Round Up: Qusayr, Hezbollah, Regional Sectarianism, Ehsani on Economics, Foreign Jihadis Behead & Kill for Blasphemy, US Intervention Proposal
Posted by Matthew Barber on Thursday, June 13th, 2013
From Our Readers
Yamin sent the following in an email:
The Syrian Government ignores 70 percent of the Opposition fighters being Free Syrian Army and label all of them as al-Qaeda or Jabhat al-Nusra. To them any fighters, regardless of their just causes, are Moslem fanatics. Hilarious.
The Opposition ignores 95 percent of the forces opposing them and blames many attacks on Hizbollah. To them any Shiite fighter in Syria is Hizbollah, ignoring the fact that almost a half a million Syrian Shiites are up in arms too. No one had ever said that the Shiite fighters in Nebol and al-Zahra northwest of Aleppo were “Hizbollah forces” until last week. Suddenly, Hizbollah is attacking in Aleppo. Hilarious.
The hate between the two sides is larger by far than the hate between the French and the Ottomans on the Jaffa beaches in 1799.
A millennium of Sunni ascendancy in the Middle East has been haltered or eroded by three main events:
- the rise of Russia (ceased the Moslem jihad or fatah north and west)
- the unification of Persia (gave the Shiite Arabs their first solid base)
- the foundation of Israel (halted Egyptian armies incursions into Syria)
Apple_Mini wrote in a comment:
Nowadays, you will find only Sunni taxi drivers in town (Damascus). It is a simple reality: Sunni drivers can go anywhere if they need to: rebels held areas (diminishing) and government controlled areas. On the other hand, all Alawite cab drivers have quit since it would be life-risking mission to go to rebel held areas or areas still threatened by rebels.
If you walk around areas with high foot traffic in Damascus, you will see many displaced people from countryside. Most of them are mothers with children, sometimes even toddlers or infants. You cannot find the fathers. And you probably already know why, those are military-age men from countryside.
When you see young mothers holding infants and begging for money, it strikes you with the thought that the mother might have already been a widow. How will they survive while raising those children regardless of the outcome of this conflict? How could they raise their children while providing opportunities for them to advance to higher social ladder?
Elliot emailed in the following question, for which our contributor Ehsani has provided a response:
Question: One reads how life in Assad controlled Syria has remained somewhat “normal”…students going to University, cafe life, traffic jams, etc. After more than two years of war, sanctions, loss of tourist revenues, oil revenues, some 60% of the country lost, it seems that Damascus would be really hurting financially. I’ve read that Iran is picking up the tab. Is it possible that Iran can do so indefinitely? It must be enormously expensive to fight a war and maintain at least some of the trappings of a peacetime society. Any thoughts on the financing of this situation?
When it comes to anything to do with the finances of the Syrian state, facts are in short supply. Not surprisingly, the leadership treats such matters as national security. Any attempts to answer such questions must therefore be done with care. Some speculation is perhaps inevitable.
Syria has a large public sector. This means that it must pay salaries to over 1 million employees. Some speculate that the number is closer to 2 million. Such salaries are still largely being paid. The fall of the value of the Syrian Pound has made this financial obligation significantly easier to meet.
Prior to the start of the crisis, one US dollar (USD) used to buy 46 Syrian Pounds (SYP). The same USD now buys 168 SYP. Let us assume that the average salary of a state employee is SYP 12,000. Before the crisis, the USD cost to the government was $261 a month. The same salary now sets the government back USD $71. This means that the treasury now saves 73% on its wage bill.
The other major expense to the government is of course subsidies. The crisis has meant that large parts of the country no longer depend on the state largess when it comes to heavily subsidized fuel, gas or even electricity. This has resulted in significant savings for the state. For the record, the subsidies used to cost the state near USD 8 billion a year. Close to 63% of that went to energy-related items.
The other thing to note is that official imports into the country have come down significantly. This meant less demand for foreign currency. Prior to the crisis, the central bank used to supply such foreign currencies to the banking system to finance commercial imports.
While expenses have declined, so have revenues, of course. The largest hit came from the sanctions on the energy sector. This has starved the state of foreign currency revenues. It is important to note that income taxes do not constitute a large revenue item. Instead, indirect taxes are more widespread. These are easier to collect in this environment than income taxes. It is the case, however, that one is hard pressed to see significant sources of revenues for the state. The natural assumption is that Iran must be helping, but one can only speculate here. Perhaps companies like Syriatel and other privately owned companies are also doing their part in assisting the state to meet some of its obligations. Some have speculated that the government may have printed Syrian banknotes to ease the strain. While this is possible, I have yet to see credible evidence of such.
Elliot also emailed in another question:
Egypt, the largest and arguably most influential Arab Sunni power seems to have no interest in any sort of role in the conflict. Indeed, I have read that there have been visits of high level Iranians to the country. I noted that Egypt was hoping to increase Iranian tourism. I know Egypt is having its own severe internal problems but one would think that a Moslem Brother would be more sympathetic to the the Sunni cause. What gives?
What do you think?
Observer wrote in a long and thoughtful comment:
In the early 1920 period the people of greater Syria chose the US as the mandate power because:
1. Woodrow Wilson spoke of the right of people for self determination and
2. The US was not an empire or a colonial power.
France and Britain got away with it and stayed sowing the seeds of instability as the book by Fromkin “A Peace to end all Peace” clearly shows.
In Syria, the elites formed by France were of two kinds: the urban elite educated in the French schooling system and the military that allowed less fortunate and rural young men to improve their lot.
The first coup d’etat by Housni Zaim was clearly aimed to allow the establishment of the pipeline of oil from KSA to the coast so that the Marshall plan can be fueled.
At that time Lebanon benefited from the gift of an international airport in Beirut, the transformation of the Syrian Protestant College to the AUB and the creation of the AUB medical center with the aim of having a base for the sixth fleet in case of a war with the Soviets.
The cold war brought the US into an empire and into using might makes right in helping any dictator decimate the communist party.
The urban elite concentrated all the efforts in urban centers and neglected the rural areas and continued a renter’s economy owning the land and never really allowing equal opportunities.
All of this got a significant boost when all and I repeat all of the Baath projects were laid down by non other than Khaled Azem the so called ” red prime minister in the early sixties. He for example wanted to organize the owners of the buses in Damascus into a holding company so that their resources can be combined and the city benefit from a true transportation system that is private with government oversight and help.
He for example went on to lay the ground work for the electrical grid for the port of Tartus for the Euphrates dam and others.
The Baath although bringing a dictatorship brought with it in my opinion an Arab nationalism that was subverted by authoritarian regime to its ends. Nevertheless and despite the fact that it had many a stupid economic decisions it went on to create a middle class that would allow for an employee to own his house within 15 years of work and savings and to insure that his children went to school and got a shot at university.
However, like all authoritarian regimes it was filled with inefficiencies and corruption and worst of all brutality. It had the seeds of its own destruction.
When the current regime fell under the control of the father, all bets were off as he transformed the Baath party to his engine of total control and went about dismantling the structures of any civil society and with a vengeance. Not only it was corrupt and brutal to the core, it was corrupting and diabolical in inducing a culture of impunity, of slave owner mentality and of a hatred for his enemies and his prejudiced populations to the very apparatus of governance,
Hence, and with the brood and the family mafia gone wild and with their complete incompetence and stupidity, they have left the country deeply scared and fractured and with sectarian final divisions.
So I would say that when the people of the ME revolted rightly against Ottoman tyranny and bought the idea of Arab Nationalism they actually killed the very idea and dream of their ideals the moment they agreed to remain divided in these artificial states and in these petty family and clan affairs.
… As Arab Nationalism got its mortal wound in 67 and its death in 91 with defeats and invasions, there remained a culture that has never been defeated for it is engrained to the core into the very genes of the people: their Islamic heritage. Case in point the Eternal Message of the Arab Nation of the Baath party slogan as formulated by none other than the Christian Michel Aflaq is based on Islam as the eternal message. It is perversion of the message for Islam is not for Arabs and not for Arabs to have as their own it is a universal religion with a universal message. Forget my lack of belief and my views on religion itself. I am honest enough to recognize that it is the glue that is keeping the society from descending into complete anarchy and this is despite the second perversion of the faith with fundamentalist fanatics that are using it for hatred and sectarianism.
… The very idea of what kind of Syria is going to come out of this mess is not clear at all to me.
Already on this blog you have those of the Christian faith who forget about Syrian nationality and revert to their religious identity with their insistence that whatever new regime comes preserves their rights and values and culture. All good and worthy except that they do not want it to come from the majority Sunni population. They want to remain Christian first while the Sunnis should be Syrian first. The majority should not crush any minority; to the contrary it should preserve the right of the minority but not favor one group over another. Under the law there is no difference, for culture and equal opportunity; the opinion of the majority should not deprive anyone of their diversity.
Read our Alawi colleagues who have an inconceivable view of a Syria where the majority Sunnis can organize as a religious political party. They want no political Islam at all. Being a member of the MB is a death sentence. How can they fit into a new secular Syria if they want to keep their Alawi fear of the Sunni majority.
How is it that we find it acceptable that Maliki declares he is a Shia first and a Muslim second and an Iraqi third in a country that has Kurds and Christians and Sunnis and Jews in its midst?
So it is clear the rallying ideas of Arab nationalism are dead and buried. The rallying ideas of political Islam today would exclude many non Muslims and many moderate Muslims and many non religious people.
Syrian nationalism has not seen the day of light.
So we are going to go on fighting for one side to prevail over the other. The minority regime in Syria cannot hope to continue to rule over the majority and they are betting on all or nothing strategy. I do not know how they think that they will continue to rule if they prevail: how are you going to rebuild, on what basis, on what justice system, on what elections system; on what constitution. If they think that they can continue to rule like before they are either incredibly stupid or incredibly brutal or both.
If the Sunnis are going to prevail what will they do with Christians? Exclude them, what will they do to Alawis? Declare them apostates? Kill them all?
So I would say that if we cannot live together let us separate peacefully. If we do it by force, many will die and all remaining entities will not be viable. If we do it as a federation then perhaps we can survive.
So in summary I see a completely bankrupt ideological desert today in the ME. All of the intellectuals have been killed and exiled and I will give you two examples: one Baker Sadr in Iraq a real thinker of Islam is dead under Saddam and in Syria people like Haitham Maleh who always brought the rule of law as his protest was imprisoned and exiled.
So what we have are nothing more than criminals committing crimes against humanity on a large scale and on numerous small scale having created a complete desert of ideas. Like the Ghouta that shrank from 130 000 acres to 28 000 acres and the huge desertification of Syria and the huge destruction of the educational and justice system you have now complete destruction of the country by force of arms.
So I have seen how Syrian society was destroyed under the rule of the Assads: corrupt justice, brutal security services, sectarian hatred, incredible divisions of groups, economic extraction of people’s wealth, educational disaster, and defeats against outside enemies from 67 to 73 to 82 to 91 to 03 to 05 to 2011. …
Now this tells you that I am optimistic to the hilt about the revolution. For the people to revolt against such a combination of terrible regime is a miracle. … Deep inside there is no doubt in my mind that this is the bravest and most intelligent and most resourceful people on the planet that can continue to make a living in such brutal destructive conditions. …
Qusayr, Hezbollah, and Regional Sectarianism
Syrian war widens Sunni-Shia schism as foreign jihadis join fight for shrines – Guardian – Syrian rebels say they respect all holy sites but damage to Sayyida Zeinab shrine has spurred 10,000 Shias to volunteer
Not long after a friend called from Damascus to tell him one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam had been damaged by Syrian rebels, Baghdad student Ammar Sadiq was on the move.
Raging with a desire for vengeance, the 21-year-old set off for the border, a six-hour drive through Iraq’s western deserts. He was one more jihadist on a road to war, a well-trodden path through lands that not long ago were used by jihadists coming the other way. When he got to Syria, however, he did not plan to join the Sunni insurgents now blazing through the north, but the equally vehement Shia groups defending the capital.
“It was like a thunderbolt hit me,” said Sadiq. “My friend was telling me that wahhabis from Saudi and Afghanis were trying to destroy the [Shia] shrine of Sayyida Zeinab. I did not wait even to tell my parents. All I was thinking of is to go to Syria and protect the shrine, though I have not used a weapon in my life.”
Sadiq was trying to join a group named Abu Fadl al-Abbas, which over the past 14 months has emerged as one of the most powerful in Syria.
Interviews with serving and former members of Abu Fadl al-Abbas suggest that upwards of 10,000 volunteers – all of them Shia Muslims, and many from outside Syria – have joined their ranks in the past year alone. The group’s raison d’etre is to be custodian of Shia holy sites, especially Sayyida Zeinab, a golden-domed Damascus landmark, but its role has taken it to most corners of Syria’s war. It is now a direct battlefield rival, both in numbers and power, for Jabhat al-Nusra, the jihadist group that takes a prominent role among opposition fighting groups.
Word of Abu Fadl al-Abbas has spread to Baghdad and elsewhere in the Shia diaspora. Many of its volunteers hail from Iraq’s Shia heartland, where the group started some time last year with a fatwa delivered in Najaf by the renowned cleric Abu al-Qasim al-Ta’ai, who gave religious authority to the Shia going to fight in Syria.
The effect led to a surge of young Iraqis wanting to wage jihad and a groundswell of community support for a sectarian war in a neighbouring state, less than five years after similar bloodletting had ravaged Iraq.
Recruitment centres soon opened; militia leaders who had guided the rampage against the Sunni rebellion from 2004, first against the occupying American army, then against the ancient theocratic foe, were again mobilised. Cadres were called to arms, just as they were in 2006 when al-Qaida in Iraq succeeded – twice – in destroying another holy Shia mosque, the Imam al-Askari shrine in Samarra.
For Sadiq, however, joining Abu Fadl al-Abbas did not prove easy. First, Iraqi border guards advised him not to cross into Syria. They eventually let him pass after believing his story of trying to reach his family. He made it as far as Deir al-Zour, a city largely in control of rebels and the al-Qaida-aligned Jabhat al-Nusra, a group that no young Iraqi Shia wants to encounter without support.
Sadiq found the leaders in Damascus of Abu Fadl al-Abbas and soon learned that recruitment carried with it strict duties and obligations that he had not expected.
“The moment you join the brigade, you have to join the Syrian government army,” he said. “You have to fight with President Bashar al-Assad before you fight for [the brigade]. The Syrian army will tell you that you have to know that you are protecting Syria, not only the shrine.”
His quest wavering in the face of a very different role to the guard duty he had anticipated and relentless pressure from relatives back home, Sadiq gave up on his quest for jihad and returned to Baghdad.
Abu Fadl Al-Abbas has been more prominent in recent months than at any time since it started operating around in about March last year. Its increased role on the battlefields has come at the same time as Hezbollah has publicly stepped up its involvement, particularly in leading the attack on the border town of Qusair. Over the same period a weary Syrian army has had a boost in both morale and energy. A war that was starting to look unwinnable now looks to have an end point after all.
“There is no major fight anywhere, except the far north and east where Abu Fadl al-Abbas isn’t deployed,” said a Syrian businessman who has helped integrate Shias from outside Syria into the group. “Its influence is very important and growing.”
The increased organisation of the group was evident in Baghdad, according to Sadiq. “The first step is to register with one of the Shia Islamic resistance offices, like Righteous League [Asaib al-Haq], Mukhtar Army or Iraqi Hezbullah.”
Then comes a trip to a boot camp in Iran. “You have to enrol on a 45-day training course in Iran to be specialised in using a specific weapon like rocket launchers, Kalashnikov, sniper rifle or RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]. After the course, you will be handed over to an Iranian middleman who will take you to Syria to join the brigade.”
Murtadha Aqeel, 21, a college student from Baghdad, decided to join the jihadists in Syria at the end of 2011. He registered his name and was told that he had two choices, either to join the fighting near Sayyida Zeinab or in Darayya, south-east of Damascus, home to another Shia shrine, Sukayna, named after a daughter of Imam Hussain.
“If you go to Syria, you have one choice only, which is to die,” Murthada said. “You stay for two or three months and come home for two months. Then you return.” Murthada trained with a Kalashnikov on the plains of southern Iraq; gruelling 12-hour days with a thousand other would-be jihadists. He said he was sent to Mashhad in Iran, then to Beirut, and on to Damascus by aeroplane.
“Once you get to the capital, there is a training centre near the shrine where all volunteers have to do a quick session of military training. Then they meet with Abu Ajeeb ([the commander of Abu Fadl al-Abbas] who asks all the volunteers to be careful and to go home safe,” Murthada said.
“All of the volunteers come from abroad. We have everything to facilitate our fight. There are all kinds of weapons, no shortages at all. Three meals and hotels to host the fighters, mobiles and internet which are never cut.”
In spite of the presence of the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, the battle to control the area, which is an essential approach to Damascus, has descended into a grinding but lethal stalemate.
“We face repeated attacks by the FSA [Free Syrian Army] all day, especially by mortars and artillery,” Murthada said. “We were able to fortify the shrine … but the mortars are giving us a hard time. The attacks get even more intense at night. Four of my colleagues were killed by snipers; one of them was Iraqi, another was Lebanese and the other two were Iranians. More than 35 others were wounded.
“There is no need for the Syrian army in Sayyida Zeinab. The brigade’s fighters are protecting everything from the airport to the capital to Sweida [a Druze town near the Golan Heights], including residential areas, hospitals, government buildings, police stations, schools, mosques and hospitals.”
Just over the barricades that now carve a jagged path through central Damascus and surround the gold-topped shrine, Syrian opposition fighters have been monitoring the prominence of the Shia group. Almost all the rebel fighters, a mix of mainstream Syrians who want to replace Assad and jihadists whose battle has little to do with the country they are fighting in, rail against their enemy on the issue of Sayyida Zeinab, accusing the regime of using it as a pretext for inviting Shia fighters to join the conflict.
Abu Ahmed, an FSA commander operating near the Sayyida Zeinab shrine, said he and other Sunnis had no wish to damage it. Many in his ranks used to be local shopkeepers, whose livelihoods depended on the Shia tourist trade. He said the siege of the shrine began last July after a bomb killed four senior Syrian security figures in central Damascus. “The Shia went down to the streets with their arms and blocked all the roads and began to detain people,” he said. “They killed a lot of our fighters. Then they began to gather around the shrine with members of Hezbollah, the [Iraqi] Mahdi Army and Syrian Shia.
“Since last July till today, we are fighting with them every day. We suggested a buffer zone around the shrine, but they refused. We are the biggest losers if the shrine is destroyed as we will lose our businesses,” Abu Ahmed said.
A leader of Jabhat al-Nusra in Damascus, who called himself Abu Hafs, said: “These Shia fighters have been in Syria since the beginning of the revolution fighting with the regime. We know that Iran and Iraq are sending fighters to Syria – only now it has become public.”
Jabhat al-Nusra, which includes large numbers of foreign fighters in its ranks, has made little effort to hide its hatred of the Shia branch of Islam and its willingness to attack shrines that are important to its followers.
Groups that fight under the banner of the Free Syria Army, however, are much less inclined to view the Shia as a theocratic foe, regarding them instead as a powerful backer of their main enemy, the regime. “Now, they are in Qusair,” said Abu Hafs. “They kill everyone they see on their way, even children. They slaughter them by knives. We are in a continuous fight with them in Damascus and Qusair.
“We worship God and they worship graves, but we also avoid attacking religious sites. A week ago, the Syrian army was hiding behind a church – we cancelled our attack in order not to destroy the church.”
Abu Hafs’s claim to be a protector of shrines is derided by Shia fighters. One of them, Jamal al-Ali, a member of Hezbollah who had volunteered to fight with Abu Fadl al-Abbas, said: “You have to know that the aim of these rebels is to destroy the Alawite state in Syria and to start that they have to destroy all the shrines. They are issuing endless calls for jihad against Hezbollah and Abu Fadl al-Abbas.
Back in Baghdad, Sadiq is preparing for a second bid at jihad. Hoping to make his next trip more successful than the last, he is waiting for a chaperone – a Lebanese woman based in the US – to take him to Beirut and finally back to Syria.
Hezbollah’s Vietnam? – by Michael Young
The only thing odd about Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian conflict is that it took over two years for the party and its backers in Tehran to make the decision. That’s because whatever one thinks of Hezbollah, the triumph of Syria’s rebels always posed an existential threat to the party and its agenda.
… Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war is a high-risk venture. Many see this as a mistake by the party, and it may well be. Qusayr will be small change compared to Aleppo, where the rebels are well entrenched and benefit from supply lines leading to Turkey. …
Many will be watching closely to see how the current crisis in Turkey affects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to react to the Syrian situation, particularly if the epicenter of the fighting shifts to Aleppo. Erdogan has faced the displeasure among many in Turkey’s southern border areas with their government’s policy in Syria. At the same time, a defeat of the Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo is not something that Turkey can easily swallow so near to its borders, particularly if Hezbollah is instrumental in the fighting.
Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. The way in which Hassan Nasrallah framed the intervention indicates that it is open-ended. This will prompt other parties to take actions and decisions they might otherwise have avoided for as long as the Syrian conflict was primarily one between Syrians.
Hezbollah is already a magnet for individuals and groups in Syria keen to take the air out of the region’s leading Shiite political-military organization – or simply to protect their towns and villages. As Qusayr showed, the presence of Hezbollah only induces its enemies to fight twice as hard against the party. As a proxy of Iran, Hezbollah will prompt governments to do the same, and they will see an opportunity to wear down the party and trap it in a grinding, no-win situation.
Playing in the favor of Hezbollah’s enemies is that the party has little latitude to alter its strategy in Syria. It must go all the way, predisposing it to sink ever-deeper into the Syrian quagmire, or until the point where the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias can capture and control territory on their own. That is not easy in a guerrilla war in which rebels have often out-matched the army.
Hezbollah, by contrast, benefits from coordination between the Syrian regime and Russia and Iran. Hezbollah’s entry into the conflict in Syria was, clearly, one facet of a broad counter-attack agreed by the Russians and Iranians, who have slowly but effectively reinforced and reorganized Syria’s army and intelligence services in the past two years. …
Hezbollah Don’t Take No Mess – Pepe Escobar
The “Friends of Syria” are appalled. Their much vaunted “rebel held” stronghold of Qusayr is gone. This BBC headline sums it all up: “Syria conflict: US condemns siege of Qusayr.”
For White House spokesman Jay Carney, “pro-government forces”, to win, needed help from by their “partners in tyranny” – Hezbollah and Iran. Right: so the “rebels” weaponized by Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the CIA, not to mention jihadis of the Jabhat al-Nusra kind, are partners in what, “freedom and democracy”?
Spin out, facts in. This is a monster strategic defeat for the NATO-Gulf Cooperation Council-Israel axis. The supply lines from Lebanon to Homs of the Not Exactly Free Syrian Army (FSA) gangs and the odd jihadi are gone. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) will next move to Homs and the whole Homs governorate. The final stop will be two or three Aleppo suburbs still controlled by the FSA.
There’s absolutely no way Qusayr can be spun in the West as yet another “tactical withdrawal” by the FSA. The rebels insist they “withdrew”. Nonsense. It was a rout.
This, in a nutshell, is how it happened. Qusayr had been under control of the Homs-based al-Farouk brigade, part of the FSA, for no less than 18 months. Six months ago, the SAA had already cleared the Syrian north-south highway, not far from the city – essential for all Damascus-Aleppo business.
Qusayr was strategically crucial as a key weaponizing depot for the FSA; Sunnis in Lebanon were relentlessly shipping them weapons through the Bekaa valley. So the first thing the SAA did was to encircle Qusayr. Then Hezbollah stepped in – as most of Qusayr’s population of 30,000 had already left for either Lebanon or Jordan.
The final, wily SAA tactic was to allow the Aleppo-based al-Tawhid brigade to sneak into Qusayr to help the al-Farouk. So when these twin top FSA brigades were properly encircled, the SAA pounced. Virtually no civilians were in town, apart from a few farmers nearby. There was no “genocide”.
And then Paris went chemical
When will the NATO-GCC axis ever learn? Hezbollah’s Sheikh Nasrallah staked his reputation by going on air and promising a victory. Once again, he delivered. Contrary to Western spin, Hezbollah did not do it by itself; it was a combination of SAA, Hezbollah and Iranian specialists applying superior tactics and displaying crack urban warfare knowledge.
It’s also easy to forget that a prime wet dream among US Think Tanklanders these past few months was the possibility of pitting Hezbollah against al-Qaeda-linked jihadis inside Syria. They got their wish.
Hezbollah fighters though don’t need to overextend themselves and venture inside Syria further than Qusayr – which is roughly 10 km from the Lebanese border. Their “mission” is in practice to secure the Syrian side of the Lebanese border.
And talk about precious timing; the “fall” of Qusayr totally blew away a monster chemical weapons propaganda orchestrated by Paris. French Minister of Foreign Affairs Laurent Fabius is breathlessly spinning that “Bashar’s army” used sarin gas against the “rebels”. French media is gung-ho for a military intervention.
There is a slight problem though. Buried in sensationalist reports in Le Monde or Liberation is the fact that the French scientific analyses – based on two samples, one of them collected by Le Monde reporters – do not specify who used sarin, the government or the “rebels”. Even UN experts, in their official report, have admitted as much.
So once again – don’t mess with Hezbollah. One can imagine the ear-splitting wrath levels in Washington, London, Paris, Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Doha. Their “response” – or revenge – may include setting Lebanon on fire. The usual imperial courtiers, Brookings Institution-style, are already mourning a Middle East prey to an “aggressive Russian-Iranian axis”.  What about the aggressive NATO-GCC-Israel axis bent on totally destroying Syria to install an Islamist, pro-Western puppet state?
The Susan and Samantha show
And now, to compound the drama, we have Susan Rice as the new US National Security Adviser and Samantha Power as the new US ambassador at the UN Security Council. It’s always helpful to remember that along with Hillary Clinton, these were the Three Graces of “humanitarian intervention” that forcefully pushed for the bombing and destruction of Libya. …
A video posted Saturday on YouTube showed gunmen purportedly speaking with a Lebanese accent declaring Syria’s Al-Qusayr a “Shiite city,” after rebels lost the battle for this strategic area. The men shown in the video raised a Shiite flag that read “Ya Hussein,” one of the Shiites’ most revered religious figures, on one of the city’s Sunni mosques. They were also chanting “we are the sons of Ali,” another key figure in the Shiite and Alawite Muslim confessions.
Qusair – the Syrian city that died – BBC’s Lyse Doucet was the first western journalist to enter Qusair after it fell and returned a day later to see how it had changed
There is a maxim that’s often been invoked in war – to save a city, you have to destroy it. That has been the fate of Qusair.
Before it was plunged into battle some 18 months ago, it was a thriving border city of 30,000 set in lush groves of olives and apricots. Now, local officials tell us, only about 500 people still live in a place that lies in utter ruin.
On our second visit to Qusair since it fell to government forces in the early hours on Wednesday, we found a calmer place, with none of the edginess or frenzied celebration we witnessed in the immediate aftermath of battle.
There is more traffic on the streets but it is almost all soldiers travelling in tanks and trucks, on motorcycles and bicycles.
Most are piled high with mattresses, TVs, fridges and furniture as soldiers move from one abandoned building to the next, taking away as much as they can carry.
We only came across one family returning to their house. They fled a year ago when rebels captured Qusair. They came back to a place they didn’t recognise as home.
Blood Group Lists
Abu Samar sifts through one pile and holds up a rifle scope, a holster for a pistol, someone’s notes from classes in Islamic teaching, a games console. Shirts with symbols of the Free Syrian Army’s Farouk Brigades are thrown on a chair.
Taped to the wall is a handwritten list of the blood groups of fighters who lived here.
Abu Samar’s wife quickly bundles up possessions her own family had left behind, including children’s stuffed toys, glass plates still in their boxes, and plump cushions.
“Will you come back here to live?” I ask. “No, never,” she declares, fighting back tears.
They quickly drive away in a car bulging with their goods through a city where every house on every street is as ravaged as their own. But even more worrying than Qusair’s immense physical damage, the social fabric of society has been ripped apart.
Down a desolate street, a battered Church of St Elias symbolises how many Syrians of many faiths once lived here together. This Christian place of worship has not just been destroyed, it’s been desecrated by the fighting. Its marble floor is now carpeted in rubble and broken glass. Religious icons are defaced, prayer books burnt, the altar smashed.
On the other side of Qusair, next to a shattered hospital used over the past year by both sides as a base, we ask a group of soldiers about the terrible price the city has paid.
“It pains me to see these ruins,” says one young man doing military service who wears civilian clothes. “This hospital cost a lot to build, from the taxes my family and other families paid.”
“People will return,” insists another young soldier who joins our conversation. “They will come back to a city that will be even better, and their lives will be even better than before.”
They all blame the rebels for this wasteland of war. “This is what they call freedom,” declares a soldier who stops to show us improvised artillery pieces wrapped in cling film and packed with explosives. “They use these against us because they hate us.”
The battle lines in Qusair and across much of Syria are harshly drawn along political and increasingly sectarian lines. They’re even more defined now that Hezbollah fighters from neighbouring Lebanon have publicly joined forces with Syrian troops. They move openly in the streets of Qusair. One man boldly approaches us wearing a headband in the movement’s distinctive yellow and green colours, and a ribbon around his wrist.
I ask about the latest battle. “It wasn’t hard,” he confidently replies and then confirms reports that Lebanese fighters are now going in and out of Syria on rotation, moving across a border so close you can see it from the edges of the city. “It was easy as pie,” boasted another as he challenged me to guess his nationality.
I ask some Syrian soldiers what they make of the controversial presence of Hezbollah. “Why shouldn’t they fight with us?” one demands. “The other side is sending in fighters from Libya, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Afghanistan. Half the world is fighting in Syria.” …
… NOW talks to Hezbollah fighter Abou Ali, who has been deployed to Qusayr.
Why are you fighting in Syria?
Syria has supported the resistance for over 30 years, we need to remain loyal to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Don’t you worry that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria will significantly weaken Hezbollah? Do you believe that you can still fight Israel while waging war on another major front?
People have to understand that Hezbollah is now a regional party. The war in Syria is a preemptive strike on an enemy that was going to export the Syrian conflict into Lebanon; and Hezbollah will not allow for its military and strategic interests to be threatened without responding to such a threat. It will also not enter a war unless it is sure it can win it. Hezbollah can still fight simultaneously on three fronts: in Syria, in the south against Israel, as well as internally. We are expecting to fight a war internally because we feel that those [foreign backers] who are spending money locally are now going to make use of it. All the indicators point in that direction.
Does the war waged by Hezbollah against the Syrian rebels bear any similarity with the war with Israel?
It’s actually very different from Lebanon, with the exception of the battles of Bint Jbeil (in the south), where the terrain and towns with houses built very close together are in many ways similar to Qusayr. Elite and special forces that are now deployed in Qusayr are using the training in street fighting they received in Iran, which was done in mock cities specifically built for this purpose.
Who is Hezbollah fighting in Syria? Is it possible that in a country as big as Syria the rebellion might be solely comprised of foreigners?
Most militants I met were foreign fighters: Europeans, Gulf Arabs, Chechens, Jordanians, and even Filipinos from the Abu Sayyaf movement! Syrians only play a supporting and secondary role in the rebellion unless they fought in Iraq or Libya. These takfiris are savage enemies; they chop off their enemies’ heads because they believe beheading will promote them (on earth and in heaven). Gulf Arabs are also respected by rebels because they are usually wealthy and can offer a certain financial support to brigades. Jordanians and Somalis are those participating the most in suicide bombings.
Fighting in Qusayr has entered in its third week; why has it been so hard for you to take over the border area?
Qusayr was initially divided in 16 military areas, today an area of five blocks still remains in the control of rebels from the Nusra Front who have taken civilians hostage. We are trying to avoid civilian casualties as much as possible, which is slowing down the process. Rebels who are arrested are immediately transferred to the Syrian intelligence so that they can be used in hostage exchange operations.
Rebels are using guerrilla techniques against you in Qusayr. How are you responding to them and what weapons are being used?
We have called upon our specialists to neutralize the tunnel networks built by rebels in certain sectors of Qusayr. These specialists helped Hamas build their tunnel networks in Gaza. Tunnels usually have a basic structure, it is easy for specialists to understand how they work, and they are helping us to destroy them by booby-trapping access and exit points. Rebels have also booby-trapped houses, so the only way to secure a certain perimeter is by blowing up walls to make holes. We are also relying on massive air raids in our military operations to wear down the rebels. Weapons used are mortars, PKK, Dushka, Russian 75, 106, as well as 155.
Many Hezbollah fighters have died in Qusayr. Some have attributed the high death toll to the inexperience of fighters who were sent initially. Is it true?
No it’s not. Reservists who were first sent to Qusayr had received from one month to three or six months training here in Lebanon. It is now the elite and special forces of Hezbollah who are fighting in Qusayr. Everyone who goes to fight in Syria has received a taklif sharii (a religious command).
Is Hezbollah present all over Syria?
At the beginning of the war, elite forces were initially responsible for protecting Shiite shrines. They have now been deployed in different Syrian areas. Besides Qusayr, we are now fighting in Aleppo and rural areas surrounding it, as well as the suburbs of Damascus, Hama, and Idlib. In the Damascus suburbs and Aleppo, we are leading similar operations than those launched in Qusayr due to the nature of the terrain.
Are Iranians fighting in Qusayr?
No, but there are Iraqis in certain Damascus areas more particularly around Shiite shrines.
What is Hezbollah’s role in the current Syrian war? Is it collaborating with the regime’s new People’s Army?
Hezbollah is leading operations in Qusayr; the Syrian army is only playing a secondary role, deploying after an area is completely ‘cleaned’ and secured. Hezbollah officers coordinate with the People’s Army but fighters never interact. The People’s Army is usually last to deploy after the Syrian army, as they have a better understanding of the area and its residents.
Gulf Arab states on Monday promised sanctions against members of the Lebanese Shi’ite militant group Hezbollah in retaliation for its intervention in Syria’s civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
Both Sunni and Shi’ite Arab states long backed Hezbollah as a bulwark against Israel, but the Arab League, heavily influenced by Sunni-led Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, last week strongly condemned Hezbollah’s intervention, highlighting how Syria’s war is widening sectarian divisions in the region.
The six Sunni-led members of the Gulf Cooperation Council issued a similar condemnation on Monday, according to a statement from the GCC secretariat carried by the Saudi Press Agency. “The GCC ministerial council has decided to take measures against those enlisted in the party (Hezbollah) residing in the member states, whether with regard to their residencies or their financial and commercial dealings,” it added, without giving any specific details.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both GCC members and U.S. allies, have been explicit in calling for Assad to go, and have been helping to arm the mostly Sunni rebels seeking to oust him and his mostly Alawite establishment, members of an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
But the rebels suffered one of their biggest setbacks last week when Hezbollah fighters helped Assad’s forces to retake the Syrian border town of Qusair, which controls vital supply lines.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said last week that Syria and Lebanon faced a common threat from radical Sunni Islamists. …
Is Qatar guilty of sectarianism in Syria? – Michael Stephens
Let’s be clear here, Qatar lost in Qusair. It is embarrassing and undermines two years and $3bn of financial support to the rebel movement. And it is time that Qatar began to take some responsibility for things Qaradawi has said, and is saying with regards to Syria.
Much has been made of the increasing sectarian dynamic in the Syrian conflict. The entry of Hezbollah to defend Shia in Syria and the use of Shia fighters to aid the Army of Bashar al Assad in taking the town of Qusair has brought this particular angle under the spotlight. Increasingly we are beginning to think of this conflict as an all-out sectarian death match in which Islam’s two sects fight a zero sum game.
Whilst the extent of sectarian motivations held by Syrians themselves is still reasonably up for question, there can be no doubt that external fighters lack the nuance of the vast majority of their coreligionists inside Syria. Hezbollah and Shia fight to defend Shia shrines and villages from being destroyed by Sunni extremists: Sunnis fight to prevent Sunni civilians and towns from being destroyed by an Allawi Iran-backed Army.
Behind these Sunni fighters stand Saudi Arabia, Turkey and of course Qatar. Qatar especially has become increasingly associated as promoters of Sunni interests in the region directly at the expense of Shia, which has caused a rift between itself and its once strong ally, Hezbollah.
In an interesting piece about Qatar’s break in relations with Hezbollah Emirati commentator Sultan al Qassemi notes ‘a media war is in full swing between Hezbollah and its allies in Iran and Syria against Qatar, which is returning the punches via Al Jazeera Arabic which reflects the spiralling of relations between both parties’. True, Qatar’s relationship with Hezbollah is irreparably damaged as a result of its actions in Syria, and Hezbollah’s response. Likewise there is undoubted tension between Qatar and Iran, which is only alleviated by both sides’ need to maintain cordial relations over the maritime enormous gas field they both share.
But the break with Hezbollah is not just reflected by television stations. Qatar plays host to an icon of the Muslim world, Sheikh Yussuf Qaradawi the Muslim Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, and an immensely influential force across the Sunni Muslim world.
Qaradawi has struggled to maintain coherence since the outbreak of the Arab Spring. His more recent sermons have rambled into incoherent self-contradictory tirades against whomever he has deemed worthy of finding fault with that week. His knee-jerk rejection of protests in neighbouring Bahrain as simply being a sectarian attempt by Iranian backed Shia to harm Sunnis first got me wondering whether he was really seeing events in the Arab world outside of sectarian parameters. Those who follow Bahrain closely will know that it is a far more complex conundrum than a simple Sunni-Shia paradigm.
Last week Qaradawi revealed his true colours when he called Hezbollah the party of Satan and urged “a jihad in Syria against Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah, which are killing Sunnis and Christians and Kurds.” One hardly expects that Kurds and Christians will run to the Sheikh’s call, and so it is Sunnis alone who will be spurred into action to defend Syria, something the garrulous Sheikh of course intended. Unsurprisingly Saudi Arabia’s Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al sheikh has backed Qaradawi to the hilt.
In true fashion the rhetoric of these Sunni clerics is designed to paint Hezbollah as the sectarian actor, and their position as merely that of standing up against a “repulsive” movement. They are of course correct, Hezbollah’s motivations in Syria are clearly sectarian, but being correct about Hezbollah does not vindicate Qaradawi’s view as moral or just. Both Al Sheikh and Qaradawi see Syria as a war between Sunni and Shia, they stand firmly on the Sunni side and would rejoice in the defeat of Bashar, Hezbollah and Iran and the crippling of the Shia axis.
Qatar’s relations with its own Shia population, estimated at being between 7-10% of the population, are fairly good. Issues to do with the distribution of Shia literature and vetting of clerics have arisen in the past, but as I have previously written Shia can worship, gather, and celebrate their religious festivals without interference. That is not to say some Qataris do not possess anti-Shia views, some certainly do, and many are deeply distrustful of Iran and its intentions for Shia across the region. However Qatar itself is not a country riven with sectarianism, and the leadership has never supported any action that would divide Qataris along sectarian lines.
Given this fact it is important to understand that Qatar’s actions in Syria are not part of some elaborate strategy to destroy Shia or Allawis. Their goal is to remove Bashar and for better or worse this has been the only major driver behind their actions in Syria, dealing a bloody nose to Iran is merely an added bonus.
Yes, it is absolutely the case that Qatar, through a mixture of over-exuberance, lack of foresight, and shoddy vetting, has aided in the arming and financing of groups who hold extremely sectarian views and have acted in sectarian ways. But it would be wrong to assume that Doha picks up the phone to Jabhat al Nusra and orders them to burn down a Shia mosque; they do not and have never supported the sectarian aims held by extremist Sunni fighters.
But let’s be clear here, Qatar lost in Qusair. It is embarrassing and undermines two years and $3bn of financial support to the rebel movement. We are at a crossroads now, the Shia world has played its trump card and the stakes have increased. Qatar’s decision makers will be anxiously wondering what they can do to respond and stop their side from losing, all the while their most famous guest has begun whipping up the Sunni world and inciting it to Jihad.
The question is whether Qatar stands behind this man and his call for Sunni Jihad. Qaradawi is not the Emir of Qatar, and there is no explicit support for his views from the ruling elite. However the linkage between the elite and Qaradawi is not clear, leading Middle East commentator Marc Lynch has claimed that ‘Like Al Jazeera Qaradawi’s stances now seem to more closely follow Qatari foreign policy’.
It is time that Qatar began to take some responsibility for things Qaradawi has said, and is saying with regards to Syria. Qatar has repeatedly insisted in discussions with international diplomats that it abhors sectarianism, and is deeply troubled by the sectarian drift in Syria. But remaining silent as Qaradawi spews fire from his pulpit hardly instils much confidence.
If Qaradawi continues to urge Jihad we can only assume that Qatar tacitly supports this as a tactic for turning the tide back in favour of the rebels. Qatar’s leadership needs to understand that whilst there are internal and external complications associated with rebuking Qaradawi; continually allowing him to pontificate from Doha will mean they become tarred by his naked sectarianism.
Egypt’s most senior Muslim cleric, a leading voice of mainstream Sunni Islam across the Middle East, has condemned Shi’ites for engaging in “hateful sectarian strife” in Syria.
In a statement that highlighted a deepening rift in the region since Hezbollah committed itself in the Syrian civil war, Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb also condemned the Lebanese Shi’ite militia for turning away from its struggle against Israel.
… “Syria is nothing but a theatre of the absurd in this battle which has become a Shi’ite-Sunni struggle,” Tayeb, who heads Cairo’s 1,000-year-old al-Azhar academy, said in comments made on Monday.
“We would have wished that the Shi’ites would reject this bait, but the last few days have led one to believe that they have fallen into the trap of hateful sectarian strife.”
Al-Azhar, like the Muslim Brotherhood which now governs Egypt, has historically been more open than Saudi clerics toward Iran and Shi’ite Arabs.
But the Syrian war hardened attitudes and the latest actions by Iran-backed Hezbollah on the battlefield have alienated many Sunnis in the region who once admired its fight against Israel.
“Everyone has now become busy, looking away from the Zionist entity, and especially after Hezbollah joined in the fighting alongside the regime against the Syrian people,” said Tayeb, who has previously criticized Hezbollah but in less harsh terms.
“Liberating Jerusalem does not pass through Qusair or Homs; al-Azhar can do nothing but condemn this intervention, which contributes to yet more bloodshed and the tearing apart of the national fabric of Syria and the region.”
Syria Is Now Saudi Arabia’s Problem – The battle for a town on the Lebanese border marks the kingdom’s first attempt to lead Syria’s fractured opposition. – Hassan Hassan – FP
The opposition’s talks in Istanbul lasted for more than a week, and the coalition’s Brotherhood-dominated General Assembly first refused to accept the expansion plan, despite ferocious pressure from Western ambassadors and representatives from the Gulf states. But according to Gulf sources, the coalition members were given an ultimatum a day before they finally accepted the expansion plan — either accept it or Idriss would announce the creation of an FSA political wing that would supersede the coalition altogether. The General Assembly members backed down and accepted an even worse deal than what had initially been proposed.
To be sure, the Saudis could not have bolstered their leverage within the opposition without help from countries like the United States and Jordan. Riyadh works closely with almost all the players in the Syrian conflict, barring Qatar and Turkey. Contrary to popular belief, the kingdom supports moderate groups within the Syrian rebels to counter the influence of the Brotherhood and its Qatari patrons. As a result, Saudi Arabia’s increased influence may help temper some of the rising fears of extremist trends within the armed opposition. Of course, the kingdom also supports Salafi-leaning groups to counter jihadi groups such as the al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
Washington has recently stepped up financial monitoring efforts to ensure that any aid to the Syrian rebels goes through Idriss, according to informed sources from the Gulf. These measures will of course be difficult to enforce, owing to the activities of private donors with established channels with the Syrian rebels — and also due to the poorly regulated financial institutions of some countries, such as Kuwait. But they nevertheless mark an attempt to empower Idriss, and consequently the Saudis.
Nonetheless, Qatar can still pull a few strings within the opposition. A Syrian activist told me that Turkey-based representatives from Qatar had declined to meet a rebel group from Idlib a week before the opposition’s talks in Istanbul. But after the expansion of the coalition, the representatives called the group back and apparently provided it with the ammunition it needed. Doha’s influence may have decreased, but it can still use its established channels to maintain leverage over armed groups.
As it consolidates its takeover of the opposition, another factor that favors the Saudis is its tentative rapprochement with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal met last month with the Brotherhood’s deputy leader, Mohammed Tayfour, for the first time. The Brotherhood had requested the meeting to mend its relations with the kingdom, which had shunned the group and stated privately on more than one occasion that it rejects the Brotherhood’s dominance of Syria. The meeting was not an indication that the kingdom has opened it heart to the Brotherhood, as some have argued, but was meant to contain the group as Riyadh takes over from Qatar.
Still, the Saudis currently have little leeway to exercise their newfound influence. Washington and Moscow are still intent on organizing a “Geneva 2″ conference, intended to bring together representatives from the Syrian regime and the opposition to reach a negotiated settlement. The preparations for Geneva 2 have meant that military options, such as increased aid for the rebels, are on pause until the talks take place or fail. …
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is gaining momentum in the country’s civil war with aid from Hezbollah and is unlikely to fall in the foreseeable future, a growing number of U.S. intelligence and defense officials believe, in what officials say is a sharp divergence from the Obama administration’s long-held view.
The shifting views have fueled a behind-the-scenes debate within intelligence agencies as President Barack Obama and his top advisers this week renew consideration of options to aid anti-Assad forces, including one that would provide moderate fighters with American arms.
Some intelligence analysts now think Mr. Assad could hold onto power or even prevail in the conflict. That view is at odds with those of others within the intelligence community who think recent military gains by Syrian government forces and Hezbollah fighters aren’t likely to alter the overall trajectory of a conflict that they still think will end with Mr. Assad’s removal, the officials said.
… A decision to provide U.S. arms to moderate rebels would be an about-face for Mr. Obama, who opposed a similar proposal last year because of concerns the weapons could end up in the hands of radical Islamists aligned with al Qaeda.
Underscoring such concerns, the battle last week for the strategic town of Qusayr pitted the Syrian regime, backed by Shiite militia Hezbollah, against rebels whose ranks included the Sunni Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda linked group.
The new proposal to arm rebel groups has gained traction inside the White House, even though some of Mr. Obama’s top defense and intelligence advisers have made clear in recent months that they think the idea makes little military sense and may be riskier than ever.
Administration officials say they believe they can put in place sufficient safeguards to prevent American arms from reaching the Islamists.
Why Iraq Is On the Precipice of Civil War – Atlantic
…we can identify some of the factors that are feeding Iraq’s present security nightmare.
The immediate threat is a renewed Sunni-Salafi insurgency.
In 2007-08, afflicted by a “surge” of additional American forces, a relentless Special Forces campaign and suffering the fury of alienated Iraqis, Al Qa’ida in Iraq ( AQI) was gutted. Its mid-high ranks were decimated and its operational mobility severely restricted. The consequences were profoundly positive — violence plummeted. Sadly, the peace hasn’t lasted. Now, facing an Iraqi government that lacks the intelligence targeting capabilities of the U.S. government, AQI’s effective successor, the Islamic State of Iraq ( ISI), is wreaking havoc. Waging a campaign of murder against Iraqi Shia, these terrorists want to exacerbate an ongoing government crackdown against Iraqi Sunnis. Their sustaining objective is unambiguous — fostering a cauldron of chaos in which Iraqis detach into base sectarian alliances. In short, they desire a civil war.
So what’s behind the ISI’s empowerment?
Put simply, the ISI’s reconstitution is a symptom of Iraq’s deeper political dysfunction. In the 2010 parliamentary elections, (the Sunni supported) Iraqi National Movement of Iyad Allawi won a plurality of seats. But Iraq’s current Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki, didn’t accept the outcome. Following in a troubling tradition of authoritarianism, he was unwilling to give up power. Instead, Maliki promised to form a unity government with Allawi. The idea was that this co-operation would cool tensions and build trust. It hasn’t happened. In fact, the opposite has occurred; we’ve seen renewed arguments over oil sharing, serious disagreements over regional sovereignty, and allegations of high level political harassment. For Maliki it seems, after years of oppression under Saddam Hussein, the incentive for reconciliation isn’t an abiding concern.
Then, in April, the crisis literally exploded. First, the Iraqi Government launched a bloody attack against a Sunni protest camp. Next, in a move that reeked of sectarian persecution, Maliki suspended the licenses of a number of media outlets, including Al Jazeera. On May 17, more than 75 Sunnis were killed in various terrorist massacres. Collectively, these actions have fed into a growing groundswell of sectarian anger. Trust is perishing and in the fear, extremists have found new roots of sympathy. With unrelenting ISI attacks, growing government crackdowns and resurgent Shia hardliners, the storm clouds of civil war are gathering.
Unfortunately as if the above weren’t bad enough, Iraq’s crisis is further complicated by the broader sectarian tensions that are rippling through the Middle East. In Syria, the Lebanese Hezbollah is now waging an open and unrestrained war against the Sunni-dominated rebellion. In Lebanon, suspected Sunni extremists are responding in kind. In a similar vein, the ISI recently claimed responsibility for the killing of over 40 Syrian soldiers who had taken shelter in Iraq. …
Signs are growing that stretches of Iraq and Syria are morphing into a single battlefield for militants, exacerbating Iraq’s slide into renewed deadly chaos a year and a half after U.S. troops pulled out. …
Covering the Syria crisis in light of regional sectarianism is a project from ECFR MENA (European Council on Foreign Relations, Middle East and North Africa) consisting of 8 essays on regional players in the conflict. Four essays are available now (they are: The Gulf, Iran, Iraq, and Jordan), and four more are forthcoming (they will be: Israel, the Kurds, Lebanon and Turkey). The project can be accessed here: “Syria: Views from the Region“
ECFR’s Syria: Views from the Region project aims to explore the regional ramifications of the Syrian uprising. While the conflict is first and foremost a domestic struggle, it has also become the epicentre of a wider struggle – part power-projection, part sectarian, part ideological – with implications for the shaping of a region in flux. The regional aspect of the struggle not only complicates prospects of producing de-escalation and a resolution within Syria but also raises the spectre of a spill-over impact, destabilising and re-shaping the region well beyond Syria’s now porous borders.
The conflict is already sharpening sectarian divides, reinvigorating extremist forces, and exacerbating tensions within the GCC and between the GCC and Iran. Among the immediate neighbours, many teeming with Syrian refugees, Lebanon and Iraq are on a knife’s edge, Jordan nervous, Israel bristling and Turkey deeply embroiled; while Kurdish ambitions have received a new shot in the arm. While there are more unknowns than knowns, what is clear is that as different regional forces play out in the conflict the regional landscape will be profoundly impacted.
Boy Killed for Blasphemy, Foreign Jihadis Participate in Beheading, Attack on Shi’ite Village
Brown Moses provides translation of accounts of rebel execution of boy for blasphemy: English Transcripts Of Witnesses Describing The Execution Of A 14-Year-Old For Blasphemy In Aleppo – Visit page for videos
Today there’s been a number of reports on the execution of Mohammad Katta, a young coffee seller in Aleppo, by men described in some reports as foreign Islamist rebels for blasphemy after telling another boy that “even if Muhammad comes down, I will not give it as debt” when asked to give coffee on credit. An extremely graphic photograph of the boy has been posted online, showing him shot through the mouth and neck, and videos have now been posted online of the boy’s parents and a witness to the execution, which I’ve had translated into English, with notes from my translator in italics:
0:01 Mother: My son is second only to Hamza al-Khateeb (A boy from Daraa whose torture and execution by Assad’s troops shocked the world in May 2011). No, he is second to none, he is the grand martyr because he was innocent and didn’t hurt anybody. They shot him dead in front of my eyes. This act is against religion and against Sharia. I want to ask Muhammad Hassan (A prominent Egyptian cleric) and the Saudi king whether my boy deserved death or not. If they say there is a rule, I will not object to it.
After he was accused of blasphemous language against the prophet [Muhammad], he replied that he is ready to sacrifice his soul for the sake of Muhammad, expressing his great love for him. He repeated it in front of them, and when they asked him to get in the car he agreed saying that he isn’t guilty. He was only 14 years old and he didn’t reach adulthood (As in civil law, Sharia rules aren’t applied to minors).
Those who killed my son must be brought to justice if it was proved that what they did was out of Sharia rules. My son didn’t join neither part of the war. They just slaughtered him as if he was a lamb or an animal. He was just a boy and had his rights. He used to work in order to provide for us because his father is ill. He was blindfolded and he was bleeding in front of my eyes. I cried: shame on you, why did you do this? There were a crowd of around 300 to 400 men standing there watching and no-one tried saving the boy. He was shot three times; in his head, neck the third in his chest.
3:37 Interviewer: Did you see the men? Were they Islamists?
3:39 Mother: Yes, I saw them. They spoke standard Arabic (Spoken by very religious people only, or what can be called the strict clergymen) and were long-bearded and were wearing short garbs with trousers underneath. One of the three men was from Aleppo and he was seated next to the driver.
4:04 Interviewer Did you recognize him?
4:05 Mother: No, I couldn’t see his face well, but I knew he was from Aleppo by his accent. He told the men to let the boy go but they refused. After they returned with the boy he was hardly able to sit down due to the torture they inflicted on him. His face was covered with his shirt. May God and punish them.
0:01 Father: I am Abd-Alwahab Katta’. My son was 14 years old and he used to sell coffee in front of “Sarj al-Lawz”. He was arguing with a customer and saying that he wouldn’t buy on credit anymore even if Muhammad descended down to earth. I sell in cash only.
At that moment three unidentified men were passing by and heard the boy. They were wearing short garbs and were long-haired spoke standard Arabic. They asked the boy why he was blaspheming but he denied doing so. They ordered him to get in the car and took him away. My younger son came here and told me that they took his brother. He added that they were going to punish him and get back. I said let them punish him by beating or whipping if really said blasphemous words.
After half an hour they came back and put the boy near the coffee stall. My wife heard that there were a crowd of around thirty men in the street and after that we heard the sound of gunshots. My wife cried that they killed the boy because she heard a man reading from a paper. I was giving prayers when I heard two gunshots. I then rushed downstairs to find my son’s body lying on the street. After that the men ran over the boy’s arm and dashed away.
1:34 Interviewer: They said before killing the boy that God accepts the repentance if one blasphemes him unlike when one blasphemes the Prophet and in this case he deserves death.
1:42 Father: Yes, they said this and my son denied blaspheming.
1:52 Interviewer: Whom do you accuse of killing your son? Are they FSA or Islamists?
1:55 Father: I don’t know whether they were FSA, Islamist or Afghans, but they spoke standard Arabic. There are now too many battalions and I can’t distinguish one from the other.
2:05 Interviewer: What was written on the car?
2:07 Father: The car was black and there were three men inside. Those who saw them said that they carried the boy out of the car as he wasn’t able to stand on his feet as a result of severe torture.
2:29 Interviewer: Did he blaspheme?
2:30 Father: No, he didn’t. They asked the crowd to listen to the rule by which my son was killed. “God accepts the repentance if one blasphemes him unlike when one blasphemes the Prophet and in this case he deserves death”.
3:04 Interviewer: Are you going to file a suit?
3:07 Father: I filed a suit to the Sharia [Court] and they came here and I am waiting for what will they do. They gave me its number, here it is.
3:16 Interviewer: What did they say?
3:18 Father: They said they will deal with it.
Following this event, Sheikh Ya’qoubi has issued a fatwa asking foreign jihadists to leave Syria:
Sh. Al-Yaqoubi calls upon foreign fighters to leave Syria
Denunciation of the execution of a boy in Aleppo
By H. Eminence Shaykh Muhammad Al-Yaqoubi
A group of Muslim fighters in Aleppo executed yesterday a fourteen-year-old boy in after accusing him of blasphemy against Prophet Muhammad PBUH.
We denounce this inhuman un-Islamic crime; and we demand that the murderers be captured and brought to justice. They are but a gang of criminals who use religion to cover their thirst for power.
What these criminals just committed is one of the most cruel crimes ever perpetrated by the name of Islam. They murdered an innocent life and executed a child who happened to be a good Muslim from a righteous family who observes Islam; and we confirm that what the child said is not balsphemy against the Prophet of Islam in any form.
In response to the crime, we have issued a detailed fatwa on the impossibility of the implementation of Islamic penalties in today’s Syria. We explained with valid proofs all the errors and fallacies in this crime which was wrongly done in the name of Islamic Shari’a.
On this painful occasion, we call upon all foreign fighters to leave Syria and go back to their homelands. We know our country better and we confirm that we do not need fighters and we thank everyone who sincerely wants to help our people. Yet, we announce that what our people need most is food and medicine and what the Free Syrian Army needs most is ammunition.
Last but not least, we offer our sincere condolences to the family of the boy, praying that Allah grant them patience and forbearance and that their child precede them to the Heavens. We pray that Allah bestow His Infinite Mercy to the martyrs of our country and that He grant our people victory and relieve them from their agony.
Several of the above articles dealt with the foreign presence of Hezbollah supporting regime forces in Syria. Long prior to this development, the presence of foreign jihadis fighting with the rebels grew into a troubling phenomenon. This problematic presence has recently been highlighted by the blasphemy case and other incidents such as the beheading of a prisoner:
Seduced by War, Europeans Join the Fight in Syria – Daily Beast
Men from The Netherlands and other European countries are taking up arms in Syria. But are they even more dangerous than the local fighters? Nadette De Visser reports.
The gruesome video of a beheading in Syria that surfaced on the Internet recently was shocking by any measure. But when people in Belgium and The Netherlands listened to the voices in the background, the terror hit home. The men brutally sawing through their victim’s throat were speaking Dutch, or perhaps the Belgian variant, Flemish, and sometimes switching to French. Suddenly, both Brussels and The Hague, while trying to gauge the authenticity of the footage, are starting to rethink the impact of the Syrian war on Europe.
“We want to know what the hell these guys are doing in Syria,” says Edwin Bakker, an expert on terrorism and counterterrorism at Leiden University and an advisor to the Dutch government. Bakker thinks the footage is genuine and says it is being taken very seriously. “We need to invest in good intelligence,” Bakker says. “We want to know what these guys are doing in Syria, who they’re with, and what they are like when they come back. Is it someone who has regrets, is disappointed? Or is it someone who has experienced many things, gained lots of knowledge, and we should watch him 24 hours a day and, if we can, should we arrest him?”
The Belgian newspaper De Morgen recently published excerpts from transcripts made by the Belgian security service, which was monitoring the radical Sharia4Belgium organization. In the phone calls made from Syria, members of the group describe brutalities committed in the fighting near the city of Aleppo. They claim to have raped and murdered. De Morgen makes a link between those conversations and this video or similar beheadings.
In recent months, law enforcement has been faced with the growing concern of young men heading to the Syrian front from northern European countries to fight against President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. Fighters from Britain, France, Belgium and The Netherlands (there are an estimated 150 to 200 young men from Belgium and The Netherlands alone) have been traveling to the battlefield in Syria to take arms alongside the Islamist rebels against the government troops. Some are from Muslim backgrounds, some are converts to Islam, but all are potentially dangerous because of the military skills they acquire and the shock of what they’ve experienced.
The young men involved in the Sharia4Belgium organization reportedly are commanded by 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, whose background is Moroccan but who comes from Vilvoorde, near Brussels. In the phone taps, the group talks of killing imagined enemies of the “true faith,” according to an extremist reading of the Sunni Islam. When Elouassaki talks to his brother in Belgium, he says: “Three days ago we were all allowed to cut someone’s throat.” “You shouldn’t do that,” his older brother, Abdelouafi, answered. “Ah, well, a Kalashnikov or a knife, what difference does it make? They are Shiite and Alawite, so they have to die.” …
The original footage of the beheading has been posted here (Belgian Jihadis, Syrian Rebels Behead Man), but please note my serious warning before viewing: the graphic video shows the decapitation of the prisoner with a knife—this traumatic video should only be consulted as a record of evidence. The poster makes the following comments (merely reading them should be sufficient for many):
I know this is some pretty heavy stuff (it is not my intention to post gore), the main reason I’m posting this is because I’m shocked I’m hearing Dutch (Flemish Dutch) yelled by these savages.
About 100 ‘Belgians’ are ‘fighting’ alongside Al Nusra. This is what they do.
0:40: “Turn around”
0:50: “Turn him on his stomach, yeah that’s good”
0:58: “Hold onto his feet”
2:04: “The knife isn’t good”
This must be the first time in history ‘Belgians’ are decapitating people in the name of their religion. It’s 2013.
If you read Dutch, you can read original reporting here.
Reports emerged yesterday of a Tuesday rebel attack on Hatlah, a Shi’ite village in Deir Ezzor. The attack is being called a massacre. Throughout this conflict, the Syrian regime has maintained a trend of punishing civilian towns and districts whenever small numbers of rebels are believed to be operating there. Single instances of air raids destroy homes and entire neighborhoods where the regime believes rebels are active. More and more now, the instances of rebels carrying out similar attacks of collective punishment are growing. The regime’s narrative is that the attack on Hatlah was directed at civilians; the opposition narrative is that the attack was directed at loyalists who remain aligned with the regime. In either case, it seems clear that the violence was directed at a community (and residential homes), that the attack was sectarian in nature, that foreign jihadis were key participants, and that it resulted in civilian deaths.
Rebels fighters in Syria have attacked a village in the country’s east, killing dozens of Shiites. A Syrian government official denounced the attack, saying it was a “massacre” of civilians.
An opposition group based in London, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on a network of thousands of sources inside Syria from both sides of the conflict, said many of those killed were pro-regime loyalists, but video posted online from the village revealed a much darker side to the war.
The killings, which took place Tuesday in the eastern Deir el-Zour province, highlight the sectarian nature of Syria’s conflict that has killed more than 80,000 people, according to the U.N.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 60 people were killed in the village of Hatla in the oil-rich province that borders Iraq.
With a steady drumbeat from some U.S. and European politicians calling for the West to arm Syria’s rebels, the composition of the rebel force on the ground is vital to understand, and the men who committed at least some of the killings in Hatla were not Syrian, and were not men who the West would want to arm.
In a video posted Tuesday on YouTube, a man shows the dead bodies of several Shiite Syrians in Hatla, and angrily calls on his fellow Sunnis to “massacre” their Shiite compatriots. The man speaking is not Syrian, he is Kuwaiti, and very few of the armed “rebels” seen with him in the video sound Syrian — the accents are largely Kuwaiti and Iraqi. There were other, similar videos posted of the alleged massacre in Hatla.
Thousands of rebels took part in the attack and at least 10 of them were killed in the fighting, said the Observatory. Not all of the fighters will likely have been hardcore Sunni extremists like the Kuwaiti man in the video, but many will have been. This sort of “Syrian rebel” forms a large part of the disparate forces fighting against Assad in Syria.
… In the video seen by CBS News, the Kuwaiti militant who shows off the bodies does not refer to the slain men as fighters, and before his call on Sunnis to kill Shiites, he warns that he and his men are, “now preparing to storm the homes of Shiites who support al-Assad’s regime in the village.”
At least 30 Shiite Muslim residents of a village in eastern Syria were killed in a reprisal raid by rebels, the government and opposition fighters and activists said Wednesday, the latest in a string of massacres underscoring the increasingly sectarian nature of the Syrian conflict.
The Syrian government called the killings, which were reported to have taken place on Tuesday in Hatlah, a village in the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zour, a massacre of civilians, saying that 30 died. Anti-government activists put the toll at 60 and said most of the dead were pro-government militia fighters who had attacked rebels one day earlier. But some of the activists nonetheless condemned the Hatlah attack as a destructive act of revenge that showed the powerlessness of moderates among the mostly Sunni rebels to rein in extremists.
What was not in dispute was that several battalions of Sunni rebels, including members of extremist Islamist groups, stormed the village and, in video posted online by anti-government activists, could be seen setting houses on fire as they shouted sectarian slogans, calling Shiites dogs, apostates and infidels.
“This is your end, you dogs,” a man off camera said as he panned across what he said were the corpses of “pug-nosed” Shiites, including one with what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head.
“We have raised the banner of ‘There Is No God but God’ over the houses of the rejectionist Shiite apostates,” one fighter chanted in another clip as a black cloud billowed above the village and jubilant gunmen brandished black flags often used by the extremist Al Nusra Front and other Islamist fighting groups.
“Here are the jihadists celebrating their storming of the rejectionists’ houses! The Shiite rejectionists!,” the fighter added. Some extremist Sunnis refer to Shiites as rejectionists because the sect arose from a group that rejected the early successors of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. …
In Kuwait, a Sunni sheik who has used sectarian invective against the Assad government appeared to applaud the “slaughter” of Shiites in Hatlah and to threaten the Shiite villages of Nabl and Zahraa in Aleppo province, in a video noted by Hassan Hassan, a columnist for the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National, who is from eastern Syria. …
The Hassan Hassan article mentioned in that last paragraph is here. He says the following about the Kuwaiti sheikh (and it seems a bit surprising to hear a sheikh proclaim “today we slaughtered Hussain and his son”):
Meanwhile, one of Kuwait’s most outspoken supporters of the Syrian rebels acknowledged the killing of the civilians because of their Shia affiliation. Sheilk Shafi Al Ajmi, who has been spewing sectarian venom since the early months of the Syrian uprising, spoke about the killing outside the Lebanese embassy in Kuwait.“The reality is what [Hizbollah] will see not what it hears. We are not among those who say and do not do. Today, we took the village of Hatla and slaughtered the bad ones with knives as you slaughtered out wives and children in Qusayr, we slaughtered one of your symbols, Hussain, who lived in Hatla, today we slaughtered him and we slaughtered his son with him. This is today. As for tomorrow, we have a date with Nubl and Zahraa [villages in Aleppo] which Hizbollah has come to save, nay. The lions and herose are besieging them. I swear by God that Syria will be a burying ground for Hizbollah.”
Odds and Ends
The curious case of flight SYR602 – MATT NASH – NOW – A SyrianAir flight not listed on the departures board may regularly leave for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Every other day for at least the past month, SyrianAir flight number 602 departs from Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in the middle of the night. It’s not listed on the airport’s departures board, nor could any of the half-dozen travel agents that NOW contacted book an interested passenger a seat.
In fact, only SyrianAir’s representative in Beirut could find a record that the flight existed. Other travel agents were simply stumped.
“I’m sorry, sir, there is no flight 602.” …
In Syria, Kidnapping Becomes a ‘Big-Money Business’ – Peter N. Bouckaert, the Geneva-based emergencies director at Human Rights Watch, explains the sudden rise in kidnappings across Syria – Syria Deeply
Karen Leigh, managing editor, Syria Deeply: Can you talk about the rise in kidnappings and the types of kidnappings?
Peter N. Bouckaert: The kidnappings have been going on for about a year, it’s really intensified. It started mostly when fighting broke out in Aleppo, and developed and grown since then into a broader trend across many parts of Syria, and also spilling into neighboring countries. A couple different kinds of kidnapping take place. A lot of them are criminal in nature by groups that say they have an affiliation with Jabhat al-Nusra, and they try to kidnap wealthy Syrians and some journalists for ransom.
A second kind is more sectarian in nature, “tit for tat” kidnappings between different sides. So a Sunni will get kidnapped by Alawites or Shia, and his relatives will go kidnap Alawites or Shia, hold them hostage and try to make an exchange. We’ve especially seen that in the Lebanese border area.
Then there are [random] disappearances, where people are taken by unknown gunmen and never seen again. That’s the case with the two archbishops of Aleppo, and it’s not necessarily a case for ransom. As the fighting has become a lot more sectarian in the last months as fighting increases with Hezbollah, there are fears we’ll see a significant rise in kidnappings that lead to executions based on a sectarian basis.
KL: In the extortion cases, do they target their victims?
PNB: Many of the cases I’ve looked at definitely involved people who did their homework. They targeted specific people in the community who they knew had a specific amount of wealth or standing in the community. Two weeks ago, a prominent member of the Armenian community in Aleppo was traveling from Aleppo to Beirut by bus, and the bus was stopped, and they asked him by name to get off the bus because they knew the Armenian community would pay the ransom.
KL: Who are the kidnappers?
PNB: In most cases, we are talking about criminal gangs who are using weapons that are floating around quite freely in Syria, as well as the chaos that’s reigning in many parts of the country. There are a number of kidnappings that have been carried out by opposition groups looking to fundraise to buy weapons and allow them to continue to fight. In these cases it’s not just kidnappings, it’s also extortion, where people in the community that have wealth are asked to “contribute,” and if they refuse to do so, they are liable to kidnapping.
Some groups have been associated with specific incidents, like the [Free Syrian Army’s] Northern Storm group, implicated in the 2012 kidnapping of a group of Lebanese Shia. One of their members was just photographed with [U.S. Senator John] McCain at the border [during McCain’s May visit to northern Syria], causing a bit of controversy. This was a group of Lebanese Shia that went to Iran for a pilgrimage and were on their way back to Syria when they were kidnapped.
KL: Why are kidnappings on the rise?
PNB: In general, instability is on the rise in Syria, and these kidnappings are part of this instability. Kidnappings are a part of the dangers that civilians in general face in this conflict. In cities like Aleppo, the kidnappings for ransom that are taking place have very significantly undermined support for the opposition. Because in general, civilians are very fearful of these kinds of kidnappings, especially people with wealth. [Bashar al-] Assad’s regime was known for brutality, but this kind of insecurity didn’t exist for wealthy business people. They knew if they stayed out of politics, they could live secure lives.
Armenia Builds a New Aleppo – Eurasianet.org
To make sure exiles from Syria feel at home in Armenia, the government has commissioned the construction of an entire settlement called New Aleppo.
A counter-narrative from Musa al-Gharbi, University of Arizona, in an ongoing debate: A Reply to George Abu Ahmad
Finding Hope in Syria – HP – Joyce Dubensky
… One of our Peacemakers is Hind Kabawat, a lawyer from Damascus, who recently returned to Syria through Turkey to provide training in a village that had been “liberated” by those fighting the Syrian president, Assad. Below, in her words, are Hind’s observations of people who are suffering, who hope, and who are preparing for a new Syria based on dreams and ideals. Her story is one we rarely hear in the news of battles, violence and horrific acts of hate.
My message is message of hope. In this anthology of anecdotes from my last trip to the liberated areas of Syria, I carry the aspirations of a new Syrian generation who are yearning for a brighter future for their nation and are searching for a new way to build their dreams.
Surreal and perplexing feelings overwhelmed me as I crossed the borders from Turkey to northern Syria on a cold March morning. The crisp fresh breeze of freedom that welcomed me brought childhood memories of joyful children’s faces — children who waved at passing cars with foreign plates and cheered when my dad and I gave them candies on our vacation trips to the North.
Alas, the barefoot children meandering in the alleys between the destroyed houses of this village no longer wave to anybody. Instead of smiles, they wore sadness and tears. Instead of waves, their hands gestured in shivers. Instead of cheers, they sighed worries and interrogations. “Why us? Why are you here? Are you a journalist? What can you do for us?” Their feeble voices bombarded me with questions, to which all I could answer was, “I am a Syrian like you, from Damascus, coming to tell you that you are not alone, and that all of humanity is standing in solidarity with your blessed hearts.”
Rima, a five-year old girl, smiled in relief, held my hand, and whispered that her dream was to go back to school. Abdul-Majeed, who was pinching and pushing his friend Fatima, said the same. Fatima, one of seven siblings whose childhood was rocked by the loss of her father, had little to say. When she did speak — with tears in her eyes — she murmured, “I have no more dreams, I want to sleep and never wake up.”
I continued to walk, holding Rima’s hand, gazing at the horizon as penetrating sun rays flickered on the pale olive trees of our sacred land. Here, we encountered and greeted a group of youths holding their rifles in readiness.
“Where is your camera?” one boy, Ramzi, asked.
“I am not a journalist. I am only a Syrian citizen who wanted to come and see you,” I responded. “Son, what are you going to do with your weapon once the fighting is over?”
“I will sell it to pay my tuition fee,” Ramzi said, hysterically laughing with hope. “My dream is to be a university student.”
Further into the village, Abu Hamid, an older gentleman covered in a black outfit with a headband, smiled at me and cut me out a piece of the bread he was eating, saying, in a thick Northern accent, “to our health and freedom.” I couldn’t hide my tears from Abu Hamid, who concealed a warm smile behind his big beard.
I asked, “What can I do to make these little kids smile again?”
“Just be with them, just be with them,” he said.
In another part of the village, tears welcomed me as I entered the house of one of my mentees’ family. The family matriarch, Oum Mounzer, pointed right away at the picture of a handsome young man, her son, who got arrested while attempting to defect the army. “We don’t know what will happen to him,” her tearful husband added. Through his tears, he helped me sit on the sparkling clean floor, and called his younger children to come and greet me. Their warm and excited hugs left me flabbergasted. Where do they get all of this love from, while their stomachs are empty, their school, along with the whole village, lays destroyed, and their childhood has been stolen by disease, death, and hunger? How can Abou Munzer, Abu Hamid, and everyone, be so warm and caring to a complete stranger, wearing a cross, and walking around with a Canadian-made outfit in an ultra-conservative area, Jabal Al-Zawia?
We shared a meal consisting of fresh bread baked by Oum Abdo and olive oil. This has been the only staple food available to the village for months. Oum Abdo, a 60-year-old lady, proudly repeated to me that she has a grade 9 certificate, which enabled her to read the Qu’ran every night, and recently to read all the flyers and newspapers and hence spread information to others. She added that she got her son and son-in-law to both defect from the army and join the rebels, threatening to disown them otherwise, “You are no children of mine, if you help kill your own people.” She said that she obtained civic identities for both of them, hid them in her chest pocket, and went to visit the young men in the army troops. While there, she passed their new identities to them and threw her verdict on them. In addition to being a brave mother, a good neighbor, and a rebel by nature, Oum Abdo is also helping develop her own community by teaching young women how to bake, a necessary skill after the village’s only bakery was bombed.
Nayfah, a pharmacist who is working now in the field, is Abu Munzer’s eldest and another Syrian I spoke with during my stay. Her eyes shone with joy as she recalled her five years at the University of Aleppo. Today, she works for 14 hours a day, together with her brother Munzer, helping the injured. “How can someone who went to university, and has had the privilege of knowledge, destroy his country?” Nayfa asks, referring to Bashar Assad, a doctor who graduated from schools in the UK.
After the meal, we headed to a small, partially destroyed building with no windows at the end of the alley where I was giving a workshop on conflict resolution and dialogue to a group of teachers, doctors, and members of the local committee. I was greeted by pictures of local martyrs decorating the grey walls around the new freedom flag, as well as by a group of young men and women who had enthusiastically waited since the early morning for the workshop. Despite the bad logistic conditions of the room, I have never been as ecstatic. I interacted with incredibly passionate and impressive individuals who braved the cold wind seeping from the broken windows and the noise of rowdy children playing on the street for many hours to enthusiastically engage in the workshop activities and contribute new ideas for rebuilding their community and the whole country.
It was indeed a most interesting group. Mohammad is an English teacher who is offering small classes in the village to substitute for the destroyed school. Mariam is a strong personality who is able to win the room with her arguments, stressing in every word she utters that the revolution is finally giving voice to women. Hayat, an engineer, explained how she managed to get phone lines efficiently working in the village.
After many years of community work in Syria, this time was different and refreshing. It was the first time I truly sensed people freely expressing themselves without fear of a secret agent reporting on the group. It was the first time I witnessed a new generation who is getting armed with knowledge and is committed to building a new future for the whole country.
Knowledge and education, however, are a constant struggle for Syrians all over the country, even in liberated areas. “The worst challenge we are facing on a daily basis is the inability to effectively teach our children. We don’t have books, we don’t have pencils. How can we send all our kids together to one school, when it could be suddenly bombed by jets?” Mariam asks. To deal with this predicament, children are assigned into groups, and each group is allocated to a basement of the different houses of the village. Old women run communal nurseries, taking care of the village toddlers and infants while their mothers teach in underground schools or help in field hospitals.
Dreams of learning and hopes of getting back to schools were echoed in every village I visited. In Kafranbel, I spent a day with refugee children in a deserted school playing hand in hand and flying balloons with the colors of the rainbow. Mona, a little girl from Maarat al-Neman, told me her dream was to get back to her village.
“But Khaleh (Aunty in Arabic), I can’t go back to my school, it is completely destroyed!!!” said a cute little voice in entrancing crescendo.
“We will build a new one all together,” we all exulted.
On my way back to Kansafra, I asked Mustafa, a young rebel from the Free Syrian Army, about his dreams. He replied with fervor, “to get my son to study at the university!”
“Mustafa, you are too young to have a university-age boy, aren’t you?” I was baffled as I heard his words. Mustafa was eager to prove his point. He ran, dragging me with him, to a garden partly destroyed by missiles and called over two women, his wife and mother, to offer me coffee, while he disappeared into a backroom with windows covered with plastic sheets. Mustafa came back with a newborn in hand. “Mohamad,” he proudly said, raising the infant towards the sky, “my son, I want him to go to university. A child born in the revolution is blessed, and deserves to live free and to have the opportunities that we were denied.”
Indeed, Mohamad is entitled to that right.
Undeniably, children of the revolution have a better future ahead of them. But the responsibility on our shoulders is massive. Freedom is a big dream for them, but knowledge is their ultimate dream.
Hind Aboud Kabawat, a lawyer, is president of the Syrian Centre for Dialogue and is a Tanenbaum Peacemaker in Action.
The regime digs in – The Economist
“YA GHALI,” says a driver greeting the soldier manning a checkpoint of concrete blocks painted with the Syrian flag and plastered with pictures of Bashar Assad in regime-controlled central Damascus. This salutation was never in use in the capital before the war but is now standard at checkpoints. “Ghali”, or precious, is used in the coastal homeland of the Alawites, the sect from which Mr Assad hails. It is a sign both that the president is in control here and that, for all its talk of a state for all of Syria’s communities, his regime has been largely reduced to a sectarian militia, though the most powerful in the country.
This may be a harbinger of the future. The balance of power between the regime and the rebels has ebbed and flowed during the 27-month conflict, but the government’s recapture of the town of Qusayr from the rebels on June 5th has reinforced a feeling that Mr Assad has recently won the advantage. Rebels still control swathes of the north and east of the country and continue to clash with the regime in the countryside around the main population hubs of the west: Damascus, Homs and Hama. But nearly all the city centres are tightly in Mr Assad’s grip. In his determination to assert control, he has shown willing, if need be, to reduce rebellious towns to rubble.
In the aftermath of the fall of Qusayr, reports have circulated suggesting that the regime may capitalise on its gains by attacking Aleppo, the northern commercial hub that has been contested since last summer. Those reports may be premature, but the army has certainly dispatched reinforcements northward. Rumours now abound that Mr Assad will also try to cut a deal with Kurdish leaders in the north-eastern province of Hasaka, from which the regime tactically withdrew many of its forces last year. Officials in Damascus have regained confidence. They talk, albeit too grandly, of soon being able to take back the eastern provinces from the rebels.
Only a year ago Mr Assad’s throne seemed to be wobbling. While suffering dramatic military losses to the rebels, his political response was cack-handed. He owes his turnaround in fortune largely to the support of Iran and Hizbullah, the party-cum-militia it sponsors in Lebanon. Iran, say people in Damascus, has helped the regime to think strategically, while Hizbullah is training Mr Assad’s men in urban warfare. A new 60,000-strong national defence force (set to grow to 100,000) compensates for the regular army’s weaknesses. Defections have slowed as the forces have been pared down to a loyal core; morale among them has risen.
In such circumstances a peace conference in Geneva mooted for next month looks increasingly unlikely to take place on time. For one thing, the opposition’s main political front, the Syrian National Coalition, refuses to attend while the regime’s attacks and advances continue. For another, Mr Assad will be more loth to compromise as he gains on the battlefield.
… Besides, the rebels are losing support, in part because the regime has had some success in stirring sectarian fears. Many Syrians originally sympathetic to the rebels have been horrified by events such as the reported execution on June 9th of a 14-year-old boy by jihadists in Aleppo, allegedly for insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Downtrodden Sunnis who six months ago were the mainstay of the opposition may be thinking again. “I hate the regime,” says a woman from a poor Damascus suburb. “But if forced to choose, perhaps I would rather live under them than the rebels. I am tired of the violence.”
Qatari and Saudi support for the opposition has also scared a lot of Syrians. “This is now a war in Syria, but not a Syrian war,” says a dissident artist in the capital. “I have no illusions that the Gulf backers are interested in us having democracy.” Unlike the opposition abroad, many in Damascus were pinning their hopes, however unrealistic, on the Geneva conference as a way to persuade the regime to share power and thus bring the war to a close.
But in rebel-held areas sentiment is harsher. Many there have lost so much that the idea of the regime remaining in place, even in a transitional power-sharing format, is abhorrent. “I’d rather chaos for a few years than live under them again,” says a man from Tafas, a town in the south that is shelled daily. Ali Haidar, the government minister charged with national reconciliation, boasts of the regime’s efforts to support those affected by the violence. But whispered conversations in the streets of Damascus and continuing arrests hark back to darker days under Hafez Assad, the previous president and father of the present one. The UN says the regime’s crimes still far outweigh those of the rebels.
An Iranian drone captured in Syria? – Aviationist Blog
Austria begins withdrawal from Golan Heights – al Jazeera – Deteriorating security forces Vienna to remove troops from occupied area as UN scrambles to find replacements.
Austria began pulling out its UN peacekeepers from the Golan Heights days after Vienna decided to quit the mission over deteriorating security concerns.
An AFP photographer said on Wednesday 20 soldiers in jeeps accompanied by tanks entered the Israeli side of the Quineitra Crossing – the only direct passage between Israel and Syria.
Another 50 soldiers out of the 378-strong force were to pull out throughout the day, according to sources on the ground. The Austrian defence ministry said the full withdrawal would be completed by June 24.
Vienna’s decision on Tuesday came after Syrian opposition rebels briefly seized the Quneitra crossing late last week, in an incident in which two UN troops were injured.
The crossing lies in the demilitarised zone on the Israel-Syria armistice line and is monitored by about 1,000 UN peacekeepers, including the Austrians.
On Tuesday, a senior Israeli official said dozens of Austrian soldiers had already left the mission’s headquarters. Israeli public radio said they were administrative staff.
“But the majority of soldiers will remain in place until the UN has found a country that can send troops to replace the Austrian ones,” said an Israeli official, who asked not to be named.
The UN is trying to persuade Austria to slow down its withdrawal.
The country has played an important role as part of the UN force monitoring a ceasefire between Syria and Israel since 1974.
Japan and Croatia have also withdrawn their forces in recent months, as battles between Syrian government and opposition forces spill into the ceasefire zone.
Russian President Vladimir Putin said last week that troops from his country could replace the Austrians, but under the terms of the 1974 accord that created the force, members of the UN Security Council are not allowed to take part.
Intervention: Opinions and U.S. Military Proposal
The Risks of America Doing Too Much in Syria – Richard Haass offers his opinion on the Syria conflict and intervention in a video interview (follow link to view video)
Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the American foreign policy think tank, sat down with Rendezvous’s editor Marcus Mabry to talk Syria. Mr. Haass gave a long laundry list of what issues are more important to the United States than the bloodbath in Syria, even as he detailed the risks of that widening conflict.
The Dangerous Simplicity Of the Interventionists – Monitor – Kip Whittington
The pro-intervention crowd has been quite vocal, and their arguments have become commonplace: “US credibility is at stake,” “implement a no-fly zone,” “arm the moderate rebel groups,” “create a humanitarian corridor,” “let’s stop the chemical weapons use” and so on.
Many of these voices are influential thinkers and experienced practitioners outside of the decision-making process who feel the slaughter occurring in Syria is unjustifiable. Others argue that US strategic interests are at stake. These arguments are usually well-intentioned, but that does not mean the United States and NATO should intervene in Syria. While the United States and NATO are undoubtedly capable of changing the balance — note that I didn’t say end the violence — in Syria, it is by no means easy.
… For instance, the no-fly zone argument is familiar: Remove the threat posed by Assad’s airpower to Syrian civilians to allow for the establishment of humanitarian corridors and safe zones that can be supplied by friendly neighbors. This is the popular military operation advocated for by pro-interventionists. Largely because the United States and its allies successfully instituted variations of no-fly zones in Libya, Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia, and it supposedly avoids putting large numbers of troops in foreign war zones — no one is willing to argue for large troop numbers after the war weariness created by Iraq and Afghanistan.
In essence, since the United States and its allies have such unrivaled air capabilities it means they can easily destroy Syria’s dangerous air defense systems and succeed in protecting civilians. In light of the recent Israeli air incursions into Syria — with no Israeli casualties — many feel their argument has been vindicated. No mention is made of the potential ramifications of an Israeli involvement in Syria. These lines of thought are dangerously simplistic and merely advocate for an operational tool with no clear objective.
At “Abu Muqawama,” blogger Dan Trombly did an excellent job explaining the very real differences between a US imposition of a no-fly zone and a few Israeli airstrikes on Syrian territory:
“You cannot create a persistent no-fly zone through repetitive raiding in the Israeli style, because these raids rely on minimizing time over Syrian airspace and avoiding air-to-air combat. No-fly zones, to be effective, must do precisely the opposite. You want your aircraft to spend as much time as practically possible over the airspace you are patrolling in order to deny enemy aircraft windows of opportunity to operate. This renders your aircraft vulnerable to enemy anti-aircraft fire, which is why destroying [a] hostile IADS [integrated air defense system], commonly referred to as suppression of enemy air defense (or SEAD) is such a vital prerequisite to no-fly zones (and would involve, as in many other cases, massive amounts of standoff fire and more direct attacks by specialized SEAD strike aircraft).” … (read the rest)
Ed Miliband: government is too focused on arming Syrian rebels – Guardian – Labour leader says David Cameron and William Hague should put energy into Geneva peace conference
Outside powers must not impose solutions on Syrians – Hassan Hassan
I first met President Assad on a trip to Damascus in 2006. I had asked the Syrian Embassy in London to arrange for me to meet senior Syrian political leaders, but on arrival in the capital, was surprised to receive an invitation to meet the President at his modest private house, away from his palace where he meets most dignitaries.
For a man now reviled for massacring his own people, Assad is incongruously softly spoken. But he was always forthright, did not seem to mind that I gave equally forthright answers and regularly invited me to meet him again on subsequent visits, right up to 2011, when the civil war started.
While I abhor the Assad regime and its hostility towards Israel (I am Jewish), I have a long- standing interest in Syria and the Middle East and am a firm believer in the adage ‘Diplomacy becomes a little lazy if all you do is talk to your friends’.
Over a period of about five years, I met Assad several times, always one on one. (I also had a remarkable private meeting with his English-born wife, Asma, which I shall return to later.)
Assad’s answers to my questions were instructive and at times shocking in their directness. When I asked him what was his most important objective, he replied in two words: ‘Regime survival.’
This was quite different from his public utterances at the time about seeking political reform. I told him there is a complete contradiction between reform and regime survival, but he could not answer this question.
As events have now shown, he is willing to destroy Syria completely and kill its people in vast numbers to protect his family.
In effect, Syria is a mafia state. This is reflected in the bipolar posturings of Assad. When he told Western leaders he wanted political reform, I believe part of him meant it. But when the door closed and he was surrounded by his cronies, regime survival at all costs was all that mattered.
I also asked him why he supported the Lebanese-based Shia terrorist group Hezbollah. As we saw last week, Hezbollah’s military support for Assad played a key part in his forces winning back al-Qusayr, one of the Syrian towns captured from Syria’s rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA).
In a reply of astonishing and brutal candour, he made no attempt to deny his support for Hezbollah and admitted he had used them as a proxy to attack Israeli forces.
He said: ‘I am weak both economically and militarily. I cannot take on Israel directly. They are much stronger than me. It makes more sense to use Hezbollah to put pressure on Israel.’
He was just as unapologetic when I asked him why he had allowed insurgents to pass through Syria freely during the Iraq War in order to attack British and American soldiers.
I said to him: ‘You must know the people you let through your border are only going there to try to kill our soldiers?’
He replied in a totally matter-of-fact way: ‘If they want to get themselves killed by your soldiers that’s up to them. If I don’t let them go through they may turn on me and start a revolution to get rid of me. Remember what I said earlier: regime survival is the most important thing for me.’
In other words, he feared if he didn’t let them through, they would turn their guns and bombs on his own vulnerable government. For Assad, it always comes back to regime survival.
Certainly, I will never forget the remarkable conversation I had with his wife in early 2011. Again, we met one to one, at her own private house in Damascus. Naturally, we had tea. As we chatted, she said something quite extraordinary. As I had expected, she was keen to talk about her husband’s reform agenda.
I said I had met President Assad many times and that although he talked a lot about political reform, he never did much to bring it about.
I said to her he could be like the founder of modern Turkey, the great Ataturk, bring about real reform, step down from office and be lauded for his achievements.
I had not anticipated her reply. She said: ‘That is what I hope he does too, serve one more term in office and then retire.’
All hope of that is now gone.
When the Arab Spring reached Syria, it did not surprise me that Assad’s regime would respond in the ruthless way that it did. What has surprised me is how quickly a sectarian war has evolved and the progress the opposition has made.
A once-beautiful country is quickly disintegrating into a fragmented Somalia on the Mediterranean. I understand the concerns of those, including fellow Conservative MPs, who say we should not arm the Syrian rebels and help them bring down Assad and that we must not be dragged into another Iraq or Afghanistan.
But I believe they are wrong.
This is not Iraq: in Iraq there were no chemical weapons. In Syria, we know for sure Assad has used them. We sent thousands of British troops to Iraq. No one is suggesting sending a single British soldier to Syria.
Nor is this Afghanistan: the silent majority of Syrians are secular not Islamist. This is more like Bosnia or Libya, in which a brutal dictator is murdering his own people in order to stay in power.
To date we have seen almost 100,000 killed, 1.1million refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries and more than 7million displaced internally.
On the one side we have the Assad regime, which has 300,000 well-armed soldiers, the violent Shabiha secret police, 16,000 pieces of heavy artillery, tanks and an air force that is unchallenged in the skies. They are supported by Iranian and Russian money and arms, and 7,000 Hezbollah fighters.
On the other side we have a highly fragmented Syrian rebel force, 35,000 fighters equipped with small arms under the banner of the FSA.
While the West, scarred by Iraq and Afghanistan, prevaricates, 20 million Syrians face genocide. If we do nothing, instead of 100,000 dead we could see 300,000 dead a year from now.
Russia is threatening to send S-300 surface-to-air missiles and surface-to-ship missiles, which not only threaten Israel but also the West’s Mediterranean fleet.
The Syrian rebels urgently need their own surface-to-air missiles and tank-busters to have any chance of winning. Britain can and should supply them with them. We could train them how to use them in Jordan or Turkey.
I hope and pray a peaceful resolution can be found to this bloody dispute. But if it cannot, we must lift the arms embargo to send a powerful message to Assad that this will no longer be a one-sided war.
A U.S. military proposal for arming Syrian rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory to protect Syrian refugees and rebels who would train there, according to U.S. officials.
Asked by the White House to develop options for Syria, military planners have said that creating an area to train and equip rebel forces would require keeping Syrian aircraft well away from the Jordanian border.
To do that, the military envisages creating a no-fly zone stretching up to 25 miles into Syria which would be enforced using aircraft flown from Jordanian bases and flying inside the kingdom, according to U.S. officials.
The White House is currently considering proposals to arm the rebels in Jordan, according to U.S. officials. White House National Security Council spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden declined to comment on the details of those deliberations.
The limited no-fly zone wouldn’t require the destruction of Syrian antiaircraft batteries, U.S. officials said.
Officials said the White House could decide to authorize the U.S. to arm and train rebels in Jordan without authorizing the no-fly zone recommended by military planners. A White House announcement could come soon, officials said.
Jordan has been inundated by a flood of refugees that Jordanian and U.S. officials say is a growing threat to the kingdom, a key U.S. ally in the region. The U.S. has already moved Patriot air defense batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan, which could be integral to any no-fly zone if President Barack Obama approves the military proposal.
Proponents of the proposal say a no-fly zone could be imposed without a U.N. Security Council resolution, since the U.S. would not regularly enter Syrian airspace and wouldn’t hold Syrian territory.
U.S. planes have air-to-air missiles that could destroy Syrian planes from long ranges. But officials said that aircraft may be required to enter Syrian air space if threatened by advancing Syrian planes. Such an incursion by the U.S., if it were to happen, could be justified as self-defense, officials say.
Military planners believe it would be dangerous to set up a major operation inside Jordan to arm the rebels without creating a no-fly zone to hold Syrian aircraft back.
“Unless you have a good buffer zone inside Syria, you risk too much,” said a U.S. official briefed on the military proposal.
Creating even a limited buffer zone that Syrian airplanes cannot enter will be expensive, costing an estimated $50 million a day. Still, officials say that a full no-fly zone covering all of Syria would cost far more money. Officials said the U.S. hopes the operation would be conducted with other allies, who could help pay for the cost of a no-fly zone.
The U.S. planes involved in the no-fly zone would fly from Jordan and possibly from Navy ships in the Mediterranean or Red Sea. Jordan has offered the U.S. and its allies the use of its military bases to protect a safe zone inside the kingdom, according to U.S. officials. Jordanian officials in Washington had no immediate comment.
U.S. military officials believe it will take about a month to get such a limited no fly zone up and running, officials say. Officials say there may be a limited window to do so. If Russia decides to provide advanced, long-range S-300 air defense weapons to Syria, it would make such a limited no-fly zone far more risky for U.S. pilots.
The Washington Intervention War – FP – With diplomatic options dead in the water, camps are forming in the administration about how to arm the Syrian rebels.
Immediately after Susan Rice was named U.S. national security advisor and Samantha Power was tapped as America’s next ambassador to the United Nations, Washington had a simple question: Could the Obama administration’s two newest liberal hawks mold U.S. foreign policy? And will the exit of current National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, the architect of President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” mean a pivot toward a more energetic intervention in Syria? …
The State Department is out in front of the White House and is actively pushing for arming the rebels. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is far less forward-leaning, focused on the risks and potential pitfalls of lethal aid and potential military action. Indeed, Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey has publicly called intervention in Syria “very difficult.”
Muslim Light: What’s Behind Turkey’s Islamization and the Protests Against It – Cinar Kiper – Atlantic
It has been a long time, ninety years in fact, since Turkey has had its latest facelift. It is about time considering it happens once every nine decades or so: after the modernizing Tanzimat reforms of the 1830s and the Westernizing Kemalist reforms of the 1920s, the 2010s are ripe for a whole new round of social engineering — this time at the hands of the religiously conservative Justice and Development Party (AKP).
Back when the secular republic was established in 1923, the facelift came in the form of renouncing all things Ottoman and many things Muslim, some benign — hats instead of fezzes! — others not as much. The idea being, to paraphrase the old adage, if it looks like a Westerner, writes like a Westerner and even drinks like a Westerner, then it probably is a Westerner. As a country that got stuck in the middle — too European to be Middle East, too Middle Eastern to be Europe — Turkey took its symbols very seriously; bars serving fancy cocktails and public displays of affection in one camp, headscarves and a mosque’s call to prayer in the other.
The social reforms might have been strict, but each one served to create a secular, homogenous and above all modern nation-state; a republic that could comfortably mingle at any European party. Yet the authenticity of the revolution was questioned since the beginning: in “A Journey to China, or Things Which Are Seen,” Toynbee wrote of a 1929 visit to Turkey right at the height of enthusiasm for the revolution. But even then he was distinctly aware of some of its superficiality, such as a tram in Istanbul where a curtain separating the sexes had been removed but men and women still didn’t mix — “The curtain had become invisible, but it was still there, all the same” — or how hats had successfully replaced fezzes, sort of — “Many a self-consciously behatted man is still wearing an invisible fez.”
Such invisible relics of Islam didn’t mean the social engineering failed — it did pave the way for Western-living, secular Turks after all — but that even those who couldn’t or didn’t want to play along were adorned in the trappings of the West. Regardless, for the next 90 years Turkey’s genuine secularists saw themselves as spearheading the drive towards Westernization and, perhaps more importantly, wanted the acceptance of Europe — to mixed results. But just as Turkey may not have been readily accepted by the West, it was also too foreign for the East.
Many throughout the Middle East perceive Turks as “Muslim Light,” the casual semi-faithful. Imagine the frustration of the devout Turk, so full of religious conviction yet never really accepted as part of Club Islam. One only has to hear the indignation of an AKP deputy recounting a visit to Mecca — where Saudi authorities were so rude as to doubt his faith and tested his knowledge of common prayers — to see his embarrassment at being indentified with those contemptible secularists. When Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan picks his crusade of the month, whether againstabortions,adultery or the arts, it is over his frustration of Turkey’s image among his fellow Muslims; the same frustration secular Turks felt for decades trying to be accepted by Europe.
And so it is no surprise that it was in Istanbul, a city literally divided between the continents of Europe and Asia, that a nationwide clash over appearances began this weekend. Istanbul’s Taksim district on the European side has always been the heart of the country’s secular life: its countless bars, nightclubs, bookstores, and galleries stand as testament that there are Turks who enjoy more of life than simply shuttling between work and prayer. As the centerpiece of Turkey’s window to the world, the area has been at the forefront of the country’s image wars for years, with more religious elements wanting to dress it in mosques and Islamic architecture to show where it really belongs.
The latest chapter of this tug-of-war took place last week, when the government gave start to an urban redevelopment plan to replace Taksim’s main green space, Gezi Park, with a giant replica of an Ottoman artillery barracks. What began last Monday as a peaceful sit-in to save the park escalated by Friday into a stand against Erdogan’s vision for Turkey. The movement quickly spread to other cities, as did the ubiquitous tear gas; coverage mainly focused on the arbitrarily violent riot policing and the solidarity between the protesters fed up with Erdogan’s authoritative style, but beneath it all was a long-standing clash over two very different expressions of Turkey.
Though he had declared his intention to ” raise a religious youth ” openly, Erdogan has waged more of a shadow war of sorts against the visibility of the secular lifestyle. His desire to limit it to the home, or at least behind closed doors, is only matched by his zeal to erect bolder and bolder monuments to an “Islamically appropriate” lifestyle. And while the Occupy-style protestors have been his villains of the week, Taksim has something else he has always despised: alcohol, one of the most overt displays of un-Islamic activities out there. Prohibited by the religion, alcohol’s visibility everywhere is a clear message: Turkey, or at least large parts of it, is indeed Muslim Light.
The AKP’s crusade against alcohol over the years has included a set ofrestrictions passed in 2011, an official crackdown during Ramadan banning outside seating at cafes and bars, an abrupt last-minute cancellation of alcohol licenses for a music festival in 2012, not to mention years of exorbitant taxes on alcohol that have succeeded in turning off many from drinking. But the AKP took its latest great leap towards a less “Islamically embarrassing” society just two weeks ago, with parliament passing yet another comprehensive set of restrictions on drinking. The 17-hour marathon session featured harsh insults, parliamentarian-on-parliamentarian kicking and a walk out in protest by almost every non-AKP deputy — a level of tension and tantrum that captures the determination of the religious and the anxiety of the secularists.
The AKP’s harshest critics, from the opposition parties to secular journalists to the involuntarily sober, all note how it is engineering a conservative Islamic society. It’s a claim the AKP frequently denies, though its arguments aren’t very believable when so much of its legislation so neatly aligns with Islamic sensibilities. Often picking and choosing the Western laws and restrictions that suit its values, the government has argued for years that its alcohol policy is one of public health, despite numbers that indicate no such health problem exists in Turkey. OECD data shows Turks only consume 1.5 liters of alcohol per capita, way below the 10.7-liter average of the EU. Similarly a 2010 WHO report shows that number hasn’t changed much since 1961, and adds that Turkey has the highest rate of abstention among the countries listed; four-fifths of men (83.6 percent) and nearly all women (97.1 percent) abstain from alcohol, with 65 and 92 percent respectively having never had a drink in their lives. As for the young people — “we don’t want children drinking night and day and wandering around tipsy; they are going to be alert, their minds full of knowledge” Erdogan has said — 83.9 percent of Turks aged 15-24 have never once consumed alcohol, according to data from the Turkish Statistical Institute.
In the end, Turkey’s alcohol restrictions are simply about Erdogan’s personal biases. Defending the ban of campus sales at the Global Alcohol Policy Symposium in April, he argued “of course [students] who imbibe alcohol will get intoxicated, pick up a knife and charge their friends; they’ll forget all about their computers and books.” Given that he thinks the only thing standing between academic success and a stabbing spree is happy hour, Erdogan’s surreal perception of alcohol’s capabilities would rival even the most devout Christians of the Temperance movement. Meanwhile, back in reality, alcohol is rarely the culprit in the countless cases of violent bullying for not fasting during Ramadan or the groups who chant Islamic slogans as they attack random people for kissing in public .
Just on Sunday, during a live interview with channel Haberturk, Erdogan fumbled a couple responses on alcohol — first declaring anyone who ever drinks an alcoholic, then suggesting those who enjoyed the occasional cocktail but voted for him didn’t count. He would later try to save it by reiterating they were not banning alcohol. To be fair, there seems to be no reason to do so: it’s effectively a tax on a Western lifestyle — the kind enjoyed by those least likely to vote for the party in the first place — and a useful source of revenue. Erdogan isn’t against drinking as long as no one can see it; “if you are going to drink, then drink your alcohol in your own house” he told the nation last week . Just as secularists once sought to sweep Turkey’s religious element under the rug, it is now the AKP’s turn to do the same.
Many of his opponents, including the Gezi park protesters, warn of the Islamization of Turkey. But as the party of those left behind by the 1923 revolution, it doesn’t really need to socially engineer much. The party keeps winning elections in landslides, and its values are already shared by the majority of Turks . If he is trying to gain converts, he’s already halfway there, as he so graciously pointed out earlier this week when he reminded the nation how he’s keeping his supporters from intervening against the Taksim protests on his behalf.
Back at the alcohol policy symposium in April, Erdogan had dismissed how the “top-down, domineering modernization mentality” of the government back in the 1920s “encouraged and incentivized alcohol consumption with a copycat mindset of modernity and civilization.” But he of all people should know how such a mindset doesn’t work: “fortunately social values, the societal fabric, resisted the government’s attempts to encourage alcohol, keeping it in check.” It is this patriarchal attempt to impose a lifestyle on those who disagree that is fuelling much of the Gezi protests.
And just as secularists weren’t able to secularize all of the religious, it doesn’t seem likely the religious can convert most of the secular-ish Turks … but it doesn’t mean they can’t be swept under the rug. The lesson to be learned from Erdogan’s statements in April, and the nationwide protests still going strong, is just how much resentment and antagonism can arise from having a lifestyle forced on people who don’t want to play along. Marx once wrote that history repeated itself “first as a tragedy, then as a farce.” If Erdogan is able to point out the mistakes of 1923, he shouldn’t be repeating them again in 2013. Maybe in the 2100s, when the time for the next facelift rolls around, the country will have finally learned to coexist … or at the very least learned to be farcical about it.
Turkish protests affect the lira – Daily Star
Without Irony, the U.S. Rebukes Turkey for Cracking Down on Protesters – David Harris Gershon
Istanbul’s Taksim Square was calm Wednesday morning after a night of violent clashes as Turkish riot police worked to clear out entrenched demonstrators. Police detonated sound grenades and fired water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets at the thousands of mostly peaceful protesters who repeatedly converged on the square, until crowds were dispersed early Wednesday morning. Some protesters threw rocks and petrol bombs. Many of the protesters have regrouped in the nearby Gezi Park, the site of the first protests nearly two weeks ago. While officials said they would not intervene in the park, there were reports of police firing tear gas into Gezi Park overnight. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is set to meet with some of the protest leaders, whom he selected, Wednesday afternoon. Some are refusing to attend in light of the police violence. Meanwhile, Turkey’s broadcasting watchdog imposed fines on four opposition television channels, accusing them of incitement for broadcasting footage of the protests. Additionally, between 50 and 70 lawyers who staged a sit-in in support of the protests were detained after skirmishes at Istanbul’s High Court.
Visit the new blog, Levantoday, created by several graduate students.
New website offers detailed profiles and histories of armed groups in Syria: Syria Conflict Monitor
SCM has compiled an extensive, searchable database of self-published opposition videos. To date, over 4,000 videos have been catalogued based on variables that track the strength, location, and organization of armed groups. The database transforms the disparate information published by the opposition into highly informative visual representations that layout the organizational structure of each groups, its affiliates and allies, fighting strength, and geographical location.
Beyond the database itself, we present for the first time the SCM Timeline Series-Alpha. Our timelines take a deeper look at the major fighting groups on the ground in Syria. Beginning with each group’s founding, the timelines visually reconstructs the major activities of each group and allows the user to follow with a few scrolls of the mouse the entire operational history of each group. We are launching the site with two thorough timelines and are working laboriously to release more in the coming weeks.
Report from the Syria Center for Policy Research, “Socioeconomic Roots and Impact of the Syrian Crisis” – available here.
Report on the “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant” – interesting look at a group of mujahideen in Syria with individual profiles of jihadis and graphs exploring percentages of fighters by country.
Policy brief from ECFR MENA: Syria: the Imperative of De-Escalation