Syrian Rebels Capture Idlib, by Aron Lund

– Guest post for Syria Comment by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

On March 28, Syrian rebels and jihadi fighters announced that they had captured the city of Idlib, posting pictures and videos online that showed them in control of government buildings and other landmarks. This followed a lightning offensive of several days, by a coalition of Sunni Islamist militias that assaulted the city from several directions.

After the security forces of President Bashar al-Assad violently put down protests inside the city in 2011 and 2012, resistance had been relegated to the countryside. With most of the surrounding Idlib Province captured, rebels had in the past year slowly but surely increased pressure on the city itself. They repeatedly demonstrated their capacity to block access roads as a way to force concessions and prisoner exchanges, which must have been a demoralizing experience for pro-Assad forces inside the city. In December 2014, the bell tolled for Idlib City, when the opposition overran the long-besieged Wadi Deif base, freeing up hundreds of crack rebel fighters for new campaigns.

At the time of writing, the situation remains unstable and it cannot be ruled out that Assad’s forces will launch a counterattack from areas still under their control. The government-run SANA news agency only speaks of “repositioning forces” in the southern neighborhoods of the city. Still, the apparent collapse of government defenses in Idlib has punched a gaping hole in the government’s narrative of approaching victory and boosted the opposition politically as well as militarily, spelling trouble for Bashar al-Assad.

A Sign of Government Overstretch

Out of thirteen provincial capitals, Idlib is only the second to be lost to the government, after the northeastern town of Raqqa was captured in early 2013. And like Raqqa, Idlib is a regional center rather than a major city – it would not fit on a top-five list over Syria’s most important cities. But the blow is heavy nonetheless.

The government remains much stronger than any rebel group on the national level, controlling perhaps two thirds of the population. Assad’s semi-cohesive central leadership and his control of a fully functional air force makes him Syria’s by far most powerful political actor, but his regime suffers from serious shortcomings nonetheless. It lacks enough reliable troops to conduct multiple offensives while also controlling its current territory and has been forced to farm out sensitive security tasks to local militias and Iranian-backed Shia Islamist foreign fighters.

Meanwhile, the state-run economy is withering, with a currency crisis and increasingly debilitating lapses in the fuel supply system and electricity production. The falling oil price is likely to cap Russian and Iranian support at levels too low to sustain the current ambitions of their Syrian ally. In short, it seems that Assad is still trying to bite off more of Syria than he can swallow, and the recent defeat in Idlib underlines how dangerously overstretched his regime has become.

The Islamic Emirate of Idlib?

The fall of Idlib is not without its risks for the rebels. Previous attempts by opposition groups to govern urban areas in Syria have been disastrous failures. Of course, a major reason has been Assad’s systematic bombings of civilian areas and infrastructure, which have killed and maimed tens of thousands of Syrians and forced millions out of their homes – a treatment now likely to be extended to Idlib. Even so, the rebels themselves are far from blameless. They have by and large failed to produce anything other than chaos and economic collapse, with what they refer to as liberated territory now suffering from chronic infighting, predatory criminal bands, and the brutal imposition of ultra-conservative Islamist norms. Most infamously, Raqqa has since its capture in 2013 transformed into a local capital of sorts for the self-declared Islamic State.

In the case of Idlib, many different groups were involved and all of them are hostile to the Islamic State, but the offensive appears to have been spearheaded by jihadis from the al-Qaeda-aligned Nusra Front and the large Islamist faction known as Ahrar al-Sham. While there are important sources of friction between these two groups – Ahrar al-Sham refuses to endorse al-Qaeda’s anti-Western attacks and is seeking local allies to avoid being swallowed up by the Nusra Front’s increasingly bold bid for hegemony in Idlib – they are both overtly anti-democratic, hostile to religious minorities, and committed to establishing a Sunni Islamist theocracy in Syria.

There is already great concern in the United States and Europe over the riseof jihadi groups in Syria. Now, early headlines in the Western press speak of a city that has “fallen into the hands of al-Qaeda,” which is hardly the kind of coverage that Syrian rebels were looking for.

This will be a serious problem for the rebels in the coming weeks and months. If Idlib becomes the scene of public floggings and streetside executions of “immoral” women, such as the Nusra Front has committed elsewhere in Idlib Province, or if it collapses into a turf war between rival groups, it would not only weaken more moderate rebel factions – it would also provide Bashar al-Assad with an opportunity to turn military defeat into political gain.

Where Next?

Militarily, however, the Idlib defeat puts Assad in a difficult spot as he needs to foresee the next rebel assault and deploy accordingly. Rebels already controlled most of the Idlib Province, but some pro-regime pockets remained apart from the provincial capital – notably the twin Shia towns of Fouaa and Kefraya, near the Sunni Islamist-controlled town of Binnish to the northeast of Idlib City. On March 27, Ahrar al-Sham announced that it had cut the last remaining supply route via Idlib City to Fouaa and Kefraya, meaning that these towns will now have to sue for peace with the rebels or risk destruction and perhaps a sectarian massacre.

To the south of Idlib City, the government controls a string of towns in the northern Jabal al-Zawiya region, the largest being Ariha, that served to supply forces inside Idlib. If that is no longer an objective, the regime may decide to abandon some of them to focus on defending territory of larger strategic value. However, at the other end of the road controlled by Ariha, we find the city of Jisr al-Shughour which connects the Idlib province to the Sunni-populated and rebel-friendly northern areas of Latakia Province. While Jisr al-Shughour is of little value in itself, Assad will presumably be reluctant to allow for increased pressure on his strongholds on the Alawite-majority coast. According to some sources, the government transferred its provincial government offices from Idlib to Jisr al-Shughour already two weeks ago.

South of Jisr al-Shughour lies the Ghab area of Hama, a heavily irrigated agricultural plain that butts into the Idlib Province alongside the Alawite Mountains. This religiously mixed powder keg has seen fierce fighting and may be of particular value to some rebel groups – for example, many of the founding fathers of Ahrar al-Sham hailed from villages in the Ghab. It is also possible that rebels from Idlib could move further south past Khan Sheikhoun and the battleground town of Morek, thereby attempting to put pressure on Hama, Syria’s fourth-largest city. It is a Sunni stronghold that has remained under Assad’s rule but could prove difficult to control once rebels gather critical mass on its outskirts. A rebel advance on Hama would certainly force the army to concentrate forces there, even at the expense of other fronts.

To the east, there is another very attractive target: the Abu Duhour air base. Capturing it would not only hobble Assad’s air campaign, it would also open up an area of coherent rebel control from the Turkish border to the desert south of Aleppo. In so doing, the rebels would also expose Assad’s only remaining supply line into Aleppo, a desperately improvised logistics trail through the rural towns of Khanaser and Sfeira that would be tremendously difficult to defend against multi-pronged attacks, especially if air cover falters. Under that scenario, the rebels could turn the tables on Assad in Aleppo, threatening his control over the city by cutting it off entirely from the rest of Syria.

At the end of the day, however, Idlib City is of limited value in itself. It is possible that the regime will counterattack or that none of the scenarios sketched out above will materialize. But considering the military and economic resources invested by Bashar al-Assad in its defense over the past four years, the loss of Idlib would undoubtedly signal to many of his supporters that the government’s current strategy is untenable in the long term.

– Aron Lund is a freelance writer on Middle Eastern affairs and the editor of Syria in Crisis, a website published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Affairs.

Review of “ISIS: The State of Terror”

ISIS the State of Terror by Jessica Stern and JM BergerISIS: The State of Terror
(available here
By JM Berger & Jessica Stern
385 pp. (hardcover), HarperCollins
$27.99

Reviewed by Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

The ISIS phenomenon that has swept Iraq and Syria with global repercussions has produced a demand for information on the origins, rise, operations and future of arguably the most brutal jihadist movement yet. Following on from “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” Berger and Stern’s book is the second major title to come out on the subject. In 11 chapters, the authors begin with the origins of ISIS through Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi and his predecessor groups in the days of the Iraq War, with the apparent fall of what then became the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in the aftermath of his death on account of the surge and Sunni Awakening movement in Iraq, to the rebirth of ISI under new leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi since 2010. This rebirth culminated in the renaming to the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), expansion through Syria, and the eventual lightning surge through northern and western Iraq that led to the further rebranding as just the “Islamic State” or the Caliphate, currently controlling a vast swathe of contiguous territory from Mosul in Iraq to northeast Aleppo countryside.

What follows- and this constitutes the main bulk of the book- is an in-depth analysis of ISIS’ use of media techniques to advertise itself, including focus on video releases of military operations, recruitment of foreign fighters, manipulation of Twitter to inflate ISIS’ presence and the pushback against the ISIS presence on social media. The authors then analyze the ongoing international competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida for support, while also exploring the psychological impacts of ISIS’ actions (e.g. child recruitment) and the apocalyptic nature of its ideology. The book concludes with a survey of Western policy responses, real and potential, to the ISIS phenomenon. There is also an appendix written by a doctoral student with a primer on Islam and notions of the Caliphate, jihad and takfir (the practice of declaring others who say they are Muslim to be non-Muslims).

The main strength of the book and its most original contributions come in the sections on ISIS’ exploitation of social media. Rather than simply stating the obvious that ‘ISIS is on social media and is good at it’ (a non-story), the authors explore in detail the manipulation techniques used, with a noteworthy account on the development of the “Dawn of Glad Tidings” application (p. 148f.), created by a Palestinian and designed to tweet out links to official ISIS media releases and promote hashtags ISIS wanted to use. The most notable result of this phenomenon- from April till June 2014- was to scare Iraqis in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Mosul with threats of an ISIS march on Baghdad to conquer the capital: qadimun ya Baghdad, as one of the Arabic slogans went.

Incidentally, there are two things about this instance of inflation on social media not noted by the authors. The first is that this scare tactic has contributed in no small part to the mythology that endures to this day among Iraq’s Shi’a (and also among many analysts) that had there been no mass Shi’a militia mobilization, Baghdad would have fallen. This mythology has helped to consolidate the sectarian paramilitary response ISIS wanted. Second, the particular slogan ISIS exploited is one widely known and used among Iraq Sunni insurgent circles in the belief that Baghdad should be under Sunni control. Indeed, it is most popular with ISIS’ main insurgent rival in Iraq- the Ba’athist-Sufi Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqa al-Naqshbandia (JRTN). Arguably, this ISIS hijacking of a popular Sunni insurgent slogan helped it to gain the upper hand very rapidly over other factions in places like Mosul and Tikrit (where one thought JRTN might have been able to wield more influence), as locals and insurgents saw ISIS as the winning horse that would retake Baghdad, prompting defections to ISIS.

Besides the Dawn application, another notable strategy of online ISIS inflation highlighted by Berger and Stern is the use of so-called mujtahidun- supporters who would begin a process of obsessive retweeting with hashtags to further ISIS’ reach on social media (p. 155). The authors further make a sound argument on the net benefit of terminating ISIS/pro-ISIS accounts to reduce online appeal: though they note it is not full-proof to stamp out ISIS completely from the world of the Internet, suspensions seem to reduce the overall reach of replacement accounts, and trump the argument of allowing complete free space to collect intel. Indeed, as Berger and Stern point out, no one ever makes a similar argument to allow child pornographers to operate online- let alone open access social media- without impediment, even as doing so would allow much intel to be gathered on their activities (p. 141).

The concluding section on policy recommendations deserves credit for some insightful thoughts. Rather than proposing a grand master plan to ‘defeat/destroy ISIS’ as has become so common in think-tank circles, the authors broadly suggest a policy of containment and online messaging disruption, noting that the present approach of trying to defeat/destroy ISIS via airstrikes and some training of native ground troops in Iraq and Syria likely cannot realize such an ambitious goal. Critics of the terrorism analysis field often accuse those who work within it of overhyping the threat for personal gain. This charge certainly cannot be applied to Berger and Stern, who affirm that “ISIS does not represent an existential threat to any Western country” (p. 236).

Indeed, they rightly note media overstatement of the threat of ISIS helps to reinforce the group’s narrative of a cosmic clash between good and evil. The authors also wisely caution against simplistic policy solutions: for instance, an intervention in Syria that “simply removes Assad, as the Libyans removed Gadhafi, creates new and different problems for the Syrian people, and these new problems may be even more intractable” (p. 254). This does not mean the authors advocate the folly of forming an alliance with Assad (and/or Iran, for that matter), but rather there is sober warning here against monochromatic analysis and policy proposals, as Libya finds itself amid chaos post-Gadhafi engulfed with a significant jihadist phenomenon of varying stripes, including ISIS.

However, for all these merits, there are many substantial shortcomings to this book. When it comes to any book or extended dissertation on ISIS, one inevitably faces a problem of how much attention should be devoted to certain parts of the chronology tracing the group’s origin and rise. This is a common issue for a range of historical and contemporary subjects: compare Tacitus’ affirmed approach in the Annals of dealing with the lengthy reign of Augustus in brief and general terms (with focus on succession and the last days) with the year by year documentation of events in Tiberius’ reign. Since the bulk of Berger and Stern’s book deals with ISIS and its use of media, the group’s history is only covered in summary form and the account presented is little more than a readable rehash of what is already common knowledge.

Worse still, some serious errors have creeped into the chronology and historical narrative as a result of insufficient research. In the summary timeline, the authors put Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s release from the U.S.-run Camp Bucca prison in Iraq in “Fall 2009″ [Timeline: XVII], and affirm that many of Baghdadi’s allies “had spent several years with Baghdadi in Camp Bucca” (p. 37). This chronology is wholly erroneous: Baghdadi was captured in early 2004 and released in December of that same year. Not only do detainee file records demonstrate this, but Jaysh al-Mujahideen, a Salafi nationalist Iraqi insurgent group, affirms that Baghdadi was among its ranks in 2005 following his release from Camp Bucca, rather than immediately joining al-Qa’ida in Iraq or its subsequent manifestations as the authors claim. Further, for “August 14, 2013,” the authors write: “ISIS pushes Syrian rebels out of Raqqa” [Timeline: XIX]. Actually, ISIS in that month expelled the rebel group Ahfad al-Rasul from Raqqa city, but Ahrar al-Sham remained in the city, undoubtedly content to stand by and allow ISIS to expel what it saw as a greater non-Islamist threat. The next month Jabhat al-Nusra marked its official return to Raqqa city.

For the date “September 25, 2013,” Berger and Stern write: “Rebel groups form the Islamic Front from eleven Western-backed opposition groups” [Timeline: XX]. In fact, the Islamic Front was not formed till November 2013, was initially composed of seven groups, and none of those constituents was ever Western-backed: on the contrary its constituents have been distrusted by the West because they are seen as too Islamist. The authors appear to have confused the Islamic Front with the al-Tahaluf al-Islami (“Islamic Alliance/Coalition”) formed in September 2013 that was primarily an Aleppo-based phenomenon, formed in opposition to the Western-backed opposition-in-exile and including a number of groups opposed to the West, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham. The Sykes-Picot agreement was in 1916, not 1906 [ibid.].

Nor did ISIS ever name Raqqa city the “capital of the ISIS emirate” [ibid.]. It is true there was talk of this notion on pro-ISIS social media following the seizure by ISIS of all major Raqqa province localities by the end of January 2014 and Raqqa city could be seen as the de facto capital where new aspects of ISIS governance were tested, but there was never any official declaration: had it been the case, it would surely have been referenced in the imposition of the dhimmi pact on the Christians of Raqqa by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in February 2014. Moreover, the term “emirate” was not applied to the totality of ISIS’ territory at this stage (or from mid-2013 onwards, when ISIS began to acquire strongholds in Syria where it could advertise governance) but rather for individual towns they controlled/intending to seize by force (e.g. JarabulusAzaz and al-Bab). It was this declaration of ‘mini-emirates’, together with the emergence of slogans like “The Promised Project of the Caliphate” in the fall of 2013 that really marked the beginning of ISIS’ testing of messaging of the coming establishment of the Caliphate, rather than the Twitter campaign in March 2014 demanding that Baghdadi declare the Caliphate (p. 157).

Interestingly, mid-2013 onwards presents an interesting discord in ISIS messaging by location. Though media output in Syria, given ISIS’ control of meaningful territory and urban areas, meant emphasis on the state-building project and the coming of the Caliphate, Iraq operations statements still tended to present attacks as revenge/in defence of Sunnis, emphasizing perceived ‘Safavid’ government crimes against them such as ethnic cleansing in the Baghdad Belt area. This is not touched on by the authors.

Some other errors: the authors claim that ISIS “captured Fallujah in January [2014]” (p. 44). In fact, Fallujah fell to a number of insurgent factions including ISIS, which only came to dominate the city over its rivals (including the Islamic Army in Iraq, Jaysh al-Mujahideen and JRTN) after 5-6 months or so. At times, excess repetition leads to some more minor mistakes: “in early 2013, al-Qaeda in Iraq announced…” (p. 66) when the Islamic State of Iraq is meant; “in the spring of 2014, Zawahiri disavowed ISIS, which was at the time considered an al Qaeda affiliate” (p. 180) when February 2014 is meant.

The last of those aforementioned errors comes in the overview section of the competition between ISIS and al-Qa’ida. This section is generally adequate- and slightly outdated on Boko Haram out of no fault of the authors- but could have made for a more insightful discussion by e.g. delving more into cases of pledges of allegiance to ISIS that have not been officially acknowledged to lead to the creation of new ‘provinces’ (e.g. Ansar al-Tawheed in India and elements of Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines; for the latter, the scanty evidence does not suggest the whole group has pledged allegiance pace the authors’ assertion in the glossary [Glossary IX], which may be one reason why ISIS has not created a ‘Philippines province’). Though touched on briefly by the authors, more could have been said on the question of ISIS social media manipulation and allegiance pledges from (components of) other jihadist groups, such as Jamaat Ansar al-Islam in Iraq and Syria- a group whose predecessor Ansar al-Islam is only referenced twice in the entire book, once in the glossary and once in the main content (p. 17).

In sum, parts of this book can serve as a useful primer for the general reader or university courses on ISIS regarding the relationship between ISIS and media, particularly open access platforms such as Twitter- a welcome relief from repetitive and sensationalist conventional media coverage. The book can also be a tab on some of the more infamous ISIS videos (such as the Saleel al-Sawarim/’Clanging of the Swords’ series) for those who may have missed them when they were released, with worthwhile background for those unfamiliar with how jihadis before ISIS have tried to exploit the online world.

Yet the opening historical narrative on the rise of ISIS is too terse, too unoriginal and has too many mistakes. We are also given very little insight into how exactly ISIS is managing territories it controls. More generally, there is over-reliance on secondary sources in the sections that are clearly outside the authors’ specialties, and the book is marred by lack of fieldwork and local contacts in Iraq and Syria. Hopefully the errors highlighted here will be corrected in a subsequent edition, but this work is by no means the definitive text on ISIS, which is still years, if not decades away from fruition- as the authors themselves implicitly acknowledge (p. 7).

 

 

The Administration of the Local Council in Azaz

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Readers of my report on my visit to the north Aleppo town of Azaz near the border with Turkey will recall that authority in Azaz is divided between two bodies: the local council and the Shari’a committee. Broadly speaking, the local council covers the realm of public services, while the Shari’a committee, working with the Northern Storm Brigade as the police force, is responsible for criminal law and order, family and public morality. Both bodies are officially ‘civil’ (madani) and ‘independent’ (mustaqill), but in particular, the Shari’a committee’s own links with what was then the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front) were clear during my visit with the presence of the rebel coalition’s flags at the entrance to the building.

This post explores in greater detail the activities of the local council in Azaz, which is located in what used to be the regime’s local security centre that also held detained opposition activists. The local council’s funds primarily come from its own members and charging of locals for some services it provides (e.g. street cleaning).

As the Syrian civil war enters into its fifth year, with so much attention on the Islamic State (IS) phenomenon and its system of administration of territories it controls (for an ongoing extensive archive of IS administrative documents, see this post on my site), one should not forget that life and governance in Syria exist beyond IS, jihadi groups and the regime. Though there is a Jabhat al-Nusra presence in the town that has a base and controls one of the mosques, it still does not exercise governing authority and thus has no presence in Azaz’s local council or Shari’a committee. An interesting notable Jabhat al-Nusra figure in Azaz who was reportedly assassinated in January this year was Shari’a cleric/judge Abu Shu’aib al-Masri, a defector from the Islamic State.

The Azaz local council describes its activities thus in a statement it released earlier this year (beginning of February 2015):

Local Council in the town of Azaz

Clarification statement on the activities and specialties of the local council in Azaz.

The local council undertakes to guide civil affairs through self efforts and very sparse financial support. Through this statement we clarify the specialties that the local council bears on its shoulder as far as possible:

1. Cleaning/Sanitation: With all its burdens and requirements including securing fuel for the municipality’s vehicles, regular maintenance for them, and securing ‘nature of the work’ for the cleaning/sanitation workers- whose number is at 40- at a sum of 250000 Syrian pounds a month.

2. Electricity: That also through fuel for the electricity network’s mechanisms and regular maintenance for them in addition to supporting the electricity network with maintenance necessities for the town’s network as far as possible, it should be noted that we have received from the Energy Ministry real materials and necessities for the electricity network in the town of Azaz but they are insufficient on account of the accumulation of malfunctions in the network for 4 years and we have undertaken to restore the functioning of the al-Asyana network whose malfunctioning has continued for more than 3 years.

3. Education: We have begun our project on the education situation in a self-effort with the help of some of the generous families and guarantee of male and female teachers recruited from all specialties and the number of schools’ students in all study stages has reached 6500. Let it be known that the schools in the town of Azaz have been interrupted in functioning since the beginning of the revolution but Chemonics and the Syrian Promise movement have moved forward in supporting us in restoring suitable furniture for eight schools including doors, windows, fibres, heaters, and fuel to heat the schools over the course of the winter season and work is now proceeding excellently in the town.

4. Health expenditure: The local council has begun its work in maintaining some of the drainage points with very simple capabilities and we are continuing this project.

5. Water: The local council has undertaken to prepare uncovered wells and the water main in complete form and to draw water from the Midanki Dam so we are continuing to work and by all available means to prepare this project and complete it in the nearest time possible to provide water for all the town of Azaz.

6. Aid: We are now working to restructure the aid staff with areas directors and organizing the distribution operation. As for the operation to distribute milk and diapers, the local council is undertaking to verify children’s vaccination cards on account of the widespread existence of fake vaccination cards and we have undertaken to publish the names of all the beneficiaries for the distribution of milk and diapers on our page and we have asked families to help us identify the names of those not entitled.

7. As for the issue of restoring roads, the engineering office is responsible for this matter in the town in cooperation with the local council and the military office and we will undertake this project at the beginning of the spring because of the lack of possibility at the current time with the rain.

8. As for the bakery (reserve/relief), we undertake to secure aid-provided flour for the bakery through aid of some of the organizations for us and as for its functional management we have nothing to do with that at all.

The local council is ready to be held accountable and open up all to its financial reports and our door is open to any citizen who wants to hold us accountable and hold us to an inquiry by legal means and principles.”

To give some context to the various points statement, sanitation operations for Azaz are reportedly being implemented in cooperation with the World Vision humanitarian organization. ‘Nature of the work’ (tabi’atu l-‘amal) refers to compensation for unusual work undertaken to complete one’s job. In another post, expenses are given as follows for various aspects of sanitation in January 2015:

Municipality vehicles’ fuel: 356275 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ maintenance: 141600 Syrian pounds.
Vehicles’ frames: 60200 Syrian pounds.
Oils for the vehicles’ engines: 17590 Syrian pounds.
‘Nature of the work’ for workers: 220000 Syrian pounds.
Sanitation workers’ salaries: 78000 Syrian pounds.

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Rubbish collection in Azaz by the local council. Accumulation of piles of rubbish in the open in the town is a notable problem.

Besides World Vision, the local council has also received assistance from GIZ, a German international development organization, claiming to receive 350 garbage containers.

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As regards electricity, al-Asyana area mentioned here is a part of Azaz that has suffered from a lack of electricity over long periods. In December 2014, the local council claimed to fix technical problems with the network for the area, including by extension of new cables, but the February statement suggests malfunctioning is still an issue. More generally, problems with electricity will have begun since the outbreak of unrest in Azaz in 2011 and become more acute since July 2012 when the town fell out of regime control. Electricity has since that time come almost wholly from private generators. The “Energy Ministry” that has provided the local council with some aid is that of the opposition-in-exile’s declared Syrian “interim government,” which has been hoping to supply electricity as a public service to rebel-held areas via connection with Turkey’s electricity grid using the town of Azaz as the main link. That said, there has been no sign of real progress on these plans thus far.

The education system is one of the areas in which the Assad regime maintains leverage in Azaz as public school teachers still receive salaries from the regime, which they must collect from regime-held areas of Aleppo province. The system is also disliked by the Jabhat al-Nusra presence in Azaz, which set up its alternative in the Mus’ab ibn Umair mosque it controls in the town. The local council has mostly advertised maintenance and repair of school furniture and equipment as well as provision of appropriate materials for heating in the winter. For example, this statement from mid-February 2015:

Local Council in Azaz
Intended recipient: Syrian Promise Movement

Thanks to the Syrian Promise Movement

The Syrian Promise Movement has provided a financial sum of $500 as simple aid (for month of February) from the movement to meet the guarantee of fuel for three primary schools in the town- the well-being of the primary schools have precedence since they have a large number of children whose bodies cannot bear the cold of winter.

Head of the Local Council in Azaz
Education Office

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Initiative by Local Council in Azaz working with the Islamic Relief to provide winter clothing for children.

On the plans to secure water, it is of interest to note the local council’s mention of the Midanki Dam, which is located in the Kurdish PYD autonomous canton of Afrin. Northern Storm and the PYD were once enemies, and tensions between the two sides meant that water, which before the civil war would come from the Midanki pumping station two days a week, was subsequently cut off.

However, there was some limited cooperation of convenience in the fight to drive ISIS out of ISIS’ declared ‘Emirate of Azaz’ once wider infighting broke out between the rebels and ISIS in January 2014. Since Northern Storm returned to Azaz officially under the authority of Liwa al-Tawhid and the Islamic Front in Aleppo (now the Levant Front), there has been official neutrality despite suspicion that reinforcements come from Afrin to the regime-held Shi’a villages of Nubl and Zahara.

Securing water from Afrin would therefore require greater outreach to the PYD, which may be one of the underlying reasons behind the agreement publicly announced in February between the PYD’s military wing the YPG and the Levant Front, stipulating a united judicial system, establishing joint Shari’a and da’wah offices in Aleppo and Afrin, and working together to crack down on crime. Of course, Jabhat al-Nusra is opposed to any such arrangements with the PYD/YPG, which it considers to be apostate entities.

Provision of aid and vaccinations has also been advertised by the local council in Azaz. For example, in January, the local council’s aid office claimed to distribute 3500 packs of milk to locals, while also noting the problem of those not needing the milk but receiving distributions to sell for profit.  On 24 February, a notification was put up for a polio vaccine campaign for children in Azaz running from 28 February to 5 March. This vaccine campaign was also advertised by the Azaz Media Centre that exists in a single room on the second floor of what was once a café, now otherwise abandoned.

photo (16)
Outside the Azaz Media Centre: in solidarity with the people of Raqqa living under Islamic State rule. The image alludes to ‘Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently.’ 

Perhaps more notable is the omission by the local council of mention of hospital services in Azaz, likely because the local council has no influence over such services that are private in nature. This similarly applies to the mention of only one bakery for which the local council provides flour, for it is public in nature whereas the other three bakeries in Azaz are privately run.

In sum, it can be seen how the council wishes to present itself as an accountable body caring for local needs. Some sense of order has also been brought to the town particularly as Northern Storm is no longer an independent group but must answer to a higher rebel coalition authority (the Levant Front) if trouble arises. The opposition-in-exile, despite its unpopularity with locals on the ground in Azaz and more widely in Syria, maintains limited indirect influence in Azaz through its “interim government” provision of some aid.

Yet by the local council’s own admission, resources are still highly strained, undoubtedly further pressured by the internal refugee influx into Azaz and the wider district. In comparison with direct Islamic State administration that spans significant contiguous territory and has greater financial revenues, the Azaz local council’s administrative system is much less complex and also suffers from the inherent problem of localization of rebel administration.

The Kobani Model: Strengthening Kurdish-Arab Relations in Syria

by Nicholas A. Heras and Wladimir van Wilgenburg

Wladimir van Wilgenburg KurdistanNick HerasThe Islamic State (IS) suffered a setback at the northern Syrian-Turkish border city of Kobani. This much-heralded event was important for a reason that has potential future ramifications for the civil war and the future stability of Syria: Arab-majority armed, moderate opposition groups and Kurdish militias under the People’s Protection Units (YPG) willingly entered into a joint operations room to coordinate the city’s defense. By standing and fighting against IS, the joint Kurdish-Arab effort in Kobani demonstrated that a multi-ethnic armed opposition coalition could function and succeed in the test of battle.

Euphrates Volcano Kurds Arabs Syria

Example of Euphrates Volcano press material

Building pan-ethnic cooperation as part of a pluralistic political program should be a core element of the U.S.-led Syrian rebel train-and-equip program. But so far, the most effective anti-IS force, the YPG, has not been included and its forces are euphemistically referred to as “anti-ISIL forces” by the Coalition. There is a reason for this: the YPG are linked to the most powerful Syrian Kurdish political faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is closely associated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

Encouragingly, several Arab brigades associated with the mainstream moderate armed opposition coalition under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) participated in this joint operation with their Kurdish peers. Working together, their “Euphrates Volcano” campaign against the IS-held cities of Tal Abyad and Jarabulus is threatening IS’ grip on vital Syrian-Turkish border areas in its capital province of Raqqa. Until the Coalition has established actionable lines of influence into IS-held territory, it is likely that the most immediate and effective method of limiting the spread of IS and confronting it head-on is by operating on the margins of its territory in eastern and northern Syria, which is exactly what the Euphrates Volcano campaign is doing.

Speaking to this development, the PYD’s leader Salih Muslim stated to one of the authors in a March 11 interview at the Sulaimani Forum conference in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq that:

“If they [the U.S.] accept it, we will do it. Our people have more experience than those they will train [FSA forces]. But there should be coordination even for the training. If the U.S. supports this, it could be a model for a future Syria.”

Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the anti-IS campaign, will also be critical to any expansion of a joint Kurdish-Arab armed opposition campaign against IS. The brutal history of conflict between the Turkish government and the PKK, and the United States’ designation of the group as a terrorist organization, might seem to place a severe limit on the extent of future cooperation between U.S. trained-and-equipped Syrian Arab rebels and the YPG. Turkey’s early and sustained influence over the Syrian armed opposition movement, including hosting some of the Arab rebel leaders who are cooperating with the Kurdish militias, could also potentially limit the further development of a Kurdish-Arab joint operations room against IS.

There are signs, however, that a pragmatic Turkish approach to Syria’s Kurds may be emerging. There has been continuous, although at times contentious, engagement between Turkish officials and the PYD, including with Salih Muslim. The ongoing PKK-Turkish peace negotiations and political pressure from Turkey’s Kurdish-majority political parties also adds impetus for the Turkish government to tolerate the existence of the YPG and incorporate it in the anti-IS campaign. Turkey’s ability to work with the YPG was shown in the recent auxiliary role that the Kurdish militias played in assisting Turkish troops to secure the body of Suleiman Shah and relocate it to Kurdish-held areas of Syria.

Further, in October 2014, the Turks proposed a no fly zone and safe-haven in northern Syria, but so far this plan has not been implemented. Building on the cooperation between the YPG and the FSA, Turkey could use this to create a safe buffer zone between Turkey and Syria. Turkey initially strongly opposed Iraqi Kurdistan’s autonomy, but now the Iraqi Kurds are treated as potential allies by Ankara. Repairing relations between Sunni Arabs and Kurds in Syria will require a Turkish role.

Inside Syria, there is still a great deal of animosity between Arab and Kurdish communities, particularly in the strategic Syrian-Iraqi border province of al-Hasakah, where the YPG and its auxiliaries are waging a campaign against IS’ lines of supply and communication between Iraq and Syria. Arab tribes from Raqqa were settled in this predominantly Kurdish region the 1970s by the Syrian government as part of its “Arab belt” policy to weaken the demographic weight of the Kurds.

The YPG, under the influence of the PKK, is accused of trying to ethnically cleanse Arabs and rip the oil-rich areas that it dominates out of Syria, heightening ethnic tensions between it and the Arab-majority opposition movement. IS has preyed on the suspicion of local Arab communities toward the Kurds to recruit Arab rank-and-file fighters in al-Hasakah. However, members of local Arab tribes, such as from the powerful, trans-national Shammar confederation, actively cooperate with the YPG and have participated in the Syrian Kurds’ attempt to build a nascent government. Ethnic relations between Kurds and Arabs, complex and fraught as they may sometimes be, are not irreparable.

Still, a potential post-Assad/post-IS Syria will need to recognize and honor the desire of Syrian Kurds to have their ethno-linguistic cultural rights protected, promoted, and enshrined in law, or risk endemic ethnic conflict. It will also need to manage the process of incorporating Syrian Kurdish communities, many of them already practicing a de facto form of autonomy from the rest of the country, back into the national political fold.

To that end, developing Kurdish-Arab joint military campaigns against IS in Syria can have far-reaching impact. Continued Kurdish-Arab joint operations could end IS control over large areas of the Syrian-Turkish border and would cut the flow of IS fighters into Syria, denying IS strategic depth as the U.S.-led Coalition works to defeat IS in Iraq. Active encouragement and support from the Coalition for this organic process can contribute to the process of rebuilding trust between the communities. Improving Kurdish-Arab relations will be a core component of establishing an effective and stable security environment in Syria.

 

Nicholas A. Heras is the Research Associate in the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security

Wladimir van Wilgenburg is a Middle East Analyst at the Jamestown Foundation and a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan. Follow at @vvanwilgenburg

The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal”

MuhammadAssad2015_1The Killing of Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a. “Shaykh al-Jabal”
By: Mohammad D.
For Syria Comment, March 14, 2015

Muhammad Tawfiq al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, a well known second cousin of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, was killed two days ago. He was the son of Tawfic al-Assad. His grandfather, Ismail al-Assad, was a half-brother of the late president Hafez al-Assad. Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was the best known and most feared member of the second generation of shabiha that emerged from the al-Assad family in rural Latakia in the early 1980s. In his death announcement (Na’wa نعوة), he is listed as both a Doctor and Mujahid. He was 48 years old.

His being given the honorific title “Mujahid” made people ask where and when Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a Shaykh al-Jabal, was fighting. His supporters claimed that he was killed in the vicious battle underway in Doreen دورين, east of Latakia.

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The Battle of Doreen is  important and has been heated for some time. The Syria Arab Army and National Defense Forces (al-Difa’ al-Watani) attacked recently and were able to achieve some success. The Hill of Doreen fell first, then Doreen itself. But since then it has become a tough back-and-forth slog against a coalition of rebel militias that include Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Jabha al-Islamiyah. The rebels are trying to retake the high ground and break through into the Alawite areas below Doreen. The high ground also allows for rockets to be fired at Latakia.

Regime Soldiers killed fighting Jabhat al-Nusra around Dorin in Latakia

Doreen is a well known summer resort in the mountains next to Salma. It is a Sunni village and was held by the anti Assad groups for years. Salma is the biggest and only important stronghold left in the hands of the anti Assad forces East of Latakia in the Jabal al-Akrad region.

Doreen is strategically important because it is a high point and puts Salma, a major rebel stronghold, under the guns of Assad forces. The fall of Salma would provide a major victory for al-Assad in the coastal areas. Thus, the battles are heated. To put Muhammad al-Assad, a.k.a, Shaykh al-Jabal in the midst of this battle would mean that he was a Mujahid, as his death notice claims.

The Question is: was Shaykh al-Jabal really fighting there? Alawite sources that I have contacted in Latakia, and one in al-Qurdaha itself, all claim he was not. They confirm one story: Shaykh al-Jabal was killed near al-Qurdaha by a man named Ali Salhab  علي سلهب. This happened after Shaykh al-Jabal had a long night of drinking and partying. Whether or not Ali Salhab was drinking is debated because many said he ambushed Shaykh al-Jabal, then shot him dead.

There was bad blood between these two men. One of the sources said that “Shaykh al-Jabal ” was killed because he had put Ali Salhab in prison and tortured him. According to this source, Mohammad al-Assad had his own prison. Another source said that Ali Salhab killed him because of a land deal gone bad, and that Assad’s body was then taken to Doreen in order to provide him with an honorable death at the battle front.

When asking a pro-Assad supporter about the doctorate degree Muhammad al-Assad A.K.A. Shaykh al-Jabal claimed on his death notice, he said: “His degree is false…he was no doctor…just a smuggler… he bought his doctorate from an Eastern European country the same way he bought the name Shaykh al-Jabal for himself. See, the real Shaykh al-Jabal are the fighters who are cold, most likely hungry, and fighting in the mountains…”

Muhammad al-Assad gave himself the name Shaykh al-Jabal, when he was an up-and-coming smuggler in the late 1980s and one of the Shabiha.  But, he was not the top Shabih by any measure. That position was held by Fawaz al-Assad, the son Hafiz al-Assad’s full brother Jamil.  Despite being under the shadow of Fawaz, “Shaykh al-Jabal” was able to assemble a notorious gang of smugglers that operated for a long time.  But when the age of smuggling came to an end with the opening up of the economy, Muhammad al-Assad bought himself a Ph.D and upgraded along with the rest of Syria.

Stories about his bad behavior are many, the most notorious of which is the story of Hala ‘Aqel, a very beautiful Alawite 18 year old who died in mysterious circumstances twenty-five years ago.  Anti-Assad agitators claimed that Shaykh al-Jabal killed her.  I myself was living in Latakia when this happened and to my knowledge no one knew how she died.  No investigation was carried out into the reasons for her sudden death. This left the door open for those who had been hurt by the Assads to claim that Muhammad had killed her.

Bashar al-Assad’s many second cousins and distant relatives who share his family name do not orbit in the same sphere as his first cousins, many of whom are trusted to fill sensitive positions in running security or the economy. Mohammad al-Assad may have shared the president’s last name, but his notoriety came from being a smuggler and highway robber (qata’ al-tariq) and not as a man of consequence.

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Note: Jabal means mountain in Arabic. Shaykh al-Jabal means: The Chief of the Mountain.

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