Syria, Squeezed Between the Sides, Falling Through the Cracks

” Whoever killed your son wanted to pass it off as a suicide. And the cops are happy enough to have one less murder to investigate.[..] District Attorney doesn’t give a fuck; I’m not supposed to give a fuck; I guess your son just got squeezed between the sides.
I kinda liked your son, y’know? [..] And it grinds me that no-one ever spoke up for him. It seems to me that no-one ever will. ”
~ Det. McNulty, ‘The Wire’. Season 3. Ep: “Moral Midgetry’

Assad regime kills civilians bombing Damascus, 09 / 16 / 2014 Photo credit: Young Lens Dimashqi

Assad regime kills civilians bombing Damascus, 09 / 16 / 2014
Photo credit: Young Lens Dimashqi

It is ironic (or at least instructive) that Obama’s favourite TV show is “The Wire”, which is the best mainstream, artistic expression of how this kind of “acceptable injustice” destroys the fabric of society and breeds more injustice, deepening and widening the divide between the People and the Powers That Be, who are supposed to protect them, to redress the balance. As a black American from (among other places) Chicago, he must have experienced this. The president’s inaction and ‘moral midgetry’ in Syria is a particularly sad example of how people who are repeatedly victimized are acclimated to the abuse, taught to see it as normal and acceptable, to forgive it and excuse it, and even to turn into victimizers themselves.

How can we expect Syrians to welcome airstrikes without smelling a rat, when the very word ‘airstrike’ is enough to elicit terror and dread, after three years of bombings by the Assad regime targeting the families? And they are doubly wary of strikes against “headquarters,” the locations of which are known publicly, and therefore not occupied by real targets, and in urban areas where they are likely to kill civilians. Already, in Kafr Darayan, Idlib, we have reports of civilians killed by American airstrikes on these static targets.[1]

The US has the capability to, and must seize the opportunity to destroy ISIS columns on their way to battlegrounds, cutting off their access to new fronts and putting them on the defensive. And then, once the FSA and other revolutionaries are strong enough to attack ISIS strongholds, the revolutionaries can provide minute-by-minute intelligence on ISIS targets.

Together, the FSA and the Coalition have the capability to neuter ISIS and eliminate their ability to control exposed areas (like oil fields), which will condemn them to a slow but unstoppable decline and eventually destruction at the hands of revolutionary Syrians, who actually have the support of the population. Will the US do this? There are serious doubts. But this should be the goal, and not ‘cosmetic’ attacks on ISIS “HQs”.

ISIS would not have returned from its near-death experience in Iraq if it were not for a structural gap in the system of justice in the world, in which lies the justification (however tortured) for their existence. The Sunni Muslims of the world are forced to watch the Assad regime butcher their brothers and sisters in Syria, and the former al-Maliki regime in Iraq steal back all the hard-won concessions gained during Iraq’s civil war. One of these regimes is an American client; the other exists with the tacit approval of the American president.

How can we answer the claims of ISIS supporters, that the American leadership does not care a bit about justice or humanity, and only wants to crush the hopes of Sunni Muslims for a nation in which they do not have to fear oppression, reprisals for free speech, torture and murder at the hands of their rulers? The fact that ISIS commits every single one of these crimes is only further proof of Syrian Sunni Muslims’ desperation, after more than 3 years of crimes against their humanity, piled upon war crimes, piled upon ethnic ‘cleansing’?

After a thousand+ days of begging for help, of human agony, and bold-faced excuses for massacres; after three years worth of images of children knifed to death and thrown on garbage piles[2], videos of Assadi thugs torturing Syrians, of barrel bombs and Sarin nerve gas launched at defenceless populations, the US is finally bombing Syria. But only against ISIS.
Not against the Assad regime.
Not the people who used (and still use) chemical weapons on thousands of women and children.
Not the people who created an industrial-scale murder machine in his torture-prisons, like we haven’t seen since Treblinka and Sobibor in the Shoa-Holocaust.
Not the people who drop barrel-bombs on neighbourhoods across Syria every single day.

Has there ever been a more tangible example of injustice, hypocrisy, and shameful double-standards?

[a] Clip: The Wire:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jHuCn34NMl8
[1] Missiles which killed civilians in Syria show American markings: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1ztUQdUwVA
[2] Syrian forces responsible for Banyas massacres: UN report. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/11/us-syria-crisis-warcrimes-idUSBRE98A0D520130911

Advertisements

Fear and Loathing in the Middle-East – From Cairo to Damascus

The police and security services were beaten and fire-bombed into submission at some point early in the revolution in Egypt. First they shed their uniforms, blending in with the protesters, gathering like vultures and waiting till the crowds were distracted, and then striking at the vulnerable backs of the young revolutionaries, or tazering, zap-strapping-and-black-hooding opposition leaders, whose faces they’d memorized from social media, mugshots, and confirmed with huge, high-res images of earlier protests (a trick pioneered by Iran’s masters of repressive brutality).

"Peaceful."

“Peaceful.”

The “security services” knew who to grab. But once the street had filled with angry Egyptians, the leaders were only enjoying, rather than shepherding or controlling the massive crowds surging down the streets of Suez and Alexandria and Cairo and Port Said. And the other protesters included young people who were expecting a fight. Protesters smashed through the police barricade on the Qasr al-Nil Bridge on January, 25.(WATCH: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k5iIU9HHOMQ) They routed the hundreds of police sent to hold the bridge and prevent the massive, angry crowds from reaching Tahrir Square. Protesters overcame the tear-gas and club-swinging riot police and flooded into the Square, and would fight to defend it with bare hands, rocks, fists, chunks of concrete smashed out of the roads, turning the police barricades into defensive fortifications, along with the walls and roofs of small shop-stalls.

Nine hundred people died over those days, when crowds of pro-regime “civilians” replaced uniformed police. They came armed, and backed up by paid thugs, ready to crack heads and take shots with pistols at troublesome rabble. But the sheer number of Egyptians protesting– fighting, taking a rock or club or shotgun pellet to the face and still returning to the fight, bandaged, bleeding and vengeful– drove back the rallied muscle of the Interior Ministry.

The ULTRAS joined the fray, a charmingly violent group of street-fighters, the politically-charged version of soccer-hooligans. They would take center-stage at later protests, inflicting suffering on police and pro-regime thugs in the “battle of the camel” in Feb 2011, protecting the protests at Tahrir Square, putting more pressure on the military junta ruling the country.

The ULTRAS, by standing firm in a brutal attritional battle, had won. But they would be punished for their audacity when the police and hired thugs killed 74 of them in the Port Said Stadium riot, letting rival Masry fans into their fenced-off areas, and allowing them to go in armed. And one could speculate there were certain agents engaged, with clear orders and deadly weapons, of a kind that we saw before the fall of the Mubarak regime in Tahrir Square– naked brutality, enacted by men who have had time to examine the photographs of their targets.

The ULTRAS met the real power behind the “regimes” and front-men, who wield power but do not own it. They are not a religion or a creed or minorities; they are a monster with a thousand heads, who we generously call the “security services”. The citizens brutalized by them know it as the Mukhabarat; the secret police; the alphabet-soup of Security Directorates and Divisions and Units, who control their leaders with information and paranoia, who lock away forever uncounted human beings in innumerable secret prisons, like files in cabinets to be eventually shredded and destroyed. These Leviathans, and their Mafioso mirror-images, the Shabiha and Basij, are the true powers in the Middle East – North Africa.

These powers refuse to be touched by revolution or election; in Egypt, when the People threw back the Interior Ministry’s police and thugs, the Army moved in to secure their supreme power. When a weak and vulnerable, but democratically-elected leader named Muhammed Morsy began toying with the Army’s mechanisms of absolute control, he was disposed of and silenced.

1536463_684203908281205_1441921473_nIn Syria, the horrific sadism and wanton violence of the Assad regime permitted not even such partial revolutions, no convenient change of faces at the apex of power.  For Syrians it would be all or nothing; the cancer of the Assads would be torn out by the root. But, as the world’s decision-makers turn their back on the Syrian revolution, we see their instinctive resistance to any revolution that goes too deep, demands too much justice, and threatens to cast bright sunlight on a whole region’s guilty conscience.

Like when the secret files of the Russian secret police were made public by the victorious Russian revolutionaries; like the expositions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden; such a victory strikes at the very structures of power, and is therefore a deadly, intolerable threat to those who wield that power.

Syria at night

So, who benefits from this parade of injustice and confusion? In Egypt, the beneficiaries are the feloul; ‘remnants’ of the old regime. In Syria, the remnants still hold the power. But, inch by inch, they are being annihilated by a shifting cadre of revolutionaries and holy-warriors. There will be no remnants in Syria if the revolution succeeds, and such a revolution can only succeed or die. The ‘peaceful’ revolution in Egypt has only changed the battle-lines and muddied the water (and let’s remember where that saying comes from: you ‘muddy the water’ with the tip of your spear, in order to confuse the fish you are about to skewer and eat for dinner). The people have been convinced that a military dictatorship is what they demanded in Tahrir Square. Yes, a great number of Egyptians wanted to be rid of Morsy and his ineffectual government. But perhaps even more voted for him, and faced bullets and tear-gas to help keep him in power. And the powers that be say, “The revolution is over.” Perhaps one general named al-Sisi will claim “I am the revolution.” He’ll be lying. An ending which disenfranchises half the nation is no fit end to a beginning like Tahrir Square. This ending could prove to be a long interlude; years, but perhaps not decades.

The victories of the ULTRAS were short-lived. A few years on, and a bare-faced military dictatorship rules Egypt. The thugs and fascists were not defeated, only pushed back. And they have returned. The Interior Ministry is torturing again, and the secret police are back at their posts. A beating and a humiliation was not enough to deter them. And now, prominent activists like Ahmed Maher of the April 6th Youth Movement, a key early organizer of the revolution’s core protesters, are joining thousands of Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) supporters in prison, and many more will join them who simply supported the democratically-elected, recently overthrown president Muhammed Morsy. They voted for him out of a hope that he could bridge the gap between devoutly religious Muslim Egyptians, who rebelled out of a desire for justice and human dignity, against a regime which outraged their consciences on daily basis, and the Western-friendly secularists who first took to the streets, and bought with their blood and lives the opportunity to help topple Mubarak’s regime, and then voted for him Muhammed Morsy was not up to the task. He was sabotaged every step of the way by the Egyptian Army’s agents. But he would have been out of reach, if he had kept the loyalties of Egypt’s swing voters; the liberals, Westernized middle classes, the Coptic Christians, other Islamists like al-Nour party. He walked into one too many traps set by the feloul, Interior Ministry, and the Egyptian Army, and then was removed via protest-coup.
web

Are all the Western-friendly liberals, the secular protesters who have taken the initiative in almost every protest movement in the Middle East and North Africa, doomed if they cannot make alliance with devote Muslims who speak the language of “justice” and “dignity”, but deride the language of “freedom” and Civil Rights? Islamists will tell you that these words they have seen perverted and used to enforce secularism and, like in Syria and Egypt, Fascism and political and social stagnation.

Jobar, Damascus

Jobar, Damascus

Bashar al-Assad’s “market liberalizations” of the late 2000s rolled-back the last pretensions of socialist populism and returned rural Syria to crushing, Dust Bowl-style poverty, hollowed out unions across the nation, and completed the disenfranchisement of the people of Syria. While the hopes of Syrians for a decent future slipped away, foreign investment increased a dozen-fold, from $115 million in 2001 to $1.6 billion in 2006, and further afterwards. By March of 2011, the middle classes and city-dwellers had seen their life-savings destroyed, and the waves of revolution caused by a destitute fruit-seller named Muhammad Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Kasserine, Tunisia, would rush deep into Syrian society.

Pro'sIn a matter of months, tens of thousands of men who might otherwise have been looking for jobs, or striving to excel in school in order to save themselves from the poverty they were being told didn’t exist, would find themselves firing Kalashnikovs around street-corners, dashing across sniper-alleys, or producing crude but constantly-improving rockets and bombs they’d use to attack gatherings of Shabiha thugs or advancing Syrian Army columns. And the Free Syrian Army, the mostly-secular group of army deserters and revolutionaries would be starved of support by a cynical world, and eventually be surpassed and subsumed by the Islamic Front; the last and most solid iteration of Syria’s Islamic resistance; by far the most powerful fighting group and the likeliest successor to power in Syria. (In their own words, they have two metrics by which to judge their group; first, to defeat the regime in the field and overthrow the Assad government and annihilate the “security services”– 13 different directorates and agencies in Syria, all closely watching the People and each-other) and, second, to avoid “abuses”.)

martyrs smile

From the sands of Egypt, cross the Red Sea and the deserts of Gaza, and hop the State of Israel and the land of Palestine the two peoples are “sharing”, and you are in the Levant. Here, the world powers have decided to repeat the mistakes of the age of Imperialism. Contrary to the claims of the anti-interventionists, it is the “peace” process of Geneva II which is about to betray the people of Syria, again, into the hands of an artificially empowered minority; the Alawites, the tribe tapped by France to rule the land of al-Sham on their behalf a hundred years ago, confirmed in the notorious (in Syria) and obscure (in the West) Sykes-Picot Agreement. The Alawites, a fully co-opted sectarian identity, were beaten and molded first by Imperialism, and then the Syrian Ba’ath party’s brand of Stalinism/Fascism, into a set of chains for the people of Syria, and a leash for their sectarian thugs and killers.

Islamist fighters at prayer

Islamist fighters at prayer

For months, the Syrian revolutionists have derided the international effort to “save Syria” with a partition as “Sykes-Picot part 2”. They are correct. The world, led by the USA, is about to strong-arm the Syrian opposition into a deal which enshrines the fascist rule of a sectarian clan of ethnic-cleansing Mafioso thugs over a shattered nation. This will only serve to under-cut and abort the ongoing cultural revolution inside Syria (2), and will co-opt the ethical, moral, political renaissance of Syrian society being bought as we speak with so much blood and horror. The rationale enabling this agreement among the Powers that Be is a product of the same arrogant, poisonously cynical frame of mind which caused the world to starve a secular, free Syrian liberation army of all support, and then look with horror on the rise of Islamists. Increasingly the heroes of the Free Syrian Army are being assassinated by Jihadists who have enjoyed the knowledge that the Assad clan needs them active, brutal and noisy in order to justify the ongoing genocide.

youngest mujahedin

The “realists” have decided that the boogey-man of al Qaeda is worse than the real monstrosities being visited on Syria. But how will Bashar al-Assad be better than they, when he has created the conditions on which they thrive? The Assad regime did not create al Qaeda, but it deliberately enabled them, it justifies them, and it depends on them to excuse the ongoing massacre. According to the “realists”, Syria must be sacrificed, served up to the gods of political expediency, and abandoned to a vicious tyrant, in order to score a point for the “free world,” as if the killing of Muslim extremists is a goal beyond all human considerations. Should we not be asking, first of all, ‘what is best for the people of Syria’? Does their well-being enter the calculations of the ‘Friends of Syria’ at all? And how far is this diplomatic scheming from ‘reality’, when the people in question, the families, the men and women and children, a whole society, are considered bargaining pieces, or means to an end, instead of the purpose itself? The American president is peddling cowardice and cynicism, and calling it pragmatism and ‘realism’.

"Bashar or we burn the country." - common Pro-Regime slogan

“Bashar or we burn the country.” – common Pro-Regime slogan

These “realists” watched those men– the only hope for Syria’s new rule to be friendly or even tolerant of the American and Western “interests” they so worship– torn to ragged pieces by Iran, and Hezbollah, and the fascist Assad regime, and then saw fit to criticize them for their failures and chastise Syrians for allowing “extremists” to take over the revolution, as if the demand for justice and human dignity was the trademarked property of Western-loving liberals and secular democrats.

From the White House to Whitehall, they have watched the Assad regime start a sectarian war of repression on civilians, crush their own cities under aerial bombing, torture children to death as a matter of policy, and suffocate whole districts of their capital with nerve-gas. The ‘leaders of the free world’ have watched all these outrages and obscenities, the destruction and rape of a nation, and have decide that the regime responsible is not only acceptable, and not only useful, but indispensable.

by Marcus Henry Weber

photos from the brave work of Syrians like..
Young Mujahed’s Lens: https://www.facebook.com/LensYoungMojahed

Young Lens Horany: https://www.facebook.com/Lens.Horany

Young Lens Homsi: https://www.facebook.com/LensYoungHomsi

Young Lens Dimashqi: https://www.facebook.com/LensYoungdimashqi

Beirut Nights ~ a special report from Lebanon

Report and photograph: Luna Al Abdallah

Beirut looks different at night, active and alive. Some regions in Beirut are still awake, like its coast (Corniche). Painful stories could be heard there, like just three weeks ago, near the “Suicide Rock” in Raouche, the latest guy threw himself down the rock. He didn’t intend to kill himself, but he was threatening to the cops that he’d jump over if they attempted to seize him, and sadly he slipped down and died.

Besides similar stories, some gloomy tales are spread about Syrian people who work on the small boat-cruises, arriving and departing just underneath the rock. Another world is existing here, but you have to carefully look down the Rock to recognize it. The men here live in crash-houses with no windows, suffer cold and heat, or spend their nights homeless.
The Coast
Mustafa and his ten friends work on the boats.

“Two years ago, when my house in Damascus countryside (Sbeneh) has been destroyed, I have come to Lebanon for the first time. I couldn’t imagine staying here more than six months,” Mustafa said. Just before I got out of Syria, my family bailed up to Jordan with other relatives. They intended to settle down there, but unfortunately, detained by Syrian security at the Syrian borders, so, they decided to change their destination towards the Syrian camps in Turkey. At that time, I planned to go back to Syria to obtain my military service papers which enable me to get my passport, then I might catch my family up, but now, two years passed with no possibility to going back.”

Mustafa kept quiet and looked far away for a while, then continued, “After the first six months, and despite of the danger, I made up my mind to return back to Syria motivated by hope of seeing my family again, ignoring what my boss reaction could be. He strictly refused to let me go back, trying to convince me to improve my situation before getting back home. The very next day, I lost 2,200 dollars which was all what I owned. Now, I have only my national identity card and my clothes”.

“Life here is full of humiliation. No work, no life. We start working at 07:00 till 19:00 with no breaks, even without any pause to have breakfast or lunch. At the end of the workday, we earn 20000 L.P. (about 13 dollars). The boss pays us half of it (7 dollars) and reserves the rest to cut them off, just in case, one of us was absent for a while, then, we have to work without pay. This could happen twice a week, which obliged me to borrow* some money from my friend to buy food, and pay them back next day,” Mustafa said describing the work in Lebanon.

“I mightily tried to find other work but in vain. Firstly, we used to sleep in the open air under sky, and then we built those straw wooden rooms, hopeful, that our stay would not last such long time. We have been informed that, an investment project will be launching in this area, we have to go back jobless to the street.”

mustafa1

Mustafa also failed to obtain a refugee identity card. “I went to the United Nation High Commissioner for Refugees; and presented my official papers to prove that I am a Syrian refugee with hope of getting the permission to join my family in Turkey. I did not know whether this step is useful or not, but however, I have nothing to lose. The organization gave me some documents to fill up and an appointment on the 14th of October, I kept the documents among my stuff where I live, but they were stolen. In fact I do not know who stole them and why..!. Anyway, I will try again and again!” Mustafa said.

The accurate statistics of Syrian workers percentage in Lebanon are not available, yet this percentage increases day by day due to continues migration of Syrian people since the beginning of the Syrian revolution. More than 750,000 refugees arrived to Lebanon, and most of the workers are between 12 and 20 years old.

A study about Syrian workers in Lebanon, prepared by the United Nations Committee on Economic and Social, titled “Syrian asylum repercussions on Lebanon”, declares that: 57% of 952 Syrian refugees are working illegally in Lebanon.

“I attempted to contact my family in Turkey; they don’t even know where I am, and all I know is that they stay in the camps in Turkey. No phone conversations for two years. The only solution is to go back to Syria and get my passport. According to a driver I spoke to, it is possible if I pay a sum of 100 $ (bribe) but no assured guarantees, in addition to, the risk of potential detention there by the Syrian regime.” Mustafa said.Mustafa

Mustafa Abo AL-Abdul Kader, his mother is Zeinab Kader, born in Manbij (Aleppo suburbs) in 1995, telling a story of two-years’ illegal work in Lebanon, underneath the suicide rock in Al Raouche, the place where stories of death* are told every day. “All I dream of is to talk to my family, and see them again,” Mustafa said, staring past the camera.

Report and photograph: Luna Al Abdallah

The Rise of the Army of Islam – Liwa al-Islam and the Salafi Movement in Syria

 

By joining with 50 brigades across Syria and forming the umbrella army “Jaish al-Islam” (the Army of Islam), Liwaa al-Islam (LAI) have become a force to be reckoned with, as powerful or more-so than heavy-hitters like Harakat Ahrar al-Sham or al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Liwaa al-Islam’s character is conservative Salafi, but they are also one of the most willing to express the desire to reconcile with the Syrian population at large, even those serving in the Assad regime (those who “do not have blood on their hands”). This should serve (is likely designed to serve) to reassure anyone in fear of an uprooting of the Syrian state in the eventuality of the Assad regime’s overthrow, and the chaos that will result.

Although many of these supposed new-comers were already fighting with Liwaa al-Islam, and some of the brigades seem to have been created (or invented) on the spot, the declaration of an “army of Islam” has significant implications on its own; it shows that the consistently frayed web of Syrian rebel groups has been stretched between three poles; the Salafis supported by Gulf Arab donors (primarily, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait), the secular Free Syrian Army with supplies coming from the Saudi and Qatari governments themselves (and, in much smaller part, from the USA and France), and the Jihadi-Salafis of al Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, whose supporters remain mostly anonymous, the most likely candidate being wealthy donors from Gulf states like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. But with ISIS making new enemies every week, the “moderate” Salafis have seized the opportunity to co-opt the Salafi-friendly demographics.

liwaa al islam
The religious inclinations of Syrians, so long crushed under threat of death by a repressive “secular” government, (in reality, a semi-sectarian/ethnic minority military-civilian dictatorship) have returned with a vengeance. A Liwaa al-Islam member expressed to me that the formation of the Army of Islam was “our dream coming true”. The future of Syria will have to be reconciled with the Islam practiced by these Salafi-minded Sunnis. The question remains as to how ready these Salafi Syrians are ready to reconcile themselves with a population that includes secular liberals and leftists, atheists, Christians, Alawites and Shi’a.

This unification comes after nearly three years of struggle against the Assad regime, during which Liwaa al-Islam has scored a number of major victories: a bomb attack on the regime’s “crisis cell” which killed a handful of the main decision-makers behind the regime’s campaign of repression, the use of highly-advanced anti-aircraft missiles against regime aircraft (as noted in this blog) and two events which demonstrated the potency of this force: the vigorous defense of the Ghouta neighborhoods in Damascus, and an August assassination attempt on the presidential convoy. Rumors were circulating in Syria that the August 21 Sarin nerve-gas attack on Liwaa al-Islam‘s home neighborhoods in the the Ghouta, which provoked world-wide condemnation as well as conspiracy theories, was at least partly executed in retaliation for this attempt on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s life, when his motorcade was struck by several mortar rounds, reportedly injuring a number of those in the vehicles but missing Assad. Liwaa al-Islam‘s YouTube page has showcased a technique they termed “mortar sniping”, which is the tactic of targeting enemy positions with one or a few extremely well-aimed mortar rounds, often using Google Earth and a tablet or laptop computer to align the mortar tube.

Having twice struck at the heart of the Assad regime, Liwaa al-Islam demonstrated not only their access to good intelligence, but strategic forethought and the ability to project their power into regime-held areas. It should come as little surprise that they have been able to recruit a large number of smaller brigades into their command structure. Jaish al-Islam is not a loose collection of groups like the Islamic Alliance, but a true unification under a single commander, founder of Liwaa al-Islam, Sheikh Zahran Abdulluh Alloush, whose father, Muhammad, and brother are prominent Salafi clerics living in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA).

The KSA is known among Syrians to be the backer of Liwaa al-Islam, and this close relationship could explain LAI’s ability to obtain and use key intelligence to strike at the highest echelons of the Assad regime’s power-structure. As a brigade, LAI represented a clear and present threat to the regime’s existence. But now as the Army of Islam, they are seeking to represent something even more dangerous to the Assad clique: a credible governing alternative to the existing regime. But their relations with the grassroots revolutionaries (those who started this revolution, including the Local Coordinating Committees)  are questionable. Sheikh Zahran’s twitter feed has been criticized to me by young Syrian activists in terms such as “absurd” and “embarrassing” for its broad appeals to Islamic chauvanism.

The Army of Islam may have been a second choice for their backers in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. By threatening action, and then backing down, United States empowered Syria’s Islamists in a stroke. This was the final discrediting of American president Obama’s Syria policy, and a mortal injury to Syria’s secular opposition. And so the Kingdom activated Plan ‘B’. Now, any one of the three largest Islamist militias; Jabhat al Nusra, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham (‘Movement of the Free Men of Syria’), and now Jaish al-Islam, can match the Free Syrian Army in men, weapons and credibility among Syrians. And from Jabhat al-Nusra to the moderates, the announcement of the Army of Islam was greeted with applause from a great plurality of Syrian rebels, even those that could be called rivals. The winds are blowing the way of Islam, and we are seeing an attempt by many parties to occupy the ground of, and co-opt the rising popularity of Islamic ideology and style. This is befitting of a nation whose modern power structures have collapsed in on top of the people.

Days before the announcement of the Army of Islam, a looser collection of Syria’s main opposition groups, including Liwaa al-Islam, Ahrar al-Sham, and Jabhat al-Nusra, signed on to the ‘Islamic Alliance’, declaring their desire for an Islamic state, whose legislation is exclusively based on Shari’a law. The outlier in this picture, excluded from this big Salafi group-hug, is the ‘Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham’ (ISIS), the more vicious and divisive of two al Qaeda franchises in Syria. The announcement of the Islamic Alliance came after weeks of tense and sometimes violent confrontations with other rebel groups, even those like Jabhat al-Nusra with similar ideologies. So their exclusion is likely to be intentional. The fact that this development comes so late is instructive; it follows several (perhaps a dozen or more) chemical attacks by the Assad regime, the abdication of America’s declared responsibilities, and these cases of fighting between, on one side, “moderate” Salafis/the secular Free Syrian Army, and on the other, the ISIS, jihadis who consider the Syrian revolution not a demand for democracy, but a continuation of their struggle against “infidels” and the unquestionable goal of a pan-Arab Caliphate (Khalifa) (Bashar al-Assad is an infidel, but so are the Shi’a (and Alawites) of Syria.) In Iraq, the holy war of the jihadis was a driving force behind the bloody internecine chaos between Iraq’s sects that followed the American invasion and failed occupation, which was only brought under control by an all-out counter-terrorist bloodbath by Stanley McCrystal’s Special Forces, and the “Sahwa”/Awakening movement, former Sunni insurgents that were paid and backed up by the US Coalition. The chances that this will happen in Syria are small. Any Awakening will have to challenge ISIS on their own terms. Unless they leave voluntarily, the Islamic State is likely there to stay.

These two events (the forming of a loose coalition between moderate Salafis and Salafi-Jihadists, and the unification of a “moderate” Salafi Army) need to be examined together. The new Army of Islam, in small or large part, is defined by its Saudi sponsorship. Sheikh Zahran, in public, vehement denies that he is controlled from outside Syria, and he is probably not lying. But the influence is clear. Strong distinctions exist between Salafis and Salafi-Jihadis. The Salafism of the Saudi royal family is clearly a different beast than the nihilistic ultra-violence of al Qaeda. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham falls well within the latter, and Jabhat al-Nusra members occupy both camps. The main point of importance to understand is that Syrian rebel fighters’ membership and loyalty is often fluid; one man might hold membership, even active membership, in more than one brigade or battalion, depending on who can pay them and supply ammunition and other resources. With supply issues a constant limiting factor on the Syrian battlefield, even for well-connected forces like Liwaa al-Islam, the ability to consistently pay, equip and supply large numbers of fighters over long periods of time is the main element in a group’s credibility with rebel fighters. This is why, after almost three years of fighting, the process of organization is still ongoing.

The roots of Liwa al-Islam‘s success might be more understandable when we know that Sheikh Adnan Ar’our, early and vocal supporter of the Syrian uprising, is close to Liwaa al-Islam and is point-man for one of the most lucrative channels of cash donations to the Salafi rebel cause.

Amid questions about the legitimacy of the Jihadis’ commitment to the final overthrow of the Assad regime, we must ask the question: Who benefits from the continuation of the regime? The Jihadis keep open oil pipelines to the regime from their new Emirates in the north. The Free Syrian Army is unable to fight a battle on two fronts and so cannot respond to the provocations of the Islamic State, like the murder of a Supreme Military Council member in Deir az-Zour; the people of Syria, sick to death of tyranny, must hold their tongues while foreigners make a new Afghanistan in their backyards, for fear of a rebel collapse and regime revenge. And all the while, rumors follow the Jihadis regarding their former alliance with the Assad regime, and the widely-believed story of Assad releasing dozens, even hundreds, of Jihadis from Saidnaya Prison a few months after the revolution began. The presence of al Qaeda was a lynch-pin of Assad’s justification for his brutal crackdown on what was a mostly peaceful, democracy-friendly uprising.

Democracy is antithetical to groups like ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. But what about the new Army of Islam? The question asked by most Syrians of Liwaa al-Islam, and now the Army of Islam, is, democracy or Khalifa? A secular state or a theocracy? Elections or Shura? Sheikh Zahran addressed this when he spoke to The Independent on the topic of the Egyptian military coup this summer; “Secularism has shown its ugly face to those who were blind, and the mask of democracy has fallen in the struggle between right and wrong,” said Sheikh Zahran. “As the mujahedeen leaders say, we chose ammunition boxes over ballot boxes.”

~ by Red Lines editor Marcus Henry Weber

footnotes:

https://redlinesblog.wordpress.com/2013/07/30/rebels-deploy-anti-aircraft-damascus/ — Liwa al-Islam uses captured Russian air-defense system

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Rebels-reportedly-target-Assads-convoy-Syrian-president-unhurt-322416 — Mortar strike on Assad presidential convoy.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJZDaz6vhxs — Syrian rebels use Google Earth-directed mortar.

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/egypt-overthrow-shakes-islamists-region — Quote from Sheikh Zahran re: secularism.

http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/4136327-army-of-islam-winning-in-syria/ — [We are not too worried about Jabhat al-Nusra,” said one Free Syrian Army -affiliated officer in the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor who said he worked in intelligence operations. “Once the fighting ends, we’ll bring them back. We know them. They’re our brothers, cousins, and neighbors — they’re the sons of our tribes. Our true struggle will be against (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) and the Nusra leaders.”]

Syrian Rebels Deploy Advanced Anti-Aircraft Systems in Damascus – Red Lines News

In this video via Liwaa al-Islam (Brigade of Islam), the Islamist militia (affiliated with the centre-moderate Syrian Liberation Front) deploys an advanced self-propelled anti-aircraft system. It bears a striking resemblance to the control console on the Belorussian-Ukranian upgrade of the SA-8 (OSA-8), of which the Assad regime has (or had) 60 units. Notice the similarity of the control panel at ~1:15 of this video:

The T38 Stilet (Stiletto) is SP Short Range SAM system developed by the Belorussian company ‘Tetraedr’. The T-38 is a further evolution of the OSA-1T system, which itself was a upgrade of the Soviet era OSA (SA-8) system.”

Red Lines has found a video from December of Liwaa al-Islam capturing a complete SA-8 unit, celebrating, praying and shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKoYg9xEGMs
With engagement altitudes of  2–9 km (1.3-5.6 miles) / 50–5000 m (164-16,400 ft), this missile system poses a deadly threat to Assad’s aging, battle-damaged Air Force. Based on the dates the videos were published, the Damascus-based rebel group took around 6-7 months to ready this unit for use against the Assad regime’s aircraft.

Based in Eastern Ghouta, fighters for the Banner of Islam are facing a prolonged siege that one supporter describes to us as “very like Hell,” but they still find a way to upload their videos despite the “mangling” of all radio & wireless signals coming in. Recently the government has intensified Air Force and artillery strikes on these neighborhoods in a hysterical attempt to shake loose rebel brigades, who have endured several occupations and daily bombardments, but still hold ground in a handful of residential areas near the center of the capital, posing a constant threat to the operational core of the Assad regime.

This very operational core, the “Crisis Cell” in the Syrian Defense Ministry was struck by a rebel bomb last year killing the Defense Minister, his Deputy and wounding or killing a half-dozen other men behind Assad’s war on his own people. This attack was claimed by the Free Syrian Army, but Liwaa al-Islam supporters have also quietly taken credit for this operation that nearly brought an early end to the Assad regime.

With another planned nation-wide Assad-army offensive failing to make significant headway in Homs, Damascus or Aleppo, the regime will be dismayed by a brigade, which has shed the blood of elite Assad clan leader before, deploying advanced air-combat system in the capital. The regime is also watching important strongholds collapse, like Khan al-Assal, strategically key to the supplying of regime positions in Aleppo, even with the considerable help from Hezbollah and Iran. Bashar al-Assad’s forces seem to have squandered the momentum gained from taking al-Qusayr.

UPDATE March 2014: Liwaa al-Islam posted a promo video featuring the anti-aircraft system, HERE: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=dtbii2J_n4E

UPDATE: Liwaa al-Islam representatives sent us this message about the system they have deployed,
“anti-craft missiles: SA – 8 Gecko
this missile is known also as k 33 and in syria as ‘ossa’
technical description
length:3,2
diameter :21 cm
weight :130kg
military head weight :16 kg
speed :500 hundred meter by second or equal to 2*4 makh
atmost range:15 km
least range :1500m
atmost hight:5 km
least hight :25m
radar range 25 km
this system is known for its flexible movement and high maneuvering,
russian ossa system was gained and developed by liwaa al-islam in western ghotta and al-mujahedeen could operate and reform it after a year of patience grace and thanks to God
this video shows its gain:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVE7UFhQse4 ”

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9K33_Osa

Damascus blast ‘kills’ top Assad officials: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2012/07/20127189355415804.html

-Editor’s note: This post previously referred to Liwaa al-Islam as the “banner” of Islam. This has been corrected to “Brigade”.

Syrian Regime of Bashar al-Assad Using Chemical Weapons Against Syrian Cities

From La Monde… Chemical warfare in Syria

La Monde’s reporters experience chemical attacks by the Assad regime first-hand. The article details the apparently systematic use of chemical weapons in order to break the rebel lines in the capital Damascus. This is a cynical manipulation of President Obama’s “red line”. These are chemical weapons attacks that will be let off on a technicality.

    Searching for words to describe the incongruous sound, he said it was like ‘a Pepsi can that falls to the ground.’ No odor, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas. And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.

    Reporters from Le Monde witnessed this on several days in a row in this district, on the outskirts of Damascus, which the rebels entered in January. Since then, Jobar has become a key battleground for both the Free Syrian Army and the government. In two months spent reporting on the outskirts of the Syrian captial, we encountered similar cases across a much larger region. Their gravity, their increasing frequency and the tactic of using such arms shows that what is being released is not just tear gas, which is used on all fronts, but products of a different class that are far more toxic.

    In the tangled web of the Jobar front, where enemy lines are so close that the fighters exchange insults as often as they kill each other, gas attacks occurred on a regular basis in April. The gas was not diffused over a broad swath of territory but used occasionally in specific locations by government forces to attack the areas of toughest fighting with the encroaching opposition rebels. This sector is the place where Free Syrian Army groups have penetrated most deeply into Damascus. A merciless war is being waged here.

http://www.lemonde.fr/proche-orient/article/2013/05/27/chemical-war-in-syria_3417708_3218.html

Is Jabhat al-Nusra Breaking Apart?

 

Aron Lund has a great analysis of a possible break within the organization of Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) / Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS); this has huge implications for the future of Syria. Will ISIS face a Sunni awakening like in Iraq, or will they succeed in dominating the Syrian-led Jabhat al-Nusra? Many rank-and-file Nusra fighters are deeply wary of al-Joulani’s declaration/renewal of loyalty to al-Qaeda central, and have every reason to fear a takeover by al Baghdadi’s more violently sectarian faction (Islamic State of Iraq), but are also afraid of open conflict between al-Joulani and al-Baghdadi which will only help the Assad regime (perhaps conclusively).

Will the core of JAN take this opportunity to align themselves with the more mainstream Salafi/Jihadi groups like Ahrar al-Sham? Or does this mean the domination of the Syrian branch with the more established Iraqi wing of al-Qaeda? In the long-term, this may be to the advantage of the Syrian people, but in the shorter term, this will have a degrading effect on the current strategic situation vs. the Assad regime; already we have signs that JAN fighters are withdrawing from Aleppo, presumably to regroup against the dissension in their own ranks. As has been true throughout the revolution, the greatest aid to the Assad regime is the fragmentation and infighting among opposition groups. However, this displays a fundamental difference between the two sides: active debate and “pluralism” (of a sort) have defined the opposition, while the regime responds to any perceived danger of dissension among Alawites by committing acts of provocation and terror against Sunnis (as in Bayda, Banyas), and thereby driving Alawites back into the arms of the regime whether they like it or not.

Syrians love to express their historical “moderation” and openness, and one can see how this would clash with the extremist views of al-Qaeda in Iraq (Islamic State of Iraq). The timing, however, could be better for the opposition, as the regime gains ground in Homs and nearby in Qusayr.

Aron Lund asks, Is Jabhat al-Nusra Breaking Apart?

The background

If you follow Syria, you’re already familiar with the outlines of this, but here’s the very short version:

In a recorded voice statement released online on April 10, 2013, Jabhat al-Nosra’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani confirmed that his group had been created with assistance from the Iraqi al-Qaida wing (called the Islamic State of Iraq, ISI). He also ”renewed” his pledge of allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the international al-Qaida leader, leaving little doubt that he had been a sworn al-Qaida member all along. At the same time, Abu Mohammed distanced himself from the suggestion that a total merger had been agreed between Jabhat al-Nosra and the ISI. This was in response to a statement put out on the previous day (April 9) by the ISI emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who had said that both groups would now merge into something called the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (let’s abbreviate it ISIS).

200px-Flag_of_Islamic_State_of_Iraq.svgIn sum, there was no dispute between the Syrian and Iraqi leaders about the fact that Jabhat al-Nosra is an al-Qaida faction ultimately loyal to Zawahiri, but they differed on whether it would be absorbed into a regional umbrella (ISIS) constructed from the Iraqi franchise (ISI) or retain its own separate identity within the international al-Qaida framework.

Syrian opposition groups reacted negatively, including the main Islamist formations, although most tempered their criticism by stressing the positive contributions of Jabhat al-Nosra to the uprising so far. For some responses to the Abu Mohammed and Abu Bakr statements by Islamist groups in Syria, see a previous post of mine on Syria Comment, and these translations on Hassan Hassan’s site.

Says Sands

After Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s strange semi-rebuttal to Abu Bakr on April 10, both groups fell silent, and everybody seemed to be waiting for an explanation. None came. Now, suddenly, several media reports have been published, suggesting that the dispute hasn’t been resolved but is in fact growing worse. In some of these reports, purported Jabhat al-Nosra fighters even talk about the group splitting apart or losing members, although they differ on who is leaving and for what reason.

Phil Sands – who wrote this sadly beautiful last letter from Damascus a couple of months ago – offers one take on these events in The National.

He quotes a Jabhat al-Nosra member from Damascus as saying that ”everyone I know was surprised by the statement; it was more than we’d expected to hear”, meaning the pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri. The Jabhat al-Nosra member now worries that there will be clashes between Jabhat al-Nosra and the Western/Gulf backed factions grouped under the FSA label, after Jabhat al-Nosra came out of the closet as an official al-Qaida franchise.

The gist of Sands’s article is that locally recruited and/or pragmatic fighters are upset with Abu Mohammed al-Joulani’s pledge of allegiance to Zawahiri and al-Qaida, because it will make it harder for them to focus on fighting Assad. (They’re probably right about that.) There’s no claim of an open split in the group, yet, but it does indicate internal tension between locally-minded grassroots fighters and the globalist, Qaida-connected leadership…

More at Syria Comment… http://www.joshualandis.com/blog/is-jabhat-al-nosra-breaking-apart/