General Gouraud: “Saladin, We’re Back!” Did He Really Say It?

Gouraud: “Saladin, We’re Back!”
Did The French General Really Say It on Conquering Syria in 1920?
by James Barr @James_Barr
For Syria Comment, May 27, 2016

“Saladin, We’re Back!” So France’s general Henri Gouraud is said to have declared when he entered the Kurdish warrior’s tomb beside the Umayyad Mosque in August 1920 after the French had seized Damascus.

French general Henri Joseph Eugène Gouraud (1867-1946) in 1923

It is one of those quotes that is too good not to use. Saladin’s biographer, Anne-Marie Eddé, starts her book with it to prove the endurance of her subject’s reputation, seven hundred years after his death. I quoted it myself in my 2011 history of the mandate era, A Line In The Sand. But when I was revising the text for the forthcoming French edition, I thought I might just check its source.

The quote seems plausible enough. Gouraud, in the words of his lieutenant, Georges Catroux, viewed his mission “as a Christian, as a soldier and a romantic”. He saw Damascus as the “unconquered fortress which defied the assaults of the Franks, the capital and burial place of the great Saladin, chivalrous victor over Lusignan at Hattin.”

General Henri Gouraud inspecting the French Army that occupied Damascus on July 25, 1920

But did he actually tell Saladin he was back? The earliest evidence Eddé could find was in Gabriel Puaux’s Deux Années au Levant, which was only published in 1952, though Puaux served as France’s high-commissioner in the Levant from 1938-40. In this memoir Puaux says that Gouraud entered the tomb and exclaimed, “Saladin, nous voilà.” Despite Puaux’s distance from the events he was describing, this reference remains valuable because it predates the moment when the phrase gained more general notoriety when it was used by Nasser in a speech in March 1958 after he had visited Syria and seen Saladin’s tomb the previous month. Evidently it was a story frequently repeated in Damascus.

Nasser and Quwatli 1958

President Quwatli gives Nasser a tour of Salahidin’s tomb during his first visit to Damascus in 1958, when he came to sign the Syrian-Egyptian Union. The tomb of Saladin is located behind the Grand Umayyad Mosque in Old Damascus. This Photo is thanks to Sami Moubayed.

But one man who had served in Gouraud’s army in 1920 did not certainly attribute it to Gouraud. In 1970, Louis Garros, by then a distinguished historian, wrote an article for Le Monde to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the French takeover of Syria. In it he referred only to “a general” entering the Umayyad mosque and saying “Saladin, nous voici”. It is unclear whether he was referring to Gouraud or his general Mariano Goybet, the man who actually took over Damascus.

The commander of the French forces was General Mariano Goybet.

Goybet entered Damascus on 25 July 1920. Gouraud made his formal entrance on 7 August. A reporter, Maria Rosette Shapira, who was attached to the French force, covered both events for the French weekly, L’Illustration. Shapira, who wrote under the pseudonym Myriam Harry, described the battle of Maysaloun and, briefly, Goybet’s arrival in Damascus in an article published on 21 August. It is her follow-up piece, which was printed on 11 September, that is of interest, because it hints that Goybet may have said something that caused offence.

The article, “Le Général Gouraud à Damas”, is a colour piece on Gouraud’s arrival, datelined Damascus, August 1920. In it Harry says that Gouraud went first to the Umayyad mosque and on leaving the mosque arrived before the tomb of Saladin. The key sentence is this: “Nous n’entrons point dans le mausolée que nous avons visité à notre premier séjour.” In English: “We did NOT go into the tomb, which we entered on our first stay.”

Harry goes on to say that Gouraud preferred to sit outside in the shade of a lemon tree, from where they remarked on an ugly clock given by the Kaiser during his 1898 visit, which was fixed to the outside of the tomb. (Lawrence had of course made off two years earlier with the bronze wreath also given by the Kaiser, which is now in London’s Imperial War Museum). From there, Gouraud returned to the mosque where he was received by various Muslim dignitaries from the city. According to Harry Gouraud’s tone with these men was conciliatory. She reports him assuring them of his religious impartiality and his desire to maintain Arab independence. He then left to visit the Maidan.

General Gouraud escapes an assassination attempt on route from Damascas to Kunaitra, 1921.

General Gouraud escapes an assassination attempt on route from Damascas to Kunaitra, 1921.

Why the need for the emphatic denial that they did not enter the tomb? Given this was Gouraud’s first ever visit to Damascus, the implication of the sentence is that Harry had visited the tomb with Goybet and that whatever happened on that earlier occasion was controversial enough that it obliged Gouraud to make a show of not doing so himself on this first visit. The absence of any reference to Goybet’s visit to the tomb in Harry’s first piece, but then the reference to it in the second, makes me wonder whether the censor had been at work.

Unless a definitive eye-witness emerges, Harry’s reportage suggests that it was Goybet, rather than Gouraud, who is more likely to have made the notorious remark.

* James Barr is an Historian. Author of A Line in the Sand, on how Anglo-French rivalry helped shape the modern Middle East.

Another excellent short article by Barr on the Sykes-Picot & the Balfour Declaration:

“India and the Syrian Conflict,” by Niraj Srivastava

NirajIndia and the Syrian Conflict
by Amb. Niraj Srivastava
For Syria Comment, May 26, 2016

It was reported in the Indian media that on May 20 the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) released a new 22-minute Arabic language documentary online featuring purported Indian Jihadi fighters in its ranks. The video included interviews with five Indian Jihadis known to have joined the ISIS since 2014. In one of the interviews, Fahad Tanvir Sheikh, an Indian student from Thane, says that he will return to India to “avenge the Babri Masjid, and the killings of Muslims in Kashmir, Gujarat, and in Muzaffarnagar.”

Al Masdar News has also reported that in a video released on May 20, ISIS “showed off their large Indian force operating against Syrian government forces in east Homs countryside,” and called on Indians to leave their country and join the Jihad in Syria against the “infidels.” The agency, however, stated that it was not clear how many Indians were fighting with Islamic State forces in Syria.

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The above developments have brought the ISIS, and the ongoing conflict in Syria, uncomfortably close to India. So far, the Syrian conflict had been seen in India as an event taking place in a distant land. But the release of the above video suggests that the ISIS is perhaps planning to draw more Indian nationals into the Syrian imbroglio, as well as expand its operations in this country. This cannot be good news for India, which may have to track the activities of ISIS more carefully, both here as well as in Syria.

India’s position on Syria, as on Libya, has been that it is for the people of Syria to decide who should govern them. The destiny of Syria should be decided by Syrians. India had abstained on the vote on Libya in the UN Security Council in March 2011, when it was a non-permanent member of the Security Council.

The Feb. 27 partial cease-fire in Syria and the resumption of peace talks in Geneva between the opposition and the Assad government had raised hopes of finding a political solution to the bloodbath in the country, which has so far resulted in the deaths of nearly half a million people and displacement of almost half of Syria’s pre-war population of about 23 million. However, developments in April and May 2016 belied any such hopes, pointing, instead, to further complications.

First, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee (HNC), representing the opposition groups in Syria, walked out of the Geneva talks on April 18, ostensibly due to cease-fire violations by the Assad regime. It had also failed to reach an agreement over the formation of a transitional governing body before elections are held in Syria to form a new government. The HNC did not want President Assad to be a part of any such body while the regime insisted that Assad’s role in it was not up for discussion in Geneva.

Second, fighting flared up in Syria around the same time, particularly in Aleppo. Russian and Syrian aircraft bombed the rebel-held areas in the east while the Nusra Front directed artillery fire at western Aleppo. Some of the bombs and shells hit hospitals on both sides, resulting in the deaths of several doctors, patients, and innocent civilians. Fighting also broke out in parts of Idlib, Homs, and Hama. It had continued for almost two weeks before a fragile truce was brokered by the US and Russia on May 4. By that time, nearly 300 people had been killed, most of them civilians.

Third, it is also clear that the two sides used the two-month truce to strengthen their military capabilities as well as their positions on the ground. More sophisticated military hardware continued to flow to the Russian and Syrian forces, whose ranks were also augmented by paramilitary fighters from Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guards, and Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. On the other hand, the rebels received TOW anti-tank missiles and possibly shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles (MANPADS), which were probably used to shoot down two Syrian air force aircraft in March and April.

It is evident that the Syrian and Russian militaries launched a determined assault in April on Aleppo and the other areas to regain territory held by the rebels, but did not fully succeed. On the other hand, it is also clear that the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and their allies have not given up their goal of “regime change.” In defiance of their stance, the Syrian government held Parliamentary elections in April in areas controlled by it. The elections were won handsomely by the ruling Baath Party. Both sides are still pursuing a military solution to the conflict, although talks might continue in Geneva to find a political settlement, which would be more durable.

Another significant development has been the deployment of more US “boots on the ground” in Syria, contrary to earlier US statements. On April 25, President Obama announced the deployment of 250 troops, including Special Forces, in addition to the 50 deployed in Nov. 2015. The stated objective of the deployment is to fight ISIS in Syria. But the troops could also be used to target other groups, including the Syrian military.

Significantly, the US, Britain and France recently turned down a Russian proposal to the UN Security Council to designate the Saudi and Turkey-backed groups Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, which have links with ISIS and Al Qaida, as terrorist groups. On May 3, Secretary Kerry also warned Assad of the consequences of a “new US approach” if he does not accept a political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, without specifying what that “new approach” would be.

Meanwhile, as mentioned above, there is no softening of the positions of the other leading players including Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Israel, all of whom appear intent on regime change in Syria. They will also benefit if Syria breaks up. Netanyahu, in fact, held a meeting of his cabinet on the Golan Heights on April 17 during which he declared that Israel will never give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Turkey has regularly called for setting up “safe zones” or “no-fly zones” in Syria, which it could easily annex if Syria disintegrates.

On May 17, the 20-member International Support Group for Syria (ISSG) met in Vienna under the Co-Chairmanship of the US and Russia. The Group agreed to strengthen the cessation of hostilities, facilitate full humanitarian access to relief agencies in Syria, and ensure progress towards a peaceful political transition by Aug. 1, 2016, under UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The political transition will be overseen by a transitional governing body formed by mutual consent of the main parties concerned.

The actual implementation of the above recommendations may be problematic, due to the reasons cited above. Fighting continues to rage in some parts of Syria. Humanitarian access has improved, but more needs to be done. The most difficult part may be the constitution of the transitional governing body. As mentioned above, the HNC does not want President Assad to have any role in it, which is entirely unacceptable to the regime. It is not clear how this deadlock can be overcome. Significantly, no date has yet been set for the resumption of the Geneva talks.

As things stand, the situation in Syria remains fluid and uncertain. Though Russian and Syrian aircraft continue to bomb ISIS and Al Nusra strongholds around Aleppo and other strategic areas, there seems to be a stalemate on the ground. All the players are keeping all their options open—including the military one—which makes it difficult to predict future developments in that country. But one thing appears certain—the conflict in Syria is not going to end anytime soon. It is likely to continue beyond the US presidential elections in Nov. 2016. India will have to ensure that its nationals do not get sucked into the Syrian conflict and that ISIS is not allowed to expand its footprint in this country.

Niraj Srivastava is a retired Indian diplomat. He was India’s ambassador to Denmark and Uganda, and has spent more than ten years in Arab countries including Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia. He has also taught undergraduate students at Georgetown University, Washington D.C. His other postings include the United States and Canada. He is currently an independent international affairs consultant based in New Delhi, India. The views expressed are personal.

The Local Defence Forces: Regime Auxiliary Forces in Aleppo

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LocalDefenceForcesemblem
Emblem of the Local Defence Forces. On top: “Homeland, Honour, Sincerity.” Below: “Syrian Arabic Republic. The army and armed forces- Local Defence Forces.”

Besides the well-known National Defence Forces (NDF) that were set up in 2012 with oversight from Iran to act as a counter-insurgency force and auxiliary militia network for the Syrian army, there exists a similarly named but distinct set of militias specific to the Aleppo area known as the Local Defence Forces (Quwat al-Difa’ al-Mahalli- LDF). In brief, the LDF consists of a variety of local militias such as Katibat al-Nayrab al-Maham al-Khasa (The Nayrab Battalion- Special Operations), Liwa al-Baqir (The Baqir Brigade), Fawj al-Safira (The Safira Regiment) and Fawj Nubl wa al-Zahara’ (The Nubl and Zahara’ Regiment). These names mostly refer to areas and towns in the vicinity of Aleppo city, but Liwa al-Baqir is named after the fifth Shi’i imam Muhammad al-Baqir.

A representative for Katibat al-Nayrab affirmed to me that the LDF totals 50,000 fighters (an obvious exaggeration), set up in 2012 by Iran as an auxiliary force for the Syrian army in the Aleppo area. Unsurprisingly, the LDF is linked with Hezbollah as well, though it is Liwa al-Baqir that advertises this connection more than the other LDF formations: something reinforced by the fact that the Lebanese singer Ali Barakat, most well known for his songs for Hezbollah, put out a song dedicated to Liwa al-Baqir. Liwa al-Baqir also appears to be tied in particular to the al-Bekara clan in Aleppo that has gained notoriety for its support for the regime, especially as it is predominantly Sunni (the evidence may suggest a degree of Shi’ification as well in relation to Liwa al-Baqir).

LiwaBaqirAshiratBakara
“Liwa al-Imam al-Baqir: al-Bekara clan.” Note the portrait of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on the left and Bashar al-Assad on the right. Also note one of the portraits featuring the Hezbollah and Syrian flags.

LiwaBaqirHezbollahpatch
“The mujahideen of Liwa al-Baqir from the base of operations: God protect you, our mujahideen”- note the Hezbollah armpatch.

LiwaBaqirIslamicresistancegraphic
Social media graphic for Liwa al-Baqir, featuring the familiar moniker of “The Islamic Resistance” (al-muqawama al-islamiya).

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Liwa al-Baqir posters. Note the central one: “Men of the Resistance.” Includes Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamene’i, Assad and Nasrallah.

Describing itself as “the first auxiliary [/reserve]” for the Syrian army, Liwa al-Baqir seems to be the most prominent LDF formation. For example, most recently the militia’s social media have advertised heavy involvement in fighting against the Islamic State (IS) focused around the village of Kafr Saghir and fighting against Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel forces in south Aleppo countryside. Thus, on 20 March 2016, Liwa al-Baqir claimed at least 15 ‘martyrs’ (fallen fighters) in fighting on the Kafr Saghir front to the north-east of Aleppo city, followed by a claim of 5 more ‘martyrs’ two days later. In April, Liwa al-Baqir media mention coordination with Hezbollah in fighting in the south Aleppo countryside, focusing initially on the village of al-Eis. These south Aleppo operations have been advertised as being in coordination not only with Hezbollah (e.g. see here) but also the Iraqi Shi’i militia Harakat al-Nujaba’. The accounts of these operations include this short story:

“We, the men of Liwa al-Baqir, were in the company of the men of Hezbollah when they arrested dozens of the pigs of Nusra whom we wanted to kill but then one of the mujahideen reminded us saying: ‘Oh youth, remember the words of Imam Ali- peace be upon him- who says: ‘And don’t kill those who surrender but rather grant them food and grant them protection.”

Prior to these engagements, Liwa al-Baqir claimed participation in the operations leading to the breaking of the rebel sieges of the Shi’i villages of Nubl and Zahara’ to the north of Aleppo city, as well as operations in south Aleppo countryside as part of the series of Russia-Iran backed offensives that began in October of last year to allow the regime to regain the initiative against the rebels.

Unlike a number of pro-Assad militias whose total numbers of ‘martyrs’ since inception normally do not amount to more than a few or several dozen, Liwa al-Baqir claimed 246 ‘martyrs’ as of 21 March 2016. This claim to a large number of ‘martyrs’ is corroborated to a certain extent by the displays of posters of these ‘martyrs’, samples of which appear below.

MuhammadHusseinRaslan
Dedicated to ‘martyr’ Muhammad Hussein Raslan, Top-right inscription: “Liwa al-Imam al-Baqir: Local Defence Forces.” Note the faint Hezbollah imagery in the background.

ImamBaqirmartyrdomposters
Some more ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Baqir, though here the term used is ‘Fawj al-Imam Baqir’ (no real difference in meaning).

ImamBaqirlargemural
Large Liwa al-Baqir mural, likely dedicated to ‘martyrs’ in the militia or linked to it.

Just as the Syrian Social Nationalist Party has used its militia presence in Syria to push for political influence in the form of candidates for the recent Syrian parliamentary elections, so too did Liwa al-Baqir throw its weight behind an ostensibly independent candidate called Omar Hussein al-Hassan.

OmarHusseinalHassanLiwaBaqir
“Vote for the independent candidate for membership of the People’s Council. Aleppo countryside (group A). Omar Hussein al-Hassan. Offering from: al-Bekara clan, Liwa al-Baqir. The homeland will remain on high by our steadfastness.”

The candidate in question is notable for having the same surname as the leader of Liwa al-Baqir: Khalid al-Hassan, who also goes by the name of Baqir. Khalid is linked to the Syrian state apparatus through the State Ministry for the Affairs of National Reconciliation, as per a post below from January 2016:

“Syrian Arab Republic
State Ministry for the Affairs of National Reconciliation
Document no. 845

The leader of Liwa al-Baqir Khalid al-Hassan (Baqir)…and the distinguished members- members of the Committee of Reconciliation, National Accord and Social Coordination- are operating in the framework of the project of national reconciliation in Aleppo province. We request aid within the systems and laws and in cooperation with Mr. Governor of Aleppo in making their mission succeed. To connect with us in the Liwa al-Baqir centre in Tarkan [a village in the Safira district].”

In this context, it should be noted that Liwa al-Baqir was also involved in a prominent conciliation event at the end of 2015 involving two major families- Abu Ra’s and Berri (the latter also notorious for its support for the regime)- including an event involving military and security officials as well as ‘ulama’ in Aleppo.

KhalidalHassanleaderLiwaBaqir
Khalid al-Hassan

Interestingly, in March 2016 Liwa al-Baqir claimed the ‘martyrdom’ of Khalid’s brother. No specific details were offered as to the circumstances surrounding his death, though one page for Liwa al-Baqir seemed to present it as a ‘martyrdom’ jointly claimed with Hezbollah. According to the Katibat al-Nayrab representative, he was actually assassinated in Lebanon.

The other LDF formations are less remarkable. For example, Fawj al-Safira, as its name suggests, operates in the Safira area of Aleppo, also renowned as a bastion of regime support. Fawj al-Safira, in repelling IS attacks in the Safira area, has notably coordinated not only with the Syrian army but also the local Safira branch of the Muqawama Suriya, a militia primarily based in Latakia whose founder Ali Kayali has been declared by the Muqawama Suriya to have been ‘disappeared’ (mughayyab) in a possible cover-up of his death since his suspected killing in late March 2016.

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LDF forces have had a role in fighting to the south of Aleppo city as IS has repeatedly harassed regime control of the supply line to Aleppo city via Khanaser. Among items captured by IS in an assault in mid-April were LDF ID cards as shown in this photo.

Instead of giving a chronological list of engagements by the LDF, it remains to note that on a wider level the LDF has a ‘political direction’ division that puts out newsletters, featuring political and military developments as well as excerpts from media outlets and political analysis. For example, issue no. 81 that was recently put out opens with commemorations for the deceased Hezbollah commander Mustafa Badreddine (aka Dhu al-Fiqar), who was central to organizing Hezbollah’s efforts in Syria. The political analysis section also gives a summary of Badreddine’s life and accomplishments.

In comparison with many other pro-Assad militias, the LDF clearly amounts to much more than a seemingly ‘exotic’ name and brand. On the contrary, the LDF has been important for organizing local pro-Assad support networks in Aleppo that transcend the sectarian divide to a degree. In part these networks explain the regime’s staying power in Aleppo, rather than just foreign manpower influx in the form of Iranian personnel and Shi’i militias. At the same time, one should not forget the importance of Iran and Hezbollah in the organization and advising of local militia support networks- an analysis that clearly applies to the LDF.

—————–
Appendix update (24 May 2016): An account of the origins of Liwa al-Baqir is offered by the pro-opposition site alSouria.net in an article from January 2016. According to this account, Liwa al-Baqir was set up as a distinct brand and formation by the LDF in 2015, initially working under Harakat al-Nujaba’, which was responsible for the Shi’ification and arming of its fighters. This same report affirms that Liwa al-Baqir now operates separately from Harakat al-Nujaba’.

The LDF more generally, though having roots in and ties to predominantly Sunni ‘shabiha’ clan networks, is portrayed in this article as having come under the increasing influence of the foreign Shi’i militias that have come to the Aleppo area. There is likely something to this, for as I noted in the main article, the evidence from Liwa al-Baqir seems to suggest at least some Shi’ification among al-Bekara clan members. In any case the LDF was set up in the first place by Iran, so it is hardly surprising if Shi’i militias tied to Iran (which have made a prominent mark in Aleppo since 2013) have sought to influence the LDF even further in orientation.

The bulk of the article from alSouria.net is translated by me below:

“Aleppo has seen since the beginning of the protests in it formations affiliated with the LDF formation led by the Berri family a great part of which is known for its support for the regime and its participation in repressing demonstrations, but the feared status and importance of this formation has retreated with the beginning of the arrival of foreign militias to the regime’s areas in Aleppo, and the Shi’a militias have managed to include the LDF through Shi’ification of its fighters.

The alSourianet correspondent in Aleppo, Muhammad al-Shafi’i, points out that the LDF formed Liwa al-Baqir last year, with its base in the village of Tarkan in south Aleppo countryside, clarifying that the brigade worked within the militia formation of the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba’, which uses the al-Assad academy as a base for its military operations.

And special sources mention to alSouria.net that Liwa al-Baqir currently works separately and independently from Harakat al-Nujaba’ to regain authority over Aleppo, and has portrayed itself as an auxiliary for the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. According to the same sources the brigade’s numbers are around 2000 fighters, who have obtained their weapons previously from Harakat al-Nujaba’, in addition to their receiving salaries of 25,000 Syrian pounds [per month].

The Iraqi militia supervised the formation of this brigade after the Shi’ification of its members and the establishment of special camps for them. They were trained in assault methods and were deployed in the recent south Aleppo battles, and Liwa al-Baqir is led by “Khalid al-Hassan al-Aloush al-Baqir” and with protection from people in the Berri family. And the sources mention to alSouria.net that the number of those from the brigade killed in the recent battles of south Aleppo countryside reached 50 members, all of whom are from the ‘Shabiha,’ while the number of those killed from the brigade since its formation until the beginning of this year reaches up to 300 killed.

The brigade participates in frontline duty operations in the villages of south Aleppo countryside controlled by the regime and its militias since two months ago, in addition to the presence of military checkpoints of the brigade inside Aleppo. In addition Liwa al-Baqir has special training camps in the villages of Tel Shaghib, Issan, Ain Issan and Tarkan in south Aleppo countryside.”

A Day in The Life of The Jungle: Syrians Camped out in Calais

A Day in The Life of The Jungle: Syrians Camped out in Calais
by Tam Hussein – @tamhussein
For Syria Comment, May

Apart from the odd father attending to the needs of their families, most Syrians sleep in late in the Jungle in Calais. They are wrapped up inside their tarpaulin and plywood hovels resembling one of those Hoovervilles from Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. Sometimes new arrivals, exhausted, just curl up and sleep on the dusty path, not caring that in this makeshift camp rats are oblivious to men. In fact, this is the very reason why they call it the Jungle; for here men live like animals. The Junglists though, whether Syrian or not, don’t sleep in because they are idle. They have been up all night trying; trying with an indomitable will to reach the white cliffs of England.

The Pump in the background, motorway to port- Author

The Pump in the background, motorway to port- Author

England though doesn’t want the Syrians or any other Junglist. Westminster has invested France with vast funds to put up fencing as white as the cliffs of Dover. These fences tear apart Calais’ green expanse and resemble the Israeli security measures in the Occupied Territories. These are patrolled night and day by the police, gendarme and the hated CRS, the riot police. The CRS have the role of Roman centurions on a frontier outpost, desperately trying to keep the barbarians out. As the sun sets, you see them putting on their shin guards, shields and helmets at the petrol stop where the English stock up on some cheap plonk. Usually there are eight CRS vans, each carrying twelve men. There are other vans concealed in the shrubbery, ready to throw their spotlights at opportunistic Junglists, so the riot police can move in with harsh batons and pepper spray.

The powers that be have taken many measures to prevent the men from going to England. They have advised that the lorries with no cargo leave their carriages open during the night, so that the Junglist knows that there will be nothing to protect him from the pepper spray once it’s opened. The trucks heading towards the Calais port follow a strict procedure. Once they reach junction E16, they are inspected by the police and then they are instructed to launch themselves towards the ferry port so they are not intercepted by the Junglists. This enclosed stretch of motorway runs right alongside the camp and you can see the trucks hurtle down towards the port as if taunting the men.
As a further precaution, the authorities have created a buffer zone along the fenced motorway. Now the Junglist will have to make that hundred and fifty meter run towards the fencing to get at the trucks.

The buffer zone and the wall- Author

The buffer zone and the wall- Author

Volunteer training with residents of the Jungle- Author

Volunteer training with residents of the Jungle- Author

***

There is always a police presence in and around the camp. But it is in the evening that the CRS makes their presence felt because, under the cover of darkness, the Junglists try to make it to England. In the evening, if the men have managed somehow to evade the police, they cut the fencing and wait for one of those trucks. When they see one truck hurtling towards them, they jump in front of the truck hoping that it will stop. Many lives are lost in this way, especially the children, because they are harder to spot and tend to work in packs. Other times the Junglists throw something in the path of the truck. Whatever the methods, the objective is the same: create a Dugar- a traffic jam of lorries.

When the cry for Dugar is heard, distinct whistling noises spread across the camp and the Junglists start to move in the direction of the Dugar. They have half an hour to try to get through the gap in the fencing and clamber into the trucks that pile up before the police arrive. It used to be two days before they came but now they are here within half an hour. The police have little choice but to fire rubber bullets at close range because they are outnumbered and most men will have knives as standard issue; how else are they going to cut the fencing? Sometimes the hot tear gas canister gets thrown back by an Afghan wearing gloves and the police get to taste its acrid smell. Most men fail and laugh about it afterwards, showing their bruises; it’s gallows humour, the same humour you find in war torn Syria- a bitter dark sort formed in the hearts of cynical men.

Empty Trucks in Calais- CRS were hidden in the shrubbery

Empty Trucks in Calais- CRS were hidden in the shrubbery-Author

More recently the authorities have cut the camp down to size. The camp used to be one kilometre by half a kilometre, but the authorities have bulldozed two thousand Hoovervilles which promptly moved to the southern precinct. They then destroyed the southern precinct so that in eight weeks the population in the northern precinct increased fourfold. But it is not all bad news: the buffer zone now serves as a great place where Afghans can bowl googlies and be struck for six. They can shout ‘no ball’ or ‘Howzat’ as if they were playing at Lord’s cricket ground to their hearts’ content. Others, like the Eritreans and the Syrians, don’t quite understand cricket, and you hear them making comments as to why you need to keep your arm straight when bowling. They stick to the simplicity of football.

When one of the Syrians try a ‘muhawala’- an attempt to cross the English Channel- it is as if the man is going off to the war front. I met Ammar cutting onions at a soup kitchen. He is a pensive quiet man, thinning prematurely at the top. He smokes rolling tobacco sitting on the roof of the soup kitchen. Men say he should be on suicide watch or on anti-depressants. It is hard to tell whether this is the case. Ammar is from Qusayr, Syria. He escaped after his city fell, his family is scattered all over the world. His mother is in Egypt, and three siblings in Lebanon, Sweden and the UK. He says he doesn’t care for any country and will return to Syria, “better to die there in dignity”. But despite this, he is still going to try to get to England.

The fenced motorway to the port and the camp. Author

The fenced motorway to the port and the camp. Author

Ammar in the soup kitchen- Author

Ammar in the soup kitchen- Author

Ammar serves dinner to the Junglists who form an orderly queue at seven o’clock. And then wearing his crocs, with a bag donated by a French girl, he bids farewell and off he goes into the night. He is convinced that he will make it to England tonight. Perhaps we will never see him on this earth again. He’s jumped trains, clambered onto trucks, by hook and crook tried it all and failed. And yet tonight he is convinced he will make it. Everyone thinks they will be the one. There is another, Ali, sitting in front of a shop. He is visiting the Jungle. He made made the journey from Afghanistan through Italy, stayed there long enough in Naples for him to speak Italian. He too, ripping up a naan, says he’s been trying. He once made it to England but was sent back. But he is going to try again, “Fanculo tutto il mondo” he says apologising for his swearing, “only England will do. Germany, France, Italy is (sic) racist, they treat us like animals.” And then there is fourteen year old Hani, from Aleppo whose parents were killed by the Syrian regime, he too tries every night. He too has tried to get on the Eurostar which, if it catches you, doesn’t even stop. Apart from a slight bump, no one onboard will know that a child died on their journey into St. Pancras International.

Evening in the Jungle, Calais.

Evening in the Jungle, Calais- Author

It seems impossible to pass through the fencing, the walls, the buffer zones and tunnels, but they do. There is something quietly quixotic about them as they try night after night. They embody the indignity of the ‘have nots’ against the ‘haves’, of human folly and yet at the same time hope. Has England become an obsession or does it contain some hidden street paved with gold? In the UK a refugee will receive five pound twenty a day, he will rely on food banks and suffer hardship but he is safe and that is worth its price in gold. After all, these people have journeyed from Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and many other countries escaping brutal dictators and war. The English channel will not thwart them. In fact, during the night, the Syrian corner of the camp is lit up by a twelve foot flame seen by all. Initial fears that the shanties are ablaze are dispelled by the sound of whooping and singing. One of their brothers have made it to London. How? God knows, but the story is a testament to human resilience.

If Ammar makes it he has to convince the UK authorities that he has arrived with out knowing that he has been transiting through other European countries. More than that, he hopes that he hasn’t been snapped up by one of the men working for the British intelligence services. Junglists are aware that many people at the camp work for the intelligence services because friends who have made it, have seen them at Dover police station fraternising with the officers. In truth, the security services have no choice. The Jungle is a security concern, especially in the wake of Paris and Brussels.

For Ammar, though, there are easier ways. He can seek asylum in France and then be put in Camp Salaam with its the pristine white containers and warm showers. But Camp Salaam feels like prison. They are kept there till their application is processed. Those that apply seem to be from the Francophone world so France is the most logical destination to seek asylum. In any case, they probably do not have any finger prints any where else in Europe. If they do, the Dublin Agreement III requires that the host country send them back to the first European country of entry. They will be deported from that camp and find themselves in Serbia or Greece. This is what the Junglists fear the most; being sent back. These refugees prefer the freedom outside of Camp Salaam, but the freedom of the Jungle is fused with the ever pervasive smell of human excrement and rank green water that gather in pools where brown rats have pool parties.

***

The Prophecy of Micah

The Prophecy of Micah- Author

Even though there is no capo in the camp, somehow things just fall into place. There is an anarchic sort of order here. One would expect the Junglists coming from such different cultures to be at each others’ throats. But they behave very much like the prophecy of Micah, in the Old Testament, whose message is displayed in the camp for everyone to see:

“They shall all sit under their own vine and the fig tree and no one shall make them afraid.”

Each community rests with their own. Each area is loosely identifiable. The Kurdish area has its flag fluttering red, white and green with the sun in the middle. The Afghans with black, red and green, the Sudanese more so for their practice of playing dominoes at all times of the day and burning incense.

The Syrians have no flag, neither the flag of Assad, nor the flag of the revolution flutters here. Most are barely men, sons of farmers who joined the uprising in their teens. It is hard not to love their generous spirit. They continuously fill your cup with coffee and tea. Many of them, as Umm Sulaiman says, hail from “Der’aa al-manquba”- “The city of Dera’a that is riddled with holes”. It is the same city where the Syrian uprising began.

And yet, after five years, the revolution, at least from the Jungle, is hard to discern. In April 2013, the former Syrian Brotherhood Spokesman Zuheir Salem warned: “If Assad stays, you will see Europe flooded with fifteen million Syrian refugees.” This is coming to pass. But Syrians do not unquestioningly apportion all the blame on the regime or its barrel bombs for the failure of the revolution. The rebels have had five years to cobble together a credible opposition and they have failed miserably. Syrians can’t quite figure out why the revolution has failed. Some of the refugees say, without providing a shred of proof, that DAESH or ISIS is the creation of Shi’ite Iran with its head quarters in London. Others blame America and others blame themselves. Abu Umar from Idlib, pulls on his cigarette, sitting in his tidy hut and says: “Is there any government in the world that isn’t oppressive now? Is it not the case that my cousin took the bribe, my brother tortured prisoners, my neighbour did such and such? We are given rulers that we deserve as the Quran says.” Abu Umar believes that Syria’s solution can only be solved once Syrians achieve inner piety.

The men from Dera'a celebrating

The men from Dera’a celebrating- Author

But though they have no common flag, there are still strong kinship ties. Umm Sulayman, for instance, has no one. She looks like one of those Okies from 1930s America. Her children, one six year old boy and one two year old girl, play barefoot in the sand. Her husband was killed by the Assad regime and now she relies on her countrymen and the Jungle to support her. There are men like Jamal, an engineer from Newcastle, who ensures that her camper has enough gas, that they are fed and that her two children are looked after. Like the Okies who dreamt of going to California, she hopes to join her family in England. But in truth; there is no possibility of that. The lawyers can’t help her, the Dublin Agreement III again is the problem. If she arrives in the UK her application for asylum will fail. She has to convince the immigration officers that she did not stop in any other country. If her story is not airtight the immigration officers in Lunar house, Croydon, will put holes in it.

In the camp, religion does play a part in ordering the lives of the Junglists. One greeting of salaam, one prayer to protect their family breaks down barriers and suspicion. There is one church and seven mosques. Masjid al-Mouhajer is the one the Syrians go to. The central mosque is the Umar mosque, a tarpaulin structure, set up in order to unify and give a sense of solidarity amongst the Junglists. Umar mosque was the brain child of a Syrian, Abu Omar, Jamal and other imams who came together and encouraged the men to set up a mosque for the sake of fraternity. It is this mosque that helps to diffuse the tensions that flare up in the camp periodically. The mosque is led by Imam Katibullah, a Pashtu with piercing grey eyes who speaks Arabic, walks the camp in his black shawl, panjabi and Pakhool, and gives pastoral care to all and sundry and seems loved by the camp.

At evening prayer, it is as if all the ills suffered by the Muslim world gather; there stands its past glories and its present misery and its future hopes, all united behind the Afghan Imam, Katibullah. Watch the men pray and raise their hands to their Maker and you see that some pray for paradise and some, dare one say it, pray to England, and some pray as if tonight will be their last day on Earth. And sometimes it really is their last day.

Whilst the politicians in Westminster wrangle over what is to be done, the people of England show the same generous spirit that accepted refugees in the past, whether Hugenot Protestant, Jew, Pole or East African. This is acknowledged by the Junglists. One guesstimate puts it that ninety percent of the volunteers are from Britain. They donate disused caravans that go to the most vulnerable. There are makeshift medical clinics offering primary care, youth clubs, legal advice and other services, all funded by these volunteers. Names like Sophie, Claire, Iona are mentioned with intense reverence and affection and, though some of these volunteers do not believe in saints or God for that matter, they are trusted like saints and many children are given to their care. But there is also a sense that whilst these men and women give to the refugees, they too seem to gain something. It is hard to tell as to exactly what that is, but as Jamal says: “they cannot go back to their societies and live normally after the Jungle.” Whilst some volunteers come to experience the anarchic freedom, the hospitality of the men with nothing, perhaps even to savour the cannabis, you get the sense that they too maybe searching for something.

There are also those like Jamal who are clear as to why they do it. Him and his wife and a handful of Malaysian volunteers feed a thousand men a day and run it purely on the good will of those across the English Channel who donate food and goods. He sold everything to set up a soup kitchen and is also the camp’s handyman. Why give up everything, I ask? He replies: “My father used to read a Hadith of the Prophet at bed time, which stayed with me: ‘no one of you really believes if you go to bed with a full stomach and your brother’s stomach is empty’”. And so Jamal, his wife and a bunch of volunteers serve food to the camp every evening. But it is not enough; most newborns in the camp are still undernourished.

That is not to say that there is not ugliness. The camp is etched with the pain and desperation of its inhabitants. One Junglist, an Iraqi from Salahdin, who looks like a cross between a guitarist from Nirvana and an army major, complete with blond beard and bob tail, chops onions and serves the poor and yet he goes to bed seeing visions of both his brothers having their throats slit in front of his very eyes. Abu Uday, a Damascene, has the picture of his six and three year old in Lebanon hanging on his wall, as a permanent reminder of his duty towards them. Two days ago six boys were found in a Hooverville in great distress. They had been raped. Children disappear in the camp. Jamal tells of a story where a mother abandoned her six month old infant and it was looked after by the camp; moved from family to family. A phone call came, and the voice claimed to be the newborn’s family, Jamal rushed to the hospital where he was told to go with the child. But on the way, they stopped at a cafe and he was asked to hand the baby over to some men; he realised they were people smugglers and pulled out. There was a notorious Kurdish smuggler known as Hajji, he was hated in the camp. Before making it to England Hajji had already spent considerable time in an Italian prison smuggling people to Italy from Libya and had set up shop in the Jungle. It is the presence of these undesirables that means that the camp has ears and is rife with intelligence services who do not know who these men are and what their motives are.

Night: Going to England- Author

Night: Going to England- Author

War has no doubt changed the character of these people. Jamal recalls a scene described as if it was from the battle of Agincourt, where the Afghans squared up to Sudanese and battled each other with flaming projectiles, sticks and knifes. Sixty men were injured, ten were hurt critically. The fighting occurred right in between the mosque and the kitchen, the latter being used for first aid. None of the Afghans knew why they were fighting; it was merely in solidarity with their compatriots and the Sudanese likewise. It turned out that it was a dispute over a bicycle: an Afghan had not paid the ten euros owed. And so the Sudanese came to collect and a medieval battle started. The Afghans went to aid their man and the Sudanese theirs. Hajji fired two shots in the air, only the playing of Quranic verses on the loud speaker from Masjid Umar calmed the situation down, and the next day, battered and bruised, the same men were hugging each other and asking each other for forgiveness. As Jamal explains, when you have witnessed twenty years of war it corrupts you. It becomes instinctive to fight, that’s why the French police are puzzled as to why the Afghans just react by fighting and throwing stones when there is no need to. They have seen nothing but war.

Author

Author

The jungle has the good, the bad and the ugly. And no doubt politicians will continue to build bigger walls that cost millions to keep them out. There is a sign in the Jungle asking the question: “Is me majnoun [mad] I am thinking about the world. I hope that we can be treated equally.” But the Jungle is not unique, there are more Jungles being built all over the world. The same phenomenon can be seen in Buenos Aries, Santa Fe and Rio De Janeiro. In Lima, poor Chileans scale the 10 km wall to glance at the Haves, they are all Junglists. All over the world walls are being built to keep out the needy, the destitute and the poor. At some point those walls will fall, and if England is not careful, perhaps Micah’s Prophecy may come true in London, just as it did for Jerusalem. As for the Syrians they will keep on coming, English Channel or no English Channel, if this conflict is not resolved.

Tam Hussein is an a ward winning investigative journalist and writer published by BBC, C4, ITV, Guardian, Huffington Post, New Statesman etc.

The Leopards of Homs: A Pro-Assad Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

FuhudHomsEmblem
Emblem of The Leopards of Homs. The Arabic reads: “Fuhud Homs: Fawj al-Maham al-Khasa” (The Leopards of Homs: Special Operations Regiment). See older emblems of the militia here.

The Homs area has seen the creation and growth of multiple militias on the regime side over the course of the Syrian civil war, including Liwa Khaybar (The Khaybar Brigade) and Quwat al-Ridha (The Ridha Forces, part of Syrian Hezbollah). The Leopards of Homs (hereafter: Fuhud Homs) is another such formation.  According to the militia’s media office, the formation dates back to 2013 in its first iteration, but was established with its current affiliation in 2015. In terms of Fuhud Homs’ relations with other pro-Assad militias, it should be noted that the leader of the formation is one Shadi Jum’a, a close associate of Abu Ja’afar (aka The Scorpion), who, as will be recalled, is the leader of Liwa Khaybar and one of the founders of the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Homs. The link between the two men is apparent from a post written by The Scorpion in late December 2015, referring to the bomb attacks that had most recently taken place in the city of Homs at that time:

“My brothers…heroes…I implore those who bore arms with me against the terrorists from the first of the events [‘events’- a pro-regime term for the civil war]: my brother Muhammad al-Ali, my brother Shadi Jum’a, my brother Muhannad [typo?- Muhammad] al-Hajji, all my brothers in the National Defence in Homs, the family of Ghanim al-Sayis, the resisters, and I refrain from mentioning the rest of the names: we must do something for our people in Homs, our children, women and brothers are being killed every day. Others besides us will not protect our people, we do not want rebellion, and we will not direct our arms against our state that we have protected with our people, but we will not barter, and we only want to protect our areas.

The Scorpion.”

The Scorpion himself clarifies to me that there is a distinction between the Fuhud Homs of Shadi Jum’a and the Fuhud Forces [aka Fuhud Groups] contingent of Suheil al-Hassan’s well-known Tiger Forces militia. The latter’s leader- Muhammad al-Hajji, was killed last month fighting the Islamic State (IS) in the vicinity of Palmyra, and was the brother of the group’s founder and prior leader Ali al-Hajji, who was killed in fighting in the Sahl al-Ghab in August 2015. The brothers were from the Talkalakh area of Homs.

In contrast with the Fuhud Forces, Shadi Jum’a was originally working with The Scorpion and the Homs NDF circles (which is presumably what the Fuhud Homs media office means by the militia’s original iteration in 2013). By May 2014, Shadi Jum’a was already identified as leader of a militia contingent in an account of a prominent incident of infighting that took place between pro-regime militias in the city of Homs. In 2015, he established Fuhud Homs in its present iteration of affiliation with prominent regime businessman Rami Makhlouf’s al-Bustan Association. Thus the Fuhud Homs media office denies an NDF affiliation in the current formation (contrary to an al-Quds al-Arabi report that mentions Fuhud Homs).

It should further be recalled that the al-Bustan Association officially has other militias under its umbrella, most notably the Dir’ al-Watan Forces led by the Iraqi Shi’i militia commander Hayder al-Jiburi, which partly constitutes a project of providing cover for Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar under the supposed framework of the Syrian state in order to counter criticism of Iraqi Shi’i militia intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. On its own media page, Fuhud Homs mentions the al-Bustan Association affiliation in one post:

“And from Fuhud Homs- Special Operations Regiment (al-Bustan Association)- one of the popular defence formations- we pledge to God, the homeland and the leader of the homeland to complete the path of victory behind him, and shoulder to shoulder with our Syrian Arab Army, until victory, rebuilding and returning with Syria more beautiful than what it was under the protection of its leadership.

Soldiers of Assad, Fuhud Homs, Guardians of the Den.”

In its current iteration, Fuhud Homs has advertised operations on two main fronts, though unlike other pro-Assad militias there appears to be a lack of distinct insignia for fighters on the ground. The first main front comprises engagements against IS in the Homs desert, with the ongoing fighting involving the strategic asset of al-Maher gas field. Operations in the Homs desert have also involved securing the Jazal oil field area as well as combat on the Qaryatayn and Palmyra fronts. The other major operations front for Fuhud Homs is participation in the ongoing siege of the rebel-held Damascus suburb town of Darayya, during which Fuhud Homs has claimed more than one ‘martyr’ (fallen fighter). One such ‘martyr’ was Hayder al-Nasir, who was reportedly from Bayt al-Tawil street in the Wadi al-Dhahab neighbourhood of Homs city and was killed in December 2015 by sniper fire as he tried to help a wounded companion. More recently on the Darayya front, Fuhud Homs claimed a ‘martyr’ called Tamam al-Ali, who was reportedly from the Karm al-Zaytoun neighbourhood of Homs city and was killed in late April 2016.

Fuhud Homs also claimed a number of ‘martyrs’ in May 2015 as Palmyra fell to IS. A table below gives their names and reported origins. The majority of these ‘martyrs’ appear to come from predominantly Alawite areas. One should also note that other sources beyond Fuhud Homs giving the names of these ‘martyrs’ do not necessarily agree on group affiliation. For example one of the pages cited attributes some of these ‘martyrs’ to the NDF. This may be a product of overlap in affiliation or simple error. There are also some discrepancies in origins that may be a result of conflation with place of residence.

Name Reported Origin
Ali al-Sheikh Bayt al-Tawil Street
Mohsen Makhlouf Zahara’, Homs [?]
Raghed Sadiq Karam al-Louz, Homs
Muhammad al-Suleiman Ein Hussein, Homs [?]
Salah Ibrahim Al-Mukharram, Homs
Mudhhir al-Hassan Wadi al-Dhahab
Hafez Gharra Ram al-Anz, Homs
Muntajib Sarhan Ram al-Anz, Homs
Samer al-Barudi Warida, Homs [a Christian village]

In short, the case of Fuhud Homs presents an interesting insight into the evolution of the pro-Assad militia networks in the Homs area. The militias will likely compete among each other for influence in the Assad regime rump state as they will probably continue to grow in power, partly because they present a better financial alternative for recruits than the regular Syrian Arab Army, which faces an ongoing crisis with the declining value of the Syrian pound.

 

Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP) and the War in Syria

 By Jesse J. McDonald

The larger and more influential groups fighting in Syria have garnered much media attention for all the obvious reasons.  However, one organization is sparsely mentioned considering it has existed since 1932[1].  This party is the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP).  Members do not come from one religious background (although often portrayed as a Christian organization).  Members are not technically fighting for the Ba’ath party to indefinitely remain in power.  Members are not involved to protect the interest of powerful foreign governments.  Members also are not participating on the conviction of any divine religious mandate.  So what are individuals in the SSNP fighting for in Syria?  In order to grasp the SSNP’s outlook and motivation to join the Syrian conflict one must take a closer diagnosis of the party’s beginning stages as well as its founder.  A full analysis of the SSNP’s history however is beyond the scope of this article since much is widely known.  Nevertheless, I will attempt to provide a brief background in order for the reader to gain a perspective of the party’s views regarding the Syrian nation and how they fit into the current battle.  The preceding section will shed light on their relationship with the Syrian Ba’ath regime followed by some of the SSNP’s recent military activities in Syria and what this could entail looking to the future.

Founded in 1932 by Antoun Saadeh, a Greek Orthodox Christian from just outside Beirut[2], he felt that a long history of subservience to foreign occupation and intellectual and economic decadence had left a population with no direction, no true self -identity and no belief in self-worth.  The SSNP’s ideology is thoroughly secular (their first reform principle calls for the separation of religion and state) so consequently they are not as concerned with various religious affiliations or ethnicities.  The elimination of social barriers between the various sects and creeds is a basic principle of the SSNP.  Saadeh wrote a letter from prison in 1935 emphasizing this point by saying the SSNP is united in a single faith- “Syria for the Syrians.”[3]  National loyalty should surpass and supersede religious and ethnic loyalties and affiliations.  The party therefore, Saadeh wrote, is not based on the principle of xenophobia but on the principle of social nationalism.  This nationalist ideology is based neither on Islam nor on Arabism.  Hence, minority groups in Syria and Lebanon were immediately attracted to their message.

 

ssnp flag

There are four fundamental pillars to the SSNP’s nation- freedom, duty, organization, and power- which are symbolized by the four pointers on their flag.[4]

Nevertheless, the SSNP found it difficult to gain more power and influence over the years in both Lebanon and Syria.  The death of Antoun Saadeh in 1949 certainly diminished the cogency of the SSNP considering his personality and literary accomplishments created a cult-like following.[5]  This setback is also partially due to its ideological outlook in a region populated predominantly by Arab Muslims and the politicking of nationalism by those ruling in the two abovementioned countries.  Syria in particular has had in the Ba’ath regime not only a competing ideology for the hearts of minorities but also has been more successful at drawing Sunni’s into its orbit.

The SSNP has a long history of opposition to the Ba’ath Party and over the decades has suffered the consequences.  The party was only recently legalized again in 2005 (banned in 1955) under Bashar al-Assad’s “reformation” and integrated into the “National Progressive Front.”  In fact, the leader of the SSNP in Syria- Ali Haidar- is the Syrian Minister of State for National Reconciliation Affairs.[6]  However, tensions came to a boiling point in 1955 when an SSNP member shot and killed Lieutenant Colonel ‘Adnan al-Maliki, a leading Ba’athist and one of the most powerful officers in the Syrian army.  The killing of al-Maliki created a bitter atmosphere between the two parties and witnessed thousands of SSNP members sent to prison.  One SSNP affiliated Facebook page last November honored those party members who suffered in Syrian jails after the killing of al-Maliki claiming they were falsely accused.  Interestingly, this post first pays respect to Hafez al-Assad and reiterates how Bashar has now strengthened their presence.

 

 

ssnp 2

Picture from an SSNP Facebook post praising the Assad’s and honoring those who went to prison after the assassination of al-Maliki. One can clearly notice the pictures of Bashar with SSNP flags

The breaking up of the United Arab Republic (UAR) between Syria and Egypt in 1961 harnessed certain elements of the Syrian Ba’ath regime to focus more on Syria and less on the Arab world.  Those adhering to the latter were pan-Arab nationalists of the old-guard Ba’ath leadership under Michel Aflaq, while those in the former, placing an emphasis on Syria, became known as regionalists (Neo-Ba’ath).  The Assad’s fall into the regionalist camp-an important point when analyzing the close cooperation currently displayed between Bashar’s government and the SSNP.  Such close support is not surprising considering both parties offer a similar set of attractions to roughly the same constituency.  In particular, secularism, which attracts minorities but also appeals to pockets of upper class elites (in this case the Sunni merchant class).

Although the SSNP’s ideology of “Greater Syria” and the Ba’athist outlook on pan-Arabism clashed, the two sides also intimately worked together at times.  Asaad Harden, who is the leader of the SSNP in Lebanon, stated at a conference in 2008 honoring his new leadership position the following, “Our party has found in Damascus the beating heart of the nation…we call on all great Lebanese to realize the truth of the positive role of Syria in preserving Lebanese unity and Arabism.”[7]  In addition, leader of the SSNP in Homs, Nouhad Samaan recently said, “In response to the current high tide of sectarian intolerance, our party decided to cooperate with the (Syrian) government.”[8]  Closer cooperation materialized significantly when both parties softened the tone of their messages.  The SSNP found it useful to ease their criticism of Arabism while the Ba’ath party embraced Syrian nationalism more at the expense of the larger Arab world.  One clear example addressing this originates from an early SSNP pamphlet written by Saadeh stating, “Those who believe that the Syrian Social Nationalist Party seeks Syria’s withdrawal from the Arab world, because they do not distinguish between Syrian national awakening and the pan-Arab cause, are grossly mistaken.  We shall never relinquish our position in the Arab world, nor our mission to the Arab world.”[9]  For now, differences have not gotten in the way of their similarities, even if tentative at times, and this is in large part due to the so-called Islamic State’s advances.  Which brings us to today.

The threats posed by jihadists in Syria strikes at the SSNP’s ideological core.  Any attempts to fracture, divide, or invade the nation will be met with deep hostility from the organization.  Jihadists and their foreign backers are the antithesis of what the SSNP’s vision of an independent Syria represents.  Syrians are suddenly being gathered together by religious affiliations or ethnic groups.  On top of this one can further split depending on which end of the spectrum their religious zeal swings.  Foreigners are beholden to their home countries or wealthy donors.  Ultimately, in the eyes of the SSNP, identity is lost.  In Antoun Saadeh’s first major policy address delivered to members of the SSNP he said, “Every member of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party feels that he is being liberated from foreign hegemony and external dominating factors.”[10]  Consequently, the SSNP once again finds itself fighting alongside the Assad government to confront what they view as an existential threat to the unity of Syria and the Syrian people.  For the leaders of the SSNP, the emphasis was on the nation (Syria) and her independence.  Hence their slogan- “survival of the nation.”

The SSNP is no stranger to armed conflicts.  The party was very active during the Lebanese civil war and in addition to fighting the Phalangists on behalf of the Assad government[11], SSNP fighters also engaged Israeli troops stationed in Lebanon with deadly suicide missions.  This may come as a surprise considering many might not associate suicide bombings with secular (in the SSNP’s case also largely Christian) organizations.  However, the SSNP claimed responsibility for eight of the eighteen suicide bombings directed against Israel in southern Lebanon between March and November 1985.[12]  In fact, a young SSNP woman from southern Lebanon is considered to be the first female suicide bomber in the region.  On April 9, 1985, Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”) was 17 years old when she willingly drove her vehicle towards Israeli troops stationed in southern Lebanon.  At least two Israeli soldiers were killed.  Sana’a recorded her own video before the bombing asking, “All young women and my youth to join the ranks of the national resistance because they alone are able to expel the enemy from our land…”  She concluded by saying, “I am going to a greater future, to the unspeakable happiness.”[13]

 

 

sanaa

Sana’a Mehaidli (“Bride of the South”)

Following the Lebanese civil war the SSNP’s military activities significantly abated.  As a result, the group in both Lebanon and Syria witnessed a bit of a lull in its popularity and relevance.  However, the Syrian civil war has rejuvenated the organization both in terms of its military prowess and in its propaganda encountering fewer restrictions.  More Syrians are exposed to the vast amounts of literature from SSNP websites that otherwise may have been confined had the fighting not escalated.  Seemingly symbolic, the SSNP nevertheless had a handful of fighters participating in battles with the Syrian army and National Defense Forces (NDF) during the nascent stages of the war.  It was not until mid to late 2014 however when the SSNP clearly played more of a direct role.  This is especially noticeable from social media sites paying homage to their martyrs killed in battle.  Steadfast in their rejection of the Free Syrian Army and jihadists groups- SSNP members found themselves more involved along the front lines especially around the time Syria experienced an explosion of foreign fighters.  Aligning with the Ba’athists has proven favorable, even if just for the time being, as SSNP fighters are handsomely supplied with weapons and support.

During the past several years the SSNP has become more of an organized fighting force while simultaneously growing in popularity.  The armed wing of the SSNP is Nusur al-Zawba’a (Eagles of the Whirlwind) which more or less guarantees security in several towns of Syria after rebels were expelled.  The Assad regime is simply too overstretched and undermanned to govern every city once rebels lose control.  Outsourcing security to other groups with a significant support base has been a tactic used by the regime.  However, such distance may prove costly as those taking advantage, in this case the SSNP, continue to gain power and supporters.

Side by side with the Syrian army, the SSNP has benefited tremendously in the last two years by engaging in more battles against a seasoned enemy.  This particularly holds true in northern Latakia countryside; in the countryside of Homs province near the town of Sadad; as-Suweida province in southwestern Syria close to the Jordanian border; Dara’a province also in southwestern Syria; Damascus countryside (notably in Douma and Ghouta); and around the city of Mahardeh in the countryside of Hama province.  It is reported members are even governing in the old city of Homs.[14]  Such close coordination with the Syrian army also puts them into close contact with Hezballah where the alliance carries into neighboring Lebanon.[15]

 

zawbaa emblem

Nusur al-Zawba’a emblem

Most recently they have been very active in the mountainous regions of northern Latakia.  The Assad regime is seeking to secure victories close to their Alawite strongholds while driving an array of jihadists and Islamists groups further away from their supply arteries.  The following fronts are several locations SSNP fighters are stationed in northern Latakia: Jabal al- Turkman; Jabal al-Akrad; Salma and Ghamam and also Deir Hanna.   This strategic launching area for operations adjoins the Turkish border and provides supply routes for Jabhat al-Nusra, Chechens and Turkmen factions.  Additionally, control of this area blocks future advances into Latakia countryside while opening corridors into Idlib province.

 

deir hanna

Fighters in Deir Hanna- northern Latakia province. Posted on their social media outlets on 11.17.15

Just south of Latakia in northern Hama province lies an active district with a significant SSNP presence.  Sahl al-Ghab is one such area.  Hotly contested, this plain runs alongside the western coastal mountains as well as being in close proximity to the provincial capital of Hama city.  Controlling the al-Ghab plains creates a buffer zone which is paramount to securing the coastal areas while potentially penetrating into Idlib province not far from the city of Jisr al-Shughur.  Near the al-Ghab plains are the towns of Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah- both Syriac Christian towns located in the northern Hama countryside with a heavy contingent of SSNP fighters.  Situated along one of the front lines to push al-Qaeda aligned jihadists and other Islamists groups further north, both towns are teeming with violent actors and intense battles.  The SSNP has been influential keeping Mahardeh and as-Suqaylabiyah in the overall grasp of the Syrian army. Several hundred SSNP fighters (mostly locals) are on the front lines in or around both towns.

 Further south, in the countryside of Homs province sits the town of Sadad, which is also a popular front for SSNP fighters.  Inhabited primarily by Syriacs as well, Sadad has been in the spotlight several times due to attacks by al-Qaeda and their allies in addition to the so-called Islamic State.  Opposition fighters and the al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front first captured Sadad from October 21-28 in 2013.  Human Rights Watch described at the time how 46 Syriacs were killed, some dumped in a well, and churches vandalized.  Forty-one of the dead were civilians including fourteen women and two children.[16]  The Syrian army eventually was able to push these groups out of Sadad after intense clashes.  Two years later at the end of October/ beginning of November 2015, the so-called Islamic State descended upon Sadad after capturing the nearby town of Muheen.  However, locals with help from the Syrian army, in addition to 500 Syriac Christian fighters, including 200 from the SSNP and 200 more Syriac fighters from the Qamishli-based Sootoro militia were able to block any further advancement.[17]  This act of utilizing Sootoro members on a different front outside their sphere of influence was unprecedented in the Syrian conflict.  Considering fighters were transported to Sadad from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria, via a Russian cargo plane, to defend the town showcased a new level of coordination and cooperation.[18]   

 

sootoro

Fighters with Sootoro in Sadad helping with the defense.  Notice the ‘Gozarto Protection Forces’(GPF) flag on the right which is a combination from another Syriac group- Khabour Guards.  Their flag is similar to the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU) based in northern Iraq.

 

 

sootoro to sadad

Sootoro fighters from al-Qamishli in north eastern Syria on their way to Sadad

 

ssnp sadad 

More extraordinary was the visit by Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, who travelled to Sadad to visit the fighters, attend a funeral, and boost morale as this town is one of the last remaining Syriac towns to hold out against the vast array of rebel and jihadi groups.  Ultimately the SSNP and their allies were successful in beating back the so-called Islamic State.

 

aphrem in sadad

Mor Ignatius Aphrem Karim II, the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, visiting fighters in Sadad.

 

aphrem in sadad 2

 

 

 

ssnp fighter from sadad

Christian SSNP fighter from Sadad killed in the nearby town of Muheen

Despite the fact these two cities mentioned above are almost exclusively inhabited by Syriac Christians does not take away from the actuality that members of all faiths find the SSNP attractive and consequently have died fighting for the organization.  Amidst the battle for Sadad several Muslim SSNP members lost their lives fighting not for a Christian city, but in SSNP methodology, a Syrian city.  Fighters of all faiths have been deployed throughout many regions in Syria (as previously mentioned) despite the religious component of a particular city.  Pictured below are a few Muslim SSNP fighters who lost their lives within the last year including two who were killed alongside Christian fighters in or around the town of Sadad.    

 

mohamed taamer

Mohamed Taamer Raslan killed on 11.2.15 near Muheen and Sadad

 

anas hussein 

Anas Hussein al-Ahmed killed on 11.5.15 near Muheen and Sadad

 

Important to point out here that in the battle which Anas Hussein (pictured above) was killed, another Muslim as well as a Christian fighter were killed as well.  This is a small sample of Muslims and Christians fighting together regardless if a town has a certain religious element.

 

ahmed hajj

Ahmed Hajj Mahmoud killed on 4.20.16 in Latakia countryside

It is no secret minority groups historically have been drawn to the SSNP’s secularism and inclusive culture of not emphasizing ethnicity or religion.  However, more recently its armed wing (Nusur al-Zawba’a) has been portrayed as a means for the Assad government to pull more Christians into the fight on the side of the Syrian army.  It is interesting to note here that when pro-government media outlets report on the various groups fighting alongside the Syrian army the SSNP is always listed separately from the National Defense Forces (NDF).  Christians in Syria have been extremely hesitant to join the Syrian army or NDF and fight in remote areas far from their ancestral roots.  The popularity of the SSNP on the other hand is allowing many people to join a force where they can exclusively protect their land somewhat independently from the decision makers in Damascus.  We will have to wait and see how this plays out.

Ultimately, the SSNP’s ideology is at odds with the pan-Arab Ba’ath regime of Bashar al-Assad.  The question is not about ideological disagreements at the moment, but rather, how long this marriage of convenience will last.  A Facebook post commemorating the SSNP’s 83rd anniversary (occurred on November 16, 2015) states how they are fighting with the Syrian regime in order to defend their civilization, land, cultural identity, and freedom.[19]  In remarks stated by Daniel Pipes over twenty seven years ago, bearing similarities to their current relationship, he determined that the SSNP’s close alliance with the Assad (Hafez) regime will ultimately not be a platform for future growth.   He went on to further say, “The potential danger was clear; by agreeing to work so closely with Syria’s rulers, the party forfeited the strength that made it an important force over the decades- its visionary politics and fierce independence.  Asad’s success in dictating terms restricted the SSNP’s capacity for autonomous action.  If money and arms from Damascus allowed the SSNP to flourish temporarily, absorption by a police state rendered its future bleak.  Alliance with Damascus contained the likely seeds of the SSNP’s demise.”[20]  The outbreak of the Syrian civil war somewhat muddies the comparison to today simply because neither Assad nor the Ba’ath party can exert quite the same pressures.  After all, their number one priority is survival.  Judging by the amount of propaganda pouring out of SSNP portals boasting about their popularity the future appears bright (at least for the short term).  New recruits sickened by the sheer amount of killing in the name of religion have found the SSNP’s inclusiveness comforting.  In addition, a sense of alienation precipitated by the fighting seems to have fostered a new appreciation (especially the younger generation) for the SSNP’s vision of a “Greater Syria.” Interestingly, many fighters who have died in battle only recently joined the party.  The SSNP’s reputation is clearly resonating but for the time being they are still too reliant on and attached to the Ba’ath party.  However, for many this is also a long term project and what seems certain is that the SSNP will experience a level of independence not seen in decades.

*Jesse J. McDonald is an independent researcher with a background in Middle East Studies.  He spent two years in Cairo and plans on attending graduate school next year.

Footnotes

[1] Saadeh and several of his lieutenants were apprehended on November 16, 1935.  The founding of the party took place in the fall of 1932, but without a specific date, the 16th of November was subsequently adopted by the SSNP as its founding day.

[2] Antoun Saadeh was born on March 1, 1904 in the town of Shweir which is a district of Mt. Lebanon.

[3] Antoun Saadeh, “What Motivated me to Establish the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” SSNP.com.   Note: This letter was written by Saadeh during his first imprisonment in 1935.

[4] There were initially two designs put forward to Saadeh- the current one with four points and another one with three points. The idea being that a slogan displaying three points would avoid similarities with the Nazi emblem.  Saadeh chose the one with four denying there was any similarity.  The SSNP emblem shown above is a convergence of a straight line and semicircular meeting together (some argue a cross and a crescent).

[5] On July 7, 1949, Syrian dictator Husni al-Za’im betrayed Saadeh and delivered him to the Lebanese authorities who tried and executed him within 24 hours.

[6] In 2012, the Office of Foreign Assets Controls (OFAC) designated Ali Haidar to their Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) list.

[7] “Asaad Harden assumes SSNP’s reins,” The Daily Star, June 04, 2008.

[8] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[9] Dr. Haytham A. Kader, “Ideology,” SSNP.com

[10] This speech was given on June 1, 1935

[11] Habib al-Shartuni, the man arrested for killing President-Elect Bashir Gemayel of Lebanon in September 1982, was a member of the SSNP.

[12] Daniel Pipes, “Radical Politics and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, August 1988.

[13] Latakia SSNP Facebook post on November 22, 2015.

[14] [14] John Eibner, “Footnotes on the SSNP-Comments from Nouhad Samaan, Head of SSNP in Homs,” Syria Comment, January 02, 2015.

[15] The two parties are in the March 8 Alliance (SSNP has two seats out of 128 in the Lebanese parliament).

[16] “Syria: Opposition Abuses During Ground Offensive,” Human Rights Watch, November 19, 2013.

[17] Jack Moore, “Hundreds of Christian Fighters Scramble to Defend Syrian Town as ISIS Advance,” Newsweek, November 10, 2015.

[18] The Sootoro is a Christian self-defense group located primarily in the north eastern Syrian city of Qamishli.  Sootoro members fight on the side of the Syrian army and is not to be confused with the Hasaka based Sutoro which is the armed wing of the Syriac Union Party (SUP).  Sutoro’s more military wing is the Syriac Military Council (MFS) and fights alongside the Kurdish YPG.

[19] SSNP FanPage Facebook post on November 16, 2015.

[20] Daniel Pipes, “Greater Syria: The History of an Ambition,” New York: Oxford University Press, 1992, (Page 129).

 

Liwa al-Jalil: A New Pro-Assad Palestinian Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaJalilemblem
Emblem of Liwa al-Jalil, which features in the centre the name of the militia’s political wing: “National Resistance Action Movement.”

In the branding of pro-Assad Palestinian militias, it is hardly surprising that there should be references to locations within the land of Palestine. Liwa al-Quds (The Jerusalem Brigade), a Palestinian militia operating in Aleppo, is one example of this phenomenon. Another example is the Quwat al-Jalil (The Galilee Forces), previously profiled at this site. The Galilee reference is of particular importance on account of its proximity to Syria and border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The more recent emergence of Liwa al-Jalil (The Galilee Brigade), which claims to be distinct from Quwat al-Jalil and traces its founding to 29 May 2015, fits into this trend.

Typical of the discourse of pro-Assad Palestinian militias, Liwa al-Jalil, which explicitly describes itself as a “secular, leftist movement,” focuses on the language of muqawama (resistance), Arab nationalism, the primacy of the Palestinian cause and the crucial role of Syria in the resistance axis. Thus, from the group’s official page explaining its formation:

“In view of the circumstances that our Arab Ummah in general and our Palestinian cause in particular are going through, and the danger that is threatening every country of resistance in this region, a fabric of our Palestinian and Syrian youth decided to form an entity of resistance that will be supporting those countries in the face of tyranny and hegemony that have not ceased since the occupation of Palestine until now. And the ideology of this entity depends on being the movement in the vanguard of the youth of resistance that wages war for the sake of liberation and independence whatever the circumstances and capabilities. And indeed our success in supporting this cause in Palestine or the countries of resistance that support Palestine is success in breaking the collar of servitude for every human being just as this fabric of the youth of resistance has strived and strives for.

The movement arises on the basis of considering the Palestinian cause as the base cause since it is the first cause of humanity in its struggle with occupation and hegemony for the sake of liberation, therefore from a foundation of humanity and nationalism we take up our role in this conflict ideologically, politically and militarily to realize victory.

The National Resistance Action Movement has been established in the midst of this ongoing conflict between the ideology of the resistance and the other side whose existence depends on waging war against this ideology. We will strive to rout and exterminate it under any cover because the liberation of peoples cannot come with the destruction of their lands and erasure of their identity of resistance. Therefore in our political plan we are intent on uniting ranks among all the Palestinian factions that support the ideology of resistance in word and deed, as well as preserving our Palestinian cause as the central cause, and that our sacrifices should be in the path of liberating the entirety of the Palestinian national soil through relying on the principle of resistance, not bartering with the enemy and its retinue.

Our work on the land of the Syrian Arab Republic is to support the resistance axis and to keep safe at a distance the Palestinian camps that are present in the diaspora and are the most important components of the steadfastness of our Palestinian people and a focal point to support the victory of the cause: thus they should not be transformed and made a part of the internal conflicts for these lands to be rendered into an environment nursing ideas, deeds and plans against the countries that have supported and continue to support Palestine and the liberation of the Palestinian man. And they should not be transformed into a thorn in the side for these countries, for the deeds that are brought to bear on the name of the people of resistance not only aim to destroy the components of its steadfastness but also for deeds of greater ugliness and defaming this cause and the supporters of this cause, because the Zionist hands and their illegitimate entity are clear in these deeds, including the revival of the Antoine Lahad project in the southern region of the Syrian Arab Republic, whose plans and conspiracies we will undertake to thwart side by side with the Syrian Arab Army, and we will cut the hands of this entity from the source. Indeed our conflict is an existential conflict with Zionist thought, global hegemony and oppression of peoples.”

Note that the ‘Antoine Lahad project’ reference concerns the South Lebanon Army militia that worked with Israel during its occupation of parts of Lebanon. Liwa al-Jalil is thus portraying the rebel forces particularly in the south of Syria as allies and proxies of Israel.

Similar sentiments to the aforementioned post are expressed in the charter issued by Liwa al-Jalil: e.g. article (1) affirms that “Palestine is a part of the Arab homeland and the Palestinian people is a part of the Arab Ummah. And its struggle is their struggle.” In a similar vein, article (3): “Revolutionary resistance is the only means to liberate Palestine: all of Palestine.” Likewise, article (9): “The liberation of Palestine is all of Palestine and destroying the Zionist entity in all its pillars.” As far as organization structure goes, the charter claims a leadership structure operating on democratic principles: “Democracy is the means used to discuss and adopt decisions in the council of the secretariat of the movement.” The overall leader of the group goes by the name of Abu Jihad, while the security official is one Ahmad al-Masri (see here).

On the military scale, the activities of Liwa al-Jalil appear to be very limited, and the group’s openly advertised output is primarily related to the issuing of political statements and commemorations of various occasions. Examples of the latter type of activity include emphasizing the necessity of recapturing the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as the path to liberating Palestine, congratulating the Syrian army and Assad on the recapture of Palmyra, commemorating Mother’s Day, rejecting Gulf states’ designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization (thus claiming attendance at a Palestinian festival on the peripheries of the Yarmouk refugee camp in solidarity with Hezbollah), and commemorating the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The group has most notably claimed military operations in defending the important al-Salam Highway, which connects Damascus and Quneitra, particularly focusing on the Khan al-Shih area in southern Damascus lying along this route (see map here for geographical orientation). In this context, it should be noted that Khan al-Shih is the site of a Palestinian refugee camp. Within the Quneitra area, Liwa al-Jalil has also claimed operations in Kurum Jaba. All of these reports are in keeping with the group’s description of itself as operating in southern Syria.

On 13 December 2015, Liwa al-Jalil declared a ‘martyr’ in one Muhammad Suleiman Harura, who was claimed to have been killed fighting in the Zabadani area. This ‘martyr’ is of particular interest as he had his own Facebook account, in which he had a number of public posts. Some of the posts interestingly suggest an affinity with Shi’i Islam and Hezbollah. His posts also suggest he was particularly young, unlikely to have been much older than a teenager at the time of his death.

 

SuleimanHaruraYaZainab
[Muhammad] Suleiman Harura posing with a Hezbollah flag including the slogan “Labbayk ya Zainab!” (“At your service, oh Zainab”), a common Shi’i jihadi slogan in reference to fighting in Syria.

SuleimanHaruraarmpatches
Notice the “Labbayk ya Zainab!” armpatch. His post reads: “God deliver Syria and the people of Syria, we offer our souls in sacrifice for Syria and the great people of Syria, and I swear by God Almighty that I will not abandon mother Syria: My regards to his excellency the President Bashar Hafez al-Assad.”

SuleimanHaruraYaHussein
A post by Suleiman Harura featuring the Shi’i slogan “Ya Hussein!”

SuleimanHaruralookout

SuleimanHarurarifle

SuleimanHaruraLiwaJalil
“If you are the dhabiha, we have come as the shabiha, members of Kata’ib al-Ghadab (Liwa al-Jalil).”

SuleimanHaruraLiwaJalil2

SuleimanHarurashawerma

On the whole, Liwa al-Jalil is a very minor militia actor. Ideologically, the creation of multiple pro-Assad Palestinian militias, however insignificant they may be as military players, is useful for the regime narrative of being the upholder of the Palestinian cause and Arab nationalism (cf. the Arab Nationalist Guard, another pro-Assad militia) and the wider ‘resistance’ bloc narrative of opposition to imperialism and colonialism. The existence of these groups may serve to give an inflated impression of Palestinian support within Syria for the regime.

Remembering Dr. Hassan al-Araj

Dr HasanRemembering Dr. Hassan al-Araj
by Cindy Coffman
For Syria Comment May 4, 2016

First, I will introduce myself and then I would like to tell you about a dear friend and colleague, who was recently killed in Syria, Dr. Hassan Mohammed al-Araj of Hama.

I have been in the humanitarian field since 2010 and have worked in Africa and the Middle East, including assignments in Jordan and Iraq. Most recently I worked in Gaziantep, Turkey as Program Manager, responsible for the cross border program inside Syria. I spent 16 months in Gaziantep and it was during this time that I had the great honor to meet Dr. Hassan and work closely with him supporting health facilities in Hama province and elsewhere.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 8.15.48 AMI am writing to you today as Dr. Hassan was killed two weeks ago in Hama province by a Russian airstrike as he traveled between two hospitals, the “cave” and Kafr Zeta. The cave hospital has literally been carved into a mountain in an attempt to protect it from Assad regime and Russian airstrikes. I am not sure whether you have written about the relentless airstrikes destroying health facilities in Syria, killing medical staff and civilians but it is an on-going tragedy and disaster with no apparent end in sight. Dr. Hassan was the last cardiologist in Hama province. In addition to performing lifesaving surgeries, speaking out against the targeting and destruction of hospitals in Syria, he was also the head of the Hama Health Directorate and worked closely with Syrian American Medical Association (SAMS).

Dr. Hassan was greatly admired and respected, his tragic death has left a huge gap in Syria.

Since Dr. Hasan was killed, the airstrikes have continued relentlessly, attacking health facilities, civil defense centers, bakeries and other civilian areas. Just a few days ago, a hospital in Aleppo, Al Quds, was destroyed in either a Syrian regime or Russian airstrike.

Screen Shot 2016-05-04 at 7.54.31 AMIn addition to killing children, they killed the last Pediatrician, Dr Wassim, in opposition held Aleppo. This hospital was supported by several humanitarian organizations and was part of the program that I was responsible for until I left Gaziantep in November 2015. Dr. Wassim now joins Dr. Hassan on the long list of courageous medical workers and other innocent civilians, killed in airstrikes in Syria.

My Syrian colleagues and friends are feeling a growing sense of despair and desperation as more and more health facilities are destroyed and little is being done to stop these senseless and brutal attacks on civilians.

Please let me know if you would be interested in helping keep the memory of Dr. Hassan alive and so many other brave heroes by telling their story. Every time I talk to friends and family about the ongoing attacks on health facilities and medical staff, they ask me why so few people are telling this story. I don’t know the answer.

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to tell you about the brave people that I have had the great honor to work with.

“A good man is gone” was written by my brother Chris and posted. Here is a link from the US Embassy in Damascus.

I have also attached two pictures of Dr. Hassan. One of the pictures is from December 2015, when Dr. Hassan attended a meeting in Geneva calling for the protection of hospitals and medical workers in Syria. The last two pictures are from the airstrike that killed Dr. Hassan as he drove to Kafr Zeta hospital from the cave hospital. A member of my team spoke to him by telephone ten minutes before he was killed.

Doctors

Best regards,

Cindy Coffman

  • Cynthia Coffman has worked in the humanitarian field since 2010 starting with the earthquake in Haiti. She has worked in Africa, the Middle East and most recently in Gaziantep, Turkey, where she was responsible for a health program supporting medical facilities inside Syria.

p.s. [by Joshua Landis]

Dr. Hassan’s death adds to the 730 medical personnel killed in Syria that have been documented by Physicians for Human Rights since March 2011. Between the beginning of hostilities and December of 2015, some 246 facilities have been damaged or destroyed in the Syrian conflict. Estimates for the first quarter of 2016 are of 13 additional attacks on health facilities. In 11 of the world’s war zones, between 2011 and 2014, the International Committee of the Red Cross tallied nearly 2,400 acts of violence against those who were trying to provide health care. That works out to two attacks a day.

The effort by the international community to stop attacks on Health workers is the subject of Somini Sengupta’s article, “U.N. Security Council Condemns Attacks on Health Workers in War Zones,” in todays’ New York Times. She explains that “in Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, a fourth of all health care facilities were destroyed or shuttered in one year of war, according to the United Nations.” Unfortunately, “the new UN resolution drafted by Egypt, Japan, New Zealand, Spain and Uruguay, avoids a direct reference to possible prosecutions by the International Criminal Court, a delicate topic for some countries.” To understand the politics that make UN efforts to condemn the targeting of health officials in places like Syria difficult, also read Colum Lynch, “Inside Saudi Arabia’s Push to Silence Criticism of Its Brutal War in Yemen.” Also see Colum Lynch and John Hudson, “MSF Blasts U.S., Russia, Syria, and Saudi for Hospital Strikes:” After another attack on one of its hospitals, Medecins Sans Frontieres takes to the United Nations to settle scores.

“The Lens of History and Assad,” by David W. Lesch & Carey Latimore

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.17.49 PMThe Lens of History and Assad
by David W. Lesch and Carey Latimore
For Syria Comment, 28 April 2016

Abraham Lincoln and Bashar al-Assad. Yes, we know. These two names should probably never appear in the same sentence. One is a revered American icon and the other is a brutal Syrian dictator who plunged his country into a devastating civil war.

Let’s be clear. We are in no way, shape, or form equating a giant historical figure such as Lincoln with Bashar al-Assad. But history is a funny thing. It is alive and malleable depending upon perspective, context, and circumstances. Contemporary commentaries of Lincoln in both the North and South often described him as a dictator or, ironically, a racist, the latter due to the fact that before he decided it was prudent to free the slaves, he reflected the tenor of his time by advocating—among other things—the removal of African Americans from the US and shipping them off to some remote land. After all, John Wilkes Booth, when he jumped on stage after shooting Lincoln, shouted out, “sic semper tyrannis,” which is a shortened form of a Latin phrase that essentially means “death to tyrants.”

We have now lived and worked in a southern state for years, and it is still sometimes difficult to find native southerners who can muster up a few kind words about our 16th president. Potent symbols from the civil war, such as the Confederate flag, are still divisive issues some 150 years later. The war that many feel Lincoln waged killed over 700,000 soldiers and civilians. A number of cities in the South, such as Richmond, Charleston, and Atlanta, bombed by both sides and looted, were pretty much completely destroyed.

But perspectives changed with the passage of time. Since the Civil War, Lincoln, for the most part, has been mythologized and is regarded as our greatest president, having preserved the union and played the primary role in eradicating slavery. The United States became a prosperous and powerful country. What Lincoln did mattered because of this. Had the country, following Lincoln’s death, essentially flat-lined, never coming close to reaching its potential or eventually breaking apart, his actions—and his standing—would no doubt be viewed today through a quite different lens.

Bashar al-Assad, on the other hand, is someone who most believe should be dragged off in chains to the International Criminal Court for numerous war crimes. He has made terrible, tragic choices. Most importantly wScreen Shot 2016-04-28 at 8.21.11 PMas his decision—and he did have a choice–in the initial stages of the uprising in Syria in 2011 to revert to the dictator’s survival handbook and sanction a harsh crackdown on the protestors instead of implementing necessary reforms, pushing an uprising into a destructive civil war now five years hence with some 300,000 dead and half the country’s population internally or externally displaced.

But with enhanced Russian and Iranian military support, the Syrian regime has experienced quite a bit of military success of late, to the point where some believe it is on the precipice of something resembling victory. At the very least, the Syrian regime isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. So whether we like it or not, it appears Assad will survive and continue as president. As a result of this turn of events, Assad might actually get a second chance. What will he do with it? How can the best be made out of this bad situation?

Despite an enraged and battered South, over a month before he was assassinated (and before Appomattox), Lincoln set a remarkable tone of reconciliation in his 2nd inaugural address, highlighted by the memorable phrase, “…with malice toward none, with charity for all…to bind up the nation’s wounds.” Even with the clumsiness of Reconstruction that most historians believe Lincoln would have handled much better had he lived, the country, despite its long and tortured racial climate, eventually recovered and entered a long healing process.

The apparent differences between someone like Lincoln and someone like Assad—or their comparative situations–are too numerous to mention. Most importantly, Lincoln was a brilliant politician and strategist who astutely knew when he needed to shift 180 degrees for the good of the country; Assad has not shown anything close to this type of foresight, flexibility, or courageous leadership. So if there is to be a political settlement at some point with Assad remaining in power, can he, with appropriate self-awareness, re-set his country in a positive direction? Despite what will certainly be long-lasting animus against him, he may have an opportunity to re-caste (or re-invent) his legacy, but through a healing rather than vengeful process. Realism, not triumphalism. Countries coming out of national traumas need leaders. If you end up on the right side in a way that creates a foundation for national prosperity, historical narratives can be very forgiving. Can he begin to restore the dignity of a nation and a people? Is he finally willing to change the nature of governance in Syria and launch a period of transition and reconciliation? Can he face the reality of a Syrian population that has largely moved on from him and his cronies? The answer is most likely a resounding “No.” So how bout it, Mr. Assad? Prove us wrong. Malice toward none and charity for all.

David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad; Carey Latimore is Chair of the History Department at Trinity and author of The Role of Southern Free Blacks During the Civil War Era.

“President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account,” by Ehsani

President al-Assad’s First Speech – An Insider’s Account
by Ehsani
For Syria Comment – 19 April 2016

During a recent event at the Council on Foreign Relations, three prominent western Syria analysts met to discuss “the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies” of President Bashar al-Assad. The moderator started by asking the participants to analyze the President through covering his first speech to the nation on March 30, 2011. One member on the panel, David Lesch, recounted how a confidant of the President who claimed to have seen one draft about an hour before the speech that included concessions and announcements of reforms.  When the President spoke to the Parliament, however, this person was shocked to see that the President read from a different and more hardline version. The implication here is that had the President stuck to the more dovish draft, the Syrian crisis may have turned out differently or even been averted. The conclusion analysts draw from this account is that the President’s decision to embrace regime hawks and reject reforms and use force marked a seminal or “fateful moment” in the crisis.

The only problem with this account is that it is inaccurate. Multiple drafts of the speech did not exist. The Syrian leadership is not in the habit of providing multiple drafts of Presidential speeches. The President did indeed confer with his advisors before addressing the nation, but his final choice was to embrace the advice of regime doves and not regime hawks. If he had followed the advice of his hawks, he would not have given a speech at all.

The President’s more hawkish advisors insisted that any attempt to offer reforms or concessions would be dismissed as too little, too late. Demonstrators would only be encouraged and set the country on the slippery slope to chaos. Hawks viewed the crisis as a matter of life and death for the leadership and the regime. They reminded the president that numerous terrorist and jihadi cells had been penetrated and closed down over the previous years. Any collapse in state security would lead to the quick mobilization of jihadists who were lying in wait for an opportunity to mobilize. Westernized liberals were few and would be quickly swept aside, they insisted. The hawks warned against giving a speech.

Instead of speaking to the nation, this group argued that any hesitation on the part of the President or protracted discussion of reforms would fall short of popular demands, which were unrealizable and becoming more extreme by the day. Instead, the regime hard liners pressed the President to send tanks into the streets. The state must show no mercy, they insisted. It must adopt a shoot to kill policy to avoid any sign of hesitancy. Otherwise, all would be lost. Gentleness would only encourage demonstrators to come out in ever greater numbers. This was the advice of the hard liners; the President did not follow it.

The less hawkish advisors pleaded with the President to speak to the nation. They wanted him to hint at the possibility of rescinding the emergency laws and article 8 of the constitution, the article that establishes the Baath Party as the ruling party. They argued that these concessions would show that the leadership understood the gravity of the situation. By meeting the demonstrators’ demands part way and establish the good will of the president, some of his advisors insisted, the demonstrators would be mollified. They would stop coming out at the call of the organizers. Those demanding regime-change would be isolated and soon defeated.

As the President considered the advice of his contending advisors, the leaders of Qatar were becoming increasingly emboldened. They were playing a leading role in the Libya uprising. Al-Jazeera’s coverage of Tahrir Square was also key to events unfolding in Egypt. The Emir was convinced that Qatar could play a decisive role in shaping Syria’s revolt too. As early as March 6, 2011, Al Jazeera TV reported that Assad was sending pilots to Libya. The evidence is that one had been shot down fighting in support of Gaddafi. The constant repetition of this news sent shock waves through the Syrian populace. Turkey too, got into the act. As the events in Daraa unfolded, Erdogan reached out to Damascus with a suggestion for solving the crisis. He counseled Assad to include the Moslem Brothers in the political process. The Emir of Qatar jumped in behind Erdogan with a promise that Al Jazeera would temper its media coverage of the events in Syria if Damascus embraced the Turkish recommendations. Assad’s rejection of this advice was swift and predictable. He and his advisers interpreted the Qatari and Turkish involvement to be part of a developing plan to sweep away the regimes of the Arab World. He called it a “foreign conspiracy” in his speech. Just minutes after he descended from the podium, the most popular social media site at the time, a Facebook page curated by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, wrote “Is this the speech we were promised? I swear to God, it’s scandalous that somebody like this rules us. To the streets shabab [youth] of Syria!”

In the end, Assad’s speech was a classic case of expectations running ahead of reality. The fact that it was made at all should have been interpreted that the President did not side with Syria’s hawks. Ironically, what happened instead was that as soon as the speech was over, President al-Assad was forever seen as the ultimate hawk himself.