Posted by Joshua on Monday, March 17th, 2014
Joshua Landis on the conflict in Syria as it enters its 4th year. Interview with Middle East Week
- Recent advancements by the Assad regime
- How the international community views the conflict
- Fragmentation of opposition forces
- Rebel governing of territories they control
After three years, no end in sight
by Borzou Daragahi, Financial Times
In another time or place, Abdul Razzaq al-Hammoud would be spending his days coaching football and teaching physical education at the Deir Ezzour secondary school where he once worked. Instead, the moustachioed, mild-mannered Syrian is a warrior in a conflict with no seeming end. He is the seasoned commander of 260 men fighting with Kalashnikov assault rifles and anti-aircraft weapons to maintain control over a hard-won neighbourhood that is under regular threat of regime barrel bombs and artillery shells.
“Two years ago we controlled nothing,” says Mr Hammoud, 53, during a meeting in a hotel in southeast Turkey where he and some of his fighters gathered to discuss strategy with other Syrian activists, rebels and politicians. “Now from the Iraqi border to Deir Ezzour there is no regime.”
Three years on…
Many of his men, his relatives and his neighbours have been killed, martyred to a revolution that began three years ago this month. But there have been many victories, too. “If we lose one fighter we take 10,” he says. “We have so much experience at this point. We have gotten very good. Of course, we are winning; we are advancing all the time.”
As the Syria war enters its fourth year, no question is perhaps more pertinent to the calculations of combatants inside the country and policy makers abroad than who is winning. Ominously for the prospects of ending the conflict that has left up to 140,000 people dead and displaced more than 9m in what the UN describes as the worst humanitarian catastrophe since the second world war, both sides claim they are.
“The fact that we’re in this intermediate situation where both sides can hope to win, but it’s not clear that they will, is the worst of all worlds,” says Jean-Marie Guehenno, former UN and Arab League deputy envoy to Syria. “Because all sides have an interest in continuing the fight rather than going for a political solution, all sides believe they can win.”
The war has mutilated Syria, savaging its economy and infrastructure. Once-vaunted systems of healthcare, education and transport will take a generation to repair. It is also quickly transforming the region, hardening sectarian animosities between the Muslim world’s Shia and Sunni sects and the geopolitical tensions between east and west. And it shows no signs of ending soon. The conflict has become a complicated, multi-layered contest with four big participants, each with its set of foreign backers: the regime, the rebels, the hardline al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or Isis, and ethnic Kurds.
All sides publicly claim victories and progress, in part to calm the nerves of their worried backers. Both the regime and the opposition say they would have long ago defeated their adversaries were it not for the meddling of international powers. But no side has been able to deliver a decisive blow against the other and neither is ready to give in on core demands: the opposition insists that Bashar al-Assad, the strongman president and member of Syria’s Alawite Shia minority, steps down; the regime insists on the capitulation of “terrorists”, its catch-all term to describe the largely Sunni opposition.
“There is no military solution to this,” says a western diplomat. “The only way forward is a transitional process. It’s going to be messy.”
For both the regime and its opponents, the war has become an exercise in diminishing expectations and declining returns. Both have retreated to defensive positions, unable to achieve decisive battlefield breakthroughs.
“It’s about control of regional resources,” says the Syrian head of an international aid organisation. “Why does so much of the fighting happen within 5km of the border? It’s about checkpoints and customs and control over goods smuggled in and out of the country.”
From their strongholds, they exchange mortar rounds and rockets. The regime dispatches fighter jets and helicopter gunships to rain death on opposition-held neighbourhoods. All sides have been accused of vicious atrocities.
“The war taking place in Syria is one of the filthiest wars in history,” says Younis Oudeh, a pro-Syrian regime commentator based in Lebanon. “It is a mix of many types of war. If each side had a specific enemy with a specific aim, we might have called it an orderly war, but it is not. And we cannot call it a street war either. It is a filthy, roguish war with diverse aims.”
Since the uprising against Mr Assad’s rule began, the opposition has made big strides. Where Mr Assad and his father for 40 years controlled Syria with an iron fist, huge stretches of the country – including in and around the capital Damascus and the commercial hub of Aleppo – are now under the control of either the Syrian rebels, Isis or ethnic Kurds. In some critical oil-rich areas, such as the largely Kurdish Jazeera district, Mr Assad maintains only a token presence.
“The war is slow,” says Sobhi Abu Leith, a furniture vendor and former soldier who defected. “It’s not remarkable or easy to witness. The regime cannot make one step advancement, but they can shell.”
Mr Assad has struggled for months to take control of the Lebanese border in towns such as Yabroud, only managing to make progress in recent days with the all-out support of Lebanese Hizbollah fighters who fought Israel to a standstill in 2006.
Rebels who once fought in flip-flops now have fatigues, medical kits and walkie-talkies. They have set up joint operations rooms inside and outside Syria to co-ordinate attacks. Fighters receive the occasional token salary – sometimes as little as $35 a month, to help support their families.
“Even with the little we have we have managed to fight the regime,” says Col Abdul Jabbar Al-Oqaidi, commander and spokesman of the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo province. “We’ve become experienced and stronger and we can hold on to our own territory. We’re fighting a two-front war and it’s a good experience for us. After two years, we’ve become more experienced in street fighting.”
As Mr Hammoud, the Deir Ezzour commander puts it: “He [Mr Assad] controls the sky. We control the ground.”
Opposition leaders estimate that more than 100,000 fighters in about 1,000 brigades are grouped in several big coalitions.
The regime’s armed forces, once numbering 250,000 and considered among the most formidable in the Arab world, appear to be sliding into disarray with each passing day. Analysts say there is strong evidence that the command-and-control structure has broken down. Rebels say they have intercepted radio communications in which regime pilots or ground forces bluntly disobey orders. “There is a chaotic situation in the command of the armed forces,” says Mohamed Suleiman, a former defence ministry inspector who defected to the opposition but maintains contacts within the armed forces. “The military institution has already collapsed. You have gangs fighting for the government.”
According to the regime’s narrative, Mr Assad has survived despite vast forces arrayed against him. “The campaign against the Syrian regime is fierce, domestically and internationally,” says Mr Oudeh. “So far the Arab and foreign funds and powers have failed to topple this regime. Syrians are still supporting the regime strongly while state apparatuses such as intelligence and diplomacy are still standing strong.”
The western diplomat warns that “fatigue is going to set in” among Arab and international donors to the opposition the longer the war drags on. Russia, Iran and Hizbollah consider the survival of the Assad regime vital to their wider conflict with the US and the west.
“Bashar is getting major international support; we’re talking thousands of militiamen and millions of dollars,” says Hazem Lotfi, an official of the Aleppo council, which oversees governance and aid distribution in northern Syria. “On the other hand the friends of the Syrian opposition abroad are not delivering.”
The regime also has better equipment. Rebels complain they are forced to fight against the regime’s air power with second world war-era anti-aircraft guns. They long for portable heat-seeking air-defence rockets. But it is not just weapons where the regime has the edge, but surveillance gear, too. “We need more technology,” says Colonel Abdel Salaam Mehdi, commander of the military council of Aleppo. “We need devices to help us hear what the regime says and its plans. We need more intelligence and espionage devices. The regime has the ability to get all it wants of intelligence devices, to fight us with, from Iran and Russia.”
Regime forces have advanced slowly on Homs and Damascus, making an assault on Damascus from the northwest a near impossible goal for now. A recent western intelligence assessment predicts that the regime will gain firm control over a rump but feasibly functional area of the country within 18 months, a diplomat said.
Born in part of desperation and a lack of loyal troops, the regime’s vicious bombardment of civilian areas under rebel control not only degrades opposition forces cheaply but also has a political aim: in effect it prevents any alternative to Assad rule taking root anywhere in the country.
“So far there’s no spot where you can say, ‘look, there’s the new Syria’,” says Bassem Kuwatli, a Syrian opposition activist. “The goal is to show people that the revolution won’t bring anything better. They’re trying to destroy the social infrastructure supporting the revolution.”
The gradual erosion of the rebels’ habitat and the fact that much of the world looks the other way as the regime shells densely populated urban areas has led many to conclude the state is winning the conflict, regardless of rebel advances.
“If you look at the regime in the last six months they have been making small strategic advances,” says an aid worker who makes dangerous weekly forays in and out of northern Syria. “Where you get wide boulevards you have the regime. Where you have alleyways the rebels are holding it.”
The strength of the uprising might be its weakness. The fragmentation and disunity that allowed it to take root in hundreds of localities without any central authority is hampering its ability to deliver a knockout blow.
“What I don’t see is a more coherent opposition army,” says the head of the western aid group. “You have guys that are shifting their alliances. They stick together but do not merge.”
While Lebanon and Iraq, facilitated by Iran, provide the regime with fresh recruits, the number of new fighters joining the rebellion has dried up. “If I don’t have enough aid for salaries and weapons, I cannot recruit more fighters,” says Col Mehdi.
Even if the rebels prevail in the conflict, they will have a difficult time winning the peace. “Although the rebels are doing a good job in the field, a lot of Syrian factions don’t trust them,” says Khaled Milaji, a Syrian doctor at an organisation that co-ordinates humanitarian aid.
For many Syrians, including the 2.5m refugees who have left the country and an estimated 7m displaced, the war has meant tremendous losses.
Yousef, 20, an opposition supporter from the northern town of Tal Rifaat, withstood air strikes and shelling but finally fled his home along with his family to Turkey when water and electricity supplies were cut.
“The revolution is not winning,” he says after crossing the Turkish border at the town of Kilis. “There are lot of reasons and I would need hours to explain. But it’s basically because we’re not in unity.”
Additional reporting by Erika Solomon
Iraqi Officer Takes Dark Turn to al Qaeda
Alliance Against Maliki Government Develops After Armed Militants Overtook Fallujah
By Matt Bradley and Ali A. Nabhan
March 16, 2014
For Iraq, he was a decorated war hero, severely wounded in battle. As an officer for the Iraqi army, Brigadier General Mustafa Al Mashhadani fought against Iran in the 1980s, against Kuwait in the early 1990s, and on his home turf against Americans in 2003.
But now, coming out of retirement at age 55, he is doing battle with a new enemy in his hometown of Fallujah: the army he served for decades. And he is doing it with a contingent of more than a hundred al Qaeda-linked fighters.
“Every time I fight, I whisper to myself, “It’s me, you idiots,” said Gen. Mashhadani. “This could have been different.”
His anguish is emblematic of some of the strange alliances that have cropped up since armed militants overtook the important city of Fallujah early this year and placed it under the control of the city’s Sunni majority. That majority may hate al Qaeda and its rigid theocratic mores—but they despise Nouri Al Maliki, the Shiite prime minister, even more.
More than two years after U.S. forces withdrew from the country it occupied for almost a decade, Iraq is on a bloody downward spiral. Devastating terror attacks now kill dozens of people with horrifying regularity. Highly organized and well-armed militants, capable of bold strikes against police and military targets, have been able to take and hold territory.
Indeed, the past year of worsening sectarian tensions and violence has already produced death tolls reminiscent of Iraq’s not-so-distant past. At least 7,818 civilians were killed in Iraq in 2013, the highest annual total since 17,956 were killed in 2007, the year the sectarian civil war first began to subside, according to the United Nations. And the violence hasn’t let up: In Baghdad on Saturday, a car bombing—a style of attack that has become routine—killed 19 people.
Experts say that as the crisis deepens, the country risks returning to the kind of sectarian civil war that, at its zenith in 2005 and 2006, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and nearly tore the country apart.
Nowhere are signs of the country’s crumbling more evident than in Fallujah, a city seared in the minds of U.S. Marines who did fierce battle with insurgents there. Mr. Maliki, who is vying for a third term in parliamentary elections at the end of April, has sought to portray the occupation of Fallujah as an al Qaeda uprising with international links. And U.S. officials, concerned about the deteriorating security there, have responded. In December, the U.S. delivered 75 Hellfire missiles to Iraq, the first such shipment since it left the country. Then in January, the administration notified Congress of a new weapons package for Iraq that includes up to 500 Hellfire missiles.
In Fallujah, many Sunni politicians blame the bloody uprising on Mr. Maliki and his policies, which his critics say amount to Shiite chauvinism. Contrary to recent reports, locals interviewed in the city say the strongest occupying force in the Sunni-majority city isn’t al Qaeda but tribal fighters whose impatience with Mr. Maliki has finally boiled over into violence.
In response, the premier has said the policies aren’t chauvinistic and that militants are trying to use them to stir an uprising. Mr. Maliki’s spokesman also denied criticisms that the prime minister had been playing up al Qaeda’s presence in Anbar province, saying that there would be “no political benefit” to overstating the region’s terrorist threat.
But observers warn that unless Mr. Maliki takes a more conciliatory tone with Iraq’s powerful Sunni minority, the sectarian division could lead to a more permanent political rupture. Mr. Maliki risks pushing Sunnis out of politics altogether only months before this spring’s parliamentary vote, Sunni politicians warn.
“If the government fails to convince people to stand against al Qaeda…it could be the beginning of a civil war in Iraq,” said Rafi Al Essawi, a Sunni who served as Finance Minister under Mr. Maliki, but quit under protest last year after his bodyguards were arrested and accused of terrorism. He said he is working to encourage Fallujah’s tribal leaders to reject al Qaeda.
In all, since the outbreak of violence began in Fallujah, Ramadi and other areas of Anbar province in December, some 400,000 civilian residents have been displaced, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. The fighting in Fallujah has pushed February’s death toll above 1,000 across the country, according to the U.N. and the Health Committee of the Provincial Council of Anbar.
Known as the city of mosques, Fallujah has long been a focal point of Sunni extremist sympathies. U.S. forces fought two blistering battles against al Qaeda-linked insurgents in the city in 2004. Though some U.S. officials have quietly voiced concern over Mr. Maliki’s policies, a spokeswoman for the White House said this month that the U.S. was actively consulting with Iraqi leaders because of concerns about terrorism.
For the moment, the size of the threat directly from al Qaeda is hard to determine. While al Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS, can claim a sizable deployment in Fallujah, interviews with local officials, tribal sheiks and antigovernment fighters suggest that much of the fighting is also led by ordinary Sunni Iraqi tribesmen, jilted loyalists of Saddam Hussein’s regime like Gen. Mashhadani and Islamist fighters whose jihad, unlike that of al Qaeda, doesn’t exceed Iraq’s borders.
For the bulk of the fighters, locals say, the goal of the uprising is far more provincial than al Qaeda’s global agenda. Their aims align more closely with the Sunni protesters who erected and maintained largely peaceful protest encampments against Mr. Maliki’s government throughout Anbar and other Sunni provinces over the past year.
Among the Sunni protest movement’s chief grievances is a counterterrorism law that Sunni leaders say Mr. Maliki has wielded disproportionately against Sunnis, arresting them by the tens of thousands.
The Sunnis’ other main complaint is an exclusion law against loyalists of the former regime. Demonstrators say the law against former Baath Party members, the dominant party under the old regime of Saddam Hussein, functions as little more than a sectarian filter to keep Sunnis from getting government jobs or rising in the ranks of Iraq’s bureaucracy and military.
“What Maliki has done, the way the security services operate, this has created support for al Qaeda,” said Kirk Sowell, a Jordan-based political risk analyst who is the publisher of Inside Iraqi Politics. Al Qaeda-linked fighters, he estimated, make up only about a fifth to a third of the fighters in Fallujah.
Mr. Maliki and his supporters say that both laws are essential tools in the fight against global Islamist extremism and the return of the former regime of Mr. Hussein—very real threats that the prime minister insists are incubating inside at least a dozen Sunni protest camps.
“The de-Baathification law included people from both sides, and even may include more Shiites than Sunnis,” said Ali al-Moussawi, Mr. Maliki’s spokesman, who added that Mr. Maliki is bound by the law and remains “unhappy” that he isn’t able to recommission certain former officers who had “proven their loyalty” to the nation. “These are attempts by the politicians in the Sunni areas to gather people around them by telling them that the government is treating them unfairly as an excuse to create trouble in Iraq.”
Mr. Moussawi acknowledged that some former senior army officers under Mr. Hussein were now colluding with al Qaeda to fight against the Iraqi army. While he didn’t know of Gen. Mashhadani, the general would definitely be considered a traitor if he were caught, Mr. Moussawi said.
Loyalists of Mr. Hussein, who was executed in late 2003, have organized themselves into a group known as the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order, a violent resistance movement with loose ties to the global Naqshabandi Order of Sufi Islamic mystics. Their ranks have populated some of the protest encampments in the north of the country.
ISIS, meanwhile, has strengthened as the bloody conflict in neighboring Syria drags on. Syria’s war has given militants access to a plethora of heavy weapons and fighters transported over the two countries’ porous shared border, allowing them to ramp up the scale, frequency and sophistication of their attacks. ISIS operates in multiple countries with the aim of carving out an Islamic caliphate.
Though pro-Maliki politicians acknowledge the Sunni protesters’ legitimate grievances, they say al Qaeda-linked groups like ISIS have exploited sectarian divisions to advance a regional agenda.
“If the government didn’t raid the protest camps, then Anbar would have already been named an Islamist state for al Qaeda,” said Khaled Al Assady, a member of the Dawa Party that Mr. Maliki leads.
Despite their ideological differences, most antigovernment militants in Fallujah see their main goal as preventing Mr. Maliki’s Shiite-majority Iraqi military from re-entering the city—which to them is tantamount to a hostile takeover by foreign occupiers.
Weeks of negotiations between local tribal leaders loyal to the militants and Anbar politicians with ties to Baghdad have revolved around which security force would eventually take charge of the city in lieu of the armed forces.
For Mr. Maliki’s part, the Fallujah calculations include the added complication of the April 30 parliamentary elections, in which the two-term prime minister will be seeking a third chance at the helm. In Fallujah, analysts say the prime minister has what may be his last, best chance to show Shiite Iraqis that he can deal firmly with a rising jihadist threat without further alienating the Sunni minority.
“Maliki needs to demonstrate that he’s cleared Fallujah of al Qaeda one way or another,” said Michael Knights, an Iraq expert at the conservative-leaning Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “There has to be some kind of dependable end to this, otherwise it’s just going to risk humiliation again and again.”
Yet as the fighting wears on, more and more secularists like Gen. Mashhadani are finding themselves seduced by al Qaeda.
When he enrolled in the military academy in 1979 at age 20, he says being in the army was a different experience. Being an officer was “marvelous, and you could propose to any girl.”
Greeting guests in his house in a neighborhood populated by former officers loyal to Mr. Hussein, the sharply dressed, mustachioed Gen. Mashhadani still boasts of the war wounds he earned while fighting against Iran—what he calls “the Persian state of evil.” His disfigured leg recalls where an Iranian shell gouged out a chunk of muscle during a firefight in 1987.
He says he climbed the ranks by fighting in what he termed “the disastrous invasion of Kuwait” in 1991 and then against American air incursions in 1993 and 1997. After the army was dissolved following the U.S. invasion in 2003, Gen. Mashhadani returned to his home in Fallujah, and tried civilian jobs. He says he asked about recommissioning in the army four years later, but says he and other Sunni retirees were turned down under the de-Baathification law.
Ultimately, the former general cites increased crackdowns on his fellow Sunnis as a driving force behind his shift in allegiance. In December last year, after the prime minister declared that a protest camp outside Ramadi was dominated by al Qaeda-linked militants, Iraqi security forces killed at least a dozen protesters while dispersing the camp. Shortly afterward, Gen. Mashhadani says he followed his son to a Fallujah mosque where militants were organizing themselves and distributing weapons.
He says he was quickly assigned as a brigade commander over 60 mostly untrained men, and on the same day found himself face-to-face with the first division of the same Iraqi army he served. He says he ordered his unit to retreat. “Some of my old colleagues serve in that division,” he said.
Gen. Mashhadani believes the presence of at least one hundred former Iraqi army officers among the Islamists’ ranks has made them a more professional, merciful fighting force. He claims to have convinced al Qaeda leaders to halt the practice of launching rockets from civilian neighborhoods.
The former general recalls one incident in which he and his ex-officer colleagues argued with al Qaeda leaders to prevent them from executing 14 captured Iraqi soldiers. Gen. Mashhadani says he saw to it that the men were given over to the protection of a local Fallujah sheik. Such experiences have hardened Gen. Mashhadani’s belief in the dignity of his fight.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say I’m a living schizophrenia case,” he said. “On the one side I refuse al Qaeda ideology, but on the other I miss military life and hate the government that commands this army.”
According to Khalid Al Dulaimi, a leading figure in the Fallujah tribal military council that functions as an informal umbrella group for antigovernment militants, Gen. Mashhadani has become a favorite among younger fighters. He now controls a unit of 103 militants, all from different tribal backgrounds, in a southern suburb of Fallujah.
Gen. Mashhadani admits that it was “bad luck” that compelled him to join with al Qaeda. But for the first time since 2003, he says, he is earning a respectable salary of about $1,000 a month—comparable to that of a new army lieutenant, he says. And he has a refrigerator stocked with food, some spare cash to spend and a loyal following of young soldiers who value his hard-won expertise.
“Today I will prove to Maliki and to anyone who refused my return to the army that I deserve to be an army commander,” he said. “Today, I am absolutely with al Qaeda.”
—Uthman Al Mukhtar, Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.
Write to Matt Bradley at email@example.com
“Syria’s Fourth Year Of War Will Look A Lot Like Its Third,” by Max Rosenthal, Huffington Post
“DEBATE – Syria Three Years On,” Christian Chesnot, Naïm KOSAYYER and Joshua Landis – France 24
Joshua Landis speaks with C-Span on Third Anniversary of the Syrian Uprising
Syria Plans Presidential Elections in Summer
Minister Says Assad Will Likely Be One of Several Candidates
By Sam Dagher, March 16, 2014
DAMASCUS, Syria—Syria plans to conduct presidential elections this summer in all areas under government control and President Bashar al-Assad will likely be one of several candidates to run, the minister of information said.
Omran al Zoubi, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Sunday, gave the first confirmation that Syria will definitely hold the vote and that it will be open to other candidates.
He dismissed all concerns about the wisdom and practicality of holding elections in a country mired in a civil war over the legitimacy of Mr. Assad’s rule.
“Presidential elections will occur on time in accordance with the constitution,” he said. “We will implement the Syrian constitution verbatim whether this pleases or angers certain people.”
“This is how the regime aims to destroy our community. They pressure and pressure until we turn on each other. Can you believe that now rebels are asking store owners for protection money?” said one resident. “We’ve turned into a cowboy movie.”
“Our leadership is a genius to come up with the ceasefire idea in Barzeh,” one intelligence officer boasted in an overheard conversation with a taxi driver in Damascus. “We turned the rebels from fighters into bunnies in our hands.”
That frustration is mixed with resignation that, after a long and costly struggle to end four decades of Assad family rule, some people just want the conflict to end.
Three years after the demands for reform erupted around Damascus and demonstrators chanted “Leave, Leave Bashar”, a new refrain is heard whenever people broach the issue of ceasefires.
“We want to live,” they say.