Syria and France: The Battle of Maysalun, A hundred years on

By Christopher Solomon

On July 24, 1920, French troops defeated Syrian forces at the Battle of Maysalun. One hundred years later, Paris and Damascus continue to struggle to chart the bilateral relations after decades of discord.

It was a hundred years ago, on July 24, 1920, that French forces faced the Syrians on the battlefield of Maysalun. Franco-Syrian relations have a long and turbulent history. Some of the early origins of this relationship can be traced to the French military officer, François de Tott, who advised the Ottoman Empire in the 1760s, or Napoleon’s failed military expeditions to the Levant and Egypt in 1798. However, it is the modern era, in the aftermath of the First World War, when the League of Nations offered up the remnants of the Ottoman Empire to Britain and France – when Syrian-French relations truly began.

To this day, Syrians celebrate Evacuation Day on April 17th to mark the departure of French military forces from their homeland in 1946. However, France retained a dash of influence with its former colony, which, along with Lebanon, offered it a gateway into the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, France is deeply woven into Syria’s political fabric and has long served as a place of exile for Syria’s revolving door of politicians who found themselves in and out of power, such as Akram al-Hawrani, Abdul Halim Khaddam, Mustafa Tlass, and Rifaat al-Assad. A good deal of Syria’s security infrastructure was inherited from France, such as Tadmor Prison, a former colonial military barracks. France was also the birthplace of a modern political ideology that left a tremendous impact in the Levant. Baath Party founder Michel Aflaq was deeply read in the philosophy of Henri Bergson, found a home in the French communist movement, and met his intellectual colleague, Salah al-Din Bitar, at the Sorbonne in Paris.

The Battle of Maysalun itself was in fact a loss for Syria, which had sought to shore up the short-lived Arab Kingdom of Syria, which Faisal I declared in 1920. Although the Syrians were defeated, battles often have a way of living on in the national psyche as a moment of valor and unity against a common foe. Maysalun was long lauded as a pivotal moment when Arab forces stood up to a Western power in the region. Despite this, the majority of Syrians today likely look at these anniversaries of pomp and patriotism with a healthy dose of disdain and cynicism given the extent of the horrors and humanitarian disasters stemming from the nearly decade-long conflict that has tragically enveloped their country. Regardless, France’s colonial legacy remains paramount in understanding Syria’s long unwavering stance on its sovereignty, territorial disputes, and uncompromising approach to negotiating away its political system in the international negotiations to end Syria’s bloody conflict.

Syrian stamps marked the 50th anniversary of Evacuation Day in 1996.

Battle of Maysalun and the French Mandate of Syria

Following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the tentative creation of the Kingdom of Syria under Faisal, France and Syria subsequently embarked on the first clash of their long and tumultuous history. France sought to take hold of the Syrian territory it had gained in its secret deal with the United Kingdom. King Faisal, on the other hand, embarked on establishing an independent Arab Kingdom. This set off the collision course that would long haunt bilateral relations.

Maysalun, Syria, present day

The Franco-Syrian War that began in March of 1920 came to a conclusion only a few months later in July at the battle of Maysalun. Leading the Syrian troops was War Minister Yusuf al-Azma, a Syrian Turkmen from Damascus who served in the Ottoman military during WWI. There is some debate on whether Azma left the Ottoman ranks for the Arab Revolt or if he stayed until the war concluded in 1918. Prior to Maysalun, the Syrians themselves were intensely divided on how to respond to France’s diplomatic pressures and military advances. A section of the Syrian political and social elite viewed France as a positive influence in the country and necessary for economic and political growth. Another group despised France as a colonial power that needed to be shook off so Syria could chart its own destiny as an independent and sovereign nation. Azma created Syria’s first army from scratch and recruited citizen volunteers from around the country.

As the French forces advance from the Beqaa Valley towards Damascus, Azma was determined to confront France on the battlefield. However, he became immortalized for his role in leading the Syrians against the French military forces at Maysalun. France brought in tanks and aircraft to counter the artillery and machine guns fielded by the Arab forces. The Tirailleurs Sénégalais, colonial soldiers from French West Africa, played a significant role in the battle on the French side and suffered heavy casualties. The Syrians were armed with antiquated rifles and were seriously short on ammunition. Nearly 400 Syrian troops fell at the battle. Azma himself died during the fighting from machine gun fired by a French tank. He was 36 years old. France then solidified its hold over Damascus and ruled Syria for the next 25 years.

Yousef al-Azma’s tomb, 1924

Gen. Gouraud was installed as the High Commissioner to Syria and Lebanon and reviewed a military parade in front of the Grand Serail in Damascus the day after the battle ended. Whether he uttered the infamous phrase, “Saladin, we’re back!” continues to be debated.  The end of the conflict only momentarily quelled the violence. Five years later, in 1925, the Great Syrian Revolt erupted against French colonial rule and was brutally crushed.

A group of captured Iraqi army officers who fought with Syria at Maysalun, released in 1921.

Many of Syria’s national heroes that span all political stripes were products of this era. Ibrahim Hananu, a political figure from a wealthy land-owning family, led fierce anti-French resistance efforts in northern Syria in 1920 and again in 1925. In October 1925, France’s High Commissioner Maurice Sarrail’s forces shelled Damascus to push out the Syrian rebels. Following the widespread condemnation, he was recalled back to Paris. The famous Druze leader Sultan Atrash, Fawzi al-Qawukji, and Abdul Rahman Shahbander were among the other prominent Syrian rebel leaders that took part in the anti-French revolts. There is currently a statue for Yousef Al-Azma in one of the larger squares in Damascus in Al-Salihiyah, and his home in Muhajreen is now a museum.    

Sami Moubayed, a Syrian historian specialized in the pre-Baathist era, explained, “The battle of Maysalun is the one event in modern Syrian history that has not been subjected to any polarization and remains an event for all Syrians. There is no such consensus with events like March 8th, for example (the date of the Baathist takeover) or April 7th, being the birth date of the Baath Party. The battle of Maysalun took place exactly 100-years ago and every single government since then has celebrated the event with plenty of homage to its hero, Yousef al-Azma.”

A group commemorating Maysalun in the 1930s.

Moubayed noted that some Syrian Francophiles skipped the battle’s anniversary in order to avoid offending their French patrons during the ensuing Mandate years. He also explained that it became “heretical” to skip the battle’s annual commemoration but said the first president to skip Maysalun was Egyptian leader Gamal Abdul Nasser while he reigned over Syria during the United Arab Republic (1958-1961). “Perhaps this was intended to drum up Arab nationalism, at the expense of Syrian nationalism. His right-hand-man, Marshal Abdul Hakim Amer, who handled Syrian affairs, was actually opposed to the creation of a new statue for Yousef al-Azma, saying that the one in Yousef al-Azma Square was enough,” Moubayed explained.   

However, for some Syrians of the new generation, the anniversary is nothing but a minor historical footnote. Syria expert Ruwan Al-Rejoleh said, “It is not considered as a national or official occasion. It is not an official holiday.” She said that students learned about the battle briefly in history classes as part of Syria’s history to fight French colonialism but today there was nothing significant on the national level. “It was just a battle and honoring Yousef al-Azma in a respectful way, but not with so much emphasis on him,” she noted.  

Maysalun also slammed the final nail into the coffin of the post-WWI promises of Arab self-determination and independence. After siding with the British and French to defeat the Ottoman Empire, President Woodrow Wilson pushed his idealistic Fourteen Points peace principles and vision of an international community of nations, which the US allies derisively rebuffed. The League of Nations itself failed largely due to U.S. domestic politics. France did its own part to inflict lasting territorial changes on Syria, transferring Hatay to Turkey in 1939 after a referendum. Baathist thinker Zaki al-Arsuzi, later on idolized by Hafez al-Assad, was a prominent voice against the Turkish annexation.

How Syria’s history could have turned out if the Syrians had been able to field a larger and better armed force and routed the French at Maysalun would make for interesting scenario. Would Faisal have held onto his nascent Hashemite kingdom? Would Syria have been doomed to its long running cycle of coups and dictatorships? If he had survived, could a triumphant Azma have gone on to become his own Syrian military strongman? This will perhaps never be certain and the ramifications of France’s colonial history in Syria played out in its immediate post-independence years. The relations between Paris and Damascus ran hot and cold. However, Maysalun continued to remain a divisive issue among Syrians.

Dr. Joshua Landis explained, “At Independence in 1946, the different parties fought over its symbolism. President Shukri al-Quwatli downplayed its importance and didn’t include a separate parade for the heroes of Maysalun in the April 17, 1946 pageantry since it was connected to the Hashemite tradition. The pro-Hashemites, many of whom supported King Abdullah of Jordan or the Iraqi Hashemites, were furious. They thought Quwatli was suppressing an important chapter in Syria’s heritage and sidelining the real pioneers of Syrian independence in order to highlight his own, Johnny come lately, role in Syria’s independence.”

As the Syrian independence train began its slow chug uphill, the newborn country was struck by three military coups, all in the year 1949. The first coup leader was a French-trained officer, Husni Za’im. After his downfall and execution, Sami al-Hinnawi took power before being tossed out at the end of the year by Adib Shishakli for attempting to swing Syria over to British-backed Iraq. French President Vincent Auriol, a socialist, came to power in the French Fourth Republic and oversaw a dramatic decline in its Paris’ influence throughout its colonial possessions. However, he struck a friendly tone with Shishakli.

Following the fall of the Shishakli dictatorship in 1954, Syria was undergoing rapid political changes and lurched towards the Soviet Union. Shortly after the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which France, Israel, and the United Kingdom launched a military intervention against Egypt, Nasser became the bête noire of the Western powers. Meanwhile, Damascus sought to avert its own crisis. In December 1956, the Syrians and Soviets took to the United Nations to warn of impending danger from the United Kingdom, Israel, Turkey, and France. UN diplomats viewed the Syrian theater as having the potential for a greater escalation than the Suez Crisis. However, it was not until the Baath Party took control in 1963 and the arrival of Syrian Air Force commander Hafez al-Assad, who took power in 1970, that France truly felt Syria drift from a former colonial play thing to a dangerous diplomatic dance partner.


The Hafez al-Assad Era

Syria under Hafez al-Assad was far different from what remains of it today. As Ibrahim Hamidi dryly concluded in Asharq Al-Awsat, “Syria, which used to vie for power beyond its border, is now an arena for the conflicts of others. From player to playground.” Of course, France was an eager and willing part of this era of engagement with a dominant Damascus for all of its faults and promises. France was also Hafez al-Assad’s first international visit as president and he met with President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. However, France soon became caught up in the brutal violence unfolding on Syria’s doorstep in Lebanon. Paris has dispatched troops as part of a peace keeping force in the latter half of the Lebanese Civil War, where Syria also had intervened. A British Thames TV report relayed that French President Francois Mitterrand told Damascus they would keep their troops there until Syria pulled out its own troops. The French embassy in Beirut was bombed in 1982. In October 1983, France lost 58 paratroopers and took part in retaliatory airstrikes against Iranian-backed militants in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley, which was controlled by Syria. By February 1984, France and the United States had withdrawn from Lebanon.

French President Francois Mitterrand visits the tomb of the unknown soldier in Syria, 1984

In November 1984, with the Lebanese Civil War raging on, President Mitterrand became the first French leader to visit Damascus since the country’s independence. Mitterrand, who had earlier met with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, sought to push President Hafez al-Assad on Lebanon and the Palestinian Liberation Organization. However, the elder Assad would have none of it. “No [Arab-Israeli] peace can be realized as long as a part of Arab territories is occupied and a part of our Arab people is subjected to oppression,” Assad told Mitterrand over dinner. He also accused the West of confusing terrorism and resistance for the sake of national liberation. Assad had long learned that the use of non-state actors could provide diplomatic cover while allowing the Syrian government to advance its geostrategic interests, adding to the nuances of his repertoire with the French.

During this era, Syria was heavily involved in the Lebanese conflict and largely reviled in the West for alleged involvement in acts of terrorism and assassination plots, including several against French interests in Lebanon and elsewhere. Relations between Paris and Damascus were indeed strained, but Mitterrand tried to put his best foot forward. Following his Damascus trip, he said, “There is nothing to prove that Syria was responsible. Since President Assad has always asserted that this was not the case, I do not see why his word should be doubted.” He also urged for Israel to complete its withdrawal from South Lebanon in order to restore Lebanese sovereignty. Relations continued and President Jacques Chirac held several meetings with Hafez al-Assad, including visits to Paris and Damascus in 1998.

Hafez al-Assad and Jacques Chirac

France and Bashar al-Assad

President Bashar al-Assad’s early tenure was briefly regarded as a promising opportunity to reorient Syria towards reform and the West. As occasionally noted, Russian President Vladimir Putin once remarked that Assad was a more frequent guest in Western capitals than in Moscow. During the 2000s, France was the essential link for the younger Assad to expand Syria’s international diplomatic initiatives. The shortfalls of the Damascus Spring were not forgotten and overtures with the Europeans signaled that Damascus was still contemplating political and economic reforms. Still Bashar’s relationship with France in the early 2000s was not always smooth sailing. For instance, former prime minister Mahmoud Zuabi was expelled from the Baath Party as part of an anti-corruption drive headed by Bashar during the final months of his father’s rule. Zuabi was punished for his alleged involvement in a case regarding French company Airbus and later – at least according to the official story – committed suicide.

President Assad’s 2001 visit to Paris.

Despite this, France and Syria still managed to get on during Bashar’s rule. President Jacques Chirac was the only western leader to attend Hafez al-Assad’s funeral. Prior to the 2003 Iraq War, the two met again in Paris and discussed Iraq’s alleged WMD program. Both countries were on the same page regarding the need to avoid a war against Saddam’s regime.

Following the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a close friend of Chirac, relations between France and Syria again soured. Indeed, during the Cedar Revolution, Chirac helped the US orchestrate an end to the Syrian military occupation of Lebanon. As the 2006 summer war between Hezbollah and Israel unfolded, Chirac allegedly secretly told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that France would support an Israeli invasion of Syria since France viewed Damascus as primarily responsible for arming Hezbollah. However, only two years later, France shifted tactics again.

In September 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first Western head of state to travel to Syria in the wake of the Hariri assassination. Perhaps hoping to entice Syria back into the international arena to gain influence in the region, the end of the decade brought about a slew of diplomatic overtures in bilateral relations. In July 2008, Assad visited Paris, which ruffled some feathers at the time due to his participation at the Bastille Day parade. The New York Times noted he “studiously avoided” former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert, who was seated on the reviewing stand nearby. Later, under the auspice of the Union for the Mediterranean, the Syrian leader met with former Lebanese president Michel Suleiman and established formal diplomatic relations between the two countries, which was lauded as a victory for French engagement with Damascus.   

Al-Rejoleh explained, “Before 2011, France was a good friend of Syria. Thanks to Sarkozy, he brought Assad into the international scene and broke Syria’s isolation. Relations between France and Damascus were soon flourishing.”

Assad in Paris, 2008

Syrian-French relations indeed took a nose dive after the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Although Syria retains an embassy in Paris, France closed its Damascus embassy in 2012 and became one of the sharpest critics of the Syrian government’s wartime policies. During the conflict’s first years France sought to promote and give special status to the Syrian National Coalition opposition in Paris, even bestowing the unofficial title of “Monsieur Ambassador” on Monzer Makhous.

Rejoleh said, “Former French ambassador Eric Chevallier was a popular diplomatic figure in Damascus among business and political figures. However, whether it was France’s policy at that time or if it was the Ambassador’s own action, he went with former US ambassador Robert Ford to endorse the protests in Hama, which harmed the demonstration’s legitimacy. Because of this, the protesters looked like they were pushed by the West to mobilize against Assad, which was not true at all. Since then, the French intelligence and diplomacy have been active and engaged in northeast Syria, especially with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the fight against the Islamic State (IS). As for leveraging any political outcome, there is nothing substantial that France can do politically aside from its intelligence role. It is the US and Russia’s call.”

Paris’ current interests in Syria are multi-pronged and includes humanitarian concerns, orchestrating (or coaxing) a political transition, addressing the threat of terrorist groups, and the status of minority groups in Syria. This last point in particular has become even more complex, since France has long held a vested interest in its relationship with Levantine Christians, particularly with the more recent risks posed by a potential collapse of the Syrian regime. And, much to the chagrin of NATO partner Turkey, France has now forged a partnership with the Syrian Kurds, who lead the SDF coalition in the northeast.

Throughout the entire Syrian conflict, Russia and France have been at diplomatic loggerheads. Their dispute over Syria’s future perhaps plays out most prominently in the United Nations Security Council. President Francois Hollande attempted to push through a UNSC resolution to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in 2014 but was stymied by Moscow’s veto. In October 2016, Russia blocked a draft UNSC resolution (2/2016/846) produced by France and Spain to stop the bombardment of rebel-held Aleppo. One year later, Russia again vetoed a draft resolution (S/2017/172) put forward by France, the US, and the UK to impose sanctions on Syria for the use of chemical weapons. In September 2018, the French Foreign Ministry blasted Syria for its bombing of Idlib Province. Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, “The hypothesis of war crimes can not be excluded… once one begins to indiscriminately bomb civilian populations and hospitals.”

President Macron’s cabinet and the Syrian air strikes in April, 2018

With the arrival of Emmanuel Macron, Paris attempted to rally the US to collaborate on Syria, but with mixed results. Things came to a head for Paris with the allegations that Syria was using chemical weapons on armed groups and civilians. France did not take part in the US April 2017 Shayrat missile strike, carried out in response to the Khan Shaykhun chemical attack. However, France did join in militarily against the Syrian government in response to the April 2018 chemical attacks in Douma. This perhaps marked the first time the French government directly targeted the Syrian government since the days of its colonial occupation. The moment was also a rare, high-profile sign of military cooperation between the US and France in the Middle East, which had been badly frayed during the 2003 Iraq War.

In 2018, following one of President Trump’s declarations that the United States would soon be withdrawing from Syria, Macron rushed to the rescue, noting “Ten days ago, President Trump was saying ‘the United States should withdraw from Syria.’ We convinced him it was necessary to stay for the long term.” In October 2019, Trump again vowed to pull out and began a withdrawal, but then was convinced to quietly keep some forces present.

After the fall of Eastern Ghouta in April 2018, France delivered some 50 tons of medical assistance to the Syrian government via the Russian military. An anonymous French diplomat told Reuters, “This operation is very significant because it shows a willingness from the Russians to work with us on a matter of priority. This area is crying out for help.” Even now, France still is figuring out a way to secure humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. In July 2020, the French UN delegation lamented the UN Security Council’s inability to approve a cross-border assistance resolution. A French Foreign Ministry statement placed the onus on China and Russia as well as Damascus: “The Syrian regime continues to impose major obstacles to the free and unrestricted delivery of humanitarian assistance to the civilian population, notably in the regions outside of its control.”

As already noted, France has been a vocal proponent of the Syrian Kurds, loudly condemning Turkey’s military operations against the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition in Syria’s northeast region in October 2019. Central to France’s relations with Washington is the fear that it will be left to manage the International Coalition’s partnership with the SDF on its own. Former President François Hollande even suggested suspending Turkey from NATO in response. But it was Macron who posited recently to The Economist, “If the Bashar al-Assad regime decides to retaliate against Turkey…will we commit ourselves under it?” This drama between France and Turkey has offered a potential opportunity to rekindle French-Russian relations. Macron did once quip, “Europe stretches from Lisbon to Vladivostok.” Could something of an informal entente develop between Russia and France in regards to Syria?

France very clearly aims to carve out a spot for itself in the Middle East and Africa. Paris is increasing its military budget and wishes to modernize its forces and enhance its intelligence capabilities. It is not unthinkable that the Syrian regime would offer France low-hanging fruit in terms of intelligence sharing and anti-terrorism cooperation in the near future. Cooperation with Russia in regards to Syria could become all the more essential if the US finally does pull out completely. The US has already met with the Syrian security apparatus in 2018, and Turkey followed suit this year with a meeting in Moscow. Paris will need to keep direct intelligence on the ground, with the SDF in northeast Syria, as well as in Damascus, thus following the lead of some of the Arab Gulf states.   

France’s future relationship with Syria could also be charted by the developments in another Middle East conflict. In Libya, France relies on oil imports from the territory controlled by Libyan LNA strongman Khalifa Haftar. The Libyan conflict is also connected to France’s Africa counterterrorism strategy in Mali and Niger. In May 2020, French Foreign Minister Drian noted “The crisis is deepening. We are facing a Syrianization of Libya.” Turkey is increasingly at odds with NATO and internal tensions are increasing, with France in particular. In June 2020, France decried Turkey’s intervention in the North African conflict and anonymous French officials accused it of “exploiting NATO.”

Al-Rojoleh said, “I think France now will have a stronger role to play especially in the wake of Brexit. We might see competition between France and Germany on who leads the EU efforts in the region but that is something to be determined by military spending and the ability to engage on ground with leverage. France has a role to play between the US and Iran in terms of back channeling. It is clear that there are divisions between Germany and France for the leading role in the Middle East region. There is disunity among the EU members namely the NATO members on various conflicts such as Syria, and Libya and nature of the relationships with Turkey and Russia. Generally speaking, France and Germany have competing positions and a lack of unity when it comes to Libya. They clearly support the opponents on ground. As for Syria, Germany and France both condemned the Turkish offensive military operation in NE Syria. The two European countries have humanitarian interests and commitments to that region, where the Turkish president, along with Russia’s president, met with the German and French leaders to discuss a political solution and concrete humanitarian support for refugees.”

France also has enduring security concerns regarding the remnants of the Islamic State group, along with its own great power ambitions. From an airbase in Jordan, France has conducted airstrikes in support of the SDF and to counter IS’ power structure spanning Syria and Iraq. In June, France repatriated a small group of IS children back from Syria. Foreign Minister Le Drian made a July visit to Syria’s neighbor, Iraq, to discuss the resurgence of IS and the fate of the French IS prisoners in Iraqi prisoners. France is also closely aligned with Syria’s arch-nemesis, Israel.

French special forces in a Nexter Aravis MRAP supporting the SDF in Northern Syria, April 2018

France has staunchly supported the SDF with arms, training, and intelligence to fight IS. There is also a small special forces component present on the ground inside Syria. The SDF’s main force, the Kurdish YPG militia, is one of Turkey’s main enemies. This comes at a time when Turkey is actively pursuing military recourse against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the YPG’s ideological cohort. France has also been pushing hard for a UNSC-sponsored ceasefire between the Turks and the SDF during the covid-19 pandemic. In February, Macron also tried to corral Russia and Turkey to convince their respective client forces to agree to a ceasefire in the midst of the 2020 regime offensive in Idlib Province.

Turkish media outlets – most of them state-influenced – are now ramping up their vilification of France by labeling the country’s influence as neo-colonialist, just as anti-Turkish parties fret about neo-Ottomanism. Anonymous Turkish officials scoffed at France’s role in the region as a child who lost its toy. As the United States solemnly backs away from outright notions of regime change, where does this leave France with its future relationship with the Assads? Turkish media outlets have already speculated about France’s decision to crack down on its special guest, Rifaat al-Assad, noting that the regime “did not like the uncle anyway.” The recent court verdict against Rifaat has led to the French government seizing some of his assets, including two townhomes, a chateau in Val-d’Oise, and offices in Lyon.

Conclusion

The Syrian government channels the spirit of Maysalun in the sense that, in the face of the Caesar Act sanctions, it will remain defiant amid international punishment and would rather go down with the sinking ship than budge one inch as a result of foreign pressure. Although a national defeat, Maysalun’s character endures through the ages. This applies to the Syrian rebellion as well. The dreams of shaking off a musty dictatorship will not be forgotten in the wake of the regime’s military triumph. Syria will be badly wounded for decades by its brutal conflict, but the distant shadows of Maysalun reach far into the present, offering a morsel of solace and dignity for all sides of the conflict.

A May 2011 Facebook post from “Yousef al-Azma,” reading, “The people want!!!”

Dr. Joshua Landis noted, “The Battle of Maysalun has always been used as a touchstone or symbol of Syrianness. Appropriating it is the first job of every political movement.” He added, “At the beginning of the uprising, many Syrians changed their Facebook photos to that of Gen. Yousef al-Azma, in an effort to paint themselves – the opposition – as the real Syrians fighting for freedom and the Assad regime and the Syrian army as the French colonialists, who were occupying Syria.”

The French presidential election in 2022 could also see a dramatic about-face for Paris regarding Syria. If a right-wing populist challenger – à la Marine Le Pen and her National Rally (RN) party – secures a victory, France could go full throttle in ratcheting up a Christian-fostered nationalism and seek out an understanding with Syria as part of a pressure tactic against Turkey. Even if it is a center-right candidate that is able to oust Macron, the positions of France and Turkey in NATO are growing more and more questionable. On the other hand, just as a change in the French presidency could offer Assad a potential lifeline, a post-Assad Damascus would offer France its own dramatic opening into Syria. An economic and diplomatic bilateral renewal would surely follow, for good and ill.

France remains intricately linked to Syria and could perhaps be forever destined for a déjà vu relationship with Damascus. Attempts for future French governments to repair ties with the Assad regime would likely result in high-level bouts of diplomacy in return for mere photo-ops. Likewise, France’s friendship has dual-meaning for Syrians. Maysalun represents a stark reminder of the dangers of French colonialism. However, for the regime’s opponents, they primarily view Paris as a beacon of light and are thus willing to overlook France’s heavy handed history in order to push for further diplomatic and military interventions in Syria.

While these two nations have significant differences, they also share much in common. Both have an intense pride in their language, culture, and a romanticized view of their history. National sovereignty is highly venerated given their history of foreign occupation. France, like Syria, has also experienced its own brutal history of internecine strife, most notably with the 1871 Paris Commune, which resulted in the killing of an estimated 20,000 Communards during La Semaine Sanglante (the Bloody Week). Likewise, pre-war Syria faced its own rebellions and was known for the infamous Hama Massacre in 1982, with thousands of Muslim Brotherhood members killed. 

However, in spite of France’s role as one of President Assad’s most prominent opponents since the beginning of the conflict, Paris now seemingly has to find a way to live with him. Russia and the United States will certainly wield the most clout and influence in shaping the outcome of Syria’s war, but it will be France lurking in the background, prodding, steering, and guiding Washington, Moscow, and its European allies in the direction Paris ultimately chooses. For Damascus and Paris, the Battle of Maysalun’s 100th anniversary marks yet a new fork in the road for their bilateral relations; will it veer into years of tension and sanctions-laden antagonism, or rather towards the path of tentative renewal and forgiveness?

The Political Situation in Northeast Syria – A Perspective by the Assyrian Democratic Organization

By Abdulmesih BarAbraham

In early May, Al-Monitor reported that the Kurdish National Council (KNC) and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) in northeastern Syria began US-sponsored reconciliation talks in the hope they could join the UN-sponsored peace process related to Syria. The KNC is Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) affiliated body and was formed under the party leader, Masoud Barzani’s, sponsorship. The backing of US is seen as an effort to appease Turkey’s national security concerns with regards PYD’s role in Syria.

According to recent reports in the Kurdish media this talks progressed, confirming earlier indications that the “US supports intra-Kurdish dialogue talks recently held by Kurdish parties in Syria.” Tensions evidently existed till recent times between the two Syrian Kurdish groups in Syria since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011, with the PYD playing the key role in the establishment of the self-administration in northeastern Syria. Turkey has always seen the PYD as a spinoff of the PKK and initiated a military incursion into Syria late 2019 to counter further efforts for a possible Kurdish autonomy along the Turkish border in northern Syria. KNC has been an umbrella organization of several Kurdish parties and has been represented in the Syrian opposition.

The recent re-approachment of the Kurdish groups has its implication for the political dynamic of northern Syria, where Assyrians live, particularly in the al-Hasakah governorate. On political and ethnic level, Assyrians are organized in three political parties, the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO), the Syriac Union Party (SUP), and the Assyrian Democratic Party. In addition, a community security-guard group (named Sutoro) is maintained, while independent from the individual churches of the community in the region (Syriac-Orthodox, Syriac-Catholic, Chaldean, Assyriac Church of the East) several cross-denominationals civic committees have been established and are engaged in the cities and towns of the governorate as well.

Meeting of the Chaldean Syriac Assyrian Council (MOTWA) at its headquarters in Ankawa on 3 February, 2020.

The three Assyrian political parties are committed to different fronts in the Syrian conflict: while the ADO is part of the larger Syrian Coalition since its inception, the SUP collaborates with the Kurdish self-administration led by the PYD, maintains the Sootoro security police group. Its military arm became a part of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The Assyrian Democratic Party, to some extent, collaborates with the PYD as well as maintaing a small protection group in the Hasakah and Khabour villages.

In order to get a first hand anaylsis of the sitituation in northern Syria after the Turkish incursion and to understand the political implications of the inner-Kurdish approach for Syria’s northeast region and what it means for the Assyrians, I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Sait Yıldiz, the head of the Swedish Section of the Assyrian Democratic Organization (ADO).

Logo of the Assyrian Democratic Organization

As a political party, the Assyrian Democratic Organization was founded back in 1957, striving for the establishment of a secular, pluralistic and democratic government in Syria with a constitution that recognizes equal rights for all of its ethnic components. According to the ADO’s vision, such a constitution should embody a universal Syrian national identity, reflecting the national, religious, and cultural diversity within a unified country. The organization states that it pursues non-violent, peaceful, and democratic struggle in its quest for change, while renouncing violence and extremism, and believes that the only viable solution for the Syrian crisis is a political solution.

Meeting of the Beth-Nahrin Democratic Party (BNDP) at its headquarters in Ankawa on 5 February 2020.

As an ethnic organization, the ADO has been a founding member of the Syrian National Council (SNC) and part of the Syrian opposition since its inception; it signed the so-called Damascus Declaration in October 2005, which aimed to unify the Syrian opposition demanding reforms and democracy. The declaration criticized the Syrian government prior to the uprising in 2011 as “authoritarian, totalitarian, and cliquish,” and called for a “peaceful and gradual,” reform “founded on accord, and based on dialogue and recognition of the other.”

Gabriel Moushe, the ADO’s former president was arrested by the Syrian regime in 2013 and held in prison in Damascus for two and half years. Currently, Abdelahat Astepho represents the ADO in the Syrian National Coalition of the Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces and is a member of the Political Committee.

Mr. Yıldiz holds an MA in political science from the University of Uppsala and sits for the Swedish Left Party in Södertälje’s city council. The interview was conducted in the modern Assyrian-Aramaic (Surayt) language.

Sait Yıldiz

Interview

Abdulmesih BarAbraham (AB): Could you please introduce yourself?

Sait Yıldiz (SY): I was born in 1965 in Anhel, Turabdin. I received my primary school and Assyrian education in Anhel and Midyat. In 1980 I travelled to Switzerland and applied for asylum in Germany a month later. While in the city of Augsburg, where I lived for three years, I came into contact with the Assyrian National Movement and participated in its youth activities. I settled in Sweden in August 1983.

Between 1986 and 1991, I became the chairman of the Assyrian Cultural Association in Botkyrka, Stockholm. In 1990, when I served as a member of the board of directors of the Assyrian Youth Committee of the Assyrian Federation, in addition, I joined the ADO. From 1991 to 1995, I was the President of the Assyrian Federation in Sweden and the director for its Hujådå magazine.

In 1994, I took a break from my work at ADO in order to complete my education. I studied at the Uppsala University and received an MA degree in political science. Currently, I am the Chairman of the Swedish Sections of ADO and a member of the ADO’s General Committee.

AB: How would you describe the political and security situation in northeast Syria after the Turkish invasion and in view of the US and Russian presence there?

SY: First of all, I think it’s good to remind that, without the consent of both, the United States and Russia, Turkey would not be in the position to enter into Syria’s Gozarto (Jazira), as we use to historically call the northeastern region. As known from public statements of the Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdogan, Turkey wanted to create some sort of “safe zone” in Syria since 2014. Watching Turkey’s rapprochement with Russia and Iran, the United States approved Turkey’s military incursion into Syria to secure its own political interest.

We can’t say that the security situation has improved with Turkey’s entry into Syria. The Assyrians and Armenians living in towns and villages along a 120 km border, from Tel Abyad to Rish Ayno (Ras-el Ain), had to migrate. The Assyrians, who were forced to leave Rish Ayno had to abandon their property and land, which is known to be very fertile and suited for agriculture. The seizure of the land and properties by the so-called “National Army,” which was created under Turkey’s control and utilized during the fighting, is a major problem. This is an unacceptable violation of property rights. An additional security problem is caused by the fact that this “National Army” was formed from the remnants of the jihadist organizations fighting in Aleppo, Ghouta, and other hot zones, as they sometimes engage in armed conflict with each other.

On the other hand, the PYD’s reaction to digg trenches in inhabited areas of civilians, e.g., in Qamishli, Derik, Qabre Hevore, Hassake, is pulling the war into civilian areas and endangering the civilians. These ditches, which are dug under the houses at a depth of 7-8 meters, endanger both the lives of those living in those houses and weaken the foundation of the houses. This trenches consitute also an attack on the property rights. As an organization, we are against the armed conflict being drawn to the civillian settlements.

In the region where Turkey crossed the borders with its military, the US, Russia, the Syrian regime, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) and Iranian armed forces are present; this should be sufficient to indicate how worrying the situation is.

AB: While KNC has been a formal member of the Syrian Opposition, the PYD was kept out due to Turkish pressure. What would an intra-Kurdish approach mean from a Syrian opposition perspective?

SY: With the outbreak of the Syrian upprising, the PYD and the Kurdish National Council, the KNC, formed a Kurdish High Commission and tried as a group to join the newly founded the Syrian National Council. Their request was not accepted by both Turkey and the Syrian Opposition. Their membership was rejected because the PYD could not fulfill the conditions to take a clear stance against the Syrian regime and to disconnect itself from the PKK. With regards to ADO, we were in favor of the Kurdish High Commission’s entry into the SNC as a group, but this view was not accepted by the majority of the SNC members.

Those who closely followed the developments of the period could observe the existence of cooperation between Turkey and the PYD in the security and military areas. It is no a secret that Salih Muslim, the PYD co-chairman at the time, had a great deal of comfort to enter Turkey and meet with the Turkish security officials. These relationships went far beyond security issues. They transported weapons and peshmerga fighters from the KRG (Kurdish Regional Government) and allowed them to enter Ain al-Arab (Kobane) through Turkey. This was one of the largest public actions; in addition it is worth to point out that moving Suleyman Shah’s tomb to Eşme Village, took place under the PYD’s control, on February 22, 2015, within the context of the Operation Shah Euprates.

These relations between Turkey and the PYD began to deteriorate in 2014 when the Autonomous Regional Administration in northern Syria was announced on the eve of the Geneva II talks, and in 2015 the relations were utterly broken with the termination of Turkey’s peace process with the PKK. Salih Muslim was now sought by the Interpol’s Red Bulletin. As a thought-provoking aspect, I must add that the United States, which had an alliance with the PYD, did not put any serious pressure on Turkey because of its strict stance regarding the PYD.

AB: Could you elaborate on ADO’s contribution to the work of the Syrian opposition? What position did ADO defend in view that the major parties in the oppositions have an Islamic background?

SY: As ADO, we have taken an active role in the establishment of the Syrian National Council. Since its inception, we have always stated that we are in favor of a democratic and peaceful Syrian opposition movement. We have always argued that an armed conflict will make the solution to the country’s political problem become difficult. Of course, in some places there was no alternative left by the regime other than to arm the Syrian people in order to defend themselves. The public’s self-defense is a right. The reason that the Islamic organizations gained weight within the opposition is due to the support of countries in the region.

The strengthening of these organizations did not discourage us from our own objectives. For example, no organization within the opposition, even not the United States, called the Nusra Front a terrorist organization, while in 2012, ADO had already declared that Nusra Front was a terrorist group.

We are part of a coalition that encompasses diverse political views. It can’t be realistic to expect these parties to think the same way we do. What is important in such a structure is to maintain our independent line, to defend the rights of our people as indigenous group in Syria and to agree on common political denominators.

As founding member of the SNC, we became part of the Syrian Coalition that was established on February 1, 2014. Although being part of the larger Coalition, we have clearly opposed Turkey’s entry into Afrin, Ras-ul Ayn, and Tel Abyad, just to mention few issues. We played an important role in arguing for the participation of the Syrian opposition in the UN-led Geneva II talks, which was seen by some of the radical parties within the Coalition as “falling to the knees before the regime.”

In October 2012, when the Syrian Free Army entered Deir ez Zor, we attempted to create the Gozarto Patriotic Council consisting of ADO, two Arabs parties, the Kurdish High Council and the Syriac Union Party, so that Gozarto (basically the Al-Hasakah Governorate) could be spared from the conflict. Between the end of 2012 and Spring 2013 we held nine meeting sessions and brought the initiative to the stage of setting up the council. However, a few days before the establishment, two key Kurdish representatives left the KNC and joined the YPG, which hindered finalizing the plan. In fact, the idea of a regional self-ruled administration existed two years before the PYD-led autonomous region was officially declared.

In short, since joining the Syrian opposition, as ethnic organization we have been joining all international forums addressing the future of Syria and raising our voice as Assyrians and an indigenous people of Syria. Currently, we have two representatives in the Coalition’s Constitutional Commission, which was established last year and its first meeting in Geneva last October. The task of our friends there is to assure that our rights are included in the opposition documents and entered in the new consititution to be written.

AB: Could you elaborate on ADO’s relations with both Kurdish groups in the past?

SY: The establishment of Kurdish parties in Syria dates to the 1950s and 60s, when ADO was founded. Although our organizations were established around the same time, the relationships between them were not particularly developed. Of course, there are many reasons for that. The relationships of the early periods remained focused mainly on the culturel and social levels. Our first political cooperation with the Kurdish parties was a kind of an electoral agreement with the PKK within the context of the 1990 Syrian Parliament elections. As a result of that election, the personal relations between the Kurdish leaders, who were elected from Gozarto, and our friend Bashir Saadi, who was elected from ADO to the Syrian Parliament, developed later at an organizational level.

After Bashar al-Assad became President of Syria, our relations with the Kurdish organizations naturally turned into cooperation on broader issues, the most important of them is known as the “Damascus Spring.” This is the name given to the period of activism and tentative political liberalization that followed the death of Hafez al-Assad in the year 2000. This period was characterized by demands for political, legal, and economic reforms in Syria. This initiative resulted in the Damascus Decleration signed by many political parties in 2005.

AB: With the PYD-led Kurdish self-administration, the Assyrians are said to live under two rulers: The Kurds and the Syrian Government. What implications does this brings for the Assyrians with regards of taxation, military subscription, schooling etc.?

SY: First of all, the Kurdish groups that oppose the PYD are the ones who take the major share from the repression of the PYD-led administration. Second, the Arabs feel the pressure, followed by us Assyrians. We can list the repression of the autonomous region administration against the Assyrians as follows. There were attempts to close our private schools, seizing the properties of the Assyrians who migrated to other places, force our youth into compulsory military service. In addition, they closed our organization’s offices in Derik, Hassake, Derbisiye, and Qamishli, but were reopened after public protests. Of course, there are daily problems with the existence of two administrations in Qamishli and Hassake – one led by the PYD and one led by the Syrian Government. This results in double taxation, conflicting military conscription, Cadastre issues and problems for work permits, etc.

AB: How did the ADO react to such repressive measure by the Kurdish administration?  

SY: We have tried to raise our voice to the injustices in different ways and with the opportunities we have. For example, when the PYD wanted to confiscate the empty houses and lands of the Assyrians who emigrated, we protested with a joint statement from all of our people’s institutions. Our protest was met with a giant echo in both Europe and the Middle East. Then, when we encountered similar problems, we played an active role in establishing a common Christian Committee that included our people and the Armenians living in the region. The committee was able to solve problems on many issues through dialogue.

When Assyrian schools were closed, ADO’s President of that time, Gabriel Moushe, discussed the education issue the Autonomous Administration education official on a private TV channel. We made our voice heard everywhere, reaching the European media and politicians. Our voice was conveyed to the Europeans officials, especially the Swedish politicians, to the head of the PYD of the time, Salih Muslim. As a matter of fact, we know that our declaration in Europe in context of the closing of our offices was felt with a heavy criticism – at least Salih Muslim complained about the issue this way.

AB: What implication do you see for the Assyrians with the inter-Kurdish rapprochement?

SY: Supported by the United States, the PYD must be credited for being responsible for the security of the region and largely preventing the ISIS terrorist organization from entering the region. Due to fighting against ISIS, cities such as Hassake, Derik Derbisiye, and Qamishli, which are main settlements areas for the Assyrians, have not experienced the hot war compared to Raqqa or other cities. The Khabour region remains the exception. Despite having major US support, the PYD has not been able to prevent the terrorist group from capturing our villages in the Khabour region which has resulted in the abduction of nearly 300 Assyrians. The questionable Kurdish role in this major incident along with several the terrorist attacks on civilian targets in the city of Qamishli, along with the cases of kidnapping of many Assyrians do not exempt the PYD and regime’s armed forces from partial guilt, unfortunately.

For the following reasons we find the rapprochement and peace between the KNC and PYD positive.

  • If we are realistic, the solution to the Kurdish problem is the locomotive for solving the questions of the other non-Arab ethnic groups in Syria. If we look at it from this point of view, it will have an impact on us as a people.
  • The peace of two important groups, even if there was no ongoing conflict between them, will contribute significantly to peace in the region and will have a positive impact on other groups.
  • We think that the rapprochement between the PYD and KNC means also a rapprochement with the Syrian opposition.
  • The inter-Kurdish approach should also extend to a dialogue that includes all of the ethnic groups east of the Euphrates. However, this would mean a necessary restructuring of the local self-administration. Therefore, we have to be prepared for these new developments and attach great importance to the dialogue and cooperation between ADO and the Assyrian parties on this issue.

It is an agreement between the two groups that has so far only been reached on political issues. We can say that similar agreements have already existed. Anyone who follows the United States’ efforts in this regard knows the situation. In order for us to be able to say that there is a full agreement, I believe that two important issues need to be resolved: management of the self-administration and the military set-up. We are closely monitoring the discussions and wish them every success.

AB: How are the political relations with the other two Assyrian groups in northeast Syria, namely Syriac Union Party and Assyrian Democratic Party, which both cooperate closely with the PYD while SUP engages with its so-called military wing in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)?

SY: As ADO, we have been convinced from the beginning that it was necessary to learn from the Iraqi experience and develop good relations with the Syriac Union Party and the Assyrian Democratic Party present in Syria, so that our organizations do not go through similar adversities. During the process that began with the Syrian upprising, we invited both parties to meet and to joinly promote our political and national rights while uniting our political discourse. We included the civic society driven organizations established later as Tajammuc al’Medeni Mesihi (Civic Christian Society) and Tajammuc al Suriye UM  (Mother Syria Community) into the discussions and proposed the establishment of a joint Assyrian/Syriac National Assembly. Unfortunately, the joint project could not be realized.

In January 2014, upon the invitation of the Córdoba group, all of our ethnic organizations came together in the city of Córdoba, Spain, within the context of the Syrian opposition gathering, and reached a consensus for our political and national demands that was later presented to the Syrian opposition.

Collaboration meeting between ADO and the Syriac Union Party (SUP) in Qamishli reaching agreement in 2017.

In 2017, we reached an agreement with the Syriac Union Party on both our national demands and the future of the new Syria and presented it to the public. Our discussions continue in a positive way in order to implement the content of this agreement.

Although we have relations and negotiations with the Assyrian Democratic Party, we still have not reached a written agreement. I am optimistic that this will happen too.

AB: An ADO high-ranking delegation consisting of the current chairman Daoud Daoud, who was accompanied by the previous chairmen Gabriel Moushe and Bashir Saadi, visited northern Iraq in February 2020 and conducted talks with the different Assyrian and Kurdish parties and their representatives. Would you summarize the results of these talks?

SY: Our comrades had two intentions by visiting the Iraqi Kurdistan Government. The first was to start a dialogue path with the KRG Government, which would play an important role in the region and in the future of Syria, and to cooperate on the important issues we can agree on. This conversations did not happen, as some say, suddenly and on request of Mr. Barzani. It required a long exchange in order to make this happen.

At the meeting held with the President of the KDP, Mr. Masoud Barzani, the situation in Syria and possible political solution of the problems were discussed. In addition, the ADO delegation addressed various incidents of injustices the villages of our people face by the KRG Administration. Finally, the erection of a monument in the village of Semile for the martyrs who were killed in the Semile massacre of 1933 was discussed; we think that this would preserve their memory.

February 1st, 2020; from left to right: Bashir Saadi, President of KDP President Masoud Barzani, ADO President Daoud Daoud and Gabriel Moushe

The visit’s second objective was to bring our political parties and organizations in Iraq closer together, and if possible, to revive the Coordination Committee, which was established years ago, with our political parties. We were engaged in the establishment of this committee. During our talks with the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ADM), all parties touched on the important role of ADM to enhance cooperation and form a powerful national unity.

Meeting with the Assyrian Democratic Movement (ZOWAA) on Tuesday, 4 February 2020, at its headquarters in Erbil.

During the meeting with the ADM, we conveyed the expectations of our other parties in Iraq, both from the experience and importance point of view, and received the ADM’s perspective on this issue. We agreed on the urgency to continue our negotiations in a positive atmosphere. Unfortunately, we were unable to conduct a second visit as agreed due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has halted all life and caused the borders to be closed.

AB: Could you comment on the US Caesar Act and the sanctions imposed on Syria? What are the implications for the population?

SY: Since the start of the Syrian uprising, both ADO and the majority of the Syrian people have had to choose between one of the two bad options. The main reason for this is that the regime violently represses the rightful, democratic desires of the Syrian people and plays the role of the deaf sultan with respect to the will of the people. The Caesar Act should also be viewed from this perspective.

The Caesar Act, which was enacted, does not cover the import of basic food products and medicines needed by the population. The two main areas covered by the law are the defense systems and the energy sector supplies used for the air defense systems.

In this context, we have to be reminded of UN Resolution 2254, which the dictatorial regime has signed but not yet implemented; the Syrian regime has blocked the peace talks and does not intend to make any steps towards democracy. It must be brought to reason in some way or the other.

It would be appropriate to point to the case of South Africa to the people who said that the Caesar Act will not affect the Syrian regime, but it will mostly affect the poor people. The economic embargo and other sanctions were imposed on the racist apartheid regime. Otherwise, the apartheid dictatorship might not have been eliminated and South Africa would not be a democratic country today. I think the Caesar Act will directly affect both the regime and the countries that support it.

The economic crisis in Syria and the depreciation of the Syrian Lira existed before the Caesar Act was issued while 85 percent of the population were living on the borderline of hunger.

AB: Interestingly, while our political organizations are engaged with the Syrian opposition or collaborating with the Kurdish self-administration in northern Syria, the leadership of our Churches seems be in a wait-and-see position, which is sometimes misinterpreted as being regime-friendly. In fact, they do not believe that a change pushed by a Syrian opposition that is dominated by Islamic groups would be a better alternative to the current or reformed regime. How would you comment on this position and what does the ADO’s relations with the leaderships of our Churches in Syria mean in this context?

SY: If we consider the churches’ current position, it is true what you say. However, in the early months of the uprising, especially when the protest marches were held peacefully, the Church did not say amen to what the regime preached, even if it did not take a clear stance against the regime. As an example, in the Spring of 2011, the Syriac Orthodox Church issued a very political and demanding declaration that we can easily put our signature under concerning the national rights of our people. The policies followed by the Aleppo and Gozarto Metropolitans months later were not pro-regime policies at all. The Metropolitan of Aleppo, Mar Yuhanun Brahim, has repeatedly demanded that the Syrian regime should carry out reforms. Thanks to the good relations with the various opposition groups, he was able to save lives of many people who were kidnapped and taken hostage. He paid the price of these efforts by being taken hostage himself, together with Bishop Yusuf Yazıcı, and was kidnapped in April 2013. Our hope is still that they are still alive and will be freed soon.

When Bishop Matta Rohem learned that the regime’s Mukhabarat (Secret Service) had a hand in the abduction of 65 people who were kidnapped in the first months of the uprising, he protested together with the Metropolitans of the Syriac Catholic and Assyrian Church of the East. As a result, he received threats. When the regime asked him to arm the people of his community, he replied: “Against whom will I use the weapons? Against my neighbours, against Kurds and Arabs? It is the duty of the state to ensure the safety of its citizens.” This attitude increased the threat to his life and forced him to leave his homeland; today he lives in exile.

As the peaceful protest marches were soon dominated by weapons and violence, the painful and bad experiences of the targeted attacks on Christians in neighbouring Iraq were still fresh in the people’s memories; this is one reason why both the church leadership and a large part of our people sided with the regime. Even if we do not accept the attitude and the official positions of our churches with respect to the regime, we have full understanding of their stance.

In the first weeks of the 2011 uprising we consulted with all of our churches and together we founded the Civil Peace Committee. All have accepted that, despite our political and sectarian differences, that we must work together as one people. This initiative played an important role in ensuring the internal peace within our region and with civil society organizations of other peoples.

In summary, although we are involved in separate ranks, as ADOs we strive for good relations because we believe that we should be in good communication with all of our churches that are part of our people. And I can say that we have good working relations. For example, in December 2014 we supported the initiative of the Syrian Orthodox Patriarch Mor Afrem II Karim for cooperation between our political organizations; we participated in the initial meeting at the Monastery in Switzerland and in the follow-ups.

As we speak, just last week, on July 10, 2020, we had a meeting with the East Assyrian Bishop of Gozarto, Mar Afram Athnael, to solve the problems of our villages in Khabour.

AB: How do you see as opposition member the Kurdish, PYD-led ambitions for autonomy in Syria? How much the Syrian opposition stands for the unity of the country?

SY: So far we have not heard that the PYD or any Kurdish party has officially demanded an autonomous region in Syria. In the recent political agreement between the Kurdish parties they argue for a federal system for Syria. They explain why to do so: Such a system prevents major problems between the peoples and religions in the region. Secondly, it prevents the creation of a strong central authoritarian regime which is inclined to govern the country under a strict administration.

ADO is not afraid that the Kurds could divide Syria and we do not believe that this will be possible. As both the demographic structure does not allow for this, also Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and the United States will not agree to this either.

AB: How does ADO see the demographic change in the Jazira caused during the Syrian conflict? Recently, and after the Turkish incursion into Syria, many Kurds from outside of the Jazira has been settled by the Kurdish self-administration in the Assyrian villages of Khabour. Many will stay forever and change the region’s demography.

SY: As in every war, the demographic structure will, unfortunately, change and this applies to Syria. It is impossible that this can be avoided after a 10-year conflict. It is a humanitarian tragedy that nine million people have been forced to leave their homes and emigrate. This naturally changed the demographic structure of both the place they left and the place where they migrated. This is a form of change.

The second and opposite path of demographic change is the planned and systematic demographic change. Both the countries of the region and the Syrian regime and other belligerent forces that fought contributed to the demographic change. For example, Assyrians and other Christians have been forced to leave their homes in Daara, Idlip, Deir Ezor, and Rasul Ayn. This is not acceptable and must be condemned.

It is not only the Kurds who settle or place themselves in the Assyrian villages of the Khabour region. A large part constitute the Arabs who fled from war zones east of the Euphrates in the context of the Turkish incursion into Syria. They settled temporarily with the consent of the Assyrian villagers. If the war in Syria continues, these people may not want to return to their villages. The problem of both emigrated to abroad or internally dispaced people after the peace in Syria is one of the complicated problems that must be resolved under the control of the United Nations.

AB: Sait, thank you very much for the interview.

Meeting with Abna al Nahrian Party on Monday, 3 February 2020 in Erbil.

Abdulmesih BarAbraham has a Master degree from the University of Erlangen/Nuernberg and is an independent researcher and frequent writer on Assyrian issues in the Middle East and in the Diaspora. Among others, he is author of Turkey’s Key Arguments in Denying the Assyrian Genocide, in David Gaunt et. al. (Eds.), Let Them Not Return (New York: Berghahn Books, 2017); and (with Jan Bet-Sawoce), Repression, Discrimination, Assimilation, and Displacement of East and West Assyrians in the Turkish Republic, in Fikret Başkaya and Sait Çetinoglu (Eds.), Minorities in Turkey (Ankara: Özgür Universite Kitaplığı [Resmi Tarih Tartışmaları], 2009). He is also author of Safeguarding the Cross: Emergence of Christian Militias in Iraq and Syria, in Andreas Schmoller (Ed.), Middle Eastern Christians and Europe – Historical Legacies and Present Challenges (Zürich: LIT Verlag, 2018). He is also the Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Mor-Afrem Foundation.

Turkey Conducts Its Seventh Series of Airstrikes On Sinjar, Violating International Law Amid NATO Silence

In the early morning of June 15, 2020, before 01:00 a.m., Turkey conducted a series of airstrikes on Sinjar Mountain that lasted 40 to 60 minutes.

Turkey has conducted intermittent airstrikes on Sinjar since April 2017. Series of Turkish airstrikes on Sinjar have now occurred at least seven times:

  • April 2017 — during the Yazidi holy month, shortly after the Yazidi New Year
  • August 2018 — following a memorial service commemorating the Kocho Massacre
  • December 2018 — on a Yazidi religious holiday and one day prior to a visit to Sinjar by genocide survivor Nadia Murad
  • November 2019 — two separate campaigns
  • January 2020 — on a Yazidi religious holiday
  • June 2020

Yesterday’s bombings, conducted with U.S.-manufactured aircraft, were the most extensive Turkish attacks to date, with up to 30 reported airstrikes that lit up large sections of Sinjar Mountain. The strikes targeted Shilo (in the southwestern section of the mountain where the road wraps south around the west end to connect to the main highway), Kore Smoqi (an area in the foothills on the northwestern section of the mountain), and the area on top of the mountain between Çil Mîre and the Serdeshte camps.

The bombings on the top of the mountain occurred in close proximity to civilian IDP camps (camps for displaced Yazidis) that are just a few kilometers away. Turkish jets bombed up and down certain ridges on top of the mountain, setting hundreds—and maybe thousands—of trees ablaze. The fires burned for many hours, endangering olive groves and areas of terraced farming which are located high up on the mountain. Starting fires as summer approaches is very dangerous as Sinjar has had serious problems with out-of-control fires in recent years.

Video footage of fires burning after the airstrikes, aired by ANF News

Timing of the Bombings

This round of Turkish airstrikes comes six months to the day following the last round of attacks, conducted January 15, 2020.

The last few weeks have seen a large number of Yazidi IDPs—who have been living in tents in the KRI for the last nearly six years—return to Sinjar to begin rebuilding their destroyed homes. In the single week prior to these bombings, 150 families reportedly left the KRI to return to Sinjar and many more have been planning their returns.

Sinjar has been relatively calm over the past two years; the most significant disruptions of this calm have been the instances of Turkish airstrikes. These attacks create a sense of instability, demoralize IDPs considering returning, and terrorize those who have already returned. Many Yazidis believe that the timing of these airstrikes is not a coincidence. Yesterday’s airstrikes came four days after an incident where KDP asaish (secret police) held up a convoy of Yazidis moving back to Sinjar.

Whether intentional or not, the inevitable effect of these attacks will be to discourage those considering moving home from doing so.

This action counters and directly inhibits the U.S. Administration’s stated policy objective of supporting return and reconstruction in Iraq’s disputed territories. It also hinders humanitarian work generally and makes NGOs more reluctant to implement projects in the Sinjar region. This prevents the return of stability which will prolong the continuing drive toward mass emigration to Western countries.

Previous Attacks

Not only do Turkish bombings of Sinjar deter returns, but there is also a pattern of the bombings being timed to coincide with Yazidi religious occasions or important genocide memorial events. Several of the previous campaigns occurred on Yazidi holidays and, in August 2018, one campaign of airstrikes occurred hours after a memorial service to honor those killed in the Kocho Massacre. Those killed in the airstrikes had just left the memorial service.

Turkey’s April 2017 airstrikes targeted Yazidi and Kurdish fighters still actively engaged in defending Sinjar against IS—this was prior to the liberation of the south side of Sinjar by the PMU. In other words, Turkey attacked the defensive side of an active front line with IS, targeting the primary forces responsible for providing protection to vulnerable IDPs on top of the mountain.

Within days of the April 2017 bombings, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Iraq Joseph Pennington visited the Yazidi community in Michigan. The Yazidis expressed their outrage and sorrow regarding the airstrikes and Pennington assured them that the U.S. would not allow it to happen again. Sadly, it has continued to happen, repeatedly.

Following Turkey’s third round of airstrikes on Sinjar in December 2018, genocide survivor Nadia Murad met with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and called on Turkey to end its assaults on Sinjar. The strikes are ongoing, however.

Nadia Murad meets with Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Dec. 16, 2018

Turkey’s November 2019 bombings targeted a YBŞ base in Khanasor, but missed it and hit a civilian home.

Its January 2020 bombings targeted a residential area of a civilian town, Dugure, destroying property, killing several YBŞ security personnel, and a civilian. The aftermath of the Jan. 2020 attacks can be seen in the following two photos that were circulated online:

Photo attributed to @metesohtaoglu

After the January 2020 bombings, Yazda executive director Murad Ismael posted this message:

Let me share with you this; one of the victims was Ali, he was in his early 20s, he was a father and a husband. Ali’s father was a truck driver working for the U.S. army when they were in Shingal. Ali is from a very poor family. Ali left behind a family without a supporter, [and he left behind] an orphan, a widow, and a child yet to be born to an unknown world. Turkey left this family in so much pain. We expressed our condolences to Ali’s grandfather and grandmother today. They were also in so much sadness.

The Meaning That the Airstrikes Carry for Genocide Survivors

Following last night’s bombing campaign, Turkish media circulated photographs of Turkish military officials conducting and celebrating the attacks:

“Minister of National Defence of Turkey, Hulusi Akar (R) follows the Operation Claw-Eagle.” Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Agency
Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Agency
Photo: Arif Akdoğan – Anadolu Ajansı

Yesterday, Turkish military personnel also circulated a PR video containing a mix of footage (some material originating prior to June 15 but also some material purportedly showing attacks on Sinjar and other locations attacked on June 15—Makhmour and Qandil were also targeted on the 15th):

What must be understood is that Sinjar is a cultural focal point for the Yazidi community worldwide; it is a sacred homeland that has weathered many eras of persecution. As one of the last remaining Yazidi enclaves in the region, Sinjar is both beloved and perceived as vulnerable. When IS first attacked Sinjar and began the genocide of the Yazidis in 2014, it traumatized every Yazidi person in the world. Similarly, each time that Turkey bombs Sinjar and the news of it reaches the ears of Yazidis around the world, it traumatizes every Yazidi person, again.

Even when airstrikes do not kill civilians, they traumatize every civilian in the area as they are audible (and sometimes visible) throughout Sinjar. In one of the videos of last night’s airstrikes posted online this morning, a child can be heard screaming when the explosion hits:

Turkey’s Pretext for the Attacks and Its Violation of International Law

As a justification for these airstrikes, Turkey claims to be targeting PKK forces; however, the PKK presence in Sinjar has been steadily drawn down since March of 2018. The actual targets of the bombings are the Yazidi YBŞ security force.

Like the U.S.-supported YPG, the YBŞ is a PKK affiliate; its ranks, however, are mainly comprised of local Yazidis who joined the militia after the Genocide to defend their homeland against IS. Many of its members are survivors who lost family members to IS massacres and enslavement, and whose homes have been destroyed. The YBŞ now coordinates with the local Iraqi police to provide security. (For example, when social distancing techniques began to be introduced to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the Iraqi police in Sinjar coordinated with the YBŞ to implement the safety measures and it was YBŞ personnel who went door to door to educate people about COVID-19 and ask business owners to close their shops.)

Because of the Turkish military threat posed to Sinjar, the PKK announced its withdrawal from Sinjar in mid-2018. Though small numbers of PKK members may still live in Sinjar, there is no longer any publicly visible presence of PKK guerrillas in Sinjar.

More importantly, Sinjar—which has no border with Turkey—is not a staging ground for attacks on Turkey.

Yesterday morning, the Turkish Anadolu news agency reported that “Turkish Defense Ministry says Claw-Eagle operation is taking place under right of self defense arising from international law.”

Article 2(4) of the UN Charter requires that all states “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.” While states retain a right to self-defense,[1] that right is subject to standards of necessity and proportionality. Reprisals may only be carried out as measures of last resort to an adversary’s serious violations of international humanitarian law.[2] Further, anticipatory attacks, while generally not considered legal, in the rare instances where they may garner approval, “should be confined to cases in which the necessity of that self-defense is instant, overwhelming, and leaving no choice of means, and no moment for deliberation.”[3] Attacks must be proportionate to the gravity of the adversary’s violation.[4]

Repeatedly bombing areas recovering from genocide and populated by refugees/IDPs in camps in order to take out PKK targets is in no way necessary or compliant with Turkey’s obligation to peacefully settle disputes, nor is the indiscriminate bombing of Iraqi territory proportional to the threat posed by a lightly-armed militia that has not attacked Turkish territory.

In other words, and to state the obvious, Yazidi security forces in Sinjar pose no imminent threat to Turkey, and have committed no violation grave enough to justify an attack against the territory of another sovereign state.

A state’s right to self-defense does not relieve it of its obligation under UN Charter Article 2(4) to settle disputes peacefully, nor is it permitted to take actions that violate humanitarian, human rights, or public international law. In fact, the unprovoked bombing of IDP/refugee camps (as also happened yesterday when Turkey bombed Makhmour) is a direct violation of Article 2(4) because Turkey has committed an act of aggression against the sovereign territory of Iraq (see GA Resolution 3314, Article 3(b): “…bombardment by the armed forces of a state against the territory of another state or the use of weapons by a state against the territory of another state”). International law also prohibits attacks which “may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantage anticipated.”[5] Targeted or indiscriminate attacks against civilians and protected persons and their property are clear violations of customary international law and the Geneva Conventions, and rise to the level of war crimes.[6]

Iraq’s Weak Response

As it has done in previous instances of Turkish bombings of Sinjar, Iraq condemned yesterday’s attacks, but an article published yesterday by al-Monitor noted the weak language used:

Iraq’s Defense Ministry condemned the strikes today, saying they were violation of Iraqi sovereignty, but the language of the statement was mild. “We call on Turkey to halt these violations and avoid repeating them and respect the bilateral relations between the two countries,” it said.

In fact, signs have appeared several times that indicate Baghdad’s tacit approval for Turkey’s actions.

All Turkish bombings of Sinjar from 2018 to the present have occurred alongside an Iraqi army presence in Sinjar. That Iraq fails to adequately protest these assaults—which occur within its own jurisdiction and where it maintains full control with its own military—implies the possibility of passive complicity.

The January 2020 round of bombings occurred directly after Turkish Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu visited Baghdad for official meetings, leading some to speculate that the Iraqi government had given approval for the strikes.[7]

Similarly, yesterday’s bombings came just days following a visit from Turkey’s intelligence chief to Iraq.

The reasons as to why Baghdad does not put up serious resistance to Turkey’s violations of its territory need to be taken up by another author. One potential factor may be Baghdad’s desire to preclude any interruptions in the receipt of Euphrates water originating in Turkey. But there is likely more to the story than this and the fact that Baghdad pays YBŞ salaries while not refuting Turkey’s “must-attack-the-PKK” pretext is perplexing.

NATO’s Silence Amid Growing Turkish Imperialism

That Turkey is readily willing to attack the Yazidi homeland, but has not demonstrated a commitment to targeting IS, speaks loudly to Yazidis and observers alike.

Further, Turkish airstrikes on Sinjar come after a long-established pattern, noted by many experts and analysts over the years of the conflict with IS, of Turkey pursuing policies that have aided IS. It has been well-documented that IS jihadists were given free access to the Turkish border,[8] that Turkey has supplied jihadists with weapons,[9] provided financial support to terror groups,[10] and has provided training to IS fighters.[11] That Turkey was perceived as an indirect supporter of the Yazidi Genocide in 2014 makes its continuing campaign against Sinjar even more problematic in the present.

The world must understand what it means to Yazidis—a marginalized Iraqi minority wanting to avoid geopolitical competitions—when a major power like Turkey operates with an unrestricted license to target their homeland.

Over these past three years as airstrikes have occurred, NATO has never issued a statement of opposition to this illegal and destructive form of action. NATO’s silence conveys a tacit approval for Turkey’s imperialistic aggression. This is unacceptable.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg

Instead of using his position and voice to censure Turkey’s behavior, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has either praised Turkey’s “contributions to NATO” or has defended Turkey from critique regarding its behavior.[12]

It is urgent now that NATO as an organization take responsibility for its fellow member. Both NATO and its individual member nations, especially the United States, France, Germany, and the UK need to publicly denounce this pattern of violence and firmly persuade Turkey to stop all hostilities against Sinjar.

This is all the more vital when considering the possible designs that Erdogan has for the region. Erdogan has made statements about Mosul and Kirkuk belonging to Turkey; such statements should not be taken lightly as we witness an unfolding process of Turkey actively annexing parts of Syria. (It should be mentioned that religious minority communities in parts of Syria taken over by Turkey have been driven out and their sacred places destroyed.)

Also noted in the al-Monitor article referred to above is the disconcerting but little-discussed phenomenon of the presence of Turkish ground forces inside Iraq—a situation viewed by many Kurds as a foreign occupation:

Ankara shows no signs of heeding Baghdad’s calls, chief among them to withdraw several hundred Turkish special forces who have been based in Bashiqa [another Yazidi area] near Mosul since December 2015.
Its military and intelligence presence in Iraqi Kurdistan — despite occasional tut-tutting from KRG leaders — continues to grow. It’s believed to have around 20 bases of varying sizes in the region and since last year Turkish ground troops have been deploying in Kharkurk, where the Turkish, Iraqi and Iranian borders converge.

It is also reported that Turkey has recently been amassing troops near Silopi on the northern border with Iraq.

(As an aside, Erdogan’s “Ottoman-revivalism” is well known and it is not lost on the Yazidis that some of the caves housing YBŞ personnel being targeted by Turkish airstrikes are the same caves inside which Yazidis hid during Ottoman-era pogroms in which Turkish troops were sent to force-convert and enslave them.)

The issue is therefore more serious than airstrikes on Sinjar. Erdogan has threatened, on multiple occasions, to invade Sinjar with ground troops.[13] Though it would perhaps be speculative to attempt to articulate Turkey’s objectives for Sinjar at present, the previous threats to invade it must not be forgotten when the timing of these most recent airstrikes coincides with a moment when thousands of Yazidis aspire to return to their homeland. In an article posted yesterday, Nishtiman Awsman pointed out that Turkey’s awareness of international attention on Sinjar because of the Yazidi Genocide may prompt it to opt for a strategy of keeping Sinjar as empty as possible for the time being, allowing it to defer a full-scale invasion to some point in the future.

It is vital that Turkey’s more responsible partners guarantee that such an invasion never takes place.

The Solution

Iraq can take practical steps to eliminate the problem of Turkish attacks on Sinjar by absorbing the YBŞ into an official Iraqi security force and thus eliminate Turkey’s pretext for assaults on the Sinjar District.

Eliminating Turkey’s pretext for attacking Sinjar comes back to the same demands that the Yazidis have been making of the international community (largely in vain) since the Genocide began: To hold Baghdad accountable to fulfill the responsibility—which it has especially neglected since the liberation of Sinjar from IS in 2017—to resolve the lack of administration in Sinjar by appointing a fully-empowered District Head who can legally and effectively manage security, infrastructure, and the facilitation of humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. This process should be performed so as to upgrade the highly-populated Sinjar District to a governorate that can interface directly with Baghdad in the administration of Sinjar. Sinjar as a district under the governorate of Mosul has been an abject and utter failure that has not only produced serious security flaws leaving Yazidis vulnerable to future campaigns of genocide, but also results in the unacceptable neglect of reconstruction and recovery.

This process should involve the conversion of all political party-affiliated militias in Sinjar to an official Iraqi security force. The era of political parties with weapons in disputed territories MUST come to an end.


—————————————————-

[1] UN Charter, Art. 51

[2] ICRC, Customary IHL Database, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule145. Date accessed, 6/15/2020.

[3] The Caroline, 2 Moore, Digest of International Law 412 (1906).

[4] ICRC, Customary IHL Database,  https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v1_rul_rule145. Date accessed, 6/15/2020.

[5] ICRC, Customary IHL Database, https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/print/v1_rul_rule14, Date accessed 6/15/2020

[6] ICC Statute, Article 8(2)(b)(iv) (ibid., § 5); see also UNTAET Regulation 2000/15, Section 6(1)(b)(iv) (ibid., § 13).

[7] Sa’ad Salloum, “Turkey bombs Yazidi militia in Iraq affiliated with PKK,” al-Monitor, Jan. 24, 2020, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2020/01/iraq-sinjar-kurdistan-yazidis-turkey.html

[8] The Washington Post, “In Turkey, a late crackdown on Islamist fighters,” Aug. 12, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/how-turkey-became-the-shopping-mall-for-the-islamic-state/2014/08/12/5eff70bf-a38a-4334-9aa9-ae3fc1714c4b_story.html

[9] “Kemal Kiliçdaroglu, head of the Republican People’s Party (CHP), produced a statement from the Adana Office of the Prosecutor on October 14, 2014 maintaining that Turkey supplied weapons to terror groups. He also produced interview transcripts from truck drivers who delivered weapons to the groups.” See Dr. David L. Phillips, “ISIS-Turkey Links,” https://www.huffpost.com/entry/research-paper-isis-turke_b_6128950?guccounter=1

[10] Fehim Taştekim, “Sınırsız sınır,” Radikal, Sept. 13, 2014, http://www.radikal.com.tr/yazarlar/fehim-tastekin/sinirsiz-sinir-1212462/

[11] Aaron Klein, “Turkey accused of training ISIS soldiers,” WND, Oct. 10, 2014, https://www.wnd.com/2014/10/turkey-accused-of-training-isis-soldiers/#RwKhlwojsKO50o08.99

[12] For example, see this article, this article, and this article.

[13] Rudaw, “Turkey’s next border-clearing operations may include Shingal,” May 4, 2017, https://www.rudaw.net/english/kurdistan/05042017

Lebanon’s Economic Collapse: Consequences for Israel – by Aiman Mansour

14 June 2020

This article was first published by The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. It is republished on Syria Comment with a few edits and with the permission of its author.

Dr. Aiman Mansour is an expert on inter-Arab politics, Hezbollah and regional strategy. He served for 13 years in the National Security Council / Prime Minister’s Office in various posts, the last being head of the Middle East and Africa Division (2015-2019). Ph.D. in political science from Haifa University. Email: amansour@jiss.org.il

Some Israelis believe that crippling Lebanon economically will weaken Hezbollah and help Israel. They are probably wrong. Lebanon’s economic deterioration is likely to favor Hezbollah, which is positioned to survive the regional unraveling better than its rivals.

Israel has repeatedly failed to properly interpret social and political trends in Lebanon – especially in the Shiite community. Had Israel been more attentive, its strategic situation might have improved. The present economic collapse in Lebanon, which is largely the result of malfeasance and corruption at the highest levels of government, could strengthen Hezbollah’s position.

Israel and the Adversities of the Shiite Community in Lebanon

Since its invasion to Lebanon in 1982, Israel has missed-interpreted significant changes taking place in the Shiite community in Lebanon. Israel refrained from engaging in a serious dialogue with this community and treated it as a minor factor in the Lebanese political arena; instead, emphasizing ties with Christian forces. Israel was also late in recognizing the radicalization taking place in this community in the 1980s and the 1990s. Israel’s policies contributed to this trend and pushed additional villages into the arms of Hezbollah, primarily because of collective punishment against Shiite villages in southern Lebanon in response to Hezbollah’s terrorist attacks. (Note: Most South Lebanese Army members also were Shiite, and the community was deeply resentful of Palestinian organizations because of their brutal rule over southern Lebanon in the 1970s).

Since Israel’s retreat from Lebanon in 2000, and particularly since Hezbollah became the strongest force in Lebanon (a process that was accelerated after Syria removed its forces from Lebanon in 2005), Israel seemed to ignore processes within the Shiite community, particularly its social-economic development.

Rivals March 8 and March 14 camps. (AP Photos)

The growing Shiite stake in Lebanon restrains the use of force against Israel. Creating a Shiite bourgeois class strongly connected to Hezbollah’s leadership, parallel to the fighting of Hezbollah in Syria, has brought economic and social considerations to Hezbollah’s forefront, which shoved aside the military focus on Israel. Therefore, the common wisdom that Lebanon’s economic collapse is in Israel’s interest because it weakens Hezbollah – is a questionable proposition.

Lebanon’s Financial Collapse

It is important to clarify that the current economic collapse in Lebanon is not a result of Hezbollah’s conduct, but mainly of the malfeasance of Lebanon’s economic leaders. This includes its various prime ministers since the Al-Taif Agreement in 1989, and ever since Riad Salame became Governor of the Central Bank of Lebanon. Salame has made it easier for politicians to divert dollars from Lebanese banks into the Central Lebanese Bank, allowing the government to draw funds. All this has been part of an ongoing trend of running a demand-oriented economy based on importing products, without laying the foundations for a productive economy.

On the one hand, Lebanese banks have attracted many investments of Lebanese citizens living in and out the country, ensuring high returns (interest reaching over 7%). On the other hand, the Lebanese state has avoided tax collection from the large financial corporations that are well connected with the political elite, and has failed to invest properly in order to make the Lebanese economy productive. The move of dollars into Lebanese banks and from there to the Central Bank has failed to keep pace with growing demographic and economic needs. This process led to the fall of the Saad Al-Hariri government in October 2019.

Since then, the Hassan Diab government (which took office January 2020) has not articulated a coherent economic policy, and has constantly given in to pressure from Western actors (mainly the US) who threaten to exact a price from Lebanon if the Central Bank Governor is fired, and from domestic political players who disagree about the Governor’s performance and about economic directions for Lebanon. The main issue currently in dispute is whether Lebanon should ask the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund for financial support, and accept the hard conditions entailed; or alternatively “head east” by fully and publicly renewing its relationship with Syria, and from there open the trade lines with Iraq, Jordan and even the Gulf states.

Consequences for the Shiite Community

This process also affects the Hezbollah-led Shiite community, which has been hit by a decrease in Iranian support. (Iran is under severe US sanctions, and also has been hit by the decline in energy prices). The prevailing thinking in Israel (as well as in the US and in Europe) is that a deterioration in the Lebanese economy will force the Lebanese government to invest all its efforts in economic recovery. This will require all of Hezbollah’s energy too, and divert the organization from terrorist activity.

On the other hand, one should consider the implications of economic depression on all sectors in Lebanon, and particularly the Shiite community.

One may safely assume that the difficult economic situation in Lebanon will accelerate emigration to the West and to Gulf countries by pro-Western liberals in Lebanon. This will only increase the influence of Hezbollah and its allies in the political system, leading even to a demand for changing the current political order in Lebanon. This is still based on distribution of power between Christians and Muslims (both Sunnis and Shiites). A shift in favor of the Muslims would give the Shiites more representation in national institutions and more say in the allocation of resources. Another possibility is that Lebanon would abandon its religious quota system and adopt a democratic process based on one person, one vote, regardless of sectarian or regional affiliation. Such a political order would certainly turn the Shiite community, led by Hezbollah, into the dominant force in Lebanese politics.

Second, in contrast to most sectarian communities, the Shiite community is more prepared for collapse and bankruptcy thanks to its networks in social and medical welfare, education, etc. It also is relatively united. Hezbollah’s Shiite rivals do not pose a significant challenge to it. National bankruptcy would probably lead to community-wide cooperating under Hezbollah’s leadership.

By contrast, the Christian community is badly divided along denominational and party lines. The Sunni community also lacks a unified leadership. It is at the mercy of a small coterie of businessmen, some of whom face significant financial difficulties, such as the long dominant Hariri family. The Druze community is more cohesive and better situated to weather the coming economic storm, but it has become negligible in demographic terms and constitutes on 3% to 4% of the Lebanese population.

Third, the Shiite community has been accustomed for centuries to living with deprivation. It should be noted that Hezbollah was founded to look after the interests of the “oppressed,” an element of Shiites historic self-identity. Moreover, Hezbollah’s presence and power as a social-economic organization provides the community with the necessary mechanisms for survival. While the community may not flourish financially, it will not starve. A significant number of its youth will always find employment in Hezbollah’s military branch.

Fourth, Lebanon’s economic collapse will most probably bring about the fall of the Shi’a’s new economic-political elite, which has been promoted by the Shiite community and Hezbollah during the last two decades. This nouveaux riche class within the Shiite community has not only enjoyed the pleasures of life, but has also embraced the patterns of conduct that characterize Lebanon’s elite more generally, such as corruption, nepotism, and a disregard for the privations of the lower classes. A yawning economic and cultural gap has emerged to separate the new Shiite upper class from the rest of the Shiite population. Indeed, the nouveaux riche have been harshly criticized by members of the Shiite community, Hezbollah itself, and even its Secretary General, Hassan Nasrallah. Lebanon’s economic difficulties may crush this bourgeois class and reestablish the community’s self-perception as an “oppressed” people.

Israel should not pursue a policy that will destroy this new Shiite bourgeoisie. It serves as a significant restraint on Hezbollah’s military leadership and works to draw the larger Shiite population into the cosmopolitan culture of Lebanon’s urban life. In this context, the decline of the new Shiite elite could increase the appeal of Hezbollah’s old institutions and increase the population’s dependence on them, especially in light of the fact that the available emigration options are more limited than in the past.

Hizbullah troops 

Consequences for Israel

Israel should not gloat about Lebanon’s misfortunes. While Israel has been able to understand Hezbollah’s hard power and deal with it quite successfully during the “Campaign between the Wars,” it has not yet understood the complexity of the Shiite community and how a process of economic development could have led to centrifugal trends, both within and outside Hezbollah. Nor has Israel known how to take advantage of what many Hezbollah supporters perceive as an existential threat from ISIS, and to investigate the feasibility of an indirect dialogue with the Shiite community in Lebanon, and even with Hezbollah.

Israel ought to adopt the same approach it has used in other places, even with Hamas in Gaza; a more nuanced policy that recognizes that alleviation of an economic crisis in a neighboring area may serve Israel best. In the case of Lebanon, this might include enabling Lebanon to develop its gas resources in the Mediterranean, after agreeing with it on the EEZ border. This may keep the peace in Israel’s northern border.

Did the Arabs have a “coordinated invasion plan” to “launch a blitzkrieg” on Israel in 1948? Bob Bowker Responds to Meir Zamir

May 27, 2020 for Syria Comment

BOB BOWKER
is a former Australian ambassador Egypt (2005-08), Jordan (1989-92), and also served in Saudi Arabia (1974-76) and Syria (1979-81). He is the author of: Australia, Menzies and Suez: Australian Policy-Making on the Middle East Before, During and After the Suez Crisis.

Meir Zamir has done us a great service in his presentation of archival evidence of French intelligence reports and French perceptions of the British role in regard to the outbreak of war in Palestine in 1948. To the extent that such reports affected the responses of Ben Gurion to the emerging situation facing the Zionist movement they are obviously an important part of the historical record. 

I have reservations, however, first about the extent to which it may be argued that the French reports accurately reflected the British approach; and second, whether those reports pay due regard to the agency of the Arab state actors in the conflict.

On the first concern, Zamir appears to believe that there was a single, coherent, British position as the Palestinian imbroglio unfolded. Moreover, he argues that the UK attempted, accordingly, to translate that position into a series of coordinated actions by British officials and agents intending to manipulate Azam, Farouq and others into getting the Arab states to join the conflict.

That perception of British intentions may have resonated with the French, and, as Zamir observes, with Ben Gurion. However it seems improbable that the British, who had made an art form of muddling their way into and out of Palestine for three decades, would, in the midst of the crisis, have reversed that record and arrived at the government level at both a clear strategic vision and consensus on the way forward, and devised operational plans to boot.

If, against the odds, the UK had done so, moreover, they singularly failed to coordinate their tasking of those upon whom they would need to rely. I recall (without being able to access the book at present) that in his memoirs, A Soldier with the Arabs, Glubb recounts being summoned by Emir Abdullah to be told that Jordan would go to war because no deal had been reached with the Jewish side, mainly in regard to Jerusalem. Glubb immediately went to see the Minister of Finance, who informed him that there was no provision for war in the government budget. According to Glubb, the Arab Legion entered the conflict with the British officers Christmas party funds as its cash reserves.   

I have no knowledge of what British officials may have offered or provided to Egypt on the eve of the conflict, with whose authority, and for what purpose. Perhaps more important, though, is that given Glubb’s well-known contempt for the Egyptians, and reservations (to put it mildly) about Syrians and others with whom coordination would be essential, as well as Nuri al-Said’s concerns about Abdullah’s ambitions toward Syria, it is almost inconceivable that Abdullah and Glubb would have been excluded from any serious British planning to instigate a conflict. The claim that the British supplied Egypt with weaponry from its Suez Canal base to undertake the conflict is remarkable, but it also sits rather oddly with the fact the Egyptians were left turning in the wind when Jordan accepted the UN-sponsored ceasefire with Israel in July 1948.

Finally, writing as a former consumer of intelligence from all manner of sources over four decades, it is striking how the French reports appear well-attuned to the predispositions and prejudices of French officials where the British were concerned. In my experience, whereas raw intelligence almost never changes perceptions and pre-conceived notions among those to whom it is presented, on those occasions where it sits comfortably with such preconceptions it can powerfully reinforce the thinking among decision-makers seeking validation of their personal prejudices and policy preferences. I doubt the French in 1948 were any different to the rest of us on that score.

On the second reservation, regarding giving proper weight to the agency of Arab leaders and personalities, I am reminded how often, even in the present era, external parties for whatever reason see themselves and others like them as capable of shaping, or even determining the direction of regional events. I am willing to accept that, as an outsider, Ben Gurion was also susceptible to that notion, although he was robust and courageous in responding to it. But there is ample evidence, as Joshua Landis has clearly demonstrated, that the prime movers of the 1947-48 conflict were the Arab leaders themselves. Leaving aside whatever prompting or support they may or may not have been offered, Quwatly, Abdullah, Farouq, Nuri al-Said and others were driven to launch the war with Israel by their own concerns, ranging from historical ambitions to domestic political needs. Ben Gurion and others in the Zionist movement had long anticipated, correctly, that a conflict would be almost inevitable, and had prepared themselves militarily, and had positioned themselves to best effect in western political circles, for that situation.   

Intelligence Documents Reveal What Ben-Gurion Knew When Declaring the State of Israel on May 14, 1948

First published in Haaretz newspaper, May 14, 2020

David Ben-Gurion on the front in 1948.

By Meir Zamir

Late on the night of Wednesday, May 12, 1948, Israel’s provisional government convened in order to make a fateful choice: whether to accept the American demand for a cease-fire, or to declare the establishment of an independent Jewish state.

It was clear to the meeting’s 10 participants that the consequence of declaring statehood after the British Mandate expired on May 14 would be total war against all the Arab armies. The reports that had arrived overnight about the dire situation of the Etzion Bloc settlements, south of Jerusalem, only heightened their concern. With the memory of the Holocaust painfully fresh, the participants were confronted with a grave moral dilemma: Did they have the right to make a decision that might inflict a second catastrophe on the Jewish people?

Etzion Settlements, 1947

Despite the decision’s historical importance, the motivations that led David Ben-Gurion to push for a declaration of statehood continue to be shrouded in fog. Did he act rashly, driven by a sense of mystical, almost messianic redemption, or on the basis of a judicious appraisal of the situation derived from precise intelligence and a thorough examination of the capabilities of the forces of the Yishuv – the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine – to repel the Arab offensive?

Documents recently found in French and Israeli archives support the second option. The documents show that during the fateful meeting, Ben-Gurion, the leader of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine), received secret information from French intelligence to the effect that the leaders of the Arab states, who were meeting at that time in Damascus, had decided, with secret British support, to launch a lightning attack (blitzkrieg) and had devised a coordinated invasion plan.

“It is learned from an authoritative source that the Arab states have made a final decision to attack together and simultaneously on May 15,” read a telegram received by a Ben-Gurion aide shortly after the meeting started. “They have decided to do so even if it entails a risk of failure. They are relying on a lack of heavy weapons and of Jewish air power. Tel Aviv will be attacked immediately from the air.”

The cable, from French intelligence sources, elaborated on the Arab attack plan and on the forces that would be participating. This was supremely important strategic information, and it stands to reason that even if Ben-Gurion did not share its content with the majority of those present at the meeting, it formed the crux of his considerations as to whether to delay the declaration of the state’s establishment in order to gain time, as weapons shipments were on the way. The “authoritative source” was the French consulate in Jerusalem; the cable was sent the previous day by the French military attaché in Beirut to army headquarters in Paris.

Ben-Gurion found out as early as July 1947 about a British plot involving Iraqi leader, Nuri al-Said, to incite war in Palestine and exploit it as pretext for Iraqi army’s invasion and taking over of Syria. French intelligence informed him that senior British military and intelligence officers in Cairo and Bagdad were working secretly to thwart His Majesty’s government’s decision to evacuate Palestine by sparking a general war between Jews and Arabs.

On the eve of the meeting of the provisional government  it had become clear to Ben- Gurion that it was precisely the Yishuv’s military successes against the Palestinian forces and the Arab Liberation Army – particularly the capture of Haifa and Jaffa and the subsequent wave of Palestinian refugees – that enabled the British officers to overcome the rifts and deep rivalries between the Arab leaders. They succeeded in persuading the Arabs to join forces and go to war to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, or at least to confine its area to the coastal plain only.

British evaluation of the forthcoming war

A May 7 memorandum sent to the Chiefs of Staff in London forecast accurately the stages of the 1948 War  and some of its conclusions would be reflected in the Arabs’ war plan. The memorandum refers to the war as an unalterable fact and ignores mediation efforts by Washington, as well as dismissing the apprehensions harbored by Arab leaders about going to war.

According to the memo, in the first stage, the Arab armies would exploit their advantage in terms of regular forces and heavy arms and munitions to launch a lightning strike and seize the areas allotted to the Arab states, based on the United Nations Partition Plan of November, 29, 1947, as well as the Negev, which was to be part of  the Jewish state. The Arab forces, it was predicted, would also successfully conquer Jewish-controlled areas in the northeastern part of the country. In response, the Jews would quickly expand their fighting forces by means of massive immigration and a general mobilization of those fit for combat in the Yishuv. Concurrently, they would greatly expedite the importation of arms and ammunition, ignoring the American embargo.

In the second stage the Jewish forces would launch a counteroffensive and would gain the upper hand, given the Arab forces’ shortage of weapons and ammunition and their demoralization.

The document postulates that “there might consequently be opportunities for the Jews to exploit the situation in this phase and recapture some of the Arab areas and even possibly to launch attacks on Arab states.” If the Arabs survived the second stage, the subsequent stage would take the form of a “war of attrition” in which the Arabs would have the upper hand owing to their superior resources. At the same time, the Arab regimes could face domestic crises and have to cope with the rise of extremist political movements.

From the memo, it emerged that the British would end up adopting the following four operative conclusions during and after the war:

1. The Arab armies would conduct a lightning war to ensure rapid ground achievements.

2. An Israeli counteroffensive should be prevented by imposing a cease-fire to secure the Arab military achievements. Indeed, the French ambassador to the UN at that time, Alexandre Parodi, reported that on May 19 the British representative had worked to torpedo his initiative in the Security Council for a cease-fire, but the same representative was eager for a similar resolution to be adopted at the end of the same month, when the Arab forces were in retreat.

3. Military intervention, based on existing defense treaties between Britain and Egypt and the Kingdom of Jordan, would be considered if Israel invades its neighbors. Thus, the British threatened to intervene in the wake of the Israeli attack in Sinai in December 1948 and as a result of their fear of an Israel assault on Transjordan. This was the background to the downing of five British Spitfires by the nascent Israeli air force and the transfer of large quantities of heavy weapons by the British Navy to Aqaba. Simultaneously, British destroyers staged a demonstration of strength off the coast of Beirut at the request of the Lebanese prime minister.

4. It was imperative to ensure the conquest of the Negev by the Arab forces. It bears noting that in January 1947, the British Army had completed its fieldwork in the Negev in order to examine the feasibility of transferring its camps and air bases there from the Suez Canal. The recommendations included building roads that would connect the army’s bases in the Sinai and the northern Negev to Aqaba, which was to become a central port for the arrival of reinforcements, or for evacuation of British forces to East Africa if needed. Israel’s conquest of the southern Negev, and Eilat, adjacent to Aqaba in March 1949 thus not only heightened British fears of an Israeli takeover of the West Bank and of a direct assault on Transjordan, but also derailed a vital British strategic plan.

The question that arises from the British memorandum is why senior MI6 intelligence officers and  generals in the High Command in Egypt urged the Arab leaders to launch a war, even though they foresaw a possible defeat. Some of them apparently were wrong in their assessment of the abilities of the Yishuv’s leaders and of the fighting force at their disposal to contain the Arabs’ thrust. They believed that the major goal – conquering Tel Aviv – could be accomplished by a combined attack of Egyptian forces from the south and the Arab Legion from the east.

Others maintained that, win or lose, the Arab states would be increasingly dependent on Britain and would rescind their objections to the signing of defense pacts. The British High Command viewed such treaties as crucial in the light of its assessment that the Middle East would be one of the main arenas in a projected third world war against the Soviet Union.

What Ben-Gurion knew

A leader who knows that he and his movement are a target of covert, subversive activity possesses an advantage: He can thwart the adversary’s intentions. This was certainly true in the case of Ben-Gurion, who knew about the British officers’ intention to foil the establishment of a Jewish state. With this information, by the summer of 1945, Ben-Gurion – contrary to the leaders of the Haganah, the pre-state underground militia – was able to foresee the outbreak of a general war with the Arab states, and to make vital strategic decisions on how to conduct the struggle against the British, on acquiring arms production means in the United States and on procuring heavy weapons.

During his lengthy sojourn in Paris, in 1945-46, Ben-Gurion learned how British intelligence agents had manipulated the leaders of Syria and Lebanon to oust the French from the areas of their mandate in the Levant. The agents also made use of these leaders and others – notably the secretary general of the Arab League, Abd al-Rahman al-Azam – to forge the Arab invasion coalition.

Ben-Gurion developed an almost fatalistic belief in the ability of British intelligence to manipulate both Arab leaders and their own government in London, to achieve their goals. His belief proved prescient.

On the eve of the May 12, 1948 meeting of the provisional government Ben-Gurion received information from French sources to the effect that British intelligence officers and the British High Command in Egypt had succeeded in persuading King Faruq to reverse his earlier position and join the Arab war coalition.

The king made the decision on his own and forced it on his prime minister, Mahmud Fahmi al-Nuqrashi, overriding his opposition and that of senior government figures, senators, the royal family and the Egyptian High Command. From May 10 to May 13, Nuqrashi held secret discussions with other members of the government, in which the participants arrived at the conclusion that the Egyptian army lacked sufficient war matériel and was unprepared for combat.

Research in the archives of the French army, intelligence  and Foreign Ministry has revealed many details about how British intelligence personnel and generals in Egypt manipulated Faruq to join in the war against Israel. Among other tactics, British agents made use of the Muslim Brotherhood movement. Thousands of the organization’s members attacked and plundered Jewish and foreign property and demonstrated on the streets of the cities, demanding that the king order the army to take action to save Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and Palestine’s Muslims.

In the Negev, hundreds of the Brotherhood’s members operated against Jewish settlements. At the same time, the king was told that the Arabs’ conquest of the Negev would encourage the British Army to accede to his request to move its forces there from Egypt.

However, the most potent lure was the secret supply of weapons to the Egyptian army, in spite of the British government’s embargo on arms sales to the Middle East. In the second week of May, the French noted unusual visits by King Faruq to British army headquarters in Tel al-Kabir. Intelligence that reached the French indicated that the British officers promised the king that if he were to join the war effort, Britain would provide the Egyptian forces with the necessary weapons, ammunition and aircraft.

According to a report of the French military attaché in Cairo, during the period of May 1-25, the British Army supplied the Egyptian expeditionary force with large quantities of weapons and equipment from its Suez Canal depots, including rifles, machine guns, field artillery, ammunition, water  tankers and other items.

Special emphasis was placed on strengthening the Egyptian air force: It received 16 Spitfires, a number of Dakotas, air-to-ground bombs and a great deal of ammunition. The British also agreed to replace planes that were damaged. For their part, the French suspected that British officers were directly involved in planning the Egyptian offensive.

Israeli-American fighter pilot Lou Lenart with a shot down Egyptian Spitfire.

Faruq’s decision was a pivotal event for Egypt and for the entire region. Israel was now forced to fight on several fronts simultaneously: The Egyptian army advanced from the south toward Tel Aviv, while the armies of Transjordan, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon attacked from the east and the north.

British intelligence officers were also successful in Damascus, as Ben-Gurion learned, again, from French sources. The Arab leaders met there in the second week of May to discuss whether to accept the American call to extend the British Mandate by 10 days in order to make possible an Arab-Jewish agreement, or to decide to go to war and come up with a coordinated scheme for the invasion.

According to information given to a French intelligence officer by a senior Syrian figure, the British compelled the Iraqi regent Abd al-Ilah, and King Abdallah to replace Iraqi Gen. Ismail Safwat. by another Iraqi general, Nur a-Din Mahmud, who was more compliant from the British point of view.

The report also indicates that Arab League secretary Azam, Jamil Mardam and Riyad al-Sulh, the prime ministers of Syria and Lebanon respectively, and the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, were ready to accept the American proposal to extend the Mandate, but yielded to the pressure of the Jordanian monarch, whose representatives informed them that the Arab Legion (Jordanian Army) would invade Palestine in any event.

Abdullah’s stance compelled the other Arab leaders to back an invasion, lest they be seen by their own people as being less committed than the Jordanian king to defending the Arabs of Palestine. Those present at the Damascus meeting, some of whom were secretly collaborating with the British intelligence agents, had no doubt that Abdullah was acting at the directives of his English sponsors. It follows, then, that the visit by Golda Meir, then head of the Jewish Agency’s Political Department, to him on May 11, in a last-ditch attempt to avert war, was hopeless from the outset.

The capture of the Etzion Bloc by Arab irregulars, mostly from the surrounding villages, in cooperation with units of the Arab Legion, which concluded on the morning of May 13, persuaded even those Arab leaders who were still hesitant that their armies were capable of defeating the Jewish forces and of liberating Palestine. This was overwhelmingly affirmed by the events in the Etzion Bloc, during which many of the residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were massacred and hundreds more from neighboring settlements were taken captive and paraded in trucks through the streets of Amman to the cheers of the crowd. Indeed, furnishing such proof was one of the objectives of the operation, whose architect was the commander of the Arab Legion, Glubb Pasha (the British officer John Bagot Glubb), who was in direct contact with the British High Command and intelligence services in Egypt.

But the conquest of the Etzion Bloc also had an immediate military purpose: ensuring the functioning of the supply lines from the British Army depots at the Suez Canal to the Arab Legion. Significantly, British intelligence documents and reports of Syrian army intelligence show that Glubb was involved in British intelligence activity in Transjordan and Syria, including in the recruitment of Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert as irregular auxiliary forces for the Arab Legion. Some of them later took part in the battles against the Israeli forces at Latrun, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Deciding on a state

It can be concluded that before and during the meeting of Israel’s provisional government Ben-Gurion received reliable, precise information about the decision of the Arab leaders, with British backing, to go to war, and about the invasion plan and the participating forces.

The members of the provisional government took part in the long deliberations, which lasted for over 10 hours. Golda Meir reported on the failure of her mission to King Abdullah, and Israel Galili, the head of the National Command, and Yigal Yadin, the acting chief of staff, reported on the war situation. Yadin estimated that the Yishuv had an “even” chance to withstand the Arab offensive.

It can be argued that the decision by Israel’s provisional government was necessary, given the Arab leaders’ decision two days earlier to invade on May 15, after the departure of the Mandatory forces. In the light of the Arab leaders’ hesitations and the pressure from Washington, it is very unlikely that the Arab leaders would have acceded to British pressure and ordered the invasion to go ahead, if the Jewish state had not been declared.

The decision to establish the state was made from a deep conviction that this was a historic moment for the Jewish people and the Zionist movement. But it was based on a realistic situation appraisal, on up-to-date intelligence about the enemy and its intentions, and on an assessment of the ability of the Yishuv’s forces to contain a lightning attack by the Arabs and launch a counteroffensive.

The magnitude of the responsibility that Ben-Gurion felt he bore is attested to in a diary entry he made on May 14, after the declaration of the state: “In the land intense joy and jubilation – and again I am a mourner among the joyful…”

Intelligence Report No. 68 of May 11, 1948, sent by the French Military Attache in Beirut to Paris, based on information he received from a high-placed Syrian leader
Summary of the French intelligence report no. 68 received by Ben-Gurion on May 12, 1948
Telegram from the French Ambassador in Cairo on May 15, 1948, providing information on the role of the British High Command in King Faruq’s decision to join the war against Israel

Meir Zamir is a professor emeritus at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, who researches British, French and Israeli Intelligence in the 1940s and 1950s. His  book, The Secret Anglo-French War in the Middle East: Intelligence and Decolonization, 1940-1948, was published by Routledge in 2015

Joshua Landis Responds to Meir Zamir
May 23, 2020

Meir Zamir has done us a great service in bringing to light that French Intelligence informed Ben Gurion on the eve of war in May 1948, that the Arabs, with British support, had a “coordinated invasion plan” to “launch a lightning blitzkrieg” on May 15, 1948″ to “prevent the establishment of a Jewish State or confine it to the coastal plain, as the French informed Ben Gurion?” Surely, these reports influenced Ben Gurion’s plans.

But was this French intelligence correct? I argue that it was largely false in my article: “Syria in the 1948 Palestine War: Fighting King Abdullah’s Greater Syria Plan,” in Eugene Rogan and Avi Shlaim, eds., Rewriting the Palestine War: 1948 and the History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001, pp. 178-205. 

Meir writes that the British were able “to overcome the rifts and deep rivalries between the Arab leaders” to pursued them “to join forces and go to war to prevent the establishment of a Jewish state, or at least to confine its area to the coastal plain only. ”

For a very different interpretation of the Arab motivations in the 1948 War, I encourage you to read my article. In it, I demonstrate that the Arabs did not have a coordinated plan to destroy the Jewish state or even to limit it to the coastal plan. Rather, I argue,

“the primary concern of the Arab states in entering [into Palestine] was the inter-Arab conflict and the balance of power in the region.[3] In this respect it is useful to view the 1948 war primarily as an inter-Arab struggle or an Arab civil war.”

Arab leaders refused to help each other during the War of 1948. They failed to agree on a battle plan, although each Arab leader did send troops into Palestine on May 15, 1948. They failed to agree on a common leadership for the Arab forces, fearing each others pan-Arab ambitions. They failed to overcome their deep rivalries to join forces. They refused to provide Palestinian forces with arms, money or reinforcements. They also refused to come to each other’s assistance, when the Zionist military defeated one Arab force after the other.

Here is my concluding paragraph.

Although the Arab armies did not openly fight each other, their actions were mutually destructive. By refusing to cooperate and willfully standing by as Zionist forces destroyed one Palestinian militia and Arab army after the next, the Arab leaders forfeited any chance of saving Palestine. Their inability to agree on a common battle plan or objectives in Palestine quickly led to the demoralization of their military commanders and troops in the field. Not surprisingly, the anger and disappointment that grew out of this bitter experience quickly turned back on the Arab rulers themselves. The assassination of Egypt’s Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha in 1948 by a Muslim Brother, King Abdullah’s assassination in 1951 by a vengeful Palestinian, and the overthrow of Egypt’s monarch in 1952 by the Free Officers all have their roots in 1948. But Syria, the country that pushed hardest for war and was the last to sign an armistice with Israel, was hardest hit by the pervasive sense of  popular disappointment and the belief among the military that its leadership had let them down.

Remembering Shaheen: A Yazidi Who Gave His Life Rescuing Arab Muslims in Mosul

By Matthew Travis Barber

A few days ago was the third anniversary of the death of Shaheen Khalaf, a Yazidi who gave his life rescuing Arab Muslim civilians being indiscriminately massacred by IS snipers while trying to flee Mosul.

When I saw the number of photos and messages about Shaheen that people were sharing online, I felt inspired to share my own memories of Shaheen’s moving story, and some of the many photos that I have never posted from the days when Shaheen and I frequently worked together in Iraq. (Click the photos to see full-sized versions.)

In the summer of 2015, I organized an aid convoy to Sinjar Mountain. Shaheen was part of our team, delivering food to displaced Yazidis living in tents on top of the mountain.

A little girl near the road waves to our team while shepherding both her family’s goats and her younger siblings.

That humanitarian mission was significant for Shaheen because it was the first time he had been back to Sinjar since the Genocide began. He knew that it would not be an emotionally easy trip to make, but he came to me beforehand and said that he was serious about participating because he wanted to help his people.

At night after our first day of working on the mountain, Shaheen and I stood at Çil Mîre—the highest point on Sinjar Mountain—and looked down far below at his home town of Tal Banat, where we could see the lights of IS bases in some of the Yazidi houses and the headlights of IS vehicles moving about.

Çil Mîre shrine at dusk, the first night of our aid mission

Seeing his town in the distance was a difficult moment for Shaheen. With tears in his eyes, he told me that he wondered if it would ever be free of the jihadists and if he would ever be able to return. I told him that I hoped he would.

Shaheen working in our aid delivery line in Serdeshte, Sinjar – Photo: Qawwal Murad Elias
Shaheen loved his people and worked tirelessly to serve, never complaining – Photo: Qawwal Murad Elias
Children in the area where our team was working – Photo: Qawwal Murad Elias
Boys transport water on Sinjar as our aid convoy passes

After fleeing Sinjar when the Genocide began, Shaheen’s displaced family took up residence in a mud house in the Yazidi village of Khanke in the governorate of Dohuk.

At a time when the vast majority of Sinjari Yazidis were speaking of leaving the country to never return, Shaheen’s father told me, “Iraq is my home and I will never leave it.”

So committed was Shaheen’s father to preserving his existence that when thousands of families were scrambling and scattering amid the madness of August 3, 2014, he kept his head clear during the trauma and herded his entire flock of sheep from Tal Banat to the mountain, and later brought them all the way to the Kurdistan Region.

Shaheen’s father with his sheep near Khanke

“I love my sheep and I love my homeland. I’d let Da’esh cut off my head before abandoning my sheep,” he told me.

Shaheen’s father, Jameel Chomer, myself, Shaheen – Sept. 20, 2015

In autumn of 2015 Shaheen began helping coordinate Yazda’s aid to IDPs in different areas. In those early days we were under-equipped, underfunded, and could not perform food deliveries very often. Outside of Khanke was an “unofficial camp” where a large number of IDP families had settled and not been incorporated into Khanke’s “official” camp. If families did not receive the aid they desperately needed frequently enough, they would sometimes take out their frustration on local coordinators like Shaheen.

Shaheen was broken from trauma, anger, hurt. Losing his home, his town, his friends and relatives was a wound whose size made a word like “recovery” seem trite. He gave himself daily to serving his people, with no benefit to himself, but the constant contact with those crushed by grief and destitution only made the sorrow of the Genocide more acute.

One day our team came to the unofficial camp at Khanke to deliver food and supplies to families who were hosting orphans whose parents had been killed by IS. As Shaheen led our staff from tent to tent, some people became angry that we had not been able to bring more. One man held the bags of food we had handed him and said, “This is all you brought?” Others whose trauma left them seriously mentally ill came and stood outside and shouted at Shaheen. A woman followed us up and down the rows of tents as we tried to work, screaming at Shaheen, demanding that he do more for her, though she did not even know what she was asking for. Shaheen finally lost his temper and swore at her. As we worked, the rain pounded us from a dark sky, drenching us to the bone. It was difficult to walk, because our feet would sink ankle-deep into the mud with each step. Each IDP tent was a tiny island in a sea of mud. As he saw the complete and utter indignity to which his people were being subjected, the rage began to build inside him. Finally he lost control and began shouting at me.

Afterwards, one of my Yazidi staff members said to me, “let’s not work with Shaheen anymore.” But I discussed with our team the ways that trauma produces volatility—volatility that at times none of us were immune to. “Shaheen is part of our team, our family. We must always be patient with him and remember the times that pressure overwhelms us all.”

A portion of the Yazda team in Dugure, April 2016 during a visit of Murad Ismael to our projects in Sinjar; Shaheen in front row, right of center

One day, Shaheen came to me and said, “Matthew our community is struggling and we need to provide some positive messaging to help direct them in the right way.”
“What are you referring to?” I asked him.
“There is a risk that as Yazidis return to Sinjar, they will kill Arabs in revenge for their participation in the genocide against us.”
“And you want to protect the innocent by encouraging Yazidis not to kill them—that is so good of you, Shaheen.”
“Not really. I hate them too and wish they would all just die. But I am concerned that killing them will cause more problems for our community. They can kill thousands of us, but in this country if Yazidis kill just one Arab, they will portray us like we are the killers, aggressors, enemies of Islam, and then they will justify more violence against us. We must not kill them because it will cause us big political problems and make it even more difficult for our community to recover from the genocide.”

In addition to revenge killings, another concern was the looting or burning of Arab (and Kurdish Muslim) homes in liberated areas. The Yazidis’ Arab neighbors, along with IS, had pillaged and plundered tens of thousands of Yazidi homes, as well as looting their businesses, vehicles, livestock, and farm equipment. Even worse, IS then systematically demolished thousands of Yazidi houses. The Genocide represented the loss of generations of material wealth that the Yazidis—a marginalized and deprived community—had slowly built up over the decades. With all of that in view, the looting of a relatively smaller number of Arab homes in liberated areas seemed to many Yazidis an insignificant thing, or even a minor expression of justice.

After this conversation, I told Shaheen to draft me an example of the kind of messaging he had in mind. He produced this text and brought it to me (translation below):

بنافي خودي وطاؤوس ملك

نصائح موجهة لأبناء أيزيدخان في كل جبهات القتال, الذين تحملوا شتى الظروف والمصاعب التي عجزت الاخرين من ان يتحملوها في كل اجزاء المناطق التي احتلت وعانت واغتصبت بفعل داعش المجرم, الى الذين ضربوا اروع الملاحم التي ستخلد في ذاكرى الاجيال والتي ستكون نقطة مشرقة في مستقبل الاجيال وفي التاريخ المعاصر!

كلكم تدرون ما اصبنا به بفعل الابادة الاخيرة من قتل واغتصاب وسبي وهتك اعراض الاف من النساء والبنات والاطفال والرجال من ابناء أيزيدخان , وتلك الهجمة لاتزال مستمرة لطالما هناك جزء كبير من ابناء ايزيدخان بيد داعش !

فعليكم توخي الحذر من بعض الامور التي هي ليست من مبادئنا وشيم امة ايزيدخان وايضا ستكون عائقا امام اي تقدم او اي خطوى نتقدم بها في ملف جينوسايد و سمعتكم خالية من كل شواءب ومن كل رذائل الاخرين !

والامور هي :

  • عندما تتقدمون في اي جزء من تراب سنجار او تحررونها من دنس الارهاب الاسلامي, فعليكم الحفاظ على اعراض الناس وحرمتهم ممن هم لربما ترونهم في القرى العربية, وعدم سفك اي دماء بأستثناء الارهابيين.
  • عدم هدم او حرق اي منزل او ممتلكات في القرى التي تحررونها من داعش وعدم لمسها البتة, فكلكم ترون ان العالم باجمعه سمع بمعاناتكم والتي هي نقطة سوداء في تاريخ الانساني المعاصر, ولا يغركم اي شي لفعل شيء من شأنه ان يكون عبئاً ثقيلاً لا يتحمله ابنائكم الذين يعملون ليل نهار في كل انحاء العالم لأجلكم يا ابناء ايزيدخان.
  • كونوا مثلما كنتم وتحلوا بالصبر فكل شيء او خطأ بسيط منكم ينتظره العدو او العالم لجعله سببا في عدم اعطاء حقوقكم والتي هي: ( الحماية الدولية – او تطبيق لما حصل لكم بأنها أبادة جماعية (جينوسايد).
  • وانتم تعملون جميعا لخدمة ايزيديخان منذ عامين وان اختلفت التسميات والاعلام فالكل يحمل نفس القلب والوجع والمعانات ولا تطيعوا اي امرٍ يدعوا من ان تقاتلوا فيما بينكم, فكونوا ايزيديين قبل اي تسمية او اي علم معين.
  • تأكدوا أن ما انتم عليه من مبادئ رفيعة وقيم انسانية عظيمة بالرغم من الظروف الصعبة فـ كل هذا سيدعوا العالم يوما ان يتعلم منكم تلك الصفات التي هي من لب دينكم العظيم ومن عمق ما تربيتم انتم به.

In the Name of God and Tawusi Melek

Recommendations to the People of Ezidkhan at all fronts of the fight:
Those who have withstood all kinds of circumstances and difficulties that would have been unbearable for other people,
In all the areas that have been invaded by and suffered under the criminal Da’esh [organization],
Those who have performed heroic acts that will remain in the memories of future generations and that will be a bright spot in history!

All of you know what has happened to us as a result of this recent Genocide, which includes killing and rape and enslavement and the violation of females, [and all of these happening to] thousands of women, girls, children, and men of the People of Ezidkhan, and that this attack continues as long as there is a large number of Yazidi people in the hands of Da’esh.

Therefore, you must be cautious about certain matters, which are not in line with our values and the principles of the community of Ezidkhan, and which will also be obstacles in the way of [our] progress or of any steps that we take in order to advance the case of genocide [recognition]; your reputation must be clean from impurities and stains [that can result from accusations levied by] the others.
And those matters are:
• When you advance in or liberate any part of the lands of Sinjar from the desecration of Islamic terrorism [Shaheen’s wording at that time], you must not allow harm to come upon the [female] honor of the people and the females of households of those whom you might encounter in the Arab villages, and you must not spill any blood except for that of the terrorists.
• You must not destroy or burn any houses or property in the villages you liberate from Da’esh and you must not touch them at all. You all see that the entire world has heard about your suffering, which is a black spot in the history of humankind, so you must not be tempted to perform any acts that might come to be heavy burdens upon the shoulders of your sons who are working day and night all around the world on your behalf, o People of Ezidkhan.
• Remain as you were [preserve your values] and have patience because the enemy is waiting for you to make a mistake, in order to use it as an excuse to deny you your rights, which are international protection and the recognition of what happened to you as a genocide.
• You all have been working in the service of Ezidkhan for two years, but under different [party] names and flags. Everyone, with one heart, is carrying the same pain and suffering, so you must not obey any order that commands you to fight each other. Be Yazidis first, before identifying with any other [political] name or flag.
• Despite the difficult circumstances that you are passing through, remain assured that your high principles and noble humane values, which stem from the heart of your great religion and the depth of your upbringing, will be something that the world can learn from.

When I look at this thoughtful document now, I am struck not only by Shaheen’s sensitivity to the situation of his people and his concern that they not inadvertently delegitimize themselves in the eyes of observers, but also by the way that he assigned a preeminent place to his values and allowed them to override his own emotions, while encouraging others to do the same.

Shaheen assisted many NGOs, sometimes working with several simultaneously. He would volunteer for free with local groups that lacked funds for salaries. One foreign NGO with whom Shaheen was to play a major role was the Free Burma Rangers (FBR).

FBR is an organization founded by Dave Eubank to provide hope to those afflicted by civil war in Burma. When the IS organization began its campaign of slaughter and enslavement, FBR came to provide aid in Iraq and Syria, as well. Shaheen began working full time as a translator for FBR.

Shaheen (far left) with part of the FBR team in the Yazda office

FBR did work that no other NGO would perform. During the many battles to liberate Mosul and other areas of the Nineveh Governorate, scores (or maybe hundreds) of thousands of people were displaced, fleeing the fighting, airstrikes, and IS reprisals against those who would “abandon the caliphate.” The big international NGOs were prohibited, by their own protocols and policies, from serving people so close to the front line, so many of them would secretly give large quantities of aid to FBR who would take it to vulnerable people close to where the fighting was taking place.

FBR also had its own medical teams and they treated the wounded—civilian and solider alike—at the battlefront. Because the battles were being fought in residential areas, thousands would stream out of a neighborhood and FBR would be ready with food, water, medicine, blankets, first aid and medical trauma care. It is not an exaggeration to say that FBR saved many thousands of lives.

FBR is a faith-based organization that operates according to a rigorous commitment to serve all people, regardless of background, out of love. This approach was difficult for Shaheen, who hated Arabs when he began working with FBR.

It was easy to work with FBR when they were providing help to Yazidis in Sinjar, but now they were working primarily with Arabs in Mosul—the same community that had produced thousands of IS recruits who willingly participated in the slaughter and sexual enslavement of countless Yazidis.

Shaheen was less than thrilled about this and would frequently trash-talk the Muslims. Dave Eubank would tell Shaheen, “we have to love not only the Arabs we’re helping here, but even the IS jihadists themselves. We have to pray for them that they will be changed by God’s love.”

Irrespective of one’s religious tradition or lack thereof, this ideal of radical kindness for one’s enemy is difficult to fathom or pursue, even for those merely serving as advocates for Yazidis and whose people were not directly targeted with genocide. Telling someone that they should love their enemies is just a matter of throwing out some words; living the principle as a reality, on the other hand, is something that probably only a tiny number of people achieve, even among those who preach it.

FBR personnel carried weapons for protection and even killed IS jihadists when their own lives and the defenseless people whom they were rescuing were endangered. In the absence of immediate threats to their lives, however, the FBR team was ideologically committed to providing the same compassion to IS fighters that they gave to the jihadists’ victims.

Working alongside those committed to this philosophy began to change Shaheen’s attitude toward Arabs over the months. Eventually, he told FBR staff, “I love these people.”

Shaheen’s changing orientation toward Muslims became evident when on Jan. 28, 2017, Iraqi soldiers and FBR discovered a kidnapped Yazidi boy living with a middle-aged Arab couple. While working in one of Mosul’s liberated neighborhoods, some Arabs approached the Iraqi troops and informed them that a Yazidi was living in the area.

The Iraqi soldiers and FBR personnel performed a search and finally found the house where six-year-old Ayman was living.

Six-year-old Ayman sitting in an Iraqi military vehicle with the Arab man who had “adopted” him

Islam does not permit adoption (at least not in the same form that it exists in most non-Muslim societies) but the Arab couple who had taken Ayman in had been unable to have their own children and were now raising him as their own son.

IS enslavement was not a solely female phenomenon; adult men were taken captive and used for manual labor, young boys were taken from their mothers and placed in jihadist training camps, others were used for domestic service. Whether Ayman was “bought” from IS by this couple because they wanted to rescue him from the jihadists (as happened in a number of cases) or whether the couple acquired him out of the more personal motive of wanting a son, we do not know. We also don’t know what this couple’s views were on what IS did to the Yazidis. But we do know that the couple loved Ayman dearly and were overcome with sadness at the fact that he now had to be returned to his family of origin.

In the middle of this situation, Shaheen comforted the grief-stricken man who now had to say goodbye to the boy who had become his son for the past two and a half years.

One aspect of the Genocide that was particularly sensitive for Yazidis was the fact that abducted Yazidis, adult and child alike, were usually force-converted to Islam. Yazidis everywhere knew that children who entered this scenario at a young age would be raised as Muslims with no knowledge of their Yazidi heritage—another aspect of the project to erase Yazidi identity. No doubt, Ayman was likewise being raised as a Muslim.

The fact that Shaheen, who had lost everything in the Genocide, could offer compassion to an Arab Muslim man in this context and who had bought a Yazidi child was something profound.

Ayman reunited with his grandmother who had also been enslaved by IS but previously freed

As the operation to liberate Mosul reached a crescendo, FBR performed a number of high-risk rescues that saved the lives of numerous people being targeted by IS snipers.

IS was not a monolithic organization and its behavior sometimes varied across different cells or units that operated within it. One arena where this became evident was in the behavior of IS toward fleeing civilians. In neighborhoods were certain elements were in charge that were even harder-lined than the base-line extremist character of IS, “abandoning the caliphate” was considered a treasonous crime and IS snipers would shoot fleeing men, women, and children.

CNN reported on this phenomenon in this article, as well as on the efforts of FBR to save civilian lives being targeted by the snipers. I recommend accessing the article to view the embedded video it contains, which shows the rescue of a little girl who had been sitting for three days next to her dead mother’s body, among dozens of civilian bodies shot by IS.

An image from the video at the CNN article linked to above showing a little girl and a man still alive amidst a pile of bodies, during an FBR rescue mission

It was during a rescue such as this (and actually just prior to it) that Shaheen was shot. The FBR team was rescuing a family that had been shot by IS in the road. The mother and father had both been shot and were lying on the ground, and a young girl had been shot in the face. All three were still alive. Shaheen was shot by IS snipers during this operation. It was May 4, 2017.

The rescue operation when Shaheen was shot, image from the FBR film

I was sitting in a symposium at the University of Chicago when I received a text message informing me that Shaheen had been shot. I could no longer concentrate on whatever the professors were saying as they deliberated over nationalist themes in Lebanese poetry—suddenly it all seemed so mundane.

As I walked out of the building, I saw my colleague Kevin Blankinship, a fellow PhD student in my program. “My friend and former staff member has just been shot in Mosul,” I told him. “I don’t know if he is alive or dead.” I was angry and upset. It was three years after the Genocide had begun, but IS was still managing to kill Yazidis. I knew that news of a single murder would reverberate throughout the community and impact thousands emotionally. This was not the news that people needed to hear, people whose desperate hopes for a future hung by a few fragile threads, people who had lost so much to IS and were now being prevented by the KRG from returning home and rebuilding. I don’t remember what Kevin said to me in response, but I just remember his caring expression. Kevin’s smile always beamed with positivity and I felt better just having someone to talk to in that moment.

I went home and immediately called Dave Eubank who told me everything that had happened that day. Dave told me that he had killed some jihadists who had attacked the team, and that Shaheen and Muhammad (another FBR team member) had been shot. It was a lot to process. Dave was still processing it, too. But Shaheen was alive.

Iraqi forces transported Shaheen by military helicopter to a hospital in Baghdad where he was operated upon. He spoke to friends on the phone from his hospital bed and some of his relatives came and stayed with him there.

Some days later I called Shaheen’s brother. Shaheen had a great sense of humor and I thought that perhaps I could joke with him and cheer him up. Shaheen was sleeping at that moment, but I was told that it looked as though he was going to make a full recovery. I was glad to hear this news.

A few days later, Hazim Avdal and I decided to call and speak to Shaheen together. Hazim knew Shaheen well; in Iraq we had often all worked in the same office together, or in the field. It was a very happy week for Hazim: he had arrived in Chicago a few days before, had had an interview at the admissions office of the University of Chicago, and had just been accepted as a student there. He was excited to share this news with Shaheen, also.

Shaheen’s brother answered the phone. “Hi, is Shaheen awake and can we talk with him this time?”
“Shaheen’s dead,” he told us. “He just died now.”

Hazim and I stared at each other in shock, not knowing how to react.

After a few minutes, I called Nizar Khider, a high school friend of Shaheen’s who had been our office manager at Yazda in 2015-2016 and who was now living in Lincoln, Nebraska. “Shaheen just died,” I told him. “What?” he responded. “Yes!” I replied. “We thought he was going to be fine but apparently he got an infection in the hospital!” and then suddenly a strange laugh briefly escaped my throat—it seemed so out-of-place and inappropriate, but perhaps it was the product of my disbelief and bewilderment.

An amazing film has recently been made about the work of the Free Burma Rangers. Over the past nine years I have watched an incredible amount of footage from the wars in Syria and Iraq, but I have never seen anything quite like this film. It provides an intimate window into a highly unusual organization able to perform tasks that would be unimaginable to most people. On one level, FBR provides a home for adrenaline junkies searching for a level of experience uncommon in other venues; on another level, we should respect the fact that it’s often eccentric characters who accomplish feats and make contributions to the world that the average person would never be willing to undertake. The film can be purchased on Vimeo and is also available on Amazon.

The film contains a number of scenes with Shaheen and also presents detailed footage of the rescue operation during which he was shot. It also shows where, in a park near the location where Shaheen was shot, FBR has built a playground for children and dedicated it to Shaheen.

Shaheen in the Free Burma Rangers film speaking at a Yazidi mass grave site in Sinjar
Shaheen translating between FBR and Iraqi forces in Mosul, from the FBR film

Unfortunately, the film does not explore the Yazidi Genocide or explain why Shaheen’s background made his work in Mosul all the more profound. The significance of his sacrifice was not lost on the Yazidi community, however, among whom he is now celebrated as a hero. Whereas IS treated Yazidi girls like property to be used and discarded, Shaheen died saving the life of an Arab Muslim girl, after overcoming his own hostility toward Arabs.

We analysts who survey the mess created by war in the Middle East are always talking about “how to fix things”—how to fix the economy, governance, infrastructure, human rights, and so forth. But for a survivor of genocide to begin to love the community that produced the perpetrators of the violence requires a deep and fundamental personal transformation. In other words, sometimes the only real solutions are spiritual. I don’t believe that spiritual solutions require the adoption of a religious tradition or theological framework, but they do involve seeing life, the world, other people in a new way. Undergoing this kind of uncommon psychological shift often involves the pursuit of a spiritual quest that produces the answers and healing that most of us ordinary people, with our various modes of professional expertise, are unequipped to provide.

What I find most incredible about Shaheen’s death is that the day he died—May 14—was the very same day that the Hashd al-Sha’bi forces surrounded his beloved Tal Banat to begin its liberation from IS. I remember that night on Sinjar Mountain when Shaheen saw his town for the first time after IS had captured it, and all that sorrow that welled up inside him, along with the longing to see his home reclaimed. I wonder if in his final moments he was aware of what was happening at his home; it is quite possible that he was, since the Hashd al-Sha’bi had begun their operation in the southern Sinjar region on the 12th.

As far back as 2015, certain European organizations would visit my office in Dohuk to discuss “the possibility of reconciliation work.” They wanted to begin orchestrating sit-downs between Yazidis and Arab tribes in Sinjar to work on overcoming their differences and work on somehow getting past the violence of the Genocide. While I believe that reconciliation and healing are always possible, even after the worst atrocities (history has many examples of this), I also believe that the effort to produce reconciliation must be conducted at the right time—crucially, after the threat of violence has been eliminated, security has been restored, and people feel stable enough to give attention to the trauma that they have been through and the deep anger about what happened. To my staff and me it always seemed absurd that people wanted to initiate some kind of healing process between Yazidis and Arabs when the Yazidis were still living in tents, unable to return to the very homeland where their future needed to be secured (and where talks with neighboring Arabs would therefore be relevant), still reeling from the immediacy of the violence and sexual enslavement that destroyed thousands of families, still wondering whether the state would apprehend perpetrators and pursue any process of justice, and on top of it all, then being being prevented by the KDP from transporting a single bag of rice to their homes in Sinjar.

Despite several years of concerted effort by the KDP to keep Yazidis bound to the camps and to prevent them from rebuilding, Sinjar has slowly started to recover. If this process can continue, the time will come when reconciliation talks with neighboring Arab communities will be important. And at that time, Shaheen’s example might serve as a model and inspiration for so many who will find the very prospect of reconciliation unpalatable or unthinkable.

Those who knew Shaheen have many memories of him and in this article I have merely added my own to the numerous tributes that others have made. The poems and songs now appearing about Shaheen testify to the inspiration others have found in his death. Here is a song and music video that someone made about Shaheen:

Last year, Yazda made a short documentary-style video with some interviews with Shaheen’s mother, brother, and some others who knew him:

The Ezidi24 media service likewise made a report about Shaheen:

The famous Iraqi YouTube channel Yalla also made a tribute to Shaheen:

Shaheen was known for writing poetry and the day before he died, he posted a short poem on his Facebook page. Nizar Khider later made the following image with the text of that poem:

Translated, the text of the poem is as follows:

I am in Baghdad, O My Mother
The Baghdad of God
God whom they are trying to kill
I am wounded in the battles of Iraq
For the sake of history
For the sake of Mesopotamian civilization
I do not fear death at all, My Mother

Nizar also provided me this photo of him and Shaheen at the Yazidi New Year in Lalish, 2012:

Artwork from Misar Shingali
Bradley Brincka with Shaheen
A photo of Shaheen from journalist Owen Holdaway who frequently worked with him

When I left Iraq in the summer of 2016, I presented Shaheen with a certificate to commemorate his service through Yazda up to that point. I had no idea that it would be the last time I would see him alive:

I will miss Shaheen—as will so many others.

Mission (Almost) Impossible for Iraq’s New Prime Minister

By Mohammed Shiaa and Sylvain Mercadier
This article is a translation from the French original, which can be accessed at OrientXXI.

Mustafa al-Kadhimi, Iraq’s new Prime Minister

While satisfying most of Iraq’s political class, Mustafa al-Kadhimi has managed to form a government in less than a month. His independent background may be a source of hope for many, but his team is composed of politicians affiliated with heavyweight segments of the parliamentthe very same ones whom demonstrators swore to expel from power. Regardless, his first decision to liberate all demonstrators imprisoned since last October is seen as a positive sign.

As the country enters its eighth month of popular protests, political elites have finally agreed on a share of power and of ministries. Unusually, Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s new government includes many independents and technocrats as well as scholars, such as Ali Allawi who inherited the Ministry of Finance. Nevertheless, this pragmatic momentum should not hide the fact that the main political players’ interests have also been considered in the process.

A consensus for survival

« Regarding the share of ministries between parties, Mustafa al-Kadhimi repeated the same mistakes his predecessors had made: several independents and technocrats he named are controlled by political parties », analyzed MP Sarkawt Shams, a member of the Future coalition in Baghdad’s Parliament, in an interview with us. « Basically, this government is shared between Sadrists, the clan of head of parliament Mohammed al-Halbussi and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). Nonetheless, Ministries of Interior, Defense and Finance were handed over to competent actors », he continued.

It should come as no surprise that the political class may have negotiated its survival in this process. If it had not had the feeling that its interest were being represented, it would have been easy for it to obstruct the ministries’ nominations. A consensus was thus obtained in order to solve the political crisis and get some respite as the power struggle between Iran and the United States on Iraqi soil is far from being resolved. But these negotiations only included major parties and coalitions of the government: « I boycotted the government formation session in Baghdad because al-Kadhimi had pre-session meetings with all the political heavyweights without taking into account the other actors of the Parliament. We suspect that some informal deals were concluded between them which explains how easy it was to form this government », explained Ahmad al-Hajjn, a member of the Iraqi Parliament representing the Komal party.

A Herculean task to accomplish

Despite this agreement, the challenge ahead remains huge for this transitional government in a country crumbling under threats: the rise of ISIS attacks, coronavirus pandemic, economic stagnation, US/Iran rivalry, as well as the resumption of demonstrations in Baghdad and other cities to pressure the government. Just after his nomination, Mustafa al-Kadhimi reminded Iraqis that his top priorities will be bringing justice to the victims of the previous months’ protests, and to put the economy back on track despite the collapse in oil prices that represent about 90% of Iraq’s income.

Meanwhile, demonstrators still insist on the formation of a government free of all the traditional political elite. But al-Kadhimi’s profile should still give them hope. As the head of the National Intelligence Service (NIS), al-Kadhimi distinguished himself by minimizing the repression of protests as much as possible.[1] One of the Prime minister’s first decisions was to order the release of all protestors incarcerated since people first took to the streets last October. He also ordered Abd al-Wahab to be reinstated as head of the NIS. The removal of this key figure of the war against ISIS was one of the reasons that initially triggered the demonstrations across Iraq.

But al-Kadhimi’s independence could also backfire and become a weakness. Indeed, harmony within his government in Baghdad during his mandate is far from a given. Achieving it will depend on whether influential political actors remain satisfied by receiving sufficient leeway enabling them to protect their interests in Iraq’s government: « the [main political] actors quickly understood the trick which consisted in placing a weak Prime Minister in power in order to forestall his constitutional powers such as his ability to bypass ministerial decrees », explains Erwin van Veen, a Clingendael Institute researcher specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. « This is how the previous Prime minister Nuri al Maliki was able to perpetuate his grip on the government through a network resembling a “deep state” during his successor Haider al-Abadi’s mandate. In this context, if they feel they won’t be able to curb a candidate’s policy, they resort to obstructing him. »

Internal tensions, external pressure

The arduous task awaiting the Prime Minister is also set within a particularly tense context. Apart from the protest movement that has solidly entrenched itself in several cities of the country, the rivalry between Iran and the United States is still creating turmoil in Iraq. On Jan. 3rd 2020, the murder of Qassem Soleimani (commander of the Al-Qods brigade, the external branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps of Iran) and of Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (vice-president of the Popular Mobilisation Units (PMU) and  head of the Shia militia Kataeb Hezbollah) almost plunged the country into a bloody proxy war once again.

Since then, the turmoil deriving from this rivalry has stoked fears of an escalation of violence – one which could come at any time – while both powers are in a phase of reconfiguration of their influence in Iraq. « Today, Iran is much more present than the United States in Iraq. Although the latter has recovered some of its military influence during the fight against ISIS, they have since then gradually diminished their military numbers that are concentrated in just a few military bases. On their side, Iranians have infiltrated almost all levels of the political and economic matrix in Iraq and rely on devoted powerful militias around the country », said analyst Erwin van Veen, while also pointing out that the constant pressure imposed on the Islamic Republic makes it less and less predictable. « Iran is capable of provoking a major conflict in Iraq if it feels it could be profitable in the long term », he concluded.

The Shia militias, Iran’s most iconic symbol of power in Iraq, are more active than ever and continue to play a negative role including by targeting the protestors who still hope to topple the current political order. Recently, militias affiliated with the Shia clergy (the Abbas and Imam Ali divisions as well as the Ali Al-Akbar and Ansar Al-Marja’iyya brigades) all withdrew from the PMU; now only elements more clearly affiliated with Iran are left. By doing this – eliminating from the PMU most of the militias not serving Iran’s interest – Iraqi Aayatollah Ali al-Sistani has hoped to strengthen Iraq’s sovereignty. These groups will now answer only to the Prime Minister’s orders, as do the famous Golden Division led by Abd al-Wahab al Saadi. The split is getting more and more obvious between the advocates of a national unity and the bloc serving Iran’s interest. « The Shia clergy has definitively retreated from the PMU with other militias in order to ensure and respect Iraq’s sovereignty. For a long time, al-Muhandis had tried to take control of the entire PMUs to serve his cause or Iran’s, which the Ayatollah could not accept », explained Nancy Ezzeddine, also a researcher at the Clingendael institute specializing in Middle Eastern conflicts. Even within the pro-Iranian axis, different strategies can be noticed in the last months. Some actors like the Badr organization and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq have evolved to become key political actors thanks to their parliamentary coalition, al-Fatah, while others like Kataeb Hezbollah, are determined to keep consolidating their military power. 

This also explains why Badr and Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq were more keen to negotiate in forming a government while Kataeb Hezbollah’s leadership insists on accusing the Prime Minister of having collaborated with the Americans in the assassination of Soleimani and al-Muhandis: « Kataeb Hezbollah is much more extremist regarding the U.S.A. and those who might have collaborated with them. The organization even established a military camp in front of the parliament’s guesthouse in order to put pressure on the members of the government and remind them not to cross the red lines they wish to impose. In the meantime, federal forces are trying to prevent them from expanding their site », added Nancy Ezzeddine.

Chaos at all levels

While this fragile balance of power is constantly challenged, the Iraqi people sink further into misery while enduring a double economic and sanitary crisis. Although the coronavirus hasn’t affected Iraq as deeply as Europe and the United States – the government only reported 3000 cases and 115 deaths on May 14th – the numbers do not reflect the reality on the ground where thorough testing is not being carried out.

Ironically, the preventive measures against the coronavirus pandemic seem to have had a much more negative impact than expected. The underground economy that allows millions of workers to survive is on hold because of the confinement measures imposed on the country. While the most impoverished can’t even obtain the bare minimum to survive, the plummeting of oil prices and of world energy consumption is having the same effects on the government’s budget.

Previous Prime minister nominee Adnan al-Zurfi had already announced that the State would not be able to pay half of the public sectors’ salaries in May. Iraq depends on revenues from oil exports for up to 90% of its budget. The World Bank predicted last month that the country will see its GDP drop by 5% by next year while public debt will reach 66.9% of its GDP. The environmental crisis is also looming and might soon reach a point of no return. But it probably won’t be in the government’s top priority, despite the fact that millions of people’s health and livelihood depend on it.

The only good news came just after the new government was announced as the United States agreed to give Iraq a four-month moratorium to find a substitute to Iranian electricity and gas imports amid the embargo they are enforcing on the Islamic Republic. This extension, although short, is welcome and indicates Washington’s desire to collaborate with al-Kadhimi’s government. The Prime Minister also reaffirmed his will to collaborate with NATO to fight terrorism in Iraq.

But this apparent indulgence is not the only negotiation tool in Washington’s kit: « The recent attacks by the Islamic State against the PMU and the Iraqi army were made possible thanks to a drastic decrease in air surveillance by the coalition. The message of the Americans to Baghdad is clear: without a U.S. presence, ISIS will come back as strong as ever » analyzed the MP Ahmad Al-Hajj.

The dice have been cast in Baghdad. The independent Prime Minister seems capable of handling the subtle balance of power in order to lead his country ahead toward the next elections in 2021. « Al-Kadhimi deserves to be given a chance. His two most urgent cases are the current economic crisis and the Iran-United States rivalry. I think he will have more success with the latter », says MP Sarkawt Shams. The fact that the strategic dialogue between Iraq and the United States was maintained, and scheduled to take place next month, is an indicator that despite Tehran’s grip on Iraq, Baghdad is determined to keep up with its collaboration with Washington. But in the meantime, the pro-Iran axis will  remember that this government is only transitory, and that a new political battle will take place next year in order to take control of key positions in the government. 


[1] A source within the National Intelligence Service who spoke under guise of anonymity pointed out that al-Kadhimi, while he was Director of NIS,  was a silent supporter of the demonstrators. He apparently thwarted many assassination attempts targeting demonstrators and activists by militiamen and contributed to the liberation of dozens of demonstrators during the events that shook the country since last October.

 

The Assad–Makhlouf Rift: A Sign of Assad’s Strength

By Aiman Mansour
7 May 2020
For Syria Comment

Recent developments in Syria suggest that the country is about to go through a significant change. Many reporters and analysts have jumped to the conclusion that Assad’s grip on power is weakening. This conclusion is fueled by an unprecedented public challenge to President Assad by Rami Makhlouf, Syria’s top oligarch and Assad’s cousin. Adding fuel to the fire are a number of broadsides of President Assad made by prominent Russians and published in Russian media. But the truth is quite the opposite of what it at first seems. Assad’s position in Syria is stronger than it has been for years, not weaker. 

Rami Makhlouf shocked Syrians and outside observers alike with two unusual Facebook videos:

Rami Video 1
Rami Video 2

These represent his first public appearances since a 2011 press conference where he came across as inarticulate and explained that he was leaving business to focus on charity. Needless to say, Makhlouf did not leave business nor did he give up control of his companies; rather, he expanded his economic activities. He also established a militia, which he attached to his charity, Jamaiat al-Bustan. 

Brig.Gen.Suheil Salman al-Hassan

This militia was formed in 2012 to support the security forces, but became an important source of Makhlouf’s influence. Its numbers grew to 30,000. Suheil Hassan, commander of the Tiger Forces, and current commander of the 25th Division, was at first associated with Makhlouf’s militia before departing to work directly with the Russians.

Because of his control of a large militia, Makhlouf was entrusted with a large contract worth millions of dollars to protect and secure Syria’s oil and gas fields. These were a main source of the government’s income. Makhlouf bungled his mission nad lost the fields to insurgents, ISIS, and the Kurds. Makhlouf’s failure meant that Syrians had to suffered with little cooking gas and electricity. Makhlouf received the money for the contracts, but failed to deliver on them. Hundreds of poorly equipped, mostly Alawi, youth were captured or killed by the insurgents, who overran the sites. In no small measure, this was due to Makhlouf’s lack of preparation, corruption, and unprofessional management of the military effort. As a result, the Syrian government was forced to turn to the Russians and Iranians to spearhead the reconquest of the oil and gas fields from ISIS. Today, Russia and Iran own the contracts to operate them and reap much of the reward. Most notorious examples of Makhlouf’s failures was ISIS’s capture of the Hayan Gas factory, which produces gas for 1/3 of Syria’s electricity. Syrians are still suffering from this loss today because, although the gas fields have been retaken, the factory has been largely destroyed.

Islamic State group militants blew up the Hayyan gas plant in the eastern Homs province in January 2017. The cost of building the plant came to 291 million euros, when it was opened in 2010 and it produced enough gas to supply one-third of Syria’s electricity.

It will cost three hundred millions euros to rebuild it. Makhlouf received tens of millions of dollars per month to secure the factory, but sent only a fraction of the men required to protect it, which was in a well-supplied location that was not cut off from supply routes. Makhlouf’s bad planning and stinginess was a main factor in its loss. ISIS blew it up one month after getting its hands on the facility.

Tensions between Makhlouf and the regime bubbled to the surface in 2019. Bushra al Assad, the president’s sister and wife of the late deputy chief of staff Asef Shawkat, became embittered with Makhlouf because he was given all the contracts for billboards and media by the minister of information. Some of these had once belonged to Asef. Assad denied Rami Makhlouf’s request to take control of certain oilfields, which were likewise denied to Iran.

While Bashar al Assad was demanding monthly payments of money from each of the big businessmen in Syria and punishing those who failed to pay, only Makhlouf was able to escape both payment and retribution. Rami came to believe that he was not only untouchable, but also that he was Assad’s equal or superior. In private meetings with friends, Assad openly expressed his anger and disappointed with Makhlouf. By 2019 Assad had become convinced that his cousin was cheating him and set about to extract revenge and bring his errant family member to heal.

Meanwhile Makhlouf loomed for protection where he could. He funneled money to Hizballah as a form of insurance. He even sent direct payments to the son of Hassan Nasrallah, Hizballah’s secretary general. Makhlouf also adopted Shia Islam and worked on becoming closer to Hizbullah than Assad himself. In the summer, Assad began to shrink Makhlouf’s share of the economy. He also took control of Makhlouf’s Bustan militia, with military security seizing its properties, though Makhlouf kept the charitable wing of Bustan. Assad’s move against Makhlouf was a continuation of similar steps against other businessmen, like the Jaber brothers and Muhammad al-Qatarji.

Assad had long wanted to weaken Makhlouf but he had to wait until after the death of his mother, a formidable woman, and the growing infirmity of her brother and Rami’s father, Mohammad Makhlouf, who had been Hafiz al-Assad’s chief financial fixer. With her death in 2016, Rami Makhlouf lost his most important protector. Both Bashar al-Assad’s wife, Asma, and Maher al-Assad’s wife Manal, had been pushing for the Makhlouf’s to be chastened.

The Makhloufs, especially Rami and his children, Muhammad and Ali, were being increasingly disrespectful of Assad in their interactions with interlocutors. It also appears that Bushra took exception to the arrogance of Rami’s two sons who were splashing about photos of their expensive cars, planes, and exploits. That summer there were already false rumors that Makhlouf was arrested, when his share of the economic pie was simply reduced a little. This is when Makhlouf began reaching out to Hizbullah and adopting Shia Islam in order to get closer to Iran and cement his self-perceived immunity.

Muhammad R Makhlouf flaunting his cars
Muhammad R Makhlouf’s jet

Already in 2019 Makhlouf was being weakened in Damascus. He lost his militia, which was the last independent militia in Syria, his control over his main companies was reduced, the government took his Shweifat private schools, and it seemed that Syriatel would be next. In addition, the Prime Minister was told to cancel the contracts Makhlouf had with the government on things like energy and commodities. 

Assad had been nursing his resentment of his cousin for some time, but feared bringing the conflict to a head before Syria’s war was decided. He had to focus on battling his external enemies. Assad also ordered Makhlouf to dissolve his branch of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Rami had formed his own wing of the SSNP. Assad also began to whittle away at Rami’s share of Syriatel, bringing it under the wing of the state.

Among Alawis, Rami Makhlouf was not universally resented. He provided salaries, charity and medical help to many in the poor loyalist communities. Others who were closer to being warlords, like Abu Ali Khudr or the Qaterji brothers, were more resented for being both parasitic and emerging out of nowhere and adopting lavish lifestyles thanks to their militias and smuggling. But while military security seized control of his militia, they took weapons, vehicles, and headquarters, not personnel. Most of the militiamen returned to their homes since the government could not offer them the same salaries. Some remain on Rami’s payroll, but not as militiamen. Makhlouf does not pose a military threat to the Assads, but he can he can hurt his cousin through propaganda and by exploiting the poverty and hunger that is widespread among Alawis, made weary by war, and ground down by years of sacrifice. Makhlouf used the opportunity created by the war to project the image of a philanthropist, as did his attention-seeking son, but in fact he gave Syria’s poor only a small percentage of what he made illegally.

Despite the claims of many observers, Alawis do not identify as Shia and should not be considered Shia. Members of the sect are overwhelmingly secular in belief and practice. Makhlouf tried to Shia-fy the Alawis to secure himself. He encountered Shia sheikhs thanks to his militia and was impressed with their ability to control masses of people and also receive the tithe (khums) of one fifth of their followers’ yearly salaries, which many were willing to contribute with little question. He also secured Iranian training for his militia. This interaction with his militia and charity led him to meet with Shia religious figures. Makhlouf tried to take control of Alawi shrines so he could control their money and Alawi religious men throughout the mountain. He wanted Alawis to donate to the shrines’ money boxes, the way Shi’is donate to their clerics. There is no textual or institutional foundation in the Alawi religion that commands Alawis to obey their religious leaders as there is in Shi’a Islam. Alawi sheikhs cannot legitimize a leader or direct their followers to obey him. Makhlouf thought Shi’a-izing Alawis could change that. But Assad thwarted these aspirations. Many Alawis, including the president, were concerned about these attempts to make the poor Alawis religious. They believed that Syrian stability requires Alawis to remain secular and that the only hope for Syrian nationalism and possible reconciliation is for the separation of church and state. They fear that to make Alawis religious would destroy the Syria they are trying to build. It would condemn their community to endless sectarian strife.

Alawites do not have leaders. Makhlouf, like some other Alawites in the past, believe that given the nature of the region, their sect needs to be better organized and shepherded by a strict leadership like the Druze have. This had previously been tried by Jamil al-Assad and Refaat al-Assad, but they both failed. Unlike them, Makhlouf wanted to modify Alawis to be more similar to Shias and hence more controllable. In meetings, he would suggest an Alawi rapprochement with Shi’a Islam. His attempts to seize control of Alawi shrines and impose guardians over them was an effort to further this objective. But he failed win over local Alawi leaders, who blocked his experiment. 

Makhlouf bought Beirut’s beachside Summerland hotel and Resort for $300,000,000 from a prominent Druze family and sought to make it a popular watering hole for both Iraq and Iranian Shia elites. Iraq’s former militia commander, Abu Mahdi al Muhandes, stayed there when he visited Beirut as did the Iraqi Shia political kingpin Ezzat Shahbandar. When Makhlouf’s sons traveled to Beirut or stayed there they received protection from Hizballah. Because of Hizballah’s financial crisis, Makhlouf found it easy to buy friendship from the Lebanese organization.

Kempinski Summerland Hotel & Resort Beirut, Lebanon

Earlier this year, the special government committee formed to go over Syriatel’s finances found that Syriatel was paying its service providers much more than its competitor, MTN, was doing. After interrogating some of Makhlouf’s assistants, the investigators discovered that Makhlouf owned the service providers and was using them to cook Syriatel’s books by charging inflated prices and in this way he reduced Syriatel’s profits and the share that it owed the government. By denying the government income, Rami was contributing to the collapse of the Syrian pound and weakness of the state.

Makhlouf also benefited from the collapse of the Syrian pound. Since most of his money is kept outside of the country in dollars, he benefits from a weaker Syrian pound.  

Makhlouf made it clear in his first Facebook video that he believes himself to be Assad’s equal. He lectured Assad about how he should spend money. He insinuated that Bashar al-Assad allows those that surround him to misappropriate Syriatel’s money. Rami claimed that he wanted to be sure the money goes to the right place and the proper recipients. Makhlouf made this video after his son had boasted about having two billion dollars in his account. So, we were to understand that one of Makhlouf’s sons has more than thirty times the amount that the state is asking from his father.

In his second video Makhlouf challenges the President more directly, the way Rifaat challenged Hafez. Makhlouf is refusing to hand over his assets, claiming that he is entrusted with them on behalf of others, and by this he means Alawis. Thus, Makhlouf, by playing the sectarian card, is threatening to divide the president from his base. Makhlouf also threatens a divine punishment and claimed to have a mission from God. Makhlouf asumes a religious tone and demeanor unusual for the secular Alawi culture from which he comes. His first video was entitled, “Be with God and have no cares.” The second video was entitled, “It is our duty to give victory to the believers.”

The latest episode of drama with Makhlouf comes at the same time as more open criticism of Assad in certain Russian media. This led to the inevitable speculation that maybe this time the Russians are finally going to get rid of Assad, or will finally pressure him to change. That seems unlikely when one understands that the source of the media pressure on Assad was Russia’s version of Makhlouf, or one of them at least, Yevgeny Prigozhin, “the chief” of Putin’s oligarchs. Prigozhin has profited from the Syrian war and is undoubtedly angry at the Syrian government for refusing to renew a major contract he had to manage an oil field. He is using his influence in Moscow to put pressure on Assad. This too poses no real danger to Assad, although “the chief” has a lot of influence in the Kremlin and could try to escalate problems for Damascus. Assad’s willingness to confront Putin’s leading oligarch shows how confidant he is in his position. He is prepared to confront allies to achieve his regime’s vital interests and to preserve his own grip on power.  

All of this is also an opportunity for a better Syria. If Assad decides to discipline and cull the parasitic class of oligarchs who gained great autonomy during the war years, he can help Syria recover from the last nine years of trauma. Most of the oligarchs do not own factories, do not import essential goods into the country, and do not create employment; rather they steal from the country. If Assad is able to empower more legitimate businessmen who can help build the country, such a move should be supported by the Gulf states as they help reintegrate Syria into the region.

Syria’s recovery is also essential for Lebanon’s recovery. Moreover, Syrian businessmen have the necessary skills to help with the rebuilding of Iraq. Syria’s factories used to be the main suppliers of a number of goods purchased by Iraqis. The region needs the return of legitimate businessmen. The continuation of the current regional and Western policies, dictated to a large extent by Washington, will not bring about a realistic change in behavior in Damascus. On the contrary, the heavy sanctions and impediments to trade only strengthen those businessmen who are deeply embedded with Iran and are unlikely to bring hope or a brighter future to the Syrian people.  

*Aiman Mansour is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Until Nov 2019, he served as the Head of the Middle East and Africa Division of Israel’s National Security Council. He was previously Liaison Officer and Assistant to the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, and Director for Syria and Lebanon, NSC.

Returning to Hafiz al-Assad’s Syria: Bashar Heads Back to the Future in 2020

Bashar and Hafiz al-Assad

President Bashar al-Assad was the main catalyst for reform in Syria’s economy and to a lesser degree in its political institutions before the 2011 uprising. The Civil War has caused Assad to return to his father’s domestic and regional policies.

 By Aiman Mansour* and Joshua Landis

When president Bashar al-Assad assumed power in July 2000, he led Syria on a trajectory of gradual and limited reform. He eased restrictions on the economy. He allowed for greater foreign influence in Syria by encouraging foreign investment, licensing private banks, and pushing tourism. He let considerable light into Syrian society by legalizing satellite dishes, the internet, and relaxing restrictions on the media. To set these reforms in motion, he had to clip the wings of the security bosses, who frowned at his willingness to open the doors of the country. They complained that they would be the ones expected to clean things up once trouble started. They pointed to the Damascus Spring as an early example of how things could go badly wrong. But Bashar al-Assad was convinced that he could win the loyalty of the Syrian public, particularly its youth, if he could modernize along the lines of Turkey or China. To this end, he alternated between two development plans: one was the Five Seas Vision that he elaborated after a visit to Turkey in 2004. It was to turn Syria into the key transport and trading hub of the region. The other was a version of the China Model that was designed to build a “social market” economy that would allow Assad and the Baath Party to retain political control.

Syrian authorities also loosened their grip on society for a number of reasons completely beyond their control. The U.S. invasion of Iraq and its promise to reform the Greater Middle East dealt a major blow to regional stability. By 2004, Washington was demanding that Syria relinquish its traditional control over Lebanon, cease interference its elections, stop supplying arms to Hizbollah, and withdraw troops that had been stationed in the country since the 1976. Damascus viewed this U.S. effort to roll back Syrian regional influence and cut it off from its allies to be made in Israel, as it seemed design to end pressure on Israel to return of the Golan Heights. Even more ominous, it seemed to be a prelude to destabilizing the country and regime-change, if not a full on invasion.

To contain U.S. military intervention in the region to Iraq, Assad opened his country to the hundreds of Salafi-Jihadists who were seeking a way into Iraq to fight the American occupiers. Damascus’ new permissiveness toward Islamists would have the effect of awakening the Islamist currents in Syrian society that had been so violently suppressed in the 1980s. Young Syrians from every walk of life, whether university students or farmers, became mesmerized by the new jihad in Iraq that championed heroic narratives of adventure, revolution, and revenge. Youth were electrified. Students at the University of Damascus, eager to show solidarity with the fighters in Iraq, began to dress in Afghan garb. Washington’s pressure campaign on Syria led to its forced withdrawal from Lebanon on the heels of the Hariri assassination.

A devastating draught that led to the displacement of a million Syrians, combined with the failure of Syria’s state-controlled economy to produce jobs and revenue forced neo-liberal reforms. The down side to these changes was the creation of a yawning income gap and expanding corruption at every level of Syrian society. These changes, whether produced by reform, the expanding U.S. role in the region, or economic weakness and corruption produced social, religious and class discontent that exploded to the surface of society in 2011.

The worst drought on record in the Fertile Crescent killed livestock, drove up food prices, and forced 1.5 million rural residents to the outskirts of Syria’s jam-packed cities

Because of the civil war, Syria’s leaders were left with a single option: to survive. In order to do so, they returned to the policies of Hafiz al-Assad. Syria, haunted by distrust of the international community, plagued by internal divisions, and hemmed in by Western sanctions, has reverted to the inward looking policies it pursued in the nineteen-eighties and nineteen-nineties.

Once the threat of a rebel victory began to recede in 2016, Damascus took steps to tighten its grip on the deteriorating state institutions as well as to restore its regional status.

To tightening control over economic transactions in the country, it limited dollar use in the local market in order to shore up the pound. Police have arrested merchants who continue to trade in foreign currencies and have attacked several leading figures in Syria’s private sector by confiscating their assets. The government seeks to revive key industrial areas, such as Shiekh Najar in Aleppo and Adra in Damascus. These policies are designed to restore vitality to small and medium businesses, which operate in the industrial areas. Despite the need for more foreign investment, the Syrian government will likely hesitate to allow projects led by Turkish or Qatari businessmen for fear that they will enrich and embolden members of the political opposition. During the first decade of this century, the government’s desire to attract Turkish and Gulf investors caused it to turn a blind eye to the growing sympathy of many Syrians outside of the capital felt towards political Islam. During his first ten years in power, Bashar al-Assad permitted the rapid proliferation of mosques throughout the country. Fearing a repeat of this phenomenon, Syrian authorities are likely to insist on investments from secular countries such as Russia and China and from the regional adversaries of political Islam, such as the UAE and Egypt, who prefer maintaining the political status quo and are willing to do business with the Assad government.

The ruling Baath Party, which had been neglected during the first decade of Bashar’s rule, is regaining influence and even dominance in national politics. Despite decisions made to sideline it, such as in the election campaign of 2007, or to encourage greater party freedoms, such as those laid out in the constitutional reforms of 2012, the Baath Party is becoming more visible in both the economy and politics. President Assad is also becoming more involved in running the Party, a role he all but abandoned in his first decade in power.

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians gather for a pro-government rally at the central bank square in Damascus March 29, 2011. REUTERS/Wael Hmedan

Syria’s infamous intelligence agencies are also being revived. The four main organizations, the GID (General Intelligence Directorate), PSD (Political Security Directorate), MID (Military Intelligence Directorate) and (AFI) Air Force Intelligence Directorate languished during Bashar’s early years. Today, their authority as the central pillar of stability has been respected. As with the Baath Party, Assad has rediscovered the importance of his intelligence agencies.  Through his National Security Adviser, General Ali Mamluk, Assad is becoming more involved in the matters of these security organizations.

At the regional level, Syria is gradually regaining influence in Lebanon. Syria has long viewed Lebanon as its backyard. During the civil war, the loss of the mountainous border region separating Lebanon and Syria had a devastating impact on Damascus for guns, money and fighters could be funneled in to the rebels attacking the capital. It sparked a long and difficult battle to regain control of the border region, called the battle of Qalamoun (2013–14). It underscored to Damascus authorities just how key Lebanon is to its national defense.

Lebanon is not only important geographically, but it also serves as a lung for the Syrian economy. The recent banking crisis in Lebanon caused the collapse of the Syrian pound and gutted the savings of many Syrians who traditionally park their money in Lebanon. Lebanon is where Syrian businessmen buy their dollars and squirrel away their profits, while its banks issued the letters of credit and facilitated transactions that Syrian traders depended on.

Since the onset of the Lebanese civil war and the demise of Lebanon’s westward-looking Maronite leadership, Syria became the dominant power in Lebanon. Lebanon’s fragmented leaders, including those of Hizbullah at certain points, have decried the heavy hand of Damascus. All the same, they have remained too mired in their internecine squabbles to slip the bonds of their dependence. It should be remembered that Bashar was sent to Lebanon by his father in the 1990s to become schooled in the dark art of divide-and-rule. Since the international sanctions were imposed and the domestic conflict escalated to a full-fledged civil war, Syria’s focus on Lebanon become almost entirely economic. As Damascus regained its footing with the defeat of insurgents, its rulers are becoming more and more involved in Lebanese politics, supporting the block that eventually won the 2019 elections. Later, Damascus seems to be the main backer of the recently formed technocratic government, which was formed after Hariri’s resignation, most probably to the discomfort of Hizbullah who is interested in maintaining his dominance in his home turf. The economic crisis that Lebanon is undergoing will not diminish Syria’s interest in it. On the contrary, this will only encourage the Syrians to exploit its neighbor’s weakness and deepen divisions to further cement its influence, with the hope that a certain point, the Lebanese economy will start to recover in a way that will positively impact the fragile Syrian economic.

Through its growing influence in Lebanon, Syria is hoping to recalibrate its relationship with Iran which had descended from one of partnership into one of dependence and even vassalage during the civil war. Syria’s restored leverage in Lebanon, acquired largely through diplomatic and political means, is designed to put Damascus back onto an even footing with both Hizballah and Iran. Damascus’s suspicion of Iran has grown most recently as Assad has struggled with Turkey to retake its lost territory in the country’s north, whether in Idlib, north Aleppo, or east of the Euphrates. Tehran’s unwillingness or inability to come to Syria’s aid against Turkey underscored the dangers of relying too heavily on Iran. Putin stepped into the breech to help Damascus face down Turkey, but in the final analysis, Syria will have no substitute for its own military strength if it wishes to roll back Turkey’s military presence.

Syrian forces quit Lebanon after 29 years – China Daily: 

As regards Russia, President Assad’s policy toward the Kremlin is the continuation of his father’s. Hafiz al-Assad relied on and enjoyed the strategic-military support of USSR/Russia, that sent military experts to Syria and equipped it with weapon systems. In 1983 the Russians even sent anti-aircraft systems with Russian operators (which were turned over later to the Syrians). Assad allowed the USSR to expand the use of the Tartus naval base and use the T4 air base. Yuri Andropov, the Soviet leader and General Secretary of the Communist Party, said in the1980s that he would not allow anybody to defeat Hafiz. Today, President Putin is providing the same strategic shield to Bashar al-Assad. Bashar al-Assad has offered Russia a 49-year lease of the Tartus naval base and a free hand in its use of the Hmeimim air base.  Today, Assad relies more heavily on Russia for the survival of the regime than it does on Iran. Russian air power was decisive in turning back the opposition militias and restoring the Syrian Arab Army’s control over Syrian territory. So too was Russian ground support, which included both regular forces and private contractors, made Damascus more dependent on Moscow than on Tehran.

Despite, Assad’s reliance on Russia, he has been careful not to allow Russia a free hand in reforming the military to become a “highly institutionalized, depoliticized, nonideological, and nonsectarian force.” He has been careful to ensure that the loyalty of its commanders to him and the Assad family remains undiluted.1 Patrimonialism has been the key to the regime’s survival. Nevertheless, both Russia and President Assad share a common interest in restoring more centralized, state-controlled military structures.2 The militification of loyalist forces, that was encouraged by the government during the nadir of Assad’s fortunes to counterbalance the mobilization of antigovernment forces, is today seen as a distinct liability. They challenge state authority; some may be more loyal to Tehran than to Damascus.  Assad shares Moscow’s interested in reeling in the multitude of quasi-independent militias, but he has always been careful not to all foreign countries, even Russia, to undo the tight bonds of loyalty between him and his security commanders. If Bashar al-Assad has stayed true to any principle of his father’s regime, it is to the primacy of traditional loyalties. Regime survival depends on it.

In conclusion, Bashar al-Assad’s present policies seem designed to restore a modified version of his father’s Syria. This will not be a full return to a state-controlled economy or the “communism” of the late Hafiz, but it will lead Syria to step back from many of the neo-liberal measures that guided reform before the war. The major lesson that Bashar seems to have taken away from the devastating civil war is that reforms, even those focused primarily on the economy, were too fast and destabilizing. Thus, he is reinvigorating the Baath Party and restoring the security agencies’ control over the daily lives of Syrian citizens. Syria’s regional role, so skillfully built up by his father, was key to national security. To regain some modicum of regional leverage, Bashar is focused on regaining primacy in Lebanon and a more balanced relationship with Hizballah and Iran.  

*Aiman Mansour is a Research Fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. Until Nov 2019, he served as the Head of the Middle East and Africa Division of Israel’s National Security Council. He was previously Liaison Officer and Assistant to the Special Envoy of the Prime Minister, and Director for Syria and Lebanon, NSC.

Sources

Khlebnikov, Alexey, “Russia and Syrian Military Reform: Challenges and Opportunities,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center. https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/26/russia-and-syrian-military-reform-challenges-and-opportunities-pub-81154

Landis, Joshua, “The Syrian Uprising of 2011: Why the Asad Regime is Likely to Survive to 2013,” in Middle East Policy, Vol. XIX, No. 1 (2012). https://mepc.org/syrian-uprising-2011-why-asad-regime-likely-survive-2013

Lund, Aron, “Gangs of Latakia: The Militiafication of the Assad Regime,” Syria Comment, July 23, 2013. https://www.joshualandis.com/blog/the-militiafication-of-the-assad-regime/

Sayigh, Yazid, “Syrian Politics Trump Russian Military Reforms,” March 26, 2020, Carnegie Middle East Center.
https://carnegie-mec.org/2020/03/26/syrian-politics-trump-russian-military-reforms-pub-81149