“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.

The Interview on video:

Media Maskirovka: Russia and the Free Syrian Army

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

“We are ready to support from the air the patriotic opposition, including the so-called Free Syrian Army,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov recently told Russian state television. But, he said, Moscow is currently unable to do so, since it cannot figure out who leads the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the United States won’t help identify them. Lavrov’s comments were met with derision and scorn by Syrian rebels, including many self-declared FSA members, who complain that the Russian Air Force has been bombing them since September 30.

But lo and behold—on October 25, the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti reported that other members of the FSA are ready for “dialogue” in the hope of Russian “assistance.” The agency quoted Fahd al-Masri, whom it described a founder of the FSA, as saying that the two sides “need to facilitate a new meeting, so we could express our position and discuss our joint actions.” Masri’s comments were widely echoed in media friendly to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, including Iran’s Press TV, which quoted Masri as saying that “it is in the interests of Russia and FSA to hold this meeting as soon as possible.”

Suddenly, rumors were everywhere that FSA reprsentatives were en route to Moscow. The Syrian exile opposition tried to deny them, but no use. Russian state media kept going. On October 26, Sputnik News referred back to Masri’s purported proposal for a Russia-FSA conference in Cairo and then dropped a diplomatic bomb: ”Moscow has confirmed that Free Syrian Army (FSA) envoys had visited Russia, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said Monday.”

A few days later, on October 30, Bogdanov spoke on the sidelines of a meeting on Syria in Vienna to explain that Russia wants the FSA to be included in future peace talks, while ”one of the founders of the so called FSA,” who once again turned out to be Fahd al-Masri, was heard praising Moscow’s newfound flexibility in Russian state media.

On November 3, we were told that the Russian military is now in touch with a large number of opposition groups, which have begun feeding the Russians battlefield coordinates to help them take out “terrorists.” Then, finally, on November 5, Sputnik News brought on one Mahmoud al-Effendi to announce that officials from the Russian foreign and defense ministries will meet with the FSA leaders in Abu Dhabi next week.

Is this the long-expected Syrian game changer? Is the Free Syrian Army, Syria’s much-vaunted moderate mainstream opposition, now defecting from its Western and Gulf allies to instead hook up with Russia and Bashar al-Assad?

No, not quite.

All-American Agitprop

These reports come as Russian officials are trying to manage the political fallout of President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in Syria. While the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to claim that its attacks target the so-called Islamic State, an extremist group that is hostile to both Assad and other rebels, the geographical pattern of Russian Air Force strikes shows no attempt (or ability?) to distinguish between rebel groups. Islamic State-affiliated groups are in fact a small minority of the targets and some of the very first strikes seem to have hit an American-backed faction. In other words, the Kremlin is trying to play on Western fears of terrorism as political cover for a mission designed to shore up Assad’s government.

Of course, wartime propaganda is not an exclusively Russian domain. When the United States was occupying Iraq, senior Bush administration officials like Washington Don kept blaming “terrorists” of the “Baathist dead-ender” or “al-Qaeda” variety for everything new setback. To be sure, Baathists and al-Qaeda loyalists were a prominent part of the mix, and they would later become dominant. But in the early days, Iraq’s insurgency seems to have been considerably more diverse than what we now see in Syria. In 2003-2004, it consisted of innumerable little local groups that spanned the full range of ideologies from secular nationalism to jihadism; they would even on occasion bridge the Sunni-Shia divide. And yet, U.S. President George W. Bush could get away with telling his people that the Iraqi resistance was all “al-Qaeda types, Ansar al-Islam types, terrorist groups” and conclude that it was better to “fight them there than here.”

A decade later in Syria, the roles are reversed. Russian politicians will contemptuously label any Syrian who has taken up arms to stop the depredations of Bashar al-Assad’s army a “jihadi terrorist” and in lieu of a political strategy, they smirk and puff their chests and say “bring ‘em on.” Their American counterparts sound like the anti-Iraq War tankie left in 2003-2004, eyes darting nervously around the room as they try to explain that there are good salafi insurgents and bad salafi insurgents. Give it a year more, and they’ll be complaining about Russia’s “cowboy attitude.”

Not that their respective supporters seem to notice, or care. But if you’re not a die-hard partisan of either Vladimir Putin or of the late and unlamented presidency of George W. Bush, you will by now have noticed that the Kremlin’s “anti-terrorist” discourse is essentially indistinguishable from the bullshit shoveled into the media by the American White House ten years ago, and equally self-serving, misleading, and destructive. And it, too, works beautifully.

The Russian Defense

Since anyone with access to a map of Syria can easily confirm that the Russian government is lying about its activity in Syria, the international media has started to raise questions. Reuters, for example:

Almost 80 percent of Russia’s declared targets in Syria have been in areas not held by Islamic State, a Reuters analysis of Russian Defence Ministry data shows, undermining Moscow’s assertions that its aim is to defeat the group.

When faced with such accusations, Moscow has responded in a chaotic fashion. Instead of settling on a single political message, officials have presented different and often contradictory explanations of what they are doing in Syria, why they are doing it, and why they said they would be doing something else. Some now claim that the intervention was never only about the Islamic State, which would be an excellent defense if not for the fact that the Russian Ministry of Defense continues to falsely claim that it is attacking … the Islamic State. Others prefer to simply change the subject. Still others will continue to retell the original lie and shrug off any objections, since they are well aware that their core audience—largely made up nationalistic and/or apolitical Russians, plus Western tabloid scribblers and conspiracy theorists—neither knows nor cares about the truth.

For example, here’s an actual headline from the British Daily Express on Oct. 30, 2015: “More than 800,000 refugees RETURNING to Syria as Putin OBLITERATES Islamic State.” All of it is nonsense, based off of the tall tales told by Russian officials, but what do they care?

And in Russia, an independent poll shows that 48 percent of respondents think their air force is attacking the Islamic State, and only 13 percent think that the targets are mostly other Syrian opposition groups, while Putin’s own approval ratings have soared to more than 90 percent, according to a state-run pollster.

No need to be surprised. This is how propaganda works. Its primary purpose is to mobilize the base and produce talking points for those already inclined to support you. A secondary purpose, however, is to keep your opponent uncertain, uncommitted, and off balance. And this is where Fahd al-Masri and the FSA come into the picture.

A Meeting in Paris

On October 7, a week into its Syrian campaign, the Russian Foreign Ministry suddenly announced that it would begin talks with the FSA. That same day, a meeting took place at the Russian Embassy in Paris, which brought together Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov—who is a chief architect of Russia’s policy in Syria—with a very interesting cast of characters: “Fahd al-Masri, who is the coordinator of the National Salvation Group in Syria, the retired American general Paul Vallely, and his adviser on Middle Eastern affairs, Nagi Najjar, who is a former intelligence officer.” (We know that the meeting took place since Russian authorities have confirmed that Bogdanov was in Paris at the time, also speaking to French officials and a Syrian Kurdish leader, and Vallely has released a photograph of himself with Bogdanov.)

After the October 7 meeting, the Russian press began to float stories about a Moscow-FSA connection. In two articles, Kommersant cited Masri’s press statement and referred to him as “one of the founders of the Free Syrian Army,” while the state-owned Sputnik News took it a step further: “The Free Syrian Army is ready to establish contacts with the Russian leadership.” Masri was also brought up in another Sputnik News article headlined “Russia Reaffirms Readiness to Cooperate With Free Syrian Army.”

A couple of weeks later, the campaign was turned up a notch, when Russian state media released the information cited at the start of this article, about Fahd al-Masri’s overtures to the Kremlin, his proposal for a political conference in Cairo, and the mysterious FSA delegation in Moscow.

In other words, the meeting with Fahd al-Masri, Paul Vallely, and Naji Najjar has suddenly become part of the Russian government’s claims of a budding relationship with the FSA. But who are they and in what way could they represent the FSA?

Before we answer that question, let’s first step back and define what we mean by “FSA.”

A Brief History of the Free Syrian Armies

The Syrian insurgent movement has always been composed of many different factions. Today, there is about ten or twenty larger organizations, but most of them remain regionally focused and they are continually fragmenting on the fringes, with additional hundreds of smaller rebel bands drifting and out of local alliances.

Many of these groups refer to themselves as part of the FSA, and when the United States and other Western governments provide support to the rebels, they also talk about aiding the FSA. Much of the media has thrown the FSA term around for years, only rarely trying to clarify what’s meant by it except to say that the FSA is a “moderate rebel group” or a “loosely aligned movement” or some such. The confusion stems from the fact that there is no straightforward definition and that many different people, groups, and countries use the word “FSA” to apply to many different things.

The concept of a “Free Syrian Army” first emerged in July 2011, when a “Supreme Command for the Free Syrian Army” was launched by Syrian military defectors in Turkey. Their highest-ranking member, Colonel Riad al-Asaad, took the title of FSA Supreme Commander. Col. Asaad’s FSA group was backed by Turkey and others in order to channel funds to local rebels and create a more cohesive insurgency—one that would be able to topple Assad by some combination of disciplined military action and negotiation. This strategy failed. The insurgency remained chaotically divided, and Col. Asaad’s FSA never evolved far beyond the role of “a fax machine in Turkey,” pouring out press releases in which it claimed credit for attacks staged by others.

Yet, the FSA was wildly successful as a branding operation. The name and the associated logotype caught on among the rebels and is still in widespread use today. It is typically used to refer to those rebels that accept Western and/or Gulf State support, publicly profess some level of belief in democracy and Syrian nationalism  (as  opposed to pan-Islamism), and maintain a healthy distance from al-Qaeda.

Since the creation of Col. Asaad’s original outfit, and its swift decline, there have been repeated foreign-backed attempts to create a new central node for the rebellion, or at least for its more pragmatic and moderate factions. Most of these projects have used the FSA brand.

In December 2012, several countries pooled their efforts to set up something called the General Staff, which had an appended Supreme Military Council. This evolved into the “new FSA,” under the leadership of Brigadier General Salim Idriss. While Idriss’s FSA command would become far more successful than previous unification attempts, it remained a virtual army at best—a kind of political superstructure resting on top of a Gulf Arab-Western-Turkish funding stream for selected Syrian factions, which lacked any central control over them. After limping along for a year and a half, this version of the FSA finally imploded in 2014.

Successive attempts to rebuild this type of central FSA leadership have fizzled. Most recently, we’ve seen the Revolutionary Command Council set up in December 2014 and the reincarnated FSA Supreme Military Council of July 2015. Another project, the FSA High Command , is backed by the exile opposition, but it remains a work in progress. The list will surely continue to grow.

Behind the Scenes: MOM and MOC

The failure to produce an official FSA leadership does not mean that there are no material structures connecting these segments of the insurgency. Thousands of rebel fighters have by now been vetted, trained, and approved for material support via two Military Operations Centers, which feed the insurgency from across the Turkish and Jordanian borders. The one in Turkey is colloquially known as the MOM, for Müşterek Operasyon Merkezi, while its Jordanian counterpart is called the MOC, after its English initials.

Apart from Turkey and Jordan, these centers gather representatives of the United States, Saudi Arabia, France, and a bunch of other governments. Their role is to coordinate and supervise the flow of arms and ammunition to a select number of rebel groups. Foreign intelligence services, chief among them the CIA, collaborate through these centers to pick which groups should be eligible for support. They will not receive a stamp of approval until their members have been vetted for suspicious contacts, declared that they will stay away from alliances with al-Qaeda, and showed some interest in a negotiated solution to the conflict. The groups involved enjoy different levels of trust and approval, but many also receive “unofficial” support on the side from, for example, Turkey, Qatar, or Saudi Arabia, or various private funders.

So far, this arrangement has been accepted by something like a hundred rebel factions all in all, although a head count is complicated by the fact that they are often folded into overlapping regional umbrellas. While each faction is typically quite small and few of them enjoy national name recognition, they collectively make up a fairly significant segment of the armed opposition. In southern Syria, MOC-funded groups seem to account for a majority of the insurgency. The northern MOM-backed factions enjoy less influence than their southern counterparts, but they are still a considerable force around Aleppo, and some have used U.S.-manufactured missiles to establish themselves in an important niche role as anti-tank units in the Idleb-Hama region.

These groups are what the U.S. government typically refers to when it talks about “the FSA” and there is indeed a very considerable overlap between MOM/MOC-backed factions and factions that self-designate as “FSA.” This crude definition (MOM + MOC = FSA) is also increasingly used by the Syrian exile opposition, the rebels themselves, and others who follow this conflict.

All Those Other People Who Call Themselves “FSA”

Still, there isn’t a perfect correspondence. Anyone can raise an FSA flag without having the approval of the MOM/MOC structure. Some factions do so because they see it as a way to underline their moderate nature and curry favor with foreign funders. Others claim the FSA heritage as part of their revolutionary identity, and say that it shouldn’t be reserved for foreign-backed factions. Conversely, there are MOM/MOC backed factions that do not use the FSA name or symbols, or at least do so very infrequently. This is typically because they previously rejected the FSA brand and developed their own political identity, typically along Islamist ideological lines, and now prefer to maintain that distinction even after being coopted into the MOM/MOC network.

Many groups mean different things when referring to the FSA and use the term opportunistically. For example, when nearly fifty rebel groups recently issued a statement on behalf of the FSA, the signatories included many well-known MOM/MOC affiliates, but also the Islam Army, an Islamist faction that does not normally use FSA insignia and often rejected the label.

In northeastern Syria, there is also a number of self-identified FSA groups that fight the Islamic State alongside the American-backed Kurdish YPG militia. The YPG, in turn, is a front for the pan-Kurdish PKK movement, which has excellent working relations with Moscow. These “FSA” groups are mostly small Arab splinter factions or tribal groups that have been coopted by the PKK to provide extra manpower and put a multi-ethnic face on what is in reality a wholly Kurdish-run project. Some of them also call for Russian intervention, and a prominent Syrian rebel leader who works for a MOC-backed group has claimed that these Kurdish-backed factions are responsible for some of the chatter about “the FSA” visiting Moscow. (Perhaps in connection with some small service to the PKK?)

Then, there are the exiles. The decaying remains of former “FSA leaderships” cover the hotel lobbies of southern Turkey like jellyfish on a shore. Hundreds of defected Syrian military officers still whirl around the exile circuit and most seem to consider themselves to be part of the FSA in some fashion. Some will happily appear in the media as “FSA members,” “FSA advisers,” or even “FSA commanders,” whatever their actual relationship to the insurgency on the ground. Among them, there are indeed those who work closely with the MOM/MOC or its associated factions, but others claim the mantle merely by virtue of past association with some long-since collapsed FSA unity project, often dating back to the pre-Idriss era. For example, the FSA brand’s original inventor in 2011, Col. Riad al-Asaad, still toils in obscurity in Turkey as one of several self-declared “supreme commanders of the FSA.”

In other words, the term “FSA” can mean a great many things. If it is to have any sort of substance and be relevant to the war in Syria these days, it means a rebel group backed by the MOM/MOC structure. Nine out of ten times that you hear about “the FSA” having done something on the Syrian battlefield, it means those groups. But among the groups actually fighting in Syria, there are also the PKK-backed FSA groups and various other claimants, particularly among the exiled officers. Some of their now-defunct unity projects were at one point genuinely representative of armed groups on the ground, while others were ephemeral creatures of Facebook.

As for Fahd al-Masri, he ran one of the latter.

Meet Mr. Masri

The name Fahd al-Masri first came to my attention around six or seven years ago, when I was writing a book on the Syrian opposition. Born in the Midan Quarter of Damascus, he had left Syria in the mid-1990s and ended up in Paris, where he sought work as a journalist. In 1996, he worked for about six months as a technician at the Arab News Network, a satellite channel controlled by Refaat al-Assad, Bashar’s exiled uncle (who recently visited Moscow). When I ask him about this, Masri tells me that he simply needed a job and that he does not support a “murderer” like Refaat al-Assad. He was also seen as close to Syria’s former Vice President Abdelhalim Khaddam, who, after being kicked out of office by Bashar al-Assad in 2005, had moved to Paris and begun to bankroll opposition activity. By the end of the 00s, Masri was hosting a talkshow on Barada TV, a London-based anti-Assad satellite station (which was covertly funded by the U.S. State Department). He returned to Paris in late 2010 or early 2011.

All in all, Fahd al-Masri was a minor figure at the time—a small shard of Syria’s great tragedy, as one of tens of thousands of political émigrés huddled around Europe and the Middle East, human byproducts of the Assad family’s machinery of fear, wealth, and power.

With the advent of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Fahd al-Masri’s stature began to grow. Media outlets all over the world began a frantic search for representatives of the budding insurgency in Syria, but only a small number of long-time correspondents, nerds, and academics seemed to have any idea about who was who in the Syrian opposition. At the same time, the Assad government, many different opposition groups, regional intelligence services, and what at times appeared to be a global army of narcissists were all jostling to get in front of the cameras. The results were confusing, at times tragic, and occasionally hilarious—such as the media uproar over Mohammed Rahhal’s 2011 declaration of war, or the Gay Girl in Damascus who turned out to be a straight man in Edinburgh.

Into this chaos stepped Fahd al-Masri. As early as August 2011—when most of the mainstream political opposition still clung to nationalist-democratic rhetoric and peaceful protest—he would appear on al-Arabiya from Paris to demand a foreign intervention in Syria. He didn’t represent any known activist group or political party, but some combination of availability and incendiary statements still made him a sought-after commentator.

The FSA Joint Command

Masri has told me that in late 2011, he promoted an aspiring rebel leadership known as the FSA Supreme Military Council, which was headed by Brigadier General Mustafa al-Sheikh. Briefly considered a Saudi favorite, Sheikh’s group fizzled in mid-2012 and he later went into exile in Sweden. But by that time Masri, who does not appear to have had any official link to Sheikh’s group, had already moved on. In this period, “[h]e tried to build himself up as FSA spokesman, but it didn’t work out,” says a person who has worked with Masri. “The officers he had allied himself to all flopped.”

In March 2012, Masri was invited to the founding congress of a new rebel unity project, the FSA Joint Command of Colonel Qasem Saadeddine. Masri then began to appear as the FSA Joint Command’s media spokesperson, although it is not clear to me whether this was approved by the group itself. Some have claimed that Col. Saadeddine’s group fired him after only a week. While Masri disputes that, he certainly seems to have drifted away from the rest of the leadership at some point.

As a military coalition, the FSA Joint Command soon declined into irrelevance, but not before endowing Col. Saadeddine with name recognition and useful foreign contacts, which he would later trade in for a position in Salim Idriss’s Western-endorsed FSA network.

By that time, the FSA Joint Command had been forgotten by everyone—except its erstwhile spokesperson. In an e-mail to me, Masri says the creation of the Idriss-led FSA in December 2012 was part  of a plot by the “terrorist Muslim Brotherhood” to “gain hegemony over the FSA” and insists that many officers involved with the FSA Joint Command had refused to accept its dissolution. Therefore, he says, “we continued our work despite the withdrawal of Col. Qasem Saadeddine and others.”

In reality, this version of the FSA Joint Command seems to have consisted of Fahd al-Masri alone. The Idriss-led FSA and the FSA-branded rebel factions inside Syria would invite journalists to travel with their troops and they often uploaded videos from the battlefield. Masri’s own FSA Joint Command could produce no such evidence. Though Masri often hinted that he represented tens of thousands of military defectors on the battlefields in Syria, “security reasons” prevented him from naming them.

Instead, the FSA Joint Command remained restricted to a ghost-like virtual existence, maintained by the generous distribution of online statements. Every week or so, people interested in Syria would receive a formal-looking Arabic-language communiqué in their mailbox, signed by Fahd al-Masri, who called himself head of media relations for the FSA Joint Command. The content was always savory stuff.

Masri would often call for foreign intervention—although he later changed his mind—or rail against Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. In February 2014, for example, he announced that the FSA Joint Command had declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organization and would arrest any member who dared set foot in Syria. On other occasions, the FSA Joint Command would share secret intelligence about chemical weapons, “revealing” that Assad had smuggled them to Hezbollah in Lebanon. More and more often, Masri would condemn the internationally recognized opposition bodies, such Idriss’s FSA leadership, the Syrian National Council, the National Coalition, and its Turkey-based exile government. These statements would soon be the source of innumerable media reports about opposition disunity and “splits in the FSA.” Typically, some rebel commander in Turkey or Syria would be quoted saying this or that, only to be swiftly contradicted by “another FSA representative,” namely Fahd al-Masri.

Some of his critics suspect Masri of working on behalf of a third party, though no one seems sure of exactly which one that would be. “Knowing Fahd, he doesn’t do anything for free,” says the person who once worked with Masri. “He’s not crazy, just a conman, a chancer. There’s many of them in the Syrian opposition.”

When asked about his sources of funding, in late 2013, Fahd al-Masri told me that he funds his activism from his own pocket, although he added that hosting organizations or governments sometimes pay travel and accommodation for conference visits. This may very well be true, since Masri’s activism cannot have been very expensive: a Hotmail account is free to register and media appearances will often come with a small honorarium. However, Masri also told me that certain ”well-known Syrian citizens” and ”Syrian friends who believe in the importance of what I do” have helped him and his family financially, enabling him to work full time for the Syrian revolution. He did not name them.

Spokesperson of the Revolution

Even though Masri’s FSA communiqués had at most a coincidental relationship to reality, journalists ate them up like tabbouleh. Soon, FSA Joint Command Media Director Fahd al-Masri had become one of the most frequently employed talking heads of the war—the voice of the Syrian revolution, or perhaps its ventriloquist.

In the past few years, he has appeared as a representative of the FSA, or the opposition more generally, on any number of Arabic- and French-language talkshows and newscasts. TV channels include the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya, Qatar’s Aljazeera, Russia Today, the British BBC, American channels like NBC News, Fox News, and al-Hurra, the Colombia-based NTN24, Turkey’s TRT, France24 and TF1 in his own country of residence, Egypt’s ONTV, and Lebanon-based channels like al-Mayadin, OTV, and MTV, as well as religious channels like al-Safa… and the list goes on.

He has been a frequent source for the printed press, too. Whether pulled from his e-mailed communiqués, copied off newswires, or extracted through interviews, Fahd al-Masri’s many colorful declarations and revelations have found their way into the New York Times, the Washington Post, the LA Times, USA Today, the Daily Star, al-Ahram and al-Ahram Weekly, al-Sharq al-Awsat, al-Quds al-Arabi, al-Hayat, Haaretz, the Times of Israel, the Jordan Times, Kommersant, Izvestia, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, Le Monde, Le Figaro, El Mundo, the Guardian, the Times, the Independent, and many other newspapers.

International officials would also occasionally try to bring the FSA Joint Command into their political schemes and peace processes, such as when UN peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi met Fahd al-Masri in Paris in August 2012.

By October 2013, Idriss’s FSA General Staff had grown so frustrated that it issued an official statement in which it denied any connection to Masri. This did nothing to clear up the confusion—instead, it led to garbled reports about Idriss having fired his longtime media spokesperson. Masri’s FSA Joint Command hit back by calling for Idriss to be arrested, which led to another round of reports about splits in the FSA. A few months later, Masri appeared on Lebanese television to announce a startling discovery: information had emerged to prove that Salim Idriss’s leadership was infiltrated by Hezbollah.

And on it went.

From the FSA Joint Command to the National Salvation Group

Then all of a sudden, Fahd al-Masri dropped out of the FSA representation business. What happened isn’t clear—and Masri says it was a voluntary decision—but perhaps he had finally taken his game too far. Certainly, there must be downsides to provoking an armed guerrilla movement backed by the government on whose territory you reside.

On March 31, 2014, the FSA Joint Command issued one final grandiloquent statement entitled “To Whom It May Concern,” in which Fahd al-Masri announced his decision to “cease my voluntary work in the Central Media Administration of the FSA Joint Command” and return to his previous vocation as an independent activist. Since then, nothing more has been heard of the FSA Joint Command.

And yet, Masris’ e-mailed statements kept coming. In the first few months, they were signed only by himself, as an individual activist, but institutional affiliations soon began to crawl back onto the letterhead. In summer 2014, he represented a “Preparatory Committee for the Creation of the Independent National Commission for Inspection, Oversight, Accountability, and the Struggle Against Corruption,” which kept up the attacks on other opposition movements. Then came the “Center for Strategic, Military, and Security Studies in Syria,” which has, among other things, been considered a reliable source on the Islamic State by the Daily Mail.

Sometime in late 2014, Masri also launched a “Project for National Salvation,” which then reconstituted itself as “the National Salvation Group in Syria.” It portrays itself as a broad political umbrella for Syrians on the inside and in the diaspora. But just like the now-vanished FSA Joint Command and the other groups mentioned above, the National Salvation Group only seems to exist in the form of statements from its coordinator, Fahd al-Masri.

Masri’s Own Version

In Masri’s view, he has done nothing wrong and has not deliberately misled anyone. If you look closely at what he has been saying, he has in fact never claimed to represent any political or military body except those listed above, which are of his own invention. When I asked him about this in late 2013, he responded (swiftly and professionally) with a frank admission that he had absolutely no ties to the internationally recognized FSA leadership of Salim Idriss; indeed, he condemned Idriss and his men as “blood merchants” and tools of foreign conspiracies. Still, he insisted that he had every right to represent the FSA as a concept and argued that any confusion that might result from this would be entirely in the eye of the beholder:

I was among the first who spoke in the name of the FSA, before Idriss’s General Staff was formed, so I don’t need the approval of either Salim Idriss or his General Staff. I am one of the founders of the FSA Joint Command and my role is in leading the media war on the regime.

Masri stuck to his guns when I contacted him again in October 2015, a year and a half after he terminated his FSA Joint Command:

I know myself and my history in opposing the regime well, and I know my role in supporting the revolution and the FSA. Thus, it doesn’t matter to me what this person or that person may say and I have no need to defend myself, because my history is well known. […]

The FSA is not a regular military institution that could issue an authorization for this or that party [to speak on its behalf]. The FSA is a national and revolutionary condition and I was one of its founders, or a leadership for the FSA. [However,] I announced more than a year ago that I have stopped my work as media spokesperson for the FSA, as a protest against the regional and international powers that restrict support to the FSA in favor of Islamic and extremist organizations.

When I asked about the recurring rumors about him leading FSA delegations to Moscow—they have made the rounds many times, including winter 2013, summer 2015, and again in October 2015—Masri denies ever having visited Moscow. He also made a clarification that puts a rather different spin on the stories peddled by Russian state media:

When I invited Russia to a meeting in Cairo, I didn’t issue the invitation in the name of the FSA and I didn’t claim to represent the FSA or any of its factions. Rather, I spoke in the name of the National Salvation Group in Syria, of which I am a representative.

What to make of this is up to you. I cannot claim to know anything about Fahd al-Masri’s rationale for doing what he does and it is possible that his intentions are perfectly sincere. But, to me, it seems perfectly clear that he cannot be considered a spokesperson for the insurgency on the ground in Syria, or any part of it. It is equally clear that this will be obvious to anyone who spends a moment researching the matter. Indeed, most of the major news organizations that cover Syria no longer pay any heed to his statements, even if they have reported them at some point in the past.

Regarding his interactions with the Russians, however, Fahd al-Masri seems to be telling the truth. When reviewing the statements and media reports of the past few weeks, it becomes clear that it is the Russian side that has consistently sought to portray Masri as a representative and/or founding member of the FSA. Even though Masri tries to highlight his own National Salvation Group, Kremlin-friendly media sources invariably use his statements to promote the Russian government’s own narrative of a Moscow-FSA rapprochement.

The Rest of the October 7 Troika

Fahd al-Masri was not alone in his meeting with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov. He was flanked by two other persons, supposedly invited to discuss Russia-FSA connections: former U.S. Major General Paul E. Vallely and his Lebanese associate Naji Najjar. When asked about these two individuals, Masri says he was introduced to Vallely through Najjar, whom he met in Paris around two months ago.

Paul E. Vallely is indeed a former U.S. major general, as advertised, but with a strong emphasis on “former.” His current role is as a political commentator on the fringes of American conservatism. Having left the military nearly 25 years ago, Vallely now runs “a network of patriotic Americans” called Stand Up America, which seems to envisage itself as a foreign policy arm of the Tea Party movement. Its website features a heady mixture of military news, Muslim-baiting, and conspiracy theories. To provide some indication of his place on the political spectrum, Vallely has claimed in a radio interview that the “corrupt and treasonous” Barack Obama was illegally installed as president with the aid of billionaire George Soros and a faked birth certificate, in order to make the United States a socialist country.

Najjar is a former member of the Lebanese Forces, a right-wing Christian group in Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, and claims to have been an intelligence official of some sort. Since the end of the civil war, he has been involved with a variety Lebanese-Christian, anti-Assad, and pro-Israel groups. Among other things, he apparently ran a group that defended the 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Sabra and Shatila and advocated against the war crimes prosecution of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Najjar now appears to be Vallely’s link to Syria, through an amazingly shady entrepreneurial entity called the Syria Opposition Liaison Group, which claims to be involved in Syrian politics and hostage negotiations. To what extent this is true, I don’t know.

In 2013, Vallely and Najjar traveled into northern Syria, shook hands with a lot of rebels, and met with Col. Riad al-Asaad, the man who first came up with the FSA name in July 2011. It must have been an interesting trip and it has provided plenty of fodder for online conspiracy theorists, but this little publicity stunt does not indicate that either of them could serve as a useful link to today’s real-world FSA insurgents, namely those backed by MOM and MOC. In other words, while Vallely and Najjar have enough curious political connections to make a LaRouchie weep with joy, neither they nor Masri ever commanded a single fighter inside Syria.

Yet, there they are, at the center of Russian public diplomacy. In fact, according to Masri (who has repeated this story to me personally, in an e-mailed statement, and on Turkish television), the Russians were sufficiently impressed by the meeting with Bogdanov to immediately ask for a follow-up session. The next day, he says, “we received a phone call from a Russian military official who asked for an urgent meeting at the request of the Russian minister of defense. We accepted the invitation and gathered in Paris in a meeting that lasted for nearly three hours.”

Mahmoud al-Effendi and the Abu Dhabi Meeting

The latest bid, on November 5, is the announcement via Russian state media of a meeting in Abu Dhabi. It will supposedly bring together ”28 brigades of the FSA in the suburbs of Damascus, Qunaitra, Hama and the western suburb of Homs, as well as the northern front from the suburbs of Aleppo and Idlib with the representatives of the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian  Defense Ministry” to discuss how these groups can negotiate a separate peace with the Syrian government and establish a permanent collaboration with Russia.

The source of this amazing piece of information was the meeting’s official coordinator, Mahmoud al-Effendi, who doubles as head of “the Popular Diplomacy Movement.” Little known in Syrian dissident circles, Effendi has trundled around the exile opposition for a while and most recently popped up in Astana, Kazakhstan, at an event called by a number of ostensible Syrian opposition groups.

In fact, the Astana meetings (there have been two so far) are political theatre directed from Moscow and/or Damascus. The attendees are mostly elderly leftists who seek a compromise with Assad based on limited reforms. Some of them are surely sincere, but others are essentially proxies of the Russian or Syrian intelligence services. They are estranged from most of the rest of the opposition and have no relation at all to the insurgency raging on the ground in Syria. Any actual FSA brigade that they encountered would be more likely to shoot them than to accept their conference invitations.

As for the “Popular Diplomacy Movement,” it seems to be another single-member group (but I shall generously grant the possibility of a handful more) and whatever Effendi’s real role is, he is certainly not someone who can mobilize “28 brigades” of the Syrian guerrilla in service of Russian diplomacy.

While a few rebel factions apparently responded to the initial Russian approaches, only to then cut off contacts, the vast majority reject the Russian entreaties out of hand. On hearing the reports about Effendi’s upcoming Abu Dhabi meeting, FSA-branded groups immediately began to deny, condemn, and ridicule these claims. On November 6, most of the main rebel factions inside Syria—nearly fifty, all in all— issued a joint statement in the name of the FSA, in which they denied their participation and condemning the Russian operations in Syria. (Most of the groups that did not sign the statements were Islamist and jihadi factions like Ahrar al-Sham, the Nusra Front, and others, who have never referred to themselves as FSA groups.)

A meeting in Abu Dhabi could very well take place anyway. It shouldn’t be that hard for Russia to buy over a commander or two, and then pad out the roster with minor non-MOM/MOC factions in search of funding, pseudo-FSA groups, PKK clients, various ex-rebels turned by Assad’s intelligence services, some oddballs-in-exile, and any number of disgruntled military defectors. Such a group could certainly be relied on to generate more headlines about Russia meeting with the FSA, but what it couldn’t do is to speak for any meaningful number of armed insurgents inside Syria.

Who Is Using Whom?

At this point, it should be obvious that someone is being conned, but I’m still not quite sure about who is is using whom. The deeper you dig into the connections between Russia and fringe figures in the Syrian diaspora, the more bizarre it gets; a world halfway between Joseph Conrad and Thomas Pynchon, only without the redeeming qualities of style and credible characters.

So what is actually going on here? I see two options.

Either we must believe that the Russian government, at cabinet level and despite the best efforts of SVR and GRU intelligence, is so grossly uneducated about Syrian politics that it would perceive Masri, Vallely, Najjar, the little PKK-backed Arab groups, or  Effendi as credible links to the mainstream American-backed FSA, whatever the Russians may imagine that to be. If so, we would now be witnessing the government of Russia being played by a variety of Syrian, American, and Lebanese political entrepreneurs and charlatans, with the Kremlin a hapless victim of its own famously childlike innocence and wide-eyed trust in humanity’s best intentions.

The alternative, because fortunately there is an alternative, is to imagine this as a diversionary trick on the part of the Russians—a bit of political Maskirovka, or camouflage, in which Bogdanov takes time off from an otherwise busy schedule to talk to people whose influence in Syria he knows to be zero, because it is zero. By bestowing top-level attention on otherwise unimportant interlocutors, the Kremlin has produced the raw material that its propaganda factory needs to push products onto the Syrian rumor market.


Feeding the media with rumors, hints, and disconnected bits of genuine information about a Russian-FSA connection serves the Kremlin’s political agenda in two ways:

First, it tricks some people into believing that Russia is skillfully peeling away Syrian allies from the USA. It will mostly be people who know nothing about the politics of the Syrian insurgency, but then again, that’s most people.

Secondly, and no less important, Russia’s rivals cannot protest Moscow’s fraudulent claims without engaging in a debate about who actually should represent the FSA in talks with Assad, if it shouldn’t be Masri, Effendi, or the other candidates suggested by Moscow. Since there is no central FSA leadership and no consensus on which groups should be labeled “FSA,” that’s like trying to nail jelly to a wall.

It is a problem partly of the Americans’ own making. Indeed, one could say that the opposition’s backers are now falling victim to their own propaganda. For years, officials in the US, Europe, Turkey, and the Arab World have been promoting ”the moderate FSA” or even “the secular FSA” as Syria’s great hope for the future, without ever arriving at a better explanation of what that means than ”any damned armed group in Syria that we can work with.” It is undoubtedly a definition, of a kind, but how do you sell it to the general public? What do you do when journalists, voters, or even congressmen start to ask questions about who, exactly, is at the receiving end of all this taxpayers’ money?

The Russian government has now started to exploit this deliberately engineered ambiguity for its own purposes. By rebranding their own allies and all kinds of random exiles as “FSA representatives,” they are trying to wring a very useful fiction out of the hands of their enemies or, failing that, to destroy it by adding to the confusion.

As a poker-faced Bogdanov recently put it when discussing whether the FSA should be part of hypothetical future peace talks:

In general, we support their participation as a structure. We do not yet understand who will represent it. We are waiting for them to manifest more clearly or for our partners who maintain relations with the Free Syrian Army to tell us.

Some might call this diplomacy. I call it elite-level trolling.

“Russia’s Intervention in Syria – A View From the Past,” by Meir Zamir

Meir Zamir

Russia’s Intervention in Syria – A View From the Past
by Meir Zamir
Oct 27, 2015 for Syria Comment

Russia’s current military intervention in Syria marks a major turning point in the civil war there and in the regional and international balance of power in the Middle East. The many attempts to decode Putin’s motives are therefore understandable. Various explanations have been put forward, including: Putin’s attempts to prop up President Bashar Assad, his faltering ally in Damascus; to protect Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast, its only connection to the Mediterranean Sea; to challenge the United States and NATO in Syria in particular and the Middle East in general; and to reassert Russia’s position as a super power. Some have pointed to domestic considerations, including Russia’s faltering economy following the economic boycott led by the United States after its intervention in the Ukraine.

While these and other explanations are plausible, the historical perspective is lacking, which might give a better understanding of Russia’s objectives. Indeed, the Russian president illustrated that in his address to the General Assembly on September 28, when he praised the collaboration between the three powers at the end of World War II, implying that it should be re-adopted now to resolve the Syrian and other crises in the Middle East and elsewhere, rather than the American policy of “exclusivity”.

The 13 documents included in this post aim to provide the missing historical dimension. These are secret Syrian and British documents obtained by the French intelligence in Damascus and Beirut between 1944 and 1948 and uncovered by the author in archives in France. (They have been selected from 400 such documents recently published in a book examining the secret Anglo-French war in the Middle East during and after World War II*). These documents, together with many others that are not given here, reveal that questions regarding Syria, which greatly preoccupied the Soviet Union in the 1940s, continue to preoccupy Russia today despite the years that have passed and the different circumstances. The similarity between the issues then and now results, to a large extent, from Syria’s unique geostrategic position coupled with its enduring internal divisions.

The first document (June 1944) is one of many relating to the Soviet Union’s recognition of Syria as an independent state. It has emerged that Soviet diplomats conditioned that recognition on the Syrian government’s assurances that the country would maintain its independence and national sovereignty. But after learning of attempts by British secret agents to expel France from Syria and incorporate it in a Hashemite Greater Syria and a union with Iraq, with the tacit support of Jamil Mardam, the acting Syrian Prime Minister, Daniel Solod, the Russian Minister in Syria and Lebanon, warned Mardam that his government would actively oppose any attempt to undermine Syria’s independence. (doc. 2) Solod repeated this warning at a meeting with President Quwatli, in the presence of Mardam and Sa’adallah al-Jabiri, the head of the Syrian parliament.(doc. 3) Details of the meeting are revealed in a report given by Muhsin al-Barazi, President Quwatli’s secretary, who was at that time operating as a British agent, to his controller, Colonel Walter Stirling from the MI6. (Barazi was to serve later as a minister in various Syrian cabinets and as Prime Minister under Husni al- Za’im. He was excuted in August 1949 after Sami al-Hinawi’s coup d’état.) It is obvious that the Russians were fully aware of Mardam’s tacit involvement in the Anglo-Iraqi plot.

Despite the Soviet warnings, on May 29, 1945, President Quwatli signed a secret agreement with Britain recognizing its dominance over Syria in return for its expulsion of France.  Shortly after learning of the agreement, Russian diplomats in Damascus and Moscow began to openly criticize and even threaten the Syrians.(docs. 4, 5) The Russians’ concern intensified after Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Sa’id was seen to be collaborating with British agents with the aim of incorporating Syria in an anti-Russian regional defense bloc and solving the problem of Alexandretta, which had been an obstacle to improving Syro-Turkish relations. (docs. 7,8)

Aside from direct diplomatic pressure, Russian secret agents fomented opposition to the Syrian government, especially among the Kurds in the Jazira and the Armenians in northern Syria. The Syrian Communist Party under Khalid Bakdash was also involved. In fact, the Russian consulate in Damascus became a center for covert activities led by a Russian intelligence officer whom the French called “the Red Lawrence”. And then, like now, all the powers involved attached great importance to the role of the Kurds. (doc. 6)

After learning of the British and American attempts to persuade the Syrian government to accept military and economic aid, the Soviet Union in January 1946 offered to provide its own such aid to Syria to ensure its independence. (doc. 9) The Soviet proposal was rejected by Sda’allah al-Jabiri, then Syrian Prime Minister. But following renewed Anglo-Iraqi pressure on the Syrian government to acquiese to a Syro-Iraqi union, Jabiri changed his stand and at the end of 1946 agreed to negotiate a secret agreement with Russia. As a result, the British secret agents pressed President Quwatli to replace Jabiri with Jamil Mardam. (docs. 10, 11, 12) In June 1947, after King Abdallah threatened to compel the Syrian government to join a Greater Syria monarchy under his rule, the Soviet government once again offered to protect Syria’s independence. (doc.13)

This short analysis, basd on Syrian diplomatic documents from the 1940s, demonstrates that Russia, now, like before, is determined to ensure that Syria remain an independent and united state and to prevent another superpower, namely the United States, or any regional power for that matter, from taking control over Syria, as it had undermined Britain’s attempts in the past. In the Syro-Soviet defense treaty of 1970, the Soviet Union realized its long-standing ambitions and became the dominant power in Syria. From that perspective, Putin’s current military intervention, intended to secure Russia’s strategic role in Syria, is to a certain extent a continuation of Stalin’s policy in the Middle East in general, and in Syria in particular.

*Meir Zamir is the author of The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948, (Routledge, London, 2015), 502 pp. He is Professor of Middle Eastern History at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and was the founder of its Department of Middle East Studies. He is a graduate of the London School of Economics and Political Science and has taught at universities in Canada and the US. 

Secret British and Syrian Documents on Syro-Soviet Relations

  1.    Jamil Mardam’s report on the establishment of diplomatic relations with the  Soviet Union

Top secret

Report by Jamil Mardam Bey on the negotiations

which resulted in the establishment of diplomatic relations

between the USSR and Syria

Summary for the Council of Ministers

The conversations that took place between the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Members of the Political Mission, representing the Government of the Soviet Union, ended today.

I have the honor of communicating the summary of these conversations to your esteemed Council.

Above all, we kept secret the question of the Commission’s presence for fear that negotiations would fail, and that disappointment would be bitter, with unfortunate consequences.

I think it important that the esteemed Council of Ministers should know that Mr Khalid Bakdash, President of the Syrian Communist Party, has made praiseworthy efforts to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. He has shown, in all his actions, a praiseworthy patriotism which deserves thanks and appreciation.

The Soviet Political Commission has asked, above all, for the following:

  • information on the history of Syrian independence
  • details on the situation of parliamentary representation in Syria
  • a summary of Franco-Syrian relations, and the conditions in which General Catroux proclaimed Syrian independence
  • precise details on England’s degree of participation in consolidating this independence as well as the strength of political relations linking us to Great Britain

The Commission has tried to find out if a second public or secret agreement exists between us and a foreign power.

It asks for information on:

  • the economic and financial situation of Syria with regard to the laws concerning production, taxes and the state of agricultural, industrial and commercial property.

It is informing itself on ethnic and religious minorities and on their origins.

It is enquiring into the government apparatus, its shape and the degree of religious representation at its center.

It asks for information:

  • on the teaching and educational system of the nation
  • on mining, and on industrial, agricultural or mineral monopolies
  • on the Syrian oil company and its agreements
  • on the reasons for the non-development of Syrian oil and on the attitude of the Syrian Government towards this. Is the Government determined to maintain the status quo or not?

The Commission discussed the financial situation and the Issuing Bank with us. We showed it the Bank of Syria’s agreement and concession.

Lastly, it asked us for guarantees, which we have provided in the name of the Syrian Republic, and a copy has been sent to your esteemed Council.

In reviewing the information that the Commission tried to obtain, it has emerged that this Ministry has had a praiseworthy success in clearly setting out the Syrian position in all its respects, allowing the Commission to pronounce itself satisfied and to recognize, in the name of the Government of the Soviet Union, our independence unconditionally and without reservation.

It is my pleasure to announce this happy news to the esteemed Council of Ministers.

June 25, 1944                                                              s/ Jamil Mardam Bey

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 15 – Diplomatic correspondence – the Soviet Union

  1. From Daniel Solod, Minister of the Soviet Union in Syria

To the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs

Top secret

I have the honor of informing you that my Government has charged me with the task of notifying you of the following:

The plan for Greater Syria, about which H.E. the President of the Council issued a denial and which he has recently repudiated publicly in the Syrian Chamber, continues to be, as far as we are aware, a reality. Certain authorities, which the Government of the Syrian Republic considers its friends and advisors, work for and lead a campaign in favor of its realization.

The Government of the Soviet Union, which has unconditionally recognized Syrian independence, does not believe that it would be in independent Syria’s interest to throw itself – thoughtlessly or after determined efforts – into an unknown and obscure future.

My Government has asked me to warn you of this. I convey this view to you above all as a friend.


Memorandum presented by Mr Solod on April 25, 1945

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Diplomatic correspondence from the Soviet Legation

No 3517/177


  1. Report by Muhsin al-Barazi, Secretary General of the Presidency of the

             Republic to his controller Colonel Walter Stirling           

British agent no 325

Top secret

Handwritten: 7 May 1945


Today the President saw Mr Solod in my presence and that of Messrs Sa’adallah Jabiri and Jamil Mardam Bey.

After the usual polite words, the President said:

“Syria wants to know how far the government of the Soviet Union will back Syrian independence.”

The conversation was long, but the reply finally made by Mr Solod is that the Soviet Union will support Syrian independence in any case, on condition that it exerts itself in favor of Syria and its people and not in favor of Anglo-American imperialism.

Mr Solod in his turn asked questions about certain correspondence exchanged between the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs and the British Minister Plenipotentiary about the Liwa of Alexandretta. Jamil Bey denied the existence of such correspondence. He said he had not discussed this matter with the English and had not been asked to by them.

Then Mr Solod asked:

“What is the current situation between you and the French?”

The President replied:

“We await the arrival of General Beynet. Be assured, Minister, that Syrian opinion generally can no longer bear the French, who make fun of us.”

“I do not believe,” said the Minister, “that the French make fun of you. Although we do not support any colonizing ambitions or attempts at exploitation, I believe that the French are correct from one point of view, because they do not want to give their place up to others.”

“And who are these others?” Jamil Bey asked.

“You know that better than me,” replied Mr Solod, “those to whom you grant privileges and with whom you reach agreements which no one knows anything about. Completely secret things.”

President Quwatli then showed his surprise about these secret things, saying that he knew nothing about them.

Mr Solod said:

“The agreement over oil for example, the agreement over the pipeline installation, the agreement on monetary unification using the standard of the pound sterling, and the civil and commercial aviation project. All these things are more dangerous and more threatening to your independence than the Mandate Charter itself.”

The banquet of honor was thus transformed into a battlefield between the two parties. The Soviet Minister tried to convince the President and his companions that they were setting little store by the rights of the country, and that just at the moment they were trying to emancipate themselves from the French yoke, it was to throw themselves into the arms of the English; that if his government did not want the French colonizers to stay in Syria, neither did he, categorically, want the English to stay here to replace them.

The meeting ended on a not very cordial note. The two parties have bitterness in their hearts.

After the Minister’s departure, the President reproached Jamil Mardam Bey and said to him,

“All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”

From all this, Sa’adallah Bey concluded that duty demanded that all parties now in existence be suppressed and that all their members be arrested.

I believe that the Russians will quite soon make a show of a lot of activity and that this activity will cause us a lot of trouble.

Monday, May 7, 1945                                                                                   s/ Muhsin

Report addressed to Colonel Stirling.

Copy filed in the Political Bureau of the British Legation in Beirut, No. S 1754


After meeting with Solod, Quwatli reprimanded Mardam, telling him: “All the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ secrets are known to these resourceful Russians.”

  1. From Fa’iz al-Khuri, the Syrian Minister in Moscow

                       To H.E. the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus


I was summoned to the Commissariat for Foreign Affairs where I was told, with great friendliness, that, for the following reasons, the current conduct of the Syrian Government was not encouraging for the establishment of a sincere collaboration profitable to our country:

First: They believe that we are ousting the French to replace them with the English.

Second: That we are delivering our country’s resources to the English (an allusion to the ‘Mira’ agreement).”

My interlocutor added:

“The Soviet Union will heartily support the Arabs’ position against the Zionist movement, which aims to take Palestine and chase them out of it. It is up to the Arabs to adopt a suitable position in defense of their threatened country.”

I am sending you a summary of what was said to me.

Yours sincerely,

July 28, 1945                                                                        s/ Fa’iz al-Khuri

No 443/7 – Diplomatic correspondence


  1. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria

                 To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs



My Government has asked me to enquire of your Ministry about the efforts Nuri al-Sa’id is making and which, in addition to defense of the Palestinian question, have, I believe, a bearing on other plans which threaten security in the Middle East, and which are related to high politics.

My information regarding Mr Sa’id’s plans in Syria – which are of course not on his own initiative, but for which he is authorized to act – consist of the abolition of the Syrian Republic and the establishment of a Hashemite monarchy. Does the Syrian Government know this?

As far as the formation of an Eastern Islamic bloc goes, it seems that he wants, or is asked, to work towards the creation of a cordon sanitaire around the Soviet Union. Does Syria wish to take part in that?

As for Palestine, Mr Sa’id wants to give, or is asked to give, the Jews a state at the expense of Palestine, the Arabs, the Lebanese and the Syrians. Does the Syrian Government know that?

In placing these truths before the Syrian Government, I would like to know if it is wholly aware of them and what its inclinations are with regard to accepting or rejecting these plans.

October 5, 1945                                                                                              s/ D. Solod

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 815/42 – Diplomatic correspondence


  1. From the President of the Council, the Foreign Minister

                        To H.E. the British Minister Plenipotentiary, Damascus


Top secret

The information I have and which is based on official reports proves that the Soviet Legation has so far made contact with a large number of Kurdish leaders in the various regions of the Syrian Republic.

In drawing Your Excellency’s attention to this I know that you are perfectly aware of what is happening and that your specialised departments are not unaware of the maneuvers that are being prepared despite our willingness and yours.

However, the duty that I have towards you brings me to remind you that the Syrian Government, rightly concerned about the consequences of this Soviet activity, can only continue to reject all these activities and inform you of the inability in which we find ourselves of taking any measures whatsoever against this Legation. It invites you, in your capacity as the official responsible for maintaining security and peace in this country, to take the measures you judge fitting.

The Syrian Government agrees in advance to whatever you decide.

November 12, 1945                                  The President of the Council ofMinisters

s/ Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no 935/427

  1. From the Minister of the USSR in Syria

                 To the President of the Council of Ministers, the Syrian Minister    

                                 of Foreign Affairs, Damascus


Your Excellency,

My Government wishes to know if the Government of the Syrian Republic has entered into discussion or agreements of a political or economic nature with the British Government.

Great Britain, in adopting the line it has adopted since the Franco-British agreement, whose appendices are still unknown, has arrogated to itself rights determined with regard to Syria and Lebanon. It goes without saying that it only attributed these rights to itself because the two Syrian and Lebanese Governments have granted it privileges allowing it to act in this way.

I refer in particular to the exchange of letters which took place between you and the British Government following the events of last May.

I am notifying you in the name of my Government that we will not intervene in favor of Syria unless we know that our intervention is opportune and that it will not be regarded as undesirable at a time when you have granted the British Government rights which allow it to adopt the line that it has adopted towards you.

Yours respectfully,

December 22, 1945                                                  The Minister Plenipotentiary                                                                                                         s/ D. Solod

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 991 – Political reports



  1. From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus

                        To H.E. the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus


Your Excellency,

Following on from the verbal note I gave you about the future of the Liwa of Alexandretta, its current situation and the future that the Government of the Soviet Union wants for it, I draw your attention to the activities of nationalist Kurdish elements on the future they want for themselves and on the desire for unity, progress and emancipation that the Soviet Union is formulating for them.

Right now I can give the Syrian Government the assurance that these elements, which are dispersed among a number of states and which enjoy the Soviet Union’s sympathy, will never adopt a position unsatisfactory to the government and people of Syria.

Thus, I will have unequivocally expressed to you, from now, the reality of our intentions.

December 30, 1945                                                                             Yours sincerely,

The Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation

s/ Cherniaguin

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, no. 10a

  1. 9.     From the Chargé d’affaires of the Soviet Legation in Damascus

                             To H.E. the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Damascus                                                                                                 


Verbal memorandum

In the name of its Government, this legation had told the Syrian Government of the strong sympathy it had towards its demands for independence and the desire it had to support it and to give it complete support in everything to do with its development and its social progress.

My Government would be happy to see the Syrian Government officially requesting help, not only politically but also militarily and economically.

This is why my Government has asked me to indicate to it the wishes of the Syrian Government, its desire for this help and the conditions it puts on it.

January 3, 1946                                                                      For the Soviet Legation                                                                                                                  s/ Cherniaguin

Registered in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 926 – Documents

  1. Sa’adallah al-Jabiri to Mr Fares al-Khuri

          Through the intermediary of the Syrian Minister Plenipotentiary

                                         in Washington

Top secret

The Syrian Government is wholly in agreement with opening negotiations on an agreement with the Soviets.

It is important that these negotiations take place without the English being informed of them. It would also be good to know what our interlocutors are inclined to grant us and what they want.

November 2, 1946

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Sa’adallah al-Jabiri

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 3,311/381 – Diplomatic correspondence


  1. Fares al-Khuri to the Syrian Foreign Minister, Damascus

Top secret

Novikof, ex-Minister Plenipotentiary in Cairo has had a conversation with me. They want the following:

that we do not support Turkey;

that the Arab League does not become a defensive tool in the hands of British imperialism;

that we reject the division of Palestine;

that we inform them of the terms of our agreement with the English. In exchange, they will grant us all the help we can ask of them without conditions.

November 9, 1946

Signed: Fares-al Khuri

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1,311 – Diplomatic documents

  1. The Minister Plenipotentiary in Turkey

                       To the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Damascus

Top secret

The atmosphere here is becoming more and more sombre, and although Russia is not openly applying pressure, the pressure on the Turks continues and with some force. The English encourage the Turks each day in a new way and the latter refuse to concede anything to Russia.

On the other hand, what is certain is that they refuse to recognise that we have any claims on Alexandretta.

I am convinced that our interest now forces us to reach an understanding, even if it were with the Russians, to preserve our rights, as long as our friends the English refuse to help us, for in fact they would leave Alexandretta with the lion’s share.

The Soviet ambassador here has, in conversations with me, expressed the desire of the Soviet Government to persuade the Arabs that no danger threatens them from their side and that the Moscow Government is inclined and even wants to help us take back from Turkey the rights it has snatched from us with the help of France and England.

I am convinced that an intention from this side will never be detrimental and that if it cannot be used to persuade the English of our importance, it can, however, not do us any harm.

November 26, 1946                                                   The Minister Plenipotentiary

in Turkey

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1325 – Political reports

  1. The Soviet Legation to President Quwatli

Top secret


My Government asks the Syrian Government to take note of the fact that it does not give its agreement to the maneuvers that King Abdullah is carrying out for avowed colonialist principles.

At this time when the threat of these maneuvers has become a constant, my Government feels itself inclined to provide the necessary aid to protect and safeguard Syrian independence.

My Government considers that the current situation as a whole in Syria, which is the basis of security in the Middle East, is a fact that must be respected and guaranteed.

The information I have allows me to confirm the existence of a continuing plot directed by British military officials under the command of King Abdullah and in complete agreement with the Iraqi and Turkish governments.

A complaint lodged with the Security Council by the Syrian Government would be viewed favorably and this would then win the complete support of my government. We are also disposed to provide material aid as well as military experts should the Syrian Government so wish.

June 2, 1947                                                                Seal of the Soviet Legation


Oral memorandum given by the Soviet Minister to the President of the Syrian Republic

Registered in the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

No 1734 – Political documents

Rijal al-Karama after Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous’ Assassination

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

On 4 September, the Druze sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous and a number of his associates within his Rijal al-Karama (‘Men of Dignity’) militia were assassinated in bomb attacks in Suwayda. Bal’ous- a very popular figure on Druze social media- had advocated a ‘third-way’ line that called for reform within the existing regime system in Suwayda province rather than revolution. This agenda focused on anti-corruption as well as prioritising local defence over forced conscription into regime forces to fight far-off battles within Syria. Though Bal’ous was often perceived wrongly by outside observers as an opposition/revolutionary figure, many Assad loyalists in the province undoubtedly viewed him as a threat to regime authority, and are accordingly the most likely culprits in the assassination.

Initial hype on social media in the aftermath of the assassination asserted that the ‘revolution’ had come to Suwayda with dubious claims of the supposed raising of the revolutionary flag, toppling of a statue of Hafez al-Assad and a fake Rijal al-Karama statement declaring that “Jabal al-Arab [Jabal al-Druze/Suwayda] is an area liberated from Assad’s gangs and their troops.” The actual prevailing atmosphere has been one of calm with no further escalations by Rijal al-Karama or pro-Assad factions like Dir’ al-Watan, as all sides appealed for calm. Following the death of Bal’ous, Rijal al-Karama officially declared his brother Sheikh Abu Yusuf Ra’fat al-Bal’ous as the new leader. As Ra’fat was injured in the attacks, it was necessary for him to recover in order to be able to assume actual leadership and issue an official statement, which I have translated below. Analytically, several points are worth noting from the statement, which was first released on 17 October.

a) The statement casts doubt on the regime media narrative– deemed “comical theatrics”- that blamed the Suwayda bombings on one Wafid Abu Turaba/Turabi. This narrative included a televised ‘confession’ on Wafid’s part and has unsurprisingly been widely derided. Instead, the statement implicitly blames the assassination on actors linked to the regime, claiming that the explosives used are of the sorts only possessed by states, and that there was a link to intelligence planning at the most senior levels. The alternative interpretation of the relevant parts of the statement- supposing a foreign-backed conspiracy against Bal’ous- does not seem plausible.

b) Despite implicit blaming the assassination on regime loyalists, the statement clearly shows that Rijal al-Karama intends to continue operating within the framework of regime authority existing over Suwayda and has no interest in confrontation. Particularly noteworthy in this regard is the insistence on ultimately respecting the authority of the mashayakh al-aql: Druze spiritual figures whose opinions remain vital in determining the general framework and atmosphere within Suwayda province. Two of the mashayakh al-aql, Sheikh Jerbo and Sheikh Hanawi, are involved in the pro-Assad Dir’ al-Watan faction that has been competing for influence with Rijal al-Karama. However, following on from Bal’ous’ assassination, Hanawi in particular reached out to Rijal al-Karama in a bid to calm tensions, and for this reason he is singled out among the mashaykh al-aql for thanks in this statement.

Sheikh Hanawi [just left of centre] at a reception commemorating Bal’ous on 9 October with other mashayakh and Rijal al-Karama.

The point is not that the Rijal al-Karama have to show the same level of pro-Assad loyalism as the mashayakh al-aql, who, as Tobias Lang notes, are “completely co-opted by the regime.” Rather, the co-optation of the mashayakh al-aql has determined an environment that cannot envision Suwayda outside regime authority, and thus no one can seriously advocate overthrowing the regime in the province. When this point is noted along with the fact that there is no viable alternative forthcoming from opposition forces, it becomes clearer why it is more accurate to characterize Rijal al-Karama as reformist, with an emphasis on not attacking the fundamental foundations of the Syrian state or the Syrian army.

c) Though Rijal al-Karama officially respects the Syrian army as a Syrian nationalist institution and thus in principle does not object to cooperating with it in Suwayda province to repel incursions and supports its resistance to rebel attempts to attack other Druze localities like Hadr in Quneitra, the group recognizes the nationalist spirit is not compatible with the extent of the regime’s reliance on foreign forces in the wider fight across Syria.

The issue of foreign forces making their mark is not so apparent inside Suwayda itself on account of the calm of the situation relative to other provinces with fierce fighting fronts like Aleppo and Hama. Hints of discontent at the heavy dependence on foreign manpower- principally in the form of Iranian proxy militias- can even be found within some staunchly pro-Assad militia circles. This dependence allows these foreign actors to carve out their own spheres of influence within what remains of the regime rump state. For instance, Hezbollah has most notably been projecting its influence into Homs province in the development of ‘Syrian Hezbollah’ in the form of Quwat al-Ridha. Meanwhile, areas outside regime authority are set to see jihadi actors like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra as players for the long-run. All of this is apparent to Rijal al-Karama- hence the question about whether the land really belongs to Hezbollah, Iran, the jihadis, or now the Russians who have intervened directly.

d) Rijal al-Karama’s component formations take the name of ‘Bayraq X’ (‘Bayraq’- banner, pl. Bayariq), where X is a given title. I have previously covered some of these groups- such as Bayraq al-Nidal and Bayraq al-Haq- in my survey of new Druze militia factions in Suwayda province. Here is a larger list of named Bayraq formations provided by the main Facebook page representing Rijal al-Karama:

“Bayraq al-Izz, Bayraq al-Fahad, Bayraq al-Haq, Bayraq al-Sheikh, Bayraq al-Nidal, Bayraq al-Basha [Pasha], Bayraq al-Fakhr, Bayraq Sayf al-Jabal, Bayraq al-Meqdad, Bayraq al-Nabi Dawoud, Bayraq al-Khidr, Bayraq al-Harm and many others besides them. These are examples from them of banners (Bayariq) to protect the land, honour and religion, as is the path outlined for them by Sheikh Abu Fahad that they will fulfil under their leader Sheikh Abu Yusuf [Ra’fat al-Bal’ous].”

Of these mentioned formations, Bayraq al-Meqdad is the newest to declare itself officially, announcing in a statement on 20 October:

“By the power of God and assignment of the men of the Jabal [Jabal al-Druze/Suwayda], the formation of Bayraq al-Meqdad has been completed: to defend the land, honour and religion. Also we announce complete loyalty after God to the Jabal and the noble Ma’aroufi sect [Druze are also known as Bani Ma’arouf], and we are all the more proud that we are of the Rijal al-Karama, the men of Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous. And similarly Sheikh Abu Fahad said that we imitate the just precedent and we say: ‘Whoever commits aggression is not of us, and whoever does not respond to aggression is not of us, but we defend and are victorious by the assignment of God and our great leader Abu Ibrahim [Ismail al-Tamimi: see here].’

Similarly we call on all noble ones to stand side by side to defend the land of the beloved Jabal and raising the banner of Truth, for Truth is the beloved of God that we may revive the ancestors’ history and follow the course in the path of Dignity. And we pledge to all of you that we will be bullets in the rifles of those who defend our land and swords in the face of the apostates [sic: ‘aggressors’ is probably meant] coveting its soil. Long live you and the Jabal. Rejoice, Abu Yusuf, at the honour, oh students of Dignity. Rejoice, Abu Yusuf, at the victory, oh attire of the turban. Rejoice, oh Jabal of ours, at the blood of your men in nobility and audacity. Rejoice, oh Jabal of ours: we are your guardians till the Judgement/Resurrection.”

Bayraq al-Meqdad flag: note Rijal al-Karama inscription on the top of the flag.

Another Bayraq group that has come to light recently is Bayraq Al Kiwan (Banner of the Family of Kiwan). Led by one Sheikh Abu Yazan Marwan Mazid Kiwan, the group commemorated Bal’ous in a post on 17 October, declaring:


“Your pure soul has not died and continues living in our souls and your words continue to be lights by which we are guided because your soul is of the soul of our noble heroic ancestors who made history by their glorious deeds. And your blood has not and will not be squandered in vain. And we will go on the path of Truth, in your steps and the steps of our ancestors. Here is our land, here we remain. We will live and die here, continuing, resisting, victorious or martyrs. Wa ya hamlat Allah.”

Bayraq Al Kiwan emblem.

The Bal’ous tribute very much matches the Bal’ous-aligned sentiments of a statement issued by Bayraq Al Kiwan on 20 August outlining the group’s aims. For instance, point 4 affirms: “We are aligned with Truth only, and not the loyalist or oppositionist. Our loyalism is to the land, the homeland and the people. And our resistance is against all types and forms of enemies of the land and humanity.” Similarly, point 5 declares: “We do not attack anyone, and we do not oppose anyone, except in Truth…We defend against, wage war on and resist whoever attacks until the last drop of our blood, and we have pledged to be shields for that.” Other points in the statement call for peaceful co-existence with all people in principle, particularly focusing on the various sects and ethnicities as well as internally displaced persons currently residing in Suwayda.

Thus it can be seen that Bal’ous’ death has by no means spelled the death-blow for the Rijal al-Karama. On the contrary, the brand remains potent.

e) Considering Bal’ous’ popularity on social media and in the Druze diaspora, it is hardly surprising how extensive the commemorations of him were in the aftermath of his assassination, particularly in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel. Note though that Rijal al-Karama refuses to refer to Israel as a country by name, extending tribute instead to the Druze in the Golan and ‘Palestine’, who were notably singled out previously for their support for the Rijal al-Karama. In not referring to Israel by name, Rijal al-Karama reflects the Syrian consensus that does not recognize Israel as a state. This continues to rule out cooperation between Israel and the Rijal al-Karama to realize a Druze separatist project, which goes against the Syrian nationalist spirit of Rijal al-Karama- a spirit reinforced by the reverence for Druze leader Sultan Pasha al-Atrash, who led the Great Syrian Revolt/Revolution against the French occupation in the 1920s. There is also no evidence that Rijal al-Karama is any closer to anti-Assad Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt since Bal’ous’ death.

Statement (see here for original copies of the pages)

In the name of God, the Compassionate, the Merciful

And there is no guarantor of success except in God

And do not reckon that those who have been killed in the path of God are dead, but rather are living, nurtured among their Lord- [Qur’an 3:169].

According to what happened from events in the recent period in the province of Suwayda including demonstrations and protests for the sake of realizing the rights of the citizens in the Jabal and that occurred over some days.

But the most notable incident and momentous mishap that occurred was the assassination operation against the Sheikh of Dignity and his fortunate companions- this incident that changed many of the misunderstandings that were present on the field of this province.

The Sheikh of Dignity is a unique personality, a difficult figure in this critical time of our life, and a personality that will not be replicated in this time of ours.

The Sheikh of Dignity had worked to bring about a special culture: the culture of Dignity that was founded as a path to all the sons of the noble mountain, inside and outside it.

This culture that comprised a number of principles and foundations of which the most important were:

1. We are the guardians of the land, honour, and religion, rooted in the land of the homeland.

2. We forbid aggression on our part and we forbid aggression against us, for this is the outline of our just predecessors.

3. Syria is our motherland and we are an indivisible part of it, and we are not on the project of dividing it.

4. Our arms are our dignity and in them are the protection of our security, peace and they are a part of our body.

5. We are neither loyalists nor oppositionists, but nationalists, of Arab identity, of the people, and even people of humanity.

And on these principles we pledge to you oh Sheikh of Dignity: that we remain on this pledge and unimpeded on your path. Both your blood and the blood of the martyrs of Dignity are a solemn pledge on our necks and Truth sought behind it will not die. And we are companions and seekers of Truth.

Regarding the assassination operation:

This cowardly operation that also targeted one of the symbols of the homeland is linked to intelligence planning at the highest levels and the explosive devices used in the operation contained explosive materials that only states can possess. And they were present under the ground at a depth interval not exceeding two metres beneath the road. And that was on the road of the Dhuhur al-Jabal in the area of Ayn al-Marj and there was besides the explosive on the surface of the road a rigged pick-up car and the explosion was carried out from a distance in synchronization between the explosive and the car. And there was also a group of people present at a distance of not more than 200m from the place of the explosion from the east and north of the road. And their aim was to kill whatever remained alive from the convoy by firing multiple rounds of gunshots randomly on the convoy.

In addition to the closing of the checkpoint and not allowing the arrival of ambulances to the place of the explosion, it was not even allowed for cars coming from Dhuhur al-Jabal to Suwayda [to enter] even as they might have provided aid to one of the wounded.

Despite all that happened, the suggested and important question is what the reason is for the explosion that happened in the hospital…As for the comical theatrics of Wafid Abu Turaba and what concerns that and all the followings and media coverage of it on the television airwaves, they are a point of discussion for you.

As for what concerns the three names: Rami al-Hussein, Salim Abu Mahmoud, Hamad al-Sahnawi. We for our part neither accuse them nor deem them innocent, but refer them to their associates to be judged.

Regarding our people in the Jabal:

We offer them regards of love, esteem, reverence and tribute- for all the people of the Jabalin its sects and components. For we and you are one house.

And thus we affirm to you the words of the Sheikh of Dignity in that:

– The position of the triumvirate of the mashayakh al-aql is the head of the pyramid among us and it has all respect and valuation of esteem.

And we note in particular our Sheikh- the Sheikh Abu Wa’el Hamoud al-Hanawi who was with us in all our circumstances and especially in our latest calamity.

– Indeed our aim is one and our blood is one and according to this we have shared the bodies of our martyrs with our people in the graves and this is a noble distinction for us.

– A question in tracing out the answer: why did Sultan Pasha al-Atrash- leader of the Great Syrian Revolt- depart from the Jabal in 1954?

– Despite our great affliction on that dreaded day, we have not undertaken any act of destruction and we have not attacked any of the foundations of the state, and we disavow all that.

– Indeed Rijal al-Karama are well-known inside the mountain and outside it, and we do not allow any person- whoever he may be- to infringe on their respected status or use their name in personal objectives beneath inquiry on our part.

– Let all know that we continue on the pledge of our Sheikh in forming bayariq [banners] in all the villages and localities of the province: these banners that are the symbol of our honour and dignity and we will sacrifice for them with our souls and will remain raised till the Day of Judgment.

Concerning the soldiers:

– Indeed our soldier sons in this Jabal and on the passing of history they have waged battles against the Turks followed by the French. They have a history that no one can condemn from courage and sacrifices for the sake of this homeland Syria.

– Working to hold to account all who transgress against our military sons from the various ranks and we do not accept attacks against them from anyone. And we inform you that our hands are extended into every place in this land.

– Joining the army is a deed of choice, not compulsory, because the fighting in Syria is between Syrians themselves and we are innocent of every drop of blood and tear of a child. Thus, the decision to join goes back to the owner of the relation as a personal matter because we no longer know for whom this land is: is it for Iran or Hezbollah or Nusra or Da’esh [Islamic State] or is it for the Russian army that has entered our land?

And in conclusion:

– We extend tribute to all our Syrian people who shared with us in our pains and sadness in our momentous calamity and we will not forget the stance of our people in the beloved Golan.

– To our people in Lebanon, tribute of affection, reverence and recognition in what they offered from true participation whether in attending personally or through connection networks. And we note in particular those who established the funeral rite on their land and in their abode from mashayakh, leaders, officials and MPs.

– Tribute of honour to our people in beloved Palestine for what they offered and continue to offer and expend for the sake of the dignity of the Jabal.

– And all thanks are due to our people in Jordan on consoling us in our mishap and it is not far removed from them, for they are the ones who offered benevolent treatment to Sultan Pasha al-Atrash in his ordeal.

– To all our people in exile in all the states of the world, including Arab and foreign, for them all thanks and respect for sharing with us in our affliction and we call on them to return safely to the land of the beloved homeland and we say to them that we are living in this homeland like falcons for the black summits.

“And whether above the land with dignity or beneath the land with dignity…and ya hamlat Allah.”

The Mujahid Martyr Sheikh Abu Fahad Waheed al-Bal’ous

Your servant

Ra’fat al-Bal’ous.

Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria,” by Waleed Rikab

Abdallah al-Muhaysini, a Pivotal Figure in the Islamist Insurgency in Syria
by Waleed Rikab*
for Syria Comment – 7 October 2015

Abdallah al-Muhaysini came to Syria in 2013 to partake in the uprising against Bashar al-Assad. He presents a unique case of the outsized role a single person can play in the lawless world of the Syrian rebellion.  He has positioned himself at the center of radical jihadist politics, fund raising, and legal opinion.

Al-Muhaysini with a captured Syrian pilot. Jabhat al-Nusra’s flag, which also includes the al-Qaeda insignia, can be seen in the background

Al-Muhaysini hails from the al-Qassim region in Saudi Arabia. Prior to his arrival to Syria, he completed his MA and PhD studies in Islamic Jurisprudence in the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Riyadh, with a dissertation on “The Treatment of Prisoners of War in Islamic Jurisprudence.” A self-professed Salafi jihadist scholar, al-Muhaysini is often seen on the battlefields of northern Syria together with various Islamist factions, prominent among whom are Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), in addition to other factions affiliated with the Jaish al-Fateh coalition. He has set up institutions that provide military and financial aid to jihadist groups, and runs a proselytization (Dawah) center (named “The Jihad’s Callers Center“) in Idlib Province.

Al-Mushaysini holds the title General Judge of Jaish al-Fateh. He is highly revered in the jihadi-Salafi landscape (notwithstanding Islamic State adherents), embracing a leading role in the warfare – most recently in the Jabha al-Nusra takeover, together with the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) of the Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base and in the Jaish al-Fatah battles for control over al-Fuah this month (September 2015). During clashes in the last year, he was documented delivering inflammatory speeches to the troops and bestowing religious blessing upon suicide bombers before embarking on their missions.


Al-Muhaysini gives his blessing to a suicide bomber in al-Fuah

A picture of his activities since arriving to Syria two years ago reveals a person immersed in all aspects of the effort to establish Islamist rule in Syria, currently developed mainly in the Idlib Province, but also spreading to other regions (as demonstrated in the creation of Jaish al-Fateh – Qalamoun and Jaish al-Fateh – the southern region). His main activities are:

  • The highly successful Jahed bi-Malak (wage jihad with your money) enterprise that operates with the declared aim of collecting donations to arm mujahedeen groups in Syria. In May 2015, he claimed that the Idlib campaign needed US$ 5 million that the rebels were able to secure.
  • The aforementioned Jihad’s Callers Center that has been steadily developing in Idlib Province and now boasts branches in many towns and villages.
  • Active participation in all major military campaigns in northern Syria in the last year, such as the takeover of Idlib city and Jisr al-Sughour in March-April 2015, and Wadi al-Dief in December 2014. During the Idlib city campaign, al-Muhaisni was documented surviving a rocket attack. Al-Muhaysini is also involved in the sanctioning and enlisting of recruits for martyrdom operations.


Al-Muhaysini with Syrian Army captives at Abu-Dhuhur Air Base

The 56 captives following their execution

A glimpse into the ideology espoused by al-Muhaysini was revealed through his role in the reported summary execution of Syrian Army soldiers and officers following JN’s capture of Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base. Al-Muhaysini gave a speech while standing alongside the blindfolded captives: “These are only some of the prisoners that were captured by the Mujahideen…they claim to be Sunnah. I don’t like to call them Sunnah. They were once Sunnah but became murtadin (apostatized) once they enlisted in the Nusairi (a derogatory term for Alawites) regime…Oh mothers of (Syrian Army) soldiers, either you see your sons like this and then you see them killed, or you force them to desert this army…the battle is between the Sunnah and the Nusairis and Rafida (derogatory term for Shiites) so why would you involve your sons in this carnage?…No doubt, whomsoever sheds blood, his blood shall also be shed.”


Al-Muhaysini in TIP footage from Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base

Indeed, validating al-Muhaysini’s words, several days later it was reported that JN had executed 65 soldiers and officers at the air base, with images being circulated on social media of the captives standing on the tarmac before their execution.


Photos confirming the mass killings surfaced on social media, but were not officially published by JN. The fact that there was no formal documentation of the aftermath of the mass killing, at odds with the large volume of JN and TIP publications regarding the capture of the air base, may stem from JN media strategy, which tries to distance itself from the negative image of the Islamic State and its affinity for gore. It is also in line with guidelines given by al-Qaeda (AQ) leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who instructed the group not to alienate the local population. On a separate note, these guidelines also explain the successful cooperation between JN and other Islamist factions, as opposed to the Islamic State.

Jabhat al-Nusra’s operation at Abu al-Dhuhur Air Base, the overall success of the Idlib campaign, the co-optation with the TIP and the recent pledge of allegiance by Jaish al-Muhajiroun wal Ansar, are all signs that JN continues to enjoy momentum in Syria. It is able to generate the appeal and success needed to further consolidate its hold over regions in Syria that are all but an unprecedented base of operations for AQ since Afghanistan before the September 11 attacks.


Arms training for children at the Jihad’s Callers Center

Al-Muhaysini propagates hardline Salafist concepts through the Dawah initiatives of the Jihad’s Callers Center in areas held by Islamist rebels in northern Syria. This enterprise promotes a militant worldview among residents of Idlib Province, and is expected to provide an inventory of future recruits to Islamist groups, as is already demonstrated in this video, where al-Muhaysini personally trains children on his version of jihad. The maintenance and expansion of these Dawah centers requires substantial funding, apparently provided by al-Muhaysini. Furthermore, an article by Jordanian cleric Eyad Qunibi that appeared in a magazine published by the center titled Jihadi Reflections leaves no doubt as to the goal of the Dawah activities conducted by the center in Syria – to shape a state of affairs in which a Sharia-ruled Syria will be perceived as the only option by the Syrian population, without democratic elections.

Al-Muhaysini’s activities are crucial to ascertain the degree to which Ahrar al-Sham (and Jaish al-Fateh in general) and JN differ in their orientation and plans for Syria. Al-Muhaysini seems to play a crucial role in aiding both, providing financial aid and religious guise to their operations. Furthermore, his presence in both JN and Jaish al-Fateh operations, and his official role in Jaish al-Fateh, are proof of the persisting links between the two fighting forces.

The Jaish al-Fateh push toward the Alawite heartlands on the coast may be one reason why Russia jump into Syria to support its ally. If unchecked, al-Muhaysini will continue to help entrench Islamist groups in Syria and radicalize Sunni rebels. Finally, if al-Muhaysini’s plans to win the hearts and minds of the Syrian population succeed, it will surely complicate U.S. efforts to promote a democratic post-Assad Syria, due to his rejection of democracy in favor of Sharia governance.

* Waleed Rikab heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism  company.

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: History and Analysis

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

Establishment and Beginnings (2012-2013)

Initial emblem of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (The Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade) was formed in the summer of 2012 initially using the name Katiba Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and based primarily in southwest Deraa province. The group first came to prominence with the capture of UN peacekeeping troops in March 2013 in the Jamla area near the UN patrolled portion of the Golan Heights. In the initial statement on the hostage taking, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk justified its actions as follows:

“At a time in which the UN is silent about the crimes of the regime against the Syrian people, here are the UN forces providing aid to the criminal regime forces besieged for days by the heroes of the Free Army [FSA] on frontline duty in the area defending our people there from the barbarity of the regime and its shabiha…at a time in which the Yarmouk Valley area is witnessing artillery and rocket bombing as well as continual Assad war plane bombing raids that have led to the destruction of a great number of homes and the killing of unarmed civilians without mercy, as well as displacement of families.

Why is this aid not offered to the unarmed civilians instead of the criminal gangs? Therefore we have decided to detain and keep hold of the aid together with its UN personnel until Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area and the Assad bombing and war plane raids stop. And these personnel will remain safe, and when the bombing stops and Assad’s forces pull out their forces from the area entirely and the UN fulfils its humanitarian and international obligation for which it is present in the area, we will immediately release them.

Long live Free Syria and down with the criminal Assad regime.”

However, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk very quickly retracted this hostile statement, claiming it was actually protecting the UN personnel from the “barbaric bombing that Assad’s criminal gangs are launching against the western villages of Deraa province and all of Syria.” The group then called on the UN to hold a secure meeting to hand over the personnel. Eventually, the incident was resolved. Another kidnapping incident took place in May involving 4 Filipino  UN peacekeepers , though they were also released. At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk seemed keen to assure outsiders of its supposedly good intentions, even telling the Times of Israel that the group’s quarrel was only with Assad regime and praising Israeli medical treatment for refugees.

Through 2013, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk gained prominence as a player on the battlefield, acquiring some new local affiliates. In late March, the group coordinated with Jabhat al-Nusra in an assault on the 38th division air defence base. In May- at a time when Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was participating in the “Yarmouk al-Karama” battle focused on localities to the south of Nawa town like Ain Dhikr– the Omar al-Mukhtar battalion for the Nawa area was announced, employing nationalist rhetoric typical of what one would associate with the FSA brand: “I swear by God the Great to defend my religion, my homeland [watani] and my honour, and expend what is dear and precious in liberating all the soil of the homeland from the claws of the criminal Assad occupation.”

In July, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk announced participation in the “Umm al-Ma’arak” (“Mother of Battles”) to capture Nawa from regime forces, though that operation was ultimately unsuccessful. At this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s nationalist rebel affiliations were still apparent, and in October the group joined a coalition of 50 southern formations embodied in the “Revolution Leadership Council- Southern Region.” In a show of military strength, a video emerged in November 2013 of a large military parade held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.  At the time, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader Ali al-Baridi (nickname: al-Khal) claimed that the group’s control of territory extended from the area of Tel Shehab (near the border with Jordan) to the occupied Golan.

All that said, the group was not without its critics in 2013: for example, one page entitled “Secrets and Revelations of Shabiha and Thieves of the Free Army in Deraa” in September accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of laziness under the leadership of al-Khal and his deputy Abu Abdullah al-Ja’ouni, asserting: “There is an abundance of arms yet it has stopped operating on many fronts like the Sheikh Sa’ad front in waiting for additional support…and today we have heard calls to provide relief from Sheikh Sa’ad so what will Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and the other brigades sleeping in Tafis and the majority of the western areas?”

Developments in 2014

Moving into 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to participate in rebel operations, being one of the declared participants alongside Jabhat al-Nusra and other brigades in the “Hold fast to God’s rope entirely and don’t separate” battle announced in late February to capture strategic positions between Deraa and Quneitra. In that same month, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was also one of the declared components of the ‘Southern Front’ initiative backed by the West and Gulf states. At the end of April, the brigade along with some other groups announced a new offensive to take Tel al-Jumu’ and other areas to the south of Nawa, though that came to nothing as an identical initiative with more participants including Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk was announced in June.

Even at this point, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s public affiliations were ostensibly clear in its appearance as a signatory to a statement signed by 54 southern groups affirming respect for human rights and democracy: as per the third clause, “We fight so that Syrian men and women may choose a free and democratic system that establishes a prosperous state respecting the aspirations of Syrians in the freedom and dignity for which they have fought.”

It is in July 2014 that some signs of tension emerge between Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk and other factions, beginning with an apparent clash with Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya, a Salafi group primarily operating in Deraa province. One may also argue that in this clash lies the first hint of links with the Islamic State [IS], as there is an echo of IS discourse in pronouncing takfir on the group with whom one clashes. Thus from a Facebook page in support of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk at the time:

“Harakat al-Muthanna- which calls itself ‘Islamic’ but it has no connection to Islam- launches an attack on the al-‘Alan checkpoint at which the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are based, blows it up and arrests the members of the checkpoint affiliated with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, exploiting the fact that most of the heroes of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk are present in the town of Sheikh Sa’ad to liberate it from Assad’s gangs and shabiha. And while the brigade was moving Mahmoud Suleiman al-Baridi, one of the most important field commanders in Deraa province, who was wounded during the liberation of Sheikh Sa’ad, they got in the way and held him back, which led to the aggravation of his condition…So, a question that suggests itself, Harakat al-Muthanna, which calls itself Islamic, is it Islamic in deed or….?”

In a follow-up statement, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s leader mentioned that the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division had participated alongside Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya in the attack, and had allegedly accused Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk of “apostasy and disbelief.” Al-Khal gave an extended account in which he claimed that after the capture of Tel al-Jumu’ it had been agreed that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk would participate on the Sheikh Sa’ad front but then members had been approached by a convoy of cars that also claimed to be participating on that front. Approval was granted for joint participation by the leadership, but soon after that, Harakat al-Muhthanna al-Islamiya, the Syrian Revolutionaries Front and the al-Hamza Division began the attack on Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s media office released a statement simply clarifying on which fronts it would continue to operate: Nawa town, Atman and Kharbat Ghazala.

By summer 2014, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk had adopted a more Islamic-style emblem (variant featuring a white flag).

Even so, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk continued to identify with the Southern Front operations, participating in the Imam Nawawi offensive to take Nawa from regime forces. The group also participated in the wider fighting over Shaykh al-Maskin, Nawa and other parts of Deraa in November 2014 that eventually culminated in disaster for regime forces, with the total loss of Nawa and other holdings such as Liwa 112 base, in which Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk advertised its presence after the routing of regime forces.

The following month came a major conflict with Jabhat al-Nusra, from which point onwards Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s pro-IS affiliations have become so obvious that it does not really make sense now to speak of the group as secretly pro-IS. Jabhat al-Nusra’s fight with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk in the Yarmouk basin was rooted in its perception of the latter as an IS cell, an allegation that Southern Front commanders apparently rejected at the time. Though the exact sequence of events remains somewhat unclear, the Dar al-‘Adl (House of Justice), a southern rebel judicial body, initially called for a ceasefire and its own judicial investigation (15 December) with the backing of multiple factions, including the Al-Hamza Division, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya. As in July of that year though, when Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya had already clashed with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, it appears the group had also been involved on the side of Jabhat al-Nusra in the initial clashes with Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Eventually, Harakat al-Muthanna al-Islamiya proposed its own ceasefire and the Dar al-‘Adl issued a new statement on 23 December, requiring the warring sides to return to frontline posts against the regime and for the Dar al-‘Adl to receive the checkpoints set up within the Yarmouk basin.

Leaving behind the Southern Front: Moving overtly towards IS

Since the December clashes, multiple lines of evidence point to Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s IS affinities that build a very clear case when taken together. To begin with, the group’s current emblem featuring IS’ flag:


Further, a key figure involved in the December 2014 clashes was Jabhat al-Nusra’s Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, widely perceived as one of the most pragmatic members of the al-Qa’ida affiliate, though he has since been sidelined. He has been the subject of verbal attack from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk using discourse identical to IS, namely in referring to him as ‘al-Harari’ (H/T: @AbuJamajem). For example, in a statement entitled “To our people in the town of Nawa,” Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk says it released two people on verifying they had no link to Jabhat al-Nusra, while warning “our people in Nawa…to be careful of the conspiracy in which al-Harari is trying to embroil them, whereby he makes from among them cannon fodder for his ambitions that his agenda, which is not hidden from anyone, imposes upon him. This already happened in reality when he embroiled some of the sons of Nawa, deceiving them, in the attempt to commit treachery against Saraya al-Jihad…and it was established to all that Saraya al-Jihad was in a state of defending itself.” Saraya al-Jihad is a jihadi group in Quneitra that became part of the coalition Jaysh al-Jihad, also suspected of being an IS cell: its name appears to be used interchangeably with Jaysh al-Jihad here.

In this context, one should then note an interview uploaded on 1 May 2015 with the deputy leader of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, in which he denies that Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has links with Jaysh al-Jihad but says Jabhat al-Nusra committed aggression against them. When asked as a follow-up whether Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has allegiance to IS, he avoids giving a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer to the question. This interview followed on from a lengthy statement by the Dar al-‘Adl on 30 April, which condemned Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk for violating terms imposed upon them. Though the brigade handed over leaders of sub-groups who had pledged allegiance to IS for questioning and verification as stipulated, the Dar al-‘Adl claims that those handed over actually affirmed that the leadership of the brigade had also pledged allegiance and received financial support from IS.

According to the Dar al-‘Adl, other violations on the part of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk include re-opening an alternative court in violation of the agreement, declaring takfir on the Dar al-‘Adl, kidnapping and torturing civilians and leaders of rival brigades (e.g. the leader of Liwa Buruj al-Islam affiliated with the First Legion), and running a cell to assassinate rivals in the town of Nawa. These patterns of behaviour are very similar to IS conduct in 2013 and in Fallujah in early 2014 (back when it was just ISIS), whereby an alternative proto-administration was set up (most often in the form of a da’wa office and/or Islamic court), combining an approach of outreach and subversion. Criticism of the Dar al-‘Adl as a judiciary body was also the subject of an official IS Damascus province video.

Over the course of this year, Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk has further developed its administration along the IS model in the Yarmouk basin, with its own da’wa office, Islamic court, Islamic police force and apparently a Diwan al-Hisba, as per below.

Da’wa office of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk. Here is a video of a sample da’wa meeting held by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk: note the use of the Islamic State song “The Shari’a of Our Lord.”

Da’wa pamphlet cover from Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.

Establishment of the Islamic court dated 11 Shawwal 1436 AH (27-28 July 2015): “Striving on our part to realize the religion and the ruling of God’s law…over the land, supporting those who are wronged and standing in the face of wrongdoers and those who sow corruption, we announce the formation of the Shari’a court. This court is to be considered the sole legitimate place from which judicial rulings are to be taken in the Yarmouk basin area according to the Book of God and the Sunna of His Prophet Muhammad (SAWS) on the understanding of the just predecessors, may God be pleased with them. And we ask our people to be an aid to us in this court and that to restore rights to its people.”

“The Shari’a court in the Yarmouk basis announces its desire to appoint Islamic judges affiliated with the court and working in it. Thus we ask all whom God has cultivated with Shari’i knowledge to be kind enough to undertake judicial work in the court. Appointment of the judges for work will be completed within the cadre of the Shari’a court according to specialities and suitability. To apply: base of the Shari’a court in al-Shajra everyday from 9-11 a.m. beginning from the issuing of this statement- 11 Shawwal 1436 AH.” The al-Shajra court was mentioned earlier in the year by the Dar al-‘Adl as something reopened by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk contrary to its wishes.

Announcement by Shari’a court for the recruitment of Islamic police to be affiliated with the court (not military matters).

From a Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk account on Twitter: Diwan al-Hisba organizing distribution of niqabs to locals.

In this vein, recent Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk photo releases mimic IS propaganda, portraying scenes of normality in the Yarmouk basin area it controls, as well as distributions of da’wa pamphlets and revelling in the destruction of its enemies, who have generally failed to dislodge it from its strongholds. For comparison, note that another group that eventually pledged allegiance to IS- Boko Haram- also had its own media outlet- al-Urwat al-Wuthqa- that imitated IS photo releases.

Football match in the Yarmouk basin area

Distribution of da’wa pamphlets

“Corpses of the slain of ‘Jaysh al-Fatah’ [in the south, comprising Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham et al.] who tried to assault the areas controlled by Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk.”

Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk member Ahmad al-Baridi featuring a quotation from IS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani on his Twitter account.

Purported areas of control of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk (in green) vs. rebel rivals (in red) as of early August 2015.

Given the numerous lines of evidence for the IS affinities of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk, one may ask why IS has not already announced a new ‘wilaya’ (province), in this case a Wilayat Deraa, which would from a propaganda viewpoint mark a significant ‘expansion’ in that even its predecessor ISIS, which was much more widely (and thinly) spread across Syria, never had a foothold in the province on account of the loyalty of Jabhat al-Nusra affiliates to Jowlani. One answer may be that the problem for IS is that the territory currently controlled by Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk is not contiguous with the rest of its holdings in Syria and Iraq, or it may be the announcement is only a matter of time.

In any case, the growth of Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk poses a significant problem for the rebels, and the Dar al-‘Adl continues to be targeted in sabotage operations, with the assassination of its deputy head most recently, but it seems no one has the strength to dismantle Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk’s presence. This is particularly telling with regards to the relative strength of Jaysh al-Fatah in the south (which seems most keen to destroy Liwa Shuhada’ al-Yarmouk) as opposed to its much more successful counterpart in the north. More generally, southern rebel efforts have stalled with the faltering offensive on Deraa city despite the regime’s thin line of control through the province.

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa: History, Analysis & Interview

By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi

History and Analysis

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (the Raqqa Revolutionaries Brigade) was initially formed in September 2012 as a merger of several local rebel groups in Raqqa province following on from the Assad regime’s loss of the northern border town of Tel Abyad, at a time when the regime was forced to pull back from large swathes of northern Syrian border areas to focus on defending more vital areas- in particular the provincial capitals. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa declared its loyalty to a “Revolutionary Military Council” in Raqqa province, a loose umbrella similar to other early nationalist rebel structures like the FSA Military Council of Col. Oqaidi in Aleppo province. Some declared components of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa at the time included [Kata’ib] al-Jihad fi Sabil Allah, al-Nasir Salah al-Din, al-Haq,  Shuhada’ al-Raqqa, Saraya al-Furat and Ahrar al-Furat.

Over the subsequent months, some new local formations were announced and added to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s ranks. Thus, in December 2012, the Katiba al-Risala of the village of al-Sheikh Hassan in the north Raqqa countryside, the Katiba Suqur al-Jazira operating in the western Raqqa countryside, and the Katiba Usud al-Tawheed operating in Raqqa city area were announced as affiliates of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa. The rhetorical focus in these videos is on driving the Assad regime presence out of Raqqa province, rather than laying out an ideological vision for a post-Assad Syria. This is so despite its original emblem that ostensibly conveyed a distinctly Islamist orientation.

Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s first emblem. On top: “Allahu Akbar.” Beneath that: “There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God.”

Also in December 2012, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa joined the Raqqa Liberation Front coalition, alongside similarly aligned groups including the familiar Ahfad al-Rasul (a brand of Western-backed brigades that went into sharp decline in 2013, including expulsion from Raqqa city by ISIS in August of that year), Liwa al-Muntasir bi-Allah and Liwa Isar al-Shamal (both of which, like Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, identified as part of the same Revolutionary Military Council) and Liwa Rayat al-Nasr (which eventually joined the Salafi grouping Ahrar al-Sham). As has often been the case in the Syrian civil war with the various coalitions announced and dissolved, the Raqqa Liberation Front coalition never led to a real merger of these groups.

Raqqa city fell in March 2013 to a combination of these brigades, Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra. The following month, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the creation of ISIS, demanding the subsuming of Jabhat al-Nusra under this structure. Most of the Jabhat al-Nusra contingents in Raqqa province accepted Baghdadi’s argument and defected, though a group under Abu Sa’ad al-Hadhrami broke away from ISIS in Raqqa city and temporarily took refuge in the city of Tabqa to the west of Raqqa city in mid-summer of 2013. Meanwhile, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa continued to operate as part of the rebels’ wider bid to take the remaining regime bases in Raqqa province- Division 17, Brigade 93 and Tabqa military airport.

Thus on 20 June, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s leader Abu Eisa denied claims he had been killed by regime forces. It is also notable that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appeared to adapt somewhat to the ISIS presence in Raqqa, not only by adding the definite adjective ‘al-Islami’ (Islamic) to its name but also by using the same flag as ISIS in at least one video, as per below from July 2013, in which the group claims coordination with a number of formations, including ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa Ahfad al-Rasul and Liwa al-Muntasir bi-Allah, in attacking a convoy that came from Brigade 93.


Despite the apparent military cooperation, tensions became increasingly apparent in a number of ways. As ISIS’ presence in Raqqa city grew with its da’wa office that set up numerous billboards throughout the city, it began detaining members of other groups, such as the leader of Liwa Amana’ al-Raqqa (another of the independent, nationalist brigades), and moved decisively to expel Ahfad al-Rasul in August, despite cooperating with the same group on the Latakia front where an offensive had been launched to push towards Assad’s ancestral village of al-Qardaha. This does not mean tensions solely revolved around disputes between ISIS on one side versus the rest of the factions on the other. There were also tensions between Liwa al-Nasir Salah al-Din (another independent group at this point) and Ahrar al-Sham as they arrested each other’s members, and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa reportedly had its own disputes with Ahrar al-Sham as well. Even so, all-out warfare between the various factions had not yet broken out, and the civilian local council continued to operate.

In September 2013, Jabhat al-Nusra announced its ‘return’ to Raqqa city. Some of the smaller brigades saw in Jabhat al-Nusra the chance to protect themselves from the growth of ISIS, and accordingly pledged allegiance in some form. This included Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, though the exact terms of the allegiance are disputed. It appears Jabhat al-Nusra had hoped to integrate Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa through Shari’a sessions, but regardless of whether or not this was actually agreed upon, it is therefore clear that Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa was not properly integrated into Jabhat al-Nusra’s ranks. This may have hindered the fight against ISIS when wider infighting broke out in January 2014.  Components of other actors saw a stronger horse in ISIS (which detained and eventually killed Abu Sa’ad al-Hadhrami) and thus joined its ranks, a case-in-point being part of the Liwa al-Nasir Salah al-Din.

As infighting spread between rebel forces and ISIS, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to have taken the lead in fighting ISIS inside Raqqa city in January 2014, at which point it had broken off from Jabhat al-Nusra. However, ISIS did not suffer the same problem as elsewhere (e.g. in Idlib province) of being thinly spread out and was able to consolidate control of Raqqa city, expelling Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa etc. It would appear that the rebel side conversely suffered from problems of poor coordination in their efforts. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa then withdrew into the Raqqa countryside up to the Kobani enclave, seeking refuge with the Kurdish YPG. As the Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa break-off from Jabhat al-Nusra had not been officially announced at the time, this was the origin of the ISIS narrative that Jabhat al-Nusra had entered into an alliance with the YPG. In April 2014 came Jabhat al-Nusra’s announcement of the break between itself and Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa.

As the months continued, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa claimed occasional low-scale sabotage attacks and clashes with ISIS in Raqqa province, usually in coordination with another brigade that also took refuge in the Kobani canton: Liwa al-Jihad fi Sabil Allah, aligned with the opposition-in-exile. Thus on 9 June 2014, the two groups claimed to have attacked an ISIS bridge and checkpoint installation near Raqqa city. They also sent a message of solidarity to the rebels in Deir az-Zor province as ISIS continued its advance and threatened to overrun the entire province. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa also claimed a prisoner exchange with ISIS, in which the former released 3 ISIS operatives in exchange for 13 prisoners held by ISIS.

In September 2014, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa along with a number of rebel groups in the Kobani area joined the Burkan al-Furat (‘Euphrates Volcano’) coalition led by the YPG, and participated in the battle of Kobani as well as the subsequent push eastwards following the failure of the Islamic State to take the city. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to have been the main rebel auxiliary force alongside the Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal formation of the Dawn of Freedom Brigades, which unlike Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa draws its membership mainly from rebel groups (e.g. Liwa al-Tawheed) that existed in north-eastern Aleppo province localities such as Manbij.

As the Islamic State was driven back towards Tel Abyad, a clarification was broadcast that only Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa would be allowed to enter Arab localities. In an interview with Orient News, it was affirmed that “the door of repentance is open. God is forgiving, merciful.” This ostensibly parallels one of the Islamic State’s own methods of securing control over a new area it takes: offering the chance for repentance. However, it was also made clear that the hand of mercy would only be extended to those whose hands were not stained “with the blood of Syrians. As for those whose hands are stained with the blood of Syrians, there is no mercy for them except killing, by God’s permission.” Abu Eisa also denied allegations that Burkan al-Furat had engaged in ethnic cleansing of Arabs in areas retaken from the Islamic State. Reflecting its political agenda more clearly, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa uses this logo now:

“Free Syrian Army: Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa”, with the familiar FSA emblem.

At the present time, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa appears to be the primary rebel actor responsible for outreach to the Arab tribes in northern Raqqa province (e.g. photo below), also claiming administration over the Ain Issa area to the south of Tel Abyad.


The group is hoping to push further south to Raqqa city, though the prospects of such an assault being successful are slim now and for the near future at least, as the Islamic State has deployed its special Jaysh al-Khilafa division to solidify the defence of Raqqa city. In the long-run, the alliance with the YPG in the Burkan al-Furat coalition seems problematic, as Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa and the YPG/PYD have different political visions. Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa is committed, like most rebel forces, to the concept of a unified Syria that suspects any Kurdish autonomous administration projects as working towards taqsim Souriya (‘division of Syria’). Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa has already alluded to these issues somewhat obliquely in a recent statement denying rumours that Tel Abyad would be subsumed administratively to the PYD’s Kobani canton:

“The Tel Abyad area will wholly remain administratively with Raqqa governorate and we do not accept modification of the administrative borders for Raqqa governorate and changing the affiliation of any area under the name of any entity. What is being circulated in suggestion about the affiliation of the Tel Abyad area in administration is not within the special powers of the local council or any other council or committee. This matter requires a law and legislative committee to decide on that. And we are in an exceptional state of affairs. It is not possible to adopt any decision to change the administrative borders or affiliation of any area.”

One should also note the reference to a ‘local council’ here: on 26 August, Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa issued an invitation for participation in a conference for the election of the local council for Raqqa province, particularly calling on members of the nominal electoral committee to participate. This conference was supposed to take place on 28 August in the Turkish city of Urfa, but as the Arabic outlet al-Aan notes, it failed to lead to the election of a local council. Out of 107 members of the electoral committee, only 4 showed up alongside representatives of the opposition-in-exile government. It would appear that the majority of those from Raqqa province in exile do not see it as worthwhile to elect a local council to provide civilian support to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa, recognizing that the Islamic State still controls most of the province and the PYD is the true administrator of the important town of Tel Abyad, for which the PYD has already formed its own local and seniors councils.

This is why, as I have emphasized before, it is highly misleading to go by Thomas van Linge’s maps that portray Tel Abyad and similar areas as somehow jointly controlled by the YPG and the ‘FSA’, driven as Thomas van Linge is by an ideological agenda to hype supposed Kurdish-rebel unity. Yes, it may be that the PYD takes into account for the time being local Arab and Turkmen objections to incorporating Tel Abyad into Kobani, and certainly it has little interest in pushing further south to Raqqa city and thus delegates an area like Ain Issa to Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa. Yet the playing up of ‘YPG-FSA’ cooperation tends to ignore the fact that the YPG has done the bulk of the fighting, sustained the bulk of the casualties, and as a result its political wing the PYD has come to be the administrator of the vast majority of localities retaken from the Islamic State.

Corroborating this point for the Tel Abyad area in particular is an order from the PYD’s Asayish police division forbidding travel between Tel Abyad and Raqqa, as well as importation of various goods from Raqqa to Tel Abyad, including building materials, fuels and electrical and manufacturing apparatuses. While these decisions are understandable in that the PYD worries that bombs may be smuggled in amid the imported goods and wants to cut off as many revenue sources as possible for the Islamic State in so far as the continued cash flow between non-Islamic State and Islamic State-held areas is key for Islamic State revenue via taxation, it is clear there was no consultation here with the rebel groups in Burkan al-Furat.

To sum up, we have traced the evolution of the rise, fall and re-emergence of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa from 2012 to the present day, first as one of a number of indigenous, nationalist rebel groups in Raqqa province, to a non-ideological Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate, and finally to an uneasy, junior partner of the YPG. To shed further light on these issues, below is an interview I conducted recently with the director of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa’s media office.


Q: Where was Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa established and from where are most of the members of Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa (i.e. Raqqa, Ayn Issa)?

A: It was in the north Raqqa countryside in the border town of Tel Abyad. Most members are from Raqqa, some from Raqqa, others from the countryside.

Q: Jabhat al-Nusra says you gave bay’a [allegiance] but you deny you gave bay’a to them? You mean it was just a military alliance?

A: Yes an alliance to expel the Dawla organization from Raqqa.

Q: And when did the alliance end?

A: It ended because of their lack of support for us during our battle with Da’esh and they withdrew from Raqqa without informing us of that.

Q: In their statement on the end of the alliance they say that you had agreed on Shari’a sessions. True or not?

A: No, not true.

Q: After Raqqa fell to Da’esh’s hand, did most of their [Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa] members go to Kobani?

A: Yes.

Q: How many martyrs do you have from the battles in Kobani, Tel Abyad and Ain Issa?

A: I am not sure but approximately 30.

Q: Many of the factions say the PYD wants taqsim Souria [division of Syria]. Do you agree?

A: Yes. They had a plan of division but amid our opposition to the matter of joining Tel Abyad to Kobani [canton] our opinion was taken into account.

Q: Is Liwa Thuwar al-Raqqa administering any areas?

A: Currently only the locality of Ain Issa.

Q: I heard that you are trying to establish relations with the tribes in the north Raqqa countryside. What are the names of these tribes?

A: Many names: al-Mashhur, Albu Assaf, Albu Khamees, Jais, Albu Shamis, Albu Jarad, Albu Issa

Q: Do you want a civil or Islamic state?

A: Civil democratic state.

Q: With regards to the other battalions in Burkan al-Furat are they administering liberated areas or do they only have a military presence? That is, if I understand correctly, Kata’ib Shams al-Shamal for example wants to recover Jarabulus and Manbij?

A: Yes, they want to recover Jarabulus and Manbij and administer them.

Q: When do you expect that you will try to recover Raqqa city?

A: When we are given sufficient support we will recover Raqqa city soon, but if things remain as they are the time to liberate it will be delayed a lot.

Q: Do you have relations with the Syrian opposition in Turkey or are you independent?

A: No, we are independent.

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi, Ahrar al-Sham’s New Leader

by Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

or, Mohannad al-Masri

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi Source: @ALAMAWI

The Syrian Islamist group known as Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement, which is one of the biggest armed groups in the country, has elected a new leader: Abu Yahia al-Hamawi.

Founded in 2011, Ahrar al-Sham was first led by Hassane Abboud, who also used the alias Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi. Like most of the group’s leaders, he was a former inmate of the ”Islamist wing” of the Syrian government’s main political prison in Seidnaia, north of Damascus. According to one piece of not-necessarily-accurate information, Abboud was held in jail—not necessarily in Seidnaia all of the time—between 2004 and 2011 on charges of having links to salafi-jihadi groups; other sources say 2007-2011.

Many of these Islamist prisoners were released early on in the uprising by presidential amnesty, a hotly debated decision. The amnestied prisoners formed several different armed groups in 2011 and began connecting with relatives, older Islamist sleeper cells from inside or outside prison, a number of exiles who fled the anti-Islamist crackdown of the 1980s, as well as foreign Islamists and jihadi figures, in order to create a Syria-wide armed movement.

The resulting  faction, known then as the Ahrar al-Sham Battalions, took shape in the Idleb-Hama region of northwestern Syria, where many of its leaders were born and where the group remains strongest today. Abboud, for example, reportedly hailed from Khirbet Naqous in the Ghab Plains area, which juts up from western Hama into Idleb. The group then grew step by step, by gobbling up smaller factions looking for protection and leadership, as well as by reconnecting with old Seidnaia cellmates who had independently set up their own movements in other provinces (such as the Aleppo-based Fajr al-Islam faction created by Abu Hamza and Abu Yazen, both of whom died in 2014). Having expanded its network to most of Syria, albeit still weak in the east and south, the group took its current name after a major series of mergers in spring 2013.

On September 9, 2014, most of Ahrar al-Sham’s first generation of leaders were killed in an explosion in an underground site near Ras Hamdan in the Idleb Province, where they had gathered for a top-level meeting. The causes of the explosion remain unknown. There have been suggestions of it being set off by accident (since the Ras Hamdan site reportedly also contained a bomb factory), or by a suicide bomber, or by internal treachery on behalf of a foreign government, the so called Islamic State, or even al-Qaeda, but it is all speculation. Ahrar al-Sham leaders interviewed about the event have refused to comment except by saying that an investigation is in progress.

Abu Jaber and the 2014 Leadership

Abboud and most of his lieutenants were among the dead and many, me included, expected the group to be dramatically weakened and perhaps to split. But it somehow defied expectations and bounced back impressively.

Immediately after the explosion, surviving members of the Ahrar al-Sham Shoura Council gathered to quickly elect a new team of leaders leaders, including a number of formerly second-tier commanders and recent affiliates.

As their new head—Ahrar al-Sham prefers the term “general leader,” or qaid ‘amm, over “emir”—the Shoura Council appointed Hashem al-Sheikh. Also known by the alises Abu Jaber al-Maskani and Abu Jaber al-Sheikh, he was not from either Idleb or Hama. Rather, he came from the currently Islamic State-occupied town of Maskanah, east of Aleppo, where he had run a small group known as the Moussaab bin Omeir Battalion until it was absorbed into Ahrar al-Sham in 2013. Abu Jaber, too, was a former Seidnaia prisoner, held by the regime from 2005 to 2011, allegedly for helping to transfer foreign fighters to the Islamist insurgents in Iraq.

Abu Jaber and the new leadership held the group together over the following year and—thanks in large part, it would appear, to increased support from Turkey and Qatar—even managed to expand its influence.

Meanwhile, the group continued to try to moderate its political position, stepping back from the hardline, jihadi-inflected salafism that had colored its rhetoric from the first public statements in 2012 until early 2014. The change in tune (whether it is also a change in actual content is a matter of some dispute) began already in spring 2014, before the death of the old leadership. It seems to have been triggered by the onset of two crises at once:

First, Qatar reportedly stopped much of its support for the group after U.S. pressures and as part of attempts to reorganize the rebellion via a new Military Operations Center in Turkey. This wreaked havoc with Ahrar al-Sham finances and left it in a weak negotiating position vis-à-vis foreign sponsors.

Second, Ahrar al-Sham (and other groups) entered into battle against the Islamic State, thereby forcing it to grapple seriously with the problem of jihadi ultra-extremism and to redefine Ahrar al-Sham’s own identity in opposition to it. Some, such as the above-mentioned Abu Yazen al-Shami, who was an influential ideologue until his death in the September 2014 explosion, even began to publicly apologize and distance themselves from their past as salafi-jihadi hardliners.

The ensuing series of ideological revisions, some seemingly heartfelt but others surely opportunistic, are still ongoing today. The cooptation of less hardline Islamist factions in the autumn and winter of 2014 may further have strengthened the ”doves” within Ahrar al-Sham, but with the group’s internal politics so secretive that no one can really claim to know for sure.

At any rate, Ahrar al-Sham’s public rhetoric has continued to move in the direction of the pragmatics, with anti-Islamic State editorials aiming to appease the West recently published in the Washington Post and the Daily Telegraph by its new foreign-relations official Labib Nahhas (Abu Ezzeddine al-Ansari, from Homs, whose Haqq Brigade faction joined Ahrar al-Sham only in December 2014). Ahrar al-Sham also, to the consternation of some more hardline members, also welcomed the Turkish intervention in northern Syria.

Some now claim that the group’s internal tensions have taken on an institutional character, with hardliners stronger in the Military and Sharia Offices elected in 2014 (headed by Abu Saleh Tahhan, from Idleb, and the Syrian-Kurdish salafi scholar Abu Mohammed al-Sadeq, respectively) while the Political Office (led at first, after the 2014 explosion, by the Islamist intellectual Jaber al-Halloul, who later resigned and was replaced by Sheikh Abu Abderrahman—not to be confused with Abu Abderrahman al-Souri alias Mohammed Talal Bazerbashi, who is another prominent leader of the group—and, yes, this is an unacceptably long parenthesis) has promoted a program of ideological pragmatism and collaboration with Western-backed rebels.

Abu Jaber al-Maskani Steps Down

Abu Jaber’s appointment as Ahrar al-Sham leader was only set to last for one year. He could have opted to run for reelection, but he declined, said the Ahrar al-Sham spokesperson Ahmed Qara Ali when I contacted him earlier today: ”As his term ended, brother Hashem al-Sheikh refused to extend his term, since he wanted to allow for new blood to be pumped into the leadership.”

Internal campaigning to succeed Abu Jaber has been going on for a while and it has apparently been quite fierce, at least partly due to the ideological tensions within the group.

According to a source close to Ahrar al-Sham, the victorious Abu Yahia al-Hamawi had squared off in a fierce internal debate against other contenders—most prominently Abu Ali al-Sahel, but there were others, too, including, apparently, an Abu Amer, of whom I know nothing more. Charles Lister also names Abu Azzam al-Ansari, head of the former Liwa al-Haqq contingent from Homs, Abu Abderrahman al-Shami, and Abu [Ammar?] Taftanaz.

However, according to Ahmed Qara Ali, Abu Yahia was elected ”by consensus.” When I ask about other contenders, he insists that ”the Shoura Council session was a closed meeting and brother Abu Yahia was elected by consensus, as has been publicly announced.”

My other source—who says he is not a member of the group and whose information I cannot confirm—insists that there was ”kind of a vote, but only inside the Shoura Council.” He says that there has been a longstanding factional debate inside the group, and since it was inconclusive, the Shoura Council initially tried to convince Abu Jaber to extend his mandate. When that failed, ”finally, they chose this person, as he is not a strong man, so he does not represent either side.”

The New Leader: A Preliminary Biography

Abu Yahia al-Hamawi is the alias of Mohannad al-Masri, a Syrian citizen born in 1981. (He has also been called Abu Yahia al-Ghab and presumably a number of other things.) He is a civil engineer by training, who studied at Tishreen University in Latakia City before the uprising. At Tishreen, as it happens, he became friends with Hadi al-Abdullah, who would after 2011 emerge as one of the most famous media activists in the Syrian opposition.

Qalaat al-Madiq in 2005 - Photo: Aron Lund

Qalaat al-Madiq in 2005 – Photo: Aron Lund

Like Abboud and so many other early Ahrar leaders, Abu Yahia is also a son of the Ghab Plains. According to the senior Ahrar al-Sham leader Khaled Abu Anas—who is himself from Saraqeb in the Idleb area—Abu Yahia hails from Qalaat al-Madiq. This Sunni Arab community of some 80,000-100,000 inhabitants (before the war) lies next to the famous Roman ruins of Apamea, a major tourist destination (also before the war…). It is currently in an area fought over by Bashar al-Assad’s government and rebel forces, prominently including Ahrar al-Sham, following the fall of Idleb and Jisr al-Shughour in March, and the town has been badly shelled and bombed.

Abu Yahia is also, unsurprisingly, a former Seidnaia prisoner, first arrested on August 2, 2007. One online source claims he was part of a group of Islamist activists arrested at the same time, which also included ”Abu Abdullah al-Hamawi and Abu Talha,” the former being the nom de guerre of Ahrar al-Sham’s founding leader Hassane Abboud and the latter presumably a reference to Abu Talha al-Makhzoumi, the Ahrar al-Sham military leader who was killed in 2014. Both of them were from nearby villages in the Ghab Plains.

At any rate, Abu Yahia was held in Seidnaia until his release in mid-Arab Spring on March 16, 2011, coinciding almost to the day with the start of the Syrian uprising. At first, he participated in peaceful demonstrations but he soon switched track to help pioneer Syria’s armed uprising and to create Ahrar al-Sham. Hassane Abboud has claimed that the group’s first real armed operations began in the Idleb-Hama area—which is another way of saying the Ghab Plains—around May-June 2011, thus predating the July 2011 announcement of the Free Syrian Army in Turkey.

Along with his associates, then, Abu Yahia began to organize armed ambushes for the government. He became the leader of the Osama bin Zeid Company, a small armed group based in and around his hometown of Qalaat al-Madiq. According to Ahmed Qara Ali, this was the first armed group working under the Ahrar al-Sham banner.

Abu Yahia then moved on to command the Osama bin Zeid Company’s parent group, the Omar ibn al-Khattab Battalion. As the conflict grew, he became the head of an even larger structure, called the Khattab Brigade. (He is seen speaking to Khattab Brigade fighters here, in a January 2014 video release from Ahrar al-Sham.) While in this role, Abu Yahia was appointed to serve as Ahrar al-Sham’s head of operations in rural Hama, which includes the Ghab Plains and is clearly a very important front for the group. He was finally appointed deputy leader under Abu Jaber in 2014—reportedly with special responsibility for security—and has served in this role until now. The Ahrar al-Sham media activist Abul-Yazid Taftanaz also claims that Abu Yahia heads the Central Force that Ahrar al-Sham is establishing in an attempt to reorganize its armed forces, following its merger with the Suqour al-Sham faction earlier in 2015.

Be that as it may, Abu Yahia’s family roots and longstanding leadership role in the Ghab region may well have played a role in his election, since this is currently one of the hottest fronts of the Syrian war. Ahrar al-Sham plays a leading role in the Fath Army coalition that dominates these battles, taking place in and around the hometowns of Ahrar al-Sham’s founders.

A Rebel Group with Real Institutions

Syrians and others will now look for signs of a shift in Ahrar al-Sham’s political line. So what do we know about his politics? Almost nothing.

A Twitter account that Abu Yahia started in 2013 (it hasn’t been active since April this year) mostly contains retweets of sayings and statements by senior Ahrar al-Sham figures or independent Islamists such as Abdulaziz al-Tareifi, an influential salafi scholar in Saudi Arabia. But there are also some 140-character quips by Abu Yahia himself, such as this one: ”If our project is a project of the Umma, then our jihad must by necessity also be a jihad of the Umma; an Umma whose jihad is led by an elite that will not restrict the jihad to the elite alone.” (For context, see the bottom of this post.)

More information is likely to filter out in the coming weeks, but according to Charles Lister, who regularly meets with Ahrar al-Sham leaders and has excellent insights into the group, Abu Yahia “played a lead role in developing the group’s new political ‘discourse’ of reaching out to West, including the US.”

As for my above-cited anonymous source—the one close to but not inside Ahrar al-Sham—Abu Yahia’s political priorities are not likely to be significantly different from those of Abu Jaber. And perhaps it would not matter anyway. According to this source, ”the problem with Ahrar’s structure is that the leader has limited authority. It’s the exact opposite of the Islam Army, where Zahran has the ultimate say, even though both have a Shoura Council.”

While this might indeed be a problem for Ahrar al-Sham, for example by slowing-down its command structure and policymaking, the level of institutionalization achieved by the group is also a major asset. Diplomats and others who are in contact with its leadership report that Ahrar al-Sham seems well structured, even at times disturbingly bureaucratic, to the extent that it is capable of pulling out a file on every past meeting with notes on exactly who was there and what was said by whom. Most of the Free Syrian Army militias in Syria could only dream of that level of organization. It is surely also what kept Ahrar al-Sham alive after the loss of most of its top-ranking leadership in September 2014, a blow so serious that few other groups could have survived it.

Abu Jaber seems to have bowed out gracefully. He has announced his resignation and the appointment of Abu Yahia on his personal Twitter account, commenting that ”the soldiers of Ahrar al-Sham are brought up to cling to the project rather than clinging to personalities. Whether moving from soldier to leader or from leader to soldier, all work under the same ceiling, which is obedience to God.” He is now being roundly praised by Ahrar al-Sham activists and supporters online for not clinging to office, as is the norm in Syrian rebel groups.

So far, then, the leadership change—Ahrar’s second in one year—seems to have gone very smoothly. Whether it will help solve the group’s internal contradictions remains to be seen. In terms of both ideology and alliances, Ahrar al-Sham still has one foot among the foreign-backed militias that depend on the largesse of Gulf Arab or Turkish sponsors, and must therefore do their bidding, and another in the hardline salafist camp that refuses to take instructions and gravitates towards al-Qaeda.

While the focus is now on the public replacement of Abu Jaber, and on the new leader Abu Yahia, the group’s rank and file is likely remain torn between these contradictory instincts. Ahmed Qara Ali says there are no new elections planned at the moment—for the political, military, media, organizational, etc, sub-offices—but at some point, Ahrar al-Sham will have to come down on one side or the other of the political gulf that it has tried to straddle since 2011.

— Aron Lund, editor of Syria in Crisis

The Plight of Syria’s Druze Minority and U.S. Options

Waleed Rikab 1by Waleed Rikab

With the ethnic cleansing of the Yazidis in recent hindsight, how can the U.S. help prepare for a similar existential threat to Sweida’s Druze?

The Druze minority in Syria has been in the news quite a bit recently. In July, al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) executed over twenty Druze villagers in Idlib. Just this month (Sept. 2015), Sheikh Waheed Balous was assassinated in Sweida, the mountainous “capital” of Syria’s Druze. Balous was critical of Bashar al-Assad’s regime for its corruption and for failing to protect the Druze from extremists.

Most Druze in Syria live in the province of Sweida which has traditionally been a regime stronghold but is now surrounded by rebel militias. A smaller number of the adherents of this religion also reside in Idlib province, where they have been forcibly converted to Sunni Islam under JN rule.

Following the assassination of Sheikh Balous, open resentment toward the regime has engulfed Sweida. All the same, the Druze are unlikely to join the rebels or break their alliance with the Assad regime. They do not want to see an evacuation of regime forces from the province.

The province is not within what Assad views as his heartland, although it is important for the protection of Damascus. Assad may redeploy forces away from the province if pressured in the capital or on the coastal region. His forces have suffered a number of recent defeats, and with ongoing attrition, many speculate that he will eventually have to pull out of the Sweida region. Such a pattern has been repeatedly witnessed in eastern, northern, and southern Syria. Today, most regime and allied forces have been pulled back to the areas where most Syrians live—the major western cities and the coast—defending smaller but strategic portions of what used to be the Syrian Arab Republic.

On the other hand, in the calculus of rebel factions, the geography of the mountainous Sweida region and its proximity to the capital may prove crucial to threatening Bashar’s grip over the capital.

These scenarios, which in the end will lead to battles for control of Sweida with or without a regime presence, should be the real issue, regardless of the immediate consequences of the assassination, calling into question the prospects of the Druze minority, which seems marked by strategic inferiority compared to potential rivals, mainly due to low military capabilities in the form of its newly established local militias. These militias were formed as an attempt to protect the Druze population amid a background of several attacks by JN and ISIS in the Sweida area.

An image of Druze men from the 10th issue of IS' Dabiq magazine, with a caption disparaging them

An image of Druze men from the 10th issue of IS’ Dabiq magazine, with a caption disparaging them: “The wretched Druze, an apostate sect under the protection of the Jawlani front”

The tenants of the Druze faith, for example the transmigration of souls, worship of saints, and the rejection of the pillars of Islamic orthopraxy, will make any peaceful life under hardline Sunni rule all but impossible. In this regard, JN and the Islamic State appear to only disagree over tactics, and not the essence of their ideology.

A recent issue of IS’s mouthpiece, Dabiq magazine, had this to say on the way Druze should be treated, quoting the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Tamiyyah (issue 10, p. 9):

“They are not at the level of Ahlul-Kitāb (people of the book, meaning Jews and Christians) nor the mushrikīn (apostates). Rather, they are from the most deviant kuffār (infidels)… Their women can be taken as slaves and their property can be seized. They are apostate heretics whose repentance cannot be accepted. Rather they are to be killed wherever they are found and cursed as they were described… It is obligatory to kill their scholars and religious figures so that they do not misguide others.

These statements obviously echo the IS treatment of the Yazidi minority in Iraq, which has suffered the full brunt of the Islamic State’s dark ideology and remains dispersed and shattered to this day.

Both faiths are considered beyond heretical by IS and it uses the same justification for its intended annihilation of the Yazidis and Druze. For instance, an earlier issue of Dabiq justified the atrocities against the Yazidis, including the reintroduction of slavery, saying:

“The Islamic State dealt with this group as the majority of fuqahā’ (scholars) have indicated how mushrikīn should be dealt with. Unlike the Jews and Christians, there was no room for jizyah payment. Also, their women could be enslaved unlike female apostates who the majority of the fuqahā’ say cannot be enslaved and can only be given an ultimatum to repent or face the sword. After capture, the Yazidi women and children were then divided according to the Sharī’ah amongst the fighters of the Islamic State who participated in the Sinjar operations, after one fifth of the slaves were transferred to the Islamic State’s authority…”

JN, on the other hand, will suffice itself with coerced conversions to Sunni Islam and the desecration of places of worship, which has been already been witnessed in Idlib and was clearly stated in JN leader al-Jolani’s interview with Al-Jazeera in May 2015, on the occasion of JN’s and Ahrar al-Sham’s gains in northern Syria.

The contradicting military efforts of the regime, JN, IS, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Southern Front are bound to reach Sweida province sooner or later, with each faction trying to deny the others any gains. Bashar will most likely abandon the province, given the current trajectory of the conflict and his distress in Damascus and the areas adjacent to coastal regions and the border with Lebanon. Such a scenario may allow the entry of forces from the relatively moderate and Jordan-backed Southern Front, but will also enable the entrance of JN and IS. However, even if the Southern Front enters the province, a settling of old accounts with Bashar’s supporters is to be expected, owing to the high numbers of regime-aligned parties in Sweida. Such control is also likely to be severely contested by the Islamist factions. Regrettably, the Druze minority’s entry into the turmoil of armed conflict and possible atrocities is just a matter of time.

How the U.S. Can Prepare

Syrian Druze preserve a unique and rich religious cultural heritage; the same cultural heritage that IS is systematically destroying in Iraq and Syria. Men, women, children, and beautiful places of worship, cannot be brought back once they fall into the hands of the chauvinistic ideology of IS and JN.  The U.S. is currently waging a campaign aimed at containing and disrupting Islamic State and al-Qaeda expansion in Iraq and Syria. It attempted to assist the Yazidis when their lands where attacked, albeit too late to prevent mass killings and enslavement. A quick reaction force or a U.S. contingency plan might possibly have saved thousands of lives.

Together with allies in the region, Jordan for example, the U.S. should now start working on local coordination with elements in the Druze community, applying lessons learned from the successful coordination of military tactics and aid with the YPG in northern Syria – the only model that has proven capable of protecting territories in the Iraqi and Syrian theaters – before it is too late. Such engagement would likely also deprive the Assad regime the support of the Druze community, which seems reluctant to openly disavow him only for lack of better options and out of a need for self-preservation.

Waleed Rikab, a former intelligence officer, heads the Strategic Research Department at Terrogence, a privately-owned counter-terrorism and risk assessment company