Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime

by Aron Lund for Syria Comment   [updated July 24, 2013]

Mohammad Darrar Jammo funeral, Latakia July 2013


The murder of the Syrian regime loyalist Mohammed Darrar Jammo in Lebanon, now said to have been an internal family affair, led to much firing in the air. At Jammo’s funeral in Latakia, there was a heavy presence of militiamen, and militiawomen, who were there to pay their respects to the dead. These fighters belong to a group now known as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Iskanderoun/Syrian Resistance, which considered Jammo one of their own. It is led by a certain Mihrac Ural, who works under the nom de guerre of Ali Kayali.

Kayali is a Turkish-born Alawite, and now a naturalized citizen, having lived in Syria since the early 1980s. His background is murky and controversial. He cut his teeth in 1970s Turkey as an ultraleftist, then took up arms against the government and added the cause of Syro-Arab nationalism to his repertoire. From there, he entered the Beqaa Valley-centered underworld of Syrian-backed radical factions, developed a connection to the Kurdish PKK, and also seems to have struck up a lasting relationship with the Assad regime itself. Exiled in Syria since escaping a Turkish prison in 1980, Kayali ran a small splinter faction of his communist sect, the THKP/C-Acilciler, and worked to reattach the Hatay (or Iskanderoun or Alexandretta) province to Syria. This is a longstanding Syrian government demand, and Hafez al-Assad briefly toyed with the Hatay separatists in his cold war with Turkey. But it was a passing fancy, and Kayali himself had been long forgotten by the time Bashar took over and patched up relations with Turkey.

Mihrac Ural (Ali Kayali) as a young man.

Ali Kayali, doing his Young Stalin impersonation

After the start of Syria’s unrest in 2011, Kayali suddenly reappeared as a force to reckon with. He began recruiting young Alawites on the coast to PFLI/Syrian Resistance, and set them to work as a pro-regime militia. The group has been fighting to keep rebels contained to the Sunni areas of northern Latakia, and even made some forays into the Homs region. While it uses Syrian-nationalist and leftist imagery, Kayali’s group has only made half-hearted attempts at hiding its Alawite character. Kayali himself is often accompanied on official occasions by a rising Alawi religious figure called Mowaffaq al-Ghazal. This spring, Kayali’s militia was rumored to be involved in the Baniyas/Beida massacres, a sectarian slaughter of Sunni civilian families and one of the worst war crimes to date in the Syrian conflict. He has also been accused by his enemies of involvement in narcotics trafficking into Hatay and of organizing bomb attacks in Turkey. But details are scarce, and it’s very difficult to tell fact from fiction.

But, now – here was Kayali at the funeral of Mohammed Darrar Jammo, sheikh Ghazal at his side. The PFLI/Syrian Resistance had in fact organized part of the funeral ceremonies, along with the party, state and army. In pictures from the event, we see Kayali’s militia fighters in full camouflage and battle gear, waving flags and rattling off some obligatory AK47 rounds. Banners and placards glorifying the group and its martyrs were held high. Kayali himself had a seat of honor next to the Christian and Alawite religious dignitaries, with representatives of the army also on the scene. The photographs show Ali Kayali basking in the adulation of his supporters – a loyal fighter for Assad, but now also a political figure in his own right.

Ali Kayali and the PKK's Abdullah Öcalan

Chilling with Abdullah Öcalan


The Syrian opposition has had a tendency to lump together every pro-Assad organization under the term ”Shabbiha”, just like the Assad regime would want us to believe that all the rebels are ”Wahhabis”.

The ”Shabbiha” term itself comes from old Alawite coastal smuggling gangs, some of them linked to Fawwaz al-Assad. (This great post by Mohammed D. has more on that.) It was originally a local phenomenon, and first entered the national – and international – lexicon when thugs cracked down on the Latakia-Baniyas protests of March 2011. For the local demonstrators that reported the killings, the word ”Shabbiha” had a very specific meaning. But many other reporters and opposition members took the term and ran with it. Soon, it was being applied to pro-Assad vigilantes all across Syria, causing much confusion about how Fawwaz al-Assad and his little gang of street brawlers could be everywhere at the same time.

Opposition gossip about how you can recognize a ”Shabbiha member” by his white sneakers or this or that style of beard, particular cars and so on, not to mention their ق-heavy Alawite coastal accent, have been spread as fact in the media. But in reality, of course, there was no single Shabbiha movement and no single type of Shabbiha character. The people called ”Shabbiha” belonged to lots of different organizations and communities. Syria is a complicated place, and just about every corner of the country has inhabitants who for some reason have seen fit to fight for Assad. Far from all have been Alawites, and most have had nothing whatsoever to do with Fawwaz al-Assad.

For example, a gang of mafiosi from a politically connected Sunni clan played the part of ”Shabbiha” in Aleppo, until its leaders were captured and summarily executed by rebels in July 2012. Something similar went down in Idleb City, where gangs of Sunni regime supporters did Bashar’s dirty work, until the army stepped in. Tribal rivalries played a part in Deir al-Zor, while Arab-Kurdish tension and the ambiguous role of the PKK influenced developments in Hassake. In Quseir, some members of the Kasouha clan – Greek Orthodox – set up checkpoints to stop the opposition. In Homs and many other places, local Alawite thugs were funded by regime-connected businessmen like Rami Makhlouf, to transform their street gangs into well-armed militias. (Aziz Nakkash has written better than anyone else about how sectarian and regional dynamics, and politics and money, helped shape the militia structure in the Homs region.)

Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade

The Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade in Damascus

A thousand contradictions, and a million nuances – yet, most of the media swallowed the opposition’s ”Shabbiha” concept hook line and sinker. The USA Department of the Treasury even went as far as sanctioning ”The Shabbiha” as if it were an organized nation-wide group led, of course, by Fawwaz al-Assad. Which probably says more about how the US government is run than it does about the Syrian militias.

Today the “Shabbiha” term is generally used in this new, post-2011 meaning – as a generalized, insulting description of an Assad supporter. That happens to words, and it’s okay. But it’s also important to try to look behind such vocabulary, since it serves a political purpose. On the one hand, it’s been useful for the opposition – but it has also, quite unintentionally, helped the regime conceal the increasing fragmentation of its repressive apparatus.


It’s news to no one that the opposition movement in Syria is extremely fragmented, but what hasn’t received enough attention is that something similar seems to be happening on the regime side. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it too has begun to decentralize and drift apart. Assad’s growing reliance on local proxies, paramilitary forces, and foreign militias is the best evidence.

Ali Kayali’s PFLI/Syrian Resistance on the coast is only one example. The most common type of pro-Assad militia has been the Popular Committee, a sort of government-backed neighborhood watch which has mushroomed across the country since spring 2011. When the uprising began, the regime could also draw on a legacy of Baathist paramilitary groups, most of them set up during the intra-party power struggles in the 1960s and to counter the Islamist uprising of the 1980s. The Baath’s paramilitary wing, the Popular Army, is the best known of these groups. But they were far from the only such group – in the early 1980s, even the state-run Peasants’ Union created its own armed wing. Add to this some Palestinian client groups like Ahmed Jibril’s PFLP-GC, Fath al-Intifada and al-Saeqa, other international proxies, and the bodyguards and thugs loyal to individual members of the ruling family. Fawwaz al-Assad’s original Shabbiha gangs on the coast were only the best known. And of course, many Alawite villages and neighborhoods will receive arms one way or the other, whether it is organized or not.

Hilal Hilal

Hilal Hilal, new Baath Party boss

The Baath Party has also reportedly begun putting guns in the hands of its members. Hilal Hilal, who led the Baath’s Aleppo branch, successfully oversaw the creation of a new party militia to counter the rebels there. He claimed to have gathered 5,000 volunter fighters in the newly created Baath Battalions already by November 2012. Hilal has just been named Bashar’s assistant regional secretary; it may not sound very impressive, but it means he’s now responsible for running the day-to-day affairs of the Baath Party. If he received that post as a reward for holding his ground in Aleppo, and for successfully militarizing the local party branch, we can assume the same thing is now going to be repeated elsewhere.

Last but not least, of course, we’re seeing Shia jihadist groups flood into Syria, just like their Sunni counterparts. Chief among them are the Lebanese Hezbollah, which will require no further introduction, and the Iraqi-majority Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade in Sayyeda Zeinab, south Damascus. There are several other, smaller Shia militia formations, many of them connected to Islamists in Iraq, as has been so well documented by Phillip Smyth.


Ali Kayali at a recent meeting with two leaders of Syria's largest Shia Islamist militia, the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, Messrs. Mokhtar Hussein (Abu Haidar) and Hassan Ajib (Abu Ajib)

Ali Kayali and two Abul-Fadl al-Abbas commanders in July 2013

These militias have been very useful to Bashar al-Assad and his government, but they also represent a weakening of its centralized structure. There’s already talk of how some pro-Assad gangs have begun to self-finance through smuggling, looting, protection rackets and so on. That makes them able to keep fighting for Assad – but it also makes them less dependent on him. Neighborhood leaders, tribal figures, and militia bosses are all developing power bases of their own, no longer limited to the titular positions granted them by Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian regime is, since 2011, slowly losing the trappings of state sovereignty, even in the areas still held by Assad. Hezbollah is now propping up Baath control in the strategic Quseir area – and it’s an Iranian client, not a Syrian one. The Iraqi Islamists of the Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade help keep the opposition away from the Damascus International Airport. But they do so to protect the Sayyeda Zeinab area from rebel incursions, for their own religious reasons, and to protect the Iraqi Shia who live there – not because they have strong feelings about who should operate Syrian Air. Meanwhile, men like Ali Kayali have taken up arms on behalf of the regime, gathered their own private armies, and are now rising political stars on their home turf. There must be hundreds of similar but smaller militia bosses now, in neighborhoods and villages across Assad-held Syria.

These fighters, some of whom are only indirectly linked to Assad or even to Syria, will eventually emerge as powerbrokers in their own right. Just like Assad felt the need to reward Hilal Hilal and other effective Baathist hardliners, he will have to share resources and power with militia commanders on the fringes of the state.

If Assad were to win the war and reconquer Syria – but I can’t fathom how – he could probably bring his many militias back in line without major problems. But he isn’t winning, and the war will go on, and on and on.

Wait long enough, and at least some of these newly-empowered regime subcontractors will realize that they have become dictators of their own little republics – stretching sovereign from Abu Ali’s cornershop to the street by the gas station. When the day comes that Assad can neither protect them nor finance them, their loyalty to him will be tested. Many are going to stick together in the ex-regime camp out of fear or ideology or sectarian solidarity, but others will transfer their allegiance to someone who can pay their way – whether it’s a bigger militia leader, a wealthy businessman, a foreign government like Iran, someone else inside the regime, or even an opposition group.

The central Syrian state has begun to disintegrate, but the regime’s component parts are not going anywhere. They will adapt to anarchy, like everyone else.



An artist’s rendering of the crisis in Syria

The Baath Party and Syria’s official media are trying to conceal and reverse this process as best they can. Regime propaganda is very centralized and on-message, and internal discipline seems impressively strict even after two years of war. The cult of personality around Bashar al-Assad also helps. His centrality is not just about dictatorial powers, it’s also symbolic. Assad-era Baathism is all about a fusion of Party, Nation and Leader as Souriya al-Assad, in classic fascist style. The president was always the symbolic embodiment of that holy trinity, and cult worship of him has been the pillar that kept big-tent Baathism standing. For as long as Bashar is around, every opponent of the uprising will know who s/he is supposed to rally around (Assad), whose instructions to obey (Assad), and what type of regime to ask for (Assad). Not an inspirational ideology, but it goes a long way towards presenting a common front. The Syrian regime needs an Assad like an army needs a flag.

"Abu Fakhr" Mohammed al-Ghani, who recently died while fighting rebels east of Damascus for the Martyr Saad Martyr Regiment, a pro-regime militia within the NDF framework

A regime supporter who recently died fighting for the Martyr Saad Zamam Regiment, an NDF faction in eastern Damascus

But even if this symbolic unity helps a lot, reality can’t be ignored. Unless the war changes course dramatically, the regime won’t be able to reverse the ”militiafication” of its repressive apparatus, it can just try to cope with it and control the process. In 2012, many Popular Committees and other local militias began to be merged into a bigger and supposedly more cohesive paramilitary organization, called the National Defense Forces. It seems to have received some level of Iranian financing and training, and we saw it play a role in the regime’s recapture of Quseir not long ago. But putting Volkssturm at the frontline was never a sign that your war is going well.

However much the creation of the NDF helped Assad to re-centralize control over the pro-regime armed movement, he can’t buck the trend in the long run. We may be years from the day the that these changes take full effect. But there is no doubt that if this conflict goes on, and Assad continues to grow weaker, then the withering of state sovereignty will proceed unchecked. Warlordism is coming, and not only on the opposition side. Cracks can now be seen on fringes of the regime, and the center will not be spared.

— Aron Lund

Added on July 24, 2013: Several people have sent me an article just published by the Aks al-Sir website, that illustrates some of these issues very well. The article is based on a text first published on Kulluna Shuraka, an influential opposition news site run by the UAE-based dissident Ayman Abdel-Nour. For context, Jeremana is a suburb of Damascus, mostly populated by Christians and Druze. What follows is my own translation of the article.

Republican Guard forces have arrested the man responsible for the Basel Street checkpoint in the city of Jeremana, this Monday, “Abu Yazin” Basel Seif. They also arrested “Abu Ayman” Emad Dawoud, who is responsible for the Oscar checkpoint that leads to the airport road, as well as other people. This was part of a campaign started days ago, with the arrest of the Shabbiha leader Hussein Shoeib.

The arrest of Shoeib provoked the wrath of his adherents (about 50 people). They launched an armed attack on the so-called National Defense Forces in Jeremana, which had been set up by the regime using people from Jeremana, led by one of them called Farhan al-Shaalan. It frightened the city and forced shops to close, according to the Kulluna Shuraka website.

An activist in the city says that the people arrested today were useful to the regime at the start of the uprising, when they worked alongisde it to repress the movement and persecute activists in the city and outside of it. They broke into houses and robbed their owners and attacked them. With some of them, the situation reached a point where they established their own private prisons in the cellars of their houses and on farms, to kidnap and extort people, particularly outsiders who were not from the city, in exchange for money. They also used these places to collect and resell what they had stolen. This created discontent with their actions among people in the city.

Analyzing the reasons for the campaign against the Shabbiha in Jeremana, the activist says that their actions blossomed and they started to work for their own purposes, and some of them began to refuse the orders to go on security assignments outside the city, fearing that this would be dangerous. Conflicts about the “loot” started to appear among them. Each group was linked to a particular security section, and they began to reveal the theft and transgressions of each other.

On the other hand, the regime has created what is known as the Popular Committees, and developed them into what is known as the National Defense Army [sic] in the city (some 600 young Druze and Christian men). It set up a structure for them, and gave them the Water Unit building to serve as headquarters, and turned them into an organized force on the ground. It also sent tens of them on training courses in Iran, and distributed arms and communications equipment among them, and it gives them a monthly salary. Therefore, the “first” Shabbiha have become a burden to the regime, and it became necessary to cut them down to size in order to win public support in the city, and to get rid of the danger posed by so-called “disloyal” groups that it did not fully control, which competed with the new groups for “loot” and stolen goods.

Comments (663)

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651. don said:

How Arming Syrian Rebels Will Backfire (See Libya, Afghanistan)

The Senate and House Intelligence committees’ about-face decision last week to arm the rebels in Syria is dangerous and disconcerting. The weapons will assuredly end up in the wrong hands and will only escalate the slaughter in Syria. Regardless of the vetting procedures in place, the sheer factionalized nature of the opposition guarantees that the arms will end up in some unsavory hands. The same militant fighters who have committed gross atrocities are among the best-positioned of the rebel groups to seize the weapons that the United States sends to Syria.

Congress can still join with the 70 percent of Americans who oppose arming Syria rebels and heed former National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski’s caution against arming the rebels (he called the Obama administration’s decision to do so “a mess in the making”). Let’s hope they do.

Arming one side of Syria’s multi-sided and bloody civil war will come back to haunt us. Past decisions by the U.S. to arm insurgencies in Libya, Angola, Central America and Afghanistan helped sustain brutal conflicts in those regions for decades. In the case of Afghanistan, arming the mujahideen in the 1980s created the instability that emboldened extreme militant groups and gave rise to the Taliban, which ultimately created an environment for al Qaeda to thrive.

There is no unified command or control in the Syrian opposition, as was the case of the Afghan mujaheddin. And due to the United States’ long history of diplomatically isolating Syria, we know even less about the nature of Syria’s opposition. The excuse that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” is often invoked to justify anti-Assad forces. This short-sighted excuse has gained the U.S. enemies around the world, undermining U.S. national security. The same justification was used by the Bush administration in its collaboration with the Assad regime to torture suspected militants in Syria. Arming the enemies of our enemies hasn’t made the U.S. more friends; it has made the U.S. more enemies.

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August 1st, 2013, 10:17 pm


652. don said:

Another European mercenary killer bites the dust

AMSTERDAM, The Netherlands – A Dutch man of Moroccan descent was killed this week, as fighting between the Kurds and Islamist groups spread this week to Aleppo’s Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood and two towns east of the city, raising worries that jihadists from the Netherlands are increasingly involved in the Syrian civil war.

The dead Dutchman was identified as Choukri Masali, alias Abu Walae, and pro-jihadist website claimed he was the brother of the first “Dutch martyr” of the Syrian war, Mourad Masali, who was killed in March.

Masalai was likely a member of Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al-Qaeda affiliate that is allegedly backed by Turkey and has been involved in fighting against the People’s Protection Units.

Hundreds of jihadists from the Netherlands have reportedly been recruited to fight in Syria, and four have been reported killed.

The same website reported on July 17 that Dutch jihadists and other “Islamic fighters” were involved in a blockade of Kurdish villages in the countryside around Aleppo.

Kurdish organizations in the Netherlands have expressed increasing worries, after several Kurds also headed to Syria, after being recruited by Arab mosques in the Dutch cities of The Hague, Zoetermeer, Leiden, and Rotterdam.

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August 1st, 2013, 11:51 pm


653. don said:

Jordan Foils Weapons Smuggling from Syria

Weapons and ammunition were seized in Jordan’s northern border near Syria, along with the people who tried to smuggle them to Jordan

A large amount of weapons and ammunition were seized in Jordan’s northern border near Syria, the Jordanian Armed Forces said in an official statement which aired on the country’s official television station on Thursday.

“Border guards on the northern frontier – near border city of Al-Ramtha – confiscated large quantities of weapons, ammunition and drugs,” the statement said, according to the Al Arabiya network.

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August 1st, 2013, 11:59 pm


654. don said:

Syria moved missiles before alleged Israeli strike

Officials tell the New York Times some Russian-made Yakhont missiles Israel allegedly targeted last month were removed from launchers prior to attack.

U.S. unlikely to sanction another Israeli strike on Syria

The New York Times says a July 5 attack on Yakhont missiles did not finish the job and that further strikes by Israel can be expected; in the past, the U.S. ignored the details and expressed understanding for Israel’s need to defend itself, but that may now change.

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August 2nd, 2013, 12:37 am


655. don said:

Syria: Mask comes off Zionist enemy’s face

General al-Freij, Syrian defense minister, slams Israel’s ‘involvement’ in civil war, pans its ‘failure facing Syrian army firm stance’ in state TV interview

Syrian Defense Minister General Fahd Jassem al-Freij, was interviewed for Syrian state TV in a broadcast marking the country’s Military Day, and used the opportunity to bash Israel.

The Israeli enemy tried to lead from behind to weaken Syria with its field agents,” he said. “But they deteriorated, which necessitated the enemy’s direct aggression to bolster its terrorists.”

The Syrian minister added that Syria is withstanding a crucial war which includes unprecedented material, military and logistical aid to “terrorists.”

“The enemy and its mercenaries have failed and their dreams shattered thanks to the Syrian army’s firm stance.”

Al-Freij added that “the mask has been removed off the face of the Zionist enemy, and the whole world has seen the proof for Israel’s involvement by its gross attacks and by its support of terror gangs.”

As evidence of Israel’s alleged involvement, Al-Farij pointed out “the Israeli arms and equipment seized by the Syrian army in the hands of terrorists and the microchips planted by agents of the occupation in one of Syria’s beaches.”

According to him, Israel’s support of the rebels is also apparent in the treatment of wounded rebels in Israeli hospitals.,7340,L-4412890,00.html

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August 2nd, 2013, 1:19 am


656. don said:

Diplomat: Obama approved intelligence leaks on Israeli air strikes in Syria

Diplomats said the administration of President Barack Obama has enabled the intelligence community to disclose Israeli military operations against the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. They said the leaks included unreported Israeli air and naval strikes on advanced Iranian and Russian weapons that arrived in 2013.

“This is a decision that could come only from Obama,” a diplomat said. “[T]his reflects his dismay over the Israeli operations, which the president believes could result in a regional war.”

The diplomats attributed the leaks to the CIA, which first disclosed the July 5 Israeli strike on Latakia and later said the operation was unsuccessful. The Israeli F-16 multi-role fighters were said to have refrained from entering Syrian air space.

“While the warehouse was destroyed, American intelligence analysts have now concluded that at least some of the Yakhont missiles had been removed from their launchers and moved from the warehouse before the attack,” a U.S. official told the New York Times on July 31.

In the latest U.S. leak, the intelligence community asserted that the Assad regime tried to conceal the failed Israeli strike on Latakia, the fourth such operation in 2013. The Times said Syrian units torched launchers and vehicles to make Israel believe that it destroyed the P-800.

“The leaks will continue because there is a lot of resentment within the U.S. intelligence community over Israeli assessments regarding such countries as Egypt, Iran and Syria,” the diplomat said.

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August 2nd, 2013, 1:33 am


657. don said:

Manning guilty; war criminals on the loose

In a show trial/kangaroo court with an American twist, worthy of the Cultural Revolution in 1960s China, Bradley Manning was predictably found guilty of multiple counts of violating the Espionage Act.–war-criminals-on-the-loose.aspx

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August 2nd, 2013, 1:44 am


658. Las imágenes son las de un ataque químico según los expertos ← TI-News said:

[…] Estratégicos (IISS) de Londres. “Es un momento muy extraño”, coincide el analista sueco Aron Lund. El cuándo y el dónde del ataque con armas químicas contra la población civil del barrio de […]

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August 22nd, 2013, 4:34 am


659. Seven Scenarios for the Future of Syria said:

[…] enclave is the largest, covering about half the population and a third of the country. But local militias have grown increasingly important as time goes on meaning the central government’s writ does not uniformly extend across even its […]

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August 26th, 2013, 10:28 pm


660. The Endgame in Syria / Ending the Games in Syria said:

[…] guilty of a number of heinous War Crimes before and during the conflict. Within al-Assad’s cult of personality there are civilian militias which have carried out further atrocities on Sunnis who were perceived […]

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September 16th, 2013, 4:45 am


661. The Endgame in Syria / Ending the Games in Syria | Tyrant News said:

[…] guilty of a number of heinous War Crimes before and during the conflict. Within al-Assad’s cult of personality there are civilian militias which have carried out further atrocities on Sunnis who were perceived […]

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September 16th, 2013, 6:30 am


662. Deconstructing Obama’s Case for War (Part 3) said:

[…] authoritarian, guilty of a number of crimes before and during the conflict. Within al-Asad’s cult of personality there are civilian militias which have carried out further atrocities on Sunnis who were perceived […]

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September 17th, 2013, 3:04 am


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