Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria, are the source of my inspiration and activities.

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This interview with Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam was originally published on October 8, 2020 by the Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies.

Harmoon Center for Contemporary Studies hosts today, Dr. Nikolaos Van Dam (1945), Excellency of the Dutch Ambassador, who served in 2015-2016 as a special envoy of his country to Syria, after many years of diplomatic work in Lebanon, Jordan, the occupied Palestinian territories, Libya, Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia.

The author of “The Netherlands and the Arab World .. From the Medieval until the Twentieth Century” studied political science at the University of Amsterdam. including international relations, modern Middle Eastern history, and the Arabic language. In 1973, he has got a PhD in political and social sciences, and a second one in Arts from the University of Amsterdam in 1977.

Our guest, the expert on Syrian and Middle East’s affairs, is one of those who positions Syria’s dilemma in its historical and contemporary context. In 1979 he published his book in English, entitled: “The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics”, which was later translated into Arabic and published in Cairo (1995, 1996), later on, several editions of it have issued, as well as one in Turkish language in Istanbul (2000).

Among the most prominent books his book, which is entitled: Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria, which was published in English (2017) and published in Arabic in Beirut (2018).

In this dialogue, Dr. Nikolas Van Dam, the Ambassador, talks to us about his country’s government’s decision to prosecute Bashar al-Assad regime before the international justice Court in The Hague, after more than nine years of bloodshed in Syria, asserting that the evidence is explicit that the Assad regime has committed -again and again- horrific crimes.

The dialogue with the inveterate Dutch diplomat, also took us further, to talk about what is happening in Syria at the current stage, and about his vision and stances towards the latest developments in the Syrian, regional and international political scene. We also touched upon his books dealing with Syrian political life under the Ba’ath Party, and his latest book, “A Diplomat Looking for Peace in the Arab and Islamic Worlds,” which is published in English last September, and in which he devoted a separate chapter to Syria, which he hopes to be translated into Arabic one day.

Here is the dialogue

Ambassador Nikolaos van Dam: My great personal affection for the Syrian people, together with my academic interest in Syria are the source of my inspiration and activities.

* At First, how do you introduce yourself to the Syrians through our center?

When I first visited Syria in summer 1964 as a student, I was fascinated and overwhelmed by the great hospitality and friendliness of the Syrian people. During my first night at the border crossing of Bab al-Hawa (which was only open during the day), I lost my purse and papers, when sleeping on a wooden bench. They fell on the ground without me noticing it, and were kindly given back to me by a young Syrian, who had found them the next morning. This was a very friendly and positive experience. If my passport and money would have been stolen, my first encounter with Syria and the Arab world would probably have been different and negative, because the first impression of a new country and its people can be very important. The following night, I was the invited guest of some Syrian youths in the rural countryside west of Aleppo, in the village of Kfar Karmin, where I slept under the open sky, next to the traditional beehive mud-brick houses in the village. The people were very friendly and hospitable. This also was a very positive experience, which was repeated various times afterwards in my contacts with Syrian people all over the country. All this left an unforgettable impression, which shaped my great affection for Syria and its people. Almost every year afterwards, I came back to Syria, enjoying its friendly atmosphere, people and beautiful treasures, both historical and cultural.

After having returned to the Netherlands in 1964, I studied Arabic and Political Sciences at the University of Amsterdam. As part of my studies, I spent the greater part of 1970 in Damascus and Aleppo to write two theses: one about the ideology of the Ba’th Party and the other about the history of Syria under Ba’thist rule. This study led to my PhD thesis about The Role of Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in the Struggle for Power in Syria in 1977. In 1979, I published a shorter version of it as a book in English, titled The Struggle for Power in Syria: Sectarianism, Regionalism and Tribalism in Politics. This book was later expanded into new editions in 1981, 1996 and 2011, each time taking later developments into account. After more than 40 years it is still considered as a widely known standard work, which has been used in universities, academic circles and elsewhere, all over the world. It was also published in Arabic in Cairo (1995, 1996) and in Turkish in Istanbul (2000). I made an internet edition available in 2009, which can be downloaded from my website.

In 1975, I joined the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and worked as a junior diplomat in Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian Occupied Territories and Libya. Afterwards, I was ambassador for 22 years in respectively Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia. My greatest wish to serve in Damascus was never fulfilled, but in 2015-2016 I was Special Envoy of the Netherlands for Syria, operating from Istanbul. In my book Destroying a Nation, I wrote about some of my experiences during this period. It was published in Arabic in 2018, and is now also available as an e-book.[i]

* After Moscow having obstructed several resolutions’ drafts condemning the Bashar al-Assad regime’s violations against civilians in Syria, the Dutch government decided to prosecute the Syrian regime before the International Court of Justice in Hague, according to what was reported in a letter written by the Dutch Foreign Minister to Parliament on Friday (September 18, 2020). In your appreciation, why did your country’s government take this step now? What is your stance on this measure as a first one of its kind from a Western government? Do you expect that this step will have an effect in making any change in the Syrian political scene if Assad and his pillars’ rule are convicted after it is proven that they have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity, especially torture, murder, enforced disappearance, and the use of chemical weapons?

The Netherlands announced its decision to hold Syria responsible under international law for gross human rights violations and torture in particular. The evidence is overwhelming that the Asad regime has committed horrific crimes time after time. The Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs has declared that there must be consequences. Since Russia will block any attempt to bring the Syrian regime before justice via the UN Security Council, a different way was sought and found.

International organizations have repeatedly reported serious human rights violations for years. Large numbers of Syrians have been tortured, murdered, forcibly disappeared, and subjected to poison-gas attacks, or have lost everything fleeing for their lives.

The Netherlands has invoked Syria’s responsibility for human rights violations under international law, specifically holding Syria responsible for torture under the UN Convention against Torture.

The timing of this initiative coincided with the sessions of the United Nations General Assembly, and therefore got extra attention.

I think this is a good initiative, and better than doing nothing. It might even have been initiated years ago, because proof of the crimes involved already exists for many years. Personally, I do not think that it will cause any real changes in the political scene on the ground. The Syrian regime has immediately strongly rejected the Dutch initiative, arguing that The Hague is the last capital that should accuse Syria, because it accuses the Dutch government of supporting Syrian terrorist organizations. In any case, this initiative may bring some movement in making the Syrian regime accountable for its atrocities. But if you really want to bring people before justice, you have to catch them, instead of having them tried in absentia.

The Hague likes to call itself the “international city of peace and justice”. This name is well deserved in the sense that, according to its municipality, “thousands of people are working here every day to build a more peaceful and just world”. But when it comes to Israel, this name is not justified, at least when taking into account the policies concerned of the Dutch government, which thus far has condoned more or less all Israeli gross human rights violations, and has not done anything practical against it.

* How do you look at what is happening in Syria in the present period? And what is your message to all the parties of the Syrian-Syrian conflict?

After more than 9 years of bloodshed, I cannot keep repeating my earlier elementary advises, because that would not be realistic. Times have changed, and the heavy burden of deadly victims, millions of refugees and material destruction have all asked their toll, making any compromise even more difficult than before.

The situation in Syria has turned out to be a disaster since the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. From the very beginning, my message has been that in order to solve the conflict, it was necessary to have a dialogue between the opposition and the regime. But quite early on, any dialogue with the regime was strongly rejected, not only by the opposition but also by many foreign countries, which broke off diplomatic relations with Damascus and closed their embassies. Their message was that president al-Asad had lost his legitimacy, and therefore had to leave. Many demonstrators demanded the fall of the regime and the execution of the president (al-Sha’b yurid isqat al-Nizam; al-Sha’b yurid I’dam al-Ra’is). And the regime did not want any dialogue with those who wanted its downfall and persecution.

The extremely violent reactions of the regime to previous efforts to topple or oppose it, like the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama (1982), or other occasions, made it unthinkable for me that the regime would willingly give in to any threats against its position, let alone efforts to topple it. But emotional and enthusiastic feelings for justice prevailed over realism, together with the dangers accompanying it.

Of course, the demonstrators had been inspired by the swift fall of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt, and the killing of the Libyan leader al-Qadhafi after foreign military interventions against his regime. But the structure of the Syrian regime, with its Alawi-dominated power elite, was completely different. Moreover, it had half a century of experience in how to effectively and ruthlessly deal with any coups and threats against its position. The most potential possibility for toppling it, could come from within the regime, but not anyone from its inner core dared to take any initiative in this direction for fear of being liquidated.

Many Syrians of the opposition, and with them many Western politicians who supported them, expected the regime to fall by the latter half of 2012. But this turned out to be fully unrealistic, as they did not take the strong and coherent power structure of the Syrian regime into account. The regime wanted to survive, whatever the costs.

In March 2012, I argued that it would be better to have al-Asad with 10,000 dead (which was the number of deadly victims at the time), rather than to have al-Asad with 300,000 dead (which later even turned out to be even worse by going in the direction of half a million dead). For this, a dialogue with the regime had been necessary.

In my opinion it was better to have a failed dialogue than to have a failed war, with half a million dead, more than 10 million refugees and a country in ruins. But many refused any dialogue with the regime, arguing that this was useless anyhow.

As Special Envoy for Syria, I aimed at providing the Syrian opposition with what I considered to be some realistic counsel. I could, of course, have taken the easier, more popular way of joining the opposition and many others in their wishful thinking that the Asad regime was going to be brought down anyhow through political pressure, UN resolutions and military support from Western and Arab countries, but these countries created false expectations. They had so-called “good intentions” of helping the Syrian people, but were not really prepared to implement their declared intensions in the form of sufficient deeds and actions on the ground. I rejected the idea of creating false expectations, because it contributed to making the situation even worse than it already was.

Direct military intervention was excluded by these countries, even though US president Obama had proclaimed that “there would be consequences” if certain “red lines” were crossed, such as the use of chemical weapons. Not crossing these red lines meant thereby, implicitly, that all other means of suppressing the Syrian people and the opposition groups were condoned by the US (and others). Not carrying out their promises, meant that the United States could not be considered as a reliable ally.

Many people kept on thinking in terms which were in fact wishful thinking, and the countries supporting the opposition did the same. They kept turning around in the same vicious circle, arguing that one day their wishes and ideals would be realized. But the realities turned out to be different, and the human cost was disastrous.

By only supporting the military opposition groups halfheartedly, and not providing them with the necessary arms (both quantitatively and qualitatively) the Western and Arab countries involved, in fact sent many of the opposition military to their death.

I argued at the time that if the opposition kept insisting that president al-Asad should be deposed and brought before justice, negotiations were useless, because you cannot bring down the opposing party through peaceful negotiations, if that party happens to be militarily stronger, and is not prepared to relinquish its power.

With some hindsight, I guess that the maximum achievable through negotiations at the time was a “national unity government”, in which eventually participating opposition figures could be included, but would hardly have anything to say. In fact, the regime in Damascus could have included various “moderate” opposition ministers in its government, while at the same time excluding any risk of being deposed, as long as they kept the strategic ministries, army and security agencies under their control. But the regime did not.

The opposition rejected any “national unity government” because it only wanted the regime to disappear; although the opposition stated that it was prepared to share a transitional governing body with members of the Syrian government or regime who did not have blood on their hands. Inclusion of president al-Asad was fully rejected, however, although there were different opinions among the opposition about whether al-Asad would be acceptable or not during a “transitional stage” leading to a new regime without him. But this “transitional stage” never came.

The opposition interpreted the Geneva Communiqué (2012) as including the principle that president al-Asad had to leave. The Americans did the same, but the Geneva Communiqué did not include any such clause, otherwise the Russians would not have agreed to it.

The opposition generally took notice of my views, and some members appreciated my straightforward positions, but this did not change their original views in any way, because they maintained their “basic principles of the revolution”: bringing down the al-Asad regime and bringing to justice all those with blood on their hands. Even though these demands could have been considered fully justified from a moralistic point of view, they were not realistic in my opinion, due to the military imbalance of forces on the ground. The opposition could only have implemented their “basis principles” by winning the war and defeating the regime, but they were not strong enough to do so.

Some opposition leaders afterwards admitted that their demands had not been fully realistic under the circumstances at the time, and that demanding the disappearance of president Bashar al-Asad as a precondition had been a mistake that made realistic negotiations impossible.

The regime should, if it really had wanted a solution, have implemented UN Security Council 2254 (2015) without delay, and immediately allow humanitarian agencies rapid, safe and unhindered access throughout Syria to reach people in need; release any arbitrarily detained prisoners; immediately cease any attacks against civilians and civilian objects as such, including attacks against medical facilities and personnel, and any indiscriminate use of weapons, including through shelling and aerial bombardments.

Implementing Security Council resolution 2254 would not really have weakened the regime’s military position, because the included measures hardly have any strategic military value; except perhaps in the sense that the military opposition groups might also profit from food and medical supplies. Bombing civilians and medical facilities, for instance, has no strategic military value. Therefore, it should have been relatively easy for the regime (and the Russians) to start implementing it.

The opposition should in my view continue their efforts to come to negotiations with the regime on a realistic basis, including in the Constitutional Committee, even though I do not expect the regime to make real concessions to the parties that want to depose it, and have lost much of their political and military power. That does not mean, however, that it should not be seriously tried, because there are only very few options left for negotiations. Here the saying applies of “nothing ventured, nothing gained”. And miracles only happen when one keeps believing in them.

In March 2018, I suggested in a lecture that it would be better to admit that the war against the regime had been lost. But almost three years later on, the war is still being continued, and Syria, as a result of the many years of the war-by-proxy with various countries involved in it, is further going down the drain with further victims and destruction. And a political solution is not getting nearer.

After the war became a war-by-proxy, finding a solution was not really any longer fully in the hands of the opposition and the regime. It was the rivaling outside forces which had obtained a predominant role in co-deciding what could be a way to solve the conflict.

Prolonging the war means more deadly victims, more refugees and more destruction. It is understandable that the opposition wants to continue its fight against the regime, but one should also take into account what the concrete results are in human and material costs, and pose the question: is it worth it? Isn’t it at a certain stage better to wait for a better opportunity in the future?

Under the present circumstances, a new revolution is bound to come in the future.

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* Ambassador, a few days ago, your new book was published, titled “A Diplomat seeking Peace in the Arab and Islamic World”, which contains a summary of your experiences and analyzes during the years of your diplomatic work (career). Can you tell us more details about the content of the book?

My new book has been published in September 2020. It contains my memoirs and analyses of my experiences during the time I worked for the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, from 1975 until my retirement in 2010: As ambassador to Iraq from the end of the war between Iraq and Iran (1988) till the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait (1990), the taking hostage of many foreigners, and Operation Desert Storm (1991), during which the Iraqi army was expelled from Kuwait. Secondly, as ambassador to Egypt under the rule of president Mubarak (1991-1996), at a time when Egypt still played a prominent political role in the Middle East. Thirdly as ambassador to Turkey, with the Turkish accession talks with the European Union, and the political change from secularism to Islamism, which made real EU membership for Turkey a fiction. Fourthly, as ambassador to Germany and the transfer of the capital from Bonn to Berlin, with the accompanying changes of forces within Europe. And fifthly, as ambassador to Indonesia, where I had to deal with the sensitive Dutch colonial past.

As a junior diplomat I served in Lebanon (1980-1983) during the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion (1982), in Jordan and the Palestinian Occupied Territories, and as Chargé d’Affaires in the Libya of Qadhafi (1983-1985), with his provocative regime. A separate chapter is devoted to Syria, and is based on my experiences as Special Envoy for Syria (2015-2016). Another separate chapter deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, and is based on my experiences as secretary of the European Middle East mission in 1981 (the most extensive of its kind) and my experiences in the subsequent decades.

Much of what is happening today in de Palestinian-Israeli conflict, was fully predictable some 40 years ago, if we would have better realized that the Israelis were not prepared to make any real compromise. The Israeli key positions have remained the same: no withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders, no Palestinian State, and an “eternally united Jerusalem”. The core positions of Likud and Labor were the same: keeping control over the whole of Palestine, with as few Palestinians as possible. The main difference was the way in which they presented themselves. One of the major problems has been that more or less everything Israel did has been condoned by Western countries. The United States has even encouraged it, and its recognition of the annexations of Eastern Jerusalem and parts of the Golan Heights constitutes a serious undermining of the order of international law. The United States has never been an honest broker, but rather “Brokers of Deceit”, as described in the book of Rashid al-Khalidi titled “How the US has Undermined Peace in the Middle East” (2013).

European countries criticized Israeli behavior, but did do nothing against it, except for issuing statements, deploring what happened. Since European governments are not going to do anything to really help solving the conflict, I think the non-governmental BDS-movement (Boycott-Divest-Sanctions) is fully justified.

I hope the chapters on Syria and the Arab-Israeli conflict can be made available in Arabic one day.

There is too much in the book to present here in short detail.

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* In your new book, you have dealt with your personal analyzes of your experience as a special envoy for the Netherlands to Syria. can you let us know the most prominent positions that you have stood on which led to protracting the life of the Syrian disaster, whether by the boss of the Syrian regime, the opposition forces, or external Arab and Western forces?

Most of my experiences as the Dutch Special Envoy for Syria have already been published in my book Destroying a Nation.  In my new book I dwell on some of the incompatibilities between democracy and realpolitik. Politicians in democracies want to show their good intentions by making political statements, supporting in the Syrian case the Syrian opposition, but when it comes to realpolitik, they are unwilling to implement what they have been proposing, except when it comes to some sanctions. Therefore, most of their statements remain statements, without being implemented. My new book further deals with the way the conflict in Syria is being dealt with in Dutch internal and foreign politics.

The factors that have contributed to the disastrous war in Syria and its prolongation are many. I mention only some of the most important ones.

– The violent suppression by the Syrian regime of the demonstrations and its ruthless violent suppression of any opposition. Its rejection of any essential reform which could, in its own perception, undermine its power monopoly.

– The declaratory support of various foreign countries for the opposition forces, without them being prepared to mobilize the necessary means and providing the necessary military and material support to help achieving their declared (or undeclared) aim of regime change.

– Providing billions of dollars in military aid to the military opposition groups in an uncoordinated way, which turned out to be insufficient to win the battle against the regime.

– Creating false expectations among the opposition by Western and Arab countries.

– Russian and Iranian support for the regime helped these two countries in maintaining their strategic ally in Damascus.

– The occupation of parts of Syria by Turkey, the United States, Russia and Iran have contributed to prolonging the conflict, just as have the endeavors by these states to serve their own strategic interests in the region, without taking the suffering of the Syrian people enough into account.

– The opposition has allowed itself to being deceived to some extent by the so-called good intentions of the foreign forces that expressed their support.

– Overdoses of wishful thinking have prolonged the war, while at the same time neglecting the hard realities of realpolitik.

– Seeking justice, without having the power to bring those responsible for the committed crimes to justice, except in some individual court cases abroad. In itself it is a good thing to bringing those responsible for war crimes and bloodshed to justice, but this does not mean that the conflict is brought to an end swifter than would otherwise be the case.

* What is the origin of your personal interest in the Syrian dilemma, and to set it through your writings, in its historical and contemporary context, using a unique blend of academic uniqueness and diplomatic experience?

My personal and academic interest for Syria, which started in 1964, and my great personal affection for the people of Syria and the country are the source for my continuous activity and inspiration to help analyze what may be the better (or less bad) options for achieving a solution to the conflict. Having a wider experience in both the academic and diplomatic field can be a fruitful combination, which may be better than having experience in only one of these fields.

* Ambassador, allow us to return with you to your book “Destroying a Nation. The Civil War in Syria”, which was translated and published by the “Jana Tamer for Studies and Publishing House” in Beirut, (2018). I would ask you: What are the most prominent conclusions that you reached in the context of finding solutions and exits to the flaming Syrian crisis?

Anyone with some knowledge of the regime should have known that any effort to topple it would lead to a bloodbath, as I predicted in the second edition of my book The Struggle for Power in Syria, which was published in 1981, 30 years before the start of the Syrian Revolution in 2011. And this was not difficult to predict.

If you want to defeat a lion, you must be well armed and be in the stronger position, in order to prevent not to be killed oneself. But the reality for the military opposition forces turned out to be that of the weaker party.

The opposition military were not in such a strong position, and once they started to threaten the regime to some extent in 2015, Russia intervened militarily.

Often, it is pointed out that the Asad regime has caused many more deaths than the opposition groups altogether. And that is correct: roughly 90% of all victims have been the result of military and other actions of the regime. This is often used as an argument to underline that only the regime is responsible for the disastrous situation in which Syria finds itself. This does not, however, fully exonerate those who tried to topple the regime, because they could have known the bloody consequences, even though these groups themselves might be held responsible for “only” 10% of the deadly victims.

When discussing the controversial concept of who carries responsibility for the present situation in Syria, the hard reality should also be taken into account of who has achieved a certain victory and who has been defeated. Perhaps the situation would have been completely different if the military and civilian opposition forces together would have succeeded in bringing peace, and in creating a “new Syria” that could be described by the ideal characteristics and aims, as described by the Higher Council for Negotiations in 2016: “A political system based on democracy, pluralism and a citizenship that provides for equal rights and duties for all Syrians without any discrimination on basis of color, gender, language, ethnicity, opinion, religion or ideology.” In such a case, it could have been argued that the war of the opposition against the regime “had been worth it”, because it would have led to a substantial improvement of the situation in Syria. In reality, however, this did not happen, because the military opposition or – better said – the numerous opposition groups altogether, did not succeed in defeating the regime. Therefore, it can be argued that the opposition groups, together with the countries supporting them, at least bear a large co-responsibility (together with the regime) for the disastrous consequences which the war has had for all Syrians; this irrespective of the fact that the regime has numerically caused by far the most victims and material destruction. Having the right ideals does not mean that one does not have any co-responsibility when things go wrong when trying to achieve them.

If you want to negotiate, and demand the disappearance and court martialing of your opponent, which is militarily stronger, it is impossible to achieve a political solution. Negotiations are doomed to failure if the aim is to eradicate your opponent, while refusing to come to any compromise with the opposing party. A compromise implies that the negotiating parties are not fully eradicated once the agreement reached is being implemented. Regime change in Syria can only be achieved by military means.

In order to really know what I wrote in the book, one should read it oneself.

* We have noted the objection of many Syrian revolutionaries to describing what has happened and is happening in Syria as a “civil war,” considering that the classification of the Syrian war does not deviate from the context of being aggression by the Bashar al-Assad regime against its people who rose up against its authoritarian rule in mid-March 2011, with the help of external intervention militarily. What is your response to those?

I should start by noting that the vast majority of the mass media and reporters use the terminology of “civil war” to describe the bloody conflict in Syria, such as: BBC, CNN and Al-Jazeera, just like most academic authors and journalists. Only a tiny minority of writers specifically rejects this terminology, being fully aware of the sensitivities of opposition circles in this respect. This in itself does not imply, however, that the terminology is correct or wrong.

Most of those who have criticized me for speaking about a “civil war”, have apparently only read the outside cover of my book containing the title of eight words, without reading the contents of the book itself. Had they done so, they would have discovered that I have explained in my book that “as a result of foreign support, the war in Syria developed into a war by proxy, next to being an internal intra-Syrian war. Therefore, the terminology of ‘civil war’ was no longer appropriate.”

My father used to say: “It would be nice if people reviewing a book would also really read it.”

In the Arabic edition of my book, I have given an additional explanation about its usage based on academic research. It is all a matter of terminology.

One might argue that it was the regime that waged “a war against its own people”, but one cannot deny that a great many people wanted to bring down the regime, and were subsequently indignant and angry, once the regime did not want to step down voluntarily, as could have been expected. It has not developed into just one side waging war against the other, because otherwise the regime would have won long ago, but also into Syrian opposition military waging war against the regime.

* What is the meaning of Professor Fabrice Balanche (Research Director at Lyon 2 University), who said that “anyone who wants to look at the future of Syria, especially if he is in the process of making new decisions, he should read this book, which is necessary for a deeper understanding of the Syrian crisis. It delves into history and dismantles the sectarian dimension of society and power in Syria?”.

Actually, this question should be addressed to professor Fabrice Balanche himself. He, in fact, recommends reading my book because it is based on in-depth research and experience, and on what he considers to be a more realistic approach. My argument is that one should not only take into account what is idealistically desirable, but also what is realistically achievable. Ignoring realities has led to a lot of additional bloodshed.

* What the book is credited for, is that it analyzes the dimensions of the Syrian tragedy, not only from the perspective of domestic politics in (Assad’s Syria), but also explores the Syrian-Arab-Israeli conflict, the Syrian-American relations, and the Syrian-Russian relations. This invites me to ask you, if we accept that the solution came out of the Syrians’ hand, then who has the solution, Russia, the strongest ally of the Assad regime, or the United States of America and, in the background Israel? And Why?

The final say in any solution to the conflict in Syria should be in the hands of the Syrians themselves, of course. Since, however, various outside powers started to intervene in the war in Syria, also at the request of various Syrian parties themselves, it has become inevitable that in any solution the main foreign parties should also agree to some extent among themselves on how this should be achieved. One of the problems in this respect is that various foreign parties that intervened at the request of Syrian parties, both the regime and opposition groups, want to give their own regional interests priority over the wishes of the Syrian parties themselves.

* Ambassador, you were a special envoy for your country for Syria in the years 2015 and 2016, which means that you met the head of the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad more than once. Can you tell us about your personal impressions of this man? And is it really, as a number of diplomats and media professionals who met him have spoken, that he is a person who is separated from the reality in which Syria is sinking?

In my capacity as Dutch Special Envoy for Syria, I did not have any meetings with president Bashar al-Asad, because the Netherlands closed their embassy in Damascus and stopped diplomatic relations with the Syrian regime. This meant that contacts between Dutch diplomats and the Syrian government were prohibited. Personally, I have argued since the beginning of the Syrian Revolution that in order to help solve the conflict, contacts with the regime and the main parties to the conflict were a necessity.

It happens more often that authoritarian leaders lose touch with realities, and as a result do not judge correctly how foreign countries can be expected to react to their actions or behavior. Concerning president Bashar al-Asad, I think the impression reported by various media, as if he has lost a feeling for the realities inside Syria, is exaggerated. He can follow developments closely through the media, and is being confronted, for instance, with the death of many Alawi military from his own community, and therefore has to take the feelings of their families into seriously account. His views also depend on the reports he receives from his subordinates and supporters, and these may be biased, of course.

Reports about president al-Asad supposedly having lost his sense for realities inside Syria, also contain some elements of wishful thinking in the sense that outside politicians want him to do what they want, like “if he would be aware of the real situation, he would resign as president”, which I do not expect to happen. In my opinion it is just as well dangerous not to take him seriously. Likewise, it has turned out to be dangerous or reckless to underestimate his will to stay in power.

* Ambassador, upon your appreciation, what are the reasons for the failure of Western policies towards the Syrian issue, despite the fact that Western leaders express at any available opportunity that a just solution must be based on Security Council Resolution 2254, and that they insist that they are not willing to finance the reconstruction in Syria under the economic sanctions because of the continuing presence  of the Assad regime?

Most Western countries failed in their policies towards Syria, because they were not prepared to communicate with the regime, and were not either prepared to intervene militarily, just as they were not prepared to effectuate the major part of their declarations and stated principles. And even if they had been willing to intervene militarily, they would not have been prepared to take up the responsibility to protect the Syrian people for another ten, twenty or more years, in order to help lead Syria into “a better future”, as they would see it. For this reason, it had been better for them not to militarily intervene at all, also not indirectly. Non-intervention would have cost much less victims, fewer refugees, and less destruction.

After all the bloodshed and destruction, I don’t believe that it is possible to achieve a just solution anymore, if it was ever possible at all. It will at most have to be a compromise.

Refusing to give Western financial aid to help Syria’s reconstruction does not mean that the regime will change its behavior or will give in to Western or Arab wishes for drastic internal reforms. United Nations Security Council 2254 contains some major elements for a way to a political solution, but the regime refuses to implement it, and the measures imposed on the regime, such as sanctions, will in my opinion not result in regime change. On the contrary, they are bound to lead to a further worsening of the situation for the Syrian people. Civilians will not be able to topple the regime, however desperate their situation may be. Most probably, it can only be military, toppling other military.

* How do you look at the Russian and Iranian role in Syria now, and at their military presence in Syria and the possibility of its continuation or not? What about the future of the US military presence in the north and northeast of the country?

The Russian and Iranian military presence, which has been requested or accepted by the Syrian regime, is bound to continue, as long as these two countries deem it necessary to keep their Syrian ally in power. They will not give up, just to please some Western or Arab countries that are in fact hostile to them. The American military presence can be expected to be continued for some time as part of US efforts to put the regime under pressure. One of the complications of the US military presence in the North East is that they cooperate with the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) (which have played an important role in the fight against the Islamic State), whereas on the other hand, Turkey rejects any Kurdish autonomy on the Syrian side of its border (let alone inside Turkey itself). A strengthening of the SDF, and for that matter of the authoritarian Kurdish PYD/YPG, may result in a strengthening of the position of the PKK inside Turkey. The US cannot stay in Syria forever, and much depends on the policies of the US president. Moreover, the US military presence is rather small, but the dangers of confrontations with Russia are clearly present.

The Turkish military presence in Idlib is mainly intended to prevent a new stream of Syrian refugees into Turkey, and to curb the activities of radical terrorist Islamist organizations, like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, and preventing them from having any influence or effect on terrorism inside Turkey. Perhaps Turkey still aims at regime change in Damascus, although it may have realized by now that its efforts have failed in this respect.

In fact, the strengthened position of organizations like the PYD/YPG, HTS and others is to some extent an indirect result of Turkish interference in the war in Syria on the side of various opposition groups, and their failed efforts to topple the regime.

* Ambassador, what is your reading of the “Caesar Act”, which came into effect on June 17th, in terms of its ability to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime on the one hand, and on the other hand, in terms of deepening the suffering of the Syrian people, which means facing brutal difficulties for nearly a decade, as a result of the ongoing war throughout Syria?

The Caesar Law may bring some feelings of justice to the Syrians who have suffered under the regime, but I don’t believe that it will help in having the regime’s behavior being changed. The accompanying sanctions may bring some moral satisfaction to many Syrian refugees abroad, but it will not lead to the disappearance of the Syrian regime. The Syrian regime elite will not directly suffer from the sanctions, because it will maintain all the privileges it already has, but the population will be the indirect victim. The Syrian regime will, in my opinion, never be able to satisfy the American demands for “changing its behavior” except by stepping down, which is not going to happen.

More often than not there is a fixation on the position of president Bashar al-Asad, in the sense that if only he were to disappear, a real solution to the conflict would be at hand. The president, indeed, formally has a lot of authority, but it is not only he who decides what happens. Asad’s position is not like that described in the saying which is popularly ascribed to king Louis the 14th of France (1638 – 1715): l’État c’est moi (“I am the state”). If, purely theoretically, Asad would leave, there would still be the thousands of key military figures, and intelligence people who can take the law into their own hands, leaving a situation in which the same regime would in fact still be there without Bashar Asad, at least as long as they would remain unified, whether or not behind a new “figure head president”. Therefore, one should take into account that the effects of president Asad resigning, generally are unrealistically portrayed as being much simpler than they really are.

And one should also take into account what would happen if the regime succumbs due to the increasingly deteriorating economic situation in the country. Even if Russia and Iran would, purely theoretically, allow the Syrian military opposition groups to overrun the regime and bring its downfall, one should not expect “paradise” to break out. It is very unlikely that the more than 1000 military opposition groups would suddenly unite and make a run for parliament in order to have free elections and create a new peaceful and democratic Syria. They can be expected to engage in a power struggle among themselves until one group, or a coalition of groups, will monopolize power, and establish yet another authoritarian regime. This would mean a continuation of the bloody war. A new regime would be confronted with the same disastrous situation of a Syria in ruins. Even if all building materials and finances would be available, reconstruction of the country could take tens of years, because there should also be enough construction workers to carry it out.

* Does sectarianism in Syria -or “asabiya”as your Excellency considers it- stand as an obstacle against seeking to build the future of a new Syria? And first of all, what was the responsibility of the Assad regime and the Ba’ath party in establishing this great dilemma?

The Ba’th ideology strongly rejects sectarianism, regionalism and tribalism as old residues of society. In practice, however, the Ba’thist military were able to consolidate their power by exactly those principles which they rejected ideologically. There certainly was a lot of favoritism towards Alawi, tribal or regional friends of those in power.

This was a kind of sectarianism or ‘asabiya within the regime’s power instruments, like the army and security services (Mukhabarat). During the war which started after the beginning of the Syrian Revolution in 2011, the regime was able to maintain its position and survive, also because of this ‘asabiya, and sticking together among the regime’s elite.

That does not mean, however, that this should prevent the building up of a new Syria, at least if there would be a new regime which is not dependent to the same extent on tribalism, regionalism and ‘asabiya, and the clientelism derived from it. Such a regime would thereby provide an example to Syrian society that things can be dealt with differently. One of the obstacles in this respect would be, however, that there should be reliable, more neutral armed forces and power institutions to guarantee such a neutrality. Creating such new power instruments will be extremely difficult, as loyalties within the Syrian armed forces have often depended on such primordial loyalties.

One should make another distinction: the dependence of the power structure of the regime on sectarian, regional, tribal and ‘asabiya loyalties, does not mean that Syrian society in general is the same. Neither does it mean that the war in Syria is a sectarian war, even though some stages have had some sectarian dimensions. Of course, the same sectarian elements are present in the social fabric of Syrian society, but there are many more factors which are relevant in existing identities.

* Do you think that Syria will live in a crisis of identity and coexistence in the post-war period, after all the destruction and sabotage that has befallen on it?

Although it may sound contradictory, the war in Syria may in the end indirectly well have contributed to strengthening the Syrian national identity, instead of weakening it. The war is to a great extent about who will be in power within the framework of the Syrian state. Nevertheless, there are still many Syrians who give priority to their Arab and Islamic or other identities, whereas many Kurds, for instance, are doing something similar by giving priority to their Kurdish identity, some within the framework of a “Greater Kurdistan” which would be the counterpart of the “Arab Homeland”. Within this framework, the request is made by some parties to drop the word “Arab” from the present official name of the “Syrian Arab Republic”. The shorter name would be more neutral, as it does not distinguish between Kurds and Arabs (like in de official name of the Republic of Iraq). Dropping the word Arab would be difficult for those who are still convinced that Damascus should be seen as “the beating heart of Arabism”.

The Syrian identity should supersede religious and ethnic identities, and this may take a long time to be realized. Accepting a change in the name of the Syrian state does not in itself mean that Syrians would really have changed their attitudes, but it would reflect their willingness to do so in the future.

* How do you see the prospects and future of the Kurdish question in the context of a Syrian solution which would have to be accepted by all components of Syrian society?

A solution to the Kurdish question should inevitably be achieved. In particular, there should be freedom of expressing the Kurdish identity, including its language. The Syrian national identity should however, in my opinion, officially supersede other identities, be it the Arab, Kurdish or other identities. Otherwise, it will be not that easy to realize a Syria in which all citizens can be considered as equals. If the area inhabited by a Kurdish majority would have been rather homogeneous and large, like in northern Iraq, it would be easier to recognize an area with a kind of Kurdish autonomy. In reality, however, there are only three enclaves in northern Syria, where Kurds constitute a majority: Kobani, Ifrin and upper Jazira. Therefore, a similar construction as in northern Iraq, appears to be unfeasible.

We have seen that the Kurdish PYD/YPG has had seemingly contradictory alliances with different sides: with the Syrian regime, with the United States, occasionally also with the Free Syrian Army, but more often against it. One element has remained the same, however: they want to achieve Kurdish autonomy, and in this respect, they do not really care with whom they have an alliance, as long as this helps them in achieving their main aim. The countries that presently support the PYD/YPG, do so mainly for strategic reasons, which does not mean that they also support their ideas.

* At last, through your experience, your long diplomatic career and the role that you played in Syria, do you see that we have in this country a national project that brings together all Syrians, after Bashar al-Assad’s departure and the end of all forms of occupation and foreign presences on Syrian soil?

Of course, there is such a possibility. All depends on the Syrians themselves and on a united military to protecting it and bringing it about.


[i] https://e-poetssociety.com/book-details?id=245

Should the US Hasten Assad’s Downfall Despite Syria’s Absence of Opposition Leaders?

I wrote this post on 5 August 2011, but never finished or posted it. I have just found it in my “drafts” and thought it worth publishing as a retrospective of the deep disagreement among analysts over US policy toward Syria during the first year of the Syrian Uprising.  (Joshua 14 Oct. 2020)

Should the US Hasten Assad’s Downfall Despite Syria’s Absence of Opposition Leaders?
By Joshua Landis
Syria Comment, August 5, 2011

Rami Nakhle in Lebanon

The Lack of a united leadership

Syria’s opposition does not have leaders. Rami Nakhle, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, the most well known of the groups opposing the regime, told Deb Amos of NPR, “there is no national leadership, even behind the scenes.” This is a virtue and intentional he explains, “we are doing our best not really to have leaders.” Why? Because “the Syrian regime has targeted anyone who is seen as an organizer of the protests.” That is the practical reason.

A second reason is that Syrians don’t want leaders – “Everybody really feels anger towards leadership and authority on them,” says Nakhle.

Wissam Tarif reassures us that a new leadership for Syria will eventually emerge. It will emerge out of battle. It will emerge from the street. He explains, “There is an internal process, a process that is taking place in the street, which we will have to wait to see what happens there,” he said. “No one can control that. The real show is taking place on the ground with the protesters. And they will decide. No one else.”

How Does Syria’s Lack of Leaders Complicate US Planning?

The Syrian opposition’s lack of leaders has many US policy makers scared. They don’t want to bring down the regime before there is some structure or leadership to take its place. Syria’s silent majority is worried about a power vacuum developing in Syria as well. Who wants chaos? Iraq is fresh in everyone’s minds, not least of all in American policy planners’ minds. The quick toppling of the Iraqi regime brought militias and civil war. Much of Iraq that Saddam had failed to destroy was brought down by the waring militias and criminal gangs that took the army’s place. Most devastating, was the flight of Iraq’s upper and middle classes.

Because of this fear, a number of US think tankers, most recently Michael S. Doran and Salman Shaikh of the Saban Center at Brookings, are trying to think their way around the dangers. In an article, entitled Getting Serious in Syria, they argue that the US must play a leadership role in hastening the downfall of the Syrian regime. To avoid chaos and a vacuum they council the US to train, unit, and shape the Syrian opposition. It should also preserve the army. They don’t want an Iraq redux.

The main body of the article is quite smart and nails a number of regime characteristics. It is the recommendations that give pause. The main shortcoming of the article is that it skips any discussion of the opposition’s lack of leadership.

They are convinced that the sort of regime-led dialogue that Patrick Seale recommends is fruitless. In this, they are so far correct. But they tip-toe around Seale’s central concern, that Syrians are divided. Without unity, Syria is likely to end up like Iraq and not Egypt. Seale cautions, “a sectarian civil war on the Iraqi or Lebanese model is every Syrian’s nightmare. There must surely be another way out of the crisis.” He councils dialogue because he despairs of unity emerging among Syria’s nascent opposition anytime soon. In his two magisterial works, Seale catalogs the history of Syrian divisiveness and factionalism in the 20th century. Perhaps this is why he shares little of the sunny optimism expressed by Doran and Shaykh about coordinating Syria’s opposition. He writes:

If the regime has shown itself to be weak, the opposition is weaker still. It wants to challenge the system, but it evidently does not know how to proceed. It is split in a dozen ways between secularists, civil rights activists, democrats — and Islamists; between angry unemployed youths in the street and venerable figures of the opposition, hallowed by years in prison; between the opposition in Syria and the exiles abroad; between those who call for western intervention and those who reject any form of foreign interference.

Doran and Shaikh dismiss Seale’s caution and ignore Syria’s leaderlessness. This permits them to advocate speeding up regime-change. They explain that in order to save lives and ensure “the speediest rise of a new order hospitable to the United States,” the US should organize a “contact group” of friendly nations which will help in shaping the environment such that a power vacuum does not emerge in Syria when the regime falls. They advise that “The contact group should take all available steps to starve the regime of cash and other resources, including taking a leadership role on preventing the regime from generating revenue from oil exports.” On economic sanctions, they follow the Tabler and Monajed plan.

Their addition is the notion of an official “contact group” and that idea that the US can help form a transitional government out of Syria’s divisive opposition activists.

The United States must work with other key actors to help turn the Syrian opposition into the nucleus of a transition government. As the experience with the Libyan opposition forces has shown, engagement with the Syrian opposition movement would prove invaluable to increase its effectiveness and professionalize its efforts.

As for the Syrian Army, they write:

The United States must promote defections from the Syrian security services with an eye both to convincing Assad to leave and to preserving the Syrian Armed Forces as a future national institution. In doing so, Washington must warn officers, down to the brigade level, that they are being monitored and that they will be held personally accountable for the atrocities that are committed under their command. (This should not be a bluff.)

Can the US do this? Has it learned enough from its nation-building efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq to make the third time a charm? Or should the US pay heed to Wissam Tarif’s warning that the formation of an opposition leadership is an “internal process” that “no one can control?”

Randa Slim proposes a Doran lite sanctions scenario, aimed at convincing Syria’s business elite to dump Assad and embrace the revolution. In an article, entitled, “Where’s Syria’s business community?” She insists that Turkey must lead. The US is too tainted to assume dominance in the “contact group.” A close relationship with the Washington will delegitimize Syria’s opposition leaders in the eyes of Syrians.  The US and the West in general, she cautions, must leave a “lighter footprint.”

Slim is clear about one thing. Disunity among the opposition could doom the desire for regime-change. The absence of an opposition leadership is the major stumbling block preventing the Syrian business elite from ditching the Assads, she argues. The key to success for the revolution is getting Aleppo and Damascus to rise up with the people of Deraa and Jisr ash-Shaghour.

Syria’s Sunni Capitalists

Syrian businessmen are a conservative and self-interested lot. They have a refined disdain for peasants and tribesmen alike; neither are they big on leftists, philosophers, religious fanatics, or zealots of any stripe.  Indeed, Syria’s merchants and capitalists have rather high regard for themselves and few others. In their eyes, they are the true guardians of the Syrian nation. Their wisdom and moderation guided Syria to independence in the 1940s, avoiding sectarian bloodletting or humiliating foreign treaties. They bore with the Baathist mishandling of the economy, and spurned the Brotherhoods’ Jihadist pretensions in the 1980s. The only wisdom of the Assads, according to the Sunni elite, was their willingness to temper the nationalizations of the Nasserists, cut short the communism of the Jadidists, and most importantly take Syria’s capitalists seriously.

Before they will help overthrow the Assads, they need a safe alternative. They are not going to embrace, not to mention, fund a leaderless bunch of young activists who want to smash everything that smells of Baathist privilege, corruption and cronyism. After all, who are the CEOs of Syria’s crony capitalism if not the business elites of Aleppo and Damascus?

Only a five weeks ago, the head of Aleppo’s Chamber of Commerce, Faris Al-Shihabi, decried the return of socialist and communist ideas among the opposition. He warned:

We do not want this opposition to be molded by the left, which will be accompanied by lectures, theorizing and calamity for society and the economy. Steps to bring about reconciliation must be taken with the other sectors of civil society, particularly with national capital.  “لا نريد لهذه المعارضة أن تكون لها الصبغة اليسارية، التي تأتي بالتنظير والفلسفة والكوارث على المجتمع واقتصاده، ولا بد من إجراء المصالحة الداخلية مع القوى المدنية الأخرى وخصوصاً قوى رأس المال الوطني”.

Syria’s capitalists are not suicidal. They fear having their property expropriated twice in 50 years. Furthermore, they have become inextricably linked with the regime over the last 40 years, according to a number of analysts.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is correct in pointing out that change is up to the Syrians, and that the Syrian opposition must start laying out a credible transitional plan. The traditional Syrian business community must be convinced that there is a credible and viable political alternative to Assad. All they see now is an opposition that is either too old and disorganized and has tried to effect change and failed in the past or an opposition that is too young in the form of the Local Coordinating Committees whose faces and names are unknown to most and who are organizing and documenting the street protests. Different opposition groupings including the National Democratic Grouping, the Damascus Declaration signatories, the National Salvation Council, and the local Coordinating Committee have declared themselves, solidifying the image among this community of a disjointed opposition.

The formation of a transitional political council composed of the different groups now making up the Syrian opposition, Islamists and secular, old and young, groups based in Syria and exiles, will go a long way in promoting a shift in the Syrian businessman’s calculus. This council should elect a leadership, outline a detailed transition plan, and spell out a clear vision about the new social contract for how they want Syrians to live together and the type of economic system they want to see established. The lighter the footprint the international community has in this process, the more credible the outcome will be to the majority of Syrians and especially to the traditional merchant class, a nationalistic group that is suspicious of foreign, and especially U.S., intervention. There are many skilled Syrian political scientists, lawyers, and economists to do this job well without any outside assistance.

Fast-forwarding the Revolution may create a Frankenstein

Perhaps the US would be wiser to allow Syria to fill its own power vacuum? Once a united leadership emerges in Syria, it will be able to win the confidence of the majority and topple the regime on its own. There are dangers to short-circuiting that painful process. Doran and Shaikh argue that the US should hasten both the destruction of the old regime and construction of a new one – in short that it can nation build and help guide the emergence of a new Syria. This will save Syrian lives, they project, because it will prevent a drawn out battle.

But by helping to “fast forward” the Syrian revolution, the US could be creating a Frankenstein. If the opposition doesn’t have time to produce a leadership that emerges organically out of struggle, Syria may never unite. The US may cause more destruction and death, not less. To be truly success the opposition must come together under one set of leaders who win the confidence of the people by their intelligence, canniness, and most importantly, by their success.

Syrian Must Win the Revolution on its Own

As Haytham al-Maleh, the dean of Syria’s opposition leaders, said in urging Syrians to eschew foreign intervention: “If we want to own Syria after the revolution, we must win this struggle on our own.”

____

End Landis analysis

NEWS ROUND UP

Alain Gresh, Director of Le Monde Diplomatique returns from Hama he provides a video of his observations copied below
(in french) link

Interview Summary: Syrian no longer fear. They are expressing themselves. They see the regime’s deceptions. There is no going back to what was. Assad cannot beat this. Either there will be deep and meaningful reform or a long bloody war that may go on for months and months and take on a nasty sectarian aspect.

Very interesting video of a tribal meeting in Deir Ez-Zor, where several speakers support Jihad against the Army. Speakers agree that the regime does not know the meaning of peace or dialogue. They ask to coordinate with other cities, collect money from the cities and countryside, and to take the fight to the regime. Lots of old time religion.

Syrian Uprising Expands Despite Absence Of Leaders
Wednesday, August 03, 2011 NPR By Deborah Amos

Syria’s uprising has been called the YouTube Revolution. The protest videos from cities across the country are a guide to how the movement works.

The banners and the slogans are remarkably similar, from the city of Dera’a in the south, to Hama on the central plain, to the eastern desert town of Deir Ezzor. Even in the capital of Damascus, the chants are the same: “It’s time for President Bashar al-Assad to go.”

Yet there are no leaders directing the chants at these rallies. There is no national leadership, even behind the scenes, says Rami Nakhle, a spokesman for the Local Coordination Committees, the LCC, the most well known of the groups opposing the regime.

“Actually, we are doing our best not really to have leaders, because the classic leadership concept is really not working with this uprising,” said Nakhle, who is operating from Beirut in neighboring Lebanon.

The reasons are practical. The Syrian regime has targeted anyone who is seen as an organizer of the protests.

“If we name them, we are really putting them in grave danger,” said Nakhle.

But there is something even stronger at work, said Nakhle. This Syrian generation has grown up under an authoritarian system and distrusts any kind of leadership.

“If some leader or some person starts to behave as a leader, the crowd will knock him down,” he said. “Everybody really feels anger towards leadership and authority on them.”

The result is an uprising that appears improvised, locally based, and driven by young activists who are backed by large numbers of angry citizens.

“We don’t need anyone. It’s our freedom and we have to fight for it. We are not afraid,” said Mohammed Ali, an activist in Damascus who connects with other activists through Facebook.

Another Damascus-based activist, Amer Sadeq, uses an assumed name, and communicates in code on Internet sites. “You cannot trust anybody,” he said. “If you trust anybody and he makes a mistake, then you are detained, that means almost certain possibility that you will be tortured.”

While the groups in different cities are in touch through Internet chat sites, they can take a week to decide on the Friday slogan and tend to coordinate little else. They agree on ousting the Assad regime, but so far, there is no grand structure or strategy beyond keeping up the pressure on the street.

“It is a strategy,” says Rami Nakhle, “making it look to (President) Bashar al Assad that every day is worse than that day before and to keep pushing until something cracks.”

But as the international community distances itself from the Assad regime, one question has become more urgent: Who is the opposition and can get their act together?

“I think the international community wants a list, a list of 20 people whom they can check their background, and then they can talk with,” said Wissam Tarif, head of a Syrian human rights monitoring group. “Well, there is no list and there will not be a list.”

Political organizing is new for Syria, especially under an autocratic system that prohibits any meetings not sanctioned by regime.

“There is an internal process, a process that is taking place in the street, which we will have to wait to see what happens there,” he said. “No one can control that. The real show is taking place on the ground with the protesters. And they will decide. No one else.”

Still, some activists feel they need a transition plan that answers the crucial question: What next?

At a meeting in Beirut, Nakhle, one of the founders of the LCC, opens his laptop and explains a complex chart that he’s been working on for weeks. Every city has what he calls a central committee. There is an LCC parliament, and a list of “advisers.” For the first time, the grassroots movement is reaching out to Syria’s older generation of dissidents for help to map out a transition plan should the Assad regime fall.

It may look great on the screen, but Nakhle admits that less than half of it is actually in place.

“Today we are … playing with politics, we need to be more mature,” he said.

But the Syrian government is not playing at repression. And the protest movement may need to mature quickly in a country where the violence is growing greater by the day.

In Syria, Live Fire and Dueling Narratives
By J. DAVID GOODMAN, August 5, 2011

After seeking to impose a communications blackout on the besieged city of Hama, Syrian state television aired its own footage of rubble-strewn and deserted streets as evidence, it said, of a campaign to restore “normal life.”

BBC compiled video clips from the state news report, which described the images as new….

a Swiss radio journalist, Gaëtan Vannay, spent ten days in the city, managing to escape during the military onslaught sometime early this week.

He reported that before the tanks and troops moved in, the city was calm, calling government claims that the city had been overtaken by violent chaos “pure propaganda.”

“I did not hear any gunshots before the morning of the arrival of the government forces,” Mr. Vannay said in his report. He also confirmed that in general the video reports by activists in the city were an accurate representation of what was going on there….

Russia warns Syrian ruler he may face `sad fate’
VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV – 8/4/2011 7:08:38

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said Thursday he has warned Syria’s ruler that he will face a “sad fate” if he fails to introduce reforms in his country and open a peaceful dialogue with the opposition.

In remarks carried by Russian news agencies, Medvedev said he has delivered this message to Syrian President Bashar Assad.

An offensive by Syrian forces against anti-government dissent in the city of Hama, backed by tanks and snipers, has killed scores of people since Sunday.

“Regrettably, large numbers of people are dying there. That causes us grave concern,” Medvedev was quoted as saying.

“That’s why both on a personal level and in the letters I sent to him (Assad) I have emphasized that it’s necessary to urgently conduct reforms, negotiate with the opposition, restore civil peace, and create a modern state.”

“If he fails to do that, he will face a sad fate. And in the end we will also have to make some decisions. We are watching how the situation is developing. It’s changing, and our approach is changing as well.”

Economist: Bloodier Still

AT DAWN on the eve of Ramadan, the month of fasting that began on August 1st, President Bashar Assad sent tanks into Hama, the fourth-biggest city in the country. They fired at buildings from at least four directions. Soldiers and security forces with automatic rifles mowed down protesters carrying iron bars and rocks. They cut off electricity and communications. Amateur video footage showed columns of black smoke rising from the city of 800,000 as gunfire reverberated in the background. Pictures displayed mangled bodies, including one of a man run over by a tank. At least 100 civilians are reported to have been killed since the assault began.

It was the bloodiest episode since Syrians rose up five months ago. Since then, at least 2,000 people are reckoned to have been killed across the country, including 300 or so members of the security forces, some of whom were shot for defecting. At least 12,000 protesters are behind bars. The unrest shows no sign of dying down. Yet no one can say for sure how it will end.

Hama is not alone. The army and security forces have locked down Homs, the country’s third-biggest city, and Deir ez-Zor in the east, its fifth-biggest. Deraa, in the south, where the uprising began, is still under siege. Protests, albeit generally not on a big scale, continue to erupt in Damascus, including central districts such as Midan, just south of the old city, and in most of the surrounding suburbs and villages. Of Syria’s big cities, only Aleppo has been relatively quiet. Influential merchants there are watching and waiting.

The regime now seems determined to crush the street protests at all costs, while rallying support among its most loyal constituents: the Alawite minority of 10% to which Mr Assad belongs; the Christians (another 10%); the army; and the business class of Damascus and Aleppo, which has done quite well out of the Assad regime.

Western and Arab governments have plainly failed to persuade Mr Assad to change his ways or open meaningful talks with the protesters, though he held a fruitless “dialogue” which no genuine opposition figures attended. The Russians have altered their tone since the assault on Hama, calling Mr Assad’s use of force “unacceptable”. The European Union has increased the number of Syrians under sanctions. Turkey, a vital trading partner, has been increasingly critical. President Barack Obama is expected to call for Mr Assad to step down. Italy withdrew its ambassador. The UN Security Council finally issued a “presidential statement” which condemned the Syrian regime. All such gestures have so far been in vain.

Use the interactive “carousel” to browse all our coverage of Middle Eastern unrest through graphics

International options are limited. No one is seriously recommending military intervention. Arab governments have generally been silent, though the Saudis are keen to get rid of Mr Assad, since he is the closest Arab ally of Iran, whose power the Gulf Arabs would like to trim. The Americans want to boost the Syrian opposition, some of whose members recently met Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, in Washington, DC. Economic sanctions may start to bite, but there is no hint yet that the regime is running short of cash to pay the army and security forces.

Some protesters say they should resort to violence. In towns such as Tel Kalakh, Jisr al-Shughour, Idleb and Deir ez-Zor, which are near the border, weapons are being smuggled in. But rifles and Molotov cocktails are no match for tanks and artillery. Other protesters hope that, if the regime becomes even more brutal, chunks of the army may defect, as they did in Libya. But so far the Alawite-led army, with its array of privileges, has remained loyal to the defiant Mr Assad.

Ambassador Ford

Fox: This week, when our ambassador to Syria dutifully responded as summoned to a hearing, only one senator bothered to show up.

Kuwait calls for dialogue to end Syrian crisis
2011-08-05

KUWAIT CITY, Aug. 5 (Xinhua) — Kuwait on Friday called for dialogue and political solution to end the crisis in Syria as Russia said NATO was planning a military campaign against Syria.

“Kuwait voiced sorrow for the continued bloodshed among citizens of the brotherly Syrian people”, a statement carried by the official KUNA news agency said.

The Foreign Ministry statement urged dialogue and political settlement to achieve a practical, political solution that could meet the aspirations of the Syrian people.

Lawmakers in the Gulf emirate have called on the Kuwaiti government to condemn the alleged crackdown and expel the Syrian ambassador.

The UN Security Council Wednesday adopted a presidential statement condemning the Syrian authority’s use of force against civilians and urged all parties to stop the violence.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Thursday endorsed the multi-party and general election laws, as part of reforms announced by him of late to meet the Syrian people’s demands.

UN Security Council Condemns Syrian Violence

….The U.N.’s most powerful body expressed “grave concern” at the deteriorating situation in Syria, …It was not easy for the Council to reach consensus.

The United States and European members had pressed for a resolution, which is stronger than the presidential statement that was adopted. But their efforts were blocked by Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, who feared a resolution could lead to a similar situation as the one in Libya, where the Council authorized a no-fly zone and targeted bombings to protect anti-government protesters from attack by leader Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces….

In its statement, the Security Council condemned the “widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities.” The Council also called on the Syrian authorities “to fully respect human rights and to comply with their obligations under international law,” and warns that those responsible for the violence should be held accountable.

The Security Council also demanded the immediate end to all violence and urged restraint on both sides, including attacks against state institutions – a reference to violence committed by demonstrators and included to satisfy Russia and other members who felt blaming the government alone was unfair. But Western diplomats have stressed that one cannot equate what protesters have done in self-defense to what the government has perpetrated against its own people.

The Council also stressed that the only solution to the crisis is through an inclusive and Syrian-led political process that aims to “address the legitimate aspirations and concerns” of the Syrian people. And it notes that the Assad government has promised reforms, but has failed to make progress in implementing them and urged the government to fulfill its commitments.

But after the full council adopted the statement, Syria’s close ally and neighbor, Lebanon, employed a rarely used procedural loophole and “disassociated” itself from the statement…..

“Barbarous acts must cease in Syria,” said Lyall Grant. “The country must find its way onto a path of stability. This will only be achieved through the immediate cessation of violence and the implementation without delay of profound political reforms, respect of human rights and fundamental liberties, and genuine accountability for atrocities against protesters.”

The United States and European members had pressed for a resolution, which is stronger than the presidential statement that was adopted. But their efforts were blocked by Russia, China, India, Brazil and South Africa, who feared a resolution could lead to a similar situation as the one in Libya, where the Council authorized a no-fly zone and targeted bombings to protect anti-government protesters from attack by leader Moammar Gadhafi’s security forces

The Egyptian impasse raises a sobering question: whether a revolution can succeed without violence
July 31, 2011|By Thanassis Cambanis

CAIRO – When Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak resigned after 18 days of public demonstrations here last winter, Tahrir Square instantly took its place in the world’s iconography of peaceful protest. Young men and women brandishing nothing more lethal than shoes and placards had toppled a dictator. One subversive slogan – “The people want the fall of the regime” – in the mouths of a million people overpowered a merciless police state.

It was not bloodless; some 846 people were killed by police and regime thugs, according to an Egyptian government inquiry. But for the protesters, and for people watching around the world, Egypt’s uprising appeared a heartening entry in the history of successful nonviolent movements stretching from Gandhi and Martin Luther King to the “velvet revolutions” that unraveled the Iron Curtain in 1989.

That was half a year ago. Today, Mubarak’s military council runs the country, wielding even more power than before when it had to share authority with the president’s family and civilian inner circle. The military has detained thousands of people after secret trials, accused protesters of sedition, and issued only opaque directives about the country’s path toward a constitution and a new elected civilian government.

As time passes and revolutionary momentum fades in the broader public, a new current of thought is arising among the protesters who still occupy Tahrir Square, demanding civilian rule and accountability for former regime figures. Many are now asking an unsettling question: What if nonviolence isn’t the solution? What if it’s the problem?

“We have not yet had a true revolution,” said Ayman Abouzaid, a 25-year-old cardiologist who has taken part in every stage of the revolution so far. At the start, Abouzaid wholeheartedly embraced nonviolence, but now believes that only armed vigilante attacks will force the regime to purge the secret police and other operatives who still retain their jobs from the Mubarak era. “We need to take our rights with our own hands,” he says….

Velvet Or Violent: What Makes A Successful Revolution? – NPR – Hear and Now

Many have praised the non-violent protests that pushed Egyptian Hosni Mubarak from power this year. But some activists in Cairo’s Tahrir Square say the revolution hasn’t resulted in the democracy they wanted, and violence may be needed.

Thanassis Cambanis writes in the Boston Globe: “Among the dedicated core of Egyptian street activists who have been at the forefront of the protests since the beginning, an increasing number have begun to argue that a regime steeped in violence will only respond to force.”
Guests:

* Thanassis Cambanis, journalist and author of “A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah’s Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.”
* Mahmoud Salem, blogger known as Sand Monkey

NATO is planning military campaign against Syria: Russian envoy

MOSCOW, Aug. 5 (Xinhua) — Russia’s envoy to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, said Friday that the alliance is planning a military campaign against Syria to overthrow the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, local media reported……

Russia has learned lessons from Libya and will continue to oppose “a forcible resolution of the situation in Syria,” Rogozin said. He added that the alliance is aiming to interfere only with the regimes “whose views do not coincide with those of the West.” The diplomat also warned that the “noose around Iran is tightening,” saying Moscow is seriously concerned about “an escalation of a large-scale war in this huge region.”

Syrian regime is doomed
Aug 4, 2011 18:32 Moscow Time

Interview with Georgy Mirsky, chief research fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences:

The regime is doomed, it is in deep crisis, and it is very difficult to imagine that it will last for very long. Nevertheless, in a short-term probably it will be able to cope with the situation, for a while at least. It is the end of the regime, but the agony may last for a certain period. So, the only way out is to continue to prolong this bloodshed until somebody loses its nerve, it is a war of nerves.

Now, Bashar al-Assad is not a strong leader; maybe the opposition reckons that sooner or later he will back down, but nobody knows what is going to happen. As to the next United Nations resolution, it is very strongly hardening on the sanctions, but how effective will it be? For instance, now to prohibit Syrian officials from going abroad is not very serious; economic sanctions in the matter of time will bring very hard pressure on the Syrian government, but it will take time.
end

also: Syria: Devil you know is better than devil you don’t
Laaska News April 29,2011

Georgy Mirsky, Chief Research Fellow at the Institute of World Economy and International relations:
…Of course we do not know yet the final outcome of the events in Syria. As to me, I would rather put my money on Bashar Assad.

I think he will drown the country in blood, but he will tough it out, because you know it all depends on the decisiveness and the brutality and ruthlessness of the armed forces, now you see the revolution in Syria is much alike all the other revolutions in the Arab world, it is part of one Arab revolution from the Atlantic ocean to the Persian Gulf, which by the way they call the Arab Gulf…..

Secretive Sect of the Rulers of Syria

2011-08-05, Christopher Howse, Sacred Mysteries: the strange religion of the Assad family….

It was the bloodiest episode since Syrians rose up five months ago. Since then, at least 2,000 people are reckoned to have been killed across the country, including 300 or so members of the security forces, some of whom were shot for defecting. At least 12,000 protesters are behind bars. The unrest shows no sign of dying down. Yet no one can say for sure how it will end.

Hama is not alone. The army and security forces have locked down Homs, the country’s third-biggest city, and Deir ez-Zor in the east, its fifth-biggest. Deraa, in the south, where the uprising began, is still under siege. Protests, albeit generally not on a big scale, continue to erupt in Damascus, including central districts such as Midan, just south of the old city, and in most of the surrounding suburbs and villages. Of Syria’s big cities, only Aleppo has been relatively quiet. Influential merchants there are watching and waiting.

The Pointless Cruelty of Trump’s New Syria Sanctions

“Competing with Assad over who can hurt Syrian peasants more is a losing game for Washington.”

By Joshua Landis and Steven Simon

Last December, U.S. President Donald Trump adopted extraordinarily tough and wide-ranging new sanctions against the Syrian government and its supporters. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other senior officials have been subject to U.S. sanctions since 2011, but the new measures, which took effect in mid-June, are sweeping: they apply to anyone, Syrian or non-Syrian, who aids or does business with the Assad regime or with any entities it controls.

The policy has earned praise in some quarters—compared to many Trump-era Middle East actions, it is at least coherent. But it fails to advance any core American interests. Moreover, it further immiserates the Syrian people, blocks reconstruction efforts, and strangles the economy that sustains a desperate population during Syria’s growing humanitarian and public health crises.

According to U.S. Special Representative for Syria James Jeffrey, the objectives of this scorched-earth policy are to turn Syria into a “quagmire” for Russia and to gain enough leverage to reconstitute the Syrian government along the lines that the United States imposed on Japan after World War II. The United States seeks a “dramatic shift” in the Syrian regime’s behavior, Jeffrey asserted: in theory, systematically bankrupting the Syrian government could force Assad to comply with UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which requires Syrian political reform. To increase the pressure, the United States has endorsed Israeli strikes against Syrian territory and Turkish expropriation of Syrian energy resources. It has also closed the main highway to Baghdad to choke off trade.

U.S. POLICY AND THE SYRIAN UPRISING

In 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama and European leaders embarked on a crusade to force Assad from office. They presumed that a virtuous alternative government waited in the wings—but the Western-educated, Syrian opposition figures whom the United States and the European Union had cultivated turned out to hold no sway on the ground, and American-led attempts to unify the Syrian opposition failed. In 2012, the CIA counted more than 1,500 opposition militias in Syria. By the time Russia intervened in 2015, the United States and its European allies had begun to fear that these groups had lost control of the military effort against Assad to radical Islamist groups, such as the Islamic State (or ISIS) and al Qaeda.

 Washington’s new sanctions campaign presupposes that the quagmire the United States creates would somehow engulf Russia. For proponents of the policy—especially those who came of age in the Vietnam era—“quagmire” is a deeply resonant term, recalling a war that killed 58,000 Americans, shredded American credibility, and weakened the fabric of American society. But simply repeating this talismanic term will not shift the United States’ historic quagmire onto Russia. Preserving Assad is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s greatest foreign policy success since the annexation of Crimea, and Russia can keep Syria’s strongman afloat without paying a fraction of the terrible price the United States paid in Vietnam. Moreover, the United States has nothing to gain by creating a quagmire for Russia; doing so won’t improve its strategic position in the region, save Syrian lives, or diminish the threat that Russia poses to American democracy. 

In the real world, “quagmire” is simply a misleading term for a failed state. And failed states leave their populations exposed to hunger, disease, poverty, and predatory warlords. The Trump administration skirts this grim reality by insisting that sanctions work. Yet there is little evidence that economic sanctions ever achieve their objectives. Even the best-designed sanctions can be self-defeating, strengthening the regimes they were designed to hurt and punishing the societies they were supposed to protect. The destruction of Iraq’s middle class in the 1990s is a case in point: U.S. sanctions killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. Their effect was gendered, disproportionately punishing women and children. The notion that sanctions work is a pitiless illusion. The fact is those with guns eat first, and competing with Assad over who can hurt Syrian peasants more is a losing game for Washington. 

THE LOGIC OF SANCTIONS

The Trump administration designed the sanctions it has now imposed on Syria to make reconstruction impossible. The sanctions target the construction, electricity, and oil sectors, which are essential to getting Syria back on its feet. Although the United States says it is “protecting” Syria’s oil fields in the northeast, it has not given the Syrian government access to repair them, and U.S. sanctions prohibit any firm of any nationality from repairing them—unless the administration wishes to make an exception. Such an exception was recently made for a U.S. firm to manage the oil fields, but oil leaks continue to drain into the Khabour and Euphrates Rivers. U.S. sanctions not only punish people, who receive only an hour or two of electricity a day, but also poison their environment.

The sanctions even prevent non-U.S. aid organizations from delivering reconstruction assistance.  Humanitarian exemptions are deliberately vague, as are the requirements that the Syrian government would have to meet in order to obtain sanctions relief. Such uncertainty is meant to deter aid suppliers and investors who might otherwise help Syria rebuild but who can’t be wholly confident that they are in the clear to do so. This chilling effect, known as overcompliance, is a rational response to the fear of inadvertent entanglement in complex legal issues that could destroy a nongovernmental organization or a firm.

Blocked from reconstructing their country and seeking external assistance, Syrians face “mass starvation or another mass exodus,” according to the World Food Program. In 2011, abject poverty in Syria stood at less than one percent. By 2015, however, abject poverty had risen to 35 percent of the population. In late spring of 2020, Lebanon approached bankruptcy, and Syria’s economy, which has deep and long-standing ties to Lebanon’s economy, began to spin out of control. Food prices have shot up 209 percent in the last year, and medicine is expensive and scarce. The number of food insecure Syrians has climbed from 7.9 million to 9.3 million in just six months, according to the World Food Program. 

To bring humanitarian and reconstruction aid into Syria would necessarily involve the country’s government, which is notoriously corrupt. But Saudi Arabia is corrupt as well: no one can do business there without paying an informal tax to members of the royal family. Those who deal with the governments of this region and who seek to help them avoid collapse must understand regime corruption as a regrettable but unavoidable added transaction cost. Opposition groups partake in the culture of corruption as well: Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, pleaded to no avail with the country’s main opposition militias for the return of materiel they had looted from the warehouses of U.S.-supported factions. The U.S.-backed militias around Aleppo in turn looted more than 1,000 factories, stripping them to their cement foundations. Aid delivery therefore will entail repeated shoving matches between providers dedicated to channeling the full value of assistance to their intended recipients and a government determined to shovel it toward its supporters. This process will be exhausting and disappointing to both sides. But aid will get through.

WHY SANCTIONS ARE UNLIKELY TO WORK

Although Jeffrey has said that the United States no longer seeks regime change in Syria, many sanctions advocates within the Trump administration continue to hope for exactly that. They argue that the pain of ordinary Syrians today will pay off, because Assad’s departure will yield a future free from oppression and fear. Their opponents say that regime change will more likely unleash a second round of civil war following the collapse of the state and that Syria could well be plunged into anarchy for another decade. The problem for these sanctions advocates is that there isn’t evidence to support their counterfactual claim—that destroying the authoritarian state will improve human rights—and their opponents can point to the bloody chaos that regime change unleashed in Iraq and Libya.

U.S. policymakers have suggested that Assad and his backers will voluntarily embrace the UN’s path forward, adopting an “entirely new set of behaviors” in order to “come out from under these sanctions.” But the notion that Assad will freely accept the UN plan—which calls for fair elections, a new constitution, and “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance”—is disconnected from reality. In practice, doing so would mean Assad’s ouster, and he knows it.

Assad and his supporters won the country’s civil war against considerable odds. They did not crack when rebels massacred their entire national security team early in the war; they did not crack when they lost Palmyra, Idlib, half of Aleppo, the oil fields, the northeast, or the southeast; they brushed off Trump’s 60-second bombing campaign; and they withstood an energetic U.S. effort to equip and train the armed opposition. If nine years of brutal violence that killed some 100,000 Alawites—one of every 25—did not defeat Assad and his military, economic embargoes are unlikely to faze him. The fact is that sanctions will achieve neither justice for Assad nor mercy for the Syrian people.

The United States once led an international liberal order premised on the conviction that free trade and a vital middle class would produce democratic governance and societal well-being. Today, the Trump administration is trying to convince the world of the opposite—that impoverishment and the restriction of trade will bring freedom and advancement. The sooner the United States reconsiders its punitive policy toward Syria, the sooner it will be able to make a positive contribution to regional development. Assad is likely to agree to substantial concessions in order to get out from under sanctions, but stepping aside is not among them.

JOSHUA LANDIS is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Quincy Institute for ­Responsible Statecraft, Sandra Mackey Professor of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma in the College of International Studies, and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies and the Farzaneh Family Center for Iranian and Persian Gulf Studies.

STEVEN SIMON is a Research Analyst at the Quincy Institute for ­Responsible Statecraft and Professor in the Practice of International Relations at Colby College. He served as Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs at the White House from 2011 to 2012.

Original here.

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.