Jabhat al-Nusra and the Druze of Idlib Province

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

While most analysis of the Druze in Syria focuses on their positions in Suwayda province- where they constitute the majority of the population- as well as Jabal al-Sheikh in Damascus/Quneitra provinces, it should be remembered that there is also a Druze community in the Jabal al-Samaq area of Idlib province, more widely known as Jabal al-Zawiya. This community consists of numerous villages, whose names can be found here. Unlike their co-religionists in the south, these Druze have no capacity for the formation of self-defence militias analogous to the banners of ‘Jaysh al-Muwahhideen‘ (‘Army of the Unitarians/Monotheists’) or ‘Forces of Abu Ibrahim’ (named after Druze figure Abu Ibrahim Ismail al-Tamimi). The Druze in Jabal al-Samaq are therefore dependent for preservation on the good-will of whichever external actors are present in their areas.

During the high-point of the influence of Jamal Ma’arouf and his Syrian Revolutionaries Front [SRF] in 2014 following the withdrawal of the Islamic State from Idlib province, there was some attempt to engage in outreach to this Druze community, best illustrated in an al-Aan TV report that featured Ma’arouf talking to Druze locals and ostensibly affirming a non-sectarian vision for Syria. “We are one,” he declares at one point in the video, while acknowledging Druze concerns about problems of extremism and criminality among rebel groups.

It should be noted that this apparent SRF tolerance for local groups of minorities that cannot be seen as having an active role in the civil war is not unique. For comparison, despite prior reported Northern Storm Brigade attacks on Yezidis in north of Aleppo province that are said to have led to clashes with the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), Northern Storm today tolerates a tiny Yezidi community that works inside Azaz town (no more than ten individuals), and in accordance with the group’s current neutral stance towards the PYD, leaves any Yezidi villages alone. In contrast, the bulk of sectarian animus is unsurprisingly directed at Alawites and Shi’a.

In Idlib province, however, the SRF has since been routed at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), with Ma’arouf forced to flee to Turkey in exile. JN’s attitude towards the Druze- an offshoot of Shi’a Islam- is hardly going to be conciliatory, and in line with JN’s assertion of an increasingly hardline Islamic face of governance in its Idlib proto-emirate (cf. the execution of women on charges of ‘prostitution’, the crackdown on opponents in Kafr Nabl etc.) are some notable reported developments concerning the Druze of Idlib province. First, JN reportedly destroyed the tomb of the Druze Sheikh Jaber. Second, a document has emerged of a meeting between JN officials and proclaimed Druze village representatives who have converted to Sunni Islam, agreeing on the implementation of Shari’a and Sunni Islamic supremacy:

“Statement on the first meeting for the villages of the mountain [Jabal- i.e. Jabal al-Samaq]

Attendants of the session:

JN representatives:

Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi [the Tunisian]: area official
Abu Hafs al-Homsi: Shari’a official of the area
Abu Muhammad and Abu Khadija: Administration guys.

Representatives of the area [NB: names blocked out but villages listed, compare with the first listing of Druze villages in Jabal al-Samaq]:

Kafr Maris
Taltiya
Halla
Kaku
Bashnad-laya
Bashnad-lati
Qalb Lawza
Banabel
Jid’ain
Aberita
Kiftain
Ma’arat al-Ikhwan
Bairat Kiftain
Kafr Kayla

The representatives of these aforementioned areas have disavowed the Druze religion and have said that they are Muslims of the Ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jamaat [Sunnis]. And an agreement has been made between them on one side and the representative of Jabhat al-Nusra (Sheikh Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Tunisi) on the other on what follows:

a) Implementation of God’s law in the aforementioned areas with focus on the following points:

(i) Searching of the idolatrous tomb-shrines, destroying their structures and flattening them on the ground.

(ii) Securing of places for prayer in all the aforementioned villages in which there are no designated places for prayer; teaching of the Qur’an, aqeeda [creed] and jurisprudence therein for the youths and children.

(iii) The obligation of wearing hijab according to Shari’a for women outside their homes.

(iv) No display of gender-mixing in schools.

b) Choosing of two persons from each village for the organization of matters concerning services, aid, and oversight of contraventions under the stead of JN.

The beginning of that operation is to be implemented before the appointment of the next meeting.

Reminder: Any person in the Jabal region and aforementioned villages who contravenes/disagrees with these issues will expose himself to penalty according to Shari’a and censure.

Meeting adjourned until 1 February 2015.”

These regulations imposed on the Idlib province Druze by JN are of some concern when one also considers that there is a growing JN presence and influence in areas like Azaz where other minorities are to be found. Were JN to gain sufficient strength to take over Azaz from Northern Storm, it is certainly possible that the group would attempt to assert supremacist authority over the area’s Yezidis as well. In any case, news of the latest developments as regards the Idlib Druze only make the SRF’s guarantees of protection ring hollow and cause further concern among Syrian Druze about the rebels, even as there are signs of increasing resentment in Suwayda province about conscription into the Syrian army.

News Round-Up

Frontline Developments:

 

From a friend:
Souriatna is a rebel newspaper distributed in rebel territory. In a recent issue they printed a full page “je suis charlie” poster (viewable here, page 9: http://issuu.com/souriatna/docs/souriatna_173). Nusra found out about it and started knocking down doors to find the place that published it. They attacked the Radio Fresh station in Idlib where Hadi al-Abdallah, the guy from the Qussair battle, was working. They accused him of insulting Mohammad and beat him, then realised that they got the wrong guy and apologized. They then proceeded to raid a women’s center across from the radio station and beat the women there and insulted them for not wearing hijab. Then they realized again that they got the wrong people and apologized and left.  Post from the newspaper about the events here http://www.souriatnapress.net/?p=8905# . Subsequent video purports to show Ahrar al-Sham burning Souritatna and three other magazines, saying they’re now banned for supporting Charlie Hebdo.

Mapping of the recent and continuing 3-way conflict between Kurdish YPG, Syrian regime, and IS in Hasakeh from Agathocle de Syracuse:

Hasakah

The clashes started on January 17; reports Loyalists attempted to set-up checkpoints near the industry area and in the north entrance following YPG reinforcement in the city. YPG initially seized industry & silos area as well as police station, capturing 30 Loyalists forces members. Heavy clashes followed in the city center, near Assyrian church and Pullman garage, Marsho round-about, and along the control line in Mufti and Azizieh neighborhoods. Mutual shelling forced people to flee from Tall Hajar, Mufti and Kashman areas. On Jan 19 in the morning, a cease-fire was agreed although sporadic clashes continued

These regime-Kurd clashes started last Saturday: Kurds Battle Assad’s Forces in Syria, Opening New Front in Civil War – Reuters

violence broke out when army soldiers and allied militiamen took control of buildings in an area that both sides had agreed would stay demilitarised, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said...

Syrian Kurds, who say they suffered years of marginalisation under Assad, had on occasion fought with the president’s loyalists in territorial disputes, but never in sustained clashes…

First Peshmerga killed in Kobane fighting – Rudaw

Iraq: New German and French Weapons Reach Peshmerga on Frontlines – BasNews

Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi claims that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been injured in airstrike in Syria: ISIS leader Baghdadi injured, stays in Syria – al-Arabiya

Iraq: First ground combat between IS and Western forces: Canada Special Forces Clash with IS in Iraq – The Daily Star

…Ottawa: Canadian special forces exchanged gunfire with Islamic State fighters in Iraq in recent days, in the first confirmed ground battle between Western troops and IS, a senior officer said Monday.

“My troops had completed a planning session with senior Iraqi leaders several kilometers behind the front lines,” Canadian special forces commander Brigadier General Michael Rouleau said. “When they moved forward to confirm the planning at the front lines in order to visualize what they had discussed over a map, they came under immediate and effective mortar and machine gunfire.”

The general said the Canadians used sniper fire to “neutralize both threats” and there were no Canadian injuries… Canada has some 600 troops in the region participating in airstrikes against the Islamic State…

Are Israel, Jabhat al-Nusra coordinating on attacks in Syria? – al-Monitor

…UN reports published in December appear to vindicate the regime’s arguments that Israel is involved with the southern rebels.

According to a UN report covering the period from March to May 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) detected contact between rebels and the Israeli army across the Golan cease-fire line, particularly during fierce clashes between the Syrian army and the rebels. The report also confirmed that the UN forces spotted rebels transporting 89 wounded across the cease-fire line into the Israeli occupied zone, where they were handed over 19 people who had received medical treatment in addition to two dead. The UN forces also noted that the Israeli army delivered two boxes to rebels on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Communications increased between rebels and the Israeli army before the eruption of the southern front in Daraa and Quneitra in September, according to Quneitra opposition activist…

ISIL threatens to kill Japanese hostages – al-Jazeera

The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group has released a video threatening to kill two Japanese hostages unless they receive $200m in 72 hours, directly demanding the ransom from Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, during his visit to the Middle East…

Strike on IS-held village kills dozens – BBC

Refugees/Children:

 

We are Failing the Children of Syria and Lebanon. This Tragedy is Avoidable – Guardian – Gordon Brown

That Smallest Victims: Syria’s Children – Mashable – Cengiz Yar Jr.

Syrias-Children-Cengiz-Yar-Jr-03b

U.S. Policy On IS:

 

IS Gaining Ground in Syria, Despite U.S. Strikes – Daily Beast – Tim Mak and Nancy A. Youssef

150113-mak-syria-map-jan-embed

Pentagon to Deploy 400 Troops to Train Syrian Rebels – Reuters

Western Intervention Can Only Strengthen Jihadis – Daily Star – Fareed Zakaria

Hammer and Anvil – Foreign Affairs – Robert Pape

…Defeating ISIS requires a new strategy for retaking Sunni territory. The strategy should incrementally build on the current hammer-and-anvil approach that has successfully blunted ISIS’ expansion into Kurdish and Shia areas. The conditions are ripest for a Sunni anvil in Nineveh and Anbar provinces in Iraq, so these areas should be the focus of a new plan with four components…

Robert PapeRobert Pape 2

Turkey:

 

Escape to Syria of Charlie Hebdo Suspect Shows Turkey’s Role as Jihadi Highway – McClatchy

Dutch opposition says has documents proving Turkey sent arms to Syrian jihadists – Today’s Zaman

Turkish Military Says MIT Shipped Weapons to Al-Qaeda – Al-Moniter

Explaining the Turkish Military’s Opposition to Combating ISIS – The Washington Institute – Ed Stafford

 

Hezbollah in Syria:

 

Israel Strike Underscores Security Concerns in Syrian Beyond ISIS, Upping Stakes for U.S. – Huffington Post – Akbar Shahid Ahmed

This is not your Father’s Hezbollah – Foreign Policy – Susannah George

Corruption in the ranks. Spies in their midst. Discipline problems. How the Syrian war is changing Lebanon’s most infamous militia…

Israel on high alert for possible Hezbollah retaliation – WP

Hezbollah Chief Threatens Israel Over Syria Strikes – AFP

Israel Strike Kills Son of Top Hezbollah Commander – CNN

Hezbollah Says Israeli Helicopter Strike Killed 5 Fighters in Syria – NYT

Are Hezbollah and Israel on the Verge of Open War? – Al-Arabiya

Tehran Threatens to Open the Golan Front in Response to Israeli Strike – Al-Akhbar

Russia and Iran sign military cooperation deal – AP

 

Foreign Jihadis:

 

The Clear Banner: Tajik Fighters in Iraq and Syria – Jihadology – Lemon

Syria Calling: Radicalisation in Central Asia – International Crisis Group

British Jihadist who Faked Death Admits Terror Offences – BBC

 

Miscellaneous:

 

French source on opposition (National Coalition)

Recent from Aron Lund: Russia Fails to Sway the Syrian Opposition – Carnegie – Aron Lund

…The bar seems to have been set very low, with Russia not even attempting to bring onboard the armed rebels that actually matter for the outcome of the conflict...

Recent from Tamimi:

Special Report: Northern Storm and the Situation in Azaz (Syria) – MERIA – Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The Impasse in Iraq: Part 1 (The Shi’a Side); Part 2 (The Sunni Side)

Aspects of Islamic State (IS) Administration in Ninawa Province: Part I & Part 2

Does the Islamic State Pose a Threat to Morocco and Jordan? – Nick Heras & Amanda Claypool

Nearly Killed for Satire, Syrian Cartoonist Stands Proud – CNN – Amanpour

Syrian Christian Women in Sednaya Take up Arms to Defend their Community – Channel News Asia

Ideology and a Conducive Political Environment – Oxford Press Blog – Shadi Hamid

…In this sense, the question of whether ISIS enjoys much popular support in the Muslim world — it doesn’t — is almost beside the point. ISIS doesn’t need to be popular to be successful. In June, around 800 militants were able to defeat an Iraqi force of 30,000 in Mosul, the country’s second largest city. Ideology, morale, and, crucially, the willingness to die are force multipliers. But ideology can only take you so far without a conducive political environment. ISIS itself was perhaps inevitable, but its rise to prominence was not. It has benefited considerably from the manifest failures of Arab governance, of an outdated regional order, and of an international community that was unwilling to act as Syria descended into savage repression and civil war…

Iraq Situation Report: January 17-18 –ISW:

ISW 2015-1-17-18 High -01

Syria: Should the United States Do More? — Debate at the McCain Institute

“Syria: Should the United States Do More?” January 15, 2015 debate at the McCain Institute for International Leadership with Mike Doran, Andrew Tabler, Joshua Landis, and Aaron Miller. Elise Labott moderated. Video set to begin in the 11th minute, after the insufferably lengthy intro.

 

Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Syria Joins The Islamic State?

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

As outlined previously on this site and elsewhere in my writings, Jamaat Ansar al-Islam (JAI) is a jihadi group that originated in Iraq and expanded into Syria in 2011 thanks at least in part to the efforts of one Abu Muhammad al-Muhajir (an Iraqi himself who was later killed near Mosul while returning from Syria to Iraq). A rival of the Islamic State (IS) because it did not accept the statehood claims of IS or its previous incarnations, JAI tried to ride the initial rapid wave of IS-spearheaded insurgent gains in Iraq beginning with the fall of Mosul in June 2014 but soon found itself suffering from arrests, killings and defections at the hands of IS.

By the end of August 2014, a statement had been issued in the name of JAI Iraq’s Majlis Shura affirming the dissolution of JAI in Iraq and joining IS. Although this statement was denied by those controlling JAI Iraq’s official Twitter account, it is apparent that the affirmation of allegiance to IS represented the vast majority of JAI Iraq, leaving the remnant loyalists no choice but to quit the field, with the result that there have been no more releases in the name of a JAI Iraq, including a very significant break from previous years with the lack of an Eid al-Adha message or media release. Therefore, for all intents and purposes, JAI Iraq has ceased to exist.

All this is in contrast with JAI’s Syria branch, which had originally spanned the entirety of northern Syria but on account of conflict with IS became confined mainly to Aleppo and Idlib provinces, more recently making a claimed showing in Latakia province. JAI Syria, which put out photos for Eid al-Adha, continued to advertise its presence on the ground with photos displaying its banner and members via its official Twitter account @ansarulsham.

B5ooxEKCMAAkvvL
JAI Syria reportedly in the ‘Sahel’ region of Syria (Latakia). Photo released last month by the @ansarulsham account.

Now, however, a controversy has arisen whereby the @ansarulsham account has issued a statement declaring a supposed decision by JAI Syria’s leadership for the group to pledge allegiance to IS:

Statement 449
17 Rabi’ al-Awal 1436
8 January 2015

Allegiance of JAI in Bilad al-Sham [Syria] to IS

[…]

Indeed we give good tidings to the Islamic Ummah in the east and west of the land of the fact that ‘JAI in Bilad al-Sham’ is following the example of their brothers from ‘Ansar al-Islam in Iraq’ and so we announce our pledge of allegiance (bay’ah) to Caliph Ibrahim- may God protect him- the Caliph of the Muslims…And this pledge of allegiance is to be considered the dissolution of ‘JAI in Bilad al-Sham’ in answer to the command of God Almighty both to do away with division and unite the Muslims under one banner and Caliph who may implement the ruling of God’s law in the land, declare all tyranny of idolatry to be disbelief, defend the sanctities of the Muslims, give victory to the Ahl al-Sunna in every region of the Earth, while not compromising his religion for the material world or bartering at the expense of the upright direction [program]. We have announced this pledge of allegiance and hope it to be a source of pain for all the disbelievers and hypocrites and a source of joy and happiness for all the Muslims.

This statement is to be considered the last from the group in Bilad al-Sham and this account is the sole official account for the group and any statement issued after this number as false and coming from factions not linked to us (…).

Leadership of JAI in Bilad al-Sham.
17 Rabi al-Awal 1436
8 January 2015

This statement had been preceded in time by the establishment of another account on Twitter- @ansarulislam_sh- that claimed the @ansarulsham account had been hijacked:

“After we lost connection with our account @ansarulsham and until we recover it, we will tweet and work using this new account. And we inform you that the group is not responsible for what is published on the aforementioned account, including the last two tweets [from January 5 urging followers to expect a new release] and what will be published after. And the brothers are currently working to recover it, so until then this is our sole official account on Twitter.”

The account then published a series of images of a graduation of a new cohort of children from Qur’an memorization school- a program said to have been done in cooperation with JAI Syria. The date given is 17 Rabi al-Awal 1436 AH, though the corresponding Gregorian date given (4 January 2015) appears to be incorrect. Perhaps there is a confusion in that the photos may have been produced on 4 January 2015.

03_small
Photo from the latest series released by @ansarulislam_sh

So what is going on here? Which of the two accounts represents the majority of JAI Syria? Is this the end of JAI Syria?

To answer the last of the above questions in a short phrase: probably not. To preface though, one should not give too much credence to Ansar al-Islam fanboy accounts like @ansaruna, who has his/her facts confused in claiming a logical contradiction between this purported allegiance to IS by JAI Syria and a supposed IS claim that ‘hole [sic: whole] Ansar al-Islam give them bay3a [bay’ah]’ 5 months ago. Actually, the original statement put out in JAI Iraq’s name by the majority of IS loyalists in August 2014 never claimed the dissolution of all of JAI but only the Iraq branch, while urging the Syria branch to follow its example.

In any case, the situation in Syria vis-a-vis JAI and IS is not exactly analogous to that in Iraq. In Iraq, territory can be divided three ways: Sunni insurgent control, central government forces control, and Kurdish control. For the non-IS insurgent groups in Iraq, the latter two do not offer a ‘third way’ of safety from the power of IS in the way that remaining rebel-held territory in Syria does. Already another notable difference exists in that the @ansarulislam_sh account is at least trying to substantiate JAI Syria’s continued existence with visual evidence, something which the JAI Iraq remnants that controlled the official Twitter account failed to do after denying the statement of joining IS (with no subsequent statements, photos, videos etc.). Further, in Iraq, the eventual statement by IS loyalists in JAI Iraq did not come from nowhere but had rather been the product of two months of direct pressure on the group from IS’ power with a series of pledges of allegiance first advertised by IS in late June 2014.

There is also the issue of practicality: being spread in Idlib, Aleppo and Latakia, would it be so easy for the entirety/majority of JAI Syria, if it merged with IS, to evacuate to IS-held territories? Here, some further context and clarification of the JAI Syria presence are needed. According to a Jabhat al-Nusra member from Aleppo with whom I spoke on my trip to the Azaz district last month (18th-22nd December), JAI Syria is thought to have “hundreds” of members and has been working with Jabhat al-Nusra on e.g. the contested Handarat front in Aleppo province. This is so even as some members of JAI Syria have given allegiance to Jabhat al-Nusra. Further, the spokesman of Northern Storm, which also fights on the Handarat front, claimed to me that JAI Syria is specially protected by Jabhat al-Nusra (I would add that there appears to be a close bond with the independent jihadi coalition Jabhat Ansar al-Din). Indeed, it was precisely my asking about JAI Syria that attracted the suspicion of Jabhat al-Nusra in the Azaz area, on the grounds that I might be gathering information on Jabhat al-Nusra and JAI Syria positions to hand over to the coalition.

Yet the control of the @ansarulsham account by IS loyalists within JAI Syria’s ranks could not have come from nowhere. Some serious defections have clearly happened. Indeed, Abu Obeida the Salafi- JAI’s ‘intellectual heavyweight’ based in Iraq and still supporting JAI in Syria- wrote on Twitter before the issuing of the allegiance pledge by @ansarulsham: “How odd! Some [emphasis my own] of the soldiers and amirs from JAI don’t know of the coming decision….” He thus concedes that the allegiance pledge has involved at least some commanders within JAI Syria.

It is also evident here that IS has pursued the familiar strategy it applied to JAI Iraq and Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Sinai/Gaza: that is, urging those within the group ready to pledge allegiance to issue a statement in the name of the entire group announcing allegiance in the hope of overcoming those who object. That some high-rank JAI Syria members might choose to join IS should not come as much of a surprise: similar defections have happened within Syria’s other jihadi groups. But the evidence at present does not quite suggest that this latest IS move against JAI Syria is fatal. In short, expect JAI Syria’s presence to continue on the ground for the time being, though it is possible that those from JAI Syria who have not pledged allegiance may end up fully merging with Jabhat al-Nusra and/or Jabhat Ansar al-Din if it is felt the group’s continued existence is an unviable project. On the whole, looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, JAI is a mere shadow of its former self.


H/T to my friend and colleague Caleb Weiss for drawing the @ansarulsham statement to my attention and first raising the questions that led to the genesis of this article.

Syria Photo Guide

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Syria Photo Guide is my attempt to share with the world the immense beauty and rich heritage of the country in which I spent several wonderful years. The website was originally envisioned to serve as a guide for travelers wishing to explore Syria’s incredible range of archaeological, cultural and natural sites, and I began work on the project in 2006. Given the horrific conflict that has engulfed the country since 2011, I hope my website will inspire those working to preserve and protect Syria’s wealth of historic sites and provide a resource for those interested in learning more about Syria’s history and culture.

I first visited Syria in 2003, and quickly found myself becoming deeply immersed in the country’s people, culture and history. Despite having traveled to over thirty countries prior to visiting Syria, nowhere had I encountered people so welcoming and hospitable. The country’s amazing diversity, fascinating history, and incredible variety of archaeological sites and natural attractions amazed me. Having initially planned only a few weeks in the country, I spent over nine months there. I cancelled plans to continue traveling overland through Central Asia to China, instead refocusing my journey on better understanding the Middle East.

In 2006 I undertook another trip to Syria, determined to get to know the country in even greater depth. Basing myself in Bab Sharqi, Damascus, I ended up living in Syria for nearly two full years of 2006 and 2007. In addition to teaching English at a local language center, I spent much of my time visiting, documenting and photographing Syria’s wide range of archaeological, cultural and natural attractions. I contributed articles about these sites to a local English-language magazine called “What’s On”. Through this work, Syria Photo Guide was born. My last visit to Syria was from September 2008 through March 2009. I am from Los Angeles, California and currently reside in San Luis Obispo with my wife, Rasha, who is from Mosul, Iraq.

The website currently features information and photo galleries of 235 sites throughout the country, and a total of over 8,000 high resolution photos. It remains a work in progress, and I anticipate reaching roughly 280 sites and 10,000 photos by the time I complete the project. The website is entirely non-profit and is dedicated to the Syrian people, to whom I will always be indebted for their hospitality, generosity and kindness. Any comments, suggestions or questions are welcome. I will try to address any questions made in the comments on Syria Comment, or by e-mail to info@syriaphotoguide.com.

Below is a photo gallery with a selection of some of my favorite images.

– Daniel Demeter