Category Archives: Syrian Civil War

The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria

I just published an opinion piece on Muftah.org entitled “The Perils of Partitions: Iraq & Syria” which begins:

The idea has been suggested repeatedly that Iraq, and now Syria, need to be partitioned.  As the argument goes, the region’s post-World War I boundaries, which were drawn by the British and French with little regard to local realities, should not be defended.  Both Syria and Iraq are socially divided along sectarian lines. According to this reasoning, once each sect has its own state, the conflicts engendered by these divisions will disappear or at least be minimized.  As the argument goes, Iraq is already partitioned, to a degree, given the legal autonomy of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is the most peaceful and secure portion of the country.

Proposals to divide Iraq and Syria along different boundary lines make a lot of sense and are very attractive.  The only problem is they will lead to massive population displacement, the impoverishment of minorities, and genocide.

(Read the article…)

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Lost: What’s in a Name?

Since the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) announced that they have shortened their name to simply “the Islamic State,” Western media have had difficulty knowing what to call them, especially because they are also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  But this name-change is not simply an attempt at re-branding: the terrorist group also prohibits anyone under their governance from calling them by the common Arabic abbreviation Da’ash (داعش, for الدولة الإسلامية في العراق والشام).  The penalty for using the proscribed, but common colloquial, acronym is 80 lashes.  What’s going on here? Continue reading

World Cup

I was in Aleppo during the last World Cup.  It was the end of June 2010, before the “Arab Spring” and before the Syrian uprising.  Flags were everywhere, mostly Brazilian flags.  The Assad regime’s normal sensitivity to the public display of other country’s national symbols was waived for the World Cup, when Aleppines of every creed and none advertised which team they were cheering for by flying flags from their balconies or even hanging them from their upstairs neighbors’ balconies to completely shade their own.  Newsstands were selling flags of all sorts of countries for the fans.  To look around the neighborhoods I visited, it seemed that top-ranked Brazil had the largest number of fans in Syria’s commercial capital.  One warm summer night, I was kept awake by shouting in the streets below and firecrackers; this was the victory celebration for the fans of one team or another.  When the Netherlands eliminated Brazil in the quarter-finals, some Dutch friends of mine joked that they should not go outdoors.

After over three years of civil war, it’s hard to remember the rhythms of normal life in Syria before.  Although the US government tried to isolate the Syrian regime as a Russian ally and a supporter of terrorism, because of its alliance with Hezbollah, many Americans thought of Syria, if at all, as a tourist destination with some amazing Roman ruins and medieval mosques.  The violence has made Syria more notorious now, linked with chemical weapons, dictatorship, and terrorism.  The colorful flags of the 2010 World Cup have been removed, replaced in most of the country by the more sober red, white, and black of the Assad dynasty and the all-black standard of the al-Qa’ida affiliates.  The violence being committed now will leave long shadows on the Syrian population, even after the fighting stops.  But once the fighting stops, however it stops, the Syrians will need to rebuild a civil society.  And to do so, they will need to remember a day when sports loyalties generated good-natured rivalries which could be advertized in green, yellow, and blue from open balconies.

Missing the Boat: Public Religion in the Middle East

A few days ago the Telegraph quoted a BBC radio presenter to say that British media don’t get religion, and his primary examples were drawn from surprising developments in the Middle East in recent years, as well as contemporary Russia.  A blog post which alerted me to the Telegraph article presented even more examples, over the past generation.  Both are worth reading.

By contrast, I think American media emphasize religion in the Middle East (or at least Islam, by no means the only religion), but they still present a rather muddled view of current events.  The reason is that it is not simply that religion needs to be part of the discussion.  It does, but it is also necessary to reflect what are the different things religion means to different people and different cultures.  When Americans and Brits extol their freedom of religion, they typically mean individualized private choices to believe something rather than something else.  Religion in the UK and the USA is characterized by being belief-heavy and individualistic, and while there are critics of the degree to which this is the case, there are few high profile proponents of any alternative.

Religion in the Middle East, however, means many different things to many different people, but it is usually not primarily about beliefs (though it may include beliefs), and it is rarely if ever private. Continue reading

Still Looking: Abducted Bishops

The Lebanese newspaper the Daily Star reported today that efforts to release the two bishops of Aleppo who were abducted in April 2013 are, according to the Lebanese intelligence chief seeking their release, “complicated” but “on the right track.”  Due to the sensitivity of the situation, he said, he could not give any details.  The same intelligence chief helped secure the release of the abducted nuns of Maaloula earlier this month, so he could be in the know.  I have previously questioned the veracity of leaked reports about the whereabouts of Metropolitan Gregorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yaziji by people who clearly stood to gain from the publicity, and some news reports have simply “stirred the pot.”  But I must confess I don’t know Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim’s profile and where he might fit in Lebanese (and Syrian) politics.  So I can only hope that this news is real, and may lead to the end of these bishops’ captivity.

Lost: The Meaning of “al-Anfal”

What’s in a name?  News outlets (e.g. here and here) are reporting increased violence in Latakia province, a province on the Syrian coast with a population which is majority Alawite and from which the ruling Assad family itself comes, in an offensive by Syrian rebel groups Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham (labeled “Sham al-Islam” by al-Jazira) and Ansar al-Sham (probably not the branch of the Iraqi Ansar al-Islam, but rather the Latakia branch of the Syrian Islamic Front) labeled “Anfal.”  In a long sentence like that, with all those things to look up, it can be easy to miss the codename adopted for the jihadi offensive.  It’s just a word, right, not people, guns, or territory?

Words are also power, and names mean stuff, especially in Arabic.  “Muhammad” (محمّد) means “someone highly praised,” and the name of the Muslim general who conquered Jerusalem from the Crusaders, Saladin (صلاح الدين), means “the righteousness of the religion (of Islam).”  The Syrian president’s last name, al-Assad (الاسد) means “the lion.”  So what does “Anfal” mean?  A quick look in an Arabic dictionary gives it as a plural of nafal (نفل), meaning “plunder, spoils of war.”  (Entertainingly, Google Translate only suggests the meaning “clovers,” if it is not a proper noun.)  So if we stop here, we are left with the impression that the jihadis are advertising the fact that they are just in it for the money, boasting that they are sell-outs.

That seems unlikely.  Much more likely, and important whenever dealing with jihadi names, is to look to the Qur’an.  In this case, the eighth chapter (or sura) of the Qur’an is entitled “al-Anfal.”  Traditionally said to have been revealed after the Battle of Badr, the verses of this chapter attribute victory by a smaller Muslim force coming from Medina against a larger and better-equipped Meccan army to divine assistance (Q 8:1, 5, 9, 12, 17, 30) due to the Meccans’ opposition to Muhammad’s new preaching of the unity of Allah (Q 8:6, 13, 36-37).  The chapter paints the Muslims’ enemies as beyond any possibility of redemption, not listening even though they claim to hear the message, and they would even turn away from Islam if they did at any point heed Muhammad’s message (Q 8:23).  Applying that situation to the present day, the jihadi rebels seem to be likening the regime forces to the Meccans, alleging that they are not valid Muslims, and expecting God’s assistance even against a larger and better equipped force.  (It is not unusual for al-Qa’ida to assert that Alawites, Shiites, and even Sunni Muslims who reject al-Qa’ida are not Muslims.)  With this parallel reading between the traditional past and the bleak present, Jabhat al-Nusra and its allies may be trying to boost morale by appealing to verses such as Q 8:26:

And remember when you were few and considered weak in the land.  You were afraid that people would capture you.  Then He sheltered you and supported you with His help (naṣr, related to Jabhat al-Nuṣra’s name), and He provided you with good things so that you may be thankful.

There are several other verses which might appeal to the extremist rebels at the present time (exhortations to fight to expunge false religion, for example, in Q 8:39, or how Allah is said to distort the appearances of relative numbers in Q 8:43-44, or threats against those who retreat in Q 8:15-16).  There is a lot more here, and of course, all of these verses need to be interpreted through the hadith and commentaries (tafasir), both medieval and recent, which comprise the sunna (something like “traditional norms”) from which Sunni Islam derives its name.  (There is no analogue of sola scriptura within Islam.)

But there is perhaps also another, more recent, echo of the name “Anfal” in a military context, which may be on the minds of Syrians, and should cause greater concern.  Just over a quarter century ago, Iraqi president Saddam Hussein authorized his cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid to massacre tens of thousands of Kurds (and other minorities) in northern Iraq, and to seize anything of value, in a campaign code-named “al-Anfal.”  The poison gas attack in Halabja in March 1988 is the largest chemical weapons attack against a civilian-inhabited area in history, and the campaign as a whole attempted to accomplish genocide and forced Arabization.

It would be surprising if extremist Sunni jihadis were deliberately evoking the genocidal campaign of a secularist Ba’athist dictator in Iraq.  (Despite US government allegations of links between al-Qa’ida and Saddam Hussein’s government, subsequent investigations have denied any evidence of links, and there was little ideological sympathy between the two groups.)  But if they are, they could be using their own “al-Anfal” campaign as a planned attempt at genocide against the Alawite majority in Latakia province, perhaps attempting to terrorize their opponents into submission.  Even more insidiously, since the port of Latakia is the point of egress for the regime’s chemical weapons, it could be that the jihadis are hoping to intercept these chemical weapons shipments and use them against the civilian population, just as Ali Hassan al-Majid did in Halabja in 1988.

Such tactics seem to me doomed to fail.  Making clear to the Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria will not cause Bashar al-Assad’s knees to tremble, but will rather redouble his efforts against the rebels.  (The grotesque terror tactic has been tried before, such as when one extremist rebel leader cut open an Alawite corpse and bit into an organ.)  Even more so, any rebel disruption in the exportation of the regime’s chemical weapons will not only slow down the process, it will also give the regime cover to use chemical weapons itself, since it will be impossible to prove which side used it once it is proven that the rebels have such weapons.  (Al-Qa’ida’s desire to obtain such weapons is already documented, for example, at #4 here.)  The core of the international argument that the August 2013 Ghuta poison gas attack was perpetrated by the regime is that there is no evidence that the rebels have such weapons.  If it becomes clear that some rebel groups also have chemical weapons, that argument will not hold water.  In other words, an extremist rebel attempt to capture chemical weapons will most likely result in increasing chemical weapons attacks by both sides.

But even if the extremists’ decision to label an offensive “al-Anfal” does lead to tactics which are ultimately doomed to failure, other countries should not sit idly by while a terrorist group attempts to initiate a genocide, with or without captured chemical weapons.  It is not true that my enemy’s enemy must be my friend, and al-Qa’ida and its various affiliates and jihadi allies are enemies not only of Syrians (of whatever sect), but of civilians everywhere.  Turkey should take a stronger line against extremist rebels, and may be encouraged to do so by diplomatic pressure.  The capture of a border crossing into Turkey clearly shows that the extremists involved expect some benefit to come from across the border.  While I doubt Bashar al-Assad would be willing to barter his resignation for UN Security Council approved international military assistance against al-Qa’ida, the fact that Turkey is a NATO member means that action can be taken to the north of the border.

Don’t Look Now

I haven’t been blogging much recently, in large part due to other duties (including securing employment), but also due to not feeling I needed to contribute much to the discussion of the unsurprisingly fruitless “Geneva 2” dialogues, convened with the nearly impossible goal of halting the Syrian Civil War, or the ongoing Turkish political contest between Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan‘s government and his opponents, allegedly spearheaded by Fethullah Gülen‘s movement.

Now, of course, all eyes are looking to the Crimea to see whether it will play the role that Serbia played in the outbreak of World War I, exactly a century ago this summer.  (Those who scoff at the thought that a large war might break out should know that similar disbelief also preceded the first two world wars.)  But while the world looks away, actors in the Syrian Civil War may try to take advantage of their freedom from scrutiny.  The regime army is forcefully pressing the offensive to capture Yabrud and the Qalamun ridge, both to cut off rebel supply lines from Lebanon and to link the two loyalist strongholds of Damascus and the coast.  Meanwhile, the extreme end of the rebellion, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has issued a proclamation from its headquarters in al-Raqqa on the Euphrates that Christians under their rule must choose between conversion to Islam, paying jizya (a special humiliating tax on non-Muslims), or death.  And the jizya tax is no merely nominal fee; it’s a substantial toll.

But the world’s distraction with the Crimea may prove an opportunity not only for those within Syria, but for outside actors as well, since not all countries are equally distracted.  Syria’s most important international ally, Russia, now has its military committed to a cause much closer to home than the Syrian Civil War, while the Western allies of the non-jihadi opposition (especially the USA and the UK) are also thinking more about the Ukraine than small Mediterranean countries these days, even if they have not (yet) committed to a military response.  On the other hand, both regime and rebel allies within the Middle East (Hezbollah and Iran on the regime side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia on the rebel side) are perhaps less concerned with the developments far to their north than they are with the progress of the conflict close to hand.  So right now the Crimean crisis may be reducing the scale of international involvement in the Syrian Civil War, limiting it to a regional level (although still with plenty of regional money flowing around and far too many casualties).  On the other hand, it would be easier for the USA than for Russia to split its attention between the Crimea and Syria, due to its greater distance from Ukraine and its lesser military commitment, so the Americans may decide to try to make this an opportunity to force through their own desired outcome to the Syrian Civil War while the Russians are in less of a position to object.

(Indeed, some voices in the USA are actively urging increased and swift American action to take advantage of Russia’s diversion.  This piece reminds readers that, as awful as the Crimean crisis is, more people continue to be killed in Syria than the Ukraine.  But the most interesting portion of the analysis for me was the suggestion that the Russian invasion of the Crimea might make China more interested in compromise on Syria.  On the other hand, this piece seeks Russian consistency regarding the Ukraine and Syria and finds it in “putting [Russia’s] own interest ahead of peaceful solutions regardless of what the US and international community wish to see as an outcome.”  It is hardly a surprise, and hardly unique to Russia, to put one’s national interests ahead of the welfare of outsiders; indeed, President Obama has appealed to US national interests to justify military intervention in Syria.)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be aware of his vulnerability to increased American attention while Russia is distracted with the Ukraine, which may be why he recently commended the Russian invasion of the Crimea (perhaps as much to remind the Kremlin that he exists; his statement of support will certainly not change any other country’s mind in favor of Russian intervention) and why the government has started drumming up displays of “popular” support for the president.  (This interpretation would suggest that the Syrian regime is not as self-confident as suggested by this article, although I found the piece very helpfully thought-provoking.)  But Vladimir Putin certain cares far more about the Ukraine than about Syria.  Since I’m a historian and not a prophet, I don’t predict the future, but the international crisis north of the Black Sea may rapidly change the landscape of possibilities east of the Mediterranean, depending on which countries prove most adept at dividing their attentions.