Why were the Turks kidnapped in Lebanon and who are the Liwaa Asifat al-Shamal who are holding the Shiites in Syria.

Aron Lund writes:

Liwa Asifat al-Shamal, or the Northern Storm Brigade, is the main group, or one of the main groups, in Aazaz, north of Aleppo and very close to the Turkish border. They’re a mid-sized faction in the northern countryside – not tremendously important to the revolution in general, but a major force in their core area around Aazaz, which is strategically important for rebel logistics.

Their original leadership was involved with border smuggling before the revolution (the late Ammar Dadikhi, “Abu Ibrahim”), but they took up arms pretty early on. They also seem to be quite seriously involved with fighting in the north, as evidenced by the role they played in the Mennagh siege, and they have relations with the SMC and other legit opposition bodies. So despite some shady business, it’s clearly not a “fake” rebel outfit.

Their main importance comes from controlling the Bab al-Salama crossing into Turkey ever since it was captured in 2012. I assume they’ve used that to wield power over (and perhaps extract money, guns, ammo, aid from) foreign sponsors and other battalions using the crossing. At any rate, they grew into a force to be reckoned with after seizing the border post. They’ve also set up a media center there, and help provide security and services for a lot of international visitors who come from Turkey. There’s been some good articles and tv features by people meeting/embedding with their forces, and they got quite a lot of  attention when John McCain dipped in through Bab al-Salama, if you recall that.

Recently they’ve lost some influence, after Liwa al-Tawhid (a much bigger SMC faction which is also from the northern countryside, but quite busy with the war in Aleppo City) forced them to re-negotiate their division of labor, presumably after applying some sort of pressure. According to the new rules, Asifat al-Shamal will have to share control over Bab al-Salama 50-50 with Tawhid. The terms of the deal mean that they have joint control over border facilities & inspections, as well as the responsibility to run checkpoints along the road down towards Aleppo –  and, although it doesn’t say so, they will presumably split any benefits arising from this. The deal also stipulated that Asifat al-Shamal will have to submit to the Aleppo Sharia Commission (a non-SMC judiciary and proto-government in northern Syria, which Tawhid backs along with more radical Islamist factions) in all legal matters/disputes. They hadn’t done that before. Whether the deal has been successfully applied on the ground yet, or at all, I don’t know.

Asifat al-Shamal is also the group that kidnapped a group of Lebanese Shia, who tried to pass through Bab al-Salama in summer 2012, saying they were pilgrims. They’re still holding them. Originally Dadikhi insisted that the Shia were secret agents of Hezbollah, IRGC or some other hostile organziation, but they later seemed to drop that line, since no one believed it. Nowadays they simply say they want female and other prisoners freed in return for releasing the hostages. In practice I assume they’re just after money at this stage, or if it’s a prestige thing, or simply a way to get press attention. Or maybe they really think they’re Hezbollah. I don’t know. Turkey has allegedly been involved in negotiations.

——————

This is a few days old, but here’s a very interesting pro-government view from the Nubl & Zahra Shia community, of what happened at Mennagh airport at the time of capture:https://www.facebook.com/zhraa.nubbol.n.n/posts/566600950053289.From this description, it seems like a pretty desperate breakout. The SAA forces left 15 men in a “martyrdom” force behind to cover the retreat – all were killed or captured. The others then split into groups and fled towards the few remaining pockets of government control around Mennagh. One group made it to the Shia town of Nubl, but apparently only thanks to air cover from the government, while another fled towards the Kurdish villages of Afrin, where they were granted asylum by the Kurdish YPG forces.

That last part is interesting. The YPG has let it be known that they “captured” a group of fleeing SAA soldiers from Mennagh, and confiscated all their guns and tanks. But this version, which appears to be written by someone in direct contact with the defenders of the airport, says the Kurds saved them, provided hospital care to the wounded, and even ambushed and annihilated a rebel unit that was tailing them (Jabhat al-Nosra by their account, but they call everyone Jabhat al-Nosra). That’s more or less consistent with how the YPG presents its politics: they will provide humanitarian assistance to everyone in need, and are open to negotiated passage, but try to enter Kurdish areas without permission and you’re dead.

But – the Nubl/Zahra pro-gov version also talks about YPG-SAA coordination before the fall of the base, and speaks warmly of the Kurds as their comrades in arms. This  suggests a level of cooperation between the SAA and YPG which undermines YPG attempts to portray themselves as essentially neutral between the Arab sides.

That said, it concerns a very particular region, Afrin, where both Kurdish and Shia villages have been under Arab (particularly Islamist) rebel pressure. So although the situation might seem similar in other places, I’m not sure you can necessarily extrapolate this to other areas.

(Also, here’s the Islamic State communiqué on the capture of Mennagh, if you haven’t seen it: http://jihadology.net/2013/08/07/new-statement-from-the-islamic-state-of-iraq-and-al-sham-on-the-battle-of-the-last-ten-days-liberating-the-mannagh-airbase-in-the-state-of-aleppo)

 

AN Writes:

There was news that an agreement was reached with Liwa Asifat al-Shamal to where a certain number of female detainees would be released from government prisons in exchange for 2 of the 9 hostages before Eid, but negotiations failed. On Friday, first day of Eid for Shiaa muslims, a Shiaa group calling itself “the visitors of the Imam Al Mortada” kidnapped two Turkish pilots in Beirut because they believe that Turkey has the power to release the hostages and is involved in the kidnapping. After the kidnapping, news came out that earlier this month, Turkey had informed that UN that it will pulling part of its UNIFIL contingency out of Lebanon and limiting its participation to Turkish marine forces. Turkish government asked its citizens in Lebanon to leave the country following the kidnapping.

 

From Dr. Landis Twitter feed:

Joshua Landis (joshua_landis) on Twitter

Syria Consolidates into Three Cantons as the Opposition Pushes Back, Taking Mengh Airbase and other Strategic Points

Syria is consolidating into three cantons.
Posted by Joshua Landis
The Syrian Arab Army is on the retreat in the North, Aleppo, Idlib and now some high points East of Latakia as well. The Free Syrian Army is making progress in Damascus countryside as well. These important advances seem to have reversed the momentum that the Syrian regime captured following its successful campaign at Qusair. Many have begun to speculate that roles have been reversed and that the Syrian Arab Army is now in retreat in contrast to few months ago.
But the Government is making progress in Homs and Hassakah with the help of the Kurds and is stalemated on several other fronts, which points, not to a rout or collapse, but to the consolidation of cantons that have been emerging out of the fragmentation of Syria for over a year: the government controlled West and South, the Opposition controlled North and East around Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor, and a Kurdish controlled Far East.
Aron Lund writes:
I’m not sure the fall of Mengh represents momentum nationally either way – the conflict is so localized. Rebels have been making slow progress up north, despite the Quseir and Ghouta setbacks. It see-saws a bit back and forth, but I think these past months are more indicative of a (quite strong) consolidation in Assad’s core areas (liberally defined to include Homs). Assad is not making national gains only consolidating his core areas.
Fall of Mengh Airbase outside of Aleppo
The important airport and military base, Mengh, outside of Aleppo has finally fallen. For over a year it resisted capture, despite daily bombardments and frequent attacks by the opposition. This pro-government Facebook site gives the one side of the story.
 
Foreign Policy summarizes:

Syrian opposition forces reportedly overtook the government’s Mingh air base in Aleppo province early Tuesday, after repeated attacks over nearly a year working to seize control. The final push is believed to have come from nine rebel groups, including Islamist factions and Chechens, and was led by two foreign men, one believed to be Saudi Arabian, who carried out a suicide attack in an armored vehicle. Opposition fighters have made other recent gains in the Latakia province, overtaking several Alawite villages, pushing deeper into the government stronghold. However, the Syrian regime celebrated its own victor with the defense minister touring the recently seized Khalidiyeh district of Homs.

Pro-government sources are saying that troops inside the airport were aided by the PPK, a Kurdish group, to escape to Afri, a Kurdish region north of Aleppo, here’s a map of two areasSana’s article reports that all the airport security forces are safe, that the airport was empty and the terrorists (opposition forces) have suffered a lot of losses.

It seems likely that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria along with the Jaish Muhajerin forces and lots of al-Qaida style foreign fighters spearheaded the airport attack. They could now move on to Nubul and Zahra, the two Shi`a holdouts in the north. They are next door. One does not even want to think about how that could end.

This from Anne Barnard of the NYTimes

… The base was first besieged by a Free Syrian Army brigade called North Storm, and joined by fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham and a group calling itself Jaish al-Muhajireen wal Ansar. Muhajireen means emigrants, and the group, which carried out several suicide attacks at the base, is led by Russian speakers from Chechnya and other parts of the Caucasus.

Mr. Farzat said Chechen Islamist fighters near the airport had refused to let the defecting government soldiers flee, so he helped them escape by another route. “I give the Islamic fighters credit for the liberation,” he said.The seizure of the base could have an impact on the stalemated fight for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, by freeing up rebel fighters and antiaircraft weapons to put pressure on Aleppo’s airport, which rebels have been unable to take despite months of trying. It could also dampen the morale of government troops in other remote outposts.

Abu al-Haytham, a rebel fighter who fought for months to seize Minakh and is now in Turkey, called the capture of the base a morale booster and “a strike against the regime.” But, he added, “it won’t change anything on the ground — we just got some vehicles and ammunition.”

In Latakia, the rebel offensive, involving more than 1,500 fighters led by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, accelerated what had been a gradual rebel push into a province whose government-held central city has been a relatively secure haven for displaced Syrians from war-torn areas.

Government forces withdrew Monday from a number of villages in the coastal mountains, said Ammar Hassan, an opposition activist in close touch with rebels.

He said rebels had seized four mountaintop military posts that had been shelling villages below, and were trying to advance farther toward the coast and toward Qardaha, the ancestral mountain village of President Bashar al-Assad’s family.

The advance brought fighting deeper into the heartland of the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam to which the Assad family belongs, heightening fears of sectarian conflict. Alawites here have long feared they would face revenge killings by the mostly Sunni insurgents, and pro-government Alawite militias have been accused of killing Sunni civilians in the area.

Some Alawites remained in their villages as rebels advanced, and a few wounded Alawites were treated in makeshift rebel hospitals, said Mr. Hassan, who added, “Of course the majority of the residents fled to the city.”

AN writes:

Also, has there been any real evidence that Hezbollah or any non-Syrian Shi`a are fighting alongside the Syrian Army outside of Qusayr, Sayda Zaynab and Nubul and Zahraa? Opposition people are claiming that Hezbollah is fighting on all fronts. When Hezbollah was really involved and sending troops we were seeing the funerals of the fighters being sent back, that stopped after Qusayr but the Syrian Opposition remains determined to place Hezbollah on every front they’re  fighting. They’ve been accusing the Hezb of being involved since the beginning but the only real and substantiated evidence that we have of hezbollah fighting there is limited to Qusayr and Sayda Zainab as far as i know, am i missing something?

Following the fall of the airport, Col. Akidi visited the site and thanked the Islamic State, Jaish Muhajerin forces (lots of AQ-style foreign fighters) and the FSA groups that helped accomplish this mission. This video shows Akidi alongside Abu Jandal Al-Masry, a member of Jaish Muhajerin forces who in the video seems to be speaking in the name of the ISIS

FSA groups decided to rename the airport after the founder of the North Storm brigade Amar Dadikhi(Abu Ibrahim) who died of a bullet wound that struck him near one of the airport walls at one point during the +10 months siege. Amar Dadikhi became popular after the kidnapping of Lebanese Shiaa pilgrims in the early days of the Syrian uprising, 10 9 of which remain in the custody of his group till today.

 

Problems for Syrians in Egypt; News from Kurdish North; Looting & Oil; Round-up

by Matthew Barber

Thanks to Aymenn al-Tamimi for tweeting this photo

Thanks to Aymenn al-Tamimi for tweeting this photo

The scale of this propaganda piece is impressive: An ISIS billboard in Raqqa promoting shari’a law. The yellow text at the top says “The state’s civil law is contrary to the religion of Allah,” followed by a verse from the Qur’an (3:83 “Do they, then, seek a religion other than Allah’s, while to Him submits whoever there is in the heavens and the earth, willingly or unwillingly, and to Him they will be brought back?”), and finally signed “Your brothers at the Raqqa Da’wa Office.”

Changing topics…

In the last post Aron Lund discussed the possibility of the fragmentation of centralized control within the “regime side” (or whatever term we should use to refer to that part of Syria that stands opposite the rebels, but may not entirely be represented by the government/Syrian regime). A simple example of the kind of phenomenon where authority is contested (and therefore weakened) among those under the regime-loyalist umbrella is given in a new article (in Arabic). The gist is as follows:

A member of the National Defense Forces (shabiha) tried to cut the line in front of a bakery where people were waiting to buy bread. An army officer stopped the shabih and yelled at him, whereupon the shabih called for back-up from the “Ba’ath Brigades.” The Ba’ath Brigades arrived, attacked the army officer and his men, and forced them to get down on their knees. The army officer, as well, had already called for back-up, so 5 jeeps arrived (possibly with Air Force Intelligence), and arrested all the shabiha involved. All of this is based on opposition sources and comes following another story of shabiha attacking policemen who were overseeing the distribution of gas canisters. In this case, the shabiha also attacked the officers when they refused to let them cut the line.

 

Among the Kurds

 

عكس السير

Following the assassination of Issa Hisso, a Kurdish politician (article in Arabic), Kurdish forces declared “النفير العام” (“general mobilization”—”nafir” refers to a horn blown for warning or before battle) asking all able people to take up arms (article in Arabic). Turkish forces are now in full alert along the border (article in Arabic).

Now in a stellar display of unity and cooperation vis-a-vis the Kurds, the FSA, the ISIS, Ahrar al-Sham, and a host of other groups have apparently together issued a joint statement against the PKK. Thanks to A.N. for providing the following translation of the article from عكس السير

We, the battalions working in the cities of Minbij and Sirin and Shyoukh and Jarablos:

The revolutionary and military council, Liwaa Al Tawhid, Liwad Jond Al Rahman, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, Ahrar Al Sham, Liwaa Ashab Al yamin, Liwaa Al Yarmouk, Liwaa Ahrar Al Shyoukh, Souqour Al Sham:
 
After we became certain that the PKK is without a doubt a party belonging to the regime of the tyrant criminal Bashar al-Assad—because they hosted delegations loyal to the regime (Naser Qandil) in order to setup plans to destabilize the the safe areas; and received weapons and ammunition by air to execute these plans and help this regime as did Hizb Allat in Qusair; and they pulled their forces from the mountains of Turkey and Iraq and brought them to north Syria; and lately they stopped wheat trucks from reaching the liberated areas; and denied checkpoint passage to the mujahidin heading to the battle fronts with the regime; and the big displacement campaign that they’re running in their areas; and the random apprehensions on their checkpoints; and their attempts to create a ethnic fitna between Arabs and Kurds who lived together for hundreds of years and who share a strong bonds and family ties and compassion towards each other and they turned it into a hostile relationship with hate and resentment that drains a lot of our time, effort, blood and money; and thus achieving the goals of the broken and tired regime giving him enough time to catch his breath and arrange his cards and survive in front of the large advancement of our blessed revolution—and based on that we decided:
1 – Initiation of a full siege of the city of Ain al-Arab and preparations for any acts of treachery by the collaborator party
2 – Cleansing of the pockets of PKK that are among our ranks
3 – Declaration of the Minbij-Hassakah a military road that should be liberated from all PKK checkpoints
4 – Cessations of all negotiations and political meetings between us and any group that represents the PKK
And Thus we say:
First: We send a message to all the Kurdish groups that have no connection to the regime or the regime collaborator PKK that we see you like a brother sees a brother and shares his happiness and sadness and land and water and air.
Second: Any rebel battalion or inhabitant of the liberated areas that makes an agreement with the PKK is a traitor to Allah, the Prophet, and Muslims, and will be punished by all the battalions.
And finally: Our goal is to pleasure Allah and to ensure a safe life for our people in Syria and to maintain the unity of the Muslim Syrian people and to maintain the progress of our blessed revolution until the fall of the criminal regime.

Kurds could help shift course of war in Syria – The Star Online

The head of Turkey’s main Kurdish party has welcomed contacts between the Ankara government and Syria’s Kurds, saying it could step up pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and help change the course of the civil war,

Turkish intelligence officers met in Istanbul last week with Saleh Muslim, head of Syria’s Democratic Union Party (PYD), a Kurdish group whose militias have been fighting for control of parts of Syria’s north near the Turkish border.

The meeting followed Muslim’s declaration that Kurdish groups would set up an independent council to run Kurdish areas of Syria until the war ends. Ankara fears that kind of autonomy could rekindle separatist sentiment among its own, much larger Kurdish population as it seeks to end a 30-year-old insurgency.

“Saleh Muslim’s visit to Istanbul is a concrete sign that Turkey is moving towards changing a policy that sees Kurds as a menace,” Selahattin Demirtas, head of parliament’s Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), told Reuters in an interview.

“It won’t just affect Turkish-Kurdish relations but also the course of events in Syria by creating pressure on the regime,” he said.

“Kurds can be effective in Syria, and we need to increase support for them. Western countries, including the United States, should establish proper ties with Syria’s Kurds.”

 

Difficulties for Syrians in Egypt

 

[I wrote most of this section on Syrians in Egypt over 10 days ago, but wasn’t able to post due to traveling. I believe it’s still relevant.]

Someone sent me a particularly moving image this week. Month after month of viewing bombed homes and beheaded apostates can eventually produce a dull numbness. But something about the tragic character of this image brought tears to my eyes.

man carrying dead child in Syria

It took me back to the feelings many of us experienced when faced with some of those first images to come out of Dera’a, such as one I remember of a man carrying the body of a boy whose head was split apart by a bullet.

The trend of violence from that day until now has only worsened, and as men continue to carry the bodies of young children, the flow of Syrians exiting the country also continues. But the situation for Syrians in the countries where they seek shelter is fraught with other challenges, as has now become the case in Egypt.

I haven’t verified all of their articulations of the new circumstances, but in the last couple days, multiple unrelated Syrian friends who fled Syria for Egypt have contacted me claiming that the Egyptian government is dramatically shifting policy toward the Syrians who have taken refuge there. They feel that there has been a reversal of several policies that were in place to help them. Chiefly, they are saying that the government will not renew their temporary residencies. A tremendous level of uncertainty afflicts them, since they no longer feel welcome in Egypt, yet are faced by the fact that most other countries have closed their doors to immigrating Syrians. Complicating the situation is the fact that without an embassy, those in need of travel documents / passports are no longer able to secure them.

One friend told me today that his wife is about to give birth. He cannot obtain a passport for his child, because former president Morsi closed the Syrian embassy. Egypt will not renew his residency, meaning ought to leave the country. But the Egyptian government will not allow him to travel with a child who has no papers, obviously. They are now caught in a bewildering limbo in which every choice is the wrong choice.

Another friend believes Syrians need to either leave the country or register with the UN as refugees: no third option for residency.

Furthermore, a new wave of anti-Syrian sentiment has begun sweeping through parts of the country. After some Syrians may have participated in pro-Morsi demonstrations, Syrians in Egypt have told me that they are being branded as “pro-Ikhwaan” as a whole, as well as being accused of contributing to prostitution. In amazingly “tribal” style (when every member of the extended unit is judged as carrying the same shared characteristics), suddenly all Syrians as a collective are defined as being aligned a certain way or as engaging in certain activities.

One informed me that though the Syrian dialect was something enjoyed by Egyptians and which he flaunted when he first arrived, he now hides his accent and tries to sound Egyptian.

Egypt is also making it nearly impossible for any additional Syrians to enter the country. A visa is now required, and obtaining it from Syria requires getting cleared by Syrian security… we all know what that means in Syria, and for a government that recently closed its Syrian embassy in order to express its opposition to the current apparatus there, to now force Syrians fleeing the political violence of the Syrian state into the very arms of the abuser it flees—in order to seek permission to leave—is the very height of irony.

Syrians feeling pushed out of Egypt are wondering where exactly they should go; are they expected to return to Syria? A Syrian friend in Egypt, who fled the violence of his native Qabun, sent me this photo of his neighborhood, I assume taken following destruction this week:

Qabun, July 2013

Not exactly an ideal time to go home. This is the very edge of Damascus, not a far-outlying suburb billed as “Damascus.”

Another moving image I encountered recently, this one of a father with his young daughter from Homs:

Father with his young daughter in Homs, Syria

For more of what Homs looks like now, see this from SkyNews: Dramatic Images Of Destruction In Homs. Beyond merely a bad time to go home, for many there will be no home to return to.

Articles have begun appearing discussing the same issues that these Syrians in Egypt have been talking about:

Syrian refugees caught up in Egypt’s turmoil

A thin wall was all that separated Syrian refugee Ahmed Al Hemsi from his 62-year-old father at Cairo International Airport when immigration officers told his father he would not be allowed into Egypt.

“He was crying when he talked to me on the phone,” Al Hemsi, 26, told IRIN. “This was the first time in my life I heard my father crying.”

Al Hemsi’s father, who had just arrived from Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is one of thousands of Syrians affected by a new set of security measures enacted by Egyptian authorities following the ouster of former president Mohamed Morsi and bloody clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents.

Government supporters accuse Syrian refugees of participating in the clashes and taking part in attacks against anti-Morsi demonstrators in several Egyptian cities.

The new security measures include the requirement that Syrian refugees and asylum seekers get entry visas to Egypt from an Egyptian embassy, as well as security approval.

But many Syrians say, given that Egypt severed its diplomatic relations with Syria, getting an entry visa to Egypt from Damascus is impossible, and that the process is difficult at embassies in other countries.

“Our understanding of the new measures is that we are no longer welcome in Egypt,” said Arkan Abulkheir, a Syrian community leader in Cairo. “The fact that some Syrians had committed violations by getting involved in Egypt’s politics does not mean that Egypt should punish all Syrians.”

There are between 250,000 and 300,000 Syrian refugees in Egypt now, according to the Egyptian government.

The conflict in Syria has created the world’s worst refugee crisis since the 1994 Rwandan genocide, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said this week, noting that more than 6,000 people were fleeing every day.

Nearly 1.8 million refugees from Syria are registered with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt.

The government’s new tougher line includes tighter security checks for Syrian refugees in Egypt, with the threat of deportation for Syrians who do not have residence permits.

Previously, Syrians were able to get a three-month visa when they entered Egypt for the first time. After that visa expired, the Syrians could then apply for a one-year residence, but this is no longer the case.

A security official told the newspaper Al Watan on 11 July that police have orders to arrest Syrians and check them.

Abulkheir was stopped by a policeman on the street a few days ago. The policeman asked about his passport and his residence permit.

“He told me that he would have sent me back to Syria if my residence permit was not valid,” Abulkheir said. “Thanks are to God, the permit was valid for six more months.”

Syrian refugees say they are afraid to go out lest they be arrested or deported.

Before the change of government and these new security measures, Syrian refugees already faced a variety of challenges, but the new measures are making life even harder.

When they came to Cairo two months ago, Al Hemsi, his mother and his younger brother had to leave their father behind in the Syrian city of Daraa because they did not have enough money to buy him a plane ticket.

He finally travelled to Cairo on 8 July after the family raised US$250 for the flight. Since he was refused to entry to Egypt, he has been living in a mosque in Beirut.

“We do not know how he eats or lives his life,” Al Hemsi said. “He does not have any money. He is also too frail to work.”

School’s out

Another change has come in the education sector. Syrian refugees were previously allowed to enrol their children in state-run schools and universities, and were given equal treatment with Egyptians when it came to fees. This is no longer the case.

Abu Mustafa, a Syrian refugee in his mid-forties, went to a school in 6 October, a neighbourhood southwest of Cairo, a few days ago to enrol his three children for the new academic year, which is expected to start in September. He was told by the headmaster that Syrians are no longer allowed at state-run schools, which have lower fees than private schools.

“He said I should enrol them in a private school,” Abu Mustafa said. “But this is very difficult for me to do.”

To enrol his children in a private school, Abu Mustafa would have to pay a minimum of 7,000 Egyptian pounds (US$958) for each of them. Unemployed and living on charity, this is too much money for him, and for the tens of thousands of other Syrian refugees in the country.

Political tension

The new measures against Syrians coincide with a fierce campaign against them by some of Egypt’s politicians and opinion-makers, who accuse them of harbouring support for the deposed president and of contributing to Egypt’s current turmoil.

An Egyptian politician recently called for the execution of Syrians and Palestinians if they are arrested while taking part in protests or fights on the streets. …

Syrian Refugees in Egypt Swept up in Turmoil – AP

Egyptian officials turn back a planeload of Syrians at Cairo airport. A popular presenter on Egyptian television warns Syrians to steer clear of protests or face the consequences. An Egyptian state school refuses admission to Syrian children.

Once welcomed with open arms in Egypt, many of the tens of thousands of Syrians who took refuge here from the civil war at home have now found themselves targets of hate speech and intimidation. Their dramatic change in fortune is one of the unexpected consequences of the Egyptian military’s ouster of President Mohammed Morsi, whose Islamist-dominated government offered them favorable conditions.

The shift could have a profound impact on the lives of Syrians in Egypt as they currently find themselves in a sort of legal limbo, waiting to see where the political winds will drop them. In what many see as a hint of what lies ahead, Egypt’s new military-backed interim government already has imposed new travel restrictions.

That has spooked many Syrians who fear their current visas won’t be renewed and they could be forced to leave Egypt. Many have invested their savings in businesses or simply cannot return to their war-ravaged cities.

… “Egypt may be going through tumultuous times, but it must not return anyone, including Syrians, to somewhere threatening their life or freedom,” Nadim Houry, the deputy Middle East director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement last week. “While Egypt is going through a very difficult period, it simply should not strand Syrians this way, especially those who have fled such a devastating conflict at home.

The U.N. says some 70,000 Syrians are registered in Egypt, although officials estimate the actual number may be twice that since many have opted not to register. That would make Egypt home to the fourth-largest community of Syrian refugees after Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon.

Those who came to Egypt received a warm welcome. Morsi’s government supported the rebels’ cause, and kept in place a decades-old open-door policy that allowed Syrians to come and go without prior visas. They were eligible to receive medical care at state hospitals, while their children could enroll in government schools.

Over the past few months, Syrians redefined some parts of Cairo, opening their own restaurants and cafes in areas where many of them settled.

But the warm welcome quickly evaporated after the military toppled Morsi on July 3 after four days of mass protests calling for the Islamist leader’s removal.

Television networks critical of Morsi aired allegations that the Muslim Brotherhood was paying Syrian refugees to take part in pro-Morsi protests. The arrest of at least six Syrians taking part in violent street clashes only fanned the flames. …

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom provides the following factsheet on the “regional refugee catastrophe.” Information specific to each country receiving refugees is provided.

As of July 17, UNHCR reports that more than 1. 7 million Syrians are refugees in neighboring countries. UNHCR predicts that 3.5 million Syrians potentially could become refugees by the end of 2013. This large number is exerting significant pressure on neighboring countries’ economies and stretching their already limited resources and services. Due to these pressures, Iraq, Turkey and Jordan either have closed their borders or limited daily refugee inflows.

Obama halts delivery of F-16s to Egypt amid unrest – Reuters

 

Thoughtful Observations

 

A good writer with interesting reflections on the Syria conflict is posting a blog called Notes on Error. Here are some excerpts from a few posts:

On sectarianism in the conflict: Scenes from the religious war, iii

It is an understandable though melancholy truth that in the tragedy of armed conflict, the narrative that seeks to explain events often lags behind the details that determine events. Policy and psychology work together to delay such inferences as seem, in retrospect, to have been unmissable – as anyone who has paid attention to the long eclipse of Syria will know.

… With the torrent of terrible news pouring out of Iraq, we who are watching from afar must now brace ourselves for another round of narrative delay, which seeks to conceal a fearsome fact: Iraq has been definitively captured and thrown into the Syrian maelstrom. Iraq is now also in a state of civil war.

Martin Kobler, the United Nations envoy to Iraq has proclaimed that that the conflicts in Syria and Iraq (and, sotto vocce, Lebanon) are merging into a single engagement.

From Mr. Kobler’s report to the Security Council, from July 16:

I am deeply concerned by the recent events in Iraq. I regret to report that the last four months have been amongst Iraq’s bloodiest in the last five years. Nearly three-thousand men, women, and children have been killed and over seven thousand more injured. The perpetrators of this violence are taking advantage of two leading factors of instability in the country. These include the ongoing political stalemate and the Syrian crisis.

Narrative – that is, policy – will take some time in catching up with these words, and in the days and weeks ahead there will be much to say about this new war. We may content ourselves at the outset with an unnerving observation: Iraq is the fault-line for the Sunni-Shia divide. It has been since Islam’s first civil war in 656, and remains so to this day.

In other words: the war of religion in the Middle East is metastasizing at a rate that should shock the composure of anyone who makes it their business to pay attention to such things. …

The Iraqi plunge:

… Beginning in the “local” context: yesterday, The Islamic State of Al-Qaida of Iraq and the Levant staged spectacular, coordinated attacks on two prisons in Baghdad. It would be difficult to overstate the intricate boldness of these attacks, which were the most advanced operations of Islamic terror in the region since the withdrawal of American troops two years ago and demonstrate the enhanced capabilities from the recent merger – uncertain as all the details may be – of the Al-Qaida franchises in Iraq and Syria.

The attacks began with a series of suicide car bombs that were driven into the outer walls of the prisons, followed by waves of suicide attackers wearing explosive vests who ran through the breaches to destroy the inner fortifications. Individual infiltrations followed hard upon and all the while the facilities were bombarded by rocket fire. It was only after the application of air power from the security forces that the attacks were broken, and by that time 500 Al-Qaida prisoners had been liberated.

It is unwise to take seriously Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s claim that the Shi’ite militia of Moqtada al-Sadr was involved (he’s picking his own bones here), but it seems likely that the escapes were husbanded by elements from within the prisons. The central government’s grip on the security situation is tenuous, and requires comment, but Maliki’s vain evasions only aggravate his crisis of credibility.

In any case, this operation, and the consolidation of Sunni extremism between Iraq and Syria that it denotes, is bad news of the first order. But, working in parallel, a hardening within the Shia camp is deepening the overall sensation of impending calamity.

A struggle is underway between the two intellectual centers of Shia political power: Najaf, in Iraq, and Qom, in Iran. It may be simply said (too simply, really) that the character of this difference has to do with the tensions between Arab and Persian Shi’ism. The former, which has strained itself to interpret events in Syria as a political struggle, and which maintains a certain theological distance from such matters, has urged Iraqi Shias to spurn the fight there and not fan the sectarian flames. It is in no small part through efforts of the clerics in Najaf, led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, that Iraq has remained, for so long, out of the Syrian war.

In Qom, the situation is different. The Islamic Republic of Iran, whose influence in Iraq has steadily increased since the American occupation and the election of a Shia government there, has been issuing quite contrary edicts. Their version of Shi’ism merges the political and theological spheres and, through the counsels of the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the faithful are enjoined to travel to Syria and fight against what they regard as a Sunni insurgency.

In other words, as over the past months we have witnessed the Sunni legions consolidate on one side of the sectarian divide, we are now seeing Shia extremism beginning to clarify on the other. Mesopotamia is where these two forces have historically met, and it seems, more so with each passing day, that the two wings of Shia Islam are preparing a critical conclave in the same location.

The struggle has only begun to bloom, but as with so many other prolonged factors in this war, the center of gravity slides to the extremes, and we must wonder whether the dramatic Sunni attacks of yesterday will further decide the contest in favor of the intervening Shi’ism of Qom, and against the more measured Shi’ism of Najaf.

On the further-reaching consequences that the war will necessarily have for the human community, and regarding the prospect of action in response to it: Homs and Shame:

… The time when we might have intervened just in Syria and helped move things in a salutary direction has passed. What was once a national uprising is now a regional sectarian war, and I’m not sure how one intervenes in that. We’re in uncharted territory, but that is partly, in my view, a consequence of not having engaged earlier.

That the problem has become really complicated does not arrest any of the consequences, one of which is as follows: the eastern third of Syria and the western third of Iraq are now a single entity where the only functioning power is Al-Qaida. In other words, a sort of radical Islamic quasi-state is being born, which is the common enemy of humanity. (Even Assad views this development as an existential crisis.)

Your framing of the essential choice is, I think, correct. We either do nothing and watch the horror, or we intervene and make everything, so to say, bigger (if not quite worse). Intervention would mean escalation, but that’s just the way it is.

It is, despite the esoteric religious elements, a geopolitical event, as Russia, and our allies like Turkey and Jordan, know all too well. As for “winning”, I don’t know what that would look like, but I know two necessary components: Assad and Al-Qaida must be destroyed.

One of the articles referenced in the above blog posts is quite interesting: Syrian conflict increases Shi’ite divisions – Asharq al-Awsat

Senior Shi’ite ayatollahs in Qom, Iran, have issued edicts urging their followers to join the fighting in Syria, while many Iraqi clerics based in Najaf remain opposed to involvement in the fighting.

Shi’ite militia commanders responsible for recruiting fighters in Iraq said the number of volunteers has increased considerably since the issuance of these edicts, despite divisions within the clergy.

While the Iranian government and some Qom-based ayatollahs are enthusiastic about supporting Assad, Shi’ite authorities in Najaf, led by Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, have objected to Shi’ite volunteers going to Syria to fight in a war which they see as political, not sectarian.

Despite Sistani’s position, however, some Shi’ite parties and militias in Iraq, which are loyal to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have sent their members to fight in Syria. …

Sayyeda Zeinab gets bombed: Shells hit major Shiite shrine near Damascus

Mortar shells struck near a major Shiite shrine outside Damascus on Friday, killing its caretaker in an attack that threatens to further escalate sectarian tensions in Syria’s civil war, the government and activists said.

State-run news agency SANA said shells fired be rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad landed “in the vicinity” of the revered Sayida Zeinab shrine, killing Anas Roumani, the shrine’s administrative director. Several people were wounded in the explosion, SANA said.

… In Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has called it “a duty” to protect the shrine, saying that if Syrian rebels destroyed it, that would ignite a sectarian war with no end

Opinion from NYT: End the conflict by engaging with Iran: To Oust Assad, Pressure Hezbollah – by JONATHAN STEVENSON

SYRIA has put President Obama’s enlightened realism in international affairs to its stiffest test. Direct military intervention could immerse the United States in yet another open-ended Middle East war. Doing nothing would mean failing to live up to America’s humanitarian obligations and harming America’s regional interests.

But the main impediment to a political deal remains President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal intransigence. And there is something America could do to pressure him. The most powerful inducement for Mr. Assad to reach an acceptable compromise would be a loss of support from Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based, Iranian-financed Shiite militant group. In Lebanon, popular anger over Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria is rising, and the United States must exploit this opportunity, even if it means negotiating directly with Iran to rein in its Lebanese proxy.

… The way to Hezbollah’s heart is through Iran. The Obama administration should bite the admittedly hard bullet and start cultivating Iran as a participant in negotiations for a peace deal in Syria. Iran’s newly elected moderate president, Hassan Rowhani, wants better relations with pro-rebel Saudi Arabia. And despite Iran’s insistence that its Syria policy hasn’t changed, Mr. Rowhani is likely to be less obstructionist than his predecessors and could open up space for genuine compromise. America should also be receptive to power-sharing scenarios that preserve a role for Mr. Assad’s fellow Alawites in a new Syrian government.

Washington should also incentivize reluctant anti-Assad forces, whose disunity has lately strengthened Mr. Assad, by indicating that America is prepared to increase arms shipments to moderate rebels in Syria only if they are willing to consolidate and negotiate. Tough diplomacy along these lines could also increase the internal leverage of Iranian officials with doubts about Mr. Assad’s viability while softening Iranian hard-liners.

Some Israelis have argued that the Syrian civil war usefully bogs down both the Assad regime and Hezbollah and bleeds Iran. Though superficially appealing, this rosy view is trumped by the prospect that cross-border violence could destabilize Lebanon, Jordan and even Turkey. Such a spillover could also cause the current Iranian-Saudi proxy war over Syria to escalate into a more direct and dangerous confrontation that might ultimately discourage Iran from making the nuclear compromises that the United States so badly wants. …

Syrian Sunnis fear Assad regime wants to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Alawite heartland – Guardian

Main areas of control in Syria as of 3 June 2013

… Homs, long a place where a Sunni majority lived in co-existence co-existed with minority Christian and Alawite communities, has now been a city of cantonments for almost 18 months: Alawite areas are surrounded by security walls that are off-limits to opposition areas. The countryside to the north and east, where Sunni and Alawite communities live nearby each other, has been volatile for much of the past year, with massacres documented in Sunni communities in Houla, Banias and Hoswaie.

The apparent cleansing is not all one way though. North of Latakia, Alawites have been chased out of their villages near the Turkish border by opposition groups, which in that area are dominated by jihadists. …

Containing the Fire in Syria  – Ryan Crocker

The awful conflict in Syria grinds on, with more than 100,000 dead and no end in sight. The calls to “do something” – anything – become louder: arm the rebels, enforce a no-fly zone, send in the Marines. Before the United States acts, Americans should reflect on the realities in Syria in a historical context. Here are some relevant dates and events.

Syria, February 1982: The Assad regime corners the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, the country’s fourth largest city. For the minority Alawite government, an offshoot of Shia Islam, the fundamentalist Sunni Brothers are an existential threat. Assad rings the city with armor and artillery, and methodically destroys its center. The Brotherhood is largely eliminated, along with more than 10,000 Sunni civilians. The regime knew that the day of revenge might come and spent years developing the security, intelligence and military apparatus to deal with it. …

… So this current fight didn’t start in the southern Syrian city of Dara’a in 2011. Nor is it part of the so-called Arab Spring. It began decades before. Lebanese, Palestinians, Iranians, Jordanians, Iraqis and Syrians – Sunnis, Alawis, Christians and Druze – all remember. Americans may not have ever really understood it in the first place. The history helps explain the ferocity of the fight on the part of both the regime and its opponents, and it illustrates why this regime is not like those in Egypt, Tunisia or Libya. It was ready for this war.

… The opposition, in contrast, lacks cohesion and organization. As is often the case in these conflicts, the most radical elements demonstrate the greatest discipline such as Al Qaeda in Syria – Jabhat al-Nusra. It is what makes arming the opposition such a dangerous and uncertain proposition.

… Much has been said about a political settlement. The conditions are simply not present. Neither the opposition nor the regime is ready to deal seriously with each other, and the opposition is too divided in any event to develop a coherent position. Nor will a meeting between regime representatives and opposition elements in exile produce meaningful outcome, even if it could be convened. The influence of the exiles on those actually doing the fighting is approximately zero.

… I was in Lebanon recently, where the outgoing prime minister gloomily predicted a renewed civil war of which there are already signs with clashes between Sunnis and Alawites in the northern city of Tripoli, in the northeast and attacks on Hezbollah-controlled areas in Beirut. If the violence spreads, the Palestinians will join forces with the Lebanese Sunnis against the Shia, and that in turn will radicalize Palestinians in Jordan’s already fragile monarchy. Both countries need our security and economic support, for the refugee influx and their security forces.

This will be a long war. There is little the United States can do to positively influence events in Syria. Our focus must be on preventing further spillover beyond its borders. There may come a point where exhaustion on both sides makes a political solution possible. We are nowhere near that point. And my fear is that at the end of the day, the Assad regime prevails. We must be ready for that too.

Musa is a Research Fellow with the Southwest Initiative for the Study of Middle East Conflicts (SISMEC) and an analyst with www.SyriaReport.net. He has a MA in philosophy from the University of Arizona.

Musa al-Gharbi: Al-Qaeda’s renaissance – Your Middle East

Far from being rendered irrelevant by the Arab Spring, the organization seems to be on the verge of a major and enduring resurgence

Following the military coup which removed Hosni Mubarak, it was widely reported that al-Qaeda was rendered obsolete by the Arab Spring. Fareed Zakaria, for instance, pronounced:

“The Arab Revolts of 2011 represent a total repudiation of al Qaeda’s founding ideology. For 20 years, al Qaeda has said that the regimes of the Arab World are nasty dictatorships and that the only way to overthrow them is to support al Qaeda and its terrorism. And then, in a few weeks, the people of the Arab World have overturned two despotic governments by means of non-violent demonstrations and they have begun a process of reform and revolution that will alter the basic bargain between the ruler and ruled in the Middle East…”

This sentiment was only amplified in light of the U.S. assassinations of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership: Osama bin Laden, Anwar al-Awlaki, Abu Yaya al-Libi and Said al-Shehri (among others)—personality strikes which continue to this very day despite the growing evidence of blowback.

… Although there were certainly methodological and ideological disparities, the aspirations of al-Qaeda and the Arab Spring protesters were superficially commensurate: al-Qaeda had long been working against Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali, Bashar al-Asad, and Gaddafi—just as they had previously fought Saddam Hussein. They unambiguously embraced each of these revolutions, and even called for further uprisings in authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia. However, so long as the protests remained peaceful, al-Qaeda was, in a sense, sidelined. Ironically, the Western interventions/escalations in Libya and Syria gave them an “in” and subsequently al-Qaeda has played a decisive and growing role in those theaters.

Contrary to Western assumptions (fueled by media disinformation), the Libyans did not rise up in great numbers to overthrow Gaddhafi, and there were few military and government defections. Accordingly, the colonel continued to advance on Benghazi despite the NATO-imposed no-fly zone. Foreign fighters from AQIM rushed in to compensate for the lack of indigenous resistance—but even then the local population refused to provide the rebels with provisions or support, forcing NATO allies to overstep their mandate in UNSCR 1973 (just as they did in UNSCR 1441), likely in violation of international law.

The al-Qaeda flag flew next to the rebel flag in the opposition capital of Benghazi, while an al-Qaeda detainee released from Guantanamo Bay became one of the more prolific leaders of the rebellion. To this day, al-Qaeda and its affiliates maintain a strong presence in Libya, largely thanks to the lawlessness which continues to prevail over much of the country, and due to the gratitude of the local population.

Ultimately, these groups would deploy the very resources which NATO provided, and the autonomy afforded them in the absence of Gaddhafi, in order carry out an attack on the U.S. embassy in Benghazi, resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. AQIM subsequently took advantage of their base in Libya to plan and execute a successful conquest of northern Mali, prompting a French intervention of unspecified length in their former colony. This, in turn, led to an AQIM response attack in Algeria which killed scores of foreign nationals from around the world.

In Libya, al-Qaeda and its affiliates were among the primary beneficiaries of U.S. and allied arms, funding, training, and supplies. We know this, in part, because they have subsequently deployed these assets throughout the Maghreb, but they have also been relied upon in Syria—just as the weapons provided to the rebels in Syria were used in a failed al-Qaeda attack in Jordan; and yet the Obama Administration has decided to openly endorse arming the rebels (under the false-pretext of chemical weapons use by the Syrian government), despite the overwhelming evidence that most of these weapons have ended up in the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

Al-Qaeda was quick to endorse the Syrian “uprising;” they began by bombing targets in Damascus and quickly stepped up their involvement from there. The late Abu Yaya al-Libi called for a “violent jihad” in Syria without compromise or “illusions of peacefulness” until President al-Asad is overthrown. The al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front was primarily responsible for the rebel gains in Aleppo, which marked a turning point in the rebellion—they have since become the most effective and influential fighting force in the Syrian theater. Even rebel forces which are not directly affiliated with al-Nusra or the ISI are increasingly adopting al-Qaeda tactics (guerilla warfare, suicide bombings, IED’s, etc.) in order to combat the superior firepower of the Syrian government. …

… It would be hard to imagine a better scenario for al-Qaeda and their ideology: secular tyrannies have been falling throughout the Middle East—replaced by Sunni Islamist-dominated governments with solid ties to minority-blocks of conservative/radical parties, such as the Salafists. And as formerly antagonistic forces are being overthrown, al-Qaeda has been able to exploit the regional instability to set up new bases of operation. The organization is increasing its presence in the Sinai Peninsula, continues to control large swaths of Yemen and Somalia, and enjoys substantial support in Pakistan. …

 

The Wealth of Syria: Looting and Scandals

 

The following Bloomberg article cites a report from the website Trafficking Culture (“Researching the global traffic in looted cultural objects”) that provides the following before-and-after satellite images of the ancient city of Apamea, an archeological site in Syria serving as an example of the tremendous looting that has taken place. In the second picture, thousands of holes are visible where looters have dug into soil that archeologists have not yet explored:

Apamea Syria

Apamea before: via Trafficking Culture, via Dr. Ignacio Arce, via Google Earth

Apamea Syria

Apamea after: via Trafficking Culture, via Dr. Ignacio Arce, via Google Earth

Syrian Looters in Bulldozers Seek Treasure Amid Chaos – Bloomberg

When the uprising against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad began two years ago, satellite images showed the ruins of the ancient Hellenic city of Apamea surrounded by green farmland. A year later, photos reveal a moonscape blighted by hundreds upon hundreds of holes.

Looters in bulldozers armed with automatic weapons are exploiting the mayhem of Syria’s civil war to seize sites including Apamea, founded in 300 B.C. by one of Alexander the Great’s generals, where colonnaded streets stretch for almost 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) along a hilltop.

“It’s tragic, objects from archaeological sites risk being lost without us ever knowing they existed,” said Jonathan Tubb, keeper of the Middle East department at the British Museum. “It can be callous to talk about this in the face of appalling human loss, but Syria’s cultural heritage is of such great importance to our understanding of human history that it’s only right we’re concerned.”

There are more endangered heritage sites in Syria than anywhere else in the world, the United Nations, Educational, Scientifid and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, said this year. The country has more than 10,000 archaeological sites left by the Greeks, Romans, Ottomans and other civilizations.

“We feel bitter and sad — many sites have been destroyed before our eyes,” Mamoun Abdul-Karim, head of Syria’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums, said in an interview from Damascus. “Clandestine excavations are most dangerous because they mean eternal death, while sites damaged by fighting can be restored.”

Baghdad Looting

Abdul-Karim said his department stored artifacts in safe places to prevent a repeat of the pillaging that emptied the National Museum of Iraq of its Mesopotamian relics after the March 2003 war that toppled Saddam Hussein. He said that while antiquities officials have started local initiatives that include watch groups of tribal elders and civilians to protect sites, they’ve been confronted by gangs of heavily armed men and earth-moving equipment.

“Preventing the smuggling of antiquities and clandestine excavations is the responsibility of every Syrian,” he said. “Even if we have political disagreements, let’s not disagree over the country’s heritage.” …

While looters dismember Syria’s treasures from within, the black gold under Syrian soil is eyed from without: West’s main aid group for Syrian rebels collapses into disarray – Telegraph

Even as President Bashar al-Assad has made sweeping advances across parts of his country, the Syrian Support Group (SSG) has been riven by internal divisions and struggled to raise funds.

The group had been considered a potential game-changer whose money-raising abilities would equip the rebels with much-needed modern weapons.

But instead of using a unique US licence to funnel funds to the opposition, the group has spent months pursuing a fruitless dash to make millions of dollars from Syrian oil.

One former staff member has alleged that the leadership had become “obsessed” with landing a jackpot oil deal and lost sight of its core mission to back the rebels.

The head of the SSG in Washington resigned last month after the group failed to gain real traction with US officials and its London operation is under threat of closure after falling foul of the Government.

The Foreign Office has demanded the group repay thousands of pounds from a grant after determining that some of the money was improperly spent.

… The West had hoped the SSG, founded in the US in December 2011, would channel support to these moderate elements within the Syrian uprising and in May last year it was granted a coveted Treasury licence allowing it to skirt American sanctions on the country.

But private donations dried up after the US State Department warned the SSG that its funds could not be used for weapons. Instead according to David Falt, a whistleblower who served as SSG’s European government affairs director, the group turned its efforts from fundraising to pursuing large and controversial oil deals under the leadership of Brian Sayers, a former Nato official.

Mr Falt has revealed internal emails between Mr Sayers and others, containing proposals to raise money by selling rights to Syrian oil output.

“Brian and some others were obsessed with the oil. The idea they could raise hundreds of millions from the sale of the oil came to dominate the work of the SSG to the point no real attention was paid to the nature of the conflict,” said Mr Falt.

… Mazen Asbashi, the president of SSG who is now trying to restructure the organisation, said the group’s board was eventually forced to pull the plug on the oil proposals after becoming uncomfortable with the activities of Mr Sayers.

“There were early preliminary discussions but they were never pursued in any serious way,” Mr Asbashi said. “The oil-related issues are complex and our organisation is focused on facilitating non-lethal support to the Syrian Military Council.”

Members of the board claimed that they ordered Mr Sayers to call off the proposals. “He was way out in front of where we were comfortable,” said one board member who accused Mr Sayers of “freelancing”.

But Mr Sayers said both the board and Gen Selim Idris, the head of the Syrian Military Council (SMC), were supportive of the idea of using oil money to help fund the rebellion. “There was no disagreement on the principles of that issue and the notion that somehow I was overreaching is absolutely false,” he said.

 

Opposition and Oppositions

 

Britain randomly decides people shouldn’t play with Nusra: UK Bans Syria’s Al-Qaida-Linked Nusra Front

… The government said Friday that it considered the Nusra Front and Jabhat al-Nusra nothing more than alternative names for al-Qaida, which has long been outlawed. The ban takes effect immediately. …

And just when it’s getting more attractive: Comics Series on Western Muslim Volunteering for Nusra

Jabhat al-Nusra comic book

Syria’s Nusra Front tries to show it’s a different kind of al Qaida – McClatchy

Two al Qaida-linked rebel groups in Syria appear to be distancing themselves from each other in what may be an effort by the Nusra Front, which the United States has branded as an international terrorist organization, to remain relevant amid signs that major portions of the Syrian population are chafing under harsh rule by conservative religious fighters.

A series of incidents in which residents and fighters in rebel-held areas have protested what they say is a heavy-handed approach to a raft of issues have put Nusra and the other group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, on the political defensive even as the umbrella group of rebels that the West recognizes, the Free Syrian Army, comes under pressure by the United States to reduce the groups’ influence.

“The jihadists are rightly worried that the U.S. will demand action against jihadists as a vetting bottom line. They talk a lot about the FSA being recruited by the CIA to fight them,” said Joshua Landis, an associate professor at University of Oklahoma who’s an expert on Syria.

When the Obama administration agreed last month to supply weaponry to the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council, it quickly became clear that ensuring that those weapons didn’t go to Nusra or the Islamic State was a major condition of the aid, which nevertheless has been slow to materialize. Adding to the tensions has been the killing by an Islamic State member of a commander from a pro-Free Syrian Army unit in the mountains along the Syrian coast, allegedly in a dispute over a checkpoint.

In an effort to tamp down the perception that the Free Syrian Army was powerless over these al Qaida-linked groups, a commander in the area said the Free Syrian Army had demanded an arrest. The Islamic State’s response was to order the arrest and trial of the suspected shooter.

That hasn’t yet happened. “There has been no reaction from his group,” said Tasmim al Laathiqiyah, a member of the Khalwah Bin al Azwar Battalion, a rebel unit affiliated with the Free Syrian Army.

In another incident, disgruntled civilians in the northern city of Aleppo demonstrated over the weekend to protest Islamic State checkpoints that prohibited them from visiting government-controlled portions of the city.

The issue for Nusra is to not become the target of that bitterness. Nusra was created by veterans of al Qaida in Iraq, the jihadi organization that gained fame during the U.S. occupation of Iraq by opposing the American presence and later battling that country’s Shiite Muslim majority in a bitter sectarian war.

Nusra’s approach in Syria – many of its members are Syrians who fought against the American presence in Iraq – has been shaped by what happened to al Qaida in Iraq, whose harsh policies eventually turned Sunni Muslim tribal leaders against it. Once the tribal leaders rebelled, they joined with the United States to push the group out of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.

While the United States has said Nusra and al Qaida in Iraq are indistinguishable from each other – the U.S. designation of Nusra as a terrorist organization declared it to be simply an alias for al Qaida in Iraq – some analysts say Nusra has adopted more palatable policies, even as its leader, Abu Mohamed al Jawlani, has pledged allegiance to al Qaida and its leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. …

Frustrated with how the Islamist agenda took over the uprising, defections are no longer a one-way street: Syria: disillusioned rebels drift back to take Assad amnesty – Telegraph

Disillusioned by the Islamist twist that the “revolution” in Syria has taken, exhausted after more than two years of conflict and feeling that they are losing, growing numbers of rebels are signing up to a negotiated amnesty offered by the Assad regime.

At the same time, the families of retreating fighters have begun quietly moving back to government-controlled territory, seen as a safer place to live as the regime continues its intense military push against rebel-held areas.

The move is a sign of the growing confidence of the regime, which has established a so-called “ministry of reconciliation” with the task of easing the way for former opponents to return to the government side.

… “I used to fight for revolution, but now I think we have lost what we were fighting for,” said Mohammed, a moderate Muslim rebel from the northern town of Raqqa who declined to give his last name. “Now extremists control my town. My family has moved back to government side because our town is too unsafe. Assad is terrible, but the alternative is worse.”

The prevalence of extremist Islamist groups in rebel-held areas, particularly in the north, has caused some opposition fighters to “give up” on their cause.

Ziad Abu Jabal comes from one of the villages in Homs province whose residents recently agreed to stop fighting the regime. “When we joined the demonstrations we wanted better rights,” he said. “After seeing the destruction and the power of jihadists, we came to an agreement with the government.”

Mr Haider said that he had attended a ceremony yesterday at which 180 opposition fighters rejoined the government’s police force, from which they had previously defected.

Although it was not possible to verify this claim, when The Daily Telegraph previously visited the reconciliation ministry’s headquarters in Damascus the office was crowded with the family members of rebels fighting in the city’s suburbs who said their men wanted to return.

A ministry negotiator, who gave his name only as Ahmed, was in the process of arranging the defection of a rebel commander and 10 of his men from the Ghouta district.

“It took us three months of negotiation and this is a test,” he said. “If this goes well, the commander says that 50 others will follow.”

He described the steps taken to allow the return of fighters willing to lay down their arms. First, he said, a negotiator must cross the front line for a meeting on rebel-held territory. “We have to hope the rebel commander orders his snipers not to shoot us.”

Would-be defectors were given papers allowing them to pass through Syrian army checkpoints, and then waited in a safe house until the officials could get their names removed from wanted lists held by the more hardline defence ministry and intelligence agencies.

The rebels “did not sign up to be part of extremist Islamist groups that have now gained influence”, he said. “Now they want to come back to a normal life.”

In the days before the regime took the town of Qusayr last month, The Telegraph saw mediators on the Lebanese border work with the Syrian army to secure an amnesty for fighters wanting to surrender.

The phone rang with desperate calls from the parents of the rebels. “These mothers know that this is the last chance for their sons. …

Foreign Fighters Flocking to Syria Stirs Terror Concerns – Bloomberg

The U.S. and European Union are seeing an increasing number of radicalized young Muslims going to Syria to fight, a development that raises the danger that they will return to conduct terrorist attacks at home.

The war is providing both a rallying point and a training ground for radical Islamists from other nations, according to Matthew Olsen, director of the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center. Their numbers are increasing and the radicals, such as those joining the al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of the terrorist group al-Qaeda in Iraq, are now “the most capable fighting force within the opposition” to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said.

“Syria has become really the predominant jihadist battlefield in the world,” Olsen said at the Aspen Security Forum in Aspen, Colorado. “We see foreign fighters going from Western Europe and, in a small number of cases, from the United States to Syria to fight for the opposition.” …

An interesting example of foreign fighters in Syria is this video about a British woman and convert to Islam who went to Syria and married a Swedish jihadi with whom she’s now starting a family:

 

Lots of alleged details of Ahmad Jarba’s background: The Syrian National Coalition’s Saudi Makeover  – al-Akbar

(Photo: AFP – JM Lopez)

Over the past few days, the Baath Party and the opposition Syrian National Coalition have both elected new leaders, although the timing appears to be a coincidence. If anything, the scope of the reshuffle indicates that both parties, for their own reasons, have come to acknowledge that their respective models were no longer working, and required a fundamental adjustment in their policies and top brass.

Interestingly, this process has produced two main losers: namely, the Muslim Brotherhood-led wing in the National Coalition and the “old guard” of the Baath. These two groups have been the historical poles of the conflict in Syria over the past decade; therefore, the fact that they have been cast aside almost simultaneously has left many wondering whether this comes in advance preparation for a dialogue between the new Baath gutted of its old guard, and the National Coalition ridded of the Brotherhood.

An official Syrian source closely involved with the Syrian “crisis cell” led from the presidential palace, provides further background to these developments. He believes that the change in leadership of the Baath Party took place as part of a new comprehensive vision for its organization and role. As for the change at the top of the National Coalition, the source reckons it is the result of having to adapt to the ouster of the Brotherhood-led regime in Egypt, as well as a shift in the opposition’s “spiritual leadership” from Doha to Riyadh. …

Ahmad al-Jarba: Personal History

The source maintains that Ahmad al-Jarba’s trek to the highest post in the Coalition was planned from A to Z in the corridors of Saudi intelligence. The man, the source said, has a big rap sheet kept by Qatari, Saudi, and Syrian security services, for acts involving all three countries, and in the past, the three intelligence agencies had even coordinated operations in his pursuit.

The Syrian source provided particulars involving Jarba that were mentioned in official Syrian security records, as a fugitive wanted for criminal offenses, including fraud, corruption, and even assassination plots that were not carried out. According to the source, records show that Riyadh handed over “the suspect Ahmad al-Jarba” to Damascus in 2008, on charges of drug trafficking, in accordance with an extradition agreement between Saudi and Syrian security services (which was suspended at the beginning of the Syrian crisis). Jarba was tried and sentenced to a prison term at the time.

The records also reveal another entry involving Jarba, which the Qatari security services undoubtedly also have in their records, as the source said: After the coup staged by the outgoing Emir of Qatar Hamad against his father Khalifa al-Thani, the latter’s foreign minister fled to Syria, where he became a vocal supporter for restoring the previous emir. At the time, according to the records, Emir Hamad’s people asked Ahmad al-Jarba to assassinate the exiled Qatari foreign minister in Syria. Al-Jarba even received payment after accepting to carry out the mission, the source claimed.

However, Jarba chose instead to expose the plot to the deposed Emir Khalifa, for which he also received a financial reward. The issue proved to have huge political consequences, prompting the Syrian state security agency to investigate and ultimately detain Jarba for a total of five months on counts of fraud.

According to another entry in the Syrian security records, Jarba approached the Libyan ambassador in Damascus shortly after Muammar Gaddafi declared himself Africa’s “king of kings,” and persuaded the ambassador to use Jarba’s help in sending Syrian tribal delegations to Libya to pledge allegiance to Gaddafi. Jarba had introduced himself to the Libyan leadership as the chief of the Shammar tribe of the Jazirah region in Syria (Upper Mesopotamia).

In 2004, he was looking for ways to gain access to the late Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as one of the elders of the Shammar clan, which has branches from Syria, Jordan, and Iraq, all the way to Saudi Arabia. Before Jarba dropped off the grid in Syria, he was being pursued by the Syrian authorities for running brothels in Damascus and Hasakah.

The Secret Decisions of the Doha Meeting

Recently, Saudi intelligence, under Bandar’s direct supervision, began touting Jarba as the chief of the Syrian branch of the Shammar tribe, presenting him inside the Coalition as their pointman for arms purchases. It is likely that Bandar bargained with several blocks in the Coalition over instating Jarba as the president of the opposition group in return for delivering game-changing weapons.

The information available to the Syrian security services indicates that Jarba’s appointment came following pressure from Saudi Arabia during the most recent meeting held by the countries backing the Syrian opposition in Doha. Secret agreements were reached, including one between Paris and Riyadh over the purchase and delivery of advanced weapons for the benefit of the opposition. …

During the meeting in Doha, Saudi intelligence endeavored to polish Jarba’s image among the countries backing the Syrian opposition, presenting him as the chief of the Shammar tribe, and claiming that the groups under his command control the Yaarabia border crossing with Iraq. However, the tribe in Syria is actually led by two elders, Shammar Hamidi Dahham al-Hadi, who has close ties with the President of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, Massoud Barzani, and Uday al-Meez al-Madloul.

Concerning the claim that Jarba controls groups in Hasakah and Qamishli, it is common knowledge in Upper Mesopotamia that the man has been banished by not only his tribe, but even his close family. His father had distanced himself from his son ever since he was exposed for running brothels, even though Jarba tried at the time to claim that he was only running a company to help young men and women marry. Meanwhile, his brother Zaid is a regime supporter, while his older brother Nawwaf has shunned politics altogether.

The Ever-Shifting Sponsorship of the Coalition

Since its inception, the National Coalition has been moving from the embraces of one regional sponsor to another, according to the Syrian source. Whenever it settles for a new sponsor, the source said, the Coalition elects a new leader named by the current sponsor. …

… This process continues with the appointment of Bandar’s man, Ahmad al-Jarba, as president of the Syrian National Coalition.

A Wake Up Call for the Syrian Brotherhood – Sami Moubayed

When Ahmad Mouaz al-Khatib was elected president of the Syrian National Alliance in late 2012, red flags were raised at the offices of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers feared ideological competition from someone who like them, was preaching Sunni Islam. Their niche, after all, was the conservative Sunni Muslim street of Syria, which they supposedly represented and sought to monopolize.

Here was Khatib, a scholar and former preacher at the prestigious Umayyad Mosque, seemingly being parachuted into the job, right from the heart of Damascus. Although politically inexperienced, he came across as selfless, unblemished, and sincere. He came from the midst of domestic suffering within Syria, whereas the Brotherhood operated from exile. Most of its active cadres were second-generation members born and raised outside of Syria. Simply by being himself, Khatib threatened to make them irrelevant, exposing the Brothers as power-hungry politicians blinded by their thundering success in Egypt. Unlike the Brotherhood, Khatib had no ambition of becoming president of Syria. If the pro-regime street motto had been: “It’s either Assad, or we burn the country” the Brotherhood’s unspoken drive seemed also to be, “It’s either us, or we burn the country!” Clearly in Egypt, now ejected from office with little respect or ceremony, they have decided to “burn the country!”

In Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood’s real powerbase today lies strictly in the Idlib countryside, specifically Jabal al-Zawiya, where they still command a sizable community of loyalists. Their influence in the conservative city of Hama, the city to suffer most from their 1982 adventure, had long vanished. Hama today is no longer a “Brotherhood stronghold.” The secular opposition leader Fidaa Hourani, who treated the wounded at her field hospital in early 2011, was more popular in Hama than the entire Brotherhood leadership combined. She was a secular, and not only that, the daughter of Akram al-Hourani, the father of socialism in modern Syria, who had combated the Brotherhood during the golden years of Syrian democracy, back in the ’50s.

Hama notables grumbled when recalling how while their sons were being led to the gallows in 1982, Brotherhood leaders had packed their bags and left to safe exile, leaving the city to sort out its own mess. They blamed the Brotherhood for dragging Syria into an ill-planned confrontation, which led to the killing of anywhere between 15,000-30,000 civilians, without calculating what the regime’s response would be. The Brotherhood knew that popular sentiment in Hama, although anti-regime, was nevertheless not pro-Brotherhood in 2011-2012. They also realized that if the Syrians went to the polls, unlike Egypt, the Brotherhood would never win a landslide victory. …

… The Muslim Brotherhood is now fighting a battle on several fronts: with Egyptian officers in Cairo, with Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, with Mohammad Abbas in Palestine, and with Saudi Arabia in the Arab and Muslim World. This is more than they can chew. If they don’t try to extinguish fires, they will collapse. Both the Egyptian and Syrian Brothers have to put down their guns, sink into self-reflection, study their mistakes, and eventually re-invent themselves after the Egyptian fiasco.

Strategic Intelligence Assessment for Syria (2) – State of Play Part I – Pro-Assad Groups and Moderate Opposition Forces  – Red (team) Analysis – Helene Lavoix

Red team Analysis diagram of militarized actors in Syria

Keeping in mind the complex and fluid character of the situation in Syria we addressed last week, this post and the next will present the current state of play and the various categories of actors fighting in and over Syria, namely the pro-Assad groups, the moderate opposition forces and the Muslim Brotherhood “related” groups, the Islamist groups fighting for an Islamist state in Syria, the groups linked to a global Jihadi Front, and, finally, the Kurds in Syria, without forgetting the external actors. Scenarios for the future will follow from this assessment. The scenarios will then evolve, notably in terms of likelihood, from changes on the battleground and in interactions between all actors. …

Money, guns flowing from Kuwait to Syria’s most radical rebel factions

Syrian rebels have a new source of weapons and cash from inside Kuwait, and their benefactors in the oil-rich state are sending the aid to the most militant and anti-West factions involved in the fight to topple Bashar al-Assad.

The role of Saudi and Qatari governments and individuals in the funding and arming of Islamist fighters in Syria has been well known since the civil war began more than two years ago. But now, guns and money are flowing from private sources and Salafist-controlled NGOs based in Kuwait, and they are going to rebel factions aligned with Al Qaeda.

“We are collecting money to buy all these weapons, so that our brothers will be victorious,” hard-core Sunni Islamist Sheikh Shafi’ Al-Ajami announced on Kuwaiti television last month, listing the black-market prices of weapons, including heat-seeking missiles, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades.

Days later, Al-Ajami addressed a small throng outside the Lebanese Embassy in Kuwait and gleefully described slitting the throat of a Shiite Muslim in Syria.

“We slaughtered him with knives,” Al-Ajami said to shouts of “God is Great.”

Syria’s al-Nusra Front – ruthless, organised and taking control – Guardian

Photograph: Ghaith Abdul-Ahad for the Guardian

The al-Qaida-affiliated commander in charge of the oil company in Shadadi, eastern Syria – a lean, broad-shouldered man who is followed everywhere by a machete-wielding bodyguard – was explaining the appeal of jihadi rule to the people of the newly captured town.

“Go and ask the people in the streets whether there a liberated town or city anywhere in Syria that is ruled as efficiently as this one,” he boasted. “There is electricity, water and bread and security. Inshallah, this will be the nucleus of a new Syrian Islamic caliphate!”

The al-Nusra Front, the principle jihadi rebel group in Syria, defies the cliche of Islamist fighters around the Middle East plotting to establish Islamic caliphates from impoverished mountain hideaways. In north-eastern Syria, al-Nusra finds itself in command of massive silos of wheat, factories, oil and gas fields, fleets of looted government cars and a huge weapons arsenal.

The commander talked about the services al-Nusra is providing to Shadadi’s residents. First, there is food: 225 sacks of wheat, baked into bread and delivered to the people every day through special teams in each neighbourhood. Then there is free electricity and water, which run all day throughout the town. There is also al-Nusra healthcare, provided from a small clinic that treats all comers, regardless of whether they have sworn allegiance to the emirate or not. Finally, there is order and the promise of swift justice, delivered according to sharia law by a handful of newly appointed judges.

“God has chosen us to provide security to the people, and we do it for nothing,” he said. “We have vowed to sacrifice ourselves to serve the people. If we leave, the tribes will start killing each other for the oil and the loot. We had to show force in dealing with the tribes. Even now, one to three people are killed every day because of feuding over the oil. We also protect the silos of wheat. All the silos are under our protection.

“All this wealth,” he said, “is for the Muslims.”

The emir of gas

A few miles from Shadadi, travelling through hills dotted with oil pumps that resemble giant, long-legged birds dipping their beaks into the earth, we came to al-Nusra’s most valuable asset in the region, a gas refinery run by a young commander known to his followers simply as the “emir of gas”.

The emir sat on a green mattress on the floor of his office, conspicuously eschewing the computer and desk in favour of the simple way of the Islamist warrior. He was almost skeletally thin, his handsome face framed by long black hair that wrapped lazily around his ears, giving him the air of a mischievous playboy.

When the rebels first captured the refinery, it was run by a joint committee that represented all the battalions in the area. But the emir decided to kick them out, for their “petty theft”.

“The Free Syrian Army [FSA] have no funding so they steal stupid things,” he said contemptuously. “They steal anything.”

The secret to al-Nusra’s power in the east, he said, was organisation: all their captured loot went to a central committee, which he called the “Muslim treasury”. From there, it was directed to the various battle fronts. …

Al-Qaida elements fighting with rebels in Syria constitute the most serious terrorist threat to Britain, and if they were to get their hands on Syria’s chemical weapons the consequences could be catastrophic, according to British spymasters.

Comrades in Arms – How Libya sends weapons to Syria’s rebels – FP

The former rebel commander, who also heads a Libyan NGO that helps Syrian refugees in Libya, says most of the weapons and aid are donated free of charge by fellow Libyans. But when the cost of transporting the weapons is high and Libyan funds run dry, he added, a Syrian member of the Muslim Brotherhood flies to Benghazi to provide an injection of cash and coordinate the flow of weapons into Syria.

“What we do is this,” explains the organizer. “We ask katibas [rebel units] here in Benghazi to donate weapons and humanitarian stuff for Syria.… People just show up with guns, money, hospital beds, or sugar. So the moment we have enough we rent a ship or plane and get it to Syria via our contacts in Turkey and — less often — in Jordan.”

Libyan rebels have also sent aid to the Syrian opposition by air. Twenty-seven such flights have occurred to date, says the former commander — 23 from Libya to the Turkish city of Gaziantep and four to an airport in Jordan. The planes mostly took off from Benghazi, but also departed from Tripoli and the eastern airport of al-Abraq, close to the town of al-Bayda.

“Often these are rather small planes,” the former commander says. “Either we Libyans pay, or some of our Syrian friends find money and pick up the bill.”

… “We try to distribute it equally among all the groups,” he says, “but there is some rivalry. I have suggested to the Syrians to create one operation room in which all different rebel groups are present. This is also what we did during the Libyan revolution. But until now the Syrians have not followed this example.” …

Tightening Siege by Syrian Rebels Stirs Anger – NYT

Syrian rebels have tightened their siege on government-held districts in the divided city of Aleppo, choking supply lines and depleting staple foods at the onset of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, traditionally a time of festive meals to break the daily fast.

The tactic is controversial enough among supporters and opponents of the rebels that residents of the Bustan al-Qasr neighborhood staged a protest on Tuesday at a rebel checkpoint. Rebels shot in the air to disperse the protests, local activists said.

“This is not a revolution,” a sheik shouted at rebels in a video posted online. “This is injustice.”

The Aleppo food shortage is just one episode in one of many war-torn cities across Syria. But it highlights how some elements of the armed opposition — especially in areas they control — are seen as oppressive even by their friends.

… But now, complaints about the rebels have only accelerated with their use of blockades — long a government tactic to disrupt food supplies.

Anas, a fighter with Liwaa al-Tawheed, one of the most well-organized, well-armed and prominent brigades operating in the northern province of Aleppo, supported the tactic.

“Districts under regime control are considered military areas,” he said Wednesday over Skype. “We don’t want to force civilians to leave, but at the same time we’re afraid they might get hurt during the liberation of the city.”

Aleppo is divided between government- and rebel-held areas — roughly the western and eastern halves. Where a person lives does not necessarily determine allegiance, and people regularly cross the lines for business or to visit family.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based watchdog that tracks the fighting through a network of activists in Syria, reported “intense food shortages” in some government-held areas, “compounded by the skyrocketing prices of whatever supplies can be found.”

Rebels say their immediate aim is to cut off supplies from government troops, but it appears the blockade is also part of a broader strategy aimed at weakening support for the government and pressuring civilians in government-held areas to leave. If the western part of Aleppo, now home to two million Syrians, becomes empty of civilians, a ground assault by rebels would be easier to carry out and more morally defensible, rebels argue.

Abu al-Haytham, a fighter whose unit is among those enforcing the siege, stressed that the Free Syrian Army’s aim was not to punish residents but to block government supplies and prompt civilians to seek refuge elsewhere, opening the way for a ground attack.

“Our siege is not just about tomatoes and cucumbers. We want to storm security buildings, and the presence of civilians is obstructing our movement,” he said in a Skype interview.

But for citizens trying to get by, it is more basic: it is about eating.

Recently, a woman was trying to cross back into the government-controlled part of the city when she was stopped at a rebel checkpoint. Fighters refused to let her cross with the prize she had come for: bags of fruits, vegetables and medicine, hard to find near her home on the other side.

A sheik allied with the rebels tried to mediate, suggesting she come to live on the rebel side. Incredulous, she replied, “Find me a house!” After fielding more pleas, in scenes captured on video and posted online, the sheik lost patience and confronted the fighters, saying the blockade was hurting “the simple people, the common people.”

Eventually, the rebels relented, and opened the crossing to food.

Interesting human story with excellent photos: How War in Syria Turned These Ordinary Engineers Into Deadly Weapons Inventors – Matthieu Atkins – WIRED

“These things are for killing people,” he tells me. “Every time I make a bomb, I feel sorrow.”

 

Miscellaneous

 

An interesting reminder that this conflict isn’t the first in which scores of foreign fighters have shown up: Australians in Aleppo, 1918

U.N. accepts Syrian offer for chemical arms claims talks – Daily Star

The United Nations has accepted the Syrian government’s invitation for a visit by two senior U.N. officials for talks on the purported use of chemical weapons in the country’s bloody civil war, a U.N. spokesman said Wednesday. …

Massive explosion rocks Homs – NOW

Syrian rebels on Thursday reportedly targeted an ammunition depot in a regime-controlled area of Homs, causing a massive explosion captured in a series of dramatic photos and videos.

The activist Syrian Media Center said that “an ammunition warehouse exploded after being targeted by the Free Syrian Army with Grad Missiles in the Wadi al-Thahab neighborhood [of Homs] which is under the control of the Syrian regime.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that at least 40 people were killed in the blast, adding that the depot was owned by pro-regime militias. …

Syrians confused by TV show that takes middle road, yet has regime-approval: The revolution in Syrian drama – Diana Moukalled

Shelling, massacres and fighting killed more than 2,000 Syrians during the first two weeks of Ramadan. It’s the same tragedy the Syrians have drowned in since the beginning of the uprising.

But Syrian hardship is no longer an event. It’s not even a number or a photo. Syrians now feel that there is a general detachment and less international concern towards their ordeal.

It’s now once again the season of Ramadan, and with popular TV drama series, Arab audiences are kept busy, giving the Syrians yet another reason to be confused.

The dramas have brought back an interest into Syrian reality. What’s happening in Syria has been reflected in a few drama series.

Some of these series are directly financed by the regime and therefore clearly display its side of the story. Some, however, are financed by the private sector, displaying professional production and acting without taking a side in the conflict. This too serves the regime’s interest.

In the TV series “We will return in a while,” there’s no revolution in Syria. The events in the series are a mere background for characters.

Parts of the script acted out by Durid Lahham, who supports the regime, repeatedly describe what’s happening in Syria as a “crisis.” It also includes a lot of sorrow over what’s happening there and nostalgia and longing for the country to be a much better place.

Some coffee shops in Syrian areas under the control of the regime were prevented from airing the series “Wilada Min al-Khasera” (Birth from the Waist) which is considered the most courageous series in reflecting the Syrian reality.
There’s a lot of confusion too that will only be finalized during the last episodes of the series, although its path has begun to appear with every episode.

It’s true that the series tackles security forces’ and intelligence apparatuses’ suppression, torture, detentions and arbitrariness – actions that the Syrians experienced over the past years in the most hideous of manners – but the series has an official permit from the Syrian authorities and most of those who work in the series publicly support the regime.

A picture of the revolution

Therefore, it’s not strange when the series falls within the circle of demonizing the revolution considering that the regime and its mistakes are the best the Syrians can have.

The truth is, discussions on social networking websites reveal confusion and divisions over this year’s Syrian drama which seems to have taken a different approach from that previously adopted.

But which is worse? A realistic drama which the Syrians are living? Or a realistic drama which they escape to in series? …

Fadel Shaker’s rise and fall (or fall and rise, depending on your values) – Once a ‘King of Romance,’ Now an Angry Militant – NYT – Ben Hubbard

His success was a dream come true for this tough port city on the Mediterranean coast: a poor kid whose honeyed voice and ballads of love and heartbreak rocketed him to wealth and fame far from the gun-ridden neighborhood where he grew up.

Fadel Shaker became a superstar, hailed as “the king of romance,” his songs wooing masses throughout the Arab world. He bought a vast, three-story villa with a swimming pool overlooking the city, cars, a private orchard and a beachfront restaurant where he performed at parties.

Then last year, in a move that has baffled fans and friends alike, he renounced popular music as forbidden by Islam, grew a scruffy beard and took up with a hard-line sheik.

Last month during a deadly turf battle with the Lebanese Army in a Sidon suburb, he denounced his enemies as dogs and pigs and boasted that his group had killed two men. …

From Turkey with love: Another Israeli attack on Syria? – RT

… Just when it began becoming apparent that the US and its allies were facing serious regional setbacks in the Middle East and North Africa, reports began circulating about an explosion in Latakia. Unverified reports, originating from anonymous sources in Israel in early July 2013, began claiming that Tel Aviv had launched an attack against the Syrian port of Latakia that caused a massive explosion. As the rumours began to circulate in the media, it was dubiously claimed that the Israeli attacks were launched against shipments of Russian-made S-300 air defence systems that were in the process of being delivered to Syria by the Kremlin. US officials would enter the picture by deliberately leaking more information about what happened in Latakia by claiming that Israel used its air force to bomb the port there to destroy a military depot filled with Russian-made Yakhont land-to-sea anti-ship missiles.

Then, on July 15, RT’s Paula Slier would report from Tel Aviv that Israel had attacked Latakia by using a Turkish military base. This would upset the Turkish government, which would deny it and say anyone making the claims was involved in an “act of betrayal.” In response to the Russian report, Turkish officials would up the ante by claiming that the Russian anti-ship missiles in the Syrian port were destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon and that the US and Israel had coordinated the attacks by holding meetings in Turkey with the anti-government militias operating inside Syria. Uzi Mahnaimi would complicate the matter by reporting through the British press that the Israeli attacks were launched from a German-built Dolphin from the sea, which essentially vindicated Turkey by refuting the claim that a Turkish base was used by the Israelis. …

No less conspiratorial than the RT article, a piece questioning all of RT’s reliability – thanks to a concerned reader for emailing it in: Russia Today: State-Funded Propaganda Masquerading as Alternative Media

Russia Today (RT), considered a member of the alternative media, receives its funding from the Federal Budget of Russia as allocated by the Federal Agency on Press and Mass Communications of the Russian Federation. This means that RT is state-sponsored television and therefore would be slighted to the propaganda machine of globalist agendas as set forth by the Russian government. …

Turkish soldier may face 25 years in jail for leaking ‘Reyhanlı bombing files’ – Hurriyet Daily

Militants Attacked Aleppo Armenians Transferring Bus: Video – ArmenPress

Assad visits troops in Damascus suburb – al-Arabiya

Bahraini rights group visits Syria war victims – Gulf Daily News; Commission produces statementthanks to readers for sending articles they find important

 

Economy

 

Syria Weighs Its Tactics as Pillars of Its Economy Continue to Crumble – NYT

Even as the Syrian government makes some gains against the rebels on the battlefield, it is taking a rout on an equally important front: the economy.

Two years of war have quintupled unemployment, reduced the Syrian currency to one-sixth of its prewar value, cost the public sector $15 billion in losses and damage to public buildings, slashed personal savings, and shrunk the economy 35 percent, according to government and United Nations officials.

The pillars of Syria’s economy have crumbled as the war has destroyed factories, disrupted agriculture, vaporized tourism and slashed oil revenues, with America and Europe imposing sanctions and rebels taking over oil fields.

Increasingly isolated in the face of a growing economic crisis that has reduced foreign currency reserves to about $2 billion to $5 billion from $18 billion, a government that long prided itself on its low national debt and relative self-sufficiency has now been forced to rely on new credit lines from its main remaining allies — Iran, Russia and China — to buy food and fuel.

The government has a $1 billion credit line with Iran, and borrows $500 million a month to import oil products delivered on Russian ships, a government consultant, Mudar Barakat, said in a recent interview in Beirut. Some analysts believe the government will need even more aid from those countries to keep paying government workers and a growing roster of security forces.

Now, some officials hope to push through measures to tighten state control of the economy, rolling back some of the modest economic liberalization and support for private business that President Bashar al-Assad introduced early on, in a departure from his party’s socialist roots.

“We’re thinking of going back to the way it was in the 1980s, when the government was buying the main necessities of daily life,” Mr. Barakat said. “We, as a government, must cover the daily needs of the people, no matter how much the cost is, and keep the prices low.”

Syrians Have Become Obsessed With Dollars – WSJ

Syrians are still bitterly divided politically and battles are raging between government forces and rebels across the country. But one thing appears to be uniting people these days: the dollar-Syrian pound exchange rate.

Almost everyone is obsessed with keeping track of the wild swings in the Syrian pound’s value against the U.S. dollar. The frenzy has swept up  salaried workers, housewives, day laborers and cab drivers. Their general inclination is to convert most of what they have into greenbacks as inflation continues to affect most goods and services. …

One Damascus-based university professor says dollar fever has even gripped his handyman, who recently demanded payment in dollars instead of Syrian pounds for his work. …

On Tuesday the government approved new proposed legislation that would criminalize the use of any foreign currency other than the Syrian pound in commercial and retail transactions. …

Some say the Syrian pound’s recent dramatic devaluation was part of a scheme by the government of President Bashar al-Assad aimed at exchanging its foreign currency funds at favorable rates in order to meet the huge commitments it has in Syrian pounds namely civil servant salaries. …

Here is a photo from a Facebook page of people crowding one of many locations where currency is exchanged:

Syrians crowd around an exchange location

Thousands of Syrian police who joined the rebels are on U.S. payroll – World Tribune

The United States has been paying thousands of Syrian police officers who deserted the regime of President Bashar Assad.

Officials said the administration of President Barack Obama has approved tens of millions of dollars to pay the salaries of police officers who joined the rebels. They said the officers were working to maintain order in rebel-controlled territory, mostly in northern Syria.

“There are literally thousands of defected police inside of Syria,” Assistant Secretary of State Rick Barton said. “They are credible in their communities because they’ve defected.”

In an address to the Aspen Security Forum on July 19, Barton, responsible for State Department stabilization operations, did not say how many Syrian police deserters were on the U.S. payroll. He said the officers were receiving about $150 per month, a significant salary in Syria.

The address marked a rare disclosure of direct U.S. aid to Sunni rebels in Syria. Congress has approved more than $50 million for the Syrian opposition, much of which has not been spent.

Barton said the police officers remained in their communities despite their defection from the Assad regime. He said the U.S. stipend was meant to ensure that they stay on the job.

“We’d rather have a trained policeman who is trusted by the community than have to bring in a new crowd or bring in an international group that doesn’t know the place,” Barton said.

 

Other Essential Content, Right…

 

Liberals, Communists and Assorted Infidels: The Ultimate Guide to Arab Secularists – Karl reMarks

Secularism is sexy

Everyone agrees that secularists are the real force behind the ‘Arab Spring’, yet we know so little about this obscure of group of people that toils in virtual anonymity. Aside from the occasional foray onto the BBC, CNN, The Guardian and international leadership conferences, that is. But who are these people really? To answer that question, we commissioned an authoritative study that will for the first time shed light on Arab secularists, their different political groups, and what their favourite drinks are.

The Liberals

The liberals are the granddaddies of all Arab secularists. They see themselves as the vanguard in the fight against Islamists, and they often say things like: “this is not my true Islam”, despite not having set foot in a mosque for 17 years. They mostly work for the UN, the World Bank, and western think tanks, but this doesn’t fool Arab leftists who know that this is the perfect cover for the western imperialist conspiracy.

Like their western counterparts, Arab liberals are very flexible about their principles these days. After all, dogma isn’t useful to anyone. They show this open-mindedness by making statements like: “is voting really necessary for democracy?” and “should illiterate people have the right to vote?” But somehow this intellectual courage is often mistaken as an expression of Fascist tendencies.

Arab liberals like to describe themselves as ‘entrepreneurs’, both in the intellectual and business sense. They’re really cool like that. But for some reason they don’t like to advertise the fact that they’re working for the family company which has a monopoly on BMW spare parts in the entire Levant.

Major locations: Liberals describe themselves as ‘based between Vienna and Cairo’, by which they mean they go to Egypt for five days a year to visit Auntie Samiha in Zamalek.

Favourite drinks: Whiskey. Or Pepsi if they’re really devout.

The Libertarians

The libertarians are liberals who also like porn. The good porn with pictures and stuff, not the complicated type in serious novels that liberals and leftists like.

The Communists

It used to be said that “when it rains in Moscow, Arab communists open their umbrellas.” But since the demise of the Soviet Union, Arab communists have been wandering around aimlessly, mostly trying to organise the third annual party conference that will bring new blood in. The second conference was organised 47 years ago.

While waiting for the objective conditions to ripen, Arab communists spend their time calling each other ‘comrade’ and talk about workers’ rights in the abstract. Someone promised to introduce them to some workers and they’re very excited about that.

Major locations: London, Paris, and one street in Beirut.

Favourite drink: cheap vodka.

The Revolutionary Socialists

The revolutionary socialists are to communists what Luke Skywalker is to Darth Vader. Or that’s what they like to believe. Revolutionary socialists are so right-on it’s painful. But they get away with it because they rarely venture outside social media, where they can manage their splinter groups and disagreements in a safe, digital environment.

Revolutionary socialists use swearwords like ‘Stalinist’, ‘Fascist’ and the utterly damning ‘neo-liberal’. That is primarily because most Arabic swearwords carry explicit gender bias and are inherently discriminatory.

Major locations: New York, Barcelona, middle-class neighbourhoods in Cairo, Beirut and Amman.

Favourite drinks: Arak, organic ale.

The Anarchists

Anarchists are revolutionary socialists who still live with their parents and can afford to be more radical.

Major locations: The global collective struggle.

Favourite drinks: They’re not old enough to drink.

The Nasserites:

The Nasserites are the true spirit of democracy in the Arab world. To this day they hold the record for the most democratically correct elections in history, the 1965 elections in Egypt, in which 99.9999% of the population figured the correct answer. This feat of true democratic alignment between people and leadership is yet to be matched anywhere in the world.

The Nasserites believe in Arab unity, dignity and the fight against imperialism. All they ask of the people, whose interests they have at heart, is not to make a fuss about minor details like torture, suspension of the rule of law and economic collapse while they are pursuing those lofty objectives.

The Nasserites like their leaders tough, manly and charismatic, and preferably from a military background. It doesn’t literally say with a hairy chest, but you can read between the lines. But their malicious opponents have somehow misinterpreted this is as a sign of misogyny and an attempt to marginalise women from positions of power.

Major locations: The Glorious Arab Ummah. (Not to be confused with the Islamic Ummah, which is usually in jail when Nasserites are in power.)

Favourite drinks: The humble yoghurt peasants drink. And champagne.

The Baathists

Wankers. No, seriously, that’s the scientific definition.

 

Due to a tragic shortage of crosses, this rebel brigade has expressed a dire plea that more crosses be supplied to the opposition as soon as possible; Qatar and Saudi Arabia have yet to state a firm commitment regarding the needed aid.

Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime

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

Mohammad Darrar Jammo funeral, Latakia July 2013

MEET ALI KAYALI

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

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

Mihrac Ural (Ali Kayali) as a young man.

Ali Kayali, doing his Young Stalin impersonation

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

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

Ali Kayali and the PKK's Abdullah Öcalan

Chilling with Abdullah Öcalan

THE SHABBIHA MISNOMER

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

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

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

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

Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade

The Abul-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade in Damascus

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

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

WHO ARE THE PRO-ASSAD MILITIAS?

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

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

Hilal Hilal

Hilal Hilal, new Baath Party boss

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

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

LOSING COHESION, LOSING SOVEREIGNTY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAN ASSAD KEEP DECENTRALIZATION IN CHECK?

syria-people-and-army-20121006

An artist’s rendering of the crisis in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

— Aron Lund

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands Into Rural Northern Syria

In the previous post, Aymenn al-Tamimi discussed developments in the relationship between two primary al-Qa’ida affiliates operating in Syria: Jabhat al-Nusra, and the ISIS. Through his analysis he concluded that in some areas the distinction between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) is blurry, while in other areas the two seem to visibly operate as distinctly separate groups. He also believes that though a “grand ideological clash” between the two groups is not impossible, it is premature to point to one at present. Now, in part two, Aymenn delves into the growth of ISIS power in specific communities and discusses the plausibility of predicted FSA – ISIS confrontation.

 

The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham Expands Into Rural Northern Syria

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimiby Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi for Syria Comment


Introduction

In a post for Jihadology a few weeks back, I identified how the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) was playing an important role in the fighting on the outskirts of the city of Aleppo and in the surrounding countryside. Since that time, it has become apparent that the group has been seeking to expand outwards and to consolidate control over outlying towns in both the Aleppo and Idlib regions, particularly those of strategic importance along or near the border with Turkey.

Azaz

This initiative has already served to foster division. For example, in the town of Azaz, which is in close proximity to the Turkish border, a protest ocurred on July 1 against ISIS’ entry into the town and its attempt to establish headquarters there. Yet on July 5, Azaz saw a counter-rally in favor of ISIS featuring a slogan common for such demonstrations—‘Labbayka ya Allah’ (‘I am at your service, God’)—accompanied by conspicuous numbers of ISIS flags.

It should be noted that this pattern of division—between those members of Syrian society who support ISIS vs. those who do not—is also observed in the city of Aleppo itself, where ISIS supporters have generally held separate rallies from those of other demonstrators. (I have found one notable exception: a rally on June 4 for the then-besieged city of Qusayr in the area of al-Firdus, featuring both ISIS and Free Syrian Army [FSA] flags).

Resentment over the ISIS presence in Azaz grows. One notable outlet for this disapproving sentiment is a youth activist Facebook page called ‘The Youth of Aleppo—Azaz’ which posted the following status: ‘We ask the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham to establish their state from Iraq [meaning ‘in Iraq’?] since the system of prostitution [there] has not yet fallen.’

The group has also circulated an alleged statement from a local council in the town of Tel Abyaḍ in Raqqah Governorate claiming that the ISIS has confiscated internationally-donated generators intended to provide drinking water for the residents of the town.

On the other hand, ISIS is attempting some outreach to the locals of Azaz, offering Qur’an and Sunnah recitation competitions—among other religious activities—for the population during Ramaḍān.

Jarabulus

As for other towns, here is a photo of the ISIS headquarters in the northern border town of Jarabulus. The banner reads: ‘The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham: Province of Aleppo. Emirate of Jarabulus.’

ISIS headquarters, Jarabulus, Syria

Another photo shows the flag of ISIS flying over Jarabulus:

ISIS flag flies over Jarabulus, Syria

One activist page on Facebook called ‘Jabhat al-Nusra does not represent me’ claims the following to give context to the first photo: ‘Photo from Jarabulus following the seizure of it by al-Qa’ida after battles with the FSA. It is said that ISIS then killed scores of civilians, among them children, during al-Qa’ida’s attempt to occupy the town.’

In a similar vein, on June 15, the Arabic news outlet al-Waie News claimed to cite a local source in Jarabulus on clashes between ISIS and a rebel battalion known as the ‘Family of Jādir,’ which uses the FSA flag.

The source claimed that the clashes started after a member of ISIS was wounded during a round of celebratory gunfire that followed a concord reached between the two groups, giving rise to a renewed violent battle between ISIS and the Family of Jādir for fifteen hours, resulting in ISIS’ seizure of the town, as well as the killing of one ISIS fighter and several from the Family of Jādir.

On 13 June, the leader of the Family of Jādir—Yusuf al-Jādir—released video testimony in which he claimed that ISIS launched an attack on the home of Ahmad al-Jādir and then began shooting at dozens of innocent civilians, resulting in the deaths of several children: among them, Mahmoud Kerkaz, Sheikho Shawish, Ibrahim al-Ahmad, and a young Kurdish girl. He continues by documenting other alleged acts of ISIS aggression in the town.

It thus appears that ISIS seized control of Jarabulus by force. One thing that is important to note from the opposing testimony is the issue of naming. The source for al-Waie News from Jarabulus merely sees ISIS as a new name for Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) in the town, and Yusuf al-Jādir likewise deems the two names interchangeable.

Thus, even if my formulation for the city of Aleppo itself—that ISIS and JN are two separate entities—applies here, the perception of at least some residents of the town nevertheless differs. As in Raqqah, the two may well be interchangeable in Jarabulus.

The concept of interchangeability could make sense here in light of the fact that JN has had an active presence in the northern Turkish border areas in the past (cf. clashes with Farouq Battalions in April on the border in Raqqah Governorate). Certainly, Jarabulus has been known for a JN presence in the past: here is a video of a JN-led rally in Jarabulus from December 14, 2012, featuring the chant of ‘We are Anṣar Allah.’

In this context, one should also note a revealing report from the Damascus Bureau, which actually visited Jarabulus. The reporter, Youssef Shaikho, explains that Jabhat al-Nusra in Jarabulus supported the announcement of ISIS, and most of its fighters in the town are native Syrians, providing a notable exception to the media narrative of ISIS as a group solely composed of foreign fighters.

Further blurring the lines of group-alignment and public sentiment, not all those who, like al-Jādir, use the FSA flag in Jarabulus are necessarily opposed to ISIS’ ideological vision. For example, here is a Facebook activist page from Jarabulus that uses the FSA flag. Yet it has put up a status that laments the loss of the Khilafa (Caliphate) and denounces the UN and its decision-making as a mere front for occupation.

In any event, ISIS is now said to be operating an active Shari’a court in Jarabulus, which has allegedly executed three young men recently on charges of rape and murder. ISIS is also accused of detaining the son of a prominent martyr from the Family of Jādir known as Abu Furāt.

In terms of the reasons behind the Jādir-ISIS clashes, one should be cautious about presenting them as a simple ideological battle. It rather seems to have been a power struggle for control of an important border area. The Kurdish PYD, as the Damascus Bureau notes, also has a small activist presence in Jarabulus, yet it has been left untouched and tolerated by ISIS.

At the same time, ISIS is trying to counter the allegations put out about its conduct in Jarabulus by emphasizing local support in the town for the group, including children.

al-Bab

Another town in rural Aleppo where ISIS is establishing its presence is al-Bab. On July 5, the outlet Saḍa ash-Sham al-Islami put up a set of photos of a meeting for Dawah  held by the ISIS in al-Bab. [Da’wa means “invitation” and often refers to proselytism—the inviting of others to join Islam. In this case, it refers to outreach to Muslims to strengthen their faith.]

Da'wah meeting in al-Bab

In contrast to what appears to have been a more aggressive approach in Jarabulus, ISIS seems to be engaging in an active outreach effort to the population of al-Bab. Thus, the local outlet al-Bab Press reported that ISIS is running school bus services for children who have seen their education disrupted for many months by Assad regime bomb attacks. A local FB page in al-Bab also gave an account last month from an ISIS fighter of clashes between ISIS and Assad regime soldiers aided by Hezbollah fighters in the wider Aleppo area.

Manbij

The town of Manbij offers a case contrasting with that of al-Bab. Recently, Manbij has seen a protest rally against ISIS. The demonstration was sparked by two grievances against ISIS: first, ISIS is accused by some local activists of destroying works of art in Manbij, and second, of kidnapping a local sheikh. Protests continued into Friday of last week, on which day ISIS had been holding a daw’ah meeting in Manbij featuring a number of locals in support of the group, as per the photo below.

ISIS holds dawah meeting in Manbij, Syria

Prior to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s announcement of the formation of ISIS in early April, Manbij had been known for an active JN presence in alliance with Ahrar ash-Sham, who together took on the Farouq Battalions in violent clashes in the town at the beginning of the month, resulting in the expulsion of the Farouq Battalions from Manbij.

The clashes began after Ahrar ash-Sham had arrested a certain Abu Khaldun, a friend of the leader of the Farouq Battalions in Manbij. Ahrar ash-Sham and its allies justified the arrest on the grounds that this man had been one of the leading criminal figures in Manbij and had to be put on trial by the Shari’a committee in Aleppo, while emphasizing that there was no fundamental conflict between them and those under the banner of the FSA.

Following the defeat of the Farouq Battalions, Ahrar ash-Sham held a victory rally in Manbij on 6 April with dozens of supporters and allies, featuring the al-Qa’ida flag and a banner reading ‘The Ummah wants an Islamic Khilafa.’ The person who uploaded the video described it as being held in celebration of the expulsion of ‘gangs of thieves’- a common charge leveled against the Farouq Battalions in the north, which unlike the Ikhwaan-aligned Homs division lack ties to any major Islamist groups.

On a side note, the rally itself should illustrate that those who posit a strict dichotomy between supposedly ‘nationalist’ Salafists in Ahrar ash-Sham as opposed to transnational jihadists are mistaken. This rally in Manbij and Ahrar ash-Sham’s statement on JN’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qa’ida show that concepts of the transnational ummah that supersedes “artificial borders” and the nation-state of Syria are often blurred in Ahrar ash-Sham’s ideological thought.

Of course, one also must not generalize in the opposite direction and portray all of Ahrar ash-Sham as bent on an international Khilafa. Yet whenever non-Islamists protest against groups like ISIS, as a rule Ahrar ash-Sham can be expected to side with the latter (cf. the case of Raqqah which I documented last month).

In the context of Manbij, therefore, one should not be surprised about a blurring of distinction between Ahrar ash-Sham’s support base and what is now known as the ISIS presence. Indeed, it is also apparent that there is another virtual mirror front of ISIS active in Manbij: namely, Ansar al-Khilafa, which is composed of a mix of native Syrians and foreign fighters, though exact proportions are unclear.

Ansar al-Khilafa is most prominent in rural Aleppo and Latakia. In the April rally led by Ahrar ash-Sham, it is likely that there were Ansar al-Khilafa supporters among the crowd. Here is a recent mural put up in Manbij in support of the group:

Ansar al-Khilafa mural in Manbij, Syria

ad-Dana

The final case we come to on the subject of ISIS’ expansion is that of ad-Dana in Idlib, near the border with Turkey. Here, a protest rally is said to have taken place against ISIS (though no video footage of it has emerged so far), sparking violent clashes. Yet it is the only case where we have a mainstream media outlet allowing ISIS to give its full side of the story thanks to an al-Jazeera English report (H/T: @khalidelmousoui) from the town. In the report, ISIS fighters claimed that those denouncing their presence were actually agents of the Assad regime.

However, it appears that this testimony is contradicted in an account given by pro-ISIS activists in Idlib, who denounced the clashes as ‘the work of some of the apostates of the Free Army.’ Meanwhile, a pro-ISIS Twitter user complained at the time of the clashes that the ‘malicious Free Army’ was besieging ISIS and expressed concerns about the beginnings of a ‘Sahwa’ movement against ISIS.

As of now, the al-Jazeera report says that ISIS is the only remaining armed group in the town. This is corroborated by local Idlib activist testimony that there are now no armed clashes in the town and reconciliation initiatives are underway. At the same time, claims that ISIS executed dozens of supporters of those identifying under the banner of the FSA—stemming chiefly from an ad-Dana rebel leader’s testimony were denied.

That said, both the rebel leader whose testimony is given by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the al-Jazeera report corroborate each other on the ISIS fighters as being from outside Syria.

Now in control of the town, ISIS is running a school for the children, and the ISIS presence as reported by al-Jazeera is corroborated by a video that has now emerged of ISIS fighters manning the entrance into ad-Dana.

Conclusion

In short, these various cases illustrate ISIS’ growing power in the north of Syria. ISIS is clearly not a force to be dismissed as marginal without any real support on the ground, even as its presence is undoubtedly sparking backlash in many areas. Above all, these recent developments as regards ISIS’ expansion vindicate to an extent my prediction in March in a guest post for Syria Comment about the emergence and establishment of jihadist strongholds in the north and east of Syria.

In terms of the future, one needs to be skeptical of the narrative being put out by Supreme Military Command (SMC) supporters of a looming, grand-scale FSA effort to take on ISIS in the north of Syria in a fundamental clash of ideologies. Resentment at the ideological level is more to be expected from civilian protestors rather than armed rebels.

One should particularly note my distinction here between SMC supporters and those in general who go by the banner of the FSA. While SMC supporters would like to portray all of those under the banner of FSA as opposed to ISIS, the evidence speaks otherwise, exemplified in this recent statement by an FSA military council in Aleppo denying rumors of clashes between their ‘brothers’ in ISIS and JN.

SMC supporters are likely the source of at least some of the allegations against ISIS, including the recent claim that ISIS is planning to declare a wider northern state after Ramaḍān: plausible in light of ISIS’ expansion in northern Syria but as of now uncorroborated in pro-ISIS circles.

Other rumors likely originating from pro-SMC sources include an alleged statement by JN distancing itself from ISIS (not released through JN’s official channel al-Manārah al-Bayḍā, so therefore suspect) and claims that ISIS killed Abu Furāt of Jarabulus, when his funeral actually took place a few months before ISIS was announced.

In particular, the reports attempting to portray JN in open conflict with ISIS are building on a narrative stemming from a Reuters piece in which JN was portrayed as a group of native Syrians disillusioned with the machinations of the foreign fighters of ISIS, hinting at the possibility of JN teaming up with other rebels to take on ISIS.

The motivation for spreading rumors about ISIS is quite apparent: namely, the SMC’s bid to secure Western arms, which will then be supposedly used to take on what Western nations like the UK perceive to be the number-one threat emanating from Syria.

In any case, the current PR war between SMC supporters and ISIS supporters will continue. Feeling the pressure, the latter have recently announced the formation of a new forum intended to counter purported media disinformation about the group. Thus can the exchange of claims and counter-claims be expected to intensify. Ascertaining the full truth short of getting on the ground will remain elusive.

 

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University. His website is http://www.aymennjawad.org. Follow on Twitter at @ajaltamimi

Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq & ash-Sham Begin?

This is the first half of a two-part examination by Aymenn al-Tamimi of the activities of and relationships between al-Qa’ida-affiliated fighter groups in Syria.

Where Does Jabhat al-Nusra End, and the Islamic State of Iraq & ash-Sham Begin?

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimiby Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi for Syria Comment

 

Since April, the al-Qa’ida-aligned jihadist front in the Syrian civil war has been mired in controversy on account of a naming dispute.

It all began when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi—the leader of al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) (self-identified as the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI)—announced that his organization and the Syrian Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, were one and the same, and were henceforth to merge under the banner of the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS).

Though acknowledging the common roots of JN and AQI, Jowlani rejected this apparently-uninvited declaration of a merger that implied a singular structure of authority. Instead, Jowlani asserted autonomy and separateness for JN from AQI, while reassuring those concerned through an affirmation of allegiance to Aymenn al-Zawahiri.

Zawahiri remained silent on the issue until June, when a purported letter from him was revealed by al-Jazeera in which he declared that JN and AQI were to remain separate, while stressing the importance of cooperation between the two entities. Baghdadi rejected this ruling, implying doubts about its authenticity, and insisted on maintaining the ISIS as a real political entity and as the definition of joint jihadi efforts in Iraq and Syria.

So much then for the controversy as it played out at the leadership level. Less explored, however, is the question of how it has worked out on the ground. In this context, Reuters journalist Mariam Karouny has purported to offer some answers. Broadly, she posits a hostile relationship between those identifying with JN and fighters under the banner of ISIS, with foreign fighters representing the latter as opposed to native Syrians for JN.

She has also cited rebel sources suggesting the possibility of a future open conflict between the ISIS and JN, with the latter working with other battalions against ISIS in a similar manner to Iraq’s Awakening Movement (Sahwa) that took on al-Qa’ida from 2007 onwards.

But how accurate is this picture?

To begin with, my own research has certainly found some truth to the idea of foreign fighters operating under the banner of the ISIS. Notably, an overview of the declared ‘martyrs’ for ISIS shows that they are overwhelmingly of foreign origin, with Saudis and Tunisians disproportionately representing their ranks. More recently, the ISIS claimed that a suicide operation in Hama was the work of an Egyptian fighter from its ranks.1

Furqan media—AQI’s official outlet—also released a video of a French fighter by the name of Abd al-Rahman al-Faransi (“Abd al-Rahman the Frenchman”) who was killed fighting under ISIS’ banner in Syria. To summarize briefly, he recounts that he had converted to Islam three years ago, speaks of the need for jihad in Bilad ash-Sham and restoring the Caliphate, while urging President François Hollande to convert to Islam and stop fighting Muslims. Incidentally, one friend of mine—Arun Kapil—says that the man’s French accent is indicative of his origins in the banlieues populated by immigrants from the Maghreb.

In any case, battalions apparently created specifically for foreign fighters appear now to be mirror fronts of the ISIS. For instance, Abu Omar ash-Shishani—the Chechen fighter who heads Jaysh al-Muhajireen—was appointed commander of northern operations in Syria for the ISIS by Baghdadi.

In this context, it should be noted that Jaysh al-Muhajireen is suspected of being behind the beheadings shown in a video that purported to depict the murder of a Catholic priest, François Murad. The video can be seen here, but caution is highly advised.

beheading in Syria

Armed rebels, possibly Jaysh al-Muhajireen, behead alleged regime sympathizers or collaborators in Syria

The claimed identification was mistaken. In fact, the beheaded victims had merely been accused of working for the regime, but the rumor that the first victim was a priest quickly spread. Though the first beheaded man was not Father Murad, men in the video refer to him as a Christian (and to the second man as “a Muslim, but a dog”), and it is believed by some that he was a priest of a different identity.

Father François Murad was killed, but in a separate incident. He was reportedly shot inside his church, an event that took place earlier.

Francois Murad

Father François Murad

 

In addition to the battalions of foreign jihadists fighting for the ISIS, it is also true that in certain parts of Syria, there is clear evidence that JN and the ISIS are functioning as two separate entities. In the city of Aleppo, both groups issue separate statements with their own insignia. The ISIS in particular is set apart in Aleppo from JN and other rebel groups that have formed Shari’a committees. In the city of Deir ez-Zor, JN and ISIS are similarly separate; furthermore in Deraa, JN has very much retained its own identity, even forming in May an autonomous military council that issued its own statements while JN’s official channel—al-Manarah al-Bayḍā—went offline between April and June.

Nonetheless, separateness does not necessarily translate to hostility. At the theoretical level, one can note that ideologues on jihadi forums are encouraging the idea of friendly competition between JN and ISIS in fighting the Assad regime. That is, to not engage in internecine struggle, but to try to outdo each other in the killing of regime and Hezbollah forces.

In any event, it is apparent that in Aleppo ISIS works militarily, not only with JN but also with rebels under the banner of the ‘Free Army’—such as in the battle for Mannagh Airport. In Deir ez-Zor, responsibility for a suicide attack conducted by one Omar al-Tunisi was claimed as a joint operation between JN and ISIS.

Elsewhere in Syria, the question of whether JN and ISIS are separate groups is much more ambiguous. For example, in the rebel-held city of Raqqah and the surrounding area, it seems that the names and banners of JN and ISIS are more or less interchangeable among those ideologically aligned with al-Qa’ida.

This was most apparent during a recent round of rallies and counter-rallies in Raqqah, which were sparked when a demonstration was held featuring slogans denouncing JN for detention of rival rebels, though the location has been identified as the headquarters of ISIS in Raqqah.

In response, demonstrators holding ISIS banners, along with supporters of Ahrar ash-Sham, came out, attacking the news channel al-Arabiya for its coverage of the protests in a supposed attempt to demonize JN. More recently, it would appear that harmony between different groups in Raqqah has been restored, with a rally calling for the fall of the regime (held on the first day of Ramadan) featuring ISIS, Ahrar ash-Sham, Kurdish, and FSA flags.

In eastern towns outside of Deir ez-Zor, the distinction between JN and the ISIS has likewise become blurred.

A good case-in-point is the border town of Abu Kamal, featuring Kata’ib Junud al-Haq that identified as being affiliated with JN. By May, the group issued statements identifying itself as part of the ISIS, but on its Facebook page a photo favorable to JN was posted.

The group has since reverted to calling itself a branch of JN, but that does not translate to hostility to those who gather under the banner of the ISIS. Recently the ISIS also claimed a joint operation with JN in an attack on a regime held checkpoint—ash-Shoula—under the banner of Kata’ib Junud al-Haq.

The same problem of blurring applies at the activist level too: one can frequently find jihadis on Twitter, Facebook and forums praising JN and ISIS as if they were one.

In short, the ISIS-JN relationship as it plays out on the ground is far more complex than the tensions at the highest levels of leadership might suggest. It cannot be reduced to simple dichotomies.

If anything, examining this relationship provides a textbook case of the fragmented nature of rebel groups. This should not translate into the wholesale discounting of the possibility of a wider conflict between the ISIS and JN or other rebel factions (in some places it is already happening, as I will show in a subsequent post), but one needs to be cautious of a narrative of a grand ideological clash reminiscent of the Iraq Awakening (Sahwa). Such a narrative is more a case of a few sources telling Western audiences what they think Westerners want to hear.

Even so, the concept of a ‘Sahwa’ movement in Syria is undoubtedly something jihadis worry about, and one sees in their reports a tendency to characterize any prospect of armed clashes with another battalion as a case of the rival group transforming into a ‘Sahwa’ organization dedicated to fighting al-Qa’ida.

As for future prospects for the ISIS in particular, the group is likely to remain a reality on the ground. The foremost problem for those who would prefer an AQI-JN separation is that Zawahiri did not make clear the abrogation of ISIS by means of a video statement, but instead appears to have relied on a letter meant entirely for internal circulation, leaving significant doubts among those in favor of retaining ISIS as to the authenticity of the Zawahiri statement in June. Unless he reaffirms this position by means of a video, ISIS will continue to expand throughout Syria.

Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi (Twitter: @ajaltamimi) is a student at Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He writes a column for Aaron Zelin’s site Jihadology dedicated to tracking the JN-ISIS relationship on the ground: http://jihadology.net/musings-of-an-iraqi-brasenostril-on-jihad/

 

Note

1 The primary limitation to my method of analysis of the composition of the ISIS—namely, by looking at claimed ‘martyrs’ for the group—is that the deaths are self-reported, and sources may have reasons to downplay the presence of fighters from certain backgrounds. This is particularly true of Iraqi fighters, as Aaron Zelin has pointed out.

One might get the impression that the ISIS is solely composed of foreign fighters, but two points should be made. First, I would emphasize that the ISIS cannot be regarded as a group that enjoys no support from Syrians on the ground.

Second, as regards fighters, one notable exception has recently emerged. Namely, the assistant to the ISIS’ amir for northern operations is Syrian—one Abu Muṣ’ab as-Sūrī who even has relatives fighting under the banner of JN. In a recent interview, he made clear that while there is a disagreement at the leadership level over the ISIS/JN affiliation, he does not see a looming conflict between the two groups, and notes that many ‘muhajireen’ also rejected the announcement of the ISIS.

Round-up: News from the North, Changes to Opposition, Egypt, and a lot of Miscellany

News from Aleppo / Idlib / Homs

 

Government forces in Syria press on with battle to retake rebel-held areas – WP

Syrian government aircraft scattered leaflets over the northern province of Idlib on Wednesday, calling on rebels to hand themselves over and urging foreign fighters to return to their homelands, as regime troops pressed on with the battle to retake areas they had lost to the opposition. …

President Bashar Assad’s regime has called on opposition fighters in the past to lay down their arms, and it was unlikely Wednesday’s call would be heeded, either by Syrians or foreign fighters battling in the province.

“Abandon your weapons and return to your family,” said one leaflet, aimed at the foreigner fighters. “You have been tricked,” it read, according to a photograph of the leaflet obtained by the Observatory. An Idlib-based activist corroborated the leaflets.

Another leaflet gave instructions to rebels — foreign and local — to approach Syrian government checkpoints slowly and wave the paper in the air in a sign of surrender. …

Children Massacred in a Mosque in Qaterji, Aleppo – Free Halab – Collection of videos related to this incident

Syrian rebels threaten to target Shi’ite villages in Aleppo – Reuters

Syrian rebels in the northern province of Aleppo on Monday threatened to seize two Shi’ite Muslim villages that back President Bashar al-Assad unless they surrendered to the opposition.

Activists say both Nubl and Zahra villages had been reinforced by Assad’s allies in the increasingly sectarian war, among them fighters from Iran and Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite guerrilla group, Hezbollah.

“We announce our intention to liberate Nubl and Zahra from the regime and its shabbiha (pro-Assad militia), and from the Hezbollah and Iranian elements,” the rebels said in an Internet video. …

Syria’s Rebels in Rift With Aleppo’s Civil Opposition – Al Monitor

The schism between civil activists and armed revolutionaries is at its widest since the Syrian uprising began, and it’s only getting worse. There are a multitude of reasons for this, but the most important one is expectations — what each side hoped the uprising would achieve. For the civil activists, it was the overthrow of tyranny and the establishment of a secular, civil and democratic society. For those who took up arms, it was basically a many pronged power struggle; class, sectarian or opportunistic, depending on which spectrum of the armed groups they belonged to.
The major defining characteristic of civil activists across the country was their insistence on non-sectarianism and an adherence to the higher ideals of justice and freedom. The armed groups morphed like a chameleon changing colors, at the beginning justifying taking up arms to “protect the protesters” from security forces, and later on justifying their violence as a reaction to the regime’s. Any hidden agendas some of those groups may have had initially were carefully kept secret, both from society as a whole as well as media scrutiny — of course some pan-Arab media was actively complicit in this cover up — although there were some troubling tell-tale signs. As the uprising progressed, and some of those groups were armed and trained by regional and foreign powers, they adopted other agendas — usually dictated by whoever was supplying the weapons and the paychecks. They simply no longer cared and transcended the popular uprising and protests that spawned them and gave them their legitimacy, to completely dominate the revolution, and so in essence destroyed it by morphing it into a civil war with visibly sectarian dimensions — as became evident with the deliberate targeting of Shiites and Alawis, regardless of their links to the regime.

And that’s not even mentioning the more sinister of the armed groups, the Islamists, Jihadists and al-Qaeda affiliates who wanted nothing less than to turn Syria into another Taliban-style theocracy. They already have their religious courts and councils set up, dispensing justice via “Sharia law.” The one in Aleppo, for example, is called the “Hai’aa Sharia,” which looks into anything from murder and rape to “morality” crimes such as drinking alcohol or wearing shorts. The worrying trend is that many locals see this as preferable to the rampant crime and lawlessness, and that helps these groups gain traction and support on the ground at the expense of the more moderate ones. That, plus the aid they supply to residents as well as their reputation for not looting private — public- or state-owned is fine, however — property.

In other words, the civil activists wanted to change society, while the armed groups only wanted to change the face of the tyrants ruling it. Another striking difference between the armed and civil sides was the strange way the armed groups used “the ends justify the means” motto to do basically whatever they liked, including looting people’s homes and businesses, execution without trial, kidnapping for ransom, car bombings and indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas, and even — and this is perhaps what rubs salt in the wound — the torture and killing of several prominent opposition and media activists in Aleppo such as Mohammed al-Khalid and Abdullah Yassin. Both were silenced after they started openly criticizing and exposing the thefts of various rebel factions. The perpetrators of those crimes are well-known, and even now, months later still on the loose and fighting the “good fight” against the regime.

To illustrate more personally what I’m talking about, take the story of my friend, and longtime civil activist, Mustafa Karman, who was tragically killed when a protest he was at in Bustan el-Qasr in Aleppo was shelled. He was there, almost every day delivering aid, organizing a protest or working on his long-term project, a school for the displaced and poor children of the area. He died just before it opened, and it was posthumously named after him. Many don’t know this, but Mustafa was a Shiite, and he often bitterly joked that both sides were after him. One because he was an opposition activist, the other simply because of his sect. This was his dilemma, and it became so dangerous that he was planning to leave the country. Sadly, he was killed shortly before he could do so.

He absolutely detested the armed groups that not only didn’t help with any of the work the opposition civil society was trying to do in the liberated areas but sometimes even actively blocked or disrupted it, fearing that it would cause them to lose influence in those parts. To them, influence and power came from the business end of their guns, not when you helped or made a difference to people’s lives. Many activists tried reasoning or pleading to the armed groups, trying to convince them to leave certain areas so that they wouldn’t put civilians in danger, or explaining to them why it was necessary to set up some sort of civil administration in their areas, but they always came back frustrated. “There’s no hope, you just can’t reason with those people,” one of them told me.

… But perhaps most alarming of all was a distressing message I got a short while ago from an activist I hadn’t heard from in a while. “There are hundreds of starving families in Aquol,” she said. “They need immediate food aid if you can help or know someone who can.” I don’t travel to rebel-controlled parts of Aleppo anymore as the main crossing points have become dangerous sniper zones. I replied, “Wait a minute, isn’t that part held by the rebels? I heard they were getting massive amounts of aid from various groups set up in Turkey.”

“Yes, a lot of aid is getting in to rebel areas, but they just sell it off and buy weapons with it,” she replied. That made sense, I’d seen a lot of cheap Turkish goods on the market with “Aid, not for sale” stamped on them. Well, seems now the rebels can add mass starvation to their list of “achievements” in Aleppo.

And so the rift between civil and armed groups deepened, and many activists felt like they were fighting a futile uphill battle, trying to stop a torrential river with a straw dam. Many of them became disillusioned and frustrated, some just stuck to doing whatever aid work they could, others simply gave up and left the country entirely. To put it mildly, most activists feel betrayed and used by the armed groups.

Fatwa for make-up: Islamists target women in rebel-controlled Syrian territories – RT

Syrian rebels have issued a ban on women using make up or wearing “immodest dress” in a neighborhood in the city of Aleppo. Critics have blasted the move as another attempt by Islamists to impose Sharia in rebel-controlled territory.

The fatwa (an order based on Sharia law) was issued by the Islamic law council in Aleppo’s Fardous neighborhood.

Muslim women are banned from leaving the house in immodest dress, in tight clothing that shows off their bodies or wearing makeup on their face. It is incumbent on all our sisters to obey God and commit to Islamic etiquette,” the statement on the Fardous council’s Facebook page says as cited by Reuters, which reports that Aleppo residents have confirmed the news.

Some of the comments showed support for the ruling, arguing there was nothing wrong in requiring that people follow “certain etiquette in public“. Critics lashed out at the Islamist-led rebels for abusing their power. …

A reference in Arabic is here. Fliers were distributed in Aleppo telling Muslim women not to wear tight clothes or make-up. The flyer uses the term yuharam meaning “it is forbidden;” the term comes from haram meaning sinful. In this video, a statement is issued attempting to defend the flyer. The speaker says that the flyer didn’t announce that they would “forbid” women, but that it only points out that wearing tight clothes and make-up is a sin. He’s trying to downplay it following the negative feedback it generated, but he nonetheless highlights that since the beginning of the revolution they called on the name of Allah and they want to implement the rules of Allah in Aleppo, and anyone who doesn’t like it can go knock his or her head against the wall.

Chechen jihadi decapitates prisoners near Aleppo, amidst cheering crowd, children present – see article from RT

A video purportedly showing an extrajudicial public beheading of two Bashar Assad loyalists has been uploaded onto the internet. Its authenticity has been verified by pro and anti-Assad sources, though it remains unclear who is behind the execution.

In the nine-minute clip, a group of several hundred people, including men, women and children stands around a hill, when the sentenced men, bound with ropes and wearing bags on their heads are led out. As the crowd closes in with shouts of Allah Akbar (“Glory to God!”) the two, who are wearing civilian clothes, are laid on the floor, and a bearded ‘executioner’ methodically saws through the throat of first one, then the other with a knife. The heads of the dead men are then placed on top of their bodies as the crowd continues to bay. …

Originally reported that the first man beheaded was a Christian priest, this claim has subsequently been called into question: Custos of the Holy Land denies Franciscans’ beheaded

In a statement to the religious information service SIR, Father Pierbattista Pizzaballa has said the news reported by Radio France Internationale on the alleged beheading of three Franciscan monks in Syria is false.

”The monks in the region are all still alive,” said the Custos of the Holy Land. On June 24 Father Francois, ”a Catholic hermit”, had been reported dead. (ANSAmed).

Though the man beheaded may not have been a priest, it seems that the priest in question was killed by rebels all the same, explained in an article by Nina Shea – The Shadow War Against Syria’s Christians:

Francois Murad

On June 23, Catholic Syrian priest Fr. François Murad was murdered in Idlib by rebel militias.  How he was killed is not yet known and his superiors “vigorously deny” that he was a victim of beheading, as some news sources are claiming.  It is apparent,  however, that he was a victim of the shadow war against Christians that is being fought by jihadists alongside the larger Syrian conflict.  This is a religious cleansing that has been all but ignored by our policymakers, as they strengthen support for the rebellion.

Affiliated with the Franciscan order that was given custody of the Holy Land sites by Pope Clement VI in 1342, the 49-year-old priest was killed in Gassanieh, in northern Syria, in the convent of the Rosary where he had taken refuge after his monastery was bombed at the outset of the conflict, and where he had been giving support to the few remaining nuns, according to Pierbattista Pizzaballa, the Custos of the Holy Land. The Vatican news agency Fides reports that “The circumstances of the death are not fully understood,” but, according to local sources, Fr. Murad’s building was attacked by the jihadi group Jabhat al-Nusra.

Fr. Pizzaballa denies that any Franciscans were beheaded last week, as was claimed by several sources. He was quoted in the Italian press, commenting about the video, “it seems like various old news stories have been mixed up.”  The video was “uploaded by al-Qaeda to terrorise Christians,” according to Andrea Avveduto, a writer who works with the Custody of the Holy Land. “The corpse of Murad was intact. The friars in the region exclude [sic] that the priest was one of the people beheaded in the footage.”  Avveduto also writes that “The friars are apparently alive and are currently in the Franciscan monastery of Latakia, where they arrived a few days ago, to bury the body of their brother, Fr. Murad.”

As I testified to Congress last week at a hearing on Syria’s minorities chaired by Rep. Chris Smith (R., N.J.): “Though no religious community has been spared egregious suffering, Syria’s ancient Christian minority has cause to believe that it confronts an ‘existential threat.’”

In fact, this was a finding last December of  the U.N. Human Right Council’s Commission of Inquiry on Syria. As in Iraq, Syria’s two-million-strong Christian community, the largest next to Egypt’s Copts in the entire region, is being devastated. Targeted by jihadist militias, they are steadily fleeing Syria, and whether they will be able to return to their ancient homeland is doubtful.

Archbishop Jeanbart of Aleppo’s Melkite Greek Catholic Church explained:

Christians are terrified by the Islamist militias and fear that in the event of their victory they would no longer be able to practice their religion and that they would be forced to leave the country. As soon as they reached the city [of Aleppo], Islamist guerrillas, almost all of them from abroad, took over the mosques. Every Friday, an imam launches their messages of hate, calling on the population to kill anyone who does not practice the religion of the Prophet Muhammad. They use the courts to level charges of blasphemy. Who is contrary to their way of thinking pays with his life.

Fr. Murad was only the most recent cleric to be targeted by these militias. The highest profile attack was the kidnapping by gunmen in April of Greek Orthodox Archbishop Paul Yazigi and Syriac Orthodox Archbishop Yohanna Ibrahim. This sent an unmistakable signal to all Christians: none is protected.

Some other examples of Syrian Christians, from various faith traditions, who have been kidnapped and killed or never seen again include:.

27-year-old Father Michael Kayal of the Armenian Catholic Church in Aleppo was abducted in February while riding a bus after Islamists spotted his clerical garb. He has not been seen since.

Greek Orthodox priest Maher Mahfouz was kidnapped around the same time and has not reappeared.

Syrian Orthodox parish priest Father Fadi Haddad was kidnapped last December after he left his church in the town of Qatana to negotiate the release of one of his kidnapped parishioners. A week later, Fr. Haddad’s mutilated corpse was found by the roadside, with his eyes gouged out.

Yohannes A. (whose last name has been redacted by Fides protect his family) was summarily executed.  An Islamist gunman stopped the bus to Aleppo and checked the background of each passenger. When the gunman noticed Yohannes’ last name was Armenian, they singled him out for a search. After finding a cross around his neck, one of the terrorists shot point blank at the cross, tearing open the man’s chest.

A woman from Hassake recounted in December to Swedish journalist Nuri Kino how her husband and son were shot in the head by Islamists. “Our only crime is being Christians,” she answers, when asked if there had been a dispute.

18-year-old Gabriel fled with his family from Hassake after his father was shot for having a crucifix hanging from his car’s rear-view mirror. The son told Kino: “After the funeral, the threats against our family and other Christians increased. The terrorists called us and said that it was time to disappear; we had that choice, or we would be killed.”

Christians and others also have been targeted by the courts of the “Caliphate of Iraq and the Levant,” the name the al-Nusra Brigade and other Islamist rebels use in reference to the Syrian territory under their control.

Muslims are subject to kidnapping too, but the Wall Street Journal reported on June 11, 2013 that often “their outcome is different” because they have armed defenders, whereas the Christians do not.  The Journal told the story of a 25-year-old cabdriver, Hafez al-Mohammed, who said he was kidnapped and tortured for seven hours by Sunni rebels in al-Waer in late May.  He was released after Alawites threatened to retaliate by kidnapping Sunni women.

According to the U.S. State Department, Syria now has scores of rebel militias with new ones popping up all the time.  Many are extremist. Sources told AsiaNews, “[T]he purpose of these groups is not only the liberation of Syria from Assad, but also the spread by force of radical Islam throughout the Middle East and the conquest of Jerusalem.” According to interviews with local church leaders, many fighters do not speak Arabic and do not come from Syria, and are recruited by being told that they are going to “liberate Jerusalem.”

These extremists have wasted no time in establishing sharia courts. In the towns of al-Bab and Idlib and other villages under the control of Islamist groups, sharia has been enforced for the past year. These courts, according to a Washington Post report,  pass sentences “daily and indiscriminately” against Christians and anyone else who fails to conform to Wahhabi Islam. All women are required to cover up with the abaya, a black, full-length gown. It was in Aleppo that al-Nusra executed a 14-year-old Muslim boy last month for insulting the prophet; they shot him in the mouth and the neck.

Syrian Christian refugees told Dutch blogger Martin Janssen that their village of 30 Christian families had a firsthand taste of the rebels’ new sharia courts. One of Janssen’s accounts was translated by renowned Australian linguist, writer, and Anglican priest, the Rev. Mark Durie:

Jamil [an elderly man] lived in a village near Idlib where 30 Christian families had always lived peacefully alongside some 200 Sunni families. That changed dramatically in the summer of 2012. One Friday trucks appeared in the village with heavily armed and bearded strangers who did not know anyone in the village. They began to drive through the village with a loud speaker broadcasting the message that their village was now part of an Islamic emirate and Muslim women were henceforth to dress in accordance with the provisions of the Islamic Shariah. Christians were given four choices. They could convert to Islam and renounce their ‘idolatry.’ If they refused they were allowed to remain on condition that they pay the jizya. This is a special tax that non-Muslims under Islamic law must pay for ‘protection.’ For Christians who refused there remained two choices: they could leave behind all their property or they would be slain. The word that was used for the latter in Arabic (dhabaha) refers to the ritual slaughter of sacrificial animals.

As for the larger conflict, the Christians are caught in the middle.  The churches have not allied with the Assad regime.  They have no armed protector, inside or outside the country, and they have no militias of their own. But they are not simply suffering collateral damage.  They are being deliberately targeted in a religious purification campaign – one that the United States government finds convenient to overlook as it supports Syria’s rebels and praises Saudi Arabia as one of our “closest partners.”

 – Nina Shea is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom.

The boy killed for an off-hand remark about God – BBC

Mohammed Qataa’s mother wanders the streets of Aleppo looking into strangers’ faces as she tries to find her son’s killers.

She knows she would recognise them. She was looking right at them when, in front of a dumbstruck and terrified crowd, Mohammed was shot dead, accused of blasphemy. …

He was 14 years old, but with no schooling possible because of the war he was usually to be found on the busy main thoroughfare through Shaar, selling the thick, sweet coffee they prefer here. One day last month, someone asked him for a free cup. “Not even if the Prophet himself returns,” he had replied, laughing. That remark was a death sentence.

It was overheard by three armed men. They dragged him to a car and took him away. Half-an-hour later, a badly beaten Mohammed was dumped back in the road by his cart.

The men, showing no fear that anyone would question what they were doing, summoned a crowd with shouts of “Oh People of Aleppo. Oh people of Shaar.” Their bellows alerted Mohammed’s mother.

Recalling what happened next, she buries her face in her hands and weeps.

“One of them shouted: ‘Whoever insults the Prophet will be killed according to Sharia’,” she told me.

“I ran down barefoot to the streets. I heard the first shot. I fell to the ground when I got there.

“One of them shot him again and kicked him. He shot him for a third time and stamped on him.

“I said: ‘Why are you killing him? He’s still a child!’ The man shouted: ‘He is not a Muslim – leave!'” …

Public flogging

Aleppo’s main Sharia court has taken pains to stress that though Mohammed Qataa’s murderers said they were acting in the name of Islam, the killing was un-Islamic, a criminal act.

But whatever the killers’ real motives – whether a brutal trick by the regime or a cruel and extreme interpretation of Islam by jihadis – it is also true that Sharia is spreading in rebel-held parts of Syria.

A documentary team from BBC Arabic went to the northern town of Saraqeb to follow the work of the Sharia court there, gaining extraordinary access over a period of six weeks.

A prisoner is whipped in the street as punishment for highway robbery under Saraqeb's Sharia law system

Four men convicted of trying to steal a taxi in Saraqeb’s Sharia court were sentenced to whipping using an electric cable

The court is run by a 27-year-old former preacher, Sheikh Abdullah Mohammed Ali, who hands out sentences dressed in Afghan-style shalwar kameez, a Kalashnikov at his side.

Four men convicted of trying to steal a taxi driver’s car are brought before him. Although admitting their guilt, they claim to be members of a rebel brigade.

Sheikh Abdullah tells them their weapons will be confiscated and they will not be allowed to be part of any armed group in future.

He swiftly decides that the sentence will be a public flogging. The men are driven to the centre of Saraqeb for sentence to be carried out. The instrument of punishment is an electrical cable.

Sheikh Abdullah takes a megaphone to address a small crowd that has gathered.

“In the name of God,” he says, reading out the names of the four prisoners standing in a row. “Fifty lashes for the leader of the gang. Forty for each of his men.”

He declares: “God’s law is the best protection for the weak.”

The first of the prisoners is forced to his knees, a man on either side of him holding his arms. When it starts some of the crowd chant, “The Prophet is our leader”. Others just count the lashes.

Afterwards, Sheikh Abdullah explains to the documentary crew that the punishment was actually quite lenient. They had been convicted of highway robbery. The normal penalty for that is death, he says.

“In wartime, punishments according to Sharia are suspended until peace returns,” he says.

“Now, we are at war. We must concentrate on fighting the regime’s army. Full punishments will be enforced as soon as the regime falls and an Islamic State is declared.” …

The Syrian Army Renews Offensive in Homs – ISW – Elizabeth O’Bagy

Homs-Update-Map

In late June 2013, the Syrian government renewed its campaign in the central Syrian province of Homs, indicating that it failed to achieve its operational and strategic objectives after defeating the rebels in al-Qusayr. By quickly shifting its efforts to Aleppo in an attempt to force a decisive battle before rebels could reconsolidate troops and acquire promised foreign supplies, the Syrian government failed to consolidate its gains in Homs. Thus, the opposition was able to exploit remaining vulnerabilities, particularly by reopening supply lines from Lebanon, in ways that forced the Syrian army back to Homs province, diverting resources from the offensive the regime planned for Aleppo. The campaign in Homs shows the Syrian government’s difficulty with launching sequential campaigns without operational pause, as well as the challenges it faces from launching multiple, simultaneous offensives in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus in ways that protract each fight.

WP update on Homs, July 8:

Assad’s forces have launched a major offensive to retake Homs, a transport hub that sits between the capital, Damascus, and coastal areas overwhelmingly loyal to the regime. Rebels seeking his ouster have held on to parts of the city they took more than a year ago, but remain under siege.

Forces loyal to Assad have pummeled their way into the Khaldiyeh neighborhood with constant mortar fire and tanks shelling, allowing them to gain control of eastern parts of the district, said Rami Abdul-Rahman of the British-based Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors clashes. He estimated government forces had seized 11 buildings in Khaldiyeh. Overall, he said the government now controls about 20 percent of the area.

“They are advancing,” Abdul-Rahman said in a telephone interview. He said there were street battles elsewhere in Homs, while the army continued to pound other rebel-held areas with heavy weapons.

A Syrian government official earlier had claimed that the army wrested the entire district and was “cleaning” out rebel-held pockets. He gave no other details and requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

Two activists based in the city denied the claim, saying rebels were under heavy fire but still holding on.

Rebels clash with Qaeda-linked opposition group in Syria – Reuters

Rebels clashed with an opposition unit linked to Al-Qaeda in northern Syria, activists said on Saturday, in a deadly battle that signals growing divisions among rebel groups and rising tensions between locals and more radical Islamist factions.

… Assad’s forces on Saturday advanced into rebel-held areas of the city of Homs, pushing into a heavily contested neighborhood after pummeling it with artillery that drove out opposition fighters, an activist said.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (ISIS), the new Al-Qaeda franchise announced by the head of global network’s Iraq leader, has been quickly working to cement power in rebel-held territories of northern Syria in recent months.

ISIS units have begun to impose stricter interpretations of Islamic law and have filmed themselves executing members of rival rebel groups whom they accuse of corruption, and beheading those they say are loyal to Assad.

… The latest internecine clashes happened in the town of Al-Dana, near the Turkish border, on Friday, local activists said. The opposition group known as the Free Youths of Idlib said dozens of fighters were killed, wounded or imprisoned.

A report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition monitoring group, said that the bodies of a commander and his brother, from the local Islam Battalion, were found beheaded. Local activists working for the British-based group said the men’s heads were found next to a trash bin in a main square.

The exact reason for the clashes have been hard to pin down, but many rebel groups have been chafing at ISIS’s rise in power. It has subsumed the once dominant Nusra Front, a more localized group of Al-Qaeda-linked fighters that had resisted calls by foreign radicals to expand its scope beyond the Syrian revolt to a more regional Islamist mission.

 

Opposition

 

Ghassan HittoSyria Deeply interviews Ghassan Hitto, the Syrian Opposition’s First Prime Minister

The first prime minister of the Syrian opposition, Hitto is a former IT executive who spent much of his life in Texas. He quit his job and joined the Syrian opposition full-time in November. He was elected to his current position in March, after months of contentious efforts by Coalition parties. Critics have long questioned whether Hitto was “out of touch” with Syria after spending much of his life in the United States, and whether he would have the political muscle to unite a fragmented, often-fractious opposition.

This interview was conducted the evening before Ahmad Assi Al-Jarba was elected as the new Coalition President.

Syria Deeply:  What progress has the interim government made since your election in March?

Ghassan Hitto: The interim government, from my perspective, is now ready to start working once it’s ratified by the Syrian opposition coalition. That requires them to meet and allow time to discuss the government and hopefully approve the cabinet. Since I was elected on March 19 and just before the end of April, the cabinet was formed, and since then I have been working through details about priorities for us to work on to serve the Syrian people. I have been ready, and I’m ready now to present the government, and I think it’s of utmost importance that the coalition takes time to discuss this government and approve it so we can get on with business and serve the Syrian people.  This is what the Syrian people are looking for from us.

I think we’ve talked enough and I think we’ve planned enough – I don’t even know how many plans we have. I think it’s time to start working. Today the Syrian people are looking for food security, health security, border control, and our national wealth is being smuggled out of the country because our borders are out of control. We have lost the wheat harvest and we have to save the other harvest that is coming up. We have the oil wealth that we need to organize quickly to benefit from. I see Syria being dependent on international aid for a long time, although we’re used to being independent and being self-sufficient. This state of being completely dependent on aid, while greatly appreciated, is something strange for us, and we need to get out of this state very quickly. We can, but in order to do these things we need to get on the ground and do business.

SD: The coalition has expanded in a bid to be more representative of the Syrian people. How will your cabinet reflect this?

GH: Let me answer this in two sections: firstly regarding the coalition and secondly the government.

The coalition, prior to its recent expansion, had a reasonable amount of representation of the Syrian people. Particularly it had people from the Alawite sect, Kurds, Christians, Assyrians, Turkmanis and representations from various cities and local governments. The recent expansion of the coalition took the membership from 60 to 114 and added another dimension with different schools of thought and different ideologies.

I would say that today the coalition truly represents 99.9 percent of Syrians. I think you would be hard pressed not to find a group of people currently not represented in the coalition. There is a joke going around that even the Assad regime is represented. On the government side, I think it’s too early to pass judgment. After I present the cabinet, you will see Syria truly represented. You will see a woman, a Christian, a Kurd, a Turkmani, conservatives, liberals — you will see Syria.

This wasn’t my intention as I followed a completely technocratic process. I asked for applications, and Syria responded with 1,070 resumes, and from those I selected my cabinet. I stayed away from providing cabinet positions to certain political group representatives within the coalition. I’m being criticized for not doing that, but this is what I promised the coalition and the Syrian people that I would do at the beginning — that I will not use this type of allocation within the cabinet. I focused on abilities, specialties and capabilities, and I came up with a good cabinet that I believe will serve the Syrian people. It’s too early for me to reveal the members of the cabinet now, as that will be presented to the coalition when they allow and make the time for it.

SD: Is the coalition the biggest roadblock to action?

GH: Absolutely. I will not play with words nor dance around the issue. The only entity that can push the button and tell this government, “Go start working,” is the coalition. I could be bad and just declare a government, but that would be irresponsible and does not serve the Syrian people well. I need the legitimacy from the coalition, and it is important that this government is supported by the international community. It is on the shoulders of the coalition to approve this government and let us get down to business. It is completely unacceptable, and Syrians should not accept this status or situation of inaction. It should also not be accepted by the international community. I realize that the international community is extremely frustrated by the state of this organization. Relief organizations all have a mind of their own and focus on different sectors, and they like to work by themselves. …

… Iran is also part of the problem. Hezbollah has 60,000 soldiers in Syria as well as there being thousands of Iranian soldiers inside the country with Russian ships arriving at Syrian ports on a daily basis. Why is nobody asking Iran to leave Syria? Why is nobody asking the Lebanese government to ask the Hezbollah forces to leave Syria? We will not allow people to occupy Syria. We will continue to fight until Syria is free. Iran needs to pull its forces out of Syria and stop its invasion, and the same for Hezbollah.

SD: Do you anticipate this to change with the election of Rouhani?

GH: We are very reasonable people, and they need to show a sign of good faith, and that’s how negotiations start. They are the aggressors and we’re not. Iran should encourage Assad to cease fire and stop killing the Syrian people. We won’t give them a menu of things that we will consider. They are a state who see themselves as playing a major role in the region, and they need to conduct themselves responsibly.

SD: The coalition is also due to discuss their position on Geneva 2. What is your expectation for an international solution?

GH: I’m not against going to Geneva 2, but we’re a long way from that. All crises get resolved around the table, and the solution has to be reasonable. However, we are not the aggressors. The Syrian people spoke up and the response was bullets. We have the right to defend ourselves. There is a lot of precedence that the international community can conduct business outside of the UN Security Council, so maybe it is time to do that and we’ll see.

Ghassan Hitto resigns as Syrian opposition Prime Minister: WP

In a further blow to the opposition fighting to topple President Bashar Assad, opposition prime minister Ghassan Hitto resigned from his post, citing his inability to form an interim government. …

Hitto was little known before he was appointed in March by the Western-backed Syrian National Council opposition group to head an interim government to administer areas seized by the rebels fighting to topple Assad.

In a statement issued Monday, he said he was stepping down “for the general good of the Syrian revolution.”

Hitto is mistrusted by other opposition members who dislike his perceived proximity to the Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood. He had been effectively sidelined since his appointment — a result of the rivalry between Qatar and Saudi Arabia who are vying for influence among the Sunni-dominated Syrian opposition. Both countries have been prominent backers of forces struggling to oust Assad.

A former Syrian political prisoner with close links to Saudi Arabia, Ahmad al-Jarba, was elected to lead the coalition Saturday.

Ahmad Jarba is the new opposition president, replacing Mu’az al-Khatib: Syrian opposition chooses Saudi-backed leader – Daily Star

Syria’s fractious opposition elected a new leader on Saturday but rebel groups were reported to be fighting among themselves in a sign of growing divisions on the ground between factions trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad.

The Syrian National Coalition chose Ahmad Jarba as its president after a close runoff vote that reinforced the influence of Saudi Arabia over a perpetually divided opposition movement that has struggled to convince its Western and Arab allies that its fighters are ready to be given sophisticated foreign weaponry.

Jarba is a tribal figure from the eastern Syrian province of Hasaka who has Saudi connections. He defeated businessman Mustafa Sabbagh, a point man for Qatar, which has seen its influence over the opposition overshadowed by the Saudis.

“A change was needed,” Adib Shishakly, a senior official in the coalition, told Reuters after the vote held at an opposition meeting in Istanbul.

“The old leadership of the coalition had failed to offer the Syrian people anything substantial and was preoccupied with internal politics. Ahmad Jarba is willing to work with everybody.”

The Muslim Brotherhood, the only organised faction in the Syrian political opposition, has seen its mother organisation in Egypt thrown out of power in Cairo this week along with President Mohamed Mursi.

But the Brotherhood representative, Farouq Tayfour, was elected one of two vice-presidents of the Syrian National Coalition in a sign the group still retains influence in Syrian opposition politics.

The Saudi-Qatari Clash Over Syria – David Ottaway

Saudi Arabia and the United States are now working closely together to bolster Syrian rebels seeking the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad, reviving in the process an earlier model of covert military cooperation from the 1980s that successfully drove the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan. This time their target is Russia’s last remaining Middle East Arab ally—the Assad regime, whose armed forces are equipped entirely with Russian weapons.

So far, the Obama administration has ruled out providing surface-to-air missiles to the Syrian rebels. But the Saudis are now reported to be going ahead with their own purchase of other non-U.S.-made missiles, apparently with American blessings, as Washington had previously stopped it.

Secretary of State John Kerry held talks with his Saudi counterpart, Prince Saud al-Faisal, in Jeddah on June 25 to discuss the coordination of U.S. and Saudi arms shipments to the Syrian rebels. “We want to make sure that that’s being done in the most effective way possible,” Kerry said.

The Obama administration’s June 13 decision to provide weapons to the rebels aligns the United States with its two closest allies in the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which have been arming them for over a year now and pressuring a reluctant Washington to follow suit. But the decision also plunges Washington into entangling intra-Sunni Arab disputes, including between these two Arab monarchies, over which Syrian faction should rule in a post-Assad era.

… One little-publicized consequence of the U.S.-Saudi alliance will be to curb the growing influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, a key Saudi goal. This has put the Saudi kingdom at direct odds with its neighbor, Qatar, the Islamic group’s prime Arab protector and promoter.

It has also placed the United States in the awkward position of taking sides between its closest Gulf allies. Qatar hosts the Pentagon’s main forward operations center, while Saudi Arabia is the keystone of U.S. efforts to build an Arab military counterweight to Iran in the Persian Gulf.

In this case, the Obama administration has decided to side with the Saudis to prevent extremist Islamic groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda branch, from dominating a post-Assad government. In return, the Saudi government has agreed to halt its own arms purchases for fundamentalist Salafi groups it favors elsewhere in the Arab world because of its adherence to this same trend of Islam. Instead, according to Syrian and diplomatic sources in the Gulf, it will join the United States in funneling arms through the U.S.-backed Supreme Military Council, made up of secular rebel fighting groups.

Another factor, however, has been the Saudi-Qatari tug-of-war over the Brotherhood’s role within the fractious Syrian opposition, also a central cause of the rebels’ inability to agree on leaders for its National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces or a government-in-exile to facilitate international support.

The Saudi-Qatari conflict is rooted in the two countries’ radically different experiences with the Brotherhood as well their markedly different reactions to the 2011 prodemocracy uprisings across the Arab world. Qatar enthusiastically embraced the changes that catapulted the Brethren to power in Egypt and Tunisia. On the other hand, Saudi Arabia, after initially helping to orchestrate the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, has come to view the Brotherhood’s rise with growing foreboding.

The Saudis harbor a strong aversion to the Brethren because of what they regard as their unpardonable betrayal of the kingdom after it harbored thousands of them for decades from persecution by secular Arab dictators, first in Egypt and then in Syria.

… Even so, when the Brotherhood’s party in Egypt won elections after President Hosni Mubarak’s fall in 2011, the Saudis first sought to turn the page in their bitter history, offering nearly $4 billion in financial and economic aid to the new government. They quickly put $1.5 billion in the Central Bank to help Egypt deal with rapidly falling foreign reserves, but the rest is still pending agreement on specific development projects.

By contrast, the Qataris have now poured $8 billion into Egyptian coffers to help the Brotherhood-led government cope with huge budget of foreign-reserve deficits. The then emir of Qatar, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, last October became the first Arab leader to visit the isolated Gaza Strip to show his support for Hamas, and he has allowed the group’s officials fleeing Damascus to make Doha an alternative base of operations.

The Saudi-Qatari conflict has opened a wider political fissure among the six Sunni monarchies making up the Saudi-led Gulf Cooperation Council—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Oman. This body is supposed to coordinate a common strategy toward Iran and the Syrian rebels. But both Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have become increasingly hostile toward the Brotherhood—the Emirates currently have forty-three Brotherhood members on trial for allegedly plotting to overthrow the monarchy there—while Qatar remains its primary Arab backer.

Qatar’s incomplete example – Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi

Last month Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani handed over power to his son and Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim. The move became an instant headline grabber with various publications and officials praising the Emir. The Economist called him “remarkable” and “a hard act to follow” while British Foreign Secretary William Hague hailed it as a “historic day”.

In fact it has been quite a year for abdications. Just last April Dutch Queen Beatrix abdicated in favour of her son, and more recently Belgium’s King Albert II announced his abdication in favour of his. Little known is an incident that took place a month before the Qatari abdication in neighbouring Saudi when the leader of the Al Sager clan, the “115 year old” Sheikh Haif Bin Saleem abdicated in favour of his son after eighty years as chief of Sarat Obaida, in Asir province.

Although at face value these abdications may seem similar there is in fact quite a significant difference. Unlike fellow monarchies Belgium and the Netherlands, Qatar does not have a legislative council or an independently elected government. As in its fellow Arab Gulf States, the monarchy solely holds the reins of policy and governance.

… Today there is a six-decade difference between the youngest and the eldest of the Arab Gulf leaders. Qatar media has been reporting on the awkward cables of congratulations that were sent from the Gulf monarchs to their 33-year-old “brother”. One of the highlights of the next Gulf Cooperation Council leaders summit in Kuwait will be to witness the interaction between the young Sheikh Tamim and the other Gulf leaders who are at least twice his age. …

How Syria’s Civil War Became a Holy Crusade – Foreign Affairs – Thomas Hegghammer, Aaron Y. Zelin

Qaradawi

Yusuf al-Qardawi is the most influential cleric in the world of Sunni Islam. Now that he has declared the war in Syria a jihad, a wider sectarian battle may be inevitable.

A Pandora’s box was opened in the Middle East in late May. That was when Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Egyptian theologian who is perhaps the world’s most influential Sunni cleric, called on Sunni Muslims worldwide to fight against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Hezbollah in Syria. In the weeks and months ahead, Qaradawi’s statement will surely quicken the stream of foreign fighters into Syria. Before long, Syria’s civil war could turn into an all-out sectarian conflict involving the entire region.

The 86-year-old Qaradawi is a religious cleric who left Egypt for Qatar in 1961 and has since become something of a celebrity among Islamic religious leaders. He has authored more than 100 books that are sold across the Muslim world, and his weekly TV show on al Jazeera has tens of millions of viewers. Qaradawi owes much of his influence to his careful balancing of populism and political conservatism. He manages to combine, for example, hard-line views on Israel with vigorous condemnation of al Qaeda. He has built a reputation as someone who speaks truth to power, all the while retaining the privileges — such as a TV program and a professorship — that come with being close to the establishment. In some sense, he is the closest thing that the Sunni Muslim world has to a pope.

Qaradawi’s controversial remarks fell at a Friday rally in Doha on May 31. In an emotional address about the plight of Sunnis in Syria, Qaradawi declared that “anyone who has the ability, who is trained to fight . . . has to go; I call on Muslims to go and support their brothers in Syria.” That’s a remarkable message, precisely because it is one that clerics of Qaradawi’s stature almost never make. Establishment Islamic clerics often declare that a given armed struggle is a legitimate jihad, but they rarely say that Muslims worldwide have a duty to join it. Radical clerics have been known to make this so-called individual duty argument, which consists of saying that all able Muslim men must fight and that declining to do so would be a sin. But mainstream clerics such as Qaradawi usually make the “collective duty” argument, which implies that outsiders can fight under certain conditions but with no obligation. Even at the height of the very popular Afghan jihad in the 1980s, the Saudi Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz said only that Muslims have “a duty to support” — not “an individual duty to fight with” — the Afghan mujahideen. He left it to more radical figures such as Abdullah Azzam, the ostensible mentor of Osama bin Laden, to argue that all Muslims had to fight.

To be sure, Qaradawi did not use the term “individual duty” (fard ‘ayn in Arabic), and he qualified his call by suggesting that primarily men with military training should go. However, in a region where conscription is the norm, that means practically everyone. By calling on all capable Sunnis to fight in Syria, Qaradawi is not only echoing jihadi ideologues, he is also contradicting his earlier self. In 2009, he wrote a book titled Jurisprudence of Jihad, in which he dismissed the individual duty argument for the jihad in Palestine, Iraq, and Afghanistan. His willingness to make an exception for Syria today is an indication of how strongly Sunni Arabs outside Syria feel about the conflict.

Other clerics have also made the individual duty call for Syria in the past year, but none of them is nearly as influential as Qaradawi. His statement, therefore, has an important norm-setting effect for other clerics: It makes it easier for them to talk tough on Syria and more difficult for them to act like doves. Accordingly, the month of June saw a string of statements by senior clerics across the region calling for jihad in Syria. For example, just days after Qaradawi’s statement, the grand mufti of Saudi Arabia, Abdul Aziz al-Sheikh, publicly endorsed the part of Qaradawi’s lecture that denounced Hezbollah as the “party of Satan.” The mufti did not explicitly address the issue of foreign fighting but made clear that he approved of Qaradawi’s rhetorical escalation. Similarly, a week later, a group of Yemeni ulama (Islamic clergy) released a collective fatwa calling for the “defense of the oppressed” in Syria. Like the Saudi mufti, the Yemeni clerics did not repeat Qaradawi’s call for even non-Syrians to fight, but they did not criticize it, either. Two weeks after Qaradawi’s talk, the Saudi cleric Saud al-Shuraim declared from the pulpit of the Grand Mosque in Mecca that believers had a duty to support Syrian rebels “by all means.” The following day, (recently deposed) Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi spoke at a rally in Cairo, waving the flag of the Syrian opposition and denouncing both the Assad regime and Hezbollah. The rally was organized by hard-line clerics advocating a tougher stance on Syria, and although Morsi did not explicitly endorse foreign fighting, his appearance at the rally was widely interpreted as a nod to those wishing to engage in it.

Taken together, these statements will also produce more Sunni war volunteers for the battle in Syria — which would be less of a concern if Syria were not already teeming with foreign fighters. According to data that we have collected over the past nine months from hundreds of primary and secondary sources, about 5,000 Sunni fighters from more than 60 different countries have joined the Syrian rebels since the uprising began in 2011. This makes Syria the second-largest foreign-fighter destination in the history of modern Islamism. (In the 1980s, the Afghan jihad drew approximately 10,000 volunteers but over a period of ten years.)

 

Interesting Blog Posts, Miscellaneous Articles

 

العملاق الصوفي ينهض في المناطق المحررة – Article in Arabic about the role of Sufis in the conflict

Thomas Pierret’s Blog: First sightings of non-Russian anti-tank missiles in Syria

Walk-Ins WelcomeWalk-Ins Welcome – U of Southern California grad students fund-raise for documentary film on Syrian refugees, and the barbers whose shops are the center of life in the camps

Robin Yassin-Kassab on Assadist worship and Alawi religionBand Annie’s Weblog

my response to a friend who thinks that assad-worship is part of the alawi religion: was saddam hussain’s regime ‘sunni’ when it murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent iraqis, particularly shia? no, it wasn’t – it was a saddamist regime which had nothing to do with religion but which exploited religion and ignorant sunnis for its own divide and rule purposes. is the bahraini regime ‘sunni’ when it denies democratic rights to its people? no – it’s using religious divisions to keep itself in power. same in syria. i know alawis who are working for the revolution – people like samar yazbek, rasha omran, and so many who are working in silence or in secret to deliver food and medicine to the besieged areas.

it’s true that sunni areas are being hit particularly hard, but there are also thousands of christians, alawis, and ismailis who have been tortured and murdered. I agree that this is a savage regime killing mainly sunnis. but we shouldn’t be helping assad, khamenei and nasrallah to make this a sectarian war.

that’s exactly what they want. why? because assadism has almost no supporters – but there are millions of shia in the world. if they are fooled into believing that the revolution is not one for freedom for all but a war for extermination of minorities, then they will fight to defend assad, we have to fight this discourse, however hard it is.

we also have to show the west – which until now has done everything it can to prevent the syrians defending themselves – that this is not a Muslim civil war, but a popular revolution. let’s not fall into assad’s trap. then, as a matter of plain fact, the alawi religion (i’m not alawi, but i have studied it) is certainly very very far from orthodox Islam, but it does not involve worship of the assad family.

this is a blasphemy against the alawi religion. it is also a fact that the alawi ulema have been assassinated, imprisoned and silenced over the last four decades by the assad regime. this is the problem. the assads have tried to kill the alawi religion and replace it with worship of the assads.

Robin & Joshua debate on Sultan Sooud’s facebook page:

Sultan Sooud: Great read by Joshua Landis on Obama’s three options on Syria. The one, two and three state solutions.

Racan Alhoch: I love orientalist solutions. They are always a modified version of the Sykes-picot. The best solution would be for people like Landis to fuck off.

Joshua Landis: Rocan, I am not sure what is orientalist about these possible outcomes. If Assad hangs on to the south is Syria and the rebels hold the north it will not be because of the west. It will be a Syrian solution. If the rebels are able to conquer Damascus it will probably be thanks to help from the West.

Ruba Ali Al-Hassani: Joshua, a solution and an outcome are two different things. Not all outcomes are solutions to the problems which created them. The current civil war is not an outcome of deep divisions amongst Syrians. Rather, it is an outcome of external meddling in a conflict between the people and their dictator. Foreign militants have been brought in, recruiting a few Syrians, with the funding of external players, pitting them against each other on the basis of sectarianism. This is what escalated matters.
Borders in the Middle East have a long history with being drawn and redrawn by colonial powers, or in resistance to them. Therefore, it is Orientalist to come along and tell Syrians that they cannot solve their problems, and that the best way is to keep them apart from each other through another attempt to redraw their borders. Only when the Syrians ask for that kind of “solution” will it ever be okay…

Robin Yassin-Kassab: this is not at all a great read, for several reasons. the first is that it contains a plain untruth. the coastal region does not have an alawi majority. the mountains of the coastal region have an alawi majority, though there are also christian and sunni communities. the coastal cities have sunni majorities.

Joshua Landis: Robin, so do Lebanon’s coastal cities have a majority Sunni population. I am not sure what your point is. The Ottoman legacy is that there is a Sunni majority in the cities and the plains. In 1920 Alawites and Sunnis shared no town of over 200. Demographic segregation was very stark. There is much greater mixing today. It is hard to see where this bloodshed ends. That is the problem. There are no good solutions. Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?

Dick Gregory: “Do you think the US should pump in the weapons until Sunni rebel militias have conquered Damascus and the coast?” – I think not calling the FSA a Sunni rebel militia would be a start. I assume the point is that to create a mini-Alawite state would require the ethnic cleansing or cowing of the majority, and so is an even more impractical alternative to a revolution for all Syrians.
The suggestion that Obama could get the F̶S̶A̶ Sunni militias to fight one war against Assad and another against radical Islamists simultaneously is also highly questionable, and that they are likely to massacre non-Sunnis en masse in the event of victory re-writes the history of the conflict. Not a well written article

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i am not sure what landis’s point is. so what if lebanon’s cities have majority sunni populations? i never argued for the separation of lebanon from syria (I wasn’t here, obviously). lebanon is lebanon, with its own sectarian set up, and even with that set up, it isn’t supposed to be a shia or druze or maroni or sunni or alawi state. landis writes in his article that there is an alawi majority in the coastal region. i pointed out that this is not true. that’s my point: the truth. the importance of not twisting facts to fit our poor arguments. beyond that, i do not think that setting up an alawi state is a good idea or an acceptable outcome. it would involve a massive ethnic cleansing of sunnis from tartus, banyas and lattakia, and of alawis from homs and damascus. it would also leave syria without a port. it would also destabilise turkey. if it were under the control of this criminal family, it would be a threat to humanity. so far there has been no mass slaughter of alawi civilians, no ethnic cleansing of alawis to mirror the massacres and ethnic cleansings perpetrated by the regime. yet landis keeps on scaremongering. the revolution certainly has a sectarian aspect now, after the best efforts of assad and his allies, setting up sectarian death squads, attacking sunni heritage, etc. landis has been painting it as sectarian from the very start, however, ignoring the coordination committees in favour of salafists. thankyou, Dick, for your comment. it’s a slander to call the fsa a sunni militia. yes, it has a sunni majority (like syria) and a sunni character. i’ve just been in syria and turkey where i spent time with ismailis and christians amongst others. the ismaili was telling me in detail about the armed struggle (led by ismailis) around selemiyyeh. yes, i think the us, europe, the arabs, japan… should allow the syrian people to arm themselves to defend themselves from genocide and to end this child nmurdering regime. because the child murderers represent a tiny majority of the population, they lose as soon as the other side gets any sort of weapons supply. i don’t agree that it would take forever for the resistance to liberate damascus. or the coast for that matter – but the coast could be ‘won’ by negotiation once the people there see the regime has no future.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: you always say, ‘i don’t know what your point is.’ when you reported hussain harmoush’s tv post-torture ‘confession’ as if it meant something, and even discussed it… ‘hmm, harmoush says he was paid by the muslim brothers, and by the martians… very interesting’, and then i complained, your answer was something like…’everyone who reads syria comment is well educated and they understand that he was tortured and that his words don’t mean much.’ that’s a great response. so when you write that the coastal region has an alawi majority, it doesn’t matter that it isn’t true because you expect your audience to be intelligent enough to understand. you should write that the fsa is a communist organisation backed by nepal, just for fun, because your audience is clever enough….

Joshua Landis: Robin, lots of accusations. Let’s take the first one – the ethnic or religious population of the Coastal region. Can you tell me what the religious make up of the Coastal region is? Until 1960, when the last census was taken that listed Syrians by religion the Coastal region was predominately Alawite. Of course this depends on where you draw the line in the East, but your argument is that the Sunni majority in the coastal cities is larger than the Alawi majority in the Mountains. This has never been true so far as I know, but I welcome being corrected by any statistics you can provide. I quote the following from something I wrote in 1997. I highlight the sentence most important for our discussion:

“Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population [The Alawite state created by the French] of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants. “

“When the French arrived in the Alawite territory in 1920, the separation between the Alawite and Sunni communities could hardly have been more profound, a fact used to justify their policy of dividing the region from the rest of Syria. In the “Dawla al `Alawiyyin” (the State of the Alawites) established in 1922, not one Alawite was registered as a permanent resident of Latakia, the regional capital (26,000 inhabitants in 1935), or in the other Sunni dominated coastal cities: Jablah (6,300), Tartus (4,500), and Banyas (2,170). The only city that permitted Alawites to live within its walls was Safita, a Christian town high in the Alawite Mountains (total population 2,600, with 300 Alawites).

Although Alawites constituted roughly seventy percent of the region’s population of 350,000, they held sway over no town with more than 1000 inhabitants.

The division of urban and rural populations along sectarian lines in the Alawite region was almost absolute. The Sunni population was entrenched in the cities, where it exercised a monopoly on political power, education, and prestige. Sunnis, Weulersse writes, lived like “parasites” off the Alawites who were scattered in small hamlets throughout the countryside and mountains. Even in 1945, the year the muhafaza of Latakia was finally united with Syria, the number of Alawites who lived permanently in major Syria cities was minuscule. Latakia had a population of only 600 Alawites; Aleppo had 480, and Damascus only 40. These numbers indicate the extent to which the Alawite community remained a closed society, inward looking, and cut off from the main currents of Syrian intellectual and urban life right up to independence.

Today, most Alawites over the age of 45 can recount personal stories of Sunni school children throwing stones at Alawites as they walked to or from school. The alienation of Alawites from Sunni society and their bitter experience of persecution made creating a common sense of nationalism particularly difficult following independence. Even within the most progressive political parties which took shape during the 1940s, tension and mistrust between Alawites and Sunnis was never far below the surface and often threatened to rise to the surface.”

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i don’t know why you are telling me about the historical persecution of alawites. as you know, i have myself written about this on several occasions. I have often pointed to this as necessary historical context to the sectarianism of the assad regime. you don’t need to prove yet again your emotional ties to the alawi community. it’s perfectly obvious and always has been. yes, i would presume that an urban majority constitutes more people than a rural majority. that seems like plain logic to me. in any case, you yourself on previous occasions have described the coastal region as having a sunni majority. i’m sure that if you were to draw a line around the mountains you could find an alawi majority, but i don’t think that would be in the interests of alawis, sunnis or anyone else…..it’s always important to recognise past oppressions, but these do not justify present genocides or ethnic cleansings, nor carving up countries on ethno-sectarian lines. the holocaust does not excuse slaughter in sabra and shatila or gaza. the safavids do not excuse saddam hussain. saddam hussain does not excuse the exclusion of iraqi sunnis. ibn taymiyya does not excuse assad.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: in any case, in perfect orientalist style you are ignoring contemporary history in favour of the distant past. ‘alawis’ have been in charge for over 40 years.alawis have been living in the cities, making friends with sunnis, in some cases marrying sunnis. in this time the regime actually oppressed alawi ulama and community leaders and deliberately kept sectarian hatreds bubbling for divide and rule reasons. they had four decades to address the problem, to manage a public conversation and reconciliation. they chose to do the opposite. and when challenged by a democratic movement for secular rights, they deliberately lit the fuse of sectarian conflict by implicating alawis in their death squads and massacres, and by their propaganda.

Joshua Landis: Robin, I couldn’t agree with you more about oppression. I in no way wish to defend the Assad regime, which is guilty of brutal and indiscriminate killing of the worst kind. I have emotional ties to all Syrians. My point is about the demographic realities of Syria. If one draws a line down the Eastern side of the Alawite mountains, where the Alawite majority population gives way to a predominantly Sunni majority and counted the religious distribution of all those to the West of that line, the Alawites would be the majority. That is my simple contention. It does not mean that they deserve a state or could maintain one or that it would be fair for the Sunnis of the coastal cities. I am simply trying to establish some basis for understanding the region. Would you agree to that simple statistic?

Joshua Landis: Robin, You are absolutely correct about the deeply sectarian nature of this regime and its response to the uprising. In fact, my first article for the Economist, dated, Jun 14th 2011, was entitled “Deeply Sectarian.” We are in perfect agreement about the sectarian nature of the regime and ensuing mess it has created.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: joshua, i think of you as a well-meaning person, but i can’t help but think too that your skewed commentary on the revolution has helped assad confuse the issue in the west. no, i don’t think i would agree with your simple statistic. i think the sunni majority in the cities probably outweighs the alawi majority in the mountains – but of course i can’t prove it, and it may be that now, at this precise moment, there is a slight alawi majority because so many alawis from damascus and homs have moved to tartus to flee violence.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: ruth – i very nearly ‘liked’ your comment but didn’t for the simple reason that most alawis have not actually benefitted from the regime. some certainly have, but many more haven’t. they’ve been terrified by regime propaganda and implicated in the regime’s crimes. now they are losing thousands of young men fighting for this monster. most are victims of the regime. if over the last decades the community had been allowed to develop itself, to produce its own leaders, to initiate its own dialogue with sunnis, it (and all of us) would not be in this situation now

Joshua Landis: Why don’t we leave this on the happy note that you consider me “well meaning.” I, of course, do not think my analysis has been skewed. On the contrary, my warning that this struggle would end up much like Iraq or Lebanon — i.e. going sectarian — has proven to be the case. You have argued from the beginning that my commentary has caused this, but I would humbly suggest that is to give me much too much agency and importance. I have simply described what I believe to be the reality of the Syrian situation. I believe that I have been fairly accurate. Of course, I have made my share of mistakes, but not, for the most part, on the big things. I wrote early that this would go sectarian, that the regime was deeply sectarian, and would turn this into a sectarian struggle because Alawites feel persecuted and have a history of being persecuted, which they have not gotten over. I have tried to inject as much history into this as possible – and I think the history is important and not just some distant baggage that should be ignored. The Alawites should have gotten over their persecution and “minority complex” and Assad should have given up power in the first weeks of this uprising in favor of a constitutional convention, but he did not.

So we are where we are, which is very ugly. Sunnis now feel like a persecuted minority, and with good reason, they have been persecuted. I doubt there will be an “Alawite state” – even one with a big Sunni minority residing in it – established on the coast. Most probably the “status quo” will prevail for some time.

The status quo is the division of Syria into a revolutionary forces controlled North and North-East and government controlled South and Southwest. This will leave the Assad government ruling over a large Sunni majority and Damascus, which will be very unstable. I suspect the North will also be very unstable because the FSA and other militas agree on little beyond their desire to rid themselves of the oppression of the regime.

The US and the West wants to hurt Hizbullah and Iran, but I am not sure if it has “Syria’s” interests uppermost in its calculations. My essay about the three possible scenarios is meant to underline this. I try not to pick “a best scenario”, but simply point out the difficulties with each.

Maxwell Ryder: Robin, you are a sharp knife in a drawer full of dull knives. Thank you for each post. I couldn’t agree more, though I did not like the “dick” part.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: of course i don’t think your commentary caused this. i think (like you, it seems) that assad and his allies caused this. i think your commentary (indirectly) helped assad get his sectarian message across to the west from the earliest days. you didn’t so much bear witness to the ways in which assad lit the sectarian fuse as focus on the sectarianism of the opposition, even at the start when the remarkable thing was how a sectarian society was able to produce such a non-sectarian discourse. you focussed on obscure salafists rather than the central local coordination committees. you are probably right about the status quo, which is a disaster for syria and, increasingly, for the region and the wider muslim world. my contention is that the opposition has the vast majority on its side. it has been able to conquer vast swathes of the country for this reason, despite being so poorly armed. therefore i believe that a serious effort to arm the opposition would allow it a reasonably speedy victory. then syria could start the difficult process of picking up the pieces. because commentary like yours is dominant, however, there probably won’t be a serious effort to arm the opposition, and the status quo will continue. even now after hixbullah’s open involvement, the west and the arabs are only talking about ‘restoring the balance’. in other words, let syria bleed. let the wound expand.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: Maxwell – thanks. the ‘dick part’ was not the insult you think it was. i was referring to my friend Dick Gregory, who commented above.

Joshua Landis: I agree that Alawites, to the extent that we can generalize, are oppressed and have little if any freedom of choice. Assad treats Alawites as he treats the rest of Syrians, as his slaves. But I would caution that this does not mean that Alawites will turn against the regime any time soon. They feel like the knife is at their throat. At least that is what many say, now that this struggle has become very sectarian. Almost every Alawite i have talked to gives me a five minute soliloquy on how he or she is not an Assad supporter and how Assad has gotten them to this terrible situation, but then they go on to reproduce the Assad line about Sunni extremism and how they must defend themselves, etc. I think understanding their dilemma is important to any solution. One cannot just dismiss their fears or this war will drag on for a very long time.

Robin Yassin-Kassab: i agree with that. we must also remember the brave minority of alawites who, despite their well-founded fears, are working for the revolution in public or in private. during my recent trip i heard about alawis secretly providing food and medicine to the besieged areas.

Henry Kissinger: Balkanized Syria Best Possible Outcome – Juerriann Maessen

“There are three possible outcomes. An Assad victory. A Sunni victory. Or an outcome in which the various nationalities agree to co-exist together but in more or less autonomous regions, so that they can’t oppress each other. That’s the outcome I would prefer to see. But that’s not the popular view.”

… “First of all, Syria is not a historic state. It was created in its present shape in 1920, and it was given that shape in order to facilitate the control of the country by France, which happened to be after UN mandate. The neighboring country Iraq was also given an odd shape, that was to facilitate control by England. And the shape of both of the countries was designed to make it hard for either of them to dominate the region.”

As a result of Syria’s a-historical origins, Kissinger explained, the current Syria was conceived as a more or less artificial national unity consisting of different tribes and ethnic groups. As the recent “revolution” is further spiraling into chaos, Kissinger comments on the nature of the current situation:

“In the American press it’s described as a conflict between democracy and a dictator- and the dictator is killing his own people, and we’ve got to punish him. But that’s not what’s going on. It may have been started by a few democrats. But on the whole it’s an ethnic and sectarian conflict.”

“It is now a civil war between sectarian groups”, Kissinger went on to state. “And I have to say we have misunderstood it from the beginning. If you read our media they say: we’ve got to get rid of Assad. And if we get rid of Assad, then we form a coalition government. Inconceivable. I’m all in favour of getting rid of Assad, but the dispute between us and the Russians on that issue, was that the Russians say: you start with getting rid of not just Assad, that’s not the issue, but you break up the state administration and you’ll wind up like in Iraq- that there is nothing to hold it together. And then you’ll have an even worse civil war. This is how that mess has taken the present form.”

June 2013 report from ISPU / New America Foundation – Dissecting an Evolving Conflict: The Syrian Uprising and the
Future of the Country – by Asaad Al-Saleh & Loren White

Game Theory vs. Syria’s Reality – Syria Report – Musa al-Gharbi

The Tribal Factor in Syria’s Rebellion: A Survey of Armed Tribal Groups in Syria – Nick Heras & Carole O’Leary, Jamestown Foundation – very interesting article

Tribalism remains a primary form of communal identity among Arab Sunnis across Syria, regardless of whether they live in rural or urban areas. As a powerful source of socio-political mobilization, Syrian Arab tribalism has shaped the conflict since the first demonstrations against the al-Assad government were led by disaffected tribesmen in the northeastern city of al-Hasakah in February 2011. The popular anger mobilized in Dera’a governorate by inter-tribal activist networks of mainly young and displaced tribesmen over the arrest and murder of two tribal youths fueled a national uprising (for Syrian Arab tribal networks, see Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012). Currently, Syrian Arab tribal groups are active participants in pro and anti-Assad militias, as soldiers in the Syrian military and as members of tribally-organized militias that are concerned with protecting their tribe and its autonomy from both the Syrian state and the armed opposition.

Of particular concern in the context of Syria’s civil war is the possibility of an alliance, however temporary, between Syria’s Arab tribes and militant Salafist groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front). In the north-eastern governorates of al-Raqqa, al-Hasakah and Deir al-Zor collectively referred to as al-Jazirah (bordering Turkey to the north and Iraq to the east), the majority Arab Sunni tribal population coexists uneasily with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra that have a strong presence in the region. A tribal shaykh of a major tribal confederation in the area asserted that, without international support, Syrian tribes would do what they had to do to protect their assets, including working with militant Salafist groups or even Iran. [1]

Syrian Arab Tribes and Tribal Organization in the Civil War

Syrian Arab tribes are divided into qabila (national and trans-national tribal confederations) and ‘ashira (individual tribes). ‘Ashira are further divided into fukhud (clans), khums or ibn ‘amm (lineages) and, at the lowest level, albayt or aa’ila (extended families). Due to the geographically dispersed and localized nature of the Syrian conflict, Syrian tribal armed groups, like other participants in the civil war, generally participate in fighting near their home areas. In spite of the generally localized nature of mobilization of armed groups in the Syrian civil war, there is a clear distinction of scale and group solidarity that differentiates a tribal ‘ashira from a tribal qabila, the main units of organization that tribal armed groups have displayed thus far in the conflict.

Although they may occasionally be referred to as qabila and include fellow tribesmen from Syria’s neighboring countries, ‘ashira are usually present and powerful only in a particular region within Syria. Such ‘ashira include al-Haddadine in the northwestern Aleppo and Idlib governorates, al-Muwali in Idlib governorate, al-Damaakhla in Idlib, Hama, Aleppo, and Raqqa governorates, the Bani Khalid in the central-western Homs and Hama governorates and al-Zoubi in the southern Dera’a governorate and across the border into northern Jordan.

The Bani Khalid and al-Muwali ‘ashira have active fighters in the armed opposition and exemplify the role of a local ‘ashira in the fighting in western Syria. Several battalions of Bani Khalid fighters who are aligned with the armed opposition’s umbrella group, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), continue to participate in the fighting for the city of Homs and its suburbs. [2] The ‘Shield Brigade’ of the Bani Khalid in Hama governorate is also a constituent fighting force of the western Syrian umbrella armed opposition group, the Front of Syrian Revolutionaries. [3] Al-Muwali tribesmen are fighting against the Syrian military in the vicinity of the large town of Ma’rat Numan, south of the city of Idlib, where the tribe is present in large numbers. They are active in the fight for the control of the town and the nearby Syrian military base of Wadi al-Dayf. [4]

Three armed opposition battalions that claim to be tribal but are without a specifically stated tribal affiliation have been active in western Syria. One of these groups is called the Battalion of the Free Tribes, which, like the al-Muwali and the al-Damaakhla, is active around the town of Mar’at Numan, participating in the fight for control of Wadi al-Dayf. This group is also associated with the Syrian nationalist, Sunni Islamist umbrella armed opposition group, Alwiya Ahfaad al-Rasul (Descendants of the Prophet). [5] Another tribal battalion, the Free Tribes of al-Sham, was organized in Dera’a in February and claims to have been formed by defecting Syrian soldier tribesmen from Dera’a, Aleppo, al-Raqqa, al-Haskah and Deir al-Zor governorates. The Free Tribes of al-Sham are a battalion of the al-Omari Brigades, an Alwiya Ahfaad al-Rasul affiliate in Dera’a. [6] Another coalition of tribal militias composed of many Syrian army defectors, calling itself the Front of the Syrian Tribes, was formed in Aleppo in April. [7]

Syrian Tribal Qabila in the Civil War

The largest qabila in Syria, particularly the Ougaidat, Baggara and Shammar, are transnational tribal confederations that have constituent clans throughout the country. These qabila are, however, present in the greatest numbers in the Jazirah region. Some qabila in Syria, such as the ‘Anaza of Homs governorate, the Ta’ie of al-Hasakah governorate, and the Na’im are present in Syria in smaller numbers than in neighboring states. Of these smaller qabila, al-Na’im is the largest and some al-Na’im tribesmen have raised an opposition brigade in the Damascus countryside. [8]

The qabila of the Ougaidat is emerging as one of the most active tribally organized, armed anti-Assad coalitions. Ougaidat fighting groups, organized on the local level, are part of a national tribal coalition that calls itself the Ougaidat Tribe Brigades. These brigades are very active in Homs governorate in and around the small city of al-Rastan north of Homs and in Deir al-Zor governorate, where they have particular strength inside and south of the city of Deir al-Zor in a belt of communities that includes the towns of Mayadin and Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. Ougaidat brigades also participate in the fighting around the northwestern city of Idlib near the Turkish border. [9]

The Ougaidat have also been active participants in an opposition exile group, the Council of the Arab Tribes in Syria. Several prominent members of the Syrian opposition are Ougaidat tribesmen, including Shaykh Nawaf al-Faris, the former Syrian Ambassador to Iraq; Syria’s first astronaut, Major General Muhammad Faris; the Chairman of the FSA Military Council of Aleppo, Colonel Abd al-Jabbar al-‘Aqeedi; and the former Chairman of the Latakia Political Security Branch, General Nabil al-Fahad al-Dundal. [10]

There are also challenges that confront effective intra-tribal coordination and unity in Syria that are caused by geographic dispersal inside the country and internal divisions created by local power realities in a particular governorate. Our research indicates that the most pronounced example of intra-tribal divisions in the conflict occurs within the Baggara tribal confederation. Baggara tribesmen participate in armed activities both in support of and against the opposition. The Baggara were particularly hard-hit by the Syrian Ba’ath Party’s policy of undermining tribal autonomy and the economic deprivation caused by the decade-long drought that devastated Syria’s rural, agriculture-dependent regions.

Baggara tribesmen are also religiously divided by the conversion to Shi’ism of a reported quarter of the Baggara confederation in villages south of Aleppo as a result of Iranian-funded proselytization (see Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012; September 15, 2011). Tribal leaders from the Shammar and Ougaidat confederations offered a cultural explanation for the Baggara’s lack of internal tribal coherence and Sunni to Shiite conversions by suggesting they were the result of the Baggara’s roots as a sheep or goat-herding tribe and not a “noble” camel-herding tribe. [11] In Aleppo, Baggara fighters are reported to work with the Syrian military to attack opposition controlled neighborhoods in the city, and Syrian opposition fighters also claim to have fought Baggara tribesmen supporting the Syrian military during a battle fought to free prisoners held at the Aleppo Central Prison. [12]

Overall leadership of the Baggara was at one point claimed by Shaykh Nawaf Raghib al-Bashir, the son of the now deceased former paramount Shaykh of the Baggara. Shaykh al-Bashir, who was one of the prominent opposition figures who signed the 2005 reformist Damascus Declaration, was jailed by the Syrian government in 2011 and reportedly forced to issue a statement in support of President Bashar al-Assad (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 18, 2012). Following his defection to Turkey, Shaykh al-Bashir became a prominent leader within the Council of the Arab Tribes in Syria and the leader of the Jazirah and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria (al-Safir [Beirut], February 21).

The Jazirah and Euphrates Front to Liberate Syria is an opposition organization that, according to Shaykh al-Bashir, consists of approximately 138 armed opposition battalions and brigades in the Jazirah region that coordinate closely with the FSA’s Supreme Military Command but are autonomous from the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the Syrian National Council (Zaman al-Wasl [Homs], March 23). Shaykh al-Bashir is also said to have personal command of approximately 500 to 3,000 armed fighters organized into fighting groups that are reportedly organized under Alwiya Ahfaad al-Rasul’s umbrella in areas of northern al-Raqqa and al-Hasakah governorates. [13]

Anti-Kurdish Militancy

Shaykh al-Bashir has organized several armed groups that have actively sought to attack Kurds in and around the ethnically mixed city of Ras al-‘Ayn in the northeastern area of al-Hasakah governorate along the Turkish border (National [Dubai], January 30). Pro-government Baggara fighters, without links to Shaykh al-Bashir, are also stated to have participated in attacks against the Kurdish Partiya Yekitiya Demokrat (PYD – Democratic Union Party) in the ethnically mixed northern Aleppo neighborhood of Shaykh Maqsud (Welati.info, May 11, 2012). The participation of Baggara tribal fighters in attacks against Kurds demonstrates the continuingly fragile state of Kurdish and Arab tribal relations in ethnically mixed regions such as Aleppo and al-Jazirah (see Terrorism Monitor, June 1, 2012).

The cities of al-Hasakah and Qamishli in the northeastern area of the governorate of al-Hasakah near the borders with Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan have emerged as a site of conflict between Arab tribes and Kurds. In Qamishli, members of the Ta’ie tribe have been organized into pro-Assad “Popular Committees” under the command of the Syrian MP and Ta’ie Shaykh Muhammad Fares and are reported to have engaged in several clashes with Kurdish fighters from the PYD [All4Syria, November 30, 2012]. However, local Arab tribal leaders and Kurdish notables who grew up together have formed a joint council in Qamishli to avoid such conflict. The conflict on the Kurdish side is generated by individuals and groups linked to the PYD. [14]

Conclusion

Tribal identity is used in restive areas of Syria to mobilize and direct the armed activities of tribesmen in support of both the government and the opposition. Further, tribal identity (even where dormant, as is often the case in major cities) will, as occurred in Iraq, assert itself more prominently among Arab Sunnis across Syria as the country further destabilizes, including in the major urban areas of western Syria such as Aleppo and Damascus. Tribalism is a socio-cultural fact throughout Syria, not just in the less developed eastern governorates of the country. It is an important form of traditional civil society that will help determine the success of local or foreign-supported security arrangements, affect good governance and impact the sustainability of long-term stability operations and economic development throughout the country. As anti-Assad states in the international community debate options for implementing potential post-Assad stability operations, Syrian Arab tribes will be a critical part of this effort.

Carole A. O’Leary is a Visiting Scholar at the Columbus School of Law’s Program in Law & Religion within the Catholic University of America (CUA).

Nicholas A. Heras is an independent analyst and consultant on Middle East issues and a former David L. Boren Fellow.

VIDEO: PKK kills three in protest shooting in Syria – al-Arabiya

Three people were killed and a number of others injured when members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) opened fire on protesters in the Syrian Kurdish-dominated town of Amuda in the Hasakeh district.

People gathered on Thursday night to call for the release of activists who had been detained by the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is affiliated with the PKK and has control over most of Syria’s Kurdish areas in the north.

The opposition has repeatedly accused the PYD of collaborating with the Assad regime, however, the Kurdish group has denied such allegations.

There has been an upsurge of protests and demonstrations in the Hasakeh district following the arrest of activists who support the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a conflict that has entered its third year and has led to the death of more than 90,000 people.

Syria’s Foreign Legions – Mona Alami

A lengthy uprising and the growing radicalization of the Syrian street have fueled the rise of jihadi fighters. Over recent years, the al-Qaeda franchise has been bolstered by the ruthless violence used by the Assad regime against what started as peaceful protests. Today, demonstrations have turned into a sectarian war, pitting in some instances a “Sunni Umma” against a “Nusayri” regime. This has strong appeal for jihadi fighters from neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine.

A few months after the beginning of the uprising, bloggers on Salafi websites began asking jihadi scholars for fatwas allowing them to join the protest movement. Sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti advised bloggers to join the protests as long as they avoided calling for democracy or any other secular slogan. At the end of 2011, Ousama al-Shehabi, a commander in Fatah al-Islam in Lebanon, called for armed struggle in Syria on the Shumoukh al-Islam online forum.1 This was followed by a fatwa posted by Sheikh al-Shinqiti on Minbar al-Tawhid Wa al-Jihad, allowing for the use of violence against the Assad regime.

In February 2012, al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called on militants in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey to rise up and support what he called “their brothers in Syria.” Around the same time, Jordanian Salafi Sheikh Abou Mohamad Tahawi released a fatwa calling for jihad in Syria. “I called for any man able to go for Jihad in Syria; it is the responsibility of any good Muslim to stop the bloodshed perpetrated by the Nusayri regime,” the sheikh said in an interview.2 Tahawi was arrested a few months ago by Jordanian intelligence.3

Arab Israeli jailed for joining Syria rebels – NOW

An Arab Israeli was sent to jail on Monday for more than two years for going to Syria where he joined rebels battling against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.

Hikmat Massarwa, from Taibe village in Galilee, was given 30 months in prison by Lod District Court as part of a plea bargain in which he admitted contacts with an enemy agent, illegally leaving the country and infiltration.

Israel is technically at war with Syria and it is illegal for its citizens to travel there.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham in Raqqah: Demonstrations and Counter-Demonstrations – Jihadology – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

In a previous post for Jihadology I documented how looking at evidence from Raqqah Governorate basically illustrates that the designations of Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) are interchangeable in that area. The latest controversy that has emerged in the city of Raqqah itself further demonstrates this conclusion. … Good discussion follows, with links to videos

Face-to-face with Abu Sakkar, Syria’s ‘heart-eating cannibal’ – BBC

Cannibal

… “I really don’t remember,” he says, when I ask if it was the man’s heart, as reported at the time, or liver, or a piece of lung, as a doctor who saw the video said. He goes on: “I didn’t bite into it. I just held it for show.”

The video says otherwise. It is one of the most gruesome to emerge from Syria’s civil war. In it, Abu Sakkar stands over an enemy corpse, slicing into the flesh.

“It looks like you’re carving him a Valentine’s heart,” says one of his men, raucously. Abu Sakkar picks up a bloody handful of something and declares: “We will eat your hearts and your livers you soldiers of Bashar the dog.” Then he brings his hand up to his mouth and his lips close around whatever he is holding. At the time the video was released, in May, we rang him and he confirmed to us that he had indeed taken a ritual bite (of a piece of lung, he said).

Now, meeting him face-to-face, he seems a bit more circumspect, though his anger builds when I ask why he carried out this depraved act. “I didn’t want to do this. I had to,” he tells me. “We have to terrify the enemy, humiliate them, just as they do to us. Now, they won’t dare be wherever Abu Sakkar is.”

He is 27, a stocky, tough-looking Bedouin from the Baba Amr district of Homs, with a wild stare and skin burned a dark brown by the sun. He tells me the story of his involvement in the revolution, leading to his current notoriety. …

Syria Baath party leadership replaced, including VP Sharaa – Daily Star

Syria’s ruling Baath party, headed by the country’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, announced on Monday that its top leadership would be replaced, including Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa.

The party’s central committee “held a lengthy meeting… on Monday morning,” at which “a new national leadership was chosen,” the Baath party website said.

It published the names of the new leadership, which included none of the party’s old chiefs with the exception of Assad.

Egypt

 

The argument over whether what happened in Egypt on Wednesday, July 3, was a coup or a revolution is really an argument over the legitimacy of the actions taken. If it was a revolution, it was perhaps a manifestation of the popular will, and so would have a sort of Rousseauan legitimacy. If it was merely a military coup against an elected president, then it lacks that legitimacy.

In fact, there certainly was a popular revolutionary element to the events, with literally millions of protesters coming out on Sunday and after, in the biggest demonstrations in Egyptian history. You can’t dismiss that as merely a coup d’etat from on top by a handful of officers.

But on Wednesday there was also a military coup, provoked by the officer corps’ increasing dissatisfaction with President Muhammad Morsi as well as a determination not to stand by as the country threatened to devolve into chaos, as rival street crowds confronted one another.

… In the end, the revolution and the coup worked in tandem. They were a “revocouption.” Such a conjunction is not unusual in history. The American Revolution against the British was a war before it issued ultimately in a Federal government, and the first president was the general who led the troops. Likewise, the 1949 Communist Revolution in China was not just a matter of the civilian party taking over; there had been a war of liberation against Japan and a civil war between Mao Ze Dong’s Communist troops and the Guomindang, and Mao’s leadership of the Red Army was central to the revolution. …

Muslim Brotherhood site says Egypt’s new president is secretly Jewish – WP

IkhwanOnline, the official Web site of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, posted an article on Thursday asserting that the country’s new interim president, Adly Mansour, is secretly Jewish. The article, since taken offline, suggested that Mansour was part of an American and Israeli conspiracy to install Mohamed ElBaradei, a former U.N. official and  Egyptian opposition figure, as president.

Mansour, the supreme justice of Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, was sworn in as interim president on Thursday after the military announced that President Mohamed Morsi was no longer in charge. Morsi was a close ally of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has held large demonstrations protesting his ouster. That the Muslim Brotherhood would be suspicious of Mansour, and of the military that toppled Morsi to install him, is not surprising.

Still, the IkhwanOnline article suggests that some elements of the Muslim Brotherhood may be indulging in conspiracy theories that ignore their own role in public outrage about Morsi’s rule and may be promoting the anti-Semitic ideas that engendered so much international skepticism of their rule. There is no indication that there is any truth to the article.

The article cited as its source the purported Facebook page of an al-Jazeera Arabic broadcaster, although it’s not clear whether the Facebook page is real. The article claims that Mansour is “considered to be a Seventh Day Adventist, which is a Jewish sect” (in fact, Seventh Day Adventism is considered part of Protestant Christianity). It further claims that Mansour tried to convert to Christianity but was rebuffed by the Coptic pope, a major Egyptian religious figure, who supposedly refused to baptize him.

Muslim Brotherhood’s supreme leader arrested hours before Egypt’s interim president sworn in – NY Daily News – Collection of Photos

Mohammed Badie was arrested Wednesday night in a coastal resort city of Egypt only hours before the country’s military-appointed interim President Adly Mansour, chief justice of the Supreme Constitutional Court, was sworn in Thursday.

The leader of the Egyptian Coptic in Britain has expressed hope for the future of Egyptian after President Mohamed Morsi was removed in a coup yesterday. …

“Persecution has increased exponentially since the uprising [in January 2011]. There have been more deaths in two years than in the last 20 years, due to the lack of law and order

While the bishop emphasised Coptic Church is neutral in Egyptian politics, “does not back any movement, we are not players”, there were obviously deep concerns among Egyptian Christians about the direction the Muslim Brotherhood government was taking the country.

“It is not a Christian-Muslim issue. The government has taken a line that excludes a large proportion of the population,” Bishop Angaelos said, and the economy was falling to pieces. “I hope this new development brings a new era. The country needs to be rebuilt.”

Although the Egyptian Army was responsible for a massacre of 28 Christians in Maspero in October 2011, the Bishop said it had “acted with integrity” by swearing in the chief justice, Adly Mansour, as acting president. He said the problem was with the leadership, and that there should have been an inquiry into Maspero.

The problem, he said, was “a lack of political integrity and experience. Lots of promises are being made and not been kept. Morsi promised to have a woman and Christian as vice-presidents, but then he was told that according to sharia law we couldn’t have women or Christians ruling.

With fall of Muslim Brotherhood, is Hamas at risk? – LA Times

As the sudden fall of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood reverberates through the Middle East, perhaps nowhere are events being watched more anxiously than in Gaza Strip, the seaside enclave controlled by the Islamist group’s Palestinian spinoff, Hamas.

Seeing its Egyptian mentor swept from power after only one year has unnerved many Hamas leaders, despite the group’s tight political and security control over Gaza.

… Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas has struggled to balance its Islamist and militant roots with the realities and responsibilities of governing. And like its Egyptian brethren, Hamas has been criticized for failing to deliver. Gaza’s 1.5 million residents remain locked in poverty and isolation, in part because Hamas is widely labeled a terrorist organization and isolated by Israel and the much of the West.

Already some Hamas rivals from the Palestinian secular faction Fatah are predicting that Gaza residents also will rise up. Hamas spokesman Ihab Ghussein insisted the group is not worried, labeling talk of a revolt “ridiculous.”

… Emboldened by Morsi’s rise, Hamas over the past year had attempted to impose stricter Islamic laws in Gaza, moving to segregate schools by gender, cracking down on women smoking or wearing low-cut jeans and forcing young men into barbershops to change their Western-style haircuts.

Before he was replaced, Morsi was also criticized for spending too much time pursuing a conservative Islamist agenda that did nothing to alleviate economic problems and alienated much of Egypt’s secular and non-Muslim population — just the accusations that could eventually undermine Hamas’ rule in Gaza.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Outrage: Protests and Gunfire Follow Morsi’s Ousting – TIME

To bar entrance to the stretch of Nasr Road where several thousand diehard Muslim Brothers have established a makeshift protest camp, the Egyptian army parked a line of armored vehicles, evenly spaced and impossible to miss — standing as they are between the grave of former Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and the reviewing stand where the Egyptian president was assassinated by Islamist extremists.

A couple of long blocks further on, bearded men stand behind homemade shields at a checkpoint of their own. The street beyond is crowded with a fraction of the millions who lifted the Brotherhood to power in every election since the 2011 overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak. Some sit dejected on curbs. A few arrange piles of broken concrete – first gathered as weapons – into swooping Arabic letters that might be read from the air: “Legitimacy is the source,” reads one. Most, however,  stand quietly in small groups, keen to articulate both their acute sense of betrayal and a determination that has been a hallmark of the Brotherhood since it was founded 80 years ago, though now expressed in more apocalyptic terms.

“The veil of democracy has been removed,” says Ali Holayel, 37, of Suez City. “We adopted peacefulness. We adopted democracy. They have used democracy against us.

“The end of it,” he says, “will be our souls, our deaths. The whole Islamic movement will join.”

The Brothers are scrambling for footing in a world suddenly turned upside down.  Until Wednesday afternoon, they held the presidency, the cabinet, the upper house of parliament, and the prospect of months before being called to account by voters in the next election.  Then President Mohamed Morsi was taken into custody by the army, arrest warrants were issued for 300 others and the armored personnel carriers moved into place.

“How is the democracy game played?” asks Sayeed Mohammad, a towel around his neck to cut the heat from Thursday’s afternoon sun. “Majority and minority, right? Fifty-percent plus one, majority rules. We’re not cutting anyone out of the process. We’re just asking people to respect the rules of the game.”

… “The thing that upsets me right now is they’re making us feel like we don’t really belong to the country,” says Hassan Ahmed, 47, and leaning on a car listening to speakers outside the Rabaa al-Adawia mosque, ground zero for the encampment. “I don’t really care about political Islam. I’m not here about political Islam. I’m here as a regular person who voted. If it was [Mohammad] El-Baradei who was president and he was removed by force, I would be here all the same,” Ahmed says, naming the liberal Nobel Laureate who heads a secular liberal party.

Ahmed, an engineer, said he voted for Morsi but is not himself a member of the Brotherhood. “I elected Morsi because he had an institution that would work with him, spread out all over Egypt and they knew the problems of the population.” He said he found himself weeping after the coup, and made his way to the encampment, one of two in Cairo. “I came here only a few hours ago, but I came here to die,” he says, and chuckles.

No confrontation appeared imminent at the time, but on Friday afternoon Brotherhood supporters marched from a mass rally at the Nasr Road encampment to the army installation where Morsi is thought to be held. Gunshots were heard, and journalists saw at least one body. Reuters reported three killed. A military spokesman insisted soldiers fired only blanks. Before the march, Brotherhood spokesman Gehad El-Haddad said in a Tweet that the struggle against the coup would take place only through “peaceful means,” through a National Coalition. “Any violence is rejected.”

It seems too early to tell which way things would go. In Egypt’s largely lawless Sinai peninsula, where groups affiliated with al Qaeda have taken root,  attacks on the military put the region under an official state of emergency. But there were also signs that other Islamist groups were continuing to invest in politics, evidently happy to capitalize on the Brotherhood’s woes: The Salafist Nour party was represented on the podium Wednesday where Gen. Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi announced Morsi’s removal. And the Islamic Group, which throughout the 1990s carried out terror attacks aimed at bringing down the Egyptian state, called for “a comprehensive reconciliation.” Why? “To open a bright future for our dear Egypt.”

The little-known jurist who was appointed interim president, Adli Mansour, professed that the Brotherhood would be welcome to participate in the elections he vowed were forthcoming. But it was unclear whether the Brotherhood could be lured back into the process. Their urban encampments amounted to an expression of the politics of protest that have held sway in Egypt – the one straddling Nasr Road in many ways a mini-Tahrir, with its makeshift tents and tea vendors and nonstop speeches.

At one point Thursday, there was even a phalanx of clerics from Al-Azhar University, their distinctive red and white hats bobbing in formation as they arrived from a side street, chanting “Illegitimate.” The University’s chief cleric supported the coup, but the school’s faculty includes a good number of Brotherhood supporters. …

The darkly funny joke that sums up Egypt’s crisis – WP – Max Fisher

Before the joke, the set up: Since the Muslim Brotherhood was first founded in Egypt in 1928, it has been severely persecuted, including by the three Egyptian presidents who ruled from 1956 through the 2011 revolution: Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After Mubarak fell, Muslim Brotherhood members swept the country’s first elections, even taking the presidency, although President Mohamed Morsi’s one year in office has been extremely controversial, culminating in mass protests this week, with many calling for him to step down and the military hinting it might step in.

Now the joke, told by a spokesman for Egyptian opposition figure Amr Moussa and relayed by Al Jazeera’s Hoda Abdel-Hamid: “Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak tried to get rid of the Muslim Brotherhood. Only Morsi succeeded.”

Muslim Brotherhood key to Mursi’s rise and fall – al-Arabiya – Octavia Nasr

The Muslim Brotherhood had the chance to govern Egypt after winning elections fair and square a year ago. But instead of governing and protecting all Egyptians as their civil responsibility and civic duty dictate, the Muslim Brotherhood divided, polarized and proved beyond any doubt that political Islam – just like militant Islam – will never be inclusive. As a consequence, it will never be accepted in the mainstream without major concessions and multiple metamorphoses.

… Political Islam is fundamentalist and exclusive by nature. It survives and thrives on animosity and persecution. It feeds off of the underdog sentiment and it attracts certain masses around it, controls them and directs them any which way it wants: To the streets when needed or to the ballot boxes.

On this historic juncture for Egypt, let us remember this:

The Muslim Brotherhood had no significant role in Egypt’s revolution in 2011 and the fall of Hosni Mubarak that ensued.

The Muslim Brotherhood has said early on that it will not seek political representation and that it will not run in elections.

Mohammed Mursi ran for the highest office on the promise to listen to the people and allow them to express themselves and to have a constitution and congress that represent them and protect them. He even said in a TV interview once, perhaps a premonition of what is to come, “No president of Egypt will remain in office if the people are not satisfied with him,” and called on Egyptians to demonstrate against him if he does not abide by the constitution and the law. …

Why the Western Media are Getting Egypt Wrong – Khaled Shaalan

Western media coverage of the massive waves of protests in Egypt over the past two days is revealing of a number of problems that plague knowledge production about the Arab world.

As crowds across the country were just warming up for the historic protests, around midday on 30 June, reports from Cairo appearing on Western broadcast and online news outlets focused on projecting an image of “polarization.” Rallies opposing the Muslim Brotherhood were represented as being balanced out, and in some cases even outnumbered, by the demonstration in favor of President Mohamed Morsi. The likelihood of violent clashes were carefully embedded within the news as a main characteristic of the current political situation in Egypt.

As the day went by, the 30 June anti-Morsi demonstrations turned out to probably be the largest ever in Egyptian history, with Egyptians from all walks of life peacefully, yet audaciously, denouncing the Brotherhood’s rule. In time for the evening news cycle in Europe and morning newscasts in the United States, editors of printed and online news outlets in the West started playing down their initial “polarization” message and began to recognize the size of dissidents as being truly unprecedented and in the millions.

The Egyptian people’s defiance of Brotherhood rule is a serious popular challenge to the most significant strategic reordering of the region perhaps since the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916. …

Prosecutors have begun on Monday afternoon an investigation into the bloody clashes between the Egyptian army and pro-Morsi protesters at the Republican Guard headquarters in Cairo earlier in the day.

The clashes  left at least 42 civilians dead and 322 injured.

Meanwhile, the Egyptian army said one officer died and 40 soldiers were injured, including seven in critical condition. …

Contradictory stories

Conflicting reports have emerged on how the clashes started on the fifth day of a Muslim Brotherhood spearheaded sit-in at the army facility to demand the return of deposed President Mohamed Morsi.

In an official statement published by Al-Ahram Arabic news website, the army said an “armed terrorist group” attempted to break into the Republican Guard headquarters in the early hours of Monday and “attacked security forces.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s FJP, however, issued an official statement saying “peaceful protesters were performing the Fajjr (dawn) prayers” when the army “fired tear gas and gunshots at them without any consideration for the sanctity of prayers or life.” …

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Post-Coup World – New Yorker – Rania Abouzeid

… So far, General al-Sisi, who was appointed by Morsi last August, has announced that the constitution has been suspended, that the chief of the Constitutional Court would temporarily assume the President’s duties (assisted by an interim council and a technocratic government) until early presidential elections could be held, and that parliamentary polls would follow. Islamist-run television channels were taken off the air shortly after the conclusion of Sisi’s short statement. Morsi was placed under house arrest, where he remained on Thursday. Saad el-Katatni, head of the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, and Rashad el-Bayoumi, one of the Brotherhood’s deputy leaders, were being held in Torah prison, the Egyptian state news agency MENA said Thursday—the same place Mubarak and his two sons are jailed. By Thursday afternoon, the Brotherhood’s supreme leader had also been arrested, according to press reports.

Being in opposition can be simpler than governing; the Brotherhood’s experiment exposed what many Egyptians perceived as its incompetence and inexperience. Morsi was increasingly seen as an Islamist autocrat in the making, especially after he effectively placed himself above the law in November, 2012, by decreeing that he was immune from judicial oversight.

Still, almost as dramatic as the swift downfall of an elected president is the rehabilitation of the military in the eyes of Egyptians. …

 

Lebanon / Hezbollah

 

Lebanese army fires shots to break up Sidon protests – al-Arabiya

Lebanese soldiers opened fire to break up a protest outside a mosque in the southern port of Sidon on Friday, days after the army fought Sunni Islamist militants there and seized control of the area.

The fighting earlier this week was the deadliest outbreak of violence in Lebanon to be fuelled by the two-year conflict in neighboring Syria. Some 18 soldiers were killed and dozens of supporters of firebrand cleric Sheikh Ahmed al-Assir also died.

Al Qaida-linked Nusra Front rebels blamed for bloody fight against Lebanese army in Sidon – McClatchy

The worst fighting in Lebanon in years, which wracked this coastal city one hour south of Beirut this week, was touched off by an influx of foreign fighters from Syria, Palestinian camps and other Arab countries into the compound of a radical Sunni cleric, according to knowledgeable people on both sides of the conflict.

The foreign fighters included members of Jabhat al Nusra, a Syrian rebel group also known as the Nusra Front, which is affiliated with al Qaida, according to the accounts, including that of a Lebanese military official. Nusra is considered the most effective rebel group fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its presence inside Lebanon, if confirmed, would provide evidence not just that the Syrian conflict has spread, but that Nusra fighters have extended their influence outside Syria and Iraq.

A worker for a non-governmental organization in the Ein al Hilweh refugee camp near Sidon told McClatchy that the fighting was sparked when a group of Syrians fresh from that country’s battlefields, as well as fighters from other Arab countries, on Sunday attacked a Lebanese armed forces checkpoint near the mosque and apartment of controversial Sunni cleric Ahmad al Assir. At least three soldiers were killed.

“At least 60 Syrian guys from Jabhat al Nusra had joined with Assir in the last few weeks,” said the worker, a well-known aid official who identifies himself as Abu Hussein, a nickname that means father of Hussein.

Abu Hussein said Assir also had received support from “at least 30 Palestinians” affiliated with Jund al Sham, a terrorist organization whose name has been shared by a variety of al Qaida-linked groups and that is influential in the Ein al Hilweh camp, as well as what he called “jihadis from other Arab countries that had been fighting in Syria.”

Abu Hussein credited the Nusra fighters for the strong military performance of Assir’s followers in the clashes, which killed about 18 soldiers and wounded scores more.

“These Assir guys had no experience or training, so there was a military commander who had come in to help, I think he was from Nusra. This is why so many soldiers died,” Abu Hussein said.

As many as 300 fighters were in the compound, according to Abu Hussein, about 100 of whom were unaccounted for on Tuesday, including Assir. The whereabouts also were unknown of a former pop star turned Islamist militant, Fadel Shaker, who took time during the siege to record a morbid video released online in which he claimed that he personally killed two soldiers. …

Radical Sunni current gaining ground (in Lebanon) – NOW – Mona Alami

The post-2005 years have ushered in an unraveling of the moderate Sunni street, and the start of the protracted Syrian war and Hezbollah’s involvement is increasingly defined as a sectarian regional conflict. This has caused a dangerous shift on the Lebanese Sunni street, one with possible disastrous long-term consequences.

The assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in 2005, followed by the killing of March 14 figures and the decampment of former prime minister Saad Hariri, combined with political mismanagement – have resulted, over time, in the crippling of Lebanon’s main Sunni political faction, the Future movement. Lebanese Sunnis disenchanted with the political elite feel misrepresented and sidelined from power. This worsened significantly after Hezbollah’s unilateral decision to fight alongside the Assad regime in Syria, especially the border Qusayr region.

Hezbollah, the main Shiite party, already has a bad reputation among many members of the Sunni community. Four Hezbollah members have been accused of the killing of PM Hariri alongside 21 others. Fingers were also pointed at Hezbollah after the assassinations of two Sunni notables: police investigator Wissam Eid and ISF’s General Wissam al-Hassan.

A 2008 government decision to shut down Hezbollah’s telecommunication network and to remove Beirut’s Rafiq Hariri airport’s security chief, Wafiq Shoucair, over alleged ties to Hezbollah sparked clashes between Sunni and Druze militants and fighters affiliated with the Party of God. Tripoli‘s burning front, pitting Sunnis supporting the Syrian rebellion against Alawites aligned with the regime of Bashar al-Assad, has not calmed Sunnis’ resentment toward Hezbollah – which is perceived as adding fuel to the sectarian fire.

Whether these accusations are justified is not what matters. Instead, it’s the growing feeling of marginalization experienced by many Sunnis in Lebanon. This has led to a slow but certain radicalization of some members of these communities, particularly around demarcation lines where Shiites and Sunnis co-exist such as in Tripoli, the Beqaa, Sidon, and certain neighborhoods of Beirut.

While most Sunnis still follow mainstream political factions, radical currents are gaining ground. Several concerning developments have marked recent months. Islamic groups, which used to be on the margin of the Lebanese political scene are consolidating and gaining strength, such as the Lebanese Salafi movement, which has formed the “Tayyar ahl Sunna,” the movement of the Sunni community.

The exodus of Sunni youth to the Syrian battlefront has increased significantly in recent weeks. While Salafi sources in Tripoli previously estimated the number of Lebanese jihadis fighting alongside the Syrian rebels to be around 100, they now say the number has dramatically risen. “About 80 Tripoli Sunnis have gone to fight with the rebels in Qusayr in recent weeks,” says one Salafi source from Tripoli who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. The son of Dai Islam al Chahal, Lebanon’s highest authority in the mainstream Salafi current, is fighting with his cousin in Qusayr. He is said to have been injured in a battle last week in which five other Lebanese fighters were killed. Tripoli fighters battling in Qusayr had responded to the call for jihad launched by Sheikh Salem Rafei last month. The enrollment of traditional Sunnis and mainstream Salafis (who do not generally advocate jihad) in the Syrian “holy war” is an indicator to be handled with care.

Hezbollah and the army of 12,000 – NOW

… Given the huge discrepancy in these numbers, questions emerge: are the figures real, or are they mere guesswork? And are they deliberately inflated for propaganda reasons from both camps? … In reality, most of these figures are grossly overinflated. Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria is probably in the hundreds, rather than thousands. …

Hezbollah supporters urge leadership: Stop sending our sons to die in Syria – JP

Amid the mounting death toll of Hezbollah operatives in Syria, a delegation of Hezbollah supporters in Lebanon has asked the Shi’ite group’s leadership to stop sending operatives to fight for Syrian President Bashar Assad, pan-Arabic daily Asharq Alawsat reported Sunday. …

 

Opinion / Intervention

 

Obama needs to act now on Syria: Column – Michael Doran and Michael O’Hanlon

By all accounts, President Obama reached his recent decision to supply arms directly to Syrian opposition groups with great reluctance. The president clearly understands that while getting into a war is easy, getting out is hard. The example of Iraq no doubt weighs heavily on his mind. But he also learned the lesson firsthand in Libya. After signing on to a limited mission, he was quickly forced to increase the level of U.S. participation or face the prospect of a rebel defeat.

Nevertheless, the delay in committing the United States to the success of the Syrian rebels is regrettable. More lives have been lost, and battlefield gains the insurgents enjoyed six months ago have been squandered. Regaining the momentum will take more than just the limited outside intervention currently contemplated. And even if it were possible to achieve the removal of Syrian President Bashar Assad on the cheap, his departure would no more guarantee peace in Syria than the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 brought stability to Iraq.

The fundamental point is this: A peace deal is not feasible under current conditions. It will require greater military effort up front and it will also require, in the end, international peacekeepers to implement it.

Moreover, U.S. troops in modest numbers must be part of that force. No other country has the necessary military enablers and the political clout to provide the glue in a multinational military coalition.

Benefit of delay

In this respect, the president’s reluctance to get involved has actually had a beneficial effect. It has dramatically demonstrated to America’s allies that the U.S. is indeed the indispensable nation. In one way or another, Britain, France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar — to name just six states — have all urged Obama to play a more robust leadership role.

This clamor for U.S. intervention is an entirely new factor in Middle Eastern affairs. It is also one that gives America much more opportunity to manage the risks of military intervention. …

Obama Succeeded in Libya; He’s Failing in Syria – Atlantic

Why did the administration’s response to the chemical weapons use not involve either punishing the commanders in charge or a strategy to secure the weapons?

President Barack Obama made his first call for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to step down on Thursday, August 18, 2011 and then proceeded to enjoy a private 10-day vacation with his family on Martha’s Vineyard. Nearly two years later, Assad is still in power, and it seems clear today that Obama’s posturing nearly two years ago was unattached to an action plan to achieve Assad’s ouster.

At the time, liberal interventionists and neoconservative hawks pommeled the White House for dragging its heels in finally calling for Assad’s ouster, and many of these critics claimed credit for Obama’s eventual statement that the United States government favored regime change in Syria.

Perhaps Obama believed that Assad’s position would crumble like that of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who did relinquish power after President Obama called for him to step down. In the Egypt case, then-Senator John Kerry called for Mubarak to step down on Tuesday, the February 1. The following day, Senator and former presidential candidate John McCain “broke with the President” and joined Kerry’s call to Mubarak for the President to step down. …

Faisal Mekdad: ‘The US has no control over the rebels it is arming – and if Cameron and Hague think weapons can force Assad’s departure, they are stupid’ – Patrick Cockburn

Syria is convinced the US cannot control the rebel groups it is arming and will be unable to get them to declare a ceasefire that would be central to any successful peace talks, says the country’s Deputy Foreign Minister. This puts a further obstacle in the way of negotiations in Geneva proposed by the US and Russia which seem the best chance of ending the Syrian civil war. It now appears they will either not take place, or if they do, they will achieve nothing.

Faisal Mekdad says in an interview with The Independent in Damascus that the Americans “provide arms and money but they have absolutely no control. Nobody will listen. The US has been trying to unify this opposition for two years and you can see the results: more disintegration.” Mr Mekdad has been at the centre of Syrian foreign policy at a time when the country has been progressively isolated, while still managing to retain crucial allies.

Mr Mekdad looks more confident and relaxed than he did six months ago, probably reflecting a Syrian government belief that it has survived the worst of the crisis. A dapper, fast-talking man, Mr Mekdad comes from Daraa in southern Syria where the uprising began two years ago.

The cavernous Syrian foreign ministry feels insulated from the war, yet Mr Mekdad has not escaped the stresses of the conflict. His 84-year-old father was kidnapped and held for 14 days by rebels and he says he no longer goes to his family home because he wants to avoid further troubles. …

At the end of the interview Mr Mekdad commented that six months earlier Damascus had been resounding with the sound of artillery fire while now it is much quieter. In reality, this is not quite true and there is the constant boom of outgoing artillery and the occasional sharper crack of incoming fire from rebel mortars. …

Mr Mekdad does not look overly concerned by the postponement of the Geneva II peace conference, saying that Syria had always been ready and willing to attend without preconditions. But he goes out of his way to refute the idea that, if the US and its allies could make the rebels a bit stronger on the battlefield, “they can force the government to give more concessions. This is completely wrong,” he says. …

Qatar: Friends of Syria agree on ‘secret’ measures to arm rebels – al-Arabiya

Western and Arab countries opposed to the Syrian regime agreed on “secret” measures to change the military balance in Syria in favor of the rebel forces, Qatar’s prime minister said on Saturday.

Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani spoke at the end of a “friend of Syria” meeting of “secret decisions about practical measures to change the situation on the ground in Syria,” AFP reported.

“Most countries, except for two, are agreed on how to provide assistance to the rebels through the Military Council,” he said, without naming the two dissenting states.

The 11 main countries which form the “Friends of Syria” coalition agrees “to provide urgently all the necessary materiel and equipment to the opposition on the ground, each country in its own way in order to enable them to counter brutal attacks by the regime and its allies,” according to Reuters.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius the meeting called on Hezbollah and Iran to immediately end their intervention in Syria.

GCC calls for urgent U.N. meeting to prevent Homs massacre – al-Arabiya

Members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) called for an urgent U.N. Security Council meeting to prevent a massacre from taking place in the Syrian central city of Homs.

Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, have been battling rebels – most of whom are Sunni Muslims – for the past three days in Homs, which is a strategic center point as it is on the road linking Damascus to the coast.

“Considering the Syrian regime’s insistence on ethnic and sectarian cleansing, as recently happened near Homs, and its use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, the continued siege of Homs is inhumane and threatens a massacre,” said a GCC statement.

“The GCC calls on the Security Council to convene on an urgent basis to lift the siege of the city of Homs,” added the statement by the GCC, which is made up of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The Gulf Arab states said they were particularly worried about the presence of Hezbollah on the side of President Assad – who is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The GCC said it was concerned about Hezbollah fighting “under the banner” of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

On Sunday, GCC foreign ministers met with Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign representative, and urged European countries to arm the rebels immediately.

Taking Outsize Role in Syria, Qatar Funnels Arms to Rebels – NYT

As an intermittent supply of arms to the Syrian opposition gathered momentum last year, the Obama administration repeatedly implored its Arab allies to keep one type of powerful weapon out of the rebels’ hands: heat-seeking shoulder-fired missiles.

The missiles, American officials warned, could one day be used by terrorist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, to shoot down civilian aircraft.

But one country ignored this admonition: Qatar, the tiny, oil- and gas-rich emirate that has made itself the indispensable nation to rebel forces battling calcified Arab governments and that has been shipping arms to the Syrian rebels fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad since 2011.

Since the beginning of the year, according to four American and Middle Eastern officials with knowledge of intelligence reports on the weapons, Qatar has used a shadowy arms network to move at least two shipments of shoulder-fired missiles, one of them a batch of Chinese-made FN-6s, to Syrian rebels who have used them against Mr. Assad’s air force. Deployment of the missiles comes at a time when American officials expect that President Obama’s decision to begin a limited effort to arm the Syrian rebels might be interpreted by Qatar, along with other Arab countries supporting the rebels, as a green light to drastically expand arms shipments.

Qatar’s aggressive effort to bolster the embattled Syrian opposition is the latest brash move by a country that has been using its wealth to elbow its way to the forefront of Middle Eastern statecraft, confounding both its allies in the region and in the West. The strategy is expected to continue even though Qatar’s longtime leader, Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, stepped down last week, allowing his 33-year-old son to succeed him.

“They punch immensely above their weight,” one senior Western diplomat said of the Qataris. “They keep everyone off balance by not being in anyone’s pocket.”

“Their influence comes partly from being unpredictable,” the diplomat added. …

The Obama administration quietly blessed the shipments to Libya of machine guns, automatic rifles, mortars and ammunition, but American officials later grew concerned as evidence grew that Qatar was giving the weapons to Islamic militants there. …

The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus – by Matthew McNaught

We are proud to post the following beautiful reflection by Matthew McNaught. Those who have lived in Damascus (or other Syrian cities) will relate to the pervasive presence of the “service” (serv-EES; plural ser-a-VEES). Personal accounts like this remind us of the Syria we love and miss. Matthew’s thoughtful celebration of the Syrian microbus is touching and helps us realize that even a transportation system can be an unexpected cultural treasure. Matthew maintains a blog called Ibn Sifr.

The End of the Line: A Microbus Map of Damascus

by Matthew McNaught

 

1.

 

 

Here is a Syrian microbus, more commonly known as the servees or micro:

 

Syrian service

 

As you can see, it doesn’t look like anything special. A white box on four wheels, about ten seats, a sliding door on the side, a sign on the roof with the route written in large letters. But three years after leaving Damascus, the servees is often on my mind.

I went to Damascus at the start of 2007 with a plan to study Arabic for a year. The city won me over, and I decided to stay on. I worked there as an English teacher until the end of 2009.

Some days, I still have pangs of nostalgia for the servees. When I am waiting at the bus stop on a wet Southampton morning, for instance, watching the back of the bus I’ve just missed as it disappears around the corner. When I look at the timetable and see I have thirty minutes till the next one. This is the kind of time when I indulge myself: I imagine for a moment a battered white servees sailing down the street towards me. I see myself flagging it down, pulling open the clunking slide door with a mumbled salaamu ‘alaykum, and riding the micro again.

Riding the micro is one of the most efficient ways I have known of getting around a city. It came regularly, responding to demand at busy times but also running late into the night. You could flag one down wherever you were, and you could get off wherever you wanted. They drove fast, weaving through traffic at bum-clenching speed. They were also absurdly cheap. When I first arrived, you could ride the servees five times for the price of a falafel sandwich. Sometime in 2009, the fare doubled, but it remained so cheap that even regular rides failed to make the slightest dent on my wallet. But it was not just the practical advantages that made me love the servees. It also had less tangible charms.

 

2.

 

Riding the servees was not easy for beginners. You first had to be initiated into its mysterious ways. I met the first hurdle when I discovered, to my surprise, that there were no maps of the different routes. There were no timetables, no central ticket offices. There was nothing but the minibuses themselves, snaking and swerving through busy streets, each heading in a winding line towards the final destination painted on the sign on its roof. The routes seemed to have always been there, as if they had emerged organically, like sheep-tracks or the paths of migratory birds. It seemed that every Damascene carried a microbus map in their head, like the knowledge of a London cabbie. But as a foreigner, I had to construct my own map, one line at a time.

In the beginning, my mental map of Damascus was a stubby little thing. It was a Lonely Planet Damascus, a wandering line from the ancient souqs of Old Damascus to the hotels and banks of the modern city centre, punctuated by famous ice-cream parlours, cheap restaurants and historic bathhouses. It was enchanting, but I wanted to see more. When I figured out how to navigate the servees lines, the larger city began to open out in front of me.

 

Syrian service

 

My servees apprenticeship began outside Bab Sharqi, the eastern gate of the old city. The first servees I took was the Jobar-Mezze line, which took me through the heart of the modern city to my Arabic classes at Damascus University. I would stand at the edge of the pavement, beneath the ancient stone tower. Nancy Ajram, the botox-enhanced Lebanese pop star, towered over me on a giant billboard across the road, seductively enjoying an ice cold Coca-Cola. The main road roared with several lanes of traffic that skirted around the Old City walls. The bend in the road gave me about 5 seconds to identify the right servees after it came speeding around the corner.

This was, I discovered, an excellent exercise in speed reading. As a beginner, you don’t read Arabic, you decipher it, picking apart each word letter by letter, brain straining and lips moving. But when the word is hurtling towards you on four wheels, you do not have that luxury. You have to be primed, ready for its shape; the swooping arms of the waw, raa and zaa, the dotted cap of the taa marbuta. With time, the names of the various servees routes came to occupy a special place in my brain, their shapes burned into my memory as some of the first Arabic words that I read as a native speaker reads — Ghouta, Qaboun, Midan-Sheikh, Duma, Barzeh, Harasta, Yarmouk, Jobar-Mezze.

 

Streets of Damascus

 

 
3.

 

For its passengers, the servees was simply a convenient way of getting from A to B. But it was also, inadvertently at least, a kind of meeting place. A place where Syrians of all ages and backgrounds came together for a moment, in an awkward shuffle of elbows and knees, before heading off their separate ways.

For this reason, riding the servees was an education for a foreigner like me. It seemed like all Syria was there. There would be manual workers in dusty work clothes alongside civil servants with shirts and briefcases. Chattering college girls, some in grey overcoats and tight white hijabs, others in jeans with their hair down. Old men in thaubs counting on prayer chains, and large housewives in black abayas with hijabs pinned above the chin; teardrop frames for pale faces.

The seats of the servees would soon fill up, but it seemed that a sacred rule of servees drivers was that there was always room for one more. As passengers, it was up to us to find imaginative ways of tessellating. It was times like this that reminded me that the Turkish name for the servees was ‘dolmuş’, meaning ‘stuffed’. Squatting awkwardly on the slippery hump above the back wheel, tightly pressed between one man’s legs and another man’s bottom, it was hard to dispel the feeling that we were the meaty stuffing in a tightly-packed aubergine.

 

Syrian service interior

Service interior – Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

But on other days, I would be lucky enough to find my favourite spot — the window seat directly behind the driver. Here I could lean my head sleepily against the window and stretch my legs (or at least not have them jammed up against my chin). If I was lucky, I would get to listen to the driver telling some anecdote to the passenger in the front seat. I rarely understood much, but I enjoyed the familiar phrases that would pepper the stories: I swear to God. By the prophet. You’ve gotta be joking. I’m serious, man.

 

4.

 

 

On an English bus, the passenger is a passive creature. The rules are simple: you pay your fare, you sit and you mind your own business. But riding the servees felt like joining a fleeting community.

Despite the chaos and the bustle, the servees was often a place of small kindnesses and civility. Men would give up their seats for women and the elderly. People would help the frailer passengers on and off. And there were rules pertaining to specific places in the servees. The person sitting nearest the door, for instance, would make sure that it was properly shut after every stop. And the one place I learned to avoid was the aisle seat behind the driver.

The first time I sat there, I was shocked to find myself bombarded with coins and notes from other passengers. I felt a rising panic as a woman pressed a 25 lira piece into my hand, saying ‘two fives’. A man then handed me a 50 lira note and a 5 lira piece, muttering ‘three fives and a five’. I realised that the passenger sitting there had the job of receiving fares from passengers, handing them over to the driver and making sure everyone got the right change passed back. I was up for language challenges, but a maths problem and a language problem wrapped up in one was more than my poor brain could take. A kind woman next to me noticed my bewilderment and sorted out the mess, and I made a mental note to never sit in that seat again.

 

Interior of Syrian microbus

Any visual impairment? Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment

 

Drivers were remarkably relaxed about when you paid the fare, as long as it reached them before you arrived at your destination. However, when I rode the service with Syrian friends, I soon learned that they would go to great lengths to stop me from paying my own fare. This appeared to be a common Syrian trait; I once saw two elderly ladies on a servees getting into a physical altercation over who paid. I let my friends win this battle a few times, but soon I learned to be as ruthless as them. I would prepare the change for both of us in the palm of my hand before the servees arrived, ready to make a lunge for the driver on the way to our seat.

Learning the language of the servees was also essential. As there were no fixed stops, you had to shout to the driver when you wanted to get off, something that initially made me very anxious. The first time I tried, I half-shouted to the driver from the back seat in a formal phrase straight from my Modern Standard Arabic textbook: ‘uriidu an anzil hunaa!’ When he didn’t respond, I repeated myself, shouting louder each time until he eventually pulled over. For some reason, this display prompted many stifled giggles in my fellow passengers. I only realised the reason for this when a Syrian friend told me that it was roughly comparable to yelling ‘VERILY, I WISH TO ALIGHT!’ on an English bus. After this, I quickly learned how to do it like a Damascene, with the standard phrase: ‘al yamiin!’ meaning ‘on the right!’.

But one day as I was riding the servees, I heard a man say something slightly different to the normal phrase. He was a big man, thick-set and stubbled, and he crouched in the aisle. When we approached his stop, he shouted ‘nezzilni, bullah!‘. It meant, literally, ‘let me off, by God’. There was nothing particularly unusual about the words in themselves, but there was something about the phrase that pleased me in some indefinable way. It might have been his accent, the gruff bark and falling intonation of a Damascene working man. It might have been the assertiveness of it, or its casual grandeur, invoking the name of God in order to get off a minibus. But to me, it said: here’s a man who knows exactly where he’s going, and exactly where he’s getting off.

And so I adopted this phrase. The first few times, it came out in a timid adolescent croak, and attracted some odd looks. But with time and practice, I liked to think, it developed into something approximating that man’s gravel tones.

 

5.

 

Once I had overcome these minor obstacles, I couldn’t help feeling a small buzz of mastery from riding the micro. I flagged them down with confidence and climbed on with a spring in my step. I would pity my ex-pat friends who relied on taxis. After a while, I even dared to take the accountant’s seat behind the driver. And when we approached my destination, I would bellow “let me off, by God!” and the driver would pull to the edge of the road without so much as a backwards glance.

I came to enjoy the variety between the micros. Some micros were tatty, all rusted metal and threadbare upholstery. A few were fitted out with plush interiors, multicoloured lights and thumping sound systems. Some had names written on the back window: princess, beautiful, light of my life. On some, we listened to the recitation of the Quran, the sonorous voice drenched in holy reverb. On others, it was rural debke music, with its abrasive pounding beats and the manic electric organ that sounded like an overdriven Casiotone with extra black keys.

With time, my microbus map grew to become a tangle of intersecting lines that joined up different parts of the city that I knew. The Mezze Autostrad line took me to my friend Jawad’s place, where we would sit on the balcony of his high rise flat, drinking tea and eating lentil and rice mujaddara discussing the confounding mysteries of Arabic grammar and the opposite sex. The Yarmouk line took me to the home of my Arabic teacher, Mazin, whose legendary parties would go on into the early hours. The Jeramana line took me to the hole-in-the-wall Iraqi bakery where I got my supplies of the pitta-like samoon and the crispy tanoori flat-bread, and I would ride the Midan line to some of the oldest and best restaurants in Damascus, famous for their grilled meats and fuul beans.

 

Under the Jesr Ra'is

Under the Jesr Ra’is

 

The Rukneddine line took me to one of my favourite places, where the houses climbed steeply up the rocky slopes of Mount Qassioun. I would ascend the steps past teetering buildings to the path that led to an ancient shrine that looked out over Damascus. Heading up in the early evening, I would watch the sun set as the call to prayer from a hundred mosques hung over the city like a fog.

The micro lines showed me a city of contrast; from wide tree-lined streets to densely built-up working class neighbourhoods. They showed me a city of diversity; from conservative Muslim areas to places rich in minorities; Druze, Ismaelis, Christians and Mandeans from Iraq.

I noticed that you could not get everywhere on the micro; there were blackspots. No servees went to the complex of expensive restaurants off the airport road or the swimming pools and leisure centres on the road to Beirut. They were places for people with cars. And it was unusual to see a servees in the high-class neighbourhoods of Maliki and Abu Roumaneh, with their jewellers, designer shops and luxury apartments with armed guards. Micros skirted around the edges and along the main thoroughfares, but rarely ventured inside.

When friends came to visit, I would insist on getting the servees rather than the taxi. ‘I’ll show them the real Damascus’, I would think to myself, and proudly take them to places outside of the usual tourist trail. It took me almost three years to feel like I really knew Damascus. But in the three years since I left, I have begun to realise how much was missing from my map.

 

 

6.

 

 

The last servees that I saw was on the news. It was torn open like a tin can. There was a bomb near the President Bridge, one of the main microbus hubs in the centre of town. The servees had been gutted by flames and its seats were wrenched apart by the blast. There were shoes scattered on the concrete outside.

 

Service destroyed in Damascus car bombing

Service destroyed in Damascus car bombing

 

Early on in the uprising, news of every bombing, massacre and military assault left me with a lingering knot of dread and sadness. But there came a point where the images of destruction began to lose their power. They hit my visual cortex with a numb familiarity, just one more item on the news parade: here is shiny-faced Cameron and his hand gestures. Here is George Clooney on a red carpet. And from Syria: shrouded bodies, weeping mothers, and the ragged skylines of ruined streets. The images were horrific in a distant way, but somehow, the scale of destruction had become too great for me to process. It was as if a parallel Syria had emerged: Syria the news story, the conflict, the humanitarian crisis. Meanwhile, the uneventful, everyday Damascus that I had loved remained intact in my memory, as if I could return to it at any moment.

 

Burned-out service, Photo: AP/SANA

Burned-out service – Photo: AP/SANA

 

Service burns behind Syrian security agents carrying a man at site of car bombing near the Baath party headquarters and Russian Embassy in central Damascus, Feb 21, 2013, SANA-AP

Service burns behind Syrian security agents carrying a man at site of car bombing near the Baath party headquarters and Russian Embassy in central Damascus, Feb 21, 2013 – Photo: SANA-AP

 

The image of the servees cut through this. It captured the moment when a familiar and mundane world turned hellish. A normal day: a school run, a commute, an errand. Mumbled greetings. Three warm bodies squeezed into each row of seats. The faint smells of aftershave and sweat, washing powder and cigarette smoke. Coins passed from palm to palm across the rows to the driver. In Syria this normality had seemed as solid as the concrete beneath our feet. The photo showed how fragile it had become.

 

Service damaged in Barzeh car bombing

Service damaged in Barzeh car bombing – Photo AFP/Getty Images

 

7.

 

 

When the uprising first reached the capital in 2011, I noticed something odd as I followed the news. The first areas in Damascus that rose up against the regime sounded strangely familiar, although I had never visited them: Jobar, Douma, Barzeh, Ghouta, Qaboun, Harasta. It took a moment before it hit me. They were the names that I had seen every day on the roofs of passing microbuses. They were the destinations of the routes; places on the outer limits of the city’s sprawling suburbs. Some of them were lines that I had ridden regularly within the city. But I didn’t have any friends or students in these places. There were no famous restaurants or beauty spots there. I’d never had a reason to ride the servees to the end of the line.

When I had taken the coach to other cities in Syria, I had occasionally glimpsed some of these areas out of the window. It had surprised me how far the urban sprawl stretched, a sea of grey in all directions. Some areas, like Douma, were cities in themselves, with their own souqs and parks and upmarket neighbourhoods. But as a general rule, the further we got from the centre of Damascus, the more the buildings became shabby and densely built up; naked concrete and breezeblock, unfinished roofs bristling with metal rods. The municipal services didn’t appear to reach this far; some streets were unpaved and rubbish piled up on corners. Why did the uprising reach the city through these outer suburbs? It might be suggested that the Sunni Muslim areas were the ones that rose up first. There is no denying the ugly sectarianism that has risen to the surface in this conflict. But most neighbourhoods in Damascus are dominated by Sunni Muslims. There must have been more to it than that.

When I mentioned this to Rami, a Syrian-Palestinian friend who now lives in the UK, he said that this was no coincidence. ‘This is not a war of politics, or religion, or sectarianism,’ he said. ‘It’s a war of poverty.’

 

 

8.

 

 

In the years I lived in Damascus, nothing much seemed to change. I had noticed the doubling of the servees fare along with an increase in the price of mazout heating oil. The price of bread also went up, and I was vaguely aware of a drought in the countryside from occasional news headlines. But none of this had impacted my Damascus. Looking back, the 5 lira increase in fare had reached me like a small tremor from a distant earthquake.

It wasn’t until I left Damascus that I realised the scale of the drought. Between 2007 and 2009, it had displaced 1.5 million people. Countless internal migrants had come to Damascus, and most lived in the outer suburbs of the city, where the housing was cheapest, and where they remained invisible to most people in the centre. These neighbourhoods were home to those who felt most keenly the grotesque imbalance of power and wealth in the country. They were the people who protested first, and who first faced the brutal reaction of the regime.

I was not blind to the poverty in Syria. I saw the contrast between rich and poor, but it was on the periphery of my vision. I didn’t see how far it stretched beyond the horizon. My Damascus felt normal but it was an anomaly. It was an island of relative plenty in a ocean of poverty.

 

Syrian boy sleeps on street

A boy sleeps on the street in a southern, poorer area of Damascus’ Old City. Photo: Matthew Barber/Syria Comment, 2010 – (As I passed the boy in the early morning, two nearby boys were pointing and laughing. “What’s so funny?” I asked. One replied chuckling: “He doesn’t have a house!”)

 

The poor neighbourhoods were not the only places missing from my Damascus map. There were dark places in the city. Since speaking to Syrian friends now living in the safety of the UK, I have realised how their cities were haunted by places whose very names were a gut-punch of dread. Certain neighbourhoods such as Kafer Souseh, Adawi, Mezze and Barzeh were infamous for the security centres they housed; the prisons and interrogation rooms of the labyrinthine branches of the mukhabarat. These places meant torture, indefinite detention without trial, humiliation and helplessness. When I lived in Damascus, I passed heavily guarded military buildings most days. I may have looked at their armed guards and wondered vaguely for a moment about what was inside, but the wondering didn’t last long. These places didn’t occupy my city the way they did for Syrians.

 

 

9.

 

 

The conflict in Syria cannot be oversimplified; it has become a sectarian civil war and an international proxy war as well as a local struggle against tyranny. But at its heart, it seems that the Syrian regime was a dictatorship that relied on old methods to deal with a new reality. Dictatorship depends on a precarious balancing act; finding the right combination of bread and terror to keep a people pacified. If the population are scared enough, a certain amount of hunger and hardship can be tolerated. But if the hunger becomes unbearable, then an escalation in terror is not enough to keep people silent. The balance is lost, and there is no turning back.

I never foresaw the intensity of the popular uprising in Syria, or the brutality of the government response. But the conflict could only be understood in light of those places that were absent from my map; those dark spots of brutality and the invisible band of poverty that encircled the city. With these blindspots, the unrest and violence seemed alien and surreal. Perhaps it is not surprising how many Damascenes swallow the regime propaganda that blames all unrest on foreign mercenaries and terrorists.

 

 

10.

 

 

I went for a drink with Kareem, a musician friend from Damascus who now lives in the UK. I told him that I had been writing about the Damascus map I had drawn from my rides on the servees. We reminisced about the points where our maps converged. His fifth floor flat in Rukneddine where I had lived with him for a month. The bar in the Jewish quarter of the Old City where he played jazz piano every Tuesday, while I drank Lebanese beer and made a meal of the complimentary peanuts and carrot sticks.

Kareem told me that I was not the only one with a limited map. He had lived in Damascus his whole life, he said, but had grown up ignorant of much of the country outside his neighbourhood. It was only when the uprising started that he gave much thought to the people of Idlib, Der’aa or Deir Azzour. For all the destruction and death of the last few years, he said, peoples’ eyes have at least been opened to a wider reality, a Syria beyond their own.

It is not much of a silver lining: A move from the learned helplessness of a life under dictatorship to the anarchy and terror of civil war, with a brighter future still a long way off. Our conversation tapered off with a familiar refrain: allah kareem, God is generous. It is an endlessly useful phrase in Syria, employed to resolve conversations about sad and terrible things on a note of hopefulness. But over the second pint of bitter in a sports bar in Reading, it rang somewhat hollow.

On the train home, I mulled over what Kareem had said. In a dictatorship, I thought, it takes a certain amount of guts, even recklessness, to be curious about the city beyond your own map. Selective vision can be a survival strategy. But I realized that, living in the UK, it takes a lot less than a police state to instill the same kind of incuriosity.

 

 

11.

 

 

These days I watch Damascus through the news and the scrolling updates of Facebook friends. I watch as the BBC and CNN teach us its geography one massacre at a time; scattered flashpoints of destruction on an otherwise empty map. The slaughter in the suburbs has escalated from bullets to mortars to Mig strikes. Meanwhile, we learn the names of new neighbourhoods as the violence moves towards the centre: Kafer Souseh, Mazraa, Bab Touma, Saba’a Bahraat.

Residents of Damascus are learning to live with a map that is constantly shifting. My friend from Yarmouk tells me how, in the southern suburbs, the battle-lines creep backwards and forwards from day to day, from Tadamon to Hajr al Aswad to Yarmouk. A mental map is no longer enough; on Facebook, maps are circulated that help people navigate an increasingly dangerous city. In late 2012, a a friend shared a map that showed sniper locations in Yarmouk, red spots with an arc indicating the sniper’s field of vision. There are maps that show the location of the hundreds of checkpoints in Damascus. Some maps mark areas controlled by the Free Army and the regime, while other maps talk about the Syrian army and terrorists. As the sectarian divide deepens, the safe places on people’s maps are increasingly determined by the name and birthplace on their ID cards. Whatever the future holds for Damascus, the city is dramatically and irreversibly changing.

Kareem’s family live in a middle-class neighbourhood close to the centre. For now, it is a relatively safe neighbourhood. He told me how children were being taken out of private schools on the outskirts of the city and put in the local government schools, to avoid travelling in areas vulnerable to kidnapping. Some of the same servees routes are running, but lines are interrupted by checkpoints, and are stopped for days at a time when military operations are launched against restive suburbs. Those who oppose the regime but happen to live in these regime-controlled areas live in a state of painful ambivalence. True, it is not as painful as being crushed by mortars and SCUD missiles, but it is painful enough. When you live in an embattled enclave of a power that you oppose, surrounded by destruction and anarchy, what is it that you hope and pray for?

 

 

12.

 

 

I liked to ride the servees because it felt like a microcosm of life in Syria. It was a glimpse of a social fabric, held together with courtesies and customs and unspoken agreements. But seeing Syria unravel, I realize how much a calm surface can obscure.

Back in the UK, the stability we enjoy here feels less immutable. The UK is not Syria, but history gives us too many cautionary tales. Where there is growing inequality, where there is a rising tide of hunger and poverty, there is eventually a tipping point. Meanwhile, holes are cut in the social safety net with every new budget announcement. Waves of austerity measures concentrate power in fewer hands.

These days, I take the bus every morning. I hang on to the handrail with the other commuters and try to avoid eye contact. At some point in the journey, my gaze wanders over to the route map above the window. It occurs to me, at times, how small my city is. My Southampton map delineates my own little kingdom: where I shop, where I work, where I drink coffee, the houses of friends. If anything, here I am even more blind to the city beyond my own. I lack the foreigner’s curiosity that drove me to discover Damascus. Some mornings, for a moment, this bothers me. I have lived here for years, but I have never taken the bus to the end of the line.
 

END

 

Syrian microbus / service

The Effect of the Conflict on Syrian Banking and Economy

A parody of obituary announcements commonly posted in Syrian neighborhoods when someone dies, this one announcing the passing of the "Syrian Pound"

Someone’s parody of obituary announcements commonly posted in Syrian neighborhoods when someone dies: this one announces the passing of the “Syrian Pound”

 

Economics are often neglected in coverage of the Syrian conflict. In this post we offer a helpful article provided to us by Andrew Cunningham, followed by a brief response from our resident financial expert Ehsani, followed by a new article from the Atlantic Council.

 

Deconstructing the Syrian Banking System

Andrew Cunninghamby Andrew Cunningham with Darien Middle East

 

Amid the daily turmoil in Syria, it comes as something of a surprise to see the financial statements of 12 of the country’s banks posted, quarter by quarter, on the website of the Damascus Securities Exchange (DSE).

By the end of May, all 12 had published audited financial statements for 2012, complete with detailed accounting notes.

But despite the apparent normality projected by the DSE’s website (daily changes in stock prices stream across the home page; weekly trading reports are easily available and up to date), echoes of the civil war can be detected.

In recent weeks, three banks have had trading in their shares suspended because they did not provide the Exchange with reports on their Annual General Assembly meetings –it is hardly surprising that convening an annual meeting, to be attended by numerous prominent directors and shareholders, is difficult to arrange when large gatherings present easy targets for bombs.

On 17 January Bank Bemo Saudi Fransi informed the Exchange that it had transferred all funds in its Deir al-Zour branch to its head office in Damascus. (A few days later, rebel forces captured strategic positions around the city.) On 5 March the bank informed the Exchange that a convoy taking money to the Central Bank had been attacked by an armed gang, resulting in lost funds of S£25mn.

Amid the acres of news that have been published about the conflict in Syria, little has been written about how the conflict has affected the financial system. Economic reporting tends to focus on the exchange rate (which has depreciated by more than 100% since the start of the conflict) and the level of the Central Bank’s foreign exchange reserves (now probably around $2bn-3bn).

Banking Activity Has Declined Dramatically

Cash, of course, is playing a much greater role in the economy than before. Banking activity is at a minimum as banks run down existing credit facilities while continuing to fund basic imports such as food and medicine. Banks say that they are able to get dollars as well as local currency to stock their ATMs (in areas under government control), although money exchangers are playing an increasingly important role in the distribution of cash.

Banks’ financial statements should give a reasonable impression of the broad trends in a country’s financial system. Those published in Syria – one of the least developed banking systems in the Middle East, even before the civil war – need to be treated with considerable care, although the figures published by subsidiaries of overseas banks are likely to be more reliable since overseas head offices are subject to supervision and auditing standards that are more robust than those applied in Syria.

With that caveat in mind, the financial statements of the 12 banks that report to the DSE show an aggregate 28% decline in loans extended in the two years to the end of 2012 and a 29% decline in customers’ deposits. In both cases the figures under-state the effective shrinkage in the banking system. Syrian banks report their financial results in Syrian pounds but have, at least in the past, extended some loans and taken some deposits in foreign currency. A 50% devaluation in the Syrian pound will increase the reported value of a foreign currency loan by 50% on a bank’s local currency-denominated balance sheet. Without that effect, the banks’ loan portfolios would have shown a much greater decline.

As the crisis has deepened, banks have been converting foreign currency loans into local currency loans in the hope of improving their borrowers’ ability to repay. Again, the accounting treatment around such transactions has a big effect on the banks’ balance sheets, inflating the apparent size of a their loan portfolios.

Well-placed observers comment that the assets and liabilities of the banking system have fallen dramatically since the end of 2012.

Syrian Banks listed on Damascus stock exchange

Syrian Banks listed on Damascus stock exchange: Summary of Financial Position (click image to view full resolution)

 

Syrian Banks’ Exposure to Banks in Major Economies is Now Minimal

The decline of international lending and borrowing by Syrian banks can be seen in figures published by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS), an institution that tracks overseas exposures of banks in the major world economies. According to the BIS, banks in major economies had placed $264mn with banks in Syria (including the Central Bank) at the end of 2009. This figure halved by the end of 2010 and at the end of 2012 was down to $42mn. Placements by Syrian banks (including the Central Bank) with banks in the major economies stood at $16,310mn at the end of 2009, remained steady through 2010 before falling to $2,328mn at the end of 2012. The fall in placements by Syrian banks reflects both the repatriation and spending of much-needed foreign currency, as well as the redeployment of funds out of the major international banking systems and into others where the reach of international sanctions is less keenly felt.

The Syrian banking system was one of the smallest in the Middle East even before the civil war. Assets of $47.7bn at the end of 2010 represented 2.1% of the assets of commercial banks in the Arab Middle East. Private sector deposits of $23.5bn represented about 2.2%. This was a little more than Oman and Tunisia. Private sector credit was equivalent to 23% of Gross Domestic Product – a very low figure in a region where banks dominate financial intermediation.

Non-Performing Loans Double or Treble

Income and net profit figures of the 12 listed banks have been fluctuating wildly as a result of revaluations of assets and as a result of loan loss provisioning. All 12 of the listed banks reported a doubling of non-performing loans (NPLs) in 2012 and in some cases a trebling or even quadrupling. Eight banks showed NPLs as more than 20% of their total loan portfolio.

Three of the 12 listed banks declared net losses for 2012 but income statements carry little meaning in the current Syrian environment. Quite apart from the exchange rate, which can turn revenue streams into losses, or vice versa, from one reporting period to another, the physical destruction of a client’s businesses can render loans which were performing yesterday uncollectable today.

(Although the exchange rate has depreciated considerably during the last two years, it is interesting to note that the unofficial rate shows big fluctuations and at times can show significant appreciation as well as depreciation. The collapse of a country’s exchange rate during a time of civil war cannot be assumed. For example, the Lebanese pound remained around $1=LL3 for the first seven years of the Lebanese civil war and only started to slide after the Israeli invasion of 1982, with the really big devaluations happening in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As any seasoned Lebanese banker will tell you, militias expect to be paid in cash, and usually in dollars, so civil wars bring a lot of foreign currency into a country, regardless of whether the official sector is running low on its own foreign reserves.)

The State-Owned Banks Dominate the Banking System

The 12 listed banks account for about a quarter of banking assets and liabilities in Syria. The state-owned banks dominate the system but their financial statements for recent years are not available.

The Central Bank of Syria’s public disclosure of aggregate banking statistics peters out in early 2011. Statistics for year-end 2010 show aggregated assets for the 20 banks at $47.7bn (converting the Central Bank’s Syrian pound figures into dollars at a rate of $1=S£45.79). State banks account for 71% of this. Note that not all private sector banks are listed on the DSE – Cham Bank and al-Baraka Syria are not.

Overview of Syrian Commercial Banks

Overview of Syrian Commercial Banks (click image to view full-resolution)

 

Physical Safety and Hard Cash Are Crucial for Banking Activity to Continue

Looking ahead, the most obvious threats to the continuation of banking services in Syria are physical – the destruction of bank branches or security threats that prevent banks restocking their ATMs or prevent their staff from going to work. (In mid-June, the website of Arab Bank Syria announced that banking services had been discontinued at eight of its branches (out of 19), most of them in the south western corner of Syria, near the Lebanese border.)

The availability of physical cash in government-controlled areas will be another challenge for the banks. Much will depend on the willingness of the regime’s foreign backers to facilitate the printing of local-currency bank notes and the provision of foreign currency notes. (It is assumed that rebel-held areas will continue to receive cash dollars from their foreign benefactors).

The state-owned banks will continue to support local industries, providing loans and not calling-in bad debts. They will be able to do this because the Central Bank of Syria will not enforce its own regulations. And because state-owned banks account for such a large part of the banking system, a significant part of the economy will be able to continue to operate as if all is well and everyone is paying everyone else on time. Again, it is when banking gets “physical” – for example, when wages have to be paid in cash, or foreigners paid in Dollars or Euros – that problems arise. If confidence in the regime declines, then, in regime-controlled areas, cash will become even more important than it is now.

When the Fighting is Over

What will the Syrian banking system look like when the fighting stops? The obvious answer is that it will depend on how long the fighting continues and who emerges as the victor.

And to some extent, that obvious answer is the correct one.

If the rebels overthrow the Asad regime, fighting their way to Damascus, the destruction to the country’s infrastructure will be huge. Regime figures who have been managing the financial system in recent years will either flee or be removed, and physical assets will be looted, either by the departing regime or by uncontrolled elements of the victorious forces.

In the final days of Saddam Husain’s rule in Iraq, the Central Bank of Iraq was emptied of millions of dollars by regime figures preparing for a last stand or a future fight back.

If the Asad government prevails and regains control of its territory, then destruction in the regions outside Damascus will be considerable, but the Damascene key infrastructure, both physical and professional, will probably be in reasonable shape.

Yet whoever controls Damascus in the years ahead will inherit a banking system dominated by decrepit state-owned institutions that have been managed by public servants with little appreciation of modern banking.

Any country’s banking system reflects the broader economy in which it operates, and there has been little real change in the structure of the Syrian economy and the relationships within it for decades. (The rise of private sector businessmen and industries is a chimera – their success has been reliant on regime patronage.)

The so-called “reform” of Syrian banking in recent years has combined the granting of new banking licenses to private sector interests and foreign banks with the acquisition of shares in many of those banks by cronies of the regime. The process has brought new skills and technology into the system.

Six of Syria’s 20 banks now have Lebanese banks among their major shareholders. Jordanian banks are the largest shareholders in another three, and Qatari investors in another two.

Lebanese banks in particular stand to gain once the fighting stops and business resumes (and assuming sanctions are lifted). With their strong personal connections to the Syrian business community, geographical proximity, and entrepreneurial acumen, they were already building strong franchises when the Syria civil war began in 2011.

But the experience of Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam provides a cautionary tale to any who think that a change of regime will lead to quick and dramatic change in an antiquated banking system.

In Iraq, state owned banks continue to dominate the banking scene, with Rafidain and Rashid accounting for about 90% of banking assets. Reform programmes implemented by foreign advisors backed by millions of dollars achieved little over many years. The Central Bank of Iraq, focussed on upgrading its own operations and on winning the political knife fights that threatened its independence, was unable to force the two big banks to make meaningful changes to the way they conducted business.

Iraqi bankers with long experience in developed markets were discouraged from returning to Baghdad by the appalling security risks and by their inability to navigate the lethal sectarian environment that continues to pervade all areas of Iraqi life.

So what are the realistic priorities for the reconstruction and development of the Syrian banking system once the conflict ends?

Assuming that head offices and branch buildings are physically in tact, the first task will be to restore the provision of reliable electrical power and internet connections through bank networks. Without these, the process of reconciling branch accounts into a consolidated ledger – and managing the bank’s liquidity position — is delayed and dependent on couriers.

Then the focus should move to the Central Bank. An authoritative and competent Central Bank is the key to upgrading a banking system because only the Central Bank can force commercial banks to take the difficult decisions that are needed to modernise their operations.

Thirdly, the loan portfolios of state-owned banks will have to be realistically re-valued and restructured, and then the banks re-capitalised.

Alongside these moves, a modern electronic payments system needs to be introduced.

But most important of all, and most difficult, will be the need to bring competent and motivated senior staff into the state-owned banks, and to modernise and enforce the laws and regulations that underpin financial activity. The timetable for doing that kind of change is more likely to be measured in decades than in years.

The Lebanese Example

Lebanon provides a case study of a banking system which was able to quickly regain its footing and then move forward after a devastating civil war. In Lebanon’s case, the war lasted fifteen years, entailed considerable physical destruction (though not on the scale being seen in Syria) and saw large-scale displacement of population.

Yet when rating Lebanese banks for Moody’s just a few years after the war had ended and stable government established, I saw institutions that were well managed, entrepreneurial, profitable and solvent.

Before the war, Lebanese banks had been privately owned and they were managed by businessmen and financiers determined to make money. True, regulation was light, scandals occurred, and corruption widespread in the economy, but it was a dynamic environment always with an eye on the future.

Bank shareholders worked hard to protect their banks during the war, and when peace returned, the system benefitted from the return of thousands of young Lebanese who had spent the war years in London, Paris or the U.S. earning university degrees and developing a taste for high standards and good living.

Then there is the Central Bank. Supposedly the only institution not to be targeted during 15 years of war, but certainly one that retained its reputation and integrity, Lebanon’s Central Bank has taken a lead in setting high standards and requiring compliance with international regulations.

Andrew Cunningham has spent over 25 years writing, training and consulting on banking and finance, both in the Middle East and in Europe and the U.S. He can be contacted at: www.darienmiddleeast.com

 

A response from Syria Comment’s Ehsani to Mr. Cunningham’s article:

Mr. Cunningham does an excellent job of deconstructing the Syrian Banking system. As his article states: “The physical destruction of a client’s businesses can render loans which were performing yesterday uncollectable today.”

It is indeed the case that most banks appear to be severely under provisioned. Before banks write off a loan, they tend take provision charges. Such provisions are done with consent of the clients (borrowers). Some have claimed that the provisions are understated by a factor of at least 1 to 4. Without adequate and accurate provisioning, recorded interest income is overstated.

It would not be a stretch to argue that the Syrian Banking system is perhaps technically insolvent. Once the provisions are raised by four times and interest income takes a significant hit, the current capital of the banks may fall short of the total hit emanating from the credit losses.

 

A new article from Mohsin Khan and Faysal Itani available at the Atlantic Council explores the economic impact of the crisis:

The Economic Collapse of Syria

Faysal Itani Mohsin KhanThe violent civil war in Syria that began with the uprising in March 2011 has already imposed tremendous costs on the Syrian population. More than 100,000 people have died and millions have become refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon, in addition to the internally displaced in Syria itself.  Naturally, the focus of the international community has been on the human suffering and costs that the war has caused. What has taken a back seat is the cost of the fighting on the economy. This may not be of immediate concern to outsiders, but it is something members of the international community, both those that favor the present regime of President Bashar al-Assad and those that do not, should keep in the back of their minds. The Syrian economy is in total disarray and will eventually have to be resurrected when the fighting is over. The Syrian government is in a state of denial and Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi is reported to have said that the economy is “strong and balanced,” a view that is at total variance with the facts.

While very little is known about precisely what shape the Syrian economy is in, available indicators point to a virtually complete collapse of output, trade, and finance. Once the war ends the international community will have to deal with the consequences of the fighting that has destroyed a large portion of the country’s capital stock and productive capacity. Aside from the need to stabilize the economy, reconstruction will require substantial external financing as the costs of rebuilding the Syrian economy will be huge.

Economic developments prior to the uprising

Syria’s macroeconomic indicators in the decade before the uprising were relatively sound. During 2000-2010, the country’s growth rate averaged 4.3 percent per year, about a percentage point below the average growth experienced by the MENA region. Inflation was kept in check at less than 5 percent and only once during those years did it hit double-digits. In 2008, the sharp rise in commodity and oil prices led to a spike in the inflation rate to 15.2 percent, but the following year the government had brought the rate down to 2.8 percent. Overall, inflation in Syria was considerably below the rates witnessed in the MENA countries group. To a large extent this good inflation performance was the outcome of a sensible fiscal policy that maintained a relatively low fiscal deficit of under 3 percent of GDP until 2009. While the fiscal deficit jumped to nearly 5 percent of GDP in 2010, over the entire period the Syrian fiscal deficit was about one half of the average fiscal deficits of MENA oil-importing countries.

On the external front too, Syria’s performance, though not stellar, was nonetheless positive. The current account deficit, which averaged about $400 million a year (1.6 percent of GDP) during 2000-2007, started to rise steadily thereafter to reach $1.7 billion (2.9 percent of GDP) by 2010. However, capital inflows comprising mainly foreign direct investment (FDI) from other Arab countries and Europe, led to overall balance of payment surpluses and increases in the international reserves holdings of the Central Bank of Syria (CBS) that reached $18.2 billion at the end of 2010. The largely positive external picture was reflected in the relative stability of the exchange rate. The Syrian Pound (SYP) appreciated steadily against the US dollar at an average rate of 2 percent per year and at the end of 2010 reached SYP 47 to the US dollar.

While the overall macroeconomic picture was generally positive, in the years leading up to 2010 real household expenditures steadily declined, unemployment and poverty rates rose, income inequalities increased, and regional disparities in development grew larger. The economic seeds for the uprising were clearly evident in Syria, and were essentially the same as those seen in other Arab transition countries.

Furthermore, prior to the start of the civil war, Syria was undertaking a number of structural reforms to liberalize the economy to make it more market-oriented. These reforms included unifying multiple exchange rates, allowing the opening of private banks and the Damascus Stock Exchange, eliminating controls on interest rates, and raising prices of some subsidized items. Nevertheless, in 2010 the economy was still tightly regulated both internally and externally and the process of reform was designed to be very gradual.

Economic developments since the uprising

Following the uprising the economy started to deteriorate significantly, slowly in 2011 and much more rapidly in 2012. In 2011, official estimates show a decline of real GDP by 2.3 percent, although some observers question this number, arguing that the decline in the growth rate was much larger. The inflation rate stayed at about 5 percent for the year, although this was achieved by tightening price controls on basic food items and increasing subsidies to placate the population. The increase in military spending and subsidies, coupled with a decline in tax revenues, caused the fiscal deficit to nearly double to 9 percent of GDP.

However, the external balances of the country worsened quite dramatically. The current account deficit shot up to nearly $8 billion (from $1.7 billion in the previous year) and was financed largely by running down international reserves, which fell to $14 billion by the end of 2011. Undoubtedly, the decline in international reserves would have been far larger had the CBS not imposed limits on the amount of foreign currency that could be bought to $1,300 per month. Syria also received financial assistance from Iran during the year. Through a mix of selling foreign currency in the market and controls on purchases by the public, the CBS was able to maintain the exchange rate at SYP 47, or close to what it was in December 2010. This was obviously an unsustainable policy as events in 2012 and early 2013 proved.

The full damage to the economy became evident in 2012. While there are only a few reliable economic indicators on recent developments in the Syrian economy, those that are available show an economy in a high state of distress. Inflation in 2012 jumped ten-fold to over 50 percent and international reserves fell to $2 billion at the end of 2012. The current account deficit did decline to $6 billion, but that was because of the dramatic drop in foreign trade. Exports fell by 60 percent to under $5 billion and imports to $10 billion from $18 billion in the previous year.

Clearly the economy in 2012 was in freefall. As direct estimates of real GDP are unavailable, other indicators are needed to proxy the growth rate during 2012. These estimates indicate that real GDP fell by between 50-80 percent, depending on whether the fall in trade or the fall in the broad money supply are used as the indicator. By any token, this was a massive decline in the country’s output. While more than a halving of real GDP in one year is highly unusual, it is not unknown in wartime situations. For example, non-oil real GDP of Libya fell by 52 percent in 2011 when it was engaged in its civil war. As a matter of fact, Libyan total real GDP, that is including the oil sector, fell by 62 percent in that year.

The unholy combination of spiraling inflation and a rapidly shrinking economy showed up in the behavior of the exchange rate during 2012 and into the first half of 2013. In December 2012, the currency fell to SYP 60 to the US dollar, a decline in value of some 50 percent from the previous year.  In early 2013, however, it fell off the cliff. At the beginning of June 2013 the currency had fallen to SYP 170 to the US dollar, and when the United States announced that it was going to supply arms to the rebels, it really tanked. On June 17, the currency reached a low of SYP 220 to the US dollar as Syrians tried desperately to get out of the Syrian Pound and into foreign currencies. It had now become a full-fledged run on the currency and the government did not have the foreign exchange reserves to counter it.

Some foreign exchange was provided to the market by the CBS utilizing a $1 billion credit line with Iran, but this effort only slowed down the run and did not reverse it. Even Governor Adib Mayaleh of the CBS recognized that the “normal” rate for the currency was now around SYP 170 to the US dollar and that “speculation” had pushed the rate way beyond that level. The central bank would intervene to achieve the normal rate using the financing that had been provided by Iran. However, having lost $15 billion in reserves in trying to defend the rate, it is difficult to see anything but a temporary pause in the drop of the Syrian Pound by activating the Iran credit line. Furthermore, absent sustained support from Iran, a highly unlikely prospect given Iran’s own financial constraints, it is completely rational for Syrians to move out of the local currency as fast as they can.

Syria now has all the characteristics of collapsed economy with falling economic activity and trade, inflation that is likely to move into hyper-inflation as the government finances its spending through printing money, and a currency that is depreciating at a breakneck pace.

What happens next?

While the timing and outcome of the civil war in Syria is for politicians, diplomats, and political scientists to predict, there is the big question of what will need to be done to salvage the economy when it is all over. At this stage, virtually no one can say with any degree of certainty as to when and how the conflict will ultimately end. Irrespective of who emerges victorious—the rebel Syrian forces, Bashar al-Assad, or some type of national unity government—they will face the monumental task of fixing the broken economy. So what will they need to do?

In the short run, the government will have to stabilize the economy and reverse the direction in which it is currently headed. This means bringing inflation down, arresting the continuing falling output, improving the external balances, and managing the exchange rate. This is not by any means going to be an easy task, but it will need to be done. Fortunately, the recipe to stabilize an economy is well known—appropriate monetary, fiscal, and exchange rate policies have brought many countries back from the brink. External financing will, of course, be needed but, if the government is willing, approaching the IMF for a program is the typical choice for many countries emerging from conflict. In the Middle East, Iraq is one example of a post-conflict country going into an IMF program in 2004 to stabilize the economy.

Over the longer term, there will need to be a major emphasis on reconstruction. This is more difficult than stabilizing the economy because it will require large-scale financing to undertake the rebuilding of the capital stock and infrastructure destroyed in the war. Cost estimates of reconstruction are obviously uncertain as the war continues. However, the UN has estimated that were to be peace today, the country would need at least $80 billion to put the economy back to what it was prior to the uprising. The examples of Iraq and Libya would argue for a much higher level, possibly running into hundreds of billions of US dollars.

Unfortunately, Syria is in a worse situation than Iraq and Libya because these two countries could count on future oil revenues to support reconstruction. Syria, on the other hand, will be almost entirely dependent on the international community to assist in what will be a massive reconstruction effort involving roads, telecommunications, electricity, factories, etc. Will the international community be ready to provide such financing? Unfortunately, there is probably little or no chance it will, and particularly if Bashar al-Assad prevails and remains in Syria. There is a degree of hope if the rebel Syrian forces prevail or a national unity solution emerges. In that event, it is possible that the wealthy Gulf countries—notably Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—could provide a large share of the needed financing.

At present, naturally the focus of the world is on the fighting and the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. Eventually, however, the international community will have to face up to the question of how to deal with Syria on the economic front. There should be some type of contingency plan to assist Syria irrespective of who wins in the end. An economically failed state would struggle to secure it own territory and population, deepen the suffering of the Syrian population, and pose a geopolitical threat to its immediate neighbors and beyond.

Mohsin Khan
 is a senior fellow in the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on the economic dimensions of transition in the Middle East and North Africa.

Faysal Itani
 is a fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East whose focus is political economy and transition in the Arab world, with an emphasis on the Levant.

Round Up: Lethal Aid, Human Interest Stories, Lebanon

US Policy and Weapons for Rebels

 

In Turnabout, Syria Rebels Get Libyan Weapons – NYT

Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

During his more than four decades in power, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi of Libya was North Africa’s outrageously self-styled arms benefactor, a donor of weapons to guerrillas and terrorists around the world fighting governments he did not like.

Even after his death, the colonel’s gunrunning vision lives on, although in ways he probably would have loathed.

… Evidence gathered in Syria, along with flight-control data and interviews with militia members, smugglers, rebels, analysts and officials in several countries, offers a profile of a complex and active multinational effort, financed largely by Qatar, to transport arms from Libya to Syria’s opposition fighters. Libya’s own former fighters, who sympathize with Syria’s rebels, have been eager collaborators.

… As the United States and its Western allies move toward providing lethal aid to Syrian rebels, these secretive transfers give insight into an unregistered arms pipeline that is difficult to monitor or control. And while the system appears to succeed in moving arms across multiple borders and to select rebel groups, once inside Syria the flow branches out. Extremist fighters, some of them aligned with Al Qaeda, have the money to buy the newly arrived stock, and many rebels are willing to sell.

For Russia — which has steadfastly supplied weapons and diplomatic cover to President Bashar al-Assad of Syria — this black-market flow is a case of bitter blowback. Many of the weapons Moscow proudly sold to Libya beginning in the Soviet era are now being shipped into the hands of rebels seeking to unseat another Kremlin ally.

Those weapons, which slipped from state custody as Colonel Qaddafi’s people rose against him in 2011, are sent on ships or Qatar Emiri Air Force flights to a network of intelligence agencies and Syrian opposition leaders in Turkey. From there, Syrians distribute the arms according to their own formulas and preferences to particular fighting groups, which in turn issue them to their fighters on the ground, rebels and activists said.

Qatari C-17 cargo aircraft have made at least three stops in Libya this year — including flights from Mitiga airport in Tripoli on Jan. 15 and Feb. 1, and another that departed Benghazi on April 16, according to flight data provided by an aviation official in the region. The planes returned to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar. The cargo was then flown to Ankara, Turkey, along with other weapons and equipment that the Qataris had been gathering for the rebels, officials and rebels said.

… The movements from Libya complement the airlift that has variously used Saudi, Jordanian and Qatari military cargo planes to funnel military equipment and weapons, including from Croatia, to the outgunned rebels. On Friday, Syrian opposition officials said the rebels had received a new shipment of anti-tank weapons and other arms, although they give varying accounts of the sources of the recently received arms. The Central Intelligence Agency has already played at least a supporting role, the officials say.

The Libyan shipments principally appear to be the work of armed groups there, and not of the weak central state, officials said.

Mr. Bukatef, the Libyan diplomat, said Libyan militias had been shipping weapons to Syrian rebels for more than a year.

“They collect the weapons, and when they have enough they send it,” he said. “The Libyan government is not involved, but it does not really matter.”

One former senior Obama administration familiar with the transfers said the Qatari government built relationships with Libyan militias in 2011, when, according to the report of a United Nations Panel of Experts, it shipped in weapons to rebel forces there in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973.

As a result, the Qataris can draw on their influence with Libya’s militias to support their current beneficiaries in Syria. “It’s not that complicated,” the former official said. “We’re watching it. The Libyans have an amazing amount of stuff.”

U.S. training Syrian rebels; White House ‘stepped up assistance’ – LA Times

White House officials refused to comment Friday on a Los Angeles Times report that CIA operatives and U.S. special operations troops have been secretly training Syrian rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons since late last year, saying only that the U.S. had increased its assistance to the rebellion.

The covert U.S. training at bases in Jordan and Turkey began months before President Obama approved plans to begin directly arming the opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to U.S. officials and rebel commanders.

“We have stepped up our assistance, but I cannot inventory for you all the elements of that assistance,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said. “We have provided and will continue to provide substantial assistance to the Syrian opposition, as well as the Supreme Military Council.” …

Who is Ben Rhodes? – Posted by Daniel McAdams on June 17, 2013

Everyone is wondering (at least I am) who is Ben Rhodes, a 30-something who ascended from literally nowhere to be what seems a main driving force behind Obama’s foreign policy. He is credited with convincing the president to embrace the Arab Spring, convincing the president to bomb Libya, and, now, convincing the president to start yet another war, this time against Syria.

Who is he? How did a 24-year old aspiring fiction-writer in 2002 suddenly become one of the drafters of not only the 9/11 Commission report but also the Iraq Study Group Report? Then move on to Obama’s presidential campaign as a speechwriter and then to Deputy National Security Advisor, from which he announced the beginning of a US war on Syria while the president met with supporters in the East Room of the White House? Those familiar with Washington know that such miraculous ascents rarely happen on their own and are equally rarely the result of pure, raw talent.

There might be some clues to his brother David’s also improbable rise — from a lowly production assistant at Fox News at the end of the 1990s to covering presidential elections for Fox News (including the one where his brother was writing Obama’s speeches) to the lofty position of president of CBS news by 2011!

The excellent Russ Baker was wondering about all this way back in March, when he noticed a typical New York Times gloss-over article on Rhodes.

Aside from his quite unbelievable rise, we do know that he was catastrophically wrong on Libya, where a Time Magazine article pointed out at the time that he was the strong counter-weight to those who argued for more caution on the use of force.

Here is how Time put it back in 2011, when the interventionists were on the verge of their triumph:

Obama and his aides know they are taking a big risk. “It’s a huge gamble,” says the senior administration official. The administration knows, for example, that al Qaeda, which has active cells in Libya, will try to exploit the power vacuum that will come with a weak or ousted Gaddafi. They also know that the U.S. will have to rely on other countries for the crucial task of rebuilding Libya and that the region may in fact be further destabilized by intervention. Outweighing that, the National Security Council’s Ben Rhodes says, are the long-term benefits of saving lives, protecting the possibility of democratic change elsewhere in the region and—tellingly—ensuring “the ability of collective action to be a tool in circumstances like this.”

Rhodes carried the day on Libya and he was completely incorrect in his assessment, his analysis, his prediction, and his prescription. Anyone who bothers to look at Libya today, which is run by gangs of roving extremist death squads would see what a fool Ben Rhodes is for his promise of “democratic change” in Libya — and how much more foolish is the president for following the advice of such a person.

Rhodes is named as the source of the White House-altered CIA talking points on Benghazi, where references to the Islamist extremist role in the attack on US Ambassador Chris Stevens were erased. It is understandable why the fiction writer Rhodes would want to toss that reference in the circular file: that particular sub-plot did not fit in with the main theme he had already painstakingly written, namely that the US attack on Libya would end the killing, stabilize the country, and bring about a democratic revolution that would continue to spread through the region. Fiction writers understand that a sub-plot could take your readers too far off the main narrative of the story and cause serious structural problems. That is why there are so many rounds of re-writes. The killing of Stevens and the rise of murderous — and racist — extremists did not fit the plot, so it had to be deleted.

Being wrong on war when you are on the sending end of death and destruction is less obvious to your countrymen than when you are on the receiving end. But anyone living in Libya after Rhodes’ “life-saving” mission knows full well the kind of liberation that comes at the tip of a US missile. And neighboring countries know as well what happens when a nation armed to the teeth with weapons, including chemical weapons, completely implodes after its infrastructure is destroyed by foreign attack.

In Washington, though, being catastrophically wrong on Libya eminently qualifies Ben Rhodes to take the lead on US Syria policy.

Why the Current Syria Policy Doesn’t Make Sense – Atlantic – Obama’s move to arm the rebels is angering both sides of the intervention debate.

President Obama’s decision to arm Syrian rebels — after resisting such a course for nearly two years — has come under some withering criticism. Marc Lynch, who has long opposed military intervention in Syria, calls it “probably his worst foreign policy decision since taking office,” while Daniel Larison casts it as “certainly one of the two or three worst [decisions].” Despite being on the opposite side of the debate — I began writing in favor of military intervention nearly a year and a half ago — it is hard to disagree with their assessment that providing “small arms” to the rebels is unlikely to make much difference.

What makes Obama’s decision so unsatisfying — and even infuriating — to both sides is that even he seems to acknowledge this. As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.”

Syria rebels say they have ‘game-changing’ new arms – AFP

“We’ve received quantities of new types of weapons, including some that we asked for and that we believe will change the course of the battle on the ground,” Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay Muqdad said.

… Muqdad declined to specify what weapons had been received or when they had arrived, but added that a new shipment was expected in the coming days.

So You Want to Intervene in Syria Without Breaking the Law? Good luck with that. – FP

So let’s say you’re the president of the United States and you want to use military force to intervene in Syria. I’m not saying you do (it sorta looks like you don’t), and I’m not even saying you should (you’re not wrong to worry that military intervention might not end well).

But let’s say you become convinced that military intervention is the only way to protect Syrian civilians from being slaughtered by government forces, or that it’s the only way to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from becoming dangerously emboldened, or the only way to prevent factions with links to al Qaeda from gaining the upper hand within the Syrian rebel movement, or the only way to prevent the conflict from spilling over into neighboring countries, or the only way to do all those things. And let’s say that Russia continues to block every U.N. Security Council resolution that might pave the way for a civilian-protection intervention á laLibya.

You’re a president who respects international law — or, at any rate, you’re not inclined to thumb your nose openly at international law. You’re not Dick Cheney, and you don’t like being compared to Dick Cheney. That means that if you decide America should intervene militarily in Syria, you want to be able to tell the world, with a straight face, that the intervention is legal. At a bare minimum, you want to at least feel confident that what you’re doing isn’t blatantly, manifestly, obnoxiously illegal, in a “F*** the U.N. Security Council and the horse it rode in on” kind of way.

Can you do it? Would it be lawful, as an international law matter, for the United States to use military force in Syria without a Security Council resolution authorizing the intervention?

The short answer: Probably not.  …

Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria now best-equipped of the group – CNN – Barbara Starr

Al Qaeda’s affiliate inside Syria is now the best-equipped arm of the terror group in existence today, according to informal assessments by U.S. and Middle East intelligence agencies, a private sector analyst directly familiar with the information told CNN.

Concern about the Syrian al Qaeda-affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra, also known as the al-Nusra Front, is at an all-time high, according to the analyst, with as many as 10,000 fighters and supporters inside Syria. The United States has designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist group with links to al Qaeda in Iraq.

That assessment is shared by some Middle Eastern intelligence agencies that have long believed the United States is underestimating the Sunni-backed al Qaeda movement in the country, according to a Middle East source. It is also believed that Iran is running training camps inside Syria for Hezbollah and that other Iranian militia fighters are coming into the country to fight for the regime.

The analyst has been part of recent discussions with the U.S. intelligence community, which is urgently working to understand what is going on inside the war-ravaged country and is consulting outside experts. The analyst, who declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information, stressed that all assessments about Syria are approximate at best because of the lack of U.S. personnel on the ground.

With the growing strength and support for al-Nusra, U.S. concerns are growing about its influence to further destabilize Syria and potentially pose a greater regional threat, administration officials have told CNN.

“They are making desperate attempts to get chemical weapons,” the analyst told CNN, noting that in the past few weeks, security services in Iraq and Turkey arrested operatives who were “trying to get their hands on sarin.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official told CNN recently that gathering intelligence on Syria, including its potential future use of chemical weapons, is now one of the top priorities of the U.S. intelligence community.

The Obama administration announced last week that it will start arming rebels because Syria crossed a “red line” by using chemical weapons – including sarin gas – against the opposition.

 

Amazing Stories from the Conflict

 

Reuters visits abandoned Alawite village: Deepening ethnic rifts reshape Syria’s towns

The villages that dot the valleys and terraced hills of Syria’s northwest used to epitomize the country’s diversity. Each one was dominated by a different religion or sect. The settlements coexisted – sometimes peacefully, sometimes less so – for centuries, a patchwork of distinct but interwoven communities that, for many Syrians, was central to the nation’s identity.

Over the past two years, that order has fallen apart.

In Zambaki, a concrete-block village in a valley near the border with Turkey, Sunni families have moved into homes abandoned by Alawite owners; Sunni instructors teach in the Alawite elementary school; and Sunni religious slogans in black paint mark the walls.

Mohamed Skafe, a 40-year-old Sunni maths instructor remembers how the Alawites began to flee nearly a year ago. As government troops withdrew and rebels took over, he phoned a friend in the village and pleaded with him to stay.

“He told me, ‘Can you protect me?'” Skafe recalled, holding his hands out, palms upward. “I said, ‘I have no guarantee.'”

As the revolt against Bashar al-Assad that began as a mostly secular call for democratic reform descended into civil war, communities have split along religious and ethnic lines. Majority Sunnis have come to dominate the opposition, while Shi’ites and Alawites, the offshoot sect of Shi’ite Islam that Assad belongs to, have largely sided with the government. Other minorities, such as the Christians, Druze and Kurds, have split or tried to stay neutral.

Across the country, violence and fear have emptied entire villages, forced millions of people to flee their homes, and transformed the social landscape.

The involvement of Shi’ite power Iran on one side and the ascendancy of hardline Islamists, including groups linked to al Qaeda, on the other has accelerated the process. For some fighters, the war has taken on an apocalyptic overtone. For others, enmity is rooted in old resentments and suspicions.

During a 10-day journey through rebel-held territory, Reuters saw first-hand how the sectarian divisions are transforming the country. Those splits, and the risk of large-scale communal retribution, are one reason Western powers have hesitated to intervene.

Now, as the United States prepares to arm the rebels, it risks getting entangled in an intricate conflict that often pits neighbor against neighbor. As in Yugoslavia or in neighboring Iraq, where conflicts were marked by sectarianism and ethnic cleansing, Syria is unlikely to go back to the way it was. Even when the war ends, the reordering of villages and towns will leave behind a very different country, a change which could reverberate through the region.

In Zambaki, in a house once owned by Alawites, a Sunni family of 10 has moved in after fleeing their own homes outside Hama, in central Syria. “The whole village was completely empty. We were in a Turkish camp, but it was so crowded. We decided to come back,” one man in the family said, asking not to be named.

“The regime is playing a big game, a very big game. We had Alawite neighbors and I swear we were living like brothers. But the regime played with their minds, and frightened them. We were neighbors.” …

My Harrowing Escape from Qusayr, Part II – Syria Deeply – Recommended

As part of our effort to highlight civilian stories, below is a conversation between Syria Deeply and Rifaie Tammas, a 24-year-old from Qusayr. The Lebanese militia Hezbollah, working with Syrian government troops, overran the key smuggling route between Lebanon and Homs province last week. Tammas describes the final anxious hours in his city, his chaotic evacuation and a tearful reunion with his mother after losing three close family members.

The most dangerous place we had to cross on our journey was the Homs-Damascus highway. The areas around it to the west were under shelling and sniper fire, because the regime and Hezbollah knew that the civilians and rebels would flee there. But it was either we wait until the next morning for them to come and kill us, or we move fast and cross. We made the choice that we had to cross, not knowing our fate.

In order to reach a safe place, we had to cross a 50 meter-wide stretch of the highway. But even before we reached this spot, we had to cross over about 1.5 or 2 km of lands that were open to shelling. We started calling it the “death opening.”

When we saw there was no guide, people were confused. It was terrible. The way leading up to the highway was very hilly and tough. There were some houses and tress, but it was mostly open fields. We do not know this area at all and we felt that we could be shot at any minute. And I had my wounded brother Rami with me the whole time.

Rami was completely exhausted after crossing 20 m on crutches. He told me he can’t move another meter and he wants to die right there. He is 22 years old and a defected officer. I put him on my back. He is 85 kg. I moved him for 50 m and I couldn’t move anymore. Even though his leg was broken, sometimes we had to walk or duck and lie flat when there was shelling and shooting.

At one point we saw two lights ahead and we knew that these were checkpoints. We thought the dark area in between might be safe, so we headed in that direction. Then all hell broke loose.

We came under intense shelling, and some people decided to turn back and continue on a safer route, but we decided to keep moving through. On our way I saw many wounded people lying on the ground with no one to help them. Some people had run for their lives during the heavy shelling, and so many others had been left behind.

We were halfway to the highway when we saw a big house where about 50 people had stopped, most of them wounded. Suddenly, a huge tank shell hit the house when we were 20 m away. Fragments flew above our heads and we ducked for cover. We were okay because the house absorbed the whole shock.

When we started to make our way over, we heard so many sounds. Many people were crying for dear life. You could smell flesh burning. We couldn’t do anything. We were exhausted with no water or food. We had been surviving on tree leaves and some fruit.

I saw these people and I can still remember them begging for help. But I couldn’t. I had to choose my brother. I was also carrying my brother’s rifle because he was a defected soldier. He was trained to not leave his weapon. He had learned to kill them or kill himself, not be captured as a prisoner. I took it just in case we were ambushed.

About 20 m away from the house another shell hit a group in front of us. They were civilians with wounded people and they had been targeted. Imagine. I felt that’s the end, I’m going to die. I kept on saying shahada with my brother. Even if I made it there is no safety at the end. After all this we might end up near the checkpoint. All we could do was continue under the sniper fire and shelling. Sometimes we would duck. I knew it was useless, but we did it anyway.

My brother kept falling to the ground, and I had to help him stand up or sometimes carry him. I had to lie to him and keep telling him we were almost there because he wanted to give up. We had just lost our brother Hadi, so it was not just physically but also mentally terrifying. But we kept thinking about our mother and sisters.

When we finally crossed the highway, there were people on the other side who congratulated us. But we still had to walk for about another hour before we reached a relatively safer place. We waited in a small village, and then we continued our journey on foot for an hour before we got to another village called Deeba. We arrived there at about 6 a.m. on Friday, and then we stayed there until 10 p.m. Then we could take cars to the Damascus suburbs, where I am staying right now.

An Ill-Planned Evacuation

One of the things that I really hated – that really frustrated me and changed the way I look at things – was not the fall of Qusayr, or that it fell in the hands of Hezbollah. That was sad, absolutely horrible, but the dreadful thing was the way we evacuated. It was the lack of cooperation among Free Syrian Army [FSA] members and civilians. There wasn’t a very good plan, and the regime knew about this. They knew we were panicking and they took advantage of that. They knew about almost every move we made.

There were guides along the way giving directions to people and telling people, go this way, or shut off your mobile phones, or don’t shout. Some of the guides were excellent and would tell you where to go every step of the way. But the problem is they weren’t spread all across the way.

We were lost many times and got very close to regime checkpoints because of this. Some of the guides were confused. They kept having us go back and forth, and we were carrying wounded people the whole time. There were not enough stretchers, so we were moving them on blankets, pieces of wood or whatever we could find. Sometimes we put them on our backs and took turns. And when we reached the most dangerous spot by the highway, we had no one to guide our group. Some people didn’t do their job well, and this is what caused chaos and many people to be killed.

I would not put all the blame on the regime or Hezbollah, but I also blame the FSA leaders who didn’t know how to do things effectively during this evacuation. We were thousands, and this was a very hard test, and they didn’t pass it very well. They had to know that the regime would take advantage of their lack of cooperation.

On the other hand, the FSA didn’t know how to manage this crisis because they’ve never experienced it. The FSA leaders were very keen on the safety of the wounded, and they tried not to leave anybody behind. Most people acknowledge what the FSA has done for us, but they are so angry with the way the evacuation happened.

Where Are They Now?

The people of Qusayr have spread out to many different cities around Syria. Some made it to Lebanon, but the majority are staying in towns like Nabak, Yabroud and other cities. The rebels are scattered as well and trying to reorganize themselves into a more coherent unit. There is a lot of debate about assigning new leaders and making huge changes after what happened.

Most people are determined to go back and fight. Some have given up and decided to stick with their families, but I think that even they will go back to fight after they rest a bit and think about the whole thing. Being forced to live outside their hometown will make a lot of people go back and fight.

These were the craziest two weeks of my life. I don’t think I could suffer more than this. Ten days before the fall of Qusayr I lost my uncle – he was killed while trying to evacuate the wounded. Days later, I lost my father – a shell killed him when he was going outside to bring us some food. Next, my younger brother’s leg was wounded. And after a week I was forced to leave my house and hometown, and a day later I lost my youngest brother.

Now it feels weird to be away from home, to feel homeless and live in other people’s houses. Luckily, I have some friends who came here before me, and they welcomed me to stay until I sort things out. However, I will have to leave once their mother and sisters come back from a trip to a nearby city.

The only good thing about getting out of Qusayr was reuniting with my mother and little sister. The moment we saw each other, we burst into tears although I was trying to sound strong so that she wouldn’t break down, but I simply could not. Seeing her reminded me of losing my father and youngest brother. Hadi was the hero in our family. He was very loved by his friends and everyone who knew him. He was in the FSA and responsible for firing 14.5 medium machine guns, which is considered a big thing since you have to be very strong to do it. Before all this he was majoring in history.

I still don’t know how I am coping and how I am still thinking. I am crying a lot, especially when I pray. We as Muslims believe that our martyrs are in heaven, so my condolence is that my father and brother are in a happy place now.

Losing them all makes me even more determined to continue what I started. I am going to expose the crimes of Hezbollah and the regime to the whole wide world – that is, if the world cares. They are going to pay for what they have done to us. Sooner or later, they will be brought to justice.

The Price of Loyalty in Syria – NYT – Robert F Worth – Recommended

Ibtisam Ali Aboud (with her son Jafar) says that her husband, a Syrian Alawite, was killed by his Sunni friend. – Jehad Nga for The New York Times

The Damascus neighborhood known as Mezze 86 is a dense, dilapidated warren of narrow hillside streets adorned with posters bearing the face of Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad. The presidential palace is nearby, and the area is crawling with well-armed guards and soldiers. It is next to impossible to enter unless you are accompanied by government officials or well-known locals, almost all of them members of Assad’s Alawite sect. I drove there on a quiet Friday morning in May, and we were stopped several times at checkpoints by young soldiers who examined our documents carefully before waving us on. When we arrived at our destination, in a small parking lot hemmed in by cinder-block towers, I emerged from the car to the suspicious glares of several middle-aged men in fatigues. “They are not expecting foreigners here,” one of the men who accompanied me said. “The rebels are trying constantly to hit this place, because they know who lives here.” He pointed to a damaged roof not far away. “A mortar struck very close the other day. A lady was killed just above us, and another just below.”

To many Syrians, Mezze 86 is a terrifying place, a stronghold for regime officers and the ruthless paramilitary gunmen known as shabiha, or “ghosts.” These are the men accused of carrying out much of the torture and killing that has left more than 90,000 people dead since the Syrian uprising began two years ago. Some of the older men living in the neighborhood are veterans of the notorious defense brigades, which helped carry out the 1982 massacre of Hama, where between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed in less than a month. Yet Mezze 86 now emanates a sense of aggrieved martyrdom. The streets are lined with colorful portraits of dead soldiers; every household proclaims the fallen and the wounded and the vanished.

I went there to meet a woman named Ibtisam Ali Aboud, who had fled her home after her husband — a retired Alawite officer named Muhsin — was killed in February by rebels. Ibtisam is a woman of 50, but she looked 20 years older, her face a pale canvas of anxious lines over her long, black mourning cloak. Her son was with her, a timid-looking 17-year-old named Jafar. We spoke in a dingy, sparsely furnished room, with a picture of a bearded Alawite saint on the wall. “We never used to feel any distinction between people of different sects,” Ibtisam told me. “Now they are ready to slaughter us.” Her husband’s killer was a car mechanic named Ayham, she said, who had eaten at their table and casually borrowed money from her husband only 10 days earlier, promising to pay it back soon. Someone had been slipping notes under their door — “Die, Alawite scum,” “Get out, regime thugs” — and sectarian killings and kidnappings were growing more common; even Muhsin had narrowly escaped being taken captive by armed men. But he refused to listen to his wife’s warnings when she told him that Ayham was working with Sunni rebel gunmen. “Ayham is my friend,” he had told her. “This is Syria, not Iraq.” One night he went out to run an errand and never came home. They found his body in the family car the next day, a bullet hole in his head. The family’s small auto-repair shop was burned to the ground days later. Jafar said that he was on his way home from there when five men surrounded him. “We will cut you all to pieces if you don’t get out,” the men said. “You will follow your father to the grave.”

The family fled their home on the capital’s outskirts to Mezze 86, where they would be surrounded by other Alawites. “We are the ones who are being targeted,” Ibtisam told me. “My husband did nothing. He was a retired officer volunteering at a hospital.” Now, she said, she could barely afford to rent two cramped rooms with her four children. A dull artillery boom shook the coffee cups on the table where we sat. The men who took me to her, also Alawite, began to reel off their own stories of murdered friends and relatives, and of neighbors abducted by rebels. “You will find stories like this in every house, people killed, people kidnapped, and all because of their sect,” one of them said. “They think all Alawites are rich, because we are the same sect as Bashar al-Assad. They think we can talk to the president whenever we like. But look how we are living!”

No one in the room would say it, but there was an unspoken sense that they, too, were victims of the regime. After two years of bloody insurrection, Syria’s small Alawite community remains the war’s opaque protagonist, a core of loyalists whose fate is now irrevocably tied to Assad’s. Alawite officers commanded the regime’s shock troops when the first protests broke out in March 2011 — jailing, torturing and killing demonstrators and setting Syria on a different path from all the other Arab uprisings. Assad’s intelligence apparatus did everything it could to stoke sectarian fears and blunt the protesters’ message of peaceful change.

Yet the past two years have made clear that those fears were not completely unfounded, and it did not take much to provoke them. Syria’s Sunnis and Alawites were at odds for hundreds of years, and the current war has revived the worst of that history. Radical jihadis among the rebels now openly call for the extermination or exile of Syria’s religious minorities. Most outsiders agree that Assad cynically manipulated the fears of his kinsmen for political survival, but few have asked — or had the opportunity to ask — how the Alawites themselves feel about Assad, and what kind of future they imagine now that the Sunni Arab world has effectively declared war on them.

“What is horrible is that everyone is now protecting his existence,” Sayyid Abdullah Nizam, a prominent cleric in Damascus, told me. “For all of the minorities, it is as if we have entered a long corridor with no light.”

… Latakia, the capital city of Syria’s Alawite region, is a sleepy seaside town with a tattered charm. The hills around it have long provided refuge for Syria’s minorities, and once briefly formed part of an Alawite state under French protection, just after the First World War. This gives its people a different view of the country and its history, one that Western journalists have not often been permitted to see. It was in Latakia that I met a devoted regime supporter named Aliaa Ali, the 27-year-old daughter of a retired Alawite military officer and a French teacher. Aliaa has a broad, pretty face and knitted brows that convey a mix of petulance and determination. She is intelligent and fully aware, thanks in part to a year spent studying in England, of how the West views the conflict. Unlike many loyalists, she was willing to acknowledge the brutalities of her own side, and at times seemed embarrassed by the Syrian police state. “I was pro-revolution at first,” she said. “There is a lot that needs to change here, I know that. But the fact is that it turned sectarian and violent much sooner than people think.”

Soon after the first protests broke out, Aliaa told Noura about some of the sectarian protest chants she had heard. Noura refused to believe it. The next month, when the army cracked down in Jableh, Noura was desperate, saying innocent protesters had been killed. Aliaa told Noura it was “not logical” for a government to kill its own people. Noura backed down. “Maybe we just heard different stories,” she said. As she and her family moved deeper into the opposition camp, however, the friendship began to fray. Once, after they had gone for a drive along the seafront, Noura suddenly said: “If Sunnis ever attacked you, I’d protect you. And vice versa.” Both of them laughed. “At the time, it seemed like a joke,” Aliaa told me. “We couldn’t really imagine that happening.” Aliaa traveled to England at the end of the summer, and shortly after, when Noura’s mother was arrested, the two friends stopped speaking. In October, Aliaa told me, she was half-asleep one night when she heard a buzzing on her laptop: Noura was calling to video chat. It was 4 a.m., but they spent an hour talking and laughing as if nothing had changed. “When we hung up, I burst into tears,” Aliaa told me. “I felt so happy that we were still friends, that none of the differences mattered.”

Soon afterward, Noura and her family fled to Turkey. In December, Noura unfriended Aliaa on Facebook, but Aliaa continued to check Noura’s Facebook page every day. The postings were passionately anti-Assad, and included sectarian slurs against Alawites. Noura married a Sunni man from Jableh, whose Facebook photo showed the black banner used by Al Qaeda. In mid-May, Noura posted a long passage praising Saddam Hussein, followed by this sentence: “How many ‘likes’ for the conqueror of the Shia and other heathens?” Aliaa showed me the Facebook page of Noura’s teenage brother Kamal, with an image of him clutching a Kalashnikov. “I used to carry him on my shoulders and feed him crackers,” she said.

Noura now lives in Turkey. I reached her by phone at the Syrian school that her aunt runs near the border. She acknowledged her friendship with Aliaa, but her religious zeal soon became apparent. She said her husband did not permit her to talk by phone to foreign journalists. I then spoke to her aunt Maha, the director of the school, who confirmed the outlines of Aliaa’s account of the friendship and the uprising in Jableh. Her voice rose almost to a shout as she told me only the regime was sectarian. “Before the uprising, we lived together with no problems,” she said. “They felt reassured about us, because ever since the events of Hama, they felt we would not rise up against them. But as soon as we chose the path of revolution, they felt it was directed against them, not against Assad. We told them: We only want freedom. But they shut the door in our faces; they would not talk to us.” Maha struck me as a reasonable woman who regretted the rupture, much as Aliaa did.

But when I asked her about the Alawite religion, I was startled by her response. “Aliaa is a nice girl,” she said. “But the Alawites don’t have a religion. They are a traitor sect. They collaborated with the crusaders; during the French occupation they sided with the French.”

For the Alawites, these familiar accusations have the sting of a racist epithet. The Alawite faith, developed a millennium ago, is a strange, mystic blend of Neoplatonism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism. It included a belief in reincarnation and a deification of Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad. These unorthodox tenets may have led the crusaders and other outsiders to favor them, seeing them as potential allies against Muslims. The theologian Ibn Taymiyya — the ancestor of today’s hard-line Islamists — proclaimed in the early 1300s that the Alawites were “more infidel than Jews and Christians, even more infidel than many polytheists,” and urged good Muslims to slaughter and rob them. The Alawites sought shelter in the mountains, and rarely dared to come even to Latakia. Many of them were slaughtered by Ottoman armies, and parts of the community stood close to extinction at some points in their history. According to the historian Joshua Landis, as late as the 1870s, supposed Alawite bandits were impaled on spikes and left on crossroads as a warning. They lived in desperate poverty on the margins of Syria’s feudal economy, often sending their daughters into indentured servitude as maids to wealthy Sunni families.

In 1936, when the French were poised to merge the newly formed Alawite coastal state into a larger Syrian republic, six Alawite notables sent a petition begging them to reconsider. “The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non-Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion,” they wrote. “There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief.” One of the petition’s signers was Sulayman al-Assad, the grandfather of Syria’s current president. Later, after the French abandoned them, the Alawites rushed to embrace the cause of Syrian nationalism, and went to great lengths to make the rest of the country forget their separatist ambitions.

I thought of that petition when I entered Aliaa’s family home in Jableh, where a black-and-white portrait of her grandfather in a stiff collar and tie hangs on the living-room wall. “He studied in France in the 1930s,” Aliaa said brightly. Then she quickly added, “And later he took part in the struggle for independence — I think.”

I asked Aliaa what she thought of Alawites who joined the opposition, like the novelist Samar Yazbek, who is also from Jableh. She grew wary at the mention of Yazbek’s name. “I met her once,” Aliaa said. “She told me I had a bright future in front of me. But I don’t want a future like hers. I think Alawites who join the opposition don’t realize that they are being used as tools. Or they think they can turn this jihadi war into a democratic revolution. But they will never succeed.”

Yazbek was also in Syria during the early months of the revolution. In her diaries of the revolt’s first four months — later published in English under the title “A Woman in the Crossfire” — she describes the furious campaign conducted against her after she publicly backed the insurrection. Her family was forced to disavow her, and leaflets were passed out in Jableh denouncing her. At one point, she describes a terrifying encounter with the regime apparatus. After being driven from her house in Damascus to an interrogation center, she finds herself with a scowling officer who knocks her to the floor, spits on her and threatens to kill her. Guards then lead her blindfolded downstairs to one of the regime’s basement torture rooms, where she is forced to look at bloodied, half-dead protesters hanging from the ceiling. The officer tells her at one point that she is being duped by “Salafi Islamists” and that she must come back to the fold or die. “We’re honorable people,” he tells her. “We don’t harm our own blood. We’re not like you, traitors. You’re a black mark upon all Alawites.”

When I spoke to Yazbek, who is now living in Paris, she told me she believed that the Alawite community had been the Assad clan’s first victim, that they had been used as “human shields” to keep the regime in power. “They believe the regime’s rhetoric, that they would be massacred if Assad falls,” she said. “But this is not true. They are very afraid, and very confused.” Some Alawites inside Syria quietly make the same point, though it is far more dangerous for them to do so. But the ones I spoke to also argued that it does not matter whether the Alawites were duped or not, because their sectarian fears have been realized. In Latakia, I met an Alawite cartoonist named Issam Hassan, who told me that many Alawites who sympathized with the opposition have shifted to the other side. “The government knew it couldn’t fight peaceful protesters, so it pushed them to violence,” he said. “But now, the violence we have seen on the rebel side has frightened everyone. And look at the media: Al Jazeera and Syrian state television take different sides, but both are pushing toward the same end. They are promoting hatred.”

When I asked her about the opposition, she said: “I am ashamed to say it, but the opposition has lost its meaning. Now it is only killing, nothing but killing. The jihadis are speaking of a caliphate, and the Christians are really frightened.” There was a pause, filled by the churn of Arab pop music. “I waited all my life for this revolution,” Rita said. “But now I think maybe it shouldn’t have happened. At least not this way.”

If the opposition has lost its meaning, so has the regime. The Assad clan has always defined its Syria as the “beating heart of Arabism,” the bulwark of the Palestinian cause. The Baath Party was meant to embody this spirit, and Syria’s minorities were eager to prove their loyalty as Arabs in a Muslim-majority society. This was the glue that would hold together the country’s fractious communities. But now Syria has been formally excommunicated by the Arab League, the reigning pan-Arab institution, and the old unifying ideologies — paid lip service until the crisis began — are openly mocked.

… In April, I met Manaf Tlass, one of Bashar’s oldest friends, and asked him to narrate the conflict from Bashar’s perspective. Tlass, whose father served as Syria’s defense minister for three decades, was a general in Syria’s Republican Guard until he defected last July. He knew Bashar in childhood and was a member of his inner circle for years. We met at a cafe in Paris on a warm afternoon, and Tlass, who is sometimes mocked as a dandy, wore a blue silk shirt, unbuttoned to the middle of his chest, and aviator sunglasses.

On the day the crisis broke out, Tlass said, “Bashar called me and said, ‘What would you do?’ ” It was mid-March 2011, and the southern city of Dara’a was in uproar after the local security director — a cousin of Assad’s — ordered the imprisonment and torture of a group of boys who had scrawled antiregime graffiti on a wall. Tlass told me he urged Assad to visit Dara’a himself, and to order the arrest of the local security director. Others, including the leaders of Turkey and Qatar, have said they gave him similar advice.

Tlass said he continued to urge Assad to manage the crisis through negotiation rather than force, and with Assad’s permission, he began meeting with civic groups in towns where unrest had broken out, sometimes with as many as 300 people. He would hear their grievances and write down lists of possible fixes to local police corruption, lack of water or electricity and other problems. He would identify local leaders who could be trusted, then forward the list of issues and names to Bashar’s people. Each time, the leaders were promptly arrested.

Finally, Tlass told me, he confronted members of the Makhlouf family, Assad’s first cousins, who are now said to be his closest advisers. “There was a big disagreement,” Tlass said. “They wanted to handle the problem with security, the old way.” He decided to speak to Assad directly, but his old friend put him off for two weeks. When they finally met, Assad made clear that he was no longer interested in Tlass’s advice. “Bashar knew from the start that this was a big crisis,” Tlass said. “He decided to play on the instincts of the people.”

One morning in early May, I drove with Aliaa Ali and her brother to their ancestral town, Duraykish, in the Alawite mountain hinterland. The road climbs up from the coast along hairpin turns into a magnificent landscape of lush, terraced hills and orchards. We stopped briefly to look at a new monument to the town’s war dead, an imposing 25-foot marble plaque engraved with hundreds of names. We parked the car at the bottom of a narrow hillside street named for Aliaa’s grandfather and walked up to the family house, a 100-year-old stone building with ceramic tiles that had begun to wear away. Aliaa’s uncle, Amer Ali, stood waiting for us, a sturdy-looking man of about 50 with closely cropped, graying hair. He led us upstairs to a large, high-ceilinged room where sunlight splashed in through two open walls. Dozens of people waited inside.

Amer Ali had gathered them to tell their stories of relatives or spouses lost to the war. I listened to them, one by one. They were working-class people: soldiers, construction workers, police officers. All were Alawites, as far as I could tell. Some were probably shabiha, though none of them would have used that word. One of them, a middle-aged construction worker named Adib Sulayman, pulled out his cellphone and showed me the message he received after his son Yamin was kidnapped by rebels: “We have executed God’s will and killed your son. If you are still fighting with Bashar, we will come to your houses and cut you into pieces. Never fight against us.”

A 20-year-old man who had been shot twice in the head and had lost some of his memory and half his hearing told me he would go back to the front as soon as his wounds healed. His father stared at me and said: “I would be proud to have my son become a martyr. I am in my 50s, but I am ready to sacrifice my life, too. They thought we would be weak in this crisis, but we are strong.”

After lunch, Aliaa’s uncle showed me around the house. On the wall was a Sword of Ali, an important symbol for Alawites, with verses engraved on the blade. There were old farming tools, a stick for catching snakes, hunting knives and a century-old carbine — a kind of visual history of the Alawite people. There were ancient Phoenician amphorae and a framed photograph of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.

Later, Amer Ali led me to the roof, where we gazed out at the town where his family has lived for hundreds of years. The hills were lovely in the golden afternoon sunlight. You could see an ancient spring with a stone arch over it, and a mosque that was built by one of his ancestors 240 years ago. Aliaa stood next to me on the terrace, looking out at the town with an expression of rapturous pride. I asked her how it made her feel to know that Western human rights groups had documented repeated atrocities by the Syrian regime — some, perhaps, by people like the ones we had just talked to. Aliaa glanced downward. “Yes, there have been atrocities,” she said. “You can never deny that there have been atrocities. But you have to ask yourself: What will happen if Bashar falls? That’s why I believe victory is the only option. If Bashar falls, Syria falls. And then we, here, will all be in the niqab” — the full veil worn in conservative Muslim societies — “or we will be dead.”

Before we climbed back down, Aliaa’s uncle showed me a rusted white tripod, set in the center of the roof, under a gazebo. “It is for telescopes, for looking at the stars,” he said. He looked up at the cloudless evening sky, then down the mountain toward where the hills give way to the vast Syrian plain. “But we can use it to set up a sniper rifle and defend ourselves here.”

The Lebanese Conflict

 

Lebanese Army deploys after one killed in Sidon clashes – Daily Star

Lebanese kids evacuated from school (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

Lebanese kids evacuated from school (The Daily Star/Mohammed Zaatari)

The Lebanese Army deployed Tuesday in the suburb of Abra, south Lebanon, after clashes between supporters of Sheikh Ahmad Assir and the Resistance Brigades, a pro-Hezbollah group, claimed the life of one resident, security sources told The Daily Star.

Backed by 20 armored personnel carriers, some 400 soldiers made their way into Abra, an eastern suburb of the southern coastal city of the Sidon, the sources said.

Sidon residents brace for further violence – NOW – Locals tell NOW they expect worse to come, though analysts downplay talk of a “new Tripoli”

Rina Hassan has only just returned to her apartment in Sidon’s Abra neighborhood, four days after fleeing heavy gun battles that raged on her street between partisans of Salafist cleric Sheikh Ahmad al-Assir and those of the Hezbollah-affiliated Resistance Brigades, leaving one dead.

“When it started, [Assir’s] fighters were under my house. They blocked the street with burning oil so no cars could get in or out, and then began firing RPGs and machine guns non-stop. For two hours, I sat in the corner of my bedroom because it was the only room with no windows.”

Terrified and alone in the house, Hassan then received a call from her son imploring her to come to the comparative safety of his restaurant nearby, which has an underground kitchen.

“He came to my front door and said, ‘Close your eyes, don’t look around, it will just take two minutes.’ Getting there was a real risk. We stayed for two more hours in that kitchen with two fighters outside firing M16s at any car that approached.”

When negotiations between Assir and the city’s Mufti, Sheikh Salim Sousan, brought the fighting to a close, Hassan decided to leave Sidon for her native southern village.

“I called a friend who had a friend involved with Assir’s movement, and he told us of a safe exit route. We had to tell them exactly what cars we would be in so they would know it was us. Many people in Abra were doing the same thing.”

“Today, I returned to Sidon, because I heard that Assir had agreed to postpone any military action for now. But I’ve prepared a bag in the house. The moment I feel tensions are rising again, I’ll get out of here.”

Hassan’s attitude is a widespread one in the city today, which residents fear could become the site of increasingly frequent and bloody clashes in future. Sheikh Maher Hammoud, a pro-Hezbollah cleric who survived an alleged assassination attempt in Sidon earlier this month, accused Assir on Thursday of wanting to turn Sidon into a “new Tripoli,” referring to the northern city that for years has witnessed repeated bouts of deadly sectarian violence.

Certainly, Abra locals NOW spoke to on Friday felt worse was yet to come. “There will be clashes again, of course,” said a roast chicken vendor directly across the street from Assir’s Bilal bin Rabah mosque. “Sheikh Assir agreed to postpone them until after school examinations [concluding on 6 July]. Next time, the fighting will be more intense, yes.”

Assir himself also appears to be taking precautions. The side-street leading up to his mosque now sports a new metal barrier, flanked by heavy concrete blocks and sandbags. A friendly young man, possibly in his teens, raises the barrier to allow a car to enter the complex. Like the two men standing on the corner behind him, he carries an AK-47, evidently undeterred by the heavy deployment of Lebanese Army troops on the adjacent street below. No, he says, we can’t take photos of him. But if we like, we can snap the large new holes on the building’s exterior – the results, he claims, of RPGs fired by the Resistance Brigades from Haaret Saida, the predominantly Shiite quarter two kilometers to the southwest.

In Haaret Saida, where Hezbollah and Amal flags line the streets, another restaurateur initially shrugs off the prospect of further clashes before launching an animated speech about how dangerous they could become.

“The problem of sectarian hatred here is huge. In Sidon, we have every sect: Sunnis, Shiites, Druze, Christians, Palestinians. These Islamists are playing with fire. Since when did they care about school exams? Are children’s exams more important than children dying?”

NOW also spoke to the mayor of Haaret Saida, Samih al-Zein, who was the target of a public death threat from the celebrity Assir partisan, former pop singer Fadel Shaker.

“I made a formal complaint to the judiciary,” he said with regards to the threat. “The attorney general and the security apparatus will deal with this. We don’t have a personal reaction – we won’t sink to that level.”

Al-Zein played down the possibility of further clashes, implying that Hezbollah and Amal would seek to avoid confronting Assir.

Syria war prompts move for Lebanon’s Baalbek festival – AFP

Lebanon’s renowned Baalbek International Festival, normally held in the town’s spectacular Roman ruins, is to move to an alternative venue in the face of a spillover of violence from neighbouring Syria, organisers said on Friday.

 

Miscellaneous

 

Jordan jails jihadists trying to join Syria rebels – Ahram

A Jordanian military tribunal jailed on Tuesday three men convicted of trying to join Syria’s jihadist Al-Nusra Front and fight President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

“The state security court today initially sentenced the three to five years in jail each, but immediately halved the prison terms,” a court official told AFP.

“They attempted in January to interfiltrate Syria and join Al-Nusra Front.”

The official said the men were charged with “carrying out acts that the government does not approve and that would expose Jordan to the risk of aggression, as well as possession of unlicensed firearms.”

Al-Nusra, which seeks to establish an Islamic state in Syria, is among the most prominent groups involved in Syria’s 26-month conflict, which has killed more than 94,000, according to monitors.

The ruling comes a day after the same court jailed two Jordanians for five years for going to Syria last summer for jihad, a judicial official said.

The two were arrested after they returned to Jordan in August, “pretending that they were Syrian refugees.”

In May, the military court handed down similar jail sentences for nine Muslim extremists who wanted to go to Syria.

Jordan, which says it is hosting more than 500,000 refugees from Syria’s civil war, has arrested dozens of jihadists as they tried to cross into the war-torn country.

Jordanian Salafists have said there were more than 500 jihadists from the country in Syria.

Amman denies accusations from the Syrian regime that the kingdom has opened up its borders to jihadist fighters.

Jordan generally does not tolerate Salafist groups that espouse an austere form of Sunni Islam.

But slain Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, hailed from the impoverished northern city of Zarqa, considered a stronghold of Muslim extremists.

The Wannabe – Daily News Egypt – Mahmoud Salem

One of the few remaining benefits of living in Egypt these days is the ridiculous amount of entertainment that our Islamist rulers provide.  In a scene that’s beyond parody, a number of Islamists held a massive conference to support Syria, which in their world means “Let’s kill those Shi’a Infidels”. In the first ever display of state-sponsored-Jihad-promotion in Egypt’s modern history, a number of Islamists, alongside our great ruler Mohamed Ibn Morsi the first, called upon the Nation’s Muslims to support Syria and, if possible, go fight Jihad there, because, after two years of inaction, they suddenly realised that there was a conflict there and on one side there was some non-Sunni Muslims fighting some Sunni Muslims. Gasp and horror.

In case you didn’t know, that’s completely unacceptable of course. Non-Sunni Muslims have no business being alive to begin with, or at least that’s what the speeches of the day implied. Sectarian rhetoric got spewed for two hours on live television, proving that Morsi doesn’t only have a “Christian problem”, but a “down with anything other than Sunni Muslims” problem, which should console our Christian brothers in so far that it’s not only them he dislikes. Today’s article should then bemoan the first Egyptian democratically elected openly sectarian president. If only it was that simple…

… Oh, how I wish that what took place in that conference was simply Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood showcasing their true sectarian selves, because the alternative is so utterly pathetic: That the MB is so desperate to hold on to power in the face of sweeping national anger, that they had to pander to Jihadist elements in such a disgusting way. The Jihadist elements naturally returned the pandering in kind, with Sheikh Mohamed Abdel Maksoud openly stating that 30 June will be a great day for Islam to stand against the “infidels” behind the “Rebellion” movement. Meanhwile, Sheikh Mohamed Hassan informed the average-electricity-and-fuel- deprived Egyptian citizens about the great benefits of Jihad in Syria: 1) There are the brownie points you get with God for killing other people, 2) There are the spoils of Jihad for the taking in the bountiful lands of Syria, like looting, pillaging and hot Syrian women, and 3) If you die, you get to die fighting in a Jihad for Islam, which immediately puts you on Heaven’s VIP list. Dear Sunni Muslim Egyptian citizens, what more could you possibly ask for? It’s a win-win situation.

… Had Morsi truly wanted to help Syrians, he would have issued some initiatives that would help the estimated one million Syrian refugees in Egypt so as not to suffer daily humiliation. He could have issued a directive that equalised the degrees of educated Syrian with that of Egypt’s to allow Syrian doctors and engineers a chance to work in their vocations. He could have given them all work permits, thus giving the Syrian refugees a method to exist, work and survive in Egypt legally. He could have banned the practice of selling Syrian women as wives to Egyptian males that happens in Salafi mosques. Instead, in a grandiose move, he shut down their embassy, which is the only place that provided Syrian refugees access to crucial consular services, and helped them get to their next destination if they wanted out of Egypt. Dear Syrian refugees, you can start thanking us any minute now.

I am willing to wager that when historians document this phase in Egyptian history, they will call it “the LSD period”, because we are watching the hallucinations of the Islamists and their leaders being broadcasted on our national televisions, creating a binary primordial world where Islam is threatened, all of their enemies are infidels bent on destroying the religion and where they are the faith’s sole defenders and champions. It’s beyond sad. Had a US channel created a TV show depicting Islamist rule and simply copied and pasted the actions and speeches of the Morsi government, its writers and producers would’ve been called Islamophobic and out of touch with reality. Unfortunately this is reality, and it must change. 30 June cannot come fast enough.

Confusion arises among Syrians after accelerating drop in Syrian pound’s value – Xinhua

In all the hubbub over the dramatic devaluation of the Syrian pound that has declined by roughly 40 pounds against the U.S. dollar in a single day in the black market, top Syrian officials are still determined that the economy is stable and capable of facing all challenges.

Following the steep depreciation of the pound over the past 24 hours — the dollar soared from 170 pounds to around 210 pounds — many Syrians rushed to markets to buy basic food stuff and commodities out of fears that their prices would rise soon.

Media reports said that there is currently a meeting combining top Syrian officials and economists, including the governor of the Central Bank of Syria and exchange dealers, to discuss the issue of the striking rise in the exchange rate of the dollar against the pound, and to find an appropriate way of intervening to rein in the upward climb of the dollar price.

The Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi said Monday during the meeting of the economic commission entrusted with following up the pound exchange rate that the government has large reserves of foreign exchange to provide all the needs of the Syrian market of imported goods and production inputs. …

Syria: ‘I saw rebels execute my boy for no more than a joke’ – Telegraph

Nadia Umm Fuad watched her son being shot by Islamist rebels in Syria after the 14-year-old referred to the Prophet Mohammed as he joked with a customer at his coffee stall in Aleppo. She speaks to Richard Spencer.

Mohammed Katta’s mother witnessed the execution of her son in three stages.

She was upstairs at home when she first heard the shouting. The people of the neighbourhood were yelling that “they have brought back the kid”, so she rushed out of her apartment.

“I went out on my balcony,” Nadia Umm Fuad said. “I said to his father, they are going to shoot your son! Come! Come! Come! I was on the stairs when I heard the first shot. I was at the door when I heard the second shot.

“I saw the third shot. I was shouting, ‘That’s haram, forbidden! Stop! Stop! You are killing a child.’ But they just gave me a dirty look and got into their car. As they went, they drove over my son’s arm, as he lay there dying.” …

Palestinians in Syria find themselves displaced again – WP

To date, an estimated 55,000 Palestinians have sought sanctuary in Lebanon from the war in Syria, according to the United Nations, most of them descendants of families displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948.

 

Armed Factions: Sunni and Shi’i

Aron Lund profiles and maps a number of rebel fighting forces for the The Independent:

BATTLEFIELD ALLIANCES: THE MAJOR GROUPS


The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF):

Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi (Ahrar al-Sham)

Affiliated fighters Group’s own figures claimed about 25,000 in Dec 2012

A hardline Salafist alliance created in December 2012, which receives funding from conservative clerics in the Gulf. The SIF has distanced itself from the Western-backed FSA, but it is also wary of Jabhat al-Nusra’s al-Qa’ida connection. Unlike the SILF and the FSA, the SIF has demonstrated some degree of internal cohesion and significant ideological homogeneity. It is dominated by Ahrar al-Sham, but the front also includes the Haqq Brigade (Homs), the Haqq Battalions (northern Hama), the Ansar al-Sham Battalions (northern Latakia), and the Tawhid Army (Deir al-Zor). It is demanding an Islamic state with sharia law.

AFFILIATES: Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement

The Free Syrian Army (FSA):

Leader Brig Gen Salim Idriss

Affiliated fighters Many different claims. Most recently, in June 2013, Idriss claimed he is the leader of 80,000 fighters

The FSA name has been used by several overlapping rebel networks since mid-2011. This version, which is also often referred to as the Supreme Military Council, was created in December 2012 after pressure from Western and Gulf Arab nations, which seek to make it the military wing of Syria’s civilian exile group, the National Coalition. Foreign funding has drawn numerous rebel commanders to the FSA, including all the SILF heavyweights. But these commanders retain operational control over their own forces, and Idriss therefore serves more as a spokesperson than a military leader. Idriss steers a secular-nationalist line, while many of the factions that make up his army have opted for some form of Islamic rule.

AFFILIATES Syria Martyrs Brigades, Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade

The Syrian Islamic Liberation Front (SILF):

Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Suqour al-Sham)

Secretary General Zahran Alloush (Islam Brigade)

Affiliated fighters Spokesperson says 35,000-40,000 June 2013

The SILF is a very loose Islamist alliance created in September 2012, around a bare-bones ideological plank demanding more Islam and less Assad. It now includes about 20 armed movements, among them powerful factions like Farouq and Tawhid. The SILF members joined the new version of the FSA at its inception in December 2012, and now make up the bulk of its fighting force. A representative of the SILF describes it as ”the largest of the revolutionary coalitions”.

AFFILIATES Farouq Battalions, Tawhid Brigade, Suqour al-Sham Brigades and Islam Brigade

MILITANT FACTIONS


Farouq Battalions

Leader Osama Juneidi

Numbers Approximately 14,000 now, according to their spokesperson.

Area National, but associated with Homs also has strong presence on Syrian-Turkish border

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Farouq Battalions is a large, Islamist-leaning group which has its roots in the earliest Free Syrian Army formations created in Homs province in summer and autumn of 2011. It rose to prominence when leading the failed February 2012 defense of the Baba Amr neighborhood in the city. Since then the original group has expanded tremendously and it now runs affiliates across the country. A  well-funded northern wing, Farouq al-Shamal, controls important border crossings and is rumored to enjoy Turkish patronage.

Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic state of Iraq

Leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani (Jabhat al-Nusra); Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (Islamic state)

Number: a report this year by the Quilliam Foundation said Jabhat al-nusra had 5,000 fighters, but this is impossible to verify

Area Syria – Iraq

Affiliation al-Qa’ida

In mid-2011, the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq sent a group to Syria to create a jihadi movement. In January 2012, it emerged as Jabhat al-Nusra with a string of suicide bombings. Declared a terrorist group by the US since December 2012, Jabhat al-Nusra has co-operated with other rebels on the ground but shunned alliances. In April, Baghdadi declared a merger of the Iraqi group with Jabhat al-Nusra under the name Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham. This was opposed by Nusra’s leader, but Baghdadi persisted, backed by many foreign jihadis. Both groups are in Syria, the dispute unresolved.

Islamic Ahrar al-Sham Movement

Leader Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi

Area Syria (It is strongest in northern Syria, in Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, but has affiliates all over the country.)

Numbers Several thousand at least, maybe as many as 10,000. SIF (the alliance of which they make up around 75 per cent of forces) circulated an informal claim that it had  25,000 fighters back in December.

Affiliation SIF

Ahrar al-Sham is likely to be Syria’s largest salafi faction. It claims to run about a hundred local armed groups, as well as offices for humanitarian aid and sharia law. It was created in the Idlib-Hama region in early summer 2011. In December 2012 it spearheaded the creation of the SIF alliance, which drew like-minded Islamist groups into its orbit. In spring 2013, several SIF member factions merged into Ahrar al-Sham, greatly adding to its numbers and influence. It seeks an Islamic state based on sharia law.

Syria Martyrs’ Brigades

Leader Jamaal Maarouf

Numbers High thousands? Even 10,000? Maarouf claimed in an interview in December 2012 to have more than 18,000 fighters, but this is disputed.

Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib

Affiliation FSA

Originally named the Jabal al-Zawiya Martyrs’ Brigade, a name change was engineered to match Jamal Maarouf’s growing ambitions in mid-2012. The group remains concentrated in the rugged, rural Jabal al-Zawiya region of Idlib, and has spawned only a few branches elsewhere. Unlike his local Islamist rival, Suqour al-Sham’s Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh, Maarouf seems  to have no particular ideology, but he is nevertheless said to enjoy Saudi funding.

YPG – Popular Protection Units

Spokesperson Khebat Ibrahim

Numbers Some thousands

Area Kurdish-populated areas, northern and north-eastern Syria, Aleppo.

Affilation Supreme Kurdish Committee, PKK

The YPG is the dominant Kurdish armed group, which took over large sections of northern Syria in August last year. It is not-so-secretly loyal to the PKK, which has by now forcibly co-opted most other Kurdish groups in Syria. The YPG has deep misgivings about the Arab opposition mainstream, which it considers to be Islamist and under Turkish influence, and it has steered a middle way between the regime and the rebels. True to the PKK’s Marxist tradition, the YPG makes a point of training female fighters. The YPG does not seek independence for Syria’s Kurds, but does argue for a form of self-governance within Syria.

Islam Brigade

Leader Zahran Alloush

Numbers Thousands

Area Mainly Damascus

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Islam Brigade was set up by the Alloush family from Douma, east of Damascus. The elderly patriarch Abdullah Alloush, a religious scholar, lives in Saudi Arabia. His son Zahran, a salafi activist jailed by the government in 2009, founded the group when he was released from prison in mid-2011. It rose to prominence after bombing the National Security Office in Damascus in July 2012, which killed several of Assad’s leading military officials. Considers itself “the biggest faction in the Damascus region” and claims to have 64 sub-battalions, but it refuses to give an estimated number of fighters.

Tawhid Brigade

General leader Abdelaziz Salama

Military commander  Abdulqader Saleh

Numbers Spokesperson claims ”around 11,000”

Area Aleppo, with smaller groups around the country

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The Tawhid Brigade was created in July 2012 through the merger of a disparate collection of militias from the Sunni Arab countryside  surrounding Aleppo. Soon thereafter, the group led the charge into the city itself, but the rebels became bogged down during the autumn of 2012 after some initial victories. The Tawhid Brigade remains the dominant force in the Aleppo region, although it also has small affiliates elsewhere. It demands some form of Islamic governance, but says that religious minorities should be treated as  equal citizens.

Suqour al-Sham Brigades

Leader Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh

Numbers Several thousand, possibly climbing towards 10,000

Area Jabal al-Zawiya, Idlib

Affiliation SILF, FSA

The foundations of the Suqour al-Sham, one of Syria’s best-known Islamist groups, were laid in the summer of 2011 in the town of Sarjeh in Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya region. It has now grown considerably and some of its sub-units, such as the Dawoud Brigade, have been pushing south into Hama province alongside more radical Islamist groups. Suqour al-Sham helped create the SILF alliance, with Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh serving as its leader since the start.

About the writer

Aron Lund is a Swedish writer and researcher who has published extensively on Syrian opposition movements. He is a regular contributor to the Swedish Institute for International Affairs. Mr Lund is considered one of the best informed observers of the Syrian opposition

Hizballah Cavalcade: Liwa’a Zulfiqar: Birth of A New Shia Militia in Syria? – Jihadology – Phillip Smyth

On June 5, 2013, the same day Lebanese Hizballah declared victory at the Battle of Qusayr, a page for a new Damascus-based Shia militia group, Liwa’a Zulfiqar (LZ or the Zulfiqar Battalion), was created on Facebook. The group asserts it is, “Assigned to protect religious shines, especially the Saydah Zaynab [shrine]”. This claim is also held by Syria’s other main Shia militia, Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas (LAFA). However, Liwa’a Zulfiqar is not competing with Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. In fact, most of its members and leadership appear to have been drawn from LAFA. Furthermore, Liwa’a Zulfiqar does not hide the fact that it was created out of Liwa’a Abu Fadl al-Abbas. Along with new photographs, the new group has repackaged older LAFA photographs and claimed them as representations of the new group.

LZ’s formation results in a number of questions: Is Liwa’a Zulfiqar a genuinely new organization? Could it be another front for LAFA? Was LZ’s formation representative of something else going on within the ranks of Shia fighters in Syria?

Based purely on social media data, it appears LZ is less of a new organization, and probably a LAFA front or part of LAFA. At best, the group could be a repackaging of LAFA fighters into a new group which serves the same functions and cooperates closely with LAFA and the Syrian army. At the same time, the group could be little more than a web-based propaganda vehicle. Since the creation of a new organization would generate the sense that larger numbers of capable Shia fighters are flooding into Syria, LZ’s propaganda function may also be aimed directly at rebel morale. …

The Awakening Sunni Giant – Weiss – Saudi Arabia is dead-serious about ending the Assad regime

Last Friday, King Abdullah cut short his summer vacation in Morocco and flew back to Riyadh not only to meet with his national security advisors but to coordinate a new strategy for winning the war in Syria, one that encompasses a unified regional bloc of Sunni-majority powers now ranged against Iran, Hezbollah, and the Assad regime. The Wahhabi kingdom has exhausted its patience with miscarried attempts to resolve the Syria crisis through diplomacy and it will not wait to see the coming battle in Aleppo play out before assuming control of the Syrian rebellion. State-backed regional efforts to bolster moderate Free Syrian Army elements will thus be joined with the fetid call to jihad emanating from clerical quarters in Cairo, Doha, Mecca, and beyond. The mullahs have only themselves to blame. “Nasrallah fucked up,” one well-connected Syrian source told me recently. “He awakened the Sunni giant. The Saudis took Hezbollah’s invasion of Qusayr personally.”

Although long in coming, and evidenced in the recent contretemps between Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, this grand realignment has been unmistakably solidified in the last week. A day after the Saudi king returned to Riyadh, Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi severed all diplomatic ties with Damascus and called for a no-fly zone in Syria, leaving no mystery as to reason behind this decision. “Hezbollah must leave Syria – these are serious words,” the Islamist president said. “There is no space or place for Hezbollah in Syria.”

Then, on Monday, June 17, it was Jordanian King Abdullah’s turn to strike a minatory, albeit more nationalistic, note. Ostensibly addressing cadets at a graduation ceremony at Mutah Military Academy, the Hashemite monarch was in fact speaking to Barack Obama and Bashar al-Assad: “If the world does not mobilize or help us in the issue [of Syria] as it should, or if this matter forms a danger to our country, we are able at any moment to take measures that will protect our land and the interests of our people.”

Unlike Morsi, who doesn’t have half a million Syrian refugees to contend with, Abdullah’s deterrent capability is not confined to persona non grata diktats and rhetorical posturing. Operation Eager Lion, the 12-day military exercise featuring the United States and 19 Arab and European countries, is currently underway in Jordan. Around 8,000 personnel – including commandos from Lebanon and Iraq who will no doubt be fighting some of their compatriots in any deployment into Syria – are given lessons on border security, refugee management, counterinsurgency, and counterterrorism warfare. Patriot missile batteries and anywhere between 12 and 24 American F-16 fighter jets were left in Jordan as a multilateral insurance policy against Syrian, Iranian, or Hezbollah provocations. This royal Abdullah is more in sync than ever with his namesake to the south.

If further proof were needed of Riyadh’s newfound earnestness about ending Assad’s reign, look no further than a recent column by Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist seen as quite close to Prince Turki al-Faisal, the former director general of Saudi intelligence who himself has described Hezbollah and Iraq’s Shiite Abu Fadhl al-Abbas Brigade in Syria as Iran’s “steel claws.” On June 15, Khashoggi published “The expanding Shiite Crescent” in al-Hayat. The piece can only be described as something between a Sunni cri de coeur and a Sunni fever-dream. Khashoggi begins by warning of creeping Iranian hegemony in the Levant, which is of course driven as much by energy and commercial interest as it is by ideology. Allow Assad victory and here’s what will happen, according to Khashoggi:

“The Iranian Oil Ministry will pull out old maps from its drawers to build the pipeline to pump Iranian oil and gas from Abadan (across Iraq) to Tartus. The Iranian Ministry of Roads and Transportation will dust off the national railways authority’s blueprints for a new branch line from Tehran to Damascus, and possibly Beirut. Why not? The wind is blowing in their favor and I am not making a mountain out of a molehill.”

As against Hafez’s careful balancing of Sunni and Shiite interests, Khashoggi concludes, the dangerous Bashar has submitted completely to Iran and their Lebanese proxy. “Consequently, Saudi Arabia must do something now, albeit alone. The kingdom’s security is at stake. It will be good if the United States joined an alliance led by Saudi Arabia to bring down Assad and return Syria to the Arab fold. But this should not be a precondition to proceed. Let Saudi Arabia head those on board.” [Italics added.]

According to Elizabeth O’Bagy, the policy director at the Syrian Emergency Task Force and a senior research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, the Saudis had a closed-door meeting with Gen. Salim Idris, the head of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Command, a few days ago, at which they offered to do “whatever it takes” to help Idris defeat Assad and his growing army of Shiite-Alawi sectarian militias. Though, this being a Saudi promise, “whatever it takes” can still be defined relatively: the discussion was limited to weapons, more resources and logistical support, O’Bagy said, though some of the hardware has already begun to materialize.

One unnamed Gulf source cited by Reuters has claimed that the Saudis have begun running shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADs) into Syria. Furthermore, at least 50 “Konkurs,” Russian-made, wire-guided anti-tank missiles, have also turned up in Aleppo in the last week, as confirmed by the Daily Telegraph’s Mideast correspondent Richard Spencer (Konkurs are especially useful in destroying T-72 tanks, the most recent Soviet-era model that the Syrian Army uses.)

More intriguing still is the Western power evidently facilitating this campaign – France. Israeli Army Radio reported this week that French intelligence officials are working with their Saudi counterparts to train up rebels on tactics and weaponry, in concert with the Turkish Defense Ministry (no doubt because Turkish supply-lines to Aleppo are now even more crucial.) Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and mukhabarat head Prince Bandar bin Sultan (also the former Saudi ambassador to the United States and King Abdullah’s national security advisor), have traveled to Paris in urgent fits of shuttle diplomacy of late.

“The French have been really, really pro-active in pushing for greater action,” O’Bagy told me. “They have a lot of really active people on the ground.” The same Gulf source who told Reuters about anti-aircraft missiles bound for Syria also said they were “obtained from suppliers in France and Belgium, and France had paid to ship them to the region.” The Hollande government maintains that it hasn’t decided whether or not to arm the rebels yet, but here it should be noted, as O’Bagy has elsewhere, that the U.S. was gun-running before it ambiguously announced last week that it would (maybe) begin doing so.

Indeed, the Saudi-French concord provides some much needed context for the Obama administration’s adherence to the status quo ante. This has been amusingly characterized by some commentators in near apocalyptic language.  The White House is still only interested in guiding a process absent direct involvement in it. Everyone from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Martin Dempsey to the president has loudly rejected the prospect of air strikes or a no-fly zone. (These “realists” fail to realize that the surest way to limit argument to arm the FSA is to destroy the regime’s own Iranian and Russian resupply capability – ah, but that would require dropping bombs and we can’t have that, can we?)

Having thus determined that the Syria crisis was not in the U.S. “national interest,” the administration conveniently forgot about the national interests of its allies, all of whom lament the geopolitical vacuum left by a vanishing American presence and greatly fear the elements now rushing in to fill it. So instead, Washington palavers with Moscow about “Geneva II”, a conference set to resemble the last half hour of Rocky IV, as the war proceeds uninterrupted on the ground. Witness the buildup of Syrian Army soldiers and militants from Hezbollah and the Iranian-sponsored Popular Committees and the National Defense Forces in the Aleppo towns of Nubul and Zahra’a. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Hezbollah fighters, abetted by IRGC agents, are amassed in the province ready to try a repeat of their last victory in Qusayr.

Congratulations are in order. The United States has just earned a court-side seat to exactly the kind of transnational Sunni-Shiite confrontation it wished to avoid.

Syria’s sectarian war causes Hamas split, analysts say – Daily Star

Syria’s civil war has caused a split within Hamas over whether to cling to its Shiite backers Damascus, Tehran and Hezbollah or side with Sunni allies such as Qatar, Egypt and Turkey, analysts say. Some in the Islamist movement’s military wing insist that aid from Iran – a key Damascus ally – should not be shunned simply to publicly back the Sunni-led rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hamas sources told AFP.

News of the split within the Palestinian movement which rules the Gaza Strip coincides with reports that Iran has scaled down its financial support to the group.

Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal, who is behind the movement’s shift toward Sunni regimes such as Qatar that back the rebels, left his Damascus headquarters in 2012 for Doha after refusing to support Assad’s deadly crackdown.

Meshaal and his Gaza-based Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh were Tuesday in Ankara, another rebel backer, to meet Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the previous day, Meshaal had called on Lebanon’s Hezbollah to pull its forces out of Syria and focus on resisting Israel, accusing it of contributing to “sectarian polarization” in the region.

Pan-Arab newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi recently reported that leaders of Hamas’s armed wing the Ezzedine al-Qassam Brigades had warned Meshaal against getting too close to Qatar, as this was having a negative impact on aid from Iran.

It was Tehran’s military support rather than Gulf financial support, they reminded him, that had enabled Hamas to face the last major Israeli assault on Gaza in November. …