Tag Archives: Free Syrian Army

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

What America Forgets About Syria

As the US Congress appears to be inclining towards authorizing a unilateral and, by most standards, illegal military strike against Syria, here are some points that seem to be forgotten or overlooked in the news I’m reading:

1. One of the US government’s main concerns with the Syrian conflict has been that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of terrorists such as al-Qa’ida.  The presumption that al-Qa’ida does not already have chemical weapons is a crucial piece of the reasoning which blames the Syrian regime for the attack in the Damascus suburbs two weeks ago.  Yet attacking Syria, as President Obama is now proposing, will weaken the Syrian Army’s ability to defend those chemical weapons arsenals.  Since the most effective opposition fighting forces are jihadis affiliated with al-Qa’ida, terrorists are the ones most likely to benefit from any US attack on Syria.  It is worth contrasting John Kerry‘s assertion that “There is a real moderate opposition that exists” and 15-20% of the opposition are extreme with the view of an analyst located in Dubai: “For the U.S. and Western powers, there is a Syrian opposition that they’d like to see and that doesn’t exist.”  In light of al-Qa’ida’s dominance of the Syrian opposition, a US attack on the Syrian regime will increase the feasibility for jihadis to seize chemical weapons.  In other words, a US attack on the Syrian military will increase rather than reduce the threat of chemical weapons deployment against American civilians.

2. A foreign attack on Syria would be a very significant escalation of the conflict.  As I indicated last week, no foreign country has specifically and publicly attacked Syria during this civil war without first being attacked by Syria.  Foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War, both for and against the regime, has been limited to financial and material supplies and the provision of some foreign fighters acting under the commands of Syrian leaders, with only two exceptions.  Those two exceptions are Turkey, which has returned fire randomly into Syria whenever a Turkish civilian has been hit by bullets coming cross the border, and Israel, which has refused to acknowledge its targeted air strikes of what it alleges were rockets destined for Hezbollah.  For the US or any western country to attack with its own military would escalate the war beyond even a regional conflict into a world conflict.

3. When President Obama was first attempting to build support for attacking Syria, he proposed a “brief” or “surgical” military intervention as “a shot across the bow” in order to send a message to Assad without getting too involved.  Now the Senate Foreign Relations committee is recommending the President be authorized for 60 days, two months, for a war of limited duration.  A shot across the bow demonstrates one’s ability to kill without actually killing anyone, and I suppose the parallel case in Syria would be to bomb the uninhabited desert east of Damascus.  In seeking Congressional support, President Obama has also greatly broadened his notion of US engagement in Syria, which is exactly what the American public fears.

4. The Obama administration released an unclassified document outlining why it believes the Assad regime is behind the chemical weapons attack, intended to convince domestic and international skeptics of the obligation to punish Assad.  Most of the evidence cited in this document supports the assertion that chemical weapons were used, without specifying by whom.  Part of the argument is that the opposition couldn’t have done this, but the report treats the opposition as a unified group, and in particular it does not engage with earlier reports that al-Qa’ida has used chemical weapons in neighboring Iraq (here and here, to cite only Western media).  Much of the evidence in the report is only referred to in vague ways (“We have intelligence,” “streams of human, signals, and geospatial intelligence,” and “Multiple streams of intelligence indicate”) which will not convince a skeptic, but perhaps these bits of evidence cannot be revealed without endangering our informants.  That unfortunately leaves the argument largely still in the “trust us” category, which does little to assuage concerns.

There is one piece of evidence cited in next-to-last paragraph of the US intelligence report which could clinch the case against Assad: “We intercepted communications involving a senior official intimately familiar with the offensive who confirmed that chemical weapons were used by the regime on August 21.”  If it exists and is authentic, this document should be enough to convince skeptics such as Russia that the charges against the regime are not merely “rumors.”  If this is truly an intercepted communication, then presumably it can be released without endangering the interceptor, who is neither the sender nor the recipient.  It should be reasonably straightforward for an Arabic linguistics expert to authenticate the language as educated Syrian Arabic of a sort likely to be used by senior officials.  And yet this document has not been released, and Russia is not convinced.

5. Although the US (and the British Prime Minister) have declared a potential attack legal, the United Nations has disagreed.  Not only the opinion of the UN Special Envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, who is the man tasked with ending the conflict, even the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said US military intervention would only be legal in self-defense after UN Security Council approval.  The basis of the legality argument requires either that the United States be declared the universal police officer, which understandably no other country has recognized, or that in general any country can attack any other country if it thinks doing will help some people, perhaps at the expense of others, which is a dangerously low bar to international military conflict.  While a possible attack will not open President Obama to prosecution before the International Criminal Court or the International Court of Justice, this is because the US will presumably use its veto power on the UN Security Council to prevent the case from being referred to an international court.  The irony is that a Nobel Peace Prize recipient is advocating an illegal military action which will be sheltered from prosecution only by his country’s self-interested obstructionism in the United Nations, which is something Western media usually ascribe to Russia and China rather than the US.

6. There has been much talk about American “credibility” in the international community.  But credibility has far less to do with following through on threats and much more to do with holding on to principles even when they are inconvenient.  Since it is clear that the US military used chemical weapons in the Iraq War, the message sent to the international community by a US strike allegedly in response to chemical weapons use is that no one else is allowed to break our monopoly on extreme violence.  Is this the message the US government really wishes to send?  The international community expects US foreign policy to selfishly seek its own narrow interests at the expense of other countries.  As an international friend of mine said to me over dinner, “I would not mind living in America, but I would not want to be a target of American foreign policy.”  The only way to break this perception is to act in accordance with clearly stated principles such as the rule of international law even when it is distasteful and inconvenient, rather than using military means to oust regimes (even heinous and criminal regimes) that we have declared to be our enemies.

The Bottom Line

I believe a US attack on Syria would increase the death and violence of the Syrian Civil War and would escalate the conflict into a world-wide affair.  I do not think that the Syrian regime is fine or that the use of chemical weapons ought to go unpunished.  But I believe that the United States of America is not the body to enforce the chemical weapons ban, apart from authorization by the United Nations.  The fact that Russia and China have been obstructionist in that body does not authorize us to ignore it; instead Syrian blood is on their hands, but we must engage Russia and China diplomatically to break their deadlock.  By attacking Syria the United States will not support the chemical weapons ban, because its attack will be perceived as simply US self-interested foreign policy.

While I have been writing this post, those who stand to benefit from a US strike on Syria have taken the ridge above a Syrian village and shelled the civilian population below.  Does the United States really want to aid these particular rebels?

 

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.

Syria: That Other Middle Eastern Crisis

When the “Arab Spring” started to hit the Anglophone news with the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt early in 2011, Middle Eastern historians and Islamic Studies experts sat up and took notice.  The resignation of Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak on 11 February 2011 drew in a wider readership, but for most Americans anyway it was the sharp spike in gasoline prices in March 2011 as the US intervened in Libya to impose a no-fly zone and aid the revolt against Mu’ammar Qaddafi that indicated something was happening in the Middle East.  During the ensuing Libyan Civil War, which lasted until October 2011, Libyan headlines dominated the “Middle Eastern spot” in US world news media reporting.

But African nations were not the only venues for Arab Spring protests.  Yemen was already a divided nation with President ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Salih in the capital of Sana’a contending on the one hand with the Shi’ite Houthi rebellion in the north of the country and on the other with a secessionist desire in the south to undo the 1990 unification of Yemen (in which the northern Yemen Arab Republic absorbed the southern People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen).  When major protests began in Sana’a at the end of January, some reporters confidently predicted the swift end of Salih’s presidency.  In fact, Salih held on thirteen months through a rising civil war until he secured a transfer of power to his vice-president at the end of February 2012, with himself remaining in Yemen and immune to prosecution.  Things turned out rather better for Yemen’s Salih than for the former presidents of Tunisia or Egypt.

In the same month, almost the same day, protests in Syria started against the presidency of Bashar al-Assad.  They went mostly unnoticed by Anglophone news media focusing on Egypt and then Libya.  (Perhaps the nineteenth-century European colonial partition of Syria as French and Egypt as English continues in the interests of their respective news constituencies.)  Hafez al-Assad, the predecessor and father of the current Syrian president, had demonstrated his willingness to violently crush any political opposition in his repeated destruction of the central Syrian city of Hama (in 1981 and most violently in 1982, when estimates of 10,000-40,000 people died).  People who knew Syria knew that Bashar al-Assad would not resign easily, but it was after the early March, 2011 arrest of children in Dar’a in the south that protests rapidly grew, and then violence escalated as the army was sent to kill protesters.  Some soldiers and officers defected, refusing to gun down peaceful protesters, and from July 2011 armed rebels have fought back against the remaining state army in the Syrian Civil War.

In Anglophone news media, there have been occasional whispers of continually worsening problems in Syria, but meanwhile US attention focused on Yemen (another former British protectorate), and then on Egyptian elections.  Syria only occasionally made front-page headlines, and only consistently in April-June 2013 as there was public discussion whether chemical weapons had been used and whether that would cross President Barack Obama’s “red line” and trigger US involvement.  Reporting on Syria was often more concerned with US/UK relations with Syria’s allies Russia and Iran, or Israel’s enemy Hezbollah.  However, with the announcements in early June that the EU had withdrawn its arms embargo on Syria and the US would arm the rebels, coupled with the revelation the following week that the CIA had already been training the rebels, it seems that Anglophone public interest in the Syrian Civil War has waned.

For the casual peruser of Google news, it seems the “Middle East spot” in World news is again occupied by Egypt, which is experiencing enormous protests against President Muhammad Mursi, inaugurated one year ago, and the Muslim Brotherhood to which he belongs.  Events in Egypt have certainly been dramatic, with up to millions turning out on the streets of Cairo and other cities, staging rival protests in support of or against the president, resignations of non-Muslim Brotherhood members of Mursi’s cabinet, and a 48-hour ultimatum by the army.  Western news outlets have been caught between not particularly liking Islamists of Mursi’s stripe and not particularly liking military coups deposing democratically elected presidents.

(One cautionary note: several news reports, including this one from the BBC, indicated that the elections which brought Mursi to power were “considered free and fair.”  The passive voice is concealing who considered the elections to be free and fair.  It is true that the elections were not legally challenged, and did not immediately spark widespread street protests, and Mursi won with only a narrow margin rather than a suspicious landslide.  It is also true that there were allegations of Muslim Brotherhood intimidation of voters suspected of opposing Mursi.  I cannot now find the news articles, but at the time there were public threats by preachers against Coptic Christians if Mursi should not be elected, unreasonably blaming the Coptic minority for all opposition to the Islamist candidate, and subsequent low voter turnout in areas with concentrations of Coptic Christians.  The elections were “considered free and fair” by Western governments not wishing to intervene.)

In some ways, Egypt’s news is bigger news than Syria’s.  The news in Syria is: more people are dying.  There continues to be violence.  Just a new number of people killed today.  And Egypt has an estimated population of 84.5 million to Syria’s 22.5 million.  And more Western tourists go to Egypt than to Syria (or at least, they did until the Arab Spring brought the Middle Eastern tourism industry to a standstill).  Egypt is what Anglophone readers want to hear about.

But when even a search of Google News for “Syria” only turns up hits on US Secretary of State John Kerry (not himself a Syrian, as it turns out) and US diplomacy with Russia (neither country part of Syria), it is clear that Syria is not interesting to readers of English-language news.  (This search result has changed during the period of composing this post.)  I fear the result will be that US and UK involvement in Syria will be limited to poorly considered and haphazardly implemented measures designed merely to keep Syria out of the political discourse in the US and the UK, to prevent the “Syrian situation” from becoming a tool against the current governments in those countries.  It need hardly be said that such an evaluation of US and UK “national interests” will only make the Syrian Civil War more complicated and less tractable.  For Western intervention in the Syrian Civil War to do more good than harm, it will take sustained interest in the situation on its own terms, an open willingness to engage with multiple conflicting Syrian perspectives on the conflict, and a refusal to let the siren song of optimistic quick-fixes and band-aids lure policy-makers away from careful analysis, much of it rather bleak.

Related News:

Found: Journalistic Differences

Journalists write stories for particular audiences.  It is widely known that in order to succeed in the business of publishing news, or what is taken as news, they need to write about what interests their intended audience.  What is less often publicly acknowledged, but no less true, is that what they write needs to be plausible enough that it is not rejected as a test of credulity (“the Loch Ness monster attacked tourists!”) or propaganda (“the Loch Ness monster works for the communists!”).  But what one audience considers plausible another considers pure fantasy or mere agitprop.  On any of the numerous contentious issues swirling around the modern Middle East, events which are considered reliable “news” to one audience are “impossible” to another, and these boundary lines often (though not always) lie along national, linguistic, and religious lines.

A news source I do not usually read reported on June 13 that the Free Syrian Army massacred the entire Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs “late last month” as they withdrew from al-Qusayr in the wake of its capture by the Assad regime.  Apart from many pictures showing damage to a church, to church property, and to houses, the text of the report is worth quoting in full (fortunately it is not too long):

More details of a massacre in Homs late last month have emerged following the global outcry of a massacre in Deir el-Zour yesterday.

The massacre, carried out by Free Syrian Army militants reportedly targeted men, women and children in the Christian village of al-Duwayr/Douar close to the city of Homs and the border with Lebanon. The incident received little media attention, having occurred at the same time as thousands of Syrian troops converged on the insurgent-occupied town of al-Qusayr.

According to sources, around 350 heavily armed militants entered the village, broke into homes and assembled residents in the main square of the village where they were executed. The final death toll is not known but photos show severe damage to property in the village.

Syrian army sources said that they reached the village after the massacre, resulting in clashes with militants. Sources also reported that Turkish and Chechen extremists were among the perpetrators. Chechen militants are known to have kidnapped two Christian bishops in Aleppo earlier this year. The following images show al-Duwayr/Douar village after the massacre:

[photos omitted]

Conditions for ethnic and religious minorities have been made increasingly worse as Free Syrian Army affiliated organisations including Jabhat al-Nusra increase ethnic and sectarian cleansing across Syria. Kidnappings, executions and assassinations are common.

Late last month, around the time of the massacre in Homs, a fifteen year old girl was kidnapped by militants in Damascus, who demanded $100,000 for her release. Miryam Jbeil, a niece Damascus-based Catholic priest Nader Jbeil, was released after a number of days in captivity.

In the aftermath of the Syrian army assault on al-Qusayr, the church was discovered to have been desecrated by Free Syrian Army militants.

This outlet reproduces this article from Syria Report, whose article dated 12 June on the subject does not cite anything, so in order to find out where Syria Report got the information from, it took some additional searching.  The Assyrian International News Agency (AINA), which reports on issues relevant to Assyrian Christians in the Middle East or in the diaspora, published a clearly related story on 29 May, drawn from the Fars News Agency‘s identical article dated 27 May.  Fars News Agency seems to be the original source in English.  From there the story has branched out, and especially in the past five days it has been picked up by many blogs and anti-Obama discussion forums, but by no Western news outlets.  Google News is not as effective at searching Arabic news outlets but I did eventually find an article on the Syrian news agency breakingnews.sy (Arabic, English).

The Fars News Agency’s short article reads as follows:

Armed Rebels Massacre Entire Population of Christian Village in Syria

TEHRAN (FNA)- Armed rebels attacked a village in Syria’s Western province of Homs and slaughtered all its Christian residents on Monday.

The armed rebels affiliated to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) raided the Christian-populated al-Duvair village in Reef (outskirts of) Homs near the border with Lebanon today and massacred all its civilian residents, including women and children.

The Syrian army, however, intervened and killed tens of terrorists during heavy clashes which are still going on in al-Duvair village.

The armed rebels’ attack and crimes in al-Duvair village came after they sustained heavy defeats in al-Qusseir city which has almost been set free by the Syrian army except for a few districts.

Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011 with organized attacks by well-armed gangs against Syrian police forces and border guards being reported across the country.

Hundreds of people, including members of the security forces, have been killed, when some protest rallies turned into armed clashes.

The government blames outlaws, saboteurs, and armed terrorist groups for the deaths, stressing that the unrest is being orchestrated from abroad.

In October 2011, calm was almost restored in the Arab state after President Assad started a reform initiative in the country, but Israel, the US and its Arab allies sought hard to bring the country into chaos through any possible means. Tel Aviv, Washington and some Arab capitals have been staging various plots to topple President Bashar al-Assad, who is well known in the world for his anti-Israeli stances.

The relevant portion of the article on breakingnews.sy reads more briefly:

The “Free Army” militia has committed a massacre on Monday 27 May, in the right of civilians in Homs countryside, as the army continued operations in al-Qusair and thwarted the infiltration of gunmen from Lebanon and killed Saudi members from al-Qaeda.

The elements of armed militia’s has broken in the village of al-Dweir in Homs countryside, committed a massacre in the right of civilians, killing women and children.

Our correspondent in Homs pointed that the army has intervened and currently is engaged in severe battles against the insurgents in the mentioned village, claiming martyrs of the army and tens of deaths in the militia’s ranks.

Our correspondent noted that the gunmen have break through the town and carried out the massacre after their major defeats in al-Qusair, which is about to fall in the army’s grip.

It is obvious that the news of Syrian rebels massacring Christians, especially the Free Syrian Army which Sen. John McCain was already campaigning to supply with weapons, looks well for the Assad regime and poorly for President Obama who has just decided to provide greater arms to that group.  Even the most cursory review of the headlines on breakingnews.sy reveals its pro-Assad stance, and of course the semi-official Fars News Agency follows Iran’s public support for the Assad regime, so it is no surprise that these news outlets would run this story.

The more important question is how much of this is true.  For many Americans, merely saying the story was found on Syrian and Iranian news outlets is enough to condemn it to implausibility, which just shows the differences of intended audiences (although my inability to find translations of this story in Farsi, Arabic, or Turkish on the Fars News Agency website may indicate that it is primarily intended for an Anglophone audience).  The reason Western news outlets have failed to report on this story is no doubt that they do not trust the source, and they do not regard it as sufficiently plausible for their audience.  But we dare not break down the world into mutually exclusive news feeds for mutually exclusive audiences; we need news from sources that do not agree with our preconceptions, in order to reveal to us our own blind spots.

Our ability to evaluate parts of this story is aided by the identification of progressively increasing sources.  The original report that portions of the Free Syrian Army massacred Christian civilians in al-Duwayr is the most important detail.  Fars News Agency states that the Free Syrian Army massacred all the inhabitants of al-Duwayr, but they probably have no source apart from the breakingnews.sy, so the “all” component can be confidently rejected.  Indeed, from the logic of the case, the breakingnews.sy article indicates that the Syrian Army engaged the Free Syrian Army in the village of al-Duwayr, which most likely indicates that the massacre cannot have killed the whole village, unless the Syrian Army interrupted the murderers in the post-execution process of looting.

It is unclear what sources Syria Report has to peg the number of militants who perpetrated the massacre at 350, or their method of rounding up the villagers in the central square.  Syria Report also comes up with a way to include both Fars News Agency’s report that “all” the villagers were killed and also breakingnews.sy’s report of Syrian Army engagement with the rebels in the village: the Syrian Army reached the village “after the massacre.”  The rest of the Syria Report article is their gloss on the situation, linking Jabhat al-Nusra with the Free Syrian Army and highlighting rising sectarianism and violence against civilians.

Finally, it is not at all clear that breakingnews.sy has correctly identified the group responsible for the attack on al-Duwayr.  Indeed, news articles from 10 March 2013 celebrate the Free Syrian Army’s “liberation” of al-Duwayr from regime control, which suggests that they were in control of the village before the massacre took place.

Unfortunately it is only too plausible that a massacre took place in the Christian village of al-Duwayr near Homs.  Sources favorable to the Assad regime blame the Free Syrian Army, the group to which US President Obama has just promised weapons.  The absence of counter-claims by the rebels suggests that at least some rebel group probably did carry out the massacre.  Their motive is less clear; the contemporaneous battle for al-Qusayr may indicate that looting was the desired goal, or perhaps a desire not to leave anything that would help the regime when it came into town, but it is unlikely that the Christian village of al-Duwayr had any equipment that would be useful to either side.  Some graffiti in the ruined church indicates an Islamist rejection of other religions (to a degree not required by shari’a), but it is not clear whether this graffiti was the tag on the church or the motive for the entire attack.  If the fighters had recently escaped from a siege in al-Qusayr, they may have been primarily after food.  But like so many other war crimes and works of opportunistic violence during the Syrian Civil War, the actual chain of events along with any possibility of justice in this situation may be lost beyond recovery.

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.