Syria Understanding Syria: Historical, Academic, and Intellectual Perspectives



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Why Regime Change is a Bad Idea in Syria

By Alexander B. Downes, George Washington University

Shortly after the onset of the Syrian uprising, U.S. President Barack Obama called for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In language highly reminiscent of his statements a few months earlier about Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, Obama said on August 18, 2011, that the “future of Syria must be determined by its people, but President Bashar al-Assad is standing in their way… . For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Obama went on to note that, “[T]he United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria,” a pledge that he has largely kept: the United States has for the most part resisted calls to intervene directly in the conflict with military force. The near exception to this policy — the administration’s threat to launch missile strikes in response to the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attack two months ago — was not carried out, and in any event was not intended to be a decisive intervention in the war. The only U.S. intervention in the Syrian conflict to this point has been indirect: a CIA-run program to train fighters associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) as well as the recent provision of non-lethal aid and light weapons to the FSA.

Setting aside the oddity of making demands without any intention of following through on them — or giving others the means to follow through on them — what are the effects of demanding regime change as a condition for ending a civil war like the one in Syria? I argue that there are three effects, all of them bad. Demanding regime change effectively shuts down negotiations and prolongs the war, both by encouraging the rebels and asking the regime to commit suicide. It also puts Assad in an untenable situation: if he agrees to negotiate his way into exile, given the universal jurisdiction inherent in international criminal law, there is no guarantee that he won’t be prosecuted later for crimes he committed during the war. Finally, rhetorical policies of regime change have a tendency to escalate to actual policies of regime change. Increased direct or indirect U.S. involvement in the current Syrian civil war, however, could lead to new atrocities and another civil war. Should the United States help the rebels win the war with military aid or airpower, the likely result is first a bloodletting against the defeated Alawites and second another civil war between the “moderate” rebels backed by the West and the more “radical” Islamists, some of whom are affiliated with al Qaeda. Should the United States intervene and overthrow Assad with its own forces, it will likely face armed opposition from the radical rebel factions and possibly even spoilers among the less radical factions. Neither option is appealing.

Sabotaging Negotiations

By declaring that Assad has no future as president of Syria, the United States has effectively torpedoed meaningful negotiations to end the war short of decisive victory for one side or the other. The reasons are twofold. First, in calling for Assad’s overthrow, the United States has essentially endorsed the rebels’ principal war aim. The knowledge that the world’s only superpower supports their primary political objective has unsurprisingly made the rebels more intransigent. It should come as no surprise, for example, that the Geneva negotiations have failed to get off the ground in part because the rebels refuse to negotiate with the Assad regime. In rejecting participation in the Geneva II talks slated to open on November 23, for example, a group of nineteen Islamist rebel groups said that negotiating with Assad’s government would be an act of “treason.” Similarly, Ahmed Jarba, the president of the more moderate Syrian National Council, declared that “The Sultan must leave….Geneva cannot succeed and we cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on.” Thus, Syrian rebel groups across the ideological spectrum refuse to deal with Assad, demanding his ouster as a precondition for talks.

Second, Assad has no incentive to negotiate, either, because he is being asked to agree to his own demise and exclusion from power. The Communique of the London 11, issued on October 22, explicitly states, “When the TGB [Transitional Governing Body] is established, Assad and his close associates with blood on their hands will have no role in Syria.” Assad, however, has shown no willingness to leave power, and recently declared that he saw no obstacle to running for another term in office.

In short, in the language of bargaining theory, there is no bargaining space where the two sides’ positions overlap: the rebels demand that Assad must leave, and Assad refuses. The United States, by endorsing the rebels’ position, contributes to this deadlock.

Exile is Not an Option

The second problem with demanding that Assad leave power is figuring out where he would go. In the old days, as Daniel Krcmaric points out, leaders who had committed atrocities against their own people — such as Idi Amin — could always flee into a cozy exile abroad if they faced a powerful rebellion. Contemporary international criminal law (ICL), however, rests on the twin pillars of individual responsibility and universal jurisdiction, meaning that mass killers are responsible for their actions as individuals and may be apprehended and prosecuted anywhere. Although these facets of ICL were established by the Nuremberg and Tokyo Criminal Tribunals after World War II, Cold War dynamics generally discouraged prosecution. Nowadays, however, leaders who commit atrocities are more vulnerable, especially if they flee abroad. It is obviously difficult to apprehend sitting heads of state — just look at Sudanese President Omar Bashir, who remains free even though the ICC indicted him in 2009. But leaders who travel abroad (like former Chilean dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet) or go into exile (former Liberian leader Charles Taylor) are easier to nab because (1) they can be prosecuted anywhere (Pinochet was detained in Britain on a Spanish arrest warrant), and (2) states that host former dictators have few incentives to protect them and thus may be persuaded to give them up. States may promise to host Assad now and shield him from prosecution, but these promises lack credibility should the host be subjected to sanctions or shaming in the future. In other words, Assad has nowhere to go where he can safely avoid prosecution, which gives him clear incentives to try to remain in power in Syria by winning the war.

The Civil War after the Civil War

A final problem with a declaratory policy of regime change is that it has a tendency to escalate from words to deeds. The longer the civil war in Syria goes on and the longer Assad remains in power, and the more the bodies pile up, the greater the pressure to “do something” becomes. Obama will be open to charges of hypocrisy: how can he stand by and do nothing while innocent women and children are being killed by a criminal regime he has declared must be deposed? In Libya, the road to escalation was remarkably short: Obama first declared that Qaddafi should step down on March 3, 2011; by the end of the month, NATO was bombing. In Syria, the president has resisted escalation longer, but has begun to take steps that could lead to greater U.S. involvement in the conflict.

The problem with mission creep in Syria is that the greater that U.S. involvement becomes, the more responsible it will be for the aftermath, which is likely to be unpleasant. In one scenario, the United States limits its intervention to arming and training the moderate rebels. Should the rebels succeed in overthrowing Assad, they are likely to take retribution against the Alawite population, which could be bloody and create a new refugee disaster. The second thing that is likely to happen is a new civil war among rebel factions, probably pitting the more extreme Islamist factions against the U.S.-backed moderates. U.S. policy would thus have traded one civil war for a different civil war, and find itself back at square one.

In a second scenario, the United States (and its allies) intervenes directly, using military force to bring down the Assad regime. This, too, is likely to have unhappy results, with the added complication that the United States will be even more involved. If a “hammer and anvil” strategy — U.S./NATO airpower plus rebel ground power — succeeds in toppling Assad, the United States can stand down, but will not be able to prevent the retribution against Alawites and potential civil war among rebel factions outlined above. If the United States chooses to send ground troops, it may be able to prevent a slaughter of Alawites, but is likely to face a violent response from the more radical Islamist and al Qaeda-affiliated factions. Given the highly factionalized nature of the rebellion, any number of factions could play the role of spoiler if they do not get their way. Even the current chaos of Libya is probably out of reach, since there are many groups hostile to the United States among the rebels, there are large minority populations that will need protection, and a possible separatist group (the Kurds) in the northeast. It is more likely that the United States will face at least one, and possibly multiple insurgences in Syria, an outcome much like it faced in Afghanistan and Iraq.

What is to be Done?

If the United States truly wishes to foster a negotiated end to the Syrian conflict, it needs to drop its insistence that Assad leave power and pressure Syrian rebel groups to negotiate with him. If the United States truly thinks Assad must go, then it should stop insisting on negotiations and do what it takes to help the rebels win. In the latter case, however, the Obama administration should think long and hard about what rebel victory in Syria means. It may find that the more it thinks about it, the less attractive it becomes. Dropping regime change and encouraging negotiations — or staying out of it entirely — may be a wiser policy.

Alexander Downes is an associate professor of political science and international affairs at the George Washington University. His research examines international security, specifically the causes and effectiveness of civilian victimization in warfare, the effects and utility of foreign-imposed regime change, and the determinants of military effectiveness. He is the author of Targeting Civilians in War (2008) and “The problem with negotiated settlements to ethnic wars” in Security Studies.
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    The Four Things We Know About How Civil Wars End (And What this Tells Us About Syria)

    By Barbara F. Walter, University of California, San Diego

    The Obama administration continues to insist that it would like to see a diplomatic solution to the civil war in Syria. This was made clear in U.S. President Barack Obama’s September speech to the U.N. General Assembly. According to Obama: “I do not believe that military action — by those within Syria, or by external powers — can achieve a lasting peace. Nor do I believe that the United States or any nation should determine who will lead Syria — that is for the Syrian people to decide.” Instead, Obama insisted that the best way to respond to the violence was with “dogged diplomacy that resolves the root causes of conflict.”

    On the surface this strategy seems reasonable. Pushing for a power-sharing agreement between moderate elements avoids embroiling the United States in another Middle Eastern war, helps ensure that anti-American Islamists will not come to power, and has the added benefit of being politically popular at home. But when one compares what we have learned about how civil wars have ended over the last 70 plus years to the conditions that currently exist in Syria, it becomes clear that diplomacy will almost certainly fail.

    Here are three things Obama should keep in mind as he considers the feasibility of pushing for a negotiated settlement in Syria, and one big conclusion:

    1. Civil wars don’t end quickly. The average length of civil wars since 1945 has been about 10 years. The average duration has declined somewhat since the end of the Cold War, but this still suggests that Syria is in the early stages of its conflict and not in the later ones that tend to encourage serious negotiations (Fearon and Laitin 2003, Fearon 2004).

    2. The greater the number of factions, the longer a civil war tends to last. Syria’s civil war is being fought between the government of President Bashar al-Assad and at least 13 major rebel groups whose alliances are relatively fluid. This suggests that Syria’s civil war is likely to last longer than the average civil war (Cunningham 2006).

    3. Most civil wars end in decisive military victories not negotiated settlements. Governments have won about 40 percent of the time, rebels about 30 percent of the time depending on which dataset you use. The remaining wars tend to end in negotiated settlements. This suggests that the civil war in Syria will not end in a negotiated settlement but will rather end on the battlefield (Walter 1997, Fearon and Laitin 2007).

    The civil wars that end in successful negotiated settlements therefore tend to have two things in common. First, they tend to divide political power amongst the combatants based on their position on the battlefield. This means that any negotiated settlement in Syria will need to include both the Assad regime and the Islamists, two groups that have no real incentive to negotiate at this point in time. From Assad’s perspective, any real offer to share power would be tantamount to a decisive defeat. Agreeing to open up the political process to Sunnis (who represent 70 percent of the population) would be tantamount to accepting a minority position in government. And a minority position in government would make him vulnerable to reprisals in the form of imprisonment or death at the hands of a vengeful population.

    Even if Assad were to agree to a compromise deal, the opposition has its own reasons to reject a settlement. Assuming that opposition factions could unite (an outcome that is unlikely), they have little reason to believe that Assad will honor an agreement once they demobilize and disarm. As a result, rebel factions will do everything possible to consolidate their own power and decisively defeat Assad. This will allow them to impose their own preferred policies and avoid an agreement that will be difficult to enforce over time.

    Finally, successful settlements almost all enjoy the help of a third party willing to ensure the safety of combatants during this vulnerable demobilization period. This means that even if all sides agree to negotiate (due to the increasingly heavy costs of war or a military stalemate), it is unlikely that any country or the United Nations will be willing to send the peacekeepers necessary to help implement the peace. Thus, while Obama and other state leaders claim that they would like to see a negotiated settlement to the war in Syria, none of them are willing to make the commitment needed to help enforce the agreement over time.

    What does this all mean? It means that the likelihood of a successful negotiated settlement in Syria is close to zero despite the efforts of the Obama administration to convince us otherwise.

    Barbara F. Walter is a professor of international relations and Pacific studies and affiliated faculty of political science at the University of California, San Diego. Her research focuses on political accessibility and civil war. She writes at the blog Political Violence @ a Glance and is the author of Committing to Peace: The Successful Settlement of Civil Wars (2002) and “The Critical Barrier to Civil War Settlement” in International Organization.


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    Veto Players and Civil War in Syria

    By David E. Cunningham, University of Maryland

    All civil wars end, but many of them last for an extremely long time before that end. Historically, most civil wars have ended in military victory. However, since the end of the Cold War, there has been an increase in the proportion of civil wars ending in negotiated settlement.

    Civil wars last longer, and are more resistant to negotiated agreement, when they contain more actors who can block settlement. All conflicts contain a set of actors with the ability to continue the war on their own even if the other actors reach agreement, and we can think of these actors as “veto players.” Civil wars are less likely to end in periods in which they have more veto players, and thus conflicts with more of these actors last substantially longer. The international community has worked to build peace in multiparty conflicts, but international peacebuilding efforts are much more successful in civil wars with only two veto players than in conflicts with more (Cunningham 2006, 2010, 2011).

    In this memo, I discuss the effect that an increasing number of veto players have on civil war generally and apply this logic to the case of Syria. I argue that the conflict in Syria is very resistant to resolution in part because of the barriers to settlement presented by many veto players, both internal and external. I discuss conditions under which international actors can promote resolution of multi-party civil wars and examine implications for international conflict management efforts in Syria.

    Veto Players and Civil War Bargaining

    Veto players are actors that have the capability to unilaterally block settlement of a civil war. All civil wars contain at least two veto players — the government and one rebel group — because if either of these actors could not unilaterally continue the war it would end. Many civil wars contain more than two veto players because they contain multiple rebel group veto players. Additionally, external states can function as veto players when they are heavily involved in civil war and bring their own agenda beyond trying to help one side win the conflict.

    When civil wars contain more veto players, it is harder to find a negotiated settlement that all of these actors prefer to continued conflict because the set of agreements that all actors prefer to conflict is smaller, it is harder to assess the relative balance of power across all veto players, and each individual actor has incentives to hold out to be the last signer in a peace deal. These problems are compounded when external veto players are involved, because these actors may not directly bare the costs of conflict and because negotiated settlements often do not directly address the goals of these external parties. Because of these barriers to bargaining, civil wars with several veto players last much longer than those with only two.

    The conflict in Syria contains myriad rebel groups. It is difficult to determine at this stage which of these actors are veto players because organizations are still coalescing and because there are a number of umbrella organizations that may (but often may not) coordinate the activities of several rebel groups. As such, the civil war not only contains the barriers to settlement represented by a large number of veto players, but also an additional barrier — it is difficult for the government, the rebels themselves, and the international community to determine who the veto players are who would have to be included in any negotiated settlement to the war.

    In addition, the Syrian civil war has a strong international dimension. Both the government and various rebel groups receive support from external states. It is likely that some of these states bring independent preferences to the conflict and, as such, represent additional veto players. Finding a negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war is challenging because these external actors either will have to agree to any settlement or will have to be prevented from undermining it.

    International Efforts to Resolve Multi-Party Civil Wars

    The presence of multiple veto players, both internal and external, and the shifting nature of the Syrian civil war mean that it is unlikely to end any time soon and that barriers to negotiated settlement are extremely high. The civil war is likely to last much longer than it has, despite international efforts to work toward a peaceful resolution. International efforts to resolve civil wars are much less successful when there are more than two veto players involved. A prominent study argues that the United Nations was “successful” in about 50 percent of peacebuilding missions undertaken between 1950 and 2000 (Doyle and Sambanis). Dividing these cases into two and multiparty wars shows that peacebuilding was successful in 10 out of 16 two-party wars (63 percent) and only 3 out of 11 multiparty wars (27 percent).

    Despite the barriers to resolution in multiparty civil wars, however, there are examples in which the international community has used successful strategies to address these conflicts and where negotiation has succeeded. One such strategy that the international community can use when one or more veto players are opposed to settlement is to impose an agreement upon them. That is essentially what happened in the former Yugoslavia, as the Dayton Accords were backed up by a large NATO-led peacekeeping mission. This approach requires large resources because it typically requires a long-term large-scale commitment of forces to enforce the peace. There is still a significant peacekeeping mission in the former Yugoslavia nearly two decades after that war ended.

    A second potential strategy for addressing civil wars containing both internal and external veto players is to sequence negotiations to address each dimension of the conflict. With the external dimension removed, it can be easier to reach accord with the internal parties. Additionally, the external states can apply leverage to their internal patrons to encourage them to negotiate. In Angola in the 1980s, for example, the U.S.-led negotiating team worked first to reach an agreement between Cuba and South Africa addressing the external dimension of the conflict. This agreement was followed by an agreement between Angola and the main rebel group UNITA, albeit an agreement which broke down.

    In some cases, then, the international community uses strategies that can address the barriers to bargaining presented by multiple veto players and can help facilitate the resolution of these wars. Often, however, international conflict resolution efforts make settlement less likely by exacerbating the barriers present in multiparty civil wars. In particular, international actors often refuse to allow certain veto players to participate in peace processes, thus virtually guaranteeing those processes will fail.

    In Burundi, for example, the two main rebel groups — CNDD-FDD and Palipehutu-FNL — were barred from participation in the 1998 to 2000 peace process in Arusha. That process led to an agreement among the participants, but failed to end the war as CNDD-FDD and PalipehutuFNL continued fighting after the Arusha Accords. Another example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where Fatah is included as the sole representative of the Palestinians, despite the fact that Hamas, at least, is clearly a veto player with the ability to undermine any agreement reached.

    While there are strategies that international actors can use to build peace in wars with multiple veto players, it appears unlikely that these may succeed in Syria. Imposing a peace on unwilling combatants requires a willingness to deploy significant resources, which does not exist in Syria. Sequencing negotiations to address the external dimension first is more likely to be viable, but would require actors such as the United States to work directly with actors such as Iran. Additionally, it is unclear that the external dimension is the primary barrier to settlement in Syria, and thus resolving that dimension, if possible, might not lead to agreement between the internal parties anyway.

    Additionally, international efforts to address the conflict in Syria have the potential to exacerbate barriers to settlement by excluding veto players. Several of the most powerful rebel groups in Syria are Islamist in nature, and these actors are almost certainly veto players. Additionally, Iran is heavily involved in the conflict and likely has its own agenda, making it a likely veto player as well. International actors, including the United States, have been hesitant to deal with Islamist rebel groups and with Iran, but they would likely need to be part of any political settlement to the war.


    For civil wars to end in negotiated settlement, one of two things has to happen — all the actors (both internal and external) that have the ability to continue the conflict unilaterally have to agree to a settlement and actually stop fighting, or international actors have to be willing to impose a peace on unwilling veto players. When there are many veto players, as in Syria, it is extremely difficult to find an agreement that all veto players can agree to, and thus conflicts drag on. In Syria, the level of international commitment required to impose a peace is lacking, and, while there are strategies that international actors can use to assist veto players in reaching negotiated settlements, they are unlikely to work there. The civil war in Syria, therefore, is likely to last much longer and the prospects for any sort of negotiated settlement are extremely low.

    David E. Cunningham is an assistant professor of international relations at the University of Maryland and is an affiliate of the Center for the Study of Civil War at the Peace Research Institute Oslo. His research focuses on civil war, conflict bargaining, and international security. He is the author of Barriers to Peace in Civil War (2011) and “Veto Players and Civil War Duration” in the American Journal of Political Science and “Blocking resolution: How external states can prolong civil wars” in the Journal of Peace Research.


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    Roles and Mechanism of Insurgency and the Conflict in Syria

    By Roger Petersen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

    The organizers of this conference have asked participants to contribute a memo discussing how their research might apply to the Syrian case. Over the past 15 years, one major line of my research has applied a particular form of process tracing to the study of insurgency. In this brief memo, I will outline that method, briefly list some findings, and then discuss what promise the methods and findings hold for understanding the Syrian conflict.

    Social scientists, and human beings in general, often try to understand complex things by breaking them down and building them back up again. In studying insurgency, I try to break down the conflict into its component parts and then build up toward an understanding of the evolution of the insurgency as a whole. The most fundamental component parts are 1) the roles played by the population during the course of insurgency and 2) the mechanisms that affect individual movement among this set of roles. After breaking down an insurgency into these component parts, a second step involves understanding how mechanisms work in sequence to form the processes underlying rebellion.

    Every insurgency has its own particular sequence of mechanisms; no two may be exactly alike. However, by “breaking down and building up” different insurgencies and by making comparisons among them, we may be able to establish the power and prevalence of certain mechanisms and processes. Through this manner of detailed “process tracing” and comparison, some measure of accumulation in our understanding of insurgency can be gained. I have employed, to various extents, this method of “breaking down and building up” to study several insurgencies in different regions of the world. The examination of those insurgencies, and the specification of their underlying mechanisms and processes, produces possible insights for the Syrian case.

    Breaking Things Down I: A Spectrum of Individual Roles

    At the most fundamental level, individual decisions determine variation within an insurgency. If seen primarily as political contests, the outcome of an insurgency is determined not only by the actions of ethnic and religious group leaders or violent organizations, but by the decisions of individuals across the society. Insurgency involves individuals moving across a set of multiple possible roles. In much of the insurgency or rebellion literature, individuals are portrayed as deciding between just two choices, two roles — either to “rebel” or “not rebel,” — and then the analyst tries to determine the payoff structures between these two choices. Such treatment obfuscates the set of individual roles underlying most insurgencies. More realistically, individuals move along a set of roles that can be aligned along the following spectrum:

    Spectrum of participation in insurgency and counter-insurgency

    Neutral (0): During any conflict between a government and its opponent, many individuals will choose neutrality; these actors will try to avoid both sides and go about their daily lives with a minimum of risk. They will not willingly provide information or material support to either the government or the insurgents nor will they not participate in public demonstrations for either side.

    Unarmed, unorganized insurgent supporter (-1): While avoiding any armed role, some individuals will occasionally provide information, shelter and material support for the insurgents. While unorganized, these individuals may show up at rallies supporting the insurgents and will boycott elections and other activities that could legitimize the government.

    Armed local insurgent (-2): Some individuals will adopt a role of direct and organized participation in a locally based, armed organization. In the absence of a powerful state, individuals in this role often take the form of local militia members. In the presence of a powerful state, such individuals may appear as average citizens or neutrals by day, but play the role of active fighter at night. Even the most powerful states can have trouble identifying and neutralizing actors in this role.

    Mobile armed insurgent (-3): Some individuals will join mobile and armed organizations becoming members in a guerrilla unit or rebel army. These individuals will fight outside of their own local communities.

    These four roles form one side of a spectrum of participation. At the onset of an occupation or violent conflict, many individuals will begin at neutrality but then move into a role of support and then move to even more committed and violent roles. Of course, individuals may also move along a parallel spectrum of roles in support of the government. These roles essentially mirror those above:

    Unarmed, unorganized government supporter (+1): While avoiding any armed or organized role, some individuals will willingly identify insurgents and provide the government with valuable information about insurgent activity. These individuals may show up at rallies supporting the government and will be inclined to vote in elections and participate in other activities that legitimize the government.

    Armed local government supporter (+2): Some individuals will adopt a role of direct and organized participation in a locally based, armed organization that is either formally or informally connected with the government. In Iraq, organizations such as the “Sons of Anbar” provided these roles. More formally, states often develop paramilitary organizations or expanded police forces which create opportunities for armed local government support.

    Mobile armed government forces (+3): Some individuals will join the mobile and armed organizations of the government, namely, the state’s military.

    A few points should be emphasized here. First, these roles are based on observable behavior and not attitudes. Second, it is critical to emphasize that the same individuals pass through different roles in the course of insurgency. The next question is what drives them along this spectrum.

    Breaking Things Down II: Forces that Move Individuals along the Spectrum of Roles (Mechanisms)

    Keeping with the goal of breaking down insurgency into its most elemental parts, the method seeks to identify the small, generalizable forces that drive individuals across this spectrum of roles. In social science language, these small causal forces are often called mechanisms. Mechanisms are specific causal patterns that explain individual actions over a wide range of settings.

    The question here is what specific mechanisms are at play at specific points on the spectrum. What mechanisms move individuals from -1 (insurgent support) to neutrality (0) or government support (+1)? What mechanisms move individuals into insurgent armed roles (either at the -2 or -3 levels)? Developed from knowledge of a variety of cases of insurgency, at least six types of mechanisms can theoretically play a role: rational calculation, focal points, social norms, emotions, status considerations, and psychological mechanisms.

    The mechanism underlying most theories of insurgency is instrumental rational choice related to a relatively narrow set of economic and security values. Individuals are seen as coldly calculating costs on one hand and benefits on the other. Much counterinsurgency theory concentrates on “sticks and carrots” used to influence the operation of this rational calculation mechanism.

    While economic calculations are fairly straightforward, safety calculations may be more complex. One of the primary inputs when calculating threats is a “safety in numbers” estimation. If an individual is at the neutral position (0), he or she will not wish to move to support of insurgents (-1 or -2) unless there are enough other individuals also moving to that position to create a “safety in numbers” effect. It is dangerous to be one of a few individuals moving to a risk-laden role. This discussion of “safety in numbers” leads into a consideration of informational mechanisms. How does an individual gauge how many others are moving to positions across the spectrum? Individual decisions depend on the decisions of others. Is the rest of the population moving out of neutrality toward government support or is it moving the other way toward the insurgents? Here, focal points may become important. Focal points are events, places, or dates that help to coordinate expectations and thus actions.

    Under the influence of social norms individuals do not calculate costs and benefits but rather follow accepted rules of behavior. Norms are often customary rules that coordinate actions with others. Social norms can be crucial mechanisms in insurgencies in societies with strong family, clan, or tribal elements. For example, consider an individual member of a clan who wishes to remain neutral (at the 0 level) early in the conflict. If other members of the clan move to -1 support, the social norms of the clan will also impel this individual to support the insurgents in similar fashion. If the clan moves to -2 level of organized and armed support, this individual, following social norms of reciprocity, will likely be pulled along despite a personal inclination toward neutrality.

    Violent insurgencies often involve death, destruction, and desecration — all of which can create powerful emotions. During insurgencies, either the situation itself, or political entrepreneurs, are likely to create the emotion of anger or the emotion of fear, both of which can move individuals along the spectrum. As with social norms, the emotions of anger and fear affect behavior in ways that can override the “sticks and carrots” policies of an occupier. One of the most relevant emotions to invasion, occupation, and state-building is resentment. Perceptions of unjust group subordination create this emotion. Prior to the conflict, group A might have held most of the visible positions of power and authority over groups B and C. Under new conditions, the formerly subordinate groups B and C may be able to assert new dominance over A. Members of group A, filled with resentment, are unlikely to easily come to terms with this new reality.

    While resentment forms from group-based status considerations, individuals may also have status considerations within their community. In many cultures, becoming a visible early supporter or organizer may confer status as a “leader” or “big man.”

    Finally, several psychological mechanisms have relevance for insurgency. While some of the mechanisms above help explain the “triggering” of insurgency (movement from 0 to -1 and -1 to -2), psychological mechanisms would appear to most help explain how insurgency is sustained (staying at -2, -3) in the face of declining insurgent power. These mechanisms include the “tyranny of sunk costs” as well as “wishful thinking and the “tyranny of small victories” (In this case, the ability to inflict some pain on the government, that is, to carry out occasional successful operations against the government, will distort a rational evaluation of the overall course of the conflict).

    General Connections among Types of Mechanisms and Movement on the Spectrum of Roles

    Figure 2 essentially sums up the “findings” from previous case studies. In previous cases, the mechanisms outlined in the figure were found to be prevalent in generating movement across the spectrum of individual roles in many, but certainly not all, cases. In essence, Figure 2 serves as a theoretical template that outlines a hypothetical set of mechanisms and processes that trigger and sustain insurgency.

    Consider the mobilization of insurgency. The framework outlines a series of mechanisms and suggests how they combine to trigger and sustain rebellion. For the movement from neutrality to unorganized non-violent resistance (0 to -1), the framework predicts that some combination of four mechanisms — emotions, rational calculation of safety, focal points, and status consideration is likely to be at work.

    For the movement into local, armed, organized resistance, a move that involves higher risk, social norms are likely to be a crucial mechanism. For movement into the crucial -2 position, the relationship of “first actors,” those willing to take high risks to violently act against the government, with other members in their community is crucial. If first actors are deeply embedded within tight-knit communities, or are in a position of leadership in those communities, they can act as catalysts to move much of the community from the 0 or -1 positions to the armed, local -2 level.

    Individuals often join mobile armed organizations (the -3 position) either as part of an already formed local unit (-2) or for ideological/religious/patriotic or economic reasons. Insurgent organizations sustain themselves through rational mechanisms such as coercion and threats against defectors, but also through psychological mechanisms such as the tyranny of sunk costs, small victories, and wishful thinking.

    The framework serves to focus the analysis of any specific insurgency. It forces the analyst to look for the smaller-grained causal forces that move individuals across a set of connected roles. The mechanisms and process approach is a middle ground between a variables-based method and description. This method is particularly well-suited to analyze complex events like insurgency. The question here is whether this framework can help productively guide an analysis of the Syrian conflict.

    Relevance to the Syrian Conflict

    This framework is most applicable to irregular civil war, that is, civil war without clear front lines and with a balance of force in favor of the incumbent. Some argue that the Syrian conflict falls into the category of regular civil war. Yet, descriptions of the mobilization of rebels in Syria do suggest the value of this mechanisms and process framework. Consider the following passage from an August 2012 New York Times article (“Life with Syria’s Rebels in a Cold and Cunning War”):

    For the people of Tal Rifaat, a city of roughly 20,000 on an agricultural plain, the uprising moved in stages from peaceful demonstrations to open war. It began with protests in early 2011, which the government tried to smash.

    By midsummer 2012, Abdul Hakim Yasin had formed a guerrilla cell with fewer than 10 other residents. They began with four shotguns and hunting rifles against a government with extensive internal police and intelligence apparatus and a military with hundreds of thousands of troops.

    Last September, security forces scattered a protest at the city’s rail yard with gunfire; 83 people were wounded. One man, Ahmed Mohammed Homed, 32, was killed. Mr. Yasin said he knew then that they were at war. “Everyone in Tal Rifaat formed into teams,” he said.

    (In a later passage from the article) The main fight had shifted to the city, where many fighting groups, including Mr. Yasin’s had coalesced under the black flag of al-Tawhid, a relatively new brigade that sought to organize and unify the province’s disparate rebel units.

    In this brief passage, we encounter first reference to peaceful demonstrations against the government (movement from the 0 to -1 position). Then we hear of the organization of a small group of rebels by Abdul Hakim Yasin. The framework above would direct the analyst to find out how these original kernels of rebellion were formed. It is likely that social norms of reciprocity among family, work, or clans operated to develop these first acting groups (which had moved from the -1 to -2 position). Then we see a reaction against a government crackdown followed by widespread movement of the population into teams (a wider percentage of the population moving into the crucial -2 position). The template above suggests that social norms, as well as signals that resistance would be widespread enough to create some measure of safety in numbers, were the mechanisms that produced this movement. In a third step, Mr. Yasin’s group then coalesced with other local-formed groups under the banner of the al-Tawhid Brigade (here the movement is from -2 to -3 on the spectrum of roles).

    The evolution of the Syrian conflict can clearly be broken down into component parts that fit the spectrum of roles. The framework can guide a tracing of the processes whereby specific sequences of mechanisms produced movement from neutrality to unarmed resistance to local rebellion to mobile militias. Understanding these fine-grained causal processes provides us a better understanding not only about how rebellion has formed, but what can be expected in the future. What should we expect if the Assad regime manages to defeat larger mobile armed groups (those at -3)? If these movements break down into the cohesive norm-driven local units (back to -2), we should expect some significant level of rebellion to persist. Such expectations and predictions can best be made with knowledge of the processes that formed the rebellion in the first place.

    The framework also suggests mechanisms driving other important outcomes. For instance, on the critical question of how the regime prevents defection from its armed forces, the framework points toward mechanisms of discipline and maintaining expectations of victory.

    Furthermore, one of the clearest findings emphasizes the importance of ethnically-based emotions. In a situation of clear ethnic hierarchy, the emotion of resentment primes a population for rebellion and violence (moving the population from neutrality to the -1 or +1 position). Much recent scholarship has shown the power of group status reversals. Once a group has established itself in the dominant position in an ethnic status hierarchy, it does not readily accept subordination (or even equality). In a sweeping statistical study, Lars-Erik Cederman and his collaborators have found that groups that have undergone status reversals are about five times more likely to mobilize for violence than comparable groups that did not experience status reversals. The framework suggests that if Syria is ever to come together as a stable and coherent state, it will have to come to terms with the power of this mechanism.

    Roger Petersen is the Arthur and Ruth Sloan professor of political science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He studies comparative politics with a special focus on conflict and violence. He is the author of Understanding Ethnic Violence: Fear, Hatred, and Resentment in Twentieth-Century Eastern Europe (2002) and Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe (2001).



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    The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry

    by Asaad Al-Saleh

    When writing my new book, Voices of the Arab Spring, I did not feature the testimonials of children. Though the book surveys participants from various backgrounds, differing in age, politics, and education, it doesn’t address the Arab Spring from the perspective of children, even though they are also actors in it. I chose not to cover their stories because they are being used and abused to promote propaganda in Syria. The immoral exposure of children to the war is heightened by the disturbing fact that they have been used repeatedly throughout the conflict to endorse various political positions. During the bloodiest confrontations of the Arab Spring, those between the Syrian regime and the hundreds of factions fighting it, children have become victims of the violence resulting from both the uprising and the subsequent civil war. Despite this tragedy, children are still used in the rhetoric of revolt, war, and jihad.

    Reports and studies marking the fourth anniversary of the uprising and civil war in Syria show that more than 4 million people are refugees outside the country and 7.6 million are internally displaced. Almost half of these are children whose need for assistance (such as shelter and education) is only partially being met. Of the 200,000 killed in the 4-year span of the conflict, over 10,000 were children, some of whom died as a result of torture. Citing the international standard that the percentage of civilians targeted in war should not exceed 2%, reports on Syria point out that the percentage of targeted children and women reached 4.5%. On the same occasion, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) raised awareness about the emotional trauma affecting Syrian children, some of whom are suffering the effects of rape and the loss of parents. Labeling them the “lost generation,” UNICEF also reported that more than 20% of Syrian schools have been either destroyed or rendered effectively unusable because they are currently used for shelter by displaced families.

    As if this tragic plight were not enough, images of children are used in Syria as a propaganda tool by many sides. For the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a rhetoric of defending children has been employed to portray its enemies as abusers of children and the regime as their protector. In September 2013, the regime aired on television the testimony of a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Qadah, who gave details about the alleged “jihad sex” she was asked to perform at the request of her father. The opposition immediately responded by stating that Rawan had been kidnapped, forced to tell the same lies the regime was spreading about its opponents, and appeared too young to be a reliable witness in regards to verifying the regime’s claims. Rawan’s story demonstrates how children can be easily used for political agendas in the context of war. For some revolutionaries, or those who revolted peacefully in Syria four years ago, it was likewise customary to use children while calling for regime change and to attract the world’s attention to al-Assad’s crimes. This position comes from the assumption that children are “part of the revolution” and that their role must therefore be presented. The world cares about children, and the situation in Syria has been exceedingly desperate. Thus, children are used to provoke emotions and elicit more attention, political pressure, and eventually humanitarian or military intervention to “help” or “save” the children. The regime’s behavior is highly unethical concerning Syrian children considering the widespread displacement and death that occurs for the sake of al-Assad’s staying in power.

    As for rebel groups that use terrorism in Syria, children are considered the future of Islam—as it is envisioned by al-Qaeda or ISIS. Their participation in the terrorists’ programs, most of which are symbolic but are sometimes extremely graphic, is done without the least attention to legal, moral, or psychological considerations. One of the early instances of the use of children’s images was performed by Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate. In June 2013, a video of a child about 5-years-old was circulated by al-Nusra to promote their dogma. The child, who was carried on a man’s shoulder, was chanting a song full of bigotry and terrorist rhetoric:

    Our leader is Bin Laden … O you who terrorized America

    We destroyed America … With a civilian airplane

    The [World] Trade Center became a heap of sand

    O you Nusayri Police … Wait for us O Alawites

    We are coming to slaughter you … Unheeding any convention

    [The child is then handed a knife to pretend that he is killing someone, before continuing:]

    They say I am a terrorist … “It is my honor,” I replied

    Our terrorism is highly praised … It is a divine call.

    Children often play games imagining themselves as heroes with guns to fight the bad guys. But in Syria they are being dragged into a real war zone, even as instigators. The image industry in Syria uses journalistic and political outlets to make children represent a cause that is not theirs. It circulates hundreds of images of children carrying conventional weapons or dressed in military costumes, and more recently playing with slaughtered heads as part of ISIS propaganda. Such visibility is hardly the outcome of genuine consent of the child since he or she is not cognizant of the meaning or the consequences of participating in such functions. These children are growing up in one of the ugliest war zones in the world. One day, they will tell stories full of bad guys, including those who let this war drag on and on.

    The regime, the opposition, and the jihadis in Syria are all responsible for such unethical manipulation of children and their images. These players need to grow up and leave children alone.

    Asaad Al-Saleh is Assistant Professor of Arabic Literature and Comparative Literary and Cultural Studies at the University of Utah and author of the new book Voices of the Arab Spring: Personal Stories from the Arab Revolutions

    Syria Comment » Archives The Children of Syria: A War and Image Industry - Syria Comment


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    Everything meaningful was destroyed in Syria by the western crusaders who claim democracy and human rights and other fake stuff and now they're nagging about what was lost ? extreme hypocrisy


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    This is the Assad regime's military strategy for winning the Syrian civil war


    The following is an excerpt of the upcoming report from the Institute for the Study of War titled “An Army in All Corners — Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria.”

    Written by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak, this study examines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of maintaining armed outposts throughout the country to frame his claim to a united and contiguous post-war Syrian state.

    Some US policymakers appear to be considering Assad as the “least worst” option in a country decimated by civil war and overrun by radical groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Kozak makes clear that “this outlook is dangerously flawed.”

    Business Insider will also be running excerpts of the report on April 28th and 29th.

    The military campaign of the Syrian regime has been primarily driven by Assad’s core objective to preserve his rule in a post-war Syria through a negotiated “political solution.”

    However, Assad’s efforts to drive the situation on the ground in a favorable direction faced a number of key challenges. The geographic dispersion of regime positions and the countrywide scope of the Syrian Civil War forced the Assad regime to prioritize among military fronts in 2014, enabling opposition forces to advance in multiple locations including Idlib and Dera’a Provinces.

    Salafi-jihadist rebel groups also grew in strength and coordination in 2014. The regime faced new challenges on the battlefield as the consolidation of military strength among Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), Ahrar al-Sham, and other Salafi-jihadist factions in Syria throughout 2014 enabled numerous major battlefield victories over the regime in Aleppo, Idlib, and Dera’a Provinces.

    However, these developments also sparked new opportunities for Assad to align with the international community by fueling the narrative that the Syrian government faces an invasion of "terrorists" that poses a transnational threat. Assad promoted this framing of the conflict in order to reinforce his own political legitimacy as the only viable alternative to a failed, jihadist-dominated Syrian state.

    Assad likely reasons that by avoiding decisive defeat and preserving his presence throughout the country, the insurgency will eventually be depleted as opposition forces grow increasingly radicalized and alienated from their domestic and international supporters.

    An army 'in all corners'

    The Assad regime prioritizes maintaining Syrian Arab Army (SAA) presence throughout Syria in order to frame its claim to a united and contiguous post-war Syrian state.

    President Assad expressly delineated this policy in his January 2015 interview with Foreign Affairs, stating: “If you look at a military map now, the Syrian army exists in every corner. Not every place; by every corner, I mean north, south, east, west, and between. If you didn’t believe in a unified Syria, that Syria can go back to its previous position, you wouldn’t send the army there as a government.”

    The strategy of an “army in all corners” is designed to preclude a partitioned Syria or rump Syrian state from forming. The existence of SAA formations across Syria also provides President Assad with a political narrative as the leader of a sovereign and undivided country. Assad is unable, however, to use his dispersed footprint to establish security throughout the country in the face of an active armed opposition.

    Assad’s remote outposts incur risk to his campaign. Their strict defensive posture and inability to project force into their surroundings makes them targetable by opposing forces.

    Limited options for reinforcement and resupply can leave their garrisons isolated and vulnerable in the face of concerted offensives. This risk was brutally demonstrated in July and August 2014 when ISIS militants overran a series of holdout regime military bases in ar-Raqqa and Hasaka Provinces, capturing and executing hundreds of SAA soldiers.

    Nevertheless, these strongholds also frequently withstand enemy attacks, providing the Assad regime with staying power at little cost.

    Dominating the 'Human Terrain'

    The Assad regime also seeks to maintain its control over the Syrian civilian population in order to bolster its image as the only legitimate governance structure in the country.

    President Assad has repeatedly stated that the most critical battle in Syria is the one for the Syrian people. Assad also detailed this policy in his interview with Foreign Affairs: “Before talking about winning territory, talk about winning the hearts and minds and the support of the Syrian people. That’s what we have won. What’s left is logistical; it’s technical. That is a matter of time.”

    Experts estimate that the Syrian regime controls between 55 and 72 percent of the Syria’s remaining populace as of January 2015. The Syrian opposition, on the other hand, controls less than a third of the country’s population – affirming President Assad’s boast that “the communities which embraced terrorists have become very small.”

    Assad did not mention that the remainder of Syria’s population now lies within areas under the regime’s control as a deliberate outcome of Assad’s own punitive depopulation campaigns.

    This disparity offers the Assad regime several distinct advantages over rebel forces. Control over the majority of the surviving Syrian population provides opportunity to tap manpower reserves to aid the regime’s fight and also restricts civilians from joining the Syrian opposition. The regime also benefits from enduring economic activity that generally no longer exists in rebel-held areas.

    Continuous efforts to depopulate opposition-held zones and consolidate civilians into regime-held areas feed into the narrative that “the majority of the Syrian people … support their president.” This argument manipulates Syria’s recent history and portrays the staying power of Bashar al-Assad and his government favorably in political negotiations.

    Acceptance of this statement at face value risks legitimizing mass violence against civilians as a tool which could be used in other conflicts.

    Projecting the regime's legitimacy

    The regime uses the appearance of enduring military and social control in Syria to bolster domestic and international legitimacy in preparation to discuss political settlement.

    Assad regularly uses “jihadism” in Syria as an argument to curry international favor. In an interview conducted on November 28, 2014, President Assad criticized US-led coalition airstrikes against ISIS in Syria by insisting that “terrorism cannot be destroyed from the air, and you cannot achieve results on the ground without land forces.”

    Regime officials regularly promote the SAA as the only realistic force with the “experience in the field” to counter terrorist groups operating in Syria, such as JN or ISIS. Assad reaffirmed in a later interview on January 20, 2015 that this partner “definitely … has to be Syrian troops.”

    In some cases, Assad backs his claims with force. The Syrian Air Force, for example, conducted several sorties against the ISIS “capital” of ar-Raqqa in a move clearly designed to align with the global anti-terrorism campaign following the launch of anti-ISIS coalition air raids in Syria on September 22, 2014.

    The regime also attempts to maintain vestiges of democratic processes in order to underscore the claims of legitimacy made by the Syrian government. The 2014 Syrian presidential elections were widely upheld by regime officials as an expression of mass popular support for the Syrian government despite pervasive indications of fraud and voter suppression. The Assad regime retains a “tolerated” internal opposition group, the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change (NCCDC), which provides a façade of political pluralism.

    The Assad regime’s political goals generated a military strategy which remained relatively consistent throughout 2014 and into 2015 despite shifts in battlefield dynamics which forced the regime to adapt to new circumstances. These shifts forced the regime to adapt its capabilities frequently, but they have rarely altered the ways in which regime forces have attempted to carry out the war.

    This resiliency indicates that the Assad regime possesses a coherent military strategy that has been robust enough to absorb the pressures of unanticipated events. Assad likely believes that upholding this clear plan of action while avoiding unnecessary risks on the battlefield will allow him to win the war for Syria without an outright military victory.

    This article originally appeared at Institute For The Study Of War. Copyright 2015.

    Read more: This is the Assad regime's military strategy for winning the Syrian civil war - Business Insider


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    These are the Assad's regime's 5 biggest military goals in the Syrian Civil War


    The following is the second excerpt of the upcoming report from the Institute for the Study of War titled “An Army in All Corners — Assad’s Campaign Strategy in Syria.”

    The April 27th excerpt focused on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s goal to “preserve his rule in a post-war Syria through a negotiated ‘political solution.’”

    Written by ISW Syria Analyst Christopher Kozak, this study examines Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strategy of maintaining armed outposts throughout the country to frame his claim to a united and contiguous post-war Syrian state.

    Some US policymakers appear to be considering Assad as the “least worst” option in a country decimated by civil war and overrun by radical groups including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Kozak makes clear that “this outlook is dangerously flawed.”

    Today we look at Assad’s offensive military campaign and how it shows that he balances “his available resources in order to achieve some battlefield success while preserving the ongoing stalemate across the country.”

    Tomorrow: The future outlook and implications for US policy.

    Taken as a whole, Assad’s military campaign has largely succeeded only in generating further disorder.

    The strategy of defensive protraction adopted by the Assad regime resulted in a grueling and destructive stalemate across most of the battlefields of Syria through 2014 and into 2015.

    Limited manpower and resupply options constrained the offensive capabilities of pro-regime forces, forcing Assad to prioritize a small number of fronts while maintaining a reactive stance throughout the remainder of the country. This force posture has entrenched a state of persistent conflict in Syria which exacerbated humanitarian ailments, deepened polarization among the populace, and provided space for jihadist forces to expand their social and military control relatively unchecked.

    An increasing reliance on paramilitary and Iranian proxy forces along the most critical frontlines in Aleppo, Damascus, and the Alawite heartland failed to secure decisive victories against opposition forces and fueled sectarian narratives of conflict promulgated by extremist actors.

    An examination of the frontlines in Aleppo, Damascus, and central Syria where Assad chose to go on the offensive demonstrates how Assad balanced his available resources in order to achieve some battlefield success while preserving the ongoing stalemate across the country.

    Winning in Aleppo

    One of the keys to Assad’s military strategy has been the campaign for Aleppo, a major commercial capital in northern Syria and Syria’s second-largest city.

    A continuous military presence in the city is essential to Assad’s claim to control all of Syria, though rebels have contested the city since 2012. Full control of Aleppo would strengthen the negotiating position of the regime in any future political settlement.

    It holds equal value to the opposition. The frontlines between regime and rebel forces within Aleppo city proper have remained relatively static for over two years as both sides lack the necessary manpower and equipment to clear and hold the dense urban terrain of the city.

    The regime decided to lay siege to rebel positions in the city in late 2013, shifting the relevant battlespace to the rural outskirts of the city where the regime’s superiority in armor and air assets could be maximized in support of offensive maneuver operations largely unseen in the rest of Syria. This ‘siege-and-starve’ strategy also followed the model of similar sieges by the regime throughout the country, most notably in Homs city and the suburbs of Damascus.

    Securing Damascus

    The elimination of the opposition threat to the Syrian capital of Damascus formed the second core component of the Assad regime’s military strategy.

    Durable control over the formal seat of government and the home of several million Syrian citizens provides the Syrian regime with a solid claim to domestic and international legitimacy. Damascus is also key terrain from a military perspective due to the high number of airbases, military installations, and elite SAA units present in the vicinity of the city.

    The regime’s campaign for Damascus can be broken into two distinct lines of effort.

    The first primary focus is the battle to reduce and eventually eliminate the strong rebel pocket in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs, a mixed rural-urban region which holds an estimated 160,000 civilians and opposition fighters. Eastern Ghouta has been the scene of some of the fiercest urban fighting in the capital, including the August 21, 2013 chemical weapons attacks targeting several opposition-held districts in the area.

    Meanwhile, the regime has also conducted a systematic effort to neutralize other opposition-held neighborhoods through sieges, starvation, and ceasefire agreements, preserving its combat power for other battlefronts. Assad has heavily relied upon his elite ‘praetorian guard’ units — including the Republican Guard and the 4th Armored Division — as well as Iranian proxy forces in order to prosecute his campaign in Damascus.

    Securing the Central Corridor

    The Assad regime also devoted sizeable resources towards securing and defending the Syrian ‘central corridor’ – a stretch of terrain which includes Homs and Hama cities as well as the Syrian coastal provinces of Latakia and Tartous.

    Preserving firm control over this region serves multiple strategic purposes for the regime.

    For one, the ‘central corridor’ encompasses the ‘Alawite heartland’ of Syria, an area which provides a deep pool of loyalist manpower for pro-regime forces and functions as a strategic fallback position in the unlikely event of the collapse of the Assad regime.

    Homs and Hama cities are also key crossing points for ground lines of communication running from Damascus and the Syrian Coast to regime positions in Aleppo and Deir ez-Zour. Finally, these provinces hold a large number of military installations and airbases which remain critical for the regime’s ability to project force throughout the far corners of Syria.

    An Army in All Corners

    The Assad regime’s military campaigns to secure Aleppo, Damascus, and the Syrian Alawite heartland differed significantly from regime’s operations in the rest of Syria.

    In contrast to the offensive maneuvers conducted along fronts deemed a regime priority, Assad relied upon a network of isolated military outposts to pin the bounds of a unified and contiguous Syrian state throughout most of northern and eastern Syria.

    This ‘army in all corners’ strategy allows the regime to assert a nominal presence across the entirety of Syrian territory. These fortified strongpoints also fix large amounts of rebel forces, drawing them into long-running siege operations for minimal investment of regime manpower.

    However, these outposts are nonetheless vulnerable to being overrun when rebel forces succeed in organizing concerted offensives supported by heavier weaponry. Several key regime positions fell to such opposition operations throughout the course of 2014. Nonetheless, the Assad regime continues to maintain staying power in pockets deep within opposition-held terrain.

    The pattern of deployment

    The overall pattern of deployments exhibited across these fronts reveal the inherent limitations afflicting the regime’s military campaign.

    For example, regime operations to encircle Aleppo city experienced recurrent delays and setbacks in response to mounting opposition pressure against other frontlines in the Syrian central corridor. The large-scale maneuver operation utilized to clear the supply route to Aleppo in late 2013 faded in favor of small-scale opportunistic advances as emergent opportunities and challenges — including the final assault on the Old City of Homs in March to May 2014, ISIS advances in eastern Homs in July 2014, and the opposition offensive on the Hama Military Airbase from August to October 2014 — forced the regime to deploy its assets in northern Syria reactively instead of proactively.

    The Assad regime increasingly relied upon aerial bombardment in Aleppo throughout 2014 as a substitute for ground forces and began utilizing large numbers of Iranian proxy forces in fall 2014 in a likely attempt to restart its campaign.

    The tradeoffs pressed upon the Assad regime in southern Syria are visibly starker.

    Regime and Hezbollah forces prioritized the campaign to clear the Qalamoun region from November 2013 to April 2014 to the detriment of regime positions in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces. As the regime shifted to focus on offensives against Mleiha and Adra in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in summer 2014, opposition forces exploited the resulting drawdowns to make additional gains in both the Qalamoun and far-southern Syria.

    Unsuccessful regime attempts to once again shift its campaign towards Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces starting in December 2014 indicated that overall regime offensive capabilities in southern Syria may be waning despite fresh influxes of Iranian proxies to the frontlines.

    These trends support the idea that continuing attrition has sapped the momentum of the pro-regime coalition throughout the country. Syrian forces were not able in any case to simultaneously prioritize multiple fronts, even with support, causing them to maintain a reactive posture and prioritize asymmetric techniques such as sieges and chemical weapons.

    This article originally appeared at Institute For The Study Of War. Copyright 2015.

    Read more: These are the Assad's regime's 4 biggest military goals in the Syrian Civil War - Business Insider


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    Ya 7aram Amirkani sho ken mazloom :) he quoted himself once and you pounced on him :)

    Did you take a look at this thread? Lol


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    US policymakers are falling for Assad's ruse


    This is an excerpt from "An Army in All Corners : Assad's Campaign Strategy in Syria."

    Read the full report here, and previous excerpts here and here.

    US policymakers in April 2015 appear to be returning to the position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad represents the “least worst option in Syria” for American strategic interests.

    Assad is often compared to the Islamic State (ISIS) with the implication that Assad is the lesser of two evils.

    Senior administration officials including Secretary of State John Kerry signaled support for diplomatic negotiations with the regime in March 2015, rather than developing a committed strategy to remove Assad from power.

    American leaders’ ambivalence reflects the limitations of US policy which attempts to treat Syria as the backdrop for a narrow counterterrorism problem rather than a comprehensive national security issue. This outlook is dangerously flawed.

    US policymakers may be being captured by Bashar al-Assad’s own narrative. Assad’s political objective is to remain in power past the end of the Syrian war.

    However, the inability of regime forces to defeat the Syrian opposition decisively in battle has forced the regime to rhetorically embrace a negotiated solution to the conflict. The Syrian military campaign has complemented such official statements by attempting to set conditions on the ground favorable to the regime’s negotiating position.

    Bashar al-Assad is neither a viable partner against the Islamic State (ISIS) nor the “least worst option” for US national interests in Syria for three reasons.

    First, the Assad regime cannot control the territory that was Syria or win the Syrian war decisively.

    Second, the Assad regime is Iran’s strategic asset in Syria and Assad is beholden to Iran for keeping his military viable.

    Third, Assad’s brutal tactics and humanitarian abuses have accelerated the growth of jihadist groups regionally and globally.

    The Assad regime is not positioned to secure an outright military victory in 2015. The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) continues to grapple with chronic problems of attrition and political unreliability which force Assad to rely upon a small core of trusted elite military units in addition to the IRGC-QF, Hezbollah, and other Iranian-aligned forces to conduct offensive operations.

    Meanwhile, the use of decentralized paramilitary units such as the National Defense Forces (NDF) in increasingly prominent combat roles has fragmented the regime’s authority over its fighting force and caused cleavages in Assad’s popular support base.

    These manpower limitations have led Assad to adopt a military strategy of an "army in all corners" which involves the establishment and defense of remote regime outposts throughout Syria in order to pin the outer bounds of a contiguous post-war Syrian state. Assad likely hopes that this strategy will enable him to avoid decisive defeat while still outwardly claiming to control all of Syria, eventually translating into international political legitimacy.

    This approach may successfully prolong the staying power of President Assad, but it protracts violence and destruction throughout the country and allows jihadist groups to flourish. The passive posture maintained by Assad’s forces effectively cedes control over large swathes of countryside to ISIS, JN, and other Islamic extremist groups.

    Iranian involvement is as essential to Assad’s survival in 2015 as it was in 2013 when it stabilized the regime’s then-losing war effort. The return of thousands of Iraqi Shi’a militia fighters to Iraq following the fall of Mosul in June 2014 prompted the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to mobilize thousands of foreign Shi’a volunteers, including Afghans, to augment Assad’s military forces.

    The latter half of 2014 thus witnessed a surge in the involvement of Iran and its proxy forces on behalf of the Assad regime, staving off attrition once more. In a sign of its deepening influence, the IRGC conducted its own independent recruitment efforts inside of Syria and occasionally assumed direct command over field operations. These developments suggest that the Assad regime is increasingly losing agency over its own military campaign.

    The growth of the Iranian presence in Syria challenges key US regional allies as well as wider US strategic interests in the Middle East. Iran and its allies directed regime offensives in southern Syria which were likely intended in part to position Iranian-aligned forces in close proximity to the border with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. Expanded Iranian influence also threatens to disrupt the calculus of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and other regional powers in a way which promotes further conflict.

    Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies have already demonstrated the willingness to counter perceived Iranian expansion through military means with the launch of Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen. The lack of US action against Assad, and by extension Iran, strains relations between the U.S. and its Arab allies and erodes the credibility of the US position in the region as a whole.

    Assad is accelerating the growth of violent jihadist movements in Syria, the region, and globally. The tactics used by the regime to enforce his “army in all corners” strategy mark Assad as a permanent enemy to many Syrians. Assad has utilized airstrikes, barrel bombs, and chemical weapons to punish populations in opposition-held areas and to clear them comprehensively with minimal investment of manpower.

    The forces of the regime have employed other brutal tactics involving sieges, sectarian massacres, and torture to neutralize resistance to Assad’s rule. These atrocities strengthen the sectarian narrative held by Salafi-jihadist groups operating in Syria and provide a constant stream of recruits vulnerable to radicalization.

    The abuses of the Assad regime contribute to a deepening humanitarian crisis which threatens to overwhelm the region. The Syrian Civil War has already claimed the lives of over 220,000 Syrians and displaced nearly 11.5 million civilians. Millions of refugees have fled to neighboring countries, placing heavy burdens upon regional US allies such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.

    Assad is the instigator of and not the solution to this problem.

    Inaction on the part of the US only drives a further wedge between the West and the Syrian populace. Many elements of the formerly-moderate opposition have aligned with jihadist groups such as JN which are perceived as effective partners in the fight against the regime. In turn, this shift towards extremism bolsters Assad with additional domestic and international legitimacy as the only apparent alternative to a radicalized Syria.

    Assad is not a capable or suitable anti-ISIS partner. Rather, his regime assures the survival of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria.

    The current status quo trends in the Syrian Civil War are untenable for US national interests. Allowing the Syrian regime to conduct its military campaign with impunity sows the seeds for generations of regional disorder to come and empowers the expansionist designs of the Iranian regime.

    The US does possess additional cards that it could place on the table for resolving the Syrian conflict, including the imposition of a No Fly Zone over opposition-held areas or an expedited effort to train-and-equip Syrian opposition fighters alongside regional allies.

    If US policymakers do not adopt a more forceful and focused approach to Syria, the only foreseeable outcome is a fragmented and failed Syrian state which menaces its neighbors and brutalizes its people.

    This article originally appeared at Institute For The Study Of War. Copyright 2015.

    Read more: "An Army in All Corners:" Assad's Campaign Strategy in Syria | Institute for the Study of War


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    Ya 7aram Amirkani sho ken mazloom :) he quoted himself once and you pounced on him :)

    Did you take a look at this thread? Lol
    I'm not quoting myself. I'm quoting other (interesting) people :)


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    I'm going to add "artistic perspectives" to the thread title.

    At age 19, Fatima is already a mother, a widow and a refugee from Syria. Through photography, she’s coming to terms with her grief and eyeing the future.

    I will post some of the pictures from Fatima and other youths who participated in the photography workshops in Zaatari and the Bekaa (with their own captions). More at DO YOU SEE WHAT I SEE / UNHCR
    Last edited:


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    AbdulKareem / 15 years
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    The Revolutionaries of Bethnahrin
    Carl Drott

    This article is primarily based on interviews conducted in Syria and Sweden between August 2013 and January 2015. For the sake of simplicity, the term "Syriac" is here employed to denote also those individuals or communities identifying as Assyrians, Chaldeans, Arameans, Christian Kurds or Christian Arabs.

    In northeastern Syria, “Christian militias” (as they are often termed) are now battling the Islamic State alongside Kurdish forces. However, these groups did not simply emerge spontaneously as a response to a security threat: they are the latest incarnations of the Dawronoye movement, which first appeared on the European and Middle Eastern political scenes twenty years ago. While they are indeed Christian, their fight is not primarily for their faith, but for their nation — which is neither Syria nor Kurdistan. In their native tongue—a contemporary descendant of the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus—they call their people Suryoye (Syriacs) and their homeland Bethnahrin (Mesopotamia).

    Remnants of a Shattered Community

    Syriacs were among the first to adopt the Christian faith, but their religion and culture gradually became marginalized following the Islamic conquest. Since they lived scattered across the Middle East, most eventually adopted the Arabic language, while a few communities, mainly residing in or near Kurdish-dominated areas, managed to retain their own language. In areas that today form part of Turkey, Syriacs suffered several bouts of persecution leading up to a horrifying climax during the First World War. Although they traditionally obeyed their rulers and kept a low political profile, Syriacs were accused of conspiring with the Christian enemies of the Ottoman Empire. This “problem” found its solution in a genocide that was planned by the Ottoman authorities and carried out in collaboration with local Kurdish Muslims who could benefit by taking over the land and belongings of their victims. Over a quarter of a million Syriacs perished, along with Armenian and Greek Christians and Kurdish Ezidis. Syriacs still refer to 1915 as the “year of the sword”: Seyfo.

    A heavily decimated community managed to remain in the Turabdin area, which after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire became part of the Republic of Turkey. Others settled instead in the Jazira area—just south of Turabdin—in what became northeastern Syria. This fertile region, previously populated by Arabs, Kurds, and Syriacs, now came to be dominated by the latter—at least for a few years. North of the border, the Turkish government soon turned against the Kurds, who were viewed as a threat to the desired unitary character of the new nation-state. Following the suppression of Kurdish uprisings in the 1920s and 30s, large numbers of Kurds fled across the border and became the new majority in the Jazira area.

    For several decades, the Kurds in Turkey offered little resistance to the state’s assimilation policies and oppression. However, political mobilization took off again in the 1970s, and in 1984 the secular, socialist, and nationalist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) initiated an armed insurgency. The response was brutal and indiscriminate: anyone living in a pro-PKK area could become a target, and standard practices of Turkish security forces included torture, extra-judicial executions, and the destruction of villages. Tens of thousands of Kurds were also recruited to serve as armed “village guards,” and while some joined voluntarily, often for opportunistic reasons, many others saw it as the only way to save themselves from government reprisals. Meanwhile, the PKK systematically targeted “local collaborators” and their families. Everyone in southeastern Turkey now had to take sides—for or against the PKK.

    During this time, there was also an increase in attacks against the Syriacs in Turabdin. Most notably, there was a wave of assassinations without any clearly discernible motive, committed by “unknown perpetrators.” Many suspected that the intention was to drive out the remaining Syriacs, and that the government either was directly involved or had at least turned a blind eye. Since Syriacs constitute both an ethnic and religious minority, nationalist as well as religious extremists presumably desired their exodus, while local opportunists might have sought to take over their property, just like in 1915. Groups belonging to all these categories were at the time operating with impunity in Turkey’s southeast since they agreed to fight the PKK on the government’s behalf. Regardless of who was behind the violence, the presumably desired effect was reached: over the course of the 1980s and 90s, nearly the entire Syriac community in Turabdin migrated, mainly to European countries like Germany and Sweden.

    In the late 1980s, a small group of Syriac youth gathered in Midyat, the main town of Turabdin. As they discussed the seemingly hopeless future of their people, they also noted that their predicament was similar to that of the Kurds: they had no recognition as a distinct ethnic group with their own language, and they suffered from discrimination and oppression. However, unlike the Syriacs, who had always played the role of hapless victims, the Kurds were now fighting back. The youth decided to join the PKK’s local support network—but eventually got arrested. Although they were released, they concluded that they could not continue like before—at least not in Turabdin. Paradoxically, since their main goal was to enable Syriacs to remain in their homeland, they chose to follow the migration stream to Europe.

    Instead of simply continuing to work for the PKK, the group now established its own secret network, which by 1995 had grown into a disciplined organization along revolutionary socialist lines. Those who pledged to become party cadres would “leave everything behind” and live only for the struggle. It was hoped that this vanguard would awaken the people and turn into a mass movement. They called themselves Tukoso Dawronoyo Mothonoyo d’Bethnahrin, commonly translated as the Patriotic Revolutionary Organization of Bethnahrin. Its members referred to themselves simply as Dawronoye, which was first thought to translate as “the revolutionaries.” In fact, the name turned out to mean “the modern,” and stuck through later reorganizations as a general label for the movement and its members. As it turned out, many had been waiting for them.

    Jacob and Sargon

    Jacob Mirza was born in 1964 in a village near Midyat. After five years of compulsory Turkish schooling, his father sent him to study at the Mor Gabriel monastery, where he remained for another four years. Although he did well in his studies, he did not feel the calling to pursue an ecclesiastical career. Since childhood, Jacob explains, “I could not accept injustice, regardless whether it was I who suffered it or someone else, so I got involved in conflicts all the time.”

    On one occasion, when Jacob was in his mid-teens, he joined a game of football against a neighboring Muslim village. His Syriac team accused the referee, who was from the Muslim village, of judging unfairly in its favor, and when an argument descended into a brawl, Jacob proceeded to punch him in the face. Two days later, the referee—now armed with a metal bar—went looking for him in Midyat. “We fought again,” Jacob recounts. “He cursed at Jesus and the Bible, and I replied with curses at Mohammed and the Quran. After that, all I saw was chaos. All the Muslims came when they heard that a Christian had cursed at their prophet. Anything could have happened, I mean, I could have been murdered right there.”

    In the end, it was a Muslim who took Jacob inside his shop and locked the door, thereby saving him from the mob. Two years later, in 1983, Jacob immigrated to Sweden, where he started working as a language teacher (all children with immigrant backgrounds have the right to “mother tongue tuition” in Swedish schools). He became involved with political work, but found that the diaspora nationalist movement was deeply divided. Since there had been no standardized myth-making process of the kind that united European nation states in the nineteenth century, different groups had wildly different ideas about the definition, history, and character of their nation—or even what it should call itself. The so-called “name dispute” primarily pitted those calling themselves Syriacs against those calling themselves Assyrians, but Jacob never committed to any of these names. For several years, he remained active in organizations on both sides, but eventually lost faith in their ability to attain any tangible political goals. Instead, he started meeting informally with a group of friends to discuss what they could do. “During this time I was always looking for something,” Jacob explains. One day, in a pizzeria owned by one of his friends from the discussion group, his hopes were re-ignited.

    “Jacob, can I talk to you?” his friend asked in a low tone of voice. “This is secret. There is a group that thinks just like us.”

    The year was 1994, and the secret group was Dawronoye. After meeting with one of their representatives, who turned out to be an acquaintance from Turabdin, Jacob was quickly drawn in, and the following year he attended a political training camp where he took the pledge to become a party cadre. By this time, he had left his job as a language teacher and set up a series of restaurants and other businesses, which he now sold in order to devote himself full-time to the struggle. After a stint as a grassroots political organizer in the Netherlands and Germany, Jacob would move on to media work and travel extensively to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran.

    Dawronoye's television team visits the guerrillas. Beside Jacob Mirza (front row, third from left) sits Sargon Adam, holding a machine gun. (Photo courtesy Sargon Adam, August 1999)

    Sargon was born in 1972, and moved from Turkey to Sweden with his family at the age of four. As he grew up, he experienced friction between the lifestyle and values of his traditional family home and the surrounding society. “We who were brought up in the 1970s and 80s suffered more or less from an identity crisis, and with that came an inferiority complex and everything, and then you tried to show yourself off as someone you are not,” Sargon explains.

    In his mid-teens, he started drinking, using drugs and acting out, and although he had a talent for studies, his absences ultimately got him expelled from upper secondary school, and he started working odd jobs. He also became involved in a local Assyrian youth group and spent a lot of time reading about the history of his people. However, the rival historical narratives presented by different political factions added further to his identity crisis.

    “Are we Syriacs? Assyrians? Arameans? What the hell are we?” he asked himself.

    While he remained active in the youth group, he slid further into a criminal lifestyle. “There was a lot of money flowing, lots of drugs, lots of girls around me,” Sargon recounts. “I was a real tough guy.”

    However, in the summer of 1996 he decided to make a change: “I attended a camp with Dawronoye, where I took the step to become a party cadre and leave everything behind. I told them that I just have a month of prison time to serve first.”

    Sargon now had to make the transition from a local bad boy, commanding fear and respect from everyone, to observing another hierarchy—one where he was no longer at the top. “They had these difficulties with me in the beginning. It was not so easy to tame me actually,” he says, adding with a smile, “But one did everything for the fatherland.”

    Sargon Adam (left) and his comrade, Midyat, in the mountains. (Photo courtesy Sargon Adam, July 1999)

    No More Submission

    Dawronoye’s goal was not only to attain national rights, but also to bring about wider social, political, and cultural change.

    “The ideology was revolutionary socialist,” Sargon says. “This does not just mean to wage an armed struggle and bring down governments and things like that, but to create a revolutionary personality. Since we had lived under Christian traditions for too long, where submission was a must, we had to break that pattern. No more submission, you have to start revolutionizing yourself, develop yourself, and get educated.”

    Many of Dawronoye’s activities in Europe centered around the Seyfo issue. The government in Turkey denied that any genocide had occurred in 1915, and Syriacs there had always exercised self-censorship on the topic. “All Suryoye knew about Seyfo, and you would talk about it at home, but you did not dare say anything outwardly,” Jacob says. Even in Europe, the genocide of the Syriacs—unlike that of the Armenians—was unknown to most people and unrecognized by all governments. Dawronoye now tried to raise their voice through street protests, hunger strikes, and house occupations, where they demanded one simple thing: recognition of Seyfo.

    There was another issue, however, in which Dawronoye refused to take a stand.

    “The name dispute had torn us apart and emptied all of our strength,” Sargon says. “Our goal was to enlighten the people that they are one and the same people, with the same roots, homeland, everything.” In their events, they held both Syriac and Assyrian flags, and tried to circumvent the name dispute by rallying around the less contentious name of their homeland: Bethnahrin.

    As they set up their new movement, Dawronoye were coached by the far more experienced revolutionaries of the PKK—something that was bound to spark opposition within the Syriac community where anti-Kurdish sentiments ran deep. These sentiments were based on more than historical grievances; the same attitudes towards Christians that had enabled Kurdish participation in Seyfo could still be found among tribal and conservative Kurds. However, Dawronoye argued that the PKK represented a clear break with the past, since they supported the same rights for others as they wanted for themselves, and actively worked to change norms and structures within their own community.

    “That party will cooperate regardless of what people you belong to, because they are fighting against the oppression that comes from the same direction against all the groups there,” Jacob explains.

    Many took it for granted that Dawronoye simply constituted the Syriac wing of the PKK. “The truth is we have always made our own decisions, but certainly we have learned from the PKK, and they have helped us a good deal,” Sargon says.

    One of the ways in which Dawronoye asserted their independence was self-financing, enabled through monthly membership fees and a yearly fundraising campaign. Contributions from a few wealthy business owners were crucial, Sargon explains, “We had one guy who helped the PKK before, and when he went over to us we received one thousand German Marks every month as membership fee, and twenty thousand German Marks every year in the campaign.” Dawronoye’s cadres systematically mapped Syriac pizzerias and other businesses, and went door-to-door asking for donations. “Just here in Sweden, we could collect one or one and a half million Swedish Kronor,” Sargon says, referring to the yearly campaign. “People believed in us, but unfortunately the church and the other organizations said we extorted people. There was nothing like that.”

    Mountain Guerrillas

    While Europe became a stage for political activities, and Syriacs there provided crucial funding, Dawronoye had from the start aimed to return to Bethnahrin. To show the world that they were no longer willing to submit, members were going to establish an armed wing and fight the Turkish state. However, southeastern Turkey had a far too high presence of security forces and informants, so in 1995 the first group of cadres instead travelled to Syria, and from there crossed over into Iraq.

    “Since Turkey was in conflict with the PKK in northern Iraq we could take the conflict there,” Jacob explains. In the eyes of Dawronoye, this was not foreign territory, since Turkey, Syria, and Iraq all form part of Bethnahrin. Furthermore, Jacob explains, “We thought there would be changes in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq, and that we needed to be prepared. The conditions were also far better. In Turabdin there were maybe four-five thousand people, but we had about one point two million Assyrians, Syriacs, and Chaldeans in Iraq.”

    The conditions in northern Iraq may have been favorable, but they were also very complicated. The Kurds, who form the vast majority of the population here, had risen up against Saddam Hussein’s oppressive government in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf War, expecting support from the United States and its allies. As the government moved in to crush the uprising, US and allied forces finally intervened to establish the world’s first “no-fly zone”— which effectively became a “no-go zone” for government forces. The Kurdistan region now gained de facto autonomy, and when largely free and fair elections were held the following year, it seemed like a promising sign. However, the results produced a draw between Jalal Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Massoud Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). A “fifty-fifty” power-sharing arrangement failed to bring about a functional government, and tensions between the two rivals finally came to a head in 1994, when civil war broke out. During the conflict, the PUK allied itself with the PKK and Iran, while the KDP developed a close cooperation with Turkey—which also sent its own troops across the border to hunt down the PKK. Although the PUK-KDP conflict ended in 1998, the war against the PKK continued.

    Dawronoye first established itself in the Badinan area, which lies on the Turkish border and has a sizeable Syriac population. However, this is also KDP heartland, and despite Dawronoye’s declaration of neutrality in the intra-Kurdish conflicts, the group was soon forced to leave for the Qandil mountains. Here, fighters set up a separate camp in the close vicinity of a major PKK base, where they could receive military training, and from 1996 onwards they fought alongside their mentors. Dawronoye’s guerrillas were so few, and at least initially so inexperienced, that they never launched any operations on their own, but instead rotated for duty in a small unit that was integrated into the armed wing of the PKK.

    “There was fighting maybe every week or every other week, where the unit took part. We had at least four or five comrades all the time in the fighting,” says Sargon, who joined the guerrillas in May 1999—only a few months before a unilateral PKK ceasefire brought an end to Dawronoye’s war.

    Although they tried to stay out of the intra-Kurdish conflicts, Dawronoye were inevitably dragged into the fighting between the PKK and the KDP, and on one occasion, an attack was even launched on Dawronoye’s own initiative. A young Syriac woman named Helen Sawa had disappeared in May 1999, and when her body was found a month later, suspicions pointed to a senior KDP leader that had employed her in his household. Local authorities were accused of covering up the alleged rape and murder, and a few weeks later the PKK and Dawronoye launched a retaliatory attack against a KDP outpost. It was more than “an eye for an eye”– around forty KDP peshmerga were reportedly killed in the fighting. “We felt that something had to be done, since they had acted like they did,” says Sargon. “We wanted the world to see that we are here, we exist, and we can take revenge too.”

    The Imagined and the Real Bethnahrin

    In 2000, Dawronoye held its first congress, and members reorganized as the Bethnahrin Freedom Party (Gabo d’Hirutho d’Bethnahrin, or GHB). Sargon criticized the new party’s vague political vision and lack of concrete goals, and when he refused to back down he was imprisoned in the mountain camp. “I had to accept what the congress had decided, and unconditionally follow the party,” says Sargon, who after several weeks buckled and went back to his duties.

    The congress also saw the first cracks emerge in the relation between Dawronoye and the PKK, whose representatives were not invited; although their cooperation continued, the PKK henceforth viewed its Syriac allies with open suspicion.

    A meeting conducted shortly before Dawronoye's guerrillas engaged in military operations alongside Kurdish forces. In the background hang Assyrian, GHB and Syriac flags. (Photo courtesy Sargon Adam, March 2003)

    After Dawronoye were forced out from the Badinan area, they had tried to mobilize the small Syriac communities in the PUK zone, but with little success. “The people in those areas had started calling themselves 'Christian Kurds.' They had no concept of an own identity,” Sargon explains. Dawronoye instead turned their focus to the larger Syriac communities residing in Mosul and on the Nineveh plains, outside of the no-fly zone.

    Since they shared common enemies, Saddam Hussein’s government tolerated a limited presence of PKK cadres in the nearby Makhmour refugee camp, and they would now provide cover for Dawronoye. “I could move around in the Mosul area, but had to be very alert, because theMukhabarat [the intelligence service] was extremely good at detecting people who behaved in an odd way,” says Sargon, who arrived in Makhmour in the autumn of 2001 and remained for about a year. He and his comrades successfully organized a network of local intelligence operatives, but their attempts to awaken some kind of political and national consciousness in the wider Syriac population failed. “Those who called themselves Assyrians were nationalistic, but the Chaldeans and Syriacs just saw themselves as Christians. They did not know any better, they did not even know that they and the Assyrians are the same people,” Sargon says, adding another explanation: “They thought Saddam would never fall, and you sensed the fear in the population. The fear of the state was immense.”

    Dawronoye nevertheless managed to attract scores of new party cadres from various locations, and over time its armed wing grew to include around one hundred and fifty guerrillas. While a core group of around thirty-five originated from Turkey and had lived in Europe, the rest were local recruits. However, they rarely developed the “revolutionary character” that was expected.

    “We did not succeed in making the guys from Iraq believe in our cause, in a better future and all that. It was more for their own gain that they came to us, it was not like ideological or nationalistic or anything, but they wanted food for the day or thought we could help them get to Europe,” Sargon says. “You know, when you talk about nation and fatherland and all of that, you have to have common emotions, and like, we lacked those common emotions. We had an illusion about what Bethnahrin was, while they lived in a real Bethnahrin that was only shit, that was only oppression, hunger, and fear.”

    New Politics for a New Middle East

    When the US invasion arrived in the spring of 2003, Dawronoye joined the Kurdish offensive from the north, hoping to assert itself as a political force in the newly liberated areas. “Together with the PUK, we went into Kirkuk and took some offices belonging to the Baath party,” Sargon recounts. The Iraqi army had fled before they even arrived, and soon thereafter Dawronoye decided to demobilize their armed wing and end their cooperation with the PKK.

    “We thought new politics would begin in the Middle East, and that we would be able to fight for our rights in a political way. This is why we laid down our weapons,” explains Jacob, who left the PKK-affiliated Medya TV to set up Dawronoye’s own Suroyo TV.

    While Dawronoye failed to establish any real foothold in post-invasion Iraqi politics, another arena opened up around the same time, as Turkey appeared to be edging closer to EU membership. In order to lobby the EU and its member states in relation to the accession talks, Dawronoye founded the European Syriac Union (Huyodo Suroyo d’Urifi or ESU) in 2004—but the new organization’s more polished and diplomatic approach, along with the sudden adoption of the term “Syriac,” proved controversial internally.

    “They changed strategy without any congress or anything. Why should we call ourselves 'Syriacs' and who decided this?” Sargon asked. He was promptly imprisoned once again.

    Although the reforms later stalled, there were initially indications that the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan would set Turkey on a new path towards democracy and pluralism. In 2005, the Syriac spring festival Akitu could, for the first time, be organized openly in Midyat. Despite the fact that they had fought the Turkish army only a few years earlier, and never officially concluded any peace deal, Dawronoye was behind the well-attended celebrations. Not only did the authorities tolerate the event, but it was even personally attended by the Governor of Mardin Province—while Prime Minister Erdogan sent a congratulatory message. Jacob describes it as a game from both sides:

    “Turkey wanted to take us under its control, and we wanted to test how Turkey reacts.” For Sargon, however, this was no victory, but the final proof that Dawronoye had abandoned their ideals and ended the struggle prematurely, without securing any meaningful political concessions. “You can sit with your enemy or your oppressor, but there should not just be peace for one side, while the other gets nothing,” he argues. “Okay, maybe some in the Dawronoye movement can travel to Turkey without getting arrested, but what have you gained on that as a people? Nothing.” After nine years as a full-time party cadre, six of which were spent in Iraq, Sargon finally cut all ties with Dawronoye and returned to Sweden.

    The Changing Game in Syria

    Dawronoye had maintained a presence in Syria from the very beginning, primarily in the Jazira area, and although the regime's intelligence agencies occasionally clamped down on the movement, they mostly stuck to monitoring its activities through regular meetings. Open agitation against the government was clearly a red line, but cultural activities as well as political work relating to Turkey and Iraq would generally be tolerated. This arrangement came to an abrupt end in the spring of 2012, as Dawronoye’s Syrian affiliate, the Syriac Union Party (Gabo d’Huyodo Suryoyo or SUP), used the Akitu celebrations as an opportunity to declare its opposition to the regime of Bashar al-Assad. A few days later, several activists were arrested in early morning raids, and more were picked up when a demonstration organized in response was violently disbanded. However, although several were tortured, they were ultimately released. Apparently, regime security forces exercised more restraint here than in other parts of the country, so as not to jeopardize existing local support, but they would soon lose territorial control anyway.

    A few months later, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) took control of a large part of the Jazira area and the government withdrew to a few isolated enclaves. While the YPG stood under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which cautiously tried to forge a third way between the government and the rebels, activists from the SUP pushed their way into the Syrian embassy in Stockholm, issuing a press release condemning “the terrorist regime of Al-Assad” and hailing ”the martyrs of the Syrian Revolution.” Despite such defiant declarations, Dawronoye could accomplish precious little on its own, and there were few “moderate rebels” in the area—only a growing threat from jihadist and criminal groups. However, since the PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK movement, the solution appeared natural. Dawronoye would get back together with its former allies and take up arms again.

    “We did not really need to discuss or decide anything new,” says Jacob, who at the time sat in the leadership of the Bethnahrin National Council (Mawtbo Umthoyo d’Bethnahrin or MUB), the supreme body of the Dawronoye movement that replaced GHB in late 2005. “We always said that we may come back to Iraq again with weapons, or to Lebanon, to Syria.”

    Some guerrilla veterans from the 1990s were brought in from Iraq, Turkey, and Europe, while others were already present in Syria, where they began training local recruits. The following year, in 2013, a police force called Sutoro opened three stations in the Jazira area, and a military force called the Syriac Military Council (Mawtbo Fulhoyo Suryoyo or MFS) announced its existence in an online video. The MFS initially hinted at future military action against the regime, but this never materialized. Instead, a more immediate and existential threat appeared, as a coalition of rebel and jihadist groups suddenly attacked. The MFS and the YPG soon fought side-by-side in the frontlines to defend the area, while Sutoro developed an increasingly close cooperation with its Kurdish counterpart Asayish. Just like in the 1990s, Dawronoye integrated into the security structures of their Kurdish allies, while retaining their own organizations and financing themselves through diaspora donations.

    MFS fighters outside their base in Ghardukah, northeastern Syria. (Photo ©Carl Drott, January 2014)

    Around the same time as the attacks began, the PYD invited other parties and civil society organizations to participate in a process to form local governance structures. Most turned down the offer, fearing that the PYD would continue to dominate, but the SUP participated actively from the beginning until the end. Among the chief declared goals was one to ensure the peaceful coexistence of different ethnic and religious communities. With unmistaken symbolism, one of the first meetings was conducted across the border in Midyat, where Kurdish representatives took the opportunity to apologize for their people’s role in Seyfo. When the autonomous “Jazira canton” was declared in January 2014, representatives of the SUP took up positions in the government and legislative assembly, while Syriac, Arabic, and Kurdish were declared official languages.

    “We believe that this philosophy of [the PKK leader] Ocalan can be a model not just for the Kurds but for other peoples also,” says Nazira Goriye, the co-spokesperson of the legislative assembly. “We want our rights not just as Christians, but as a people, as a nation. This is why we are on the side of the Kurds, not on Assad’s side. Assad tries to give our people a morphine injection.”

    Nazira Goriye, co-spokesperson of the legislative assemply in the autonomous Jazira canton. (Photo ©Carl Drott, January 2014)

    The Future of Bethnahrin

    Over the years, Dawronoye learned to adapt to a rapidly shifting political environment, and several times changed its strategy to exploit opportunities wherever they emerged. More often than not, the group has seen its ambitions frustrated—not surprisingly, considering that it has always tried to punch above its weight. Perhaps Dawronoye's activists have now finally found their chance. Dawronoye’s core goal is to ensure the future existence of its people in their native lands, but with the possible exception of the Nineveh plains in Iraq, there is no place where they could realistically seek regional autonomy, let alone their own state. In other words, they have to find a way to live with the majority population without being dominated by it. Meanwhile, the PKK movement has come to embrace a vision of a multicultural mosaic within a decentralized democratic system. While sharing some overarching political structures, different communities should be encouraged to organize their own grassroots-level structures, and manage their own affairs to the greatest extent possible. In other words, the respective projects of Dawronoye and the PKK coincide perfectly in Syria.

    So, what are the chances that Dawronoye can garner popular support for its project? After all, these secular, nationalist revolutionaries represent a complete inversion of their community’s tendency to remain politically passive and subservient while turning to religion for consolation.

    “The Kurds are one step ahead of us, but if you look at what the Syriacs were like before and what they are like now, I think we have made great progress,” Jacob says. “This struggle will continue, because we have cultivated a thought among our people that we have to fight to survive, we have to fight to be free, we have to fight for our children’s future and not give up.”

    Unlike the PKK, Dawronoye have yet not succeeded in building a mass movement—but the necessary infrastructure is in place, in the form of a network of affiliated civil society organizations. Furthermore, the lawless situation in Syria plays to their strengths. Like the PKK, Dawronoye are well organized and good at getting things done, and their cadres are motivated by ideology rather than material incentives. Perhaps most importantly, they are now the ones holding arms to defend the area. In a situation where the Islamic State is directly threatening the very survival of the Syriac people, Dawronoye and their Kurdish allies are fighting and dying in the frontlines to protect them, asking for nothing in return—except the opportunity to shape tomorrow’s society.

    Carl Drott is a Swedish freelance journalist who has covered the conflict in Syria for Le Monde diplomatique, Haaretz, Syria Comment, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Stockholm Journal of International Affairs, among others. For his previous piece for Warscapes - "Extremists" and "Moderates" in Kobani - was reported from the midst of the seige.

    The Revolutionaries of Bethnahrin | Warscapes


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    Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi Responds to al-Julani’s al-Jazeera Interview

    by Matthew Barber

    Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi is a respected Sufi scholar and teacher from Damascus who has been an outspoken voice against IS and other extremist groups in Syria. Throughout the course of the uprising, he has been consulted by rebel fighters seeking guidance regarding their conduct in the war. In this capacity, the Sheikh has provided numerous fatwas against acts of extremism, violence against civilians, sectarian violence, and the killing of prisoners. Sheikh Yaqoubi has previously been interviewed for Syria Comment, and more information on his background and activities can be found in that article.

    This past week, Sheikh Yaqoubi published a short book containing a detailed religious argument against the behavior and tactics of IS. The first of its kind, the book is entitled The Obligation to Fight ISIS: A Detailed Fatwa Proving That ISIS Have Strayed from Islam, Opposed Sharīʿah and That Fighting Them is Obligatory. (The title of the Arabic version is: إنقاذُ الأمَّة: فتوﻯٰ مفصلة في إثبات أن داعش خوارج وأن قتالهم واجب) A strong refutation of IS’ ideology, this work is designed to influence Syrian fighters against IS as well as to curb IS’ recruitment of Muslim youth around the world. It can also serve to encourage IS fighters to leave the organization. An Arabic version of the book has just been published in Turkey and is available here; an English version is forthcoming. The book refutes IS on theological grounds for many aspects of its practice and positions, including their revival of slavery practices (for information on IS’ project to enslave Iraqi Yazidis, see: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

    Also this past week, al-Jazeera ran an in-depth interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani, the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s al-Qaida organization. Highlights of this interview, translated into English can be read here, and theprevious post on Syria Comment deals extensively with the interview. Eyebrows have been raised by what has appeared as an attempt to improve Nusra’s image as a more moderate alternative to IS that does not practicetakfir (the practice of declaring a Muslim an unbeliever or apostate).

    I spoke with Sheikh Yaqoubi on Friday. He shared with me his current efforts to ideologically combat IS, as well as his thoughts on the way that al-Jazeera handled the interview with al-Julani, the ranking representative of al-Qaida in Syria. Below is our discussion.

    Sheikh Muhammad, what did you make of al-Jazeera’s interview with Abu Mohammed al-Julani?

    The interview was fifty minutes of mockery—a scandal for professional journalism. It is unbelievable that al-Jazeera is doing the dirty job of beautifying this man before tens of millions of viewers, ordinary Muslims, telling them that he is a good man who is doing a good job, helping the Syrian people, a good Muslim, a moderate Muslim—he’s not! It was clear from the interview that the ideology of al-Nusra Front has not changed. Al-Julani twice confirmed his allegiance to al-Qaida, saying that he receives orders from its leader Dr. Aymenn [al-Zawahiri], and the interviewer never interjected any question about this. All the interviewer did was attempt to portray him as a nice man. He never asked him a critical question; he never challenged him.

    What do you think is happening today that allows an important representative of al-Qaida to be featured on television in an accepting way by a mainstream voice of the media?

    This question should be directed to Qatar’s government. Why are they doing this?

    The man clearly stated that he hasn’t abandoned any of his principles. He only stated one thing that differs from his earlier positions: he says that he has received orders from al-Qaida leader Dr. Ayman to not target the West. This is the only real [ideological] change from what he conveyed in his earlier interview in 2013. Now they are just trying to get statements from him to the effect that “we do not do takfir.” And yet in the same interview, he confirmed the extreme position that visiting shrines of saints is kufr or shirk, accusing people who visit shrines of being mushrikiin [those who “commit polytheism” by ascribing “partners” to God]. This means he is going to have to consider most Sunni Muslims apostates (which for him could mean having to kill them) because they have shrines of saints and visit them, such as our shrine for Ibn ‘Arabi in the heart of Damascus, or in Konya the shrine for Mawlana Rumi, the most famous Muslim saint in the world. You have saints everywhere, from Morocco to South Africa, from Indonesia to Istanbul. All these Muslims are mushrikiin—non-Muslims, unbelievers—according to him? How can this be? This ideology is alien to the Syrian people and to the nature of Islam in Syria.

    And ironically—or perhaps even sarcastically—they are trying to present him as so friendly toward [minority] sects.

    As he said that Nusra will not kill Alawites or Druze.

    Druze and Alawites—“if they don’t fight us, if they don’t work with Assad,” then they will not kill them.

    But he made changing their religion a prerequisite for this.

    This is the key moment where the interviewer failed to interrupt to pose any hard questions. He [al-Julani] gave two conditions. The first was that they abandon Assad, or defect—and this is the understandable politics of war. But the second condition, at which the interviewer did not pause to question him, was, when talking about the Druze villages in Idlib, he said “we have sent them duʿāt” [proselytizers], people to correct their dogma or their Islam.” And about Alawites, also he repeated that “if they accept Islam, we’ll be fine with them.” His approach to Druze and Alawites is that they should become Muslims and “then we will accept them,” which differs from the long-established position adopted by Sunnis, such as the Hanafis and Malikis, who accepted these groups and made them equal to the People of the Book. Al-Julani’s position means that Alawites have the only the choices of converting to Islam or being killed; they would not even be extended the option of deportation.

    Now, these Alawites and Druze, along with the Isma’ilis, have lived side by side with Sunni Muslims for over a thousand years, and Muslims did not attempt to erase, eradicate, or convert them, even though Muslims had power, as the rulers of the land, such as the Ottomans. This is because it is part of our legal system that these people could be treated as the People of the Book, which means they are full citizens of the countries where they live. It is in the Hanafi school, the Malaki school, it is even one opinion of Ahmad ibn Hanbal.

    Now I understand the position of the Shafi’is, but it was never practiced, so why pick it up after all these centuries? While the majority of Muslim scholars say that even mushrikiin can be treated as the People of the Book? Imam Malik says this very clearly and so does Abu Hanifa. This was practiced for many centuries in Syria, so why now? Why turn the tables after all of this history and begin forcing people into Islam? Al-Julani wants to claim to be more loyal to Islam than the Muslims? More than the Ottomans, more than the Ayubids, more than the Abbasids, more than the Umayyads, more than the companions of the Prophet? This is very strange.

    What Shafi’i position were you referring to?

    The Shafi’is said that jizya can only be taken from Christians, Jews, and Magians [Zoroastrians], not from others. But this has never been practiced; the Shafi’i opinion on this has never been followed. We have a rule in fiqh: “Practice takes priority.” In other words, the position of a madhab that becomes majority practice is validated, whereas an opposing position of another madhab, if not followed in a certain land, cannot be practiced there. Therefore the Shafi’i position on this has become invalid in Syria and neighboring countries because it was never adopted by any Muslim government. This is even echoed now by one of the major leaders of the current Salafi-jihadi movement, Abu Basir al-Tartusi, who states that the majority opinion on this is superior and should be practiced, and that all should be considered as People of the Book and should not be forced into Islam. He says this on his website.

    Help me understand the difference between the Shafi’is on the one side, and the Hanafis and Malikis on the other. Both would agree that the option to pay jizya [rather than convert] is provided to the People of the Book, but the difference is about who is considered People of the Book?

    The difference is about who can be annexed to the category, i.e. who can be merged into the People of the Book. It is about whether the “People of the Book” can be extended to include others who can be treated as the People of the Book, or not. Because in the past, when Muslims waged wars, they always offered the enemy three options before fighting: 1) the enemy could become Muslim, 2) they could remain non-Muslim and pay jizya, or 3) they could choose to fight. So for mushrikiin, the payment of jizya was not considered an option, in some opinions. But this was in regards to pagans among the Arabs. And the Hanafis, for example, and the Malikis on a larger scale, and even Ahmad ibn Hanbal according to one narration from him, all quote hadith from the Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, reporting that when he sent people to fight pagan mushrikiin, he asked them to offer [to the latter] all three options. This means that even pagans cannot be forced into Islam, if they choose to pay jizya. There is also another hadith, one about the Magians, in Sahih Bukhari, that says “treat them like the People of the Book.”

    So from these proofs, these portions of hadith tradition, among others, scholars and Muslim jurists went on to say that all non-Muslim sects are annexed to the People of the Book. Let me state it clearly: Muslims were not keen on killing people. Muslims tried to save the lives of people under any pretext when any proof was available. They valued human life as God’s creation, so when they found these clear proofs from among the words of the Prophet, they knew that Islam was a religion of mercy, because this is the higher purpose of the shariʿa: mercy—not killing people, not harshness, not savagery.

    This was the practiced pattern when Muslims had power. Today Muslims are weak, and a group like al-Nusra thinks that it can survive and become a superpower? This is ridiculous. Muslims were superpowers and controlled two thirds of the world, and they did not eradicate sects. They did not force them into Islam.

    So when al-Julani mentioned placing duʿāt among the Druze in Idlib, the interviewer did not interrupt him to question the practice.

    He didn’t challenge him at all. The way that al-Julani put it was “we sent missionaries, duʿāt, to them, to correct for them their misunderstandings of Islamic dogma.” But Julani is very aware that Druze are considered non-Muslims in books of theology. When they have freedom, they will identify as Druze.

    There is no basis for forcing or pressuring others to enter Islam. In my new book on fighting ISIS, I mention that it is even forbidden to slander a Christian or another non-Muslim. Ibn Nujaim, one of the greatest scholars of fiqh anduṣūl al-fiqh in the Hanafi school, said that it is haram, forbidden, to say to a non-Muslim: “you kāfir,”because it upsets him, and you are not supposed to upset him by pointing out his difference in beliefs. This has been established in Islam for centuries. This is why when I once spoke in America at the Catholic University in Washington, I said that the concept of “tolerance” is alien to us, because tolerance means “bearing up with difficulty,” i.e. doing a favor to the other. It is derived from the Latin verb tolerare which means “to endure pain.” The Muslim relationship toward other sects was not based in “doing the favor” of tolerating them; they considered their separate beliefs as their right. Ibn ʿĀbidīn even says in his book Radd Al-Muḥtār that oppression against non-Muslims is worse than oppression against Muslims.

    So where do these people like Julani and Baghdadi come from? But this is what results when they destroy the twelve-century-long corpus of law of the four schools. This is what you get: everyone is implementing his own opinion. Everyone who carries a gun is now a mujtahid or a mufti, producing his own fatwas and acting as judge. They claim to act in reference to the book of Allah and the sunna of his Prophet, salla Allah ‘alayhi wa sallam, but they act according to their own understanding—or misunderstanding.

    Islamic law develops [over time]. One of its beautiful characteristics is its flexibility. We have certain things that are constant over time, things like the pillars of Islam (prayer, fasting, and so forth), but then we have things that may evolve and change over time. There are a lot of these things, includingjizya. It is not something that is rigidly defined, even though it is mentioned in the Qur’an.

    So what do you think was the goal of that interview?

    The purpose of the interview seemed to be just to elicit certain statements from al-Julani, particularly that “we don’t do takfir to anyone,” in a way that would increase his appeal to the public. It was a very dangerous interview.

    And in the interview we don’t really see a renouncing of takfiri practice or ideology?

    No. And even if we did, there is more at issue with al-Qaida than the practice of takfir. For example, anyone who believes in democracy, for them, is a heretic. Another example: any Muslim ruler or country that enters an alliance with or seeks assistance from a non-Muslim country—they become unbelievers. There are many problems with al-Qaida, and the ideology is basically the same as that of ISIS, though ISIS has more extreme practices that have now made al-Qaida look nice. But we know that several thousand fighters moved from al-Nusra to ISIS.

    Throughout the Syria conflict, every time a more radical group would appear, it would make the groups preceding it look less bad. People were concerned about Islamist groups, but after Nusra emerged, it began to appear as the bigger threat, making the other Islamists appear more moderate. After ISIS emerged, even Nusra began to look better, simply because it was not as extreme. People would perceive any opposition to whatever was the more extreme party as a good thing.

    [laughing] Well if you believe in relativity, then that is the case! But we don’t believe in relativity in this criminal arena. You can’t say that a murderer who kills one person is a saint because someone else is killing more.

    Let me ask you how you perceive the recent successes of Nusra and other Islamists. You are someone who wants to see a future peace in Syria, and you see both the Assad regime and Nusra as obstacles to that peace. So when you see Assad losing ground and Nusra or other Islamist groups gaining ground, do you interpret this as a positive or negative development, or neither?

    Kicking the regime out of areas like Idlib is definitely good, but the ultimate solution for the crisis in Syria will be political. Sometimes people are happy that a piece of land is liberated, but then you see barrel bombs falling on people morning and night in that area, killing civilians and innocents. So it is good that the regime is now weaker, that more people are safe from the torture of the regime’s prisons, from its special art in killing people. But what we need is to finally reach a political solution, where no fighting takes place.

    Until now the regime has refused to talk seriously about any political solution. Do you think that with all its recent losses it may experience enough pressure that going to the negotiating table will become a real possibility?

    I think that there may now be an agreement to get rid of Assad. Even Russia and Iran now believe that he has become a burden. But what system would follow? Of course Iran wants to guarantee its own interests in the country, and Russia wants to guarantee its interests. We do not want the major destruction of Damascus. So what is happening now is more military pressure on the regime to bring it to the negotiating table, where hopefully Assad could step down, an interim council would be created to which power would be handed over, and we would eventually witness a new Syria.

    If that doesn’t happen and the present fight continues to move, say to Latakia or Damascus, the destruction will just go on.

    Let me say this: continuing the fight is no longer in the interest of Syrians.

    Including the opposition.

    Including the opposition because the opposition is not in power and is not represented by the people fighting on the ground. Those fighting are mainly extreme groups like ISIS and others who want to impose their own version of Islam, which is alien to the moderate Sunni Islam that the region has known for centuries. When you look at the four schools you realize that Islam is not about killing. For example, Islamic penalties could not be implemented in times of war, times of famine, times of ignorance and so forth. By putting Islamic penalties on hold, I am not challenging the book of Allah or the sunna. I am not challenging the books of fiqh. I am precisely following the reliable opinion of every school of law. Shariʿa is not about Islamic penalties; these extreme groups have reduced shariʿa to Islamic penalties, they have reduced shariʿa to jizya for non-Muslims. What about truthfulness, what about mercy, what about respect for citizens, what about protecting life? Islam is about these things.

    Tell me about the new book you have written. It is a long fatwa about IS. What do you hope to accomplish with it?

    First of all, I have seen a lot of need, from inside Syria and from around the world. From inside Syria I receive questions from fighters and commanders, from certain military groups, asking whether they should engage in the war against ISIS, asking whether ISIS are Muslims and whether they can fight against Muslims. And from non-Muslims around the world, you are aware how much fuss there is about ISIS and its crimes, especially after the burning alive of the Jordanian pilot Muaz al-Kasasbeh, Allah have mercy on him. So I saw the strong need [for an authoritative religious response to this], and there was only the one letter that was issued before, that I cosigned [], but which did not go into enough detail regarding the proofs for the refutation of ISIS, but which mainly presented the basics. So I wrote this book directing the reader to the major positions held by ISIS, such as allegiance to Baghdadi and its validity, kidnapping, burning, slavery. Slavery is one of the major issues and I mentioned that as jurists, doctors of the law, from an Islamic point of view we are bound by international law on the issue, which we [Muslim countries] have signed, and Muslims must not breach their promises. Slavery should not be practiced and cannot be practiced; it is now forbidden in Islam for it to be practiced. This does not contradict the book of Allah or the sunna of the Prophet; it is rather in conjunction with them, because in Islam we are ordered to respect our covenants and contracts. Before the coming of Islam, the Prophet Mohammed participated in a covenant called the Hilf al-Fudūl that was made among tribes in Mecca to protect the oppressed. And after the message of Islam had come, the Prophet said that if he was again invited to such an accord that he would agree to it. So slavery in Islam is not obligatory; it is not the only option. Slavery was one option in Islam only because it was practiced in the world into which Islam came, and if the world comes to agree on abolishing it, we are bound by this. Even more so because our enemies do not enslave us. The only case in which slavery could still be applied would be if the world were to abolish the Declaration of Human Rights and begin to enslave Muslims. In such a scenario, Muslims could enslave their enemies as a kind of reciprocity. But this is impossible, an entirely imaginary hypothesis. There is now no place for slavery at all; it is out of the question.

    Now when we spoke in 2013, you mentioned that many fighters were seeking your religious guidance, sometimes about relations with other groups, sometimes about fighting the regime. As the first sheikh to issue a fatwa validating resistance against the regime after its use of violence against the peaceful protesters, you played an important role in legitimizing the armed struggle of the opposition. I wonder now, in early 2015, whether similar numbers of fighters still consult you.

    No. The reason is that many moderate fighters, for financial reasons or for lack of weapons and arms support, moved to join with al-Nusra or others. Three years ago there were so many military groups on the ground. Many of them were moderate and were fighting for a new Syria, and their goal was to take out the regime, not to create that form of a state which Nusra or ISIS is seeking to establish now. We all know that many Syrian fighters are now with ISIS or Nusra—they are well paid. Many looked at the international community with frustration, because they didn’t see any support.

    But some still contact me and I have received requests from some of the major military groups that still exist, from around the country. Their questions now are not about the regime but mainly concern fighting ISIS.

    How much practical influence do you think that you book can have?

    It is designed to impact three target groups. The first group is the fighters inside Syria.

    And can it physically reach them?

    Yes. One major rebel group inside Syria has already requested 10,000 copies of it. A second group has requested 5,000 copies. These are good signs. They want to educate their fighters, to discuss what is right and wrong, who represents Islam, and what kind of Islam is to be practiced. So this is very encouraging. And this is just in the first few days. By the way, I have published 25,000 copies [in Turkey, to be distributed to Syrian fighters] at my own expense. I have had no sponsors. But we are expecting that 100,000 copies will eventually be needed.

    The second target group for the book is the youth outside of Syria, around the world, who are at risk for recruitment. They can be reached online, and when they read this book they will realize that ISIS does not represent Islam. Through this effort we will try to minimize the levels of recruitment. That is why there are versions in both Arabic and English.

    And the third target group is academia and the media. I receive a lot of questions from both academia and the media about the legal stance of Islam and the various schools on these issues, and this work can help answer those questions from concerned observers.

    We are hopeful about the potential of this book and feel that its reception is promising.

    Syria Comment » Archives Sheikh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi Responds to al-Julani’s al-Jazeera Interview - Syria Comment


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    The plan called for funding of a "Free Syria Committee", and the arming of "political factions with paramilitary

    "Newly discovered documents show how in 1957 Harold Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA-MI6 plan to stage fake border incidents as an excuse for an invasion by Syria's pro-western neighbours, and then to "eliminate" the most influential triumvirate in Damascus." "The plan called for funding of a "Free Syria Committee", and the arming of "political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities" within Syria."

    The Angry Arab News Service/وكالة أنباء العربي الغاضب: The plan called for funding of a "Free Syria Committee", and the arming of "political factions with paramilitary

    Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot

    Documents show White House and No 10 conspired over oil-fuelled invasion plan

    Nearly 50 years before the war in Iraq, Britain and America sought a secretive "regime change" in another Arab country they accused of spreading terror and threatening the west's oil supplies, by planning the invasion of Syria and the assassination of leading figures.

    Newly discovered documents show how in 1957 Harold Macmillan and President Dwight Eisenhower approved a CIA-MI6 plan to stage fake border incidents as an excuse for an invasion by Syria's pro-western neighbours, and then to "eliminate" the most influential triumvirate in Damascus.

    The plans, frighteningly frank in their discussion, were discovered in the private papers of Duncan Sandys, Mr Macmillan's defence secretary, by Matthew Jones, a reader in international history at Royal Holloway, University of London.

    Although historians know that intelligence services had sought to topple the Syrian regime in the autumn of 1957, this is the first time any document has been found showing that the assassination of three leading figures was at the heart of the scheme. In the document drawn up by a top secret and high-level working group that met in Washington in September 1957, Mr Macmillan and President Eisenhower were left in no doubt about the need to assassinate the top men in Damascus.

    Part of the "preferred plan" reads: "In order to facilitate the action of liberative forces, reduce the capabilities of the Syrian regime to organise and direct its military actions, to hold losses and destruction to a minimum, and to bring about desired results in the shortest possible time, a special effort should be made to eliminate certain key individuals. Their removal should be accomplished early in the course of the uprising and intervention and in the light of circumstances existing at the time."

    The document, approved by London and Washington, named three men: Abd al-Hamid Sarraj, head of Syrian military intelligence; Afif al-Bizri, chief of the Syrian general staff; and Khalid Bakdash, leader of the Syrian Communist party.

    For a prime minister who had largely come to power on the back of Anthony Eden's disastrous antics in Suez just a year before, Mr Macmillan was remarkably bellicose. He described it in his diary as "a most formidable report". Secrecy was so great, Mr Macmillan ordered the plan withheld even from British chiefs of staff, because of their tendency "to chatter".

    Concern about the increasingly anti-western and pro-Soviet sympathies ofSyria had been growing in Downing Street and the White House since the overthrow of the conservative military regime of Colonel Adib Shishakli by an alliance of Ba'ath party and Communist party politicians and their allies in the Syrian army, in 1954.

    Driving the call for action was the CIA's Middle East chief Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt. He identified Colonel Sarraj, General al-Bizri and Mr Bakdash as the real power behind a figurehead president. The triumvirate had moved even closer to Nikita Khrushchev's orbit after the previous year's disastrous attempt by Britain and France, in collusion with Israel, to reverse the nationalisation of the Suez canal.

    By 1957, despite America's opposition to the Suez move, President Eisenhower felt he could no longer ignore the danger of Syria becoming a centre for Moscow to spread communism throughout the Middle East. He and Mr Macmillan feared Syria would destabilise pro-western neighbours by exporting terrorism and encouraging internal dissent. More importantly, Syria also had control of one of the main oil arteries of the Middle East, the pipeline which connected pro-western Iraq's oilfields to Turkey.

    The "preferred plan"adds: "Once a political decision is reached to proceed with internal disturbances in Syria, CIA is prepared, and SIS [MI6] will attempt, to mount minor sabotage and coup de main incidents within Syria, working through contacts with individuals.

    "The two services should consult, as appropriate, to avoid any overlapping or interference with each other's activities... Incidents should not be concentrated in Damascus; the operation should not be overdone; and to the extent possible care should be taken to avoid causing key leaders of the Syrian regime to take additional personal protection measures."


    The report said that once the necessary degree of fear had been created, frontier incidents and border clashes would be staged to provide a pretext for Iraqi and Jordanian military intervention. Syria had to be "made to appear as the sponsor of plots, sabotage and violence directed against neighbouring governments," the report says. "CIA and SIS should use their capabilities in both the psychological and action fields to augment tension." That meant operations in Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon, taking the form of "sabotage, national conspiracies and various strong-arm activities" to be blamed on Damascus.

    The plan called for funding of a "Free Syria Committee", and the arming of "political factions with paramilitary or other actionist capabilities" within Syria. The CIA and MI6 would instigate internal uprisings, for instance by the Druze in the south, help to free political prisoners held in the Mezze prison, and stir up the Muslim Brotherhood in Damascus.

    The planners envisaged replacing the Ba'ath/Communist regime with one that was firmly anti-Soviet, but they conceded that this would not be popular and "would probably need to rely first upon repressive measures and arbitrary exercise of power".

    The plan was never used, chiefly because Syria's Arab neighbours could not be persuaded to take action and an attack from Turkey alone was thought to be unacceptable. The following year, the Ba'athists moved against their Communist former allies and took Syria into a federation with Gen Nasser's Egypt, which lasted until 1963.

    Macmillan backed Syria assassination plot | Politics | The Guardian