Report on Mass Graves of Yazidis in Sinjar

Click the above map to download a full-size image

Click the above map to download a full-size image

by Matthew Barber

Yazda is a Yazidi humanitarian and advocacy organization founded after the attempted genocide of the Yazidis by IS on Aug. 3, 2014. Beginning this past fall, I took a one-year leave of absence from my PhD program at the University of Chicago to serve as Executive Director for Yazda during this period of urgent need. The accompanying responsibilities have unfortunately kept me away from Syria Comment of late.

One of Yazda’s projects is to document the crimes of genocide that were committed against the Yazidi people. Our genocide documentation project focuses on examining physical evidence of mass graves (bones, clothing, grave mounds) while gathering survivor testimonies to corroborate the physical evidence that we find.

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidenc of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Bones and skull fragments of Yazidis killed by IS near Sinjar City. The civilians that were massacred at this site were attempting to flee to safety when they were rounded up by jihadists and brought to this site in trucks. Evidence of clothing found by Yazda suggests that men, women, and children were executed at this site. Photo: Yazda

Yazda is now issuing a full report on the mass graves in Sinjar, which is available on the Yazda website. VICE News has just published the full report here, and Human Rights Watch and Yazda have released a joint press statement on the urgency of protecting and performing forensic analyses of the mass graves.

The full report is also available for download here, and can be read in the PDF viewer below.

The Ten Most Important Developments in Syria in 2015

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis.

I wrote a post for Syria Comment last year listing the top events of 2014 and what to look for in 2015. So here’s another one—a very long one, in fact. It has been compiled in bits and pieces over a few weeks but was finalized only now, a few days after the fact.

In keeping with the buzzfeedification of international political writing, I have decided to make it a top ten list and to provide very few useful sources, just a lot of speculative opinion. I’ll rank them from bottom to top, starting with number ten and moving on to the biggest deal of them all. Enjoy!

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10. The Death of Zahran Alloush.

In October 2013, the esteemed proprietor of Syria Comment, Professor Joshua Landis, compiled a top five list of Syria’s most important insurgent leaders, excluding al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the Kurdish YPG. It contained the following five names:

  • Hassane Abboud (Ahrar al-Sham)
  • Zahran Alloush (Islam Army)
  • Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh (Suqour al-Sham)
  • Abdelqader Saleh (Tawhid Brigade)
  • Bashar al-Zoubi (Yarmouk Brigade)

Of these five, two remain alive but have been demoted to second-tier ranks in their factions. In March 2015, Ahmed Eissa al-Sheikh merged his group into Ahrar al-Sham and took up a less prestigious job in the new outfit. In October, the Free Syrian Army heavyweight Bashar al-Zoubi was reassigned to run the political office of the Yarmouk Army, as it is now called, and replaced as general commander by Abu Kinan al-Sharif.

The other three are dead. Abdelqader Saleh was hit by a missile in Aleppo in November 2013. Soon after, his powerful Tawhid Brigade began to fall apart. Most of its subunits are now dispersed across two rival-but-allied outfits, called the Levant Front and the First Corps, which are both active in Aleppo. Hassane Abboud was killed alongside other Ahrar al-Sham leaders in a September 2014 bombing—or whatever that was. And on Christmas Day 2015, Zahran Alloush suffered the same fate. A missile hit a building in the Eastern Ghouta where he was meeting with other local rebel leaders.

Since Zahran Alloush died just a week ago, we don’t know how much this will matter in the end. But he was indisputably one of the best-known rebel commanders in Syria, the one best positioned to dominate Damascus if Assad lost power, one of the very rare effective (because ruthless) centralizers within the Syrian opposition, a trusted ally of the Saudi government, and the most powerful Islamist leader willing to engage in UN-led peace talks. Those five qualities all seemed to promise him a major role in Syria’s future. But now he’s dead. And since his group always seemed like it had been built around him as a person, many now fear/hope that it will start unraveling like Saleh’s Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo. We’ll see. If the rebels start to lose their footing east of Damascus, it will be an enormous relief for Assad.

9. The Failure of the Southern Storm Offensive.

Map by @desyracuse

Map by @desyracuse

This summer, the loose coalition of rebel units known as the FSA’s Southern Front got ready to capitalize on a year of slow and steady progress, during which Sheikh Miskin and other towns had been captured from Assad. They encircled the provincial capital, Deraa, for a final offensive dubbed Southern Storm. The city actually looked ready to fall. After Idleb, Jisr al-Shughour, Ariha, Palmyra, and Sukhna, the fall of Deraa was intended to be the nail in Assad’s coffin and a show of strength for the Western-vetted FSA factions in the south, drawing support away from their Islamist rivals.

Stories differ on what happened next, but the Southern Storm campaign was a fiasco. Regime frontlines hardly budged, the Allahu Akbars trailed off into a confused mumble, and commanders were called back to Jordan. Half a year later, with Russian air support, Assad has begun an offensive to retake Sheikh Miskin in the hope of finally loosening the rebel stranglehold on Deraa—although at the time of writing, this is still a work in progress.

What happened? I really don’t know. Many things, probably. The operation seems to have been poorly coordinated, with rebels pursuing a plan that their foreign funder-managers in the Military Operations Center in Jordan didn’t agree on. Stories have been told about some nations cutting support, rebels defecting to Assad or heading for Europe, arms having been sold on to jihadis, and groups splitting over obscure internal intrigues. Some of those stories may be false, but the failure was a fact and the rebels have since been restrained from further advances.

Of course, it might seem strange to say that rebels not taking a city was Syria’s ninth most significant event in 2015. It is not even a Dog Bit Man story, it’s a Dog Didn’t Bite Man story. But the Deraa affair seems to have done a great deal of damage to Western and Arab hopes for the FSA’s Southern Front, which had until then been portrayed as a model for the rest of Syria’s insurgency. Unless the southern rebels manage to reorganize, unify, and go back on the offensive, I think the events of summer 2015 might end up being seen as a turning point in the southern war.

8. Operation Decisive Quagmire.

afp-15a98bf10482c310755007248667f3649b607c81In keeping with local tradition, the princes of Saudi Arabia can be wedded to four regional crises at once. In early 2015, they were sulking over Syria, emotionally drained by Egypt, flustered by unfaithful Libya, and at wits’ end over that shrew in Baghdad, when Yemen suddenly walked into their lives—a huge, incoherent, boiling mess of splintering armed factions, collapsing institutions, Africa-level poverty, jihadi terrorism of every imaginable stripe, and aggressive interference by rival foreign governments.

It was love at first sight.

Since then, the March 2015 Saudi-led military intervention in Yemen has of course turned out to be exactly the self-defeating, facepalm-inducing clusterfuck that everyone who is not a member of the Saudi royal family had predicted.

To make a long story short, the Saudis are still in Yemen with no victory on the horizon and no face-saving exit available. This means they have much less time and resources left for Syria than they did a year ago. They have become more exposed to Iranian pestering and are more dependent on their regional and Western allies, several of whom do not share their views on how to deal with Bashar al-Assad. Rather than being able to leverage their intervention in Yemen against Iran and Assad in Syria, the Saudis now seem at risk of having it leveraged against them.

Thanks to the over-confidence and under-competence of the Saudi royal family, Syrian rebels may therefore turn out to be among the biggest losers of the Yemeni war.

7. Europe’s Syria Fatigue vs. Assad’s Viability

2The huge numbers of refugees coming from Syria and other countries to the European Union in 2015 had many causes, but one of the effects was to rearrange Europe’s list of priorities in the Middle East. Goals number one through three are now as follows: stability, stability, and stability. Number four is anti-terrorism, number five is economic growth, and then there are a few others along those lines. Promoting democracy is also on the list, right after ”fix the nose of the Sphinx.”

In 2015, we have also seen a slow but persistent drip of terror scares and occasional massacres, including two big ones in Paris in January and November. This is obviously not the refugees’ fault, but many Europeans link these attacks to Syria anyway—including some of the attackers, like the wanker that began stabbing random people in the London Underground this December.

These things tap into the West’s darkest impulses. Reactions to immigration, painful social change, and terrorist pin-pricks may be irrational—in fact, they mostly are—but they carry real weight and win votes. Policy specialists might recommend some mixture of strategic patience, cautious reform, and nuanced rhetoric, but European rightwing populists eat policy specialists for breakfast.

Islamophobic far-right movements were already growing all over Europe, for reasons largely related to the continent’s own internal diseases, but the refugee crisis and the terror attacks are a godsend for them. Some of these groups are not content with merely hating and fearing the Syrian rebels for their Islamism, but also adopt pro-Assad positions. In addition, European extremists on both the far right and the far left are increasingly friendly with Putin’s Russia; some are even funded by the Kremlin. These parties are no longer bit players. They’re going to be in government soon, or close enough to government to shape policy. Add to that the old-school authoritarian national-conservatism that has begun to resurface in Eastern Europe, including Hungary, Poland, and other places, and the fact that countries like the Czech Republic and Hungary are already the Baath’s best advocates in the EU, and you have the nucleus of a slowly forming pro-Assad constituency.

Of course, many European politicians are also re-evaluating their views on Syria for perfectly non-racist and non-paranoid reasons. The most common one is probably a widespread and profound loss of faith in the Syrian opposition, not merely as an alternative to Assad, but even as a tool for pressuring him and engineering a solution. Others were never interested in a policy to overthrow Assad, although they happen to think he’s a crook.

The point is that all of these things now reinforce each other and for the Syrian regime, it looks like vindication. In 2011, Bashar al-Assad made a bet, wagering that (1) the West would one day recoil from its love affair with Middle Eastern revolution and return to the familiar comfort of secular authoritarianism, and that (2) his own regime would still be standing when that happened.

It is now happening, but whether or not Assad’s regime is still standing, qua regime, is a matter of definition. The Syrian president has so far shown little ability to exploit political openings like these. To an increasing number of European politicians, he does indeed look like the lesser evil, but also like a spectacularly incompetent evil. His regime appears to them to be too broken, too poor, too polarizing, too sectarian, too inflexible, and too unreliable to work with—more like a spent force than a least-bad-option. Assad’s diplomacy may be far more elegant but is ultimately no more constructive than that of Moammar al-Gaddafi, who, as you may recall, kept refusing every kind of compromise and even shied away from purely tactical concessions, until he was finally beaten to death by screaming Islamists in a country so broken it will perhaps never recover.

Then there is the question of Assad’s own longterm viability. Even in pre-2011 Syria, no one could be quite sure whether the Baathist regime would remain in one piece without an Assad at the helm. In a conflict like this, there must be dozens of assassins trying to worm their way into the Presidential Palace at any given moment and for all we know one of them could get lucky in 2016, 2017, or tomorrow. And what about his health? The Syrian president turned 50 this September. That’s no age for an Arab head of state and he looks perfectly fine in interviews. But if Western intelligence services have done their due diligence, they’ll know that his father Hafez suffered a ruinous stroke or heart attack at age 53, which nearly knocked him out of power. Who knows, maybe it runs in the family?

At this point, however, a growing number of European policymakers are so tired of Syria and its problems that they’ll happily roll the dice on Assad being the healthy, happy autocrat that he looks like. They would be quietly relieved to see Syria’s ruler reemerge in force to tamp down the jihadi menace and stem refugee flows with whatever methods, as long as they don’t have to shake his bloody hands in public and on the condition that he delivers a semi-functional rump state for them to work with, at some unspecified point in the future.

Obviously, Assad isn’t going to become best friends with the EU anytime soon, but it might be enough for him if major cracks start to appear in the West’s Syria policy. If so, there is now a window of opportunity opening up that wasn’t there for him a year ago. If the Syrian president manages to break some bad habits, tries his hand at real politics instead of Baathist sloganeering, and produces a stabilization plan slightly more sophisticated than murdering everyone who talks back to him, then 2016 could be the year that he starts breaking out of international isolation. If not, he’s likely to stay in the freeze box for at least another year—and since his regime keeps growing weaker, nastier, and less state-like by the day, it’s uncertain if he’ll get another chance.

This is a potential game changer worth watching, but don’t get too excited. Given the way that the Assad regime has conducted itself in the past half-century, the odds are long for transformative politics and persuasive diplomacy from Syria’s strongman.

6. The Vienna Meeting, the ISSG, and Geneva III.

b03582e6b20396c6ed25a6cb72406b35f8745e5dWhile not the most important, the November 14 creation of the International Support Group for Syria (ISSG, not to be confused with ISIS or ISIL) was certainly the most unambiguously positive piece of news of the year.

A debating club of interested nations and international organs won’t be enough to end the Syrian war, but it means that the terms of the debate have been readjusted for the better. Recognizing the conflict’s international dimension and engaging constructively with the fact that this is now partly a proxy war was long overdue. As currently construed, the ISSG might be too broad and unwieldy to function properly, since the core players (USA, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, etc) always seem to have to hold preparatory pre-meetings before settling down in the ISSG format. But if that’s what it takes to get the screaming and sulking teenagers that rule Tehran, Ankara, and Riyadh to sit down and talk like adults, then so be it.

That the creation of the ISSG has for the first time made Iran a formal party to the Syria talks is a good thing, whatever Syrian rebels and their Saudi paymasters may think of it. Iran is a key player both on the ground and in the diplomatic struggle over Syria; that’s not something you can change by pretending otherwise, though many have tried. Of course, now we’re all waiting for Iran to come to the same conclusion about the Syrian rebels, instead of childishly insisting that Assad must be allowed to negotiate with an opposition of his own choosing.

After its meetings in Vienna and New York, the ISSG has empowered UN envoy Staffan de Mistura to call for a new round of Syrian-Syrian talks, currently scheduled for January 25 in Geneva. As many have already pointed out, these talks are unlikely to solve Syria’s problems. The ISSG-backed goal of a transition through free and fair elections by 2017 is almost cartoonishly unrealistic.

So, what to do about that? Many pundits have reacted to the Vienna statement and the Geneva peace process only by ridiculing it and then restating their preferences for the outcome. That’s not helping. The talks are indeed almost certain to fail to reach their overly ambitious goals, but then let’s work from that assumption instead of scoffing at it.

The actors involved in Syria’s war should plan for failure even more than they plan for success. They should already be preparing for a post-Geneva situation where they need to salvage, secure, and build on any shred of progress achieved in the talks.

Reaching a comprehensive ceasefire by June seems incredibly difficult, but a dampening of violence just might be possible, with some luck. If serious about it, Syrian negotiators could presumably also reach meaningful agreement on more limited and less controversial issues.

They could also agree to keep talking. Since so many now favor some sort of political resolution, and unsuccessful negotiations may give way to military escalation, it would be useful to avoid a full stop and the taste of failure. A faltering Geneva process could be drawn out into many sessions and postponed, with negotiators on both sides sent back for a couple of months to do their homework, instead of ended. Transforming the Geneva process into a semi-permanent platform for negotiations on a talk-while-you-fight model would transfer some of the combatants’ attention to a political track. That would be a good thing, both in the hope of achieving a breakthrough later on and for day-to-day crisis management.

Most of all, international actors should make sure to safeguard the ISSG framework, or some version of it, against an underwhelming performance in Geneva. Even if the war goes on and intensifies, some form of international contact group will be useful to facilitate communication and solve side-issues, and it remains a necessary ingredient in any future de-escalation deal.

5. The Donald.

The politics of the United States is a key part of the politics of Syria, although the reverse is rarely true.

Right now, it looks very likely that Donald Trump will either win the Republican nomination for president, or run as an independent and split the Republican vote out of pure spite. If so, Hillary Clinton is almost certain to be elected president of the United States, which would give her final say over the superpower’s Syria policy from January 2017 to 2020, or even 2024.

Of course, one never knows: some extraordinary scandal could knock her out of the race, or maybe Trump slinks away or is bought off after losing the primaries. We’ll see. But right now, Clinton seems like the smart person’s bet.

From what we know of her performance as President Obama’s secretary of state during the first three years of the Syrian war, a Clinton presidency would probably mean a more hawkish attitude to Assad. For example, she keeps declaring herself in favor of a no fly zone to ground the Syrian air force. Whether that is feasible is another matter, what with these Russian jets and air defense systems all over the place, and tough talk on the campaign trail will not necessarily translate into White House policy. But a more interventionist American line in Syria could definitely make a difference in the war, for good or bad or both.

The high likelihood of a Clinton presidency also means that we can tentatively exclude the sort of radical break in American Syria policy that might have followed a Republican restoration. Some of the GOP candidates are more aggressively anti-Assad than Clinton and have no interest in preserving any part of Obama’s legacy. Others are the exact opposite: more or less pro-Assad and starkly opposed to the rebels, whether for pandering to the anti-Muslim vote or out of anti-interventionist principle. But because of Donald Trump, it now seems like those points of view are going to get schlonged back into permanent opposition.

4. The Iran Deal.

iran-nuclearThe effects of the Iranian nuclear agreement, which was finalized between April and June 2015, are only very gradually becoming apparent. But unless the deal is somehow scuttled by the combined efforts of hawks in the United States, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, it could reshape the region.

As a consequence of the agreement and the American-Iranian thaw, the international isolation of Tehran is withering away. After four years of being shut out of Syria diplomacy, but not out of Syria, Iran has been invited to the UN-led negotiation process via the ISSG. The United States is also starting to accept Tehran as a regional power to be engaged coldly but constructively, although this is still unfamiliar terrain for all involved.

Meanwhile, European companies are flocking to Tehran to get a slice of the end-of-sanctions pie. Expecting billion-dollar construction contracts and racing to beat their Russian, Chinese, American, and Arab competition, the EU governments will soon start to pay a lot of attention to what Iranian diplomats have to say. More soft power for the ayatollahs, then.

Though often viewed, somewhat inexplicably, as a third-tier actor in the Iran talks, Russia is also paying the greatest attention to this process. Once the nuclear deal was done, Putin swiftly began to transform a complicated but friendly relationship into an emerging pact, seeing in Iran’s combination of oil, gas, military muscle, and poor ties to the West a perfect regional ally for Russia. Russian state media just announced that Moscow will start shipping its powerful S-300 air defense system to Iran next month.

This is all great news for Bashar al-Assad, of course, though it’s not yet clear whether his regime can stick around long enough to fully capitalize on Iran’s growing influence.

3. The Continuing Structural Decay of the Syrian Government. 


down-with-hafezAssad took some real body blows in spring and summer 2015. After an upward curve in 2014, the Syrian army started to seem exhausted by the end of the year and its offensive in Aleppo petered out after a last hurrah in spring 2015. With rising support for the rebels, the hollowed-out base of Assad’s regime began to show.

Most obviously, Assad lost a lot of territory in the first half of 2015. In March, a coalition of Islamist rebels captured Idleb City in the north and Bosra in the south. In April, Jisr al-Shughour fell, followed by the Nassib border crossing to Jordan. In May, it was time for Ariha in Idleb, with other rebels pushing into the Ghab Plains. Further east, the Islamic State took Sokhna and Palmyra. Southern rebels grabbed a military base known as Brigade 52 in the Houran in June and began preparing their (ultimately ill-fated) assault on Deraa, the provincial capital. That same month, Assad’s forces in Hassakeh were mauled by the Islamic State. They survived only thanks to an uneasy alliance with the Kurds, which increasingly turned into dependence on them. In July, Assad was hard pressed and held a speech declaring that the army would have to focus on keeping the most strategic areas of Syria, though it would not stop striving for total victory.

The rebel and Islamic State offensives have mostly been blunted since then, thanks to raised levels of Russian and Iranian support, and they did not go far enough to deal critical damage to the regime. Yet, at the time of writing, Assad remains unable to recapture any of the cities he lost in the first half of 2015. The northern Hama front, in particular, continues to cause headaches for his government.

Even though you can’t see it on a map, Assad has also lost strength in other ways in 2015. His primary source of power—apart from the military—was always the fact that he controlled the state, and along with it a number of institutions on which every Syrian family relies, including courts, police, public services, state-run businesses and banks, and a system of food and fuel subsidies. While it does not mean that the regime’s subjects love their president, it has allowed Assad to co-opt, control, and mobilize millions of Syrians in ways that the insurgents cannot. Owning the government also allows Assad to hold out the promise of continued central control, institutional rollback in the provinces, and coordinated reconstruction—i.e., some sort of plan for a post-war Syria.

By contrast, his opponents may be skilled at breaking down existing institutions, but they have so far proven unable to build new ones that stretch further than a few towns. This weakness is a primary source of Assad’s strength.

The Islamic State and the Kurdish PKK are partial exceptions to the rule, clearly capable of organizing rudimentary governance after destroying, expelling, or subjugating regime-connected local elites. But, for various reasons, they are not credible alternatives to the existing central state. As for the situation in the remaining Sunni rebel regions, it is very bleak. After nearly five years, there is a handful of multi-province militias, three or so regional networks of Sharia courts (the Sharia Commission of Ahrar al-Sham & Co. and the Nusra Front’s Dar al-Qada in the north, and the more broadly based Dar al-Adl in the south), a lot of little local councils linked to the exile opposition, and a web of foreign-funded aid services operating out of Turkey and Jordan, but not much more.

When Idleb fell to the insurgency earlier this year, it was only the second provincial capital to slide out of Assad’s hands, after Raqqa. It was destined to become an example of what rebel rule would mean. And what happened? The city started out at a disadvantage because of the war, Assad’s retaliatory bombings, and so on. A decent number of public employees seems to have stayed and continued in their jobs, but salaries and electricity provision dried up. That meant that things like water pumps and schools went out of commission. Rebel factions did what they could to organize civilian life, such as forming a joint council, which has administered the city through some combination of inherited municipal regulations and Sharia law. Despite the prominent role of al-Qaeda in the Jaish al-Fath coalition now running Idleb, foreign governments have chipped in by donating food and medical supplies to avoid a humanitarian disaster. Still, even under a comparatively well-organized, broadly based, and locally rooted coalition like Jaish al-Fath, the basics of a new political order never seem to fall in place. After eight months of insecurity, crime, and armed men swarming the city, the new rulers have yet to organize a credible police force. Whatever the opposition may claim, such failures are not merely the result of Assad’s barrel bombing.

The rebels’ manifest inability to govern, along with merciless airstrikes on nonregime territory, is what makes Assad able to compel most of the population to live under his rule; and the fear of irreversible state collapse is what has made foreign states hold back support from the rebels at critical junctures. However, this key advantage of the Assad regime is also slowly fading away, along with the state itself. The resulting problems are almost too many to list.

For one thing, the Syrian army’s manpower deficit is turning into a major issue. Assad has mobilized his security apparatus to hunt down draft dodgers through house calls and flying checkpoints, in order to replenish thinning ranks. The main effect seems to have been to send a growing stream of seventeen and eighteen year old men across the border, often with their families in tow. They may or may not prefer the government over the rebels, it doesn’t matter. In a Syria at peace they would have grumblingly gone for their one-and-a-half years of army training. But as things stand, they know full well that army service has no time limit: discharge is equal to death. As it turns out, most Syrians have no intention of giving their lives in service of Bashar al-Assad and draft dodging is now pervasive. Tensions have become so great that in the Druze-majority Sweida region in the south, the government apparently decided in 2015 to abstain from normal recruitment to the Syrian Arab Army out of fear of provoking a local rebellion. Druze men can instead report for home defense units, on the understanding that they won’t be shipped away to die in distant Hassakeh or Latakia. A similar arrangement reportedly applies in Aleppo and they seem to be creeping into other regions as well.

On the frontlines, Shia foreign fighters are taking a greater role. They appear to be behind much of the successful offensive south of Aleppo. Iran is rallying Iraqi and Lebanese fighters with both religious and financial inducements, but its client groups—Hezbollah, the Badr Organization, Asaeb al-Haqq etc—do not seem able to mobilize enough fighters. According to some reports, Iranian authorities have resorted to press-ganging young Hazara Shia refugees into going to Syria, under threat of deporting their families back to Afghanistan.

Russia has acted even more decisively, by sending its own air force and huge amounts of military materiel to shore Assad up.

Drawing on all of these resources, the Syrian president and his allies have managed to supply the army with the manpower it needed to regain some sort of strategic composure after the difficult first half of 2015. The army now seems to stand its ground again. But though the regime’s counterinsurgency apparatus is now back in working order, this is still the military-logistical equivalent of fixing your car engine with chewing gum and a prayer.

Though it remains the country’s single most powerful armed force, the Syrian Arab Army appears to have boiled down to a skeletal organization. Many elite and specialist units remain in service, but officers have far fewer regular soldiers under their command and are haphazardly recruiting local hangers-on to pad out the ranks in their sector. A huge number of more or less local militias have been set up by pro-Assad civil society figures, including businessmen, neighborhood strongmen, and tribal leaders, and Iran has helped Assad to organize tens of thousands of fighters under the National Defense Forces umbrella. Much of the broader ground force has thus been replaced by local irregulars, although army and intelligence officers still appear to oversee the action and report back to Damascus.

An example of what the Syrian Arab Army now looks like is Brigade General Soheil al-Hassan’s Tiger Force. So called after its commander, whose nickname is ”The Tiger,” it is one of the government’s most acclaimed elite units, which shuttles back and forth across northern Syria to put out fires and break up stalemates. While the Tiger Force is presented in regime media as an exemplary representative of the regular Syrian Arab Army, Hassan is in fact an air force officer who reportedly served as part of Air Force Intelligence at the Hama Airport when the conflict began. Having moved into a frontline role from 2011 onwards, he does not seem to control a huge force, instead relying on local troops and a smaller entourage of personal loyalists from varied backgrounds. Even now, when he is stationed on the front against the Islamic State east of Aleppo, he is surrounded by some of the local militias he worked with in Hama earlier in the war.

The civilian side of the government is also suffering. The state economy has declined at an accelerated pace since summer 2014. Then, the Syrian pound began to lose value quicker, fuel supplies dwindled, and the government was forced to begin a painful retreat from its costly system of subsidies for basic goods. Assad also lost access to the Jordanian border in 2015, complicating trade with Iran and the Gulf Arab markets and hurting farmers and other exporters. Iran’s decision to turn the credit tap back on in spring 2015 surely helped to slow the decay. But with Assad having run down his currency reserves and facing an array of other problems, the value of the pound continues to melt away, the lack of fuel causes cascading problems throughout the economy, the institutional rot worsens, and we’re seeing an accelerating middle class exodus from Damascus and the big cities.

When I recently polled some specialists on the Syrian economy, answers were uniformly pessimistic. Jihad Yazigi, who publishes the well-regarded economic newsletter The Syria Report, concluded that 2016 will see Syrians ”poorer, living a more miserable life, and emigrating in higher numbers.” José Ciro Martínez, an expert on food in conflicts, noted that bread prices have tripled in government-controlled areas (and also in the parts of Syria under Islamic State control), while they are stabilizing in rebel-held regions, where foreign governments are trucking in flour and food.

For the Baathist government, which still today controls a sizable majority of the Syrian people, this has started to eat away at one of Assad’s most important competitive advantages: his ability to provide basic goods and salaries in areas under his control, which draws civilians away from the bombed out and broken rebel badlands and places them under the control of his state, army, and security apparatus. In the past year, humanitarian workers and diplomats monitoring these issues have started to speak about internally displaced people being turned away from government areas that no longer feel that they can afford to care for them, or view them as potential fifth-columnists for the Sunni insurgency. The situation is so bad that in northern Syria, thousands have headed for Islamic State-run Raqqa—a city ruled by fundamentalist psychopaths and targeted by a dozen different air forces, but still safer and more livable than wherever they came from.

The decay of the central government, the army, state institutions, and the Syrian economy more generally means that Assad is growing less credible as the steward of all or part of post-war Syria, even for those inclined to imagine him as such. For years, the Syrian government has spent considerable resources running basic governmental functions even in areas outside of its control—for example by paying salaries to government workers, teachers, and hospital staff in some opposition-held regions. As a consequence, many insurgent areas are paradoxically enough dependent on regular payments and institutional services from the government they’re fighting.

In some cases, these are quid pro quo deals, where the government tries to leverage its ability to shut down services, in order to get the rebels to let traffic through a checkpoint or stay out of certain towns. In other cases, there are overriding shared interests, such as when the government and Islamists work out arrangements to keep Damascus and Aleppo supplied with potable water. There is also the spectacle of unhappy government oil workers sent out to run power plants under Islamic State supervision, because both sides want to keep the lights on and hope to make money off of the other.

But in many other cases, the central government simply seems to be paying for services in areas it does not control. This is not a humanitarian measure and neither is it mere bureaucratic inertia. (Sometimes, the government shuts down services and stops food deliveries as a means of collective punishment.) Rather, it appears to result from a strategic choice to maintain a skeletal grid of institutions in as many regions as possible. That’s a core interest for the Syrian state as such, but also for Assad personally, who hopes to win the war by safeguarding the government’s institutional base and making it contingent on the continued existence of his regime.

Given current trends, it seems unlikely that the central government will be able to keep these payments up forever. In so far as the current rulers of the state are forced to chose, they will no doubt prioritize loyalist areas. (Or corruption and clientelism will make that choice for them.) Also, many areas have already lost any presence of the state and functioning public institutions, whether due to the war, rebel depravations, or regime terror bombing. Recreating them will be even more costly than just keeping them in operation. If Assad’s government does not have the resources or the institutional capacity to rebuild reconquered areas, then it will rule no more effectively than the rebels. If it turns out to be too dependent on radical sectarians to allow Sunni refugees back, and cannot in fact operate as an institutional state and a national government, then President Assad is just a warlord with a fancy title.

For the regime, this is a do or die issue. Unless it manages to bring these structural problems under control in 2016, Syria may be heading into unknown territory.

2. The American-Kurdish Alliance.

indexSince late 2014 and early 2015, the United States Air Force has transformed itself into something that more closely resembles the Western Kurdistan Air Force. Under U.S. air cover, Kurdish forces are constructing their own autonomous region (called Rojava) and in autumn this year, the U.S. started delivering ammunition and small arms directly to Arab units working under the Kurdish umbrella, currently called the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). We’re still in the early stages of what may or may not turn out to be a longterm relationship, although certainly not a monogamous one.

Militarily, it is a match made in heaven and the results are impressive. Despite their limited numbers, the Kurds have created a disciplined force that uses air support effectively. They’re chewing up jihadis and spitting them out from Kobane to Hassakeh. At the moment, they’re threatening to march against Shedadi near the Iraqi border and have just seized the October Dam on the Euphrates, giving them land access to Manbij and the Aleppo hinterland.

Such victories do not look like much on the map, but they are doing systematic and significant damage to the jihadis in sensitive areas. Oil fields, roads, border crossings, and bridges: these are things the Islamic State cannot live without. Now, the American-Kurdish coalition is buzzing around northern Syria like a giant vacuum cleaner, gobbling up all those goodies and leaving nothing for anyone else. If 2016 turns out to be the year when the Islamic State begins to crack and contract, the Syrian Kurds will have played a huge role in getting us there.

Politically speaking, however, the American-Kurdish alliance is not such a perfect marriage. It’s more like an unfortunate Tinder date: initial ambitions align, but you don’t have a lot of interests in common and your friends roll their eyes.

First of all, the Kurds are an ethnic minority with a very particular set of problems and ambitions in Syria, which have little to do with the wider war within the Sunni Arab majority. Their current crop of leaders are ideologically doctrinaire PKK loyalists. They have atrociously poor relations to the rest of the U.S.-backed opposition and disturbingly (as seen from the White House) close contacts with Moscow. If it wishes to act on the central stage of Syrian politics, the United States ultimately needs to win strong allies within the religiously flavored Sunni Arab majority, but it has instead come to rely on a foreign-linked, Russian-friendly, authoritarian, and secular Kurdish group with a (partly undeserved) reputation for separatism. Needless to say, this rubs every dominant ideological camp within the popular majority the wrong way: Islamists, Baathists, Syrian nationalists.

Secondly, the PKK is listed as a foreign terrorist organization in the United States. That means it is illegal for American citizens to provide it with any form of ”material support or resources,” possibly including enormous truckloads of ammunition and billions of dollars worth of close air support. Of course, the sanctioning of the PKK is more due to its violent conflict with Turkey than because of any Kurdish attacks against Americans. Therefore, one would logically expect there to be at least a debate in the United States about whether this key anti-jihadi ally should perhaps be removed from the black list, since this would seem to be an urgent national security interest. But there is nothing of the kind. Instead, the executive branch just goes about its business and the PKK gets its guns as intended. It is a rare case of a political system being so dysfunctional that it becomes super-functional, but it might not last forever.

Third and last, but not least—you may have heard of NATO. The United States is in a military alliance with Turkey, which is a key backer of the Syrian Sunni Arab opposition but also the PKK’s arch-enemy. Both Ankara and the Kurds rank each other far higher than Assad or the Islamic State on their respective lists of evils for urgent destruction. It’s getting worse, too. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is currently sending jets and tanks to bomb Kurdish cities, and he is backing attempts to destroy the HDP, which serves as PKK’s Sinn Féin and is a necessary component of any peaceful solution to Turkey’s conflict. If Turkey-PKK relations were antagonistic before, they are positively murderous right now.

These contradictions threaten to rip apart the United States’ Syrian alliance network, undermining its policy to pressure both Assad and the Islamic State. Resolving them is probably impossible; ignoring or transcending them won’t be much easier. At the moment, the United States is drifting towards the PKK almost by default. This is both because the Kurds have offered something that actually works on the ground and because Erdogan has been such a singularly unhelpful ally in Syria. Turkish obstructionism may have started to fade away now, with Ankara belatedly realizing its need for Western support and the costs of playing spoiler. That could change things. But unless Turkey’s behavior changes radically and other current trends continue, the unlikely alliance between the Pentagon and the PKK looks like it might just beat the odds and survive for the long term.

1. The Russian Intervention.

putsyr4Here we are, at number one, and it’s an easy choice. The single most important event of the Syrian war in 2015 was of course Russia’s September 30 military intervention. Unfortunately, it’s much harder to pin down exactly why this is so important: because it strengthened Assad so much or because it didn’t strengthen him enough?

Most of the discussion in Western Europe and the United States has been over whether Russia intervened against the Islamic State, as it claims, or against other rebels backed by the United States, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia. That question is easy to answer: Russia did not intervene against anyone in particular, it intervened for Assad. Who gets hurt depends on who stands in his way. So far, attacks overwhelmingly focus on the other rebels, not the Islamic State—although the Russian government and its media toadies continue to claim otherwise with a sanctimonious pigheadedness unseen since Baghdad Bob.

If we instead judge the Russian intervention against its undeclared but actual goal, which is to aid Assad, a nuanced picture emerges. The airstrikes themselves are intense and seem effective, but they will ultimately matter little unless a capable ground force can exploit the openings created. Assad’s army leaves much to be desired, as already noted, and his government will struggle to resume firm control over the areas and populations it might capture.

So far, there have been limited gains on the ground, mostly in low-value areas south of Aleppo and some hard-won mountain terrain in northern Latakia. The Syrian army is also seeking to wrest back control of Sheikh Miskin in the south, to make Deraa easier to hold. Less visibly but perhaps more importantly, a series of local ceasefire-and-evacuation deals have helped neutralize rebel strongholds in the Homs and Damascus regions. Since the costs to Russia seem to be fairly limited, they can probably keep this up for a long time, meaning that Assad is in no hurry and can focus on preserving cohesion and manpower.

But on the other hand, three months have already passed and Assad has not recaptured a single one of the cities he lost in spring and summer 2015. Not Jisr al-Shughour, not Bosra, not Idleb, not Palmyra. And on the North Hama front, which has been a main focus for the Russian Air Force, Assad has actually been pushed backwards. Soon after the Russians intervened, he lost Morek, a small town that has been fiercely contested for both sides; that was no sign of strength. If the rebels were to move just a few villages further south of Morek, they’d be within comfortable range of Hama City and could start shelling the crucially important Hama Military Airport. (Perhaps that is a reason for why Assad and the Russians are now hastily restoring the discontinued Shaayrat Airport southeast of Homs?)

In other words, while the intervention has helped Assad turn the tide, he’s nowhere near as effective at capturing territory as his enemies were half a year ago. By now, the initial shock and awe has started to wear off. The Russian state media continues to claim that they’re winning, winning, winning, but if people were willing to listen to that on September 30, they don’t any longer. After three months of nonstop lying and braggadocio, the progress reports from Russia’s ministries of defense and foreign affairs seem no more credible than the shrill propaganda we’ve grown accustomed to from Syria’s rebels and regime.

That said, I think it is quite possible that the Russian bombings will have made a deep cut in the rebellion’s fortunes by spring 2016. The longterm and cumulative effect of all this pressure should not be ignored. How long can the Idleb insurgents fight a three-front war against forces coming from Aleppo in the east, Latakia in the west, and Hama in the south? Both the Syrian and the Russian air forces are now hitting munitions storages, supply routes, and transports all over Idleb and Aleppo. The longer-term effects of these bombings may remain invisible to us still. They are also bombing civilian trade and points of access for food and medical aid in areas that had previously been off limits to the Syrian air force. This is either a calculated gamble or part of a deliberate strategy to create a humanitarian disaster, since the Russians are well aware that hundreds of thousands of people depend on deliveries channeled through these areas. Whatever the case, it stirs up the situation all over northern Syria. Rebel forces could theoretically begin to unravel structurally in the same way that the Islamic State is now doing on some fronts, after a year of mostly Iraqi, Kurdish, and American pressure.

Indeed, we are seeing signs that all is not well in the Syrian rebel movement. The Jaish al-Fath coalition, a powerful Idlebi alliance built on the Nusra-Ahrar axis, has just issued a desperate-sounding call for outside support and foreign fighters. The fact that the alliance now openly invites foreign jihadis to come join them breaches a longstanding redline for the non-Qaida segments of the Islamist opposition. One of Jaish al-Fath’s founding factions, the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned Feilaq al-Sham militia, was so troubled by this (and perhaps by how their funders would react) that they pulled out of the alliance days after the statement. That Jaish al-Fath’s dominant factions would throw caution to the wind in this way, to the extent that the alliance is starting to wither, is a sign of how much pressure they are under since September 30.

Another possible metric is the death of senior commanders. There is no shortage of new recruits for the rebellion, so one shouldn’t overstate the overall significance, but if leaders get killed it’s at the very least a sign that something is wrong. Since September 30, there has been a lot of reports about dead and injured senior figures in the insurgency. The most well known victim is of course Zahran Alloush in Damascus, though we do not know if the Russians were involved in that attack. Further north, recent deaths include Abu Abdessalam al-Shami, an Ahrar al-Sham member who served as Jaish al-Fath’s governor of Idleb City, Ismail Nassif, who was the military chief of the Noureddine Zengi Brigades, and his counterpart in the Thuwwar al-Sham Front, Yasser Abu Said. All three were killed on the south Aleppo front. Jaish al-Fath’s chief judge, the Saudi celebrity jihadi Abdullah al-Moheisini, was wounded just before Christmas (but survived), while Sheikh Osama al-Yatim, who ran the Dar al-Adl court system in the Houran, was killed in mid-December. The list could be made a lot longer.

It’s also worth noting that the political effect outside Syria has been far bigger than the military gains inside Syria. September 30 shook up conventional wisdom about the conflict and increased Putin’s influence across the board, for having yet again out-escalated the West and proven his commitment to Assad. It created some hard-to-win debates for John Kerry, added to an already growing European pessimism about the wisdom of backing Syrian rebels, and made it less likely that a no fly zone would be imposed in Syria by Obama or his successor. By focusing the minds of people in Moscow, Washington, and elsewhere, the Russian intervention has also helped bring about the Vienna meetings, the creation of the ISSG, and consequently also the upcoming Geneva III talks in January. The November 14 Vienna Communiqué (which Assad doesn’t like) is now overtaking the Geneva Communiqué of June 2012 (which Assad really hated). However you rate these things, they’re not nothing.

Most analysis of the Russian involvement has been so politicized as to be almost useless. Putin’s and Assad’s supporters have been quick to pronounce the operation a resounding success, while rebel backers dismiss it as a murderous fiasco. The safe bet is, as always, to look for the truth somewhere in between those extremes. My best guess is that Putin is probably worried over the Syrian Arab Army’s underwhelming achievements and increasingly concerned over what he has gotten himself into. Nevertheless, Assad is definitely in a stronger position than he was half a year ago and can still hope for a bigger dividend in 2016. One also has to consider the alternatives: the Syrian army would no doubt have been much worse off now if the intervention had not happened, and that would have undercut Russia’s influence as well.

Finally, one must note the risks involved in raising the stakes. If the Geneva III talks falter and Assad fails to achieve a decisive breakthrough in 2016, then what? Russia can hardly pull back, now that Assad has grown dependent on its support, not without losing face and seeing its investments frittered away. And what then, Mr. Putin: will you just keep going with no end in sight, or will you escalate even further? In other words, Russia is now at risk of getting stuck in an intractable conflict without an exit strategy and without clear political gain. It would be like Saudi Arabia in Yemen, but on a much bigger scale. If Putin ends up sending ground troops into battle, the risks and costs involved would rise considerably—but even that might not be enough to bring about a Kremlin-friendly conclusion to the Syrian mess.

Some of the less responsible actors on the pro-rebel side (you know who you are) might find this scenario to be in their interest. By exposing himself to injury in Syria while simultaneously continuing to provoke Western and Sunni Arab nations in Ukraine, Iran, and elsewhere, Putin has effectively offered them the choice of a full-blown proxy war. Once he seems to have tied his personal prestige firmly enough to Assad’s fate, they just need to abandon any lingering hopes they might have for stability in Syria and start kicking at the pillars that still keep the state standing, thereby turning Syria into Putin’s own Afghanistan. It would be very bad news for the Russians, but it would be a catastrophe for Syrians.

Barring a military breakthrough, much could depend on the outcome of the otherwise uninspiring Geneva III talks in January. The behavior of Russia and the Assad government will be watched closely by Western states. If Putin acts constructively and demonstrates real leverage over his ally, or meaningful agreements between Syrians seem to be within reach, then so far so good. But if it turns out that Putin refuses to fulfill his side of the deal, which is to deliver Assad’s approval of a transition plan, or if Assad simply ignores Moscow’s advice, then what good is the Russian presence in Syria to Arabs, Americans, and Europeans? We would be back in a purely military contest. The ramped-up Russian investment in Assad’s regime would then look less like a unilateral readjustment of Syria’s balance of power and more like a target of opportunity.

The Syrian National Resistance: Liwa Khaybar

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Liwa Khaybar, featuring the Syrian flag used by the regime and a scorpion (hence the inscription “al-‘Aqrab”- “The Scorpion”- referring to the leader of the group).

The moniker of “resistance” (muqawama) is common to pro-Assad militias (e.g. The Syrian Resistance and The National Ideological Resistance in Syria): hardly surprising given Syria’s membership of the “resistance” bloc led by Iran. The militia that is the subject of this profile fits into this trend: al-Muqawama al-Wataniya al-Souriya: Liwa Khaybar (“The Syrian National Resistance: Khaybar Brigade”). Unlike the other militias mentioned above though, there is very little information available publicly about this group.

However, I was able to get in touch with the leader of Liwa Khaybar, who calls himself Abu Ja’afar (aka The Scorpion/The Scorpion of Homs). He describes his militia as an auxiliary force for the Syrian army that he founded three years ago (i.e. late 2012-early 2013), but it also so happens that Abu Ja’afar claims to be one of the founders of the National Defence Forces (NDF) branch in Homs. Therefore, Liwa Khaybar and the NDF in Homs emerged at roughly the same time.

Indeed, overlap between some NDF branches and militias is also apparent in the case of Quwat al-Ridha (Syrian Hezbollah) and the Homs NDF, as well as the Damascus NDF and Liwa al-Sayyida Ruqayya, which is affiliated with Iraqi Shi’a militia Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada’. That said, it should be made clear that the issue of overlap is different from formal affiliation: that is, these militias are not official divisions of the NDF, unlike (say) Katibat al-Jabal that is part of the Latakia NDF. Rather, particular leaders and individuals may have membership in multiple groups at once.

Similar to Quwat al-Ridha, Abu Ja’afar says that most of the members of his group come from Homs, but he denies having links with Quwat al-Ridha, though he says that “perhaps there is some logistical support only.” In terms of numbers and operations, one should be careful not to exaggerate the importance of this force. While Abu Ja’afar claims thousands of recruits for Liwa Khaybar and operations throughout Syria, he says that until now the group has had some 32 “martyrs” (fallen fighters), including his four brothers.

MenofLiwaKhaybar
In middle: Abu Ja’afar. Presumably with members of Liwa Khaybar.

LiwaKhaybarleader
Abu Ja’afar: leader of Liwa Khaybar.

LiwaKhaybarcar2
Note the car in the background featuring Liwa Khaybar’s emblem, with portraits of Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

From recent publicly available information, on 10 October 2015, as Russian airstrikes were underway and regime offensives were launched on multiple fronts throughout northern Syria, the group claimed to be operating in the western Hama countryside (the Sahl al-Ghab area, with the aim of pushing into Idlib province), declaring that “Khirbat al-Naqus and al-Mansura have been liberated, and now the advance is going towards Tel Wasit and after that towards Jisr al-Shughur.” This followed on from some notable posts in the previous month: on 13 September 2015, Liwa Khaybar denied that its leader Abu Ja’afar had been killed, and on 21 September 2015, Abu Ja’afar wrote that “history will record epic battles of heroism that you will see in the next few days in the north of Syria, God willing.” The latter of course refers to the preparations that were being made for offensives to be launched with Russian air support.

Overall, Liwa Khaybar is a minor player in the Syrian conflict but serves as yet another example of militiafication on the Assad regime side.

The Death of Zahran Alloush

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

Zahran Alloush

Rebel sources report that a missile hit a gathering of Islam Army leaders in the Eastern Ghouta region today, killing several of them, including Mohammed Zahran Alloush. Some reports also say that an allied rebel faction, Feilaq al-Rahman, had much of its leadership wiped out, and that the strike was carried out by Russia. (The Syrian government claims that its own airforce was behind the attack.)

This is big news and it has the potential to shift the balance of power in the Ghouta, a region of suburbs and agricultural towns into that rings the Syrian capital. It could also impact the Syrian peace process—such as it is—that is slated to begin this January.

First of All, Is It True?

Abu Humam Bouidani, reportedly the new Islam Army leader.

Abu Humam Bouidani, reportedly the new Islam Army leader.

Seems like it. Pro-opposition media is awash with stories about Zahran Alloush’s death and there have been no signs of life, no denials, and no comments from his associates. Major rebel leaders and allies of Zahran Alloush and the Islam Army, including leaders of such major factions like the Mujahedin Army and Ahrar al-Sham, have posted their personal condoleances on social media. The Islam Army’s own media channels are still posting reports on military actions, but they have so far distributed nothing on the alleged attack. The fact that several top-ranking Islam Army figures have been silent since earlier today could mean that some of them, too, may have been killed or wounded in the strike.

About half an hour ago, at 21.40 Syrian time, the online news agency Sada al-Tawhid, which is aligned with the Islam Army, stated on Twitter that Zahran Alloush is dead and has been succeeded by Sheikh Abu Humam Bouidani. In other words, it would seem that Zahran Alloush is in fact dead.

Who Was Zahran Alloush?

Mohammed Zahran Alloush (1971-2015), also known as Abu Abdullah, was a salafi activist from Douma, a town east of Damascus in the Ghouta region. His father, Abdullah Alloush, is a salafi theologian resident in Saudi Arabia.

Alloush was arrested several times before the uprising for his religious and political activism and sent to the  ”Islamist wing” of the Seidnaia prison north of Damascus. There, he formed close connections to many other Syrian Islamists, including people who now run large rebel factions like Ahrar al-Sham. He was released from jail in June 2011 and quickly joined the armed uprising, eventually emerging as the strongman of his home region in the Eastern Ghouta and one of the most powerful rebel leaders in all of Syria.

He was also one of the most controversial ones. His supporters were taken in by his forceful personality and his personal bravery, as a commander who lived with his men in the warzone and visited the frontline. They admired his knack for organization and politics and credited him with the semi-stability that reigned inside the besieged Eastern Ghouta enclave—a bombed out and starved suburban region that resembles nothing so much as a giant version of the Gaza Strip in Palestine. The Ghouta has been under constant pressure since the marginalized Sunni suburbs of Damascus, where hatred against Bashar al-Assad and his government ran strong, began to throw out the police and security servies in 2011 and 2012. Since then, the region has been under siege and functioned as a world of its own. Holding the frontline in Damascus, where Assad has concentrated so much of his army, was no small feat and it was much thanks to Alloush’s men. Coordinating the rebels there and limiting their infighting was no less of an achievement, especially considering the all-out chaos that reigned in other areas of Syria, where conditions were much better. For many supporters of the opposition, defending and stabilizing the Eastern Ghouta despite unceasing war and artillery bombardment, including with nerve gas, was enough to make Zahran Alloush a hero of the Syrian revolution.

Zahran Alloush watches a military parade of Islam Army fighters from a podium in the Eastern Ghouta, in a propaganda tape released by the group.

Zahran Alloush watches a military parade of Islam Army fighters from a podium in the Eastern Ghouta, in a propaganda tape released by the group.

But the methods that Alloush used to bring stability to the Eastern Ghouta were not pretty. He has been accused of stuffing the local administration with cronies and family members to assure that no one could threaten his grip on power, of monopolizing access to the outside world through a system of tunnels, of selling aid and food at inflated prices, and of suppressing dissent with brutal means, including torture and assassination. To his rivals, he was no hero, but power-hungry opportunist or worse: a warlord, a dictator-in-the-making, hell-bent on seizing the presidential palace for himself. Some even acidly compared his methods of governance to those of Bashar al-Assad.

One aspect of this intolerance for dissent was a ferocious manhunt for supporters of the extremist Islamic State. It was long warily tolerated, the way the Islam Army still works with the Nusra Front despite latent tension between the groups. But when the Islamic State began to seriously challenge the system Alloush had constructed in the Eastern Ghouta, in 2014, all hell broke lose. Zahran Alloush’s men drove the Islamic State out of several neighborhoods, in a violent crackdown that made Syrian human rights activists and Alloush’s other Islamist rivals go pale with fright. The purge was mostly successful and it won discrete international applause, though it seems to have been a turf war just as much as it was an ideological conflict and a political conflict.

Non-extremists were also in danger. The 2013 kidnapping of four well-known secular human rights activists in Douma, an area under strong Islam Army influence, was blamed on Zahran Alloush by their families, who noted that men under his command had previously threatened the activists. Alloush denied responsibility, albeit rather unconvincingly, and he seemed genuinely perplexed that so much attention could be attached to the fate of four individuals, when people were being killed in the Ghouta by their thousands every year. But the affair made him a bête noire of much of the secular opposition, with its powerful networks abroad, and made Western governments shy away from direct dealings with his group even as it sought to moderate its politics and connect to the UN-backed political process.

While Alloush was an unabashedly sectarian Islamist, inspired by Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi establishment, he was also pragmatic enough to maneuver his way through Syrian rebel politics and its shifting alliances. In the past, he threatened non-Sunni Muslim religious groups, referring to Alawites and Shia Muslims as ”filth” that would be cleansed from Syria. He condemned democracy and pronounced himself in favor of a Sunni Islamic theocracy, where sharia law would be applied in the fullest. But in the past year, perhaps under pressure from his foreign supporters, Alloush began to try to polish his image and gain acceptance in the West. His last interview, with a female Christian Syrian reporter working for the U.S. online journal The Daily Beast, was a good example of this. Alloush folded back his fangs and tried to come off as a constructive, responsible centrist, an anti-terrorist ally, and an all-around gentleman. You know, the kind you’d like to see in a coalition government.

What Is the Islam Army?

When Alloush was released from jail in summer 2011, he contacted friends and family in Douma to create an armed rebel faction in Douma, which he dubbed the Islam Brigade (Katibat al-Islam). The group later grew and added more men and more powerful weapons, rebranding itself as the Islam Brigade (Liwa al-Islam). It shot to fame or infamy—depending on which side of the conflict you’re on—in July 2012, when it issued a statement claiming responsibility for killing several top commanders in Assad’s army and intelligence services. The incident, reportedly a bombing of the National Security Office in Damascus, has never been fully explained. To me, it seems likely that foreign intelligence services were involved, perhaps allowing the Islam Brigade to claim credit to boost the group’s credentials. (But this is speculation!)

Whatever happened, the Islam Brigade quickly grew into one of the most powerful factions of the Eastern Ghouta, which gradually freed itself of government control. After initially being one among several groups, the Islam Brigade started elbowing its way to the top, striking deals with other factions or muscling them out of its way, as the situation required. It appears that generous foreign support, reportedly from Saudi Arabia, contributed to the rise of the Islam Brigade. In September 2013, the group renamed itself the Islam Army (Jaish al-Islam). Holdout groups continued to try to challenge Alloush’s growing dominance in the Eastern Ghouta enclave over the following months. Most were eventually forced to negotiate for their share of power in a system thoroughly dominated by Alloush.

In August 2014, the Islam Army spearheaded the creation of the Unified Command in the Eastern Ghouta, which also included the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, Feilaq al-Rahman, Ahrar al-Sham, and other groups. Alloush was appointed its leader. However, other rebels guarded their influence and it was not a mere puppet body. For example, control of the Sharia court system in the Eastern Ghouta in fact fell to Khaled Tafour, an Ajnad al-Sham ally, rather than to Samir Kaakeh, who ran religious affairs in the Islam Army. (At the time of writing, it remains uncertain whether Kaakeh survived today’s airstrike.) Conflicts continued to occur, with Ajnad al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham occasionally at odds with the Islam Army, sometimes trading harsh accusations with Alloush. Some factions remained outside the scope of the alliance entirely—most notably the jihadis of the Nusra Front (al-Qaeda) and the Islamic State.

According to some reports, leaders of Feilaq al-Rahman were also present at the meeting targeted today and killed in the strike, and the Syrian state press has also said local Ahrar al-Sham leaders were among those killed.

What Happens to the Group Now?

The death of Zahran Alloush does not necessarily mean that the Islam Army will fall apart. Another strong leader could emerge, perhaps backed by foreign supporters like Saudi Arabia, or by other rebels in the area, all of whom are presumably anxious to preserve basic stability in the Eastern Ghouta at a difficult moment.

Islam Army logotype

Islam Army logotype

Some rebel factions in Syria collapse quickly when a central leader or founder is lost. Others fade away gradually. For example, the Tawhid Brigade in Aleppo was weakened and split after the death of Abdulqader Saleh in November 2013, and it has now folded into another faction—but it took a while. And Ahrar al-Sham somehow survived the killing of nearly all its leaders in September 2014, relying on strong institutions and foreign support.

But in the case of the Islam Army, it has virtually been synonymous with Zahran Alloush throughout its existence, going back to the days when it was known as the Islam Battalion. Many of the most prominent leaders and representatives of the Islam Army were close friends or relatives of Zahran Alloush himself, such as Mohammed Alloush, who served as the group’s lead negotiator and political chief; he is a cousin of the Islam Army leader. If Zahran Alloush has now been killed, possibly alongside other top leaders, it could amount to a decapitation strike.

Add to that the fact that the Islam Army’s dominance has created so much resentment among other factions over the years, and the situation seems very unstable. It looks likely that the Eastern Ghouta is in for major change in the coming months.

How Does It Affect the Syrian Peace Process?

A Syrian peace process was recently launched in Vienna by the International Syria Support Group, a coalition including the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other governments. In early December, a meeting in Riyadh created an opposition body to participate in negotiations with Bashar al-Assad’s government. According to the United Nations, which will convene the talks, they are currently planned for Geneva in late January 2016.

Though Zahran Alloush couldn’t attend in person, the Islam Army was the most powerful and the most hardline faction to sign on to the Riyadh talks (after Ahrar al-Sham backed out), despite fierce opposition from al-Qaeda aligned jihadi groups. If the Islam Army has trouble getting its house in order after Zahran Alloush’s death, or is caught up in rivalries with factions seeking to increase their share in the Eastern Ghouta’s war economy, or is weakened, this could have a negative effect on the opposition’s ability to conduct talks in Geneva.

On the other hand, the peace process has plenty of other problems to stumble over—whether or not the Islam Army is on board just adds to a long list of reasons it looks likely to fail.

What Happens in Damascus?

A lot of things are happening in Damascus. Less than two weeks ago, the Syrian Arab Army and its Shia Islamist allies attacked and retook the Marj al-Sultan air base in the southern part of the Eastern Ghouta, threatening the enclave.

Also, just before the news about the airstrike that killed Zahran Alloush, it was revealed that a UN-brokered arrangement will evacuate insurgents from several neighborhoods in southern Damascus, including the Yarmouk refugee camp. These areas have been mercilessly starved by the government over the past few years, and bombed, and bitterly contested both between Palestinian factions, the Syrian government, various Sunni rebel factions, and the rival Islamic State. Now, some 4000 Sunni fighters will be escorted to their respective strongholds in northern Syria and the neighborhoods will revert to some form of government control under a ceasefire arrangement. If the deal is followed through, this marks a major advance for Bashar al-Assad’s government.

With so much up in the air, and rebels threatened on multiple fronts, Zahran Alloush’s death is important. If it leads to instability and infighting among the rebels, or weakens command and control in the Ghouta, we could start to see a shift in the balance of power in the Syrian capital over the coming months.

— Aron Lund is the editor of Syria in Crisis

Quwat al-Jalil: A Pro-Assad Palestinian Syrian Militia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

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Emblem of Quwat al-Jalil. On the top is a quotation from Qur’an 22:39, a classic verse used to invoke the concept of defensive jihad: “Permission [to fight] has been granted to those who are being fought because they have been wronged. And indeed God is capable of granting them victory.” Beneath it is the name of Quwat al-Jalil’s political wing: “Movement of the Youth of the Palestinian Return.” On bottom: “Quwat al-Jalil” (al-Jalil forces).

The Syrian civil war features multiple militias of Palestinian Syrians fighting on the side of the Assad regime. The most well-known of these is the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine- General Command, headed by Ahmad Jibril. Previously on this site I have profiled two other pro-regime Palestinian Syrian militias: Liwa al-Quds (operating primarily in the Aleppo area) and Jaysh al-Tahrir al-Falastini, which is active mainly in the Damascus area. Quwat al-Jalil is another formation that has more recently come to attention. By way of introduction, here is an article from late May 2015 about the militia in the outlet Bousla:

“More than 4800 fighters have finished their intensive military training, and have moved from theoretical military studies to operation on the battleground in Qalamoun, hand-in-hand with the Syrian army and Hezbollah: they have participated in the liberation of al-Musa hill and al-Talaja, and the assault on the two hills of al-Balukusat and al-Khashi’a. ‘We are a civilian resistance auxiliary force working with the army, and we emphasize its operation,’ thus characterizes Fadi [al]-Mellah, leader of Quwat al-Jalil, his brothers in arms. He adds: ‘We are Syrians by belonging, Palestinians by nationality and resisters by ideology and faith. Quwat al-Jalil.’

Do you remember the crossing to Majdal Shams within the operation of the return? From here was the basis for the launch, for the movement was established on 15 May 2011, and by rule of necessity, there came the establishment of Quwat al-Jalil so as to be the military wing for Harakat Shabab al-Oudat al-Falastinia [Movement of the Youth of the Palestinian Return], and by rule of history and geographical and ideological necessity, it was inevitable that there would be participation in the battles against the enemies of Syria at the side of the Syrian army to fulfil the path to al-Jalil in occupied Palestine.

[al]-Mellah says to Bousla site: ‘When the eternal president Hafez al-Assad decided to send battalions from the Syrian army to protect the resistance in Black September in Jordan, the resistance was one. And today we are one blood, and we do not consider our existence in the ranks of the Syrian Arab Army as a fine repayment to Syria: rather, our belonging to it is an obligation defend it. Thus the majority of members and cadres of the movement are from the youth of Syria at a proportion exceeding 50%. And this reinforces the belonging of the Syrian people to the Palestinian cause and the resistance state.’

He adds: ‘Our resistance also extends within the lands of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance, and we had the honour of launching the first rocket inside Gaza, named “Golan and Return,” in 2012. And we are honoured that our arms are the arms of the Syrian army, for were it not for the Syrian state, there would be no basis for the Palestinian resistance…Israel is trying to destroy Lebanon and Palestine whereas Syria protects and builds them.'”

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Quwat al-Jalil graphic.

The activism of Quwat al-Jalil’s political wing, at least in the online realm, can be traced further back. As the article translated above makes clear, Harakat Shabab al-Oudat al-Falastinia was established back in 2011 as the protests in Syria was kicking off. In a manifesto released on 3 September 2011, published from Damascus and entitled “Statement of the pledge of sacrifice for the blood of the martyrs,” the movement outlined its ideology in 17 clauses, typical of traditional Palestinian and Arab nationalist discourse, rejecting notions of any compromise with Israel. For example, the first clause affirms: “Palestine is the homeland of the Palestinian Arab people and is an inseparable part of the greater Arab homeland, and the Palestinian people are a part of the Arab Ummah.” The fifth clause asserts that “the Palestinians are among the Arab citizens who had a permanent establishment in Palestine until 1947. Regardless of whether one was expelled from it or remained in it, everyone also who was born to a Palestinian father after this date inside or outside Palestine is a Palestinian.” The ninth clause affirms that “armed struggle is the only way to liberate Palestine and it is therefore a strategy and not a tactic, and the Palestinian Arab people emphasizes its absolute resolution and firm determination to pursue armed struggle and move forward towards the popular armed revolution to liberate their homeland and return to it.”

Notably, the manifesto makes no mention of the unrest in Syria at the time, probably because the armed insurgency against the regime was still only in the nascent stages at this point. However, moving into 2012, Fadi al-Mellah began to speak openly of the events in Syria, characterizing the rebellion in an interview with the National Union of Syrian Students as “the diabolical conspiracy to which Syria is being exposed,” while emphasizing that “the path of our return [to Palestine] begins from Damascus of the Umayyads.” He also claimed that the supposed conspiracy against Syria had “begun to decline before the steadfastness of the Syrian Arab people” while affirming ostensible support for the right of Syrians to choose to embark on a reform project (i.e. some kind of limited reform within the regime’s framework), giving rise to a “renewed Syria” that would “remain a fortress for the resistance and a rock to defend the Arab rights and causes.” It was also in 2012 that Quwat al-Jalil began military operations on the ground, according to Fadi al-Mellah, who spoke to this author in a brief interview.

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Fadi al-Mellah

Fadi al-Mellah also asserted to this author that his militia has operated throughout all of Syria. From the information it has openly publicised this year, Quwat al-Jalil claims to have operated on a variety of specific military fronts. On 2 July 2015, it was announced that Fadi al-Mellah had appointed one Fadi Sheibani as the official responsible for organization, “in guiding the resisters to support the coastal front [Latakia province], and mid-northern front [Hama-Idlib].” The post added that “today by God’s help resisters have been sent to the hot zones in Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, Jurin [in the Sahl al-Ghab], the coastal areas, and Jazal in the Palmyra countryside.” In a later post on 16 September 2015, the group claimed participation in capturing the Abu Zayd hill overlooking the suburb of Dahiyet al-Assad in the Damascus area. On 16 November 2015, Fadi al-Mellah reportedly inspected the ranks of fighters in the Douma farms in Damascus countryside.

In total, Fadi al-Mellah claimed to this author that his group has some 53 ‘martyrs’ (fallen fighters). Of this number, some have been openly publicised in announcements. For example, on 23 October 2015, the group announced the death of one Muhannad Abd al-Aziz in Tel al-Karum in Quneitra province. On 11 November 2015, Quwat al-Jalil said that one Abd al-Majeed Mohsen al-Muhammad was killed in Deir az-Zor military airport. Further, on 23 September 2015, Quwat al-Jalil presented a list of 11 ‘martyrs’ who had fought in “the eastern region of the Syrian Arab Republic” (most likely referring to Deir az-Zor province). All these ‘martyrs’ apparently have the army rank of al-mulazim sharf, perhaps pointing to some overlap with the Syrian army.

The case of Quwat al-Jalil is another instance of the wider trend of militiafication of forces on the regime side, adding to the large mix of actors with a claim to influence on the Syrian landscape.

“The Assyrians of Syria: History and Prospets” by Mardean Isaac

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“The Assyrians of Syria: History and Prospects”
by Mardean Isaac* mardean.isaac@cantab.net
for Syria Comment, 21 December 2015

This article will explore the situation of Assyrians in Syria.

  1. The first section deals with the origins of Assyrians in Syria, the Assyrian identity, and the condition of Assyrians under the Assad regime.
  2. The second section deals with the impact of the Syrian uprising and civil war on Assyrians, Assyrian security forces, and the politics of Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration in Hassakah.

Origins of Assyrians in Syria

There was a strong ancient Assyrian presence across Syria, and the most significant historical churches to which Assyrians belong today – especially the Syriac Orthodox Church[1], but also the Assyrian Church of the East[2] and later the Chaldean Catholic Church[3] – navigated a presence across Syria under the various empires that ruled over the region. However, while the deep ethnic origin of Syrian Christians (and all Syrians) is comprised of pre-Arab layers, including Assyrian, these contemporary communities[4] do not today possess a distinct ethnic identity, unlike the Assyrian populations that will form the focus of this article.

Contemporary Assyrian populations are defined by a set of distinct cultural and linguistic traits. They speak the modern Assyrian language, which has two major dialects, as well as retaining usage of classical Syriac – the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the Syriac churches – of which they are the progenitors and stewards. In modern Assyrian, a language partly rooted in Akkadian and Aramaic, but much of whose morphology and lexical features have been self-generated over the centuries, Assyrians refer to themselves largely by the emic terms ‘Suraya/Sur(y)oyo[5]’*2, a variant of the term for ancient Assyrians, ‘Ashuraya/Asoraya.’ The term ‘Athoroyo/Atoraya’ is also deployed.

The major modern Assyrian presence in Syria dates back to the aftermath of the Assyrian Genocide (1914-23).  This was a Genocide distinct to that of the Armenians, although the perpetrators – Turkish nationalists and their Kurdish conscripts – extirpated both peoples in the same period and for the same reason: to rid the emergent Republic of Turkey of its Christian populations. A portion of the fleeing Armenian population also settled in Syria.

Western Assyrians[6] fleeing massacres in the historic Assyrian strongholds of Mardin, Diyarbakir, Midyat, Tur Abdin, and elsewhere, ended up in the province of Jazira, where they established the city of Qamishli (then known as Beth Zalin, ‘the house of reed’ in Assyrian) as well as villages such as those in Qabre Hewore (Al-Qahtaniyah).

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Eastern Assyrians took a more winding route to Syria. Having fled massacres in their ancestral territories in south-east Turkey, mainly in the Hakkari region, they became dispersed across the region. A decade of itinerant uncertainty regarding their fate ended with the Simele Massacre of 1933 – the foundational event of the nascent state of Iraq – after which thousands of remaining Assyrians fled into Jazira and founded villages along the Khabur river. The Khabur villages [2] 2remained a kind of living museum of Hakkari life. The villages were settled by tribe, and their names continue to colloquially bare the titles of the Assyrian tribes that inhabit them in parallel to their official Arab titles.

Assyrians continued to call these settlements “camps” even after they were developed into villages. The recent deracination of Khabur has tragically shown that they were prudent to carry a sense of their transience in their own mouths.

Both western and eastern Assyrian populations retain cultural traits – including festivals, dances, and other folk phenomena – distinct to them.

With the establishment of the Syrian state, some Assyrians also moved to Aleppo (which also hosted some Assyrians fleeing the genocide) and Damascus, as well as more obscure areas such as al-Thawrah.

Assyrians under the Assad regime

One has to first submit questions regarding the Assyrian relationship with the Syrian Government and Assad regime into the general understanding that, in times of peace – even enforced by tyranny – most people are not motivated by political ideology or agenda, but rather respond to their economic, familial, and communal needs. Assyrians in Syria were no exception. It is necessary to assert this platitude since many reports have depicted Assyrians as ‘pro-regime’, tapping into political fault-lines that are observed by analysts more than ordinary people.

Many Assyrians do not perceive the Ba’ath party or the Assad family as synonymous with the Syrian state, despite the stranglehold over political affairs in Syria that the regime possessed until the uprising and subsequent events. This reflected a fundamental attachment to the unitary Syrian state and its institutions which transcended their occupancy by the Ba’ath party and the Assad family. (However, the regime was certainly perceived[7] as a safeguard against the two fundamental fears that Assyrians possess: Islamism and Kurdish nationalism.) This ethos could be described as characteristic of Assyrian populations in all the modern states in which they have resided. The broad tendency of Arab Christian political involvement, whether with the Ba’ath, SSNP, PLO or otherwise, has been ‘greaterist’, whereas Assyrian nationalism is essentially autonomist or separatist in its orientation. However, the armed Assyrian struggle ended with the Assyrian Genocide, the Simele massacre (1933), and only resumed in a lower level form in the resistance to Saddam, entering another decline in the early 90s. In the absence of a viable plan for Assyrian separatism, Assyrian social and political organisation has focused on maintaining the Assyrian presence and, at their most radical political margin (and at considerable cost) reforming the Iraqi and Syrian states, both in general terms and with a specific view to the Assyrian ethnicity and the place of Assyrians in the state.[8]

In the case of Syria, these efforts were largely led by the Assyrian Democratic Organisation (ADO). Established in 1957, mainly by western Assyrians, the party sought democratic reform of the Syrian state as well as to secure recognition of the Assyrian identity and a more meaningful place for Assyrians within the country. ADO members who spoke out against the regime were harassed, arrested or tortured, for example, in response to publicly raising concerns over state neglect of Khabur. Gabriel Moushe, the leader of the political branch of the ADO, was arrested on December 19th, 2013, and remains in regime detention. In the final sections of this piece I will discuss the current place of the ADO in Syria.

The Assyrian Democratic Party, a small party that splintered from the ADO, was established in 1978 by Adam Homeh. In the 1990s, the ADP attempted to provide a pro-regime alternative to the ADO by, for example supporting rival Assyrian candidates for the Syrian parliament that were less oppositional to the government. It was also overtly sectarian, electing eastern Assyrians as the only ‘true’ Assyrians, and exhibiting suspicion of the dominance of the ADO by western Assyrians.

The Dawronoye were established in the mid 1990s, and will be discussed in greater detail in the final sections of this article.

The Assyrian identity and the Syrian state

The Assyrian identity is not recognised by the Syrian government.[9] Despite this, the celebration of Akitu – the ancient Assyrian new year – went ahead largely unhindered by government interference, beyond the inevitable presence of Assad family iconography and mukhabarat. Originally an event held in private, the ADO spearheaded the expansion of Akitu into the public sphere. This process was accelerated by the emboldening of the party after the release of its leadership from government imprisonment in the mid 80s. The event gained in participation and prestige over time. These spectacular and vivid images of Akitu in Hassakah from 2002 show how meaningful the celebration is to Assyrians. A mass wedding here accompanies the festival.

Assyrian cultural and linguistic matters in Syria

An hour of instruction a week in the Assyrian language was permitted by the government, but only in Churches. The Assyrian Church of the East favors the spoken Assyrian language, a position that reflects the independent and autocephalous nature of the Church. Their championing of modern Assyrian also has its roots in the transmission of 19th century European Protestant principles, which drew an association between ecclesiastical independence and using vernacular language as a means of bringing the church closer to its adherents. The Syriac Orthodox Church teaches in Classical Syriac[10], exhibiting indifference and even hostility to spoken Assyrian. Small magazines reporting on church affairs in Syriac were permitted to circulate.

The curriculum appended ‘Arab’ to the names of ancient empires of the Middle East (‘Arab Assyrian’, ‘Arab Babylonian’), claiming that the populations of these civilizations originated in the Gulf, and that after the Islamic invasion, the region became homogeneously Arab. Merely challenging this dogma was an act of intellectual and, by extension, political rebellion. The one reference to Assyrians in the curriculum, which was removed under Bashar, addressed the Simele Massacre of Iraq – but negatively so, implying the Assyrians were fifth columns and traitors to the Arab state of Iraq and that their massacre was justified and necessary. The only specific government mention of the Assyrian name, therefore, was pejorative: Assyrians were acknowledged insofar as their declared ethnic separatism was associated with troublesome and treacherous behaviour which threatened the unity of the Arab state.

A small newsletter in Assyrian (and bearing the identity) was briefly distributed in the late 80s and early 90s. It was tolerated since it belonged to Assyrian parties in northern Iraq who were in opposition to the regime of Saddam Hussein, a nemesis mutual to the Syrian government. Beyond that, magazines by the Assyrian opposition were distributed secretly: handwritten or photocopied in small numbers.

Origins of locally derived Assyrian security in Syria

The Syrian Arab Army began to withdraw from the remoter areas of Hassakah province in 2012 in order to buttress areas already under their control in western Syria, confining their military and security presence in Jazira to the cities of Hassakah and Qamishli. This began to expose Assyrians to the possibility of Islamist incursion, vindicated by some early incidents, as well as opening lines of fissure between Arab and Kurdish elements in the region. In late 2012 and early 2013, Assyrian men from Khabur began to quietly meet with a view to organising a local defence force to patrol and protect the villages. Their desire was to remain independent of all political parties, as well as to declare a stance of neutrality in relation to the regime, the YPG and even Islamist forces.

These planners witnessed an original flurry of registration by young men, which reached into the hundreds. They also hoped that enlistment in local security forces would help stem the rising tide of unemployment as well as Assyrian emigration out of Syria. But across 2013, emigration continued unabated, depleting the potential ranks of the guard force (‘Nattoreh’).

There were always discussions among the Assyrians of Hassakah as to whether stockpiling arms was a good idea. A consensus was never reached that it was. Once state security unravelled, the lack of readiness among Assyrians to direct their own fate was sorely exposed. Kurds, on the other hand, have been preparing for the collapse of Arab states since before the inception of those states.

The security situation in Khabur and the future of the Khabur villages

On February 23rd, in the early hours of the morning, ISIS attacked the villages along the Khabur. The whole population of the villages, which by then had dwindled to around 3000, fled to Qamishli and Hassakah. In the course of the incursion, ISIS captured 253 villagers, mainly from Tel Shamiran, Tel Hirmiz and Tel Jazira villages, and in many cases, entire families. 130 Assyrians remain in captivity. ISIS has released the other 123 captives, mainly elderly and infirm individuals, in batches across several months. It is unclear whether their release is the product of ransom payments, negotiations, or both – or whether for ISIS, elderly and sick captives are simply not worth the trouble of maintaining in captivity. Three male Assyrian captives were executed on the morning of September 23rd, on the festival day of eid al-Adha, and footage of the execution was released two weeks later.

The causes and dynamics behind the attack continue to haunt Assyrians contemplating their fate in Syria. Some villagers blame the YPG, and the MFS (Syriac Military Council), an Assyrian militia allied with the Kurdish force, for inciting ISIS through their position of open hostility towards the group — a step that Khabur Assyrians felt would unnecessarily imperil them. There is of course no way of knowing what the consequences of accepting YPG protection along the Khabur River – moving the frontier of the control of Kurdish self-administration along and beyond the villages – would have been. Nor of how committed, and at what cost to the Assyrian population, the YPG’s protection would have been. Accommodations had been made for ‘co-existence’ with ISIS in the weeks prior to the invasion, including taking down crosses from churches. Some MFS soldiers, emboldened by the strength of the YPG, had brashly and publicly restored the crosses on some churches in Khabur, alongside other belligerent gestures such as the kidnapping of ISIS militants.[11]

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It is, however, impossible to imagine that any sustainable arrangement could have prevented ISIS from entering the villages, as they did, unprovoked by any Assyrian conduct, in the Nineveh Plains of Iraq in August 2014. There is something in the psychology of the desire for neutrality in the midst of war that reflects the deep-seated sense of paralysis among the Khabur community, whose parochialism was sustained by state auspices and then badly exposed by their withdrawal.

Blame is also apportioned by some Assyrians to the ADO and other political parties for refusing to facilitate the arming of the Khabur Guards. The ADO does not support the contribution of Assyrians to the armed opposition – let alone in implicit defense of the regime or the PYD project to which they are explicitly opposed and critical, respectively. This position does not square with the stated desire of the Khabur Guards to remain independent of politics; it should be understood as a feeling of betrayal by fellow Assyrians who, as one interviewee put it to me, “used to talk a good game about the tyranny of the regime and democracy, but abandoned us and left Syria as soon as things got difficult.”

The Khabur villages are now free of ISIS, yet exist in a state of ruination

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8 and are still heavily mined and booby-trapped. Following the expulsion of ISIS, several bodies belonging to the overwhelmed Assyrian military resistance to the incursion were discovered. There have been a few incidents of Khabur Guardsmen dying or incurring injury while patrolling the mined wasteland of the River.

ISIS, as well as the YPG and the MFS, have extensively looted the Khabur villages.

Assassination of David Jindo

On the evening of Tuesday, April 21st, David Jindo[12] and Elias Nasser, two leaders of the Khabur guards, were abducted from their homes, blindfolded, beaten and tortured, shot at, and left for dead.[13] As their assailants fled the scene, somewhere close to the village of Jumayla, Elias Nasser crawled to a main road where he was picked up by a passing car and taken to hospital in Qamishli.

Over the coming days, two pro-ISIS Twitter feeds claimed the attack.

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I spoke to a PYD supporter who perceived the hand of the regime at work, dividing Assyrians and Kurds in Hassakah to stop what he saw as a joint project of ethnic renewal after decades of Ba’ath homogeneity. “The regime wants Assyrians to remain slaves to the church and forget their nationality,” he wrote. “The YPG trusted Jindo because he seemed like a man of his word. Why don’t people see that the PKK sacrificed a lot for Assyrians?”

As he lay in hospital in Qamishli, Elias was unable to speak owing to bullet wounds in his face and chest. But as friends went to visit him, he wrote down information conveying his certainty that his assailants were members of the YPG.

That YPG fighters were responsible for the attack came as a surprise to casual observers in the Assyrian Diaspora, who assumed, with the emergence of ISIS, that lines of combat in Syria had become morally delineated. But it was no surprise to the Khabur Guards. In the weeks prior to the assassination, a few of their leading members had been called to a meeting with YPG fighters. They customarily all left their guns and phones at the entrance. Their host brandished an AK-47 once they were seated, making it clear their options were to accept the existence of and fight for Rojava (western Kurdistan), leave Syria, or face death.

Like all the peoples of the Middle East, Assyrians have very long memories. The murder of David Jindo resonates deeply in the Assyrian imagination. There is a long and iconic list of Assyrian leaders murdered by Kurdish nationalists: Patriarch Mar Shimun, Franso Hariri, Margaret George (one of the first female Peshmerga), Francis Shabo, and so on. That many of these figures were killed in spite of their attempts to engage with, or even work under, Kurds only enhances the deeply embedded popular perception among Assyrians of an inexorable Kurdish tendency towards treachery.

The trial of the killers of David Jindo will be discussed in subsequent sections.

Assyrian security and politics under the Kurdish self-administration

The Dawronoye (“revolutionaries”) movement is arguably the most quixotic and amorphous of Assyrian political groups. The group was established as a network bridging the Assyrian Diaspora and communities in southern Turkey. Inspired by the PKK’s resilience in the face of Turkish state oppression, they operated under the auspices of the Kurdish militants, settling into a minor role as a military force in northern Iraq in the late 1990s.

In 2005, the group established the Syriac Union Party, which began to organize in Syria. With the regime-sanctioned rise of the PYD and the declaration of the autonomous Cantons in November 2013, including ‘Rojava’ in Hassakah, the Dawronoye movement finally found a true foothold in the region. The SUP called upon an expanding network of patronage and advocacy in Europe, a television channel based in Sweden, Suroyo TV, along with a branch in Lebanon, and civil society organizations in Syria under PYD auspices to attempt to entrench and expand their activities. In January 2013, the group announced the creation of the MFS (Syriac Military Council), their military wing in Gozarto[14]. More recently, the MFS established a female division, the Bethnahrain[15] Women Protection Forces, a clear parallel to the YPJ.

In their unveiling ceremonies, both the MFS and the HSNB lashed out against the Assad regime. The MFS noted the ‘murder machine’ of the regime killing ‘the Syrian people’, endorsed the ‘legitimacy of the Syrian people’s revolution’ in its desire to ‘bring down the Ba’ath regime’, but also emphasised a broader desire to oppose anyone who wished to further marginalise the Syriac people. The HSNB decried the dictatorship and chauvinism of the Assad regime. In a recent article on the group, HSNB fighters – again echoing the ethos of the PKK – said that their taking up of arms would help dispel “the idea that the Syriac woman is good for nothing except housekeeping and make-up.”

The SUP has been persecuted by the regime. Several members have been detained: most notably their Vice President Sait Cosar, who was arrested in 2013, and whose fate remains unknown. (His son, Johan Cosar, later relocated to Syria from Switzerland to train the MFS.) The SUP, however, is not part of the opposition, and neither the MFS nor the HSNB have fought regime forces. This is unsurprising given that the regime partly facilitated the rise of the PYD in Hassakah and has not entered into open conflict with the YPG. In exchange for a degree of autonomy and the license to control the direction of it, the PYD put down revolts by Arabs and Kurds[16] seeking to overthrow Bashar and used the YPG as an outsource point for security aligned with regime interests: fighting opposition forces and acting as a thorn in the side of Turkey.

Many ordinary MFS soldiers are motivated by an apolitical sense that they are protecting their own in a time of flux, and have been empowered instinctively by the ethnic and communal solidarity that the MFS offers as opposed to the SAA or the YPG proper. This situation itself finds a parallel with the YPG itself, many of whose rank and file soldiers do not share the lofty and complex ideological principles espoused by the PYD’s leadership, but rather see themselves as fighting for an independent and ultimately unified Kurdistan, in contradiction to the PYD’s proclaimed distance from ethnic separatism, belief in a unified Syria, and even disavowal of belief the nation-state per se. However, Assyrians have no greater political and land aim in Syria, unlike Kurds.

The feeling of fundamental repression, especially to the extent of wanting to overthrow the regime, is rare among Assyrians, and is commoner among Kurds, who were largely denied even rights of citizenship and title and marriage deed under Ba’athism. In that sense, it is clear that the PYD – regime alliance is a political one rather than one made durable by a shared belief in Syrian unity or ideology. The anti-regime ideological stance preferred by the MFS leadership is another incarnation of the Dawronoye attempt to ground and direct their vaguely revolutionary and anti-authoritarian ethos. But their direct motivation in openly declaring this stance is less explicit. It is prospectively useful for garnering international support for their armed struggle and the ambitions of the SUP, and certainly provides a globally understandable frame of legitimacy for their endeavour, in light of the unpopularity of the regime on the world stage.

Local tensions exist between the Khabur Guards and the MFS. However, even Elias Nasser, in his first interview following the attempt on his life, made it clear that he did not want these tensions to blossom into full ethnic ‘fitna’ between Assyrians and Kurds. Intriguingly, Dawronoye attempts to provide stewardship of the Assyrian community entire extends to commemoration of David Jindo – killed by their YPG allies – as a martyr, alongside MFS fighters who died fighting Islamists, as can be seen in this MFS martyr monument in Qamishli.

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This is clearly part of an attempt by the pro-PYD MFS to try to encompass the concerns of the entire Assyrian community.

The original ruling of the killers of David Jindo saw two men receive two years each, with no punishment handed to the two other individuals involved. A re-trial in July saw the sentences extended to 20 years for two of the killers, and four years and one year respectively for the other two men. Suroyo TV broadcasted footage of the trial. In the news clip, the Kurdish judge, wearing traditional clothing and presiding over a court room with a photo of Abdullah Ocalan above its entrance, speaks of the dynamics of the ruling. He points to “open meetings” that took place with Assyrian, Arab and Kurdish representatives in which the opinions of individuals and “left wing” parties were noted, and claims that these discussions led to the revised decision regarding the sentence. He asserts that the sentence will help guarantee the brotherhood and unity of all the peoples of Rojava. There is no discussion of the actual procedures and principles of the ruling: the processing of evidence, establishment of proof, and so on.

In their press release in response to the first ruling, the Bethnahrain National Council (MUB), the overseeing political body of the Dawronoye, decried the murder of David Jindo as an “unpardonable act, not only against our people, but also against Kurds and all oppressed peoples.” The statement also emphasised that the involvement of “some elements in the Kurdish Freedom Movement in the incident saddened and disappointed [the MUB] deeply, as well as our people.” (The final two clauses constitute another interesting attempt to shade their political solidarity with the Kurdish movement across the whole community of Assyrians.) The SUP claimed credit for influencing the subsequent expansion of the sentence, hinting at the political nature of the decision.

Issues of security receive disproportionate coverage in the international press and hold a powerful symbolic, imagistic, and political value. The Assyrian Diaspora imbues security forces in Iraq and Syria with the hopes of their entire destiny, which is deeply unrealistic given their small size. Similarly, the PYD has made very skillful usage of the MFS in their propaganda, frequently mentioning their Christian allies to show that the YPG is not the only force fighting for Rojava. The Russian intervention, backed by the PYD, stepped up the need for American intervention in some form in response. This was seized upon by the PYD, who put together the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’, an entity thoroughly dominated by the YPG but also containing small numbers of Arab fighters as well as the MFS. Their flag bears writing in Arabic, Kurdish and Assyrian, and the map of Syria emblazoned on it – in a mischievous gesture of antagonism towards Turkey – contains Hatay Province. The YPG, therefore, has not only gained from Russian bombing of opposition targets, but has attracted American support (including specialised training) in the form of the SDF.

The current status of Assyrian security forces independent of the YPG

In May, a security force dubbed the Gozarto Protection Forces (GPF) was established. Notably, the GPF bears the same logo as the Nineveh Plains Protection Units (NPU), an Assyrian security force in northern Iraq, despite the lack of common political party patronage. The GPF and the Sootoro[17], its local security unit division, immediately took part in the defence of Hassakah in May and June. The NPU seeks sanction under the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Law), attempting to utilize the broad anti-ISIS mandate to assist in the liberation and subsequent defence of in the Nineveh Plains following the Peshmerga withdrawal and subsequent ISIS incursion into the region in the summer of 2014.

Despite the discrepancies between the overall state of Iraq and Syria, there are parallels between the NPU and GPF. Both forces seek to operate independently from Kurdish nationalist control seek sanction and support from central governments.

In November, the GPF was flown by Russian planes to assist in the defence of Sadad, a Syriac Orthodox Town north-east of Damascus that was overrun by Jabhat al-Nusra in October, 2013. The deployment of the GPF, originally a local force, to assist the SAA close to its heartland, shows signs of a potentially broader engagement with the regime, as well as reflecting the manpower problem in the SAA. The GPF received a raucous reception upon their return to Qamishli from Sadad.

The local security forces of the Guardians of Khabur and the Guardians of Tel-Tamar recently announced their merger.

Assyrians under the Kurdish self-administration: Beyond security and military matters

Social relations between Kurds and Assyrians in Hassakah have always been poor. I have never spoken to an Assyrian who has told me that their family had an intimate bond with a Kurdish (or an Arab) family, even to the extent that they would have had dinner at one another’s homes, for example. Even though Kurdish and Assyrian political parties exchanged delegations during Akitu and Nowruz celebrations, popular interest by one ethnic group in the other’s celebrations were almost non-existent. Inter-marriage is utterly taboo: both communities are endogamous. The elopement of Assyrian women with Kurdish men has often ended up with the murder of the woman by her Assyrian siblings, and occasionally both the woman and the man. Assyrian men who have attempted to marry Kurdish women have faced a similar fate at the hands of the Kurdish family, especially if they do not convert to Islam. The state treated incidents where only the ‘offending party’ was murdered as an honor crime, usually sentenced to six months, whereas if the other party was also killed it was treated as murder per se and sentenced appropriately.

Beyond questions of security, there are a series of issues that have arisen regarding the relationship of the Kurdish self-administration to Assyrians.

— Assyrian property, including the villages of the Khabur, was threatened by a law proposed in September in the self-administration parliament of Amuda on Emigrant Properties which stated that all abandoned properties – many of which were emptied due to the flight of Assyrians following the unrest in Hassakah generally and the emergence of ISIS specifically – were liable to confiscation. Following overwhelming objections by Assyrians and others, the law was overturned. The issue of land is deeply significant to Assyrians as well as Kurds in relation to the regime. Land ownership rights were a key cause of the security Assyrians broadly ‘enjoyed’ under the Syrian state, especially in light of the persecutions that robbed them of their previous homeland. They perceived their extensive and legally enshrined ownership of property and the state stability concomitant to it as a guarantor against external or partisan encroachments. The lack of land rights was a profound cause of anger and mistrust by Kurds towards the Syrian state, one dimension of the ‘de-naturalisation’ policies and broader ideological and racial humiliation, antagonism and repression of Kurds by the Ba’ath party.

With the consolidation of PYD authority over Assyrian territories and communities, these divergent positions between Assyrians and Kurds in relation to land have clashed and come to the fore, and are compounded and inflected by questions over the direction of Kurdish nationalist interests. Assyrians in Syria are aware of the extraordinary scale of Kurdish confiscation and forced annexation of Assyrian land in northern Iraq, as well as carrying memories of the same phenomenon in Turkey.

— Ongoing anxieties over the issue of conscription and military service have led to the emigration of Assyrians from Hassakah. Proven completion of SAA service will not necessarily act as a safeguard against conscription into the YPG (either proper or in the form of the MFS) or into six-month terms of duty in the HXP (Self-Defense Units). A report compiled in May by three Assyrians – Sawa Oshanne Ide, Erkin Metin, and Simon Poli, a member of the HDP – quotes members of the ADO describing harassment and arrest of Assyrians in Derik to this effect.

— The educational policies of the PYD led self-administration in the Jazira region have raised alarm among Assyrian and other Christian organizations. The ideological orientation of the curriculum has shifted from a broadly more palatable — to the broadly temperamentally and culturally conservative Assyrian community of Hassakah — combination of church-led and Ba’ath pedagogy to one perceived as being steeped in radical PKK/PYD ideology, especially in the subjects of History and Sociology. Many public schools in Qamishli have closed in response to these developments. Hundreds of Kurdish children, whose families sought to avoid enrolling their children in schools that would teach the PYD curriculum, were turned away from private Syriac schools.

Sixteen Assyrian organisations – largely ecclesiastical in orientation but also including the ADO – signed a statement on November 1st decrying various PYD policies, including the enforcement of new curricula. Negotiations are ongoing regarding the implementation of the new curriculum between the education administration of Rojava, the regime, and private schools.

More fundamentally, it is very rare indeed to come across an Assyrian, aside from those who are direct participants in Rojava, who is comfortable with Kurdish rule, or one who perceives Rojava as anything other than a project of ethnocracy and ethno-national partition. Mistrust of Kurdish nationalism is very deep in the community, expressed in Assyrian proverbs such as “do not put a Kurd in your pocket, he will not turn to gold,” and “have dinner with the Kurd, but sleep at the Arab’s house.” Any encroachment is liable to trigger fear and mistrust. The changes taking place in Gozarto, taking place against a backdrop of far more alien and ghoulish transformations across the country, have overwhelmed the Assyrian community. It is not uncommon to encounter more detailed and up to date knowledge of developments among analysts in Diaspora than Assyrians on the ground. The stability of the Syrian state, which insulated the Assyrian community while allowing it to be overseen by an entity whose perceived order, legitimacy and continuity afforded Assyrians a sense – however tempered by authoritarianism – of civic identity and national belonging, is gone.

“We can never trust them,” an Assyrian man who fled Khabur last year told me. “Arabs can be bought off, but nothing will satisfy a Kurd except a country.”

The future of Assyrians in Syria

Assyrian migration out of the Middle East is constant. A 2003 population of around one million Assyrians in Iraq has dwindled to around 400,000 today. There were 150,000 Assyrians in Iran on the eve of the Islamic Revolution in 1979; today, only a few thousand remain. The Assyrian population of Turkey is around 20,000. Assyrians have been leaving Syria steadily from the 1980s, and the uprising and the emergence of ISIS have only accelerated this process. Around 50,000 Assyrians remain in Gozarto. Small numbers of Assyrians also remain in Damascus and Aleppo.

As conditions in the Middle East have become more unstable and extreme, the reality and experience of the Assyrian Diaspora and homeland populations diverges further. Fewer Assyrians return to visit their families and communities. Even though the capacity of Diaspora Assyrians to engage with and support Assyrians in the homeland populations in an organized manner is increasing, the possibility for viable independent Assyrian projects declines constantly along with demographics.

I have observed a transformation in the attitudes and memories of Assyrians who grew up in an atmosphere of opposition to the regime and who now live abroad. Even more fundamentally than a shift in political stance in favour of the regime, which is relatively rare, the extent of the carnage that has befallen Syria has eroded recollections of what it was they had a problem with in relation to the government in the first place. It was almost as if the stability of the regime served as a pivot or fulcrum for their opposition stances – which usually revolved around a disdain for nepotism and corruption, a desire to promote the Assyrian ethnic identity and culture more officially, a yearning for freedom of speech and a freer media, and anger at government neglect of Assyrian areas in favour of Arab ones – which now appear remote and quaint in light of the collapse of the state and the country. Their eyes glaze over in baffled fear when contemplating the future of Syria.

The intellectual and moral stability provided by the ADO has also arguably entered into decline. The party has no firm place in Syrian political affairs today. Having thrown its lot in with the opposition, which has since transformed unrecognisably, the ADO – a member of the Syrian National Council – continues to refuse the legitimacy of the regime without being able to claim a meaningful position among the forces seeking its demise.

The psychological effect of the Khabur kidnappings, especially since so many remain captive, has been devastating. Some trepid return has taken place to the Khabur villages, which is more than can be said for the Nineveh Plains. The recent ISIS suicide bomb attack in the once majority Assyrian city of Tel Tamar, in which four Assyrians died, is a reminder of the constant threat of terrorism, against which Assyrians have no reliable recourse.

Today’s events in the Middle East echo those of a century ago. The overarching structures of political and social organisation – now of the Arab state, then of the Ottoman Empire – are giving way to turmoil, ethnic cleansing, and uncertainty. After the dividing and redrawing of borders was complete, the polities that emerged attempted to yoke together various ethnicities and sects, and Assyrians secured a diminished place within them. There is little reason to believe that the forms of organization that will emerge from the chaos in the region today will feature even the aim of co-existence, let alone the attainment thereof. In the absence of a plan for an independent Assyrian national endeavour, the Assyrian people face an existential threat in their ancestral homelands.

Hundreds of thousands of Assyrians died in the process of dissolving the Ottoman Empire and creating new states from it. The sheer scale of murder, along with the abysmal humanitarian conditions that ensued, is at least being largely spared the Assyrians of today. Also novel, however, is the phenomenon of emigration to western countries, which now contain far more Assyrians than exist in the Middle East. There is mercy here, at least for those privileged Assyrians who manage to find a secure path abroad. Along with their departure will go the Assyrian culture, language, and entire living heritage, permanently confining the Assyrian people to the annals of history.

*Mardean Isaac is a writer of fiction, journalism and essays. He has written and spoken widely on the Middle East & holds an MA in English Literature from Cambridge University and an MSt in Syriac Studies from Oxford University.

Footnotes

[1] In 2000, the Syrian Orthodox Church changed its name to the Syriac Orthodox Church.

[2] The Church of the East added the title ‘Assyrian’ to its name in 1976.

[3] The Chaldean Catholic Church is an offshoot of the Assyrian Church of the East, established in 1552 when Yuhannan Sulaqa, a Church of the East bishop, entered communion with Rome following internal disputes with his peers. The Assyrian population of Iraq is predominantly Catholic, owing to conversions that mainly took place against the backdrop of the travails of the 19th century, but the Chaldean Catholic denomination is a minority among the Assyrians of Syria.

[4] Meaning the ‘Arab Christian’ populations of western Syria, mainly belonging to Melkite, Greek Orthodox, and Syriac Orthodox confessions.

[5] The western dialect of Assyrian reads the ‘A’ vowel as an ‘O’.

[6] Some western Assyrians, who are largely Syriac Orthodox, refer to themselves by their denominational title ‘Syriac’, an ethnically neutral translation of ‘Sur(y)oyo’. The Arabic version of this title is ‘Syrani’; ‘Süryaniler’ in Turkish. Western Syrian adherents of the Syriac Orthodox Church largely describe themselves as ‘Syrani’ as a title of religious belonging, while referring to themselves as ethnic Arabs.
[7] In using the past tense in reference to the regime and the Syrian government in relation to Hassakah, I am not passing a definitive judgment on its future as a whole. Too many variables are at play, both within Syria and regionally, for such an assessment, and a broad discussion of the fate of the country is beyond the scope of this article. However, the prospect of the regime restoring the status quo antebellum, in particular in Hassakah, is remote. In using the past tense, therefore, I acknowledge that the norms I describe in this section are either threatened or no longer apply as they once did, and that an era of relatively stable political and social organisation has come to a likely definitive end, especially in relation to the particular matters I discuss herein.

[8] An old joke that reflects the ideological distance between the Arabist Syrian state and the Assyrian community goes like this: An Assyrian is recruited into the SAA. He is told that his first mission will be alongside the PLO in Tel Aviv. He asks the general, “Tel Aviv… Is that east or west of Tel Tamar [a village along the Khabur River]?”

[9] One instance of a slight reconfiguration in the policy of the state towards affairs related to the Assyrian and Syriac people, rather than churches, can be observed as follows. The Syriac Orthodox Church, which had hitherto never publically addressed the events of the Assyrian Genocide that led to the establishment of the western Assyrian presence in Syria, publically screened a documentary on the Assyrian Genocide in Damascus in August. This facilitation of this public commemoration by the Syrian state reflected the emergence of Turkey, the instigators of the Genocide of Assyrians, Greek and Armenians a century ago, as a foe of the regime in the civil war.

Some contemporary regime aligned media outlets refer to Assyrians as such.

[10] Classical Syriac is understood almost exclusively by scholars and church figures, and is spoken only by monks – in the Mor Gabriel Monastery in Turkey, for example, and erudite hobbyists.

[11] The first MFS martyr, Tamer “Athro” Bahde, died in clashes with ISIS in this period.

[12] David Jindo was a deacon in the Assyrian Church of the East.

[13] The assailants also stole guns and money from Elias Nasser and David Jindo’s property.

[14] The term ‘Jazira’ province is derived from ‘Gozarto’, the Assyrian word meaning ‘Island’.

[15] The term ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – ‘between the rivers [Tigris and Euphrates]’, a Syriac translation of the Greek word ‘Mesopotamia’, is itself controversial among Assyrians. One of the most significant premises of Assyrian nationalism is a land claim. In using the ethnically neutral yet historically resonant term ‘Beth Nahrain’, parties such as the SUP and the Beth-Nahrain Democratic Party, a KRG aligned party in northern Iraq, attempt to create a vision of a homeland that is deeper than and apart from contemporary nation-states without tying it directly to an Assyrian nationalist endeavour. This narrative goes:  We belong to ‘Beth-Nahrain’ – others now partake in it but we were its earliest inhabitants – whereas ‘Assyria’ only belongs to Assyrians.

[16] The PYD does not have a monopoly on political support among the Kurds of Hassakah, but has been able to assert itself over its rivals due to the overwhelming strength of the YPG.

[17] The MFS also has a local security unit called ‘Sutoro’ [sic].

The Factions of North Latakia

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Since the beginning of Russian airstrikes in Syria, the north Latakia fighting front has emerged as a key battleground as regime forces- including irregular militias like the Muqawama Suriya and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party’s Nusur al-Zawba’a– and Shi’a militias like the Iraqi Harakat al-Nujaba’ seek to make advances and consolidate the remaining rump state. Contrasting with the Aleppo front but similar to developments in north Hama, the north Latakia front has remained largely at a stalemate, with the two main frontline areas being Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman. The question then arises of which insurgent factions are operating on this front. In general, these factions are diverse in nature, ranging from Western-backed groups to jihadists. Further, they tend to acknowledge that they do not operate alone but rather cooperate with multiple other groups. This is so despite the fact that the last two major offensives launched by rebel forces in Latakia province- summer 2013 (A’isha Mother of the Believers Battle) and spring 2014 (al-Anfal Battle)- were spearheaded by foreign jihadists, with the area having a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen.

For the purposes of this survey of factions, it is useful first to consider the distinctly local groups, and then contingents of more well-known and widespread rebel and jihadist coalitions and factions that are participating on the Latakia frontlines.

1st Coastal Division

1stCoastalDivision

The 1st Coastal Division, which operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas, is a declared Free Syrian Army [FSA] faction that was announced on 21 October 2014 as a merger of three rebel groups in Latakia province: Liwa al-‘Adiyat fi al-Sahel al-Souri, the First Brigade in the Mid-West Front, and the Storm Brigade (Liwa al-Asifa). The FSA affiliation of 1st Coastal comes as no surprise. For example, Liwa al-‘Adiyat was previously involved in the Supreme Military Council (SMC)-affiliated conglomeration known as Ahfad al-Rasul, which has since become defunct. The Mid-West Front similarly had links with the SMC, as when SMC leader Salim Idriss toured the Latakia frontline in the summer 2013 offensive. The Storm Brigade was formed in early 2013 as a merger of five local brigades in Latakia province. Sub-formations of these brigades have evidently carried over into 1st Coastal, such as the A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion that was also the name of a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade.

AishaUmmMumineen1stCoastal
A’isha Mother of the Believers Battalion, previously a sub-formation of the Storm Brigade but now the 1st Coastal as per the merger.

The 1st Coastal formation statement affirmed that “the mission of this division is to bring down the Assad regime, and secure stability and security for the free Syrian people.” Further, the statement called on “all factions operating in the Syrian Sahel [coastal area] to unite for the sake of realizing the near victory.” The 1st Coastal has received TOW missiles, which it notably used to down a helicopter in a separate incident on the same day in late November that the Russian pilots and their aircraft were shot down by Turkey over north Latakia.

Though the leader of the Storm Brigade component- Basil Zemo- was killed in October reportedly in Russian airstrikes, 1st Coastal continues to have a prolific output of videos and other media content advertising its operations. Though the division does not espouse a particular ethnic or sectarian platform, its membership primarily consists of local Arabs. That said, at least one Turkmen contingent appears to exist within 1st Coastal: the Mustafa Battalion, whose leader- Abu Rashad al-Turkomani– was declared to have been killed in the Jabal al-Turkoman area in early October, along with his companion Abu Rabah.

2nd Coastal Division

2ndCoastalDivision

As the group’s emblem suggests, the 2nd Coastal Division is a Syrian Turkmen brigade operating primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area. The group’s spokesman, whom this author interviewed, claimed that the brigade has some 2000 fighters and was formed approximately a year ago (some time after 1st Coastal) as a merger of some local brigades. The leader of the brigade is one Bashar Mulla. The group’s spokesman says that constituent groups of 2nd Coastal include the Yaldram Bayazid Brigade, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade, and the 1st and 4th Murad Brigades.

The claimed figure of 2000 is likely to be an exaggeration though, and the spokesman for another group on the Jabal al-Turkoman front- Katibat Jabal al-Islam- asserted that 2nd Coastal probably has no more than 500 members. The extent of media output and the ethnic minority composition of 2nd Coastal would suggest that the brigade is likely smaller than 1st Coastal. Similar to 1st Coastal, it identifies as part of the FSA, and offered condolences to 1st Coastal under this moniker on the death of Basil Zemo.

10th Brigade

10thBrigade

The 10th Brigade is another declared FSA faction. Like 2nd Coastal, it is based primarily in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, though it also operates in Jabal al-Akrad. According to the media representative for the 10th Brigade, the group’s beginnings ultimately trace back to a union of a number of local Latakia countryside battalions in August 2012. From the beginning these brigades considered themselves FSA.

That said, the brand of the 10th Brigade did not come to public light until the following year, as the 10th Brigade was announced to be a part of the SMC-linked Mid-West Front  in the summer of 2013. Indeed, soon after that declaration, the 10th Brigade was identified as a participant in the offensive push towards Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha, though its role back then could only be described as minor and auxiliary at best.

Moving forward to the present day, the 10th Brigade’s media representative offered a quite realistic view of the nature of operations in an interview with this author: “The 10th Brigade in the Sahel since its establishment and until today has participated in all the defence battles that have occurred in Latakia countryside, just as it answered demands to provide support on all the fronts that the Assad forces tried to assault: and the most important part is ribat [frontline maintenance duty], for as is well known on the ground of reality but not well known in the media, ribat on the frontlines constitutes more than 80% of the military operations that include battles, provisions of assistance and the like, and it constitutes most of the operations, which lead to attrition.” In total, the representative put current ribat operations at six fronts in Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad.

Despite its FSA identity, the 10th Brigade has also provided training for fighters not necessarily linked to the FSA networks. The most notable case concerns fighters from Homs who later emerged as the Jaysh al-Sunna faction that is part of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, which controls the majority of Idlib province. As explained by the 10th Brigade representative: “After the fleeing of the fighters from besieged Homs, we received some of them in the 10th Brigade camp in the Sahel that is considered the largest camp for a military faction…but the revolutionaries who fled from Homs and whom we received did not have any moniker at that time except ‘Revolutionaries of Besieged Homs’, and there was not among them at that time any military activity. But after that they decided to head to the regions of Idlib and we heard as others had heard that they had called themselves Jaysh al-Sunna and had become part of the Jaysh al-Fatah operations room, and we have no connection with them outside of the aim of bringing down the regime of the dictator Bashar al-Assad and building a state guaranteeing a life of dignity and freedom and securing a future for the children of Syria in the most preferable manner possible.”

In keeping with an FSA identity, the 10th Brigade professes rejection of sectarian and ethnic distinction in its language, insisting that its members are of Syrian identity alone.

Farqat Asifat al-Hazm

FarqatAsifatHazmBrigade

Farqat Asifat al-Hazm is a faction whose name translates as the “Determination Storm Division.” Its members are mostly local Arabs from Latakia and Baniyas, the latter having once been a focal point of insurgent unrest in Tartous province until put down through sectarian massacres by regime forces aided by the Muqawama Suriya militia in 2013. Farqat Asifat al-Hazm operates solely in the Jabal al-Turkoman and Jabal al-Akrad areas in Latakia province, and it was established in April 2015. The establishment of the group was announced in a video by one Abd al-Majid Dabis, who summarised the division’s aims as “freedom, security and equality for the Syrian people in all its components.” Abd al-Majid Dabis had been involved with the SMC, also known at the time as the Council of Thirty.  The opposition site all4Syria notes that alongside Abd al-Jayyid in the announcement video appears Hadhifa al-Shughri, who is the leader of a local Latakia province brigade called Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya (Sons of Qadisiya Division). Based on this point and the similarities in emblems for the groups (see below for Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya emblem), it is likely that the two organizations are closely linked to each other. Interestingly, Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya also maintains a da’wa office, which has engaged in activity in the Latakia countryside.

FarqatAbnaQadisiya

FarqatAbnaQadisiyaDawaOffice
Activities of the da’wa office of Farqat Abna’ al-Qadisiya

According to Farqat Asifat al-Hazm’s spokesman, [outside] aid for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm stopped three months ago and the group is hoping that Turkey will provide support. He also emphasized that the brigade’s primary aim above all is the downfall of the regime: “Before the talk of a civil or democratic state, we want to bring about the downfall of the regime and get rid of Russia and the regime on account of their crimes against the people. After the downfall, let the people choose what it wants. We will not interfere with their will.”

Overall, Farqat Asifat al-Hazm appears to be a more minor component of the north Latakia insurgency in comparison with 1st Coastal, 2nd Coastal and the 10th Brigade.

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid

LiwaSultanAbdalHameed

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid translates as the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade. It will be recalled that the 2nd Coastal claims that a formation with this name is affiliated with it. However, the Sultan Abd al-Hamid Brigade profiled here is claimed by its own media representative to be an independent Syrian Turkmen faction, so to avoid confusion it will hereafter be denoted as Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid.

Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid, under the leadership of one Omar Abdullah and operating in Jabal al-Turkoman, first emerged in January 2015 as a merger of three local battalions: Omar al-Mukhtar, Omar ibn Abd al-Aziz, and Othman Ghazi. Omar Abdullah at the time claimed the new formation’s numbers exceeded some 300 fighters- considerably smaller than the numbers 2nd Coastal claims. Ideologically, Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid seems similar to the other FSA-identifying formations in north Latakia. As the media representative for the group stated to this author: “Our manhaj [program] is that we want to remove oppression from this people. We do not want a Turkmen authority or state, but rather we want to bring down this tyrant and oppressor Bashar.”

OmarMukhtarBrigadevehicles
Vehicles of the Omar al-Mukhtar Battalion of Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid

OthmanGhaziBattalion
Members of the Othman Ghazi Battalion. Note the Liwa al-Sultan Abd al-Hamid emblem on the vehicle.

Katibat Jabal al-Islam

KatibaJabalIslamLatakia2

Katibat Jabal al-Islam means the “Mount Islam Battalion.” According to the media representative for this group interviewed by the author, Katibat Jabal al-Islam was established in 2012 and is independent. The group operates in the Jabal al-Turkoman area and is primarily Syrian Turkmen in ethnic composition, though it also claims to have Arabs in its ranks as no distinctions are supposedly made on ethnic grounds in accordance with the group’s ideology, which appears to be of jihadist orientation. Indeed, the group’s representative affirmed that the ideological program is the same as that of Syrian al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and that the group strives to “make God’s law the rule of law in the land.” In this context, it should also be noted that on its Facebook page, Katibat Jabal al-Islam shared the Jaysh al-Fatah statement rejecting “foreign projects” seeking to impose “democracy and secularism” in Syria.

KatibaJabalIslamLatakia

The representative claimed that the group is the largest Syrian Turkmen faction in the area and leads the operations in Jabal al-Turkoman, putting the number of fighters for the group at 300.

Other Rebel Factions

Besides the six distinctly local factions profiled above, there are also a number of more familiar rebel groups that participate in the Latakia fighting. Either they are more widespread as individual factions or they are part of bigger coalitions. The most notable actors here are Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Islam, Ansar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Mujahideen. Of these groups, Jaysh al-Mujahideen- a rebel coalition native to Aleppo province that was once part of the Shami Front merger but subsequently split off- is arguably the smallest, serving as a very minor auxiliary force in Jabal al-Turkoman. In a somewhat similar vein, Jaysh al-Islam, being primarily based in the Damascus area, has much less influence in the northwest of Syria and seems to serve in a supportive role in the Latakia front through firing of projectiles and rockets at regime positions.

Ahrar al-Sham and Ansar al-Sham- both officially groups of the Islamic Front that has ceased to function as a real political coalition- have more established presences in Latakia province. Besides regularly advertising its operations in Latakia via photos on social media, Ahrar al-Sham was an important participant in both the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives, and currently has local affiliates such as Liwa Ahrar al-Jabal al-Wustani, whose commander Ahmad Ali Abu Ayham was announced to have been killed on 28 November in the fighting in the Jabal al-Akrad area.

Ansar al-Sham primarily operates within Latakia province and was previously a part of the Ahrar-led Salafi coalition known as the Syrian Islamic Front in the late 2012-2013 period. Like Ahrar al-Sham, it participated in the 2013 and 2014 Latakia offensives. It is also notable for having jihadist fighters of North Caucasian origin in its ranks and leadership, such as one-time leader Abu Musa al-Shishani, a faction under Abdul-Hakim al-Shishani that subsequently split off from Ansar al-Sham in October 2014 to give rise to Jamaat Jund al-Qawqaz/Ajnad Kavkaz, and Hanif al-Kabardini, the deputy leader of Ansar al-Sham who was recently killed in the Jabal al-Akrad area . According to a source of Ajnad Kavkaz origin, Kabardini was from Russia and was born to a Circassian father and a Russian mother. There are also conflicting claims that he was killed alongside a certain Muslim al-Shishani. Though pro-opposition Enab Baladi’s Latakia correspondent denies that the Muslim al-Shishani of Georgian nationality who leads jihadi faction Junud al-Sham has been killed, this author’s source says that the slain Muslim al-Shishani is another Muslim al-Shishani who was serving as leader of Ansar al-Sham.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Sham has tended to keep quiet in its own media channels about the issue of foreign jihadists in its ranks, but one sign of recent key losses and trouble may be a new statement issued on 7 December by the group’s Shari’i council, entitled “The Syrian Sahel between abandonment and attrition”:

“Indeed what our Syrian Sahel [coastal area] is being exposed to in Jabal al-Akrad and Jabal al-Turkoman from a vicious campaign in which the nations of the earth have gathered against the oppressed from the Muslims requires every Muslim capable of fighting and supporting his brothers to support them and relieve them as far as he can, just as it requires the factions operating on all of the liberated lands to unite their military capabilities and powers and send what goes beyond their needs from weapons and equipment or manpower support in order to be an aid to their brothers in the Syrian Sahel and foil the plot of the plotters.

Our mujahideen brothers, the continuous succession of strikes on these areas and the repeated daily attempts by the regime supported by Russian aircraft are coming down heavily on the battalions and factions present in these areas, and indeed all following what is going on know the extent of attrition that these factions are being exposed to and the extent of material, military and manpower weakness that has caught up with them especially with the continuous succession of these attacks and the falling of frontline maintainers and defenders between the two fires of securing their people and relatives and protecting the frontlines.

Our brothers…be a source of support for your brothers, make preparations and send aid and arms to support your brothers. Otherwise, be prepared to be the next ones to face this regime after it is done with your brothers. We ask God for guidance and steadfastness for us all: indeed He is the best to be implored.

Shari’i Council
Ansar al-Sham.”

Jihadist Factions

As mentioned in the introduction, Latakia province has had a reputation as a hangout for muhajireen. Indeed, a number of well-known jihadist factions with foreign components/leadership set up base in Latakia province, such as Suqur al-Izz, which was led by Saudis and merged with Jabhat al-Nusra last year, and Harakat Sham al-Islam, a Moroccan-led faction that first emerged in 2013 and has remained separate from Jabhat al-Nusra in being affiliated with the Jabhat Ansar al-Din jihadi coalition, despite the clear al-Qa’ida affinities and the merger of that coalition’s leading component- Jaysh al-Muhajireen wa al-Ansar– with Jabhat al-Nusra earlier this year.

Other notable actors have included the North Caucasian-led Junud al-Sham, which has recently been off the radar of social media, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham, whose leader Abu Obeida al-Masri initially headed to Latakia after being forced to withdraw from the Azaz area in summer 2014. However, one must distinguish between using Latakia as a hang-out place as opposed to trying to consolidate one’s influence there in the long-run. For instance, Jaysh Muhammad in Bilad al-Sham seems to have primarily focused on riding the wave of Jaysh al-Fatah-led advances in Idlib province since spring 2015 and building influence among the local populations there. This contrasts with Harakat Sham al-Islam, whose attempts to engage in outreach to local populations in Latakia province have long been apparent.

Overall, based on media output and the testimony of other Latakia groups, the most important jihadist factions operating on the Latakia frontlines at the present time are Jabhat al-Nusra, Harakat Sham al-Islam and the Uyghur-jihadist Turkistan Islamic Party, the last of which has also been involved in heavy fighting in the Sahl al-Ghab plains to the west and can wield influence in Latakia province on the basis of Turkic ethnic solidarity with the Syrian Turkmen. The spokesman for 2nd Coastal had noted the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam in particular but sought to downplay their numbers, while the spokesman for Farqat Asifat al-Hazm pointed to the role of Jabhat al-Nusra and Turkistan Islamic Party in the fighting but attempted to minimise the Jabhat al-Nusra presence and characterize its role as one of occasional auxiliary support.  The Jabal al-Turkoman operations room according to Katibat Jabal al-Islam includes Jabhat al-Nusra and Harakat Sham al-Islam.

From the jihadist propaganda, the Turkistan Islamic Party seems to stand out here recently. On 27 November, one account linked to the group claimed 30 ‘martyrs’ over the past two weeks in the Jabal al-Turkoman area, pointing to deep involvement on the front lines.

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The Turkistan Islamic Party-linked account claiming 30 ‘martyrs’ over two weeks in Jabal al-Turkoman area (H/T Caleb Weiss).

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Harakat Sham al-Islam in Jabal al-Turkoman. Photo released in late November.

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Jabhat al-Nusra also in Jabal al-Turkoman.

Conclusion

The Latakia frontlines present a myriad of insurgent actors, with no single faction taking the lead across the entire front. In general, the dynamics seem to have shifted from the jihadist-led failed offensives of largely symbolic and diversionary value to a stalemate with constant localized back-and-forth, requiring insurgent groups of all stripes to coordinate their efforts. With the failure of the jihadist-spearheaded offensives, FSA-brand forces in particular also seem to have become better organized and better equipped to play a more serious role in the fighting, balancing out the playing field somewhat.

 

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With the help of more than 850 individual donors, we opened in 2013 the Peace Center in Bkarzla, a small village next to the district capital Halba. The Akkar is a mixed region where a Sunni majority lives side by side with Christians and Alawis. In this region, family ties have crossed the Syrian border for many years. It is the ideal place to create a model that could also work inside Syria.

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Our Peace Center welcomes the youth of different confessions and groups, both Syrian and Lebanese. We chose a building in a safe, natural setting to give traumatized children and adolescents the possibility to rest. In our Peace Center, they are receiving psychosocial, educational support, as well as material assistance.

In 2014, R&R worked with more than 20 tented settlements through educational and psychosocial work, enrolled 682 students in our regular educational activities and distributed food baskets and other survival aid to 2,161 most vulnerable families, reaching more than 11,000 individuals.

THE EDUCATIONAL PROGRAM

R&R created and financially supports a Camp School in the refugee Camp Al-Ihsan, situated in the plain of Minyarah. In the end of 2014, 340 students from a dozen surrounding camps were enrolled in Al-Ihsan School that included 14 school classes and 1 pre-school class.

The lack of French language skills is one of the main reasons preventing Syrian students from accessing Lebanese schools. Unlike Syria, the Lebanese curriculum for most main subjects is taught in French. The starting point for R&R’s work with most of our students is hence Intensive Language Classes in French or English as well as basic knowledge of Arabic and math classes if needed. In 2014, altogether 363 children were enrolled in these classes.

Finally R&R organizes Remedial Homework Help Classes as well as a Work & Learn Scheme targeting students beyond 15 years of age who have to work. In 2014, more than 300 children participated to these activities.

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R&R provides practical help to the youth and their families and these activities serve as a first contact point. In close cooperation with national and international organizations, we are responding to those needs that have so far been neglected. Our assessment has identified hygiene and first aid kits as the most urgent problems in the refugee settlements. We are working on short-term assistance and long-term infrastructure solutions.

THE PSYCHOSOCIAL PROGRAM

Daily child care is offered by local volunteers to children enrolled in the Al- Ihsan camp school. In the second half of 2014, international volunteers started implementing regular dance and sport activities once or twice a week, both for women and for men. Local youth clubs were also established in Michmich and at the Al-Ihsan Camp.

OUR VALUES

As a peace building initiative, we are politically neutral and not affiliated to any government or party. However we are not neutral in our values. We are pushing for an inclusive peace, based on democracy and human rights. For ourselves, we adopt the principles of nonviolent action, but we do not judge those who are fighting in defense of their beloved.

We emphasize our impartiality in the delivery of services to those in need. Our aid is impartial and not based on nationality, race, religion, or political affiliation; it is based on need alone. Neutrality does not imply ignorance or indifference. We will stay neutral in the attempt to facilitate dialogue, but we will not shy away from denouncing violations of fundamental human rights.

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“A Trip to the ‘Caliphate’: Oppressive Justice under ISIS,” By Omar al-Wardi

A Trip to the “Caliphate,” Oppressive Justice under ISIS
By OMAR AL-WARDI (a pseudonym for a Syrian who was brought up in the Jazeera region of Syria, where ISIS now rules and who has visited the region many times since.)
For Syria Comment, Nov 21, 2015

Translated by Richard Hanania, a political science PhD student at UCLA

Many believe the subjects of the Islamic State (ISIS) live in a constant state of terror. Some may also think that there is no such thing as normal life in these areas. I myself have written a great deal about the crimes and inhumane acts carried out by the group in its territories in Eastern Syria, particularly Raqqa and Dar al-Zour. Indeed, most of what has been written on these topics is true. But most authors have written from a narrow point of view and with one eye closed. Many of these authors haven’t spent time on the ground and only imagine the reality. They accept the stereotypes repeated ad nauseam by the media. I grew up in the Jazeera and have traveled their a number of times since ISIS took over, spending time in different cities in order to explore the attitudes of acquaintances and relatives alike.

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Region around al-Bukamal

When I traveled to al-Bukamal the first time since after had been conquered by ISIS in the summer of 2014, I believed that I was traveling to hell. I was terrified. At any moment, I expected to be picked out on my vehicle, manically and tortured. I thought I would never return from ISIS-controlled territory alive. I had internalized the notion that ISIS rules only through terror. I nearly passed out from fear at the checkpoints along the way. But, aside from the natural intensity of security barriers and checkpoints, I did not see a picture that fit with the ISIS stereotypes that I had accepted and which had been propagated by the media.

In al-Bukamal, I found a city that was surprisingly safe; one where individuals are unable to attack others, defraud people in the market, or festoon the streets with cigarette butts. Indeed, the city looked cleaner and seemed healthier than I had ever seen it; smoking has disappeared completely, as did any appearances of people sitting around wasting time in cafes as they used to do. It was a city completely different than the one I knew at the outbreak of the Syrian crisis. A consensus among its inhabitants, which number around 400,000 in the city and its surrounding towns, has emerged regarding ISIS rule. Perhaps the biggest proof of this is the fact that ISIS areas are among the regions of Syria from which young people are least likely to flee to Europe, a point that many seem to have missed. For if life were truly hellacious in this city and its surrounding towns, everyone would have migrated to Germany, Austria, or even Turkey. Yet most people have stayed put; they do not abandon their homes and land.

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I disregarded the well-known question: Do you hate ISIS? This is because I already know the answer of why some people hate this group, and the question I had come to answer was how others can love such a bloody and criminal organization, which cuts off heads and drags people in the street after killing and cutting them up. The answers I was given were realistic and coherent, converging on a single theme: ISIS had brought “justice” to the city.

With my own eyes, I saw how the people of al-Bukamal are not as oppressed as they had been in the past. In al-Bukamal most of the people that ISIS have imprisoned are ISIS members themselves. The ISIS regime does not hesitate to punish its own members when they break the law. Even an ISIS emir was prosecuted and thrown in prison by the local governor when it was found that he had abused his power and assaulted innocent people.

This is the model of justice that ISIS is strives to bring the residents of al-Bukamal as well as to Raqqa. The cities of the region have embraced ISIS and ceded their right to use violence in order to punish those who commit crimes or do wrong. They forfeit the use of violence willingly in order to live a life of greater justice and equity. The strong are not permitted to dominate the weak, nor the rich exploit the poor, nor tribal leaders their tribesmen. All live under ISIS law equally, without “wasta” or exception.

The single most important factor that has persuaded people to accept the “Caliphate” is the fact that citizens can go out at any time of day or night without being harassed by the Free Syrian Army or being robbed blind by men claiming to be from Jabhat al-Nusra. This is most true in the tribal areas of the province.

More than one person has told me that the honor of women is never violated. Even the enemies of ISIS in the region concede this. They admit that since ISIS assumed authority, not a single incident of assault against a woman or young girl has occured. This is contrary to the desultory state of social life when Jabhat al-Nusra ruled al-Bukamal. Then, brothels operated openly. Today, you can rest assured that traveling from Dar al-Zur to al-Anbar, a distance of some 350 kilometers, you will not be harmed as long as you obey the law.

One of the main reasons ISIS has been accepted by a vast majority is that corruption was rampant in the area during the first years of the uprising against Assad. First, the militias that called themselves the Free Syrian Army ruled. They disported themselves no differently than thieves and bandits. Civilians lived in a state of anxiety that their possessions would be lifted from them one after the other and fear that they would be harassed and possibly killed. Then came al-Nusra, which was concerned only with power and gave little care to justice or good government. Between the Free Army and Nusra, society was lost. No one dared approach the authorities to resolve disputes. Once the Caliphate established control over the region, however, people have breathed easier and feel less oppressed.

In fact, the residents of al-Bukamal cannot hate members of the organization and those who work with them when they see them trying to deliver water and electricity to the people at affordable prices. Nor can they hate the organization when prices are set at reasonable levels. The ISIS fighters are vigilant on their behalf and up into the night in order to provide for them. This reality destroys hatred, and although some people in the area may not want the organization to remain in power, the weak do, as do the poor who have no one else to fend for them. It is true that some fighters have special privileges, but these are a minority and do not compare to those enjoyed by the officials who were previously aligned with the government, or the fighters of the Free Syrian Army or al-Nusra.

ISIS has all the moral and material capability it needs in order to rebuild the cities it controls. More importantly, it possesses the will to provide a better life for the people. It is still unable to adopt the modern techniques necessary to improve the lives of its people as it promises, but it strives to attain them.

The planes that fly over ISIS-controlled territories have had only one real victory. It is not the killing of fighters or the obstruction of the movement of the organization. Rather, they have simply prevented the group from delivering services to the community, and this is the only real achievement of the coalition fighting ISIS.

I seek to draw a realistic image of ISIS, one that can be compared with and contrasted to the picture of a bloody organization. For it is impossible for a bloody murderous regime to rule without inducing physical and societal security. But this is rarely mentioned in order to tarnish the image of the organization, one that does not need any more than the truth to do so.

The question is, has there developed an ISIS society, meaning has the organization integrated into the larger community? Until now, the group cannot speak of an “ISIS society” in any real sense; in that it is fear and terror that still rules the community. But with the passage of time, if the regime stays in power at least three more years, I expect that there would be a real ISIS society, and this is the biggest fear with regards to the Eastern regions. From this ISIS society will be born extremist and terrorist ideas.

In the next report: How ISIS exploits societal contradictions and historical grudges.

“Regime-Change without State Collapse is Impossible in Syria,” Landis Interviewed by RT’s Sophie&Co

Sophie Shevardnadze of RT interviews Joshua Landis on Russian TV

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Joshua Landis

The following written version is a “cleaned” up “edited” version of my interview. I edited it for grammar, diction and clarity. None of the arguments made in the video (linked below) are missing or altered.

Sophie Shevardnadze: Professor Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma, and influential analyst on Syria, welcome to the show. It’s great to have you with us. Professor, President Obama is sending up to 50 SpecOps forces to Syria to coordinate the fight against the Islamic State. Fifty people is not a lot of help. What’s he hoping to change in the grand course of things? Is there a hidden point to this move?

JL: I think President Obama is trying to respond to his critics, more than anything else. 1. One set of critics are the 50 intelligence analysts who complained a month ago that the administration was spinning intelligence to suggest that the U.S. was winning the war against ISIS when it was not. 2, The Iraqis have been asking the Russians to help them bomb ISIS. They complain that the US isn’t doing enough. And 3, U.S. allies, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, have complained that Washington isn’t helping them enough. They complain that the reason Russia is moving into Syria is because the US has left a vacuum. So, Obama is inserting extra troops to satisfy his critics. At the same time, the troops are small enough in number to avoid getting the U.S. sucked into a third Middle Eastern war.

SS: Ok, but doesn’t that number strike you as not even symbolic? Fifty people? I mean, it’s pretty obvious that 50 people can’t really do anything…

JL: Well, I’m not sure they can’t do anything. We’ve seen some important actions by Special Forces. They liberated a bunch of captives in Iraq. In Syria, they killed Abu Sayyaf, the economic brains of ISIS, and captured his wife along with his computers which provided important information about ISIS. They can make a difference, but you are right; no one believes they will change the course of events in any significant way. They are not meant to defeat ISIS.

SS: Okay. 75% of American sorties in the anti-ISIS campaign come back without having fired. And that’s according to Senator John McCain. Should the U.S. air effort be more intense?

JL: Well, obviously, the US is trying not to kill innocent Syrians. They’re very worried about collateral damage. It is important to understand that the U.S. is not trying to destroy ISIS but to contain it and keep it weak enough so that it cannot kill Americans or destabilize Jordan and its neighbors. I think President Obama has largely abandoned the notion that he’s going to destroy ISIS. He is pursing a very narrow counter-terrorism campaign. Of course, many people expect them to destroy ISIS, because he said he would destroy it – but immediately after saying those words, he began to say “well, it’s going to take many years.”

SS: So, Iran has joined Syrian peace talks, sitting down with Saudi Arabia and the U.S. The two were staunch opponents of Iran taking part in the talks. So, what has changed?

JL: The U.S. wanted Iran at the table. Everybody knows that Iran is important. It has thousands of troops in Syria and funds Syria to the tune of billions of dollars. Hezbollah is also in Syria at Iran’s urging, to a certain degree. Iran is a key player. No peace agreement can stick without Iran. The U.S. understands that. And, in some respects, the Russia incursion in Syria has given cover for Secretary of State Kerry and President Obama to revise some of their past policies toward Syria.

SS: Neither the Syrian regime, nor the opposition were invited to peace talks. Why not? Do powers like Iran and Saudi Arabia have more control over the situation in Syria than Syrians themselves at this point?

JL: Well, that’s a very good question: everybody was been scratching their heads about the absence of Syrians at the talks. But it would be very difficult to get Syrians to the peace talks. Assad will not attend so long as the US and coalition members are demanding that he step down. The opposition is too fragmented and numerous. There are a thousand five hundred militias, according to the CIA. Of course, there are about 20-30 that are big, important militias, but they refuse to talk to Assad. So, if one waited for Syrians to attend, one would have to wait until hell froze over. I think that the Great Powers made the logical decision that “we’re going to meet anyway.” Moreover, all combatants in Syria depend almost entirely on outside powers for arms and money. If the powers could agree to stop sending arms into Syria, it would result in a dramatic decrease in the amount of people being killed. Syrians are so weak and poor that external powers, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia can make a tremendous difference even if they meet without Syrians.

SS: Assad has agreed to take part in early elections – can Syria in its current state hold the vote? Can there be a vote before Islamic State is beaten?

JL: First, Syria is in such terrible physical state and so many people have been forced from their homes or left the country that it would be almost impossible to have fair elections. Secondly, and more importantly perhaps, it is hard for anyone to believe that the outcome would be different from the elections held in the past 45 years? All ended up with a 99% vote for the President. There’s such distrust between all sides. Nobody puts much faith in the idea of elections. Most people understand that lurking beneath the question of elections is another question: “Can the Assad regime stay or not?” Now that Russia has intervened on the side of Assad, it’s quite clear the Assad regime is staying and will stay. How the West is going to accommodate itself to this fact is not yet clear.

SS: The Western-backed FSA commander Ahmad Sa’oud told AP: “What we care about is Assad leaving, not turning this from a war against the regime to a war against terrorism”. So, they don’t really care about the fight against Islamic State as well…

JL: You’re right. Most actors in Syria have other priorities besides destroying the Islamic State. Almost all rebel groups insist on destroying Assad before the Islamic State. They refuse to be drawn into what they call a “sahwa.” They do not want to become “agents of America” and so forth. The vast majority want nothing to do with the fight against ISIS before they have defeated Assad. Many members of the Coalition that are fighting ISIS also have other priorities. That is a big problem for both for the Russians and for the U.S. Indeed, the US has other priorities as well. We saw in Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor and elsewhere, the US would not attack ISIS if it believed Assad and his military would benefit. It preferred to have ISIS take Palmyra than to be seen to be helping Assad.

SS: So, why does the West keep supporting those rebels? For the West it’s not a fight about removing Assad rather than fighting Islamic State.

JL: This is true, but many top US generals, like the Syrian opposition, continue to insist that Assad is the magnet drawing ISIS into Syria and thus must be destroyed first. This argument makes little sense. After all, when did Al-Qaeda pour into Iraq? Only after Saddam was deposed and the Americans ruled the country. I don’t think any of the US generals who now claim that Assad must be destroyed in order to defeat ISIS would also argue that America had to be destroyed in Iraq in order to rid it of al-Qaida. If fact the US is building up the Iranian supported Shiite regime in Iraq to destroy ISIS, whereas it is seeking to destroy the Iranian backed “Shiite” regime in Damascus in the name of destroying ISIS. The American policy in Iraq is to kill al-Qaida not to accommodate it.

I think everyone can agree that Al-Qaeda spread in Iraq because the state was destroyed and insecurity prevailed. The same is true in Syria. When Assad pulled his army out of the East, al-Qaida and other forms of Islamic extremism spread. ISIS spreads where states fail.

The U.S. does not use the same logic in Syria that it uses in Iraq. This is simply part of the political landscape in America. You need to understand that the U.S. has two different metrics – one for Iraq and one for Syria.

SS: Does the U.S. have enough influence over the opposition they’re backing to make them agree to a political process in Syria?

JL: No. That’s the short answer.

SS: So people who represent the opposition in peace talks, are they controlling forces on the ground?

JL: No, they’re not. The strongest militias in Syria are the more extreme and more Salafist militias. The Islamists have a real ideology to sell; they are the militias who have national reach and representation in all provinces of Syria. The US backs the weakest militias in Syria. They are the non-ideological militias and are extremely local. For the most part, they are composed of clan and tribal leaders. They may hold sway over a village or two; they may command a thousand men, perhaps two thousand, but not more than that. The Islamic militants, such as Al-Qaeda, Ahrar ash-Sham, ISIS and the Islamic Army, have purchase over a broad segment of Syrian society that stretches from north to south. The US refuses to deal with Islamist militias. It insists on dealing only with the weaker ones, which operate with some independence, but in many cases have to defer to the tougher and stronger Islamist militias that hold sway in most parts of Syria.

The US policy of trying to bring forward moderate militias has failed three different times. It was never likely to succeed. I think Obama was correct not to go down the road of betting on the moderates. The US would have gotten stuck in a third Middle Eastern war. It would be committed to the impossible policy of making them win.  Those that argue that the US squandered its opportunity to train, arm and finance moderates to destroy both Assad and Jihadist militias delude themselves. The US is at a loss in Syria now that the policy of arming moderates has failed. Russians have an opportunity to shape the Syrian political landscape because of America’s confusion.

The US will not like what Russian is doing, but it will stand by without opposing Russia too much. We will see if the Syrian army has enough oomph, enough strength to do the things that it claims to be able to do, such as take Aleppo and Idlib. Right now, Russia is confident, the Syrian authorities are confident; they believe that they can win. But I think people in the U.S., the top brass, are thinking that Russia will fail. Obama explained that he believes Russia will be sucked into the Syrian swamp. Evidently Saudi and others are pumping in more TOWs and advanced weapons to ensure Russia does get sucked into a swamp. They will ensure that Assad doesn’t win; it should be easy. U.S. policy makers are betting that in a year’s time, or even less, Russia and Assad will come back to them on bended knee. We’ll see what happens. Of course, in that time, Syria is going to be further brutalized, and a lot more people will be killed.

SS: So, Professor, you were talking about America supporting moderate rebels just before the end of the first part of our program. A CIA veteran Graham Fuller told me that being a moderate and fighting a civil war contradicts itself. When you pick up a gun, that means you’re already not a moderate – what do you think?

JL: Well, there’s a lot of truth in that. None of the militias are taking prisoners. I don’t know what the US uses as its metric for determining moderation, but if human rights is one of the metrics, none of these militias are following anything remotely close to what the United States would consider moderate or acceptable. Separation of church and state? I’m not aware of any militias that call for secularism or separation of church and state as the US does. All want some form of Islamic state – how much is really the measure. I guess, the U.S. is trying to measure how long their beards are and whether they are really committed Salafists or not. America has sided with tribal and clan leaders, as I said before, that are not very ideological. The danger of this policy is that clan leaders are prone to become warlords who will side with anybody so long as they pay and provide arms.

They are more interested in carving out their own little territories to rule. They cannot presume to conquer Damascus or rule the country. They are teaming up with their cousins and other close relatives and friends in order to protect their families and villages. In the south, Jordan and Israel use friendly militias to build buffer zones. They ensure that radicals, such as al-Qaida and ISIS don’t become neighbors. They also provide their sponsors with leverage against Assad. They can hurt Assad when they need to. In the north, Turkey looks to its favored militias to give it leverage in Northern Syria and prevent Kurdish expansion. Turkey’s aim is to prevent the Kurds from joining Kobani to Afrin.

SS: But also, the rebels inside Syria, they haven’t united against Assad. Do they even want to unify?

JL: They claim to want to unify but have failed to do so because they all want to be the leader or “top dog” in their neighborhood. This is the problem with the larger Middle East – it’s very fragmented. Family, clan, and village still predominate over a sense of the nation. Compromise is a bad word that signifies weakness. It is an important reason for the failure of democracy and secular nationalism. Dictators dominate all the Middle Eastern states. Why? Because there are no ideological bonds that unite the people or democratic traditions. The socioeconomic and ideological prerequisites for democracy are weak.

SS: Does that mean that if Assad is gone, the power struggle between these factions will continue and there will be no unity – so we’re going to get another Libya on our hands?

JL: I believe so, yes. The West falsely believes that it can separate the regime from the state. It argues that it can pursue regime-change while simultaneously preserving the state and its institutions. Washington believes it can avoid the chaos it sewed in Iraq. I don’t believe it can. It wasn’t only Bremer that criminalized the Baath Party and disbanded the army. The Shiite politicians he empowered insisted on it. In most Middle Eastern countries, the regimes, for better or worse, have transformed the states into reflections of themselves. They have cannibalized the state. They have crammed their loyalists into every nook and cranny of the national institutions. They had to in order to coup-proof their regimes. They justified it in the name of bringing stability. State institutions are not autonomous.  Westerners believe that because their own state institutions are run by professional civil servants, Middle Eastern states are too. But they aren’t. Political appointees make up the entire edifice. They cannot simply be swapped out. Regime-change for an Arab country is not like administration change in a Western country. Destroying the regime means destroying the state. The price of regime-change is chaos. That is the situation in Syria today. It is the situation almost everywhere in the Middle East. Think of Saudi Arabia without the Saudi family. What would be left of the state?

Were the Russians to place a Sunni on top of the regime, as the US and opposition insist it do, the Sunni leader would have to smash the state and fire tens of thousands of state employees just as was done in Iraq. He would have to assume that they were disloyal and would seek to overthrow him. He would also in all likelihood insist on putting his cousins and those loyal to him in power. This is what happened in Libya, Yemen, and Iraq. This is the Middle Eastern dilemma. This is one reason U.S. led regime-change has failed so miserably. The United States claims the Middle East needs democracy. But democracy has failed, at least democracy promoted by regime-change. Perhaps, this is why so many people in the world today look at Russia and think: “maybe they’re right? Maybe, the Middle East does need strongmen.”

SS: What do you think Russia understands more about Syria that U.S. doesn’t? If you can say it in few words…

JL: Both countries, both Russia and the U.S. look at the Middle East and see themselves. The religion of the United States is democracy; It looks at the Middle East and thinks: “Oh, we can solve its problems by exporting democracy. Freedom will dry up the swamp of angry youth; it will dry up terrorism, which is the product of dictatorship. They believe that Jihadism and Salafism will vanish as merit-driven, young strivers embrace capitalism and self-improvement.

SS: And that never worked – what about Russia?

JL: Well, Russia looks at the Middle East and says: “We need a strong man; there needs to be stability or things will crumble”. Look at Russia at the time of Perestroyka, when insecurity reigned and the country was weak. I think, the President says: “We need somebody strong.” This reaction is wide spread. It is the reaction of all strong men. Turkish President Erdogan used the same logic and slogan to win recent Turkish elections: “You want stability – I am the only one who can save you from chaos!”. Unfortunately, in Syria, the Assads have been intoning this slogan of “Amn wa istiqrar“, “security and stability” for 45 years. Clearly, many Syrians were fed up with it and hoped to break out of this Hobbsian choice. But the situation in Syria has gotten so bad over the last four and a half years that many Syrians are embracing dictatorship again. They want authority over chaos and stability over insecurity, even at the cost of living under dictatorship and giving up political freedoms? We see this in the ISIS territory, where many people claim that they are happier under a cruel authority than no authority at all. They tasted militia chaos, which prevailed before ISIS swept through the region. They learned how dangerous it can be. They may not like ISIS, but they like the security, the institutions, and and semblance of order that ISIS has brought. Assad benefits from the same calculations on his side. He can point to the chaos and absence of state-supplied services that prevail in rebel territory. Of course, he is doing everything he can to ensure rebel chaos. But there is no getting around the fact that the rebels have failed. They could not unify. For the most part, they do not offer more freedoms than Assad does. The successful rebels replicate the authoritarian structures they complained of under Assad. The major difference is that rebels offer authoritarianism with a distinct Sunni-religious stamp, rather than a “secular” or “godless” Alawi stamp.

SS: Al-Qaeda has called on all jihadists to unite against the West and Russia. Are we entering a new phase of a War on Terror? One where Al-Qaeda, Islamic State, and the Taliban all act as one against us and Americans?

JL: Would America openly sided with Russia? It’s hard to see that. Russia has been demonized in America for many years now, and the Cold War is not entirely dead. The Ukraine issue has returned the Cold War mentality to a certain extent. It’s hard to imagine the rebels uniting in Syria. I think it is more likely that they will continue to fragment.

SS: So, tell me something, you’ve just said that there’s probably no chance that America will openly sided with Russia on Syria, but why is it important for American politicians to look tough on Syria? What’s really so beneficial for America? For America to be involved in Syria, why does the U.S. even care?

JL: That’s an excellent question! It’s like asking why the U.S. drove Russia out of Afghanistan. One of the stupidest things America ever did was try to arm up the mujahidiin to drive secular Russia out of Afghanistan. Look what we got: we got Al-Qaeda, we got 9/11, and we got a war in Iraq from which we cannot escape. A lot of our troubles came from trying to drive Russia out of Afghanistan. And you could ask the same question about Syria. We were wrong to do it then, are we wrong to do it now? Syria is not that important to the U.S. so one might ask, “why not let Russia have it.” Of course there are people who think that in the U.S. administration. But it is very difficult for the U.S., which has been used to being the superpower, the Decider, and the policeman of the world, to come to the understanding that it can’t control places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. It is hard to relinquish the role of policeman to someone else, and particularly, to Russia.

SS: What does the U.S. see as a good outcome of the civil war? Who does it want to win? Or maybe it just wants to contain this whole thing for a couple of years to come?

JL: I think the U.S. is after containment. What does America want? America doesn’t know what it wants. It wants “moderates” to win, Syrians who have a secular and democratic vision for Syria. But moderates are not going to win in Syria; most liberals have been scraped off the top of Syrian society and now sit powerless in foreign countries; the moderate militias are too weak. Of course, moderates complain that they are losing because America doesn’t give them money and arms and didn’t stand by its red lines, but chances are, they’re too weak. Moderates have been beaten everywhere you look in the Middle East. God bless Tunisia. Tunisia is the exception that proves the rule. They have been too weak across the Middle East. They could not agree on a common vision of Syria and could not unite. The US gave them opportunities and sought to unite the international community with the Friends of Syria effort. A dizzying array of Syrians, of would be leaders, insisted that they could unite Syrians if only the CIA would give them the money and arms. Anyway, there have been a lot of recriminations. We may never know the truth of America’s squandered moderate opportunity.

Whom does America like today? It does not like any of the three major actors in Syria that could possibly win. They are Assad, Jaysh al-Fateh, and ISIS. The US has placed brutal sanctions on Assad and the 65% of Syrians that he controls; it arms rebels to attack him. It is bombing ISIS, which owns almost 50% of Syrian real estate; and it doesn’t like Jaish al-Fatah, which owns the province of Idlib because it has Al-Qaeda at its core and is dominated by Salafists. Consequently, America doesn’t have an answer. The result is that it will try to keep everybody weak. It doesn’t want Assad to win, but also doesn’t want ISIS or Jaish al-Fateh to win. The U.S. will let the Syrian swamp boil. As one U.S. military analyst joked to me recently: “We should build a stadium around Syria and sell tickets.” It was an attempt at gallows humor that horrified many State Department officials who were also in the room, but it expressed the dark mood and sense of futility many in the Obama administration share.

SS: So, I spoke recently to the former French PM Dominique de Villepin, and he told me that the federalization of Syria once ISIS is defeated may be the answer to its political problems. Do you think it will give Syria a chance?

JL: Each side in Syrian still believes that it can win. As long as they think they can win, they will not come to the peace table and talk about federalism, about ceasefires, and about sharing power. Federalism in this context is really about dividing Syria. Seventy percent of Syrians in a recent poll said that they were against dividing Syria. It will take more time before Syrians are ready to sit down and talk about federalism and dividing authority in Syria. They are still in love with their country as it used to be and cannot accept that it is gone.

SS: Professor, thank you very much for this interview. We’ve been talking to Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, influential commentator on Syria, making sense of the maze of country’s civil war and its effect on the region and beyond. That’s it edition of Sophie&Co, I’ll see you next time.

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