Tag Archives: al-Qaida

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

Yemen at Center Stage

Yemen does not exactly loom large in the world consciousness, and certainly not among the many Westerners who would have a hard time placing it on a map.  US foreign policy toward the country has often been an adjunct to US relations with Saudi Arabia, Yemen’s far richer and larger neighbor to the north and a key US ally.

But a recent flight afforded me the time to begin reading Gregory Johnsen’s The Last Refuge: Yemen, al-Qaeda, and America’s War in Arabia, which places Yemen and Yemeni politics in the center of global politics and terrorist networks, from the Soviet war in Afghanistan to 2012, when the book came out, and from jihad in Bosnia and Chechnya to bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.  Although Yemen is often portrayed as a remote backwater of the Arabian peninsula, Johnsen brings together many strands of international history over the past three decades by drawing links from his detailed familiarity with Yemen’s great families.  Even Osama bin Laden, usually identified as a Saudi, was a younger son of a Yemeni pauper-turned-billionaire who made some useful connections with the Saudi royal family.

I am only about a quarter of the way through the book, but it is a real eye-opener regarding the numerous connections between disparate parts of the contemporary Arab world and the inner workings of various different terrorist organizations.  I am particularly struck by the degree to which family, clan, and tribe shape such a large portion of organizations usually designated religious, which may reveal my own blindspots as a member of an anonymizing and impersonal modern Western society.  Johnsen also points out occasional clues missed or misunderstood by counter-terrorism officials, and analyzes a dispute between the lead FBI investigator and the US ambassador to Yemen following the bombing of the USS Cole on October 12, 2000.  But he does so without succumbing to 20/20 hindsight; instead, his narrative helps readers understand the ambiguity of many of the pieces of evidence before their interpretation became indelibly clear in specific attacks.

The book is very readable and engaging.  The action is fast.  Readers unfamiliar with Arabic names may have trouble keeping track of the many actors involved, often with similar names.  Such readers will find a helpful appendix with brief bios of “Principal Characters”; no doubt the author would have liked to include more than made it in.  There is also a very useful map of Yemen just after the table of contents, which will be essential for readers who have not familiarized themselves with the terrain of the southernmost tip of the Arabian peninsula.

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.

Lost in Space?

Space exploration and Islamic fatwas do not generally occur in the same news article, but a difference of opinion has emerged between Mars One, a Dutch company hoping to fund human colonization of Mars with a reality TV show, and the General Authority of Islamic Affairs and Endowment (GAIAE), a government agency for the United Arab Emirates which issues fatawa (sing. fatwa), or pronouncements on the acceptability or unacceptability of something according to Islamic law.  (It is only an added bonus for English speakers that the English acronym for the group opposing the Mars One mission sounds like the name of the Greek goddess of “Earth.”) GAIAE warns that Muslims going on a one-way trip to Mars may be tantamount to suicide, prohibited in Islamic law, while Mars One has responded by appealing to the “rich tradition of exploration” in Islam, and particularly the fourteenth-century traveler Ibn Battuta.  It is unusual for companies plotting science-fiction-esque adventures to appeal to medieval authors, so I couldn’t resist observing the conjunction.

The basic question is whether the planned one-way trip is tantamount to suicide.  Mars One is making no plans for the people to return home, so either they will die on the way to Mars or upon landing, or they will live the rest of their days on the surface of the Red Planet, which may be a longer or shorter duration depending on how long the machinery lasts and whether any of their fellow colonists goes berserk in the relative isolation.  But it believes the benefits will outweigh the risks.  The GAIAE cites Qur’anic verses against killing oneself, and expresses the worry that knowingly embarking on a one-way journey which will certainly end in one’s death, probably sooner than if one had stayed on Earth, also runs the risk of falling under the Qur’anic condemnation.  In other words, in this instance the GAIAE is worried to protect Muslims from the hazards of final judgment.

(Digression: Some non-Muslim observers may be surprised to read that suicide is categorically prohibited in Islam, given the news reports of the use of suicide attacks by al-Qa’ida and other Muslim terrorist groups.  In fact, even suicide missions for a good cause are prohibited according to almost all interpretations of Islamic law, a point which shows how far from mainstream Islam the jihadi ideology of al-Qa’ida really is.  Suicide missions became acceptable among the Assassin sect of Shiites in the 11th century, but remained largely absent from Sunni Islam until the 1983 Beirut truck bombing.  Even today, as a recent poll by the Pew Forum showed, the vast majority of Muslims around the world regard suicide attacks as unjustifiable, at least when targeting civilians.)

So where does Ibn Battuta come in?  Mars One’s response to the fatwa from the GAIAE cites the fourteenth-century Moroccan traveler as evidence for “the rich culture of travel and exploration of early Islam.”  Moving into medieval Islamic history (and travel accounts such as that of Ibn Battuta in particular) steps into my area of specialist knowledge.  Certainly Islam has an extensive history of travel, in large part driven by the far-flung success of the early conquests and the requirement that each Muslim of possible travel to Mecca as a pilgrim for the Hajj.  It has much less of a tradition of exploration specifically.  Ibn Battuta did make a point to say that he tried to avoid traveling the same road twice, but he himself set out on his journey as a restless twenty-year-old performing Hajj to get away from home.  He also never traveled to a land uninhabited by people (although he passed through uninhabited areas).  He wanted to reach the famed “Land of Darkness” far to the north, where the sun never rises, although he was in fact unable to embark.  (The “Land of Darkness” was also thought to be inhabited.)  And Ibn Battuta’s travels across the width and height of the Islamic world were unique, hardly a “rich culture,” at least of exploration.  The dearth of medieval or modern Muslim explorers venturing “to boldly go where no man has gone before” is, I suspect, less due to a suspicion of exploration, and more due to the fact that Islam developed in the center of the Eurasian-African land mass, with lands inhabited from remotest antiquity all around them.  The fact that most modern explorers were European has to do with Europe’s geographic boundary status (indeed, most explorers came from the fringes of Europe) as well as Europe’s industrialized disposable wealth.

Space colonization would raise other issues for Muslims to figure out, of course, such as how to pray in the direction of Mecca (the present system relies on the surface of a globe) and what to do with the requirement of Hajj where there is no means for travel to the Earth.  I suspect Islamic legal scholars have already tackled that latter question for Muslims stranded somewhere on Earth with no means of travel, which could be generalized, and I have no doubt that they could reach satisfactory answers to the other questions as well.  If we live long enough to see substantial human colonies outside of Earth’s gravity well, it will be interesting to see how these issues develop.

In the meantime, it strikes me that Mars One has made an attempt, but not a very convincing one, to respond respectfully to the GAIAE’s fatwa.  They misunderstand what Ibn Battuta did, and he is the only Muslim “explorer” whom they name; for other examples they turn to Marco Polo (also no “explorer” in the modern sense, but certainly an adventurer and something of a free-lancer), and then modern American astronauts.  The response also quotes the Qur’an apart from the tradition (sunna) of interpretation, as if anyone can quote it and claim its meaning for themselves.  While some conservative Protestant Christians believe that Bible should be read and quoted with just its simple words, Muslim legal scholars always interpret the Qur’an in light of the long commentary tradition (tafsir) on each verse.  (I also don’t see how this particularly Qur’anic verse, which says simply that the creation of the sky and the ground is one of God’s signs, “encourages Muslims to go out and see the signs of God’s creation” – emphasis mine.  It’s more the fact of creation, visible from anywhere, which is the single sign.  When the Qur’an encourages Muslims to do something, it uses a verb, typically in the imperative, like every other medieval text.)  I doubt the GAIAE will be persuaded by this response, although they may take up the invitation to review the plans more closely.  For now, the disagreement remains whether a one-way journey away from Earth, certainly ending in death before returning home, but perhaps (if they did everything correctly and everything lines up well) only after a number of years living in a new abode on a new planet, is morally equivalent to suicide.

Found: Rumors and Suppositions of the Aleppo Bishops

There is still no solid news of the two metropolitan archbishops of Aleppo who were abducted on 22 April, the Syrian Orthodox metropolitan Mor Grigorios Yuhanna Ibrahim and the Greek Orthodox metropolitan Boulos Yaziji, but there are more rumors.  Al-Monitor yesterday published a long article on the subject translating and expanding an Arabic article published on 13 August by the Lebanese newspaper al-Safir (for an English translation of the original al-Safir article, see the blog Notes on Arab Orthodoxy).  The al-Monitor article especially is very detailed, but it is not at all clear what the sources of these details are.  The Lebanese Daily Star also published an article disputing most of those details and suggesting other ones.

If the play-by-play account of the abduction of the bishops by Chechen jihadis working for Abu Omar al-Shishani has any validity, it must have ultimately come from Fu’ad Eliya, the only passenger of the vehicle not abducted or killed, but it is not clear whether the al-Monitor journalist interviewed Eliya.  The detailed account is not in the al-Safir article, and the details disagree with what Hurriyet reported second-hand from Eliya back in May.  Particularly curious is the al-Monitor article’s unsourced reference to “the small message written in Greek and sent by Bishop Yazigi to a friend in Greece and to his brother Yohanna. The message, written in Greek, said, ‘We are being held by al-Qaeda.'”  Where did that information come from?  In light of the obscurity of the information’s provenance, these details must be regarded as unreliable.

Particularly interesting to me was the last portion of the al-Monitor article, which quoted various people who have made pronouncements in the past about the fate of the bishops, including George Sabra, all saying that there is no real knowledge about their fate.  That still seems to be the end of it.

For those feeling that the saga of the kidnapped bishops has dragged on with no real resolution, that is just a microcosm of the Syrian Civil War in total.  Meanwhile, although we still hope the victims will be able to say with Mark Twain, “the report of my death was an exaggeration,” that seems decreasingly likely.

The Difference Between Pragmatism and Loyalty

The most important thing to read on Syria this week is not the news that the regime drove rebels out of the Khalid bin al-Walid Mosque in Homs, but rather this opinion piece by Thorsten Janus and Helle Malmvig in the Christian Science Monitor.  But their proposal depends upon the distinction between pragmatical allegiance and belief-based loyalty.  This crucial distinction affects the Syrian Civil War on both sides, and it deserves to be unpacked more explicitly.

The idea is simple: not everyone who declares allegiance to someone agrees with everything that person espouses.  This is true of political parties.  Cold War-era American propaganda pitted the “godless Communists” in the USSR against the “Christian nation” of the USA, so I was surprised to learn, while visiting the Indian state of Kerala, that the local Communist party has many members drawn from the large South Indian community of St. Thomas Christians.  Indeed, the current president of the Syrian National Council, George Sabra, is a Christian member of one of Syria’s Communist parties.  The conflict between Christianity and Communism is very real in some quarters (as Russian Orthodox priests will tell you) and not in others, and depends widely on what those two terms are understood to mean in various locales.  Not everyone who votes for a Communist party candidate has drunk deeply of doctrinaire Leninism or Maoism (although some have, to be sure).  Some simply see the Communist option as better than any available alternative.

This distinction between pragmatic acceptance and doctrinaire loyalty plays out on both sides of the Syrian Civil War.  On the rebel side, international observers have been alarmed at the increasing influence of jihadi extremism, usually linked to al-Qa’idaFree Syrian Army commanders have complained of soldiers defecting to Jabhat al-Nusra, and cited the lack of ammunition held by the FSA compared to the free-flowing arms of the jihadi Jabhat al-Nusra as an explanation for this trend.  In other words, as Salim Idris has grown increasingly frustrated at the failure of western nations to provide his Free Syrian Army with weaponry, the more extreme groups have plenty of weaponry from international sources supporting their jihad against the infidel Syrian regime.  The idea is that many of those fighting for jihadi groups do not necessarily agree with the ideology, but are willing to tolerate it for the sake of getting what they desire more, which is the weaponry to fight against the regime.  This is precisely the argument made by Mouaz Mustafa, the head of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, according to an interview with him two weeks ago, as to why the US should get more involved with the Syrian Civil War.  On his view, providing weapons with secular strings attached will not only contribute to deposing President Bashar al-Assad, but will also diminish the appeal of jihadi groups, because they will no longer have the advantage of greater resources.

On the other side, religious minorities in Syria have by and large not participated in the rebellion, and in many cases have actively supported the regime.  This is equally true of ‘Alawites, other Shi’ites, and various Christian groups.  This does not mean that they approve of everything which the Syrian Army is doing; it merely means they regard the regime’s side of the Civil War to be more likely to hold a future for them.  They have reason to be alarmed.  Attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt have increased progressively since the 2011 ouster of president Hosni Mubarak, escalating again after the ouster of Muhammad Mursi because his supporters blame the religious minority for the coup.  When two months ago a Syrian rebel commander filmed himself cutting open a killed ‘Alawite soldier’s corpse, removing an internal organ, and biting into it while spewing threats against all ‘Alawites, he made clear to the ‘Alawites that they have no future in a post-Assad Syria.  That has been the message many Syrian Christians have taken from the abduction and murder of Christian clergy by rebel forces.  Fearing a sectarian cleansing of all non-Sunnis, most religious minorities in Syria see no choice but to support the regime.

The Syrian rebels have done very little to convince religious minorities that a post-Assad Syria will be better for them, or that the occasional vague assurances of minority rights in the future Syria will be enacted.  The one-sided portrayal of the Syrian Civil War by the US government, lionizing the rebels and demonizing the regime, has left many Syrian non-Sunnis feeling that America has betrayed its principles of democratic pluralism and minority rights.  This is where the proposal of Janus and Malmvig could be so important.  If the US and the US-backed rebels could somehow convince non-Sunni minorities that they will be allowed to continue breathing in a post-Assad Syria, then their support for the regime might be less unshakeable.  Janus and Malmvig are banking on the fact that the minorities themselves do not want violence, and probably do not like Assad, so an option which assures their future safety would be very welcome to them.  It is an interesting proposal.

The question is whether that assurance could be given in any credible way.  Would Shi’ites and Arabic Christians trust themselves to an American or UN peacekeeping force?  Or would they suspect the force would fail to prevent them from falling victim to violence by other segments of society?  If the Free Syrian Army declared an amnesty for all ‘Alawites, would any ‘Alawites entrust themselves to the mercies of a force whose commanders have promised to purge all supporters of the regime?  Or would they not rather continue to support the regime, distrusting promises of safety from some rebels while others call for their blood?

With regime forces gaining ground in Homs, many non-Sunni minorities may be feeling that they have chosen the winning side.  But if additional arms flows to Syrian rebel forces again reverse the tide of this long-running civil war, as has happened in the past, then the minorities may feel that their backs are against the wall and they have no choice but to live or die with the regime.  The real importance of the minorities will be seen in their potential as stalemate-breakers.  When two armies are very closely matched, even a small force can shift the course of battle.  This was clearly demonstrated in May when Hezbollah, with fewer than 2,000 soldiers, joined the Syrian Army against the rebels, each of which has over 100,000 soldiers, and yet it is precisely from May that regime forces have begun to gain ground against rebel forces.  If the rebels continue to scare non-Sunni religious minorities with threats of vengeance and extermination, they will simply make it all the harder to defeat the regime.  On the other hand, if the rebels address concerns of non-Sunni rights for example by punishing violence targeting religious minorities in rebel-held territory and providing special protection to religious buildings of other groups, then they might gain ground by undercutting Assad’s support.  The civil war in Syria may be won or lost by the allegiances of non-Sunni religious minorities, whose primary motivation will not be ideology but a pragmatic calculus how to survive the war and its aftermath.

The Expected Fate of US Arms in Syria

President Obama promised military aid to the Free Syrian Army in June, although apparently delivery has been held up by US congressional concerns about where the weapons would end up.  The Free Syrian Army responded saying that the necessary safeguards are already in place and US weapons will not end up in the hands of Islamists such as the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.  But yesterday USA Today ran an article pointing out that US weapons are ending up in the hands of Shi’ite pro-Assad militias, as well as being used by Jabhat al-Nusra (mentioned, but not emphasized, by the article).

Now, this is not necessarily a contradiction: the weapons currently being used by forces which the US government would prefer not to arm are likely hold-overs from previous US wars in the Middle East, such as the Iraq War and the War in Afghanistan of the past decade.  But it does reveal how little the US can control who gets US weapons once they are handed over.

Given earlier reports that the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra coordinate on the battlefield, and that soldiers fighting for the Free Syrian Army have defected to the better-equipped Jabhat al-Nusra, it is hard to regard the two rebel militant groups as fully distinct, however distinct their command structures are.  Even if FSA commanders do not share weapons in advance of a coordinated battle, as they might be tempted to do in order to increase the likelihood of victory, it would be expected that common soldiers defecting from FSA to Jabhat al-Nusra would take their FSA-issued weapons with them.  As Islamist assassinations of secularist commanders increase, such as today’s murder of Abu Bassel al-Ladkani, the weapons issued to FSA commanders may be seized by the Islamists.  Thus the expected fate of US weapons shipped to Syria will be that they will turn up in future conflicts wherever black market salesmen can sell them.

The Guardian yesterday posted a detailed article discussing Jabhat al-Nusra and how it is running the territory under its control in eastern Syria.  The “emir of gas” (the refinery manager) interviewed in the article was another example of an FSA soldier who defected to Jabhat al-Nusra, and he declares enmity not only against Jabhat al-Nusra but against the “apostate secularist state” which would be founded by the FSA in case they win.  He speaks explicitly of a post-Assad war between jihadis like Jabhat al-Nusra and secularists in the FSA, as I also anticipate.  Another commander of Jabhat al-Nusra spoke explicitly of the power struggle with the Islamic State of Iraq, the al-Qa’ida affiliate in neighboring Iraq which attempted to unilaterally annex Jabhat al-Nusra, leading to a rebuke from al-Qa’ida’s supreme leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.  The article paints a much broader picture of Jabhat al-Nusra than merely a fighting force, and shows the divergent Syrian viewpoints on the efficacy of the al-Qa’ida affiliated revolt.

Who are Syria’s “good guys”?

US President Barack Obama decided this week that American weapons will be supplied to the Free Syrian Army under Brigadier-General Salim Idris.  Of course, the announcement was made in advance of next week’s G8 summit in Northern Ireland to put the US in a better bargaining position relative to Russia with regard to the Syria issue.  This is especially necessary since Russia secured the “in principle” agreement of the Assad government to the “Geneva 2” peace talks originally scheduled for this month, which have now been pushed back indefinitely since the US failed to secure from the Syrian National Coalition.  Amid wide-ranging media speculation about the precise extent and nature of the US military aid, it is important to know a bit more about who will be receiving the materiel in Syria.

Salim Idris (سليم ادريس) is the Chief of Staff of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.  Born in 1957 to a poor farming family south of Homs, he enlisted at a young age in the Syrian army. He was trained in electrical engineering in Dresden in East Germany from 1977 until at least 1990, earning a master’s degree in 1984 and a doctorate in 1990.  He spent twenty years as a professor of electrical engineering at the Military Engineering Academy in Aleppo.  Previously a brigadier general in the Syrian Army, he defected from supporting the Assad regime to the Free Syrian Army, then under the command of Colonel Riad al-As’ad (رياض الأسعد), in July 2012.

In December 2012, a meeting of the commanders of the Free Syrian Army retained Colonel al-As’ad as symbolic Commander-in-Chief but reorganized the structure to create a Supreme Military Council with Salim Idris at its head and five deputy chiefs of staff under him.  It is not clear to me from the Wikipedia article how these deputy chiefs of staff line up with the nine regional commanders of the FSA reported in the English Wikipedia article, with regional military councils in eight of the fourteen governorates of Syria: Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, Hama, Idlib, Dar’a, and perhaps Latakia and Dayr al-Zawr (the commanders of these latter two provinces are listed as “unknown”).  The army is reportedly based in Idlib province.

In assessing how likely weapons supplied to the Supreme Military Council are to end up in the hands of al-Qa’ida, there are several factors in play.  One is how much of the weaponry will be expended in the war with the regime, but that is difficult to predict.  Another is how much central control the Supreme Military Council has over the use of weapons.  A third is what connections the central command has with al-Qa’ida aligned rebels.  An excellent Reuters article quoted Abu Nidal, a fighter in the Islamist faction Ahrar al-Sham, to say that while they are not formally part of the Free Syrian Army, they fight “in formation” with the FSA, which presumably involves sharing weaponry.  An earlier Reuters article from the time of the reorganization indicated that at least two of Idris’ deputy chiefs of staff are “Islamists”: ‘Abd al-Basit Tawil from Idlib and ‘Abd al-Qadr Salih from Aleppo.  I have not yet been able to find any additional information about these two and their “Islamist” connections.

Per a reader suggestion, I am constructing a list of military groups in Syria for easy reference, but that will take some time.  I may post unfinished draft versions of that page in the process of development.

 

Lost: Syrian Rebels’ Strategy

In war, some tactics work and others don’t.  Some tactics are very satisfying to our human desires for power or revenge, but actually hurt the cause for which the tactic is nominally carried out.  Two significant mistakes on the part of the rebels appeared this week, ahead of US government deliberations whether to arm the rebels.

The first is the Syrian rebel shelling of Shi’ite villages in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah involvement in Syria (reported in the bottom half of this NYT article).  While it is all too natural to want to strike back at those who have wounded you or killed the people you care about, I do not see how this tactic will do anything but mobilize greater Hezbollah involvement in Syria on the side of the regime.  In an age before rockets, when fighting was more local and attacks could be repulsed, then a sensible tactic to draw an enemy away from a location was to attack a place they cared about more, so that they would race to protect the second place and abandon the first.  But with indiscriminate rocket fire, if Hezbollah fighters were still in Shi’ite towns in Lebanon, they would not be able to protect anyone there.  No doubt the Syrian rebels are hoping to discourage further Hezbollah attacks on the theory that any attack from Hezbollah will result in further attacks on the Hezbollah fighters’ families.  I suspect the Hezbollah fighters will view these attacks, even apart from the personal desire for revenge stirred up by casualties, as further evidence that they need to support the Assad regime against rebel groups that would shell their villages and kill their families.  This tactic is more likely to confirm Hezbollah involvement than diminish it.

The other rebel misstep comes from Aleppo, where jihadi rebels abducted, tortured, and then publicly executed a fifteen-year-old boy for blasphemy against Muhammad.  (The Telegraph reported that the particular group was the Islamic State of Iraq, while al-Jazeera (Arabic) blamed the execution on Jabhat al-Nusra.  Both groups are affiliated with al-Qa’ida, and according to al-Jazeera the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq declared the two groups unilaterally merged, until overruled a few days ago by al-Qa’ida’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.)  Al-Jazeera (English) reported that the alleged “blasphemy” occurred in a phrase commonly used in colloquial Syrian Arabic, and that the executioners were mostly composed of foreign fighters speaking other dialects.  While one can understand the religious reasoning that goes into this decision, it is also easy to see that criminalizing a local idiom (on pain of death) will quickly breed widespread popular resentment, and executing a fifteen-year-old boy will make parents with younger children wary of the group.  After last week’s re-capture of al-Qusayr by the regime, everyone is expecting a regime battle for Aleppo in the near future, and this summary abduction, torture, and execution will make the populace of Aleppo much less inclined to support the jihadi rebels during that battle.  Indeed, the execution of the teenager might provide the Assad regime with enough additional support to enable it to regain Aleppo itself.  The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights described the act, as paraphrased by al-Jazeera, as “a gift to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad,” and that is what it is.

Both the loyalists and the rebels in Syria have committed innumerable criminal acts during the war, in an attempt to capitalize on Machiavelli‘s famous dictum in The Prince that rulers can rule through fear or through love, but it is “safer” and easier to rule through fear.  Perhaps the Syrian Civil War is giving the lie to the Renaissance Italian political theorist.