Winning in Syria and the Middle East – By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam

David W. Lesch

Winning in Syria and the Middle East
By David W. Lesch and Kamal Alam
For Syria Comment – July 16, 2018

The common perception today is that Russia has won in Syria, having supported the government of Bashar al-Assad, which is now steadily reasserting its control over previously lost territory. As a result, Russia has inserted itself as the power broker in Syria, if not the entire Middle East.  The summit between Presidents Trump and Putin on Monday in Helsinki, where the subject of Syria was high on the agenda, seems to have consecrated Russia’s victory. Countries tend to gravitate toward winners, not losers.

Kamal Alam

The United States, on the other hand, directly and indirectly intervened in multiple conflicts in the Middle East since 9/11, first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, followed by involvement in a series of upheavals brought on by the Arab Spring:  Libya and Syria most notably. No one would say the US has won in any of these cases—far from it.

On the surface, this is difficult to comprehend.  After all, the US has by far the most powerful military on earth. The image of Russia’s only aircraft carrier limping toward, breaking down, and being towed in the eastern Mediterranean in support of Assad’s forces was a stark reminder of this reality.  So how did Russia win—and why did the US fail over and over again?

There is one outstanding difference in the Russian versus American military interventions in internal national conflicts in the Middle East:  in Syria, the Kremlin supported the entrenched state. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria, the US supported opposition forces seeking the overthrow of the entrenched state.

For the sake of argument, let’s say the US and NATO reversed their policy and actually wanted Libyan President Muammar Gadafi to remain in power against the opposition forces unleashed by the Arab spring. Is there any doubt that with US military support he would still be in power today?  Perhaps he too would be mopping up pockets of resistance much as Assad is doing today in Syria.  However illogical or immoral it may have seemed at the time to most in the West, let’s say Washington wanted Assad to stay in power seven years ago when the Arab spring hit Syria. Would not the US be the one crowning its success there, not Russia? Ironically, the US supported the Iraqi state against ISIS—and won.  But the US is not going to get much credit for solving a problem it largely created when it dissolved the state via the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and its chaotic aftermath.

The US can overthrow just about any government in the world or keep one in power if it sets it mind to it.  That’s how overwhelming its military might is. The US could have removed Assad if we really wanted to.  The problem is that the Middle East security state, by its very nature, constructs a ruling apparatus and governance system that is pervasive. It is one that becomes very good at preventing the development of any viable, coherent opposition movement, usually through a combination of divide and rule tactics and repression.

If the government is overthrown, as it was in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, there is very little left to take its place. New governments were brought to power by external forces, therefore lacking indigenous legitimacy, with little experience in politics (especially democratic politics).  What inevitably results is rampant instability, with more people as time goes on willing to accept the return of authoritarianism if it will keep the lights on, the grocery stores stocked, and suicide bombings at a minimum.

In Syria, the Assad government had more legitimacy than most gave it credit for—or at the very least it was adept at convincing a number of groups in a war weary population that it was their best bet moving forward.  This was particularly true of minority groups in the country as the Sunni Arab-dominated opposition became more jihadist as the war deepened.  Although the top echelons of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus are disproportionately composed of Alawites, there are also a number Greek Orthodox, Druze, Sunnis, Catholics, and Armenians in decision-making positions, offering and reinforcing in practical terms to many Syrians an alternative model to the monotone jihadist one. Compared to many other armies under pressure from the Arab spring uprisings, the Syrian military remained relatively cohesive and continued to fight. And perhaps it is not so much that the Assad government had more legitimacy then we imagined from the outside, it is that the largely fractured opposition had less. Recall that the Syrian government recognized by most in the West (and in the Arab world) in the early days of the civil war was led by the Syrian National Council, made up mostly of exiled Syrians who lacked any sort of legitimacy inside the country among the armed opposition actually doing the fighting and dying.  This seemed to mimic the famously disastrous playbook the US employed in Iraq, i.e. relying on exiles who lacked standing among the real power brokers in the country itself.

In addition, the Assad government had a myriad of existing patron-client networks, network building knowledge, and well-honed co-optation tactics, especially with prominent Sunni families and tribes established over decades of constructing a neo-patrimonial state. It will be difficult for the Syrian government to re-establish and maintain its patrimonial position in a clientelist network altered by the socio-political landscape of over seven years of war—and the concessions it made to keep many Syrians on its side—but this networking dynamic proved to be vital in terms of the scores of local reconciliation agreements the government entered into with opposition elements, largely negotiated by members of the government’s intelligence apparatus.  The longer the state hung on and provided even a modicum of state services, and the more it advanced militarily after the Russian intervention, Assad’s perceived legitimacy began to grow simply because he was seen as the only viable alternative to many Syrians. And he is being increasingly seen as the only viable alternative by the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and others, who are now more focused on making sure the Iranians are kept at bay in Syria rather than removing Assad.

Officials in these countries have been taking a diplomatic beeline to Putin to accomplish this. On this issue, all roads lead to Moscow. Instead of having to create a government out of a jumbled mess as the US attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan (and to a lesser degree in Libya), a halfway functioning state is already in Syria through which Russia has regained a central position in the country and in the region. This is not to say that the US should always back the entrenched state in similar circumstances, but recent history clearly suggests it should better understand the challenges of going against it.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, and author of the upcoming book Syria (Polity Books, 2019).

Kamal Alam is a Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London, England.

Helsinki Meeting Does Little to Clarify America’s Syria Policy – By Joshua Landis 

Helsinki Meeting Does Little to Clarify America’s Syria Policy
By Joshua Landis
For Syria Comment – July 16, 2018

 

Washington analysts were fearful that President Trump would declare that the US was withdrawing from Syria at the Helsinki meeting with President Putin. President Trump made no important concessions to or agreements with President Putin on Syria. Although many suggested that some grand bargain might be in the works, little was said to clarify America’s policy in Syria.

On Sunday before the meeting, National Security Adviser Bolton told ABC News that the U.S. was not going anywhere as long as Iran remained in Syria. “I think the president has made it clear that we are there until the ISIS territorial caliphate is removed and as long as the Iranian menace continues throughout the Middle East,” Bolton said.

President Trump did say at the joint news conference after summit talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We also discussed at length the crisis in Syria. Co-operation between our countries has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of lives.” But in order to allay the fears of those interested in rolling back Iran, Trump insisted that the U.S. would “not allow Iran to benefit from our successful campaign against ISIS (Islamic State).” This statement suggests that the U.S. will be maintaining its 2,000 special forces in North Syria for some time to come.

Putin said, “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set out the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.”

Trump, for his part, noted that “President Putin also is helping Israel.” He said that both leaders had spoken with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, “and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel… We absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel, and Israel will be working with us. So both countries work jointly [for this purpose].”

Trump added that “creating safety for Israel is something both Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Netanyahu thanked the two leaders in a statement for their commitment to Israeli security. He praised Trump, saying “The friendship between Israel and the US has never been stronger.”

Netanyahu “very much appreciates the security coordination between Israel and Russia and the clear position expressed by President Putin regarding the need to uphold the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement between Israel and Syria,” the statement added.

Most of the pronouncements about Syria from both Trump and Putin involved Israel. Both guaranteed its security and the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement that Henry Kissinger helped to negotiate. This was good and bad for Assad.

It was bad news for Assad because it means that Russia will do nothing to stop Israel from bombing Syrian military emplacements if Iranian officers or advisers are present in them. Indeed, Israel drove home this point the day before the summit by bombing a Syrian military base on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo. Nine Iranians and even more Syrians were killed. “We will not allow Iranian entrenchment within Syria,” Israel’s Foreign Minister said.

It was good news for Assad because Israel and the United States have accepted that President Assad will stay in power and rule Syria. No effort has been made to stop the advance of the Syrian Army in the south of Syria along Jordan’s and Israel’s borders. To the contrary, both of Syria’s neighbors have expressed their readiness to accept the return of the Syrian Army; they are looking for a return to the status quo ante. That is music to Assad’s ears.

President Trump made few commitments on Syria, but it is clear that neither he nor Russia can push Iran from Syria so long as President Assad needs and wants Iran’s help in defeating the rebels. Assad has stated that he will push both Turkish and American troops from Syria and take back every inch of Syrian soil. In this effort, Assad has explained that he will need Iran’s help. He insists that only he can determine whether or when Iran is to leave Syria.

President Trump has repeated on several occasions that he wants US troops to leave Syria soon. His policy principals have walked back such statements.

The problem with America’s position in North Syria is that it may quickly become a liability rather than a asset. Already fighting between Arabs and Kurds has erupted around Raqqa. Road side bombs have been planted, targeting US special forces. The inhabitants of Raqqa, the major Arab city in the north that was largely destroyed by US bombing against ISIS, are furious because the US is not rebuilding the city and has not committed adequate money for reconstruction. Ethnic and tribal divisions, the lack of jobs or money, and a serious drought in northern Syria are conspiring to undermine local stability and America’s leverage. President Trump and his foreign policy staff seem to agree on little about Syria; consequently little is getting done. Local inhabitants are looking to the US for answers. They want to know if the U.S. will guarantee their autonomy or even independence for the long haul. Should Kurdish authorities begin negotiating with Assad in preparation for a US withdrawal from North Syria? They want to know who is responsible for their future.

The U.S. has set itself up for failure in northern Syria, not only because the region is likely to become ever harder to rule, but also because the U.S. has slipped into the role of champion of Kurdish nationalism in Syria. A mere 2.5 million Kurds live in northeast Syria; the region is the poorest and least developed part of the country; the U.S. is unlikely to get it to stand on its own two feet. What is more, Turkey and Syria are determined to prevent the emergence of a capable or independent Kurdish military. It will threaten the stability and authority of both countries. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to withdraw troops from Syria. He is right to look for a way out before an insurgency begins attacking U.S. troops. The U.S. must seek to secure a better deal for the Kurds within Syria. But to remain in the country for the “long haul” is to set America up for failure.

Those who recommend a permanent U.S. force in Syria argue that it is an American interest to do so in order to roll back Iran, a state they describe as “malignant” and destabilizing for the region. They argue that America must deny the northeast and its natural resources to Damascus, not because they want to build a new state there, but in order to keep Syria weak and divided. A poorer Syria is more likely to become a quagmire for Iran and Russia: a state, they inexplicably believe will serve U.S. interests, not to mention those of Syrians and their neighbors.

Unfortunately, even as Netanyahu, America’s closest ally in the Middle East, is assuring Russia that it does not seek to destabilize or topple the Assad regime, many in Washington are urging Washington to do just that. The United States and Western countries have gotten their policy in the Syria and the broader Middle East in a tangle.

America needs to clarify its policy in Syria. It also needs to sort out its broader foreign policy objectives. The Helsinki meeting did little to help.

The Think-Tanks Bark and the IRGC Moves On

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Discussions of U.S. policy on Syria mostly revolve around two things: counter-terrorism (i.e. combating the Islamic State and other Sunni jihadist groups) and counter-Iran, the latter of which has gained much more prominence since the Trump administration came to power.

Proposals on the counter-Iran angle from many think-tanks largely focus on a policy of containment and/or hurting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria. At the most ambitious, the policy aim is set at removing the IRGC entirely from Syria, which is similar to Israel’s demands on the matter.

Policy recommendations that come about within these frameworks include:

– Work with Russia to strike compromises so as to bring about an IRGC withdrawal from Syria (the preferred Trump administration approach right now).
Train and support rebel forces to continue the insurgency against the Syrian government and its allies with a view to bleeding the IRGC and its clients.
– Maintain or expand the U.S. presence in northern and eastern Syria as well as the al-Tanf area, in order to prevent a total government recapture of the country and thus limit IRGC access to Syrian territory (e.g. denying a ‘land route’ from Iran to the Mediterranean via al-Tanf).
– Ensure that the IRGC is kept X number of kilometres from the border with the occupied Golan Heights, such as through having a third-party enforce a buffer zone to prevent the Syrian government from retaking all of Deraa and Quneitra.
– Ramp up sanctions and economic pressure against Iran and the Syrian government, including discouraging Jordan from resuming trade ties with Syria.
Join Israel’s air force in strikes against IRGC targets in Syria.
Engage in leaflet drops and psyops targeting ‘pro-Assad militias’ with the aim of warning them not to serve Iranian interests by moving on U.S. positions. For example, the warnings could play up the idea that Iran supposedly does not care about members of those groups as Syrians.

These various suggestions are not mutually exclusive. In general, they boil down to the idea that the U.S. has or can gain significant “leverage” against the IRGC in Syria.

However, it seems to me that much of this policy discussion is based on misconceptions as to how the IRGC has built influence in Syria. A common understanding of the situation sees the IRGC as creating its own system of proxies that are outside of the control of the Syrian government and the Syrian armed forces. Indeed, some U.S. estimates assert that 80% of the forces fighting for the Syrian government are Iranian proxies.* A cruder version of this 80% figure portrays it as representing Iranian-backed foreign fighters, while a more nuanced articulation defines the 80% as including both foreign and local proxies of Iran. In any case, an analytical model has arisen portraying a competition for influence on the ground, with the claim that Iranian influence is ‘rapidly outstripping‘ that of the Syrian government and Russia. Along similar lines are claims that Iran has largely taken control of Syria’s military and intelligence apparatus and that Iran and Hezbollah control, direct and organize all military operations in Syria.

In reality, the nature of the IRGC’s project in Syria is not one of dominating and taking control of the system, but rather integrating so as to become an indivisible part of the system. This is best understood in the Local Defence Forces (LDF) project, which should not be confused with the more familiar National Defence Forces (NDF) and rarely receives mention in all these policy discussions. Unlike the NDF, the LDF is on the registers of the Syrian army and armed forces, while being affiliated at the same time with the IRGC. Thus, the LDF can be described as a joint project of the Syrian military and the IRGC, with officers from both sides featured in the command structure. The LDF, it should be noted, incorporates many of the groups familiarly known under the brand of ‘Syrian Hezbollah/Islamic Resistance in Syria’, such as Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (Damascus), Liwa al-Baqir (Aleppo and other areas) and Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja (Nubl and Zahara’). The LDF also interacts with the political system, which is recognised as something led by Bashar al-Assad and the Ba’ath Party rather than something to be subverted and overthrown.

Below is a series of photos I have compiled to illustrate various aspects of the LDF further.


Haitham al-Nayef, a Syrian army general originally from al-Fu’a (one of two Shi’i villages in Idlib besieged by the rebels). He was chief of staff of the LDF and died in a traffic accident in early May 2018.


Colonel Ali Yunis, who heads the LDF’s Homs sector.


The LDF also has a civil society aspect to it, as embodied in the Defenders of Aleppo Legion, which presented this certificate of commendation to the administrative and teaching staff of a school in relation to Teacher’s Day. The overall commander of the Defenders of Aleppo Legion is al-Hajj Mohsen, whose signature appears on this certificate (bottom right) alongside that of Haitham al-Nayef. al-Hajj Mohsen is in fact an Iranian (compare, for example, with al-Hajj Ayoub, an Iranian who heads the Latakia sector of the LDF). Even so, Syrians also feature in the command structure of the Defenders of Aleppo Legion, such as Colonel Sha’aban Soomaf who heads the legion’s Third Square division.


Example of interaction between LDF groups and the Ba’ath Party: an event in summer 2017 set up by Fawj al-Imam al-Hujja to commemorate the ‘martyrs’ of al-Hikma school during the Aleppo fighting. The event was carried out under the supervision of Fadhil Najjar, head of the Aleppo division of the Ba’ath Party. Representing Najjar at the event was Abd al-Qadir al-Abu Na’so, head of the al-Tarbiya al-Thalitha branch of the Aleppo division of the Ba’ath Party. Army officers, LDF commanders and notables of the al-Nayrab neighbourhood also attended the event.


In 2016, Liwa al-Baqir campaigned successfully for the election of an independent MP to the Syrian parliament. However, the group also interacts with the Ba’ath Party. For example, the head of the Ba’ath Party’s Aleppo division carried out a tour earlier this year visiting the wounded of families of Liwa al-Baqir. He was accompanied on that tour by Jum’a al-Baqir, a prominent figure in Liwa al-Baqir.


Members of the 101 Battalion in Deir az-Zor. The 101 Battalion is an LDF unit that has functioned within the Liwa al-Imam al-Mahdi conglomeration of ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ units in Deraa and Quneitra. The 101 Battalion is also notable as the military wing of the Quneitra branch of the Arab Socialist Movement, a party that supports the Ba’ath-led government of Syria. The Arab Socialist Movement is also linked to the military intelligence via Forces of the Fighters of the Tribes.


Maher Qawarma is a member of the Ba’ath Party and MP of the Syrian parliament. He also heads the LDF in the Christian town of Mahrada in Hama province. The Russians, as part of their desire to be seen as protectors of the Christian community of Syria, have visited Qawarma.


Commendation from the Latakia/’Coastal’ LDF to Naser Suleiman, an MP from Tartous province and member of the Ba’ath Party. Naser Suleiman has provided assistance to the Latakia LDF formation Saraya al-Muqawama.

The point here is not to provide an exhaustive list of data points on the LDF. One could get into a discussion, for instance, about Liwa al-Quds, one of the most well-known formations with Syrian-Palestinian roots. The group originated in the Aleppo LDF but then became affiliated with the military intelligence. I do not know why that happened, and exploring such opaque avenues will only distract the reader from the big picture, which is that the LDF is integrated into the system of Assad’s Syria and simultaneously maintains affiliation with the IRGC. Thus, when Liwa al-Baqir members (for example) proclaim loyalty to Assad and religious/ideological affinity with Iran, there is no contradiction. They have certainly not been shy about their relations with the IRGC.

It should be noted that Assad himself is involved in the LDF project. One account from 2017 traces the beginnings of the LDF project to him. In his capacity as the commander-in-chief of the Syrian military, Assad agreed in April 2017 to a variety of measures suggested by the Syrian military’s organisation and administration branch regarding the LDF units working with the Iranians and the status of the personnel in them. The most notable measures involved regularising the status of deserters and draft evaders in the LDF and changing their call-up for duty to the LDF, effectively allowing them to complete their military service within the LDF. Meanwhile, civilians in these LDF units would be offered the chance to take up recruitment contracts in the People’s Army (al-Jaysh al-Sha’abi), which has also taken to using the name of ‘Local Defence’ and is primarily tasked with protecting public installations. It was further decided that the Iranians should bear the burden of combat and material provisions for the LDF units working with them as well as the burden of material entitlements for ‘martyrs’, wounded and missing. The LDF relations with the Iranians are given official sanction until ‘the crisis’ ends or a new decision is made. Though the former provision is vague, one can be sure that a lasting U.S. presence in certain parts of Syria will be considered a continuation of the ‘crisis’.

None of the above means that there is somehow perfect harmony between the various LDF formations and the system itself (cf. here and issues of looting and criminal conduct by armed groups in general). Rather, the point is that all the various policy proposals with the aim of ‘countering Iran’ mentioned at the beginning of this piece do not in fact achieve that goal. Peradventure the proposals make for fun panel sessions, with exchanges of pleasantries and opportunities to enjoy tea and biscuits during intervals. Peradventure the proposals allow for all these think-tanks to look ‘tough’ on Iran and have the honour of boasting that they have briefed the U.S. government. In reality, a certain saying is most appropriate here: the dog barks and the caravan moves on.

To sum up: the way the IRGC has integrated into the system of Assad’s Syria is such that it has become an indivisible part of that system- an extension of the long-standing alliance between Syria and Iran and Iranian intervention in the war to help its ally. Truly countering the IRGC, let alone removing it from Syria entirely, would require the total dismantlement of the system itself, or at least going on the offensive, reducing the Syrian government’s area of control to an insignificant strip of land and then blocking all Iranian access to it.

Of course, none of the think-tanks will seriously advocate a strategy along those lines, nor will the U.S. government engage in such an enterprise. But when various proposals are put forward in the name of a goal that they do not actually realise, the whole paradigm of thinking should be called out. In truth, the proposals are like playing with the remaining pawns on a chessboard after checkmate has already happened. Either redo the game entirely or move on.

That image could also be applied to the wider situation in Syria. For my part, I prefer that U.S. policy be focused on trying to integrate the areas of Syria where it maintains a presence into their wider environments and improve the well-being of their inhabitants. But that’s just me.

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*(Appendix note): I find the free use of the term ‘Iranian proxy’ to be problematic in general and have moved away from it over the years. It conjures an image of Iranian control of fighters and groups as though they are robots and have no interests of their own behind their relationships with Iran. Take the issue of the borders with Iraq and the U.S. presence in al-Tanf. LDF units frequently go on assignments to these border areas. Does Iran have an interest in removing the U.S. presence and making sure the borders between Iraq and Syria are secure? Yes. Is that part of the reason behind deployments of LDF units to these areas? Yes. But the LDF units- as well as the Syrian government and other Syrian forces fighting for it- also have important interests as Syrians in removing the U.S. presence and securing the border areas. For one thing, they want to restart land trade between Syria and Iraq in a bid to reboot Syria’s economy. But they also consider the U.S. presence a violation of Syrian sovereignty and genuinely think they are securing their borders against insurgent threats. Accordingly, the idea that the U.S. could keep ‘pro-Assad militias’ away from al-Tanf by trying to warn them not to serve Iranian interests strikes me as absurd.

Thoughts On Southern Syria

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The remaining rebel-held areas of Deraa and Quneitra are currently witnessing the beginning of a military campaign by the Syrian government to retake those areas, with heavy bombardment and displacement in the eastern Deraa countryside in particular. How did we get to this stage and what is the likely outcome?

Perhaps the foremost issue for discussion is Russia’s role in this matter. In my view, there has been an analytical failure in understanding Russia’s goals in the “de-escalation” arrangement for southern Syria. The first step in the arrangement was a ceasefire for the region that was agreed between Russia, the U.S. and Jordan in July 2017. The ceasefire was followed up by a “Memorandum of Principles” between the three powers in November 2017.

To be sure, there are no copies of the texts of the ceasefire agreement and “Memorandum of Principles” in the open source realm, but it cannot be plausibly argued that Russia’s intention in particular was simply to freeze indefinitely the frontlines and zones of control in the south as part of a balancing act between different parties. An example of this misconception can be found in an article in Foreign Policy a month ago. The article argued that “a frozen conflict” in Syria may have been the goal all along for Russia. On the southern situation in particular, the article painted a simple portrait of Iran pushing the government for a military assault on the south, whereas Russia supposedly had no interest in that outcome.

Such an analysis is superficial on multiple levels. For example, when it came to the south, the Syrian government did not presume that military assault was the only option to bring back areas under its control. Instead, the government has promoted what one might call “soft reconciliation” as a model for the south, as could be observed in the town of al-Sanamayn in north Deraa, which never entirely fell out of government control and was located within a wider zone of government control. The reconciliation agreement in al-Sanamayn at the end of 2016 did involve application of some siege pressure in response to the violation of a de facto truce, but there was no full-on assault, contrasting with (for example) East Ghouta and east Aleppo city. Under the reconciliation, the factions in al-Sanamayn have largely been left as they were prior to the reconciliation. Thus, these factions are mostly responsible for running internal security in the town.

There are some serious problems surrounding the al-Sanamayn reconciliation. For example, though some people underwent taswiyat al-wad’ (“sorting out affairs/regularizing status”) as part of the reconciliation, that does not permanently resolve the problem of being wanted for military service. In addition, al-Sanamayn continues to witness security problems on account of clan issues and the presence of multiple armed groups. No unified security force has been formed by the factions of al-Sanamayn to impose law and order despite repeated discussions of the matter. Earlier this year, tensions between the government and the rebels in al-Sanamayn escalated on account of the disappearance of a non-commissioned military officer. Further, the car of the commander of the 9th division of the Syrian army was targeted with gunfire. As a result, the 9th division, whose main base is located in the al-Sanamayn area, threatened an assault against the rebel factions in the town. There was also talk of imposing a second, more comprehensive reconciliation (i.e. requiring more weapons to be handed over and for more people to undergo taswiyat al-wad’). Yet the 9th division backed down in the end, and the second reconciliation never happened.

Nevertheless, these details- and the wider debates about the pros and cons of reconciliation agreements and their final status- do not detract from the point that the Syrian government saw a way forward in reconciliation agreements for the south that would have local rebel faction buy-in and not necessarily require a full-blown military campaign. It is unlikely that Russia, which also gets involved in reconciliation agreements, has not been encouraging such initiatives and negotiations as the preferred option for dealing with the rebel-held areas of the south.

More broadly, it needs to be understood that Russia’s involvement in de-escalation for the south has been predicated on the idea of advancing the interests of its ally- the Syrian government- in that area in some form, even as it is correct to note that the concerns of Jordan and Israel were also being taken into account.

Indeed, one can see hints of the Russian goals in the limited public material on the ideas behind the southern de-escalation. For instance, consider the joint U.S.-Russia announcement on the November 2017 memorandum. The announcement affirms that de-escalation is an “interim step to reduce violence in Syria, enforce ceasefire agreements, facilitate unhindered humanitarian access, and set the conditions for the ultimate political solution to the conflict.” One can dismiss the last point as a political trope, and different parties will have differing views of what a “political solution” means. But the inclusion of that point shows an intention to build on the southern de-escalation for a final status resolution for that region. Notable as well is the commitment in the memorandum to Syria’s sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity. Again, one could dismiss all that as a political trope, but from Russia’s perspective, it does illustrate a desire to bring back those rebel-held areas in the south under formal government control in some way.

Ultimately though, there was no progress for the southern de-escalation beyond the November 2017 memorandum. Nor did reconciliation agreements along the al-Sanamayn model make headway beyond Deraa localities in similar geographic/strategic circumstances to al-Sanamayn (most notably Mahajja and Ghabaghib) that are not applicable to the wider rebel-held south. One can discuss in detail the reasons for lack of progress in resolving the south’s political status and lack of acceptance of reconciliation deals, but the Russian and Syrian government perspective is that the U.S. and the West are to blame for the impasse. In April 2018, Maria Zakharova, the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, claimed that southern rebels were aiming for the “creation of a territorial entity there [in the south] with the capital in Deraa, under the auspices of the United States, which will be independent from Damascus, similar to the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast of the country.” Bashar al-Assad, in an interview with the Mail on Sunday earlier this month, commented on the failure of last-ditch efforts to achieve reconciliation in the south. Assad claimed that “the West interfered and asked the terrorists not to follow this path [of reconciliation] in order to prolong the Syrian conflict.” In other words, the Syrian government and its Russian allies consider the southern rebellion to be a separatist project undermining Syria’s unity and territorial integrity: a perception that has not been taken seriously enough in the analytical picture.


Map illustrating the locations of al-Sanamayn, Ghabaghib and Mahajja in the wider south.

The point here is not to justify the Syrian government and Russian views and narratives. Rather, the discussion here simply illustrates why the idea that Russia was going to enforce the southern status quo indefinitely and bar Syrian military action under all circumstances for the sake of “upholding the ceasefire” and/or in deference to other outside powers like Israel was folly. From the outset, Russia would not have entered into the southern de-escalation arrangement if it did not think it could ultimately serve the interests of the Syrian government.

For the U.S., there are only three policy options for the south:

1. Military intervention to deter an offensive against the rebels and maintain the previous status quo. At the very minimum, this would mean airstrikes against Syrian government forces.

2. Pursue negotiations for a diplomatic resolution to the southern situation.

3. Do nothing.

Whatever course is pursued, the goals and future visions have to be articulated clearly, honestly and consistently. In the case of option 1, it does no good to issue vague commitments to “upholding the ceasefire” without any action to back it up. As far as the long-term future outlook goes in the option 1 scenario, it would be questionable why indefinite rebel-held zones in the south should even be considered part of Syria. As for option 2, it should be frankly acknowledged that the end outcome of it is the return of Syrian government control to the south. Of course, the government presence never entirely vanished from the rebel-held areas in the south- note that school teachers were still receiving salaries from the government, for example- but the negotiations would inevitably lead to a more extensive government presence and functioning in the south, displacing the influence of opposition local councils and the interim government. Option 3 likewise leads to a return of the Syrian government to the south, though at a much greater humanitarian cost and under harsher reconciliations than option 2.

I am not so much in the business of policy recommendations. My own analytical outlook is that option 3 is the scenario that will be realized, and so the rebel-held south is doomed. The final confrontation in the south will therefore be between the Syrian government and the Islamic State affiliate Jaysh Khalid bin al-Waleed (JKBW), whose supporters have long condemned the rebels at war with JKBW for supposedly holding JKBW back from fighting the government. Indeed, JKBW appears to be anticipating the end of the rebel-held south (which has proven incapable of defeating JKBW) and a forthcoming fight with the government, as a JKBW recruitment form for fighting the Syrian government recently surfaced. Of course, the persistence of JKBW adds to a Syrian government/Russian casus belli, in that the argument can be made that only the Syrian army and its allies can truly defeat the Islamic State in southern Syria.

As a more general lesson, I would caution against assuming a strict dichotomy of “Syrian government and Iranian desire for military reconquest vs. Russian pragmatism.” As outlined above, military campaigns are not viewed as the sole means for regaining territory. Further, Russian complaints of violation of Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity should not be dismissed as mere rhetoric. Nor should it be thought that Russia enters into negotiations and agreements with other outside powers like the Astana process and disregards the Syrian government’s desire to reassert control over all of Syria.

It does not follow from the preceding that the Syrian government and its allies are all perfectly aligned with each other. Nor is it the case that there is a brilliant Russian master-plan for the Syrian government to retake all of Syria’s territory. Indeed, there cannot be such a master-plan, as there are certain circumstances that have arisen in the Syrian civil war that are ultimately beyond Russia’s control (e.g. the question of whether U.S. maintains its presence in the north and northeast of Syria, which the U.S., if it so desires, can impose unilaterally for an indefinite period). But at the same time, it is implausible that there was a Russian master-plan all along to keep Syria stuck in de facto partition and frozen conflict.

Israel’s Secret war for Syria’s Independence by Meir Zamir

Israel’s Secret war for Syria’s Independence

By Meir Zamir

(First published in Haaretz newspaper, June 15, 2018)

At the end of the War of Independence, Israel faced a policy dilemma with regard to Syria. The armed confrontation on the border around the demilitarized zones and over the draining of Lake Hula was continuing, and Syria still claimed the waters of Lake Kinneret. At the same time, Israel acted to foil an Anglo-Iraqi plot to seize control of Syria. Documents found in Israeli and French archives reveal new details about Israel’s secret policy at the time to ensure Syria’s sovereignty, a policy that could perhaps affords insights for the present period as well.

During 1949, Syria was rocked by three military coups which put an end to the democratic-republican regime and heralded the age of rule by army officers both there and in other countries in the region. The three coups – led, respectively, by the chief of staff, Husni Za’im, on March 30; by Sami al-Hinnawi, on August 14; and by Adib Shishakli, on December 19 – were a direct result of Syria’s failure in its war against Israel, aggravated by the acute economic crisis that broke out in the wake of the military debacle.

Compounding these crises were subversive efforts fomented by the Hashemite regimes in Jordan and Iraq. King Abdullah of Jordan viewed the establishment of “Greater Syria” as the summit of his geopolitical yearnings; and, in Iraq, the regent, Abd al-Ilah, and the prime minister, Nuri Sa’id, each of whom sought, for his own motives, to effect an Iraqi takeover of Syria, whether by means of unification or federation. The military coups signaled the start of years of struggle over Syria; the country became an arena of regional and great-power strife, which persisted until Hafez Assad’s coup in 1970.


Nuri Sa’id

In contrast to the policy of the present Israeli government, which has advocated nonintervention in the civil war in Syria, the government headed by David Ben-Gurion viewed a British-backed Iraqi takeover of Syria as a direct threat, and took clandestine measures to foil it. A year after the end of its war against the Arab states, Israel, now a full-fledged state of its own, tried to influence the regional order on the basis of its interests. By means of an astute use of intelligence material and secret diplomacy, Ben-Gurion and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett were able to radically revise Israel-Syria relations: Israel went from being a threatening force that Iraq and its supporters invoked as a pretext for military intervention allegedly intended to protect Syria, to a regional power whose very threat to intervene averted an infringement of Syria’s independence and sovereignty. Israel’s support for Syria as an independent state, against Iraq’s subversive efforts there, also created a basis for cooperation with King Faruq of Egypt and King Ibn Saud in Saudi Arabia.

The Iraqi threat

The origins of Ben-Gurion’s opposition to Iraqi influence lay in the pre-state period. In July 1947, French sources passed on to Ben-Gurion, then head of the Jewish Agency, information suggesting the existence of Anglo-Iraqi collusion, by which senior British officers in Cairo and Baghdad, in coordination with Nuri Sa’id, the Iraqi strongman, were acting to escalate Jewish-Arab tensions to the point of a full-scale war. The alleged scheme aimed not only to prevent the creation of a Jewish state – or, at least, one whose territory did not extend beyond the coastal plain – but also to ensure the support of Arab public opinion for an Anglo-Iraqi defense pact, and at the same time to use a Jewish-Arab war as reason for an Iraqi military invasion of Syria.


Ben-Gurion

Ben-Gurion attached great importance to this information, and at the beginning September 1947, in the midst of the preparations of the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in British Mandate Palestine – for war, paid a visit to Paris to confirm it. Already in the French capital were the officials who managed the intelligence contacts with France: Ben-Gurion’s Arab affairs adviser, Eliahu Sasson, and the Jewish Agency representative in Paris, Maurice Fischer.

Ben-Gurion viewed Iraq and its leader, Nuri Sa’id, as a major threat in Israel’s anticipated war with the Arab states. Not only was Iraq the spearhead of an extremely bellicose approach in Arab League meetings toward the end of 1947; Sa’id was also working, in collaboration with the British, to promote a plan for a binational state in Palestine to supplant the partition plan.

Ben-Gurion’s apprehensions were well-founded: Iraq possessed considerable economic resources, along with large ground forces and air power. Furthermore, in the Anglo-Iraqi defense treaty (the Portsmouth agreement) of January 1948, the British promised to arm Iraq’s forces and transform them into a modern army.

French agents and their opposites in the Jewish Agency’s political department set out to thwart the Anglo-American scheme. French sources leaked the details of the plot to Syrian President Shukri al-Quwatli and to the Egyptian and Saudi monarchs. Eliahu Sasson passed on details of the conspiracy to King Abdullah, who strongly opposed an Iraqi takeover of Syria.

The Anglo-Iraqi move failed due to the counter-activity of a coalition that included the Soviet Union, which operated through the Iraqi Communist Party, and King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, who was aided by the anti-British Iraqi leader Rashid al-Kailani. In the face of mass demonstrations and clashes with the police in Baghdad, in which protesters were killed and wounded, the Hashemite crown prince, Abd al-Ilah, was compelled to retract the ratification of the defense treaty with Britain. Although an Iraqi expeditionary force took part in the war against Israel, the failure of both the Portsmouth agreement, and in its wake of the Anglo-Iraqi conspiracy, went a long way toward reducing the Iraqi military threat to Israel. Indeed, in September 1948, Nuri Sa’id published a memorandum concerning the negotiations on the Portsmouth treaty with Britain, in which he argued that the cost exacted from the Arabs for the undermining of the agreement was the loss of Palestine.

After the failure of the efforts to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state or to reduce its size, Sa’id, again with the aid of British agents, tried to obtain, through military pressure and diplomatic means, what had not been achieved through war. In the second half of 1948 and during 1949, the Iraqi leader intensified his anti-Israeli activity. In talks with other Arab leaders, he urged opposition to any negotiations on an armistice or a peace treaty with Israel, and demanded that preparations be made for a second round of hostilities. He also supported the plan of the United Nations mediator Folke Bernadotte and, like the British, tried to get the Negev severed from Israel.

The Iraqi expeditionary force, which consisted of two brigades that had been involved in the fighting on the central front in Samaria, constituted an additional means to threaten Israel. Even though the Iraqi forces were not involved in offensive action after July 1948, their presence was an important factor in Ben-Gurion’s position during the war regarding Israel’s future borders. In the second half of 1948, the Iraqi expeditionary force was significantly beefed up in arms and manpower, and stood at four reinforced brigades with an armored force and an air force squadron that was located in Jordanian airfields. Thus, in the negotiations for a cease-fire and the future of the West Bank, Israel demanded that King Abdullah pull back Iraqi forces to the east of the Jordan River. Iraq itself refused to have any contact with Israel, and only after the signing of the Israeli-Jordanian armistice agreement, on April 3, 1949, did its forces withdraw to northern Jordan, thus posing a direct threat to Syria. Both the Syrian president and the Israeli prime minister saw this as the second stage of the Anglo-Iraqi plot of July 1947.

Black-market diplomacy

Ben-Gurion’s determination to undercut the British in Syria stemmed from his belief that their influence in Damascus would endanger Israel, and that behind its designs were the same intelligence, army and Foreign Office circles that had tried to block Israel’s creation, encouraged the Arab leaders to go to war against Israel, and tried to reduce its territory. As Sasson warned in a meeting in December 1949, “We have an enemy that is far stronger than the Arabs – the British.”

The same view was espoused by many at the French Foreign Ministry, as well as in the French military and intelligence. They joined with Israel in an effort to block Anglo-Iraqi domination of Syria. A French diplomat who was well acquainted with British clandestine activity in the Middle East, and particularly in Syria, labeled it “black market diplomacy” – namely: In tandem with the official policy pursued by Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, which prioritized British-French relations (in December 1945, Bevin had signed an agreement in which Britain recognized France’s special status in Syria and Lebanon), other elements in London, as well as in the Middle East, were acting to undermine France’s position in the latter region and in North Africa. Following the coup staged by the pro-Iraqi Sami al-Hinnawi in Syria, and the murder of Husni Za’im, Le Monde, which reflected the views of the Quai d’Orsay, accused the “gang of Stirling, Ferar, Spears and Glubb and their ilk” (British diplomats and Arabist intelligence and military officers) of responsibility for the coup.

Indeed, the Syrian documents and British intelligence papers that I located in French archives(See annexed documents) contain numerous testimonies about Nuri Sa’id’s clandestine collaboration with Arabists from British intelligence to engineer an Iraqi takeover of Syria. From the British perspective, the villain of the piece in Syria was President Quwatli, who had retracted secret understandings with British agents by which they would help him get elected president and get rid of the French, in return for which he would recognize Britain’s strategic and economic interests in Syria and agree to have his country join an Iraqi-led Hashemite federation. The British upheld their end of the bargain, but Quwatli now claimed that, with Syrian independence assured, there was no place to trade one colonial regime (French) for another (British).

The Syrian public wholeheartedly supported the country’s newly won independence, following their war of liberation against France, and opposed unity with the Hashemites, whether Iraq or Jordan, which would entail the extension of British influence over their country. Quwatli’s struggle for an independent Syria also had strong support from Egypt and Saudi Arabia, from the United States and, behind the scenes, from France, too.

British circles in the Middle East disagreed about how their country’s goals should be achieved in Syria. Among the personnel of the British intelligence center in Baghdad – the second largest in the region, after Cairo – there was considerable support for unification or federation between Iraq and Syria as a means to ensure the stability of the Hashemite regime in Iraq, and they actively assisted Iraqi subversion in Syria. However, the intelligence and military circles in Cairo maintained that Syria could remain an independent state, on condition that its leaders sign a defense treaty with Britain and join a regional defense alliance against the Soviet Union.

The escalation of the Cold War during 1948-1949 heightened the pressure on British representatives in the Middle East to ensure the consent of the Syrian government to become part of the regional defense alignment. On January 19, 1949, the British ambassador in Damascus submitted a memorandum to Quwatli, offering the president British recognition of his country’s independence and sovereignty in return for a defense pact. A copy of the memorandum was made available to French intelligence through an agent in the Syrian Foreign Ministry and given to Sasson, who was in Paris at the time.

The Israeli-Kurdish connection

Jerusalem, too, toyed with the idea of provoking regime change in Syria. The idea, first broached in August 1948 by Ezra Danin, Arab affairs adviser in the Foreign Ministry, was not without its logic. In the months that followed, Israel received two requests from Syrian figures of Kurdish extraction for assistance in a seizure of power in Damascus. The first request came from Husni Barazi, who had been prime minister in Syria in the early 1940s, and afterward provided information to Shai, the intelligence service of the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state defense force. His idea was for Israel to foment tension on the border with Syria in order to force Damascus to mass troops on the front. This would enable Barazi to take Damascus with the aid of Kurdish and Druze troops, oust Quwatli and seize power. The second request, which came from the commander of the Syrian army, Husni Za’im, was more important, because a few months later Za’im staged the country’s first military coup, and seized power. Za’im, who was concerned he would be removed because of the army’s failures, also demanded financial assistance from Israel.

Husni Za’im

Reuven Shiloah, Ben-Gurion’s adviser on intelligence, had already warned British intelligence agents in February 1948 that the Zionist movement might support a Kurdish revolt if Britain continued to act against the establishment of the Jewish state. This was a warning not to be taken lightly, as in 1945 a Soviet-backed Kurdish revolt in northern Iraq had inflicted heavy losses on the Iraqi army. Indeed, from 1948 to 1952, Israel proffered aid to the Kurds in Iraq, primarily of a diplomatic and propaganda character, as a counterweight to the Iraqi involvement against Israel. Among other actions, Israeli representatives acted behind the scenes to get the Kurdish national claims placed on the agenda of the United Nations and its institutions, recruiting to that end American personalities, institutions and journalists. Now the suggestion was to assist a “Kurdish coup” in Syria, taking advantage of the prominent position of Kurdish figures in Syrian politics and the military.

The liaison to Barazi and Za’im was Kamuran Badr Khan, a central figure in the Kurdish national movement, who was in close touch with Maurice Fischer in Paris. The latter supported Badr Khan’s proposal, but Eliahu Sasson, who was conducting secret talks with Arab representatives at the time, was opposed; Israeli involvement in a coup in Syria was dependent on the allocation of the necessary resources, he said. Ben-Gurion and Sharett accepted his approach.

Two days after his coup, Za’im met with the French military attaché in Damascus and confirmed his country’s intention of preserving Syria’s independence in the face of the Hashemites and of Britain, and revealed that he intended to lead the Iraqi leaders astray in order to gain time to consolidate his rule. He also sent a calming message to Israel, through the French attaché, whom he told that he was confident that Israel would not allow the Hashemites to seize control in Syria, because it “doesn’t want the British as neighbors.” Za’im’s coup did not come as a surprise to Israel, though it was not initially known who was behind it. Nor was Israel worried by Nuri Sa’id’s visit to Damascus and his demand for a defense pact between the two countries against “the Zionist aggression.”

Toward the end of April it became clear that Za’im had adopted his predecessor’s policy, tightening Syria’s relations with Egypt and Saudi Arabia against the Hashemites in Iraq and in Jordan. He also took action against Britain and drew closer to France, which supported him militarily and economically.

Za’im’s confidence in his ability to withstand Anglo-Iraqi subversion derived above all from his close ties with the United States. That CIA agents in Damascus were involved in Za’im’s coup is known, but French sources add further details, according to which the coup was “bought” by the Aramco petroleum company. The American firm paid Za’im $20 million for the right to run Tapline, the pipeline that carried Saudi oil to the Mediterranean, through Syria.

Roadside murder

The direct relations of Za’im and his Kurdish prime minister, Muhsin al-Barazi, with Israel, and Zaim’s declaration of his readiness to make peace with Israel and to settle hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria, stirred outrage among British officials. Addressing a meeting in London of British representatives in the Middle East, senior Foreign Office personnel sharply criticized Israel. The country’s very existence, they said, was endangering the prevailing Arab regimes, as the Syrian case proved, and constituted a direct threat to Britain’s strategic interests in the Middle East.

Nonetheless, Foreign Secretary Bevin met with an Israeli diplomat in London on July 19, 1949, and conveyed to him a conciliatory message affirming Britain’s recognition of Israel along with London’s readiness to accept Israeli control of the Negev.

Israel pinned great hopes on Za’im, and worked clandestinely to ensure his rule. In the armistice negotiations, which had begun on April 5, 1949, the Syrians had adopted a tough posture, as part of Za’im’s effort to portray himself to the Syrian public as the country’s defender against Israel. Ben-Gurion played his part in the show by threatening to exercise force to impose Israel’s conditions on Syria. The prolongation of the talks was also influenced by French pressure on Israel aimed at ensuring an achievement for their ally. An armistice agreement between the countries was finally signed on July 20, 1949, the last of the accords in the wake of the war. At the beginning of August, Sasson suggested to Syrian Prime Minister Muhsin al-Barazi that he come to Damascus or that the two meet in Paris to discuss a peace agreement between the two countries – but it was already too late.

Israel’s sophisticated policy in Syria revealed itself in May-June 1949, when Iraq concentrated thousands of soldiers on its border with Syria as part of its efforts to depose Za’im. On May 21, the Israel Defense Forces received an order to prepare Operation Oren, ostensibly to oust Syrian forces from Mishmar Hayarden in Upper Galilee. In reality, the move was intended to deter the Iraqi forces from attacking Syria, with a warning message sent to Britain as well. The goal of the Israeli operation was defined as the conquest of the town of Quneitra, on the Golan Heights, which would pose a direct threat to Damascus. Together with the Syrian army, the Iraqi army and air force were also classified as an enemy to be fought should they intervene.

In parallel, Egyptian King Faruq promised Za’im to send dozens of warplanes to Syria in order to protect the country from an Iraqi offensive. Za’im, for his part, bolstered his forces on the Syrian border with Iraq and arrested the pro-Iraqi tribal leaders in the Jazira region of northeast Syria. He also asked France to supply arms to his forces urgently, and requested the Saudi king to mass troops on his country’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, in order to deter the Hashemite regimes from attacking Syria.

Although Iraq was in fact deterred from making direct use of its armed forces against Syria, Iraqi and British agents continued to scheme for Za’im’s removal. On August 4, Prime Minister Barazi uncovered details of a British-Iraqi plot to assassinate Za’im. The publication of the names of the British intelligence officers involved caused extreme embarrassment in Britain. An analysis of the patterns of behavior of Israeli intelligence in Syria during the months that followed raises the possibility that the information about the plot came from Israel. Nonetheless, 10 days later, British and Iraqi agents succeeded in organizing a military coup in Syria through a group of officers led by Sami al-Hinnawi. Za’im and Barazi were taken from their beds at midnight and shot on the road to Mezze, outside Damascus.

The assassination was welcomed in Iraq. Radio Baghdad declared joyfully that, “Two Kurds – Za’im and Barazi – have been removed for supporting French imperialism.” Responding to the French military attaché in Damascus, who was concerned about the repercussions of Hinnawi’s coup, his British counterpart stated that “Syrian-Iraqi unification will not be effected without Syrian support.”

Code-breaking as a policy tool

The British government’s official position was that it was not working to promote Iraqi-Syrian unification or federation, but would not stand in the way of the two countries if their elected representatives were to decide on this course of action. In practice, British agents assisted Iraqi representatives in Damascus with their efforts to ensure the victory of the unification camp. In a propaganda campaign launched in Syrian and Lebanese newspapers owned by Iraqis, and via radio broadcasts, unification with Iraq was presented as the step that would save Syria from anarchy and from an economic crisis, and would become a cornerstone in the struggle against both Israel and French imperialism.

However, both within Syria and outside, substantial forces operated to foil unification with Iraq. Army officers were again active in the opposition; many of them were Syrian patriots who advocated their country’s independence and were apprehensive of becoming a tool of the Iraqi army. King Ibn Saud led the campaign against Iraq’s activity in Syria, investing large sums of money in the effort. King Faruq and French agents were also very active.

The intensity of the resistance is reflected in an assassination attempt on Walter Stirling, supposedly the London Times correspondent in Damascus but actually the senior British intelligence figure in the Syrian capital.


Adib Shishakli

The opponents of Anglo-Iraqi control in Syria were ultimately successful. On December 19, Col. Adib Shishakli, of Kurdish descent, led a tank assault on Damascus and seized power in order to save Syria from British influence and avert unification with Iraq.

A number of signs suggest possible Israeli involvement in the coup, including a meeting between Shishakli and Israeli representatives ahead of the event. Either way, there is no doubt that once Shishakli seized power, Israel helped him consolidate his regime, as it had done with Za’im.

Israel possessed an extremely efficient tool to thwart Anglo-Iraqi subversion in Syria. Documents in Israel’s State Archives, which became available to researchers in the past few years, show that at the end of 1948 Israel began to decode encrypted messages between the Iraqi embassies in Damascus and London and the Iraqi Foreign Ministry, and between the Iraqi military delegation in Damascus and the Ministry of Defense in Baghdad. The military delegation, which had been formed in early 1948 as part of the Arab League’s coordination plans for the war against Israel, became Iraq’s primary means of subversion in Syria, particularly among the Syrian officer corps. The decoding of the Iraqi communications from London was an extremely important tool, as it shed light on Britain’s secret involvement not only in Syria but across the Middle East.

 

Information gleaned by Israel, some of which was conveyed to Adib Shishakli, from decoded communications between the Iraqi Embassy and its military mission in Damascus and Baghdad.

Even though Shishakli was an avowed foe of Israel – he had joined Fawzi al-Qawuqji’s Army of Salvation in the war against Israel, had commanded the Yarmouk Battalion, which entered Israel in January 1948 and was involved in hostilities in Galilee – Israel took steps to foil the Anglo-Iraqi plots against him. Information was passed to his representatives at the armistice talks about Iraq’s subversive activity, including about plots to murder him and his main supporter, Akram al-Hourani. In addition, the Israeli threat to intervene militarily in Syria in the event of an Iraqi attempt to take control there was a major deterrent factor in Anglo-Iraqi considerations. When a senior French diplomat complained to the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, in early 1952, about the Iraqi efforts to undermine the regime in Damascus, Eden claimed that Britain was neutral and noted Israel’s threats to intervene.

But Israel conducted a dual policy in the case of Shishakli, too. On the one hand, there were acute clashes with the Syrian army, even assecret talks were being held about settling hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees in Syria and signing a peace agreement with Damascus. Shishakli’s overthrow, in February 1954, with direct Iraqi and British involvement, put an end to the contacts. The Anglo-Iraqi subversion in Syria continued in the years that followed, led by Nuri Sa’id and revolving around the 1955 Baghdad Pact (formed by Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Turkey and the UK), but now American agents were also involved. In 1957, a joint MI6-CIA operation (“Operation Straggle”) to oust President Quwatli, who had returned to Syria from Egyptian exile in 1955, failed. This time, Israel, which was now collaborating with Britain against Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, did not intervene.

The obsession with Syria brought about the end of the monarchy in Iraq. In the wake of the Egyptian-Syrian union in 1958, and the pro-Nasser disturbances that broke out in Lebanon that year, Nuri Sa’id ordered a military force under the command of Abd al-Karim Qasem to move toward the Syria-Jordan border. Qasem took advantage of the passage of army units through Baghdad to mount a blood-drenched coup: The members of the royal family were murdered, and the body of Nuri Sa’id was dragged through the city’s streets before a cheering crowd.

Lessons for the present

Despite the time that has passed and the different circumstances, insights applicable to our time can be gleaned from Israel’s behavior vis-a-vis Syria in the 1940s and early 1950s. Amid the dynamic, fluid situation of the contemporary Middle East, Israel cannot adopt the position of a bystander when a serious vacuum appears in one of its neighboring countries, something that could pose a potential danger to Israel. Israel’s unilateral disengagements from South Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, in 2000 and 2005 respectively, may have had short-term tactical advantages but they created long-term strategic threats. The same applies to Israel’s fence-sitting with regard to the current civil war in Syria, which has allowed Iran to consolidate its influence in that country.

In the present Syrian crisis, Israel would do well to adopt Ben-Gurion’s policy: to support Syria as an independent, sovereign state, as it existed until the eruption of the civil in 2011. In this context, the assumption accepted by many scholars concerning the disintegration of the “failed Arab state” has proved premature. Both Lebanon and Iraq endured blood-drenched civil wars, and in both cases it was argued that they would fall apart because of their religious and sectorial compositions. Nevertheless, Lebanon and Iraq are succeeding in rehabilitating themselves as state frameworks and each is also beginning to buttress its national identity.

When it comes to Iranian subversion in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, it’s worth remembering that there is a deeply rooted ethnic-identity conflict between “Arabs” and “Persians.” In the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, many Shi’ite Arabs in Iraq demonstrated their loyalty to their homeland when they joined the Iraqi army and fought against Shi’ite Iran. To date, Iran has made effective use of the threats to the Muslim world of American imperialism and of Israelin order to bridge that conflict. However, the outcome of the recent election in Iraq, in which demonstrators in Baghdad chanted anti-Iranian slogans, indicates that a substantial portion of the Iraqi people, among them many Shi’ites, object to Iran’s political and economic influence in their country. Similarly, Hezbollah, precisely because of its achievements in the recent election in Lebanon, will find it difficult to act as an Iranian agent that will risk Lebanon’s destruction in an unwanted war against Israel.

It’s reasonable to assume that following the end of the civil war, Syria will undergo a similar process and rehabilitate itself as a state, while reconstructing its Syrian-Arab national identity. Syria’s leaders across the decades, including Hafez Assad, the father of the president Syrian leader, did not fight for their country’s independence against France, Britain, Iraq, Transjordan and even Egypt only to turn their country into a base of Iranian influence. Instead of threatening Bashar Assad, Israel should work to widen the gap between the Syrian regime, and above all the Syrian people, and Iran. Threats of the kind being voiced in Israel – to assassinate the Syrian president, or to “partition” Syria – certainly do not help.

 

Meir Zamir is emeritus professor of Middle East history at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. A new edition of his book “The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948” was published by Routledge in 2016.

 

Document 1: End of February 1945 Jamil Mardam in Cairo informed President Quwatli of a quarrel between Nuri Sa’id and Yusuf Yasin, King’s Ibn Sa’ud’s adviser for Foreign Affairs

When Nuri Pasha arrived at Maher Pasha’s house he shook hands with everyone present, and when he reached Sheikh Yusuf, he said to him,
“Have your efforts been crowned with success?”
“What efforts are you talking about, Pasha?”
“When will you take Faisal al Saud to Damascus as king?”
“You are not serious,” answered Sheikh Yusuf.
“I am indeed,” said Nuri Said. “I think that the Syrians will pray to God for you many times.”
“May his name be praised”, replied Sheikh Yusuf.
At that moment Mr Zerkali) adviser to the Saudi monarch) intervened, saying,
“In reality, I do not understand the meaning of your words, Pasha. Faisal al Saud and all the Bani Saud in general, will only be able to have what God has granted them. You know that they only want the wellbeing of the Arabs and all Muslims in general.”
Nuri Pasha replied in anger,
“I hope that people are unsparing with their advice to you, now, sir. You are from Damascus, and I know the mentality of the Syrians as I have lived among them and seen them in Iraq. God is my witness, the Syrians have always sullied anything they have been involved in.”
Sheikh Yusuf, “Oh, excuse me, Pasha, excuse me.”
It seems that the Pasha was inclined to get into a fight. He said,
“What have you done and what has your king done?”
Mr Zerkali, “Our king is not the topic of our conversation now.”
“But he is,” replied Nuri Pasha, “He is the topic of our whole conversation. We can not remain silent, us Iraqis, about the actions we see and of which we hear. We have not come here to disperse Arabs, but to unite them. All the efforts you have put in since the start of our Conference have been designed to create obstacles for us or to spoil our work.”

 

Document 2:

Top Secret                                                                             

From Mr. Camille Chamoun, Lebanese Minister in London

on a mission to Baghdad

to Jamil Mardam Bey, Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

 

Encoded

I saw the British ambassador here. The English do not oppose anything that could be useful for us. They won’t intervene if the Iraqi tribes try to provoke the French. However, the French cannot be provoked in the desert. Moreover, if the tribes find a real interest in the matter, they won’t fail to take action. The movements of the tribes are therefore not useful.

As for the Iraqi army, it is ready to take action; but the Iraqis are asking themselves what will be the result of this action. Some officers said to me:

“Do you support the unification of Syria and Iraq?”

The Iraqis believe that when leaving for Syria, they won’t retreat. Their goal is Damascus and nothing else.

In any event, it is preferable for us to be governed by the Iraqis that to end up again under the French yoke.

20 May 1945                                                                      S/ Camille Chamoun

 

Letter sent by Camille Chamoun through the British Embassy in Baghdad.

 Author’s note: Camille Chamoun, later Lebanon’s president, was sent to Baghdad by British intelligence to help in organizing an Iraqi army invasion of Syria against the French.

 

Document 3:

 King Ibn Sa’ud reprimands President Quwatli for not standing up to Nuri Sa’id and King Abdullah

Secret

Nuri al-Sa’id’s activities are beginning to take a serious turn. We are unable to allow Abdullah’s plots. By God, your attitude is strange. People are working for your death and you do not move. I learnt that in Damascus Abdullah’s propagandists are exerting themselves as much as possible. What are you waiting for? We know, as you do, who supports and controls them. Why don’t you speak? God has ordered us not to be quiet when it is a matter of right, and has called someone who does not speak out a demon.

I ask you to appreciate the gravity of the situation. The anarchy reigning with you weakens any hope of success and it is sad to see that it is spreading. Can you not find a way to settle the situation instead of letting these scandals develop? Your situation pains us. It was not like this under French rule. Someone who enjoys my confidence told me that people are beginning to miss the period of French rule. Do something before your edifice falls down.

9 Shawwal 1364 (September 15, 1945)

S/ Abd al-Aziz

Author’s note: King Ibn Sa’ud continued to play a central role in opposing a Hashemite takeover of Syria, and supported Husni Za’im and Adib Shishakli.

 

Document 4:

Nuri Sa’id to the Turkish President

Top secret

His Excellency President Ismet Inonu

The Iraqi government must, for the moment, despite its desire to see a royal Syrian government established and facing the possibility of seeing the problem of the government of the Syrian Republic in its current state resolved, study with a degree of reserve all the proposals you have made to it regarding the question of the Turkish-Syrian borders and particularly as far as the regions of Aleppo and Kameshli are concerned.

The greatest difficulty really rests with this claim you have made and which is the annexation of Aleppo to Turkey. But I can assure you, with authority and from now that your claim regarding the border at Kameshli can be accepted, so long as it does not exceed in depth the adjustments imposed on the borders from 70 [probably 1870], as regards fortified land in relation to the current borders.

So I must also now obtain an assurance that the lands for which you accept cession to Syria are the equivalent of lands you are demanding. And you will indicate the detail of the matter to me.

December 1946                                                                                                              Signature: Nuri Sa’id

 Author’s note: Nuri Sa’id negotiated with the Turkish president on Turkey’s territorial claims in Syria, without being authorized to do so.

 

Document 5:

 

The Syrian Ambassador in London to the Syrian Foreign Minister

Top secret

The Syrian Foreign Minister – Damascus

 

Mr Bevin summoned me and asked me to inform you of the following:

“Under the personal pressure of President Truman I ask the Syrian Government to give its agreement to the pipeline route, and the passage of Saudi oil and also ask it to give its agreement to allowing the outlet to be in Lebanon and not in Syria.”

This was his statement….  Then he set out for me the British point of view on the matter in a few words, “So Lebanon will finally be rid of France”.

Of course, he did not explain the meaning of his words to me. But the information I have been able to obtain here is that Great Britain was decided on placing the oil outlet in Syria and not in Lebanon, because it was counting on our friendship and because it was placing its hopes on the plan for Greater Syria which would make Syria into an instrument to its liking and because, in addition, it believed that Lebanon was a region where French influence could find a foothold.

The result that it now has before it is that America has definitively put its hand on Lebanon while it abandons us to the mercy of British policy. I believe that for us it is the most dangerous stage to pass through, for King Abdullah’s plan now becomes possible if America favors him to satisfy the demands of the Jews and of Great Britain.

My opinion is that we should look to Russia, as the situation is extremely difficult.

May 6, 1947

The Minister Plenipotentiary

Najib al-Armanazi

 Author’s note: The Anglo-American conflict over the Saudi oil pipeline to the Mediterranean continued until Husni Za’im reached an agreement with the American oil company Aramco.

 

 

Juliette El-Mir Saadeh: Gender politics and women in armed conflict in Syria

Juliette El-Mir Saadeh: Gender politics and women in armed conflict
By Christopher Solomon
June 9, 2018 – For Syria Comment 

Juliette El-Mir Saadeh, the wife of Syrian Social Nationalist Party founder Antoun Saadeh, set a trend for the political and social norms for gender politics in the Levant.

The red five-pointed star on the yellow flag of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) evokes the symbolism of the Cold War and the socialist gender egalitarianism of the political left. The world’s attention frequently focuses on the U.S. supported Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition headed by the YPG and the movement’s future in eastern Syria. The highly publicized images of the Kurdish female fighters in the YPJ (the SDF coalition’s female units) have made them a strong source of praise in the West. In the October 2017 YPJ Commander Rojda Felat was widely covered in the press for leading the SDF campaign against Da’esh in Raqqa. Another example was the outcry over the brutal death of the YPJ fighter Amina Omar during Turkey’s military operation in Afrin (who went by the nom de guerre Barin Kobani) in February 2018.

However, with the Assad regime emerging as the prominent political force in Syria’s conflict, Damascus appears to be attempting to reach a political accommodation while simultaneously embarking on a confrontation with the YPG/SDF. The attack by pro-Assad forces on the SDF base near Deir Ezzor in February 2018 contradicts the regime’s willingness to facilitate YPG fighters through its territory to the front in Afrin and lend militia fighters. This leads to the possibility that the recent fighting with Turkish forces in Afrin and the Syrian regimes’ converging interest with the YPG could bring the Kurds “home” to President Assad.

One of the pro-Assad factions (with its own militia), the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), is an interesting case study as it is well-positioned to flex its nationalist credentials as a way for the regime coalition to confront and curtail the YPG/SDF’s efforts to foster a regional autonomy. As the YPG/SDF continues to come into contact with the Assad regime forces along the Euphrates River and elsewhere, the role of women in Syrian politics and in the conflict will become even more pronounced in the coming political shakeup and period of reconstruction, especially given that both camps tend to view themselves as the modern and progressive bulwark best suited for confronting the extreme gender-regressive nature of the country’s Jihadist movements. Given the war’s cruelty and the dangerous conditions often faced by women in Syria, along with rapidly shifting socioeconomic conditions, it will be essential to monitor and analyze the role of women in both within the Assad camp, the YPG/SDF, as well as in the wider opposition groups, and the non-aligned members of Syrian society as a whole.

What does this have to do with Juliette El-Mir Saadeh? There has been little discussion or efforts to explore gender-oriented politics in the Syria regime territories and its place amongst the factions of the pro-Assad forces. To gain insight into the history of this phenomenon and the roots of the Levant’s secular-progressive brand of authoritarianism and political attitudes towards women, the story of Juliette, the Arab World’s first female political prisoner, could be one place for analysts to begin.

Juliette El-Mir Saadeh’s turbulent life

Much of Juliette’s life would be encompassed by the political activities of her husband, Antoun Saadeh and his establishment of the SSNP in 1932. After having fled Lebanon in 1938 due to political persecution from the colonial France authorities, Antoun Saadeh, in a self-imposed exile, arrived in South America with the intention of establishing a network with the Syrian and Lebanese communities living overseas to financially bolster his nascent movement. In 1939 that he met Juliette El-Mir, the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who had moved to Argentina in the late 1800’s. Juliette had been working as a nurse who was training to become a doctor. She began corresponding with Saadeh, with whom her family was impressed, and they married in 1943 (Other sources put the date April 1940 or 1941). After the end of WWII, Saadeh returned to Beirut in 1947 with much fanfare. Juliette joined him in Beirut by the end of 1947 with her two daughters, Sofia and Elissar. The couples’ youngest child, Raghida, was born in Lebanon.

Men and women celebrating the return of Antoun Saadeh in Beirut in 1947.

As the confrontations between Saadeh and the Lebanese government played out, Juliette would become caught up in the violent events that soon turned the party into a pariah, something she wasn’t fully prepared for when they returned to Lebanon. At an event launching for the release of her mother’s memoirs, Dr. Safia Saadeh relayed to the Lebanese writer Samia Nassar Melki, “From her perspective, my mother thought that her husband espoused a very nice ideology and that he would be active in convincing people of that, but not that he would be persecuted for it.”

While in hiding during Saadeh’s July 1949 uprising and flight, Juliette witnessed arguments amongst the partisans who came by her house on the rapidly unfolding situation. A noted emphasis fell on Saadeh’s political advisor, Maaruf Saab, over misleading the others on the planned meeting with Husni Zaim. General Zaim had taken power in March 1949 in Syria’s first military coup. On the surface, it appeared he sought to use Saadeh as a way to establish a friendly SSNP regime in Beirut (he did once insist that Lebanon should be part of Syria) but his true intentions would soon prove otherwise.

On July 6, while hiding in a hotel in Damascus, she learned that her husband would proceed to meet with Zaim and decried the fact that the Syrian dictator had already repeatedly let Saadeh down with broken promises of political support and arms and was not to be trusted. The Saadeh family had a particularly close relationship with the infamous military figure Adib Shishakli, who would later take control of Syria via his own coup. Juliette wrote in her memoirs that she sought the opinion of Shishakli when moving in hiding during the Zaim debacle, including whether or not she should seek refuge at the Greek Orthodox Our Lady of Saidnaya Monastery.

Antoun Saadeh with female SSNP fighters

However, Zaim’s security forces eventually located Saadeh’s family in Latakia and Juliette was moved to the Saidnaya Monastery. On July 10th that she discovered that Saadeh had been betrayed by Zaim, turned over to the Lebanese army, and subsequently the recipient of a hasty execution on July 8th. The Patriarch tried to orchestrate the family’s return to Argentina but she refused on the grounds that the Lebanese government must first allow her to collect their personal belongings in Lebanon, a request which was refused. Saadeh left property he owned in Dhour el Choueir to his wife along with four hundred Syrian pounds. After his death, she was also promoted to the SSNP’s Supreme Council and received the title al-Amina al-ula (First Keeper or Trustee).

Though it was Shishakli who rescued the Saadeh family, they eventually came under the protection of SSNP party leader George Abd Messih, but it was a traumatic existence, with Abd Messih having moved in with the family in Syria, and her home became the SSNP’s headquarters. Safia Saadeh recalled to Melki: “The day my father died, I no longer had a home. He took everything from us, he wanted to crush us and with us the legacy of my father. We lived in an atmosphere of fear. I regret her not taking us away. But for her there was no question. She perceived it as loyalty to my father and the cause he died for.”

In regards to George Abd Messih’s leadership and his ultimate legacy, many SSNP members remain divided. Some admired his versatility and toughness, but others detested his overbearing personality. However, he is generally credited for holding the party together after Saadeh’s execution.

One SSNP leader in the U.S. relayed his thoughts on Abd Messih and his doubts on the authenticity of [Juliette’s] memoirs: “There are a lot of question marks surrounding the book, and its contents brought to light some of the major episodes in party history which led to the eventual ‘Intifada’ (the SSNP’s first split) in 1957.  The Deanery of Information in the Party actually released a response to the book titled, “The Memoirs of the First Trustee (Amina) Between the Hammer of Hatreds and the Anvil of Distortion.”  A lot of the events described in the memoirs were unfortunately patently false and proved to be complete distortions. We are unsure if they were even written by Juliette El Mir herself because the book was published long after her death (and after the death of George Abd Messih).”

“The reality is that certain SSNP members have had a historical revulsion toward George Abd Messih because he was very strict when it came to adherence to Party principles and moral standards.  While they had wanted to engage in political dealings at the expense of ideological purity, Abd Messih continuously refused and stood in their way.  As such, they began to mount a propaganda campaign against him throughout the years in an attempt to discredit him and attack his character.  Many of their indoctrinations focused on the demonization of Abd Messih, such that new generations of SSNPers grew up hating Abd Messih without really knowing why.  It was an unfortunate blemish in the history of the SSNP that has had a negative impact on party effectiveness.”

It was only a month later that Zaim himself was overthrown by Syrian army officers connected to the SSNP. Confronting the deposed general in the presidential palace, a plotter accused Zaim of “betraying Saadeh.” After Za’im was executed at Mezzeh prison on August 14, Shishakli brought Zaim’s bloody shirt in front of Juliette and shouted, “We have avenged him!” One party elder remarked that this scene was a big shock to Juliette, being from Latin America. Shishakli would go on to launch his own political party, the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM), which was modeled after the SSNP.

(Above) Juliette pictured with unidentified party members. Dr. Sofia Saadeh said she did not know who the men were and underscored the extreme hardships faced by the family: “I do not have such pictures because everything was taken from our home in Damascus in 1955, and our home in Lebanon in 1962 including my dad and grandfather’s libraries that contained a lot of rare books and manuscripts.”

Abd Messih’s legacy and Juliette’s fate are closely associated with the 1955 assassination of Adnan al-Malki and the Baath’s purge of the party in Syria, which saw member of SSNP imprisoned or flee to Lebanon. However, Juliette was one such member who sat through the show trials and was sentenced to life imprisonment in the Qala’a Dimashq (Citadel of Damascus – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site), which had served as a prison during the French Mandate before it was finally closed in 1986.  After Hafez al-Assad’s faction of the Baath Party (the so-called Military Committee) carried out coup and overthrew the anti-UAR secessionist government on March 8, 1963, Juliette was pardoned and released due to ill health on December 26, 1963. The Syrian government stipulated her release on the condition she would not live in any Arab country so she went into exile in Paris, France. Juliette remained active in the party as a member of the Supreme Council until her death in 1976 in Beirut.

One Syrian historian reflected on his thoughts on her memoirs, “Juliette El-Mir’s memoirs are among the finest I have read. They are peppered with detail, emotional, informative, and entertaining, all at once. They are also very honest, which is not often true for memoirs. Regardless who physically wrote them, she obviously dictated the narrative.” While Juliette is still highly venerated by all factions of the SSNP, it is evident by the views of some factions who call into question the validity of her memoirs and her troubled relationship with Abd Messih show how one woman’s place in history continues to haunt the party today. Her legacy as the first woman political prisoner in the Arab World exemplifies the long history of political persecution and fraught nature of women in the region.

 

The SSNP, the YPJ, and women in the Levant: Bullets and the ballot box

Syrian women in the Independence Day military parade in 1957

The Levant in particular has been the scene of female participation in the region’s conflicts. Of course, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Cold War left a heavy mark on gender roles and combat in the Levant, especially among the governments and non-state actors aligned with the Soviet Union. For instance, Syria under Hafez al-Assad and the local branch of the Baath Party ideologically conditioned women through a military-style education system. One other example was Rifaat al-Assad, the brother of Hafez, whose own loyal military units saw female troops roamed through Damascus in the 1970s, forcing the veils and hijabs off the heads of women on the streets as an unsanctioned part of Rifaat’s attitude towards modernization. In the West, the SSNP is typically viewed as a far-right party.  While regarded as militaristic and violent, the SSNP, like the Baath formed later on, had an avant-garde character that influenced many other secular-nationalist movements in the Levant. It influenced the Arab Liberation Movement (ALM) during the Shishakli period. The ALM had a socially inclusive approach towards women but was later disbanded after Shishakli’s fall from power. Furthermore, unlike communism, which never really took off in the Arab World, the SSNP was thought to be an indigenous party.

In the Syrian Civil War, the scope of women fighting against the so-called Islamic State (Da’esh) has been well documented. The YPG-SDF gained widespread praise for leading the fight against Da’esh. However, they have been unable to shake the allegations they are tied to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which also has a dominant female presence. Outside of the region, the ideology of the PKK has also been compared to Peru’s Shining Path or Colombian FARC, both which used women fighters. At one point during Nepal’s Civil War (1996-2006), the Maoist insurgency’s ranks were thought to be half female fighters. In the Sri Lankan conflict (1983-2009), the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) gained notoriety for their widespread use of female suicide bombers, with missions based not on the promise of an after-life, but for duty or service to the community or the nation. Dr. Robert Pape noted in his book, Cutting the Fuse: The Explosion of Global Suicide Terrorism and How to Stop It, the LTTE foster this concept through “Thatkodai” which means giving oneself. This also evokes another, similar Tamil word “Thatkollai” for killing oneself. Of course this secular concept of sacrifice for the nation is also found within both the SSNP and YPG.

How does the SSNP typically view the Kurds and the YPG-SDF? Kurdish separatism is viewed as an anathema to the SSNP’s ideology since it runs counter to the party’s goal of creating Greater Syria. The party hence regularly denounces any attempt of Kurdish regionalism, autonomy, or independence as a conspiratorial Jewish project.

However, one interesting ideological overlap that is not widely considered is the irredentist nature of both the SSNP and Kurdish nationalism. An SSNP party member even suggested privately, that individual members propose their own theories: “We should support the Kurds, because Kurdistan is Eastern and Northern Natural Syria, and it is currently occupied by the Iranians and the Turks, and also divided by Syria and Iraq. Therefor the establishment of Kurdistan is one way of uniting Syria and Iraq and taking back our stolen lands and is worth considering.”

An edited screenshot of an image posted in a Twitter feud between Kurdish supporters and an SSNP sympathizer showing both sides share irredentist dreams of lost land unredeemed due to European colonialism.

Is there any historical ideological connection or inspiration between the YPG’s official political body, the Democratic Union Party (the PYD) and Kurdish nationalism with the early SSNP and Baath Party from the 1930s-1950s? The PYD is a more recent party, founded only in September 2003, but it is especially interesting to note the shared progressive ideology or gender equality that would be considered part of the political left.

Up until 1955, the SSNP itself maintained a united front, but began to split after the Adnan al-Malki assassination. Toward the end of the 1960s both the SSNP and Lebanese Communist Party (LCP) introduced major changes to their strategic policies which coincided on many fronts. The SSNP did not change its irredentist ideology but began to emphasis the leftist and socialist features in it, which made it easier for the party to reconcile with all leftist groups, including the Communists. Inaam Raad, a leading party theoretician and leader and assumed the SSNP’s presidency and fostered a strong anti-Zionist position. In addition, Raad had leftist tendencies and aligned the SSNP closely with the Soviet Union and the socialist-oriented Lebanese National Movement which contained the Progressive Socialist Party (PSP), the LCP, and the PLO under Arafat during the Lebanese Civil War.

Another brief point worth mentioning is the strong emphasis by both parties on the cult of leadership personality, with each sharing a deep and enduring veneration for leaders who paid in full for the cause: the SSNP’s Antoun Saadeh (execution) and the PYD’s Abdullah Ocalan (life imprisonment).

The SSNP storm logo either defacing or juxtaposed with a hammer and sickle

Rana Khalaf, a research fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews spoke at length on the history and the ideology of the PYD: “One important area you would need to consider is the era difference. The PYD, under the leadership of the Abdullah Ocalan-inspired Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) shares the ideology of the PKK, which is much older. However, the discourse of the PKK did evolve over time. One major difference (between the PYD, the SSNP and Baath) is that the PYD follows an anarchist ideology (my emphasis added) that sees the notion of the state itself as problematic, thus advocating the notion of democratic confederalism. However, the theory is different in practice in this and other aspects.

Take for instance the PYD’s discourse on gender equality. It is noted by many of the activists I have interviewed that the progressive co-presidency rule they follow – which implies a man and a women govern together is also mainly used to keep power with the PYD; this co-presidency is also often shared between a cadre (PYD trusted member who has the power) and a non-cadre . One example cited by activists is a shared presidency between an Arab tribal man (who is the non-cadre with no real power) and a Kurdish women (who is the cadre that takes orders from the PYD) in a local council where the young woman is not herself empowered by this position, rather she is used to serve as the mouthpiece of the PYD.

“Nonetheless, relative to all other governance actors across Syria today, the PYD’s theory and practice in regards to women’s participation in governance and the economy is amongst the most progressive. The PYD is one of very few armed groups that specifically focus on women’s empowerment in its discourse. In fact, it is only in PYD-held areas that a legal framework has been made and implemented supporting a 40% quota for women in its public administration and imposing women’s co- presidency in public positions. This will bear fruit in the future and is a positive mark for them. For instance, the 40% quota for women in its public administration one gender-related question mark is the PYD’s outlook on gender and Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transsexual (LGBT) rights. Quoting a feminist journalist who has posed that question to key leaders in Rojava, the main argument she said she received in response to this was that ‘there are no LGBT people in Rojava!’”

“In regards to the ideology itself and its translation…the KCK’s ideology is argued by some critics to have been written in Turkish and not accurately translated in Arabic. Also within the leadership’s secret inner circle there is rumor about two groups of followers understanding this ideology differently from each other. As the KCK remains a secret one, it will be difficult to check if this is true.”

Khalaf also touched on how the Assad regime hosted the PKK for a time to have geopolitical leverage on Turkey. “They were one of armed groups the regime supported in order to use as leverage on neighboring countries which in the case of the PKK was Turkey. Looking at its trend in treating these groups, it was not strange for the Syrian regime to keep these movements in check with some of their members questioned or detained from time to time. This ensured their power remained limited and under the control of the regime.”

“Kurdish parities in Syria have been secretly active since 1957 and never ceased to exist, thus their well-organized civil society groups. However, while most parties have been subjected to the strong oppression and surveillance of the regime, the PKK was monitored as well and some of its members followed and detained at times – was politically tolerated and even supported militarily. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Syrian regime hosted and supported the training of PKK members in training camps, even outside Syria in neighboring countries. However, as the relationship between the regime and Turkey was warming up in the late 1990s, a deal between the two has meant that the regime had to send Ocalan, the movement’s leader, into exile in 1998. Albeit not directly sent or handed to Turkey by the regime, Ocalan ended detained in Turkey to date. Additionally, many members of the PKK in Syria were actually detained and tortured by the regime. Thus, it is inaccurate to say they have had the regimes unquestioned support or that it was a smooth relationship, however, the regime did tolerate the PKK and support them when it strongly oppressed others.”

She also discussed the possibility of a political reconciliation or accommodation between the PYD and Baathist regime after the conflict, “This all depends on how the conflict ends, what political settlement is reached and how much power each actor has. Currently, both the regime and the PKK need and are dependent on each other. There is evidence of some tension and lacking trust between the two and also of strong cooperation between them. A ‘precarious co-existence’ is how I describe their relationship at the moment. What the future holds for their relationship is up to actors and factors beyond them both. Hypothetically speaking, if it was up to the regime alone, I cannot see much evidence of any true intention of sharing power, let alone with the PYD which it is unlikely to politically tolerate in its current shape and power beyond the conflict situation. If less powerful and/or in another form, there is a possibility – again depending on how the conflict ends. Evidently, the PYD/PKK has sown the seeds for its participation in governance in some form, at some stage, in this region in the future.”

In regards to the history of women fighting with the SSNP, perhaps the most infamous case was Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”), who left a deep impression on a generation of Lebanese youth. See The Girl in the Red Beret written in 2009 by Lina Mounzer. However, there were many other examples of female SSNP militants taking part in either suicide missions or participating as regular militia fighters. Interestingly, the party’s Eagles of the Whirlwind militia in the Syrian conflict does not appear to be fielding women fighters in combat roles, nor carrying out suicide attacks against the YPG, Syrian rebel factions, Da’esh, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), or the any of the other jihadists groups. This could be due to the limited size of Assad’s forces or the fact they are operating in the capacity as a government-sponsored support force, instead of insurgency targeting Israeli Defense Forces (such as in Lebanon in the 1980s).

However, it is curious why the Syrian regime forces have not featured women fighters prominently in their propaganda videos depicting front line combat scenes in the conflict’s major battles. Despite how much praise and attention the YPJ has won, the Assad typically regulates women to the roles off the battlefields – reporters, humanitarian aid, spokespersons, entertainment, moral boosters, etc. Though the regime is eager to illustrate it is the only version of Syria that is capable of maintaining an open, liberal environment for women, it still retains a rather traditional approach to women in its combat forces, whereas the YPG-SDF have won hearts and minds by putting women on near-equal status in the fight against Da’esh. Essentially, the regime sees itself as a paternal protector to keep women safe from the country’s jihadist elements. Regime military women, when in uniform and armed, are primarily stationed in primarily defensive or support roles.

(Above) Women in uniforms with the SSNP Eagles of the Whirlwind insignia on the right arm, with the party’s storm logo on the left arm. A military source, Roland Bartetzko, said they appeared to be wearing a British “desert kit” style uniform but the camo pattern are not an exact match, but rather likely a “fantasy” copy ordered online. The trousers are a U.S. style in cut and the design of the pockets. Especially interesting to note is there are no other SSNP fighters seen in online images/video wearing this type of uniform, therefore, this image appears to be for promotional use. In addition, there are no pictures or video footage of female SSNP militants actively fighting in the Syrian Civil War.

One SSNP youth in Damascus explained, “Syria is different than Lebanon unfortunately, in Lebanon the SSNP is more Orthodox, women members would fight alongside men (in the Lebanese Civil War), would commit suicide bombings…etc…in Syria, thanks to Baath Party’s incomplete (read inefficient) secularism, Syrians are unfamiliar with females fighting.” On the other hand, the women of the YPG have been far more active, even fighting to the death. One incident during Turkey’s Afrin offensive was erroneously described by the New York Times as a suicide bombing. A Kurdish activist relayed this was likely more a “last stand” type moment against the Turks, rather than a suicide operation planned in advanced.

One female SSNP member, Zenab Khierbeck, hailed the YPJ woman who committed suicide in 2014 on the battle field rather than risk capture by Da’esh. She tweeted: #Syria… A Kurdish fighter heroine named Jilan shot herself so she would not fall into the hands of the #Da’esh criminals.

 

Female members of the Gozarto Protection Force are one other example of a pro-regime militia fielding women.

A female SSNP member named Jianna Khadher Eid was killed while enrolled in the National Defense Forces in October 2017. Note the SSNP party’s storm logo on the memorial.

Screenshot of SSNP women marching before Assaad Hardan in a 2010 parade in Dhour el Choueir, Lebanon

 

Syrian women campaigning for their right to vote in the early 1950s

 

Lebanon and Syria have always stood out compared to the rest of the region, this comes in the shifting attitudes towards gender in the region. Inas Mohammed Khair al-Mallouhi (pictured above) is a deputy in the Syrian parliament representing the Tartus Governorate. According to an SSNP member affiliated with Ali Haidar’s Intifada faction, she is part of the SSNP’s Markaz (Center) faction, which is the party’s largest faction under Hanna Al-Nashif and Assaad Hardan, headquartered in Beirut. She is described by her party comrades as “an outspoken woman,” and commended for having made a few “controversial but brave” statements in her political career:

  1. Russia does not have the right to write a constitution for Syria.
  2. The government is not paying enough salaries.
  3. The Syrian parliament is full of people who don’t do their job.
  4. She proposed that the Syriac language be studied in schools instead of French, because “the French language is useless.”

A young SSNP member in Damascus said “the Syrian people are used to ‘silent MPs,’ so this is a huge change in what people are used to and they like it.” He also added MP Mallouhi is not with the Markaz faction but with the Joseph Sweid and Issam al-Mahayri branch because “the suggestion to teach Syriac sounds likes their faction, as they are more anti-Arabist than the Markaz faction.” Syriac is still used by some Syrian Christian sects for liturgy. In Ali Haidar’s Intifada faction, there are two women in the supreme council (the highest legislative body of the party) and three women on the executive board (the highest executive body of the party).

Tartus MP Inas Mohammed Khair al-Mallouhi pictured in the middle with other SSNP figures. They will debate Syrian Minister of Awqaf (Religious Endowments) Dr. Mohammad Abdul-Sattar al-Sayyed in parliament on the issue of civil marriage, an objective which the party is “pushing hard.”

The SSNP’s Facebook page hailing a recent workshop title, “Strengthening the role of Syrian women” organized by the Syrian Cultural Foundation held at the Pullman Hotel in Al Shahba, Aleppo. The post noted “150 women from various political, social, cultural, economic and media activities attended the workshop.”

“O’ Virgin Mary protect the leader and the Eagles in Saidnaya.”

Although staunchly secular, individual SSNP members will occasionally post Christian-themed images on its social media accounts. This is one example which pays homage to Mary and calling on her to protect the party’s militia. Of course, this is the work of partisans acting as an individuals and not officially sanctioned party material.

“My mother and my country are the ones who started my life and they forever be in it. O’ God help me to be good to them.” – Saadeh, Happy Mothers’ Day

Arwa Abu Ezzeddine, in an October 2015 interview with the pro-Assad Janoubia (South) news outlet, said she joined the party in 1986 and has been active in the central leadership since 2004. She said, “Women have played an active role since the founding of the party. Since entering the cage with the eagles there is no distinction between men and women. Antoun Saadeh played the role as a human example in society, so women can radiate within the party,” she said. There have been a number of women who played a prominent role since the early years of the party’s founding, most notably Afifa Haddad and other influential members in Beirut, such as Fayza Maalouf Antiba and Amina Najla Matouk.

In the case of SSNP comrade Afifa Haddad, the sister of Fouad Haddad (one of the SSNP’s original founding members), she played a role when the party was still underground. The Haddads owned a restaurant opposite the American University in Beirut, which was a meeting place for the teachers and students affiliated with the party.  Afifa acted as a look out during the meetings. When Saadeh was first arrested by the French in November 1935, Afifa brought him food (the food was from Haddad’s restaurant). Consequently, she was able to relay messages from Saadeh to his SSNP comrades on the outside. Afifa is considered the first woman in the party.

Female political participation, however, remains precarious in Lebanon. The SSNP, along with others, including Hezbollah, the PSP, LCP, Kataeb Party, and the Future Movement, were the subject of a report in 2014 by the Lebanese Women Democratic Gathering (RDFL). According to Al-Akhbar English, “The study shows that one or two women are represented in each party’s leadership body. None of the parties that were studied adopted a quota for women in their internal organization, 33 percent absolutely rejected a women’s quota, 50 percent appointed women in some leadership positions and 16.6 percent nominated women for parliamentary elections.” One case was the SSNP member and Lebanese reporter Ghadi Francis, who a few years ago called for an “SSNP Spring” within the party. She noted the movement’s inability to reform and lamented the stagnant nature of the party. Francis was then attacked allegedly by Asaad Hardan’s bodyguard.

An unidentified SSNP woman speaks at a party event in Syria.

One should note that the focus solely on armed women for what lays ahead for Syria is not an accurate indicator for female empowerment. The history of Juliette’s political status and veneration offers only a fleeting glimpse of an early social and political ideology that has, like many other 20th century egalitarian movements of its time, has fallen short of its intended goals. Also, women empowerment means structural changes to the laws, processes, representation – i.e. the unequal power structures. The example of one woman leader, as often throughout history, is an exception not the norm.

Khalaf offered some concluding thoughts on the gender dynamics of the YPJ: “Women fighters in the Syrian conflict are primarily perceived in an orientalist manner by Western media. Both the SSNP and YPG/J are not fighting for the full pursuit of women’s rights. They are fighting for an ideology – be it nationalist or not – the institutional patriarchy of which they will be crushed under. True, the PYD is supporting women in its discourse, laws and some practices far better than other (especially Islamist) armed actors and this is very positive; yet institutionally, true women emancipation is lagging far behind. For instance, if one wants to narrow the focus just to the institutions ruling women fighters – is the YPJ command equal to the YPG? Why do women fighters in the YPJ (unlike the men in the YPG) have to leave its ranks if married? Who made rule – a man? What about women’s freedom to choose? Critically, we do not need to over romanticize women fighters or generalize individual cases of women who made it to the top against all odds. Truly assessing the feminist struggle in the region means looking at how women are challenging the patriarchal power structures ruling them.”

Outside of the conflict, Syrian women struggle for inclusion at the highest levels of international diplomacy as well. According to one source, the regime strongly fought against the inclusion of Syrian women in the advisory board for the United Nations special envoy for the Syria Staffan de Mistura’s office. It denied them (like the opposition) a seat at the negotiation table. The conservative members of the opposition, in their Islamist discourse, saw women’s voice as Awra (a source of shame); as for the regime, it claimed they were with the opposition. The women then tried to add prestigious women from the regime’s side to the board (one from a government ministry and a TV presenter). Now the regime prohibits these women from leaving Syria.

Meanwhile, in Syria, the regime forces and the YPG will continue to square off as they both seek to ward off the Turks and the remaining Syrian rebels. The lasting legacy of women fighting amongst the YPG is still undetermined. As seen with Eastern Ghouta, Idlib Province is likely to eventually fall to the regime, the YPG-SDF and the pro-regime forces could become the last two standing. Though the U.S. Administration has recently indicated it may soon pull out from Syria, this is unlikely since the wider geopolitical nature of the conflict still remains unresolved. A renewed effort by the U.S. to accommodate Turkey with the removal of Kurdish militia from the town of Manbij may also open new possibilities between the YPG and the regime. Simultaneous threats and negotiations will further this trend.

The red star looks likely to stay over eastern Syria. Some on the regime side talking about a guerilla war to recover the territory occupied by the YPG and Americans (the SSNP could be one regime faction well-positioned for this task) and the war could yet drag on for years. Still, the striking similarities between the SSNP and the YPG both demonstrate a rarity in the Middle East: they are two organizations with an intense dedication to ideological purity in an era of, as one Syria analyst put it, “ideological bankruptcy.” They both retain their own unique irredentist visions and own brands of romantic nationalism and have created a niche for women in their political hierarchies and fighting forces. As Syria’s women are still subject to extreme violence and vulnerability, the role of women within the future of these two political movements will merit further study.

 

Christopher Solomon is a Middle East Analyst and works for a U.S. defense consultancy in the DC area. In addition to Syria Comment, his writing has appeared on NATO’s Atlantic Voices, Raddington Report, Global Risk Insights, and the Small Wars Journal. He earned his MA from the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs (GSPIA) at the University of Pittsburgh. He also interned at the Middle East Institute in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter @Solomon_Chris

It Would Have Been Preferable Not to Militarily Intervene in Syria – By Ambassador @nikolaosvandam

It Would Have Been Preferable Not to Militarily Intervene in Syria; It Has Turned Out to Be a Disaster
By Ambassador Dr. Nikolaos van Dam @nikolaosvandam 
Interviewed by Mohsen Abdelmoumen
Originally published June 03, 2018 on American Herald Tribune

Mohsen Abdelmoumen: You are a diplomat and you know very well the Middle East region where you have been Ambassador of the Netherlands in several countries. You have also been Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria. In your opinion, does the diplomatic and political solution still have a chance of succeeding in Syria after this bloody war?

His Excellency Dr. Nikolaos van Dam: Whether or not a political solution is still possible depends on the main parties to the conflict, both Syrian and foreign, involved directly or by proxy. The aims of the warring parties are so wide apart, however, that reaching a compromise seems to be extremely difficult, if not impossible, particularly because the opposing parties actually keep preferring to eliminate one another. This provides more fertile ground for a military “solution”, which in the end, however, will not turn out to be a durable “solution” but rather a reflection of the military balance of power.

What might perhaps have been achieved through dialogue between the regime and its opponents in the earlier stages of the Syrian Revolution, became more and more difficult later on with all the killing and destruction that occurred. The longer the war lasted, the more difficult it became to negotiate and reach any compromise. The mutual hate between the conflicting parties is immense.

There was, of course, not any guarantee of success with the dialogue I have suggested for over seven years, but rejection of any dialogue was a guarantee for failure, as we have seen over the past seven years.

Most of the Syrian opposition at the time were not able to accept any compromise with the regime, not only because of their extremely hostile feelings and negative emotions towards the regime, but also because they still expected to receive strong foreign military and political support, as happened in Libya, which caused the fall and death of Libyan leader al-Qadhafi. The other way around, the regime abhorred the thought of having to share power with those who tried to topple it and wanted to bring its most prominent representatives before international justice.

One might argue that the regime has never been interested in any dialogue whatsoever that could have led to drastic political changes or reform, but it has – in my opinion – not been tried long enough. The serious efforts in the beginning should have been continued. Sometimes one should even make a serious effort if one is not fully convinced of the possibilities of achieving success.

Various countries, including Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and others, indeed made serious efforts to help finding such a solution in the beginning. But as from August 2011, various foreign leaders, including US President Obama and others started to call for President Bashar al-Assad to step aside or step down, and most of them have continued to do so time and again ever since, albeit more recently with some variations and changes.

Many foreign politicians naively expected president Bashar al-Assad to voluntarily step down as president of Syria, after all kinds of atrocities the Syrian regime reportedly had committed against the so-called peaceful demonstrators and, later on, against military opposition groups. They, together with the main Syrian opposition groups, wanted al-Assad to voluntarily sign his own death warrant, because the legal president of Syria, in their view, had lost his legitimacy. It was completely unrealistic, however, in the sense that what they wanted to happen – even though it might have been justified on basis of their views of justice and rightfulness – certainly was not going to happen in reality.

The alternative was to militarily defeat the Syrian regime. But direct military intervention at the time was rejected in the Western democracies involved, just as well.

Nevertheless, by way of an alternative, various Western and Arab governments chose to militarily intervene indirectly, by arming, financing and politically supporting the various Syrian opposition groups. This turned out to be enough to bring the regime in a delicate military position, but not enough to topple it. Later on, various countries also started to militarily intervene directly.

Most Western and Arab governments have claimed time and again that they wanted a political solution, and this was true in principle. But they only wanted a political solution that would lead to regime change, and this turned out to be impossible without sufficient military means. The results of indirect military intervention have been just as disastrous as direct military intervention would have been: notably almost half a million dead, millions of refugees, a country in ruins and a nation destroyed to a great extent.

You wrote a major book that I consider very important to understand what is happening in Syria “Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria translated among others into Arabic. Do you think we could have avoided the catastrophic scenario that happened in Syria? If yes, how?

One of the key questions in this book is whether or not the bloody war in Syria could have been avoided, and whether it could have been expected. My answer is that it was unavoidable and that it could have been expected. What could not have been predicted, however, were the disastrous effects of the so-called Arab Spring and the foreign interference in the Syrian War that started in 2011.

Already long before 2011, we have seen how on numerous occasions the Ba’th regime dealt in a ruthless way with any threats against it, whether these were imagined or real: people opposing the regime were imprisoned, tortured, killed, assassinated, or committed ‘suicide with more than one bullet’, or were dealt with by other repressive means.

A brutal dictatorship with such characteristics and behaviour like the Syrian Ba’thist regime, could not realistically have been expected to give up power voluntarily as a result of peaceful demonstrations, like those that started with the Syrian Revolution in 2011. Neither could the regime realistically have been expected to voluntarily give up its power as a result of a fierce war-by-proxy on Syrian territory, which was encouraged and militarily and financially supported by regional proxies, like Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, or Western countries like the United States, Great Britain and France. I predicted more than two decades ago in my earlier book The Struggle for Power in Syria – and it was not that difficult to predict – that any effort to effectuate regime change was (and is) bound to lead to enormous bloodshed. And this is what we have seen during the years since the start of the Syrian Revolution and are still witnessing today. Those who did not expect such a huge bloodbath, either did not know enough about Syrian history, or they were suffering from an overdose of wishful thinking, or both.

As could have been expected, the Syrian regime seized all possible means to stay in power. Its strategy of temporary alliances with the aim of monopolizing power has been repeated on various occasions ever since 1963 until today, also during the Syrian War that started in 2011. It did not always matter to the Ba’thist rulers whether they formed alliances with other parties that were not at all ideologically close to them, or even with parties that were in fact their enemies, as long as they could achieve their principal aim, which was staying in power and monopolizing it. It was the end that justified whatever means.

Had the Western and Arab countries not interfered with their arms shipments and military support against the Syrian regime, there would, of course, also have been serious efforts of the Syrian opposition to topple the regime, inspired as they were by the developments in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. After all, the leaders of these three countries had been toppled after massive demonstrations, and, in the case of Libya, after direct military intervention. Without foreign interference, however, the opposition insurrection would most probably have been violently suppressed much sooner, as a result of which much fewer deadly victims would have fallen; there would not have been as many millions of refugees as there are now, and the country would be less in rubble. Yes, the Syrian dictatorship would have continued relentlessly just as well, but it is also continued now, albeit it under circumstances that are much worse.

In my view, it would have been better for foreign countries to back off in the Syrian War and stay outside of it, rather than to try to impose a solution with insufficient military means, with the disastrous consequences as we know them today.

I find your article written in May 2014 “Syria: The West Should Stop Raising False Expectations” still relevant. In your opinion, was not the West’s aim to change the Al-Assad regime without having a specific plan, which led to the current chaos?

Even after seven years of bloody war, and some 500,000 dead, many Western and Arab politicians still tend to be blinded, to some extent at least, by wishful thinking, as a result of which they officially keep approaching the conflict in Syria from a supposedly moral high ground. They have not been prepared to accept the basic reality, that with a limited will and limited means only limited goals can be achieved. Various Western and Arab politicians have thereby indirectly helped the war to continue with all its dead, refugees and destruction.

I am not aware of any clearly defined plan of Western and Arab countries to help achieve a political solution. Yes, there are, of course, specifically defined principles and aims, some of which have been defined in the Geneva Communique (2012) and UN Security Council Resolutions, like UNSC resolution 2254, but there is no clear plan on how to specifically achieve the proclaimed aims in a peaceful manner in practice, taking into account the positions of the parties involved which turn out to block any political compromise.

In fact, the war was initiated (in reaction to the atrocities of the regime) without, however, sufficient means and planning that this war against the regime could also really be won. Before engaging in the war, interfering foreign countries should have sufficiently studied the military situation in order to be sure that their Syrian allies had a realistic chance of winning it; but they apparently did not. In order to be able to defeat and kill a lion, one should be sure beforehand to be the stronger and the better armed party, so as to prevent being defeated and killed oneself.

What do you think of the retirement of the Iranian nuclear agreement by Donald Trump and what, in your opinion, will be the impact of such a withdrawal on the region?

The withdrawal by US President Donald Trump from the nuclear deal with Iran is extremely dangerous, particularly also because the US position additionally appears to be aiming at a kind of regime change in Iran. So-called “experiments” with “regime change” elsewhere have more often than not turned out to result in disasters. The examples of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen (not to mention Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) should be clear enough, but various Western and Arab politicians turn out not to have learnt any lessons from it. The US wants to negotiate a new nuclear deal with Iran, but only if Iran is going to do exactly what the US demands, and I do not think it is realistic to expect that this is going to happen.

There is the recurring phenomenon that when politicians want more than they can realistically get, they in the end turn out to have less than they originally had. Therefore, it is much better to keep the present nuclear deal with Iran intact, than to try to replace it at the cost of further violence and destabilization in the Middle East.

Do not you think there is a risk of a direct confrontation between, on the one hand, the United States and its allies Israel and Saudi Arabia and, on the other hand, Russia and its allies such as the Iran?

With the exception of some politicians in Israel, I think most of the mentioned countries want to avoid a direct military confrontation with Iran, but present US policies may nevertheless result in such a confrontation. In Syria there is already the danger of military confrontation between the US and Iran, and between Israel and Iran, not to mention military confrontations between other parties militarily present in Syria and the wider region.

You are a experienced diplomat who knows the Middle East very well, do you not think there should be a political solution to the war that Saudi Arabia is waging in Yemen?

Of course, there should be a political solution to the war in Yemen. This war, however, is yet another example of the disastrous results of foreign military intervention, which in turn undermines the prospects for a compromise among the Yemenis themselves. Military intervention of one country in Yemen (in this case Saudi Arabia) may trigger military intervention by proxy of other parties supporting the side that is attacked by Saudi Arabia.

Should not Europe play a geopolitical role in the region that could avoid a war?

The European Union should of course play a political role to prevent further war in the region, but it lacks the military capacities to impose it. And imposing solutions does generally not work if the directly involved parties themselves are not sufficiently willing to cooperate.

Do you think that the Europeans who are staying in the Iran nuclear deal can fill the void left by the Americans?

The European Union does not have the military capacities to fill the void left by the Americans. It is the Americans who should stick to the deal they co-signed themselves.

In your opinion, is it not time for a multipolar world where powers such as the European Union, China and Russia should be involved so as not to let the Americans decide alone on the future of mankind?

This is easier said than done. All this depends to a great extent on the military and economic power of the countries involved, and most of all on their political leadership. It is the people of the United States who have democratically chosen the American president, not necessarily on themes of foreign policy but rather on basis of domestic issues. Nevertheless, the American president, after having been democratically elected in his own country, is deciding in an authoritarian way on a lot of foreign issues over the heads of non-American peoples who have not had any say in his election. The American president is fulfilling his domestic electoral promises by withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran and by moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and thereby in a so-called “democratic” way violates international law and international agreements. International law and agreements should have priority over domestic electoral promises.

As a diplomat, you have known a country like Libya that has now become a sanctuary for terrorists, endangering all the countries of North Africa and the Sahel. Can we hope for a political solution to the Libyan crisis and what, in your opinion, are the countries that could play a key role in the political process?

The military intervention of Western and Arab countries has contributed to a further civil war in Libya, which has lasted now for over seven years and has strongly divided the country. It gave rise to further terrorism, further instability in the region, a wave of refugees coming through Libya to Europe, slave trade among refugees, and so on.

Foreign military intervention in Libya under the United Nations principle of The Responsibility to Protect, would have required a multi-year huge military operation, for which not any Western country has been prepared. This is one of the reasons why it would have been preferable not to militarily intervene in Libya, because (like in Syria, Iraq and Yemen) it has turned out to be a disaster.

A political solution will probably only be possible if the main parties accept one common leadership, but they all want to dominate themselves. Therefore, it is difficult to clearly identify the countries that could play a key role in the Libyan political process. It should be a Libyan-led and Libyan-owned political solution, in which the United Nations could play an intermediary role.

Do not you think that by not respecting the Iranian nuclear deal, the United States may lose all credibility and not be able to conclude other agreements and treaties in the future?

The United States’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has made it even more difficult to conclude reliable future deals in which the US is involved. In fact, however, the United States already lost some credibility long before. For instance, in the so-called Middle East peace process, the US never has really been an honest broker, due to its pro-Israeli position, which is partly a result of the strong pro-Israel lobby in the US. Nevertheless, the US remains a key country which is needed to help realize a political solution, just because it has the means to force Israel into a compromise with the Palestinians.

Another example is that president Obama did not act against the Syrian regime after it reportedly used chemical weapons in summer 2013, thereby crossing US President Obama’s so-called ‘red lines’. The United States did not react militarily, although it had been suggested it would. This seriously undermined US credibility and demonstrated that its threats had no teeth. All-out military intervention in Syria would have been unwise in my opinion, taking into account the possible grave consequences (as happened in Iraq after the US–British military intervention of 2003 and in Libya in 2011, as well as in Afghanistan). Threatening with military intervention, however, albeit only implicitly, and subsequently not carrying it out strongly undermined the credibility of the United States, and Western countries in general. It, moreover, gave the Syrian regime the impression that it could get away with almost anything.

Interview realized by Mohsen Abdelmoumen

* Dr. Nikolaos van Dam is a specialist on Syria and the Middle East and a former Ambassador of the Netherlands to Iraq, Egypt, Germany and Indonesia. He is the author of various books, including: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, London & New York (I.B. Tauris), 2017, also available as e-book; The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Assad and the  Ba’th Party, Fourth Edition, London & New York (I.B. Tauris), 2011.

U.S. Involves itself Ever Deeper in Middle East with No Clear Strategic Interest – By Sam Farah

U.S. Involves itself Ever Deeper in Middle East with No Clear Strategic Interest
By Sam Farah
For Syria Comment – June 6, 2018

On May 8, President Trump announced that he was pulling the U.S. out of the Iran deal. On May 12, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced his 12 points demanding total capitulation of Iran to the U.S. government. In doing so, he effectively putting the U.S. on a war path with Iran.

This deepening engagement of the U.S. in the Middle East defies logic. It is contrary to the geopolitical interests of the U.S.

The main argument for America’s engagement in the Middle East is oil and trade. For starters, the U.S. no longer relies on imported oil. In 2017, the net import of petroleum was 19% of total U.S. oil consumption, the lowest since 1967.

And of that dwindling imported oil portion that the U.S. relies on for energy security, the share of imports from OPEC and Persian Gulf countries has declined. Today, Canada is the largest source of U.S. petroleum imports, representing 40% of its total.

Second, the Middle East is not an important market for U.S. exports. In 2016, according to the World Bank, total U.S. exports amounted to almost $1.6 trillion, of which our two closest allies in the region — Saudi Arabia and Israel — took roughly 1% each, even when the value of all American weapons sold in the region is included.

Today the U.S. top export markets are Canada, Mexico, China, Japan, and E.U. countries. In addition, the two most important maritime trade routes are the English Channel and the Strait of Malacca. The Channel has traffic on both the UK-Europe and North Sea-Atlantic routes, and is the world’s busiest seaway, accommodating over 500 ships per day. The Strait of Malacca runs between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore, and according to estimates from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development’s (UNCTAD) Review of Maritime Transport 2011, almost half of the world’s total annual seaborne trade tonnage passed through the Strait of Malacca.

There are two other arguments for U.S. involvement in the Middle East, one altruistic and the other Machiavellian. While American reliance on Middle Eastern oil has diminished, the Middle East remains an important producer of the world’s oil. Of the 87 million barrels of oil produced per day globally in 2011, approximately 20% passed through the Strait of Hormuz.

Some argue that the U.S. plays a crucial and altruistic role in protecting the free flow of oil from the Middle East and through the strait of Hormuz. Only the U.S. can prevent a global oil shock that could rock the global economy. But that American goodwill comes at a real price tag for the American taxpayer. Roger J. Stern of Princeton University estimates that the U.S. has spent $8 trillion between 1976 and 2010 protecting the oil flow from the Persian Gulf. The worry is that Iran, or another bad actor, could shut down the oil traffic in the Middle East and bring the world to its knees. This argument, however, belies the fact that oil is the lifeline of the Iranian economy and shutting down oil production or flow from the Middle East would also suffocate its own economy, and that any such action will bring together a global coalition to roll back Iran and reopen the flow of oil.

Others argue that U.S. military hegemony over the Persian Gulf is much more Machiavellian. They point out that the U.S. has not simply protected the free flow of the oil trade, but has also used its power to sanction oil production in countries whose policies it opposes, such as Iran, Sudan, Syria, and Libya. In line with this argument that U.S. hegemony over the Persian Gulf is pursued not merely to protect friends but also to punish enemies, the U.S. is ultimately seeking leverage over China by preserving its control over the Persian Gulf. But the U.S. already has significant forward power projection in the region, with both the Navy’s 5th Fleet headquartered in Bahrain and the U.S. Air Force at the Al Udeid air base in Qatar. The security of both these bases is jeopardized and the cost of maintaining our presence there is increased by provoking Iran as Trump and Pompeo are doing. Moreover, Roger Stern, in a piece published by TIME magazine, argues that the current U.S. military emphasis on the Persian Gulf has diverted precious defense resources away from the western Pacific, where China poses a far graver, long-term threat to American interests.

Today, any further U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is counterproductive to America’s interest. Ironically, President Trump ran his presidential campaign in part by building on Americans’ frustration with what they view as a foreign policy failure in the Middle East, promising to pull the U.S. out of the region. Instead America is deepening its involvement in the Syrian war, ramping up confrontation with Iran, and provoking the Muslim world by steamrolling the Palestinians. What the U.S. should instead do is work with its traditional global partners, as well as China and Russia, to build a framework for peace and stability in the Middle East. It should share the cost of protecting the Persian Gulf pipeline with countries that most benefit from it — namely Japan, China, India and South Korea.

Iran in Syria: “Cognitive Empathy” and Interests

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

How should Iran’s intentions in Syria be understood? The question is all the more relevant in light of the recent exchange of missile fire on the border between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syria. Writing in The Intercept back in March 2018, Robert Wright argued that DC think-tanks “warp our vision” and prevent us from applying “cognitive empathy” when it comes to Iranian intentions in Syria in particular. By “cognitive empathy,” Wright means understanding how a particular side thinks about a situation and why it acts in certain ways in that situation. Through this lens, Wright argues that Iran’s intentions in Syria should primarily be understood as embodying objectives of defence and deterrence: intervening to save a key ally (the Syrian government) and deterring the threat of attacks by the U.S. and Israel against Iran.

There is some truth to Wright’s framing of Iranian intentions, and “cognitive empathy” is no doubt an important thing to remember in analysis. However, I believe his piece assumes too much of a false dichotomy: either Iran’s intentions are primarily defensive or offensive/expansionist in nature. In reality, it can be simultaneously true that Iran has a policy of “forward defence” in Syria (as Vali Nasr puts it) and wishes to increase its influence in Syria and the wider region in comparison with the pre-2011 status-quo for a variety of reasons that are not merely matters of defence and deterrence. Here, I will explore in more detail some key controversies regarding Iran’s presence in Syria and how they relate to questions of Iranian intentions in the country.

The Land Route: The concept of a land route running from Iran to the Mediterranean has repeatedly come up in reference to the military campaigns launched against the Islamic State in the east of Syria. It has been argued that Iran considers it vital to secure a contiguous land route as an alternative to its use of air routes to supply its clients inside Syria and Lebanon (airlift to Syria and then a very short land route to Lebanon), partly because the land route running from Iran to the Mediterranean would supposedly make it easier to conceal weapon supplies and thus prevent weapon transfers from being hit by Israeli strikes. In one reading, this land route would be a “prize of such enormity that even the great Persian empires have scarcely dreamt of it.”

Unsurprisingly, the campaigns launched against the Islamic State in eastern Syria last year involved a competition for grabbing territory in Deir az-Zor province, with the Syrian Democratic Forces and the United States on one side and the Syrian government and its Iranian and Russian allies on the other.

I would caution against viewing a land route for Iran as the main motivation for the offensive on the part of the Syrian government and its allies. The Syrian government had its own very compelling reasons to go on the offensive: seeking to reclaim oil and gas resources and re-open a land trade route with Iraq in a bid to boost its economy and reduce dependence on aid from its allies. Further, the air routes Iran utilises are well-established and reliable. After all, there is no U.S.-imposed no-fly zone over all of Iraq and Syria. Technically speaking, a land route for Iran did exist for a brief window in the first months of 2012 following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, though it was not used.

However, it does not follow from these points that the Iranians do not have any interest in a land route. Indeed, Iranian-client forces- such as the Iraqi groups Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’, Harakat al-Nujaba’ and Kata’ib al-Imam Ali, as well as the Afghan Shi’i Fatemiyoun- maintain a heavy presence in the Albukamal area in eastern Deir az-Zor province on the border with Iraq. There have also been deployments to Albukamal on assignments for units of the Iranian-backed Local Defence Forces, which is on the registers of the Syrian armed forces, has both Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps [IRGC] commanders and Syrian army officers in its leadership structure and has integrated many of the familiar Syrian Hezbollah groups into its ranks. Liwa al-Baqir, one of the most prominent Local Defence Forces group, has established a more lasting presence in the border areas and Deir az-Zor province . According to the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin, who is currently in Deir az-Zor and regularly goes to the Albukamal area, “The Revolutionary Guard [IRGC] is responsible for it [security in Albukamal].”


Members of Liwa al-Mukhtar al-Thiqfi (Idlib Local Defence Forces affiliate) with Afghan fighters in al-Mayadeen, eastern Deir az-Zor province.

These data points do not mean that there is no role for the Syrian army in security in the border areas. For example, Syrian army general Hassan Muhammad is both chief of staff of the Syrian army’s Third Legion (III Corps) and head of the Syrian government’s security committee in Albukamal. Part of his role entails security inspections along the border. Yet the concentration of Iranian forces and their clients in the area is highly unlikely to be a coincidence and points to an interest in a land route.

Rather than conjuring up sensationalist images of the land route as an imperial prize rivalling the conquests of Persian empires, one should instead think of it as a long-term project and a back-up plan in case the air routes are completely blocked off, in so far as a land route has real benefits on the ground. Thus, the land route would become more relevant in the scenario of a future war between Iran and another country (e.g. Israel and/or the U.S.). The concept of the land route is also inextricably bound to the political and security scene in Iraq. As Michael Knights notes, the land route can be seen as a “political space” rather than a “physical space.” As he explains, the land route “only exists on the days it’s used, and its basis is Iraq’s case-by-case willingness to allow it.”

Demography:  One way this argument runs is that there is an Iranian-backed/directed plan to depopulate large parts of Syria (e.g. the border areas with Lebanon) and replace the displaced Sunnis with foreign Shi’i settlers and their families. The supposed intentions behind this alleged plan are to ensure that these areas do not become future epicentres of revolt, to alter the nature of Syria’s demographic makeup (i.e. rendering it far more Shi’i and ideologically aligned with Iran) and to create a stable land-route running from Iran to the Mediterranean and populated with Shi’a loyal to Iran.

Little evidence has emerged to support claims of an Iranian plan along these lines. Demographic engineering on such a scale would be a very difficult task to accomplish. There is also little prospect for Iran to transform Syria into an Islamic republic. Meanwhile, displacements in many places are explained more readily in terms of the Syrian government’s own thinking (e.g. the Alawite-Sunni sectarian dynamic in Homs city and the desire for insurgent elements and their supporters in proximity to the capital to be removed).

Nonetheless, in a few areas- most notably the “Triangle of Death” area at the intersection of Damascus countryside, Quneitra and Deraa governorates- bases for Iranian client forces (clearly intended for long-term military purposes) have been established at the expense of displaced locals. For instance, the village of Deir Maker in that area is virtually devoid of all of its original inhabitants as it has become a base for Hezbollah, according to a rebel originally from Deir Maker who fought in Beit Jann, as well as sources in the nearby town of Kanaker to the northeast, which agreed to a “reconciliation” at the end of 2016.


Deir Maker and the wider area.

The outlet al-Modon touched on this matter in a report in May 2017, claiming that Hezbollah’s official in the “Triangle of Death” area- al-Hajj Abu Abdullah- had given orders to allow for Syrian Hezbollah fighters to bring their families to the area and settle there. The outlet claimed that more than 70 families of Syrian Hezbollah fighters had arrived to settle in the localities of Deir Maker and Sultana. The outlet added that the families of these Syrian Hezbollah fighters had come from al-Fu’a and Kafariya (the two besieged Shi’i villages in Idlib province) and the al-Wafideen camp (Sunni Palestinian-Syrian refugee camp northeast of Douma). The report says that in contrast, the displaced original inhabitants of the “Triangle of Death” area had tried petitioning the Syrian military intelligence branch in Sa’sa’ to return to their villages but without success.

Another issue that relates to Iranian intentions in Syria and partly touches on demography is the matter of encouraging conversions to Shi’i Islam. Iran, after all, is a state that engages in proselytism for Shi’i Islam, so it is logical to expect that Iran would exploit opportunities to promote the faith. Indeed, Iranian proselytism was already active on the ground in Syria before the civil war, despite downplaying of the phenomenon by some foreign observers back then. In some places of course, such as the primarily Druze province of al-Suwayda’, proselytising proves too controversial to make any meaningful headway, and there are non-Shi’a who join Syrian Hezbollah groups with no intention of converting to Shi’i Islam.

Arguably, the most prominent armed group linked to the phenomenon of conversion to Shi’i Islam is Liwa al-Baqir, which plays on the link between Bekara tribesmen and the fifth Shi’i imam Muhammad al-Baqir. Conversions of some Bekara tribesmen had already been occurring before the war in Aleppo province in particular, but Liwa al-Baqir’s ascendancy is undoubtedly continuing that trend and encouraging conversions beyond the group’s original recruitment base.


Proselytising efforts for Shi’i Islam in Syria have created some controversy. From a post in late February 2018 by a pro-government page for al-Zahara’ neighbourhood in Aleppo city: “By decree of the Awqaf ministry and his eminence Sheikh Ahmad Badr al-Din Hassoun the mufti of the Syrian Arab Republic! Our correspondent has affirmed that people from the Iranian-Iraqi Ahfad al-Hussein commission are giving lessons in creed in a number of mosques of Aleppo urging children to become Shi’a and encouraging them with rewards and gifts.”

More broadly, the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin characterises one Iranian aim in eastern Syria as “Shi’ifying the Deir az-Zor region in its entirety.” As he explained to me:

“I am not against any sect or madhhab, but Deir az-Zor has Shi’i customs in it of course by instinct and habit, and a large proportion of the youth who joined the fighting fronts have become convinced to become Shi’a of course out of love for our Sayyid al-Hussein and Imam Ali, and there has been good faith on the part of the Revolutionary Guard [IRGC] and Hezbollah in treatment and granting rights. This thing has had a great impact on the generation of youth in the city [of Deir az-Zor].”

Striving for conversions to Shi’i Islam among parts of the native population seems much more realistic as a goal than settling large numbers of foreign Shi’a in Syria. Incidentally, from Deir az-Zor there have been claims of Afghan Shi’a settling in houses in Albukamal. On these claims, the former leader of Liwa al-Imam Zain al-Abidin explains that “this thing [Afghans occupying homes in Albukamal] is temporary as the area is almost devoid of people. As for the people who return, their houses are evacuated and handed over to them.”

Golan Front Against Israel: This concept has repeatedly come up in reference to the proximity of Iranian forces and their clients to the border with the Golan Heights and their presence in southern Syria more generally. The matter came up in an al-Mayadeen interview with Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah at the beginning of this year:

“Q: Sayyid, there is the front of the south of Syria and many have spoken about it and it is a source of great concern with the Israelis: that Hezbollah and Iran, with the aid and support of the Syrian army that has also fought for seven years, are preparing a resistance on the borders from the Golan to the southern borders in their entirety. Is it true that there is a new resistance on the Syrian-Palestinian borders against Israel?

A: This is also among the matters about which it is better to be silent on in the end.

Q: This is a silent interview, Sayyid.

A: You are the one going to difficult questions. The enemy has the right to be worried, because what has happened in the south of Syria in the end is experience that has been made available now among the Syrian people and the Syrian army as a regular army. You know that those who fight in Syria are not only the army: those they call the auxiliary forces in the Syrian media. There are popular Syrian formations: youth from the sons of different villages, towns and regions, they have fought in their provinces. There is great advanced experience that these youth have obtained especially on the southern front because the fighting in the southern front has sometimes taken the classical form and sometimes the form of guerrilla warfare from the two sides. Practically this has given rise to a manpower structure on the level of thought, experience and preparedness that can be brought together perhaps during 24 hours. It is not conditional on the existence or lack of existence of a real formation. Our very presence in southern Syria, whose circumstances have been connected with the nature of the current battle in Syria: the fact we are present, it is natural that the Israelis should be worried, because there is conflict between us and the Israelis. Thus we see the Israelis are worried about all that is happening in the south of Syria. And they are working, applying pressure and trying to benefit from American pressure and speaking with Russia. And they are trying to threaten that there should be no resistance or resisting presence in southern Syria, but they have not realised this until now.

Q: I understand from your words Sayyid that resistance cells prepared for any future war with Israel have arisen there?

A: The resistance is present in southern Syria, and in all circumstances, regardless of the defensive title, this is very natural because it is Syria’s right that this should be present for it in the event of aggression against it one day and it has the right if one day it takes the decision to resort to the popular resistance in liberating the Golan. And if you remember in the last years before the beginning of the events in Syria, President Bashar al-Assad referred to this matter and also stated that it is possible for us one day to arrive at this choice. It is a logical and natural choice, and Israel deeply fears it.

Q: President al-Assad was speaking about a popular Syrian resistance. Now, according to what I understand from you sir, there is a popular Syrian and non-Syrian resistance present in the southern front?

A: Yes.”

Is the intent here to build up a “resistance” front and start a “liberation” war against Israel, or is it really just about deterring Israel from attacking as “no side wants war”? The answer lies somewhere in between. There is probably no wish for an all-out war on any side, but the constant rhetoric of “resistance” and fighting Israel demands some form of realisation on the ground in order to maintain credibility: that is, building up a “resistance” front in proximity to the border areas with a view to harassing Israeli forces through occasional small-scale probing.

In conclusion, there are grounds for understanding some of Iran’s policies in Syria in terms of pragmatism and rational interests, but there is also a clear element of ideology behind some of its actions, and those actions cannot be understood only in terms of defence and deterrence. Otherwise, one risks becoming an apologist for Iranian policies that are problematic in many ways, such as the aggravation of wider sectarian tensions in the region.

Turkey’s Afrin Operation Stokes Syrian Yazidi Fears and Fuels Displacement — by Sylvain Mercadier

Following the Yazidi Genocide that began Aug. 3, 2014 in Sinjar, most awareness of the Yazidis has centered on Iraq’s Yazidi community. Syria also has many Yazidi villages located in Kurdish areas. These homelands have been inhabited by Yazidis for centuries, but their populations have become increasingly vulnerable, first with the Syrian Civil War and now with Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish areas.
Syria Rojava Kurdistan YPG Turkey Afrin PKK Aleppo
Khaled is a Yazidi who was still living in his village when we interviewed him only a few days before the Turkish army and their Free Syrian Army associates invaded in March.

“The Yazidis living in the north of the Afrin district are leaving their homes one by one,” he told The New Arab, with an anxious voice at his home in Ain Dera.

“Many shrines have been destroyed. Women have been abducted. If the Turkish army and the Islamists arrive all the way here, we don’t know where we will be able to go.” The New Arab was not able to confirm his claim of women being abducted.

Khaled was sheltering a Yazidi family from Qastal Jindo, a village in Afrin already captured from the Kurdish YPG militia by the Turkish army.

Ankara sees the YPG as the Syrian extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) – an outlawed militant group which has waged a bloody insurgency against the Turkish state for nearly 35 years. Turkish officials view Kurdish control of northern Syrian areas bordering Turkey as a major threat to the country’s national security.

Turkey, which has taken in nearly four million Syrian refugees, has trained and equipped fighters of the Free Syrian Army – mostly Sunni Syrian Arabs – and has used them to spearhead their operation to take over Afrin, a canton of northern Syria formerly controlled by the Kurdish YPG militia.

But reports are widespread that militiamen are abusing their newfound positions of power in the area. “In April, eleven Yazidis were kidnapped at the same time and their relatives were asked for large sums of money in exchange for their release,” says Murad Ismael, executive director of Yazda, a locally focused non-profit organisation.

Another villager spoke to us, but did not want his name published for fear of reprisals.

“They destroyed the Yazidi shrines immediately upon arriving,” he said. “We had fled Sheikh Maqsoud, the Kurdish quarter of Aleppo, because of the in-fighting, and found safety in our original village of Qastal Jindo. Now we are refugees once again – and only God knows what we will be tomorrow.”

Despite an almost total blackout in the canton now under the control of the Turkish army, evidence has emerged suggesting minorities are being discriminated against for their religious beliefs by zealous Islamist militiamen allied to the Turkish army.

The fears Afrin residents shared with us before the completion of the Olive Branch offensive may have been justified.

“The number of Yazidis in Afrin was around 50,000 before the war. It fell to 35,000 as a consequence of the war. As the Turkish offensive started, the drop continued and reached approximately 25,000,” said Mahmoud Kalash, chairman of the Committee of Yazidi Intellectuals in Afrin.

It is believed that number has since fallen further in the formerly Kurdish-held canton. Several Yazidis have reportedly converted to Islam to avoid retaliation from Islamist fighters.

“The Turkish government set up a local council to administer Afrin. One Yazidi representative was appointed within this council, but no one seems to know who that person might be,” says Saad Babir, media director at Yazda.

In Ain Deraa, which had been a mixed Yazidi and Sunni-Kurdish town, residents had already seen their main sacred prayer site destroyed by an airstrike in January. This temple, a UNESCO site, was targeted despite there being no military activity near the site that we could detect when we visited.

“We used to go to this ancient site to pray and do our religious activities,” said Babir.

The Turkish army has denied shelling any cultural site, saying they only aimed at military targets.

Despite this, Saad Babir said at least eight holy Yazidi shrines had been destroyed in Afrin since the start of the Turkish operation. That number was corroborated by other activists on the ground, and by Yazda.

Resettlement

There is an ongoing population swap in the district. Families coming from refugee camps in Turkey are arriving while Kurdish residents are leaving. Some Islamist fighters have seized several houses, often choosing the most comfortable for themselves.

Rebel fighters evacuated from Ghouta and other previously rebel-held territories have been invited to settle in Afrin, though some have reportedly refused to take part in what they see as ethnic cleansing campaign.

The process of resettling Sunni Arab rebels from other areas of Syria coincides with a trend of preventing local residents from returning to their homes after the fighting. Residents here tell The New Arab that Kurdish and Yazidi civilians have been prevented from returning to their homes and forced to remain in the enclave of Tel Rifaat, the last territory in the area still controlled by the Kurdish-led administration of the Northern Syrian Federation – also referred to as Rojava.

Diseases are spreading in Tel Rifaat, due to the horrendous humanitarian situation for the displaced coming from Afrin and surrounding villages. Furthermore, Yazda reports that the Syrian regime has prevented some Kurds and Yazidis from reaching the Kurdish neighborhood of Sheikh Maqsoud, where they could have found shelter and a better humanitarian situation, according to Saad Babir.

“This situation will be the continuation of the Shingal [Sinjar] massacre by other means and under almost total media blackout,” added another local who asked to remain anonymous.

International silence

“If the international community remains silent and does nothing to protect our minority, there will be even more annihilation against us. Our religion is a religion of tolerance; we did not attack anyone and did not take homes nor land from anyone,” stressed Mahmoud Kalash.

The ongoing Syrian civil conflict includes major powers such as Russia and the United States, as well as regional powers including Iran and Turkey. Because of this complex chess game, holding those now controlling Afrin to account seems almost impossible.

Despite evidence of the involvement of former al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front fighters within the ranks of the rebels allied with the Turkish army, major international powers appear unwilling or unable to put significant pressure on the Turkish government to isolate those fighters.

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This article was originally published May 9, 2018 in The New Arab.

Sylvain Mercadier is a freelance journalist and political science graduate from St-Joseph University (Beirut, 2014) who has spent many years in the Middle East including Oman, the UAE, Lebanon, and Palestine, and currently resides in Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow him on Twitter: @Sylv_Mercadier