“The Uprising and the New Syria: Islamists Rise in Raqqa while Damascene Christians Dodge Fire” By Matthew Barber
Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, March 10th, 2013
The Uprising and the New Syria: Islamists Rise in Raqqa while Damascene Christians Dodge Fire
By Matthew Barber, for Syria Comment
March 11, 2013
Readers of Syria Comment were less than thrilled by the posting of the video of the capture of Raqqa by Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya. Some felt that the forenamed Islamists deserved greater criticism, and that the quip that “the Ba’athists look unhappy” was trite.
Syria Comment is a blog that attempts to maintain pace with rapidly developing current events; it should be obvious that it’s not always possible to provide an op-ed with each significant incident as it breaks. But in addition to this, a sentiment of frustration seems to be surfacing due to the perception that the blog’s bias is gradually trending toward the mainstream media’s simplistic regime-vilification and opposition-advocacy, the myopic narrative of “good guys and bad guys.”
In this article, I will try to complicate the “good guys versus bad guys” narrative.
According to most sources, only one military site in the entire muhafiza (governorate) of Raqqa remains under regime control. This means that the first muhafiza in Syria to be effectively “liberated” has been achieved by Islamist resistance. That only passing mention was made in the last post about the fact that other Islamists have in the same week kidnapped UN personnel in the Golan has contributed to the perception that Syria Comment is somehow becoming soft on the opposition and unconcerned with the issue of Islamism in the conflict. The capture of Raqqa is much more than the “changing of the guard;” it represents a change in the kind of power exercised. It is a visible shift to Islamism, something that many Syrians as well as outsiders linked to Syria find troubling.
These events are significant, and do deserve greater attention. Raqqa, the first muhafiza to be (nearly) independent of the Syrian regime, is now controlled by Islamists—though with or without the approval of its inhabitants? Many questions remain unanswered about this incident. If the rumor is true that tribal authorities were ready for a change and facilitated the smooth nature of this takeover, one can’t help but wonder why local tribal leaders supported something like “Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya” as the new authority of their city, and install this “emir.” (“Emir” is a title of authority preferred by certain groups who believe in implementing an “Islamic state.”)
This narrative is suspicious. The first striking oddity is the falling statue after take-over. It seemed quite normal at first—after all, we’ve seen countless such videos. But that was the funny part: we saw them during the opening months of the uprising. When have we seen them recently? In most cities that the rebels take over, the statues of regime figures tend to have disappear far in advance of the final takeover. Opposition activity precedes the takeover, when symbols of the regime are usually the first target and destroyed. How does a city where a statue of Hafez al-Assad has remained standing for two years suddenly fall without a fight? Furthermore, why does a tribal, predominantly Sunni city still have a standing statue of Hafez after two years?
To those who know the city, al-Raqqa is an unusual. In Syria it is considered a social space characterized by open-mindedness. Syria’s most important folklore dance troop comes from Raqqa, and men and women dance together in the city’s dance festival. It is a city that produces many cultivated intellectuals, sports champions, and artists. Something is different about al-Raqqa: its muhafiza was one of the few that has remained calm during the last two years (on par with Sweida—yet it is Sunni). The tribal configuration of Raqqa have long been regime supporters. According to local lore, the particular relationship between the Sunni tribes of Raqqa and the regime can be explained by virtue of the held tradition that these tribes were Shi’i in origin. I don’t have the part of the story that explains how tribes originally Shi’i became Sunni, but the belief is that when the Alawi came to power, the Raqqan tribes “remembered their roots,” and a “natural” affinity has existed ever since. Whether or not this traditional knowledge can provide a satisfactory understanding for the close ties with the regime, the question remains: Why would tribes with a long history of being in the regime’s confidence now suddenly abandon it, especially considering that the retaliatory air strikes would be anticipated?
If my Raqqan contact (a professional living in the city who belongs to one of the tribal bodies itself) is correct, they haven’t. Evidently, the tribes have NOT altered their position of support for the regime. Local citizens were taken by surprise and shocked by the abrupt takeover of the city. In other words, if this is true, then the Islamist rebels are a foreign, uninvited presence whose agenda runs contrary to the will of the residents. Furthermore, the city and tribes are apparently not capable of doing anything about it.
No one seems to know anything about the mysterious “emir” heading this Islamist force. In the conquest video, did he really have trouble asserting that he was with the FSA and therefore switched to “Jabhat,” or were “FSA” the first words spontaneously out of his mouth, before coming back to the title of his Islamist group? Upon further viewing, it almost seems that FSA is what comes most naturally to him, and it takes effort to pronounce the Islamist affiliation. It’s hard to read and seems a bit suspicious. Ultimately, he distances himself from the FSA and identifies with Islam.
Slightly more can be gleaned from Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya’s debut video, which can be seen here:
In it they state that they are comprised of a number of small groups that have banded together to form the larger body of “Jabhat al-Wahdet al-Tahrir al-Islamiyya.” They state that their agenda is to attack the regime’s forces, protect public places, and support the Free Syrian Army. They also announce that they are establishing shari’a courts to mete out justice to those who err. They also make the vague statement: “we are going to judge others before they judge us.”
The “emir” doesn’t seem readily visible in this video. The man seated to the right of the table, behind the row of crouched men, seems to resemble the mustached fighter seated with the row of men to the right of the couch with the emir and his two conquered officials in the post-takeover video.
Some have wondered if the “emir” is not Syrian. This is unlikely, based on the accent. There are many Syrian “ethnicities” spread throughout Syria, and it is hard to place origin by mere appearance. He certainly does seem quite different from everyone else in the room, and it gives him the appearance of being “foreign,” at least to the rest of the bunch. He also doesn’t seem particularly charismatic, and one wonders how he was chosen to lead this front as “emir.” He and two other fighters with him (one by the door, one on the couch) have beards and mustaches, but not all the men in the room have beards. It’s not possible to say which of the men in the room were with the Jabhat group, and which were with the Muhafiz. The man introducing the clip seems eager to please.
To the left of the “emir” is Suleiman Suleiman, the Head of the Ba’ath Party in Raqqa, claimed to be an Alawi. On the right is the Muhafiz of Raqqa, Hasan Jalali (Abu Wa’el). According to sources claiming to have known his history, he was a mulaazim in the army (lieutenant), later became the Mudiir Naahiya al-Nabak (Director of the District of Nabak), later a qiad ash-shurta (police chief), then the Mu’awin Wazir al-Dakhaliya (Assistant to the Minister of the Interior), before finally becoming the Muhafiz (Governor) of al-Raqqa. While Mudiir of the Naahiya of Nabak, he lived in Deir Atiyah, and according to local residents, he took a lot of money from people in the area. Regime personnel have always had their strategies to extract bribes from the citizenry, and he had his. Most people depend on motorcycles rather than cars in those communities, and these generally lack license plates. Supposedly he used this as a pretense to confiscate motorbikes, requiring the owner to pay rishwe before being able to take back the vehicle. Of course, stories abound among people excited to see the capture of an enemy about his former depravity, and none of this is confirmed.
Still to be answered is how many men Jabhat al-Wahde has on the ground, and how they were physically able to pull off the rapid takeover. Also unclear is the exact extent of regime presence still in the muhafiza; the one regime base left should have around 3,000 men since it is classified as a liwa (brigade), but there may be less due to recent needs to deploy troops elsewhere. Additionally a military airport is still under regime control; unknown are the extent of its fortifications.
Amidst all the questions, one thing is certain: The Ba’athists do look unhappy.
Two Years Ago
These events represent great change in Syria. A faction of the readership is saddened by the movement in this direction, and also feels that Syria Comment is not confronting this reality openly enough. To consider the orientation of Syria Comment toward these events, let’s return for a moment to the beginning of the conflict.
While inside Syria at the beginning of the uprising, I wrote an article for Syria Comment called “Syria in Fragments: Divided Minds, Divided Lives,” detailing new phenomena that I noticed, namely rifts of opinion that were forming between different groups of Syrians with whom I had daily contact. I was struck by how quickly this divide formed and how unable Syrians were to hear each other’s concerns across this divide. What became obvious was that sentiments regarding the regime and the uprising began to visibly polarize along confessional lines.
The reader’s responses to this article were telling. Despite substantial praise, some readers attacked the article for “being sectarian” or for “promoting sectarianism.” One comment judged it as participating in “…Western Orientalist and Neo-Orientalist tendencies to divide people along ethnic and religious lines. Such an approach is profoundly racist.” Another reader invoked Edward Said to suggest that I was following an Orientalist penchant for superimposing artificial sectarian categories onto other societies—to define identity, I suppose, as I saw fit: “I am either a person of a sect that fights with other sects or I am nobody.”
Rather than concealing such a strategic agenda, the article’s account of personal encounters was primarily edited material that I had extracted from my own journaling, as I tried to make sense of what was happening for myself in a Syria that was suddenly transforming remarkably from the one I had known. The motivation was to understand an undeniable pattern that became clearer each day with every individual, family, and community I visited: that though a number of Sunnis supported the regime, and a tiny sliver of Christians (and one or two Alawis) supported the opposition, most of those participating in the uprising were Sunni, and most members of religious minorities stood with the regime.
The idea of my critics seemed to be that I would create sectarianism just by talking about it—that I could conjure up rifts where previously there was unity. And though the article had the aim of creating empathy for the minority communities that opposed the uprising, it was often members of those communities who found it so offensive. For anyone infused with Ba’athist ideology, vocally commenting on Syria’s milieu of diversity was a breach of sacrosanct convention (unless to affirm peaceful coexistence). “There are no Alawis or Sunnis in Syria—just Muslims,” Alawi young people would tell me in the first months of the uprising. Lovely thought, but the Sunnis didn’t agree. Those participating in the uprising also challenged my premise, claiming that Syria would be “one” against the regime. They consistently mentioned the few Christians (and the one Alawi they’d heard rumor of) who were participating in the dissent, and maintained that it was a struggle for the freedom and rights of all Syrians. They disliked any suggestion that the uprising would be “Sunni” in character, and the article—and others of its kind—became targets of abuse from those on both sides of the conflict.
These reader’s reactions mirrored the very division inside Syria that the article was highlighting. As both sides tried to convince us that neither Syria nor the uprising were sectarian, several problems became apparent. While maintaining that there was no sectarianism in Syria, regime supporters ironically explained the uprising as an insidious sectarian current of hateful Salafism. Being simultaneously terrified of both Islamism and the regime, many members of minority communities were content to not understand the uprising, and to instead chorus Ba’thist clichés, trying to reinforce the groupthink of obedience, adopting the identity required of them, and waiting and hoping that the regime would quickly quell the “Islamist” disturbance that was not only fearsome for what it might have stood for, but which unsettled all by disturbing the balance of conformity and submission.
As the terrified child of an abusive parent or the fearful member of an authoritarian cult who says, “Let’s all just do as Father wants,” many minority Syrians were distressed and angered when others broke with conformity to rock the boat. Their unquestioning devotion to the national figure of adulation has earned them the moniker minhebakjiin (those who participate in the cult surrounding government-placed billboards with the slogan “we love you” printed next to the president’s picture). (Some, with the clarity of age, would slow down and acknowledge their years of abhorring the regime. Their reason for the drastic shift to support it was: “We are not ready for democracy. We don’t even know what it means. This is not the right way or moment to create change in Syria.”)
Since the unity of Syria was the religious mantra, any dissent had to be explained as a sectarian anomaly, a form of terrorism that must be propelled by religious extremism. This was a narrative of denial regarding the participation of ordinary Syrians in the uprising. To this day, the regime cannot simply acknowledge that there are Syrians unhappy with it. (This makes the regime’s recent overtures for dialogue perplexing; how can you dialogue with a party you don’t believe exists? What solution can you seek when you won’t admit that much of the population you ruled is fighting you?)
On the other side, Sunni activists and rebels responded to concerns that a Syria without Bashar would resemble an Iraq without Saddam by singing such platitudes as: “Syria is not Iraq; Syrian culture is different from Iraqi culture; Syria is used to everyone living together in peace; the Christians are the original Syrians, no one will attack them or their churches.”
Both sides of this argument have been proven wrong: those who maintained that Syria was not a sectarian place have had to admit that it is, often by observing rebel attacks on the civilians of their own communities; and those with the opposition who assured us that the uprising would not inflict harm on minority communities have had a unpleasant wake-up call as to the character of a good segment of the rebel fighting force. Two years later, the verbal violence among readers of this blog runs parallel to the killing on the ground in Syria. The frequent use of “rat” to describe one’s perceived opponent is reminiscent of the Hutu use of “cockroach” to describe Tutsis prior to the genocide. Let’s just say the comments section of Syria Comment isn’t a place I’d want my (imaginary) children to spend time.
The Early Warnings of Sectarianism
In the initial days of the Syrian uprising, during the adrenaline of the (at that point still inspiring) “Arab Spring,” many were searching (from the comfort of their own homes) for their next rush, and Syria seemed to hold a lot of promise. Amidst the stampede of appeals for “intervention,” Dr. Landis belonged to a minority of voices urging caution regarding the danger of a “sectarian conflict.” Though it was an unpopular position, Syria Comment remained one of the few entities opposing intervention (back when we wondered if intervention might truly be on the table), not out of any love for a corrupt, selfish, tyrannical regime, but out of a concern that without the proper kind of transition, the future could be worse.
The original position of those in this camp was to point-out the obvious faults of the rebels and by demonstrating that they also had a dangerous capacity to do harm, to advocate leaving the regime alone, while still recognizing its abuses and not defending its actions. The fear was that the security vacuum in removing Assad would replay the events that ensued when Saddam was deposed, and the statements of Iraqis longing for the days when he provided security were a constant echo.
Trying to provide a critical understanding of the conflict has often not engendered appreciation. Since the beginning, Syria Comment has been attacked by readers on both sides of this civil war, and accusations of “pro-Alawi supremacy” and “pro-intolerant Islamists” can be found together in response to the same post. The dilemma was predicting which of the two contenders would be the lesser evil in the long run, and it was felt that security in the now would be better than uncontrolled sectarian chaos. Looking back at the tremendous loss of life, many would maintain that this was the right position, but that the regime’s violence has surpassed even our worst expectations helps to explain why the discussion of Islamism’s problematic character has lately become muted.
Even the staunchest critic of the opposition, who holds that rising Islamism will pose the gravest threat to the long term health of the country, is so dismayed by the tremendous loss of life in the short-term as regime brutality pounds countless towns into gravel, that he or she now sits counting the days until the regime falls. Over time, it has become more difficult to follow this line of criticizing the opposition and holding that the regime should be left in power, due to the extreme proportions of violence it uses. After two years, maintaining that “the alternative could be worse” began to frustrate the public, since: “what could be worse than pulverized towns?”
And yet, all the predictions of sectarian hatred are coming to fruition: the Islamist presence is rising (in Raqqa’s case apparently against the popular will) and in many places it is demonstrating incredible intolerance for non-Sunnis. While the Islamist role in the immediacy of the conflict might not be grinding towns into rubble, when war-time ends, will it be better than the severe rule of militant nationalism?
The Sectarian Reality Now
A reader recently provided this video showing mujahidiin in Syria blowing up an Alawite Mazār (Arabic مزار) which is a Saint’s tomb, mausoleum or shrine. The Alawites traditionally do not build mosques, but visit saint’s shrines or “mazārs.” Watching it is almost more painful than the many videos of wounded people, because more than a physical attack on the body of a political rival, it represents a spiritual attack on the soul of what others consider most sacred.
Here is another video, showing Syrian rebels forcing a Shi’ite man to destroy a Shi’ite mosque—his own mosque: http://youtu.be/aX8KUUKSWgc
The Christian District of Damascus
The Christian districts of Damascus now come under daily fire from Syrian rebels. Mortars are fired from Jobar, Qabun, and the area east of Zabladani. The targets are Qasaa’ and Bab Tuma. Within the past few weeks, multiple churches have been attakced. The Chaldean Orthodox church-building was hit by one such projectile, and another nearly-hit the Latin Catholic church. Also in February, two mortars were fired into the French hospital in Qasaa’. Christian-owned businesses in Qasaa’ and Christian homes around George Khuri park have all been hit by various projectiles. One homemade mortar damaged three houses in one shot, terrorizing the entire neighborhood. These attacks are not new; they’ve been occurring for some time. They are now increasing in frequency, however, and currently around two mortars per day are hitting Qassa’. This is in addition to bombings that have targeted Christian areas, such as the October 21st bombing in Bab Tuma that killed 20 people. In the provinces of Homs, Idlib, and Aleppo—regions lacking effective regime protection—numerous churches have already been destroyed.
Rebels have attacked Christian villages, with broad-daylight killings in streets. Monasteries and places of pilgrimage have been bombed and hit with rockets. Each day al-Jazeera airs images of rebels in Jobar pushing toward ‘Abbassiyiin Square, depicted with heroic sensationalism, as if to boost morale and drive them on. On the other side of that front, Christians tremble like peasants behind a crumbling castle wall, hoping that Syrian troops will manage to keep out the advance. Considering recent vigilante justice on the part of rebels in Yarmouk (hanging Palestinians accused of collusion with the regime and executing police at point-blank range), their fear seems warranted.
The Damascene Christians have formed some local militias to try to protect their areas, though they mostly do not carry weapons and are reluctant to display a public presence. They are trying to learn the lesson of the traditionally Druze suburb of Jeremana, where six local Druze patrolmen were attacked and killed. Jeremana was hit several times by car bombs, rockets, etc. When locals erected checkpoints, they effectively created visible targets, something that the Christians are now trying to avoid. The Christian ability to protect themselves is quite limited, however, especially in Qasaa’ which is most vulnerable, having no walls and being surrounded by streets on all sides. The places for launching the attacks are so obviously nearby that the opposition’s tired argument that “the regime is attacking its own supporters to keep them loyal through fear” is no longer convincing.
Many people are terrified of the rise of Islamist power in Syria, and with regular assaults on minority civilian communities, it should not be difficult to understand why they side with the regime, even though many of them have despised the regime their entire lives. When I recently brought up the regime violence in Idlib and Aleppo with one of my Christian friends in Qasaa’, pressing him about the fact that the majority of the FSA are ordinary Syrians from ordinary families, he said, “Look, I know that. But we’re worried about the minority of extremists. 2% of the FSA can kill all the Christians in Syria.”
The idea that sectarian tensions didn’t simmer from the beginning of the conflict—or even before—is absurd. A Christian friend climbed into a taxi in Jobar in the first few weeks of the uprising. The driver asked him what sect he belonged to. He replied, “I’m Syrian” (a typical Ba’thist response, favored by minorities who would prefer to be “Arab” or “Syrian” than feature their vulnerable label—but then that’s what the Ba’ath party is all about…). The driver replied, “Well, at least you’re not one of these Alawi who are oppressing us,” a typical attitude in the uprising’s moments of birth among—not all—but many. And while yes, in general the oft-touted statement that “all groups live together in peace in Syria” was true, anti-Christian sentiment is not new. Aleppine Armenians remember a time prior to Hafez al-Assad (and the brutal suppression of sectarianism so characteristic of Assad rule) when men in trucks with La ilah illa Allah painted on the sides terrorized Armenian neighborhoods with threats that they would kill the inhabitants, shouting the taunt “Ya Arman maskiin, tahat as-skiin!” (Poor Armenians, under the knife-blade!).
When still in Syria, I remember asking a friend who lived in Harasta why he hadn’t brought his car when he came to meet me for lunch in Damascus. “Well, you know I am from Tartus,” he explained. “I can’t drive my car anymore. If people in my neighborhood see my Tartus license-plates, they will think I am Alawi and attack me.” (He was Isma’ili, not Alawi, but opposition fighters tend not to view Shi’i sects with much nuance; all have become subsumed under the label of “Shi’ism,” the detested villain.) A young Alawi man on the outskirts of Damascus had his throat cut by men posing as soldiers while he was walking home in his neighborhood one night. Such acts of sectarian animosity characterized even the earliest days of the uprising, prior to the regime’s large-scale assaults on communities of rebellion. They have continued up to recent attacks, such as the combination car-bombing/mortar assault on the lower middle-class Alawi neighborhood of Jebel Mezze last November. These attacks are often poorly covered by the media; while 11 were reported dead in the Jebel Mezze attack, locals allege that the death toll was closer to 60 with around 100 injured.
The Trajectory of Opinion
Due to his ability to humanize the community holding power in Syria, Dr. Landis has been attacked for “maintaining a pro-regime position.” The irony is that while the mainstream media is perhaps finally catching up to the sectarian problem, and just starting to talk about Islamism and violence against minorities, this is coinciding with greater reader complaints that Syria Comment is now ignoring Islamism and focusing primarily on regime abuses.
The threat of sectarian violence and instability was high enough (for those who perceived it) to warrant maintaining a position against arming the opposition during the heavy assault on Homs in early 2012. At that time, when such an assault was still something new, those in favor of intervention would ask Dr. Landis with incredulity how he could still feel hesitant about supplying weapons or full-scale external intervention. In that period, thousands of Alawi, Christian, and neutral or pro-regime Sunni refugees fled the Hama and Homs areas for the Christian enclave of Al-Waadi. (Some were forcefully evicted by Syrian rebels; some friends in Homs reported that their neighbors, three elderly people living in the old city, were unable to travel due to their health. Rebels showed up, told them they needed their house for a military base, and expelled them onto the street in their pajamas, without allowing them to take any money or valuables from their home.)
While the rebels and regime battled in Homs, armed militants from outlying Sunni villages invaded a mixed Sunni-Christian area at the southern end of al-Waadi. These self-proclaimed holy warriors erected makeshift checkpoints and began stopping vehicles (as the mukhabaraat were doing in Homs) as part of an ethnic hunt; the targets were any Alawi families who might be passing by. The insurgents were unsuccessful in their quest for Alawi blood because government forces came to the area and restored order. Several Christians were killed in the streets before the government could contain the renegade gang, however, and fear incited a second surge of refugees (who had already fled Homs) from the southern part of al-Waadi northward and deeper into its mountainous territory.
Also during the Homs assault, Alawi civilians in the city became targets. I spoke in that period with one Alawi family whose home was in an Alawi area of Homs; in just a single day they counted 17 bombs launched into their neighborhood by rebels. This illustrated the uncomfortable paradox of Syria at that point: the forces of the regime cracked down violently on dissent, yet conversely they were the only source of protection and stability for most of the country. While the government was cracking down on Homs to crush resistance that threatened its sovereignty, it simultaneously intervened in areas like al-Waadi to maintain security. Countries spearheading the regime-change agenda, often as authoritarian as Syria’s dictatorship, called on Syria to cease its crackdown. (When Saudi Arabia voted to suspend Syria’s Arab League membership, it killed several of its own protestors at peaceful demonstrations in the same few-week period.) The regime knew that if it withdrew from Homs, the city would never again be under the authority of the Syrian state, and the country would fracture. Those on the outside again wondered which was the lesser evil: a desperate government willing to employ every measure against armed elements wanting to secede, or a vacuum of security in which sectarian violence could proliferate.
As the war has expanded however, the regime as a source of security has shrunk in proportion to it as a source of threat. It does still provide security to minority communities in Damascus and other areas where it has control, but it is also a source of danger from which most Syrians have no security.
Yesterday I spoke to a Sunni Syrian friend who recently found out that her fiancé (though not having participated in any demonstrations or resistance activity) was arrested by Syrian mukhabaraat while at his job teaching in a university. He was tortured to death in a detention center. Would the sectarian terrorism against minority civilians in the regime’s absence be worse than the current terrorism on the part of the regime against Syrians in oppositional territory? This is the enduring question, and will continue to be hotly debated. The answer depends on gaining an accurate sense of regime violence vs. violence of extremists within the opposition—something that we do not have and about which there is no consensus.
In light of recent events, the positions of Dr. Landis and others who warned of sectarianism and fragmentation have proved durable. The rise of Islamist power, as well as the plentiful evidence of increasing anti-Shi’i/anti-Alawi violence have demonstrated that their original predictions have come to pass. But even though this camp has rightfully maintained that forcibly deposing the regime would spell a sectarian bloodbath, many who belong to it secretly want to see Assad fall, because we know how corrupt and cruel his faction is, we’re tired of the torture and violence, and we long to see things resolve and begin to move on, toward some kind of new reality. The takeover of Raqqa seems to confirm that Islamism will be a big part, if not the definition, of that new reality. That many are so ready for a change can explain why Syria Comment has seemed to lately focus primarily on regime abuses (they are abundant) and to have neglected sectarian violence and critical discussion of the opposition, including the new power in Raqqa, which for many readers represents the heartbreaking loss of “their” Syria, a Syria where religion did not figure into the foreground and where tolerance was strictly enforced.
* Matthew Barber is a graduate student at the University of Chicago who was living in Syria during the first 6 months of the uprising and who has written for Syria Comment in the past.