qaeda and their ideology: secular tyrannies have been falling throughout the Middle East—replaced by Sunni Islamist-dominated governments with solid ties to minority-blocks of conservative/radical parties, such as the Salafists. And as formerly antagonistic forces are being overthrown, al-Qaeda has been able to exploit the regional instability to set up new bases of operation. The organization is increasing its presence in the Sinai Peninsula, continues to control large swaths of Yemen and Somalia, and enjoys substantial support in Pakistan. …
The Wealth of Syria: Looting and Scandals
The following Bloomberg article cites a report from the website Trafficking Culture (“Researching the global traffic in looted cultural objects”) that provides the following before-and-after satellite images of the ancient city of Apamea, an archeological site in Syria serving as an example of the tremendous looting that has taken place. In the second picture, thousands of holes are visible where looters have dug into soil that archeologists have not yet explored:
When the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began two years ago, satellite images showed the ruins of the ancient Hellenic city of Apamea surrounded by green farmland. A year later, photos reveal a moonscape blighted by hundreds upon hundreds of holes.
Looters in bulldozers armed with automatic weapons are exploiting the mayhem of Syria’s civil war to seize sites including Apamea, founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, where colonnaded streets stretch for almost 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) along a hilltop.
“It’s tragic, objects from archaeological sites risk being lost without us ever knowing they existed,” said Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum. “It can be callous to talk about this in the face of appalling human loss, but Syria’s cultural heritage is of such great importance to our understanding of human history that it’s only right we’re concerned.”
There are more endangered heritage sites in Syria than anywhere else in the world, the United Nations, Educational, Scientifid and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, said this year. The country has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and other civilizations.
“We feel bitter and sad — many sites have been destroyed before our eyes,” Mamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, said in an interview from Damascus. “Clandestine excavations are most dangerous because they mean eternal death, while sites damaged by fighting can be restored.”
Abdul-Karim said his department stored artifacts in safe places to prevent a repeat of the pillaging that emptied the National Museum of Iraq of its Mesopotamian relics after the March 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein. He said that while antiquities officials have started local initiatives that include watch groups of tribal elders and civilians to protect sites, they’ve been confronted by gangs of heavily armed men and earth-moving equipment.
“Preventing the smuggling of antiquities and clandestine excavations is the responsibility of every Syrian,” he said. “Even if we have political disagreements, let’s not disagree over the country’s heritage.” …
While looters dismember Syria’s treasures from within, the black gold under Syrian soil is eyed from without: West’s main aid group for Syrian rebels collapses into disarray – Telegraph
Even as President Bashar al-Assad has made sweeping advances across parts of his country, the Syrian Support Group (SSG) has been riven by internal divisions and struggled to raise funds.
The group had been considered a potential game-changer whose money-raising abilities would equip the rebels with much-needed modern weapons.
But instead of using a unique US licence to funnel funds to the opposition, the group has spent months pursuing a fruitless dash to make millions of dollars from Syrian oil.
One former staff member has alleged that the leadership had become “obsessed” with landing a jackpot oil deal and lost sight of its core mission to back the rebels.
The head of the SSG in Washington resigned last month after the group failed to gain real traction with US officials and its London operation is under threat of closure after falling foul of the Government.
The Foreign Office has demanded the group repay thousands of pounds from a grant after determining that some of the money was improperly spent.
… The West had hoped the SSG, founded in the US in December 2011, would channel support to these moderate elements within the Syrian uprising and in May last year it was granted a coveted Treasury licence allowing it to skirt American sanctions on the country.
But private donations dried up after the US State Department warned the SSG that its funds could not be used for weapons. Instead according to David Falt, a whistleblower who served as SSG’s European government affairs director, the group turned its efforts from fundraising to pursuing large and controversial oil deals under the leadership of Brian Sayers, a former Nato official.
Mr Falt has revealed internal emails between Mr Sayers and others, containing proposals to raise money by selling rights to Syrian oil output.
“Brian and some others were obsessed with the oil. The idea they could raise hundreds of millions from the sale of the oil came to dominate the work of the SSG to the point no real attention was paid to the nature of the conflict,” said Mr Falt.
… Mazen Asbashi, the president of SSG who is now trying to restructure the organisation, said the group’s board was eventually forced to pull the plug on the oil proposals after becoming uncomfortable with the activities of Mr Sayers.
“There were early preliminary discussions but they were never pursued in any serious way,” Mr Asbashi said. “The oil-related issues are complex and our organisation is focused on facilitating non-lethal support to the Syrian Military Council.”
Members of the board claimed that they ordered Mr Sayers to call off the proposals. “He was way out in front of where we were comfortable,” said one board member who accused Mr Sayers of “freelancing”.
But Mr Sayers said both the board and Gen Selim Idris, the head of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), were supportive of the idea of using oil money to help fund the rebellion. “There was no disagreement on the principles of that issue and the notion that somehow I was overreaching is absolutely false,” he said.
Opposition and Oppositions
Britain randomly decides people shouldn’t play with Nusra: UK Bans Syria’s Al-Qaida-Linked Nusra Front
… The government said Friday that it considered the Nusra Front and Jabhat al-Nusra nothing more than alternative names for al-Qaida, which has long been outlawed. The ban takes effect immediately. …
And just when it’s getting more attractive: Comics Series on Western Muslim Volunteering for Nusra
Two al Qaida-linked rebel groups in Syria appear to be distancing themselves from each other in what may be an effort by the Nusra Front, which the United States has branded as an international terrorist organization, to remain relevant amid signs that major portions of the Syrian population are chafing under harsh rule by conservative religious fighters.
A series of incidents in which residents and fighters in rebel-held areas have protested what they say is a heavy-handed approach to a raft of issues have put Nusra and the other group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, on the political defensive even as the umbrella group of rebels that the West recognizes, the Free Syrian Army, comes under pressure by the United States to reduce the groups’ influence.
“The jihadists are rightly worried that the U.S. will demand action against jihadists as a vetting bottom line. They talk a lot about the FSA being recruited by the CIA to fight them,” said Joshua Landis, an associate professor at University of Oklahoma who’s an expert on Syria.
When the Obama administration agreed last month to supply weaponry to the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, it quickly became clear that ensuring that those weapons didn’t go to Nusra or the Islamic State was a major condition of the aid, which nevertheless has been slow to materialize. Adding to the tensions has been the killing by an Islamic State member of a commander from a pro-Free Syrian Army unit in the mountains along the Syrian coast, allegedly in a dispute over a checkpoint.
In an effort to tamp down the perception that the Free Syrian Army was powerless over these al Qaida-linked groups, a commander in the area said the Free Syrian Army had demanded an arrest. The Islamic State’s response was to order the arrest and trial of the suspected shooter.
That hasn’t yet happened. “There has been no reaction from his group,” said Tasmim al Laathiqiyah, a member of the Khalwah Bin al Azwar Battalion, a rebel unit affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.
In another incident, disgruntled civilians in the northern city of Aleppo demonstrated over the weekend to protest Islamic State checkpoints that prohibited them from visiting government-controlled portions of the city.
The issue for Nusra is to not become the target of that bitterness. Nusra was created by veterans of al Qaida in Iraq, the jihadi organization that gained fame during the U.S. occupation of Iraq by opposing the American presence and later battling that country’s Shiite Muslim majority in a bitter sectarian war.
Nusra’s approach in Syria – many of its members are Syrians who fought against the American presence in Iraq – has been shaped by what happened to al Qaida in Iraq, whose harsh policies eventually turned Sunni Muslim tribal leaders against it. Once the tribal leaders rebelled, they joined with the United States to push the group out of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.
While the United States has said Nusra and al Qaida in Iraq are indistinguishable from each other – the U.S. designation of Nusra as a terrorist organization declared it to be simply an alias for al Qaida in Iraq – some analysts say Nusra has adopted more palatable policies, even as its leader, Abu Mohamed al Jawlani, has pledged allegiance to al Qaida and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. …
Frustrated with how the Islamist agenda took over the uprising, defections are no longer a one-way street: Syria: disillusioned rebels drift back to take Assad amnesty – Telegraph
Disillusioned by the Islamist twist that the “revolution” in Syria has taken, exhausted after more than two years of conflict and feeling that they are losing, growing numbers of rebels are signing up to a negotiated amnesty offered by the Assad regime.
At the same time, the families of retreating fighters have begun quietly moving back to government-controlled territory, seen as a safer place to live as the regime continues its intense military push against rebel-held areas.
The move is a sign of the growing confidence of the regime, which has established a so-called “ministry of reconciliation” with the task of easing the way for former opponents to return to the government side.
… “I used to fight for revolution, but now I think we have lost what we were fighting for,” said Mohammed, a moderate Muslim rebel from the northern town of Raqqa who declined to give his last name. “Now extremists control my town. My family has moved back to government side because our town is too unsafe. Assad is terrible, but the alternative is worse.”
The prevalence of extremist Islamist groups in rebel-held areas, particularly in the north, has caused some opposition fighters to “give up” on their cause.
Ziad Abu Jabal comes from one of the villages in Homs province whose residents recently agreed to stop fighting the regime. “When we joined the demonstrations we wanted better rights,” he said. “After seeing the destruction and the power of jihadists, we came to an agreement with the government.”
Mr Haider said that he had attended a ceremony yesterday at which 180 opposition fighters rejoined the government’s police force, from which they had previously defected.
Although it was not possible to verify this claim, when The Daily Telegraph previously visited the reconciliation ministry’s headquarters in Damascus the office was crowded with the family members of rebels fighting in the city’s suburbs who said their men wanted to return.
A ministry negotiator, who gave his name only as Ahmed, was in the process of arranging the defection of a rebel commander and 10 of his men from the Ghouta district.
“It took us three months of negotiation and this is a test,” he said. “If this goes well, the commander says that 50 others will follow.”
He described the steps taken to allow the return of fighters willing to lay down their arms. First, he said, a negotiator must cross the front line for a meeting on rebel-held territory. “We have to hope the rebel commander orders his snipers not to shoot us.”
Would-be defectors were given papers allowing them to pass through Syrian army checkpoints, and then waited in a safe house until the officials could get their names removed from wanted lists held by the more hardline defence ministry and intelligence agencies.
The rebels “did not sign up to be part of extremist Islamist groups that have now gained influence”, he said. “Now they want to come back to a normal life.”
In the days before the regime took the town of Qusayr last month, The Telegraph saw mediators on the Lebanese border work with the Syrian army to secure an amnesty for fighters wanting to surrender.
The phone rang with desperate calls from the parents of the rebels. “These mothers know that this is the last chance for their sons. …
The U.S. and European Union are seeing an increasing number of radicalized young Muslims going to Syria to fight, a development that raises the danger that they will return to conduct terrorist attacks at home.
The war is providing both a rallying point and a training ground for radical Islamists from other nations, according to Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. Their numbers are increasing and the radicals, such as those joining the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, are now “the most capable fighting force within the opposition” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said.
“Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” Olsen said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. “We see foreign fighters going from Western Europe and, in a small number of cases, from the United States to Syria to fight for the opposition.” …
An interesting example of foreign fighters in Syria is this video about a British woman and convert to Islam who went to Syria and married a Swedish jihadi with whom she’s now starting a family:
Lots of alleged details of Ahmad Jarba’s background: The Syrian National Coalition’s Saudi Makeover – al-Akbar
Over the past few days, the Baath Party and the opposition Syrian National Coalition have both elected new leaders, although the timing appears to be a coincidence. If anything, the scope of the reshuffle indicates that both parties, for their own reasons, have come to acknowledge that their respective models were no longer working, and required a fundamental adjustment in their policies and top brass.
Interestingly, this process has produced two main losers: namely, the Muslim Brotherhood-led wing in the National Coalition and the “old guard” of the Baath. These two groups have been the historical poles of the conflict in Syria over the past decade; therefore, the fact that they have been cast aside almost simultaneously has left many wondering whether this comes in advance preparation for a dialogue between the new Baath gutted of its old guard, and the National Coalition ridded of the Brotherhood.
An official Syrian source closely involved with the Syrian “crisis cell” led from the presidential palace, provides further background to these developments. He believes that the change in leadership of the Baath Party took place as part of a new comprehensive vision for its organization and role. As for the change at the top of the National Coalition, the source reckons it is the result of having to adapt to the ouster of the Brotherhood-led regime in Egypt, as well as a shift in the opposition’s “spiritual leadership” from Doha to Riyadh. …
Ahmad al-Jarba: Personal History
The source maintains that Ahmad al-Jarba’s trek to the highest post in the Coalition was planned from A to Z in the corridors of Saudi intelligence. The man, the source said, has a big rap sheet kept by Qatari, Saudi, and Syrian security services, for acts involving all three countries, and in the past, the three intelligence agencies had even coordinated operations in his pursuit.
The Syrian source provided particulars involving Jarba that were mentioned in official Syrian security records, as a fugitive wanted for criminal offenses, including fraud, corruption, and even assassination plots that were not carried out. According to the source, records show that Riyadh handed over “the suspect Ahmad al-Jarba” to Damascus in 2008, on charges of drug trafficking, in accordance with an extradition agreement between Saudi and Syrian security services (which was suspended at the beginning of the Syrian crisis). Jarba was tried and sentenced to a prison term at the time.
The records also reveal another entry involving Jarba, which the Qatari security services undoubtedly also have in their records, as the source said: After the coup staged by the outgoing Emir of Qatar Hamad against his father Khalifa al-Thani, the latter’s foreign minister fled to Syria, where he became a vocal supporter for restoring the previous emir. At the time, according to the records, Emir Hamad’s people asked Ahmad al-Jarba to assassinate the exiled Qatari foreign minister in Syria. Al-Jarba even received payment after accepting to carry out the mission, the source claimed.
However, Jarba chose instead to expose the plot to the deposed Emir Khalifa, for which he also received a financial reward. The issue proved to have huge political consequences, prompting the Syrian state security agency to investigate and ultimately detain Jarba for a total of five months on counts of fraud.
According to another entry in the Syrian security records, Jarba approached the Libyan ambassador in Damascus shortly after Muammar Gaddafi declared himself Africa’s “king of kings,” and persuaded the ambassador to use Jarba’s help in sending Syrian tribal delegations to Libya to pledge allegiance to Gaddafi. Jarba had introduced himself to the Libyan leadership as the chief of the Shammar tribe of the Jazirah region in Syria (Upper Mesopotamia).
In 2004, he was looking for ways to gain access to the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as one of the elders of the Shammar clan, which has branches from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, all the way to Saudi Arabia. Before Jarba dropped off the grid in Syria, he was being pursued by the Syrian authorities for running brothels in Damascus and Hasakah.
The Secret Decisions of the Doha Meeting
Recently, Saudi intelligence, under Bandar’s direct supervision, began touting Jarba as the chief of the Syrian branch of the Shammar tribe, presenting him inside the Coalition as their pointman for arms purchases. It is likely that Bandar bargained with several blocks in the Coalition over instating Jarba as the president of the opposition group in return for delivering game-changing weapons.
The information available to the Syrian security services indicates that Jarba’s appointment came following pressure from Saudi Arabia during the most recent meeting held by the countries backing the Syrian opposition in Doha. Secret agreements were reached, including one between Paris and Riyadh over the purchase and delivery of advanced weapons for the benefit of the opposition. …
During the meeting in Doha, Saudi intelligence endeavored to polish Jarba’s image among the countries backing the Syrian opposition, presenting him as the chief of the Shammar tribe, and claiming that the groups under his command control the Yaarabia border crossing with Iraq. However, the tribe in Syria is actually led by two elders, Shammar Hamidi Dahham al-Hadi, who has close ties with the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and Uday al-Meez al-Madloul.
Concerning the claim that Jarba controls groups in Hasakah and Qamishli, it is common knowledge in Upper Mesopotamia that the man has been banished by not only his tribe, but even his close family. His father had distanced himself from his son ever since he was exposed for running brothels, even though Jarba tried at the time to claim that he was only running a company to help young men and women marry. Meanwhile, his brother Zaid is a regime supporter, while his older brother Nawwaf has shunned politics altogether.
The Ever-Shifting Sponsorship of the Coalition
Since its inception, the National Coalition has been moving from the embraces of one regional sponsor to another, according to the Syrian source. Whenever it settles for a new sponsor, the source said, the Coalition elects a new leader named by the current sponsor. …
… This process continues with the appointment of Bandar’s man, Ahmad al-Jarba, as president of the Syrian National Coalition.
A Wake Up Call for the Syrian Brotherhood – Sami Moubayed
When Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib was elected president of the Syrian National Alliance in late 2012, red flags were raised at the offices of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers feared ideological competition from someone who like them, was preaching Sunni Islam. Their niche, after all, was the conservative Sunni Muslim street of Syria, which they supposedly represented and sought to monopolize.
Here was Khatib, a scholar and former preacher at the prestigious Umayyad Mosque, seemingly being parachuted into the job, right from the heart of Damascus. Although politically inexperienced, he came across as selfless, unblemished, and sincere. He came from the midst of domestic suffering within Syria, whereas the Brotherhood operated from exile. Most of its active cadres were second-generation members born and raised outside of Syria. Simply by being himself, Khatib threatened to make them irrelevant, exposing the Brothers as power-hungry politicians blinded by their thundering success in Egypt. Unlike the Brotherhood, Khatib had no ambition of becoming president of Syria. If the pro-regime street motto had been: “It’s either Assad, or we burn the country” the Brotherhood’s unspoken drive seemed also to be, “It’s either us, or we burn the country!” Clearly in Egypt, now ejected from office with little respect or ceremony, they have decided to “burn the country!”
In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s real powerbase today lies strictly in the Idlib countryside, specifically Jabal al-Zawiya, where they still command a sizable community of loyalists. Their influence in the conservative city of Hama, the city to suffer most from their 1982 adventure, had long vanished. Hama today is no longer a “Brotherhood stronghold.” The secular opposition leader Fidaa Hourani, who treated the wounded at her field hospital in early 2011, was more popular in Hama than the entire Brotherhood leadership combined. She was a secular, and not only that, the daughter of Akram al-Hourani, the father of socialism in modern Syria, who had combated the Brotherhood during the golden years of Syrian democracy, back in the ’50s.
Hama notables grumbled when recalling how while their sons were being led to the gallows in 1982, Brotherhood leaders had packed their bags and left to safe exile, leaving the city to sort out its own mess. They blamed the Brotherhood for dragging Syria into an ill-planned confrontation, which led to the killing of anywhere between 15,000-30,000 civilians, without calculating what the regime’s response would be. The Brotherhood knew that popular sentiment in Hama, although anti-regime, was nevertheless not pro-Brotherhood in 2011-2012. They also realized that if the Syrians went to the polls, unlike Egypt, the Brotherhood would never win a landslide victory. …
… The Muslim Brotherhood is now fighting a battle on several fronts: with Egyptian officers in Cairo, with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, with Mohammad Abbas in Palestine, and with Saudi Arabia in the Arab and Muslim World. This is more than they can chew. If they don’t try to extinguish fires, they will collapse. Both the Egyptian and Syrian Brothers have to put down their guns, sink into self-reflection, study their mistakes, and eventually re-invent themselves after the Egyptian fiasco.
Strategic Intelligence Assessment for Syria (2) – State of Play Part I – Pro-Assad Groups and Moderate Opposition Forces – Red (team) Analysis – Helene Lavoix
Keeping in mind the complex and fluid character of the situation in Syria we addressed last week, this post and the next will present the current state of play and the various categories of actors fighting in and over Syria, namely the pro-Assad groups, the moderate opposition forces and the Muslim Brotherhood “related” groups, the Islamist groups fighting for an Islamist state in Syria, the groups linked to a global Jihadi Front, and, finally, the Kurds in Syria, without forgetting the external actors. Scenarios for the future will follow from this assessment. The scenarios will then evolve, notably in terms of likelihood, from changes on the battleground and in interactions between all actors. …
Syrian rebels have a new source of weapons and cash from inside Kuwait, and their benefactors in the oil-rich state are sending the aid to the most militant and anti-West factions involved in the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad.
The role of Saudi and Qatari governments and individuals in the funding and arming of Islamist fighters in Syria has been well known since the civil war began more than two years ago. But now, guns and money are flowing from private sources and Salafist-controlled NGOs based in Kuwait, and they are going to rebel factions aligned with Al Qaeda.
“We are collecting money to buy all these weapons, so that our brothers will be victorious,” hard-core Sunni Islamist Sheikh Shafi’ Al-Ajami announced on Kuwaiti television last month, listing the black-market prices of weapons, including heat-seeking missiles, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.
Days later, Al-Ajami addressed a small throng outside the Lebanese Embassy in Kuwait and gleefully described slitting the throat of a Shiite Muslim in Syria.
“We slaughtered him with knives,” Al-Ajami said to shouts of “God is Great.”
The al-Qaida-affiliated commander in charge of the oil company in Shadadi, eastern Syria – a lean, broad-shouldered man who is followed everywhere by a machete-wielding bodyguard – was explaining the appeal of jihadi rule to the people of the newly captured town.
“Go and ask the people in the streets whether there a liberated town or city anywhere in Syria that is ruled as efficiently as this one,” he boasted. “There is electricity, water and bread and security. Inshallah, this will be the nucleus of a new Syrian Islamic caliphate!”
The al-Nusra Front, the principle jihadi rebel group in Syria, defies the cliche of Islamist fighters around the Middle East plotting to establish Islamic caliphates from impoverished mountain hideaways. In north-eastern Syria, al-Nusra finds itself in command of massive silos of wheat, factories, oil and gas fields, fleets of looted government cars and a huge weapons arsenal.
The commander talked about the services al-Nusra is providing to Shadadi’s residents. First, there is food: 225 sacks of wheat, baked into bread and delivered to the people every day through special teams in each neighbourhood. Then there is free electricity and water, which run all day throughout the town. There is also al-Nusra healthcare, provided from a small clinic that treats all comers, regardless of whether they have sworn allegiance to the emirate or not. Finally, there is order and the promise of swift justice, delivered according to sharia law by a handful of newly appointed judges.
“God has chosen us to provide security to the people, and we do it for nothing,” he said. “We have vowed to sacrifice ourselves to serve the people. If we leave, the tribes will start killing each other for the oil and the loot. We had to show force in dealing with the tribes. Even now, one to three people are killed every day because of feuding over the oil. We also protect the silos of wheat. All the silos are under our protection.
“All this wealth,” he said, “is for the Muslims.”
The emir of gas
A few miles from Shadadi, travelling through hills dotted with oil pumps that resemble giant, long-legged birds dipping their beaks into the earth, we came to al-Nusra’s most valuable asset in the region, a gas refinery run by a young commander known to his followers simply as the “emir of gas”.
The emir sat on a green mattress on the floor of his office, conspicuously eschewing the computer and desk in favour of the simple way of the Islamist warrior. He was almost skeletally thin, his handsome face framed by long black hair that wrapped lazily around his ears, giving him the air of a mischievous playboy.
When the rebels first captured the refinery, it was run by a joint committee that represented all the battalions in the area. But the emir decided to kick them out, for their “petty theft”.
“The Free Syrian Army [FSA] have no funding so they steal stupid things,” he said contemptuously. “They steal anything.”
The secret to al-Nusra’s power in the east, he said, was organisation: all their captured loot went to a central committee, which he called the “Muslim treasury”. From there, it was directed to the various battle fronts. …
Comrades in Arms – How Libya sends weapons to Syria’s rebels – FP
The former rebel commander, who also heads a Libyan NGO that helps Syrian refugees in Libya, says most of the weapons and aid are donated free of charge by fellow Libyans. But when the cost of transporting the weapons is high and Libyan funds run dry, he added, a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood flies to Benghazi to provide an injection of cash and coordinate the flow of weapons into Syria.
“What we do is this,” explains the organizer. “We ask katibas [rebel units] here in Benghazi to donate weapons and humanitarian stuff for Syria.… People just show up with guns, money, hospital beds, or sugar. So the moment we have enough we rent a ship or plane and get it to Syria via our contacts in Turkey and — less often — in Jordan.”
Libyan rebels have also sent aid to the Syrian opposition by air. Twenty-seven such flights have occurred to date, says the former commander — 23 from Libya to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and four to an airport in Jordan. The planes mostly took off from Benghazi, but also departed from Tripoli and the eastern airport of al-Abraq, close to the town of al-Bayda.
“Often these are rather small planes,” the former commander says. “Either we Libyans pay, or some of our Syrian friends find money and pick up the bill.”
… “We try to distribute it equally among all the groups,” he says, “but there is some rivalry. I have suggested to the Syrians to create one operation room in which all different rebel groups are present. This is also what we did during the Libyan revolution. But until now the Syrians have not followed this example.” …
Syrian rebels have tightened their siege on government-held districts in the divided city of Aleppo, choking supply lines and depleting staple foods at the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of festive meals to break the daily fast.
The tactic is controversial enough among supporters and opponents of the rebels that residents of the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood staged a protest on Tuesday at a rebel checkpoint. Rebels shot in the air to disperse the protests, local activists said.
“This is not a revolution,” a sheik shouted at rebels in a video posted online. “This is injustice.”
The Aleppo food shortage is just one episode in one of many war-torn cities across Syria. But it highlights how some elements of the armed opposition — especially in areas they control — are seen as oppressive even by their friends.
… But now, complaints about the rebels have only accelerated with their use of blockades — long a government tactic to disrupt food supplies.
Anas, a fighter with Liwaa al-Tawheed, one of the most well-organized, well-armed and prominent brigades operating in the northern province of Aleppo, supported the tactic.
“Districts under regime control are considered military areas,” he said Wednesday over Skype. “We don’t want to force civilians to leave, but at the same time we’re afraid they might get hurt during the liberation of the city.”
Aleppo is divided between government- and rebel-held areas — roughly the western and eastern halves. Where a person lives does not necessarily determine allegiance, and people regularly cross the lines for business or to visit family.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog that tracks the fighting through a network of activists in Syria, reported “intense food shortages” in some government-held areas, “compounded by the skyrocketing prices of whatever supplies can be found.”
Rebels say their immediate aim is to cut off supplies from government troops, but it appears the blockade is also part of a broader strategy aimed at weakening support for the government and pressuring civilians in government-held areas to leave. If the western part of Aleppo, now home to two million Syrians, becomes empty of civilians, a ground assault by rebels would be easier to carry out and more morally defensible, rebels argue.
Abu al-Haytham, a fighter whose unit is among those enforcing the siege, stressed that the Free Syrian Army’s aim was not to punish residents but to block government supplies and prompt civilians to seek refuge elsewhere, opening the way for a ground attack.
“Our siege is not just about tomatoes and cucumbers. We want to storm security buildings, and the presence of civilians is obstructing our movement,” he said in a Skype interview.
But for citizens trying to get by, it is more basic: it is about eating.
Recently, a woman was trying to cross back into the government-controlled part of the city when she was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. Fighters refused to let her cross with the prize she had come for: bags of fruits, vegetables and medicine, hard to find near her home on the other side.
A sheik allied with the rebels tried to mediate, suggesting she come to live on the rebel side. Incredulous, she replied, “Find me a house!” After fielding more pleas, in scenes captured on video and posted online, the sheik lost patience and confronted the fighters, saying the blockade was hurting “the simple people, the common people.”
Eventually, the rebels relented, and opened the crossing to food.
Interesting human story with excellent photos: How War in Syria Turned These Ordinary Engineers Into Deadly Weapons Inventors – Matthieu Atkins – WIRED
“These things are for killing people,” he tells me. “Every time I make a bomb, I feel sorrow.”
An interesting reminder that this conflict isn’t the first in which scores of foreign fighters have shown up: Australians in Aleppo, 1918
The United Nations has accepted the Syrian government’s invitation for a visit by two senior U.N. officials for talks on the purported use of chemical weapons in the country’s bloody civil war, a U.N. spokesman said Wednesday. …
Syrian rebels on Thursday reportedly targeted an ammunition depot in a regime-controlled area of Homs, causing a massive explosion captured in a series of dramatic photos and videos.
The activist Syrian Media Center said that “an ammunition warehouse exploded after being targeted by the Free Syrian Army with Grad Missiles in the Wadi al-Thahab neighborhood [of Homs] which is under the control of the Syrian regime.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 40 people were killed in the blast, adding that the depot was owned by pro-regime militias. …
Syrians confused by TV show that takes middle road, yet has regime-approval: The revolution in Syrian drama – Diana Moukalled
Shelling, massacres and fighting killed more than 2,000 Syrians during the first two weeks of Ramadan. It’s the same tragedy the Syrians have drowned in since the beginning of the uprising.
But Syrian hardship is no longer an event. It’s not even a number or a photo. Syrians now feel that there is a general detachment and less international concern towards their ordeal.
It’s now once again the season of Ramadan, and with popular TV drama series, Arab audiences are kept busy, giving the Syrians yet another reason to be confused.
The dramas have brought back an interest into Syrian reality. What’s happening in Syria has been reflected in a few drama series.
Some of these series are directly financed by the regime and therefore clearly display its side of the story. Some, however, are financed by the private sector, displaying professional production and acting without taking a side in the conflict. This too serves the regime’s interest.
In the TV series “We will return in a while,” there’s no revolution in Syria. The events in the series are a mere background for characters.
Parts of the script acted out by Durid Lahham, who supports the regime, repeatedly describe what’s happening in Syria as a “crisis.” It also includes a lot of sorrow over what’s happening there and nostalgia and longing for the country to be a much better place.
Some coffee shops in Syrian areas under the control of the regime were prevented from airing the series “Wilada Min al-Khasera” (Birth from the Waist) which is considered the most courageous series in reflecting the Syrian reality.
There’s a lot of confusion too that will only be finalized during the last episodes of the series, although its path has begun to appear with every episode.
It’s true that the series tackles security forces’ and intelligence apparatuses’ suppression, torture, detentions and arbitrariness – actions that the Syrians experienced over the past years in the most hideous of manners – but the series has an official permit from the Syrian authorities and most of those who work in the series publicly support the regime.
A picture of the revolution
Therefore, it’s not strange when the series falls within the circle of demonizing the revolution considering that the regime and its mistakes are the best the Syrians can have.
The truth is, discussions on social networking websites reveal confusion and divisions over this year’s Syrian drama which seems to have taken a different approach from that previously adopted.
But which is worse? A realistic drama which the Syrians are living? Or a realistic drama which they escape to in series? …
Fadel Shaker’s rise and fall (or fall and rise, depending on your values) – Once a ‘King of Romance,’ Now an Angry Militant – NYT – Ben Hubbard
His success was a dream come true for this tough port city on the Mediterranean coast: a poor kid whose honeyed voice and ballads of love and heartbreak rocketed him to wealth and fame far from the gun-ridden neighborhood where he grew up.
Fadel Shaker became a superstar, hailed as “the king of romance,” his songs wooing masses throughout the Arab world. He bought a vast, three-story villa with a swimming pool overlooking the city, cars, a private orchard and a beachfront restaurant where he performed at parties.
Then last year, in a move that has baffled fans and friends alike, he renounced popular music as forbidden by Islam, grew a scruffy beard and took up with a hard-line sheik.
Last month during a deadly turf battle with the Lebanese Army in a Sidon suburb, he denounced his enemies as dogs and pigs and boasted that his group had killed two men. …
… Just when it began becoming apparent that the US and its allies were facing serious regional setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa, reports began circulating about an explosion in Latakia. Unverified reports, originating from anonymous sources in Israel in early July 2013, began claiming that Tel Aviv had launched an attack against the Syrian port of Latakia that caused a massive explosion. As the rumours began to circulate in the media, it was dubiously claimed that the Israeli attacks were launched against shipments of Russian-made S-300 air defence systems that were in the process of being delivered to Syria by the Kremlin. US officials would enter the picture by deliberately leaking more information about what happened in Latakia by claiming that Israel used its air force to bomb the port there to destroy a military depot filled with Russian-made Yakhont land-to-sea anti-ship missiles.
Then, on July 15, RT’s Paula Slier would report from Tel Aviv that Israel had attacked Latakia by using a Turkish military base. This would upset the Turkish government, which would deny it and say anyone making the claims was involved in an “act of betrayal.” In response to the Russian report, Turkish officials would up the ante by claiming that the Russian anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon and that the US and Israel had coordinated the attacks by holding meetings in Turkey with the anti-government militias operating inside Syria. Uzi Mahnaimi would complicate the matter by reporting through the British press that the Israeli attacks were launched from a German-built Dolphin from the sea, which essentially vindicated Turkey by refuting the claim that a Turkish base was used by the Israelis. …
No less conspiratorial than the RT article, a piece questioning all of RT’s reliability – thanks to a concerned reader for emailing it in: Russia Today: State-Funded Propaganda Masquerading as Alternative Media
Russia Today (RT), considered a member of the alternative media, receives its funding from the Federal Budget of Russia as allocated by the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. This means that RT is state-sponsored television and therefore would be slighted to the propaganda machine of globalist agendas as set forth by the Russian government. …
Assad visits troops in Damascus suburb – al-Arabiya
Even as the Syrian government makes some gains against the rebels on the battlefield, it is taking a rout on an equally important front: the economy.
Two years of war have quintupled unemployment, reduced the Syrian currency to one-sixth of its prewar value, cost the public sector $15 billion in losses and damage to public buildings, slashed personal savings, and shrunk the economy 35 percent, according to government and United Nations officials.
The pillars of Syria’s economy have crumbled as the war has destroyed factories, disrupted agriculture, vaporized tourism and slashed oil revenues, with America and Europe imposing sanctions and rebels taking over oil fields.
Increasingly isolated in the face of a growing economic crisis that has reduced foreign currency reserves to about $2 billion to $5 billion from $18 billion, a government that long prided itself on its low national debt and relative self-sufficiency has now been forced to rely on new credit lines from its main remaining allies — Iran, Russia and China — to buy food and fuel.
The government has a $1 billion credit line with Iran, and borrows $500 million a month to import oil products delivered on Russian ships, a government consultant, Mudar Barakat, said in a recent interview in Beirut. Some analysts believe the government will need even more aid from those countries to keep paying government workers and a growing roster of security forces.
Now, some officials hope to push through measures to tighten state control of the economy, rolling back some of the modest economic liberalization and support for private business that President Bashar al-Assad introduced early on, in a departure from his party’s socialist roots.
“We’re thinking of going back to the way it was in the 1980s, when the government was buying the main necessities of daily life,” Mr. Barakat said. “We, as a government, must cover the daily needs of the people, no matter how much the cost is, and keep the prices low.”
Syrians are still bitterly divided politically and battles are raging between government forces and rebels across the country. But one thing appears to be uniting people these days: the dollar-Syrian pound exchange rate.
Almost everyone is obsessed with keeping track of the wild swings in the Syrian pound’s value against the U.S. dollar. The frenzy has swept up salaried workers, housewives, day laborers and cab drivers. Their general inclination is to convert most of what they have into greenbacks as inflation continues to affect most goods and services. …
One Damascus-based university professor says dollar fever has even gripped his handyman, who recently demanded payment in dollars instead of Syrian pounds for his work. …
On Tuesday the government approved new proposed legislation that would criminalize the use of any foreign currency other than the Syrian pound in commercial and retail transactions. …
Some say the Syrian pound’s recent dramatic devaluation was part of a scheme by the government of President Bashar al-Assad aimed at exchanging its foreign currency funds at favorable rates in order to meet the huge commitments it has in Syrian pounds namely civil servant salaries. …
Here is a photo from a Facebook page of people crowding one of many locations where currency is exchanged:
The United States has been paying thousands of Syrian police officers who deserted the regime of President Bashar Assad.
Officials said the administration of President Barack Obama has approved tens of millions of dollars to pay the salaries of police officers who joined the rebels. They said the officers were working to maintain order in rebel-controlled territory, mostly in northern Syria.
“There are literally thousands of defected police inside of Syria,” Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton said. “They are credible in their communities because they’ve defected.”
In an address to the Aspen Security Forum on July 19, Barton, responsible for State Department stabilization operations, did not say how many Syrian police deserters were on the U.S. payroll. He said the officers were receiving about $150 per month, a significant salary in Syria.
The address marked a rare disclosure of direct U.S. aid to Sunni rebels in Syria. Congress has approved more than $50 million for the Syrian opposition, much of which has not been spent.
Barton said the police officers remained in their communities despite their defection from the Assad regime. He said the U.S. stipend was meant to ensure that they stay on the job.
“We’d rather have a trained policeman who is trusted by the community than have to bring in a new crowd or bring in an international group that doesn’t know the place,” Barton said.
Other Essential Content, Right…
Everyone agrees that secularists are the real force behind the ‘Arab Spring’, yet we know so little about this obscure of group of people that toils in virtual anonymity. Aside from the occasional foray onto the BBC, CNN, The Guardian and international leadership conferences, that is. But who are these people really? To answer that question, we commissioned an authoritative study that will for the first time shed light on Arab secularists, their different political groups, and what their favourite drinks are.
The liberals are the granddaddies of all Arab secularists. They see themselves as the vanguard in the fight against Islamists, and they often say things like: “this is not my true Islam”, despite not having set foot in a mosque for 17 years. They mostly work for the UN, the World Bank, and western think tanks, but this doesn’t fool Arab leftists who know that this is the perfect cover for the western imperialist conspiracy.
Like their western counterparts, Arab liberals are very flexible about their principles these days. After all, dogma isn’t useful to anyone. They show this open-mindedness by making statements like: “is voting really necessary for democracy?” and “should illiterate people have the right to vote?” But somehow this intellectual courage is often mistaken as an expression of Fascist tendencies.
Arab liberals like to describe themselves as ‘entrepreneurs’, both in the intellectual and business sense. They’re really cool like that. But for some reason they don’t like to advertise the fact that they’re working for the family company which has a monopoly on BMW spare parts in the entire Levant.
Major locations: Liberals describe themselves as ‘based between Vienna and Cairo’, by which they mean they go to Egypt for five days a year to visit Auntie Samiha in Zamalek.
Favourite drinks: Whiskey. Or Pepsi if they’re really devout.
The libertarians are liberals who also like porn. The good porn with pictures and stuff, not the complicated type in serious novels that liberals and leftists like.
It used to be said that “when it rains in Moscow, Arab communists open their umbrellas.” But since the demise of the Soviet Union, Arab communists have been wandering around aimlessly, mostly trying to organise the third annual party conference that will bring new blood in. The second conference was organised 47 years ago.
While waiting for the objective conditions to ripen, Arab communists spend their time calling each other ‘comrade’ and talk about workers’ rights in the abstract. Someone promised to introduce them to some workers and they’re very excited about that.
Major locations: London, Paris, and one street in Beirut.
Favourite drink: cheap vodka.
The Revolutionary Socialists
The revolutionary socialists are to communists what Luke Skywalker is to Darth Vader. Or that’s what they like to believe. Revolutionary socialists are so right-on it’s painful. But they get away with it because they rarely venture outside social media, where they can manage their splinter groups and disagreements in a safe, digital environment.
Revolutionary socialists use swearwords like ‘Stalinist’, ‘Fascist’ and the utterly damning ‘neo-liberal’. That is primarily because most Arabic swearwords carry explicit gender bias and are inherently discriminatory.
Major locations: New York, Barcelona, middle-class neighbourhoods in Cairo, Beirut and Amman.
Favourite drinks: Arak, organic ale.
Anarchists are revolutionary socialists who still live with their parents and can afford to be more radical.
Major locations: The global collective struggle.
Favourite drinks: They’re not old enough to drink.
The Nasserites are the true spirit of democracy in the Arab world. To this day they hold the record for the most democratically correct elections in history, the 1965 elections in Egypt, in which 99.9999% of the population figured the correct answer. This feat of true democratic alignment between people and leadership is yet to be matched anywhere in the world.
The Nasserites believe in Arab unity, dignity and the fight against imperialism. All they ask of the people, whose interests they have at heart, is not to make a fuss about minor details like torture, suspension of the rule of law and economic collapse while they are pursuing those lofty objectives.
The Nasserites like their leaders tough, manly and charismatic, and preferably from a military background. It doesn’t literally say with a hairy chest, but you can read between the lines. But their malicious opponents have somehow misinterpreted this is as a sign of misogyny and an attempt to marginalise women from positions of power.
Major locations: The Glorious Arab Ummah. (Not to be confused with the Islamic Ummah, which is usually in jail when Nasserites are in power.)
Favourite drinks: The humble yoghurt peasants drink. And champagne.
Wankers. No, seriously, that’s the scientific definition.
Due to a tragic shortage of crosses, this rebel brigade has expressed a dire plea that more crosses be supplied to the opposition as soon as possible; Qatar and Saudi Arabia have yet to state a firm commitment regarding the needed aid.