Tag Archives: Jabhat al-Nusra

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

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.

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?

 

Syria’s Solution Depends on Moscow

On Wednesday hundreds of people (some sources say as many as 1400) died in Syria, evidently related to a chemical attack on a rebel-held area north-east of the capital, Damascus.  Apart from the scale of the casualties, there is much in this news which is not new or surprising.  As usual in Syria, rebels and regime accuse each other of deploying chemical weapons while denying their own use thereof.  Internationally, various governments support their chosen factions, as the US, UK, and France all publicly blamed the Assad regime, while Russia’s Foreign Ministry suggested that rebels staged the attack in order to provoke international intervention.  American rhetoric in favor of military intervention in Syria has certainly ramped up as a result of the attack.  Nevertheless, the Assad government puts forward a bold face, indicating that an American attack is very unlikely given the current international impasse.

What is more surprising is that Russia also called upon the Syrian regime and opposition to cooperate with UN chemical weapons investigators already in Damascus and permit them access to this fresh site.  The Syrian government has reportedly agreed to do just that.

This has put the western governments who have been consistently calling for Assad’s removal in something of a difficult position.  Before the Syrian regime announced it would allow UN investigators access to the site, the argument was made that they “must have something to hide.”  (The argument, though widespread, is always the argument of the group which controls the courts.  As the history of American criminal courts amply demonstrates, one can be found guilty of a crime one did not commit based on being the wrong color.)  Now that the Syrian government says it will facilitate the investigation, Western hawks are forced to argue that this cooperation is “too little, too late,” and that an investigation five days after an attack is worthless.  This despite the fact that the UN investigators were already in Damascus to investigate attacks from March.  If five days is too late for an investigation, it is unclear what good the UN investigators could do in Syria at all.

As Paul Thomas Chamberlin commented on the day of the chemical weapons attack, the US has a very bad track record for intervention in Muslim areas of Asia and Africa, a history of counter-productive intervention spanning decades.  The parallels between the proposed US support for rebels in Syria and the US sponsored Mujahhidun fighting against the Soviet-sponsored government in Afghanistan, which reduced Afghanistan to the rubble we see today, are frightening.  Of course, the Russians didn’t come out of Afghanistan looking like heroes either.

But the US track record even in the current Syrian conflict does not inspire confidence.  Given the long-standing hostility between the US and the Assad regime, a byproduct of Syria’s alliance with the USSR and cold antagonism to Israel, the US rashly called upon Bashar al-Assad to step down as soon as the protests started in March 2011.  Thus the US lost whatever positive influence it might have had over the regime (not that it ever had much).  With the recognition of the Syrian National Coalition and the progressive revelations how much the SNC has cooperated with the al-Qa’ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the US has provided its critics with the easy tagline that the American government is supporting terrorism.  When the US and the Russians agreed about the importance of holding peace talks in Geneva “to find a political solution,” the Russians got the Assad government to agree to the talks, while the US-backed rebels refused to participate.  The Syrian government is still touting its willingness to participate in Geneva.  The US hasn’t mentioned Geneva recently.

I think it would be very foolish for the US to intervene militarily without waiting for word from the UN chemical weapons investigators.  To strike at Assad without UN support would convince many in the Middle East of American arrogance and willingness to act as judge, jury, and executioner for a “justice” tailored to suit its own ends.  (And although I prefer to give governing bodies the benefit of the doubt, I find myself troubled by the rising prominence of “defending our national interests” in US government statements about Syria.)  The mess in Syria will have no easy solutions, and for the US to enter Syria now will simply ensure that the mess which follows the war is blamed on the US intervention.  And as media reports almost invariably indicate, the information coming out of Syria could not be verified, meaning we really have little idea who is doing what to whom in the countryside around Damascus.

But I am not a quietist, and I certainly do not believe that the US should just “let them kill each other,” as certain callous Islamophobic westerners are arguing.  The US can certainly help now by continuing to provide defensive technology, by providing humanitarian assistance to refugee camps, and by helping the countries hosting the refugee camps provide police presence in those camps.  Although media reports have depicted Western politicians repeating the mantra of “no boots on the ground,” if a military intervention is needed, I think putting “boots on the ground” may be the best way to humanize the process, far better than raining terror from the skies.  “Boots on the ground” may deliver humanitarian assistance in ways that hellfire missiles cannot.

But in order to facilitate the end of the violence in Syria, and particularly of the secularist vs. jihadi rebel infighting which will inevitably follow Assad’s departure, the US needs to work diplomatically with Russia and wait for the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.  When the US intervenes, I think it needs to do so as part of an international coalition including Russia.  Moscow has been much more effective about influencing the situation in Syria than the US has been.  If the US can get over its spat that Russia provided temporary asylum to whistleblower Edward Snowden (which led President Obama to cancel his state visit to Putin, evidently because revealing that a government is flagrantly breaking its own laws is treasonous), then it just may be able to work with Moscow over how to bring the Syrian conflict to a halt.  Now, Russian president Vladimir Putin‘s civil rights record is also a problem, but if Russia can be disengaged from supporting Assad, Iran will not be in a position to hold up Assad, and China is unlikely to invest what Russia has been doing in order to keep Assad in power.  That is probably the surest way to ensure that Syria does not turn into an al-Qa’ida stronghold training terrorists for the next twenty years.

A critical component of the rule of law is due process, and due process takes time.  That time is costly, as thousands are dying in Syria.  But due process is precisely what distinguishes seeking the common good from self-serving bullying.  If the US is serious about seeking what is best for Syrians, then it needs to support all Syrians and not just its favored faction, and it needs to allow the UN chemical weapons inspectors to do their job.

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.

Two Interesting Reads on Syria

I came across two interesting articles today on the situation in Syria, one from CNN on the experience of Syrian refugee women, and one from the Arab Orthodoxy blog giving highlights from the United States House of Representatives Joint Subcommittee Hearing on Religious Minorities in Syria.  I of course do not endorse what is expressed in others’ testimony during the hearing, but I share these links for their interest and representation of less frequently heard viewpoints.

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.

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.

 

Yesterday and Today in Syria

US Senator John McCain recently crossed into Syria to demonstrate how feasible that was, how easy it would be to supply arms to rebel forces, and how clearly one could distinguish between the “good rebels” of the Free Syrian Army led by Gen. Salim Idriss and the “bad rebels” affiliated with al-Qa’ida, such as Jabhat al-Nusra.  Unfortunately, he was photographed with a spokesman for a rebel group which last year kidnapped Lebanese Shi’ites and is still holding most of them.  The denials of McCain’s spokesman that he met the spokesman in question revolve around denying that any commander he met used either of the names “Muhammad Nur” or “Abu Ibrahim.”  But the question is not whether he met a name, but whether he met a person, and people in the Syrian Civil War are known to be using noms de guerre.  It is also unlikely that Sen. McCain, who I suspect speaks no Arabic, would remember the few dozen Arabic names he would have heard that day, if every commander he met was introduced by name.  This underscores the degree to which Sen. McCain was shown what the rebels wanted him to see, and he heard only what the translators wanted him to hear.  This does not change the importance of his visit, but reminds us that most things are not as they seem in Syria today.

In other news, CNN reports that Iraqi troops busted a terrorist cell synthesizing sarin, the chemical weapon used in Syria.  Western governments and opposition forces have blamed the Assad regime for using sarin, while Carla del Ponte last month alleged that there was evidence for rebel use of the chemical weapon.  While the US and Turkey poo-poo’ed the suggestion, this report suggests the real possibility of jihadi rebels in Syria getting sarin from al-Qa’ida-affiliated supporters in Iraq and using them, perhaps for their own effectiveness, perhaps to attempt to frame the Assad regime.  At the time of del Ponte’s remarks, the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria said their report was not yet ready.  According to the press release issued at that time, their report is due out today, and I at least am eager to get a glimpse at what it says regarding chemical weapons usage.