“Why the Islamic State Is Losing, and Why It Still Hopes to Win”

I have just published a new paper on the war against the so-called Islamic State over at The Century Foundation, arguing that the group is now clearly losing the war on the ground in Syria and Iraq. But the tide may turn, depending on what happens in the Syrian Civil War, among the rival Kurdish factions in northern Iraq, and with the increasingly tense situation in Baghdad. The introduction is below and you’ll find the full thing here. — Aron Lund

Islamic State FlagThe Sunni extremist group known as Islamic State (IS, also known by an earlier acronym, ISIS) is taking a terrible beating. In the past few days, it has lost territory in both Syria and Iraq. Syrian Kurds have attacked it east of Aleppo and north of Raqqa City, while it is battling Sunni Arab rivals north of Aleppo. The Syrian army of President Bashar al-Assad is pressing into the Raqqa Governorate and taking ground in the deserts east of Palmyra. In Iraq, other Kurdish groups have struck east of Mosul, while an alliance of Shia militias and the Iraqi army is moving into its stronghold in Fallujah. Further afield, the jihadis are being purged from the Libyan city of Sirte.

Islamic State’s self-styled caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, is nowhere to be seen or heard as his fighters face attacks on all fronts. According to the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, the jihadi group has now lost half of the area it controlled in Iraq at its peak in late 2014 and a fifth of its territory in Syria. Revenues from oil and other assets are reportedly down by a third and a U.S. government official recently claimed the coalition has “cut off entirely their revenue that’s coming from the outside.” The coalition also says that the total number of Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria has dropped from a peak of around 31,000 in December 2014 to between 19,000 and 25,000 today, and the influx of foreign jihadis has allegedly been reduced by three-quarters.

Islamic State has not scored a major victory on the battlefield in more than a year, and its ability to govern efficiently is withering. People with their ear to the ground in Islamic State’s Syrian stronghold of Raqqa speak of frail governance and worsening repression, since the group can no longer afford to buy civil peace. If popular discontent continues to grow, a weakening Islamic State could face internal dissent and tribal uprisings.

Still, the decline of Islamic State is certainly not irreversible and its enemies could be in for rough surprises ahead. In some areas, the forces confronting Islamic State are even more dysfunctional than the group itself, held together only by foreign influence and the fact that they face a common enemy. Now, with Islamic State’s influence finally receding, that brittle unity is being tested. Syria has long been torn asunder by civil war and regional rivalries, while Iraq suffers from a worsening political paralysis. Islamic State is weaker than at any point since it conquered Mosul two years ago, but thanks to the chronic disorder among its enemies, it may still be able to regroup and reclaim the initiative.

For more, read the full report.

“The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist,” By Stefan Winter

The Asad Petition of 1936: Bashar’s Grandfather Was Pro-Unionist
By Stefan Winter
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

This week marks the 80th anniversary of a now famous petition, supposedly addressed by six ‘Alawi notables from the Latakia region—including Hafiz al-Asad’s grandfather Sulayman al-Asad—to French prime minister Léon Blum on 15 June 1936. The six ‘Alawi notables criticize the negotiations undertaken by the Front populaire government for the independence of Syria; they decry the “spirit of hatred and fanaticism imbedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims” against the ‘Alawis, Jews, Yezidis and other minorities and reject the idea that the Governorate of Latakia (the “Alaouites”) be included in the rest of Syria. They propose that the Alawi State be joined with Lebanon rather than Syria and demand to remain under French protection.

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The petition, reportedly registered as document “no. 3547” at the French Foreign Ministry, is translated in Abu Musa al-Hariri’s 1984 monograph Al-‘Alawiyyun al-Nusayriyyun: Bahth fi’l-‘Aqida wa’l-Tarikh, with lengthy excerpts (translated back from the Arabic) appearing in such works as Matti Moosa’s Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988), Daniel Le Gac’s La Syrie du general Assad (1991), and a host of press articles and internet blogs in recent years. A copy of the original together with the Arabic translation is said to be held by the Asad library in Damascus, and in August 2012, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, reacting to a Syrian diplomat’s negative portrayal of French mandatory rule before the UN, invoked the petition as proof of president Bashar al-Asad’s grandfather’s (rather than his great-grandfather’s) pro-French position and reaffirmed that the “official” document is preserved in his Ministry’s archives.

From a historian’s standpoint, however, the petition presents a couple of problems. To begin with, “no. 3547” does not correspond to any actual archive classification (one might expect the Ministry’s holdings to go beyond 4-digit serially numbered items), and no corresponding document has ever been cited in the literature or, indeed, produced by the Minister. The only known image of document “no. 3547” appears to be one provided to Dr. Mordechai Kedar of Bar-Ilan University and published on www.jewishpress.com in September 2012, from where it has been copied and circulated on numerous internet sites ever since. Either the image, however, or the document collage, is an obvious fake. Already a cursory glance shows that the purported original on the left, prominently stamped with “no. 3547” in red, is written in a long hand typical of French consular correspondence of the early 19th century or before (and appears to concern a commercial account), whereas the petitions submitted to the French authorities in the 1930s were almost invariably written by typewriter. Even more blatant is the black stamp at the top, spread across both the handwritten document and the Arabic typewritten translation: this is in fact an ancien-régime municipal fiscal stamp (“Petit Papier, [x] sous la feuille, Généralité de Paris”)—which clearly displays the classic 3-lily Bourbon coat of arms, a complete impossibility for any document handled by the Third Republic Foreign Ministry in 1936.

Kedar1

Not that the subject and tone of the petition in itself are implausible. On the contrary: many ‘Alawis were in fact opposed to the end of French rule and the eventual inclusion of the “Alaouites” in an independent Syria. The archives of the French Foreign Ministry (the “Quai d’Orsay”), now located in La Courneuve suburb just north of Paris, do contain numerous letters sent by ‘Alawi and other notables to French government officials in 1936 to lobby against Syrian independence, and some of these do reject the prospect of “Muslim majority rule” in the strongest terms, demand the Alaouites’ inclusion in Lebanon or compare the plight of the ‘Alawis and Druze to the discrimination suffered by Jewish immigrants settling in Palestine. None of these separatist petitions, however, correspond to “no. 3547”, and none appear to bear the signature of an Asad.

Historians such as Matti Moosa (who did in fact use the French archives for his book, but can only cite al-Hariri as his source for “no. 3547”) and others have focussed too one-sidedly on these separatist petitions, which supposedly “reveal” that the “Nusayri leaders feared and detested the Sunnite Syrian nationalists” (Extremist Shiites, pp. 286-289). This is unfortunate—because a quick look through the relevant series at La Courneuve shows that there are in reality about as many pro-independence, pro-Syrian-unionist petitions sent by the ‘Alawis in the 1936 as there are separatist petitions. And sure enough, one of these pro-unionist ‘Alawi petitions, dated 2 July 1936 or just two weeks after the supposed “no. 3547”, is signed not by Sulayman al-Asad—but by his son ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad, i.e. the current president’s grandfather.

Courneuve ELSL

The virulent, 4-page missive, addressed “in exasperation” to the Ministre des affaires étrangères over France’s “nefarious politics of division”, is signed by 86 ‘Alawi notables in all, including not only the younger Asad (in his capacity as “former member of the constitutive assembly of the Alaouites”) but also by scions of the Raslan, al-Khayyir and other leading families, as well as Ismail Hawwash, head of the Matawira tribe, past representative on the “conseil fédéral syrien” and son of ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, one of the alleged signatories of “no. 3547”. Ridiculing the idea that ‘Alawis could not live together with their Muslim countrymen, the petition goes on to blast in no uncertain terms those of their compeers who would agitate merely “out of personal ambition” and “bad faith” for the continuation of separate French mandatory rule and thereby impede full Syrian union. (See my forthcoming A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic, Princeton University Press, 2016, pp. 260-261 for details). If there is such a thing as a petition “no. 3547”, this one reads like a straight rebuttal.

Ali Sulayman al-Asad (1875 – 1963) Grandfather of President Bashar al-Asad

The “Asad petition” that is actually contained in the French Foreign Ministry archives, in other words, directly contradicts what has often been claimed (including by Laurent Fabius) about the Asads’ attitude toward the French mandate, and therefore raises a number of questions. Should we conclude that “no. 3547” is a forgery, but if so, why would it be on display at the Asad library in Damascus when it casts aspersions on the Asads’ nationalist credentials? Or could it be that both petitions are genuine, and reflect a real political—in fact a generational—conflict within the ‘Alawi community in 1936, between old-guard separatists like Sulayman al-Asad and ‘Aziz Agha al-Hawwash, on the one hand, and their unionist sons ‘Ali Sulayman al-Asad and Ismail al-Hawwash, on the other? This should not come as a surprise, after all, when it is clear that neither the ‘Alawi nor any other confessional community adopted a single, uniform opinion on French rule and independence, when as careful a historian as Patrick Seale has already shown that many ‘Alawi figures were indeed “neither Syrian nationalists nor collaborators” but adjusted their stance throughout the mandate period, depending on their changing political and personal circumstances (Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East, pp. 18-23).

What the existence of the unambiguously pro-unionist Asad petition does demonstrate, in any event, is to what extent political myths in current-day Syria are often based on flimsy—or at least partial and very incomplete—evidence, how some writers will purposely concentrate only on the scandalous, irrespective of the archival material available to them, and how bloggers, media commentators and perhaps even the French Foreign Minister will uncritically copy and paste from one another rather than spend 10 minutes actually going through the catalogues at La Courneuve. Spreading unqualified claims about the president’s grandfather, the ‘Alawis or anyone’s historical loyalties is not a recipe for stability in the current context of Syrian politics. The separatist petition “no. 3547”, if it is indeed authentic, must at the very least be weighed against the very genuine unionist petition that is indeed in the archives.

Stefan Winter is associate professor of history at the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQÀM). His previous publications on the ‘Alawis under Ottoman rule are available on his Academia page; A History of the ‘Alawis: From Medieval Aleppo to the Turkish Republic is due out from Princeton University Press in September 2016. With thanks to Mordechai Kedar, Pascal Bastien, Stéphane Valter and Joshua Landis for their help with this note.

Addendum (added by Joshua Landis): The following is the shortened text of the disputed 1936 petition published in English translation by Matti Moosa in his book: Extremist Shiites: The Ghulat Sects (1988) pp. 287‑88.

The Alawite people, who have preserved their independence year after year with great zeal and sacrifices, are different from the Sunni Muslims. They were never subject to the authority of the cities of the interior.

The Alawites refuse to be annexed to Muslim Syria because, in Syria, the official religion of the state is Islam, and according to Islam, the Alawites are considered infidels….

The spirit of hatred and fanaticism embedded in the hearts of the Arab Muslims against everything that is non‑Muslim has been perpetually nurtured by the Islamic religion. There is no hope that the situation will ever change. Therefore, the abolition of the mandate will expose the minorities in Syria to the dangers of death and annihilation, irrespective of the fact that such abolition will annihilate the freedom of thought and belief…

The condition of the Jews in Palestine is the strongest and most explicit evidence of the militancy of the Islamic issue vis‑a‑vis those who do not belong to Islam…

We assure you that treaties have no value in relation to the Islamic mentality in Syria. We have previously seen this situation in the Anglo‑Iraqi treaty, which did not prevent the Iraqis from slaughtering the Assyrians and the Yezidis.

The Alawite people are certain that they will find a strong and faithful support for a loyal and friendly people threatened by death and annihilation and who have offered France tremendous services.

Here is a more recent publication of the petition in 2013 by “Syria Direct,” a “non-profit journalism organization that produces timely, credible coverage of Syria.” It mistakenly identifies the date of the petition as 1926 rather than 1936, but provides a complete translation of the now disputed petition that cannot be located in the French archives.

Dealing with Syria’s Foreign Fighters: A Liberal Conundrum

The Case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani
by Tam Hussein @tamhussein
For Syria Comment, June 14, 2016

As a result of Syria’s bloody conflict Europe is at a turning point. The threat of terrorism, the fear of lone wolf attacks, of independent cells operating with in Europe has changed the political landscape. Europe is wrestling with a liberal conundrum. But whilst policy makers and intelligence services must be vigilant to the threat of terrorism it must also be aware of the nuances  when dealing with returnees, foreign fighters and indeed Syrian refugees. Tarring everyone with the same brush can have disastrous consequences.  At the expense of greater security Europe must not loose its soul: that is the Rule of Law.  The following case of Mirsad Bectašević and Amer al-Hasani illustrates these points perfectly.

In late January 2016, Amer al-Hasani, 20, decided to travel to Greece with his friend Mirsad Bectašević, 29. They had met at the local mosque in a Gothenburg suburb in Sweden. Amer, a devout Muslim, had been involved in Islamic proselytisation and charity work there. The two had travelled to Copenhagen from Gothenburg crossing over from the magnificent Øresund bridge that links Southern Sweden’s Malmö to the Danish capital, Copenhagen. From Copenhagen’s Kastrup airport they boarded a flight to Athens. On arrival, Amer called his mother to let her know that he was well. They spent several days galavanting in Athens. Nothing of note happened except, that Bectašević bought two Bear Grylls machetes at a bargain price from an Airsoft store. According to him, he asked the lady if it was legal to carry such knives and she confirmed it. Then they travelled to Salonika, spending two days there, and on to Thrace to the sleepy fishing town, Alexandropoulis, close to the Turkish border.

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Amer claims that they wanted to visit the surrounding villages from the town, and so they went to the bus station to buy two tickets to Peplos, a small village even closer to the border. It seemed like a straightforward affair. But the employee, got suspicious and made a phone call. According to Bectašević it was an instance of racial profiling pure and simple. After all they weren’t Swedes of the blond and blue eyed variety; they were swarthy types, of pure Invandrar- immigrant – stock that grew up in Sweden’s förort, the satellite conurbations around Stockholm or Gothenburg which is Sweden’s equivalent of ghetto if Sweden ever had one. But instead of boarding the bus, several policemen on motorcycles pulled up and gruffly took them away for questioning.

The press couldn’t help but jump on the arrest whether that be Sweden’s tabloid paper Aftonbladet or its broadsheet equivalent Svenska Dag Bladet. It made for great copy. After all, it’s not everyday you bag Mirsad Bectašević, the man who once plotted to blow up Western targets in the European mainland.

Moreover, these men were arrested around the same time as three Iraqi Kurds carrying British passports. The latter were caught with 200 000 rounds of ammunition trying to cross Greece’s porous border. The media also claimed that their arrest was intelligence led, apparently they had been under surveillance for several days as they made their way to Alexandropoulis and had intended to cross over to Turkey and then onto Syria as many foreign fighters do. In fact, I knew that SÄPO, Swedish intelligence, was keeping tabs on Bectašević when I met him in May, 2015.

Amer al-Hasani

Amer al-Hasani

The Interrogation

After their arrest the two men were immediately separated. On the face of it, the prosecution had a relatively a simple case. To convict all you had to do was to prove that Bectašević the more experienced of the two, recruited the young and impressionable man in Gothenburg and then convinced him to go to Syria to join ISIS. But if the allegations of Amer, his brother, Mohammed, Bectašević and others who knew them are true, there seems to be grave problems from the very outset. One should add, that a request for comment from the Greek authorities have not been forth coming.

Bektašević was offered legal representation, one of the best according to him. He was interrogated by the police for forty eight hours, he was no doubt asked, where he was going. His response was that of a man used to interrogation, “I am exercising my right to travel”. Peplos is awfully close to the Turkish border isn’t it? He replies “even if we were going to Turkey we didn’t do anything illegal.”

The interrogators didn’t come up with much. Perhaps the interrogators took it as a given, perhaps it wasn’t from their line of inquiry but according to Bectašević they didn’t focus on why he had black police boots, a 5.11 tactical vest, one weapon sling he claimed to have forgot from his last visit to Syria in 2015. He says, “I had ‘ordinary stuff like T-shirts and jeans. Muslim clothes when praying. They took that as ‘evidence’”. The Greek interrogators focused more on his level of devotion and practice rather than his connections to ISIS or Syria.

Initially, he was charged with trying to supply a terror organisation with weapons. Now, it wasn’t 200 000 rounds of ammunition he was accused of supplying but the Bear Grylls machetes. One presumes that this unspecified terror organisation can’t get hold of such precious hardware anywhere else.

However, as to who he was affiliated to was unclear. At Bectašević’s hearing there seemed to be much confusion as to precisely what organisation he belonged to. The Greek prosecutor had even asked him, but the accused denied any affiliation. Bectašević only found out that he was accused of belonging to ISIS a month later. Some of these lawyers, he complained, didn’t even realise that ISIL and ISIS was the same organisation. Simply put the Greeks were not literate as to the various factions operating in Syria. After several months of languishing in Korydallous High Security prison, Bektašević claims he still hasn’t seen the evidence against him so that he can prepare his defence. The Swedish embassy have been in touch with the Greek authorities in March, 2016 however the results of that meeting still remain to be seen.

Of course, all of this might just be the Greek authorities knowing based on intel, that here they have a convicted terrorist, perhaps one that intends to commit future acts of terror, but they simply don’t have the requisite laws to deal with the likes of him. And so they throw anything at him to keep him locked up. The case of Mirsad Bectašević then, is the epitome of the liberal dilemma that the Greeks and indeed many Western countries are having to face up to. What does one do with the likes of Bectaševič and others like him, who may be working to undermine the security of the West or may not? And as such his case has important lessons for all European countries.

The case of Amer has not been treated in the same manner- that is he has not been given even a semblance of procedural justice. Is that because he is a Yemeni political refugee and not a Swedish passport holder? Does procedural justice not apply to the likes of him? His brother, Mohammed, 21, told me that in the first week of his arrest, intelligence officers beat him smashing his face against the table and tearing at his hair. They asked him why he was in Greece and where he was going as I did over the phone. He must have repeated the same thing he said to me, “I am here on holiday.” They said he had to admit that he was part of ISIS and belonged to a cell in Eastern Europe that was planning to launch an attack in the West. They were going to get that out of him no matter what. Greece, they said, is a democracy, when Amer, retorted that they were breaking their own principles, they laughed and replied that people think Greece is a democracy but it’s not. He had to admit he belonged to ISIS or else. But Amer did not admit it.

According to his brother, they brought in a girl who tried to seduce him, just like they do in interrogations in Egypt, whilst all the time they were hoping to film him perform a sex act. The brother believed that the security services could use the film to black mail him with it. But Amer is devout, and he repelled her advances. Next one man threatened him with anal rape if he did not testify against Bectašević. All the time, he could not get access to his legal counsel, apparently they replied only after a month. More recently Bectašević told me that Amer was being forced “to sign some papers in Greece [sic] it was around five…eight people there and they forced him to sign some papers. He didn’t even understand what it was.”

This was also confirmed by his brother who said that they have been appealing to the Swedish embassy for assistance. The embassy replied that the matter is out of their hands there has however, been some contact between the embassy and Amer in prison. Amer has told me that now the Greek authorities are applying psychological pressure on him in Volos young offenders prison. He feels that he is in limbo. His brother is worried sick about his health as he suffers from a childhood throat condition that requires an operation.

The Crux

Admittedly, the case of these two men are not as straight forward as it seems. The Greek authorities are dealing with a crippling economic situation, with the movement of people escaping Syria on a biblical scale, and so the rights of two men, one having a previous conviction for terrorism don’t really figure on its list of priorities. Arguably, Islamist terrorism is something that the Greek judiciary doesn’t have to deal with much. Yet, overlooking the case of these men could have an immense impact; for Bectašević is no small figure in Jihadi circles and is looked up to by those inclined to Salafi-Jihadism in Gothenburg. He, after all, has impeccable credentials in this regard.

Some inconsistencies of the testimonies and the difficulty of this author to verify their accounts aside, the whole case hinges on three points. The first, is the figure of Bectašević himself and his previous convictions. Secondly, his relationship with Syria and thirdly, the fractious politics of Syria’s Islamist rebels.

Prima Facie evidence

On the face of it, Bektašević is a man who holds views that are antithetical to Western ideals. He is an out and out Islamist of the radical variety, there is no shadow of a doubt in that. As one analyst noted, his twitter handle had a picture of Ayman al-Zawahiri. That started at a young age. The Swedish national from Serbia’s Sanjaki community, the minority Muslim community, became devout following his father’s death in 1994. He moved to Gothenburg, Kungälv where he spent his formative years. During the 80s and 90s Sweden was a popular destination for the Post-Yugoslav nations. A combination of factors, faith, the various Islamic ideological currents at the time, the legacy of conflict in Bosnia, as well as the invasion of Iraq in 2003 made him adopt a radical interpretation of his faith. There are also some allegations that doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, for instance the fact that he met Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, but these allegations have been rubbished by Bectašević, as he told me: “I always made travels with my own passport and they [authorities] know I never was in the Middle East back then.”

Nevertheless, his radical politics resulted in prison. He was convicted for his part in a terrorist plot in Sarajevo on 19th October, 2005 alongside others. In May, 2015 Bectašević told me that he had his Damascus moment whilst being interrogated by an FBI officer. He had told the FBI officer that Democracy was his religion and had been relying on Sh. Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi’s teachings. The officer dismissed the assertion, replying that it was just politics. The response threw him off balance, he had been so reliant on Maqdisi’s authority that he didn’t see the absurdity of the argument. He decided, from then on, to never blindly follow what other people had said and would find out for himself. Damascus moment or not, in January 2007, he received fifteen years for plotting to attack all those nations that were involved in the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. He spent the last period in Sweden in isolation. The sentence was the longest for terrorism in Swedish history. And it was also one of the biggest plots that was foiled in main land Europe especially after the Madrid bombings in 2004.

Perhaps more importantly for us in the age of social media, Bectašević’s online activity heralded in the era of Cyber-Jihad. Using his avatar Maximus he was in contact with Salafi-Jihadis all over the world, more specifically with Jihadi forums such as at-Tibyan, the forum for the dissemination of Jihadi texts in the English speaking world. It was also through this internet forum that he came in contact with Younes Tsouli, a Moroccan man from an elite family, known by his avatar Irhabi 007. According to a source who knew him in prison, Tsouli who arrived in the UK on 9/11, became radicalised after the failure of the anti-war rallies in the UK to stop the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Tsouli’s IT skills had been immensely important in disseminating AQIM propaganda to the wider world. It was through Bectašević’s avatar that was uncovered after his arrest that led to Tsouli and his associates being raided in West London. For the Greek authorities then, it seems tempting to just throw the keys away based on Bectašević’s past. He does fit the profile of an ISIS supporter

Younes Tsouli

Younes Tsouli

Moreover, there are other pieces of evidence. One being Bectašević’s previous connection to Syria. After his release in 2011, Swedish media reported that Bektašević was convicted of firearm’s violations linked to Gothenburg’s criminal underworld and spent a further spell in prison. Swedish media linked him to Muhammed Jouma, considered to be an al-Shabaab middle man. Bectašević though maintains that he met Jouma a few times in the local mosque in Gothenburg and that the former just sits at home idly, the only connection being that he wanted to use Jouma’s address for correspondence. He didn’t like the media intrusion on his mother’s home and so he regularly changed his correspondence address.

Bektašević did get involved with criminality due to a shortage of funds. He kept his prayers up in secret and adopted the name Micke. But the criminal underworld and his rise in it didn’t sit well with his conscience, in the end and after his arrest for arms possession he decided to leave it.

Then, Swedish media reported that he was fighting in Syria. Bektašević has revealed that the Arab Spring and the events in Syria had a profound impact on him. He believes alongside many other Muslims in the Ummah, a pan-Islamic concept of fraternity based on faith. Tyrants were falling left right and centre in the Muslim heartlands and it grabbed the imagination of the world let alone Islamists like him. He felt that he had a duty of care towards Syrians and so he wanted to go to Syria to help in whatever way he could. Syria plays an important role in the end of time narratives in Islamic tradition, no less in the Salafi-Jihadi discourse. Abu Musab al-Suri for instance, mentioned Syria as one of the key territories that would be crucial to the revival of the Muslim Ummah.

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

Mirsad Bectaševič in Syria

In the end it was a dream that pushed him towards Syria. Dreams do play an important role in Islamic eschatology and though Bektašević didn’t give it too much importance the dream came to pass. He got a passport, the Turks let him through and he boarded an eighteen hour bus to Hatay and crossed over to Syria.

Photographs emerged from his Facebook page of him in Taftanaz where he donned military fatigues and carried arms. I posed this question to him recently and his response was the following:

“The picture with hat and came [camouflage] dress is worn was in Atmah [sic]. So no fighting place. The other one with Kalash was from Taftanaz [Idlib] at home of one friend. So not a fighting place. It is not illegal to carry arms. I was there to assist ordinary people from giving food to protecting hospitals. Prior to arriving to Syria, Atmah there was a car bomb placed outside the hospital in Atmah. After that incident they needed some to guard.

It is easy to equate anyone who was in Syria in 2013 to be fighting with ISIS but as any specialist in foreign fighters will tell you this is simply not the case. Amarnath Amarsingam a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism says:

“So, what is clear from my interviews with some fighters is that 2013 was a time of flux. Many fighters at the time switched allegiances from ISIS to Jabhat al-Nusra shortly after Aymenn al-Zawahiri’s letter became public – around June 2013. Many fighters at the time were unclear about whether the Zawahiri letter was real and whether it was to be believed. Zawahiri was talking about, in essence, respecting the border between Iraq and Syria. Many fighters believed that Zawahiri would never say this. It was a time when many fighters moved back and forth, shifted allegiances and so on. So, it’s not accurate to say all muhajireen were with ISIS in 2013. In fact, I spoke with several fighters who switched precisely during this period when they saw ISIS’s excessive takfirism. As one fighter told me, when he saw ISIS members turning against other mujahideen, he took that as God’s guidance – a message from God about which group was on the right path and which group wasn’t.”

What is important to realise in 2013 then, is that the groups and factions had not fully crystallised in the way they have now. There were and still are, small battalions that may subscribe to Islamist ideology but are independent of any proscribed battalions. In fact, Amer al-Deghayes, who insists that he is part of such a battalion, says he met Bectašević in April 2013 in Kassab, Northern Syria, and likened him to a freelancer. He states that Bectašević was in fact against ISIS adding “he disagreed with them ever since I met him in April 2013.”

Moreover, in a statement obtained from Sawarim as-Sham a battalion affiliated to Failāq as-Shām or the Sham Legion, a moderate Islamist front, states that Bectašević entered the freed territories to render humanitarian aid and “was not with any organisation designated as a terrorist”. Abu Ahmed Khaled an official with a charity Jami’ya Nūr al-Insāniya, also told me that he was doing aid work in the border areas and was a “a friend of the Syrian people”.

Letter from Sham Legion

Letter from Sham Legion

In any case whatever Bectašević was up to in Syria which could have been a mixture of aid work and fighting, he returned to Sweden and in May, 2015 we met. He had agreed to meet me because he was aware of my work on Syria. We met in a coffee shop close to T-Centralen, Stockholm. We spent a good couple of hours drinking coffee while he told me off-record his life story. We were in discussions over writing a book and possibly a documentary. This is something that many radicals, jihadists and Islamic pentitos tend to do; writing books is a lucrative venture. I was not allowed to divulge any of the details of the conversation because- that would break one of the principal tenets of journalism- protecting your source and confidentiality. However recently, I do not quite know how, he contacted me from Korydallous High Security prison and gave me permission to divulge the details of this meeting. I informed him that what his allegiances and mindset are presently I do not know, but I could certainly reveal the details of what I saw when I met him. Over the following weeks I managed to contact Amer al-Hasani, family members and friends to verify the story. And I felt that I had an ethical duty to reveal it, not as an advocate for Bectašević or Amer, but rather to expose wrong doing and to highlight the difficult challenges that men such as Bectaševic and his ilk present to the West.

The crucial point that the case rests on is this: does Bectašević belong to ISIS? Bektašević denies this as he told me:

“They accused me of being in this organisation because I have my address in Sweden, with one guy who left the country to Syria to join ISIS. After one month, I rent (sic) myself into this address where he lived in. But he didn’t live there, man. He rent it out. He’s married with three kids, he lived in a totally other place. So they claim I am with this organisation because I have an address with this guy.”

The man he is referring to is Mikael Skråmo, also known as Abu Ibrahim al-Sweidi. Mr. Skråmo converted to Islam in 2005, studied Islam and Arabic. According to Per Godmundson, a blogger for Svenska Dagbladet, Skråmo became a radical preacher and an open supporter of Anwar Awlaki, an al-Qaeda ideologue and US citizen killed by a US drone. That then is the link. Ahmed Abbassi, a childhood friend from Kungälv says that he would regularly list his address in various flats even though he was always living with his mother because he wanted to avoid press intrusion.

Bektašević further told me speaking against Islamic State:

“There are so many reasons why I am against this group. Foremost is religiously. This group is known for blowing up Muslims in mosques. They are fighting other Muslims. They are fighting people they should not fight. They are not protecting borders which they should protect. In fact they are attacking…already freed areas that the Muslims have freed from the Tyrants and still they are continuing this things and this is one of the reasons. Secondly, I am against them attacking other countries Europe or whichever country it can be in Europe. I am against it. This is not what I am for or what I stand for.”

A similar view was held by Amer too. Recently Abbasi says that Bectašević has dissuaded several young girls from joining ISIS and that if he had an opportunity he would fight them harder than he would fight Assad.

Mikael Skråmo

Mikael Skråmo

At the time of my meeting with him in 2015, Bectašević was vehemently against ISIS and was jousting with ISIS fanboys and tweeps on social media. Further, this author can confirm that at the time that we met he held a similar position to what he has told me recently; that is he considered ISIS to be little more than ‘highway men’ or Khawarij, a heretical sect in Islam famous for extremism and banditry.

Of course, there are limitations, Bectašević can be dissimulating. It doesn’t exclude the fact that his thoughts may have evolved into that of an ISIS supporter, neither does it exclude the possibility that the two men were planning to go to Syria. But even if we assume that none of the allegations the men make are true, that he and indeed Amer are ISIS supporters, it should not exclude them from receiving a fair trial and recourse to due legal process which clearly has not occurred in Greece. The Greek authorities have not responded to requests for comment and may quite understandably, go with its natural instinct which is to bury this case, to do a Trump and throw the keys away. After all many Muslim countries such as Egypt lock up men for lesser crimes than that of Bectašević’, but Egypt of course never prided itself on the Rule of Law. In fact, Rule of Law is something most people admire about the West, even hardened Islamists. And it is adherence to this idea that should be the driving force in dealing with foreign fighters, returnees, and terrorists.

The situation you don’t want to be in is the place where Amer’s mother cries every night pleading to God for justice. For that ancient refrain is not what Democracy is meant to provoke. God is not meant to give justice in Democracy. In fact, the whole point of a liberal democracy is that the Rule of Law is meant to be above God and such pleas for God’s justice should be redundant. It is after all, Lady Justice the personification of the Greek deity Lady Themis that stands as the symbol of justice not Jesus, God or any other religious symbol from the West’ rich Christo-Judeaic heritage. The Rule of Law is so basic that Locke, Rawls and Aristides N. Hatzis from the philosophy department at the University of Athens, says:

“In a liberal democracy there is a personal domain protected by negative rights. This domain should be shielded not only from an authoritarian government but also from a democratic majority (Danford, 2000, pp. 159-172). This domain should be under the protection of the rule of law and its most powerful institutional weapon:” The constitution. Let’s call this the liberal principle.”

In some way, many like the al-Hasani family, being political refugees from an illustrious tribe in Southern Yemen, believe in it even more so than Westerners do. An indignant Mohamed al-Hasani mentioned that Greece was a signatory to European Convention of Human Rights. He expected that they would respect Article 3 – the right to be free of inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and of course Article 6, the right to a fair trial. And yet, if the allegations are true, the Greek judicial system has failed in this regard. It is worth noting that it is this that ISIS uses to lambast the West; it does not even uphold its own fundamental values; why else does ISIS dress up its victims in the orange jumpsuits that they wore in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo? And so it proposes that the Rule of Law is hypocritically applied in the West.

Moreover, al-Hasani and especially Bektašević’s treatment does have consequences. The way he is treated will confirm a narrative that there is one rule for Muslims and another rule for the rest. Otherwise those who incline towards this narrative will probably echo Bektašević’s feelings:

“I am in a situation where nobody cares if I’m guilty or not. People who know me and my position against DAESH are quiet and I am here for nothing facing a sentence in a screwed up UFO land…
I have never supported the so called IS, contrary I have been against their actions. I don’t hide that I support the Syrian Jihad but in Syria you have good groups who put themselves under the Shariah not like IS who act like they are above the Shariah. If I would receive a conviction for being part of IS it would not be a conviction based on proofs rather it would be a political one.”

What is clear is that justice and fairness is key. If the Greeks vis-a-vis the West does not want to fuel a grievance narrative that many Muslim demagogues utilise to rail against the West, judicial process is crucial this after all is what Europe is about.

The Greeks and indeed all European countries must not overlook the various factions and groups that exist with in Syria’s rebel milieu and its dynamic in a constantly changing environment. This case will show whether the Greek authorities can manage to be just, fair and respectful of all the values and principles that it subscribes to. If they fail, the level of Bektašević’s celebrity in Jihadi circles will increase and might become a propaganda tool for those who say that the West does not have the ability to be just.

On a final note, the treatment of Amer al-Hasani, whose political ideas are yet unformed and if true, is shocking. It shows us what happens when we throw away the legal rule book, one becomes exactly like those tyrants that Salafi-Jihadis have been speaking against for three decades, one becomes as despotic as Sisi’s Egypt or Assad’s Syria. Perhaps the saddest most surprising thing about the post 9/11 world is the sheer fragility of Western ideals. Perversely in the name of protecting those values it holds so dear it has discarded them so quickly. It poses the question how is it that so few terrorists could shake the faith of so many men so easily?

 

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The ‘Martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (The Ja’afari Force)

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

LiwaSayyidaRuqayyaNewEmblem
Current emblem of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya. Top: “If God supports you, no one can overcome you” [Qur’an 3:160]. Centre: “The Ja’afari Force: Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.” Bottom: “The Islamic Resistance in Syria.”

Readers may be familiar with the previous post on this site about Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya (Sayyida Ruqayya Brigade, named for the Sayyida Ruqayya shrine in Damascus), also known as the Ja’afari Force. A militia recruiting primarily from the Shi’a in Damascus and identifying ideologically with Iran, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s evolution over time can be principally traced through the presentation of its claimed ‘martyrs.’ A large number of cases can notably be traced to the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Damascus. Other labels emerged such as ‘Liwa Ansar al-Hussein’ (Supporters of Hussein Brigade), but over the course of 2014-2015, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya came to present itself as an affiliate of the Iraqi Shi’i militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’, with the latter’s emblem, flag and insignia featured in social media output.

However, Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya now presents itself as an independent group, according to a media representative who corresponded with me. The reason for the shift away from the affiliation with Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ was not given, but one plausible explanation for this development is that Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya may have attached itself to Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ for a temporary time in order to receive weapons and training. In a somewhat similar vein, Liwa al-Baqir of the Local Defence Forces in Aleppo reportedly received weapons and training in the beginning from Harakat al-Nujaba’- another Iraqi Shi’i militia- before separating off from it. It may also be that this process of separating off is intended to give an ever more ‘Syrian’ feel to the building of ‘Islamic Resistance’ formations in Syria. In any case, the break-off from Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ is clear in Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya’s latest social media manifestations, as the Iraqi group’s insignia and logo are absent now, while the Syrian image is reinforced by the inclusion of the Syrian flag in the current emblem.

CakeLiwaSayyidaRuqayya
A cake dedicated to the mothers of the ‘martyrs’ of Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya.

In total, the militia representative put the number of ‘martyrs’ at 25. Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya has recently been providing more detailed profiles of many of its claimed ‘martyrs’, which I have translated and featured below. They provide deeper insight into the engagements and origins of the group’s fighters, corroborating that most of the group’s personnel are Damascene Shi’a. Unsurprisingly, the recurrence of certain names points to much recruitment based around families (cf. multiple people with the family name Khaloof are involved in another Syrian ‘Islamic Resistance’ militia known as al-Ghalibun). I have also provided additional notes on many of these ‘martyrs’ where applicable.

MuhammadSousJaafariForcemartyr
Name: Ismail Muhammad Ali al-Sous (Abu Ali)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1967
Place of death: Harasta al-Qantara, East Ghouta
Date of death: 20 May 2016

Part of the recent regime offensive on East Ghouta taking advantage of the rebel-infighting.

HassanAhmadKenanNibrasJaafariForceMartyr
Name: Hassan Ahmad Ken’an (Nibras)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1992
Place of death: Deraa area
Date: 27 July 2015

The Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ association could be observed at his funeral.

MuhammadAliZaynJaafariForceMartyr
Name: Muhammad Ali al-Zayn Abu Ali (Habib)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1956
Place of death: Deraa area, Sheikh Maskeen
Date of death: 26 November 2014
Body returned: 25 July 2015

This claimed ‘martyr’ is particularly interesting because he was actually also presented as a ‘martyr’ by Hezbollah. In addition, reports from the time of his death show he had an NDF ID card. In terms of broader context, it should be pointed out that Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ was heavily involved in the Deraa front over the course of winter 2014-2015 (e.g. see here).

AdnanHassanMatouq
Name: Adnan Hassan Ma’touq (Zayn)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1988
Place of death: Mleha area [East Ghouta]
Date: 1 July 2014

Originally from Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus, he can be observed here to be wearing Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya insignia. The reference to him as ‘al-mulazim sharf’ may also suggest he was in the Syrian army/NDF. The al-Mleha campaign in 2014 involved a large number of Shi’i militias, including Hezbollah, the Rapid Intervention Regiment (Iraqi), Liwa al-Imam al-Hussein (Iraqi), Liwa Dhu al-Fiqar (Iraqi) and Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib (Iraqi).

AlaMohsenKawayfati
Name: Ala’ Mohsen Kuwayfati (al-Doushka)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1988
Place of death: Mleha area
Date of death: 16 June 2014

Photos exist of this ‘martyr’ wearing Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’ insignia.

HusseinAbdalKarim
Name: Hussein Abd al-Karim Ala’ al-Din (Gharib)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1994
Place of death: al-Otayba area
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Note photos featuring a portrait of him under the title of al-mulazim sharf, which in this case points to NDF affiliation. The bodies of the 10 fighters were brought to Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

AliMahmoudDarwish
Name: Ali Mahmoud Darwish (Karar)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1989
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date  of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

MuhammadDibAbbas
Name: Muhammad Dib Abbas Halawa al-Bani (Muntadhar)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1985
Place of death: al-Otayba area
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

His portrait in a funeral procession is featured in an official NDF video.

HassanHaithanNahas
Name: Hassan Haitham al-Nahas (Muslim)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1995
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

AhmadHassanHalawaalBani
Name: Ahmad Hassan Halawa al-Bani (Jareh)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1994
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

MuhammadJawadAbbasDarwish
Name: Muhammad Jawad Abbas Darwish (Abu Turab)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1997
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport. Described as the youngest of the fighters killed, he was 15 or 16 years old at the time of his death).

Like Ala’ Zahwa, he can be observed with the Liwa Ansar al-Hussein insignia.

TalalHaddad
Name: Talal Haddad
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

MuhammadAliHamti
Name: Muhammad Ali Hamti
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

MohsenAkramalKhayat
Name: Mohsen Akram al-Khayat (Maymum)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1989
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

Featured in an official NDF video.

AlaMuhammadZahwa
Name: Ala’ Muhammad Zahwa (Martyr of Hussein)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1984
Place of death: al-Otayba area
Date of death: 3 December 2013
(One of the 10 fighters killed in repelling an attack on Damascus airport).

EmadIbrahimKanan
Name: Imad Ibrahim Kan’an (Abu al-Abbas)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1995
Place of death: Al-Bweida area (Damascus countryside)
Date of death: 31 November 2013

MuhammadAhmadKhadir
Name: Muhammad Ahmad Khadir (Abu Ruqayya)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1996
Place of death: Al-Bweida area
Date of death: 31 November 2013

Featured in an official NDF video.

RidhaMuhammadZahwa
Name: Ridha Muhammad Zahwa (Sajid)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1986
Place of death: Al-Bweida area
Date of death: 17 October 2013

Specifically from Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

MuhammadAhmadAjuz
Name: Muhammad Ahmad Ajuz
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1991
Place of death: Bab Touma area (Damascus)
Date of death: 11 April 2013

Specifically from the Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus.

RashidShakerDarwish
Name: Rashid Shaker Darwish (the Ja’afari)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1977
Place of death: Jobar area (Damascus)
Date of death: 6 April 2013

A video exists giving a description of his life. He was specifically from the Imam Ja’afar al-Sadiq neighbourhood in Damascus and had visited a number of Shi’i holy sites. In his death, he left behind a six-year old son called Ja’afar al-Sadiq Darwish. An account from the time of his death mentions he was in the NDF.

RadwanFawziMarey
Name: Radwan Fawzi Mara’i (Abu Ali)
Born in: Machgara, Lebanon (located in the Beqaa Valley)
Year of birth: 1960
Place of death: Jobar area
Date of death: 14 March 2013

According to an account at the time of his death, he was “one of the members of the popular committees defending the holy shrines in Syria.” His will stipulated that he was to be buried in Sayyida Zainab.

SaadAliZamam
Name: Sa’ad Ali Zamam (Abu al-Zayn)
Born in: Safita (Tartous province)
Year of birth: 1970
Place of death: Douma area (Damascus)
Date of death: 2 December 2012

According to Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, he was “the first of the founders of the Islamic Resistance in Syria.” He is actually quite a famous ‘martyr’ in the pro-Assad world. For example, one article notes that he was originally a sculptor, but says that he was born in 1964. The article credits him as a founder of the concept of setting up popular committees as auxiliary forces for the Syrian army. He eventually became involved on Damascus area fronts in Douma, al-Qabun, west Harasta and Sayyida Zainab. He was reportedly killed by an IED, which he came across in one of the gardens in the Douma area and tried to dismantle. It should also be noted that there is a branch of the NDF named after him.

AhmadHassanNahas
Name: Ahmad Hussein al-Nahas (Muslim)
Born in: Damascus
Year of birth: 1987
Place of death: Sayyida Zainab area (Damascus)
Date of death: 14 August 2012

Described by Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya as “the first guardian of Zainab.”

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.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 7.54.19 AM

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.

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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.

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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).

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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).