Posted by Matthew Barber on Wednesday, April 17th, 2013
The State of the Regime
Some believe that the clearer identification of Jabhat al-Nusra as al-Qaida will benefit the Syrian regime by drawing sentiment away from the rebels. Others, however, see the possible stepping-up of an effort to back nationalist rebels who offer an alternative to Islamists as a death knell for the regime, as it would be opposed by both battle-hardened mujahideen and Western-trained forces. Regardless of the ultimate outcome, observers believe the regime has had a good week:
Assad’s Forces Break Rebel Blockade in North Syria – Reuters – by Erika Solomon
Syrian government troops have broken through a six-month rebel blockade in northern Syria and are now fighting to recapture a vital highway, opposition and state media said on Monday. Rebels had kept the army bottled up in the Wadi al-Deif and Hamidiya military bases in Idlib province. But on Sunday, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces outflanked the rebels and broke through, the pro-government al-Baath newspaper said. The insurgents counter-attacked on Monday but their front has been weakened in recent weeks due to infighting and the deployment of forces to other battles, activists said. The break-out from the bases, located outside Maarat al-Nuaman town, may enable the army to recapture the main route into Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, and bolster their fragile supply lines in the heart of the rebel-held north.
… Activists in Maarat al-Nuaman, which has faced daily air strikes due to the blockade, accused rebels of causing their own defeat by depleting their forces in the area. Islamist units that moved in over the weekend accused forces on the ground, lead by the Martyrs of Syria brigade, of failing to secure the base and sending away too many fighters. The Martyrs of Syria brigade said they were pushing their campaign and the Islamist groups had hurt their blockade by interfering.
According to Abdelrahamn, many of the main fighting units previously based in the area had moved to Raqqa, Ras al-Ain, and Hassakah, towns in the northeast which rebels recently seized.
… the “tactical gains could increase the regime’s chances of retaking the north-south highway”…
Talks of tipping points, battles for Damascus and a regime on its last legs have all proved to be false dawns over the past number of months. So just how badly off is President Bashar al-Assad’s government?
On the battlefield, the regime has proved stubbornly resistant. In the north, government forces on Sunday broke out of their Wadi al-Deif and Hamidiya military bases and outflanked rebels that had been besieging them for months, according to both activists and pro-government media. Districts of central Homs have been retaken by the government in recent weeks and rebels have been successfully fought off in Quneitra, along the Syrian-Israeli demilitarized zone.
Aleppo International Airport, a strategic asset for the regime in the north, was thought to have been close to falling into rebel hands in February. It hasn’t happened. Baba Amr, a symbol of resistance in Homs, was retaken by government forces last month.
… Furthermore, Syria’s Western-backed political opposition has clearly been caught out in its own backing of Jabhat al-Nusra – an Islamist fighting force now openly aligned with Al-Qaeda.
To state the obvious, Western capitals cannot support elements of the Syrian opposition that may have Al-Qaeda ties. France, Britain and others pushing for the arming of rebels certainly won’t be able to sell this to their respective populations with al-Qaeda in the mix. The ties between Syria’s opposition and its international sponsors may well be torn over the status of Jabhat al-Nusra, today the most successful fighting force taking on Mr. Assad.
Mr. Assad has mostly delivered on the promises and threats he has made over the duration of the uprising. Early on he spoke of “ten Afghanistans” in Syria should outside forces intervene, or fundamentalist takfiris and Islamic extremists dominating the opposition. Though clearly propaganda at the time, today it is difficult to dismiss his argument, a perspective that resonates with the millions of Syrians exhausted by two years of conflict and instability.
… The declaration of an al-Qaeda presence in Syria in the form of Nusra complicates the conflict even further: the Assad regime will say it has been proven right, as will Russia, China and Hezbollah. For Western observers, the presence of such a foe means that no one can entertain the notion of giving weapons to forces that may sympathize with an al-Qaeda ideology.
In addition, it divides Syria’s political opposition even more. And al-Qaeda on the battlefield creates a quandary for other rebel groups: Do they bed down with these well-organized crazies or continue the lonely fight?
Amidst the discussion of military advances for the regime, Robert Fisk discusses another important development also related to the military, namely that the former power of mukhabaraat entities is being replaced by the more visible power of the military. Previously I discussed how “the Ba’athist cult of unreality” prevents an open discussion (even of something as important as territorial losses in the conflict) from taking place in the Syrian parliament. Fisk’s article, “President Assad’s army is starting to call the shots in Syria,” underscores this ever-paradoxical dilemma before discussing the changing power dynamics he observes:
Old Mohamed Said al-Sauda from Deraa, in his tawny gown and kuffiah headscarf, sat at the end of a conclave of tribal elders, all newly arrived in Damascus for an audience with no less than the President himself. They sat – only one woman in a blue dress among them – round a long table in the Damas Rose Hotel drinking water and coffee, rehearsing their anxieties. How should they talk to the young armed men who came into their villages? How should they persuade the rebels not to damage their land and take over their villages? “We try to talk to the saboteurs and to get them to go back to rebuilding the country,” al-Sauda told me. “We try to persuade them to put aside their arms, to stop the violence. We used to have such a safe country to live in.”
These men, middle-aged for the most part with tough, lined, dark faces, are the first line of defence of the Assad regime, the landowners and propertied classes of the peasants who benefited most from the original Baathist revolution and whose prosperity has been threatened by the mass uprising against the regime. They come from Tartus, Deraa, the Damascus countryside, from Hama and Latakia, and they speak the language of the Assad government – up to a point. “Syria is a mosaic unlike any other in the world,” says Salman Hamdan. “The sectarian divide does not exist in our country. Muslims, Christians, they are the same…”
But the woman in blue hands me a printed sheet of paper with a list of demands. “We come from all walks of political life,” it begins. “We reject violence and we reject repression, sectarian massacres and the destruction of the cultural heritage of Syria.” And there it was. That word. Repression. For these men and this lonely woman know what helped to set fire to Syria. “Every government makes mistakes,” one of the men says – but we know what he means. He is talking about the mukhabarat intelligence service which lit the fire two years ago by its brutality towards the children of Deraa. The system of torture and fear that the secret police services of the regime imposed for decades upon Syria – the “repression” mentioned so obliquely in the lady’s demands – still lies like a blanket over those areas of the country that the government still controls.
How does a Syrian loyal to the regime tell its leader that his own security agencies helped to bring down this catastrophe upon their country? For these agencies have contaminated not just the Baath and the President but even the government army – the Syrian Arab Army – which is now trying to shrug off the awful carapace of legimitised violence that the plain-clothes men, in their tens of thousands, have used as a tool for more than 30 years. Even in the cities that the government still controls they have still not learned their lesson.
The country’s brutal secret services are no longer the power they once were. Other forces are at work
… There are also some intriguing signs that the government army, so keen to appear as the foundation stone of the state – which it is – without the dark stain of fear left by the mukhabarat, is taking its own steps to push back the “terror” men. The military security forces, now that they have – for the first time – to deal directly with their own civilians, are giving orders over the heads of the intelligence agencies. In 2010, Assad himself took a decision to ban security agents from carrying weapons covertly – a highly contentious rule for the secret police – and the army has now followed on from this.
The army, for example, is today in command of security in battle. In the past, military intelligence men would give instructions to the army. But the Syrian army is now in charge. Field commanders – not cops – make decisions. There have been many cases, according to those involved with the military, where plain-clothes security agents witnessed brutalising civilians have been arrested and – incredibly – put before military courts. The generals and the colonels, in other words, are no longer prepared to play patsy to the regime’s thugs.
But romantics beware. The army is a ruthless machine and its commander-in-chief remains Bashar al-Assad. Its loyalty is still without question. The UN maintains voluminous files of war crimes that they say were committed by regular soldiers in the Syrian army. And the idea that the presidency itself may abandon its own security agents is a myth. A militarised state will always need a bodyguard of secret policemen. Nor will Assad’s enemies ever accept an army takeover – with or without an Assad leadership – as a compromise for a truce. For them – correctly – the army remains more dangerous than Assad himself. The mukhabarat may come and go, but the army remains.
… It is an irony of Syrian history that hitherto most threats to the regime have come from within the cities. The Muslim Brotherhood, still officially illegal in Syria, was an urban institution and it was the Brotherhood that threatened Damascus and the central cities of Homs and Hama in the 1980s. The great uprising of 1982 emanated from the centre of Hama, from the city’s mosques and underground tunnels; and thus the cruellest of the nation’s security forces, the Special Forces of Rifaat al-Assad – led by the president’s now-disgraced uncle – was sent in to liquidate the Brotherhood and up to 20,000 of Hama’s residents. But now the uprising comes from the countryside
That a regime originally founded on peasant reform should discover that its enemies now live among that same peasantry is a terrible stroke of history for Baathism. That a nation with a non-sectarian constitution – needless to say, we all know what is wrong with it – should find itself consumed by the very sectarian conflict that it was designed to prevent is a tragedy. No wonder the new 60-man special units of the government army being trained for operations across Syria are a careful mixture of all sects – Sunnis, Christians, Alawis, Druze and others – and are openly referred to as the most “colourful” of all military battalions. …
For the message – if there is one in the coming weeks and months – is that the most important institution to watch in Syria is not the regime. Nor is it Bashar al-Assad. Nor is it the secret police. Nor is it the Free Syrian Army, nor al-Nusrah. Nor the platitudes of the White House or Downing Street. It is the government Syrian Arab Army. Watch, as they say, this space.
Interesting article by Martin Kramer about Iranian influence and symbolism in Raqqa: The Shiite Crescent Eclipsed
… The upper inscription identifies this site as the shrine of two figures from seventh-century Islamic history, Ammar ibn Yasir and Uways al-Qarani. The façade is striking, but just what is the connection of this shrine in Raqqa to Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khameneh’i, and why is their portrait being defaced at its entrance?
As we shall see, the answer to that question establishes the short video clip as one of the most significant images to emerge from Syria’s civil war. It proclaims that the so-called “Shiite crescent” is now eclipsed.
… Raqqa is surrounded by semi-settled tribes, some branches of which believe they are descended from Husayn, the son of Ali and grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who is the central figure of Shiite martyrology. They sometimes belong to Sufi orders that venerate Ali and Husayn. Unlike the city dwellers, who regarded the shrine project with surly resentment, they welcomed it as a kind of beautification project. They are Sunnis, not Shiites, but they seemed like promising targets for Iranian proselytization. Visiting Iraqi or Iranian preachers would bring them together at the shrine for sessions commemorating their supposed forebears (majalis husayniyya).
… After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iranian planners conceived an ambitious plan for a kind of pilgrimage trail, consisting of a chain of shrines from Karbala to Damascus. Following the battle of Karbala in 687, the Umayyad caliph Yazid ordered that the head of the defeated Husayn be brought to him in Damascus. The idea was to create a route of pilgrimage following the stations of the head’s journey, anchored at the midway point by the already existing shrine to Husayn in Aleppo. To this end, Iran began to invest in the renovation and expansion of other sites in Syria.
Still, a scholar who has studied the entire range of Iranian shrine projects in Syria has written that, more than any other such effort, the Raqqa shrine “best represents the extent of Shiite triumphalism and state support in Syria.”
What will become of the shrine itself is uncertain. A false Iranian report claimed it had been destroyed by Sunni extremists, but that didn’t happen and it is unlikely to happen, since veneration of the tombs was a local tradition even before the Iranians arrived. The site is likely to be purged of its explicitly Iranian and Shiite references, but it is impossible to know which symbols will replace them.
It could be any one of the flags now sold in Raqqa, as shown in this photo. From right to left are the flags of the Free Syrian Army (minimally present in Raqqa), Ahrar al-Sham (dominant), and the black-and-white variations of the jihadist flag flown by Jabhat al-Nusra (also a major force). The struggle that will elevate one of these symbols over the others has only just begun.
Belgium has asked Turkey to help in its efforts to prevent Belgian nationals from illegally crossing into Syria to fight alongside opposition forces trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Belgian police raided four dozen homes on Tuesday looking for potential extremists who lure youngsters into traveling to Syria to join rebels trying to overthrow the government there.
Officials say dozens of Belgian teenagers already have left for the Syrian front, willing to fight but ill-prepared to survive the Arab country’s brutal civil war. Belgian leaders worry that the young fighters could return from Syria radicalized and willing to stage terrorist attacks at home.
… The mayor of Mechelen, whose city saw some homes raided, said the police action was linked to the disbanded Islamic group Sharia4Belgium.
Authorities are trying to determine if the group is a terrorist outfit, and prosecutors allege that Sharia4Belgium members who had traveled to Syria linked up with “al-Qaida-inspired combatants.” Videos showed its former leader Fouad Belkacem being taken from his home in the pre-dawn sweep.
The UN is amassing war crimes indictments against all kinds of armed groups in Syria – the government army very much among them – but the fact remains that this conversation would have been impossible – unthinkable – before the uprising. The war has given a freedom of speech even to soldiers to debate among themselves, as they do, about the war.
World-renowned Turkish pianist Fazıl Say was handed a suspended 10-month prison sentence today for “insulting religious beliefs held by a section of the society,” bringing to a close a controversial case while sparking fiery reaction in Turkey and abroad.
After last week’s sectarian problems in Egypt, Islamopedia provides a number of useful stories:
Hundreds of people marched in the Egyptian capital on Tuesday to condemn sectarianism and call for unity between Muslims and Christians.
The Coptic Orthodox Church has identified five demands for President Mohamed Morsy to resolve the sectarian crises that have erupted in various parts of the country.
“We demand the president to apply the law to everyone, ensure safety and security in the entire country, activate fully the principle of citizenship, amend religious discourse, and teach Coptic history in schools,” Father Makary Habib, the personal secretary to Pope Tawadros II, told the Turkish Anadolu News on Wednesday.
A senior Coptic bishop has praised Muslims in Al-Khosous who attempted to protect Christians during a recent bout of sectarian violence that left five people dead.
“The loving Muslims who protected Christians and the church during the deadly clashes in Al-Khosous highlighted the mistakes of the fanatics and showed the true meaning of religion and love,” Bishop Moussa, who is in charge of youth affairs at the Coptic Orthodox Church, said in a statement on Wednesday.
“Because of my position against ‘Brotherhoodizing’ Al-Azhar and the state, and my defense of Al-Azhar and its [grand] sheikh, the minister of endowments issued a decision to suspend me before any interrogations were carried out. He assigned in my place one of the pro-Muslim Brotherhood group imams, without prior warning or interrogation, in violation of the law,” Shaheen said.