Tag Archives: Salim Idris

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

Advertisements

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.

Who are Syria’s “good guys”?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lost: Specificity of Responsibility

Carla Del Ponte of the United Nations’ Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria today said there are serious suspicions that the chemical weapon sarin has been used in Syria, but by rebels rather than the government, to her total surprise.  General Salim Idris of the Free Syrian Army responded that the remarks were “an injustice to the rebels and a provocation to the Syrian people’s feelings” (here in English, here in Arabic).  The UN commission has issued a terse statement saying its findings are not ready, which the BBC’s Imogen Foulkes interprets plausibly enough to suggest that Del Ponte’s remarks caught the commission by surprise.  But, as I raised the possibility in an earlier post, the allegations of chemical weapons usage raise more questions than answers.

I have three questions, and a plausible answer only to one of them:

1. When “the rebels” have done something, who are we talking about?  Is Del Ponte suggesting that the Free Syrian Army is using sarin, against the protestations of Salim Idris?  Or is it some other group (Syrian Islamic Liberation Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, Syrian Islamic Front, etc.)?  “The rebels” are a diverse group of organizations with very different structures, priorities, methods, and goals, apart from the single shared goal of bringing down the Assad regime.

2. How can the commission tell who has used the sarin?  The only method cited by the articles were interviews with exiles and refugees, but unless some of those interviewed were themselves rebels who confessed to deploying the chemical weapon, it is not clear how the responsibility could be inferred.  Certainly the use of sarin could be inferred based on a description of symptoms, but in a battle scenario it is very difficult to tell afterwards who did what to whom, as the phenomenon of “friendly fire” amply demonstrates.  If chemical weapons are used, anyone nearby regardless of whether they support or oppose the regime will suffer, so the identify of the victim cannot indicate the weapon’s use by the opposing side.  Del Ponte did not give any indication as to when or where the alleged use of sarin occurred, or under what circumstances, so it is unclear how the commission is able to distinguish regime from rebel usage.

3. Given that the commission’s report is not due yet, and Del Ponte herself emphasized that there are “strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof,” while her comments seemed to catch the commission off guard, according to Foulkes’ interpretation, why did she make these allegations now?

I suspect this is related to the Israeli airstrikes against Syria over the weekend, and mounting pressure on the US government to arm “the rebels,” amid concerns of high-powered weapons falling into the hands of the terrorist component of “the rebels.”  Del Ponte’s remarks were probably designed to caution against rash Western military intervention, to indicate that the evidence of sarin used could go both ways (she did not rule out that the regime had also used the chemical weapon).  How much do we really know about what is going on in Syria?  How much can we discern among different armed groups, in order to supply weapons only, as John McCain advocated yesterday, to “the right people in Syria who are fighting for obviously the things we believe in”?  I think these are important questions, and I wonder if Del Ponte’s remarks were designed to slow things down after earlier news reports of chemical weapons usage by the Assad regime and Israeli airstrikes had sped up the expected decision timetable.